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This is kind of a movie review and kind of not. I almost don’t want to review the film so much as how it makes me feel. I’ve seen it twice now, once on a normal screen in 2D and once in IMAX 3D, and both times I came to a conclusion: this is my favorite movie of the year. If I made a top ten list right now, Pacific Rim would top it by a huge margin. I’m pretty sure it will be sitting right at the top even at the end of the year, when I’ve slogged through the various Oscar holiday releases.

So what is that?

I will own that the movie is somewhat ridiculous in its premise. I will admit that the plot has it holes. I will note that some of the characters’ decisions and their developments could have been better illustrated. I will even agree that some of the dialogue is cheesy and even downright bad. I don’t mind saying that some of the performances don’t quite work.

But this is my favorite movie of the year. Why?

Because Pacific Rim was made earnestly. It was drawn together with love and passion. It is a story told to evoke the stories that its creators (director and writer Guillermo del Toro and writer Travis Beachem) loved. It is obvious that the world of the film has been considered and constructed carefully. Outstandingly, the story itself contines a sense of global community that is so often absent from Hollywood films. (I mean, I like Man of Steel and all, but there was nonetheless a distinct sense of America Saves The World in its climax.)

Most and best of all, though, Pacific Rim is a film that has no time for irony or cynicism. It is built on the romantic, humanistic idea that people are good, and that they can and will come together to help each other and the world. And how can you hate a message like that?

Especially when, you know, it’s flown like a banner in a movie that is literally about giant robots beating up giant aliens. Which is the other reason I love the crap out of this movie.

Pacific Rim only has two real major action sequences, and they are /both/ wall to wall made of awesome. The Battle of Hong Kong is the centerpiece of the film, and once it really gets going, it never ever lets up. During my first viewing, I spent the whole time shaking in my theater seat, whisper-screaming “WHAT.” every time the next impossible thing happened. And I did it all over again in the battle at the Breach., and again for the whole movie when I saw it in IMAX.

I haven’t even mentioned the characters at this point. I could talk about how Charlie Hunnam’s Raleigh subverts some (but not all) of the common tropes associated with the White American Hero. I could discuss how awesomely Idris Elba inhabits the role of Marshal Stacker Pentecost (who has a name so awesome he could be a Jaeger in his own right). I could write whole /essays/ on Mako Mori, the heroine who anchors the film and is the best lady character in an action film in /ages/. Even the other Jaeger crews, from Striker Eureka, Cherno Alpha, and Crimson Typhoon, are fully fleshed out with mere suggestions of larger stories that I want to see, the latter two in particular. Even Pentecost has a history we only glance at, and that, I think, speaks to how much thought was put into all of these characters and into the film as a whole. You leave satisfied, but you still want to know more, you want to uncover what’s behind those hints that suggested a larger world and a bigger story, because you /know/ there will be something to find.

(And holy crap, how did I forget to mention Newt and Hermann? These bickering scientists have a relationship that is perhaps the best representative of the film’s central message. Not to mention they’re funny as hell, and they have a role in the film’s climax that is just as important was that of the Jaeger pilots.)

I love this movie. I can’t hate anything about it, because it is so earnest and passionate that I cannot help but return and echo its obvious love for what it does.

(149/260)

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While this isn’t the first new film I have seen this year, it is one of the first that I am going to write about, given that it’s a fairly new release and that it’s also, overall, a rather spectacular film. Hopefully I’ll manage to stay away from the typical superlatives that tend to mar my film reviews in general (a private resolution for myself) while I discuss what it is about this film that compelled me.

For starters, I would say that the general style of the film is quite interesting, particularly when one compares it to other movie musicals. I’ve never seen Les Misérables on stage, but from what I understand it’s something of an operetta–almost everything is sung or sung-spoken. I recall reading, back when this film entered production, that there were some people worried about whether that element of the stage version would hold up in the film version, and I am quite glad to report that it did. There are no more than perhaps a couple dozen lines of actual dialogue in the film. The rest of it is sung/sung-spoken, a decision that may not be innovative so much as it is daring and uncommonly delightful to see, at least in a so-called Hollywood film. (The decision to have all the songs performed live on set rather than added later with ADR also serves the film in an extraordinary way. The performances feel much more visceral, and the film lacks the sense of fakeness, essentially, that has marred my viewings of other movie musicals.)

The performances also do a great deal for this film. While the billing is almost completely filled with well-known Hollywood actors, it’s pretty clear that most of them have had experience singing in some way or another. Hugh Jackman rather deftly carries the film as Jean Valjean, but honestly the performance I found most compelling was Anne Hathaway’s turn as Fantine. Though she’s only present for the film’s first forty-five minutes or so, what she does with that time is pretty damn amazing. Her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” (one of the musical’s signature songs) is raw and heartbreaking, and while it’s probably a bit premature and assuming to say that she deserves an Oscar for work, I nevertheless think she should be rewarded somehow, because she is easily one of the most memorable characters in the film.

Of course, what I found most interesting and compelling about Les Misérables was the manner in which it rejected a straightforward morality in favor of the much more complicated (and therefore more interesting) shades of gray. While I’m sure this attitude is endemic to both the musical and to Victor Hugo’s original novel, it is nevertheless refreshing to see an antagonist not wholly vilified and a protagonist not wholly sanctified. After his decision to live a pious life in the film’s prologue, Jean Valjean faces quite a few moral struggles (most significantly when another man is arrested for his crimes), but perhaps the most understated of these is the fact that he must live his moral life under a fake name, in short lying to the world in order to serve God as best he can. On the other end of the spectrum, Javert is a man wholly devoted to his duty, whose personal morality (written by justice and the law) ultimately becomes his downfall when Valjean spares his life near the end of the film. He cannot comprehend that a so-called dangerous criminal like Valjean would pass up a chance at revenge and let him go free. Rather than changing his worldview like Valjean does in the film’s prologue after the bishop helps him, Javert chooses to commit suicide so he doesn’t have to accept the fact that the world is more complicated than he has thus far believed. It is, overall, an interesting and complex story that is told between these two men, and as a moviegoer I always appreciate it when a film allows me room to think and analyze as well as feel.

Overall, Les Misérables is a rather fantastic film that is well worth seeing. It is technically well-made, but stands out largely thanks to its performances as well as the complexity of the story that it tells. It will probably bring in more than a few nominations this awards season (I believe it already has in the Golden Globes), but regardless of any accolades it is a good film.

(2/260)

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Yes, I started a bit later than I said I was going to.  Frankly, I think it’s a miracle that I started at all.

(more…)

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Super 8 is an odd bird for a summer release, I think, mostly because it eschews the typical extended sequences of adrenaline-pumping action sequences for a quieter, more contemplative bent in its storytelling.  (This contrast couldn’t be more evident when one compares the trailer for Transformers that played right before Super 8 started with Michael Giacchino’s contemplative strings rising up behind the Paramount and Dreamworks logos.)  It’s something that a lot of moviegoers might not appreciate, particularly those moviegoers in the studios’ beloved 25-and-under-male demographic, but I also get the impression that this is not a film that really cares who watches it.  Writer and director JJ Abrams (Star Trek, Mission: Impossible 3) has openly admitted that Super 8 is a tribute to Steven Spielberg’s films and productions from the later ’70s and early ’80s; it shows, and I feel like this film is more for those who grew up in that same era than the 25-and-unders of 2011 (irredeemable film nerds like myself notwithstanding).

Set in 1979 Ohio, Super 8 follows Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), a soft-spoken twelve- or thirteen-year-old who is the son of the local deputy (Kyle Chandler) and has recently lost his mother.  The story takes place at the start of summer, as Joe is helping his friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) make a super-8 zombie film with their other friends.  Charles has also recently cast Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning) in a new role in his film, and it’s obvious right from the start that Joe has a bit of a crush on her.  While filming one night at a local train station, the kids witness a horrific train crash that might not have been an accident.  They rush back to town and tell no one, but soon after mysterious and strange things start happening: all the town’s dogs run away; appliances, car engines, and people start disappearing; and the military figures cleaning up the accident seem to know what’s going on but aren’t saying anything.

The storytelling structure is one of the most compelling aspects of this film.  This is a plot that’s been seen before, but it’s told with such winning earnestness that you can’t help but be compelled as exposition slowly trickles out of the movie’s narrative faucet, and we are all rewarded with a well-earned deluge just as the third act hits high gear.  It’s such an enormous change from (for example) PotC4, where exposition was dumped on the audience early and often, but without doing anything to make the film more entertaining or compelling.  By making sure the audience knows only about as much as the main characters, Abrams has almost guaranteed that the audience will be just as invested in the film’s central mystery as those characters are.  It’s a rather welcome change from so many films today that worry their audience won’t “get it,” and so make sure to tell them as much as they can, as often as they can.

I also particularly enjoyed how the film was about a group of kids/preteens/almost-teenagers, but never condescended to them.  Their experience is just as complex and valid as any adult character’s (both in this film and in other of the summer ilk).  It certainly helps that the young actors–particularly Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning–are fantastic, and it’s their performances that hold the film together, partly because their experience of the narrative most closely mirrors the audience’s.  They’re a diverse and entertaining group, and Abrams’ script and direction makes them a realistic, grounding presence in the film.  In their interactions, they’re almost always talking over each other, holding two or three conversations at once; it’s a neat detail that injects a layer of familiar realism to the somewhat fantastic proceedings.

I think part of the reason I feel so drawn to this film is because of the way it’s sort of (but not entirely) about movies itself.  It’s about the stories we want to tell and the stories we tell ourselves to make it through the day, or through a tragedy, and how we have to roll through the accidents and unexpected events that add Charles’ beloved “production value!” to our personal narratives.  And that, I think, is the most universal aspect of the film, though from what I understand, anyone familiar with producer Steven Speilberg’s oeuvre will find a lot of nostalgia lurking in the frames of Abrams’ self-proclaimed tribute.  (Though the overall style of the film is familiar to me, I can’t really own to noticing anything specific, since I’ve never even seen E.T. all the way through.  I’m a terrible film nerd, I know.)

There are places where Super 8 falters, unfortunately: one of the plot resolutions near the end felt almost perfunctory, and I really didn’t feel like Kyle Chandler’s harried deputy was developed to his fullest (though Chandler still puts in an excellent performance).  But that aside, I still feel like Super 8 is something special, a rare film that takes pleasure in keeping its secrets, with a story and performances that make it, all in all, an enchanting entertainment.

4.5/5

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It’s kind of hard to believe that this is the fifth film in the X-Men franchise.  (It’s also surprising that it made it to five films without a complete reboot a la Spider-Man.)  I’m a fan of the first two films, but the third film was an exercise in how not to construct a narrative, and I didn’t bother with the Wolverine spin-off.  I’ve been rather leery of First Class throughout its production, and the trailers all seemed to confirm that it was going to be another ridiculous entry in the franchise that will probably never be allowed to die a peaceful death.  I was intrigued, then, to see it turn in mostly positive reviews and went to the theater last night feeling cautiously optimistic.

While X-Men: First Class isn’t a perfect film by any means, it did a lot to reignite my faith in future X-Men films.  It focuses, as the first two films largely did, on building character and story over creating epic action sequences, and it manages to hold up thanks in large part to the excellent performances almost across the board from its cast.  I found myself genuinely engaged with the film throughout, and while there were more than a few points where I was rolling my eyes at a line of dialogue or a particular editing choice–well, I can’t say that it’s a problem that’s totally unique to this film alone of the franchise.

The story of X-Men: First Class might best be summed up as this: the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis must be prevented by the efforts of a group of mutants led by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassebender) after a different group of mutants led by one Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) expend a great deal of energy in making sure nuclear war between the United States and the USSR will happen, as a precursor to the rise of a mutant-led society.  While much of the film involves Charles and Erik gathering the group of teenaged/twentysomething mutants that comprise the “first class” of the title, the Cuban Missile Crisis is the conflict that drives and unifies the film, and the script manages to neatly marry many of the subplots together under this umbrella event.

What makes First Class such a delight to watch, however, are the performances, particularly from McAvoy and Fassebender, who have a great chemistry together and manage to sell the friendship between Charles and Erik beautifully.  Their scenes together were often the best in the movie, and they were pretty spectacular to watch on their own, as well.  (I particularly loved Fassebender’s early scenes as Erik, before he meets up with Charles and the others.)  Another great performance came from recent Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence as a young Mystique, who did a pretty good job conveying the character’s confusion over her self-image and personal identity as a mutant.

Overall, I found X-Men: First Class to be a highly enjoyable film, and a solid entry in what has thus far proven to be a fairly anemic summer movie season.  It manages to jumpstart the franchise after the critical stumblings of the previous two films, and I’m once again interested to see what happens next for the X-Men.

4/5

(Also, a bit of an aside, but I loved how the film didn’t shy away from having the characters speak the necessary foreign languages in the various foreign settings the story flew through.  After the intelligence-insulting, English-speaking Spaniards that appeared in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, it was a welcome relief to see even a small sliver of reality on the silver screen.)

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I didn’t see the original Kung Fu Panda, which came out in 2008, until several months after its release, when I caught the ending of the film on cable.  I was surprised at how genuinely funny and, more importantly, heartfelt even the last fifteen minutes or so of the film were, and decided to give the whole thing a shot by renting it on DVD (this being back when rental stores were still relevant and around).  I was, to say the least, pleasantly surprised at the sort of film Kung Fu Panda was–it certainly wasn’t what the previews and commercials had advertised it as, and that was probably the biggest surprise of all, coming from Dreamworks Animation.

So now we’re here, three years later, and the somewhat inevitable Kung Fu Panda 2 has arrived.  I will admit to still being a little nervous about this film.  Dreamworks’ sequelitis problem is rather well-known, and even after the equally pleasant surprises of last year’s How to Train Your Dragon and Megamind, I remained a little leery of what the sequel might hold.  It turns out, however, that my worries were almost completely unfounded; Kung Fu Panda 2 is another delightful and heartwarming picture from Dreamworks Animation.

Kung Fu Panda 2 picks up an unspecified amount of time after the first film.  Our hero, the panda Po (voiced by Jack Black) has settled into his position as the Dragon Warrior among the Furious Five (voices of Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, and others).  But word soon comes to the warriors that the villainous Lord Shen (voice of Gary Oldman) is preparing some sort of great weapon that could spell the end of kung fu itself.

That honestly isn’t the best summary of the story as a whole, which is as much about Po dealing with his past as it is about Shen’s machinations.  Both elements of the story are played out rather well, though I much prefer Po’s introspective storyline to the more action-based plot with Shen.  That said, the action sequences are all marvelous to watch, much as they were in the original film.  As a whole, the film never loses sight of where its heart is, and that, I think, is what makes it such great fun.  It isn’t quite a straight-up comedy (which I’m sure is how the trailers and TV spots have been selling it), but it isn’t like HTTYD, either, a drama with some funny bits.  I’d say it falls more on the dramedy end of the scale; it can be funny, but it also takes time out to be serious when it needs to be, which is one of the best aspects of the film itself.

I’m not sure I really have all that much to say about this film.  It’s got a gorgeous production design, following on from the equally beautiful design from the first film.  The voice cast is top notch in all corners.  I absolutely loved Gary Oldman’s performance as Shen, and anyone who is avoiding this movie (or the first one) because of Jack Black is avoiding it for the wrong reason, because he once again puts in a performance that is both endearingly enthusiastic and genuinely emotive.  As I mentioned before, the action sequences are great fun to watch.  While Kung Fu Panda 2 isn’t perfect–like Megamind, the story gets a little montage-happy towards the end of the first act–it’s still a great deal of fun, and I highly recommend it.

4/5

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I’m not sure there are words that fully encompass how much I did not really care for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.  While it isn’t a bad film by any means–it’s fairly easy to follow, and the plot isn’t nearly as tangled as the previous Pirates sequels’ were–it seemed utterly devoid of all the things that made me enjoy the first three films to begin with.  It’s never a good sign when I start checking my watch during a film, and I started looking at mine (and looked at it several times more) barely forty-five minutes into On Stranger Tides.

Set some time after the conclusion of previous film At World’s End, On Stranger Tides finds Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp)’s world turned rather upside-down: he’s stranded in London without a ship.  It’s then that he hears, much to his surprise, that Captain Jack Sparrow is in London, hiring a crew for some kind of mysterious mission.   He discovers upon investigation that this impostor Sparrow is in truth Angelica (Penelope Cruz), an old flame of his who’s  bent on discovering the fabled Fountain of Youth.  Oh, and she’s also (possibly) the daughter of the infamous Blackbeard (Ian McShane), who wants to find the fountain to forestall his own death.  To top it all off, Angelica and Blackbeard aren’t the only ones searching for the fountain: the Spanish are in search of it as well, and pirate-turned-privateer Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) is hot on their trail.

Overall, On Stranger Tides is a decent film.  It’s not nearly as convoluted as its predecessors, which many might count as a strike in its favor.  The action sequences are all fairly well done, and the more fantastic elements (particularly the mermaids that appear about halfway into the film) are fascinating.  Overall, however, it all fell extremely flat for me.  I don’t know if it’s because I’m a much more cynical moviegoer than I was four years ago, when At World’s End came out, or if it’s because there is actually something very different about the construction and feel of this film.  Rob Marshall (Chicago, Nine) is the director this time around, replacing the original trilogy’s Gore Verbinski; perhaps the different “flavor” to the film is in part due to his guidance.

Mostly what I think is lacking from this installment is a sense of fun.  There were certainly a few instances where I laughed, but they were few and far between, and I found myself, early on, missing all those interesting supporting misfits that made the first three films a delight even when the main characters were being more cerebral.  Even Rush and Depp seem subdued this time around.  What doesn’t help is the fact that all those loveable misfits (such as Pintel and Ragetti) have been summarily replaced with poor man’s substitutes, almost without explanation.  (There is an implied explanation, but it’s never stated outright.)  While I think it was probably a good idea to “trim the fat,” as it were, with this next film, it still feels like the heart of swashbuckling fun that made the first three films so enjoyable has been carved right out of the franchise’s chest, a la Davy Jones.

The problem I have with On Stranger Tides, I think, is that it never, ever makes me care about what’s going on, even a little.  Things happen; then more things happen.  The first hour or so of the film almost literally played out as an alternating sequence of action sequences and ridiculously obvious scenes of exposition.  There was maybe one or two scenes where I actually felt something between the characters onscreen, some sense of development or thoughtfulness, but it would be instantly killed again by an action sequence or yet more exposition.  I spent a good portion of the movie just sitting there, staring at the screen and wishing that the movie would be close to over.  I even contemplated getting up and walking out a few times.  It felt like a rather rote film, all in all, lurching without life from one plot point to the next, only barely giving the audience a sign that we should care about the proceedings.

(Also, this is a bit of a nitpick for me as a lover of good movie scores, but: Hans Zimmer did not impress me this time around.  I’m not sure that’s entirely his fault, because he can be fantastic when he’s on a good film–see the previous two Pirates entries, Inception, etc.–but the score honestly felt like nothing but a loud, brassy rehash of themes from the other films.  There was nothing new, and the music honestly felt ridiculously out of place sometimes, as though director Marshall wasn’t quite sure what to do with it.)

Overall, On Stranger Tides is an okay film.   It’s not great, it’s not terrible.  It is a thing, and to be honest, it is a thing that isn’t really my cup of tea.

2/5

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