Wednesday, April 11, 2018

A Quiet Place (2018) review

A Quiet Place (2018)

For actor John Krasinski, fans primarily know him for his role on the American remake of The Office as Jim Halpert, the lovable everyman who constantly pranked Rainn Wilson’s Dwight Schrute and romanced Jenna Fischer’s Pam Beesly. But in recent years, one could argue that Krasinski has begun to transition away from his comedic roots. In 2016, he starred in Michael Bay’s war flick 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, and later this year, he’ll become the fifth actor to take on the role of Tom Clancy’s classic protagonist Jack Ryan in the upcoming titular TV series on Amazon, another project that he’s collaborating with Michael Bay on. And to top it all off, Krasinski has also begun to make a foray into directing. Prior to this year, he directed a pair of dramedies in the form of 2009’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and 2016’s The Hollars, both of which he also wrote and starred in. And this trend continues with his latest directorial outing, A Quiet Place, in which he co-stars with his real-life wife Emily Blunt and, yes, is once again collaborating with Michael Bay via the latter’s production company, Platinum Dunes. This time around, Krasinski tackles the horror genre with a film that’s based around the concept of silence as the main characters are forced to maintain such silence to survive against a collection of creatures who hunt through hearing. And thanks to the film’s highly effective treatment of this premise, along with an excellent sense of emotional poignancy, it’s quite easy to see why A Quiet Place is currently one of the most well-reviewed films of the year.

As the film begins, it’s established that the planet has been ravaged by a group of hostile extraterrestrial creatures. While these creatures are blind, they also have a heightened sense of hearing that allows them to easily hunt their prey if they end up making any loud noises. This, of course, forces any surviving humans to live their lives in complete silence to avoid being killed by them. This includes farmer Lee Abbott (John Krasinski), who lives this exact lifestyle alongside his wife Evelyn (Emily Blunt) and their two kids; their daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds), who’s deaf, and their son Marcus (Noah Jupe). Communicating with each other via sign language, the family has managed to endure one full year of this alien threat while Lee continuously works to find any sort of weakness that the creatures might have. While all this is going on, Evelyn is about to have another baby and Regan struggles to cope with the guilt that she feels over a recent tragedy that the family has been through. But soon enough, it becomes apparent that the alien creatures are slowly but surely starting to come their way. Thus, Regan and Marcus find themselves having to ‘grow up’ a lot quicker than expected to help their parents fend off this terrifying threat before it gets them first.  

A Quiet Place very much lives up to its title, as the film is almost completely dialogue-free aside from the use of subtitled sign language and a few instances where louder bits of background noise allow the characters to speak normally. And while there is a backing score by Marco Beltrami, a lot of scenes rely solely on diegetic sound to help accentuate the importance of the characters’ silence. It also helps to establish a great sense of tension, making one dread what’s going to happen next whenever someone slips up and makes a loud noise. With that in mind, yes, this is a horror film that features one of the genre’s most infamous aspects, jump-scares, but in this instance, it fits the narrative as does the ‘Spielberg method’ of not fully showing the creatures at first. Because at its core, A Quiet Place is about the importance of family, a concept that is established right out the gate when the Abbott family suffers a devastating personal tragedy during the opening sequence and is maintained all throughout the film, culminating in an intensely emotional event during the finale. This immediately makes them a sympathetic group who are only strengthened further by the film’s excellent cast. Along with the excellent job that he does directing the film, John Krasinski perfectly encapsulates the role of a father who feverishly works to keep his family safe. The same goes for Emily Blunt, who Krasinski, of course, has excellent chemistry with. Ultimately, though, the real standouts of the film are their two kids, played by Millicent Simmonds and Noah Jupe. Jupe shines as the young son who finds himself forced to learn about the dangers of their current dilemma the hard way while Simmonds gets some of the best bits of character development in the entire film by way of how the previously mentioned family tragedy begins to create friction between her and her father.  

Now as I’ve made it clear several times in the past, I’m not a big fan of the horror genre. However, several recent horror films (specifically this, the film adaptation of It, and Get Out) have made me realize what it is about the genre that personally pulls me into it. For me, the best aspect of a horror film isn’t how memorable the main antagonist is or the creative ways in which characters are killed off. Simply put, if I don’t give a crap about the main characters in these horrifying situations that they end up in, then quite frankly it’s all for naught. And that’s what these three films managed to avoid via the strongly developed protagonists that are the Abbott family, the Losers’ Club, and Chris Washington, respectively. Oh sure, A Quiet Place does manage to succeed at creating a palpable amount of tension via its effective use of silence. This helps to make its proceedings even more intimidating due to the fearful anticipation that comes from the build-up to the inevitable alien-attracting noise. But at the end of the day, the reason why this film works as well as it does is thanks to its strong familial themes that are handled phenomenally by the lead quartet of John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmonds, and Noah Jupe. Thus, just like It and Get Out, A Quiet Place is a prime example of a horror film that is so well-written, directed, and acted that it ultimately ends up being more than just ‘a horror film’ to become a highly satisfying watch that can strongly appeal to those who aren’t fans of the horror genre. I mean, who knows? If these three films weren’t enough proof of it, we might just be experiencing something of a ‘renaissance’ right now for this iconic film genre.

Rating: 5/5!

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Rankin/Bass' Easter Specials - A Retrospective

Over the past few years, I have made numerous posts that have honored the works of one of my favorite animation companies, Rankin/Bass Productions. Rankin/Bass is well-known, of course, for their endless array of holiday classics ranging from the iconic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, and Santa Claus is Coming to Town to more obscure titles like The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow and Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey. This site’s line of tributes to Rankin/Bass began in 2013 when I did a retrospective on most of their holiday specials. That retrospective notably still stands as one of the most-viewed posts on this site at around 938 views. I then proceeded to do a follow-up post in 2015 that covered three of their specials that I didn’t include in the first post due to time constraints. And finally, this past December, I did a Top 10 list of my favorite musical numbers from Rankin/Bass specials, because as I noted in that post, Rankin/Bass songs are just as iconic as the specials that they are spawned from. But as you could tell from the title of this post, just because it isn’t the holiday season anymore does not mean that we’re done talking about Rankin/Bass. Seeing how Easter has just come and gone (along with the fact that it occurred on April Fools’ Day this year… man, talk about the strangest Easter ever…), I’d figured that it would be fun to tackle the three major holiday specials that Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass produced in the 70’s that were set during Easter. Not only that, but each of these specials features a radically different take on the origins of the holiday’s iconic figure, the Easter Bunny. So, without further ado, let’s delve into the enchanted world of Rankin/Bass once more as we look at their specials that celebrate the tradition that is Easter Sunday.


Here Comes Peter Cottontail (1971)

First up, we have Here Comes Peter Cottontail, which follows the titular character as he partakes in a contest against the wicked rabbit Irontail to become the new Chief Easter Bunny of April Valley, home of all the world’s Easter Bunnies. This all results in a delightful little animated adventure that ends up covering almost all the major holidays as part of the plot involves Peter and friends using a time machine to try and give away his eggs. The stop-motion animation is solid as always, and just like every other Rankin/Bass special, Maury Laws and Jules Bass produce some catchy songs to go along with it. Some notable highlights from the soundtrack include ‘When You Can’t Get It All Together, Improvise’, sung by the French-accented caterpillar Antoine as a way to convince Peter that he can give eggs to people even if it isn’t during Easter, and ‘If I Could Only Get Back to Yesterday’, which is performed when Peter and Antoine head off in the time machine. Peter himself is a likable protagonist who learns to let go of his bad habit of telling fibs (which is represented visually by his left ear drooping down whenever he says one) and accept the responsibilities of being the Chief Easter Bunny. This special also boasts an excellent voice cast. Casey Kasem (aka the original voice of Shaggy in Scooby-Doo) voices Peter, screen icon Danny Kaye serves as the special’s narrator, a wacky peddler named Seymour S. Sassafras, and the legendary Vincent Price is delightfully over-the-top as always as the villainous Irontail. Really, aside from the special’s framing device becoming a bit too repetitive after a while (i.e. each return from a ‘commercial break’ begins with Sassafras repeating the last line that was spoken before the audience peeks into his special ‘egg viewer’ device to continue the story), Here Comes Peter Cottontail is quite the entertaining stop-motion animated special. Simply put, the same charm that has made Rankin/Bass’ winter-themed works so iconic carried over nicely to this Easter classic.

Rating: 4.5/5


We’re switching over to traditional animation for our next special, The First Easter Rabbit. This special was inspired by the iconic children’s book The Velveteen Rabbit as it follows a stuffed rabbit (fittingly named ‘Stuffy’) who is brought to life so that he can become the Easter Bunny. It also holds the distinction of being the only other Rankin/Bass special narrated by Burl Ives aside from, of course, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. And once again, Ives serves as an excellent narrator and vocalist even if this special doesn’t feature that many songs apart from ‘Who’s That Rabbit’. Speaking of ‘that rabbit’, Stuffy is voiced by Robert Morse, who also voiced Jack Frost in the titular Rankin/Bass special that came out three years later. Just like in Jack Frost, he does a nice job in making Stuffy a likable main character even if, in this instance, the character doesn’t really do that much in the plot. This ties into my only real issue with the special in that it’s rather lacking in terms of a narrative. While there are a few villains, namely an ice monster named Zero (voiced by Rankin/Bass regular Paul Frees) and his sentient snowball sidekick Bruce, all they really do is hinder Stuffy and his friends for a while by stealing a special flower that keeps a patch of land in the North Pole known as Easter Valley from getting hit by snow. I don’t know, maybe it’s just the consequence of this being a 30-minute special instead of an hour-long one, but it feels a lot like Disney’s The Aristocats in terms of a sense of overall truncation. Still, for what it’s worth, The First Easter Rabbit is a decent little entry in Rankin/Bass’ canon.

Rating: 3/5


We end today’s post with probably the most surreal entry of the three, a pseudo-sequel to Santa Claus is Coming to Town. Not only does Fred Astaire return as S.D. Kluger, but this special maintains the same formula as its predecessor by having Kluger tell the story of the Easter Bunny so that he can answer the various questions asked by children in letters (e.g. What came first? The chicken or the egg? (it even gets a musical number)). Heck, this story even has a similar premise and similar characters, including a menacing mountain dweller who ends up becoming a good guy and a miserable town where its cruel ruler enforces strict laws that the main character Sunny must constantly work around. Really, aside from being set at Easter instead of Christmas, the only major difference here is that there are moments in the finale that are inspired by the classic children’s story The Little Engine That Could. So yes, it could be argued that this one is a rather blatant rehash of its predecessor. Still, I won’t lie, just like how Santa Claus is Coming to Town provided some fun answers to some of the biggest questions surrounding Santa’s origins, this does the same thing for the Easter Bunny. For example, the main reason why he colors the eggs is shown to have been a way for him to avoid having them being stolen by the ferocious bear Gadzooks (AKA this special’s ‘Winter Warlock’). And as always, the stop-motion animation provides some creative imagery while Maury Laws and Jules Bass’ songs are just as catchy as ever, which include a rendition of the classic folk song ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain’. And once again, Fred Astaire proves to be one of Rankin/Bass’ best narrators even if he’s basically doing the same thing that he did in the previous special. In conclusion, despite it being a rather obvious clone of Santa Claus is Coming to Town, The Easter Bunny is Coming to Town still manages to provide that good old Rankin/Bass charm.

Rating: 4/5

Friday, March 30, 2018

Ready Player One (2018) review

Ben Mendelsohn, Simon Pegg, Mark Rylance, Lena Waithe, Win Morisaki, Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, and Philip Zhao in Ready Player One (2018)

There’s no denying the fact that Steven Spielberg is one of the most legendary filmmakers in the history of cinema. Since his career first took off in the early 70’s, he’s given us an endless array of cinematic classics. He’s directed everything from iconic blockbusters like Jaws, E.T., and the Indiana Jones series to critically-acclaimed dramas like Schindler’s List, The Color Purple, and Saving Private Ryan. With that in mind, one could say that it’s only fitting that he’d be the one to direct a film that honors the current era of geekdom that he had a major hand in creating. And thus, here we are now with his latest directorial effort, Ready Player One, a film adaptation of author Ernest Cline’s best-selling novel of the same name from 2011. Upon its release in August of that year, this story of a teenager who embarks on an epic journey within the expansive world of a virtual reality game received solid reviews from critics and ended up becoming a New York Times bestseller. But in the years since, however, the novel has started to attract a steadily growing backlash from those who weren’t too keen on its over-reliance on pop cultural references. Nevertheless, seven years after its release, Cline’s novel now comes to the big screen under the direction of the one man who was undeniably one of Cline’s biggest influences. And because that man is Steven Spielberg, he manages to avoid making this film nothing but an endless barrage of Easter eggs (in this case, pun intended…) and instead gives us an entertaining sci-fi fantasy adventure that fully immerses us within its fantastical world.

In the year 2045, most of humanity finds itself living in slum-like communities due to everything from overpopulation to polluting. This includes teenager Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), who lives in ‘The Stacks’ (named for its collection of trailer homes stacked on top of each other) in Columbus, Ohio. Like everyone else, Wade escapes the gloom of reality by immersing himself within the virtual world of a computer simulation known as ‘the OASIS’. Within the OASIS, one can do anything, go anywhere, and be whoever they want to be from the world of pop culture. However, things get a little more interesting when OASIS users learn of a quest set up by the service’s creator, the late James Halliday (Mark Rylance). Whoever manages to complete this quest, made up of three challenges tied directly to Halliday’s favorite aspects of pop culture, and find the secret ‘Easter egg’ that Halliday has hidden within the OASIS will earn Halliday’s shares of his company along with complete control of the OASIS. Wade, who adopts the username of ‘Parzival’, soon finds himself performing well in Halliday’s challenges thanks to his extensive knowledge of Halliday’s life. However, this also begins to put him in direct competition with Innovative Online Industries (IOI), led by CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), who is also seeking the Egg to take over the OASIS by any means necessary. Thus, with the future of the OASIS on the line, Wade teams up with several other Gunters (‘Egg Hunters’), including Samantha Cook AKA Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) and his best friend Helen AKA Aech (Lena Waithe), to complete the challenges so that they can collect the Egg first.

Well, there’s really no way of beating around the bush on this one; one of the most definitive aspects of Ready Player One is its wide array of cameos and bits of dialogue that reference almost everything from the world of pop culture. There is so much of that in this film that it’ll legitimately require multiple viewings just to spot them all. At the same time, though, doing so would allow you to marvel at this film’s impressive visual effects. Obviously, everything within the OASIS is CGI, but thanks to the excellent work by the legendary Industrial Light and Magic, this film boasts some of the crispest CGI in recent memory. But fear not, as this film is much more than just a bunch of pretty visuals. Now, of course, this film does emphasize all the various cultural references that it has to offer; everything from Wade/Parzival riding a Back to the Future DeLorean in the OASIS to him using the ‘Holy Hand Grenade’ from Monty Python and the Holy Grail in combat. Despite this, though, Spielberg’s great direction makes it so that it ends up being more about the story and its characters than whatever figure from a popular video game or film happen to pop up on screen from time to time. After all, Spielberg, well-aware of how big of an impact he made on pop culture in the 80’s, purposefully decided to not directly use anything from the films that he directed so that this wouldn’t become an extreme case of vanity. And while the film does celebrate pop culture, it also offers some commentary on the instances where that love can go a bit too far. While Halliday’s challenges are primarily influenced by his favorite bits of media, Wade and company soon realize that another key influence behind them all are some of Halliday’s biggest regrets in life that occurred due to his overall lifestyle. This, along with several other aspects of the plot, helps to give the narrative a solid amount of heart which, given some of his previous films, is something that Spielberg is quite good at doing.

This entertaining adventure is further backed by its excellent ensemble cast. In the lead role of Wade/Parzival, Tye Sheridan exhibits solid charisma while also having some excellent chemistry with Olivia Cooke as Samantha/Art3mis. And while Wade is the main character of the story, Samantha is just as well-versed as he is when it comes to the OASIS and Halliday’s tendencies while also being the one who keeps him out of trouble with IOI, making her much more than just a typical ‘love interest’. Speaking of IOI, CEO Nolan Sorrento proves to be a solid villain thanks in large part due to Ben Mendelsohn being given plenty of time to interact with Wade and company; in other words, he isn’t as underused from a narrative perspective as he [sort of] was in Rogue One. Finally, closing out the film’s core group of leads is Lena Waithe in what will surely be a breakout role for her as Helen/Aech, who has a strong camaraderie with Sheridan while also playing a major part in some of the best moments in the film (i.e. a sequence that involves their group going through a recreation of a classic film that she hasn’t seen). And while these four characters do end up getting the most attention plot-wise, meaning that some of the supporting characters end up being a little underutilized as a result, there are still plenty of memorable supporting roles in this film aside from them. Mark Rylance (who, given his roles in both Bridge of Spies and The BFG, is quickly becoming a new Spielberg regular) makes the most out of his brief role as Halliday and his OASIS avatar Anorak as does Simon Pegg as Halliday’s former business partner, Ogden Morrow. And while the two of them end up being the least focused on of the main group, who are known as the ‘High Five’ due to their shared success at beating Halliday’s challenges, brothers Akihide/Sho (Philip Zhao) and Toshiro/Daito (Win Morisaki) do get to partake in some of the film’s most standout moments.

Now for the record, I am very much well-aware of some of the main reasons why Ernest Cline’s original novel has been getting a considerably substantial amount of backlash in the years since its release. The main reason why is simple, as some have taken issue with Ready Player One’s heavy emphasis on nostalgia and the various facets of pop culture that society has been treated to over the years, especially things that came from the 80’s. But because I’ll admit to not having read the novel beforehand, I didn’t really care about that going in. I mean, sure, in basic terms, this film is an amalgamation of numerous bits of pop culture; everything from The Iron Giant and Akira to Overwatch and Minecraft. But if there’s one person who could make all that work without going overboard on all the pop cultural references, it’d be the man who served as a direct influence on the original story itself, Steven Spielberg. Under the confident direction of one of the industry’s quintessential filmmakers, the film adaptation of Ready Player One is a delightful cinematic adventure that boasts some of the most stunning visuals in recent memory along with a fantastic ensemble cast headlined by the terrific lead duo of Tye Sheridan and Olivia Cooke along with memorable supporting turns from the likes of Lena Waithe and Ben Mendelsohn. In other words, under the eye of a ‘lesser director’, this probably could’ve turned out exactly like its critics thought it would be based on their overall thoughts on the book. But if there’s one thing that I hope we all can agree on, it is that Steven Spielberg is not ‘a lesser director’.

Rating: 5/5!

The review may be over, but we’ve only just begun when it comes to honoring the work of Steven Spielberg. Stay Tuned, readers, as we’ll soon be kicking off an epic 5-part Directorial Retrospective here on Rhode Island Movie Corner that will delve into Spielberg’s extensive filmography. You can expect Part 1, which will cover the likes of Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, sometime in the next few weeks.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Pacific Rim Uprising (2018) review

Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018)

Before his 2017 directorial effort The Shape of Water won the Oscar for Best Picture (along with winning him the Oscar for Best Director), Guillermo Del Toro did what he did best and released a visually stunning blockbuster in the summer of 2013 known as Pacific Rim. The film, which was about large robots fighting equally large monsters, served as a love letter to the ‘kaiju’ film genre that is well known for classics like Godzilla and 2006’s The Host. Upon its release, the film did solidly with critics, many of whom acknowledged that the film was an enjoyable popcorn flick despite its rather mindless plot and basic character development. At the box-office, the film grossed over $411 million worldwide, though this was mainly thanks to the international box-office as it barely grossed over $100 million domestically. Still, it proved to be just enough to warrant a sequel in the form of Pacific Rim Uprising. This time around, the film is distributed by Universal instead of Warner Bros. due to its main production company, Legendary Pictures, signing a new distribution deal with the former in 2013. Also, due to his commitment to the previously mentioned Shape of Water, we don’t have Guillermo Del Toro behind the camera on this one (he’s only a producer this time). Instead, we have Steven S. DeKnight, a long-time veteran of TV having created the hit Starz series Spartacus while also kick-starting Marvel Studios’ line of Netflix shows by serving as the show-runner for Season 1 of Daredevil, in his official feature-length directorial debut. This directorial debut of his features several returning players from the first Pacific Rim along with several new characters headlined by Star Wars’ Finn, John Boyega. And overall, this sequel manages to deliver the same great kinetic thrills of its predecessor even if it is still very much one of those ‘shut off your brain’ kind of films.

It has been a decade since humanity managed to repel the threat of giant alien monsters known as kaiju. With the aid of massive, dual-piloted mechs known as ‘Jaegers’, the pilots who controlled them managed to seal off the breach that had emerged deep within the Pacific Ocean which allowed the kaiju to travel to their world and wreak destruction wherever they went as part of their plan to take over the world. Since then, the Jaeger program has continued to evolve in preparation for the kaiju’s potential return. However, the program soon finds itself being threatened by the ongoing development of a new program initiated by the Shao Corporation, led by Liwen Shao (Jing Tian), that plans on using drones designed with both Jaeger and Kaiju technology. And to make matters worse, the kaiju cells embedded within the drones soon start taking over, leading to them causing just as much destruction as the kaiju that came before them. In response to this, ‘Battle of the Breach’ hero Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) recruits her brother Jake Pentecost (John Boyega), the son of her former commanding officer/adoptive father Stacker Pentecost (who sacrificed himself at the end of the first film), to return to the Jaeger program and train its newest recruits along with his former co-pilot, Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood). In the process, Jake and company soon learn that this recent string of kaiju-related attacks may, in fact, be the work of someone within their own organization.

Now because Del Toro isn’t directing this time, it is understandable if this film doesn’t exactly have the same visual finesse as its predecessor. Still, to his credit, McKnight does manage to maintain a lot of the same visual aesthetics that Del Toro established with the first film while also implementing a few new cues as well, namely by having more action sequences set during the day instead of at night (not that this was a problem with the first film, for the record). And while McKnight’s method of directing action is a bit more Michael Bay-ish compared to how Del Toro handled it (something that many felt the first film wisely avoided in the wake of Bay’s Transformers films), that doesn’t stop the film from having more of the same, great robot/monster action that we’ve come to expect from this franchise. Simply put, the key thing that McKnight does here is that he gives the film a much brighter look compared to the first film. Now again, this is not meant to be a jab at the original Pacific Rim. It’s just that this is the way in which this film ultimately adopts its own identity so that it’s not just a ‘carbon copy’ sequel. In fact, this brighter feel to the film even applies to its overall tone, as it adopts a more light-hearted atmosphere with a lot more humorous dialogue thrown in. However, this doesn’t mean that the film is ‘just a comedy’. Like the first film, it treats its serious moments with the proper respect that they deserve while the humor is used to lighten the mood at just the right times. But let’s face it, folks… you’re not going into this film for the story, no matter how effective it is at being a follow-up to its predecessor. You’re here to see giant robots punch giant monsters repeatedly.

With that in mind, one of the most common criticisms directed towards the original Pacific Rim was that its characters weren’t as well-developed as its action sequences. Despite this, though, the film still managed to work around this thanks to Guillermo Del Toro’s strong visual style. The same general scenario applies to Uprising as well. Obviously, you’re not going to get much depth out of these characters. While the film does introduce some new characters and build them up as ‘the next generation’ of Jaeger pilots, at the end of the day only one of them gets any major focus. And as for fans of the original film, you may not necessarily like some of the ways in which this film further develops its returning characters (and before you ask, no, the film does not explain what happened to Charlie Hunnam’s character, Raleigh Becket). But this is all saved by one key member of the cast; John Boyega in the lead role of Jake Pentecost, the son of the man who boldly claimed that humanity would ‘cancel the apocalypse’. The same great charisma that helped Boyega make Finn such a great new character in the Star Wars universe is on full display here, and even if he’s working with a simple characterization of being the son of a war hero trying to live up to his father’s name, it never hinders him in the slightest. He also has solid camaraderie with Scott Eastwood, who also makes the most out of his simple role as the hard-edged soldier who isn’t on the best of terms with Jake. But the real breakout star of the film is newcomer Cailee Spaeny as Amara, an orphaned girl who joins the Jaeger program thanks to her knowledge of Jaeger technology (i.e. building one herself). Spaeny follows strongly in the footsteps of the first film’s breakout star, Rinko Kikuchi, by getting some of the more interesting bits of character development in the film while arguably managing to outshine some of her more famous co-stars… yes, even John Boyega.

I quite enjoyed the original Pacific Rim. For all its narrative shortcomings, it was quite arguably one of the most visually stunning blockbusters in recent memory. You really can’t go wrong with a sci-fi action extravaganza directed by the one and only Guillermo Del Toro. And while he may not have been behind the camera for its sequel, Steven S. DeKnight manages to serve as a solid replacement for Del Toro in the director’s chair. Pacific Rim Uprising ends up being a much brighter film compared to its predecessor in terms of both visual style and tone. And yet, at the end of the day, the film doesn’t lose sight of the franchise’s greatest aspect; epic, grand-scale action sequences that involve giant robots fighting giant monsters in the middle of a city. As for the writing, once again there’s not much to say about it; it’s another simple plot with your basic collection of characters. However, there’s also John Boyega, who gives it his all and proves that he can carry a franchise all by himself. Did I forget to mention that he produced this film as well? Clearly, he’s quite committed to this franchise. And on that note, hopefully, this film does decently enough financially to warrant another sequel. Granted, given how the first film didn’t do so well here in the states back in 2013, I have the feeling that the sequel probably won’t make that much of a commercial impact either in the domestic market. But, hopefully, the international box-office will end up saving it just like it did with the first film. Because after all, there are just some films out there that don’t need an Oscar-worthy screenplay to be a highly entertaining time at the theater, and Pacific Rim Uprising is very much one of those films.

Rating: 4/5

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Tomb Raider (2018) review

Alicia Vikander in Tomb Raider (2018)

Since its inception on the Sega Saturn, PlayStation, and MS-DOS in 1996, Tomb Raider has become one of the most enduring franchises in the world of video games. The adventures of archaeologist Lara Croft have sold over 63 million copies worldwide, while Lara herself has become an iconic video game heroine along with becoming rather notorious for her initially curvaceous figure that became the subject of much publicity. This overt sexuality, however, eventually ended up being underplayed in future installments of the franchise, including the source material behind today’s review, its 2013 reboot. Reimaging Lara as a college student who ends up trapped on a mysterious island, this gritty take on the Tomb Raider franchise was a major critical and commercial success. This, of course, brings us to the latest installment of the often-maligned genre of films based on popular video games, Tomb Raider. While directly inspired by the 2013 reboot, this is also the second major incarnation of Lara Croft on the big screen. Previously, Lara was portrayed by Angelina Jolie in the 2001 film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and its 2003 sequel, The Cradle of Life. And while both films ended up receiving the usual critical derision that usually strikes a video game film adaptation, they are often regarded by audiences as some of the better entries of the genre thanks in large part to Jolie’s excellent performance in the role of Lara. As you might have guessed, this puts quite a bit of pressure on this new take on Tomb Raider to work just as well with audiences, with Alicia Vikander taking on the role of Miss Croft this time around under the direction of Norwegian filmmaker Roar Uthaug. So, does this film manage to buck the long-running curse of films based on video games? Well, not exactly, but that doesn’t mean that it didn’t at least try.

In the city of London, Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander), daughter of businessman Richard Croft (Dominic West), struggles to cope with his disappearance several years prior. Because of this, Lara lives a generally carefree life where she often struggles to get by financially while also distancing herself from her family’s legacy. However, when Richard’s old business partner Ana Miller (Kristin Scott Thomas) encourages her to claim her inheritance before her father’s estate is sold off, Lara begins to learn more about what her father was doing when he disappeared when she comes across some of his old research. Specifically, Richard was investigating into a mythical queen known as Himiko, who allegedly possessed the ability to kill anyone she touches and was buried on the remote island of Yamatai. Despite her father’s request to burn his research for fear of his enemies getting ahold of it, Lara embarks on an adventure to Yamatai with the aid of Lu Ren (Daniel Wu), a ship captain whose father aided Richard in his own journey there back in the day. However, their ship ends up getting capsized during a violent storm and the two of them end up stranded on the island. Almost immediately, they are taken captive by a mysterious organization known as Trinity led by their zealot leader, Matthias Vogel (Walton Goggins), who claims that he knew her father. And as soon as Lara learns of Vogel and Trinity’s plan to find Himiko’s tomb and acquire her power for their sinister intent, she immediately begins fighting back so that Himiko’s devastating powers won’t be unleashed upon the world.

Unlike the previous Tomb Raider films, which launched audiences straight into the action (i.e. the opening of the 2001 film in which Lara battled a big robot), this film is more about building up Lara’s reputation like its direct video game counterpart did. However, in the case of the film, this means that it starts off on an extremely slow note. And it also doesn’t help that the plot is a very basic origin story about a young woman who learns major secrets about her father’s past; in other words, you can quite often tell where it’s going to go from a narrative perspective. Thankfully, though, the film does manage to somewhat pick up the pace as it goes on. Once Lara ends up on Yamatai, that’s when the film starts to really improve in terms of its action set-pieces which, like the game, see Lara overcoming various death-defying odds. And while some of these action sequences do suffer from a bit of frenetic editing here and there, the film surprisingly manages to have some teeth to it despite being rated PG-13 in contrast to the M-rated video games that it’s directly inspired by. Ultimately, though, I think that many will agree that one of the key things that should define a ‘successful’ video game film adaptation is its ability to properly capture the spirit of their source material. Regarding this new take on Tomb Raider, I am aware that there is some controversy over the film’s decision to have Lara’s overall characterization be directedly tied to her connection to her father to the point where it influences several of her actions, resulting in some ‘questionable’ bits of decision-making. Overall, though, I’d say that the film does succeed at matching the gritty tone of the most recent games.  

Just like her predecessor in the role, Alicia Vikander’s casting as Lara Croft initially drew some skepticism from those who weren’t sure if she was a good choice for the role. And in Vikander’s case, the highly positive feelings that many fans still have of Angelina Jolie’s turn in the role no doubt put some additional pressure on her as well. But overall, Vikander ends up being just as good as Jolie was as Lara. To put it simply, these two actresses succeeded at portraying Lara in the ways that she was being portrayed in the video games at the time of their films’ respective releases. The Lara of the Jolie era was defined heavily by her confidence and seductive nature, whereas the franchise’s current iteration of Lara is defined more by her tenacity, vulnerability, and ability to persevere when going through the challenges that she regularly goes through. And despite the previously mentioned controversy surrounding the script’s overt focus on Lara’s relationship with her father, Vikander does do an excellent job with the material that she’s been given. Meanwhile, Walton Goggins is the other big headliner in this film’s cast as the main villain, Vogel, who, like the film’s pacing, falls victim to not really getting a lot to do at first. This also manages to improve somewhat as the film goes on, but not quite enough to make Vogel that much of an intimidating threat, especially after the film begins to build up the mystery surrounding his superiors. At the very least, though, Goggins proves that he can be a great villain when given the right material due to his strong screen presence.

In conclusion, I can’t really say that this new take on Tomb Raider ended up being the film to break the dreaded curse of films based on video games. While it does boast a higher RT rating than other video game adaptations (which usually end up with an RT score in the mid-20’s), that rating is still technically in the ‘rotten’ category. However, at the very least, and even though it’s clearly not saying much, it is marginally better than its competition. Oh sure, it’s not perfect by any means, namely because of its initially sluggish pacing. But once it does get going, things manage to improve in terms of both the action sequences and the plot even though it’s not exactly enough to keep the film from being your run-of-the-mill action-adventure flick. It is worth noting, though, that Alicia Vikander does give it her all as Lara Croft. Simply put, she excellently personifies the Lara of this current era the same way that Angelina Jolie did as the Lara of the early 2000’s. And while I’d still consider Jolie’s first Tomb Raider film to be better than this one, as a fan of the Tomb Raider franchise (having played almost all the main games), I will say that I was decently satisfied with this new film. I mean, at the end of the day, considering some of the other major film adaptations of popular video games that have been made over the years, it’s safe to say that this could’ve turned out a heck of a lot worse.   

Rating: 3/5