Pacific Rim

ImageDo you know where your inner child is? Well with Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro has created a dazzling visual spectacle determined to find it for you and leave you wide-eyed and astounded.

Pacific Rim finds the world in the near future with alien monsters emerging from the sea where they have been at rest for millions of years. Finding our deteriorating atmosphere well-suited to their biology, masses of these nearly 300 feet tall creatures known as Kaiju begin laying siege to Earth claiming millions of lives and squandering its resources. Setting its differences aside for perhaps the first time in history, the world comes together, pooling its global assets to develop a weapon that can combat these enormous threats. The answer: 250 foot tall robots called Jaegers controlled simultaneously by two pilots who through a mind meld process called “Drifting” are able to provide the neural power necessary to run the massive machines.

Del Toro is no stranger to the fantastic. He has co-written the screenplays to the recent Hobbit series as well as written and directed the fantastic over-the-top Hellboy films and Blade II (the best one). However, the film he may be best known for is his remarkable twisted fable Pans Labyrinth, which won three Oscars. Here del Toro continues his hitting streak by accomplishing the very thing that has seemingly puzzled Gore Verbinski and Michael Bay for years: creating a wildly epic action film that isn’t clunky, irritating, or devoid of excitement. It would seem very likely for an audience to become detached from a film about giant alien monsters fighting massive robots, but in Pacific Rim, this is not the case. Travis Beacham’s script develops his characters and not just the action. Furthermore, del Toro’s directing makes sure we care about each battle and understand what’s at stake at every turn; this allows the audience to never feel desensitized by the escalating preposterousness.

Who is Charlie Hunnam? Well if you don’t watch Sons of Anarchy, you’d assume he’s a British guy trying his damndest to play an American and not succeeding, and you’d be right. Hunnam plays Raleigh, a modern reincarnation of the Maverick archetype from Top Gun (look for the “you can be my wingman” moment mid-way through the film). Nonetheless, this type of bravado induced superstar with a chip on his shoulder is exactly what a film like Pacific Rim needs at its core. Accent aside and tempered only by his new partner, Mako (Rinko Kikuchi), Hunnam is extremely likable and handles the sensitive tough guy persona nicely. Hunnam is joined by a bevy of fun supporting characters who del Toro seemingly mined from successful television shows. Idris Elba from The Wire and Luther commands the screen as General Stacker Pentecost, and it would be a safe (and welcomed) bet that we’ll see Elba on the big screen again and often. Hellboy himself, Ron Pearlman, (and Sons of Anarchy alum) sinks his teeth into the campy role of black market entrepreneur Hannibal Chau, a name he geniusly created based on “his favorite historical figure and his second favorite Szechuan restaurant in Brooklyn.” Finally, there’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Charlie Day, who channels Rick Moranis as Dr. Newton Geiszler who plays the Oscar to his partner’s (Burn Gorman) Felix in an “Odd Couple” of scientists looking to discover a brainy solution to the Kaiju attack while Raleigh and company cover the brawn angle.

I’ll admit, Pacific Rim was the film I was most anticipating for the summer. Yet all bias aside, it is an example of everything a big, fun summer movie should be, and if you’ve seen Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness, then Pacific Rim should be next on your list. A

Pacific Rim is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 11 minutes. It is a post-convert to 3-D film, so it is not necessary to see it in that format, yet The People’s Critic will admit that the conversion is top notch. Also, be sure to stay at least mid-way through the credits for a very rewarding bonus scene that is worth the wait. Those who wait through the entire credits will get a minor, yet potentially important reward as well.

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The Lone Ranger

ImageIn this cinematic summer for baby boomers, two classic childhood heroes have been reborn on the big screen.  Both Superman and The Lone Ranger were developed into radio shows and comic books in the 1930s, and they would then go on to have their heydays in the 1940s and 1950s with popular TV shows.  It appears popular culture’s climate is having a nostalgic moment as origin stories of beloved heroes of the past are being introduced to a new generation of viewers, and so far so good.

For The Lone Ranger, director Gore Verbinski teams up with Johnny Depp for the fifth time after three Pirates films and 2011’s Rango.  It was the surprising success of the latter film that perhaps explains the evolution of their latest project.  The days of major box office success for the Western genre have all but ridden off into the sunset.  However, Rango, an animated film starring Johnny Depp as a pet chameleon who ends up in a lawless, desert outpost, legitimized that the genre may be on a resurgence and that kids may be a prime audience.  When included with 2010’s True Grit and 2012’s Django Unchained, three of the top four grossing westerns of all time were released between 2010 and 2012 demonstrating a rebirth of interest in the genre for both adults and kids for the first time in over 20 years.  Thus, Disney’s The Lone Ranger represents an inevitable attempt to get those two audiences together.  But is the film good enough to do it?

All in all, yes it is.  The Lone Ranger follows an ex-Texas ranger, John Reid (Armie Hammer), and his Indian friend, Tonto (Johnny Depp), as they try to exact justice in the American Old West.  The film begins in 1933, and is told in flashback to a young boy by an elderly Tonto, an odd choice of narrative structure.  We learn that Reid is the older brother to legendary lawman Dan Reid.  Dan’s pistol packing ways sharply contrast with John’s educated, John Locke inspired attitude towards law, justice, and government.  When Dan invites John to come along on a manhunt for escaped convict Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), an ambush leaves John clinging to life and crushing his perspective of what he thought would be a more civilized West.  John’s savior comes in the form of Tanto who saves his life and joins him on a renewed quest for justice.

The story has all of the makings of a classic western adventure, but it does hit a few snags.  Hammer and Depp are excellent and their exchanges are fun and entertaining.  Initially, it feels an odd choice casting Depp in the role of Reid’s Indian companion, and given his introduction as an elderly Tonto, I was quite skeptical.  However, Depp’s charm comes through, and he treats the role with respect and charisma.  Verbinski knows his way around an action scene and some of the railroad stuff is exciting and well-produced.  The first half of The Lone Ranger develops the origin of the character and plays out as a well-crafted western.  Filmed on location in the picturesque and renowned Monument Valley, Arizona, the film looks and feels authentic.  Additionally, the climax is a tremendously entertaining sequence that will have crowds smiling and cheering.  However, the film does makes two nearly unforgivable mistakes that do negatively affect the film’s overall reception.  First, Verbinki, known for the more-is-better approach, stretches the story out for an unnecessary two and a half hours bringing the plot to ludicrous scenarios like Mexican stand-offs and ridiculous ways to aim guns at people but never pull a trigger.  This type of film does not have the substance to withstand this type of running time, and while the film clearly nods to classic westerns like Once Upon a Time in the West, it is hardly complex enough to demand this type of attention.  Second, like Man of Steel, a franchise is clearly in the works here and much of the greatness that is The Lone Ranger is overtly left for future installments.  For most of the film, the “mysterious masked man” is nothing but a bumbling buffoon cutting his teeth in silly situations.  The confident seeker of justice and serial adventurer is yet to come.  Nonetheless, the climax is a welcomed payoff that almost erases the bad taste left by these errors, and the score and taglines are used sparingly and effectively.  Fans of the original should be pleased and new fans will be made, kemosabeB-

The Lone Ranger is rated PG-13 and as mentioned above has a running time of 2 hours and 29 minutes!  A decent supporting cast includes Helena Bonham Carter, Tom Wilkinson, and Barry Pepper.  After the initial credits start an extended scene closes them, but this scene is more symbolic than enduring and does not culminate into anything major.

The Heat

ImageThe Heat proves two things: the ‘buddy cop’ genre actually survived Kevin Smith’s Copout and Melissa McCarthy can produce laughs like no one else in the business!  Normally, when a film’s release date is delayed by a studio, it is a bad thing.  However, when 20th Century Fox moved the release of The Heat from an April release to a June release, it is clear they knew they had a hit on their hands that could measure up against the big summer blockbusters.

The basic story involves an uptight FBI agent being paired up with a course Boston police officer in order to take down a drug lord.  Nothing spectacular plot-wise.   Thus, the golden rule for buddy cop movies is “do something to make it better than the last one.”  There are literally thousands of films that use the odd couple cop partnership blueprint, so the only way to ensure success is to continually add improvements.  It goes without saying that hyper-focused “by the book” FBI agent Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) and passionate yet “devil may care” detective Mullins (McCarthy) will eventually overcome their initial confrontation and become an effective team.  Thus, to overcome the clichés inherent in the genre, director Paul Feig capitalized on Katie Dippold’s screenplay by emphasizing the episodic storyline and injecting a bit of dark humor, which also allowed his previous film, Bridesmaids, to work so well. 

The film opens by introducing Bullock’s character as one who does a good job, but with an arrogance that alienates everyone she works with.  Thus, when an opportunity for a promotion arrives, she takes a job where she will work along side the Boston police department and prove to her superiors that she can work well with others.  What she clearly was not expecting is that she would be partnered up with her foil: a foul-mouthed, uncivilized cop, who while rude and vulgar, is also great at her job.  This pairing allows Feig to guide his perfectly casted characters through a series of hilarious episodes where two good cops try to understand why the other’s methods work.  Where Ashburn sucks up to her boss for fulfillment, Mullins bullies and ridicules hers for the very same reason in one of the film’s funniest scenes.  Recollections of Charles Grodin and Robert DeNiro in Midnight Run or Eddie Murphy, Judge Reinhold, and John Ashton in Beverly Hills Cop are hard to deny, but never blatantly ripped-off. 

As mentioned earlier, The Heat strives for being more than a series of gags like McCarthy’s earlier 2013 effort, The Identity Thief.  The Heat is far more violent and crude than some may expect.  However, considering the golden rule, why shouldn’t it be?  We’ve already seen Miss Congeniality where Sandra Bullock learns how to let her hair down.  Now it’s time for her to raid a hidden arsenal in a refrigerator, suit up, and crack some skulls.  The real element of danger, violence, and peril allows the film to outlast its premise not unlike This is the End from earlier this summer where the film’s balance of comedy and disaster made it that much better.  It’s fun to see films mix genres, and this is no exception.  The film moves swiftly and has plenty of strong laughs as well as cringe worthy thrills that may even make you avert your eyes.   

If there’s anything to criticize here, it is that these female characters basically resemble the classic unpolished lifestyles of a million other male counterparts.  The film could have elevated the female buddy cop genre by giving them more girl-power.  An opportunity is missed by downplaying the relationship between Ashburn and her FBI contact, Levy (Marlon Wayans), and Mullins’s romantic life is played off as one big joke because of course, how can such a big woman have a real love life?  Feig was much more successful at developing the relationships among women in Bridesmaids than he is here.  Nonetheless, the film is not offensive towards women and is still very funny.  B+

The Heat is rated R and has the surprisingly long running time of 1 hour and 57 minutes.  However, it never feels overly long or dull. 

The Bling Ring

ImageSofia Coppola’s life of privilege is no secret; I mean she is a Coppola, daughter of Francis, and even appeared in all three Godfather films (she was one year old in the first one).  Privilege is an interesting topic, and the exposure of the jaded nature of the privileged is not a new subject for the film industry.  Coppola has forged this territory before first in 2003 with Lost in Translation, then in 2006 with Marie Antoinette, next in 2010 with Somewhere, and most recently with this year’s release of The Bling Ring.

Based on real events detailed in Nancy Jo Sales’s Vanity Fair article, The Bling Ring is about a group of shallow, obsessive teens who rob celebrity homes in order to emulate their lifestyles.  After using the Internet to track celebrities’ whereabouts, Marc (Israel Broussard) and Rebecca (Katie Chang) begin hand picking the residences of out-of-town celebrities to burgle.  Their three close friends Nikki (Emma Watson), Chloe (Claire Julien), and Sam (Taissa Farmiga) round out the ring of thieves who steal over $3 million worth of property in one year’s time.

This story is ripe for the hands of Coppola.  While known for searching for the sympathetic side of degenerative celeb culture, she is not quick to pardon the acts of these characters.  The Sleigh Bells’ song “Crown on the Ground” plays during the film’s opening credits suggesting the forthcoming loss of innocence and selfish deviance of the characters.   Coppola draws from Sales’s article to construct a twisted Bonnie & Clyde-like story with less-than admirable protagonists.  Here Coppola analyzes youth culture and its influences in an attempt to diagnose what has lead to this overwhelming degradation in the aspirations of young people.

While it is easy to blame Rebecca, Marc, and company for their ultimate predicament, Coppola does not place the blame solely on them.  Nikki and Sam’s mother, Laurie (Leslie Mann), religiously feeds her daughters Adderall because she is too consumed with vicariously preserving her own youth through her children’s experiences.  This pill/pharmaceutical culture is clearly linked to the excessive substance abuse carried out by these young characters.  Furthermore, Laurie lacks the backbone to provide a leadership role in these girls’ lives, yet attempts to home-school them with weak lessons about moral guidance.  This hypocrisy of adults presents an additional element to explain how and why the film plays out as it does.

Coppola also frames her film with confessionals from the “ring” after their inevitable capture.  In these confessionals, the young criminals speak frankly about how their society and surroundings damaged their self-image and consciousness to the point that they were motivated to do something about it.  Coppola proposes the question that with the media’s focus on saturating the market with the glamorous lives of the over-privileged youth who seemingly were handed fame and fortune, how is patience, hard work, and morality supposed to compete?  This is a disgusting question, and one that mature adults can easily answer, but the question is posed to immature, poorly guided young people, thus the answer is archetypically suggested by this film.

It is easy to dislike this film.  However, much like last spring’s Spring Breakers one must see the forest for the trees.  There is a mess here, but it is one often swept under the rug and films like this try to show what happens when too much dirt accumulates.  This notion is most realized when examining the captivating character of Nikki, played brilliantly by Emma Watson.  Nikki utters the film’s last words, which I will not spoil here, but the message is loud and clear and it resonates as Frank Ocean’s “Super Rich Kids” plays during the closing credits.  What I will say is that Watson has a cameo in Seth Rogan’s This is the End, and while that film certainly earns its title – perhaps this film is even more deserving.  The Bling Ring is one of Sofia Coppola’s best films in an impressively growing filmography.  Her subject matter may not vary much from film to film, but she has a knack for finding new, fresh ways to interpret a theme.  It can be a “tough pill to swallow” at times, but the film is an ambitious and well-made social satire that feeds off of the very problems it wishes to expose.  It is a weird yet substantial film!  A-

The Bling Ring is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 30 minutes.  Go in with an open mind and broadened expectations.  Also keep an eye out for Sofia Coppola’s good luck charm, Kirsten Dunst who makes an uncredited third appearance in a Sofia Coppola film.

World War Z

ImageAfter numerous delays, rewrites, reshoots, and budgetary problems, the notoriously troubled film World War Z is finally here, and I am pleased to say that what results is quite a crowd pleaser.

Brad Pitt stars and produces World War Z based on the novel by Max Brooks about a mysterious and fast spreading pandemic that threatens the very existence of mankind.  The twist is that this virus turns its victims into zombies who have no other objective but to spread the disease onward.  Five additional screenwriters share credit (after the aforementioned rewrites) for bringing this story to the screen, but the film feels relatively seamless.  Pitt plays retired UN investigator, Gerry Lane.  Once the outbreak occurs, Lane is notified that his assistance is needed and in exchange his family would be given refuge aboard an aircraft carrier isolated and safe from Z infection.

The film does not waste any time getting to the action.  The infection arrives immediately and with a 12 second incubation period, the danger and terror are exponentially higher. Furthermore, what also helps World War Z rise above expectations is that unlike many other films of this genre, Lane is on his own and free to navigate the globe as needed.  Too often, ‘epidemic’ films put the main character’s family directly into danger causing many of the decisions to be based off of what will keep them safe.  With Lane’s family safely aboard a UN aircraft carrier, Lane makes drastically different decisions with his agenda aimed at protecting mankind, not just his wife and kids.  Lane travels from Pittsburgh to New Jersey to South Korea to Jerusalem to Wales all in search of the answers to this mysterious world-affecting outbreak.  This is exciting stuff!

Director Marc Forster puts together a very intensifying film with a series of very gripping action sequences.  While a couple of night sequences are overly dark and disorienting, his use of various point of view shots, hand held camera, and inspired set pieces deliver an electrifying cinematic experience.  While a supporting cast exists, this is very much Pitt’s movie.  Look out for fast and brief moments from David Morse and Matthew Fox, the latter being such a brief appearance that one can only wonder if his part was severely cut down or if he just jumped in there as a favor to Lost co-creator and Z co-screen writer Damon Lindelof.  Nonetheless, Pitt does all of the heavy lifting for this film.  This is a Brad Pitt-long hair movie, which can be worrisome (see Troy, Meet Joe Black, or The Devil’s Own if you need proof).  It also means it is no-nonsesne Pitt; there will be no Ocean’s 11 charm, Fight Club campiness, or Inglorious Basterds bravado.  Here Pitt gets his sacrificial romantic hero locks on but with kick-ass-short-hair Mr. and Mrs. Smith style results.

The only problem World War Z has is the same one that Man of Steel had last week: topical familiarity and saturation.  The Zombie genre had a major resurgence over the last decade or so, and World War Z comes to the theaters with a far from fresh concept.  Many of the ideas, theories, and plotpoints are reminiscent of things 13 million people saw on The Walking Dead every week.  Nonetheless, World War Z accomplishes a bit more of an accessible zombie story in that it is not heavy on the gore.  Much of the violence of the film happens off screen or away from the camera, and the film’s most effective scenes are those which are the quietest and most suspenseful.  There are also some very interesting scenes early on in the film as the reality of what’s happening begins to wash over the non-infected public.  This semi-original take on a familiar genre buys it just enough cache to be considered worth-while and different.  B+

World War Z is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 55 minutesIt is another example of 3-D post conversion, so it was not filmed in 3-D.  That coupled with the various dark and shaky scenes forces me to recommend the film be seen in 2-D. 

Before Midnight

ImageEthan Hawke and director Richard Linklater have cornered the market on films that answer the question, how much dialogue can Ethan Hawke deliver in a single film?  The answer: quite a bit!  Before Midnight is the latest in this series of topical minimalist discussion films; Linklater directed Hawke in Before Sunrise and Before Sunset (the two predecessors to this film) as well as in an unrelated but similarly styled film in 2001 called Tape.  These are all risky and polarizing films in that they are stripped down character studies packed wall to wall with dialogue and little else.  The key to their success is simply that the actors are up to the task and that the discussions are extremely compelling.

Before Midnight is the third and likely final film that documents the relationship of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy).  While the two met happenstance on a train in Europe in Before Sunrise and then reconnected slightly by chance in Before Sunset, it is not necessary to view either of these films before seeing Before Midnight.  Apparently Jesse did “miss that plane” from Before Sunset because Before Midnight finds Jesse and Celine on vacation in Greece nine years later.  Jesse is working on his third book while Celine is contemplating a major career decision.  Jesse’s son from his first marriage is nearly 15, and he and Celine both have young twin girls of their own.  While Before Sunrise looked to capture true love at its inception and Before Sunset looked to watch it blossom under unforeseen circumstances, the appropriately ominously titled Before Midnight looks to uncover the tension that lurks within every relationship when life gets complicated.  Jesse and Celine’s banter at this point reveals a familiarity that manifests playfully at times but also bitterly and honestly raw at others.   We first see Jesse at the airport sending his son, Hank, back to the states.  We then follow the couple through four distinct and ever-intensifying scenes that culminate in a hotel room in the South Peloponnese region of Greece.

The real power of the film is watching and experiencing the communication breakdown and habitual reparation in a relationship.  Every scene is so authentic that it is unlikely that anyone who has been in a long-term relationship can view this film and not hear at least one phrase he or she has uttered at one point or another.  The film forces the audience to view it introspectively and reflect on the inherent competitive nature that exists within relationships.  It also forces the audience to feel relief that they are simply witnessing these exchanges and not necessarily a party to them.  This is a film that can get you to squirm in your seat with genuine awkward discomfort.  Consequently, Before Midnight is a major departure from its predecessors in terms of tone and mood.  Furthermore, this film also has a broader focus, introducing some additional characters into the mix and adding context and perspective to some of the deeper conversations about love, sex, age, and life.

Before Midnight is the most bittersweet entry in the series, but it is perhaps the best.  It is superbly acted and extremely well written, although tremendously chatty.  If that description doesn’t interest you, skip it and go see Man of Steel.  B+

This is the End

ImageI know this won’t be a popular statement for the 80 or 90 people that loved Freaks and Geeks in 1999, but I’m glad it got cancelled if it led this group of young actors to strive for a level of celebrity that allows for a film like This is the End to be made and to work so well! 

This is the End is another example of pseudo-reality entertainment in the style of Curb Your Enthusiasm, where actors play versions of themselves albeit sometimes deeply ironic versions of themselves; I’m talking to you, Michael Cera – at least I hope I am!  Seth Rogan wrote and directed this film along with his partner, Evan Goldberg, and the film clearly benefits from having someone so close to the actors involved with all parts of the production. 

This is the End opens simply enough with Seth Rogan meeting his friend Jay Baruchel at the airport.  They plan to hang out in LA and eventually end up heading to James Franco’s new house for a big house-warming party.  The opening act of this film is a cameo-filled (Emma Watson, Rhianna, and Paul Rudd to name a few) laugh fest that just piles on the humor in ways that a big-screen comedy hasn’t done since The Hangover in 2009.  The comedy is not just name-dropping cheap laughs though.  Rogan and Franco along with Jonah Hill and Jay Baruchel have permeated their way into celebrity in such a way that they can satirize the entertainment business through self-referential humor.  Rogan has written a screenplay that characteristically paints his characters as corrupted in one way or another by the entertainment industry, and this biting satire plays out far beyond the opening act. 

Rogan also makes a series of wise choices as both a writer and a director that keep this film from quickly growing stale.  Most notably is his decision to play the rest of the film as a true disaster film.  Once the inevitable apocalypse begins, it is not treated as a joke to introduce more absurdity.  Instead, it is used as a backdrop of real danger designed to continue the motif of contempt that has built up in the characters.  That is not to say the laughs stop coming – that is in no way true.  However, the balance of humor and real danger keep the film fresh and alive. 

The apocalypse that hits is quickly discovered to be a literal onset of the Book of Revelations complete with the Rapture and the arrival of Satan on Earth.  Such high stakes force the boys to hole up in Franco’s house along with Craig Robertson and Danny McBride.  Irreverent humor abounds with some of the meanest, nastiest, low-brow, toilet humor imaginable – all of it hilarious.  Occasionally, the film hits a slight snag in terms of pacing and some of the gross-out humor is tasteless and extreme, but it is hardly at the film’s detriment.  The film has a little bit of something for everyone; in fact, even fans of The Backstreet Boys owe this film a tremendous debt of gratitude for preserving a shred of their relevance in cinematic history. 

Rogan and company have truly tapped into a genre of humor that grows along with them.  In one scene, they try to kill boredom by filming crude home-movie versions of sequels of their own films.  Somebody get to work on this exact version of Pineapple Express 2 immediately!  In fact, This is the End would be a great exclamation point at the end of the “end of the world” movie fad that has been so commonly explored in entertainment lately.  However, with World War Z, The World’s End, and Elysium still to come this summer along with fall’s second installment of The Hunger Games series, it’s clear that we are far from done with this genre.  A-   

This is the End is rated R – very, very, very R – and has a running time of 1 hour and 59 minutes.  It is heavy on the raunch, and while I highly recommend it as a comedy, it is not for the easily offended.