Pacific Rim Uprising – Rating: 4/10

 

There’s a scene in the first Pacific Rim where the protagonist’s Jaeger, Gipsy Danger, hefts a massive shipping boat in one hand like a bat with the intention of smashing it into the head of the Kaiju down the street currently destroying Hong Kong. The music swells as the camera pans up the mech’s giant body, and you can almost feel the giddy, boyish delight director Guillermo del Toro was no doubt experiencing during the creation of the sequence.

This scene encapsulates everything that works about Pacific Rim. It’s big, dumb fun with that unique and infectious del Toro charm. The film was far from a masterpiece, but in the genre of large-scale punchathons, one could certainly do much worse. Everything that made this sequence work is, regrettably, absent from Pacific Rim: Uprising.

The story follows John Boyega’s mustache, son of Idris Elba’s mustache from the previous film. A party boy and a scoundrel, Stache Jr. wants nothing to do with his history as an accomplished Jaeger pilot and intends to distance himself from father’s heroic legacy. At the same time, Newt, Charlie Day’s lack of a mustache, is working with a massive corporation to create a fleet of remotely controlled Jaegers to police the world and guard against future Kaiju attacks.

What follows is essentially a carbon copy of the original Pacific Rim, just without the del Toro-ness. Plot points and emotional beats are recreated flawlessly, and most of the attempts to introduce twists ended up being unintentionally hilarious.

Even more troubling is the fact that it feels as if the filmmakers occasionally forgot to set up major events in any way, leading to some real whiplash and a few utterances of “when the hell did that happen?” It’s bizarre to watch a movie that makes you wonder at multiple points if you’ve been asleep, or if there’s just no connective tissue between important moments.

On the plus side, though, the filmmakers did hear the massive fan outcry and set nearly every single fight during the daytime. Being able to see the action with more clarity really does emphasize how impressive the CG work is in this series, and makes fun fights even more pleasurable. Also, they didn’t include that dreadful song from the trailer. So there’s always that.

On the whole, if you enjoyed the first Pacific Rim, you’ll probably have a good time in Uprising. Boyega’s face foliage gives a decent performance as a fairly bland character and even manages to introduce some charm into the situation. There’s also the added bonus of very large things punching other very large things, which does tend to be a boon in the genre. Big action and the benefit of daylight aren’t ultimately enough to overcome a silly plot, odd lack of attention to detail, and criminal lack of del Toro.

Ready Player One – Rating: 4/10

 

Let’s just get this out of the way up front: No, I have not read Ready Player One. Yes, I am aware that it is a beloved, borderline modern classic, and that it’s very different from the movie. I will not be judging the film through the lens of the novel, and I won’t do any more than speculate on any possible differences.

Ready Player One centers around a massive online roleplaying game called The Oasis. The Oasis is a fully realized world and has become so popular that most people spend all day there, at the expense of the real world. Upon his death, it’s creator, a man named James Halliday, revealed the existence of three keys leading to a mysterious “easter egg.” The first player to discover said easter egg would assume complete control over the oasis.

Naturally, the people scramble to find the keys, as controlling this virtual world would give them power over the entirety of the population. The plot follows young Wade Watts and his merry band of cohorts as they attempt to beat Nolan Sorrento, the head of a nasty corporation, to the egg. All of this is underscored by Halliday’s obsession with 1980’s pop-culture. Ernest Cline’s novel was famous for including references to hundreds of different properties, characters, and worlds over the course of its nearly 400 pages.

This being the case, navigating the legal minefield required to bring Cline’s work to the screen was always going to be a massive undertaking. Thankfully, Hollywood institution Steven Spielberg was onboard to help along the way. The result is a film that, while attempting to appeal to everyone, manages to find a way to appeal to no one. Except for people who really like pop-culture references.

Maybe I’m not hip with the kids, but are the 80’s hot stuff right now? Are PG-13 audiences raving to Van Halen’s “Jump?” Probably not. But they do like VR, Minecraft, Halo, and Overwatch! The problem here (aside from some glaring timeline issues regarding Halliday’s life) is that there isn’t an enormous amount of crossover between audiences who are as into 80’s media as Cline clearly is, and people who love playing Minecraft in virtual reality. The overall mix works decently well, but this is only one example of the film’s lack of a target audience.

While not R-rated, Ready Player One butts right up against the profanity limit of PG-13, with plenty of “shits” and the maximum number of “fucks” allowed. Combining this with references to The Shining and some surprisingly gory sequences, you begin to get the impression that this might not be a film for children.

So if it’s a film for adults who just happen to love crossovers between their favorite fictional worlds (even I have to admit that it was fun to watch the Iron Giant throw down with Mechagodzilla), why not give the plot some depth? Flesh out the real world, address the apparent income issues and examine video game addiction? Instead, the filmmakers decided to go for easy, staid, and generic. The bad man is up to badness for bad reasons, and the good guys need to stop him for good reasons, then the hero makes out with the girl in a swivel chair.

Outside of the story, the visual presentation was another sticking point. The design of The Stacks in Columbus was remarkably well realized and unique, but once the characters enter The Oasis, it becomes another story altogether. Everybody is rendered as a very video game cutscene-looking avatar, and I have mixed feelings.

It’s evident that a great deal of work was done to make the characters look as much like they were in a game as possible, and that consistency is admirable. The issue is that, even though it’s purposeful, it’s still not super pleasant to spend two hours watching large-eyed, uncanny valley-occupying characters make their way through the three-act structure. Furthermore, it’s established that they can choose to be depicted as photorealistic, so why aren’t there any cell-shaded characters in The Oasis? No love for voxels? Anybody for 2D sprites? Why are my only two options real life and God of War 3?

All of this lends itself to a theory that I’ve had for years regarding the good Mr. Spielberg. I think that there are actually two distinct parties operating under that name. The first is likely the actual Steven Spielberg, and he spends his time making Oscar-bait like The Post and emotionally raw experiences like Schindler’s List. The other Spielberg is best compared to The Dread Pirate Roberts, in that it’s not one person but a collective, each assuming the name when their time comes to direct a schlocky genre film. This is how we get Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Ready Player One, although it feels unnecessarily hurtful to compare the two.

Spielbergian conspiracy theories aside, Ready Player One is kind of a mess. I never quite figured out who precisely the film was intended for, and the shallow plot and weak worldbuilding left me far from satisfied. If, on the other hand, you just want to watch the Delorian time machine race around a battlefield occupied by both Master Chief and a Gundam, then you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better way to satisfy that particular craving.

 

Best F(r)iends – Rating: 1 Wisterreau out of a possible “hi doggy.”

 

It’s no secret that I adore Tommy Wiseau’s cinematic disasterpiece The Room. Recently, I’ve also fallen in love with Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell’s book, The Disaster Artist, which is immensely superior to the film. When I became aware that Sestero and Wiseau would be on screen together yet again, my first reaction was concern.

It is a general rule that so-bad-it’s-good filmmaking comes from a unique blend of ineptitude and ignorance, and films that set their sights on being bad tend to feel extremely forced and stilted. That’s how you get Zombeavers instead of Birdemic.

So, when I attended a screening of Best F(r)iends (which I’m still not entirely sure how to pronounce), I did so with more than a touch of trepidation. Would they overplay Tommy Wiseau’s awkwardness? Would the whole thing be an excuse to rehash the cult success of The Room? As it turns out, I was wrong on both counts. Wiseau is easily the best part of the film, and this may, in fact, stand on its own as a cult classic in years to come.

The plot follows Jon (Sestero), a drifter in LA, and Harvey, the bizarre mortician (Wiseau) he meets during his travels. The less you know going into Best F(r)iends, the better, as much of the fun comes from trying to figure out what is going on or where any of this is going. Trust me, a blind first viewing is a treat.

The script, written by Sestero for the sole purpose of cheering Wiseau up, has no intention of taking itself seriously in any sense and is all the better for it. Some of the dialogue is purposefully shoddy and some is genuinely bad, but the tone that the movie strikes somehow makes it all feel normal. The biggest surprise here is that, for the most part, the cinematography is actually quite excellent. The framing and composition frequently reminded me of intelligent indie films I’ve seen, and I was most certainly not expecting that.

The real star of the show here, predictably, is Tommy Wiseau. Much of his dialogue feels more like a framework that allows him to just improvise and do his own crazy thing, and the result is pure gold. Every frame that Wiseau occupies is magnificently entertaining and actually convinced me that more mainstream films might just have a place for this man’s unique brand of insanity. Somebody, please contact Judd Apatow, post haste.

The main weaknesses in the film come from the bizarre pacing and a few attempts to force a so-bad-it’s-good vibe. There are a couple of instances where the aspect ratio changes for no reason or the color temperature goes wonky, but these occurrences were mercifully rare, as are the moments where Tommy’s over-acting feels purposeful and overdone. The most grating thing about Best F(r)iends is that fact that not much of anything happens for the entire first half of the film. During this time, I found myself bored and confused. Thankfully, the second half is a strange delight, and the finale is incredible.

The experience reached its peak, strangely enough, as soon as the film ended. This is when the trailer for Best F(r)iends: Volume 2 began, and oh my god. I have no idea what anything I saw was, but if you can imagine Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero in an Alejandro Jodorowsky picture, you might have some idea of what to expect. I’m not convinced that it wasn’t secretly brilliant surrealism, and I may never have been more excited for a sequel in my life.

So, how does one go about rating a film that has no intention of being strictly… good? Should I devise a complicated rubric that weighs the value of unintended comedy against the importance of coherence? How can anyone objectively view a Wiseau performance? In the end, I honestly don’t think I can rate this film at all. Suffice it to say that the viewing experience is a bizarre pleasure, and a welcome return to form for a strangely compelling duo.

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