Pacific Rim***

Guillermo del Toro gets the teen audience, totally, so much so, he’s gone and taken a bunch of Transformer Power Rangers and pitched them against alien sea monsters of centuries old-looking. This less than perfect film offers loads of thumping good 3D action, which on occasion can feel relentless to anyone older than thirteen or to those who’ve had past problems distinguishing thrashing 3D Transformer body part from whirling body part. That said if pure entertainment is predominantly seeing Godzilla-like creatures tearing chunks out of man and his metal war machines then Pacific Rim portrays this with full watery throttle, throwing in subtle Blade Runner tones on urban dry land.

It’s just a shame the rest is clunky, insincere and a little too clichéd, script-wise, that it prompts every next step for those ‘hard of thinking’, causing an occasional yawn in parts or inevitable disinterest in others. There is very little del Toro wonderment to this future apocalypse, unlike Pan’s Labyrinth, or characters we really care about like in Hellboy, merely hard and fast blockbuster robot-monster action with some token human strife.

Humankind is seeing an increase in attacks from giant sea creatures called Kaiju who rise from the oceans to wipe out cities and populations. Even man’s special weapons used to fight these aliens, face to face, a massive robot simultaneously controlled by two pilots called a Jaeger, seem to be loosing the battle as the Kaiju become wise to their every move. When the Jaegers are forced into retirement, leader of the fleet, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) refuses to retire too, bringing his robots and a former pilot (Raleigh Becket played Charlie Hunnam) and a trainee (Mako Mori played by Rinko Kikuchi) back into action to control a Jaeger along with other pilots to save the world from oblivion.

Without a doubt, del Toro is spot on in creating a vast cinematic scale to portray man’s imminent danger of extinction against a monster enemy. There is always a sense of being submerged and out of your depth when the Kaiju are around and that’s thrilling. These awesome beasts with fluorescent innards certainly feed the imagination. However, very little else is known about them and what makes them tick, short of a flash through the mind of one, and a brief The Abyss-style finale of their world. Another story glitch is the idea that the Kaiju are clones – though all are different looking? This theory also doesn’t add up when one is with child, raising an explosive but intriguing aspect of the story that lacks further insight that you might expect from del Toro’s past work.

The human characters are mainly cheesy, cardboard clones of past sci-fi battle films. Little known Hunnam seems to resemble his other co-star pilots to the point of confusion at times, but all are pumped, attractive fodder for controlling the machines, though little empathy is built up around them to care about their individual plights. There is a window into Kikuchi’s character Mako and her traumatic past, which is beautifully visualised, and del Toro tries to stimulate some mystique into the bond between Pentecost and her that is sadly is blatantly obvious to all. Even the screen presence that is Elba in his ‘finest hour’ giving booming rallying speeches fails to keep us more than interested in just the action alone, and the attempts to inject token emotion into his being fall short by the time the human story catches up.

Del Toro even tries for quirky eccentric types, too, to mix things up in his character list, with the kooky scientist stereotype in Charlie Day as Kaiju fan Dr. Newton Geiszler and Burn Gorman as eccentric Gottlieb. Both are comical to start off with then become increasingly irritating like excitable puppies and incoherent to care for their explanations. It all seems to rest on del Toro’s Hellboy big name Ron Perlman (stay around for the end credits) who stars as a dodgy second-hand Kaiju parts dealer to come up with the goods for the human element. However, Perlman either has too little screen-time or not enough character development to save the story from being rather shallow on the human emotion front. The end result is a flat character array, so thankfully the fighting makes up for that.

Nevertheless, even the CGI confrontations can grow weary, as at lot are underwater shots that move side to side, having little effect in 3D because they are also blurry and darkly lit. The story is called into question again as previous, supposedly less threatening Kaiju are harder to tackle than the alleged ‘super-sized’ one at the end. Again, consistency is key, even with some impressive battles on offer.

Del Toro delivers some monster epic fighting on surface level, along with his calling cards such as the use of symbols, paternal influences and a subterranean chase scene. However, with many continuity errors, borrowed visuals from past sci-fi, fantasy films and limited character development, the overall conclusion is a less than satisfactory for a del Toro film, where the director appears to have fallen victim to the blockbuster hype.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Man Of Steel ****

Prepare for a darker, more brooding Superman film than before, hardly surprising given The Dark Knight Rises creator Christopher Nolan’s hand in this, co-writing with his Batman collaborator David Goyer. If the mood does not absorb you into the trials and tribulations of being a superhuman on Earth, then director Watchmen Zack Snyder’s action-packed scenes will whisk you along in what is more blockbuster epic with obvious tones of Transformers (cinematography by Amir Mokri), Spider-Man (costume design by James Acheson) and even The Matrix and Avatar with the organic nature of a visually stunning Krypton. It’s a mash-up of all recent superhero films, without a shred of deliberate humour to it that Superman films of past had.

The story is a familiar one, with the baby Superman known as Kal-El being propelled into the solar system by his parents, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer), on route to Earth, after an environmental catastrophe ruins and condemns Krypton to extinction. With him, Kal-El takes the last DNA of all Kryptonians, against the expressed wishes of General Zod (Michael Shannon) who attempts to stage a military coup to save his planet but is imprisoned with his fellow officers.

Growing up on Earth, Kal-El becomes known as Clark Kent (adult Superman played by Henry Cavill), adopted child of Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane). Taught to hide his gift by his parents, Clark eventually works a series of jobs before one unintentionally exposes him to Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams), and sends a call sign to the escaped Zod and his army as to where to find him and the lost DNA. Earth becomes a battleground, fighting for its own survival and that of its species, with the help of Superman.

Although lengthy at 143 minutes, Snyder, Nolan and Goyer’s film does a stunning job of explaining more about the historical and environmental issues that came to send Kal-El to Earth. The organic and kaleidoscopic, if phallic visuals of the beginning part of the film are like a Star Wars/Avatar epic, which go to show the various elements in conflict on the planet. It provides a background like no other Superman film, injecting some originality into the life of DC Comics’ hero’s story.

The rest of the film is pure adrenaline rush: visual effects-heavy, set pieces that are totally reminiscent of the recent Transformers films and even the ‘parasitic’ actions of Zod’s organic ship plundering the Earth’s resources resembling the final scenes of The Avengers. The filmmakers even almost replicate the Thor standoff in a small Kansas town, with Superman against two of Zod’s troops. For some, the crash-zooms and super-whizzy effects may be a little overkill – and some feel overly long, but on the flip side, they do inject a huge surge of power into the notion of Superman and his abilities on Earth with destructive and awesome results.

Snyder’s casting cannot be faulted either. Cavill brings a more serious and sensitive Superman to the big screen, one more determined to unite the two species than ever before, dressed in a costume borrowed from Spider-Man. It’s a far more physically demanding role that merely zooming off into the sky; the controlled strength of the man is what is more on show here. Shannon owns Zod, his contorted facial expressions fit the part of a highly conflicted being. It is also quite intriguing that rather than pure murderous despot, the filmmakers have created a being with morals and a purpose that brings a bout of empathy for his cause, making him not so black in the black-and-white scenario.

Adams keeps Lane grounded and forever spirited in her endeavours, though where the story lacks is the idea of just how Kent and her really fall for one another, given we don’t see Kent join the paper until the end – granted, the physical attraction of Superman is enough alone, and Cavill fills the mesh-like suit to the average jumper exceedingly well, enough to have an army of admirers at his heels.

There are also some nice performances from Costner and Lane, the former is part of a nice subplot into how Kent controls his son’s urges and talent, even when tragedy faces them. Perhaps, Crowe’s appearance as the great Jor-El could be argued to consume more than enough screen time – the filmmakers get there money from his ghostly presence, like some Obi-Wan Kenobi-style character (again, paying homage to Star Wars).

There is probably an unnecessary, almost overindulgent ending between Superman and Zod, purely it seems to show the latter’s true allegiance with humankind – as if we weren’t aware of this already. This climax will divide opinion. Still, with demands from fans for more raw power and action from their superhero, and with a villain in Zod who is more on a par of strength, Snyder and co have gone to create something more relevant and darker (with Nolan’s touch), however much the other iconic elements of previous films (crippling Kryptonite and the dominant ‘S’ symbol) are played down in effect.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Battleship ***

Love it or hate it; John Carter star Taylor Kitsch is here to stay, and even though his latest movie, Battleship, is monumentally moronic, there is still a huge amount of over-the-top, double entendre theatrics and bombastic action to giggle gleefully at. The added draw for some of director Peter Berg’s (hopefully) satirical ode to all recent sci-fi action movies will be pop star Rihanna or perhaps True Blood’s man mountain Alexander Skarsgård? Either way, Battleship goes forth with all guns blazin’ to bring down an alien enemy and any shred of credibility.

The plot is a simple one: based on Hasbro’s board game of the same name, Battleship sees US Navy brothers Stone (Skarsgård) and Alex (Kitsch) Hopper on exercise off the coast of Hawaii when a bunch of alien invaders fall to Earth – and into the ocean in front of them, causing an almighty battle of wits to commence. Meanwhile, hothead Alex’s girlfriend Sam (former model Brooklyn Decker) – who happens to be the Admiral’s (played by Liam Neeson) drop-dead gorgeous daughter – is helping a US Navy paraplegic physio patient climb a mountain that happens to hold the satellite dishes the aliens need to make contact with their planet to send reinforcements. Oh, and Pearl Harbour comes into the picture at some point, as does the USS Missouri…

Berg makes no apologies for the hilariously clichéd script and sci-fi rip-offs – and the Hasbro Toys brand benefits from more mileage out of the Transformers’ replication. In fact, you could be forgiven for thinking that you’ve stumbled on Michael Bay’s next robots film – minus Optimus Prime and Megatron – as there are some nifty metal carvers that make metal mincemeat out of anything that stands in their way. The same frenetic balls of edited colour and metal body parts litter the frame, and some of the near-death misses are utterly preposterous. But, this is full-throttle thrill-seeking destruction to gloriously behold, as well as a heavy dose of macho phallic symbolism and camp admiration for military might. It’s all seriously daft fun.

The ‘acting’ in the loosest terms merely pays lip service to remind us that there are in fact humans involved among the carnage, and to clearly define the good guys verses ‘the bad guys’ (the aliens – who are out to rape our resources). One scene in particular that is the only true tension mounter is an actual game of Battleships between the Navy and the aliens. This allows us pause for breath to rally behind our odd collection of screen heroes that include Kitsch, Tadanobu Asano as a Japanese commander and RiRi as ball-busting Petty Officer Raikes – a mumbled feature debut, but one that has the singer looking mean in the firing hot seat. Kitsch demonstrates once more that he has got more than it takes to lead the folly in such a film and is a likeable action hero who ticks all the boxes.

Expect to be blindly entertained and thrown from pillar to post – thankfully, not while wearing 3D specs, plus don’t take anything too literally. If you can suspend disbelief, you’ll find Battleship simply tongue-in-cheek dumb, booming fun full of cum with some of the worst lines in recent screen history to relish that will have you cry, “no, seriously?”

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Watch the trailer HERE

Ironclad – 4*

Now and then, there are films that need to show raw violence, in order to recreate the reality of a situation, contrary to the sensitivity of some. Writer/director Jonathan English may have never experienced 13th Century Britain, but it’s safe to suggest that the blade resolved most disputes – be that of the sword or axe variety. English’s Ironclad is a medieval maniacal massacre with a desperate, ferocious and no-holds-barred bloodlust that surpasses even last year’s Centurion that relished in its body count and blood spillage.

Ironclad’s story has a significant purpose, though, that captures the contemporary imagination: freedom for every man. It’s for this reason that we empathise with its characters’ determination to defend this ideal from the tyrannical rule of the Roman Catholic Church and the King. Hence, we easily commit to the grounds for the barbarity.

After the Oscar-winning The King’s Speech, Ironclad is – in the simplest of terms – predominantly anti-royal and republican in nature. The story picks up in 1215, after debauched King John (Paul Giamatti) is forced to meet the demands of his discontented barons and sign the Magna Carta. Even though this document was more about taxation hikes and the nobility’s treatment, English plays to the romantic notion of it being about human rights protection against royal rule. A furious King John then decides to reinforce his rule and slaughter the barons involved, with the dubious blessing of the Pope and the Vatican, plus a little Viking manpower from some disgruntled Danes angered by the Church’s involvement in their lands.

However, one plucky Baron Albany (Brian Cox) and his mishmash of a half a dozen men decide to make a stand against the King and his thugs. They defend the common man’s honour from Britain’s pinnacle of power, Castle Rochester in Kent, until the French Army arrives to liberate the land, and install a French Prince on the English throne. It’s glorious, heroic and epic stuff to prompt a defiant roar from every English lion.

Ironclad recreates the grim scene well, but has a few surprises. It goes a step further than previous historical efforts, by placing the viewer directly within the relentless battle action, and creating a terrifying sense of claustrophobia and threat of axe attack at any moment. In fact, we see men hacked in half before us, from head to toe, and others losing limbs, which are subsequently used to beat others senseless, whilst the camera lens gets sprayed in claret. It has a thrillingly destructive momentum to it.

That said English’s preference for Michael Bay‘s favourite cinematic tool of 5D cameras to reproduce erratic action – as in Transformers – greatly jars, making watching the action unbearable and nauseating in parts. In fact, this lessens the authenticity somewhat, creating an experience like that of a video game, which is a shame and probably not really necessary.

The reality of the siege the Baron’s resistance fighters face is greatly heightened by the testing length of the film (121 minutes) and its equally testing weather conditions. But the latter helps recreate some magnificently extravagant and quite stunning panoramic views to show the gloomy conditions of the era, even if the former falls prey to some lagging moments in the story, as our ‘heroes’ await the next onslaught.

One thing is for certain: Ironclad would not be half the film it is, if it were not for some memorable and quite captivating talent. Giamatti is a tonic as the deranged and bile-spewing King John verses Cox as audacious Albany. Deliciously overplayed to the hilt, their performances mark the key points, with one momentous confrontation near the end, in a film that sensibly places moments of ironic humour throughout to provide a respite from all the death.

James Purefoy as disillusioned Templar Knight Marshall again demonstrates why he’s first choice in any historical affair. Purefoy has a rousing and magnetic presence as the great, unsung anti-hero, cultivated by his stint in Rome and other such period roles. His role greatly bolsters the romantic notion of story – and he should also be commended for swinging around a five-foot Templar Knight sword replica.

Nevertheless, one casting does not sit comfortably. 127 Hours actress Kate Mara plays opposite Purefoy as Marshall’s love interest, Lady Isabel. Isabel is like a ‘Maid Marion on heat’, delivering some of the corniest lines in the lull moments to seduce her knight. Mara appears a little too youthful and not nearly naive enough to be fully credible in the role, even though she’s meant to be a young wife. Her cringe-worthy attempts at getting Marshall in the sack seem almost immaturely ludicrous and definitely unladylike in the spate of things. If she is trying to be portrayed as a strong female for that contingent of the audience to identity with, her casting sadly backfires. That said there are some excellent performances to enjoy from Mackenzie Crook, Jason Flemyng, Jamie Foreman and Casualty’s Aneurin Barnard as Albany’s band of merry mutilators, as well as British acting royalty Derek Jacobi and Charles Dance.

Ironclad is an unapologetic, bold and praiseworthy piece from English, considering the independent nature of the production and its ‘cheaper’ budget (£20 million). It’s designed to bang the patriotic drum, not only in the story, but also for British film-making that’s taken a battering in itself in the past year. Indeed, it provides a healthy example of a true British epic contender to rival those of the mainstream variety that are out soon, like a lone voice of resilience that you can’t help but root for.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

Watch the trailer HERE

I Am Number Four – 3*

It’s absolutely true that you need to be of the Twilight teen generation to engage with Gough and co’s screen adaptation of ‘Pittacus Lore’s youth sci-fi novel of the same name. It’s also true that you need to appreciate the ‘crash-bang-wallop’ nature of producer Michael Bay’s films – as in carnage of the metallic kind, here, like Transformers’ sight-depilating action collages – but read what you want into the former statement. What’s true, too, is I Am Number Four does fall prey to a bit of car/alien carnage, which is not all Bay’s doing as this is directed by D.J. Caruso who’s also partial to scenes of mangled metal. And watching this sci-fi romance on an IMAX screen makes quite an impression on the visionary senses.

What I Am Number Four does do is put a new Brit teen heartthrob on the radar, so it’s pointless what any adult critic might have to say on the subject of the wooden acting and lack of chase scenes. Still, it’s more of a ‘character establishing’ film for the next. But move over Rpatz: Alex Pettyfer has talents of all different kinds, playing alien ‘Number Four’, aka beached-blonde hunk ‘John Smith’ to Earthlings, one of the last of his kind from the Planet Lorien. Basically, if you’re thinking Smallville, you are not far off, as ‘John’, like Superman, is sent to Earth – albeit with an equally good-looking minder in tow called ‘Henri’, a warrior from the same planet, played in a capricious fashion by Timothy Olyphant. Grown-ups: look out for The Terminator nods. John’s biggest threat is a bunch of ‘Mogs’, or ‘Mogadorians’ who are like extraterrestrial parasites dressed as tattooed Goth freaks and want to kill off Numbers 4 to 9 (still not a hundred per cent sure why?) – and John is next on the list.

The Mogs are the least of Dear John’s teen hormonal problems. What he doesn’t vouch for is falling – and only once and hard – in love with airy-fairy, but talented photographer babe Sarah, the school jock’s hot property, played by Glee’s resident bitch Dianna Agron. John also has to contend with ‘coming out’ – in the alien sense – to school nerd and UFO enthusiast Sam, played Callan McAuliffe, whose father went missing looking for signs of E.T. years before.

You instantly guess where the love story is heading, as well as John’s inevitable ‘meeting of might’ with the Mogs. There’s also some subtextual, smutty thrill to be had when John rudely discovers what ‘greater power’ can be had with his hands, than the usual teen awakening. Plus Pettyfer reels you into his folly, far away from home, and wins you over with his dopey, love-struck persona. Thanks be to the Aliens for the arrival of ass-kicking hottie Number 6, played by Teresa Palmer, complete with a throbbing tank of gas on two wheels between her toned thighs for all the dads in the audience to lust over – without feeling guilty about having had a moment for underage Sarah. This is definitely family entertainment.

I Am Number Four seems to press all the same fantasy buttons as the Twilight series, not necessarily making this affair wholly acceptable, but willing you to find out what happens next, after a bleedin’ obvious sequel set-up. But there lies one of the film’s main issues; has the slap-dash inject of, at times, poorly CGI-ed alien battlement captured enough of the imagination to find out what Number Four/John does next with his hands? We liked to think so.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

Gulliver’s Travels – 3*

Jack Black is an acquired taste. Let’s face it; if you’re not a fan, you wouldn’t even contemplate going to see a film, which is effectively another stage for self-depreciating Blackmania. The only issue is whether as a fan of the tale of Gulliver’s Travels, the version from director Rob Letterman – the man behind Monsters vs. Aliens and Shark Tale – will entertain or irk you. If you are loyal to the quintessentially English literary text, you may find the contemporary American (New York) spin a bit too brash, as Gulliver becomes a bungling mailroom employee with aspiring ideas of being a travel writer to impress the girl (travel sub-editor Darcy (Amanda Peet)), and is sent off to the Bermuda Triangle on his first assignment.

Low and behold, hapless Gulliver hits a waterspout in a vicious storm, and gets spat out on the shores of Lilliput, full of little people who think he’s a beast – well, he is a man giant to them. The rest is set for a fest of Black comic over-indulgence, Black flabby flesh over-exposure, Black eyebrow gymnastics, and Black taunts at the stuffiness of old English etiquette. The latter is what gets a little irksome at times, especially with when Gulliver revamps Lilliput in New York style with garish billboards and American casuals. Admittedly, the part where he goes all ‘School of Rock’ (Guitar Hero moves) is as amusing as an impatient kid trying to impress a parent. The re-enacting of cinematic classics, like Star Wars and Titanic for the Lilliput royal family as a theatrical re-enactment of the great Gulliver’s life back home get most of the satirical laughs.

What makes these moments are the impressive supporting cast of Brits in deadpan humour mode, including Emily Blunt, Billy Connolly, Chris O’Dowd, James Corden, and Catherine Tate – although, sadly, we get to see very little input from the latter lady. O’Dowd appears to match the Black idiocy for the British contingent as pompous General Edward, and Blunt complements as bored, but smart and very beautiful Princess Mary he’s betrothed to. But it’s fellow countryman Jason Segel as the love-struck Horatio yearning for Mary’s affection and as Black’s diminutive sidekick who often steals the scenes from Black, especially he wooing of Mary with a contemporary love song classic.

There is also one inspired moment in the film, where Gulliver wakes up in a dolls house and gets terrorised by a youngster that’s almost Lynchian in respect, but the rest of the film is pantomime fluff that still touches on the original tale’s themes of man’s treatment of man, petty differences between sides/religions and political corruption, but all done in a far lighter manner. Unfortunately, the film concept swings from Wild Wild West to Transformers – perhaps a precaution to keep the youngsters happy with a bit of robot wars? Prepare, also, as always, for the big morals at the end, delivered by Black who always comes to his adult senses for a mere split second, after a burst of childish lunacy.

Black does what he does best in Gulliver’s Travels; he’s a man-child at heart, employed to dumb down any tale for the kids. There is an uglier side in the shameless advertising throughout, targeting the adults who have nowhere to hide from their offspring in the cinema shadows, especially the Lilliput soldiers’ infatuation with Gulliver’s iPhone. Still, a jolly funny song and dance later reiterates that neither star nor cast have taken this seriously, and as a bit of family escapism on Boxing Day, it’s adequately entertaining, and far better than your local stage panto.

3/5 stars

By L G-K