Sunday, May 27, 2012

Movie Review: Men in Black III

The first Men in Black was far better than it seems like it should have been, and the second - unfortunately - was not. Our expectations for the third were a bit harder to pin down. It seemed unlikely that Barry Sonnenfeld would risk what remains of his reputation unless he had reason to believe the finished product would be worthwhile. On the other hand, this is the director of RV and Wild Wild West* we're talking about, so speculation as to his "reasons for making movies" are risky.

I'm pleased to report that Sonnenfeld either knew what he was doing or got damn lucky, because Men in Black III was pretty great.

The trailers set up the premise: Agent K's been murdered by a time-traveling alien, so it's up to J to go rescue him. I knew going in that time travel was going to be used to give Josh Brolin an opportunity to show off his Tommy Lee Jones impression. What I hadn't realized was that they'd invested more thought than that. This is, in fact, a science-fiction comedy about time-travel, rather than an SF comedy with time-travel tossed in. Or, to put it another way, time-travel is an integral piece of the movie, not a cheap ploy.

That's not to say it's used perfectly. There's some slight-of-hand tricks employed to make you overlook the fact that some aspects don't logically work quite as well as they'd like you to believe. And - as is usually the case - the rules governing the trope are neither completely fleshed out or rational. But who cares? When the chips were down, when it really counted, Men in Black III was more intelligent than I'd expected.

It was also more touching. The movie's resolution packs a surprising emotional punch. Yeah, it's still a comedy, but it's a comedy with just a touch of gravitas.

Sure, the villain wasn't really all that memorable, and several jokes felt flat or redundant from previous installments. But those are trifles. Men in Black III accomplishes the one thing I wouldn't have anticipated: in a summer with bigger alien-invasion movies, the third installment of a fifteen-year-old franchise actually justifies its own existence.

Men in Black III is a neat little movie. It's not on par with The Avengers, but - come on - you've already seen that two or three times, anyway. If you're a fan of part one, check this out.

*Okay, in the interest of full disclosure, I've never seen RV. And, in the interest of fuller disclosure, I actually like Wild Wild West, despite being willing to admit it isn't exactly a "good" movie. Oh, and I'm aware of the background behind the giant spider and still like it. I mean, come on: how can you not love a steam-punk robot spider?

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Darkest Timeline, or Just a Four?

So. Last week Community was renewed for a fourth season. Well, technically, it was renewed for half a season, but nevertheless there was much rejoicing. And for good reason: it has been demonstrated empirically and proven irrefutably through abstract mathematics that Community is nothing short of the greatest live-action half-hour television series in the history of the Universe. At this point, the proof has been so widely distributed and is so clearly manifest by the natural light that to repeat it here seems a waste of space - if you're unfamiliar with the logic behind this argument, it is suggested you collect some scrap paper and work out the proof for yourself. It makes for good practice (a hint to get you started: the reflexive property will be needed).

At any rate, the celebration was short lived: on Friday, Sony announced that Dan Harmon, Community's creator, would no longer be the show runner but would instead work on the show in some other capacity. Soon after, Harmon clarified that this meant he'd been fired, and the other capacity he'd be working in would be none at all.

There's a lot happening behind the scenes here we'll probably never know. It's not clear whether Harmon was fired in an attempt to bring down costs, to make it more accessible for a wider audience, or for personal reasons. But it understandably has a lot of fans pissed off. In the last forty-eight hours, I've read quite a few eulogies for the series.

But I'm not ready to write it off yet. Yes, Dan Harmon created a fantastic series with some fantastic characters in it. And he's developed that show into something unique; it's more or less a given that season four isn't going to be like the first three.

But that might be okay. Let's say, for argument's sake, that the show more or less drops the homages altogether and opts to treat the series as a sitcom. While that's certainly not ideal, it's actually a good time to make the shift. The main characters are entering their last year at Greendale: transitioning into something a little closer to the real world might work thematically. And, while I love the homages, I love the characters just as much. If - and this is admittedly a huge IF - the writers can maintain the character dynamics and personalities, I'll keep watching. I think a lot of us will.

I think the importance of the homages is getting magnified, and it's because there's an elephant in the study room no one's talking about: the first half of season three was kind of weak.

Yeah, there are exceptions: "Remedial Chaos Theory" and "Regional Holiday Music" were both fantastic, and there were some other solid episodes, but most of early season three just wasn't on par with what we were used to. The Halloween episode was particularly disheartening: after the revolutionary Halloween episodes we got in seasons one and two, the ghost story motif felt forced and uninspired.

On top of that, several characters seemed to grow less intelligent this year. Even when the show recovered its footing, there was something off. A lot of the development from season two seemed to have been forgotten, and some characters' key traits and motivation just vanished. Does Abed even care about making movies anymore?

I'm not bringing this up to dwell on the negative: overall, season three was awesome, thanks to episodes like "Virtual Systems Analysis", "Pillows and Blankets", and the amazing finale. But - let's be honest - the show was getting extremely reliant on special episodes to gloss over the characters. I think that's why a lot of us are having such a negative reaction to the possibility (and it is still just a possibility) the homages and special episodes might get faded out.

I don't want to give the impression I'm glad Harmon's out: I'm not. We're almost certainly going to lose something great on this series. But there's a chance what's left over is still going to be good, maybe even great. It's not a great chance, but it's there. Obviously, the best timeline would have been the one where the die wasn't rolled at all, where Harmon was left in charge. But, as evidenced by much of season three, even that timeline wouldn't have been perfect: nothing is.

And, given that Sony did opt to roll that die, I'm waiting for it to land before calling it.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Movie Review: Battleship

In the interest of full disclosure, I should probably mention that I have not, in fact, seen Battleship, nor do I plan to do so. In most cases, I would consider this sufficient cause to forgo writing a review, but I feel like Battleship deserves special consideration. Besides, while I did not go to the theater, I did go to Youtube, where I just watched the trailers for all three Transformers movies, along with two versions of "In the Navy" (the original music video, as well as the Muppets' take), so I consider myself qualified to discuss Battleship with some authority. After all, the subtle differences between what I just saw and the movie in theaters really can't be greater than the difference between seeing a movie in IMAX 3D versus seeing it in a conventional theater.

Ultimately, I found the experience unsatisfying. At the end of the day, the movie just wasn't memorable. In fact, even if I'd actually seen it, I don't think I'd have retained much. While there were some solid special effects, everything flew by so quickly I couldn't really bring myself to care. On top of that, I really didn't feel like anything I saw was substantially different from any number of Michael Bay movies.

Likewise, the performances were generally underwhelming. Sure, Liam Neeson's cool, but he felt wasted here. The movie's lead, Taylor Kitsch, only makes me wonder why studios have so much faith in the guy: while I actually did like John Carter, he was clearly the weak link. I did think Link Hogthrob did good work in his role as a naval officer, but it's not like he was able to salvage the film.

It should go without saying that I can't recommend this movie to anyone. I'm just glad I actually took my own advice this time.

Yeah, normally I'd feel bad reviewing a movie I didn't watch. But when your strategy is to adapt a strategy board game into an alien invasion flick which DOESN'T end with Hulk showing up to kick the aliens' asses, then you release it a few weeks after the Avengers, I'm not sure you deserve anyone's sympathy.

And you sure as hell don't deserve our money.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Movie Review: The Avengers

A lot of geek reviewers are saying Avengers is the movie they've waited their whole lives for; that they grew up with this comic, and they've always dreamed of seeing it brought to the big screen. Well, that's not me.

By my count, there are four teams in comics that have always stood above the rest: The Justice League, Avengers, X-men, and Teen Titans. And, of that bunch, The Avengers have always been my least favorite.

I'm explaining this to add some context: I am a geek and a fan of superheroes, but I'm not an Avengers fanboy. So, when I tell you I have never had this much fun watching a superhero movie in my life, it's because this movie is the simply the most awesome goddamn movie I've seen in a long time.

Actually, it might be the most awesome goddamn movie ever made.

Remember last year when I reviewed Thor? I got in some arguments over that one. I thought it was a great movie, but it really grated on me. I couldn't get over the sense that it was still timid; that it was a little embarrassed it was a superhero movie, and it compensated by playing down elements and ideas that would remind the audience where it came from. Avengers made me feel vindicated: this time there were no apologies for featuring gods, magic, spies, and super-science.

The fact this was directed by a genuine superhero fan is evident from the start. Whedon understands what makes teams work. Every one of the Avengers is essential to the team's success, and that includes the ones without powers. That doesn't feel forced either: this movie uses the characters' abilities right. Yeah, the scenes with Hulk are everyone's favorites, but it's the way they utilized Hawkeye in the final battle that seemed the most brilliant.

My god... the final battle. This is the first live-action superhero team fight that looked right. Lots of other movies have pulled off individual battles, but this is the first time we've seen a team fight together on the same field, interacting with each other, fighting together and separately, trading sparing partners, playing off each others' powers and weapons as well as their own.

This is the kind of movie that all summer movies try to be. Yes, it's light. Yes, the plot is relatively straightforward. This is blockbuster entertainment, not drama. But there's an art form in making a great summer blockbuster, and this may very well be the best ever made. Better than Star Trek, better than Pirates of the Caribbean, better than Iron Man, Captain America, X-Men 2, the Spider-Man movies, and Speed Racer.

The characters are fascinating, their interactions are wonderful, and their banter is hilarious. Each Avenger feels unique and intriguing; hell, the non-Avenger characters do, too. By the end of this, you'll want more than just Iron Man movies: you'll be ready to watch a Nick Fury feature, a Hawkeye solo, and about four Hulk films. And you'll be willing to kill for a Black Widow movie - her character is pitch-perfect, and everyone who complained about the casting back in Iron Man 2 is about to shut-the-hell-up.

This is new high-water mark for both big-budget summer filmmaking and for superhero flicks. It also might be a turning point in the trudge towards dark and gritty hero stories: this thing is fundamentally bright and optimistic. I like The Dark Knight as much as the next guy, but Avengers just demonstrated to an massive audience that there's more than one note to this genre.

It's amazing. And I fully expect to go again in a week or two. Hell, I really want to catch some of those lines I couldn't hear over the sound of the audience cheering.

One more thing: at the very least I want to see this nominated for Best Picture. There's a different set of skills that goes into producing, designing, and directing something like this, but Avengers is no less difficult, no less artistic, and certainly no less impressive a finished product than anything that's won recently. This isn't a joke: I will be legitimately pissed off next year if the Academy snubs this.

It's that good.