Friday, May 15, 2015

Movie Review: Mad Max: Fury Road

It wasn't that long ago I predicted this would fall somewhere around 45% on the Tomatometer, based on the amount of time that's passed between Beyond Thunderdome and this, as well as the ominous mid-May release date. I assume I don't need to tell you the film's more than doubled that with 98%. That's got to be some kind of record: I can't think of another R-rated 3rd sequel to a sci-fi movie which is that universally respected.

The film is, of course, pretty great. A sort of heavy metal return to classic epic filmmaking. A nuanced blend of a cartoonish setting that inexplicably retains more weight and substance than any recent film I can think of. A movie that trusts its leads to build complex characters through quiet reflection while cars blow up and bodies fly.

A film franchise named for and built around a male power fantasy that turns its attention to a female lead and makes us wonder whether Max was even real.

It's about damn time Theron got a chance to headline a science-fiction action movie that wasn't Aeon Flux. Given solid material, she demonstrates that she's in the absolute top-tier of this generation's action stars. Somebody get her a goddamn comic book franchise or something stat. She is badass in this thing, and yet she retains her humanity.

Hardy was pretty good as a stand in for Gibson, though the character's instability felt more forced. Structurally, his role was almost comic-relief, though that's a misleading description tonally. He was more a catalyst than agent, an innovative direction that served the film well.

The remainder of the human cast was comprised of a fascinating and bizarre assortment of mutants, sociopaths, and fanatics. They had some serious competition from the vehicles, though, which deserve equal billing.

Structurally, the film's plot was more constrained. Really, you're watching a sequence that would have taken maybe twenty minutes of an earlier Mad Max movie stretched into two hours. It never once felt long, though: the decompression allowed them to explore the world's depth rather than its breadth. The film never dwells on the religious, political, or cultural ideas it raises, but wisely weaves these throughout the run time. By the time the end credits roll, you have a broad sense of how these people live and what it means, but it's tough to point to individual sequences and credit them with the insight.

It's a beautiful movie full of action, comedy, and thought. Throw Speed Racer into a blender with Conan: The Barbarian and the previous three Mad Max films, and you'll get a sense of what they were going for here, though I don't really think that covers it.

Obviously, you need to see this on the big screen, if for no other reason than to see for yourself how the hell a 70 year-old director returns to the property that made him famous three decades after his last attempt and pulls off a critical response that would make Pixar envious.

In Australia, apparently making a movie like this is what passes for retirement.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Issue with Age of Ultron

At this point, I think there's more or less a consensus on Age of Ultron. As a collection of action sequences and jokes, it was a lot of fun. But as a cohesive story, it falls flat. That was certainly my take, and - based on a quick glance at the blurbs on Rotten Tomatoes - it seems to reflect what most critics thought.

Since I saw the movie, I've been thinking a lot about where it went wrong, and I've come up with a surprising conclusion. The way I see it, the main problem with Age of Ultron wasn't actually in Age of Ultron. I think it started in Iron Man 3.

Age of Ultron was too busy. It had too many characters and plot points to introduce, and it wound up stuffing two movies' worth of content into a single film. The thing is, they had a lot more than two movies to work with. Phase Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe consisted of five movies (six, counting the upcoming Ant-Man), two seasons of Agents of SHIELD, and mini-seasons of Agent Carter and Daredevil.

Building an interconnected world on this scale requires multi-dimensional story telling. A Marvel movie needs to work as a self-contained chapter, as well as a part (or, in the case of Age of Ultron, a culmination) of one or more larger stories. Ideally, Age of Ultron would have worked on at least three different levels: a stand-alone story about established characters, a conclusion to "Phase Two", and the middle chapter of the Infinity War story. Oh, and might as well wrap up an arc encompassing Phase One and Two.

I'd argue it was a better cap to Phases One and Two than two alone, and it didn't really deliver a satisfying self-contained movie. Whether it works as a chapter in the Infinity War Saga remains to be seen, but it certainly seems to have pulled its weight in terms of set-up.

But if they'd played their cards right from the start, I think the studio could have managed it all. They had plenty of space to develop the concepts they wanted to tell without it feeling cramped, but they didn't use their screen time to its fullest.

Iron Man 3 was the biggest missed opportunity. Without changing anything substantial, they could easily have used that film to introduce Ultron as a concept, simply by replacing the small army of AI suits with a small army of AI Ultron units. Change the "House Party" protocol to him activating a swarm of Ultron bots, and you could have set up the concept - and even the character - of Ultron two years before he turned on Tony. The whole Ultron thing wouldn't have felt nearly as rushed, leaving them with more time to expand the twins and Vision.

In their defense, Marvel was making Iron Man 3 before Avengers came out, so they can be forgiven for wanting to hedge their bets on the strengths of their shared universe. The first movie that started production after Avengers's success was Winter Soldier, the one movie in Phase Two that integrated qualities of both the shared universe and stand-alone movies. Based on what we've heard about Phase Three, Winter Soldier is probably going to be the template for stand-alones based off of established Avengers characters.

There was another missed opportunity, and that revolves around Agents of SHIELD. After a rough first season, the series has hit its stride. The episodes are pretty consistently fun, the characters are strong, and the writing is sharp.

This is a good show, but it's kind of wasted. I can understand why Disney didn't want them giving away the Hydra reveal before Winter Soldier came out, but for the life of me I can't fathom why Baron Strucker wasn't the season 2 villain. His bit part in Age of Ultron could have carried some weight if he'd been used in the show. Instead, he came off as an Easter Egg.

There's a lot of potential in Agents of SHIELD: the team clearly has the talent to turn out great work. Marvel should let them play a bigger part in the connected universe.

Phase Three's in a good place, even with the issues at the end of Phase Two. This is all new territory for film, and Marvel is still ahead of the curve. I just hope they learn from their mistakes, because they've certainly made a few.

Movie Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron

There are a couple different ways to look at Age of Ultron: as a movie and as an event. As an event, it was absolutely awesome. Dozens of fight sequences as good as anything we've gotten before, interspersed with snappy dialogue and some of the best new characters we've gotten in a while.

All in all, a fun time for everyone.

Things get a little more complicated if we look at it as a movie. It's still a good movie, mind you. In some ways, it's even a great one.

But the first Avengers was more than a great movie. In decade or so, no one's going to understand why it didn't win best picture; why it wasn't even nominated. They won't understand how critics were so fixated on a specific style of a specific kind of movie that they couldn't realize someone had just elevated an action/comedy to near perfection.

Age of Ultron doesn't hit the same levels, at least not across the board. Its main issue is with pace: simply put, the movie feels rushed. Characters are introduced at breakneck speeds, emotional arcs are shoehorned into unrelated plot points, and complex elements go unexplained. The tone is also wildly uneven: the dark middle clashes with the vibrant start and ending.

I loved this movie, but it's abundantly clear it should have been two films, not one. We needed to build up the twins as characters. We needed to delve into the Avengers as a team, both in terms of what worked and where they clashed. Instead, these ideas were pushed together: the team's internal problems were literally manufactured by the Scarlet Witch's magic. That saves time, but doesn't exactly set us up for a satisfying payoff.

Rumor has it there's an extended edition coming to DVD. Maybe that will correct some of the issues.

Fortunately, those issues don't cancel out the movie's many merits. Everyone's back from part one, of course, but the new faces are even better. Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch are awesome, but even they can't compete with Vision, who in turn is only the movie's second best character. First place, of course, belongs to Ultron.

The studio might have pushed the director into shoehorning in plot points, but Ultron dialogue is Whedon at his best. The character is menacing, but he's also playful, jubilant, and - for an evil robot bent on exterminating the human race - astonishingly likable.

More importantly, while there's a price to be paid by rapidly building up a universe, there's a benefit, as well. All those toys are in play now. We've got new heroes and a much more interesting world.

Ultimately, this one ranks as my fourth or fifth favorite Marvel movie. It's a hell of a lot of fun, but I can't seriously claim it's as good as either Winter Soldier or Guardians of the Galaxy, let alone the original Avengers.

But it's definitely worth checking out in the theater. Though that should really go without saying.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Futures Market: Summer 2015

What does the future hold? This question, in one form or another, has existed since the beginning of time. And the answer has always been the same: the future holds movies. Sure, for the vast majority of the time the Universe has been in existence, it only held movies in the distant, distant future, and almost certainly in only an insignificantly small fraction of that future - a fraction that grows smaller with each passing moment - but for the time being, it's still true.

I'd like you to keep that in mind while you peruse the following list, which represents an annual tradition here in the Middle Room. And why do I want you to focus on this trivial existential concept? The answer is simplicity itself: to distract you from my "predictions," so you're less likely to remember when I'm horribly wrong.

For example, do you remember when I predicted Terminator: Salvation was going to score 80% Fresh back in 2009? Or just last year, when I was so sure the Amazing Spider-Man 2 would score 85%. Or back in 2012 when I thought GI Joe: Retaliation would get 65% and, you know, be released in 2012?

Of course you don't remember any of those things. That just goes to show how well these introductions work. And a good thing, too - it would be humiliating if anyone recalled those guesses.

As always, I'm limiting these to geek movies, minus the horror, which I generally skip. If you're at all confused what constitutes a "geek movie," you'll find no better illustration than the following list. In addition to the movie's release date (pulled from IMDB, if you were wondering), I'm taking a guess at whether the movie will be good or not and letting you know what I'm looking for when deciding whether to see it in theaters.


Avengers: Age of Ultron
Projected Tomatometer: 80%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: NA - See you opening weekend

The movie I'm most excited for is the one I'm most dreading. My expectations for this movie were already beyond the point they could conceivably be met, and that was before the last round of trailers. The first Avengers movie delivered on a scale I hadn't really imagined possible. It was a near-perfect fantasy/science fiction/spy/superhero/action-adventure, not to mention one of the best experiences I've ever had in a movie theater. Almost every critic out there agreed - it's at 92% on Rotten Tomatoes - and it's already transformed genre film making.

How the hell do you follow that up?

Everything we've seen from the sequel - at least in my opinion - looks amazing. And clearly there's no one I'd rather have overseeing it than Whedon. But as excited as I am, I'm also terrified. This one is even more ambitious than the first, which means there are more pitfalls. If they somehow manage to pull this off, the payoffs could be huge, but if it falters at all, it could be a massive disappointment.

Predicting the Tomatometer on this feels like throwing a dart in the dark. My guess is that, even if the movie is as good as its predecessor, critics will probably be a little harder. If it's even a smidgen worse, I suspect they'll be extremely harsh. Of course, if it's miraculously better, it could conceivably be in the 98% range.

I'm saying 80%, because my hopes are already too high. But, deep down, I can't help but wonder.


Pitch Perfect 2
Projected Tomatometer: 55%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: 85%, Good word-of-mouth, assurances we're past the vomit jokes, and for Avengers 2 not to be so good I go see that a second time instead

I only saw Pitch Perfect because of the sequel's trailer: the original flew totally under my radar. Part one was a sort of a musical/slapstick/parody/dramedy hybrid that was surprisingly satisfying. It goes in some interesting directions, committing completely to its desperate elements.

I don't know what to think of the sequel. It has a new director, which is always a toss-up, and it's easy to imagine them retreading a lot of the same material. But the first was such a pleasant surprise, it's certainly worth keeping an eye on.

All that said, I'll almost certainly wait for Netflix if they don't drop the vomit jokes. No judgment if that's your kind of humor, but I'd rather see that on a smaller screen, even when it's clearly fake. Just personal preference.

Mad Max: Fury Road
Projected Tomatometer: 45%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: Great word of mouth

I respect the studio's tenacity in releasing this just two weeks after Avengers: Age of Ultron hits the screen, but I'm not sure it's the most strategically strong maneuver. Mid-May release dates typically portend a lack of faith in a film's US box office potential, particularly when it's on the heels of a major event film. That doesn't always mean something's bad, but it's not exactly a good sign.

Its been a while since Miller made something especially well-received, particularly if you discount his kid-friendly fare. Again, not a good sign, if you're gambling.

In the movie's defense, the trailers look good, and Hardy is a great choice for Max. I'm hoping this is great, but I'm not betting on it.


Projected Tomatometer: 96%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: High 80's Tomatometer and/or good word of mouth

A Tomatometer score of 96% sounds high, but it would actually be about average for Brad Bird. His last movie, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, was his worst reviewed, at a measly 93% positive (though I actually agree with the dissenting votes there).

Ghost Protocol aside, Bird's one of my favorite directors, thanks to his flawless animation resume: Ratatouille, The Incredibles, and Iron Giant are three of the best animated films made in my lifetime. I'm intrigued by the fusion of Wizard of Oz and 80's adventure the trailers are implying. Family films are what he seems to do best, largely thanks to the fact he outright refuses to dumb down the ideas or tone. I can't wait to see what he came up with this time. 

Projected Tomatometer: 78%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: Good word-of-mouth, particularly around tone and genre

Whether I have any interest in seeing this really boils down to whether it's a comedic spy movie or a spoof of spy movies. If it's the latter, then its reviews may impact whether I watch it on Netflix in a few years. If it's the former, however, I might be interested, in part because this is as good a predictor for the Ghostbusters reboot as we're likely to get.

I love spy movies - especially Bond films. It's just that I'm getting sick of Bond. And no, making him American and changing a few letters in his name doesn't change that. Gender-flipping the character's a good start, but it's been done. Casting Melissa McCarthy, on the other hand, sounds like a potentially fresh take.

But here's the catch: I don't really want a movie where she spends the first hour and fifteen minutes as a bumbling idiot, only to suddenly believe in herself in act three. I want this character to be competent and effective. Funny's fine, too, but not if it's her defining trait. Having a lead with a different body type is wasted on cheap humor: it's a chance to develop dramatically different kinds of action scenes than we get 99% of the time.

The 78% is an average of Feig's last two movies. Honestly, I'd rather get a mediocre spy film than a great spoof.


San Andreas
Projected Tomatometer: 42%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: Extremely positive reviews and/or an act of God

This actually has a pretty solid trailer, but until I have reason to do otherwise, I'm inclined to credit that to whoever cut the trailer together. The movie looks to be pretty generic disaster material. This time it's The Rock vs. a big earthquake. Okay, Dwayne Johnson's a solid choice to headline a movie like this, but I still find it difficult to imagine it'll be worth seeing in the theaters. Or, you know, on video.

I'm generously predicting this will get a 42% Tomatometer score, which is the same as the higher of Brad Peyton's two prior films.


Jurassic World
Projected Tomatometer: 78%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: 87% and/or rumors the effects are cool.

Hey, it's a Jurassic Park movie director by the guy who directed Safety Not Guaranteed. I saw that! And... I think I liked it. Maybe? Honestly, I can barely remember the damn thing. It had something to do with reporters and time travel.

The trailers for Jurassic World look fun, but the premise is a waste. We really don't need another movie where a dinosaur theme park goes horribly, predictably wrong. What we need is a movie where dinosaurs reach the mainland. Maybe that's what they're building towards. But if the sequel isn't called Jurassic World War, I'll be pissed.

I've got no idea whether this will be good or not. Trevorrow's a wild card, and one hopes there's a reason this got made, beyond a short term money grab (I'm not an idealist: I'm just hoping they were thinking about the long-term profits possible in a great franchise). The 78% is an average of the last two movies made by the guy who directed Spy. Obviously, that's got no bearing on this, but the number was on my mind and it seemed as good a guess as any.


Inside Out
Projected Tomatometer: 98%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: Pretty much anything above 70%. Or, hell, a decent recommendation or two. A rainy day might be enough.

Personified emotions certainly aren't a new idea, but Pixar's take looks pretty interesting. Also, potentially scarring, based on the last trailer. It looks like they're digitizing depression with the same precision that went into Merida's arrows and Sulley's fur. If they pull this off, it should be a slam-dunk for best animated picture.

And, unless I miss my guess, Pixar will have invested the time, money, and human sacrifices necessary to guarantee this one delivers. The studio has been in a bit of a funk: their last few movies didn't get the accolades or cash they'd hoped for, and it's pretty clear the leadership has taken that to heart. They cancelled a movie mid-production and delayed others, which is why we didn't get anything last year. This is an attempt to correct course and regain their place as the industry leader.

I'm not betting against them. That said, if the reviews aren't solid, and if I don't hear it's worth my money, I'll stay home. I ignored the critics when I went to see Monsters University and kind of regretted it: I might be more careful this time.


Ted 2
Projected Tomatometer: 26%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: Money would be a good start

I still haven't seen Ted, though I did hear it was pretty entertaining. That said, comedies should rarely get sequels in the best of circumstances, and Seth McFarlane is about as far removed from the best of circumstances as you can get. Ted might have gotten 68% Fresh (still nothing to brag about), but his follow-up, A Million Ways to Die in the West, is at 33%.

It's certainly possible that whatever kind of worked in the first one will kind of work again, but it's highly unlikely. If this doesn't get dismissed as a cheap facsimile, I'll be surprised.


Terminator: Genisys
Projected Tomatometer: 70%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: Decent reviews or good recommendations

Most people seem underwhelmed by the trailers for this, but I love them. More specifically, I love the twist around Sarah Connor's back story and status at the start of the movie.

It definitely looks more action-adventure than suspense, but I'm fine with the shift. It's hard to deny this could wind up more like Terminator 3 than 2, but I'm trying to stay optimistic. Still, I'm using that movie as a guess for this one's Tomatometer.


Projected Tomatometer: 67%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: Not likely: I've never even seen the first two movies.

I've heard decent things about the Despicable Me movies (or at least the first one), but I still haven't seen them. I figure I'll get around to them some day, but I'm honestly in no hurry.

This spin-off/prequel looks extremely bizarre. The Minion characters seem to be the most popular, at least among the coveted male 18 - 35 month-old demographic, so it'll likely make some money. The movies' Tomatometer scores had a downward trajectory between parts one and two: 67% continues the slope of that line.


Projected Tomatometer: 73%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: Rotten Tomatoes score of 40% or higher

Ah, Ant-Man. Even before it was filmed, it represented Marvel's studios' first public embarrassment. The movie was originally planned by Edgar Wright, who left over some sort of disagreement. Peyton Reed picked it up and made it extremely quickly, which is all a bit worrying.

If I had to guess, I'd say this will probably be extremely mediocre. I'm not expecting bad, but I'll be surprised if it's anyone's favorite Marvel movie.

That said, it's still a MCU movie, which means we'll likely get some interesting tie-ins to Age of Ultron and who knows what else. Even if it's not great - or even good - I'm expecting it'll be fun, so I'm willing to overlook less than stellar reviews if I have to.

My guess for the movie's Tomatometer is based on Iron Man's 2 score. My gut tells me that's where the critics will settle.

Projected Tomatometer: 60%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: 90% and/or solid recommendations

I don't know what the hell to make of this thing. I can't really tell whether it's trying to feel like a fairy tale, a gritty fantasy, or a jumble of both. It seems to be a prequel to Peter Pan written by people who either don't know or don't care that Barrie already wrote an origin for the character. The 90's Hook movie certainly wasn't good, but at least it respected the world it was set in.

It's also worth noting that in making this an origin story, they're effectively shifting the protagonist from a female to male character, which is a problematic trend. Wendy is actually listed in the credits, which is almost odder, since it really doesn't make sense for her to be there. I guess this is more a reimagining than a prequel. Regardless, it's Neverland with a young Wendy, an origin for Peter where he teams up with James Hook, and - as far as I can tell - no Tinkerbell.

I'd be writing this off entirely if it weren't for the fact Joe Wright is directing. He made Hanna a few years back, and that was pretty good. Still, I don't have a lot of confidence in this project. There are few things I'd be happier to see than a really good dark retelling of Peter and Wendy, but I have a hard time believing this is what I've been waiting for.

Still, it can't possibly be worse than the 2003 version. Can it?


Projected Tomatometer: 28%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: 80% and assurances that Sandler doesn't do his usual shtick

There aren't many actors I believe can ruin a movie, but Adam Sandler clearly has that power. This doesn't mean he's incapable of acting - I've been assured that he's done a great job in a handful of movies I haven't seen. But when he does slapstick, he almost always does a variation on the same exaggerated comic relief character he's used since the 90's.

Until there's a trailer, we won't know for certain that's what he's doing here, but... it's a movie about aliens invading using ships and weapons based on 80's arcade games. It seems unlike we'll be seeing an abundance of subtlety.

This is being directed by Chris Columbus, who's made a wide range of movies. On one hand, he made the first two Harry Potter movies, which were pretty solid. Unfortunately, he's also responsible for the first two Home Alone movies, which are awful. There's a chance we'll get something good here, but I'm betting against it.

Projected Tomatometer: 78%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: Tomatometer in the 90's and great word-of-mouth

I'm probably being generous with my assessment here, but I have to assume Raimi wouldn't have produced this if he didn't have a good reason to think Kenan could pull it off. Gil Kenan directed City of Amber and Monster House, both solid movies that display real potential but weren't particularly memorable.

Good or bad, it's going to be a hard sell. No one really asked for a remake to Poltergeist: the original holds up incredibly well. But - like I said - I have some faith in the talent involved.

None of that means I'm planning to go see this. That would take some really strong reviews or recommendations.


Fantastic Four
Projected Tomatometer: 70%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: 70% positive, good word of mouth, or a few glowing recommendations

Tough one. I really liked Chronicle despite the found footage aspect, and a lot of the credit belongs to the director. I'd love to see what Trank can do with a bigger budget. In addition, the trailer was pretty good, at least as science-fiction goes.

That said, the premise of this movie - a more grounded, realistic Fantastic Four - bores the hell out of me. I appreciate that Fox wants to distance themselves from the previous movies (and who can blame them?), but trying to turn Marvel's first family into something modern and edgy misses the point. The Fantastic Four have a tone that doesn't lend itself to something in the vein of The Dark Knight. If you're not going to try and capture that tone, why use this team? I'm pretty sure Stan Lee wanted the team's name to feel nostalgic when he created them in the early 60's: if you want to create something modern, you've already shot yourself in the foot.

None of that means the movie will be bad, of course. But a decent SF movie with a passing resemblance to a Marvel team isn't necessarily enough to guarantee I'll check this out. I'm getting tired of rewarding film studios for being embarrassed they're making superhero movies.

If I go see this, it will be because I hear it's good, either from critics or fans. Otherwise, I'm sure I'll check it out on Netflix. Like I said, it looks like a decent movie: just maybe not the right movie.

Projected Tomatometer: 21%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: Good luck with that

The team that made the 2010 Gulliver's Travels is back. To be fair, I never actually saw that movie: maybe it was better than the critics thought. Lacking a better starting point, I'll just go with their assessment and predict this nets the same 21% score.


The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
Projected Tomatometer: 65%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: 90%

On one hand, this was made by Guy Richie, director of the 2009 Sherlock Holmes movie, which was decent, though not exceptional. On the other hand, Richie was also responsible for the 2011 sequel, which was nearly unwatchable (I find it baffling that 60% of critics gave that a pass).

A remake of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. might be more up Richie's alley, anyway. The trailer looked fun enough, but making a good trailer is a lot easier than making a good movie. My guess is this will be fine and likely worth checking out on Netflix.


Hitman: Agent 47
Projected Tomatometer: 12%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: A score of 90% would get me in a seat, mainly because I'd want to see how the hell they managed it.

I'm not entirely clear on why the Hitman series deserves not one but two live-action adaptations. The first came out in 2007 and received a 14% positive score from critics (close to average for video game adaptations, I suspect).

There's no reason video game adaptations have to be bad, but almost all are. My guess is that this will fall somewhat near its predecessor.

Wrap up

I usually miss a movie or two of interest. In addition, there's a decent chance one or two of these movies will drop out at the last minute and open next spring instead. But assuming everything opens as intended, here's a quick summary:

Movies I'll Almost Certainly See
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Inside Out

Movies I'll Probably See
Jurassic World
Terminator: Genisys
Fantastic Four

Pitch Perfect 2
Mad Max: Fury Road

Long Shots
Everything else

I'm struck by how short my short list is this year. I get the feeling that every studio whose name doesn't rhyme with Gisney was a bit timid when it came time to schedule movies the same season as Avengers 2.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Movie Review: Jupiter Ascending

This movie is awesome. It's a bizarre amalgamation of genre tropes, put to use in the service of a surprisingly effective (though not at all subtle) theme. The action sequences are fantastic, and the designs are breathtaking.

What is Jupiter Ascending? The short answer is Occupy Babylon 5. The long answer is, well....

It's a very political movie. Theme is critical to how the setting and characters are constructed. Babylon 5 had a very similar tone, if nothing else. This is, first and foremost, space opera, which is why there are also several parallels to Star Wars. At least one bounty hunter bears an uncanny resemblance to a similar character in The Clone Wars. I'm pretty sure most of the other bounty hunters were taken from the 80's live-action Masters of the Universe movie. The technology is largely Japanese SF. I've never actually seen any Gundam, but the designs certainly look similar to me. Well, most of the designs. At least one of the ships is right out of Battlestar Galactica.

But the movie also includes scenes, characters, and tropes reminiscent of the Riddick movies, Underworld, The Fifth Element, Dune, Blade Runner, and Brazil. Oh, and Futurama. Star Trek, Princess Bride, Aladdin, The Lord of the Rings, and Tron. I'm probably missing dozens more.

Mila Kunis actually feels pretty straightforward: she's essentially playing a modern-day Cinderella. I mean, maybe there's a little hint of Sailor Moon in the premise, but she doesn't have super-powers or a talking cat. She does, however, have Channing Tatum, who plays a fusion of Riddick, Legolas, Brian Boitano, Bigby Wolf, and Silverbolt from Transformers: Beast Wars. Together, they fight a hybrid race of vampires from Underworld and the Necromongers from Chronicles of Riddick, who are aided by Nazi draconians (the ones from Krynn, not Doctor Who), and a bunch of space-goblins.

Oh, the good guys also have Sean Bean, who's playing the exact same role he always gets handed.

The amazing thing is all of that slides together surprisingly well. Kunis's role isn't just there for plot: her Cinderella credentials are integral to the movie's politics. Same goes for the villains' over-the-top vampiric nature. There was a great deal of thought behind this.

You wouldn't know that judging by the reviews, though. Jupiter Ascending is at 22% on Rotten Tomatoes right now. While 22 sounds low, it's not as low as 18, which is the number of millions of dollars it's expected to pull in this weekend. Wikipedia says the movie was budgeted at $176 million. I'll let you do the math.

If you're having flashbacks to Speed Racer, you're not alone. To be fair, Jupiter Ascending isn't as good a movie as Speed Racer, but then again few things are. Speed Racer was damn near flawless (okay, maybe pull out the monkey poop jokes, but after that, you're pretty much set), while Jupiter Ascending had a few issues, some of them pretty serious. The biggest problem revolved around the plot. It's hard to deny the film was bloated. There were two minor villains who could have been combined with the primary bad guy or cut. It felt like the Wachowskis were building up the world for sequels, which - let's be honest here - probably won't wind up happening. Likewise, given the role Jupiter's family played, they probably should have been likable characters.

It's definitely got its flaws, and anyone who isn't on board with the many genres is going to suffer whiplash. But it's one of the cooler, crazier space operas out there. If you've got Chronicles of Riddick and The Fifth Element in your DVD collection, you'll almost certainly love this quirky space adventure/live-action Disney princess mash-up.

I should mention I saw it in 2D, a decision I currently regret. The space battles were extremely cool, and I think the added depth would have made them even more so. I'm tentatively planning on going back and checking it out in IMAX if I can find the time.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 Movies Revisited

When you only go to the theater 15 times in a year, writing a top 10 list seems like a waste of everyone's time. With that in mind, I prefer a yearly wrap-up ranking every new movie I saw from the absolute worst to the absolute best experience.

Re-read that last part - it's significant. These aren't necessary ranked from worst to best, but rather on how much I enjoyed them (or was moved or impressed, in some cases). It is subjective by design.

As always, I'm only considering geek films, which is pretty easy, since that represents the vast majority of what I watch (well, that and Christmas movies, but most of those are old, anyway). Beyond that... I'm getting a little fuzzy in how I define what I consider. In general, I only look at movies that received a wide theatrical release at some point in the past year. But... well... I may have had to bend that rule a bit this time.

At any rate, here's the list:

16. Amazing Spider-Man 2
This one was disappointing, though it certainly delivered a few cool elements. Electro's design looked good, and I'm glad they were willing to use a power set that differentiates him from every other villain we've seen in Spider-Man movies. Likewise there were some genuinely funny scenes. But for every minute that worked, there were two that didn't: between some baffling character choices and obnoxious plot directions, the movie left me more bored than entertained. Ultimately, though, the movie's success or failure needs to be measured against how well it tells its central story, and that - more than anything else - is where it falls short. The movie doesn't even seem to realize what that story is, and as a result it meanders between subplots before covering the death of Gwen Stacey as something of an afterthought. If it had managed to do Gwen's story justice, I'd have been willing to forgive the rest. But in failing that test, the movie fails as a whole.

15. Snowpiercer
I watched this just a few days ago on Netflix. It's one of the few times you'll hear me admit that the conceit of listing these in terms of personal preference hurts a film. If I were basing this on quality, it would be a minimum of three spots higher, probably more. However, I found myself agreeing with the Weinsteins on this one. If you're unfamiliar with the controversy, there was a massive fight over whether the movie should be cut for US audiences which resulted in it being delayed and the scale of the eventual release severely reduced (so much for that "wide US release" requirement). I hate siding with the producers, but it felt too long to me. The main points it was making weren't exactly subtle: I'm not sure we needed that much time to get them across. That said, it was brilliantly shot and constructed. But, in the end, I respect it more than I like it.

14. Maleficent
My feelings about this movie remain genuinely conflicted. Its largest issue hinges on its core contradiction: this is at once a complete re-imagining, yet it goes to great pains to retain its connections to the Disney classic. Watching it as a fan of Disney animation requires a great deal of cognitive dissonance. But I found it worth the effort. For all this movie's many faults, the central character is interesting, the visuals are cool, and the script contains some worthwhile observations about its source material.

13. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
It feels wrong dumping this so far from the top, but what can I say? Peter Jackson's prequel trilogy started strong, but the last two movies finally became what non-geeks claimed the other four were: inflated and drawn out. The Tauriel love story was painful to the end, and the supposedly-central friendship between Bilbo and Thorin, while cleverly mirroring the Sam/Frodo relationship, just didn't click right. It was fun and exciting, but in the end it felt like a pale imitation of Tolkien.

12. X-Men: Days of Future Past
This one's hard to rate. It feels more like a bridge than a movie: its entire purpose is to cut ties with past mistakes and establish a new series. This is actually something of a double-edged sword: while I'm glad to be rid of X-Men 3 and Origins: Wolverine, it's also means the events of X-Men 2 and last summer's The Wolverine are gone. I feel like the value of Days of Future Past is largely dependent on what comes next. Viewed as a stand-alone film, there's a lot of noise but not a great deal of content. The Quicksilver "Time in a Bottle" sequence was fantastic, and the future sequences were cool. The rest was solid, but not really memorable. I loved a lot about this movie, but I feel like the X-Men franchise has been fifteen years of build-up without much payoff. I'm ready for something big and exciting, and I'm hoping Age of Apocalypse delivers that.

11. The Lego Movie
This was, perhaps, a little overrated when it came out, but that doesn't mean it wasn't a great film. The movie was extremely clever and well-constructed, though the most important piece didn't fit together quite right. The real-world sequence was over-the-top and cheesy, when it needed to be heartfelt and believable. It was one bad judgement call in a film of inspired ideas. Fortunately, it didn't cause the film to crumble, but it left it seeming a bit tilted and uneven. Setting that aside, the movie was a lot of fun.

10. Godzilla
Okay. This placement is generous. If this were a true "best of", there's no way I could justify putting this so close to the top. The main character was trite, and the director's commitment to holding back the monster was unfortunate. In interviews, he's strongly implied that the audience wouldn't have been satisfied with scene after scene of monsters fighting: he's sorely mistaken. But despite these setbacks, the monster attacks and battles were amazing, the designs felt authentic to the source material, and Godzilla's character was spot-on. Sure, the soldier was boring, but I'd rather watch a Godzilla movie where the humans are dull and the monsters are awesome than the reverse.

9. Big Hero 6
This was a really good movie. The key scene, where Hiro's anger gets the best of him, is stunning and tragic, and the resolution to that sequence is just as good. The movie almost placed higher, but it's held back by its own constraints. This movie clearly wants to be The Avengers for kids, but it doesn't have the time or inclination to build up the other members of the team. Superhero teams need balance - that's a big part of why the Avengers worked. As a result, Big Hero 6 winds up delivering a story about a super-genius, his robot, and their four sidekicks. It's not a bad story, but it could have been something much better. If they'd been willing to drop a few of the minor characters and increase GoGo's part substantially, I think it could have had a shot at #1 on this list.

8. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance )
Easily the most bizarre movie up here, Birdman was also the hardest to place. I rank these according to preference rather than quality to sidestep issues with objectivity. But how the hell do I rank a brilliantly constructed movie that I can't decide how much I like? As I shift the film around in my head, my opinion oscillates from near the top of the list to a few rungs from the bottom. Considering the movie was trying to get into its audience's heads, that's certainly not a bad sign. It was absolutely engrossing and more fun than you'd expect from something this strange. Hell, I can't even commit to whether it's a work of brilliance or just weird for the sake of weird. My gut tells me this is the place for it, but I can easily imagine looking back and regretting not placing it at the absolute top. A lot of it will come down to how well it ages, and I can't even begin to speculate on that yet.

7. Dark Dungeons
As a rule, I don't include movies that lack a theatrical run. The resources low-budget filmmakers have at their disposal are far less substantial than those controlled by major studios, and the finished product is an entirely different type of work. All that said, I can't imagine a list of 2014 genre films that omits Dark Dungeons: this one's important. It's also a hell of a lot of fun. The cast is amazing: it's difficult to imagine a better representation of the characters from the tract. They deliver Chick's lines while walking a thin line between sincerity and campy humor, and the result is spectacular. JR Ralls's script follows the plot and spirit of the source material in a similar fashion. One gets the impression that, in addition to wringing every ounce of unintentional humor out of Chick's story, he also kind of loves it. The movie feels like a celebration of the tract that's at once ironic and sincere at the same time. It's absolutely the right approach for this project, and the final result is one of the most fun things I've seen in a long time. Until the ending shot, which is - rightly so - a little haunting.

6. Into the Woods
I've been mulling over where to put this on the list, and it hasn't been an easy choice. Into the Woods is really just a solid adaptation of an amazing musical. It got the casting right and managed to not screw anything up, but that's not a major accomplishment. But I'm not rating whether the director did a good job or not (though I actually think he did); I'm basing this on how much I liked the movie. And, even though it was largely because I really like the musical, I really liked this movie. I don't think anyone believes this is the best adaptation possible, and it's certainly unfortunate this was produced by a corporation with a financial interest in maintaining a simplistic narrative around princess stories. But that doesn't change the fact that the jokes still worked, the drama carried (most of) the weight it was supposed to, and the story made it through (mostly) unchanged. I had a great experience watching this.

5. Her
I'm counting this as 2014, even though it was technically released in 2013. The wide release didn't happen until after the new year, and I didn't see it until February, so it's going on the list. It was a cool movie, all things considered, though it was a bit slow in parts. Still, the tone was nothing sort of fascinating, and the movie explored vaster and more cerebral aspects of science fiction than film generally dares to touch. The love story was certainly the central plot, at least on the surface, but it's the emergent consciousness angle and theological implications that make it truly intriguing.

4. Edge of Tomorrow
I find it fascinating that Tom Cruise has become a liability in marketing movies. While he still has a few fans, the number of people who will avoid his movies seems to be far greater. It's not hard to understand why: his presence implies a film - particularly SF - will be poorly written and directed. But nothing could be farther from the truth this time: Edge of Tomorrow was one of the coolest, funniest action movies released this year. It's far better than Looper, and I'd even rate it higher than Inception. Fortunately, it'll hold up well on smaller screens, regardless of what they're calling it, so those of you who skipped it in the theater can still check it out.

3. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
When I heard that the director from Rise of the Planet of the Apes wasn't coming back for the sequel, I wasn't happy. Wyatt managed to reboot a franchise the world was ready to leave behind in such a way to make it feel relevant and interesting: I didn't trust Reeves to fill his shoes. But after seeing Dawn, I can't imagine anyone seriously contending that the first film is the best in the series. This is a huge step forward in a franchise that was already exceeding all expectations. More than that, this was one had some serious weight to it. A disturbing and haunting look at clashing cultures and at moral complication, it honors the reach of the genre in ways few science fiction movies even attempt. And, once again, the motion-captured actors - Serkis in particular, but he's hardly alone here - offer performances that may be overlooked by their peers for the foreseeable future, but will likely represent the most influential style of acting for our generation. And don't even try to tell me that's hyperbolic: in fifty years, Serkis's work will be studied by film students to a greater degree than any other living actor.

2 and 1: TIE! Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy
I wouldn't normally do this. I generally consider it essential that these kinds of lists pick favorites - that's kind of the point, after all. But in this case, I'm making an exception. The reason is a bit complicated, though.

These two fantastic movies are so different, it's virtually impossible to compare them. That's not why I'm calling this a tie, but it's connected. If these movies lived in a vacuum, I wouldn't have put them this high. Actually, if it weren't for the existence of the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, I think I'd have given the #1 spot to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

What these movies did that made them deserve this place was to not just occupy completely different sectors of the same shared Universe, but to dramatically expand that Universe in different directions. I don't just mean in terms of plot or setting: these two films introduced entirely new tones and genres to the Marvel Universe. They expanded the possibilities for where these movies could go.

Watching that happen twice in the same year exceeded any other experience I had in the theater this year. With that in mind, I can't see any other option but to name both Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy as the best geek movie of 2014.

This list isn't 100% complete, of course. Actually, I think it's closer to 75% complete, because - by my count - there were five major geek films released in 2014 I never got around to seeing (more if you count horror, but I don't really cover those here).

Of the five films I skipped, two are pretty universally disliked: Transformers: Age of Extinction and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I'm sure I'll get around to them eventually, but I don't anticipate regretting their exclusion. Likewise, while the reactions were a little more mixed, most people seemed ambivalent on Lucy (if not outright hostile). Unless I'm forgetting something, the only geek movies I didn't catch that were well received were How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Mockingjay, Part 1. I wasn't particularly impressed with the first Dragon, but maybe the sequel will have more of an impact. I actually loved Catching Fire (it might have given The Wolverine a run for its money in the best of 2013 if I'd seen it earlier), but this one received more tepid reviews.

Overall, there were a lot of great films released in 2014, though we still haven't gotten something on the magnitude of The Avengers. I suspect the dwindling box-office returns are a symptom of that; the movie going public seems to want something truly big and exciting again. We should get that next year between Avengers 2 and Star Wars VII: here's hoping those meet expectations.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Movie Review: Into the Woods

If you've ever seen a performance (or even a recorded performance) of Into the Woods, your takeaway from this adaptation is likely going to hinge on your expectations. If you're looking for this to add anything of substance to the play, you're probably going to walk away disappointed. Likewise, you're not going to be happy if you're looking for a definitive adaptation. This is neither a perfect version nor a new version of Sondheim's musical.

However, they managed to make this without butchering the play, which is a hell of a lot more than anyone associated with Burton's Sweeney Todd can claim. In most cases, simply not screwing something up may sound like a low bar, but Sondheim's work seems to be extremely difficult to transition to film. In that respect, I think this should be considered a success.

It helps that, when you don't manage to do anything more than make a movie out of Sondheim, you're still left with Sondheim. The script, lyrics, and music are phenomenal, but this is old news. They just managed to get a cast together who could handle the material.

Again, a hell of lot more than I can say for Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd.

This isn't to say the director didn't successfully capture the tone of the story: for the most part, I think he did. But don't expect this to enhance the tone with movie magic: the effects are there - and they're solid - but Marshall doesn't pull off the kind of intensity he got from Chicago. To be fair, I don't think anyone could have.

Into the Woods was written around limitations in presenting special effects and visual marvels. These were always integral to the plot, but they couldn't very pull off modern computer effects in the 80's. Or, you know, on stage in front of a live audience.

As a result, Marshall was stuck having to put these things on film, but wasn't given a story which allowed him to explore them. He would either have had to deviate from the play and create subplots where these were central or stick with the play and have the effects come off as somewhat secondary. He went with the latter, and he deserves praise for the decision.

There are, of course, a handful of alterations made to this in order to adapt it for film. The majority of these were minor tweaks: changes to a song to reflect a new point of view, alterations to a scene to make it work, and shifts to play down sexual innuendo (I certainly can't fault them for this, given the age of Red Riding Hood). But there were a few more controversial transformations.

I won't rehash them here, but there were a couple minor characters pulled for obvious reasons and at least one death removed, almost certainly to placate Disney's marketing department. These alterations were certainly unwelcome, but they didn't do any real damage to the story as a whole.

Ultimately, my largest complaint was with the violence, which felt extremely timid. I certainly didn't need an R rating, but the death scenes were all toned down to the degree you weren't even sure they were killing a character. Until they were confirmed several scenes later, I actually thought Disney might have vetoed the two most devastating losses, just like they (presumably) nixed the death of one of their princesses. I think the movie could certainly have used a bit more teeth.

That said, it hit enough of the right notes to stand out as a solid adaptation. I wish a different production company had been behind this, but I was still happy with what Marshall and Disney managed to produce. It had to be a hard - and thankless - play to adapt, but the final product does the job.

I had a great time watching this in the theater, and think it stands out as a solid adaptation. Go in with that expectation, and there's a good chance you'll have a similar experience.