Friday, April 24, 2020

Catch Up, Part 3: Capes


So, there was a time I caught more or less every superhero flick that came out opening day. That time was before I became a father. Now, I'm batting* less than 500 on catching them opening year, and that was when going to the movies was still possible. Hell, I barely saw Spider-Man: Far From Home on blu-ray in time to make my end-of-year rankings.

Today I'm looking at a bunch of movies I didn't see on time. Well, really I'm looking at two I didn't see in the theaters and one that's a modified reissue of a movie I did see and review. But now it's got scenes with Fred Savage, so I'm going to talk about it again.

At any rate, let's get started.


Joker (2019)
Eh. It's fine.

Okay, I'm going to level with you: I'm pretty sure I'd have liked this quite a bit more if it hadn't made a billion dollars and been nominated for Best Picture. I'm pretty sure I'd still have had reservations, but I'd probably be shoving those aside and focusing on how the good the movie looked, how impressive Phoenix's performance was, and... I don't know, how bizarrely random it is that a hyper-serious, R-rated standalone Joker movie exists in the first place.

But we don't live in a parallel universe where this was a middling success: we're in the one where it's one of the most profitable movies ever made, and... ugh. What the hell, audiences?

This movie was good as an exercise, but it was missing one big, obvious thing. And, no, I'm not talking about Batman, because...

Okay, it was missing TWO big obvious things, because the Joker really needs his nemesis, even if you're telling the story from his perspective. But assuming you really, really wanted to tell a Joker story that maybe does or maybe doesn't double as a Batman origin depending on what was real and what was being imagined...

This movie still needed a point. Because - at least as far as I can tell - it doesn't have one. It sort of implies a few possible points around class warfare, mental illness, and the like, but nothing it has to say really goes anywhere or feels justified.

Again, I realize the irony. If this had flopped, I'd be saying it doesn't need a point, that the fact it was well made and engaging was enough. But this got a ton of cash and accolades I don't think it deserved, so - fair or not - I'm going to heap a little criticism on that pile, as well.


Dark Phoenix (2019)
Watching this eight months after its release was a bizarre experience. At this point, critics and audiences have ripped the movie to shreds, so it wasn't like I had high expectations.

Was it really that bad? Honestly, I think the answer is, "No, but it was nowhere near good enough, either."

It's weird they tried this at all. At the end of the day, it really is a remake of X-Men: The Last Stand, a film some consider the worst in the series (they're wrong: that honor will always belong to X-Men Origins: Wolverine). The thing I find hard to wrap my mind around is this plays out more like a retread of that movie than a more faithful adaptation of the comics. Sure, there are a handful of details tossed in connecting to the source material (there's a group of aliens who are sort of a hybrid of the Hellfire Club, the Shiar, and Skrulls), but they wind up sort of indistinguishable from the army of generic mutants at the end of Last Stand.

At the end of the day, this incorporates a ton of elements created for that film. Jean's backstory isn't exactly the same, but it's pretty close, right down to Xavier having suppressed memories. There are sequences designed to evoke moments from The Last Stand, presumably in an attempt to make the audience wonder if they'll play out the same way. I guess we're supposed to be relieved when Jean doesn't disintegrate Xavier in this version?

Honestly, this could have used some of The Last Stand's camp. This thing takes itself way too seriously, probably in an attempt to address that criticism of The Last Stand and X-Men: Apocalypse. It ends up feeling like a weird amalgamation of tones from 90's action movies and from modern superhero flicks. Captain Marvel mostly managed to walk that line; this does not.

That said, I appreciate this occasionally tries to deliver a little of the superhero excitement missing from the series. Both the space shuttle rescue and the New York mutant vs. mutant fight were - at least in theory - closer to the comics that we've gotten from most of FoX-Men movies.

But while I appreciate the attempt, the execution left a lot to be desired. The fights were underwhelming, and the rescue felt small. Still, this is a step in the right direction. Or it would have been if it weren't the final step into oblivion.

Ultimately, this was a movie that should never have been made. In some ways, it was better than I expected, but - as is too often the case - that raised it to the level of dull mediocrity. I'm not sure how you make "alien super villains" boring, but this pulls it off.


Once Upon a Deadpool (2018)
Should I even bother? I mean, it's an edited-for-content version of Deadpool 2, along with a new frame story featuring Fred Savage. Is there any point in rehashing a movie I've already reviewed?

Maybe. Because this was trimmed down to PG-13, it offers a hint of what an MCU-friendly version of the character might be look like, should Disney decide to go that way. And, personally...

I've always secretly wanted Deadpool PG-13. I know that's not a popular opinion, and I don't mean to dismiss what they accomplished (particularly in the first movie), but I actually prefer comedy/adventure to be less gory and scatological. So, in that regard, I appreciate that this demonstrates the character still works toned down.

That said, I'm not sure the movie quite works. I mean, it works fine if you've seen Deadpool 2 before, but without context, I suspect some of this would be hard to follow. Also, quite a bit of the action becomes unsatisfying. That's not because action and violence can't be satisfying in PG-13 when that was how it was originally shot, but the fact this was originally filmed and edited for R means you lose a lot of payoffs.

Fortunately, the scenes with Deadpool interacting with Savage are hilarious and go a long way towards justifying this experiment. I wish we'd gotten even more time with the two of them, or possibly some additional content.

Beyond that, my feelings about the movie haven't changed. I found it funny but wish it had adhered a little closer to the original's premise of Deadpool being an absurd character in an otherwise relatively grounded superhero world, as opposed to the setting being inherently comedic. I also still wish they'd been a little more conservative around civilian casualties: it's kind of hard to reconcile the idea that saving one life matters when the "good guys" are getting countless others killed randomly.

I know, I know: I'm not supposed to take this seriously. It's all probably making a statement on the excessive violence permeating '90s media and all that, but it still pulls me out, and I'd still like to see them dial back the civilian casualties in future incarnations.

And I really hope there are more movies with these characters. Outside of Mangold's Wolverine movies, this is far and above the best version of the X-Men we've seen on the big screen. I'd love to see this Deadpool, Negasonic Teenage Warhead, Colossus, Cable, and Domino show up in the MCU.





*batting, in this context, should be read as a reference to Batman and not to any kind of sporting event -ed.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Movie Review: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker


Let's start with a spoiler warning, because if I'm actually reviewing a movie from last year as it's hitting blu-ray, I'm going to talk about content. Also let's throw in a "what hell am I reading?" warning, because - like Rise of Skywalker - this "review" is going to meander around its subject matter and discuss a lot more than the movie itself. This is, after all, the capstone to the "Skywalker Saga," the nine films that are retroactively being framed as one continuous story.

But let's start with Rise of Skywalker, a movie that failed to meet audience, critical, or studio expectations. A movie with serious editing issues and some baffling writing choices. A movie that inexplicably abandons the established rules of its series, altogether dropping the pretense of science fiction and replacing it with the most ridiculous epic fantasy tropes imaginable...

I kind of loved it.

Okay, I'm going to need to elaborate, because I definitely didn't love everything about this movie. I spent most of the first half staring in confusion, trying to imagine the logic driving the endless series of unnecessary plot complications and meaningless twists that seemed to draw out the run time. This movie has an over-complicated backstory to justify an elaborate hunt for a McGuffin whose ultimate purpose is to act as a map to ANOTHER McGuffin, which is also a map. I didn't check the time, but I'd estimate around an hour was spent on these two objects. Meanwhile, we never get clear answers as to how Palpatine is alive (he basically returned off screen between movies), or how Rey being his granddaughter makes a damn bit of sense.

To be fair, you can piece together some explanations reading between the lines and digging up lore from other sources. I'm going to break with most reviewers (and audiences) and say I'm actually okay with this. It's perfectly reasonable to be upset with the movie for these choices, but it just doesn't bother me. I enjoy expanded universes and lore, and I'm more forgiving than most around omitted details.

Personally, I was more bothered with that editing. Again, I'm mainly talking about the first half of the movie here - everything gets significantly better around the halfway mark. But until then, everything feels choppy and disconnected. This isn't just an issue pertaining to the story - the individual action beats don't flow together, which makes it borderline impossible to be pulled into scenes. There's a desert chase sequence that attempts to mashup the Jabba's palace and Endor speeder bike scenes from Return of the Jedi, but nothing quite clicks together. It all looks gorgeous, but the geography, physics, and timing feel staged. It's not uncommon for a movie's pacing to feel like it's impacted by reshoots, but the first half of Rise of Skywalker feels like it's comprised of nothing but reshoots. It's dizzying.

Fortunately, the second half is a major improvement. The editing and writing are still hit or miss, but the issues become less omnipresent. There are definitely some sequences towards the end that don't work, but there are a lot more that do, including a jaw-dropping lightsaber duel in the midst of a raging ocean. The resolution and final battle with Palpatine get a little too silly even for me, but it could have been a lot worse. If the choices for beating the emperor were melodramatic fantasy nonsense or a CG-heavy lightsaber fight a la Yoda vs. Dooku, I'll happily take the nonsense.

But the movie's real saving grace came from where I least expected to find it: the emotional journeys of Rey and Kylo Ren/Ben Solo actually worked. I want to pause to state for the record that Abrams made a huge mistake going this way. The Last Jedi offered a more satisfying origin for Rey and put Kylo Ren on a more interesting path. Her parents should have remained unnamed nobodies, and Ren should have been the one true villain of this movie.

For whatever reason, Abrams wanted to tell this story instead, and - to his credit - he made it work. I found Rey's journey compelling through this film. For the first time in the series, I actually believed a Jedi might give into anger despite their training, because (unlike Luke and Anakin) she understood that she might be drawn to the dark side and didn't care. I bought that there was a voice in the back of her head telling her to "remember her training," and that she was constantly telling it to shut up.

Likewise, Ren's redemption was surprisingly effective, in part because it occurred quite a bit sooner than I expected. They didn't just photocopy Vader's turn in the throne room - they set it earlier and made it (mostly) work as a culmination of his story. It also helped that it was capped off with one of the movie's best decisions: leaving it ambiguous whether Han was appearing to his son as a ghost or a hallucination.

In short, I liked this installment. It embraced the space opera side of Star Wars and delivered a weird, interesting experience. Yes, it went a bit too far at times (Palpatine draining the force from Rey and Ben to regenerate then shoot cosmic-force-lightning was astonishingly silly), but it seems a little late to be overly critical of Star Wars being absurd.

On top of all that, I should address the invisible space-elephant in the room. It's easy to understate the importance of visuals to genre, but that's a large part of the appeal. And, frankly, this is among the best-looking installments in the series. I'll admit that aspect is undercut by the editing (it's harder to be pulled into imaginative worlds when the movie fails to uphold continuity of action and spacial geometry) but even at its worst this is magnificent to look at. Same goes for the score, but at this point that feels like stating the obvious.

If this were any other movie, this would more or less be where the review wraps up with me encouraging you to set reasonable expectations and track this down if you skipped it in theaters (or if you were unable to get to the theater due to a seemingly endless barrage of baby-related illnesses). Of course, if this were any other movie, this review wouldn't exist at all, save perhaps as a couple paragraphs in a wrap-up post.

But as I said at the start, this is ostensibly the last chapter of a saga that began in 1977 and defined the format and tone of modern fantasy and science fiction films. And as such, it's part of something bigger, and I've got thoughts outside the scope of this singular chapter.

Of course, I'm not alone. If you spent any time on Twitter in December and January, you most likely already know quite a few people have chimed in with their thoughts on the Disney era of Star Wars, which a vocal handful of fans have already decried as the worst of the three trilogies.

I'll pause to give you time to throw your head back in laughter.

The idea centers on the claim that Disney failed to make a blueprint for these films before starting, and that this lack of planning is to blame for whatever failings the movies might have. And while that may sound like a reasonable argument, you should know the Venn diagram between people making that argument and people using misogynist labels for Rey has quite a bit of overlap.

I'm not saying these movies are beyond reproach or even that Disney couldn't have done a better job producing them, but I do question the motives of people blaming Kathleen Kennedy for the shortcomings of three movies directed by men.

I also think it's worth noting that this trilogy adhered closer to a blueprint of sorts than the original did (in case you forgot the Emperor was barely mentioned in A New Hope). Even the decision to make a trilogy instead of an ongoing series seems to have been a relatively late change - there was a time Boba Fett was envisioned as the main antagonist of the film that turned into Return of the Jedi, with the idea being that a final Luke/Vader showdown wouldn't occur until later.

A lot of decisions in the Disney trilogy were made by the individual directors, but it's worth noting they envisioned this as three movies where the first focused on Han, the second on Luke, and the third on Leia. Despite losing Carrie Fisher, they basically stuck to that plan, with Leia remaining the spirit of this installment. To be frank, that's more structure than the original trilogy had in 1977.

I give the original trilogy a lot of credit for having grown into a sort of shared cultural mythology, but it's important to recognize this elevated status makes it all too easy to delude ourselves into perceiving structure, planning, and intent in places where it doesn't really exist. If you go back and watch the three movies as independent works, it becomes clear they had wildly different tones, used different genre conventions, and were trying to exist as pieces of very different stories. A New Hope is essentially a serial, Empire is a more mature space romance, and Jedi is basically a cartoon. None of that's intended critically - I love all three films - but the idea they represent a single, unbroken story with fundamentally consistent elements is absurd.

Structurally, I'd argue the Disney Star Wars movies follow that blueprint (or lack thereof) relatively faithfully. Only the prequel trilogy followed any sort of plan for the meta-plot, and even then, there were massive course corrections and changes. It's also worth noting that the prequels were by far the worst of the series.

I know there are a handful of people out there who argue Rise of Skywalker is worse, and...

Okay, Skywalker probably has the worst editing and structural writing of the franchise. But even setting aside the far superior artistic design, I don't think there's a scene in the entire prequel trilogy that's half as good as Rey and Kylo's battle in the skeletal remnants of the Death Star. Or, hell, the moment when Rey defers to C-3PO on their odds of success and he realizes that everything will be for nothing if they can't get at the data in his head. Rise of Skywalker has a lot of dumb moments, but it's also got several that really connect emotionally. I don't think you can say the same for the prequels. If the editing and structure issues are a deal-breaker for you, or if that's the bulk of your good-bad spectrum for movies, I can't really argue with you dismissing Rise of Skywalker. But personally, I think the good outweighs the bad.

I'm certainly not suggesting the prequels were bad because they adhered to a plan, nor am I suggesting the originals were good because they didn't. In writing, outlines and blueprints are best understood as a tool, as are instincts. The quality of a story or movie or series doesn't hinge on which tools you use but on how well you use them. The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, in my opinion, used them very well. The Rise of Skywalker was clearly more hit-or-miss, but that's due to the filmmakers fumbling elements of this installment. Hell, the elements that most deviated from the last movie - Rey's lineage and Ren's redemption - were among the movie's most successful elements. The worst elements revolved around unnecessary side-stories and Sith artifacts that could have been excised without impacting any of the rest.

Assuming you agree with that assessment, you most likely agree it's not essential for these to work as an uninterrupted story. And that's good news for Rise of Skywalker, because the bulk of this movie feels like it materializes out of thin air. The Last Jedi took a lot of flack for going rogue, but I honestly think that's overblown. While it introduced new themes and made tweaks to the setting similar to the ones Empire made to New Hope's, it actually works relatively well as a direct continuation, certainly compared to the other non-prequel installments. Rise of Skywalker, on the other hand, basically throws out the majority of Last Jedi's changes. Maybe that's to be expected, given Abrams was returning, but I was a bit surprised this wasn't really tethered to The Force Awakens, either. Instead, Skywalker is essentially centered on an entirely new premise that has very little to do with either of its predecessors.

Again, this wasn't really a problem for me. Rey and Kylo's stories still feel like continuations from the last two movies, so it's not like there's no connective tissue at all. And while I don't think the ending of Skywalker knocks it out of the space ballpark, I think their resolution is satisfying enough to deliver something of an ending to the trilogy.

As for the crazy metaphysical revelations and twists around Palpatine, the Sith, and the Jedi... honestly, it's growing on me. I mostly disliked it while I was watching, but as a bombastic finale to a space opera, it's probably as good a tone as any to end on. Yeah, it's sillier than I'd like, but I'd rather spend some time trying to sort out what all that nonsense meant than mourn an ending that felt small and reductive. I'll take magic-space-pillar-lightning from a regenerating mega-Sith over a return to midichlorians any day.

At the start of this review (or article or whatever this is) I insinuated that the "Skywalker Saga" is itself a ridiculous idea, and I'll stand by that. This whole "9-film arc" is more marketing than reality, even before you start questioning whether it actually makes sense to consider these separately from Rogue One, Solo, The Clone Wars, Rebels, The Mandalorian, and everything else in the franchise. But if we're really playing along, I'd argue this is a fine finale. It would have been nice to end on a great movie, but even with all the issues (and there are many), I'm already eager to give it another viewing.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Catch Up, Part 2: Disney+


For those of you who missed the last installment...

I'm pumping out a bunch of mini-reviews for movies that aren't really new but also aren't all that old. These are basically all the big movies from the last few years I missed in the theaters, didn't watch in time to include in my end-of-year wrap up, but are still recent enough I was able to delude myself into thinking someone might care what I thought.

Today's is a BIG installment: I'm covering all the junk I've seen on Disney+ over the last few months. Well, all the junk that fits that criteria, anyway.


The Lion King (2019)
The Lion King remake presents its viewers with a choice: enjoy it or hate it. I suppose you could do both, but that feels like a lot of work, so you might as well pick a side.

To be fair, it offers compelling arguments for both options. Visually, this is one of the most incredible accomplishments ever put on film, a photo-realistic animated film. On the other hand, it's nearly a shot-for-shot remake that doesn't bother marrying the new style with the story, songs, or themes it's rehashing.

So it's an awesome, inspiring, cynical cash-grab. A gorgeous exploration of new techniques fueled by money and bereft of new ideas. Everything exciting and boring about Hollywood, all rolled together.

In the end, I chose to enjoy this for its merits. The effect was simply too impressive to ignore, and that won me over. Sure, the animal faces were too realistic to sell human emotion (particularly in the songs), but we give puppetry a pass for that constantly. Why not this?

It goes without saying I'd have preferred a new story (particularly one without racist subtext around the lion/hyena premise), but if Disney absolutely had to bank another 1.6 billion on a recycled script, I'm glad we got something pretty to look at out of the deal.


Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (2019)
[edit: I actually watched this elsewhere but figured it was easier grouping it here since it's obviously on Disney+ anyway, right? Turns out it's NOT, so apologies to anyone who immediately signed up for Disney+ after reading my middling review only to be disappointed].

Wow. And I thought the first Maleficent movie had tonal issues.

Approximately a third of the sequel is an utterly absurd comedy about Maleficent trying to be Aurora’s mother, while the other two-thirds is a surprisingly dark epic fantasy about a race of magical beings on the verge of extinction torn between philosophies of peace and war.

The comedy’s the good part. Honestly, the comedy sequences are fun enough to make the rest worth sitting through. Until things took a turn for the grimdark, I was thinking this might be one of my favorite films of 2019.

But then things get serious (or at least try to), and the movie starts feeling rote. If you’ve ever seen a fantasy movie before, you’ll be able to guess where things are headed well in advance. To be fair, you might not expect them to kill [redacted] with chemical weapons, but the plot is definitely on auto-pilot until it inexplicably turns back into a kids' movie at the end.

Other than the joys of seeing Maleficent attend an awkward dinner party, the movie also offers some gorgeous visuals. Like the tone, this is hit-or-miss, but when the designs work, they’re stunning.

Overall, this is a deeply flawed film that manages to get enough right to make it worth a viewing. That’s more or less how I remember the first installment, so credit for consistency.

Oh, and I assume this goes without saying, but Jolie is once again phenomenal in the role. Pity there probably won’t be a part three.


Kim Possible (2019)
I have fond memories of watching the animated series a few decades ago and was curious whether the live-action adaptation managed to capture any of the original’s charm. I was pleasantly surprised to find it (mostly) did.

Let’s not set unreasonable expectations, though – this was a made-for-TV movie, and it shows. If you’re expecting the production values of a theatrically-released action movie, you’re going to be disappointed. Just not as disappointed as you’d think. The action sequences are quite a bit better than I expected. The opening sequence in particular does a good job recreating the spirit of the cartoon.

On top of that, there's some good casting, particularly around the three generations of Possible women. Likewise, Patton Oswalt's only around briefly, but he's clearly having the time of his life.

All that being said, this was anything but perfect. They took Ron’s dorky side a little too far, and the result was cringe-worthy at times. Likewise, the movie’s plot was a bit overly dramatic – I’d have preferred more fun and less character growth.

But considering how bad of an idea rebooting this as a low-budget, live-action franchise should have been, I was impressed with the result.


Aladdin (2019)
I’m having a hard time summarizing my thoughts on this into a narrative. It’s at once indicative of the best and worst aspects of the live-action remakes, depending on which parts you focus on and which you ignore. Take the design, for example. The costumes and sets draw from Bollywood, which allows those elements to stand out from the original. But then the Genie shows up and they reuse a bunch of old ideas.

The movie’s equal parts intriguing and frustrating, which seems to be a running theme with these remakes. It takes some characters in innovative directions but doesn’t adjust the overall story to compensate. As a result, the movie kind of falls apart but leaves enough interesting pieces to offer a decent experience.

This is, in short, fine. It’s not a train wreck like Dumbo or a home run like Jungle Book. It’s not a pointless rehash like Beauty and the Beast, but it’s not an entirely new spin like Maleficent.
It’s a weird film, all around. I certainly wouldn’t consider it essential viewing, but it’s not something I’d warn against, either. It’s fine, occasionally disappointing, but rarely boring. Sort of the platonic ideal of the “two-and-a-half star movie,” if you still believe in ranking films by fractured celestial bodies.


Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made (2020)
I was curious about this direct-to-streaming live-action Disney+ movie because the trailer was intriguing and the premise was weird. A somewhat delusional kid detective with a (probably) imaginary polar bear sidekick? I figured I'd give it a chance.

Having seen it, I'm torn. On one hand, it actually does do some fun, interesting stuff with that premise. And, speaking as someone who's been living in the Pacific Northwest for a while now, it captures the surrealism of Portland beautifully. I think this movie does a good job delivering a unique point-of-view, showing you the world as it exists through the eyes and in the mind of its protagonist.

But the script suffers from having very little structure or story. I'm assuming a lot of this was due to this being an adaptation: you've got significantly more freedom in a book to follow numerous side plots and introduce peripheral characters. Usually, this kind of stuff gets streamlined, but it felt like that step got skipped.

You're left with a lot of great moments that feel unconnected and unfulfilling. The character drama at the core doesn't have much of an arc, and the little that is there feels like it's following a formula.

Overall, it's not a bad kids' movie. It manages to create a fascinating tone in the vein of Millions. But unlike Millions, it doesn't really feel like it's got much to say. At the end of the day, this gets props for style but not so much for substance.


Toy Story 4 (2019)
First off, I want to take a moment and acknowledge how refreshing it is to see a film franchise that still titles its sequels sequentially. Why is this going out of fashion? It's so useful.

At any rate, the movie is, like its predecessors, fantastic. It's less flashy than the first three installments (it doesn't create a new medium like the first, transform our understanding of sequels like the second, or challenge us to face our own mortality like part three), but it might be the most thematically complex entry in the series. It takes a deceptively simple starting point and uses that to explore branching themes and questions of identity and responsibility.

This is a movie about an aging man realizing his time as the center of attention is over, and he needs to stop fighting the inevitable shift in power dynamics around him. Woody literally allows a female character - one who was coded as the villain up to that point - to take his voice so she can effectively rise in his place. And this was the right choice, both because it allowed her to achieve her potential and because it freed him. And that's just one way to look at this film.

There are so many ways to spin the metaphors built into the characters' relationships I get dizzy. You could focus on Woody and Forky's father-son relationship. You could explore how the movie effectively treats Woody as a soldier who's done his duty but is having trouble reintegrating and finding a new purpose. You could look at the entire movie as being about retirement...

And I think any of these hold up. This thing's got layers to spare.

In the interest of being complete, it's also got characters to spare. As in, they probably could have trimmed the Key and Peele roles, as well as the Keanu guest spot. These were fun, but they felt superfluous and a bit distracting. And, yes, continuity with prior installments is getting a bit fast and loose (what even are the rules now?). But all that's minor nitpicking. Toy Story 4 once again demonstrates that, even when it seems like this series should have ended, Pixar's able to justify another chapter.


Frozen II (2019)
A decent enough movie but a poor excuse for a musical. That's not because the music is bad - on its own, it's fine - but in a musical (at least, in a good musical) the songs should really mean something, and here... not so much.

On paper, I'm sure this works. The songs all ostensibly reflect what each character is feeling at various points in the movie and serve to illustrate why they make various decisions. The problem is most of what they feel is vague indifference. Elsa's big breakout number is about her sort of, kind of wanting to stick around with her sister but also feeling like she might want to go somewhere for some unspecified reason.

Powerful drama, this is not.

The movie challenges character relationships in ways that are, well, minor and tedious. Like, Elsa and Anna are working out some issues around trust and being open with each other. So pretty insignificant compared against ice castles with frozen guardians and shards of magic lodged in the heart.

This tries to fill that gap with new stakes built around their nation's past and the princesses' relationships with their late parents, but all that feels tacked on. These characters were created around their relationship with each other, not Arendelle, and the movie never succeeds in convincing us otherwise.

All that being said, the last act features some effective plot twists and iconography that salvages the experience. Everything involving Elsa and the water horse is awesome to see, and the cave scene with Anna and Olaf was surprisingly effective despite the fact the resolution was obvious from the start.

You can add some solid humor to the list of pros, as well (though, come on... you're really going to skip the punchline of having Anna propose after you spent the entire movie setting it up?). All in all, it mostly works as entertainment, but it doesn't feel like the event I was expecting.

It's hard to watch this without wondering if this was the end result of a long negotiation with the studio over Elsa's story line and (one assumes) sexual orientation. This absolutely feels like the movie someone would make after executives strictly forbid them from making a more impactful one.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Catch Up, Part 1: The Horror of it All


When I became a father, there wasn't really time to go to the movies anymore. Not the end of the world, but I missed both the experience and sharing my thoughts - turns out this review stuff is addictive. I kept watching movies, mind you, but they weren't new movies, so I figured no one would really care all that much. Still, I kept some notes, because I like having a record of what I thought.

Then civilization ground to a halt, and now no one can go to the movies. So... I guess there's no reason not to post this stuff. These certainly won't be as in-depth as my usual reviews - just some brief thoughts.

First up, let's talk horror. This really isn't my usual go-to genre, but to be honest I've seen so many animated series and kid's movies recently (thanks, Disney+) that I've been craving something a little darker as a chaser.

I'm skipping over anything I saw in time to include on my end-of-year wrap up, as well as anything set at Christmas (you know where you'll find those). As usual, I'll try and keep spoilers to a minimum.

Look, I know this is all outdated, so if any of you want to skip this series, I'll understand. Of course, this is a one-time deal: normally, all Middle Room articles are mandatory reading for anyone on the internet, but for now I'll make an exception.


Mandy (2018)
This might have instantly become my favorite Nicholas Cage movie.

First things first. If you like any of the following, you should track this down without reading any more, because the fewer spoilers you have going into this, the better: Nicholas Cage, horror, revenge flicks, heavily stylized film making, genre tinged with the 1970s (that goes for horror, science fiction, or fantasy genres, incidentally).

God, even that list is a spoiler. Not as much of a spoiler as if I'd alluded to Heavy Metal comics or heavy metal album covers, but still more than you should know before watching.

The movie is bizarre and surreal, outright taunting you with the line between what's real and imaginary. It's a revenge fantasy where the main character seems more driven by a fear of having to confront his loss than by anger. It's one part dream, one part nightmare, and seventeen million parts acid trip. Supernatural beings show up and are treated as if they're barely worth mentioning. Or maybe it's all a hallucination: the movie makes a point of not answering any questions. It doesn't even treat them as important.

As an experience, it's at times quirky, disturbing, funny, touching, sickening, and confusing. It's a piece of art that wants to be felt without being understood. I recommend it to anyone willing to take it on its own terms.


Overlord (2019)
I'd heard good things about this mostly overlooked action/sf/horror WWII war flick. Honestly, I'd have tracked it down sooner, but I expected it was going to be more unpleasant based on some blurbs. But while there's definitely some gore and body horror, I didn't find any of it hard to watch, at least not on the small screen. Maybe I'd have felt differently in the theater, or maybe I'm just building up a thicker skin - either way, I wasn't grossed out.

All in all, I enjoyed this as a fun, weird genre flick, but I felt like it needed something more. I know this is heresy, but I kind of wish it had been part of some shared universe or another - the elements were interesting, but I felt a little cheated by the sense that's all there was to the story. I know there was a time this was potentially going to tie into Cloverfield, and I might be alone in wishing it had.

But it was still fun as a (let's be honest) unofficial Wolfenstein adaptation. I'm glad I watched it, but I don't feel like I missed anything by skipping it in the theaters.


Us (2019)
I'm going to start by saying I really enjoyed this. As an exercise in creating a sense of unease, it's phenomenal. It's terrifying and beautiful at the same time. It's an extremely well-directed, well-written, and well-edited film. In other words, it's a really good movie.

Then there's the third act, which...

Okay. Side note: I'm rewriting this for maybe the third or fourth time because I'm constantly reassessing, second-guessing, and completely changing my opinions about what the movie means, whether the symbolism and structure work, and whether any of that really matters.

Frankly, there's an argument to be made that all a piece of entertainment needs to do is entertain, and the straightforward genre elements of Us are a home run. But you also get the feeling this doesn't just want to be entertainment. It wants to be about something and mean something. It wants to be profound.

And maybe it is? There are several ways to interpret the film: as a commentary on class structure, as a meditation on the nature of unity and fascism, as a statement on the politics of the 1980s, today, or both...

And some of these interpretations lead you to some really interesting places and ideas, while others just kind of get confusing. At first, I fixated on class implications and felt the movie was unintentionally insinuating that poor people are remorseless killers (some of those earlier write-ups were less favorable). But the more I thought about the movie and read other interpretations, the more I drifted away from that reading.

I still think the movie's themes interfere with its story rather than enhance it, and I do think that's an issue. However, while those themes may occasionally detract from the film, they never derail it, unlike some other movies I could name. Us may be trying to be a little too intelligent for its own good, but that doesn't prevent the movie from being good. And while I'm not 100% sold that the ideas come together, there's no denying they're intriguing enough to stay with you.


The Mummy (2017)
I liked it? I know. I'm surprised, too.

I don't want to oversell this: it absolutely had some major pacing and editing issues. The movie is dumb, and not just in the ways it's intentionally being dumb. But at the end of the day, this is a campy, absurd, comedy-adventure that feels way closer to the Brendan Fraser installments than I expected. I had fun watching it.

I realize most people (particularly critics) did not. I think a big part of the disconnect was in the visual style: the Fraser movies (well, the first two - let's just pretend the third doesn't exist) resemble Indiana Jones, while this looks like, well... basically like every bleak, CG-heavy grimdark exercise in melodrama Hollywood's produced over the last decade.

And, yes, it's bad the movie looks like that. Add that to The Mummy's faults. But if you can ignore that for a moment, the nonsense is actually funny. Not funny in a "so-bad-it's-good" sense, either: this was supposed to be comedic. Sure, some of its best jokes are stolen from An American Werewolf in London, but... hey, thieves steal from mansions for a reason.

More than that, the world this sets up is really neat. If you were familiar with Vampire: The Masquerade and the World of Darkness back in the '90s, you probably have an idea where this was headed. I honestly would have liked to see that play out. Russell Crowe's Jekyll/Hyde was particularly entertaining. Did he feel like he'd been superimposed on a movie he didn't belong in? Definitely. Would I watch another dozen films with him as an unnecessary supporting character? In a heartbeat.

This is a weird, fun movie with a lot of faults. The movie opens with a brief shot of a knight being buried with a MacGuffin that comes up later but feels laughably (in the bad way this time) random and meaningless, and the editing doesn't get much better from there. And, yes, there's a big super-powered CG fight at the end that's boring and pointless even compared to other boring, pointless super-powered CG fights.

But for all its faults, it was an enjoyable, pulpy flick. Think of this more as an improved version of the Underworld movies and less as a failed blockbuster, and you won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Movie Review: Onward


By rights, if there was ever a movie I should have loved, this would be it. In a sense, it was made for me: a Pixar production rooted in Dungeons & Dragons lore starring a pair of Marvel veterans... it's like they're checking off my favorite things.

But I didn't love it. Frankly, I'd rank it near the bottom of the Pixar catalog, alongside Monsters University and The Good Dinosaur. Keep in mind, that's still decent company. Hell, I even mostly enjoyed Cars 2, and that's easily the worst Pixar release to date. But don't expect top-tier Pixar quality, because you're not getting it.

Before I go on, I want to specify I watched this on Disney+, not in a theater. Hell, I haven't seen ANYTHING in a theater since King of the Monsters (it's been a crazy year). For what it's worth, Onward is exceptionally good for what wound up being a direct-to-streaming feature for most people. Yeah, technically it was in theaters for a week or two before getting shifted to the internet, but it didn't have a real run - it might as well be a Disney+ original, and it's ridiculously good in that context. If you've got an account, by all means push Onward to the top of your queue immediately.

But even though it sort of wound up as a Disney+ release, it was intended to be a major motion picture, and that's the way I'm going to review it. And in that context, Onward was ultimately unsatisfying. Again, that's coming from someone whose interests align perfectly with the movie's premise.

Let's start with the animation. Onward looks good, the way all Pixar movies look good. It's colorful and stylish, with the typical Pixar production value. But while it's good, there's nothing particularly eye-catching or memorable. Visually, this is more "cartoonish" than the typical Pixar film, which certainly isn't a bad thing. But it makes Onward feel almost more like a Dreamworks production. Again, that's not necessarily a bad thing, but it contributed to the feeling you're not really getting a Pixar experience out of this.

The writing - particularly the humor - is solid but well below what I've come to expect from the studio. It's mainly an issue because, despite the usual injection of drama, this is fundamentally a comedy. It's a road trip adventure with a zany premise and a constantly expanding cast of wacky side characters, and the jokes just don't land as well as I want them to. That's not to say there aren't exceptions, but on average I wanted more.

Speaking of wanting more, there's a B-plot where the main characters' mother teams up with another supporting character, and they go on a mini-quest of their own. This is easily the best part of the movie - had this been given more time or payoff, I suspect I'd be speaking of the film in more favorable terms overall. Instead, they were relegated to a side-story that felt like someone at Pixar was acknowledging the studio still has a problem giving female characters enough to do, yet still failing to adequately address the issue. On a similar note, the movie offers the first official example of a lesbian character in Pixar's filmography in a role that's better than nothing, but isn't really cutting it in 2020.

Now, let's talk casting, because if there's one astonishingly blatant unforced error, it's here.

Onward's two leads are ostensibly Tom Holland and Chris Pratt. I say "ostensibly" because - and I really can't stress this enough - this movie stars Spider-Man and Star Lord. The accent Tom Holland uses is the one he developed for Peter Parker, rather than his own. If you're less familiar with the MCU, it might not bother you, but I found it oddly jarring. Even more so because Pratt was there, equally recognizable. I found it distracting from the start, but towards the end of the movie...

Okay. I'm going to try and talk around this, because Onward is basically still "new" and I don't want to delve too deeply into spoiler territory, but there's a last-minute reveal about Pratt's character wedged into the third act where it becomes extremely relevant that this actor is playing this character. Like, AU fanfic levels of relevant, to the point I stared bewildered at the screen trying to figure out if this was an intentional callback to Guardians of the Galaxy, an odd coincidence, or the result of a dozen or so rewrites. I've rarely if ever been pulled out of a movie this completely, and - just so we're clear - this isn't a trivial moment. It's an emotional beat that's essential for selling the upcoming resolution to the movie.

Again, maybe this will bother you and maybe it won't. In my case, it shattered any sense of immersion I had and left me chuckling at what should have been a heartfelt moment. And it could have been fixed either by casting a different actor (I don't think Pratt was the best choice for the role, anyway) or by rewriting a couple lines to change the scenario slightly. I honestly don't know what they were thinking.

Despite all that, the movie was enjoyable on the small screen. There were a couple moments and ideas I loved. The van was great, several fantasy elements were intriguing, and I already mentioned the mother's B-plot - this certainly isn't a failure. But I imagine I'd have felt cheated if I'd paid to see this in a theater rather than checking it out on Disney+.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Ten Years in Nerd Time: A Decadal Retrospective


Well, that’s another decade down, with just three more to go before the Endtimes are upon us (less if you live on the coast). And every time a decade comes to an end there are a handful of traditions that should be observed. Chief among these, of course, is mocking the plebes buying into the lie that the decade truly ends because the last digit of the year rolls over from 9 to 0.

In reality, since there was no year 0, the true decade doesn’t change until the 0 becomes a 1. And if you believe that, you’re just another plebe, because you’re still too early. No, the entire "anno domini" counting system wasn’t derived until 525, based on almost certainly inaccurate assumptions about the birth of Christ. Obviously, this means decades change on 5’s rather than 0's or 1's, since we should go by the anniversary of when we started using this calendar, rather than dwell on the digit.

Or that would be obvious to you if you were yet another plebe. In reality, it's still too arbitrary. True decades can only be marked according to the second year in base 8 counting backwards from the prophesied second coming of Sinistar. But by some odd coincidence, that does coincide with midnight on December 31st this year. Well, it does on the Gregorian calendar, at least.

At any rate, such a momentous event calls for some sort of reflection in blog form, which just so happens to be another of the aforementioned traditions marking the transition from one decade to another. Which brings us to this very post.

I actually tried putting together a traditional top 10 movies list, but the results were so boring, I fell asleep on my keyboard. Oddly, my forehead did manage to randomly mash the keys and reconstruct the complete works of Shakespeare. I considered keeping this document for future use, but there were a decent number of typos, so I just downloaded a version from the internet instead.

Rather than do a "top 10" I decided to go year-by-year and pick... something. Could be a movie, a TV series that started, or an episode of an ongoing show airing that year. Could be something else entirely. I'm sort of trying to balance this between my favorite pieces of entertainment and those I think left the largest footprints, so the actual qualifiers for landing a spot on this list are kind of nebulous. This is probably true of most "end of decade" lists, but at least I'm upfront about it.


2010: My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic
I’d argue this was one of the three most influential pieces of media produced this decade (the others being my 2012 and 2015 picks), and there’s a case to be made this overshadows the other two. I realize that’s a big claim for a cartoon series about colorful talking ponies, but it’s difficult to overstate the impact this has had.

Friendship is Magic accomplished quite a few feats, but the largest and most significant was demonstrating cartoon studios were leaving piles of money on the table by picking showrunners from only one half of the population. Hell, Cartoon Network had never green lit a series with a woman showrunner until… well, wait for my 2013 pick.

The next accomplishment has been a double-edged sword. While the primary audience for My Little Pony was, is, and will always be young girls, Friendship is Magic pulled in fans that surprised even its creators. I refer, of course, to the “Bronies,” a group of adult men (well, mostly men – it gets complicated) who are passionate fans of the show.

I suspect the novelty of the Bronies made them more visible than they’d otherwise have been. Fan communities are nothing new, but grown men watching a show for little girls? That got a lot of attention.

There are some awkward facets to all this, particularly around sexually explicit fan-fiction and art that sprung up. In addition, there’s always a fringe group of fans who try to claim ownership of the property they’re watching in ways that border on harassment of its creators (there’s an episode of the show about this that’s absolutely hilarious). It’s also worth noting that isolating the adult male portion of the fanbase can downplay the significance of the rest. Yes, grown men watch Friendship is Magic, but so do adult women, as well as children of all genders.

But regardless of your opinion of Bronies, their existence is incredibly significant. Properties aimed at children have long picked up nerdy adult fans of all genders (Transformers, DC/Marvel Superheroes, Star Wars… hell, 90% of the stuff I talk about on this site basically), but these have always been properties aimed at boys. To my recollection, Friendship is Magic was the first series aimed at girls to pull in large numbers of male fans.

It wouldn't be the last. Steven Universe, Star Vs. the Forces of Evil, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, and DC Superhero Girls have all sprung up in its wake. The old gender divides have been significantly weakened, and it's largely because of Twilight Sparkle and friends.

But let's not get so fixated on the show's impact we lose sight of the content itself. This is, on its own merits, an absolutely fantastic program. The humor lands no matter how old you are, the characters are fun, and the mythology is engrossing. It’s a fascinatingly complex update on the 80’s show, perhaps the best of its kind (despite countless reboots, Transformers and GI Joe have yet to see one stick the landing the way this has). In short, it’s an inventive fantasy that’s shaped the past decade in televised animation to a degree I don’t think we’ve seen since Batman: The Animated Series.

2011: Community: A Fistful of Paintballs/For a Few Paintballs More
My last pick was a series that has run for nearly the entire decade. This time, I'm going to be far more specific. For 2011, I’m taking the 2-part season finale to the second season of Community.

These episodes center on a campus-wide game of paintball that transforms the school first into the wild west then into, well, a facsimile of galactic war. This is essentially a sequel to the season 1 episode, Modern Warfare, which cemented Community as a series willing to play with genre and convention in ways unheard of on American sitcoms. But as good as Modern Warfare is, these episodes top it in almost every way imaginable.

They’re shot with an astonishing amount of energy and emotion. The gunfights, despite being of course completely nonlethal, have established stakes that inject tension into an otherwise silly situation. Yeah, they’re shooting balls of paint at each other, but friendships and eventually the survival of the school are at stake. This takes character arcs and relationships that have been building the entire season and brings them to a head. In short, it’s fantastic storytelling.

It also got the attention of Marvel Studios, which would go on to hire the directors, Joe and Anthony Russo, to direct some of the largest movies in history.

But I honestly care more about this for its own sake. This is TV that feels like an action movie. Frankly, these two episodes might be my favorite action movie ever made.

2012: The Avengers
Does this even need an explanation? It probably does now that hating Marvel movies has become fashionable. No judgement if you're not a fan - I'll be the first to admit these have their flaws, and the "shared cinematic Universe" model isn't for everyone. But love them or hate them, this installment was game-changing on a scale we hadn't seen since Titanic (maybe not since the original Star Wars, to be honest). Sure, not all that influence was positive (looking at you, Batman v Superman), but it's hard to deny this left an impression on the medium.

It's also a wholly enjoyable movie. Again, I'm not saying there aren't flaws, but the focus on personality conflicts over physical ones was an inspired direction, and the movie doesn't get nearly enough credit for increasing the world's power levels in ways that opened the door for more visually inventive stories.

This certainly wasn't the first movie to succeed in bringing a comic book to life, but it made the world of Marvel Comics feel real in a way nothing else had. And even seven years later, it remains one of the most fun films in the expanding MCU.

2013: Steven Universe
It's difficult to describe what makes Steven Universe so revolutionary without at least hinting at spoilers. Suffice to say, the show is among the most unique, innovative animated series I've ever come across.

It's gotten some push back over the years for going in directions some fans didn't appreciate, but I couldn't disagree more. Every time the series subverts my expectations for which lessons and development its heroes are supposed to pick up, I find myself delighted. It uses convention to seamlessly integrate red herrings and false leads, only to turn around and remind you what the themes are and have always been. Every choice the series makes fits the premise and central story, but the story is so far removed from we're used to, it feels shocking and alien in the best way possible.

Of anything I'm picking, I think this will have the most academic interest in decades to come. You could write tomes on what this series accomplished artistically and how it did it. Personally, I'd love for someone to explore its relationship to Transformers - there are numerous parallels between the Crystal Gems and the 80's property, which casts the decision to present all the Gems as coded female particularly interesting.

But academics aside, the series is a revelation to watch. No, not just a revelation: it's an experience.

2014: Paddington
I'm using the UK release date to justify putting this in 2014 in order to avoid having to pit it against my 2015 pick. Maybe that's cheating, but I'd like to think it's also polite.

If you were to push me on my favorite movie of the decade, I honestly think I'd have to go with this (though I'd rather not be forced to choose between this and Avengers). I know I'm in the minority in preferring it over its 2017 sequel (which is still the platonic idea of delight), but this one wins out by a whisker. I'm not saying part 2 is in any way overrated - I just feel like the critics were unfairly ruthless when they gave the first installment a [checks notes] mere 97% Freshness rating, compared with the 100% the sequel received (which still feels a little low to me, to be honest).

Paddington is just... well, first off, it's so damn charming I'm in awe it can exist at all, particularly given what genre it comes from. After all, this a "talking animated animal" movie, technically placing it in the same category as Alvin and the Chipmunks, Yogi Bear, and Space Jam. It feels completely absurd mentioning those movies in the same sentence as Paddington.

There's just so much to love here. Paddington's relationship with his adoptive family, the genuine creepiness of Nicole Kidman's villain, the movie's precision in its use of setup and payoff... the list goes on. But for my money, the moment Paddington solidifies itself as something truly, deeply special comes when Aunt Lucy talks about how British families took in children without a second thought during World War II. Her faith that they wouldn't have forgotten, contrasted with the reality of the situation...

I'm tearing up a little now, to be honest. Hidden behind the whimsy and charm of this near-perfect film is the tragic reminder they did forget, as have we. Instead of compassion, our countries respond to refugees with mistrust and xenophobia. How amazing is it that there's a kid's movie about that? Maybe the next generation will remember.

2015: Star Wars: The Force Awakens 
(Side note before I go on: as of right now I’ve yet to see Rise of Skywalker, and I’d appreciate your discretion in the comments. I’ve been waiting for years to see how J.J. Abrams would screw up the ending, and that’s one mystery box I’d like to experience unspoiled).

While they're not at all similar in content, in some ways the cultural impact of The Force Awakens is best understood by its relationship with my 2010 pick, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Stay with me: this will all make sense in a moment [not a guarantee].

Friendship is Magic started the decade by putting a crack in the barrier dividing content between "boys" and "girls" stuff. It demonstrated the long held assumption that entertainment created for girls wouldn't appeal across age and gender lines the way "boy's stuff" has was baseless.

Star Wars was in a very different place. As a piece of "boy's entertainment," the studio would have assumed female fans would be along for the ride. You don't make a movie as large as this without expecting a decent gender split.

The thing is, prior to The Force Awakens, Hollywood took these women for granted and offered them very little in the form of representation. The rule of thumb was to include one woman in a major role, make her cool enough to placate the girls, then give the men the manly action that drives up box office returns. That's how it's been for decades. Hell, arguably Star Wars started that tradition with Leia, a fantastic character who seemed to be the only important woman in the galaxy.

But instead of relegating Rey to the damsel-in-distress, plucky love interest, and/or tough-but-secondary lead, they put her in the hero role. Again, I haven't actually seen how this all plays out in Rise of Skywalker, but in 2015, she was the new Luke, and that was revolutionary.

Then it became the biggest movie in history. And the toys flew off the shelves so fast, Hasbro didn't know what hit them. Not only did every boy in America want a Rey action figure, every girl seemed to, as well. Not just dolls and outfits: action figures, blasters, and lightsabers.

Because of this, after decades of being ignored, female fans started getting taken seriously. It was like two industries simultaneously started listening. Big budget genre action movies starring women stopped being "too risky" overnight. Fashion dolls and action figures started appearing side-by-side in big box toy stores.

And it all came down to one moment at the end of The Force Awakens, when Rey reaches out and calls to the lightsaber. I remember sitting in the theater, watching that, and feeling like the world had just changed. I've got plenty of issues with the movie as a whole, but that one moment - and the change it inspired - catapults it onto this list.

2016: Stranger Things
Honestly, this is where things get hard. Up until now, I feel relatively secure that this list would be more or less identical if I put it together today or five years from now. But from here on out, we're a little too close for me to have as much perspective.

Honestly, I'm really torn on this one. I enjoy Stranger Things a lot, but is it really the "best" (or at least most important) thing to come out of 2016?

Maybe. The first season took the world by surprise, dominating pop-culture conversations for months. Then the subsequent seasons came out, and...

Once again, I'm in the minority on this one, but by my money the show's progressively gotten better over time.

While the series started primarily as an 80's homage, the characters, iconography, and music of Stranger Things have become widely known to the point it's become it's own thing. Sure, it's still chock full of references and callbacks, but these seldom feel unwelcome. A lot of that comes down to how seriously the show takes its characters' arcs and emotional growth.

I suspect this will be widely remembered as much as a defining aspects of the 2010's as the references date it to the 80's. Someday, there'll be shows and movies selling nostalgia for this.

2017: Wonder Woman
This isn't my favorite movie of 2017 (that'd be Blade Runner 2049), nor do I think it could reasonably be called the best movie of that year. However, this is a case where the movie's cultural significance demands recognition. This is, without a doubt, the most important movie of 2017 and one of the most important of the entire decade.

It took Warner Bros. decades longer than it should have to green light Wonder Woman, one of the three most iconic heroes in the DC Universe. But that's probably for the best, since if they'd done so sooner, the project almost certainly would have been in far less capable hands than Patty Jenkins's.

Let's get this out of the way: the third act is a bit of a letdown. Contrary to most of the movie's critics, I don't think it's bad, only that it doesn't hold up the same level of quality we got in the first two-thirds. But then again, how could it? Acts one and two are damn near perfect. This is what superhero movies should look and feel like.

Audiences agreed, and the movie went on to out-gross Justice League, a film that cost twice as much to produce.

But it's the movie's legacy that really catches my attention. Just as studios were reluctant to green light action movies with women in the lead, they were reluctant to put any big-budget project in the hands of a woman director. Over the years, there have been a lot of explanations for this, but it's absurd to think it's any more complicated than sexism.

Wonder Woman changed that. The movie proved there's a massive demand for women's voices in genre entertainment. And if you need more proof, take a look at the most anticipated movies for next year.

2018: Black Panther
Black Panther is easily one of the best movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It was also one of the best movies of 2018 - touching, thoughtful, meaningful, and engaging. It explored difficult questions about identity and responsibility, and it answered them honestly.

And like Wonder Woman before it, Black Panther demonstrated there was a massive audience starving for better representation. No movie like this had ever been made before, and the response was unambiguous: this is the future of big budget movies.

Setting aside what it means for its fans, the movie is a masterclass in elevating the "shared universe" concept to Oscar-caliber film making. The world-building is intricate and layered, and the character work puts every other modern blockbuster to shame. This film introduces dozens of new characters and manages to do so without having any feel superfluous. It takes M'Baku (one of comics' most problematic villains) and turns him into a fan-favorite hero, it introduces Shuri in a way that leaves fans arguing whether she should take over Tony Stark's role, and it gives its villain a fully-realized tragic arc.

All this without feeling rushed or forced, and it still has time to casually introduce the audience to Afro-futurism, an sub-genre of science-fiction most viewers had never even heard of. And, along with everything else, it embraces its comic book roots lovingly.

Black Panther accomplishes everything, sacrifices nothing, and is in many ways the pinnacle of genre film making up to now. I can't wait to see what it inspires in decades to come.

2019: The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance
Cards on the table: I wrote up an entire entry for The Mandalorian having forgotten that Age of Resistance came out in 2019. I then spent an absurd amount of time mulling over whether or not I should change my answer. Part of me felt like it was significant I'd forgotten Age of Resistance, that 2019 may wind up being the year the tide turned against Netflix's long-form-binge model, which can make even the best shows, well, forgettable. I'm not saying we've seen the end of serialized television, but I suspect the pendulum has swung as far in that direction as it's likely to, and it's about to head the other way. If so, The Mandalorian will clearly have been the episodic series that served as a catalyst.

I even started a new intro explaining this and discussing why I was sticking with the Mandalorian. But in that intro, I began writing about the monumental artistic achievement Age of Resistance represented. I started reflecting on how much effort had gone into designing and building the plants, animals, and buildings of The Dark Crystal.

And as much as I enjoyed The Mandalorian, the entire galaxy of Star Wars suddenly started feeling small in comparison - I think everything does. In some ways, despite airing at the end of 2019, I have a feeling The Madalorian is going to feel like the first series of the 2020's, while Age of Resistance will be one of the high points of the 2010's. And which decade am I supposed to be retrospecting, anyway?

Most of the movies and shows on this list got here because they were influential, but Age of Resistance is present because it's a culmination of a philosophy that's been gaining steam over the course of the decade. It represents a level of creative talent and energy beyond anything I seriously imagined possible on the small screen. And that talent was supported with the resources necessary to bring a fantasy world to life.

In addition, I'm skeptical we'll see anything like this again. I haven't been able to find concrete numbers, but the price tag on this series couldn't have been cheap. And while Netflix got a lot of attention and critical approval, the series didn't really stick in the public consciousness (as evidenced by the opening of this entry). This feels like an experiment that was successful artistically but not financially. There are definitely a handful of upcoming projects on various streaming services that are in a similar league - the Amazon Middle Earth series leaps to mind - but it's unlikely any will be succeed in being as spectacular as Age of Resistance.

Conclusions
A lot has happened in nerd and geek culture over the last ten years, and not all of it's good. We've seen an infiltration from right-wing extremists, we've seen social media used as a weapon to harass women and minorities, and we've seen fan communities target directors over plot choices a handful of people disagreed with. At the start of the decade, I proudly called myself a geek. Now, it's with a lot of reservation and more than a little introspection.

But I hope the list above has demonstrated a lot of good has happened, as well. This is the decade when women and minorities got opportunities in front and behind the cameras. Those opportunities are still few and far between, but the astonishing success of those projects has opened a lot of doors.

It's also been a great decade in terms of quality. A lot of us are old enough to remember a time when everything was reality television. Now, you can find great shows in almost any genre. I'm honestly unsure whether this trend will continue - I think it's more than possible we're living in an entertainment bubble that's about to pop. But even if that happens, the content produced this decade will still be available. And, frankly, it would take decades just to catch up on everything great made over the past 10 years.



Movies Revisited: 2019


This year's going to be a little different than usual, in part because - for me, at least - this year was different. I became a father over the summer, which means the number of movies I saw theatrically between July and December is a great big zero.

Let's get this out of the way now: that means Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker isn't on the list. Maybe it's great, maybe it sucks - I don't know yet.

Also - because I like to be upfront about these things - it means the vast majority of movies I saw streaming or on DVD this year weren't seen in a single, uninterrupted viewing. A bunch of these were seen in 15 or 20 minute increments when I eventually got some downtime.

Did that impact my enjoyment? Don't know, to be honest. It likely kept me from becoming as engrossed in the narrative as I'd otherwise have been, but it also gave me more time than usual to reflect on the movie as it went. Still, feel free to take that into account.

Because many of these were things I saw at home months after release, the number I've previously reviewed is lower than usual. For a few of these, that means you'll essentially be getting mini-reviews embedded in this article, since I've got some thoughts I want to get out.

As always, this is a "least-to-most-favorite" list, not "worst-to-best." In other words, this is subjective. There are times I'll rank a better movie below one I prefer for genre or tonal reasons - that's just the nature of the game.

I also want to say a bit about streaming versus theatrical distribution. I don't limit this to movies released theatrically, because I believe that's an outdated distinction. However, I also don't include every direct-to-streaming movie I see on this list. In past years, I've generally tried to differentiate between movies that felt like they were produced for the big screen versus the small, but even this has started feeling inadequate. Now, I'm mostly playing it by ear.

With all that being said, let's dive in.


Dumbo
This movie is, at best, the sum of its parts. The nicest compliment I can manage is that a few of those parts were visually intriguing and/or fun. I liked how the surreal circus and amusement park looked, and the third-act elephant heist was fun, provided you're willing to overlook... God, where to start? That none of the circus performers' superpowers were set up in advance? That none of them had much in the way of characters?

And speaking of lack of character... they clearly had no idea what to do with Dumbo in this incarnation. He's not quite the main character, but he's supposed to carry the emotional weight of the movie. Only, they don't actually sell him in a way that makes him feel believable or gives him personality. He's just kind of a magical semi-realistic cartoon elephant who gets sad sometimes.

So, yeah, bad movie. But, despite that, I didn't hate it. It was bland but not boring, pointless but amusing at times, and incoherent yet... really kind of bizarrely incoherent. Sorry - I don't have another side for that coin.


Let it Snow
Honestly, I think this one should be tied with Dumbo, but I'm giving it a nudge because it was made for a fraction of a fraction of the cost. Also, I kind of feel bad for including it at all - this is a direct-to-streaming teen romcom that feels like it's simultaneously trying to be Love Actually and Empire Records.

To its credit, it's fine for what it is. There's nothing offensive or even particularly bad about the movie. Unfortunately, there's not enough particularly good, either, aside from some solid performances. The movie just doesn't have much of a point or message. The big theme is don't be afraid of the unknown, because it could be good. That's what the snow's a metaphor for, incidentally. Or at least what the snow would be a metaphor for: they kind of forgot to include any snow in a way that influences the plot.

If you've never seen one of these movies before, then you'll probably be won over by this. I kind of got the impression that's what Netflix was banking on: that this will appeal to teens who haven't seen all the movies this is mimicking. Unfortunately, I've seen enough this feels... well... boring. This movie checks boxes, but doesn't take risks.


I Trapped the Devil
I was really torn whether or not to include this solid, albeit underwhelming, Christmas horror movie, at all. It feels a little unfair, since it's clearly low budget. Like a lot of movies released these days, this went directly to streaming, which is probably where it belongs.

It's not bad for what it is: an atmospheric fantasy/horror film masquerading as a psychological thriller. With a couple serious revisions to the script, I feel like this could have been something special. But the characters (devil excluded) are shallow and under-explored. It feels like there was supposed to be some backstory, but either they forgot to write it or it got cut for pace.

The final product is still fun - I mostly enjoyed watching it - but I wish they'd put more effort into the script.


Klaus
Another direct-to-Netflix production, this actually features some impressive visuals and style. Envisioned as a modernized version of traditional animation, there's a lot to appreciate in the art.

But only in the art, I'm afraid. The premise and story lack a spark of inspiration, and the final film is a little dull. There are a handful of good jokes and even a few solid characters and moments, but I couldn't get into this.


The Wandering Earth
Take this placement with a grain of salt - I saw Wandering Earth on a small screen, and that didn't do the film's incredible visuals any favors. This Chinese production absolutely proves America doesn't have a monopoly on either scale or spectacle. It delivers both beautifully, and it's a lot of fun to watch.

That said, this is spectacle in the vein of Michael Bay - everything is BIG, IMPORTANT, and IMMEDIATE, with no regard for pace. That's not necessarily a bad thing - I'm certainly of the opinion movies should have the latitude to prioritize experience over storytelling if that's their goal - but it does mean the film is less memorable than it would otherwise be.

Ultimately, I enjoyed this well enough, or at least I enjoyed enough of the visuals to overlook a number of factors that didn't connect with me.


Noelle
I wrestled with including this. It feels closer to made-for-TV quality than, say, Elf, so it's kind of out of its league. However, it's also my favorite of the direct-to-streaming Christmas movies I saw this year, so I'm dropping it in.

As I said in my review, Noelle is a mess structurally, and it lacks any real tension or arc. But what it doesn't lack is a good cast, and they help make up for the movie's many shortcomings. Anna Kendrick is fantastic in the lead role, and she elevates this from a disposable kid's movie to a passable comedy.

This isn't great, and it's certainly not something you need to see, but there are far worse movies your kid's likely to make you sit through.


I Am Mother
I'm assuming this production started with someone watching Ex Machina and a literal light bulb materializing over their head and turning on. That's not to say it's at all the same movie - far from it - but the premise feels derivative, as if someone asked, "How can we remake Ex Machina without remaking Ex Machina?"

That being said, Ex Machina was probably a good movie to emulate: the combination of low budget/high concept is precisely the niche streaming services should strive to fill. Audiences want spectacle on the big screen and thought on television.

And this was good. Quite good, in fact. But the problem with this kind of SF is you really need to stick the landing, and I Am Mother misses its mark by a hair. It's so close it almost hurts: you get several twists that are great, followed by one that just...

I can't quite say it doesn't work internally, but it recontextualizes the title character in a way that comes off as cheap and gimmicky. I don't want to give it away, but I'm referring to the very last scene she appears in: it's the only time in the film the character behaves in a manner that's unambiguously irrational.

I still liked this fine, but if they'd just rewritten that one scene and had her make a different choice, I'd be placing this higher on my list.


Pokemon: Detective Pikachu
"It's fine," may sound like faint praise, but until Jordan Vogt-Roberts's Metal Gear movie comes out, it's probably the kindest thing that will ever be said about a video game adaptation. And this really is fine. Hell, the setting is more than fine: it's everything a video game/cartoon adaptation could hope for. But while the setting delivers, the characters are bland and uninteresting, and the direction is lackluster.

I had fun with parts of this movie, but - even if it was foolish to do so - I'd hoped for more.


The Kid Who Would Be King
First - and I hope this is already common knowledge - this was so much better than the trailers made it appear. Less a modern YA flick than a throwback 80's adventure, The Kid Who Would Be King delivers fun, pulpy adventure coupled with some surprisingly compelling themes (which I'm about to spoil, so consider yourself warned).

The movie is explicitly about the fact the next generation will be forced to contend with the serious problems left behind by their parents. And that's a pretty damn good justification for the otherwise silly premise of having King Arthur reborn as a high school student.

There are, however, three issues holding this back. First, the movie unfortunately feels it necessary to have two actors playing Merlin - Angus Imrie plays a young version, while Patrick Stewart plays the old one. Actually, flip those, because the premise behind Imrie's inclusion is that Merlin ages backwards, so he's technically the older. For reasons that aren't really explained, he occasionally transforms into his young (i.e.: Patrick Stewart) self. While both actors are fantastic, the transformations undercut your connection with Imrie's Merlin, who's far more interesting, anyway.

Yeah, Patrick Stewart somehow makes this movie worse. I'm as surprised as you are.

Next, the movie's stakes never feel all that serious, in part because there's never much of a cost. Or, to put it another way, none of the good guys die. I'm not generally a proponent of offing characters to fill some sort of quota, but the movie ended feeling like it was all too easy.

The last issue is the most subjective, but - for me at least - also the biggest. And that was the casting of Alex (i.e.: the titular king). Louis Ashbourne Serkis was great in the part, but...

I'll be blunt. The movie was premised on the notion that Alex was a nobody, that he was the least likely to be chosen. Look, it's 2019, and I have a really hard time taking the idea that the most worthy, least respected kid in all of England is white and male. To me, that clashes with the premise and themes of the movie.

Still, that was a solid movie.


Captain Marvel
I enjoyed Captain Marvel quite a bit, but I did find it one of the more forgettable MCU installments. There were some great characters, some incredible effects, and some fun twists... but it still kind of felt small and episodic to me. That's not necessarily a problem - the MCU is big enough it can afford to take time to set up future movies and just play in the world its filmmakers have developed. Hell, one of the things I love about the MCU is that it offers a rich, growing setting for future adventures and stories. But while the MCU is easily one of my two favorite Cinematic Universes (Star Wars being the other), this film didn't manage to make it to the top of my list this year.


Spider-Man: Far From Home
My reaction to Far From Home was fairly similar to Captain Marvel - I had fun watching this movie, but it didn't leave much impact. In some ways, Far From Home feels like the opposite of most modern superhero movies. Instead of two great acts of setup culminating in an underwhelming climax, this meandered for most of its run time before giving us a pretty great ending. The CG-heavy third-act fight was comic book nonsense at its best. Mysterio's holographic traps channeled the best aspects of animation, providing some delightfully absurd sequences.

I just wish the setup had been more consistent. There were some great aspects and sequences (I loved all the Endgame cleanup stuff), but a lot of the teenage comedy fell a little flat. Homecoming juggled its tones better, giving us jokes along with some heavier stuff I felt was lacking here. At its best, Spider-Man is a blend of comedy and drama, but while both are present in Far From Home, the emotional stuff is relegated to Peter dealing with Tony's death. I can see what they were going for, but I was left feeling like I was watching two separate Spider-Man movies spliced together.

Still, there was more than enough to like, even before we got to the magnificent credits stingers. This was another solid entry in the MCU, but it's not one of the best.


Batman vs. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Okay, I'll be the first to admit putting a direct-to-DVD animated movie anywhere near this high on my list is kind of absurd. Hell, it probably shouldn't be ranked against "real movies," at all. It had a shoestring budget, a silly premise, and most people have never heard of it.

But.

This thing was so. Damn. Fun.

Whoever wrote this approached it as an opportunity to celebrate the two franchises being crossed over, and the amount of thought that went into every decision is astonishing. Seriously, there's a beat where Batman eats a slice of pizza that shows a deeper understanding of the character than the entirety of BvS. Likewise, the Turtles have never been better - I just had a blast watching this.


Godzilla: King of the Monsters
King of the Monsters deserved better reviews than it got. It unapologetically embraced the mythology of its source material, giving us a big-screen fairy tale. Even the humans were interesting this time around (with the exception of the generic hero-type, who felt wedged in). This was everything a movie like this should be. I'll watch as many more like this as the studio's willing to make.


Teen Titans Go! Vs. Teen Titans
I enjoyed last year's "Teen Titans Go! to the Movies" well enough. It was fun, and it justified being on the big screen, which is an impressive feat for a spin-off of a still-running cartoon show. But while it was a good slapstick genre parody, it wasn't really anything more. There was no emotional core or depth.

That was not the case for Teen Titans Go! Vs. Teen Titans, a direct-to-video sequel that pulls in both the "original" Titans and their SD counterparts (I put "original" in quotes, because the SD counterparts were originally the same as the other Titans, as opposed to separate entities). All this made for an engaging dynamic. The jokes were hilarious, and the character work was surprisingly effective, particularly with the Ravens.

It's impossible to watch something like this and not draw similarities to Into the Spider-Verse. Unsurprisingly, there are elements of the Titans crossover that feel as if they were inspired by Spider-Verse. What is surprising is there are elements of this the makers of Spider-Verse might want to take notes on. Namely, this does an even better job mashing tonal differences in ways that highlight the fact these characters come from very different universes.

To be clear, I'm not suggesting this is as good as Spider-Verse or even in the same league. But it's approaching similar comic-book crossover material in a way that puts it in a sort of discussion with that movie, and - astonishingly - it has something to say.

I've only seen a handful of episodes of Teen Titans Go!, but I've seen every episode of the old Titans. And, frankly, this is my favorite piece of media from the combined Titans animated franchise. I'm kind of shocked.


Missing Link
Why in God's name was this movie green lit?

Don't get me wrong - I liked it. In fact, I'd go so far as to say I loved it. Missing Link was brilliantly animated, cleverly written, and genuinely surprising. It was a joy to watch, and it was unlike any other animated movie I can think of.

But there's kind of a reason for that, and that reason is best expressed by a quick glance at Wikipedia to verify that not only did this bomb, it lost more money than any other animated movie in history.

Of course it did. This featured astonishingly complex stop motion sets used for mundane situations. There's a sequence in a scale on par with the giant skeleton fight from Kubo in which the main characters travel from one place to another uneventfully. There are no kids in significant roles.

In short, there's nothing in this movie pandering to the lowest common denominator.

It was too good not to fail.


Alita: Battle Angel
I just... I loved this crazy movie. Sure, the script was bad. Really bad, in fact. Laughably bad. But, you know what? Who cares? A laughably bad script can be fun to laugh at, so long as the film provides an entertaining enough diversion. And between the fantastic designs, gorgeous battles, and stunning sci-fi landscape, this was an absolute pleasure to experience. This was the first movie I caught on the big screen in 2019, and it was well worth the price of admission.


Shazam!
Surprisingly, the movie this most reminds me of might be Deadpool. Obviously, they're made for entirely different audiences - Shazam! is made mostly for children, primarily teenagers, while Deadpool is intended for... Okay, maybe their target audiences aren't all that different after all. But Shazam! is something kids can watch with their parents, while Deadpool is a movie they should probably watch without their parents knowing.

But despite the schism in subject matter, both movies are hilarious, both embrace their source material, and both - shockingly - had some real heart at the core of their stories.

Shazam! wasn't my favorite movie of 2019, but it really impressed me. Between this, Aquaman, and Wonder Woman, DC has finally proven themselves capable of competing against Marvel, and I couldn't be happier.


Avengers: Endgame
Endgame is easily one of the craziest movies I've ever seen. There are choices made in the movie that are utterly baffling - Professor Hulk and Lebowski Thor spring to mind (I kind of like the new Thor, but it's astonishing a studio would take a risk like that with a character this popular).

Some of these choices I like; others I didn't (Professor Hulk, in particular, felt a little tedious to me). But even the decisions that didn't agree with me earned my respect. This movie - hell, these MOVIES if we're counting Infinity War - threw out every formula and conventional philosophy around blockbuster film making. Instead, we got a pair of films that were shocking, surprising, and incredible.

But the real reason this is as high on my list as it is has very little to do with the courageous decisions made in the script and direction. Sorry, truth is I mostly just loved the third act action. They gave us a genuine superhero war on a scale that's almost impossible to imagine. This was the cinematic equivalent of a company-wide crossover event where every page is a splash panel.

You're damned right I loved this.