Film Review: Pacific Rim Uprising (dir. by Steven S. DeKnight)


Moving to directing isn’t always smooth

Pacific Rim Poster

.Duel was a success for Steven Spielberg, and Alex Garland had a wonderful success with Ex Machina. Conversely, Cinematographer Wally Pfister’s Transcendence wasn’t as well received. Though he has worked on TV, Pfister hasn’t had a motion picture follow-up (though I’m eager to see him do so). Everyone moves in different directions and at their own pace. Steven S. DeKnight is well-known for his work on Daredevil and the Spartacus series on Starz. He makes the leap to directing with Pacific Rim Uprising, the results of which are a mixed bag for me. I saw the original four times in the cinema. Uprising has some fun moments, most of them with John Boyega (John Boyega, Star Wars: The Last Jedi) and Cailee Spaeny (The Shoes), but it wasn’t particularly memorable for me. I don’t know if I could actually say I hated it. That doesn’t mean that the kids won’t love it. There are some good moments of action that are reminiscent of Saban’s Power Rangers, and the movie provides exactly what it advertises – Jaeger on Kaiju action.

Uprising takes place ten years after the end of Pacific Rim, focusing on Jake Pentacost (John Boyega, Star Wars: The Last Jedi) son of the now legendary Stacker Pentacost. The world has moved on from the Kaiju crisis in various ways. When a new threat looms on the horizon, Jaeger pilots are needed once again. Jake would rather not get involved, plowing his trade as Jaeger tech smuggler. When he meets up with Amara Namani, a young hacker (Spaeny), both are brought into the newest rendition of the Jaeger Program. This also leads to a family reunion of sorts with Jake’s sister, Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), who now heads the program. We even have our favorite scientist duo returning in Gottlieb (Burn Gorman, Game of Thrones) and Geiszler (Charlie Day). With all this familarity, you’d think that more of the same is the perfect recipe for a sequel.

The plot could have used a little more development, at least in comparison to the first firm. Uprising does stand on its own, and I could see some interesting arcs develop in future films. My problem with it was just that I didn’t feel a sense of worry for anyone. In the first film, there was this sense of escalation. Every incident was increasingly more dangerous for everyone involved. I didn’t quite feel that this film, but it makes up for it for having some interesting action scenes. DeKnight keeps the scenes short and sweet, and the flow of the movie is quite good, despite the lack of fights. Those moments are few and far between, which kind of left me a little drowsy waiting for them.

From a character standpoint, the real gems in Uprising are Jake and Amara. Boyega and Spaeny are great in just about every scene they’re in. Scott Eastwood isn’t bad either, actually, though he really isn’t given much to work with. Everyone else appears to be filling in roles. While it would’ve been nice to see more characterization in the rest of the crew, they do what they need to in order to keep the story moving.

Visually, Pacific Rim Uprising hits all the right notes. The Kaiju are strange and the Jaegers are impressive. The action moves in such a way where you’re not too lost with what you’re viewing. If there are any problems in this area, it’s that they appeared too clean (and that’s just a nitpick, really). Where the Original used nighttime or rainy shots to mask the effects (much like the first T-Rex encounter in Jurassic Park), most of Uprising’s effects are in broad daylight. It looks great, but also had a HDR quality to it that (for me) felt like you were watching a high end demo reel. The 3D also helped with the effects there.

Overall, I’d easily catch Pacific Rim Uprising again once it hits the digital circuit. It might be worth the viewing on an IMAX screen or even in 3D, but it isn’t anything anyone needs to rush to see.

Suicide Squad Drops By the MTV Movie Awards


Suicide Squad

Let’s get this out of the way and just say that Warner Bros. executives and major shareholders are none too pleased by the reception from both critics and the general audience when it comes to Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Not a very good start to their planned DC Extended Universe. While fanboys from both DC and Marvel have been going at it for weeks now, there’s at least some bright spot ahead for DC in their summer tentpole release Suicide Squad.

Even with rumors of extended reshoots to add more levity and fun to balance out public’s perception that the DC films are too dour and dark (grimdark even), Suicide Squad still remains one of the more anticipated films of the summer.

During this year’s MTV Movie Awards, DC and Warner Brothers released the newest trailer for what they’re hoping will sell the DCEU to the audience what Batman v. Superman could not and that’s a fun comic book film that understands dark and serious doesn’t have to mean not fun.

Suicide Squad is set for an August 5, 2016 release date.

Comic-Con’s First Look At The Suicide Squad


SuicideSquad

“If anything goes wrong we blame them. We have built-in deniability.” — Amanda Waller

When will studios finally realize that showing any video reel, trailer or teaser at Comic-Con’s Hall H will inevitably be leaked if no official release has been made. It’s the nature of the internet and has become a sort of ritual each summer when Comic-Con rolls around. Some studios have been better with whetting the appetite of fans by giving those who can’t make Hall H with something to see. Others seem intent on trying to control what comes out of Hall H. It’s almost as if they’re saying “sucks to be you” if one couldn’t attend Comic-Con and get a seat in Hall H.

This year it seems Warner Brothers is that studio that’s trying to stamp out all the leaked footage shown at this year’s Hall H during their industry panel. It was a panel that was seen as the best thing about the Hall H gatherings. They did the right thing about releasing the latest trailer for Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice to the public and not just keeping it for the Hall H crowd. Yet, they whiffed big time by not doing the same for the Suicide Squad trailer (or first look as some call it).

Inevitably some in Hall H were kind enough to turn on their smartphones and video a rough and grainy look at the trailer which was then uploaded onto the internet. This was the first look a majority of comic-book and film fans got of Suicide Squad. Not a good look, but fans were playing this leaked footage nonstop. So, taking a page out of Marvel Studios PR playbook after the first Avengers: Age of Ultron trailer leaked in a very non-HD version, Warner Bros. has finally surrendered and released an HD-version of the Suicide Squad trailer.

All is right with the world.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #113: Gran Torino (dir by Clint Eastwood)


Gran_Torino_posterWalt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) is a grumpy man.  And by that, I mean that he’s extremely grumpy.  Remember how grumpy Bill Murray was in St. Vincent?  He’s got nothing on Walt Kowalski.

Walt served in the Korean War and, five decades later, his experiences still haunt him.  After the war, he lived in Detroit and he worked on an assembly line.  He’s since retired but he still loves his old Ford Gran Torino, a car that he could very well have helped to build.  His wife has recently passed away and his children are eager to move him into a nursing home.  Walt is slowly smoking himself to death and the only person who visits him regularly is an earnest young priest (Christopher Carley, playing the ideal priest).

Just as Walt’s life has changed as he’s gotten older, so has his neighborhood.  The neighborhood is now dominated by Hmong immigrants.  When Walt catches Thao Vang Lor, a 16 year-old Hmong, attempting to steal his car, it leads to an unlikely friendship between Walt, Thao, and Thao’s sister, Sue.  When the same local gang that put Thao up to stealing Walt’s car subsequently attacks Sue, Thao wants revenge but Walt says that if Thao kills a man, it’s something that he’ll never recover from.  After locking Thao in his house, Walt goes off to confront the gang on his own…

And, since Walt is played by Clint Eastwood, you’d be justified in thinking that Walt’s confrontation would amount to a lot of quips and violence.  But actually, it’s the exact opposite.  Gran Torino does not find Eastwood in the mood to celebrate violence.  Instead, the film is a meditation on both the cost of violence and the impossibility of escaping one’s own mortality.

Whenever people talk about the 2008 Oscar race, the focus always seems to be on the snubbing of  The Dark Knight.  However, I would say that Gran Torino (among other films) was snubbed even more than The Dark Knight.  After all, The Dark Knight may have missed out on best picture but it still received 8 nominations and won an Oscar for Heath Ledger.  Gran Torino, on the other hand, received not a single nomination.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not arguing that Gran Torino deserved a best picture nomination.  It’s a fairly predictable film and some of the symbolism, particularly during Walt’s final confrontation with the gang, gets a bit too heavy-handed.  (Any time a character spontaneously strikes a crucifixion pose in a movie, you know that things are starting to get out of hand.)  But I would argue that Clint Eastwood definitely deserved a nomination for best actor.  In many ways, Walt is a typical Eastwood character but, right at the moment when we’re expecting him to behave like every other Eastwood character that we’ve ever seen, Walt surprises us by doing something completely different.  As a director, Eastwood subverts our expectations of Clint Eastwood as both an actor and a character.  As a result, the audience is taken by surprise by Walt, if not by the film’s plot.

I remember, at the time the film was released, there was some speculation that Gran Torino would be the last time we ever saw Clint Eastwood onscreen.  That proved to be false, as he subsequently starred in Trouble With The Curve.  However, even if it wasn’t his final acting role, Gran Torino still serves as the perfect monument to Eastwood’s unique screen presence.

Review: Fury (dir. by David Ayer)


Fury

“Ideals are peaceful. History is violent.”

1998 saw the release of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.

Prior to this most films depicted World War II as a noble endeavor that needed to be done to help rid the world of Hitler and the horror he was inflicting upon Europe (beyond if given the chance). It gave birth to the “Greatest Generation” that people still look up to even to this day. These were young men who volunteered for a conflict that would change history and for the millions involved. Yet, World War II films were always cut and dried. It was always the good guys (American, British, Canadian, etc…) fighting against the nameless and efficient Nazi war machine.

In time, so many of these films followed the same formula that character stereotypes came about. We always had the cynical, older veteran who becomes a sort of father figure to a hodge-podge group of young, untested soldiers. What these films also had in common was the fact that they remain bloodless despite the nature of the story being told. Some filmmakers would try to buck this time-tested formula (Sam Fuller being the most prominent), but it would take 1998’s Saving Private Ryan to set a shift in how we saw World War II.

Spielberg lifted the rose-colored glasses from the audience and dared to show that while noble, World War II was still war and it still had the horror and brutality that all wars have. 2014’s Fury by David Ayer would continue this exploration of the last “Good War” in it’s most gritty and blood-soaked detail.

The film shows the last gasp of the German war machine as Hitler gives one of his final orders for the German people to repel the invading Allies. It was to be a scorched earth defense. Whether by choice or forced into this desperate tactic, every man, woman and child was to take up arms to their last breath to defend the Fatherland. It’s in this nightmare scenario that we find the veteran Sherman tank crew led by Don “Wardaddy” Collier trying to survive these final days til war’s end. Their home for the last two and a half years since North Africa has been a modified Sherman tank they call Fury. It’s a crew that’s been battle tested from the sands of North Africa, the maze-like hedgerows of France’s bocage and now the countryside of Germany itself.

We can see right from the start that this crew has been through hell and back many times and already resigned to going through hell many more times before they can eveb think of getting back home. It’s a crew that’s already lost one of it’s own minutes into the film. Wardaddy (Brad Pitt) looms over his crew like a weary father figure. This ragtag group consists of Bible (Shia LaBeouf) as the born-again Christian who sees their survival battle after battle as a sign that God’s grace is upon Fury and her crew. Then we have Gordo (Michael Peña) who has been so traumatized by the war and what he has had to do to survive that he has numbed himself from these memories by being in a constant state of drunkenness. Lastly, we have the tank’s loader Grady (Jon Bernthal) whose misanthropic attitude comes as a crude and brutish counterpoint to Bible’s religious fervor. Into this misanthropic soup of a crew comes in the replacement to their recently killed comrade.

Logan Lerman’s character, the young and naive clerk typist Norman Ellison, becomes the audience’s eyes in the brutal world of Fury and her crew. We’re meant to see the war’s brutality and horror not through the jaded and cynical eyes of Wardaddy and his men, but through a young man who has never killed an enemy or even fired a weapon in anger. Norman becomes the surrogate through which we determine and decide whether there is such a thing a nobility and honor in war.

Honor and nobility have always been used by those always willing to go to war to convince the young and impressionable to follow them into the breach. Fury takes these two words and what they represent and muddies them through the muck and gore left behind with each passing battle and tries to see if they remain unchanged on the other side. Norman is a literal babe in the woods as he must adapt or die in a war nearing it’s end but also becoming even more deadly and dangerous than ever. His very naivete quickly becomes a hindrance and a real danger to Wardaddy and his crew. He’s not meant for this world but has had it thrust upon him.

The film treats Norman’s humanity as a liability in a war that strips it from everyone given enough time. We see Wardaddy attempt to speed up the process during a tense sequence where Norman’s being forced to shoot a German prisoner. It’s a sequence of events that’s both unnerving and disturbing as we see the veteran soldiers encircling Norman and Wardaddy cheering or looking on with indifference in their eyes. They’ve all been in something similar and one can only imagine what they had to do to make it this far.

Fury straddles a fine line between showing and explaining it’s themes to the audience. It’s to David Ayer’s skill as a writer that the film’s able to use some finely choreographed scenes both violent and peaceful to make a point about war’s effect on it’s participants both physically and mentally. Whether it’s through several well-choreographed battle scenes to a sequence of tense and quiet serenity in the apartment of two German women that bring back the plantation segment from Coppola’s Apocalypse Now Redux, the film does a great job in showing how even when stripped down close to the bone, Wardaddy and his veteran crew still has semblance of humanity and the honor and nobility they all began the war with.

As a war film, Fury brings a type of combat to the bigscreen that has rarely been explored and never in such a realistic fashion as we watch tank warfare at it’s most tactical and most horrific. Ayer doesn’t fall for the jump cut style that many filmmakers nowadays sees as a way to convey the chaos of battle. Ayer and cinematographer Roman Vasnayov have planned every sequence to allow the audience to keep track of the two opposing sides and their place in the battle’s geography. And just like Spielberg’s own Saving Private Ryan, Fury shows the very ugly and bloody side of World War II. There’s a lot of bodies being blown apart and torn to chunks of meat yet they never seem to come off as gratuitous. Every bloody moment makes a point on the horrors of war and the level of inhumanity that another man inflicts on another man.

If there’s something that Fury does lag behind on it would be some of the narrative choices dealing with Norman’s character. The film takes place literally over a day’s time and the quick change in Norman’s mentality about the war seem very sudden and abrupt. While this day in the life of Fury and her crew worked well in Ayer’s past films (both as writer or director) here it puts Ayer stuck in a corner that made it difficult to fully justify Norman’s sudden change of heart from babe in the woods to hardened Nazi-killer. We can see throughout the film that the war is affecting him in ways that could lead up to this change, but to have it happen in just under a day really stretches it’s believability to the breaking point.

Yet, despite this the film is able to stay on course and recover from this misstep on the strength of Ayer’s direction and the performances of the ensemble cast. Brad Pitt has been the focus of the media campaign leading up to the release of Fury, but every actor who comprises the crew of Fury leave their own mark in the film. Shia Labeouf has had a tough past year both professionally and personally, but one has to admit that performances like the one he had in Fury is a reminder that he’s a damn fine good actor. Whether this film has become the path to his redemption in the eyes of the public is irrelevant. One doesn’t need to like the man to respect the talent he’s able to put up on the screen.

Awards season is in full swing as Fall 2014 arrives and Fury makes it’s case known that genre films (and make no mistake this is a genre film) can more than hold it’s own with the more dramatic life-exploring films that critics tend to put on the pedestal as examples of great filmmaking. While Fury is not perfect it is a very good film full of great performances that just misses being great.

 

Trailer: Fury (International)


Fury-2014-Movie-Banner-Poster

I must admit that World War II films are a favorite of mine. Even bad ones I tend to enjoy. Whether it’s alternate fantasy fares like Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds or something that combines historical accuracy with dramatic license like Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, the World War II genre always manage to hit straight and true to my film wheelhouse.

This October there looks to be another World War II film that seems almost tailor-fit for me. I’m talking about David Ayer’s follow-up to his underappreciated film End of Watch. This follow-up is Fury and tells the story of an American tank crew in the waning days of World War II in Europe. Just from the two trailer released I already know that I’m seeing this. Ayer looks to be exploring the bond of a tank crew that has seen war from the deserts of Africa and now to the urban and forested landscapes of Germany.

The film is already getting major buzz as a major contender for the upcoming awards season and I, for one, hope that it’s a well-deserved buzz. Even with Shia LaBeouf being part of the cast is not dampening my excitement for this film. Even if it doesn’t live up to the hype I know that I’ll probably still end up enjoying it.

This trailer looks to be selling the utter brutality and carnage of World War II’s final days in Europe when German forces were literally fighting for their homeland and that makes for a desperate enemy (who still had weapons and soldiers that were still hands down better than what the Allies had one-on-one).

On a side note, I like the fact that the tracers in the film actually look like tracers which means they look like freakin’ laser blasts. That’s how tracers behave.

Fury is set to hit theaters on October 17, 2014 in the United States and October 22, 2014 internationally.