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Tag Archives: Hellboy II: The Golden Army

Now Playing: Pacific Rim and The Conjuring

Pacific Rim
dir. Guillermo del Toro, 2013, USA

Rating: 6.8

The Conjuring
dir. James Wan, 2013, USA

Rating: 7.9

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Now playing in theaters everywhere is Pacific Rim, the eighth feature film by Mexican-born, Hollywood-based genre specialist Guillermo del Toro. While I admire all of del Toro’s movies to a greater or lesser extent (with the exception of Mimic, which I’ve never actually seen, mainly because I know he never had complete creative control over it — not even in the inevitable “director’s cut” issued recently on Blu-ray), it unfortunately seems inarguable to me that Pacific Rim is his least interesting work to date. While Pacific Rim is pretty good for what it is, “what it is” in this case, a robots vs. monsters extravaganza in the Transformers mold, is, like the song says, my idea of nothing to do. Sure, there’s plenty to recommend it: purely as an exercise in “world building,” I can appreciate any fictional universe with a mythology as elaborate and detailed as this: it takes place in a near-future where giant sea-monsters known as “kaiju” wreak havoc on earth, and a multinational government coalition has consequently created giant robots known as “jaegers” in order to combat them. Intriguingly, each jaeger must be piloted by two humans who are telepathically linked to one other (in order to share the “neural load”), a conceit that leads to the film’s niftiest visuals: rapid-fire montages in which each jaeger sees the other’s life in flashback. Also in Pacific Rim‘s favor: the fight scenes are spatially/temporally coherent and, del Toro being the humanist that he is, the film is refreshingly absent of cynicism (neither of which can be said about Transformers or most other contemporary blockbusters).

Having said all that . . . Pacific Rim is still too long, too loud and too cliche-ridden. The wooden lead characters, Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) and Mako Mori (Riko Kinkuchi), are jaeger pilots who embark on a requisite unconvincing love story and prove as uninteresting as the romantic leads in an MGM Marx brothers’ film. It becomes obvious pretty soon where del Toro’s real interest lies: with the nerdy scientist “frienemies” played by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman, and a shady black market organ dealer played with relish by del Toro mainstay Ron Perlman. But these characters are, unfortunately, too small a part of the movie overall. Del Toro’s most personal touches (Day’s character is described as a “kaiju groupie” and even has the beasts tattooed on his forearms) feel like little splashes of color here and there on an otherwise large, impersonal canvas. By contrast, in the massively underrated Hellboy II, del Toro’s previous feature, those touches were the whole show: there is nothing in Pacific Rim to rival Hellboy II‘s exhilaratingly eccentric troll-market sequence. Or its most outrageous lines of dialogue (“I’m not a baby, I’m a tumor!”). There’s nothing quite as sweet or goofy as Hellboy II‘s unexpected use of a Barry Manilow song. Or as poignant and strangely beautiful as the scene depicting the death of a giant plant monster. Or lots of other things. Instead we have big, dumb, loud battle scenes (including an unnecessary final battle that follows what feels like the film’s logical climax) between jaegers and kaiju that take place at night and in the rain so that even the creature design, usually a highlight in del Toro, is disappointingly obscured by darkness and murk. We also have an inordinate number of close-ups of Kinkuchi, obviously calculated to appeal to the all-important Asian market, and Idris Elba as a jaeger commander who delivers a rousing sound-bite version of Henry V‘s St. Crispin’s Day speech.

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The somewhat sad truth is that if Guillermo del Toro had never been born, the movie Pacific Rim would have still been made, albeit co-written and directed by someone else. And it would have still been more or less the same film that I just saw. I would prefer it if del Toro, an imaginative visual stylist and a natural born filmmaker if there ever was one, would show me that which without him I would otherwise never have seen. When I saw del Toro introduce a screening of his 2001 Spanish ghost story The Devil’s Backbone at the Chicago International Film Festival few years back, he made the surprising confession that this little-seen film was, along with his much-lauded 2006 Spanish Civil War-set fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth, his own personal favorite of his works. (It’s worth noting that he said this in front of Ron Perlman, who has starred in virtually all of del Toro’s films except for those two movies.) If del Toro is willing to acknowledge that his Hollywood work is almost necessarily compromised, one wonders why he’s determined to play the Hollywood game for such high stakes (the budget for Pacific Rim was allegedly $180,000,000): is it to rebound from the negative press surrounding his failure to realize several other projects, including The Hobbit? Is it to prove himself a commercially viable director in the hopes of getting his long-cherished adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountain’s of Madness finally greenlit? Whatever the case, I’ve still got my fingers crossed for his next project, a horror film entitled Crimson Peak starring Jessica Chastain, Benedict Cumberbatch and Mia Wasikowska. Del Toro has described it as a deliberate attempt to do one of his “Spanish-language films in English.” Here’s hoping.

While one could certainly do much, much worse than choosing to see Pacific Rim from among this season’s popcorn movies, one could also do much better: my own pick for the Hollywood film of the summer is James Wan’s unexpectedly good and genuinely scary The Conjuring, now also playing in theaters everywhere. A haunted house scenario that improves upon Insidious, Wan’s formidable 2010 hit about “astral projection,” The Conjuring is yet another allegedly “true story” in the Exorcist/Amityville Horror mold that is nonetheless fully redeemed by the director’s richly atmospheric mise-en-scene. Wan and cinematographer John Leonetti use a constantly prowling camera to convey a palpable sense of creeping dread, and the Val Lewton-esque use of shadows and offscreen space is never less than masterful: gore is almost entirely absent and yet the audience with whom I saw it let out more than a few collective screams over the course of its two-hour running time. I personally felt scared, very scared, less than two minutes into the movie, during a short prologue involving an unbelievably creepy-looking doll that is surely one of the most unsettling props ever created for a horror film. And I continued to feel that way throughout (barring, of course, the cliched exorcism climax — can’t Hollywood find something other than Christian iconography to fight demonic possession with?). Adding to the credibility is a first-rate cast that includes Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston as the parents of the haunted family and Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as their ghost-hunter doppelgangers, not to mention a level of period detail (the events take place in 1971) that approaches the Fincher-esque.

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He Said/She Said Review: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark
dir: Troy Nixey (USA, 2011)
MGS rating: 5.5
JM rating: 5.8

This “dialogue review” of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a joint-venture of White City Cinema and my wife Jillian’s feminist blog Exploring Feminisms. He Said/She Said will be a semi-regular feature on both our sites.

MGS: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark was written and produced by our old buddy Guillermo del Toro but was directed by comic artist Troy Nixey. My first question to you is to what extent do you think it can be classified as a “Guillermo del Toro film”? In other words, where do you see GDT’s fingerprints on it and what do you think Nixey brings to the table? Also, how do you think the film might have been different had GDT actually directed it?

JM: Great question, and yes, I definitely do see GDT’s influence in this film, and that’s probably why I stuck it out for the while hour and a half. The first GDT calling card that stood out was featuring a child as the main character (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone and even possibly Geometria) and, further, telling the story through a child’s eyes. The difference between this film and his others is that with this film one of the adults begins to buy into the child’s fantastical story whereas in GDT’s own films the fantastical elements are usually exclusive to the child characters. A second aspect where I noticed GDT’s trademark – the creatures. The creature being a tooth fairy in Don’t be Afraid… is a direct throwback to the tooth fairies in Hellboy II. I know that we’ve talked about this many times, Mike, but to reiterate, GDT is in love with his monsters and makes them sympathetic (at least I know that we find them to be so), and in this film I don’t side with his monsters at all. One last GDT influence that I noticed was the blending of the child’s world (whether made up in his/her own mind or not) and the natural world. In this film, there’s a scene where Sally walks into a garden full of falling snow, but the snow almost seems to be floating around her. This is very reminiscent of the scene in Pan’s Labyrinth where Ofelia explores the labyrinth.

As for what Nixey brings, I think that answer can be summed up in one word: Hollywood. GDT brings in actors who are good for the part, not for their name (besides Ron Perlman). I am a fan of Guy Pearce but the film seemed beefed up with him and Holmes to make up for a bland and formulaic storyline, though I will say that the little girl who played Sally was great and I appreciated that she didn’t look like the typical American female child star. What kept me interested throughout the film was to seek out and identify those glimpses of GDT but having seen all of his movies, including Blade II, I feel that the overall direction of this film lacks the heart of a GDT project.

To answer your last question, I think that I’ve pretty much described what this film would be had he directed it but again there would have been more care paid to his creature-characters and more of a focus on quality as opposed to quantity – that is, the quantity of big name actors.

MGS: I agree that Guy Pearce was wasted. He should be getting the kind of roles that Brad Pitt, Viggo Mortenson and, now, Michael Fassbender are playing. He is just too good for this kind of thankless, one-note role. The Katie Holmes part had more substance but I couldn’t see past the “Katie Holmes-ness” of her performance, if you know what I mean.

You raise an excellent point about the creatures being more sympathetic in GDT’s own films. I suspect the fact that they aren’t depicted that way in this movie is one of the reasons he decided not to direct it himself and farmed it out to someone else instead. I don’t think he is capable of making a monster movie that doesn’t express a love of monsters! Also, it seems like GDT isn’t really interested in making “pure” horror films. The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth mix horror with the melodrama and war film genres and also have a lot of interesting things to say about history, politics, fascism and moral choices. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark on the other hand is just a simple ghost story – a kind of Pan’s Labyritnth-lite.

Speaking of the differences between del Toro and Nixey, something that bothered me about the visual style of this movie was the extensive use of moving camera. GDT loves to have frequent but subtle camera movements in his own movies; I think this lends them a sense of creeping dread and the feeling that he’s depicting a world that’s unstable. But Nixey’s use of elaborate crane shots was overkill. The camera was constantly swooping around the rooms of that mansion in such dramatic fashion that the movement ended up quickly losing its effectiveness.

But I would also like to say a few words in favor of the movie (I do after all think it’s slightly above average for a contemporary Hollywood horror film.) As you mentioned, Bailee Madison gives an exceptionally good performance as Sally. She conjures up and sustains extreme emotional states, such as terror and depression (as opposed to merely looking sad or scared), which child actors aren’t often asked to do, and she’s always believable. I also found the set design of the house impressively spooky. Finally, I would argue the best way to measure the success of any horror movie is in the effectiveness of its scares. I counted two good ones here: the opening scene where Mr. Blackwell obtains the teeth and the scene where Sally finds the monster under the covers of her bed.

Anything else you’d like to add?

JM: If I were to say anything in this film’s favor, it would be that GDT worked on it. Haha, only semi-kidding. But seriously, I did like Guy Pearce, though he wasn’t as sexy as he was in Ravenous.

MGS: Since you write a feminist blog I would like to know if you think Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, which centers on the relationship between two female characters, lends itself in any way to a feminist reading.

JM: Well let me just remind you that there are many feminisms, and I don’t claim to have the definitive answer. I just have my answer. That being said, I do find it to be a little tiresome that the female adult character (played by Katie Holmes) is the one who begins to believe Sally and her character is emotional and nurturing, even though she doesn’t have a child of her own. The male adult character (Guy Pierce) is pragmatic and reasonable, and even though he is Sally’s father, he doesn’t believe her that there are little killer monsters in the basement. Though I hesitate to discuss too much about what this film isn’t, I will say that it would be refreshing to see the male character/father sensitive to his child’s needs. I think it plays too much off of the stereotype that the female characters are inherently mother-like and are more susceptible to accepting the world of the fantastic. In Devil’s Backbone, for example, GDT subverts this normative gender assumption by making Dr. Casares, the elderly male teacher, emotionally available to his students and he himself buys into magical theories.

MGS: Good point. You also just reminded me of the refreshingly original and touching relationship in Cronos between the little girl and her vampire grandfather. Del Toro’s own movies always have those unique touches that make them so endearing and put them in a league of their own.

I had a lot of fun doing this. We should do it again sometime with a movie we totally disagree on!

JM: Like the sex/rape scene in A History of Violence? We’ll keep those worms canned up for now.


Me, Guillermo del Toro and my wife Jillian at the 2010 Chicago International Film Festival


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