Godzilla: Movie review

When Hollywood’s last crack at the King of Monsters came out in 1998, I was about 15 – the prime age for enjoying awful blockbuster spectacles. And I still thought that movie was a giant hot turd. (Matthew Broderick as a leading man? Really?)

Sixteen years later, Godzilla roars back into cinemas* in a vastly, vastly, vastly-I-can’t-state-this-enough better film. His new incarnation wears the “gritty reboot” shell  beloved by modern films, but on the inside it’s still a gooey dumb monster movie. Which is a good thing! You will like this if you’re after grim but elegant visuals, but you will also like it if you just want to see skyscraper-sized behemoths scrapping with each other.

(*Meanwhile, if this movie does good at the box office “Godzilla roars back into cinemas” will be the headline used by every hack entertainment writer. If it does bad, I guess the standard headline will be… I dunno. “Rival film fights off Godzilla” or something shitty like that.)

Light spoilers ahead.

godzilla-posterUnlike the ‘98 movie, which depicted Godzilla as a humanity-bullying monster, here he’s the monster who saves us from other humanity-bullying monsters. He’s a mythical hero, all majestic and unknowable and, admittedly, a little tubby (a design which actually works in his favour, still evoking the classic guy-wearing-a rubber suit look even though he’s pure CGI.)

Godzilla’s battles in his new film with a destructive pair of MUTOs (that’s “Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Object”, obviously) set up a new franchise where he’s an “apex predator” who must return every couple of years to save the day and “restore balance” while crushing landmarks underfoot.

Or something. His purpose is all explained away via pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo delivered as straight-faced as every other line in the movie; there are almost no jokes here (unless you count the callbacks featuring screaming Japanese running for their lives, which I think are only unintentionally hilarious). Where its kaiju cousin Pacific Rim was camp and neon, Godzilla is muted and serious.

Its monster battles are strikingly realised, offered to us mostly in glimpses – witnessed out of car windows, in reflections, through binoculars – until the climax, where Godzilla and the MUTOs finally have at it. It’s a very nice-looking film, especially that stunning shot of military skydivers parachuting into a monster-addled San Francisco. (A scene, which, sadly was spoiled by trailers and previews that lessen its big screen impact. Please quit giving away so much, Hollywood.)

Unfortunately, the script keeps dragging us away from the fun stuff – the monsters – and forces us to suffer through the boring stuff – the humans. It’s not a problem (in theory!) that Godzilla chooses everyday-types as the lens for its story – none of its characters are chosen ones, or presidents, or Will Smith-in-Independence Day-style wise-cracking badasses. The problem is that most of these bystanders are just… pretty boring.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson is hardest hit as the awesomely ridiculously named Liuetenant Ford Brody*, whose role is to look pretty and anguished as he wavers back and forth between wanting to save his family from monsters and apparently forgetting about his family while he goes off to fight monsters. Brody’s dad is Joe (Bryan Cranston, who’s set his Act-o-Meter somewhere up around “Manic Gnashing”), who’s that disaster movie staple: the madman whose crackpot theories about impending doom turn out to be right. There’s nothing surprising about that character type, but at least Cranston’s subplot ends unexpectedly.

(*Like I had an actual double take when I realised that was the character’s actual name. It’s like it came from a focus group to determine the most generically masculine-but-not-threatening name.)

Ken Watanabe plays another disaster staple: the scientist. He’s a monster expert who doesn’t do much more than look disturbed by the devastation and advise that the military’s plan to defeat the MUTOs is dumb. (A military with a dumb rescue plan is yet another disaster movie staple, but even by the usual standards Godzilla’s military is really dumb. At no point does anyone in charge actually point out that, um, guys, our plan makes zero sense if you actually think about it. Guys? Guys?)

The worst victim of this blandness is Elizabeth Olsen, who’s burdened with the appalling boring role of Brody’s nurse wife – a bonehead who literally does nothing but stay behind in San Francisco looking scared, refusing to flee because her husband told her to stay put. Seriously. That is her plot arc. She has a son to look after, but at no point does she have any convincing maternal chemistry with him. (She’s not helped by the fact that her onscreen kid is one of the movie’s many mute, gormless children who stares at Godzilla and destruction with vacant eyes.)

Actually, none of the human females in this movie fare well. The only other notable woman is Watanabe’s assistant, who simpers and expositions and was maybe given a name? She’s played by Sally Hawkins, who has so little of the spark she showed in Blue Jasmine that I barely recognised her.

That’s not to say Godzilla is yet another Hollywood blockbuster with a woman problem. It has equal opportunity character problems for both genders! And besides, there is one badass female character: The she-MUTO, who just wants to get laid and have babies and settle into a nice nest underneath a ruined city. And isn’t that what all of us want, really?


The Lego Movie: movie review

The Lego Movie

A Hollywood Lego movie sounds, in theory, like an unforgivably terrible idea. And yet Hollywood’s The Lego Movie is far from unforgivably terrible. The film industry is shamelessly gross at spinning brands into movies, but here’s at least one instance where that method has paid off.

Part of The Lego Movie’s charm is surprise that it is actually good. No one expected this to be good when it was first announced, right? We all pictured Hollywood hacks being like, “Hey, it’s Lego. Kids already like it. Let’s tack on some shit-baked story about loser characters and go get drunk.”

The Lego MovieInstead, writer-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller* have had a good think about what makes playing with Lego (or “Legos”, as some awful Americans would have it) so popular. You can do anything with plastic Danish bricks that are excruciating to tread on, and that anarchic, limitless fun is the foundation of their movie.

(*Who, it turns out, are also responsible for Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street, two movies also a lot better than anyone expected.)

The world of The Lego Movie brims with imagination. Opening scenes set in a massive city of Lego bricks have the kind of toy-rich detail that would have set my hair on fire if I’d watched this as a 10-year-old. (Happy to report that none of the actual 10-year-olds at the screening I attended spontaneously combusted.) The rest of the film jumps from world to world – Wild West, space, some sort of cuckoo fantasy land – and each is as glorious as the one before it.

The look of the whole thing is just terrific – the CGI has a stop-motion animation quirk reminiscent of those many charming Lego YouTube videos, or that old TV series no one but me seems to remember:

The plot itself is predictable and pretty stupid: something about a minifig everyman named Emmett (voiced by Chris Pratt) who stumbles across the “Piece of Resistance”, a Lego brick that will save everyone from an evil plot masterminded by the conformity-loving, unsubtly named villain “Lord Business” (Will Ferrell).

(The irony of a massive global business demonising a businessman is not touched upon.)

Elizabeth Banks stars as Wyldstyle, the intentionally-ridiculously-named Strong Female Character and requisite love interest. (Chastely innocent love interest, FYI. This is a children’s movie.) Lego Batman (Will Arnett) also features heavily, as do plenty of wildly cheesy jokes that kids seemed to get a big kick out of.

What’s interesting about the plot is how meta it is – the climax almost plays like a kiddie version of a Charlie Kaufman film. Yes, there’s the predictable “good triumphs over evil” finish, but the film concludes with a genuine, heartfelt, layered reflection of what makes Lego so great in the first place. Without giving the ending away, it’s actually crazy. It’s even crazier that it works as well as it does.


The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: Movie review

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings is a spectacularly realised saga that’s even more impressive for the scale of its ambition: to tell a grand, epic story on film, which it (mostly) does (when it’s not swaddling itself in sentimentality). Remember how compelling The Fellowship of the Ring was the first time? I saw that movie four times in the cinema and countless times after on DVD.

I can’t imagine watching any of The Hobbit films more than once, ever. Not because they’re terrible: The first installment, An Unexpected Journey, is fine, and its sequel, The Desolation of Smaug, is also fine. It’s just that the ambition of these films feels less “let’s tell a story” and more “let’s make a ton of money stretching an uncomplicated story across three unnecessary films”.

If you’re a Middle-earth diehard and/or you don’t care about any of that, great, good for you, you will enjoy this a lot. But a sense of gross cash-grabbing cynicism hangs off Smaug like the creepy giant spiders that have spun their webs across Mirkwood. Sure, yes, Hollywood is a business and every blockbuster is made to make money – but The Hobbit franchise’s naked greed is actually revolting.

Because J.R.R. Tolkein’s Hobbit book is so slight you could literally read the whole thing in the time it takes to watch a single part of its film adaptation, Jackson and co. have made significant additions to its plot. Smaug picks straight up from the first film, in which the 13 dwarves, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and Bilbo (Martin Freeman) made barely any progress on their quest to the Lonely Mountain to boot out Smaug the dragon (voiced by Tumblr’s favourite actor Benedict Cumberbatch).

To move things along a bit, the party takes a shortcut through the spider-infested Mirkwood while Gandalf goes off to investigate some spooky Necromancer we’re meant to pretend we don’t know is Sauron. The travellers are rescued then imprisoned by elves, including princely Legolas (Orlando Bloom, who spends most of the film looking fiercely irritated by his contact lenses) and his subject Tauriel* (Evangeline Lilly), a badass he has a crush on.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug(*Tolkein avoided female characters like orcs avoid Sting, but Tauriel is one of the few inventions this bloated film actually needs: She’s its only major female character – in fact she’s the only female character, period, which is not a menstruation pun. Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel, An Unexpected Journey’s only lady, appears only for a moment. Of course Tauriel is manouvered into a love triangle with Legolas and one of the dwarves; this doesn’t bother me because it’s sexist to give the only lady a love story, or whatever, but because it’s yet another unnecessary plot. And as if a warrior elf hottie would fall for some smelly dwarf anyway.)

The travellers escape the elf kingdom by riding in barrels down a river in a great sequence that will probably make a great theme park ride some day, and they befriend a handsome outsider named Bard (Luke Evans), who smuggles them into a village near Smaug’s hideout called Laketown, where they meet a dumbass mayor (Stephen Fry) who cuts some deal with them – I’m fuzzy on the details because I slipped out to visit the men’s room* – and then they trek off to the Lonely Mountain, where the dwarves throw a tantrum and quit the whole journey because they don’t immediately find the doorway in, but luckily/conveniently, Bilbo finds it, and then he’s sent in to burgle the dragon’s lair (which was the whole reason he was dragged along, remember?) and find some important dwarf stone (which is the key to this whole quest, remember?) (actually I didn’t remember anything about that stuff, but luckily there is lots of exposition, so much exposition), and then Bilbo actually meets Smaug when the dragon emerges from under his treasure pile, and then some more stuff happens, and then…

(*One does not simply watch a 17-hour film without taking bathroom breaks, though it says a lot about Smaug‘s plot that you can skip scenes to pee without missing anything important.)

Whew. There is a lot going on in this movie. It leaps from scene to scene, so it’s never boring. It’s just… pointless. What is all this story for? What is it labouring towards? What does it service aside from this bloated franchise? There’s another film to go after this one? Jeez.

This feeling is most obvious in the climactic, 20-minute scene (spoilers ahead!) depicting Bilbo and the dwarves escaping Smaug’s lair, with the fire-belching dragon chasing furiously after them. They all run around! They all pull ropes! They all ride mine carts! Except it’s not really clear why anyone is doing any of this, because there isn’t any reason for it except to fill screen time.

The story of The Lord of the Rings had purpose. The story of The Hobbit just has… dwarves. So, so many dwarves, whose quest no one cares about and who blur into one and rarely stand out from each other. (“Hey, it’s that red-haired dwarf again. Oh – and another red-haired dwarf next to him? There are two red-haired dwarves in this I guess?”) Despite being the franchise’s title character, Bilbo disappears in among the dwarves and hardly matters for long tracts of the film. Who needs a magic ring to make someone invisible when you can pull of the same trick by burying them in hours and hours of unnecessary storylines?

Previously: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey


American Hustle: Movie review

American Hustle

Immediately after watching American Hustle, I said to my friend: “Well, that was… fine.” He replied: “It was, and I never want to see it ever again.”

Which pretty much sums it up. (End of review!) American Hustle is not a great movie. It’s not a bad movie. It’s just an unremarkable one.

Sporting a flabby and not-especially-appealing belly (maybe as a symbol for the whole film?) and a combover, Christian Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a 1970s conman who’s clever enough to know his limits. Working alongside his lover Sydney (Amy Adams), who poses as an prime Englishwoman with vague banking connections, he targets small-time victims and reaps modest rewards.

Then they’re busted by Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), an ambitious and arrogant FBI agent who exploits their cunning to go after bigger fish. DiMaso’s first mark is Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a New Jersey mayor willing to do some dirty deals if it means he can ultimately do good for his community.

As Polito’s connections to crooked senators and the Mafia become clearer, a manic DiMaso raises the stakes of his operation and entangles Irving and Sydney in both increasingly dangerous hijinks and convoluted love quadrangles.

Tied up in all of this is Irving’s wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence, aka my future best friend and definitely not your future best friend), an unpredictable big-mouth who serves mostly as comic relief.

American HustleThe story isn’t gritty or compelling enough to make it a satisfying, Goodfellas-ish underworld movie. But it isn’t wacky enough to make it a satisfying, Oceans 11-ish heist movie, either.

Hustle isn’t really enough of anything. It’s kind of funny, but not especially funny. Lawrence scores most of the good lines — dubbing her new-fangled microwave a “science oven” — and Louis C.K. is sort of amusing doing his Louis C.K. thing. It’s kind of retro, but not remarkably retro. Cooper has a perm, and Adams and Lawrence wear lots of open-down-to-the-navel ’70s blouses. (More like American Bustle, am I right fellas?) The performances and direction are solid, but nothing about it seems outstandingly strong.

It’s watchable without ever being engaging. This is the kind of film that will probably dominate this year’s awards season by virtue of its pedigree (yep), which we’ll all have forgotten about by this time next year.


The Hunger Games: Catching Fire: Movie review

The Hunger Games Catching Fire
First things first: Jennifer Lawrence is amazing and brilliant (and my future best friend, so back off everyone please). So of course she is amazing and brilliant reprising her role as Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games sequel Catching Fire. Lawrence is so effortlessly charming and charismatic in real life it’s easy to forget she is just as effortlessly charming and charismatic onscreen: Her Katniss is angry and strong but vulnerable, her line readings are surprising, and it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing this character. Catching Fire would not be as good as it is without her.

(Some spoilers lie ahead.)

But! Even putting Lawrence aside, this is a good movie – better than its predecessor. The stakes are higher, the plot is bleaker, and the horror of the world Katniss lives in isn’t just confined to an arena where teenagers murder each other for sport.  Fresh from her victory in the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss is closely watched by President Snow (Donald Sutherland), the ruthless leader of the oppressive Capitol. He suspects – rightly – that she’s growing into a symbol of hope for the downtrodden masses out in the districts. Pissed off that Katniss outfoxed him when she tricked her way out of killing Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) in her first games, Snow orders her to act as a tool for his regime.

Katniss, furious but terrified of what Snow will do to her loved ones if she acts out, obeys. But that hope she offers is too potent for even her to call back, so Snow invents a way to get rid of her: He’ll serve up her and her fellow victors to compete in the 75th Hunger Games, a “Quarter Quell” that promises to be even more cruel and brutal than usual.

The resulting spectacle gets a lot of things right. The games don’t even kick off until well into the film – after we’re on board with what a desperate and horrible Katniss situation has been thrown into. When they begin, the action is brisk and thrilling and dangerous. Deadly fog! Deadly monkeys! Deadly lightning!

The Hunger Games Catching Fire

But Catching Fire inherits a lot of problems from both its cinema predecessor and the book it’s based on. Like the first Hunger Games movie, the violence is blunted and brushed aside – characters are gruesomely dispatched without much of an impact – and Liam Hemsworth, as the third point of Katniss’s love triangle, is still given barely anything to do. (I think he’s unfairly criticised for his wooden presence in the Hunger Games movies, when it’d be a struggle for any actor to make much out of such a brief, nothing-y character.)

And, like the book, the film’s ending is something of a letdown. The big twist feels unearned, the plot machinations muddled and never properly explained*, and the climactic cliffhanger – which in the book at least had a bit of heft – is pretty limp, especially coming so soon after the spectacular, fiery destruction of the Games’ tropical arena.

(*I still have no idea exactly what Beetee, played by Jeffrey Wright, was planning to do with that loop of wire.)

The Hunger Games Catching Fire poster

But everything that comes before it is so well executed (no pun intended, I swear). Lawrence deserves kudos for elevating the film well above its script, but she’s helped out on the heavy lifting by returning supporting cast members Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci. (Banks’s Capitol publicist Effie Trinkett has a lot going on behind her veneer of make-up, while Tucci deserves a specially created Oscar for Best Performance as a Campy Beady-Eyed TV Host.)

Of the new cast, Sam Claflin is a much better choice than I thought he’d be to play Games victor Finnick Odair – his smug, elfin face suits that character perfectly. (On the downside he is only shirtless in one scene. One! For only like 15 seconds! What even is the point!) And Jenna Malone is a standout as Johanna Mason, who’s unafraid to declare how pissed off she is that she’s been called back for another Games.

It’s possible Catching Fire will be the last good Hunger Games movie: The third instalment, Mockingjay, is by far (by far) the weakest of the books, and it’s impossible to say yet whether needlessly splitting it into two films will make it even worse. But, it’s possible the movies will iron out the book’s kinks into a clearer (and even grimmer) story than the novel. If they can pull that off, it’s really going to be something to see.


The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones: Movie review

The Mortal Instruments City of Bones
The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is the laugh-out-loud comedy of 2013. It’s a laugh riot! Barrels of laughs! Your sides will split from all the laught- wait. No? This film was not intended to be a comedy? Then why is it so funny? Oh – because it’s bad? Oh. Oh.

The source material isn’t bad (for a certain definition of “bad”, anyway): It’s based on Cassandra Clare’s books of the same name, a series that has now become rather terrible but started off as an entertaining mash-up of Twilight and Buffy and Harry Potter. (Clare’s work is so shamelessly cobbled together – some would say plagiarised – from other writers that she’s even derivative of herself. The Mortal Instruments is basically the skin of a Potter fanfic she wrote stretched over a different mythology.) I’ve been reading those books for a while now, and I was for-reals looking forward to the cinema adaptation. So it’s too bad the movie is… pee-yew.

(I kind of suspected this from the absence of any pre-release buzz, but any hopes I had that it’d somehow blossom into a genuinely good movie were dashed when, a week ahead of the preview screening, the film’s distributor demanded that reviews be embargoed till the day of release. Film distributors: Never do this. You might as well announce, “Hey, this film we’ve spent lots of time and money on stinks worse than that time you trod dog poo through the house that hot summer day when you were 11.” If your movie is a turd, bribe everyone who previews it with a free glass of champagne or something.)

Bones‘s story follows a standard YA fantasy arc: [Name of protagonist] is an ordinary teenager who discovers she’s actually a [race of fantasy beings], which gives her special powers she must use to save the world. As she battles [list of fantasy creatures], she becomes caught in a love triangle between [name of bad boy] and [name of boy next door]. (Here’s your answer key: Clary; Shadowhunters, the offspring of humans and angels; demons, vampires and werewolves; Jace; Simon.)

The formulaic plot is fine. I have nothing against formulas (if they’re executed well), and in Bones‘s credit it doesn’t waste time over-explaining its premise before it cuts to the action. The special effects and the costumes are fine – to paraphrase Clary, kind of, Shadowhunters more or less dress like goth hookers with leather fetishes. The problem is the script. (The script! It’s always the script!) IMDb tells me the screenplay is by “Jessica Postigo” who is: either a composite of 12 people who all added to and subtracted from the script at random without telling each other what they were up to; OR, extremely clumsy and on the way to delivering the final draft of her screenplay she dropped all her pages and didn’t have time to make sure they were all in the correct order.

The story is basically incoherent. The characters seem to make decisions based on logic that isn’t apparent to the audience. Early on, Clary (Lily Collins) follows Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower) to the headquarters of a Shadowhunter sect to have a block on her memory lifted, without really saying why they’re going there. Jace’s Shadowhunter sidekick Alec (Kevin Zegers, who never stops looking uncomfortable) meets Clary and immediately hisses that she should stay away from Jace – via some extraordinarily clumsy dubbing, by the way – before he has a solid reason to hate her. And Isabelle (Jemima West) strides onscreen without any explanation how she relates to the other characters, or even an introduction. Seriously – I can’t recall her actually being named in the whole movie. (She’s Alec’s Shadowhunter sister, by the way. You’re welcome.)

All that stuff is merely bad, but like Twilight before it*, City of Bones is full of scenes that are so tremendously bad they’re almost good. (Almost.) I thought there was no way the movie could out-do the eye-rollingly bad scene where villainous rogue Shadowhunter Valentine (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) reveals Jace’s true identity to him by turning the “W” on his family ring upside-down to an “M”. But then came the super-earnest total misfire right at the end where Jace tells Clary that he’d never seen an angel… until he met her. Blech. That made people at my screening actually groan, or laugh, or both. Lots of people.

(*I maintain that the first Twilight movie is genuinely entertaining – that sparkling vampire scene? Yes.)

The Mortal Instruments City of Bones posterMisfits‘ Robert Sheehan is a standout as the permanently-friendzoned-by-Clary Simon, and Lena Headey demonstrates she can do more than just Cersei Lannister playing Clary’s mother Jocelyn, who’s hidden her daughter’s Shadowhunter heritage from her. As Clary, Collins is… fine. She’s fine. She does a perfectly fine job. And I wasn’t even that distracted by her eyebrows this time around, so I guess she’s evolving as an actress.

Some of the casting is not so strong. The thin, androgynous Bower rarely looks like a convincing badass. (He does do a standing flip in one scene, so there’s that.) Scenery-chewing Myers looks way too young for Valentine – curse his baby face! – even though he is, at 36, technically old enough to be playing Clary’s dad. (Oh, yeah. Spoiler alert, I guess – but like you couldn’t have predicted that particular Star Wars trope would be recycled here.) The noticeably weak link is Godfrey Gao as Magnus Bane, the (inexplicably pantsless) high warlock of Brooklyn. Gao is… really handsome? Is really the only favourable thing I can say about him? I don’t want to sound like one of those obnoxious people who complain the movie isn’t exactly the same as a book, but Magnus should be this wily, sexy, catlike guy – not a tree stump that’s been carved into an Abercrombie model.

City of Bones is pitched as a successor to Harry Potter/Twilight/Hunger Games. It’s not going to be. Nope, nope, nope. There’s reportedly a sequel in preproduction already, but don’t be too surprised if it mysteriously sinks and is never heard from again. Bones‘s legacy is less likely to be “start of the next big cinema franchise” and more “that terrible movie you make fun of with your friends when you’re all kind of drunk.”


Pacific Rim: Movie review

Pacific Rim Charlie HunnamRemember when you were a kid and you’d bake a cake with your mum, and she’d ice it, and she’d let you lick whatever was left in the icing bowl? And the icing tasted soooo good that you tried to persuade her to ditch the cake and just let you eat just icing, and she’d be like “No, shut up and eat your delicious cake”? But then years later you were hanging out with your friends, maybe you were drunk or something, and you decided you’d finally eat that bowl of just icing, Mum be damned, so you did, and it was kind of awesome but it also made you feel kind of gross?

Pacific Rim is that bowl of icing.

Which, OK, is exactly how a movie about giant monsters fighting giant robots* should be. Director Guillermo del Toro, who also co-wrote the screenplay, knows just what kind of film he’s making here. He doesn’t waste time with things like satire or humour or subtlety: Pacific Rim is big and loud and intense and fun and silly. There isn’t a lick of Dark Knight-ish grimness. (PHEW.) If you’re not in the right frame of mind for it, you’ll just hate it: You can’t watch a movie which straight-facedly shouts the line “The apocalypse is cancelled!” without wearing your 14-year-old-idiot-boy googles, because the second you look at Pacific Rim through your grown-up eyes you realise it’s just made from sugar and water and not a whole lot else.

(*Or, to borrow Pacific Rim‘s terminology, “kaiju” fighting “jaegers”. It is very entertaining watching them battle each other! But also pretty exhausting.)

Pacific Rim movie posterScattered around all that spectacle are the characters, which are sketched in then largely forgotten about when the monster-robot fights get underway. They’re a diverse bunch, cheerfully free of that “U-S-A! U-S-A!” grossness in so many other America-saves-the-world blockbusters. Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam, who – thank god – has ditched that awful Sons of Anarchy hair/beard combo and seems to have accepted that, yes, he is a beautiful pretty-boy), is an American former jaeger pilot with a tortured past. Stacker Pentecost (the awesome Idris Elba), is the super-macho English military-type leading the last-ditch effort to send the kaiju back down the interdimensional wormhole, or whatever, that they’re leaking out of. Hercules and Chuck Hansen (Max Martini and Robert Kazinsky) are a father-and-son team of jaeger pilots who… I think are meant to be Australian? (They sound Cockney. That is not what Australia sounds like, America*.) Kaiju scientists Geizler and Gottlieb (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman) are the not-very-funny comic relief duo, who…

(*I will forgive the film this transgression, only because there’s an early, too-short scene depicting Sydney under attack by a kaiju. And if there’s one thing I like seeing onscreen, it’s giant monsters trashing local landmarks.)

… hey, are you starting to notice a pattern with all those characters? No, not their ridiculous (but kind of admirably over-the-top) names. Something else they share in common? Something like… penises? The only major female character, really the only female character at all*, is Raleigh’s jaeger co-pilot Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), whose identity is thoroughly, unmistakably stamped “GIRL”. She gets a few obligatory ass-kicking scenes – “obligatory” because how else would you know she’s a Strong Female Character – but mostly she’s demure, quiet, doesn’t do much unless a man has told her to do it**. Seriously, would it have killed del Toro and his collaborators to make just one of the other supporting male characters a woman? Pacific Rim sometimes feels like boys much around with their toys, and it’s annoying.

(*I refuse to count the female Russian jaeger pilot who has approximately two lines of grunting, or  the jaegers’ GLaDOS-y computer system, which is voiced by the GLaDOS, Ellen McLain.)

(**What is interesting about Mako is that, though you expect her to wind up Raleigh’s love interest, the duo’s relationship isn’t that romantic – at least, not explicitly so.)

Honestly I can’t decide if Pacific Rim is like every other blockbuster I ever saw, or not like any other blockbuster I ever saw. It’s unquestionably memorable. And it deserves kudos for a) not desperately attempting to launch a new franchise by ending on even a hint of a sequel, and b) just going for it for 130 minutes. It’s so big it’s numbing. If you ever laughed so hard you just wound up feeling hollow and exhausted and weirdly underwhelmed by the joke that made you laugh in the first place – that is how you will feel watching Pacific Rim.


Man of Steel: Movie review

Man of Steel posterHere is an epic poem I wrote about Man of Steel‘s leading man Henry Cavill:

O, Henry, you are so handsome…

That’s as much as I have so far but I imagine the rest will be 15,000 words or so devoted to his face/thighs/pecs/etc etc, so keep an eye out for it.

The last Superman movie was 2006’s Superman Returns, which… is not so bad, actually, even though pop culture seems to remember it as a total dud. Its problem, probably, is that it feels like it’s from another, older era of smaller, quieter, more thoughtful blockbusters – not so surprising, since its director Bryan Singer made it as a sort of half-sequel to 1980’s Superman II. Too bad for Singer that that’s not enough for us modern audiences, who demand awe-inspiring epic scale in our blockbusters.

Man of Steel delivers epic scale.

This is a big movie, right from the space opera opening scenes that depict the collapse of Superman’s home planet Krypton. From exploding planets it’s not much of a leap to exploding towns and then whole exploding cities. Man of Steel weaves in emotion-heavy flashbacks to Clark Kent’s youth – some of them surprisingly touching – but it’s never long till someone is getting punched through a building or firing machine guns at invincible bad guys or disappearing into a ball of fire.

It’s pretty awesome.

But the movie is so big it actually gets in its own way, like Supes tripping on his cape. It raises big questions – what happens to world politics if a guy like Superman actually exists? Is “Christopher Nolan realism” a thing that even works for a character like Superman? What happens when an alien species makes first contact? Are god-like powers as much a burden as they are a blessing? – but the answers are obscured by all those huge explosions and collapsing buildings. There’s the occasional sense of wishing you could look around them (or just use your X-ray vision to see through them), to the smarter and more complex movie you glimpse behind.

This is most obvious in the spectacular, problematic final third. (Some slight spoilers follow.) From a storytelling perspective, it’s a terrific climax. On the other hand, huge swathes of Metropolis are reduced to rubble in Superman’s showdown with General Zod. The scale of that destruction is… worrying. Watching it arouses actual anxiety. You can’t see skyscrapers topple onto fleeing citizens who disappear into billowing clouds of debris and not think of September 11. And then… the battle is over. Supes smiles again. The Daily Planet‘s employees are back at work. The aftermath of levelling half of a Manhattan stand-in is never explored. The ending is huge, but it’s empty, and in the end it sort of adds up to… nothing.

This is troubling, and it’s a shame, and I think it keeps Man of Steel from achieving that this-is-all-very-important sensibility of the recent Batman trilogy (whose director Christopher Nolan was a producer on this movie). Batman Begins and its sequels didn’t make their impact on pop culture just because they were gritty*, they made them because they asked big questions then went some way to answering them, even if the answers were confusing and complicated if you thought about them too hard. Man of Steel is big and entertaining and stunning, but not smart**. But – shrug. I still liked it a lot. Maybe there’s the sequels for that kind of stuff.

(*In its favour, Man of Steel doesn’t force grit on the Man of Steel just for the sake of making him gritty. He isn’t given, like, a drinking problem or some other dumb flaw. He’s a straight-up, through-and-through good guy – which I guess you can argue makes for a pretty boring character, though I don’t think he is here. Steel plays the silliest bits of Superman lore – the cape, the enemy named “Zod”, the glasses-are-a-foolproof-disguise  – mostly straight, which works for this movie’s tone, though I did kinda like how Singer had a bit of fun with them in Superman Returns.)

(**Maybe this is a Zack Snyder thing. His direction of Man of Steel follows the strong-on-visuals light-on-actual-substance pattern in his other movies, and I say that as one of the apparently few people who liked his adaptation of Watchmen.)

Man of Steel

Henry Cavill is a good Superman, and not (only) because of the aforementioned super-handsomeness – he fits that all-American* corn-fed boy-next-door superhero thing, embodying more literal and metaphorical muscle than Brandon Routh’s more introspective (and sometimes kind of drippy) take. Amy Adams – who I like a lot, but had my doubts about when I learned she’d been cast – is an unexpectedly good, feisty Lois Lane. Russell Crowe is a lot (like a lot) better suited to the paternal gruffness of Clark’s Kryptonian dad Jor-El than he was to the walrus-ish singing of Les Mis, and Kevin Costner has a nice gravitas as Clark’s adopted dad Jonathan. As Zod, Michael is an early frontrunner to win next year’s Oscar for Best Crazy Eyes.

(*Which is especially strange given that Cavill is English. And so was Batman‘s Christian Bale. Someone could write a whole thesis on the implications of Englishmen starring as quintessentially American heroes, probably.)

Look, Man of Steel is no Batman Begins – I left that movie with a profoundly new perspective on the Caped Crusader, whereas Steel didn’t give me any impression of Superman I didn’t already kind of have. Still, it’s a way better reboot than something like last year’s Amazing Spider-Man, which was really merely a remake. I’m not really that interested in where big-screen Spidey goes next, but I am interested in what Superman will be taken when his sequel drops in a year or two.


Monsters University: Movie review

Monsters University posterSigh of relief, everyone: Monsters University is pretty terrific.

This was not a sure thing. Pixar can do good sequel: Toy Story 2 is one of the best sequels ever. And Toy Story 3 is even better than that. On the other hand: Cars 2.

Monsters University does not, luckily, reek of a sequel churned out to sell toys. It’s a worthy successor to Monsters, Inc. (which for a long time was probably my favourite Pixar film. Or at least up there at the top of the list. It’s almost impossible to choose just one favourite Pixar film). It’s entertaining. It’s smart. It’s funny – sometimes very funny.

A+ grade to whoever decided to make the sequel to Monsters, Inc. a prequel, because there’s really nowhere to go from Inc.‘s lovely final shot. University takes us back to Mike Wazowski’s (voiced by Billy Crystal – who didn’t annoy me even once, which says a lot about how good this film is) and Sulley’s (John Goodman) college days. The former is booksmart but lacks natural talent as a scarer; the latter is the exact opposite. They clash. They start to grudgingly respect one another’s talents. Eventually, they become best friends. Their relationship flows perfectly into – and from – Monsters, Inc.

Monsters University

This is unashamedly a “college movie”. The plot riffs on every Greek system cliche, packing in everything outsiders think of when we picture American colleges: parties, studies, fraternities, sororities, beautiful Ivy League-style campuses, no anxieties about how all this is being paid for. There’s a point near the end when it seems Monsters U will have a standard (and disappointing) college movie ending – the nerd underdogs triumphing over the frat boys. A surprise third act rescues the climax, moves it into unexpected, more interesting territory.

(Slight spoilers: It’s interesting that, though the film appears initially to fawn over the idea of college/university education, it turns out Mike and Sulley are college dropouts. Their success is because of their own hard work and skill at spotting opportunities, not because they have degrees. I don’t remember if that was addressed in the first movie or not, but there’s a nice parallel with the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world.)

See Monsters University on the big screen. It’s stunning. The things they’re doing with computer-generated animation these days are incredible. Every monster is a lush, furry, unique beast, bursting with energy and flexibility. They look like big walking Muppets. Preceding the feature is the short film The Blue Umbrella, whose charm is almost overwhelmed by its dazzle. Its rain-slicked city setting looks like a photograph brought to life.

Monsters University gives me faith that Pixar’s next sequel Finding Dory will be good. But… not as good as its predecessor. Pixar’s films have long been revered because they’re fresh, they’re inventive, they’re awesome – in the literal sense of that word. Very little about Monsters U feels awe-inspiring. Pixar has its formula – a very good formula – but doesn’t deviate from it. (This is why Cars has always bored me, I think – its story hits exactly the beats you expect it to hit, and nothing more.) University is enjoyable, polished, but it’s lacking the darker, rich adult subtext Pixar built its reputation on. Maybe that era is behind them now.


The Bling Ring: Movie review

The Bling Ring posterYou’d write off The Bling Ring off as far-fetched B.S. if it wasn’t based on a true story. It’s a faithful adaptation – kind of worryingly faithful – of The Suspect Wore Louboutins, Nancy Jo Sales’ Vanity Fair feature that inspired it. The events the film depicts did happen, in actual real life: A team of high-school-age young women (and one young man) really did break in to Hollywood stars’ houses and steal millions of dollars worth of stuff. Paris Hilton really is dumb enough to leave her house keys under her doormat. And there really are people who do crazy things to copy celebrity lifestyles. You don’t even need to go to L.A. to find them.

Like the celebrity obsession it’s focused on, Bling Ring is scandalously enjoyable even though you know you should probably pretend you’re above it. It’s too tawdry, too proudly vapid not to like. When smiling sociopath ringleader Rebecca (Katie Chang) convinces her friend Marc (Israel Broussard) to break in to celebrities’ houses, it really does seem like a fun, comically easy thing to do – and not even all that criminal. We already feel entitled to know everything about famous people’s lives. The burglar bunch just takes that to the next logical step: They feel entitled to enter celebrities’ houses, lounge around on their furniture, pinch their things.

Which makes these characters – Rebecca and Marc are joined on their stealing spree by friends Nicki (Emma Watson), Nicki’s adopted sister Sam (Taissa Farmiga), and beachy idiot Chloe (Clair Julien) – assholes. They’re unquestionably assholes. Stealing is an asshole move. But their too-privileged victims, especially Hilton, have such vast quantities of stuff they can’t possibly miss all of it*. No wonder the bling ring doesn’t seem to think they’re doing anything immoral. Ultimately, you wonder if they are.

(*Hilton apparently didn’t notice anything had been stolen until hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of jewellery was taken from her. She allowed Coppola to shoot in her house and appears briefly in the movie, so apparently she’s not so dumb she doesn’t get the joke.)

Director Sophia Coppola seems ambivalent about it too. Bling Ring only has a plastic-picnic-knife-edge of satire. Coppola isn’t celebrating these thefts, but she’s not savagely condemning them, either. She’s detached from her characters*, occasionally sympathetic to them – a scene at the end has Marc marched into prison, wearing bright orange overalls and surrounded by hard-looking criminals, and it feels unfair. Yet it’s spliced with Rebecca excitedly asking police whether stealing from Lindsay Lohan has made LiLo notice her, and Nicki twisting her arrest and trial into some positive, The Secret-style affirmation of her actions. Assholes.

(*Bling Ring has that arm’s length, dreamy style of many of Coppola’s previous films. It’s best put to use in the wide-shot, single-take, beautiful and haunting scene where Rebecca and Marc break into Audrina Patridge’s house.)

The Bling Ring Emma Watson

Caveat: I think Watson is smart and talented and sooooo pretty, so I’m biased. But she steals (no pun intended, I swear) this movie. Her imitation of a sharply vacuous SoCal teen is perfect – whether it’s what actual SoCal teens are like is irrelevant, because Watson sounds how everyone outside that world believes they’re like. Her character is beautiful but graceless, and all the more repulsively compelling once you discover the privileged, zero-self-awareness things Nicki says are mostly direct quotes from the real-life socialite she’s based on.

(Interestingly, that real-life socialite, Alexis Neiers, was the subject of an E! reality show which wound up documenting her trial. It’s probably a good thing Bling Ring omitted that: The meta-ness of putting a character inside that reality TV, manufactured fame bubble of The Hills would have twisted the film back around on itself too far.)

I won’t be shocked if The Bling Ring inspires a rash of copycat thefts from viewers who see the glamour but miss the point. Hopefully Hollywood celebrities have learned to lock their damn doors now.