In a lot of ways, writer/director and veritable Geek God Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim is a perfect distillation of its maker's influences -- an uber-talented loner, sketching monsters and fantasy errata in leather-bound books, imbued by centuries of storytelling and legends. A child of superheroes, Ray Harryhausen's fantastical stop-motion creatures, Japanese Kaiju culture, the surrealism and fantasy of religion and hero myths, del Toro -- with the help of a talented cast of regulars -- has made a series of genre pictures that bear a unique signature unlike any other big budget filmmaker. With it, he has become one of the modern greats.
Like George Lucas, he's a world builder; like Spielberg, his films carry a distinct narrative and visual aesthetic. But del Toro is very much his own cinematic man, splitting his time and creative energies between big, English-language genre blockbusters like Hellboy and Blade II among smaller, Spanish-language horror and fantasy films that are heavy on atmosphere, including his masterwork, Pan's Labyrinth -- and all of which bear the mark of his singular vision.
If it wasn't obvious from the trailers (big, Lovecraftian leviathans doing battle with giant bio-mechanical robots), Pacific Rim joyfully comes from the former category and earns its place next to the great adventures by the giants who came before him.
And Then They Hit Opie Like This. Charlie Hunnam relives Sons time in the big house in Pacific Rim, now blowing monsters to smithereens.
In the not-too-distant future, a rift in the depths of the Pacific unleashes waves of Kaiju, giant monsters from an alternate universe that are bent on destroying humanity. In response, mankind builds the Jaeger Program, an international armada of 500-foot tall walking weapons, piloted by a pair of navigators who must "drift"; a sort of mind meld to help bear the psychic strain of operating a gargantuan metal robot on pure mental will and physical endurance in a fight with 2500-ton freaks of nature.
Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam, Sons of Anarchy) is one such pilot who, with his brother, runs the American bot, Gipsy Danger. When Raleigh loses his brother after a particularly nasty battle (feeling death take him through their drift connection), he leaves the Jaeger program and society to work on a new Great Wall in Alaska and be a stoic bird.
As the years pass, the war goes against mankind and Raleigh is called back to service by Marshall Pentecost (Idris Elba, The Wire), a weary vet who wants to instill some newfound faith in the failing Jaeger program. Becket is paired with an untested Japanese pilot, Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi, Babel) to combat the bigger and more numerous Kaiju and ultimately spearhead a master plan that might put an end to the war forever.
More than anything else, Pacific Rim is not Transformers. With none of the bloat or artifice of Michael Bay's self-indulgent, brain-bleed of a trilogy, del Toro exhibits Zen-like control of the narrative pace (at a little over two hours, Pacific Rim blows by like a freight train) while infusing the story with typically amazing levels of detail.
Based on a script by del Toro and Travis Beacham, the world of Pacific Rim is deeply rendered and thought through -- from black market Kaiju organ smugglers (they can cure a variety of ills), to military researchers and their radical experiments to the imaginative-yet-faithful design of the creatures, who resemble mutated versions of sharks, crabs and other unnamable sea beasts. Seemingly, there is not a single corner of the frame or the story that hasn't received del Toro's devoted attention.
The sense of scope within the world he's built is simply stunning. The titanic Jaegers' and the phantasmagoric Kaijus' ferocious, slo-mo battles take place across a grand canvas of destruction that never feels overwrought or hyper-edited. And the scenes of lumbering robots using supertankers as baseball bats for Kaiju skulls (well, that one scene among many other smashfests) are leavened by some aptly placed character development and a light-hearted tone that gives the destruction a weightier sense of danger.
Of course, the visual effects are top-notch. Going practical where he could and CG for the rest, del Toro (with longtime cinematographer Guillermo Navarro) is clearly swinging for the fences. Pacific Rim, much like Hellboy II: The Golden Army in 2008, will have a hard time being topped in the gorgeously shot effects department. The look of the film is so dense and saturated by art that it becomes its own level of atmosphere.
And, to del Toro's credit, all of that visual sensation mostly doesn't overwhelm the cast. Hunnam is the exception. While Becket is a bare-bones character, Hunnam is too much of blank slate. His subdued delivery and range make him little more than a strong jaw line. On some level, that makes sense. We are meant to see the world through him (so why let a personality get in the way?) as if he is our avatar. But Pacific Rim's only real misstep is that it can't seem to make up its mind about being an ensemble piece like some old Irwin Allen disaster epic or a redemption story for Becket -- which subverts some of the depth from both.
Elba is all charisma and presence, though, owning every frame he's in. When he bellows about cancelling the apocalypse, he's doing so in a rich tradition and like a fucking champ. Rinko Kikuchi is similarly memorable and convincing, though more delicate. Charlie Day, as a government scientist who might have the key to ending the war, is borderline-annoying but still fun. Like always, really. Ron Perlman, of course, is awesome (he's basically del Toro's Bruce Campbell now).
Featuring the Sweet Adelines. A quartet of weary women peek out from behind curtains in this week’s Fill the Void.
But it's del Toro's and Beacham's vision, one that is original, yet steeped in tradition, that pulls Pacific Rim together into a perfect example of what summer popcorn fun is supposed to be. It's a sad irony that it's aimed at the same 13-year-old kids who probably flocked to see Grown Ups 2 (and that other pandering sequel, Despicable Me 2) instead something new -- a blast of a film that is expertly crafted to legitimately blow their minds.
If I were still 13, this would have been Star Wars.
Fill the Void
Despite a bad case of agnosticism (or perhaps because of it), I am hopelessly fascinated by Judaism. The sense of deep tradition stretched across 5,000 years can't help but be compelling, even if it is a part of a larger, antiquated human construct. And it certainly doesn't hurt when, in the hands of a female Orthodox Jewish director -- though, sadly, still through the permission of the patriarchy -- those traditions and relationships are sumptuously captured with a sense of authenticity that makes you feel like you lived them.
Set in Tel Aviv, writer/director Rama Burshtein's debut, Fill the Void, tells the story of Shira (Hadas Yaron), an 18-year-old girl who is faced with the prospect of marrying her brother-in-law, Yochay (Yiftach Klein) after her older sister, Esther (Renana Raz) dies in childbirth.
Despite Esther's recent demise, Yochay decides he must remarry and intends to court his childhood friend, a Belgian Jew. But his mother can't bear the thought of her grandson leaving Israel and begins pushing the idea to Shira that she could become her nephew's step-mother and keep the family (really, really) together. Amidst that background of pressure both from family and friends, Shira must decide whether walking down with aisle Yochay is worth relinquishing the opportunity to forge her own life.
The narrow choices afforded the characters of Fill the Void parallel the richly detailed atmosphere with which Rama Burshtein imbues every frame of the film. What looks like gorgeously red-shifted celluloid captures the faces of her muses like scenic attractions on a particularly surreal vacation, filling the 2:35:1, shallow-depth frames with warmly textured vistas of emotion. It's hard to overstate how attractive Fill the Void looks while being so matter-of-fact; so up close and personal yet setting an artistic distance that engenders a detached curiosity from characters that are living far outside of their current century.
Because, while the details are fascinating -- from the opening Purim celebrations that find the men paying tribute to the Rabbi for money to help them in their lives, the machinations of family that manipulate the fates of their kin to their questionable benefit, the rules of tradition that they all hold dear despite their archaic strictures -- one is left with the feeling that Fill the Void is equally careful with how it represents it's subject as much as it is with telling a simple story. Though, granted, the quasi-incestuous match-making and an armless aunt who advocates for Shira add a damn near Lynchian weirdness to the proceedings -- one that almost makes up for the pointed, repetitive focus of the drama.
But the performances are genuine across the board and there's something about being introduced to these people that I can't quite shake. Fill the Void's haunting sense of the lives of others, tangible and tactile, reminds us that our perceptions define our limits and that artists like Burshtein can build a bridge between different worlds.
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