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.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Mission Rewatchable, Part Ghost

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 is where the *SPOILER WARNING* goes, though - honestly - it barely matters for this one.

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011)

This one's awkward. Up until this point, my opinions have vaguely trended with critical consensus, but that changes here. Ghost Protocol is tied with Rogue Nation on Rotten Tomatoes with a stunning 93% fresh. And I just don't get it.

The weird thing is, I usually like the director. Strike that - I usually love Brad Bird's movies. I even found Tomorrowland compelling and beautiful, and that's below 50% on Rotten Tomatoes. But Ghost Protocol leaves me underwhelmed.

While I don't like it, I don't hate it, either. The action is solid, the comedic bits are funny, and there's a twist at the end I really dig. But overall, the movie feels completely devoid of substance. Aside from the first, every movie in this series is kind of forgettable, but most have something about them I feel is deserving of being remembered. But Ghost Protocol is just... there's very little here aside from a disjointed series of action beats.

The movie pretends there's more, of course. It introduces a pair of new agents, each with a brief backstory/motivation that interferes with the mission. The first, played by Paula Patton, wants revenge against the hired assassin who killed her boyfriend. I actually appreciate that her arc is mirroring Hunt's from early movies (i.e.: she held her lover as he died, and she's driven by a desire for justice). But all this makes up a fairly minor portion of the film, and it's all just so silly. Given her profession, you'd think she'd have some sympathy for the hired killer and maybe be more interested in the mastermind who ordered the hit.

The backstory given to Jeremy Renner's character is a little more interesting. He was tasked with protecting Ethan and Julia in an off-screen mission which resulted in Julia's death. Ethan has no idea he was in charge of his wife's security, which promises drama that's never delivered (for good reason, in my opinion - the reveal at the end is more in keeping with the franchise's commitment to misdirection and illusion).

All of this results in a lot of squabbling when the mission goes south in the second act, but it gets hand-waved so fast, it comes off feeling trivial. When the team fights each other, they fail. When they work together, they win. In other words: cooperation is good, knowing is half the battle, enjoy your breakfast cereal.

That's all you get in terms of theme, and it's got jack to do with the actual plot, which centers around a madman trying to start a nuclear war. Though "plot" may be a generous descriptor, since there's very little connective tissue. You can connect the dots (i.e. they went to place 'x' because of clue 'y') if you want to, but it's pretty obvious everything that's introduced is present to justify either a set piece, a new location, or a joke. Nothing feels organic or satisfying.

The villain is barely in the movie - we are literally told instead of shown his paper-thin motivation, and we're never told why, exactly, an academic is able to go head-to-head with the world's best spy in a fistfight. If he has a personality, we never see it. At the end of the movie, the only things I really know about him are he's a nihilist, and he's willing to die to bring about World War 3. That's not a lot to hang a movie off of.

This movie has no backbone, nothing holding it together. There are some good action scenes (the Russian prison escape, Hunt scaling the world's tallest building, the fight in the automated parking garage, etc.), along with some clever gags, but that's all. There's no interesting tale of espionage, no inner conflict, and no unique tone. Just one zany thing after another, punctuated with a moral that feels ripped from an 80's Saturday morning cartoon.

All of that being said, this is far superior to MI2. Ghost Protocol is lacking substance, but the sequences are far more interesting and far less offensive. I appreciate how it subverts the trend towards fridging that permeates the first and third movies. It actually subverts it twice by having a male character die to motivate a woman, and again with the fake-out around Hunt's wife: everyone assumes he's driven by losing her, but he secretly knows she's fine.

Plus, this comes closest to getting back to the team dynamic missing from this franchise since it moved to the big screen. It can't quite pull it off, because the cornerstone of a cinematic team is specialization, and three fourths of this group are interchangeable super spies. But of course that's an issue inherited from the second installment - I'm not sure there's a good fix at this point, short of removing Cruise from the series and rebooting with a more balanced team.

At the end of the day, this doesn't strike me as an awful film, but it certainly doesn't feel like a great (or even good) one. It's watchable, but instantly forgettable. There's nothing about the characters to make them interesting, the villain is as boring as they come, and the plot is so thin it's almost nonexistent.

Am I missing something here? I feel like I must be, given how much critics (and fans) loved this. If anyone has a different take, I'd love to know why this is as popular as it is. I just don't see it.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Mission: Rewatchable, Part III

On rewatch, I found I loved part one and hated part two, so we're tied. Or we would be if we were keeping score.

We'll see how #3 fares right after this obligatory *SPOILER WARNING*

Mission: Impossible III (2006)

J.J. Abrams doesn't get nearly enough credit for being the guy you call to salvage fallen franchises. Think about it a minute: he's been hired to direct a new installment in three franchises that were more or less dead, and in each case, he delivered a film that revitalized the series with a fresh take. Sure, he's had missteps (though I kind of think history has been a tad harsh in how it's remembered Into Darkness), but he brought back Star Wars, Star Trek, and Mission: Impossible. I feel like that should be a bigger deal.

At any rate, my opinion of this movie hasn't really changed since I last saw it in 2006. It does a wonderful job recapturing the suspense of the first without rehashing the story. Abrams ingeniously gives Ethan a fiance and a civilian life, then builds the movie around his attempts to balance these with his secret identity. The tension is established from the opening, which seemingly shows his fiance executed in front of him. The movie then rewinds and shows us the lead up to this inevitable tragedy...

Which (spoiler alert for a twelve year-old movie?) isn't all it seems. There actually is a fairly textbook fridging in the movie, but it's not her. Honestly, I think the fridging (a fellow spy Ethan trained who dies early on) is justified by the narrative, but it's still more than a little troubling how often this trope pops up in this series.

Regardless, the movie's main antagonist is Owen Davian, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Davian is easily the most memorable villain this series has had, and I certainly wouldn't be the first to suggest he inspired aspects of both The Dark Knight's Joker and Skyfall's Silva. He's frightening without being inhumanly powerful, he's brilliant but prone to human weaknesses, and he's evil without being cartoonish: he's an absolutely fantastic nemesis for Hunt. And, in the end, he does manage to kill Ethan (sort of - it obviously doesn't stick).

The script is tense and well constructed. The story rearranges the standard elements you'd expect from the series in a way that's surprising and fascinating. There's a touch of humor, but it doesn't detract from the suspense in the least.

I should mention Abrams's infamous "mystery box" makes a somewhat literal appearance in this movie. The villain's motivation is to get his hands on a mysterious object the IMF wants kept safe, and the film goes out of its way to dangle the fact they're not going to tell you what's inside. I liked this in the context of the movie - the resolution implies it doesn't matter, and that the whole thing is silly, which is really the best way to wrap up a mystery box. It does leave you wondering if Abrams realized that would be the takeaway, or if he actually thought we'd be interested in the McGuffin. But ultimately his motivations will remain a mystery box, as well.

The action isn't quite as consistent as I'd like. There are definitely some cool sequences and some wonderful fights, but the large-scale set pieces sometimes feel forced. Even then, Abrams does a decent job giving you something interesting to see, even if it's by skipping a sequence entirely to follow the team waiting in the van instead.

It holds up well and manages to recover the franchise after the mess that was Mission: Impossible II. All that said, I don't find it quite as compelling as the first in the series. I think a lot of that is due to the fact that, despite the novel conceit of having Hunt struggle with balancing his home life with his work, this still feels like a fairly conventional (though good) action flick, while part one felt bizarre and quirky. It probably would have helped if MI2 hadn't reduced Hunt to a generic, gun toting super-spy, but that genie would have been hard to put back in the bottle.

This isn't revolutionary, but it's still a great flick that's worth revisiting.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Mission: Rewatchable, Part II

Last time, I looked at the first film in the series and found it held up nicely. Let's see how the second installment fares...

But first: *SPOILER WARNING* I'll be talking about the plot, so if you haven't seen this movie yet, be warned there is astonishingly little to talk about.

Mission: Impossible II (2000)

While I liked the first Mission: Impossible movie both when it came out and on rewatch, I remember being incredibly disappointed in part two. I hoped I'd have a different experience seeing it again eighteen years later, but if anything, I came away feeling like my memory had been generous.

Before I get into why I disliked this, I want to take a moment and touch on a few details I think this does well. To date, this is the only movie in the series where the main character is given a mission, assembles a team to complete that mission, and is never disavowed, branded a traitor, and/or hunted by his government. In other words, it's the only one that actually delivers on the premise of the franchise.

I'll also admit the twist in the cold opening was cool. Essentially, we see the same setup where an IMF team pulls off an impossible mission, only this time it's a renegade team using their skills for evil. Granted, the whole premise of the movie is lifted from GoldenEye, but it's still an interesting direction for this franchise.

Pity the movie squanders that premise. The villain may have been a good idea, but the execution is abysmal. The bad guy epitomizes every cartoonish cliche imaginable. He's at once overly effective and laughably idiotic, leaving no plausible explanation for how he's as successful as he is. Likewise, despite having had previous interactions with Hunt, the two have no relationship or arc together. They were never friends, they're not really presented as rivals (aside from working at cross purposes), and their opinions about each other don't change over the course of the movie. We're supposed to view them as each others' nemeses, but there's no depth or reason to care.

Likewise, the movie conveys none of the suspense delivered by part one. John Woo manages to deliver some pretty shots, but there's nothing beyond the imagery. There are points this almost feels like a Michael Bay movie - visually impressive, but void of feeling or substance.

This is most obvious when it relates to Hunt. In the first movie, he was always shaken, always in danger. He spent the entire movie on edge, and I felt that while watching it. In the sequel, he seems impervious. Villains unload machine guns in his direction, and he barely breaks a sweat. I understand the impulse to sell your hero as cool under pressure, but there's a fine line between making a character badass and just killing the stakes. To put it another way, it's as though the franchise went from Die Hard part one to Die Hard part five in a single movie.

And of course everything else interesting about Ethan Hunt is either dropped completely or watered down to get a cheap laugh. He's still good at acrobatics, but he's equally good at hand-to-hand combat, motorcycle riding, and slow-motion gun fights. There's a throwaway line about him preferring stunts to body counts, but it's primarily there as a joke. Meanwhile, everything setting him apart from being just another generic super-spy is gone. Cast a British actor and change his name, and this script could literally be a Bond movie - and not a particularly good one. Hell, they even have Anthony Hopkins phone in a generic version of 'M'. And, of course, there's a Bond-girl.

To be fair, Thandie Newton was a good pick for the role. She brings some presence to the part and deserves far better than this script, which introduces her as a capable expert before immediately relegating her to an object for the men to stress over. I mean, Jesus, the central conflict in the movie concerns her being asked to sleep with her ex so Hunt can spy on him. All so we can wallow in Hunt's distress at being forced to put her in this position, of course. The movie does take pains to give her a little agency, but it never comes close to justifying the trashy premise.

The other two members of Hunt's IMF team are bit parts - they're basically sidekicks. It's a shame the one movie in this franchise to adhere to the basic structure of the source material wound up being the worst. I'm convinced this is part of the reason every other installment veered closer to part one's structure (which is probably the least impressive aspect of the first movie).

Mission: Impossible II started with an interesting premise, but instead of following through, all we got was a generic action movie surrounding an even more generic love story. We wound up with a Bond movie, minus the style that makes even a bad Bond movie watchable. In the end, all this really did was establish that Ethan Hunt was good with a gun, removing what could have been a distinguishing trait from the character.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Mission: Rewatchable, Part 1

So, the sixth Mission: Impossible movie is coming out this year, and I haven't seen most of the others since they were in theaters. Well... turns out the box set containing the first five movies was absurdly cheap on Amazon, so...

You get the idea.

Oh, and before you ask in the comments: of course, I thought of doing a "your mission is to re-watch these movies" gag for the intro, but I decided against it because that would be stupid and obvious.

So... nothing's self-destructing, no one's getting disavowed, and nothing at all hinges on whether or not you read this. However, I do have one dramatic thing to say:

*SPOILER WARNING* This movie came out in 1996, if you haven't seen it... you are probably under the age of 20. Regardless, I'll be talking about the plot, so... consider yourself warned.

Let's get started.

Mission: Impossible (1996)

I was kind of shocked to realize this is the only movie in the franchise I didn't originally see on the big screen. I did see it on VHS a few times (side note: it's also the only one in the series I'd seen more than once before last week), but it's been at least fifteen years since I last watched it. And while I remembered liking it, I really didn't expect it to hold up. Not a lot of action movies from the 90's age well.

I'm pleased to report this one doesn't just hold up; it may have improved over time. The cool stuff remains cool, and some of the more awkward elements come off as charming. Yes, a large number of the sets are obviously on sound stages, but the movie infuses these with an astonishing amount of suspense. Moreover, it manages to use this to create a world that feels unreal but believable. Even the ridiculous CG helicopter sequence at the end seems like it belongs.

Of course, not quite everything holds up. The movie is a little too eager to kill off female characters in order to show Ethan Hunt's horror and rage at their deaths. If memory serves, we'll be revisiting this issue in later installments - I seem to remember this franchise having an addiction to fridging characters. That said, it's worth noting there's another side to this here - they may not last long, but the team at the start of Mission: Impossible is split 50/50 male to female. I think that's the only time the series pulled that off.

Speaking of the team not lasting...

Another complaint many people have - or at least had - with this film was its decision to do away with the team dynamic and focus instead on a single action hero. I'll admit it still bugs me a bit. The concept behind the series was for a team of specialists to carry out an elaborate mission making use of their talents. Essentially, it was a perfect blend of the espionage and heist genres. Dropping that idea basically reduces the premise to a Bond knock-off.

But there are a few mediating factors in the movie's favor. First, it's hard to stay disappointed in something like this for two decades. It may have felt like a dramatic departure in the 90's, but by now, it's just kind of a background fact.

More than that, I love how, despite being pushed into the role of a lead, Hunt remains a specialist throughout the film. I'd love this more if the movie didn't downplay it - they actively identify him as the team's "point man." But - and this is to the movie's credit - he's not the point man. He's their gymnast. Aside from throwing on a disguise every now and then, there's not much Hunt does in the film that deviates from this skillset. The scene where he breaks into the Langley server room is of course the most iconic example, but this is true of the train fight and aquarium escape, as well. Even the brief sequences where he fights hand-to-hand rely mostly on kicks and acrobatics. The one time he tries using brute strength, he gets knocked on his ass by a man twice his age. Likewise, Hunt never once fires a gun. He threatens someone with one, but there's never a point where he has to pull the trigger. Hell, for all we know, he's a terrible shot.

My impression is that was intentional: Hunt wasn't a super spy with an infinite catalog of skills to draw on. Sure, he's clever, driven, and resourceful, but at the end of the day, he's a specialist used to relying on a team who's now being forced to go it alone. Obviously, they throw out any limitations (along with his aversion to firearms) in the next movie, but we'll get to that in time. In this installment, he's about as far from the Bond-esque uber-spy as 90's action movies allowed.

This also subverts action movie conventions in a manner that shouldn't be (but sadly is) highly unusual: this film actually seems to treat human life as something with value. I'm not adverse to films with dark tones, but I do have a pet peeve when movies amass huge body counts without consequences. It's typically in there for shock, and it pulls me out of the story when dozens of civilians die without a believable response. This was more or less the default for 90's action, but Mission: Impossible shows admirable restraint. By my count, exactly eight people died over the course of the movie, and all were current or former agents. And if anything, it made the deaths occurring on screen all the more shocking.

I've seen people complain about this movie's plot, but I've never agreed with that. Yes, it's complicated, but that's all part of the fun. If you don't want to follow along, there's nothing stopping you from zoning out and just enjoying the action/adventure elements, but if you're willing to tune in, there's a fun little mystery going on. I'll admit they tipped their hand a little early by giving away the twists through voice-overs and flashbacks, but this didn't really bother me on rewatch.

Mission: Impossible honestly still felt like an exciting, engaging action movie. It's not quite the best of its decade (that title's taken), but it's definitely worth seeing again.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Movie Review: Solo: A Star Wars Story

I walked into Solo pretty certain I knew what I was going to get and how I was going to feel about it. I'd been following the behind the scenes drama around the directors getting replaced at the last minute ("after the last minute" might be more accurate), I'd seen the trailers, I knew it was trending towards 70% on Rotten Tomatoes, and - let's face it - a prequel movie focused on Han's origin story only has so much breathing room.

With that in mind, let me tell about the movie I expected to see. It was going to be fairly dull, with rather uninspired spins on classic characters, enhanced by delving into corners of the Star Wars Universe we've only caught glimpses of. In other words, I expected to be underwhelmed by the characters but thrilled by the world (which was more or less my takeaway from Rogue One).

Turns out, I had it almost completely backwards. Solo's best asset is its characters. I might not agree with every choice they made for a young Han, but there's no denying he was fun to watch. And even with absurdly high expectations, Donald Glover still manages to over-deliver: he's absolutely fantastic. And those are maybe the third and fourth best characters in the movie. If you thought K-2SO was great, wait until you meet Lando's copilot.

On the other end of the spectrum, I was a little disappointed in the setting. There's definitely some great stuff - including the first portrayal of Imperial officers and soldiers who come off seeming like humans - but overall we got less than I'd hoped from the worlds and spaces. A few of the planets were essentially indistinguishable from each other, which represents a fairly large misstep in this franchise. Likewise, the movie passed up the opportunity to really delve into the seedier underbelly of Star Wars. I think we got a better sense of that from Jabba's palace in Return of the Jedi than we did from this entire film. Still, what we see is fun. Some locations and situations may borrow heavily from Firefly, but Firefly certainly borrowed a lot from Star Wars, and turnabout's fair play.

The movie's tone and style are a bit harder to dissect. You can definitely see the frayed edges left by the change in directors - this is clearly a movie where the vision shifted dramatically halfway through production. What's really astonishing is that this doesn't pose anywhere near as big an issue as you'd expect. In some ways, it may actually have resulted in a net positive.

Objectively, there's something off about the way the writing - often intentionally comical, bordering on farcical - clashes with the dark visuals and serious surroundings. But the end result is so weird, it's engrossing. You end up with a space western that doesn't take itself seriously until it does. I kept thinking what I was watching shouldn't work, but - for me, at least - it just did. I'm honestly not certain if this is a reflection of Ron Howard's skill and dedication, or if he's just the luckiest son of a bitch in the galaxy. But that's also always been the question at the core of Han Solo, so you've got to appreciate the synchronicity.

There's one other expectation I had walking in that the movie managed to subvert, and that's one I'm going to be a little careful about. I'd assumed there was absolutely no way Solo could possibly surprise me. But once again, I was mistaken. Solo delivered a moment I couldn't possibly have predicted, and I was completely surprised and delighted. I expect this moment will be divisive. A lot of people are going to call it stupid, and they won't be wrong. But I just absolutely loved it.

While Solo certainly had its share of flaws, the movie demonstrates Disney's ability to produce worthwhile blockbusters even when things go wrong. I had a lot of fun watching this, and I suspect you will, as well.

Now go see it, so we can talk about the stuff I'm leaving out. Who the hell expected Solo to have anything that could meaningfully be called a spoiler? That alone is impressive.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Movie Review: Deadpool 2

Calling Deadpool 2 a comedy/action/superhero/sci-fi flick is somewhat reductive, in that the description fails to differentiate between the many gradations in each genre. Comedy/dramedy/parody/farce/pulp-action/buddy cop/war/spy/superhero/sci-fi feels closer, though I'm sure I'm forgetting a few sub-genres.

In other words, there's a lot going on in this movie. Whether that's a good or bad thing is going to hinge on your expectations and what you want out of it. The experience offered by Deadpool 2 is something of a Rorschach test, even more so when you try comparing it to part one. It's at once funnier and more serious than its predecessor; it's both better and worse, depending on how you look at it.

As a comedy, I'd say it's better. The jokes hit harder, the concept is less constrained, and the film feels even more eager to take risks. But a lot of the humor stems from an underlying change in premise. The first Deadpool was essentially a humorous story set in a serious world. Wade saw everything in comedic terms, but there wasn't that much inherently funny beyond his perspective. That's not the case with the sequel, which is set in a far more self-aware version of the X-Men Cinematic Universe.

To put it another way, Deadpool no longer feels out of place in his surroundings. If anything, he comes off a little darker than most of the characters around him. Hell, he might be one of the more realistic characters, provided you're flexible with your definition of the term "realistic." After the first movie, I hoped they'd use the setting for other characters and teams, but - honestly - that's hard to imagine here. I'm definitely game if they want to try a Domino or Cable spin-off (Zazie Beetz and Josh Brolin were both fantastic), but it'll be tough extricating them from this setting. The central thesis of Deadpool 2 seemed to be that superhero stories are silly. That's not a particularly strong framework to build a connected universe on, assuming that's still the goal.

But, again, it makes for a hell of a fun comedy. The movie embraces the meta aspects of the character far more wholeheartedly than the last time around, and - assuming you have a high tolerance for that kind of humor - it's nothing short of hilarious. It mocks entire generations of action movie tropes - I caught references to every decade since the 70's, though it seemed especially interested in the 80's and 90's.

In addition, the movie's score raises the bar in the genre. I don't want to give anything away, but it's absolutely inspired. I'll be disappointed if they're not at least nominated for an Oscar for that score.

As a story, Deadpool 2 lacks the cohesion of the first. There's still a through-line, as well as a handful of surprisingly poignant emotional beats, but the movie has almost as many side plots as tones. If you go in expecting a tightly told, elegant story from this, you're going to be disappointed.

You're better off expecting to have a good time watching a superhero parody flick: this more than delivers on that level and even manages to throw in a little extra. Just be aware there were trade-offs made to reach that point.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Movie Review: Avengers: Infinity War

As a far of the genre, I'm in awe of Infinity War. I think I can say that without spoiling too much. I can also say the movie looks absolutely stunning, the action sequences significantly raise the bar on what live-action blockbusters can pull off, and the interactions between heroes and villains are wonderful.

Obviously, you expected most of that from the trailers. But we can't go on without talking a little about spoilers. Note that said talking about spoilers. That's different than including spoilers, though be warned, even a fairly high-level discussion about the experience offered by this movie and its somewhat unique relationship with spoilers, may spoil some aspects for some people.

But I'm not sure that's a bad thing. Because, depending on your background around comics, the level of knowledge you have about the stories Infinity War is based on, and how closely you follow Marvel's long-term plans... you may want a little preparation.

The litmus test is a bit counter-intuitive: the more you know about the source material, the less information you should seek out beforehand. If you know who Thanos is, what he's after in the comics, and what happens along the way, you've already read more of this article than you should before seeing the movie.

To put it another way, the source material is a sort of spoiler, albeit one you may be better off having some experience with. That's not to say this is a straight adaptation - it isn't - but understanding what's happening on-screen versus what's happened in the comics may provide some welcome context.

If you're just a casual fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you may want to know, for example, that this is essentially the first half of a two-part project, the second of which is slated to come out next summer, when we'll also get the next Spider-Man installment.

At this point, I'd advise seeing the movie before reading further, no matter who you are. I'm not going to go into details, but I am going to say some things that might let longtime fans connect some dots.

Starting with my main takeaway from Infinity War: this is easily the ballsiest thing Disney's ever done. Hell, it may be the ballsiest thing ANY studio's ever done. Because, while die-hard nerds like me may have some idea of what's coming next year, it was pretty clear hearing the audience react that most of them did not.

I never want to hear another complaint that these movies play things too safe. This was perhaps the least safe movie imaginable, to the point I'm a little worried they made a major miscalculation. The MCU is the largest franchise in history, and Disney's taking an astonishingly risky wager on how the public will react. We won't know whether it pays off until next year. For what it's worth, I really hope it does.

So. Was it any good?

It was great. It was incredible. The Russos pulled off something absolutely unbelievable, delivering a cosmic superhero story on a scale grander than we've ever seen a live-action movie pull off. This thing is as surreal as the Guardians movies, as funny as Homecoming, and as tense as The Dark Knight. In one film, they fully refuted the notion that genre needs to be visually dark to have weight.

Because... my God... this has weight. Maybe too much. It leaves you feeling uncomfortable and shaken. That was clearly the goal, but... kudos to Disney's executives for green-lighting this. I hope they don't come to regret it in the next few years. Regardless of what happens in the next movie, they may have already ostracized a number of fans.

Infinity War juggles two dozen characters better than most movies can handle three or four. With only one exception, I felt like everyone got their due. Unfortunately, that one exception was a personal favorite - I was a little let down with their portrayal of Gamora. But pulling off a cast of this size with only one misstep is nothing short of amazing.

We've never had a blockbuster like Infinity War before, in more ways than one. The movie succeeds on a level that was previously unthinkable. I'm grateful to the Russo brothers for making it and to Disney for not stopping them. But I can't help but wonder if the rest of the world is ready for this movie.

I certainly hope so, because they're clearly going to see it.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Futures Market: 2018

Yes, the summer movie season is dead, and the world is no worse for its absence. But tradition is tradition, so I'm going to continue this exercise for at least another year.

For those of you who weren't here last year, here's the idea: I'm going through the big-budget, nerdy movies coming out over the summer months and taking a blind guess as to how well I expect them to be received critically on Rotten Tomatoes. Why Rotten Tomatoes? Because it's the simplest, most easily understood review aggregator. Most years, I end up embarrassing myself (though I actually did pretty well last year).

In addition, I let you know what I plan to be looking for when I decide whether to see it. Plus, I throw in one other random prediction for good measure. You know, because there wasn't already enough for me to be wrong about.

Everyone up to speed? Good! Let's get started.

April 27
Avengers: Infinity War
Projected Tomatometer: 92% (but I wouldn't put money on this)
What I'm Looking For: Doesn't matter - I'm seeing this
Random Prediction: This will easily be the highest grossing movie of the summer, but it'll make less domestically than Black Panther

I mean, it looks amazing. The sheer scale of this is incredible. But, as we've seen in the past, "big" doesn't always translate into "good." If anything, the correlation trends in the opposite direction. And this is arguably the biggest movie Hollywood has ever produced.

But the Russo brothers haven't let us down yet. Winter Soldier and Civil War were both absolutely phenomenal films - some of the best the MCU's had to offer to date. And every indication is they get this material and fully appreciate the opportunity they have here.

As I said above, I'm seeing this no matter what. Hell, if every critic pans this, and word of mouth says it's worse than Batman V Superman, I'll still show up to see for myself. But that doesn't get us any closer to an actual prediction.

The truth is, this one could go a lot of different ways. It might deliver a big-screen event on a level the world's never seen, and critics might reward that. Or, it could be dismissed - fairly or not - as an example of style over substance.

But at the end of the day, I'm betting on the directors and the studio.  My best guess is critics will respond favorably to this, similar to the last three Marvel productions. Just know I don't feel as confident in that guess as I'd like to be.

Regardless of how good this is, I expect it'll make a lot of money. It'll bury whatever the April record is, and almost certainly be the highest grossing movie of the summer. But despite everything going for it, my random prediction is it won't beat Black Panther's box office total. At this point, I'd be shocked if anything other than Black Panther takes the #1 spot domestically for 2018 (international might be a bit more of a toss-up).

May 18
Deadpool 2
Projected Tomatometer: 70%
What I'm Looking For: 80% Freshness and/or a Comic Book tone
Random Prediction: This movie will move Deadpool even further away from any kind of shared X-Men Universe

Everyone's focused on how Solo's directorial shake-ups will impact the movie - to be honest, I'm a little more concerned about Deadpool's. Tim Miller exceeded every expectation with the first installment, not only delivering a fantastic Deadpool movie, but also making the first live-action X-Men movie that embraced the superhero aspects of the franchise. I find the studio's decision to drop him a bit alarming.

That said, you could do a lot worse than David Leitch, director of Atomic Blonde. Leitch has definitely demonstrated a masterful understanding of action. The issue with Blonde was a lack of an engaging story (which, to be fair, is more of a deal breaker in the spy genre than in superhero/comedies).

I'd feel better if Miller were returning, but there are certainly indications this one's in good hands. I'm thrilled they're including Cable and X-Force, and I'm hoping to get more of what made the first one great.

All that being said, I doubt critics will be as generous this time around. My guess is reviews will be a little harsher, hence the drop in my prediction versus part one.

If this is universally recognized as a good movie, I'll of course check it out, but I'm also interested in whether the tone manages to sell a legitimate superhero universe the way the first one did. If this feels like the X-Men, I'll see it even if I hear it's otherwise a disappointment.

What can I say? I like superhero movies.

It was tough coming up with a random prediction here, mostly because these movies are already random by design. Instead, I'll mention a prediction I'll be a little sad to see come to pass if I'm right: that this will more or less cement the end of any kind of shared X-Men Universe. Between the upcoming merger with Marvel and the fact one-offs like Logan seem to be working better, I'm betting we'll see Deadpool essentially cement his place in his own, independent X-Verse. For what it's worth, I'd rather Fox used the setting and aspects of the tone established in Deadpool as the basis for an updated shared Universe. Obviously, you'd want to dial back the comedy, but I maintain sincere versions of characters like Colossus would work in a variety of sub-genres.

May 25
Solo: A Star Wars Story
Projected Tomatometer: 83%
What I'm Looking For: Anything short of universal disdain
Random Prediction: A movie centered around Donald Glover's Lando gets announced within a few months of Solo's release

You may think that "random prediction" is a little obvious, but at least I didn't go with the far more obvious one: "This will be the lowest grossing Star Wars movie of the Disney era." I mean, is this even in dispute?

That being said, I'm certainly not writing this off. If anything, I'm excited. Sure, it's worrying that the directors were replaced late into production, but this is hardly the first time Disney's been in a situation like this: Brad Bird was a late addition to Ratatouille, Ant-Man switched directors right before filming, and while Rogue One stuck with Gareth Edwards, it's no secret Disney made some major changes to his movie late in the game. 

We'll probably never know if Disney made the right choices in all (or even any) of those cases, but that's beside the point. All those movies were at the very least good. If there's one studio that seems to know how to churn out solid blockbusters even when the executives don't get along with the artists, it's Disney.

My guess on the Tomatometer is based on Ant-Man and Rogue One, incidentally. Needless to say, it could be way off - this might be the movie where Disney's movie-machine finally breaks downs and dumps a Suicide Squad on the world (not that this would be the worst thing - I enjoyed Suicide Squad). But I'm betting this will be closer to Rogue One: an imperfect movie that's still wildly entertaining.

Ultimately, it'll make very little difference to whether I see this or not. Unless everything I hear about it is awful, I wouldn't miss checking this out in the theaters.

June 8
Ocean's Eight
Projected Tomatometer: 88% (Sorry - couldn't help myself)
What I'm Looking For: Let's go with 88% fresh
Random Prediction: Clooney will appear in a post-credits scene.

I saw Ocean's Eleven when it was in theaters, but I never bothered with either of the sequels. This one looks pretty solid, though. The studio's clearly betting that a large audience will be ready for something different than a big-budget, effects-heavy sci-fi action flick after May. I'd describe that as a fairly high-risk, high-reward gamble, which seems appropriate given the franchise.

This one's being written and directed by Gary Ross, who has a pretty good filmography. Obviously, they should have gone with a woman in the director's chair, but if they were absolutely going with a man, the guy who made Hunger Games was a decent choice.

In terms of my prediction, 88% might be a little generous, but I figured I'd play along. This definitely isn't on my "must see" list for the summer, but if the reviews are strong enough I might give it a shot.

June 15
Incredibles 2
Projected Tomatometer: 96%
What I'm Looking For: 80% Fresh should be plenty
Random Prediction: Disney will announce a spin-off television series (probably on its upcoming streaming service)

Talk about consistency - Brad Bird's made three animated movies before this, and they've all scored either 96% or 97% on Rotten Tomatoes. I guess that makes my guess conservative?

It's worth noting he hasn't done quite as well in live-action. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol got 93%, while Tomorrowland got 50% (though, for what it's worth, I liked Tomorrowland quite a bit and found Ghost Protocol kind of dull and by-the-numbers, so... not sure what that means).

All that being said, I'm not sure how to take this one. The Incredibles is one of Pixar's best movies, but it feels odd they're returning after all this time. It's possible we'll look back at this and see it as nothing more than a cash grab (looking at U, Monsters).

But there's no way I'm betting against Bird, not when it comes to animation. It doesn't hurt that the trailer they just released is distilled joy.

June 22
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
Projected Tomatometer: 82%
What I'm Looking For: Freshness above 85%
Random Prediction: This will make around $430 million domestically

I enjoyed aspects of Jurassic World well enough, but mostly I found it kind of bland. This is one time I'm more than happy to see a new director at the helm. The trailers for Fallen Kingdom definitely seem like a step up from its predecessor, though I'm disappointed to see we're still stuck in the "dinos on an island" paradigm. This really should have shifted away from that for the sequel. Not just this sequel - I mean, the sequel to the original Jurassic Park should have moved into some sort of "World War Dinosaur" premise. This franchise has been spinning its wheels since its inception. Granted, there may be more to Fallen Kingdom than its trailers imply, but I can't imagine we're going to get anything truly new or exciting.

All that being said, the effects look less cartoony than the last installment, and the tone offers hints of of nightmares and fairy tales - that's absolutely a step in the right direction. And, hey, dinosaurs are cool - I'm certainly not denying that.

I'm almost more interested in how well this movie does than whether it's good or not. Jurassic World's reception shocked everyone - it's still one of the highest grossing movies in history. I suspect this one won't fare quite as well, mostly due to a drop-off in repeat business.

July 6
Ant-Man and the Wasp
Projected Tomatometer: 82%
What I'm Looking For: Unless Infinity War really sucks, I'll see this no matter what
Random Prediction: At least two other Avengers appear in this movie

I don't have a huge amount to say about this. I'm assuming it will be roughly as good as the first one (i.e., pretty good, but not quite great). It's nice to finally see a female character at least get co-billing on an MCU movie (it only took them 20 tries).

Overall, I'm probably more excited than most people. I love the low-powered Marvel movies, so this should be a nice palate cleanser after the epic scope of Infinity War (not that I don't love those, too). Personally, I'm hoping they really embrace the romcom/superhero blend they've promised. Spiderman: Homecoming delivered a high school comedy; I'd love to see the MCU continue branching out.

July 13
Projected Tomatometer: 34%
What I'm Looking For: Tomatometer above 90%, or there's no way I'm wasting my time. Unless it's set at Christmas - if it's a Christmas movie, I might be interested.
Random Prediction: You'll be sick of hearing "Die Hard in a building" jokes long before this hits theaters.

Yeah. As far as I can tell, someone really green-lit a movie that's essentially "Die Hard in a building." That's been a joke for years, and yet... here we are.

To be fair, there are a few caveats. The building looks like some sort of scifi set piece (I'm sure it'll be "a character in its own right" or some nonsense). A bit more promising is the decision to have the lead action hero be an amputee. It'd be even nicer if they'd hired an actual amputee, but - let's not kid ourselves - this only got green-lit because of The Rock.

But the trailer's tone makes my 34% guess feel optimistic. It could be misdirection, but there's nothing there that feels campy or fun. Given how many set pieces in the trailer alone shout out to Die Hard... I'm not sure "serious and suspenseful" was the way to go.

July 27
Mission: Impossible – Fallout
Projected Tomatometer: 93%
What I'm Looking For: Anything north of 80% should put my butt in a seat
Random Prediction: This will be heralded as one of the best action movies of the year, then everyone will forget about it a few weeks later

The last installment in this series, Rogue Nation, was easily one of the best spy movies we've gotten in decades. It was everything that Spectre should have been but wasn't.

That makes it all the more bizarre that everyone - myself included - has to pause and try to remember what happened in Rogue Nation. Go ahead: try it. Take your time. I'll wait.

The plots to the Mission Impossible movies are basically Mad Libs designed to move the leads from one set piece to the next, but... the same is true of Bond movies, and I remember those. I think the main reason it's so hard to remember Mission Impossible movies is they lack unique villains. Based on the trailer, I doubt Fallout will break the mold.

But I'm betting it'll still be a great ride. Christopher McQuarrie is returning to direct this, so my expectation is it'll be packed with more of whatever made Rogue Nation so good. Granted, a few years from now it'll probably be impossible to recall which of the two movies had Cruise performing which absurd stunt, but I'm willing to live for the moment.

Teen Titans Go! To the Movies
Projected Tomatometer: 47%
What I'm Looking For: Trailers offering some sense of the what the movie's going to be
Random Prediction: Will be better than most live-action DC movies

I recently discovered that Teen Titans Go!, a series I'd mostly dismissed out of hand, was quite a bit better than I'd assumed. The episodes I've seen certainly haven't been uniformly excellent, but there were a few absolutely brilliant ones mixed in.

How's that going to translate to the big screen? No clue. And, to be honest, I'm not all that optimistic. There have certainly been animated shows that pulled off the transition, but rarely anything slapstick. Movies - even comedies - usually gravitate towards some kind of emotional arc, while Teen Titans Go! seems geared towards subverting that kind of thinking at every turn.

My hope is this project started with a brilliant premise, something that really justifies the project. And there are definitely reasons to cling to that hope - casting Nicolas Cage as Superman shows real interest in superhero adaptation history, and the teasers have certainly been intriguing.

But, honestly, we don't know much about this yet, and translating absurdist comedies to the big screen tends to be forgettable, even in the rare situation where the movie is mostly good (Powerpuff Girls, anyone?).

My guess is this will fall in the same traps, but I wouldn't mind being wrong. I found LEGO Batman underwhelming, but it certainly demonstrated it's possible to pull off something like this. Here's hoping this pulls off a similar feat.

August 3
Christopher Robin
Projected Tomatometer: 82%
What I'm Looking For: I'd take a high Tomatometer score (80%+), a few glowing reviews from trustworthy sources, good word of mouth, or... hell, they might pull me in with a few more trailers.
Random Prediction: This makes less than $100 million over its domestic run

The existence of this movie is baffling. It seems to be a melancholy fantasy about a grown-up Christopher Robin reuniting with Pooh and reclaiming the wonder of childhood. The sort of unnecessary, studio-driven garbage that--

GODDAMMIT. Every time that bear opens his mouth, I feel my heart melt into a pool of gore and nostalgia. It's just...

I'm going to see this movie, aren't I? I'm going to go see it, because I'm a goddamn sucker for anything remotely related to the Hundred-Acre Wood.

But... it's weird this exists, isn't it? Because I don't think I'm all that representative of the public at large. There aren't that many Pooh fans compared with other children's fantasies, and I can't believe most people who do love the bear with very little brain are interested in seeing him interact with adults.

On top of everything else, this is being overseen by Marc Forester, director of Finding Neverland (which, while relevant, wasn't especially all that memorable).

But what does it matter? Unless this gets universally panned, I'm going to wind up seeing it. Who am I kidding?

The Spy Who Dumped Me
Projected Tomatometer: 75%
What I'm Looking For: Tomatometer around 90%
Random Prediction: Good or bad, this will be better than any Bond movie we'll get in the next decade

The trailer for this looks entertaining, though it's of course easier to cut a good trailer for a comedy than it is to make a good comedy. Still, pairing Kate McKinnon with Mila Kunis in an action/buddy comedy has a lot of potential. And I like the idea we might be getting two fun spy movies in quick succession.

It's a pity this was made by a different studio than Spy - it would be cool to get a crossover.

August 10
The Meg
Projected Tomatometer: 40%
What I'm Looking For: 80% Freshness or really good recommendations
Random Prediction: This will make more money domestically than Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

I'm going to tackle that random prediction first. I wouldn't put even money on that coming true. Fallen Kingdom is the sequel to one of the biggest movies of all time, and it opens just a week before the 4th of July - it'll probably be huge.


I have a suspicion Jurassic World capitalized on a niche market that might be more fickle than the studio believes. I'd be shocked if it didn't do well, but I also think there's a decent chance it'll fall into the "middling blockbuster" range (let's pretend that's a thing).

Meanwhile, I think there's a chance The Meg is going to have wide appeal. When was the last time we saw something offer an unapologetically campy experience at this scale? It's a blend of Jurassic Park, Jaws, and Godzilla. It's a ridiculous premise being sold honestly while still offering sharp effects.

I don't think the odds of this beating Fallen Kingdom are anywhere near 50%, but I think it's in the realm of possibility. And if that does come to pass, I want to be able to point at this wacky prediction and gloat.

All that said, I doubt I'll catch this in theaters unless it's surprisingly good. I'm not holding my breath for that, by the way - the last time this director had a movie above 50% on Rotten Tomatoes was 1995's While You Were Sleeping. And I HATE While You Were Sleeping.

But tell me that trailer wasn't fun.

Closing Thoughts
You may have noticed this year's list is a bit sparse. Part of the reason is that the first half of summer is locked down by a handful of massive blockbusters. Infinity War, Solo, Deadpool 2, Incredibles 2, Jurassic World... yeah. I don't blame studios for giving these some breathing room. There's a reason the first four months of 2018 have had more big movies than we used to see in the summer months.

But there's something else going on here. There are actually several science-fiction movies slated for July and August that I didn't bother including. The thing is, I can't tell at a quick glance (or even a long glance) how many and which ones are major motion pictures, and which are going to be sold to Netflix.

We've entered an age where mega-blockbusters absorb a lion's share of attention, while movies that would have been huge two decades ago are instead trapped in a state of Schrodinger's direct-to-streaming. And, honestly, I think that's okay. Movies are evolving towards better and better forms of spectacle, and other mediums are ensuring there's still a place for less flashy, story-driven films. I love that superhero movies have gone from low-end schlock in the 90's to middle-of-the-road entertainment through most of the past decade, all the way to genre-defining masterpieces in the last few years. I love that Star Wars is back and as good as ever. I love that $200 million dollar blockbusters appear in the theaters year round, and most of them are actually pretty good.

And I love that smart, complex science fiction movies are still being made. Some will get national releases, while others will just be streamed on Amazon. I don't see a downside here.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Movie Review: Pacific Rim Uprising

I want to be clear about this - I tried to meet this movie halfway. I get that this is supposed to be more of an experience than a story. You can dig through the archives of this blog and find dozens of examples of times I've been on board with dumb, enjoyable movies, including the original Pacific Rim. I understand there are times you need to accept that a writer (whether through decision or limited ability) isn't managing to sell sci-fi concepts or fails to maintain adherence to their setting or tone.

But here's the thing. This movie is just. So. Stupid.

Okay, that's only part of the problem. I've enjoyed stupider movies, including some in the same genre. But Uprising fails to balance the elements necessary to overlook its intellectual shortcomings. In other words, it's just not all that much fun.

I'm being a little overly critical. There are moments in the movie that are quite a bit of fun, starting with an opening robot chase featuring a smaller, agile mech built and piloted by teenage genius Amara. I suspect if more of the movie had revolved around her, rather than Boyega's Jake Pentecost, it would have been a more enjoyable film.

But what we get of her is essentially a retread of Mako's arc in part one. Contrast that with Boyega's story, which is... also a retread of Mako's arc. As for Mako's role... ugh. Yeah. Turns out Becket was smart to sit this one out. Newt and Hermann are still fun, at least - I did like the twists they took there.

A lot of Uprising's issues revolve around the movie's tone. It's not that this doesn't know what it is - Uprising seems to realize it's essentially a scaled up version of Power Rangers or Voltron - it just doesn't quite pull off the recipe. There's a tug-of-war going on here between drama and camp, and at some point, the rope just breaks. Del Toro succeeded well enough in part one, but DeKnight never quite figures it out. The camp winds up undercutting the drama, and the forced drama and inflated stakes distract from the camp. You never really form much of a bond with anyone, but the movie keeps cutting away from the cool robots to put them in frame.

Meanwhile, the action sequences are very uneven. There are some cool moments, particularly in the closing brawl, but there are too many missed opportunities and bizarre choices. It's especially shocking how often this movie fails to deliver on the main selling point of the franchise: scale. The first movie consistently succeeded in selling the size of the robots and monsters at every turn. But there's only a handful of moments in Uprising that seem to understand or care how big anything is. There's a sequence early in the second act where a pair of robots fight and interact with their environment as if they're human-sized (how thick is that ice supposed to be?). Likewise, try to keep a straight face when someone states a monster that's got to be at least a kilometer long is two kilometers from its goal and closing fast.

Even more egregious is the way the movie teases potential twists and scenarios, then drops them in favor of the same kinds of fight scenes that permeated part one. This occurs at least twice - you're shown something new and fascinating, only to see it facilitate a return to the norm.

Again, I'm willing and able to forgive errors and suspend disbelief - all that's part of the price of admission to this genre (and I honestly love this genre). But when you strip out the aspects that make this stuff worthwhile, I'm left wondering what the point was. Because there's really not much left over that's not a rehash of part one.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Movie Review: A Wrinkle in Time

Make no mistake - Disney knows exactly what they're doing. A Wrinkle in Time is mixed as a movie. It's not going to be remembered as one of the best movies of 2018, and it won't break any box office records, but anyone who dismisses this as a failure isn't thinking long-term. Disney grew into the empire it's become in part by ensuring generations of kids were raised on their movies. If you think it's a coincidence they released this close to the upcoming launch of their streaming service, you need to think again. Twenty years from now, a million women will list this as their favorite movie growing up, the one they watched over and over again, the way the last generation watched Beauty and the Beast on DVD and the one before watched Pete's Dragon on VHS.

But let's set that aside and consider the movie on its own merits. Should you catch it before it leaves theaters?

Honestly, unless you're an eight to thirteen year old or have a great deal of affection for the book, you should probably wait for it to hit Netflix in a few months (or the aforementioned Disney service in a year or two). This is a situation where the movie's best aspects will transition to the small screen, anyway.

It's an odd case, though. The movie features some inventive design and larger-than-life performances. The three Mrs. are a joy to watch, and it's wonderful seeing this much vibrant color in a movie. But all that being said, the movie suffers from green-screen syndrome. The worlds are pretty, but they never feel real or lived in. Think Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow: you never feel like the things you're seeing have weight or substance, so you never feel like they pose a real threat.

Fortunately, the characters feel more concrete. Every line is delivered with complete sincerity - nothing in the acting or direction feels phoned in or forced. The emotional core and the message are delivered from the heart by people proud to be working in this genre.

I can't overstate how much of a difference that makes. It's far too easy to dismiss a kids movie as disposable entertainment, but Ava DuVernay clearly believes she's saying something important. What's really astonishing is how effectively she wills that belief into reality.

Yeah, I wish this had done a better job on world-building. I wish they'd allowed the kids to pick up a few minor scratches and bruises to convey some sense of danger. And I certainly wish DuVernay had strayed a little further from the book and told a slightly more compelling story. That's why I don't think this is essential theatrical viewing, incidentally.

But I can't wait to see the effects of a generation hearing Meg being asked to become a warrior then watching her step into that role. That'll be just as fulfilling on the small screen as the big one. I suspect that was always the plan, anyway.