In The Wolverine, Hugh Jackman takes the live-action superhero body to a disturbing new place. And, no, it's not the gym. Well, it's not only the gym. Most of the movie is him in and out of a white tank top, his arms and shoulders abubble and athrob, the veins flowing with god knows what. His body is beyond fitness, beyond fat, beyond muscles, beyond ready comprehension. It is beyond the human body as the movies have previously depicted it. I've never seen anything like this, and I've seen John Travolta in Staying Alive, Demi Moore in G.I. Jane, and Sylvester Stallone in everything. Jackman surpasses what they've done. Yes, he seems performance-enhanced and computer-generated. But his body appears to be … acting.
The film, taken from the Marvel Comics X-Men universe, opens minutes before the U.S. drops an atomic bomb on Nagasaki in 1945 and flambés Jackman's character, a clawed, indestructible loner with one name (Logan) and one mood ("argh"). He stands at the bottom of a well, rendered a tower of bloody tissue by the bomb. For an audience, watching him in that state is not unlike being a toddler who falls and needs 35 seconds to figure out whether to cry. I found the sight of him funny. The whites of his eyes are the only solid color on his face, and when he blinks, I laughed. But in the seconds before his hair and skin regenerate, the actual horror of the image sets in.
That's such a hauntingly terrible sight that the movie could have ended there, but it goes on for two competent hours (the director is James Mangold, who did Walk the Line and that very entertaining remake of 3:10 to Yuma). Logan is summoned back to present-day Japan. The soldier (Haruhiko Yamanouchi) whose life he saved that day in Nagasaki is now an old technology magnate interested in Logan's strength, imperviousness, and eternal middle age.
Most of the characters are Japanese. Logan's sidekick, Yukio (Rila Fukushima), an assassin who works for the magnate, has hair the color of some nail polishes and a face shaped like an arrowhead. She might be the most Marvel-ready actress I've ever seen. The magnate's granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto), is engaged, oft-imperiled, and causes romantic stirrings in Logan. A Hollywood blockbuster with even superficial interest in an actual, non-outer-space culture is not insignificant, even if that culture happens to be the world's no. 1 consumer of American movies.
Still, getting Logan to the movie's above-average finale required three writers — Christopher McQuarrie, Mark Bomback, and Scott Frank — to pad the plot. A lot of that padding necessitates fights and foot chases with yakuza and ninja, and dreams about the guilt he feels for killing his fellow X-Person Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who speaks to him between the sheets like the girlfriend in some bad music videos. At some point, Logan is poisoned by the magnate's doctor — the toxin-spewing mutant Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) — leaving him far more mortal. The nasty scheme she hopes to help realize should last less than 15 minutes after she strikes, but the movie drags on long after that, too.
The X-Men series was always vast and interesting enough to lend itself to good and good-enough movies. The moments of quiet in this one are a vast improvement over the nonstop bellicosity in 2009's X-Men Origins: Wolverine. They suggest Mangold's characteristic patience and confidence in both the material and the marketplace's tolerance for a superhero doing a lot of sitting around. The Wolverine comes from a 1982 quartet of issues written by Chris Claremont and drawn by Frank Miller. They're beautiful, but they deviated so far from what, as a kid, I loved about the X-Men, which was namely the X-Men themselves. I also think I was too young to feel safe with a character who's essentially an asshole. Seven years old might be too young for the nuances of antiheroism. I'm not sure this new movie was even necessary except to whet appetites for next year's X-Men: Days of Future Past.
But if Marvel is giving the X-Men the Avengers treatment, it's disappointing that the studio hasn't taken more demographic risks with its lead-ins to the enormous reunion event. Why not build something entirely around Jean Grey and her personae or Halle Berry's Storm or Anna Paquin's Rogue or Ellen Page's barely used Kitty Pryde, who shared a Claremont series with Wolverine? If we can survive two Hulk movies and one Thor (with another on the way!), I think we're ready for a woman who can walk through walls.
In the meantime, there's Jackman. He has pumped himself all the way up, after having worked himself down to nothing to bench press the show tunes in Les Misérables. Jackman placed a similar stress on the character's body in the previous movie. But this time there's no glory in any of it. There's no sexiness, either. All Jackman does here is strain and grunt and suffer. You rarely see an actor work this hard just to express more work, but he's made a complete surrender to the exercise of exercise.
When Travolta danced in his loincloth (under Stallone's direction, too), it was vanity. When Moore shaved her head and did one-arm push-ups, it was politics. With Jackman, it's neither. Whether he's cutting open his chest and feeling around for his heart, pretending to slice into the roof of a speeding train, or holding on to grating that overlooks a cliff, Jackman is giving us the camp of martyrdom. His charisma has gone to his biceps and his chest and his delts and his abs. It's not sweat that's pouring out of those muscles. It's The Messiah.
Loving Woody Allen can be as wearying as hating him. He never stays good (or bad) for long. But lately when he's good, he's wonderful, and during this decade-long run of post–New York wanderlust I've found him to be truly wonderful twice — and I'm neither a Match Point person (heartless, pointless, unconvincing) nor a Midnight in Paris person (pyrite Allen, but its popularity was a reassurance that we still cared).
For me, Cassandra's Dream, from 2008, is the moral thriller people thought they were getting with Match Point. It was free of the cultural tourism and the backhanded judgment of his other European films. He wrote a tight, dark movie about two striving English brothers (Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell) and a boat. The further south their scheme goes, the more comfortable Allen seems to feel drawing out the suspense and quietly pushing some notion of masculine weakness. Vaguely, it was like Hitchcock. But, really, it was closer to wherever Allen was when he made his last full masterpiece, Crimes and Misdemeanors.
His new film, Blue Jasmine, is the other thing of wonder. What you're looking for with him are signs of life, as opposed to shtick and koans and characters screaming at each other. You want to see that the finery of character writing still means something to him. This is his 43rd movie, and it's inspired. He sends a fallen New York socialite named Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) from Manhattan to San Francisco to live with her grocery-store-clerk sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins). They were adopted, and a corruption scandal schemed by Jasmine's ex-husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin), has left them estranged and broke. Arriving west, Jasmine doesn't seem to know where she is. Even when she's talking a mile a minute she seems someplace else. But she's never far away enough to resist leaving whatever she looks at or whomever she undermines covered in a comical ooze of hauteur. She's the kind of woman who can make a mobile phone call on the street and turn to her cab driver to say, "Can I have some privacy, please?"
Ginger and her husband, Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), invested a lottery windfall with Hal. Losing it cost them a lot of money and their marriage. But Ginger is flighty and decent. If she holds a grudge, it's well out of sight. Jasmine needs her, and you get the sense that, even though Jasmine appears to openly despise Ginger's well-lived-in Mission District apartment and the two sons with whom she shares it, Ginger is also happy to be needed. Jasmine's life in New York is told in flashbacks, and the film is almost evenly split between the two sisters and their men: for Jasmine, Baldwin, a presumptuous Michael Stuhlbarg, and Peter Sarsgaard; for Ginger, it's Louis C.K., Bobby Cannavale, and Clay, who has blunted his crassness with gloom. There's also a small, fiery part for Alden Ehrenreich as Hal and Jasmine's son.
Allen's writing is mostly sharp and natural enough for the emotional stakes to be clear. Really, much of his achievement is finding a new vintage influence to give him a shot in the arm. This time it's Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire, with Jasmine as the domineering, psychologically brittle Blanche DuBois and Ginger as the compliant Stella. Now there's some great theatrical nuance in the filmmaking.
In one of the flashbacks, Ginger and Augie have gone to visit an instantly exasperated Jasmine and Hal in their Upper East Side palace. They go back to their hotel and gossip about a party Jasmine took them to. Augie claims that a woman who flirted with Hal also flirted with him. No one would want you, she says, only me. He doesn't fly into a rage. He just absorbs her playfulness, and as the conversation continues they get sensually close to each other. It's the sort of scene that pops up in many an Allen movie — the bedtime recap. But here it feels dangerous and a little hot. I don't know that he could have written a scene this sort of good and imbued it with such heat without thinking about Williams. The cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe's intense warmth and handsome vistas free Blue Jasmine’s riff on Streetcar from the iconic black-and-white of Elia Kazan's film.
There's some nonsense, here mostly involving Stuhlbarg as a randy dentist, and Allen persists with his enthusiasm for blue-collar ethnics and working women as a kind of science fiction. But Allen's not out to mock Williams's hot-bloodedness. He wants to sip on it. Ginger, for instance, is a Stella who can't stop looking for Stanleys. C.K., Clay, and Cannavale are all doing variations on the same macho man, Cannavale's being the most elastic. The writing isn't that great for Ginger. She comes off as a drunk in a Mike Leigh movie. Hawkins figures prominently in Cassandra's Dream and is best known for the human stimulant/irritant she played, with astonishing zeal, in Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky. Here, the weariness in her face and the mousiness in her voice are Stella by way of Talia Shire in Rocky. She does everything right, but the movie is almost meant to belong to Blanchett.
Allen has set most of the film on her face and within her hopped-up, motormouth diction. The year thus far has been short on great performances. Blanchett's belongs to a sadly exclusive club. She's played Blanche DuBois on the stage. For Allen, she turns the character from a Southern belle into a Stockard Channing in Six Degrees of Separation. But it's not snobbery she playing. It's displacement. The separation is from reality. Allen makes use of Blanchett's statuesqueness. In Ginger's apartment, at that dentist's office, in a taxicab, on the glamourless sidewalks of the Mission, Jasmine seems to be in the wrong Wonderland.
Blue Jasmine is the searching Allen of Another Woman and Alice, and Jasmine is almost the sort of scornful id that Judy Davis was so good at playing for him. But where Davis came at the comedy with bile and Mia Farrow in Alice with whimsy, Blanchett is going for something unstable but secret. When Jasmine recalls the humiliation of a friend catching her working at a Manhattan shoe store and sneaking out, she goes hard and delirious: "I saw you, Erica Bishop!"
Allen has always written good parts for women. This is one of the few to seem made of magic. You actually get the sense that Allen has let Blanchett go off on some kind of adventure, that he planted a seed and this is the wildflower that grew.