Saturday, April 19, 2014

Give Us Your Worst, Part 24: Daredevil


Daredevil opened on February 14th in 2003, which is when I saw it with my girlfriend (who was cool enough to go out to see a superhero flick on Valentine's Day). Jumping ahead eleven years, I just re-watched it for the first time since it opened. This time I did so alone - my wife still remembers the movie well enough to have decided it wasn't worth seeing a second time.

The surprising thing about Daredevil isn't that they got so much wrong; it's that, given how bad the movie was, they actually got quite a few things right. Murdock's relationship with his father was portrayed well, and Michael Clarke Duncan's Kingpin was fantastic. Likewise, I respect the movie for trying to go dark, though the results were... uneven.

These days, there have been so many good and bad superhero movies, it's difficult to find commonalities or good rules of thumb, but back in 2003 it was pretty easy. At the time, bad superhero movies were almost universally made by directors who didn't like or respect the material. In that respect, Daredevil broke new ground for bad comic book movies - I think it's pretty clear Mark Steven Johnson loved the source material; he just didn't understand it.

He certainly didn't understand the characters. Daredevil is too dark here, Elektra too light. Elektra is not a kind, gentle person burdened with a violent life. She's essentially a sociopath with a code. Also, she's not a pushover. Bullseye takes her out without effort in this movie: that pisses me off as much as anything else here.

The film's tone works against it more often than not. They were going for operatic noir, and I appreciate the attempt. Unfortunately, the result was mainly just boring. The characters were written far too inconsistently for any emotional connection to form, and the action was - like so many things in this movie - ambitious but not successful.

Unlike a lot of what I've seen for this series, Daredevil wasn't unwatchable, just really bad. Even Duncan's Kingpin can't make it worth sitting through, though he comes surprisingly close. In a movie filled with characters who acted nothing like their comic counterparts, he actually delivered something close to authentic. The only thing hindering him was the script, which failed to appreciate the resources and power the character is supposed to have at his disposal.

I've said otherwise in the past, but after re-watching them both I'm ready to admit this wasn't quite as bad as the Elektra spin-off. It's close, but this was slightly less boring. Slightly.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Movie Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier


Ever since Goldfinger hit screens in 1964, James Bond has been borderline superhuman. Over the years, we've seen a lot of superhero comics tropes integrated into Bond movies. And, of course, we've seen spy movies influence comics for decades.

"The Winter Soldier" might be the definitive word on that subject: it's a super spy thriller where the main characters are comic book superheroes. This is Roger Moore power-levels with a Daniel Craig tone - we've never gotten anything like that from the Bond franchise (or any other spy movie I can think of).

It is easily the darkest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films to date. The movie's got plenty of laughs, but the tone is several shades darker than what we're used to from Marvel. We've seen these characters fighting for the fate of the world in several movies, but this is the first time it felt like they were battling for the planet's soul.

Some aspects of that do get a little preachy, but then this is Captain America we're talking about: he's supposed to be a little preachy.

From a fan perspective, I was extremely happy with the portrayal of the film's substantially large cast. In addition to Captain America and the movie's title character, it included Black Widow, Falcon, Nick Fury, and Maria Hill in substantial roles. There were several other characters given smaller parts, including Agent 13 and Batroc the Leaper.

And, yes: Batroc does, in fact, leap.

I've seen some people elevate this above The Avengers. I think that's a tad generous, but I think it's got a solid claim to the #2 spot in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Sorry Iron Man fans: those movies are still great, but The Winter Soldier comes together better as a whole.

Without delving too deeply into spoilers, I'll also add this movie has some pretty big ramifications for the connected universe. It'll be particularly interesting to see where Agents of SHIELD goes from here.

Check this out as soon as possible. It's a great addition to the Marvel line-up. By now, I hope I don't still need to remind you to stick around through the credits. Just in case - don't leave. Because, if you thought it was impressive they were putting Batroc the Leaper onscreen, you haven't seen anything yet.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Futures Market 2014


It's strange: in some ways, it doesn't feel like summer at all. But here we are, getting ready to check out the year's first Marvel summer blockbuster, so there can be little doubt. In their defense, with four major films coming out this summer, Marvel had little choice but to expand the season. And they're not alone in comic properties: the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movie hits this summer, as does another Sin City. Add those six to the total number of DC Comics adaptations hitting the screen, and you've got...

Same number. Seriously, DC? Beaten by IDW and Dark Horse. Ouch.

Moving on. Like last year, I'm looking at the science fiction, fantasy, superhero, and animated movies coming out this summer. You know: all the geek stuff. I'll provide an estimate for how I think the movie will do on the Tomatometer. Feel free to come back at the end of the summer and mock me for being widely off mark.

Good times for all. Let's begin....

APRIL

4/4/14
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Projected Tomatometer: 90%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: It would take a squadron of Hydra troopers to keep me out

I'm cheating on the Tomatometer, of course. With the movie opening in a few days, there's more than enough reviews to establish where the meter is going to fall.

Everything about the movie looks good. My favorite aspects of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are the crossovers, and this is costarring Black Widow, who's been one of the best parts of Iron Man 2 and Avengers. Throw in the directors of some of the best half-hours of television of the last decade, and you've certainly got my attention.

But all that's icing: if the Disney/Marvel movies were half as good and twice as numerous, I'd still be there opening weekend, every time. Did I mention I'm a sucker for a connected superhero universe?

MAY

5/2/14
The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Projected Tomatometer: 85%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: Almost nothing.

This is a tough one to predict - the last movie's only at 73%, but I suspect the spectacle alone will push this to at least the mid-80's. The franchise itself is in weird territory. The Raimi trilogy started a lot stronger than it finished, but most of us - myself included - didn't see the point in a reboot. But ASM brought me around on the idea. It approached the material from an entirely different tone and took another look at some of the quintessential elements of Peter Parker's story. I'm still not convinced it was the best direction for Sony to go with the property, but I have to admit it was a solid approach.

I'm hearing complaints from some that part two looks too busy - the massive cast of super-villains is reminding a handful of folks of the Schumacher Batman films and even the last Raimi Spider-Man. But I don't see it that way. The problem with the late 90's Batman movies wasn't that there too many antagonists; it's that the movies were poorly written and constructed. Same goes for Spider-Man 3.

I'm all for seeing Spider-Man take on as many members of his rogues gallery as they want to cram into the movie, so long as they don't screw it up. They're not going to screw this one up, right? RIGHT?

Hell, I'll probably still see it if they do.

5/9/14
Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return
Projected Tomatometer: 14%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: Tomatometer above 90%

I'm not going to waste too much of my time stating the obvious: the trailers for this... thing... look abysmal. Like someone made a low-budget CG special for TV a decade ago.

It's still an adaptation of one of the most famous fantasy series ever made, so I'm mentioning it here. But I'd be shocked if I saw this in the theater. Or on DVD, for that matter.

5/16/14
Godzilla
Projected Tomatometer: 85%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: Good word of mouth and/or Tomatometer above 75%

It's easy to understand why people are skeptical at another American relaunch of the king of the monsters, but I really think they may have gotten this one right. The trailers have been a tad underwhelming so far, but only because they've held everything back. Most people still think Godzilla is the only monster in this movie, and I'm fairly certain that's not the case.

The tone and approach seem to be perfect. While I respect purists, Pacific Rim already demonstrated the obvious: that digital effects can work with this concept. While it's easy to imagine this being a major letdown, I'm cautiously optimistic.

5/23/14
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Projected Tomatometer: 78%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: A consensus that it's at least better than Origins: Wolverine and X-Men 3

Days of Future Past is an extremely ambitious piece to adapt. It could easily be fantastic. In fact, it's not at all a stretch to imagine this being the best movie of the summer. But it's also entirely plausible this could crash and burn.

The reason it's such a wildcard is the reason it should be a sure bet: director Bryan Singer. This is the guy who started this franchise with X-Men and X-Men 2, both stellar films. His return to the X-Men should be a slam dunk. EXCEPT. X-Men 2 came out more than ten years ago. And, in that time, Singer hasn't been as consistent.

But I'm certainly not about to write off the directer of X-Men 2. I'm just a little hesitant to get too excited. Fox already burned me with their take on The Dark Phoenix Saga: let's hope they knock DoFP out of the park.

5/30/14
Maleficent
Projected Tomatometer: 40%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: For me to be wrong

I want to believe this will be good. I want to believe that the trailer where they re-purposed "Once Upon a Dream" into a song between Maleficent and Aurora encapsulates the nightmarish feel of the film, and wasn't just something cobbled together by Disney's marketing department.

I really truly want to believe that.

And there's a chance it's true. That chance's name is Robert Stromberg. You haven't seen anything he's directed, because this is his first time in that role. If, by some random happenstance, he turns out to be a brilliant storyteller, this movie could be amazing.

But here's the thing: he was hired by the people who produced Snow White and the Huntsman, Alice in Wonderland, and Oz: the Great and Powerful. Disney's live-action fairy tale department is very adept at producing movies that look interesting but are extremely disappointing in reality. Hopefully, this will break the pattern, but I'm not at all optimistic.

JUNE

6/2/14
Edge of Tomorrow
Projected Tomatometer: 80%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: 80% AND good word-of-mouth
I was all set to write this off as another generic Tom Cruise sci-fi movie until I realized who directed it. Doug Liman has managed to impress me in the past by making movies far better than I'd have expected. Edge of Tomorrow looks extremely generic, but the fact they got a very un-generic director gives me some hope.

6/13/14
How to Train Your Dragon 2
Projected Tomatometer: 80%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: 90% AND good word-of-mouth
I'm not the world's biggest fan of the first one. I think it's a solid movie, but nowhere near deserving of the honors it's had heaped upon it. It's a decent, if over-rated, CG movie.

That said, I'm excited to see they're taking some risks with the second. Allowing the lead to age represents a decision that has a lot of potential. I refuse to get my hopes too high for a DreamWorks movie that isn't part of the Kung Fu Panda series, but I'll admit I'm intrigued.

6/27/14
Transformers: Age of Extinction
Projected Tomatometer: 27%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: Something worthwhile in the movie
I don't need to hear that this movie is good: I think that's probably too high a bar to expect Michael Bay to clear, anyway. What I'm looking for is something interesting. And I mean something I'll find interesting: that the dinobots are well realized, that that spaceship with a design echoing Unicron is cool, or that the movie does more than mangle CG robots together.

It's not that I'm above watching these - I actually still like the first. It's just that, in the absence of plot or character development, Bay's really just thrown the same effects at the screen and expected us not to notice. Be honest: can you really parse out the plots to parts 2 and 3? Or, for that matter, the effects? Watching either is fundamentally the same experience as watching the other. I expect something different if I'm going to pay to see another.


Snowpiercer
Projected Tomatometer: 88%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: Not sure - still mulling this one over
The projection is another cheat - this one's been out for a while overseas, and at least a few critics have already cast their votes. If I understand the trailer, this is a post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie about a group of survivors on a train perpetually outrunning a global winter. From what I can tell, the conflict comes less from the weather than class warfare on the train.

I'm undecided on whether I'll see it. Aspects sound intriguing, but the summer is pretty packed as it is.


The Congress
Projected Tomatometer: 85%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: Really good word-of-mouth
Because two science fiction films opening this weekend wasn't enough....

This looks like another take on the "Being John Malkovich" blueprint. This time, it's starring Robin Wright as herself and as a digital version of herself. The trailer is interesting, and I like the general concept. That said, it looks more like something to watch on Netflix than to see on the big screen.

Oh, and - once again - don't give me any credit if my "projection" is close: I'm pulling that 85% from the 20 critics who have already spoken.

JULY

7/11/14
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Projected Tomatometer: 80%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: Decent reviews and strong recommendations
Rise of the Planet of the Apes was an unexpected pleasure. Director Rupert Wyatt spun what should have been a by-the-numbers prequel into a clever and emotional relaunch. If he was coming back, I'd be far more excited.

Not that Matt Reeves is a bad choice. I didn't exactly like Cloverfield, but it was competently made. Hopefully, he entered this project with a plan and put together something awesome. It's just a long way from a sure bet.

7/18/14
Jupiter Ascending
Projected Tomatometer: I don't know. Let's go with 75%?
What it'll take to get me in the theater: Forget the critics - I'll see it unless I hear it's awful
Most people who actually saw Cloud Atlas - and there aren't many of us - agree it was a cool movie that was, perhaps, a tad overambitious. Regardless, I like the Wachowskis best when they're cutting loose with effects and visuals. I guess that's another way of saying my favorite movie from them remains Speed Racer. God, I love that crazy movie.

Well, consider me excited, because this looks just as crazy. If the trailers are to be believed, we're getting an insane space opera that will make the Fifth Element look dull in comparison.

All that said, this is by the people who made the Matrix sequels, so some caution is appropriate. The Wachowskis are by no means perfectly consistent, but they're wildly inventive. And while their career certainly has its blemishes, anyone who tries to reduce their filmography to a Shyamalan-like downward trajectory is gravely mistaken. Yeah, their most critically successful movie was their first, but it wasn't actually their best. And, while Cloud Atlas was flawed, it was still a solid movie.

I've got high hopes for this one. If it's a fraction as much fun as I'm expecting, it'll be well worth the price of admission.


Planes: Fire and Rescue
Projected Tomatometer: 25%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: Ha. Ha. HAHAHAHA!
This is a cheap cash grab based on the success Disney's had marketing Cars and Planes toys to young kids, but that's no reason to write it off: the Lego movie was no less a glorified commercial. But don't worry: there are plenty of other reasons to write this off, starting with the 26% Freshness rating of its predecessor and continuing on to its crappy trailer.

Hell, I'm being generous even including Disney's sequel to the poorly rated spin-off of Pixar's worst films on this list. But it is Disney animation, and that gives it a certain kind of geek cred. Not enough to see, mind you - not even close - but enough to mention it in passing.


7/25/14
Hercules
Projected Tomatometer: 30%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: Is there time to completely rewrite and re-film it using a different director?
For those of you keeping track, this is the version of Hercules starring The Rock. It looks to be staying relatively true to the myth: judging from the trailers, he seems to be the son of Zeus, and he seems to have superpowers. Conceptually, that puts it ahead of "The Legend of Hercules," that movie released in January that tried to reboot the character in a gritty, realistic manner.

So, why then do I have no more faith in this than I had in that? Funny you should ask. This Hercules is directed by Brett Ratner.

Yeah. I think we're done here.

AUGUST

8/1/14
Guardians of the Galaxy
Projected Tomatometer: 70%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: I'm not seeing this movie unless it co-stars a badass talking raccoon with a gun. Ahem. See you opening day.
Let me get this out of the way up front: this movie might suck. I'm sorry, but there's a real chance. On the other hand, it could be the greatest movie ever made. And, in this case, the two preceding scenarios aren't mutually exclusive.

Rocket Raccoon. Groot. Gamora. Drax. Forget for a minute whether it's good or bad: the sheer fact this is coming out is astonishing in and of itself. These are four awesome heroes. Oh, and look at that: they've even got a pet human!

In a year of wild, crazy, ambitious summer movies, this is the wildest, craziest, and most ambitious of the bunch. I can't wait to check this out.

8/8/14
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Projected Tomatometer: 25%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: I'm looking for a Tomatometer north of 60 and/or some solid recommendations.
I'm not sure what to make of this yet. On one hand, for all the negative press this has been getting, the approach isn't entirely a bad one. This is going to be a slightly darker version than we're used to. Whether or not the filmmakers were even aware of the fact, that actually brings the property closer to its origins.

That said, "Michael Bay" isn't a name you want listed on the production credits, and Jonathan Liebesman's resume isn't reassuring.

If I had to guess, I'd say I probably won't be seeing this in August. But stranger things have happened. For example: Disney is making a Guardians of the Galaxy movie.


Lucy
Projected Tomatometer: 65%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: Tomatometer above 85% and/or good word-of-mouth
This one almost slipped below the radar entirely. I just came across the trailer today and suddenly became interested. Lucy appears to be about a woman, played by Scarlett Johansson, who gets superpowers. She seems more interested in survival and revenge than helping others, though it's not clear whether this ends with her becoming a superhero, a god, or going Akira on everyone's ass. Whichever way it goes, in the hands of director Luc Besson, there's reason to anticipate a lot of fun. There'd be more reason if this were ten years ago, but - like I keep saying - I am an optimist

8/15/14
The Expendables 3
Projected Tomatometer: 55%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: Good luck with that
I'm not a huge fan of this series, but I have been catching them as they appear on Netflix. That seems like a good strategy going forward: they're fun enough to kill an afternoon, but certainly not worth buying a movie ticket.

The villain this time is played by Mel Gibson. Probably a good casting call, since it's more or less impossible to take him seriously as a hero anymore.

8/22/14
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
Projected Tomatometer: 50%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: Really good reviews and recommendations
Like most people old enough to do so in 2005, I saw Sin City in the theater. And, of course, I loved it. The movie was a new experience: a faithful adaptation of a comic book that retained the style and story. It was extremely cool. You know, for it's time.

But 2005 was a long time ago. And the thing that made Sin City great wasn't its characters or its plot: it was the look and tone. The issue is that look and tone aren't elements you need to build upon. Making another one isn't likely to offer a substantially different experience than you'd get re-watching the first.

Also, seeing something co-directed by Frank Miller isn't quite the selling point it was before he made The Spirit. Just saying.

I don't think this is going to be awful, but I'd be surprised if it was anything more than mediocre. If we're being completely honest, Rodriguez has always been more a cooler director than a good one, anyway. And that coolness factor doesn't really carry the same punch when the experience is nine years old.

But it's possible I'm being too dismissive. Maybe this will head into new territory and offer something unexpected. If I hear that's the case, I'll probably check this out and retract everything I'm typing here. But I wouldn't be typing it in the first place if I thought that was likely.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ten Things I Want From the Matrix Prequels


Despite the fact the Matrix sequels are universally despised, it was at one time a profitable franchise, so the studio (and the Wachowskis) are reportedly looking to bring it back with a trilogy of prequels. In general, I like the Wachowskis. In particular, I consider the movie Speed Racer to be among the most underrated of the past decade. And the trailers for Jupiter Ascending look awesome. I'm not the world's biggest Matrix fan (I like the first, but I've always considered it overrated), but I'm not entirely adverse to the concept, provided they can deliver movies worth watching.

To that end, I'm making a list of items I believe should - nay, MUST - be included in a Matrix prequel series for it to be worth seeing. I only hope the Wachowskis can deliver:

10. All CG needs to be rendered in 8 bit
Look, this is a prequel. The technological foundation for the Matrix shouldn't be as advanced, and the effects should reflect that. I know some people may be concerned a feature film with quality of an 80's video game won't be watchable, but as long as they make it look more realistic than the multiple-Smith fight in Reloaded, I think it'll be fine.

9. Someone needs to get run over by a speeding gun rack
Guns don't kill people: 20-mile long racks of guns moving faster than freight trains kill people. The Wachowskis have an opportunity to deliver a real public service here: let's just hope they're brave enough to stand up to the gun rack lobby and say it.

8. 80's hair and neon jumpsuits
The black leather outfits in the original movies perfectly encapsulated the feeling at the end of the 90's. Since the new movies predate the last ones, they need it set firmly in an earlier era. Besides, the presence of a color that isn't a shade of green would be a nice change of pace.

7. We should see the programmer screw up, leading to the creation of the glitch that permits "bullet-time" to work
Some casual fans may be reluctant to sit through a full hour of watching someone code, but I really think the payoff could be worth it. Besides, after sitting through the rave scene in Reloaded, watching someone write a computer program sounds downright riveting.

6. Mario had better get his damn cameo
He was robbed last time. I'm not asking for much: just a quick appearance and a few lines establishing he's a better actor than Keanu Reeves.

5. Special moves and fatalities
Kung fu is all fine and dandy, but if the resistance wants to stand a chance against the machines, they should really be uploading move sets from Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat into their cerebral cortexes.

4. I want a true prequel, featuring the same characters in preschool, in the style of Muppet Babies
Just imagine how cute a three-year-old Agent Smith would be.

3. Power-Ups
We've already seen characters move fast, hang in midair, and even fly: the new Matrix movies are going to have to take it up a notch if they want to hold our interest. They should start with magic mushrooms and go from there. And while we're on the subject, the gun from Portal had better play a major role in this thing.

2. Boss Fights
Actually, there kind of were boss fights in the Matrix, but I want something a little more cerebral; you know, less Double-Dragon and more Metroid.

1. It should be set at Christmas
Okay, really I just want to write this up for Mainlining Christmas, but given that Neo was essentially kung-fu hacker Jesus, it makes sense that movies presumably leading up to his birth would be thematically linked to Christmas. Besides, we can't let Prometheus be the only holly jolly science-fiction prequel out there, can we?


Sunday, February 16, 2014

Movie Review: The Lego Movie


It's always awkward when you show up late to a party. The Lego movie opened last week to widespread acclaim. Rotten Tomatoes has it at 96% fresh, and it's already blown past the $100 million dollar mark (and that doesn't include the toy sales). It's performing at summer-movie levels in February, which just demonstrates what most of us already knew: this "summer blockbuster" thing is nothing but a self-fulfilling prophesy. Movies have been performing at blockbuster-levels during the summer because all the blockbusters have been getting released during the summer. People will go see a good movie whenever it's released, and - in some circumstances - there are more opportunities outside the crowded summer and Christmas seasons than within.

There are a lot of interesting aspects of The Lego Movie worth considering. It represents the first official big-screen appearance of Wonder Woman, even if her role was only slightly more than a cameo. It's also the first time Batman or Superman have appeared in a motion picture in supporting roles.

By now, you've probably already seen The Lego Movie, and even if you haven't, you've certainly heard it's worth watching. I'm not going to contradict that: it's more or less indisputable. This is, without a doubt, the best toy commercial since the 1986 animated Transformers movie. It might even be better.

It's fun, it's entertaining, it's sweet, it's emotional....

But, you know something? It's actually a little overrated.

Not a lot. All that stuff I just said is true: it's a great movie. The directors, Miller and Lord, have once again established themselves as the best in the business when it comes to transforming an incredibly dumb premise into a heartfelt and intelligent movie. But the end of the movie doesn't quite deliver the punch it should have.

Okay. I'm going to try to keep this as close to spoiler-free as I can by being vague and non-specific. But if you're good at putting pieces together and you haven't seen The Lego Movie yet, this might be a good place to stop reading. Just in case.

Let's talk about how Will Ferrell's character was portrayed at the end of the movie. Ultimately, the entire film was built around this scene - the emotional core of the film came down to this moment. And it wasn't bad. Ferrell did a fine job, and the scene worked all right. But given its importance, they should have made it perfect. As it was, there was something artificial, something overly animated about how his dialogue was being written.

Like I said, it still worked. But imagine how much more powerful the sequence would have been if we'd believed in his character. I don't think there was anything wrong with his point-of-view, just in how he was presenting it. He explained his perspective the way a cartoon villain does, when a more nuanced, realistic approach would have been better.

I don't think it's a trivial issue, either. I think it would have elevated this movie, which was clearly already great, into the running for best-of-year. It would have given it an emotional resonance few films achieve. And all it would have taken was a few minor adjustments to the dialogue.

Oh, well. I guess we'll have to settle for a great movie.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Movie Review: Her


Her is a neat science fiction film that would appeal to fans of the novel, Facsimile, if Facsimile had any fans for it to appeal to. Don't get me wrong: they're very different stories and even different settings, but they're in the exact same sub-genre. I don't know of anything else that is.

Sorry - I'm getting off track.

At any rate, like all of Spike Jonze's movies, there's a lot more going on in Her than the premise implies. What you've likely heard about Her is that it's a love story about man and a conscious computer system. And, on the surface, it is. In fact, if you're not a fan of science fiction, it'd be really easy to watch Her and think that's all that it was about. The movie follows its lead around constantly. Its focus rarely wanders at all. And, to him, this is a simple love story.

But there's so much more here. While I liked the quirky love story, I was much more interested in what was happening off screen. There are huge things happening in this film - massive, world-altering events - that the movie implies or mentions in passing. The main character doesn't grasp the ramifications, and it would easy for the audience to miss them, as well.

From an SF perspective, the movie handled these really well. Where it faltered was in the smaller details. For instance, rather than demonstrate an emergent consciousness, the OS came out of the box with a complex inner life. Sure, she had to learn to love and want and all that, but she started with a sense of self, which suggests it was something she was programmed with. While this didn't devolve into a Skynet situation, one wonders why the programmers took that chance.

There were several details like this. Small factors that raised unanswered questions. For example, if computer consciousness is this advanced, why haven't jobs like the one held by the main character been automated?

It'd be easy to give these issues too much weight, though. The larger ideas and themes work extremely well. Like Jonze's earlier movies, Her leaves you with a lot to mull over and piece together. I enjoyed it quite a bit.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 Movies Revisited


I don't see enough movies - at least not new movies - to warrant a top 10 list. Instead, I rank every movie I saw that was released in theaters this year from the worst to the best. Well, really I'm ranking them from movies I liked the least to movies I liked the most... but that's a pain to type out.

In total, I saw sixteen new movies this year. I'd only describe one of these as bad: the rest were at least decent. The catch is that none of these movies floored me like Avengers or the first Hobbit did last year. Overall, I thought 2013 delivered a large number of good movies, but nothing I saw struck me as great.

Granted, my tastes generally keep me away from most anything that has a shot at Best Picture. Plus, I still haven't seen Catching Fire, which is supposed to be awesome.

Here's the list:


16. G.I. Joe: Retaliation
The only thing I expected from this - THE ONLY THING - was that it would be better than the last G.I. Joe movie. Every review I read promised it was, and the trailers made it seem like a slam dunk. So imagine my disappointment when I finally sat down to see it and found it less engaging, less funny, and less exciting than the pitifully mediocre Rise of Cobra.

This movie was a let down on almost every level: I honestly don't know why so many people gave it a pass. The one thing they did right was assemble an appropriate cast. Not that they made use of them.

The first one was bad, but at least it had a few enjoyable scenes.


15. Warm Bodies
I enjoyed Warm Bodies quite a bit, though it's easy to imagine how it could have been improved. The inclusion of the "Boneys" felt like a cheat, and the ending was uninspired. I mean, come on, at least have Julie turn into a zombie and have R help her regain her humanity like she helped him. Sure, it would have been corny, but at least it would have been felt satisfying.

Regardless, the movie offered a great twist on the zombie genre. It was funny, sweet, and - most importantly - as disturbing as a romantic comedy about brain-eating zombies should be.


14. Monsters University
Monsters University wasn't bad. In fact, it was pretty good. It's about on par with Pixar's other release this year, the Toy Story Halloween special. But that's the issue: this wasn't remotely good enough to justify a theatrical release. At one time, Pixar was the company that made a direct-to-video sequel so good, it was released theatrically. Now, they're making theatrical releases that should go right to DVD. They're still producing good movies, but there's no question they've fallen a long way.


13. Thor: The Dark World
I seem to be in the minority here, but I found the Thor sequel a little disappointing. The Loki sequences were a lot of fun, as was the end fight, but I think this is one of the Cinematic Marvel Universe's weakest movies.


12. Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters
Probably the year's most under-rated film, Hansel and Gretel is a good reminder there are some movies out there that critics still can't understand. Yes, the swearing was anachronistic - that was intentional, just like all the anachronisms. It was a steam-punk hard-boiled noir comedy/adventure story set in the middle-ages, and it pulled those genres together in an extremely interesting manner.

In addition, the movie stands out as having an almost unheard female-leaning cast. Not that it scores perfectly on issues of gender: they fridged a character who should have made it out alive and strangely focused on Hansel for the final battle (shouldn't that have been Gretel's fight?). Still, Gretel was a great character and a good example of Hollywood starting to come around on female action heroes.

The movie was fun - a hell of a lot of fun, in fact - and I'm excited they're making a sequel.


11. The World's End
In case you're confused, this is the one about a group friends on a pub crawl who uncover an alien invasion, not "This is the End," which is about a bunch of actors hanging out during the Apocalypse (I haven't seen that yet, by the way).

This was good, but it was also a victim of sky-high expectations. The first Frost-Pegg movie was Shaun of the Dead, which remains one of the best comedies of the past twenty years. Both this and Hot Fuzz were good movies, but neither managed to match Shaun.


10. Star Trek Into Darkness
For the first few days after Star Trek Into Darkness came out, everyone loved it. Then a funny thing happened: someone pointed out that the movie didn't utilize its female leads to their potential. Pretty soon, it was being decried everywhere I looked.

I want to take a minute to defend this, though. While it's true the movie underutilized Uhura, it wasn't really about her anyway. This was about Kirk and Spock. And I think that's all right.

Don't get me wrong: there's something seriously wrong with Hollywood right now. The fact studios refuse to green-light more than a handful of movies with female protagonists is idiotic and sexist. But that doesn't mean that every movie made needs to focus on a female lead to be good. In other words, the real problem is with the industry, not this movie.

Yes, the underwear scene was dumb. A lot of scenes in this movie were dumb, in fact - same with its predecessor. But, on the whole, Into Darkness was dumb and fun, which is why it's as high on this list as it is.


9. Riddick
I really enjoyed this movie, though I can't defend the bizarre direction they took with Katee Sackhoff's character in the last couple minutes. Overall, the movie is a great Conan in space story. The first third is particularly awesome. I just wish they'd been able to make a more faithful sequel to The Chronicles of Riddick, but I've made my opinions on that clear already.


8. Frozen
Frozen is an intelligent film, sometimes to its detriment. It feels extremely intentional, as if every plot beat was debated by a committee of scholars before they arrived at the story line that best outlined their thesis: that true love is that of family and not of flights of fancy.

Its saving grace is its characters: all five of the leads are great, and the character we all expected to despise turned out being the movie's best. The movie didn't fill me with wonder, but it certainly entertained me for an hour and a half.

Plus, it's about time Disney made a princess movie about sisters.


7. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
The Desolation of Smaug is a weird one. On one hand, I was extremely disappointed with it. I don't mind the liberties taken with the plot, but it bothers me that this doesn't feel like Tolkien anymore. The intricate character moments and emotional arcs that have carried us through all the previous Middle Earth movies were missing or felt forced. The love triangle was unnecessary and lacking subtlety. I hope I turn around and eat those words after part three, but for the time being, I thought it was ridiculous.

All that said, as a fantasy-action film, it was still a lot of fun. If you divorce it from its source material, it still buries 90% of fantasy out there. I just wish it felt like part of The Hobbit.


6. Gravity
Gravity is an experience film. Is it gimmicky? Sure, but when the gimmick is that the whole thing is in space and the flow of zero-G is realistically portrayed, it's not something to complain about.


5. Pacific Rim
Depending on who you ask, Pacific Rim is either an example of Hollywood incorporating women at its best, it's worst, or both. There are a few reasons for this discrepancy. The movie deserves credit for having one of its main characters be a woman with extensive combat skill who's not a love interest. But there's a lot of debate over whether she comes off as competent or timid. Then there's the fact that she's almost alone: only one of the movie's minor characters is female.

In the movie's defense, you could pretty much replace every human character with a hamster without seriously impacting the film. Ultimately, this is robots punching monsters and monsters biting robots. The rest is there to fill time.

And the fight scenes are spectacular. Easily the most memorable visual experience of the summer.

But maybe - just maybe - the script could have used some more work. And maybe it's time for Guillermo del Toro to reflect on the fact that he keeps putting women into his movies who are strong... but eerily similar. How many adult female protagonists have been shy, repressed women with a deep inner strength? I hope he continues incorporating female characters in major roles, but maybe it's time he got over that girl he liked in high school.


4. Iron Man 3
I love almost everything about Iron Man 3, but I just like the movie. It's a lot of fun, but - at least for me - it doesn't really come together. I feel like the plot points are there to pull us from bit to bit, but none of it ever adds up to a complete story.

To be fair, the same could be said about Iron Man 2, which is my second favorite Marvel movie after The Avengers. The difference is that IM2 was filled with comic book nonsense, while IM3 contained 80's action movie tropes. Personally, I prefer comics, so I love part 2 and just like part 3.


3. Man of Steel
It's not that I disagree with the criticism being leveled against Man of Steel - that Jonathan Kent's death was idiotic, that the level of destruction was a tad excessive, and that more time should have been devoted to Superman minimizing the loss of life - I just don't think these flaws were enough to ruin the movie.

This was a great Superman movie; in many ways, the one we've been waiting for. We finally got to see Kal-El in a real fight: that's never been accomplished in live-action before. Yeah, I miss the red shorts, but the core character felt right. That scene in the church when he's discussing his dilemma with a priest was perfect. And Lois... they got Lois right in a way I don't think anyone has before. They sacrificed a massive piece of the mythology, but wound up with something far, far better: a version of Lois Lane who's as capable as she should be.

I honestly have no idea whether the sequel will be the most amazing thing we've ever seen, a pile of garbage, or something else entirely, but I enjoyed this one quite a bit.


2. Much Ado About Nothing
Yeah, it's this high. Based on the reviews, I expected to like Joss Whedon's Much Ado. But, when I finally got around to seeing it, I discovered I really, really liked it.

The movie is a hell of a lot of fun. Just about everything about the production is inspired, but the casting is especially fantastic. I loved the take on the characters and setting, and the jazz version of Sigh No More was the best take on that song I've ever heard.

This almost made it to the #1 spot, but then something unexpected happened....


1. The Wolverine
I loved The Wolverine when I saw it, but there's no denying there were serious issues. The issues were things I felt like we had to accept: you can't make an R-rated superhero movie. That's simply a reality of the business. It's impossible to show Wolverine impaling enemy after enemy: you just can't do it.

Here's something you might not know: they managed to make that movie anyway. Turns out, you can make a violent, gritty Wolverine movie. You just can't release it in theaters.

You can, however, release it on DVD. The version of this movie that tops my list for 2013 isn't the one I reviewed last summer. The theatrical cut was already good, but the extended version exceeds it on every level. The action is greatly improved, but so are the characters. Mariko is given a lot more to do here, and Yukio is even more kick-ass.

The extended edition is as good - if not better than - any of the X-Men movies before it, including X-Men 2. I highly recommend you track it down.