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Movie Review: Pacific Rim – Uprising

For filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro, the movies he makes have often been about bringing to life something that he feels passionately about. In the case of his 2013 release of Pacific Rim, the result was an emotional mixture of Japanese monster fights, interpersonal connections, and Mexican wrestling.

The film wasn’t a big hit stateside, but racked up three times it’s domestic gross overseas. Five years after it’s release, Steven S DeKnight expands on Del Toro’s world, with Pacific Rim: Uprising.

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Over 10 years have passed since the events in the first film.  In that time, the Jaeger program has been reborn, and newer, younger recruits are being trained for the possibility of another invasion from beyond our dimension.

One person who finds himself being brought back into the program, is Jake Pentecost (John Boyega). Jake has lived his life outside the shadow of his famous father Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), but is coaxed back into service by his sister, Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi).

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Jake Pentecost (John Boyega)

The human-manned Jaeger program also finds itself in jeopardy, when a Chinese consortium led by Liwen Shao (Tian Jing), wants to streamline the program, and control the huge machines by way of unmanned drones, thanks to the help of former Shatterdome scientist, Dr Newton Geisler (Charlie Day).

However, things suddenly change when an unknown Jaeger appears, setting off a chain of events concerning Jake, and those around him.

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Right from the start, it’s clear to see that Uprising is one of those sequels where most of the first film’s main cast, are either gone (just what happened to Jaeger pilot Raleigh Beckett is unknown), or relegated to supporting roles. Much like Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day sequel, this film wants us to focus on ‘a new generation’ of young characters.

Jake Pentecost quickly becomes our film’s Raleigh Beckett. Jake is played up as the rebellious child of a heroic figure, but fortunately, Boyega manages to do a decent job balancing out his character, as well as giving him several humorous moments.

While Del Toro’s 2013 film seemed intent on dealing with the emotions of his characters, Uprising either speeds through some of these areas, or doesn’t do quite enough. Case-in-point, is where we are introduced to the young Jaeger pilots. I was hoping we’d really get to see them come together through training, but much of this is glossed over in favor of focusing more on the Chinese Jaeger-drones subplot.

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Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny)

Out of all the young pilots on-screen, the one whom the film puts most of it’s emphasis on, is the orphaned Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny). Given her attitude towards Jake and her mechanical prowess, I couldn’t help but feel like I was seeing a fleshed out version, of what Michael Bay intended for the character of Izabella in Transformers: The Last Knight to be (at least I could believe that Amara was mechanically-inclined!). However, while Amara can be a bit stand-offish, the film does make her more than just ‘a girl with attitude.’ She wants to make a difference, but fortunately, she isn’t going to just stand in front of a multi-storey Kaiju and tell it to ‘go to hell.’

For those who felt the first film was lacking in giant robot/creature battles, Uprising will definitely be seen as a marked improvement. However, some of the effects work feels like they had to pick-and-choose where the production money went (no elaborate ILM-budgeted night battles in the rain this time!). I’m sure some will feel that the new Jaegers are more in line with Michael Bay’s Transformers, but much like computers getting smaller over time, to me it makes sense that 10 years beyond the first film, the Jaeger designs would look a little leaner and more agile, rather than the bulkier, heavier first-generation models.

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It’s fair to say that director Steven DeKnight does his own thing with the material, and while it doesn’t hit as deeply on an emotional level, I was surprised to find that Uprising felt like it could have been adapted from an anime or manga series. There are certainly some small touchstones to the first film, though I couldn’t help but feel like some bits of the story, felt like it was cobbled together from some recent science fiction films I’d seen in the last few years. However, unlike those films such as Independence Day: Resurgence and Transformers: Age of Extinction (that just seemed to plod on with a few punctuated scenes that held my interest for a few minutes), Uprising managed to press my buttons, and actually had me entranced throughout!

Seeing the film in IMAX (though not released in 3D) I thought would be quite entertaining. Unfortunately, it felt like the camerawork at times got a little too close to the action. Though it is impressive to see the images projected so large, it feels like an average-sized screen would be more-than-welcome for viewing purposes (plus, there weren’t any floor-to-ceiling IMAX-style shots to make it that worthwhile).

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Final Grade: B (Final Thoughts: “Pacific Rim: Uprising” continues on in the world Guillermo Del Toro created, but feels ‘manageable’ for a second film. Writer/Director Steve DeKnight chooses to almost flip the first film on it’s head, choosing to make the giant robot/monster battles our main focus, while jettisoning some important time to allow the audience to really get to know much of the film’s cast.

 

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Movie Review: A Wrinkle in Time

(Rated PG for thematic elements and some peril)

The last time I recall reading Madeline L’engle’s book A Wrinkle In Time, was during the summer of 2003, when I decided to spend my summer reading banned books.

While I wasn’t wholly in love with the book, most of it’s concepts still stuck in my head (warping space and time is often a good way to get my attention).

When word came that Jennifer Lee (the writer of Disney’s Frozen) was attached to write an adaptation, I was actually excited to see what she could do with the material. And then, when word came that Ava DuVernay (the director of Selma) was attached, I felt this might definitely be something special, coming from the House of Mouse.

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It’s been four years since the patriarch of the Murry family (played by Chris Pine) suddenly disappeared. In that time, Mrs Murry (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) has tried to care for their two children, Meg (Storm Reid), and Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe).

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L to R: Mrs Who (Mindy Kaling), Mrs Which (Oprah Winfreey), Mrs Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon)

While Charles Wallace is an intelligent young prodigy, Meg has not coped well with the disappearance of her father. One day, she is surprised when Charles Wallace introduces her to three strange women, who may know where her father is.

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As the film started out, I was very surprised at the pacing DuVernay was moving at (we don’t have any super-long backstories, and we don’t have Meg brooding around for half the film). This is definitely a film that trusts that it’s audience is smart enough to assemble the pieces, and just keep on moving!

While advertising has played up the roles of Mrs Which (Oprah Winfrey), Mrs Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), and Mrs Who (Mindy Kaling), they are most definitely here to just fill supporting roles (like Johnny Depp in Alice in Wonderland), along with providing a little humor (courtesy of Who and Whatsit). While some may be disappointed about not getting a huge dose of Oprah, I felt it was nice that the script didn’t try to make the three wear out their welcome.

For much of the film, the secret weapon that the marketing seems to hide, is Storm Reid as Meg Murry.

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Meg Murry (Storm Reid)

Reid’s characterization manages to feel ‘real,’ and even when she’s spouting a few lines that should sound corny, she never seems to falter. This is Meg’s journey, and we can definitely see a change come over her, as the story goes along (plus, I did enjoy that Reid sports glasses throughout the entire film, just like Meg in the book!).

I had vague memories of Charles Wallace being a child prodigy from reading the book, and Deric McCabe managed to portray the character quite well. With know-it-all children, there is a certain propensity for them to get really obnoxious on film, but McCabe never manages to get there.

Overall, the film’s cast seems to be it’s greatest strength. Even the minor players like Levi Miller and Zach Galifianakis, work remarkably well with their limited roles.

The trailers have definitely played up a lot of fantasy visuals, but don’t expect this to turn into The Chronicles of Narnia. While most of the scenes manage to do a good job showing us places beyond our Earth, the film feels like it meanders a bit too long in a picturesque green landscape, that feels like Lord of the Rings mixed with the painterly visuals from What Dreams May Come.

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L to R: Mrs Who (Mindy Kaling), Calvin (Levi Miller), Meg (Storm Reid), Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), Mrs Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon)

There are also a few areas that seem to almost have a very abrupt change-of-pace. One notable scene felt like it was building to something bigger, when it just suddenly fizzled out to a rather ho-hum resolution.

A few times, I was surprised when non-orchestral score music was used across several scenes, somewhat ruining the mood for me. While this may have been done to play to the younger audience, I couldn’t help but wonder what composer Ramin Djawadi could have done with the few scenes I saw.

At times, I was reminded of the tone of films like Bridge to Terabithia and the recent remake of Pete’s Dragon. There’s a sense of trying to make a family film that is a bit ‘smarter’ than most of the other stuff out there, and one that almost goes back to the ‘darker’ tone of films from the 1980’s (such as The Neverending Story, and Labyrinth).

A Wrinkle in Time does have it’s faults, but I was very surprised that even so, it’s heart was in the right place. DuVernay’s film managed to hit me emotionally in several places…something that I felt was severely lacking from the last Wrinkle in Time adaptation I saw, which was made by Disney’s Television division back in 2004.

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Final Grade: B (Final Thoughts: Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of “A Wrinkle In Time” brings us a PG-rated fantasy film, that carries along at a good clip, thanks to the talents of it’s cast and crew. The pacing of the story can feel a little uneven in places, but even with a run-time of almost two hours, it never feels boring. )

Movie Review: The Cloverfield Paradox

(Rated TV-MA, for Mature Audiences. May not be suitable for children 17 and under)

10 years ago, Matt Reeves and JJ Abrams released Cloverfield. Composed of classified found-footage, it put the audience in the center of an alien invasion, whilst intertwined into the lives of a number of young people, as they attempted to get out of New York.

Many thought that was all, until 8 years later, we had the release of 10 Cloverfield Lane. However, while many came seeking answers, what they got was little more than another end-of-the-world story, with very little to do with the first film.

Rumor was that there would be another Cloverfield film (or two), and then, during the 2018 Superbowl, Netflix dropped a trailer, claiming the next installment, would be shown exclusively on their channel, following the game.

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On Earth, numerous countries are on the brink of war over dwindling resources.

Hoping to resolve this issue, the Cloverfield space station is put into orbit (along with an international crew), along with a particle accelerator, that many hope will be able to supply unlimited, free energy to save the planet. Even with this possibility, some fear that using the accelerator will lead to horrifying consequences.

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L to R: John Ortiz, Zhang Ziyi, David Oyelowo, Daniel Brühlm Gugu Mbatha-raw, Chris O’Dowd

After many failed attempts, the accelerator finally works. However, after an overload of power, the crew finds that Earth is no longer outside their window, and a number of strange things begin to happen aboard the station.

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When it comes to anything with JJ Abrams as producer, expect the unexpected.

That definitely seems to be the case with Paradox. Up until the announcement of the film’s release during the Superbowl, I had no idea what this third film’s title would be, but once I heard the word Paradox, my time-addled brain began to consider some possibilities.

And true, the film did start clicking into place regarding a few of my hunches…and then, it started doing all sorts of crazy things.

There’s talk of time distortion, alternate dimensions, but that seems to become part of a jumbled mass of ‘craziness,’ as the film pushes onward. That seems to be the film’s modus operandi: stuff starts happening, and you are supposed to accept it, and move on to the next set-piece.

The crew of the space station is comprised of 7 people, led by Ava Hamilton (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Of all of them, she is the one given enough back story, while the rest are little more than multi-national crew members. Strangely, while many can speak and converse in English, the filmmakers have decided that Chinese engineer Tam (played by Zhang Ziyi) should only speak in Mandarin-Chinese.

Unlike the time given over in the first two films to get to know some of the characters, much of the crew here, are just dependent on you gleaning some of their personality from a little bit of time with them (reminding me of how Ridley Scott chose to introduce us to his crews aboard the Prometheus, and Covenant).

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While stuff is happening aboard the Cloverfield Station, we also cut back to some bits with Roger Davies, as Ava’s earthbound husband, Michael.

However, much like the isolated camera-view aboard the space-station, the filmmakers keep the camera on Michael as tightly as possible. Apparently, stuff is happening down on Earth…but as to what, that’s largely left up to our imagination for much of the film.

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I can imagine a lot of people (like myself) going into The Cloverfield Paradox, expecting it to give us answers related to the last two films. Well, prepare to be disappointed.

At this point, it feels like the use of the word Cloverfield is just meant to be some continuing ‘gag’ by Abrams and his filmmakers (I’m waiting for the day when we find out that it was once the name of some guy’s childhood sled, that brought him joy before the monsters came). It’s becoming a bit like going to an event expecting an awesome ‘free gift,’ and you find out it’s just a dinky little keychain.

Paradox did little more than make me wish I was watching other films that it seemed to be referencing at times (heck, I think I could even have been willing to give Europa Report a second chance after this). At this point, it might be time to put the Cloverfield ‘experiment’ out of it’s misery. By now, it is starting to feel more and more like some kind of test to see just how much the audience can take, before they realize they’ve walked into another pit of quick-sand.

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Final Grade: C+ (Final Thoughts: “The Cloverfield Paradox” wants us to be enthralled and concerned for it’s lost spacepeople, but much of it’s story is little more than strange set-pieces, as we go from one ‘happening’ to the next. Even when the film seems to have settled down a little, it never gives us enough ‘grounding’ to really feel for the plight of it’s characters, with the minor exception of Ava Hamilton, who seems to be this film’s ‘Ripley.’)

Movie Review: Baby Driver

Rated R for violence and language throughout

While I grew up loving and watching films made by Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis, I was always on the lookout for new directors to add to that must-see list, who would engage my senses with their unique vision. In the late 2000’s, the name Edgar Wright quickly made the leap onto that list.

Wright’s films had a nostalgic taste of pop-culture, while often engaging in stories where their somewhat childish protagonists, would need to take charge of their lives, and grow up (often through rather bizarre circumstances!).

After he was let go from the Marvel Studios production of Ant-Man, many wondered just where Wright’s creativity would go afterwards. I will admit, when the title of his next writer/director project came up, my first thought was a mental flash to the poster for the family comedy, Baby’s Day Out.

However, once the first trailers hit for his new film, that image was thrown aside, as I soon felt I had found my must-see film for the Summer of 2017.

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In Atlanta, Georgia, a young man known only as Baby (Ansel Elgort), serves as the getaway driver for a number of heists, engineered by a man known as Doc (Kevin Spacey).

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L to R: Bats (Jamie Foxx) and Baby (Ansel Elgort)

Unlike a typical getaway driver, Baby is usually plugged into one of his many iPods (the music helps cancel out the ringing of tinnitus in his ears), which serve as a soundtrack to the numerous jobs he pulls.

One day, Baby chances upon a waitress named Debora (Lily James). Her love of music and engaging Baby in conversation, may be just what he’s looking for. But, in order to have a chance with her, Baby has to get out of his ‘job’…which may not be as easy as he thinks.

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While Wright’s Shaun of the Dead focused on 30-somethings, and Scott Pilgrim vs the World focused on teenagers, Baby Driver is his first film to focus on 20-somethings. It definitely helps in a story that deals with a young man named Baby, who is at a crossroads in his life, with a few options…many of which are not the sanest of choices.

Ansel Elgort plays Baby as a quiet-yet-observant young man, who speaks only when spoken to, or when he feels he has something to say. Also of note is the pop-cultural flair that his wardrobe displays, with the white-and-back shirt/vest, looking like it came from Han Solo’s closet. In a sense, Baby is like an earthbound Han: using his driving skills to make money, but not really wanting to get involved in other’s affairs (and like Solo, Baby has a debt or two to pay off!). There is also a sense of dignity to what Baby does, in that while he is helping others commit crimes, he does not want to hurt the innocent.

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Baby (Ansel Elgort)

To Baby, the music on his iPod‘s are a soundtrack to the world he lives in, and to him, the world has to sync up to them in order for him to function (I got a big kick out of him telling some of his cohorts to wait to pull off their job, until he reset a song!).

Along with filmmakers Cameron Crowe and James Gunn, Wright is one of the film filmmakers who really knows how to put together a decent playlist. Every film he’s made has usually featured a catchy lineup, but Driver is the first film he’s done, where it’s playlist is actually hardwired into the film itself!

It’s not just enough that Baby has to be listening to a particular track, but the film’s edits, the firing of guns, and much more, largely keep time to the music being played. Wright even has some fun with this during a coffee-run Baby performs, with a single-take camera move that has some excellent blink-and-you’ll-miss-them-the-first-time song lyrics, graffiti’d onto some surrounding buildings and telephone poles.

The music is often a key to the various car chases and heists that Baby pulls with a slew of other characters. Each one has their own specific eccentricities, with the most violent being Jamie Foxx’s Bats. He’s the guy with a hair-trigger, and his ‘off-the-cuff attitude,’ makes him a character you quickly grow to dread, when the camera lingers on him.

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L to R: Baby (Ansel Elgort, Bats (Jamie Foxx), Darling (Elia Gonzales), and Buddy (Jon Hamm)

Of the other cohorts Baby works with, two of interest are Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eiza Gonzales). Buddy is quick to catch our attention, seeing as he’s the only crew member who seems willing to engage with Baby on a musical level (they soon start comparing playlists at one point!). However, his and Darling’s relationship, almost serves as a cautionary tale of ‘love-on-the-run,’ much like Bonnie and Clyde.

Like Darling is to Buddy, a young waitress named Deborah begins to become a part of Baby’s life. Lily James plays her character as the yang to Baby’s yin. She doesn’t have a big role in the film, but James’ waitress is just as integral to Baby making a change to his life, as Scott Pilgrim was upon seeing Ramona Flowers (however, Deborah doesn’t turn into a battle-warrior like Ramona does). James’ role is brief, but enjoyable.

Reuniting with cinematographer Bill Pope (The MatrixScott Pilgrim vs The World), Wright shows that his crew has an eye for capturing and editing action coherently (in a world where quick edits ala Paul Greengrass and Michael Bay are the norm). There’s method to the madness in many an action scene, and the best part is, we are never at a loss regarding where to focus our attention.

While the concept and story are a new and original journey for Wright, the underlying theme of growing up that has permeated through his other films can soon be recognized by ‘veteran viewers.’ However, the twists and turns that are thrown along the film’s path, keep it from ever getting boring. Plus, while there are a few humorous moments, Driver may be one of the more serious films that the director has ever done. There are some points where Wright just had me on edge regarding what would happen to Baby, or Debora.

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L to R: Debora (Lily James), Baby (Ansel Elgort)

Wright’s films have not been the easiest for most American theatergoers to zero in on. Even 13 years after Shaun of the Dead, he has yet to have a film that has gone mainstream beyond the small amassings of cult followers to his work.

While Hot Fuzz was his way of paying tribute to his love of action films, Baby Driver appears to be his ode to chase and heist films, notably the ones in which the main character, struggles with keeping their moral compass from cracking.

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Final Grade: A- (Final Thoughts: “Baby Driver” is that rare, ‘original’ film buried within a summer of blockbuster sequels, that just delivers as a smart-yet-fast action ride. It is definitely one of Edgar Wright’s less-humorous stories, but it’s musical journey following Baby on his road to self-discovery, is one that is both fast, smart, and an emotional rollercoaster ride.)

Movie Review: Transformers – The Last Knight

Rated Rated PG-13 for violence and intense sequences of sci-fi action, language, and some innuendo

It’s hard to believe that 10 years ago, I was in the throes of doing something that I had sworn never to do again: I was anticipating the release of a Michael Bay film.

Ever since I played with Transformers toys as a kid, I like many, dreamed of seeing those crudely-animated cartoons become real-life ‘robots in disguise,’ and so too did Steven Spielberg. It was Steven who wanted Bay to direct his Dreamworks-produced Transformers film, and upon seeing Steven’s name as executive producer (and Industrial Light & Magic bringing these characters to life), I ended my ‘no Bay’ rule (temporarily). Since then, his Transformers films have been the only Bay-directed films I’ve see in theaters.

The 2007 film became the one film that I was willing to give Michael props on. However, in the 10 years since that film, the live-action series has ‘transformed’ into one built on foreign box-office, and Bay’s frat-boy hubris. And now, the fifth installment in the series has been unleashed on the world, with many wanting to know, if The Last Knight can redeem the series from the critical drubbing it took with 2014’s Age of Extinction.

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Several years have passed since the events of the last film. In that time, the Autobots are still ‘illegal aliens,’ and Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) has gone into hiding with them. More Transformers have also been coming to Earth recently, with many in the United States being captured and detained by the human-led, Transformers Reaction Force (aka the TRF).

As Cade attempts to help a number of Autobots on the run from the TRF, he soon finds himself rescuing a young orphan named Izabella (Isabela Moner), and encountering a human-sized automaton named Cogman (Jim Carter). Cogman soon leads Cade to England, where along with an Oxford professor named Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock), is introduced to Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins).

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L to R: Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins), Cogman (Jim Carter)

Burton has concluded, that something big is happening on Earth involving the Transformers, and that Cade and Vivian, are to play an integral part in these events.

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With Age of Extinction, the live-action franchise was diverted in a whole new direction. The world of the Transformers began to open up a bit beyond just the scope of our planet, as we were given hints about the Autobot’s creators, as well as a legendary group of knights, that Optimus recruited to help in the film’s final battle.

With three writers (led by Akiva Goldsman) at the helm this time, The Last Knight faces a new foe, one that has recently caused great anguish for many a film fan in other series: world-building. Apparently, numerous humans have kept hidden their association with giant mechanical robots for centuries. They were there helping King Arthur, they were there to help bring down Hitler, and given shots of numerous famous persons in Sir Edmund Burton’s study, it’s assumed they helped out many, many more humans.

Much of this information is delivered through flashback, but also in a long, drawn-out exposition by Hopkin’s character. He’s basically our ‘Morpheus’ of the piece, telling our heroes what they need to know…but not too much, err we risk not being surprised when we find some things out.

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L to R: Megatron (Frank Welker), and Colonel Lennox (Josh Duhamel)

Character-wise, there aren’t a whole lot to really root for. Almost everyone has an attitude, tries to ‘talk tough,’ and usually try to one-up the other. Probably the most level-headed character is the returning Colonel William Lennox (Josh Duhamel), who has become a reluctant member of the TRF, and seems to be the main guy leading a number of soldiers into action.

Cade and Lennox have had experience with Transformers, but every one of these films needs a human newcomer to their world, and that is Vivian Wembley, whose family history secretly connects her to our story. While being a piece to the film’s overall puzzle, she is sadly forced to banter back-and-forth with Cade, in a typical ‘animosity-equals-attraction’ storytelling form, that doesn’t seem uncommon for a Bay film.

Also adding some ‘girl-power’ to the film, is Isabela Moner, one of the most touted new members of the film’s human cast, who plays an orphaned girl in Chicago, who befriends and fixes outcast Autobots (though this skill is largely left up to our imagination, as the most we have is her spouting technical jargon). Much of the time however, her character’s personality feels like a cross between Scrappy-Doo (seriously, she tries to talk tough to Megatron!), and Ian Malcolm’s daughter Kelly from The Lost World: Jurassic Park. Of all the characters we’re introduced to, it feels like she could be excised out of the film entirely.

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Izabella (Isabela Moner)

We also get a hefty number of Transformers this time around, but most of the time they feel like walk-on ‘set dressing,’ delivering some smart-@$$ lines, and then disappearing from a scene. The most time we get with them is mostly comprised of scenes with Bumblebee, and Burton’s assistant, Cogman. As for Optimus, he’s in the film, but it feels like he only gets about 10 minutes of screen-time.

Along with the task of ‘world-building,’ the bigger problem with Knight, is that even though it is one of the shorter Transformers films (coming in at around 2 1/2 hours!), it feels like it just drags on too long. In a strange way, from it’s first scenes, it feels like it is in a race to juggle it’s myriad subplots, AND hit it’s designated run-time, but it just ends up throwing too much at us, too fast. By the end, I was feeling as fatigued as when I came out of 2009’s Revenge of the Fallen. In fact, the film’s pacing and storytelling even feels like a distant cousin to that film (notable in the neverending battle/ticking-clock ending!).

Like the previous films, it tries to make us feel that the human story is the one we are really interested in, but many of us are just here for the Transformers. Industrial Light & Magic continues upping their game here, from in-camera transformations, to some massive set-pieces, that would have been impossible to animate and render a decade ago.

The film also attempts to stitch together all five films, notably in how we get a number of references (and ‘easter eggs’) to previous ones (and some of the different animated series based on the characters). However, there are still questions that they never give us the answers to (like how/when did Galvatron from the last film, become Megatron again?).

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L to R: Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock), Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen)

For those wanting to see some familiar faces, cool transformations, and speeding vehicles, you’ll get that here…but, you might find yourself having to impatiently sit through a lot of exposition that may surely go over the heads of the more casual filmgoer, as Paramount Pictures and Hasbro seem intent to think you’ll be eager to get sucked into a world that wishes to compete with the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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Final Grade: C- (Final Thoughts: “Transformers – The Last Knight,” comes off as Michael Bay’s send-off to a world he helped create 10 years ago. While we get plenty of Transformers action and some huge set-pieces, the film sadly gets bogged down by it’s own hubris. The film ends up walking a rather precarious tight-rope, trying to appease seasoned viewers, while acting as a first-step for newcomers into a larger world that will be expanded upon in future installments.)

Movie Review: Cars 3 (with short: Lou)

Feature Review: Cars 3 (Rated G)

Probably out of every property that PIXAR Animation Studios has created, none has garnered more criticism and eye-rolling, than their Cars series. The studio’s Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter, had longed to do a film about ‘talking cars,’ and in 2006, his journey was finally completed.

While many were lukewarm to his idea, I had been aboard the bandwagon ever since the first Cars film was announced. Wheeled vehicles have always fascinated me since I was a kid. My parents met while cruising on the streets of their Iowa hometown, my Dad and Uncles subscribed to magazines like Motor Trend, and over the years, I’d go to plenty of car shows. And of course, as a kid, cars (especially sports cars!) were exciting because of the speeds they could reach!

So, I was highly-entertained by the first Cars when it premiered in theaters in 2006, and being that I was a loyal fan of the series, I went to see Cars 2 when it came out 5 years later.

And now, we get Cars 3, which makes the series the second trilogy the studio has produced, following Toy Story.

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Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) has been tearing up the racing scene for some time now, but suddenly, a new rookie begins to take the racing world by storm…Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) that is. Storm’s introduction soon changes things, as racing companies begin recruiting faster, and younger sports cars to try and compete against him.

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Pretty soon, McQueen finds himself losing ground, and seeks out the help of a trainer named Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), hoping that her skills can help him stay relevant in the world of racing.

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Cars 3 is a notable film, as much like Toy Story 3, it shows a world where it’s characters have ‘matured.’ Unlike Cars 2 that felt like an extended version of the episodic series titled Mater’s Tall TalesCars 3 feels like a distant cousin to the first Cars film. However, it’s a film that puts two tires in the past, and two in the future, straddling the finish line for Lightning, feeling a lot like some sequels these days, that tends to blend the old, with the new.

The previews do make the film out to be an exciting, fast-paced rollercoaster ride, but like the first film, the filmmakers don’t spend a whole lot of time going fast. There’s quite a number of slower scenes, whose more languid pace I can’t help but feel, will definitely have some kids squirming in their seats after awhile.

I did enjoy where the film wanted to go, showing how in the world of sports, the rookie sports star of today, will eventually have to cope with younger and faster rookies coming up around the bend.

That realization hit me personally in the last year, when I realized I had been working at a company, for as long as Pixar’s been releasing Cars films. I’ve gone from learning the ropes as a young man, to giving advice and tips as an adult to some of our younger newcomers.

What really got me excited while watching the film, was hearing and seeing old clips of Doc Hudson (Paul Newman)! The relationship that was established between Doc and Lightning in the first film is one of my favorite PIXAR friendships (and I won’t lie that I got a little misty-eyed seeing The Fabulous Hudson Hornet back in action in some scenes).

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We also get the chance to meet some older racing legends Doc knew, as well as Doc’s trainer, Smokey (Chris Cooper). Seeing some older-model vehicles had me excited for their appearance, but sadly, it feels like they just come-and-go in the film, as quickly as they entered it.

That was something that bugged me throughout the film. We see a number of familiar faces from the first Cars, but they almost feel like minor walk-ons to just let us know they’re alive (and fortunately for some of you out there, Mater probably only figures into about 5 minutes of screentime). Even when it comes to the new racer Jackson Storm, I couldn’t help but feel like I was seeing ‘Chick Hicks 2.0,’ given how much interaction he had with McQueen.

Where the film begins to pick up it’s rhythm, is with the introduction of Cruz Ramirez. A trainer at the Rust-Eze Racing Center, Cruz becomes Lightning’s ‘Mater’ for this film. Once Lightning manages to get her out of the world of racing simulators, the film really has some fun moments, punctuated by little bits of comedy from Cristela Alonzo.

Personally, I was hoping the film would pull an Incredibles and have Sally (Bonnie Wright) assume Lightning and Cruz were off having an affair, but then again, the Cars series isn’t known for getting that ‘deep’ with some of it’s subject matter.

A highlight scene regarding Lightning and Cruz, takes place at a demolition derby in Thunder Hollow. It’s a madcap nightmare of mud, flames, and wild camerawork, that still manages to be highly entertaining (just watch out for Ms Fritter!).

Speaking of environments, the level of detail in the natural world of the film, will probably have you scrutinizing the scenes much like I was. Unlike the pastel-hued environs of the first film, the more ‘gritty’ look here, makes the vehicles seem to blend a bit more into their CG world.

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I also really got into the design aesthetic of the newer race cars. It follows the current design trend, where in the last 10 years, we’ve gone from more curved vehicle bodies, to more angular ones, with Jackson Storm’s design looking cool, yet dangerous.

While Cars 3 did entertain me in a more emotional way than Car 2, it sadly doesn’t come close to reaching that finish line that Toy Story 3 crossed. It’s a film that seems to be having it’s own mid-life crisis, struggling with it’s identity, as it tries to pull itself together.

I think when it comes to Cars 3, what you bring with you when you go to watch the film, will determine just what you get out of it once the credits start to roll.

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Short Review: Lou (Rated G)

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Taking place on a school playground, one little boy takes great pleasure in taking playthings away from his schoolmates…until a thing called Lou, decides to teach him a lesson.

I will admit, the first hints of Lou that I saw made me wonder if I was going to even like this character. Of course, I soon found myself wondering how I could have doubted Pixar. It’s introduction is cleverly shrouded in mystery, leading up to a pretty impressive reveal.

Lou ends up being both humorous, and emotional, as well as something that everyone in the audience can either relate to, or learn from, depending on your age and experience. The filmmakers do try to have a little bit of ‘bad-fun’ with how the bully takes things away from the other kids, but also never making you feel that he is justified in doing these things. However, where they take him in the story, went in a direction I didn’t see coming.

Some scenes with Lou went by so quickly, that I almost wanted to slow down the scene to eyeball some of what was done (I guess I’ll just have to wait for the Cars 3 Blu-Ray to do that).

I liked the message that was given here (with no dialogue), and I think some people would agree, it would be nice to have a few Lou’s out in our own world.

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Final Grade for “Cars 3”: B (Final Thoughts: While being stronger than “Cars 2,” “Cars 3” seems to be suffering it’s own midlife crisis, as it tries to straddle the line between it’s past, and it’s future. A decent capper to the “Cars” trilogy of films, as we follow Lightning McQueen on a rather unconventional journey for an animated sequel.)

Final Grade for “Lou”: B+ (Final Thoughts: Pixar’s latest animated short is a simple-and-sweet film that helps to show that oftentimes, niceness can trump selfishness and greed. The film’s animation on Lou is also quite an eye-opener, and will surely leave some with a smile on their face when it ends.)

 

Terrible 2’s Reviews: Speed 2 – Cruise Control

*Some people may say that most films lose their way by a third sequel, but that isn’t always the case. For every “Wrath of Khan” or “Toy Story 2,” there’s a dozen ‘number 2’ films that were made, that could not uphold the energy and enthusiasm of the first film. This review section, aims to talk about these “Terrible 2’s”*

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Oftentimes, a studio has a film that they think may be a modest hit, but are surprised when it ends up doing even better than they expected.

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Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock, from “Speed”

That was the case in 1994, when Twentieth Century Fox released the movie Speed. Starring Keanu Reeves and Sandras Bullock, the story of a bus with a bomb on it, ended up cracking the Top 10 for box-office grosses that year. With over $350 million made in worldwide grosses (and on a ‘measly’ $30 million budget!), the film helped jump-start a number of careers attached to the film, and seemed to become to the 90’s, what Die Hard was to the 80’s.

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From “The Critic’s” parody trailer, for “Speed Reading.”

Shortly after it’s release, Speed quickly ended up the butt of some pop-culture jokes. Homer Simpson couldn’t recall it’s title in a Simpsons episode, only recalling it was “about a bus that had to speed around a city, keeping it’s speed over 50.”

On the TV show The Critic, it’s writers envisioned a 30-second sequel titled Speed Reading, in which Dennis Hopper’s character rigs a book to explode, and has Reeves’ character try to read it (“Bogus!”).

Of course, Fox already had high hopes for the film upon early word-of-mouth, and after seeing how well it performed over it’s first weekend, they quickly greenlit a sequel.

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Where Do We Go From Here?

When looking at the prospects of a sequel from the first film, there really didn’t seem to be much left to expand upon.

The mad bomber Howard Payne (Dennis Hopper) had been taken care of, the bus had exploded, and Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) and Annie Porter (Sandra Bullock), had ended up in each other’s arms.

So…how could Hollywood mess up that happy ending? In several ways.

The hook for the sequel seemed to elude the filmmakers for awhile, until director Jan De Bont recalled a recurring nightmare he would have, where a cruise ship crashed into an island. This quickly became the jumping-off point for the sequel.

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A scene from the film’s climactic (and expensive) boat crash!

And what of Jack and Annie? Well, according to Speed 2′s story (which encompassed over 6 writers!), Annie was apparently right the first time, about how “relationships based on extreme circumstances never work out.” Apparently, Jack’s involvement in the LAPD’s bomb squad and his wanting to take risks, became too much for her, and they split.

However, she didn’t get far, before she ended up dating another member of the LAPD (and our lead for this film), Alex Shaw (Jason Patric). However, unlike Jack’s high-octane position at work, Alex has claimed he simply does bicycle patrol work at the local beach. This soon turns out to be a lie, when upon taking a driver’s test, Annie runs into Alex on assignment for the LAPD’s SWAT team.

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Annie (Sandra Bullock) and Alex (Jason Patric)

That’s our Annie: just wants a nice quiet LAPD officer, but keeps ending up with the guys who are livin’ on the edge, 90’s style!

This story tries to show us that Alex IS actually more of a settling-down guy than Jack, as he convinces her to go on a caribbean cruise, where he intends to propose to her.

However, Alex’s calming getaway plans are put on hold, when a man named John Geiger (played by Willem Dafoe), comes aboard, with a major revenge plan, and his own agenda.

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Doing It For the Money

“I want money, Jack. I wish I had some loftier purpose, but, I’m afraid it all comes down to the money, Jack” – Howard Payne, Speed (1994)

Sure, the creation of sequels to successful films usually means that bigger paydays are in order, but when it came to Speed, many from that film felt there really was no need to continue what seemed a pretty simple story.

However, some of the cast and crew couldn’t say no to a bigger paycheck from the studio.

While Titanic was on many person’s minds that year with it’s rocky production stories and $200 million budget, Speed 2 came up with budget estimates between $100-120 million. To many, that seemed excessive when compared to it’s first film’s more ‘modest’ budget.

One of the most famous stories regarding money and the cast, was Keanu Reeves turning down a payday of over $10 million to appear in the sequel. Instead, Reeves chose to tour with his band (Dogstar), and star in The Devil’s Advocate instead.

Sandra Bullock also was going to turn down the sequel, but she accepted the studio’s payday (for $11-13 million!), with the added caveat that Fox fund a film she wanted to make (1998’s Hope Floats).

Of course, most sequels usually bring back a few familiar, supporting characters to earn a few extra dollars, and that happened with two actors from the first film

Joe Morton returned as LAPD officer McMahon, though having gone down from a Captain’s role, to that of a Lieutenant.

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The legacy of “Tuneman” lives on, in “Speed 2: Cruise Control.”

One of the more memorable minor characters from the first film, was Maurice (Glenn Plummer). In Speed, Reeves’ character commandeers his Jaguar to get onto the bus. In the sequel, Plummer’s character is now living on the island that the ship crashed into. Almost as a nod to the first film, Patrick’s character commandeers Maurice’s new mode of transportation, a boat (also bearing the name “Tuneman,” just like his Jaguar’s license plate).

The writers even throw in a little referential jab, when Maurice finds out Allen is also a member of the LAPD (“Do you know how many hours of therapy I’ve had because of you guys?”).

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Amping up the] Extras

In the first Speed, the passengers on the bus were somewhat one-dimensional, but they still managed to stay entertaining.

When it comes to the passengers that Bullock and Patric encounter, it feels almost like they are there to be examples of ‘possible futures’ for Alex and Annie.

Because it’s a cruise ship, the majority of the passengers our leading couple meet, are married couples with problems of their own.

They range from a newly-wed couple, to a bitter middle-aged couple, and even one couple that have brought their deaf daughter with them, who seems to be having issues ‘communicating’ with her father, on an emotional level.

The film tries to use the daughter as a ‘plot-device’ soon enough. First with the revelation that Alex knows sign-language and can communicate with her, but later, she ends up in a perilous situation, and he springs into action to save her.

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Not quite Dennis Hopper, but Just as Nuts

Though having a minor role in Speed, method-actor Dennis Hopper made his few moment on screen count, as the logically-psychotic Howard Payne. Payne was a former bomb-squad member, who had decided to use his skills to try and claim ransom given his age and health.

For the sequel, the idea seemed to be to find someone who could be even crazier than Dennis Hopper, and who better fits that bill, than the freaky-faced, Willem DaFoe?

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John Geiger (Willem Dafoe)

Yep. If you saw that bug-eyed image of DaFoe online, and wondered where it came from…now you know! That’s one of several shots of him mugging for the camera as this film’s bad guy.

DaFoe’s John Geiger however, just ends up becoming ‘Payne 2.0.’ Upset that his cruise ship designing company jettisoned him after he got copper poisoning, Geiger’s main plans are to get away with the fortune in jewels aboard the ship, but soon just decides to become another ‘mad-bomber,’ and sets the ship on a collision course with an oil tanker later on.

Dafoe does get more screentime than Hopper, but most of the time he’s just mugging for the camera, and being someone whom Sandras Bullock can just scream “let go” to over and over again (seriously, you could make a drinking game out of how many times she says those two words to Geiger).

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Upping the (Effects) Ante

Much publicity was made over the implausible bus-jump in the first Speed film, which used minimal amounts of effects and model-work to tell it’s story.

For the sequel, the boat-crash scene at the end, became it’s centerpiece event. Rather than opt for miniatures, Jan de Bont wanted to do the crash into the island at full-scale.

The scene would cost upwards of $25 million, to construct everything from false buildings, to a recreation of the ship’s bow, which was placed onto 50-ft of underwater track for the sequence.

For less-practical effects, digital effects houses Industrial Light & Magic and Rhythm & Hues, would tag-team on the film.

ILM took on the brunt of the effects work that dealt with the cruise ship (such as using a digital model in the the ship-crash scenes), while R&H handled some of the more low-key shots, such as compositing in propellers and bubbles when Patric’s character attempts to slow down the ship underwater.

They also contributed to the fiery oil tanker explosion at the end of the film, as seen below.

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“Cow.”

Given the debris flying into the air, Rhythm & Hues added a little in-joke regarding director Jan de Bont. It’s not noticeable on the screenshot, but one piece of debris that is thrown into the air from the explosion, is a cow (a little nod to de Bont’s previous summer blockbuster, Twister).

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With Titanic being pulled from their release schedule due to editing and effects issues, Fox was left to hedge their summer bets on Speed 2.

At the time of it’s release, I recall how they really ramped up advertising on it, hoping to draw the crowds in. They even got a segment on Dateline NBC, telling how they filmed the climactic ship crash.

The film did open at Number one it’s opening weekend, but it was considered a ‘soft opening,’ given it’s $23 million weekend draw. However, staying power was not in the cards for Speed 2 like it’s predecessor, and by the end of the Fourth of July Holiday Weekend, it sank from the Top 10 weekly grosses, eventually making back less than $50 million domestically.

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Revised advertising poster for the film, with Siskel and Ebert’s “approval”

The critics weren’t kind to it either, with almost every major critic claiming it had few redeeming qualities…except for two big names.

On their At The Movies TV show, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert claimed that they actually enjoyed it! I still recall Ebert claiming that while it wasn’t a great movie, it was still a good one, and even Siskel was contented enough, that the film ended up getting the duo’s “Two Thumbs Up” approval, which Fox has whoringly thrown onto all of the films’ advertising materials, even to this day.

During the 1997 awards season, the Annual Razzie Awards (a group that consider themselves “The Anti-Oscars”), nominated the film for eight of it’s awards, including Worst Screenplay, and Worst Picture. Out of all the nominations, they did win Worst Remake or Sequel, beating out the likes of Batman & Robin, and The Lost World: Jurassic Park.

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I was willing to give Speed 2 a chance when it came out, but after seeing it, I felt there really was nothing more to say. To me, the film is still an example of the over-bloated spectacle of 90’s cinema. It’s less of a film, and more of a ‘manufactured product.’

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The one thing I do remember most from that summer-afternoon screening, was the erratic ‘shaky-cam’ during the boat-and-plane chase scene at the end. We often complain about too much ‘shaky-cam’ in our films today, but I recall how just trying to watch this scene was a chore, as I struggled between the camerawork and the editing, to pull together some coherency over what was happening.

Many years later when I saw it was on Amazon Prime, I gave the film another viewing, but found my opinions hadn’t changed much over the years. Most of the time, it just feels like one of those parties where everyone shows up out of obligation…but in truth, noone wants to be there.

At the time, I felt a sequel to Speed should have encompassed a plane, given the greater probability for crashing, let alone a tense passenger scenario. The cruise ship concept was pretty ludicrous overall, given that it was a rather slow-moving ship on a large body of water. I often joke that since we had Speed 2: Cruise Control, if they did a third film with a plane, they could call it Speed 3: Air Conditioning.

The only really good thing I can say about the film, is that I do enjoy what composer Mark Mancina brought to our ears.

Mancina first captivated me with his hyper-kinetic music in the first Speed film, and after hearing his Oklahoma-meets-action stylings for 1996’s Twister, I was prepared for what he had here.

Most notable with this film’s score, is how he takes the original film’s driving strings theme, and adds an extra later of adrenaline to the mix, almost like a second heartbeat. Sadly, there would be no release for the film’s score until 2010, when Lalalandrecords released a 14-track album (limited to only 3,000 copies).