X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE
As someone who really and truly adores the X-Men movies - even the Brett Ratner one, which hardly anyone likes - I was prepared to accept any number of flaws and disappointments in X-Men Origins: Wolverine just for the chance to watch Hugh Jackman bear his adamantium claws and toss off a few pithy, sarcastic zingers. And for a while, Jackman's presence was enough.
I made it through the confounding prelude and opening-credits sequence, even though the editing was incoherent, and director Gavin Hood's staging was lackluster, and questions were raised that you realized would never be addressed. (Because we see him fighting in the Civil War, World War II, and Vietnam, Wolverine is obviously an immortal of some kind, but why does he suddenly turn immortal when he's in his mid-30s? Is immortality something that just kicks in one day, like puberty?) I managed not to roll my eyes at the blatant repetition - two separate scenes find our hero, viewed from above, growling to the heavens over the body of a deceased loved one, and at least two find Wolverine and his fanged brother, Victor (Liev Schreiber), snarling at each other from afar and racing toward one another like a pair of psychotic battering rams.
I kept a straight face every time the malevolent Colonel Stryker (Danny Huston) tiptoed into a scene without warning, which happened a lot, and managed not to giggle when the music swelled and the dying woman looked up at Wolverine and her voice cracked as she muttered, "I'm cold ... ." (Didn't that cliché get pretty well annihilated in Team America: World Police?) And I forgave the movie its cornball excesses - Wolverine even gets his own Ma and Pa Kent - and lumpy dialogue and frequently shoddy visuals.
Yet when all was said and done, there was one thing I simply couldn't forgive: The most fascinating, enjoyable character in the X-Men franchise was given a film all his own, and it turned out to be boring as sin. It's hardly the movie's fault that its "Who's killing the heroes?" plot was so recently presented in Zack Snyder's Watchmen, but there's a fatal lack of imagination in X-Men Origins: Wolverine - it's nothing but a compilation of the same back stories, revenge motivations, and "surprise" twists that seem to accompany every cinematic-comic-book origin tale of the past decade (and beyond). It was probably too much to hope that this new offering would break the mold, and it's doubtful that the genre's most ardent admirers would want it to, but if you were a fan of the earlier works, you might find this X-Men prequel depressingly regressive; with its grim and unvarying sameness, Hood's offering feels like the setup movie you have to endure to get to the series' more entertaining sequels. At the film's midpoint, a kindly farmer says to Jackman, "You look like a man fixin' to do a bad thing." He has no idea.
GHOSTS OF GIRLFRIENDS PAST
Usurping A Christmas Carol for storyline inspiration is about the laziest move that writers can make, so it seems fitting that the Dickens-inspired Ghosts of Girlfriends Past stars Matthew McConaughey, who might just be the laziest actor in Hollywood. I'm never quite sure if it's his characters that I want to smack the hell out of or McConaughey himself, but since he plays the same obnoxious, breathtakingly egocentric lout in every movie he makes, I guess it doesn't really matter. Does anyone still enjoy this man on-screen? That affectless stoner drawl, that mush-mouthed delivery, that slack-jawed expression that morphs into a blinding grin ... no one's expecting McConaughey to pull off (or even correctly pronounce) Strindberg, but couldn't he at least land some project in which he's asked to give a stronger performance than his tan? After How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Failure to Launch, Fool's Gold, and this new piece of piffle, McConaughey has officially become a genre joke; his romantic comedies should start outfitting him with a sandwich board reading, "No good will come of this."
Getting into the movie's particulars is pointless, because the combination of star and title already tells you everything you need to know. Suffice it to say that Robert Forster has an amusing bit in which his retired military man bemoans the lack of respect paid to Korean War veterans ("We didn't get a wall ... all we got was a sitcom with Alan Alda"), Lacey Chabert adds some fun as a hyper-tense bride, and Jennifer Garner, bless her, makes things a little better just by showing up. The rest of Ghosts of Girlfriends Past is achingly unfunny, fiercely unromantic, relentlessly formulaic, and profoundly witless. (Michael Douglas and Anne Archer are both in the cast, and director Mark Waters doesn't even provide the kick of seeing the former Fatal Attraction marrieds in the same shot together.) Oh, and it's occasionally really offensive. At one point, McConaughey is guided through a greeting line of the hundreds of women his character dumped, and when he encounters the one Asian in the mix, the screenwriters can't help but have her say, with all the stereotypical propriety of Eddie's father's housekeeper, "You have brought shame on my family." On behalf of Caucasians everywhere, I am deeply ashamed.
Halfway through my screening of the scrappy little bruiser flick Fighting, I realized, with some surprise, that I was having a pretty great time. So it came as an even bigger surprise when one of the patrons sitting behind me - none too quietly - said to his movie-going companion, "Wake me when it gets good."
I guess I do feel kind of bad for audiences who attend Fighting and expect it to be about, you know, fighting - or at least about incessant fighting, which is what the film's trailers suggested. Yet while there are several bare-knuckle smackdowns in director Dito Montiel's observant and understated mood piece - a Manhattan-set take on the British "kitchen-sink drama" genre - its tone is unexpectedly lyrical, and it's filled with the sorts of odd, inspired touches that modern movies rarely have the time or patience for. The film finds Channing Tatum playing a young street hustler and naturally gifted pugilist who fights his way through a series of underground clubs, hoping to score a big payday for himself and his manager (Terrence Howard), but the movie could just as easily have been about a painter or a cellist or a line cook at Mickey D's; Fighting is less concerned with fighting than with losers who know they're losers and want, just once, to win, and it's acted and directed with intense fondness for outcasts and eccentrics.
To be sure, nothing about the plot will come as much surprise - there's a love interest, and an adversary from Tatum's past, and a climactic battle royale against the adversary from Tatum's past - and while the film's fight scenes are satisfyingly brutal, the fight-club rules, if there are rules, are somewhat questionable. (I thought it was a little unfair when Tatum won his first match by bashing a guy's head into a sink; if props are allowed, why doesn't someone just bring brass knuckles or a wrench?) It would be tough to confuse Fighting with a work of art, or even much depth. But Montiel has a superb eye for composition and rhythm, and displays a sure hand with actors; Tatum, Howard, Luis Guzmán, Roger Guenveur Smith, Zulay Henao, and Brian White are all excellent. And every few minutes, you'll notice some weird, rather wonderful detail, be it the sidewalk vendor who sells faded-pink stuffed animals, or the street kid who races toward a brick wall and does an unexpected back flip, or the agitated grandmother (a sensational Altagracia Guzman) who forces Tatum to have a meal before kicking him to the curb. That's three more spontaneous moments than you'll find in X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past combined.