Friday, August 9, 2013

Summer Pleasures: Pacific Rim, Joyland and Under the Dome

A scene from Pacific Rim, now in theatres

The late science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon (More than Human) once opined, in defense against critics who said all science was bad, that "ninety percent of science fiction is crud, but then, ninety percent of everything is crud." That dictum, now known as Sturgeons' Law and usually stated as "90% of everything is crap," is actually true, though there are times in certain art forms  sixties rock, seventies American cinema when the over-all high quality belies that statistic. Of course the 10% that isn't crud isn't necessarily stellar, either. Great art, be it a film like Richard Linklater's Before Midnight or an album like The Allman Brothers' Live at the Fillmore East, isn't easily made, but there is enough out there that is at least worth your time, even if it falls short of what it could have been. Here are some recent efforts worth checking out.

A Jaeger to the rescue, in Pacific Rim
If you note that Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim is dedicated to the memories of special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen and director Ishirō Honda, whose credits included The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and Godzilla, respectively, you'll likely appreciate the science fiction B movie antecedents of this entertaining, likeable summer flick. Set in the near future a decade or so after creatures from a fissure deep in the ocean began attacking coastal cities like San Francisco and Manila, Pacific Rim posits a time when Jaegers, giant-sized robots controlled by human beings, fight the Kaijus, the name for the sea monsters besieging humanity. While not infallible, the Jaegers seem to be the only things that are able to stop the enormous creatures to do so, however, the squabbling human operators of the Jaegers need to get their shit together, something not so easy to do when they have suffered losses in previous battles and possess giant egos to boot.

Much of Pacific Rim is just sheer fun, ably directed by Del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth) who creates a believable futuristic world that feels right it's not that different from our own but tonally, because of the dire circumstances mankind finds itself in, it's just different enough to make it seem strange. It's also, refreshingly, non-American-centric virtually all the key figures in the film are Chinese, Australian, British, Japanese or Russian and you get a genuine sense of this as a worldwide battle, unlike the maladroit zombie film World War Z. Most of the characters, save for a bland Charlie Hunnam as Raleigh Becket, one of the best Jaeger warriors, are sharply drawn: notably Idris Elba (The Wire, Thor) as Stacker Pentecost (great name), Raleigh's tough as nails commander, and Max Martini as Herc Hansen, an empathic Australian fighter whose arrogant son Chuck (Robert Kazinsky) is Raleigh's chief rival. The film's humour, centered around two eccentric scientists, Dr. Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day) and Dr. Hermann Gottlieb (Burn Gorman), is also clever and there's a great comic cameo by Del Toro's favourite actor, Ron Perlman (Hellboy), as a shady trafficker in Kaiju body parts. (Rinko Kikuchi as Mako Mori, the film's romantic lead, is just okay.) And the monsters are scary enough, even though I didn't understand why they only attacked one at a time. (An explanation is offered, but it came in some scientific gobbledygook that didn't make much sense, though I suppose most B movies are saddled with jargon like that.)

Unfortunately the box office exigencies of the prohibitively expensive blockbuster genre mean that this two-hour plus movie is about 40 minutes too long B movies usually erred on the side of welcome brevity and, towards the end, the film devolves into a bunch of tired action sequences that are all about the special effects. It would have been nice, too, if Del Toro, who co-wrote the film with Travis Beacham, had been allowed or able to make the movie even more humourous, along the lines of a smart revisionist film like the SF spoof Galaxy Quest (1999) or the horror comedy Tremors (1990), but we'll have to settle for what we have. Besides, a Hollywood movie with a pulse and personality is nothing to sneer at these days.

Stephen King's latest novel Joyland highlights his considerable strengths, from incisive character portraits to atmospheric landscapes, but it's also meant to be a horror tale and ironically, considering his reputation, that is the weakest part of an otherwise admirable book. Set in North Carolina circa 1973, it's the story of a summer and fall in the life of Devin Jones, a decent 21-year-old man who is about to have his heart broken by his first love but who will find new experiences in an amusement park called Joyland. What happens to him there will also change him forever.

Narrated about forty years after the fact by Jones, Joyland at its best is a lovely and heartwarming coming-of-age story, populated by fascinating personalities, most working in Joyland as carny regulars, and full of savvy observations about how we unconsciously behave and how our innermost feelings can come across to others without us knowing it. (Most of the carnival folk can read Devin like an open book.) I learnt a lot about how carnivals work Joyland isn't as disreputable as most but not completely on the up and up either and about the quirky lifestyles of the individuals who travel the carny circuit, working in different parts of the U.S. year round. King is also lamenting how an intimate but relatively low-key amusement park doesn't stand a chance of survival in a funhouse world slowly being taken over by slick corporate entities like Disney and Six Flags. Jones feels that it was, in many ways, a more innocent time, but in spite of his nostalgia it is not an era he views through rose-tinted glasses. At its best, Joyland stands comparison to The Body, the superb King novella which was turned into the (lesser) film Stand By Me.

All that is well and fine but King, likely because the book is part of a series put out by the Hard Case Crime imprint devoted to hard-boiled crime novels, feels compelled to include some horror elements, revolving around a ghost reputed to haunt Joyland. He also adds a back-story connected to the haunting about a serial killer who murdered a girl at Joyland and was never caught. The former is an acceptable add-on it fits the carnival motif somehow but the latter is singularly unnecessary and, worse, leads to a lengthy sequence that has to be some of the most clichéd and pulpy writing King has ever committed to paper. (I still can't believe his climactic set up.) Joyland ought to have spent more time on the summer antics of Devin and his new friends, Erin Cook and Thomas Kennedy, and given us a broader sense of the other kids Devin worked with; they're barely acknowledged in the book. It would have also been nice, too if some of the American realities of the South had been dealt with. I couldn't help wondering how many African-American employees the carnival has Devin does note that Dominicans are employed as cleaners and whether the clientele was racially mixed. As for Devin's touching relationship with Annie, an angry young mother, and her son, Michael, who has a life shortening form of muscular dystrophy, it almost comes into the book too late to have the proper emotional effect. The novel's horror and mystery tropes may seem to be mostly an afterthought, but much of Joyland is profoundly moving.

Mike Vogel, in Under the Dome
Stephen King pops up again, as the inspiration for the new CBS series Under the Dome, based on his excellent 2009 novel of the same name. But don't expect a slavish adaptation of the book; many of its characters have either been dropped or changed, but the end result still makes for pretty decent drama.

The show's main premise is the same: the small town of Chester's Mill is suddenly encased in a mysterious, impregnable dome, origin unknown, and slowly begins to fall apart as foodstuffs grow low and people start to panic. Meanwhile, the residents' secret lives and actions have an impact on how they behave and whether they band together for good or for ill or even survive the calamity.

Developed by Brian K. Vaughan, best known for acclaimed graphic novels like Y: The Last Man (Steven Spielberg and Stephen King are among the show's executive producers; the episode's directors are a varied lot), Under the Dome is a nice amalgam of science fiction, horror and suspense, albeit a trifle too melodramatic. (It also seems to be heading towards the same revelation as in the book of why the dome appeared in the first place, though King says otherwise.) The special effects are effective and subtly used and the acting pretty decent across the board, though the show's seemingly low budget precludes too many characters appearing in any one episode, other than the eight or nine regulars, rendering Chester's Mill as less of an identifiable entity than its individual citizens. Interestingly, Vaughan and his writers have shaded the book's two main protagonists more than King did. James "Big Jim" Rennie (Dean Norris, Breaking Bad), the town's councilman and car dealer, isn't quite as evil as in the novel; he's a bit more ineffectual and capable of small decencies. And Dale "Barbie" Barbara (Mike Vogel, The Help), the Iraq war veteran, designated in the book by the authorities outside the dome –  who don’t figure in the show, at least to date –  as the man to run Chester's Mill during the crisis, is far more shady and suspect. (Even Julia Shumway (Rachelle Lefevre, Barney's Version) has now morphed from a crusading small town journalist descended from a family long in the newspaper business, as she was in the novel, to a failed reporter from the big city stuck in her idea of the middle of nowhere.)

In Under the Dome, King was using good and evil as symbols at the opposite ends of the spectrum of his vivid and dark picture of post-Obama small town life, offering a scathing view of Chester’s Mill as a virtually all-white enclave rife with bigotry and small-mindedness. The TV version, likely hoping for a wider viewing audience, dispenses with almost all of his political subtext – except for the townsfolk's suspicions of the U.S. army's motives in surrounding their town after the dome appears and proffers a place that is comfortably multicultural and multiracial, with characters that are a bit more grounded in familiar archetypes. (King is on record of approving of those changes, incidentally, unlike Max Brooks who quickly distanced himself from the film adaptation of his novel World War Z.) That's not necessarily dishonest –  some small towns likely fit that bill –  but it's a lot less biting.

My concern is less with the series’ revisions as with its potential for disaster as it goes into a second season next summer. Part of a successful experiment by its network to ape the cable channels by launching a major scripted show now rather than during the usual fall or winter time-frame, Under the Dome runs the risk of being too much of a hit. The novel unfolded in one intense week and still would have fared best, I maintain, as a three-hour film –  but stretching Under the Dome's television incarnation out to two seasons or even more risks it becoming as silly and farfetched as Gilligan's Island. But so far, at least, the show, which is halfway through its 13-week run, is not nearly the botched effort I expected. It's not half bad and that's good.

–  Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he will be teaching a course on acting archetypes in the fall.

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