Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Conjuring - Insidious 2.0 (And That's Not Really a Bad thing.)

There's one odd quirk I've discovered in my taste in film over the years.  I'm not sure if this happens to other people or if it's just me, and if others get this, by all means, say so.  For reasons I've never quite understood, when the summer moves into its more 'prime' area of mid-July/early August, I start getting a strong itch for good horror.  I'm not sure what it is about this time of year that does it, but it always comes back.  As a result, I always wind up seeking out some new material (some classics also help, but the new stuff is always a plus.)  Now, this also helps in building up some new material for October, but that part is neither here nor there.

Why am I bringing this one up?  Because this year, that timing lined up VERY well for me this past weekend.

When I first saw the promotional spots for The Conjuring, I was pretty skeptical.  I think part of it was the fact that when I see "based on a true story" attached to a horror film, it causes red flags to go up for me, especially realizing how that 'based on' part gives a LOT of creative liberties.  I mean, the execution looked like it had potential, but I was still mixed overall.  This is why I was surprised when it came out to hear it was actually getting a lot of good buzz, both critically and financially.  So, last Saturday, curiosity got the better of me, and since I had a gift card to make use of, I decided to give the film a go.

The result, and this is part of where the subtitle on this comes from, actually surprised me in a very good way.

Purporting itself to be based on the case files of real life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (played in the film by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga,) this regards a case that, due to controversy in its proceedings, they had reportedly kept censored (the actual controversy isn't quite the earthshaking reason the ads would have you believe, but it does make some sense.)  This case concerning investigation of a haunting of a farmhouse bought by the Perron family.

"and as for the backyard...nothing wrong here, either."

Thanks to that 'from the case files' angle, I was already a little surprised with how some of the narrative on this film was handled.  At several points, the film goes into some of the mechanics, as it were, of the supernatural, care of showing us demonstrations from seminars the Warrens give at universities about their line of work.  These also make for some nice extra bits of development for the two characters to establish them for us before they get called to investigate the house.  These also help to frame the escalation in the other main storyline concerning the Perrons as events in their house build up.  On that note, this film does its build-up quite well.  While I above compared it to Insidious, to be honest, there are parts of the first half that almost feel a bit more along the lines of Poltergeist in terms of playing with the unseen and leaving the audience wondering just what these forces want.  With two films in a row now, director Justin Wan is shaping up to show a solid understanding of the 'less is more' rule in horror.  While he still does include some of the classic 'jump out and scare you' moments that are pretty part and parcel for the genre, he's also showing a knack for suspense by playing with the sense of impending dread.  In particular some of the early sequences involving Carolyn Perron (Lili Taylor) dealing with the house alone build up some very effective tension.  The highlight here being a sequence involving the house's unearthed basement where the actual payoff is small, but quite potent.

On this note, I would just like to say - if you have any interest in seeing this one now, you'd actually be doing yourself a favor to see it in theaters.  While I imagine this can still be pretty solid as an at-home watch, seeing it in a darkened movie theater really DOES further help add to the atmosphere in a good way.  Plus, if you're lucky and can catch the right show, you can get another added element care of the audience.  One of the big perks to seeing this on a Saturday afternoon was hearing the teenagers in the row ahead of me losing their proverbial shit watching this film.  I haven't heard that much screaming or freaking out in a theater in a while, and in a weird sort of way, it added a whole element of fun to the movie (as well as probably one of the most bizarre post-movie statements I have heard in a theater to date.)

Anyway, back to the film.

Alongside the scares, as I said above, the narrative is actually pretty solid.  I still remain skeptical about how much of this was 'true story' territory, but as a film, it holds up well.  Thanks to the slow burn that makes up most of the movie, we still get a fair amount of time with the Perron family to see what they're like normally, and as a result, we get to really get a sense of just what this haunting is doing to them.  Even the children all have some degrees of development (albeit not massive amounts) to really let you see how this is effecting them.  It gives a nice degree of sympathy to them in a genre where bad writing can leave you just wanting to see these characters get a karmic kick in the teeth by the forces of evil.  Likewise, the writers give similar attention to the Warrens as characters within the narrative, showing us their own family life throughout the investigations, and thus giving us a reason to be concerned about the risk they're also putting themselves in by intervening on the behalf of the Perrons.  Further to the script's credit, even when they finally start unearthing the nature of the haunting, the film manages to keep itself fairly on track (albeit some parts almost feel a bit more outlandish than they probably should), and to their credit, they keep the escalation fairly reeled in.  Some of the imagery the film employs as the haunting becomes more apparent can be a bit much beyond the early buildups, but they aren't off-putting enough to really hurt the film.

"I don't care what they taught you in film school, this is NOT a good cost-effective alternative to special effects in a ghost movie!"

Also, and this is in a separate paragraph just in case anyone is REALLY sensitive to spoilers and just wants to skip this part - I have to hand the film one REALLY big point here.  It says something for some of the formula in genres these days that this film's lack of the obligatory 'one last twist at the very end' cliche actually feels strangely refreshing.  Seeing this film end with a sense of closure (and one last little bit of messing with the audience) is something that shouldn't feel this rare in a horror film nowadays.

To quote MST3k: "It's a devil and it's fun!"

The technical aspects of this film are impressive as well, especially the cinematography.  It's not anything that will catch the attention of the Academy come awards time, but John R. Leonetti still gives the cameras enough to do that it makes some sequences standout, such as when the Perrons are first moving in, and we have a long take following one of the daughters through the house, ducking under a moved piece of furniture, turning to look at other members of the family she talks to, and only switching to a separate cut when she's outside the house.  It's a fairly minor part of the film, but it's nicely executed.  Likewise, some of the other sequences involving the children during the early phases of the haunting show similar creativity with the camera work, another good example being when one of the daughters checks for a sound under her bed.  The camera shares her view of the shot upside down, then as she gets up again, the camera rotates with her.  In some ways, this further adds to getting involved in some of the sequences that really pays off in the early parts of the movie.

Alongside the other surprises in the film, the casting stands out.  As the Warrens, Wilson and Farmiga strike a good balance of both professional and caring.  This works out particularly well in the later half as the events at the house intensify, and a rift occurs between Ed and Lorraine.  Ed is, understandably, concerned for her safety, while she's concerned about the family, and Wilson and Farmiga play these points off each other well.  The former is rather welcome since I find that Wilson can be somewhat hit or miss with his performances, but he's actually found a good fit in this one.  Likewise, the Perrons don't come up short for acting - as parents Roger and Carolyn, Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor at first start off seeming like they may be running the 'believer-skeptic' parallel, but as the events become harder to ignore, that archetype is quickly defused and we are instead left with two parents who are trying to help their family to the best of their abilities.  I have to also give Livingston a few extra points here - while he's been keeping busy, it seems like he never quite fully hit another career-maker like he had in the cult hit Office Space, and I admit at first it was hard for me to shake that image here, but once he got to shake the archetype risk, the role worked a bit more in his favor.  Taylor, admittedly, was a little bit of a harder sell.  For the first part of the movie, she's in good form and plays her role well.  It's near the end, when a development I won't get into here happens that her role somewhat derails.  Now, granted, that's not entirely her fault, and she's still clearly trying even with this turn of events, but it is a bit of a downside.  Their five children, meanwhile (played by Hayley McFarland, Joey King, Mackenzie Foy, Shanley Caswell, and Kyla Deaver) all thankfully, do their jobs well without defaulting to the cliche of child actors in horror just having that spaced out and scared look.  The fact they all maintain a believable sibling dynamic is just a bigger plus here.  Rounding out the cast are the Warrens' two associates - Drew (Shannon Kook) and Brad (John Brotherton.)  While somewhat relegated to just being the supports, these two still have some good interaction together, playing the strongest back and forth of 'believer-skeptic' in the cast, albeit here used somewhat for humor. I just have to make a quick aside with regards to Kook's casting.  I'm pleasantly surprised - between Star Trek: Into Darkness, Pacific Rim, The Wolverine, and now this, this summer has actually been pretty good to the Asian acting community.  Just a minor side note, take it as you will.

"If it's any consolation, if we screw this one up, the whole investigation and exorcism is free.
...probably not the time to bring that one up, huh?"

I'm sill pleasantly surprised this movie turned out as well as it did.  With its buzz, I went in expecting just an OK ride.  I walked out fairly pleased with the movie, and even surprised by some of the technical merits.

Maybe part of that was just my summer itch talking, but all the same, this movie did the job nicely.

On that note, I have to say, yes, I am still working on Summer reading. It's not Summer Reading if we're actually putting it first.

Till next time, when life finds a way to crush that optimism out of me...

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Wolverine - Fox Hopes Everyone Forgot Origins.

Two posts in one day?

Someone go thaw Beelzebub out, cause I have no explanation.

...OK, so there is an explanation, let me enjoy a little self-deprecation.

Anyway, as promised, this is one of two other recent releases gotten to seeing/reviewing.  I have to admit, I was a little surprised here.

When I had first heard they were doing another Wolverine film on paper, I had...reservations.  Sure, Jackman is a good fit for the role, but after X3: The Last Stand, and X-Men Origins: Wolverine (which I finally decided to knuckle under and watch for this review, more on that in a bit) this was gonna be a VERY hard sell.  First Class was a step in the right direction, but this was going to be what determined whether that was a fluke or not.  Then teaser trailers started to come out, and I had to admit, I was feeling a bit more positive about this one.  For one, it felt like it was actually trying to stick to just its title character and generally avoid Fox's unfortunate habit of "Look how many Marvel characters we snuck into this movie!"

As part of a promotion, Fox actually hid 37 Marvel characters throughout this scene.  Find them all and send the info in on a post card, and Marvel will ask you to testify in the resulting lawsuit on which characters Fox didn't have the approval to use.

With some generally positive buzz, I finally got to checking out the movie at an early screening last Thursday.  The result, while not glowing, did give me some hopes for where things are headed.

For starters, like I said in the title, this film seems to be completely disregarding the backstory mess that was X-Men Origins: Wolverine.  Thank whatever cosmic power you subscribe to for that one, too.  Like I said, this review marked the first time I bothered to watch that film, and that was just...bad.  To its credit, I gained more respect for The Wolverine as a result, but mostly from realizing it did many of the things Origins should have been doing but couldn't be bothered with.  So any reference to that is all but completely wiped out (complete with the fact this movie's backstory shifts Logan's WWII tour of duty. Where XMO:W had him involved at D-Day, this film instead jumps us to seeing him as a POW at Nagasaki.  Now, granted, they almost could reconcile both together...but it'd be one Hell of a stretch.)  Surprisingly, however, this film still decides to acknowledge the damage done by Brett Ratner's equally disliked The Last Stand.  Of course, half the surprise here is in how it handles it, and this is something I actually have to give the film some points for.


Traditionally, when a film has a bad sequel, the predecessors tend to follow one of three rules of thumb about it - you either pretend it never happened, you only acknowledge it when you're absolutely forced to, or you acknowledge it in a way that allows you to take potshots at the film as though to say to the audience "Yeah, we admit it.  It sucked."  In this case, however, they actually manage to take those events and use them to strengthen their own movie.  For starters, they set this some time after the film's conclusion, with Logan drifting away from the X-Men and sinking into a bit of a tailspin (OK, this could be read as KIND of a mix of points 1 and 2.)  Part of this tailspin is furthered along by the fact he's been haunted by dreams of Jean (Famke Janssen in a brief recurring role,) whose death he still blames himself for.  Considering this becomes a major part of what drives Logan in this movie, it seems the writers decided to make the most of the mess of The Last Stand and, in true 'If life gives you lemons' fashion, managed to make the basis for a halfway decent character arc out of it.  Now, this isn't to say The Last Stand is excused for its faults.  That's a mess for another time, but I do have to give writers Christopher McQuarrie, Scott Frank, and Mark Bomback some credit for being able to spin that into some better writing this time around.
and for the record - a better use of CG-rendered decrepitude than Prometheus

In further distancing from the X-Men setting, this movie transplants Logan to Japan, in a modified adaptation of the Frank Miller/Chris Claremont arc of comics from the 80s, that still remains one of the more popular arcs for Wolverine.  After wandering the wilderness, he's called to Japan by an aged and dying Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi,) the man he once saved years ago at Nagasaki.  He wishes to offer Logan the one thing no one else can - a chance to end his cursed immortality and find peace.  Logan refuses the offer, not born out of ego, but the belief that no one would want what he's had to live through.  Shortly after doing so, Yashida dies.  Within the day, Logan finds himself caught up in a crime war that has erupted from his death, and the de facto guardian of Yashida's granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto.)  On top of this, something has caused his healing powers to weaken.

This last part is one of the things that really helps sell the movie's plot.  The story itself is an interesting little mystery on its own (and thankfully, one that avoids a LOT of the cliches blockbusters have fallen into lately), but the meat of this film is in its focus on its title character.  As someone whose healing powers usually render him impossible to kill, Logan's borderline immortality has always been a blessing and a curse for the character, both within the universe, and in regards to how to write him.  This film explores both aspects of that (something I was genuinely surprised Origins never touched on, despite exploring just how long he's been alive for) and really allows us to see Logan in states of weakness, first psychological, then physical. From there, we then see him have to rebuild himself in both senses over the course of the film.  With this daunting task on his plate, Jackman gives arguably one of the best performances he's had with the character to date.  For someone who has generally been played as gruff but with a protective streak, it was interesting to see Jackman change gears with the role, offering a man for whom even living had become tiring, but who still doesn't have it in him to simply lie down and die.  As he slowly pulls himself back together from the trainwreck he starts the movie as, Jackman really shows why he's held the part for as long as he has and become so iconic with the claws.  It's a change of gears that he really manages to make work.

Pictured: One of the only frames from Stan Lee's The Aristocrats that can still be legally shown on the internet.
Of course, one of the drawbacks of having this sharp a focus on just one character is that it sometimes costs other characters.  While there are some other interesting characters in this film (most notably in the film's other power player, Rila Fukushima as the assassin Yukio, who develops a great dynamic with Logan) there are some who really don't amount to as much as it feels like they should.  The characters who suffer hardest here being the film's antagonists - in particular, the much advertised mutant Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), a character who the film tries to build up as an interesting threat, but outside of some interesting powers, there's just not a whole lot to her.  Now, I'll acknowledge this it isn't like the X-Men franchise hasn't had that problem before (while I liked the first movie, I will also admit that any villain who isn't Magneto doesn't really have much to them to speak of for character,) but that doesn't make it any less of a problem here.  To the cast's credit, many of them do still make the most of what sketched out character they have, though it's somewhat shaky at points.  Okamoto, for example, manages to do well at some points of the movie, but at others seems a bit unclear of what's supposed to be happening with her character as well.  About the only other grievance I can give this film on that front is in the case of Will Yun Lee's character, Harada.  When he's first introduced, he has potential to be an interesting character, but ultimately his role doesn't wind up amounting to very much beyond the last act, where his actions feel somewhat lacking in impact thanks to the fact we don't really know him terribly well.  All in all, it's a solid cast that is mainly hampered by the fact the roles they have leave them with limited options.

This may be one of the few times I've seen someone described as looking like anime where I can say I'd can actually see it.

While I'm speaking on the behalf of the cast, I do have to take a moment to commend director James Mangold on the fact this movie REALLY doesn't rely too heavily on the idea of bankable star power.  At least, not for American filmgoers.  Outside of Jackman, probably the most recognizable name in the main cast was probably Hiroyuki Sanada (from the original Ringu and Danny Boyle's Sunshine) as Mariko's father, Shingen.  Otherwise, Mangold largely cast beyond the 'traditional' pool for Asian actors in the US, and in doing so, got a cast that stands well on their own merits, rather than simply going for names that would fill theater seats.

The one other thing I have to praise Mangold for here, and one of the big draws of the fact this is a summer film, is, of course, the action scenes.  I have to say, as the various X-Men/X-Men related films have gone in terms of action, this is probably some of the most creative sequences the franchise has had in a while.  Between a frenetic fight on the roof of a Japanese bullet train, and Logan's one-man assault in a village full of ninjas (a scene that's been featured prominently in advertisements,) the film keeps its action fresh without going back to the same tricks too often, and really taking advantage of the locations to offer more options in terms of how to let the fights play out.

"Let's see those fondlers reach me up here!"

So, all in all, I have to admit this surpassed my expectations. It's got some shortcomings, as a drawback of one of the film's strengths, strangely enough, but nothing strong enough to completely harm the movie.  Even with those flaws, it's still on the stronger end of the summer's blockbuster offerings, and is reassuring as a sign of the franchise finally getting itself back on track (speaking of, be sure to stay during the credits - they include an extra scene to set the stage for the next movie.) For all my reservations over the initial talk of the next film, I must admit, this actually has me feeling optimistic for where things could go again.  For a feeling I haven't had for this franchise since 2006, it's a welcome feeling.

One down, one to go.  As promised, the next one will be ready within the next day or so.

Keep an eye out till then!

Summer Reading 2: Les Misérables (1998)

Or Liam Neeson Hasn't Been a Proper Father Yet Till At Least 20 People Die

Well, it's been a while since the last of these reviews. Like real-life summer reading, sometimes you have other things you would like to devote your time to more. In this case, it was giant robots. And like all summer reading assignments, we eventually get back to work.

Which brings us to entry #2 - the 1998 adaptation starring Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush.  From this point on, I will say there is one recurring theme with a lot of the adaptations of this book- events are left out. Given the sheer amount of content in the original source material, and the fact that the closest to a straight adaptation clocked in at 5 hours of runtime, most other versions choose to pick one or a couple of particular plots and themes to emphasize out of the full tome rather than have to speedread.

This adaptation is a BIG example of that practice - in that this film is almost purely dedicated to the conflict between Valjean and Javert (played by the above two actors respectively.)  The result is...something of a mix.  Where the focus is concerned, it's actually a pretty solid job.  Unfortunately, whenever there's an event that's not concerned with their conflict, the adaptation suffers in many ways.

"Don't screw with me, Javert! You KNOW what happens when I play determined fathers in film!"

To the film's credit, that focus doesn't actually come up as an issue right away.  The first chunk of the film is fairly faithful to the source material - and on top of that, fairly well done.  In fact, the entire section up through Fantine's death and Cosette's adoption is surprisingly spot on, if a bit streamlined in the interests of time.  Even with the streamlining, the film still hits on all the appropriate plot points, and does them suitable justice.  It's when the story moves into the second half, when the narrative is supposed to expand to cover Cosette and Marius (whose role is almost completely rewritten) that the film begins to suffer. It even moves away from the text in some rather jarring ways, the most damning an added in moment where Valjean outright slaps Cosette.  There's a number of changes in this film that I can somewhat accept (things like the fact the Thénardiers are almost completely absent from the movie, while a bit odd, I can see why with the film's focus) but that one feels like a particularly out of character moment that makes the entire point of focusing on that plotline seem to hurt as a result.  Alongside the Thénardiers, many other characters are soundly given the axe by the script, even those that could still fit into the overall narrative - such as Marius's friends and fellow revolutionaries, who are largely omitted and his role inflated into being a ringleader in the cause. It's something of a shame that the script falls apart like this in the second half, because the movie otherwise is a fairly well done production.  Billie August's direction does a good job with capturing the dirty streets of France of the era, and most notably, sells the failed revolution well.  Though the script still skimps on this section, the direction really gives everything a sense of impending doom as well as the sense of chaos when it all finally does come apart.  About the one area where the direction does lose its edge, and this is partially also on the script, is the film's finale.  In a bit of an odd choice, August and screenwriter Rafael Yglesias choose to end the film with Javert's releasing Valjean and then committing suicide.  While this does wrap up their primary focal point, as well as leave the loose ends fairly seen to, it feels ultimately anticlimactic as a choice to end the movie on, and is done in such a way that it feels like it loses the impact the scene is supposed to have.  Valjean simply walks away and Javert's suicide feels less like an inability to reconcile his world view with the events and more a matter of fact "I think I'm done here" style of death.

Surprisingly...this isn't that much different from his reaction at the very end.  I suspect, on the inside, he's thinking "...what the Hell was that?"

One of the areas where this film comes through the strongest is in, as you can guess from the two leads, the casting.  Neeson's stint as Valjean is, with the exception of an added violent streak (albeit one that makes sense in the first part of the book) an otherwise spot-on take on the character.  Likewise, while he sometimes overemphasizes the stronger elements of his personality, Rush is otherwise a solid fit in Javert's role, maintaining the cold policeman's demeanor.  Of the other two standouts, one is to be expected, while the other is more of a very pleasant surprise; The first of these being Uma Thurman as Fantine.  Though the film somewhat speeds through her decline, Thurman does justice to the scenes she does have in the role.  For not getting a lot of direct involvment, she genuinely still manages to get a lot of sadness from her time in the film.  The other, and the surprising one, being Peter Vaughan as the Bishop of Digne. For having an even further condensed part in this version, Vaughan still manages to imbue the warmth necessary for his role as a moral catalyst for Valjean. Claire Danes and Hans Matheson as Cosette and Marius carry their roles well enough for what the script leaves them to work with, but that's all the impact they have.

"Finally!  A version of this story where I'm not just a love-struck idiot!"
(...OK, he's a bit more than this in the original...but really, it DOES make up a large chunk of him.)

In general, this film is something of a mixed bag to me as an adaptation.  Like I said above, when it works well, it actually really knocks it of the park.  Unfortunately, when it misses, it tends to hurt the production as an adaptation.  The result is a film that is a decent production on its own merits, if a little rocky in the second half.  However, as an adaptation those stumbles become a full-fledged trip up and amplify the mistakes further.

I feel kind of bad for this now.  Several weeks late and it's for a somewhat lackluster adaptation.  Well, brace yourselves.  To make up for it, the next entry will be a double-header...both in going well and disappointment.

Fun Fact - This isn't actually a still from the movie.  This was part of Uma Thurman's long and painful recovery from Batman and Robin.  Yeah.  It wasn't pleasant.

In the meantime, keep an eye out.  In the next few days, I've got not one, but two new releases lined up for review.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Pacific Rim - We As a People Picked Grown Ups 2 Over This?

OK, there's two reasons this entry took me a while to get to.

One is the obvious reason of delays from earlier this week, as well as my desire to get the two-film review of Robot Jox and G-Saviour out there first. Plus the subsequent two days of alcohol and abusive riffing spent recovering from the latter.

The other is, honestly, trying to work out my feelings about this movie without letting them get bogged down in the sheer frustration over how the film has been handled. Cause I'm gonna be honest - the fact this movie slipped and fell as hard as it has in the US is mind-boggling to me. I mean, in almost every other country it has been released in right now, the movie has been a success. The first weekend alone saw overseas sales surpass US ticket sales. This is even before factoring in that it still hasn't been released yet in Japan and China, two countries where it's already been projected to perform VERY well, with advance screenings drawing praise from industry people over there, including one of the founding fathers of giant robots, Go Nagai.

How did it do here? First weekend, it lost out to Adam Sandler's critically reviled Grown Ups 2. This weekend, it was even nearly outgunned by the much-maligned R.I.P.D., which itself opened ingloriously in sixth place on Friday.
Why did this happen? Well, there's been a lot of speculation and conspiracy theories about that, with theories ranging anywhere from a public relations hit campaign to plans to essentially undercut Legendary in light of their decision to break from Warner Bros. Whatever the reasons, one thing is pretty clear - WB decided to let this one twist in the wind while instead pumping their advertising manpower into Zack Snyder's somewhat shaky Man of Steel, and then afterward into the above-mentioned fumble R.I.P.D. Comparing the ad campaigns of the three films, it's really hard not to say WB just couldn't be bothered to properly promote PR, but was willing to put the effort into a film that was getting roasted as soon as the trailers hit.

So yeah, it took a while for me to get past the fact that, regardless of its own strengths or weaknesses (both of which we'll get to shortly) this movie's fate was already sealed by good old-fashioned studio politics-something I might not have minded that much were it at least being thrown over for a good movie. This is not one of those cases.

OK, I'm sorry, I just needed to get all of that out of my system. At least the overseas sales may still keep this movie afloat, but it's hard to look at the box office returns lately and question our cultural judgment.

ANYWAY, back to the movie.

Oh, one last prelude - I realize this has already been dispelled many, many, many times, but it bears repeating here. If you still think Pacific Rim was cribbing from Evangelion, I'm gonna give you a minute to either stow that, or promptly turn around a leave. I already derailed this enough with the fact that this movie got hosed because Warner Bros decided to, if I can be perfectly frank, make the dick move in this equation (yeah, you guys didn't pay the lion's share of the budget, but the fact is, the half-hearted marketing on your part since you don't have anything to lose here doesn't look good in the eyes of other prospective business partners.) ...and there I go again, point is, it's not a rip-off. Many of the things people claim it got from EVA, EVA itself borrowed from earlier works (Editor's note: Let's be real, most people making that claim have probably ONLY seen Eva). Welcome to modern storytelling, nothing is original, etc, etc.

"I don't understand it.  Whenever they used to do that move in the 70s, the arm always came back after."

Pacific Rim is something of a, now sadly rare, feature in the modern summer moviescape. In that this is one of the only blockbusters coming out this summer that isn't a sequel/remake/adaptation/etc of something else. I realize it seems odd to point this out, but there's a reason people keep coming back to this - because these kinds of films are sadly becoming endangered in favor of something with a pre-packaged marketing hook. I think this is one of the big reasons why I wanted to see this movie do well- the rebirth of the non-franchise blockbuster.

Its story is, admittedly, fairly basic - in the not-too-distant future, the Earth finds itself being attacked by giant monsters known as kaiju (one of the many little ways this film tips its had to giant robot and monster tales of yesteryear.) These creatures, emerging from a rift in the Pacific ocean codenamed The Breach, have left humanity reeling from their first attacks. Between their hard-to-kill nature and toxic blood, conventional arms have proven problematic to stop them. As an alternative, mankind has started the Jaeger program - giant robots designed to combat the kaiju. It works for a while. When the movie itself begins proper, however, the situation has changed. The kaiju have gotten stronger, smarter, etc, and mankind's jaegers have had a hard time keeping up. With the program facing shutdown in favor of simply walling off the problem ("If we don't see it, it's not there!"), the program's commander, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba, one of the highlights of the cast) is pooling all of his efforts into one last assault on the Breach. With his funds cut, he's pulling every option he has left, including bringing in the film's protagonist - former jaeger pilot Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam.) Having lost his brother/partner in an earlier encounter, Raleigh finds himself somewhat hesitant to get back into the fight, but eventually finds his new partner in the form of a young, determined new pilot (Rinko Kikuchi, doing a decent job with beating some stereotyping her character could have fallen into.)

There is a part of me that wonders if this was designed partially to say 'Your move, video game designers.'

The story itself, as you can guess from the recap, is admittedly somewhat archetypical in some regards. Honestly, that's not too much of a problem in this case per se. Sometimes, a simple story works. In this case, it's helped along by one particular asset - the worldbuilding. Thanks to the setting director Guillermo Del Toro and writer Travis Beacham have come up with, there's enough interesting ideas to play around with to make a rather by-the-numbers story feel considerably more interesting to watch, especially thanks to how they explore concepts like the way jaegers are piloted (the two pilots share a collective conscious at the controls known as the drift.) Further to this end, they are able to explore a bit of how the rest of the world has learned to cope with kaiju and the threat bearing down on them, from bunkers to rationing. Probably one of the more standout elements of the world-building in this regard comes care of the Pan-Pacific Defense Corps' two main scientists (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman, playing off each other in a way that floats between rivalry and bickering like an old married couple,) and to this end, a visit to a black market for kaiju organs (overseen by Ron Perlman, in a role that, while brief, is actually pretty entertaining in his own right.) We get a sense of a world that is actually lived in, rather than simply a backdrop.

It really says something for Perlman that he is probably one of the only actors that could really pull off this look well.
For a bonus, look up the promo video he made advertising kaiju organs and their medicinal benefits.

In some ways, that actually provides a good lead-in to discuss the drawbacks on this movie. One of the biggest being that it feels like there isn't enough to it. Not that I mean it's too short, mind you. At over two hours, it's a pretty healthy length for a blockbuster. What I mean is, we're given this fairly interesting setting, but there's many elements in it that feel underdeveloped or not really explored at all - most particularly in the case of the Chinese and Russian jaeger teams. For having two rather impressive jaegers and fighting styles, they're barely even featured within the movie (the Chinese team is only identified by a collective name, and neither team has dialogue outside of combat.) This in particular becomes a pronounced problem with the second act of the movie - when much is made of friction between the American and Australian Jaeger teams - more specifically the younger Australian pilot, Chuck Hansen (Robert Kazinsky) believing the outdated Gipsy Danger and its unreliable pilots are a hindrance to the operation.  Despite these concerns, neither the Chinese nor Russian teams seem to have much to say on the matter, despite the fact such a circumstance would be a great window for developing the other teams and their different mindsets.  This may be a result of scenes being cut for time, but without knowing anything for certain on the matter, it remains a weakness here.  Likewise, even our main characters, though we get some discussion of their background, still feel like they have more to them than we got to exploring. It's the kind of thing that has me hoping maybe the overseas success will be enough that they won't completely abandon this as a franchise, since there is still a lot left really unexplored as far as this film goes. So this could turn into a strength, but just on the basis of its own movie, it's something of a hindrance. I'm not sure I can really call this missed potential, since in this case, it never so much feels squandered as much as they don't really focus on it. It's frustrating, but not in the same sense as feeling like they completely misused it.

Let's be honest - who didn't want to see more of this fighting style?  That's not sarcasm, I really do feel like we got short-changed on this guy.

Alongside this, there are some points in the plot that do feel a bit problematic on thinking them through (I won't go too in-depth into this, since the ones that really irked me here do get into spoilers.) Likewise, some of the characterization can be seen as hit or miss in some cases. Most particularly there's been debates over Kikuchi's character who, I can admit, is the subject of few problematic bits within the film, namely her dynamic with Stacker. On the other hand, her character has the biggest arc of the film, and as a character is judged by her skills, rather than gender, and is shows herself to be more than capable in combat. It says something kind of sad for the industry that, despite problems, she still feels like a considerable improvement over many of the other female leads we've gotten this summer.

The acting is, actually kind of half and half. Like I said before, Elba's turn as the base commander, for primarily being a begrudging authority figure, gives the role a pretty strong presence just by virtue of being there. Hunnam, in a bit more of a clean-cut turn from his regular role on Sons of Anarchy, is a bit basic, but does well for a role that, admittedly, isn't particularly deeply written. Likewise, while I still have some issues with how Kikuchi's role is written, I can't really fault her for still doing the best she can with the material. The one other standout in the cast being Max Martini as one of the other veteran pilots of the base, senior Australian pilot Herc Hansen.   Martini is kind of understated in the role, but honestly, he still manages to make for some good moments as a father to a son who even he admits, in his own words, he 'can't tell if he needs a hug or a kick in the ass.' Probably one of the best moments for getting an emotional performance actually goes to him as the movie builds to its climax and everyone is preparing for their final mission. I won't say any further beyond saying, again, he take a fairly basic scene and really sells it well. Otherwise, like said above, many of the supporting cast actually all play off each other well enough to stand out on their own without really hijacking the movie. The one other standout among them being Clifton Colins Jr, taking a character that could have simply been a talking head and instead giving him some extra bits of interaction, both in flashback, and in the present to show us a character who's grown and changed with the project.

"We've been over this a dozen times now.  No, I don't know what the Hell happened with the script to Prometheus. Nor will I try to justify the plotholes.  It was a good idea when we all signed on, then it went all LOST on us. Now will you stop reminding me of it?"

The direction of the overall movie, meanwhile, helps further make the most of the basic material. While this isn't going to be remembered on quite the same tier as Pan's Labyrinth or The Devil's Backbone, Del Toro handles the material with a suitable touch, getting a good sense of what the movie pays tribute to without feeling overly referential or making the proverbial 'wink and a nudge' style of shout-out that can get old in a film fast. Further, he makes good on the point that was always meant to be the film's biggest draw - the fights. Rather than feeling like just straight-up destruction porn (something blockbusters have made into an industry all its own,) the movie still focuses primarily on the giant fighters throwing down. Rather than offering us terrified and fleeing citizens (something which is almost becoming like shock value nowadays) these are people who've already gotten used to the system enough to take to shelters. It's a minor point, but one that really does help set this off from other blockbusters a bit more this season. Finally, and another asset of how this film plays out, is the soundtrack composed by Ramin Djawadi. For a name that's not quite achieved the same status as many of the big name composers in film nowadays, I'm actually pleased with how Djawadi's work has come along - between this, his work on the first Iron Man, and the continuing work on Game of Thrones, he's fast proving himself to be a strong contender for music. In this case particularly, his score adds some extra energy to the fights that is a very nice bonus.

All in all, and in spite of the flaws discussed earlier, I do still have to hand this to Del Toro - I had fun with this movie. A lot of fun. In fact, so far this is the most satisfied I've been with a movie this summer. Again, it's not perfect, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel like there were some things it could have improved on. Despite that though, I still felt pleased with this final product, rather than wondering what the Hell they were thinking with some of the changes on the likes of Man of Steel or Star Trek: Into Darkness. That fun element, in a lot of ways, is probably one of the things that helps the movie the most here - for all its faults, it's not a movie that's trying to be high art or make a profound social statement. Del Toro just wanted to make something of an all-around universal adventure story about mankind using giant robots to fight monsters. Simple, to the point, and in that regard, it still manages to do its job well, warts and all.

I'm not sure if the overseas success will be able to change Hollywood's mind on how to say this film went over (though it has still gotten some pretty notable word of mouth to this point) but I have to say, even with the shortcomings, I'm still very glad that they made the attempt. I'm not sure if we'll see any more from this world in the future - but based on the sampling we got from this, I would be keen to see what they can do with more opportunities and a chance to work out the bugs in this.

Whew...that went...much longer than I expected. Pretty surprising for a film that I had earlier said is actually pretty straightforward in its narrative.

Well, that puts us almost back up to standard again. Next will come the (overdue) second entry for Summer Reading (...oh come on now, I know some of you are checking those out!)

Till then.

"Always remember, son.  In a fight between the main robot and a giant monster, ALWAYS bet on the robot..."

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Backlog Week 01: Robot Jox & G-Saviour. Western Robot Throwdown

NOTE: The following entries were initially lined up for the previous week.  They were delayed in large part due to planning for, and then attending, ConnectiCon.  A report for that will be up by next week as well, but I still wanted to get some of the backlog done first.

With that in mind, this will be the first of three entries lined up from last week, and this one in particular was lined up to go from before last weekend.

So without much further buildup, let's just get right into it, shall we?

This weekend saw the release of Guillermo del Toro's much advertised giant robots vs monsters throwdown Pacific Rim.  In preparation for this, I thought it would be interesting to look at some of the earlier western efforts at giant robots in film.  I had considered a similar for giant monsters as well, but comparatively, there's been a much larger pool to draw from on that end, and, in all likelihood, it would result in me grumbling about Cloverfield.  Which may still happen in the future, but for now, seemed best to keep with just the robots for this one.

With that in mind, I fired up two western-based attempts to do giant robots in film before this.  The results were somewhat across the board.

First up and arguably the more well known of the entries, we have Re-Animator director Stuart Gordon's 1990 giant robot smackdown Robot Jox.

It just now dawns on me that, out of context, this tagline would sound INCREDIBLY wrong.

This is one of those films that, I will admit, I only got to seeing for the first time earlier this year.  It's one that I've always known about, but just never got around to looking into sooner.  I think part of what sold it was actually reading an interview with Gordon about making the movie and being won over by his enthusiasm of the film, which he pitches as a variation on the Achilles narrative from The Iliad.

The story is very much a product of when the movie was made - it's a post-apocalyptic future.  The surviving nations have formed into the two factions known as the Market and the Confederation.  War has been supplanted by, essentially, tournament battles between giant robots used to settle disputes (the pilots in these scenarios being the titular Robot Jox.)  In particular, we follow one protagonist, the pilot Achilles (Gary Graham...yeah, Gordon was quite direct about it) as he's pursued by Confederate rival Alexander (Paul Koslo, fresh from the Ivan Drago school of Russian acting) who desires to best him in combat.  At first Achilles is hesitant following an accident in the ring he blames himself for, but in time, circumstances force him to get into the cockpit for one more showdown.

Like I said before, this film is very much a product of the times it was made in - in that, in a lot of ways, this could be called Rocky IV with robots and not have it be too far off the mark.  The Cold War parallels are pretty out in the open and the film embraces them, sometimes with inadvertently priceless results, thanks in no small part to Koslo.  Strangely, this isn't a detriment.  If anything, it adds a sort of charm to the movie nowadays in its somewhat over the top view of the situation at the time.

Admittedly, this doesn't show it as well, but seeing these in motion is quite impressive.

Also, as a rather nice surprise, the effects in the movie have aged VERY well.  I mean, it's not the 1982 version of The Thing, but the stop motion used on the robots in this movie still looks quite good and hold up well.  It's arguably the movie's strongest feature, and it does it very well as a result.

The cast, while not winning any awards, are all at least having fun with the material from the look of things.  This is probably best exemplified in the film's final battle - the exchanges between Achilles and Alexander are at just the right level of over-the-top without throwing the scene into high comedy by coming on too strong.

Also groin saw.  It's...exactly what it looks like.

Everyone manages to strike a good balance with the material and it all flows well as a result.  It's part of what allows the movie's charm to rub off on watching.  It really is just a fun little cult movie if you're looking for another good fix of western robot cinema.

One down, and actually a pretty enjoyable ride too....let's see what we've got next...

...oh boy.

This is one that I've always been half and half with.  To give some background, both for the movie, and myself, I will start by saying - one fandom I've been pretty connected to for the better part of over a decade now is Mobile Suit Gundam.  For those not familiar with the name, let's just keep it brief and say this is one of Japan's most prolific giant robot franchises, almost 35 years old and still actively producing new materials at a regular paces.
...this movie being one of the many, many things the franchise has rolled out over the years.  More accurately, this was made back in 2000 as part of the franchise's 20th anniversary celebrations.  For those of you now going "wait a minute," yes, this IS still a western giant robot movie.  The folks at Sunrise decided a suitable way to celebrate the franchise's 20th anniversary would be a live-action Gundam production...given the general caliber of Japanese visual FX at the time, however, they opted to work through Canada.  The result was a film that, within the franchise, has become rather infamous.  Original Gundam creator Yoshiyuki Tomino has voiced his disapproval of it, and the film has gained something of a black sheep status within the fandom - and given the already somewhat divisive nature of the franchise, is saying something right there.

With this in mind, I first went into the film years ago expecting something truly awful.  Like, Manos with giant robots grade awful.  To my relief/disappointment, the actual film wasn't really that bad.
...but it wasn't that good either.

About the best way one can sum up G-Saviour and its failings, is the fact that it feels very much like the movie was made as a pilot for a bigger project.  As such, it has many of the familiar elements of a failed made-for-TV pilot: the acting is somewhat lacking, the effects have aged VERY badly, the budget is corner cutting at its finest (many people have already called this movie out on recycling uniforms from Starship Troopers, so I'll let that slide) and the story ends on such a note that you can just hear the writers hoping they get a greenlight to do more with this.  Further, they were also careful to try and make this read like its own product - despite using the Gundam franchise's 'Universal Century' setting, it is ultimately fully detached from the previous works (though a subsequent video game did attempt to reconcile things with Victory Gundam,) and the word 'Gundam' is never even uttered.  The things that make it Gundam could easily be reworked and rewritten to make this into a generic sci-fi series in its own right with little to no effort.

Like Robot Jox, one needs to see this in motion to properly appreciate the point.  Unlike Robot Jox, this won't be doing the movie any favors.

On second thought, I'm gonna clarify the earlier statement on the acting.  Somewhat lacking is kind.  As the movie's hero, Mark Curran, Brennan Elliot seems to be naturally hard-wired for smugness.  Even when he's not actually supposed to be smug, it's there.  It really kills a lot of moments, albeit partially resurrecting them as comedy in the process.  On the other side of the coin, David Lovgren as his rival, Jack Halle, is even further into the realm of comedy, with some INCREDIBLY hammy acting.  At points, he manages to salvage some scenes simply by virtue of being over the top.  Much of the rest of the cast are otherwise pretty unremarkable, with the possible exception of Blu Mankuma, who feels like he's channeling a role that, with a better budget, the studios might have tried to pitch to Keith David.  He still tries to make the most of the part at least, so I'll give him that.

Curran pictured here in a lighter moment of smug and wearing a suit made from the pelt of a car seat.

The mentioned low budget and bad CGI are also kind of a disappointment in this case since, to be perfectly honest, the Mobile Suits (mechs, pick your wording) are actually pretty nice designs.  I mean, taken as just lineart, they are a nice evolution for Universal Century tech.  Unfortunately, the CGI of the time does them NO favors, making them look clunky and unwieldy, turning what's supposed to be a pitched and tense final battle into something bland and unexciting.  Curiously, if you watch the sequences sped up, they actually flow better.  I'd say you then risk losing the dialogue...but to be honest, you're not really missing a whole lot there.

On top of all of this, the script and direction are, like so much of this movie, not particularly interesting.  They resort to many blatant exposition lines of dialogue to help establish the setting.  The direction, meanwhile, I really don't remember any standouts for good or bad in the direction...which arguably is even more damning than if it had been bad direction.  It wasn't even like this movie had the sincerity of Robot Jox behind it to make it enjoyable.  It mostly  It's somewhat fitting for the movie, in a way - it's a film that's neither as bad as the Gundam fanbase would have you believe, nor is it particularly good in any regard beyond MAYBE some riffing material.  Were it not for the franchise ties, this would be just another skeleton in the TV pilot graveyard, riddled with so many others that tried and failed.

So we have a good entry and a 'meh' entry. Not a bad start.  For the next entry, we'll see how Del Toro's own contribution measures.  Keep an eye out, cause it will be coming up pretty soon after this.

Till then...well...
Crash and Burn!