Saturday, August 31, 2013

Pacific Rim

directed by Guillermo del Toro
starring Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi, and Idris Elba
Legendary Pictures, July 4, 2013, 132 minutes
Rated PG-13

As a war between humankind and monstrous sea creatures wages on, a former pilot and trainee are paired up to drive a seemingly obsolete special weapon in a desperate effort to save the world from the apocalypse.

Giant robots piloted by human beings beating the snot out of gigantic monsters coming up from the bottom of the ocean.

What’s not to like?!

Seriously?

If you go into this expecting something deep and meaningful and fraught with symbolism and metaphor, then you will be disappointed. This is motherfucking giant robots kicking the asses of motherfucking giant monsters. C’MON!

However, that does not mean that Pacific Rim is some mindless summer popcorn romp. This is a Guillermo del Toro film, after all, and that means that behind all the flash and amazing special effects amazing jaegers and super cool kaiju, there is in fact a story … and a pretty damn good one. Del Toro is a consummate storyteller (have you seen Pan’s Labyrinth or Cronos?) and the story here is one of human beings and their struggle to come to grips with a world that has changed beneath their feet (in that, it is much like The Walking Dead). This human element (to trot out the old cliché) is really the heart of Pacific Rim and it is what keeps the audience engaged between scenes of giant robots beating the shit out of giant monsters. This is not to say that the story is perfect. It would not pass the Bechdel Test by any stretch of the imagination (I think there are two women in the entire film and only one of them has any lines) and the action is mostly a testosterone-fueled male pre-adolescent wet dream, but at the very least Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) can hold her own in a world of men (even if she is strangely subservient to her adopted father Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) (and seriously, how great is that name? Stacker fucking Pentecost!)). I liked that she was intelligent, kick ass in her own right, and not overtly sexualized eye candy (I’m looking at you Alice Eve as Carol Marcus in Star Trek Into Darkness). Though, I could have done without the cutesy budding romance between Mako and Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) and the unnecessary James Bond-esque kissing on a raft ending.

All this aside, though, Pacific Rim is a great way to spend two hours. These are not complaints I had in the viewing moment, but have since come up in reflection. The kaiju in particular are stunning and unlike anything else I have ever seen on the screen. There is also some seriously great comedic performances delivered by kaiju researchers Dr. Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day) and Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) and Ron Perlman’s black market dealer Hannibal Chau steals every scene he is in. I also highly enjoyed Max Martini’s turn as grizzled jaeger pilot Herc Hansen (SERIOUSLY!? How great are the names in this film?! Stacker Pentecost! Hannibal Chau!! Herc Hansen!!!) It was also nice to see major population centers other than New York City, London and Paris getting destroyed. Seeing such landmarks as the Golden Gate Bridge, Sydney’s iconic Opera House and Harbour Bridge and Seattle’s Space Needle getting trashed was rather refreshing, so to speak.

There are some flaws, but all things considered, I can think of worse ways to spend two hours, and if you’re going to shell out for theater tickets, it might as well be for something worth the price of admission, and Pacific Rim certainly delivers.

Official Trailer
Pacific Rim at IMDb

Friday, August 30, 2013

Trollhunter

directed by André Øvredal
starring Otto Jespersen and Hans Morten Hansen
Filmkameratene A/S, October 29, 2010, 103 Minutes
Rated PG-13

A group of students investigates a series of mysterious bear killings, but learns there are much more dangerous things going on. They start to follow a mysterious hunter, learning that he is actually a troll hunter.

Of late, I have been less than impressed with the offerings that the American horror market has released. Relying mostly on jump-scares and tired clichés (really, how many vengeful ghost or creepy little kid movies can there be?) these films have been lackluster at best. So, I turned my sights on the foreign horror market, and I have not been disappointed. The Scandinavians in particular have really brought their A-Game to horror and Trollhunter is a prime example of this. While not exactly horror, it’s more of what one might call a dark comedy (something like Shaun of the Dead or Zombieland), this film really delivers.

In particular what Øvredal and his cast and crew have done is reinvigorate the tired cinéma vérité style. Horror films done with handheld cameras on flimsy premises (I’m looking at you The Last Exorcism and Paranormal Activity and Cloverfield) have done more damage to what is a venerable and often very effective genre trick. Don’t believe me? Watch 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust or even 1990’s The Blair Witch Project (a film, which in my mind, is severely underrated, mostly due to the hype that surrounded its initial release). These films show exactly what can be done when the vérité style is taken seriously, and is not reduced to a “gimmick” to sell tickets (I’m still looking at you The Last Exorcism). Trollhunter takes its cues from Cannibal Holocaust and The Blair Witch Project and takes its handheld camera shooting very seriously, and as such, it works wonderfully and is integrated very organically into the storytelling.

Unlike other films (I’m looking at you Cloverfield) the handheld camera feels like it should be there and it delivers a degree of intimacy and authenticity to an otherwise fantastic idea. This also brings a feel of truth to the whole of the film, even the “non-action” scenes where we are getting back-story or mythology. Typically such scenes are handled with ham-fisted exposition, but Øvredal integrates the mundane with the amazing so well that hearing about troll lore is as fascinating as seeing the trolls in action. It is a very well-balanced pairing of subtle humor with physical tension, which results in the film’s striking naturalness.

This naturalness is helped, to a large degree, by Otto Jespersen’s stellar portrayal as Hans the weary government-endorsed trollhunter. Jespersen carries the film and much of the dry humor is found in Hans’ being fed up with the endless bureaucracy surrounding his job since reams of paperwork need to be filed after each successful hunt. Jespersen’s humor is counterpointed by Hans Morten Hansen’s portrayal of Finn, the put-upon bureaucrat from the Norwegian government’s Troll Security Agency to whom Hans answers. The stick-up-his-ass boss vs. the savvy and frustrated employee, while admittedly clichéd, works so well because of the outrageousness of the field in which Finn and Hans work.

Filmed on a shoestring (at least by Hollywood budget standards), Trollhunter is a film that offers up a fantastical premise and then delivers in spades on that promise. Most horror/monster films have the “Monster Problem” wherein the ambiguity and suspense surrounding the monster at the beginning of the film is dissipated once the creature is revealed. Greater directors than Øvredal have struggled and failed in this respect, and only a few have succeeded (Spielberg and Jaws comes to mind as does Ridley Scott and the xenomorph in the original Alien film). Øvredal manages to avoid the “Monster Problem” (chiefly, I believe) to the use of the vérité format) and his trolls are spectacular. They are fully integrated into the film and the actors never look like they are reacting to a green screen or tennis ball on a stick (which they almost surely are). The “Monster Problem” is further avoided by having a pretty standard creature rather than something hyper-fantastical (the spider-thing in It jumps to mind). As well as having a rich and already established lore, Scandinavian trolls have already been fully visualized through the works of such artists as John Bauer and Theodore Kittelsen. Perhaps most spectacularly, this vision is achieved in the final scenes when Hans and his tag-a-long film crew head into the mountains of Norway to find a Jötnar—a gigantic mountain troll well over 600 feet tall. The special effects here are simply amazing and worth the price of admission.

Overall, I highly recommend this film. The beginning drags on a bit, but once it gets going it really gets going.

Official Trailer
Trollhunter at IMDb

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Joyland

by Stephen King
(London: Titan Books, 2013)
Trade Paperback, 283 Pages, Fiction

College student Devin Jones took the summer job at Joyland hoping to forget the girl who broke his heart. But he wound up facing something far more terrible: the legacy of a vicious murder, the fate of a dying child, and dark truths about life—and what comes after—that would change his world forever.

I approached Joyland with some trepidation. I have become quite disillusioned with Stephen King’s writing in recent years. Lisey’s Story, Duma Key, Under the Dome, Just After Sunset, Mile 81 … they’ve all not been quite up to snuff with King’s earlier works such as ‘salem’s Lot, The Shining, The Stand, and Bag of Bones. With the approaching sequel to The Shining, Doctor Sleep, I was justifiably worried. The Shining is, in my mind King’s best piece of writing, and to attempt to write a sequel for it nearly forty years later had me concerned. So, with all that in mind, I picked up Joyland to test the waters and see whether or not King still “had it.”

He does.

I was absolutely surprised by what I found in Joyland. There is not a single wasted word in this book, and King’s waning storytelling ability seems to have come back in full force. I absolutely loved every minute that I was in Devin Jones’ world. The story, while taking some time to get started, is gripping and compelling. It is a tidy little whodunit that succeeds in spite of itself.

What I mean by that is that there is a bit of the problem Under the Dome had, and that is King can spin a great yarn, but seems to have problems (in recent years) satisfactorily ending his stories. Under the Dome was anticlimactic, Duma Key was disappointing and Joyland has more than a whiff of the deus ex machine about it. And yet, in spite of the god coming down from the rafters at the last minute, Joyland could have been a lot worse than it ended up being. In fact, it is a lot better than it really has any right to be.

The more I think about it, the more I like this book and the tidy little story it tells. Really, nowadays (and Mile 81 and the stories in Just After Sunset notwithstanding) this is when King is at his best: 300 pages or less. Long enough to tell a really compelling and exciting story, but not long enough for the thread to get lost in the weeds (as happened in Under the Dome).

Joyland is also helped by the fact that its characters, especially those of Devin Jones and Lane Hardy are very well written and quite alive in their depiction. It helps that these two central characters are as alive within the pages of Joyland as it allows the reader to become lost in the story and let Devin and Lane as well as Annie and Mike and Erin and all the rest, carry you along and help you experience the events at the Joyland Amusement Park as they did.

In spite of its handful of flaws (which really are minor) Joyland is a welcome return to the Stephen King of The Shining, ‘salem’s Lot and The Stand and it gives me hope for Doctor Sleep and the return of Danny Torrance.