Thursday, March 29, 2018

Movie Review - "Pacific Rim: Uprising" (2018)

"Pacific Rim" was a special film for me, in more ways than one. It was one of the first movies released in theaters that I ever reviewed, alongside the bland and boring "Man of Steel," but also because "Pacific Rim" was such a breath of fresh air to the kaiju genre and one of the most fun and kickass movies of that year, certainly helped by the wonderful direction and dedication from Guillermo del Toro. It had a story world steeped in lore, development and intrigue while making it all seem natural, and felt like the greatest homage to the Godzilla films that we've ever gotten.

So imagine my disappointment and irritation when I found out that "Pacific Rim: Uprising" ditches all of that complexity and relations to the kaiju films of the past, and instead focuses on a story that has no direction or consistency and annoying teenagers that have little to no character. While the fight scenes are scarce and feel weak and insignificant to the story.

This film makes last years' "Power Rangers" look like a subtle masterpiece that understands teenagers struggles by comparison. There is nothing eye-catching or satisfying about "Pacific Rim: Uprising," only pain, annoyance, and more pain. It fails as not just a kaiju film, but as a Hollywood blockbuster.

Set ten years after the events of the last film, Jake Pentecost (John Boyega), the son of the war hero Stacker Pentecost, the one that "cancelled the apocalypse," lives in the ruins of Santa Monica trying to make a living selling spare Jaeger parts on the black market. He eventually gets captured by the world Jaeger military, along with a girl who built her own tiny Jaeger, and told to become an Jaeger-pilot instructor to the next generation of pilots or spend the rest of his life in prison. He chooses to reluctantly be an instructor, tutoring the girl from earlier and half a dozen other teenagers.

One thing I don't get about this is why the world still feels the need to use Jaegers. It's been ten years since the last kaiju invasion, and there's never been any sign that they're coming back. Yet the world insists that Jaeger's are needed to keep the it safe - from what? Some characters insist that the kaijus will return some day, but only because the script says that they're coming back. We learned from the last film that Jaegers take a huge physical and mental toll on the pilots, plus can be just as destructive and dangerous as kaiju. So why does the world feel the need to keep them around when the fight has been over for a long time?

Beyond that, the story is schizophrenic and lacks any sort of consistent tone. It feels like five different stories all vying to be taken seriously, including Jake's journey to make a name for himself outside of being his father's son, the corporate conspiracy to replace Jaegers with drones and the ramifications of that, the struggle between Jake and another instructor, and the training of these whiny annoying kids. All of them are haphazardly thrown together in a desperate attempt to stretch this out to two hours, when all you needed to do was give the audience what they wanted in the first place - giant robots beating up on giant monsters in stylized action sequences.

But even when they do have monster fight scenes, those aren't satisfying either. Often times, the camera is far too close or shaky to really appreciate the scope and size of the monsters. While other times, none of the hits or actions feel like they have an impact, like every kaiju or jaeger is throwing whimpy little punches. Even when they do hit something or crash into a building, it never feels like much damage was done, since the CGI is so fake and unrealistic that it feels like they're being thrown through cardboard cities.

Remember in "Pacific Rim" when a jaeger used a freight ship like a baseball bat and you got to see and feel just how hard the kaiju got hit? Or the reveal of Gypsy Danger's sword arm in mid-air? There's no moment like that in "Uprising" that makes you appreciate just how powerful these creatures are, just little dinky hits that take away from the jaeger's invisible health bar, like a video game.

The only redeemable aspect of "Pacific Rim: Uprising" is that Charlie Day is allowed to cut loose and be the crazy, rambling, full of himself guy that we've come to know and love from "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" and "Horrible Bosses." He's in a surprising amount of the film, and he is the only one that feels like he's in his element as he stumbles through a kaiju lab like a drunk teenager with nothing to lose. Even though this doesn't really have a place being in a kaiju film, it is refreshing to see someone actually trying to be entertaining.

But in the end, "Pacific Rim: Uprising" is a mess that doesn't deserve anyone's time or attention. It doesn't understand what made the first film so beloved and does everything with little passion or energy, trying to go for more of a Marvel-esque feel instead of using the stunning the first film already created. The film has no sense of style or charm and just feels like a quick cash a film that was out grossed by "Grown Ups 2" on its opening weekend. To put it simply, this film doesn't make any sense.

Final Grade: D

Monday, March 26, 2018

Movie Review - "Born Yesterday" (1950)

"Born Yesterday" is a charming, uproarious film that is held up by the strength and wit of its lead performance by Judy Holliday and the journey of self-discovery and assertiveness that she embarks on. While the tale of an uncouth impolite woman being tutored to integrate her into society is one that's been told time and again, Holliday delivers her lines with such sincerity and blissful ignorance that it is truly wonderful to watch this brass showgirl change before our very eyes.

Anytime Holliday is on-screen is a delight in how much she just owns this role. From Billie loudly playing the radio and singing to it while guests are trying to have a conversation, to her admitting that she is okay with putting very little thought into her life as long as she's happy, to her genuine excitement as she circles every newspaper article so that her tutor, Paul Verrall (William Holden), will explain it to her. But even throughout these changes, she retains her sense of joy and wonder about the world - it's just that that joy grows as her world grows.

This is one of George Cukor's funniest films, in a long career of witty comedies. The dialogue is overflowing with great lines and revelations as Billie's ignorance begins to fade and she sees the world that her fiancée, equally uncouth junk tycoon Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford), has made for himself. The absurdly loud banter between Holliday and Crawford is charming in its own way, like watching two stubborn gangsters try to solve math equations, while the scenes between Holliday and Holden lead to some hilarious reactions from the two as they learn from each other.

Overall, "Born Yesterday" is a simple yet refreshing movie about knowledge overcoming ignorance. Judy Holliday is captivating from start to finish, always curious and always enchanting. The script is a perfect mixture of comedy and drama without sacrificing one over the other, leading to a satisfying conclusion and journey for our captivating lead. I had a smile on my face the entire time during this one, and it is not hard to see why.

Final Grade: B+

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Movie Review - "The Ox-Bow Incident" (1943)

Part of the appeal of the western is the raw, unbridled battle between good and evil. This genre is a window to a time and place where men took the law into their own hands, where modern society and its rules weren't anyone's concern yet and we could be as barbaric, chaotic or strong as we wanted to be - the only code around was your own personal code of honor. But as exhilarating and rewarding as these movies can get, there are just as many westerns that turn these ideals on their head to give us a more tragic and sympathetic tale of the west. Films like "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" and "Unforgiven" pull this off wonderfully, but another great western morality tale is William A. Wellman's "The Ox-Bow Incident."

The film is set in a miniscule town in Nevada that has been devastated by cattle-rustlers lately. When the town gets word of another attack that leaves one of their kindest and most well-liked cattle farmers dead, they've all had enough of not doing anything and waiting for the law to bring in these evil-doers. So when most of the town folks find out where the cattle-rustlers are heading, they form a posse hell-bent on taking care of these murderers on their own, even though the sheriff is no where to be found and the local judge says that what they're doing isn't legal. Many others tag along, including passer-by Gil Carter (Henry Fonda), in an attempt to keep all this as level-headed and orderly as possible.

What follows is a tale about passion and anger overriding logic and civility. These men are quick to judge and act of their own accord, including the deputy sheriff who deputizes everyone in the posse despite not having that power, or the former civil war Major who takes command of the situation even though no one asked him to. They've lived in the west so long that they don't see how law and order can solve this situation - these dangerous men only understand bloodshed and swift action, so they must respond in kind.

But the strength of "The Ox-Bow Incident" comes from how you understand where the towns folk are coming from. They immigrated from all the corners of the globe to start a new life where decent and honest men could thrive, and now the only thing they've ever held dear is being taken away from them. These aren't bad people, they're just so caught up in their own sense of right and wrong that they've grown impatient and angry at the world. This is their way of lashing out.

Of course, that only makes this tragic tale even more sympathetic. Like watching a peaceful protest turn into an angry mob.

I would argue that "The Ox-Bow Incident" is one of the most important and significant westerns ever made. Because it was made in 1943, when the genre was just reaching its peak, this film challenged the status quo by muddling its morals and sense of right and wrong, to the point where you're not sure who to root for anymore. It shows a vulnerable and unpleasant side to a setting that is often romanticized and glorified, giving us possibly the most flawed yet human western tale of its time.

Final Grade: A

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Movie Review - "Field of Dreams" (1989)

If there's one thing I admire about cinema, it is the ability to blend together vastly different genres to give us a wholly unique and captivating experience. "Field of Dreams" takes two types of stories from completely separate worlds, fantasy and sports, and creates a charming, wholesome, heart-lifting film.

I don't normally enjoy films about sports, due to their predictable formula and clichés about the underdog overcoming every adversity. But "Field of Dreams" escapes that by using baseball as its backdrop and passion that unites the world, rather than having it define the movie. While the fantasy elements certainly help its case, its love for the game and the sense of nostalgia is what really makes it stand out.

The film is set in the rural farms of Iowa, where baseball-fanatic Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) has made a living for himself growing corn with his wife and daughter. But one day, Ray starts hearing voices out in his field, repeating the same thing over and over again - If you build it, he will come. As if struck by divine guidance, Ray interprets this message as a sign that he should convert his corn field into a baseball field. And sure enough, once he builds the field, magical events start happening.

The acting in "Field of Dreams" is a mixed bag. Kevin Costner brings his usual bland and uninterested tone, as even during the more personal and earth-shattering moments he can barely find the strength to work up a smile, let alone give us a decent reaction. That being said, Amy Madigan, who plays Annie Kinsella, is overflowing with positivity and joy that it almost makes you forget that Kevin Costner is hardly acting. Every time she's on screen, you can tell that she's having a blast and genuinely loves being her supportive and lovable character. James Earl Jones plays a famous writer who has lost interest in the world and brings a lot of snark to the film, as well as a connection between the past and the present.

Although the acting certainly gets boosted further with the final film appearance from Burt Lancaster, who brings the same energy, charm and enthusiasm that he always had throughout his career. As a capstone to his acting career, Lancaster gives us one final chance to see his sentimental side.

But the biggest reason "Field of Dreams" works as well as it does is because of its passion for baseball and how it connects people in so many invisible ways. The film lovingly paints a tapestry of baseball history, explaining what happened to certain baseball players and their statistics, and telling us how there is no feeling quite like playing on a baseball field surrounded by caring fans. Most importantly, that whatever may happen in the world, no matter what troubles and problems we may experience, we'll always have something to root for out on that baseball diamond. Baseball is not just a uniter, but a love that will never fade.

Overall, "Field of Dreams" is a charming film that loves baseball as much as any one else, and wants to share that love with the rest of the world. It has some heartfelt performance, though some are better than others, and some effectively sentimental writing that hits the right notes when it needs to. The fantasy elements are all over the place, but the passion and love for baseball more than makes up for that. If you are even remotely interested in baseball, or are intrigued by the sport, then check out "Field of Dreams" to see the true strength of the sport.

Final Grade: B

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Movie Review - "Game Night" (2018)

I am so happy that more modern comedies are trying to be like "Hot Fuzz," and have a funny screenplay to go with the great jokes. One where the jokes are not just one-liners, but serve as plot points that add a whole new layer to the film and its characters. They're not just funny for their own sake, but also smart.

"Horrible Bosses" did this wonderfully, and now we have those writers returning to direct another witty, multi-layered comedy-thriller, "Game Night." Whether you're going into this one for the action and intrigue or for the laughs, there's enough of both to go around, especially since it's filled to the brim with charming characters and twists that keep the audience on their toes. It makes this film feel refreshing, especially since 2017 didn't have many worthwhile comedies.

The film follows married couple Max and Annie (Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams), two extremely competitive people who love to play any sort of game - board game, video game, trivia, you name it and they're convinced they can beat you at it, except for Max's vastly more successful and accomplished brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler). The couple have a weekly game night with their group of friends and invite Brooks to join them while he's in town. Brooks then insists on having the next game night at his place, where he promises to take it to the next level, where things get far more real than Max and Annie ever thought possible.

The glue that holds "Game Night" together is the charming and lovable relationship between Max and Annie. Since both of them are very competitive, you'd think they would spend their time fighting each other to see who is better, but it quickly becomes the opposite of that - they become a team that practically shares one mind and do their best to make the other even better. They spend their wedding night playing "Dance Dance Revolution" with the biggest smiles on their faces. They each bring far more meaning into the others' game of life, and they never lose sight of that.

My favorite scene involving these two comes early on when Max admits why he's so jealous of his brother. While Annie doesn't initially see it, after spending the evening around Brooks, she completely understands why Max feels this way and hates Brooks just as much. In any other movie, the spouse would never understand why the other is so jealous or upset until the final act, like they don't think it's a big deal and the other should just get over it. But Annie supports and understands her husbands' feelings, and instead of choosing to ignore them or tell Max to man up, she wants to help find a way to get back at Brooks and make him feel like the inadequate one.

That was the moment that I truly fell in love with these characters.

"Game Night" also has a varied sense of humor, ranging from slapstick and witty dialogue to callbacks and jokes with a long wind-up. It also has a very violent sense of humor at times, upping the ante from "Horrible Bosses" and giving us some scenes that'll make you squirm in your seat. But it never goes too far in one direction as it masterfully pulls off a darker sense of humor that feels unique.

To top that off, the mystery and intrigue in "Game Night" really does keep you on your toes. I was never too sure what was real or part of the "game" motif that is always persistent throughout the film. The cinematography really compliments this by having several scenes that portray our characters like pieces on a board game, each of them making progress throughout the board and having to deal with the obstacles along the way.

Overall, "Game Night" is a smart, funny and intriguing breath of fresh air. It offers a multi-layered black comedy filled with lovely and charming characters and a wide-range of comedy styles that never gets old. I'd recommend this film to everyone who enjoys a good R-rated comedy or who wants to see a good thriller with a great sense of humor. I wouldn't mind if we start getting more comedies like this in future.

Final Grade: B+

Movie Review - "Annihilation" (2018)

Science fiction can be a difficult genre to tackle and it is even more difficult to please an audience in that genre. While science fiction can cover everything from robots, aliens, depictions of the future, man-made monsters, advancements in technology and so on, the point of the genre should be to show how we maintain our humanity and soul in the face of these new and unexplored perils, or in some cases how we lose ourselves. The reason films like "WALL-E" and "Blade Runner 2049" work so well isn't just because of the impressive visuals or captivating stories, but because of their exploration on how we as a species changed with advancements in technology and artificial intelligence.

Side-note - For this reason, I don't see "Star Wars" as science fiction, but as a space western.

But at the same time, it is possible for a sci-fi film to overdo it on the philosophy and human condition, to the point that the film loses its audience, like a pendulum swinging too far in one direction. Films like "Solaris" and the original "Ghost in the Shell" have this problem - too much style, not enough substance. Now we can add another film to that category - "Annihilation."

This the second film directed by Alex Garland, who previously made "Ex Machina." My feelings on that film are fairly similar to mine on this film - it is visually captivating and well-performed, but thinks way too much of itself to the point that most of it comes off as pretentious. The difference between the two films though is that "Ex Machina" was pretentious through its high-and-mighty dialogue, while "Annihilation" takes a page from "2001: A Space Odyssey"'s book by having many ambiguous scenes without any lines of dialogue.

In fact, that's how I would describe "Annihilation" - as a cross between "Ex Machina" and "2001: A Space Odyssey." With its stunning visuals and high concept ideas about alien life and identity, it has long stretches of silent moments to let those images sink in. But the film does meander for quite some time, as it deals with a dull plot about the government and regulations before they get to the good stuff.

The film follows Lena (Natalie Portman), a cellular biology professor and a former soldier, as she copes with the loss of her husband Kane (Oscar Issac), who has been on a mission for over a year and hasn't heard anything from him in over six months. But one day, Kane pops back up and isn't acting like his usual self. After Kane suddenly grows ill, the two of them are taken captive by a secret government organization and taken to a top-secret area in Florida, dubbed "The Shimmer" that has been slowly expanding for years and changes everything inside of it - no team that has gone inside of it has ever come out alive. But when an all-women team of researchers is hell bent on making it to the center of the Shimmer, Lena volunteers to head inside as well and possibly get some answers about what happened to Kane.

Outside of the impressive visuals, I enjoyed just how vulnerable and broken most of these women were, making this a rather emotional ride as they enter the alien bubble. They all bring their emotional baggage with them, especially Gina Rodriguez's paramedic as she starts grows more paranoid and abusive as they journey towards the center. Tessa Thompson plays a quiet physicist with a dark past that plays out like the opposite of her character in "Thor: Ragnarok," while Jennifer Jason Leigh leads the expedition and grows more ruthless and uncaring over time. They all wear their emotions on their sleeves, and it makes some of this feel like a tragedy at times.

But the main problem with "Annihilation" is that, while it does leave you pondering questions about what happened, none of it was truly investing or satisfying. The mix of ambiguity and pretentiousness leaves me feeling like nothing was accomplished, causing everything to blend together in a rather bland film with no substance to it. By the end of it, I had lost interest in the questions the film was asking, because I did not care about its lackluster (and predictable) ending.

That being said, "Annihilation" is not a bad film, but an underwhelming one. The performances from its minor characters are solid and the visuals are stunning. But the story moves too slowly for its own good and thinks way too highly of itself. In the end, its pretentiousness overpowers everything else about it.

Final Grade: C+