Monthly Archives: July 2013

Movie Review: Pacific Rim

A movie is not just what it’s about, but how it’s about. “Pacific Rim” isn’t good because it’s about monsters fighting robots, it’s good because of the way it shows monsters fighting robots. Yes, robots fight monsters. Yes, cities are destroyed. Yes, you may jump for joy.

“Pacific Rim,” is the latest feature from genre mastermind Guillermo del Toro, who made The Pale Man of “Pan’s Labyrinth  the subject of everyone’s nightmares. It is the equivalent of a young boy playing with his action figures: it is filled with awe-inspiring imagination, but its story is just a little bit on the faulty side.

In terms of action movies, “Pacific Rim” is more “Aliens” than “Alien”: it’s about spectacle, not subtlety. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as this is the essence of every most major summer blockbusters since the 1980s. “Pacific Rim” has no limits, and its scope is often stunning. Del Toro clearly cares so much about perfecting this world and then tearing it to pieces.

“Pacific Rim” made me realize something very important that pertains to the modern film industry: just because something is new, it doesn’t mean its original. “Pacific Rim” is not a sequel, remake, or adaptation of any kind. It comes straight from Del Toro’s mind. Yet, what makes this story different than “Independence Day”? Is it the fact that the aliens come from down below instead of from up above? The only thing missing from the opening as Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) crouches over the body of his dead brother (Diego Klattenhoff) is a high pitched “NOOOOO!!!” Despite this, human truly rises to the occasion. He has what it takes to become a blockbuster star.

“Pacific Rim” doesn’t have a bad story. The problem with it is that it goes in so many different directions and never settles in one place. The film opens with a montage that is interesting but maybe a little too short. Monsters called Kaiju (literally the Japanese word for “monster”) have escaped through a portal in the Pacific Ocean and are destroying every major city they can find. So, you can guarantee that the Golden Gate Bridge will go down in the first five minutes.

Yet, “Pacific Rim” is not only about the destruction, but the resistance. In order to fight back, humans build robots called Jaegers (Japanese for “fighter”). The Jaegers are controlled by two pilots who operate it through their minds, in what looks like a much cooler version of a virtual reality game. The mind control and mind-linking stuff can be a little confusing sometimes, but Del Toro and co-writer Travis Beacham constantly invent new rules to prevent them from following into plot holes. Also, there’s always a bunch of guys yelling things at computer screens. So there’s that.

“Pacific Rim” can be labeled as a neurological blockbuster, with every character always trying to link mind and metal. This is by far the most intriguing part about “Pacific Rim.” In one scene, Raleigh finds himself inside a memory of his partner Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi). In this memory, she is a child who hides from a Kaiju that destroys her city. The scene is illuminated by terror and dust that falls like snow. It is beautiful and graceful and mesmerizing. It is staged in a way that every action movie and thriller should be staged from now on. Unfortunately, it is the only scene of this kind in the entire film.    

The complexity is dropped pretty early on. Because of this, the story never becomes convoluted  However, the story instead relies on a lot of simplistic action tropes. This hurts some of the characters, who are actually stronger than the average blockbuster stick figure. Yet, Idris Elba’s Pentecost is stuck in “angry lieutenant” mode, serving to tell his subordinates that they’re off the job every time they don’t play by the rules. The only one who never slips into cliche is Kikuchi as Mori, who’s given the most interesting and disturbing backstory. I must give a big round of applause to Charlie Day, who provides comic relief as mad scientist type Dr. Newton Geiszler (it’ll take you a bit of time for you to get over that isn’t the same Charlie from “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia”), as well as Ron Perlman, who basically steals the show as Hannibal Chau, who’s profession is just as strange as his name.

As many others have said, Del Toro is basically a big kid. His excitement for the kaiju genre is tangible and completely sincere. Del Toro is also a master storyteller, so maybe I am being a bit harsh on him. However, that is only because I know he is capable of much better. Ambition is a much needed thing for the movie industry, but it shouldn’t substitute brains.

All in all, “Pacific Rim” may be the most watchable blockbuster of this season. Nobody can doubt the aesthetic, especially the score, which is an instant classic. I feel better about the film overall when I think about it for what it was, as opposed to what it could have been. After all, wishful thinking can only get you so far, especially when there’s giant robots and monsters fighting right in front of your eyes.

Emmys 2013: What They Got Right

I want a poster of this in my room.

Louie! Louie! Louie! Louieeeeeee

Every year I want to say that it’s “The Year of Louis C.K.” Let’s just say that this decade belongs to him. The comedian with many jobs continues to break more ground: this year he picked up multiple nominations. He wasn’t just nominated for his show “Louie,” which had its best season yet, but also for his hosting of “Saturday Night Live,” and his new special “Oh My God.” While “Oh My God” wasn’t the best standup that the master has ever done (though it is still leagues above most of the other stuff out there today), Mr. C.K. earned every nomination that he got. It’s nice to see that one of the funniest, most talented, and hardest working people in the business today is finally getting his due. And with Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine” coming to theaters next weekend, could the Oscars be next?

Veep Sweep

Armando Iannucci’s latest political satire got over any speed bump from season one for an incredibly smooth ride of a second season. This season, “Veep” displayed some of the sharpest writing on television as well as a brilliant performance from Julia Louis-Dreyfus and excellent work from the rest of the cast, including fellow nominees Anna Chlumsky and Tony Hale.

Breaking Bad

There are few things that I could say about “Breaking Bad” that hasn’t already been said over and over again. However, Vince Gilligan’s televised masterpiece deserves all the praise in the world. The first half of season five raised the dread. In a world of predictability, I can say that I have absolutely no idea how the hell this show is going to end. And I like that. “Breaking Bad” has only two more chances to win the Best Drama award. And I can confidently say that “Breaking Bad” will win the Best Drama award at least two times.

30 Rock’s Swan Song

Some great shows overstay their welcome. “30 Rock” realized that season seven would be their last and went out with an absolute bang. “30 Rock” has already won for Best Comedy three times so it wouldn’t be a big travesty if it lost. But like the show itself, which seemed to be saving some of its best lines (Liz Lemon answering her phone: “This is Lemon. Make lemonade.”) for the final season, the Emmys crammed in as many nominations as possible. Will Forte finally got a nomination for his turn as a Jenna Maroney impersonator, while Jenna Maroney herself, Jane Krakowski, has one last chance to walk home with a statuette. I’m not begging voters to give “30 Rock” another Emmy, but would it be so much to ask for one more win? For old times sake? After all, this is the show that changed the modern sitcom as we know it.

I dare you not to tear up at this.

Mandy Patinkin

To say “Homeland” hit some rough patches this season would be an understatement. As “Friday Night Lights” also proved, involving your teenage character in a hit-and-run murder plot never ever works. Even in an off episode, it was comforting to know that Mandy Patinkin would be there. As Saul, Patinkin always provided humor, warmth, and insight at all the right moments. Not to mention, he has a great Hebrew chant for every situation. Wait a minute, Patinkin has a big, white beard, and we can always rely on him for a joyful moment. Is he Jewish Santa Claus?

Bill Hader

This was Bill Hader’s last chance to get nominated for an Emmy for “Saturday Night Live.”* Luckily, voters delivered. Besides being a master impressionist, Hader also killed it with his original character. His most famous, Stefon (co-written by John Mulaney, one of my favorite comedians in the world), became an institution by the end of this season through an epic wedding send-off. Hader may have laughed through many of his sketches, but he always managed to make that the highlight. I think that will lead to great success for him in the future. I can think of another “SNL” alumni who laughed through most of his sketches, and he turned out just fine: Jimmy Fallon.

*But this may not be Hader’s last chance at the Emmys: he will be a full time writer for “South Park” next season.

Emmys 2013: The Snubs


Perhaps genre confusion was one of the reasons “Enlightened” was robbed. Yes, it’s a half hour show, but it’s often more serious than funny. “Enlightened” was part of a select group of shows committed to reinventing the half hour format. To call it a failed experiment would be unfair though; it now belongs in the pantheon of great shows cancelled too soon. Co-creator Mike White did something that was nearly unthinkable by making a bunch of unlikable characters, including one who’s basically the equivalent of the girl you wish you hadn’t started a conversation with at a party, very likable through his kind touches of empathy. Until the show’s legacy kicks in, at least we have Laura Dern’s nomination for Best Actress to carry us through.

Key Episodes: Higher Power, The Ghost Is Seen, Agent of Change

New Girl

At first, “New Girl” was nothing special. Two seasons later, it’s the funniest sitcom on network television (RIP “Happy Endings”). I could cite it’s rapid fire dialogue, or the mere presence of Schmidt (Max Greenfield) alone. But the real triumph of season two was that it brought new life to the “will they or won’t they” arc. The moment where Nick (Jake Johnson) and Jess (Zooey Deschanel) finally kiss is surprisingly electrifying. It is so well done that I found myself watching it over and over again and feeling just as surprised on each viewing. If season one of a TV show is all about introducing us to the characters, season two is about building character history and further familiarity. In that and many other regards, “New Girl” triumphed where others would fail.

Key Episodes: Fluffer, Cooler, Virgins

Michael Cera (Arrested Development)

The new season of “Arrested Development” was a mixed bag that didn’t really take off until its final stretch. While it’s great to see Jason Bateman up for an Emmy, he wasn’t the only one worthy of the prize. I didn’t want to fill the list up with “Arrested Development,” and it was hard to choose from the likes Will Arnett, David Cross, and Jessica Walter. In the end, I decided to go with Michael Cera. Those who say that Cera always plays the same character should look no further than this current season of “Arrested Development” to see his incredible range. In the episode “It Gets Better,” it is such a joy seeing Cera turn George Michael from timid and awkward to a confident liar of a Bluth man. Cera is not just good comic support; he is a full fledged leading man.

Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation)

It’s okay I guess that the Emmy voters have snubbed the man who plays Ron Swanson for five years. He already wins at life anyway.

Movie Review: Frances Ha

At a very brief glance, “Frances Ha” is nothing more than a walking indie film trope. “Frances Ha” has everything that indie filmmakers love: ukeleles, Paris, children of divorce.”

I’m one to talk, as I consume movies like this a little too much. However, what seperates “Frances Ha” from the rest is its ambition and, despite its aimless characters, it actually has a good amount to say. Unfortunately, a lot of those things are left unsaid.

Dramedy is not the right word for “Frances Ha.” Tragicomedy would be a better way to put it, despite the fact that not many big, tragic events occur during its short running time. “Frances Ha” is filled with a lot of sad characters who are stuck in ruts. Yet, Noah Baumbach manages to find little bits of humor in all of the depression that always work so well. He is not just showing how these people live, but also prodding at them a little bit.

Director Noah Baumbach has clearly found his muse in Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the film with Baumbach and stars as Frances. The two first collaborated on “Greenberg,” but “Frances Ha” works a little better. Baumbach is better at portraying ennui in his hometown of New York than in Los Angeles.

Unlike Greenberg and many other of Baumbach’s characters, Frances is not a complete loner. Her friendship with Sophie (Mickey Sumner) can best be described as co-dependent. Or in their own words, they’re like “a lesbian couple that doesn’t have sex anymore.” Their career goals couldn’t be more different: Frances wants to be a dancer and model, and Sophie hopes to one day run the publishing industry. These are the kind of goals the people in their 20s that live in Brooklyn have.

“Frances Ha” is mainly about how the friendship between Frances and Sophie deteriorates as Sophie moves on but Frances doesn’t. Frances becomes a drifter, going from apartment to apartment and couch to couch. Most notably, she stays with Lev (Adam Driver) and Benji (Michael Zegen), two aspiring artists who are kept afloat because of their rich parents.

“Frances Ha” explores an idea also explored in the very similar “Girls” that the spoiled seem to be the only ones who have the time to pursue artistic dreams. Frances is the rare poor artist. Yet, nobody seems to appreciate their opportunities when they come about. Benji gets a chance to send in a skit to “Saturday Night Live,” yet he doesn’t even seem to care if he gets it because he thinks the show isn’t as good as it used to be. Shockingly, this is something that people actually say.

As Sophie, relative newcomer Sumner makes a big impression. She can portray straight-laced heartbreak even when she seems absolutely calm. Meanwhile, Gerwig once again proves herself to be one of the most underrated actresses working today. One of my biggest problems with the film was that it’s opinion on Frances wasn’t always very clear. Gerwig knows when to make her likable and hatable. Sometimes, she can do both at the exact same time.

Unlike Baumbach’s past works, “Frances Ha” actually comes with a sense of relative closure. I have always had mixed feelings about Baumbach’s work, yet I always find myself excited about whatever new film he has planned. Ever since I saw “The Graduate,” I’ve been attracted to characters who don’t know what they want to do with their life. It’s the opposite of the uber-confidence that is usually considered to be the norm. It’s always refreshing to see someone admit that they have no idea what they’re doing. Deep down, we all feel the exact same way.

Movies with aimless characters only work if they have a point. “Frances Ha” works because it has a point. However, I still don’t quite know how Baumbach and Gerwig actually feel about Frances. There is no one there to really call her out ever. There is no Greek Chorus to tell the audience how to feel, which is good in one way, but bad in other ways. The film cycles through a lot of different characters in its short yet ambitious running time, but it often doesn’t take a second to let us know who they are and what their stance is. Frances spends a long time back home in Sacramento, but never once do they seem worried that their 27-year-old daughter is basically broke.

Yet, the flaws of the film still don’t hold it back too far. This is the first time Baumbach has shed more hope than cynicism into one of his films. Not to mention, it has the best soundtrack of any film so far this year and some really whip smart dialogue. At one point, Frances mentions that Walden Pond, where Henry David Thoreau lived and wrote in seclusion, was actually only five minutes away from his mother’s house. “Frances Ha” wants to be the voice of all twenty-somethings who aren’t nearly as independent as they think they are. You’ll probably connect to it, as long as you’ve ever lived in the vicinity of Brooklyn.

Movie Review: The Heat

Most buddy cop comedies are about to mismatched cops who can’t follow the rules. But what if the movie itself, can’t even follow the rules? “The Heat” proves that the results are dangerously and potentially hilarious.
While “The Heat” is a buddy cop comedy, I’d say it’s more like “Superbad” than “21 Jump Street.” However, the buddy aspect is more important than the procedural part. Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) and Mullins (Melissa McCarthy) only follow the buddy cop formula slightly. Sure, the movie teams up a brash cop with an uptight one, yet neither of them really play by the rules. Ashburn is something of a detective prodigy, but she’s maligned by most of the people she works with. You know someone is lonely when they have to steal their neighbor’s cat for company. 
Mullins, meanwhile, is equally good at sniffing out criminals, she’s just a little worse at keeping them from escaping. She may be is insanely over-the-top, but this is a role that McCarthy was meant to play. She gives it just the right amount of heart and never seems irritating.

Bullock and McCarthy have a dynamic, almost natural chemistry together that I certainly did not expect. If the two of them didn’t work well together, the script would have felt flat. It is clear that the two of them are not just partners, but growing friends.
Let’s back up for a moment. This is a comedy first and foremost. And on that, it delivers in every way possible. A large part of comedy is about debasement, and both lead actresses of “The Heat” are more than willing to get down and dirty for laughs. The bad thing about most action comedies is that they often put all of the jokes in the first half and then get weighed down by serious plot in the second half. “The Heat” never loses its comedy momentum, and it brilliantly adds comedy to some of its most tense scenes. I challenge everyone to make a stabbing scene as funny as one that happens in “The Heat.”
“The Heat” is an example of perfect harmony between the three parts of the Holy Trinity of any movie: Director, Writer, and Actors. The writer lays out the blue print, the director brings the blue print to life as he or she sees it, and the actors bring meaning and humor to the words. With “The Heat,” TV writer Katie Dippold (“Parks and Rec”) makes a seamless transition to the big screen. After this movie, she will be one of Hollywood’s most sought after screenwriters. She brings over her expertise from TV by bringing life to an entire ensemble, as opposed to just two characters. 

Her style works perfectly with director Paul Feig’s. Feig always enjoys letting the camera run so he can capture an honest moment. While many scenes go well beyond their natural breaking point, they rarely feel unnecessarily long. The more a scene builds, the more we learn about the characters. Dippold’s strong ear for dialogue perfectly aligns with Feig’s ability to capture “real” moments. I hope to see more movies from this creative team in the very near future.
Just like any good script, “The Heat” is all about the buildup and the payoffs. Mullins never curses throughout the movie, only saying “what the F” whenever she can. So you can guarantee that when she finally does drop a real f-bomb, it’s going to be worth the wait. Even with all the humor (a lot of it deriving from improper use of knives), “The Heat” leads to a surprisingly moving conclusion. 
“The Heat” amounts to a whole lot of riffing. However, what keeps it from being nothing more than a two hour gag reel is that it is stringed together by a pretty decent plot. While I didn’t care that much about who had the drugs and whatever, every character is well developed enough that the stakes do matter. 
As the years go by, Paul Feig gets better and better as a director. Like his contemporary Judd Apatow, he is striving to create a comedy family. A large part of “The Heat” is about Mullins’ big, loud Boston family and family values overall. Like any good family, “The Heat” is warm and inviting even in the midst of its insanity. This is a great comedy because it is dark, but never quite filled with contempt.