Saturday, August 20, 2016

Pilot Review: The Tick

Amazon recently produced a pilot for a rebooted live-action version of the The Tick, and if you're a Prime member, you can watch it for free. Supposedly, they're going to base their decision whether to move forward on the feedback.

Before I offer my thoughts, here's a little background. My introduction to the character came through the brilliant 90's animated series, which is best described as a comedic spin on silver age super-heroics. To me, this will always be the definitive version of the character.

But of course it wasn't the first: The Tick was a comic book before it was a cartoon show. I've read a handful of story lines from that over the years - I like it, even if I find the cynical tone a bit off-putting. The comics feel more like a parody than an homage, and while the writing is funny (extremely funny, to be fair), attempts to simply make fun of the absurdity of the genre rarely work as well as celebrations. There are quite a few reasons for this, but the most notable is that comics readers and writers are perfectly aware of how absurd the premises are, and comics have explored that internally since the beginning. In my opinion, The Tick worked better as a superhero operating in a humorous setting than he did as a joke mocking superheroes.

There was also a short-lived live-action sitcom in 2001 starring Patrick Warburton. I saw about half of the episodes at the time and caught the rest years later on DVD. The show started out a bit mixed, but it improved as it went. I'd have loved to see what they'd have done with a second season: it wasn't a perfect show, but it was certainly fun to see superheroes operating in a sitcom environment.

I think most of us expected Amazon's reboot to follow in its predecessor's footprints - I certainly did. Perhaps I should have stopped and considered the trend, however: the one constant in every new incarnation of The Tick has been a complete overhaul of the tone and direction. The Amazon show reused some jokes from earlier versions, but it was an entirely different creation.

More specifically, this was closer to Netflix's Marvel shows than it is to any version of The Tick that's existed previously. Hell, there might be some Birdman in this thing.

The first indication things weren't going to proceed as expected came from the rating: TV-14 for violence and language. And it's easy to see why - while The Tick's sole fight scene was pretty harmless, the pilot features a rather brutal flashback sequence where a group of heroes are executed. In addition, the world this is set in is gritty and realistic, in spite of the presence of caped heroes and villains.

The episode's (and possibly the series's) main super-villain is colorful and zany, but he comes off more scary than whimsical. If anything, he feels like an extremely accurate version of a generic super-villain from comics: ridiculous in theory, but horrifying up close.

The Tick, however, seems to grasp none of this. Peter Serafinowicz channels Adam West, playing the character as if unable to recognize the world he inhabits isn't Gotham circa 1966. The effect is certainly funny, but it's almost more troubling. It feels as if something is deeply, truly wrong.

Which it almost certainly is. The Tick isn't the main character - that's Arthur, and his backstory has some legitimately tragic elements. The show implies heavily that The Tick may be a manifestation of Arthur's subconscious. Maybe that's a red herring, but questions around the nature of reality and sanity permeate the pilot.

It's certainly an unexpected direction to go in with a character who's always been more slapstick than anything else. But grounded exploration of superhero worlds is something I love, and this has more tolerance for the more colorful aspects of the genre than almost anything I've seen.

My largest complaint is that they based this on The Tick, rather than create new characters. I don't mind the radical reinvention - I just find the retreading of situations a bit tiring (we've seen The Tick wreck Arthur's apartment looking for secret levers a few too many times now). Still, I'll deal with reliving old jokes if that's the price for a weird superheroic dark comedy/psychological drama.

Here's hoping this odd, intriguing series gets picked up.

Movie Review: Kubo and the Two Strings

I was ultimately a little disappointed by this movie, but that's more a factor of my expectations than anything else. Between the trailers and the movie's Freshness rating in the high 90's, I was expecting to walk out with this firmly placed in my #1 spot for the year. Ultimately, I think it's trending somewhere between #4 and #6, which is still impressive given the volume of phenomenal genre movies released in 2016.

On visuals alone, this movie does even better. The animation in this is absolutely stunning. It's easily one of the most beautiful stop-motion productions in history, surpassing everything in Laika's already astonishing catalog in this category. The monsters in this movie are incredible to behold and even more incredible to consider. The scale on some of these is almost inconceivable (stick around during the credits for a taste of what went into creating this movie).

My issue definitely wasn't with how things looked, nor was it with the plot. The premise and plot were both solid, and the characters's motivations and obstacles were constructed well. The element that didn't quite click for me was tone, which felt extremely uneven to me. It was trying to be everything: a mythic fantasy adventure, an exciting samurai tale, a dark horror, an emotional drama, and a light comedy. It's possible to blend that many tones into a movie, but it requires everything to be on-point. If there's a single weak link, the movies breaks apart.

The weak link, at least in my opinion, was the comedy. The jokes just didn't work for me - I found the endless string of gags about Beetle's memory more cloying than funny, and it kept pulling me out of the story. Likewise, there were some key moments where the movie held back from exploring the more traumatizing aspects of the plot - missed opportunities for reflection and depth.

That said, Kubo is definitely worth checking out in the theaters. The movie goes to some dark places with its villains, particularly the pair of witches. These are some of the most striking antagonists in the history of animation, and I expect them to endure in both film history and the nightmares of kids taken to see this.

Likewise, the action is fantastic. The fight on the boat of leaves is one of the most imaginative animated fantasy action sequences I've ever seen: it's simply incredible.

My assumption is that the comedy was present to appeal to kids, and I'd rather have gotten this beautiful movie with that caveat than not have gotten it at all. If you're a fan of genre and animation, you need to see this on the big screen - I wish they'd exercised more restraint when it came to the tone, but it's still one of the most beautiful films of the year.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Movie Review: Pete's Dragon

Pete's Dragon is a good movie, but you should probably know what you're getting. If I'd had a better grasp of what I was in for, I think I'd have waited for this to show up on Netflix. That's not to say this is something everyone should avoid at the theater, but its target audience is much narrower than most of Disney's recent releases.

To me, the trailers implied something mythic, something primal. And while the movie delivered a solid kid's adventure/drama, it didn't pull off more than that. A few years ago, that might have been enough to earn a more enthusiastic recommendation, but the past few years have given us Paddington, Inside Out, Zootopia, Finding Dory, and most significantly, The Jungle Book: my expectation is that "family entertainment" should be better than films aimed at adults, not worse, and if Disney has a problem with that, they mostly have themselves to blame.

I don't want to imply this will come off as offensive or obnoxious to adults: on the contrary, it's enjoyable enough. But coming out the same year as The Jungle Book makes it virtually impossible to ignore the similarities. Hell, there's a sense in which the story is a spiritual sequel to The Jungle Book. The premise is largely built around a boy, raised in the wilderness, returning to civilization - it's more or less pulled from one of the stories in The Jungle Book Disney hasn't gotten around to yet. On top of that, it's hard not to compare the CG Elliott to the animals in The Jungle Book. And while Elliott is all sorts of cute, he falls far short, as does his movie. While the Jungle Book felt like an evolution in film making, this felt regressive. Set aside the effects, and this could have been made in the 80's or 90's.

To be fair, some of that was intentional. This was definitely a throw-back to the 80's adventure flicks - think ET and Neverending Story. It even seemed ambiguously set in the 80's, judging by the lack of technology. The themes fit that template as well: the importance of family and a vague environmental message.

The movie's tone struck a good balance, and avoided most of the major pitfalls. It deserves credit for taking its premise seriously. Likewise, they refrained from making any of the characters evil - the film's antagonist doesn't come off as irrational or cruel: he's a man who sees an opportunity and pursues it in a manner that's perfectly reasonable, from his perspective. Karl Urban does an impressive job juggling his role in the plot with his character's much less sinister motives.

All the actors do solid work, in fact. Unfortunately, they're held back by the script, which is frustratingly mediocre. Note I didn't say bad: the movie makes no cardinal sins, but it rarely exceeds expectations. The trailers implied something powerful: a complex adventure bogged down with the complexities of an impossible situation. But everything comes off feeling a little too simplistic in the movie.

On top of that, this has the distinct feeling of a movie developed by committee. A better committee than usually gets assigned to this sort of project, but a committee nonetheless. The movie reveals Elliott to the audience in the first few minutes and makes him a major character, even when he and Pete are separated almost immediately. To then play up the mystery around the dragon feels forced.

I think there could have been a better movie in this, perhaps one using Bryce Howard's character as the POV instead of Pete. As it is, she's pretty much wasted in this role: her character is present, but she rarely feels like anything more than an object. This time, she's playing a motherly lamp instead of a sexy one, but it's the same problem she had in Jurassic World - she's a better actress than the script demands.

Despite the script, the movie's enjoyable enough. If you're the parent of a six year-old boy, you'll likely be much happier with this than 90% of what your kid makes you sit through. For the rest of us, it's a good enough movie for a Tuesday night on Netflix, but I'm not sure you need to rush out to the theater to see it. It's good, but there are far better options available.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Movie Review: Suicide Squad

Suicide Squad is currently sitting at 26%, which is one point below Batman v Superman. Just like with BvS, I walked into the theater will extremely low expectations. But unlike BvS, Suicide Squad exceeded those expectations. This movie has issues - I understand why critics panned the hell out of it - but speaking as a fan of superheroes, I enjoyed this quite a bit.

My impression is that most critics go into a movie wanting a coherent story where every character and element serves some purpose, be it thematic, plot, or tonal. Suicide Squad doesn't do that. It doesn't even come close to doing that: the story line makes very little sense, half the characters are superfluous, and massive subplots could be culled without negatively impacting the film.

Like Iron Man 2, Suicide Squad is more about world-building than storytelling. Katana's a good example: her role in this makes absolutely no sense from a traditional filmmaking perspective. She gets only superficial development, she undergoes no real character arc, and serves no purpose beyond looking badass and cutting down some monsters. But she's a pretty well-executed take on Katana, and now she exists in the DCEU.

Keep in mind, I love Iron Man 2. I love comic book universes, and I'm always up for seeing them brought to life on the screen. I can appreciate carefully balanced, minimalist story telling, but I don't need it. If a movie's goal is to build a cool universe at the expense of story and character, I'm game.

And unlike Batman v Superman, this delivers a universe that feels like the comics it's based on. Not every character is perfect, but they get enough right to make up for their shortcomings.

Let's get a little more granular. By my count, the movie knocked two major characters out of the park: Harley Quinn and Amanda Waller. Robbie's take on Quinn was good enough to make me overlook the fact she only wore the iconic jester suit for a few seconds. I love that suit, and I barely missed it, because the character's personality and humor were perfect. Margot Robbie's been pursuing a Quinn-centered film built around some of the DCU's female superheroes: this makes one of hell of a case that movie should exist.

Likewise, Viola Davis wouldn't have been my first pick for Waller, who's meant to be a much heavier woman. But, once again, the personality is perfect: Davis channels the Wall's strength, confidence, and ruthlessness. She was fantastic in this.

Will Smith's Deadshot is a little more complicated. I liked the character on screen well enough, but it wasn't Floyd Lawton. The abilities were there, but they wanted someone more redeemable than the character from the comics. In the scheme of things, I can live with that - does anyone really care that they remade Deadshot?

While we're on the subject of characters who were done well, let's take a moment and breathe a sigh of relief at the Batman scenes. In about a minute of screen time, Batman displayed far more compassion than we saw in all of Batman v Superman. This time, they got him right.

On the other end of the spectrum, you've got the Joker. I think most of us cringed when we saw the first images of Leto's Joker, but we hoped for the best. Hell, the early images of Ledger's Joker didn't fill us with confidence, either: we had to see him in action to appreciate what they were going for.

But Leto is no Heath Ledger. There were a few interesting choices around him (I love that the Terrible Trio had a cameo as some of his henchmen), but overall he was just uninspired and dull. It didn't help that the character was constrained by the movie's rating to the point of incoherence. There's a scene early on supposedly establishing how terrifying and brutal he is that ends without establishing anything other than the fact the movie was badly edited. But even setting that aside, the character spent every second on screen looking angry. The Joker is supposed to be scary because of his sense of humor. Take that away, and you've missed the joke entirely.

The Joker's presence is also extremely problematic thematically. It's hard not to interpret the movie's ending as affirming the love he shares with Harley Quinn. Given that their relationship started with him manipulating then literally torturing her, that's a big issue. Fans of the comics and the 90's animated series will know this is anything but true love, but that really should have been made clearer in the movie itself.

If you overlook that and the fractured plot, bizarre editing, messy plotting, and the host of other issues, it's actually a fun bit of comic book mayhem. It's decades late, but we finally get the DCU on screen in a meaningful way, and - for me, at least - that was enough.

Well, that and Harley Quinn. I can't stress enough how good Robbie is in this. She may be dressed like the New 52 version, but she's channeling the character right out of the Batman animated series.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Movie Review: Star Trek Beyond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Movie Review: Ghostbusters

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

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

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

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

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

Again, if we're men.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go ahead. Let that sink in for a minute.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until now.

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

And it's about damn time.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Movie Review: Warcraft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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