Tuesday, 16 July 2013

'Pacific Rim', 'Monsters University', 'The Bling Ring', 'We Steal Secrets' and 'The Deep': review round-up

'Pacific Rim' - Dir. Guillermo Del Toro (12A)

A clear labour of love for creature feature obsessive Guillermo Del Toro, 'Pacific Rim' marks the 'Pan's Labyrinth' director's first completed film since 2008's 'Hellboy II' and sees the Mexican channeling his fandom of Japanese mecha anime series and kaiju monster movies into something grand and frequently spectacular of the summer blockbuster variety. It takes place in the near-future, where a trans-dimensional portal beneath the Pacific ocean has been unleashing giant beasts upon the Earth for a number of years with city-destroying consequences. Humanity's solution? We created monsters of our own, in the form of Jaegers: towering metal soldiers controlled by teams of specially selected, mentally compatible human pilots, built in a spirit of international co-operation. However, years into this struggle, we are losing the battle: the kaiju are getting bigger, their attacks are more frequent and only a handful of Jaegers remain as governments worldwide abandon the program in favour of hiding behind ineffectual coastal walls. It's down to the last Jaeger pilots, and a pair of eccentric scientists, to cancel the apocalypse.

Packed with jaw-dropping set-pieces, characteristically striking visuals and boasting gorgeous production design, it's a visual treat and the sort of thrill-ride you only get from the very best Hollywood fare. Even the 3D - post-converted, but apparently given more time and attention than usual - is a treat, adding texture to the rain effects in particular, as the Jaegers battle the Kaiju at sea. From a character point of view it's broad, but certainly not dumb or empty: the drama feels humane and ties into the action rather than being a perfunctory afterthought. It's also pleasing how international the whole thing is. Yes: it's an American movie, so the American pilot and American mech win the day. But, on the flip-side, rarely is an action movie of this kind less militaristic or nationalistic than this. There's a Russian mechs, a Chinese mech and we're told the Australian mech is the best of the bunch - the most successful and effective around - allowing a sense that this is truly humanity fighting together in its darkest hour.

Also missing is the traditional antagonism between the military and scientists: the misunderstandings, the distrust, the contempt that's usually a huge part of the sci-fi genre. The human characters are, broadly speaking, all good guys and all on the same page - for the most part behaving rationally and not just shouting each other down. At several key moments the film neatly side-stepped whatever horrid cliche I thought was about to occur in favour of something less frustrating or contrived. There are still cliches, but they are the fun kind: like something out of the best bits of 'Independence Day' rather than 'Transformers'. What's more, the male characters are allowed to be emotional, while the lead actress (Rinko Kikuchi) is capable and not really a love interest in the traditional sense (the bond she shares with Charlie Hunnam's lead is not explicitly based around sexual attraction, and she's certainly never presented as a prize to be won by the hero).

Where the film really shines is in the amount of subtle world-building that takes place, with lots of background details and minor plot-points making the world feel rich and lived-in. This is a world effected in numerous ways - big and small - but the arrival of the Kaiju, and this provides some really excellent moments and imaginative ideas. Ideas that become enigmatic and encourage audience curiosity. If this film was a character, it's Boba Fett from 'The Empire Strikes Back': intriguing, rarely seen, the potential basis for endless hours of thought and fantasy by fans. What it's not is Jango Fett from 'Attack of the Clones': over-exposed, over-explained and under-whelming as a result.

One of the most purely enjoyable films we're likely to see this year and possibly the finest original sci-fi action film since 'District 9'.

'Monsters University' - Dir. Dan Scanlon (U)

Why don't presidents and prime ministers ever do all the stuff they promised they'd do once elected? The cynical view is that they're all cads and crooks: they never intended to do those things. They said what they had to in order to get elected and then they did what everybody does - they protected their own interests. But maybe (maybe) the reason the Obamas of this world don't live up to expectations is that, when you're actually in the chair, you're suddenly seeing different data, hearing different opinions from advisers and faced with a different set of responsibilities and expectations. I think this latter analysis might explain why Pixar - who once deliberately, self-consciously stood as a counter-point to the cynical, sequel churn - has been milking its "franchises" for all they're worth ever since founder John Lasseter got promoted at Disney.

For the record: I love Pixar. I think, not controversially, the people at Pixar are geniuses who have presided over arguably the most consistent run of quality animated films ever delivered by any studio. Unsurpassed in terms of technical accomplishment, story development and animation detail, their films are modern masterpieces. 'Cars' accepted, the nine of the ten films released between 1995 ('Toy Story') and 2009 ('Up') have to be considered among the finest animated films ever made. I say this not to fawn unduly, but to show that I both deeply love and greatly respect what the studio has stood for during the peak years of its existence. But ever since John Lasseter became the CFO at Disney in 2006, all those sequels the studio used to shun have happened or are on their way to happening at the expense of the sort of original ideas we've become accustomed to as devoted members of their audience.

We've had the (and I know I'm in the minority here) lackluster 'Toy Story 3', the embarrassing 'Cars 2' and now - with a sequel for 'Finding Nemo' apparently on the way - here comes 'Monsters University': a prequel no one asked for, from a studio that - less than a decade ago - would never have considered making it. I have all the respect in the world for John Lasseter and, since 2006, the quality of output coming from Disney Animation Studios has increased dramatically ('Princess and the Frog', 'Tangled', 'Wreck-It Ralph'), but I mourn for Pixar after this latest assault on its legacy.

As you may have gathered from the opening three paragraphs of increasingly shrill hysteria, 'Monsters University' - which sees the beloved Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sully (John Goodman) learning to be "scarers" and friends during their college years - is not a great piece of work. It's good. It's perfectly fine. It passes the time. There are moments of great wit and invention, and a few genuinely inspired laughs, whilst the animation and technical side of things is as polished and sophisticated as ever. Yet, overall, it's hollow and unfulfilling - the gags obvious "college movie" stuff punned with monsters the way The Flintstones does with the stone age. Worse still, it's not too indistinct from the sort of unambitious, by-numbers sequel you'd expect of Dreamworks or Fox. That's not say it isn't entertaining, but Pixar are victims of their own great success in this instance: what would represent a creative high-point for one of their imitators is simply not good enough. I enjoyed 'Much Ado About Nothing' last month, but would I have enjoyed it as much if someone told me it was the latest Paul Thomas Anderson movie? Some folks you hold to a higher standard.

'The Bling Ring' - Dir. Sofia Coppola (15)

Want to make a film? Only got about 15 minutes of actual story (something you read in a magazine article, perhaps?) and worried it might not stretch to feature length? Well, my friend, you've lucked out, because Sofia Coppola's latest provides you answers to this very conundrum! For instance, if the one scene you have sees five vapid teenagers breaking into a minor celebrity's house and stealing some of their clothing and jewelry: just show that same scene half a dozen times! It's easy - just take the teenagers to another house and do the same thing again! They can pick up slightly different bags and say how cool a slightly different house is. If you're feeling adventurous you can shoot this a few different ways to make people think they're watching something different each time. Sofia gives us a few options to play with: night vision, security camera footage, eye of god external shot etc. And make sure your characters say "Facebook" and "Twitter" a few hundred times so we know how hip and young and thoroughly now the whole thing is. You can string out the scenes in between with the kids driving and just, sort of, standing about looking at their phones. Really: if you put a cool enough soundtrack behind it you can even get it distributed and played in cinemas for actual paying customers. It's genius really.

Oooohh! Start with the ending and then... show the ending again later! That's another 10 minutes taken care of. And play some of the same dialogue multiple times - sometimes in a jarring, faux documentary style that's at odds with the rest of the film and then again out of that context. Have the actors say it word-for-word too, so you don't have to re-phrase it even slightly, because that might require more writing and you only have 15 pages to work with after all. If you have the money, you can hire a former child star freshly liberated from a wildly popular franchise. It doesn't matter if they're any better at acting than the other kids who nobody has heard of at all - or even if they have to do an accent. What matters is that you can get free publicity out of their appearance here, maybe halving the marketing budget of your picture. They may even work relatively cheaply because they're trying to break-out and be a "serious actor". Who knows? You can hope. All of this works much better if: 1) your famous family can produce it for you and 2) if you still have goodwill left over from a genuinely great film you made once.

There you go, lazy budding filmmakers of the world. Enjoy!

'We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks' - Dir. Alex Gibney (15)

An amazing piece of work: balanced, stylish, thrilling, sick-making - sometimes funny and never less than compelling. Alex Gibney takes on Wikileaks and Julian Assange in this revealing documentary that - like many of the contributors - is on one hand in awe of its subject and on the other immensely troubled by him. Bound up with the potentially world-changing and arguably heroic activities of Wikileaks itself - which, among other things, helped bring to light the ugly reality of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan - is the increasingly odd story of Assange, the organisation's founder: whose behavior has been increasingly antithetical to the ideals the whistle-blowing website stands for in the eyes of supporters. It's neither a hatchet job, nor a celebration, but an examination of flawed human beings. It's a sad portrait of a man who seems equal parts a brilliant idealist, a paranoid loner, and self-styled international celebrity.

As much as it follows the career and recent legal troubles of Assange, the film also looks in detail at Bradley Manning - the US private who disclosed thousands of classified files to Wikileaks and who has subsequently been imprisoned without trial and, it would appear, tortured. There's discussion of war crimes committed by the US military under Obama's leadership. Discussion of how the procedures behind the sharing and storage of intelligence data changed after 9/11. Discussion of the moral grey areas around the entire subject: who is hurt by this freedom of information? What do we lose and what do we stand to gain from it as a society? A lot to chew over and Gibney's film, which features a wealth of interviews with fascinating contributors, does a fantastic job of facilitating and furthering the debate.

'The Deep' - Dir. Baltasar Kormakur (12A)

Iceland's official Academy Award entry for the last Oscars (though it wasn't in the final pool of nominees), 'The Deep' is a dry and slightly boring "based on a true story" account of how one man survived in the Northern Atlantic for six hours when he should have died after 15 minutes. When a fishing boat goes down, isolated and at night, all but one of her crew succumb quickly to the extreme cold - but one overweight man, who isn't even an accomplished swimmer, makes it back home against all odds. He even has to climb a mountain of volcanic rock when he gets there, so understandably he's hailed as a evidence of a miracle and a national hero upon his successful return. It turns out this wasn't a very cinematic feat, even if it would make a mildly diverting story if you came upon it in a newspaper.

However, with a third of the film left to go (most of it's a man swimming very slowly in the dark, talking to a bird), it shifts into a tale of a mostly apathetic man, devoid of charisma, shuffling between dry medical examinations and unconvincing efforts to comfort the families and friends of his fellow sailors. It's basically what a shrug looks like if filmed in super slow-motion.

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