Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Movie Review: Coco

Coco is the sort of beautiful, engrossing movie that reminds audiences why Pixar is the absolute best there is in computer animation. The characters' emotions are relatable, the setting is vivid, and story flows organically. And let's not lose sight of the fact it offers some welcome cultural representation.

And, if this weren't 2017, if their record of featuring women as the central lead was better than three out of nineteen, if John Lasseter's name hadn't been plastered across the screen on the same day he stepped down over vague harassment issues... if any of those weren't the case, I suspect the rest of this review would just be an expansion of that first paragraph. It's a Pixar movie, with everything positive that implies.

But things being what they are, I feel like I need to address the misogyny permeating this otherwise wonderful movie.

I spent quite a bit of time weighing whether that's the right word, but I really think it is. The movie features three female characters in predominant roles. One, the title character, is basically a hundred year-old variation on the sexy lamp test - in a real sense, she's a device that the male characters care for and want to adjust, but she has no character or agency herself. I'm making her role sound a little worse than it is - in context, it makes sense, and if the movie had more female characters, it wouldn't be worth bringing up at all.

Let's talk about the other two women. Actually, calling them two separate characters might be generous - they're functionally reflections of each other. That's by design - one is the deceased grandmother of the other, who's filling her ancestor's shoes (quite literally). Think the Wizard of Oz (which is pretty clearly the inspiration for Coco's story); the family matriarch exists in both worlds the way the Lion, Woodsman, and Scarecrow were double-cast.

They're not exactly the movie's antagonists, but they are its primary obstacles. I'll spell it out: due to something that happened generations earlier, the family has outlawed music of any form in their home. Don't get too bogged down in the Footloose aspects - the movie sells this better than you'd think, and it's not the main problem. The issue is that the power and will behind this ultimatum lies fully with these two matriarchs, both of whom are irrational and headstrong to the point of being cruel. This is the stereotypical cold spinster - a classic sexist trope. Hell, one is actually a woman scorned: that's her motivation.

And that's the sum total of women in significant roles. There are a few bit parts, some of which come off a touch more sympathetic. The main character's mom seemed fine in her brief seconds on screen, and there were a few other small roles, but nothing adding up to much. Unless I'm forgetting a throwaway scene (and I don't think I am), this doesn't come close to passing the Bechdel Test.

There is redemption for the women by the end, including some pretty great moments for the original matriarch, but it doesn't entirely address the root problem. Over the course of the movie, the two male leads go on a journey, both literal and spiritual, and learn a lesson. The two female characters, on the other hand, are taught a lesson by the men: that's not the same thing.

This was less an issue with this movie than a pervasive problem at Pixar. If it weren't for the confluence of events I mentioned at the start, I don't think I'd have devoted more than a sentence or two to the movie's depiction of women. But while Pixar has given us some of the best animated movies ever made, the company has a bad history with women. They made twelve movies centered around men before they made one with a woman. For a brief period, it seemed like they might have addressed the issue - we got Brave, Inside-Out, and Finding Dory in a relatively short span of time (all great movies).

But it seems like we've taken a step back, and that's a shame. In part, because this is a really good movie. I found it moving, funny, and both visually and aurally spectacular. But every time one of the two main women did something horribly cruel or irrational for the point of giving the men something to overcome, I was reminded that there's something rotten on Pixar's head. And I found myself wondering whether removing the infection for six months was really going to be enough time for the company to heal.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Movie Review: Justice League

How do you make a sequel to what's almost certainly the worst movie of its genre? Hell, Batman V Superman might be the worst movie of any genre, at least in terms of missed opportunities and bad decisions (incidentally, if you haven't seen the first part of this YouTube miniseries, you're missing out).

Warner Bros' solution seems to have been to throw two directors, a stack of studio notes cribbed from every negative review, and - if rumors are to be believed - three hundred million dollars at the screen, in the hopes of getting something remotely watchable.

And... honestly... they kind of succeeded.

I know, I'm as surprised as you are. But while I wouldn't call the movie good, the vast majority is absurdist fun in the form of an unabashed love letter to the DC Universe and its history.

But what's the movie like? That part's easy - this is camp to the core. Aside from an extremely dull thirty or forty minute chunk of the film that tried to wring out some drops of drama, this feels more like a big-screen version of Superfriends, Adam West, or Batman: Brave and the Bold than a continuation of the franchise. The movie that made it to screen is basically an extended self-aware joke, for better or worse.

Granted, it's a movie fraying at the seams. Remember that scene in BvS where Flash traveled in time and appeared briefly in the Batcave? It's pretty clear how that was going to tie in with the resurrection of Superman, but the entire subplot was abandoned in favor of a streamlined story. The resurrection story that's left is hilariously idiotic, lacking any real tension or payoff, but - again - that's probably better than the alternative. Superman's return to the land of the living here is as emotionally hollow as his death, but at least Justice League has some fun with it.

And - credit where credit's due - the Superman who appears in this movie is damn near pitch-perfect. Henry Cavill finally gets to demonstrate he was a good choice for the part all along - he just needed a film where he was allowed to smile. Plus, it's hard to overstate how effective a few seconds of the Donner Superman and Burton Batman themes are.

But remember those stories about Cavill's digitally-removed mustache? You will be able to tell, and it will be jarring. You've been warned.

And while I'm issuing warnings, this seems like a good a time to tell you that whoever directed the sequence with the Amazons was a piss-poor substitute for Patty Jenkins. There's an extended fight on Paradise Island that feels like it belongs on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Also, if you've seen any cut scenes from the Injustice games, expect flashbacks during the final battle at the end of the movie. Visual effects were not this movie's strong suit.

And... for the love of God... Batman either needs to be recast or Affleck needs to lay off the gym. He's way too bulky for the role - he looks ridiculous.

But if you can stand all that, you'll be rewarded with some solid interpretations of these characters and some good moments. This might not have been the movie where Warner Bros figured out how to tell a good superhero story, but at least they stopped being embarrassed by the genre and had fun. The critics tearing this to shreds aren't wrong - the flaws in Justice League are legion - but I still enjoyed the experience. And I think those of you who are into the comics or any of the animated incarnations of the team will be at least entertained if you check it out.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Movie Review: Thor: Ragnarok

Thor: Ragnarok has a great deal in common with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Both are comedic, nostalgia driven 80's superhero movies set in the cosmos that lean heavily on music to carry their tone. But while I certainly enjoyed Ragnarok, I didn't love it the same way I loved Guardians. In fact, Ragnarok is currently my least favorite live-action American superhero movie of 2017, which means it's nothing more than a wholly enjoyable comedy/adventure movie that corrects numerous flaws with its predecessors while opening exciting possibilities for the franchise's future.

And here I'd hoped for so much more.

Okay, so obviously the bar's been set pretty high. Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Guardians 2, and Logan were all excellent - we've been spoiled. Fortunately, Justice League is right around the corner, and it's almost guaranteed to correct the curve. But until then, the competition is steep, and - for me, at least - this one didn't quite measure up.

I say that despite finding it consistently funny and entertaining, with great characters and some phenomenal fight sequences. There are numerous fantastic moments and pieces in this. But with one exception, I just didn't feel those parts coalesce into anything more. There wasn't much to the larger story, and the tone - while fun - never gripped me or pulled me in.

Doctor Strange's role (that shouldn't be a spoiler unless you missed the stinger at the end of his solo movie) is a perfect example. It was a great scene that allowed Strange to feel as bizarre as he does in the comics - I'm glad it was in the movie. But that doesn't mean it needed to be there - you could cut him entirely, without it impacting the story. The scene doesn't integrate or build off the themes in a meaningful way.

Strange isn't alone - most of the movie unfolds as a series of mini-adventures. The Hulk/Thor gladiator fight is wonderful, but there's not really much logic behind it. Hulk is funny, and they do offer some intriguing exploration of his childlike mentality and emotional problems, but there's not much in the way of development. Likewise, Valkyrie is a wonderful addition to the team and universe, but her turnabout on whether she'll help Thor feels far more dependent on the movie deciding to move on than on her personal story.

To the movie's credit, all that is reminiscent of comics. Ragnarok, perhaps more so than any Marvel movie before it, recreates the experience of tearing through a small pile of issues. I just wish those issues had been a tad more substantive.

I promised one exception - that's Odin and his relationship with Thor and (to a lesser extent) Loki. The scenes built around the Allfather come closer than anything else to tying the movie together. There's something enticing here - I wish it permeated the rest of the movie a little deeper.

Ragnarok felt more like a big-screen version of Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes than an installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Keep in mind, Earth's Mightiest Heroes was the good Avengers animated series, so that's not exactly a bad thing. This is light, ridiculous fare; popcorn entertainment. There's nothing wrong with that: I just found myself wishing there was something more. Either something more developed structurally, more artistically satisfying, more emotionally impacting... take your pick.

Your mileage will likely vary. This one was better received than Guardians 2 (or pretty much anything else). And it deserves to be praised - it is really, really good. But, in my opinion at least, it doesn't quite live up to Marvel's other offerings this year.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Movie Review: Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049, like the original, is better defined by its tone than its plot, characters, or even themes. Those elements are all present in both movies, but what's memorable is the world. It's the visuals and sounds of Blade Runner that defined thirty-five years of dystopian cinema and influenced damn near every Japanese animated movie since.

If you've seen Blade Runner and have no idea what I'm talking about, let me save you three hours: you can skip this one. But if, like me, you loved the world of the original and would welcome a chance to visit it again... holy crap, are you in for a treat.

It's difficult to convey just how successful a movie this is. It manages to both rebuild and dramatically expand on the world of the original to a degree I don't think we've seen before in any property. The new Star Wars movies come closest, but not even these can compare to the sense of authenticity Denis Villeneuve achieves. I suspect part of that comes from wisely borrowing from the well of genre work that sprang out of the 1982 film. There are characters and settings here that feel like they fell out of an anime, and none seem out of place.

In case anyone cares, the rest of the movie is good, too.

The themes and story are extrapolated from the original without feeling like carbon copies. This doesn't retread the story from Blade Runner, nor is Ryan Gosling's K just an updated Deckard. As a piece of science-fiction, this stands among the most intelligent and complex ever put on film.

If you want to nit-pick, there are opportunities to do so. The movie's primary antagonists could be excised entirely from the movie without impacting the story (Robin Wright's role could easily have been expanded to pick up the slack). I didn't mind Leto's comic supervillain or Sylvia Hoeks's sociopath android (actually, I liked her quite a bit), but it's hard to deny they were a bit over-the-top. On top of that, the movie occasionally offered a touch more exposition than was strictly necessary.

But I didn't mind any of that. There are enough unanswered questions and open threads to spark endless hours of speculation. And even the weaker scenes were a joy to watch. This movie was almost three hours long, and I honestly think I could have sat there happily for three more if it had kept going.

I find it oddly fitting that Blade Runner 2049 was Denis Villeneuve's follow-up to Arrival. Arguably, we haven't gotten a better SF double-header from the same director since Ridley Scott made Blade Runner right after Alien.

As a final side note, I want to mention I saw this in IMAX in 2D. If you have the chance to do the same, I strongly suggest you do so. This thing is an experience: the more immersive, the better.

Movie Review: My Little Pony: The Movie

The new big-screen adaptation of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic feels familiar to me, but not in the way I expected. I suspect the makers looked to another Hasbro property, the 1986 Transformers movie, for inspiration. If so, they learned the right lessons.

There's often a temptation when adapting a running TV series into a film to slow down and use the larger canvas to tell a more thorough version of the sort of story the show is known for. Look at the '98 X-Files or the 2002 Powerpuff Girls movies - both tried to enlarge the show into something cinematic, and both are pretty forgettable.

The Transformers movie, on the other hand, took the franchise in a wildly new direction, heading off into space to explore bizarre worlds and threats. My Little Pony takes a similar path - the majority of the movie is set in new lands filled with new creatures. It also shares a similar spastic, adventurous energy. Both movies leave you a bit frustrated you didn't get to spend more time with the new concepts, but that's better than the alternative.

Not surprisingly, this is also willing to get a touch darker than the series. There's nothing here as traumatic as the death of Optimus Prime, but I heard a few frightened gasps from kids in the audience when the movie shifted to dark places. Plus the ending crosses a line the series has never stepped over.

Despite that, the story isn't actually all that different from multi-part adventures that have opened or closed seasons of the show. This is hardly the first time we've seen Equestria invaded, nor is this the most powerful threat the ponies have faced. That was another wise choice, incidentally - it allows the movie to culminate in a struggle where the heroes need to rely on themselves and each other, rather than activating a McGuffin to magically solve everything.*

They also found a good solution to ensure the villain, who's not as powerful as Queen Chrysalis, let alone Tirek, still feels threatening: they made her dangerous. Tempest Shadow might not be able to blow up mountains, but she's by far the most competent adversary the franchise has provided. She's ruthless, driven, and - above all - effective. Plus, she has a fleet of airships at her back.

She's not the only good addition. The movie introduces a number of new anthropomorphic characters, including parrot pirates, ape warriors, and a cat con-artist. I'm hoping the show finds ways to return to these characters and their homes going forward, even if it means recasting a few voices.

This movie had issues and inconsistencies, sure, but provided you're a fan of the series, you'll find a lot to like. It's not 'best of year' material, but personally I found it far less pandering than the other big-budget toy commercial I paid to see this year.

*Just to head this off in advance... I realize there technically was a magical device that sort of fixed everything, but it didn't play into the same tropes structurally as a McGuffin. The movie even set up a false McGuffin in order to subvert the cliche and force its heroes to find a more responsible way to confront their problems.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Movie Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

It's been more than a decade, but I remember watching the Star Wars prequels and wondering what I'd think of them if they hadn't been Star Wars. I know I'm not alone in this - a lot of us were preoccupied with what those movies were doing to the franchise, and we were conscious of the fact we couldn't really look past that. What would it be like to watch them divorced from the classic film series?

For better or worse, Valerian offers us a rare opportunity to answer that question. It's not just the same genre - the aliens, technology, and (tragically) dialogue would have fit in perfectly with Lucas's prequel trilogy.

A lot of that is due to like source - the comic this movie's based on was influential in the design of Star Wars. But there's also something to be said for visual approach. Valerian has a budget significantly higher than Luc Besson has controlled previously, and he spends like it's 1999. That means going extremely heavy on the CG, cutting loose with everything he's ever wanted to put on screen.

Visually, it isn't awful, but then neither were the prequels. At times, Valerian is gorgeous to look at and fun to experience, but - also like the prequels - the level of inspiration wavers. For every sequence that's awesome to behold, there's another that's dull and pointless.

Speaking of dull and pointless, let's talk about the characters. Valerian and Laureline are undermined from the start by a relationship that's explained in one of the most awkward exposition scenes I've ever seen. Aside from this, their characters would have been serviceable as stoic points of view; space-police patrolling a surreal setting they're accustomed to. When the movie drifts in this direction, it does a little better, but it always tries to bring it back to something emotional, only to sink into melodrama.

That's not surprising given the director's past: we all remember the end of The Fifth Element. But that had Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich to salvage the writing. With all due respect to DeHaan and Delevingne, they just don't have the same star power. I think Cara Delevingne comes a little closer, which makes it all the more unfortunate that the movie leans heavier on Dane DeHaan for the dramatic moments. He's not a bad actor, but he's just not the right choice for this part.

This is the part in the review I wish I could say the third lead, the city of Alpha itself, salvaged the movie, but that's another missed opportunity. The titular City of a Thousand Planets is a cool concept and what we saw of it was great, but most of that was in the trailer. I'd have loved more of the city's bizarre nooks and crannies, but we just didn't get it.

Another set piece serving as a playground for an inter-dimensional showdown was much more satisfying, despite only being around briefly. This sequence - let's just call it the third or fourth prologue - offered a wonderful barrage of gadgets, monsters, action, and mind-warping SF puzzles. Overall, the movie was at its best when it threw ideas and obscure genre conventions at the screen. It delivered an impressive volume of weirdness, and I appreciate that.

But, ultimately, it never quite worked. I think better casting decisions and a little more thought to the tone would have made a huge difference; strip out the sappy love story, and you could have had something brilliant. But as it is, you're left with a sub par, albeit fun, big budget space opera that's not as good as Fifth Element, Avatar, John Carter of Mars, Jupiter Ascending, or Chronicles of Riddick. And it doesn't even hold a candle to this year's Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Movie Review: War for the Planet of the Apes

We should really stop giving awards to actors who wear make-up. Any make-up, of any sort. Or a hat, scarf, or glasses. You really shouldn't be eligible for an Oscar if your face is obscured by any of these, since it's impossible to tell whether it's your acting or if it's sunglasses creating the character.

Alternatively, they could just give Andy Serkis a goddamn Academy Award, since he's more than earned it. Hell, he deserved at least a supporting actor nomination for Gollum fifteen years ago (not to mention a nomination for the last two installments of this franchise). But he really deserves to win for his portrayal of Caesar in War for the Planet of the Apes, the third film in this rebooted series that is far, far better than logic dictates should be possible.

You can go look up videos on Youtube that demonstrate the CG skin is nothing more than a modern update on make-up and costuming: it's his performance shining through. I'm skeptical Serkis will get the recognition he deserves, which will seem hilarious to acting students fifty years from now, when his work is studied and analyzed as the most significant of the era.

Serkis was always the lead in this series, but he's barely sharing the screen this time. War is his movie, through and through. There are only a handful of human characters with significant roles, and none come close to getting the focus Caesar's given. There's no James Franco or Jason Clarke role - Woody Harrelson's Colonel plays an antagonist, but even then, he's more a stand in for elements of Caesar's internal journey.

This is ultimately an introspective movie about an aging warrior trying to find inner peace. It has a lot in common with Logan, actually. Both even overlay classic movie templates on top of science-fiction stories. While Logan used a blend of western and road trip, War for the Planet of the Apes is modeled after POW films. There's an awful lot of The Great Escape in this film's DNA.

I'm not sure whether this is it for the franchise, or if Fox will circle around to telling an updated version of the 60's movie. Either way, War wraps up this trilogy, and it does so eloquently. If this is it, we've got nothing to complain about. If there's more, there's every reason to be optimistic they'll be great.

If you've seen the first two in the series, I highly recommend you check out the resolution on the big screen. If you've never seen Rise and Dawn, I suggest you stream them online then go see War for the Planet of the Apes in the theater.