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Movie Review: Pacific Rim: Uprising

Jake Pentecost, son of Stacker Pentecost, reunites with Mako Mori to lead a new generation of Jaeger pilots, including rival Lambert and 15-year-old hacker Amara, against a new Kaiju threat.

It’s been almost five years since the original Pacific Rim and over those years my love for the original has grown. The giant robot vs. monsters movie is exactly what it said it’d be with crazy fights, lots of actions, and bringing the cult genres to the big screen in a live action film that only Guillermo del Toro can deliver. It was, and is, a fun brainless film.

Enter Pacific Rim: Uprising which attempts to create a franchise out of the cult classic (and it’s obvious this is the goal) but without the creative team of del Toro and fellow screenwriter Travis Beacham. Directed by Steven S. DeKnight with a script by DeKnight, Emily Carmichael, Kira Snyder, and T.S. Nowlin, Pacific Rim: Uprising is the same brainless giant robot fun but somehow made shallower. It’s Pacific Rim via Michael Bay (and that’s not a compliment).

Taking place ten years after the original film, the world hasn’t completely recovered from the destruction of the original and is on edge over the threat of further Kaiju attack. The movie is Pacific Rim: The Next Generation as we’re introduced to new cadets and characters with only a few standing out and showing any personality.

Returning are Burn Gorman as Dr. Hermann Gottlieb, Charlie Day as Dr. Newton Geiszler, and Rinko Kikuchi as Mako Mori. With much of the original cast dead, we’re presented new cadets and new “heroes” to cheer for but none show aspects that make us want to.

Let me get to the good.

There’s some solid use of the drift to teach us about these new characters.

There’s some cool fights and we get to see all sorts of new aspects when it comes to robot battles.

It pays homage to the past while attempting to forge it’s own future, a path similar to Star Wars: The Last Jedi. It also does that with the genre as a whole with nods to Godzilla and Gundam alike.

The bad.

The sound quality is all over the place and I had issues understanding dialogue.

They fridge a character.

None of the characters stand out at all. It feels like the majority are background characters devoid of personality and anything that makes them special.

And the last part is what bothers me the most. The new film is another franchise for the entertaining and likeable John Boyega who plays Jake Pentecost, the son of Idris Elba’s Stacker Pentecost from the original. We’re also supposed to get another set of eyes we can relate to in Cailee Spaeny‘s Amara Namani, a teenage genius who built her own Jaeger. That character though isn’t given enough to do, or enough growth, and falls short of Mako Mori’s story arc from the original. In fact Namani feels like a cross between Mori and the teenage female tech genius from Transformers: Last Knight.

The new bunch of recruits aren’t interesting or feel like derivatives of the original including two Russians who somehow have less personality than the pair from the first movie. Like teenagers lined up to die in a horror film, we’re given shallow stereotypes/archetypes instead of characters. I don’t care what happens to them at all. Beyond two characters, everyone feels like fodder and background and at points I cheered and hoped for a giant monster to eat them.

And that’s the biggest failure of the film.

There’s an excellent theme here of the next generation saving the world. Set against the real world where kids are speaking up for DACA or against gun violence such as those from Parkland, there’s an interesting theme and concept of Generation X and Millenials handing over the world to Gen Z for them to save it. Act as a guiding hand and a reminder to not make the same mistakes. That’s touched upon but never explored and if it was given just a little attention, the film would be an amazing allegory and perfectly timed for the state of the real world.

Pacific Rim: Uprising feels like half-baked ideas that are never fully realized. Still, if you’re going for giant robots battling monsters, you should be more than happy.

Overall Rating: 6.5

Movie Review: Pacific Rim: Uprising

Pacific-Rim-Uprising-posterThe original Pacific Rim felt so much like lightning in a bottle, and its lackluster sequel does nothing to dissuade us of that notion.

On one hand, how hard could it be to deliver on a simple winning formula? Giant robots fighting monsters? And while Pacific Rim: Uprising has plenty of that (and it is, at times, spectacular) it is weighed down by all of its exposition and human characters and some especially clunky performances.

In this sequel, John Boyega stars as Stacker Pentecost’s son Jake. Set ten years after the last film, and with no sign of kaiju invasion in a decade, Jake is far removed from the Jaeger program but is reluctantly recruited back in to help train a new team of pilots. However, they’re on the verge of being replaced by a new generation of remotely piloted Jaeger drones which don’t require drift-compatible two person pilot teams. What could go wrong with semi-autonomous giant robot drones in every major city? And this, of course, ends in the return of the kaiju and an apocalyptic showdown in Tokyo.

The original worked largely because screenwriter Travis Beacham and director Guillermo Del Toro were so in sync creatively. Despite the film being somewhat formulaic, it delivered a fun, exciting take on “robots fighting monsters” by having interesting human characters. For Uprising, writer and director Steven DeKnight, a veteran of Netflix’s Daredevil, the CW’s Smallville, and numerous Joss Whedon Buffyverse projects, just doesn’t seem to quite mesh with the material.

The script, while serviceable, telegraphs its giant robot punches miles away. If you had stopped the film after ten minutes and asked, “How is this going to end?” it’s easy to predict… and so then the film plays out in a paint-by-numbers fashion. And while the original gives us some great scenes outside the jaegers, including one of my favorite fight scenes of the movie (right), Uprising is a snoozefest when it isn’t being cringeworthily bad.

Chief culprit here is Charlie Day, who provided a lot of comic relief and exposition in the original (especially in his Odd Couple science buddy pairing with Burn Gorman) but who is just the absolute worst in this film. It doesn’t help that Scott Eastwood could be replaced by a cord of firewood and would be more interesting to watch. Also gone is any real character building for the supporting cast, who mostly end up unmemorable. Boyega is the only real standout star, but as much as he tries to carry this movie by himself, it’s just not possible, especially when he is saddled with this sometimes inexplicably bad script.

But the fight scenes? Those are pretty fun. Again, it doesn’t have anywhere near the charm and innovative feel of the first one. But, we were never really expecting it would, right? And when it sets us up for the inevitable sequel, we can only hope that someone is willing to lure Del Toro and Beacham back to work their magic.

If you’re a devoted fan of robots and kaiju, they already have your money. You bought your tickets ages ago and no mediocre review is going to keep you from seeing this. But for general audiences? Save your money for Ready Player One, or go see Black Panther again.

2 out of 5 stars

Give My Love to Rose: A Song for Unsung Heroes

[Minor spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi ahead]

Rose (Kelly Marie Tran ) is my new favorite character. And I hope she’s yours too.

Not only is she arguably the true hero of the film, she provides not one but two of the key lines necessary to understand the film. Beyond that, she does something I never thought possible: she turns the entire concept of heroism upside down and reminds us that true heroes aren’t just the ones who get attention and accolades.

The first time we meet Rose she is starstruck by Finn (John Boyega), saying she isn’t used to talking to heroes. Rose works behind the scenes in the Resistance, “behind [the] pipes” as she calls it.

Her sister Paige, with whom she is very close, is a hero in her own right as witnessed in the opening space battle as a gunner in one of the Resistance’s bombers. Through Paige’s heroism and sacrifice, the Resistance is able to take out one of the Empire’s ships. Poe, in talking to Leia, says “Heroes were on that mission.”

“Heroes, but no leaders,” Leia chides him as she demotes him for his insubordination.

Why does this matter? Because the film shows us as important as the heroes are — the Poe Damerons, the Luke Skywalkers — the people who really make things run are the others who are so often nameless and faceless. Finn’s background as a former stormtrooper janitor should also be noted here, and why it’s so important that Finn and Rose get paired up for the better part of the movie.

There has been a decent amount of complaints over the Canto Bight storyline, but it is, in fact, one of the most important in the film. Not only does Rose deliver a strong populist critique of this new hive of scum and villainy — the 1%, war profiteers selling to both sides of the conflict — she wakes Finn up from being dazzled by their surroundings.

“Look closer,” Rose tells him, and he begins to see the people behind the scenes — many of them oppressed or forgotten, many of them children — who actually make everything run.

“Look closer,” as we remember maybe it’s worth staying through the credits of a movie to appreciate all the people who worked on it rather than just to see if there’s a stinger scene to set up the next movie.

“Look closer,” as we remember all of the Star Wars fans who have waited for years to see representations of themselves on screen. Because perhaps even the most important is noticing the actors playing these roles. The fact that both Finn and Rose are being portrayed by people of color adds another layer to the commentary they bring. And especially given the problems of erasure of Asians and women in tentpole blockbusters, Kelly Marie Tran getting the breakout hero role of the film should cause people to take notice.

“Look closer,” at all of the people who never get noticed, but who heroically do their work every day.

A final visit to see the children of Canto Bight at the end of the film puts a cap on why it’s so important we look closer and the importance of heroism to inspire others.

And then Rose delivers the most important line in the entire movie during the film’s finale in the battle on Crait, which gives me unending hope in a time of darkness: That’s how we’re going to win. Not fighting what we hate. Saving what we love.

With so much hate out there, we can remember this and brush off the hate like Luke Skywalker brushes his shoulders after a barrage of laser blasts. The love and self-sacrifice and heart that Rose brings to The Last Jedi is one of the best parts of the film.

Rose is my hero.

Movie Review: Detroit

Kathryn Bigelow‘s newest shows off her impressive talent as a director capable of creating relentless tension, but her cast and the social message are the real stars here.  This is, unfortunately, one of those great movies that all the people who really need to see it and understand it never will. (See also: Fruitvale Station)

Set against the backdrop of the 1967 Detroit riots, this tells the true story of the police raid on the Algiers Hotel where several people were shot and police accused of misconduct and brutality. This has been described as a horror movie where the unkillable monster is racism, and that is about the perfect description.

But even better, it depicts racism not as just a character flaw of a few bad apples, but as a systemic oppression that disadvantages people of color at every turn. So, the monster is not just specifically the bad cops– it’s the whole system. And so even though this is a movie about what happened 50 years ago, it’s a movie about what’s happening yesterday, today, and tomorrow as systemic racism continues to plague us. It’s also a morality lesson about what happens when a director like Bigelow, who is white, uses the privilege she has to elevate the stories of others and speak out against these injustices.

A director at the top of her craft

Kathryn Bigelow is amazing here. All of her ability to craft tension and human drama that we’ve seen in previous outings like The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty are on full display here.  Most of this centers around the major focal point of the movie: a situation at the Algiers where the police line up everyone against the wall and interrogate them about who has a gun and who was shooting at the police.

She also expertly draws out amazing performances from her cast. John Boyega plays Melvin Dismukes, a security guard who gets caught up in the raid on the Algiers and is stuck between worlds as he tries to de-escalate the situation. Algee Smith is Larry Reed, lead singer of soul group The Dramatics, who was at the hotel along with his friend and the band’s manager, Fred. Smith also lends his singing voice to the film, which provides some amazing color to an otherwise stark, bleak depiction of those days. He also appears on the soundtrack with Reed himself to provide a sort of musical denouement for the film. Some final scenes showing his life in shambles after the incident also show the after-effects of this brutality, and his performance is on point.

Anthony Mackie (Captain America:Winter Soldier, Civil War; The Hurt Locker) also delivers a stellar performance, but both he and Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton, Keanu) are drastically underutilized. In fact, neither of them shows up until halfway through the movie. But given how the film was marketed and Mackie receiving top billing, you might expect more screen time. But that expectation will be unfulfilled. But what it lacks in quantity, it amps up in quality. Playing a recently discharged Army vet, you can see the wheels in his head turning: “I risked my life in ‘Nam for this?!?”

What you can say, though, is that each actor gets their due, gets their moment to shine, and it all plays in to making the main story a cohesive whole. Bigelow knows not only how to extract every ounce of tension out of these scenes, but also Oscar-worthy performances from several of her actors.

The movie’s major flaw that is also its biggest strength

But, this movie has some problems. I mentioned Mackie not showing up until halfway through. That’s part of it. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve come to the following conclusion:

My wife and I recently celebrated our 16th wedding anniversary. (WHAT?!) It made me think back of the time of ring shopping and what a process that was. But we ended up getting a great deal on the main diamond in her ring because it had this giant inclusion, or flaw, in the middle of it. But somehow that little hollow space made the gem sparkle even more brightly.

Detroit has a problem like this. We don’t meet any of our main characters until almost 20 minutes into the movie. Our opening scene is the incident that sparks the Detroit riots, as police raid a club operating without a liquor license, and we’re introduced to Officer Frank (Chris ChalkGotham, Homeland), the only black officer in this all-white police squad.

His story is then abruptly dropped and we don’t see him again.

As the riots begin, we see a young Congressman John Conyers speaking to an angry crowd and calling for peace.

And then we never see him again.

And Mackie and Mitchell don’t show up until halfway through the movie.

The audience gets a sense of violent whiplash as we’re thrown new characters and left wondering exactly whose story we’re supposed to be following.

This is a problem, but when you look at it again, it is brilliant.

One of the things Bigelow does best is she inherently sides with the rioters. A riot is a grim, irrational and desperate act. But the opening of the film serves to put us in that mindset and gets the audience to take part of the mob mentality where it truly does seem like the only solution is to start smashing and burning things.

It hurts the cohesiveness of the story, but I think the payoff in tone and theme is a good trade-off. But, it’s still a flaw in what is otherwise a really good film.

The race issue and using your privilege in a positive way

So, a lot has been said about Bigelow, a white woman, making this movie so specifically about racism and police brutality.  In a post film Q&A livestreamed to Alamo Drafthouse locations nationwide, Chris Chalk mentioned that this was the way it was supposed to be: Kathryn Bigelow could choose to make any movie she wanted to, and she chose to tell this story. That’s how you use your privilege — to lift up others’ stories and others’ voices.

She’s not appropriating the story, nor making it about white characters, nor telling it from their point of view, as is often the case with so many movies about race (Mississippi Burning, for example).

And perhaps most importantly, she isn’t telling a story just about racism and racism as a personal flaw. She paints it as systemic and woven into all of the various ways a black person may interact with the system.

This centers specifically on her depiction of the police and the other law enforcement involved. On the micro-level, we have our three main cops who are eventually charged with the murders and assaults at the Algiers. And we see three very different types of people– I will call them the Three Little Piggies.

WARNING: The rest of this section contains plot elements/historical elements that some would consider SPOILERS. If you don’t want to know more, skip to the next section until after you’ve seen the film.

The first pig built his house out of straight-up racism. But even he doesn’t think he’s a bad guy– he sees people burning down their community and asks “How is this America?” He sees this as a failure of the government to smack down bad behavior– that the police need to come in with a strong hand and take out the bad guys. (Sound like anyone we know?)

The Second Little Pig isn’t necessarily racist, but he’s working the system pretty hard. When The First Little Pig says he shot someone because he was reaching for his gun and had a knife, he corroborates the story, “Yeah, I heard him say ‘Drop the knife.'” Good cop covering for bad, and is indifferent about race, or at least not inherently anti-black.

Our Third Little Pig is really nervous and probably isn’t malicious at all. But because he isn’t playing the same game the other two are, ends up using their same tactics to even more brutal effect.

Pigs 2 and 3 eventually squeal, because they know their actions were bad, but then their confession is thrown out because they were deprived of their union lawyer before they were questioned. The system worked to protect all three cops under a code of silence where they all cover for one another.

And so it doesn’t take every cop being a racist to cause a problem. The system is the problem.

One of the other problems was the lack of accountability or oversight by other law enforcement. The raid on the Algiers took place because National Guard troops thought they were under fire from that vicinity, and fired back. National Guard and State Police personnel were on the scene, but eventually left when they saw what a shit show it was becoming. A Michigan State Police officer saw how bad it was, and walked out, telling the three white Detroit PD members, “this is a local police issue.”

And there were other failures– ones all too common today, yesterday, and most likely tomorrow. There was the all white jury. There was the slick lawyering that made the case that we couldn’t be sure who shot whom at the Algiers. And then there was the sea of faces in the courtroom– the front rows filled with white faces in blue police uniforms, and the back rows filled with black faces. Again, Bigelow’s eye for detail here helps show how even these more subtle nuances create a tone for the system and set it up to fail to deliver justice.

Again, in this whole narrative, there only had to be one guy who really hated black people. But the system literally allowed him to get away with murder.

I’m not so naive to think we can ever get rid of racial prejudice, (nor should we try to legislate this), but I do hope that we can take a hard look at our systems and ask how they might perpetuate inequalities and oppression.

Detroit vs. Dunkirk

It’s hard to talk about Detroit without referencing its peer, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.  Spoiler alert: (not really) I’m giving both films the same rating– a solid 4 out of 5 stars. But when I wrote my review, I noted how white and male-centric Nolan’s choices were and why that rubbed me the wrong way.  Others have weighed in on whether telling the story this way whitewashes history, eliminating the contribution of non-white soldiers.

No matter where you come down on this argument, I want to make one thing extremely clear: these are artistic choices, and especially when you have directors like Nolan and Bigelow who have a large amount of creative control over the film (in the case of Nolan, he was acting as writer, director, and producer), these choices are worth pointing out and asking why.

Whenever a director makes a film that is completely white and completely male, that erases from the historical record the contribution of non-whites and non-males and contributes to a culture that says that white and male is standard, and everything else is an aberration.

That is not to say that Dunkirk is racist, or Christopher Nolan is racist. But they are films designed to do well at the box office by portraying white male heroism at its best, just as in hundreds of previous movies about white male heroism in World War II. And they are designed to be awarded by the Academy and other groups who judge films. It’s not that individual Oscar voters are racist– but there’s a reason #OscarsSoWhite was a thing, and it’s that a film like Dunkirk is designed to please that section of the audience. It is a movie that is everything we are told makes a movie great.

Let’s also be clear– Detroit is also designed to be that same sort of Oscar-bait, but for a completely different reason. When people talk about Hidden Figures, 12 Years a Slave, Fences, or Selma, they don’t bring up the same things a person brings up first when praising Dunkirk. They immediately go for talking about the racial aspect of the film and how heartbreaking it is, etc, etc.  It’s simply not the same sort of meritocracy we expect, or want, out of our prestige pictures. Even in judging the relative merits of movies, we hold movies with a racial element to a different standard. And that’s the difference between personal racism (let’s be clear– no one who needs to see this movie to understand what’s happening in terms of race in this country is going to see it or have their minds changed by it) and systemic bias. Oscar voters didn’t need to be personally racist to snub Ava DuVernay for best director for Selma and instead nominate Bennet Miller for Foxcatcher. (Yes, I’m still mad about that. Probably always will be.) But systemic biases can be in place that cause these outcomes.

As for directors’ choices, Nolan chose to make a war movie about World War II– a story that anyone who paid attention in history class knows about. He chose for his heroes archetypal British stiff-upper-lip types, especially the people he loves to work with, and did great with them!  Bigelow chose to make a movie about an incident largely forgotten, and also largely prescient in terms of the current state of affairs in 2017 with the Black Lives Matter movement responding to the murder and assault by police of hundreds of  African Americans across the country. She chose a story with a diverse cast and diverse characters. And even though there were two white women who were brutalized by the police as well, she never makes the story about them.  (As an aside, there are still not enough female roles in this film, especially not enough for women of color. Despite history being history. . .  well, I’m just tired of Samira Wiley showing up in a walk-on supporting role and not getting to do more– you know what I’m saying?) And she told her story in a gripping way that never lets the audience go. And despite the film’s dropping characters in a jarring and unsettling way, it serves the tone and theme of the film.

Nolan took an easy story to tell– one that has been told before in dozens of different ways– and made it intentionally hard with a chopped up timeline and continuity. Bigelow took a hard to tell story and delivers it seared and sizzling to the plate, but still raw and bloody in its center– “black and blue” as you would order it at a steak joint. Nolan chopped up the story and timeline to show off how smart and skilled he is. Bigelow chose to drop characters and make the audience uncomfortable for the sake of making them uncomfortable and in the mindset of what it must have been like to be in Detroit in 1967. They’re both ultimate craftsmen at the top of their game. But the reason they’re making unconventional choices is a world of difference.

So both of them are excellent films with a few flaws, but the context of why they are the way they are is all the difference.

Final thoughts

It’s pretty clear how much I liked this movie. I am still not perfectly comfortable with its problems, but I think it was a good way for Bigelow to get what she wanted. Again, this is one of those unfortunate films that everyone who needs to see it never will. And those who will probably already know– but hopefully this will fuel their passion to maybe make real changes in how we do things in our country. Bigelow might be preaching to choir, but someone needs to be passing out hymnals. And this is as good of a song as we’re going to get.

4 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

star-wars-force-awakens-official-poster30 years after the defeat of the Galactic Empire, a new threat rises. The First Order attempts to rule the galaxy and only a ragtag group of Heroes can stop them, along with the help of the Resistance.

One of my earliest memories is going to see Return of the Jedi in the theater, I was about four years old. The film made a lasting impression, as it’s one of the earliest memories I have, particularly a scene in the throne room featuring to guard dressed in red just standing at attention next to a door. I remember the experience as magical, and 32 years later I walked out of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens with that same magical feeling.

For the running time of a little over 2 hours, from the first Lucasfilm logo to the last, I felt something I haven’t felt in a theater in a log time, like a kid. I felt joy, and watched a film that hit me in a way I haven’t experienced in a film in years. And I’ll admit, I teared up quite a few times with an overwhelming feeling of joy. And this is from someone who is not a Star Wars fanboy. I own very little paraphernalia, but I can watch the original films (and even the three prequels) over and over.

The Force Awakens is nowhere perfect. Some plot lines aren’t explained, and some scenes could have been done without, but overall, the movie captures the feel of the original trilogy the second completely missed. The plot is almost a rehash of A New Hope mixed with some Empire. And that combination still feels like something new and fun.

It’s hard to write a solid review without spoilers, but here I go.

The Force Awakens does an amazing job of mixing characters old and new, and it truly feels like a passing of a torch in many ways. Daisy Ridley as Rey, John Boyega as Finn, Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron, and BB-8, all are new characters but they seamlessly blend with Han, Leia, Chewy, and the Millennium Falcon (a character on its own). But, what’s fantastic is the series gives us so much in those characters that are new. Rey is a female lead who can stand on her own. Finn is a conflicted Stormtrooper who plays a more traditional gender role, highlighting Rey’s independence. Poe, the badass pilot. And new roles for old characters as well, Leia, now a General. These are faces that emphasize anyone can be a hero no matter your gender, size, or skin color. And, it’s done in a way that’s subtle, creating a modern Star Wars, a more inclusive world (weird to say about a film that had lots of aliens milling about with each other with no issues). The acting as a whole is what I’d expect for a Star Wars film, more on par with the original trilogy, than the substandard acting of the prequels.

The smartest move was the return to practical special-fx, moving away from digital, something that hurt the prequels. This created a sense of more realism and creatures and items you could touch. That adds to the magical feeling missing from the prequels.

The film too is nearly all action, taking some of the best moments of the six films, and just going with that, giving us dogfights and aerial maneuvers that take you for a ride, especially in 3D. And there’s more of that. A lot more of that.

The film isn’t perfect. The First Order isn’t explained. The Resistance/Republic relationship isn’t explained. How others can wield lightsabers so easy isn’t explained, or a Stormtrooper can parry one with their own sword like item. Poe getting back to base is left open. The Force is now more like a mutant power, emerging when angry or under stress. There’s a few sequences I’d have cut out, and the film hit some nostalgia so close, they might as well instead have done a shot for shot remake. Phasma was woefully underused in the film. And the score isn’t nearly as memorable.

But, what’s new, how it’s packaged and flows is what’s amazing. I really felt like I was at an experience, and I was getting to see old friends on the big screen again. The film is pure joy for its entire 2 hours and 15 minutes. It’s not perfect, but it’s damn near close. For a film to make me feel like I was 4 years old back watching Return of the Jedi in the theater, that’s magic.

Overall Rating: 9.5

Director – J.J. Abrams
Starring – Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher
Rated – PG-13
Run Time – 135 minutes