Del Toro’s Pacific Rim is a blockbuster without bite

Despite having a hand in over a dozen motion pictures, as either a writer or producer, in the past five years, Pacific Rim marks the first time Guillermo del Toro has helmed a film since 2008’s Hellboy sequel.  Much has changed for the Mexican visionary who now returns to the director’s chair as one of Hollywood’s most powerful filmmakers.  Loaded with a $180 million budget, Pacific Rim reflects del Toro’s rather sudden, though not undeserved new status.  Unfortunately, it also bears many hallmarks of a typically vapid big studio blockbuster, as well.

Forgoing A-list stars for CGI monsters, Pacific Rim is nothing if not a high-gloss creature feature on an absolutely massive scale.  The concept is a simple one: gigantic, pre-historic looking aliens begin to emerge from the Pacific Ocean to terrorise mankind.  To combat these gargantuan beasts, called Kaiju, man creates equally enormous piloted robots known as Jaegers.  The problem is, del Toro and co-writer Travis Beacham’s tale never diverges from its all-too straightforward path.  The past-his-prime hero teams with an unproven upstart to attempt to overcome the odds with the guidance of their wise leader, whilst quirky secondary characters attempt to trick the viewer into thinking the film is less formulaic than it actually is.  As a result, Pacific Rim’s 130 minute runtime quickly begins to feel like a chore, regardless of how great all its nonsense looks on the screen.
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Despicable Me 2 reaches Minion-sized heights

The surprising smash success of Illumination Entertainment’s Despicable Me in 2010 (owing in no small part to the crowd-pleasing antics of its pint-sized Minions) meant that a sequel could only be around the nearest corner.  Three years later, that corner has been turned with the original writing, directing and voice talent team all remaining intact.  Yet, despite all the creative pieces being firmly in place, Despicable Me 2 suffers from stagnation and unaspiring storytelling.

Steve Carell again brings baddie-gone-good Gru’s robust frame to life as the film picks up with his new crime-free fatherhood in full swing.  Though Gru maintains an edge, the wickedly delicious anti-hero vibe is entirely lost.  That may be where Despicable Me 2 begins to falter, but there are bigger issues here.  Where the original excelled narratively was in exploring Gru’s feelings of inadequacy and insecurity, proceeding to build the entire story off those traits before allowing for the unlikely hero to conquer his shortcomings. Here, writers Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio return to the psychological well only to find it has gone bone dry.  The subplot delving into Gru’s lack of success with the ladies feels forced and doesn’t convince.  That may be forgivable given a compelling central thread, but sadly, the Who-Dunnit plot doesn’t pack much of a punch.  What’s more frustrating is that the vast potential for an exciting, hilarious mystery is readily apparent; but rather than capitalise on its momentum, the wheels quickly fall off leaving Despicable Me 2 to drag along to its foregone conclusions.  Where the script does succeed is in introducing a new central character, Anti Villains League agent Lucy Wilde (voiced by a returning Kristen Wiig).  Lucy proves an excellent complement for Gru and provides instant likability.  Between her, the Minions’ sufficiently silly slapstick, and a vengeful portion of poultry, there’s just enough to make Despicable Me 2 passable despite its failings.
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Jack the Giant Slayer lands with a thud

Originally intended for a summer 2012 slot, Bryan Singer’s Jack the Giant Slayer was pushed back by Warner Bros to a March release.  While there are many reasons why a film’s release may be delayed, rarely does it prove to be a good sign.  If the studio was looking for softer competition here, it is now apparent it was doing so with justification.  It’s not that Jack and the Giant Slayer is a horrible film; rather it is entirely bland and forgettable.  In a summer of massive, blockbuster releases it would have surely been immediately swept out to sea.  As it stands, Singer’s latest effort is so disposable, it’ll be lucky to stay afloat in the mild spring waters long enough to come anywhere near close to recovering its $195 million budget.

That this take on “Jack and the Beanstalk”, as adapted by four writers (including Christopher McQuarrie, whose credits include both The Usual Suspects and The Tourist- think about that!) should boast such a massive expense becomes something of a curiosity from the opening minutes.  Using some of the poorest CGI seen onscreen in a major release in years, the tale of the giants’ defeat is laid out in fairytale fashion, setting the scene for their attempts of revenge.  What might be meant to look stylised appears, instead as cheap, stilted and unfinished.  This proves to be the wrong foot to start off on and Jack the Giant Slayer doesn’t pack enough oomph to ever recover from it.  Not helping the cause is the remarkably poor production and costume design.  For a fantasy film, Jack the Giant Slayer is devoid of any kind of wow-factor, relying instead on basic designs that have countlessly been done far better elsewhere.  The costumes and props come off as exactly that, and cheap ones to boot.  Bringing to life the dozens of big, ugly giants presumably devoured a massive chuck of the film’s fiscal beans, but the resulting characters are little more than Gollum on growth hormones.  Jack the Giant Slayer is so Lord of the Rings­-lite that its plot even hinges on a “precious” of its own.  Those finding any entry of Peter Jackson’s middle earth trilogy a bit too long, too beautiful and too complex may appreciate the creative lethargy of Jack the Giant Slayer.  Otherwise, there’s nothing much to see here.
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Jack Reacher triumphs over its shortcomings

Much of the development buzz around the new Jack Reacher project centred on the choice of just who would fill the eponymous big man’s considerable boots.  Faced with the difficult task of casting a bankable Hollywood star who could meet the physical specs (6’5” and 230 pounds) of the character, the producers of Jack Reacher eventually opted to choose ability over attributes.  So the diminutive Tom Cruise, noted for his fearless attitude towards doing his own stuntwork and with a hugely successful action franchise already to his name, became the most obvious of unlikely choices.  News that Cruise had been cast as Reacher was met with a notable groan from fans of British author Jim Grant’s (aka Lee Child) series of novels based around the exploits of the former US military policeman.  However, the final product from director Christopher McQuarrie shows that size isn’t everything as Cruise more than delivers in a film that always finds a way to entertain.

Adapted from Child’s 2005 novel One Shot, Jack Reacher opens in intense fashion.  A view from a sniper’s cross-hairs marks the killer’s targets one by one before thunderous gunshots ring out; six in total, dropping five victims.  It’s as effective as any opening sequence gets before a rapidly pieced together segment shows the Pittsburgh police tracking down and arresting the killer.  The problem here is that it becomes quickly evident that the man in custody, who quickly requests Reacher’s presence, has been set up.  This leaves the audience a full-step ahead of Reacher, who agrees to investigate the murders on behalf of the accused’s defence attorney, Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike), in order to ensure that the right man goes down for the murders.  Luckily, watching Cruise’s Reacher catch up and expose the bigger picture is plenty of fun, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that Jack Reacher could have been more suspenseful than it proves to be.
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Safety Not Guaranteed is a guaranteed treat

In the September/October 1997 issue of Backwoods Home Magazine, a classified wanted ad requested “Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke” before concluding with “Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before”.  While the ad was, in fact, a joke ran to help fill out the page, that hasn’t stopped it from inspiring countless dreamers, including first-time screenwriter Derek Connolly.  In Connolly’s hands, the imagined story behind the classified ad became Safety Not Guaranteed, an indie comedy that takes a warm-hearted look at regret and hope in a world where, just maybe, it’s possible to go back in time and change things.

The debut feature directorial effort from Colin Trevorrow (since signed on for the Flight of the Navigator remake and much rumoured to be involved with Star Wars Episode VII), focuses on a trio from Seattle Magazine out to investigate the mysterious man seeking a partner to travel back in time with him.  Snark-queen Aubrey Plaza is Darius, a misfit 20-something, who reaches out to the distrustful, alleged time-traveller, Kenneth (Mark Duplass).  While their goofy, yet genuine mentor-protégé relationship develops, Darius’ sleazy boss Jeff (Jake Johnson) engages in some time travelling of his own and fellow intern Arnau (Karan Soni) learns to live in the moment.  A feel-good comedy laced with light thriller-touches, Safety Not Guaranteed proves to be as thought-provoking as it is silly; which is to say “quite”, on both counts.
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Tarantino’s Django Unchained is right on target

No one quite makes films like Quentin Tarantino.  With a taste for excessive, darkly comedic violence, a flair for sharp-tongued dialogue, and a love for retro stylings, there’s no mistaking the markings of the celebrated, controversial and foul-mouthed filmmaker.  Now, over three years since QT’s last and most successful film, Inglourious Basterds, comes the eagerly anticipated, Django Unchained.  Tarantino fans who have been left salivating in the run up to the film’s release will be thrilled to know that Django Unchained exceeds expectations.

With its events set throughout the Southern United States two-years prior to the Civil War, Django Unchained is very much a slave’s story that isn’t bothered with being about slavery itself.  Greatly indebted to 1966 Spaghetti Western Django, Tarantino introduces the audience to Jamie Foxx’s Django, who trudges along in shackles, whilst Luis Bacalov’s “Django” (his original theme from that very film) plays in full.  It’s the first of many eclectic, oft anachronistic, tracks that add a special touch that only Tarantino can integrate into a film this well.  When German dentist King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) makes his entrance, it’s only a matter of time before Django is, indeed, unchained. The unlikely pairing set out to hunt down wanted outlaws and re-unite Django with his enslaved wife.  As much a love story as it is a revenge tale, Django Unchained, though lengthy, is a fast-paced, enthralling drama full of over-the-top bloodiness, coarse language and rich characterisation.  Of course, as always with QT, it’s all delivered with a certain level of tongue-in-cheek humour (including an odd cameo appearance from the man himself) that ensures Django Unchained is utterly enjoyable from beginning to end.
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The best Blu-Ray box sets under £40 this Christmas

With Christmas and January sales on the horizon, it’s a great time to be a film buff.  It has never been more affordable to pick up some terrific box sets that will provide hours of cinematic joy for movie lovers of all ages.  Whilst DVD remains a popular choice, the drop in price of Blu-ray players (which can still play that old DVD collection, whilst up-scaling the picture) means that the lure of high definition picture and sound quality should prove irresistible to anyone who loves watching films in the comfort of home.  For either the Blu-ray enthusiast or new-comer, there are heaps of brilliant box sets that offer great value with gorgeous transfers of favourite films both old and new, and plenty of bonus features that enhance the overall experience.Box sets

As part of a collaborative piece with‘s “Most Wanted”, here’s a look at some of the best box sets currently available, broken down by price range.  They’d all make fantastic gifts for loved ones or just some great last minute additions to your own wish list. Read More…

Life of Pi delivers a powerful cinematic adventure

With Life of Pi, director Ang Lee took on a considerable challenge.  The practical issues presented by Yann Martel’s 2001 award winning novel become glaringly obvious from the premise that places a young man adrift at sea in a lifeboat shared with a Bengal tiger.  Yet another important question Lee may have been faced with was, how to reach an increasingly God-less public with this strikingly spiritual tale.  The 2011 English and Welsh census has recently revealed a 10% increase in those who consider themselves to be of no religion compared to 2001′s numbers.  Luckily, Lee and screenwriter David Magee have risen to the occasion by, not only taming the logistical beasts of such a production, but also by ensuring Life of Pi is able to resonate with believers and sceptics alike.

Lee’s Life of Pi takes place in the form of an adult Piscine Patel (Irrfan Khan) recounting his most unique life-story to Rafe Spall’s nameless novelist; one that would, according to rumour, “make me believe in God”, but not before an array of exotic animals take to the screen during the opening credits. They provide a stunning introduction to the kind of gorgeous aesthetics Lee and director of photography Claudio Miranda have in store for the audience.  The delightful origin of Pi’s name makes for a warm welcome to his world, which again allows for several dazzling scenes, including excellent underwater imagery.  The meat of the plot comes when the Patel family’s Canada-bound ship goes down amidst a terrible storm.  Included in the ship’s cargo is a large collection of zoo animals.  Having managed to escape on a lifeboat, which happens to also contain a severely injured zebra, Pi (now played by Suraj Sharma) finds himself lost at sea.  However, it is soon revealed that they are not alone on the canvas covered boat and before long, survival of the fittest leaves Pi in a test of wills with Richard Parker, a fierce, hungry Bengal tiger.  The journey and how it unfolds is inspiring, but intentionally unbelievable, as Martel’s story serves as a contemplative allegory for belief, whatever form that belief might take.
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Gleeful Pitch Perfect hits the high notes

Inspired by the success of hit television shows such as Glee and The X Factor comes girly-gross-out comedy Pitch Perfect.  Using GQ journalist Mickey Rapkin’s exposing account of real-life university a cappella teams, Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory as the foundation, 30 Rock’s Kay Cannon has crafted a clever, catchy and feel-good comedy that will ensure that UK cinemagoers, regardless of gender, end 2012 on a high note.

The fun starts right from the specifically tailored Universal Studios fanfare that seamlessly segues into the world of collegiate a cappella competition.  Set at a fictional university in Atlanta, the Barden Bellas is an all-female a cappella troupe on the hunt for national finals a cappella glory.  Rebuilding after a disappointing close to the previous season, the troupe recruits a handful of unlikely stars, including Anna Kendrick’s reluctant, mash-up obsessed, disc jockey Beca.  The bizarre array of talent consists largely of caricatures, including Rebel Wilson’s Fat Amy and Alexis Knapp’s promiscuous Stacie, but Pitch Perfect’s intent is to deliver belly laughs, rather than make a statement, so the lack of character development can be forgiven easily enough.  Faced with three other campus-based a cappella rivals, the Bellas greatest threat comes from “the rockstars of a cappella”, the Treble-Makers, led by the obnoxious Bumper (Adam DeVine, going over the top in a great way).  It would be a mistake to expect this sort of film not to have a romantic strand to it and Skylar Astin’s Jesse just happens to be there to ensure that Beca doesn’t miss out on the finer things in life, like The Breakfast Club.
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Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy opens with an unsatisfying Unexpected Journey

Nine years on from Peter Jackson’s last, Academy Award winning visit to Middle Earth, the ambitious director has returned to JRR Tolkien’s world to bring The Hobbit, or There and Back Again to life on the big screen.  Stretching the material over three-lengthy films is just one of the controversial moves Jackson has made, with his decision to film the trilogy in the high frame rate (HFR) of 48 frames per second (as opposed to the traditional 24fps) likely to create as much discussion as the actual content of his films.  Opening a new series that will conclude in December 2014, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey welcomes audiences back to quite familiar territory.  However, anyone expecting to quickly settle back into the comforts of the Lord of the Rings films is in for an uncomfortable surprise.

After a few old friends ease viewers into this pre-Fellowship of the Ring tale, the pace of An Unexpected Journey idles whilst the new, sizable cast is introduced.  At the forefront is Martin Freeman, having been passed Bilbo’s torch from Ian Holm.  Sixty years prior to the start of The Fellowship of the Ring, a young Bilbo is unwittingly recruited for an adventure by Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen, looking noticeably and understandably older than when last seen donning the wizard’s cap).  Gandalf leads a band of Dwarves out to reclaim their homeland, now ruled by Smaug, a treasure loving dragon of mammoth proportions, and believes the Halfling to be the perfect complement to the ragtag group of warriors.  Jackson lingers considerably in Bilbo’s home, setting the pieces in play and engaging in some light comedy before allowing for a song break.  When Gandalf declares “all good stories deserve embellishment”, it’s as if Jackson himself is justifying this unexpected stalling.  Though this time is used to provide a feel for several of the multitude of characters, with such a long road ahead for all parties involved, it feels unnecessary to drag The Hobbit’s hairy feet so blatantly.
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