Tag Archives: Hugh Jackman

Part Man, Part Monkey

Missing Link

by George Wolf

Like its titular character, Missing Link is a bit of a mixed breed. An animated family adventure, its humor is more dry than zany, with a stellar voice cast and an often sophisticated air to its snappy dialog that is centered around a lonely Sasquatch.

And it looks freaking gorgeous.

Hugh Jackman brings charming life to Sir Lionel Frost, an ambitious, self-centered 1800s explorer on the trail of any big discovery that can get him admitted to the prestigious adventurer’s club led by the aggressively pompous Lord Piggot-Dunceb (Stephen Fry).

A hot tip leads Frost to a face-to-face with the fabled missing link between man and monkey who, as it turns out, provided that hot tip.

See, “Mr. Link” (an endearing Zach Galifianakis) is lonely, and figures Sir Lionel is just the guide savvy enough to lead him to his people, the equally urban-legendary Yeti tribe of Shangri-La.

So our heroes set off across the globe, enlisting the help of Frost’s old paramour Adelina (Zoe Saldana) while they try to outwit Stenk (a perfectly villainous Timothy Olyphant), the assassin sent to stop them.

This is the latest animation wonder from Laika studios, and the follow-up to 2016’s amazing Kubo and the Two Strings. Even if Mr. Link’s adventure wasn’t as engaging as it is, the film would be worthy on visuals alone, as you’ve barely digested one “wow” moment when another is there to blow your hair back.

From the texture of Frost’s gloves to the ripples in a puddle, from a slow dissolve into a binocular lens to a wide, eye-popping set piece on an ice bridge and beyond, Missing Link serves up a hearty feast of cutting-edge stop motion technology.

And while the pace may leave the youngest viewers a tad restless, writer/director Chris Butler (Laika’s ParaNorman) crafts a heartwarming, witty and intelligent tale anchored in the layered relationship of Frost and Link.

Jackman and Galifianakis make them a wonderfully odd couple, and play off the indelible supporters around them (including a gloriously droll Emma Thompson) to keep all the globe-trotting character driven, leaving just enough room for the messages about inclusion and progress to be subtly effective.

The result is a film that’s confident but unassuming, fun without being silly, and satisfying from nearly every angle.

 

The Unchosen One

The Front Runner

by George Wolf

The Front Runner closes with Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) dropping out of the 1988 Presidential race with a dire warning: Beware the day we elect leaders we deserve.

The film’s previous 110 minutes operate on the premise that day has come, pinpointing Hart’s very public fall from grace as the three watershed weeks that made it possible.

Hart, the Colorado senator who had been a surprise runner up to Walter Mondale for the 1984 Democratic nomination, emerged four years later as the assumed nominee and betting favorite to be the next President. But then, angered by questions about his marriage, Hart famously challenged the press to “put a tail on me, you’ll be bored.”

So they did, and they weren’t.

There was that yacht named Monkey Business (I swear, kids, look it up), the affair with Donna Rice, and damaging photos with another not Mrs. Hart. And before you could say “Dukakis” without laughing, we got President George H.W. Bush and a journalistic landscape that’s never been the same.

That’s more than enough meat for director Jason Reitman to chew on, and he gamely tries to balance all the ethical questions that remain startlingly vibrant today.

Should serious journalism embrace tabloid fodder? Are politicians entitled to private lives? Whose responsibility is it to hold powerful men accountable for their treatment of women?

Reitman, who also helped screenwriter Matt Bai adapt his own best seller All the Truth is Out, taps back into much of the groove that made his Thank You for Smoking such a mischievous treat.

The dialogue is fast and smart, often evoking a more easily digestible Aaron Sorkin. Salient points are made and then rebutted through the precise timing and intricate blocking of an outstanding ensemble (including greats such as J.K. Simmons, Vera Farmiga and Alfred Molina) that serves up indelible characters with relative ease.

Jackman is flat out terrific as the natural-born politician (“his hair alone is worth 6 points, 4 if it’s windy”) who could not, and would not, accept that the press were no longer giving men like him free passes.

Hart used his fame when it suited him and railed against its trappings when it didn’t. Jackman, in a thoroughly realized performance, is able to unveil this hypocrisy subtly enough to keep the authenticity of Hart’s political convictions uninjured.

The attention to narrative ebb and flow is detailed, becoming an absorbing dive into a historical clash of idealism, self-interest, and morality that seems almost quaint today. But strangely, it finds a depth that feels intentionally cautious, and the film never pounds a fist toward any viewpoint of its own.

Is that layup designed to encourage our own conclusions?

Maybe.

But Hart’s warning closes the film for a reason, and The Front Runner, much like the man himself, might have cut even deeper with more courage alongside those convictions.

The Screening Room: A Stocking Full of New Movies

Helping you separate naughty from nice with this weekend’s movie options, The Screening Room looks at Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Pitch Perfect 3, Downsizing, Darkest Hour, The Greatest Showman as well as your new options in home entertainment. Join us!

Listen to the full podcast HERE.

Big Top PT

The Greatest Showman

by Hope Madden

In so many ways, The Greatest Showman is a wildly inappropriate vision of the life of PT Barnum—a politician, spokesman for temperance, abolitionist and, above all things, an outsized promoter and self-promoter. He’d been all these things for decades before he dipped his toe into the circus industry, but what fun is that story?

Let’s rewrite. We need romance, lessons, heartwarming children and resolvable, tidy drama. Barnum as a tot, working dirty-faced and split-shoed besides his father, tailoring for Dickensian clients and wages. But he has dreams. Big dreams.

Yes, the film simplifies the actual story of Barnum’s life to its barest lessons-to-be-learned minimum. The oversimplification spills into the core conflict (of many) in the man’s actual history: his presentation and monetization of “human curiosities.”

But maybe that’s where this movie is closest to the truth. It is selling you an enjoyable time, spinning your head with breathless setpieces, color, glamour, surprise, happiness. Sleight of hand. And at the same time selling the tale that, no matter how Barnum may have used these people for his own profit, this is really a story of empowerment.

“Some critics might have even called this show a celebration of humanity,” says Barnum’s harshest critic, New York Herald writer James Gordon Bennett.

As genuinely if superficially enjoyable as The Greatest Showman is, there is something unseemly in embracing so tidy a view.

Still, Hugh Jackman—maybe the most charismatic performer in modern film—is in great voice in yet another big, big musical. His earnest likeability and exuberance convince you to disregard your instincts on this film just as surely as his Barnum uses the same tactics to lure uncertain outcasts out of the shadows and onto the stage.

Michelle Williams fares less well as Barnum’s wife Charity, saddled as she is with the bottomless devotion and forgiveness that is the mark of the underwritten spouse character. Rebecca Ferguson mines for emotional clarity in a small role and a magnetic Keala Settle is a natural fit for the heart and soul of Barnum’s “curiosities.”

Director Michael Gracey, working from a script by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon, crafts a Moulin Rouge-esque vision that transports you, which is appropriate when tackling the life of PT Barnum.

It also works to convince you that all this—the spotlight, the manipulation, the exploitation, the laughter and the admiration—was the best possible thing for Barnum’s performers.

Barnum might have liked that spin, too, but maybe that’s the problem.

I Hurt Myself Today

Logan

by Hope Madden

At the close of X-Men: Days of Future Past, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) gazes with befuddled joy at his beloved colleagues (one more beloved than others), his own ugly history and the dire fate of his breed now expunged. Remember?

Expect nothing so precious from James Mangold or Logan.

Set just a handful of years into the future, the film sees the most haunted of the X-Men – a guy around 200 years old by now – really beginning to show some wear and tear. Limping, scarred, drunk and mean, Logan no longer heals quite the way he used to. His beard is grey, his hero days long gone.

The last mutant was born more than 25 years ago. Nowadays, Logan drives a limo and uses the cash to grab dementia meds he brings across the border to his old father figure, Charles Xavier.

Bloody and bleak, tossing F-bombs and the franchise’s first flash of nudity, Logan is not like the other X-Men.

Or is he? A little girl claws her way into his life, and suddenly it’s evil scientists, armed goons and genetically enhanced villains all over again.

The villains won’t leave an impression, but the film will.

Logan relies on themes of redemption – a superhero’s favorite. Mangold pulls ideas from Children of Men and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, but his film reminds me more of The Girl with All the Gifts. (If you haven’t seen it, you should.)

The point? The children are our future and Logan’s real battle has always been with himself. Almost literally, in this case.

He fights others, too, don’t fret. Indeed, you will see those claws tear into more flesh in this film than in all previous efforts combined. The violence in Logan is more unhinged, bloody and satisfying, too.

Even more startling is the behavior of Logan’s tiny feral beast, Laura (Dafne Keen). Oh, this movie has a body count – at least two of them headless.

It has an emotional center as well – which is not to say Logan works on all fronts. It’s lacking as the family drama it flirts with becoming, and can’t hold its own as a road movie, either. The narrative can’t find momentum.

But as an opportunity for Hugh Jackman to put his most iconic character to bed, it’s sometimes amazing.

Has He Landed Yet?

Eddie the Eagle

by Hope Madden

If you are a sucker for plucky underdog stories, has Eddie the Eagle got a movie for you! Based very loosely on the story of British Olympic ski jumper Michael “Eddie the Eagle” Edwards, director Dexter Fletcher’s film is far more interested in feeling good than digging in.

Taron Egerton (Kingsmen) plays Eddie with as much charm as the screen can hold. The performance marks a serious physical transformation for the actor, but it’s the endearing characterization that keeps the film afloat.

As a wee, myopic lad back in blue collar Cheltenham, UK, routinely heads out the door to find a bus and follow his dreams of becoming an Olympian, it’s hard not to immediately fall for this sweetly tenacious character. He never loses that dream as he grows up, finding more realistic pathways toward his goals – he was actually among the best speed skiers in England. But obstacle upon obstacle eventually redirect him to ski jumping, regardless of the fact that he’s never ski jumped before, or that England had no ski jumping team.

The facts of Edwards’s journey toward the 1988 games in Calgary are blurred and blended in favor of an 80’s style comedy, and it’s hard not to think that a more honest adaptation of his truly unique road to becoming an Olympian might have made for a more interesting film. Instead, he goes to Germany, finds a begrudging mentor in a failed Olympic hopeful with a bad attitude and a drinking problem (Hugh Jackman), and eventually charms the world.

The film is endlessly sweet with a focus, unlike other sports biopics, not on competition and success, but on the struggle and the dream. Unfortunately, the frothy confection does more to emphasize something quaint rather than something heroic – and Edwards’s commitment to his goal truly was heroic.

It’s a soft hearted and well-meaning film, just as cliché-riddled as any other sports flick, but somehow the gentle underdog at the center of it all remains as easy to root for today as he was in ’88.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

RoboCop Meets Short Circuit

Chappie

by Hope Madden

In what amounts to RoboCop meets Short Circuit, Neill Blomkamp’s latest, Chappie, celebrates the outsider.

Chappie is the first sentient robot, his consciousness a program crafted by the engineer behind Johannesburg’s “scout” police force. The scout robots – a simple form of artificial intelligence assisting the Jo’burg po po – have all but eliminated urban crime.

Two problems. 1) A handful of the city’s remaining thugs want one to help them pull a heist, and 2) a weirdly coiffured rival engineer (Hugh Jackman) believes AI is an abomination and thinks his own robot – controlled by a human brain – is superior.

Imagine how pissed he gets when he finds that his rival Deon (Dev Patel – everywhere this weekend) has taken the body for one of his scouts and given it life.

Blomkamp’s third film proves that he is kind of entrenched in a single story: the corrupt wealthy versus the damaged poor with an innocent outsider hero to bring it all together. But in Blomkamp’s hands, the story always feels wildly, deeply his own. The fact that he tells it through richly imagined characters doesn’t hurt.

Chappie tells this tale with more heart and enthusiasm than the director’s last effort, the middling Elysium, but it lacks the originality (obviously) and much of the tension of his impressive debut effort, District 9.

His film suffers from an abundance of sentimentality and attention-seeking. Jackman’s over-the-top aggression and bizarre costuming are almost overshadowed by the often fascinating (though sometimes cloying) oddity that is the duo of Nija and Yo-Landi Visser (South African rappers cast as Chappi’s thug-life parents).

Blomkamp favorite Sharlto Copley performs admirably as the maturing robot-child Chappie, though you can’t help but feel abused by the manipulative child-mind/adult-world theme.

Blomkamp, who also wrote the screenplay with District 9 collaborator (and wife) Terri Tatchell, finds fertile ground in the images of Johannesburg’s criminal population, and when he can keep the sentimentality in check he does a nice job of balancing drama, comedy and action.

His real aim – as is usually the case with decent SciFi – is social commentary. The consequences he leaves unexplored in his film are so big and complex they are often the entire storyline of other films, but Blomkamp has his muse to follow. Chappie is true to his creator’s intention, and though it’s certainly a flawed and limited image, the experiment is not a complete failure.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

 

 

 

Make Sure You’re Prepared

 

by George Wolf

 

Pre-game warmups aren’t usually part of the moviegoing experience, but Prisoners may require a little preparation.

Quite simply, it will wear you out.

Director Denis Villeneuve and writer Aaron Guzikowski have crafted a relentlessly intense, utterly engrossing mystery/thriller that will bludgeon your nerves, tease your sensibilities and leave your morals in disarray.

Hugh Jackman is unbelievably great as a father desperate for answers after his daughter, and his neighbor’s daughter, are abducted on Thanksgiving Day. The assigned detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) believes a troubled local man (Paul Dano) is to blame, but can’t find the evidence to hold him. Jackman’s character, overcome with rage, takes matters into his own hands.

That’s all the info you need, but just a tiny fraction of the complex chain of events set in motion by the crime. Guzikowski, who adapted the Contraband screenplay last year, delivers a twisting, intelligent script that lulls you with the familiarity of the premise all the while it’s leading you places you may not want to go.

Villeneuve, best known for writing and directing the Oscar-nominated Incendies three years ago, makes a stunning English language debut that succeeds on many levels. If a thriller was all it was, it would be a good one, relying on a substance that recalls years of Hollywood films from Death Wish to Gone Baby Gone.

Prisoners transcends the genre in the way it forces its audience to face the same moral ambiguities the characters are up against. The stupendous cast, which also includes greats such as Terence Howard, Viola Davis and Melissa Leo, fills each character with gritty realism, allowing actions that seem justified in one set of circumstances to be easily called into question.  As surprises mount,  the film lands solid blows to perceptions of torture, fear-mongering, religious fanaticism, and even basic parenting.

Sound like a lot? It is, and the film earns every minute of its two and a half hour running time. It is a dark, cathartic journey that is not for the squeamish, and the film’s length only serves to reinforce the hell these people are going through.  They want it to end, and so do you, but only because the film has hooked you so deeply.

You’ll need to pay attention and listen hard, and though you probably won’t figure things out early, the clues are all there in front of you. Prisoners is a breathtaking ride that rewards the effort it demands, ultimately providing a satisfying payoff, capped by an unforgettable final scene that may very well find its way into your dreams.

 

 

Verdict-4-0-Stars

 

 

 

Sideburns and Samurai

The Wolverine

by Hope Madden

The Wolverine seems invulnerable, but on the inside, he’s a heartbroken, wounded mess. Doesn’t that make him dreamy?

Ever since he had to go and kill Jean – the psychotic, clairvoyant killing machine and love of his life – he hasn’t been the same. He just exists, just goes on, pointlessly … kind of like this movie.

The latest in the X-Men franchise is certainly a let down from 2011’s exceptionally fun and clever X-Men: First Class. This episode finds Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) holed up in a cave, living the life of a semi-boozy hermit, befriended, or at least tolerated, by a neighboring grizzly. But he’s lured out of hermitage by some dangerously incompetent hunters and a sword-wielding young woman with a request from Logan’s past.

Come to Tokyo, she says. I’ll have you home tomorrow, she says.

Wolverine is quickly sucked into yakuza/ninja/samurai/mutant/romantic intrigue.

In Japan we’re treated to too  much sentiment, not enough action, and not nearly enough opportunity for Jackman to break out of Logan’s morose romanticism and crack a few jokes. Director James Mangold’s preoccupied with honor, courage and love – solid enough staples for a samurai-tinged action film, but a humorless Wolverine is just no fun at all.

The film takes a comic book hero, casts him as a routine vampire cliché (the tragic-romantic immortal who wishes to be human), then paints everything with a mixture of several eras of Japanese crime cinema. But vampires and samurai tales require blood, and lots of it. Comic book movies – even when the hero slashes through everything with metal claws – are bloodless. The combination just doesn’t work.

Mangold continues to take the X-Men path less traveled by supplying so very few mutants. One common weakness of late-franchise superhero flicks is that they throw dozens of villains at you in the hopes of drawing your attention away from script weaknesses. Mangold has the bravery to avoid this gimmick, supplying only on mutant villain, Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova – whose name is exponentially more interesting than her character).

The result? We can see how weak his script is.

The Wolverine does boast some cool action sequences – especially that bit on top of the train – and Jackman has more than enough talent and brawn to keep the movie interesting. But mostly the film dives into Logan’s internal scarring and seeks to help him appreciate his immortality and his purpose. Maybe next he can rediscover his sense of humor.

Verdict-2-5-Stars