Saturday, July 10, 2021

Movie Review: Black Widow

By my count, there are at least four distinct movies in Black Widow, two of which I really enjoyed. If you're thinking that's a roundabout way of saying the film as a whole is something of a mess... well, you're not wrong. But I mean what I say about the good stuff: when this works, it really works. Of course I can't really talk about the component parts without at least acknowledging what they are, so consider this an extremely longwinded and needlessly confusing spoiler warning.

My guess is the script for Black Window went through quite a few iterations before reaching this point. It feels like a movie that started with a strong vision that got chipped away by studio notes and rewrites. The first act goes in some dark directions: we get some backstory and insight into Natasha and the world she comes from. Tonally, this clashes a bit with the jokes tossed in to maintain the MCU flavor, but it still worked for me. I thought it did a great job selling this as a darker corner of the same world.

After a few action sequences (more on these in a minute), the movie transitioned into a sort of Soviet superhero sitcom for a while. I really liked the spy thriller opening, but this... this I absolutely LOVED. It was weird, funny, and surprisingly touching. The characters were emotionally broken people, and it was a joy seeing them interact in almost a parody of 80's situation comedies.

You've probably already done the math, so here comes the stuff that disappointed me. First, the action. It's not so much that it leans heavily on CG and blue screens, or that it doesn't look real: that's true of a lot of the genre. The larger issue is it doesn't feel integrated into the story. The fights feel like distractions, and not particularly interesting ones. It doesn't help that most of the antagonists aren't distinct or interesting enough to be compelling. The only one with a personality stays offscreen most of the movie, and the rest are literally mindless puppets. This becomes a pretty big issue towards the end, when an army of nondescript enemies works against the theme they're supposed to represent.

And speaking of theme...

Here comes that "fourth movie", and I need to be very, very careful, because I have a feeling I'm going to be in bad company here. Black Widow tries to work in some social commentary, and it just didn't work for me. Before I go on, I'll acknowledge I'm a cisgender man, and it's entirely possible this will play better for other audiences.

To be clear, I think what Black Widow tries to say is good, and I like the concept behind how they're trying to say it. But I don't think the idea was given enough room to breathe, particularly because it was competing for screen time against themes of family, and those felt more developed. Themes built around misogyny and control came across as rushed and didn't deliver enough of a punch.

Ultimately, I think this was one of the MCU's weaker entries, though that's a long way from a failure. We still got great characters, including several new additions I'd like to see again. It's enjoyable enough to warrant a viewing or two, but aside from the aforementioned sitcom sequences, it's not all that memorable. It also raises the question why Disney+ is charging an extra $30 bucks for this but giving us far superior Marvel series free with subscription.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Movie Review: Shadow in the Cloud

By rights, this should be in one of those mini-review roundups I've been doing. This movie isn't all that new (its US release was on January 1, and it technically premiered last September). And I was going to just toss it into one of those. I even started typing up some thoughts. The thing is... it's just that...

This movie fucking rules, and I couldn't bring myself to relegate it to a few paragraphs.

More than that, this doesn't just rule in a conventional way. This isn't a situation where someone took a typical premise, produced a typical genre movie, and just managed to get everything right. This thing is weird as hell, its existence feels bizarrely anachronistic, and it delivers an experience that's as unique as it is, once again, fucking awesome.

If that's enough for you, please stop reading, open Hulu, and watch this batshit crazy horror/action/adventure hybrid for yourself. Just take it in. Maybe you'll love it like I do; maybe you'll be more bothered by the obvious seams where the movie's budget falls short. Either way, I promise, it's not what you're expecting.

For those of you still here, as always, I'll try and avoid plot points or twists, but I want to stress this thing isn't really powered by those. Its strength comes from visceral emotion and artistic audacity, and it's hard to talk about a movie like that without spoiling a bit of that experience. So, again, I'm inviting you - begging you even - to go watch Shadow in the Cloud without reading another word.

All right then. Since you're still here, let's talk about realism, or more accurately the absence thereof. This movie is untethered to reality in a way few modern movies are. What's almost more intriguing, however, is how it reveals that. Most movies that embrace truly impossible elements (I'm not just talking monsters - I mean physics and reason) do so upfront. They open with an acknowledgement of the absurd to get you onboard. They ask you to suspend your disbelief from the start, so you're not surprised when reality unravels. Think Tarantino movies or Speed Racer: these movies maintain a consistent tone to ensure they're not too jarring.

This does something a bit more subtle. With the exception of a monstrous creature, the first half of the movie is largely realistic. It uses this time to bring us into the point-of-view and psychology of its protagonist, played by Chloë Grace Moretz. It creates a claustrophobic environment for her and puts pressure on her from all sides. You see that pressure affect her. Scare her. Threaten her. You almost expect it to break her, only...

If she was going to break, she'd have broken a long time ago. The movie doesn't say this outright, but it shows us. It sells us on how tough she is, which matters, because we need to buy into that to accept what comes next.

We've seen heroines in horror movies pivot before - that's not new. I'm not sure I've seen it done this effectively. Everything in the movie builds to a moment when we watch Moretz lose her patience rather than her mind, and just as the first half was expressed by showing her being quite literally bottled up, the second half... well... you couldn't convey her mental state in anything resembling reality, anyway.

The movie's big set piece is, in a word, audacious. It would have been audacious in a movie with ten times the budget this had. Attempting it at all was absurd, and by rights it shouldn't work. We're talking trying to do a big-budget sequence without the budget, so they're left trying to sell an already ridiculous sequence with obvious green screens, silly-looking explosions, and not even a big enough fan to sell the wind in her hair.

And they knock it out of the goddamn park.

None of it looks real or believable. But because of the way the movie's structured, it doesn't have to. Because we're in the head of the protagonist, we only need to believe in her motives and determination. We don't need to believe any of this is real; we need to experience the story on its own terms.

They used to make genre movies this way. They used to sell fantastic ideas with actors and stories rather than trying for flawless effects. I'm not saying that philosophy was always better, but it's refreshing to see it used again, and even more refreshing to see it used that well.

It's also refreshing to hear it. This thing also tosses out the assumption movie music should disappear into the background. Shadow in the Cloud features a delightfully retro soundtrack that makes its presence known, and I love it.

I love a lot of things about this movie. I love that the monster is maybe the third most pressing concern as far as the main character is concerned. I love that the ending goes in a direction I don't think I've ever seen before, and it's glorious. I love that the theme is as unsubtle and unapologetic as the physics. Chloë Grace Moretz nails absolutely every scene she's in, which it turns out is literally every scene in the movie, so that's another point in the movie's favor.

This was directed by Roseanne Liang, who I'm guessing you've never heard of before, either. Well... now I've heard of her, and I want more. Someone airdrop her a pallet of money to make a Marvel flick or two dozen indie productions or something. Anything. Whatever she wants.

It's hard to compare this movie to anything, but if pressed I'd point to Attack the Block or Mandy. It's genre that ignores the rules and actually offers some genuine surprises.

Saturday, May 8, 2021

Catch-Up, Part 6: Awards Bait

This is the sixth installment in my ongoing series of mini-reviews of newish movies I missed in the theater, because I literally haven't been to a movie theater in close to two years.

The movies I'm looking at today were all well received and with good reason: to the extent the word "objectively" means anything in this context, they're all objectively great films.

I hadn't meant to do a "movies for grown-ups" installment - I'm a strong believer that "good" and "genre" aren't mutually exclusive labels, and further that most "awards contenders" can be accurately classified under various genre labels. But I basically spent the last five articles siphoning off all the conventional genre movies - good and bad - I've seen, leaving... well... mostly a bunch of high quality films that didn't fit elsewhere. I don't want to sit on these forever - I saw one of the movies below back in January 2020 - so here we are.

Nomadland (2020)
Not a lot to say here aside from the obvious: it's beautifully shot and edited into something that feels closer to a cross between a documentary and poetry than a narrative film. This is already blurring the line between reality, adaptation, and story - it doesn't fit neatly in any bucket. On one hand, it's a moving and simple character study; on another, it probes into some darker aspects of how our nation operates.

It's a fantastic movie, so I feel bad admitting my main takeaway is that Eternals is in great hands.

Jojo Rabbit (2019)
I hate that I don't love more of Taika Waititi's movies. For the record, I did love Hunt for the Wilderpeople. And I've been getting into the series, What We Do in the Shadows, but the movie it was based on didn't really work for me. Same goes for the rest of his filmography - I liked them fine, but I didn't love them.

The weird thing is I should love them. I'm generally a sucker for this kind of humor, and I love absurdist settings and situations. His approach should be right up my alley. And it's not like I think the love he gets is unearned - I can watch these and appreciate how well they're crafted. He's a phenomenal filmmaker.

I think it comes down to a minor stylistic quibble. His movies are made to keep the audience at arm's length. He wants you to be conscious of the fact you're watching a movie, and he uses the fourth wall accordingly. He doesn't want the audience pulled so far into the film they get lost in the story.

Again, this isn't a good or bad thing, just a choice. But it's a choice that clashes with my personal preferences regarding movies (especially these kinds of movies).

I want to stress, this is a great film. The characters are fantastic, the direction is wonderful, the story is timely... it's fantastic. I'm not criticizing any aspect. I honestly wish I could toggle the part of my brain that kept me from enjoying this more.

Little Women (2019)
I'm a geeky man who generally prefers movies about spaceships and superheroes. If I'd been living in the world of Little Women, I'd have been one of the readers who was sad Jo's violent genre stories disappeared. This movie isn't from a genre I seek out.

A few years ago, someone convinced me to give the 1994 adaptation (that's the one with Winona Ryder) a shot. Their pitch may have involved overselling its holiday credentials (I've got a relatively liberal outlook on what constitutes a Christmas movie, and Little Women doesn't check enough boxes). At any rate, I watched that and was bored to tears. Nothing about the story or characters clicked with me.

So why in the world did I give another adaptation a shot? Simple. Because all the geeky reviewers I listen to who also like spaceships and superheroes swore this was one of the best movies of last year. So I gave it a chance, and...

Yeah, this movie rules. It just totally rules.

I'm not going to sit here and write at length about how amazing the cast was or how beautiful the film was. I'm not going to go in depth about how brilliant the structural changes were or how cleverly the movie explored the book's relationship to the author's life or any of that. I'd just be rehashing what a billion critics already said. And besides, while those aspects are a big part of what I appreciated this adaptation, they're not why I loved it.

What I actually loved about it was the humor and warmth. Moments that bored me in the 1994 version felt fresh and real here. It didn't matter that I knew the story or even that I had negative associations with it - I was riveted. 

That's a hell of an achievement. Check this out if you haven't already.

Spaceship Earth (2020)
Do I include documentaries in these things? Have I ever talked about a documentary on this blog in any context? Damned if I remember. But I want to say a few things about this one, mainly because it was a lot of fun. Also, while it isn't technically science fiction, it's science fiction adjacent to a degree that's absurdly rare.

The subject of the documentary is the 1991 "experiment" where eight people were sealed (well, mostly sealed - there were complications) in an airtight complex for two years. The goal was to create a sustainable environment made up of habitats from all over the planet. The idea was both inspired by science fiction and motivated by a similar drive: if we ever want to set up colonies on other worlds, this is what they'll need to look like.

The first third largely centers on the group behind the project, and they're hard to categorize. Part-hippie, part commune, part corporate think tank... I kept feeling conflicting reactions where part of me wanted to laugh at them while another part wishes I was alive back then and could have joined them. They're a fascinating group.

It's kind of a shame they conducted their experiment when they did. I feel like the concept could be executed much more effectively now using hydroponics and an improved understanding of biology. But good luck getting the funding together - I suspect that was a one-time deal, at least in this country.

At any rate, the documentary is worth a watch, just be prepared for the twist ending, when [spoiler alert] Steve Bannon shows up and takes over. Seriously - Steve Bannon. It feels like the studio interfered and made the director wedge him into the movie to set up a sequel, until you remember you're watching historical footage and all this really happened.

Hustlers (2019)
Hustlers is the kind of movie I'd typically ignore entirely, despite being able to hear every critic in the country hollering its praises at the top of their lungs. At a glance, it just doesn't sound like a genre I'd be interested in.

But, okay, funny story. A few years ago I got bored and watched "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World," a movie that received lukewarm reviews. And once I finished watching it, I vowed to watch basically anything else the mad genius behind it made for the rest of her career. Damn, that movie is good.

I wasn't disappointed in The Meddler, and I sure as hell wasn't disappointed in Hustlers. Lorene Scafaria is a master at juggling genres and balancing tones. Hustlers is more or less a mafia movie spliced with a drama about friendship, all delivered with humor. It's the kind of thing that shouldn't work, but Scafaria makes it look easy.

Track this down if you haven't seen it. And, for the love of God, also watch Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. Seriously. It's one of the most underrated genre films of all time.

Dolemite is My Name (2019)
After watching Dolemite is My Name, I tried explaining the premise to my wife and was mostly at a loss. In some ways, it's closest to Ed Wood, but that's not a fair comparison. If anything, this movie seems intent on dismissing just that sort of characterization of Rudy Ray Moore. The film is ultimately a comedy, but it's not an especially funny one. It's more interested in celebrating its subject's unique place in cinema and pop culture than in making jokes.

This is, at the end of the day, a character study. It's a biopic about a man who realized there was a untapped market for a particular type of entertainment producers didn't understand or take seriously. While I don't have a background with this character or the genre he worked in, I'm more than familiar with that theme - it's somewhat universal in film and television. And this movie handles it masterfully.

And that's not even getting into the fantastic character work and the beautiful visuals (this looks more like a movie made in the '70s than most movies made in the '70s).

If you've got a few hours and a Netflix subscription, this one's more than worth the time.

The Farewell (2019)
This is the sort of movie I rarely watch unless it’s set at Christmas, but my sister gave it a strong recommendation. And… yeah, it’s pretty great. It’s a dramedy about cultural differences, family relationships, and difficult moments. There’s not a great deal of story beyond the premise (which I’m not spoiling for a reason), but this winds up feeling like a feature rather than a bug. Characters behave realistically, which means growth and development are more subtle and internal than you’d typically get in this genre. I spent the movie waiting for “the big moment” and was pleasantly surprised when it went in another direction (it kind of had to – the movie’s based on a true story).

Beyond the fantastic character work, amazing acting, and nuanced look at cultural differences, the movie also features some stunning cinematography. It’s beautifully shot, to the point I’d recommend it on that fact alone (or at least I would if everything else wasn’t even better).

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Movie Review: Mortal Kombat

The 2021 Mortal Kombat movie is the movie they should have made in 1995. Swear to God, this movie would have seemed awesome twenty-six years ago. I know we all have fond memories of the campy, cheesy, stupid, bloodless flick that dropped back then, but nostalgia's doing that movie a lot of favors. What the 90's needed was a campy, cheesy, stupid flick with blood, and now... here it is, a few decades late.

Is it too late? Maybe. Probably. Depends how generous you're feeling.

This is... it's fine. Not good, mind you, but fine. The movie does a solid job adapting the core of the game and a passable job assembling that into a format resembling an actual movie. Mostly passable. Sort of passable. It comes a lot closer than most video game adaptations, anyway. But structurally, this is still more like a fighting game than a movie. Was that intentional? Probably. Was it advisable? Probably not.

I'm tempted to say this is likely the best version of this premise we could have hoped for on the big screen, but the truth is a version of this with interesting character dynamics wouldn't have been all that difficult. I'm not saying we needed awards-caliber writing, but the reason, say, Infinity War works without much of a story is that the banter is fun and the relationships are engaging. Here, it's mostly just filler and exposition between fights. Only a few characters have relationships to each other, and those are clichés. When the most compelling character is the video game equivalent of Captain Boomerang, you've got a problem.

That's the larger issue, at least as far as this thing's entertainment value is concerned. There are some pretty big structural and pacing issues, but to be frank, I think issues like those come off as more academic than fatal flaws in movies like these. They're the kinds of things that don't bother you too much unless you stop and think about them, but whether it was wise or not...

...I stopped and thought about them. So, uh, spoilers.

The weirdest - I don't think "flaw" is even the right word - choice, maybe? The weirdest choice the movie makes, in my opinion, is to not actually do the Mortal Kombat tournament. The tournament is supposed to happen, the lore from the games (or at least my limited understanding of that lore) is largely intact, the main characters spend the first few acts getting ready for said tournament, but instead they just kind of fight all the bad guys one-on-one outside of the tournament. Then no one really explains if the tournament is postponed, if the villains forfeit, if it's still going to happen in a couple days with new or resurrected bad guys, or what's going on.

And here's the thing: the one-on-one fights were shot in a way they could have been the tournament, they just weren't. Like, we weren't watching the tournament on a technicality. My running theory is they originally were part of the "official" tournament, then the movie got recut and streamlined into it's current form. Maybe they couldn't swing some reshoots because of COVID, and this was the workaround?

I also have my suspicions about the "big fight" at the end, mainly because it *wasn't* really a big fight, at all. The movie's climax is a fight between one ninja fighting two ninjas, and the two ninjas win, because [checks notes] there are two of them.

Meanwhile, the main character takes out Goro at the end of the second act. Given how much of the Goro fight is CG, I can't help but wonder if maybe the order of those fights got flipped at some point. Because, as it is, there really isn't a "boss fight" at the end of the movie, which feels wrong for a fighting game adaptation.

Again, none of this is necessarily a major problem; just... weird. The movie feels like it doesn't quite click together, but... does it have to? The fights are pretty good, and that's the selling point of this thing, anyway. I wish they'd held back more from the trailers, but the "good parts" are indeed pretty good. Does a Mortal Kombat movie need to be a coherent, well-made film, or is "people fighting" enough? I'll leave that to philosophers to decide.

Let's talk gore. Yes, there's blood and occasionally guts and brains and stuff, but honestly... I thought there'd be a lot more. This isn't a complaint - I'm squeamish, so I didn't miss it - but it's notable the fatalities in the movie are significantly less gruesome than some I've seen in the more recent games. Again, not a complaint: I was just a little surprised.

Along with Detective Pikachu, this is easily one of the best video game movies I've ever seen, but if that's not damning with faint praise, I don't know what is. I can't imagine spending additional money to see this on a big screen, but if you're already paying for HBO Max... hey, it's right there. That's certainly how I watched it. Not sure this qualifies as a recommendation, but I suppose you need to ask yourself how bored you are.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Movie Review: Godzilla vs. Kong

I think I've said some version of this every time I've reviewed an installment in this franchise: when the biggest complaint people have about a monster movie is the human characters or the plot or the logic or literally anything other than the monsters... take a bow - you did your job. I hope this won't be read as being synonymous with "turn off your brain" or some kind of attack against people who aren't satisfied with a big, silly adventure movie about a giant ape and a radioactive dragon punching each other - that's not it at all. It's simply an acknowledgement that these movies first and foremost exist to spotlight the monsters, and if they fail to do so, every review in existence is going to harp on that fact.

And, once again, Legendary knocked this out of the park, at least as far as those monsters are concerned. Kong and Godzilla are awesome, as is the "Hollow Earth" we finally get to see. And that other thing they kept secret (but that was kind of in the trailer, anyway)... yeah, that's awesome, too. The movie is visually inventive, exciting, and - above all - about as fun as they come.

But, yes, if you care, the plot is about as dumb as a rock.

I'm honestly not sure that's fair. A more accurate statement might be the film sacrifices story and logic for pace, and if anything I'd say that's a smart decision in this case. But if you want to pick apart the logic of who manages to go where and when, you'll have an easy time doing so. Even suspending disbelief around things like Hollow Earth leave you scratching your head around geography and geometry. It's pretty obvious when the movie just skips over explanations or causality to get back to fights and destruction. I know that's deal-breaker for some people... and that's fine. By now, you probably know whether spectacle and action are enough for you. If not, this probably isn't a genre you enjoy, and Godzilla vs. Kong won't change your mind.

For the rest of us... my God, this thing is great. It's absurd fantasy/adventure pitted against sci-fi destruction. It's silly and awesome and crazy. Like its predecessors, it's an absolute joy to watch. But you probably figured all that from the trailer. If you want to nitpick, there are some moments (particularly in the third act) where the movie starts looking more like a really expensive cartoon than live-action. Even then, it's still a *good* cartoon, so that's at most a minor criticism.

I don't want to go into too much detail about which visuals work best, because... well... the joy of watching a movie like this is discovering those moments for yourself. But I also don't want to cut the review off this soon, so I guess I have to talk about the human characters.

I'd argue the MonsterVerse is getting better in that department. The least interesting character from King of the Monsters is relegated to a minor role this time, and we're instead largely following kid adventurers who are invested in the outcome. This still doesn't quite gel into anything I'd call compelling, but it's not tedious, either, which is quite a bit better than par.

I feel for the writers of these movies. The stars are the monsters, not the people, but if you tried putting the monsters on camera for two hours straight, there wouldn't be any suspense or anticipation (also, it would almost certainly be cost-prohibitive). You need people in there to take up time, serve as the audience POV, and maybe (just maybe) add more than they detract. I don't think the humans in Godzilla vs. Kong quite get there, but they come close. Essentially, their presence is a wash, neither enhancing nor hurting the experience.

You can see them drawing from Stranger Things (hell, that was evident in King of the Monsters), which is probably the best path forward. Lean into it and have the human stuff just following a group of absurdly competent kids on an adventure in the middle of a kaiju attack. Make the kids likable enough, and you've got an interesting B-story to go along with the A-list monsters tearing up cities.

I want to stress that, in my opinion at least, these movies don't need to fix anything. The MonsterVerse films are great as is, and this one ranks in the top half. I have no idea if this franchise can keep going, but I really hope it will. These are delightful, fun films that deliver everything they promise and maybe a little more.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Movie Review: Justice League (The Snyder Cut)

I know the studio is technically calling this "Zack Snyder's Justice League," but let's not delude ourselves into pretending this will be remembered as anything other than The Snyder Cut. Besides, the prefix "Zack Snyder's" implies the theatrical cut belonged to someone else, and perhaps the largest reveal of this incarnation is that's not really true. Obviously Snyder (no relation) wasn't happy with the original (who was?), but most of the scenes I assumed had been written and shot by Whedon apparently weren't. Likewise, the paper-thin mulligan hunt forming the narrative backbone remained unchanged. In short, this is less a complete reconstruction of the 2017 flop than a conventional extended edition. It's just... really, really, really extended.

I'm something of an anomaly among film fans and critics, in that I have no issue with movies being long, provided that time is well used. If you're telling a complex story, developing a detailed world, building out interesting themes, or even constructing an elaborate tone, I'm happy to invest almost any amount of time in a project.

Here's the thing, though: The Snyder Cut accomplishes none of these things. Other than a couple expanded arcs, the story is the same as it was in the theatrical. The world, while definitely improved, was still underdeveloped. The themes... don't make me laugh: this is still "Justice League: Friendship is Magic," but now it's Friendship is Magic with the occasional decapitation. Theme is not Zack Snyder's forte. 

That brings us to tone, which I suspect is the aspect most of this movie's fans will point to in order to justify its length. Because it's true the movie does, in fact, have a tone. It does not, however, build that tone, subvert it, or use it to meaningfully enhance its story (again, there's barely a story at all). The tone is present at the start, it doesn't evolve or change much, and it sticks around through the unnecessary epilogue. That same tone could have been easily injected into a two-hour movie, a 60-minute TV show, or a music video (and if you've ever seen a Zack Snyder movie before, you won't be surprised to hear most of this feels like a series of music videos, anyway).

In short, this didn't need to be this long, and it doesn't really gain anything from that length. There is, however, some good news. Taken on its own merits (which, again, is tough to do since it's mostly the same as the theatrical cut), this is largely an improvement. More importantly, it's far, far, far better than Batman v Superman. Infinitely better. That movie was trash.

I glossed over the characters above, but this does a better job with most of its leads. Flash, in particular, is delightful - he was a standout in the theatrical, as well, and most of those scenes made it into this installment, as did some fantastic new ones. Flash's powers work perfectly with Zack Snyder's visual style - if there's a reason to sit through this, it's for the Flash scenes.

I wasn't as head-over-heels in love with the new Cyborg material as some reviewers, but the character is definitely better treated here than in the last version. I do like the sequence where he uses his powers in a Robin Hood capacity. The rest of his arc is fine, but mostly I found it boring. Your millage may vary - like I said, this interpretation of the character is definitely picking up some fans.

After Flash, I actually think Batman benefits the most from this cut. It wasn't so much more material than the fact the darker tone means his optimism shines through a little brighter. A smirk here and there means more in contrast.

Wonder Woman and Aquaman didn't get much out of this - there's some new footage, but I don't feel like it adds up to anything more substantial than we got from the previous installment (besides, they both have solo movies that are far better than either version of Justice League).

Superman is notable in that he gets significantly less screen time here than in the theatrical, which was surprising. For what it's worth, we still get a happier, more hopeful Superman than we saw in Man of Steel or BvS, if only briefly. In other words, this is a truncated version of Superman from the theatrical Justice League.

Steppenwolf is more interesting here, though still underwhelming. He's less a generic villain and more a pitiful, desperate monster trying to get home. This doesn't really go anywhere or pay off, but I guess it counts as an improvement.

The action scenes are generally improved, but get ready for some caveats. The movie has some great moments where the concepts and effects come together and deliver some truly awesome visuals. But it also has a bunch of sequences where actors in bulky costumes cut to obvious CG cartoons, breaking the flow. In addition, the movie continues to mistake brutal for cool, which undersells the value of the characters being adapted. It also drives home the fact that this is not, in fact, a movie for grown-ups.

I could go on, both nitpicking and complimenting various sequences or elements, but I don't feel the need to indulge in a Snyder-cut of my own. Ultimately, the nicest thing I can say is if I were advising someone who'd never seen either version of Justice League which to watch, I'd point them towards this one. The meanest thing I can say is if I were talking to someone who'd already seen the theatrical, I'd tell them they could skip this. It's not awful, but it really just doesn't add that much of value, especially weighed against its runtime.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Movie Review: Flora & Ulysses

Flora & Ulysses is frustrating in that it's enjoyable but - taken as a whole - not actually all that good. That's another way of saying aspects are really good, but the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

What sets it apart is that the good stuff is, well, really good, and there's a lot of it. This isn't a situation where there's a cool moment or two amidst a bad movie: the dialogue is consistently funny, the characters are likable, the casting is far more inspired than you'd expect from the premise, and the direction is solid. It's just there's really not much movie here, as though someone forgot to settle on a premise or point before making it.

In theory, this is the story of a young girl struggling with family troubles who adopts and befriends a superpowered squirrel. Only despite being highly focused on the situation's relationship to comics and superheroes (including a great deal of cross-promotional Marvel references), the superpowers are ultimately superfluous. This isn't really a superhero story, nor is it a deconstruction of superhero stories. It doesn't meaningfully comment on the genre, it doesn't incorporate elements or tropes in a way that builds out the story it's actually telling... the superhero stuff is just kind of there to kill time, fuel jokes, and allow them to reference the MCU from time to time (not that they need an excuse: there are also numerous Star Wars references, along with a bunch of homages to other Disney/Fox properties).

But, again, none of that stops this from being genuinely fun. As disposable entertainment goes, it gets the job done. The CG squirrel is cute enough, provided you're not too sick of this style of animated creature to enjoy it.

The pieces are all there, it just needed an outline. But if you set your expectations appropriately, there's no reason not to have fun with this. I mean, movies like this being at all good is a new phenomenon, one parents of the world owe the Paddington films a huge debt for inspiring.

If Disney's really going to keep cranking these out, it's nice to see they're putting in some effort. This isn't a home run, but it's solid enough I don't regret the time I spent watching... despite the fact it never really went anywhere.