X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE
Claws slash, fists smash and teeth gnash in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but will audiences bash the latest superhero saga primed to kick off another summer movie season? After all, once the initial excitement -- hey, it's one of Marvel's greatest superheroes in his very own motion picture! -- wears off, it's crystal clear that Wolverine doesn't measure up to the first two X-Men movies, the first two Spider-Man flicks or even last summer's Iron Man in terms of providing the dramatic weight and epic scope we've come to expect from our superhero sagas (I won't even bring up The Dark Knight, since comparisons might tend to reduce the competition to Elektra status). Having said that, it's also apparent that the movie isn't the disaster many speculated it would be, especially on the heels of bad Internet buzz and that infamous download that left FOX executives outfoxed (to date, the culprit has yet to be identified, much less apprehended). As expected, the picture's chief selling point is Hugh Jackman, essaying for the fourth time the role that made him a star. His Wolverine (real name Logan) isn't the borderline-psychotic antihero I recall from reading the X-Men comics of the late 1970s and early 1980s -- no superhero film franchise would be <I>that<P> bold -- but the actor's flippant attitude and easygoing wit nevertheless have made him ideal for the part. Yet ironically, while this origin story is supposed to reveal more about the character than ever before, it really only serves to harness Jackman's considerable talents: He's an excellent brooder, but brooding's about all that the movie requires him to do. Then again, he has reason to sport a sour disposition. The film begins with Logan as a small boy in mid-19th century Canada (yes, the long-living Wolverine has a bit of Highlander about him) and marches through time as we watch him and his equally indestructible brother Victor (Liev Schreiber) take part in various conflicts, including the Civil War, World War II and the Vietnam War (all of these tours of duty are encapsulated within the opening credits). It's during this last-named conflict that the siblings are recruited by a government suit named Stryker (Danny Huston) to become members of his elite fighting team comprised solely of mutants. The pair agree, but once Stryker proves to be a vicious man without morals, Logan leaves the outfit. Not so Victor, who has always been less scrupulous than his younger brother. The years pass, and Logan, now working as a lumberjack, is enjoying a quiet life with an attractive schoolteacher (Lynn Collins). But once Stryker shows up on his doorstep with the news that someone's bumping off mutants, Logan worries that his violent past will catch up with him. That it does, which in turn leads to the expected personal tragedies, swears of vengeance, and nonstop processions of FX-packed action sequences. Along the way, other familiar faces from the X-Universe pop up, including a teenage Scott Summers (aka Cyclops) and... well, we're not telling.
Hardly a lazy sequel, X-Men Origins: Wolverine contains a couple of nifty narrative surprises as well as some memorable tensions between its mutant players. Overall, though, it's hard to view this as an integral entry in the X-Men franchise. That's not to say it's as irrelevant as, say, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, but part of Wolverine's appeal has always been his aura of mystery, and an origin piece only works to strip him of that secrecy. Besides, the movie's occasional clumsiness in laying out the expository groundwork ends up batting against its own intentions (for example, the reason for the fabricated family dynamics in the opening scene is never explained), which makes the picture seem even more trifling.
As Victor Creed (later Sabretooth), Schreiber is believable as both Logan's brother and his tormentor, while Huston proves to be as fascistic a villain as Brian Cox was when he tackled the role of Stryker in X2. Ryan Reynolds adds some necessary sparkle as the wisecracking Deadpool, and I just wish he had been handed the more sizable role of Gambit instead (as the latter, mediocre Taylor Kitsch lives up to his surname). Other actors express what's required of them -- it's often rage or regret, although mostly it's just frozen stares at the blue-screen areas where the special effects were inserted at a later time.
GHOSTS OF GIRLFRIENDS PAST
There's no shortage of classic lines in Woody Allen movies, but one of my favorites can be found in 1975's Love and Death. In typical Woody fashion, his character wonders about the existence of God. "If I could just see one miracle," he implores. "Like a burning bush, or the seas part. Or my Uncle Sasha pick up the check." Or Matthew McConaughey star in a watchable romantic comedy, I hasten to add. Truth be told, America's movie-star version of a frat boy has only headlined about a half-dozen rom-coms, but it certainly <I>feels<P> as if he's been in so many, many more. Yet I'd be hard-pressed to match the titles with the plot keywords with the shapely co-stars. Was it Penelope Cruz in the desert in Sahara? Or Kate Hudson on the ocean in Fool's Gold? Or Sarah Jessica Parker as the interventionist in Failure to Launch? Or Professor Plum with the lead pipe in the conservatory? At any rate, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past has more to offer than McConaughey's past rom-com dalliances. To be sure, it's still formulaic, disposable nonsense, but at least it benefits from a stellar supporting cast to prop up its leading player and a reliable source -- Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol -- to steer it in the right direction. McConaughey stars as Connor Mead, a wildly successful fashion photographer who goes through women the way viewers of Titanic went through tissues. A two-week affair for him would be like a lifelong marriage commitment for most others; his relationships usually only last as long as it takes to have the women fall in love with him (some of his "courtships" have lasted mere seconds). Connor doesn't believe in love, let alone marriage, which means he's not too thrilled that his baby brother Paul (Breckin Meyer) is getting hitched -- to the high-strung daughter (Lacey Chabert) of a former military man (Robert Forster), no less. Connor's boorish behavior threatens to ruin the wedding weekend during which all the principals have gathered in one house; this party includes Jenny (Jennifer Garner), one of Connor's exes -- but more special than any of them given that they've known each other all their lives. Paul and Jenny are the only two who hold out hope that Connor can be redeemed, and that salvation arrives in the form of Connor's late Uncle Wayne (Michael Douglas), the consummate ladies' man who has returned from the grave to show Connor that there's much more to life than just wooing the women. To prove his point, he summons the ghosts of females past, present and future, all of whom work hard to show Connor the error of his caddish ways. A more versatile actor would have sold this material more efficiently than McConaughey; as it stands, his tanned, lounge-lizard routine allows his character to remain such an unrepentant, misogynistic creep for such a good chunk of the running time that almost all sympathy has been lost for this character by the time he finally begins to see the light. Luckily, Garner is a step (or 10) up from such vapid co-stars as Hudson and Jennifer Lopez, and she works hard to coax out his rakish charm. She succeeds more often than not, meaning a small measure of genuine warmth enters the frame during the latter portion of the film. While she (and Meyer) provide the emotion, others pick up McConaughey's slack by providing the laughs -- especially indispensable are Forster and Douglas, both amusing as dissimilar examples of aging, curdled machismo. It's fortunate director Mark Waters thought to surround his pretty-boy star with so much talent -- without their combined efforts, this wouldn' t stand a ghost of a chance when it comes to offering any semblance of entertainment.