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.