Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Pacific Rim, Snowpiercer and Mr. Nanny

My friend Tim visited over a long weekend and we watched three movies of note. I'll review them in the order that we watched them.

The Bad: Snowpiercer

I didn't know a lot about this movie, other than it was getting positive buzz, and that it had Chris Evans in it, which is usually a very good sign. I was somewhat favorably inclined towards it, and under such circumstances, I tend not to dig much deeper. I'd rather be surprised. 

Hobos on a train

Snowpiercer was awful.

The biggest problem was that it was entirely by the numbers. It was your basic dystopia movie, where the have-nots revolt, and they're defeated, but the big bad likes their gumption and offers them a position among the elite. Stop me if you've heard this before. No surprises at all.

Among the lesser problems with the movie: I haven't read the comic on which its based, but some of the scenes are framed so artificially that I have to assume that they are reproducing specific panels from the comic, a la Sin City or Scott Pilgrim. It's particularly egregious near the end, where close up shots of Ed Harris cutting his steak are interspersed with those of him calling Captain America "Dear Boy". A lot of it is just bad. Tilda Swinton's speech about the shoes is just fucking dreadful. There are lines that work in comic books, and lines that work on screen, and Bong Joon-ho needs to learn the difference.

I could have enjoyed the idea of a train powered by a perpetual motion machine, on a track that loops around the world, if they had fun with it. But no! It's important! It's social commentary! The movie wants to be taken seriously, but it never thinks through the ramifications of what it presents. I've seen defenses online along the lines of "That's not a plot hole! It's dream logic!" or "It's a thousand car supertrain powered by a perpetual motion machine! Your argument is invalid!" I tend to think that "Don't think too hard about it" is rarely a good excuse for crappy plotting, and doubly so when the movie wants to be taken so seriously. Bong Joon-ho wants to be treated like Terry Gilliam when his skills are closer to those of Brett Ratner.

Additionally, everyone jumps to most extreme resolution possible:
Captain America: I am hungry, so I am going to eat this babby.
Other Guy: Don't eat that babby! I will cut off my own arm and you can eat that instead!

Ed Harris: We've noticed that the population keeps growing beyond the point where the ecosystem can suppport it. We could institute some family planning...or I could just send my goons in with machine guns to murder a bunch of people at regular intervals. I have been doing this for 18 years.

The ending is dreadful. Terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad. Ed Harris has a dark secret. Fortunately, one of the characters is psychic (and the only instance of any kind of supernatural power in the movie) and just magically knows his dark secret and uses it to undo him. I can't imagine a lazier resolution, barring some kind of actual wish-granting genie.

(The dark secret is that he's using little kids as slave labor. When Cap sees the kid performing maintenance on the mechanisms below deck, he sticks his arm between some gears to stop the train, which, I remind you, is big enough to house every remaining human being in the world. Fortunately, the presence of his puny little meat and bone arm is enough to stop the entire train. He saves the kid, but causes an avalanche that derails hundreds of cars and presumably kills many, many other children.)

The survivors, all two of them, exit the wreckage and see a polar bear, which I suppose was supposed to be some kind of hopeful sign, because it shows that life has returned to the frozen wasteland,  but what it said to me was they're either going to be eaten by a polar bear, or that the the two of them, who spent their entire lives eating protein bars on a magic train, will be competing for extremely scarce resources with an alpha predator adapted to that environment.

There's a line on an episode of 21 Jump Street, when Richard Grieco goes undercover in a performing arts school. He's challenged about what his talent is, and he spouts some off the cuff stream of consciousness "S&M Haiku". Later on, one of the students who saw it, and saw through it, comments that's what he likes about art, that it's hard to tell the difference between art and bullcrap. I was reminded by that while watching Snowpiercer.

Chris Evans is pretty good, it looks nice, it has one or two well put together scenes, but it's not the thought-provoking science fiction movie that the advertisements suggest. The Emperor really has no clothes. The best thing I can say about it is that the title gives the folks who make porn parodies of mainstream releases a lot to work with.

The Ugly: Mr. Nanny

Rather miraculously, Snowpiercer was not the worst movie I saw that weekend. That distinction would go to Mr. Nanny. While we were driving home, Tim put on the How Did This Get Made? podcast. That week's episode covered Mr. Nanny, and they made it sound so hilariously awful that I had to see it.

This image tells you everything you need to know about the movie.


It's the poor man's Pacifier. Ponder that for a long moment.

I guess I kind of assumed that Hulk Hogan would be a better actor than he was. (Hell, Rowdy Roddy Piper was the best thing about They Live. "I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I am all out of bubblegum.") We all know that professional wrestling is fake, but it does require an awful lot of physical skill, and no small amount of stage presence, and I thought the latter would translate to the Silver Screen.

Um, no. He's terrible.

While the movie has some moments of unintentional hilarity, it's mostly just bad. Sherman Hemsley gives a respectable performance, but he can't save this movie on his own. And to add to the squick factor, the cute little kid in the movie

grows up to have sex with David Duchovny in Californication. Ew.

The Good: Pacific Rim

I had always intended to see Pacific Rim, but I had just never gotten around to it.

How do I love this movie? Let me count the ways!

Idris Elba: Idris Elba is awesome in everything he does, and he delivers here. But other than Ron Perlman in a small role (It's a Guillermo del Toro movie, so he's practically obligatory), Elba is the biggest star in the production, and he's really not that famous. Well regarded, sure. A superstar, no. Apparently his role was originally offered to Tom Cruise, which just strikes me as insane. He's called Stacker Pentecost, which is a delightful name.

The rest of the cast: We get Burn Gorman of Torchwood and Charlie Day (of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia). The supporting cast is consistently excellent, and ethnically diverse, which is always a plus.

No Artificial Romance: It would have been the easiest thing in the world to write a predictable romance subplot between Mako and Raleigh, but they didn't. Dredd is one of the few movies to avoid this, and I'm extremely pleased that Pacific Rim did too. Del Toro said of Mako: "I was very careful how I built the movie. One of the other things I decided was that I wanted a female lead who has the equal force as the male leads. She's not going to be a sex kitten, she's not going to come out in cutoff shorts and a tank top, and it's going to be a real earnestly drawn character."

It's a new property: I'm sick of sequels and revivals of 80s properties. It's nice to see something new once in a while. Del Toro said that his intent was "The film was to honor the kaiju and mecha genres while creating an original stand-alone film, something 'conscious of the heritage, but not a pastiche or an homage or a greatest hits of everything'. "I didn't want to be postmodern, or referential, or just belong to a genre. I really wanted to create something new, something madly in love with those things. I tried to bring epic beauty to it, and drama and operatic grandeur."

Internal Consistency: Snowpiercer, take note. My buddy Tim said that Snowpiercer's biggest problem was "A complete non-adherence to even its own flimsy logic." Good stories, even ones about giant robots fighting alien kaiju from another dimension, tell a story within the framework they've established. You can break these rules in the service of the story, certainly, but breaking them willy-nilly because you couldn't think of a better resolution is just lazy story telling.

Background: There is a tremendous amount of thought and detail put into the design of the Jaegers and the Kaiju. I'll steal this from wikipedia: Gipsy Danger, the American Jaeger, was based on the shape of New York City's Art Deco buildings, such as the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building, but infused with John Wayne's gunslinger gait and hip movements. Cherno Alpha, the Russian Jaeger, was based on the shape and paint patterns of a T-series Russian tank, combined with a giant containment silo to give the appearance of a walking nuclear power plant with a cooling tower on its head. Crimson Typhoon, the three-armed Chinese Jaeger, is piloted by triplets and resembles a "medieval little warrior"; its texture evokes Chinese lacquered wood with golden edges. Striker Eureka, the Australian Jaeger, is likened by del Toro to a Land Rover; the most elegant and masculine Jaeger, it has a jutting chest, a camouflage paint scheme recalling the Australian outback, and the bravado of its pilots.

It reminds me of something Hemingway said, that the author should know more about the story than he reveals to the reader. It hints at a deeper world, and adds to the verisimilitude of the story.

"Hannibal Chau": Ron Perlman is Hannibal Chau. When the character was introduced, I said to Tim, "I don't think that he was the first choice for the role," and they do kind of address that, when the character says he took his name from his favorite historical figure and his second-favorite Szechuan restaurant in Brooklyn. He's a lot of fun.
And this is absolutely glorious

The Message: The movie reminded me of Robotech, at not just because of the giant robots. Robotech actually had a pretty strong anti-war message, which I would sum up as "War is shitty, but sometimes it's the least of evils." Del Toro said:  "The pilots' smaller stories actually make a bigger point, which is that we're all together in the same robot [in life]... Either we get along or we die. I didn't want this to be a recruitment ad or anything jingoistic. The idea of the movie is just for us to trust each other, to cross over barriers of color, sex, beliefs, whatever, and just stick together."

The Movie: It's just fun. (And it looks beautiful) It doesn't have any pretensions about being anything more than giant robots punching giant monsters in the face, but somehow it's a more believable and understated study on the human condition than the bloated and self-important Snowpiercer could ever hope to be.

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