22 June, 2014

Nippon by Numbers

"I'm the Most Acceptable at What I Do"
Thoughts on The Wolverine (2013)

The Wolverine is pretty good. It's competent in all the right ways and even has the odd moment of brilliance sprinkled through out the narrative. There isn't anything that is terribly objectionable. Overall, it's as challenging as a cup of cocoa. And not even, like, Mexican hot chocolate, I mean plain ass, straight up hot cocoa. Maybe some whipped cream on top.

It's the definition of a movie you watch on cable because there's nothing else on.

My main problem with the movie is also kind of the charm of it. Japan is as much of a character in The Wolverine as anyone else and, like everyone else, that character is a cartoon. The world that James Mangold has carved into celluloid (or, from the looks of it, binary code), is less an NHK documentary as it is a series of knobs and cranks doling out exactly what kind of Japanese we're going to see and how much.

Over the course of the movie Wolverine battles his way from a POW camp to fighting the Yakuza in modern day Tokyo to fighting ninja and then, finally, a giant robot. It's literally every home grown bad guy Japan has to offer.

There was a time when all I knew about Japan and Japanese pop culture I gleaned from the pages of PSM. It's fun to revisit these things. It's fun to not have to think about politics or thousands of years of wood carving or tea ceremonies or whatever. It's a cartoon. It's simple, it's fun, and it doesn't need to be anything more than that.

Basically, Japan is The Wolverine.

But a few other things come to mind, such as how it treats Imperial Japanese soldiers and the dropping of the second A-bomb. Even in a movie that is as pop corn munchingly throw away as this one, it gives you something to think about. Or it at least tries, and that has always been the hallmark of the X-Men film franchise, which started with the Holocaust, for God's sake.

The Japanese Army's track treatment of their fellow man is well established. Anybody who knows anything about world history or World War II knows about how they treated civilians and natives and enemy combatants. If you don't, I'll be brief and tell you that they did not treat them especially well.

The Wolverine doesn't deal with those things. I doesn't need to. It doesn't even pay lip service to these things. At the risk of white washing history, I think it's a smart move on the part of the film makers. There's a couple of reasons for this.

The first one is practical. We have to spend two hours with this country (and almost exclusively this country, all but two of the leads, are Asian), so bringing up Unit 731 or bringing up "comfort women" or mass executions isn't going to make this narrative very palatable. Plus, it's a PG-13 movie. We don't need to see murder contests in a movie about a super hero vigilante trying to get his groove back.

When X-Men began with the Holocaust, it was a smart move. Maybe not in the best taste, but it was smart. It set up the plight of the mutant species (by showing both the specific plight of Magneto and by stating that the Final Solution is, in some way, analogous to the persecution of mutants). It also makes us sympathise with the villain of the piece, which, again, is one of the ongoing themes of the X-Men franchise.

Secondly, it goes against the spirit of the movie. In the opening minutes of The Wolverine, we see Wolverine in a hot box reminiscent of Bridge Over the River Kwai, but before that we see a Japanese officer freeing Allied (presumable ANZACs or Canadians) and waving off a guard from shooting them.

By doing this, it elevate the Japanese as more than brutal fanatics and it makes one particular Japanese man (who later turns out to be the villain) into a good guy. When the A-Bomb does detonate, it becomes  less an instrument of punishment as it is a force of nature.

In these ways it also injects a kind of basic human decency that is in keeping with the best of the series (or at least just Days of Future Past). It's a smarter, kinder move than a movie like this needs and if only for that it makes The Wolverine a better movie than it has to be.

It isn't changing history, it's choosing to deal with it in a different way. I like that.

And I can always watch Nanking if I want to be reminded of the actual facts. But sometimes I don't want to. Sometimes I just want to see a movie where a guy does what he does best and what he does ain't pretty.

04 June, 2014

More like "Days of Future BLAST"

 An Unwanted Rundown of X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

Everyone expected Days of Future Past to be a shitshow, right?

There were too many characters. At best there are only two good X-Men movies, the last one coming out nearly a decade ago. There was Superman Returns hovering in the background, the creepy, pseudo-deadbeat dad that he is. Then there's those horribly misjudged Carl's Jr. ads, which seem to dare you not to rip your eyes out and throw them at the screen. That's not even to mention that it seemed as though Fox decided they were going to beat the Avengers in a Reagan-like gambit by outspending them. There have been superhero flops before, yeah, but it looked like the House of Ideas was poised to have its very own Heaven's Gate.

I'm sorry to say that Days of Future Past is not the shitstorm of the century. It isn't even going to be the shitstorm of the year. I'm sorry to say that it is actually quite good and might be a perfect counter-point to the soft-focus antics of the Avengers on one side and whatever the fuck DC thinks it's doing on the other.

What Days of the Future Past does do, is something that we all thought was impossible: Tell a storythat jumps between time lines, tries to weave itself into real world events, and still deliver an adventure that is about conflicting ideologies rather than about how big of a building our heroes can blow up. Thought it does have a lot of that too and it's really awesome.



Like most people my age my first exposure to the X-Men was via the Fox Kids cartoon. That lead to buying the toys (Mr. Sinister, two different Cables, two different Apocalypses, the Wolverine with the spring-loaded claws), which, in turn lead to me picking up a book or two. There's a certain snobby class of people that look down on the cartoons, but these people are snobs and can go get fucked. For a lot of people the X-Men cartoon wasn't just their first exposure to the X-Men, it was probably their first exposure to comics.

I never got into the comics. If we exclude Wolverine, I can probably count the number of X-Men comics I've bought on one hand. There's something about a story that never ends or can get reset or can languish for years under the control of any number of idiots. It's why I stick to "indie" comics. It's just easier to find somebody to blame when it comes to those sorts of things.

There's something about a cartoon that keeps a sprawling world like that of the X-Men managable. I'm sure they're great, they're just not my thing. For that same reason, the movies work. They took a concept that we like and consolidated decades of back story into a serviceable, enjoyable package.

The first two X-Men films, while not perfect, as great pieces of popcorn entertainment. They renewed my interest in the X-Men and, whether the purists like it or not, they're more or less responsible for the state of the modern blockbuster. We wouldn't have Avengers or the Dark Knight trilogy. Then again, if it wasn't for Bryan Singer we wouldn't have the Man of Steel, The Last Stand, Iron Man 2, or Green Lantern.

You know what, maybe those snobs had a point. . .


I'll say this: Ian McClellan and Patrick Stewart are, as always, absolute delights. It feels that somehow, despite themselves, they actually seem to enjoy playing superheroes on screen. They're men that have truly embraced the "Wizard Phase" of the elder British actor's cycle. They're men that are better than the film around them and, yet, you couldn't imagine having this film without them.

The problem is that, while there are plenty of great actors milling about, almost every single one of them is underused by design. There's Halley Barry, who seems to be flying by to pick up a paycheck. There's Ellen Page who is saddled with the clunkiest, Basil Expositioniest dialogue in the entire film.
Even Jennifer Laurence, she of the Academy Awards, takes a backseat to the film's lead trio of James MacAvoy, Michael Fassbender, and Hugh Jackman. Academy Awards or not, the film belongs to them.

Luckily, the film is in great hands. Like some artsy superhero team, each actor is capable in their own way. Fassbender does his intense staring thing, MacAvoy suffers like no one else can, and Jackman stands around being charmingly buff. It's everything you want out of the film and it's everything the film needs for its story. They're serious enough for you to buy all this time travel and Kennedy assassination bullshit, yet fun enough to forgive all this time travel and Kennedy assassination bullshit.

The one notable addition to the franchise is Peter Dinklage playing the evil genius Bolivar Trask. As an actor, Dinklage is a known quantity and in Days of Future Past, he brings the same sort of energy that he brings to Game of Thrones. And he gets to appear just long enough to give a kind of oppressive weight to the otherwise bright 1973 timeline (I mean, without all the Vietnam War stuff and terrible shades of brown).

The only unfortunate part of his performance is the same albatross around everyone's neck: He has a kind of silly look and a pretty stupid name. But he, like everyone else, moves deftly enough through the script that you barely bat an eye at the fact that his first name is “Bolivar.” Even if you are the type that giggles at the word midget, in a world full of blue people, giant robots, and Richard Milhouse Nixon, Dinklage is one of the most anchored characters in the movie.

Singer carefully jumps between characters (and timelines) just enough to remind you that there is a world outside of the younger Wolverine, Magneto, and Professor X. And if he isn't doing it carefully, he's doing it with enough energy that you don't really notice that Rogue was on a magazine cover and that she's, literally, in three seconds of film. It's incredible to see, not only because, like the rest of the film, it works and there's no damn reason that it should.


Days of Future Past might represent the moment when comic book movies, or at least X-Men movies, cross the event horizon and finally, exorably disappear up their own ass for all time. In that way it might be the world's first true comic book movie.

That isn't to say that a film can't be complicated and still be enjoyable (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy always jumps to mind). What I am saying is that comic book movies should take a moment to check themselves before a graph is a required hand-out before the film starts.

I find that drama works if you can trust in the main characters. I might not know what the score is, but Harry Remas seems to be making a fine go of it, so I'm going to play along. This film does a solid job of that because, as a human being, one cannot help but love Hugh Jackman, but it's hard to go along a character when his relevant backstory is buried in a movie that's fifteen years old.

It's an odd place for me. As a nerd, I get it and I appreciate it. I like that it rewards those who pay attention. As a film snob enthusiast, I wonder how good a story can be when most of it isn't getting told. Why should my sister have to spend nine hours getting caught up to make a movie watchable? Looking at the box office receipts, I'm probably making a mountain out of a mole hill.

I guess maybe the possible confusion around the plot is one more point in its favor. Most blockbusters-- like the kind of mind-numbing dreck that Michael Bay turns out-- lean towards making blockbusters dumber and dumber. Singer might have bitten more than he could chew with this one, but at least he's trying. This isn't Inception, but he's willing to give the audience some credit when it comes to them no being braindead, popcorn munching faces. That's obviously more than I'm willing to give. . .


Oh man. Remember this?
Good God, some of the CGI in this movie sucks.

 It's bad enough to look at crappy CGI, it's even worse when you realize that this movie cost over two-hundred million dollars and this was the best they could come up with. Ignoring the tacked on post-credits scene, which was probably whipped up out of the money that fell out of Bryan Singer's pockets, this movie has some surprisingly bad looking visual effects.

What's annoying is that it isn't all terrible. Some of it is downright awesome. For example, there is a scene towards the end of the film where the Sentinel carriers being hit by some ill winds, stands out as an exceptional piece of visual effects. They look cool, they carry with them this sense of heavy forboding, and they're so good looking, they almost looks like miniatures from the 1970's.

On the flip side, we have Magneto, spoiler alert, moving a massive piece of real estate to do some dirt. It's an ingenious bit of imagery until the damn thing starts moving** . At that point it looks as though somebody dragged and dropped it from an old version of Photoshop. It looks like somebody wanted to do a few more passes on the shot, but then somebody else higher up went “Fuck it, I'm not losing my lunch break.”

Again: It cost 20th Century Fox 200 million dollars to make a movie where parts of it might have been put together by people who were drinking on the way to work.

To end this on a positive note: I was actually taken out of a scene-- maybe the best in the film, no less- by how good it looked. There weren't any special effects. There was just a camera, lighting, and two people talking in a room. It's in that moment that as great as the special effects may or may not be, it's these characters that keeps you coming back.


Despite its size, Days of Future Past doesn't lose sight of its characters or its core message. It's a testament to Bryan Singer's skill as a director. It's also proof positive that, like Inception and even Avengers (or maybe even Godzilla by a cat hair), that storytelling and character does not need to disappear in favor of spectacle. For some reason we need to be reminded of this every once and a while.
I've done little to mention the action, but it's damn good. Singer handles these scenes as well as he handles the characters (and without a balance between the two we either end up with a boring action movie or a stupid drama). The scenes involving Blink, a mutant who can generate portals, stands out the most. Each scene she's in has complexity to the action that looks like a blend between a good Jackie Chan movie and Portal.
Days of Future Past is guilty of a lot of sins, but it powers through these awkward moments, making you forget these flaws long enough to enjoy the film. In a market where as most superhero films seem to be getting more cynical and involve destroying bigger and bigger cities (and in one case  a bunch of disabled veterans), it's good to see a movie find strength in the idea of simple, human decency. It's a movie that makes a stand and says that good people matter in the world and that they matter in a narrative.

In all of this we get a movie that is as complex as it is complicated. As much as it is a movie about clashing ideologies, it's also full of giant robots, time traveling, and a climax that revolves around Richard Nixon being a decent human being. It's a damn good film and if this represents the future of super hero movies, that's something that I can live with. We could all use a lot more blockbusters as messy as this one.

That ain't it. Maybe this is. . . 


No? Fuck  it. Whatever.


It is then followed by a title card-- and this is the only time I've seen one like this-- that said "This film helped provide 15,000 jobs." And all I could think was "Uh, yeah."

I saw this at the Arc Light in Pasadena, and while waiting for the movie to start at the bar, one of the bartenders was getting rid of old stock. I piped up when he mentioned how some of the beer had gone bad. So, he offered me a free beer to “taste test” because it went bad. I work at a market, so I'm aware that most food that's past its sell by date is perfectly fine, and, as a God-fearing Christian, I would never turn down a free drink.

It wasn't until I drank a glass that I checked the bottle. It did indeed expire on the 24th of May, more specifically, it expired on the 24th of May 2013. This beer was one day short of having expired one year ago. It was then that I realized it wasn't the coffee and the Fat Tire that was making the beer taste funky, it was year old funk that was making my beer taste funny.

It was a fine gesture on behalf of the bartender and I'm grateful to him for giving me the opportunity to both drink beer and be a bonehead for free. Mostly I'm grateful that my movie going experience wasn't interrupted by explosive diarrhea. It's always nice to reflect on something like that, it's even nicer when you're watching a movie that you're genuinely enjoying.


* There are some “vintage” Adidas ads in the background. Am I stupid for thinking that an Adidas billboard in 1973 is an anachronism? Does it matter?

James Kislingbury writes comics and records podcasts. You can follow him on Twitter @kislingtwits.