Logan finds renewed sense of purpose in ‘The Wolverine’

The Wolverine does not embrace with the same fervor the lethal advantages of his retractable claws the way Freddie Krueger does his similarly designed bladed glove, but when he does use them, they are unleashed with savagery upon his foes.

Hugh Jackman is back for his fifth performance — sixth if one counts his uncredited stint in “X-Men: First Class” — as Logan, so far the most highly profiled of the X-Men, the Wolverine. Under the guidance of director James Mangold, who has shown his skills in presenting drama (“Walk the Line,” “Girl, Interrupted”), writers Mark Bomback (“Live Free or Die Hard”) and Scott Frank (“Marley and Me,” “Minority Report,” and screen adaptations of Elmore Leonard’s “Get Shorty” and “Out of Sight”), “The Wolverine” is a balanced blend of action and character. The filmmakers wisely adapted one of the popular Wolverine stories from the comic version, landing Logan in Japan where there is plenty of peril and need for his mutant talents.

In an opening flashback, Logan’s earlier visit to Japan found him imprisoned outside of Nagasaki in the late days of World War II. When the second atom bomb is dropped on this city, Logan saves the life of a young Japanese soldier, Yashida.

Decades later, Logan is living a hermit life in the wilderness, still haunted by the death of his beloved Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who dominates his dreams, while he drifts along with no sense of purpose. His only trips to civilization are to buy batteries for an old clock radio. When his peaceful co-existence with a grizzly bear is savagely terminated, he heads into town and the bar therein where the culprits are drinking. He is in clean-out-the-bar mode, a la Steve Seagal, but before its gets too nasty, a young Japanese lady intervenes. She is Yukio (Rila Fukushima) who after getting him out of the bar informs Logan that his old friend Yashida, who founded the huge corporation named after him, is gravely ill and wants Logan to come to Japan and say goodby.

That turns out to be a ruse, as Yashida really wants to offer Logan a chance at mortality. Calling eternal life on Earth a curse, Yashida claims that with chemists in tow he has an ability to undo the mutant factors in Logan so that he can grow old but live a normal life.

Logan is skeptical but also suspicious of what is going on around Yashida. First there is the lady doctor/biochemist (Svetlana Khodchenkova) who just has that look of not being who she claims to be. There are family tensions, as Yashida’s son Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada) clearly is not favored by his father, who instead sees Shingen’s daughter Mariko (Tao Okamota) as the more worthy heir. Add to this that the Yashida empire is the target of Yakuzas and ninjas and corruption within the Japan government, you have the potential for a big mess — the perfect therapy for Logan as he wrestles with his sorrow, guilt and sense of worth.

The action picks up at the funeral of Yashida, where an attempt to kidnap Mariko is foiled by Logan, Yukio and others. Once Logan and Mariko find temporary sanctuary, the Wolverine tries to untangle all these factors with the Yashidas and their foes. His red flags over the biochemist prove to be dead on.

There are calm moments in “The Wolverine” that give Logan a chance to reassess his life while also finding that Mariko, at first a seemingly frail young woman, proves to have an inner strength that appeals to Logan.

Jackman’s take on Wolverine in this movie is much more somber than previous outings. Yes, he still has not come to terms with his mutant gifts, but in “The Wolverine” he displays much more despair and little humor. But his humanity gets a workout, particularly in his growing affection for Mariko — played with understated style by Okamoto in her first movie role. Meanwhile, his tolerance for Yukio eventually grows into a grudging respect.

Among the villains, Khodchenkova oozes an arrogance that almost has Wolverine outmatched.

Mangold and company provide a study of this unique character and set the table ably for Jackman’s next foray into the world of the Wolverine, “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” which gets a teaser in the credits, something that has become a staple of movies based on Marvel characters.

Get ready to jump out of your seat with “The Conjuring”

The “Paranormal Activity” series took the found-footage genre to a new level of chillers, but it also revived the good old haunted house scare-fest. “The Conjuring,” the latest in this subdivision of horror, was a bit of a surprise, outdrawing other higher-profile movies in its opening week, but it proved people still love to sit in a theater and get scared.

“The Conjuring” has ties to “The Amityville Horror” in that both movies are based on true events of hauntings that were investigated by the famous ghost-hunter couple Ed and Lorraine Warren. Unlike “Amityville,” however, “Conjuring” focuses much of its attention on the Warrens, who were ground-breakers in using technology to gather evidence of the paranormal.

“The Conjuring” takes place in late 1971 when a family, the Perrons, move into a remote  old house in Rhode Island. The residence definitely is a fixer-upper, but the Perrons, Roger and Carolyn, and their five daughters, soon discover this place has a lot of eerie baggage also attached to it.

Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor play Roger and Carolyn, who put almost all their assets into the house, thus requiring a major commitment. Youngest daughter April (Kyla Deaver) finds an old music box that has an aura of creepiness like a clown doll and soon the little girl is having conversations with an invisible friend named Rory. Carolyn has unexplained bruises on her body and at night another daughter, Christine (Joey King from “Oz the Great and Powerful”), is awakened when somebody or something grabs her feet.

Per usual, the bumps and creaks escalate into truly terrifying incidents and a desperate Carolyn attends a lecture by the Warrens and pleads with them to investigate whatever is going on. Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) is at first reluctant to take on the case, but Lorraine (Vera Farmiga), who is a clairvoyant, insists they go to the house.

Lorraine, still shaky from a previous possession case that left her catatonic for eight days, immediately senses that horrible things happened not just in the house but nearby. The Warrens soon learn that a witch named Bathsheba Sherman hanged herself from a tree outside the house and her hateful soul still lingers and has wreaked previous havoc. All of this has unsettling overtones of demonic shenanigans.

“The Conjuring,” written by Chad Hayes and Carey Hays (“The Reaping” and “House of Wax”) and directed by  James Wan (“Saw” and “Insidious”) is an effective and spooky movie. There are plenty of moments that have audiences jumping and screaming, and on an emotional level it really sinks into the viewer. Roger and Carolyn are a devoted couple and loving parents and the daughters are generally sweet, although the oldest, Andrea (Shanley Caswell) is at first pouty about moving to such an out-of-the-way place. The other two daughters, Nancy and Cindy, are played by Haley McFarland and Mackenzie Foy, respectively.

Wilson and Farmiga present the Warrens as a couple who were destined to be together and use their unique gifts. Their interaction with the Perrons also shows a strong emotional link.

The movie does date itself with all the equipment employed by the Warrens that at the time was cutting-edge but looks clunky when compared with today’s surveillance technology.

The makers of this movie were adamant about making “The Conjuring” as authentic as possible. Lorraine Warren served as a consultant on the film — Ed died in 2006. The real Perron girls visited the set during the filming, and the Bathsheba ghost, played by Joseph Bishara (who also composed the movie’s score) was so unnerving that Cindy fled the set and soon departed.

Fans of such creepy movies should enjoy “The Conjuring.” It has all the tools — the old, creaky house, the isolation, a violent past that just will not go away, and enough frightening moments to keep the viewers on edge. And all of this is supported by a likable, sympathy-generating cast.

The E.T.’s are big and nasty in ‘Pacific Rim’

Just like last year’s “Battleship”  (remember that one?), the aliens in “Pacific Rim” do not attack from above, but from undersea, and these aquatic versions of E.T. are a particularly nasty strain of invaders.

Co-written and directed by the multifaceted Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”), “Pacific Rim” is big and noisy and employs familiar aspects of science fiction, especially the bad-guys-from-outer-space elements.

Fans of anime also have pointed out its similarities to the “Evangelion” series. In an opening voice-over by the lead character, Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam from “Sons of Anarchy”), these beings, called Kaijus, apparently biding their time for centuries, start going through a deep underwater breach, surfacing from the oceans all around the Pacific Rim and conducting Godzilla-like flattening of major cities. In response the nations of the world set aside their differences and pool resources to build huge fighting robots (Transformers, anyone?) that rely on mind-melded dual pilots. These machines, Jaegars, then confront the Kaijus for some messy smackdowns.

Unfortunately, despite continual upgrades of the Jaegars, the Kaijus are getting the upper hand, and dismissing pleas from the program’s leader, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), the world leaders are ready to move on to some more effective ways of maintaining a defense.

Raleigh, meanwhile, is a hotshot Jaegar-meister, paired up with his brother Yancy (Diego Klattenhoff), until they are ripped apart in a battle and Yancy is killed. Now Raleigh survives as a construction worker until Stacker, desperate to keep the Jaegars in the loop, brings Raleigh back. As Stacker points out, “we are no longer an army; we are the resistance,” and he has a plan that might shut down the Kaijus’ attacks.

At Stacker’s side is Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi, Academy Award nominee from “Babel”), an eager potential Jaegar pilot obviously destined to be one of the heroes.

Throw in a couple of eccentric lab/math geniuses (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman) to provide key data, and you have yet another popcorn movie, complete with budding romance, macho posturing, a dog, comedy relief (Ron Perlman, who teamed up with del Toro on the “Hellboy” movies, as a harvester of dead Kaijus body parts) and the obligatory inspirational pep talk, delivered by Stacker (“Today we cancel the apocalypse!”).

The special effects are outstanding, as is to be expected, and “Pacific Rim” is yet another summer movie with destruction on a mass scale. The characters are pretty thin, although Elba’s Stacker is a commanding presence. So the viewers will not be particularly challenged, except to avoid motion sickness via the 3D presentation.





‘American Mary’ is stylish, cringe-inducing horror

The Soska sisters are identical twins — really identical in that unless you get to know them on a personal and professional level, you cannot tell them apart. They also are unapologetic fans of the horror genre of movies, and were honor students in school.

The sisters, whose presentation at Monsterpalooza last October was marred by technical difficulties — their video segment could not be projected upon a big screen, forcing attendees to huddle up and peer at a laptop computer screen — have co-written and co-directed “American Mary,” now out on DVD and Blu-Ray, that has one of the most unique plots in the history of horror movies.

It deals with surgical body modification — an underground industry that goes way beyond body piercings. This subject alone should be ample warning to those who get squeamish at the sight of surgical instruments being put to use. Add the premise of revenge to this mix and you get a cringe-inducing little film in “American Mary.”

Katharine Isabelle, whose performance in the werewolf film “Ginger Snaps” caught the attention of the Soska sisters, stars as Mary Mason, a promising medical student specializing in surgery but struggling with serious financial problems and dealing with a verbally abusive teacher, Dr. Grant (David Lovgren).

Desperately in need of quick cash, Mary applies at a local strip club owned by Billy Barker (Antonio Cupo). Naively, she also brings her resume, which includes her educational background. Instead of hiring her to dance, Billy offers her even more money to repair the physical damage incurred upon an enemy of Billy’s by his henchmen. This job gets noticed by a stripper named Beatress Johnson (Tristan Risk), who contacts Mary and brokers a deal between Mary and a friend of Beatress, Ruby Realgirl (Paula Lindberg), a fashion designer who wants some very intimate body modification and is willing to pay handsomely for it. So Mary agrees to do the procedure, believing it will just be a one-time job.

However, Dr. Grant’s abuse goes beyond verbal and a distressed Mary quits medical school and begins a loose association with Billy, who sends her body modification clients. Also Billy arranges the abduction of Dr. Grant, enabling Mary to carry out a hideous and drawn out revenge.

The business is thriving despite a detective (John Emmet Tracy) hovering on the periphery, investigating the disappearance of Dr. Grant, and Mary’s own concerns that she is going crazy.

The Soska sisters make in appearance in “American Mary,” playing identical twins from Eastern Europe who seek Mary’s surgical services for a bizarre way to connect themselves to each other.

As expected, things do unravel for Mary, and even Billy finds himself haunted by brutal dreams. But the bloody climax is a surprise, thanks to a subtle set-up by the Soskas.

“American Mary” is a very adult and visually explicit film by the Soska sisters, this being their second project as directors, following up the grindhouse-style “Dead Hooker in a Trunk.” At Monsterpalooza in October, the Soska sisters conceded “American Mary” would have limited appeal but were confident its subject and production, superb given the budget limitations, would find its audience — those who like their horror served up in an uncompromising manner.

With “White House Down,” public seems to be saying, “been there, done that”

Checking in at fourth place in the box-office tally during its opening weekend does not bode well for “White House Down.” With the similarly-themed “Olympus Has Fallen” preceding it by three months, “WHD” needed more than just typical Roland Emmerich-directed mass destruction to distinguish it. Unfortunately it falls short.

Once again we have a story wherein the White House, probably the most impenetrable building in the world, being compromised, the president betrayed and put into peril by people he trusted, and the future of the country now at stake. As with many other films of this nature, the person who rises above it all, who survives while the other highly-trained specialists are cut down, is the unexpected hero.

Unlike “Olympus,” in which the president, played by Aaron Eckhart, spends much of his time as a helpless hostage maintaining a brave front, the president in “WHD,” portrayed by Jamie Foxx, gets to engage in more action, eluding the bad guys and even taking some weapons in hand.

Channing Tatum plays the reluctant hero, Cale, a familiar characterization for this role — a man of potential but a misfit with a personal life that is in tatters. He wants to become a Secret Service agent but is turned down by the agent in charge, Finnerty (Maggie Gylllenhaal), who later spends most of her time in a bunker looking worried and desperate. His marriage over, he also is coming up short in being a part-time father to his 11-year-old daughter Emily (a scene-stealing Joey King).

In an effort to score points with Emily, Cale secures tickets to a White House tour that just happens to take place when the bad guys begin carrying out their diabolical plan. Explosions and thousands of rounds of artillery later, the White House is in the hands of the villains, Emily is among the hostages and Cale and President Sawyer are slinking around within the bowels of the great structure, trying to stay one step ahead of being captured. Elsewhere, those representing U.S. military muscle are finding themselves handcuffed in their attempts to rescue the president and neutralize the attack.

On the plus side, there are moments of intense action, and Tatum and Foxx do share some rapport. Most of the bad guys are mercenaries, and when a couple of them slap around Emily, you just know they have been penciled in to die magnificently later in the movie. Cale and Sawyer overcome one obstacle after another while the villains strut and bray and foam at the mouth as things start to come undone.

All of this came in at a price tag of about $150 million, so the paltry $25.7 million “WHD” brought in, which did not even match the second-week take of another film proving disappointing at the box office, “World War Z,” is not very encouraging. Plus, any hope of word-of-mouth is fading. These days it is not word-of-mouth as much as it is word-of-social-media, and the sentiment out there is testy. Postings are showing umbrage at the political leanings of “WHD,” which show one side of the issues as calm and reasoning and the opposing side as conniving lunatics willing to kill people to achieve their goals.

No doubt about it, in the 1990s,Emmerich set the standard for depicting destruction on humongous levels, but these days other movie-makes have caught up to him, and some have surpassed him in showing flash among the chaos.