PACIFIC RIM



When Orson Welles went to Hollywood in 1940 and arrived at the studio, he called it “the biggest train set any boy ever had”.  Out of that, we got Citizen Kane.  Today, we get movies like Pacific Rim.  It’s a movie that reminds me of that joke in which you get a child an expensive toy and all he wants to do is play with the cardboard box it came in.  Because that is all Pacific Rim is.  It’s a blockbuster of a toy engulfed by cardboard characters with cardboard emotions with a cardboard set up and a cardboard plot as flimsy as that metaphor suggests. 
The basic idea is perfectly fine.  A rift between dimensions down deep in the Pacific Ocean is allowing gigantic creatures to come through and attack mankind; as is fairly obvious, this is not by accident, but at the behest of some ugly creatures who have worn out their own place of existence and need to colonize (you know, like when the Europeans came to the Americas).  To combat these creatures, gigantic robots have been built that are piloted by pairs of people who have close, though not quite psychic, relationships to each other.   Yes, that’s right.  This is basically Godzilla v. Transformers…not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course.
Six years later, the bad guys are winning and the good guys are just now deciding that it might actually be a good idea not to just fight the creatures in a rock ‘em, sock ‘em manner, but to more fully investigate and actually do something about the trans-dimensional fissure itself.   And by now all the governments in the world have dropped all conflict and come together to combat a common foe, in true Susan Sontag, 1950’s sci-fi style.  But since Asia is now perhaps the major importer of American films, the final pair in the final robot in the final fight are a hero from the USA and a refugee from Japan (though in keeping with proud U.S. tradition, the American hero is played by a British actor). 
The cast is filled with a bunch of B-listers and refugees from various TV series: Charlie Hunnam; Indris Elba; Diego Klattenhoff (who wins the award for best name); Max Martini (oops, sorry, no, Max wins the award for best name); Robert Kazinsky; with Charlie Day and Burn Gorman in the roles of C3PO and R2D2, though without those tin cans’ more appealing personalities.  And c’mon, if truth be told, though many of these actors have shown talent, this is still the sort of cast you end up with when, for whatever reason, you can’t get the ones you really would have liked to have had.   Only Oscar nominee Rinko Kikuchi (who in true formulaic tradition, becomes Hunnam’s partner) perhaps escapes this description, though you wouldn’t know it by the performance she gives.
What’s so surprising, as well as frustrating, is that for a story that has at its center the need for deep, almost psychic bonds between people, no couple—not one—shows one whiff of chemistry between them.   This is probably because every performer is pushed over the top in their acting with performances that are robbed of the remotest sign of subtlety.  When the special secret guest star, the inevitable Ron Perlman, is eaten by one of the monsters, I turned to my friend and said, “well, we know they don’t keep kosher since they just ate a bunch of ham”. 
The screenplay is by Travis Beacham, with dialog at the level of his previous foray (“Release the Kraken!”), and by Guillermo del Toro, who also directed, in the manner of a police officer reduced to traffic cop (I don’t think we’re in Pan’s Labyrinth anymore, Toto). 
One of my most painful movie going experiences in recent memory.

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY



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After finishing the two and a half hour The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (which is still only one third of a three part movie), I was trying to figure out why the film was holding together as well it was.  Was it due to director Peter Jackson’s spectacular and thrilling visuals (backed by a superlative design team)?  Was it because of Howard Shore’s part thundering, part wistful music score?  Or was it maybe, just maybe due to Martin Freeman’s gift for the double take? By the time it was all over, I wasn’t sure, but I strongly suspect it was the double take gift thing, mainly because whenever Freeman isn’t on screen, the story tends to lag a bit at times, while at other times, it tends to lag a bit more than a bit.  But when Freeman is on screen, the movie is pretty much everything you could hope for.
The basic story, for those of you who have just returned from a trip to Alpha Centauri, is a prequel to J.R.R. Tolkein’s magnum opus The Lord of the Rings, which has already been filmed (boy, has it been filmed).  This time it’s the story of Bilbo Baggins, a rather well contented hobbit very satisfied with his lot in life, who is convinced by the great wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen, natch), with all the finesse of a psychiatrist with unlimited payouts from insurance, that he is actually very unhappy with his miserable lot in life and is in serious need of years of therapy.  Gandalf’s suggestion: join up with a bunch of dwarves to help them win back their gold that has been stolen by a dragon (in modern politics, if you’re conservative, that would make Gandalf the Koch Brothers, the dwarves Boehner and the Republican Congress, Bilbo the tea party, and the dragon Obama and the 47 percent; if you’re a liberal that would make Gandalf Obama, the dwarves the middle class, Bilbo the democratic congress and the dragon the Koch brothers—with Grover Norquist sticking his head in as Azog every once in awhile; but, hey, the election’s over, so there’s no point in beating a dead orc). 
In many ways and for most of the movie’s endurance, this is a pretty nifty film.  It’s not perfect by any means and its sins are mainly structural.  It tends to stop dead whenever one of two things happen: when the Dwarves start singing as if they’re an earlier incarnation of those damn Von Trapp kids; and whenever there’s a flashback to fill in some plot point or other.  In other words, from the moment that the tale is told of Thorin’s battle with Azog until the dwarves sneak off from Rivendell the movie is, well, a bit of a rough going. 
The main problem, I suspect (and this is based upon my having read the book forty years ago—yes, forty years, you wanna make something of it?), Jackson, and his co-writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro, are not just trying to do Tolkein’s The Hobbit, which was a rather light and fun little read.  They are trying to tie Bilbo’s story into the larger one by saying that the events of that trilogy of books actually began not just with the discovery of a ring.  In Jackson’s The Hobbit, the evil that comes close to destroying Middle Earth can be found in a larger series of events independent of Bilbo and Gollum’s little pax de deux, with tales of a necromancer; orcs and trolls not knowing their place and encroaching on more civilized peoples; and forests dying. (BTW, it just occurred to me—why would anyone call the era Middle Earth if there hasn’t been an era after Middle Earth yet; isn’t that like calling World War One World War One before there was a World War Two?  But I digress.).
But once everyone’s on the road again, things really pick up (boy, do they pick up), the story reaching both it’s action and emotional highlights when it gets split between a breathtaking fight in the goblin kingdom (with Barry Humphries reprising his Dame Edna roll as the king, but with a smaller double chin) and the more restrained, more intimate scenes of Bilbo finding the ring and encountering the pathetic, schizophrenic Gollum (a triumph of CGI and Andy Serkis’s amazing performance).   One may be over the top (and employ every SFX known to man) and one may be more of a chamber drama (and employ almost every SFX known to man), yet both are equally exhilarating and emotionally gripping, and great credit must be given to both the writers and director here. 
The ending of this section of the Tolkein triptych is a bit clunky.  And again it’s a structural issue.  The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey brings down the first act curtain with a battle scene that comes too close to an earlier battle scene, which dilutes this second’s climactic fight.  Well, at least at first.  Once you get past the opening salvos, everything gets smoothed over and the film soars again (both figuratively and literally).   And it’s hard not to want to see what comes next.
So, my ultimate opinion?  Okay, it’s not perfect.  But in the end?  I pretty much found the whole thing to be pretty awesome.