Wednesday, May 16, 2018

“Solo: A Star Wars Story” - Sorry, were you hoping to learn something interesting about Han Solo?

Benign.  Rote.  By-the-book.  Fine.  Adequate.  Entertaining enough.  All are applicable adjectives to the latest Star Wars movie, Solo: A Star Wars Story.  Hell, “A Star Wars Story” is probably the perfect way to describe Solo because it is generic and tells us something we already know.  In a nutshell, that is Solo - a movie insisting on answering questions we already know the answer to – or never asked in the first place – while never committing to a story worth going back in Star Wars time for.  Director Ron Howard and screenwriters Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan play the movie so safe you would be forgiven if you forgot Han was a murderous smuggler (just ask Greedo) when we first met him back in 1977.

(MILD SPOILERS ahead, but there really is not much to spoil anyway.)

The major flaw with the film is that it does nothing to make us care about anything or anyone, save for maybe a sassy droid, and never commits to anything.  Rather than take some time to develop any characters, new or old, it relies heavily on us already knowing Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich), Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), and Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and treats the rest of the cast as little more than set pieces.  The film begins with an uninspired car chase scene featuring Han fleeing a bunch of gangsters with his girlfriend, Qi’ra (pronounced like Kira and played by Emilia Clarke), in tow.  As they try to escape off the planet Corellia, they are separated and Han screams that he will come back to get her.  This seems like it will be the main plot of the film and is driven home during the first act of the film as Han is telling everyone within earshot that he intends to get back to Corellia to rescue her as soon as he has enough money.  We also quickly meet a trio of generic characters (Woody Harrelson, Thandie Newton, and the voice of Jon Favreau) who get the barest minimum of development because this movie desperately wanted to get to showing us the famous Kessel Run.
The most interesting character in the world.

Those three characters are a crew of thieves and you will probably only remember one of their names - Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson).  They take Han and Chewie on to their crew and attempt a train heist.  Yes, a train heist in a Star Wars movie.  While a much better action sequence than the earlier car chase, it offers little in the way of ingenuity with the exception of the train cars occasionally swiveling around the axis of the rail they are riding.  Because we know next to nothing about the heist crew and know Han and Chewie are in other movies, this scene (as well as the entire movie) has zero tension.  At this point, we are only watching for the visuals and the visuals of this scene were spoiled in the previews.  Once this scene ends, we find Han, Chewie, and Tobias on board crime lord Dryden Vos’ (Paul Bettany) ship where they run into none other than Qi’ra.  The end.

Just kidding.  The movie still has two more acts for us, but now we are left wondering “what now?”  Han’s plan of buying a ship and rescuing Qi’ra just got light-sabered by the screenplay.  Qi’ra also makes it clear that she no longer requires rescuing, so the movie is forced to pivot to another heist as the main plot of the film.  A smarter movie would have used this heist for character development and relationship building, but this is not a smarter movie.  Instead, it is only the catalyst to get us to the main event of this film - Han and Jabba the Hutt meeting for the first time.  Just kidding.

Nothing screams Star Wars like train heist.

I firmly believe that the entire purpose of this movie was fan service in the form of depicting a single line of dialogue from A New Hope - Han bragging to Luke that the Millennium Falcon made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.  If you are a space nerd like me, or simply paid attention in astronomy class, a parsec is a unit of distance measurement, not speed, so Han bragging about how fast his ship was by using a unit of distance was nonsense.  Luckily, some other nerds wrote out an explanation involving a short-cut and, thus, Solo had its main attraction.  Like the train heist scene, it is an entertaining scene featuring a space chase and an eerie image of a star destroyer (doing absolutely nothing including not shooting at the Falcon despite half a dozen TIE fighters shooting at the Falcon, like in every other Star Wars movie, dammit-do-those-things-do-anything-ever?!)?  Unfortunately, this scene bears far too much resemblance to the underwater chase scene in The Phantom Menace and nothing good reminds us of The Phantom Menace.

Are you not entertained?

Speaking of fan service, the other major problem with Solo is far too much time is spent answering the questions I alluded to earlier.

Did you ever wonder how the Falcon got that notch at its front (watch the previews again - the bow is a solid triangle rather than forked)?
Of course not.

Did you ever wonder where the name Solo came from?
No, why would I?

Curious about how Han obtained the Falcon?
They already told us in The Empire Strikes Back. 

Want to see the first meeting between Chewie and Han?
Actually, yes.

Okay, so that last one is actually interesting, but this movie provides a boring explanation that doubles as a borderline meet-cute.  If you want a much better explanation, read The Hutt Gambit by A.C. Crispin, even though Disney proclaimed nearly all of the previous Star Wars canon to be meaningless.  Who has two thumbs and is a nerd?  This guy.

Normally, Easter eggs or quick homages tickle me, but this movie shoves them in your face and they are neither quick or Easter eggy (again, the Kessel Run).  The Solo surname scene was especially awkward because it answered a question literally nobody ever asked and the most unnecessary detail explanation since X-Men: Apocalypse showed us how Xavier went bald.

Just Han?  Like, Madonna?

By the end of Solo, we learn nothing new about Han, Chewie, or Lando that we did not already know about them from previous films.  Putting on my movie-fixer hat for a moment, I would have cut Qi’ra from the beginning of the film and made her character much more mysterious and nuanced.  A little more Khaleesi, and a little less cardboard cutout.  Given that we met Han as a selfish smuggler only out for himself in A New Hope, the opening scene in Solo would work far better to develop that trait and the scene would need zero other changes after removing Qi’ra.  This also would have given several potential options with Qi’ra in this film and future films rather than what the Kasdans did with her.  I would also have stuck with the book regarding Han and Chewie’s initial meeting because it provided the one altruistic trait in Han (anti-slavery) that kept him from being the scum he was always accused of being, thus forming the basis of his later redemption as a hero.  Finally, I would spend more time developing Han and Lando’s relationship, which is practically non-existent in Solo.

At least Qi'ra is a beautiful cardboard cutout.

As I have said in past reviews, I love Star Wars, which is what makes Solo kind of disappointing for me.  Despite the tone of this review, I want to stress that Solo is an entertaining movie that is competently done from a popcorn flick point of view.  Perhaps the best thing about Solo is the acting, which is very good.  Ehrenreich and Glover deliver performances that never feel like knockoffs of their predecessors and the rest of the cast all hit their marks.  But the obvious comparison is Rogue One and Solo falls completely flat in that comparison.  At no point was I ever captivated during this movie, not even during the penultimate space chase from Kessel, because, again, we already knew the answer to that question.

Rating: Ask for four dollars back because, if anything, you get your Star Wars fix.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

“Avengers: Infinity War” - Winter is here.

Ten years people.  We have been waiting ten years for Avengers: Infinity War and it is finally here.  Eighteen movies and three television series later and it is finally here.  Okay, so not many people watch all three TV series. I forgot Inhumans was even a thing (just eight episodes), Agent Carter got the ax after eighteen episodes, and I quit watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. partway through season four (the one with Ghost Rider) because it became downright stupid.  What was I saying?  Oh, right - INFINITY WAR!!

To put it bluntly, nothing will top Infinity War for me this year.  Sure, there may be another movie like Get Out that comes out of nowhere to blow our socks off, except that movie already happened and it is A Quiet Place.  And while A Quiet Place is a fantastic film that will not leave my top five for the year, Infinity War is a watershed moment in film.  Really, the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has altered the film business, but Infinity War is the gasp you release because, even though you expected what was coming, you were not expecting that.

There shall be no spoilers here.

The big question on everyone’s mind is “how is Marvel going to fit all of the characters and storylines into a two and a half hour movie?”  The answer is “are you seriously questioning Marvel after ten years?”  Seriously, the answer is the same way a show like Game of Thrones does it - jumping from one character (or several) to another throughout the film and bringing them all together at the end to fight Sauron.  With the exception of maybe Black Panther, not one character felt short-changed on screen time and every storyline matters.

(Side note: Hawkeye and Ant-Man are conspicuously missing from this film - as many people noted from the poster - but the film does throw out an acceptable, if not very brief, explanation.  Incidentally, I am now beyond fascinated to see where Ant-Man and the Wasp will take us.)

Directors Anthony and Joe Russo helmed this behemoth of a film and were tasked with the challenge of crafting what looks on paper like an impossible movie.  Again, we are talking about eighteen movies worth of characters, plots, and subplots featuring a cast best described as all the actors.  We are talking about not pulling a Batman v Superman because Disney invested $300-400 million to make Infinity War.  We are talking about ten years of planning and execution and if you two guys screw this up we’re going to pump Christian Bale full of adrenaline, steroids, and PCP and tell him you are the light guys.  We are talking about the pressure of hitting a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth in game seven of the World Series, but, hey - remember to just have fun out there.  All of to which the Russo brothers said “here, hold my beer.”

The stones on these guys...

Infinity War is first and foremost an action movie and you will not leave the theater thinking there should have been more action.  However, you will leave the theater exhausted, not because of all the action, but because the tension is relentless.  Luckily, the writing in the film deftly inserts exposition, transitions, and the familiar banter and comedic relief of every MCU film exactly in the places where you need to take a breath and remember to blink a few times.  These scenes serve to join the various parallel plots of the groups of characters (each of whose makeup you most definitely will not guess) to thread everything into one large narrative which is basically “Hi Thanos.”  Then, they turn the tension dial back up to a million.

Considering the complexity of eighteen movies worth of stories, the plot of Infinity War is as simple as it gets - to stop Thanos from acquiring the six infinity stones, thus allowing him to kill half the living beings in the universe.  That may sound like a cliched supervillain plot, but the motivation behind Thanos’ goal distinguishes it from most others and helps make Thanos one of the great movie villains of all time.  He believes that half of all beings must die because the resources of the universe are finite and dividing by two will ensure the survival of everyone else.  Bet you didn’t see a subtle climate-change message coming from a movie like this.  Granted, genocide is a really, really bad solution for resource conservation, but one cannot argue at its effectiveness.

Even better is that Thanos has layers of menace mixed with a smidge of…compassion?  Wait, that can’t be right.  *Thinking* - flashback scene of his home world of Titan coming to a bad end.  *Thinking some more* - scene where he acquires the soul stone.  Huh.  I’ll be damned.  Nuance in a giant blockbuster.  Even his speech pattern (calm and logical) and excellent dialogue (Josh Brolin owns this movie) adds sneaky depth to a character you start to empathize with by the end of the film.  Exactly - *gasp.*

Nuance.

The biggest reason why I will inevitably pick this as the best movie of 2018 is the end is definitely not what everyone expects from this kind of movie.  We all know that it is part one of the finale of this massive endeavor, so we all know it will end with a cliffhanger.  But it is not the kind of cliffhanger most TV shows end a season with or the way half of all the old Batman episodes left things dangling.  Most likely, you have heard the myriad rumors and guessing at who dies and who lives, but Infinity War scoffs at those rumors and guesses and throws the knuckliest of all knuckleballs, leaving the movie off in a place that feels like the wrong place, but is exactly the right place.

Regardless of how this whole story turns out, I was not exaggerating when I said this movie and the entire MCU have fundamentally altered movies.  We are already seeing Warner Brothers and Universal attempting the same universe structure (to almost comically bad degrees.  You heard me DC fanboys).  One can point to Harry Potter or Lords of the Rings as earlier examples, but those are linear franchises.  When Marvel succeeded with their so-called phase one, culminating with The Avengers, they showed that audiences were willing to invest in stand-alone films coming from different directions and characters with the promise of a giant payoff in one climactic mashup film.  Phases two and three cemented that concept, almost to the point of taunting the audience with unknown characters like Doctor Strange.  The strategic plan was visible to even the most jaded of moviegoers, so we trusted Marvel and were rewarded time after time (after time), none more so than with Infinity War.

From so far out of left field, the field is just a dot to you.

There are plenty of people out there who hate Marvel and Disney for a perceived homogenization of movies, but that is utter nonsense.  These people are the get-off-my-lawn people.  They hate the designated hitter and bitch about how millennials are just the worst.  They reminisce about the good old days of film (read: pre-CGI) and use words like whippersnapper.  These are the people who have forgotten that they didn’t get excited about movies because they watched Citizen Kane, but got excited because they watched Star Wars or E.T. or The Wizard of Oz.  These are people who refuse to see the audacity and ambition of a studio asking us to stick around for ten years; we promise it will be worth it.  In the latter half of Infinity War, Doctor Strange tells a companion “We’re in the end game now” and, like in Game of Thrones, the years-long ride was worth it.

Rating: Ask why you aren’t paying $50 (or more) for a movie that is easily as entertaining as most sporting events and concerts.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

“Rampage” – Keep it simple, stupid.

If you were to make a list of video games you would most like to see adapted into movies, I am guessing that list would include exactly zero classic arcade games.  I have never expressed a desire to see a Galaga or Centipede movie on the silver screen nor have I heard any other mammal express that desire.  The reasoning is simple - those games have no story on which to base a movie.  Ironically, that reasoning means some of those same games are the safest to adapt because there is no legion of middle-aged nerds freaking out because Hollywood crapped on their childhood memories or ruined a fantastic game.  Thus, we have Rampage, a movie based on a game in which players are tasked with destroying buildings using the fists of one of three (two if you only played the NES version, like me) giant creatures.  All the movie had to do to pay respect to the game was offer up rationale, no matter how absurd, for the existence of the creatures and why they would attack buildings.  And, they did not hold back on the absurdity.

(SPOILER ALERT for obligatory reasons, not because you do not know what happens in this movie.)

The biggest absurdity of this film is how hard the four screenwriters worked to explain nonsense.  The film kicks off in space.  Chew on that for a moment.  Alarms are sounding on a space station and a frantic astronaut is trying to escape from a giant mutant rat that has killed everyone else on board, but her (remote) corporate overlords will not let her leave without grabbing the scientific research on board the station.  She escapes in the nick of time, but her capsule explodes upon reentry and the three cylinders containing the research plummet to Earth.  Goodbye ten minutes of your life.  That is the explanation given for how a gorilla named George, a wolf, and an alligator become gigantic, destructive monsters and it was completely unnecessary.  The movie should have just begun with the three capsules streaking through the sky, but I am not four different writers, am I?

Do not think about why the gator grew orders of magnitude larger than George or the wolf.

Davis Okoye (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) is a primatologist (he said while chuckling and remembering the time Denise Richards played a nuclear scientist) who has worked with George for George’s entire life.  Their relationship is so close that Davis can decipher anything George says (through sign-language), taught George how to flip the bird, and prefers the company of George (and other animals) over humans, including a very attractive woman who invites Davis to show her his other monkey.  By the sheer pull of Johnson’s animal magnetism, one of the research capsules lands in the gorilla enclosure and sprays green mist in George’s face.  The next morning, Davis discovers George is much bigger and killed a grizzly bear, but this movie is rated PG-13 so no gorilla-vs-bear action in a movie about rampaging animals.

Meanwhile, the corporate overlords are revealed to be Claire and Brett Wyden (Malin Akerman and Jake Lacy, respectively).  They send out private soldiers to track down the capsules and kill the mutant wolf, but that plan does not go well.  Plan B is to turn on a giant radio that will attract the beasts to the tower formally known as Sears so they can collect DNA samples and sell this weaponized DNA for profit.  Do not worry; they have a cure.  I promise that plan is flawless as long as you ignore every part of that same plan.  Suffice it to say, the animals race to Chicago to destroy the signal and everything in their path.

It's okay; that bear was a jerk.

(Side note and pet peeve: these same two siblings funded a space station, yet their stated goal here is to make money?  Four writers, everybody.)

The other big absurdity of this film was the casting.  This is par for the course for Johnson, who is this generation’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, but without the overt soldier aspect, but every other recognizable actor in this film should have had better things to do.  Akerman might be the worst villain this decade, but she sure tries to look the part when she scrunches up her face to look like a big meanie.  Lacy is obviously there for the comedic support, but none of the four writers appear to be familiar with the concept of humor and treat his character as nothing more than a bad pun.  But nobody is more out of place than Jeffrey Dean Morgan playing a special agent playing a birthday-party version of Negan, complete with chrome plated pistol and rodeo-sized belt buckle because carrying Lucille around would be copyright infringement.  Morgan’s performance is so ridiculous that you probably will not notice that Naomie Harris (playing Dr. Kate Caldwell) is laughably atrocious and literally an actor in this movie.  Not that I blame her or Morgan completely, considering the dialogue they were forced to memorize and repeat out loud, but yeeesh.

Don't worry, bad acting won't affect the box office of a movie like this.

I know many of you cannot wait to tell me how much of a film snob I am and that this movie was not intended to win Oscars, but remember I am the same person who enjoyed Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunter.  This movie is not bad because I am a film critic, it is bad because four writers, a director, a studio, and a bunch of producers forgot they were making a movie based on a game whose entire story is its own title.  This movie should have been all kinds of fun to watch, but the never-ending exposition coupled with rampant inconsistencies (why does only the wolf get the power of flight and porcupine quills and why do the other animals grow so much larger than George?) nearly put my theater’s entire audience into a coma.  And don’t even get me started on how asinine it was how George was cured (the cure being the animal just stops wanting to kill everything).  I just wanted to enjoy a mindless movie while on a work trip and all I could think of during the movie was how the game was better.  Some buildings did get destroyed in the movie, so mission accomplished, I guess.

Rating: Ask for thirteen dollars back because movies do not cost ten dollars any more, like they did when I started writing these things.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

“Ready Player One” - Whew!


If you are not a fan of CGI and think that CGI is ruining film, Ready Player One might kill you.  At the very least, it will give you an aneurism or a stroke.  Possibly both.  If so, you deserve it.  I am not quite ready to devote my year-end review to all of the incessant whining about the use of CGI in movies, but I am seriously thinking about it.  CGI is one of those topics that film snobs love to use as an excuse for hating some movies, right alongside with “there is no more creativity in Hollywood.”  Forget about the fact that CGI has allowed us to realize hundreds of movies and tens of thousands of elements within movies that would otherwise be impossible.  Could you imagine how stupid Spider-Man would look if all of his web-slinging was done via wire-work?  Oh, right, they tried that on Broadway.  I rest my case.

My point is if there is one thing Ready Player One has a ton of it is CGI.  My greater point is that Ready Player One could not be made without a ton of CGI.  Nearly the entire movie takes place in a virtual simulation called the OASIS where anyone can be anything or have anything they want.  Want to race through a city in an exact replica of Doctor Brown’s Delorian while dodging a rampaging T-Rex?  Want to be seen as a nine-foot tall warlock or the Iron Giant?  Want to pilot Mechagodzilla while fighting an army on a planet called Doom?  None of that is happening without a lot of help from computers.  And if it is, it probably looks terrible.

Be all that you can be.

Having read and loved the book of the same title, I was terrified that the movie was going to be a disappointment.  Mostly, because I managed to see multiple previews at other screenings, but also because with great CGI comes great responsibility.  Happily, the effects of the movie are fantastic, as well they should be given the $175 million budget of the film, but also because director Steven Spielberg is a genius.  Everything felt like it had depth and texture and nothing felt flat.  One great example is an early race scene that manages to feel claustrophobic and tense, even though it is happening on open streets and is nothing more than pixels, even for the characters.  At no point did I ever feel like the visuals were just throwing ones and zeroes at me in attempt to overwhelm my senses.  I even appreciated the 3-D effects, which I normally hate, despite the arms of the cheap 3-D glasses jabbing me in the side of the head.

It was pretty dazzling.

The film also stays fairly faithful to the source material, in no small part aided by the author (Ernest Cline) co-writing the screenplay (with Zak Penn).  If you have not read the book (do it now), the main plot is a treasure hunt within the OASIS, a hunt designed by the creator of the OASIS, the late James Halliday (Mark Rylance).  Competitors must solve three puzzles (including discovering the location of the puzzles) to obtain three keys, which will unlock an Easter Egg hidden in the OASIS.  Whoever finds the Egg gets full control of the OASIS and inherits Halliday’s half-trillion dollar fortune.  The details of the puzzles vary between the film and the book, but the structure remains intact.

Naturally, everyone is trying to win the game, but nobody has figured out how to complete the first puzzle.  Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a.k.a. Parzival is a Gunter - players who spend all of their time hunting for the egg - and also knows virtually everything about Halliday and the things Halliday liked (movies, video games, music, etc.).  This knowledge eventually leads him to crack the mystery of the puzzle and put him on the radar of everyone in the world, including Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), CEO of Innovative Online Industries (IOI) and all-around jerk-off.  Sorrento has tasked an army of indentured servants (people who have accrued debt within the OASIS) with winning Hallday’s Egg in order to assume control of the OASIS and monetize the crap out of it.  If you are any kind of gamer, even the kind that plays Candy Crush on your iPhone, you would hate this guy because he is the one advocating for inserting ads and incorporating microtransactions into games (think freemium games where there are things you can only get if you pay actual money for, but the game itself is free).  He will stop at nothing to win the game, including kidnapping and murder, but excluding actually playing the game himself.  In other words, he is the guy who buys a game, then buys the walkthrough guide for the game so he can get to the end without effort.  What kind of loser does that?

It's all just a game.

Along the way, Parzival joins forces with Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), Aech (Lena Waithe), and two other kids (Philip Zhao and Win Morisaki) whose characters are so underdeveloped they are literally just avatars.  Together, they try to solve the remainder of the puzzles, but not before Art3mis welcomes Parzival into “the rebellion.”  This rebellion Art3mis is referring to is a group of people trying to stop IOI from taking over the OASIS because IOI will wreck the openness/freedom of the OASIS by indebting more people and creating a class structure of the haves and have nots.  If you get this from the film, it is only because you read the book, as the film only occasionally mentions such social issues.  If there is one criticism I have of this otherwise excellent movie it is that the film has plenty of CGI, but none of the book’s balls.

I guess it does have one ball.

One of the highlights of the book is the way that Cline was able to focus on social issues through the lens of the OASIS like income disparity, class separation, and the inability of poorer classes to improve their standing in life.  Whenever the film seems to be ready to make some real social commentary, it shies away from the conversation and distracts the viewer with action and adventure.  For example, book-Parzival talks about how it is nearly impossible for him to compete for Halliday’s prize because he does not have money to pay for transit to other worlds.  Like with our freemium games, real money is used to purchase power-ups and Parzival has no real money.  By finding the first key first, he gains instant fame and earns money through endorsements, allowing him to better compete, but also that a poor guy suddenly has lots of cash.  The book explores how money opens doors and effects people and makes the reader think about that with regards to people in the lower classes.  I am not saying the film should go deep-diving into social commentary, but those elements were key in developing Parzival and his character arc in the book, and film-Parzival was noticeably shallower.  But, then Parzival and Art3mis get into a shootout while dancing in a zero-G club and deep thoughts are forgotten.

Good luck affording that (in the book).

Having said that, it was refreshing to see Spielberg jump back into directing a big, fun, blockbuster flick and knock it out of the park.  His handling of the CGI was near perfect (and props to all of his effects folks and cinematographers).  Perhaps the most fun thing is that the movie is stuffed full of pop-culture references from the late 1970s to now (reportedly, acquiring licensing for all of it took years) and all of them are fun and well incorporated.  My personal favorite is a small one from a movie called Krull and if my brother had been with me, we would have high-fived over it (if you spot it, please, please comment as proof that more than two people have seen Krull).  We also would have high-fived about the CGI because this movie would have sucked without it.  If you still hate CGI after this film, I will still call you an ambulance because you deserve it.

Rating: Do not ask for any money back and spend more for the book.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

“Pacific Rim: Uprising” - I’ve seen worse.

Coming out of Pacific Rim: Uprising, there were plenty of moviegoers that enjoyed the film and that is cool.  There is plenty of room in our lives for big, loud, popcorn flicks like Pacific Rim: Uprising.  I, myself, enjoyed the hell out of Pacific Rim and gave it a gigantic pass on many aspects of it that were really weak.  But then those same moviegoers said Uprising was much better than the first film and much more fun.  Wait - hold on a minute, I must have misunderstood.  *Checks notes* - Yep.  That is what they said.  *Sighs* Uprising may be enjoyable, but it is not nearly as good or entertaining as its predecessor.  This is why we can’t have nice things.

I am no fan of Guillermo del Toro, but I believe Pacific Rim is the best movie he has made.  And, yes, that includes the hilariously overrated The Shape of Water.  As I stated in my review of Pacific Rim, it hit all the marks that a summer blockbuster needed to hit.  It delivered on its promise of lots of robot-on-monster fight scenes, it had a very simple plot dressed in fun nonsense, someone gives a big motivating speech when all seems lost, the comic relief was both funny and well-timed, the characters were all endearing or likeable, and it delivered on its promise of lots of robot-on-monster fight scenes.  Yes, I had to say that twice; there was that much action.  Uprising falls well short of Pacific Rim on almost every one of those components, though to be fair, somehow manages to not completely suck while doing it.  Just mostly suck.

Have you been practicing your big speech?

(Big Dumb SPOILER ALERT for a Big Dumb movie)

Uprising takes place ten years after the events of the first film, introducing us to our main character, Jake Pentecost (John Boyega), son of one of war hero Stacker Pentecost.  Jake is currently living as a thief who specializes in acquiring old jaeger technology.  During a run into a decommissioned jaeger factory, he comes across a teenaged Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny), who beats him to a valuable jaeger part.  He tracks her to her hideout where he discovers she has built her own (very small) jaeger.  They are soon discovered by the cops and have a quick chase scene where they are eventually captured by a real jaeger.  This entire sequence exists solely to establish and develop our two main characters and explain how they end up at jaeger pilot training school (not to mention hang a blazing neon sign on the small jaeger saying “THIS IS IMPORTANT FOR LATER”).  It is very paint-by-numbers, which is fine for a popcorn flick, but then the movie decides to forget almost everything it established.

Jake is never asked to use any of his street skills, in fact, quite the opposite.  He is forced to become an instructor to a bunch of adolescent jaeger pilot trainees and team up with square-jawed, by-the-books pilot, Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood) as Nate’s co-pilot.  In fact, by the end, Jake will even give the big motivation speech (which was anything but motivational) while wearing his uniform straight.  Meanwhile, Amara tries to fit in with the others, but one trainee girl has it out for Amara because she doesn’t think Amara earned her spot there.  At no point are her skills at building jaegers ever put to use on screen, but instead just mentioned again late in the film as a throwaway line to explain how they suddenly have four working jaegers one day after pretty much everything was destroyed by evil jaegers (we’ll get to them in a second).  When I said paint-by-numbers, I meant one color and two numbers.  Three, at most.

You'll have to trust me when I say I already repaired a whole squadron.

The reason I found this movie so lackluster is because it spends the vast majority of its running time telling us about stuff rather than showing it to us.  Considering this movie’s entire purpose in life is visuals, it should have had maybe ten percent as much dialogue as it actually gave.  For example, oodles of dialogue are spent telling us how Jake had some sort of falling out as a jaeger pilot prior to ending up on the streets.  Rather than showing us the falling out at the beginning of the film, we get a quick exchange where he just spells out it to Amara.  And another where he and Nate kind of talk about it.  And another where - you get the point.  For another example, the script instructs Amara to tick off the names of all of the jaegers as she sees them upon first arrival at the training base, rather than revealing them organically during missions or fight scenes.  I realize that the world of Pacific Rim is fantastical enough to require an extra spoonful of exposition, but Uprising piles it on by the quart.

The rest of the movie is a convoluted mess of corporate greed, rogue jaegers, and red herrings trying desperately to tie itself together into a coherent plot by the Precursors (the trans-dimensional beings who sent the kaijus - giant monsters - to Earth in the first film) to terraform Earth (their goal from the first film as well).  The primary success of the first film was showing us giant robots fighting us giant monsters, so the four (FOUR!!) writers of this film decided to replace the monsters with other robots because five (FIVE!!) Transformers movies wasn’t enough.  I am not exaggerating; there is just one scene featuring a giant robot vs a giant fleshy monster and, by then, I forgot we were watching a Pacific Rim sequel.

If it looks like a Transformer and sounds like a Transformer...

(Side note: some people will argue the semantics of the rogue robots being more than just robots, but the fight scenes are still just robots fighting other robots.)

On the character side, you would be forgiven if you couldn’t remember the name of any character beyond Jake and Amara, and I’d forgive you if you forgot Jake and Amara’s names as well.  With the exception of those two and Nate, none of the other pilots are memorable.  For that matter, you should be asking where the hell were all the grown-up pilots in this film.  Then, there is the corporate executive (Jing Tian) who is cold, calculated, and power hungry when her hair is tied up, but comes to the rescue after letting her hair down (seriously, her hair does this).  Finally, there is Dr. Geiszler (Charlie Day), the comic relief of movie one (along with Burn Gorman as his buddy), but who is chewed up and spit out as a really bad version of an Austin Powers villain this time around.  And, he doesn’t even get to do comedy, which might have saved the character as a villain.  Come to think of it, nobody got to do comedy, though you would have thought this movie was funny by the way the person behind me in the theater was cackling at anything and everything even resembling a joke, including a robot flipping the bird to a vanquished opponent (never funny).

Hair up!

The strangest thing about watching this film is that I didn’t hate it.  I just didn’t care about anything happening in the film.  The screenplay made no attempt to develop any characters beyond cliches and most of them didn’t even get that much.  The jaegers were okay, I guess, but the bright color palate of this film took away all of the ominous and dark feel from the first film (a consequence of newbie Steven DeKnight directing this film rather than del Toro), giving it a Care Bears kind of feeling.  Plus, only the main jaeger (Gipsy Danger - the one with the glowy orange chest) is in the vast majority of the film, the climax being the only scene where all four jaegers from the movie poster are seen fighting.  Come on - which writer(s) sharted out that miss?  I wasn’t even all that bothered by Eastwood’s performance coming out as stiff as his jaw.  On the bright side, none of the robots were racist, had genitalia, or tried to hump Megan Fox and for that, we can be thankful.

Rating: Ask for all but a dollar back, but consider that dollar thoughtfully.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

“Tomb Raider” – We might finally have a winner.

Growing up playing video games, my generation has been waiting year after year for a good movie adaptation of a video game.  Hell, we would settle for just average at this point.  The genre kicked off back in 1993 with the ridiculously inept Super Mario Bros. and has continued to be a wasteland of shit since.  That is not to say I didn’t enjoy watching several of them (I might even defend a couple as solid), but I recognize just how bad most of them are.  Of all of the movies in the genre, the peak critic rating (Rotten Tomatoes) is 44% for Final Fantasy.  When I heard Michael Fassbender was cast in Assassin’s Creed, I thought maybe Hollywood was finally going to put an honest effort into a video game movie.  Then, I watched Assassin’s Creed and cried myself to sleep that night.

So, did I learn my lesson upon hearing Alicia Vikander was cast as Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider reboot?  Of course not!  In fact, in preparation for the film, I devoted a healthy amount of time to playing the 2013 video game reboot that this film was based on and I found the game to be quite good and fun.  I even broke my rule of never watching previews and those previews did not scare me off either (despite featuring a terrible scene with Lara holding two pistols and cockily saying “I’ll take two”).  It also helps that I would watch Alicia Vikander read a phone book for two hours, but I digress.

(Side note: Don’t judge me.  I would also watch Michael Fassbender read a phone book for two hours.)

If pictures speak a thousand words, they should use her voice.

If you are looking for an explanation for why video game movies almost universally suck, it is because the stories and elements of those video games are almost universally absurd and poorly written (note: they have gotten much better in recent years).  To be fair, many comic books are also absurd or poorly written and Marvel figured out how to make great movies, so that isn’t a good excuse.  This new Tomb Raider flick appears to have taken note of that.

(Very mild SPOILERS, but nothing you can’t predict.)

Unlike the idiotic and convoluted plot of the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider film in 2001, Tomb Raider (2018) takes the video game plot and streamlines it.  Lara’s dad (Dominic West) has been presumed dead after going missing seven years earlier.  Lara discovers what her dad was working on and a clue to his whereabouts and sets off to find him.  She enlists a Chinese boat captain, Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) to take her to a mythical island called Yamatai where she believes her father to have vanished.  After crashing on the shoals surrounding the island, Lara and Lu Ren are captured by Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins), who has been on the island for seven years searching for the tomb of an ancient Japanese Queen named Himiko who was believed to possess powerful magic.  The company Mathias works for (Trinity) believes Himiko’s body still possesses power and wants that power.  In short, Lara wants to find her dad and Mathias wants to find Himiko’s tomb and, obviously, their paths cross and action ensues.  The end.

I knew we would discover a good plot.

What I found refreshing was that the movie doesn’t stray down roads filled with mythical or fantastical nonsense.  They talk about the legend surrounding Himiko, but the film doesn’t inundate the viewer with scenes or stunts designed to convince us of the magic.  Rather, it stays grounded in its reality and focused on its main plot while only vaguely hinting that an evil sorceress may be unleashed.  This allows the movie to retain suspense, shrouding Himiko in mystery and only exposing the truth when her tomb is finally discovered.  Despite Lara’s father’s insistence that releasing Himiko from her tomb will unleash evil on the world, resurrected dead aren’t constantly popping out of the shadows and people aren’t killed by magical curses or demons.  It’s a good old-fashioned tomb raid reminiscent of why the Indiana Jones movies were so fun.  If somebody’s face is going to melt, it won’t be until they actually open the box.

Nothing weird has happened yet.  I say we open it.  Who's with me?

The small cast of main and supporting characters were also a breath of fresh air.  Yes, there were plenty of disposable characters, but the four I discussed earlier are the cream of the film.  Goggins is in his element as the menacing villain, willing to stop at nothing to accomplish his mission for a surprisingly relatable reason.  West and Wu are solid, though I would have liked to have seen Wu given more to do (if you have seen him in Into the Badlands, you know what I am talking about).  Most importantly, Vikander owns this movie and her role, making us forget the fever dreams caused by Angelina Jolie’s awful portrayal of Croft.  Vikander delivers a character that is strong, but not invincible; intelligent, but prone to making common sense mistakes.  In other words, she is human (though looks like she went on Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine training regimen, not that I am complaining).

The last thing of note is how well they incorporated elements of the game into the film without making them seem completely ridiculous.  In the game, Lara wields a climbing ax and a rope ascender, both of which only make cameos in the film.  There are also a couple of action sequences pulled straight from the game which worked really well in the film and do not go over the top.  They even dressed Vikander exactly like Lara from the game, all the way down to the bandages on her arm and leg and Lara being covered in dirt most of the time.  The only negative criticism I have is they tacked on that shitty “I’ll take two” scene just before the credits roll as an homage to the original game from two decades ago (or worse, the original film).  The game reboot got rid of that for a reason and so should have this film.

Trust me - it works.

The moral of this story is that we finally have a video game movie that doesn’t make us want to quit movies (and video games) or only watch them when nobody else is looking.  It reminds us of fun adventure movies that didn’t have to resort to pure fantasy to keep our attention.  It means that we don’t have to pretend any more that Resident Evil movies are watchable video game flicks because the bar was set so low back in 1993.

Rating: Don’t ask for any money back and make sure Vikander always has a phone book nearby.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

“A Wrinkle in Time” - And several in my brow.


Recently, I have watched a couple of classic movies with my five-year old son - Jaws and the original Godzilla (the black and white Japanese version from 1954).  He loved them and has now watched them multiple times.  And, in case you are wondering, no, he has not had any nightmares (#goodparenting).  Upon completion of a screening of the horrific A Wrinkle in Time, my friend asserted that I was being too hard on a movie aimed at kids and that my son would probably enjoy A Wrinkle in Time.  We are talking about a child who has also watched Titanic at least twenty times and I assured her that he would be bored out of his mind watching A Wrinkle in Time

(Do I really need to issue a SPOILER ALERT for a 56-year old book that almost everyone has read except me?)

Having not read the book, I do not know why so many people have such fond memories of it, but if the book is anything like the movie, then those people have really faulty memories.  I had no advanced knowledge of the book, and I watched zero previews.  My only bias was based on the rosy nostalgia from friends, so I went into the movie with positive expectations.  What I saw was a movie that was the equivalent of the glitter farts from Guy Diamond in Trolls.

What little plot existed in this film revolved around the search for Dr. Alex Murry (Chris Pine), a physicist who successfully figures out how to teleport himself across the universe, but never returns (the story takes place four years after his disappearance).  Unfortunately, nobody knows about the teleportation idea except his wife (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), so everyone believes him to have simply run out on his family and life.  Luckily, precocious young Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), Alex’s adopted five-year old son, has been chatting with three magical women, Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), who want to help find Alex.  They enlist Alex’s thirteen-year old daughter, Meg (Storm Reid), who spends most of the movie brooding and sulking, even after she is teleported by witches to other planets, converses with flying flowers, and told that her father is alive.  Teenagers, right?

Hello?  Has anyone seen a plot around here?

While on the flower planet, they see a black tentacle cloud in the sky, identified by Mrs. Which as the It and that the It is pure evil.  Mrs. Which also explains that the three women are warriors that fight the It to prevent evil from spreading, but that they avoid the It.  Paging Mrs. ExcuseMeWhatNow?  Did you just say you fight the It by steering clear of it?  This is the first of many, many (MANY) nonsensical statements and actions that make you furrow your brow so hard you draw blood.  It turns out the three Mrs. are nothing more than exposition spouts who can teleport, but are actually worse than that.  At the start of the third act, they literally tell Meg, Charles Wallace (who is annoyingly always referred to by his full name), and Calvin (Levi Miller) - a boy who has a crush on Meg and is brought along on the quest for his diplomatic skills, which consist entirely of telling Meg she has great hair - that they are leaving the evil planet they brought the kids to, so the kids are on their own.  But, don’t worry, each Mrs. gives the kids a gift to aid their quest, consisting of magic eyeglasses that only work in a special room that only the It can take them to, Meg’s character faults (not kidding), and advice to never split up (still not kidding).  Of course, being teenagers, they almost immediately leave Charles alone, but overcome evil when Meg screams her faults at the It.

It is worth noting here that the three women are terribly written characters and the actors knew it.  Oprah appeared as disinterested as possible, as Mrs. Which is given nothing to do beyond wearing sparkly, aluminum foil outfits with cartoonish, glittery makeup and sequined eyebrows.  Mrs. Who literally only speaks in random quotations from other people (most of which aren’t even recognizable), and very few of them for that matter, and Kaling was visibly frustrated at how obviously worthless her character was.  As the rookie warrior (whatever the hell that means) Mrs. Whatsit, Witherspoon chews up scenes trying to cover for the fact that Whatsit is kind of a blithering jerk whose dialogue sounded like Witherspoon had to make it up on the spot.

Do not be fooled; she is dying inside.

During all of this nonsense, there is no point in which we get a clear idea of any motivations for anything happening besides Meg wanting to find her dad.  We don’t know why the It has been holding Alex other than the It is evil, we don’t know if the It actually wants Charles (he’s mentioned as being a genius, though the only indication of it is he is articulate) or Meg (she had a high GPA before Alex went missing, so…) or why the It doesn’t just murder them all when they show up on the It’s planet.  Most importantly, we are never given any sense of time or urgency regarding how long they have to find Alex or stop evil, but the It can make sandwiches out of actual sand so Alex simply must be rescued.

Rather than strive for a coherent plot or use its characters to any worthwhile affect (including getting the audience to empathize), the screenplay focuses on a love-trumps-evil trope, fashions it into a cudgel, and bludgeons the audience with it in the hope of keeping us from noticing the movie sucking.  But it’s not just the writing that makes this film so lousy.  The special effects range from top notch (the first planet they go to is visually stunning) to elementary school play (a scene with Zach Galifianakis asks all of the actors to pretend to teeter while standing on what look like painted-orange Styrofoam blocks).  The music was like listening to four kids singing through kazoos for the last five hours of a road trip.  Most of the actors appear to be there against their will, delivering performances as shallow as their characters.  The film even manages to insult the intelligence of the audience when Alex attributes the success of certain scientific achievements to magic and Meg incorrectly explains how lift works when flying.  You might think that second one is a nitpick, but when a film goes out of its way to tell you a character is brainy, then has her explain a scientific concept wrong, it deserves a call-out.  Plus, it’s a fantasy film - why are they talking about science at all?

Just a nit?

Despite this film being a front runner for worst movie of the year (relax, it’s early, folks), I still want to read the book.  I have a really hard time believing that so many people are remembering a shoddy book so favorably, and I am always willing to give a book a chance.  But, if the movie is a faithful adaptation of the book, I will be pointing my kid toward reading Cujo because I know what my kid likes (#parentingfail).

Rating: Ask for all of your money back, plus the twenty minutes of my son’s music class that I gave up to get to this movie on time (#iffyparenting).