Review(s): 2013 Blockbuster Leftovers, the Heavy Hitters

Pacific Rim

Pacific Rim has its share of successes. It’s no secret that Guillermo del Toro has enough talent to match his imagination, and that the Hollywood machine can’t completely get him down. His ode to Japanese daikaiju films and the glorious displays of jolly monster action found within is far better crafted than any of those films ever were (although I’m not sure if that’s always a good thing). His characters are caricatures, but they’re surrounded by a certain committed feeling that sells the world regardless of its general silliness. There are wonderful nodes scattered about to society as it exists, but just as the people within are always so anxiously monster-watching to notice those details, del Toro keeps them in the background. There’s a lot of nice lived-in detail that alloys the film with a distinctly loopy sense of personality (unfortunately the de facto comic relief doesn’t work at all, bu they’re not in the film too much). 

Best of all though, Pacific Rim’s action is stupendous:  grubby, meaty, impactful fighting that goes a big way toward making the film fun even in its most depressingly mainstream moments. If I haven’t mentioned, this is a fairly proud “robots vs monsters” movie, and del Toro is working with something much grander and much more silver and robotic than anything thus far in his career. But he maintains the earthen sensibilities that always saw him end up on top. This is not Transformers; the Jaegers have feel and weight (oh yeah, for no particular reason the robots are called Jaegers, presumably because someone felt it sounded cool). They have impact. The hits hurt, every punch a momentous force. And it’s all surrounded by maelstroms of apocalyptic weather that marries nature to artifice in wholly convincing, torrential ways. If Transformers was a bunch of kids flying around in the park with no sense of gravity, this film bring out the heavyweights. It is a much more process-oriented motion picture (very Japanese in spirit, that is) and an altogether more concussive one. And a mid-film tag-team off the coast of Hong Kong is altogether wonderful, melding the grimy grays of the futurist apocalypse to the bustling chaos of neon-coated city life to stunning effect.

That being said, there’s something undeniably off about Pacific Rim. It has keeled over from something original into something unspeakably corporate, if slightly off-beat by corporate standards. Everything feels a little too slick, a little too pre-packaged for enjoyment, and a little too anonymous, with none of del Toro’s customary tangents into worldscapes that favor imaginative momentousness at the expense of narrative flow; everything here is well-made, but it’s all functionally so, only to tell the story and show us expensive toys within that story. There’s definitely a sense that a longer, more free-wheeling version of Pacific Rim exists somewhere out there – to be frank, nothing in this film even attempts to plum the depths or heights of human emotion through its visuality, as all the best del Toro monstrosities do (his only other film so studio-streamline is Blade II, a much better, and less gluttonous, guilty pleasure if ever there was one).  Del Toro is at his best when he’s smashing those margins to little bits, but here he’s afraid to even color outside them. It’s not quite corporate business as usual, but del Toro is in the meeting room with an eager grin rather than an anxious one.

This version, meanwhile, is not Transformers, yes, but there’s definitely a sense the producers asked him to watch that particular series while making this film. And it’s not like del Toro, for all his fan-boy cred, is some sort of deranged, self-destructive auteur out of the Bergman camp – he just likes to have fun, and if having fun with more expensive toys means playing ball with the studio, he’ll be first at bat. Thankfully, at least some of the time, he makes sure we’re too busy reeling from his blows to notice.

Score: 6.5/10

The Lone Ranger

I’ll say this, for I struggle elsewhere to come up with definitive statements about The Lone Ranger: it looks good, at least. Monument Valley is in full effect. But the film can’t decide whether it wants to use the fine location work for mythic grandeur or one of those rotating painted-canvases that The Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote might run along all day. And in essence, this is a nice bridge to how the film’s big, heaving problem attaches itself like a parasite to everything good in the film and sucks the energy dry.

For The Lone Ranger is a strange, ambitious film, naturally an attempt at re-creating Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean success train (the middling Prince of Persia and John Carter most certainly did not serve this purpose well). Here, they went ahead and galvanized the connection by up and hiring Gore Verbinski, the  director of the first three Pirates films, and Johnny Depp, their star. But the end result is far closer to the monstrous self-import of the first and second Pirates sequels than the easy-going cartoonisms of the original film. It mashes tones and moods against each other with no sense of how they might quarrel, and it suffocates under its self-imposed weight when it ought to be fleet-footed. A number of scenes work, and Verbinski has a way with self-reflexively re-reading the Westerns of old for the fantasy they truly were, especially when he goes all out whenever a train wanders onto the scene and re-reads action for comic madcap slapstick. There’s no small dose of Buster Keaton here, and there’s not enough good Keaton in the world these days.

Yet all of this cartoonish slapdash B-movie fun, hectic and laconic in equal measure, occupies the same space as some deeply perplexing horror out of nowhere and a huge order of solemn naivety. And all of this often exists within spitting distance of everything else on display, making Verbinski’s work, if never boring, almost dumbfoundingly undisciplined. An example: Depp is seriously confused here, and the film doesn’t know what to do with him. He plays the role like a parody of his usually detached style and renders a problematic and extremely broad interpretation of Tonto that is as much off-putting as he is endearing. It plays as much like he’s about to turn serial killer as it does “fun, quirky companion”.  The character’s back-story is stunningly unfitting to the tone of the character himself, being monumentally morose when the film clearly at least wants us to think of him as a fun bit of insane chaos. The end result is that we are not sure if we are supposed to find him amusing, find him tragic, or run for cover whenever he appears. And this sort of confusion does not in the slightest lock arms with the completely one-note broadness of every other character in the film. Depp, like everything else in the film, does not exist in unison with anything around him; he’s simply fighting for attention.

To this extent, the film wants to be both a classic Western and a genial rib-tickling critique of the genre, exploring it for the wide-eyed child’s myth it was while simultaneously upholding it as something of value. There’s something to this sort of dissonant, multi-faceted reading, but Verbinski, his undeniable talents aside, is not a rigorous enough filmmaker to make “confused and messy” play out like “fascinating and messy”. Simply put, the filmmakers never stopped to bother and think whether a movie with a two-train collision backed by the William Tell Overture ought to be anything other than an amusement. It also maybe shouldn’t have cannibalism. I’m not sure about that one. The scene where one character rides a horse through a moving train while shooting at another man running through a separate train was probably okay though. The bit with the third man trying to navigate a ladder positioned between the two trains seemed a bit much, but if The Lone Ranger teaches us one thing, it’s that Gore Verbinski really likes trains.

In summary, The Lone Ranger is a movie made by people who thought only about what they could include, not why it would be good to include it. It’s occasionally, even frequently, diverting and sometimes inspired, but it is almost impossible to defend on any meaningful level as a work of storytelling, and it’s as likely to induce a headache as a mile-high grin.

Score: 5/10

World War Z

It’s something of a small miracle that World War Z is competent at all. There’s a lot weighing it down: re-shoots on re-shoots on re-shoots, the fact that Marc Forster’s only other action film, Quantum of Solace, was astonishingly over-directed and impossible to follow, the fact that this adaptation of Max Brooks’ world-spanning, world-destroying zombie Bible is an action film at all. But against all odds it’s actually … okay. Not great, and frequently too portentous and superficial to even be good. But it’s well-made, at least, and when it allows its better side to come out in the opening and closing sections it’s not a half-bad superficial thrill ride. It’s just too bad the entire middle hour drowns on its own grandiose blockbuster status, trading in actual suspense and horror for toppings upon toppings that only serve to mask how hollow the center actually is.

So the thing about World War Z, and why it makes sense to judge its validity on a sequence-by-sequence basis, is that it is an extremely, almost shockingly episodic motion picture. A surprise, until of course you realize that Max Brooks’ novel was entirely episodic, depicting bite-sized moments from dozens of different perspectives on the zombie apocalypse. Having this knowledge in tow explains the formless narrative structure of the film, but it also creates problems of its own. Namely, it reveals quite unarguably that the film could have done well with Brooks’ resistance to narrative storytelling and given us a zombie story with a difference, an exciting trek through poignant yarns of loss and woe peppered with storytelling flourishes that don’t so much weave a tale as imply and hint at the state of the world and explore stories with a nose for what has happened, rather than what is happening.  It becomes difficult to see how the film benefits from anything resembling a more conventional narrative, especially when it is so interested in sabotaging that structure at every turn. The end result is a film stuck midway between narrative and non-narrative, failing as a holistic story but not because of a commendable decision to capture the lack of cohesion and focus in this zombie-infested world. It isn’t that the writers didn’t want to tell a cohesive tale, but that they did want to and just weren’t very good at it. What we end up with is false episodes, or half-episodes, where the relentless episodism of the piece isn’t an artistic gesture but an accidental inability to form a cohesive narrative around these episodes. The film, in all, would have been much better had it delved more fully into its episodic status, or at least used its episodic nature to explore different tones and styles, not as a crutch but as a fount of possibility.

But a narrative it does have, and that narrative begins with ex-UN investigator Brad Pitt (he’s given a name like Gerry something or other, but it’s unimportant) tasked with finding a serum (a Macguffin, essentially) that can end the apocalypse, or at least give humanity a fighting chance. Now, apocalypse movies about “what caused the apocalypse” or “how to cure the evil plague of inhumanity” are almost categorically less interesting than their more nihilist cousins, those that provide no form or reason and just present us with the inescapable, suffocating fact of the apocalypse as an all-present entity that cannot be ended or understood and must be ran from. This one suffers mightily in this respect, but then nihilism isn’t exactly good for summer escapist fare (that a zombie movie is a summer escapist thrill ride is also a severe handicap). An impressionist, in-the-moment film that hopscotched around and drew us into a myriad of short stories in the midst of this outbreak – allowing for a tight and tense focus on purely efficient, ruthlessly plotted suspense and craftsmanship as we try to piece together the last moments in copious human lives – would have been an altogether more satisfying and rewarding experience. But Brad Pitt has to go and plaster his face around the whole film for money’s sake and ruin that dream by making it a “story”. So what we have is a central narrative of sorts that still manages to be seriously episodic in a “lets showcase different locations for mayhem” kind of way rather than for some actually compelling reason. Thus is life.

What all this negativity is getting to is this: the film has many, many conceptual flaws right down to the core, but if you get past those, it’s a reasonably well-executed slab of clean, unspectacular movie-making prowess. Sure, it’s a flaw that the episodic nature leads us down a path where the narrative through-line is essentially a wash, but it helps in other ways. Primarily,  the episodic focus means if a sequence doesn’t work the film can mostly just reset itself soon after. Which is ideal, for while the narrative is crashing and burning and generally going nowhere, the film is able to at least lose itself to being “in the moment” for some of its running length. As for those moments, the film’s first quarter when things are at their most hectic and chaotic really hits the spot, but the last sequence is its real standout, largely because things are at their most personal and Forster is at his most indebted to horror direction and editing (itself shocking since he’s a middlebrow type and has a background as far away from horror as humanly possible). The film lives and dies on the erratic tension these sequences produce, and for every one that doesn’t work, another comes off rather nicely in the way that Zack Snyder’s first film ten years ago was a hugely efficient thrill-delivery device of an action-zombie film and a genuine surprise (and still his best film by a healthy margin today). It works, just not as often as it could have. Great sound mixing though – everything is nice and oppressive and squeamish. And that ought to count for something.

Score: 6/10

 

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