Saturday, July 23, 2016

Movie Review: Star Trek Beyond

In hindsight, I should have had more faith in Justin Lin. He did, after all, direct three of the best episodes from Community's first season. If you don't think that's a sufficient litmus test for Trek, you haven't seen enough Community.

Of course, he's better known as the guy who directed half of The Fast and The Furious franchise, but I've yet to see any of those. I've heard there's a lot of relationship building and cooperation. If so, it was a good call.

Because that's what makes this movie such a success. I like the first two installments of the new Trek series, but they were extremely focused on Kirk and Spock. The other characters got cameos and moments to shine, but structurally they were closer to buddy cop movies than anything with a team dynamic.

This one shuffles the deck, putting the entire bridge crew in play and letting them team up in interesting configurations. One of my biggest complaints of the first two films was that McCoy, one of the three most significant characters of the original series, had been almost completely sidelined. This oversight is finally corrected - he's paired up with Spock this time, who actually may have drawn the short straw in Beyond. Spock's still given some great lines and moments, but this definitely wasn't his movie. He's a member of the crew, not the co-star, which buys them time to let everyone else prove their worth, both on their own and as part of a whole.

If, like me, you've been wanting to see Uhura be more effective, you're going to pretty happy with her scenes. Same goes for Sulu, who has some great moments. And there's no surprise that Scotty gets some screen time: he co-wrote the movie, after all. They also bring in a great new character in Jayla, who I suspect will be appearing in future installments, as well as a fascinating one-off villain in Krall.

You've likely heard Beyond is more evocative of the original show than its predecessors. I'd describe that as partially true. My assumption is that's based on the movie's emphasis on teamwork, which is built into the core of Beyond. There's a bit of social commentary, but I'd argue that Into Darkness's message about drone warfare and militarization checked that box more fervently (whether or not that was a good thing is a separate issue).

Along with its focus on teamwork, Beyond also brings Starfleet closer to the one we know from the old days: the bleak, vaguely dystopian elements have been scrubbed away, returning us to a brighter tomorrow.

Visually, though, it's almost more reminiscent of the Next Gen movies. I suspect I'm not alone in cringing a bit at the trailers because of those associations. But this didn't turn out to be a bad thing - the brighter palette gave the cast and crew a chance to have fun, an element Into Darkness could have used a little more of.

None of this is to say that Beyond was all sunshine and roses. The body count climbs through the roof, and there's plenty of suspense, along with the humor and action. One of my few complaints is actually in this area: there were one or two more deaths than I'd have liked. A couple bit parts with more potential were snuffed out before their time - I suspect you'll know what I mean when you see the movie.

There were some other elements that could have used some work. Lin's proven his ability to work with a small group, but he could use some work on armies. Both the Enterprise's crew and Krall's minions seem to swell and shrink in size in bizarre ways. By my rough estimate, Krall must have tens of thousands at his command in space, but they just kind of vanish when the action moves planet-side. Are they all just hanging out inside their fighters for that time?

In addition, he's not quite on par with Abrams when it comes to setting up grand shots in space. But then Abrams could take lessons from Lin when it comes to capturing character dynamics, and that's more important in Trek, anyway.

I went into this deeply skeptical the franchise would be able to continue past this movie. After all, it was launched as sort of a Star Trek/Wars hybrid, only to see its auteur pulled away to create the Star Wars movie he wanted to make in the first place. But between an inspired script, excellent direction, and great acting, I'm cautiously optimistic this might pull in the fans it needs to continue its mission.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Movie Review: Ghostbusters

A lot of people call the original Ghostbusters a perfect movie. It deftly blends humor with genre, it contains numerous brilliant lines, and it has one of cinema's all-time best comic characters. More than that, it performs an act of hero building that's rarely been matched. The characters of Ghostbusters didn't exist before the movie came out, and by the time the end credits rolled, they were legendary.

But, for all that, the original Ghostbusters is not perfect. There are some slow bits, Rick Moranis's character is way too over-the-top, the dream scene is idiotic, Ray and Egon undergo little to no development, Winston is cut down to the point he feels almost unnecessary...

I think most people would admit most of these flaws exist; they just don't impact their enjoyment of the film. They love the movie so completely, the flaws fade to features. They wouldn't even want them changed. Because, intentionally or not, the movie is calibrated to work for them. It feels perfect, even if it isn't.

The absolutely astonishing thing about Paul Feig's Ghostbusters is that it does that, too. But it doesn't do it for the same people.

Let me back up. All that stuff I just said about the original, that's mainly for male viewers. That's not to say that women can't be die-hard fans and love the movie as much, but I think it's safe to assume most of the 1984 movie's most fervent followers are men. I also think it's safe to say they see something in one or more of the main characters (probably Venkmann) that they associated with themselves. It helps that the team is made up of underdogs and geeks: these are characters who remind us of ourselves.

Again, if we're men.

Watching the new Ghostbusters was a bit of an odd experience for me, at least for the first two-thirds. I liked it well enough during the build-up, but I certainly didn't love it. But the predominantly female audience in the packed theater loved it. They laughed, cheered, and applauded as if it was, well, Ghostbusters.

Part of it was the fact the main characters were women. Not super-models or athletes - flawed, funny women. Underdogs and geeks who reminded them of themselves. I'm not entirely sure how or when the movie duplicated the formula from 1984 - it was an entirely new plot - but must have. It achieved the same end result: building these characters into bona fide heroes.

That, more than anything, is why this movie earns the right to be Ghostbusters.

Okay. I guess I should tell you what I thought of the movie. The first two-thirds were fine, though a little weak. I found the humor mixed - there were some phenomenal jokes I loved, but plenty others just fell flat. The characters were likewise 50/50. I thought McCarthy and Wiig were a bit wasted in their roles, to be honest. Fortunately, Jones's Patty was more fun, and Hemsworth might have just gotten the role he was born to play.

Meanwhile, McKinnon was... McKinnon was...

Jesus Christ, I'm just going to come out and say it: Jillian McKinnon's Holtzmann is the greatest character in the franchise's history.

Go ahead. Let that sink in for a minute.

I also thought the movie overused comic relief, both for the leads (exempting McKinnon and Hemsworth) and for the minor characters. The tone for the first two-thirds was inconsistent, as well.

Then the movie reached its last act. This still wasn't precisely what I wanted, but damn, was it close. The fight sequence where the Ghostbusters take on the villain's minions is great until Holtzmann gets her turn in the spotlight. Then it transcends greatness.

Look, no one in this movie asks Holtzmann if she's a god, but if anyone ever does, the unambiguous, factual, indisputable answer is YES.

The fight's over faster than I'd like, but that would have been true if it had gone on for six hours.

So, all in all, I thought it was a good summer comedy with an amazing character. So, decent but not great. But to the mostly female audience I saw this with, it was a cultural milestone on par with the original.

Maybe this was just a good crowd. I suppose it could have just been a fluke. But, here's the thing. I've seen hundreds of movies in the theater. I saw Avengers opening day, Star Wars movies, you name it. And I've never seen a movie end and more or less the entire audience sit in their seats through the entire credits.

Until now.

I've seen movies before and walked out of the theater thinking it wasn't made for me (Mamma Mia springs to mind). This was different. I really liked this - it was still made for everyone, but it wasn't calibrated for me. This was calibrated for female audiences the way Fight Club, Conan, and the 1984 Ghostbusters were calibrated for men.

And it's about damn time.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Movie Review: Warcraft

The critics haven't been kind to Warcraft, and it's not hard to see why. The producers basically made a checklist of the things that critics typically expect out of a movie, then systematically made sure none of those were handled well. You want acting? A coherent story line? Explanations for what's happening? A self-contained plot? Not a chance.

But that doesn't mean the movie is all bad. Visually, it's a fascinating production, and there's a great deal of campy fun to be had. This is schlock fantasy, nothing more and nothing less. If sitting through two hours of that sounds like a chore, this isn't the movie for you.

Was it the movie for me? Honestly, I'm still trying to sort that out. I had fun with quite a lot of this, including a handful of scenes that were actually intended to be watched that way. One of the nicest things I can say about this is that some of the comedic moments managed to be funnier than the dramatic moments. It was a close call, but few movies manage to come close to that line without crossing over. It is, in fact, a delicate balancing act.

The movie is exceedingly weird. I went in expecting weird, but I wasn't prepared. If you think the trailers looked weird, you're in for a world of surprise. They throw new CG sets at you at a rapid-fire speed without offering any explanation for why you should care. I would estimate there were something like five or six elaborate locations which appeared briefly and where nothing significant occurred. Keep in mind, my estimate might be off by a few hundred.

Also, some major characters die without actually contributing much to the plot. It's difficult to overstate how jarring this is: these are characters who seemed like the main characters, only to wind up fridged to set-up what I assume will be the fifth or ninth movie. Meanwhile, nothing much is resolved or dealt with at the end of the movie. You kind of get the feeling that every surviving character, including the film's antagonist, walks away having no idea what the hell just happened. Even more so than the audience.

In other words, this was not plotted like a Hollywood production.

Is that a bad thing? It depends what you want to get out of this. If you want anything resembling a complete story, you can forget it. If you want the first installment of what may be a dozen films chronicling the history of an unapologetically generic fantasy world, you're going to be much happier.

But, again, you're not really going to find much in the way of characters to pull you through this. The movie provides, by my count, four POV characters. The least significant of which seems to be the driving force behind the theme of the movie, which - and I'm at least half serious here - seems to be that it's awesome if you want to play video games for weeks on end, but it's really important you play multiplayer with your friends.

That's what I got out of it, anyway.

Beyond that, there's a great deal to like and dislike. The magic's cool, some of the fights are neat, the CG's decent... you know the drill. On the other hand, I'm not sure I can think of teeth more distracting in a movie than the half-orc's perfectly aligned, white chompers. Seriously - everyone else has tusks, while she could get work as a spokesperson for Crest.

What else? They tried making the orcs believable by basing them off a real-world culture. Only someone forgot to tell them that Klingons aren't real. Eh, that's fine. I like Klingons.

If you want this boiled down further, I'm happy to oblige. In my opinion, this was as good as Underworld: Rise of the Lycans. And I mean it was exactly as good; no better, no worse. Eerily so.

If you're still torn on whether to check this out before it leaves the last theater in town forever, I'm afraid you're on your own. It's an extremely dumb, but kind of fun, ridiculously absurd fantasy movie about warring nations. Only, again, it's really about working with your friends to beat the next level.

That's basically something someone says in this movie. I'm not even making this up.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

We Need to Talk About the Anthropomorphic Elephant in the Room

I've seen nine movies in the theater so far this year, and I can't help but notice the four best are all made by the same company.

Disney. I'm talking about Disney. Obviously.

Before you assume I'm only looking at this subjectively, three of the four Disney movies in question are also the top three highest grossing movies of 2016 so far (the fourth, Finding Dory, is almost certainly going to join them soon enough). Also, all of these movies have a Freshness rating at or above 90%.

Oh, and I'm not even considering The Force Awakens, which opened late in 2015 and made a ton of cash both years. That's at 92% Fresh, incidentally.

Disney's making more money faster than their competition, and they're doing it far more efficiently. Year-to-date, Disney's commanding 32% of the market share with nine movies. WB can't manage half that with 21 movies.

Okay, there are caveats and forces and side notes and all that... but those are ultimately excuses. The simple fact is that Disney's making vastly superior movies than the other studios, at least looking at high-budget, effects-heavy productions.

I think that's an important distinction - there are, I'm sure, numerous phenomenal low-budget, award worthy movies being made across the board. Hell, Disney might even be behind the curve on that. But I'm focusing on the blockbusters: things budgeted at and/or raking in hundreds of millions of dollars. The event films, love them or hate them, are what the movie industry exists to produce.

Disney's not just dominating this category: no one is seriously even challenging them. WB's closest attempt was the dull, pointless Batman v Superman. 27% of critics were generous enough to give it a pass, and it made what may be the bare minimum possible for a movie commanding that kind of IP. Enough for the executives to argue it's not a total failure; not enough to beat the worldwide haul of The Jungle Book.

Look back over the last few years and it becomes clear this isn't a new phenomenon. There's the occasional exception, like Fury Road, but for the most part, there's only one company that delivers movies that are both high grossing and well reviewed, and that's Disney. Sure, they've got their missteps (Age of Ultron had some serious issues), but they're the one company that seems to be on an upswing.

To their credit, I feel like Fox is at least staying in the game. But it's notable their highest grossing movie so far this year, Deadpool, is one they tried their damndest not to make. It only got greenlit when the test footage was leaked, and even then its budget was hilariously low.

In other words, even when they produced it, Fox bet against it. They were expecting to make a fortune on X-Men: Apocalypse and Independence Day: Resurgence. While both these movies were bailed out by Chinese audiences, neither performed up to expectations. That should be a massive red flag that the people at the top don't know what they're doing.

Meanwhile, with the exception of Alice Through the Looking Glass (which was also saved by China), Disney's having a flawless year. Every big-budget production they've released has been critically and commercially successful.

I find it remarkable that their rivals seem complacent in the face of all this. The industry's falling apart, and Warner Bros is producing movies like last year's Pan. That approach isn't going to fly anymore.

If other studios want to compete anywhere near Disney's level, they need to take a long, hard look at every step of their process. Otherwise, we're going to quickly reach a point where it won't matter what the movie is - audiences will learn to skip anything that's not from the House of Mouse.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Movie Review: Finding Dory

Finding Dory is the third Disney movie featuring talking CG animals released in 2016 so far, and the third to exceed my expectations. If you haven't seen it yet, I'll tell you it's surprisingly intelligent, extremely entertaining, and hilarious. It returns to the world and characters of Finding Nemo, and even uses a superficially similar premise, but the movie doesn't rehash the same story or concepts. It could have - I don't think anyone would have complained if it reused the same epic adventure template that made the first a success, despite the fact it would have felt a little like a cash grab. But it didn't feel like Finding Dory was conceived as a cash grab: it felt like they saw an opportunity to tell a different story.

And, if you haven't seen the movie, that's your cue to stop reading until you've rectified that. From here on out, we're crossing into deeper waters. And spoilers lurk within these depths.

While its predecessor was an external adventure - a father's odyssey where he overcame obstacles in an attempt to get his son back - Dory's journey is primarily internal. Marlin and Nemo have a B-plot in which they're looking for her, but this is a red herring (or clown fish or whatever). This is a movie about Dory finding herself.

In a lot of ways, Finding Dory is as much a companion piece to last year's Inside Out as it is a follow-up to Nemo. Only while Inside Out was about emotion, Finding Dory explores memory and identity. Symbolism is used heavily, with dark depths standing in for lost memories, coral reminiscent of folding brain tissue, and even the music evoking firing neurons.

But while there's a cerebral aspect to Finding Dory, the movie also provides zany antics, ridiculous characters, and a little excitement. On top of the cognitive science, there's a sort of heist/escape movie going on, centered around a Marine Life Institute in California. Despite the film's layered themes, this is one of Pixar's most cartoonish productions - they play much faster and looser with animal behavior, appearance, and abilities than they did in Nemo. A few minor characters feel more like they wandered in from a rival studio, but the movie does a good enough job developing relationships to avoid any issues.

Without a question, the movie's break-out star is Hank, an octopus who just wants to retire and live in a tank somewhere. He's grumpy and timid, but he's also something of a master escape artist, able to infiltrate anywhere on land or sea.

Sigourney Weaver's minor role is also fantastic (not to mention reminiscent of her part in Wall-E). I hope Pixar finds a way to slip her into more movies in a similar fashion. With all due respect to Pixar's good luck charm, I'd have a lot more fun trying to spot Weaver's cameos than Ratzenberger's.

If I had to log a complaint, it would be that Marlin's story felt wedged in here. He essentially winds up having to grow and develop in almost the same way he did in part one. His scenes were still fun, but it was the one part of the movie that felt redundant.

Asking whether Finding Dory rises to the heights of Finding Nemo is the wrong question. Wisely, Andrew Stanton didn't try to compete with the classic. Instead, he saw elements in the character of Dory that could support a very different movie and offer a completely different experience. This was a great film that exploited our affection for the character of Dory and delivered an entertaining, thought-provoking story.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Give Us Your Worst, Part 28: Fantastic Four (2015)

Welcome to the twenty-eighth installment in my ongoing series exploring despised superhero movies. If you'd like a better explanation, I'll refer you to my 2011 introduction post expanding on the concept.

There have been four attempts at adapting the Fantastic Four for the screen, and to date none of them have been good (if you seek wordplay or puns, try elsewhere - I take my responsibilities more seriously than that). At nine percent, this is the lowest-rated movie in its franchise by a factor of three. I skipped this in theaters last year but it finally showed up in my Netflix queue.

First of all, this movie is underrated. It's not good, but it's easily the best movie ostensibly about the Fantastic Four that's been made. I can't quite bring myself to say it's the "best Fantastic Four movie," because that would necessitate equating the characters in this movie to Marvel's first family. And, while this is the best film, it's the furthest from an accurate adaptation, at least of the classic incarnation of the team.

These aren't the FF, and this isn't a superhero movie. It's a science fiction film where the characters get powers halfway through, and the movie falls apart as a result.

Until then, I actually thought it was pretty good. It opens with Reed and Ben as kids. At this point, the movie feels like an 80's adventure story - think ET or Goonies - which is a fairly inspired way to re-imagine Reed Richard's childhood. Unfortunately, we only spend a few minutes with this before jumping ahead to them as young adults.

The movie doesn't lose all its energy yet - as it introduces the new Sue, Johnny, and Victor, it swerves into standard SF material. None of these characters resemble their comic alter egos, but they're likable enough as scientists in a cheesy genre movie.

It's when they get transformed that things take a quick turn for the worst. The plot falls apart, and the characters stop being interesting. As the movie careens towards a contrived and ultimately meaningless action sequence where the fate of the world hangs in the balance, it becomes tedious and dull. There are a few moments when the action and effects offer an interesting image or sequence, but not nearly enough.

I remember rumors that this production was marred by studio interference and altered plans - I can't imagine that wasn't the case. It felt like someone had a vision for what this could be, but that whatever that vision was, it got dissected by committee. There was no way this was ever going to be a perfect adaptation, but it could have been a solid re-imagining. For a while, it was exactly that, but it couldn't sustain that level of quality past the first act.

Instead, we're left with something that's hard to pin down. It's nowhere near as bad as its 9% score suggests, but it's not some sort of misunderstood gem, either. It's a movie that's got very little reason for existing - obviously, Fox was trying to keep the rights, but they had no interest in the classic version of the team. They turned to the Ultimate Fantastic Four for inspiration, then used it as an excuse to cast young actors. But the Fantastic Four were about nostalgia when Stan Lee made them in the early sixties - the name itself rejects attempts to modernize it. The hilariously pitiful box office response demonstrates that. If the world wants a Fantastic Four movie, it wants one that pays homage to the team's roots.

Hopefully, Fox will toss in the towel and hand the rights back over to Marvel, so we can finally get a decent cinematic version of the team and their nemesis. I'm sick to death of these technorganic monstrosities sullying the name of Victor von Doom.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Movie Review: X-Men: Apocalypse

While calling X-Men: Apocalypse the third best Marvel movie released in 2016 so far is technically the same as calling it the worst, I think the nuance is important. This has been an extremely good year for comic movies which don't involve Batman attempting to murder Superman because he thinks their moms have different names. Coming in behind Civil War and Deadpool is nothing to be ashamed of.

As a whole, movie critics are fairly split on this one - it's absurdly close to 50% on Rotten Tomatoes right now. My guess is the divide can probably be tied to whether or not the reviewers are familiar with the X-Men. I suspect if you've never picked up any of the comics or seen the various animated incarnations, your odds of enjoying this are going to be heavily diminished (though I'm sure some of the movie franchise's fans will still be happy enough).

This movie made mistakes, especially from a more critical perspective. There are character beats that feel misplaced, plot points that serve little purpose, and thematic elements that fall flat. If you want a comprehensive rundown of these errors, I'd suggest looking up a few reviews from actual movie critics. I won't dispute their claims - aspects of X-Men: Apocalypse's story absolutely grated on the writer in me - but the truth is I was more interested in something else.

And what is that? Well, I'm going to let me from two years ago explain. Here's a passage from my 2014 end-of-year wrap up when I talked about Days of Future Past, a movie I generally respected but that ultimately left me underwhelmed:
I loved a lot about this movie, but I feel like the X-Men franchise has been fifteen years of build-up without much payoff. I'm ready for something big and exciting, and I'm hoping Age of Apocalypse delivers that.
I'm happy to say that Apocalypse did, in fact, deliver some honest-to-goodness superheroic payoff. The stakes were huge, the fights were cool, and the sequences were operatic - in short, it was the opposite of Days of Future Past.

The price is that the opposite thing cuts both ways (with a psychic energy blade, no less). While Days of Future Past did solid work building a tense political thriller constructed around ethical dilemmas and philosophical differences, Apocalypse just kind of threw a ton of stuff against a wall to see what had the mutant power to stick.

But a lot of that stuff was really cool. There were moments in this I'd been waiting for since the first movie hit back in 2000. And, while not all of it met my expectations, enough did to make up for the rest.

Sure, there were plot-lines here that hurt the movie - hell, you could have cut every character whose name starts with an 'M' from this movie (Magneto, Mystique, Moira, and Magda) and been left with a stronger product. I'm a big fan of Magneto overall, but his story here just kind of drew attention away from the plot (though the effects around his powers were cooler than they've ever been). Also, the movie suffers from a timeline that doesn't fully accommodate all its actors - shouldn't Havok be 40? How old is Quicksilver now?

But, again, I'm sure you can read about such trifles in real reviews. I walked into this movie caring far more whether I got something that felt like the X-Men, and I was extremely happy with the result. Not as happy as I was with Civil War - this is still a Fox movie - but it was definitely a major step forward in terms of iconography, action, and premise.

My biggest complaint is that it sounds like Singer wants to jump ahead another decade. I'd rather he picked up with this team a year or two later. These are X-Men I really want to see.