(On Cable TV, October 2014) It’s not that 47 Ronin is an entirely bad movie. Its visuals are spectacular, its intentions are laudable and its actors do well. But despite the vast budget and the strong technical credentials, the film feels almost unbelievably… dull. Part of the issue seems to be meddling with the original story of the forty-seven Ronin: despite the addition of a half-Japanese protagonist and supernatural elements, nothing seems to raise the pulse of the film beyond the bare minimum of what an adventure is supposed to deliver to viewers. In keeping with the original, the conclusion is a downer, which does seem curious after a story that has been re-thought to include standard Hollywood tropes. At least one can revel in the visuals: the costumes are colorful, the CGI-enhanced camera swoops across the landscape, and some (only some) of the special effects are well-used. Rinko Kikuchi is the film’s standout performer as a villainous witch: it’s a bit of a shame that the rest of the film doesn’t measure up to her crazy energy. Otherwise, 47 Ronin is a fairly boring affair, neither historically accurate to be respectable, nor energetic enough to be enjoyable as a purely entertaining pop-corn romp. Carl Rinsch’s direction becomes incoherent the moment things start moving too quickly, and while the images are pretty, they’re not backed by flowing continuity: The story clunks without grace and the script doesn’t deliver much in terms of payoffs. There’s an odd feeling of mismatched sensibilities about Hollywood taking on the Forty-seven Ronin legend: I would have much rather seen a made-in-Japan film about the subject that a Westernized version with Keanu Reeves (far too old for the role, and playing it with his usual lack of affect) forced into it. If someone ever wonders how some film simply “don’t click”, 47 Ronin is as good an example as any.
(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.
(In theatres, July 2009): It’s a familiar and dispiriting feeling to watch a brilliant first ten minutes of a film lead to a good middle hour and then on to an average third act. So it is that The Brothers Bloom (yes, there’s a meaningful pun in the title given that “Bloom” is the first name of one of the brothers) over-thinks itself all the way into a box stamped “I don’t care anymore”: As a self-aware story about two con artists and their latest (last?) scam, it’s always engaged in a war of deception with its audience, and if that works when the audience is pleased with an ending, it’s not so amusing when the story keeps going where the audience is unwilling to follow. There was a point, late during the film, when I thought that the film was ninety seconds and ten lines of dialogue away from a happy ending; alas, it just kept going in another darker direction, jettisoning the absurd comedy that was such a highlight of the film’s first sequences. The Brothers Bloom may not be taking place in our world (what with bowler hats, steamships and cellular phones), but it’s certainly taking place in the con-movie continuum, and its attempts to buck the formula carry a penalty. It’s a shame that the film we get isn’t the charming offbeat comedy that the trailer and the first half of the movie promised to us. Oh, it’s not a complete loss: Rachel Weisz has seldom been as captivating as she is as an eccentric millionaire; Rinko Kikuchi is hilarious as a quiet demolition expert; there are a few fantastic moments along the way; and at times it’s handled with an old-fashioned charm that makes one long for far many more movies of that type. But The Brothers Bloom is easily three twists and twenty minutes longer than it should be, so that by the time it ends on a note meant to make audiences reflect on the nature of storytelling-as-cons, nobody will care as much as they should have. Card tricks are tough, but movie tricks are even tougher.