Tag: Guillermo del Toro

Movie Review: Pacific Rim

Moving pictures are first and foremost a form of entertainment. As much as the storytelling form has evolved to deliver stunning achievements such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and introverted art-haus “tour-de-force” experiences like Antichrist, not every film has to reach for those existentialist or high-minded goals. Sometimes, a writer or director wants to tell a straightforward story. They want to pay homage to the films that made them interested in the medium in the first place. They want to use the tools they’ve learned to wield to craft something previously considered impossible. One such director is Guillermo del Toro, and one such movie is Pacific Rim.

Courtesy Warner Bros

Sometime within the next year at the time of writing this, a major geological event will happen in the depths of the Pacific Ocean. Two tectonic plates will pull apart and reveal a rift between our world and another dimension. Out of that rift come massive, city-destroying monsters, which we come to call kaiju. Conventional weaponry is barely effective and dangerous to use, so humanity bands together to create Jaegers, human-piloted robots comparable in size to the kaiju and capable of throwing down with them. While they prove capable of handling the kaiju, many world leaders feel more confident in massive safety walls to hide behind, and so the Jaeger program is discontinued. Unwilling to go down without a fight, the remaining Rangers and their Jaegers rally for a last-ditch assault on the rift itself.

Destruction on a massive scale is a staple of blockbuster movies. Even this year, cities and buildings and skyscrapers alike have been leveled. What sets Pacific Rim apart, other than its unique premise unfettered by extant intellectual property, is that it is shot and presented in a way that gives the audience a true sense of scale in terms of the battles and the disaster. Everything is cleanly shot, and the kaiju in particular have unique looks, abilities, and even personalities that come across in their design and movement. It is a testament to del Toro’s eye and imagination that these monsters, which could have been generic and interchangeable, have a sense of uniqueness without a word needing to be spoken. And considering how much time is devoted to them, that goes triple for the Jaegers.

Courtesy Warner Bros
There’s nothing wrong with keeping your story & characters simple.

In addition to the fact that they’re giant warrior robots that are definitely an homage to everything from the many Gundam suits to Big O, the Jaegers are the vehicles by which are heroes are destined to ride to victory. What sets them apart is the fact that running a war machine that massive with a neural interface is too taxing for a single human brain. As the pilot is essentially the brain of the machine, two pilots, one for each hemisphere of the brain, should be linked together to operate a Jaeger. Not only does this make the realization of the Jaegers another unique aspect of Pacific Rim, it allows characters to come into their own without wordy exposition. While there will be moments that are certain to cause frothing rage amongst physics experts, none of the admittedly questionable science is explained away with overly wordy technobabble. Both of these facts are marks in the favor of the film.

Going back to the characters, the mechanics of the “Drift” (the connection the pilots share) allow our main characters to become three-dimensional and realized through action and visuals rather than more traditional back-and-forth dialog. Mako Mori, in particular, gains her depth and motivation from what we see of her when she enters the Drift for the first time. Raleigh Becket, who until this point was a somewhat typical if well-implemented action movie protagonist, shifts to our point of reference character, and shows us the hidden depths of the characters while continuing to deliver on scale and powerful visual style. The characters in Pacific Rim may not be the most complex you’ll ever encounter in cinema, but what is done with them is done very well, showing instead of telling at almost every turn. At no point are we thrown out of the experience because Idris Elba or Ron Perlman have to turn to the camera and explain something to audience. Performances are immediate, immersive, and another well-polished facet of this absolute gem.

Courtesy Warner Bros
It’s good to see movie monsters this unique, diverse, and menacing.

When you get right down to it, Pacific Rim is a simple movie. Big monsters, big robots, they fight, restart the clock. But its simplicity is actually a strength. Without the expectations of a franchise, anticipation of a sequel or prequel, and freedom from existential angst or greater metaphors, the story can be told at a good pace with visual panache and a deep and abiding love for all of the inspiration that’s lead us to this moment. I would like to reiterate something I’ve said in the past, however: simple is not the same thing as dumb. The story is not interested in any cinematic or narrative slight-of-hand to convince you that it’s anything more than the apex of monster movies, the spiritual descendant of everything from Godzilla to the Power Rangers all grown up and going about its business of thrilling action set pieces and swaths of wanton destruction with brains, style, and precision. Simple as it is, Pacific Rim is also very smart as well as being downright joyous and boisterous in its presentation, which is a very nice change of pace from most of the stuff we get from Hollywood these days.

Stuff I Liked: This world feels real in a lot of ways. I like that people react to both the kaiju and the Jaegers in realistic ways – some love them both and just like seeing them fight, some fear the Jaegers just as much as the kaiju, some are just in it to make money, etc. A lot of little touches stand out to me: Gypsy Danger’s ‘nose art’, the use of the Hansen’s dog on their jackets, Pentecost’s name stenciled onto his tin, the way each kaiju appears to be inspired by a different sea creature, etc.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: The quirky scientists were perhaps a bit too quirky. The simplicity of the plot leads it to be somewhat predictable, even if the presentation is good and smart. We barely get a feel for the Rangers who are not our heroes.
Stuff I Loved: The action set pieces rightfully take center stage, because they are truly awesome in scope and implementation. There are genuine thrills to be had from beginning to end. Idris Elba and Ron Perlman are two of my favorite actors, and I’m glad that they’re the biggest names in the cast. The movie does not feel its length, does not overstay its welcome, does what it does with panache and flair, and is certain to stand up to repeated viewings.

Bottom Line: Pacific Rim is pure, undiluted, unashamed, and utterly enjoyable cinematic entertainment. It doesn’t bring you down with dour plodding and stone-faced seriousness like Man of Steel. It may crib notes from everything from Godzilla movies to Neon Genesis Evangelion, but it does not retread ideas wholesale like Star Trek: Into Darkness. Masterful direction, decent characterization, a fully-realized and original world that feels both lived-in and inclusive, surprisingly realistic proportions and physics, and an overall sense of fun and excitement elevates it above the mediocrity of other summer movies. While it may never win any awards for gripping interpersonal drama or mind-bending existential angst, it should win one for existing at all in this cynical, materialistic, overly smug and downright depressing age. It’s fun at the movies the way fun at the movies should be. If you can get behind the idea that it’s okay for a movie to be fun, you’ll enjoy Pacific Rim quite a bit; if, on the other hand, you think “movies” and “fun” are not something that should cohabit, I guess you’ll have to wait until Nietzsche’s Ecco Homo gets adapted into a film before going to the cinema again.

The Power – And Scarcity – Of New Ideas

Courtesy Sony Pictures & ComingSoon.net

One of the chief complaints I have about Star Trek Into Darkness is the way it treads old ground. It was a fear I had going into the movie that turned out to be justified, and while I still enjoyed watching the film, the overarching problems I have with the very core of the narrative continue to bother me. It’s an endemic issue I have with a lot of genre films, and I think it’s not limited to those, so let me get right into it.

Sequels. Reboots. Prequels. We see more and more of these cropping up throughout Hollywood, from mindless iteration of the most basic, lowbrow, idiotic comedies to what was once high-concept science fiction. There are some that do it right – Nolan knocked it out of the part with his Dark Knight trilogy and I have higher hope than I thought I would for Man of Steel – but for the most part, there’s at least part of this storytelling that feels lazy. I may be inclined to like Marvel and its superheroes, but they’ve been around for decades, and as much as their big-screen realization continues to satisfy, and while I’m curious to see what’s next for them, I’m not as thoroughly intrigued by them as I am by other titles coming our way this summer.

Consider Elysium and Pacific Rim. Both are coming from writer/directors that have been described as visionaries, and rightly so. Neill Blomkamp of Elysium gave us the fantastic District 9, and Guillermo del Toro not only brought Hellboy to the big screen, he also crafted the haunting original vision of Pan’s Labyrinth. Not only are these films powerful stories with excellent execution, their ideas are practically brand new. On top of the fact that neither is a derivative work, they come from different cultural perspectives – Blomkamp is South African and del Toro is Mexican – which color the nature of their ideas differently than those that come from Hollywood’s old and somewhat creaky idea machines.

These story ideas are best described as breaths of fresh air. I have to wonder, however, if their novelty is actually enhanced by the amount of derivative drek that permeates the media. I consider it a shame that new ideas are so scarce, but at the same time, their rarity may lend them even more weight and power. This may be a paradox intrinsic to the entertainment industry: as much as there’s nothing new under the sun, there’s only so many ideas that can be shifted or reborn in new ways to really capture the attention of the audience.

What do you think? Are new ideas more powerful for their rarity? Or would they be just as welcome if every idea was brand new?

Movie Review: Pan’s Labyrinth

I’m really not sure where to begin with this. If I were still doing IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! I may just lead with a few moments of silence. Powerful films have a way of taking the breath, the very words right out of me. Make no mistake: Pan’s Labyrinth is one of those films.

Courtesy Estudio Picasso

The year is 1944, and Spain is under new management by the fascist Francisco Franco. At a forward post established against guerrillas fighting the new regime, Captain Vidal has summoned his wife and step-daughter to stay with him. His wife, Carmen, is close to giving birth to his son, while the girl, Ofelia, would rather keep her nose in her fairy tale books. En route to the post, Ofelia happens across a strange insect that transforms before her eyes and leads her to a secluded labyrinth where a faun tells her she may be a legendary princess. To prove herself worthy of her birthright, she must accomplish a series of tasks, in the midst of this bloody civil war, with the lives of all she knows and holds dear hanging in the balance.

Writer-director Guillermo del Toro is no stranger to dark fantasy. He brought us Blade II (one of the good ones) and both Hellboy films. By ‘dark’, I don’t mean the sort of dark fantasy where there’s lots of naked women and cursing and gratuitous buckets of blood. No, I mean thematically dark. Truly dark. The sort of dark that has kids curling up tight in their beds with their sheets pulled up to just under their eyes, because they’re scared witless by what’s in the shadows but don’t dare look away. You could even call it ‘edgy’, as it lives on the very edge between fantasy and horror. Pan’s Labyrinth is unafraid to glance, just for a moment here and a heartbeat there, into the deep shadows of the realms of the unknown and the very real darkness in human nature.

Courtesy Estudio Picasso
Absolutely stunning visuals.

You can’t tell a story like this without good characters, and in film you need good actors to make them come alive. In the hands of a less adept director, Captain Vidal would come across as a caricature of the fascist movement, a Nazi in all but name, not so much a man as he is a punching bag leering at us to hit him harder. Thankfully, the character is written with complexity and depth, even if he’s a rather vile human being, and Sergi L√≥pez gives a fantastic performance. As for Ofelia, del Toro was so impressed by Ivana Baquero that he aged up her part so the young actress could play it. She, too, is complex and deep, as well as fallible.

Here are two human beings who come at life from entirely different angles, even in some cases wanting the same thing for completely disparate reasons, and their conviction is what drives this story forward and holds us mesmerized by it. The visuals and the construction of del Toro’s fantasy world don’t hurt, either. Culled from all sorts of fairy and folk tales, the world Ofelia alone can see, touch, and enter is brought to breathtaking life, with del Toro mainstay Doug Jones playing the parts of the Faun and the Pale Man. As wondrous as it is, there’s also a primal and untamed nature to it, as as attractive as it might be to a young girl, one wonders if it’s any less dangerous than the cold, jackbooted reality through which her stepfather reigns as nominal master.

Courtesy Estudio Picasso
My skin crawls just looking at the guy.

The tendency is to write something like “I can’t say enough about this” but I really feel, in this case, I can’t say any more about it. You should really just watch it, if you haven’t already. Despite its fairy tale trappings, it’s an exceedingly mature and heart-wrenchingly vital tale, far removed from what most would consider kid-friendly. Don’t be put off by the choice del Toro made to shoot it in Spanish; the truths of this film and the lives of its characters transcend things like spoken language. It is one of the most deeply affecting films I’ve seen in a very long time. I really cannot recommend Pan’s Labyrinth highly enough.

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