Sunday, August 19, 2018

Movie Review: Christopher Robin


It's hard to look at Christopher Robin without wondering if it was made in an attempt to steal a bit of Paddington's thunder. It certainly feels like Disney's answer to the film franchise currently redefining family entertainment and removing decades of negative associations with live action/CG hybrids. While Christopher Robin isn't as good as the Paddington movies, it comes closer than it has any right to. It also has a very different tone, which helps set it apart.

I suppose it would be more accurate to say it has two different tones; the movie's largest flaw is that it's really two movies (well, one movie, followed by a 30-minute short). The longer segment tells the continuing story of Christopher Robin, starting with his leaving the Hundred Acre Wood at the end of The House at Pooh Corner. It gives us a quick overview of how his life progressed, including some fairly dark chapters.

All of this develops into an astonishingly well done story about him and Pooh. It's reflective, complex, and more than a little tragic, albeit with a mostly happy resolution.

Then someone at Disney reminded them they needed a kid's movie, so everything changes gears, Christopher Robin's daughter gets promoted to lead status, and the problems driving the narrative suddenly have conveniently easy solutions.

This isn't a new problem for Disney live-action. I had similar issues with Maleficent, and - to a lesser extent - Into the Woods. If anything, Christopher Robin managed its tonal imbalance better than the other two by virtue of keeping the sections separate. There are narrative connections, but it really feels as though the movie ends then a new story kicks off. It almost feels like a beautifully realized adult story with a kid's movie ending tossed on as some sort of addendum. My guess is that's a big part of the reason why it wasn't better received by critics.

All that said, I found the movie delightful from start to finish. However, it is worth noting I grew up with the Disney classic and am a fan of the original books. Unlike the Paddington movies, that level of familiarity with the source material is kind of a prerequisite for loving this. Nostalgia has become a common tool for attacking audiences' emotions, but this thing... it's weapons grade nostalgia if you're from the right generation.

That's either a merit or a flaw, depending on how you look at it. On one hand, there's something kind of cheap about leaning that heavily on our associations with these characters. On the other, these are characters most of us - at least most of us over the age of 30 - know pretty damned well.

And, frankly, this isn't the sort of simplistic, surface-level nostalgia we sometimes get from the Mouse House's live-action team (looking at you, Beauty and the Beast). The writers, director, and designers of this movie knew what they were doing. There are layered, subtle references to the source material that aren't remarked on or explained. You either understand why Rabbit and Owl are real talking animals as opposed to stuffed ones or you don't; the movie never addresses it.

The characterizations are also on-point. They weave in moments and bits of dialogue without it feeling forced or obnoxious. I never doubted for an instant that the people who made this movie loved and understood Pooh and his friends. The craft poured into this is awe-inspiring.

But, like I said before, the pivot to the kids movie is a bit disappointing. In addition, there'll always be a part of me a little uncomfortable with the idea that Disney effectively hijacked Christopher Robin's life. Let's not forget this was a real person who lived a completely different life than the fictitious one Disney invented for him.

Ultimately, though, very little of that had any bearing on how I actually felt about the movie. As a lifelong fan of the Bear with Very Little Brain, I was swept up from the start. If you've got positive associations with this character from your own childhood, I suspect you will be, too.

But if you've got young ones, you might want to leave them at home - this just isn't for them. Maybe go see this and send them to see a more appropriate film, like The Meg or something.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Popularity Contest


In an attempt to feign relevance, the Oscars are adding a new category for "Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film." They're hoping this will let them toss an award to blockbusters (and, of course, give audiences a reason to watch the ceremony) without altering the kinds of movies they give the real awards to.

If this weren't happening the same year Black Panther is poised to be nominated for Best Picture, I'd probably be less cynical. Hell, I'd go so far as to say there's a version of this that actually makes sense. It's just not the version we're getting.

First of all, the "popular movie" paradigm is already a mistake. They're essentially treating big budget genre films the way they treated animated movies in the 90's. But setting aside that the "Best Animated Picture" solution is already problematic (how many Pixar movies were robbed of the top prize by virtue of being seated at the kid's table?), this is several times worse. For one, there are significantly more "popular" movies than animated.

What they should have done was split Best Picture into two awards, based on budget, essentially admitting that forty million dollar films are a different art form than two hundred million dollar productions. Splitting Best Picture would have conveyed the idea that the different weight classes (for lack of a better name) were equal, rather than sending the message that genre isn't "real art" unless it's low budget and/or unsuccessful.

And that's exactly the message I take from this. It's way too early in the year to say for certain what deserves to win Best Picture, but Black Panther absolutely deserves a nomination. It might still get one, but make no mistake - this is absolutely going to be an impediment. And its chances of winning are virtually nonexistent now that voters can justify another choice by assuming Black Panther is guaranteed its participation award.

This would be a badly conceived plan at the best of times, and the fact it's happening this year makes it far, far worse.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Movie Review: Mission: Impossible - Fallout


Arguably, the most impressive feat Fallout achieves is selling the idea that the preceding five movies all played out in the same world and involved the same characters. That includes Ethan Hunt, incidentally, whose character is far more central to this movie than any of its predecessors. Even MI3, which was written around Hunt's private life, left the character something of a mystery box.

Fallout takes the unprecedented step of letting us peer into his head and glimpse his insecurities. And in the process, it pulls together threads of ideas and weaves them into an actual character. Granted, this should really have been done in Mission: Impossible, but better late than never.

I'm not sure the character we end up with is still all that compelling, but it's still a remarkable accomplishment. And, as I mentioned above, the process also binds the world together. We're reunited with characters, set pieces, and ideas drawn from every preceding film in the series. And, yes, that includes Mission: Impossible 2. Hell, the core of Hunt's character may have been drawn from a throwaway line from that movie, and Fallout succeeds in selling it through sincerity.

The movie takes some other risks, as well. Tonally and stylistically, it's quite a bit different than Rogue Nation, despite featuring the same writer/director. It also includes a moment or two that flirt with magical realism - I don't believe we've seen that from this series in the past.

I should also mention the movie plays out quite a bit differently than the trailers implied. Despite appearances to the contrary, this is only the second movie where... You know what? I'm going to stop that sentence, because I don't want to spoil it. Suffice to say, there was something about this movie that made me extremely happy.

That's not to say I was thrilled with every choice. The film telegraphed several twists in advance, and while they went off-book with a few elements, others played out fairly by-the-numbers. But like Rogue Nation before it, Fallout successfully builds a compelling narrative out of action sequences, ridiculous stunts, and absurd heists. I think it deserves a pass for a handful of obvious twists.

As always, the supporting cast is more interesting than Ethan Hunt, though it's closer than usual. My concerns this was going to sideline or mistreat Rogue Nation's MVP were unfounded - once again, Rebecca Ferguson's Ilsa Faust reminds the audience she's ready to take over this (or any other) franchise if the need arises. Likewise, Luther and Benji are wonderful as always, as the support. The team is also utilized more effectively than in most installments. While Fallout is definitely built around Hunt, it embraces the premise of a group of professionals with (somewhat) specialized skills required for pulling off an impossible mission.

The new characters are fantastic, too. Henry Cavill was perfectly cast as a strongman, and longtime fans of the series should be delighted by Vanessa Kirby's character (I sincerely hope we see more of her in future installments).

Then, of course, there's the action. I'm assuming you already know this from seeing the trailers, but this movies manages some jaw-dropping chases, fights, and stunts.

I enjoyed this movie a lot. At the end of the day, Rogue Nation is still my favorite, but keep in mind I think that's better than any Bond film. This one's still better than any Bond film made in the past forty years. That's not a bad consolation prize.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Movie Review: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom


Honestly, I didn't expect to like this. I was underwhelmed by the previous installment, and Fallen Kingdom's Freshness Rating (barely over 50% at the moment) didn't instill me with confidence.

But it turned out low expectations were for the best - I enjoyed this one quite a bit. Despite numerous flaws (most of which were inherited), Fallen Kingdom offered one of the best experiences in the series. At the very least, it's the best since The Lost World, if not the original Jurassic Park.

It helps this was the first Jurassic Park/World movie to feel at all different. That's not to say it didn't contain some familiar beats - there were a handful of plot points and twists that felt photocopied from earlier movies - but the setting, style, and tone were altered enough to make this feel new.

If you've seen the trailers, you already know the movie features two main locations. The first returns us to the island from the earlier movies, but the presence of an active volcano makes for a fresh change of pace. The whole thing feels somewhat reminiscent of the asteroid strike that killed the actual dinosaurs (well, technically it's reminiscent of the fake narrative of the asteroid strike, but the dinosaurs themselves aren't exactly scientifically accurate, either). Regardless, the apocalypse gives new life to the action sequences and makes a final trip to the island worthwhile.

The other set piece is a gothic mansion, which evokes the dusty museums and libraries where 19th-century scientists formed the concept of dinosaurs this franchise uses. The backdrop makes for a nice change of pace. Together, the two settings make this feel like more than just another retread.

And anything new is appreciated, because this movie has plenty of old artifacts trying (and mercifully failing) to hold it back. There's a new old man filling Hammond's shoes, a new villain barely distinguishable from the guy from Lost World, and the new monster is basically a scaled-down rehash of the Indominus Rex.

That said, the Indoraptor is a lot of fun. It's a small, streamlined killing machine. It's smart, fast, and... yeah, at the end of the day, it's just another raptor. And they'll probably never beat the kitchen scene from the first Jurassic Park in terms of suspense and thrills, but this comes closer than anything since. Fallen Kingdom makes full use of its haunted mansion aesthetic to make its new raptor feel demonic. The bedroom scene you saw in the trailer was the most extreme example of this, but most of the third act plays with this dynamic. This certainly isn't terrifying, but it has a few moments that are creepy, in that 80's PG-13 way.

In terms of heroes, we're still mostly stuck with the returning leads from Jurassic World. There's nothing particularly wrong with Owen and Claire, but they still feel more like they're copied out of other franchises. But as generic POV characters, they get the job done.

This falls far short of being amazing, but it's the best Jurassic movie we've seen in quite some time. In addition, it ends on an extremely promising note... which is going to make it all the more disappointing when Colin Trevorrow returns and inevitably drops the ball.

Please prove me wrong, Colin. Please.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Movie Review: Ant-Man and the Wasp


Since I started this blog ten years ago, I've tried to avoid puns in movie reviews whenever possible. It's not that have anything against puns - as a point of fact, I have immense respect for the art form - but the practice is widespread to the point of being ubiquitous. I'd like this blog to be different, and as such I've always attempted to find another path.
I bring this up to clarify that when I call Ant-Man and the Wasp a small film, it not intended as a joke, a reference, or - God particle forbid - a pun. It's merely because the movie's scope and stakes are refreshingly limited, which is both welcome and unusual for this genre.

That "God particle" line, on the other hand, was a pun. Look... I slipped up. I'm only human. Moving on.

This has already been an extremely busy year for superhero movies (this is the third MCU flick of 2018, the fourth Disney superhero movie, and the fourth Marvel superhero movie - with more on the way). I think it should be obvious this isn't topping anyone's best-of list, even limited to this genre. Ant-Man and the Wasp was a great film, but it would be unfair to compare this to the ground-breaking Black Panther or the unprecedented scale of Infinity War. 

The thing that makes Ant-Man and the Wasp worth seeing is that it doesn't try to compete. It doesn't stick a giant portal in the sky to try and convince you the world's about to end. It doesn't feature a sociopath out for world domination or destruction. There's no apocalypse that needs to be prevented. The closest the movie comes to a generic villain is a tertiary antagonist who wants to monetize Pym's technology. And not even through weaponization - he wants in on the clean energy industry.

I heard the term "romantic comedy" bandied about while this was in development, but I don't think that's entirely accurate. There are a couple romantic subplots, but overall I'd call this a family comedy. The movie is far more interested in the relationships between its characters than it is in its superhero shenanigans.

Not that those shenanigans aren't great. The movie has a lot of fun with its conventions, playing with the size-altering powers of its leads in innovative ways (though it's worth noting the trailers have given away several of the best gags).

I had to double-check the rating. I'm guessing they added some harsh language to bring this up to PG-13: it feels like it should be PG. Hell, if they'd toned down a few minor things, it could almost have been G.

And, frankly, I'm grateful. There's no shortage of uniform, edgy superhero flicks out there. Thankfully, Marvel has been willing to expand this genre in other directions. You can view Infinity War as the absolute pinnacle of the generic, gritty superhero movie. It essentially takes the formula that everyone else has failed to emulate and perfects it. Meanwhile, movies like Thor: Ragnarok, Spider-man: Homecoming, and this incorporate superheroes in other types of stories. Comic books have been doing this for ages, but it's a relatively new direction for movies to take.

It was absolutely the right choice for these characters. This was a great summer movie, the sort of pop-corn flick air-conditioned theaters were made for. But if you don't get get around to seeing this on the big screen, don't sweat that, either. It won't lose much shrunken down on your television.

Damn it! Puns again.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Movie Review: Incredibles 2


Let's start by addressing the wrong question: Is this as good as the first one?

The answer is not really, but it doesn't try to be. And that's important because, had it attempted to be as good as the original movie, it wouldn't have been as much fun as its predecessor. And Incredibles 2 actually does manage to pull off that feat. Hell, it might even be more fun.

The first installment was as good as it was largely due to the sense of wonder we experienced watching Dash and Violet discover their powers. But that's done - if this tried rehashing that, it would have been a mess. Wisely, it goes in a very different direction. No, wait - that's not quite accurate. Incredibles 2 goes in two different directions.

Most of the characters are tied up in a super-powered family comedy that feels like a 1960's sitcom bathed in radiation. It's weird, crazy, and hilarious. By now, you'll probably have heard that Jack Jack is a concentrated ball of awesome. True, though seeing everyone else interact and attempt to adapt to that is where the real fun comes in.

Meanwhile, the other half of the movie follows the revamped Elastigirl on her new job, which...

Okay, you know how we spent the last fourteen years repeating the mantra that the original was the closest we were ever going to get to a real Fantastic Four movie? Yeah, well, this might be the closest we ever get to watching a Batman story play out on the big screen. You'll see what I mean - this is some of the best superhero action/adventure ever made. Executives at Warner Bros. may want to bring along a notepad and something to write with.

While Incredibles 2 absolutely feels like two separate movies playing out side-by-side, there's a point to this. The stories are tied together not by forced story connections but by the ways characters are impacted. The movie is pulled apart by the conflicting plots, but it's supposed to be. That's the idea - the theme is built on that dynamic.

There's a lot to love here, and I'm barely scratching the surface. The new heroes are great, and the new villain is even better. Yeah, you'll have a pretty good idea where this is headed 25 miles in advance, but that won't spoil the fun.

I'll give you a head's up about the tone: this isn't the original. There's still exhilarating adventure and danger, but nothing remotely as dark and scary as we saw last time.* This may have been a studio mandate, but - honestly - it works surprisingly well as a commentary on where the genre has drifted. The first Incredibles movie asked us to take superheroes seriously, but that was a long time ago. In a post-Batman v Superman world, it's nice to get a reminder this genre can also be optimistic.

This might change after I see it a few more times, but Incredibles 2 is currently my favorite superhero movie of 2018. And, in case anyone's forgotten, that's high praise this year.

If you don't already have tickets, what in the world are you waiting for?


*Caveat. There was nothing all that dark in Incredibles 2, but parents of young children should be warned I heard the kid next to me BAWLING during the pre-movie short. This will make a lot more sense when you see it.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Mission Rewatchable, Part Rogue

After realizing I hadn't seen most since their theatrical runs, I'm rewatching and reevaluating the Mission: Impossible film series in preparation for Fallout.

This one just came out a few years ago, so I'm not even going to joke about the *SPOILER WARNING* - if you haven't seen Rogue Nation yet, watch it before reading. It actually matters this time.


Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015)

When I wrote about Ghost Protocol, I mentioned that I found its 93% Freshness Rating baffling, because I found it far higher than I thought the movie deserved. By coincidence, Rogue Nation has the exact same score on Rotten Tomatoes, and once again, I find it baffling. Only this time, it's because 93% feels absurdly low.

Watching through Rogue Nation for a second time, I found myself engrossed in every scene, despite the fact I remembered what happened fairly well (it's only been a few years, after all). I think there's an argument to be made - in fact, I'll be making this argument in a moment - that this is as close to a perfect movie as this sub-genre has ever produced. I'll be clearer: in one sense, I think this is a better movie than any of the Bond installments.

Though in a different, less fair sense, it isn't.

Rogue Nation is a fantastic film, easily the best in this series and one of the best genre movies in recent years. However, there's one area where it falls a little flat. It's not all that memorable. The issue is the same that's plagued this series since Mission: Impossible II, the movie that made Ethan Hunt into a generic lead. This movie is clearly evoking Bond, but Hunt is no substitute for 007. In the first MI installment, Hunt was at least different. He had his own set of skills and didn't rely on Bond's techniques. But, again, MI2 threw all that out, and in doing so essentially established a ceiling for how good this series could possibly be. Rogue Nation, to its credit, hits that ceiling in the cold opening and never drops an inch.

This wants desperately to be a Bond movie. Even the music occasionally nods to the more famous franchise. And, of course, its premise is outright stolen. Yes, there was a version of "The Syndicate" on the original television series, but the Syndicate presented here is clearly a spin on Spectre. It feels trivial to say it's a far better spin than the movie Spectre managed, so I'll take this a step further: this is a more interesting version of Spectre than the Connery Bond movies employed.

It's not a better Blofeld, though. I mean, it's better than the "Bond's lost adopted brother" garbage they employed in Spectre, but the same can be said of Doctor Claw from the live-action 90's Inspector Gadget movie. The villain at the core of Rogue Nation's Syndicate is, like Hunt, a generic facsimile. He's a really good facsimile, but there's no mistaking him for the genuine article.

There are actually some advantages to being generic versions of iconic figures. For one, Ethan Hunt isn't obligated to sleep with every woman he comes across. Only the second movie imposes a cliched romance - the third did have Ethan in a relationship, but it subverted almost every spy movie trope in the best way possible. Rogue Nation introduces Rebecca Ferguson's Ilsa Faust, who is mercifully never paired romantically with Cruise.

It does falter around at least one unfortunate trope, though. Early on, we get a fairly classic fridging. The character killed is a new one, and her death is explicitly there to motivate the lead (or at least that's the villain's intent). It works in the context of the movie, but I wanted to mention it due to this series's history. One of the few constant character traits Hunt has is that he gets angry when young women die. It was established in the first movie, and it keeps coming up. I suppose it's better than if he didn't care all that much (i.e.: the current incarnation of Bond), but it's unfortunate this series has become such an easy go-to example for the trope.

Rogue Nation moves at an absolutely breathtaking pace, shifting effortlessly from location to location as the characters chase the McGuffin, which we actually care about for once. The reason we care is because the mystery behind the McGuffin is directly tied to one we actually have a reason to be invested in - Ilsa Faust, a double (triple? Quadruple? I honestly lose track) agent whose loyalties, background, and future are bound to the magical digital mystery box everyone's chasing. We care because she's intriguing, and we can't understand her without understanding what she's after.

In Ghost Protocol, they were ostensibly fighting over a McGuffin that could bring about nuclear Armageddon. This time, they're after money, and somehow the stakes feel far higher.

The action sequences in this movie are staged and executed beautifully. We get a opera sequence evocative of the one from Living Daylights, only here it's escalated by several orders of magnitude. We get an exhilarating chase sequence that uses comic relief to build tension - seriously, this thing is a work of genius. Ferguson is used heavily - Ilsa's is about a hair away from getting equal screen time to Cruise. This is much appreciated, since both her character and fighting style are far more interesting.

Ultimately, this is a movie that's somehow better than it can possibly be. It's essentially the perfect encapsulation of what this genre is capable of, a virtually flawless execution that, by all rights, should be celebrated by genre fans the way The Avengers or The Dark Knight are. The difference isn't due to quality; it's due to cultural significance, the one ingredient Rogue Nation - and the Mission: Impossible series in general - lacks.

All that being said, I'll be really interested to see if Mission: Impossible - Fallout can prove me wrong and maybe find a way for this series to distinguish itself. I'm skeptical it's possible at this point, but after rewatching Rogue Nation, I'm hesitant to bet against McQuarrie. This movie really is incredible.