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Column Fri Jul 26 2013

The Wolverine, Blackfish, Still Mine, In the House & the Chicago French Film Festival


The Wolverine

The latest adventure of everyone's favorite X-Man is easily better than his last solo outing (not a tough job, admittedly), X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but I also think it's the mutant's best overall outing in terms of story, cinematic value and action. That being said, there is still a great deal about the film that didn't connect with me, and there are a couple of elements in The Wolverine that are downright terrible.

Taking on my personal favorite era of the original Wolverine comic books, The Wolverine tackles Logan's (still Hugh Jackman) time in Japan, where he falls in love with Mariko (newcomer Tao Okamoto), the granddaughter of Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), one of the richest men in Japan, who happens to know Logan from their time together in the last days of World War II. Yashida sends one of his associates, the red-haired, future-seeing mutant Yukio (Rila Fukushima), to bring Logan (voluntarily living in exile) to his deathbed so he can say good bye to his old friend. But it turns out Yashida really wants to syphon off Logan's healing factor so he can live longer. Knowing Logan doesn't enjoy the prospect of living forever, Yashida thinks Logan might go for this plan, but he refuses, and the old man dies, leaving his entire fortune and business to Mariko instead of her father Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada), who immediately tries to have his daughter killed so he can take over the business.

There are more twists and turns and double-crossings in The Wolverine than I care to detail here. There's the guy that Mariko is arranged to marry, and there's the guy she actually loves, and neither one seems that important to the story. And then there's Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), who might give the single worst performance in any X-Men or superhero movie ever. And it would have been so easy to write the character right out of the film. Sure she doses Wolverine with something that inhibits his healing powers and makes him vulnerable, but there were ways to make another character do that. Sure, she's beautiful and looks great in her skin-tight costume, but I promise you will cringe every time she speaks.

I found it strange that the filmmakers opted to have Wolverine go without his healing powers for so much of the film. It reminded me of Iron Man 3's decision to have Tony Stark out of the armor for so much of that movie. Sure Wolverine still had his adamantium claws and general animal rage, but after a few well placed cuts and bruises, the man becomes pretty weak and vulnerable.

From an aesthetic point of view, The Wolverine is top notch. The beautifully filmed views of both modern and ancient Japanese locations were a great choice, and director James Mangold (Cop Land, Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma) does a great job mixing the practical with the digital. There are some lasting images in this movie that floored me, including one of Wolverine charging through a small town to rescue Mariko and getting pierced with what looks like hundreds of arrows attached to ropes to hold him back. His claws are out, his body is pitched forward, but he's frozen in time and angry as hell. It's like an image right out of Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, and it's magnificent.

Another aspect of The Wolverine I liked involved his dreams/nightmares, mostly involving Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), usually lying in bed with him, wishing he would join her in the afterworld (presumably she's tempting him to take his own life). It gives Wolverine the smallest sense of vulnerability and desperation, and helps us understand why living forever (or at least for a very long time) seem unappealing to him since it would keep him for reuniting with his beloved Jean. The device may not work for some, but it did for me.

My biggest overall issue with the movie was that there's simply too much story. Specifically, there are too many side stories, unnecessary right turns and about faces; it became exhausting after a while. Wolverine fighting ninjas is badass. Him trying to rescue Mariko, whom he's fallen for and vice versa, is great stuff, especially since she knows a little martial arts herself. But all of this nonsense about the company and Mariko's other men weighs down the film. I really love that, with the exception of Jackman and Janssen, most of the faces in the film will be unfamiliar to mainstream American audiences. It's a bold move, and it adds to the authenticity of the adventure.

The big final battle between Wolverine and the robotic, super-sized Silver Samurai is pretty solid as well, but since we know Wolverine shows up in the next X-Men movie, that slightly undercuts our concern for his well being. Still, there are other things our hero can lose besides his life, as you'll see.

Side note: the film seems to set up Yukio as a possible sidekick for Wolverine, but I'm pretty sure she's not in the already-crowded X-Men: Days of Future Past, which is kind of a bummer because she's great. Oh well. There's certainly enough here to keep the die-hard X-Men fans happy, as well as the folks who just want to see Jackman without his shirt on for great stretches of the film. As always, I'm eager to see where Logan takes us next (and don't leave right when the credits roll if you want to find out).


There's one particular fact that stuck in my mind after watching the sickening, heartbreaking documentary Blackfish, which concerns the practice of keeping killer whales, or orcas, in captivity for entertainment or breeding purposes at venues like Sea World, where in 2010 trainer Dawn Brancheau was dragged under the water during a performance and torn to pieces by a massive orca named Tilikum, a whale that was likely responsible for two other deaths in its history as a performing animal. Someone in the film makes the very important point that, although there are hundreds of reported deaths and injuries to trainers by whales held in captivity, there has never been a single attack on human beings by orcas in the wild.

Blackfish isn't just about Tilikum, although the whale's long and troubling past is certainly the focus of this documentary that seeks to expose Sea World and places like it for its barbaric practices when it comes to housing, training and exploiting these 8,000-lb. creatures. What's more maddening, as the film exposes, is how the various water parks cover up or deny the fact that their holding facilities are in any way the cause of these attacks by literally driving these animals crazy.

The filmmakers don't simply hurl allegations; they collect a large number of former whale trainers — mostly from Sea World; many of whom knew Brancheau — to detail the park's practices and policies. Tilikum has lived in captivity for 30 years, since it was captured at age two near Iceland. And several animal experts make the fairly obvious case that anything in captivity that long would likely be driven insane; I believe someone even uses the word "psychotic." But more horrifying, although we are spared any graphic video of Brancheau's death, there is plenty of other footage of captive whales attacking trainers. One particularly terrifying bit of film involves an orca dragging its trainer to the bottom of its deep tank over and over again like its a game, mangling the man's leg in the process. Good luck with that one.

But the message of Blackfish isn't to be afraid of killer whales; it's to urge sea parks to give up what is admittedly their number one attraction. Trained orcas are more impressive than, say, trained dolphins simply because of their size, but that always makes them far more dangerous when they decide they don't like being held captive any longer. What's most infuriating about Brancheau's death is the way Sea World executive tried to blame her death on trainer error, saying her ponytail hitting the water somehow provoked the attack, but those who were there tell a different story. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite's exhaustive research into every aspect of this unnecessary death and the practices that caused it will stick with you for a long time to come, and you'll certainly think twice before going to Sea World again or buying one of their cute little stuffed orcas. Black Fish is fascinating, harrowing food for thought. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Still Mine

The only reason I won't label the sweet little film Still Mine "quiet" is because lead actor James Cromwell is so angry and occasionally yelling, usually at the local bureaucrats in his community, so we get where he's coming from. The true-life story concerns Cromwell as independent farmer Craig Morrison, whose wife Irene (Genevieve Bujold) is clearly in the early stages of Alzheimer's, and she is having trouble remembering even the simplest things about getting around their two-story house. In an effort to simplify their living arrangements, Morrison decides to build he and his wife a smaller, simpler, one-story home right next to the big house, and so he starts cutting wood and begins to build it himself. End of story, right? Not exactly.

Morrison's father was a shipbuilder, so the knowledge of wood and building a solid structure is in the man's blood. But that doesn't stop the local building inspector (played as sympathetically as possible by Jonathan Potts) from sticking his nose in and demanding the building cease until blueprints are drawn up and submitted, and the work done so far is inspected by him. Naturally, the man finds dozens of nit-picky violations, most of which Morrison deals with as instructed, but he doesn't take kindly to having his sound work delayed, and he takes it out on this man with the red tape.

What follows are meetings with lawyers (including Morrison's attorney, played by Campbell Scott), inspectors, city planners, and eventually a court case, after Morrison just decides to start building again after he gets tired of sitting around while his wife suffers. Director Michael McGowan has woven together two very nice stories into Still Mine. One is the never-sappy love story between Craig and Irene, which is tested and wrought with his stubbornness and her frailty. Despite the urgings of their grown children, Morrison refuses to put his wife in a home. The other is a surprisingly subversive movie about standing up to the government and that common sense must win out over the letter of the law sometimes.

No pun intended, but there isn't a whole lot of new ground being broken with Still Mine, but I believe time has proven that Cromwell is one of the most highly watchable actors working today, and he elevates the material into something quite moving at times. And it's great seeing Bujold in anything again. Highly recommended if you're looking for something safe to take your parents or grandparents to. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

In the House

I missed this film when it originally opened in the U.S. a couple of months ago, and I'm glad I was able to catch it since because it's a brilliant, mildly sleazy slice of wonderful that you should check out if given the chance. Those who follow French cinema know that a new work by writer-director Fran├žois Ozon (Under the Sand, 5x2, Swimming Pool, Potiche) is reason to take notice, and In the House is certainly gives us an excuse to get excited. Based on the play by Juan Mayorga and adapted by Ozon, the story involves Germain (Fabrice Luchini), a high school literature teacher bored with his life, and his wife Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas).

To amuse himself, he assigns his class to write a personal story, something akin to a journal entry, but what he gets from one student, Claude (Ernst Umhauer), is something far more interesting. He turns in the beginnings of a story about becoming friends with Rapha (Bastien Ughetto), so that he can get into the other boy's house to watch his family's behavior. Rapha's mother, Esther, is played by the radiant Emmanuelle Seigner, so you can imagine at least one of the reasons he wants to spy on this family. As Germain and Jeanne read Claude's story, they get completely caught up in his storytelling, and want more. So Germain cleverly critiques the boy's work and asks him to continue.

What is so interesting about the way In the House is told is that we never know for sure whether what Claude is telling us is true or only partly true or a complete fabrication. At various times, we suspect each. But Ozon keeps us guessing and it makes Claude's behavior all the more creepy. Speaking of creepy, there even comes a time when Germain's over attentiveness to the boy is called into question. Without even realizing it, Germain goes from coaching the boy in writing to telling him what he should do next with the family he's carefully observing, and in the process, the film transforms from a clever mystery to an outright thriller.

With stories like this, we know that all of this deception is going to blow up in someone's face, and we're pretty sure we know who throughout In the House, but that doesn't make it any less fun waiting to see what for the explosion will take. It's a beautifully smart little film armed to the teeth with great actors doing amusing and edgy work. Scott Thomas is particularly good as an art dealer trying to find the right exhibit for her museum before she gets fired by her ridiculous bosses. She uses these stories as an escape from her tense life, and to forget that her husband hasn't touched her since he started reading these stories.

In the House is a commentary on how our society has become one of watcher and not doers. Voyeurism (through reality shows, the paparazzi, etc.) has left us content to sit at home and watch version of who we used to be live out lives that we clearly could in most cases, if we'd only turn off the TV and put down the magazine long enough to go outside. The film in no way expresses this overtly, and it doesn't need to. Ozon is too smart for that, and this film is a tremendous cautionary tale about not getting too caught up in the lives of others. The film opens today for a weeklong engagement at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

3rd Annual Chicago French Film Festival

One of my favorite of the newer breed of festivals that has moved into Chicago in recent years is the Music Box Theatre's Chicago French Film Festival, which typically brings 10-12 of the latest features from France, usually featuring early glimpses new works from some of the nation's best actors and filmmakers. This year's event also includes a special screening of the French-German co-production (and one of my personal favorite films of all time) 1987's Wings of Desire from director Wim Wenders; and the rarely screened 1972 Jean-Pierre Melville work Un Flic, with the great Alain Delon as well as Richard Crenna and Catherine Deneuve (it wouldn't be a French Film Festival without her).

A complete list of all of the films in the series and the schedule for the weeklong festival can be found at the Music Box's web site (, but I want to tell you about two particularly interesting works that show the range of films this series offers.

The Opening Night film is Fly Me to the Moon (Un Plan Parfait), from director Pascal Cahumeil, about a family of people who believe they are cursed to have all of their first marriages fail (with the understanding that the subsequent marriage will be a success). The idea of this curse is so pervasive that when Isabelle (Diane Kruger) is on the verge of marrying to the man she thinks she truly loves, she decides to take a quick trip to another country where she will meet a man, marry him quickly, and then divorce right after. Naturally, the poor sucker in question, travel writer Jean-Yves (Danny Boon), falls madly in love with Isabelle and unknowingly complicates her scheme. It's a very silly film, but there is undeniable charm when Kruger and Boon engage in their many verbals battles. The film is more daring than pretty much every Hollywood-made romantic comedy, but the appeal is much the same. Probably the most mainstream of the festival's offerings.

The Closing Night film is the incredible 11.6, the true-life story of armored car driver Toni Musulin (The Intouchables' Francois Cluzet), who managed to pull off one of the biggest heists ($11.6 million) in France without using a weapon or having a (knowing) accomplice. His plan was so intricately thought out that he would have gotten away clean, but he willingly turned himself in while he was in hiding and gave up the location of the missing millions (most of it). What director Philippe Godeau does that is so extraordinary is make sure never to paint Musulin as some kind of master criminal; he's just careful, keeps to himself without appearing to do so, and even manages to cut off ties to his restaurant owner girlfriend and his best friend/co-worker, so as not to implicate them in his crime. 11.6 is tense, beautifully acted and mesmerizing as we try to figure out exactly how this seemingly average man pulled off such an unbelievable crime. I feel confident the film will make its way back to the states for a limited run, but if you get a chance to see it at this festival, you should.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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