Friday, December 30, 2016

2016 Movies Revisited


Every year I set aside my sense of individuality to conform with the masses and create a generic wrap-up list.

This year's count is longer than it's been in a while, with the caveat it should really be even longer. I really wanted to see Arrival, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and La La Land, at the very least. But with everything else going on, I ran out of time.

As always, I'm going through every new movie I saw, starting with my least favorite and working my way to the movie I liked best.

19. Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice
This movie didn't need to be great. It didn't need to be good. All this had to be was fun. Instead, Zack Snyder peppered this with cheap reference shots and inane themes. The characters yell and glare at each other, but the actual fight is boring.

And then there's the resolution. I'm not talking about the pair of coffins, one holding Superman's supposedly dead body and the other containing our hopes for a decent Justice League movie; I mean the resolution to the title fight, when Batman forms a connection to Superman due to a hilarious oversight from seventy-five years ago when lazy writing caused the two characters' mothers to share the same name.

This wasn't just bad - it was astonishingly bad, boring, and idiotic. It's rare for a superhero movie to actually make me angry. Dark Knight Rises pulled it off, but this makes me want to apologize to Christopher Nolan for my harsh review. Hell, this makes me want to apologize to Joel Schumacher. At least they tried.

Sure, Wonder Woman was really cool, but more or less everything else about this movie failed completely. It's the only thing I saw this year that felt empty and pointless. Unless you consider the extended cut to be a separate film - that was even worse.


18. Warcraft
This has to be one of the biggest budget B-movies ever made. It's schlock fantasy, complete with melodrama, magic, and simplistic life lessons. The moral of this is basically the same as (but significantly less nuanced than) the average episode of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (on a related note, Twilight Sparkle and friends would have wrecked the Horde).

But it was kind of fun. Plus, the movie's zany, non-traditional structure was a little refreshing. It's nice to watch a movie without knowing what's going to happen (unless you're a fan of the game - I guess those people had a different experience).

I'm glad to see fantasy getting more exposure on screen, even if it's less than stellar. The magic was interesting, the costumes were fun, and the orcs were cool: that counts for something.


17. Kung Fu Panda 3
It's always hard with movies like this. There were so many things I loved about Kung Fu Panda 3 and only one thing I didn't. I loved the vibrant designs, the gorgeous action, and the beautiful animation. I thought most of the jokes were funny, and the characters remained engaging.

If it hadn't been part of this series - if this were a standalone movie that was this good - I'd have placed it much higher. But I said in my review I had no interest in being fair. I simply love part two too much to be happy with what's ultimately a mediocre sequel.

If they do make a fourth, I hope they stop one-upping the mystical destiny shtick. I hope they build up their side characters more, maybe even do a spin off with the Furious Five or just Tigress instead of having Po be the star of another cheap power fantasy. This world has incredible potential, as does Po, provided they stop upping his power-level by orders of magnitude Dragon Ball Z style.

It's not that this is bad, just that it feels like such a wasted opportunity.


16. Pete's Dragon
I liked this movie a lot, but it took some effort. I tried to love it, and there were portions when I succeeded. But it's telling I had to put in the work: the movie didn't win me over on its own.

It's not a bad flick - it's pretty solid, all things considered. It'll do for the next generation what the original did for mine: offer relatively inoffensive entertainment to kids. It's a good kid's movie, and in other years, that might have bought it a higher spot on this list.

But the world isn't starved for family movies. I can think of a half-dozen movies that are light years better than this, at least four of which were also made by Disney and released this year.

This was a good movie; on DVD, it'll probably be really good, especially if you're only half paying attention. It's one of those movies. But it's not Inside-Out, Finding Dory, The Jungle Book, or Zootopia.

Or, if you want to stay focused on the same age bracket, it's no Paddington. Kid's entertainment isn't second rate anymore: things like this don't get a pass the way they used to.


15. The Nice Guys
Shane Black doesn't exactly leave his comfort zone for the The Nice Guys. The good news is that it's a good comfort zone. The bad news is that we've basically seen this movie before. Lethal Weapon was released almost thirty years ago, and - as much as I love a good comedy noir - what I really want is for Shane Black to expand his range.

All that said, there's so much to like here - the comedy is topnotch, the characters are well developed, and the setting is fantastic - that it's easy to set aside any issues with redundancy. Crowe and Gosling work amazingly well together, and the supporting cast is wonderful.


14. X-Men: Apocalypse
Cards on the table - this movie is benefiting heavily from both lowered expectations and from the ranking system powering this list. If I were basing this on the best movies, it would be quite a bit lower. Because this movie is a complete and total mess.

But you know what else was a complete and total mess? Every iconic and important run of X-Men from the comics. Those stories were jumbles of conflicting ideas and non sequiturs. And that's okay - the X-Men have always been at their best when their stories were about throwing everything under the sun into a blender and mixing it all up.

And this was no exception. I was annoyed with the unnecessary sidetracks rehashing Magneto's past. And Mystique may have just overtaken Wolverine as the most overused character in the movie franchise. But who the hell cares? This finally started embracing its comic book origins and delivering on the promise of big-scale adventure. I had a lot of fun with it.


13. Suicide Squad
It took them long enough, but Warner Brothers finally produced a movie set firmly in a passable version of the DCU. Now they just have to figure out how to produce good movies, and they'll be set.

I kid, but Suicide Squad, despite its dismal Tomatometer, was pure fun. The movie was quirky, and its leads were great, with Margot Robbie's pitch-perfect Harley Quinn leading the pack. The movie might suffer from comparisons to the far superior Deadpool, but she doesn't: her take is no less inspired or true to the character's roots than Reynolds's.

If they'd done nearly as good a job with the Joker, this would be even higher on the list. But Leto's disappointing turn, coupled with some poor editing and several lifeless scenes, hold it back. I don't mind the weirdly convoluted plot or the scores of superfluous characters (in fact, I consider those a plus). But, while this was a far better experience than I anticipated, it had some major faults.

But for a DC movie, that's a massive step forward.


12. Ghostbusters
I almost want to put this a little higher, because I appreciate the concept and execution so much. But, at the end of the day, I loved the existence of the movie but only liked the experience (well, except for McKinnon's Holtzmann, who basically walked onto the screen and plucked the "history's greatest Ghostbuster" award right out of Bill Murray's hands).

I still maintain the aspects I didn't love weren't calibrated for me to love: this movie was painstakingly constructed to appeal first and foremost to a female audience in a way few other blockbusters do. It knocked that out of the park, and I applaud Feig for pulling that off.

This wasn't my favorite movie of 2016, but I think it was one of the most important. This one's going to inspire generations of young geeks. And I'm not giving up hope for a sequel.


11. Kubo and the Two Strings
I'm extremely torn on this. I loved how this movie looked, and the witches rank among my all-time favorite animated antagonists (honestly, you don't even need to qualify that with "animated"). I loved how scary it became and how energized the fights were.

But I couldn't fully immerse myself in this because of the comic relief and a few missed opportunities (the big one being Kubo's lack of reflection immediately after his mother died - I'm assuming they were worried it would get too dark if they dwelled on that).

Elements of this rank among the best of the genre, but taken as a whole, I was much more lukewarm on it, at least after a single viewing. All that said, I felt the same way about several movies that have grown to become favorites - I can easily see this getting better over time as the flaws fade. But, for now, I feel like this is where Kubo belongs.


10. Deadpool
It's hard not to love a movie that was made with this much love. It took a decade for this to get through development, and it only made it after some test footage was leaked online. But damn if it wasn't worth the wait.

Between some fantastic writing and a cast who embraced the concept wholeheartedly, they found just the right recipe to bring the anti-hero to the big screen, and - I can only hope - to revive the film franchise he's part of.


9. Star Trek Beyond
Before this came out, my honest hope was that it would do a decent job ending the series. I liked the 2009 reboot and enjoyed Into Darkness despite it's problems, but the return of Star Wars kind of made the new Trek feel redundant. The franchise was too far removed from its own roots, and it was hard to get excited about a fake Star Wars now that the real thing was here.

After seeing Justin Lin's take, I want more. I want more of this crew, this director, and these writers. Because, while this wasn't a perfect movie, it was a great one. And, more importantly, it distinguished itself from the competition by playing up the camaraderie between the crew. These people are connected; together, they can accomplish incredible things.

The sequence where they piece together how the enemy fleet operates, along with how they could dismantle it, is one of the most high energy scenes of the year. It's exciting and riveting... despite the fact it's just a bunch of scientists and engineers analyzing a situation. You know what? Strike that: BECAUSE it's scientists and engineers analyzing a situation.

Yeah, the cinematography wasn't on par with the previous two installments. And, sure, there were a few minor continuity issues and logical leaps. But who the hell cares? We got to see the crew of the Enterprise in action, working together, cementing bonds, and saving millions. I absolutely loved this movie.


8. Doctor Strange
It might not be as good as Captain America: Civil War, but that had nine earlier films feeding into it, while Strange had none. This is at least my favorite "new character" comic movie since Guardians (and, honestly, this might have edged that out). It expanded the Marvel Universe in directions that have been ignored far too long. Comics have always been a blend of SF, fantasy, and pulp; the "fantasy" aspect has been somewhat neglected (even Thor's been spun in a bit too much of a science-fiction direction. This corrects course. While there's still a somewhat rationalized edge to the spells, it's unquestionably magic, and that's a breath of fresh air.

Add in the effects, and you'd already have a hell of a fun film. But this also offered some great acting (I was skeptical of Cumberbatch's casting, but he was a perfect choice), and - even if the critics might dispute this - some great writing. The dialogue was funny and engrossing, and the twists - mainly courtesy of Strange's "creative" solutions - were a huge departure from the same old tired resolutions ("punch it until it falls" and/or "distract it and activate the McGuffin").

This felt different in all the right ways. I loved it.


7. Finding Dory
It's a little hard to settle on a spot for Finding Dory. The movie is subtle, intelligent, and astonishingly fun. The one thing stacked against it is that it's not all that ambitious a production. But, frankly, that's the brilliance of the thing: instead of remaking Finding Nemo with a shuffled cast, they took a character and re-contextualized the setting, premise, and even the title around her, and in the process managed to tell a very different kind of story. Where Nemo was epic, Dory's is a personal story, about a beautiful mind finding itself and achieving peace. It's the kind of spin on franchise entertainment you'd never expect, and it's exactly why the movie succeeds.


6. Moana
I just barely squeezed this one in yesterday. By my count, this is the sixth consecutive Disney princess movie that's fundamentally about not being a Disney princess movie (I'm counting Enchanted and Brave, for those of you playing along at home). If the 90's represented Disney's revival and the codification of the Disney Princess, this is the franchise's postmodern phase.

It's a fantastic movie through and through, thanks to a depth of mythology, great songs, stunning visuals, and wonderful characters. It's a worthy addition to Disney's lineup.


5. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
The Force Awakens topped my list for 2015 (though it actually would have come in second if I'd seen Paddington in time), while this doesn't fare quite as well. That's not actually because it's an inferior movie - I think there are compelling arguments it may be as good or better. But this isn't a contest of quality; it's an exercise in preference.

And while I love Rogue One, it didn't move me the way Force Awakens did. Ironically, the thing I loved most about Force Awakens is what I was most happy they omitted this time around: its mythic nature.

If you think it sounds like I'm being unfair, rest assured I agree. Rogue One is almost exactly the movie I wanted it to be: a relatively grounded story set in the Star Wars universe but with a strikingly different tone, direction, and even genre. It serves to build up the setting, even though that means the movie itself is a tad less engaging by design.

This is a Star Wars movie that wasn't supposed to be the biggest, most exciting movie of the year - it was more interested in expansive world-building and developing the property. I wish more franchises would learn to do this every now and then. It gives them a little contrast to play with to make the big, epic installments feel that much cooler.


4. Captain America Civil War
Civil War took characters we've been following for years and turned them against each other without sacrificing their rationality. It managed to handle twelve characters without making a single one feel obsolete. It reintroduced Spider-Man in a way that left me certain he was being played by Peter Parker, not Tom Holland. It finally gave us Black Panther, faked us out into thinking they were going to misuse the character, only for them to complete a movie-long character arc culminating in him becoming precisely the hero he should be.

And, after two and half hours of seeing them fight, all I wanted was more. The airport fight goes on a very short list of absolutely perfect superhero movie scenes.

There have been years this would easily have topped my list. But 2016 was a hell of a good year for cinema.


3. The Jungle Book
Like Avatar, The Jungle Book managed to build a realistic world almost from scratch. Unlike Avatar, it did so in a movie containing complex characters and strong writing. Besides the integration of the effects, the real feat here was how skillfully Favreau managed to combine different genres and tones into a satisfying package. The comedy is hilarious, the adventure exhilarating, and the horror is scary. But, despite all that, you never feel like anything's out of place. This is woven together, not tossed in a pile, and the effort shows.


2. Zootopia
It's not unheard of for animation to tackle serious issues like racism, but you'd be hard pressed to find an example of anything that managed the topic nearly as well as Zootopia. Rather than offering platitudes or simple solutions, this movie used a familiar cartoon trope - a city of diverse anthropomorphic animals - to confront multiple facets of the problem, even going so far as to use an underdog story to make us unwittingly root for the wrong side before allowing us to see a broader picture. The moment when Judy, realizing the damage she's been complicit in, hands over her badge rather than bring more harm to the marginalized inhabitants of the city is heartbreaking.

It's the kind of movie where context transforms huge swaths of the movie retroactively. There are sequences that initially come off as encouraging, optimistic, and genuine, only to feel chillingly regressive in retrospect.

It's a fantastic achievement in writing and animation.


1. The Little Prince
I found this movie deeply engrossing and moving. Maybe it helps that I've never read the source material, so the turns of that story alone caught me off guard. Alternatively, maybe it was the peculiar blend of genres that produced a unique dystopian fairy tale.

Whatever the reason, I love this movie. The visuals pulled me in, and the deliberate pace won me over.

Sure, elements were a tad heavy-handed, particularly in its unsubtle portrayal of the "adult world." But then again, it's difficult to challenge the movie's verdict, given that even the absurdist, over-the-top rendering of its cartoon villain was still more three-dimensional than the soulless Paramount executive who decided to pull this from wide release.

Seriously. Who the hell watches a movie like this and decides there's no point putting it in theaters?


Closing Thoughts
This was a great year for geeky movies - possibly one of the best in my lifetime. It says something that the cutoff for movies I absolutely loved was at ten - that's pretty astonishing. Everything at seven and above I at least had to consider whether it deserved the top spot - this was very close.

I also want to draw attention to fact that seven of my top ten (actually, seven of my top eight) were made by Disney. While the rest of the industry is stagnating, Disney gets better and better. While they still have some issues with formulaic writing (though even this seems to be improving) they're by far the most consistent company out there. Especially compared to WB - their only real competitor, based on franchise rights - Disney's name denotes actual quality.

If you think that's just me being some sort of fanboy, go check out the average score on Rotten Tomatoes for Disney's films versus other studios. Or take a look at box office returns. No matter the metric you choose, it's becoming increasingly clear that they've built a substantial lead. And unless WB stops making films like Batman V Superman, that isn't going to change anytime soon.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Movie Review: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story


Note: I'm going to refrain from spoiling what I consider the movie's significant points, but what you consider a spoiler could differ greatly. If you haven't seen Rogue One and want to watch it untainted, now would be a good time to stop reading.

The original Star Wars opens in medias res with the implication that there was a chapter just beforehand culminating in Vader hunting down Leia's ship. The opening scroll crawl was basically lifted from Flash Gordon - it was supposed to deliver the sensation of picking up a serial mid-story, implying a vast universe of context and depth to the setting.

I'd argue Lucas made a strategic mistake when he retroactively numbered the movies. Sure, starting with Episode IV gave him the option of going back and producing a few prequels, but the larger concept was lost in the shuffle. The crawl to each movie starts in the middle of a cliffhanger that's implied to have closed the last installment, even when that installment never existed. Specifying Empire immediately follows Jedi, for example, glosses over the implied events that took place between movies, even while the movies themselves allude to ongoing serialized adventures.

Either numbering them in the hundreds with a jump between films or skipping the numbers altogether (as they did in The Clone Wars animated series) would have been a more faithful tribute to the pulp tradition, and it would have left them in a better position to open Rogue One correctly.

Because, for the first time in a Star Wars movie, we're actually seeing a real "prior installment." This takes place directly before A New Hope, and - as a result - the missing crawl feels like a missed opportunity.

If this seems like an exceptionally nerdy way to start a review, rest assured that Rogue One is an exceptionally nerdy film, even for Star Wars. The movie drops bits of lore into casual conversations, referencing minutiae about weapons and vehicles. You'll be able to understand the movie without a background in this stuff, but if you don't know what a T-16 is, you'll probably wonder why all the nerds start chuckling.

Oh, also Rogue One is an absolutely brilliant, kick-ass entry into the series. Maybe I should have opened with that.

Setting the movie directly before A New Hope means, among other things, no Jedi appear in the picture. While that does severely limit the lightsaber combat we get to enjoy, it also means the filmmakers are finally free of the burden of the mystical side of Star Wars. That's still in here, largely thanks to Donnie Yen's character, but it's no longer the central point of the movie. In other words, they finally get to do something other than rehash The Hero's Journey.

This is especially fortunate, because there's a vastly unexplored aspect to the Star Wars movies: namely, the "wars" part. The Clone Wars series did a good job with this, but the films have always steered clear of anything resembling a war movie. Until now, that is. At last, we get a taste of a soldier's eye-view of battles on distant worlds. We get a sense of what's at stake when there aren't wizards wielding energy swords there to bail everyone out, and it's extremely refreshing.

For once, we get a little nuance to the heroic rebels and sinister empire narrative we've seen until now. Well... at least we get some nuance to the rebellion - the Empire remains pretty unambiguously evil. But the "good guys" do bad things in this movie. They make mistakes, act out of fear, and even kill innocent people. There are finally shades of grey presented to the conflict.

The cast is terrific, and the new characters are fantastic additions to the series. It's hard to pick favorites, but K-2SO was absolutely wonderful as a very different droid than the ones we're used to. In addition, Yen's Chirrut Îmwe stood out as the closest thing they had to a Jedi.

The movie's weak points mostly show up when it lets nostalgia get the better of it. Some of the new Vader stuff is cool, but there was something off about his outfit. Also - and it seriously pains me to type this - they could have found a better voice actor. James Earl Jones sounds very different today than he did four decades ago, and it's jarring. Not as jarring as the CG-recreated Tarkin, though - they either needed to put in more time and effort or find another way to recreate him (or, hell, only shoot him reflected in glass windows - those shots were fine).

Likewise, the movie should have skipped the big space battle at the end and resolved everything on ground level. The X-Wings were cool when they showed up mid-film, but the giant space battle felt out of place and a touch redundant.

Those are minor issues, though - overall, this was a fantastic genre film that expanded the Star Wars universe and hopefully opened the door for them to explore other sub-genres and different types of stories. There's room in that setting for spy movies, horror, gangster flicks, love stories, giant monster movies, and just about anything else you can think of - I'd watch them all.

But for now, this was a really, really good start. It's nice to finally have a Star Wars prequel worth watching.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Movie Review: Doctor Strange


The consensus on Rotten Tomatoes seems to be that Doctor Strange's awesome visual effects make up for a formulaic script - that the movie's cooler than it is good. I completely agree with the first half, that the movie is gorgeous and fascinating to behold. But frankly, I think critics are being too harsh on the script, which offers some incredibly satisfying twists and deviations from the typical superhero origin story.

That's not to say it's unrecognizable as a Marvel origin, nor that it doesn't have its share of familiar story beats. But that's really more a critique of Strange's creators, Steve Ditko and Stan Lee: for better or worse, there are a lot of repeated themes and concepts in 1960's Marvel heroes. Sure, Doctor Strange and Tony Stark are both arrogant geniuses who sustain life-altering injuries that lead them down a path to becoming heroes. And, yes, they've even got similar facial hair.

I don't begrudge critics - particularly those who weren't prepared for these commonalities - from maybe tuning out a bit at this point and writing the story off as generic comic book nonsense and enjoying the eye candy. But if you peer a little closer, you might notice some fairly big differences.

While Tony Stark started out as a weapons inventor, Doctor Strange was a surgeon, and both his outlook and strategies proceed from that origin. It's difficult to overstate how his distaste for violence permeates his decisions, even in combat. Simply put, he's not a fighter, even after learning the basics, and that fact alone offers a breath of fresh air.

Go in accepting that there are superficial similarities between Strange and other Marvel heroes, and you'll have an easier time catching the more nuanced shifts in this adaptation. The movie kind of fast-forwards to Doctor Strange's induction into the mystic arts, anyway, at which point it definitely stops feeling like a retread.

Even if you disagree that the writing was solid (at least for big-budget entertainment), I can't imagine not being impressed by the bells and whistles. The magic on display is well thought out, delivering the bizarre surrealism of the comics. Physics become playthings, as does spacial geometry. Forget Inception - that movie's simple games with space and time are tame in comparison.

No less importantly, Marvel has once again dramatically scaled up the scope of their universe. If I have once complaint with Doctor Strange, it's that it felt like it barely teased the richness of this new corner. I want monsters, demons, spirits... all of it. Doctor Strange was fairly limited in its depiction of the denizens of its multiverse, but it certainly feels like the doors are wide open.

I doubt many of you need convincing, but this is absolutely worth a trip to the theater.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Custom Krypto and Streaky


Several years ago, I made a custom Ace, the Bat-hound, using a cheaply acquired, unarticulated plastic toy dog. I'd intended it to be the first of several custom super-pets - at the time, I'd planned on delving a lot further into custom toys (hence the blog geared in that direction).

I soon had bases for both Krypto and Streaky, the pals for Superman and Supergirl, respectfully. I sculpted on capes for them and then...


...Then I was moving cross-country, I was busy with other projects, and Krypto and Streaky got lost and forgotten in the bottom of a plastic tub.

I came across them a few weeks ago.


These are new images: if I ever had truly "before" pictures, I lost them a long time ago. The sculpted capes were done years ago, but the collars on both are new.


I did a full repaint on Krypto. I probably should have on Streaky, too, but I decided what he had was good enough (i.e.: I was lazy). The symbols on the backs of their capes are stickers: the one on Krypto's collar is painted.


Technically, the color scheme on the symbols on their capes is inverted: the 'S' and the outline should be yellow, while the interior should be red. I considered trying to repaint these before applying or even just paint from scratch, but I didn't trust myself to get it right, so I just went with the stickers. Again, lazy.


Krypto's cape is removable; Streaky's is part of him now. I'm generally happy with how these came out. Like with Ace, the fact I'm starting with a figure displaying animal (as opposed to heroic) behavior, leaves them looking more pet than super... and that's what I wanted. It highlights the absurdity of the concept, which is really what I love about these characters.


No promises, but this might not be the last super-pet I make. I'd love to add both Beppo and Comet to the collection, if I can find the time.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Open Letter to Hasbro

Dear Hasbro Executives,

Over the past few years, you've been hit pretty hard over issues of representation in your toy lines. While some of this was a tad exaggerated (I thought you did a decent job on Episode VII), a lot of the criticism was fair. Making Slave Leia the first woman in the Star Wars Black line then waiting years to produce a second is a good example of a serious misstep.

But that's been covered elsewhere - most of your shortcomings have. That's not what this is about.

I'm writing this to draw attention to the fact that, over the past couple of years, you've dramatically improved your assortment of minority and female characters, particularly in your Marvel Legends line, and I don't think we've given you the credit you deserve.


For a few years now, almost every wave I've seen has included at least two female characters (out of six or seven total, for anyone not familiar with these things). There were a few exceptions, but this seems to have become the new default for the line. That's about double what we were getting a few years ago.

The X-Men wave that just hit store shelves contained three women - Rogue, Phoenix, and Kitty Pryde. All of them are awesome.

The fire stand was made by a different company - I just liked the way this photo came out.

More than that, we're seeing some diversity. I just picked up Miles Morales, Silk, and the Ashley Barton Spider-Girl. Half that wave was devoted to characters of color, two of whom were women. As a collector who wants a more diverse collection, these are of course more interesting. Far more importantly, I can only imagine how wonderful it must be for non-white kids to finally find themselves represented in the superhero section.


I wanted to write this because I haven't seen a lot of acknowledgement towards the outstanding work you're doing, and I feel like that's just as important as criticizing what you do poorly. So, thank you. This is fantastic.

Of course, there's more that needs to be done. I'd encourage you to revisit the bodies you're using for female characters - they're much more sexualized than the men (maybe back off the sculpted buttocks and arched backs). And there's still the imbalance over in Star Wars (I'm still waiting for that promised 6-inch New Hope Leia, and I'd love to see an Episode VII General Organa and Maz Kanata, while you're at it).

To be fair, I'm not helping with the pose.

But, setting that aside, I wanted you to know your work's appreciated by a lot of geeks out here. We've been asking for a better assortment of figures for years, and you've clearly been listening. This is a huge step forward.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Pilot Review: The Tick


Amazon recently produced a pilot for a rebooted live-action version of the The Tick, and if you're a Prime member, you can watch it for free. Supposedly, they're going to base their decision whether to move forward on the feedback.

Before I offer my thoughts, here's a little background. My introduction to the character came through the brilliant 90's animated series, which is best described as a comedic spin on silver age super-heroics. To me, this will always be the definitive version of the character.

But of course it wasn't the first: The Tick was a comic book before it was a cartoon show. I've read a handful of story lines from that over the years - I like it, even if I find the cynical tone a bit off-putting. The comics feel more like a parody than an homage, and while the writing is funny (extremely funny, to be fair), attempts to simply make fun of the absurdity of the genre rarely work as well as celebrations. There are quite a few reasons for this, but the most notable is that comics readers and writers are perfectly aware of how absurd the premises are, and comics have explored that internally since the beginning. In my opinion, The Tick worked better as a superhero operating in a humorous setting than he did as a joke mocking superheroes.

There was also a short-lived live-action sitcom in 2001 starring Patrick Warburton. I saw about half of the episodes at the time and caught the rest years later on DVD. The show started out a bit mixed, but it improved as it went. I'd have loved to see what they'd have done with a second season: it wasn't a perfect show, but it was certainly fun to see superheroes operating in a sitcom environment.

I think most of us expected Amazon's reboot to follow in its predecessor's footprints - I certainly did. Perhaps I should have stopped and considered the trend, however: the one constant in every new incarnation of The Tick has been a complete overhaul of the tone and direction. The Amazon show reused some jokes from earlier versions, but it was an entirely different creation.

More specifically, this was closer to Netflix's Marvel shows than it is to any version of The Tick that's existed previously. Hell, there might be some Birdman in this thing.

The first indication things weren't going to proceed as expected came from the rating: TV-14 for violence and language. And it's easy to see why - while The Tick's sole fight scene was pretty harmless, the pilot features a rather brutal flashback sequence where a group of heroes are executed. In addition, the world this is set in is gritty and realistic, in spite of the presence of caped heroes and villains.

The episode's (and possibly the series's) main super-villain is colorful and zany, but he comes off more scary than whimsical. If anything, he feels like an extremely accurate version of a generic super-villain from comics: ridiculous in theory, but horrifying up close.

The Tick, however, seems to grasp none of this. Peter Serafinowicz channels Adam West, playing the character as if unable to recognize the world he inhabits isn't Gotham circa 1966. The effect is certainly funny, but it's almost more troubling. It feels as if something is deeply, truly wrong.

Which it almost certainly is. The Tick isn't the main character - that's Arthur, and his backstory has some legitimately tragic elements. The show implies heavily that The Tick may be a manifestation of Arthur's subconscious. Maybe that's a red herring, but questions around the nature of reality and sanity permeate the pilot.

It's certainly an unexpected direction to go in with a character who's always been more slapstick than anything else. But grounded exploration of superhero worlds is something I love, and this has more tolerance for the more colorful aspects of the genre than almost anything I've seen.

My largest complaint is that they based this on The Tick, rather than create new characters. I don't mind the radical reinvention - I just find the retreading of situations a bit tiring (we've seen The Tick wreck Arthur's apartment looking for secret levers a few too many times now). Still, I'll deal with reliving old jokes if that's the price for a weird superheroic dark comedy/psychological drama.

Here's hoping this odd, intriguing series gets picked up.

Movie Review: Kubo and the Two Strings


I was ultimately a little disappointed by this movie, but that's more a factor of my expectations than anything else. Between the trailers and the movie's Freshness rating in the high 90's, I was expecting to walk out with this firmly placed in my #1 spot for the year. Ultimately, I think it's trending somewhere between #4 and #6, which is still impressive given the volume of phenomenal genre movies released in 2016.

On visuals alone, this movie does even better. The animation in this is absolutely stunning. It's easily one of the most beautiful stop-motion productions in history, surpassing everything in Laika's already astonishing catalog in this category. The monsters in this movie are incredible to behold and even more incredible to consider. The scale on some of these is almost inconceivable (stick around during the credits for a taste of what went into creating this movie).

My issue definitely wasn't with how things looked, nor was it with the plot. The premise and plot were both solid, and the characters's motivations and obstacles were constructed well. The element that didn't quite click for me was tone, which felt extremely uneven to me. It was trying to be everything: a mythic fantasy adventure, an exciting samurai tale, a dark horror, an emotional drama, and a light comedy. It's possible to blend that many tones into a movie, but it requires everything to be on-point. If there's a single weak link, the movies breaks apart.

The weak link, at least in my opinion, was the comedy. The jokes just didn't work for me - I found the endless string of gags about Beetle's memory more cloying than funny, and it kept pulling me out of the story. Likewise, there were some key moments where the movie held back from exploring the more traumatizing aspects of the plot - missed opportunities for reflection and depth.

That said, Kubo is definitely worth checking out in the theaters. The movie goes to some dark places with its villains, particularly the pair of witches. These are some of the most striking antagonists in the history of animation, and I expect them to endure in both film history and the nightmares of kids taken to see this.

Likewise, the action is fantastic. The fight on the boat of leaves is one of the most imaginative animated fantasy action sequences I've ever seen: it's simply incredible.

My assumption is that the comedy was present to appeal to kids, and I'd rather have gotten this beautiful movie with that caveat than not have gotten it at all. If you're a fan of genre and animation, you need to see this on the big screen - I wish they'd exercised more restraint when it came to the tone, but it's still one of the most beautiful films of the year.