Movies

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: Before Midnight

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Before Midnight

Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), the heroes and protagonists of Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy, are roughly the same ages as Ryan and I. We’ve grown up with them, and that may color how we view “Before Midnight” and its predecessors. I fell in love with these characters, and couldn’t wait to experience the next chapter in their lives.

In this latest film, we join Jesse and Celine nine years after the events in “Before Sunset,” and again, many things have changed for the two of them in the intervening time. We drop in toward the end of a vacation in Greece, and the pair are immediately familiar and intimate, and as viewers we feel as if they’re just old friends of ours, catching up.

Without a doubt, “Before Midnight” is best experienced with minimal spoilers, but even the trailers have told us quite a bit. I will say that what we witness is both expected, and a little sad. And for this go ’round, it appears that there is no “deadline” to meet, and thus no innate dramatic tension.

Yet, by the closing moments, everything is at stake, and for those of us in a similar stage in our lives, we can relate to the stakes all too well.

“Before Midnight” is the most honest, most realistic film about a long-term relationship that I’ve seen in a long time. It’s deliberately paced and beautifully shot, invoking the best parts of the New Hollywood films of the ’60s and ’70s. It is its own film, yet it certainly nods in small ways to “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset.”

And as far as performances go, Hawke and Delpy are indistinguishable from Jesse and Celine. To me, they are Jesse and Celine, a sense only strengthened with their performances here… if they even are performances. Delpy and Hawke co-wrote the screenplay with Linklater, and there are gems and needles of truth that must certainly come from real life.

In this third outing, we actually meet and get to know a few other characters, and they are just important to this film as Jesse and Celine. They seem to represent the two at different stages of their relationship, past and future. The conversations between these characters are just as honest as the ones this film series is known for.

When the credits roll, there’s a hesitation. And I think eeryone who sees this film will have a different own opinion about what happens next. That, perhaps, is the trademark question that haunts every “Before” film. But for the first time in this trilogy, I’m okay with not knowing what happens next. I think the final scene tells me everything I need to know about these characters. It’s a beautiful wrap-up to a great trilogy.

But if “Before Noon” turns up in 2022, I won’t complain.

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.

Cloud Atlas - Tom Hanks

Popspotting Post: Cloud Atlas

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Jen’s preview of”Cloud Atlas,” starring Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Huge Grant, directed by Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, in theaters Oct. 26, 2012.

I read the 2004 novel “Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell in four days.  Spurred on by Ryan, who was reading with me, I devoured the book like I had no other title before it.  We wanted to finish it before the screening of the feature film at the Hawaii International Film Festival.

I thoroughly enjoyed the novel.  Sure, it was gimmicky, but it was also fascinating. Cloud Atlas is a collection of six short stories with common themes, all tied together.  The narrators of the stories are from all over the world, in both the past and the future.  Mitchell was able to deftly create six different, distinct voices.

I realized that a film adaptation of this novel would be very, very tricky to pull off.  I had high hopes, though. The film is written and directed by Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and Lana and Andy Wachowski (The Matrix Trilogy).  I was somewhat confident in their collective ability to translate the novel into a coherent film.

They did pull it off.  Mostly.

The writing team cut a few corners and made a few changes that made me scratch my head.  They completely discarded the structure of the novel.  I was able to follow along with the characters, but I can imagine how someone not familiar with the novel could be very confused.  Some of the novel’s loose ends are tied up a little too neatly, and the filmmakers’ choice to use only a few actors for so many roles was maybe not a good one.

The film stars Halle Berry, Tom Hanks, Susan Sarandon, Jim Broadbent (Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince), and Jim Sturgess (Across the Universe), among others.  Halle Berry is Halle Berry, but I have to say, I am impressed with Tom Hanks.  I never saw him as a serious actor before and considered him very overrated, especially in Forrest Gump, a role which still earns him praise.  He sheds his movie star skin in this film and truly inhabits his characters. Hugo Weaving, of The Matrix Trilogy and the Lord of the Rings franchise, appears in drag in one story and is frightening every minute he is onscreen.

The team struggles, I think, with tone.  There are quite a few genuinely funny moments in the novel that just aren’t funny onscreen. One act involves a senior citizen (Broadbent) who is accidentally imprisoned in a retirement home and enlists some of his fellow residents in his escape.  This part of the novel is quite funny, but feels dark and surreal onscreen.  Another act takes place in the 1970’s, and feels much too modern.  A little more attention to how the original stories feel could have made this film seem more than just an exercise in dress-up.

And the makeup required to turn some of the Caucasian actors into Asian characters is truly awful.  Watching these actors in their makeup made me forget about the story entirely.

I appreciate what the filmmakers were going for.  I truly do.  The idea of the novel is that throughout one’s lives, he meets the same people over and over again, throughout history.  Seeing the same small cast appear as different characters underscores that idea, but it’s not necessarily successful.

The film does succeed, though, in its epic scope and especially it’s brain-twisty-ness.  It’s dense and confusing, in the best way possible.  The lack of a structure allows the audience to make connections that they might not make with the novel.  Scenes blend into each other, lines of dialogue highlight themes.  It is an achievement in filmmaking.

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.

John Carter Square

Popspotting #216: “John Carter” (March 5, 2012)

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We’re back after an extra week off with a look at Disney’s “John Carter,” which opens March 9. It was one of the movies we said we were looking forward to in 2012… but one we were also a little worried about, given how ridiculous the trailers were. But with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ sci-fi classic as a guide, and with Andrew Stanton at the helm, we were still on board. Add the handsome Taylor Kitsch on screen and the talented Michael Giacchino behind the score, and we simply couldn’t miss it.

Is “John Carter” going to be the disaster the trade press is predicting? Or is it the big, fun sci-fi adventure that’s worthy of the great names attached to it?

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Popspotting #213: “Flickchart 2: Electric Boogaloo” (Feb. 15, 2012)

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Flickchart 2

For every good movie, a sequel is soon to follow. (For every bad movie, too, it seems.) So we revisit one of our favorite “Wildcard Wednesday” topics from last year. It’s another “Flickchart Faceoff,” in which we turn to everyone’s favorite dangerously addictive movie site (made in Florida!) to set us up with a series of movie matchups. We then judge which is more worthy, likely revealing more of our ignorance and bad taste in the process. But that’s okay. The best part is hearing from you exactly why we picked the wrong ones!

Popspotting #211: “Meek’s Copy” (Feb. 13, 2012)

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Certified Copy

We shift gears and go a little art house this week as we check out a pair of films that took the film festival circuit by storm. First, “Meek’s Cutoff,” a sparse exploration of trust and survival off the Oregon Trail in the 1800s, based on a true story. Then, “Certified Copy,” a day in the life of a man and a woman who may or may not have a history together.

The Hobbit

Popspotting #208: “Coming Attractions 2012” (Feb. 8, 2012)

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Django Unchained - Fan Art by Crustydog on Deviantart

For Wildcard Wednesday, we survey the year ahead, and share our most-anticipated movies of 2012. Ryan and Jen both share their top five picks, plus a few runners up. They include “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Moonrise Kingdom,” “Cloud Atlas,” “The Hobbit” and “The Master” for Ryan, and “Magic Mike,” “Dark Shadows,” “Looper,” “The Hunger Games” and “Django Unchained” for Jen.

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