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.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Movie Review: Black Panther

Let's get the disclaimer out of the way now. It should be pretty obvious that Black Panther is an extremely important movie, both in how it handles representation and in its exploration of themes and subgenres that have never before been approached with this kind of budget or studio backing. And - let's be frank - I'm in no way qualified to talk about any of that. The only aspects of this I'm remotely qualified to address are how it stands as a superhero movie in general and a Marvel installment in particular.

Fortunately, on top of all that really important stuff, Ryan Coogler delivered an absolutely fantastic Marvel flick.

(Thank God - can you imagine how awkward this would have been to write if he hadn't?)

First, let's talk about what this movie is and is not. It's a year-one story, but it's not an origin, at least not for the Black Panther. They already delivered a perfect origin story in Civil War, and this doesn't ask you to sit through a retread of T'Challa's arc from that movie. The version of T'Challa who appears at the start of this one has already undergone the intense emotional and philosophical journey depicted there.

That, alone, is almost unheard of in superhero sequels. Consider where Tony Stark is emotionally at the start of Iron Man 2 and 3 (or Avengers, Age of Ultron, or Civil War). He hasn't completely forgotten the lessons he's learned, but each movie opens with him at the mercy of his flaws. This is intentional, of course: the theory driving these (and most movie scripts) is that an internal struggle is better than an external one. But while that's a good rule of thumb for standalone stories, it tends to get redundant when serialized. And, in case you hadn't gotten the message after eighteen movies and eight television series, the MCU is kind of an experiment in serialized entertainment.

Coogler clearly understands that. You know what else he understands? That T'Challa, post-Civil War, isn't all that interesting as a person. He's interesting as a symbol. He's compelling to watch as a hero. But he basically obtained enlightenment at the end of Civil War - it's hard to identify with someone who's done that.

A lesser director would have rolled that back. They'd have had T'Challa regress to a point where he had to repeat the same journey, learn the same lessons, and confront the same inner demons. Then they'd probably have hoped the novelty of the setting would distract you.

But Coogler does something far more interesting, something comics have been doing for decades. He accepts that T'Challa is the least interesting part of the story, then uses that to his advantage. The fundamental story at play in Black Panther isn't T'Challa's internal struggle: it's Wakanda's. The young king essentially stands in for his nation as it undergoes a spiritual transformation. Ultimately, T'Challa becomes the setting, and his kingdom becomes the lead.

(Incidentally, Batman comics have been doing something similar for ages with Gotham. DC should be even more embarrassed they let Marvel beat them to this than they should be about losing the race to Darkseid/Thanos.)

Speaking of Batman, you know who is more interesting than the Caped Crusader? Everyone in Gotham. That's why Batgirl, Robin, Nightwing, Joker, Catwoman, and the rest of them have endured so long. Once you're past Batman's origin (and maybe one or two lessons on the importance of trust and family), your interest shifts to the quirkier side characters.

Coogler takes a similar approach here. This film is full of new characters - heroes, villains, and fusions of the two - and every one of them is a joy to watch. That's not hyperbole, by the way. Literally every single significant character is given a chance to shine, and I loved absolutely every one of them. The movie delights in taking the time to show why each one is worth exploring. You'll walk out of the theater wanting at least four or five spin-offs.

A lot of people are praising Michael B. Jordan's Killmonger and Letitia Wright's Shuri (and for good reason - they're probably the two most fascinating characters in a crowd of fascinating characters), but I want to hone in on Andy Serkis's Ulysses Klaue. If ever there was a character you'd consider relegating to the side, it'd be him. Klaue is sadistic, racist, and greedy. In the world of Black Panther, he's a symbol of pure evil. But while Coogler captures all that, he still finds time to explore the character's merits as a supervillain. He shows you why he's been successful for so long and why he's intriguing. His joy and energy are infectious, even when he's saying and doing reprehensible things. You hate what he is and what he stands for, but you kind of like him.

If he does all that for Klaue, just imagine what he does for characters who are good people. You know what? Don't bother trying to imagine it: just go to the theater and help ensure this innovative, beautiful film makes at least twice as much on its opening weekend as Justice League managed. You'll have a great time and, more importantly, they'll make more movies like this.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Movie Review: The Cloverfield Paradox

This is an unusually difficult movie to review, because you really can't divorce it from how it was delivered. Well, you can, but let's be honest - half the fun in Paradox came from having it seemingly appear out of nowhere. Announced just hours before it was available, it more or less materialized, like magic. Is that gimmicky? Sure! But both the tone and content lend itself well to cheap gimmick: it's all part of the experience.

At its core, The Cloverfield Paradox is a throwback to campy, B-genre fare. If you go in wanting a serious, frightening exploration of, well, anything, you're going to be disappointed. This movie is bananas. But it knows it's bananas. Hell, the characters realize what's happening is bananas and act accordingly. What matters is the bananas are ripe.

I'm concerned I may have stretched that metaphor a bit too far. Let's back up.

The Cloverfield Paradox is tackling an unenviable task: trying to offer some sort of explanation for the franchise after two movies that went out of their way to hide what's happening. This is made all the more difficult by the fact the first two are, at best, tonally related, and it's extremely difficult to imagine them occupying the same universe or timeline.

This one basically hand-waves that problem by implying it's all taking place in the same MULTIVERSE, and that everything weird happening is (probably) due to scientists breaking space and time. I kind of wonder if they're actually setting their sights a little higher and are trying to imply this is the cause of ALL genre movies. It doesn't take much imagination to picture Godzilla, Poltergeist, the Exorcist... you name it... being set into motion by what happened here. Maybe I'm reading too far in, though.

Regardless, there's very little meat to the "meta" aspects. There is an explanation given, but they don't bother showing their work. Ultimately, the movie just sort of shrugs and lets you know the monsters and aliens in the last two movies were because of multiversal shenanigans. Then it moves on without offering details.

Thank God particles: exposition was the last thing this movie needed. I'm far happier with what we get instead, a bizarre SF/horror/adventure that tosses one weird thing after another at the protagonists. Most of what they run up against ties into string theory, multiple Earth theory, and quantum mechanics in general, but only superficially. All that's an excuse for a bunch of weirdness, most of which doesn't make much sense and never gets explained.

But this movie - hell, this franchise - is at its best when nothing makes sense. The last fifteen minutes of 10 Cloverfield Lane were my favorite part of that movie (fight me!), and Paradox feels like it taps into that spirit.

This is a ridiculous B-movie; and Netflix dropping it with minimal warning highlights the sense it's 2018's version of a late-night drive-in or a movie you'd never heard of before catching it at midnight on cable. It's a movie best watched with friends, and it's clearly meant to be laughed with and at. At multiple points, the movie utterly abandons any semblance of reason. But it never pretends otherwise, and it makes sure you get something much more fun.

This isn't making anyone's best of year lists, but it's far, far better than it has any right to be. And as long as they're this much fun, I'm game for any number of future installments.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Movie Review: Paddington 2

Much to my shame, I skipped the first Paddington when it was in theaters and finally caught it a week too late to include in my end of year wrap-up for 2015. If I'd seen it a little earlier, it would have taken the top spot, above The Force Awakens. Needless to say, I caught the second installment opening day. Let's just say it's currently holding at 100% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes for a reason.

If you haven't seen part one and haven't been paying attention to reviews, you may be trying to reconcile all this with the trailers, which seemingly depict the movies as substandard CG-enhanced kids entertainment. Rest assured, however, these are exceptional CG-enhanced kids entertainment.

They take a premise that's been done dozens of times since the 90's: a character drawn from old source material is updated, brought to life through digital effects, and set loose on the modern world. Only instead of treating this ironically, they embrace the core heart of that source completely, then build a setting, tone, theme, and story around this.

I suspect that's part of the disconnect around the trailers. The US ones, at least, downplay the sentiment and try and sell this as a farcical comedy in the vein of the Garfield, Smurf, and Chipmunk movies none of us bothered to watch. But that's not what the Paddington movies are - these are closer to Amelie or Millions, seasoned with a dash of The Muppets. Hell, there may even be a little Speed Racer in the mix, particularly in part two.

The Paddington movies feature fantastic storytelling and film-making. I'd need to see them a few more times before trying to determine which is better. The first gets a boost by virtue of being, well, first, and by bravely exploring some of the source's problematic aspects. While Paddington 2 doesn't deconstruct the colonialist aspects of its source material the way its predecessor did, it's still a surprisingly political movie at times. Bear or not, Paddington is an immigrant, a fact the movie doesn't forget. The script never feels preachy, but I can't imagine anyone over the age of six being unable to pick out the movie's sole Brexit supporter.

There are actually a few aspects where the sequel surpasses the first movie. The main one is setting. Ostensibly, both movies take place in present-day London (along with the occasional flashback to the jungles of Peru). That said, these aren't beholden to realism. I mentioned Amelie earlier - the Paddington movies take a similar approach to their world, crafting a setting that's sort of a fairy tale reflection of ours. Plenty of other movies have attempted the same feat, with varying degrees of success. In my opinion (well, not just my opinion), a major factor in whether this comes off as charming or cloying boils down to consistency. Create a consistent, engrossing world on film, and the audience will follow along, no matter how seemingly absurd.

I'll take it a step further: the more absurd and surreal the world you're able to sell, the more entranced I'll be. I want to be transported to worlds where a talking bear is ultimately a mundane occurrence. Paddington accomplishes this in both movies, but the sequel doubles down with a backdrop overflowing with color, light, and pockets of magic spilling out of pop-up books or even lonely prison cells. The movie is unconstrained by realism, allowing it to delve into worlds of imagination and wonder without getting lost or coming off as insincere or cheesy.

Likewise, the characters - both new and recurring - are facets of this world. They make the setting more interesting with their presence, and the setting sells their unbelievable traits as normal. Sally Hawkins returns as Mrs. Brown, once again playing quite possibly the most likable character in a universe of likable characters, though Brendan Gleeson's Knuckles McGinty gives her a run for her money. The new villain is also wonderful, though I'm not sure anyone could ever match Nicole Kidman's taxidermist from part one.

I haven't even mentioned the humor of this movie. It's hilarious - even funnier than its predecessor - but, honestly, the comedy is almost an afterthought. Sure, I spent a great deal of this movie laughing, but it's easy to make something funny. What's harder is to make something charming, beautiful, and touching. Paddington 2 accomplishes all of that and is well worth your time. Just make sure you catch part one first if you haven't seen it - trust me: you want the whole experience.