Friday, April 15, 2016

Movie Review: The Jungle Book


The description "live-action remake" is tossed around when referencing this film, but that might be misleading. I'm not entirely certain whether this can meaningfully be called "live-action" at all. The film features one human actor alongside a cast of CG creations. I'm assuming parts of the set were practical, but probably only bits and pieces: this was filmed in LA, after all.

This isn't remotely a problem - on the contrary, it gets to the heart of why this movie is so groundbreaking. In The Jungle Book, Favreau creates a world from scratch. At times, it almost feels like you're being challenged to separate what's real from what's CG. The animals have weight and interact seamlessly with Mowgli, who in turn navigates through an expansive jungle logic dictates must be almost entirely computer animated. The blend of reality and fantasy has never been achieved this seamlessly.

But that's only the technical side of things. Without strong writing, acting, and directing, they're just tools. Fortunately, The Jungle Book delivers across the board.

If you think it's difficult to pin this down as live-action or animated, just try pinning down a genre. This is comedy, fantasy, adventure, horror, and even has a musical number. It pays homage to the Disney classic while doing a far better job adapting Kipling's source material.

Let me pluck out that "horror" piece for starters. Parents of young children may want to wait for DVD - this is not the sanitized, zany cartoon version from the 60's. Shere Khan is no longer the pampered, playful adversary you may remember - he's a powerful, relentless monster. And he's probably the third scariest character. Second is King Louie, re-imagined as a prehistoric great ape mob boss. Sound funny? Actually, it's hilarious, and his musical number (updated from the 1967 version) is wonderful. But when he meets resistance, he gets scary fast.

But even he's nothing to Kaa, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. The last time Disney approached this, they played the character for comedy, casting the voice of Winnie-the-Pooh. This time, Kaa is the stuff of nightmares, ancient and wise. She has an almost alien intellect and power, like some sort of Lovecraftean horror.

I don't want to undersell the other elements, though. The comedy is hilarious - I spent a good portion of the film laughing. The action, likewise, is topnotch. The animals move beautifully, a fact exploited for some amazing sequences. The characters are well-developed and complex.

It shouldn't be all that surprising. Before making Iron Man, Favreau directed  Elf and Zathura, two movies which required an astonishing degree of nuance to manage the right tone, and in both cases, he knocked it out of the park. I like Iron Man quite a bit. Hell, I like Iron Man 2 and Cowboys and Aliens, two movies the rest of the planet seems to despise. But he's at his best when he making movies like this.

The Jungle Book is an incredible achievement that utilized cutting-edge effects to build a world and populate it with incredible characters. If you haven't already picked up tickets, you should do so immediately. Just leave young kids at home.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice


This is the worst Superman movie ever made.

No, I'm not forgetting about Superman III or IV, which were horrible but at least managed to convey the basic underlying tone of the character and the optimism he represents. And, for all its faults, I really liked Man of Steel. Sure, it was darker than a Superman story should ideally be, but Clark still felt like Clark to me. Here, all of that was stripped away. Superman is basically the selfish Nietzschean ideal he was created to subvert.

Fortunately, this wasn't just a Superman movie. It was also a Batman film, and that's where the movie manages to redeem itself.

Ha! You rube! You bought that, didn't you?

See, it's funny, because this is also the worst Batman movie ever made. And yes, that's counting the Schumacher fiascoes. At least that Batman had a sense of humor. At least he wasn't a psychotic asshole for ninety percent of the film. You think Burton's Batman undervalued human life? Batman murders about fifty guys in this thing, and it's really not clear all of them are even criminals (just because you work as a security guard for LexCorp doesn't mean you deserve to be gunned down by the Batmobile). Yeah, there are a few good shots of Batman in action, but they're all in the trailers... and they're better out of context.

I'm sorry. I think I might have gotten ahead of myself. This movie wasn't very good.

Of course, if you've been to Rotten Tomatoes in the past few days, you already knew that - it's currently at 30%. What you might not realize is the critics who gave it a pass are being hilariously generous.

Do I have to acknowledge the handful of things the movie did well? Fine. Wonder Woman was really cool, even if she felt more like a new character than a faithful adaptation. There were also a few cool scenes with Lois. Oh, and some of the Trinity Vs. Doomsday fight was cool, though it would have been cooler if it hadn't felt like an homage to Michael Bay.

And Ben Affleck did some good work - the issues with Batman were in the writing, not the acting. Unlike with Daredevil, he wasn't part of the problem. Unfortunately, this was nowhere near as good a movie as Daredevil. Or Electra. Or Green Lantern, X-Men 3, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Spider-Man 3....

You get the point. This was not a good film.

However, some good may come of it. Judging by the expressions of the people leaving the theater before us (think war refugees), there's a good chance Warner Bros. is about to realize that they're going to need to make some changes. Even after this thing makes far more than it has any right to, the idea of a sequel isn't going to fill audiences with confidence. With any luck, they'll fire Zack Snyder and find someone who's proven they're capable. Or just someone off the street - that would still be a step up, as far as the Justice League movie is concerned.

While they're at it, perhaps they'll realize that trying to give every superhero movie the tone of The Dark Knight isn't the best strategy. This was one of the most humorless movies I've ever seen. Unless you count what was supposed to be the film's emotional beats.

The bats... Martha.... The last shot in the movie, which went on for TEN FREAKING MINUTES.

Don't try to understand yet - when you see the movie, you'll laugh your ass off.

It's really hard to convey just how bad this is. The movie goes on for an agonizing two and a half hours, most of which fails to move the story and instead tries to imply deeper themes than are actually present. This is a movie made by a director pretending he's a competent filmmaker. I can't stress how much better this would have been if he'd just picked up a comic and made the pictures move, like he did in 300 and Watchmen.

Sure, he failed to understand the point of Watchmen on a fundamental level, but at least he tossed sequential plot beats at the screen. Here, he can't even manage that. Absolutely nothing makes sense. At one point, Lindsay leaned over to me and said she felt like she was seeing a series of random fan videos, which is as good a description of the experience as any.

If you can somehow avoid giving this thing your money, please go see something else. Go watch Zootopia or Deadpool or something. Then wait a year, go to Youtube, and watch a handful of scenes people stick on there.

I promise, it won't be any less coherent.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Futures Market 2016


Wow. Is it summer already?

"No," most of you are probably saying. And, technically, you'd be correct. But then, the first Saturday in May has never technically been part of summer, either, and that hasn't stopped it from marking the start of the blockbuster season for more than fifteen years.

But forget all that, too - the summer movie season is a thing of the past. It took them a decade or two longer that it should have, but the studios have finally realized they do not, in fact, need to wait until May to make money on movies. Deadpool, Kung Fu Panda 3, and Zootopia have demonstrated the point for anyone who forgot about Hunger Games, Winter Soldier, and Furious 7. Make a good movie, and the audience will come. Unless, of course, you're stupid enough to release it in the middle of summer, when there's an even chance it'll be lost among the crowd.

Fortunately for fans of this annual segment, the studios are still stupid enough to do so with a large volume of films. While it's no longer a given that movies released in January and February are being tossed out, the summer remains a season of back-to-back features.

The purpose of this article is not to offer a comprehensive list, but rather to cull the field to a point we can begin making sense of it. With that goal in mind, every year I present the "geek films" on the horizon - science fiction, fantasy, superhero, animation, and occasionally other genres, and take a blind guess as to how the critics will react.

I also toss in some thoughts as to what I'm looking for - a minimum score or other flags that make me more or less likely to actually go see it in the theaters. And what the hell? Let's mix things up a bit and introduce a further random prediction that could encompass anything and will almost certainly be an embarrassment when it winds up being false.

We've got twenty-eight movies to cover, so let's not dawdle. We begin with the start of summer 2016, which Warner Brothers' marketing department has scheduled for March 25th....


3/25
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Projected Tomatometer: 60%
What I'm looking for: NA - Just about the only thing I do know about this is that I'll see it opening weekend.
Random Prediction: Despite performing slightly below expectations in the US, this will make more than 1.5 billion dollars worldwide.

This is perhaps the oddest film of the summer. Or any summer. Or perhaps all of human history.

It's not so much that they're making a Batman/Superman crossover movie - they should have done that in the 90's - it's that it looks like this. The movie is an almost incomprehensible blur of gray drabness, which indicates the producers felt strongly it should evoke the feel of Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy. It's clearly the wrong tone for this decade, and Superman looks patently ridiculous.

As for Batman, the scenes we've seen of him in action are fantastic. And the scenes with him standing still are unintentionally hilarious. Seriously, Bruce: put your arms down. They've based this version of the character on The Dark Knight Returns, as if it's somehow fresh or exciting. That comic came out thirty years ago and has been a point of inspiration for the Nolan movies AND the Burton ones. Plus, at least three incarnations of animated Batman series have done a homage to it, and that doesn't even count the surprisingly good direct-to-DVD adaptation from a few years back.

For all the pomp, this is, quite literally, your father's Batman.

More promising is Wonder Woman, who looks incredibly bad-ass. Also, she's the only one besides Lex who seems like she's having fun.

All that said, this is a movie with Batman in it - it'll make money. And, even if it's a narrative mess, it should be entertaining. Whether it's entertaining as a well made picture or as a car crash (presumably after attempting to ram Superman), time will tell, but I can't imagine it will be anything less than fascinating.

I really don't know where The Tomatometer will fall, but with Zach Snyder directing, I'd bet south of 70%. I went with 60%, four percent higher than its predecessor, but - frankly - there's no score this could get between 0% and 100% that would shock me more than the trailers.


4/8
Hardcore Henry
Projected Tomatometer: Currently at 89% - I'd guess it'll fall to around 75%
What I'm looking for: Great word of mouth
Random Prediction: For better or worse, this will spawn a genre.

This movie seems to be generating good word of mouth so far, despite a trailer than looks more dizzying than enjoyable. Heavily inspired by first-person shooter video games, this was shot from the protagonist's POV as he fights his way through a nearly infinite army of bad guys.

It certainly sounds impressive, but I'm not sure it's something I'd enjoy sitting through. However, Deadpool just demonstrated there's a market for unconventional R-rated action, so - whether or not I go see it - I expect this to do fairly well. More than that, I anticipate it establishing a new (well, sort of new - this kind of thing has been done for ages on Youtube, including by these same filmmakers) genre of first-person shooter films.

I wonder how long before we get choose-your-own-adventure DVD versions. Those actually sound like fun.

This is currently at 89% on Rotten Tomatoes with nine reviews. I'm betting those aren't completely indicative of the wider community, however, and expect it to fall closer to 75%, if not lower.


4/15
The Jungle Book
Projected Tomatometer: 80%
What I'm looking for: 80% Freshness or strong recommendations
Random Prediction: There's going to be some amazing cosplay of the animal characters at Comic Con

The trailers for this are absolutely beautiful, even if I'm skeptical Bill Murray was actually the best choice for Baloo. The blend of realism and stylized computer animation creates a world that's completely unreal, yet concrete and believable.

If it weren't for the fact the writer attached to it wrote Street Fighter: The Legend of Chung-Li, I'd be projecting a Freshness score ten points higher. As it is, I've still got high hopes. A lot of geeks have given up on Jon Favreau after Iron Man 2 and Cowboys and Aliens, but... hell, I liked both those movies.

This is the man who directed Elf, Zathura, and the first Iron Man, and it really looks like he's poured his heart and soul into this one. I'm excited.


4/22
The Huntsman: Winter's War
Projected Tomatometer: 25%
What I'm looking for: 90% Fresh and good word of mouth, or if everyone who goes to see this gains superpowers (more likely than the 90% thing)
Random Prediction: This will neither be good nor successful.

Sequels rarely live up to their predecessors, and this thing's following a piece of crap that was overrated at 48%. Technically, this is a prequel, though it's unclear if that served any purpose beyond allowing the producers to drop their lead (ironic - Stewart was actually the least obnoxious part of Snow White and the Huntsman).

The director's untested, and the writers' resumes are kind of hilarious: 25% might be a generous guess. If this winds up being inexplicably great, I'll gleefully write a retraction in my review, but somehow I suspect I'll be safe. The trailer looks more like a direct-to-DVD knock off of Frozen than anything actually worth seeing.


Tale of Tales
Projected Tomatometer: Currently 80% Fresh
What I'm looking for: Nothing to contradict the tone of the trailer I just saw
Random Prediction: This will be one of my top three films of the year

This Italian production wasn't really on my radar until a few minutes ago, but after watching the trailer, it's one of my most anticipated films of the summer. The trailer displays dark, yet whimsical fantasy steeped in fairy tale horror: there's not a lot I like more than that. Apparently, it's something of an anthology: three movies, all by the same director making his English language debut.

I'm not actually certain I'll wind up catching it in the theater, since I'm not sure how far I'd have to go to find it (I don't get the impression it's going to be in wide release). But I am really, really intrigued by what I just saw.

Here's a link to the trailer - just be warned it is definitely NSFW.


4/29
Ratchet and Clank
Projected Tomatometer: 25%
What I'm looking for: Freshness rating of 90%
Random Prediction: This will enter and leave theaters without you noticing

The first of three video game adaptations on this list, Ratchet and Clank's trailer doesn't offer a single entertaining moment. The animation is pitifully outdated, the jokes aren't funny, and the premise is tired. The source material has been around for a while, but it's unlikely the movie would have been green lit if not for the success of Guardians of the Galaxy.

The one small ray of hope comes from the fact there are two directors credited, and one worked on Arthur Christmas and Finding Nemo as the choreographer. Unfortunately, the other (who also has a writing credit) was responsible for the 2007 animated TMNT movie you forgot existed.

If this scores higher than 50% Fresh, I'll be shocked.


Keanu
Projected Tomatometer: 80%
What I'm looking for: NA - I probably won't see it in theaters, even if its as good as I'm expecting
Random Prediction: This will made more money in the US than The Huntsman: Winter's War

As a rule of thumb, I don't really pay attention to comedies unless they cross over with another genre I care about, say SF or superheroes. I'm making an exception for this quirky film, however, due to the fact Key and Peele are behind it.

I discovered their show late, and I never followed it consistently, but just about everything I've seen has been incredibly impressive. The show is commonly identified as sketch comedy, but I don't think that's accurate. The vast majority of segments I've seen are short films, comedic in nature, but comprised of character development, narrative arcs, and complex themes, all folded into a four or five minute package. These aren't Saturday Night Live skits - they're short, hilarious stories.

Not everyone who excels in shorter formats can make the jump to feature-length films, but I wouldn't bet against them. Plus, the trailer for Keanu - a comedy of two men trying to infiltrate a gang to recover a beloved kitten - is hilarious.

All that said, given the deluge of movies coming out this year, it's extremely unlikely I'll catch this in the theaters, even if it's fantastic. But I've got a feeling this is going to make an impact, and I wanted that prediction in writing.


5/6
Captain America: Civil War
Projected Tomatometer: 89%
What I'm looking for: A theater that's not sold out
Random Prediction: The cinematic Marvel Universe is going to deviate from the comics and reveal Steve Rogers is gay

Okay, I should probably address that prediction before I go on.

All of these predictions are kind of Hail Mary's, this one included. I'm not so naive to think this is likely the way they'll go. But it would deliver on some promised diversity made by the producers, offer a younger group of fans elements they want included, and it would explain a great deal about the character's portrayal and relationships in the first two films.

No, I haven't forgotten Peggy. But I'm not sure the fans on Tumblr aren't on to something when they read more into Rogers's love for Bucky than the standard friends/brothers-in-arms relationship. There's a real argument there could be more there.

All that's assuming Sharon Carter (whose brief role in Winter Soldier is expanded here) is something of a red herring, of course. And that Disney's really ready to take that kind of risk with one of Marvel's core characters. But it makes a certain amount of sense, doesn't it? And it would definitely get a reaction.

Setting this theory aside, let's focus on the rest of the movie, which is either going to be most complete, large-scale use of the shared Marvel Universe to date or an incomprehensible mess. There's a common narrative floating around that you can't fit more than six or seven characters into a superhero movie without it falling apart. But that's bull: there's no limit to the number of characters you can include... there's a limit to the number of character arcs.

The problem with Age of Ultron wasn't that there were ten Avengers in the movie: the problem is that they tried giving almost everyone their own personal story. The only ones given a smaller part were Falcon and War Machine: both were in a few cool scenes and weren't expected to grow or change. Think of how much better that movie would have been if they'd done the same with Hulk, Captain America, Hawkeye, Thor, and Black Widow. All of them got convoluted story-lines that dragged the movie away from its core. You want to tell a superhero story in a Shakespearean fashion? Cool! Choose a few members of the team and go nuts. For the rest, think less Shakespeare and more Predator.

The relevant question is whether the Russo brothers figured that out in time. My perhaps optimistic guess is that they must have. With the number of characters in this movie, there's no way they could have tried to cram an arc in for each of them. Right? RIGHT?

Assuming that, I'm going to guess this will be received by critics in a similar way to Winter Soldier. The movie could easily fall short of that goal post, even if they avoid the mistakes made on Age of Ultron. Or, hell, maybe it exceeds expectations and scores in the 90's. Honestly, it won't affect whether I show up - I've seen every MCU movie in the theater (actually, I think I've seen them all opening weekend, if not opening day). And, good or bad, that won't change now.


5/20
Angry Birds
Projected Tomatometer: 22%
What I'm looking for: I will see this movie if and only if I am drugged and kidnapped by the mob, tied to a chair, and forced to sit through it at gunpoint. Also, they better be paying for my ticket.
Random Prediction: The movie, adapted from a video game, will be even worse than its own inevitable video game adaptation

Don't let that generous 22% fool you - there is no movie coming out this summer that looks less appealing to me that this. I barely made it through the trailer without walking out of the movie theater.

There are two directors credited to this, which is two more than I'd have estimated. Neither have ever directed a movie before, and if there's any justice in the world, neither will again.

Unless... ugh. No one really expected the LEGO Movie to deliver, did they? Occasionally, a bad premise with a bad trailer turns out to be concealing a brilliant concept. But I wouldn't bet on it this time.


The Nice Guys
Projected Tomatometer: 85%
What I'm looking for: Good Reviews
Random Prediction: This will show up on quite a few critics' top 10 lists at the end of year

The Nice Guys appears to be a noir action movie set in the 1970's. The reason any of us should care is it's written and directed by Shane Black. It's his first full length feature since Iron Man 3, but it looks closer to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang than a Marvel movie.

The timing of this movie's release is a bit surprising: you'd expect action films like this to come out in the off-season, rather than compete with summer fare. Then again, Civil War will have had a few weeks already, and I don't see anything else on the 13th or 20th likely to be competing with this (aside from Angry Birds, but they might actually complement each other: parents see The Nice Guys, while the kids hopefully sneak into something better than Angry Birds).

Honestly, whether I see this or not probably has more to do with the weather than anything else. That said, Lindsay is a big fan of Black's movies and the genre, so I'll have to get her vote. Regardless, I can't imagine anything betting a Shane Black movie wasn't at least going to be good. I went with the Freshness score for Kiss Kiss Bang Bang rather than the lower rated Iron Man 3 under the assumption that it's a better gauge for his potential when not being tightly managed by a studio.


5/27
X-Men: Apocalypse
Projected Tomatometer: 76%
What I'm looking for: Well, I want something with actual payoff, but I'll probably see it regardless
Random Prediction: This will make less money than Deadpool, leading to a recentering of the cinematic X-verse

I don't think there's a superhero movie coming out I have more faith will be good, but - by the same token - I have less faith will be great. Days of Future Past was solid, but it was hamstrung by an outdated sense of self-importance. Singer takes these characters seriously, which is certainly an asset, but he's always pushed them away from their comic roots, rather than embracing the genre.

The Sentinels in the last movie epitomized this disconnect. We waited a long, long time to see these robots on the big screen, and the actual conflict was small and boring. Singer has said several times that he views these as science fiction rather than superhero movies... and that's becoming an issue as the movie-going public discovers something geeks have known for a long, long time:

Superheroes are AWESOME.

I don't want to undersell Bryan Singer's contributions. X-Men 2 remains one of the best works in the genre, and Days of Future Past is good. But I really want him to step up his game, partly on spectacle but more so on wonder. His movies feel like people with powers navigating a world of danger. That was fine for the 90's, but it's time to move on. I'm hoping this is the movie Singer proves me wrong and shows he's capable of that, but the trailers - while decent - don't fill me with confidence.

This is placed in the 80's instead of the 70's, and the story won't mesh quite as cleanly with the themes: that's why I'm expecting a drop in Freshness rating (Days of Future Past is at an astonishing 91%).

None of this is likely to delay me from seeing this in the theaters, of course. But I'm hoping we finally get the huge, exciting superhero mutant movie we've been promised since the beginning. But I'm skeptical that will actually happen until Fox hands the franchise over to someone with an outlook more like Tim Miller's.


Alice Through the Looking Glass
Projected Tomatometer: 60%
What I'm looking for: Freshness 80% and/or strong recommendations
Random Prediction: Disney will pull this and release it later in the year

Take that prediction with a grain of salt - that's a shot in the dark even compared to the other predictions on this page. But, given how crowded late May and early June are, I wouldn't be surprised. Still, I mainly went with it because I have no clue what else to think of this movie.

The first one had a handful of memorable images but was otherwise drivel. However, Tim Burton sat out part two, which allowed them to bring in James Bobin, the director of the Muppet movies. It's less a question of raw talent than engagement - I doubt even Bobin thinks he's the better director, but he seems capable and is more likely to put in some effort.

They brought back the writer, as well, Linda Woolverton, whose name has been attached to some great movies (The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast), as well as some less successful productions (Maleficent and... I just said she was involved with the first installment).

Will we end up with a good movie? I have no idea.


6/3
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows
Projected Tomatometer: 50%
What I'm looking for: I'm more interested in a fun Turtles movie than a critically successful one. I'll be listening to word of mouth for this one.
Random Prediction: It will better than the last Turtles movie. Also, it will be better than eating jagged rocks.

There are better directors you could hire to fix this franchise than Dave Green, but there are worse ones, too. For example, they could have brought back Jonathan Liebesman, the hack who butchered part one.

Green's only other theatrical movie was the decidedly mediocre Earth to Echo. I know "decidedly mediocre" sounds harsh, but I really can't stress how much of an improvement it is over the last installment of the Turtles franchise.

I wouldn't say the trailers for this look good, but the fact they're pouring on elements from the cartoon suggest the potential for fun. I really don't know it'll deliver - I'm not really even all that optimistic - but it feels like it's possible.

The 50% guess is based on Earth to Echo's score. I'm hoping Green surprises us: I'd love to see an unapologetically crazy Turtles adventure, complete with Dimension X, Rocksteady, and Bebop. This is a great property with a lot of potential, even if we haven't gotten a good theatrical movie since 1990.


6/10
Warcraft
Projected Tomatometer: 55%
What I'm looking for: Freshness score greater than 75% or reviews stating it's so bad it's good
Random Prediction: If you go to a midnight showing opening day, you will be sitting beside at least one person dressed as an orc. Or maybe an orc dressed as a human - it's hard to tell sometimes.

I'm a fantasy writer, and I don't know what to make of the trailer for this. To be fair, I never got into the video games this is based on (always preferred tabletop myself). Tonally, it looks utterly incomprehensible.

However, in the right hands that could mean a nuanced picture. And with a pair of SF movies averaging around 90% positive, there's reason to think Duncan Jones might be the director to finally deliver a good video game movie.

Or not. Again, the trailers are really, really weird. But I will admit I'm excited to see orcs appear in sympathetic roles on the big screen. Plus, bad fantasy can be as much fun as good - I've rarely had as much fun in the theater as I had seeing Dungeons & Dragons the first time.

I'll take either. Give me something hilariously bad or surprisingly good - or pull a Chronicles of Riddick and do both in the same movie - and I'll be there. But if I hear this is at all boring or just mediocre, I'm skipping it.


6/17
Finding Dory
Projected Tomatometer: 80%
What I'm looking for: 80% Freshness should do it
Random Prediction: This will be one of the summer's top 3 highest grossing movies

I'm not sure what to think of this movie. On one fin, the premise seems solid, allowing the filmmakers to put a twist on the concept without losing the driving force that defined the original. On the other flipper, Pixar's track record with sequels is mixed, and the only reason it's not awful is the Toy Story franchise exists.

On top of that, the trailer - while certainly fun - doesn't present anything new. We're simply presented with character moments and jokes more or less indistinguishable from those in Nemo. Sure, we like these characters, and sure, the jokes are funny, but that makes this look like a solid direct-to-video sequel, not a major motion picture.

All that said, Pixar has a track record of under-promising with trailers. They know they'll get us to the theaters without showing us the whole movie, and they know there's merit in not spoiling the best stuff.

The movie is co-directed by Andrew Stanton, who's directed several of the company's best movies, and Angus MacLane, who hasn't (all he's got credited are a couple shorts and a Pixar TV special). It is promising that Stanton came back - he hasn't made a bad movie yet (and no, I didn't forget John Carter - that was a fine film, dammit!).

My guess is this will be solid and fun, but probably not ground-breaking. But if there's one company capable of exceeding my expectations, it's Disney/Pixar. Finding Nemo remains one of their best movies - here's hoping they've done it justice.


6/24
Independence Day Resurgence
Projected Tomatometer: 45%
What I'm looking for: 85% Fresh and/or great recommendations
Random Prediction: Whatever toys they make for this will be on clearance before September 1st

I'm actually a huge defender of the underrated 1996 original, despite its flaws. However, I'm extremely skeptical Roland Emmerich is still capable of making something at that level of quality. It's been 16 years since he had a movie certified Fresh, and that barely made the cut (The Patriot, with 61%).

The trailer for Resurgence is mixed: the action looks cool, if redundant, but the movie looks to be making some elementary mistakes. Scaling up the already ridiculously huge alien ships simply to try and make us even more shocked at their size comes off as desperate (I wasn't a fan of Starkiller Base in The Force Awakens, either), and it's concerning that they couldn't get Will Smith back.

This movie could well surprise me, but I'm betting against it. Take a look at Emmerich's filmography if you need more information on why.


7/1
The Legend of Tarzan
Projected Tomatometer: 85%
What I'm looking for: 80% Fresh and/or higher than BFG (Assuming the next prediction is wrong)
Random Prediction: Someone flinches, and either this or The BFG gets moved

The trailer for The Legend of Tarzan is certainly intriguing. A retelling of the story using modern effects could pay off, and David Yates - director of the last three Harry Potter films - seems like as good a choice as any.

That said, why would you pit this against The BFG, a fantasy adventure film directed by Steven Spielberg? Both look to be going after the same audience, and both appear to mix dark and light elements.

The Fourth of July is a damn good slot, and it's not like there are a lot of free weekends over the summer, but the competition is going to drag down both films' potential.

My guess is I'll probably see one of these two movies that weekend, and it'll be whichever is supposed to be better. If they're both north of 90%, I might make two trips, but that would be a bit surprising. Likewise, if neither does better than 80%, I might just wait for them to show up on Netflix.

The 85% Freshness guess is based on the director's previous releases. Lacking much more to go on, I'll assume consistency, and there's no better indicator of a movie's quality than the person in charge of it.


The BFG
Projected Tomatometer: 85%
What I'm looking for: 80% Fresh and/or higher than The Legend of Tarzan (Assuming the next prediction is wrong)
Random Prediction: Someone flinches, and either this or The Legend of Tarzan gets moved

Directed by Steven Spielberg and based on the beloved novel by Roald Dahl, The BFG should have every chance of being massively successful. It's surprising to see it scheduled for the same day as The Legend of Tarzan (though, if any weekend can sustain two family blockbusters, it's the Fourth of July). Still, I wouldn't be at all surprised if one of the studios pulls their movie for a later (or even earlier) date.

Beyond that, I'm not sure what to make of this. The teaser works well as a short film, but we don't see enough of the movie to know what kind of movie it's attached to. I actually prefer that from a trailer, by the way, but it makes it all that much harder to guess whether the movie will be good or not until reviews start populating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Spielberg used to be a sure bet, but these days he's hit or miss. I'm going with 85% to match The Legend of Tarzan: it just feels right that they should be starting at the same place if they'll be competing for my cash.


7/8
The Secret Life of Pets
Projected Tomatometer: 60%
What I'm looking for: 95% Fresh
Random Prediction: This will be out on DVD before the end of September

Is there a new law that states every CG animated movie must be directed by two people, one veteran and one amateur? And, if so, is this based on that bullshit Sith rule from the prequels? Because not only does that seem strategically stupid, it's dull from a narrative standpoint and it artificially limits your world-building potential. The more villains with lightsabers, the better.

Sorry - what was I talking about? Oh, yeah - The Secret Life of Pets, directed by two people I've never heard of, only one of whom has directed anything I have heard of. Unfortunately, the Master in this partnership was responsible for The Lorax, which looked even worse than this does.

To be fair, he also directed the Despicable Me films, which were supposed to be solidly mediocre. And, were it not for the second trailer, I might have been convinced this, too, could reach such lofty heights. Unfortunately, the trailer which set up the plot clarified this was too much of a stretch.

There's just enough interesting design work in this to keep me from trimming my projection lower than 60%, but - based on the derivative plot (think Toy Story with more poop jokes) and weak attempts at humor, I don't expect it to go much higher.


7/15
Ghostbusters
Projected Tomatometer: 90%
What I'm looking for: Positive word-of-mouth
Random Prediction: The original Ghostbusters cameos will be as ghosts, and they'll digitally include the late Harold Ramis, so all four appear

I'm not sure what to make of the quasi-cartoonish vibe I get from the trailers we've seen, but there's no denying the talent behind this thing. Besides, I'm told Feig's movies are better than their trailers.

While there are some odd tonal choices, the cast looks awesome, especially Kate McKinnon, who honestly might elbow Bill Murray out of his spot as the top fan-favorite character in the franchise. I know there are people out there who object to gender-flipping the cast, but I honestly can't wrap my head around their position. If they just remade this movie with four new men, I honestly think it would be oppressively boring. This has to be dramatically different than the original to be worth making, and casting four women is a great start.


7/22
Star Trek Beyond
Projected Tomatometer: 75%
What I'm looking for: 85% Fresh
Random Prediction: This will be the last Star Trek movie made with this cast.

I love the Trek reboot and even think Into Darkness gets unfairly maligned. It definitely should have done better with its female characters, but that's true of the industry as a whole. I'm glad Abrams took that criticism to heart, though - I doubt he'd have done quite as good of a job with The Force Awakens otherwise.

But this incarnation of Trek has a serious problem. The 2009 reboot was as much an unofficial Star Wars movie as it was a Trek installment. That was perfect at the time, but now that its auteur has gone on to make the Star Wars movie he wanted in the first place, Star Trek's vision needs to shift dramatically.

Its most obvious direction would be to change gears and go back to the franchise's roots with an intelligent science fiction story built around cultural concepts, which seems like where this is headed. But then you get the problem that killed the franchise a decade earlier: that doesn't equate to blockbuster entertainment. Conflating the issue is the fact this cast is full of stars who can now demand sizable paychecks. Unless Beyond is hugely successful, I can't image the economics justifying a fourth movie.

In addition, there's a new television series starting up, which could open the door to movie spin-offs, assuming it does well. And maybe that's for the best - the characters of the original series were revolutionary in the 1960's, but a cast of space explorers that are almost entirely straight men feels a bit regressive now. If Star Trek wants to live up to its progressive premise and not just treat its characters as icons, it might be a good time to move on.

In the meantime, I'm excited to see at least one more outing with this group. It's also good to see Simon Pegg worked on the script: he's a good writer who absolutely understands the property. The director, Justin Lin, is something of a wildcard, though. His movies are all over the map in terms of reviews, which makes it difficult to guess where this will end up. Since it seems to be a labor of love, at least for the writers, I'm betting it'll be pretty good, at the very least.

Even so, I suspect that will equate to the series going out on a high note, as opposed to breathing new life into it.


Ice Age: Collision Course
Projected Tomatometer: 30%
What I'm looking for: I just really, really want them to stop making these
Random Prediction: They will never stop making these

Yet another CG movie with two directors, a master and an apprentice. And by "master," I mean hack, since we're taking about the person responsible for the series's two worst reviewed installments.

I should probably mention that's I've only actually seen the original, which - despite receiving a 77% Freshness rating - was lifeless and dull. Good lord - that came out fourteen years, ago, too: this franchise is going to be around longer than its namesake.

I will grudgingly admit to finding the teaser for this a little amusing. I'm not actually a fan of Scrat, but the sequence where he wound up in an alien spaceship was kind of fun. Unfortunately, the movie is going to focus on the series's regulars, who bore the hell out of me. Not just in the first movie: I can barely keep my eyes open when they're in trailers.


7/29
Jason Bourne
Projected Tomatometer: 85%
What I'm looking for: 98% Fresh or I honestly don't care
Random Prediction: This will not be the #1 movie of the week it opens (or any other week for that matter)

So... this is the fifth Jason Bourne movie? The sixth? I don't even care enough to look it up. Frankly, I've seen either the first two or first three movies in the series, and the mere fact I'm not sure which should be a good indication for my level of investment.

The funny thing, I know these are good. Really good, even. But I don't recall the plot of the series moving ahead at all in a meaningful way. Just random spy stuff, well executed, sure, but without any real core or point.

The reason the Bond movies have worked for as decades has less to do with Bond than the villains. 007 fights over-the-top comic book supervillains. Jason Bourne fights... analysts in suits? The occasional agent like him? I barely even remember. You can make that compelling for a movie, but a franchise? Forget it.

That said, if these weren't expertly filmed, there wouldn't be more than one. The movies are good and they're influential. I'd be surprised if critics didn't enjoy this; fans, too. But - unless this is one of the greatest spy movies ever made - I've got no interest in it.


8/5
Suicide Squad
Projected Tomatometer: 75%
What I'm looking for: 70% Fresh or 10% glowing
Random Prediction: Regardless of how good this is, it will be the lowest grossing Marvel or DC property of 2016

Suicide Squad is highly anticipated by geeks, but not by the general population. It's a relatively obscure group of characters who are driven more by self-interest than by altruism. If the movie sticks to this premise and doesn't turn Deadshot into a hero, I'll be shocked.

I am excited to see this on the big screen, not least because I want a fully realized, fleshed out DC Cinematic Universe to complement the two Marvel ones available. While I have a laundry list of complaints (why is DC pretending they're dark and edgy?), I'm thrilled they're including characters with a variety of different origins and abilities. Hell, they're introducing more magic now than Marvel's been willing to put out in twelve films (though that should be changing this fall with Doctor Strange).

My expectation is this movie will, at the very least, be either good or fun (possibly both, but I don't want to get my hopes up). I expect I'll see this unless it gets abysmally bad reviews, but even then I'll be looking closely. If 10% of critics love this, I'll check it out, even if the rest despise it. But if its only defenders offer lukewarm feedback, I might skip it entirely.


8/12
Pete's Dragon
Projected Tomatometer: 80%
What I'm looking for: Freshness of 85% or Glowing Recommendations
Random Prediction: This will be pulled and released next spring.

A boy, orphaned in the wilderness, has little chance to survive alone. But in reality, he isn't alone: he's taken in and protected by something in the woods. Something old, wise, and powerful. He's taught to survive as a feral creature, but eventually, he will also need to learn how to be human.

But enough about The Jungle Book.

Actually, no it isn't. I love the trailer for the re-imagined Pete's Dragon, but it's eerily similar to the trailer for the Jungle Book. I think I understand why Disney made both of these movies, but I can't figure out why they made them both the same year.

All that said, this looks hauntingly beautiful. If it falls short of my expectations, I'll skip it, but if it's what I think it is, I'll gladly go check it out in the theater. Even if it feels like a repeat.


Sausage Party [updated 3/16]
Projected Tomatometer: 55% (originally: 25%)
What I'm looking for: EXTREMELY good reviews (originally: I honestly can't imagine a scenario in which I'll go see this movie)
Random Prediction: Seth MacFarlane will begin production on his own R-rated CG animated movie the week after this opens, if not sooner

UPDATE (3/16): The trailer appeared online a few days after I posted this, so I'm allowing myself the rare adjustment. While I'm still skeptical this is going to be revolutionary, I was pleasantly surprised to find the trailer was more interesting than I'd expected. I'm sure there'll be a ton of dick and drug jokes in the film, but the trailer focused more on dystopian horror, a much more appealing genre. I'm increasing my guess for the movie's Tomatometer and retracting the implication there's no way I'd possibly consider seeing this. It's still a hell of a long shot, but the trailer was just off-kilter enough to peak my curiosity.

Original: I'm having a real problem here divorcing my own dislike of this premise from whether I think there's a chance it will be objectively good. It's tempting to dismiss this out of hand: it's an R-rated Seth Rogen movie about sausages going on an adventure in a grocery store. If you're not stoned right now, that likely sounds as awful to you as it does to me.

However, setting aside the idiotic sex jokes and "smoked sausage" pot puns that will inevitably permeate this thing, it's worth considering this is also going to serve as a parody of both Pixar movies and VeggieTales. There could be some material to mine there, assuming the writers are at the top of their game.

Also, like every other damn CG movie coming out this summer, this is co-directed by someone with experience handling blockbuster animation and someone apparently trying to break into the game. In this case, the expert made Monsters Vs. Aliens (not awful, but pretty mediocre), while his partner has a long list of credits connected to Thomas & Friends. I'm honestly not sure what to make of that.


Ben-Hur
Projected Tomatometer: 55% (Originally 70%)
What I'm looking for: 90% Fresh
Random Prediction: This movie will feature a CG chariot race that makes the Episode I pod race look restrained in comparison

Update (3/16): Like Sausage Party, the trailer for Ben-Hur is up, so I think it's only fair I'm able to tweak my guess. Unlike with Sausage Party, this was more or less what I'd expected. I didn't see anything I hated in the trailer, but I didn't see anything that suggested the filmmakers had an inspired reason for making it. This looks like a pretty unremarkable CG-filled remake. I'm dropping my guess to a more modest 55%. As for the random prediction - I think that was just proven true (not that I should brag - it was pretty obvious).

You know what would make this easier? A goddamn trailer. I honestly know nothing about this remake beside the people involved. It's directed by Timur Bekmambetov, which could be a good or bad omen. I have issues with the liberties Wanted took with its source material, but that has more to do with the script than the direction. It was competently filmed, which bodes well for this project. The writers are even more promising - one worked on 12 Years a Slave. I haven't seen that, but I've heard it's an amazing film.

Honestly, there's nothing about this that looks bad, aside from the fact it exists. Does anyone really want a remake of Ben-Hur?

It's always an open question with things like this: is this being remade because someone had a brilliant vision, or is this a cheap cash grab? Until we see a trailer, it's hard to even speculate. Honestly, I'm hoping for cash grab - this is going to be a busy summer as it is, and I'd love to cross this off my list.



8/19
Kubo and the Two Strings
Projected Tomatometer: 85%
What I'm looking for: 85% Fresh and/or great recommendations
Random Prediction: That amazing cover of While My Guitar Gently Weeps won't even be in the movie

LAIKA is one of the most intriguing film companies out there. They're not quite as consistent as I'd like, but even when their movies are disappointing (anyone else watch Boxtrolls on Netflix?), they're ambitious and beautifully animated.

Kubo and the Two Strings breaks the streak of animated movies having multiple directors, but then it's stop-motion. This appears to be Travis Knight's first time directing, though he's worked on several of the company's films before.

All we really have to go on for this is the trailer, which is achingly beautiful. There's a very good chance this will exceed expectations and land in the mid 90's, but I'm going play this safe. LAIKA has only pulled off 90% once, and that was Coraline, which was co-directed by the legendary Henry Selick.


Conclusion

When the two biggest movies on the horizon share a common theme, it's difficult to avoid falling into the trap of equating the season with that idea. But while Batman will be v'ing on Superman and Marvel's having their Civil War, I'm more interested in the other trends at play.

The most interesting theme I'm seeing is the dominance of Fantasy. I count a whopping seven releases in the genre: Winter's War, Tale of Tales, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Warcraft, The BFG, Pete's Dragon, and Kubo and the Two Strings. That's on top of borderline fantasy productions like the Ghostbusters remake, Ben-Hur, The Legend of Tarzan, and The Jungle Book (all of which are remakes - I smell a conspiracy). In addition, we've got fantasy elements being introduced in Suicide Squad and possibly even in Civil War. I'm thrilled to see this genre making a resurgence - it's one of my favorites.

We also have seven animated movies scheduled, not including animated films masquerading as live action (The Jungle Book being the most obvious example, but I doubt more than 25% of Alice Through the Looking Glass will be live-action). The downside is that most of these look awful. I'm excited by Kubo, The Jungle Book, and Finding Dory, but I plan on skipping the others.

This is a crowded summer for genre film: five superhero movies, seven fantasies, seven animated, three space-based science fiction.... that's a lot. Honestly, it's almost certainly more than is healthy for the industry. I doubt we're going to see more than a year or two more like this before studios start dialing back their productions or - in a few cases - shutting down entirely.

Enjoy it while it lasts, geeks. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Movie Review: Kung Fu Panda 3


I really can't offer Kung Fu Panda 3 a fair review. The simple fact is, I liked part 2 too much to look at this in isolation. Hell, I picked Kung Fu Panda 2 as my favorite movie of 2011. And, while Kung Fu Panda 3 has plenty of merits, it's just not a worthy successor.

But it definitely has its merits. The comedy is solid, whether that's what I wanted or not. And visually, this is a gorgeous film. The backdrops are beautifully rendered in a stylized manner, and the action sequences are breathtaking to behold. I enjoyed watching this movie immensely, even while the decisions made pissed me off.

Spoilers follow, if you care.

The movie opens strong with a sequence in the spirit realm, where a new villain is imprisoning the souls of history's greatest Kung Fu masters and using them to battle his way back into the real world. Master Oogway is the last of his victims, and he's captured and transformed into a Jade talisman. Before he's taken, he alludes to having set a hero in motion towards being able to stop the villain.

And, as I always do in these situations, I crossed my fingers and prayed this would be the time the master secretly wasn't referring to the obvious male protagonist. But it quickly became apparent that this wasn't going to fake us (and the villain) out into focusing on Po, only for Tigress to step in at the last minute and prove that - while she wasn't the Dragon Warrior - she had a mystical destiny of her own.

It's okay - I'm used to disappointment. Someday I'll tell you how angry I was at the end of The Matrix when Trinity didn't turn out to be The One. I'm still not over that.

But I digress. All that stuff with the spirit realm and the evil ox warrior with an army (really more of a squadron) of jade Kung Fu warriors is essentially the B-plot. Because what's really important is Po's relationship with his two fathers. He finally reunites with his biological dad, who's terrified of losing him again. To keep Po out of harm's way, he tells his son he can teach him to channel and manipulate chi, the one power that can stop the villain. So Po heads off to learn about being a Panda, leading to comic shenanigans.

Of course, his adoptive father goes along, too. Shifu, who's been a father figure to Po all along, stays behind, but they only get a few scenes together pursuing that relationship. Then, at the end, we get an admittedly cool sequence with Oogway in which the Kung Fu legend serves as a fourth father figure for our hero. And, really, what he needs to learn is how to be a teacher, which essentially boils down to him learning to become a father figure.

Fathers teach sons, and sons teach fathers, and so and so forth. In order to fit all that crap into a brisk hour and a half, all the interesting characters are basically sidelined. I'm talking about the Furious Five, of course. Sure, they each get a minute or two to stand out before being captured, but only Tigress gets to remain in control through the movie. To be fair, they avoid nerfing her, which I appreciate, but her role is a far cry from that of the ultimate bad-ass she played in the second movie.

Like I said, I know I'm not being fair. But this isn't a standalone film - it's the next installment in what's been an extremely promising series with a rich, intriguing world that's barely been scratched. The last movie managed to be funny without feeling like a comedy. It was a martial film first and foremost, and it was a damn good one. This installment maintained the quality of the action, but it was no longer the core of the film. Like part one, this was a silly movie with some cool fight scenes.

It was a kids film. And it was a kids film that retread some very common themes and plot points.

I will say that Lindsay had a more favorable reaction than I did, and she made some good points. A good portion of the movie was devoted to Po being reintroduced to his roots, something which might offer representation to adopted children. In addition, while the father/son dynamic was constant, the movie didn't fall into masculine, testosterone-laden cliches. So, kudos for including those elements.

But while there were female characters present (and - to be fair - given a variety of roles and body types), they were relegated to supporting positions. Even Tigress was mainly here to be Po's friend, not his equal.

I had mixed reactions to the first movie in this series, but I remember thinking how much I wanted a sequel that delivered some of the promise of the premise. Then, when Kung Fu Panda 2 delivered on that, all I wanted was more.

Visually, this movie was just as good as its predecessors, and the action was comparable. I enjoyed the jokes and - despite my complaints - thought it was a solid enough film. But I honestly don't care whether they make another.

Am I being unfair to what was essentially a really good kids film with some awesome fights? Well, yeah - I think I already covered that. This wasn't at all a bad movie, but it was definitely a disappointment, at least to this fan.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Movie Review: Zootopia


Do you like animation? How about great films?

If you answered "yes" to either of those questions, this is where you stop reading. Because I've got very little to say about this movie that isn't a spoiler, and you're better off seeing this with as little information as possible. This is a stellar movie, and I'd honestly prefer you discover why for yourself.

If you're not sold, feel free to keep reading, but - fair warning - I'm not holding back. Otherwise, save this and all other reviews until after you've seen it.

Alright. I'm going to assume everyone still reading has either seen Zootopia or is waiving their rights to be upset when I give away the major plot twists. Only I'm not going to do that, because - while I think the movie had a good story - it's only tangentially connected to why it's worth everyone's time. I am, however, about to spoil the theme, and believe me: that's a bigger deal.

On the surface, Zootopia is set in a world inhabited by anthropomorphic animals. More specifically, mammals - we never find out if there are cities of talking birds or lizards, too (maybe in the sequel). Or, hell, maybe this is secretly in continuity with Ducktales or Tailspin or something: those definitely feel like the prototypes Zootopia is working off of.

But this isn't Duckburg: this is a nuanced, complex setting with very real problems. The movie is full of jokes, the majority of which are fun and well executed. And, honestly, I kind of wish they'd gone through and cut every last one of them out. Because while the movie is funny, its core isn't comedy. This is a story of systemic and unconscious racism in law enforcement, politics, and culture at large. It's about bias, privilege, and fear.

It's almost impossible to watch Zootopia in 2016 and not draw parallels to the Black Lives Matter movement: this digs beneath the surface to explore the reasons why well-meaning police officers may find themselves reacting differently to the same behavior from people of different races. Likewise, it's not hard to see similarities between the political fear-mongering of the movie's villain and Donald Trump's speeches. It's easy to forget that this was written three years ago. But then again, it works just as well as an allegory for profiling of Muslims in the name of the War on Terror, decades of law enforcement disproportionately targeting minorities in the drug war, or countless other examples you can dredge up from human history.

What's perhaps most impressive is the way the movie unveils its theme. The film's protagonist is a rabbit trying to be the first of her species to join the police. We follow her as she fights to achieve her goals, despite being told her whole life it's impossible for someone like her to join the force. We believe that she's the underdog, that she's persecuted and held back.

And, in a way, that's true. But rabbits are herbivores, as is ninety percent of the population. Predators, on the other hand, are a small minority, and they're commonly feared and shunned by others. Society treats them differently without noticing. When a rabbit gets upset, it's seen as a normal reaction, but when it's a lion, they're seen as dangerous.

At first, there's a connection between the two situations, as if the opposition to a rabbit becoming a cop is the same problem faced by the predators. But, just as quickly, the movie exposes this as false equivalence. A majority that is afraid and has a manufactured sense of persecution can do horrible things. This is the point of Zootopia, and if it succeeds in teaching that lesson to eight-year-olds, maybe the next generation will be smart enough to see something like Trump's hate speech for what it is.

This is an astonishingly good movie. But if you've been to Rotten Tomatoes recently you probably already figured that out - it's at 99% positive right now. The movie melds numerous genres together, but the dominant inspiration is a 70's/80's cop drama. One of my biggest complaints from the trailer was that the culture was modernized, a decision that will eventually date the movie. But I can see now it was the right choice - this had to be set now, because this is happening now.

I've got a handful of issues with various elements, including some reservations with the pacing of the ending, but... I just can't pick at this thing. It's too good, too smart, and too important a film to waste time with trivial details.

I honestly hope no one who hasn't seen Zootopia made it this far, but just in case, I'll say it one more time: go see this movie.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Movie Review: Deadpool

Deathstroke the Litigator

I don't want to spoil this for you, but it's difficult not to talk about a pivotal, groundbreaking moment that forever transformed the genre, and perhaps film in general. Something so brilliant, you'll understand immediately what they were going for, while being shocked no one else thought of it first.

But enough about the opening credits.

Forget the violence, nudity, and foul language - this was one of the most unironic celebrations of comic heroes ever put on film. It's extremely funny, but this is about far from parody as you can get. Put simply, this exists to build up, not tear down, the superhero genre.

It's difficult to overstate this movie's merits. It juggles genres with astonishing skill, mixing its lead's trademark morally ambiguous comedy with topnotch action and - I honestly can't believe I'm typing this - a surprisingly well-executed love story.

But none of that is my favorite thing about Deadpool. What I really loved about this film is that, in the midst of everything else, the filmmakers used this as an opportunity to fix Fox's X-Men franchise. While I've generally liked these movies (with the obvious exceptions of The Last Stand and Origins: Wolverine), Fox has always downplayed the superhero elements, opting instead for science fiction.

Forget all that. The X-Men, in this movie, absolutely are superheroes, in every sense of the word. And - at least if Colossus is any indication - they know it. Stefan Kapicic's Colossus uses the term unapologetically and treats the profession as something of a calling, and he does so with a Russian accent.

I know. FINALLY.

This actually may be the sparsest collection of mutants we've ever seen in the franchise (by my count, only five appeared for more than a few seconds of screen time), but the setting has never felt more open. The movie gives the impression that mutants are no longer uncommon, and that the world is full of heroes battling supervillains, corrupt organizations, and military forces.

This movie, however, only gives us a taste of that. Mostly, it's concerned with Deadpool's backstory, as well as his quest for love, revenge, and a cure to fix his appearance.

I think most of us recoiled at the idea we'd be getting an origin story for Deadpool, and with good reason: the template's been worn pretty thin by this point, and Wade Wilson's origin is generally considered the least interesting aspect of his character. But, astonishingly, they managed to deliver something that felt right, that humanized him without losing the core of the concept, and stayed interesting.

It helps that they cast Morena Baccarin as his love interest. Aided by a solid script, she built a character who felt believable as a romantic partner for Wilson.

It also helps that the movie doesn't unfold linearly. By jumping around in time, they managed to avoid the pitfall where the audience spends the first half of the movie waiting to see what they paid for.

I actually do have one complaint, and that's with the resolution. The last few minutes were a little too studio and not enough Deadpool for my tastes - you'll see what I mean. It's a small blemish on an otherwise fantastic superhero movie, though.

I'm extremely interested in seeing where they take the X-Men after this. Honestly, I'm far more interested in Deadpool 2 than I am in Age of Apocalypse. I'd much rather they build the future of the franchise on this than the dark, serious summer releases. I liked Days of Future Past well enough, but it just got elbowed out of the top three X-Men movies.

Assuming nothing gets pushed back, we're getting six superhero movies featuring Marvel and DC characters this year. Somewhat unexpectedly, this set an awfully high bar for the other five. If Deadpool is the best superhero movie of 2016, it won't necessary be a bad year for the genre.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

2015 Movies Revisited



Is is a sickness? Most certainly. Or a madness, perhaps. But those of us who review movies in any capacity have no choice in the matter. As the end of the year inches closer, we hear the call.

Retrospectives, best of lists: call them what you will. It is not the form that matters, but the exercise, and the knowledge it is all so futile cannot quell the urge to participate. We write these not to inform or reflect, but out of some strange compulsion.

I see many movies every year, the majority of which are Christmas related. But that's not what this list is about. This is about new movies, released at some point in 2015, that I've watched. It's a far more limited set, so I do not separate the good from the bad. Instead, I present all films fitting those criteria, ranked from my least to most favorite:


13. The Last Five Years
I didn't review this formally: hell, I didn't even catch it in theaters. Then again, seeing it on the big screen was hard to do outside of New York and Los Angeles.

If you haven't heard of it, The Last Five Years is an adaptation of a musical starring Anna Kendrick released last winter that wasn't Into the Woods. In it, she plays... er... actually, a character in a situation surprisingly similar to Cinderella's in the second act of Into the Woods. Not the giant part: just the whole thing about being married to a successful man who cheats on her.

Sorry. Retroactive spoiler alert?

The plot of The Last Five Years doesn't matter, anyway: both the musical and movie's selling point is how the story unfolds, with the man's version told start to end and the woman's end to start. It's just one of the many subtle ways the writer implies women are irrational.

In case you couldn't tell, I wasn't a huge fan of this one. There were some great songs and cool ideas, but this musical is better chopped up into MP3-sized segments than played start to end (and simultaneously vice-versa). It delivers some good moments, but the whole is tedious and a little sexist.


12. Jurassic World
Fun but ultimately underwhelming, this was part homage, part sequel, and part remake. There were some great moments, but the film as a whole felt redundant. There's very little in this movie we haven't seen before: even the movie's new monster was basically a rehash of the spinosaurus in part 3. I guess the mosasaurus was a new addition, but it felt like a tacked-on joke, more than anything else. Honestly, the most memorable, original aspect of the movie was probably the petting zoo (the petting zoo was really damn cool).

There's really no excuse for retreading the same ground a fourth time. We're three sequels overdue for a dino-pocalypse: it's long past time for the franchise to start living up to its potential.

All that said, I had a good time in the theater, and the movie was well-paced and enjoyable to watch. It was solid summer entertainment, but it wasn't anything more than that.


11. Ex Machina
Full disclosure - I didn't catch this in the theaters, so it's of course possible I'm judging it a little harsher than I'd be if I experienced it on a big screen.

But... I don't know. This movie was largely cerebral, so I doubt it would make all that much of a difference. Also, I absolutely enjoyed it. It's a clever SF film that approaches the Turing test from an interesting angle. The actors are great - especially Alicia Vikander, who does a phenomenal job playing an android whose consciousness is in question. The effects and design work help with that illusion, too, but I really think Vikander's performance is what makes it work.

Like I said before, the movie's extremely clever. But I didn't really find it surprising. As soon as you've been introduced to the concept, you know it's going in one of a few directions. The movie resolves without any real surprises, and feels more like a refresher in AI than anything original. It left me feeling like I'd just seen a great episode of the Outer Limits. Maybe that's all intelligent SF can hope for in this day and age.

This was a really smart, fun movie. If I were rating this on quality, it would be significantly higher on this list. But, as an experience, I just didn't feel like it had much impact.


10. Jupiter Ascending
Yes, there was bloat. Yes, the movie was about as far from elegant as you can get. But, frankly, I'm getting a little tired of elegant, streamlined movies, anyway. The Wachowskis made this by combining more genres and concepts than I can wrap my head around, and the result is nothing less than fantastic. Sure, the story meanders, but who the hell cares? The visuals are gorgeous, the setting is intriguing, and the action is awesome. Are we really that attached to simplistic narrative we can't appreciate something this cool because it goes off-book?

Add this to the growing list of Wachowski films that are underrated, right beside Cloud Atlas and Speed Racer. I hope they know there are a few of us out there who appreciate their work.


9. Avengers: Age of Ultron
There's a lot to love in Age of Ultron, between the awesome fight scenes, fantastic villain, and cool new heroes. How amazing is it that we're getting a cinematic version of Vision? How cool was Scarlet Witch? The Hulk-Buster, in all its glory?!!!

But all that needs to be weighed against the hard reality that, no matter how many elements they got right, the movie was ultimately a disappointment. Sure, the first one had a few minor plot holes, but the emotional arcs worked, and the film came together as a whole beautifully. In contrast, part two was messy. There was neither a consistent tone nor any kind of narrative arc. The characters' individual stories were a jumbled mess of incoherent nonsense. Why is the team falling apart? Because the plot calls for it, and the Scarlet Witch gave them a nudge: maybe not the best direction to take.

But enough worked to hold my attention and keep me fascinated for the film's duration. If this is ultimately set-up for Civil War, it didn't fail: I'm excited to see how that plays out next year.

Still, the first Avengers movie was my favorite film the year it came out, while this one was just summer entertainment.


8. The Good Dinosaur
This is a tough movie to rank. Visually, it was stunning: the landscape was breathtaking and complex to a degree that was almost unfathomable. But story-wise, there just wasn't much meat to this film. The conceit was cute and all - a boy and his dog story where the boy's a dinosaur and the dog is a human child - but, once you move past that, the movie feels incredibly flat.

The same goes for the minor characters. All are cute mashups, but there's no real depth. Once you're done chuckling at the fact the T-rex cowboys run like they're riding on horses, there's not much else to dig into. Meanwhile, the main character's emotional arc is simplistic and kind of dull.

But, all that said, Spot is adorable, and the world is rich. It's not an especially strong Pixar offering, but it's still a solid movie.


7. Krampus
I'm not 100% set on this movie's placement - I think I'd have to see several of these movies again to be sure - but it feels right in the moment. Krampus's problem was structure: the movie relied so heavily on its monsters and premise, it muscled out any real story line. There was lip service connecting how Krampus was summoned with the resolution, but it never really clicked.

That said, the monsters were amazing, the characters unusually strong, and the overall tone just spectacular. This was a movie that took a piece of folklore, tied it to modern holiday tropes, then took the whole thing all the way back to the primal origins, when the winters grew cold and the only hope we had was together. The movie doesn't really state any of that, but it asks the question, what's the point of family and Christmas? Then, by stripping away the artificial trappings, it provides a very real, very ancient answer.

If I wasn't a Christmas nerd, I wouldn't have ranked this nearly so high. But this is more than a holiday adventure/horror about a monster who's become extremely popular in the last few years: this was a movie about the heart and soul of Christmas itself.


6. Ant-Man
Who the hell would have expected Ant-Man to be a more fulfilling Marvel experience than Age of Ultron? If you move past the fact that we're still waiting for our first female-led Marvel film when this would have worked better as a Wasp film than a Scott Lang movie, it was a solid light superhero piece. It was funny, entertaining, and - frankly - better integrated into the larger MCU than Age of Ultron.

The Ant-Man/Falcon fight was worth the price of admission alone, and the far-too-brief sequence with Janet stood out as the high-point of the film.

It wasn't great, but it was good. Really good, even. I can't wait to see these characters show up again.


5. A Christmas Horror Story
With the occasional exception, I haven't included direct-to-video and direct-to-streaming movies on these lists. I think the rule I'm drifting towards is to include them if and only if I think they can compete. And this one can.

This anthology cuts back and forth between several holiday horror stories, all of which unfold in fascinating ways. This movie's philosophy towards combining Christmas and genre is one I share - make Christmas relevant, but don't treat it like a gimmick. Not all of the stories use Christmas tropes as their subjects: half involve classic horror or fantasy elements, then tie them to the holidays through thematic or story elements.

The movie starts a little slow, and there are a few bad jokes, but overall it was a lot of fun to watch. Parts were funny, parts were scary, and others were just impressive. One of the segments wraps with a twist I didn't see coming and loved. This jumped onto the short list of my favorite Christmas horror movies.


4. Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
Rogue Nation is a surprisingly playful film. It continues the Mission: Impossible movie tradition of disavowing the team and/or disintegrating the entire organization (only the second movie breaks that pattern, and that one sucks for unrelated reasons).

While I'd love to see them actually do a Mission: Impossible movie where they're given a mission that they solve as IMF agents, I can't deny this one really delivers. Sure, it's yet another rehash of the premise of the first movie, but I'll be damned if it isn't a fun rehash.

It doesn't hurt that the movie gives us a new ally played by Rebecca Ferguson. Frankly, I'd love to see Hunt promoted to director in a movie or two and have her take over the team. Cruise can't keep playing the action hero forever, and she'd clearly be a better choice than Renner, who never really felt like leader material.

At five movies in, this series really seems to have found its stride. This wasn't the best movie of the summer, but it came a lot closer than I'd have expected.


3. Mad Max: Fury Road
I feel like this took a lot of us by surprise, despite the fact there were plenty of positive rumors floating around in advance. Still, after the Star Wars prequels, the fourth Indiana Jones movie, Tron: Legacy, the last Hobbit movie, and all the other failed attempts to revive a long gone film franchise, it's easy to be cynical. I suppose the law of averages meant one of them had to work. Either that, or it's an Australian thing.

Regardless, this movie was impossible not to love. Charlize Theron got to be an action hero in a sci-fi movie deserving of her time for once, and the supporting cast was just amazing. This was an inventive, fun, and thought-provoking movie, not to mention a welcome break from typical summer movies.

If this is the kind of movie Miller's making at 70, just imagine the Mad Max films he'll be directing when he turns 90.


2. Inside Out
Even before Pixar started to falter with movies like Cars 2 and Monsters University, the studio has had issues with redundancy. Plot lines have a tendency of repeating, villains are a little too similar, and emotional beats have been reused since the start. While there's nothing wrong with reusing some storytelling elements, Pixar has been stagnating.

That's half the reason why Inside Out is so exciting: it feels fresh. Of course, the other half is that Inside Out is an incredibly good movie. It's a touching, complex film that also manages to deliver topnotch comedy.

The list of Pixar's best movies is a long one, but Inside Out deserves a spot.


1. Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens
This seems like a great time to remind you that this list is based on preference, not an appraisal of how good a movie is. I don't think anyone could seriously argue The Force Awakens was the best movie of the year, even within the geek-friendly subset of films. Inside Out was nearly flawless, and Fury Road was technically superior to The Force Awakens, no matter how you cut it.

But I love this movie. Even with its plot holes, ridiculous contrivances, and ill-advised preoccupation with nostalgically retreading the story we've already nostalgically retread in 1983's Return of the Jedi: I love it.

I love it for reuniting us with the characters we loved - with Han, Leia, Chewie, C-3PO, R2-D2, and - for the briefest possible moment - even Luke. I love it for rebuilding that galaxy; its vehicles, inhabitants, and buildings.

I REALLY love it for the new heroes - for Finn, Poe, and Rey. Especially Rey: forget this trilogy nonsense - I want a dozen more movies with her as the lead.

And, on the villain side, I love it for Kylo Ren, quite possibly the most intriguing antagonist the franchise has ever offered. We've had Jedi fighting to stay on the righteous path for decades, but we've never really seen the other side of that coin - a disciple of the Dark Side actively working against his better instincts, trying to keep the light from dominating his destiny.

It may not be the best movie of the year, but I can't help it: it's absolutely my favorite.