Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Retro Trio: Pacific Rim (2013), 13 Assassins (2010), Dark City (1998)

Pacific Rim (2013)

Director: Guillermo del Toro

This was my second viewing of this one, and I feel the same now as when I saw it on the big screen a year ago. It's certainly fun, but far from a masterpiece.

Yes, it's giant robots fighting against giant monsters, referred to as jaegers and kaiju, respectively. If you need to know more than that, then you probably won't be into this movie.

I do have to say that they do come up with a decent enough story for why we are watching a robot/monster slugfest. It's not exactly novel, but it doesn't try to get too clever for its own good, while not insulting your intelligence. Also, the notion of needing at least two "pilots" to handle the neural requirements to command the jaegers, leads to a bit more genuine empathy than you might expect.

Del Toro made sure that the fights looked at felt just as
titanic as they needed to be. Mindless? Yes. Fun? Hell yes!!
The fights are pretty awesome. They lose quite a bit on a small screen, it must be admitted, but they're still fun to watch, if you're not bored by that sort of thing, like my wife often is (she was fast asleep while I was happily watching Gipsy Danger body slam a Gamorrah lookalike into a Chinese skyscraper). Waiting to see just what type of bizarre powers the kaiju possess, or what kung-fu type moved the jaeger pilots will employ is plenty of fun. And there are a few noble deaths given up for admiration. The a deep-sea slugfest at the end is more than satisfying.

The weaknesses to me are few, but too obvious to ignore. The first is that the dialogue is inconsistent. There are some decent lines, including virtually all of the ones delivered by Idris Elba. However, there are plenty of cheesy duds that made me wince. When the protagonist Raleigh Beckett urges his neural partner Mako, "Let's do this! Together!!", it sounded way too much like the awful, hackneyed dialogue one might hear in a children's anime program. The other weakness to me is the romance between Raleigh and Mako. Totally unnecessary. The shame is that, for nearly all of the film, they don't fall down the Hollywood trap of cramming a romance story into an out-and-out action movie. Then, at the end, we get the cliched kiss-cut-credits sequence. I would have admired the film a bit more if they had simply kept Raleigh and Mako's relationship one of friends and colleagues.

A fun movie, nonetheless. Watch it on blu-ray, on a large screen, with a good sound system, if possible.

13 Assassins (2010)

Director: Takashi Miike

Great samurai flick. I don't watch a ton of Japanese or samurai movies, but I absolutely love them when they're done well, like 13 Assassins.

It probably helped that, just by coincidence, I had finished reading Hagakure a few weeks prior. This 18th century collection gathers the thoughts of a true feudal samurai, and it provides a fair amount of insight into the ideals of that position in Japanese social history. 13 Assassins incorporates several of the deepest sentiments and values of the samurai, both the admirable and the baffling. The primary belief is the ultimate quest for an honorable death. Essentially, a true samurai should never fear death. In fact, a true samurai should embrace the fact that he will die, and he should simply prepare and wait for the opportunity to give his life in the service of his feudal lord. It may seem like an oddly suicidal world view to most of us Westerners, but I've always been intrigued by the sense of honorable purpose conveyed by such an approach to life and death. 13 Assassins uses this idea to motivate the titular group.

But the movie is far from merely being a somber existential meditation. It starts off not unlike a Seven Samurai "let's get the band together" scenario. A middle-aged samurai, Shinzaemon, is tasked with the mission of killing the psychotic, sadistic, and homicidal Lord Matsudaira before he ascends to an esteemed place at the side of the shogun. So Shinzaemon, played with masterful gravitas and humanity by Koji Yakusho, rounds up whomever he can find to attempt what amounts to a suicide mission. The dozen fellows who join the band do so for various reasons, but they all add something to the group.

Do not get on the wrong side of this haggard-looking group.
They're just itching to give their skills and lives up for a
noble purpose.
The assault on Matsudaira is akin to the final 90 minutes of Seven Samurai, but condensed and thrown into a blood-soaked typhoon. In short, it's amazing. There is a slow-build throughout the movie, in terms of the duels and stand-offs. There are some outstanding showdowns, with steely-eyed swordsman squaring off. During the final half hour, though, it's a blizzard of violence, as Shinzaemon's band uses every scrap of cunning and trickery, as well as their considerable individual fighting skills to mow down their 200 opponents. The direction is outstanding, giving a phenomenal sense of place, purpose, and tension to all of the action.

True to the spirit outlined in Hagakure, the 13 "assassins" charge towards their noble deaths, and it's a phenomenal show.

Dark City (1998)

Director: Alex Proyas

As the title suggests, this is a dark, twisted science fiction mystery tale that I found to be excellent.

Dark City contains many shades of other, earlier artists and works: Franz Kafka, Philip K. Dick, noir in its many forms, and Clive Barker's Hellraiser are some of the most immediate that come to mind. The blending of them, though, is unique and highly engaging.

I'll refrain from writing about the plot, as the slow revelation throughout the movie is a large part of its appeal. All a first-time viewer needs to know is that the protagonist, John Murdoch, awakes in a motel bathtub, with no memories of who he is or how he got there. He very quickly finds himself pursued by shadowy, cloaked figures who possess terrifying supernatural powers. Murdoch, in constant flight, attempts to figure out who and where he is, but every answer raises many more questions about the nature of the reality that he is experiencing.

The story is so creative, and its execution is so brilliant, that I'm simply amazed that this movie isn't better known. My guess is that some of the themes and visuals were a little too bizarre or macabre, and the aesthetic - a pervasive noir darkness - was a bit off-putting to people who didn't know what to make of it. In addition, the film doesn't draw the clearest lines between good and evil, which can often disappoint and confound many viewers.

Another potential source of frustration for many viewers is likely the fact that there are certain larger questions that are not clearly answered. Without giving anything away, I can say that we are never given the grand answer to just how the entire scenario of the movie began. But this is completely fine to me. Ultimately, the way it began is immaterial, and this unanswered question allows us viewers the opportunity to engage in some imaginative speculation, based on the many details offered in the film's look and narrative.

Whatever the reasons for its lack of commercial success, it's a great science fiction movie that has rightfully built up the wider praise that it should have received from the outset.