Review: Pacific Rim (2013, Del Toro)


Pacific Rim

This review contains moderate spoilers:

To start off, I prefer my action to involve actual human beings; hand-to-hand combat, chase sequences, and the like. Executed poorly, as they often are, and it can be just as tedious as anything else. Executed well and there’s a chance I’m watching in awe. Big-scale action set-pieces involving monster and machine (or Kaiju and Jäger), all conceptualized and constructed with CGI can only interest me so much. Once the human element goes chances are, so does my investment. This is not to disregard the countless men and women who poured their sweat, blood and souls into these special effects. Because I want to be clear; the special effects work on Pacific Rim is often stellar and all-encompassing. Creature design, machine logistics and how the two meet and try to destroy each other on the battlefield is top-notch from a technical standpoint. My aforementioned preferences make it tempting to write Pacific Rim off as an ‘it just wasn’t for me’ miss. But there are far too many fumbles, including piss-poor writing and combative redundancy, for that to be the case. Putting it simply, too much is too much; at a certain point Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em overkill renders everything onscreen null and void.

To very simply sum up the story, Pacific Rim is set in the near future where Kaiju, Japanese for strange creatures, have come through tectonic plates in the Pacific to attack major cities. The bulk of the film takes place in Year Seven of the attacks which show no sign of stopping. By this time, mankind has responded by building giant machines, or Jäger, which are manned by two co-pilots who must build a neural bridge, or handshake, so they can physically operate the machine. There’s a cast of characters headed by Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam), a has-been who hasn’t piloted in five years.

The groundwork for something worthwhile is here, spearheaded by Guillermo Del Toro’s giddy reference-littered boyhood passions. Del Toro’s obsession doesn’t quite transfer to the screen (though it’s concentrated in the Charlie Day character) instead existing in sheer volume, a staunch unwillingness to let up or trim the fat. The idea of the anticipatory build-up is not a concept that appears in Pacific Rim, making everything we see unearned. He gives the audience what they want right out the starting gate and doesn’t let up until the credits roll. This kind of structure simply does not work. Everything we see gets appreciated less as a result and any sense of trajectory for the audience is lost. When the fighting does let up, it’s only for table-setting and painfully lazy character arcs and dynamics.

An example of necessary fat-trimming: the fifteen minute prologue sequence featuring Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam) and his brother doesn’t need to be there. Keeping the initial voiceover narration and saving other world-building elements for later would have yielded the same result. It is clear from the first moment how this will end. All that time is poorly utilized, failing to establish any investment in Raleigh and his brother. We could have learned about his past the same way we learned about Mako; during the drift. Mako’s flashback is far more effective than Raleigh’s prologue sequence even though it substitutes the predictability of revenge motivation for character development. It also helps that the girl they cast as young Mako has freakish emotive abilities.

Back to the original point; extract the emotional essence of that first sequence and save it for later as a memory. Then we’d first meet Raleigh on the wall. When Stacker (Idris Elba) helicopters in to see him, it could have been an intriguing introduction for both characters. Make us wait for the first battle. There is no difference between the opening set-piece and the next couple outside of the prologue’s use of editing to demonstrate the necessary cohesive teamwork between co-pilots and Jäger. But Del Toro has such an itchy trigger finger, immediately laying everything out on the table. Instead of a gripping opening set-piece, it is a trailer for what is to come, the answer of which is more of the same. And then, then the title appears. We’re supposed to think, ‘I can’t wait to see what else is in store’. But my thought was ‘Good Lord, we’ve only just begun and I’m already staving off waves of disinterest.’

Most of the fights lack interest due to a blandly monochromatic color palette which makes movement, sense of space and action murky to look at. The Kaiju and Jäger often fight in the rain and in the ocean, giving everything we see onscreen a dark blue-grey tint. It may help the effects work smoothly blend in with environment, but it washes over design detail and makes the causal effect of fighting blurry and therefore uninvolving. The later set-pieces improve on this. One set-piece late in the film, which takes place on the emptied streets of Hong Kong, is legitimately fantastic. Awash with a reflective neon rainbow backdrop, the Kaiju and Jäger become color-hued monstrosities that interact with their environment on a level other than destruction. It is no coincidence that the meat of the fighting becomes easier to discern as well as far more engaging to watch.

What is so upsetting about Pacific Rim, is that Del Toro clearly fancies this a humanist film. Believe it or not, he actually does care about the emotions behind these characters, what drives them and brings them together, the teamwork and completely underexplored connective tissue of the drift and how the Kaiju affects humanity on a global scale. But such a harmful imbalance of priorities leads to far too much of what could have been a good thing and far too little humanism, clearly meant to be a major contributing factor. What we get are cardboard archetypes led by a bland-as-can-be-lead, apologies to the talented Charlie Hunnam who is unable to turn nothing into something here, and some unforgivably stilted dialogue. I’m not looking for great characters in a film like this; but archetypes need to be well executed and these decidedly are not. The surrogate father-daughter bond between Idris Elba, who is unsurprisingly able to get a lot of mileage out of his character, and Rinko Kikuchi has a lot of potential (what’s there is quite good) but is given short shrift. The script uses characters as a delivery service for packaged up largely artificial emotion and it is too little too late.

There’s no doubt that Guillermo Del Toro world-builds like a master. But his sense of proportion leaves Pacific Rim a mostly hollow sluggish experience despite having an excellent director, a wonderful diverse cast of actors, top-notch effects work and a solid premise. With so much talent on display everywhere you look, it is a shame I was fully unable to appreciate its more successful elements (production and creature design, effects work) because I was too busy being suffocated by redundant cacophonous destruction.

Little Details:

– Rinko Kikuchi’s introduction is memorable
– The consistency in sound work re: Ron Perlman’s spur-sounding golden-tipped shoes.
– “1. Don’t ever touch me again. 2. Don’t ever touch me again” Also, Elba’s reaction to being touched was pure gold.
– Of course I really enjoyed Kikuchi’s try-out scene.

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Review: Before Midnight (2013, Linklater)


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Would the ‘Before’ series be as vital if we didn’t feel at every single second that there was an invisible force of creative kismet between Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy? Because as I think about why it is we love these films so much, I come back to the collaborative connection between this trio and that revisiting Jesse and Celine has always felt like something that was meant to be. These characters are in their very bones and as we watch Hawke and Delpy perform what they have collectively written with Linklater, it’s clear that something special is happening onscreen. Something embedded between these two actors and the fact that it feels that they legitimately live Jesse and Celine as they act before the cameras.

Before Midnight is bittersweet to its core. The romanticism of the first two films is almost entirely cut down to reveal a long-developed dynamic at first simmering and then bracing. We catch them at a make-it-or-break-it moment. This is about a relationship riddled with past baggage. This is about the moment in a relationship when you fully understand that this idea of ‘sharing a life’ together actually doesn’t exist. Why? Because you may be sharing a life but experiences are always going to be disparate in some fashion. That crevice can fill up with negative unspoken dissonance. And at some point you come to blows, and the incomparable intimacy you share with a person is used by each to target the other’s weaknesses, faults, failures. As Jesse and Celine unabashedly and often cruelly unload their burdens onto each other, looking however they can to get a leg up, we see these characters in a light we never hoped we would. Their connection is still unchallenged and genuine. On the surface, life is going well for them. But there’s a lot boiling underneath and they’ve let it stew for a mite too long.

Before Midnight takes the unstructured conversational elements we love so much about the first two and adds the specificity of what a relationship between the two actually turned out to be. Each major scene contributes something essential; in this way, as well as the way those pieces are used to build to something, it feels more like a story than the first two. That master-shot in the car at the film’s start is something to behold and it just gets better from there. Linklater is always unobtrusive; he knows exactly when to have blocking, when to keep his distance and when to cut close. His unobtrusiveness helps the audience conversely feel obtrusive as things get ugly. We get to see the negatives to Jesse and Celine’s positives; the passive-aggressiveness, the blame game, all of it. We understand where both are coming from, why both are fed up with the other but also, and crucially I might add, why they should ultimately be able to get through this.

The final minutes are edge-of-your-seat stuff. You deeply feel what’s been said. You feel and are desperately moved by that last ditch effort. Everything’s riding on it. In that moment the stakes become higher than anything I’m likely to see in a film this year. And it exists just between two people. But not just two people; between Jesse and Celine. Before Midnight is a thing of bittersweet majesty. It may double back on most of the romanticism of Sunrise and Sunset, but goodness me the disillusionment with a silver lining is worth it.

Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up: #131-137


Hello everyone! Sorry it has been quite a while since I last posted. I go through spurts of writing a lot and then corresponding ebbs. I’ve shifted my focus a bit to reading and trying to learn some German so films have taken a backseat as of late. Plus, in effort to save some money I’ve cut back on certain monthly expenses. Meaning no more Hulu Plus and only Netflix streaming for me. But I’ll certainly keep up with some viewings and posting output. For one thing, I plan on participating in next week’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot for Mary Poppins.

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#131. Berberian Sound Studio (2013, Strickland)

A meticulous tribute to giallo and the inextricable subconscious effect that sound contributes to the moving image. It’s made for a very narrow but appreciative audience and is more of a fascinating academic-like exercise that I primarily admired. I’ve gotten much more interested in the role of sound in film this past year so it is a treat to see something that uses this crucial but often underappreciated and little understood aspect of filmmaking as its almost essay-like focus. Isolation and cultural dislocation lead the way with Toby Jones as Gilderoy. He might as well be trapped in the sound studio.. The setting plays like a psychological prison and Strickland explores the power of sound through its surrounding inescapable nature. Visuals are something we can look away from. Sound has the capacity to drown us, drive us into dismantling states.

We never see the film Gilderoy is working on, titled The Equestrian Vortex, but we hear a great deal of it. As everyday objects are used to fill in our imaginative aural gaps, the film builds up a jarringly uncomfortable atmosphere. No blood is shed, no violence seen. But watermelons and the like suddenly have squeamish associative power, made all the more complex through its effect on Gilderoy who becomes uncomfortably complicit in helping create horror by indirectly taking part in it. The film-within-a-film seems to be an extension of how the beautiful but mistreated women in the studio inhibit the space. It may not seem like a lot happens in Berberian Sound Studio, because to be sure this is true, and yet its purpose is clearly multi-layered.

Random Observations:
Interesting that we the audience get an advantage over Gilderoy re: subtitles for spoken Italian while Gilderoy has an additional disadvantage over us re: he is seeing both the footage and the sound of The Equestrian Vortex while we only hear the audio.

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#132. Antonio Gaudi (1985, Teshigahara)

Putting another layer of artistic endeavor between us and the fantastical undulating work of Antonio Gaudi, Teshigahara’s near-wordless documentary is like a poetic context; the gift of heightened consideration. The way his work is shot runs the gamut, from close-ups where detail is abstracted to far away in order to place his creations within the context of Barcelona. What about this angle; or this angle? How to best extrapolate the ever-changing notions of his shapes and constructs? The camera considers his work from every angle, caresses the curves and even considers the world outside as his buildings would hypothetically see them as sentient beings, thereby treating them as such. This film was also a big influence on my decision to save up and travel to Barcelona for a week this November.

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#133. The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987, Hara)

From the moment a wedding celebration becomes an awkward self-indulgent confessional moment of radicalism as Kenzo Okuzaki denigrates the concept of family and drops reference to his committed murder and jail time you know this is going to be a bonkers documentary. And it is. There are no easy answers; Okuzaki’s tenacity is something to behold but his methods, which yield some result, are fidget-inducing. It’s the most excruciatingly uncomfortable film I’ve seen in some time. You kind of feel like you’ve crossed into another dimension once Okuzaki hires his wife and friend to impersonate the brotherless siblings who rightly jump ship on their journey towards truth. His interrogation methods are so relentless and so narrow that the film is a dive into one man’s post-war psyche just as much as the partial truths of specific WWII atrocities dug up. And then there’s the role of documentarian in all this. Truly a bizarre trailblazing documentary of dangerous and volatile investigative parts and you’ll never forget Kenzo Okuzaki. Not something I ever want to see again but that’s okay because it’s burned into my brain.

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#134. Before Midnight (2013, Linklater)
Review in separate post.

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#135. Love, Marilyn (2013, Garbus)

A really informative cliffnotes info dump about her life. Considering how loaded and complex her life was, it is impressive how much ground is covered. Having a chunk of her written material be the context for the documentary was lovely, centralizing her voice. If only it had been presented differently. Most of the male actors got the job done. The women on the other hand are often forced, over-emotive and theatrical. It was like being at an unfortunate casting session. It didn’t help that the fake backgrounds and constant camera movement further distracted from the reading sessions. But overall well worth watching if someone wants a sense of the basic puzzle pieces of her life as well as an introductory sense of her mindset.

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#136. The Bling Ring (2013, Coppola)

Like a vapid anthropological study, Coppola ponders the mindset of these entitled criminals as they nonchalantly rob the houses of the rich and famous. What drew me to The Bling Ring is the way Coppola focuses on the entitlement of the entitled. That is to say, these teenagers act as if they are merely going to a friends house while they are away. There is never a sense of doing something wrong. No worrying about implications and consequences. They shared the same space as celebrities at various clubs and bars. Tabloids and gossip blogs allow people to track their every movement so anyone can know where a celebrity is on any given day. So it’s like they feel naturally entitled to break into their homes and take their things. It’s treated as blase, and the materialism brings them superficially closer to fame. Coppola is more interested in the frame of mind, specifically the lack of it, that would make one do such things. Being that close to fame, allowing one’s life to be made up entirely out of superficial concerns. And taking the next step.

We might not be like the characters in the film, but it’s indicative of larger fact that many of us obsess over and talk about famous people with a inordinate level of familiarity. And this is something that has certainly blown up with the advent of internet culture. These girls are on the farthest end of the spectrum but the fact of the matter is that a lot of people invest too much time and energy and thoughts into what their favorite famous people are doing or wearing or fucking day in and day out.  Between tabloid culture and real-life shipping within fandom, which I personally find uncomfortable, there are may facets of becoming far too involved with famous people. I see it every day on tumblr and pretty much everywhere else within fan culture. The broader implications aren’t addressed in The Bling Ring, but they certainly exist and the film depicts one extreme example of unwarranted attachment.

These characters are wildly privileged and clearly have zero sense of the concept of earning, of private space or of remorse. Coppola took an interesting approach that I largely admired, staying true to her initial fascination, sacrificing the development of ideas for mere contemplation. It doesn’t make for as great film, but it certainly makes for a good one.

Watching several episodes of ‘Pretty Wild’, the short-lived Alexis Neiers reality show to prep for the film added a wonderfully horrifying layer of context to everything. As a result, Emma Watson saying ‘kitten heels’ had both of us cackling.

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#137. Monsters University (2013, Scanlon)

A riff on the college buddy comedy, Monsters University might not pack the kind of next-level emotional wallop of some of Pixar’s output or have the kind of ambition we crave from them, but this is flat-out the most entertaining film I’ve seen this year. That anyone could have walked out of this unsatisfied boggles my mind. As much as I want to accept and be open to all responses people may have to any given film, ‘soulless snob’ automatically springs to mind in regards to anyone who was impervious to its considerable charms. It’s heartfelt, hilarious and carries a wonderful message on its back. It hits every note it tries to, every joke lands on-target (anyone who lived on a college campus will appreciate a lot of the humor) and Crystal and Goodman lend their top-notch voice work in reviving their Mike and Sully characters. Far exceeded my expectations.