It's 2020, and we're already knee deep in kaiju chaos. Pacific Rim picks up en media res, with the interdimensional monsters' initial invasion of Earth having taken place a decade and change back and a super-powered international military of robot warship (a.k.a. Jaeger) pilots newly deemed unfit to protect the Earth from increasing threats. Beyond a quick, straightforward piece of introductory exposition, we don't spend too much time learning about the history of the species' reign on Earth — they came, we ran, we fought, they kept coming, people kind of got into it, and now we're prepping for the biggest attack yet. That's all we know.
And that's all we need to know. In what should tout itself as the biggest, flashiest movie of the summer, the "less is more" philosophy seems to have been stamped at the top of each page of the screenplay. Guillermo del Toro, a master of imagination, lets his world speak for itself — in the two hours we spend inside the filmmaker's mind, we widen our eyes over and over at engrossing fantasy lands: the futuristic home base for the Jaeger militia, the seedy underworld of kaiju organ dealers, the nightmare flashbacks of each tragedy-afflicted soldier (called upon to fuse his thoughts with his robot and co-pilot in order to fight the nefarious beasts). All stellar, engaging, and even at their darkest, wholly fun. To reiterate, the sensory charms of this movie do all of its talking, allowing our excess admiration to fill in the gaps left by... you know, plot and character.
This movie runs on the basics and makes no claims to do anything otherwise. Its plot is so simple, you can sum it up as "robots vs. monsters." Its characters are thin enough as to fit the stock catalogue almost perfectly: Charlie Hunnam plays a PTSD-stricken returning fighter, Rinko Kikuchi an aspiring soldier who wishes to avenge her family, Idris Elba (offering the best dramatic performance in the movie) the no-nonsense commanding officer with a secret soft spot, and Robert Kazinsky the hot-shot who doesn't take too kindly to Raleigh's (Hunnam) return to action. But he has a dog, so we know we're supposed to like him eventually. And a good husk of the dialogue will have you checking your phone to make sure it is not, in fact, 1996. But in embracing this identity, in cherishing these age-old tropes and traditions rather than aiming to pass them off as something altogether new, Pacific Rim wins us over. You won't groan at hokey lines or predictable character turns, you'll howl with celebratory laughter.
Humor and fun are in no short supply in Pacific Rim, better recalling Hellboy than any of the director's more severe turns. Immersive underworlds, exhilarating scenescapes, and look-how-cool-this-is battles never lose their juice. And to top the lot is the comic relief: the misfits. Charlie Day leads the pack as a character who is no far cry from his It's Always Sunny incarnation — an excitable, emotional scientist who considers his quest to understand the kaiju brain as the key to sending the wretched beasts back from whence they came.
Day's screen-time accomplices are Burn Gorman, a didactic mathematician who counters his partner's outlandish theories at every opportunity, and del Toro regular Ron Perlman as a black market top banana who gets roped into Newton's (Day... yes, his name is Newton, as it should be) harebrained scheme to obtain a living kaiju brain. Matching any one of the huge scale battle scenes in thrill factor, Day's high-stakes bickering with Gorman or his fish-out-of-water immigration into Hannibal Chau's (Perlman... yes, his name is Hannibal Chau, and the joke behind it is surreally hilarious) criminal kingdom offer a handful of Pacific Rim's high points. The shrimpy scientist has a larger role than you might anticipate, but he never overstays his welcome — this movie, with keen awareness, belongs to the soldiers, their robots, and the monsters they are dying to kill.
But the film falls short in a few of its later turns, when the self-aware goof troop is abadonend and the film falters into some decidedly unimaginative character storylines. It might sound a little backward to expect anything otherwise from a movie so deliberately delivered on the modus operandi of monster movie yore, but sweeping conclusions seem to lose sense of the tongue-in-cheek nature of the practice and succumb to a closed-eyed grab for the obvious. With as much fun as Guillermo del Toro has with his movie, and as much excitement as he stocks into every nook and cranny, you'd think he could stuff his ending up with a bit more of that fun, that excitement, and the imagination that bursts from every seam.
Even if your mind drifts here and there, called upon to reflect on old Godzilla features, Power Rangers adventures, or Always Sunny gags that you can't help but remember, you're always in the movie — it's as much of a ride as it is a story. The sights and sounds are just as important as the plot itself. So from beginning to end, you won't find yourself wanting — you'll be astonished by the big, amused by the small, and find every sense in your body nourished to completion. pacific Rim might not dazzle you too far beyond your expectations, but it'll meet them for sure. The kaiju? They're monstrous. The Jaegers? Supercharged. Del Toro's world? Breathtaking. His stars? Up to the task — some (notably Elba and Day) firing on all cylinders. Sure, you can poke fun at the dialogue, root up a plothole or two, but the film doesn't let you focus on its flaws, no matter how many there may be. It's too busy jazzing up your energy with what monster movies were built on in the first place: unadulterated fun.
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David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas consists of six stories set in various periods between 1850 and a time far into Earth's post-apocalyptic future. Each segment lives on its own the previous first person account picked up and read by a character in its successor creating connective tissue between each moment in time. The various stories remain intact for Tom Tykwer's (Run Lola Run) Lana Wachowski's and Andy Wachowski's (The Matrix) film adaptation which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. The massive change comes from the interweaving of the book's parts into one three-hour saga — a move that elevates the material and transforms Cloud Atlas in to a work of epic proportions.
Don't be turned off by the runtime — Cloud Atlas moves at lightning pace as it cuts back and forth between its various threads: an American notary sailing the Pacific; a budding musician tasked with transcribing the hummings of an accomplished 1930's composer; a '70s-era investigatory journalist who uncovers a nefarious plot tied to the local nuclear power plant; a book publisher in 2012 who goes on the run from gangsters only to be incarcerated in a nursing home; Sonmi~451 a clone in Neo Seoul who takes on the oppressive government that enslaves her; and a primitive human from the future who teams with one of the few remaining technologically-advanced Earthlings in order to survive. Dense but so was the unfamiliar world of The Matrix. Cloud Atlas has more moving parts than the Wachowskis' seminal sci-fi flick but with additional ambition to boot. Every second is a sight to behold.
The members of the directing trio are known for their visual prowess but Cloud Atlas is a movie about juxtaposition. The art of editing is normally a seamless one — unless someone is really into the craft the cutting of a film is rarely a post-viewing talking point — but Cloud Atlas turns the editor into one of the cast members an obvious player who ties the film together with brilliant cross-cutting and overlapping dialogue. Timothy Cavendish the elderly publisher could be musing on his need to escape and the film will wander to the events of Sonmi~451 or the tortured music apprentice Robert Frobisher also feeling the impulse to run. The details of each world seep into one another but the real joy comes from watching each carefully selected scene fall into place. You never feel lost in Cloud Atlas even when Tykwer and the Wachowskis have infused three action sequences — a gritty car chase in the '70s a kinetic chase through Neo Seoul and a foot race through the forests of future millennia — into one extended set piece. This is a unified film with distinct parts echoing the themes of human interconnectivity.
The biggest treat is watching Cloud Atlas' ensemble tackle the diverse array of characters sprinkled into the stories. No film in recent memory has afforded a cast this type of opportunity yet another form of juxtaposition that wows. Within a few seconds Tom Hanks will go from near-neanderthal to British gangster to wily 19th century doctor. Halle Berry Hugh Grant Jim Sturgess Jim Broadbent Ben Whishaw Hugo Weaving and Susan Sarandon play the same game taking on roles of different sexes races and the like. (Weaving as an evil nurse returning to his Priscilla Queen of the Desert cross-dressing roots is mind-blowing.) The cast's dedication to inhabiting their roles on every level helps us quickly understand the worlds. We know it's Halle Berry behind the fair skinned wife of the lunatic composer but she's never playing Halle Berry. Even when the actors are playing variations on themselves they're glowing with the film's overall epic feel. Jim Broadbent's wickedly funny modern segment a Tykwer creation that packs a particularly German sense of humor is on a smaller scale than the rest of the film but the actor never dials it down. Every story character and scene in Cloud Atlas commits to a style. That diversity keeps the swirling maelstrom of a movie in check.
Cloud Atlas poses big questions without losing track of its human element the characters at the heart of each story. A slower moment or two may have helped the Wachowskis' and Tykwer's film to hit a powerful emotional chord but the finished product still proves mainstream movies can ask questions while laying over explosive action scenes. This year there won't be a bigger movie in terms of scope in terms of ideas and in terms of heart than Cloud Atlas.
In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.
The Tourist is about as difficult to get through as spotting the vowels in the name of its director. Florian Henckel von Donnersmark was last seen receiving a Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2007 for The Lives of Others which was about a couple living in East Berlin who were being monitored by the police of the German Democratic Republic. Its positive reception made way for the assumption that Donnersmark would continue to populate the USA with films of seemingly otherworldly and underrepresented themes. But his current project is saddening in its superficiality and total implausibility.
The film’s only real upside is its stars: two of our most prized Americans. Johnny Depp plays Frank Tupelo a math teacher from Wisconsin who travels to Europe after his wife leaves him presumably because of his weakness and simplicity. While en route to Venice he meets Elise Clifton-Ward (Angelina Jolie) who situates herself in his company after she receives a letter from her criminal lover Alexander Pearce (who stole some billions from a very wealthy Russian and the British government) with instructions to find someone on a train who looks like him and make the police believe that he is the real Alexander Pearce to throw the authorities and the Russians off his track. Elise picks Frank and after they are photographed kissing each other on the balcony of Elise’s hotel everyone begins to believe Frank is the real Pearce and so begins the chase.
While Donnersmark could not have picked two better looking people to film roaming around Venice his lack of faith in the audience is obvious. Every aspect of the characters is hammed up again and again as if Donnersmark felt burdened with the task of making us see his vision. Doubtful that we’re capable of getting to where he wants us he has crafted a movie completely devoid of subtlety. Elise’s strength and superiority over Frank are portrayed by close-ups and repeated instances of men burping up their lungs upon seeing her (as if her beauty is in any way subjective?). And in case we forgot that Frank is the victim in this story -- even though he’s been tricked chased and shot at - Donnersmark still felt the need to pin him with a lame electronic cigarette to puff on. Frank and Elise somehow manage to lack mystery even though we get very few factual details about each of them.
Nothing extraordinary comes to us in the way of the film’s structural elements either. There is very little of the action that The Tourist’s marketing led us to believe and the dialog is often painful. The plot itself is almost shockingly unbelievable especially when we’re asked to believe that Elise falls in love with Frank after a combination of kissing him once and her disclosed habit of swooning over men she only spent an hour with (yes that was on her CV).
The Tourist is rather empty and cosmetic. It’s worth seeing if you’re a superfan of Jolie or Depp but don’t expect to walk out of the theater with anything more than the stub you came in with.