Friday, July 21, 2017

Movie Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets


It's been more than a decade, but I remember watching the Star Wars prequels and wondering what I'd think of them if they hadn't been Star Wars. I know I'm not alone in this - a lot of us were preoccupied with what those movies were doing to the franchise, and we were conscious of the fact we couldn't really look past that. What would it be like to watch them divorced from the classic film series?

For better or worse, Valerian offers us a rare opportunity to answer that question. It's not just the same genre - the aliens, technology, and (tragically) dialogue would have fit in perfectly with Lucas's prequel trilogy.

A lot of that is due to like source - the comic this movie's based on was influential in the design of Star Wars. But there's also something to be said for visual approach. Valerian has a budget significantly higher than Luc Besson has controlled previously, and he spends like it's 1999. That means going extremely heavy on the CG, cutting loose with everything he's ever wanted to put on screen.

Visually, it isn't awful, but then neither were the prequels. At times, Valerian is gorgeous to look at and fun to experience, but - also like the prequels - the level of inspiration wavers. For every sequence that's awesome to behold, there's another that's dull and pointless.

Speaking of dull and pointless, let's talk about the characters. Valerian and Laureline are undermined from the start by a relationship that's explained in one of the most awkward exposition scenes I've ever seen. Aside from this, their characters would have been serviceable as stoic points of view; space-police patrolling a surreal setting they're accustomed to. When the movie drifts in this direction, it does a little better, but it always tries to bring it back to something emotional, only to sink into melodrama.

That's not surprising given the director's past: we all remember the end of The Fifth Element. But that had Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich to salvage the writing. With all due respect to DeHaan and Delevingne, they just don't have the same star power. I think Cara Delevingne comes a little closer, which makes it all the more unfortunate that the movie leans heavier on Dane DeHaan for the dramatic moments. He's not a bad actor, but he's just not the right choice for this part.

This is the part in the review I wish I could say the third lead, the city of Alpha itself, salvaged the movie, but that's another missed opportunity. The titular City of a Thousand Planets is a cool concept and what we saw of it was great, but most of that was in the trailer. I'd have loved more of the city's bizarre nooks and crannies, but we just didn't get it.

Another set piece serving as a playground for an inter-dimensional showdown was much more satisfying, despite only being around briefly. This sequence - let's just call it the third or fourth prologue - offered a wonderful barrage of gadgets, monsters, action, and mind-warping SF puzzles. Overall, the movie was at its best when it threw ideas and obscure genre conventions at the screen. It delivered an impressive volume of weirdness, and I appreciate that.

But, ultimately, it never quite worked. I think better casting decisions and a little more thought to the tone would have made a huge difference; strip out the sappy love story, and you could have had something brilliant. But as it is, you're left with a sub par, albeit fun, big budget space opera that's not as good as Fifth Element, Avatar, John Carter of Mars, Jupiter Ascending, or Chronicles of Riddick. And it doesn't even hold a candle to this year's Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Movie Review: War for the Planet of the Apes


We should really stop giving awards to actors who wear make-up. Any make-up, of any sort. Or a hat, scarf, or glasses. You really shouldn't be eligible for an Oscar if your face is obscured by any of these, since it's impossible to tell whether it's your acting or if it's sunglasses creating the character.

Alternatively, they could just give Andy Serkis a goddamn Academy Award, since he's more than earned it. Hell, he deserved at least a supporting actor nomination for Gollum fifteen years ago (not to mention a nomination for the last two installments of this franchise). But he really deserves to win for his portrayal of Caesar in War for the Planet of the Apes, the third film in this rebooted series that is far, far better than logic dictates should be possible.

You can go look up videos on Youtube that demonstrate the CG skin is nothing more than a modern update on make-up and costuming: it's his performance shining through. I'm skeptical Serkis will get the recognition he deserves, which will seem hilarious to acting students fifty years from now, when his work is studied and analyzed as the most significant of the era.

Serkis was always the lead in this series, but he's barely sharing the screen this time. War is his movie, through and through. There are only a handful of human characters with significant roles, and none come close to getting the focus Caesar's given. There's no James Franco or Jason Clarke role - Woody Harrelson's Colonel plays an antagonist, but even then, he's more a stand in for elements of Caesar's internal journey.

This is ultimately an introspective movie about an aging warrior trying to find inner peace. It has a lot in common with Logan, actually. Both even overlay classic movie templates on top of science-fiction stories. While Logan used a blend of western and road trip, War for the Planet of the Apes is modeled after POW films. There's an awful lot of The Great Escape in this film's DNA.

I'm not sure whether this is it for the franchise, or if Fox will circle around to telling an updated version of the 60's movie. Either way, War wraps up this trilogy, and it does so eloquently. If this is it, we've got nothing to complain about. If there's more, there's every reason to be optimistic they'll be great.

If you've seen the first two in the series, I highly recommend you check out the resolution on the big screen. If you've never seen Rise and Dawn, I suggest you stream them online then go see War for the Planet of the Apes in the theater.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Movie Review: Spider-Man: Homecoming


Before I get started, I just want to take a minute and appreciate that we're four superhero blockbusters into 2017, and the lowest rated of the bunch - Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 - is still 81% Fresh. This year has had its share of disappointments, but not in this genre. Logan, Guardians, Wonder Woman, and now Spider-Man have each exceeded all reasonable expectations.

And Spider-Man: Homecoming is the best of the bunch. Sure, Logan has a better shot at Best Picture, Wonder Woman was more timely (pun not intended - I'm fully aware that Timely Comics was the forerunner of Marvel, not DC), and Guardians was more visually stunning. But in terms of successfully accomplishing the film's goals, Homecoming is just better.

And don't think those goals were easy. Marvel had to clear a high bar with this one. They had to assure Sony the company's trust wasn't misplaced, and they had to demonstrate the world needed yet another Spider-Man series. That's a tall order, given that Raimi's series helped establish the tone and look of the modern superhero film (along with Blade and X-Men, obviously). Plus, Spider-Man 2 is often regarded as one of the genre's best. And while the Garfield reboot wasn't as good, it was already fairly close to the MCU (the tech was similar, and Sony and Marvel came close to a deal to have their universes at least partly connected).

In short, Marvel had a lot to prove.

We already had high hopes after Peter's introduction in Civil War, and Marvel was uncharacteristically upfront about modeling this after John Hughes's filmography. But that barely scratches the surface of what they delivered. Homecoming represents a fantastic reimagining of one of comics's most famous characters.

The movie captures the source material's humor and thematic elements perfectly, far better than any of its predecessors. But it actually strays quite a bit when it comes to the details. We already saw the new Aunt May in Civil War - if that feels like a departure, wait until you meet the new Flash Thompson. Or when you realize the Daily Bugle has been replaced by YouTube (at least for now - I'd be surprised if they didn't work some version of the Bugle into the sequel). This is a new version of Spider-Man built to fit in the MCU, which is only a hair's breath from our world. Anything that wouldn't fit has been transformed.

Presumably, Spidey's origin is more or less unchanged, but there's no way to know for sure. He talks about the spider but we neither see it occur, learn whether it was radioactive, or learn any details. Likewise, the movie doesn't even namedrop Uncle Ben. Instead, the movie trusts us to know Parker's origin story. It's interested in where his story goes from here.

And I loved every minute of it. I loved the new Vulture, who bears only a slight superficial resemblance to his comic counterpart. I love Parker's relationship with Tony Stark and others in the MCU. I love Peter's high school life and how expertly the movie handled Spider-Man's frustrations balancing his two lives.

Spider-Man 2 remains a great work, but - frankly - I don't think it can compete with Homecoming. I'm not sure many superhero movies can. This is one of the best movies we've seen from Marvel to date. Personally, Avengers remains closer to my heart, but I suspect Homecoming might be a little better. It's really that good.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Movie Review: Baby Driver


Baby Driver's name and much of the premise evokes Speed Racer, and the movie can almost be described as a re-imagining of the concept. In some ways, Baby and Debora bear a similarity to Speed and Trixie, though you'd be hard-pressed to find any other parallels among Baby Driver's cast.

I'd love to try watching this back-to-back with the Wachowski Sisters' 2008 adaptation - I think the two films would compliment each other, despite representing polar opposite approaches to automobile racing/chases. While the Wachowskis delighted in using CG to build an unapologetic cartoon world, Edgar Wright uses practical tools to transform the setting. Baby Driver's world is still surreal, but that emerges from pacing, editing, and music, rather than imagery. I love both movies and suspect the contrasts and similarities would be fascinating.

That's a rather long-winded way of trying to touch on the experience of watching Baby Driver, a beautifully intense homage to crime cinema. Homage is nothing new to Wright, who's probably best known for Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim, but this represents a very different approach. There's still comedy, but it's far more muted than we're used to. The film is very much a work of genre, not a statement about it. And, unlike Shaun (and the other movies in Wright's Cornetto Trilogy), it starts and ends in that genre. There's no fake-out where it evolves from light comedy to horror; it's an action/crime movie, through and through.

I don't consider that an inherently good or bad thing, but crafting a movie with a relatively conventional approach to plot and character should raise expectations that those elements will be handled well. And, if there's anywhere the movie disappoints, it's here. The story is less original than I'd have liked, and two key characters, namely Baby and Debora, are under-developed.

I'm more forgiving of that with Baby. He almost seems more like a video game protagonist than a lead, but the movie's experience ties to this so completely, it's hard to view it as much of a flaw. Sure, he's more a force pushing forward than a developed character, but it's that force that makes the movie worth seeing.

Debora, on the other hand, is harder to hand wave. She's the movie's love interest, and by the end of the movie represents the bulk of Baby's motivation. And yet, there's really very little justification for her choices or the leads' mutual affection for each other. As far as I can tell, Baby loves her, because she talked to him, and she loves him, because... I guess the script calls for it?

Come to think of it, Wright's filmography doesn't include a lot of significant female roles, outside of fairly generic love interests. It might be a good idea for him to experiment with some new points of view, along with his shifts in genre.

Fortunately, the movie's other characters pick up a lot of the slack. Jon Hamm, Eiza González, and Jamie Foxx are all great, as is Kevin Spacey, who plays a character who could almost be an aging Keyser Söze. The script does a good job shuffling them to keep you guessing which represents the real threat.

Likewise, the story might be light, but the storytelling, driven forward by music and an instinct to escape danger, is expertly handled.

The script could have been better, but the direction was damn near perfect. The choreography and cinematography alone make this well worth a trip to the theater, especially if you could use a break from CG-heavy blockbusters.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Movie Review: Wonder Woman


I'm seeing a lot of reviewers saying Wonder Woman is the best movie in the DC Extended Universe, which is really just a long-winded way of saying it's better than Man of Steel. That's true, incidentally, but I think we can set the bar a tad higher. How's this: exempting the Avengers, Wonder Woman is as good as - and quite possibly better than - any of the first installments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

That's not to say it's perfect - I've got some complaints coming later - but damn, it's good. And not just for the DCEU (fun fact: Wonder Woman's Tomatometer is higher than the sum of any two of the other three movies in the franchise). It's actually a really good movie.

So let's all just take a moment and breathe a sigh of relief.

Now then, let's get into the details, starting with what works. And there's no better place to begin than tone. Unlike its predecessors, this movie includes moments of levity. In addition to delivering some welcome fun, this also adds weight to the more somber moments.

They also get Themyscira and the Amazons right on a level that's stunning to behold. The island and its inhabitants are pitch-perfect - every second they're on screen is a gift. The Amazons are presented as an army of warriors, each fighting with a level of skill on par with Batman - I loved every second on the island.

Speaking of Amazons, this version of Diana is virtually flawless. A lot of the credit goes to Gal Gadot, who delivers an amazing performance, but I don't want to lose sight of what Patty Jenkins brings to the table. By building a movie around compassion, she gives Wonder Woman the emotional core she deserves. Incidentally, this is precisely what's been missing from the heroes of the DCEU to date.

Don't infer that the movie's emotional core detracts from the action, though - Jenkins delivers some phenomenal fights. Occasionally the CG gets a little obvious, but it's a small price to pay for actually being able to see what's happening.

Which brings us to yet another strong point: unlike the previous DCEU films, Wonder Woman is actually presented in COLOR. After three movies where everything appears as shades of washed out grey, it's refreshing to see blues, greens, reds, and golds again. It's kind of sad this sort of thing needs to be heralded as a wise artistic choice (as opposed to the obvious default), but that's where we are.

What am I missing? Chris Pine is great as Steve Trevor - he balances gender-flipped damsel and pulp adventurer in a way that works, plus his banter with Wonder Woman is everything you'd hope for.

All that being said... the movie isn't perfect. In fact, there are a few fairly major issues.

The largest of which concerns the end. Without going into details, the plot kind of crumbles in order to bring in the "big bad" in the last act. This is a pretty common issue in the genre, but it's more disruptive than usual. Almost everything about the last fight feels wrong - the scale is too large a departure, the villain is bland, and there are some odd emotional beats.

That's the only flaw I'd describe as "objectively" wrong (i.e.: I think it hurts the movie whether or not you've heard of Wonder Woman before watching this). My other main problem concerns the movie's benching of the Greek goddesses.

Aside from a few call-outs in the context of objects (i.e.: Armor of Hephaestus, Lasso of Hestia), I only recall hearing the names of two Greek deities: Zeus and Ares. The origin of the Amazons (and of Diana) is certainly reduced to these two. Thematically, I'm more than a little bothered that the Amazons' power springs completely from a male patron.

That holds double for the version of Diana's origin story they went with. Yes, I realize there's precedent from the comics, but it was a mistake there, as well (which is why they've since reversed course).

I think that does it for the major complaints, though I have one more set of elements: the bizarre. There were a few decisions that didn't completely bother me but did leave me perplexed. I'm assuming you've seen the movie or don't care about spoilers if you're still reading, but just in case, I'm about to get a little more specific than I've been up to this point. Considered yourself warned.

Okay, the first did bother me a little, but I'm starting to rethink it in hindsight. The movie changes the mythology so the Greek gods were all killed by Ares. This is somewhat limiting in terms of future stories they can tell (unless they want to undo that choice, which wouldn't be all that hard). Still, it's a surprising alteration to the status quo.

Surprising, but maybe clever, depending on what they have planned, given that the classical premise of Jack Kirby's New Gods hangs on the death of the old. Originally, he was taking a swipe at the Avengers, but changing that to the Greek pantheon might make for an interesting connection. Plus, if they play up the divine aspect of the New Gods, it could allow them to give Wonder Woman a central role in the Justice League movie. Nothing wrong with that.

I also feel like I should mention the movie's two "lesser" villains. I actually liked them, but I'm a fan of over-the-top villains in this genre (you can all go to hell - Viper was awesome in The Wolverine). If you're less enthusiastic about this kind of absurdly evil bad guy, they could definitely grate on you. Personally, I'd take them over the movie's main villain in a heartbeat.

Next up is the era. Rather than set this in the present day or during the character's first appearances in WWII, they changed it to the first World War. I've read a few explanations why, some of which seem more plausible than others. Regardless of the rationale, I didn't really feel like the movie capitalized on the era. The suffrage movement was reduced to a throwaway line, and the novelty of this form of war was undercut by the presence of characters already broken and jaded by it.

All in all, I didn't feel like the movie would have changed at all if it had been set in WWII. The good news there is it didn't feel any worse for the change; it was just kind of an odd choice.

Lastly, the movie includes a minor frame story set in the present. This of course ties back to Batman v Superman and points ahead towards Justice League, as if they felt like they had to remind you it's part of a bigger world. It's not painful, but it really adds nothing (unlike the larger DCEU, which still adds nothing but is painful).

I think this is one of my longest reviews here, which makes me wonder if anyone's still reading. In the off chance there is, I'll reiterate that this is absolutely worth seeing. It has a few issues, but it is such a dramatic step up in quality I feel embarrassed even comparing it to the last few DCEU films. By all means, check it out this weekend.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2


If I had to pick a movie to compare to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, I'd set its predecessor aside and turn instead to 2008's Speed Racer, itself a brightly lit, nostalgic experience. And, as long-time readers of this blog already know, that's high praise in these parts.

Want more? When the credits finally finished, I turned to my wife and said, "I think that's the greatest comedy I've ever seen." It wasn't entirely an off-the-cuff remark: I'd been reflecting on that through most of the movie.

That was a day ago, and over the past twenty-four hours I've found myself revisiting that statement, questioning it, and applying caveats. It's certainly one of the most fun comedies I've ever seen; perhaps not the most reflective or contemplative. And then there are questions of originality, influence, and a host of other factors. Is it really better than Princess Bride, Shaun of the Dead, or a host of other classics? Is it really in the same genre?

Who cares? That's not the point.

It's that visceral reaction that deserves recognition. It's entirely possible this won't hold up to repeat viewings at all, or it will settle into a far more modest spot. In fact, that's likely. But it doesn't change the fact that the experience of sitting in a theater watching this yesterday was an absolute gift.

And if you're a genre fan, I invite you to stop reading, drive to the nearest theater, and buy a ticket. Seriously, don't read another word. Go see it before you trip over the countless spoilers littered below.

That was actually a joke - I couldn't spoil this movie if I tried. Hell, the trailers did their best to show us as many twists, key moments, and important sequences as they could squeeze in a minute and a half, and it didn't diminish the impact in the slightest. Because this movie wasn't built around story - it was built around character relationships.

Well, those and jokes. If we're being honest, it was mostly built around jokes, but those were built out of relationships, so it works out.

Every moment of this movie, every argument and fight, was about characters, their love for one another (or, in the case of the villains, for themselves), and their personalities. Every time the movie is presented with a choice between showing you something epic and a character moment, it doesn't just show the character moment: it flaunts it. And right off the bat, you'll love it for it.

I wish I could say that I found myself deeply invested in the characters' journeys. There was a lot here to sink your teeth into in that respect - every character was given at least one arc built around a relationship with another character - but, if I'm being completely honest, I was laughing too hard to care. Intellectually, I love what Gunn did with Nebula, Yondu, Gamora, Rocket, the list goes on.., but these didn't click with me emotionally on this viewing.

I don't think that's a failing, at all. The content was there, but at the end of the day, I connected with this as a comedy and loved every minute at that level. Your mileage may vary - I'm seeing plenty of testimonials from people who loved other aspects.

It's not hard to see why. The first Guardians, while a lot of fun, contained a couple cloying flaws. Gamora was under-utilized, the team was under-powered, and the scale was too small, while the story was perhaps a little too big. This time, every one of those issues is addressed, several in the opening fight.

In addition, Gunn manages to improve on the already fantastic setting. This is outer space filtered through the collective imagination of the 1970's and 80's, a neon-lit universe of rock and pop music album covers.

There's more to say. So much more. Fans of Marvel Comics will get whiplash catching the references and Easter eggs. The post-credit stingers alone are just awesome.

But I think I've gone on long enough. I went into the theater expecting something great, and this still caught me off guard. If it's not the best blockbuster of the summer, this will be a year to remember.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Futures Market: 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

No. Goddamn. Clue.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

......

So. Here we are again.

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

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

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

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

No idea.

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Okay. Let's ground these expectations a bit.

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Sorry. I'll stop now.

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

So, that's cool.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

There. That checks out.

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

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


Summary
Huh. I guess that's it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Kong: Skull Island


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

But.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Movie Review: Logan


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

Yet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Movie Review: The LEGO Batman Movie


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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