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Pacific Rim

Much hullabaloo has been made about Guillermo del Toro’s “Pacific Rim.” You have two groups of people: those who are excited for it and those who think it looks like a glossed up “Transformers.” While the former staunchly defend the director (as they should given his track record of quality), can they really blame the latter? It’s hard to deny that the trailers, almost all of which focused on the action heavy sequences, were making a correlation between the two and reaching for that demographic. The good news is that this is no “Transformers.” Its approach to similar material is markedly different, both in tone, style and storytelling. It’s nothing particularly amazing and it’s certainly not one of del Toro’s best, but it’s well made, gorgeous and it has some truly terrific action.

In the near future, humanity is at war, but not amongst ourselves. Whatever petty problems we had before ended when we were one day invaded by a giant creature we eventually dubbed the Kaiju. At some point, a fissure between two tectonic plates in the Pacific Ocean opened a portal between two dimensions, allowing these beasts to come and wreak havoc. In response, humanity built giant robots to fight them. These machines, called Jaegers, are controlled by two pilots who link their brains together to become one. However, the world governments are phasing out the Jaeger program because it is quickly becoming clear that as the attacks become more frequent, we’re unable to keep up. Their plan is to build a giant wall, which quickly proves to be futile. In the meantime, the military, led by Stacker (Idris Elba), changes their categorization into a resistance and plans to hold them back for as long as possible, eventually concocting a plan that could end the war for good.

The first thing one notices when watching “Pacific Rim” is its surprising focus on its characters. Contrary to something like the aforementioned “Transformers” movies, which were less interested in story and more in making things go boom, the film crafts its narrative around the people. The trailers may indicate otherwise, but there’s more story here than action. Unfortunately, the story is relatively uninteresting, mostly traditional and filled to the brim with action movie clichés like the late movie motivational speech and the celebratory crowd welcoming a hero home after a big victory. These moments do little to complement a movie that is already struggling for conflict, seen most noticeably by the forced human quarrels between bickering pilots, one blaming the other for their current predicament. All of these moments are supposed to build these characters and give us a reason to invest ourselves in them and their plight, but they are perfunctory at best and don’t do a particularly good job bridging the action scenes together.

But in the moment, those action scenes will make you forget all that. Guillermo del Toro does a magnificent job of portraying the scope of what’s happening, slyly placing objects in the foreground to contrast between the hulking monstrosities in the background, toying with our perspective and giving us a true idea of how massive these things are. When one of the creatures or machines go flying through the air towards a major city, we know this isn’t going to be like Iron Man falling out of the sky and taking out a previously well-constructed block of road; it’s going to result in catastrophic damage and lives lost. The seriousness of what’s happening is rarely lost on the viewer (aside from the comic relief scientist played by Charlie Day, who is horribly miscast here). In particular, the terrific finale and a nail biting sequence that takes place, no joke, on the edge of space, are mind-blowing. With a score that complements its scope, “Pacific Rim” gives off the feeling of a truly epic Hollywood blockbuster.

The reason these action scenes work as well as they do is due to a calm editing style that isn’t reliant on frenzied cuts to manufacture a sense of excitement. They’re occasionally bogged down by some unnecessary zooms, nighttime darkness and lens flares brought on by nearby bright city lights, all of which make what happens a tad hard to see, but for the most part, they stand as an excellent example of how action should be filmed and presented.

Unfortunately, it all comes back to those characters, all of whom are flatly written and blandly portrayed. For example, Charlie Hunnam, who plays our protagonist, Raleigh, speaks in a whispered dramatic tone full of sentiments and recollections, but he can’t properly convey the required emotion needed for the role. The opening sequence shows the loss of his brother in combat, whom he was mind-melded with at the time, so the memory of his death, all of his brother’s feelings and fears, are trapped in his head, but you wouldn’t know it based on his performance. He basically walks around and scowls for two hours and then the movie ends.

With all that said and with all those problems, including characters that are focused on, yet are still uninteresting, “Pacific Rim” still manages to work, mostly due to the wonderful Guillermo del Toro and a surprisingly effective use of 3D. It really is striking to see the size of the creatures off in the distance in relation to a helicopter up close, making that otherwise impressive flying machine look like a child’s play toy, and the 3D really helps accentuate that. Despite the majority of its pre-release hype being undeserving, “Pacific Rim” is a fun, if a bit shallow, time at the movies.

Pacific Rim receives 3.5/5


Conan the Barbarian

As the summer winds to a close, it’s time to reflect back on what we’ve seen over the past three and a half months. We’ve seen many big budget action films released, including no less than four superhero movies. There have been some disappointments (Cowboys & Aliens), but there have also been those that have exceeded expectations (Captain America: The First Avenger). Now, with the most exciting time of the cinematic year ending, we have one last high profile film to see, Conan the Barbarian, and it’s a turd, easily one of the worst of the bunch, rising only above Green Lantern. It’s been many years since I’ve seen the original film and its sequel, so it’s difficult to make a direct comparison, but even with only a vague recollection of those two movies, I think it’s safe to say this reimagining makes those look like Shakespearean classics.

The film begins with some gobbledygook about sacrifices and ancient masks that can make a mortal a god. And that’s where it lost me. Conan the Barbarian is such an incomprehensible mess, it manages to confuse before anything actually happens. Before you know it, you’re watching Conan being born in the midst of battle before it flashes forward to the future not once, but twice, and takes our hero on a journey to at least half a dozen different locales in a quest for revenge.

That’s about as specific as I can get when it comes to the story. After watching, I challenge anyone to do better. An inability to follow what’s going on doesn’t stop at the story, however. It translates to the action scenes. The shaky camera, combined with the frenzied editing and darkened screen, compliments of a worthless 3D effect, keep the visuals murky and at a far too accelerated pace. Most of these action scenes are arbitrary in nature and mean very little to the story, though they’re all very violent and one in particular ends with about a dozen topless women standing around, so there’s that.

Conan the Barbarian is a rare anomaly, in that I honestly couldn’t tell whether or not I was supposed to be taking it seriously because there are plenty of laughs to be had, like one hilarious scene where Conan sticks his finger inside the wound of a man’s chopped off nose, which causes a good amount of snot to drip out. Whether that was supposed to be funny or not is debatable. What isn’t, however, are the hearty laughs provided by the narration from Morgan Freeman (which has become a joke unto itself in recent years) and the amusingly sexist dialogue, where Conan bosses his female companion around (“Woman! Come here!”) and accuses her of looking like a harlot, which would be offensive if the movie weren’t so ridiculous.

When you aren’t laughing at it, though, the dialogue (or more generally, the movie itself) is unbearable. It’s shoddily made, with one of the more obvious inconsistencies in recent memory (night turns to day in a matter of seconds), and the acting is uniformly bland. Jason Momoa, who plays the titular character, gives one of the most wooden performances of the year. Bearing a grimace and speaking in a deep voice does not a performance make. I would say his acting coach forgot to tell him that, but I find it unlikely he has ever had one.

Conan the Barbarian thinks it’s way more epic than it really is, but it’s nothing more than a hack and slash video game that you can’t play, and just as shallow as one too. It’s bloody and gruesome and its level of violence is matched only by its stupidity. And it is pretty violent.

Conan the Barbarian receives 1.5/5


Season of the Witch

If this year is anything like the last, January is going to be a cinematic wasteland with little to cheer about. Limited releases notwithstanding, the month is looking to be a bad one. So here we are with the first wide release movie of the year, Season of the Witch, and, well, it’s terrible.

The story takes place in the 14th century during the Crusades. Behmen (Nicolas Cage) and Felson (Ron Perlman) have dedicated their lives to the church and their cause, but after witnessing the slaying of innocent people, they decide to defect and go about on their own. After some time, however, they find need for supplies and are forced to stop in a local village where they first come into contact with the Plague, which is said to have been caused by a witch roaming the lands. They are quickly spotted and recognized as traitors, but rather than condemn Behmen and Felson to death, they are asked to help transport the alleged witch (Claire Foy) to a monastery where she will stand trial, to which they begrudgingly agree.

Season of the Witch, to put it lightly, is one of the most embarrassing movies I’ve seen in a long time, to the extent that everyone onscreen and behind the scenes should be ashamed for having worked on it. While it may be set in the early 1300’s, all characters speak with modern dialects. The actors make a bare bones attempt to bridge the gap between then and now, but each line comes off as hokey. Every utterance from the mouths of Cage and Perlman, in what could be the worst performances of their careers, was cringe worthy.

Had the film been tongue-in-cheek, this could be forgiven, but the subject matter, as silly as it is, is taken deathly seriously. Aside from an effective opening scene (that is only loosely tied to the movie as a whole), the rest transcends unintentional camp and reaches pure awfulness. The whole affair is a cumbersome, mishandled and painfully amateurish vision that is brought to a quick death as soon as Cage steps onscreen in his raggedy wig.

All one can hope for is some exciting action, but director Dominic Sena, who is responsible for the guilty pleasure, Swordfish, and little else, works them like your typical mindless hack ’n slash movie, in that unnamed people (and animals) run towards the screen only to get slaughtered and disappear. It also suffers from showing us too little. In order to avoid an R rating, camera shots are kept close and tight, so we see only the reaction of the person getting gutted rather than the actual gutting.

Season of the Witch is a film where nearly anything that can go wrong does. On top of all the problems already mentioned, it sports bad CGI, bland cinematography, a forgettable score and a script that feels like it was written by a teenager who has played one too many video games. It all ends with a final twist that goes against the very title of the film, which would have come as a surprise had it not already been given away by an early poster with a none too subtle logo behind a silhouette of the supposed witch. I predict that having already shot itself in the foot by ruining its ending will hear little outcry, however. It’s hard to believe that anybody with a modicum of self respect could find this interesting anyway.

Season of the Witch receives 1/5