Sunday, August 25, 2013

A Room of One's Own

After much foot-dragging, I have finally established a permanent-ish online home. This website will host selections of my work, written and otherwise, and will be added to and expanded over time.

Bonne lecture, as the French say.

Image: Cais das colunas, Lisbon © Oliver Farry 2013

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Bastards – Claire Denis

The Bastards (Les salauds) (Claire Denis – France/Germany) 100 minutes

Claire Denis returns with her first film since 2009’s White Material and films in digital for the first time. The Bastards is a strange confection – expertly constructed for the most part, a film of the utmost seriousness but which is ultimately compromised by the sensationalism of its subject matter. Like many of Denis’ films, the plot is divulged piecemeal, in ambiguously-mounted fragments. The Bastards (its English title yields more unintentional humour than the more forthright French original) opens with the apparent suicide of a bankrupt businessman, Jacques (Laurent Grevill). Close to his body, a young woman is seen walking naked, in a seemingly drugged state, with blood running from between her legs. She turns out to be his daughter, Justine (Lola Créton – recently seen in Olivier Assayas’ Après mai/Something in the Air). She is then taken to hospital while her mother, Sandra (Julie Bataille) berates the police for failing to act on a complaint Jacques had filed regarding a sleazy businessman, Édouard Laporte (Michel Butor) who had been issuing loans to him.

Left helpless, Sandra calls her brother Marco (Vincent Lindon), a naval captain, home, to exact retribution. He moves into the apartment upstairs from Laporte and starts a relationship with Laporte’s much younger mistress, Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni). Meanwhile, he is told that Justine will need corrective surgery to repair the damage done by her sexual assault; Justine, however, in an echo of Faulkner’s novel Sanctuary, wants to get back to her tormenter and even appears to be in love with him.

Denis, one of the finest French filmmakers currently working, builds the narrative with consummate grace. The film’s tone is aptly morose, with an eerie score contributed by her regular collaborators, Tindersticks; Lindon, even if he is beginning to get more than a bit typecast as the strong silent, single (always single) middle-aged man, is a credible, sympathetic presence in the lead role. Yet the film jars, even in its early moments. Denis got the idea for the film from a news story she had read about a young woman who was found lying in a back street having been drugged and sexually abused by human traffickers. Her intent was clearly serious but the film can’t help but be weighed down by the luridness of the narrative. It is all a bit Steig Larsson, and, even when documenting the most horrendous crimes, it has a similar tendency to the overblown and baroque. Perhaps if she had made it in more of a straight-forward way, from the point of view of the abusers, it might have had more of a dramatic punch and the gravity of its subject-matter maintained. By casting the film as a conspiratorial noir though, she is hampered too much by genre convention, and the result is no less unfortunately camp than Paul Schrader’s Hardcore was, way back in 1979.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Lions – Jazmín López and Meteora – Spiros Stathoulopoulos

Lions (Leones) (Jazmín López – Argentina/France/Netherlands) 82 minutes

Meteora (Spiros Stathoulopoulos – Germany/Greece) 82 minutes

Young Argentine director Jazmín López’s debut film is an elliptical exploration of youthful grief that manages to be both slight and weighty at the one time. Five young rich kids from Buenos Aires embark on a day trip to the country where they appear to be looking for the holiday home belonging to the family of one of them. There is a brother and sister – the nervy, and possibly autistic, Arturo (Pablo Sigal) and Sofi (Macarena del Corro) – Sofi’s boyfriend Félix (Tomás Mackinlay), Niki (Diego Vegezzi) who goes around recording all the sound within his earshot, and Isa (Julia Volpato), who has recently lost her brother in a car crash in which at least one or two of the party may have been also involved.

Lions is a meandering film in which the quintet wander through the lush greenery, telling each other inconsequential jokes and anecdotes, playing games (one is the ‘Hemingway game’, that variation on the six-word short story) and being revisited by the fatal car crash that claimed the life of Isa’s brother. There is no real plot to speak of – what recognisable narrative elements there are drift in and out like the sounds and noises on Niki’s dictaphone. Occasionally López introduces a trope that suggests some drama might be around the corner, like when the edgy Arturo steals a pistol from a tractor they come across, but there is Chekovian pay-off to be had.

The film ends with something resembling a narrative conclusion but an ambiguous close is as near a concession to convention that López makes. Her free-wheeling narrative will madden many (and, to be fair, it does at times have the feel of a student film about it) but the performances are fresh and natural and she has a nice way of incorporating diegetic music into the fabric of the film (Daniel Johnston’s ‘Devil Town’ and Sonic Youth’s  ‘Do You Believe in Rapture’ interpreted by the characters). There are touches of Gus Van Sant (director of photography Matías Mesa operated the Steadicam on Elephant and Gerry) and Terrence Malick about Lions (and, like much cinema that reminds you of Malick, it is far more interesting than the Texan mystic’s current output) and, after Santiago Mitre’s recent El Estudiante, is another glimpse of a very talented young Argentine director.

Another impressive film from a young director is the second feature from the Greek Spiros Stathoulopoulos. His first film, PVC-1, was set in his mother’s native Colombia and was notable for being one single continuous take. Meteora is similarly formally inventive, mixing live action and mesmerising animation in the style of Orthodox icons, even if the story at its core is hardly original – forbidden love between a monk and a nun at the famed Meteora monastery complex in northern Greece.

The convent and the monastery stand opposite one another, atop precipitate limestone buttes (so precipitate that the only way to access the convent is to be hoisted up inside a net). Theo, a young monk (Theo Alexander – best known as Talbot in True Blood) woos Urania, a Russian nun (Tamila Koulieva), communicating with her via light reflected into each other’s bedroom windows. What starts off as a seemingly innocuous friendship soon turns carnal and you wonder quite how Spiros Stathoulopoulos got clearance for the film from the notoriously conservative Greek Orthodox church.

Nothing much happens in the film – Stathoulopoulos even (wisely) refrains from having the couple face any retributive justice for their transgressions. Instead he documents the minutiae of monastery life and the farming hinterland – the slaughter and skinning of a goat reminded me of the ethnographic cinema of Michelangelo Frammartino or the Iranian Abol-Fazl Jalili. We see the film’s narrative reflected and glossed in the beautiful animation sequences. There are voice-over asides on faith but, though a theological consultant is credited in the closing titles, it is hard to glean much from that angle. The strength of Meteora is its narrative and formal beauty – undoubtedly helped by having such a photogenic location; it is a little gem of ontological cinema – the pleasure is all in watching the action unfold before your eyes, as ordinary people go about their business in an extraordinary environment.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Grigris – Mahamat-Saleh Haroun

Grigris (Mahamet-Saleh Haroun – France/Chad) 101 minutes

French-based Chadean director Mahamet-Saleh Haroun won the Jury Prize at Cannes four years ago for A Screaming Man, his fourth film, making him only the third director from sub-Saharan Africa to win a Cannes award. His new film, Grigris is once again set in his home country, in the capital N’djamena. Souleymane (Souleymane Démé) (aka ‘Grigris’) is a young man whom childhood illness has left with a withered left leg. This doesn’t stop him from being, as they say, a total boss on the dance floor, and his shows rake in cash from the punters in the city’s bars. Grigris has ambitions to become a professional dancer but when his uncle falls ill, he is forced to find other means of income to pay the hospital bills.

He approaches Moussa, a charismatic local gangster (Cyril Guei), who reluctantly gives him a job working on his racket smuggling petrol across the Chari river from Cameroon. After initial hiccups, Grigris wins the confidence of Moussa. He also wins the heart of Mimi (Anaïs Monoury), a young woman who dreams of becoming a model but who prostitutes herself to wealthy Europeans to earn a living. She herself is the daughter of a Frenchman she never met and hides her straight European hair beneath an Afro wig. Fearing the consequences for his uncle if the bills are left unpaid, Grigris decides to rip Moussa off by claiming he got robbed and badly beaten up. Moussa however is not buying it and in a small city like N’djamena it is not too difficult to verify things.

Grigris is an assured sun-drenched film noir that is all the more remarkable for being made largely with amateurs (including Démé, whose atrophied leg and contortionistic dance moves are his own). It is also a rich portrait of a society that rarely impinges on the Western conscience except in news stories about distant wars. The society Grigris inhabits is one that is Muslim but not terribly devout – the Chadeans know how to party and like a drink (and in one amusing scene, Grigris says his morning prayers lying in bed) – but when Grigris’ honesty is put to the test he is forced to swear on the Koran.

It is a society that straddles the pre- and post-modern: Grigris’ mother earns a living as a laundress and she does all the washing in the river, his uncle’s photography concern is doing less well than his tailoring business due to the ubiquity of camera-phones (as Grigris explains to him, "everyone’s a photographer these days"). Moussa’s men are as likely to drive around in old Peugeot 504s as they are in Lexuses; a wooden club can be as powerful a weapon as a gun. The people in Grigris are subject to what Westerners tiresomely and condescendingly call ‘First World problems’; people elsewhere call them, simply, ‘problems’. Though he has had to move to France to make a career in cinema, it’s heartening that Haroun is able to turn out films  about his neglected homeland at such a regular rate. And the films are getting better every time.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Gold – Thomas Arslan

Gold (Thomas Arslan – Germany/Canada) 101 minutes

A German-language Western set in Canada is about as eccentric a twist on the old-fashioned genre as one can get, though Thomas Arslan’s film, for the most part, observes the Western’s classic modes and tropes. The year is 1895 and a group of seven German immigrants has gathered in British Columbia to follow the Klondike Gold Rush. Except these prospectors, amateurs all, are not rushing it. The expedition’s head, one Wilhelm Laser (Peter Kurth), who has already come about a few nuggets of gold himself, insists that an easier and cheaper route to the Klondike lies through the interior of the Canadian province.

All are people who are giving one last throw of the dice to try and make something of their time in the New World, which has proven to be less than what they expected. There is a young woman, Emily Meyer, (Nina Hoss), who is recovering from an ill-fated marriage in Chicago; a journalist (Üwe Bohm) who is hoping to make his name documenting and photographing the expedition but who has an unfortunate fondness for whiskey; a husband and wife who cook the groups’s meals – barely edible crud scraped together from imperishables; a carpenter who is desperate to get him and his family out of the squalor of their New York tenement, and finally, the group’s ostler, a taciturn Austrian (Marko Mandic) who is on the run from bounty hunters, having killed a man in Virginia. These ingenues are ripped off by eager Canadians, white and Indian alike, and are repeatedly met with incredulity at their intention to trek across uncharted territory.

Things soon turn awry, with divisions in the group arising, and Laser makes the fateful decision not to heed an Indian scout’s advice to take the Indian road instead of the ‘white man’s’ which goes through the forest and which ‘eats the horses’, as the scout says. The film is more than a little reminiscent of Kelly Reichardt’s recent Meek’s Cut-Off, which followed a similarly perilous trek by tyro pioneers, one of them Michelle Williams, on the Oregon Trail. Gold certainly gets the mood and detail right, and benefits from some fine performances, particularly from the coolly impassive Nina Hoss (who shot to prominence last year in Christian Petzhold’s GDR drama Barbara); it also has a good understanding of the Western’s anatomy of space and isolation, and immigrants in the Old West have appeared far too infrequently on screen. It is however a little pedestrian in comparison to Reichardt’s film – the bounty hunters on Böhmer’s trail are inserted in the script in an arbitrary way, and the film never gets quite as dark as it initially promises to. The grinding electric guitar score by Dylan Carlson (of the Seattle band Earth and now most famous for having bought Kurt Cobain that shotgun) is also distracting and strains far too hard to be like Neil Young’s score for Dead Man. Still, Gold is involving enough as a film and is sufficiently off the beaten track (like its protagonists) to be of interest to anyone who is craving a cowboy fix.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

The Congress – Ari Folman

The Congress (Ari Folman – Israel/Germany/Poland/Luxembourg/France/Belgium) 122 minutes

Ari Folman’s first English-language film (his fourth in all) follows on from the huge international success of Waltz with Bashir but is a severely underwhelming experience in comparison. Freely adapted from Stanislaw Lem’s 1971 novel The Futorological Congress, the film stars Robin Wright as a washed-up middle-aged actress named… Robin Wright, who has put her family first to the detriment of her career. She is a single mother of two teenage children, one of whom is autistic, and the only offer her agent (Harvey Keitel) can muster for her is the opportunity to be scanned for Hollywood to use her likeness ad infinitum in computer-generated films. The pay is pitiful and she must promise to never act again.

The first part of The Congress shows her weighing up – and ultimately accepting – this offer; it is the film’s main departure from Lem’s novel and it is a rather toothless addition. The satirical jabs aimed at Hollywood are so lame they could be from a Paulie Shore film and the self-reflexivity falls flat on its face. Wright is neither lost cause nor superstar and the ontological weight of the character’s predicament is wasted. It would make far more sense to cast either Wynona Ryder, Sharon Stone or even Angelina Jolie as themselves to give the scenario the appropriate frisson of teetering failure. (Who knows? Folman may have tried to get someone like them, but you can imagine many Hollywood stars would have found the film’s intimation too close to the bone.) As it stands, Wright is an odd fit and doesn’t work in the role; it’s as if you cast Bette Davis or Greta Garbo as Norma Desmond.

The second part is mostly animated, as was Waltz with Bashir. It is set twenty years in the future; Wright has been invited by Miramount, the studio she has indentured herself to, to visit the Futorological Congress, which is ‘a strictly animated environment’. This environment is peopled exclusively by the well-off, who have been able to afford the recreational medicine that allows them to live beyond ‘the truth’. (When we discover ‘the truth’ later in the film, as it turns back to live action, it is not a shock to discover that it is a very bleak world indeed). The animated paradise allows its inhabitants to create their own reality (at one point a robot bellhop tells Wright that the lights in her hotel room have gone off ‘because you chose darkness’). It is a similar diegetic determinism to Lem’s more famous Solaris, though The Congress doesn’t even come near to touching the cloak of Steven Soderbergh’s adaptation of that book, never mind Tarkovsky’s.

Wright, when called upon to give a speech, upbraids those gathered at the Congress in exactly the sort of outburst that you keep hoping will some day happen at a TED conference; she is then wooed by a fellow Congress attendee (voiced by Jon Hamm but, animated, he looks far more like Adrien Brody) but she is unmoved by the attractions of the medicated utopia and is searching for her son, who is getting progressively blind and deaf in her absence.

The Congress is the sort of film that probably sounded intriguing in abstract (maybe even in script form) but it is a long, long slog, right to the very end. Its various tropes fail to come to life, its ideas fail to materialise and its marathon maudlin tone seems forced. I have not really felt this punished by ponderous dreariness since Synecdoche, New York. The animation, which draws heavily on the Fleischer brothers, is also rendered pointless by Folman’s seeming lack of interest in its formal plasticity – there are few attempts made to genuinely take the film somewhere live action cannot reach. Folman might as well have just shot the second part in monochrome or gone with straight rotoscope rather than what he attempted here. What we are left it with is a film that misfires at practically every opportunity.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Once I Entered a Garden – Avi Mograbi

Once I Entered a Garden (Nichnasti Pa’am Lagan) (Avi Mograbi – Israel/France/Germany) 97 minutes

Avi Mograbi’s 2005 film Avenge But One of My Two Eyes was not seen by many people outside of Israel or France but it is, in my opinion, the greatest documentary of the past decade. It was several films in one – a ruminative video diary, a reportage on the suicide-valorising Samson and Massada cults prevalent in Israel, a journey into the weirdness of the settler far-right (the title comes from a song by a Hasidic punk band), and a polemical testimony to the humiliating treatment visited upon Palestinians at IDF checkpoints. Mograbi, a long-time leftist who went to prison for refusing to serve in Lebanon in the 1980s (something his son has since emulated), is like Michael Moore crossed with Chris Marker, with a dash of WG Sebald thrown in for good measure. He is angry without being hectoring, persistently inquisitive and his films breathe discursive ideas.

After 2009’s Z32, in which Mograbi got a former Israeli conscript to re-enact the abuse of Palestinian civilians he was party to, he returns with a film that is more reflective and personal. Again, we have a film of protean form – Mograbi initially intended making a movie about a cousin of his father who lived in Beirut and who was bemused to be caught up in the new reality of Jewish-Arab relations post-1948. Much of that remains in the film, with letters written by the cousin read in French by the Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass overlaid on contemporary footage of his Beirut home shot to look like old Super-8. But the bulk of the film is recorded conversations between Mograbi and his friend and Arabic teacher, the Palestinian academic Ali Al-Azhari.

The pair search through old documents looking for traces of Mograbi’s ancestors and riff on everything from the Nakba, the relative freedom of movement of Israelis and Palestinians to hummus, olives and the Arab Spring. They visit Al-Azhari’s childhood home, from which his family was expelled in 1948, and which now bears a sign saying ‘forbidden to foreigners’. There is barbed humour: when Mograbi says his Arabic lessons are making Al-Azhari a rich man, the Palestinian replies ‘that’s payback for the Nakba’. The dialogue is in both Hebrew and Arabic (with the subtitles colour-coded to help the uninitiated distinguish them) with Mograbi clearly less confident in the latter, stopping from time to time to ask Al-Azhari how to say certain words. It’s a visible humbling of the big bearish man seen in Avenge But One of My Two Eyes (though, to be fair, Mograbi has always engaged in self-deprecation in his films) and his newly-grown moustache gives him an avuncular Mitteleuropean air. It is rare that you see the process of language-learning on screen and the resonance of the exchanges in Arabic might be lost on anyone who has not turned that significant corner in learning a language when the words finally start to flow.

Though Mograbi and Al-Azhari are clearly not terribly representative of their respective communities – Mograbi is well to the left and more conscious of his Arab heritage than the vast majority of Israelis and Al-Azhari, despite being dispossessed as a child, has a prestigious job and lives relatively comfortably by Palestinian standards – there is a real sense that we are witnessing a dialogue between nations. It is a languid dialogue, one in which Al-Azhari’s sprightly and smart eight-year-old daughter intervenes with perorations on racism at her Tel Aviv school, and it is reminiscent of a Middle Eastern My Dinner With André. You wonder if Mograbi has given up on the more confrontational demotic documentaries of his earlier career, but Once I Entered a Garden is a wonderfully rich work that traces a shared history in a region that too often seems irrevocably divided.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

A Hijacking – Tobias Lindholm

A Hijacking (Kapringen) (Tobias Lindholm – Denmark) 103 minutes

It’s a bit surprising a film based on Somali pirates’ hijacking of cargo vessels has not arrived until now. It is also a little unexpected that it has come from Denmark, courtesy of Tobias Lindholm, writer of the TV show Borgen, who has beaten Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips to the punch. A Hijacking recounts the 2007 taking of the MV Rozen, a Danish ship on its way to Mumbai. The actual ship is used in the film and certain personnel, such as the shipping company’s head of security during ransom negotiations, Gary Skjoldmose Porter, take acting roles.

The hijacking itself takes place offscreen and the film focuses rather on the negotiations; the action is divided between two locales. One is the Copenhagen offices of the Clipper Group, whose CEO Peter C. Ludvigsen (Søren Malling of The Killing) takes the matter in hand, against the advice of his security consultant Connor Julian (Skjoldmose Porter), who fears Ludvigsen’s emotional investment could jeopardise the negotiations. The other is the ship itself, where the cook Mikkel Hartmann (Pilou Asbæk) is thrust into the role of intermediary by the pirates’ translator (or perhaps leader?) Omar (Abdihakin Asgar). The mechanics of the negotiations are the subject matter so there is no interrogation of what pushes Somali fishermen to become pirates, and little of the Somali dialogue is translated. This is fair enough, as the film needs a subjective view for it to work as a thriller.

A Hijacking is tense and effective and it excels in parts but it oddly feels like it belongs more on the small screen (ironic given Danish TV shows such as Borgen have a more cinematic scope than many traditional drama series). The film starts convincingly, as the negotiations begin in the early days of the hijacking but as the months go by, we lose sight of some of the ordeal’s debilitating effects. The Copenhagen scenes are handled a bit better than those on the ship – we see the strain working on Ludvigsen, who practically sets up camp in his office as the hijacking takes over his life. The ship scenes, which are filmed in a more documentary style, are at times impressive but the squalor in which the crew are living is cursorily dealt with and the captain, who is first announced to be seriously ill, manages to pull through the four months well enough. Though the security adviser says early on that things needn’t be rushed and that ‘time is a Western thing – it means nothing to them [the pirates]’ you sense that you are missing something from the negotiations. It’s a bit like cutting to a dish being taken out of the oven in a cookery programme. For this reason, you wonder if spreading it out over two or three episodes of a TV programme might have been better.

A Hijacking has been garnering rave reviews but like Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt from last year (which Lindholm co-wrote) it feels like a topical story in search of a movie. You can’t fault the technical qualities, and Lindholm keeps the suspense up till the very end; ultimately though it is like most Danish films that are not made by Lars Von Trier: solid and well-mannered but lacking the spark of great cinema.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Man of Steel & Pacific Rim

Man of Steel (Zach Snyder – USA/Canada/UK) 143 minutes

Pacific Rim (Guillermo del Toro – USA) 130 minutes

Christopher Nolan, at the end of his career, will be able to say one thing: he single-handedly made comic-book adaptations very serious indeed. Many comic fans date the start of the super-hero seriousness to Frank Miller’s refitting of Batman in The Dark Knight but it was Nolan that brought that extra gravitas to the summer blockbuster. Batman Begins started it all off, a post-9/11 muscular liberal fantasy for tough-but-fair Americans paralysed by the Bush presidency.  After a decent enough sequel in 2008’s The Dark Knight, Nolan went full-Samuel Huntingdon with the thinly-veiled millenarianism of The Dark Knight Rises.

Nolan now has got his mitts on Superman for the latest renewal of the franchise, Man of Steel. Comic aficionados have long considered Superman a slighter creation than its DC Comics stablemate from Gotham. All film adaptations thus far have been duly hokey and comical, including the most recent – Brian Singer’s mishit Superman Returns, which made the error of building the film around Kevin Spacey’s Lex Luthor. Man of Steel, produced and written by Nolan, is not in the business of such frivolity. The traditional Superman villain Luthor is jettisoned, in favour of General Zod, who last appeared in Richard Lester’s splendidly enjoyable 1981 Superman II. This affords more capacity for Nolan’s civilisational concerns. Zod, played by the gnarled, doesn’t-suffer-fools-gladly Michael Shannon, is a Coriolanus figure, who has been exiled from the doomed planet of Krypton after a failed coup, around about the same time the infant Kal El is sent into space to maintain the planet’s lifeblood. Zod and his cronies, in Superman II, were dispatched trapped in an oversized make-up mirror; this time they are rather humanely placed in giant dildos, in one of the rare unwitting moments of humour in an undertaking of otherwise great import.

If I have spent more time so far talking of Zod than Superman, that is because he is a far more interesting character than the buff cipher at the centre of the piece, played by Henry Cavill, who is all alpha pecs and beta countenance and is as unlikely to linger in the popular consciousness any longer than the last Clark Kent, Brandon Routh. Shannon as Zod is a steely military realist, one you find yourself nodding along in agreement with, even as he openly advocates genocide to clear Earth for Krypton colonisation. Superman, on the other hand, is despairingly wispy, saddled with even more backstory than ever. Two father figures loom heavily, played by Kevin Costner, in folksy Mid-Western mode, and Russell Crowe, as Jor-El, increasingly ludicrous as he yaws about in the Sunday best of his faux-RADA accent. Lois Lane is, of course, in the mix too, this time played by a suitably girl-next-door Amy Adams, who even passes muster somewhat as a Pultizer-prize winning journalist.

All this though is to accord more significance to Man of Steel than is really warranted; there is little more than your average mega-budget action movie on display. Zach Snyder (he of Watchmen and 300) films in the Nolan manner but directs with far less verve; the movie strains for the epic but its dun tempera palette reminds you too often of a heavy metal album cover. The music couldn’t get any more intrusive – Hans Zimmer’s score practically shits Valkyries; if I never hear a bassoon again in my life, it won't be too soon.

But if the film’s execution is questionable, it is the tone that ultimately sinks it. Dredging up underlying themes and subtexts in popular comic books is a legitimate endeavour (Mark Millar’s Superman: Red Son is a fantastically inventive variation on the original Superman) but need it all be done with such overweening urgency? The original Superman films starring the late Christopher Reeve (OK, with the exception of the fourth) were well-packaged entertainments with just enough intelligence to anchor them in a recognisable narrative discourse. They were also packed with wit and had a winning sense of their own playfulness (who can forget Terence Stamp’s Zod in Superman II remarking of the US president kneeling before him: "this man cannot be your leader if he kneels so easily"?) A light touch is no guarantee of success in a comic book adaptation – Singer’s Superman Returns and Joel Schumacher’s two Batman films are both immeasurably worse than Man of Steel – but the more I see these Nolan-produced works the more I think erring on the side of levity is the way to go. Besides, if a film like Man of Steel is so determined to be taken seriously, why give it a title that evokes none other than one of the biggest mass murderers of the 20th century?

Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, despite grappling with similar issues such as the possible eradication of human life from Earth to benefit a more advanced species, is an altogether less serious film than Man of Steel. It also feels like a throwback to blockbusters of the 1990s, resembling at times Independence Day, Men in Black, Armageddon and, naturally, Godzilla. That is hardly the greatest of pedigrees but del Toro’s film, while it is nothing special, is still better than all but the Tommy Lee Jones/Will Smith vehicle. Like Man of Steel, it struggles to bring some freshness to a very limited genre in a similar way to how designers must re-work an iconic football shirt every year or two. Pacific Rim does manage though to occasionally step outside the blockbuster’s traditional comfort zone.

The film, despite being a little overlong, is also admirably economical with its story-telling. A brisk voiceover sets the scene in the opening few minutes: alien life-forms have begun to attack Earth from a portal called ‘The Breach’ that reaches deep under the Pacific Ocean. These huge monsters, called Kaiju, look like they share some DNA with Godzilla, and carry out relentless raids on the agglomerations on each side of the ocean. An international coalition develops the Jaeger, a massive human-like machine that is powered by melding the consciences of its two pilots with technological interface. In the prologue, we see two pilot brothers, Raleigh and Yancy Becket, bested by a Kaiju, costing Yancy his life. Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam, of Queer as Folk by way of Sons of Anarchy) then drifts into casual labour as governments decide to withdraw support for the Jaeger project. Commander of the project Stacker Pentecost (Idriss Elba) decides to go rogue and summons the remaining pilot teams to his base in Hong Kong, including Raleigh, whom he feels still has something to give.

Raleigh is paired with Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi, of Babel and the brilliant Japanese comedy A Taste of Tea), orphaned in a Kaiju attack on Tokyo, the trauma of which causes Pentecost to doubt she is temperamentally capable of graduating to being a pilot. The film from hereon out is predictable enough. Even so, there are a few pleasing innovations – the technological process that allows the pilots to merge with their machines is intriguing and even has an elegant name: the ‘neural handshake’. The film, while it has American heroes (though, interestingly, both played by Brits), is de-centred for a summer blockbuster. You get the real sense that a large tranche of humanity is in danger from the Kaiju, not simply those that happen to live between the Rio Grande and the 49th Parallel. No doubt this is partially to do with marketing but it is surely no accident either that a Mexican filmmaker might have a wider scope than your average studio hack. If, as Ambrose Bierce said, war is God's way of teaching Americans geography, maybe action movies can fulfill a similar function in the future. The villain is even a cocky loud-mouthed Australian (played by EastEnders alumnus Robert Kasinsky) – you wonder why nobody has ever thought of that before.

Del Toro has flitted between arty horror films (Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth) and second-rank Hollywood action movies (Blade 2 and Hellboy). They have almost all been more interesting in their details than in their entirety but he brings enough to Pacific Rim to lift it above your run-of-the-mill blockbuster. It’s by no means a great film – the plot is clichéd, the script deliberately corny, and many of its characters hug the touchline of grating annoyance – but there is a refreshing honesty about Pacific Rim, a sense that it has no intention of short-changing you nor does it ever have ideas above its station. Christopher Nolan ought to take some notes.