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.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Movie Review: The Nice Guys


The best thing about The Nice Guys is also its main flaw - this is a Shane Black movie. And, if we're going to be perfectly honest, his films are getting a bit redundant. Granted, redundancy is more forgivable when it's something worthwhile being repeated, but even so, I just couldn't shake the feeling I've seen this movie before.

Black clearly has a solid formula he likes working with. Almost every script he's written is a noir action/comedy revolving around two men who need to overcome their differences and their personal demons to solve a complex mystery. His movies almost always include a child who's unusually competent, and they typically amass a sizable body count of attractive young women in over their heads.

Just to reiterate, they're also always good. And The Nice Guys is no exception. The leads do fantastic work, the characters are great, the kid is awesome, and the 70's setting offers a much appreciated deviation. Plus the jokes are hilarious, and the mystery offers a good number of twists. This is a fun, complex movie with layers of thought. I caught dozens of side jokes and references, and I suspect I missed countless more.

But the caveat remains. I keep feeling like Black's spent most of his career revising and reusing the same ideas he put into Lethal Weapon. It's not necessarily a bad thing, but personally, I'd like to see him show a little more range. I'm glad the next two projects he's working on are Predator and Doc Savage: it's well past time he put his genius to work in other genres (and let's hope he actually does other genres this time - I like Iron Man 3 quite a bit, but it was still a noir action/comedy).

This movie - and maybe Black's career in general - has a somewhat mixed relationship with women. He's done a great job writing strong, interesting female characters. Angourie Rice plays Gosling's daughter in this, and she's probably the most consistently effective character in the entire movie. Likewise, there are some cool female villains, and even the movie's damsel is anything but passive.

But for better and worse, Black is very committed to the conventions of noir. The world of The Nice Guys contains a clear schism between noble innocence and corruption. The former, represented only by Rice's character, can do no wrong. In contrast, every single other woman given more than a few seconds of screen time is either revealed to be mentally unbalanced or evil. And quite a few of them die to move the plot forward. The movie opens with a brilliantly shot sequence examining how a woman's death impacts a young boy. I think the scene was moving and considered; there's an incredible depth of thought given to this moment. But the fact remains it's still all about how men see women.

I don't want to be unfair here - the men in this movie are are pretty consistently corrupted, too (the only innocent, idealistic character is that little girl), and there's a real argument to be made that he's justified in respecting the traditions of the genre. But, right or wrong, he doesn't leave the genre's tropes behind.

I don't think this is a major problem here. Aside from one random shooting with no consequences (you'll know it when you see it - it's significant in the moment, then never even mentioned again), the deaths are at least justified by moving the story forward. There's also one choice Black could have made differently in the resolution that would have at least started to bridge the innocent/corrupted schism and added in a nice twist, as well, but I won't dwell on one missed opportunity.

I hope I didn't overbalance the positive aspects of this movie while discussing my reservations. This was a great comedy/noir: if you're a fan of Shane Black's work, rest assured this is yet another wonderful installment. I had a lot of fun with this movie, as did my wife.

It isn't quite as good as Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, but The Nice Guy's lighter tone might make for a slightly more fun Friday or Saturday night movie.

Is this really something you need to see in the theater, though? That's a little harder to answer. If you love the genre, absolutely. But, if you don't feel like you missed much waiting for Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang to hit DVD, you can probably make the same call this time.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Movie Review: Captain America: Civil War


You know when you saw Batman V Superman, and you didn't know who you wanted to win because they were both acting like petulant dicks? In Civil War, you don't know which side to take, because, at least through nine-tenths of the movie, everyone behaves fundamentally rationally. No, not just rationally: they behave like superheroes.

It's tempting to say this is the main difference between the two, but that's absurd. Basically, everything Batman V Superman did wrong, Civil War did right. Hell, the movie opens with a fairly routine fight against a minor villain and a bunch of henchmen that's easily better than every action scene in BvS put together.

I assume this is partially because the Russo's knew Batman V Superman was going to hit theaters first. They must have realized their film would be compared to it, so they must have poured extra energy into making something they can be proud of. One assumes they felt pretty stupid in March when they realized they could have just phoned it in. Ah, well: live and learn.

In case it wasn't clear by now, I really, really enjoyed this movie. Or, more accurately, movies - Civil War was basically two films in one. Half of it is a sequel to Winter Soldier, and the other half is an Avengers movie.

I definitely enjoyed the Winter Soldier sequel, though it was slow at times and maybe a tad too dreary. But who the hell cares, because the Avengers flick was damn near perfect.

If you've seen the trailers, you know who's in this. And you've probably also heard how good they are. Well, don't believe what you've heard - everyone's underselling the new characters.

Note that characters is plural. I'm not just talking about Spider-Man swinging in and stealing scenes (though, holy crap - I was not prepared for how perfect Holland would be). No less amazing is Boseman, playing Black Panther, the character I've most wanted to see on the roster since well before the first Avengers film.

This is a hard character to get right, especially with his origin wedged in the middle of someone else's movie. But the Russo's pulled it off. Just like they pulled off Falcon, Vision, Scarlet Witch, and everyone else. They stuffed this thing full of characters and made it look easy. Every crappy superhero movie that couldn't pull off three or four characters just got taken to school: this had twelve heroes and two villains, all balanced beautifully.

And, wedged in the middle, it offered a battle sequence that competes with the alien invasion at the end of the Avengers.

The movie has a few slow parts, but they serve to set up believable stakes. Like I said, you spend the vast majority of this movie completely buying everyone's motivations and drive. There's a moment near the end where they push this a bit, but even that feels like it's fair game.

This is what a superhero showdown is supposed to feel like. It has stakes, purpose, and consequences, without insulting the audience's intellect. It builds on years of history to deliver something both meaningful and fun.

Check it out if you haven't already.

And, *spoiler alert*: the movie ends with DC Comics getting their ass handed to them.

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.