Tag Archives: D+

PACIFIC RIM

Grade: D+

There was a time when one looked forward to a new film by Guillermo del Toro with great anticipation—back when he was turning out haunting smaller pictures like “Cronos,” “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth,” and even “Mimic.” But with “Blade II” his priorities began to change, and he opted to make bigger, but much less interesting movies with a childish, rather than childlike, sensibility. “Pacific Rim” is the worst yet, a “Power Rangers” on steroids with an inane plot, cliché-ridden dialogue, cardboard characters and stilted acting. Roughly half the two-hour running time is devoted to city-destroying fight scenes between Transformer-like giant robots and Godzilla-ish monsters that arise from the ocean floor. That might appeal to anybody fascinated by the old Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em toys and the mayhem of video games, but anyone else—that is, anyone who’s progressed beyond the mentality of a twelve-year old boy—will be bored silly by it.

The premise is that earth is in the middle of a war against aliens who attack the planet not from the skies but from the sea, via some sort of wormhole through which they send gigantic monsters called kaiju. Humankind responds by building equally gigantic metal bots called jaeger, which are maneuvered in battle by two pilots whose minds are melded in something called a “drift” so that they can synchronize the movements. But after five years of combat, the earthlings are losing. The planetary leadership is on the verge of a abandoning the jaeger program—which in any event is down to a handful of robots and pilot teams—and switch to a defensive wall strategy. But the kaiju, we’re told, are getting smarter and more effective by learning from their mistakes—something that del Toro and his filmmaking crew, unhappily, do not seem to have been able to do, as their movie grows increasingly tedious as it drags on.

Thankfully the stern leader of the jaeger force, Marshal Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), refuses to go down quietly. He rejuvenates his dwindling pilot crew by recommissioning Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam), who abandoned the service after his co-pilot and brother Yancy (Diego Klattenhoff) was killed in combat off the Alaska coast. He’s one of the few surviving men who can pilot an old analogue jaeger that’s being taken out of mothballs to expand the few digital ones remaining, and naturally becomes an immediate subject of scorn to arrogant hotshot Chuck Hansen (Rob Kazinsky), who teams with his more reasonable father Hercules (Max Martini) in their bot. Raleigh soon sets him straight in a brawl, of course.

But Raleigh needs a new partner, and the choice is inevitable—beautiful, winsome but incredibly skilled Mako (Rinko Kikuchi), whom Stacker initially refuses to allow onto the helm of a robot for reasons that are supposed to tease us with uncertainty but are all too melodramatically obvious (and are spelled out in a series of flashbacks featuring Mana Ashida as young Mako that show del Toro at his mawkish worst—a real comedown from the mysterious ambience he brought to his early films). Stacker must eventually relent, and Raleigh and Mako become a team in more ways than one.

There’s also a frenzied subplot—supposedly providing comic relief—centered on Dr. Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day), a nerdy scientist who’s sure that gaining the knowledge to defeat the kaiju requires a mind-meld with the preserved brain of one of them, a project that takes him to Hannibal Chau (del Toro regular Ron Perlman), a dealer in kaiju body parts—much to the distress of his frazzled rival Dr. Gottlieb (Burn Gorman), who prefers developing predictive algorithms as the key to discerning the aliens’ strategy.

But all the human stuff is secondary to the battle scenes, which resemble video-game sequences without benefit of any interactivity. As bots and rubbery critters face off, innumerable bridges collapse and skyscrapers fall, though loss of human lives is merely reported on rather than shown (this is, after all, a movie that needs a PG-13 rating to survive financially). The effect will undoubtedly be thought cool by those who dote on such bloodless carnage—sort of the cinematic reversal of a neutron bomb, sparing people while annihilating structures—but after awhile it grows as boring as the final reel of “Man of Steel,” especially since the choreography and editing fail to keep the action clear and there’s little explanation for why the outcome turns out as it does in each case. The same opacity afflicts the finale, which involves an attempt to blow up the wormhole that brings a predictably triumphant conclusion, but is quite messily and murkily conveyed. (The wormhole is called the breach, so we must at least count it a blessing that the script doesn’t call for someone to shout “Once more unto the breach, dear friends!”)

Quality of acting means little in this sort of bombastic fantasy, but the cast here falls into two major groups—the solemn underplayers (Hunnam, Elba, Kikuchi, Martini) and the scenery-chewing overplayers (Day, Gorman, Kazinsky), with Perlman, as usual, pretending to be underplaying while actually going overboard with his clenched teeth. The physical production is oddly unimpressive for such a big-budget enterprise, and the same can be said of the effects, which are huge in scope but oddly blowsy in Guillermo Navarro’s 3D cinematography. Ramin Djawadi’s score goes to ear-splitting extremes in trying to juice up the action.

Perhaps it’s psychologically beneficial for del Toro to glorify the loves of his youth, but thus far the result has hardly been something others could enjoy as much as he does. His remake of “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” was a stinker, and this tribute to Japanese monster movies isn’t appreciably better. If you were enthralled by “Battleship” last summer, “Pacific Rim” is for you. It’s really no better than Peter Berg’s misfire, and the del Toro imprimatur doesn’t change that.

WHITE NOISE

D+

There’s a trenchant, funny academic novel by Don DeLillo called “White Noise.” Unfortunately, this movie isn’t based on it, but rather on an original idea by scripter Niall Johnson. In the old days before cable and satellite dishes, when we pulled down network TV with rooftop antennas, reception was always plagued by what was called ghosting–double and triple images. This supernatural thriller is about genuinely ghostly figures and voices that literally come through television screens (and radio speakers). It’s called Electronic Voice Phenomenon (or EVP)–the theory that communication from the dead reaches us embedded in the hissing and background static that’s a natural part of radio and TV broadcasts. But the picture is reminiscent the old form of broadcast “ghosting” in that it’s just too blurry, disjointed and unfocused to afford much pleasure. In the end “White Noise” will probably just serve as background filler for some heavy snoring.

Michael Keaton, doing a pleasant but undistinguished ordinary-guy turn, stars as Jonathan Rivers, an architect whose author-wife Anna (Chandra West, pretty but nondescript) is killed in what’s determined to be a tragic accident when her car swerves off a treacherous road and careens down a riverbank. The bereft widower is shortly visited by portly Raymond Price (Ian McNeice), a sedulous EVP investigator, who informs him that he’s captured Anna’s voice on his receiver and invites Jonathan to hear the message. Initially doubtful, Rivers is quickly convinced, and before long he’s become obsessed with contacting his wife again. He sets up a battery of equipment, in the process largely ignoring his job and his young son (luckily the kid’s mother–Rivers’ first wife–is around to take up the slack), and–helped by Sarah Tate (Deborah Kara Unger), who had gotten into touch with her deceased fiancé through EVP–he not only presses on but, following in Price’s footsteps, becomes a comfort to others, delivering messages that he hears from the beyond to their intended recipients. But things soon take a disquieting turn. Not only does Price die under suspicious circumstances–amid suggestions that dark forces were threatening him from the other side for meddling with EVP–but Rivers begins receiving messages from people not yet deceased (in one case heroically rescuing a young child by taking action on one of them) and is warned by a medium and by Anna that he is in danger. At this point “White Noise” morphs rather absurdly into a serial-killer movie that makes very little sense even by the extremely lax standards of the genre; and when a villain is finally revealed, he’s dragged in from so far in left field that you may even forget he’d made an earlier appearance.

Keaton and Unger make it through all the nonsense with straight faces and an impressively serious demeanor, under the circumstances, and McNeice–one of those British character actors whose face you’ll undoubtedly recognize even if you never knew his name, is suitably intense in the sort of slightly-cracked scientist role that Ian Holm used to play every few months but is now too big to take on. Director Geoffrey Sax, working closely with cinematographer Chris Seager, manages to generate some general creepiness, but never much tension or suspense, and very few scares.

“White Noise” is crammed with shots of monitor screens filled with nothing but dancing snow, and so pretty much seems a movie about poor television reception–something you can probably get for free at home, usually when your cable conks out at the most inconvenient moment. It certainly doesn’t warrant seeing on the big screen. If you’re interested, wait for it to appear on the tube–where in quality as well as content it obviously belongs. The last line delivered by Keaton in the picture is simply “I’m sorry”–words he might as well be delivering directly to the audience.