Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 Movies Revisited

When you only go to the theater 15 times in a year, writing a top 10 list seems like a waste of everyone's time. With that in mind, I prefer a yearly wrap-up ranking every new movie I saw from the absolute worst to the absolute best experience.

Re-read that last part - it's significant. These aren't necessary ranked from worst to best, but rather on how much I enjoyed them (or was moved or impressed, in some cases). It is subjective by design.

As always, I'm only considering geek films, which is pretty easy, since that represents the vast majority of what I watch (well, that and Christmas movies, but most of those are old, anyway). Beyond that... I'm getting a little fuzzy in how I define what I consider. In general, I only look at movies that received a wide theatrical release at some point in the past year. But... well... I may have had to bend that rule a bit this time.

At any rate, here's the list:

16. Amazing Spider-Man 2
This one was disappointing, though it certainly delivered a few cool elements. Electro's design looked good, and I'm glad they were willing to use a power set that differentiates him from every other villain we've seen in Spider-Man movies. Likewise there were some genuinely funny scenes. But for every minute that worked, there were two that didn't: between some baffling character choices and obnoxious plot directions, the movie left me more bored than entertained. Ultimately, though, the movie's success or failure needs to be measured against how well it tells its central story, and that - more than anything else - is where it falls short. The movie doesn't even seem to realize what that story is, and as a result it meanders between subplots before covering the death of Gwen Stacey as something of an afterthought. If it had managed to do Gwen's story justice, I'd have been willing to forgive the rest. But in failing that test, the movie fails as a whole.

15. Snowpiercer
I watched this just a few days ago on Netflix. It's one of the few times you'll hear me admit that the conceit of listing these in terms of personal preference hurts a film. If I were basing this on quality, it would be a minimum of three spots higher, probably more. However, I found myself agreeing with the Weinsteins on this one. If you're unfamiliar with the controversy, there was a massive fight over whether the movie should be cut for US audiences which resulted in it being delayed and the scale of the eventual release severely reduced (so much for that "wide US release" requirement). I hate siding with the producers, but it felt too long to me. The main points it was making weren't exactly subtle: I'm not sure we needed that much time to get them across. That said, it was brilliantly shot and constructed. But, in the end, I respect it more than I like it.

14. Maleficent
My feelings about this movie remain genuinely conflicted. Its largest issue hinges on its core contradiction: this is at once a complete re-imagining, yet it goes to great pains to retain its connections to the Disney classic. Watching it as a fan of Disney animation requires a great deal of cognitive dissonance. But I found it worth the effort. For all this movie's many faults, the central character is interesting, the visuals are cool, and the script contains some worthwhile observations about its source material.

13. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
It feels wrong dumping this so far from the top, but what can I say? Peter Jackson's prequel trilogy started strong, but the last two movies finally became what non-geeks claimed the other four were: inflated and drawn out. The Tauriel love story was painful to the end, and the supposedly-central friendship between Bilbo and Thorin, while cleverly mirroring the Sam/Frodo relationship, just didn't click right. It was fun and exciting, but in the end it felt like a pale imitation of Tolkien.

12. X-Men: Days of Future Past
This one's hard to rate. It feels more like a bridge than a movie: its entire purpose is to cut ties with past mistakes and establish a new series. This is actually something of a double-edged sword: while I'm glad to be rid of X-Men 3 and Origins: Wolverine, it's also means the events of X-Men 2 and last summer's The Wolverine are gone. I feel like the value of Days of Future Past is largely dependent on what comes next. Viewed as a stand-alone film, there's a lot of noise but not a great deal of content. The Quicksilver "Time in a Bottle" sequence was fantastic, and the future sequences were cool. The rest was solid, but not really memorable. I loved a lot about this movie, but I feel like the X-Men franchise has been fifteen years of build-up without much payoff. I'm ready for something big and exciting, and I'm hoping Age of Apocalypse delivers that.

11. The Lego Movie
This was, perhaps, a little overrated when it came out, but that doesn't mean it wasn't a great film. The movie was extremely clever and well-constructed, though the most important piece didn't fit together quite right. The real-world sequence was over-the-top and cheesy, when it needed to be heartfelt and believable. It was one bad judgement call in a film of inspired ideas. Fortunately, it didn't cause the film to crumble, but it left it seeming a bit tilted and uneven. Setting that aside, the movie was a lot of fun.

10. Godzilla
Okay. This placement is generous. If this were a true "best of", there's no way I could justify putting this so close to the top. The main character was trite, and the director's commitment to holding back the monster was unfortunate. In interviews, he's strongly implied that the audience wouldn't have been satisfied with scene after scene of monsters fighting: he's sorely mistaken. But despite these setbacks, the monster attacks and battles were amazing, the designs felt authentic to the source material, and Godzilla's character was spot-on. Sure, the soldier was boring, but I'd rather watch a Godzilla movie where the humans are dull and the monsters are awesome than the reverse.

9. Big Hero 6
This was a really good movie. The key scene, where Hiro's anger gets the best of him, is stunning and tragic, and the resolution to that sequence is just as good. The movie almost placed higher, but it's held back by its own constraints. This movie clearly wants to be The Avengers for kids, but it doesn't have the time or inclination to build up the other members of the team. Superhero teams need balance - that's a big part of why the Avengers worked. As a result, Big Hero 6 winds up delivering a story about a super-genius, his robot, and their four sidekicks. It's not a bad story, but it could have been something much better. If they'd been willing to drop a few of the minor characters and increase GoGo's part substantially, I think it could have had a shot at #1 on this list.

8. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance )
Easily the most bizarre movie up here, Birdman was also the hardest to place. I rank these according to preference rather than quality to sidestep issues with objectivity. But how the hell do I rank a brilliantly constructed movie that I can't decide how much I like? As I shift the film around in my head, my opinion oscillates from near the top of the list to a few rungs from the bottom. Considering the movie was trying to get into its audience's heads, that's certainly not a bad sign. It was absolutely engrossing and more fun than you'd expect from something this strange. Hell, I can't even commit to whether it's a work of brilliance or just weird for the sake of weird. My gut tells me this is the place for it, but I can easily imagine looking back and regretting not placing it at the absolute top. A lot of it will come down to how well it ages, and I can't even begin to speculate on that yet.

7. Dark Dungeons
As a rule, I don't include movies that lack a theatrical run. The resources low-budget filmmakers have at their disposal are far less substantial than those controlled by major studios, and the finished product is an entirely different type of work. All that said, I can't imagine a list of 2014 genre films that omits Dark Dungeons: this one's important. It's also a hell of a lot of fun. The cast is amazing: it's difficult to imagine a better representation of the characters from the tract. They deliver Chick's lines while walking a thin line between sincerity and campy humor, and the result is spectacular. JR Ralls's script follows the plot and spirit of the source material in a similar fashion. One gets the impression that, in addition to wringing every ounce of unintentional humor out of Chick's story, he also kind of loves it. The movie feels like a celebration of the tract that's at once ironic and sincere at the same time. It's absolutely the right approach for this project, and the final result is one of the most fun things I've seen in a long time. Until the ending shot, which is - rightly so - a little haunting.

6. Into the Woods
I've been mulling over where to put this on the list, and it hasn't been an easy choice. Into the Woods is really just a solid adaptation of an amazing musical. It got the casting right and managed to not screw anything up, but that's not a major accomplishment. But I'm not rating whether the director did a good job or not (though I actually think he did); I'm basing this on how much I liked the movie. And, even though it was largely because I really like the musical, I really liked this movie. I don't think anyone believes this is the best adaptation possible, and it's certainly unfortunate this was produced by a corporation with a financial interest in maintaining a simplistic narrative around princess stories. But that doesn't change the fact that the jokes still worked, the drama carried (most of) the weight it was supposed to, and the story made it through (mostly) unchanged. I had a great experience watching this.

5. Her
I'm counting this as 2014, even though it was technically released in 2013. The wide release didn't happen until after the new year, and I didn't see it until February, so it's going on the list. It was a cool movie, all things considered, though it was a bit slow in parts. Still, the tone was nothing sort of fascinating, and the movie explored vaster and more cerebral aspects of science fiction than film generally dares to touch. The love story was certainly the central plot, at least on the surface, but it's the emergent consciousness angle and theological implications that make it truly intriguing.

4. Edge of Tomorrow
I find it fascinating that Tom Cruise has become a liability in marketing movies. While he still has a few fans, the number of people who will avoid his movies seems to be far greater. It's not hard to understand why: his presence implies a film - particularly SF - will be poorly written and directed. But nothing could be farther from the truth this time: Edge of Tomorrow was one of the coolest, funniest action movies released this year. It's far better than Looper, and I'd even rate it higher than Inception. Fortunately, it'll hold up well on smaller screens, regardless of what they're calling it, so those of you who skipped it in the theater can still check it out.

3. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
When I heard that the director from Rise of the Planet of the Apes wasn't coming back for the sequel, I wasn't happy. Wyatt managed to reboot a franchise the world was ready to leave behind in such a way to make it feel relevant and interesting: I didn't trust Reeves to fill his shoes. But after seeing Dawn, I can't imagine anyone seriously contending that the first film is the best in the series. This is a huge step forward in a franchise that was already exceeding all expectations. More than that, this was one had some serious weight to it. A disturbing and haunting look at clashing cultures and at moral complication, it honors the reach of the genre in ways few science fiction movies even attempt. And, once again, the motion-captured actors - Serkis in particular, but he's hardly alone here - offer performances that may be overlooked by their peers for the foreseeable future, but will likely represent the most influential style of acting for our generation. And don't even try to tell me that's hyperbolic: in fifty years, Serkis's work will be studied by film students to a greater degree than any other living actor.

2 and 1: TIE! Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy
I wouldn't normally do this. I generally consider it essential that these kinds of lists pick favorites - that's kind of the point, after all. But in this case, I'm making an exception. The reason is a bit complicated, though.

These two fantastic movies are so different, it's virtually impossible to compare them. That's not why I'm calling this a tie, but it's connected. If these movies lived in a vacuum, I wouldn't have put them this high. Actually, if it weren't for the existence of the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, I think I'd have given the #1 spot to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

What these movies did that made them deserve this place was to not just occupy completely different sectors of the same shared Universe, but to dramatically expand that Universe in different directions. I don't just mean in terms of plot or setting: these two films introduced entirely new tones and genres to the Marvel Universe. They expanded the possibilities for where these movies could go.

Watching that happen twice in the same year exceeded any other experience I had in the theater this year. With that in mind, I can't see any other option but to name both Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy as the best geek movie of 2014.

This list isn't 100% complete, of course. Actually, I think it's closer to 75% complete, because - by my count - there were five major geek films released in 2014 I never got around to seeing (more if you count horror, but I don't really cover those here).

Of the five films I skipped, two are pretty universally disliked: Transformers: Age of Extinction and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I'm sure I'll get around to them eventually, but I don't anticipate regretting their exclusion. Likewise, while the reactions were a little more mixed, most people seemed ambivalent on Lucy (if not outright hostile). Unless I'm forgetting something, the only geek movies I didn't catch that were well received were How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Mockingjay, Part 1. I wasn't particularly impressed with the first Dragon, but maybe the sequel will have more of an impact. I actually loved Catching Fire (it might have given The Wolverine a run for its money in the best of 2013 if I'd seen it earlier), but this one received more tepid reviews.

Overall, there were a lot of great films released in 2014, though we still haven't gotten something on the magnitude of The Avengers. I suspect the dwindling box-office returns are a symptom of that; the movie going public seems to want something truly big and exciting again. We should get that next year between Avengers 2 and Star Wars VII: here's hoping those meet expectations.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Movie Review: Into the Woods

If you've ever seen a performance (or even a recorded performance) of Into the Woods, your takeaway from this adaptation is likely going to hinge on your expectations. If you're looking for this to add anything of substance to the play, you're probably going to walk away disappointed. Likewise, you're not going to be happy if you're looking for a definitive adaptation. This is neither a perfect version nor a new version of Sondheim's musical.

However, they managed to make this without butchering the play, which is a hell of a lot more than anyone associated with Burton's Sweeney Todd can claim. In most cases, simply not screwing something up may sound like a low bar, but Sondheim's work seems to be extremely difficult to transition to film. In that respect, I think this should be considered a success.

It helps that, when you don't manage to do anything more than make a movie out of Sondheim, you're still left with Sondheim. The script, lyrics, and music are phenomenal, but this is old news. They just managed to get a cast together who could handle the material.

Again, a hell of lot more than I can say for Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd.

This isn't to say the director didn't successfully capture the tone of the story: for the most part, I think he did. But don't expect this to enhance the tone with movie magic: the effects are there - and they're solid - but Marshall doesn't pull off the kind of intensity he got from Chicago. To be fair, I don't think anyone could have.

Into the Woods was written around limitations in presenting special effects and visual marvels. These were always integral to the plot, but they couldn't very pull off modern computer effects in the 80's. Or, you know, on stage in front of a live audience.

As a result, Marshall was stuck having to put these things on film, but wasn't given a story which allowed him to explore them. He would either have had to deviate from the play and create subplots where these were central or stick with the play and have the effects come off as somewhat secondary. He went with the latter, and he deserves praise for the decision.

There are, of course, a handful of alterations made to this in order to adapt it for film. The majority of these were minor tweaks: changes to a song to reflect a new point of view, alterations to a scene to make it work, and shifts to play down sexual innuendo (I certainly can't fault them for this, given the age of Red Riding Hood). But there were a few more controversial transformations.

I won't rehash them here, but there were a couple minor characters pulled for obvious reasons and at least one death removed, almost certainly to placate Disney's marketing department. These alterations were certainly unwelcome, but they didn't do any real damage to the story as a whole.

Ultimately, my largest complaint was with the violence, which felt extremely timid. I certainly didn't need an R rating, but the death scenes were all toned down to the degree you weren't even sure they were killing a character. Until they were confirmed several scenes later, I actually thought Disney might have vetoed the two most devastating losses, just like they (presumably) nixed the death of one of their princesses. I think the movie could certainly have used a bit more teeth.

That said, it hit enough of the right notes to stand out as a solid adaptation. I wish a different production company had been behind this, but I was still happy with what Marshall and Disney managed to produce. It had to be a hard - and thankless - play to adapt, but the final product does the job.

I had a great time watching this in the theater, and think it stands out as a solid adaptation. Go in with that expectation, and there's a good chance you'll have a similar experience.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Movie Review: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

If you believe in the multiversal interpretation of quantum mechanics, it's difficult to imagine there isn't an alternate world where this movie's title is Batman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) where Michael Keaton simply plays a fictionalized version of himself. Same goes for Edward Norton, who could easily be playing a character with his name and background. Both actors are phenomenal, as is the rest of the cast.

The movie feels like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation thrown into a blender alongside some experimental theater and a bottle of gin. The final result is quite good, and - despite feeling a lot like a Charlie Kaufman piece - still surprisingly fresh. It's probably the gin, to be honest.

The majority of the movie is designed to feel like a single take. Of course, we all know it isn't, so this turns into a game of "spot the cut", which does keep you at arm's length from the narrative, but that was probably intentional. The movie doesn't break the fourth wall, but it certainly puts some cracks in it. It seems to want you aware that it's a movie, and - I suspect - it wants you to be thinking about who's in the cast and why. The three most significant characters are played by actors who were formerly in superhero movies, after all, with two being recast and the third killed off earlier this year.

The movie's point is a little harder to pin down. It almost seems to be satirizing the New York theater scene, blockbuster superhero movies, actors, and critics simultaneously. The movie is surprisingly ruthless in this regard: none of the main characters are what I'd describe as particularly likable, though you absolutely want to see more of them. Still, it's not clear how seriously these critiques were intended. I left the theater entirely unsure whether the director loves or hates his industry and colleagues.

Theater plays a much larger part of the movie's story line than I'd expected: really, the Bird/Batman aspect is background to the production of a fake play based on a real short story (hence the Adaptation angle). The movie often lives on the line between the show and backstage and explores the relationship between truth and fiction.

That's all fine and good - one viewer's pretentious is another's profound, and Birdman earns both labels. It's a bizarre and surreal film, a quirky dark comedy that's unsettling and hilarious. It's worth your time if you're looking for something to see. For a twisted existential piece, it's a lot of fun.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Movie Review: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

When I reviewed Desolation of Smaug last year, I mentioned it felt more like it a prequel to Pirates of the Caribbean than Lord of the Rings. For better or worse, The Battle of the Five Armies continues this trend. It was more or less what I expected from a movie drawn from a small handful of chapters from a book that wasn't all that long to begin with.

To fill the time, Jackson expanded the battle sequences and played out the various subplots invented for this adaptation. Once again, Orlando Bloom spends a great deal of time on screen, though the real star here is the liberally applied make-up trying to create the illusion he's still in his twenties.

Likewise, Tauriel is given quite a lot of time. Unfortunately, they weren't as generous with her dialogue: Evangeline Lilly is saddled with the absolute worst lines used in any of Jackson's six Middle Earth films. Why does it hurt so much?

Ultimately, they could have excised Tauriel, Legolas, Bolg, and all the subplots revolving around them without losing anything of importance. If these movies were really about Bilbo and Thorin's friendship, why are we spending so much time on a completely unrelated and uninteresting story? It's particularly unfortunate given the fact that early opposition to Lilly's inclusion was inspired by sexism. I'd have loved to see Jackson and company humiliate those critics, but instead they almost look prescient.

Speaking of invented characters the movie would have been better without: Alfrid, Laketown's master's self-serving lackey, is given an oddly inflated role in this movie, more or less playing the character Kevin J. O'Connor portrayed in the Mummy. The comedy felt forced, mean-spirited, and even bordered on homophobic at one point. Plus, we never really got a resolution for his character. I don't know if there's a deleted scene showcasing his grisly end or if Jackson envisions him as Wormtogue's ancestor or something.

I suspect we'll see fan-edits of the series cutting these characters or at least reducing their roles. It doesn't seem like it would be that hard to edit them out: they barely interacted with the plot or main story line.

The movie certainly wasn't all bad, though. The White Council got a great scene where Saruman, Elrond, and Galadriel finally got their due. If anything, that sequence felt a little short.

In addition, the fights were fun to watch, even if it often feels like we've seen them before. There's a pulpy energy to them that forgives at least some of the narrative missteps and inflated nature. For all my complaints, you'll note I'm comparing the last two Hobbit movies to Pirates of the Caribbean and not the Star Wars prequels: Jackson absolutely deserves credit for defaulting to a messy comedy/action tone that salvages the experience.

Still, it's unfortunate that we didn't get the trilogy we were hoping for. Looking back, it's hard not to wonder if Guillermo del Toro's movies might have avoided the pitfalls Jackson fell in.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Movie Review: Big Hero 6

The emotional core of Big Hero 6 occurs mid-movie. It comes from a place of anger and results in one of the darker sequences I've seen in a Disney animated picture in quite some time. It speaks to the core of what superheroes are and what they aren't, and its resolution provides a framework for the moral underpinnings of the superhero setting. On its own, it justifies the price of the ticket.

Which isn't to say it's the only good thing about the movie. Far from it: there are a lot of phenomenal scenes, funny situations, and great characters. As a whole, it's a lot of fun. And the visuals for the city of San Fransokyo are breathtaking.

Big Hero 6 is absolutely a good movie, but it's not exactly the right movie. It feels like a movie whose script went through a dozen iterations, miraculously wound up being good, but retains too many artifacts from prior drafts. Some of those artifacts go back further, all the way to the source.

The movie is marketed as being inspired by the Marvel comics, which you probably haven't read. I feel safe in making that assumption because, as far as I can tell, almost no one has read these comics: I certainly haven't. That's not too significant, since the concept, setting, and characters in the movie were all drastically changed for the film. Normally, I hate it when an adaptation strays too far from its source material. This time... I kind of wish they'd have been willing to go a little further.

This is fundamentally a story about Hiro, a robotics prodigy dealing with the loss of his brother, and a mechanical nurse named Baymax. Their story is the reason this movie is as good as it is. They are also two characters, not six.

That means there were four other characters crammed in. These were Hiro's brother's friends, a bunch of surprisingly athletic geeks conducting research that could be easily weaponized. I don't want to create the impression I disliked these characters: I actually like them all quite a bit (well, except Fred). The problem is that they had to divvy up maybe a quarter of the movie's screen time, and that didn't leave enough time to develop any of them.

If the producers had been willing to take things a little further and drop the number 6 from the title and concept, they could easily have had time to turn Go-Go's role from minor character into another lead. They could have given her a narrative arc of her own. I greatly appreciate that there's no romance in this movie limiting the female characters, but that would have more impact if these characters weren't simply tethered to another character's story.

I want to stress again that this is a great movie. It's definitely worth your time and money. But it's held back by the fact they tried to force something that isn't really about a team of superheroes into that mold.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Dungeons & Crafts: Dice Tower

I've been a tad obsessed with D&D ever since skimming through the 5th Edition PHB. I haven't had a chance to play yet, but that doesn't mean I haven't been busy. A significant portion of my miniature collection was collected and painted when 4th Edition was released, and I didn't even like that game. You can imagine what I've been up to this past week.

If you don't play tabletop RPG's, you probably don't know what a "dice tower" is. Actually, I suspect a lot of gamers aren't familiar with the concept. Simply put, it's something that you drop dice into that funnels them to the table. In other words, it's a construct for rolling dice.

If you're unclear why anyone would need such a thing, allow me to clear it up for you: no one needs this or anything like it. It's entirely superfluous but kind of cool. Think less tool and more decoration. Sort of the geek equivalent of a nutcracker.

That brings us to Michaels. And to this "birdhouse," which would have been five dollars full price had I not had a 40% off coupon. It was fun as-is, but it wasn't about to roll any dice until the ceiling between the top and bottom floors was removed.

I can think of several ways I should have done this that don't include painstakingly carving out the top piece with a pocket knife, then just as painstakingly cutting the floor out of the now separate top piece. For instance, I could have just separated the entire top floor beneath the battlements by cutting through the glue, which would have saved me the trouble of carving the piece out on both sides of the wall. Also, a pocket knife - even a good one - isn't the ideal tool this job.

Oh, well. It's what I had handy.

When this was done, I realized the top window wasn't large enough to fit a D20, so I enlarged the opening.

I then cut out a piece of loose plastic from the package of an action figure to form a half-funnel to channel the dice out the front door. Once I verified this would work, I painted it to look like stone:

It works well, though D4s sometimes slide down the chute without rolling if you drop them in flat. I'm not too worried: everything else seems to work pretty well. Besides, I don't think this will see much use other than D20's.

Also, the tower has an added feature. Because the top piece is carved out, it can be popped off and flipped around. This means the entrance window can be positioned behind the tower (for DM rolling) or in front (for players). Neat!

Here it is in action:

I'm pretty happy with how it looks and functions. Not the most practical project, but it's a cool piece.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Summer Does Not Belong to You

So, did anyone else notice American audiences became irrelevant this summer?

Let me show you what I mean. Here are the top ten opening weekend US totals for 2014 so far. These are pulled from Box Office Mojo, by the way.

Transformers: Age of Extinction $100,038,390
Captain America: The Winter Soldier $95,023,721
Guardians of the Galaxy $94,320,883
Godzilla $93,188,384
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 $91,608,337
X-Men: Days of Future Past $90,823,660
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes $72,611,427
Maleficent $69,431,298
The LEGO Movie $69,050,279
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles $65,575,105

Six movies opened between 90 and 100 million (well, rounding Transformers to the nearest 100K), and nothing got more than that. While ten million dollars is nothing to sneeze at, it's not really a significant difference, particularly with something like movie receipts. A 10% difference could have more to do with the weather than actual audience preference.

There's obviously a second tier in the 65 to 75 million range, and if we kept going, we see more tiers. I should probably add that there's almost certainly also a top tier missing from 2014 due to the lack of any major event movies (at least so far - it'll be interesting to see how Mockingjay does this fall).

What we can take away from this is that big-budget movies are now more or less now guaranteed to make a certain amount of money in the US, and that amount is mainly determined by the tier they fall into.

Obviously, getting a movie into the highest tier possible is important, but I don't think studios have all that much control over that, at least not after they've greenlit a project. Sure, several of the movies in the 90-100 range were well received, but a 90% Freshness rating wasn't enough to push Dawn of the Planet of the Apes into the top tier, and Transformers's 18% didn't stop it from having the highest opening weekend of the summer.

The main factor that separates the top six from the bottom four (and pretty much everything else) seems to be brand. Four of the six are Marvel Comics properties, another is the most famous monster in the world, and the last is Transformers. These are hot brands with built in fan bases and widespread interest. Like it or not, that seems to trump quality.

But it doesn't actually equal success. The highest movie with the highest US opening of the year is, based on domestic returns alone, a monumental failure. Transformers 4 has made a little less than $250 million in this country (it's on track to fall behind Guardians soon). While that sounds like a lot, keep in mind its budget (according to imdb) was 210 million, plus whatever they spent on marketing. The studio's half of that $250 million suddenly sounds like a lot less.

In fact, it starts sounding like a net loss. Until we add in the $811 million it's made internationally. And, of course, the largest international market is China. Here are the top 4 highest grossing US films in China this year, along with their current totals:

Transformers: Age of Extinction $301,000,000
X-Men: Days of Future Past $116,490,000
Captain America: The Winter Soldier $115,620,000
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 $94,430,000

Keep in mind several top US movies haven't opened there yet. Also, several of these movies are still open (and obviously haven't all been open for the same amount of time).

However, Transformers has still made more money in China than in the US. Also, it's made significantly more than X-Men, Captain America, and Spider-Man (all of which opened in China before Transformers).

While the differences between these movie's grosses in the US have been relatively minor (with the exception of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which just opened, the ten movies listed earlier have all made between $200 and $260 million domestically), the differences in China are momentous - there's more than $200 million separating Transformers from Spider-Man.

The fact that appealing to Chinese audiences is important certainly isn't news. What we've learned this year is that you really don't need to worry about the US audience. If your goal is to make money, the evidence suggests you're far better off investing time and effort into making your film more palatable to a Chinese audience than worrying about Americans. Our behavior controlling whether or not we see a movie is driven largely by the franchise; China's is driven by content (specifically content featuring their country).

In short, it no longer matters what your age, race, or gender is: if you are American, you are no longer the target demographic for film producers. Unless you move to China.

Friday, August 22, 2014

D&D 5th Edition

I never played the 1st Edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but I've heard quite a few stories and flipped through some of the rules. It was released in the late 70's, just a few years after the original D&D box set, and - as far as I can tell - it was a bizarre mishmash of ideas and directions. The infamous "random harlot table" was from this edition (in their defense, its inclusion was clearly intended as a joke), and this was the era when a book had to be reprinted because they'd included Lovecraft's pantheon prior to it actually reaching the public domain. There were utterly baffling rules, particularly around dual-classing, that defied explanation or narrative sense. But there was clearly also a desire to push into more complex territory, and to this day its fans reminisce about the tone and feel of the game in that era.

The 2nd Edition was the first I ever played, not counting a session or two with one of the 90's versions of basic D&D. Opinions about the 2nd Edition are mixed, with me liking it and every other gamer alive considering it abysmal. To their credit, the rules as written are unplayable. But that's not what AD&D 2nd was about. The rules were (at least somewhat) intentionally contradictory. It wasn't a system of rules, but a system for building rules. It was an overdue acknowledgement that "house rules" weren't exceptions to playing D&D, but rather a defining aspect of the game, at least at that time. 2nd Edition was a series of recommendations, suggestions, and options for ways those house rules could be compiled and customized. The downside was that a lot of those recommendations were messy. DM's had to monitor new kits (sort of sub-classes) carefully or risk watching players exploit poorly written manuals and become extremely powerful.

The 3rd Edition attempted to correct this by coalescing the many rules into one set that could actually be played. Essentially, they wanted to distill the essence of the game down to something that worked, was fun, and captured the feel of the game. It was a good direction; too bad they failed miserably. The rules were usable, but too many issues from prior editions remained. In addition, the "essentials" they boiled the game down to were narrowly selected. In the tug-of-war between a system used for narrative story-building and a dice-driven war-game, 3rd Edition took a major step towards the latter. I've never disputed that D&D should work as tactical rules if desired, but I believe strongly that any D&D edition that can't also support a narrative story-building fantasy game is a failure.

Of course, this was only a harbinger of what was to come. I don't know if its fair to call the 4th Edition the worst, but it's definitely the least D&D Edition to bear the name. To the designers' credit, it was also the most ambitious. They threw out an unprecedented number of rules and rebuilt from the ground up. For the first time ever, the game was somewhat balanced. It was also extremely dull. The class abilities boiled down to different combat tactics. Characters were less fictional people with desires, goals, and skills than a collection of combat powers. And those combat powers were all astonishingly repetitious. Regardless of your class, every round you selected a power, made an attack roll, dealt damage, and had some other simple effect that could always be defined in terms of movement, position, or status. Fantasy elements like enchantment and illusion were absent or reduced to these same principles. There was nothing in the core rules that couldn't be programmed into a spreadsheet. That's fine for a war game, but like I said before, Dungeons & Dragons needs to be able to support more than that.

So. Let's talk about the 5th Edition.

A few disclaimers first: I just got a copy of the new Player's Handbook a few days ago. I've gone over all the basic rules, more or less. I haven't read through the spells yet, and I skimmed over or skipped a lot of the flavor text and descriptions. Also, I haven't actually played the game, so this is all theory, not practice.

All that being said, I'm cautiously optimistic that this could be the definitive edition of Dungeons & Dragons, a system capable of running games heavy on narrative, focused on combat, or both. It contains a sense of freedom for DM's looking to modify the system, while simultaneously providing a set of rules that work out-of-the-box. In short, this is damn near everything I'd hoped for and maybe a little bit more.

The Player's Handbook has 4 core races (eight counting variations, like mountain dwarf and drow), and five optional races (plus a variant on the gnome). The four main races are elves, dwarves, humans, and halflings. All of these contain significant features and abilities, as do the subdivisions. The other races include gnomes, dragonborn, half-orcs, half-elves, and tieflings. The variations are significant, including additional bonuses (and occasionally penalties). None of the races feel under-powered, including humans (does +1 to every ability score sound interesting?). The optional races include a disclaimer that they're not all in every campaign world, in case you want to disallow dragonborn without an argument.

Oh, and speaking of campaign worlds... the PHB talks about Ravenloft, Forgotten Realms, Krynn, Greyhawk, and Sigil, so fans of those settings probably have a lot to look forward to. Here's hoping they include an updated Spelljammer down the road.

For those keeping track, you've got fourteen races, counting variations. The class rules leave that number in the dust. There are twelve classes, each of which includes specializations you pick up around 3rd level. I count 40 in all, though a large number are Wizard schools and Cleric Domains. But even these are extremely versatile and include specialized abilities and traits. Hell, Diviners are awesome in this edition.

Structurally, these variations are similar to a blend of prestige classes and 2nd Ed kits. There are optional rules for multi-classing, too, but I can't imagine wanting to use them: the sub-divisions of classes provide an extensive range of character types. And I do mean extensive. Every class has an option to branch off and learn some kind of magical ability. You want to build an armored knight who casts fireballs? Easy. How about a thief who masters illusions and charms and can literally steal spells as they're being cast? It's in there.

The Monk class, which I've never had much interest in, has some particularly interesting builds. I can think of no better summation of this game's versatility than to point out you could create a small group entirely consisting of 7th level Monks, and have each feel more distinct than any two characters you could create in 4th Edition. You want an unarmed fighter who's studying to learn the touch of death? There's a path for that. You want to make a ninja? It's in there. How about any of the main characters from Avatar: the Last Airbender. Doable.

The magic-users are even better. Mages have been divided into three separate classes: wizards, warlocks, and sorcerers. Miraculously, this doesn't feel redundant. There's enough variation in how they cast magic and where their power comes from to justify the split. In particular, I love this version of the Warlock, magic-users who receive their power from demons, fey, or elder forgotten gods (in case there's any doubt, Cthulhu is mentioned by name). Someone really needs to tell Jack Chick.

Wizards, while remaining extremely close to their original concept, have been substantially improved. They've got a few more hit points, and damage-dealing cantrips have been added (meaning wizards will never run out of combat spells). In addition, the spell memorization system has been tweaked to retain some of the feel while correcting decades-old issues with utility and narrative flow. Oh - there's also a "rituals" system, allowing you to cast unprepared spells slowly outside of combat. This a good way to access Comprehend Languages that one time it comes up. Lastly, they've finally consolidated the extraneous "Advanced" versions of spells by allowing you to cast the original spells as if it were at a higher level. It's a small improvement, but one that's been a long time coming.

Not every class fits in as well as it should. Clerics remain tonally out-of-place, in my opinion, but I've always hated that class. Druids are now essentially shape-shifters, which feels a little odd (then again, it does differentiate them from Rangers). Meanwhile, the Bard class feels redundant, since there are numerous way to create a similar effect using other builds (historically, the class has always been more a fighter/mage hybrid than a distinct entity). But these are minor quibbles. The classes, at a glance, look much more appealing here than in any previous edition of the game.

The combat system is mostly just a modified version of the old D20 system from 3rd Edition, though I feel like there's more room for narrative-heavy campaigns to work. It's built around 5' x 5' squares to accommodate miniatures if desired, but it doesn't feel like they're required.

On the technical side, there's a new Advantage/Disadvantage system that provides characters and monsters an opportunity to heavily adjust the odds. Rather than just adding another modifier, having Advantage means you roll two dice and use the higher roll (with Disadvantage, you use the lower). It sounds like an interesting dynamic, and it seems to be well integrated into class abilities and spells.

On the role-playing side of things, 5th Edition includes some good guidelines for building up rounded characters. There's a lot of work on backgrounds and personality in the rules. While those of us with some experience with RPG's can safely ignore this stuff, it should do a good job giving new players a lesson in building a character who's more than a collection of their combat potential. I especially like the "bonds" concept, which encourages players to build characters embedded in the world.

The alignment system is still around and has reverted to the old 9x9 grid. They've cleaned up the definitions to make the alignments less constrictive, and they've also removed restrictions from the various classes. Even the Paladin description refrains from setting any hard rules, instead saying it's rare for a Paladin to be evil. Alignment is a controversial legacy element, one I'm usually eager to drop. Fortunately, it doesn't seem to have much game impact anymore.

The art is also the best I've seen in D&D at least since 2nd Edition. In several way, it's far superior from even that: the female characters aren't sexualized, and the characters are far more racially diverse than I ever remember seeing. A lot of attention has been paid to the new Edition's liberal approach to gender and sexual orientation - it's pretty clear they're betting an inclusive system will pay off for them in the long run. I can think of a few comic book companies that could learn a lot from that approach.

I'm not sure I'd call D&D 5th perfect, but after the first read through, I'm far more excited about its potential than I ever was for 4th Edition. Dungeons & Dragons has always been the most iconic role playing game out there, but it's never really lived up to its potential. I realize this is far too early to make a determination, but based on what I just read, I think they finally might have gotten it right.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Movie Review: Dark Dungeons

What are the general guidelines for disclosure when you're about to review something you backed on Kickstarter? I doubt anyone really cares, but consider that information disclosed.

I suspect a lot of people at this blog are already familiar with Jack Chick's comic tract, Dark Dungeons. Like Reefer Madness, it's a cautionary work that gained cult status among the group it was created to oppose. Dark Dungeons warns readers against the Satanic, seductive lure of Dungeons & Dragons, urging its readers to call on Jesus for salvation. To say its portrait of the game and subculture are misleading is an understatement of Biblical proportions.

If you'd like more context, there's no better source than the short comic itself, which you can read here.

The comic is somewhat legendary in gaming circles, the source of numerous in-jokes and references. Back in college, I used to run a D&D tournament called Deathfest. One year, as characters died, I apologized to the players and handed them a copy of the tract. I think I've still got a bunch of extras around somewhere.

It's not at all surprising that someone had the idea of doing a live-action version. What is surprising is that he was able to receive permission from Chick to make it an official adaptation.

The movie's producer, writer, and promoter is JR Ralls, who has insisted all along that the movie is a serious adaptation, not a parody. I've had a great time reading some comment threads over the past few months from gaming enthusiasts who took that at face value without watching the original Kickstarter video. He made a similar pledge there, but between his tone and the readings of lines from the tract, it was pretty clear his appreciation of the tract was, at the absolute least, multifaceted.

I find it difficult to imagine anyone with a D&D background not appreciating the finished project. As promised, it's a faithful adaptation of Chick's work, albeit one with a bit more comedy than Jack might have wanted. The tone is certainly comedic, regardless what the producers claim. But make no mistake - it's a great comedy.

The actors, all of them fantastic, deliver the lines with a mixture of sincerity and camp. The characters are either astonishingly true to the original comic or re-imagined in ways that added layers of humor to the premise. Ms. Frost is particularly impressive: the comic's least grounded character is brought to life completely. The other two leads, Debbie and Marcie, were likewise fantastic. I also found Nitro, a new character, a lot of fun. I could easily keep going - the cast was universally great.

The quality of the movie was also impressive, particularly given the movie's budget. The effects were silly and clearly inexpensive, but - like most great low-budget productions - they managed to turn this from a weakness to a strength by utilizing them to their fullest.

I also want to mention the movie's brilliant closing song, performed by "Of the Book." I'd be shocked if it doesn't become a favorite of gamers along with the movie.

The movie is available as a digital download or on DVD here. It's pretty much guaranteed to become an RPG classic.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

If Guardians of the Galaxy had been awful, it would still represent a staggering accomplishment. The mere fact that in 2014 - when every other film company has committed to gritty, realistic fare - Marvel is unveiling the scope of their galactic setting is astonishing. And they don't seem to be backing away from the fantastic elements: the terms "mad titan" and "celestial" were both used, and the cameo in the post-credits sequence... well... I've already said too much.

This demonstrates courage, vision, and a real faith in their Universe at a time Marvel's main competitor is timidly toning down one of their most iconic characters in order to make her more palatable to a mainstream audience. For that reason alone, even it if had been one of the worst movies of the year, Guardians of the Galaxy would be deserving of celebration.

It almost feels like an afterthought to point out that, at present, it's tied for my pick for the best movie of 2014 (I'll really need to see both this and Winter Soldier again to decide). But you already knew where this was going. 92% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, critically acclaimed, great word of mouth.... I'm not exactly the first person saying it's awesome.

The movie delivers the kind of comedy adventure that's been more or less purged from the world, and it does so with style, love, and skill. As much Goonies as Star Wars, the movie delivers light suspense and hilarious one-liners.

Also, it's going to appeal to damn near everyone with a pulse. Kids are going to going to have the time of their lives with Rocket and Groot, teenagers are going to appreciate the dynamic of the circle of friends, and adults are going to appreciate the nostalgic look back at a bygone era in entertainment.

That's not to say it couldn't have better. I felt like Drax and Gamora didn't get featured in enough fight scenes, and the overall power level was lower than I'd have liked. But those are pretty minor complaints in the scope of things. This is the easily the most fun I've had in a theater since seeing the Avengers. I definitely recommend checking it out on the big screen at least once.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Movie Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

If I were to make a list of everything that the two new Apes movies did right, it would be a very, very long list, and the number one spot would be reserved for realizing that the interesting aspect of this franchise isn't the humans. It's notable that the apes from Rise are back, while all the humans we met mostly likely died from disease and war. If the same strategy is employed for the third movie in this series, I doubt there'll be many complaints. The human characters were clearly the weak link in this movie, which is less a shame than an observation no one should really care about.

Okay, so better realized human characters would have made watching this an even better theatrical experience. But - again - this is a minor detail; a trivial oversight. Because this was already a fantastic movie, a story of a burgeoning civilization coming into contact with the remnants of one in decline.

The apes were amazing. I don't just mean the effects work, though that was nothing short of incredible. The motion-capture acting was stunningly complex, and the writing (at least as it pertained to non-humans) was nuanced and subtle.

This isn't the first movie this summer where I've applauded digital creations while complaining about the human characters, but this has a few points over Godzilla. First of all, the humans here felt a little flat; they weren't annoyingly idiotic. Secondly, they were the movie's B-plot: this, like Rise before it, was Caesar's movie. I didn't clock time on-screen, but he was far more central to the plot than the well-meaning homo sapiens protagonist.

All in all, this was a great science fiction movie. It fit in nicely with the larger franchise, while still managing to deliver a satisfying story of its own. Definitely one of this year's better genre movies.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Movie Review: Edge of Tomorrow

So there is no confusion, this is not a review: it is a postmortem.

It's not uncommon for a movie to falter at the domestic box office. What makes Edge of Tomorrow notable is that it was a great movie. But it was a great movie passed its time; a film released too late. It offers a product that no longer interests the American public, and the results were quite brutal.

Thanks to the film's time-loop gimmick, Tom Cruise was able to die dozens of times in Edge of Tomorrow. But that's make-believe: in reality, summer movies are only given a single life. And Edge of Tomorrow died at the box office in less than three days.

Having seen the movie, it's not difficult to understand why. Edge of Tomorrow was very good, but it wasn't summer blockbuster material. The movie was exciting, funny, clever, and entertaining. It was, in fact, more exciting, funnier, more clever, and more entertaining than anything I've seen since Winter Soldier. But it wasn't really anything new, nor was it particularly big. I'm using "big" in its most literal sense, by the way - the aliens were physically small compared to the monstrous creatures we're used to. If these distinctions seem superficial, it is only because you're paying attention. There's nothing this movie lacks that successful summer movies have that isn't superficial in nature.

Compare Edge of Tomorrow with Godzilla. Edge of Tomorrow was a better movie in almost every respect. It was better written, more suspenseful, and far funnier. As an action movie - ignoring everything else - the prize still goes to Edge of Tomorrow.

And yet, if you were come to me and tell me you were going to see one of these movies in the theater and one on DVD, I'd tell you to go watch Godzilla. While Edge of Tomorrow was a far better movie, it's less relevant. Godzilla offers some novel effects and design work. The aliens in Edge of Tomorrow were extremely cool, but we've seen things like them dozens of times.

That doesn't mean Edge of Tomorrow isn't worth seeing in the theaters. The action was great, and only some of that will translate to the small screen. If you have the opportunity to see this before it leaves the theaters, you should do so. But it's certainly not mandatory.

Also, you'll want to go soon.

For better or worse, this wasn't a summer movie. Which begs the question, why release it in June? This would have made a lot more money in spring or fall. The simple fact is Tom Cruise can't compete with giant monsters, superheroes, or dark fairies. This time of the year, audience expectations are dictated by spectacle, not strong structures and witty dialogue.

This was a great science fiction action/comedy. It's a lot of fun and is absolutely worth seeing. But if anyone at Warner Bros. still thought Cruise's name was sufficient to sell tickets in June, they just got a much-needed reality check. This isn't 1996, and this kind of film - no matter how good - can't compete in the summer.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Movie Review: Maleficent

Step 1: If you have any expectations for this movie - any at all - you should lower them. The movie makes baffling decisions with its source material, has major tonal issues, and contains one of the most intrusive, unnecessary, and annoying voice-overs I've ever heard.

And yet. I still kind of enjoyed it.

For all this movie does wrong, it actually does a few things well. That's why I'm saying you should lower your expectations: because if you do, you might be able to enjoy this for what it is, instead of hating it for failing to be what it should have been.

Actually, let's start there. This movie clearly should have been an R-rated dark fantasy-bordering-on-horror; a nightmarish examination of madness and rage from the point of view of a character consumed by those emotions.

I think the filmmakers knew that's what they should have made. But they also knew they were making this for Disney, who might be more interested in selling Maleficent dolls to six-year-old girls than in traumatizing them for life.

Pity - this generation needs a Secret of NIMH. Well, besides Coraline, ParaNorman, Where the Wild Things Are, and.... okay, okay. This generation already has a bunch of Secret of NIMH's. But you can never have enough.

Where was I? Oh yeah. The movie wanted to be dark but was penned in by a PG rating. Jesus - even most animated movies pull a PG-13 these days.

The upshot of all this is that instead of a dark fairy tale, we got a comedy/fantasy adventure. In addition, the movie seemed to be of two minds regarding its relationship to the Disney classic. The celebration of Aurora's birth almost feels like a shot-for-shot recreation, which becomes problematic when they deviate from the script (stupidly, I'd add - the story and scene would have been better if they'd stuck with the original there). On the other end of the spectrum, the entire last act is rewritten to provide an ending happier for the film's protagonists. In the middle, characters are re-purposed in radically different ways (fans of Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather will likely be particularly angered by the fairies' portrayal).

Assuming you can accept all this - and for fans of the original, that's a big assumption - this movie delivers a surprisingly solid product. The comedy isn't brilliant, but it is legitimately funny. And while the character at the center of this story only feels like Maleficent for a few scenes, she's still interesting. More importantly, they sell the character's arc well. We see her evolution into and (unfortunately) out of the Maleficent who curses Aurora, and it's a decent story.

The movie's licence with King Stefan was even more clever. They went in some wildly different directions with his character, but the seeds for these changes are in the classic movie and the source material.

I'm really only scratching the surface of what's right and wrong with this movie. There's some gorgeous imagery... and some idiotic design. The movie delivers several key scenes... then resolves with an ending so sappy you cringe in pain. And, while I'm complaining, if you're doing a version of Disney's Sleeping Beauty, you should damn well use Tchaikovsky's score. That's just common sense.

I've seen quite a few live-action reinterpretations of classic fairy tales, and as a rule none have been great. This is certainly better than Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland or either of the Snow White movies we got a few years ago. I'm not sure I'd call it a good movie, but once I accepted what it was, I found it genuinely enjoyable. If you can't do that, well... I don't blame you in the least. They tore down just about everything that made Sleeping Beauty into the masterpiece it is. But the fact they managed to patch together something decent out of the pieces deserves some recognition.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Give Us Your Worst, Part 25: Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

The first Ghost Rider movie reduced the character to a joke, an approach I was perfectly okay with. You won't find many people in this world who will defend part one, but I had a lot of fun watching it, flaws and all. Most comic fans agreed with the critics, however, and a sequel seemed unlikely.

But while very few people believed in him, Nicholas Cage wanted to demonstrate that he did understand the dark, tormented character and that he could bring that version to the screen. I'll let you judge the results:

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is an odd movie, to say the least. It's difficult to imagine there was any point during production when the directors weren't high on something.

The movie oscillates wildly between intense moments of unintentional humor and bland stretches that threaten to put you to sleep. The action sequences are extraordinarily bizarre: they were clearly aiming for surrealism, but the results feel more like a music video than a dream. In addition, the power levels are ridiculously uneven, even more so than in the first movie. There's really only one super-powered villain, unless you count the devil (you shouldn't count the devil, by the way: Ghost Rider kicks his ass without effort). The less said about this movie's take on the other villain, Blackout, the better.

There are some entertaining moments, largely thanks to Idris Elba, who plays by far the most interesting character in the film. Also, the parts that aren't painfully boring are entertaining. Not necessarily for the reasons the filmmakers intended, but that's a trivial detail. The movie includes a sequence where Ghost Rider's powers transform a gigantic crane into some sort of hell-contraption. There's a scene where a kid vomits lava onto Nicolas Cage's face. And, yes, he pees fire (it's just imaginary, but it's still in the movie).

I'll remind you once more: this was supposed to be the SERIOUS Ghost Rider movie.

Like it or hate it, the first one at least achieved the tone it set out to create. This is just... weird. Cage's unrestrained take on being possessed by a demonic entity was clearly meant to be disturbing and dark, but it winds up feeling like an old Looney Tunes short. Only, you know, not artistic or nuanced.

I've seen worse, but I don't recommend anyone track this down, though it's almost worth a trip to YouTube to see some more of Cage's overacting. There are some hilarious sequences in this movie.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Movie Review: X-Men: Days of Future Past

Days of Future Past is good as a movie, but a little disappointing as a summer blockbuster. This doesn't mean it's not worth seeing, but if you go in expecting a lot of action and effects, you might be surprised to find it's far more interested in its characters' motivations and emotional states. The movie handles this subject matter admirably; just know what you're getting into. There were a lot of action sequences I wanted - particularly involving Sentinels - that weren't in this movie.

There are still some fights, mind you, including a couple of post-apocalyptic battles that use multiple characters' abilities better than any prior X-Men film. These sequences are few and far between and aren't as long as I'd have liked, but it's great to finally see mutants coordinating their powers. Another sequence - easily the best scene in the movie - more or less negates the need for a Flash movie. Warner Bros. won't do it that well in a million years, so there's no point in them trying.

There. That was everything I wanted to say about Days of Future Past as a self-contained film. If it seems a little thin, it's because 90% of this movie is all about context: context with the movies that preceded it and context with the films set to continue the franchise. Context, context, context.

And context, in this situation, is going to require some spoilers. A lot of spoilers, in fact. If you don't want to know how this impacts the franchise, now would be a good time to stop reading.

I remember reading interviews where Bryan Singer made it clear that, while he might use this film to "adjust" a few details in X-Men 3, he wasn't going to do anything extreme like cut that film out of the series. Well... turns out he was lying.

Hell, this turned out to be a reboot in the vein of Abram's Star Trek. By the end of Days of Future Past, it's evident the events of X-Men 3 didn't take place.

Same goes for X-Men 2, X-Men, and The Wolverine. It's a little less clear whether X-Men Origins: Wolverine happened - there's a case to be made either way.

For what it's worth, First Class is still in continuity.

If all goes as planned, the next movie, Age of Apocalypse, is going to take place in the 80's, and it will likely include some of the team from the original X-Men movie recast with younger actors.

That raises an interesting question: would they have been better off skipping Days of Future Past and just rebooting off of First Class? Was it really necessary to establish that these films took place in different timelines in the same universe, as opposed to First Class and Age of Apocalypse representing a new series?

In some ways, Days of Future Past was a two hundred million dollar "fuck you" to Brett Ratner. I'd say that's a little excessive, but - honestly - it kind of feels appropriate.

The value of this movie isn't going to be clear until we see where the series goes from here. This felt less like a stand-alone movie than a re-piloting of a TV series. If they deliver on the revamped series potential, this will rightly be remembered as the movie that set us on the right track. Otherwise, it'll just be remembered for the Quicksilver scene.

God, that scene was awesome.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

About that Batman/Superman Movie Title

As you almost certainly know by now, the sequel to Man of Steel is going to be called Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice.

As a general rule of thumb, I make fun of stupid things, particularly when they're done by WB and are focused around a DC comics property. But, in this case, I feel like everyone's mocking the title. I'm pretty sure I've seen a dozen different images and articles focused on the fact it sounds like a court case, and half as many playing up dish-detergent puns with the subtitle.

It's not that I think Warner Bros doesn't deserve the grief: clearly, they do. It's just... I think the internet has it covered. I thought instead I'd take a minute, look at the title and artwork, and try to figure out what they were thinking.

The most bizarre aspect of the title is the "V" in place of the more traditional "Vs." There are a few possibilities: that they felt "vs" was too indicative of wrestling matches or fighting games, or that someone was under the impression any amount of minimalism was preferable.

I don't think either of those are right, though: I think the real reason is embedded in the image. Both the bottom of Batman and Superman's symbols can be described as including the letter "v." The picture released with the name plays this up, dropping the "v" directly beneath the points of the Batman and Superman symbols.

This creates an interesting situation. You could actually argue that, ignoring the subtitle, the entire title is embedded in the image itself. In fact, you could do what DC comics did several years ago when they published a series called Superman/Batman.

You can tell at a glance the film borrowed the concept, though they've replaced that Bat-symbol with one lifted from Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns". Regardless, the comic series used the overlaid symbols as the title itself. There's no additional text, because none is needed: the iconography is sufficient.

I suspect that was originally the plan for Batman V Superman. In other words, the symbol would have been the title, it would have been read as "Batman Versus Superman," and in rare occasions where it had to written out, it would appear as "Batman V Superman." But for all intents and purposes - movie posters, trailers, print ads, etc. - I suspect the words weren't meant to appear at all.

Enter the committee. Apparently, someone with influence at Warner Bros. thought they needed a subtitle. This, of course, completely destroys the entire point of building the title around a symbol in the first place. It certainly renders the "v" meaningless, because it can't stand on its own. The title must now be written out as "Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice", since anything else would imply the movie was simply called "Dawn of Justice."

My guess is that "Rise of the Justice League" and "Rise of Justice" were discussed at length. But "Rise of" is a little played out, so it's not too surprising they tried to find something with similar connotations but slightly different wording. And I'd be surprised if Warner Bros. wasn't still anxious about the name "Justice League" - they've always been a little embarrassed by their properties.

Thus we end up with "Dawn of Justice." It makes sense as a compromise, just as it sounds utterly idiotic when spoken aloud.

Overall, it feels like a situation where there were some interesting ideas that got warped into a convoluted title. Of course, it doesn't really matter: a title doesn't directly impact the quality of a movie. My real worry is that we're seeing the movie in a microcosm: that every level of the production will be bogged down by compromises and executive mismanagement.

Yup. That sounds like Warner Bros.

Either way, I'm sure I'll be there opening day for Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. Assuming, of course, they don't change the title. They've still got plenty of time to do so.

Hell, they even have time to fire David Goyer and get a new writer, if they want to.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Movie Review: Godzilla

When the critical consensus of your giant monster movie is that the humans are boring, it means you've probably made a good giant monster movie.

This is one of those times I don't have a great deal to add to what everyone's saying. Yes, the movie spends too much time playing with the monsters' food. Yes, it would be better if they'd given us another hour of monsters fighting. Yes, I appreciate that would have cost an extra $150 million they didn't have.

All that means the movie isn't perfect. Fortunately, the title character pretty much is. If you want a compelling human drama, go see something else; if you want to watch Godzilla beat the snot out of a couple other monsters, well then... have I got some good news for you.

Like most in this genre, the majority of the movie is spent ramping up to the big fight. Monsters definitely make appearances, but there's far more exposition than attacks. I think we're meant to develop emotional attachments to these small, fleshy creatures, but it's just not going to happen.

Fortunately, these sections are somewhat salvaged by atmosphere and tone. The movie builds to each visual reveal, and the payoffs are more than worth the wait. Godzilla is, of course, awesome, but so are the two new monsters. They're called "MUTO's," which is - admittedly - a stupid name for kaiju, but they look absolutely awesome. More importantly, the monsters look as though Toho is in their DNA. They're all computer generated, but their designs evoke old monster movies. To put it another way, the designs could have been used in a suitmation production with minimal changes. As a result, they still feel like they're part of the same world.

As for Godzilla, it's all about his personality. And this is absolutely the King of Monsters at his best. This portrayal reminds me a great deal of Godzilla 2000: a sort of amalgamation of the 70's hero and the earlier, angry version.

It's good to see America redeem itself after the 98 debacle. Hopefully, this will make enough to justify a sequel with a larger budget. The movie could have been a half hour shorter without losing anything, but even at two hours, it was a lot of fun.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Movie Review: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

If I was feeling generous, I might describe Sony's management of the Spider-Man franchise as "uneven." But seeing as I'm not feeling particularly generous at this precise moment, I'll be more direct: this studio has been astonishingly stupid in how they've produced these movies. Sure, hiring Raimi was a good move, but the studio demanded Spider-Man constantly lose his mask and made some idiotic calls on which villains were included. It's kind of shocking that Spider-Man 1 and 2 turned out as well they did, in hindsight.

After the awful third movie, a decision was made to reboot the series. They did this, presumably, to cut ties with the tone of the first trilogy and free themselves to tell the Peter Parker/Gwen Stacy story in its entirety. When they announced it, most of us hated it. Spider-Man 3 was a mess, but there's no reason you can't fix a superhero franchise (look at how Fox has turned around the X-Men movies). However, Marc Webb did a solid job with The Amazing Spider-Man. Turning down Spider-Man's power level and transforming the world into something more SF than comic-book weren't how I'd have gone, but they seemed to work.

That brings us to the present. Now let's discuss The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

The first thing you need to understand is that it doesn't really exist. Oh, the movie title exists, and I certainly spent two and a half hours watching SOMETHING, but it was not a continuation of the 2012 film. Sure, the plot was connected and the actors were the same, but in every other meaningful aspect, this was a film in the aborted Raimi series. This was Spider-Man 4, and it was being directed by someone trying - and failing - to make it the way Raimi would have.

Spider-Man's strength, speed, and agility are back up to where they were in the original trilogy. Likewise, he's back to magically swinging around the city. And the campy undertones are back with a vengeance: half the time this feels like an 80's cartoon.

Raimi's movies were certainly campy at times, but it came off as a stylistic choice. And, above all else, he knew enough to take the villains seriously. The bad guys in this one are utterly ridiculous: until he gets his powers, Max Dillon is comic relief. Hell, there's a scene where he talks to himself to pretend Spider-Man is hanging out with him. His motivation for becoming a supervillain is even less subtle. It's painful to watch.

Fortunately, the fights are also closer to Raimi's movies. The battles with Electro, while relying heavily on CG, are extremely cool. Utterly absurd, but let's not quibble. Dillon's powers are bright and beautiful, and he tears up the city in true comic book supervillain fashion.

To be fair, there are also some solid character moments between Peter and Harry, as well as a few decent scenes between Peter and Gwen. But the plot is an incoherent mess. You'll see a lot of critics complain about there being too many villains, but that wasn't the issue. Hell, that's never the issue. The problem was that the characters - heroes and villains both - were poorly managed, and the plot wasn't thought out. Putting a couple villains in the same movie is fine - and, for the record, there were really only two villains who got more than a cameo. But the stories given to those villains were poorly constructed, and their motivations were weak. Worse yet, the same can be said for Spider-Man. You could cut everything having to do with Peter's dad from this movie and not lose a thing. And that, for all intents and purposes, was supposed to be half of what's driving him.

This was definitely a disappointment. I don't think it's as bad as Spider-Man 3, but it felt far too similar to that in both tone and quality.

Okay. So there's your review. I covered what worked and what didn't and made it pretty clear this is one that can wait for Netflix. There now. We're done. I mean. We're sort of done. Maybe.


If you care one iota about spoilers and have any interest in seeing this movie, you should stop here. See, the thing is, I've got more to say, but it's got a lot to do with the last twenty minutes of the film, and, if you want to go in and make up your own mind without finding out how the damn thing ends, then this is enough.

No, really: I mean it.


             ...I have a few thoughts...

                                                 ...about the death of Gwen Stacy.

Maybe that's a bit of an overblown spoiler warning for something most of us expected after part one. The big reason I gave the reboot a pass was because they were clearly laying the foundation for this arc. After Spider-Man's origin, it's probably his most famous story. And, until I saw this movie, it looked like they were going to do it justice.

Instead, I suspect it sunk the film. It wasn't that the death scene itself was that bad (though I have a few complaints coming up), but rather the compromises it necessitated.

Here's the thing: if they'd followed the trajectory laid out in the first movie, this one would have been a tragedy. And tragedy, we all know, doesn't really sell in early summer. That could have been pretty impressive, though: a Spider-Man film with some real gravitas. Forget it, though: this is Sony.

Maybe I'm giving the director too much credit, but I find it hard to believe the same person who made the last installment would miss the mark this badly on his own. I'm betting the studio agreed to the resolution under the condition the movie stay fundamentally light and funny. I could certainly be wrong, but I can't find any other explanation for why they turned a movie about Gwen's death into a comedy.

For what it's worth, they gave her some heroic moments in the lead-up, and the actual moment she died had some force. Even knowing what was coming, it was a bit shocking to watch. But everything on either side was stupid.

Even worse, they wasted it. The fight with this iteration of the Green Goblin was already over, so we didn't get to see Peter's reaction to her murder. We never saw Spider-Man's rage. Instead, we cut to a montage of him morning for six months, before he realizes the world still needs Spider-Man. Then we're briefly back to supervillains and banter before the movie closes on a positive note.

This means we're not likely going to get much of a reaction from Peter. I'm sure he'll still be upset in the next movie, assuming Webb gets to continue making these, and he'll almost certainly beat the snot out of her killer in part three. But the six months they montaged over are the six months that matter. Without those, the story line, Gwen's character, and this entire reboot feel like a wasted opportunity.

This wasn't just the middle chapter in a larger arc. This was the movie they had to get right, the one that was supposed to deliver a phenomenal experience that sticks with us. Instead, they gave us a movie that belongs in continuity with Spider-Man 3 and nothing else.