Monday, July 15, 2013

A Prequel to "Savages"

By James L. Thane
Four out of five stars

One of my favorite books of the last several years was Savages, by the incomparable Don Winslow. It was hip, cool, very funny and enormously engrossing. The trio at the heart of the book included three early-twenty-something Southern Californians: Ben and Chon, two life-long friends-turned-drug producers who grew the best weed available, and O, the enormously beautiful and appealing woman who loved both of them. The book was not only a great read, it was a compelling meditation on the nature of friendship, family and love.

Winslow now returns with The Kings of Cool, a prequel to Savages that shows how Ben, Chon and O came to know each other and how they grew into the people they would ultimately become. It is at least as good, if not better, than Savages.

As the book opens, Chon, who is still a Navy Seal, is headed back to Afghanistan. Ben has just received a visit from a mysterious man who wants to cut in on the profitable dope business that Ben and Chon have established. Ben, a pacifist at heart, chooses to deal with this problem in his own way and does not to tell Chon about this threat to their livelihood. He figures that Chon has enough on his plate as it is. Meanwhile, O's mother PAQU (Passive Aggressive Queen of the Universe) is on O's case, insisting that she either get a job or go back to school.

From that point, the book bounces back and forth between the present day and the counter-culture SOCAL of the 1960s. As Ben, Chon and O deal with their respective problems, we meet a group of surfer dudes, hippies and people involved in the early days of the dope business, which at that point, simply involved moving grass into Southern California and selling it.

Over time, of course, the early days of the counter culture will evolve into something entirely different while back in the present day, the threats to Ben, Chon and O will grow increasingly complicated. Winslow weaves his way through these narratives brilliantly and you simply cannot put the book down as one surprise after another unfolds. The writing itself is inventive, as it was in Savages, and ultimately, the book ends way too soon.

I'm not a huge fan of the movie that was made from Savages and I sincerely hope that people who were not all that thrilled with the movie will still give the book a chance;it's a great read, infinitely better than the film, and I can't imagine that anyone who thrilled to the book will not want to read The Kings of Cool as well.

Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots

Pacific Rim

Reviewed by Kemper
4 out of 5 neurally linked stars.

This movie incorporates many elements like giant robots and wanton large scale property damage that generally make summer blockbusters terrible, but somehow director Guillermo del Toro actually made it very entertaining.  Go figure.

As explained in an opening montage, an inter-dimensional portal at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean started to occasionally belch up enormous monsters of the Godzilla type.    These beasts, named Kaiju, cause enormous devastation and the various military forces find them incredibly difficult to kill.  The countries of the world unite and start building giant robots called Jaegers to fight them.

The bio-interface used to control the Jaegers is too much for single person to handle so two pilots are required to control the machine.  The Drift is a process that mentally links the two pilots via a neural bridge so that they share thoughts and can work in conjunction to run the Jaeger in a process that kind of looks like a really extreme round of Dance Dance Revolution.

While the Jaegers temporarily turned the tide and were able to stop the monsters, an increase in the frequency and aggressiveness of Kaiju attacks leads to the destruction of most of the robots.  With few options left, the world’s leaders decide to pour their resources into building giant walls along the coasts, but the leader of the Jaeger program Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) disagrees with this tactic and has taken the few remaining robots and pilots to the last base in Hong Kong where he has come up a desperate plan to stop the Kaiju once and for all.

Pentecost recruits former pilot Raligh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) to come back and run his old Jaeger.  As Becket and  a new co-pilot Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) struggle to work together in the Drift, research scientists Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day) and Hermann Gottleib (Burn Gorman) try to learn more about the Kaiju and how the breach at the bottom of the ocean can be sealed off permanently.

This is obviously a love letter to Japanese monster and mecha movies, but del Toro was careful to craft it into something new, not just do a homage.  Essentially the story asks what would it be like to live in a world where giant monsters occasionally come out of the ocean and wreck havoc, and it’s that atmosphere that sells the idea that building giant robots was the only logical response.  Setting it twelve years after the Kaiju started attacking also lets us skip over all the reactions of disbelief we’d normally have to wade through in a movie of this type.

Early scenes with the retired Becket forced to work dangerous construction jobs on a coastal wall in Alaska and a sub-plot in which we meet a black market dealer (Ron Perlman) of Kaiju organs and other body parts help expand the scope of the story and give us an idea of what life is like for the average person on the street in these bizarre circumstances.

A solid cast helps flesh out the human elements with Hunnam playing a likable hero and showing that he could probably be a new Hollywood action star if given the opportunity.  Idris Elba projects enough gravity to add some weight to the proceedings while Day provides ample comic relief in scenes where he bickers with Gorman and tries to get a Kaiju brain from Perlman.

Of course, this is still a story about giant robots fighting monsters so that’s where it has to deliver.  And deliver it does.  The designs of the Jaegers makes them look like giant war machines developed over several years in different places, and the Kaiju are weird and alien enough to be genuinely creepy.   Both are cool enough that they should sell plenty of toys.

Aside from just looking bad-ass, the combat between Jaegers and Kaiju is crazy and intense. Whether it’s a fight at sea off the coast of Alaska or in the streets of Hong Kong or at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, care was taken to make the Jaegers move like machines while the Kaiju act like animals.  It’s like Iron Man fighting a grizzly bear who can spit acid.  Plus, the over the top scale of both make for some great visuals like a Jaeger using a cargo ship as a club to beat down a Kaiju.  That’s something you just don’t see every day.  While the editing is sometimes a little fast and can make you lose track of what happened at a given moment, it never descends into the random chaos of a Transformers movie.

While the battle scenes of Jaegers vs. Kaiju are as big and splashy as possible, exciting special effects can only carry you so far, and del Toro smartly understands that all of this should be fun.  He hits a nice tone that features serious stakes without being overly grim, and then he lets his giant robots and monsters loose to beat the ever loving hell out of each other and give the audience a spectacle worth watching.