by Philip Price
Where does one even begin? That is the question the screenwriters of “Avengers: ‘Infinity War’” must have been asking themselves when they sat down to pen what will ultimately come to be a five-plus hour finale to what the world has been witness to the construction of for a decade. There is so much happening and so much seemingly left to happen with ’Infinity War’ and whatever the yet untitled sequel is sure to include that it's almost incomprehensible anyone in their right mind took this on as a challenging endeavor they'd be willing to try their hand at. And say what you will about Joe and Anthony Russo, the directors of ‘Winter Soldier,’ ‘Civil War’ and now both the third and what will be the fourth Avengers movies, and how they might feel like Marvel's "directors for hire" that bend at any whim studio head Kevin Feige commands, but these guys get the work done and do so in a way that is both dramatically satisfying as well as colossally entertaining. With ‘Infinity War’, the Russo brothers along with series screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (all three ‘Captain America’ films, “Thor: The Dark World,” as well as ‘Agent Carter’) have somehow managed to tackle the unenviable for them, but extremely exciting for audiences in the vein of making eighteen previous movies come together and intertwine in a way that is as natural as possible with clear motivation as to why as much is necessary at this point in time all while keeping it all, as Thanos would put it, "well-balanced." Where to begin in such an endeavor is certainly not a question with an obvious answer, but Markus and McFeely begin in what feels like the most natural of places given the hints that have been being dropped since that post-credits scene in 2012's “The Avengers” and where we last saw Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) after the destruction of their home world, Asgard. If you haven't been paying attention, the post-credits scene delivered a slight smirk by a guy named Thanos (Josh Brolin) AKA a titan who sees fit to invade planets and wipe out half of their population to keep balance among the galaxies. This is who ’Infinity War’ centers around and in more ways than one this is Thanos' movie. This is a smart decision as this was never going to be able to be one hero’s movie more than another's, but by giving this villain who we've been hearing whisperings about for almost six years now the credit he is due the movie allows this antagonist to live up to the mythos those past movies have built around him.
In James Gunn's 2014 flick, “Guardians of the Galaxy,” Thanos' adopted daughter of sorts, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), tells her new comrades that, "Thanos took my home world. He killed my parents in front of me. He tortured me, turned me into a weapon." Outside of that smirk this was the most information we'd received about the so-called mad titan and thus ’Infinity War’ really is this kind of put up or shut-up moment for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) that needed to deliver where most Marvel films had failed thus far meaning it needed to provide a veritable villain; a real threat. Since the first “Iron Man” film in 2008, there has been a lack of real stakes in these films and thus a certain tension that always eluded them as audiences were aware more adventures with these characters were inevitably coming down the pipeline, but going into ’Infinity War’ there is no real sense of what might happen next and this coupled with the intensity, ruthlessness, and surprising pensiveness of Thanos and Brolin's performance as Thanos make him a genuinely frightening bad guy. Not because we know his plan and know his end-game, but because we can never figure out exactly where he lands on the spectrum between compassion and logic. In one moment we may see tears falling down his face while a few scenes later this same individual is pulling a moon to his home planet without a second thought. Markus and McFeely make clear the mindset within which Thanos operates, but they don't hold him to this code in an absolute fashion making his character a wild card; a being who has strong points and reasons for why he's doing what he's doing but is also tempted with bouts of emotion and sympathy. Such feelings are never actually an option, but there is more of a connective tissue from the audience to Thanos that exists than one might have imagined. In this regard, it is no doubt thanks in large part to Brolin's portrayal of the baddie and the few connective tissues he has to other beings that have been established in prior films. The strongest of these are obviously those to Gamora and Nebula (Karen Gillan), but there is also this unspoken bond between Thanos and his cronies, known as The Black Order, which includes Corvus Glaive (Michael James Shaw), Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), and Proxima Midnight (Carrie Coon), among others that consistently illustrate the lengths to which Thanos is willing to go in order to achieve this goal of obtaining all six infinity stones for his big golden glove.
Of course, by this point the MCU has explored so much terrain both on earth and in the cosmos that it's impossible for Thanos to not run into a fair amount of super folks on his journey to collect all of those infinity stones. At the same time, many of the heroes we know best are still dealing with the fallout of the events that occurred in ‘Civil War’ whereas Thor and Hulk, fresh off their ‘Ragnarok’ experience, have already diverged paths-Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) returning to earth while Thor runs into Star Lord (Chris Pratt) and the rest of his Guardians gang that now includes Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper), a teenage Groot (voice of Vin Diesel), and Mantis (Pom Klementieff). The Hulk's return to earth is not without some blowback from his previous experiences though as Banner and his alter-ego have never been more at odds. Luckily, Banner lands back on earth in the middle of Greenwich Village where the sorcerer supreme, Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), resides with fellow master of the mystic arts, Wong (Benedict Wong). Banner immediately summons old friend Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) to warn him and their new wizard friends about the impending threat of Thanos who seeks the two infinity stones that reside on earth; the green time stone that Doctor Strange keeps on his person always and the mind stone that sits in the center of Vision's (Paul Bettany) head. These plans to get ahead of whatever strength and army Thanos might be bringing with him are foiled when Stark and new apprentice Peter Parker AKA Spider-Man (Tom Holland) are swept up into the stars on Ebony Maw's spaceship to rescue Strange and to prevent Thanos from obtaining the time stone. Meanwhile, Banner must do all he can to ready Earth for what he knows is coming which means reuniting with Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) or War Machine as he's often referred which subsequently leads Banner to be able to locate Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) whom he hasn't seen or spoken to in over two years but was willing to run away with the last time the two were together on Earth. If that wasn't enough, Thor splits up the Guardians so that he, Rocket, and Groot might seek out a weapon that can match Thanos' gauntlet while Star Lord, Gamora, Drax, and Mantis head to Knowhere to try and stop Thanos from taking the reality stone from The Collector (Benicio Del Toro). Vision and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) have also been sneaking around, trying to make a life together work, but once it becomes clear the threat level Thanos and his goons pose to Vision specifically it is off to Wakanda in hopes that T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), and their people might offer a more attractive option than having to sacrifice himself to destroy the stone that powers his being.
Needless to say, there is a lot going on in ’Infinity War’, but while there are times the film will cut back to a certain situation with a certain set of characters that takes you off guard due to the fact you forgot that storyline was also taking place the majority of the time things are being kept on track and at an efficient enough pace that it feels there is plenty to go around for all that are worthy. It is in these moments of all these heroes coming together and being able to play freely off one another that are what really make these crossover films so special and ’Infinity War’ may as well be the greatest example of them all. Markus and McFeely deliver several different combinations of characters audiences likely won't expect and/or haven't seen before and while some sets are more familiar there is a worn familiarity to them that gives this sense of belonging and level of comfort that is hard to find in any other franchise that hasn't been carefully putting its pieces in play for a decade. The highlight of these pairings and the new dynamics introduced are that of Stark and Strange with a little Spider-Man thrown in for good measure. Then there is Thor's introduction to the Guardians and the eventual buddy cop subplot with Rocket that develops. The matching of Stark and Strange's egos with the eagerness and slight naivete of Parker is a smart way to demonstrate both intelligence and strength while keeping the right amount of perspective between the two. Rocket and Thor on the other hand, couldn't seem more different, but Thor's fearlessness and Rocket's willingness are a strong match that allows each of them to push the other forward. Is there as much screen time for Cap and the rest of Wakanda as one might imagine given the time dedicated to these locations in the trailers? Not really. If there is one major complaint about ’Infinity War’ it is the fact that there is essentially no arc for Cap and that his story has been reduced to that of a drifter, still on the run from William Hurt's Thaddeus Ross, and this glaring kind of admission that he isn't the same, idealistic soldier he once was. Cap is a changed man, for better or worse, after the events of ‘Civil War’ and though he is willing to do whatever it takes to protect the planet from Thanos there is a keen if not outright awareness that his service has turned into something more akin to servitude. Whether this be Evans own disenchantment with the role at this stage of his career or how far Rogers has fallen despite honoring his best friend, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), consistently and through to the present day without hesitation. Barnes presently recuperates among the farmers of Wakanda. Captain America is no longer the first avenger though, but more he is a man without a home; a man searching for a sense of belonging that we'll root for even if contracts and mad speculation tell us otherwise.
Are there deaths? Yes, of course. These were inevitable, and I doubt it comes as a shock or should be considered a spoiler by saying that some characters do in fact meet their demise in this installment, but this ability to feel free to do whatever the story calls for is an advantage ’Infinity War’ has over every other MCU film that has come before it. There is a tension that presides over everything that happens in the film, a sense that anything and everything could happen and that it might if we aren't careful. This is especially true when it comes to those super-powered beings that play with the infinity stones closest to their chests, but by extension, is also a possibility for everyone that is willing to protect them; meaning this large ensemble is a barrel of fish that Thanos is essentially shooting at. With such tension holding a thick fog over every scene then, how well does ’Infinity War’ manage the balance of tone that is typically of an expert blend in these MCU films? That question is answered simply through the fact the Guardians of the Galaxy and their "plucky" banter is included here, but so is the charming wit of Stark, the innocent yet wry mentality of Parker, with Thor even allowed to retain some of his more comedic tendencies. That said, ’Infinity War’ is also one of the more serious-minded and dour experiences in the MCU as things happen and I mean things that cannot be reversed. These are things that will permanently alter some of the characters we've come to know who will no longer operate under the pretenses of who they once were. In short, ’Infinity War’ is a game changer in many respects and not just because it is able to successfully accomplish such a staggering crossover, but due to the fact some of these characters will be defined as how they came into ’Infinity War’ and how/who they were when/if they left it. To this extent, it was surprising to see a greater impact left by a handful of these characters than had been dealt even in their stand-alone films. I wasn't the biggest fan of “Doctor Strange” nor did I understand the extent of his powers as he comes to be one of the most crucial components of the Avengers here. Same can be said for Thor who, up until this point has always been the trilogy of films I didn't mind, but never had a desire to re-visit. In ’Infinity War’ though, Thor delivers on his pre-ordained destiny as a God and as a King. There is a certain sequence featuring Thor that will make you want to stand up and cheer. Last, but never least, is Black Widow who, despite having no other-worldly superpowers or unstoppable weapon, is able to hold her own against an alien army and members of Thanos' Black Order. Having always kind of dismissed Widow as more of an obligation than an organic member of this team, her ability to prove her worthiness and inclusion here make it even more obvious as to why her presence is appreciated.
Beyond giving each character their moment, beyond balancing the several tones the MCU movies have enlisted throughout the years, and beyond being able to somehow pull off a cohesive narrative by focusing on the antagonist as the main character what the Russo brothers have accomplished with ’Infinity War’ is allowing the audience to feel what it's like to read a comic book and imagine it coming to life while watching it unfold on screen. There is a sense of goofiness to it all for sure and the insanely weird and out their science fiction aspects of this film should not be dismissed, but the fact most of us will view this as a serious film with major objectives not just in terms of plot, but theme tells us more about what the MCU has conditioned its fans for than it ever could what it has made them immune to. This is popcorn entertainment to the max, it is a behemoth, it is the seven layer-dip of movies, but while it can easily be recognized as such and digested as nothing more it would be a disservice to the Russo's, to Markus and McFeely, and to all the actors and artists that contributed to making this fantasy world a not-so-far-off reality to consider it as nothing more. ’Infinity War’ resonates emotionally and in big ways quite frequently. There are laughs to be had throughout-Pratt's Peter Quill garnering many of these and for good reason-yet there are philosophical questions to be pondered considering such froth. Thanos is a maniac, no doubt, given his willingness to even consider wiping out half the population of the universe, but when he explains his reasoning behind this line of thought-it makes sense. There is an ethical quandary in Thanos' plight and while audiences will never waver in who to root for Marvel doesn't make it an easy out when killing a villain either; there is no longer such black and white lines between good and evil, but rather varying perspectives on the same issue that present a messy, but stimulating world in which these Avengers are able to exist and play in. To this end, ’Infinity War’ is as sprawling as you'd imagine, as epic as you'd hope, and as devastating as you thought it needed to be but hoped it wouldn't be. That this works as well as it does and that it was pulled off at all is a miracle and earns the movie points upon points, but that-by the time the credits come to a close-the film has shaken you and chilled your skin is a sign of something more than satisfying and more than popcorn entertainment, but more it signifies the arrival of a game-changer and if ’Infinity War’ is anything at all it is groundbreaking.
by Philip Price
The summer movie season is always one of my favorite times of the year because it seems people outside those of us who consistently devour movies seem to make a big deal of what's opening in theaters each week. When it's something the masses are interested in it feels like a celebration and no matter how crappy or generic some of these movies might be that attract the masses I can't help but smile about people finding joy and excitement in the cinema. I've always attempted to find a balance between big-budget and indie fare rather than dismiss the blockbusters and only adore the smaller, more intimate movies. I like to try and think in terms of objectives and how well a movie accomplishes the objectives it sets out to accomplish by the end of the film.
10. The Meg
Nothing screams summer movie season more than a thrilling shark movie (it was “Jaws” that ushered in the idea of summer blockbusters, after all) and we've been spoiled with fairly decent ones over the last couple of years including Jaume Collet-Serra's “The Shallows” and Johannes Roberts “47 Meters Down,” but “The Meg” can't help but feel as if it combines every element of the summer blockbuster and throws it at the wall in hopes of most of it sticking. If you're unaware of what “The Meg” is or is about it takes Jason Statham, Rainn Wilson, Ruby Rose, Bingbing Li and Cliff Curtis and throws them into an encounter with an unknown danger in the unexplored recesses of the Mariana Trench. Through a series of unfortunate events Naval Captain Statham loses his career, his marriage, and any semblance of honor as his unsupported and incredulous claims that the Carcharodon Megalodon - the largest marine predator that ever existed - is still alive and worse...on the hunt! (8/10)
9. Sorry to Bother You
"An absurdist dark comedy with magical realism and science fiction inspired by the world of telemarketing." That is how first-time feature director Bootsy Collins describes “Sorry to Bother You.” Collins was part of the hip hop band The Coup who hailed from Oakland and who you've likely heard on soundtracks for movies like “Superbad” and “The Losers” as well as multiple video games, but Riley was apparently always on the track to be a feature director. And so, what does the seemingly auspicious director have in store for audiences this summer? Well, the official summary for his film explains it as being about an alternate present-day version of Oakland where telemarketer Cassius Green discovers a magical key to professional success, propelling him into a macabre universe. “Sorry to Bother You” thrilled fans at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and with such a unique and distinct voice behind the camera as well as plenty of talent in front of it-including Armie Hammer, Tessa Thompson, Terry Crews, Steven Yeun, Danny Glover, Omari Hardwick, and Patton Oswalt-all led by man of the moment Lakeith Stanfield it would seem this post-‘Get Out’ world we're living in is going to be a good one for fans of game-changing cinema. Here's hoping “Sorry to Bother You” lives up to the hype. (Limited on 7/6)
8. Eighth Grade
In the number eight spot is another film from a first-time feature director that debuted at Sundance this year to rave reviews. Having been a Bo Burnham fan for some time now (seriously, check out his special on Netflix called “Make Happy” if you haven't already) it was exciting to hear the talented writer/comedian/musician would be furthering his artistic endeavors to writing and directing films, but how this endeavor might turn out was undoubtedly going to be up for question. Starring Elsie Fisher of “Despicable Me” fame as a teenager trying to survive the last week of her disastrous eighth-grade year before leaving to start high school, the film looks to chronicle the experiences of modern youth, how their identities are intertwined with their social media accounts, how they manage trying to become someone exceptional in a field where everyone seems destined to be exceptional, and the no doubt startling realization that not everyone who chases their dreams will come out the other side both happy and successful. The trailer gives this exploration the sense this is a deeply compassionate take on contemporary adolescence and I can't wait to see both how much I might relate as well as how much I might discover. (Limited on 7/13)
7. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
It feels as if no other summer blockbuster has been met with as much initial criticism as director J.A. Bayona's follow-up to Colin Trevorrow's 2015 re-boot of the ‘Jurassic Park’ series. “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” has seemingly already been ostracized from the summer movie season by many critics and fans for touting what some have referred to as a dumb and repetitive storyline as many of the images from the trailers released share similarities to that of what we saw Spielberg use in his own sequel, ‘The Lost World,’ which many consider the reason Jurassic sequels should have never become more of a thing in the first place. That said, I had a hell of a good time watching the first “Jurassic World” in IMAX three years ago and found it to be the epitome of pure, B-movie fun. This goes back to that idea of assessing films based on how well they accomplish the objectives they clearly set out to achieve and “Jurassic World” certainly had no ambitions beyond being anything more than a fun action/adventure movie that featured dinosaurs and endearing characters. Say what you want about the new characters, but Chris Pratt is one of the most likable guys working the big screen today and that charm along with my eagerness to see Bayona pull the rug out from under all the early haters make me very excited to see what type of theatrical experience ‘Fallen Kingdom’ will offer audiences. (6/22)
6. First Reformed
Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is a solitary, middle-aged parish pastor at a small Dutch Reform church in upstate New York on the cusp of celebrating its 250th anniversary. Once a stop on the Underground Railroad, the church is now a tourist attraction catering to a dwindling congregation and is eclipsed by its nearby parent church with its state-of-the-art facilities and 5,000-strong flock. When a pregnant parishioner asks Reverend Toller to counsel her husband, a radical environmentalist, the clergyman finds himself plunged into his own tormented past, and equally despairing future, until he finds redemption in an act of grandiose violence. Co-starring Amanda Seyfried and Cedric the Entertainer writer/director Paul Schrader (writer of “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull”) “First Reformed” is said to be inspired by the works of Carl Th. Dreyer, Robert Bresson, and Yasujirō Ozu to which Schrader has crafted a work around an emotional/spiritual/existential crisis. As a cradle Catholic and someone who still practices, but with natural and sometimes hard to overcome reservations, movies that deal in crisis of faith involving priests or anyone who has had their lives dictated by the church are inherently fascinating and “First Reformed” is no different. It doesn't hurt that the early word on this thing has been out of this world fantastic. (Limited on 5/18)
5. Deadpool 2/Ant-Man and the Wasp
One might wonder about the absence of “Avengers: Infinity War” on this list, but given that Marvel behemoth was moved out of the first slot in May to the last weekend of April (a smart move, as it will give the movie more room to breathe and what are essentially three weekends to itself before anything else major hits) it is technically no longer within the realm of the summer movie season schedule which has, since I can remember, always started with the first weekend in May and ended somewhere around the mid-point in August. Now, of course ‘Infinity War’ is still very much going to be the biggest movie of the summer and is indisputably a summer title, but by declaring as much it gives me room to highlight some other movies you might not otherwise know are in the pipeline. If this really bothers you then just know I would have lumped ‘Infinity War’ into this list by adding it alongside its fellow MCU title “Ant-Man and the Wasp” which I am genuinely excited for and the sequel to 2016's surprise smash, “Deadpool,” which continues to look better and better with each trailer. I'm always anxious to see what the summer comic book movies have in store and this year is no different as each are very different in their objectives. ‘Infinity War’ is obviously the biggest movie event of the year and the biggest we'll see until next May when the untitled sequel AKA ‘Avengers 4’ hits theaters, but “Deadpool 2” will be a nice reprieve from everything’ Infinity War’ represents while still existing within the genre and “Ant-Man and the Wasp” just looks like...fun. (“Deadpool 2” arrives on 5/18, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” hits theaters on 7/6)
4. Under the Silver Lake
Director David Robert Mitchell burst onto the scene in 2014 with his retro horror flick “It Follows” and scored a ton of points with both critics, film enthusiasts, and genre lovers everywhere so it was always going to be exciting to see what such an exciting new voice would come up with next. To answer the question of what he would do next it seems Mitchell has concocted something truly fascinating with “Under the Silver Lake,” a film that centers on a man named Sam (Andrew Garfield) who becomes obsessed with the strange circumstances of a billionaire mogul's murder and the kidnapping of a girl. Riley Keough looks like the epitome of a post-golden age Hollywood bombshell in the role of the mystery girl and Topher Grace stars as Sam's friend who helps him with the investigation surrounding Keough's character. Besides this being Mitchell's follow-up to his debut feature that struck a chord with many, myself included as I loved the look and tone of “It Follows,” “Under the Silver Lake” is equally intriguing for the reasons it might have attracted Garfield to the project. Garfield, in his post-web-slinging career, has been slowly building a reputation of strong and interesting choices through working with collaborators that have a clear vision of what they are creating and saying, and it would seem his latest venture is no exception. Consider me hooked. (Limited on 6/22)
3. Solo: A Star Wars Story
It would seem that with the frequency in which we are now receiving ‘Star Wars’ films and ‘Star Wars’-related material that it would become less and less special and that isn't to say there isn't a time when that feeling will set in, but despite the fact that ‘The Last Jedi’ just debuted on home video less than a month ago and the fact “Solo: A Star Wars Story” opens in just over a month it is difficult as a life-long Star Wars fan to not be excited about a new ‘Star Wars’ movie (even if I wasn't a huge fan of the last one). Outside of the fact this thing looks spectacular from a visual standpoint (it was shot by “Arrival” cinematographer Bradford Young) there isn't much to go off as far as how the final product will turn out given its rocky production. If you've been living under a rock, you may not be privy to the fact that original ‘Solo’ directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller were essentially given the boot with less than a month to go in principal photography. Lucasfilm, and more specifically Kathleen Kennedy, then brought in Ron Howard to re-shoot much of the film and complete production. To that end, it will be interesting to see where ‘Solo’ falls in terms of quality, but while I would have loved to have seen Lord and Miller's version of a ‘Star Wars’ movie it will be just as nice to go into a Star Wars film with low stakes where the most you're hoping for is to simply have a good time. (5/25)
If “A Quiet Place” has been the breakout hit of the year so far, get ready for “Hereditary” to become the breakout hit of the summer as it seems this new horror film from writer/director Ari Aster (making his feature directorial debut) is destined to go down as one of the scariest and most disturbing experiences audiences have had in some time. Having premiered in the midnight section at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, it instantly became the sort of sensation you couldn't help but hear about if you pay attention to movie news. Several viewers, rattled by the traumatic story of a grieving mother (Toni Collette) whose family is haunted by an ominous presence, immediately crowned the film one of the scariest movies ever made with such praise taking to the internet and in turn making it one of the most anticipated movies of the summer. Distributor A24 seemingly knows it has a potentially massive hit on their hands too (and if you've noticed a fair amount of their films are ones I'm highly anticipating) as they have mapped out a marketing campaign that included ominous deliveries to movie-goers at the SXSW festival in Austin last month where reactions were again in communion with those initial reactions from Sundance. A24 clearly expects the hype to pay off big by releasing the film nationwide on June 8th as the distributor is typically one to stagger their releases by region, but while this day and date wide release didn't work for last summer's “It Comes at Night,” “Hereditary” feels like it's playing in a bigger ball park and I can't wait to see this bet pay off should it be all we've heard it is. (6/8)
1. Mission: Impossible - Fallout
The full-length trailer for the sixth ‘Mission: Impossible’ movie is by far the best trailer I've seen this year and is absolutely thrilling to take in on the big screen and yet, somehow, this movie still feels like an underdog going into the season. These movies have only become more thematically interesting over the years if not maintaining the level of quality set by the J.J. Abrams third installment in 2006 if not even occasionally surpassing that standard (2011's ‘Ghost Protocol’ is the series highlight). With this latest film the series allows a past director to return for the first time in its 22-year history as Christopher McQuarrie, who last made 2015's ‘Rogue Nation,’ must genuinely have a great working relationship with star Tom Cruise as this will only be McQuarrie's fourth film to ever direct with only one of those not featuring Cruise as the star. McQuarrie made his name first as the writer of Bryan Singer's 1995 cult hit, “The Usual Suspects,” and he has the sole screenwriting credit on ‘Fallout’ as well. Fallout's story sees Cruise's Ethan Hunt and his IMF team, along with some familiar allies, racing against time after a mission goes wrong. There is certainly evidence to suggest Hunt's past is beginning to catch up with him though, and the addition of Henry Cavill as well as more jaw-dropping stunts make what is the sixth movie in a series, a sequel number one would typically relegate to equal crap, but that this franchise along with the “Fast and the Furious” have been proving wrong for some time now, the movie I'm most excited to see on the big screen this summer. (7/27)
by Philip Price
“Isle of Dogs” is the ninth feature film from director Wes Anderson and by this point, one knows prior to going into an Anderson film both what they will be getting and whether they're already in the bag for Anderson's style and how he will undoubtedly expand upon it. I was very much in the bag for the auteur's return to stop-motion animation after the delightful excursion that was 2009's “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” And so, the question then surpasses that of expectation dictating the perceived outcome of a certain film, but rather to be that of if there is already this acceptance of quality due to the understanding of the passion, time, and care committed to a project then just how good is it exactly? Where does it rank among the director's already impressive catalogue? As the credits rolled on the brief feeling, but wholly satisfying “Isle of Dogs” it became infinitely clearer than it had a moment earlier when still during the film that while this may be Anderson's most outright imaginative take on a motion picture it is also the one that is most vague regarding its intentions. Maybe memories of “Fantastic Mr. Fox” escape me or maybe I missed a thesis that “Isle of Dogs” states throughout its rather straightforward narrative, but what seems most likely is the fact Anderson intended this to be as simple as it could possibly be so that individual movie-goers might make of it as they please with the filmmaker himself only taking credit to the extent the experience of watching his film brought excesses of escapism and joy. There isn't a single aspect of that previous sentence I would disagree with in terms of how easy it is to be swept up in the world of “Isle of Dogs” and how effortlessly enjoyable the movie is, but there is no sense of real emotional investment to be conjured either. It's not a mandate that Anderson's films be emotionally involving which is to say the meaning of his movies rarely take center stage, but often it's hard to avoid such because of the natural investment made in the compelling characters. In “Isle of Dogs” we have a pack of abandoned canines and a twelve year-old boy who doesn't speak English whom Anderson gives no subtitles and thus there is something of a disconnect, but despite these small quibbles (and trust me, that's all they really are) “Isle of Dogs” is a meticulously crafted, beautifully rendered, and pitch perfect Wes Anderson movie that positions the water cooler conversations to not be about what the film is discussing, but what the film is; not what it says, but how it makes you feel.
“Isle of Dogs” begins with a quick prologue explaining the legend of a war between three clans; two of which worshiped dogs while the Kobayashi clan were cat lovers. The clans fought in battle until a child warrior came forth and decapitated the head of the Kobayashi clan. Centuries later, the Kobayashi family has not forgiven their greatest defeat. Jumping forward to a world in the not too distant future the Kobayashi clan now sits atop the societal ladder given one of their namesake's reigns as Mayor of the Japanese city of Megasaki. In what is described as an outbreak of "snout fever" Mayor Kobayashi issues a decree that will send every dog in the land to a quarantined piece of land they call Trash Island. There are those that oppose this decision in Megasaki namely Professor Watanabe (voice of Akira Ito) and his assistant scientist (voice of Yoko Ono) who believe the dogs can be cured with a serum they are producing and need to test. When put to a vote though, Kobayashi wins his way and to show no bias and make an example of what must be done he elects to make the first dog to be banished that of his own nephew's. That nephew, Atari (voice of Koyu Rankin), could not be more at odds with his "distant uncle" who designated his dog, Spots (voice of Liev Schrieber), to be his bodyguard when he came to live with them after the death of his parents. Naturally, this is all communicated through a flashback where it is clearly stated on screen that this is in fact a flashback-a trademark of Anderson's dry wit and off kilter if not still perfectly symmetrical style. It's also clearly stated that "all barks have been rendered into English" in case anyone was concerned.
This prologue of sorts brings the audience up to speed on the necessary backstory as the movie truly doesn't dig into itself until the movie itself joins the packs of ill-ridden dogs on Trash Island. It is here viewers meet a crew led by the only former stray of the pack in Chief (voice of Bryan Cranston) along with the bossy Rex (voice of Edward Norton), the funny Boss (Bill Murray), the ironically quiet King (Bob Balaban), and the gossipmonger that is Duke (Jeff Goldblum). It is shortly after meeting this gang of dirty, starving, and likely crazed dogs (not so much from the sickness, but from the isolation and lack of resources) that Atari, who the dogs affectionately refer to as "the little pilot" comes crashing down onto Trash Island in a stolen airplane with hopes of locating Spots. This is some six months or so after all the dogs have been banished leaving only a slight hope in Atari that he might find his pet, but after immediately enlisting the help of Chief and his pack it seems we are safely snuggled in for what will be a rescue mission of a movie. Anderson (who has sole screenwriting credit) quickly upends that expectation though, taking his audience down a winding road that, while not necessarily unconventional, is never where you quite expect it to go. That isn't to say “Isle of Dogs” doesn't have its problems. There is a subplot with the Greta Gerwig-voiced character, Tracy, who feels somewhat unnecessary and only present to serve to clarify the events and actions of Kobayashi as well as what happens to Watanabe, but Anderson typically gives the viewer more credit than this and as much could be deduced without the aid of Tracy’s investigatory journalism. It's a weird choice and, if it weren't for time and preparation necessary, would feel tacked on to provide Gerwig a role. Gerwig deserves to be in a Wes Anderson film, but she deserves more than this.
Of course, what makes any Anderson film as delightful as they always are is that attention to detail and level of care the director takes in crafting them and “Isle of Dogs” is no different. In fact, it could be argued that in his stop-motion excursions Anderson is more focused on the details as they take that much more time to develop and consider. This is true in both the execution of the story through the images, but also regarding the writing. It's almost a given that Anderson's films will be visually mind-blowing in their meticulousness. For example, the set design in the laboratories of those searching for a cure for the dog flu with their color-coded beakers, flasks, and test tubes serving as a backdrop is entrancing without being distracting. It is easy to glean in many a scene just how magnificently and expertly Anderson will bring this world he has imagined to life, but it is what he is able to do with these techniques and how he is able to consistently keep what is undoubtedly tiring and tedious work from ever feeling like this way that is most impressive. “Isle of Dogs” is in fact the opposite of such descriptors as it is consistently hilarious and effortlessly charming with much of these qualities coming from the details Anderson bothers to include and what eventually come to form the basis of what makes what is, in all honesty, a rather slight story as memorable as it is. These details range from being as broad as making Chief's crew what is essentially a group of old ladies who gossip and hang out together because they have nothing else to do and becoming a comedy of errors in the process (see the trash compactor sequence and its resolution). This broad concept is boiled down into something more memorable and precise by Anderson not always through folly, but through the precision of knowing his movie inside and out.
There is a running gag within Chief's gang that is always exacted by Norton's domineering Rex that works both as a way to exemplify Rex's imperiousness, a way to gauge where each of the other dogs land in regards to their attitudes, but it also sets up such a perfect joke that will only garner the laughs it deserves if the viewer has been paying close enough attention to understand why it is as funny as it actually is. Otherwise, it will sound like little more than a common phrase being used correctly. That is the power of Anderson's writing in that it has layers and often requires multiple watches for even the surface to be scratched. In this regard, it is already an intriguing thought to want to re-visit “Isle of Dogs” to see how bit parts from people like F. Murray Abraham, Tilda Swinton, and Frances McDormand, who each provide voices for these overseer-type figures to the dog and human worlds, respectively, play more validated roles after repeat viewings. Additionally, small added moments of one dog picking a tick off another dog mid-conversation, the eyes of the characters-especially when they begin to swell before beginning to cry-are so visceral, and the character design of the aboriginal dogs that have fallen victim to harsh experimentation are only a few examples of clever and striking details that, when set to the 1966 tune, "I Won't Hurt You" by the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band only resonate all the more deeply. The way Anderson devises for Spots to disband a gang of robot dogs as well as how every scuffle is depicted as large clouds of dust and commotion aren't bad examples of the creativity on display here either.
Like his aesthetic, Anderson imagines a world in which everything is clean cut and in its proper place. Things are simplified. They are cut and dry. There is no room for questions. No time to wait on pondering. It's funny this is the way Anderson constructs his worlds and how starkly they contrast the feelings around the film after experiencing it. Whether the deluge of possible themes and meanings is a guttural reaction to how logical and steady the decisions that are made in his movies are and thus define the decisions made about his movies is certainly something work with exploring, but again...layers. There is a line near the end of the film that goes, “Wow, that’s a great serum!” and it again perfectly encapsulates Anderson’s clean-cut dealings in things. Just do it. Just do what you’re supposed to do, and things will become as they should and are meant to be. This inevitably leads to the question then of what “Isle of Dogs” is about? What is all of this in service of? What is it aiming to say, if anything? There is always the distinct possibility Anderson is creating simply for the sake of imagination and a fun/interesting experiment in and of itself, but even in only aiming to do just this one typically latches onto an idea or theme that comes to be representative of the journey. With “Isle of Dogs,” and as stated previously, it seems this has been left intentionally vague for reasons of taking what one wants from it, taking it how the viewer reacts instinctively to it, or simply enjoying it for its many surface-level pleasures. “Isle of Dogs” could simply be a call for compassion in this crazy world, or it could be about the inherent role dogs play/assume in human lives. This idea of how they are referred to as man's best friend and dedicate their lives to their owners (even after being abandoned, Chief's pack talk about their former owners with genuine affection) and how, when they need us most, man abruptly abandons them. At the halfway point of the film, Chief and Atari are separated from the rest of the dogs, offering Chief the opportunity to better figure out who he is regarding having a human owner and even in this strand of a plot detail one could take some meaning dealing in this kind of dynamic. There is also a point in the film where Atari makes the apt comparison between himself and his canine companion, thanking his tyrannical uncle for taking him in when he was a stray. Could “Isle of Dogs” be a metaphor for adoption and how society largely tries to push the issue under the rug instead of better dealing with it? Many interpretations can be pulled from the film depending on how deep one is willing to dive, but the best part is that no matter what level an individual is looking to experience an Anderson film on, they work; and there is the gut feeling that rule applies to this one especially.
by Philip Price
There is a lot to say about “A Quiet Place,” the third directorial effort from John Krasinski starring real-life wife Emily Blunt in their first on-screen collaboration (and as a married couple no less), but more than anything this is a movie that encapsulates the equal amount of unexpected fear as compared to the expected amount of joy that comes along with becoming and being a parent. It is something society doesn't often prepare you for and that you don't hear much about when embarking on this chapter in your life. People tell you how it will change your life, certainly, and how it will do so for the better as well as how tough things will be at different times for different reasons, but no one ever seems to warn expectant parents just how much fear will encompass their lives and in what are otherwise seemingly normal of situations. This isn't what “A Quiet Place” is about outright, but as the father to a three-year-old daughter that is what “A Quiet Place” is most explicitly about to me. It is a summation and tense execution of what it feels like to solely be responsible for the lives of those that are dependent upon you whether they see it that way or not; they simply expect you to be there for them because that has always been your role without a second thought to the worry and fear that role might encompass and carry. A child's perspective is difficult to re-adjust to the point they understand the full spectrum of various emotions we as human beings are capable of experiencing, but there is something inherent when becoming a parent where your brain automatically switches to all-of-a-sudden be weary of any potential dangers to your child while at the same time coming to the realization your strengths and abilities might not be enough to protect them from whatever the world throws at them. Granted, “A Quiet Place” is this times 57 and represents the worst-case scenario of what are most of the time internalized fears, but that is what makes the film so effective and ultimately, so moving. At the center of the story is a family unit that has been fractured by grief in the midst of having to adjust to this new way of life thanks to an extra-terrestrial threat whose origins remain a mystery sans some quick glances at a few newspaper clippings, but the context doesn't matter as much as the concepts that bound forth from its simple, but intriguing premise. Through all of this, Krasinski hones in on what makes the premise work so well, that being the grief, necessary coping, and inherent fear that inevitably comes with making ourselves vulnerable enough to care so much about others. Realizing these emotions and this feeling of need to protect and shelter those you are responsible for even when you have no idea how you might accomplish as much into a tight, ninety-minute actualization that will have you holding your breath and remaining as still as the reflections we see on screen.
In what is one of the more impressive opening sequences to a horror film in quite some time, Krasinski sets the stage for our expectations of this world as well as the rules of such through what would otherwise be a forgettable trip to the local drug store. In this small, deserted town we are witness to a couple of children sifting quietly through the aisles while their mother attempts to locate a specific type of medicine in the prescriptions that have been left behind (a menial task made even more tense by the sounds these small, but noisy bottles make). She is searching for something to give to her son, Marcus (Noah Jupe), who needs to be brought back from the edge of what is seemingly a terrible sickness while her other children, the pre-teen Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and Beau (Cade Woodward) who is just clearing the finish line of toddler-hood, are the ones who tip-toe quietly through the store. Through these actions and this environment, we come to a quick understanding of this world we're now existing within and that silence is, for one reason or another, of paramount importance. So much so that as Krasinski's Lee enters the store he is immediately frightened by the prospect of what could happen if the toy in his youngest son’s hands went off as, for one reason or another, batteries were included with this toy. I mention the issue with the batteries because there are a handful of reasons as to why this abandoned rocket ship sitting in a store in an abandoned town might already have batteries in it, but it is also something that is easy to pick apart in regards to convenience and how the film doesn't always acknowledge aspects that would seemingly make sense for Lee and his family to follow. At one point, later in the film, Lee and Marcus take to the woods so that the father might teach his son how to fish and provide for his mother and siblings should something ever happen to him. During this excursion Lee enlightens his son to the fact that if he ever needs to let off a little steam or even just hear himself talk that the best way to do so is behind the coverage of an even louder sound that these invaders have apparently become accustomed to in nature i.e. a river or waterfall. If this is true, why doesn't Lee simply move his family closer to a waterfall you might ask? Well, other than the fact you aren't the only one that's likely thought of that and thus such areas have no doubt become populated and therefore ultimately a bigger risk for attracting attention there could be any number of reasons Lee chose not to do this. It's made clear Lee is a smart, big-picture guy who is doing all he can to protect his family and figure out the best steps moving forward, but “A Quiet Place” also keeps its story very contained leaving little room for outside influence or overly-long explanations and in turn opening it up for unnecessary scrutiny.
Taken simply on the terms in which it states, “A Quiet Place” is a masterclass in how to pull as much as one can out of what are a limited number of resources. The story is so contained that, outside of the opening and single scene in which Lee and Marcus go fishing, the film takes place completely in a single location. It is in this farm house that we're not sure if the Abbott family resided in prior to the alien invasion happening or not that Lee has rigged up lights to signal things are safe or not as well as countless booby traps, but most of his efforts seem to have gone into developing an underground bunker of sorts where eventually his family will be able to live something resembling normal lives and where he is able to continue his research of these creatures as well as try and make contact with fellow survivors. There are hints of other known communities and/or families surviving quietly around the Abbott's, but this isn't a story a la “The Walking Dead” and is instead solely focused on this single family's ever-evolving dynamic matched by their will to survive. The movie doesn't need to be about anything else though, and it doesn't need to be. In this, Krasinski shows his focus as a director who wants to explore how these people react to and deal with these circumstances that are horrible and beyond their control. In this context we are witnessing the Abbott's still figuring out how to deal with this new-found scenario meaning they have in no way found a routine but are still learning the best ways with which to deal with these antagonists. And from these situations and the necessity of the premise, this undeniable tension is born. There is rarely a moment throughout “A Quiet Place” that doesn't feel earned in terms of shock or scares as everything that occurs contributes to the overall sense of dread that deals in potentially slipping up and making the slightest sound that will trigger the sensitive ears (or whatever organ it is on these things that allows them to hear so well) of these creatures. And so, while the premise sets up these inherent moments in which tension, stress, and anxiety naturally bound forward it is how Krasinski executes these moments that really elevate “A Quiet Place” into something special. For instance, there is one scene that-if you picked up on the context clues in any of the trailers-you will at the very least be suspecting and if you know what I'm referring to already trust that you are correct in your assumptions and know that it fully delivers on the horror of that scenario. It is in this sequence that the film achieves the most success with its visual storytelling and largely silent atmosphere by effectively using these tools to not only make you simultaneously want to look away while not being able to peel your eyes off the screen, but by delivering on this notion of how terrifying it is to be the sole barrier between the life and death of this human being that depends on you.
The biggest challenge a film like “A Quiet Place” was always going to face though, was that of how does it continue to pursue it's fantastic and original premise throughout the full length of its runtime rather than simply devolving into something more generic? This was a chief concern of mine shortly after the screen went dark following that breathtaking opening sequence when the thought immediately became, "Well that was as great as it was horrifying, but where does it go from here? What more does it have to say?" That opening sequence is nothing less than a precisely executed and legitimately frightening short film, but given the small elements of the family dynamics set-up within the fact the film then jumps ahead from what is "Day 89" of this new life to day 400-and-something tells us that not only will adjustments and discoveries have been made, but also that the ramifications of that day will undoubtedly still be felt. It is in this throughline of this fractured family and the stakes that have been immediately set-up that both the concept and the emotional beats and themes can play out through the remainder of the film making it more than just a repeat of that opening for 90-minutes, but something that evolves and has something to say. The screenplay from Bryan Woods and Scott Beck that received a revision once it hit Krasinski's desk is so tightly structured and translated into a picture that is so eloquently paced it makes the final act and acts of the characters that much more impactful and frankly, kind of beautiful. Again, this may be going back to the fact I took the movie to be about something explicitly applied to my life whereas others will see it purely as a great horror premise that is played for scares, but even with that perspective going in it would be hard to deny the emotional weight “A Quiet Place” ultimately carries. When a genre film such as this is able to transcend the boundaries of such it's always fascinating as it is something that is unexpected and expectations determine everything, but outside of “A Quiet Place” getting extra points for being able to make me feel something other than scared or terrified “A Quiet Place” feels like this great achievement because not only does it become what could be construed as a metaphor for being a parent or member of a family where that responsibility for another life is chosen or placed upon ones shoulders, but because it also does so much with so little in regards to the art form and does so in a successful manner. The fact this has become a mainstream hit and largely praised while featuring very little dialogue and minimal use of score and other sounds is enough to suggest the quality of technique at work and this is all without even mentioning the performances. Everyone is doing what the story requires from them, but Simmonds (who is deaf) and Blunt are especially in an element all their own. The expressions both can conjure and convey using only their facial features are remarkable and, if everything else about the film hasn't already driven home the combination of constant suspense and truly affecting ideas, their performances will.
by Philip Price
“Rampage” is the happy meal version of a movie. It's cheap and easy and you walk away mostly satisfied even if there was no nutritional value whatsoever. It's a strange world where Dwayne Johnson can still be seen in theaters in his last big-budget action adventure that involves a jungle and then the first time we see the chrome-domed former wrestler in “Rampage” he just so happens to once again be making his way through a similar environment; it’s as if the star is guiding us out of one movie and into the next. As we are welcomed into this new world of “Rampage” by The Rock himself we are introduced to his Davis Okoye, a primatologist AKA someone who studies nonhuman primates, who works at the San Diego Zoo and has essentially fostered one of the last remaining albino gorillas to be his own. George, as played through motion capture by Jason Liles, is a seven-foot-tall, 500 plus-pound primate who can communicate with Johnson's Davis with as much ease as a deaf child might be able to communicate with their hearing enabled parent and who also has a good sense of humor about himself and his circumstances. The one thing “Rampage” does better than it has any right to do is develop this relationship between the two biggest stars on screen meaning Johnson is just that good at making audiences believe he is the coolest guy around. Not everyone could make befriending a monkey cool and inspiring as opposed to the weird and off-putting looks most would get, but the guy does it; acting as if it's the most normal thing in the world and oh yeah, he was also part of an anti-poaching military force once upon a time too, so stick that in your pipe and smoke it. And sure, the fact it’s The Rock that is both this intelligent and extremely fit guy who clearly has a streak of compassion with an especially soft spot for animals is part of the appeal in “Rampage” as it is the ability The Rock brings along with his presence that makes a movie as ridiculous as this work as well as it does…even if it probably shouldn't. That said and having never played the video game on which this is based, I expected the latest from director Brad Peyton to be a little more fun than this ends up being. Yes, there are moments of pure outrageous bliss, but they are too few and far between to make “Rampage” feel like the large-sized combo it was advertised to be. Rather, “Rampage” is drenched in that Happy Meal feeling from its quick and easy delivery to its processed if not convenient conclusion.
While it was somewhat striking to, upon introduction, see Johnson again making his way through the greenery of a lush jungle after just re-visiting his massive ‘Jumanji’ sequel that arrived on home video less than a few weeks ago, “Rampage” begins quite a way from our planet. On a space station owned by the inevitable evil corporation that is a part of the plot-this time around and run by the diabolical Claire Wyden (Malin Akerman) and her stooge of a brother, Brett (Jake Lacy), nasty things are happening. The Wyden's highly unethical company, Energyne, has apparently been conducting genetic experiments in space as the movie opens with a giant rat chasing down the only surviving astronaut on board (Marley Shelton). Shelton's character makes it through to the escape pod where she has safely secured samples of the chemical toxin that turned the lab rat into the dino rat, but while the escape pod appears to get away just in the nick of time it may have sustained too much damage to survive re-entry. The samples, however, do (with this convenience being defended by a throwaway line from Claire) and end up landing at different points on Earth where they infect a rogue wolf, an alligator, and Davis' extraordinarily intelligent, silverback gorilla. George begins to grow rapidly and get angrier and even more vicious as opposed to the tame and rather compliant beast we've witnessed thus far. Naturally, Davis is concerned with what is happening to his friend and his first instinct is to figure out what happened and how to fix it. Things become slightly more complicated when former Energyne employee and genetic engineer Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris) shows up claiming to be the only one who knows how to cure George, but seemingly has an agenda of her own and even more complicated when an off-the-books government agency led by self-proclaimed cowboy Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) struts in to try and take control of the situation. As Davis and Kate team-up to try and track down the cure and only hope of saving George, Harvey informs the two of them that George isn't the only newly-minted monster tearing across North America. It turns out, George and his new pals have made a b-line for picturesque Chicago due to the fact Claire has placed some type of homing beacon atop she and her brother's billion-dollar company's flagship office building and are drawing the monsters there to try and evade any connection to these mishaps. It doesn't make too much sense but is more an excuse to execute a monster attack on a big metropolitan area to honor the source material as much as possible. It's nonsensical, but it does what it promises.
And this brings to light the biggest issue to be taken away from “Rampage” in that it does what it promises in earnest, but the experience never builds to be as fun or entertaining as those promises would lead one to believe. Yes, Johnson makes a lot of this work better than it should and better than it would have without his reliable presence on board and to give credit where credit is due Peyton is a pro when it comes to staging massive action sequences and presenting them in a clear way to the audience in terms of understanding where one giant gorilla is in relation to Johnson (who is apparently as indestructible as his primate pal) in relation to the giant alligator that is coming for both of them. This is all well and good and despite the visual effects having something of an inauthentic sheen to them as the monsters jump from skyscraper to skyscraper the animal's themselves-well, mainly George-look fantastic among the otherwise live-action elements of the film. The sequence in which the giant wolf is introduced that features a short-lived appearance by Joe Manganiello is at one point the most lifeless sequence in the entire film due to the lack of weight afforded by the digital creation, but as it culminates with this giant creature leaping out of the wooded area in which it has been shrouded thus far and devouring a helicopter as if it were a treat it was owed “Rampage” is certainly something; something enough to make this movie-goer wish there was a local IMAX screen to have experienced the film on. Come to think of it, the experience of this sequence is akin to the experience of the movie overall as Peyton and his team can balance out the tawdrier elements of the thin story and even thinner premise with some jaw-dropping spectacle, but whereas the quota for each feel even by the time the credits begin to roll. There is also this sense of relief that they were all able to make it just past the 90-minute mark with something resembling a coherent motion picture forcing the movie to never be able to move past the basic requirements of a blockbuster into something more or necessarily special. The thrills and fun are there in moments, but when compared to how self-aware and earnest the movie is it’s disappointingly average in the enjoyment department. To compare, during “Rampage” going through its motions it was unavoidable to not compare it to the similarly staged “Pacific Rim” sequel a few weeks back where things were equally cartoonish and had a fair amount invested in its characters, but also managed to make the sometimes overly convoluted plot a ton of fun to witness. It's understood from the get-go we're not here for anything deep, but if “Rampage” was only going to be about the hubbub in the city it needed to deliver on this scope in a more sprawling fashion.
What is clear from seeing “Rampage” take over the big screen though, is that Peyton and his four screenwriters(!!!) were intent on making this as light and as much dumb fun as they could and as noted before, there are moments within the chaos where as much is accomplished. And so, what is it that makes “Rampage” work in ways that show its full potential here and there? First and foremost is the obvious factor of Johnson whose contributions have already been discussed and trust when it is said that Johnson's appeal is in full effect here for, despite the main event being the two plus-sized carnivores and Davis' herbivore duke it out with skyscrapers (I guess we know how Johnson's next tentpole will begin, eh?), it is Johnson who has to carry both the weight of the story as well as the emotional heft of the film that begins and ends with Davis' connection to George and his maintaining of George's innocence in everything that goes down. It would seem inevitable that each of these animals who have been unjustly turned into monsters would all ultimately meet the same inevitable fate, but as with the film's villains “Rampage” dares to surprise you in ways even if they don't always make complete sense. Speaking of those villains, “Rampage” wouldn't have been complete without the evil corporation-types devising a dastardly plan and both Akerman and Lacy play up these personas with pure bliss. The arcade version of “Rampage” is actually sitting in the Wyden's office and can be seen in some of the early scenes featuring the duo and it's as if the siblings have such a fondness for that original video game and that time in their lives when it was first released (1986) that they grew up to embody the baddies of the Saturday morning cartoons they experienced during that same phase. Why they have decided to try and "edit DNA" for the purposes of war or some such nonsense is never really made clear and their plan to draw the monsters back to their base of operations in order to get what they want and clear their names makes even less sense, but most of this is easy to forgive due to the sheer amount of fun the two actors are having playing into these archetypes. And while it is unfortunate that Harris (an Oscar nominee for her performance in the Oscar-winning “Moonlight”) is largely used as a supporting character who exists to spout exposition and fill in the gaps where Johnson's primatologist isn't as experienced or knowledgeable (breaking into Energyne, locating the serum, etc.) Morgan is arguably given less to work with but makes the most out of it. His southern swagger never tires, and the joke isn't given enough screen time to get played out, but instead these short injections of humor help contribute to that balance that makes “Rampage” only the slightest bit memorable. Morgan is cheesing through so much of his role in fact, you would think he'd just finished scarfing down a happy meal and throwing away the cheap toy inside the bag. You know, just as you'll do with your “Rampage” experience.
by Philip Price
A year ago on this weekend a reboot of the nineties hit show “Power Rangers” was released and embraced a more moody and grounded tone than that of its source material. This year, with “Pacific Rim: Uprising” what we have is what that movie might have been had it decided to go another route and play up the more cartoonish aspects of that super hero series. This is to say that “Uprising” is so bombastically cheesy in its reliance on knowing exactly what it is and delivering on exactly what it promises that it's genuinely hard to fault the film for doing what it sells itself to be. “Pacific Rim: Uprising” is a five year-later sequel that no one in particular was necessarily looking for, but is here given the amount of dough that original ended up making in China ($411 million globally on a $190 million budget, $111 of which came from China-almost $10 million more than the film made domestically). Of course, with this kind of sophomore slump effect weighing on the decision of whether or not to even continue the would-be franchise this second installment has come to us not from "visionary" and now Oscar-winning director Guillermo del Toro nor does it star Charlie Hunnam or Idris Elba, but instead is co-written and directed by Netflix's “Daredevil” season one showrunner Steven DeKnight and enlists the fresh talent of ‘Star Wars’-breakout John Boyega as the son of Elba's fallen character from the first film. ‘Uprising’ jumps a decade into the future and intends to reboot “Pacific Rim” the opposite way that “Power Rangers” movie did the original series last year. Meaning, while the first “Pacific Rim” was a little too self-serious given its story and a little more moody than might have been necessary, while more visually detailed to be sure, ‘Uprising’ plays things a little more straight-forward and is exactly the kind of movie I would have loved when I was seven or eight years-old; it's big, it's colorful, and it has robots fighting robots and robots fighting monsters. That isn't to say this is a better film than its predecessor-I don't think I'd go that far as del Toro still enlisted a fun enough tone and built an entire world from which ‘Uprising’ benefits-and ‘Uprising’ maybe complicates things a little too much with its story whereas that initial film was so cut and dry in that aspect it was almost shocking, but the important thing is that ‘Uprising’ is a fun if not ultimately forgettable slice of entertainment that plays to its B-movie strengths.
Speaking to the unnecessary convolutedness of the story, ‘Uprising’ at first hits the ground running introducing the audience to Boyega's Jake Pentecost as it's made clear the son of war hero and saver of the known world, Stacker Pentecost, is not exactly following in daddy's footsteps. Rather, Jake-who we are told was once a promising young Jaeger pilot himself-has turned to making a living off the stealing and selling of Jaeger parts on the black market. Ten years on and the need for Jaeger pilots is not as vital as they once were, but more the world has resigned to re-building large portions of its biggest cities while in other areas-not changing a thing. In the rubble of one of the remaining ruins Jake comes across a young, orphaned girl named Amara Namani (a charming Cailee Spaeny) who has also been scrapping together Jaeger parts on her own and has assembled a functioning albeit much smaller robot warrior than the military ones that once roamed the coastlines. When both Jake and Amara are arrested for stealing parts and going on the run in their own Jaeger the two are only rescued thanks to Jake's namesake and the fact his adoptive sister, Mako Mori (the returning Rinko Kikuchi), who is now the General Secretary for the "Pan-Pacific Defense Corps" gives Jake a choice between prison and returning to the PPDC as an instructor. Naturally, but begrudgingly, Jake accepts Mako's offer to return to the PPDC as Amara's innovative tendencies are rewarded by being recruited into the training program that is currently overseen by a former co-pilot of Jake's and his apparent nemesis in Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood). Simple enough, right? The newly restored Jake, his protégé, and the pre-existing recruits along with Nate run into some new Kaiju threats and have to set aside their differences in order to protect the world once again. That would seemingly be the case, correct? Not so much. To this point, it's nice that ‘Uprising’ doesn't necessarily go the simple route or the way most audiences likely anticipate it will, but at the same time where it does go isn't exactly convincing as it follows the trope of an evil corporation desperate for power that becomes so outlandish we have a Saturday morning cartoon that flirts with ideas of man playing God rather than just man fighting monsters. It's a mixed bag.
Maybe the most egregious example of the movie going about something interesting in completely the wrong way is that of how it utilizes Charlie Day's character from the first film, Dr. Newt Geiszler, to accomplish as much. At the risk of spoiling too much let's just say that I was happy to see Day back in his role as his and Burn Gorman's Dr. Hermann Gottlieb provided some of the more interesting and enlightening aspects of the original especially in regards to how the Kaiju operated and the massive repercussions the world was facing because of their presence. Here though, neither Dr. Geiszler nor Dr. Gottlieb are able to contribute in these suggestive ways as they are more used to further the plot than comment on it. What is safe to say is that Day's character goes in some pretty strange directions. In the decade that has passed since the previous film, Dr. Geiszler has gone on to work for the Shao Corporation as run by Tian Jing's Liwen Shao who, along with Geiszler, has developed a Jaeger drone program and looks to push to replace Jaegers piloted by two-person teams. Our group of protagonists are naturally threatened by such a proposition, but it makes sense and I'm glad they brought this up as it was one of my personal big plot hole questions in the first film: if we have the technology to construct these giant robots, why can't we just control them remotely? Though ‘Uprising’ doesn't necessarily explore this question directly i.e. it never fully justifies why the "neural handshake" is a stronger, more reliable way to pilot a Jaeger than it might be to do so from behind a keyboard what it does move towards is maybe a more layered approach, but a seemingly stupid one until we find out all of the layers that need to be pulled back in order to see the bigger picture in the clearest fashion. Point being, ‘Uprising’ wants to have its cake and eat it too in regards to being a blatant example of a "big, dumb, fun" action movie that holds onto nothing more than its rogue-ish lead character and its bread and butter that is big robots fighting massive monsters from another dimension while simultaneously drowning the audience in so much plot and back and forth between what the viewer believes to be happening and what is actually happening that it isn't until the final climactic battle of the film that both the audience and the movie realize we haven't actually witnessed a Jaeger versus Kaiju fight. It's a double-edged sword, really, as it would have been too easy to believe the breach conveniently opened up at this time when our new protagonist finally decided to get his act together, but at the same time that's what people are paying to see and while ‘Uprising’ eventually delivers on this promise one has to wonder if it could have taken a more carefully considered route to get to its inevitable destination.
Taking as much into consideration, ‘Uprising’ mostly still coasts off the charm of being just that: a big, dumb, and most importantly-fun-action movie. The score from Lorne Balfe, taking over duties from original composer Ramin Djawadi, is cool in the sense that it's mostly a traditional orchestral score, but with flares unique enough to make this audience member take note. Sure, Balfe riffs on the main themes composed by Djawadi to maintain that connective tissue between the two films, but there is enough of a fresh take on that material present that one can feel the difference in tone and approach. This mostly deals in it being a lighter approach which applies to the more vibrant color scheme of ‘Uprising.’ Whereas del Toro shot the majority of his robot on monster action in the dark and in the rain, DeKnight seems to have been intent on setting all of the film’s major action beats at noon or when the sun is at its highest point in the sky as we see multiple Jaeger's bathed in the sunlight in this thing. It's kind of astonishing how great and sleek this thing looks overall though as I expected the budget to be dropped somewhat significantly (and it was, a cool $40 million), but there is a tactile nature to the Jaeger's that was present in the first film and that I expected to be washed out here thanks to the sun and the budget cuts, but is rather embellished because of this change of scenery. DeKnight and his production team certainly knew where to spend their money and by that I mean when three battered Kaiju are tethered together by little insect Kaiju into one massive Kaiju (yes, that happens) it looks fantastic and despite knowing how silly it is one can't help but be a little giddy due to the fact it's so easy to admit how much this movie is just going for it. There is something to love and admire about that kind of balls to the wall methodology and if “Pacific Rim: Uprising” deserves to be remembered for anything it is just that. And last but not least, let it just be said that Boyega is seemingly having the time of his life bouncing in between ‘Star Wars’ films to B-movie bonanzas such as this while simultaneously leveraging his career with solid work as displayed in last summer's seemingly underappreciated “Detroit.” As our lead, Boyega displays his boyish charisma in spades and makes the sometimes laughably on-the-nose dialogue work by bringing his sense of humor to a character that, for the first time since what feels like “Attack the Block,” allows him to use his natural British accent. It also seems time we all admit Scott Eastwood isn't a good actor and has zero to no screen presence. I'd love to see the guy prove me wrong, but his work in picking up the pieces in these already established franchises makes him feel like little more than a bat boy. Still, as much as this could easily be written off as mindless monster fun there is a charm to ‘Uprising’ in that you may forget about it soon after seeing it, but you won't mind re-watching it every now and then to be reminded of why you didn't mind it.