26 July, 2013


A review of Pacific Rim (2013)

Back in the day, around about 1940-something the term “blockbuster” was invented. As the Royal Air Force wasn't super concerned with film at the time, the word was attached to the biggest bombs they had. These things weighed at least two tons and, as you can imagine, were believed to be powerful enough to destroy an entire city block. Bad news for Jerry, but what a turn of phrase!

Pacific Rim is a blockbuster in the best way possible. It's a loud, monstrous thing that does exactly what it is intended to do and does exactly what we want it to. In a summer loaded with stillborn star vehicles and limp re-boots and a sequel that I guess only I liked, it's good to see that a blockbuster doesn't have to choose between being big and being good.

Pacific Rim works because it launches into its ideas with such sincerity that you never for a second pause to laugh at it or wonder about the feasibility of an intergalactic robot war. It isn't cynical or ironic in a way that you don't see in special effects movies very often any more. It doesn't apologize for being a movie about pretty people in giant robots duking it out with intergalactic monsters. You're worried about other things than how realistic this all is by the time the narrator finishes his first sentence.

It's Robot Jox* mashed up with Neon Genesis Evangelion through the lens a man who has clearly watched way too many WWII movies. In short, it's everything a twelve year old ever wanted to see in a movie It isn't what people think a 12 year old wants to see. It isn't what they are told that they want to see. It isn't what they end up seeing because nothing else looks good. This is the movie that every 12 year old ever wanted.

It's a film wrapped in a love and a care of a subject matter, but it also wants to make a good movie. It moves beyond tribute and pastiche and actually manages to become a movie that is fantastic on its own merits. It makes me want to go watch more movies, because it's a film that reminds you just how wonderful this medium can be. I think I should feel very silly saying this about a giant monster movie and yet I still feel like an idiot. I realize this is a problem with me. This clearly isn't a problem with Guillermo Del Toro, who seems to be about a confident of a hand behind the camera as there ever could be.

This is a movie that is as good as you remember Godzilla versus Biollante being.


Ugh. I just remembered that Jobs was one of the trailers before the movie. Jeezus does that looks like it's going to be a shit show.

The trailer contains the whole arc of the movie. The reveal of the iPad is meant to look like this epic, spellbinding moment, an event of human triumph over conformity expect that it's a multi-millionaire revealing a fucking gadget.

I blame The Social Network for this.

Not pictured: The dog's name.

On the very same flagship film program that Del Toro was interviewed in Simon Mayo mentioned that this film gave him the vibe of an old WWII flight movie and in a general sense it reminded him of the feeling the people of England had during the Blitz. Del Toro copped to as much. He said that he was obsessed with that era, but you don't need his quote on this, all you have to do is look at his filmography.

This idea is embedded in the very design of the movie.When describing the jaegars, he said that Cherno-Alpha was a walking T-Series tank. Now, that's like saying that he's a walking Sherman tank or a walking Spitfire or, I don't know, a walking M1 helmet. For those who don't know what any of that means, it means that Cherno Alpha is a kinetic icon. It's a walking monument.

The T-series tanks are one of the biggest factors leading to the USSR winning against the Nazis. While the German were busy having guys like Porsche mold and design their tanks, the Soviets were busy slapping together tanks in converted tractor factories. Besides the fact that the USSR had an unparalleled labor pool and a ruthless despot that was willing to smash them against whatever obstacle necessary, it was pieces of engineering like the T-34 that turned the tide against the Germans. Plus, a tank makes a much better icon than a commissar shooting deserters and their family because they fled the Hun.
The other big Soviet icon that stands out to me is the “Wall of Life” mentioned in the beginning of the film. This is a direct reference to the “Road of Life” that ran over Lake Ladoga during the Siege of Leningrad.

Truckers (and sailors and pilots) ran all day and night, braving thin ice and German defenses to relieve the besieged people of Leningrad during their nine-hundred days of Nazi encirclement.

In one scene, in our hero (I just realized that I don't know his name. You know the one, he was in Undeclared), has a wall of photos in his room. There is his brother and kaiju and whatever else that makes up his past but, my eye went to the one I know, the one I knew was the point of the scene: The Motherland Calls. The statue was built as a memorial to the defense of Stalingrad, one of the bloodiest, longest battles in history. It's an icon to the spirit of the USSR and to anyone else who had their back up against the wall because of an incredible evil.

These seemingly little touches are what makes the film greater than the sum of its parts. It's the little references like this that show that Del Toro knows what he's doing and that he has an affection for it, and that he doesn't need to cram it down your throat. It's all there on film, all you need to do is look for it. But you can also just look at the alien dinosaurs gets punched and that's cool too.

Oh, also it's probably named after a nuclear disaster and has a cooling tower for a head. So, you know, subtext.

Part of me has come to accept genre movies, to legitimately accept stupid, silly things. As much as I love “serious” movies, that doesn't mean that I have to then dislike something else. This is not a zero sum game and Roger Ebert was the expert balancing fine art with fine froth.

I watched the Seventh Seal probably because of him. I love The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly as much as I do now because he loved it so much. I watched The Proposition and read Blood Meridian because of him. And I love explosions because he said that's okay. And I also hate explosions in equal measure because he said that's okay, too. It's all okay. I don't have to choose.

He has a list on Criterion of some of his Great Movie and on the other hand he actually enjoyed Speed 2: Cruise Control. He wasn't ever a rube, though. Some of his most enjoyable work was when he used his Pulitzer as a blugeon to shame sod-bustingly stupid films like they were paying for it. Quietly, though, Ebert's strength to me was how well he could sell you on his opinion, no matter how much you actually disagreed with it, you'd read his review and go "Well, I can see that."

Mark Kermode, my favorite living film critic, is your excitable friend at a party talking to you about HOW HAVE YOU NEVER LISTENED TO JESUS OF COOL, whereas Ebert was a guy just talking to you across two cups of coffee at a diner. By the end of the conversation, which he would be leading the whole time, despite your best efforts, you'd walk out either agreeing with him or having been coached into knowing better than you once did. He had an underlying decency in him that a lot of people just cannot muster. That goes for everyone, not just film critics.

I honestly wish he could have seen this movie. I honestly wish I could have read what he said about this. Whether I agreed with him or not, I know he would have been right in his own way. Really, though, as much as I used him as a recommendation guide or a taste maker or anything else, I really want to hear that I am right. I love this movie. And I wish that he could have loved this movie too.

I don't know if that's incredibly sappy or incredibly self-centered or just plain dumb. All I know is that considering how so much of this week has gone, I think we could use more of the good people and Roger Ebert was most certainly one of them.


Pacific Rim works on its own as a film and one of the main reasons it does so is that it is pulling from a much larger body of works than the mere monster movie. World War II as a genre and as a moment in history obviously weighs heavy in this movie's influences, but so does Japanese anime and the Japanese monster movie (I mean, it takes the word "kaiju" from the eponymous genre. So,yeah, duh).

There's something slightly odd about that because the original animes and giant robot movies that this movie is inspired by comes out of the consequences of World War II.

The Japanese were living in the shadow of some existential terror that they couldn't exactly put a name to. Nobody wanted to make a movie about how their new friends the Americans bombed the shit out of them. I'm also sure that nobody wanted to watch that sort of movie. I mean, we did the same thing, but we had the pleasure of having won, at least.

So what did they do? Atomic monsters. Giant robots. These things were meant to be entertainment, first and foremost, but they were also a way to tell a story about a time that no one really wanted to talk about, at least not directly. And they're not alone. We made The Day the Earth Stood still. Jack Finney made Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In that way Pacific Rim carries on the allegorical energy of those works, as well as the aesthetic energy. It carries on in the tradition not only of Japanese science fiction, but big idea science fiction in general. In that way, it's more of a traditional science fiction film than is Star Trek No Colon Into Darkness.

Beyond Gigantor, the particular anime that I am reminded of is "Cannon Fodder," one of the shorts in the film Memories.The world of "Cannon Fodder" is very basic: The life of every citizen is geared towards producing, servicing, and firing shells. That is it. Go to sleep. Wake up. Work on the cannons. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. There is nothing else. There isn't even an enemy that we know of, there's just this Gormanghast/Airstrip-One-like city-state that solely exists to maintain a tradition for the sake of itself.

When I saw a bunch of dudes in jumpsuits flying down ladders I figured out that I was watching Cannon Town realized in live action. And I'm not sure if that's intentional or not. I'm sure it is intentional. Guillermo Del Toro is a pretty sharp guy, I'll give him at least partial credit.

Pacific Rim, notably, is not a dystopia and it's not an allegory. It's a messed up world with a lot of serious, horrible problems, but it isn't a world that has given up on itself. It isn't a place that hates its people. It is still a place worth fighting for and a place in which you can invest your emotions. The world of Pacific Rim, its Wall of Life and its high death toll and all is a place worth calling home. It's a place that is worth fighting for.


The title of this entry is taken from something I heard listening to Mark Kermode. He was quoting Mark Robinson speaking on his movie Earthquake. I can't think of a better way to describe the pacing and tone of Pacific Rim than that.So, good work, Dr. Kermode. Thanks for taking that away from me.

For whatever flaws Pacific Rim may have, you can't fault it for its ambitions. It is an attempt to do something new, even if it is heavily based on the works of the past and as far as world building goes, Del Toro might be on par with Ridley Scott. Besides all of the set dressing and the references directed at a time and place that only jerks like me are that interested, what remains is what a blockbuster should be (besides, of course, the massive financial success. You know. That ol' thing).

If I had written this a few months ago, I think I would have tried to position this film as a genre movie that delivered. And it is that. Saying that "I got what I wanted out of it" makes it sound like it's a whore or something. It makes it sound like it is a trifle. It's more than that, though, because the more I think about it and the more I look around, I realize that making a good genre film is fucking hard. It takes a lot of time, talent, and energy to spin something like robots and monsters into a worthwhile feature and Del Toro certainly has that.

Top to bottom, from stratosphere to oceanic trench, Pacific Rim is a delight. Go see it in the theaters. Go see it now. This is the kind of city destroying spectacle that should be encouraged.

Wasn't that bumper music for Love Line? I think it was. . . 
*I watched Robot Jox on TV way back in (YEAR) and again on a rented video, so I'm not mentioning it solely because Red Letter Media had a go at it, but I am definitely mentioning it because Red Letter Media had a go at it and that's what I like to do. I was into Robo Jox before it was uncool.

SIDE NOTE: Here's another perspective worth reading on. As much as criticism is about rolling around in your own words and feeling satisfied, I think this bit of writing gets to something we (I) forget about sometimes, which is that movies are meant to be watched. Film is a visual medium and as much as I think I could wax on about that for a really long time, I'd be missing the point. What the above article points out is that Pacific Rim, and film in a broader sense, is as much about conveying story and information on a visual and kinetic level as it is about telling you things through language. The best example of this that I can think of (especially when it comes to sci-fi) is 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is as primal of film story telling as you can get, as well as probably being one of the most sophisticated pieces of art in this particular visual medium. Go read that thing.

  James Kislingbury is a writer, podcaster, and an enemy pilot. You can follow him on twitter.

Guys. . .

We did it.


25 July, 2013

Friends that have more talent than I do Part LXVII of MMLVIII

My friend Anthony directed this. You should watch it. For your own good, I mean.

20 July, 2013

Watch this, I'll tell you in a second

Watch it all.

Okay. Is it just me or does he look and sound like a Nick Kroll character without any of the punchlines?

04 July, 2013

Let's Rap About Fast Five

Thanks to my friend Rachel (and about a dozen other caring people) I was made aware of one of Criterion's 50 Percent Off Sales. After deliberation that's probably lasted a year or so, I decided to purchase one of Stanley Kubrick's lesser known masterpieces Paths of Glory. It arrived this week so, naturally come Saturday night I watched Fast Five.

And let me tell you that Fast Five is quite a movie.

There has been a lot dedicated to this particular moving picture, from How Did This Get Made to Jordan, Jesse Go! to Giant Bomb as well as quite a few others (like my friend who shall remain anonymous who works in the JET program who showed it in his class to, I don't know, teach kids about American euphemisms). Knowing that I am not going to waste your time blathering on just how good or bad it is. It is. It's pretty bad and it's pretty good and in the end it has some of the craziest car sequences that you will ever damn see.

So, anyways, Fast Five, what is it? Who is it? What make car go? Who is rock? Why make crime? These are all good questions and I hope to answer them in turn.

This movie stars a bunch of people, only one of them is Vin Diesel (Boiler Room, Saving Private Ryan) and only another one of them is The Rock (The Rundown, DOOM), but most of them are pretty and at least one of them is Paul Walker (Flags of Our Fathers, That Movie Where the Guy Gets Shot With a Shotgun in the Trailer and Flies like a Million Feet).

Nothing about what this movie is makes sense to me and that's sort of the magic. This all starts with the cast. You've got one of the leads,Vin Diesel, who was once known for being something of an indy breakout actor in the late ninties and early two-thousands who then ended up in the Riddick films-- excuse me-- the Riddick Saga and then finally scoring his much sought after yacht fund with the Fast-cum-Furious flicks.

In Fast Five he play a fat guy who everyone in this world is too polite to call "chubby and kind of old and sad," which naturally means that he's a deadly criminal who is really good at cars and, like everyone else, really good at showing up or having people show up at the exact right moment to save the day. Also, he's really good at cars.

Then there's Sir Paul Walker. In this movie he plays a white guy with a t-shirt with a hot girlfriend/baby-mamma (SPOILER!!!). Despite common belief Paul Walker is not the same person Stephen Dorf. In this movie he plays the white guy that doesn't seem to offend anybody by appearing on screen. He's also important because he's the one guy in this movie that we're 100% sure is full-blooded honky.

Then there's the Asian Guy (Better Luck Tomorrow, Fast and Furious 6). His purpose is to bone Tall Natalie Portman. His job in the crew is supposed to be to blend in and be an everyman, which he proves by being Asian man in Fast Five that drives a car super well and is inserted into this film with the specific purpose of boning Tall Natalie Portman. You know, a real everyman. He also, like, looks at a thing once and maybe understands what they are once, which I guess makes him a super-valuable heist team member or a guy with Asperger's. Not exactly justifying his placement on the crew, but then again he does get up in Tall Queen Amadala, so I can see why one would fly two thousand miles on such short notice.

Tall Natalie Portman is their "muscle," whatever the fuck that means. I mean a good half of their crew is yoked to the point of being a poster on the wall of a confused male teenager's wall, but she's their muscle, because I guess they said so. She is notable for not providing muscle at any point in the entire picture. But she does manage to pull the palm print of a criminal off of her ass. Like Asian Guy, she is just kind of there. And that's well enough because the men are just sort of there, as well. Everyone is just sort of there. Black. White. Asian. Latino. Miscellaneous. We are the United Colors of Pointlessness.

Because someone has to make those cars go.

Two dudes just chilling straightly.
The LGBT community is completely unrepresented in this movie except in subtext-- but I'll get to that in a second here-- because gay people require a level of complexity that is simply beyond this movie. The proof of this is that straight people are barely even there. Unless you can do something with a car in this movie (getting married, passing, or whatever else), it doesn't appear as anything more complex than something that could fit on a Post-it.

Then again, I complain a lot about how movies go out of their way to say what's going on. It's why I think Downton Abbey is such a big hit, because nobody ever says what they want or what they're thinking and that simple technique is drama. So, with that said I don't know that we need to establish any homosexual characters when one of the big draws of this film is two sweaty, bald men grappling with each other.

The Fastiverse is a sexless, hateless universe that exists to drive machines with no feelings about your hormone treatment, the president's birth certificate, police brutality, or anything else. In many ways it's as old fashioned of a movie as there is, yet it is rife with Hispanics, the ethnically ambiguous, black people, the casually bilingual, and Asians and dead people and everyone else and none of that matters because they're all here to drive cars real quick like.

To me that is amazing. Fast Five, like the guy in Shine, has somehow managed to allow both some of the most secretly progressive ideas into the film and, yet, manages to make none of them an issue by making their ability to make cars go fast more important. Can you make a car drift? Go get married. Can you make this car jump this ramp? You qualify for a tax deduction. Can you make this car go real, real, real fast? Good. Because I'd be proud to have you as my neighbor.

It works because the film has no idea what it's doing. Hell, for that matter, it isn't just post-racial, it's post-human.

Don't worry they're fine. They landed on some poor people.
It's a thing that is everywhere. It's what society is built around. It's what we got in our hearts. It's what pirates hide and children giggle about. What I'm talking about is butts.

We like butts. We love butts. Some people-- often boring people-- want to look at butts. We were bred to do this.

More than that, it's what we want to see in movies right next to nice beaches, gothic manors, gothic manners, space, and sweet rides. As much as that is what we want to see and as much as that can go south, Fast Five is rather demur. Like James Bond movies, though, this movie can be shocking just how quaint it can be about the human body.

While it does have the obligitory ass shots and bikini clad babes that come from shooting a movie Rio de Janero it is a movie that is, importantly, shot in Rio de Janero. That's how people dress over there. It's a beach town in a hot and humid location and it's Brazil, I'm pretty sure even the president wears a bikini. There's a certain amount of casual half-nudity that comes with the territory.

So, in a movie in which Riddick and Paul Walker swing a bank vault into roughly a thousand cops and where Americans can storm into a former colony and shoot everyone that can be shot, this movie still has some sense of semblance of decency about showing a woman's breasts. Or, yeah that ass. Or, God help us, front cleavage.

Is it there, yeah? It's kind of weird when you see it, yet it doesn't ever treat any of the female characters as a nice ass except in the case of one very silly plot point. Women in this film are mothers, sisters, wives baby mommas, drag racers, cops, commandos, and, yes, damnit, career women. There is a franchise in which women are having it all and it isn't directed by Tina Faye.

As bad or as good as it is it could have been so much worse and it isn't and when you consider pornographic bilge like Transfomers 3, you should realize that this is a pretty good case that our society might not completely and utterly hate women. It might be that we like them and we want them to hang out with us and help us, and, yeah, it isn't exactly Waitress, but, then again, what is?

It is meathead cinema at its pinnacle and it still doesn't treat women like pieces of meat. Sure, they're still hot and super capable "professionals" with nothing to do in their lives but rob banks, but they aren't these objects of desire or points of leverage for the plot. They're women. They get shit done. In that sense they're just like the men. There's no equivocation, there's no discussion, there's just chicks in cars moving the plot along.

And they make the cars go vroom real good, so what other qualifications do you want?

In 2011 you will believe man can walk. . . real slow while looking into the middle distance.
People in this movie are cogs to movie the plot along to the next bit of fetishism. I was trying to describe this feeling to my friend Kevin and the best parallel I could come up with was a body builder talking about his hobbies. He says he's into French cooking or gardening or going to the movies, but we all know what his real passion is: It's body building. We all know where the heart of Fast Five is and it isn't in what people feel about fatherhood.

Because as much as Transformers is about selling toys to people or Pirates of the Caribbean is about selling illeteracy, this movie is just about cars. These cars do things.They get results. More importantly cars are really kind of rad.

Fast 6 has come and gone and it's basically a preconceived notion that this series will go on, hopefully, forever. I just want to put my foot in the door now with what I think Fast 8 (AKA Hard Eight With Cars This Time) should be--

Looks like we've got to bring in another driver, the best there is. One I've been trying to forget about. . . UNTIL NOW.

Who's that?

A ghost.

A SHELBY VIPER drives TOWARD THE CAMERA and drifts a few inches from the camera. A driver emerges from the driver's side door. He is wearing a helmet. He removes his helmet to reveal:

CGI STEVE MCQUEEN (as played by Army Hammer).

I heard you guys needed a driver.











Come on! You know you want it!
I could apologize forever about this dumb, dumb, DUMB piece of cinema (and I do that a lot), but you know what? I don't care.

For once I'm free of all of the shame and irony and anything else you could make me feel about liking something this colossally stupid. I could talk about how cars are in America's DNA as deep as guns or unsolicited flag waving (I saw several American flags waving during a report of the announcement of the new Pope, so there you go), but in the end the reason I am talking about this movie is simple: I had fun.

You should have fun, too. That's why we watch movies. Maybe that fun is different sometimes and maybe we all have different ideas of fun, but we movies don't move us because we hate them. That's fun sometimes, yeah, I'll admit. That isn't what keeps us coming back. Sometimes it's a great piece of storytelling, something emotionally effecting, or great acting or all three. Sometimes its dumb people driving cars. Sometimes that is all that it has to be.

Fast Five did what it wanted to do. It made me have fun watching cars go over, under, and around things that cars should try their hardest to avoid for insurance reasons. It's why I watched Bullitt, it's one of the primary reasons why I love Ronin, it's why French Connection is burned to brightly in my mind, it's a dozen other films that made me remember them. It's the fact that Fast Five, for all of its many blindingly obvious faults, is a movie that uses machinery in novel ways to make something worth seeing.

You don't need me to tell you that that is a pretty good movie.

03 July, 2013

Social D was Right

I was wrong about The New Frontier. I was wrong and I'm sorry about that. So very, very sorry.

My main problems were that the beginning of the story struck me as dirivative of Watchmen which I think is a fair assumption considering how much of the landscape of comics is dirivative of Moore and Gibbons' work. (Also Cooke wrote and drew a Before Watchmen story and wrote another so, in hindsight, I am not all that far off base. But let's not waste any more calories than we already have). Where it becomes a stupid opinion is that it's much, much more than that, which is something most Watchmen rip-offs do not manage.

There's also a few more nebulous problems like the lack of Batman (and the Trinity in general), the appropriateness of the Centre as a villain (and it's inexplicable and hateful British spelling), and the fact that it's both too sprawling and too small.

Yet, now I feel the flaws less acutely and those few niggling doubts are overcome by the quality of the art and the quality of the storytelling. They're just mars on the piece, they aren't the piece itself. Darwyn Cooke might not be the literary heavy weight that Alan Moore is (which I mention because, rightly or wrongly, he weighs heavily in my outlook on comic books. . . mostly wrongly the more time goes on) or as prolific as a Jason Aaron or as clever as Jonathan Hickman, but he delivers something that none of these men can, which is that he can draw the stories that he writes.

He delivers something that is inherently part of the whole. There is no invisioning, there's no collaboration or compromises, there's just the finished work. Not every comic written and drawn by the same guy have that cohesion, though. Darwyn Cooke is just the guy who can fuse those things together, through style, though design, and through story. As a guy who piddles about with pens and pencils sometimes and has a back catalog full of genre bullshit that is inspiring. It means that someone can do it and do it well.

I think a lot of my esteem for Cooke comes from the work he did after The New Frontier (ie: the work I read after I read The New Frontier). Books like The Spirit and his odd story in Jonah Hex (a Canadian western? Okay. I guess that's not too weird) and especially his work on the Parker graphic novels have opened my eyes to the talented writer and artist that he always was. It wasn't that he got better it was that I was just too full of shit to see what was in front of me. The guy who forged that epic run on The Spirit is the same guy who spun out this wonderful not-quite Elseworlds tale.

Cooke loves good old fashioned fun and The New Frontier is chock full of that feeling-- that feeling that some things were better back then and if they weren't, at least they were simpler, more pure, more black and white. It's nostalgia done well. It doesn't shy away from the ugliness of the past, either. That's just another layer that he uses.

Another thing I find myself saying a lot and writing a lot is that this feels like storytelling judo. Cooke isn't screwing with things or skewering them or anything, instead he's it's using the momentum of nostalgia and the weight of the past to move into something else, bigger, and more impactful. And, again: It's great to see that someone can actually manage that.

I'm know I'm not breaking any news, I just wanted to make a correction. At least to increase the power of my other opinions, I'll say it again: I was wrong about The New Frontier.

That cartoon is still unlistenable, though. You'll bury me with that opinion.

And here's a Social Distortion song--

SIDE NOTE: The New Frontier was also a Las Vegas hotel. Like most of Las Vegas, it is thankfully long gone. What remains, though, are a few precious shards of history. I was going through an auction catalouge on my road trip with my dad and I found, coincidentally, some New Frontier chips for sale. They were estimated to sell for at least a thousand dollars. We are all obviously in the wrong racket.