Saturday, July 13, 2013



It’s been a relatively disappointing season for blockbusters this year. So far at least. Iron Man was a bloated, incoherent mess that wasn't nearly as clever as it thought it was. Lone Ranger had good intentions and tried really hard to be fun but never quite got there. Man Of Steel was bleak, languid, humorless and wallowed in the 911 imagery like it was a “money shot.” Star Trek: Into Darkness seemed obligatory, tired and played out. Oblivion, well, that was just plain dumb. Yup, it was looking pretty bad for blockbusters this year. The critics have been circling this years summer movie fare like hungry sharks waiting for a bucket of chum(or at the very least, a sacrificial lamb they can point to when it’s time to trot out the usual series of “are summer blockbusters an endangered species?” articles). Yes, I was getting pretty tired of this years blockbuster offerings. And so it was that I went in to see Pacific Rim, fully prepared to be nonplussed and disappointed at best and angry at yet another disappointment at worst. Yet I found myself smiling in spite of my preconceived notions. Even laughed a few times and eventually, marveled at a series of spectacular battles between giant robots and giant monsters.

One of the many giant creatures that plague humanity in Pacific Rim
And that’s basically what Pacific Rim is about. Giant monsters vs. giant robots. A simple idea padded with humor, fun and a lot of heart. Giant monsters or “Kaiju”(think of a much more angry Cloverfield) have invaded earth through a fissure in the ocean floor and have done their darndest to destroy the world. The nations have put aside their differences and joined forces to build a bunch of giant robots or “Jaegers”(Iron Man meets Giant Robo meets Ultra Man) to destroy these creatures. The problem is that the creatures keep coming and each time they seem to get bigger and stronger and smarter. The Jaegers are controlled by a two person team of pilots who must join minds to operate the giant robots. Raleigh Becket(Charlie Hunnam) is a former Jaeger pilot whose career was ended after losing his co pilot in a battle with a Kaiju.

Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi lead the "Jaeger" pilots in battle against the Kaiju in Pacific Rim
Stacker Pentecost(Idris “Luther” Elba) is the commander in charge of the Jaeger program which is about to be de-funded by the world governments who favor building a giant wall to ward off the Kaiju. Mako Mori(Rinko Kikuchi) is Pentecost's protégé who, as a little girl, was almost killed by a Kaiju and saved by Pentecost when the Jaeger program was still in its infancy and still had some dangerous kinks to work out. Then we have Charlie Day and Burn Gorman playing the comedy relief. Day and Gorman give us two types of “nutty professor.” Day is the young, green, nerdy scientist with the crazy ideas who thinks the Kaiju’s are cool. Gorman is the buttoned down tweed wearing Brit mathematician, certain that he’s right about everything. When the giant wall proves completely ineffectual, Pentecost pressures Raleigh to return to the Jaeger program for a last ditch effort to destroy the Kaiju. Raleigh’s new partner is Mako and both have demons and thoughts of revenge to overcome(or exploit) if they are to meld minds and control Raleigh’s old Jaeger, now restored and fully loaded.

Giant Robot battles a bad case of pink eye and inspires del Toro's monster film Pacific Rim
The film is clearly del Toro’s nostalgic tribute to all those old Japanese monster movies like Godzilla, Voyage Into Space and Gamera. The films characters are fairly one dimensional archetypes that seem pulled from all the endless sci-fi/fantasy anime films. Even things like Speed Racer came to mind. The battles between the Kaiju and Jaegers are straight out of Voyage Into Space aka Tokusatsu, aka Giant Robo, aka Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot. We even get a new version of Giant Robot’s “Atomic Punch”(although “rocket elbow” just doesn’t sound as catchy). But there are problems with the film. Talent like Elba, Ron Perlman(hilarious as the head of the Kaiju black market) and Kikuchi(who steals every scene she's in) make the bad actors stand out like sore thumbs. And there are some pretty bad actors in this. Luckily they aren’t called upon to do the heavy lifting here. That honor belongs to the epic Jaeger/Kaiju fist fights, the terrific special effects and del Toro’s unmistakable joy over the material which infuses the film with a sense of humor about itself and a big heart.

Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra and King Ghidorah just working some things out.  It's a monster thing.
Pacific Rim isn’t the greatest movie ever made. It’s not even the best mindless summer blockbuster ever made. But unlike most of the big budget blockbusters we’ve gotten so far this year, Pacific Rim is one that I might actually go back and see a second time because it‘s just fun. It’s a sappy, silly film with elements of Starship Troopers and Real Steel and Transformers and it’s not nearly as inventive or as imaginative as del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth.  Still, it’s an entertaining, popcorn crunching, monster/robot slugfest with a sense of humor and in a summer filled with blockbusters devoid of humor or heart, Pacific Rim makes for a nice change of pace.

Monday, July 8, 2013


There isn't a single scene in John Ford’s Wagon Master(1950) that I don’t enjoy.  It’s said that John Ford purposely avoided casting longtime collaborator John Wayne in the film for fear that his presence would overwhelm the story, and I couldn't agree more. I enjoy the majority of Wayne’s films but he would have been a terrible distraction in this quiet, subtle masterpiece about the odyssey of a wagon train full of Mormons, a huckster, a couple of fallen women and an evil bank robber (Charles Kemper) and his psychopathic sons.

Harry Carey Jr. and Ben Johnson in John Ford's Wagon Master
Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr. are the unlikely and reluctant heroes who rise to the challenge in the most spectacular fashion. Ford’s genius here is that neither are quick draws or killers. They're just a couple of young guys who only wanted to trade some horses and make a little cash. But they're nice guys and when Ward Bond and his band of ostracized Mormons fail to heed warnings about the treacherous journey Bond is embarking on, Johnson and Carey do the right thing and help them out.

Ward Bond (center) is the leader of lost Mormons in Wagon Master
The movie is full of moments that make me smile. There's a wonderful bit where the group is dancing and having a little celebration. It's a sweet moment and one of the best dance scenes that I've ever seen in film. Full of joy and warmth and fun. And then there's Kemper and his sons. Shown at the very beginning of the film robbing a bank (my favorite shot in the movie). What is so scary about them is that they seem like not so threatening amateurs who become frighteningly homicidal at the drop of a hat.

Ben Johnson and Joanne Dru fall for each other in Wagon Master

Another great moment is the introduction of huckster Alan Mowbray and his traveling companions Francis Ford and Joanne Dru. All of them drunk when Johnson stumbles upon them, having run out of water and forced to drink the alcoholic elixir that Mowbray was run out of town for selling. One of the greatest moments in the film is when Mowbray volunteers to ride his wagon over a treacherous trail. It's a grand and poignant moment of self sacrifice as Mowbray realizes that he is nothing and the success of the journey is everything. The movie is about moments like that. The exhilaration and joy of finding water. The fusing of different kinds of people into a family. The relationship between Dru and Johnson is nicely underplayed and subtle. We see they love each other and Ford knows that we don't need to be hit on the head with obvious scenes full of overwrought dialogue.

I also love Ben Johnsons character here. When the evil Kemper takes over the wagon train, hot head Carey is angry that Johnson doesn't act to prevent it. Johnson wisely tells him that they need to live because if they get killed, the group of people will be lost and will probably die. He's responsible for them, and waits to act until they're safe. Johnson is a true hero in this. The scene reminds me of an old Spider-Man comic from the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko era when Peter Parker finds himself in a similar position to that of Ben Johnson when Spider-Man must let himself be seen by others as afraid or as a coward by running from a fight with the Sandman in order to stay alive for the welfare of his sickly Aunt May. It’s a type of heroism that is not often seen in film or in the black and white style of heroism seen in comic books for that matter. When the hero must sacrifice his ego and let the villain have his small victory in order to live and save the lives of others, to fight for something bigger than yourself. Ford gives us that kind of transcendent heroism in Wagon Master.

Peter Parker has much in common with Ben Johnsons western hero of Wagon Master

Johnson’s character is also smart enough to be scared. There’s a scene where Ward Bond asks him if he's afraid of Kemper and Johnson says yes. Then Bond asks Carey, who doesn't want to admit his fear and is about to make a posturing remark when Bond cuts him off and says "that makes three of us.” It's a wonderfully honest moment. There are also some great moments of suspense. When the group is treated to Navajo hospitality and one of Kempers sons attempts to rape an Indian girl. Bond has him strapped to a wagon wheel and whipped to placate the Indians. Kemper is silently outraged and it sets up a strong tone of suspense that carries through the rest of the film until we see the violent finale.

Some of Bert Glennon's stunning photography in Wagon Master
Wagon Master reminds me of movies such as Outlaw Josie Wales and Unforgiven. There is that examination of morality and violence handled with a level of subtlety, realism and sensitivity that we often only see in some of Eastwood's films and in some of the best Western films. There's also some lovely photography by Bert Glennon. This film just looks great and is shot almost entirely on location. There’s also an enjoyable musical score by Richard Hageman. Terrific movie from top to bottom with top notch performances by all.  Plus, you just know that when John Ford and Merian Cooper get together it's going to be great.  I’ve seen Wagon Master probably a dozen times at least and every time I enjoy it more than I did the last.

Turner Classic Movies will be showing Wagon Master on Friday July 12, at 12:15 PM Eastern. Don’t miss it!