by Steve Habrat
These days, it is extremely difficult and rare for a major Hollywood studio to take a creative risk, especially during the hot and humid summer months when audiences turn out in droves. The suits fall back on time-tested franchises, overdone remakes, comic book heroes with built-in audiences, and winded sequels that guarantee them a major worldwide hit. Take this summer, for example, as we have seen another Marvel megahit with Iron Man 3, a grim reboot of the Man of Steel, two familiar animated sequels (Monsters University and Despicable Me 2), a Brad Pitt led zombie blockbuster based off of a wildly popular novel by Max Brooks (World War Z), and another installment in the Star Trek series. While I have enjoyed all of the films I’ve pointed out here, I’ve still craved something fresh and creatively stimulating. Enter Guillermo del Toro, a man with a vivid imagination and a knack for serving up some seriously zesty cinematic efforts, both big (Hellboy, Hellboy II: The Golden Army) and small (Cronos, Pan’s Labyrinth). After a lengthy hiatus from the director’s chair, we finally have a new summer blockbuster from del Toro and that film is the astonishing giant monster-giant robot mash-up Pacific Rim, a pulpy blast of rainbow science fiction that is exactly what the cinema doctor ordered. Seconds, please!
Pacific Rim begins by explaining that giant monsters known as “Kaiju” have crawled out of a portal beneath the Pacific Ocean and stomped into our cities. Unable to bring them down with the weapons we already have, the world develops a new weapon called “Jaegers,” which are giant robots capable of tossing around the raging “Kaiju.” After several exhausting years of battle, the “Jaegers” grow less and less effective in keeping the “Kaiju” at bay. The united governments of Earth grow weary of the giant robots and they decide to cut funding for their construction. The remaining “Jaegers” are shipped off to Hong Kong, where they are left to rust away and fade from memory. The remaining “Jaeger” program is left to Commander Stacker Pentecost (played by Idris Elba), who is determined to keep the “Jaegers” fighting the good fight. Stacker approaches washed-up “Jaeger” pilot Raleigh Becket (played by Charile Hunnam), who piloted the American “Jaeger” Gipsy Danger but quit when he watched his brother die in combat, about rejoining the program in a final attempt to prevent the imminent apocalypse. Raleigh agrees and begins training to find a suitable co-pilot, which he finds in the scrappy “Jaeger” test pilot Mako Mori (played by Rinko Kikuchi). Meanwhile, bickering scientists Dr. Newton Geizler (played by Charlie Day) and Dr. Hermann Gottlieb (played by Burn Gorman) have assembled a machine that allows them to establish a mental link with the “Kaiju” and discovered that the giant monsters are in fact genetically-bred weapons sent to wipe out the human race so that their masters can colonize the planet.
While many will be quick to label Pacific Rim as a Transformers wannabe, the film has so much more to offer than one of those Michael Bay abominations. This candy-colored gem is an exhilarating ode to Toho Co., the Japanese production company that is responsible for releasing giant monster movies (called “kaiju” movies, which is Japanese for “giant monster”) like 1954s Godzilla. While Pacific Rim certainly tips its hat to Godzilla and his family of rampaging atomic beasts (Rodan, Mothra, etc.), del Toro’s vision is something completely singular. The story line is carried by the myriad of colorful characters, which consistently stand apart from the astonishing special effects and towering action sequences that are loud enough to wake up the two people sleeping through The Lone Ranger in the neighboring theater. In the vein of Toho, the action is relentless, especially the neon fist-fight between a handful of “Jaegers” and a couple of seriously nasty “Kaiju” in the middle of downtown Hong Kong. It’s a rock ‘em-sock ‘em moment of pure adrenaline ecstasy that will have adults and children cheering in delight. But the thrills don’t stop there, as del Toro keeps uping the ante and powering up his beasts for a show-stopping underwater brawl boosted by a nuclear fizz.
While the heavy metal CGI action is a must-see, Pacific Rim is a very human film and one brimming with performances that will beckon you back for more. Del Toro proves that you don’t necessarily need a Brad Pitt, Robert Downey Jr., or Johnny Depp in the thick of the action to keep the audience absorbed in what is playing out before them. All you need is colorfully drawn characters with fragile emotion tucked delicately inside the layered armor. The relatively unknown Hunnam is out for blood as Raleigh, and I mean that in the best possible way. He is the all-American good guy—one that is nursing deep wounds but is eager to deliver a one-two hit to the massive monsters that wade through the Pacific. His chemistry is exceptional with Kikuchi, who isn’t the same old love interest (It is hinted at but never addressed outright. Perhaps in the sequel.). Kikuchi is heartwarming as the girl with a shy crush, but she is a lightning bolt of vengeance when we are allowed to glimpse inside her broken heart. These two animated leads are kept on a short leash by Elba’s no-nonsense father figure, who pops pills for a life-threatening illness and delivers pulse-pounding speeches about meeting the “monsters that are at our door” and “canceling the apocalypse.”
While our three leads do an incredible job, the supporting players are certainly something to behold. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Charlie Day is a quirky and fun choice as the tattooed “Kaiju” scientist Newton, who rambles and shakes like a hipster lunatic in oversized specs. Surprisingly, he isn’t here simply to act as the comic relief, which really is a testament to his talent. Burn Gorman is great as Day’s uber-nerd partner Hermann, who pounds on a chalkboard and hobbles around like a comic book Albert Einstein with high-waisted pants and a cane. Clifton Collins Jr. is a treat as Tendo Choi, an Elvis-like greaser “Jaeger” whiz who is determined to spice up the role of the guy who simply sits behind the computer screen and acts as a guide to the heroes in the field. Max Martini and Robert Kazinsky are great tough guys as Hercules and Chuck Hansen, a tough-as-nails Australian father-son duo tasked with a beast of a mission. The pint-sized Mana Ashida is fantastic in her minor role as a young Mako Mori. She basically just cries and wanders around with a shoe in her hand, but she sent chills down my spine with her raw emotion. Last but certainly not least is the always-welcome Ron Perlman as Hannibal Chau, a blinged-out black marketeer in sinister goggles who tracks down and deals “Kaiju” organs. He shares some wonderful moments with Charlie Day’s twitchy scientist.
Considering that Pacific Rim is a tribute to Atomic Age creature features, there are numerous nods to Godzilla and many other Toho releases. I certainly smiled when Hong Kong citizens were locked into an underground shelter and huddled together as “Kaiju” footsteps boomed overhead, something that called to mind the original Godzilla. There is also a sly little tribute to the flare tactic used to keep Godzilla away from a blacked out city in Godzilla Raids Again and there is a magnificent aerial moment that sung praises to Rodan and Mothra. If there is something I absolutely need to criticize, there are a few moments where the action was a bit incoherent, but these moments are few and far between. Overall, while Pacific Rim doesn’t ever get as political and poetic as those post-World War II efforts did, there is still something deeply personal about del Toro’s vision. It is coming from the heart and it is a beautifully written love letter to the monster movies that del Toro loved as a kid. This film is a labor of love, a carefully crafted summer epic that earns its action sequences and doesn’t ever forget to remain human.
by Steve Habrat
America, you can all breath a collective sigh of relief. That nagging question on all of your minds has finally been answered. We now know what it looks like when Ghost Rider urinates! I know, I know, I was wondering when we would finally get the definitive answer to that brain-melting question. Thank you, Marvel! On a serious note, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is another swing and a miss for the Marvel Knights, the spin-off studio of Marvel Studios. Marvel Knights, we created in an attempt to bring some of the darker superheroes from the comic pages to the big screen and so far, they are zero for two (the other masterpiece from this branch division is Punisher: War Zone). With a fresh pair of directors (Crank’s Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor) and the studio hitting the restart button (subtly), Marvel somehow managed to make things even worse and make a film so unpleasant, the only reason it avoided the direct-to-DVD barging bin was the fact that Nicolas Cage’s name is leading the credits. To my astonishment, Cage throws himself into Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance with such maniacal delight, I think that he may have finally hit rock bottom, and I thought that bottom was the FIRST Ghost Rider. Cage must really be a big fan of Ghost Rider and really hurting for money to agree to do this to himself. And to think that this man won an Oscar.
Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance picks up eight years after Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider (Played by Cage) battled the gathering satanic forces on American soil. He has been on the run and hiding out in Eastern Europe ever since, trying to deal with the curse that has been put on him by Roarke (Mephistopheles) (Played by Ciarán Hinds). Blaze soon finds himself approached by French priest Moreau (Played by Idris Elba), who asks Blaze to track down and save a young boy, Danny (Played by Fergus Riordan) and his mother, Nadya (Played by Violante Placido), from Roarke’s forces that are pursuing them. It turns out that Roarke, who is the Devil in a human body, wants Danny so that he can take a new human form on earth. Blaze reluctantly accepts the offer on the condition that Moreau takes him to a group of priests that will be able to lift the fiery cruse that plagues him. As the battle rages for Danny’s fate, the Devil unleashes the deadly Blackout (Played by Johnny Whitmore), who possesses the power to decay anything he touches, to deliver him Danny and kill Ghost Rider any way he can.
There really isn’t much to say about the plotline of Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. It sucks and that is all there is to it. Half the time, it is barely coherent underneath all the searing action that cuts through the film like a white-hot knife. The story, which was penned by Scott M. Gimple, Seth Hoffman, and David S. Goyer (yes, the same David S. Goyer who helped revive Batman), is basically a recycled glob of other, better satanic horror films. Think a touch of The Exorcist with a big scoop of Rosemary’s Baby fused with Crank and the original Ghost Rider. When I wasn’t rolling my eyes from the story, I was busy fighting off motion sickness from the constant shaking of the camera. Mind you, I have NEVER once got motion sick from a movie before but I can say that Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance was the film that had me reaching for the barf bag. I couldn’t wait until things slowed down so that my stomach would stop doing somersaults. I wish that the nausea was worth it and that there was some cool action scene to tell you about but the fight scenes are all the same here. They all basically consist of a bunch of bad guys standing around, Ghost Rider barreling towards them on his bike as they all stand in shock, and Ghost Rider approaching them one by one and sucking their souls out. That is all there is to it.
If I had to think of one reason for you to see Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, I’d say see it for the way that Cage throws himself into the role of Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider. I promise that you have never seen anything like it in your entire life. It is almost like we are watching a nervous breakdown documented in a big budget blockbuster. Cage is all shaky delivery and bone rattling screams as his face bubbles and contorts into the charred black skull. I guess if my career had come to what his has, I would be starting to go a little berserk myself. Luckily, Idris Elba is present to take things down a notch in one of the worst French accents you will ever hear. Don’t get me wrong. Elba brings more to the table that anyone else does here but it is so painful to watch him slip like this. Come one, Idris, you have been awesome in the past! Hinds seems to get a kick out of delivering lines like “Worst fucking deal I ever made” right to the face of the fiery Ghost Rider. He is slumming it after doing heavier work like Tinker Tailor Solider Spy. Riordan is a forgettable child actor who doesn’t even register in all the chaos while Placido is the eye candy, taking over where Eva Mendes left off. Whitmore really tries to shake things up as Blackout but he has to be the most pointless character in the entire film. He is only here to provide the audience was a high-speed slugfest in the final moments of the film.
Neveldine and Taylor do what they can to add a smidgeon of emotion to this project but they cannot resist the urge to just leap back into the head pounding action. They try to throw in a half-assed relationship between Blaze and Danny but it such a weak attempt, it practically disappears from your memory by the end battle. I can say that I was pretty impressed by the special effects and I did like the overall look of Ghost Rider. Shaking off some of the polish that original director Mark Steven Johnson had slathered all over his CGI hero, this version of the character is a hell of a lot grittier than what Johnson came up with. It actually suits the character but it is a shame this was not applied to a much better movie. Much like the Punisher, I know there is someone out there with a good story for Ghost Rider but this certainly wasn’t it. It is time for Cage to walk away from the franchise and really do some soul searching because the man has completely lost his marbles. And to you, Mr. Goyer, what is your excuse? You helped bring one of the greatest superhero trilogies to the big screen and then you follow that up with this piece of shit! Do you hate comic books and comic book movies?! With the level of quality that we have seen in films like Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, X-Men, V for Vendetta, Watchmen, and The Dark Knight, there is no excuse for these types of superhero films in 2012. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance should have been tossed into an incinerator and forgotten. All of you responsible for this, sit in the corner and think about what you have done.
Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
It is no big surprise that Ridley Scott’s new science-fiction epic Prometheus is dividing those who have flocked to see it so far. The film deals with one of the most controversial topics around: creation of the human race. Set in the Alien universe, this semi-prequel to the 1979 classic indeed gives us quite a bit to think about after we have stumbled out of the theater and finally caught our breath. With Prometheus, Scott dares to ask a lot of really big questions. Where did we come from? Who created us and why? These are questions, whether viewed from a scientific angle or from a spiritual angle, that are not easily answered. At least not yet anyway. It appears that Scott and his writers, Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, understand this and they opt to give us small answers to these big questions, which may frustrate many viewers but realistically, that is just the way it is. Frankly, I don’t believe that Scott and his writers ever truly set out to give crystal clear answers to the questions that Prometheus raises. Furthermore, my hat is off to Scott because he refuses to hold the audience’s hand throughout Prometheus, forcing them to do the unthinkable and (gasp!) think for themselves.
Prometheus begins in the year 2089 with archeologist couple Elizabeth Shaw (Played by Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Played by Logan Marshal-Green) discovering a star map in an ancient cave. They believe that the star map, which lines up with other star maps from several other seemingly unconnected ancient cultures, is an invitation from humanities creators called “Engineers” to travel to space and find them. Two years later, Shaw and Holloway are aboard the spaceship Prometheus traveling toward the distant moon LV-223, which is where they believe the “Engineers” are living. The acting head of this expedition is Meredith Vickers (Played by Charlize Theron), a snippy employee of the Weyland Corporation, which is the company that funded the expedition to LV-223. Upon arriving on the moon, the crew dashes out to explore what appears to be an ancient temple but they soon discover that this temple may be housing something that could spell doom for the human race. They also quickly realize that they are not alone in the curved tunnels of the ancient structure and that there may be individuals in their crew who are not there for scientific reasons.
The less you know about Prometheus going in to the film, the better it actually is, at least in my opinion. I was absolutely floored by how Scott has expanded his ash-colored universe from Alien and I was practically drooling at all the mesmerizing special effects. There is no doubt that this is the work of a true master of cinema. While many have raved about the visual presentation of Prometheus, it is the ideas here that many are in an uproar about. The film will no doubt cause controversy, especially when it answers the mother of all questions. Yet at times Scott and his writers tiptoe around certain definitive answers, partly because I don’t think they want to kick a hornet’s nest. Whether you believe in Darwinism or you believe a high power made us in his image, Prometheus makes sure it has everyone covered, from those who don’t know what to believe to those who clutch tightly to their crosses. Scott presents debate after debate between characters, bait to get our brains working and he is damn good at it too. On the surface, it could be read (and quickly dismissed) as a warning not to seek out your maker, but underneath, it is pushing us to at least ask a few questions to each other.
When you are not marveling at the special effects and your brain is not swimming from all the creation conversation, you will be glued to all the spellbinding acting from a handful of professions who are on top of their game. The standouts here are Rapace’s Shaw, Idris Elba’s Janek, the captain of the Prometheus, and Michael Fassbender’s slim and crafty android David. Shaw takes over for Sigourney Weaver’s level headed Ripley and gives us a much more subdued version of the Ripley character. She has a slower growth into full-blown ass-kicker and she gets one of the movie’s grossest moments (a self-surgery scene that requires her to cut in to her own stomach), a scene that is sure to become iconic. Near the end, I got chills of excitement when she grabbed an axe and readied herself for a brutal battle of life or death, a scene that was alive with Ripley’s spirit. Elba’s Janek, who is quick to tell Theron’s Vickers that he is “just the captain” has a lot more on his mind than just figuring out how to get the other sixteen passengers off LV-223 safely. I really enjoyed his weary compassion. While Elba and Rapace hold their own, the film belongs to Fassbender, who continues to impress me with each new film he is in. Early on, we see his character, alone on the Prometheus while the others are locked in their stasis chambers, hanging on every scene of Laurence of Arabia, playing basketball, dying his hair, and watching the dreams of the other crewmembers. He has a funny walk, beams when the elderly Peter Weyland (Played by Guy Pearce) tells him he has been like a son to him, and he longs to be viewed as one of the humans, even as darkness begins to creep into his mainframe.
The rest of the supporting cast does a good job, even if some of them get lost in all the action. Theron’s Vickers is a much more controlled villain here than she was in Snow White and the Huntsman. She is a lot more convincing as an evil corporate stooge rather than a cackling wicked witch. Guy Pearce shows up in a most unexpected (and surprisingly persuasive) role as the elderly Peter Weyland, a wealthy man who isn’t only interested in a new scientific discover. Logan Marshall-Green as Holloway was the only character I had a hard time liking. At times he felt a bit forced and even a bit cliché next to all the other characters that were much more vividly drawn. He is there only to be the love interest for Rapace’s Shaw and to cause some major problems later for our axe-wielding heroine. If I had one complaint about Prometheus, it would be him, especially since there was a lot of hype around him being the new up and coming actor of the moment. Rafe Spall and Sean Harris also show up memorably as Milburn and Fifiled, a botanist and a geologist who come face to face with some real nasty organisms.
Overall, Scott’s Prometheus is one big, expensive, flashy, 3D question mark of a movie and to be honest with you, I absolutely love that it is. I was mesmerized from the hypnotic opening sequence to the fiery finale that gives a nice big wink to the ’79 classic that inspired all of this (trust me, you’re going to love it). It may take some time for audiences to appreciate what Scott has done here, but as years pass, I see Prometheus becoming a chilling and grotesque classic that makes its way into film textbooks. If you get the chance, experience this sucker in 3D because it really adds to the film’s harsh and rocky environment. Many may tell you that Prometheus was an overhyped disappointment but I say that Prometheus has landed on movie screens to challenge us in ways most films refuse. It is nice to know that Hollywood still believes that some audience members like to use their intelligence at the movies from time to time and to be sent away with a lot to ponder.
by Steve Habrat
Well, it seems like I have to eat my words and admit that I was too hasty to judge Thor. I have to admit that I wrongfully formed my opinion on the movie by it’s below-average trailer when I should have kept an open mind to the God of Thunder’s first cinematic outing. But in all fairness, at the beginning of the summer I was suffering from what I am calling Marvel Fatigue. Perhaps you even felt the effects of this dreaded illness: Lack of interest in ANY Marvel Comics superhero movie, a growing concern about the quality of their productions, and the fact that they seem to be more and more money hungry with each passing summer. They had three superhero movies coming out this year! And the one leading the pack is a hammer-packing God who fights Frost Giants and speaks as if he stepped out of Hamlet! To make things even more dreadfully boring, Marvel recruited Shakespearean actor/director Kenneth Branagh to helm the damn thing! In my eyes, it appeared as if Marvel is desperate to stay king of the superhero movie mountain, enlisting their B-squad of heroes and forcing them upon audiences. What’s worse is that every movie that rolls off the assembly line feels like just an extended preview for their much-hyped Avengers movie. You can see my apprehension right?
But believe me when I tell you this: Thor is actually really, really good. It’s the perfect summer movie that’s heavy on dazzling action; loaded with top notch CGI, utilizes 3D properly, and features a lead so undeniably charismatic that you practically wish he was real. I sat in disbelief as the film relentless put a smile on my face and propelled me into one adrenaline rush after another! Now many of you know I am an avid comic book collector and reader but Thor was never on my radar. I never found him to be truly compelling enough to rush out and grab a couple of his comics. But this origin story manages to actually be quite a hypnotic experience. The Asgardians represent all that is good, protecting mankind from the evil Frost Giants who are hell-bent on taking over the whole planetary system. Asgard is lead by King Odin (Played by Anthony Hopkins), who has two sons, Loki (Played by Tom Hiddleston) and Thor (Played by Chris Hemsworth). On the day that Odin is crowing Thor the new king of Asgard, Frost Giants sneak into the kingdom and attempt to retrieve a relic that belongs to their race. This ignites a fire in Thor, who vows to teach the Frost Giants a lesson. This confrontation leads to disastrous results and ends up resparking an ancient war between the Frost Giants and Asgard along with the banishment of Thor from Asgard. Once on earth, Thor is a fish out of water and with the help of astro-physicist Jane Foster (Played by Academy Award winning actress Natalie Portman) and her two wisecracking colleagues; he adapts to life on earth and learns humility.
If this all sounds completely silly, trust me, wait until you see it all play out on the silver screen. It’s absolutely wondrous to behold as Branagh’s art direction and sleek camera work bring the kingdom of Asgard to vibrant life. The make-up work on the Frost Giants alone will make your eyes pop. On earth, the film is mirthful despite the fact that it is basically a teaser for the Avengers. There are countless in-jokes that relate back to Iron Man and the comic lore, which I know will soar over the heads of some casual audience members. Yet its Hemsworth Thor who anchors the entire film and consistently warms your heart. He’s a tragic fellow who we sympathize with even if we shake our heads and deem him a brutish fool. You can’t help but love him when he waltzes into a modern pet shop and demands a horse for travel from a flabbergasted store employee. Hemsworth is the real treasure here as he proves that his talent stretches far beyond his chiseled physique.
The film has an indisputable human element that posses you and holds you in its icy grip. When a mortal Thor tangles with a towering juggernaut called the Destroyer, you will bite your nails down in dread. Yet even when he is back in his godly form and he confronts the final villain, it’s still nerve-racking. The film establishes itself as Marvel’s own Superman film, but what the film adaptations of Superman seemed to consistently overlook, mainly making Superman’s journey to discovering his place in the universe, Thor laps up with glee. How does one make sense of all the mysteries of life? Even gods must discover their true place in this strange journey we call life.
Branagh can’t resist his Shakespearean impulses even when he’s whipping up a summer blockbuster. The film sneaks in minor hints of the Bard, mainly in the tragedy sense and the Old English dialogue the fires out of Thor’s mouth. But Branagh keeps the film from veering into overdramatic territory and keeps things light and simple. It has a breezy love story at it’s core that you’ll find yourself rooting for. It makes great dorky use of Portman’s Jane Foster as she struggles to understand the strange being that is Thor. Thor’s scheming brother Loki is delightfully sinister as he vows to rip Asgard apart. Hopkin’s Odin injects wise wisdom as their booming father and the film is practically ripped right out from under all the other players by the mystifying all-seeing gatekeeper of Asgard, Heimdall, played by a nearly unrecognizable and never better Idris Elba.
Thor embodies everything the summer blockbuster should be. It packs some serious teeth rattling action sequences, dreamy imagery, and a nonstop rush of unwavering excitement. It ends up being a return to form for Mr. Branagh who allows himself to lighten up a bit and actually have a smidgeon of fun in all the ludicrousness. It is the perfect frontrunner for the summer movie season and it will get your juices flowing for the inevitable parade of CGI fests that will follow in it’s wake. Thor is a thunderously good time that also happens to be one of the better superhero movies to come out in quite some time. It was the first must see of the summer! GRADE: A-
Thor is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.