Archive for July, 2013

Pacific Rim (2013)

Starring- Charlie Hunnam, Diego Klattenhoff, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, Burn Gorman, Max Martini, Robert Kazinsky, Clifton Collins Jr., Ron Perlman

Director- Guillermo del Toro

PG-13- sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence throughout, and brief language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5guMumPFBag

This is all you need to know about Pacific Rim:

And if you require any more persuasion than that, then Pacific Rim is, like…seriously just not the movie for you.

It is completely inevitable that I am going to like Pacific Rim a whole lot less given additional viewings, thought, and some emotional distance from it. But right now, fresh off my first viewing… Well, if all I get out of it is that first viewing, then glory hallelujah — go see it.

When the kaiju — alien creatures the size of skyscrapers and bigger — first emerge from deep beneath the Pacific Ocean and make landfall in Los Angeles and then a few additional cities, humanity responds by banding together and initiating the Jaeger Program: gigantic mechs with two human pilots, each controlling a separate hemisphere of the machine. The pilots’ minds are connected through The Drift, each sharing emotions, memories, and experiences with one another.

Raleigh and Yancy Beckett (Charlie Hunnam and Diego Klattenhoff), brothers, rank among the best Jaeger pilots due to the strength of their emotional connection. And with their help, the Jaeger program is working — the kaiju are held at bay, far from populated areas. They and the Jaegers become staples of pop culture — movies, video games, and action figures.

But then, the kaiju get bigger. Jaegers begin falling one by one — one of them taking Yancy with it. Humanity abandons the Jaeger program and begins building walls around the Pacific Rim. Raleigh disappears and becomes a low-level construction worker on the project.

Then, he’s approached by his old commander, Marshall Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba). He’s held tight to the Jaeger program and has recommissioned Raleigh’s old mech, Gypsy Danger. And he’s got a daring plan — take the fight to the kaiju and close the portal between their world and ours for good.

So, as it turns out, for all my pretense, I’ve still got a weakness for cool stuff. And given that Pacific Rim is basically Cool Stuff: The Motion Picture, it’s…kind of up my alley.

Pacific Rim is the most cheesily awesome thing to hit theaters in years. I didn’t even think movies like this were allowed to exist anymore. There is absolutely no constraint on this movie’s id, nobody interfering with it and telling its producers which of their ideas are impossibly cheesy (answer: pretty much all of them). You want to take monsters from Hellboy and make them ten times their usual size? Sure! You want them to fight giant mechs with stripper names? Why not? You want to give your characters names like Stacker Pentecost and Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman, in a brief but movie-stealing role)? Why on Earth would we stop you at this point?

It could end there. And I am so, so glad it doesn’t. It really doesn’t make any sense for the aquatic kaiju to be able to fly, but when one of them sprouts bat-wings, it’s basically impossible not to go along with it. It doesn’t make any sense for the high-tech Jaegers with everything short of nuclear capabilities (and sometimes that, too) to have giant sword arms, but you know what? It’s a giant robot with a big sword coming out of its hand why are you questioning this.

And then…

Seriously, could we, like, have an Oscar for Best Scene, just this year, and then give that bit nominations in all five slots?

It’s basically a live-action anime. Even Pacific Rim’s more baffling decisions make perfect sense within the context of that creative direction. The scientists are loud, twitchy, and irritating, but even I’ve seen enough anime to know why they have the specific mannerisms that they do — they act like every mad scientist I’ve ever seen in one. (Granted that this doesn’t make them less loud, twitchy, and irritating.) The Jaeger pilots from Russia, China, and to a lesser extent Australia are particularly anime — the Russians with their steampunk costumes and their big, snow-white hair and the Australians with their animal sidekick. The Chinese have more than two pilots, because their mech has four arms and wields giant throwing stars because this movie is awesome.

Granted that awesome stuff does not an awesome movie make (although it really helps). Where Pacific Rim succeeds and most others fail is in the fact that it is openly silly and wildly imaginative, coming up with new and increasingly awesome/stupid things on a scene-by-scene basis, and doing so without being tongue-in-cheek or self-referential. Oh, sure, the dialogue is dumb and straightforward. Oh, sure, there are plenty of actors, particularly Perlman, chewing the heck out of the scenery. Oh, sure, the action sequences are wild and utterly ridiculous affairs. But Pacific Rim strikes that difficult balance where it succeeds because of those things rather than in spite of them — it unfolds with a sense of childish glee and playfulness but grounds it in the kind of emotion needed to make its story internally serious and thus something that matters on some level to the audience. And it does that without steering too far in the opposite direction, becoming gritty and ponderous and pretty much the exact opposite of fun. That’s what Pacific Rim ultimately does right, to be honest — it’s a reminder that action movies can actually be, you know, fun.

Primarily, it’s a testament to the necessity of a movie’s director being technically proficient and actually skilled. Guillermo del Toro, as everyone surely knows by now, is both technically proficient and actually skilled. We live in a world where we mainly get big-budget action movies in a year, so you’d think only the best visual talents would be getting work. And yet, action movies that are competently directed, much less well directed, seem still to be the exception rather than the norm.

Pacific Rim is why that shouldn’t be the case.

This is that rare film where the script almost doesn’t matter. The main success of the action sequences comes from their presentation — and I don’t only mean the special effects here, though they are quite impressive. This is a movie in need of scale, and Del Toro provides it; this is a movie in need of weight, and Del Toro provides it; this is a movie in need of impact, and Del Toro provides it. Pacific Rim is an action movie where the effects have presence and where the action sequences are fierce and — a rarity — actually comprehensible. These scenes don’t work because of the audience’s emotional connections with the characters. They work because Del Toro shoots them so well and provides them with such an incredible sense of scale that the audience is essentially there, on the scene, watching a battle between giant robots and giant monsters unfold before their eyes. Of course they’re engrossed; wouldn’t you be if you were walking down the street and you saw something like that? Do you remember that scene in Jurassic Park where the Tyrannosaurus first appears? While Pacific Rim doesn’t have anything on a level quite that remarkable, its feeling throughout is quite similar. When it gets down to business, you are immediately engrossed and immediately convinced of the reality of everything you are seeing. This is spectacle at its best. This — this — is how you do an action sequence.

There’s a reason why this movie works mainly because of direction and ludicrous imagination, though, and that reason is that the script doesn’t do it a whole lot of favors. One might expect that, given the type of movie that it is and also given that screenwriter Travis Beacham’s last project was 2010’s Clash of the Titans.

I’ll grant that he has written a functional movie, for the most part, one that places its characters in an emotional reality and takes steps to weave their internal struggles into the external stuff-blowing-up. The Drift is a fascinating idea, and if anything, more should have been done with it. Raleigh is terrified of it because he was still connected when his brother died, meaning that he felt absolutely every second of it. Since his new copilot, Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), will share every thought with him, that alone is a struggle she must overcome — the feeling of experiencing someone else’s death. But she brings her own baggage. The movie’s primary internal struggle is about them beating that.

And they do so far too easily and without nearly enough hitches. The movie has a foundation here, but it fails to do anything beyond the initial establishment of its elements. Their first link-up in The Drift ends badly, inevitably, but when their aid is needed scenes later, they’re able to overcome it. Their problems don’t remain problems outside of that scene; there’s not nearly enough wrestling with this subject. The concept of The Drift is actually delegitimized later on, with characters swapping out mechs and quickly becoming easily compatible with their new copilots.

Beyond that, some information about both Mako and Pentecost is withheld longer than it should’ve been for the purpose of revealing it in the form of twists. I would be more accepting of this had viewers’ interactions with them come solely through Raleigh, but they get their own scenes where they’re conversing with one another and vaguely alluding to things the audience doesn’t know anything about but feels as though it should. I also had the persistent feeling that a lot of material with the Australian pilots had been cut; their last scenes together feel like the culmination of an emotional arc to which the audience was never witness.

In the end, it’s clear that the movie is really here for giant robots and giant monsters. It gets easy to forget there are even people inside of those things at certain points, and when we do get shots of them in the pilots’ apparatus, it’s mostly for the exchange of rote strategic dialogue. This is why I know that Del Toro’s precise direction and his absurd imagination, rather than character and story, are the primary reasons for the success of the action sequences, even as it’s why I know that repeat viewings are unlikely to do Pacific Rim many favors, where a dumb action movie like, say, The Avengers has thus far managed to actually improve for me under those conditions.

And structurally, it’s…problematic. This mostly isn’t an issue until the third act, but that’s about the worst time for it to become an issue. The action sequences in and of themselves are not overlong or too excessive — granted that you go in expecting them to be a bit excessive at least in a certain sense.

No, I am not going to stop posting that.

But once you get past the movie’s second big set piece, it almost immediately starts setting up for the climax — without taking any substantial break, and (more damningly) without raising the stakes or increasing the desperation of the situation or continuing to develop the characters’ personal issues, as they relate to The Drift, alongside. The climax is fun in the same sense all the other action sequences are — naturally, given that it’s directed by Guillermo del Toro — but it doesn’t feel like the culmination of much of anything, nor does it feel as much like humanity’s last best hope as it should.

I should give Beacham some credit. He’s written a better script than we ought to have expected. Like I said, a few quibbles aside, it is basically functional, even if it doesn’t follow through on its foundation too well. And it builds a world in which I’d be happy to spend a couple more sequels, one that considers the effects of the Jaegers and the kaiju on all levels of human society and feels like there’s a new character and a new story waiting around every corner.

And either way, while I was enraptured in the throes of my first viewing, every time my brain started to say, “This scene isn’t working as well as it could, and I think the reason for that is as follows,” the other half of my brain responded, “Yes, but this movie also has more robots-swordfighting-Godzilla-with-a-boat than any other motion picture this year!” And I can only say, “You know what, brain? You’re absolutely right.

And then I wonder why I ever had any issues with this stupid, stupid, blissfully stupid movie.

-Matt T.

Monsters University (2013)

Starring- Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Helen Mirren, Peter Sohn, Joel Murray, Sean Hayes, Dave Foley, Charlie Day, Alfred Molina, Tyler Labine, Nathan Fillion, Aubrey Plaza, Bobby Moynihan

Director- Dan Scanlon

G

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xBzPioph8CI

The duality of Monsters University is this: that, firstly, it represents a significant step forward for Pixar on the heels of two somewhat mediocre projects; and that, secondly, it nevertheless reflects a kind of benign acceptance of the fact that this is what Pixar is now, and it’s time we embrace that and be grateful for what greatness the studio has given and will yet give.

It’s obviously not ideal. Given the choice between solid, quality sequels and prequels and the annual blast of original brilliance it seemed we used to get, who isn’t going to opt for the latter?

But if solid, quality sequels and prequels, punctuated by a blast of original brilliance every three years or so, is what we must get, I suppose it’s far better than nothing. And Monsters University is a solid, quality prequel.

Tiny, one-eyed monster Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) dreams of nothing more than being a scarer — the monsters who brave the toxic and deadly world of human children to extract their screams to generate energy for their own world.

When he’s of age, young Mike heads off to Monsters University to become the best of the best. Of course, everyone else knows what he doesn’t — that despite his smarts, hard work and motivation, he’s simply not scary and never will be.

Quite the opposite is Jimmy Sullivan (John Goodman), a monster who seems specifically constructed to be scary — and who is coasting purely off his ominous looks and his family name.

Mike’s unimpressive appearance and Sulley’s complete lack of motivation rapidly get both of them kicked out of MU’s scare program. But an opportunity arises in the campus’s upcoming Scare Games. Mike and Sulley put aside their differences and team up with the outsiders and misfits of the Oozma Kappa fraternity to compete in the games — at stake, their readmission to the scare program.

Going in, the most important thing to know about Monsters University is that what you’re getting into is largely pretty lightweight. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, and it actually makes a bit of sense. Pixar has gone through phases in the past where its movies were more concerned with fun than emotion, and the original film, Monsters Inc., was itself released during one of those periods. Monsters University matches the feel of that timeframe pretty well and would probably fit mostly seamlessly between the other films that the studio released back then. It’s innocent, it’s unpretentious, it’s fun, it’s funny and it’s got little dabs of heart here and there.

The comedy is its strongest point. It takes a while to get going, but once it does, it’s a constant onslaught of jokes, and almost none of them fall flat. It hits all the Pixar staples in this regard — broad slapstick and general goofiness for the kids, neither of which are ever so stupid and lowbrow that adults roll their eyes at them; and smarter, slyer jokes for the grown-ups. And they appeal to adults not because they’re underhanded sexual references but simply because they pertain to adult experiences and knowledge, and kids won’t necessarily get them — at least, not in the way adults do.

(My favorite bit, as usual, is a really subtle one that kids absolutely will miss. I’d be remiss to spoil it, but it occurs during the Scare Games event wherein participants have to discern between children and teenagers while scaring.)

Most of that humor centers around college life in general. Watching the trailers, my hope was that Monsters University would basically be Animal House for kids. It’s beyond chaste, of course, but it’s got that madcap, youthful insanity about it, and it’s quite a lot of fun to watch. It’s an almost impossibly innocent take on what actually happens at your average college, but it’s innocence with a sense of having been there and trying to relate it accurately to children.

You get that mixed with the bizarre imagination of the original film. Both Monsters movies walk this really thin tightrope where they could easily become distractingly weird, in the same sense that has always prevented me from enjoying, say, Men in Black. You have a lot of strange creatures, and they’re all designed in unique ways with one monster seemingly having very little in common with another. But through a combination of character and consistency — and also, for the record, absolute resplendence — in its animation, it manages to tie it all into a rather impressively cohesive whole that rapidly manages to make you forget that what you’re seeing is strange.

Of course, while the movie really does tie together quite well visually, there’s a problem in that its functional world is not as well-realized as it was in the original. Granted, part of that is the scope of its ambition — Monsters Inc. didn’t spend much time outside of the company that provides its namesake. Nevertheless, Monsters University suffers for the fact that the world it inhabits is basically the same as ours — for the most part, which makes those moments when it plays up the differences, such as monsters appreciating things that are horrifying and ugly more than things that are shapely and beautiful, a touch jarring. Some of the humor gets confusing for this reason. While it is a funny scene, the moment when an old woman says she’s going to “listen to her tunes” and starts blasting heavy metal left me wondering what the joke was: Is it funny because she’s an old lady, and she’s listening to heavy metal, or is it funny because heavy metal is considered old people music in the world of monsters?

The college is a college. It looks like one; it functions like one. The comedic stereotypes we encounter — the obnoxious guy constantly carrying an acoustic guitar around, the preppy sorority girls, the philosophy major pretending to be deep — are funny not because the movie is showing how those concepts are twisted in the monster world but because they’re poking fun directly at our reality and are, in some small way, reflective of our own experiences.

At the end of the day, it’s a college movie with monsters. Every now and then, the world of the movie shifts long enough to remind you that it’s not quite the same as ours, even though it mostly is. Fortunately, you’ve still got that clever and fearless visual imagination.

You’ve also still got that Pixar storytelling. Granted, Monsters University takes a while to get there; it spends most of its run-time coasting on comedy and imagination, which is fine. The first two acts do sometimes hinge overmuch on contrivance and can feel a bit rushed. Mike’s first day in class is interrupted twice in one session so that characters can stop by, be awkwardly introduced, and then impart all the information the audience is going to need for the rest of the movie. Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), in particular, has a tendency to simply drop by every time some information or emotional development is needed on her part, regardless of whether or not it makes sense for her to be there at that point.

But toward the end, you do start to get that risk-taking, soul-searching, and intensity that’s simply absent from most animated films nowadays. Of course, Monsters University doesn’t land with the same power as the three-punch of WALL-E, Up, and Toy Story 3. There aren’t likely to be waterworks here, nor do I think the filmmakers intended that there would be.

But it still has the courage to engage a climax that’s emotionally involving and where what the characters do actually matters. Monsters University also steers clear of having a simple moral (well, an overly simple one). It has to wrestle with the fact that Mike isn’t scary and that there’s nothing he can ever do to become scary, and I’m glad that it does. Most movies wouldn’t. And we do need movies, especially kids’ movies, that deal with that subject without also stamping out the dreams of the young viewers in the audience. Mike isn’t scary, but as we all know from the first movie, he eventually does find a way to be involved with his dream of being a scarer in such a way that plays to his actual skills — being smart and crafty and strategic and knowing how to use atmosphere to get the best scares.

Is the conclusion a little easy? Yeah, a bit. It might’ve worked better by pure implication rather than using the end credits to fill in all the blanks. But the message — that there are many paths to your dreams, and many things you can do once you’re there to be involved in the process of the things that you love — is a needed and mostly absent one these days. It also pulls it off without suggesting that natural ability is ever going to get you anywhere, which keeps it from tipping too far into the converse.

I suspect that the lightness of the film’s first two acts possibly softens the sudden soul-searching of the ending, but it works nonetheless, particularly within the structure of the film’s message.

I could say that Monsters University is not up to the Pixar standard, granted that I don’t really know where that standard is anymore, or even if there is one at this point. I do know that, at its highest, that standard is nearly an impossible one. If I’m using the standard of modern animated movies, though, Monsters University is way above it. It’s fun, it’s funny, it’s bright, it’s colorful, it’s technically impressive, and it tugs at your heartstrings now and then. It is completely appropriate for and likely to be adored by children, even as it never talks down to them and shares with them a little bit of reality while still showing them the depth of possibility that awaits them. Most adult movies don’t manage that sort of balance. As much as we can complain about how Monsters University compares to Pixar’s best, we should be grateful for the way the studio is still keeping calm and carrying on.

-Matt T.

Jack the Giant Slayer (2013)

Starring- Nicholas Hoult, Eleanor Tomlinson, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Eddie Marsan, Ewen Brenner, Ian McShane, Christopher Fairbank, Simon Lowe, Mingus Johnston, Ralph Brown, Bill Nighy, John Kassir, Cornell John, Andrew Brooke, Angus Barnett, Ben Daniels

Director- Bryan Singer

PG-13- intense sequences of fantasy action violence, some frightening images and brief language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ng9rjC8MOgU

Jack the Giant Slayer is the tale of a war between humans and giants, but a more interesting war appears to be taking place behind the scenes: that of a director against his studio. Bryan Singer the Hollywood Slayer doesn’t have the same ring, I suppose.

Of course, that’s pure speculation on my part. It’s possible that Jack the Giant Slayer is the result of fully-endorsed creative ideas that simply, in my estimation, don’t work like they should.

Nevertheless, it is a widely varying collection of sometimes contradictory ideas that don’t particularly coalesce — and most of them, whether or not they exist via executive meddling, still somewhat personify some of the largest problems with the way big tentpole blockbusters like this get made nowadays, carried out to some of their most ludicrous extremes.

Jack (Nicholas Hoult) is a simple farmer who lives with his impoverished uncle (Christopher Fairbank) and is smitten with a princess — Isabelle of Cloister (Eleanor Tomlinson). While in the market one day attempting to pawn off his horse to keep food on the table a little longer, a monk (Simon Lowe) fleeing from soldier’s of the king’s right hand, Roderick (Stanley Tucci), gives Jack a sack of beans — magic beans, he says, warning him not to get them wet.

Jack takes them home and soon forgets about them, until one fateful night when — what else? — he accidentally gets one of the beans wet. From it sprouts a miles-high beanstalk that demolishes his home and sweeps the princess away to whatever is on the other end.

And so, Jack joins a force of the kingdom’s best men — including the princess’s guardian Elmont (Ewan McGregor) — in blazing trails into a strange new land, one fraught with peril, including, most disturbingly, an army of giants wanting nothing more than to wage war against the humans who exiled them to their hidden world many ages ago…

There are some senses in which I’m inclined to be kinder to Jack the Giant Slayer than I would be to other films of its type. Part of that may be that Bryan Singer, though I have never been a fan of his, is no studio hack and has done respectable work with major blockbusters before. The other part of it may be that it can sometimes be difficult to find the line between a film assuming an unusual personality that simply doesn’t quite gel and a film having a wildly varying tone wrought by studio executives trying haphazardly to ensure that it hits all the key demographics — especially since the latter has been happening a lot lately, with us deep in the throes of the “dark and gritty” era of blockbuster filmmaking.

Simply put, regardless of its actual intent, the feeling of Jack the Giant Slayer is that of a film constructed around buzzwords repeated in an executive office during what some cartoon about Hollywood would frame as a conversation about “what’s hip with the kids right now.” Right now, that’s dark and gritty fairytales with dabs of surrealism under the surface, and Jack the Giant Slayer checks every last one of those blocks quite dutifully — and with far more dramatic a tonal disparity than usual.

What we have here is a film that regularly indulges in sequences of whimsical fun, dominated mainly by McGregor’s near-comically noble and daring (and, admittedly, somewhat enjoyable) Elmont, ranging from an escape from a giant’s kitchen where he and the princess are being wrapped up in dough and lovingly seasoned for cooking to a sequence in which a hive of bees is used to outwit a giant guard — scenes that belong in a kids’ movie and would be fine in that context. But said scenes are punctuated by moments of surprisingly brutal violence, of the sort typical for films like this one. The giants’ method of choice for dispatching humans is eating them, usually live, starting with their upper halves, and a startling number of characters fall victim to this fate — and not just soldiers standing around in the background either.

Of course, these scenes are carefully calculated for the PG-13 rating, which only makes them more glaring. A lot of thought goes in to each sequence of people-eating, so much so that these scenes outthink themselves. Singer is a good director, but the editing and shot selection go insane in most of these scenes. It happens so often that the film can’t simply do it by implication, but at the same time, there’s really no PG-13-rated way to show a person getting his head bitten off by a giant, so it can’t go the whole way. Instead, Jack the Giant Slayer goes halvsies — implication and visuals. And almost every time it happened, it left me bewildered. I half expected another character to come to the rescue, because the cutaways were placed so that it looked like the giants hadn’t eaten the guy yet.

But it’s this disparity that gets you. Admittedly, there’s not a whole lot of grim brooding in this movie, if any at all, which gives me that moment of self-doubt where I wonder if indeed this odd mixture of whimsy and brutality is indeed intentional and simply part of the film’s chosen personality. If it is, however, my contention would be that it doesn’t marry the two well. Jack the Giant Slayer feels like two separate films that require two separate emotional responses at various points throughout its run-time, usually without preamble.

It’s a kids’ movie that’s frequently too violent for them and an adults’ movie that tries to appeal to their inner children while nevertheless frequently dragging them out of that mindset.

This is the film’s biggest problem. It has others. One tires of saying that films such as this have thin characterizations, especially since rich and thought-provoking character development is often more a tool for them than an end. And Jack is frequently personality-free in that boyish and wide-eyed way that movie heroes used to be, which is laudable even as it is also more a concession I make than a praise I offer: that I know what the movie is going for makes it seem less like a flaw, but that I know that a richer direction might’ve been more fruitful in the end makes it seem less than ideal.

The princess is another matter. I’ve accepted that the damsel-in-distress storyline is and has been a part of our culture and that much of its effectiveness rests in how it’s treated — as an artifact, as something comedic, or as something more subversive in its intent, for starters. Here, though, the princess feels like the object of some mean-spirited joke, due to the fact that the movie plays at progressivism without backing that up with actions. Her entire motivation centers on her desire to be independent, to make her own decisions, to stick up for herself, to solve her own problems — the standard set of movie princess problems, in other words. But given the opportunity to achieve that, at every turn, the movie undermines her. She is constantly in need of rescuing — from ruffians at the beginning, from the beanstalk once that gets going, from the giants next (on multiple occasions) and then again from the beanstalk once it begins to fall. Not only does she never save herself, she never even contributes — at least Princess Leia showed her worth post-rescue in Star Wars. She’s constantly being dragged around by the hand and grabbed by giants and falling off of things. The movie dresses her up in armor for the end battle, like it’s going to have her redeem herself a bit, but nope. She is an entirely useless character, and the fact that she openly wants more than that makes it feel as if the movie is making fun of her.

The villains could be worse and could be better. The main problem is that the movie is constantly changing its mind about who the main threat is. First, it’s Roderick, who is openly plotting against the king from his introductory scene. Then, it’s the leader of the giants, General Fallon (voice of Bill Nighy). Then, it’s some other giant. Then, it’s General Fallon again. It’s hard to determine which emotional confrontations the movie is building up to — not that these characters have meaningful relationships with one another to begin with. It’s more a set of dominoes, with the film arbitrarily selecting a different hero to resolve each one (usually either Jack or Elmont, and of course, never Isabelle).

It doesn’t help that the giants spend most of the movie serving as an immediate threat to no one other than the main characters. That’s fine and can work under the right circumstances, but these sorts of daring and dashing and courageous heroes really do work best when they’re saving people. Mostly, they aren’t. The trailers built up a different movie than what this is; they promised a story wherein Jack inadvertently unleashes a threat that he must then resolve. The film we got is one wherein Jack inadvertently unleashes a threat, wanders around in Giant Land not doing much of anything interesting for the first two acts, and then, finally, resolves the threat to the human world. This structure could work, and it has in other films, but nothing too overwhelming actually happens when the humans are among the giants. Some whimsical adventures are had, and some brutal violence happens in between, building up to the inevitable last-second escape and then to the climax the film seemed to be promising would be its main story.

It’s difficult to say if Jack the Giant Slayer is simply the result of so much corporate manipulation — granted that most movies are, even if I’d prefer to think otherwise — or if it’s a strange idea that seems ordinary and built upon the standard “dark and gritty” foundation but only because it can’t connect its disparate elements. Maybe it hoped to be a kids’ movie for adults. There’s potential in that concept. Alas, if true, it remains that that’s all there is — potential.

-Matt T.

A Good Day to Die Hard (2013)

Starring- Bruce Willis, Jai Courtney, Sebastian Koch, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Yuliya Snigir, Rasha Bukvic, Cole Hauser, Amaury Nolasco, Sergei Kolesnikov, Roman Luknar

Director- John Moore

R- violence and language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i2Y2PpY6fNo

A Good Day to Die Hard: in case you were wondering what Die Hard would look like as a modern action blockbuster. (The answer is that it would look like a modern action blockbuster, and also be really boring, granted that those are two inevitable halves of the same coin.)

A Good Day to Die Hard finds John McClane (Bruce Willis) traveling to Russia, that seemingly endless wellspring of movie villains, after his estranged son, Jack (Jai Courtney), winds up in prison for what McClane figures is illegal drugs or something.

In truth, Jack is a CIA operative undercover to liberate an imprisoned informant, Komarov (Sebastian Koch), and his daughter (Yuliya Snigir). Komarov has dirt on some powerful people, though, and they’re determined to see him dead — no matter who stands in the way.

And John McClane, caught in the middle yet again, figures it might as well be him.

What frustrates me about this movie — and what’s likely to frustrate people who are actually Die Hard fans even more — is how disinterested it seems to be. I’ve said it before — I don’t like to judge. I don’t like to presume the intent of filmmakers based solely on what the end product seems to be.

At the same time, I know the difference between a bad movie and a movie that doesn’t try. My personal opinion is that Michael Bay is one of the worst filmmakers currently working, but the guy goes big or goes home. There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s making exactly the kind of movies he enjoys watching; it’s just that the kind of movies he enjoys watching are really loud, excessive, and annoying.

A Good Day to Die Hard is shot through with a baseline lack of imagination that can’t simply stem from the people who made it not being all that naturally imaginative. It seems too much like something slapped together off the Action Movie Assembly Line.

There are big action sequences; there’s nothing new in any of them. The character development, while borderline non-existent anyway, is all lifted from the standard estranged father-son duo thrown together against a common threat handbook. If you were to skip the action scenes and just turn them over to the choreographer, you could write its script in a day.

It seems to be par for the course. You need x number of action sequences. Those scenes must consist of a gunfight, a car chase, a sneaky infiltration scene, and a big climax. Storyboard those. Okay, now design excuses to string all those together into a “plot.”

It leaves A Good Day to Die Hard with the — lately — all-too-frequent problem of simultaneously seeming way too long and way too short. Long, because it starts out boring and stays boring and never stops being boring; and short, because it’s three-fourths action sequences, and those action sequences are structured in such a way that it feels like you’re in the second act when you’re actually in the third. You don’t realize the climax is coming until the movie starts hastily — and with an overbearing sense of reluctant obligation — resolving the interpersonal drama between McClane and Son.

Honestly, I’ve stopped trying to psychoanalyze the people who made this thing. Given what A Good Day to Die Hard is, I’m really left with only two options: either the people in charge of this have never seen a Die Hard movie or have an incredibly baffling misconception of why people actually like them. Really, I’m not going to try to get inside the head of the person who watched Die Hard and thought, “This is a lot of fun, but if only John McClane was more generically serious and brooding.”

Die Hard was not a part of my childhood, on account of my having, like, responsible parents. I only first watched them recently (recently as in within the last month, I mean). And they kind of caught me off-guard. As a child of my generation, the only reaction I could possibly have was, “Bruce Willis! Awake and energetic and sweating profusely and swearing at everyone and basically being a dumb schmuck caught in the middle of a situation that’s way bigger than him!”

There was something superficially charming about that. Of course, in A Good Day to Die Hard, we’re back firmly in Sleepy Bruce Willis mode, which works in something more comedic like R.E.D. but doesn’t here (especially since this movie is infinitely less comedic and intentionally dumb than some of its predecessors). Oh, you get an obligatory “how does this stuff always happen to me” one-liner here and there, but that’s hardly enough. He’s barely even doing the New York accent anymore.

You don’t get much to replace him, either. Jack McClane is mostly just angry and/or brooding all the time and shouts a lot. The villains are completely non-existent on the personality and “interesting motivations” fronts. Unlike basically all of the other Die Hard movies, there’s only narrowly a clear and present threat to the civilian populace from the villains — and it isn’t any greater than that presented by the heroes, who, like any good Modern Action Movie Hero, wreak tons of totally irresponsible and careless destruction while chasing after the villains. Seriously, if Die Hard: With a Vengeance was released today, there’s absolutely no doubt in my mind the school would’ve blown up immediately after the last of the children were evacuated. Back then, we said, “Yay, John McClane saved the children!” Today, we’d say, “Well, John McClane saved the children, but where’s our explosion?”*

Frankly, the villains here are barely a threat to the heroes — there are far too many opportunities for our day-saving duo to simply turn around, leave well enough alone, and live the rest of their lives in peace, if a somewhat selfishly earned one.

So, firstly, you lose that sense of entrapment that the first and second Die Hard movies had, with the hostages that needed to be rescued and the forcibly limited locations. Secondly, you lose villains who are not only directly and persistently threatening the heroes but also innocent civilians — innocent civilians who also happen to be beloved to the heroes. Thirdly, you lose villains with engaging personalities and pertinent — if overly complicated and frustratingly obscured — motives driving the thing and making it personal. Fourthly, you lose the excessive, over-the-top, and dumbly enjoyable action sequences. Fifthly, you lose the tongue-in-cheek violence that goes so far beyond basic decency that it essentially becomes its own self-criticism (this movie, while rated R, was clearly shot halfway, so it could be cut down to PG-13 if it needed to be, and thus feels very unsure of itself throughout). And sixthly — and most damningly — you lose a central protagonist who’s fun and funny and sidekicks who are equally lively. You also lose the sense of these characters being down-to-earth and thus identifiable — this John McClane is another unflappable action hero, a complete reversal of the original movie’s star, who spent most of the run-time flustered and talking to himself.

Subtract it all, one by one, and what you’re left with is A Good Day to Die Hard. And it is definitely not a good day for Die Hard.

-Matt T.

* And just to give you all a frame of reference, I’m unfavorably comparing this to the other Die Hard movies even though the only one of those that I actually like is the first one. (Though I haven’t seen Live Free or Die Hard.)

No (2012)

Starring- Gael Garcia Bernal, Alfredo Castro, Luis Gnecco, Nestor Cantillana, Antonia Zegers, Marcial Tagle, Pascal Montero, Jamie Vadell, Elsa Poblete

Director- Pablo Larrain

R- language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=veHCHhRx3Vk

There’s more historical than drama in this historical drama, which simultaneously defines its appeal and potentially its greatest weakness.

Set in Chile during the referendum on General Augusto Pinochet, No follows advertising executive Rene Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal) as he becomes a leading mind behind the scenes of the No Campaign — borrowing Western techniques to energize voters and trying to unite the various opposing factions under a singular cause.

On the surface, it’s difficult to argue that No isn’t largely well-constructed. The story is an interesting one, the pacing is tight, the social commentary is periodically incisive, and the characters behave in human and relatable ways.

Simply speaking, the film mainly appeals to viewers who are interested in the minor, behind-the-scenes aspects of major historical events, the minutiae that drove important national changes. It takes an oddly dispassionate and somewhat objective stance on the events it portrays, backing up and running through a lot of factual information without particularly investigating it emotionally.

That is to say, there isn’t a whole lot of emotional involvement in the story that No tells, and that seems to be at least partly by design.

On one level, there’s no information that the audience is lacking. We know who Rene Saavedra is and can at the very least intuit his motivation. We know the details of the vote and how it is intended to play out. We know why the vote is being held. We know why members of the opposition think the vote is entirely pointless, mere political posturing. We know why supporters of Pinochet think his direction is the best for Chile — an improving economy, fear of the Marxists that have gotten mixed up with certain members of the opposing factions, etc. We know why his opponents greatly fear his rule — torture, limited free speech, the tendency of those who speak against him to disappear and never be seen again.

The point is not that No is lacking in context. But it is lacking in emotional context. We get all these major events, but their context is never defined as they relate to the characters we are following. Like I said, we’re left largely to intuit Saavedra’s motivation, and assuming it is what it is — the events surrounding the actions of his political activist ex-wife (Antonia Zegers) and the government’s reactions to those actions — it may yet be something of a flimsy one. The characters who surround him behave in ways that suggest personalities and traits and ideologies, but they are otherwise largely without definition as well.

Much of the political situation is explained to the viewer, sometimes in great detail. When you think about it, though, not much of that is seen. What we do see comes more toward the film’s end than the beginning.

Viewers are witness to a progression of factual events, but it’s one that more often than not seems like a dramatized History Channel special. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but it places a rather strict limit on its appeal.

It seems to be rather deliberately low-budget, apparently for the purpose of having the dramatized bits match the stock footage that the film frequently employs. It is successful in this purpose; Pinochet feels as much a character in this story as anyone else, even though no actor portrays him — he appears solely through stock footage. There aren’t noticeable jumps between stock footage and original material created for the movie, which does lend it a sense of time and place, as well as of immediacy and consistency. It’s shot like a news crew is on the scene throughout these events, showing us everything.

Of course, there’s a give and take. This approach has its limits, particularly noticeable every time the camera is pointed in the general vicinity of the sun. Plus, the on-the-scene style it often uses means there aren’t many cuts within certain scenes. This can make No especially intimidating for those who don’t speak the language; the camera is frequently swinging back and forth between rooms full of speakers, sometimes only catching half of what they say and other times not showing them at all. The viewer is required to memorize what certain voices sound like, as it can become unclear who’s saying what at certain points.

Most of the reviews I’ve read of this film have referred to it as “darkly funny,” which is an odd description and not one that particularly defines my experience with it — it’s realistic, and mostly, it isn’t a comedy. But in a strange way, it’s apt. There is something patently absurd about watching a roomful of political activists — necessarily — structuring potentially world-changing campaigns around happiness and rainbows and sunshine while deliberately avoiding major issues, up to an including kidnapping, torture, and murder, feeling that superficial inspiration is a stronger motivation for the general public than direct confrontations with reality. No has a lot to say about the voting public, basically none of it good. It tackles this — and its larger story — with enough honesty and realism to carry it through, past its bumpy patches and less-than-effective choices.

In large part, only history buffs need to apply. This is an interesting, largely unknown story from an important part in history, and it presents its information mainly in a straightforward and relatable manner. Others may wish No was a touch more emotionally involving in its presentation.

 

-Matt T.