Saturday, October 7, 2017

Movie Review: Blade Runner 2049

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movie Review: My Little Pony: The Movie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 21, 2017

Movie Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Movie Review: War for the Planet of the Apes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 7, 2017

Movie Review: Spider-Man: Homecoming

Before I get started, I just want to take a minute and appreciate that we're four superhero blockbusters into 2017, and the lowest rated of the bunch - Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 - is still 81% Fresh. This year has had its share of disappointments, but not in this genre. Logan, Guardians, Wonder Woman, and now Spider-Man have each exceeded all reasonable expectations.

And Spider-Man: Homecoming is the best of the bunch. Sure, Logan has a better shot at Best Picture, Wonder Woman was more timely (pun not intended - I'm fully aware that Timely Comics was the forerunner of Marvel, not DC), and Guardians was more visually stunning. But in terms of successfully accomplishing the film's goals, Homecoming is just better.

And don't think those goals were easy. Marvel had to clear a high bar with this one. They had to assure Sony the company's trust wasn't misplaced, and they had to demonstrate the world needed yet another Spider-Man series. That's a tall order, given that Raimi's series helped establish the tone and look of the modern superhero film (along with Blade and X-Men, obviously). Plus, Spider-Man 2 is often regarded as one of the genre's best. And while the Garfield reboot wasn't as good, it was already fairly close to the MCU (the tech was similar, and Sony and Marvel came close to a deal to have their universes at least partly connected).

In short, Marvel had a lot to prove.

We already had high hopes after Peter's introduction in Civil War, and Marvel was uncharacteristically upfront about modeling this after John Hughes's filmography. But that barely scratches the surface of what they delivered. Homecoming represents a fantastic reimagining of one of comics's most famous characters.

The movie captures the source material's humor and thematic elements perfectly, far better than any of its predecessors. But it actually strays quite a bit when it comes to the details. We already saw the new Aunt May in Civil War - if that feels like a departure, wait until you meet the new Flash Thompson. Or when you realize the Daily Bugle has been replaced by YouTube (at least for now - I'd be surprised if they didn't work some version of the Bugle into the sequel). This is a new version of Spider-Man built to fit in the MCU, which is only a hair's breath from our world. Anything that wouldn't fit has been transformed.

Presumably, Spidey's origin is more or less unchanged, but there's no way to know for sure. He talks about the spider but we neither see it occur, learn whether it was radioactive, or learn any details. Likewise, the movie doesn't even namedrop Uncle Ben. Instead, the movie trusts us to know Parker's origin story. It's interested in where his story goes from here.

And I loved every minute of it. I loved the new Vulture, who bears only a slight superficial resemblance to his comic counterpart. I love Parker's relationship with Tony Stark and others in the MCU. I love Peter's high school life and how expertly the movie handled Spider-Man's frustrations balancing his two lives.

Spider-Man 2 remains a great work, but - frankly - I don't think it can compete with Homecoming. I'm not sure many superhero movies can. This is one of the best movies we've seen from Marvel to date. Personally, Avengers remains closer to my heart, but I suspect Homecoming might be a little better. It's really that good.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Movie Review: Baby Driver

Baby Driver's name and much of the premise evokes Speed Racer, and the movie can almost be described as a re-imagining of the concept. In some ways, Baby and Debora bear a similarity to Speed and Trixie, though you'd be hard-pressed to find any other parallels among Baby Driver's cast.

I'd love to try watching this back-to-back with the Wachowski Sisters' 2008 adaptation - I think the two films would compliment each other, despite representing polar opposite approaches to automobile racing/chases. While the Wachowskis delighted in using CG to build an unapologetic cartoon world, Edgar Wright uses practical tools to transform the setting. Baby Driver's world is still surreal, but that emerges from pacing, editing, and music, rather than imagery. I love both movies and suspect the contrasts and similarities would be fascinating.

That's a rather long-winded way of trying to touch on the experience of watching Baby Driver, a beautifully intense homage to crime cinema. Homage is nothing new to Wright, who's probably best known for Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim, but this represents a very different approach. There's still comedy, but it's far more muted than we're used to. The film is very much a work of genre, not a statement about it. And, unlike Shaun (and the other movies in Wright's Cornetto Trilogy), it starts and ends in that genre. There's no fake-out where it evolves from light comedy to horror; it's an action/crime movie, through and through.

I don't consider that an inherently good or bad thing, but crafting a movie with a relatively conventional approach to plot and character should raise expectations that those elements will be handled well. And, if there's anywhere the movie disappoints, it's here. The story is less original than I'd have liked, and two key characters, namely Baby and Debora, are under-developed.

I'm more forgiving of that with Baby. He almost seems more like a video game protagonist than a lead, but the movie's experience ties to this so completely, it's hard to view it as much of a flaw. Sure, he's more a force pushing forward than a developed character, but it's that force that makes the movie worth seeing.

Debora, on the other hand, is harder to hand wave. She's the movie's love interest, and by the end of the movie represents the bulk of Baby's motivation. And yet, there's really very little justification for her choices or the leads' mutual affection for each other. As far as I can tell, Baby loves her, because she talked to him, and she loves him, because... I guess the script calls for it?

Come to think of it, Wright's filmography doesn't include a lot of significant female roles, outside of fairly generic love interests. It might be a good idea for him to experiment with some new points of view, along with his shifts in genre.

Fortunately, the movie's other characters pick up a lot of the slack. Jon Hamm, Eiza González, and Jamie Foxx are all great, as is Kevin Spacey, who plays a character who could almost be an aging Keyser Söze. The script does a good job shuffling them to keep you guessing which represents the real threat.

Likewise, the story might be light, but the storytelling, driven forward by music and an instinct to escape danger, is expertly handled.

The script could have been better, but the direction was damn near perfect. The choreography and cinematography alone make this well worth a trip to the theater, especially if you could use a break from CG-heavy blockbusters.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Movie Review: Wonder Woman

I'm seeing a lot of reviewers saying Wonder Woman is the best movie in the DC Extended Universe, which is really just a long-winded way of saying it's better than Man of Steel. That's true, incidentally, but I think we can set the bar a tad higher. How's this: exempting the Avengers, Wonder Woman is as good as - and quite possibly better than - any of the first installments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

That's not to say it's perfect - I've got some complaints coming later - but damn, it's good. And not just for the DCEU (fun fact: Wonder Woman's Tomatometer is higher than the sum of any two of the other three movies in the franchise). It's actually a really good movie.

So let's all just take a moment and breathe a sigh of relief.

Now then, let's get into the details, starting with what works. And there's no better place to begin than tone. Unlike its predecessors, this movie includes moments of levity. In addition to delivering some welcome fun, this also adds weight to the more somber moments.

They also get Themyscira and the Amazons right on a level that's stunning to behold. The island and its inhabitants are pitch-perfect - every second they're on screen is a gift. The Amazons are presented as an army of warriors, each fighting with a level of skill on par with Batman - I loved every second on the island.

Speaking of Amazons, this version of Diana is virtually flawless. A lot of the credit goes to Gal Gadot, who delivers an amazing performance, but I don't want to lose sight of what Patty Jenkins brings to the table. By building a movie around compassion, she gives Wonder Woman the emotional core she deserves. Incidentally, this is precisely what's been missing from the heroes of the DCEU to date.

Don't infer that the movie's emotional core detracts from the action, though - Jenkins delivers some phenomenal fights. Occasionally the CG gets a little obvious, but it's a small price to pay for actually being able to see what's happening.

Which brings us to yet another strong point: unlike the previous DCEU films, Wonder Woman is actually presented in COLOR. After three movies where everything appears as shades of washed out grey, it's refreshing to see blues, greens, reds, and golds again. It's kind of sad this sort of thing needs to be heralded as a wise artistic choice (as opposed to the obvious default), but that's where we are.

What am I missing? Chris Pine is great as Steve Trevor - he balances gender-flipped damsel and pulp adventurer in a way that works, plus his banter with Wonder Woman is everything you'd hope for.

All that being said... the movie isn't perfect. In fact, there are a few fairly major issues.

The largest of which concerns the end. Without going into details, the plot kind of crumbles in order to bring in the "big bad" in the last act. This is a pretty common issue in the genre, but it's more disruptive than usual. Almost everything about the last fight feels wrong - the scale is too large a departure, the villain is bland, and there are some odd emotional beats.

That's the only flaw I'd describe as "objectively" wrong (i.e.: I think it hurts the movie whether or not you've heard of Wonder Woman before watching this). My other main problem concerns the movie's benching of the Greek goddesses.

Aside from a few call-outs in the context of objects (i.e.: Armor of Hephaestus, Lasso of Hestia), I only recall hearing the names of two Greek deities: Zeus and Ares. The origin of the Amazons (and of Diana) is certainly reduced to these two. Thematically, I'm more than a little bothered that the Amazons' power springs completely from a male patron.

That holds double for the version of Diana's origin story they went with. Yes, I realize there's precedent from the comics, but it was a mistake there, as well (which is why they've since reversed course).

I think that does it for the major complaints, though I have one more set of elements: the bizarre. There were a few decisions that didn't completely bother me but did leave me perplexed. I'm assuming you've seen the movie or don't care about spoilers if you're still reading, but just in case, I'm about to get a little more specific than I've been up to this point. Considered yourself warned.

Okay, the first did bother me a little, but I'm starting to rethink it in hindsight. The movie changes the mythology so the Greek gods were all killed by Ares. This is somewhat limiting in terms of future stories they can tell (unless they want to undo that choice, which wouldn't be all that hard). Still, it's a surprising alteration to the status quo.

Surprising, but maybe clever, depending on what they have planned, given that the classical premise of Jack Kirby's New Gods hangs on the death of the old. Originally, he was taking a swipe at the Avengers, but changing that to the Greek pantheon might make for an interesting connection. Plus, if they play up the divine aspect of the New Gods, it could allow them to give Wonder Woman a central role in the Justice League movie. Nothing wrong with that.

I also feel like I should mention the movie's two "lesser" villains. I actually liked them, but I'm a fan of over-the-top villains in this genre (you can all go to hell - Viper was awesome in The Wolverine). If you're less enthusiastic about this kind of absurdly evil bad guy, they could definitely grate on you. Personally, I'd take them over the movie's main villain in a heartbeat.

Next up is the era. Rather than set this in the present day or during the character's first appearances in WWII, they changed it to the first World War. I've read a few explanations why, some of which seem more plausible than others. Regardless of the rationale, I didn't really feel like the movie capitalized on the era. The suffrage movement was reduced to a throwaway line, and the novelty of this form of war was undercut by the presence of characters already broken and jaded by it.

All in all, I didn't feel like the movie would have changed at all if it had been set in WWII. The good news there is it didn't feel any worse for the change; it was just kind of an odd choice.

Lastly, the movie includes a minor frame story set in the present. This of course ties back to Batman v Superman and points ahead towards Justice League, as if they felt like they had to remind you it's part of a bigger world. It's not painful, but it really adds nothing (unlike the larger DCEU, which still adds nothing but is painful).

I think this is one of my longest reviews here, which makes me wonder if anyone's still reading. In the off chance there is, I'll reiterate that this is absolutely worth seeing. It has a few issues, but it is such a dramatic step up in quality I feel embarrassed even comparing it to the last few DCEU films. By all means, check it out this weekend.