Pacific Rim: Uprising

Pacific Rim: Uprising

By: Kevin Jordan

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.  T

his 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.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

By: Kevin Jordan

I’m not sure either side should win.

As much as I look forward to many movies every year, none of them do I anticipate as much as Star Wars.  Since writing movie reviews does not pay the bills (or anything but movie admissions, for that matter) and advanced screenings of Star Wars flicks are always in the middle of a weekday, I’m forced to decide whether or not to take a day off to see the movie.  Since my dream of being a professional baseball player died a long time ago, the decision to ditch a day of work for Star Wars is easy.  The only down-side is I have to hold my tongue the next day or two so as not to spoil the movie for anyone within hearing distance of my cubicle.  And for Star Wars, we at the screening got an extra reminder that we shouldn’t ruin the movie for others with spoilers.  But, you know how I feel about spoilers in reviews.  Reviews are spoilers by their very nature.  If you don’t have some level of spoilers, it’s not a real review.  Hence, the obligatory spoiler warning I always include.  So, to meet my extra obligation for Star Wars, here is your warning.

(SPOILER ALERT)

………

(EXTRA SPOILER ALERT)

………

(Seriously.  I’m going to include a few SPOILERS.)

………

(Are you still with me?)

………

(Are you sure you want to keep reading?)

………

(Last chance.  SPOILER ALERT)

………

(There’s no turning back now.)

………

(Okay.  I think I’ve made my point.  Here we go.  SPOILER ALERT, but nothing huge.)

This picture contains zero spoilers.

The Last Jedi picks up where we left Rey (Daisy Ridley) standing on an island facing Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill).  But, really it picks up showing us the Resistance fleeing their base before the First Order shows up to destroy them.  Apparently, there were a whole lot more First Order guys than were on the destroyed Starkiller Base.  General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), commanding a fleet of star destroyers, shows up at the Resistance’s planet to kill them all and we are treated to a scene straight out of The Avengers.  I think Joss Whedon snuck into the writer’s room to add a can-you-hear-me-now gag in the opening space battle scene and I’m still conflicted on if it works in a Star Wars film.  It’s not that I didn’t laugh (I did), but that exchange turns the EVIL FIRST ORDER and General Hux into the silly first order and General doofus.  Do you know how hard it is to believe that the First Order was able to take over the entire galaxy after watching them fall for a crank call to their battlecruiser?

The opening space battle also made me realize how terrible every faction in this universe is at military strategy and tactics.  On the First Order side, they have a dozen star destroyers that never fire a single shot at the fleeing force or the planet below them, opting to wait for a dreadnaught to show up that carries four gigantic guns.  Incidentally, this was exactly how the Empire lost in Return of the Jedi.  The Empire had a whole fleet of star destroyers that never fired a single shot because they were waiting for the Death Star, even after the rebels began to specifically target the star destroyers.  Anyway, on the Resistance side, they’ve hatched a plan to take out the dreadnaught, led by Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), despite Leia (Carrie Fisher) verbalizing the cost wasn’t worth the mission.  Not only does she okay an obviously tiny-odds mission, she tries to back out of it when all the assets are already well past committed, then lays all the blame on Dameron for disobeying a retreat order that was nonsensical.  It’s no wonder the wars never end in the Star Wars universe.  Both sides are militarily dumb.

(Side note: The star destroyer thing is really nagging at my brain.  Seriously, what exactly are they for, if not triangle shaped transports?  Their name implies they can actually destroy things, yet we rarely ever see them fire a shot at anything in any movie.  But, they sure do crash a lot.)

Nobody in the galaxy can actually read that map.

After this, the movie spends time jumping back and forth between the First Order fleet pursuing the remaining Resistance ships and Rey trying to convince Luke to rejoin the Resistance and train her to be a Jedi.  If this sounds an awful like Empire, at least no one gets frozen in carbonite.  Though, speaking of frozen (and here’s the one sorta-real SPOILER), Leia survives being blown up and blasted into space without a spacesuit.  Remember in Guardians of the Galaxy when Gamora and Star-Lord both survive being in space without a spacesuit?  Yeah, it sucked in that movie too.  Watching frozen Leia open her eyes and magic herself back to the ship was possibly the worst moment in the entire franchise, and this franchise includes Jar-Jar Binks.  I get that it can be explained away by the Force and Skywalker DNA, but it undercuts any danger she is in, will be in, or has ever been in.  We all know that Jedi are not invincible and most definitely cannot survive space.  Plus, Leia isn’t even a trained Jedi, making this scene even more ridiculous in the context of this universe.  She should have just been found in the wreckage of the area of the ship that was blasted and nobody would have questioned her survival.

How about a little positivity, since I liked this movie despite its flaws?  The scenes with Luke and Rey are easily the highlight of the movie because we get to learn a bunch of stuff about the past and reunite with one of the all-time movie heroes.  Hamill plays a grumpy old Luke as if he’s been practicing 35 years for exactly this moment.  He’s surly and cynical and you are screaming at Rey to whack him over the head with her staff because we want to see some Jedi stuff, dammit!  Ridley slips effortlessly back into Rey, delivering a character that grows exponentially while on the island, despite Luke’s efforts to drive her away.  There are also some really cool new Force concepts that we get to watch develop, not the least because these scenes involve Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and his current mindset.  Speaking of Kylo Ren, man is that guy a mental wreck.  Losing a fight to Rey has caused Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) to lose faith in his apprentice and Kylo is trying desperately to prove his worth.  I love that Hux keeps poking at him, despite the fact that Kylo is an unstable bomb that could kill Hux with a thought.  This plotline is the heart of the movie and the space chase is just a distracting side story meant to give screen time to Dameron, Leia, and Finn (John Boyega), and deliver most of the action we all want to see.

Can’t you train me just a little you old crank?

This brings us to Finn and a bunch of extraneous stories that end up muddling the film.  If writer/director Rian Johnson had stuck with just those two story threads, the movie would have been far tighter.  Instead, a third story is tossed in where Finn and fellow space janitor Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) embark on a desperate mission to a super-rich city to find a guy who might be able to help them save the fleet from annihilation.  This sub-plot is far more social commentary on income inequality, child slave labor, and the military industrial complex than fantasy space opera with laser swords.  It’s preachy in a way that brings the movie to a screeching halt rather than delivering a subtle, but powerful message dressed in droids and blasters.  I really love Finn as a character, but he felt almost forgotten in this film.

But, oh, that action and special effects.  Mmmmmmmmm.  I know film snobs love to criticize the very existence of CGI, but CGI has allowed us to see things beyond our wildest imaginations.  Everything is this movie was visually stunning (with the exception of the stupid little porgs – penguin-like creatures on Luke’s island that exist solely for Disney to sell merchandise to children.  I’m not exaggerating, these things literally do nothing in the movie outside of being on the Millenium Falcon in some poorly conceived homage to the rightly-derided tribbles of Star Trek fame).  One shot in particular near the end of the film was spectacular to behold (which I won’t spoil) and made even the porgs worth putting up with.  Oh oh oh, and the last planet we see them on?  Just, oh wow.  Even if I did try to describe it (which I won’t), you’d have to see it to understand.  I know I’m big on providing evidence to support a claim (hence the entire reason SPOILERS are necessary in a review), but on this one I’m just going to ask you to trust me.

Gorgeous. Just gorgeous.

If you’ve stuck with me through the previous 1500 words, let me reward you with the answer to the question you really want to know.  How good is The Last Jedi compared to the last two Star Wars movies?  For starters, it definitely has way too much crammed into it (while the other two are very streamlined), but I can’t get enough Star Wars so I’m not really complaining.  I wish they had made some different decisions with a couple of the minor subplots and characters (like with Laura Dern’s vice admiral Holdo, for one).  I wish Finn wasn’t quite so slap-sticky, or the rest of the movie, for that matter, but at least there weren’t any fart jokes.  On the flip side, spending time with Luke was fantastic, Rey and Kylo’s connection is developed sublimely, and the crescendo at the end of the film makes up for all of the minor problems in the film.  All in all, it’s not as good as the previous two films, but it’s still a pretty good Star Wars film.  In other words, we still win.

Rating: Don’t ask for any money back, but I’m saying that far less emphatically than the last two movies.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

By: Kevin Jordan

Reviving the past.

star_wars_episode_vii__the_force_awakens

By far, the question I get asked the most is “what do you think the best movie of the year is?”  I like this question because it allows me to rant a little about how the main stream critics would never say a movie like Star Wars is the best movie of the year.  Now that Star Wars: The Force Awakens has released in theaters, that question has changed to “do you think the new Star Wars is the best movie of the year?”  As much as I loved the movie, and considering how I now believe J.J. Abrams can do no wrong, I can say without hesitation that main stream critics are pretty much dead inside.  However, The Force Awakens is NOT the best movie of the year – that would be The Martian.  However again, The Force Awakens is definitely top three (if you are wondering what the third is, you’ll just have to wait until my Year in Review is posted in a couple weeks).

A much more difficult and interesting question to answer was posed by a friend of mine a couple of days ago – “is The Force Awakens the best Star Wars movie?”  I can’t think of a more loaded question than that.  And the answer, depending on who is asking, might cause diplomatic relations to deteriorate to the point of someone jabbing you in the neck with a homemade light saber.  I’d say we could start by tossing the three prequels out immediately, but even that argument has become vociferous in recent months.  Seriously, there are people out there actually defending those films as really good movies and not doing it ironically or sarcastically.  Those people are also dead wrong – the three prequels are garbage, and no amount of rewriting history in their heads is going to change that.

In the broader argument of which Star Wars film is the best, The Empire Strikes Back is the most often picked movie, but not by me.  As a kid, I watched all three originals dozens of times and Empire was my least favorite.  It doesn’t have enough action, it has the creepy cave scene with Luke and Darth Vader, and it has the kind of ending that a kid doesn’t like.  A New Hope is similar in that much of the beginning part of the movie is slow and the trash compactor scene was scary.  Return of the Jedi was my favorite because, you guessed it, action, action, and more action (side note: even I never really liked the Ewoks and always thought that dropping rocks on a storm trooper’s head and knocking them out was tough to believe).  Yes, the rancor was frightening and the pit of Sarlacc was a thing of nightmares, but the battle on Jabba’s pleasure barge was awesome and the climactic battle where three different battles were happening simultaneously never got old.  And, to answer your new questions – no, I did not have to look up any of those references and, no, I do not own a storm trooper cookie jar.

For me to answer the question of best Star Wars movie, I have to compare The Force Awakens to Return of the Jedi and The Empire Strikes Back.  Why not A New Hope?  I’m glad you asked.  The Force Awakens is almost a remake of A New Hope, which is also the reason I don’t think it’s the best movie of 2015.  Now, if you have not seen The Force Awakens yet and you don’t even want tiny SPOILERS, stop reading now.  I’ve already told you I loved this movie and I’m even considering seeing it again and paying the 3-D surcharge (and you know how I feel about 3-D), so you know what my rating is going to be.  Last warning – very mild SPOILERS imminent.

The Force Awakens and A New Hope both feature a young hero living on a desert planning who is strong with the Force.  They both have a resistance/rebellion fighting against an evil empire, now called the First Order.  They both have a droid containing secret information that everyone is trying to get their hands on.  They both feature a super weapon capable of destroying a planet with a giant laser (this time the weapon is the size of an entire planet).  They both feature the resistance leaders looking at a hologram of the super weapon and determining that the best way to destroy it is to disable its shields and fire at a specific weak point on the globe.  They both feature a villain draped in black, wearing a respirator, and speaking with a modulated voice.  They both feature a secondary villain who is the military leader of the evil empire and doesn’t really answer to the other villain.  The point is that Abrams was most likely creatively restricted by his Disney overlords to ensure that a repeat of The Phantom Menace did not happen.  Again, I was wildly entertained by The Force Awakens, but it was impossible not to notice the volume of plot elements lifted from A New Hope.  But, what makes The Force Awakens better than A New Hope is that our hero, Rey (Daisy Ridley), is not whiny like Luke was, there is an almost perfect balance between the comedic relief and seriousness, the visuals are phenomenal (like I said, I’m strongly considering attending a 3-D showing), and of course, plenty of action.

Getting back to the question of if The Force Awakens is the best, it never asks you to believe that a bunch of primitive fur balls hurling rocks and sticks can defeat a heavily armored infantry wielding laser guns and walking tanks like Return of the Jedi.  Considering the quantity of action is roughly equal, Jedi is out.  As for Empire, thinking about it beyond its level of action (which there is plenty, just not as much as Jedi), could the plot distinguish the two?  The plot of The Force Awakens is essentially – “Where’s Luke?”  There’s a bigger story in the works – new rebellion, new empire, who is Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), what’s going on with the new Republic, why is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) wearing a mask if he doesn’t need to, to name a few – but the movie itself is really about finding Luke.  The plot of Empire is essentially – “Learn to be a Jedi, Luke.”  Yes, there is the bigger story of rebellion versus empire and Han Solo and gang being chased by the empire for almost the entire movie, but all of that is just setup for Luke to return as a Jedi.

Characters, maybe?  The Force Awakens introduces a bunch of new characters, all of which are well-fleshed-out or intriguing enough for us to wait for more in the upcoming sequels.  We’ve already mentioned Rey, Kylo Ren, and Snoke, but there’s also everyone’s new favorite droid BB-8, storm trooper-turned-rebel Finn (John Boyega), and X-wing pilot extraordinaire Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac).  They also bring back the old gang, though nobody besides Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) do more than scowl or utter more than a couple of lines.  Considering Empire was a sequel, they too brought back the old gang, but also added Lando Calrissian, the Emperor, and, of course, Boba Fett.  Wow – this is harder than I thought it was going to be.

I can’t tell you more without giving away spoilers that would make you want to maim me, so you’ll just have to take my word for it that The Force Awakens is as good as The Empire Strikes Back.  Either answer is defensible, and both should be embraced by both my generation and the younger generation.  But, regardless of which movie you think is better, we can all agree on one thing – thanking J.J. Abrams for resurrecting Star Wars in film and making us remember why we loved the originals so much.

Rating: All this movie needed to be worth every penny was to be better than the prequels.  It’s worth many times that.