#78 - Compromisin', Enterprisin', Anything But Tranquilizin'

Dedicated To
Bea Arthur
1922 - 2009

Added 5/5/9

Welcome to another summer at Jahnke’s Electric Theatre! Yeah, I know. Technically it isn’t summer for another six weeks or so. At best, you probably won’t feel like it’s summer until you fire up the Memorial Day BBQ at the end of the month. But Hollywood has never let little things like calendar dates and solstices stand in the way of blockbuster season, so as far as we’re concerned out here in Lalawood, it’s summertime! Like it or lump it, rest of the world!

With all these big, splashy flicks hitting your local Octoplex in the next few months, the Electric Theatre will hopefully be returning to a weekly schedule. Even on a weekend with no promising wide releases (can’t say I’m all that enthused about sitting through another Transformers movie, for instance), I’ll try to get out there and dig up something for your viewing/reading pleasure. Let’s kick things off with the latest adventure of everybody’s favorite Canadian mutant.


X-Men Origins: Wolverine

The X-Men movie franchise has been surprisingly satisfying up to this point. Oddly though, despite the fact that I have more or less enjoyed some to all of each of the movies, I’ve never gone into one with particularly high expectations. Part of this, I suppose, is because the movies themselves don’t linger in the memory or demand multiple viewings. They’re entertaining enough while you’re watching them but they aren’t compelling enough to hold up once you’ve taken the ride the first time. I went into the latest entry (Sequel? Spinoff? Whatever.) with hopes suitably diminished. And even though I enjoyed Wolverine the least of any of the X-movies, I still got enough out of it that I’m glad I checked it out.

The first half of the movie is the weakest, with enough “uh-oh” moments to worry even the most forgiving fan. After a brief, rather silly prologue involving Boy Wolverine and his half-brother, Victor, we’re treated to an opening credits sequence following adult Logan and Victor (Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber) fighting in every war from the Civil War to Vietnam. Apparently their mutant healing powers extend to their hair as well, since they’ve kept the same ‘do for the entire century. At any rate, they’re soon recruited for a black ops team of mutant mercenaries by Colonel Stryker (a well-cast Danny Huston, sounding more like his father John with every movie). Logan quickly tires of the carnage and walks off the team, heading for a quiet life as a lumberjack in Canada. When his brother returns and kills his girlfriend, Logan agrees to let Stryker try an experimental procedure that gives him his adamantium claws and skeleton. And at this point, the movie finally gets its act together and becomes reasonably entertaining.

There are plenty of things wrong with Wolverine, most (but not all) of which are concentrated in that first clumsy half. Logan quits the team far too easily and since he doesn’t really do anything on the one and only mission we get to see, it’s never entirely clear why he was on the team in the first place. Dominic Monaghan and Ryan Reynolds appear so briefly as fellow mutants Bolt and Deadpool that you wonder why they’re in the movie at all, especially Monaghan. Most of the visual effects are pretty good but there’s at least one use of CGI toward the end that is both goofy-looking and utterly unnecessary (the same effect could have been accomplished by simply lighting the shot properly). And can we please call a moratorium on characters bellowing “NOOOOOOO!!!!” to the sky in anguish? That shot crossed the line into self-parody about 20 years ago, by my reckoning.

But the movie has its rewards with some nifty action sequences tucked into the second half. Jackman clearly enjoys the character of Wolverine and it’s nice to see him get the opportunity to shade it in a little bit. Schreiber isn’t the first guy I would have cast as Sabretooth but he ends up doing well with the role. Part of my enjoyment of the movie may also have something to do with the fact that characters like Gambit and Deadpool turned up after I stopped reading X-Men comics, so I have nothing invested in them and can’t say whether or not their portrayal here is faithful to the source. They work as characters in the movie, though, and in the end, that’s all that matters.

Nobody is going to suggest that X-Men Origins: Wolverine is the best entry in the series. Wolverine always worked better as a character with a mysterious past but Marvel Comics opened this Pandora’s box themselves, so you can’t complain about the movies wanting to follow suit. Perhaps the movie’s fatal flaw is that for at least half of its running time, you’re left wondering why this story needed to be told at all. A better movie would have incorporated the elements of Wolverine that do work into the spine of a backstory for a proper X-Men movie. Still, I can’t get too worked up about a movie that delivers the goods at least 50% of the time. In the end, the behind-the-scenes drama surrounding the internet leak of Wolverine is more interesting than the movie itself. The movie is hardly worth all the fuss. It’s neither good nor bad enough to warrant all this. (* * ½)


Grace Is Gone

John Cusack is a smart, solid, eminently likable actor who, through no fault of his own, seems to rarely be cast in a role outside his comfort zone. We’re used to seeing him as a sardonic, quick-witted, sometimes slightly shady guy. So it’s a real eye-opener to see him as paunchy, conservative Stan Philipps in the quietly moving 2007 drama Grace Is Gone. Stan is an ex-army man, medically discharged on account of his poor eyesight, working a soul-crushing job as a manager at a Home Depot-like store. His wife, Grace, still serves and has been deployed to Iraq, leaving Stan at home to raise their two daughters, a job he does not take too easily. When news comes that Grace has been killed in action, Stan shuts down completely. Unable to bring himself to tell his girls the bad news, he piles them into the car and takes them on a road trip to Enchanted Gardens, an amusement park in Florida.

As written and directed by James C. Strouse, Grace Is Gone is not a movie of big moments or cathartic breakthroughs. Rather, it’s a quiet, low-key movie that takes its tone from its lead character. Stan quite simply does not know how to deal with his two children and, although he never comes out and says so, clearly feels emasculated by the fact that his wife has gone to war instead of him. Cusack disappears into the role, a challenge for any actor given how reserved Stan is. Matching him is Shelan O’Keefe as his oldest daughter, Heidi. She is asked to grow up a lot during the course of the film and O’Keefe really shines in the role. Also good is Alessandro Nivola as Stan’s polar opposite brother. But the movie belongs to Cusack, stretching as an actor and finding great depth in a character unlike any he’s played before.

Grace Is Gone sneaks up on you, taking its time and staying with you long after the movie’s over. It’s surprisingly straightforward and un-manipulative, earning its emotions the hard way, by staying true to life. (* * *)

Thanks to Cheryl L. Fattman for this week’s TFTQ recommendation. Don’t forget, if you know about a hidden gem of a movie, drop a line to Treasure Hunter Jahnke and let the rest of us in on your secret!

Your pal,