FRESH POUR: The Wolverine (2013) / Only God Forgives (2013)

Clint takes a look at two new releases that come out each week –just a short look at what’s being released in theaters, along with some drinking rules for your own perusal.

The Wolverine / dir. James Mangold / 20th Century Fox

The WolverineIn an age where superhero and comic-book films seem to need to endlessly one-up each other in terms of sheer spectacle and collateral damage, it’s refreshing that several comic book films this year are taking slightly more low-key tactics. Iron Man 3 did it with its stripping down of Tony Stark into his essential elements and having him face down his legacy and doubts, and The Wolverine, for all its faults, makes the right choice in taking a similar tack. In this latest X-Men installment, the titular mutant (Hugh Jackman, who’s got Logan down pat) is hiding out in the woods, going full caveman in the woods with a bottle of whiskey after losing his love, Jean Grey, in X3 (Famke Janssen makes occasional appearances as a vision of Jean Grey who reminds him of the pain he’s holding onto). With the appearance of a young ninja named Yukio (Rila Fukushima) and an invitation by someone whose life he saved in the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, Logan heads to Tokyo and becomes embroiled in a corporate and familial struggle that causes him to question his desire for immortality.

Director James Mangold brings a similar visual sensibility to this as he did in his 2007 western 3:10 to Yuma; scenes are filmed with a straightforwardness and classicism that doesn’t sacrifice style, yet makes everything seem very traditional. The grounded nature of the film makes it feel like your standard Japanese crime thriller that just so happens to star an immortal man with metal claws. It’s fairly refreshing, especially in the film’s first few acts, as we set up Logan’s unfamiliarity with Japanese culture (despite it occasionally delving into the level of pandering) and the dynamics of Yashida’s family. I appreciated the clarity and staging of many of the early action scenes, including a bullet-train fight that turns out much better/less silly than the trailer makes it look. Marco Beltrami’s score is reserved, as usual, but has a nice Japanese flavor to it, and really plays with the idea of the film’s intentional lack of spectacle.

Some characters fare better than others in the cast; Yukio is far and away the film’s best addition to the X-Men family, as Fukushima brings a spark and a wryness that clashes well with Logan’s taciturn nature. However, the film’s lead love interest (and MacGuffin) Mariko (Tao Okamato), who we spent much of the film’s middle portion with as Logan protect her from assassination attempts, is as charismatic as a ton of bricks. As a character, she’s given remarkably little life of her own, merely existing as a thing for Logan to protect and reflect his own intimacy issues post-Jean. She’s demure almost to the point of lifelessness, which doesn’t help when we’ve already been introduced to the more interesting Yukio, who isn’t given enough screentime to really shine.

However, the biggest problem is the lack of focus in the script; for something that’s slightly more offbeat and toned-down than your typical superhero movie, the plot can get quite confusing. This is perhaps partially intentional, as Logan is just as perplexed by the world of Japan as we are, though it feels weird that he has to be taught so much about the basics of Japanese culture when he’s definitely been there already, and has possibly been there a bunch of times since. At the same time, the main thrust of the plot is poorly drawn; characters change motivations and we are expected to care, when oftentimes we are barely given an inkling of their original motivation. Many characters who appear later suddenly become important without being established properly, including Mariko’s arranged husband ,who is barely given a line before he is suddenly a part of the master plot. Other villains/allies/henchmen are also thrown in for no reason other than to further complicate the plot, or give Wolverine someone to fight; Hirouyuki Sanada does the best with a thankless role as Mariko’s father, and Will Yun Lee impresses slightly as Asian Hawkeye, though the film tells us many conflicting things about whether or not he is actually an ally or enemy throughout the course of the picture.

The film’s final act feels like a slight betrayal of the more reserved nature of The Wolverine, abandoning its trust in the crime-thriller atmosphere it sets up to create a huge, cartoony brawl in your everyday standard Superhero Movie Science Facility, complete with huge falls, literal cliffhangers, and a poorly-rendered CGI samurai that Logan has to fight. The fight has consequences to be sure, and I appreciated that – the film really puts Wolverine through the ringer – but it all just feels so unremarkable. To add insult to injury, the film’s addition of the seductive blonde Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) feels redundant and shoved in, as though the filmmakers got afraid of not having enough mutants in their cast to have fun mutant fights with.

All in all, however, despite its many faults, The Wolverine is still an enjoyable watch, if only for Jackman’s incredible performance and character work as Wolverine. All of the political intrigue and the chase seems like a way to showcase Wolverine as a character and pose questions of the curse of his immortality, his own issues with Jean, and the inability to find his place in the world. There are some really fun moments with him, especially paired with Yukio, and the change in setting and tone is something I greatly appreciate in a superhero film. It’s enough to push this into a mild like for me (especially the fun post-credits teaser at the end of the picture).

Clint’s Verdict: Liked It

Drinking Rules for The Wolverine:
1) Drink every time Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is injured or cut
2) Drink whenever a character explains a Japanese word or custom
3) Drink anytime Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) appears as a vision to Wolverine to remind him of his moral dilemmas
Finish Your Drink When:
Logan finally calls himself “The Wolverine.”

Only God Forgives / dir. Nicolas Winding Refn / Radius-TWC

NOnly God Forgivesicolas Winding Refn is, if nothing else, a wonderful visualist; he manages to create fantastic images and a great sense of mood in all his pictures. Drive was one of the best pictures of 2011 (and we have reviewed it on the podcast as well); a stylish crime thriller in the vein of Michael Mann, it showcased Refn’s ability to convey theme and symbol in artful ways while maintaining a coherent sense of pacing. With Only God Forgives, people who liked (or expected) Drive may find themselves a bit more confused; I know I did when I finally saw this picture. His latest film throws out the rulebook and makes a much more abstracted, theme- and image-driven piece than Drive, more akin to his Viking picture Valhalla Rising. The story, while obliquely told, is fairly straightforward – drug dealer/boxing club owner Julian (Ryan Gosling) is faced with the obligation by his mother (a mesmerizing Kristin Scott Thomas) to avenge his brother (Tom Burke) after he is killed by the father of the 16-year-old prostitute he raped and himself murdered. Meanwhile, he and his mother are chased and hunted by a mysterious police officer named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) who has a uniquely violent style of justice.

One of the things that was intriguing about Drive was that Ryan Gosling’s stoic, nearly wordless portrayal of the mysterious Driver was contextualized by the relative liveliness of the other characters in the film. By placing this strange blank slate in the midst of these colorful characters, Refn further accented the character’s lack of identity; he wanted to be a “real human being,” but simply could not find a way to escape who he really was. In Only God Forgives, virtually every character is Ryan Gosling in Drive – a blank slate. There are no ‘real human beings’ to be found here, and that is what can give many viewers a difficult time watching this film.

Where the film’s strengths lie, however, are in the images Refn provides. Bangkok is a neon-saturated hellscape of crime and pestilence, as lifeless people wander the streets in near silence looking for some way to feel alive. Since the characters are stripped of basic emotion and feeling, their symbolic nature is further emphasized. This is one of the most sexual and Oedipal movies I’ve ever seen; every character, Gosling included, is castrated in some literal or symbolic way. Hands are cut off, mothers rebuke their sons and compare their penis sizes unfavorably to their brother’s, mourning sons slice open their dead mother’s bodies and slide hands into their wombs, and so on. The only real constant is Chang, whose life consists of meting out justice as he sees fit, typically with a short sword he wields. His punishments for transgressions are typically torturous and fitting to the crime he perceives; he is unstoppable, like an angel of death and a freight train all rolled into one. The many scenes of him unwinding from his work by singing karaoke are interestingly off-beat, though perhaps they happen far too often.

That is, admittedly, part of why I didn’t love Only God Forgives, though I appreciated it. It was very much an unenjoyable watch for me; Gosling’s Julian is a pathetic, emasculated character who spends the entire time working tirelessly (and nearly wordlessly) for Mom’s approval, Chang’s scenes of torturous murder and revenge can get tiresome, and scenes and shots often linger or repeat far too long and often for my liking. The neon-tinged world of Bangkok is brilliantly realized and shot, but if you are not in the right mindset for this movie, it can get extremely boring to watch the millionth shot of Gosling’s hangdog expression covered in fuschsia neon light. I can appreciate the film’s aesthetic, themes and images while understanding it is very much a slog to watch. On the merits of those elements alone, I recommend at least giving OGF a single watch to see what you think of it. This is another ‘mild’ like for me – a major step down from Drive, and a real test of your patience if you are not in the mood for something really arthouse, but chock full of interesting images and moments that will stick with you after you see it.

Clint’s Verdict: Liked It

Drinking Rules for Only God Forgives:
1) Drink whenever you see shots of long hallways
2) Drink every time characters solemnly sing karaoke
3) Drink for instances of horrible, brutal violence
Finish Your Drink When:
Julian (Ryan Gosling) says, “You wanna fight?”

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About Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, you can find his other film work at Consequence of Sound (where he is a Senior Staff Writer), Crooked Marquee, IndieWire and UPROXX. He is also the co-host of Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast.

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