Friday, April 13, 2018

Futures Market: 2018

Yes, the summer movie season is dead, and the world is no worse for its absence. But tradition is tradition, so I'm going to continue this exercise for at least another year.

For those of you who weren't here last year, here's the idea: I'm going through the big-budget, nerdy movies coming out over the summer months and taking a blind guess as to how well I expect them to be received critically on Rotten Tomatoes. Why Rotten Tomatoes? Because it's the simplest, most easily understood review aggregator. Most years, I end up embarrassing myself (though I actually did pretty well last year).

In addition, I let you know what I plan to be looking for when I decide whether to see it. Plus, I throw in one other random prediction for good measure. You know, because there wasn't already enough for me to be wrong about.

Everyone up to speed? Good! Let's get started.

April 27
Avengers: Infinity War
Projected Tomatometer: 92% (but I wouldn't put money on this)
What I'm Looking For: Doesn't matter - I'm seeing this
Random Prediction: This will easily be the highest grossing movie of the summer, but it'll make less domestically than Black Panther

I mean, it looks amazing. The sheer scale of this is incredible. But, as we've seen in the past, "big" doesn't always translate into "good." If anything, the correlation trends in the opposite direction. And this is arguably the biggest movie Hollywood has ever produced.

But the Russo brothers haven't let us down yet. Winter Soldier and Civil War were both absolutely phenomenal films - some of the best the MCU's had to offer to date. And every indication is they get this material and fully appreciate the opportunity they have here.

As I said above, I'm seeing this no matter what. Hell, if every critic pans this, and word of mouth says it's worse than Batman V Superman, I'll still show up to see for myself. But that doesn't get us any closer to an actual prediction.

The truth is, this one could go a lot of different ways. It might deliver a big-screen event on a level the world's never seen, and critics might reward that. Or, it could be dismissed - fairly or not - as an example of style over substance.

But at the end of the day, I'm betting on the directors and the studio.  My best guess is critics will respond favorably to this, similar to the last three Marvel productions. Just know I don't feel as confident in that guess as I'd like to be.

Regardless of how good this is, I expect it'll make a lot of money. It'll bury whatever the April record is, and almost certainly be the highest grossing movie of the summer. But despite everything going for it, my random prediction is it won't beat Black Panther's box office total. At this point, I'd be shocked if anything other than Black Panther takes the #1 spot domestically for 2018 (international might be a bit more of a toss-up).

May 18
Deadpool 2
Projected Tomatometer: 70%
What I'm Looking For: 80% Freshness and/or a Comic Book tone
Random Prediction: This movie will move Deadpool even further away from any kind of shared X-Men Universe

Everyone's focused on how Solo's directorial shake-ups will impact the movie - to be honest, I'm a little more concerned about Deadpool's. Tim Miller exceeded every expectation with the first installment, not only delivering a fantastic Deadpool movie, but also making the first live-action X-Men movie that embraced the superhero aspects of the franchise. I find the studio's decision to drop him a bit alarming.

That said, you could do a lot worse than David Leitch, director of Atomic Blonde. Leitch has definitely demonstrated a masterful understanding of action. The issue with Blonde was a lack of an engaging story (which, to be fair, is more of a deal breaker in the spy genre than in superhero/comedies).

I'd feel better if Miller were returning, but there are certainly indications this one's in good hands. I'm thrilled they're including Cable and X-Force, and I'm hoping to get more of what made the first one great.

All that being said, I doubt critics will be as generous this time around. My guess is reviews will be a little harsher, hence the drop in my prediction versus part one.

If this is universally recognized as a good movie, I'll of course check it out, but I'm also interested in whether the tone manages to sell a legitimate superhero universe the way the first one did. If this feels like the X-Men, I'll see it even if I hear it's otherwise a disappointment.

What can I say? I like superhero movies.

It was tough coming up with a random prediction here, mostly because these movies are already random by design. Instead, I'll mention a prediction I'll be a little sad to see come to pass if I'm right: that this will more or less cement the end of any kind of shared X-Men Universe. Between the upcoming merger with Marvel and the fact one-offs like Logan seem to be working better, I'm betting we'll see Deadpool essentially cement his place in his own, independent X-Verse. For what it's worth, I'd rather Fox used the setting and aspects of the tone established in Deadpool as the basis for an updated shared Universe. Obviously, you'd want to dial back the comedy, but I maintain sincere versions of characters like Colossus would work in a variety of sub-genres.

May 25
Solo: A Star Wars Story
Projected Tomatometer: 83%
What I'm Looking For: Anything short of universal disdain
Random Prediction: A movie centered around Donald Glover's Lando gets announced within a few months of Solo's release

You may think that "random prediction" is a little obvious, but at least I didn't go with the far more obvious one: "This will be the lowest grossing Star Wars movie of the Disney era." I mean, is this even in dispute?

That being said, I'm certainly not writing this off. If anything, I'm excited. Sure, it's worrying that the directors were replaced late into production, but this is hardly the first time Disney's been in a situation like this: Brad Bird was a late addition to Ratatouille, Ant-Man switched directors right before filming, and while Rogue One stuck with Gareth Edwards, it's no secret Disney made some major changes to his movie late in the game. 

We'll probably never know if Disney made the right choices in all (or even any) of those cases, but that's beside the point. All those movies were at the very least good. If there's one studio that seems to know how to churn out solid blockbusters even when the executives don't get along with the artists, it's Disney.

My guess on the Tomatometer is based on Ant-Man and Rogue One, incidentally. Needless to say, it could be way off - this might be the movie where Disney's movie-machine finally breaks downs and dumps a Suicide Squad on the world (not that this would be the worst thing - I enjoyed Suicide Squad). But I'm betting this will be closer to Rogue One: an imperfect movie that's still wildly entertaining.

Ultimately, it'll make very little difference to whether I see this or not. Unless everything I hear about it is awful, I wouldn't miss checking this out in the theaters.

June 8
Ocean's Eight
Projected Tomatometer: 88% (Sorry - couldn't help myself)
What I'm Looking For: Let's go with 88% fresh
Random Prediction: Clooney will appear in a post-credits scene.

I saw Ocean's Eleven when it was in theaters, but I never bothered with either of the sequels. This one looks pretty solid, though. The studio's clearly betting that a large audience will be ready for something different than a big-budget, effects-heavy sci-fi action flick after May. I'd describe that as a fairly high-risk, high-reward gamble, which seems appropriate given the franchise.

This one's being written and directed by Gary Ross, who has a pretty good filmography. Obviously, they should have gone with a woman in the director's chair, but if they were absolutely going with a man, the guy who made Hunger Games was a decent choice.

In terms of my prediction, 88% might be a little generous, but I figured I'd play along. This definitely isn't on my "must see" list for the summer, but if the reviews are strong enough I might give it a shot.

June 15
Incredibles 2
Projected Tomatometer: 96%
What I'm Looking For: 80% Fresh should be plenty
Random Prediction: Disney will announce a spin-off television series (probably on its upcoming streaming service)

Talk about consistency - Brad Bird's made three animated movies before this, and they've all scored either 96% or 97% on Rotten Tomatoes. I guess that makes my guess conservative?

It's worth noting he hasn't done quite as well in live-action. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol got 93%, while Tomorrowland got 50% (though, for what it's worth, I liked Tomorrowland quite a bit and found Ghost Protocol kind of dull and by-the-numbers, so... not sure what that means).

All that being said, I'm not sure how to take this one. The Incredibles is one of Pixar's best movies, but it feels odd they're returning after all this time. It's possible we'll look back at this and see it as nothing more than a cash grab (looking at U, Monsters).

But there's no way I'm betting against Bird, not when it comes to animation. It doesn't hurt that the trailer they just released is distilled joy.

June 22
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
Projected Tomatometer: 82%
What I'm Looking For: Freshness above 85%
Random Prediction: This will make around $430 million domestically

I enjoyed aspects of Jurassic World well enough, but mostly I found it kind of bland. This is one time I'm more than happy to see a new director at the helm. The trailers for Fallen Kingdom definitely seem like a step up from its predecessor, though I'm disappointed to see we're still stuck in the "dinos on an island" paradigm. This really should have shifted away from that for the sequel. Not just this sequel - I mean, the sequel to the original Jurassic Park should have moved into some sort of "World War Dinosaur" premise. This franchise has been spinning its wheels since its inception. Granted, there may be more to Fallen Kingdom than its trailers imply, but I can't imagine we're going to get anything truly new or exciting.

All that being said, the effects look less cartoony than the last installment, and the tone offers hints of of nightmares and fairy tales - that's absolutely a step in the right direction. And, hey, dinosaurs are cool - I'm certainly not denying that.

I'm almost more interested in how well this movie does than whether it's good or not. Jurassic World's reception shocked everyone - it's still one of the highest grossing movies in history. I suspect this one won't fare quite as well, mostly due to a drop-off in repeat business.

July 6
Ant-Man and the Wasp
Projected Tomatometer: 82%
What I'm Looking For: Unless Infinity War really sucks, I'll see this no matter what
Random Prediction: At least two other Avengers appear in this movie

I don't have a huge amount to say about this. I'm assuming it will be roughly as good as the first one (i.e., pretty good, but not quite great). It's nice to finally see a female character at least get co-billing on an MCU movie (it only took them 20 tries).

Overall, I'm probably more excited than most people. I love the low-powered Marvel movies, so this should be a nice palate cleanser after the epic scope of Infinity War (not that I don't love those, too). Personally, I'm hoping they really embrace the romcom/superhero blend they've promised. Spiderman: Homecoming delivered a high school comedy; I'd love to see the MCU continue branching out.

July 13
Projected Tomatometer: 34%
What I'm Looking For: Tomatometer above 90%, or there's no way I'm wasting my time. Unless it's set at Christmas - if it's a Christmas movie, I might be interested.
Random Prediction: You'll be sick of hearing "Die Hard in a building" jokes long before this hits theaters.

Yeah. As far as I can tell, someone really green-lit a movie that's essentially "Die Hard in a building." That's been a joke for years, and yet... here we are.

To be fair, there are a few caveats. The building looks like some sort of scifi set piece (I'm sure it'll be "a character in its own right" or some nonsense). A bit more promising is the decision to have the lead action hero be an amputee. It'd be even nicer if they'd hired an actual amputee, but - let's not kid ourselves - this only got green-lit because of The Rock.

But the trailer's tone makes my 34% guess feel optimistic. It could be misdirection, but there's nothing there that feels campy or fun. Given how many set pieces in the trailer alone shout out to Die Hard... I'm not sure "serious and suspenseful" was the way to go.

July 27
Mission: Impossible – Fallout
Projected Tomatometer: 93%
What I'm Looking For: Anything north of 80% should put my butt in a seat
Random Prediction: This will be heralded as one of the best action movies of the year, then everyone will forget about it a few weeks later

The last installment in this series, Rogue Nation, was easily one of the best spy movies we've gotten in decades. It was everything that Spectre should have been but wasn't.

That makes it all the more bizarre that everyone - myself included - has to pause and try to remember what happened in Rogue Nation. Go ahead: try it. Take your time. I'll wait.

The plots to the Mission Impossible movies are basically Mad Libs designed to move the leads from one set piece to the next, but... the same is true of Bond movies, and I remember those. I think the main reason it's so hard to remember Mission Impossible movies is they lack unique villains. Based on the trailer, I doubt Fallout will break the mold.

But I'm betting it'll still be a great ride. Christopher McQuarrie is returning to direct this, so my expectation is it'll be packed with more of whatever made Rogue Nation so good. Granted, a few years from now it'll probably be impossible to recall which of the two movies had Cruise performing which absurd stunt, but I'm willing to live for the moment.

Teen Titans Go! To the Movies
Projected Tomatometer: 47%
What I'm Looking For: Trailers offering some sense of the what the movie's going to be
Random Prediction: Will be better than most live-action DC movies

I recently discovered that Teen Titans Go!, a series I'd mostly dismissed out of hand, was quite a bit better than I'd assumed. The episodes I've seen certainly haven't been uniformly excellent, but there were a few absolutely brilliant ones mixed in.

How's that going to translate to the big screen? No clue. And, to be honest, I'm not all that optimistic. There have certainly been animated shows that pulled off the transition, but rarely anything slapstick. Movies - even comedies - usually gravitate towards some kind of emotional arc, while Teen Titans Go! seems geared towards subverting that kind of thinking at every turn.

My hope is this project started with a brilliant premise, something that really justifies the project. And there are definitely reasons to cling to that hope - casting Nicolas Cage as Superman shows real interest in superhero adaptation history, and the teasers have certainly been intriguing.

But, honestly, we don't know much about this yet, and translating absurdist comedies to the big screen tends to be forgettable, even in the rare situation where the movie is mostly good (Powerpuff Girls, anyone?).

My guess is this will fall in the same traps, but I wouldn't mind being wrong. I found LEGO Batman underwhelming, but it certainly demonstrated it's possible to pull off something like this. Here's hoping this pulls off a similar feat.

August 3
Christopher Robin
Projected Tomatometer: 82%
What I'm Looking For: I'd take a high Tomatometer score (80%+), a few glowing reviews from trustworthy sources, good word of mouth, or... hell, they might pull me in with a few more trailers.
Random Prediction: This makes less than $100 million over its domestic run

The existence of this movie is baffling. It seems to be a melancholy fantasy about a grown-up Christopher Robin reuniting with Pooh and reclaiming the wonder of childhood. The sort of unnecessary, studio-driven garbage that--

GODDAMMIT. Every time that bear opens his mouth, I feel my heart melt into a pool of gore and nostalgia. It's just...

I'm going to see this movie, aren't I? I'm going to go see it, because I'm a goddamn sucker for anything remotely related to the Hundred-Acre Wood.

But... it's weird this exists, isn't it? Because I don't think I'm all that representative of the public at large. There aren't that many Pooh fans compared with other children's fantasies, and I can't believe most people who do love the bear with very little brain are interested in seeing him interact with adults.

On top of everything else, this is being overseen by Marc Forester, director of Finding Neverland (which, while relevant, wasn't especially all that memorable).

But what does it matter? Unless this gets universally panned, I'm going to wind up seeing it. Who am I kidding?

The Spy Who Dumped Me
Projected Tomatometer: 75%
What I'm Looking For: Tomatometer around 90%
Random Prediction: Good or bad, this will be better than any Bond movie we'll get in the next decade

The trailer for this looks entertaining, though it's of course easier to cut a good trailer for a comedy than it is to make a good comedy. Still, pairing Kate McKinnon with Mila Kunis in an action/buddy comedy has a lot of potential. And I like the idea we might be getting two fun spy movies in quick succession.

It's a pity this was made by a different studio than Spy - it would be cool to get a crossover.

August 10
The Meg
Projected Tomatometer: 40%
What I'm Looking For: 80% Freshness or really good recommendations
Random Prediction: This will make more money domestically than Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

I'm going to tackle that random prediction first. I wouldn't put even money on that coming true. Fallen Kingdom is the sequel to one of the biggest movies of all time, and it opens just a week before the 4th of July - it'll probably be huge.


I have a suspicion Jurassic World capitalized on a niche market that might be more fickle than the studio believes. I'd be shocked if it didn't do well, but I also think there's a decent chance it'll fall into the "middling blockbuster" range (let's pretend that's a thing).

Meanwhile, I think there's a chance The Meg is going to have wide appeal. When was the last time we saw something offer an unapologetically campy experience at this scale? It's a blend of Jurassic Park, Jaws, and Godzilla. It's a ridiculous premise being sold honestly while still offering sharp effects.

I don't think the odds of this beating Fallen Kingdom are anywhere near 50%, but I think it's in the realm of possibility. And if that does come to pass, I want to be able to point at this wacky prediction and gloat.

All that said, I doubt I'll catch this in theaters unless it's surprisingly good. I'm not holding my breath for that, by the way - the last time this director had a movie above 50% on Rotten Tomatoes was 1995's While You Were Sleeping. And I HATE While You Were Sleeping.

But tell me that trailer wasn't fun.

Closing Thoughts
You may have noticed this year's list is a bit sparse. Part of the reason is that the first half of summer is locked down by a handful of massive blockbusters. Infinity War, Solo, Deadpool 2, Incredibles 2, Jurassic World... yeah. I don't blame studios for giving these some breathing room. There's a reason the first four months of 2018 have had more big movies than we used to see in the summer months.

But there's something else going on here. There are actually several science-fiction movies slated for July and August that I didn't bother including. The thing is, I can't tell at a quick glance (or even a long glance) how many and which ones are major motion pictures, and which are going to be sold to Netflix.

We've entered an age where mega-blockbusters absorb a lion's share of attention, while movies that would have been huge two decades ago are instead trapped in a state of Schrodinger's direct-to-streaming. And, honestly, I think that's okay. Movies are evolving towards better and better forms of spectacle, and other mediums are ensuring there's still a place for less flashy, story-driven films. I love that superhero movies have gone from low-end schlock in the 90's to middle-of-the-road entertainment through most of the past decade, all the way to genre-defining masterpieces in the last few years. I love that Star Wars is back and as good as ever. I love that $200 million dollar blockbusters appear in the theaters year round, and most of them are actually pretty good.

And I love that smart, complex science fiction movies are still being made. Some will get national releases, while others will just be streamed on Amazon. I don't see a downside here.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Movie Review: Pacific Rim Uprising

I want to be clear about this - I tried to meet this movie halfway. I get that this is supposed to be more of an experience than a story. You can dig through the archives of this blog and find dozens of examples of times I've been on board with dumb, enjoyable movies, including the original Pacific Rim. I understand there are times you need to accept that a writer (whether through decision or limited ability) isn't managing to sell sci-fi concepts or fails to maintain adherence to their setting or tone.

But here's the thing. This movie is just. So. Stupid.

Okay, that's only part of the problem. I've enjoyed stupider movies, including some in the same genre. But Uprising fails to balance the elements necessary to overlook its intellectual shortcomings. In other words, it's just not all that much fun.

I'm being a little overly critical. There are moments in the movie that are quite a bit of fun, starting with an opening robot chase featuring a smaller, agile mech built and piloted by teenage genius Amara. I suspect if more of the movie had revolved around her, rather than Boyega's Jake Pentecost, it would have been a more enjoyable film.

But what we get of her is essentially a retread of Mako's arc in part one. Contrast that with Boyega's story, which is... also a retread of Mako's arc. As for Mako's role... ugh. Yeah. Turns out Becket was smart to sit this one out. Newt and Hermann are still fun, at least - I did like the twists they took there.

A lot of Uprising's issues revolve around the movie's tone. It's not that this doesn't know what it is - Uprising seems to realize it's essentially a scaled up version of Power Rangers or Voltron - it just doesn't quite pull off the recipe. There's a tug-of-war going on here between drama and camp, and at some point, the rope just breaks. Del Toro succeeded well enough in part one, but DeKnight never quite figures it out. The camp winds up undercutting the drama, and the forced drama and inflated stakes distract from the camp. You never really form much of a bond with anyone, but the movie keeps cutting away from the cool robots to put them in frame.

Meanwhile, the action sequences are very uneven. There are some cool moments, particularly in the closing brawl, but there are too many missed opportunities and bizarre choices. It's especially shocking how often this movie fails to deliver on the main selling point of the franchise: scale. The first movie consistently succeeded in selling the size of the robots and monsters at every turn. But there's only a handful of moments in Uprising that seem to understand or care how big anything is. There's a sequence early in the second act where a pair of robots fight and interact with their environment as if they're human-sized (how thick is that ice supposed to be?). Likewise, try to keep a straight face when someone states a monster that's got to be at least a kilometer long is two kilometers from its goal and closing fast.

Even more egregious is the way the movie teases potential twists and scenarios, then drops them in favor of the same kinds of fight scenes that permeated part one. This occurs at least twice - you're shown something new and fascinating, only to see it facilitate a return to the norm.

Again, I'm willing and able to forgive errors and suspend disbelief - all that's part of the price of admission to this genre (and I honestly love this genre). But when you strip out the aspects that make this stuff worthwhile, I'm left wondering what the point was. Because there's really not much left over that's not a rehash of part one.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Movie Review: A Wrinkle in Time

Make no mistake - Disney knows exactly what they're doing. A Wrinkle in Time is mixed as a movie. It's not going to be remembered as one of the best movies of 2018, and it won't break any box office records, but anyone who dismisses this as a failure isn't thinking long-term. Disney grew into the empire it's become in part by ensuring generations of kids were raised on their movies. If you think it's a coincidence they released this close to the upcoming launch of their streaming service, you need to think again. Twenty years from now, a million women will list this as their favorite movie growing up, the one they watched over and over again, the way the last generation watched Beauty and the Beast on DVD and the one before watched Pete's Dragon on VHS.

But let's set that aside and consider the movie on its own merits. Should you catch it before it leaves theaters?

Honestly, unless you're an eight to thirteen year old or have a great deal of affection for the book, you should probably wait for it to hit Netflix in a few months (or the aforementioned Disney service in a year or two). This is a situation where the movie's best aspects will transition to the small screen, anyway.

It's an odd case, though. The movie features some inventive design and larger-than-life performances. The three Mrs. are a joy to watch, and it's wonderful seeing this much vibrant color in a movie. But all that being said, the movie suffers from green-screen syndrome. The worlds are pretty, but they never feel real or lived in. Think Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow: you never feel like the things you're seeing have weight or substance, so you never feel like they pose a real threat.

Fortunately, the characters feel more concrete. Every line is delivered with complete sincerity - nothing in the acting or direction feels phoned in or forced. The emotional core and the message are delivered from the heart by people proud to be working in this genre.

I can't overstate how much of a difference that makes. It's far too easy to dismiss a kids movie as disposable entertainment, but Ava DuVernay clearly believes she's saying something important. What's really astonishing is how effectively she wills that belief into reality.

Yeah, I wish this had done a better job on world-building. I wish they'd allowed the kids to pick up a few minor scratches and bruises to convey some sense of danger. And I certainly wish DuVernay had strayed a little further from the book and told a slightly more compelling story. That's why I don't think this is essential theatrical viewing, incidentally.

But I can't wait to see the effects of a generation hearing Meg being asked to become a warrior then watching her step into that role. That'll be just as fulfilling on the small screen as the big one. I suspect that was always the plan, anyway.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Movie Review: Black Panther

Let's get the disclaimer out of the way now. It should be pretty obvious that Black Panther is an extremely important movie, both in how it handles representation and in its exploration of themes and subgenres that have never before been approached with this kind of budget or studio backing. And - let's be frank - I'm in no way qualified to talk about any of that. The only aspects of this I'm remotely qualified to address are how it stands as a superhero movie in general and a Marvel installment in particular.

Fortunately, on top of all that really important stuff, Ryan Coogler delivered an absolutely fantastic Marvel flick.

(Thank God - can you imagine how awkward this would have been to write if he hadn't?)

First, let's talk about what this movie is and is not. It's a year-one story, but it's not an origin, at least not for the Black Panther. They already delivered a perfect origin story in Civil War, and this doesn't ask you to sit through a retread of T'Challa's arc from that movie. The version of T'Challa who appears at the start of this one has already undergone the intense emotional and philosophical journey depicted there.

That, alone, is almost unheard of in superhero sequels. Consider where Tony Stark is emotionally at the start of Iron Man 2 and 3 (or Avengers, Age of Ultron, or Civil War). He hasn't completely forgotten the lessons he's learned, but each movie opens with him at the mercy of his flaws. This is intentional, of course: the theory driving these (and most movie scripts) is that an internal struggle is better than an external one. But while that's a good rule of thumb for standalone stories, it tends to get redundant when serialized. And, in case you hadn't gotten the message after eighteen movies and eight television series, the MCU is kind of an experiment in serialized entertainment.

Coogler clearly understands that. You know what else he understands? That T'Challa, post-Civil War, isn't all that interesting as a person. He's interesting as a symbol. He's compelling to watch as a hero. But he basically obtained enlightenment at the end of Civil War - it's hard to identify with someone who's done that.

A lesser director would have rolled that back. They'd have had T'Challa regress to a point where he had to repeat the same journey, learn the same lessons, and confront the same inner demons. Then they'd probably have hoped the novelty of the setting would distract you.

But Coogler does something far more interesting, something comics have been doing for decades. He accepts that T'Challa is the least interesting part of the story, then uses that to his advantage. The fundamental story at play in Black Panther isn't T'Challa's internal struggle: it's Wakanda's. The young king essentially stands in for his nation as it undergoes a spiritual transformation. Ultimately, T'Challa becomes the setting, and his kingdom becomes the lead.

(Incidentally, Batman comics have been doing something similar for ages with Gotham. DC should be even more embarrassed they let Marvel beat them to this than they should be about losing the race to Darkseid/Thanos.)

Speaking of Batman, you know who is more interesting than the Caped Crusader? Everyone in Gotham. That's why Batgirl, Robin, Nightwing, Joker, Catwoman, and the rest of them have endured so long. Once you're past Batman's origin (and maybe one or two lessons on the importance of trust and family), your interest shifts to the quirkier side characters.

Coogler takes a similar approach here. This film is full of new characters - heroes, villains, and fusions of the two - and every one of them is a joy to watch. That's not hyperbole, by the way. Literally every single significant character is given a chance to shine, and I loved absolutely every one of them. The movie delights in taking the time to show why each one is worth exploring. You'll walk out of the theater wanting at least four or five spin-offs.

A lot of people are praising Michael B. Jordan's Killmonger and Letitia Wright's Shuri (and for good reason - they're probably the two most fascinating characters in a crowd of fascinating characters), but I want to hone in on Andy Serkis's Ulysses Klaue. If ever there was a character you'd consider relegating to the side, it'd be him. Klaue is sadistic, racist, and greedy. In the world of Black Panther, he's a symbol of pure evil. But while Coogler captures all that, he still finds time to explore the character's merits as a supervillain. He shows you why he's been successful for so long and why he's intriguing. His joy and energy are infectious, even when he's saying and doing reprehensible things. You hate what he is and what he stands for, but you kind of like him.

If he does all that for Klaue, just imagine what he does for characters who are good people. You know what? Don't bother trying to imagine it: just go to the theater and help ensure this innovative, beautiful film makes at least twice as much on its opening weekend as Justice League managed. You'll have a great time and, more importantly, they'll make more movies like this.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Movie Review: The Cloverfield Paradox

This is an unusually difficult movie to review, because you really can't divorce it from how it was delivered. Well, you can, but let's be honest - half the fun in Paradox came from having it seemingly appear out of nowhere. Announced just hours before it was available, it more or less materialized, like magic. Is that gimmicky? Sure! But both the tone and content lend itself well to cheap gimmick: it's all part of the experience.

At its core, The Cloverfield Paradox is a throwback to campy, B-genre fare. If you go in wanting a serious, frightening exploration of, well, anything, you're going to be disappointed. This movie is bananas. But it knows it's bananas. Hell, the characters realize what's happening is bananas and act accordingly. What matters is the bananas are ripe.

I'm concerned I may have stretched that metaphor a bit too far. Let's back up.

The Cloverfield Paradox is tackling an unenviable task: trying to offer some sort of explanation for the franchise after two movies that went out of their way to hide what's happening. This is made all the more difficult by the fact the first two are, at best, tonally related, and it's extremely difficult to imagine them occupying the same universe or timeline.

This one basically hand-waves that problem by implying it's all taking place in the same MULTIVERSE, and that everything weird happening is (probably) due to scientists breaking space and time. I kind of wonder if they're actually setting their sights a little higher and are trying to imply this is the cause of ALL genre movies. It doesn't take much imagination to picture Godzilla, Poltergeist, the Exorcist... you name it... being set into motion by what happened here. Maybe I'm reading too far in, though.

Regardless, there's very little meat to the "meta" aspects. There is an explanation given, but they don't bother showing their work. Ultimately, the movie just sort of shrugs and lets you know the monsters and aliens in the last two movies were because of multiversal shenanigans. Then it moves on without offering details.

Thank God particles: exposition was the last thing this movie needed. I'm far happier with what we get instead, a bizarre SF/horror/adventure that tosses one weird thing after another at the protagonists. Most of what they run up against ties into string theory, multiple Earth theory, and quantum mechanics in general, but only superficially. All that's an excuse for a bunch of weirdness, most of which doesn't make much sense and never gets explained.

But this movie - hell, this franchise - is at its best when nothing makes sense. The last fifteen minutes of 10 Cloverfield Lane were my favorite part of that movie (fight me!), and Paradox feels like it taps into that spirit.

This is a ridiculous B-movie; and Netflix dropping it with minimal warning highlights the sense it's 2018's version of a late-night drive-in or a movie you'd never heard of before catching it at midnight on cable. It's a movie best watched with friends, and it's clearly meant to be laughed with and at. At multiple points, the movie utterly abandons any semblance of reason. But it never pretends otherwise, and it makes sure you get something much more fun.

This isn't making anyone's best of year lists, but it's far, far better than it has any right to be. And as long as they're this much fun, I'm game for any number of future installments.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Movie Review: Paddington 2

Much to my shame, I skipped the first Paddington when it was in theaters and finally caught it a week too late to include in my end of year wrap-up for 2015. If I'd seen it a little earlier, it would have taken the top spot, above The Force Awakens. Needless to say, I caught the second installment opening day. Let's just say it's currently holding at 100% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes for a reason.

If you haven't seen part one and haven't been paying attention to reviews, you may be trying to reconcile all this with the trailers, which seemingly depict the movies as substandard CG-enhanced kids entertainment. Rest assured, however, these are exceptional CG-enhanced kids entertainment.

They take a premise that's been done dozens of times since the 90's: a character drawn from old source material is updated, brought to life through digital effects, and set loose on the modern world. Only instead of treating this ironically, they embrace the core heart of that source completely, then build a setting, tone, theme, and story around this.

I suspect that's part of the disconnect around the trailers. The US ones, at least, downplay the sentiment and try and sell this as a farcical comedy in the vein of the Garfield, Smurf, and Chipmunk movies none of us bothered to watch. But that's not what the Paddington movies are - these are closer to Amelie or Millions, seasoned with a dash of The Muppets. Hell, there may even be a little Speed Racer in the mix, particularly in part two.

The Paddington movies feature fantastic storytelling and film-making. I'd need to see them a few more times before trying to determine which is better. The first gets a boost by virtue of being, well, first, and by bravely exploring some of the source's problematic aspects. While Paddington 2 doesn't deconstruct the colonialist aspects of its source material the way its predecessor did, it's still a surprisingly political movie at times. Bear or not, Paddington is an immigrant, a fact the movie doesn't forget. The script never feels preachy, but I can't imagine anyone over the age of six being unable to pick out the movie's sole Brexit supporter.

There are actually a few aspects where the sequel surpasses the first movie. The main one is setting. Ostensibly, both movies take place in present-day London (along with the occasional flashback to the jungles of Peru). That said, these aren't beholden to realism. I mentioned Amelie earlier - the Paddington movies take a similar approach to their world, crafting a setting that's sort of a fairy tale reflection of ours. Plenty of other movies have attempted the same feat, with varying degrees of success. In my opinion (well, not just my opinion), a major factor in whether this comes off as charming or cloying boils down to consistency. Create a consistent, engrossing world on film, and the audience will follow along, no matter how seemingly absurd.

I'll take it a step further: the more absurd and surreal the world you're able to sell, the more entranced I'll be. I want to be transported to worlds where a talking bear is ultimately a mundane occurrence. Paddington accomplishes this in both movies, but the sequel doubles down with a backdrop overflowing with color, light, and pockets of magic spilling out of pop-up books or even lonely prison cells. The movie is unconstrained by realism, allowing it to delve into worlds of imagination and wonder without getting lost or coming off as insincere or cheesy.

Likewise, the characters - both new and recurring - are facets of this world. They make the setting more interesting with their presence, and the setting sells their unbelievable traits as normal. Sally Hawkins returns as Mrs. Brown, once again playing quite possibly the most likable character in a universe of likable characters, though Brendan Gleeson's Knuckles McGinty gives her a run for her money. The new villain is also wonderful, though I'm not sure anyone could ever match Nicole Kidman's taxidermist from part one.

I haven't even mentioned the humor of this movie. It's hilarious - even funnier than its predecessor - but, honestly, the comedy is almost an afterthought. Sure, I spent a great deal of this movie laughing, but it's easy to make something funny. What's harder is to make something charming, beautiful, and touching. Paddington 2 accomplishes all of that and is well worth your time. Just make sure you catch part one first if you haven't seen it - trust me: you want the whole experience.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

2017 Movies Revisited

2017 was a hell of a year for genre movies - quite possibly the best we've ever had (and, no, I'm not forgetting 1982). Horror, superheroes, and science fiction all seemed to grow up, for lack of a better term. We've gotten great films in all these genres before, but I don't think we've ever seen a volume of geeky movies this good before. Five of the seven big budget superhero movies released this year had Freshness ratings above ninety percent - a few years ago, that would have been unthinkable. But here we are.

As in past years, this list reflects my preference for the new movies I saw, from least to most favorite, NOT FROM WORST TO BEST. There are a few cases where I think movies are objectively better or worse than their placement on the list dictates - I try to point these out when I think it's important. But overall this whole exercise is so subjective, I find it works better to work from that premise.

There are a few bad apples I saw this year, but the vast number ranged from solid to fantastic. Of the twenty new releases I saw, I'd only call numbers 20 through 18 deeply flawed, and even these had redeeming qualities.

20. Alien: Covenant
Prometheus was a far worse movie, but in some ways it felt like less of a waste. This was just as pretentious, but it lacked the ambition of its predecessor. In the end, it felt like a low-budget horror script that somehow got a massive amount of money and a prestigious director.

It delivered very little of substance - no real scares, no excitement, and certainly nothing thoughtful (no matter what the director claims).

Still, it wasn't a total loss. Parts were fun, and Fassbender gave a great performance (A great performance, mind you - only one out of his two roles was interesting). More than that, the designs of the ship and aliens were solid.

19. Split
The hard part about Split is that it's much better if you don't know about the final twist, but until you know about that twist, I'm not sure why you'd bother watching it (I certainly only watched to see the ending play out). Even now, almost a year after its release, I'm keeping quiet in the off-chance there's anyone alive who hasn't been spoiled yet. If you were a fan of Shyamalan's early work, you should really consider watching this as soon as possible.

Otherwise... don't bother. Honestly, aside from the ending, the movie is essentially a less engrossing version of 10 Cloverfield Lane. Much less engrossing. Also, more offensive.

Yeah, McAvoy and Taylor-Joy were great, but you'll be putting up with some abysmal dialogue and a total dearth of narrative payoff: that's not worth it. The thing is, I'm under no illusion I wouldn't be singing a different tune if I'd seen this unspoiled. I'd have loved this movie and probably put it halfway down this list.

But, again, I did know - it's the only reason I gave Shyamalan another chance. And, for what it's worth, I'm still intrigued by the promise of another installment, despite the fact this one was pretty weak.

18. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Maybe my expectations were too high for this one. It definitely had some fun scenes, but I couldn't get over the blandness of the leads or the awful writing. The visuals were a nice distraction, but I didn't feel like they offered the same richness or depth we've gotten from other offerings in the genre.

I didn't need brilliant film-making from this, but I wanted something more engrossing than what I got. I appreciate that a lot of the elements we've seen in everything from Star Wars to Avatar were inspired (if not outright stolen) from Valerian and Laureline, but the adaptation still needs to outdo its predecessors on a few of those metrics if it wants to compete.

17. The LEGO Batman Movie
It's difficult to deny The LEGO Batman Movie was expertly realized, a fact reflected in both its high Freshness rating and in its box office success. It's not hard to see why - it's fun, the humor works, and it gets a lot of mileage out of its access to the DC Comics roster.

But in another sense, it's hard to ignore just how blatantly commercial this movie is, in every meaning of the word. To be fair, every blockbuster is greenlit in the hopes it will make money, but this one barely tried to disguise the fact. It's a toy advertisement, and unlike its predecessor, it doesn't bother being more.

As a wacky comedy, it's a solid enough way to kill an hour and a half. But at the end of that, I felt a little cheated. Usually I don't have to pay for the privilege of being sold something.

16.Justice League
This was a bad movie - I think everyone should be able to agree on that point. But, by and large, it was also a fun movie. If it hadn't been for the tedious stretch in the middle, I'd have placed this quite a bit further on the list.

Like Suicide Squad before it, Justice League fails as a coherent narrative but delivers some great characters. It's a far better movie than Suicide Squad, incidentally (though I don't think anyone pulled off a performance as inspired as Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn). More importantly, this may have corrected course and pointed us towards a brighter and more interesting DC Universe going forward.

15. My Little Pony: The Movie
This isn't the best story line My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic has delivered, but then it doesn't really try to be. Instead, it serves as an almost nonstop barrage of fun new characters and inventive fantasy settings. And, frankly, that's a far better use of the medium.

That said, I'm not entirely convinced this absolutely needed to be done as a movie instead of a multi-episode (or, hell, season-long) arc. That honestly might have been even better. But, if the studio was absolutely going to put this on the big screen, this was a great way to do it.

14. Kong: Skull Island
This is one of funnest giant monster movies I've seen in a while: it might even be the funnest America's ever produced. A case could be made for Pacific Rim, but that was a touch too self-serious, while Skull Island seemed to grasp its limitations from the start. This was never going to be an Oscar contender - wisely, it didn't pretend otherwise.

Yeah, it's kind of dumb. And, yeah, the human characters were two-dimensional caricatures of overused Hollywood tropes. But while there wasn't a lot of thought put into the character development, there seemed to be a great deal invested into every detail of the setting and monsters. Hell, the movie's refreshing spin on Kong's relationship - just friends this time - with Brie Larson's character was probably the most thought out in the film, and it was barely a side note.

In some ways, this was structured closer to a Jurassic Park movie than a King Kong remake. But Kong's been remade too many times as it is, and this was a much better Jurassic Park movie than Jurassic World.

This set achievable, modest goals and met them. It's not "best of year" material, but it was a few hours very well spent in the theater.

13. Baby Driver
I enjoyed Baby Driver much more as an experience than as a movie. Even then, it was a good movie - the story and characters were solid. Well, most of the characters. As I said in my review, Wright would be well advised to take some time and reflect on the female leads in his movies - it's a notable weakness in an otherwise phenomenal director's skill set.

The way the chases are put together is nothing short of stunning, though. Any one of them could serve as the high point in an action film. They're meticulously constructed, exciting, and fun, and they display a rare talent in an industry that's shifted away from this sort of expertise in favor of computer-generated tricks and shoddy editing.

That alone deserves recognition. But this list isn't about recognition: it's about personal preference. And the simple truth is I just didn't find Baby Driver as memorable as many of the other movies I saw this year.

12. Thor: Ragnarok
I assume I'd have liked this better if I hadn't gone in with such ridiculously high expectations. Even so, I enjoyed this pretty thoroughly start to finish. It was fun, the action scenes were great, and it embraced the comic book elements of its source material (I know this doesn't make something objectively better, but damned if I don't appreciate it).

But in a year with so many amazing superhero movies... it just struck me as a little underwhelming. Everything was a little too silly for my tastes. That doesn't mean I wanted it dark and grim, but I'd have liked some weight, particularly behind some of the losses. I'd also have preferred a more artistically satisfying tone or direction.

Again, this was still really, really good. If this had come out a few years earlier, it probably would have been in the running for my favorite movie of the year. But the genre has evolved since then, and this - while good - just didn't win me over like some of 2017's other offerings.

11. Coco
I've rarely been this torn over a movie. I devoted the majority of my review focusing on the film's problematic aspects, which is to say its depiction of women. While that bothered me quite a bit, I still found the movie fascinating and beautiful. The emotional beats were touching and the story worked.

It's just that 2017 was the wrong year to make a movie where women were objects and obstacles, and Pixar was the wrong studio to make it.

10. Colossal
This bizarre and fascinating movie was completely different than what I'd expected. From what I knew going in, I assumed it was a comedy/monster movie, but neither is really accurate. There are funny moments, but it's more drama than comedy and far more magical realism than monster movie. Sure, the genre elements being played with are kaiju, but the way they're approached is closer in spirit to Being John Malkovich.

Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis are both excellent in this movie, and writer/director Nacho Vigalondo does a fantastic job selling some extreme ideas as both believable and emotionally engaging.

I had a small quibble with a few seconds near the end that pushed this back a few spaces on this list, but overall I loved this movie.

9. Logan
Logan was a great superhero movie, but it was somewhat undermined by its lack of focus on the father/daughter relationship between Logan and Laura. This was central to the movie, but the decision to leave Laura silent through the first two thirds gave them little time to build anything believable or moving by the end.

Fortunately, we were left with a wonderful portrait of Logan at the end of his life, a kick-ass introduction of X-23, and some great moments and scenes. But a little more development could have elevated the movie's resolution to something truly meaningful.

8. Get Out
Just a reminder, this list is based on personal preference, not my opinion of the movie's quality. Because if it was based on "best," this would at least need to be in the top three (and quite possibly in #1) - it's a masterful work of genre storytelling. But that genre is horror, which I've just never loved the way I love fantasy, SF, or superheroes.

Even so, this one drew me in. It communicates a sense of alienation and dread as well as any movie I've ever seen. It approaches its themes earnestly and honestly, and as such never once feels heavy handed.

If you haven't seen this yet - even if you're not normally a fan of horror - track down a copy as soon as possible. It's absolutely brilliant.

7. War for the Planet of the Apes
The third installment in the Apes reboot/prequel series was an introspective psychological study of its lead character. The fact that character was a talking ape doesn't detract from the film's impact in the slightest. The movie commits to taking its world seriously and trusts its audience to do the same. As a result, we're given a genre film that plays out like a war drama.

I suppose I shouldn't have expected less. The new series has been great up to this point, with the second movie building and improving on the first. But War exceeded even these expectations: that's a stunning accomplishment.

6. Wonder Woman
Okay, the last act fell apart, but that happens in these movies; the rest of the film was damn near perfect. I loved the comedy, the romance, and action, and how expertly these were woven together. It was the first DCEU film that felt like a superhero movie - that's no small feat.

If the last act of this had maintained the quality of the first two, it really could have been a contender for the best of the year. As it is, it's still an absolutely phenomenal movie.

5. The Shape of Water
I spent the better part of the last hour trying to figure out where to place this bizarre, wonderful movie. At times, I was leaning as high as #2; others, I was thinking 9 or 10.

It would be higher if I was trying to name "best" instead of my favorite, but even preference isn't helping here. The amount I like The Shape of Water varies depending on how I'm thinking about it and how I define the word "like."

At any rate, this was a beautiful meditation on film and history. It deconstructs old movie tropes even as it celebrates them, examining the prejudices of the era that gave birth to those genres. And somehow, out of all that, it manages to assemble a compelling story and gorgeous film.

I enjoyed this immensely.

4. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
God, I love this movie.

To me, this is a comedy, through and through. I laughed more at the jokes in the movie's wake than I do at some comedies. I laughed so much the person sitting beside me got up and moved after a half-hour (sorry!).

There's a innocence in this movie's imagination and humor that makes it work even when it shouldn't. There are extended, juvenile jokes about poop that come off feeling brilliant. That comes down to tone, something Guardians Vol. 2 excels at.

3. Spider-Man: Homecoming
It's hard to overstate how good this movie was. The word I used after walking out of the theater was "perfect," and that may hold up. The movie's eagerness to explore street-level crime in a superhero universe was refreshing, as were its homages to John Hughes.

This wasn't as flashy or exciting as Avengers or Civil War, but then it wasn't supposed to be. This was a masterpiece of big budget film making. I loved every minute of it.

2. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
I don't expect my reasons for placing The Last Jedi this high on the list will surprise anyone. The characters were expertly realized, the story spun off in some fascinating directions, and the writing was the best we've seen from this franchise since Empire.

I almost think the more interesting question is why it's here and not at #1. There are a few reasons for that.

As good as Last Jedi was, it felt a bit disjointed. I was less bothered at the structural level (i.e.: I had no issues with the separate story lines) than visual. The movie waffled between a fun adventure and a dark melodrama. This wasn't necessarily a problem - there's nothing intrinsically wrong with a movie that tries (and succeeds!) in being "everything at once."

But while I enjoy movies like that, I don't love them as deeply as I love films that mesh visual, audio, and characters to create a tone that tells its own story or draws the viewer into a believable world. I'd argue The Force Awakens came closer to delivering that particular experience (though, as I said in my review, there are plenty of aspects The Last Jedi delivers better than its predecessor).

Since this ultimately does all come down to preference, this one - which I love - lands here. Leaving the first spot for...

1. Blade Runner 2049
I think most of us were skeptical when we heard the universe of Blade Runner was getting revisited. The original is so influential, the setting has almost come to feel generic. What's the point of making a movie there, rather than cherry-picking the ideas and visuals and telling a new story, as so many other movies and TV shows have done?

By rights, this should have been an abject failure. Hell, if Ridley Scott had directed it, I'm convinced it would have been. But instead it was handed to Denis Villeneuve, who seems like he could care less about the pitfalls that come with making a sequel to a 35-year-old classic.

And... damn. He pulled it off. The world felt even more vibrant and real than it had the first time around. Sitting in the theater, I felt like I was there, listening to the rain fall, feeling snow land on my skin, looking down at radioactive urban sprawl. It was beautiful and heartbreaking in the best way. I loved every second of this movie.

Closing Thoughts
Considering how crappy reality was in 2017, I'm glad entertainment improved to pick up the slack. As I said at the start, this is one of the best years for movies we've ever seen (well, nerdy movies, at the very least). It's certainly been a good - if bittersweet - year in pop culture.

If I had to pick out themes, I'd point to a general lightening of tone in superhero movies (Wonder Woman was a game changer) and the return of science fiction. Eight of the twenty movies above were either set in space or the future (I'm counting Logan as a dystopia) - that's quite a lot.

And, of course, there's the increased focus on representation. Women and minorities, long relegated to side characters or excluded entirely, have been taking center stage as studios finally realize there's a demand. The top three highest grossing domestic movies of the year had a female lead - that's certainly worth noting.

I'm optimistic we'll see more great movies next year. I'm particularly intrigued by Black Panther, Infinity War, and the long-awaited sequel to The Incredibles. All of these look great, though they've got their work cut out for them if they want to challenge 2017.