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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Friday, Nov. 28, 2014

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Hugh Jackman stars in "The Wolverine," now playing.
Hugh Jackman stars in "The Wolverine," now playing.

"The Wolverine" brings a new edge to the character's claws

The story goes that when director and series newcomer James Mangold ("Walk the Line," "3:10 to Yuma") received the script for "The Wolverine," the first thing he did was write five words on it: "Everyone I love will die."

It’s an intriguing production story, one that teases at why this Wolverine film is new (besides its Japanese locale) and worth telling not even five years after "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" blandly sputtered into theatres seemingly half-finished.

Of course, production stories are exactly that: stories. The journey from page to screen is a perilous one, and many a director has seen his lofty aspirations get sliced down to size and carefully scrubbed into something barely resembling the original idea.

Thankfully, Mangold’s goal for a more confined, character-focused and humanized Wolverine is firmly implanted on "The Wolverine" like adamantium on the popular mutant’s bones, much to its benefit. The result enjoyably combines the familiar stuff we’ve loved about the character in the past – his badassness, his snarky sense of humor, the fact that he’s played by the charismatic Hugh Jackman – with some satisfyingly fresh material as well. 

The last time we saw Logan (besides his hilarious cameo in "First Class"), he was recovering from a shot to the head with an amnesia bullet. It seems Mangold and his duo of writers, Mark Bomback and Scott Frank, know the feeling, as "The Wolverine" mostly forgets about "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" (despite a trip to Japan being teased in that film, but no complaints here) and takes place after the events of "The Last Stand."

Wolverine is now a bearded loner, living out in the Canadian woods, haunted by memories of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), the woman he loved but had to kill when she turned evil in part three. He’s pulled out of his self-mandated exile by Yukio (the captivating Rila Fukushima), a mutant messenger from Japan also haunted by death.

Logan saved her boss Yashida back in the bombing of Na…

Liam James (above) may be the lead, but Sam Rockwell steals the show in "The Way, Way Back," now playing.
Liam James (above) may be the lead, but Sam Rockwell steals the show in "The Way, Way Back," now playing.

Rockwell helps "The Way, Way Back" make a sweet splash

Sam Rockwell isn’t likely one of the first names that come to mind when asked the question of great current actors. Despite a resume filled with roles in box office hits ("Iron Man 2"), Oscar bait ("Frost/Nixon," "Conviction"), cult darlings ("Moon") and everything in between, the usually antsy performer has never quite been able to make the leap from solid actor to viable star.

He could have years ago. Rockwell was actually on the short list of actors to play Iron Man before a troubled but slicker and more polished actor named Robert Downey Jr. managed to convince Marvel he would snag an audience. The rest is history. Downey Jr. went on to claim a monopoly on cocky, smartass heroes; Rockwell went on to play a side villain in the much-derided sequel. Life is cruel sometimes.

It’s too bad because Rockwell has enough engaging charisma and on-screen energy to power five lesser supposed "stars." He served as the uncontrollable sparkplug of chaos in last year’s "Seven Psychopaths," and he now plays a similar burst of life in the warm growing-up tale "The Way, Way Back," one more smartly contained yet still undeniably electric.

Before Rockwell and the rest of his water park misfits show up, however, it’s choppy waters for "The Way, Way Back." Liam James (TV’s "The Killing" and "Psych") stars as Duncan, a relentlessly mopey 14-year-old going on vacation to a beach house with his distant mother (the freakishly natural Toni Collette), her pushy jerk of a boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell, decently playing against type) and Trent’s snitty daughter (Zoe Levin).

The car ride up is uncomfortable (Trent pesters Duncan about becoming more social, cruelly rating him a "three out of ten" to get his point across), and things don’t get much better when they finally reach their destination. The parents – greeted by an amusingly drunken Allison Janney – have fun drinking, smoking and lounging, while Duncan struggles to connect with anyone, despite the attempts of Janney’s cu…

Bruce Willis, Byung-hun Lee and John Malkovich star in "Red 2," now playing.
Bruce Willis, Byung-hun Lee and John Malkovich star in "Red 2," now playing.

"Red 2" provides same old killers, same old shenanigans

When it comes to disposable action comedies, they don’t come much more disposable than 2010’s "Red" (or "RED" if you’re a title purist).

In case you need a refresher (and I know I certainly did), the original film – based on the DC comic book of the same name – starred Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman and Helen Mirren as a band of retired government agents being hunted by the CIA. I remember a scene in which Morgan Freeman punched Richard Dreyfuss. I remember what theatre I saw the first "Red" in. I even recall what auditorium number I saw it in, but that is the extent of the impact "Red" had upon my life.

Some movies are made to be remembered, to leave their mark on viewers for better or worse. Others are made to exist, make money and get tossed away like an empty bucket of popcorn as soon as the credits roll. "Red" is in the latter category.

But name recognition, no matter how slight, is an important commodity in Hollywood right now, so audiences have been gifted with "Red 2." And fans of the original will be happy to hear that the sequel is just as dedicated to nondescript competence as its predecessor.

Willis returns as Frank Moses, who’s attempting to settle down and have a normal life of shopping at Costco – what is with this relentless Costco product placement these days? – with his excitable, non-military affiliated girlfriend Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker).

Of course that doesn’t last long. Their unstable friend/former CIA test rat Marvin (John Malkovich) discovers a WikiLeaks file saying that they have knowledge about a mysterious Cold War weapon called Nightshade. Anthony Hopkins plays the device’s mentally scrambled inventor.

As a result, seemingly the entire globe is after them, from a vicious U.S. agent (the chilly-eyed Neal McDonough) to an old rival (Byung-hun Lee, the Korean star of the "G.I. Joe" films) who hates Moses and hates him even more after our heroes steal his fancy jet. Even old friend Victoria (Mirren) is summoned by …

Judith Hill (center) and Lisa Fischer (right) are two backup singers given the spotlight in "20 Feet from Stardom," now playing.
Judith Hill (center) and Lisa Fischer (right) are two backup singers given the spotlight in "20 Feet from Stardom," now playing.
Vanessa Redgrave and Terence Stamp star in "Unfinished Song," now playing.
Vanessa Redgrave and Terence Stamp star in "Unfinished Song," now playing.

"20 Feet from Stardom," "Unfinished Song" hit a pleasant chord

Did the end of Summerfest leave you frantically scratching at your arms, searching for your next hit of music-related entertainment? Well, then you probably have a serious problem, but luckily the Oriental Theatre seems more than eager to feed your horrible tune addiction with a combo of music-related features: the rock doc "20 Feet from Stardom" and the old-folks-that-rock tearjerker "Unfinished Song."

"20 Feet from Stardom" features perhaps the best soundtrack of the year, cycling through a star-studded track list of hits from the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Sting, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Michael Jackson and more. Director Morgan Neville, however, could not care less about the rock stars hogging all the fame and fortune. Instead, he tilts the spotlight toward backup singers, the unheralded stars of some of rock’s greatest hits.

Neville gathers a remarkable amount of these mostly female behind-the-scenes heroes, finding out about the highs and lows of their much respected but mostly anonymous careers, as well as the remarkably ego-free mindset that goes into a life more about blending in than standing out.

Some – like Darlene Love, the Hall of Fame singer behind "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" and Murtaugh’s wife in the "Lethal Weapon" movies – managed to claw their way to a taste of fame. It wasn’t without its share of setbacks, namely having her lead vocals on "He’s A Rebel" and "He’s Sure The Boy I Love" credited to The Crystals by Phil Spector.

Others haven’t been as lucky in making the small but, as put by Bruce Springsteen, "complicated" walk from the back of the stage to the front. The boomingly soulful Lisa Fischer has remained mostly a backup and session singer, despite having a Grammy-winning single under her belt. Fischer seems content with her path, as opposed to her colleague Judith Hill, who struggles with balancing backup singing with a solo career that’s frustratingly halted at the cusp of breaking out since her eye-openin…