MAN OF STEEL
7 - 10
Review by Margot Harrison After I saw the teaser trailer for Pacific Rim, there was no summer movie I was less excited about. The computer-generated blur of giant robots battling giant monsters looked like a mashup of Bwattleship and the Transformers movies — a mammoth toy commercial. When I found out the director was Guillermo del Toro, cognitive dissonance set in. Not only is the Mexican-born filmmaker beloved by comics fans for his Hellboy films, but he’s combined genre thrills with wrenching drama in Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone. Was del Toro selling out to make a Hollywood blockbuster, or could Pacific Rim actually be good?
The answer is a bit of both — mainly the latter. Pacific Rim is indeed a big CGI smash-’em-up movie — a modern-day creature feature. But it’s also the movie Transformers should have been: silly without insulting our intelligence; and treating the lizard-brain appeal of a fight between humongous critters with the respect it deserves.
‘Pacific Rim is indeed a big CGI smash-’em-up movie — a modern-day creature feature’
Del Toro clearly loves the Japanese tradition of kaiju — giant, city-stomping monsters — as exemplified by the cinematic adventures of Godzilla, Gamera, Mothra, et al. At the start of Pacific Rim, a vast claw emerges from the sea to grasp the Golden Gate Bridge; fog enshrouds most of the attack, leaving it to our imagination. A speedy opening sequence sets up the plot: One day in the near future, Kaiju (as they’re called in the film) start rising from an interdimensional rift in the Pacific and wreaking havoc on the shore. To save the world, our leaders unite and build Jaegers, giant robots controlled by a pair of human beings through a neural interface. One of these pilots is our hero, Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam), who’s commanded by a glowering Idris Elba, boasting the ridiculous name Stacker Pentecost. As the story begins, Raleigh’s latest mission ends in tragedy, grounding him for the next five years. It’s a pretty standard war-drama setup for the inevitable rematch with the monsters — and, of course, Raleigh’s redemption. Are we tired of watching cities get destroyed yet? I am. Yet two elements lift Pacific Rim above other cataclysm movies: the fleshedout, colorful, often funny details of its world; and del Toro’s keen sense of scale. It’s not easy to give animated monsters a feeling of overwhelming, terrifying mass — we have to be tricked into seeing substance in pixels. Michael Bay-style editing turns the animations into a formless blur, and some of the fight scenes in Pacific Rim suffer from similar confusion. But del Toro finds ways to remind us how big these things are supposed to be: by shooting a tiny ship from the perspective of a Jaeger’s shoulder, or showing a flock of seagulls taking flight where a gigantic combatant crashes to the ground.
The Deadly Kaiju - Leatherback
Her English-language accent and acting are spotty, but her character’s flashback scene, in which we see Kaiju invasion from a child’s perspective, gives the movie an emotional anchor. A couple of outlandishly caricatured science dudes, played by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman, nearly steal the show with a subplot of their own. At times, Pacific Rim crosses the line from save-the-world solemnity into the campiness of Starship Troopers, and that’s not a bad thing. If moviegoers are shunning it because of blockbuster fatigue, they have a point — but they’re missing some fun.
Rating - 7.5 out of 10
The filmmakers also depart from the usual crisis-every-10-minutes blockbuster template to make fairly lengthy digressions into character development and world building. While Hunnam is bland and Elba is all bluster, Rinko Kikuchi of Babel supplies pathos as a would-be Jaeger pilot who lost her family to the Kaiju.
MAN OF STEEL
Review by Eric. D Snider We’ve always known in the back of our minds that there was a science-fiction angle to the Superman saga – he’s an extra-terrestrial, after all – but none of the big-screen versions have emphasized it. Until now. “Man of Steel” starts with a rousing action sequence on the doomed planet Krypton, giving us a detailed view of Kryptonian technology and animal life, and then delivers a plot driven by “world engines,” alien invasions, singularities, terraforming, and the basic questions about what it means to be human.It does all of this while presenting Superman’s origin story, though with a slightly different spin from what we’ve seen before (at least in the movies).
Directed by Zack Snyder (“300,” “Watchmen”) and written by David S. Goyer – who’s an old pro at this sort of thing (“Batman Begins,” “Blade”) – “Man of Steel” sends brooding, bearded Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) on a journey of personal discovery before he dons the cape and tights, and even before he adopts the dorky, bespectacled “mildmannered reporter” persona. There’s no need for a secret identity at first, because he’s just a guy named Clark Kent who happens to have alien DNA and extraordinary powers. There is no “Superman” yet.
‘Snyder and his team make the new, grittier formula work.’ Flashbacks to Clark’s youth show key moments in his development while letting the present story progress. His adoptive parents (played with tenderness by Diane Lane and Kevin Costner) are protective, with Pa Kent in particular concerned about what will happen to Clark when the world learns his secrets. We humans do tend to react with fear and alarm to unfamiliar things, and the Kents’ worries are confirmed when some of Clark’s heroic deeds become publicly known. A certain newspaper reporter named Lois Lane (a feisty Amy Adams) happens to get involved, too. Clark, his powers, and his heritage are drawn out into the open with the arrival of General Zod (Michael Shannon), a Kryptonian psycho who’s been searching the universe for an important piece of technology that could rebuild the Kryptonian race and may have been sent to Earth with baby Kal-El. Zod and his crew, imbued with powers like Superman, are a good match for him, and for the U.S. military, the leaders of which aren’t sure whether ANY of these aliens, Clark Kent included, are trustworthy.
For a while – probably two-thirds of the running time – the film is grandly entertaining. Cavill makes a fine Superman, physically speaking (he’s brawny and hairy-chested, not to mention lantern-jawed), and he has the right blend of stoicism and basic decency. A few moments between young Clark (played by Dylan Sprayberry) and his Earth dad are sublimely touching. (His biological father, played by Russell Crowe, is also present, in convenient holographic form, to give paternal guidance.) Michael Shannon and Antje Traue are appropriately menacing as Zod and his right-hand butt-kicker, Faora-Ul, and Snyder captures the sheer terrifying speed with which these super-characters can move when they’re fighting. Though different in tone from the more colorful and humorous Superman films of yesteryear, and though I miss Jimmy Olsen and bumbling Clark Kent and John Williams’ iconic musical score, Snyder and his team make the new, grittier formula work. But then, as we get into the climactic battles, the level of wanton destruction becomes excessive, even tacky. The apocalyptic damage visited upon Smallville and Metropolis is treated as though it has no consequences. I’m accustomed to filmmakers viewing mayhem that way – but it’s troubling that Superman doesn’t seem to care. Superman is supposed to do everything he can to protect people, even when he’s got his hands full with enemies. He could draw his opponents away; instead he fights them on Smallville’s Main Street, leveling it like a tornado, and then in downtown Metropolis, knocking over one skyscraper after another, seemingly oblivious to the devastating collateral damage. Not only is that a betrayal of the character’s ideals, it’s a tired way to end a movie.
Rating - 6.5 out of 10
Michael Shannon as General Zodd
Review by MaryAnn Johanson It’s not the revelation that his District 9 was, but with Elysium, writer-director Neill Blomkamp cements his science-fiction credentials as a filmmaker with a genre vision the likes of which we haven’t seen since the socially conscious SF of the 1970s. In fact, the modern videogame-ish visuals aside, the film Elysium reminds me most of is 40-year-old Soylent Green. Certainly, Blomkamp’s depiction of the desperate poverty of the people of a depleted Earth — Los Angeles in 2154 looks like the favelas of Brazil or the townships of South Africa. With the suggestion that the whole planet is now essentially third-world — is a similarly hellish vision… and yet it’s one that divides
the haves from the have-nots in a way that is incisively of the 20-teens moment. For in Blomkamp’s future-that-is-now, the wealthy have decamped to a luxurious wheel in space that hangs in the sky. The 99.99 percent are taunted every day by the privilege above that they are excluded from. (Rare, too, in 21st-century SF is the notion of the future as bleak, and of futuristic imagery once full of promise and optimism, as the space wheel of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 was, turned into a menacing, misleading lie. Only the Wachowskis with The Matrix — 14 years ago — managed a similar sly trick recently.) But if this is Soylent Green, it is, perhaps, Soylent Green with a solution, so it’s not all bleak. And this is a uniquely
20-teens idea, too: that even on a planet that is getting used up, there is still more then enough to go around, it’s just that we’re not sharing it fairly. So here we have Earthbound humans taking outrageous risks to sneak onto Elysium, that elite space station, just for the chance to lie in a med-pod and be cured, in seconds, of whatever terrible sickness or injury ails them. (There’s a black market in tattoos that ID one as a citizen of Elysium eligible for such treatment.) It costs, apparently, literally nothing to use a med-pod: no resources, except perhaps the energy to run the device, are required. But it is hoarded jealously by Elysium’s .001 percent, out of pure meanness, it would seem. This is the world of Max (Matt Damon: Promised Land, We Bought a Zoo), a former felon now factory worker — he helps build the army of robot cops that police Earth, literally creating the tools of his own oppression — who had all but given up on the impossible dream of his boyhood of getting to Elysium. But now an accidental mega-dosing of radiation on the assembly line means he’ll be dead in days unless he can get to a medpod… The path to achieving that goal is littered with all manner of intriguing science-fictional concepts: technological ones, such as a brain-to-brain data heist and exoskeleton powered armor that gets drilled directly into one’s body rather than being worn like a suit (I haven’t come across this before); and sociological ones, such as the android bureaucrats those on Earth are forced to deal with that, like the robot cops, remove all possibility of human empathy or understanding from necessary interactions, further dehumanizing the masses the elite would rather not have to deal with at all. It’s a tiny bit disappointing that, amongst all this imaginative speculation, Blomkamp couldn’t see past tedious clichés about women in cinematic storytelling: Alice Braga (On the Road, Predators) is here as Max’s friend Frey, and she has nothing to do but take care of Max — literally: she’s a nurse — and then require rescuing by him from Elysium operative Kruger (Sharlto Copley: Europa
Matt Damon sacrifices much to reach Elysium
‘Not many filmmakers in Hollywood dare like this at all.’
Report, The A-Team). Kruger’s rapey threats toward Frey are, I suppose, meant to illustrate what a terrifying psychopath he is — which works; Copley is truly chilling — but surely there were other ways to accomplish that. In fact, there’s no reason at all why Braga and Damon couldn’t have swapped roles, particularly with the exoskeleton to even out the physical differences between her and male badasses. Having Jodie Foster (Carnage, The Brave One) on hand to play a villainous Elysium politician doesn’t quite make up for the lazy easiness of Frey as an impetus for Max, particularly when there are so many other things already driving him. Things get a bit rushed and silly at the end, too: I’m not sure the ultimate solution for the big problems of this world makes much sense… although the situation that allows it is, on the other hand, beautifully representative of the utter disdain the people of Elysium have for the rest of humanity. But Elysium’s flaws are forgivable, because it tries so much and reaches so far and mostly succeeds. Not many filmmakers in Hollywood dare like this at all. Having something to say that doesn’t sound like a greeting card is an almost astonishing place for a summer blockbuster to be.
Rating - 8 out of 10
Review by Ethan Alter With the re-energized Fast and the Furious franchise having returned him to pop culture relevance (however briefly), Vin Diesel and his regular collaborator, writer/director David Twohy, are seizing the opportunity to take one more run at Richard B. Riddick, the intergalactic, night vision-enhanced bad-ass they originated in 2000’s surprise hit Pitch Black and effectively killed off (metaphorically, though not literally) in 2004’s not-so-surprise bomb The Chronicles of Riddick. The secret to Pitch Black’s success is that it plays like a lean, mean John Ford Western dressed up in sci-fi clothing, Stagecoach in outer space if you will, with Riddick functioning as its Ringo Kid -- the cool-as-hell antihero who is technically part of the larger ensemble, but gets the best lines and the best bits of action.
The bigger-budgeted sequel, on the other hand, proved to be as muddled and convoluted and the original was clean and elegant, tying Riddick up in a confounding mythology that tried and failed to position him as some kind of Conan figure. The third film, simply titled Riddick, tries to split the difference, once again embracing a strippeddown approach to genre filmmaking (one that shares a lot in common with another filmmaker named John… Carpenter, rather than Ford), but still trying to show how its title character fits into the larger futureverse Diesel and Twohy are laboring to create. Before getting down to business, Riddick opens with a bit of housecleaning, sweeping away the loose ends left over from Chronicles, which concluded with Riddick essentially becoming Pope for a race of deep space religious nuts.
He’s barely begun his reign before growing weary of the responsibility and more or less invites his own coup at the hands of a former nemesis (Karl Urban, doing Twohy a solid by appearing in an ultra-brief cameo), after which he’s deposited on a distant desert planet to die. Instead though, this world becomes his training ground for a Rocky III-like comeback, as he sheds his “soft” self and re-emerges as the rough, tough Fightin’ Furyan we met in Pitch Black. This sequence, which lasts roughly fifteen minutes and unfolds with no dialogue save for the odd line of extraneous voiceover, is actually a good deal of fun in a trashy way, with Diesel (whose typically at his most charismatic when he’s not talking) stalking the landscape, befriending some alien life forms (specifically a multi-colored space mutt) and killing others (some kind of plus-sized pond monster) in hand-to-hand combat. Just when you think Riddick may become Twohy’s version of Into the Wild (and boy, would I have enjoyed the hell out of that), an approaching storm -- and the monsters that accompany it -- convinces Riddick that it’s time to get the hell off this rock. So he activates a distress beacon in a conveniently located bunker and brings in the cavalry: two
competing teams of bounty hunters each eager to claim the reward that accompanies capturing and/or killing him. (The bounty is higher if they opt for the latter.) It’s here that the Carpenter touch really kicks in, as the rest of Riddick becomes an unofficial remake of Assault on Precinct 13 (itself a thenmodern day version of a Western), albeit a remake where the audience is encouraged to root for the precinct-assaulting bad guy, rather than the precinct-defending cops. In true B-movie fashion, the bounty hunters are characterized by specific traits rather than three fully-rounded dimensions. For example, Santana (Jordi Mollá) is the rape-happy swordsman; Diaz (WWE personality Dave Bautista) is the mountain of muscle; Johns (Matt Nable) is the professional veteran; and Dahl -- pronounced “Doll” -- (Katee Sackhoff) is the butch lesbian.
‘A siege movie at heart, this installment doesn’t take the characters anywhere, instead forcing them to wait around until danger shows up on their doorstep’
Riddick threatens his Necromunger follower.
The team of mercinaries hunting down the Furyan
A quick aside about Sackhoff; she’s a terrific addition to the franchise, demonstrating more ‘tude and muscle than even the leading man. But it’s dispiriting to see her character marginalized and objectified as the movie goes along, repeatedly put in the position of fending off threats of sexual assault and Riddick’s blunt advances. That’s particularly disappointing when you remember that Twohy centered Pitch Black around Radha Mitchell’s Carolyn Fry, a similarly confident, capable and no-nonsense woman who wasn’t regularly subjected to the leering gaze of the men around her. Hell, that was the same role Sackhoff played on Battlestar Galactica for four seasons, which makes her treatment here all the more unfortunate.) The cat-and-mouse game between Riddick and his would-be capturers occupies the bulk of the movie’s bloated mid-section (during which Diesel curiously spends a lot of time offscreen), until good ol’ Dick decides to stop messing around and gets down to the business of getting off-world before whatever’s coming hits with full force. Although Riddick is thankfully free of the overbearing mythology that strangled Chronicles, it also doesn’t have the relentless forward momentum of Pitch Black, where the characters had to get from Point A to
Point B in total darkness, menaced on all sides by nocturnal critters. A siege movie at heart, this installment doesn’t take the characters anywhere, instead forcing them to wait around until danger shows up on their doorstep. And when that danger finally arrives, it proves entirely underwhelming: a squad of flesh-eating lizards poorly rendered by some bargain-basement CG that lack the personality -- and more importantly, the menace -- of the Pitch Black creatures. Yet, even with all its obvious deficiencies, there’s some modest entertainment to be derived from Riddick; Twohy and Diesel have an obvious affection for the style and lingo of the pulpy sci-fi stories of the ‘50s (as well as the dirt-cheap exploitation movies of the ‘70s) and bring some of that to bear here in the design of the planet and Riddick’s man-offew-words demeanor. I also have to underline again how much I enjoyed watching Sackhoff go toe-totoe with Diesel, even with Twohy’s script undermining her at almost every turn. I’m not sure that Riddick is an effective argument in favor of continuing Riddick’s solo adventures, but it’s a more fitting conclusion to his chronicles than the previous movie.
Rating - 5 out of 10
Review by Rick Kisonak In the course of his fabulous new film, Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón achieves countless technical marvels. But the effect that impressed me most was in the opening moments, where he makes a group of astronauts tinkering with the Hubble Telescope 400 miles above the Earth seem as routine as a bunch of mechanics switching out mufflers in a Midas shop.
That’s the first of many clever references the director makes to other great space odysseys throughout Gravity. It is, of course, an allusion to the cassette recorder that played Hank Williams’ “Honky Tonkin’” ever more slowly as its batteries died in Apollo 13, a classic of the genre with which Cuarón’s movie has much in common. It’s also Matt Kowalski’s (George
Half the screen is filled with the most eyepoppingly gorgeous, convincingly detailed rendering of our planet ever to grace a screen. Around it is the black velvet of movie history’s deepest, richest, most photo-real depiction of space. Then, just when you expect the classical music to kick in, what you hear is a corny country song.
‘Gravity sets a new standard for the artistic use of 3-D and features a white-knuckle narrative’
Clooney) way of livening up the workaday grind — blasting tunes through a sound system built into his space suit while he zips about with his jet-pack. He may be hundreds of miles above the Earth, but it’s all downtime for him at the moment. Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is the NASA engineer whose job it is to fix whatever is malfunctioning on the giant device. “You’re the genius,” he jokes when she pleads with him to turn the music off. “I just drive the bus.” The voice in their helmets emanating from mission control is that of Ed Harris. Another nice touch, whether the allusion is to Apollo 13 or to The Right Stuff — in which he did, after all, play John Glenn.
the kind that work so well, there isn’t a trace of them on the screen. Gravity sets a new standard for the artistic use of 3-D and features a white-knuckle narrative on top of first-rate performances from two of the world’s biggest stars. It’s a minimalist masterpiece that more than merits the response it’s gotten from the public and critics alike. How fitting, given its subject, that the acclaim has been universal.
Rating - 9.5 out of 10
A third space walker practices dance moves in the distance. Kowalski tells one tall story after another. Only Stone, making her maiden shuttle trip, is trying to get any actual work done. Between having zero luck locating the glitch and struggling to keep her lunch down, she’s not having a great day. Little does she know how much worse it’s about to get. In a matter of seconds, debris from a blown-up Russian satellite hurtles through the scene like a blizzard of rusty daggers. It decimates the ship and kills everyone in and outside it other than Kowalski and Stone, who survives only to find herself untethered and somersaulting into space. Remember astronaut Frank Poole, cast into the void by HAL 9000 in 2001? It’s as though Cuarón wondered what it must’ve been like to experience that unimaginably horrifying situation. So, with his son, Jonas, he wrote a script picking up where Kubrick left off and imagining precisely that. To say one word more about what happens would not just violate movie critic law; it would be rude. Everyone who loves film and appreciates innovation on a visionary level deserves to watch this picture play out with an uncompromised capacity for surprise. Even awe. Once you’ve seen it, I highly recommend reading about the way it was made. Cuarón, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and visual effects supervisor Tim Webber worked some true movie-making miracles —