Friday, May 31, 2019

Movie Review: Godzilla: King of the Monsters

It's been a while since there was a movie where I thought the majority of critics were completely off base. A few decades ago, travesties like Speed Racer's 40% Freshness rating were common, but I honestly think the profession has evolved admirably with the times. There are plenty of films where my opinion doesn't align with theirs, but I'm at a loss to name a movie from the past five years that I believe critics got hilariously, embarrassingly wrong (Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters was six years ago, incidentally).

What I'm saying is I think they're due for a mulligan, so let's not judge them too harshly, despite the fact more than half seem to have missed the mark entirely on this film. This ridiculous, glorious, wonderful film.

Let's start where we usually start with monster movies. I've said before that it's generally a good sign when you see reviews complaining about human characters in a monster movie, since it's a pretty strong indicator the monsters worked. If anyone ever makes another kaiju movie film were the monsters are boring, that's all you'll hear about. Because of this, I was somewhat glad to see the majority of critics repeating the same complaints (albeit louder and with more agreement) that were lobbed against the prior film.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered the human characters (with one exception) in King of the Monsters were solid. They're not groundbreaking or complex, but they're entertaining to watch in a way the leads of the last movie weren't.

As I said at the time, I enjoyed 2014's Godzilla despite Aaron Taylor-Johnson's bland POV character. The monsters (i.e., the only things anyone paying to see a monster movie cares about) were great, so I overlooked the movie's failings.

This time, that wasn't an issue. The lead from the last movie is nowhere to be seen. Instead we're following the only kind of people we have any reason to be interested in: ones who are interested in the monsters. 

Again, with one exception. The movie does have a character who feels as though he's present because some studio executive decreed at least one white guy got to do action stuff, and he's easily the least interesting part of the film. But even so, he's far less tedious than 2014's lead, and he feels more like one character in an ensemble than the star. And the rest of the cast is made up of character actors clearly having fun with the material.

They're essentially here to excavate the lore surrounding the movie's monsters and to explore how humans might approach or understand them. Are they gods? Demons? Titans? Forces of nature?

Anyone at all familiar with the genre will answer: "Yes, all of the above." Fortunately, King of the Monsters was made by people who are extremely familiar with monster movies in general and these monsters in particular. This is a tribute to the genre and the history if the iconic creatures. I was shocked by some of the details that survived to the final cut.

Speaking of the monsters...

They look great. The designs look modern without losing the charm and feel of the originals. Depending on your preferences, I'm sure some elements will look better or worse to different viewers, but I can't imagine any genre fan disliking the look of the titans. Even more important, the monsters all have unique personalities. They're more than effects: they're characters.

I should acknowledge that while I liked everything we got to see from the monsters, I was left wishing we'd been able to spend a little more time with Mothra. She got some great moments, but I felt like she deserved more screen time.

And she's not the only one. I'm not sure whether this counts as a spoiler (it might even qualify as an anti-spoiler), but I think it's worth knowing that for all intents and purposes King of the Monsters really only features four monsters. The trailers imply quite a few more, but everyone other than Godzilla, Mothra, Ghidorah, and Rodan is basically a cameo. I don't think this is a problem, but I did feel like the marketing was a tad misleading.

Visually, the movie takes a slightly different approach from last time: compared against the 2014 movie's realism, King of the Monsters feels a little more stylized and almost has the look of a painting. It's appealing, and it helps establish a consistent tone.

We should talk a little about that tone, in fact, since it's my best guess as to why critics missed the mark. I suspect some are mistaking this as brooding science fiction based on the color palette and theme. But while the movie is about something, the experience it offers is more visceral.

In a way, this is a kid's movie. It's exciting, engaging, and mildly scary. The best comparison I can come up with is the original Jurassic Park: it feels first and foremost like a movie made for eight- to thirteen-year-olds, or perhaps for adults nostalgic for movies they watched when they were that age.

To put it another way, IT'S A GODZILLA MOVIE. An actual, honest-to-Godzilla movie that feels like an update of the films Toho has been making all along. And for the life of me, I find it baffling that so many critics seem to have missed that entirely.

If you have any affection for the movies this is based on, I'd encourage you to seek it out as soon as possible. And if you've got a ten- or eleven-year-old kid who appreciates scale, maybe take them along, too.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Movie Review: Pokemon: Detective Pikachu

Whether or not you should rush to the theater to see Detective Pikachu can be answered using an absurdly obvious litmus test: do you have any love for this property? If you do, have I got good news. Detective Pikachu does a phenomenal job adapting the cartoon creatures of the video games, anime, card games, and... I don't know? What else is this multi-media empire built out of? Whatever it is, the movie finds a way to upgrade it to three dimensions in a manner that's believably tactile without losing the distinctive look of the source material. Think more Bumble Bee and less Bayformers in the approach and execution of the world.

Incidentally, I do not have any real background with this stuff, so the nostalgia grenade I just described did very little for me.

Okay, full disclosure: I know what a handful of these creatures look like, partly because they appear in the Smash Bros. games and partly because I exist in this civilization. But I was a few years too old to care about the anime when it came out, and I never played a single Pokemon game (unless you count the aforementioned Smash Bros. series).

That's a long-winded way of saying I had to approach the movie as if it was, well, a movie and enjoy it (or not) on those terms. Specifically, I approached it as a genre movie, and more specifically than that as an "ALL the genres" movie, as it incorporates elements of fantasy, sci-fi, adventure, romantic comedy, drama, slapstick, noir, superhero, and maybe just a dash of horror watered down to PG.

If you think that sounds a little overstuffed... yeah, that's the movie in a pokeball. The world is beautiful and fascinating even without much background on its inhabitants, but the movie never really coalesces into a unified whole, nor is it willing to commit to a tone long enough to really draw you in. Ultimately, you're left with more a vignette of sequences than a concrete experience.

If we'd gotten better characters, I think this could have worked anyway, but with one exception, everyone was fairly bland and two-dimensional. Fortunately, Detective Pikachu was that exception: he's still two-dimensional, but he's anything but bland. I'm tempted to call him the movie's MVP, but the setting already won that title in a cage fight against a charizard.

While Pikachu's good, the human characters are just kind of dull. The actors do solid work, but every human in the movie is written like they stepped out of a video game. The main characters lack interesting traits or arcs, and the plot is about as by-the-numbers as you can get. If you didn't figure out the twist ending from the trailers, you'll piece it together within the first 15 minutes of the movie.

Instead, the movie incorporates a lot of comedy, and not in a good way. Rather than build characters and allow the humor to arise organically from their interactions with a whimsical world, it tosses in a great deal of physical humor, most of which falls flat. I honestly think this movie would have been far funnier if they'd skipped the jokes entirely and trusted the world to be funny on its own. I also think this could have benefited from being a little darker, say PG-13 rather than the PG they went with.

Okay, I know it sounds like I'm saying I wish this had been Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but... actually, yeah, I do honestly just wish this had been more like Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Really, shouldn't all movies strive for that?

All that being said, the world this is set in really is incredible, and I imagine it's even more so if you give a damn about these ridiculous, adorable monsters. If Pokemon was a part of your childhood, by all means seek this out and enjoy the fluffy, electrically-charged jolt of nostalgia it offers.

The rest of us could honestly do a lot worse. This is almost certainly the best video-game movie ever made, and I genuinely enjoyed the weird-ass final act where rationality went out the window and it turned into a zany superhero adventure. But don't go in expecting brilliance: this is a very flawed movie with a few saving graces, not a game-changer.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Movie Review: The Wandering Earth

I'm 40 years old, and this is the first time I ever regretted watching a foreign film subtitled.

I wouldn't swear that I'd have been happier watching the dub, but I honestly got dizzy looking back and forth between the constant dialogue and even more constant visual effects. Everything in this movie is thrown at you at an unbelievably high speed, it'd be exhausting trying to keep up even if you weren't simultaneously trying to read along.

And when I say things come at you quickly, I mean really quickly. This thing is Armageddon cranked up to 11. It's like the platonic ideal of Michael Bay was handed a trillion dollar budget and there was no studio oversight.

Is that a compliment? An insult? Damned if I know. The Wandering Earth is a bizarre science fiction film recreating the best and worst aspects of American cinema for a Chinese audience. It clearly deserves to be seen on the big screen, but chances are you either missed your chance or never had one - it only received a limited release in the US, despite currently being the third highest grossing movie of 2019 worldwide. Fortunately, Netflix grabbed the rights, so you can stream it on whatever inadequate screen is handy.

The movie is at its best when showcasing gorgeous, inventive visuals, which isn't too surprising given its premise. It's at its worst when it focuses heavily on its story, which also isn't surprising given the premise.

That premise, incidentally, is that the governments of the world united and built giant rockets on the surface of the planet to fly it out of the solar system to a replacement star. If that sounds ludicrous, rest assured the movie is mostly aware. Does that make it better? I'm still trying to sort that out.

I will spend the rest of my life trying to sort that out.

The Wandering Earth is weird, exhausting, fun, absurd, dumb, and all the other adjectives (except boring - it is never boring). It's good, it's bad, it's so bad it's good and so good it's bad. It's too much, too fast, and too unrelenting. It's the movie Michael Bay wishes he could make - hell, I half expect him to try and remake this in English.

That would never work, incidentally. If anyone ever tried to recapture this, they'd just end up making Interstellar, and we all know how tedious that was (don't bother denying it - I'll know you're lying).

I'm still no closer to being able to say whether I liked this, but it's an impressive piece of cinema regardless. It's worth seeing for the scale alone, to say nothing of the visuals. I won't promise you'll like it, but if you're a fan of genre, this is destined to be remembered as one of the most significant films of the decade. This is the moment Chinese productions proved they could be as awesome and as stupid as anything coming out of Hollywood.

And, unlike 90% of what America produces, this certainly won't bore you.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Movie Review: Avengers: Endgame

Go see the movie.

No, really. Stop reading this, and go see the movie. I don't care if there aren't tickets left or if you have work or kids or anything else going on in your life you think is more important. Wedding dates can be moved, but you only get one chance to see this spoiler free, and you're blowing it if you read further without watching the movie.

Is Endgame really good enough to warrant that level of compulsive behavior? Well, the thing is, the answer to that question is... a spoiler.

The answer to every question about Endgame is a spoiler, because... well, that's a spoiler, too. It's all spoilers, all the way down. No elephants or turtles in sight: just more spoilers.

So you've been warned, and yet you're still here, still reading. Hopefully, that means you've already seen the movie, because the alternative is too horrific to contemplate. Let's start with that earlier question: is Avengers: Endgame actually good enough to deserve the unprecedented degree of paranoia surrounding every detail of its plot and premise?

Of course it isn't. No movie is, and while Endgame is a damn fine film, it's not even the best in the series.

Before your eyes roll into the back of your head, let me assure you my earlier spoiler warning was entirely sincere. Because while it may not completely justify the level of secrecy surrounding every aspect of the film, the very fact this secrecy exists is worth taking advantage of. Plus, the elements of the movie being concealed are fascinating. This is a movie with a massive budget that was, for all intents and purposes, barely marketed at all.

We're escalating the severity of our spoiler warning now, because I'm about to tell you that the aspects you should care about aren't who lives or dies. I mean, I'm not going to type a list here, and there are certainly twists in both camps, but frankly those were perhaps the least surprising elements of the movie. Even less than the overall plot, which is also a minor spoiler at best.

What are they hiding, then? Well, genre, for one. Or more accurately, for three: each of Endgame's acts has its own distinct tone and genre. Hell, for all intents and purposes, each of Endgame's acts is its own damn MOVIE.

Yup. One of the reasons Endgame is three hours long is it's secretly a trilogy of films. There's enough of a through-line to tie it all together, but the degree to which its sections are self-contained is unprecedented among movies anywhere near this scale.

But the same goes for this level of secrecy. The vast majority of scenes from the trailers were drawn from the first 15 minutes, with a few quick shots drawn from the end and even fewer from the middle. The second act is the main part they're trying to hide, even more so than the end, which...

Okay, let's go to maximum spoiler warning. If you haven't seen this movie, you aren't permitted to read further. Seriously. I will call S.H.I.E.L.D. and have you taken to a secret government facility if you read another word without seeing Endgame first.

The end of this movie is like nothing that's ever been put on film. When Infinity War came out last year, a lot of us described it as a crossover event, similar to the big company-wide summer events in comics. I bet the Russo brothers were laughing their asses off, because that... that was nothing.

This actually delivers the scope of a company-wide crossover. This is at once a breathtaking conclusion to a twenty-two-movie-long arc AND the foundation for a whole new generation of films. It's awesome. It's incredible. It's a solid thirty minutes of brain-melting wonder. There are easily a hundred separate shots and sequences, any one of which would justify the price of admission.

And then there's all the stuff I'm still not talking about. Stuff that's at times hilarious, heartbreaking, or - in some cases - kind of dumb. There were character decisions I absolutely loved and others I really could have done without. There are plenty of things in Endgame that just didn't connect with me.

But, God, what a ride. This isn't the best of the Marvel movies, but it might be the biggest accomplishment. This is by far the most ambitious MCU movie to date. Honestly, you don't even need to specify "MCU." This is one of the most ambitious movies ever made. I never want to hear anyone accuse Marvel of playing these too safe or too "by-the-numbers" again. Endgame invents entirely new categories of risks to take. It looks at some of the company's most successful characters and cavalierly subverts everything that makes them popular and successful. Even when you're not on board with the direction, you can't help but respect them for having the guts to try something new.

If you want to nitpick this, you'll have a plethora of options on where to start. This is the first MCU movie that's fairly unforgiving if you're walking in blind. Maybe you can follow along if you've only seen 16 or 17 of the 21 preceding movies, but even that's going to be a stretch. And the... er... science-fiction trope at the core of the movie's premise is used haphazardly. The explanations don't quite work and the film contradicts (or at the very least under-explains) its own rules - I don't think there's much point denying that.

But who cares? This is weird, quirky film making you'd expect to see in an art film blown up with a $500 million budget. It's three movies and three genres in one, and none of it has any right to work, let alone invoke laughter, cheers, and tears in its audience.

But against all reason at fourteen million six-hundred and five to one odds against it, somehow it pulls it off. And everyone deserves to see that play out on the big screen.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Movie Review: Captain Marvel

The movie's story structure is inverted, so let's go ahead and open with this: in summary, Captain Marvel is a solid installment in the MCU. It's not the best or most memorable film in the mega-franchise, but if you're a fan, there's more than enough to justify buying a ticket.

Okay. Easy part's out of the way. Now let's try and actually talk about a film that... God, I don't know where to begin.

There's a lot going on with this movie, though it's all woven together skillfully enough to work. Narratively, it's successful, which is no small feat given it's a throw-back 90's nostalgia prequel built around a character suffering from amnesia trying to recover memories from the 70's and 80's while hanging out with a digitally de-aged 70-year-old actor reprising the role he's been playing for more than a decade while also sort-of channeling an unrelated character he played in a 90's action movie who partnered with an unrelated amnesiac super-spy trying to reconcile her past with who she's become...

...And you'll note I didn't even mention the galactic space empire warring against the shape-shifting alien infiltrators.

But like I said, the narrative somehow works overall. The disparate pieces, on the other hand...

Well, most of those still work well enough, but you can feel the movie starting to strain. The script doesn't quite pass the "show, don't tell" rule, which is mainly a problem concerning Carol's personality. We're informed about her attitude, humor, and drive more often than we see them, which I found disappointing. That said, the supporting characters are good enough to make up for this oversight.

I'd also have liked a little more from the movie's tone. Some of the best sequences are built around surreal visions as Carol experiences faded memories. I loved these moments, but they felt a bit muted. I'd rather the movie had embraced its weirdness a little more than it did. That's not to say it wasn't weird - there are some great surprises from the comics, as well as some good jokes - but it still left me a bit unsatisfied. I don't need every one of these movies to be Guardians, but I do think this could have used a little more of those movies' willingness to embrace absurdity.

The movie's largest tonal imbalance (for me at least) stems from an overuse of drama and a focus on theme. Make no mistake, there's still a lot of comedy and action in this, but the core of the film is a rather weighty exploration of who Carol Danvers is and - more importantly - what she represents. This is about her power and her choice when and how to use it. And those are extremely powerful themes. It's just...


Yes, I know this isn't fair, but here's the thing: When you build a movie with these themes and play them up this intensely, it really feels less like you're making a movie about a woman who's a superhero and more like you're making a template for all future movies about women who are superheroes. And Captain Marvel kind of has that vibe, like it's conscious it's an event. And to its credit, I think it's good enough that it could have been that movie, the movie that defines what the iconography of a female superhero means to the world.

It could have been that if an even better movie with the same aspirations hadn't been made a few years earlier.

This doesn't mean there isn't room for both, nor does it mean that Captain Marvel doesn't still work as a movie. But I do think a lot of the weight they were going for lands with a little less force because we've been taken on this philosophical journey before. This movie really feels like it should be the first modern movie of its kind, and the reality is it's not. That doesn't undercut the theme, but it does undercut its impact.

In a "post-Wonder Woman" world, it might have been better to make a movie about a female superhero, rather than a movie that's about the significance of a movie about a female superhero, if that makes sense.

That being said, the theme certainly isn't a total loss. Since I'm criticizing the film for contextual reasons, it's only fair to mention context also enhances some of those same thematic elements. In an extremely ironic twist, real-world misogynistic protests of the movie play into the core story to a degree that's almost shocking to behold. I don't think the filmmakers intended to predict the precise language and form of these attacks, but the movie functions perfectly as a response.

But enough contextualizing. This is a really good superhero origin story and a really good movie, all around. It's well acted, well directed, and the effects work allowing Samuel L. Jackson to turn back time even more than usual is virtually seamless. And we haven't even touched on the brilliance behind Annette Bening's casting. On top of all that, this movie also manages to deliver what might be my favorite "prequel-explanation" I've ever seen. I know it's become a little cliche to cross every 'i' in these movies, but I really appreciated this one.

Still, in a world where multiple Marvel movies won Academy Awards last year, it's worth managing expectations. This is a solid entry in what's frankly the most impressive genre film franchise ever constructed. But I don't think it's one of the best.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Movie Review: Alita: Battle Angel

I'm having trouble answering what should be a relatively simple question about Alita - I'll get to that in a moment. First, let's discuss my initial reaction to the movie.

I freaking loved it.

Visually, this thing is incredible. We're talking one of the most beautifully realized sci-fi settings populated with incredibly bizarre superhuman characters ever put on film. The trailers give an accurate taste of what's in store, but there's a lot more where that came from. This movie is a joy to watch.

As for the story and character relationships... well... those are so bad you may find yourself laughing at major emotional moments. It tries to package the excitement and world-building inside a serious dramatic epic, and it fails. Miserably.

And since we're on the subject of technical flaws, the tone is a mess, too. The movie features several moments that should, logically speaking, be horrific and shocking. We're talking about kills that would normally be relegated to hard-R cinema but the light, colorful world combined with lack of character development just makes them seem, well, fun.

Which, honestly, is why they're not a bigger problem. There's a massive disconnect between what's happening and how it's supposed to feel, but instead of being alienating, it's just sort of popcorn entertainment. To a critic, that's a serious issue; to the audience, it's more fluff to enjoy.

Same goes for the movie's disjointed, overstuffed narrative. There are characters introduced who quietly vanish from the story, deep relationships that materialize out of thin air, and major plot elements given little to no depth or explanation. Hell, there's an entire separate movie's worth of story built around "Motorball" that's crammed awkwardly into a quarter of this film's run time. I'm sure it's lifted from the source material, but it doesn't really serve a point here.

Again, you won't care. Technically, the Motorball stuff should have been cut, since it adds nothing to the narrative or the main character's arc, but the sequences are engaging and fun to watch.

It's tempting to summarize Alita as, "All style, no substance," and wrap this review up, but I think that might be selling this a little short. While the movie mostly feels like the world's best fan film, there's one aspect that feels artistic, and that's the visual storytelling. Alita's got a conventional plot with a generic love story and all that, and it's disposable. Going off of the lines being recited, the main character has no real depth. But when she fights (or hell, just practices, moves, or even looks around), the movie conveys emotion, excitement, and even development through motion. It doesn't so much build to a comprehensive personality, but does make her feel iconic, which is a more impressive feat, anyway. And that leads us back to where I started, the question I was having a really hard time resolving.

Is this a good movie?

I honestly don't know. Maybe it depends how we define the term. Elements typically used as litmus tests for "good movies" - character relationships, structure, and tone - are all areas where Alita drops the motorball. But the visuals alone are worth the price of admission, and the construction of the action sequences (of which there are numerous) is awe inspiring.

Ultimately, it doesn't matter whether this is a good movie ahead of its time or a bad movie that's cool enough to forgive its failings: either way, it's a hell of an experience you owe it to yourself to see on the big screen.