Monthly Archives: July 2013

The Wolverine (2013)

the-wolverine-posterFor a character universally beloved by comic and movie fans, Wolverine has fallen on some hard times. It’s hard to find too many supporters for either 2006’s X-Men 3: the Last Stand or 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine. He had a fun cameo in 2011’s retro X-Men First Class, but other than that we’ve gone almost a decade without a respectably good movie starring Wolverine. It looked like Darren Aronofsky was going to be the answer to that drought of quality. The Black Swan director, who worked previously with Jackman on the intensely personal The Fountain, spent six months developing a Wolverine film set in Japan. Then Aronofsky dropped out, making this the second superhero franchise he missed out on (he was tapped to reboot Batman before Christopher Nolan landed the job). James Mangold (Knight and Day, Walk the Line) stepped into the director’s chair and now we have the directly titled semi-sequel, The Wolverine. It’s a step up quality-wise but even that comes with qualifiers.

Many years after the events of X-Men 3, Logan (Hugh Jackman) is living a solitary life amid the Canadian wilderness. He’s looking to lay low and he’s haunted by visions of his lost love, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), the woman he was forced to kill to save the world. Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a mutant with the ability to foresee people’s deaths, finds him for her employer. He’s invited to Tokyo at the request of a wealthy and dying businessman, Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi). Back during World War II, Logan saved Yashida’s life, shielding him from the atomic blast that wiped out Nagasaki. Yashida has an offer for Logan. He can make him mortal again and take away his advanced healing ability. Thanks to a sketchy mutant, Wolverine loses that ability and goes on the run to protect Yashida’s granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto), from gangs and rival businessmen.

93812_galBenefiting from low expectations, The Wolverine is a solid summer superhero tale that’s more interesting in its divergences from… summer superhero movies than it is when it follows that basic script. I appreciated that here is a superhero movie that actually doesn’t have to be wall-to-wall action. It allows a story to take place. Now, that story has its problems most certainly, but at least it has room to breathe. Also, there are barely any mutants in this movie at all. Excluding the title character, we get two super-powered mutants though neither really has a power that lends itself well to combat. I appreciated that there was hardly any gunplay at all in the movie. Mangold allows the hook of Wolverine, the hand-to-hand combat, to flourish amidst teams of adversaries following the ways of the samurai. I also appreciated the lack of familiar faces. While Jackman and Janssen will be recognizable to fans, I doubt too many others have a deep familiarity with a wide selection of Japanese actors. Then there’s an excellent post-credits scene that sets up the forthcoming X-Men universe crossover, Days of Future Past, arriving summer 2014. For all of these reasons, and some decent action, I’d say The Wolverine is worth seeing especially by fans burned by the character’s last two starring ventures.

With that said, this is a movie that still feels like it has problems that stop it from reaching its potential. The crux of the plot hinges on Wolverine losing his healing ability, thus becoming mortal. I understand that it’s hard to make an indestructible man vulnerable, but his friends and loved ones aren’t. The loss of powers doesn’t seem to raise the stakes because there isn’t a noticeable difference in the dude’s actions. He still acts the same except he recoils a bit longer from punches. The guy gets shot a bunch of times and stabbed and even clings to dear life atop a bullet train (more on this later), but he never really seems fazed. There’s also the nitpicky comic book nerd criticism that, if removed of his healing ability, there’s no way his body could sustain an entire skeleton made of metal. I’ll overlook it. This storyline seems even weaker when Wolverine (spoilers) gets his powers back for the third act (is that really a spoiler?) so he can fight the giant bad guys. The movie needs him back at full strength. It doesn’t feel like much was accomplished narratively or with the character to rob him of his invulnerability. That storyline could work, as it has in the comics before, but it just doesn’t seem like the ramifications are really explored beyond the surface.

Then there’s also to the issue with how cluttered the plot is with characters. There are far more characters in this than necessary, many of whom contribute very meagerly or could have been combined. The entire Yashida corporate storyline is just overburdened. There’s Mariko’s gruff father, there’s her mysterious boyfriend, there’s her would-be fiancé who works as a justice officer, there’s a snake-like mutant who really doesn’t add anything but poison samples. And you don’t really care about any of them. Whenever the story takes too many steps from its core (Wolverine protecting Mariko, getting his power back) is when the movie loses your interest. The final showdown and the participant involved should also be obvious, especially since Yukio point blank tells the audience about a red herring. Speaking of Yukio, I think she was easily the best addition to the movie. She forms a buddy relationship with Wolverine, a notorious loner, and watching them spar is just fun. Plus she’s a badass with a soul. Her mutant power also curses her with knowing how every loved one, every dear friend, every family member will die. She must see it, live it, all the while knowing what is to come. And that’s all you ever see – people’s deaths. That is some heavy stuff, and the movie treats it with sincerity, showing how haunted Yukio can be with these unsolicited peaks into the future. I would have greatly preferred more screen time for Yukio, who ducks out for far too long for my tastes. Plus the actress has a very striking, unique look to her. I don’t know if there are plans to continue her character into Days of Future Past, but I hope they do.

101202_galThen there are moments that strain credibility even for a summer superhero movie. It’s funny, because if you’re being entertained, your brain will ignore these moments. Well there’s one action sequence that stands out that seems to break every law of physics. I know we’re dealing with mutants, I know we’re dealing with superheroes, and I know it’s a summer action movie, but my God this bullet train sequence just does too much. There is a fight scene between Wolverine and a standard Yakuza thug atop the speeding top of a bullet train zipping by at 300 miles per hour. It’s actually the most memorable action piece in the film, but it’s also memorable for wrong reasons. Wolverine is using his claws to pin himself to the top. The Yakuza thug is using a standard knife. Are the tops of the bullet train this easily penetrable? I’d worry, Japanese commuters. Then they hop over signs and ledges, still landing atop the train. This isn’t a Western with a locomotive that one could feasibly keep their footing atop. This is a train going 300 miles per hour. You think you can jump onto something going that speed and keep your balance? Think you can hold onto something while you speed at 300 miles per hour? How can a human arm maintain that sort of physical exertion? It’s too ridiculous to enjoy. If the rest of the movie had a similar over-the-top tone, then this sequence would be acceptable. However, The Wolverine plays itself so seriously that moments like this truly negatively stand out.

Jackman (Les Miserables) is a perfect fit for this character. I agree with my friend and colleague Ben Bailey; while the X-Men movies have faltered in quality, Jackman never has. He’s played this role six times now and it’s still a pleasure to watch. There is a question of how much longer the man can keep this up, though. Even at 45, the man can still get jacked with the muscles; just look at Stallone, or don’t. The real problem is presented in the mythology of the character developed in the first Wolverine solo outing, namely that the man is close to immortal. He doesn’t stop aging; he just ages very slowly. This is the same problem with twenty-somethings playing vampires, or Arnold as a timeless robot (why would they make slightly older looking models?). Age catches up to all of us, though Jackman’s own constricts the use of the character in the future. Regardless, this man can play this part until he’s in a nursing home and I’ll be happy.

There are elements that work, particularly Wolverine’s thematic relevance to the samurai of old and the feudal system of honor, and I enjoyed his buddy relationship with badass-in-training Yukio. The action is serviceable, there are some sweeping visuals with referential touches to Kurosawa, and Jackman is still a strong and capable hero. There’s just so much more this film could have been. The setting could have been fleshed out, the characters pared down to essential storylines, and the plot of Wolverine losing his powers could have actually mattered rather than just play out like a momentary setback. There’s just as many things I enjoyed as I didn’t, so this is a tough call for me. The Wolverine is clearly a step above the previous two movies, but those were both fairly bad films, the solo one poisoning the well for future X-Men solo bids. If you enjoy the character and want something slightly different but recognizable, then The Wolverine will pass the time acceptably. It’s hard for me to work up much passion for this film, and I’ll be surprised if any hardcore fans feel otherwise. Here is a superhero movie that lands right dead center between bad and good. I suppose most would call that mediocrity, but given how poor X-Men 3 was and Origins, I think I’ll call it progress.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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The Conjuring (2013)

the-conjuring-poster1Does it seem like it’s getting harder and harder to scare people? Perhaps audiences have grown jaded by a real world kept at a fever pitch of post-9/11 anxiety and economic uncertainty. It seems that one solution is to just up the gore/gross factor, or overdose on grisly nihilism, but there has to be a law of diminishing returns to pointless shock value. The core elements of a good scary movie will usually be the same: make us care about the people onscreen and make us dread what happens next. What The Conjuring does so well, almost effortlessly, is what all provocative horror movies should accomplish, and that’s the formation of a truly effective spooky atmosphere. There may not even be any gore whatsoever in this film and very minimal jump scares, two overused tools in modern horror filmmaking. This is old school horror played to spine-tingling satisfaction.

Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) are the top paranormal investigators in the nation. In 1971, they’re asked to determine what is tormenting the Perron family in rural Rhode Island. Carolyn (Lily Taylor) and Roger Perron (Ron Livingston) and their five daughters cannot rest as a vengeful spirit is wrecking havoc with their lives. The spirit wants a body count and won’t go away before it has blood.

100355_galDirector James Wan (Saw) and his team take their time to build a direct sense of unease, a chilling mood that leaves you dreading what may happen next. The success of a horror film isn’t necessarily the fear of what you see but more so what you fail to see. The buildup, in essence, is more pivotal than the boo part. Credit also needs to go to twin screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes (Whiteout, House of Wax) who show off their skill at setting up scares and delivering (I credit their work on Baywatch Nights because, well, someone has to remember that spin-off). The child game of Hide and Clap, where one person wanders blindfolded trying to find their compatriots, requesting three claps to locate them, is just a flat-out terrific idea to parlay into a horror movie. There’s the staple of dramatic irony, realizing what the onscreen character does not, and the increasingly suspenseful dredge into unknown danger. Another example is a wind-up toy that, when its jingle is complete, should reveal something ghostly in its mirror. This is a great device that delivers tension in budding anticipation. Then there’s one daughter’s habit of sleepwalking, which again leads to some effective unease. The Hayes find smart ways to introduce elements to their ghost story and then integrate them again and again in satisfying and spooky ways. Plus there’s all those groping in the dark moments and a super effective sound design. The film does an excellent job of developing old school scares, taking its time to get under your skin.

It also helps when you actually care about the character being tormented. The Conjuring does a good job of making its characters relatable given the outlandish circumstances. At no point does any character really violate the Law of Stupidity, where our allegiance reverses. They even present plausible reasons why the family can’t simply move out of its haunted abode (financially under water, no one to buy the estate, the ghost will just follow them). The Perron clan is a loving family that feels real. The Warrens themselves are given their own vulnerability, which is important since they are the experts. Having a know-it-all character without a weakness doesn’t make for an interesting battle against the paranormal. Lorraine can sense things, yes, but she also loses part of herself every time, thus endangering herself with every new case, making herself more susceptible to the forces she feels she’s been chosen to defend others from. When Lorraine accidentally leaves behind a family locket, with a picture of her daughter, it brings an escalated threat level that hits home for the Warrens. The acting form top to bottom is also exceptional. They don’t oversell the scares. You feel their fear in a palpable way.

Another aspect of a haunting story is the mystery surrounding the angry spirit. If it’s a compelling investigation, you’re intrigued by every new clue or revelation and enjoy how the pieces come together. While there isn’t a complex backstory to the haunting of the Perron home, The Conjuring has enough creepy historical details to add to the overall atmosphere. I enjoyed that the evil spirit cursed anyone who lived on her property, eventually divided up into different owners. I liked that the spirit had a mother-child fixation, turning mothers against their children. And I liked that these peripheral ghosts, many of whom killed themselves in ghastly fashions, also pop up to terrorize the Perrons. It adds further depth to the world of the film while upping the spooky factor.

THE CONJURINGI need to single out one section of the plot that was eerie but also a bit confounding. The opening case doesn’t have anything to do with the Perron family but it does set a nice mood. It’s about a cracked, fraying, and altogether creepy porcelain doll that appears to be possessed and leaving notes for its roommates (“Miss me?”). We later see this creepy doll again because the Warrens have an entire garage filled with creepy artifacts from previous investigations. They argue destroying the possessed items because it would unleash all those demonic forces, so instead the garage serves as a sort of prison (a priest comes by every so often to re-bless the premises, which sounds like a nice side gig for the Vatican). I’ll accept the Warrens reasoning that locking away these dangerous items, each with its own troubling story, is safer for mankind. It’s also just a great set that begs for further analysis to pick apart every artifact. What I do not understand at all is that it looks like the Warrens have no protective lock with this door. Their young daughter stumbles in at one point. I don’t want to give anybody parenting tips, but if you have a room stocked with demonically possessed items that can escape, perhaps, I don’t know, you get a padlock for that door to safeguard against unwanted intrusions.

While entertaining to the end, the third act doesn’t have the same effect because it transitions wholly from a haunted house story into an overt exorcism film. For my tastes, it’s less interesting and exorcism films have always come across as fairly lazy for me. Once you bring a demonic possession and a set of familiar rules, it sort of goes on autopilot and rarely strays from the same template as the most famous of exorcism movies (Naturally I’m talking about Repossessed). For fans of that horror subgenre, they’ll be tickled, but I found it a lesser way to steer the movie to its conclusion. I realize that we’re dealing with the parameters of a personal account (I’m hesitant to say “true story” when it comes to paranormal events, but that’s my own bias), so I understand that this is the direction the story must conclude. I just thought it was a slight downgrade.

If you’re looking for a scary movie this summer, then The Conjuring will do the trick. It’s an old school horror movie that’s more concerned with properly established atmosphere, a mood of dread, and paying off well-developed plot elements that pack a punch. The best compliment I can give Wan, the Hayes, and everyone else involved is that I was squirming throughout much of the movie, uneasily shifting and dreading what was next. There’s a maturity to the film and Wan’s direction, as if he’s patterned his style after the films of the 1970s themselves. After Insidious, Wan definitely knows a thing or two about keeping an audience afraid. There are several moments of unsettling imagery that should find a way to creep out just about everyone. Just remember: don’t invite dolls to live with you, do investigate those strange bruises, and always lock up your demonic possessions, people. In short, The Conjuring doesn’t reinvent the wheel when it comes to ghost stories but it doesn’t have to, because this movie is scary good.

Nate’s Grade: B+

RED 2 (2013)

RED_2_11Pretty much more of the same, RED 2 feels too safe, too breezy and light-hearted, and while still fun in spots, you garner the impression that what was once sufficiently silly has gone overboard. The jokes feel flat and the characters aren’t properly integrated, especially Helen Mirren and a vengeful hired killer (Byung-hun Lee). The villains are a tad bland, but we’re here for the wacky retired special agents, so it’s forgivable. However, the good guys feel like they’d rather be elsewhere. Too much of the story is taken up by the frustrating Bad Girlfriend Plot wherein our hero Frank (Bruce Willis) is harangued by his girlfriend, Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker). I’m not even saying that her character is nagging or shrewish or anything like that, but the movie treats her like she’s dragging him down. We’re also treated to many comedic setups of Sarah trying her hand as a spy to mixed results. Parker is actually the best part of the movie, and maybe because she’s the only character that gets to do something different. RED 2 lacks the visual style of the first film and, inevitably, the freshness of its cavalier old fogies. The action is passable but is that really the adjective you want for a movie? I don’t know what more I was expecting since the first RED felt like a well-executed lark, but at least it had enough style and an impish attitude to leave me entertained. Its sequel is likeable but mostly trying to get by on your good feelings for the last movie.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Kings of Summer (2013)

1979Working part-time at a movie theater in the summers, I come across, let’s say, an interesting selection of customers with… interesting opinions. One middle-aged woman openly opined, while looking at the poster for the coming-of-age comedy The Kings of Summer, that she’s had enough with movies told from a teenage male perspective. While this same woman had very specific and narrow demands for an acceptable movie, she got me thinking. Why do we get so many coming-of-age movies from a male perspective? Let’s forget the easy answer that Hollywood has a lot more male filmmakers than female. There’s always that sense of romance with coming-of-age films, a nostalgic look back at a supposedly simpler time that now seems better appreciated. Maybe men are just more prone to romanticizing the past while women look forward to the future. Or maybe there are really just more men calling the shots about films get made. Whatever the reason, the woman didn’t go see The Kings of Summer, and judging by her attitude, I don’t think she missed out.

102423_galJoe (Nick Robinson) has just finished his freshman year in high school. He has a long summer ahead butting heads with his no-nonsense father (Nick Offerman). Then Joe gets the brilliant idea. He and his pal Patrick (Gabriel Basso), who is also sick of his annoying parents, will build their own home in the woods, a sanctuary where they can set the rules. Joe and Patrick pack up their belongings, find a quiet spot in the woods, and build that dream home. Biaggio (Moises Arias), a weird and gangly kid, takes an interest in the youthful declaration of independence and joins in. The guys invite girls over, explore the wilderness, grow patchy wisps of facial hair, and live out their fantasies of roughing it like real men. Of course it helps when a Boston Market is just down the road.

From start to finish, The Kings of Summer kept me laughing. I did not expect the comedy to be as consistent and thorough as it was, but writer Chris Galletta has a sure handed way of making the comedy derive from the situations and characters. Even with some outsized elements, notably Biaggio and the fact that the boys home-away-from-home is way too advanced for a kid who blundered through shop class, the humor never feels forced. That is an accomplishment, though the script also overly relies on Biaggio to say outlandish or weird lines. I especially enjoyed his one-scene pep talk with his father late in the movie. That confidant sense of humor goes a long way to relax an audience, allowing us to attune to the mellow waves of the film. It’s fun to watch the guys try to forage a life out in the woods, slowly learning how hard this whole survivalist lifestyle may actually be. The adults are viewed as blithe buffoons or hardasses, though they don’t come across as caricatures. Credit the attention paid to Offerman’s (TV’s Parks and Recreation) character as Joe’s father and credit Offerman’s uncanny ability to make gruff parenting endearing. This is an easy film to like, to go along with the flow, and to enjoy. It never really falters in entertainment and routinely has another joke at the ready to make you smile. It’s a sweet movie that does enough to keep you charmed.

While pleasant, I had to stop and reflect that there was absolutely very little to these characters. The boys all kind of blend together in their youthful romanticism of freedom and rebellion of lame parents, but you’d be hard-pressed to describe them beyond core physical descriptions. The moments that do supply character development are mostly broadly comedic or somewhat generic in their coming-of-age tropes, notably the broken heart administered by a guy’s crush. Example: Biaggio is essentially little more than a walking punchline machine. While quite funny and well acted, every line of his dialogue feels like a punchline. He comes from nowhere. At one point, Joe advises Biaggio that a girl may be interested in him, but Biaggio demurs and says that won’t work out. All right, here we go. Here’s where the movie sheds some light on him. Biaggio admits to being gay. The very next line involves him confusing gay with cystic fibrosis. It’s a funny joke but it turns a moment where a character was getting added dimension and just manufactures another punchline. Again, The Kings of Summer is a very pleasant film going experience, and one that made me laugh consistently, but objectively, the impact is too limited because of the lack of proper characterization.

102422_galAnd I suppose this leads into a bigger question of whether this lack of substantial characterization even matters. Coming-of-age movies, like any subgenre in film, have their own expectations and conventions. We all have our different tolerance levels for narrative familiarity, and depending upon the genre, familiarity may be a necessity. Fans of coming-of-age films want to see those familiar elements. They want to see the bonds of friendship, the neglectful parents, the first crushes that lead to first heartaches. It’s just like fans of romantic comedies finding comfort in the two leads hating one another until, inevitably, they love each other, or the public sing-alongs. I think many coming-of-age films at some level tend to be somewhat broad or generic to make them more relatable. Perhaps I’m just being too generous to formulaic pictures. If you’re a fan of coming-of-age movies then you’ll probably be quite forgiving of the shortcomings in The Kings of Summer. Me, I prefer Jeff Nichols’ Mud and its more textured, empathetic look at adolescence in a working poor Missouri riverbed community.

Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (TV’s Mash Up, Funny or Die Presents…) makes the film look beautiful. The romanticism of the youth running away to live in nature is improved with some spectacular looking natural settings and compositions. The film was primarily filmed in Cleveland and northern Ohio, and as a native Ohioan, I have to puff my chest. Vogt-Roberts is also skilled at handling his actors and balancing tone; while I criticize the over reliance on comedy at the expense of fleshing out characters, the tone is not divergent. It plays within the same cohesive wavelength throughout. If there is a breakout actor from this movie, it would have to be Arias (TV’s Hannah Montana, The Middle). The kid has a tremendous ability to tap into an oddball character, making him quirky rather than insufferable. He also has a unique look to him, and that’s got to be a plus for a working actor. Just ask Steve Buscemi.

Genial and undemanding, The Kings of Summer isn’t anything close to royalty in the coming-of-age genre but it’s consistently funny and enjoyable. The acting is good, the jokes work, and the movie’s out after 90 minutes. It’s a nice summer diversion but doesn’t contain the resonance to be considered more than that. The weak characterization and broad humor, while opening its wide appeal, also makes the film less substantial. It’s sweet and funny but little to distinguish it from other sweet and funny coming-of-age entries. If you’re a fan of the genre or looking for a mellow and pleasant evening at the movies, think of The Kings of Summer. Just don’t think it’s going to be anything more.

Nate’s Grade:  B

V/H/S/2 (2013)

220px-V-H-S-2_PosterThe second entry in the found footage horror anthology (and less than a year after the first to boot) is not as clever as V/H/S but more polished, better paced, and full of enough ingenuity to recommend, especially for horror fans. In my review of the first film I championed a shorter format, giving an audience the thrills they crave faster rather than slogging through an hour of slow buildup. The results are still fairly hit or miss, though none of the four segments is a misfire per se. The weakest is probably the last, “”Slumber Party Alien Abduction,” where the poor camera quality makes it hard to tell what is actually going on. The best, by far, is The Raid director Gareth Evans’ “Safe Haven” about a team of journalists picking perhaps the worst day to tour a creepy cult’s compound, notably during the apocalypse the cult predicted. This one takes a bit to wind up but when all hell breaks loose it goes nuts with glory. The wraparound segment tying everything together is more palatable and points to a promising mythology around the collection of these haunted VHS tapes that people keep watching and then dying over. All together, this is a concept that just works for horror and I’ll welcome presumed sequels as they come off the assembly line. This is found footage done right, with faster payoffs, more variety, and greater focus and ingenuity. If you enjoyed the first film, or are a fan of horror anthologies in general, then pop in V/H/S/2.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Heat (2013)

the-heat-poster2Essentially a buddy cop movie with the typically macho roles swapped out to women, The Heat is an intermittently enjoyable action comedy thanks to the chemistry between Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy. The joke ratio of hits to misses has a lot of whiffs but I laughed solidly every ten minutes or so, some of the comedic set pieces were well developed, and McCarthy’s strong ability to improv saved many flailing scenes. I enjoyed that these two women were seen as professionals and didn’t need to be bogged down with the kind of plot elements you’d find in your standard Katherine Heigl vehicle. There isn’t a romantic interest nor a love story; in fact, various guys come up to McCarthy throughout asking why she hadn’t called them back after a one-night stand. It’s a little thing but it establishes that a woman like McCarthy’s can have a fruitful love life and have it be no big deal. The overall plot about a dangerous drug baron with a mole inside the government is given more complexity than necessary, and I’m not sure the action bits feel well integrated into the movie as a whole. Part of this may just be because director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) seems much more interested in grounded, human comedy, but I think it’s mostly because we’d rather be spending more time with our leads arguing. Bullock and McCarthy are an engaging team, their comedic styles nicely ping-ponging off one another, and there are enough ribald gags to justify watching it. The Heat isn’t revolutionary by any sort but maybe, in the end, that’s the point. Also it’s got Dan Bakkeddahl (TV’s Veep) as an albino DEA agent. So there’s that too.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Pacific Rim (2013)

pacific-rim-poster-imagePacific Rim is director Guillermo del Toro’s (Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth) giddy ode to the great monster movies of his youth, and if you’re fond of men in suits and large-scale cardboard destruction, then this movie is definitely for you. The word “awesome” seems too inadequate to describe the rock ‘em sock ‘em action of this picture. This is likely the most realistic and serious this concept will ever be realized, with a gargantuan budget and some top-notch special effects. del Toro, already something of a god in fanboy circles, will get his chiseled bust alongside Joss Whedon. Pacific Rim is a transporting blockbuster that doesn’t pull its punches, at least when it’s dealing with robots fighting monsters. If this is why del Toro dropped out of directing The Hobbit then I think it’s a good trade off.

In the near future, a rift opens at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean that opens a gateway to another dimension. Through this portal, giant horrifying monsters the size of skyscrapers appear to wreck havoc on coastal cities. The monsters, known as kaiju, take a whole lot of work to go down. “To battle monsters, we had to make monsters, “ say a character in the prologue. The world unifies and responds with a program where two people pilot giant mechanical robots known as jaegers (yes college kids, you read that right). These pilots are psychically linked via a process known as the Drift; they work in tandem, sharing one mind. Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam) is a former jeager pilot recovering from the loss of his co-pilot/older brother in battle. Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) recruits him back to the final days of the jaeger program, a defense that has fallen out of favor with world leaders once the kaiju started winning again. Stationed in Hong Kong, Raleigh is looking for a new co-pilot and by all accounts it seems Pentecost’s diminutive assistant, Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), is the best candidate, though Pentecost won’t allow it. Add some wacky scientists (Charlie Day, Burn Gorman) and an underground monster parts trader (Ron Perlman). The last days of the beleaguered jaeger program are all that stand between mankind and annihilation from giant beasts.

96708_galIt’s undeniable how well Pacific Rim taps into your inner ten-year-old, the kid who crashed his toys together imagining larger-than-life battles. Truthfully, if I were ten years old, I’d likely declare Pacific Rim the greatest movie of all time, that is, until I saw one with boobs in it. Conceptually, this feels like just about every anime brought to life, and fans of anime, as well as monster movies in general, should be in heaven. It’s so much fun to watch but it also doesn’t get lost in the cacophony of special effects like many modern blockbusters. del Toro has a wonderful way of showcasing his action without losing track of the scale or the destruction. Unlike Man of Steel, we have city-wide devastation that feels like devastation. Giant monsters are a state of life for the world and so is the day-to-day anxiety that one’s coastal existence is about to be in ruins. The movie doesn’t get bogged down in post-9/11 solemnity, but at the same time I appreciated that del Toro makes his violence feel significant and the loss feel real.

The action onscreen is often exciting and screenwriter Travis Beacham (Iron Man 3) employs a nice system of escalating the stakes by applying a category system to the kaiju, rating them on a 1-5 scale. It provides a natural progression of opponents. Plus, besides the inherent excitement with the premise, Beacham and del Toro drop us into the middle of this story, years after the jaegers have fallen out of favor as a means of defense, thus providing another hook – underdogs. Our heroes don’t just control giant fighting robots, they are also underdogs and have to prove their mettle to dismissive authority figures. I was hooked.

del Toro has always been a man who can create living, breathing worlds that you just want to explore, and Pacific Rim is the same. I loved immersing myself in the minutia of this world, learning the different fighting techniques of the robot designs, the cultures that harvest the kaiju bodies (there are monster groupies as well), the rock-star status of the jaeger pilots, and most of all, the Drift. Psychically linking the pilots is an ingenious way to add to the emotional investment of what are otherwise fairly clichéd character types. They have to be in synch mentally, which requires a whole other level of trust and connection. The tragic back-story of Raleigh is given even more weight knowing that not only was he witness to his brother getting eaten alive by a giant scary monster, he was psychically linked and felt his brother’s overwhelming fear and pain. That would definitely shake me. The Drift also provides a unique way to include back-story without feeling like forced exposition. Seeing Mako’s horrifying childhood survival account is quite affecting, but it works even better knowing this is also a chance for Raleigh to understand and bond with her. That sequence, Mako as a child, is stunning, staying with her pint-sized perspective as she tries to outrun a ferocious monster bearing down on her. It slows things down and allows the true terror of the situation to seep in. Beacham and del Toro have put a great amount of thought with how this world operates, and it’s appreciated as seemingly every detail adds to a richer big picture.

Naturally, the special effects are just about every positive accolade you can put together. It’s a CGI heavy film that doesn’t look like a cartoon; something Michael Bay’s Transformers have difficulty overcoming. The robot designs aren’t overly busy. In fact, the main robot reminds me a lot of Metroid’s Samus suit (anybody?). The monsters are all a bit too similar in design though. They all start to bend together making it hard to differentiate them from one another, especially when they’re supposed to be getting bigger and badder. Part of my lukewarm reception with the monster designs, besides from del Toro’s sterling past reputation when it comes to creature designs, is that so many of the epic fight scenes happen with some level of visual obfuscation. They fight at night, they fight in the rain, they fight in the fog, they fight underwater, but rarely will they fight in a setting where you can clearly focus on the fighters. This very well could be a budgetary decision, allowing less work for visual effects artists so they can cover the scope of del Toro’s imagination. Still, it’s hard for me to compose an argument that a $200 million-dollar movie needed just a bit more money to properly show off the goods.

99431_galWhen it’s not wrecking havoc onscreen, the story can drag and you’ll notice how thin the characters are developed. It’s another reluctant hotshot and learning to get over a personal tragedy, trusting a new co-pilot, and taking stern advice from a begrudging father figure. That doesn’t mean they don’t work within the framework of the story; Hunnam (TV’s Sons of Anarchy) is solid if unspectacular, Elba (Thor, TV’s Luther) is the universe’s most authoritative badass, Day (Horrible Bosses) and Gorman (The Dark Knight Rises) provide a nice array of comic relief, and Kikuchi (Babel, The Brothers Bloom) makes for a formidable upstart hero. The character roles are familiar and thinly sketched but they come together in a satisfying manner, each contributing to the mission, and each finding a moment to make you care. When the fate of the world is at stake, it’s hard not to feel some investment in our ragtag assembly of heroes. With that being said, you will still feel drag in the middle, waiting for the next attack and for our heroes to suit up and do what they do best. The extended second act involves denying Raleigh and Mako the opportunity to do what we all know they need to do – man a jaeger. It can get restless as we keep getting roadblocks to something that seems inevitable. It’s akin to waiting too long for John Reid to accept his outlaw status in The Lone Ranger. I will give Beacham and del Toro extra credit for not leaving themselves open for an immediate sequel. Also, do stay through the credits for a nice treat.

I can easily recommend Pacific Rim with minor reservations, and if giant fightin’ robots and monsters is your thing, then the reservations won’t even matter when you get a movie this entertaining, fun, and skilled at providing the gee-whiz factor. I wish all summer movies were this fun. I was squealing with glee watching a giant robot drag a cargo ship across the streets of Hong Kong, gearing up to beat down a huge monster. The movie is packed with little moments like that. As with other del Toro productions, the world feels nicely realized, lived in, and sprawling with detail, even if the monsters all start looking the same (monster racism?). The plot does suffer a bit when it refocuses on the humans, but then again what plot wouldn’t suffer when it takes you away from giant robots fighting aliens? Pacific Rim isn’t the first of its kind. Besides the anime, Godzilla, and even Power Rangers influences that spring to mind, there have been numerous movies that follow a similar premise of Giant Thing A squaring off against Giant Thing B. What sets Pacific Rim apart is del Toro’s innate ability to channel your childlike glee at the concept, turning something monstrous into something fun while still giving respect to the weight of the moment. This is not a dumb action movie. del Toro’s sprawling artistic sensibility takes on summer blockbuster filmmaking and shows you how it can be done right for optimal effect without making your brain hurt. Now I need round two.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Purge (2013)

The-Purge-posterSci-fi cautionary tales have been an outstanding way to provide commentary for contemporary anxiety. Rod Serling, Charles Beaumont, and the recently departed Richard Matheson were masters of this. A movie can make you think as speculative fiction while still following a thriller/horror blueprint to entertain the masses. And so writer/director James DeMonaco (Assault on Precinct 13, The Negotiator) wades into these waters with The Purge, a home invasion thriller that has a premise that, on the surface, might make you scoff. In 2022, the United States has practically solved unemployment and crime thanks to a nifty little holiday known as the Purge. Every year, for a twelve-hour window, law is rescinded and so are emergency services like police and firefighters. For those 12 hours, good American men and women are allowed to engage in just about every sort of crime up to and including murder. It’s designed for people to release all their aggression and darker impulses, thus allowing for a safer, happier 364 and a half days a year.

James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) is the top salesman when it comes to hardcore home security systems, the kind with the thick metal doors over your windows and doors. He lives in one of those finely protected homes with his wife, Mary (Lena Headey), and children, Max (Max Burkholder) and Zoey (Adelaide Kaine). They’re prepared for a long night behind barricades. Then a wounded black man (Edwin Hodge) runs through the cushy neighbor, crying desperately for help. Charlie offers him refuge inside the Sandin abode. Shortly after, a group of masked vigilantes, led by a lad who looks like Patrick Bateman, knock on the Sandin home. The bloody ma is their “bait,” and these angry folk demand he be returned to them, or else they will be coming in and sparing no one.

103568_galThis high-concept thriller is a well-crafted suspense piece, with several well-developed sequences that squeeze out tension. The premise involves some mighty suspension of disbelief but you’d be surprised how easy it is to accept and move on. The kids provide dissenting voices, mostly Charlie, and we get a lean history of the Purge and all the information we need to go forward, at least for this night. I liked how it’s become a common passing greeting to say “Stay safe” to people on the day before the Purge. Little details like that make the world feel more thought out. I like that engaging in the Purge is thought of as one’s patriotic duty. There are some tantalizing moments of dread as well, like a neighbor sharpening his killing tools outdoors. But really the movie comes down to its suspense, broken up into a series of different goals. James wants to protect his family and return the “bait,” but first he needs to find him and subdue him. Charlie wants to save him and get to him first. It’s your standard people-groping-in-the-dark kind of picture, but when given a strong sense of urgency and some good actors, it can be plenty suspenseful. DeMonaco does a fine job of making sure his story doesn’t get too confusing, tasking the audience with keeping track of too many participants. So when we have Zoey’s bad boyfriend (Tony Oller), he’s dealt with before the manhunt begins. When the home invasion kicks in, the manhunt is over. When it looks like Zoey is heading straight for the stranger, it’s a storyline that culminates very quickly. There’s a good sense of clarity throughout The Purge, which aids the effectiveness of the thrills.

For the first half of the movie, things snap together well enough that you just accept the premise and its implications, forgoing the nitpicks that wait. It isn’t until the third act where you start to disengage from the film and pick it apart. As a cautionary tale, it has some interesting ideas about class warfare; the main villain is right out of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist playbook. But the ideas and moral commentary fade as the movie becomes more a standard, albeit effective, suspense thriller. I really appreciated the argument that unemployment is so low because the Purge takes care of the sick, homeless, and poor and disadvantaged, those chiefly who cannot defend themselves and are easily targeted. It’s an eerie extreme that doesn’t feel too many steps removed from the last presidential election where Republican primary debate audiences cheered the hypothetical death of the poor. But then the nitpicks do come and once they do it’s like a rushing tide that cannot be stopped. Why do people have stockpiles of guns but no bulletproof vests and gear? Why wait for the bad guys to get in when you and your armed, well-defended family in your home fortress can preemptively strike? Why would you order the Sandin family to return your “bait” and then turn off their power? Doesn’t that make it much harder? Why would killing your girlfriend’s father win her over? Do you think she’s really still going to be your girlfriend after that? How big is this house that people get lost in it constantly? Who hides under the bed in this day and age? And, when hiding from intruders who wish to kill you, why in the world would you keep your flashlight on?

It’s late in this last act that the film tries to go one step too far. The home invasion commences, the struggles are pretty dandy to watch with some creepy imagery, and then DeMonaco has to go beyond that, introducing a secondary set of antagonists that at once feel obvious and poorly set up. The family asks, befuddled, why these new antagonists are doing what they’re doing, but they, and you, will not get a straight answer. It’s really designed to be shocking and little else, and so it feels tacked on and unnecessary. The last ten minutes of the film fumble the momentum of the movie. It’s a stumble at the finish line and leaves some lingering doubt as you assess the effectiveness of the whole movie.

103574_galSo the premise begs the question: what would you do with a lawless 12-hour window? I think most human beings would be too timid to embrace their animal side. Morals and ethics factor in, naturally, but really I think it’s just good old fear, the fear that anyone else can snuff you out with impunity, and engaging in the Purge also makes you a target. I think most people would probably try and engage in heists, but then the bank would be crawling with twenty different heist teams squabbling over who gets the loot. The banks would also surely increase their security astronomically.

The premise, while intriguing, also permeates with scads of ambiguity. Purge hours are from 7 PM to 7 AM, but what if you’re in the midst of committing a crime and go over the window? To use the bank robbery example, what if you get the money but fail to leave the bank by 7 AM, or even have? At that point, are you considered a criminal? Does the money go back to being counted as stolen goods or if it was pilfered during Purge hours it doesn’t count? Then there are the psychological ramifications of said Purge. If your neighbor raped your wife, Scott-free, you cannot tell me that vengeance isn’t going to play a key part in next year’s Purge. Seeing that face every day, acting “neighborly” while knowing what happened, plotting, waiting, and while the rapist neighbor prepares for the attack as well. Actually, that sounds like a pretty decent sequel (you can have that one for free, Blumhouse). How much Purge-related violence is just retaliatory vengeance? How do people stay in this country? If I as rich and could afford a super pricy security system, perhaps I’d rather take a weekend getaway to Canada instead. Or just stay for good.

The Purge is an effective little thriller until it isn’t, which thankfully only unravels in the concluding ten minutes or so. Until then, DeMonaco gooses his film with enough scares and thrills to justify a sitting, leaving an audience mostly satisfied until they exit and start to pick the film’s nature apart. I would have liked a bit more moral inquiry, political commentary, and some headier looks into these New Founding Fathers running the country, but I was satisfied with the suspense thriller I got. It’s modest, proficient, and well developed with its suspense, so I can’t be too picky. Then again, with this premise, The Purge could have been a lot more than what it is, a lot more disturbing and a lot more contemplative. But I’ll settle for effective and call it a day.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013)

MV5BMjA4MDQwODg2NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTc5ODc2OA@@._V1_SX214_You’d think a movie where Grimm characters Hansel and Gretel turn into gun-wielding, wisecracking witch hunting mercenaries would at the very least keep your attention. How could a premise like that manage to be boring? Well writer/director Tommy Wirkola (Dead Snow) miraculously found a way. Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arteton are the brother and sister of the title and they act like a 1980s buddy cop duo transplanted into a historical fantasy realm, complete with their comically large and complicated weaponry. Too often the film settle on such a lazy tone lacking irony or cleverness, settling for lame genre quips and a rote story filled with poorly developed villains. An action movie set in a fairy tale world is a great premise, and Hansel and Gretel seem like a perfectly capable pair of leads with their back-story. It’s a shame that this movie feels like it never went beyond a surface-level once-over when it came to developing its imagination. The action sequences are ineptly staged and ineptly edited, which kept me from feeling any longed after thrills or entertainment. It ends on a much better note with an all-out witch assault but by that point the movie has already worn out its welcome. Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, is another case of a great idea not given enough development to separate itself from the din of lame action.

Nate’s Grade: C-

The Lone Ranger (2013)

lonerangerposterWith the director, star, and writers from Disney’s original Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, you’d likely expect The Lone Ranger simply to be Pirates in the West, and it pretty much is, for better and worse. The pieces don’t nearly come together as well, and the characters aren’t anywhere close either, but I was mostly pleased with the finished results after coming to terms with the flaws of the execution. This is a semi-supernatural reinvention of the Lone Ranger and Tonto, prankish and proudly peculiar.

In 1869 Texas, John Reid (Armie Hammer) is the new district attorney for a small outpost along the railway run by tycoon, Mr. Cole (Tom Wilkinson). John’s brother (James Badge Dale) is the sheriff and the more accepted hero. This all goes awry when the nefarious criminal Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) kills the sheriff, his posse, and leaves John for dead. He’s brought back thanks to Tonto (Johnny Depp), a Native American with his own quirks. Together, the duo struggle with the idea of justice versus vengeance and taking responsibility.

Thanks to screenwriters Justin Haythe, Ted Elliot, and Terry Rossio, it still follows the summer movie blockbuster blueprint while maintaining its own sense of self. I enjoyed the 1933 framing device and the sense of commentary it added to the legend of Wild West tall tales. Many of these story elements will be painfully familiar, from the unrequited love interest that needs saving, her plucky son, to even the villainous railroad baron, but the film finds ways to keep all these formula figures at least integrated and satisfying, doling out payoffs to several storylines. More so, the film just has a wild sense of fun to it, enlivened by Verbinski’s exuberant feel for action. When he gets things going, the man has a touch for inventive action orchestration akin to Steven Spielberg. He is a director who knows how to add scale and scope to action and make it felt. The movie feels constantly alive and full of surprises, stepping outside itself for some non-linear asides, adding bizarre examples of nature undone (In the words of Nicolas Cage: do not touch the bunny), and a heavy dose of magic realism. It’s just too funky and weird not to be interesting even when it threatens to be boring. Disney put crazy money into something this crazy, folks, reportedly $200 million.

87548_galThere are serious problems here much as there were in the Pirates sequels, notably a lingering sense of bloat. At 149 minutes, there could have been a lot of cuts. The saggy middle seems to almost derail all momentum, as Reid and Tonto stumble about the desert, filling in a majority of Tonto’s tragic back-story. Most of the supporting characters are chiefly underwritten. I pity the great Ruth Wilson, so nerve-fryingly awesome on the BBC’s Luther as an enthralling sociopath, and here she’s basically Love Interest/Single Mom for Reid. At least she does a decent job with her Texas twang. There’s plenty of overindulgence all around, and I won’t even entertain the argument that its handling of Native American displacement, while not as clumsily racist as feared, was anything other than schlocky. There are also three villains of different stripes that need to be juggled. There are a lot of storylines and characters to keep active and the movie just cannot keep up. The tone can be somewhat jarring as it dances around dark comedy, earnest sentimentality, tragic drama, and cavalier heroism. It feels like the movie never settles down, which can keep an audience from being fully engaged, fully invested. It hurts even more when the characters are nowhere near as charismatic as Captain Jack Sparrow.

Perhaps I’m being overly generous after coming from Man of Steel, and perhaps, nefariously, Man of Steel is still going on, locking me forever in some sort of parallel mobius strip where I’ll never be able to leave, but I greatly enjoyed the action sequences in Lone Ranger. Verbinski is one of the most talented visual filmmakers working today but, more importantly, he knows how to orchestrate large-scale action sequences in a way that they matter. Yes, like most things in The Lone Ranger, they can go on a bit too long, but here the situations develop naturally with organic complications, the sequences move the plot forward, and they escalate in excitement. The concluding twenty minutes involves a sumptuous dual train chase that keeps shifting and changing, going from atop to parallel trains, to cars being dislodged, people jumping from one to the other, all racing toward a bridge triggered with explosives. It’s a thing of beauty, this final action sequence, and Verbinski’s shot compositions allow things to play out so artfully while the audience still maintains its sense of orientation. It’s a finale that feels exhilarating, and the playful whimsy and sense of danger that the movie had been flirting with before comes together, enough for you to wish the whole movie had tonally coalesced with the skill shown toward the end. As an action fan, I was lapping it up, and the playful non-linear jumps, as well as the satisfying ends to some satisfying villains (Fichtner is terrific), left me grinning and hopping with excitement. A strong finish went a long way toward improving my opinion on the film and minimizing my misgivings.

Who is this dark, weird, somewhat clunky movie really appealing to? The Lone Ranger had its cultural peak back in the 1950s and thus the people actually excited for a Lone Ranger movie must be slim. And those people are probably going to be turned off by something as jokey and unfaithful to the source material as this movie. It does utilize the Ranger’s theme song, the William Tell Overture, but saves it for the end. What about kids? The movie is released under the Disney imprimatur and has the stamp of “from the creators of Pirates of the Caribbean.” Everybody loved the first movie and the sequels were also huge global hits, but this movie is even darker and somewhat grisly. There’s a moment when Cavendish literally cuts open a dude’s chest and eats his heart (mostly off-screen and implied mine you, but still). I can already hear the parental uproar. And while it’s somewhat implied that Cavendish and his men are cannibals, this storyline is never really touched upon again. Did we need the heart-eating scene to fully communicate how nasty our villain is? The true audience for the big-screen Lone Ranger may very well only be the mega fans of 2011’s Rango, Vernibski’s Oscar-winning foray into animation. If you like a somewhat weird, somewhat anarchic, tonally uneven movie with personality and eye candy, then perhaps Lone Ranger is for you. Problem is that this potential audience is going to be meager, but it does include me.

The-Lone-Ranger-900-600I know there are many people out there experiencing stage four Depp fatigue, and I can’t blame them. His penchant for peculiar character construction can get somewhat tiresome if the movie doesn’t have more going on. In something like Alice in Wonderland, a movie I didn’t even like, at least his weirdness fit with the weird world unlike, say, Dark Shadows, a movie best forgotten by everyone involved. Here his Tonto is as head scratching as he is humorous. And is there an inherent awkwardness having a white actor, in this day and age, playing a Native American? According to the Internet, Depp has said he “probably” has some Cherokee ancestors because he’s from Kentucky. The funny (awful?) thing is that Tonto is often in white face with his special face painting (red face in white face?). I just don’t think he can apply the same bug-eyed, swishy, eccentric sensibility to every character and call it a day. Just when you think he’s gotten away from starring in every movie with Helena Bonham Carter, surprise, here she is. And it’s not even a Tim Burton movie, people! Tonto is seen less as side kick and more of a co-lead if not the real star, and part of that is the bankability of Depp as a box-office draw, part of that is Depp as an executive producer on the project, and part of that is just because the kooky Tonto is just far more interesting than the straight-laced Reid. Hammer (Mirror, Mirror) has the jaw line, the look, and an engaging yet square appeal to him, and if anyone saw The Social Network you know the handsome lad can act. Too often he ends up being a minor foil to Tonto; it takes him far too much hemming and hawing before he accepts his masked outlaw status. As a result, he’s something of a bland fuss bucket.

Disney’s big-budget reworking of The Lone Ranger will probably be held up as the prime example, in a non-Michael Bay summer, of everything wrong with studio filmmaking, the punching bag for blockbusters. Some may even invoke a comparison to another costly Disney endeavor, last year’s flop, John Carter. There are plenty of faults the movie exhibits, namely an extended sense of bloat and an uneven tone, but I’d be lying if I said I was obsessed with the faults by its spectacular end. The movie does enough right, and enough semi-right with enough style and verve, that I left my screening feeling giddy and satisfied. It might be too dark, too glib, too weird, or too self-indulgent, but those are all reasons that made me like this movie even more. There’s a character with a wooden leg that doubles as a rifle, and not only that but one of our villains, a cavalryman, has a clear fetish for prosthetic legs. And this is a Disney film! I can’t help but love the spirit at large. Thanks to a fine supporting cast, Verbinski’s high wire visual stylings, and some strange sensibilities, not to mention a grand finish, The Lone Ranger is as entertaining in what it does right as with what it does wrong.

Nate’s Grade: B

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