Thursday, March 30, 2017

Futures Market: 2017


Last year, I had to start early, thanks to Warner Bros dumping Batman v Superman in March. 2017 is a bit more muted - I think we can safely place the starting line for the summer movie season on May 5th, with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

Granted, the entire concept of the "summer movie season" is outdated. This year's already given us Logan, LEGO Batman, Kong: Skull Island, and Beauty and the Beast - any or all of which could have qualified as "summer movies" if their release dates had been moved back. It took the industry fifteen years longer than it should have, but they seem to have realized they can release an interesting movie any time of the year and get "summer movie" level returns.

By rights, I should be writing this in December for the following year - dropping this whole "summer" thing altogether and just running through the biggest upcoming geek flicks on the horizon. But I'm busy in December, so we're stuck perpetuating the delusion that there's something special or unique about movies released between May and August.

For those of you new to this annual feature, here's how it works: I'm attempting to predict the Freshness score for every upcoming summer movie that looks geeky enough to be of interest. These predictions are essentially arbitrary guesses.

You are, of course, welcome to come back at the end of summer and mock me for things I get hilariously wrong (though I actually did pretty well last year).

Oh, I'll also subject you to what I'm looking for (i.e., what it will take to get me to seriously consider heading to the theater). And, just for the hell of it, a random prediction about the movie.


May 5
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Projected Tomatometer: 78%
What I'm Looking For: I'll almost certainly see this regardless of what critics say
Random Prediction: This will make more in merchandising than any other summer movie, except Cars 3

The 78% is something of a hedged bet. The original Guardians is currently sitting at 91%, and it's entirely possible Gunn will manage to meet or exceed that. Possible, but unlikely: Guardians of the Galaxy was widely seen as quirky and unique, a fact that made critics somewhat generous. A sequel, regardless of whether it's good or bad, is naturally going to feel derivative, so it's going to have to clear a higher hurdle to get the same score.

On top of that, Gunn is facing raised expectations, a larger cast, and (in all likelihood) studio pressure to set up Infinity War. It starts to sound dangerously similar to the recipe that brought us the deeply flawed (but still fun) Age of Ultron.

All that said, of course I'll check it out. I'm a big fan of Marvel's movies, and the trailers look great.


May 12
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword
Projected Tomatometer: 60%
What I'm Looking For: 85% and/or a substantial number of glowing reviews
Random Prediction: This will be extremely polarizing

This is one of those situations where I have very little idea what to expect. The trailers imply a bizarre genre-twisting approach to the Arthurian legend, but they're ambiguous to the point I can't tell what it is. Is this myth reinterpreted through the lens of modern genres partially descended from that myth? Is it a fun and quirky parody where we see the King Arthur story imagined as pulp fiction? Is it a worthless piece of crap, like the director's last Sherlock Holmes movie?

No. Goddamn. Clue.

I've like about as much of Guy Richie's work as I've disliked, so I'm holding out hope. The Tomatometer projection matches A Game of Shadows, incidentally, so that's actually a pessimistic appraisal (I hated A Game of Shadows). I hope I'm wrong, though - I'd love to see an interesting, alternative take on this story.


May 19
Alien: Covenant
Projected Tomatometer: 68%
What I'm Looking For: 90% or higher, or some great recommendations
Random Prediction: This will be worse, not better, than Prometheus

I still haven't seen The Martian, the only movie Scott's directed in years that's actually supposed to be good, but I understand it proves he's still capable of producing quality work. That's reason to hold out a little hope, but the rest of Scott's filmography post 1991 is less promising.

The trailers don't fill me with confidence, either. Sure, the visuals look fine, but that's never been a problem for Scott. It's the premise that's leaving me underwhelmed.

First, it looks like his takeaway from Prometheus was that he needed to make the next one more like Alien. Which is fine, except we've already got Alien. We need something new. But the larger issue is how it resembles the last installment. I don't mind Fassbender's android - I'm fine seeing him make another appearance - but I'm less excited by the Garden of Eden metaphor and the fact Scott seems to have decided his xenomorphs need to have permeated every significant moment in humanity's future.

I think he's missing the point of Alien. They're not supposed to be a dark manifestation of our souls: they're supposed to be completely and utterly ALIEN. Come on - it's the name of the damn franchise for a reason.

I'm fine with incorporating Judeo-Christian mythology into SF horror (actually, that can be awesome). But the core of Alien is built around Lovecraft, not the Bible. Scott would do well to remember that.


May 26
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
Projected Tomatometer: 41%
What I'm Looking For: 80% or some reason to believe this franchise returned to the quality of the first movie
Random Prediction: This will make less money than any other movie in the franchise

I never did get around to seeing On Stranger Tides, and honestly, I'm not sure I care. Given that I love the original, that's kind of sad. This franchise has fallen faster than my opinion of its star.

The projection this time is actually based on REAL NUMBERS. Check it out:


Mathematically, it appears that the critical consensus of the Pirates franchise has been decreasing towards a limit of approximately 40%. Unless, of course, this is parabolic, in which case it should eventually recover. Or if the trend has no meaningful predictive value, since a sequence of non-causal events forming a pattern is ultimately meaningless (spoiler alert - it's that one).

Still, I've got nothing better, so I'm sticking with the chart. Besides, the fact that this movie has three listed directors and none are experienced suggests even this guess could be generous.


Baywatch
Projected Tomatometer: 40%
What I'm Looking For: 90%
Random Prediction: This movie will have at least 2 sequels. Vin Diesel will appear in at least one of them.

Dwayne Johnson has presence. As far as I can tell, he's a solid comedic actor capable of good work. And if you've ever seen an interview with the guy, you know he's just all kinds of awesome. Like most people, I find myself rooting for him.

Unfortunately, his live-action filmography has been less than stellar. Less than lunar, actually. Street lights may be a stretch.

He just doesn't seem to pick the best projects (exempting Moana - that movie ruled). And before you get too hopeful this might be the movie that turns his career around, check out the director's background.

Seth Gordon's done some documentary and TV work that's decent, but his highest rated movie is Horrible Bosses, at 68%. His other two don't break 45%. Combined.

But maybe this one is different. The trailers were certainly more fun than they had any right to be.

Maybe. But one of the director's past projects was Four Christmases, a movie I sat through for Mainlining Christmas. And I don't do second chances.


June 2
Wonder Woman
Projected Tomatometer: Not a clue
What I'm Looking For: I'll see it unless I hear they completely failed the character
Random Prediction: This will make more money on its opening weekend than the upcoming Justice League movie

I am standing with my back turned at the edge of the table. My arms are crossed over my chest, and my eyes are closed. There are numerous bruises and scrapes across my back from the last times I fell. And I ask, pleading, "You're going to catch me, right? RIGHT?"

"Huh?" I hear the Warner Bros producers say. "Oh, yeah. Yeah, we totally got you this time, bro. No worries."

As I start leaning back and cross the point of no return I hear a sound, but I can't tell if it's them bracing to catch my weight or if they're snickering.

......

So. Here we are again.

It took DC about a decade longer than it should have to start working on a shared movie universe, and when they finally released an attempt... it was awful. God awful, in fact.

I say this as someone who likes Man of Steel. Hell, I even like Suicide Squad! But Batman v Superman was one of the worst superhero movies I've ever seen. Its one saving grace was Diana Prince - Wonder Woman, who clearly was in a better film than literally everyone else present.

So we should be excited, right? RIGHT? Because, after waiting ten years too long to work in a shared universe and - I don't even know how to calculate this - twenty? thirty? years too long to give one of comics' three most iconic characters her own movie, they couldn't possibly screw this up, could they?

Of course, they could. This is Warner Bros, the current poster child for screwing up franchises. But they did overhaul their DC team after Batman v Superman. And you can't fault their choice of directors. Plus, the trailers look pretty cool. So...

No idea.

This is Patty Jenkins v Warner Bros. If she wins, we could be looking at a score in the 80's or 90's. If the studio manages to push her into making the movie they want, we'll be lucky to see something in the 40's.


June 9
The Mummy
Projected Tomatometer: 60%
What I'm Looking For: 85% and assurance the movie isn't as boring as its trailer
Random Prediction: Tom Cruise's character becomes a Mummy, and he'll be joining the Universal Monster Shared Universe in that capacity

Tough one to call. The Mummy's trailer is difficult to sit through - it's not a good sign they couldn't find more engaging footage than that. Likewise, the fact Alex Kurtzman ended up in the director's chair doesn't fill me with confidence.

However, the movie boasts a pair of promising writers, so I wouldn't be entirely surprised if it winds up including some major twists. The decision to build a shared monster-verse intrigues me, as well - keep in mind, Universal has been doing crossovers almost as long as Marvel's been making comics: theirs is the original shared cinematic universe. I'd be interested in seeing that relaunched well.

That said, I'm not convinced this is going to deliver on that promise. Everything about this screams "cash grab." Still, here's hoping for the best.


June 16
Cars 3
Projected Tomatometer: 74%
What I'm Looking For: 90% or higher, or some assurance the movie is at least interesting
Random Prediction: Good or bad, this will be the last Cars movie. Dear God, let this be last Cars movie. Unless they want to do one that verifies the fan theory this is all set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland populated by the descendants of the machines that wiped out the human race.

The Tomatometer projection is based on the first movie's score: the trailer - along with the released plot synopsis - implies this is more in the mold of part one than part 2. Pity - I think I'd actually prefer to watch Finn McMissile execute more enemy agents. Oh well, he'll probably get a cameo or something.

It looks like this is going to be somewhat darker than part one, based on Disney's dramatic teaser. When I first saw that, I was hoping they were going to have McQueen retire to train the next generation of race cars - sort of step into Doc Hudson's shoes... er... tires?

But it looks like this is going to be another story of him building himself back up again. Whatever: maybe they'll do something interesting. Pixar's been known to pull off miracles before.

My best guess, though, is it'll be a slightly darker rehash of part one punctuated with some lesson about... something. I figure that'll be good for another low-to-mid-seventies rating.


June 23
Transformers: The Last Knight
Projected Tomatometer: 18%
What I'm Looking For: You know what? If Michael Bay pulls a score of 60%, I will go see this in the theater. Swear to Primus.
Random Prediction: I will not see this in a theater.

There aren't a lot of people who still defend the first movie, but I'll step up. It was deeply flawed and the designs weren't what I'd have liked, but it was stupid fun. And the opportunity to see a big screen adaptation of the show, complete with Peter Cullen reprising Prime, was enjoyable enough.

But it was all downhill from there. I've see every one of these, but only bothered to watch the first two in the theater. If you want to know why that was a wise choice, just read a few reviews of the later installments.

I'm assuming this will be about on par with Age of Extinction, the last entry in the series. But, given Bay's generally been getting worse reviews over time, that may actually be a generous assessment.


June 28
Baby Driver
Projected Tomatometer: Currently at 100% (guessing it'll drop to around 90%)
What I'm Looking For: 90% should warrant a trip to the theater
Random Prediction: Best movie of the summer

The vast majority of movies in this list are ones I've been aware of for a year or more. But, every once in a while, something slips through the cracks and I discover the trailer looking for things to include.

This is one of those. I clicked through because it's directed by Edgar Wright. The trailer has an irresistible energy to it, and the cast looks great. I was pretty much sold before swinging by Rotten Tomatoes in the off chance it had already opened at a festival.

...Which it has. 21 critics have weighed in, and every last one of them gave it a pass. Skim the summaries and you get the impression these aren't tepid endorsements, either.

Okay. Let's ground these expectations a bit.

Wright's done some great work, and I haven't seen a single movie he's made that was awful, but he's done a few I thought were mixed. As for that 100%, it's not uncommon for movies to play well to the first round of critics, only to falter when more see it. There's a chance this isn't going to be as good as it looks.

But there's a chance it will be. This is the guy who made Shaun of the Dead, after all.


July 7
Spider-Man: Homecoming
Projected Tomatometer: 88%
What I'm Looking For: Basically anything north of 20%. Hell, I'll probably still see it if it's lower.
Random Prediction: This will break Marvel's timeline.

I'm extremely excited for this one. Spider-Man was one of the nine hundred and fourteen best elements of Captain America: Civil War, which is pretty high praise (damn, I love that movie). After his introduction, everyone's expecting a lot from this, which does mean there's room for disappointment. But I can't help it: the trailer was great, the casting was inspired, and Vulture looks awesome.

There's no real science to that score - mostly, I'm just assuming Marvel and Sony put in the effort and got this one right. Besides, critics tend to be kind to the webslinger, provided his movie doesn't suck (looking at you, Spider-Man 3 / Amazing Spider-Man 2).

But I really don't think they'd have made those mistakes again. Everything I've seen looks good - I'm betting this will be one of the summer's standout blockbusters.


July 14
War for the Planet of the Apes
Projected Tomatometer: 80%
What I'm Looking For: 70% or higher
Random Prediction: Andy Serkis will, once again, be snubbed at the Oscars.

I'm being cautious with that prediction - Dawn scored a solid 90% with the same director. But I suspect critics will be a little stricter this time around: if the movie isn't appreciably better, they'll likely rate it lower. And, honestly, I'm not convinced this franchise could get much better. That's not a slight against the premise; it's a compliment to the last installment. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was absolutely fantastic.

Whether it's better or not, I'm really looking forward to this. I'm a fan for talking apes in almost any capacity (there was a time a younger, naive version of me spoke favorably of Tim Burton's botched attempt).

I was shocked when Rise came out and was actually good, and even more so when Dawn exceeded it. I'd love to be surprised a third time, but I'm not getting my hopes up quite that high: like I said, Dawn sets a really high bar.


July 21
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Projected Tomatometer: 35%
What I'm Looking For: Forget the average - I'll be looking for a handful of glowing recommendations.
Random Prediction: The first two-thirds will be fun, then it will fall apart in the third act.

Luc Besson's filmography looks like a scattershot of random scores, and as often as not I think the critics are nuts. I remember really enjoying The Messenger (30%), while I found The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec (83%) more than a little disappointing (though still enjoyable).

I'm not turning to his past for my prediction: rather, I'm looking at the brutally unfair 26% slapped on the Wachowski sisters' fascinating SF romance, Jupiter Ascending. Granted, that was a flawed film, but what a ride.

The trailers for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets remind me of that, even more than they remind me of The Fifth Element. The unbridled, unapologetic SF/fantasy on display is just beautiful. I'm hoping this delivers a similar degree of weird-ass excitement.

I'm sure I'll go see it if it's critically acclaimed, but a low score - even if it's below 20% - won't be a deal breaker. What I'll really be looking for are critics, even if they're a small minority, who just love the hell out of this film. We saw that with Jupiter Ascending, Speed Racer, Chronicles of Riddick, and Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters - all wonderful films that deviated from the norm.

That's what I'm hoping for with this one, something weird and imaginative.


July 28
The Dark Tower
Projected Tomatometer: 60%
What I'm Looking For: A trailer, for starters. 60% if visually interesting; 90% if not
Random Prediction: This gets moved to a later date

Annual release schedule's a wheel, do ya ken? Summer comes round, and with it the movies. But there's other plans than this, and other times this might be released.

Sorry. I'll stop now.

The Dark Tower is a massive story with a lot of potential for adaptation. Only if the rumors are true, this isn't technically an adaptation, but instead a continuation of the story from the books. Well, it's sort of both, but... if you've read the books, just know that Roland's supposedly carrying the Horn of Eld at the start of the movie.

So, that's cool.

Also, Elba is a damned good pick for Roland, and the movie poster looks like unofficial fan art. No, no - that's good, too. Fan art is almost always better than the cookie-cutter Hollywood posters getting churned out.

What has me a little concerned is the budget - $60 million is certainly nothing to sneeze at, but it's going to limit just how much they can squeeze in. This is Steven King's epic - I'd love to see it budgeted accordingly.

We've yet to see a trailer, which has me a little skeptical this is going to materialize this summer. I half expect it will get pulled at the last minute and released in the fall or next spring. But that's just a guess, as is the projected Tomatometer and my own expectations - until we get a trailer, I honestly have no idea what to think.


Atomic Blonde
Projected Tomatometer: Currently at 71%
What I'm Looking For: Good recommendations from people with similar opinions
Random Prediction: This will be way better than Spectre

Okay, that Spectre jab was a low blow, but what's 007 going to do about it? Let me torture him, stop me from destroying London, then NOT KILL ME because after more than 50 years of making movies he suddenly decides that killing is wrong?

Basically, Bond's era is over. Oh, I'm sure there'll be more movies, but after the tedious mess that was Spectre, I honestly don't think I care.

The trailer for Atomic Blonde, on the other hand, I love - it's everything a James Bond movie should be and isn't: a period film, unafraid to be violent, stylish, and starring Charlize Theron, who is arguably the most promising star in Hollywood.

Okay, okay. I probably misstated that last part. Theron is unarguably the most promising star in Hollywood.

There. That checks out.

The only thing that has me a little worried are the reviews. They're certainly not bad, but they're not as glowingly positive as I'd expect after watching the trailer. Worse, they imply the movie is too slow, save for a handful of cool sequences. It's not hard to wonder if those sequences might comprise the trailer.

Let's hope that's not the case. Theron deserves a major franchise, and the world deserves a decent set of spy movies.


Summary
Huh. I guess that's it.

To be fair, August is still something of an unknown. My guess is several big movies will get dropped in that month that either haven't been announced or aren't things I recognize. Something called "The Hitman's Bodyguard" is opening on August the 18th - it's labeled action/comedy and includes some big names. But I don't see a trailer, so I have no clue if it's worth including.

I'm also being a little more selective in what I discuss. I've omitted Captain Underpants and The Nut Job 2. In the past, I've included most animated features in the off chance they turned out to be relevant... but that hardly ever happens unexpectedly.

But overall... not a lot compared with prior years. I think we're seeing the aftereffects of a year-round blockbuster season, along with studios cutting back on things like Tarzan and the BFG. That's probably for the best.

Here's the final breakdown for how I expect my summer to look:

Movies I will Almost Certainly See, Good or Bad:
Spider-Man Homecoming
Guardians of the Galaxy
Wonder Woman

Movie's I'm Anticipating Seeing, but I'll Lose Interest if the Reviews are Poor:
Baby Driver
Atomic Blonde
War for the Planet of the Apes
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Wild Cards:
The Dark Tower
Cars 3
King Arthur Legend of the Sword

As for everything else, I really doubt I'll bother.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Kong: Skull Island


In some ways, the 2005 Peter Jackson King Kong is a more impressive movie than this is. I don't know that there's anything in Skull Island, for example, that can compete with the T-Rex fight in terms of sheer madcap awesomeness. Likewise, the ravine sequence from Jackson's movie was absolutely brilliant.

But.

Pull those scenes out of Jackson's Kong, and you're not left with much. It was a movie with some absolutely amazing moments, but the whole thing was just a love letter to the original, which it basically  apes  duplicates.

Skull Island is no less of a love letter, but unlike the 2005 or 1976 versions, it makes the very wise choice to reboot Kong without remaking it. In addition to leaving the door open for sequels, this also gives the filmmakers a chance to explore Skull Island anew, without being limited to the same old story we've seen several times.

This still echos moments and relationships we've seen before, but nothing's quite the same. There are no shortage of homages, references, and Easter eggs you can spot - like I said, it's still a love letter - but don't expect a third act trip to Broadway.

Also - and I don't think this counts as a spoiler at this point - there are some fun tie-ins to the shared universe this is part of. You can catch a little of that in the trailer: when John Goodman talks about nuclear "tests" during World War II secretly targeting a giant monster, he's not talking about Kong. Monarch, the secret government agency introduced in 2014's Godzilla, gets a SHIELD-style role in this, too. Or, perhaps more accurately an Agent Carter-style role. Kong is set in the 70's.

Like Godzilla, this does a much better job putting giant monsters on the screen than it does making us care about its human characters. Also like Godzilla, I honestly can't imagine anyone complaining about that. I'll quote the only line from my review of that movie worth repeating: "When the critical consensus of your giant monster movie is that the humans are boring, it means you've probably made a good giant monster movie." That holds just as true here.

And, if we're being perfectly honest, Skull Island does a far better job with its humans than Godzilla. The characters are no less cliche than in the last movie, but - by virtue of being adventurers instead of soldiers fighting for humanity's survival - they're far less obnoxious. I don't think the director, Jordan Vogt-Roberts, succeeded in making them fun and compelling, but they fill the time between the monster-on-monster violence we paid to see.

This is also another advantage Skull Island has over Jackson's attempt. Skull Island is occasionally stupid, but it's never tedious. I hope I'm not being too harsh - I actually like the 2005 movie quite a bit - but this avoids quite a few pitfalls and missteps that movie made. And if we're being honest, you could cut an hour out of Peter Jackson's Kong without losing anything of value.

In addition, Skull Island actually pulls off a few genuinely surprising twists. But its real joys are in the island itself: the strange creatures (including some wonderful innocuous wildlife), its scenic geography, and of course its awesome king.

This isn't the best Kong movie ever made (obviously - that honor will be forever held by the original). And, in some ways, it's not even the best modern one. For all Jackson's faults, he delivered a complex and fascinating picture. But this is the Kong movie the franchise needs: something fun that can be built upon. By not setting out to make a masterpiece, Vogt-Roberts was able to add just a little to the mythos.

Also, a giant ape punches the hell out of some lizard-things. This is a wonderful movie.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Movie Review: Logan


There's no question Logan is a great superhero movie. That said, I can't sign on with the critics calling it the greatest of all time. In fact, it's not my favorite of the Wolverine movies.

Yet.

The "yet" is important, because it's easily the best Wolverine movie to be released theatrically. In my personal opinion, it falls just shy of the extended version of its predecessor, The Wolverine, also directed by James Mangold. If Logan gets a similar director's cut, I may well reconsider, since most of my issues with the film stem from the fact it's too short. That may seem odd - Logan is already more than two hours long, and it features what may be the most deliberately slow pace we've ever seen in a big budget superhero production, but there's something missing here.

The movie's break-out star is Laura, a young mutant who gets adopted by Xavier and Logan. She gets plenty of screen time and some absolutely amazing moments, which is more than sufficient to make her a phenomenal addition to the film. But we don't really get enough to have a grasp on her personality or - more importantly - her relationship with Logan. Given that the second half of the movie is ostensibly built around that relationship, this omission undercuts the emotional resolution of the film. I left the theater without really buying her arc, which is unfortunate.

On the other hand, I also left hyped up on how bad-ass the fights were and blown away by the movie's cinematography, character acting, pacing, and tone. It's a well-made, unapologetically grim and violent near-future dystopian superhero western: how the hell does this even exist?

With a little tweaking, though, it could have been a masterpiece. Without that, it's just great. Only awesome. Nothing more.

Keep in mind the theatrical release of The Wolverine had a similar issue. Logan's relationship with Mariko was underdeveloped until the extended cut, at which point it became a much stronger picture. I'm keeping my fingers crossed there's a similar version of Logan in the works: I'd love to see it.

Even if that never materializes, this is already a fantastic - and bizarre - movie that flies in the face of conventional studio wisdom. It defies attempts to place it logically in continuity to a degree that has to be intentional. The original X-Men and Origins: Wolverine are referenced, but nothing else quite snaps together (not even The Wolverine - Logan lost his metal claws at the end of that one, but he's certainly got them here). You get the feeling that's how the director wanted it: this is a stand-alone movie that exploits seventeen years worth of character development but isn't beholden to time travel, soft reboots, or anything else. You won't catch me complaining: I love superhero worlds with or without continuity.

Ultimately, Mangold has delivered a superhero western to follow up his superhero samurai movie: the two compliment each other nicely. Logan is a great send-off for Jackman and Stewart that's absolutely worth catching in the theater (as long as you leave the kids at home - this is easily the most violent superhero movie since Watchmen).

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Movie Review: The LEGO Batman Movie


The LEGO Batman Movie opens with a sequence of jokes I found absolutely hilarious - just great. Likewise, the next twenty minutes or so were a lot of fun, even if it did start to feel like an extended version of its trailer.

The rest of the movie wasn't quite as good, but it was definitely solid. It was funny, enjoyable entertainment, essentially a parody version of Batman that managed to incorporate enough of his character and world to still feel quintessentially like Batman. Tons of references to the character's history permeate the movie, allowing them to lampoon what makes Batman silly while honoring the character's core. Hell, half the time, they lampoon the core and celebrate the silly: that's fun, too.

Except... we've already gotten this. Actually, we've gotten it a few times over. Batman: Brave and the Bold explored the whimsy of Gold and Silver-Age Batman, even as it allowed breathing room to push the envelope into darker territory. And the unofficial homage, Holy Musical, Batman went in an even more absurd direction. Hell, Holy Musical could arguably be the wellspring of both this AND Batman v Superman.

If you're wondering if there's overlap, the answer is absolutely. Brave and the Bold approached Batman's rogue's gallery with a similar sense of humor, beating LEGO to characters like Crazy Quilt and King Tut. Meanwhile, Holy Musical's characterization of Batman and Robin were essentially identical to that of The LEGO Batman Movie: Batman is an emotionally immature man-child, while Robin is a spastic kid starving for approval. Plus, the basic premise is the same - it's about Batman becoming part of a family again (also his arc in Holy Musical and arguably Batman v Superman).

Strip these elements away, and the only thing this movie is really offering are LEGO's. And that's a pretty big problem. Because, unlike The LEGO Movie this spun off of, there's no thematic justification for everything being made of building blocks. Sure, there are a few jokes and a forced metaphor at the end, but you could rewrite a couple scenes, alter some jokes, and use this same script in a conventional animated Batman spoof. 90% of the jokes and scenes would work just as well. Some might even work better.

Unlike its predecessor, this doesn't transcend being a toy commercial. For what it's worth, this is a pretty great toy commercial, but don't expect more.

If you haven't seen Brave and the Bold and/or Holy Musical, I suspect The LEGO Batman Movie will feel much more fresh. But, honestly, I'd recommend tracking those down first - they're both more interesting, more original, and more nuanced.

Despite those reservations, this is still fun. It's worth seeing at some point... but maybe not on the big screen.

Friday, December 30, 2016

2016 Movies Revisited


Every year I set aside my sense of individuality to conform with the masses and create a generic wrap-up list.

This year's count is longer than it's been in a while, with the caveat it should really be even longer. I really wanted to see Arrival, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and La La Land, at the very least. But with everything else going on, I ran out of time.

As always, I'm going through every new movie I saw, starting with my least favorite and working my way to the movie I liked best.

19. Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice
This movie didn't need to be great. It didn't need to be good. All this had to be was fun. Instead, Zack Snyder peppered this with cheap reference shots and inane themes. The characters yell and glare at each other, but the actual fight is boring.

And then there's the resolution. I'm not talking about the pair of coffins, one holding Superman's supposedly dead body and the other containing our hopes for a decent Justice League movie; I mean the resolution to the title fight, when Batman forms a connection to Superman due to a hilarious oversight from seventy-five years ago when lazy writing caused the two characters' mothers to share the same name.

This wasn't just bad - it was astonishingly bad, boring, and idiotic. It's rare for a superhero movie to actually make me angry. Dark Knight Rises pulled it off, but this makes me want to apologize to Christopher Nolan for my harsh review. Hell, this makes me want to apologize to Joel Schumacher. At least they tried.

Sure, Wonder Woman was really cool, but more or less everything else about this movie failed completely. It's the only thing I saw this year that felt empty and pointless. Unless you consider the extended cut to be a separate film - that was even worse.


18. Warcraft
This has to be one of the biggest budget B-movies ever made. It's schlock fantasy, complete with melodrama, magic, and simplistic life lessons. The moral of this is basically the same as (but significantly less nuanced than) the average episode of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (on a related note, Twilight Sparkle and friends would have wrecked the Horde).

But it was kind of fun. Plus, the movie's zany, non-traditional structure was a little refreshing. It's nice to watch a movie without knowing what's going to happen (unless you're a fan of the game - I guess those people had a different experience).

I'm glad to see fantasy getting more exposure on screen, even if it's less than stellar. The magic was interesting, the costumes were fun, and the orcs were cool: that counts for something.


17. Kung Fu Panda 3
It's always hard with movies like this. There were so many things I loved about Kung Fu Panda 3 and only one thing I didn't. I loved the vibrant designs, the gorgeous action, and the beautiful animation. I thought most of the jokes were funny, and the characters remained engaging.

If it hadn't been part of this series - if this were a standalone movie that was this good - I'd have placed it much higher. But I said in my review I had no interest in being fair. I simply love part two too much to be happy with what's ultimately a mediocre sequel.

If they do make a fourth, I hope they stop one-upping the mystical destiny shtick. I hope they build up their side characters more, maybe even do a spin off with the Furious Five or just Tigress instead of having Po be the star of another cheap power fantasy. This world has incredible potential, as does Po, provided they stop upping his power-level by orders of magnitude Dragon Ball Z style.

It's not that this is bad, just that it feels like such a wasted opportunity.


16. Pete's Dragon
I liked this movie a lot, but it took some effort. I tried to love it, and there were portions when I succeeded. But it's telling I had to put in the work: the movie didn't win me over on its own.

It's not a bad flick - it's pretty solid, all things considered. It'll do for the next generation what the original did for mine: offer relatively inoffensive entertainment to kids. It's a good kid's movie, and in other years, that might have bought it a higher spot on this list.

But the world isn't starved for family movies. I can think of a half-dozen movies that are light years better than this, at least four of which were also made by Disney and released this year.

This was a good movie; on DVD, it'll probably be really good, especially if you're only half paying attention. It's one of those movies. But it's not Inside-Out, Finding Dory, The Jungle Book, or Zootopia.

Or, if you want to stay focused on the same age bracket, it's no Paddington. Kid's entertainment isn't second rate anymore: things like this don't get a pass the way they used to.


15. The Nice Guys
Shane Black doesn't exactly leave his comfort zone for the The Nice Guys. The good news is that it's a good comfort zone. The bad news is that we've basically seen this movie before. Lethal Weapon was released almost thirty years ago, and - as much as I love a good comedy noir - what I really want is for Shane Black to expand his range.

All that said, there's so much to like here - the comedy is topnotch, the characters are well developed, and the setting is fantastic - that it's easy to set aside any issues with redundancy. Crowe and Gosling work amazingly well together, and the supporting cast is wonderful.


14. X-Men: Apocalypse
Cards on the table - this movie is benefiting heavily from both lowered expectations and from the ranking system powering this list. If I were basing this on the best movies, it would be quite a bit lower. Because this movie is a complete and total mess.

But you know what else was a complete and total mess? Every iconic and important run of X-Men from the comics. Those stories were jumbles of conflicting ideas and non sequiturs. And that's okay - the X-Men have always been at their best when their stories were about throwing everything under the sun into a blender and mixing it all up.

And this was no exception. I was annoyed with the unnecessary sidetracks rehashing Magneto's past. And Mystique may have just overtaken Wolverine as the most overused character in the movie franchise. But who the hell cares? This finally started embracing its comic book origins and delivering on the promise of big-scale adventure. I had a lot of fun with it.


13. Suicide Squad
It took them long enough, but Warner Brothers finally produced a movie set firmly in a passable version of the DCU. Now they just have to figure out how to produce good movies, and they'll be set.

I kid, but Suicide Squad, despite its dismal Tomatometer, was pure fun. The movie was quirky, and its leads were great, with Margot Robbie's pitch-perfect Harley Quinn leading the pack. The movie might suffer from comparisons to the far superior Deadpool, but she doesn't: her take is no less inspired or true to the character's roots than Reynolds's.

If they'd done nearly as good a job with the Joker, this would be even higher on the list. But Leto's disappointing turn, coupled with some poor editing and several lifeless scenes, hold it back. I don't mind the weirdly convoluted plot or the scores of superfluous characters (in fact, I consider those a plus). But, while this was a far better experience than I anticipated, it had some major faults.

But for a DC movie, that's a massive step forward.


12. Ghostbusters
I almost want to put this a little higher, because I appreciate the concept and execution so much. But, at the end of the day, I loved the existence of the movie but only liked the experience (well, except for McKinnon's Holtzmann, who basically walked onto the screen and plucked the "history's greatest Ghostbuster" award right out of Bill Murray's hands).

I still maintain the aspects I didn't love weren't calibrated for me to love: this movie was painstakingly constructed to appeal first and foremost to a female audience in a way few other blockbusters do. It knocked that out of the park, and I applaud Feig for pulling that off.

This wasn't my favorite movie of 2016, but I think it was one of the most important. This one's going to inspire generations of young geeks. And I'm not giving up hope for a sequel.


11. Kubo and the Two Strings
I'm extremely torn on this. I loved how this movie looked, and the witches rank among my all-time favorite animated antagonists (honestly, you don't even need to qualify that with "animated"). I loved how scary it became and how energized the fights were.

But I couldn't fully immerse myself in this because of the comic relief and a few missed opportunities (the big one being Kubo's lack of reflection immediately after his mother died - I'm assuming they were worried it would get too dark if they dwelled on that).

Elements of this rank among the best of the genre, but taken as a whole, I was much more lukewarm on it, at least after a single viewing. All that said, I felt the same way about several movies that have grown to become favorites - I can easily see this getting better over time as the flaws fade. But, for now, I feel like this is where Kubo belongs.


10. Deadpool
It's hard not to love a movie that was made with this much love. It took a decade for this to get through development, and it only made it after some test footage was leaked online. But damn if it wasn't worth the wait.

Between some fantastic writing and a cast who embraced the concept wholeheartedly, they found just the right recipe to bring the anti-hero to the big screen, and - I can only hope - to revive the film franchise he's part of.


9. Star Trek Beyond
Before this came out, my honest hope was that it would do a decent job ending the series. I liked the 2009 reboot and enjoyed Into Darkness despite it's problems, but the return of Star Wars kind of made the new Trek feel redundant. The franchise was too far removed from its own roots, and it was hard to get excited about a fake Star Wars now that the real thing was here.

After seeing Justin Lin's take, I want more. I want more of this crew, this director, and these writers. Because, while this wasn't a perfect movie, it was a great one. And, more importantly, it distinguished itself from the competition by playing up the camaraderie between the crew. These people are connected; together, they can accomplish incredible things.

The sequence where they piece together how the enemy fleet operates, along with how they could dismantle it, is one of the most high energy scenes of the year. It's exciting and riveting... despite the fact it's just a bunch of scientists and engineers analyzing a situation. You know what? Strike that: BECAUSE it's scientists and engineers analyzing a situation.

Yeah, the cinematography wasn't on par with the previous two installments. And, sure, there were a few minor continuity issues and logical leaps. But who the hell cares? We got to see the crew of the Enterprise in action, working together, cementing bonds, and saving millions. I absolutely loved this movie.


8. Doctor Strange
It might not be as good as Captain America: Civil War, but that had nine earlier films feeding into it, while Strange had none. This is at least my favorite "new character" comic movie since Guardians (and, honestly, this might have edged that out). It expanded the Marvel Universe in directions that have been ignored far too long. Comics have always been a blend of SF, fantasy, and pulp; the "fantasy" aspect has been somewhat neglected (even Thor's been spun in a bit too much of a science-fiction direction. This corrects course. While there's still a somewhat rationalized edge to the spells, it's unquestionably magic, and that's a breath of fresh air.

Add in the effects, and you'd already have a hell of a fun film. But this also offered some great acting (I was skeptical of Cumberbatch's casting, but he was a perfect choice), and - even if the critics might dispute this - some great writing. The dialogue was funny and engrossing, and the twists - mainly courtesy of Strange's "creative" solutions - were a huge departure from the same old tired resolutions ("punch it until it falls" and/or "distract it and activate the McGuffin").

This felt different in all the right ways. I loved it.


7. Finding Dory
It's a little hard to settle on a spot for Finding Dory. The movie is subtle, intelligent, and astonishingly fun. The one thing stacked against it is that it's not all that ambitious a production. But, frankly, that's the brilliance of the thing: instead of remaking Finding Nemo with a shuffled cast, they took a character and re-contextualized the setting, premise, and even the title around her, and in the process managed to tell a very different kind of story. Where Nemo was epic, Dory's is a personal story, about a beautiful mind finding itself and achieving peace. It's the kind of spin on franchise entertainment you'd never expect, and it's exactly why the movie succeeds.


6. Moana
I just barely squeezed this one in yesterday. By my count, this is the sixth consecutive Disney princess movie that's fundamentally about not being a Disney princess movie (I'm counting Enchanted and Brave, for those of you playing along at home). If the 90's represented Disney's revival and the codification of the Disney Princess, this is the franchise's postmodern phase.

It's a fantastic movie through and through, thanks to a depth of mythology, great songs, stunning visuals, and wonderful characters. It's a worthy addition to Disney's lineup.


5. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
The Force Awakens topped my list for 2015 (though it actually would have come in second if I'd seen Paddington in time), while this doesn't fare quite as well. That's not actually because it's an inferior movie - I think there are compelling arguments it may be as good or better. But this isn't a contest of quality; it's an exercise in preference.

And while I love Rogue One, it didn't move me the way Force Awakens did. Ironically, the thing I loved most about Force Awakens is what I was most happy they omitted this time around: its mythic nature.

If you think it sounds like I'm being unfair, rest assured I agree. Rogue One is almost exactly the movie I wanted it to be: a relatively grounded story set in the Star Wars universe but with a strikingly different tone, direction, and even genre. It serves to build up the setting, even though that means the movie itself is a tad less engaging by design.

This is a Star Wars movie that wasn't supposed to be the biggest, most exciting movie of the year - it was more interested in expansive world-building and developing the property. I wish more franchises would learn to do this every now and then. It gives them a little contrast to play with to make the big, epic installments feel that much cooler.


4. Captain America Civil War
Civil War took characters we've been following for years and turned them against each other without sacrificing their rationality. It managed to handle twelve characters without making a single one feel obsolete. It reintroduced Spider-Man in a way that left me certain he was being played by Peter Parker, not Tom Holland. It finally gave us Black Panther, faked us out into thinking they were going to misuse the character, only for them to complete a movie-long character arc culminating in him becoming precisely the hero he should be.

And, after two and half hours of seeing them fight, all I wanted was more. The airport fight goes on a very short list of absolutely perfect superhero movie scenes.

There have been years this would easily have topped my list. But 2016 was a hell of a good year for cinema.


3. The Jungle Book
Like Avatar, The Jungle Book managed to build a realistic world almost from scratch. Unlike Avatar, it did so in a movie containing complex characters and strong writing. Besides the integration of the effects, the real feat here was how skillfully Favreau managed to combine different genres and tones into a satisfying package. The comedy is hilarious, the adventure exhilarating, and the horror is scary. But, despite all that, you never feel like anything's out of place. This is woven together, not tossed in a pile, and the effort shows.


2. Zootopia
It's not unheard of for animation to tackle serious issues like racism, but you'd be hard pressed to find an example of anything that managed the topic nearly as well as Zootopia. Rather than offering platitudes or simple solutions, this movie used a familiar cartoon trope - a city of diverse anthropomorphic animals - to confront multiple facets of the problem, even going so far as to use an underdog story to make us unwittingly root for the wrong side before allowing us to see a broader picture. The moment when Judy, realizing the damage she's been complicit in, hands over her badge rather than bring more harm to the marginalized inhabitants of the city is heartbreaking.

It's the kind of movie where context transforms huge swaths of the movie retroactively. There are sequences that initially come off as encouraging, optimistic, and genuine, only to feel chillingly regressive in retrospect.

It's a fantastic achievement in writing and animation.


1. The Little Prince
I found this movie deeply engrossing and moving. Maybe it helps that I've never read the source material, so the turns of that story alone caught me off guard. Alternatively, maybe it was the peculiar blend of genres that produced a unique dystopian fairy tale.

Whatever the reason, I love this movie. The visuals pulled me in, and the deliberate pace won me over.

Sure, elements were a tad heavy-handed, particularly in its unsubtle portrayal of the "adult world." But then again, it's difficult to challenge the movie's verdict, given that even the absurdist, over-the-top rendering of its cartoon villain was still more three-dimensional than the soulless Paramount executive who decided to pull this from wide release.

Seriously. Who the hell watches a movie like this and decides there's no point putting it in theaters?


Closing Thoughts
This was a great year for geeky movies - possibly one of the best in my lifetime. It says something that the cutoff for movies I absolutely loved was at ten - that's pretty astonishing. Everything at seven and above I at least had to consider whether it deserved the top spot - this was very close.

I also want to draw attention to fact that seven of my top ten (actually, seven of my top eight) were made by Disney. While the rest of the industry is stagnating, Disney gets better and better. While they still have some issues with formulaic writing (though even this seems to be improving) they're by far the most consistent company out there. Especially compared to WB - their only real competitor, based on franchise rights - Disney's name denotes actual quality.

If you think that's just me being some sort of fanboy, go check out the average score on Rotten Tomatoes for Disney's films versus other studios. Or take a look at box office returns. No matter the metric you choose, it's becoming increasingly clear that they've built a substantial lead. And unless WB stops making films like Batman V Superman, that isn't going to change anytime soon.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Movie Review: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story


Note: I'm going to refrain from spoiling what I consider the movie's significant points, but what you consider a spoiler could differ greatly. If you haven't seen Rogue One and want to watch it untainted, now would be a good time to stop reading.

The original Star Wars opens in medias res with the implication that there was a chapter just beforehand culminating in Vader hunting down Leia's ship. The opening scroll crawl was basically lifted from Flash Gordon - it was supposed to deliver the sensation of picking up a serial mid-story, implying a vast universe of context and depth to the setting.

I'd argue Lucas made a strategic mistake when he retroactively numbered the movies. Sure, starting with Episode IV gave him the option of going back and producing a few prequels, but the larger concept was lost in the shuffle. The crawl to each movie starts in the middle of a cliffhanger that's implied to have closed the last installment, even when that installment never existed. Specifying Empire immediately follows Jedi, for example, glosses over the implied events that took place between movies, even while the movies themselves allude to ongoing serialized adventures.

Either numbering them in the hundreds with a jump between films or skipping the numbers altogether (as they did in The Clone Wars animated series) would have been a more faithful tribute to the pulp tradition, and it would have left them in a better position to open Rogue One correctly.

Because, for the first time in a Star Wars movie, we're actually seeing a real "prior installment." This takes place directly before A New Hope, and - as a result - the missing crawl feels like a missed opportunity.

If this seems like an exceptionally nerdy way to start a review, rest assured that Rogue One is an exceptionally nerdy film, even for Star Wars. The movie drops bits of lore into casual conversations, referencing minutiae about weapons and vehicles. You'll be able to understand the movie without a background in this stuff, but if you don't know what a T-16 is, you'll probably wonder why all the nerds start chuckling.

Oh, also Rogue One is an absolutely brilliant, kick-ass entry into the series. Maybe I should have opened with that.

Setting the movie directly before A New Hope means, among other things, no Jedi appear in the picture. While that does severely limit the lightsaber combat we get to enjoy, it also means the filmmakers are finally free of the burden of the mystical side of Star Wars. That's still in here, largely thanks to Donnie Yen's character, but it's no longer the central point of the movie. In other words, they finally get to do something other than rehash The Hero's Journey.

This is especially fortunate, because there's a vastly unexplored aspect to the Star Wars movies: namely, the "wars" part. The Clone Wars series did a good job with this, but the films have always steered clear of anything resembling a war movie. Until now, that is. At last, we get a taste of a soldier's eye-view of battles on distant worlds. We get a sense of what's at stake when there aren't wizards wielding energy swords there to bail everyone out, and it's extremely refreshing.

For once, we get a little nuance to the heroic rebels and sinister empire narrative we've seen until now. Well... at least we get some nuance to the rebellion - the Empire remains pretty unambiguously evil. But the "good guys" do bad things in this movie. They make mistakes, act out of fear, and even kill innocent people. There are finally shades of grey presented to the conflict.

The cast is terrific, and the new characters are fantastic additions to the series. It's hard to pick favorites, but K-2SO was absolutely wonderful as a very different droid than the ones we're used to. In addition, Yen's Chirrut Îmwe stood out as the closest thing they had to a Jedi.

The movie's weak points mostly show up when it lets nostalgia get the better of it. Some of the new Vader stuff is cool, but there was something off about his outfit. Also - and it seriously pains me to type this - they could have found a better voice actor. James Earl Jones sounds very different today than he did four decades ago, and it's jarring. Not as jarring as the CG-recreated Tarkin, though - they either needed to put in more time and effort or find another way to recreate him (or, hell, only shoot him reflected in glass windows - those shots were fine).

Likewise, the movie should have skipped the big space battle at the end and resolved everything on ground level. The X-Wings were cool when they showed up mid-film, but the giant space battle felt out of place and a touch redundant.

Those are minor issues, though - overall, this was a fantastic genre film that expanded the Star Wars universe and hopefully opened the door for them to explore other sub-genres and different types of stories. There's room in that setting for spy movies, horror, gangster flicks, love stories, giant monster movies, and just about anything else you can think of - I'd watch them all.

But for now, this was a really, really good start. It's nice to finally have a Star Wars prequel worth watching.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Movie Review: Doctor Strange


The consensus on Rotten Tomatoes seems to be that Doctor Strange's awesome visual effects make up for a formulaic script - that the movie's cooler than it is good. I completely agree with the first half, that the movie is gorgeous and fascinating to behold. But frankly, I think critics are being too harsh on the script, which offers some incredibly satisfying twists and deviations from the typical superhero origin story.

That's not to say it's unrecognizable as a Marvel origin, nor that it doesn't have its share of familiar story beats. But that's really more a critique of Strange's creators, Steve Ditko and Stan Lee: for better or worse, there are a lot of repeated themes and concepts in 1960's Marvel heroes. Sure, Doctor Strange and Tony Stark are both arrogant geniuses who sustain life-altering injuries that lead them down a path to becoming heroes. And, yes, they've even got similar facial hair.

I don't begrudge critics - particularly those who weren't prepared for these commonalities - from maybe tuning out a bit at this point and writing the story off as generic comic book nonsense and enjoying the eye candy. But if you peer a little closer, you might notice some fairly big differences.

While Tony Stark started out as a weapons inventor, Doctor Strange was a surgeon, and both his outlook and strategies proceed from that origin. It's difficult to overstate how his distaste for violence permeates his decisions, even in combat. Simply put, he's not a fighter, even after learning the basics, and that fact alone offers a breath of fresh air.

Go in accepting that there are superficial similarities between Strange and other Marvel heroes, and you'll have an easier time catching the more nuanced shifts in this adaptation. The movie kind of fast-forwards to Doctor Strange's induction into the mystic arts, anyway, at which point it definitely stops feeling like a retread.

Even if you disagree that the writing was solid (at least for big-budget entertainment), I can't imagine not being impressed by the bells and whistles. The magic on display is well thought out, delivering the bizarre surrealism of the comics. Physics become playthings, as does spacial geometry. Forget Inception - that movie's simple games with space and time are tame in comparison.

No less importantly, Marvel has once again dramatically scaled up the scope of their universe. If I have once complaint with Doctor Strange, it's that it felt like it barely teased the richness of this new corner. I want monsters, demons, spirits... all of it. Doctor Strange was fairly limited in its depiction of the denizens of its multiverse, but it certainly feels like the doors are wide open.

I doubt many of you need convincing, but this is absolutely worth a trip to the theater.