Action choices, some with humor
Owls Head — The Wolverine (Fox, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 126 min.). Inspired by the Marvel comic book arc that brought The Wolverine to Japan, this action-packed film also shows a more reflective Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) as he is offered a chance to have his special healing powers removed. The offer is made by a dying Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi), whose life Logan had saved during World War II.
It is a dream flashback to that incident that opens the film in striking fashion. At the time, Logan was a prisoner down in a well, when he hears the planes coming that drop the atomic bomb on Nagasaki. The images are striking, and a bit terrifying, even if this is only a movie. Also part of the dream is former love Jean Grey (Famke Janssen, who pops up several times in the film), whom he had to kill in “X-Men: The Last Stand). Emerging from the dream, Logan, who has been hiding out in the wilderness, soon decides to deal some justice to some hunters who mistreated a bear. However, he is interrupted when Yukio (Rila Fukushima), Yashida’s adopted granddaughter, approaches him and says Yashida would like to see Logan before he dies. Once in Japan, though, things get complicated. First, Yashida wants to take away Logan’s healing powers -- obviously so they can prolong his own life --and second, he has changed his will to leave his valuable corporation to his granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto).
This makes Mariko a target of both the Yakuza (Japanese mob) and corporate in-fighting, led by her father Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada), whose partner-in-crime is Noburo Mori (Brian Tee), the Minister of Justice and Mariko’s fiancé. There is a huge attack and attempted abduction of Mariko at her grandfather’s funeral by the Yakuza. This is really the only point on which I have a problem with director James Mangold (“Knight and Day”) work here. Some of this fight sequence is hard to follow as it is too chaotic and filmed too close to the action. Much better is the spectacular fight sequence between Logan and two of the Yakuza atop a speeding bullet train; it involves a lot of strategic jumping and Logan’s adamantium claws come in handy. Logan and Mariko finally escape to her seaside home in Nagasaki, where they fall in love. However, she is abducted, forcing Logan to go after her. In this final battle, an adamantium samurai mecha (robot) is revealed. Oh yes, Yashida’s doctor turns out to be a mutant called Viper, who has worked on weakening Logan, even though Logan had declined Yashida’s offer to make him mortal.
The Blu-ray sound and picture are excellent, but the extras on this version are weak, limited to a brief alternate ending; a set tour for the upcoming “X-Men: Days of Future Past” film; and “The Path of a Ronin,” (53:44), an exploration of the samurai-ninja aspect of the story, including its roots in the actual Marvel comic books. The latter has the requisite interviews with the principal cast and crew along with many clips from the film and some behind-the-scenes footage. One needs to buy the package with the 3D Blu-ray in order to get an extended cut of the film (12 min. longer, 28 minutes of extra behind-the-scenes looks) that comes with audio commentary by the director. Grade: film 3.25 stars; extras 2.75 stars
Also available is The Wolverine original motion picture soundtrack on Sony Classical CD, with the score by Marco Beltrami. This is one film where the score is not dominant.
Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it
Man of Steel (Warner, 2 Blu-ray or standard DVDs, PG-13, 143 min.). Zack Snyder directs this reboot of the film version of Superman, which is a bit controversial due to the fact that Superman (Henry Cavell, who is fine in the role) actually kills someone. It also shows in flashbacks, Clark Kent’s growing up in rural Kansas and encountering some of his powers for the first time. However, his Earth father (Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent) wants Clark to conceal his powers -- even to the point of not saving Jonathan’s own life. The main theme of the film is how mankind will react on learning there is an alien with super powers among us.
The film literally opens with Kal-El’s birth, as Krypton’s core is collapsing due to mismanagement of the ecosystem. In this extended Krypton segment (19 min.), General Zod (Michael Shannon) tries to take over the ruling council by force, and we see Superman’s father, Jor-El Russell Crowe) as more of an action hero than he has ever been before portrayed. Jor-el steals the Codex (it contains the matrix needed to produce future Kryptonians; Kal-El’s was the first natural birth in centuries) and puts it in the rocket with Kal-El, before sending it off to Earth. The film then jumps ahead about 33 years (this is where it gets a bit spooky, as the whole Superman thing takes on Jesus Christ overtones, including the age when first performing public “miracles”) and Clark is working on a boat, when he needs to save some men on an oil rig that is collapsing. It is when he is floating in the water afterwards that we see scenes form his youth -- the day his powers developed in school and the bus incident, after which he learns he is an alien.
Amy Adams plays report Lois Lane, who is present when Clark finds a space ship that has been on Earth more than 18,000 years. The Superman suit? That is given to Clark by Jor-El’s consciousness. Good thing too, as Zod and his gang arrive, having finally tracked Kal-El down. In the film’s final hour, there are two extensive battles between Superman and Zod’s army. Throwing people around who barely can be hurt soon becomes repetitive, but the film does faithfully show what the impact of such fighting would be. In the first battle, they literally destroy Smallville, Clark’s boyhood hometown. Later, it is a large swath of Metropolis that is destroyed.
Blu-ray extras on the main disc include a look at the film’s remained versions of the characters (25 min.); a look at the actors’ physical training (26 min.); a look at the destruction of Krypton, hosted by Dylan Sprayberry, who plays the teenaged Clark (6:42); a 2-minute animated short; and a look at New Zealand and The Hobbit films (6:35). On the second, bonus disc the film is again presented, only this time with some 40 minutes of interstitial interviews and background features included; and a 17-minute look at the planet Krypton, as if it actually existed. Grade: film 3 stars; extras 3.5 stars
After Earth (Sony, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 100 min.). This is a bit of a bounce-back for co-writer/director M. Night Shyamalan, in that the film is not horrible. Will Smith, who wrote the original story, plays Gen. Cypher Raige, the legendary prime commander who learned how to defeat the Ursas predators that were created by the aliens who invaded the Earth a thousand years ago. The process is called “ghosting,” suppressing one’s fear, which is what the Ursas are attracted to. Oh yes, Earth defeated the invaders, but lost the planet at the same time and have relocated to Nova Prime. Smith’s son, Jaden Smith, plays his son, Kitai, age 13, in the film. Kitai feels no love from his father, especially as he was present when an Ursa killed his sister years ago.
Gen. Raige is nearing retirement and his wife suggests he take Kitai oh his last mission, so they can bond. Kitai recently failed to get promoted to a Ranger. However, the spaceship encounters asteroids and is damaged. Warping away to safety, they end up at quarantined Earth. When the ship crashes, it breaks in two, the two sections 100 kilometers apart. As the elder Raige’s legs are badly broken, Kitai, the only other survivor, has to travel to the other half of the ship to get a working rescue beacon. Not only has everything on Earth evolved to kill humans, but there also was an Ursa in the cargo hold that has escaped.
The film looks fine, but the plotting seems underdeveloped. Bonus features include a look at Jaden and Will Smith on and off screen (8:51); a look at the locations in Costa Rica, California and Utah that were used in the film (5:22); behind-the-scenes looks (5:25); and the winning video entry in a how to save the planet contest. Blu-ray extras add an alternate opening; a 12-minute look at building the future world; pre-visualization (5:50); and the use of animatics (8:39). Grade: film 2.5 stars; extras 2.75 stars
2 Guns (Universal Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 109 min.). If you like humor with your mayhem, this film is definitely for you. Based on the graphic novel by Steven Grant, it stars Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg as partners in crime -- a bank robbery that nets $43.125 million instead of the $3 million they were expecting -- when both are undercover, unbeknownst to each other.
Washington plays DEA Agent Bobby Trench, who has trying to bring down Mexican drug lord Lil Toro for three years. Wahlberg plays U.S. Navy intelligence officer Michael “Stig” Stigman, who is under orders of Commander Quince (James Marsden), although I’m not sure I see why the Navy should be concerned about drug trafficking. Neither knows the other is undercover; each believes the other is the two-bit crook they claim to be. Stig comes up with the plan to rob the bank of drug dealer Papi Greco’s (Edward James Olmos) cash, after the pair’s drug buy sting fails because Greco does not have cocaine to exchange for Bobby’s supply of passports and because Greco has had Lil Toro killed. The excess cash they come up triggers a whole series of double- and triple-crosses, and the two are soon the most wanted men along the Mexican border. There is good chemistry between the two leads -- love their fun chase and fight sequence that helps them decide to work together -- and Wahlberg also starred in director Baltazar Kormakur’s “Contraband” (another action picture with a few plot holes). There is a strong supporting cast, including the aforementioned Olmos and Marsden, plus Bill Paxton as the initially mysterious Earl, who claims the stolen money is his. (I also like the song “Are You Ready For Me” by The Unknown that plays during the closing credits.
Extras include eight deleted and extended scenes (11:50), including when Greco tells Bobby he knows he is with the DEA; a four-part making-of feature (30:18); and audio commentary by Kormakur and producer Adam Siegel. Grade: film 3.25 stars; extras 3 stars
Red 2 (Summit, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 116 min.). Even more fun is this second film, again based on a graphic novel, that brings a bunch of aging former agents out of retirement. This time, it is to recover a nuclear device hidden within the Kremlin in the heart of Moscow. A large part of the film is ex-CIA Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) being forced to take his girlfriend (Mary-Louise Parker as Sarah Ross) along of the mission, even though he would rather keep her safe. Of course, she ultimately proves she can handle a lot.
The film opens with Frank and Sarah shopping at Costco. There, his former partner Marvin (John Malkovich) approaches Frank to sell him on joining the mission. Shortly thereafter, Marvin’s car is blown up and there is the funny bit of Frank poking Marvin’s body with a large pin at his funeral to prove he is not faking. Among the many people trying to stop Frank and crew is Gordon (Neal McDonough) and there is a fun action bit with Frank wiping out Gordon’s men in an office records room. After that failure, Gordon hires Han Cho Bail (Byung-hun Lee) to kill Frank. Meanwhile, England’s MI6 hires Victoria (a returning Helen Mirren) to kill Frank. To accomplish their mission, Frank’s gang must first break Bailey (Anthony Hopkins, wonderfully playing mad), the “rock star of mass killing,” from the psychiatric lockdown he has been in for decades. Also enjoyable is a fun traffic chase sequence in Paris, as Sarah tries to out drive Frank’s former lover Katja (Catherine Zeta-Jones) in capturing The Frog (David Thewlis). There is some innovative fighting as well, as Han rips off the convenience store’s freezer door he is handcuffed to and uses it as a weapon.
Extras are slight: four deleted scenes (4:27; two actually are alternate scenes); a gag reel (4:24); and a group of brief features (34:41) that look at the actors, stunts and weapons used. Grade: film3.5 stars; extras 2.5 stars
The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (Sony, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 130 min.). Based on the first book of Cassandra Clare’s bestselling series (now five volumes, plus a prequel trilogy), this is an attempt to capture the tween “Twilight” audience. On the whole, it is watchable, but not great. How can one be down on any film, though, that says composer Johan Sebastian Bach was a demon hunter? The breakout performance here is by Jamie Campbell Bower as Jace of the striking looks and hair.
Lily Collins plays Clary Fray, a teenager whose mother (Lena Headey) has forgotten to tell her that she is of a race of demon hunters. Clary is a bit disturbed that she keeps drawing the same symbol and seeing it everywhere, from in her coffee foam to a sign outside a nightclub, where she and her best friend Simon (Robert Sheehan) are let in despite being underage. Inside the club, she witnesses a murder, only she is the only one to notice it. The killer later is revealed to be Jace, a Shadowhunter, who soon helps Clary, after her mother is abducted and/or killed by Valentine’s (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, pre-TV’s “Dracula”) “men.” They actually are demons, as demons can possess any living creature. Jace then takes her to return to The Institute, where she and Simon learn of her family's connection to the missing Mortal Cup, one of the Mortal Instruments that help in the fight against demons. The Mortal Cup can turn humans (or mundane, as they are called by the hunters) into Shadowhunters. The Institute is run by Hodge (Jared Harris), who proves to have his own hidden agenda.
The film is a bit hard on logic -- werewolves and vampires are even thrown in -- and borrows a bit too much from the initial “Star Wars” trilogy when it comes to how people are actually related. That said, I was not bored by it. Extras include six deleted scenes (4:44, most of which involve Simon); an interactive supplement that offers a wide range of characters to explore, complete with text bios and photo galleries, along with a few audio excerpts; a look at casting the main roles (6:39) and the leads discussing their roles (4:24); a discussion of how the actors view the story and adapting the book for film (8:35); a look at the practical and digital effects used to create some of the creatures (4:49); and a look at putting together the action sequences (4:36). Grade: film and extras 2.5 stars
Also available is The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones original motion picture soundtrack (Republic CD), with new songs by AFI, Ariana Grande and Nathan Sykes of The Wanted, Bassnectar, Colbie Caillat, Demi Lovato, Jessie J and Zeld.
The Hunters (Arc, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG, 89 min.). Call this “Raiders of the Lost Ark” light, but again it is watchable, helped by Robbie Amell of TV’s “The Tomorrow People” in one of the lead roles. There also is an interesting premise that many fairy tales are based on truth and certain objects, such as the mirror from Snow White in this case, actually exist and have power.
Amell plays Paxton Flynn, a young 20-something, who is preparing to sail solo around the world. He has a younger brother (Keenan Tracey as Tripp Flynn), who suddenly shows up at home from boarding school. In the prologue, we see their parents, including mom Jordyn (Michelle Forbes) in action as archeologists who steal priceless objects. We eventually learn they are doing this for the greater good; however, this time their effort is thwarted by Mai (Kina Clavell), who actually is working for Mason Fuller (Victor Garber), a long-time friend of the Flynns. A former romantic interest of Paxton’s (Alexa Vega as Dylan Savini) shows up and explains to the boys that their parents are hunters. It turns out, Fuller is an ex-hunter, who is after the four missing shards from the broken mirror of the fairy tale, a mirror that can grant the viewer’s deepest wish.
Tripp is a bit of an electronic genius and has turned his cell phone into a devise that can show the layout of Fuller’s castle, yet, unbelievably, neither he nor his brother ever realized there was a hidden room full of artifacts in their house. Once on the case, the brothers and Dylan too easily find the locations of the remaining three shards. The film flows easily enough and promises more to come in the behind-the-scenes feature (10:18). The DVD currently is exclusive at Wal-Mart and will be in general release Jan. 7. Grade: film 2.5 stars; extra 2 stars
White House Down (Sony, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 131 min.). It was a rough year for the White house on film, as terrorists take it over and it pretty much gets destroyed in both this film and the similar “Olympus Has Fallen.” “Olympus” had a bit more gravitas, but I actually like this film better, with the president (Jamie Foxx as James Sawyer) more in on the action. Channing Tatum plays Capitol policeman John Cale, who just happens to be taking a tour of the White House with his daughter (a strong performance by Joey King as Emily, who takes some key actions) when the mayhem begins. The irony is an ex-lover of Cale’s (Maggie Gyllenhaal) has just turned down Cale’s bid to join the Secret Service. It turns out the terrorists actually are led by Martin Walker (James Wood), the retiring head of the Secret Service, who is still grieving over the loss of his son in a mission in the Mideast. The director is Roland Emmerich, who previously destroyed the White House in “Independence Day.” Blu-ray extras include 13 short featurettes that look at various aspects of the film and a gag reel. Grade: film and extras 3 stars
Boston Red Sox 2013 World Series Collector’s Edition (Lionsgate, 8 Blu-ray or standard DVDs, NR, 19 hours 8 min.). This answers my question in the last column as this set contains all six games from the 2013 World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, as well as the complete sixth game of the American League Championship Series against the Detroit Tigers, in their entirety. A real treat is the audio options include TV, home radio call, away radio call and Spanish-language broadcast. An insert includes game trivia, official statistics and more, while the eighth disc includes highlights from all 11 regular-season walk-off wins, team and player milestones, the American League East clinching celebration and postseason highlights. This too is a must for Red Sox fans. Grade: set 4 stars