John Cusack, Ray Liotta, Amanda Peet, John C McGinley, John Hawkes, Clea DuVall and Rebecca DeMornay, with Jake Busey, William Lee Scott, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Bret Loehr and Alfred Molina.
Ten strangers find themselves stranded at a remote desert motel during a raging storm a million miles from nowhere. They soon find themselves the target of a deranged murderer, and any one of them could be the killer. As their numbers thin out, the travelers turn on each other rather than trying to figure out who the real killer is.
Everybody loves a mystery. You ever take a moment as to ask why?
Is it your curiosity being piqued? The thrill of discovery? Nabbing the bad guy? Finally locating the lost TV remote (it was in the freezer, and that pint of Ben & Jerry’s you grabbed in a drunken haze is under the couch. Was)?
One of the best examples of illustrating the appeal of a mystery I caught—surprisingly—on an ep of Star Trek: The Next Generation. In the cold open we learn that Captain Picard is mucking about on the holodeck, playing detective. He’s invited his friend Guinan to join him, since she expressed interest in what the appeal is humans see in solving a mystery.
They find themselves at gunpoint by some digitally-rendered tough promising hurt, demanding info on whatever. Suddenly a shot smashes through the window and the thug goes down. Picard is excited, much to Guinan’s confusion. She asks what’s next, and he asks who was this guy? What did he want? Why was his trying to kill us?
Picard lays it out, “We have to look for clues!”
Guinan asks, “And that’s fun?”
Picard grins and says, “And that’s fun.”
There is your geek-out moment for the day.
*takes small bow*
Forgetting the fact that Sir Patrick Stewart teamed up with Whoopi Goldberg to solve a murder in holographic, VR 1940’s San Francisco (there’s your second), that installment of ST:TNG was right. What’s the fun of a mystery, besides (hopefully) solving it? The thrill of the hunt. Pitting your wits against the quarry. See what you’re made of. Some guy has been killed. Whodunit? You up to the challenge, Sherlock?
By extension mystery movies are fun for the same reason, duh. It’s not like in reality, where detectives have a crime to crack, sure. A murder, theft, missing person, where their tub of Cherry Garcia got to, etc. With the real cops there’s a lot of pounding the pavement, jockeying the phone and lots and lots of paperwork. Briscoe and Logan made it look intense and fun, and you didn’t see them much at their desks did you? There were perps out there to shake down, dammit!
As much fun as the original Law & Order could be, the hour-long procedural (50 minutes, actually), barely half of your average episode were given over to the cops sniffing out the guilty party. With a mystery movie you not only get a lot more time to expand on character development, twists and turns, intrigue and do so blissfully devoid of commercial interruption. Speaking of which, how come there’ve never been an Ben & Jerry’s TV ads?
I’ll stop that now.
Time does make the difference. As analog to real life, certain infamous serial killer cases are still open, even years after the killings have ended. The Zodiac Killer, the Alphabet Murders, Jack the Ripper. I’m no forensic scientist, but what’s the sense in this? Okay, maybe the survivor’s have a bone to pick, awaiting closure. These almost-cold case files have been active for decades (and in a certain light, Jack’s conviction has been centuries in the making) to no avail. Why? Because the more time given over to cracking a case the greater the likelihood of it happening. In simpler term, tackle a mystery over a continuum permits more “study.”
Character study, psychological study, even a study of setting. Stretch it out, stir the pot and the mystery gets drawn out. In a good way. In a good mystery movie there must be room to breathe, space to let us buffs round up the usual suspects, take in as many clues as possible and time to cogitate what the blue f*ck’s going on. You gotta mull it all over in more that the almost half hour Dennis Farina and Michael Imperioli had.
Another key aspect of a good mystery flick—as demonstrated in the holodeck microcosm—is you should keep the setting tight. Small. Confined. Almost a character unto itself. It cuts away the distractions, the fat. The clunky mysteries I got subjected to often had this sprawling tableau. Fletch (which was really more a comedy with the mystery chewy center) wandered everywhere, from LA to Provo, UT. The Forgotten (which rambled on and on, despite the cool premise). Final Analysis (quit bumbling all over Boston Town). You get the idea.
Here’s when the isolation worked, almost to transcendent levels. Rear Window (Jimmy Stewart’s dumpy apartment and a trusty pair of binocs). Murder On The Orient Express (it’s a train, dummy). Memento (Guy Pearce’s bloody mind). It keeps us cinema detective focused; on the case, as it were.
The final key to a good mystery movie is an eclectic rogue’s gallery. In virtually every notable mystery flick we got us a freakin’ tossed salad as supporting cast. Again, Rear Window was a good example. The goofy Murder By Death and Clue were populated by real rogue’s galleries, despite both being parodies. The Usual Suspects was a given. The mishmash of disparate personalities keeps you guessing as to—you guessed it—whodunit.
That being said, Identity follows this formula to a T. We got a timeline to try and follow. We got an isolated scene of the crime. We got our weirdos. So the movie must’ve played out in classic fashion, and you kept guessing and scratching your head for the duration, right?
Well…let’s step onto the holodeck, shall we…?
Not much happens at Larry Washington’s (Hawkes) lonesome motor lodge. He’s planted in the middle of the Nevada desert, just south of nowhere. Like the Paul Simon song says: it’s a long, lonely life.
That is, until the storm hits.
Down the road apiece, nervous George (McGinley) and his family’s ride has a flat. He and his wife go out into the driving rain to inspect the damage, which is when George’s wife gets hit by Ed’s (Cusack) limo hauling fussy, near washed up actress Caroline Suzanne (DeMornay). She demands Ed leave it as a hit and run. Nothing doing. George’s wife is in mortal peril and needs help. A hospital beckons.
Too bad all the roads are washed out. Looks life Larry’s motel beckons instead.
Upon arrival Ed and crew meet with surly Detective Rhodes (Liotta) tasked to escorting violent criminal Robert Maine (Busey), all grinning and nuts. Faulty newlyweds Ginny (DuVall) and Lou (Scott), whose bickering belies a deeper problem. Paris (Peet) the hooker, who’s either on the run or planning to “get lucky” in Sin City. Now thanks to impartial Mother Nature all of them are stuck with Larry’s hospitality for the night.
But the night is not still in the desert, despite the rain.
Paraphrasing Keanu, strange things are afoot at Larry’s motor lodge.
Caroline’s desperate to calling her agent in LA. She scrambles out into the brush trying to find better reception for her cell phone. Then she ends up in one of the motel’s dryers, not choosing to do laundry, let alone find the rest of her body.
Great. We got a killer on our hands. Where’s Maine at?
He escaped the cuff attached to the plumbing only to find himself literally chewing on death.
What about Rhodes, his escort? He’s got a habit of disappearing.
And what the hell’s in Larry’s freezer?
It’s murder by numbers. One, two, three.
All apologies to Sting…
Identity is a modern day, B-movie, Hitchcock pastiche. This is not a bad thing. In fact, such a mish-mash makes the flick kinda fun. Kinda.
Like I said above, Identity has all the hallmarks of your classic—albeit simple, if not formulaic—mystery movie. Admittedly, the film’s story was lifted from the Agatha Christie classic And Then There Were None. But again this book was caged more times than a shoplifter rampant in a Wal-Mart populated by blind sales reps so let’s give that a pass, shall we? Identity is a classic but hackneyed story played out already a dozen times over. We’ll give that a pass, too. Hell, if it’s a formula that works, roll with it. Like I’ve been fond of saying regarding a film’s originality, it’s like the blues: it’s not the notes, it’s how they’re played.
Despite Mangold being a solid director, he’s probably also a tad tone deaf. At least here.
Now. Either the guy was a total rip-off artist and hack with Identity, or f*cking brilliant in the movie’s delivery. At the outset the movie’s intro smacks of something, but it just might be every mystery movie ever made needed to introduce our future victims, yet just twistedly cheezy enough to keep you watching. Mangold sets the stakes fast, if a bit comically. Of course nothing is as it seems to be, within the story and without. The tension and intrigue begins to pile on, but in such a ramshackle fashion you’re not as to take it seriously or find it all laughable. Maybe Identity‘s supposed to be seriously laughable, I dunno. Middle America’s vote is still out on this one.
Keeping in mind The Standard (which we haven’t kept in mind for a coon’s age) dictates an assignment due to mixed reviews, Identity is the first flick here to deliver mixed signals. Messages, even. Here’s a way to twist the whole Ten Little Indians dynamic: troll the audience. I ain’t talking twists and turns here. I’m talkin’ playing on the audiences’ expectation. Tomfoolery over intrigue. Tugging your coat rather than planting seeds. In simpler terms: nyah nyah nyah.
It’s kinda cool in a way. Really.
I’ve seen other Mangold’s movies (including The Wolverine, which was covered here. He did a good job, and his latest Wolverine installment Logan is getting rave reviews) and he does above average yeoman’s work. He’s a journeyman director, like Richard Donner or Alan Smithee.
*pause for effect*
And the man’s pedigree is a varied one. We can go from Walk The Line to Knight And Day in a single breath, and go along with it with a tenuous grin. I mean, “Oh sh*t, where are we going?” There’s a difference (but very slight) between winking at the audience and tying the string around their loose tooth. Oddly, both often have the same effect.
So which side of the coin clattered down with Identity? We land on the edge, my popcorn-addled flock. Mangold is no doubt trolling us here, but it’s done in spite of ourselves. We know where we’re going here. We know that any one of these dweebs could be the killer, especially since motive is absent (that a spoiler?). We expect twists and turns to obfuscate the killer’s identity.We have established tension, but it’s a tad weak, and you could see it all coming. Yet we didn’t expect to find Caroline’s REDACTED. Most murder mysteries ain’t so graphic nor wink-wink, nudge-nudge in the same breath. Here’s a cute sample of Mangold f*cking with us, but not necessarily messing with our mind. Not outright. It’s the comic booky fun at work with Identity.
Identity is kind of chimera. An idle fancy. It’s as if Mangold asked himself, “How far can I stretch the audience’s suspension of belief?” It’s a puzzle, not a mystery. Identity is a Rubik’s Cube, not a chess board. It’s obviously inspired by Christie, but also Rashomon; the story is slick and slippery. You can’t get a tack. Mangold relies on trickery rather than intrigue. There’s a kind of goofiness to the movie. That B-movie flavor I alluded to above. Despite the dire stakes, some madman (or men) skulking around offing Larry’s guests, there’s a cardboard cheesiness lurking just below the surface. It has the feeling of formula, yet dodges it. Admittedly, I have to dig that.
And, doy, I gotta address our dramatis personae. We’ve got the best ensemble cast here that I’ve seen in a long time. At first, these actors have no business whatsoever sharing screen time together. Later we understand that anyone could be the killer; they’re all stereotypes after all. But again with the blues. For example, I often forget how protean Cusack can be, despite his comic bent. Liotta is so good at being mad. Hey, Peet can act (color me surprised)! DeMornay’s still alive (not for long here, ha ha) and is still hot! And McGinley set aside his desperate sarcastic schtick for being desperate and period. Okay, Busey is still weird, but still our cast is so colorful it gives us a little sugar to go down with the urine. Yeah, there’s a game afoot, but someone lost the instructions.
That lack of solid misdirection in Identity, paired with Mangold’s cagey direction makes this goofy murder mystery all the more sweet, if only barely palatable. The film insults our intelligence, yet you feel you gotta go along with it. What I’ve been pummeling for the past lifetime is thus: a good movie mystery can adhere to all the rules I laid out before, misstep and still be entertaining with the right director lording over a mediocre story. Better than the sum of its parts? I don’t know. Half the movie’s parts are stuck in transit from eBay with Identity.
The best thing I feel about Mangold’s direction and therefore Identity‘s atmosphere is that it never takes itself too seriously. It straddles the ridiculous. It has a steady, creepy funny vibe. A combo seldom found in anything Miss Marple ever unraveled. Even the big reveal is laughable, as if, “Oh James, you got us. Pop the balloons.” He got us all right. The finale is such a joke you’ll slap your head in disgust for falling into his trap. For following along. Going with it. D’oh!
Identity is a clear sample of having the joke on you. I might’ve overplayed my hand here. I had to be careful and select my words very carefully to not give away the progression of the mystery. And it wasn’t truly a mystery, either. It was a shuck and jive, and the attentive audience kept looking for a partner at the junior high dance. You’re better off glued to the wall, watching the few, brave characters on the floor.
In the end, with Identity connect the dots, erase, suspend what you expect then accept it, slap your head and laugh and then get pissed for being hoodwinked. It’s a good waste of time.
Just leave Larry’s freezer alone.
Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Never have I laughed so hard at myself for taking a murder mystery seriously. The mystery is really, “Why the f*ck did you watch this? For DeMornay’s boobies?” Uh, yeah.
“Did you feel that?” Kinda cheesy, but it worked.
Even for 2003, that’s an awful big cell phone there.
“I wish I had beige.”
This mess is like a murderous Gilligan’s Island on crack.
“I am very f*cking calm!”
Mangold indeed shows his strengths here, well put to his Wolverine movies.
“I don’t know if I’m comfortable with guard duty, per se.”
Kinda glad George got his. He got quite annoying quite fast.
“We’re all in Nevada.”
Does Cusack ever age?
So after all that’s said and done Malcolm is truly in the middle?
Who would’ve know Mike Judge’s Idiocracy would prove so prescient so fast? Ask Putin (burn!).
Hugh Jackman, Rila Fukushima, Tao Okamoto, Hiroyuki Sanada, Svetlana Kohchenkova, Will Yin Lee, Brian Tee and Famke Janssen.
The nigh-invulnerable X-Man travels to timeless Japan to pay a debt. One personal and one very personal. Finding himself vulnerable for the first time and pushed to his limits, our man Logan confronts lethal ninja against his inner struggle with his own death just beyond reach.
Just another day at the office for our fave Aussie-cum-Canucknucklehead.
This is something I haven’t done in a while. For the unaware, please refer to the Young Adult installment. And also please be patient. We’ll have a weenie roast come sunset.
First Intro (1.1)…
Aren’t you sick of R-rated movies sweetened into PG-13 ones for the sake of profit over art? Me too. Or maybe you’re vaguely aware of it. Or perhaps you just want the humble blogger to shut up and get to watching your Jennifer Aniston binge marathon (gotta wince through The Break-Up one more time, y’know).
Hold up. I wasn’t talking being aware of the dumbing down of high-end, straight off the assembly line, Ah-nuld in his prime, Paul Verhoven/Brian de Palma grunt fests with lots of action, profanity, violence, the occasional tittie shot and lots of action. Well, perhaps a smidge. What I listed were (and very rarely still are) hallmarks of movies that would garner an R rating. Stuff aimed at grown-ups, mostly mature and sometimes partially educated. Violence, sex, profanity, heady drama, crude jokes and things that are just, well, above kids’ levels of comprehension (save your doltish blogger who watched the original Die Hard every summer afternoon before he started high school. Yippi-ki-yay). Movie entertainment made for grown-ups, plain and simple. Let the kiddies under 17 f*ck around with G to PG-13 flicks. Mom and Dad need to watch The Godfather trilogy again. Well, maybe not third one.
Now, two things first. That aforementioned word “sweetening.” Ever hear of it, beyond Willy Wonka’s factory? It’s a term from the Golden Age of TV. Sweetening was using a grab bag of gifts and gizmos to spruce up an otherwise ordinary program. Laugh tracks were popular, and used well into the 80s. It was also called “canned,” either for being pre-packaged chuckles made in a recording studio acres away from the sound studio of Night Court (and I adoredNight Court), or just sounded fake (like on every episode of MASH. Christ). The pre-digital Auto-Tune/Photoshop. Other tricks included tightening up the soundtrack, make it looser or harder as the scene demanded (or simply needed) or just exaggerating sound effects. Law & Order‘s signature “duh-dun” sound bite is a prime sweet example, and has become inextricable from TV audiences minds as the cue towards deeper, mysterious intrigue. It makes me pine for the days of Briscoe and Logan, but Jerry Orbach is gone so no-one can put Baby in a corner ever again. Duh-dun.
In any event, sweetening enhanced TV programming in a myriad, but subtle ways. Almost subliminal if you think about it. In hindsight, TV sweetening might have conned audiences at home into believing they were watching a better program than they actually were. Maybe.
Something tells me though that over the past decade, Hollywood got hip to this old school gag of sweetening movies that would otherwise be regarded as flat, derivative and frankly couldn’t cough up the cheddar. But instead of adding malign Easter eggs they threw ’em in a basket and hoped moviegoers wouldn’t notice.
Most didn’t. Don’t. But more on that later…
When I was a youth I guess you could’ve called me a Nipponophile. That was a term I cooked up to describe myself as an amateur student of Japanese culture, both pop and ancient. Morphed from the term “Anglophile” and all those obsessed with cricket and crumpets and all things UK to suit my own needs. Nippon was the old skool, ignorant European name for Japan. So clever was I co-opting that.
My first introduction to Japanese culture was waaaay back in the third grade. School project. Solo. World culture. Pull a number out of a hat and—boom—get on to becoming an expert on Cuba in three days. Here’s a mug of coffee.
I got the Land of the Rising Sun. So as any third grader chained to a history project off I went to the school library (sometimes even the big people library. Ooooo) to do my research. Thirty years on I don’t remember much of the assignment. The fact that I remember even doing it at all surprises me. Must’ve been the coffee.
I figure it stuck in my craw was what I uncovered how so fundamentally different the Japanese were compared to us Americans. Our cultures share a lot of similarities, sure. Especially when it comes to blatant capitalism and alcohol abuse. But overall I learned that East doesn’t necessarily ever meet West. It’s a good thing.
I’m not gonna slag American culture here, no matter how much of a orchard we have of low hanging fruit. Thinking people already know what’s cool and what stinks about these our United States. But let us consider for a moment the fundamentals that make up our often petulant culture against what little I properly know about Japan’s.
This has a point, I assure you. Be patient and remember how I sat beside with you post-op after that cyst was excised from your moving right along.
Here’s a basic one: religion. In America it’s one of the key matters that made the founding fathers to tell the Church of England to get bent. Don’t tell us how to worship, you punters. Even as secular the Union has become (and if you’ve been paying attention to the Trump campaign trail), a lotta Americans take Jesus and his Dad’s teachings quite seriously. Sometimes too seriously.
*insert inflammatory, heathen one-liner here*
Despite whichever side of the line you fall behind, America is a myriad of faiths. We make room for Christians, Jews, Muslims, Rastafarians, Trekkies, you name it. How we worship and deem a higher power as so is still a big deal in America. Despite all our technological advances and avarice warping our moral judgment, JC is still OK. And that’s nice.
In Japan we have a different story. That and only about 3% of the Japanese are Christian, yet almost everyone celebrates Christmas there, not unlike in the US: presents, trees and booze. Seems fitting, after all Jesus liked his wine, spreading gifts of learning and compassion and getting hung up on a wooden moving right along again.
Spiritualism in Japan is a dodgy subject. They have their Buddhist and scant Christians, with their their delineated practices and ritualism, but the Japanese have their own more or less homespun “religion” that most adherents don’t outright commit to.
Now keep in mind again, third grade. I have no fact checking department. I am the fact checking department, so sh*t often gets muddled. However since this a social metaphor I’m working on here, go with it and shut up.
Shintoism is a rather eclecticbelief that most Westerns cannot wrap their heads around. From what I’ve learned about Shinto, seems most practitioners are themselves constantly rectifying the spiritual against the secular. When asked what Shinto is, most adherents discuss nature and spirits and reverence to both and that’s it. There’s no one real dogma and the best way to explain a holy spirit is to acknowledge something as just that, solid and/or ephemeral. Acknowledgement of holy places or objects are either specified by a strategically erected torii gate to announce the presence of a kama or draping a talisman called an ema around a figure of spiritual significance.
Right. Like I said, me no Shinto scholar. But it all sounds so very alien to American ears. Probably just as much as Christianity sounds to your average fishmonger from Kyoto. Left from right, this cross-cultural boondoggle.
Faith ain’t the only thing that separates them from us. Of course entertainment, particularly (duh, which blog is this again?) movies. Keeping it quick after my gospel according to RIORI, we Americans want a sci-fi fix? Call the Wachowski brothers, nab Channing Tatum, drum up a budget along the lines of the GDP of the Gambia and get that location director to Jupiter, stat! And cross your fingers.
In Japan, hand it over to Miyazaki-san, and Ghibli Animation always scores. Nary a stuntman to be found. And anime is aimed at everyone, not just the kiddies. Don’t get me started on how the salariman pore over manga on the train to Shibuya each morning.
(BTW, I kept the last bit short because we’ll be mincing movies down the line. That and I was too lazy to expound on it any further. My rules, neener neener.)
One final (and very potent) difference in American versus Japanese culture is how each society regards age. In America, growing older is anathema and most go to great—sometimes stupid—lengths to keep the Grim Reaper at bay for as long as the botox treatments hold. Plastic surgery, lifetime gym memberships, kale and denial are prime examples of battling the march of time here in the USA. Youth is the stuff of potential and social awareness, the open road of opportunity, oysters and such. We Americans are big on doing stuff with our lives (as questionable as some of that sh*t may be. Can we say playing Pokemon Go as career?), and ever advancing age reminds us that sadly potential can escape us all too soon. Sad but true. I might recommend a tonic to that by quit reading this blog and run out an adopt one of Jolie’s kids. Might.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Pacific…
The Japanese, like many Far East cultures, venerating age and wisdom across a lifetime rather than spend years accruing FaceBook friends is unquestioned. Oh, BTW, most of those friends aren’t. If you were older and wiser you’d know that by now. Now go adopt one of Jolie’s kids.
But seriously, there is a quote I recall that is akin to the Japanese respect for their elders. It goes something like when an old man dies, a library is lost. Something like that; wish I could remember the source. No matter. Knowledge is power they say, and real knowledge (if you’re lucky and cagey enough with yours) takes years to gather, not to mention being smart enough how to dispense it at the proper time to the proper audience. Takes patience, I suppose. Patience most gaijin don’t have, nor is encouraged.
So what’s the point of this dissection of differences between cultures and how does it relate to this week’s film? Well picture this, me amigos, it’s happened before, it’ll happen again, it’s happening right now. Culture clash. What happens, really happens upstairs when a Westerner (perhaps a Canuck with unusual talents in the area of claws, healing and hairiness) gets plunked—perhaps exiled even—in an alien, Eastern culture? A person who has no issues with aging, who has seen several lifetimes of experiences drip off the blade and who can’t see an end in sight. Shintoism as ancient reverence for nature. Entertainment as fleeting yet deeply, deeply entrenched in the basal needs of a people; to see themselves as who they truly are (or may be). All such hoodoo almost lost on such a person, but still wise enough to make the connection somehow. Must get dizzy.
Didn’t learn all that in third grade. Learned a lot of it from reading manga.
Er, X-Men comics. Sorry to get muddled…
Back in 2ooo I caught the first X-Men movie. I dragged my buddies to see it despite them not being well-versed in the canon. Or comic books in general, for that matter. Still, we all struck out for the multiplex to get acquainted with song and dance man Hugh Jackman unsheathe some claws and battle Sabretooth. Good times were had overall, and Rebecca Romijn well you know.
Again, this was 2000. Marvel’s year one into the foray of film. Well, I should say year two, since Wesley Snipes slew vampires in Blade two years prior (still a go-to movie when I feel like a movie but don’t care what), but who’s counting? Anyway, Blade was the acid test to see if comic book movies were a viable option bringing the medium to the unwashed masses. Since two sequels followed one could argue this as an affirmative.
So two years later—boom—Capt Picard as Prof X. The prototype passed, and mass productioned beckoned. For good and for ill. Pretty soon we had Tobey Maguire as Spidey for three flicks. Michael Chiklis as the Fantastic Four’s Thing (a brilliant bit of casting if you ask me). Ron Perlman in all his chili-drenched glory as Hellboy. Chris Nolan coaxed Batman back from the brink. Superman showed up again, spitcurl in tact. We hunted Jack The Ripper in From Hell. Christ, even Watchmen (Watchmen!) made it to the silver screen. Same with 300 and (ugh) The Spirit. The floodgates had opened, and there was no way to close the valve.
One could assume that comic book fans delighted in seeing their heroes up there on the big screen. I did, for a time. But sooner or later everything reaches a saturation point. Mine bubbled up with (no surprise here) with Ben Affleck as Daredevil. Sour and silly film, but Michael Clarke Duncan was a stitch as Kingpin, I give him that. A bit later we had Green Lantern. Fun film, but kinda dopey and cursed by Ryan Reynolds. And the aforementioned return of Superman was lame and disappointing. Spidey 3 was a dizzy headache (and the all too soon reboot felt like a band-aid. The new Fantastic Four felt like gauze). A few bright spots shone through (e.g.: the first Iron Man film, the first Avengers film, um, Avatar?), but for the past few years we’ve haphazardly been sifting through many haystacks.
I think we reached the tipping point with the Ant-Man film. Now truth be told I never saw the thing. By that point I gave up on comic book movies. I ain’t ragging on the thing. Can’t. Didn’t see it. But I did think that casting wiseass Paul Rudd as wiseass O’Grady was spot on, as was Michael Douglas as Dr Pym. But still, Ant-Man? The Hulk had two movies (both were tepid), but the green guy’s been mostly a supporting character for the better part of his comic book/film career (spare Greg Pak’s fairly recent “Planet Hulk” story arc). Ant-Man has been so secondary (in all his iterations), if not tertiary that for Marvel Studios to have the chutzpah to make a film about his misadventures can only scream to me “show us the money!”
Ticket sales. Box office cash, that is.
The heavy hitters had their time in the sun. Like the street thug peddling uppers: take two, they’re small. Then addiction sets in. Going to check out comic movies may not be addictive (then again who knows), but so much input can become habit, and the gentry seem to watch comic book movies this way if the box office sales say anything.
In a previous installment I spoke of when I worked at a comic shop around the time Spider-Man 3 dropped. In hopes of using the buzz to push product, I set up a display of old skool Spideys from the 80s when the web-slinger was sporting the black-and-white costume just like in the new movie. Didn’t sell a single ish, despite reasonable pricing (20 bucks for a 75 cent very fine condition comic is a good deal, believe me). But we did sell out of the action figures. This said something, but even today I’m not exactly sure what.
Yeah, I do. I’m not venerating the medium per se, but I feel most folks who are either casual or dedicated viewers of comic book films are more in them for the cinematic pleasure of super powered heroes thrashing super powered villains. They’re not into the same stuff on the printed page. Too many words I guess. We offered classic books. They opted for plastic made in China. Cheap thrills are fine, but they’re still cheap.
So now we can guarantee nowadays that month into month we’ll be barraged by comic book films so often you could set your watch by it. And by way of the websites I scour for this blog that delineate movie profits—both domestic and foreign—most audiences don’t seem particularly discerning when it comes to story, drama and characterization. They want the boom. And the more the merrier. Happy New Year.
We’ve reached a tipping point. A saturation point really. What was once a momentous thing (at least for comic book heads) has become routine. The forthcoming Dr Strange movie (of which I am curious about, but still) is penultimate for non-comic fans to take in the boom and maybe scoop up some drama et al. If they’ll have it. And let’s face facts, paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson, most people get pretty much the movies they deserve.
So when a rare nugget of mature, deep, well-developed comic book movie gets released? Hm. Well. According to what I said about myriad websites and their collective data, they tank.
I blame reading the books. Don’t do that. Just keep drizzling that butter flavoring onto your head…
First Intro (1.2)
Okay, now second thing second.
The following is about dumbing sh*t down, but not in the conventional way. It’s an extension of the first part of this intro (hence the title). You remember, the whole sweetening thing? Welcome back.
Dumbing down is a popular—lately very popular—method from Hollywood to make would-be tentpole movies more palatable for mainstream audiences. One may remark R material into easy to digest, profitable PG-13 has to have just enough trimmed from a harder-edged script to ensure more folks (e.g.: teens) queue up for a ticket. That’s a judgment call, but I’m making it.
Here. Let’s take a look at the criteria that warrants an R rating in a movie. Violence, for one. Hard to argue that one. Don’t want to give the kiddies any ideas what to do with a corkscrew and a chloroform-soaked hankie on a lazy Saturday afternoon.
Coarse language is another factor. I don’t take issue with talking sh*t, but I don’t want my daughter to mouth off at school and then mom and me be called in for a dreaded parent/teacher conference. F*ck that sh*t.
Sex is good one. The only reason I can think of is having to answer a lot of weird questions from the junior set, which responses would only baffle them further. Baffles adults too, for that matter. And I still don’t get our whole irrelevant, Puritanical unease with sex. Makes no sense to me when sex on film is pushed against violence on film and violence is more acceptable (you can see violence in a PG-13 flick. Sex? Not so much). The late George Carlin put it best when he said he’d rather have his kid watch two people making love than watching two people trying to kill each other. That seems sensible. Except when it comes to sub-R rated movies it seems.
There are other factors that garner a movie an R rating. Content either too dense, abstract, odd or just plain unappealing to kids. I have a hard time believing that any third grader is champing at the bit to catch a screening of The Imitation Game, My Dinner With Andre or Rashomon (I know the last one was released before the MPAA set up their arbitrary rules. I do not care). Let’s face facts: there’s enough Despicable Me installments out there to keep the kids busy while mom and dad take in the next John Woo or Lars von Trier epic. Here’s where I feel an R rating is justified, mostly based on when my teenaged stepdaughter (was forced) to take a seat and watch American Hustle with mom, who adores that film. Barring the REDACTED scene, she simply didn’t get it. She didn’t have to. Wasn’t kid friendly. Story was an R.
So what’s all this have to do with Hollywood’s anti-sweetening? Simple: profit. You can rake in a sh*t-ton more cash if you open your product to a wider market. That’s how capitalism works. You’d have to be a moron to expect to sell anything aimed solely at a single demographic, like for Speedo banana hammocks or durian fruit. Movieland has been stripping R rated films from the market so nakedly that virtually any movie barely toeing the line gets tweaked just enough to drop below the R line and therefore open up the gates. Regardless how soggy the product ends up being.
No matter how superfluous the content that brands a film rated R, such junk is often key, key in making a film for a mature audience, well, mature. And I don’t mean just the so-called controversial stuff that separates the little kids’ from the big kids’ viewing needs. I mean the essential smarts attached to more adult films (save most porn and anything from Eli Roth) gets diluted when PG-13 is applied. It also affects the timbre of certain, would-be grown up films by lessening any visceral impact one would usually get in an R movie when diminished for a larger audience. In sum, certain PG-13 movies feel…off. Stilted in dialogue, acting, the whole wad in the name of bigger ticket sales. Like with the overabundance of comic book movies, the numbers don’t lie.
So that’s more or less my say-so when I comes to Hollywood’s anti-sweetening. It’s not a new thing, BTW. Some past films had been deliberately rated down to cast a broader net, often with questionable results. And I ain’t talking ’bout no film called Pearl Harbor—which being based on a gruesome day of infamy surely needed an R rating. But it was a Micahel Bay flick, so there you go—or some of The Expendables movies, or a pastiche known as Poltergeist (and that little doozy was rated PG. In know PG-13 didn’t exist back then. Shut up, I’m rolling). Heck, even The Dark Knight was questionable with Heath Ledger’s joking histrionics.
No. I’m talking about a favorite, key movie that should have indeed been rated R: the original Jaws. We had two hours of severed limbs, drowned bodies and Robert Shaw being bitten in half. PG. Crunch. Sometimes the MPAA can really screw the pooch, but I doubt back then (barring any Bay schlock) these misfires were just that and not some scheming to empty peoples’ wallets. I hope.
R movies are very few and far between things on the movie landscape for the past decade now. There have been more sightings of Elvis. Does that rating warrant a healthy dose of mucking sh*t up for the crowds? Not necessarily, not even maybe. Does the compulsion for Hollywood to keep shaving away at scripts in order to line their pockets motivate this anti-sweetening?
Dunno. Go watch Insidious again. You tell me…
Whew. That was a lot of bullsh*t. Sorry about the stink. But all of it was relevant to this week’s grouchfest. The Wolverine has all three of the above devices. We got the culture clash. We got the irrepressible assembly line of comic book movies baiting us. We got some dumbing down when it was not needed (nor acceptable, really). Took a long time to get down here. Just wanted y’all to be properly prepared.
Now (drum roll), take it away, Logan…!
Forever is a long time coming.
The X-Man known as Logan (Jackman)—better known to the world as the infamous claw-wielding mutant Wolverine—has been carrying around that nagging belief for a long time. A very long time. Feels like forever. And he’s had to live with that, all the while churning with the inner turmoil that is his existence. Such as it’s become.
Logan’s a man of two worlds. Actually more like one. The first is his present. Self-exiled after the final battle with Magneto and his Brotherhood. Prof Xavier’s children triumphed, but at the cost of Logan killing his beloved Jean (Janssen). He’s quit the X-Men, leading a nomadic life, avoiding human contact whenever possible, controlling his temper and trying to rectify his difference between being a noble, principled man and an animalistic killer ready to strike at any moment.
The second world is the world of endless memories he’s been carrying around for time immemorial. His past. Thanks (or curses) to his unique rapid-healing abilities, Logan may be virtually immortal. Imagine that. Sure, we’d all like to live forever, so long as we can forget the past and continuously move on, ever changing.
Logan doesn’t see it that way. He’s seen too much, learned too much and wished he could put a lot of it behind him. That gets difficult when “behind” never seems to get far enough away.
That’s a lot to ponder, and Wolvie has all the time in world.
But the present always has a way of tearing our wayward hero back to reality, a reality that never seems to stop. Despite trying to keep those claws sheathed and rage contained—if only to honor Jean’s memory—you just can’t keep a good killer down. In his (former) line of work, Logan built up quite the rep as Wolverine as gun for hire. He’s had more than enough time to so, and sure enough that kind of past has caught up to him. Again.
He’s located by Yukio (Fukushima), another mutant who can see the future. She scoops up Logan and informs him that an old friend (and one-time benefactor), Yashida Singen (Sadana) wishes to see him, one last time. Logan rescued Shingen back in WW2, saving his life and putting him forever in Logan’s debt. Well forever is relative, and Shingen is dying of cancer and his final wish is to repay that debt.
Shingen has built up quite a powerful tech empire over his lifetime. But no tech on earth can keep his aggressive cancer from killing him, not by itself. He figures he needs the aid of an old friend’s…unique abilities. Despite his age, Shingen still has a lot to live for, and he understands that Logan has had too much. Why not make a trade? With Shingen’s access to unlimited resources, he may have found a way to save his life and end Logan’s.
That’s a favor?
Logan mutant healing gene could be removed from his DNA and transplanted into Shingen. The cancer will be destroyed and Logan will eventually find rest. An end to the pain. Death. Nirvana.
This sounds all well and good to Logan. Crazy perhaps, but the idea of not wandering the world forever carrying around all this guilt, anger and sh*t seems worth a try. He’s gotta sleep on it though. Besides he’s also discovered he’s a guest of honor at Shingen’s granddaughter Mariko’s (Okamoto) wedding tomorrow. Didn’t see that coming.
Still contemplating Shingen’s offer the following day, Logan reluctantly attends Mariko’s nuptials. Feeling all the more an outsider grants him a certain station. He understands Shingen’s offer, and also knows that him being the lord of a massive industrial empire warrants some rivals. Rivals like the yakuza who crash the wedding and try to kidnap Mariko. Sorry Jean, but this will not stand. There’s obviously more going on here than a mere debt being fulfilled. It’s plain to see it all now, but with his endless life experience, could Logan have seen all this coming?
Hell, did Yukio see all this coming…?
I promise you now that the review part of this installment will be blissfully shorter than the above rant upon rant. Upon rant. You’re welcome. Now where are those hot dogs?
But really, tying all that aforementioned crap into how I dug the film does have some relevance now. Really. But I ain’t gonna gush, ramble, skewer and/or preach the gospel according to Logan here. Just touch upon prior convictions. It’ll all make some sense, somehow.
How? Funny you should ask. First off, The Wolverine is the first truly mature comic book movie I ever had the pleasure of viewing. When I say mature, I don’t mean for R rated content outright. There is a lot of that here (violence, cussing, kinda goofy aidoru come to life, etc), but the package it’s couched in is a tad more heavy that, say, X-Men 3. Then again after that abortion anything minus a blue Frasier Crane would only be an improvement to the franchise.
The R rated-ness (or potential R rated-ness) in Wolverine stems from the drama present in the film. And boy, we get heavy on the drama here. Sure, other X-Men flicks had drama in drips and drabs, but mostly it was used as bookends against thwarting Magneto’s nefarious schemes, then snikt!
Not here. In fact the action serves more like bookends in favor of creating a deeper portrait of Logan the lonely, tortured immortal. Wolverine isn’t about Logan champing at the bit to let the claws/animal free and let the Sentinel scrap fall where it may. This film’s the diametric opposite. Most of the film is Wolvie struggling to keep his claws (and ire and pain) sheathed. For those yahoos looking for collateral damage, pick up a Schwarzenegger flick circa 1987. We got some existentialism going on here, thank you very much.
This is decidedly not your usual X-Men movie. There’s precious little of the trademark splash and dash one expects to see with a mutant movie. In fact, there is precious little of anything that resembles a Marvel movie. Even with more “adult” flavored Marvel pics (e.g.: The Punisher, Blade, hell, even Daredevil) there’s a taste of humor, verve and optimism. Not here. Wolverine is overall grim, heavy and ponderous. There’s a lot of existentialist musings, meditations on mortality and the duality of man (or in this case, hirsute mutant). Not the flavor in Columbus, Jubilee.
This all is a good thing. A very good thing. It’s refreshing to watch a Marvel movie for once that doesn’t play to the family. Wolverine, like the titular character, plays to itself, isolation and alienation intact. Hey mom, dad: don’t let the PG-13 tag fool ya. Just because the blue language and serious violence is scant (but strategic), this movie is tough on the mind, especially your conscience. It’s thrilling to the frontal lobes first and the brain stem second.
But Wolverine isn’t all about navel-gazing. I mean, would you want to watch a flick about Logan without an external rampage? Duh. This is still a comic book movie, and naturally with an anti-hero like Wolvie on the prowl there’s gotta be some collateral damage. The opening act sets the stage, or more accurately baits the audience. It’s intense, and a good hook to draw you into the forthcoming intrigue. C’mon, the bombing of Nagasaki while Logan is imprisoned in a pit? That’s some set-up there. It also sets everything up, domino-like, for the hard adventure our tortured killer finds himself in.
Virtually every scene of action—which are few and far between, for good reason—is tempered by reflection, and not with some silly reverie. Jackman exudes such reluctance and resentment for how his endless life has resulted in a lot of hurt, within and without, that every time Logan is forced to go snikt, his desire for redemption grows ever deeper. He may view his invulnerability as a curse, but it’s what he’s done with it that hurts the most. In sum, Jackman’s performance of his signature character this time out is less looking for action and more like looking for solace. Walking conflict that, and it makes for an all too juicy character study. With ninjas, of course.
As for the action scenes (which are breathtakingly cool), I gotta give props to director Mangold’s shrewdness. You make another Marvel movie about superheroes in a seemingly never-ending queue of Marvel movies about superheroes the audience has a lot of preconceived expectations. Biff, bam, boom, splat and spot Stan. Not the go-to for Wolverine. Like I said, the serious action is parsed out over two hours, instead making more room for mystery and drama. The action here is smart, not in your face and smeared all over the place like a cream pie to the puss. The action here is also particularly smart by having key scenes injected at strategic parts to not only enthrall the audience (like with the awesome bullet train sequence) but actually move the story along. To me it says a lot about an action director to know when to apply action and to what end and not go overboard with a lot of sharp, superfluous visuals. Granted Wolverine has a lot of great, sharp visuals, but X-Men 2 this ain’t. Hell, Stan didn’t even make a cameo. Then again he didn’t create Wolverine. Sorry.
After extolling Wolverine for the past few ages, I would only be prudent if I pointed out the film’s downfalls. Now there were no overt issues I took with the flick. The action was great, the story was engaging and the characters (especially our hero, which I’ve never seen so fleshed out before with the franchise) were truly three dimensional. In a sense, despite the passed years, Wolverine held true to the spirit—if not the execution—of Frank Miller and Chris Claremont’s mini-series back in the 80s which ostensibly the movie was based. The tricky part there is with adapting any book to screen is some concessions have to be made. Miller is known to be very exacting in his writing (and you’d need to know your feudal Japanese history for this one), but a lot can change in styling between 1983 and 2013. Mangold and crew had to tamper with the original script to make the movie palatable to modern audiences. A necessary evil, I know. Still I think it would’ve been cool if the movie retained the funky stylizing of the original comic. A personal thing, take that or leave it.
The only other issue I took with Wolverine is the final act. Here the film becomes your traditional superhero conflict: good guy thwarting bad guy. Don’t misunderstand me, the final fight still retained all the smart action goodness up until that part, but I got the impression that Mangold was throwing a sop to a dyed-in-wool, very patient comic book film audience. Running over 2 hours, the typical fan with the attention span of a gnat on crack you better be patient for a big payoff. I have an attention span—maybe that of a fruit fly—but I could’ve done without the pat battle sequence. I was no less exciting than what came before it, but I’d’ve rather had something less “safe.” The movie was already rich and edgy enough without having Logan tear it up with REDACTED in a sort-of bread and circus maneuver. On the flipside, the final scene either paid homage to a traditional Japanese drama, or did just that. Not a bad cap, really, but still safe.
A final thing (finally). Although technically Wolverine did not tank at the box office—it paid for its budget four times over, therefore warranting a sequel. Be on the look out for Logan in 2017. You’ve been warned—that doesn’t mean it was beyond my scrutiny. Most of its reviews were positive, albeit mixed. Ah, this is where The Standard rears its persnickety schnozz. I think I know why the film got a few raised eyebrows. It required patience, and a need to put aside all your were familiar with regarding comic book movie tropes. I say again, this ain’t yer daddy’s X-Men film. Then again with film’s skirting an R rating, existentialism and ultimately heavy on the drama over non-stop thrashing (which I repeat was the key to the great action sequences), Wolverine being not your metaphorical father’s comic book movie made it all the better. A palate cleanser to crazy costumes, cheap one-liners and over the top clownishness. All that jazz is welcome in a comic book film, but sometimes you gotta tuck away the cape. Maturity makes childhood seem all the sweeter in hindsight, after all.
So here’s for maturity in comic book films. Am I saying we need more of this with the onslaught of comic book films barreling down the boulevard? Once in a while. At least once in a while to wipe away the scales and reboot yourself for Ant-Man. Or Doctor Strange. Or Logan. Or Blade On Ice.
Um, that last one was a joke, people. Step away from Fandango or you get the claws.
One more time: snikt!
Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Awesome. Finally a mature comic book movie that means mature, namely in construct and not a Deadpool-esque scatological audience baiting. If you have the patience and quit tweeting for a microsecond. There’s ninjas, BTW.
“Funny you should ask…”
On the scene where Yukio picks up Logan: that a nod to the first movie when Logan picks up a wayward Rogue after a bar brawl? Perhaps, then againI tend to look too deeply into things.
Like the pin bed.
I’ve always wondered how Wolvie bends his elbows and/or wrists when his claws are sheathed. Surely there are a million fanboys out there with reams of theories as to why or why not. Get a girl already.
“Where is the security?”
The still standing torii after the Nagasaki attack says a lot beyond this film’s context.
Hiro Sanada, the Japanese Edward James Olmos.
“Go f*ck yourself, pretty boy.” Hell. Yeah.
Almost R rated. Almost.
Woody Allen sends a postcard To Rome, With Love. Aw.