Monthly Archives: March 2018

Rim Shot

Giant robots and deep-sea beasts pummel our planet…again 

Film Title:  Pacific Rim Uprising

Pacific Rim Uprising
Starring John Boyega, Cailee Spaeny, Scott Eastwood, Tian Jing & Charlie Day
Directed by Steven S. DeKnight
PG-13

Ah, spring—birds singing, flowers blooming, and gigantic robots beating the snot out of behemoths that crawl from the sea to destroy the planet.

If you want to wax nostalgic, you can think back on when the shark from Jaws was the scariest thing you could imagine popping up out of the brine to take a bite.

Pacific Rim Rising is the sequel to Pacific Rim, which in 2013 introduced the idea of humans in super-sized robot suits fighting invading creatures from interdimensional cracks, or breaches, at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. It mixed elements of classic creature-feature flicks like Godzilla with war-movie gung-ho, modern CGI marvels and bigger-is-better robotic wallop.

The original Pacific Rim was directed by Guillermo del Toro, who would go on to win the 2018 Oscar for another kind of creature feature, the moving, masterful Cold War-era fairy tale The Shape of Water. Del Toro remains attached to the sequel, but as a producer, turning over the director’s reins to Steven S. DeKnight, a former showrunner for the Netflix superhero series Daredevil and Starz’s racy Spartacus: Blood and Sand.

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Boyega & Eastwood

The plot picks up a decade after the previous movie ended, in which humanity was victorious in defeating the monsters (Kaiju) by towering robots (Jaegars) operated with pairs of psychically linked pilots. We meet Jake Pentecost (John Boyega, Finn from Star Wars), a roguish lad who’ll come to play a big part in the story, especially when he crosses paths with teenage robot-building orphan Amara (newcomer Cailee Spaeny) and reunites with Pan Pacific Defense Force pilot Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood, Clint’s son).

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Tian Jing

Familiar faces from the original flick include Charlie Day, Burn Gorman and Rinko Kikucki, who all return to their roles. Day provides some nuanced comedic touches as the now-head of research and development for a corporation—headed by Liwen Shao (Chinese actress Tian Jing, who appeared in Kong: Skull Island)—that has developed technology threatening to make human robot pilots obsolete. The ever-versatile Gorman is Dr. Hermann Gottleib, who makes a discovery (as scientists do in movies like this) in the “brain” of a rampaging rouge Jaegar that kicks the plot into overdrive.

Japanese actress Kikucki, who plays Mako Mori, Jake’s adopted sister, is part of an international cast obviously meant to enhance the resonance of the Pacific Rim franchise all around the real Pacific Rim, and everywhere else; the original movie was a respectable hit in the United States, but an even bigger, $309 million smash worldwide.

The movie is clearly angling also for ever-younger audiences with its subplot about youthful cadet pilots, anchored by Spaney’s character, the spunky Amara. Anyone who watched the Disney Channel’s series Jesse and its spinoff Burn’d will recognize Karan Brar as cadet Suresh, who muses about following his father’s cosmetic-surgery footsteps and becoming a “boob” doctor after completing his stint in the PPDF. Rising Ukrainian star Ivanna Sakhno gets a moment as sulky Russian pilot-in-training Viktoria; you’ll see more of her in August in the Kate McKinnon/Mila Kunis comedy The Spy Who Dumped Me.

Even the royal robot rumbles have a certain juvenile, Top Gun-ish ’tude, especially when the kids climb into the cockpits. The heavy-metal CGI smash-ups turn metropolitan streets into back-alley brawls. Robots as tall as skyscrapers fight with massive weapons that include laser whips, fiery chainsaws, buzzing switchblade-like sabers and “gravity slings.” One bot pauses to give the double “finger” to a vanquished foe. There are clash-of-the-titans face-offs in Siberia, Shanghai, Seattle and Tokyo, leading to Mt. Fuji, where an explosive battle is followed by…a playful snowball fight.

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It’s impossible not to notice how much the pilots, operating the robots, look like virtual-reality gamers, shouting commands, jumping around, running in place, swatting and grabbing at holographic shapes and doing all sorts of things to make their bots “respond” on a mega scale. Maybe an audience that grew up on gaming can relate. But I couldn’t help but think how silly it must have felt for the actors—because it sure looks ridiculous, knowing there were no holograms, no robots, no battles, no nothing, during the filming.

That’s the magic of the movies, I suppose. But I harken to the words of Charlie Day’s character, watching one of the metal-mashing, city-crunching melees. “OK—giant robots again?,” he says. “I’m not impressed.” After seeing robots the size of rocketships in Pacific Rim, and then again in five (five!!!) Transformer movies, I have to agree. It’s not so new, or novel, anymore. I’m a bit weary of watching Hollywood make our planet a big ol’ punching bag.

All the clashing and bashing of colossus bots and leviathan beasts gave me a Pacific Rim-size headache. And the shark in Jaws scared me a whole lot more, and it only gnawed up a boat.

In theaters March 23, 2018

 

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Tomb Time

Alicia Vikander breaks free & cuts loose in headline role of action flick 

TR-TRL-097 (72)Tomb Raider
Starring Alicia Vikander, Walter Goggins & Dominic West
Directed by Roar Uthaug
PG-13

Oscar-winning Swedish actress Alicia Vikander breaks free of her art-house, period-drama corset—and films like The Danish Girl, The Light Between Oceans, Tulip Fever and Anna Karenina—to cut loose and headline her first all-out action flick, a franchise reboot built on a foundation of wildly popular videogames and a pair of previous films.

Vikander’s role as archeologist, treasure hunter and “tomb raider” Lara Croft in the new movie follows Angelina Jolie’s portrayal of the character in 2001 and 2003, both of which followed the home-videogame released in 1996.

Now, 15 years after the last film, the new Tomb Raider is obviously meant primarily for new audiences—it’s a start-over origin story of the character, based loosely on the videogame’s own 2013 reboot, about how she came into her particular skillset.

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Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West) with young Lara (Maisy De Freitas)

We meet Lara seven years after the disappearance of her wealthy aristocratic father, London’s Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West), whose pursuit of “proof that the supernatural is real” took him to the ends of the Earth. Lara refuses to acknowledge that he might be dead, or take over his vast estate—choosing to live off her own meager wages as a spunky bicycle-delivery messenger.

After establishing that Lara’s got some serious chops down at the gym as a kickboxer, and that she can outfox all her biker-boy coworkers in a street race, the movie really gets down to business. She solves a puzzle and discovers clues that start her on her father’s trail, tracking his last known voyage—to an uncharted island in the “Devil’s Sea” off the coast of Japan, where he was searching for the long-lost tomb of a Himiko, a legendary sorceress known as the Death Queen.

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Walter Goggins

Himiko, he believed, had a magical power that he feared would be the downfall of mankind if it fell into the wrong hands…you know how it is in these movies. In this movie, those hands belong to Walter Goggins, who plays Mathias Vogel, the stone-cold psycho prospector who’s spent the past seven years (coincidence?) trying to blast apart the island to find the tomb, and what he thinks is its treasure, with his platoon of beefcake palookas and a slave army of shanghaied fisherman.

Daniel Wu plays Lu Ren, the drunken boat captain Lara hires to bring her to the island; familiar class-act British character actors Kristin Scott Thomas and Derek Jacobi appear as corporate functionaries wanting to convince Lara to take over her father’s estate; Nick Frost provides some chuckles in his (uncredited) cameo as a pawnbroker.

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Kristin Scott Thomas

But this is Vikander’s movie, all the way. Much has been touted about her physical transformation to play Croft, which required a regime of intensely disciplined weight training, cardio and a high-protein diet that eliminated sugar. She’s more sculpted than ever, that’s for sure. But if you’re a gamer, or if you’re keeping tabs on all the Tomb Raider movies, you’ll probably notice that Vikander’s Lara is cut from a bit of different cloth.

She’s smaller, leaner, scrappier and far less sexualized than the “voluptuous” videogame character—which had a hyperbolic bust and a super-skimpy costume to appeal to mostly male players. And when Angelina Jolie played Lara, she was sultry, cocky and improbably self-assured, practically invincible and all but invulnerable.

Vikander’s Lara is much more grounded, grittier and altogether human. She takes a lot of lumps and thumps, and even gets impaled in the gut by a piece of metal, and the movie makes sure we feel her pain. She’s like a scuffed-up Wonder Woman, a fiercely focused female role model who’s not squeamish about getting down and dirty—and doing what it takes to do the right thing.

DSCF4660.dngAnd, a refreshing note in these troubled times, she does it all without ever firing a gun of any kind. (Firearms, at least according to the movie’s postscript scene, will come later.)

Norwegian director Roar Uthaug (what a name for an action flick!) doesn’t skimp on digital effects, especially one boffo scene in a rusted-out hull of an airplane dangling over a waterfall. It’s mostly standardized, action-movie stuff throughout, however, with stale echoes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the movie that launched a thousand knockoffs, especially when things finally move into the booby-trapped tomb. (Goggins’ villain also has a whiff of crazy Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now.)

The movie does tend to drag a bit at times and bog down with Lara’s daddy issues. But Vikander is the spark plug that always brings it back to life and keeps it moving—running, kicking, punching, picking off villains with a bow and arrow, grappling in mud and muck, leaping into the jungle with a worn-out parachute, plunging into a raging river, and solving ancient puzzles to prevent catastrophes. She takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’. In this island-chase, treasure-hunt, action-pulp cheese, Vikander’s a pretty cool cat.

“She’s not a freakin’ superhero,” Lara says of one of her early kickboxing opponents. Neither is this version of Lara Croft 2018, a tomb raider-to-be who relies on her wits, her wile and what she’s made of herself to slice through a B-movie obstacle course, with a hint of more adventures to come.

In theaters March 16, 2018

Time Warped

20-foot Oprah towers over crowded, big-hearted hot mess 

nullA Wrinkle in Time
Starring Storm Reid, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon & Mindy Kaling
Directed by Ava DuVernay
PG

The book on which Disney’s new $100 million A Wrinkle in Time is based was a challenging cosmic stew of quantum physics, religion, mysticism, sci-fi fantasy, dystopian gloom and young-adult angst. Though Madeline L’Engle’s 1962 novel went on to become a childhood classic, it vexed efforts to make it into a movie; many Hollywood insiders thought it was “un-filmable.”  Stanley Kubrick, the genius director of 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange and The Shining, turned it down; a 2003 TV movie was a flop.

Now director Ava DuVernay may have found some secret sauce—Oprah, super-sized.

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Reese Witherspoon and Storm Reid

Lady O plays one of the tale’s three mysterious celestial beings—Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which—alongside Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling. The three “misses” guide the movie’s young heroine, Meg (an impressive Storm Reid, 14, who made her debut in 12 Years a Slave), on a weird, wild, truly trippy trip across the universe to find her scientist father (Wonder Woman’s Chris Pine), who’s mysteriously disappeared.

When Oprah makes her first appearance as Mrs. Which, she’s bathed in heavenly backlight, dressed in shimmering silver, and 20 feet tall.

Big O is in the house—the House of Mouse!

The gentle giantess, dressed in a succession of getups that look like stylists for Beyoncé and RuPaul’s Drag Race had a royal collaboration, is clearly the big cosmic cheese. She towers over Whatsit (Witherspoon) and Who (Kaling), laying down pearls of wisdom, as they lead Meg, her friend Calvin (Levi Miller, who played Peter in 2015’s Pan) and Meg’s precocious younger brother, Charles Wallace (Derec McCabe) traveling via tesseracts, or folds in the fabric of time and space.

As Meg’s father announced before his disappearance, time-warping tesseracts allow you to zip around the universe, powered by your mind. “Ninety-one billion light years traveled, just like that!” he said. His fellow scientists scoff, the way fellow scientists always do in these kind of movies. (Didn’t they see Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar, or Loki in The Avengers? How come characters in movies, like this one, listen to Bon Jovi, keep up with Broadway plays and quote Gandhi, but don’t seem to be aware that there’s this thing called “film”?)

Could Meg’s dad have “tessered” to some faraway place, and now be unable to return? Or maybe he’s being held there against his will? The buzz around Meg’s school says he’s a deadbeat, skirt-chasing dad who probably ran off to Mexico.

Just like in the book, there’s a lot going on here, both onscreen and off.

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Storm Reid as Meg

This is the first Disney flick with a young heroine “of color” in the lead role, and the first mega-budget movie to be directed by a black woman. Those are two biggies, especially coming directly on the heels of The Black Panther, with its almost all-black cast, its black director and its nearly all-black crew, and with such a powerful, timely resonance to African-America audiences.

It’s also notable that, in this movie version of L’Engle’s story, DuVernay has quite intentionally created a blended, “colorblind” family, cast a white teen (Miller) as Meg’s tagalong friend, and hired lead actors of varying ethnic backgrounds.

And of course, there’s 20-foot Oprah, and what she represents in America as a self-made black billionaire, media mogul, philanthropist, and a living symbol of survival and success. She radiates empowerment—even when, later in the film, her character “shrinks” down to regular size.

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Zach Galifianakis

The movie itself is packed—with themes and characters and goings-on. Zach Galifianakis plays the cave-dwelling Happy Medium; Michael Peña gets a few moments as a creepy character we meet on a beach; as Meg’s mom, Gugu Mbatha-Raw sits at home while her kids are out flitting around the galaxy.

Director DuVernay—whose previous films include the MLK biopic Selma and the Oscar-nominated documentary 13th—tries to work much of the book onto the screen, especially its messages about light overcoming darkness; unbreakable family ties; how imagination and knowledge are good things; that ordinary kids can do extraordinary things; and that it’s OK to be yourself, whether you’re a geek, a girl or a nerd—especially if you’re a geek, a girl or a nerd.

But sometimes it’s a frantic, crowded, confusing, unwieldly fit. Witherspoon morphs into a flying creature that looks like a big cabbage leaf grafted onto the back on an Avatar banshee; Mrs. Who spouts quotes from history, philosophy, literature and pop culture—Buddha, OutKast, Shakespeare, Churchill. Are Whatsit, Who and Which angels, goddesses, sorceresses, fairy godmothers, crazy cat ladies on acid or some kind of all-knowing space fashionistas? There’s a monstrous tornado, Stepford kids and Stepford moms, a spidery space nebula of pure evil, sand sandwiches, cruel classmates, gossipy teachers and talking flowers. An intense scene toward the end takes a bizarre, psycho-freakout turn toward demonic possession, which may truly frighten the intended audience of kids.

“Become one with the universe,” Winfrey’s character tells Meg. This big-hearted, bloated movie’s a crinkled, jammed, over-crammed hot mess, but Big O remains above it all, two stories tall, magisterial and wrinkle-proof. Stanley Kubrick opted out of directing A Wrinkle in Time decades ago. But now Ava DuVernay’s version is a new-age space odyssey of another kind, and hopefully it will find a young audience eager to embrace its timeless, unifying message.

In theaters March 9, 2018