The Christmas holiday brings Oscar contenders and family fare to a local theater near you. I’ll likely see and review at least one of these features:
Spies in Disguise–
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It’s been 10 years since the Breach was closed and the Kaiju were stopped from taking over the world by the brave actions of Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba). His son Jake Pentecost (John Boyega) hasn’t exactly followed in his father’s footsteps. After being kicked out of the Pan Pacific Defense Corp for attempting to operate a Jaeger by himself then crashing it when he passed out from the strain, Jake has been making an illegal living by scavenging Jaeger parts and selling them on the black market. On one of his raids of a PPDC scrap yard Jake discovers the part he was trying to steal was stolen by a young girl named Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny). She is building her own single-operator Jaeger she calls Scrapper. She and Jake are both captured by security forces. While in detention Jake is visited (via hologram) by his sister Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) who is the PPDC general secretary. She gives Jake a choice: Prison or return as an instructor to the Jaeger pilot’s academy. Considering it the lesser of two evils (just barely) he returns to the academy with Amara in tow. She is going to be a cadet; but there may not be a need for new pilots much longer as Shao Corporation, led by Liwen Shao (Jing Tian), has been working on Jaeger drones that can be remotely operated. Leading her research team is Dr. Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day) who, along with Dr. Hermann Gottlieb (Burn Gorman), studied the Kaiju for the PPDC. Shao is presenting a report to the PPDC Council in Sidney, Australia when a rogue Jaeger attacks. Gypsy Avenger piloted by Jake and Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood) engage in battle with the Jaeger, nicknamed Obsidian Fury, and during the fight a helicopter with Mako Mori on board is knocked out of the sky and destroyed, killing her. There’s something going on that may involve Shao Corporation and their drone plans or perhaps there’s something even more insidious behind the scenes.
I really liked 2013’s “Pacific Rim.” It hit all the right notes for me with giant monsters fighting giant robots with each robot being controlled by two tiny humans in its head. As a child I made up similar scenarios using my various G.I. Joe and other dolls, pretending they were giant robots fighting whatever monster I could construct in my brain. While the “Godzilla” movies tried something similar with Mechagodzilla it didn’t really work for me personally. I couldn’t get past that the monster and the robot were just two guys in rubber suits stomping around a cardboard model of a city. When “Pacific Rim: Uprising” was announced I was genuinely excited to see the next chapter in the battle for supremacy of the Earth. I was a bit bummed that director Guillermo del Toro wouldn’t be back in the chair. He is a producer so he does have some creative input on the sequel. Unfortunately the return of the Jaeger vs. Kaiju is bogged down by a scattershot story, silly plot twists and a ridiculous conclusion that stretches my ability to suspend belief to the breaking point.
“Pacific Rim: Uprising” gets off to a promising start with Jake living his life of scavenging and barter. I liked how he was a friendly rogue that was just looking to have a good time and make enough to survive. I also liked his early interactions with Amara and their friction that bordered on brother/sister sniping. Once they move into the heart of the story however, the charm of Jake Pentecost turns into smarm. His efforts to be cute and funny wear thin. The well of cutesy one-liners and witty asides is visited far too often. I like John Boyega a great deal. I was impressed when I heard he was a producer on the film while listening to the ID10T podcast (formerly Nerdist) and he talked about his being involved in planning the effects and working on other aspects of the production. I wish he had been involved in the script writing then he might have been able to cut down on the amount of snark Jake expresses.
I also had a problem with an aspect of the story I can’t talk about too much as to not spoil a major part of the film. What I can say is Burn Gorman and Charlie Day should sue the writers for turning their funny and interesting characters into bad comic relief. Drs. Gottlieb and Geiszler veer wildly away from their original film selves in a plot twist that could best be described as ill-advised. It seems like the producers wanted to cut down on the number of cast so they decided to recycle a couple of existing characters into parts that should have been new to the story. I wish I could fill you in on all the details as this section would make more sense but I don’t feel like I can. I will say choices made for these characters reduce their effectiveness and entertainment enormously.
Finally the most damaging issue with “Pacific Rim: Uprising” is the increasing silliness of the action. While giant robots and monsters fighting each other is ridiculous on its face the original film managed to find a way to keep the battles somewhat grounded in what looked believable. “Pacific Rim: Uprising” decides to throw any idea of reality out the window and give us some action scenes that are “Fast and Furious” levels of silly. I enjoy over-the-top action as much as the next person; however when a Jaeger has a rocket welded to its hand by another Jaeger as part of an on-the-fly, last ditch plan, I must say enough is enough.
On a side note, there is also the way the Kaiju and Jaegers fight that doesn’t make much sense. Ripping off a leg or an arm would certainly seem to be a more effective way for each to disable the other and yet it doesn’t happen very often. Both combatants seem content with bashing each other over and over again or throwing their opponent into the ground or a building. It is like in thrillers when a giant criminal throws a regular sized cop around a bar instead of beating him to death. This gives the cop a chance to grab a weapon of some sort to even the fight. I know this is done to build up the tension and excitement to make the good guy coming back for the win that much more satisfying but after seeing it for the umpteenth time it starts to get old.
“Pacific Rim: Uprising” is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence, action and some language. There are a couple of robot-on-robot battles. There is an attack on the PPCD base that kills several people. There is a brief fight between a couple of female cadets. There are some scattered injuries and blood. Foul language is scattered and mild.
I really wanted to like, nay, love “Pacific Rim: Uprising” because I want this universe to become a franchise with lots of films and lots of Jaegers and Kaiju. I want to relive the thrill of giant robots and monsters fighting as a way of reliving my childhood when robot G.I. Joe blond would take on robot G.I. Joe brunette with the Kung Fu grip! That excitement is what I was hoping for when I walked into the theater. What I got was some nice CG images of robots and monsters wailing away on each other but the pixels couldn’t generate any passion within me. Perhaps I’m asking too much but the heart wants what it wants.
“Pacific Rim: Uprising” gets two guitars out of five.
Three new films offer a wide variety of entertainment choice this week. I’ll review at least one of the following:
God’s Not Dead: A Light in the Darkness—
Ready Player One—
Tyler Perry’s Acrimony—
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After taking out a First Order dreadnaught with heavy Resistance forces losses, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is demoted by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) for failing to follow orders. Finn (John Boyega) finally wakes up after nearly dying from his encounter with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) on the Starkiller base. His first words are to ask about Rey (Daisy Ridley) who is with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on the planet Ahch-To where he’s been in self-imposed exile since Ben Solo turned to the dark side of the Force and took the name Kylo Ren. Luke fears his failure with Ben will be repeated with Rey once he feels just how strong she is with the Force and he refuses to teach her the ways of the Jedi. When the Resistance lead ship drops out of hyperspace the First Order cruiser is right behind. The First Order has figured out how to track them in hyperspace and with their ship low on fuel making another jump is impossible. The First Order attacks and Leia is injured and unconscious. Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) takes command of the Resistance but Poe is unsatisfied with her seemingly cautious strategy. A young maintenance worker Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) and Finn come up with a plan to disable the First Order’s tracking of the Resistance in hyperspace but have to do it from onboard their lead ship and they need an expert code hacker. Contacting Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o), she tells them to go to the casino on the planet Canto Bight and look for the man with the red flower pin on his chest. Meanwhile Luke relents and begins teaching Rey the ways of the Force. Rey starts having long distance chats via the Force with Kylo Ren. She believes he can be turned from the dark side and help the resistance win but Luke is dubious.
As I sit at my keyboard I mimic a scene from “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” where Luke encourages Rey to reach out with her feelings. I try to do the same when it comes to how I feel about this movie. It’s a mishmash of joy, sadness and yearning for the next two years to hurry up and go by so I can see how the sequel trilogy ends. There is also a scene in the film where a character is encouraged to pay attention to what’s happening now and not look ahead to the future. So I am going to focus on what I feel from what I saw in the two and a half hours of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” and share it with you here. The short version can be summed up in one word: Wow!
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is a brave bit of filmmaking. It takes a beloved franchise and turns it on its head with character choices and character deaths that come out of nowhere while still feeling grounded in the universe in which many of us have invested decades of fandom. Director and writer Rian Johnson has essentially given the franchise a clean slate from which to create whole new stories that don’t rely on Luke, Han and Leia while also giving the long-time fans plenty of nostalgia to soothe any fears that history will be set aside for the newer characters.
While Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver and Oscar Isaac get the majority of screen time, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher are likely to be the most remembered performances of this film. While only sharing the screen once, Hamill and Fisher bring it alive whenever they are shown. Hamill is an angry and disillusioned Skywalker, hiding on an island that houses an ancient Jedi temple while refusing Rey’s pleadings to return to join and lead the new Rebellion. Skywalker is something we haven’t seen much of in any “Star Wars” film: Truly afraid. Hamill gives Luke a brief glimmer of the boyish enthusiasm of old while also showing us a mature and more measured man. Hamill is able, despite Luke’s reluctance, to show there is still some of the old fighter left in the Jedi master.
Despite what happens in the story we know this is the last time we’ll see Carrie Fisher’s General Leia. Media reports from not long after her death state Disney and Lucasfilm won’t use old, repurposed footage of Fisher nor will they digitally recreate her as was done in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” That makes her performance in this film all the more powerful. Fisher is mesmerizing as Leia. Her regal yet down-to-Earth countenance makes Leia a born leader and her leadership is desperately needed if the Rebellion is to survive the events of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” Fisher’s ability to be both tough and motherly is what makes her an appealing character as Leia. It makes me wish for the ability to turn back time and take whatever precautions are necessary so she survives the heart attack that took her away too soon. “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is dedicated to her memory.
I enjoyed all the twists and turns of the film immensely; however, there are a few things that with more time to reflect stand out to me as issues. There are primarily three underdeveloped story threads through both this and “The Force Awakens” that seem to be unimportant to Lucasfilm and Disney. First, who is Supreme Leader Snoke? Where did he come from and who trained him in the ways of the Force? How did he accumulate the resources to establish the First Order? While secondary characters in the “Star Wars” universe have been largely unexplored (i.e. Jabba, the Sand People, Jawas, Boba Fett and others) none has been as major a player as Snoke. He’s responsible for blowing up most of the New Republic and that kind of power and influence attracts attention. Why is so little known about him? Second, what/who are the Knights of Ren? Other than Kylo we know of no other members of this mysterious order. Sith Lords from the original and prequel films aren’t as well regulated a group as the Jedi Knights but they do have some known history and a reason for being so what’s the story with the Knights of Ren? Third, who is Captain Phasma? While her chrome armor makes her stand out from the rest of the Storm Troopers we don’t know anything else about her. Before only a patch that was a different color designated any kind of rank but Phasma looks like she must spend hours keeping her armor shiny. She’s also a woman in an organization whose members had been exclusively male. There must be a reason for this and it must be somewhat interesting so why hasn’t it ever been mentioned? I would prefer to not have to read every extended universe novel and comic book to find out some backstory on these aspects of the story. It doesn’t have to be extensive, just a couple of lines of dialog between characters to flesh out people that are apparently very important to the events in these films.
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence. People are shot by blasters and stabbed by light sabers. One character is cut in half while another is stabbed through the head. Two characters are threatened with beheading. The Force is used to torture a character while they float in midair. Other characters are picked up and thrown around by the Force. There is only the mildest foul language.
There is some complaining on the Internet (imagine that) about the film. How some characters are used or underused and that it tries to copy “The Empire Strikes Back” (didn’t see that at all) along with other complaints. It may be a tad too long, sending characters off on side missions that don’t make a great deal of sense and ignoring the backstories of several important players, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” also gives a needed creative boost to the franchise and wipes the slate clean for the characters introduced in “The Force Awakens.” And it cannot be argued against that there are moments in the film that are jaw-dropping. There are an infinite number of directions the story can take and I for one look forward to going along on the ride.
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” gets five supernova stars.
This week your choices include getting small, chasing after a wayward dad and hitting a high note one more aca-time. I’ll see and review one of the following:
Pitch Perfect 3—
Listen to The Fractured Frame podcast available wherever you get your podcasts. Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to email@example.com.