Movie Review: Pacific Rim (2013) (2D)

August 4, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Gotta give the Aussie robot a plug!

Gotta give the Aussie robot a plug!

Ever wondered what Transformers vs Godzilla would be like if it was directed by Guillermo del Toro? Well, Pacific Rim might give you some idea.

Del Toro, the visionary master who gave us Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone (as well as Hellboy and Blade II), apparently gave up on directing The Hobbit so he could work on projects such as Pacific Rim, his personal version of a light summer blockbuster focused on spectacular visuals and popcorn entertainment as opposed to the recent trend of dark, brooding movies such as The Dark Knight Rises and Man of Steel.

The result? A mixed bag, I’m afraid. Del Toro succeeds in making Pacific Rim a visual feast that pays homage to the Japanese monster movies and robot anime I loved so much as a kid, but on the other hand the script (which he co-write with Travis Beacham) is so pedestrian (to put it nicely) that it prevents the film from achieving what could have been all-round brilliance. That’s disappointing because we all know from his past films that del Toro is a brilliant storyteller when he sets out to be one.

Pacific Rim starts off by placing us right in the middle of the story, with a lengthy explanation about how gigantic monsters, known as “Kaiju” (from the Japanese word for “monster”), began emerging from the depths of our oceans some time in 2013, wreaking havoc on cities all around the world. While it makes zero sense, the world’s governments decide to join forces to create “Jaegers” (German for “hunter”), which are essentially massive robots, to fight the Kaiju. That’s about it.

(Personally, I thought it would have been a good idea to start right from the beginning, because seeing the Kaiju rise from the depths up close and in detail for the first time would have been a jaw-dropping sight. But the movie is already 132-minutes long, so maybe not.)

At its core, Pacific Rim is just enormous robots and gigantic monsters beating the crap out of each other. And that’s awesome. Del Toro infuses the action sequences with his marvellous visual flair, supersized to an awe-inspiring scale. His attention to detail in the movements of the Kaijus and Jaegers and their interactions with their environment puts Transformers to shame. As great as the visual effects were in Transformers, there was always something fake and cartoonish about the robots, but in Pacific Rim the effects are so seamless that such thoughts never crossed my mind.

The look of the Jaegers and Kaijus are also amazing and emphasize del Toro’s genius when it comes to creature design. Each monster has different attributes and characteristics, as do the Jaeger, which reflect their country of origin (such as the US, China, Russia and Australia). Watching a showdown between such wonderful creations — with remarkable clarity, by the way — was truly an exhilarating ride.

Unfortunately, it’s the humans who bring Pacific Rim down. The film is at its best when there is no talking or attempted character development, because as soon as the humans interacting the film nosedives into mediocrity. I don’t think the acting is horrible but it feels horrible because of the atrocious dialogue. It’s as though the screenwriters thought no one would care about the characters or the dialogue so they just came up with the quickest way to progress the story by summarizing all human interactions into cringeworthy cliches — and yet it felt like there were far too many attempts to make us care about them. The end result is a lot of unsatisfactory, disjointed and embarrassing “human drama” fillers in between the action scenes.

The formulaic storyline also appears to tick every plot-point box of Hollywood blockbusters these days from The Dark Knight Rises to The Avengers to Skyfall (not sure if this qualifies as a spoiler, but if you don’t wanna know, skip this paragraph now) — an early catastrophic incident for the protagonist(s), forcing them to start over from the bottom; a deceptively clever antagonist(s) who plans a trap for our hero(es); and a moment of despair that seems impossible to overcome, just before the final heroic climax.

I know all of this sounds harsh. After all, isn’t Pacific Rim supposed to be a summer popcorn movie? Yes, it is, but I don’t think it’s too much to ask for a little more in the other departments, especially considering this is del Toro and not Michael Bay we’re dealing with.

The cast is headed by Charlie Hunnam, best known from the TV series Sons of Anarchy. He’s really just an older poor man’s Garrett Hedlund (Tron: Legacy, The Road) who takes his short off more often than Taylor Lautner (though to be fair, I would too if I was that ripped). He’s OK — physically suitable but lacking the requisite charm to carry a film like this.

Playing his Jaeger partner/love interest is Japan’s Rinko Kikuchi, a fine actress I remember from 2006’s Babel. She’s actually pretty good, as is Idris Elba as a drug kingpin…oh hang on, that’s The Wire. Actually, here he’s just the boss of the Jaeger pilots. He’s Idris Elba, so you know he’s awesome, even though he does deliver a hilarious Braveheart speech (compulsory for all movies with a final battle) in his original British accent (which actually felt kinda weird).

For comic relief, we have two scientists and Kaiju experts. The first is Charlie Day, who is nearly as loud and abrasive (and occasionally adorable) as he is in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. The second is Burn Gorman, who plays a rip-off of Tucker from There’s Something About Mary, complete with the whiny voice and dodgy limp.

Tucker, is that you?

Tucker, is that you?

Rounding out the main cast are Max Martini (American) and Robert Kazinsky (Brit) as two fake Aussies with really exaggerated accents. Seriously, why not get some real Aussies? oh well, at least it was good to see one of them playing a semi-villain.

The actor who steals the show is del Toro favourite Ron Perlman (aka Hellboy), who plays a black marketeer who harvests the organs and body parts of dead Kaijus. It’s an outlandish and campy performance that Perlman absolutely nails, and the few short scenes with him and Day are the “human” highlights of the entire film.

Pacific Rim got a lot of very positive reviews, which surprised me in some ways given how critics are always so quick to savage poor dialogue and characterization. I have a feeling much of the warm response stems from their respect for del Toro as a visionary filmmaker. I really wanted to like Pacific Rim a lot more than I did because the last two Transformers movies just about destroyed my faith in humanity. The creature designs and action sequences fulfilled if not exceeded my expectations, but those things alone were not enough to reach the bar I had set for the movie.

3.25 stars out of 5

PS: No matter what you thought of Pacific Rim, the groundwork has been laid for what could potentially be a blistering sequel, apparently already in the works.

Recent Movie Reviews: Part III

July 18, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Admission (2013)

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Two of my favourite people in the world, Tina Fey and Paul Rudd, together at last in a comedy about America’s university admissions process — sounds like a winner to me.

But unfortunately, Admission is just OK. Fey plays an admissions officer at Princeton and Rudd plays a teacher desperately trying to get one of his unusual but gifted students into Princeton. The student also may or may not be Fey’s long lost son.

Admission is a fairly average rom-com with a somewhat unusual premise and is driven by the charisma of its two stars. Fey’s character has a personality similar to Liz Lemon’s and Rudd’s character is like Rudd in every movie he’s in — which is awesome. The jokes are clever and provide some fascinating insights into how the admissions system works at prestigious US universities, but at the end of the day the film just isn’t funny enough. Amusing in spots but too bland and flat overall, which is a shame given the potential it had to be something memorable.

2.5 stars out of 5

Movie 43 (2013)

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The rule of thumb for ensemble movies these days is the greater the number of stars the worse the movie. Movie 43 stars Kate Winslet, Hugh Jackman, Naomi Watts, Liev Schreiber, Anna Faris, Emma Stone, Richard Gere, Kate Bosworth, Justin Long, Uma Thurman, Kristen Bell, Halle Berry, Stephen Merchant, Johnny Knoxville, Gerard Butler, Sean William Scott, Chloe Grace Moretz, Elizabeth Banks, Josh Duhamel, among others. I guess that tells you how good it is.

Seriously, I have no idea how this film was made. What did the producers have over all these stars to force them to be in this turd? And calling it a turd is really a compliment.

The film is essentially a collection of comedic sketches strung together by a forced narrative. There are apparently two versions, the first of which is a pitch made by Dennis Quaid to Greg Kinnear, a film executive. The version I watched was the British one, which is about a bunch of kids searching for the most banned film in the world, Movie 43, which they are stunned to discover actually exists.

As for the sketches, let’s see…there is the one where the whole joke is Hugh Jackman having a scrotum on his neck, another one making fun of home schooling, one about a team of black basketballers being terrified of their white opponents, and so on and so forth. And those are the less offensive ones. There’s also the Anna Faris one about her wanting her boyfriend to defecate on her during sex, a really pathetic one about a young girl getting her period, and a really boring and lame one about superhero speed dating. The only sketch I found mildly amusing was the one where Stephen Merchant and Halle Berry dare each other to do a bunch of crazy things, but that was probably only because the rest were so utterly unwatchable.

I’m just dumbfounded by how bad this movie is. I don’t believe in zero star films, but this one tempts me. I don’t wish the experience of watching this monstrosity on my worst enemy.

0.25 stars out of 5

Mama (2013)

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One of my most anticipated horror movies of the year, starring Jessica Chastain and Jaime Lannister (I mean Nikolaj Coster-Waldau or whatever his name is). The main reason is because visionary Guillermo del Toro served as an executive producer, and del Toro seldom disappoints (The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth both rank high on my list). I mean, did you see that trailer with those two freaky little girls scampering around?

Perhaps my expectations were too high, but Mama wasn’t quite as scary or different as I wanted it to be. Basically, a dude in financial ruin plans to kill his two young girls and himself, but before he gets the chance he is “terminated” by an unseen force. Years later the freaky ass girls, who somehow survived on their own, are found and put under the care of the dude’s brother, Mr Lannister, and his girlfriend, Chastain.

The freaky girls kind of become more normal but they keep referring to someone as “Mama”, who you and I both know is very scary and loves hanging around doing spooky things. Much of the movie is about Chastain learning to accept looking after the girls and finding out just who the heck Mama really is.

There are plenty of old school scares in this one — a combination of “boo” moments and atmosphere — but as usual it’s when Mama begins to appear to us on screen that things become less frightening. Still, it’s much classier and well done than your average horror flick these days, delivering on a decent ending whereas most such films tend to crumble and self-destruct. I don’t know how much del Toro influenced the film but I believe there are some nice touches of eerieness that can be attributed to him.

Mama didn’t scare the crap out of me like I wanted it to, but it will probably still be one of the standout horror movies of 2013.

3.5 stars out of 5

The Last Stand (2013)

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Here’s a shock. Arnie is still acting (and I use that word in a very loose sense).

The former Californian governor is back as a sheriff of a small town that happens to be the final stop before a highly wanted fugitive makes his away across the Mexican border. Arnie and his gang of local cops and a couple of misfits must dig deep and stop this guy because no one messes with Arnie. That’s the story in a nutshell.

As bad as that sounded, The Last Stand, which received almost no buzz in the lead up to its release, is actually a very solid action flick. I was surprised how effective it was in creating entertaining action sequences and even the humour was pleasantly unexpected. Lots of guns fights, explosions and “holding down the fort” type activity, like an adult version of Home Alone. It’s fun.

Arnie might be closing in on 100 years old, but his charisma as an action hero seems like it will never fade. The supporting cast is pretty decent too, and includes Johnny Knoxville, who manages to keep his obnoxiousness under control to everybody’s amazement.

I suppose credit has to go to Korean director Kim Ji-woon, who made a nice little action movie out of practically nothing. The Last Stand will likely be forgotten in a year or two, but I’ll remember that I had a good time watching it.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) (2D)

December 17, 2012 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

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The Lord of the Rings is the holy grail of epic fantasy, both in print and on the big screen. When I heard Peter Jackson (originally Guillermo del Toro) was bringing us The Hobbit as a prequel, I was naturally excited. I grew less excited when I heard it was being made into two films, and even less excited again when I heard it was being stretched into a trilogy.

With the exception of greed, the decision didn’t make much sense. The Hobbit is a tiny book compared to any one of the three volumes of Rings, and yet they were going to make three movies out of it? Despite assurances that they were going to expand Middle Earth and add in a bunch of details from Tolkien’s other writings and appendices and so forth, it didn’t strike me as a recipe for success.

As it turned out, the first film of the new trilogy, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey justified both my excitement and my scepticism. On the one hand, the film did bring back some of the best memories from Rings and reminded me why it will likely never be topped as the best fantasy franchise of all time. On the other, at a whopping 2 hours and 49 minutes, it was unnecessarily bloated, occasionally tedious and sometimes, dare I saw, even boring.

Jackson replacing del Toro meant that we were likely to get a continuation of the Middle Earth established in Rings as opposed to a fresh interpretation of Tolkien’s universe. This was the correct assumption, as An Unexpected Journey looked and felt exactly like the world we were still immersed in when Return of the King departed our cinema screens nearly a decade ago.

For those unfamiliar with the story, The Hobbit centers around a young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman — the old one was played by Ian Holm in Rings, who also has a cameo to kick things off here), who travels with Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and 13 dwarves (led by Thorin Oakenshield — Richard Armitage) to recapture a treasure-filled dwarf kingdom guarded by the dragon Smaug. It happens years before Frodo’s adventures and first introduces us to the powerful ring that would become the centerpiece of the books.

Apart from a whole host of familiar faces (I won’t spoil who they all are for those who like surprises), An Unexpected Journey is full of nostalgia. You can tell Jackson is trying very hard to recapture the magic of Rings, and as a result there’s also a strong sense of deja vu. Everything from the sets to the costumes to the plot progression feels eerily similar (if you want an explanation with minor spoilers see below after the rating).

But The Hobbit is not The Lord of the Rings and it shouldn’t have tried to be. For starters, the difference in length means An Unexpected Journey should never have been 2 hours and 49 minutes, which might have been perfect for fanboys who spray their shorts over the extended DVD cuts but not for casual fans and regular audiences.

In fact, the whole film felt like an extended DVD cut. I think the running time would have been OK if there were only two films rather than three, but there’s no reason why An Unexpected Journey had to be nearly three hours long, especially not when it traverses so little of a story that takes up only 275 pages in a paperback.

The result is a really long and uneventful introduction and significant chunks where uninteresting conversation dominates the action. It’s not that the first couple of hours of An Unexpected Journey is bad — it’s just not that good when compared to the high standards set by Rings.

That said, the final hour of the movie is brilliant and as exciting as the Mines of Moria from Fellowship of the Ring, the battle of Helm’s Deep from The Two Towers and the siege at Minas Tirith from The Return of the King. I don’t want to reveal too much except to say I wished the rest of the movie was just like it.

Martin Freeman, whom Jackson said was the only choice all along, is pretty good as the young Bilbo, while Ian McKellen doesn’t miss a step as a slightly younger and seemingly less mature Gandalf. Richard Armitage is solid as dwarf prince Thorin Oakenshield, but he’s no Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn, though to be fair no one could have been that freaking awesome. The rest of the dwarves are generally quite forgettable, and I still haven’t figured out why only two or three of them look fairly normal while the rest are plastered with prosthesis and look like absolute freaks.

The special effects are of course seamless, though without having seen the original trilogy again I don’t think they are too different to the effects from 10 years ago. A change this time is the decision to create all the orcs and goblins using CGI as opposed to real actors with makeup, but they are all done so well that the difference is negligible.

I was one of those people that made a conscious choice to watch the film in 2D and at 24 frames per second, as opposed to the 3D at 48 frames per second that was on offer. I’m well and truly over 3D now, and I was not curious about 48 frames at all after hearing all the negative comments, from the nausea to how everything look too fast and real and how the props looked fake because of it. Besides, if you really want The Hobbit to be a continuation of The Lord of the Rings wouldn’t you want to experience it the same way?

On the whole, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a mixed bag. It contains flashes of brilliance and a final hour that rivals the best of The Lord of the Rings, but at the same time there’s also too much unnecessary fluff at the beginning to prevent it from ultimately living up to the hype. As the first entry to a new trilogy, however, I think it holds promise and should hopefully open the door to two sensational sequels.

3.75 stars out of 5

(Minor spoilers) PS: The Hobbit follows the trajectory of The Fellowship of the Ring very closely. It starts off in the Shire as a gentle but reluctant hobbit is dragged onto an adventure after a visit from Gandalf. He is pursued by dangerous enemies throughout his journey, runs into trolls and goes through an underground mine before finishing up in the woods with an epic battle. It’s exactly the same!

Movie Review: Splice (2010)

July 24, 2010 in Movie Reviews

Splice opens in cinemas across Australia on 12 August 2010

I’ve always had an unheathy fascination with monsters, mutants and freaks of nature.  There’s just something about them that intrigues and yet unsettles me.  Unfortunately, the track record of such films have — let’s face it — not been great.

And so it was with some reserved excitement that I went to see a media preview screening of Splice (with an unprecedented full house), the latest sci-fi horror offering from director and co-writer Vincenzo Natali (the guy who brought us the excellent and innovative Cube) and executive producer Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy).  I thought, if anyone could pull off a worthy sci-fi horror about genetic experimentation gone wrong, it’s these two dudes.

So?  Well, I think they came very very close.

Splice tells the story of a hip scientist couple, Clive and Elsa (played by a pre-buffed, pre-Predators Adrien Brody and an older, post-hot Sarah Polley, you know, the blonde girl from Go and Dawn of the Dead), who have become rockstars of the scientific community for their breakthroughs in splicing DNA of different animals to create weird mutant hybrids.  The next step is to splice animal and human DNA, but of course their corporate sponsors don’t approve.  Just to prove they could do it, Clive and Elsa take their experiments underground…

As usual, the less known about the plot the better, but it’s not hard to guess what happens next.  Splice follows a familiar trajectory (a bit of Frankenstein with a touch of Species 2), but it doesn’t mean it’s still not a genuinely creepy, unsettling, and at times utterly bizarre film well worth your time.  Especially if you are into (extremely well-designed) freaks!

The film is anchored by the strong performance of Adrien Brody (having now seen him in back-to-back movies in completely different roles and physically transformed, I can only say I am impressed with this guy).  Sarah Polley picks her up her acting towards the end, but there was something about her dialogue in the first half of the film that didn’t ring true.  I’m not sure if it’s her or the script.  The other standout is their ‘creation’, Dren, played by newcomer Delphine Chaneac and spliced with terrific special effects.  She’s creepy.

Splice is not without its flaws.  It was difficult to connect with the protagonists who are supposed to be intelligent people but they keep doing incredibly stupid, unlikable and non-sensical things.  There were a couple of grossly over-the-top moments that generated more laughter than horrified gasps from the crowd, though that may have been intentional.  The ‘twists’ were also a little too telegraphed and obvious for my liking.

But these are relatively minor complaints because Splice doesn’t pretend to be anything it’s not.  I’m glad Natali made it a straight horror/psychological thriller as opposed to some sort of deep philosophical contemplation about the slippery slope of genetic engineering, because that would have totally ruined it.

Splice is no masterpiece, but it’s rare to see a sci-fi horror these days that is actually scary, entertaining, well-acted and doesn’t completely fall apart by the end.

4 stars out of 5!

PS: I can’t think of many good sci-fi horrors depicting experimental freaks of nature off the top of my head.  I mentioned Frankenstein and Species 2, but I’m sure there are others.  I thought  Frankenstein (the one with Robert De Niro) was pretty good, but let’s be honest — we all know why people flocked to see Species.

PPS: Oh, forgot about the underrated The Island of Dr Moreau.

Del Toro quits ‘The Hobbit'; now what?

May 31, 2010 in Entertainment, Fantasy

Guillermo del Toro, man at the helm of films such as Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, The Devil’s Backbone and Blade II, has quit as director of The Hobbit, the planned two-part prequel to The Lord of the Rings.

Whilst calling it “the hardest decision” of his life, Del Toro simply couldn’t take the extended and continued delays in filming any longer as it impacted on his other commitments.  The Hobbit was supposed to be a 3 year commitment but it’s now looking like it will be 6 years or more.  Most of the delays stem from the financial struggles of studio MGM, which is co-distributing the film with New Line.

I was initially disappointed when I heard that Peter Jackson was not going to be directing The Hobbit films.  He had done such a fantastic job on LOTR that we all expected him to return to continue the legacy.  However, when I found out that Del Toro was taking over, it made me even more excited.  Del Toro’s incredible vision and creepy style has impressed me more than any other director in recent memory, and I thought his presence would shift the franchise in a fresh and exciting direction and turn Middle-Earth into an even stranger and unsettling place.

But with Del Toro gone, now what?  Is The Hobbit destined to suck, or will it simply never be made at all?

Jackson has reiterated that he will not be directing the films, even though he will continue to work on the script and try and facilitate a smooth transition to a new director.

I just don’t know who they can get with such short notice and the films being such a major commitment.  I’m sure plenty of lesser known and less capable directors will be lining up to prove their mettle, but if they pick someone bland and unoriginal who isn’t going to do the films justice, it will just be a complete waste of everybody’s time.  LOTR has built up such an incredible level of expectation that The Hobbit simply can’t be anything but amazing.

 
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