(On DVD, January 2017) I wasn’t expecting much from a medieval fantasy film starring almost-VOD-era Nicolas Cage, but it turns out that Season of the Witch, while formulaic and unambitious, does have a few redeeming moments. The generous-enough budget allows for a convincing recreation of plague-era Eastern Europe, while Cage and Ron Perlman each have the chance to shine as the main actors. (Cage even gets one of his patented overly dramatic speeches ranting against God itself.) Otherwise, well, the first half-hour is promising enough to create disappointment when it becomes obvious that the small group assembled in the first act is really there to be picked-off one by one in the following journey. We can gauge how close we are to the conclusion with counting the remaining characters, and the film’s two big third-act twists will be greeted as obvious by anyone paying even the slightest attention. It’s a fantasy film and generic one at that, but it’s not completely worthless. I don’t expect to remember much of Season of the Witch in a few weeks, but I haven’t wasted my time watching it. (Although, granted, I was washing dishes at the time.)
(Video on Demand, October 2013) For many people of the geeky disposition, Pacific Rim reads like a dream project: Fan-favourite writer/director Guillermo del Toro, perhaps one of the most imaginative filmmakers around, taking on both the entire tradition of Japanese kaiju films, and blending it with the mecha subgenre… with a decent budget for once. What’s not to like? And, for much of its duration, Pacific Rim does deliver on its premise. It’s a big blockbuster spectacular, made by someone who loves the genre(s), knows how to make a crowd-pleasing film and approaches the premise with a welcome blend of optimism and determination. The first ten minutes, if it wasn’t for the flat narration, are almost a model for delivering a ton of exposition without undue strain. Pacific Rim requires a significant suspension of disbelief to set up its premise (extra-dimensional monsters are one thing, but giant robots controlled by two mentally-linked people are a tougher sell when nuclear-tipped cruise missiles seem so much more appropriate) but the way it sells a fully-realized world affected by years of kaiju incursion is a good way to ease in even the most nitpicky viewers. Where the film loses points, curiously enough, is in its depiction of monsters-versus-robots combat: For all of ILM’s eye-popping work in setting massive fights in complex environments, it’s not hard to look at the Hong Kong sequence and wish for longer, wider shots and the opportunity to fully take in a sequence rather than the visual confusion made by the neon lights, rain and quick cuts. (This may be an unavoidable issue when hundred of special effects technicians slave for months on the same sequence: the temptation to add more, more, more visual detail may be irresistible, but it works at the viewers’ disfavour when it results in an overdesigned sequence.) In terms of sheer spectacle, the film also peaks at the three-quarter mark. Even though nominal star Charlie Hunnam couldn’t be blander (about a dozen other actors could have done the same, or better), del Toro gets good performances out of his other actors, with a bit of special praise going to Rinko Kikuchi as the emotional center of the film, Charlie Day in a surprisingly compelling comic performance and Ron Perlman for being, well, Ron Perlman. Pacific Rim is a good film, albeit one that I wish could have been great. Del Toro has done terrific work here, but a little bit more oomph could have carried this even further.
(On DVD, December 2011) Every so often, a visually ambitious film slips through the cracks of distribution and promotion to land almost unannounced on video-store shelves. From the first few moments, executed with a gorgeous mixture of animation and puppet-theater, it’s obvious that Bunraku is going to be an odd and interesting film. With its fantasy-world mixture of western and samurai iconography, colourful art direction and dynamic direction, Bunraku certainly looks and feels completely different from your run-of-the-mill film. Experimental, action-packed, crammed with confident performances, it’s also a movie that aspires to the “hidden gem” section of anyone’s collection, right next to films just as The Fall and Sin City: not perfect, maybe not even accessible to audiences who aren’t predisposed to this kind of genre-blending, but surprisingly satisfying to those to do get it and certainly looks like no other film: writer/director Guy Moshe has put together a lovely piece of art. Josh Hartnett and Gackt share the lead roles, but Woody Harrelson, Ron Perlman and Kevin McKidd get more remarkable roles as supporting players. (McKidd is particularly good as an eccentric killer.) The script certainly could have been tightened up: Demi Moore’s character doesn’t look as if she has anything to do, the dialogue sometimes veers toward the pretentious and there’s a pacing slowdown during the third act of the film. Nonetheless, Bunraku gains back all of its lost points on sheer visual fun alone, and from its references to other tough-guy movies. For a film that never really showed widely in North-American theaters, I predict a modest cult following.