Jen

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Popspotting Post: Pacific Rim

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Pacific Rim

Pacific Rim may be the only true summer blockbuster of 2013.

Man of Steel was stylish but disappointing; Star Trek: Into Darkness was better than the 2009 entry in the franchise, but had a weak third act. And Iron Man 3 was just a mess.  I didn’t have high hopes that I would see any big-budget extravaganza with great performances and a great story any time in the near future, let alone this year.

I was so wrong.  Pacific Rim is a huge film.  It is a feat of special effects.  It has endless action and breathtaking set pieces. It’s also a thoughtful, well-constructed homage to Godzilla and 50’s monster movies.  Director Guillermo Del Toro has created a colorful, complex world in this film.  The effects are remarkable, but the film is also funny and charming.

The film takes place in the near future.  The human race is battling the kaiju, a race of trans-dimensional reptilian monsters, with giant armed robots.  The pilots of the giant robots are regarded as celebrities for a time, but soon fall out of favor. When we meet Raleigh, he is retired from fighting… but obviously things are going to change.

This is all explained in an opening voiceover that is relatively brief.  We are dropped in the middle of the action.  There is very little exposition.  Even lines of dialogue that are a bit anvilicious or cheesy are delivered with such earnestness, I still ate it all up.

And while much of the action consists of giant masses of pixels crashing into each other, it’s designed and choreographed well enough to follow. Some computer generated battle scenes are about as coherent as watching nuts and bolts in a washing machine. Pacific Rim manages to convey real force and presence, and I might even have fallen for a jump scare or two.

The biggest selling point of the movie for me is the cast.  Charlie Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy) plays Raleigh Becket, a hero from the wars humanity has waged against the kaiju.  Becket’s superior officer is played by Idris Elba, of The Wire and Luther.  Neither actor is particularly well-known; they are both best known for their TV work.

In fact, this is a film with no huge stars.  The most recognizable face in the movie is that of frequent Del Toro collaborator Ron Perlman (also of Sons of Anarchy). The cast is full of ‘Those Guys’ — people who are in movies and TV all the time, in small roles. But I was a fan of most of them, and wasn’t disappointed.

Elba, in particular, excels at walking the perfect line between regal and ridiculous, commanding respect even as we chuckle at some of his lines. Perlman and Charlie Day (Horrible Bosses) provide a lot of laughs as well, as do some of Del Toro’s visual tricks.  Perlman’s role isn’t particularly big, but it’s impressive.

Rinko Kikuchi (Babel) is the sole female castmember.  Her character arc is predictable, as are the arcs of many of the supporting cast.  The story sometimes falls into monster-movie cliche, but the ride is so much fun that it doesn’t matter.

I was skeptical going into the movie. I was confident that Elba and Hunnam would elevate the material, but I was afraid of seeing another iteration of Transformers.  Instead, I was delighted, occasionally jolted, and thoroughly entertained.

Ryan came out of the film declaring it “spectacularly preposterous,” and for better or worse, that works. And if that’s what you’re looking for, you won’t be disappointed.

Popspotting Post: “Man of Steel”

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Man of Steel

“Superman Returns” (2006) was awful. Brandon Routh as Clark Kent was pretty but bland, Kate Bosworth was boring, and Kevin Spacey chewed more scenery than Al Pacino has in his entire career. The action was forgettable and the plot drove itself into the most mind-boggling places.

If any comic-book character deserves a modern-day reboot, it’s Superman. But that film was not it.

It left such a bad taste in my mouth that when word started to spread about yet another reboot, I was skeptical. I was even more skeptical when Russell Crowe was cast as Jor-El. It could be good, I thought, or it could be an overwrought later-day Marlon Brando-style mess. The trailers looked promising, if not moody and dark.

“Man of Steel” is moody and dark, but in the best way possible. At least for the first half. The look and tone of Man of Steel is gritty and thoughtful. In a darker, more mature reboot, less is more.

Minor spoilers ahead!

Fortunately, no time is wasted in this movie. We spend very little time watching Clark Kent grow up. We are told of his powers in one short flashback. When we meet Clark as an adult (played by Henry Cavill of Stardust)m he is hiding out and probably hasn’t saved any lives in years. This Clark is just as confused as Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight, and he’s compelling.

We are introduced to Amy Adams’ Lois Lane early, and there’s very little meet-cute here. General Zod (the brilliant Michael Shannon from The Runaways, Take Shelter) comes on the scene right away. It’s going so well.

Then it gets sloppy.

It appears as if director Zack Snyder realized how big his budget was halfway through filming and got the urge to spend it all at once. The second half of the film is just a little too much. Too many things blowing up, too many fights, and about a half hour too much movie. While I understand Snyder’s urge to go all-out, I feel his approach was too heavy-handed.

Michael Shannon remains the best part of the movie, but everything else just falls apart. In the middle twenty minutes of the film, a few minor characters drag out some meaningless jargon and start referring to objects that have nothing to do with the plot. We watch a pivotal scene with someone who works with Lois Lane, to whom we have barely been introduced, and we are suddenly expect to believe that her survival is of great importance, despite not really knowing who she was five seconds before.

Ultimately, there’s the expected final battle royale in Smallville, trashing a conspicuously positioned IHOP, and then a Sears. Like the last act of “Star Trek Into Darkness,” untold devastation is wrought with nary a moment’s hesitation. And the culmination of the battle, the leverage that forces Superman to make his final move, is baffling considering the few minutes that came before.

The film’s denouement is an even bigger head-scratcher, but also an interesting twist to the long-established canon of Superman’s civilian life.

The spectacle is distracting and somewhat disappointing, but ultimately not enough to detract from the good parts of the film. The photography is beautiful, starting with how the actors are lit. Everyone looks beautiful, especially Kal-El’s mother Lara, played by Ayelet Zurer. Vancouver is always a great locale for beautiful, bleak scenery, and the American heartland has never looked lovelier than under the hands of director of photography Amir Mokri. And Crowe hasn’t been this charismatic in years.

The most pleasant surprise was Hans Zimmer’s score. I have never enjoyed a Zimmer score until now.

“Man of Steel” is not my favorite blockbuster of the summer so far, but it was surprisingly enjoyable. A little too much, but really, that’s what summer blockbusters are for.

Popspotting Post: Star Trek Into Darkness

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Star Trek Into Darkness

My husband was a big ol’ Trekkie.  Sitting right now in a cabinet in our home is a collection of commemorative Star Trek plates.  He had a Starfleet uniform and drew schematics of his very own hypothetical Starfleet ship.  He even recently made me watch Star Trek 2:  Wrath of Khan and its prequel of sorts, the episode entitled “Space Seed,” the twenty-second episode of the first season.

As a total Trek neophyte, I wasn’t terribly impressed with the episode of the series, but I enjoyed Wrath of Khan.  I equally enjoyed the 2009 J.J. Abrams reboot.  There were great performances; Karl Urban as Leonard “Bones” McCoy and Zachary Quinto as Spock stood out.  I was even quite excited when Star Trek: Into Darkness was announced.

My brief encounter with the original series and the films served me well, as it turned out.  Star Trek: Into Darkness is a throwback, in much the same way that last year’s Skyfall was an homage to the Bond films of yore.  Abrams uses establishes subtle (and not so subtle) ties to the TV series. There is much in this movie for a hardcore Trekkie to love, but it’s easy for a newbie like me to get caught up in the story and the characters.

Quinto and Urban continue to be the most interesting actors in Abrams’ ensemble.  Urban is hilarious, cranky, and charming as Bones.  James T. Kirk, as played by Chris Pine, is a vapid pretty boy, but a serviceable actor.  Zoe Saldana’s Uhura has very little to do.  But the chemistry between them all elevates all of their performances into something special.

I am an Abrams fangirl.  I will see anything he does (see the lamentable Cloverfield).  However, I would like to have a word or two with him about the lens flare schtick.  It’s become cliche to gripe about the lens flare in reviews, but sometimes cliches are cliches for good reason. Maybe anything worth doing is worth overdoing.

Abrams’ musical collaborator Michael Giacchino provides the score.  Giacchino’s music for LOST is still my favorite work of his, for its wide range and eclectic style.  There are some LOST-like moments of greatness in his score for Into Darkness.

The baddie-du-jour is John Harrison, played by Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch.  He really is the highlight of the movie.  Harrison is an enigma wrapped in a riddle wrapped in an overcoat.  He’s a scary dude, but he’s pursuing his own twisted version of justice.  Maybe I’m weird, but I actually was cheering for Harrison for a few minutes.  Cumberbatch’s performance is captivating and chilling.

The first two-thirds of the film is wall-to-wall action and chaos.  There is a point in the film when I realized that the story could almost go anywhere.  Unfortunately, the loose ends are all tied up a little too neatly and the last ten minutes are rushed.

Abrams has so many irons in the fire recently, with a possible third film in the Star Trek franchise and the upcoming Star Wars sequels.  I remain a fan.

Looper Poster Square

Popspotting Post: Looper

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Looper Poster Wide

“Looper” is so heavy; so violent; but still, so surprising and unique that a day after we saw it, I’m still not sure how I feel about it.

It stars Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an older and younger version, respectively, of the same character, an assassin in the midwest of the future.

One might wonder how the two actors approached this. I wondered when I first read about the film if Gordon-Levitt would be playing Bruce Willis, or the other way around, or if the two found some middle ground. Bruce Willis is playing the character he always plays, and it’s up to Gordon-Levitt to do an impersonation of Willis, which he does, very skillfully. I could have believed that Gordon-Levitt was the same person, simply through his acting.

Unfortunately, someone involved didn’t think that would be adequate and through the magic of prosthetics, attempted to transform him into Willis. Even with Gordon-Levitt’s ridiculous makeup, they look nothing alike, and indeed, he looks like a waxy robot.

A lot of small moments throughout this film felt so familiar. I felt as if I’d seen something before with a similar premise, or similar scenes, or something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. There were characters dressed like Neo; the time-travel element of the film recalled for me “Twelve Monkeys,” and we see a glimpse of Butch Coolidge, Willis’ character in “Pulp Fiction.” I felt like I was watching a Christopher Nolan film at times and Johnson seems to love lens flare as much as J.J. Abrams. This film is many pieces of cinema cobbled together into something that’s big and loud enough to bring in mainstream audiences.

My favorite performance in this film might be that of a child. He is so good, in fact, that I was convinced he was some sort of CG creation. He reminded me of the child actress in the film “The Fall.” The young boy’s story slowly, stealthily, becomes the focus of the story late in the film. The introduction of this storyline is a radical departure in tone from what I was expecting. In fact, it almost cut the film into two separate movies, in my view.

The score for the film was composed by Nathan Johnson. It’s effective, meaning that it’s noticeable at just the right times and never too loud or melodramatic. The cue that plays just before the credits roll is lovely and frames the ending of the film in a pleasantly unexpected way.

New Orleans and its suburbs stand in for Kansas, and I don’t know why it’s important that we believe the film takes place in Kansas. It just seems like a strange choice. The plot doesn’t hinge on us thinking we’re in Kansas. There is a certain suspension of disbelief necessary in watching sci-fi films. Isn’t it easier for the filmmaker to just suggest we’re in some unnamed Other Place, where time travel/aliens/spaceships are possible?

I will certainly benefit from a second viewing. “Looper” is a multi-layered, intelligent film that I think will spark discussion for some time to come.

Glen Hansard - Rhythm And Repose

Popspotting Post: New Music Review – Summer 2012

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New Popspotting podcasts are still a few months away, but thanks to a Spotify subscription, I’ve been hearing a lot of new music that I want to share.

I consider Spotify some kind of minor miracle. For a long time, I’ve been the cranky old lady who doesn’t listen to anything made in this decade. Still, there are a few contemporary artists who excite me and make me want to listen to more artists like them.

I’ve caught up with artists I’ve enjoyed before as well, like Glen Hansard.

Rhythm and Repose” [Spotify, Amazon] is the debut solo album from the Frames frontman. Hansard went on to star in the indie musical “Once” and perform on the movie soundtrack, which contains original songs as well as covers of a few Frames’ songs. Hansard is also half of the duo The Swell Season.

Hansard is a master of melody. He manages to infuse his songs, which are largely quiet, somber ballads, with a groove. The track “Sleeping” from the Swell Season’s debut album lodges itself in my head quicker than anything on the radio lately. A few tracks on the “Once” soundtrack also achieve earworm status.

In “Rhythm and Repose,” it seems Hansard is flirting with classical structure. The instruments are lush; the melodies more complex. As a consequence, there are fewer of the hooks that keep me going back to the Once soundtrack. The lovely “Maybe Not Tonight” has the highest earworm potential. It reminds me of a country duet from the 70’s. The jazzy “Love Don’t Leave Me Waiting” is also groovy and reminiscent of Van Morrison.

I fell in love with the “Once” soundtrack instantly. I enjoy “Rhythm” a lot, but it’ll take me a few listens to fully appreciate it, I think. I believe that this is an intensely personal album. Its lyrics, like those in “Races”, seem to describe a period of contemplation and pain. The chorus of Races states “You never loved me”. I feel as if I’m peeking into someone’s diary.


Frank Ocean’s “channel ORANGE” [Spotify, Amazon] debuted at Number 2 this week. Ocean came out earlier this month. His announcement grabbed headlines and possibly piqued a lot of curiosity. Indeed, I was curious, because very little R&B from the past decade has interested me, and all of the reviews I’d read raved about “channel ORANGE,” praising its fresh, unique sound.

I love this album. Ocean is doing something different here, but he’s framing it in a familiar sound that I love. The track “Pyramids” is delightfully weird; almost nerdy, but contains irresistible hooks. It’s a throwback in the best possible way. Ocean clearly loves 70’s R&B even more than I do, but he loves contemporary R&B too and has a way to marry them seamlessly.

Ocean namechecks Forrest Gump in a track that features a subtle but infectious guitar lick. It sounds so different from “Pyramids,” which sounds nothing like “Bad Religion,” which reminds me of Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” with its organ-heavy opening.

This album has really made me reevaluate my listening habits. I’m wondering what R&B gems I’ve missed these past few years.

Also:

  • Settle Down” by No Doubt. Love it. It’s surprisingly complex, insanely catchy, and fun. Maybe my favorite song of theirs.
  • Runaways” by The Killers. Not as edgy as previous efforts. Sounds like Gaslight Anthem. Still, pretty good. Some people might accuse The Killers of selling out, but it sounds like a natural evolution to me.
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