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Saturday, August 31, 2013

Review: The World's End

The World’s End (2013): Written by Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, directed by Edgar Wright.  Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsam, and Rosamund Pike.  Also, Finch.  Running Time: 109 minutes. 

Rating:  3.5/4

            Perhaps the biggest (and, for me, the most enjoyable) twist in The World’s End is getting to see Simon Pegg and Nick Frost swap their standard roles from the previous two works in what is now, apparently, called the Cornetto Trilogy (Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, for those of you who don’t know).  In both of those films, Pegg (known, sadly, to most Americans as “the new Scotty guy”) plays the stiff-collared straight man, while Nick Frost takes over duties as the quirky and quotable, and possibly insane, best friend.  Here, the roles are reversed- Nick Frost is the serious one, and Simon Pegg the running punch line.  While their image-defying performances and their characters’ relationship to each other is easily the strongest part of the film, The World’s End brings enough of everything else to the table to make this one of the must-see movie of the year, and it’s a refreshing start to the months of “serious” movie releases we have waiting in the batter’s box. 

            Simon Pegg is Gary King, a washed-out, drugged-out, alcoholic wreck of a man, who, after a particularly aggravating AA meeting, decides to rope the old gang back together (i.e., he lies and coerces) for a mid-life stab at the Golden Mile- twelve unique and idiosyncratic pubs in their hometown of Newtown Haven.  The goal?  A pint at every bar (twelve in total, if not more) by the end of the night.  Their previous attempt (upon completion of high school) ended just short of pub #10, leaving Gary with what seems to be several decades’ worth of regrets rattling around in his man-child mind. 

            The gang is a glorious collection of middle-aged, grade-A British acting talent- in addition to Nick Frost as Gary’s “former” best friend Andy, we have Martin “The Bagster” Freeman as Oliver, Eddie Marsam as Peter, and Paddy Consinine as Steven.  Although the show-stealing performances come from Frost and Pegg, each of these actors bring a welcome level of subtlety (and even dignity) to a story that, by the third act, is pretty much bathing in its own outlandishness.  Viewers used Shaun or Fuzz might actually be surprised by how the first third of the movie slowly builds up an excellent story around its very human characters, with no hint of the sheer insanity waiting around the corner.  One of the most moving scenes in the entire film involves Peter suddenly coming face-to-face with one of the bullies that tormented him as a child. 

            If the movie had stuck to that- a mid-life-crisis/buddy comedy flick with a message about the waste of a life spent in the glass- it would have been an excellent enough film, perhaps even a great one.  However, Wright (never being one for restraint) doesn’t let things stay quiet for long.  As the friends begin their trek though the Newtown Haven pubs, they discover that the town has been “Starbucked” to an alarming degree.  The interior of the bars all look the same, the beer tastes the same, and you can even order food there (gasp!).  Furthermore, old friends and acquaintances who should remember them barely even glance their way.  The guys (or at least some of them) grow more concerned when Peter’s sister, Sam, shows up at one of the pubs and reveals that she’s noticed the strange changes as well. 

            I won’t spoil the twist that eventually comes out of this, but when it hits, it comes in hard and fast, and doesn’t let up until right before the very end, when the movie takes another surprising turn and stops the action dead in its tracks; whereupon the characters (and the “villain” of the movie) face off and, in essence, philosophically hash out what the jumbled events we just saw could mean for human society.  Typical?  No.  Unexpected?  Yup.  Possible killjoy for some people?  Probably, but if there’s one thing I love about this movie (and about Edgar Wright’s works in general), it’s that he doesn’t have one iota of interest in fulfilling your preconceived notions of how a “proper” movie should conduct itself. 

            Even though World’s End finally goes just as over-the-top insane as the previous Cornetto works, it never stops being a film centered around nostalgia and the mechanics of middle-aged friendships.  Frost and Pegg are the focus, but each of the other characters (even the sister, Sam, who rushes in and out of the plot faster than I would have liked) have their own quiet moments, and none of them miss a beat.  And although the initial (and very well done) dive into the ravages of alcoholism via Gary King gets shunted to the side somewhat, Simon Pegg gets more than a few last scenes to remind us just how very sad a life lived like his can turn out, even if it (sort of) allows him to figure out what’s going on in the town before anyone else does. 

            The effect of Wright’s unique and bizarre editing style must also be given its due, as always.   He has a fascinating way of drawing attention to the tiniest, most mundane details of daily life.  At the first few pubs the boys visit, the filling of each beer glass is shot and edited like a judge pronouncing weighty sentences, with each pull of the lever loudly echoing through the theater (making the tinny sound of Andy’s water being poured all the funnier).  Another scene provides a textbook example of how to properly employ Doors songs in your movie.  If I were to think of any complaints concerning the technical side of the film, I would have to say that the use of shaky cam in some of the barroom fight scenes (of which there are many- and I’m not saying against who…or what) is a bit of a disappointment, especially coming from the man who directed the stylized, video-game-adulating Scott Pilgrim

            I’m determined to stay vague about the ultimate plot of World’s End, along with its various “messages,” because this is the kind of film I think people should go into fairly cold.  I knew the basic twist going in, but there’s so much more to the movie than that that I was still constantly surprised, and was constantly laughing.  It has its moments of solid, emotional depth, but it never tries to be (nor claims to be) anything more than what it is- fun.  The World’s End is, along with Pacific Rim and Key of Life, one of the most fun times I’ve had watching a movie this year. 

-Noah Franc 

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Legend of Korra, Book One: What Didn't Work

**the same notification from the last post applies to this- if you do not know what happens in Book One of Korra and do not wish to know, turn back now**

            And now we come to the hard part- talking about the aspects of Book One that just didn’t go well.  This first season, on the whole, was a very mixed bag.  That’s not to say Book One of Last Airbender wasn’t imperfect, because it was, and it too had a choppy beginning.  What’s different here is that the choppy spots are all over the place, particularly at the ending, and as any Olympic gymnast would say, you can survive a few mishaps at the start of your routine as long as you stick the landing.  Sigh….there’s no point in delaying I guess.  Here’s what did not work in Book One.  

The Love Triangle (Quadrangle?)-

            Why.  Why.  Why, why, why is everything apparently required by law to have a love triangle?  It doesn’t work.  Ever.  I can’t recall seeing/reading about a single love triangle that has ever managed to make me give a damn, and, sadly, Korra is no exception.  I stated above that I really, really like Asami and Bolin, so what made this romantic mash-up especially painful was seeing how Korra and Mako constantly (and callously) trampled over their feelings.  It made both Korra and Mako less sympathetic to me, and it made me a LOT less invested in the outcome of their relationship.  The couples/romantic subplots in Last Airbender worked because they were never shoehorned in- they were there in the background (and sometimes in the foreground), but never more than they needed to be, and that made the romantic moments we did get a lot more effective.  Here’s hoping Book Two strikes a better balancing act. 

The Lack of Filler-

            From what I can tell, the blame for this one can be spread around somehwat- Mike and Brian wanted to do Korra with less filler anyway, and Nickelodeon’s astonishing initial insistence on only two seasons forced them to condense their original plans even more.  Now, irony of ironies, the show’s been green-lit for nearly 60 episodes, almost the length of the original series.  Hopefully they have the room now to let the other three seasons of the show breath a bit more, but the 12-episode limit and the resulting lack of any filler time with the characters really bites Book One in the butt.  As Last Airbender proved, filler can be crucial to a show if it's used well, if it helps to expand the world and show us more sides of the characters.  With Korra, we haven't had that chance yet.  And, as a result, we can’t get as invested as we could with Last Airbender.  Like I said though, since they now have a LOT more time for the rest of the series, they'll have plenty of opportunities to remedy this. 

The Abusive Policies of Tarrlok-

            This is still the big sticking point for me.  The whole crux of the anti-bending movement was the perception that benders (specifically bending gangs) used their powers to abuse non-benders.  Amon builds support by predicting that even harsher measures will be taken against regular people in order to subjugate them.  And Tarrlok plays right into his hands.  His emergency measures are exactly the sort of things that the anti-benders railed against and feared, and their enforcement must have caused support for and enlistment in the movement to skyrocket (which would explain how he could then take over the city without so much as a whisper of opposition). 

            This would have been less of an issue if they’d dealt with it better, but it’s tossed out the window and forgotten quicker than you can say “Cabbage Corp.”  We get a brief image of non-benders being arrested en masse, a brief plea by an unnamed mother to Korra, a brief promise to end this abuse, and that’s it.  Instead of publicly railing against the policy (which she should have done), Korra just tries to get her bending friends freed, and mentions the “other” prisoners as a throwaway line. 

            I get that they were pressed for time, but since that was the case, they should have dropped this particular subplot entirely, because it leaves more than few plot holes in the conclusion of the season- we never see the measures repealed or denounced, and we never hear about the non-benders being released.  And (political scientist discussion incoming) even though Amon is revealed as a fraud, no massive social movement centers around a single individual.  Yes, their leader was discredited, but because the abusive measures that fueled the movement were never fully repealed (to our knowledge), we have no reason to assume the movement is not still just as strong as before.  If anything, it was an even more egregious example of benders manipulating non-benders for their own gain.  Maybe it’s a nit-pick on my part, but this was, for me, even more distracting and frustrating than the damn love triangle, and that’s saying something. 

The Real Ending-

            Alright…..let’s talk about the complete ending to the finale.  I have no problem with Deus ex Machina when it’s used well, but in this case… was not.  That’s not to say the WAY they bring her bending back doesn’t work- I knew from the moment they introduced the idea of taking bending away that it would be possible to give it back again (Yin/Yang and all that).  It just happens way, way too fast.  It takes away any sense of there being consequences for the many, many mistakes that allowed Amon’s takeover to get as far as it did.  And the worst part is that they do it right when I started to feel like Korra was learning, and maturing.  Her temper and her rashness have been her biggest flaws as a character, and her having to go a period of time struggling to adapt to only having airbending would be the perfect way to have her really develop herself as a person and as an Avatar.  It would make for great conflict and difficulty in future seasons.  But nope- Aang’s all WHOOSH, her powers come back, and soon, it’ll pretty much be like Amon’s invasion never happened.  Greeeeaaaaat……

             I don’t want to harp on this ending, because despite this (and the other issues mentioned above), Book One was still a solid, solid season, and I am genuinely excited about Book Two.  I just hope that the extended run time they’ve been given allows Mike and Brian to flesh out these new stories just a bit better.  Book One works best as an adrenaline rush, because once the plot gets churning in the second half, boy does it work.  We’ve still got something really great and really unique in this show, and I still harbor high hopes for its future. 

            The first episode (or episodes, depending on your source) of Book Two premiers on September 13th.  I will not be in the States at that time, so my ability to write/vlog about the episode will be contingent upon how quickly I can view each episode online.  Here’s hoping. 

-Noah Franc 

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Legend of Korra, Book One: What Worked

**Note: this article assumes that you have either seen or know what happens in Season One of The Legend of Korra.  If you have not seen the show yet and don’t want it spoiled, turn back now.  You have been warned.**

            Finally!  At long last, Nickelodeon has given us a release date for the official start of Book Two of Legend of Korra, their follow-up to the cult hit Avatar: The Last Airbender, which, in the interest of full disclosure, is my favorite television show of all time.  Plus, there is a trailer, and IT LOOKS AMAZING.  As you can imagine, I am about as excited as any kid at Christmas could possibly be without needing to run the laundry.  So, in honor of this occasion, probably the only time this year anything TV-related will excite me, I am going to revisit the first season of Korra (I just finished rewatching every episode) and discuss what, in my opinion, worked and/or did not work and what my hopes for this new season are.

            I will be frank, I harbored a lot of disappointments after I first saw Legend of Korra.  After the first two episodes were released online, I posted a video response on my Youtube account where I expressed how those episodes had me thinking the show would delve into the more social/political aspects of being the Avatar- what is the purpose of the Avatar in a more modern world, and how should Korra balance her duties to the world of bending with her duties to the world of non-benders (a topic that pretty rarely came up in The Last Airbender).  In the actual season, however, it was given the barest of lip-service in a single episode, and was then dropped.  It bothered me then and it bothers me now, but I’ve been able to get over that as a case of the show simply not doing what I personally would have done, and if I’m going to be that petty, I could do that with literally everything ever.  So this time around, I was able to put aside my earlier expectations and enjoy the show for what it was a lot more. 

            That said, there are other problems with the first season that I can’t chalk up to unmet expectations.  Therefore, in this post, I will try to breakdown as best I can what I felt worked and didn’t work about the first season, and about where I hope the show goes from here.  As a certain young airbender once said, “Let us begin.” 

First off, what worked:  

The Animation-

            Boy, does this show look good.  I hesitate to say it’s “better” than The Last Airbender, since all animation styles boil down to personal taste, but it is undoubtedly more detailed in its designs and backgrounds, which, in this world, have never been anything less than fascinating.  The detailed and dark animation matches the tone the first season tries to set- that of a once-great city starting to decay from the inside out.  And, judging by the trailer, the next season is going to be even more beautiful. 

The Music-

            There are no words that can do justice to how brilliant the music of both Korra and The Last Airbender is.  Korra jumps back and forth between Last Airbender-esque strings and more 20th-century jazz tunes.  It’s the sort of dichotomy most people wouldn’t think of, but here, it just….works.  And the music used in the new trailer?  I still can’t get it out of my head.    

The Story/Plot/Pacing-

            My personal issues with it aside (and a few we’ll get to in a bit), this is a great plot, and although I felt it was a bit rushed at times, the show paces itself very well.  Each major twist or reveal builds the stakes and raises the bar higher and higher.  The last few episodes are especially potent, creating the kind of rush that only truly great action stories like The Dark Knight and The Avengers are able to bring to the table. 

The Villian-

            Amon was a great, great villain, although I still harbor doubts as to how feasible his plan to literally eliminate ALL bending in the entire world really was.  Nonetheless, for an immediate threat to not only Korra’s friends, but to Korra herself as well, he works just fine.  Good design, great voice acting (as always), and the twists concerning both his powers and his true identity made for solid dramatic tension.  It’ll be interesting to see who (or what?  The trailer gives no real indication) the primary threat/danger in this next season is. 

Asami (and Bolin/Tenzin)-

            Honestly, nearly all of the characters in the show are great (I like Korra plenty- she’s not yet as great a main as Aang was, but that could change).  The standout for me, though, is this trio.  Asami is hands-down my favorite character in the entire show.  She has to put up with so much crap, and so much heartbreak, and in lesser hands, that would have been cause for her to whine, and mope, and do nothing, or worse, betray her friends to Amon.  But no- she acknowledges her pain, but she ALSO has the maturity and wisdom to know that there are bigger things going on.  She accepts her pain and deals with it.  And that makes her more mature, more adult, and more interesting than, well, ANY of the other adults in the show.  If she gets stiffed in Book Two, I will be one pissed off man-child. 

            Bolin and Tenzin round out my trio of favorite characters in the show.  Bolin, at first, irked me, because he initially came across as a cheap Sokka-knockoff, the goofball who just makes silly jokes.  After watching him a second time, however, I realized that my first impression was wrong.  He IS like Sokka insofar that he’s the primary comic relief guy, but he’s comic relief in his own unique ways.  Also, seeing his heart get broken nearly had me crying, and I NEVER cry watching a television show.  In fact, you know what?  I’m calling it now- I want Asami and Bolin to get together.  They’re sweet, they’re awesome, and they’re great characters that deserve better than Korra and Mako. 

            There’s not much I can say about Tenzin that others haven’t.  I like him partially out of the fascination of watching offspring of Aang and Katara, but I also identify with his self-serious (and sometimes too self-serious) attitude, and how they it's both a strength and a weakness.  He and Korra have a great dynamic, he's quick to acknowledge when he makes mistakes, and he even gets some of the show's funnier lines ("Lin and I had started to grow apart, and.....and WHY I am I telling you any of this???").  Plus, Airbending is just plain awesome.    

The Ending (most of it)-

            We’ll get to the “actual” ending presently.  For now, something happy.  The finale of Book One, titled “Endgame,” is, on the whole, one of my favorite finales for a TV show (although it can never touch “Crossroads of Destiny”).  Great buildup, genuine threats, fantastic action scenes and animation, I could go on.  The fate of Tarrlok and Amon?  Genius.  Korra losing all her other bending but unlocking air?  Great.  Her despair and pain causing her to contact Aang?  Awesome.  If only they’d stopped there….if only Nickelodeon knew what they had….

            But I shall leave it at that for now, and save my disappointments for my next post, where I look at what didn't work as well in Book One.  Until then!  

-Noah Franc 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Review: Elysium

Elysium (2013): Written and directed by Niell Blomkamp.  Starring: Matt Damon, Sharlto Copley, Jodie Foster, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, Wagner Moura, and William Fichtner.  Rated R for: Graphic sci-fi violence, and a blown-off face.  Running Time: 109 minutes. 

Rating: 2.5/4

            Anytime that a movie creates its own world, and tries to use that world to play with big, out-there ideas, it has to strike delicate balance- exactly how much of this big new world should be explained, and how much should be left to the imagination?  The movies that do this better *usually* follow the “less is more” rule of storytelling- the only aspects of the larger world that are explained within the movie are those immediately necessary for the story it’s trying to tell.  The Star Wars movies are a good example of this.  The first trilogy drops hints about a huge, multi-species universe, bound together by a mysterious power called the “Force,” and two orders called the “Sith” and the “Jedi.”  Those details, however, are secondary to the adventures of Luke, Leia, and Han, which take up the bulk of the original trilogy’s attention.  Contrast that with the much-derided prequels, which sought to delve further into Star Wars lore and give us not only the gritty details of the rise of the Empire and the downfall of the Jedi, but also of the nature of the Force itself.  In doing so, Lucas (in the minds of many) went way too far in  his efforts to over-explain everything about his world, and in doing so took from the prequels the sense of fun, mystery, and wonderment that made (and still make) the originals so special.  

            Elysium, the latest dystopian sci-fi/political allegory by rising South African talent Niell Blomkamp, is the kind of movie that seeks to pull off such a balancing act in order to work as both a sci-fi thriller and as an over-the-top political metaphor.  The setting is Earth, in the year 2154.  The world’s rich left Earth generations ago for an off-world colony called Elysium, leaving the “99%” behind on an over-polluted and over-crowded Earth.  Access to Elysium is enabled by ID stamps literally burned onto people at birth, giving them access to both Elysium itself and its miraculous technology- med pods that can instantly cure any illness or physical deformity/injury, as long as the person has an Elysium ID and is still alive.  There are plenty who pay good money for an “illegal” ship to Elysium, but nearly all are either destroyed or apprehended by Jodie Foster’s irredeemable Secretary of Defense Delacourt, a poster-image combo of every over-the-top, anti-immigration ranter you could possibly pick out of our current news networks.  In an ever-so-subtle display of the cultural divide at work, the residents of Elysium are mostly white and speak a mixture of English and French, while the residents of Earth (or at least Los Angeles, the only planetside locale we actual visit) are noticeably more Hispanic, and mix English and Spanish. 

            The focus of the story is a former criminal named Max, played by a bald Matt Damon.  Out of prison and seeking to get by as a blue-collar worker, Max is rather quick to jump back into the criminal underworld when exposure to intense radiation at work leaves him with five days to live.  His former employer, and enjoyably over-the-top crime lord called Spider, surgically attaches a metal exoskeleton to Damon’s upper body, giving him both enhanced strength and the ability to literally hack into someone’s brain and “download” whatever information is there, which Spider wants to use to get access to Elysium’s banks. 

            If you can’t guess that the plan goes terribly wrong, you need to watch more movies.  Damon finds himself caught up in a rather uninteresting conspiracy set up by Jodie Foster, who wishes to seize control of Elysium (of COURSE!).  Furious that the information she needed was stolen by Damon, she sicks the loosest of loose cannons on him, a mercenary named Kruger (played by Sharlto Copley), whose committed exuberance for all that is depraved makes him the most interesting performance of the entire film.  Not only are Damon’s underworld contacts at risk, but his childhood friend (Alice Braga) and her dying daughter (Generic Freeze-dried Childhood Innocence) get caught up in the mix as well when they are captured by Sharlto.  Can Damon save his secret love, defeat Sharlto and the mecha-robots defending Elysium, and save humanity from the oppression of the wealthy few?  Can you spell Blomkamp without writing “camp?”  Do you really need to ask? 

            Joking aside, I didn’t at all mind the blatant political allegory that is the entirety of Elysium’s script.  In fact, it’s the main reason I went to see the film in the first place.  That, and to see some good, sci-fi smackdowns by men wearing overcompensatory mech suits.  Does the film deliver on both counts? 

            Well…….see, this is why I started this review musing over the “less is more” principle of storytelling that I am usually so fond of.    Elysium is flawed in numerous ways, but the only issue that really brought it down for me (aside from the now ubiquitous shaky-cam/rapid-fire editing during the action scenes) is how little it all pays off in the end.  There are a slew of interesting designs here- the few shots we get of Elysium from space reminded me of 2001’s famous space flight sequence, Damon’s mech-suit makes him look suitably imposing, and the ships and robots are well-done, if a touch generic- but we never get to see enough of them, either because the camera zooms in for uncomfortable close-ups or because the damn thing won’t stop shaking.  There are some GREAT weapons that the characters pull out, use once, and then discard for the remainder of the film.  There are unending possibilities for a suit like Damon’s, but all he does with it is tear up one robot, lift a few heavy objects, and beat up a few civilians.  And for all its pretense as a “F*** YEAH” call for economic redistribution, Elysium never fully embraces just how hammy it could (and, in my opinion, should) be.  Blomkamp probably just didn’t want to bog down the story with too much detail, ala Phantom Menace, but at the same time, he never fully fleshes out the bits and pieces he does throw at us, and the result is something slightly underwhelming. 

            This is not to say it’s a bad movie, far from it.  While I take issue with all the hype over how “original” Blomkamp’s work supposedly is, he’s clearly got plenty of interesting ideas bouncing around his head, even if he hasn’t quite found solid footing as a filmmaker.  And, like Pacific Rim, Elysium is at least trying to be something new and less thematically confused than the avalanche of corporate rebrands this summer has dumped into our screaming mouths.  Plus, I really dug how the film's "hero" is motivated by purely selfish reasons- "I don't wanna die" is his unending mantra from the moment he's told he's going to do just that.  And yet, even that ends up being a disadvantage in the end- the movie tries to parley that into a mini-character arc that gives his actions at the very end more emotional weight (I won't spoil how, except to say that it involves zoo animals).  However, like so much else in the movie, it's too rushed, too thin, and happens too fast to leave much of an impact.  This is a movie that I think is absolutely worth seeing, but I can’t blame anyone for waiting for the DVD release.  And with that, at long last, the summer blockbuster days come to a much-needed close. 

-Noah Franc 

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Review: Pacific Rim

Pacific Rim (2013):  Written by Guillermo del Toro and Travis Beacham. Directed by Guillermo del Toro.  Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, Robert Kazinsky, Max Martini, and Ron Perlman.  Running Time: 132 minutes. 

Rating: 4/4

            Pacific Rim might be the loudest experience I’ve ever had in a movie theater.  This is the sort of sound design that’s perfectly suited for its subject matter- the fights are explosive, the soundtrack bombastic, and the dialogue high-flying, but it’s all very well-balanced, and one rarely drowns out the others (although there are some moments where it does do just that).  In fact, pretty much every aspect of this film- the overblown monster/robot designs, the simple (but still engaging) characters, the basic story, the massive, set-piece fights, etc.- are tailor-made for the purpose of delivering two-hours of pure sensory-overload.  And it succeeds.  Oh boy, does it succeed. 

            In the near-future, humanity suddenly finds itself under attack from massive, Godzilla-like demons called Kaiju, all originating from an inter-dimensional rift in the Pacific Ocean.  The attacks seem scattered and random at first, but slowly start to occur more frequently, until a frightening pattern emerges.  When conventional weapons prove inadequate to taking down the beasts, the nations of the world unite to create the Jaeger program (“Jaeger” is German for “hunter”), a series of massive, Gundam Wing/Neon Genesis-style robotic suits big enough to battle the Kaiju one-on-one.  Although successful at first, the Kaiju continue to come, and (say it with me) “in greater numbers,” to the point that the Jaegers are slowly whittled down to a handful of veteran crews, and the leaders of the world contemplate abandoning the program altogether and simply hunkering down behind ever-larger walls.  Message?  Oh yes.   

            Our main character is Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam), an ex-Jaeger pilot who left the program after losing his brother in an earlier fight with a Kaiju.  The Jaegers, we learn, have to be piloted by two people simultaneously, since the mental strain is too great for one person (the Kaiju seem to operate on a similar principle- we later learn that they themselves have two brains).  Because of this, those fighting in Jaeger suits have to be as physically and mentally in sync as possible, otherwise the suit can’t be fully utilized.  After his brother died, Raleigh was convinced that he would never again find someone else he could fight with.  He agrees to rejoin the program only after he receives a visit from his old commander, another ex-pilot named Stacker (Idris Elba), who now heads all Jaeger operations.  With the Jaeger program about to be shut down, he is planning a final assault on the portal itself that, according to his quirky, off-beat scientists (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman), should be able to seal it permanently. 

            The only person who proves able to match him in combat is a young woman named Mako (Rinko Kikuchi), a girl who survived an earlier Kaiju attack stopped by Stacker himself, who then raised her as his own.  While the argument could be made that her relationship with Raleigh is a romantic one, I would counter that their dynamic is more of the girl-with-crush meets scarred-and-grizzled-mentor variety.  And even if it was meant to be romantic, it’s thankfully never a distraction from the business of beating giant monsters into big, bluish pulp.  The rest of the cast is filled out with the aforementioned commander and his research team, as well as another of the remaining Jaeger crews- a father-and-son duo, the younger of whom may as well walk around in a shirt saying, “I HAVE DADDY ISSUES.” 

            Honestly, even though Pacific Rim bills itself (and has been viewed by most) as nothing more than another loud, superficial, CGI-laden maelstrom with the emotional depth of a teaspoon, I walked out with a lot to mull over.  My initially favorable opinions of Ironman 3, Into Darkness, and Man of Steel all crumbled distressingly fast the moment they ended and I started to really think about them (and no, I won’t just “turn my brain off” for a movie- I rather enjoy being alive, thank you very much).  Pacific Rim is the first action movie of the year to actually appreciate in my mind the more I ponder everything in it.  Yes, the story is simple, and at times clich├ęd.  Yes, the characters are also pretty simple people, with straightforward arcs and actions.  And no, that is not a bad thing.  No, that does not make the movie superficial.  And no, it does NOT make the movie stupid. 

            Beneath all its grandiose bluster, this is a movie about relationships, about people with differences who either fix them or learn to leave them be in order to work together to solve a common problem, to defeat a common enemy.  Each of the major duos in the movie have their particular issues- Raleigh and Stacker, Raleigh and Mako, Raleigh and the hotshot young Aussie, the hotshot young Aussie and his father, the two scientists with each other, and so on and so forth.  Each one is resolved in its own way in a fairly short time frame.  None of the conflicts are drawn out unnecessarily.  They flare up, maybe a few punches get thrown, a few plans go awry, the people fix them or agree to let it be, and they get on with the war.  And, as basic as all the conflicts and resolutions are, it’s the coolness and the maturity with which they are handled that makes this scattered and odd cast feel more real and interesting than most others I’ve seen this year.  No one has a big, dramatic scene or monologue, and there are no unexpected twists, but you know what?  This cast sticks out in my mind despite that.  I remember each named character vividly.  Not every story has to have the brilliant, unexpected depth of In Bruges to be interesting and, dare I say it, fun.  Not every character has to be as layered as Daniel Plainview or as complex as Maestro Salieri.  As long as they feel real, and genuine, we will feel invested in finding out what happens to them.  And, regardless of its flaws, when a movie makes us want to know what happens, it’s doing at least a few things right.    

            Pacific Rim may not be the best movie of the year, but it is the easily the best of this year’s batch of summer blockbusters, and a rare- a very, very, very rare- example of 200 million dollars well-spent.  Ironman 3, Man of Steel, and Into Darkness all threw themselves at us with aims just as lofty and budgets just as bloated, but none of them ever managed to make me cheer out loud in the middle of the theater.  They all sought to dazzle us, but only Pacific Rim tried to make us wonder.  It brings a horde of big ideas and bigger set pieces into play and spends two hours simply playing with them, like a child with its Lego set.  It does not try to force overt religious or political symbolism down our throats.  Because it’s not a remake, reboot, sequel, or adaptation, there are no previous incarnations to trod upon, no diehard fanbases to offend.  Pacific Rim is, first and foremost, an immensely fun and exciting time at the movies, like any good, loud, effects-driven blockbuster should be. 

-Noah Franc