Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Movie Review-lette: "Big Top Pee-wee" by David Pretty

Every once in awhile I'll indulge in an insane game I call "Movie Review-lette", inviting social media friends to send me movie titles that they want me to review. Naturally a "be as kind or as cruel as you want" disclaimer always goes along with this. As soon as I have ten suggestions compiled I randomly draw one of 'em and then watch and review it.

The last time I did this an inordinately cruel bastard by the name of Josh Mullins suggested Big Top Pee-wee and I'll be damned if that's not what I drew. This little experiment scarred me so badly that I haven't done it since. Thanks, pal.

Anyway, here's the results of this autopsy:

I've never been the biggest fan of Paul Reubens' puerile alter ego but even I have to admit that the early goings of Big Top Pee-wee is actually a pretty funny and imaginative send-up of crusty and prudish small-town America. The very same crusty and prudish small town America that eventually crucified Reubens after his infamous porno theater bust back in 1991.

Unfortunately, the movie drags on for another regrettable, ill-conceived, painfully-protracted, utterly humorless sixty long minutes after it makes its point. *Ugh*

The story begins with our "hero" living a simple and idyllic farm life, surrounded by an Ark-load of animals that look like Stockholm Syndrome casualties from Micheal Jackson's Neverland ranch. In addition to his progressive commitment to living green, Monsieur Herman is also working on some pretty amazing scientific breakthroughs, including the development of colossal cantaloupes and a flourishing Hot Dog tree.

In spite of these visionary inventions and seemingly-peaceful way of life, Pee-wee is universally loathed by the geriatric townspeople who, for some odd reason, have gotten it into their heads that he's a bit "touched", no pun intended. Only his wholesome, corn-fed fiancé Winnie (Penelope Ann Miller) seems to have any affinity for him. I guess behind every great man there's a great...yada, yada, yada

After a tornado sweeps through town, Pee-wee emerges from his storm cellar the next morning to discover that a circus has (literally) blown into town. Their ringleader, Mace (played by a resigned-looking Kris Kristofferson) decides to mount a farm-themed show for the benefit of the nearby town, despite the fact that the locals seem to hate the circus and their bow-tied patron with the burning fire of a million suns. Additional "drama" follows when Pee-wee's engagement to Winnie is threatened by the beautiful and exotic Gina Piccolapupula (!) played by the genuinely-fetching Valeria Golino.

As I said, there's some fun to be had with the first third of the film and I really dug the Norman Rockwell-esque touches in the production design. As a thinly-veiled Pinky Lee-style caricature, Pee-wee generates laughs by contrasting with the cynical modern world, but here he's in his own element. The character isn't nearly as edgy or weird when he's surrounded by a talking pig named Vance, impossibly blue skies, a stylized 50's-era farm town, and a horde of freaky circus types.

There's also a bratty and acerbic side to Pee-wee, which is nicely at odds with his Leave It To Beaver-style appearance. The first half of the film really underscores this aspect of the character with some gloriously-subversive bits. The worm feeding, the "paparazzi", and Pee-wee's sex-starved propensity for leaping aboard his girlfriend Winnie without provocation is all pure gold. It's also great fun to see future method actor Benicio del Toro turn up in his big-screen debut as "Duke the Dog-Faced Boy".

Unfortunately the tent completely collapses when the script tries to explore love triangles, dead fathers (!), reconciliations and anything vaguely resembling a plot. To make matters worse it's almost as if Paul Reubens and co-writer George McGrath suddenly got bored with everything and typed THE END without tying up any of these loose ends. Finally,  for a movie called Big Top Pee-wee, it takes forever to get to the circus scenes and when it finally happens it's all over in a few short minutes. 

But perhaps that's all for the best. I'm told that the film's predecessor, Pee-wee's Big Adventure, is a much better movie thanks to the presence of visionary director Tim Burton. But the fact that Burton wasn't enough of a draw to make me seek out and watch  Big Adventure is pretty high testimony of how much I despised Pee-wee Herman, even during the character's "heyday". 

This is kind of a pity since you can detect fleeting hints of wit, parody and cheekiness in Big Top Pee-wee. It's a shame that Paul Reuben's career was completely obliterated by that porno theater bust, since I think he's got a lot of potential.

Sorry, I'm gotta end this review before I make a cheap "tent pole" joke. Whoops! Too late...

Tilt: down.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Movie Review: "Pacific Rim" by David Pretty


Giant monsters from another dimension called Kaiju emerge from the Pacific ocean and proceed to wreck havoc like a pack of drunken frat boys. In response, humanity builds giant robots called Jaegers which they then use to punch the giant monsters in the face over and over again. Ron Perlman guest stars.


The target audience for Pacific Rim is:
  1. People who really wanted the Transformers movies to be good.
  2. Folks who own a disproportionate number of Godzilla toys.
  3. Viewers who get all horned up over elaborate-looking mecha and imaginative special-effects.
  4. Every kid on the planet under the age fifteen.
  5. Every kid on the planet under the age of one-hundred and fifteen. 
  6. Anyone who likes a good action movie and doesn't want to get bogged down with an excessive amount of plotting. Last year's Godzilla movie, I'm looking in your direction.
 "Wha...Godzilla? Yo, fuck that overgrown iguana!"
  • THE PREMISE C'mon it's giant robots beating the shit out of giant monsters, what more can you ask for? Well, a decent execution, I suppose, which brings me to...
  • THE EXECUTION A lesser film-maker could easily have botched up this amazing high concept. In fact, they already have. But Pacific Rim actually does what it says on the tin! Partly because of...
  • THE DESIGN Credit supervising art directors Elinor Rose Galbraith and Richard L. Johnson as well as production designers Andrew Neskoromny and Carol Spier for coming up with the most detailed and practical-looking mecha-porn I've ever seen in a modern motion picture. And it's not all just simulated with special-effects, for example the Jaeger cockpit is a real, practical. gimbal-controlled set which looks both well-worn and fully-functional thanks to set decorator Peter P. Nicolakakos. The Bone Slums in Hong Kong are a rain-soaked, neon-reflective riot of color which one can either take as an homage to Blade Runner or a complete rip-off. Add in some terrific costume design by Kate Hawley and you've got yourself a visual stunner.
  • IDRIS ELBA Even though he has to deliver a lot of cliché *slash* utilitarian dialogue as Stacker Pentecost (!), he serves it up with so much conviction and aplomb that you end up buying it for the most part. In the hands of anyone else, his final INSPIRATIONAL SPEECH probably would have come off as completely hackneyed and giggle-inducing but somehow he manages to give those tired, pedantic words a modicum of heft. 
  • ESPECIALLY EFFECTIVE SPECIAL EFFECTS  Hey, kids, remember back in the day when you'd come out of a theater saying stuff like "Wow, that movie sure did have some neat-o special-effects!"  Nowadays that's pretty much a given, like seeing 3D graphics in a video game. But I was actually suitably impressed several times while watching Pacific Rim. It's jarring enough seeing giant, photo-realistic monsters wrestling with giant, photo-realistic robots but when you add in some gloriously-destructible environments and the incessant rain, the visuals become very impressive. Now, it's probably quite likely that the rain is there to fudge the details but to this untrained eye the particle effects look absolutely incredible.
  • THE KAIJU  Talented folks such as Wayne Barlowe, Oscar Chichoni, Ruiz Velasco, David Meng and Simon Lee created a virtual menagerie of imaginative creatures. There's, like, an axe-headed dude, one with a battering ram for a head, a shark-headed guy, a big, bulky gorilla-like goon, another one with two horns and a flail-tail, a crocodilian specimen, and one big-ass Cthulhu-esque motherfucker. Not only is each one distinctly different in appearance, but each one seems to have their own personality, mannerisms and fighting techniques. The digital effects wizards did a fine job turning these on-paper designs into something vicious, scary and / or icky. Oh, and the Jaegers are pretty cool too, I guess
  • THE DIRECTION del Toro and cinematographer Guillermo Navarro do a fine job communicating the sheer size and scale of these giant constructs and their monstrous opponents, bringing to mind Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds remake back in 2005. del Toro throws in plenty of amusing little throwaway touches, such as when Gipsy Danger makes a concerted effort to clear the overpass instead of just crashing right through it. And then there's the scene in which Gipsy punches through an office building and barely connects with one of those metal ball executive toys, setting it into perpetual motion. Overall, del Toro serves up a nice balance between world-building, character development and action beats.
  • GETTING BURN'ED  I've been watching actor Burn Gorman ever since he made a terrible first impression as Owen Harper on Torchwood. Via a combination of good writing and a series of increasingly-nuanced performances he managed to take what was initially a very acerbic and borderline-repellent character and make me give a damn about him in the end. Here he plays the tightly-wound, socially retarded, shut-in scientist Dr. Herman Gottlieb. Now I don't know if the decision to deliver every single one of his lines in a hyperactive, twitchy, over-the-top performance was his idea or del Toro's but it actually works in the context of all the other madness going on. I guess when you're starring in a movie about giant robots and monsters beating the tar out of each other you gotta do some kee-razy shit to get noticed.
  • RON MOTHERFUCKING PERLMAN  Let's face it, the odds of this dude showing up in a del Toro movie is actually pretty good, but when he unexpected popped I clapped my hands, bounced up and down in my seat and may or may not have uttered a "SQUEE!!!"-like noise. Decked out in a brocade pimp suit, gold wing-tipped shoes, James Bond villain-style chompers and round-framed sunglasses with leather blinders, Perlman cuts a mean form as black-market Kaiju organ dealer Hannibal Chau. Things get even better when he reveals the origin of his name: "I took it from, uh, my favorite historical character and my second-favorite Szechuan restaurant in Brooklyn." During the precious few scenes he's in, Perlman stomps around, crankily spitting out his lines and threatening to gill Charlie Day with a butterfly knife, which makes him okay in my book. There's a lot of stock characters in Pacific Rim, but thanks to Ron Perlman, Hannibal Chau isn't one of them.
  • THE ACTION SEQUENCES  Between Crimson Typhoon's "Thunder Cloud Formation", Gipsy's rocket-propelled fist / plasma cannon / sword gizmos, as well as the unconventional use of an oil tanker as a bludgeoning device, the battle scenes are pure, creative, wanton smashery at its best. 
  • PRETTY BUT DUMB Clearly Pacific Rim's script wheel is turning, but the hamster is completely dead. What's the purpose of the Jaeger heads separating from the bodies? If technology is so advanced that we can build giant robots, why can't they make work on the Wall of Life slightly less hazardous or, for that matter, put pilots in radiation-resistant suits? Why are the drift comparability / neural handshake tests conducted in a live fire environment? Why don't the fail-safes work? What exactly makes Raleigh and Stacker so awesome that they can pilot a Jaeger by themselves? And the number one most baffling question: why did it take so goddamn long to deploy that freakin' sword?!?  
  • THE DIALOG-*UGH*   Man, there is some boring, color-by-numbers, perfunctory dialogue on display here. Robert Kazinsky's lame construction worker slam against Raleigh ("Oh, that's great. I mean, that's really useful. You know, we get into a fight you can build our way out of there, hey, Ray?") and Stacker's uninspired reaction to being grabbed by his protege ("One: don't you ever touch me again. Two: don't you ever touch me again.") are just two of the goofier lines in the film. The script definitely could have benefited from a quick pass by a dialogue-savvy writer. 
  • HIT AND MISS PERFS  Charlie Hunnam is a likeable enough as an everyman but he spends large tracts of screen time wearing a facial expression that brings an abused puppy to mind. Rinko Kikuchi as Mako Mori has some memorable flashes of strength, conviction and perseverance but often comes across as a wilting non-entity. Charlie Day's "rock-star" scientist Dr. Newton Geiszler is meant to be a protagonist but he often comes off as loud, boorish and gratingly annoying. Max Martini and Robert Kazinsky really can't be slighted as the Australian father-son pilot team of Striker Eureka since their characters, as written, are pretty wafer-thin. After hearing that del Toro cut nearly an hour out of the film's run time, I'm tempted to let this slide a little bit.

Pacific Rim is a fun action romp and the one-hundred and thirty minute run time just flies by. Sure, deeper characters, better dialogue and a more original plot would have made the film a more satisfying experience, but it's clear to see that the project is the result of a sincere love of the genre and is completely devoid of any weighty pretension.

I say grab some popcorn, put your brain on idle and prepare to have your teeth rattled.  

 Tilt: up.