Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #90-94

wicked lady 1

#90. The Wicked Lady (1945, Arliss) (UK)
Once again, societal expectations of a bygone British era sets the stage for transgression. And once again Margaret Lockwood has her emerald eyes set to the limits of wealth and power, as in The Man in Grey. Unlike The Man in Grey, which saw Hester always in control without ever quite attaining her desires, Barbara acquires status, wealth, and a husband very quickly. She spends the majority of the film fulfilling her own need for excitement, danger, and adrenaline no matter the cost (and it is costly, I assure you). Her motives come from a valid place of stifling and boring expectations for women of the time, explored in a heightened thieving fashion, and through such a heartless character. It’s a win-win for the Gainsborough Pictures, allowing the audience to live vicariously through the Barbara’s deviancy, while doubling back to give her an appropriately nasty end. That she yearns for a traditional life at the end is almost too cruel to her, adding to the film’s ultimately very outdated gender treatment. Margaret Lockwood is wildly great, next-level Hester. James Mason and the rest of the cast apparently held contempt for the corny material and dialogue, but it only adds to the hateful energy, serving the film well.  Lots of cleavage and murder.


#91. Sanshiro Sugata (1943, Kurosawa) (Japan)
Akira Kurosawa shows some chops right off the bat, but I had a very difficult time engaging with this. Prototype for Red Beard,   following the same journey of young stubborn man learning humility from older wiser figure who is at first misrepresented to the audience. The blooming lotus and travels of a lost shoe stand out as soft visual touches.


#92. Blue Ruin (2014, Saulnier) (US)
I’ve seen so many descriptions of Dwight (Macon Blair) that cite him as an incompetent idiot. Hmmm, that’s just not what I saw when I watched Blue Ruin, the anticipated much-talked about pared-down revenge noir. We mistake reality-based average competence, and being led by emotions but unprepared for the follow through, as idiocy. This is what works best about the film; seeing soft-spoken beach bum Dwight determined, but entirely out of his element. Everything in the narrative revolves around guns; their easy access, their power, and the implications of using one. Revels in its minimal story, allowing for an on/off structure of interactions and encompassing solitude. Blair is something else. Painfully ordinary; awkward and inward. But I’m not sure the film adds up to all that much besides a really solid genre exercise. It arrives at its destination and then just throws its hands up in the air.

Innocent Blood

#93. Innocent Blood (1992, Landis) (US)
An atrocious start to my 1992 watchlist. Unequivocally one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. It tries to be a never-before-seen genre hybrid; a self-conscious marriage between vampires and the mafia. Innocent Blood ends up botching both big time, wholly uncommitted with one toe half-heartedly on each side of the fence. Doesn’t attempt enough humor to be a comedy, nor scares to be horror, nor intimidation to be crime. Robert Loggia is aggressively over-the-top, and that’s before he rises from the dead. Anne Parillaud, in her first post-Nikita role, is woefully stilted. There’s a next-level category of bad films, and it’s the most offensive kind. When a film, somehow through its uselessness, manages to instill the impression of not even having watched anything when it ends. Innocent Blood is that kind of bad.


#94. Godzilla (2014, Edwards) (US)
Even though we are living in an age of unrelenting spectacle, most films of this ilk have no idea how to utilize the concept. Godzilla excels at spectacle, no small feat indeed. From the sense of build-up, and the consistently human perspective from which we see the monsters, it conveys the palpable feeling that the film’s events are bigger than ourselves. Instills a distinct awe punctuated with incredible visual moments, perhaps most memorably the red-streaked plane plummet. Now here’s the rub; the people. To put it mildly, people are clearly not the point; they are place-markers. But Godzilla still tries to hit story beats within its minimal approach, stopping the film dead in its tracks when its only meant to usher narrative along its merrily destructive way.

You’ve got Bryan Cranston (who is marvelous; the man brings instant gravitas), Ken Watanabe, Elisabeth Olsen, Sally Hawkins, and Juliette Binoche in your film, and we get stuck with Aaron Taylor-Johnson, of all fucking people, for the majority of the running time? Whaaaaaa? Why are we stuck with young bland white males as audience surrogates every. damn. time. The way Watanabe and Hawkins are used works much better. They aren’t characters, and they aren’t supposed to be, but by casting compelling actors, their story-driven concern comes through effectively.

The monster-on-monster action is to-the-moon stellar; sprawling brawling. Things of beauty. Godzilla is far more engaging a being than anyone we see. The film starts small and goes big, a refreshing narrative trajectory lost on blockbuster films with setpiece-led structures. But in trying to blend humanity with the monstrous within the small-t0-big trajectory, it flatlines on the former. As impressive as Godzilla is on the spectacle front, and as much as I approve of how it sees the role of characters in theory, the screenplay insists on attempting to hit emotional beats that it can’t even begin to support. That it does this with a lead actor whose non-performance could put you to sleep is the tipping point.

– I just wanted to give Ken Watanabe a hug the entire time. Poor soul.
– A big fat kudos to the Taylor Nichols appearance


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.

The 10 Worst Films of 2010 (that I saw)

These represent what I thought were the ten worst films of 2010 that I got to see. There were a lot of films that probably would have made this list had I seen them, but you couldn’t pay me to see the likes of The Bounty Hunter, Grown Up, Life as We Know It or any other rabble of probable schlock that entered the theaters this year. There were other films that were trying to be something and didn’t work for me. An overrated list would include Kick-Ass, The American, Micmacs, RED, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Piranha 3-D and others. There were other films this year though that were a lot worse.

10. Monsters
Probably the most overrated film of the year, Monsters collapses under the weight of its own concept because it does not have interesting characters to support it. The acting is not up to par and the dialogue is flat and stale. The concept is interesting and Edwards is clearly a director with potential. This debut though, is bland and even painful to sit through.

9. The Wolfman
The Wolfman‘s biggest flaw is that it managed to make story of The Wolfman boring. Johnston’s lifeless and hollow direction and an intriguingly miscast del Toro make this a missed and forgettable opportunity.

8. Clash of the Titans
It was all over for Clash of the Titans the moment it decided to take itself seriously. Hitting every single trope of recent big budget fantasy action blockbusters, Clash of the Titans is impossible to take seriously from all the actors phoning it in to Sam Worthington’s game face to the video game structure. Worst of all is Ralph Fiennes who parodies his own Voldemort performance.

7. Machete
Being a huge Grindhouse fan, the idea of seeing this trailer come to life as a full length motion picture was anticipatory. The most disappointing film of the year for me, Machete failed on every level and managed to become laughable once it misguidedly tried to become a message picture. Trejo has the presence but not the chops to be a leading man even in a faux exploitation picture. I am shocked that this got more than decent reviews as it bored me out of my mind.

6. Ondine
Nothing about Neil Jordan’s latest worked for me. Using a modern day fairy tale sensibility as an excuse for existing, this film’s only saving grace is Colin Farrell’s solid performance. The third act is ridiculous and the first two thirds go in endless circles. The daughter character and her interactions with others is forced and hard to care for. Ondine herself is nothing but a damsel in distress for us to oogle at. The great Christopher Doyle’s cinematography was praised but I couldn’t get past it. I couldn’t get past anything in this film.

5. Alice in Wonderland
Tim Burton’s latest inspired a very long review from me as well as an essay for my screenplay class where I had to pick a film with a bad script and explain how I would fix it. There’s no end to the number of things wrong with this take on the Lewis Carroll stories. Burton’s creativity and ability to create new worlds has become diluted and neutered. Adding such a plot heavy ‘Narnia’ feel to it not only takes away anything Carroll originally meant to do but it becomes a rip off of the Narnia films and does not replace Carroll’s intentions with anything that justifies making it plot heavy. Furthermore, Linda Woolverton’s script is entirely built around the idea that the Mad Hatter is a central figure solely so Johnny Depp is front and center.

4. A Nightmare on Elm Street
Another remake that mistakenly took itself too seriously. The decision to not make Freddie Kruger a jokester changes everything about the character and takes away what made him different from other serious minded slasher icons. Then the decision to make him a pedophile adds an unneccesary dynamic to the remake which comes off as a desperate attempt to change things up. Finally, the entire film is essentially the same scene over and over again. It soon becomes obvious exactly where each scene is going and the idea of not knowing what is or isn’t a dream is uncreatively trumped by the endless repetition of the film.

Featuring the worst performance of the year in the form of Christina Ricci, an unsuccessful gimmicky concept and a barely functioning film, is a travesty. Director Agnieska Wojtowicz-Vosloo’s own sense of cleverness destroys all the potential of the film. All of her effort is put into placing clues that will enhance the “is she alive or is she dead” mystery and then placing other clues to purposely throw us off the scent. In the process, she forgot to actually make a film. There is never any reason to care whether or not Ricci is alive and there are significant chunks of time where somehow nothing happens to either push the story forward or enhance any meaning within the film. Vosloo’s self satisfaction is  set in stone by the film’s special feature which has her going through the film, discussing each clue she put into place and talking about what we were supposed to take from it, answering the question of whether or not she was actually alive. Thanks Vosloo. Way to let your audience interpret a story their own way.

2. Jonah Hex
The last two films on the list are perhaps redundant choices. They got abominable reviews and this one was one of the biggest flops of the year. That this is atrocious cannot be overstated. At no point does this feel like an actual film. It looks like someone filmed some footage and it was never put together. Then, years later a random passerby finds the footage and decides to splice together some sort of story based on what’s available to him. This is the result. That this is not the case is shocking. Like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Clash of the Titans, the self serious tone is a big problem here. But so is the editing, acting, script and basic story. That’s what makes it so terrible. Every single aspect of it is outrageous. It must be seen to be believed. The only thought that comes to mind was “what were they thinking”?

1. Legion
What can even be said about Legion? One minute in and the stakes are already as high as they can be; the entire world is in danger. It expects us to be invested immediately and we have yet another film that takes itself WAY too seriously. Lighten up people. I don’t know how to convey why I thought this was the worst film of the year. It’s “end of the world” sensibility combined with its laughable group of stereotypical characters and attempts at speechifying were enough for me.