REVIEW: “Pacific Rim: Uprising”


Five years ago revered filmmaker Guillermo del Toro added one of the weirdest additions to his already strange and eclectic filmography. The movie was “Pacific Rim”, a big-budget sci-fi monster mashup that drew comparisons from Transformers to Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots. Sporting a whopper of a budget, the movie didn’t exactly burn up the box office, but it did gain a cult following and was successful enough to encourage a sequel. But that doesn’t mean we needed one.

“Pacific Rim: Uprising” had only a slightly smaller budget but made significantly less money. Not a good sign for fans of the aspiring franchise. Aside from a producer credit, del Toro is out of the picture. And while his first installment was far from pure greatness, it did a number of things this sequel just doesn’t pull off.

As you recall, giant monsters known as Kaiju emerged from a portal at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. To combat these city-leveling threats mankind constructed huge mech-like machines called Jaegers. “Uprising” takes place ten years after the events of the first film. John Boyega plays Jake, an ex-Jaeger pilot and son of inspirational Commander Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba’s character from the first picture). Jake shuns his father’s legacy instead choosing to sell Jaeger parts on the black market.


While scavenging Jake encounters a young teen and Jaeger admirer named Amara (Cailee Spaeny). As the two duke it out for a power core it draws the attention of the Pan-Pacific Defense Corps who take them both into custody. Jake is given the choice of prison or returning to the corps as an instructor with his former co-pilot Nate (Scott Eastwood). Amara is among the new cadets he is tasked with training.

But as you would expect things get bad. During a tech exercise in Sidney, Australia a rogue Jaeger attacks increasing calls to shelf the program and replace it with Shao Corporation’s drone technology. To make matters worse a new Kaiju threat surfaces thrusting Jake and his green recruits to the frontlines where the must save the world from enemies big and small.

First time feature-film director Steven S. DeKnight (mostly known for his television work on “Spartacus” and “Daredevil” among others) takes the helm and steers the ship the best he can. The visuals in “Uprising” can be stunning at times and it’s hard not to be impressed by the massive-scaled battle sequences between machine and monster. Even a guy like me who has grown a little numb to the CGI devastation of major world cities in movies found the battles sometimes exhilarating. And the film’s explosive ending is absurdly fun and entertaining.


Where “Uprising” stumbles is in its story and its characters. A team of four writers (including DeKnight) are credited with navigating the screenplay through a series of rewrites. Minus a handful of small twists, it’s really a basic story that has little to offer thematically. For example there is only a shell of the first film’s central theme of togetherness. The whole ‘drifting” and ‘neural handshake’ thing is still an intriguing idea but not much is done with it. And we are only given a perfunctory treatment of teamwork and camaraderie. It all feels so lightweight.

And the characters aren’t much better. So often the attempts at human moments are as mechanical as anything we see in Jaeger form. Boyega and Eastwood are the only remotely convincing as pilots but offer little else in terms of character. And other than Amara, the younger pilots are hard to buy into and utterly forgettable.

Guillermo del Toro’s movie was no masterpiece. I would even say it’s somewhat overrated. But it was fun and even a bit nostalgic. Also its message of coming together was effective even in its simplicity. “Uprising” doesn’t match its predecessor in any of those areas. It does have its moments most notably the giant-sized battle sequences. But with so little else to offer, it’s tough to embrace it as anything more than forgettable blockbuster fluff.



REVIEW: “The Shape of Water”

SHAPE poster

No one can deny Guillermo del Toro’s willingness to utilize every trick in the cinematic playbook to create a magnificent visual experience. He has built worlds through several genres including dark fantasy, gothic horror, superhero, and even creature features. Yet despite his keen eye, vivid imagination, and a consistent backing from critics, “Pan’s Labyrinth” is his only film I would call truly great.

His latest movie “The Shape of Water” has generated a ton of awards buzz and is even being compared by some passionate del Toro fans to 2006’s “Pan’s Labyrinth”. Regardless of some things it does well, “The Shape of Water” is no “Pan’s”. But enough with counterproductive comparisons. The point is “The Shape of Water” has a big following and a ton of momentum heading into Oscar season.


“The Shape of Water” could be called many things – an offbeat fairytale, a political fable, an unconventional love story, an allegory for del Toro’s view of the world today. All of those descriptions fit to some degree or another, and del Toro plays with them with varying levels of success.

Del Toro’s story, with its pulsating Cold War vibe, takes place in 1962 Baltimore. The wondrously expressive Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, mute since birth, who lives in an apartment above an old movie house. She and her next door neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) spend their time together watching old musicals and sharing their struggles. Both fit into one of del Toro’s more obvious themes – the plight of the marginalized.

Elisa works the night shift as a janitor at a secret government facility along with her close friend Zelda (a very good Octavia Spencer) who also fits within the marginalized theme. The facility has just acquired an “asset” pulled from a South American river – a tall, gilled amphibian-man accompanied by Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). He is there to oversee the study of the creature and he’s clearly the film’s chief antagonist. Shannon is great and it’s a role he could probably do in his sleep. And as you would expect he is completely committed.


But while undeniably menacing, Shannon (of no fault of his own) is also terribly on the nose. Much of del Toro’s more cynical point of view is encapsulated in Shannon’s character. He’s written to fit the mean old-fashioned Red State stereotype and through him del Toro gets to comment on religion, race and a host of other topics. But there is no subtlety whatsoever. You can practically hear del Toro beating his pulpit through much of Shannon’s dialogue.

Elisa’s curiosity and empathy help her to form a bond with the creature (yet another among the marginalized). She sneaks in the labratory and shares her lunch with the creature and plays it music on a portable record player. How is she able to have so much unguarded access to what is called “the most sensitive asset to ever be housed in the facility” and something we find out the Russians are after? There’s not a good answer to that, but they form a bond nonetheless. And after Elisa overhears talk of dissection, she knows she needs to bust the creature out.

As you watch you can’t help but see allusions to “The Creature From the Black Lagoon”, “King Kong” and even “Beauty and the Beast”. But del Toro pushes his creature fantasy further than any of those pictures. For some the film is genuinely romantic but I never had that sensation. The pacing doesn’t give the relationship time to germinate. And there are other things that get in the way – del Toro’s weird use of sexuality; a brief but bizarre dance number (I’ll leave it at that); and one scene which some have called the most beautiful moment in the film yet I couldn’t get over the sheer absurdity of how it played out. For me all of this underserved the romance the movie is trying to establish.


While it has it’s narrative imperfections you can’t help but love the world del Toro visualizes. Inside the laboratory has a cold, harsh, metallic look. But outside the film takes on a gorgeous glow. Many images stand out for their beauty. It may be a bead of water dancing down a bus window or a brief camera pan across a movie house marquee right after a rain. The creature itself (played by long-time del Toro collaborator Doug Jones) is a fantastic creation made from traditional effects over CGI. Then you have Alexandre Desplat’s lovely, waltzy, heart-warming score which may be the best of the year. And of course the performances which are top-to-bottom fabulous.

It’s tough to know where to land on “The Shape of Water”. On one side you have a world so beautifully visualized, an enchanting classic movie vibe, top-notch performances, and a score that swept me away. On the other hand you have some glaring storytelling issues – an underserved romance, heavy-handed messaging that spells out instead of engaging, peculiar injections of nudity and graphic violence (sorry kids), and key scenes undercut by their goofiness. Yes, I know this is a fantasy picture and maybe I should be more imaginative, but when I’m thinking about these things as the movie plays – that’s a bummer. But did I mention how pretty the world is?



REVIEW: “Mama”


If there’s one thing that modern horror movies love to use it’s creepy little girls and we get a big dose of them in “Mama”, the new horror picture from executive producer Guillermo del Toro and first time director Andres Muschietti. “Mama” steers clear of the cheap and often used blood and gore and instead goes the eerie ghost story route. But while it may stay away from one set of conventional, hackneyed horror movie gimmicks it fully embraces others. But that’s okay. There’s enough here to make “Mama” feel fresh. More importantly, it has it’s fair share of creepy moments.

Jessica Chastain gets her first movie of 2013 under her belt by playing a role that shows her incredible and impressive range. Here she dons a short black wig and fake tattoos to play Annabel, the bass player in a punk rock garage band. No, I’m serious! Her boyfriend Lucas (Nicolaj Coster-Waldau) has exhausted his resources in a 5-year search for his twin brother and two young nieces. His brother snapped, killed several co-workers and his estranged wife, then disappeared with the girls. We learn all of this in the opening sequence and it’s pretty effective table setting.


Lucas’ final search team stumbles across the wrecked car of his brother which leads to an old abandoned cabin. Inside they find Victoria and her younger sister Lilly. The two are nothing more than wild animals. They immediately go under the care of Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash) who is able to make progress with Victoria through the small bit of English she remembers. He ends up sending them home with Annabel and Lucas with hopes that the familiarity and love will help their progress. I shouldn’t need to tell you that something else comes home with them, something the girls simply refer to as “Mama”.

Now it won’t take you long to notice almost every familiar ghost story gimmick. There are flickering lights, mysterious slamming doors, eerie voices, terrifying dreams, loud bursts of music, and even a spooky closet and a “what’s under my bed?” scene. And of course horror movies can’t feature smart characters. Everybody does some pretty dumb yet standard stuff. I mean at what point do these people finally realize that walking towards the creepy screams, moans, and gurgling sounds IS NOT A GOOD IDEA!


But let’s be honest, these things are a given when it comes to modern horror pictures so you have to accept it. And despite these predictable devices, “Mama” still manages to deliver a ghostly good time. Like any good PG-13 horror flick, the scares in “Mama” generate in your head with director Muschietti often using what the audience doesn’t see. He works heavily in mood and tone and his skillful use of sound is one of his key instruments. But he also has a keen eye for visuals and I noticed several classic techniques taken from Hitchcock and other accomplished directors. All of this makes the movie a little unnerving when it needs to be and creepy throughout. It’s never ‘jump out of your seat’ scary but it doesn’t need to be.

Then there’s the way the story plays with the deep love of a mother for their child. Two opposite approaches to this collide head-on. I won’t go into spoiler territory but I found it to be pretty clever. In fact “Mama” as a whole is pretty clever. Yes, horror movie cliches abound and the ending may leave you scratching your head, but this is still a satisfying endeavor filled with strong performances and made by a director who knows what he’s doing. This may not break new ground or take the genre in new directions, but it’s a lot of fun and ultimately satisfying. That’s how movies should be.


5 Phenomenal but Utterly Detestable Movie Villains

The topic of villains has cropped up here several times over the past few weeks. In today’s Phenomenal 5 I want to look at villains but with a slight twist. Obviously the audience isn’t supposed to root for the villains when watching a film. But we all know that some movie antagonists and more evil than others. In fact, some are down right detestable. Those are ones we are exploring in this list. I’m sharing 5 phenomenal yet utterly detestable bad guys. These are the guys that you grow to dislike so much that you end up anxious for their demise – the messier the better. There are plenty to choose from so I wouldn’t say this was the definitive list. But there’s no doubt that these 5 phenomenal villains are unquestionably detestable.

#5 – AGENT STANSFIELD (“Leon: The Professional”)

Gary Oldman has a history of playing deplorable villains. But I don’t think any are as detestable as his Agent Stanfield in Luc Beeson’s “Leon: The Professional”. Stanfield is a corrupt DEA Agent who is a stylishly dressed pill-popping addict. We hate this guy immediately as we see him fly off the handle and murder an entire family including a young child. The slaughter is all over some missing cocaine that was being stashed in their apartment. The only survivor is 12-year old Mathilda (Natalie Portman) who can identify and tie Stanfield to the slaughter. Stanfield makes Mathilda and her protector, a hitman named Leon (Jean Reno) his prime target. Stanfield is a slimy and despicable villain who is willing to waste anyone that inconveniences him, even children. How can he not be on this list?

#4 – SEAN NOKES (“Sleepers”)

My wife still says she has a hard time liking Kevin Bacon due to his performance as reform school guard Sean Nokes in 1996’s “Sleepers”. I can’t say I blame her. A group of mischievous boys from Hell’s Kitchen end up being sent to Wilkinson Home for Boys after their antics finally catch up to them. But one of the heads of the school is a disgustingly vile guard who uses his authority and power to abuse the boys in every way possible. He verbally abuses them. He beats them. He and his guard buddies even sexually assault them. It’s a strong but disturbing and uncomfortable performance from Bacon which is one reason this character is perfect for this list. The movie leaps ahead 14 years later where two of the boys run into Nokes. They reintroduce themselves to him and lets just say that the results are certainly satisfying.

#3 – COLONEL TAVINGTON (“The Patriot”)

In “The Patriot” Mel Gibson plays a respected man who due to past experiences is reluctant to support the colonies decision to go to war with England. But his perspective changes when he encounters Colonel Tavington (Jason Isaacs), a vicious and ruthless English officer whose known as “The Butcher” by his fellow Englishman. Isaacs’ arrogance and calloused view of human life is never more evident than in the scene where he takes the life of Gibson’s son followed by the comment “Stupid boy”. Also locking an entire village in a church and flippantly burning them alive does nothing to endear Tavington to us. And then there’s his showdown with Heath Ledger’s character, Gibson’s oldest son. Tavington is about as detestable as a villain can be and when he meets up with Mel Gibson on the battlefield we are ready for him to get whats coming to him.

#2 – CAPTAIN VIDAL (“Pan’s Labyrinth”)

Writer and director Guillermo del Toro created a dark but fantastical world in his 2006 fantasy film Pan’s Labyrinth. In the film, young Ofelia and her pregnant mother come to live with her new stepfather Vidal. He’s a military officer stationed in the mountains of Spain and tasked with squelching a rebel movement against his cause. We quickly learn that Vidal is not only a brutal military man but also extremely hateful and eventually abusive towards Ofelia and her mother. Vidal is one of those characters that is so cruel and so evil that he makes your skin crawl. This violent sociopath soon completely loses touch with reality and the pure evil in his heart is realized. It all leads to a heart-breaking final scene with Ofelia face-to-face with an unbridled Vidal who ends up solidifying his spot on this list.

#1 – AMON GOTH (“Schindler’s List”)

One of the things that makes Ralph Fiennes’ Amon Goth from “Schindler’s List” so terrifying and detestable is the fact that he is based on a real person. This Nazi SS officer oversaw the slaughter of thousands of Jews in his brutal death camps. Fiennes gives a tremendous performance bringing this vile and psychopathic mass murderer to life on screen. We see him issue orders that results in the deaths of so many. He personally shoots men and women in the head in order to make examples out of them. He even sits on the terrace of his hilltop home overlooking the camp and shoots random prisoners with his high-powered sniper rifle for no real purpose other than his sadistic hatred. We’ve seen lots of Nazis in cinema history but none are as unnerving and deplorable as to murderous savage Amon Goth.

And there they are, 5 phenomenal villains that we can all agree are detestable. See someone I missed? Please take time to let me know who you would have included on this list.