Saturday, June 30, 2018

Pacific Rim: Uprising


In a way, I suppose it was inevitable that this film was not going to be as good as the first one. The fact that the first Pacific Rim was that great was a bit of a miracle. I mean, this is a movie where the general concept is basically Transformers vs. Godzilla monsters. And while that sounds like a pretty fun concept... these kinds of popcorn action movies typically never get past the "good but not great" stage if they're lucky. Because while the action and visuals are typically pretty awesome, the story and characters just aren't there. While those elements didn't necessarily carry the first Pacific Rim, they were good enough that the movie itself was genuinely enjoyable--and not even as a guilty pleasure. One might compare it to Independence Day, only with a less strong cast, in terms of appeal. (Heck, both films had iconic pre-battle speeches--Pacific Rim's was courtesy of Idris Elba and included the gem "Today we are cancelling the apocalypse!") 

Perhaps the first mistake here is Guillermo del Toro not directing again. While I'm not necessarily a fan of most of his work, it's undeniable (especially now that this sequel is out) that he was part of the reason the first one was that good. He actually made a quite coherent movie, and came up with some pretty excellent design and battle sequences. But unfortunately, I'm not certain that even del Toro's involvement would have elevated this one a whole lot. There are problems that go beyond handing the director position from del Toro to a random newbie. 

One of the actual first mistakes is the fact that there's a way too large time skip in this sequel. There is a five year gap in between the release of the two movies, and yet this movie takes place *ten years* after the first one. And it took me a while to figure out what all was going on in this new world ten years later. Despite the war with the Kaiju monsters having ended ten doggone years ago, they've still been keeping the Jaeger robot bases running... for some reason, even though there's no reason to believe they'll come back other than the fact that this movie exists. And now the Jaeger defense forces have a competitor in the form of a manufacturer of drones that could replace the Jaegers... again, even though there's no reason to believe they'll even really need said drones for Kaiju purposes. And of course, the Kaiju do come back... in a few unexpected ways. 

If it wasn't already clear, this movie is definitely not as good as the first. For one, it's less coherent. There seem to be more subplots going on this time, and it doesn't help that they tried cramming those subplots into a movie that's 20 minutes shorter than the first one. Oh and guess what? Much of the sound and fury here ends up being ended a bit abruptly so they can set up another sequel which will probably never happen. Much like Independence Day 2, really--but I actually liked that one more than I did this. 

But the biggest issue is that we get introduced to a ton of new characters this time around and almost none of them are likable, nor do any of them have interesting backstories or even a backstory in the first place. The only returning characters are Mako (who gets very little to do) and the two scientists. John Boyega is the lead this time around. His character--Jake Pentecost, the son of Idris Elba's character from the last one--does not do much to make you want to root for him. If anything, sometimes it's the opposite. And also, while Boyega has done well in Star Wars, his acting is stunningly wooden and emotionless most of the time.  

And the other new characters? Not much dice there either. Amara's really the only one that's that interesting at all--she did manage to build a small Jaeger on her own, and her backstory is at least somewhat interesting. But I don't even remember any of the other cadet's names. Scott Eastwood's character? A jerk most of the time. Jing Tian's character is alright, but still manages to stand out if only because she's not annoying unlike almost everyone else in this movie. In general, most of the acting performances in this movie just aren't that good or memorable. Charlie Day is the only one who really stands out--and his character is oddly enough the only one (besides maybe Amara's) that has anything interesting going on with them. 

What about the action, then? It's still generally pretty fun, I suppose. Oddly enough, there seems to be a bit less of it in this one, but it's pretty no-holds-barred when it does happen. Probably the best most memorable bits are the two scenes where a Jaeger fights a rogue Jaeger. The finale is fine enough; though it should be noted that it's so insanely destructive that even Michael Bay would probably raise an eyebrow. Take from that what you will. 

For all of the story issues, the main plotline regarding the Kaiju's return is actually a bit of a clever one. I was concerned they wouldn't handle it well, but they surprised me there. They actually manage to pull the rug out from under us a couple of times with a plot twist or two. And while these moments are pretty good... it makes you wonder why the rest of the movie's writing and plotting is so mediocre. 

Pacific Rim: Uprising is probably the kind of film the first Pacific Rim would have been if del Toro hadn't directed it. It's kind of depressing too, because the first film showed that this kind of movie can actually be well done and at least written well enough. Here, it just feels like not as much effort was put into this one. The result is a movie that has some traces of good material in it... but ultimately wastes them. 

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom


Let's start with full disclosure here: in general, the Jurassic Park/World franchise is a pretty fun one. Bringing dinosaurs to life with very convincing animatronics/CGI and having them run around and chase people is a cool little niche. The main problem with it is, there's generally only so far one can go with such a franchise. For one thing, just having dinosaurs chasing people over and over again will probably only draw people so many times if not a whole lot interesting is happening beyond that story-or-character-wise. (This was part of the reason that Jurassic Park 3 sucked.) 

But the other problem is that the more these movies continue to happen, the more their existence depends upon the insane stupidity of the characters within them. You would think eventually these people would learn their lesson about messing with these dinosaurs. But they haven't. This is the interesting deal, though: while Fallen Kingdom depends upon that issue as much (if not even more so) as any of the other movies, it's also the first one to actually take things in a different direction. 

In this installment, it's been a few years since the events of the first Jurassic World, where that particular park got laid to waste. While the dinosaurs there have been left to their own devices for a while, now there's a new wrinkle: the volcano on Isla Nublar is about to erupt. Which would kill every single dinosaur on that island. And despite the fact that these are predators (well, mostly predators) way higher on the food chain that would kill us at a moment's notice, you still have people fighting for the dinosaurs' lives. No, seriously. 

Now, a somewhat more pragmatic solution is offered: rescue some of the dinosaurs and move them to a new island which will *not* be a park--just a sanctuary where they can roam free undisturbed by humans. Owen and Claire from the last movie get wrangled into this operation because of their previous experience here. The problem? Turns out these guys planning the operation have other plans. Because of course they do. This is a Jurassic Park/World movie, and things never go as planned in these movies. This franchise is the epitome of Murphy's Law. 

Here's the deal. Fallen Kingdom is probably the most ambitious film in the franchise since the original one. It takes the series to places we haven't seen before, and ends on a very different kind of note. But the problem is to get to that point where they can be ambitious, we have to wade through a stunning amount of stupidity on the part of the characters. The villains are cartoonishly evil, and that's a phrase I almost never use to describe villains. Really, Owen and Claire are the only characters that are that likable (the former more so). There's also the little girl Maisie... but more on her later. Everyone else's stupidity and (in some cases) evilness is just so over the top at times. It's to the point where you're almost rooting for the dinosaurs. And not to mention the fact that the first half of this film kind of rips off The Lost World: Jurassic Park, only with an erupting volcano thrown in. (The eruption and escape sequence is pretty cool, but still.) 

The second half is where the film becomes a whole different kind of beast, and where director J.A. Bayona really gets to shine. After the dinosaurs have been wrangled, things inevitably go wrong and we have a few loose dinos running about. What we get is a whole different kind of setting for the series: a haunted house of dinosaurs. And that includes another unholy hybrid dinosaur, who ultimately gets taken out a little easier than the Indominus Rex did... but is still far more threatening than the latter, bordering on demonic. All of this brings the franchise back to its horror roots a bit more. Some of the scenes featured here are brilliant; they're intense, the set pieces are excellent, and the direction/camera work is strong as well. (Some have noted more of a "gothic horror" theme here during these sections... and I can kind of see that. Definitely interesting territory for the franchise.) 

Perhaps the biggest surprise of all here is the latest kid featured in these movies, Maisie. Generally, the kids in these movies aren't very memorable. They're just there to run and scream, and provide some extra terror for viewers because "oh no, kids are in danger of getting eaten by a T-Rex or something." Sometimes they also provide a classic case of deus ex machina. But this one is actually likable from the get-go, and actually ends up being critical to the plot in a twist that may seem inevitable but still helps take the franchise to new territory. Credit should be given in part to newcomer Isabella Sermon who portrays her. 

And then there's the ending. Due to spoilers, I can't say much; but once again it takes the franchise into some new territory and gives the next installment a good amount of possible material to work with. And it's really the first time any of these movies have ever ended on any sort of a cliffhanger. And it works. Despite how many times I rolled my eyes in the first two-thirds or so, I'm very interested to see what they do with the next movie. 

Fallen Kingdom is a strange beast of a film. It's rather frustrating/annoying at times early on due to the stupidity of everyone involved. And as previously mentioned, it does feel more like a retread early on. But then things go in a whole different direction in the second half and the film ends up becoming a focal turning point for the series. As a whole, it's not as good as the first Jurassic World. But this one still impresses in some major ways. The franchise is in a good position right now, because the third JW movie won't necessarily be a retread now--if they play their cards right. And if they do play their cards right, Fallen Kingdom will end up being a major part of the path taken to get there. For all its flaws, Fallen Kingdom may have just been what the franchise needed in some ways.

Friday, June 15, 2018

The Incredibles 2


The first crime about this film is that we had to wait this long for it. No other Pixar movie was as tailor-made for a sequel as this one; and yet in that time three other Pixar movies got sequels (or prequels), plus two "threequels." Heck, as time begin to wear on, few movie sequels in general were as highly wanted and anticipated as this one. And yet it took fourteen years. And considering the time gap between the movies and what's happened to the superhero genre since then--plus just how good and groundbreaking the first one was--boy, did Brad Bird have his work cut out for him. 

It was for these very reasons that despite the original Incredibles being one of my favorite movies of all time, I tried to keep my expectations as tempered as I could. And as it turns out, that was probably a good idea. Cutting straight to the chase, The Incredibles 2 is a pretty good and fun movie. But it pales quite a bit in comparison to the original. Now strap in, because despite the fact that I did enjoy this movie, I'm about to spend quite a bit of time tearing it to shreds. 

Let's start with the plot. The first Incredibles had a great plot with an excellent villain. And that movie was a lot more nuanced and complex in general, throwing in a bit of clever social commentary; really, it was one of the most intelligent movies of its type. This one? Well... pretty much the entire plot of this movie is the Supers trying to make being super not illegal anymore. And that's about it. The rest of the film is just the family trying to juggle hero work and raising a family--a case in which the roles of the last movie are reversed for the first half or so of this one. That's not to say the plot is bad, because it isn't. It's just not up to par with its predecessor's plot, or even most of Pixar's better plots in general. 

Oh sure, there's a new villain in Screenslaver, who looked rather promising in the marketing. However, that villain is probably actually the biggest disappointment of this whole thing. Syndrome was excellent because he was a former fan-turned-enemy that Mr. Incredible inadvertently created--a concept which was rather new and different at the time--and he was also quite the tech genius. However, the Screenslaver's motivations are far less interesting and even a tad more cliched. And really, in the end the villain does not even feel actually as threatening--like they're actually someone to be feared that much. The best thing about the Screenslaver is one or two thought-provoking speeches it delivers--which unfortunately are never really expanded upon and actually have little to do with the villain's main plan. 

Another problem is the lighter tone of the movie. I'm more inclined to blame that on Disney, because they decided they have to give everything as light a tone as they can nowadays. But the first movie had a relatively darker tone and higher body count than most kids' movies. While that did make it a riskier watch for toddlers, that "relatively darker tone" was still part of what made the first one stand out from the crowd. This one feels like it's holding back a bit more, and the action sequences are toned down as well. The end of the first one involved the family fighting a gigantic rogue robot in a downtown metropolis in a finale that would've fit right with any other superhero movie. This movie's final act? Stakes definitely feel lower. The only thing that one feels is at stake at that point is the reputation of the Supers, because given how the rest of the movie has gone, one knows that no one else is in any danger at that point.

While those are the biggest core issues, there are some other minor things as well. Let's start with the opening of the film (which is an awesome opening, by the way). Remember the Underminer? That's right, this film literally picks up where the last one left off. He's ridiculously one-note, unfortunately--and is quite literally forgotten by the movie eventually. Also, a couple of the main characters both have character arcs that aren't always at their best in the first half. They improve over time, though. And finally, Jack-Jack is kind of overused this time around. It kind of makes sense in context, but he's still strictly comic relief at this point and as such should be used sparingly instead of being part of the action. But oh wait, I forgot, we have to make even the action as light-hearted as possible because here at Disney we have to avoid taking a dark tone whenever possible. (Infinity War is the rare exception to that current rule.) 

I've spent quite a bit of time kind of tearing this movie to shreds by now. Unfortunately, that's kind of the way it is with a lot of Disney-made movies nowadays. Even if I'm enjoying them, there are still way more noticeable issues that warrant discussion here. Case in point: I was one of the people who liked Star Wars: The Last Jedi a lot (more than this movie), and yet I still spent an unusual amount of time discussing flaws for a movie that I ultimately really liked. The Incredibles 2 is not that much different. To be clear once again, this is a movie that I did enjoy. But its flaws warrant more discussion than usual, due in part to the inevitable comparisons to the predecessor. 

There are still some pretty good action scenes. The opening is one of the best ones, and there are some other good ones throughout. My personal favorite is probably one where Violet brawls with a brainwashed superpowered person, in one of the few battles that doesn't feel like they held back much. Violet shines a bit more in action in this one in general compared to the first one, mainly because she's learned some more creative things to do with her force-fields, with often awesome results. Still, the others get their fair share of good moments as well. Frozone seems to have a little more screen time here, and it doesn't go to waste. And while I noted earlier that one source of comic relief was a little overused, this movie is still undeniably pretty funny. 

And really, it's just great to see these characters again after all this time. In general, they still are what you'd expect them to be. While the marketing kind of painted Elastigirl as the main focus this time around, that's really only the case for the first half. As with the first one, part of the main draw of this franchise is the family dynamic tying in with the superhero deal, and that is still indeed the case. The Incredibles are still The Incredibles, and as long as that remains true, this film still carries merit--even if elements of the plot and setting these characters are put into are not what they could be. 

So to sum up, this is a sequel that definitely is not up to the standards of the original. The characters are as good as ever, and anybody who loved the first one will be glad to see them again and enjoy their return. The deal is: the first movie had excellent characters put into an excellent superhero movie. This one has excellent characters put into an average superhero movie. I suppose that's kind of enough, and this will still probably still be a movie I return to now and again. But I have to admit, I couldn't completely shake the feeling of "...that's it?" when the credits started rolling. 

Saturday, June 9, 2018

The Sorcerer's Apprentice


Some movies get sequels that they shouldn't; or they get way too many sequels. Then there's always some movies that maybe could've done with a sequel... but it never happened. This is one of those such movies. This one has a rather odd source material; it is indeed based very loosely off of the old Fantasia cartoon. Which does sound like a pretty dumb idea. I mean, how can you make a movie based off a 10-minute cartoon that's not even related to said cartoon? 

The only thing the movie shares with the cartoon is a scene where the "apprentice" in question uses magic (without a hat, mind you) to make brooms and mops clean up the place for him. It's really just meant to be a parody homage sequence and while it's kind of amusing, it also doesn't really fit in that well with the movie. 

This movie has more in common with Harry Potter than anything. However, it is more based off Arthurian legend... to a limited degree. Merlin and Morgana le Fay exist, but that's about it. Balthazar Blake, the "sorcerer," has been looking for a long time for his apprentice--the Prime Merlinian, who can wear Merlin's ring and is thus (somehow) a descendant of his and the only one who can keep Morgana and her minions (mostly Horvath) from carrying out a generic "destroy the world" plot. The only problem? The "apprentice," awkward college student Dave Stutler, isn't entirely a willing apprentice at times. 

This film is kind of an interesting case. It's a fantasy-action-adventure flick, but it's also kind of a comedy in some ways that doesn't always take itself seriously. (Heck, one of the best scenes in the movie is a self-aware Star Wars reference.) And there's also the romance subplot involving Dave and his crush which is kind of corny, but it works given the intended parallelism with Balthazar's own past/backstory. 

As both an action and comedy, it generally works. The action is pretty fun, with the highlight being a car chase scene that involves magic (namely the sorcerers being able to turn their cars into other cars). There are a good handful of pretty funny moments as well. And the plot, while having some narrative issues here and there, is still engaging enough.

Part of the strength of this movie is some of the casting. Nicolas Cage is the main star, and this is one of his more laid-back performances--but he does it pretty well. However, Alfred Molina gives the best performance, playing Horvath with a certain mustache-twirling quality and the occasional hamming it up (no, seriously: Molina hams it up more than Cage in this movie, the latter of whom only does it once), while still imposing himself as a threatening presence when needed. I prefer Jay Baruchel's voice acting in the How to Train Your Dragon series, but he still has his moments here. Monica Bellucci and Toby Kebbell are also in this and aren't half-bad. 

Aside from a few slower or cornier moments, one of the biggest problems here is some narrative mistakes (as mentioned earlier). The first mistake is actually doing the flashback backstory as the very first scene; it would've been more effective to have us learn the story as we went. Then there's some further expansion on the backstory not included in the flashback that's reflected on very briefly and then totally forgotten; and a couple of throwaway lines that feel like they should be pretty significant but also aren't brought up again. And then there's a couple of other mistakes. One is Horvath getting dismissed way too easily in the final act in favor of Morgana and oddly not showing up again until a post-credits scene. Then there's Abigail, another minion who appears rather briefly and is way underused, despite being a historical adaption figure (yep, it's *that* Abigail from Salem) and being rather creepy. (But perhaps they wanted to keep the PG rating and using the "creepy child" more would have been too much--which is odd, considering this movie already straddles the PG line as it is.) 

Despite those issues, The Sorcerer's Apprentice is still a surprisingly decent and fun movie which unfortunately went rather unnoticed at the time of its release. Getting a sequel out of this doesn't feel like too bad of a prospect, especially since they could've expanded more on the backstory a bit that way. But while that will likely never happen, we still have this movie; flawed yet quite acceptable. 

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Black Panther


While this may be Black Panther's first solo movie, it's not the first time we've seen him. We were introduced to him before in Captain America: Civil War, and that intro worked out pretty great and helped to create interest in his upcoming movie. (Obviously a lot of people were interested regardless, but it's difficult to deny that seeing him in action in a separate movie helped--much like with Spider-Man's intro in that same movie.) The result here is a kind of Marvel movie that in some ways is different from any of the others--but in other ways still kind of features more of the same. 

It's unclear just when exactly this takes place after Civil War, but at the beginning of this movie, T'Challa--the "Black Panther"--is ready to assume the throne in Wakanda after his father was killed in that other movie. Here we find out more about this mysterious Wakanda--it's actually a secret location hidden from the rest of the world, and is also essentially the home base of all the vibranium, a material that Marvel viewers should be pretty familiar with by now. As a result of them utilizing this vibranium, Wakanda is very technologically advanced. 

Anyway, T'Challa faces some tough times in his leadership pretty quickly. For one, he has to deal with Ulysses Klaue, a former foe of Wakanda who is out stealing vibranium objects and who his people have a heavily vested interest in. Then, another enemy by the name of Killmonger shows up, wanting to take the throne from T'Challa for his own goals. 

What we get is overall a pretty good movie. Being a MCU movie, most all of their films are this way, but this one still finds a few ways of its own to stand out--kind of. Like most Marvel movies, it has some pretty fun action sequences in it--the Black Panther is a pretty fun fighter to watch. Probably the most memorable scene is the car chase in South Korea (which we already saw parts of in the trailers), but the final act is pretty fun as well. While at times the plot is a bit predictable (there's a pretty ridiculous point where they try to fool us into thinking someone's dead), there's still a few surprises here and there and overall the product works well. 

As a character, T'Challa lacks the wit that many of his peers in the MCU have to help bring them charm (not even really any dry wit), but he makes up for that with convincing stoicism--which Chadwick Boseman portrays quite well, stepping firmly into the role. However, the other star of the show is Shuri, T'Challa's sister--who is a tech genius and provides much of the comic relief in place of her brother. 

There are still some issues. The CGI is all over the place. While Wakanda generally looks quite nice, there are still some points where that place or other places have an overuse of CGI--or just poor CGI altogether. Also, the character of Klaue is tragically underused. Andy Serkis has an insane amount of fun playing the character, hamming it up like we've never seen him before--and yet he does not have nearly as much time as he should, giving way for Killmonger to be the main antagonist. (Which is okay, Killmonger's a good antagonist... but still.) Also, certain parts of the first half of the film are a little more unevenly paced. 

Black Panther isn't quite in the top echelon of Marvel movies--but it's not too far off either. It works on its own merits, and it's about as fun and entertaining as any Marvel movie and also has a couple of different angles that help the film stand out a little bit from its crowd. While this movie could potentially have been more difficult to pull off due to the audience's unfamiliarity with the character before Civil War happened, Marvel has already pulled off so much (with some of those feats being arguably more difficult) that there was little to worry about anyway. It's another average success for Marvel: nothing more, nothing less. Not overly special, but absolutely no disappointment either.