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Column Fri Jul 12 2013

Pacific Rim, 20 Feet from Stardom, Dealin' With Idiots, The Look of Love & Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me

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Pacific Rim

In the weeks leading up to the release of Pacific Rim, I've been rewatching the films of director/co-writer Guillermo del Toro in order. And just for the hell of it, I've been watching the "making of" extras as well, just because for many of them I never did previously. What I was reminded of through this process is that Del Toro is an obsessive fan of practical effects. This isn't a big secret, but often he went practical because of a combination of budgetary constraints and him liking the weight and texture of the "realness."

I've known since the first trailers of Pacific Rim that the showcased Kaiju (the giant monsters that are being released from a wormhole-like portal deep at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean) and Jaegers (the human-made army of human-controlled, 250-foot-tall mech warriors that are built to defend the Pacific coastlines of North America and Asia primarily) were not going to be practical and nature, and I was willing to accept that this was Del Toro working on a scale he had never experienced before. My concern was that the emotional context that he so wonderfully maintains in all of his works would be lost at this scale. It wasn't that I had lost faith in his abilities, but scale sometimes triumphs over the most heartfelt of intentions.

One of the earliest things we are told about the operation of the Jaegers is that they require two pilots whose minds and memories must be melded together in order to get the robot to move and react at the speed required to fight the Kaiju, who are coming out of the rip in the ocean at an ever-increasing rate. The genius move that almost guarantees that emotion must be a factor in the Pacific Rim equation is that this mental "drifting" seems to be easier if the two pilots are related — brothers or fathers and sons seem like the best match. The downside to this is that if one of them is killed while the connection is still binding them, the trauma can be quite drastic.

When we meet pilots/brothers Raleigh and Yancy Becket (Charlier Hunnam and Diego Klattenhoff), the Jaeger program is fairly new and defeating the Kaiju is dangerous but far from impossible. The man in charge of the Jaeger program is former pilot Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), who seems committed to enunciating every line as loudly as possible, and we love him all the more for it.

After a tragedy befalls his team in a Kaiju battle, Raleigh leaves the Jaeger program to work on a giant wall that will literally run the length of the Pacific coast in hopes of keeping out the Kaiju, presumably making the Jaegers obsolete. But after video surfaces of a Kaiju plowing through a similar wall in Sydney, Pentecost comes looking for qualified pilots to keep the Jaeger program going, including a hesitant Raleigh. The Kaiju are surfacing every few days at this point rather than weeks or months, and it becomes clear that soon the gateway they use to come to Earth (called the Breach) will soon just open up and unleash hell on earth. The mission now becomes not just killing Kaiju, but finding a way to plug the portal.

The thing I admired almost immediately about Pacific Rim was its sense of scale, and I don't mean how tall the monsters or robots are. One of the biggest problems I have with films about the end of the world (or the possible end) is that they tend to focus on a small group of people, and we never get a true sense of the global repercussions of whatever the destructive force might be. Granted, Pacific Rim mainly concerns itself with the destruction of coastal cities (San Francisco gets it bad, along with Seattle, Hong Kong, Alaska, etc.), but we get a sense through "news" footage just how massive this threat really is.

Character work has always been Del Toro's strong suit, and we truly do care about most of the major characters in this film, in particular the pilots. Aside from his accent issues (he's an Australian playing American), Hunnam actually does a great job wearing his pain and anxiety on his face and convincing us that he may not be ready to return to battle. But through his relationship with pilot-in-training Mako Mori (the great Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi), who ends up becoming his co-pilot, he is able not only to help her deal with her own past trauma but also work through his as well. Consider their missions the most expensive group therapy ever committed to film. And not surprisingly, their drifting experience causes them to become very protective of each other; thankfully, the film stops just shy of turning them into a couple, but things certainly seem to be headed in that direction when we leave them.

There have been a few people who believe that Pacific Rim could become this generation's Star Wars, which is, of course, ridiculous. First off, even if that did end up happening, we wouldn't know it for years until the pre-teens and teens of this era started making movies of their own a decade or more from now. And yes, I'm sure some kids who see this film will be inspired by its jaw-dropping visuals and impressive emotional content. But I'm guessing other movies that came out this and previous years have the same amount of potential to inspire impressionable minds as well. I'd love for Del Toro to be the shaper of young minds; don't get me wrong. But let's scale back on trying to predict the future of movies and judge Pacific Rim on its merits rather than its sway. That being said, if I'd seen this film when I was 12 or 13, my brain would have melted with glee.

I haven't really talked about the action sequences, which dwarf (literally and figuratively) much that has come before them. There's such an enormity to what we're seeing (especially if you're lucky enough to see the film in proper IMAX projection) that it's almost overwhelming. I found myself opening my eyes wider to let more of the image into my brain. The unique designs of both the Jaegers and especially the Kaiju are so impressive; each one reflects a specific attitude and personality, along with weaponry and biology. I found myself wanting to stop the film so I could really marvel at these creations and the way they move, fight, recover, and fall apart.

Pacific Rim is not without its faults, and chief among them are the non-pilot supporting parts. I say this as someone who has always enjoyed Charlie Day as a scene-stealing force in movies before, but as a researcher looking into the brain functions of the Kaiju, the only reason he is in the film is to reveal a key piece of information at the very end of the movie that changes the mission of the Jaegers as they attempt to close the wormhole. He has a few funny lines and his pairing with fellow researcher — a numbers man played by Burn Gorman — is vaguely amusing in small doses. Unfortunately, we get large doses of them, and they go from comic relief to major time suck. Whenever the film cut to his storyline, I groaned. I was happy to have the occasional moment to breathe away from the action, but a lot of Day in this film goes a looooong way.

The one upside to Day's plot (courtesy of Del Toro and co-writer Travis Beacham) is that it brings him together with Ron Perlman's Hannibal Chau, a black market seller and distributor of Kaiju body parts. His team of thugs moves in as soon as a monster hits the ground, and before long Kaiju bones have been powdered and are being sold as a male enhancement drug. It's a fun little side story that combines silly behavior with a deeper look at how the world has changed because of the Kaiju.

Another unnecessary aspect to Pacific Rim is a rivalry set up between Raleigh's Jaegar (named Gipsy Danger) and one piloted by the father-son team of Herc and Chuck Hansen (Max Martini and Robert Kazinsky, a newcomer to recent episodes of HBO's "True Blood"). The younger Hansen sees the Gipsy Danger crew as emotionally damaged and not ready for the big final mission, which may be true, but an awful lot of time is committed to this dopey in-fighting, and with the world's end literally at stake, I find it hard to believe these pilots would waste the effort trying to figure out who is the more capable pilot when it's clear they both have to perform equally well.

But I see these flaws in Pacific Rim because what surrounds them is damn-near perfect. I want to watch this film a dozen more times today and then repeat the procedure tomorrow. If some or most parts of this movie don't thrill you, there might be something broken. That's not an insult; I'm genuinely concerned for your well being. This is easily the best all-purpose film the summer has given us so far, and I've enjoyed works like Iron Man 3 and Man of Steel to varying degrees. But there's a smart, imaginative brain behind Pacific Rim. When I first saw the image of the Breach, I thought of Del Toro's mind finally able to explode onto the screen and wreak havoc on his audience. There are a few surprises scattered throughout, but mainly it's just an old-fashioned good time. And yes, I feel confident kids will love it too; it might even open up a new part of their imaginations, with any luck.

20 Feet From Stardom

Not since the great Standing in the Shadows of Motown has a music doc done so much justice to a group of individuals who have previous never properly had the spotlight shone upon them. 20 Feet From Stardom takes a thorough and loving look at a group of largely female backup singers whose work you absolutely know, even if you don't know their names. With voices as powerful as Diana Ross or Aretha Franklin, some of these performers made attempts at the spotlight with unheralded albums and concerts, but for reasons that range from bad timing to lack of confidence, women like Merry Clayton, Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Gloria Jones, Claudia Lennear, Táta Vega and Jo Lawry were known throughout the music world for their glorious voices but never quite made that long journey from the back to center stage.

Much of 20 Feet From Stardom is just these wonderful singers telling stories about performing, recording and otherwise working for top-of-the-bill artists going back to Darlene Love's countless sessions with producer Phil Spector, many of which were credited to other artists, even though she sang lead vocals on so many hit singles. Love is one of the few who managed to get to the spotlight, but only after quitting the music business altogether and cleaning houses for years before deciding to return and regain her crown. In the 1970s, the age of the backup singer was nearing the end in America, but in an effort to sound more soulful, many British artists (Joe Cocker, The Rolling Stones, Elton John, among others) hired these singers to record and tour with them.

Merry Clayton's incredible story about being called in the middle of the night to come into the studio pregnant and in curlers to record with the Rolling Stones the unforgettable female vocal on "Gimme Shelter" could be an entire film unto itself. And hearing her isolated vocals from that song will make your knees weak. Clayton's other great story involves her singing background vocals on Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" as a form of protest against the racist values the song seems to celebrate.

But the film doesn't stop with just stories; director Morgan Neville makes an attempt to analyze why certain exceedingly talented artists make it and some don't. It quickly becomes clear that a few of them, at least, feel more comfortable in a supporting position. The film spends a great deal of time with singer Lisa Fischer, who continues to tour with the Stones, Sting and many others, and is arguably the finest pure vocalist in the film. But it becomes clear that she's not interested in becoming a headliner, and she ends up becoming a show-stopper during other performers' concerts.

Perhaps the greatest endorsement these unsung musical heroes comes from the artists who hired or admired them, including Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen and Sting. And lest you think the phenomenon of backup singers is a thing of the past, the film also spotlights recent "The Voice" contestant Judith Hill, who was set to sing behind Michael Jackson on the tour he was rehearsing for when he died (she also sang "We Are the World" at his memorial service). Hill desperately wants to be a solo performer, but will still sometimes take backup gigs for the money, as the film shows. But it's Love's story that has what most will consider the happiest ending, since she was inducted into the Rock N' Roll Hall of Fame not long ago, and has been a favorite of everyone from Springsteen to David Letterman for decades And she seems like an absolute wonderful human being despite the many wrongs she's had to endure. You may go to 20 Feet From Stardom for the endless parade of great songs, but you'll leave thinking about the countless, unforgettable tales of woe and triumph.

The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema and the recently re-opened Landmark Renaissance in Highland Park. Performer Merry Clayton will be on hand for an audience Q&A on Friday at the Century after the 7:05pm show, and Saturday at the Renaissance after the 7:45pm screening.

Dealin' with Idiots

In his 2006 debut feature I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With, writer-director-star Jeff Garlin explored in a very sweet and funny way the process those of us who are socially awkward and unconventional go about beginning and maintaining a relationship. And I'll admit, I walked into his latest work, Dealin' with Idiots, thinking this was going to be a similarly toned work about the parents Garlin's character Max Morris meets at his son's little league games. I was thinking the film would be light observations humor with a few "these people are crazy" style comments.

What we get instead is something more judgmental, even condemning (and I don't say that as a criticism) of parents who either hover over their kids in the most oppressive way possible or barely notice their kids as they stay glued to their phones or watching anything but their children. Garlin is a keen observer, and the darker tones of Idiots makes for a slightly edgier movie in the end. Max is a fairly famous stand-up comic who is looking to make his next movie and decides that this parenting freak show would make a great subject, so he asks the parents and coaches if he can interview and observe them for research, which of course leads to a flurry of activity within the peanut gallery.

Using a largely improvisation approach (although the screenplay is credited to Garlin and Peter Murrieta), Garlin allows actors such as Fred Willard, Bob Odenkirk, Richard Kind, Steve Agree, Kerri Kenney, Gina Gershon, Jami Gertz and his "Curb Your Enthusiasm" co-star J.B. Smoove to cut loose with mixed, mostly funny results. My favorite scenes involve Max with his wife, played by Nia Vardalos, whose dialed-back approach to her character is a nice touch; and Timothy Olyphant, who appears as an influential presence in Max's life (I don't want to be too specific because his identity is kind of a secret), who gives Max some sage advice when he needs it most.

More so than than more scripted Cheese, Dealin' with Idiots catches its cast flailing a bit, and some of the jokes don't land. But the film also isn't meant to be entirely a comedy, as the behavior and attitudes of the whack-job parents begin to rub off on Max and impact his state of mind. The film strikes more of a raw nerve emotionally as Max begins to have doubts about many parts of his life and career, especially when it comes to his parenting. Some may find the movie too angry or mean for its own good, but I liked watching Garlin try out new corners of his acting range. If you don't mind a little naked aggression in your life, this might be the film for you.

Dealin' with Idiots opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre. Writer-director-star-Chicagoan Jeff Garlin will be one hand after the 7:20pm shows on Friday and Saturday for an audience Q&A, moderated by me.

The Look of Love

Prolific British director Michael Winterbottom seems to go out of his way to do something different with each new film that it took me by surprise that he's now made four films with 24 Hour Party People star Steve Coogan (they've also done Tristram Shandy and The Trip), and all of their works together stand as some of Winterbottom's most entertaining and artistically satisfying. Perhaps attempting to recapture a bit of Party People's chaotic, decadent vibe, the pair have now made the sexually charged biopic The Look of Love, an examination of the life of erotic entrepreneur Paul Raymond, who owned and operated everything from adult publishing companies to nude revues to strip clubs, and at one point was the richest man in all of England (I'm guessing members of the Royal Family weren't on that list, but maybe they were).

Raymond began his business career as a family man who collected Soho real estate, had a happy marriage to wife Jean (Anna Friel), with whom he had two children, including the beloved Debbie (played as an adult by Imogen Poots). But as Paul became more successful and was constantly surrounded by gorgeous women all wanting to be in his successful nude shows, he indulged in sins of the flesh with other women, with his wife's reluctant permission.

One day, a tall, stunning redhead named Amber (real name Fiona) came to audition for Paul, and he practically forgot his wife's name. As the free-love 1960s transitioned into the drug-fueled 1970s, Paul dumped Jean and took up with the more open-minded Amber, who quickly became a part of his publishing empire as a sex advice columnist. The Look of Love zips through Raymond's life with such energy that it feels like we're getting more of an impression of his life than a detailed account. But the cumulative effect is powerful, especially when the film puts the microscope on his relationship with his daughter, whose singing career he attempts to help launch. Her path down a cocaine highway is ferocious and ugly.

The film borrows some stylistic cues from the likes of The People vs. Larry Flynt and Boogie Nights, but Winterbottom is careful not to let us ever think too highly of Paul, and Coogan plays him as the bastard he was to nearly everyone around him. If we believe the film's lovely coda, most of the empire he built was for the benefit of his kids, but the way he mistreats them and their mother never really allows us to view him as truly sympathetic or likable. I certainly don't need a likable character at the center of every movie that I enjoy, and Coogan's performance is just the right level of shitheel. There are plenty of other characters to like in this story (Amber, especially), don't worry.

Adding a wonderful pop soundtrack to the mix (including quite a few Burt Bacharach-written numbers) really boosts the enjoyability factor of The Look of Love. While the abrasive qualities of Paul Raymond may be too much for some to bear, I found the performance by Coogan to be so unbelievably watchable that I simply didn't care that he was such a prick. Paul's giant bed with skylight that looked up into the stars when its mirrored ceiling opened up was all I needed to see to know that I would enjoy this film immensely. It opens for a weeklong run beginning today in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me

While my knowledge of the music of Big Star is solid, the details of their career and backstory were a complete mystery to me. Courtesy of the extensive documentary from directors Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori, the details of the Memphis-based band that featured former Box Tops singer Alex Chilton is now told through a series of great interviews from both surviving band members, music historians, and long-time famous fans of the group whose commercial success was never as important as their influence on what came after their brief three-album run (all three of which landed on Rolling Stone magazine's top 500 albums of all time).

If you've heard #1 Record, the debut album from 1971 by Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel, it's likely you remember the circumstances surrounding your first listen. The band is undeniably talented, but it seemed like it was formed out of Chilton's frustration with being so successful at such a young age as the singer of several big hits in the late 1960s, including the monster single "The Letter." Many in the film make the point that much of Chilton's career has been a series of going in the complete opposite direction of what he's just done, much to the frustration of many fans of Big Star.

Nothing Can Hurt Me features the usual treasure trove of previously unseen footage, studio outtakes (mostly of conversation and not unreleased music), and revealing interviews (both new and archival) with the band. Perhaps the best stories in the film aren't even about the band; they are about its record company attempting to organize music writers by inviting several dozen of them to Memphis on the company dime and showcasing its artists at a big party, which Big Star headlined and actually got the group of jaded rock journalists to dance.

The film also tracks each band member's lives after the band broke up after its third record, which all admit was essentially a Chilton solo album with Big Star playing behind him. Interviews with members of The Replacements, REM, Flaming Lips and others round out the film nicely and provide the necessary context for Big Star's circle of influence. We get to watch the agonizingly painful life of Chris Bell after the band's demise, and the weird, trippy road that Chilton took until his death three years ago, right before a big tribute to his career was planned at SXSW. The film exudes melancholy for every frame, and that seems wholly appropriate. It's a great journey through the birth of a type of music that doesn't really have a name beyond "great," and defies genres with authority.

The film will have two showings next week at the Music Box Theatre, on Monday, July 15 at 7:30pm; and Wednesday, July 17 at 7:30pm.

LaShawn Williams / July 12, 2013 12:58 PM

Going to see 'Twenty Feet' tonight--too excited!

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