Review – Pacific Rim: Uprising

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It’s been approximately five years since Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim hit theaters and, for a long time, all we heard is that a sequel was (to paraphrase) “probably coming”.  Del Toro’s original film (which is actually my favorite del Toro film, alongside Hellboy II: The Golden Army) was moderately successful, but not overwhelmingly so, making a sequel a risky financial proposition if not handled correctly.  And though del Toro isn’t back, having been replaced by Steven S. DeKnight as director (del Toro has a producing credit), del Toro’s most mainstream-friendly creation is, in the form of this long-awaited sequel.

The narrative does a commendable job of paying service to what came before it while not being so beholden to it that new viewers are lost.  If you saw and remember del Toro’s original Pacific Rim, then some of the proceedings will have more meaning and resonance for you.  If that original film is a mystery to you, the film fills you in on what you need to know (which is actually not all that much) and then introduces some new faces to carry the bulk of the story’s weight.  If nothing else, it’s more accessible than Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope, and people seem to be okay with that one, so Uprising‘s plot should be fine for most.

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Truth be told, the script isn’t as lazy as I feared it might be.  Everyone knows that the movie is eventually headed for another epic confrontation between the humans in their Jaegers and the monstrous Kaiju, but the path to getting there isn’t as linear as expected.  There are plenty of unexpected detours and turns along the way, even up until the very end of the film.  DeKnight (who also receives a co-writing credit in addition to his directorial duties) and the rest of his team go out of their way to keep things unpredictable and fun and they succeed to about as great a degree as possible for a movie such as this one.  Kudos to them for even caring about doing so, as there is probably no legitimate reason for them to unless (gasp!) they actually care about the quality of their work and not just making money.  If the viewer cares to look, they may even pick up on the underlying theme of world unity being carried over from the first film and then challenged by a devious outsider who attempts to unravel all the progress that had been made.  Sounds sadly topical, does it not?

While there was certainly an intangible sense of poetry within del Toro’s original film that doesn’t quite make the transition over to this one, it’s not for a lack of trying.  The characters – both new and old – are charismatic, engaging, entertaining, and diverse not only in terms of ethnicity, but also personality.  Motivations are clear and sensible and they are generally relatable, being assisted by a capable cast.  Some of the arcs are essentially a repeat from the first film (or at least one of them), but that doesn’t harm things all that much.

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John Boyega continues his bid to take over Hollywood as Jake Pentecost, the son of Idris Elba’s Stacker Pentecost from the original film.  Rinko Kikuchi reprises her role as Mako Mori and Charlie Day and Burn Gorman also return to the series as their scientist buddies Newt and Hermann, respectively.  Joining them are franchise newcomers Cailee Spaeny, who plays 15-year-old Amara – a wannabe Jaeger pilot, and Scott Eastwood as Nate Lambert, a personal and professional rival of Jake’s.  Boyega and Spaeny are the standouts of the bunch (as written for this film) but all hold their own and elevate the material, keeping it interesting during the downtime.

Because, let’s be honest, as nice as all of that is, that’s not why any of us are here, is it?  I’m sure you will see plenty of reviews that eschew validating the action in favor of talking about the character development, story, etc.. as if it all bears equal weight.  It doesn’t.  All of the latter is great and it always helps and is preferable to have, but what matters most in a franchise like Pacific Rim is the monumental action and visual effects.  That’s the flat-out truth.  Anybody who is pretentiously claiming otherwise is flat out lying in a misguided attempt to preserve their own perceived reputation.  Lying, I say!

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Fortunately, I have nothing but praise to heap upon that aspect of the film.  In fact, Pacific Rim: Uprising, in my opinion, far and away features the best action of any 2018 film, thus far.  Not only is the scope and scale massive, but the movie gradually builds from one impressive set piece to an increasingly more impressive one until it climaxes in one monumental battle for the ages.  The effects are top-notch, the Jaeger and Kaiju designs are outstanding, and DeKnight generally has an eye for giant-robot-versus-monster throwdowns, keeping the camera wide and the action slow enough that it’s easy to interpret and the power plows through the screen (though the characters are a bit reckless in their efforts to win the day).  Near the beginning of the film, his cuts are a little too fast, but that ends quickly and it’s all smooth sailing after the initial twenty minutes, or so.

I feel like the Pacific Rim series, artistically speaking, is what Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise wishes it could be.  Pacific Rim (both the original and Uprising) has characters that are generally enjoyable, dialogue that is unremarkable but good enough, and action that is decipherable – a low bar but one that Bay often has trouble clearing.  Transformers makes the money but it also has the benefit of being an established intellectual property with a long history and a devoted fanbase (although it’s looked much less devoted, recently).  But Pacific Rim is much better balanced, paced, and sophisticated.  Uprising successfully carries on the themes that del Toro introduced and brings them into 2018 while also raising the stakes.  It doesn’t quite possess the artistry of del Toro’s original, but it’s a more-than-worthy follow-up, regardless, and delivers big time on what the audience is looking for: giant monsters versus giant robots.  Stop pretending you need or want anything more and just go see it.

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Review – Pacific Rim: Uprising

Review – Kong: Skull Island

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I’ve been a pretty big King Kong fan for most of my adult life.  The original 1933 classic was the first special-effects blockbuster that broke every established rule and opened up the world’s collective mind to the potential of film as a storytelling medium.  Peter Jackson’s 2004 remake was a brilliant and poignant love poem to its progenitor that spent the first half of its running time as an excellent drama and the back half as an unparalleled action bonanza (the T-Rex battle may still be my favorite fight ever committed to film).  There have been plenty of other Kong films over the years, but those two are the standouts, and I included them both on my Films That Every Self-Professed Film Lover Should See list that I did over a year ago.  (I plan on doing a follow-up to that list, as soon as I can find the time.)

Now, Kong is back.  This is a new Kong –  a bigger Kong.  And he comes with a new director and a new cast.  The marketing for this one has looked fun, but has also come off as rather empty.  I haven’t been crazy about the lighter tone, though the cast is impeccable.  But the best Kong films of the past have carried with them significant heart and a palpable weight to the proceedings.  I got the impression that this new film (by fledgling director Jordan Vogt-Roberts) contained little-to-none of that.  Was that the case, or just a misrepresentation by the marketing department?  And, if true, would the action and monster mayhem adequately compensate?

It’s always a risk to hire a new director for a film this huge.  Oftentimes, their inexperience shows and lessens the impact and scale.  And then there are other times when a new face comes along with a unique eye, and that’s what Vogt-Roberts brings to the table in Kong: Skull Island.  I would love to know what he presented to Warner Brothers that earned their trust in him as they handed him the reigns to this film, but I suspect it was fresh and unexpected.

The cast is robust and packed with reliable fan-favorites alongside talented rising stars and they work wonderfully together.  John C. Reilly’s character had the most potential for dampening the film’s tone, but Reilly is a seasoned professional and knows exactly where to place his performance on the Humor Spectrum so that he never becomes a caricature.  And get used to seeing Brie Larson.  After winning an Oscar for her genius performance in Room (my favorite film of 2015), Kong is just the next rung for her on the Ladder to Superstardom as she’ll appear in next year’s Avengers: Infinity War as Marvel’s preeminent female hero, Captain Marvel.  Her screen presence in Kong further justifies that casting decision as she stands tall next to the likes of Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, and John Goodman.  Toby Kebbell steps in as well, hopefully redeeming himself in the eyes of geeks around the world after being brutally miscast as Doctor Doom in Josh Trank’s 2015 Fantastic Four film.  No complaints about the cast; they gel well and all translate as natural and believable.

There are numerous callbacks and nods to not only previous Kong films, but other monster franchises, as well.  In addition to those older Kong movies, I saw references to Godzilla, the Jurassic Park films, and even 2008’s The Incredible Hulk.  Vogt-Roberts certainly loves the genre and all of those little Easter eggs will delight anyone with sharp eyes, ears, and the requisite knowledge to pick up on them.

Oh, wait, this is an action movie, isn’t it? No worries; WB and Vogt-Roberts know exactly what audiences are expecting and won’t leave them disappointed.  Vogt-Roberts uses that keen eye of his to deliver some of the most visually innovative action brawls we’ve ever seen.  He keeps the camera wide and slows the action down by just a beat or two in order to ensure that every frame is easily digestible and impactful.  There are no tight, fast shots that will require the viewer to lean over and ask their neighbor exactly what just happened.  Vogt-Roberts has an intuitive knack for this sort of filmmaking and I welcome him to this industry with open arms.

Happily, I can also state that there is meaningful subtext for those who wish to see it.  John Goodman’s opening line sets the tone, but it goes deeper than that tongue-in-cheek jab (that I’ll let you discover for yourself).  This story largely takes place in the seventies, against the backdrop of post-Vietnam America.  Every character in our cast is hurting and licking their wounds in some form or another, desperate for anything that feels like a victory, whether of the personal sort or in the broader, more patriotic sense.  And then . . . they find themselves on Skull Island.  There are no true villains in the film.  But as each character’s individualized versions of “victory” begins to manifest, conflict naturally occurs and the cast becomes fleshed out, believable, and empathetic.  Mix in the theme of man versus nature, and Kong: Skull Island exists (and succeeds) on several different levels.  And, as a result, it should please all types of moviegoers.

I’m not going to say that Kong: Skull Island is as strong as Peter Jackson’s remake, because it isn’t (it lacks the poetry and heart of that film), but I suspect it will be more of a widespread crowdpleaser than that film, due solely to its significantly more abbreviated runtime.  But it’s also a completely different film than that one, with a different story, different characters, and different goals.  If you like Kong/giant monster/Kaiju films at all, you owe it to yourself to check this film out.  I can’t fathom how anyone with a predilection for this sort of thing could possibly be disappointed by it.  If you haven’t indulged in giant monster movies, this could be a great place to start.  In any event, Kong: Skull Island is a raucous event of a movie that exists on whatever level the beholder chooses to view it (hopefully in IMAX 3D.  Or at least in 3D.  Feel it; don’t settle for looking at it.).  If you want to have nothing less than a fun time escaping at the movies, Skull Island should be your final destination.

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Review – Kong: Skull Island

Review – The Great Wall

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The Great Wall is the latest film from acclaimed Chinese director Yimou Zhang (Hero, House of Flying Daggers).  The movie doesn’t arrive free of controversy, though – as with most quote/unquote “controversy” – it’s of the ignorantly manufactured type.  People everywhere took to their keyboards to accuse Universal Studios of whitewashing a film about the Great Wall in China, blissfully unaware (or uncaring) of the fact that the film is helmed by a Chinese director who outright stated that there’s a storyline reason for the presence of Damon’s character.  But, far be it for most people these days to sit back and let others actually do their job after years and years of earning their spot and the trust of the audience.  This is the kind of thing, much like the fake news regarding animal abuse on the set of A Dog’s Purpose, that unfairly damages the reputation and performance of movies and hurts the careers of the people who make them.

What really matters is the quality of the film, itself.  And that can only be fairly gauged by those who watch the movie and do so with an open mind.  And that’s what I did, today.  The concept is a simple one: monsters are attacking the Great Wall of China.  There you go.  Matt Damon plays William, a European mercenary coming to China to learn their secrets of war.  He has done much travelling and has his own secrets to share.  And the Chinese can use any new ideas they can get, because the aforementioned monsters are waging battle against them and the monsters are winning.

Surely another complaint much of the public (many of whom won’t even bother to see the film) will have is that it’s the white guy who comes in and saves the day for the Chinese.  It’s possible to see it that way.  But only if you don’t actually follow the movie or put any legitimate thought into it.  Yes, Matt Damon is a white guy.  But he’s carrying techniques with him that he’s learned from other, non-white countries.  He’s able to travel and learn.  The Chinese aren’t.  They’re a little busy staying home and protecting their country from the ravenous beasts just outside of their wall.  So, if people don’t have intelligent insights into and criticisms of the film, they should just not talk about it.

So, aside from all of that, the film is . . . fine, I guess?  I have no real problems with it.  But, at the same time, it didn’t particularly blow me away.  Fifteen years ago, The Great Wall would have been a barn-burning blockbuster that the whole world would have gone crazy over.  Now, it’s just part of the pack.  The good news is that it’s already raked in well over $200 million overseas, largely thanks to (naturally) China.  Still, it has about $150 million more to go before it can be considered to be even a moderate hit.  It’s not going to make that in North America (but it will do better in February than it would have done in the crowded summer months), but it might keep chugging in China.

It just fails to stand out in any way.  It’s not so much that this particular idea has been done, before.  It hasn’t, per se.  But I was reminded – in terms of the monsters and action set pieces – of a mix between Aliens and The Avengers.  However, even though I didn’t dislike this film, it’s not anywhere near the quality of either of those films.  The dialogue was uninteresting, the characters were a little flat, and the action was competent, but largely uninspired.  Also, the majesty, poetry, and magnificence of Yimou’s earlier films is almost entirely absent.  So, as I said, it feels like More Of The Same.

These days, gigantic, special-effects driven films are the norm.  There needs to be more to capture the imagination than just the action.  The Great Wall offers decent (if sometimes poorly-thought-out, from the perspective of the characters) action, pretty cool-looking creatures, a solid but mostly wasted cast, and a bunch of crossed fingers that that’s going to be enough.  If you want to see it, go see it.  I didn’t hate it.  You might not, either.  But my expectations have been raised by total packages like the Marvel Studios films, high-brow think-pieces like Ex Machina and Arrival, and much more memorable and spectacular action experiences like Jurassic World.  And The Great Wall doesn’t meet any of those expectations.  What would have been considered must-see, a decade-and-a-half ago, isn’t going to be viewed as much more than a time-killer on an easygoing weekend, in 2017.  If you weren’t dying to see it, I’d wait until Logan and Kong: Skull Island.

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Review – The Great Wall