Sunday, July 14, 2013

Reviews: Pacific Rim & Behind The Candelabra

[ Warning: Embedded spoilers. ]

I'm a self-confessed movie nut, but due to schedule conflicts, I often don't get to see shows before reading reviews.
However, it doesn't really matter that much anymore, because in recent years, I've realized my opinions are usually the opposite of what critics write. Better still, they concur with the majority of fellow film buffs. :)

To be frank, Pacific Rim wasn't high on my must-watch list. Giant robots, giant monsters ( kaiju ), mass destruction, sci-fi, etc. - not exactly my thing.
The only reason I was even remotely interested in going to the cineplex is none other than director Guillermo del Toro, whose career I've followed closely since 2001's The Devil's Backbone ( gosh, was it really 12 years ago?! ). Then came Pan's Labyrinth, Hellboy and Hellboy II - 3 exquisite films which showcase his creativity and storytelling skills. If you don't know what the heck I'm talking about, you don't know what you're missing!

What sealed the deal, however, is del Toro's fanboy writeup in the July issue of Empire magazine - aka my movie bible.
His lifelong obsession with Japanese monster flicks leaps off the pages, and the nuggets of information he provided about Pacific Rim were more than enough to whet my appetite. More on those later.

Now, how do I begin my review? Let's start with the first sequence, where del Toro throws us in the deep end by staging an epic showdown between a kaiju and a Jaegar robot, in the middle of Alaska.

You can read the detailed synopsis for yourself. Just be prepared for the awesome spectacle, because my jaw hit the ground. And I couldn't stop gawking for the next 2-plus hours.

Yes, this is a typical summer blockbuster, filled with over-sized creatures / machines / weapons, waging fiery wars that flatten entire cities and kill unknown numbers of humans. We get them every year, from The Avengers to Transformers. But kaiju-wise, perhaps Godzilla ( the vapid 1998 Hollywood version ) comes closest to Pacific Rim's subject matter. In terms of fighting robots, there's Real Steel, which I gave up on after just 15 minutes.

I didn't have high hopes for Pacific Rim, having decided to sacrifice an afternoon solely in honour of del Toro. Imagine my surprise when I fell under its spell. 2 hours flew by in the blink of an eye, and I didn't even need a toilet break! :)

It incorporates the best elements from other box office greats, including Independence Day, Inception and Star Wars.
For the first, there's the multiple-story-arc format which revolves around a central humans-vs-alien-invasion theme. You get in-depth perspectives from the Jaegar pilots, the Jaegar project commander, the scientists, even the crime syndicates which harvest kaiju parts for black market profit. I'm not kidding!

For the second, you get a highly inventive tale about "neural handshakes", "drift compatibility" and "the breach". I still recall Inception's "kick", "totem", "limbo" and "dream architects".

And for the third, look out for a stick-fighting scene between a veteran Jaegar pilot and a rookie hopeful. A definite homage to The Force! :)

Battles-wise, I stand by my statement that they make Pacific Rim "the most freaking awesome movie I have ever seen". To expound on del Toro's Empire article, he mentions how he designed each kaiju based on his encyclopaedic knowledge of Japanese monster films, and highlights that each Jaegar-kaiju fight was choreographed meticulously so audiences wouldn't end up watching the same thing over and over again.

He delivers everything as promised. Each creature is brilliantly crafted, not just in appearance but personality as well. Yes, they're all prone to stomping, roaring and destroying stuff, but pay attention to their defence strategies ( powerful tails, acidic venom, and one super-cool electric-current-generating species capable of inducing a city-wide blackout ). You may also notice how, by the climactic finale, the kaiju start demonstrating serious intelligence and manage to overcome 3 Jaegars in a single attack. Scary...

The robots are no less interesting. With names like Crimson Typhoon ( China ) and Gipsy Danger ( USA ), they also have specialized artillery and even their own battle moves ( thundercloud, anyone? ).

Usually, such things hold zero appeal for me, but again, it is to del Toro's credit that I found myself completely caught up in the excitement! :D

Charlie Hunnam, an actor whose previous work I am unfamiliar with, is a great casting choice as heroic lead, Raleigh Becket. He is extremely good-looking, absolutely convincing as a Jaegar pilot, and handles the emotional scenes with a nice balance of sensitivity and masculinity.

Rinko Kikuchi, as aspiring Jaegar pilot, Mako Mori, is mesmerizing. I didn't like her that much in Babel, but she is wonderful here. No theatrics, skimpy outfits or romantic scenes. For some reason, when she first appears, standing in the rain under an umbrella and quietly staring at Becket as he arrives at the Jaegar base, she captures my full attention, and never lets go until the final credits roll.

And both actors shine the brightest when they're together. They banter, they stick-fight, they pummel monsters into the ground, and they have me rooting for them all the way. Kudos to the scriptwriters as well ( del Toro co-wrote ) - pay attention to the kaiju battles, where Raleigh repeatedly looks out for Mako. It's a tender, heartwarming relationship, forged quickly as a necessity, but which results in an unbreakable bond.

As for the supporting players, Idris Elba is appropriately regal and dignified as Commander Stacker Pentecost ( what a name! ), though I take issue with the rallying pre-climax speech and that slightly ludicrous "we're cancelling the apocalypse" tagline.
Charlie Day ( from Horrible Bosses ) delivers a breakthrough performance as eccentric scientist, Newton Geiszler, whose role gets a major expansion when he leaves the base to locate a shady figure ( Ron Perlman in a short but memorable appearance ), and proves vital in the eventual closure of the breach.

Ultimately, however, huge credit goes to del Toro, whose ingenious mind gave birth to this beautiful masterpiece. He's often lauded for his ability to coax fabulous performances from children, and this is evident in a few scenes featuring a Japanese girl ( Mana Ashida ) who plays young Mako. These show her walking through a devastated, deserted Tokyo, sobbing so desperately I found myself weeping along with her. In less deft hands, these segments could've easily sunk into cliched melodrama. But del Toro not only paces them expertly and chooses prime insertion spots ( when grown-up Mako "chases the rabbit" during her maiden drift - still with me? :)), he makes them even more poignant by revealing the identity of the Jaegar pilot who rescues her from the clutches of a vicious kaiju. ( Not going to mention that here - you need to see this for youself. )
That moment is forever seared into my brain. It is so powerful yet also delicate, and explains a pivotal part of the storyline. I can't remember the last time I was affected like this!

Don't pay any attention to the critics. Sometimes, I think they deliberately pan movies like this because they want to sound intelligent and intellectual. Even Empire's Ian Nathan ( one of the best writers I know of ) gave Pacific Rim a paltry 3 stars.

Well, sci-fi definitely isn't my thing, and I've never raved about a kaiju / giant robot film in my life. But Pacific Rim scores a 9/10 in my book, and if I had time, I would've returned to the cineplex for a 2nd viewing.

So please listen to me, and go see this movie. If you end up hating it, let me know. :)

I watched Behind The Candelabra a few weeks ago, but didn't manage to review it until now.

Chances are, it will never make it to local cable. And even if it does, it may be so heavily censored you'll scratch your head and go "Huh?" for most of the film.

My profuse thanks to Z, who got this for me from "alternative sources" when my "usual source" didn't work. :)

It is an impeccable piece of work, one I rank as Steven Soderbergh's career best.

Like many other people, I cringed when I heard Michael Douglas was cast as flamboyant pianist, Liberace, and Matt Damon his lover. Both actors have well-established heterosexual heartthrob reputations, are married with kids, and have never played overtly gay characters before. ( Damon's Tom Ripley doesn't count. )

I was rather worried, to be honest, but their performances are nothing short of astounding.

Douglas, whom I've followed since I was kid, is almost unrecognizable as Liberace. The bouffant wigs, outrageous costumes and makeup markedly transform him physically, but his mannerisms stand out even more. This is the man who practically oozed pheromones in Coma ( gorgeous beyond words ), Romancing The Stone and Fatal Attraction. He's also played ruthless villains with no redeeming qualities ( Wall Street, A Perfect Murder ).

As Liberace, he's effeminate, insecure, and ogles other men with aplomb. He also appears nude a number of times, and plays the piano ( or simulates it ) very very convincingly. ( I play the instrument, so yes, he's hitting the right keys. )

Damon matches him superbly. The guy who stole hearts in Good Will Hunting, The Bourne Identity / Supremacy / Ultimatum, The Adjustment Bureau and Ocean's Eleven / Twelve / Thirteen is 100% believable as Scott Thorson, the young stud who was Liberace's lover for 6 years.

Both men are exceptional actors in their own right, but I'm certain Soderbergh is also hugely responsible for their amazing performances in this film. Especially the intimate scenes. There's no sign of any discomfort whatsoever. I found myself squirming a little at times, but they're totally immersed in the moment, and the chemistry is SCORCHING.

Of all the straight-people-playing-gay-or-lesbian-characters films I've seen so far - and I mean hard-core ones like Brokeback Mountain and Boys Don't Cry - this wins hands down. In fact, I read somewhere that it's deemed too risque for theatrical release, making its way to HBO instead. Really, even in the USA? Unfathomable!

I shall conclude my entry here. More to follow in the near future. Considering another cineplex trip to catch The Wolverine. Hmmmm. :)

1 comment:

Qarau said...

Totally Awesome review for Pacific Rim! You've got me all excited now. Definitely going to watch this tonight.