Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) – Stupid Title in a Great Adventure

“Solo: A Star Wars Story” is a stupid title. We know the film is about Han Solo, so adding that is “A Star Wars Story” tells us nothing we don’t already know. Given that they wanted to make a Trilogy out of this film I’m not sure how they’d show they are different, but I’m good with the sequels having different titles. Beyond my gripe about this title, I really liked this movie and thought it was a great. This was a film that explores the underworld of “Star Wars” where there are thieves, pirates and gangsters and no one is to be trusted. I enjoyed this film so much that I would watch sequels as the core cast and story were compelling and I found myself entranced through this entire side adventure within the Star Wars Franchise.

The film was directed by Ron Howard, (after the original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were fired) and written by Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan.

The story follows the adventures of Han Solo and explores how he became the smuggler we know in “A New Hope.” I’ll get more into that later on but the core of the plot is how he gets the Millennium Falcon and his motivation for going into the smuggler life. 

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The “Star Wars” Underworld – The underworld is one of the core parts of the Star Wars films. We see Jabba and his palace in “Return of the Jedi” and get glimpses of the underworld of Coruscant in the prequels and in series like “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” tv series. I like this world… this is a world where money and power run everything and even the Empire stays out of their way. It is here, where we see characters make difficult and dark choices, as a matter of course and “Solo” does not disappoint in that regards. This film develops the underworld and we see the toll it takes on those who are forced into it or choose to become a part of it.

The Cloud Riders – This is a pirate group that is always getting in on Beckett’s jobs, as we see, he and the leader have a history with one another. I won’t spoil what happens with them, but there is more to them than meets the eye and, like everyone in this movie, they are far more complex than they first appear to be.

Tobias Beckett and his Crew – Woody Harrelson is fantastic as Beckett, a corrupt guy out for himself but, also, caring, as we see he’s married to his partner Val and clearly loves her. As well as, great rapport with his pilot, Rio, an alien with four arms and attitude. Eventually Chewie and Han join this group on a train heist job. The crew has a great dynamic and I would have watched a show about the 5 of them. Han joins them after he discovers their con and becomes part of their crew. 

Dryden Vos and the Crimson Dawn – Paul Bettany plays an amazing villain. This is a guy who reeks threat and charm as he invades peoples’ space, and does all he can to disarm them before ever having to fight them. You can tell why he became leader of the Crimson Dawn, as he flies in a huge ship to track his assets to make sure they finish their jobs. His power is far reaching, too, as Qi’ra and Han were orphans under the control of Lady Proxima, and now she is under Vos and the Crimson Dawn’s control. His organization has become one of the most powerful gangs in the galaxy. 

Lando – Donald Glover captures Lando’s charm beautifully. Young Lando is a gambler who does what he wants, and will cheat to win. This provides an interesting dynamic with Han who is idealistic and good at this point, where Lando shows the direction Han will go. Lando, of course, owns the Millennium Falcon and his co-pilot is L3, a droid who believes in equal rights for droids and has a complicated relationship with Lando.

Han and Chewbacca – Han and Chewbacca are the heart of the film, as we see that they have each others back on multiple occasions. Initially they start out distrusting each other and depending on one another for simple survival, but with each sacrifice they make for each other, they soon become partners and close friends by the end of the film.

Okay:

Qi’ra – Qi’ra is Han’s childhood friend and love interest. Amelia Clarke does a decent job in the role, but I wouldn’t call her super memorable. She plays her part in the advancement of the plot and there are some great twists with her character, but I feel more could have been done. I wanted more scenes of her with Han, so their relationship could be developed further and so that the romance would feel more real.

Fanservice – Want to learn how characters got their nicknames or names? Want to know why the Falcon looks why it does? Want to get some “A New Hope” references? Well, you will get all this, and more, in this film. It never gets as bad as “Rogue One” in the references and the original characters carry the film. So much of the fanservice wasn’t needed and I would have preferred we never had the questions answered.

The Cons:

The Cinematography – The cinematography is really dark. There were times I had trouble seeing what was going on on screen and had to depend wholly on what I heard the characters were saying, rather than what I was seeing. This was a huge detriment and what kept the film from being the perfect film of its type.

“Solo: A Star Wars Story” was a film that as far as I know, no one was asking for, but in the end I was glad it got made. Hearing about the development hell, from the firing of the first directors, to hiring an acting coach for the lead… I was ready to hate this film. I had no expectations and was really annoyed this film even existed. “Solo” has now become one of my favorite “Star Wars” films. The film takes risks by giving us a world where no one can be trusted and the status quo is loss. I would watch sequels to this film, and cared far more about the characters here than I did anyone in “Rogue One.” If you like “Star Wars” or heist films, check it out. It is well worth your time and for me it did not disappoint.

Final Score: 9.4 / 10

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Deadpool 2 (2018): Deadpool Works Best in a Supporting Role

“Deadpool 2” is a fun action comedy that works in a lot of the same ways as the first film (critiquing Superhero films and pop culture), while trying to find a layer of depth in its characters which it sometimes succeeds at doing. It isn’t as good as the first film as it depends on most of the same jokes but it is still a film I’d recommend, as the new characters are fantastic and the jokes are still funny.

The film was directed by David Leitch and written by Rhet Reese, Paul Wermick and Ryan Reynolds.

The story involves Deadpool seeking a reason to live after criminals kill his wife Vanessa as he joins the X-Men to protect Russel, a boy who will someday become the supervillain Firefirst. Things soon get complicated though as protecting Russel lands both Deadpool and Russel in prison and they find themselves pursued by the cyborg super-soldier from the future, Cable.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Lampooning of “Logan” – The main joke that drives “Deadpool 2” is making fun of “Logan.” There will be spoilers for “Logan” in this, so here it goes…. In “Logan” Wolverine is in charge of protecting a kid from outside forces, and in the end, has to choose not being selfish, sacrificing himself to save her and the next generation of X-Men. Deadpool does all of this and mocks the sacrifice of “Logan” off the bat with a music box depicting a spinning, dead Wolverine on it. This core joke works but comes off as derivative given how much Wolverine and the comics he inhabited were mocked in the first film. 

Colossus – Colossus isn’t the heart of the film like last time, but he is great as Deadpool’s unsuccessful mentor. In the end he comes through to help Deadpool when Deadpool needs him though. I never cared about this character until the “Deadpool” films, and I hope we see more of him. Nothing was done with him in the other X-Men films, but here is a true hero more often than not.

Domino – Domino is the new addition and one of my favorite parts of the film. She is a mutant whose power is luck (Which in the film she can read situations to the point of doing the near impossible). Zazie Beetz does a fantastic job and gives the character an heir of confidence as she is so much better than so many of the idiots around her. We learn her backstory but, sadly, it doesn’t payoff  as she was abused in the same school as the character Russel / Firefist but she doesn’t get any payback. It remains unaddressed, which is a shame, as it gave her a motivation to help Deadpool and join X-Force.

Cable – Josh Brolin is an amazing actor and in this film we see him give a depth of emotion to your standard Terminator-esque cyborg. Through the film we see why he is motivated to kill Russel (in the future, Russel kills his wife and baby girl), and it is only through Deadpool’s actions that he learns compassion, even deciding to stay in the current timeline once he knows his family is safe. I hope we see more of the character as there is still so much that can be done, and I like his contrast with Deadpool’s flippancy, as he is always serious.

Deadpool – Ryan Reynolds truly owns this role and even though this film repeats a lot of the same jokes (Mocking Reynolds and “Logan,” Deadpool referencing pop culture, etc.), it is still an enjoyable film because, as flippant as Deadpool is, Reynolds gives this character heart. This is a character who grows as a person and has to learn to be vulnerable and open up, as in the end, that is the only way to save Russel from becoming a monster of the future. This is the thrust of Deadpool’s arc after criminals kill his wife Vanessa, and it is touching and hilarious seeing how he gets there.

Okay:

X-Force – X-Force is a joke, as they only exist to get killed off. There is a character who is invisible until they die and are revealed, and 3 other characters, one of whom is just a normal guy who just saw the advertisement. They all die when they are attacking the prison truck to save Russel. The only members to survive are Domino and Deadpool, which is the running gag of the group… that they are that worthless as a team. I put them in the okay category because I wanted more development of the team members. This is the running theme for me on why the film wasn’t great as so many ideas were good but they weren’t developed enough to reach greatness.

Negasonic and Yukio – I like that we see the first openly LGBTQ relationship in X-Men. It is overdue and Deadpool is a great way to show it. I hate that we know nothing about Yukio and Negasonic’s relationship. We never see how they work as a couple, they just are. Given how important love and relationship was in this film, it was a missed opportunity to make something that was a good idea truly fantastic.

When Jokes Repeat – Many of the jokes in this film are repetitive… be it Deadpool’s semi-stand up routine, the mocking of “Logan,” Wolverine and Ryan Reynolds and making fun of DC. I’m not putting this as a con, but this film could have been amazing if it’d been more original in the jokes it chose to present.

The Cons:

Russel and the School – Russel is a kid who turns into a villain in X-Men’s dystopian future, a future in which he kills Cable’s wife and daughter and takes the name Firefist. Russel isn’t a good actor. He does an okay job but he just wasn’t compelling enough to be the heart of the film, which he needed to be given it was him healing from his abuse and not becoming a killer that was the core thrust of the story. The owner of the school suffers from this same problem, as he is just a corrupt religious fanatic who gets zero development, only functioning as a way to drive the plot, which at the end of the day was all Russel was too.

If you liked “Deadpool” you will probably enjoy “Deadpool 2.” This was a film that was flawed and repetitive, but introduced a lot more characters and concepts, that I hope get explored in future films be it X-Force, Domino, and Cable, along with the dystopian future that Cable came from. At the end of the day, this was a solid action comedy and I’m glad it exists to make fun of the world where superhero films own the box office.

Final Score: 8.4 / 10

Avengers: Infinity War (2018) – The Power of a Compelling Villain

“Infinity War” is easily in my Top 5 MCU films. This is a film I saw a second time before writing this review, and the only other Superhero films that have been that lucky were “The Dark Knight” and “The Dark Knight Rises.” As you can tell from those and this film, I enjoy my superhero films depressing or bittersweet. This is a film that hits you over the head with loss, and doesn’t stop until the end. Thanos is the villain, but also the protagonist, as his actions drive the film and force our heroes to make choices that define them before the loss comes. I’ll get into spoilers deeper into the review, but for now, this is a film I highly recommend.

This film was directed by the Russo Brothers, written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, while being produced by Kevin Feige.

The story involves the Avengers trying to stop Thanos from getting all the Infinity Stones (cosmically powerful stones born at the Big Bang, and scattered through the Universe), as when he does, he plans to wipe out half the universe.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Universe – It is the Marvel Cinematic Universe… a universe full of aliens, cultures, clashing personalities, heroes, villains and in the end consequences. There is a reason I’ve become so drawn into the comic books. What Marvel and Disney have done is to interpret so much of that beautifully on the screen, and each new film I like returning to this enjoyable and fascinating world.

The Superhero Teams – The driving action of the film is the team-ups between different heroes. Characters clash and have to work out their conflicts in order to take on Thanos to keep him from destroying half the population of the Universe. I’ll cover what I liked about the teams below.

Bruce Banner and the Secret Avengers – The film kicks off with Thanos killing Loki and knocking out the Hulk. The Hulk is saved by Heimdall and sent to Earth where Hulk retreats into Bruce Banner. From here we see Banner reunite with the Avengers, and have to depend on his brains to take on the Black Order, as Hulk is afraid to come out after losing to Thanos. It is wonderful seeing this dynamic in action, with those in Wakanda, as he fights in Tony’s Hulkbuster armor against the alien swarm. Banner has always been the outcast in the Avengers, and now that he’s back he can’t even depend on his power as the Hulk. This forces him to adapt to thinking things through as Banner, as he realizes he has deeper issues to explore with the Hulk. I can’t wait to see where his arc goes with the Hulk and the Avengers in “Avengers 4.”

Spider-Man, Doctor Strange and Iron Man – This dynamic is fun. To kick things off, Doctor Strange is the one who doesn’t care about people (he tells Tony and Peter that he will let them die before he gives Thanos the Time Stone). Spidey is full of pop culture references that annoy Tony, and Tony Stark is always trying to take control, which leads to conflict with Doctor Strange because of it. They succeed in taking out a member of the Black Order, but face deadly fallout when they reach Titan, Thanos’ homeworld, to battle the Mad Titan himself.

Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax and Mantis – 3 of this group eventually team up with Spidey, Strange, and Stark against Thanos… which happens after Gamora is kidnapped by Thanos, as she knows the destination of the Soul Stone. She has some powerful scenes with Star-Lord, and some funny scenes with Drax.

Rocket, Groot and Thor – This was my favorite team up, it happens after the Guardians of the Galaxy rescue Thor from his destroyed refugee ship. Thor’s ship was destroyed by Thanos when he picked up the Space Stone from Loki, before Thanos kills Loki. It is the death of Heimdall and Loki, and half of Asgard that have Thor full of anger and broken. This leads to Rocket stepping up to be the Captain and helping Thor through the process of healing, as they head to the legendary location of Nidavellir, so that Thor can create a god killing weapon. Groot is a teenager and full of attitude, but steps up to the plate when he contributes part of himself to making Thor’s new weapon.

The Story Arc of Thanos – Thanos is the protagonist of this film. It is desire for balance in the universe (which he believes can only come about through genocide after his planet is destroyed from running out of resources and overpopulation) that drives his desire for the Infinity Stones. Each stone costs him, as the members of the Black Order are all eventually killed by the Avengers. To get the Soul Stone he has to sacrifice the only one he ever loved (Gamora), and getting the Mind Stone out of Vision nearly costs him his life, when Thor attacks him with the God killing weapon. In the end he wins and wipes out half the universe. Where his story goes from here remains to be seen, as he achieved his goal, and as far as he knows… he is the monster who brought balance to the universe. Josh Brolin truly did a masterful job and is easily one of the best villains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Okay:

The Black Order – These 4 look really cool but weren’t as effective as they could have been. I would have liked at least one of them to kill one of the good guys. They might be back now that Thanos has all the Infinity Stones, so they could get more development later on… we’ll just have to wait and see.

The Battle in Wakanda – The Battle in Wakanda is pretty generic compared to most of the other fights in the film. Most of the other fights involve use of the environment and powers to try and stop the Mad Titan, where here it is a bunch of expendable aliens against a group of superheroes and soldiers all lined up. It is like every other “big battle.” It still looked good, but the genericness of it all kept it from being a truly memorable part of the film. It was the kind of action we see in every other MCU film.

Pacing – The first time I saw this film I didn’t notice any pacing issues. The second time I watched I thought the beginning could have been cut down and happened faster, the Battle of Wakanda is too long, and Thanos needed more scenes with people. Each film develops him further, and with better pacing we could have gotten more of that, or least more exploration of his faction, the Black Order.

The team ups, the comedy, the action, the characters and their arcs… there is so much I have to recommend about this film. This is a film that could have been a gigantic mess, given how large the cast was, and all the different parts that are in play. The Russo Brothers managed to pull it off. Once again, showing why they are the ones shaping the story of the MCU. If you haven’t seen this movie yet, do it. This is a film that is well worth your time and shows just how powerful stories can be.

Final Score: 9.8 / 10

 

Ready Player One (2018): When the Film is Better Than the Book

It has been some time since I’ve watched a Steven Spielberg film. After seeing this film, I really should change that. He really is one of the best living directors today, as this is a film that could have been a cringe-worthy mess. First, I was a fan of the book, even though this film gets away from the book in some ways it still keeps the core spirit of the book. This is a film that celebrates video games and nostalgia while doing it well, even though the main characters are flat. My non-spoiler thoughts are: if you liked the book, you will probably enjoy this film too.

The film was directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline (the author of the book).

The story takes place in the dystopian future of 2045. The world has fallen apart and everyone lives in the Oasis, a virtual reality world created by Halliday where you can be anyone and do anything. Wade Watts is the main protagonist who is trying to find the 3 Easter Eggs that Halliday put in the game as a way of passing on ownership after his death. From here Watts and his friends must find the keys and beat the game before the evil corporation, Innovative Online Industries (IOI), lead by Nolan Sorrento.

The Pros:

The Dystopian Reality – The dystopian reality of the world outside of the Oasis is a tragic place. You have debt slaves to IOI, cars and houses stacked on each other in the Stacks, a militarized police force and drones everywhere. I wanted to learn more about this world and spend more time there as the human connections we see are made primarily in the Oasis. For me, one of my favorite parts was seeing the characters outside of the game working together, having to depend on their brains rather than how awesome they were in the game. I wanted more of this and to hear more of their stories.

The Oasis – The Oasis is really cool. This is a VR world where you can make yourself into any avatar you want. You can also build robots, tanks, cars, etc. It is a huge modding community where you can do PVP (Player versus Player) and PVE (Player versus Enemies [AI]) combat. It is the endless possibilities of imagination and gaming combined. I really hope we can make something like it, someday.

i-R0K the Mercenary – i-R0K is the mercenary Sorrento, and his evil corporation IOI, uses to hunt our heroes. He is a funny guy, as he is only in it for the loot. He’s a huge threat, and also, very human as he talks about how bad his back is and needing physical therapy. He has more character than our heroes, and I would watch a movie just about him.

The Tone – The tone is one of wonder and imagination intermixed with sorrow and desperation. Spielberg owns the tone, and it pervades the film giving weight to everything that happens and the actions our characters take.

Okay:

Flat Heroes – Wade is an orphan who lives in the stacks who comes off as a bit one-dimensional, as he only lives for the game and has no real defining character traits. Samantha is the love interest who thinks she’s ugly because she has a birthmark on her face, and her dad is enslaved by IOI. The Japanese Brothers are an older and younger brother duo. The younger brother is an 11 year old who doesn’t like people thinking he’s young, as he fears they’d mock him in the Oasis. Helen is an African-American woman who plays a troll-like, tough character, called Aech. These characters aren’t bad… it’s just that there isn’t more to them beyond the descriptions I gave. They are all heroes who do the right thing, always, and have no inner conflict or aims. This was a missed opportunity. They are this way in the book, but we do get into Wade’s head which makes him more compelling. These characters work within the story, but they really deserved much better development.

Idealization versus Reality – Oasis is a giant gaming community, so where are or what happened to all the toxic trolls? The racists? The sexists? As far as we know there isn’t a moderator who kicks players out, so how did this reality become perfect? This is where the stories fantasy element really came out. The film could have critiqued itself, or shown us how to get to the ideal reality the Oasis community seems to be.

The Cons:

The Villain and Predictability – Sorrento is a cliched. corrupt businessman. one-dimensional villain. He’s just greedy and selfish, having no greater depth. He was that way in the book too, which is a shame as he knows Halliday and it could have been Halliday who brought out his worst self. He’s entertaining, but there is nothing there. He is flatter than our heroes, and their presentations aren’t great.

Overdependence on Nostalgia – The Oasis is full of references, and it is fine up to a degree, but in a game you’d expect more original content. Why is everyone so focused on creating things that already exist rather than things that don’t exist. Some moments of nostalgia are cool, like the T.Rex  and King Kong in the race at the beginning, but the old arcade game at the end felt unneeded and could have been adapted into a better trial.

This was a film that missed opportunities to critique the culture of gaming, and nostalgia found in the modern world (they could have shown how we got past toxic troll culture, etc.). The flatness of the heroes and  the villain didn’t help the film… but the world, the world carried it for me. This is a good film that could have been great if it had dared to observe and critique itself. Once more, if you loved the book or love Spielberg, you will enjoy this film.

Final Score: 8.3 / 10

 

Isle of Dogs (2018): Overlong Beginning Leads to a Good End

Wes Anderson is one of my Top 3 favorite directors (the other two being Stanley Kubrick and John Carpenter). How does this film stand up compared to his other works? It is good, I loved the visuals and characters, but it doesn’t have the depth as some of his other works and it never reaches greatness, even though it is really good. The location and characters are wonderful with some beautiful homages to Kurosawa, and the main cast is wonderfully quirky with the main character arc being solid. So for my non-spoiler thoughts, this definitely gets a strong recommend.

The film was directed by Wes Anderson, who also wrote and was one of the producers of the film. With the other producers being Scott Rudin, Steven Rales and Jeremy Dawson.

The story follows Atari (Koyu Rankin) a young Japanese boy and ward of the new authoritarian Mayor. He travels to the Isle of Dogs to find his dog Spots (Liev Schrieber) on the Island after all dogs are exiled there due to the Dog Flu. Five dogs help on his quest, with Chief (Bryan Cranston) being the stray who hates humans but must learn to trust Atari for them all to survive the quest. As the quest unfolds a conspiracy is revealed on the Isle of Dogs and Megasaki City.

The Pros:

The Animation and Visuals – The film is done in highly detailed, beautiful stop motion animation. Wes Anderson’s use of symmetry is on full display, as each character and their emotions stand out like drum beats on the screen. You can tell that Kurosawa inspired Wes Anderson, and the making of the film. Both directors are good at using wide open spaces to tell stories of travel, and color to express life and death. We get all of that in this film.

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack, like the visuals, takes a lot of inspiration from Akira Kurosawa, from the quiet openings with stark drums, and the emphasis on percussion. Alexandre Desplat captures the world so starkly, bringing the characters and scenes to life.

The Pack – The Pack is wonderful. Goldblum’s Duke is a gossip and hears things, Murray’s Boss is kind of oblivious and likes wearing trinkets, Norton’s Rex is the default second-in-command and sometimes leader, Balaban’s King is the washed up ex-celebrity dog who goes through bouts of depression, and Chief is their tough battle-worn leader.

Chief’s Arc – The main arc of the movie belongs to the stray, Chief, who goes from hating humans to becoming Atari’s new bodyguard. His story is believable too, with a dog he likes (Nutmeg) first suggesting he give the kid a chance, and ending with the Atari caring for him as he goes from covered in black soot, to looking just like Spots. He was my favorite character, and I loved how as standoffish as he initially was. There were reasons behind it, just like his transformation made sense due to Atari’s compassion. By the end, he’s the main connector between humanity and the dogs.

Atari and the Mayor – The Mayor is a distant relative of Atari, and for some reason really hates the dogs (it is implied that his ancestors did, and of course they loved cats). In the end Atari’s love for the dogs changes his heart. He does what he can in the end to stop the dogs from being destroyed due to that last minute change of heart. I liked Mayor Kobayashi in the end, he was a great antagonist and had a level of complexity to him.

Okay: The Foreign Exchange Student / The Student Arc – Tracy Walker leads her class in saving the dogs on the Island. My issue with this was that we never get what brought her to Japan, so it gives a bit of a white savior vibe to her interactions, especially since the other students are never given words. I’m still putting her at okay as Tracy was a compelling character, the downside is she could have been anyone, and I would have preferred she’d have been Japanese like Atari.

What About the Cats? – I’m putting this as okay as the film could have become overcrowded if we had the cats speaking. I also wanted to know the cats motivations. It implies they are the leaders of Japan, but it never does anything with it. The cats never have a voice, and it takes away from the overall point. They weren’t even needed, since the focus was on the dogs.

The Cons:

The Japanese are Only Given a Voice Through Limited Translation – This ties into Tracy and the students. Most Japanese never get the chance to speak, or be understood, as they are filtered through translation. This wasn’t needed at all. I think it was meant for us to focus fully on the story of the dogs, but the story of humanity and the dogs is interconnected, so both should have their voices fully heard.

Pacing – The pacing is the biggest issue, about 20 minutes in I was exhausted (I walked from Ready Player One to the awesome indie theatre, Salem Cinema, for this double feature). This may have been a contributing factor to how slow it felt, and why it took me out of the film early on. It is slow, even though the payoff later is fantastic.

This was a film that I really enjoyed, and captures so much of why Wes Anderson is one of my favorite directors. From the characters and their detachment, to the fight against the stronger enemy (Atari against the government), and the quirky characters (mostly the dogs)… If you are a fan of Wes Anderson, you will love this film. If you aren’t a fan, or haven’t heard of him… I’d still recommend it. This is an original story that may take a while to reel you in, but once there you’ll be hooked.

Final Score: 8.8 / 10

Pacific Rim Uprising (2018): The Great Old With the Bland New

I’m a fan of the “Pacific Rim” universe. I also think the last film was perfect for what it was, and didn’t need a sequel. Now that a sequel has been made… I enjoyed it. But, this is a very flawed film brought down by child actors that can’t act; contrasted with some beautiful action, expansion of the “Pacific Rim” universe in intriguing ways and solid leads. I wouldn’t call it good, but if you are looking for an escape, my thoughts are, it is worth checking out.

This was a film that had a lot of people involved in its creation, with Steven S. DeKnight directing the film and being one of the 4 writers. Guillermo del Toro and John Boyega were producers, along with 5 other people. On paper, this looks like a film designed by committee.

The story picks up 10 years after the end of the first film. Jake Pentecost (Stacker Pentecost’s son, played by John Boyega) is living as a scavenger until he is picked up, and forced back into being a Jaeger Ranger. He must train new recruits as the world prepares for the return of Kaiju. All is not as it appears to be, though, as a new drone program is implemented, and a mysterious Jaeger arrives. The new Jaeger starts attacking people rather than protecting them.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Universe – I love this universe. Since middle school I’ve been a fan of monsters and mechs. The world del Toro realized is so rich in character and mythology. The mythology this time around doesn’t disappoint. We get solid world building, as we learn more about the Kaiju, The Precursors, and how humanity has changed after the Battle of the Breach that ended the first film.

The Jaegers and Kaiju – The Jaegers and Kaiju look great, as always, and the introduction of drones, which are later shown to be Jaeger/Kaiju hybrids, are a treat that add a lot the action. These two things, along with del Toro, are what drew me to the first film, and it was the mechs and monsters that kept my interest through the times where this film fell short. As both their creative designs and action scenes brought to life the world when the characters weren’t up to it.

Jake Pentecost and Nate Lambert – The main character drama is between Jake Pentecost and Nate Lambert. Jake is the party boy who becomes responsible after facing his trauma. Nate is the one who has to trust Jake, once again, if they are going win. Boyega’s charisma continues to make his character intriguing, even if the script doesn’t always help. Nate Lambert is a battle hardened veteran who was shaped by the war in such a way, he has trouble connecting to people. It gives him a level of mystery, as if he is holding onto some past trauma, which gives him a way to relate to Jake. It is their core relationship that kept the film going for me, as each of them grew over the course of the film, and it was a genuine challenge for them learning to trust one another.

Newt and the Kaiju – The main antagonist is Newt, who is being controlled by The Precursors, that also control the Kaiju. We discover he kept the Kaiju brain at the end of the last film, and it has corrupted him. Charlie Day hams the hell out of it, and is enjoyable to watch in his madness. He nearly wins on multiple occasions, and I can’t wait to see where they take his story.

Dr. Hermann and Liwen Shao – The two support characters who really drive the story are Dr. Hermann (he was around in the first film too), and Liwen Shao, owner of the drone program. Together they are able to save the world from the Kaiju, as each of their skills complement the surviving Jaegers and help them defeat the Giant Kaiju in its final assault on Tokyo. Which felt like a brilliant salute to all the mech and monster films that made this genre possible.

The Cons:

The New Recruits – These kids can’t act. I didn’t care about their story, each line of dialogue felt forced, and fake. These kids made the film feel like an episode of Power Rangers. If I had to describe them…it’d be difficult. We are shown how each of them are (the nervous one, the angry one, the inventor), but there isn’t enough there for them to be compelling. They brought the film down, and even making one of them a main character, in the inventor Amara, wasn’t enough to make me care about their story. 

The Death of Mako Mori – Mako Mori deserved better. She is killed by a rogue Jaeger, and it ends up being anti-climatic. She already existed primarily to give us plot (a disservice to the character), and even her great scenes with Boyega can’t change the fact that her death wasn’t dying in a fight against the monsters…it was in a copter crash. She never got that “moment of awesome” Stacker got, and there was so much more development she could have received with the re-establishing her relationship with Jake. Besides the child actors this was the worst part of the film.

Love Interest Woman – There is a woman named Jewel. Both Jake and Nate have a crush on her. She is an object in a contrived love triangle object. I couldn’t tell you her personality, her aims, or what she wants. She exists purely as “love interest girl” and is the worst part of the script. She wasn’t needed.

In the end, what holds up this film and keeps it from sucking are: the old characters and those tied to the old characters from the first film, Newt and Hermann were wonderful, Pentecost and Lambert had a great relationship, and Liwen Shao (the new character) shakes the story up in ways that only enrich this universe. I loved her character arc, and hope that she is a major part if they make a third film. This is a film that largely exists because of success in the international box office, specifically China. In the end I’m glad it was made.

Final Score: 7.7 / 10

Juni Taisen: Zodiac War – A Solid Battle Royale Anime That Tackles Meaning and Purpose

    I’m a fan of complete stories, and stories with consequences. This goes for shows, books, films, etc. If I start something, I want to finish it. That is what lead me to this series, and one of the reasons I love Battle Royale animes. Battle Royale is a style of anime where a group of characters are in a tournament, fighting to the death, and there can only be one team or one person left alive. Think “Hunger Games” in terms of scale.

“Juni Taisen: Zodiac War” is an anime based off a light novel (interactive book), by Nisio Isin, which was illustrated by Hikaru Nakamura. It takes place in the modern day where a war rages between 12 families, named after the 12 animals in the Chinese Zodiac fight (Ox, Dragon, Snake, Monkey, etc.). World Leaders bet on who will win, and the winner has a wish granted as their reward.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The World – The world is full of magic and technology, and each family has a power or ability that is passed down through blood. This makes the wars between them fascinating and adds a darker element to it all, as each ability is used to maximize killing. The world is full of constant war and political intrigue, and this plays into the characters chosen to fight in the tournament.

Characters – Not all the characters are strong or interesting. I couldn’t stand Snake and Dragon as they were just like Beavis and Butthead. Horse needed more character development. How women are objectified ends up taking away from a few backstories, too. There are a few characters that do manage to carry this 12 episode series though.

Boar – Boar is our introduction to this world. She is the daughter of the winner of the last tournament. She wants to be the best more than anything and to be loved by her father. This leads to her driving her sister insane when her father chooses her sister over her. The reasons behind this are never fully explored, but given how sociopathic her father is, he turned sister against sister to see who he could make the most ruthless. She’s a broken character, but she loves the rage of battle. We see how her father’s views shape her, making her vulnerable, which is contrasted by the hard, collected exterior she presents to others.

Monkey – Monkey is the peacemaker, driven by the desire to bring about world peace. She is a planner and has a way of disarming people with her kindness. She is one of the most powerful members in the tournament, as she controls the elements. She only dies when Rabbit uses the others he has killed to catch her off guard. Monkey is the only good person in the tournament, as many are driven by much more selfish means.

Tiger – Tiger fights in a drunken rage. Having to fight in the wars that the families take part in breaks her spirit, and makes her a nihilist. This leads to her drinking and fighting, which leads to her forgetting herself, getting kicked out of her family and living by instinct. Her arc is about finding herself again, as when Ox rescues her one of the days she is drunk prior to the tournament, and that drives her to be better. Her story is touching. In the end she sacrifices herself to save Ox from Rabbit, and is the only member of the tournament to die happy.

Ox – Ox is the Samurai archetype. This is a man who fights for honor and in defense of others. He has no abilities, but is methodical in his killing, becoming known as the “Genius of Slaughter.” He chooses not to kill in the end, in regards to Tiger. We see him as someone who has lived his entire life killing and found no purpose beyond how he kills. It is in his final act of risking his life, so Rat can defeat Rabbit, that we see that he finally finds purpose, just as his friend Tiger did.

Rabbit – Rabbit is an insane necromantist whose soul desires to make everyone his “friends,” as in kill them and make them his minions. He is unpredictable and the main antagonist of the series, as he outmatches every single character. His winning means the end of the world. It takes multiple characters working together, starting with Monkey and ending with the actions of Ox and Tiger, that lead to Rat finally being able to defeat him. The final fights are amazing, and that is mostly due to just how impressive Rabbit is as an enemy.

Shaped by Trauma – One of the major themes of the series is how trauma shapes you. Chicken was abused as a child so they learn to use vulnerability as a tool, Tiger’s trauma shapes her into a weapon, Horse’s trauma leads to him pumping himself full of drugs to be the strongest, and Monkey’s trauma drives her to try and bring about peace. These are a few examples of what makes the characters, who drive the story, so compelling. All of them were born out of conflict and their actions are shaped by it.

Character Contrast – Each of the characters has another aspect about themselves that is contrasted with the face they wear during the tournament. Ox is a brutal unfeeling killer, yet dies for another. Tiger is reckless and violent but her final actions are driven by love, Rabbit brings people back to life because he is lonely and wants to be with people, Horse is a powerful soldier but in the end dies afraid and trapped, unable move past his fear.

The Cons:

Dragon and Snake – I hated Dragon and Snake. These two are thieves who present themselves as helping the poor, but will take any contract, even killing the very people they were helping. We never find out why though. They have no clear motivation in their actions, and it just makes them bland. These characters just act bored or crazy, and it does nothing to develop them. These two received two episodes to explore their backstory, which really should have gone to Ox or Rabbit. The writer didn’t care about these characters, and in the end, we don’t either.

How the Show Presents Women – Women in this are presented as victims only. Monkey is a victim of failed treaties she made, Chicken from abusive parents, Tiger from War, and Boar by her father. On top of this most of them are presented as sexual objects. Where the men get outfits that would function in combat or cover most of their body. With the exception of Boar and Monkey, everyone else is in underwear or less. This was so stupid, especially in regards to Tiger, who is a soldier, and Chicken, who is a spy. This is a common trope in anime and one I really hope is changed. Every character deserves full development and respectful presentation. Objectification does nothing but cheapen the character.

The Ending – Rat wins because of his ability to see up to 100 different possibilities and choose the best path to take. So what does he do? What did he learn from all these characters, their motivations, and wishes? Nothing, seriously… the ending is awful. Rat chooses to forget he ever took part in the tournament, which is problematic given it makes all the deaths meaningless, and it doesn’t keep him from being put back into another tournament. He doesn’t help anyone and he doesn’t solve the problem of the tournament’s existence. I hated the ending, and it is one reason I can’t really call this series good.

If you are fan of Battle Royale animes you should check this one out. It is entertaining and there are some great character moments, the animation and action are fantastic too. What brings it down is the common anime trope of the objectification of women, and certain character arcs having no payoff; as well as, an ending that isn’t worth your time. Seriously if you want the best of this anime, watch everything but the last episode, and skip the Dragon and Snake episodes. Besides that, this was entertaining but extremely flawed.

Final Score: 7 / 10