Saturday, March 31, 2018

Movie Review: Pacific Rim Uprising

I want to be clear about this - I tried to meet this movie halfway. I get that this is supposed to be more of an experience than a story. You can dig through the archives of this blog and find dozens of examples of times I've been on board with dumb, enjoyable movies, including the original Pacific Rim. I understand there are times you need to accept that a writer (whether through decision or limited ability) isn't managing to sell sci-fi concepts or fails to maintain adherence to their setting or tone.

But here's the thing. This movie is just. So. Stupid.

Okay, that's only part of the problem. I've enjoyed stupider movies, including some in the same genre. But Uprising fails to balance the elements necessary to overlook its intellectual shortcomings. In other words, it's just not all that much fun.

I'm being a little overly critical. There are moments in the movie that are quite a bit of fun, starting with an opening robot chase featuring a smaller, agile mech built and piloted by teenage genius Amara. I suspect if more of the movie had revolved around her, rather than Boyega's Jake Pentecost, it would have been a more enjoyable film.

But what we get of her is essentially a retread of Mako's arc in part one. Contrast that with Boyega's story, which is... also a retread of Mako's arc. As for Mako's role... ugh. Yeah. Turns out Becket was smart to sit this one out. Newt and Hermann are still fun, at least - I did like the twists they took there.

A lot of Uprising's issues revolve around the movie's tone. It's not that this doesn't know what it is - Uprising seems to realize it's essentially a scaled up version of Power Rangers or Voltron - it just doesn't quite pull off the recipe. There's a tug-of-war going on here between drama and camp, and at some point, the rope just breaks. Del Toro succeeded well enough in part one, but DeKnight never quite figures it out. The camp winds up undercutting the drama, and the forced drama and inflated stakes distract from the camp. You never really form much of a bond with anyone, but the movie keeps cutting away from the cool robots to put them in frame.

Meanwhile, the action sequences are very uneven. There are some cool moments, particularly in the closing brawl, but there are too many missed opportunities and bizarre choices. It's especially shocking how often this movie fails to deliver on the main selling point of the franchise: scale. The first movie consistently succeeded in selling the size of the robots and monsters at every turn. But there's only a handful of moments in Uprising that seem to understand or care how big anything is. There's a sequence early in the second act where a pair of robots fight and interact with their environment as if they're human-sized (how thick is that ice supposed to be?). Likewise, try to keep a straight face when someone states a monster that's got to be at least a kilometer long is two kilometers from its goal and closing fast.

Even more egregious is the way the movie teases potential twists and scenarios, then drops them in favor of the same kinds of fight scenes that permeated part one. This occurs at least twice - you're shown something new and fascinating, only to see it facilitate a return to the norm.

Again, I'm willing and able to forgive errors and suspend disbelief - all that's part of the price of admission to this genre (and I honestly love this genre). But when you strip out the aspects that make this stuff worthwhile, I'm left wondering what the point was. Because there's really not much left over that's not a rehash of part one.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Movie Review: A Wrinkle in Time

Make no mistake - Disney knows exactly what they're doing. A Wrinkle in Time is mixed as a movie. It's not going to be remembered as one of the best movies of 2018, and it won't break any box office records, but anyone who dismisses this as a failure isn't thinking long-term. Disney grew into the empire it's become in part by ensuring generations of kids were raised on their movies. If you think it's a coincidence they released this close to the upcoming launch of their streaming service, you need to think again. Twenty years from now, a million women will list this as their favorite movie growing up, the one they watched over and over again, the way the last generation watched Beauty and the Beast on DVD and the one before watched Pete's Dragon on VHS.

But let's set that aside and consider the movie on its own merits. Should you catch it before it leaves theaters?

Honestly, unless you're an eight to thirteen year old or have a great deal of affection for the book, you should probably wait for it to hit Netflix in a few months (or the aforementioned Disney service in a year or two). This is a situation where the movie's best aspects will transition to the small screen, anyway.

It's an odd case, though. The movie features some inventive design and larger-than-life performances. The three Mrs. are a joy to watch, and it's wonderful seeing this much vibrant color in a movie. But all that being said, the movie suffers from green-screen syndrome. The worlds are pretty, but they never feel real or lived in. Think Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow: you never feel like the things you're seeing have weight or substance, so you never feel like they pose a real threat.

Fortunately, the characters feel more concrete. Every line is delivered with complete sincerity - nothing in the acting or direction feels phoned in or forced. The emotional core and the message are delivered from the heart by people proud to be working in this genre.

I can't overstate how much of a difference that makes. It's far too easy to dismiss a kids movie as disposable entertainment, but Ava DuVernay clearly believes she's saying something important. What's really astonishing is how effectively she wills that belief into reality.

Yeah, I wish this had done a better job on world-building. I wish they'd allowed the kids to pick up a few minor scratches and bruises to convey some sense of danger. And I certainly wish DuVernay had strayed a little further from the book and told a slightly more compelling story. That's why I don't think this is essential theatrical viewing, incidentally.

But I can't wait to see the effects of a generation hearing Meg being asked to become a warrior then watching her step into that role. That'll be just as fulfilling on the small screen as the big one. I suspect that was always the plan, anyway.