Wednesday, December 30, 2015

2015 Movies Revisited

Is is a sickness? Most certainly. Or a madness, perhaps. But those of us who review movies in any capacity have no choice in the matter. As the end of the year inches closer, we hear the call.

Retrospectives, best of lists: call them what you will. It is not the form that matters, but the exercise, and the knowledge it is all so futile cannot quell the urge to participate. We write these not to inform or reflect, but out of some strange compulsion.

I see many movies every year, the majority of which are Christmas related. But that's not what this list is about. This is about new movies, released at some point in 2015, that I've watched. It's a far more limited set, so I do not separate the good from the bad. Instead, I present all films fitting those criteria, ranked from my least to most favorite:

13. The Last Five Years
I didn't review this formally: hell, I didn't even catch it in theaters. Then again, seeing it on the big screen was hard to do outside of New York and Los Angeles.

If you haven't heard of it, The Last Five Years is an adaptation of a musical starring Anna Kendrick released last winter that wasn't Into the Woods. In it, she plays... er... actually, a character in a situation surprisingly similar to Cinderella's in the second act of Into the Woods. Not the giant part: just the whole thing about being married to a successful man who cheats on her.

Sorry. Retroactive spoiler alert?

The plot of The Last Five Years doesn't matter, anyway: both the musical and movie's selling point is how the story unfolds, with the man's version told start to end and the woman's end to start. It's just one of the many subtle ways the writer implies women are irrational.

In case you couldn't tell, I wasn't a huge fan of this one. There were some great songs and cool ideas, but this musical is better chopped up into MP3-sized segments than played start to end (and simultaneously vice-versa). It delivers some good moments, but the whole is tedious and a little sexist.

12. Jurassic World
Fun but ultimately underwhelming, this was part homage, part sequel, and part remake. There were some great moments, but the film as a whole felt redundant. There's very little in this movie we haven't seen before: even the movie's new monster was basically a rehash of the spinosaurus in part 3. I guess the mosasaurus was a new addition, but it felt like a tacked-on joke, more than anything else. Honestly, the most memorable, original aspect of the movie was probably the petting zoo (the petting zoo was really damn cool).

There's really no excuse for retreading the same ground a fourth time. We're three sequels overdue for a dino-pocalypse: it's long past time for the franchise to start living up to its potential.

All that said, I had a good time in the theater, and the movie was well-paced and enjoyable to watch. It was solid summer entertainment, but it wasn't anything more than that.

11. Ex Machina
Full disclosure - I didn't catch this in the theaters, so it's of course possible I'm judging it a little harsher than I'd be if I experienced it on a big screen.

But... I don't know. This movie was largely cerebral, so I doubt it would make all that much of a difference. Also, I absolutely enjoyed it. It's a clever SF film that approaches the Turing test from an interesting angle. The actors are great - especially Alicia Vikander, who does a phenomenal job playing an android whose consciousness is in question. The effects and design work help with that illusion, too, but I really think Vikander's performance is what makes it work.

Like I said before, the movie's extremely clever. But I didn't really find it surprising. As soon as you've been introduced to the concept, you know it's going in one of a few directions. The movie resolves without any real surprises, and feels more like a refresher in AI than anything original. It left me feeling like I'd just seen a great episode of the Outer Limits. Maybe that's all intelligent SF can hope for in this day and age.

This was a really smart, fun movie. If I were rating this on quality, it would be significantly higher on this list. But, as an experience, I just didn't feel like it had much impact.

10. Jupiter Ascending
Yes, there was bloat. Yes, the movie was about as far from elegant as you can get. But, frankly, I'm getting a little tired of elegant, streamlined movies, anyway. The Wachowskis made this by combining more genres and concepts than I can wrap my head around, and the result is nothing less than fantastic. Sure, the story meanders, but who the hell cares? The visuals are gorgeous, the setting is intriguing, and the action is awesome. Are we really that attached to simplistic narrative we can't appreciate something this cool because it goes off-book?

Add this to the growing list of Wachowski films that are underrated, right beside Cloud Atlas and Speed Racer. I hope they know there are a few of us out there who appreciate their work.

9. Avengers: Age of Ultron
There's a lot to love in Age of Ultron, between the awesome fight scenes, fantastic villain, and cool new heroes. How amazing is it that we're getting a cinematic version of Vision? How cool was Scarlet Witch? The Hulk-Buster, in all its glory?!!!

But all that needs to be weighed against the hard reality that, no matter how many elements they got right, the movie was ultimately a disappointment. Sure, the first one had a few minor plot holes, but the emotional arcs worked, and the film came together as a whole beautifully. In contrast, part two was messy. There was neither a consistent tone nor any kind of narrative arc. The characters' individual stories were a jumbled mess of incoherent nonsense. Why is the team falling apart? Because the plot calls for it, and the Scarlet Witch gave them a nudge: maybe not the best direction to take.

But enough worked to hold my attention and keep me fascinated for the film's duration. If this is ultimately set-up for Civil War, it didn't fail: I'm excited to see how that plays out next year.

Still, the first Avengers movie was my favorite film the year it came out, while this one was just summer entertainment.

8. The Good Dinosaur
This is a tough movie to rank. Visually, it was stunning: the landscape was breathtaking and complex to a degree that was almost unfathomable. But story-wise, there just wasn't much meat to this film. The conceit was cute and all - a boy and his dog story where the boy's a dinosaur and the dog is a human child - but, once you move past that, the movie feels incredibly flat.

The same goes for the minor characters. All are cute mashups, but there's no real depth. Once you're done chuckling at the fact the T-rex cowboys run like they're riding on horses, there's not much else to dig into. Meanwhile, the main character's emotional arc is simplistic and kind of dull.

But, all that said, Spot is adorable, and the world is rich. It's not an especially strong Pixar offering, but it's still a solid movie.

7. Krampus
I'm not 100% set on this movie's placement - I think I'd have to see several of these movies again to be sure - but it feels right in the moment. Krampus's problem was structure: the movie relied so heavily on its monsters and premise, it muscled out any real story line. There was lip service connecting how Krampus was summoned with the resolution, but it never really clicked.

That said, the monsters were amazing, the characters unusually strong, and the overall tone just spectacular. This was a movie that took a piece of folklore, tied it to modern holiday tropes, then took the whole thing all the way back to the primal origins, when the winters grew cold and the only hope we had was together. The movie doesn't really state any of that, but it asks the question, what's the point of family and Christmas? Then, by stripping away the artificial trappings, it provides a very real, very ancient answer.

If I wasn't a Christmas nerd, I wouldn't have ranked this nearly so high. But this is more than a holiday adventure/horror about a monster who's become extremely popular in the last few years: this was a movie about the heart and soul of Christmas itself.

6. Ant-Man
Who the hell would have expected Ant-Man to be a more fulfilling Marvel experience than Age of Ultron? If you move past the fact that we're still waiting for our first female-led Marvel film when this would have worked better as a Wasp film than a Scott Lang movie, it was a solid light superhero piece. It was funny, entertaining, and - frankly - better integrated into the larger MCU than Age of Ultron.

The Ant-Man/Falcon fight was worth the price of admission alone, and the far-too-brief sequence with Janet stood out as the high-point of the film.

It wasn't great, but it was good. Really good, even. I can't wait to see these characters show up again.

5. A Christmas Horror Story
With the occasional exception, I haven't included direct-to-video and direct-to-streaming movies on these lists. I think the rule I'm drifting towards is to include them if and only if I think they can compete. And this one can.

This anthology cuts back and forth between several holiday horror stories, all of which unfold in fascinating ways. This movie's philosophy towards combining Christmas and genre is one I share - make Christmas relevant, but don't treat it like a gimmick. Not all of the stories use Christmas tropes as their subjects: half involve classic horror or fantasy elements, then tie them to the holidays through thematic or story elements.

The movie starts a little slow, and there are a few bad jokes, but overall it was a lot of fun to watch. Parts were funny, parts were scary, and others were just impressive. One of the segments wraps with a twist I didn't see coming and loved. This jumped onto the short list of my favorite Christmas horror movies.

4. Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
Rogue Nation is a surprisingly playful film. It continues the Mission: Impossible movie tradition of disavowing the team and/or disintegrating the entire organization (only the second movie breaks that pattern, and that one sucks for unrelated reasons).

While I'd love to see them actually do a Mission: Impossible movie where they're given a mission that they solve as IMF agents, I can't deny this one really delivers. Sure, it's yet another rehash of the premise of the first movie, but I'll be damned if it isn't a fun rehash.

It doesn't hurt that the movie gives us a new ally played by Rebecca Ferguson. Frankly, I'd love to see Hunt promoted to director in a movie or two and have her take over the team. Cruise can't keep playing the action hero forever, and she'd clearly be a better choice than Renner, who never really felt like leader material.

At five movies in, this series really seems to have found its stride. This wasn't the best movie of the summer, but it came a lot closer than I'd have expected.

3. Mad Max: Fury Road
I feel like this took a lot of us by surprise, despite the fact there were plenty of positive rumors floating around in advance. Still, after the Star Wars prequels, the fourth Indiana Jones movie, Tron: Legacy, the last Hobbit movie, and all the other failed attempts to revive a long gone film franchise, it's easy to be cynical. I suppose the law of averages meant one of them had to work. Either that, or it's an Australian thing.

Regardless, this movie was impossible not to love. Charlize Theron got to be an action hero in a sci-fi movie deserving of her time for once, and the supporting cast was just amazing. This was an inventive, fun, and thought-provoking movie, not to mention a welcome break from typical summer movies.

If this is the kind of movie Miller's making at 70, just imagine the Mad Max films he'll be directing when he turns 90.

2. Inside Out
Even before Pixar started to falter with movies like Cars 2 and Monsters University, the studio has had issues with redundancy. Plot lines have a tendency of repeating, villains are a little too similar, and emotional beats have been reused since the start. While there's nothing wrong with reusing some storytelling elements, Pixar has been stagnating.

That's half the reason why Inside Out is so exciting: it feels fresh. Of course, the other half is that Inside Out is an incredibly good movie. It's a touching, complex film that also manages to deliver topnotch comedy.

The list of Pixar's best movies is a long one, but Inside Out deserves a spot.

1. Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens
This seems like a great time to remind you that this list is based on preference, not an appraisal of how good a movie is. I don't think anyone could seriously argue The Force Awakens was the best movie of the year, even within the geek-friendly subset of films. Inside Out was nearly flawless, and Fury Road was technically superior to The Force Awakens, no matter how you cut it.

But I love this movie. Even with its plot holes, ridiculous contrivances, and ill-advised preoccupation with nostalgically retreading the story we've already nostalgically retread in 1983's Return of the Jedi: I love it.

I love it for reuniting us with the characters we loved - with Han, Leia, Chewie, C-3PO, R2-D2, and - for the briefest possible moment - even Luke. I love it for rebuilding that galaxy; its vehicles, inhabitants, and buildings.

I REALLY love it for the new heroes - for Finn, Poe, and Rey. Especially Rey: forget this trilogy nonsense - I want a dozen more movies with her as the lead.

And, on the villain side, I love it for Kylo Ren, quite possibly the most intriguing antagonist the franchise has ever offered. We've had Jedi fighting to stay on the righteous path for decades, but we've never really seen the other side of that coin - a disciple of the Dark Side actively working against his better instincts, trying to keep the light from dominating his destiny.

It may not be the best movie of the year, but I can't help it: it's absolutely my favorite.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Movie Review: Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

We arrived at the movie theater to see this about an hour and forty minutes early. Much to our surprise, there was no line outside the theater. But it wasn't because we were the first ones there: it was because the movie was already seating. We were there for the first show, the 7 PM, and apparently AMC made the call there was really no point scheduling anything on that screen beforehand. Can't say I blame them: for all intents and purposes, there's only one movie in theaters this weekend.

In case you're wondering, I'm not relaying the exciting adventures of me and Lindsay sitting in a theater for an hour and a half because it builds to some sort of fascinating story; I'm doing it because Facebook and Google+ automatically drop the first paragraph in along with the link. All of this is mainly to fill space to make sure no spoilers accidentally wind up in anyone's feed.

Which is, among other things, a roundabout way of stating that there will be spoilers in this review. Because what could I possibly have to say about this movie that doesn't contain spoilers? I mean, sure, I could tell you that you should rush out to the theater and see it as soon as you possibly can, but I'd be wasting your time. Even if this wasn't trending towards 95% positive on Rotten Tomatoes, you'd probably be planning to see it. Hell, you've probably already got tickets.

I will say that I don't think spoilers will actually hurt this movie. I went in with a pretty good idea what was going to happen in this thing, and that's from early plot leaks a year or more old. Honestly, I'm glad I knew what to expect, because... because....

The because is a spoiler, actually. So - last chance if you're reading this without having seen the movie.

...because the plot sucks.

No, really. The plot of The Force Awakens is horrible. All they did was reuse the one from Star Wars. It's essentially a remake where they're using the Force to imply a mystical reason for the past repeating itself, when it's obvious the real reason's that the folks behind this are just huge Star Wars nerds.

I'm glad I knew this going in, because it made it all the easier to get past it. Because, at the end of the day, I don't give a womp rat's ass that they rehashed A New Hope. A decent story barely made the top ten list of things I wanted from this movie, and they nailed more than enough of the items above it.

Including #1. The deviation I most wanted from this was something we've never gotten from this franchise, at least in the movies: a great female protagonist. If we're doing the "hero's journey" thing again, I want a heroine. And the reason I want this is selfish and simplistic: it's because I am bored as hell of watching almost indistinguishable young white men go through the same adventures with minor alterations.

When it comes to Star Wars, story is a minor trifle, but characters are immensely important. And, in Rey, we get the single best POV character the franchise has ever offered. I'm not going to go into too much detail on this, because this is something I don't want ruined for anyone.

Likewise, I'm not going to tell you too much about Finn, Poe, Maz Kanata, or Kylo Ren.... Especially not Ren. What's going on with his character is pitch-perfect: I'm thrilled with the choices they made. These characters - and the actors bringing them to life - are what Star Wars needs to carry the legacy forward for another generation.

Supporting them are the core characters from the original. Well, mostly just Han and Chewie, though Leia gets some good scenes, and Luke... Luke grew a beard.

It's great to see these characters, really - the audience I saw the movie with applauded when each appeared. The only thing that might have been better would have been maybe not having them in the movie. Honestly, it wasn't their movie, and I'd have preferred more time with the new characters. But that's a plot issue, and we already established how big of a deal that is.

Throughout the movie, there was a voice in my head that kept noting whenever something stupid happened, when characters were randomly thrown together to move the story along or when they devoted massive amounts of time and money to set up an unnecessary homage. I never stopped spotting them, but I never really cared.

Because of the music. And the action. And the adventure. And the amazing character moments that spun into even more amazing character arcs.

I can see the flaws here, but I still love every minute of this movie.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Movie Review: The Good Dinosaur

At the end of The Good Dinosaur, I turned to Lindsay and asked if there was a version without the dinosaurs or humans, and she knew precisely what I was talking about. While these characters weren't awful, they mostly just got in the way of the absolutely gorgeous backgrounds and landscapes. At times, I honestly wondered if the movie wasn't produced solely to test out some new Pixar processor or algorithm.

Again, this is as much a compliment to how good they've gotten at creating digital worlds as it is a swipe at the rather simplistic story and characters portrayed in The Good Dinosaur. Well, almost.

The setting is essentially a dinosaur occupied version of Wyoming or Montana in the late 1800's. The characters almost all seem to fall into roles you'd see in live-action movies in the same setting, with the odd exception of what seemed to be a biker gang. Lindsay theorized this might have been an attempt to distance them from Native Americans - there were some unfortunate parallels with how Hollywood used to portray indigenous people.

If you've seen the trailers, you already know most of the plot: boy dinosaur gets separated from family, adopts a pet human, and must find his courage in order to find his way home. At it's core, it's a simplistic coming-of-age story. But, at another level, it's still a simplistic coming-of-age story.

Fair or not, it doesn't help the movie's case that it's coming on the heels of Inside Out, the most emotionally complex picture the studio's ever made. In contrast, The Good Dinosaur has an emotional complexity somewhere between that of A Bug's Life and Cars. The story line and characters are written for boys ages four to ten and no one else.

That doesn't mean it's bad, just simple. And there's an elegance to the movie's simplicity. Some of the minor characters are a lot of fun, and there are a number of humorous jokes throughout. Also, in the interest of full disclosure, they managed to elicit a reaction from me near the end. I felt like a sucker - the moment in question was cliche as hell - but it worked on me regardless.

It's difficult to know whether to recommend this or advise you wait for DVD. On one hand, the visuals are stunning on the big screen. But the characters, ironically, wind up feeling much smaller. It's not the style but the writing: their concerns wind up feeling childish and underdeveloped.

My guess is that, if you're the sort of person who'd feel like you got your money's worth, you're almost certainly already planning to go, regardless of what I type here. Rest assured you'll be impressed with how good Pixar's gotten, and there'll be enough funny and cute moments to carry you through.

For those of you who aren't on board the Pixar wagon, you'll be happy to hear this one isn't groundbreaking or incredible (aside from the aforementioned background animation). It's a fine animated movie for kids, but there's not a great deal for the rest of us.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Give Us Your Worst, Part 27: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles actually might be the dumbest movie I've seen in my entire life.

I'm going to pause for a moment, because I don't want to understate the significance of what I just said. Think about my credentials for a moment: this is the 27th installment in a series focusing on failed superhero movies. And let's not forget my annual tradition of sitting down with my wife and watching crappy Christmas movies for a month every December. I'm no novice when it comes to bad writing and idiotic plots: I'm a goddamn connoisseur.

But this one's hard to fathom. The film's story fails to coalesce even at the most basic of levels, and there's no logic or rationale to character motivation, background information, story beats, or physics. It's never remotely clear what's going on or why anything is happening.

For example.

Why does April keep trying to get her boss to let her do a story about the Turtles when she knows she doesn't have evidence? Why are the bad guys fixated on getting the Turtles to filter the mutagen from their blood, but they don't really care about Splinter? Why will said mutagen heal Splinter, but not the mutagen that's also flowing through his veins? Why are the villains centering a biological attack around their headquarters, when the plan's success hinges on them not being identified as the ones responsible? Why are the other three Turtles able to casually break through their holding cells a scene after Raphael is physically incapable of freeing them? Why is Raphael able to weaponize his shell without consequences minutes after it was established as a plot point that his shell was cracked? When 5 year-old April rescued the Turtles, why did she toss them into a sewer instead of taking them home?

These are just the items that sprung to mind. These kinds of inconsistencies don't just permeate the movie: in a very real sense, they are the movie. What few shreds of plot form between the non sequiturs are epiphenomena, at best. Compared to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Prometheus starts to make sense.

All that said, this movie did a better job catering to longtime fans than most adaptations. A surprising number of elements were incorporated from the source material, including several of the Turtle's classic vehicles and personality traits. Sure, every version makes Raphael a hothead, but how often have we gotten Donatello's tech skills?

That certainly doesn't mean there weren't changes. The movie redid the origin to include a young April and mangled everyone's backstory. And, of course, they re-imagined Shredder as a cross between Silver Samurai and Bay's Transformers. Oh, and for some reason Michelangelo is constantly sexually harassing April.

Again, this was an astonishingly stupid movie.

But, if you're a big enough Turtles fan and you're willing to watch them screw up the story (again), there's just enough zany 80's nostalgia (plus a few decent fights in between the badly cut CG) to offer a little payoff.

This is typically compared to the Transformers movies, but - despite it's budget - I found it closer in spirit to the unreleased 90's Fantastic Four. The people who made this movie clearly loved the source material and tried to create a loving tribute. It's a pity they were incompetent filmmakers.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Movie Review: Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation

By now, you should have seen the trailers for the upcoming Bond film, Spectre, which is essentially a re-imagining of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, arguably the best movie in the franchise. In short, Bond is pitted against the leader of a world-wide criminal organization. It's super-spy versus a contemporary Moriarty, fighting for the future of the world.

Spectre, whether it turns out good or bad, looks gritty and tense. It almost looks like it's in continuity with Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy.

Rogue Nation feels like the exact same premise got handed to Marvel. And I do mean the exact same premise: the producers dug up "The Syndicate," a criminal organization from the last season of the Mission Impossible TV series, and upgraded them to a world-wide organization more or less indistinguishable from Spectre. Then they created a leader who serves as a stand-in for Blofeld. Oh, and they beat their competitors to the theaters by three months.

But while Spectre looks like The Dark Knight, this has more of an Avengers vibe. It's action-packed, humorous, and exciting. There's very little character development, and the scenes without knife fights, high speed chases, and dramatic stunts are clearly present for pacing.

And that pacing is goddamn meticulous. This movie is astonishingly well constructed. When something exciting isn't happening, the space serves only to offer the briefest of pauses. They're like short breathers between songs on a CD: if you try running to the bathroom when one action scene ends, you're liable to miss two more.

Do not attempt to use the bathroom or buy popcorn during this movie. You are guaranteed to miss something awesome.

The plot makes just enough sense to prevent the audience from feeling like they're throwing a series of random action scenes at them, even when they are clearly just throwing random action scenes at us. There are plot holes, sure, but you will absolutely not care about them.

This is one of those movies that's aimed at the nine year-old in us all that loved spy movies but wished they'd skip past the boring stuff and get to the exploding motorcycles. There is no boring stuff in this movie. None.

Hell, even the theme feels like it's geared towards kids. "Friends are important" is more or less what the movie tells us, the same message you'd get watching My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Again, will you mind? Not for a minute: anything more complex might have required more than ninety seconds of exposition between gun fights.

This movie features Tom Cruise playing a far better action hero than he's ever managed in his life, all while being constantly outdone by Rebecca Ferguson, who makes a far more compelling argument that she should take over than Jeremy Renner ever has (though he's good in this, too). Ferguson's character is fantastic, though that might have bought them more goodwill if she hadn't been the only female character in the movie (I'm not counting the record store clerk: she never even got a name).

I think there's also an argument to be made this glorifies violence. It features quite a bit, some with rather brutal implications, but absolutely no unpleasant visuals. Depending on where you sit on that issue, you may or may not be bothered. Probably not, though, since it's hard to harbor ill-will towards this one: it's just too much fun to watch.

In short, it's an unapologetic spy adventure that prioritizes excitement over all else. It's mindless summer fun elevated to an art of choreography, editing, and stunt work. Check it out if you haven't already.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Movie Review: Ant-Man

Miraculously, it looks we're wrapping up Phase 2 on a positive note. After the departure of Edgar Wright, a lot of us were ready to write this one off. But, despite studio interference and script rewrites, the movie delivered a solid, entertaining experience. It was a fun, humorous superhero heist movie.

The movie wasn't perfect by a long stretch. First, it was the wrong movie. Even the filmmakers seemed to acknowledge that a Wasp movie would have made more sense, particularly given the back-story they went with. They redeem this as well as could be expected, short of changing the premise: Evangeline Lilly's Hope Van Dyne is a fantastic character, and the brief allusions and connections to her legacy are among the film's best moments. Rudd does a fine job as Lang, but his character is clearly the least interesting of the three leads.

In addition, the film could have used a bit more style. It plays like a comedy/adventure, and if there was ever an opportunity to deliver an Ocean's Eleven style heist movie, this was it. But it's hard to be too bothered by the missed opportunity when they delivered a solidly entertaining product.

I'm unsure whether to applaud or criticize the film's formula. It plays out almost beat-for-beat like the first Iron Man. Laziness or loving homage: it's all in the eye of the beholder.

Less ambiguous was the choice of Michael Douglass as an aged Hank Pym (and while we're on the subject, kudos to the effects team for delivering a near-perfect not-so-aged Pym in the opening scene). This certainly wasn't any version of Pym I know from the comics, but I thought the revision worked beautifully.

In the scheme of Phase 2, this was nowhere near as good as Guardians of the Galaxy or Winter Soldier, but I found it a more satisfying experience than The Dark World, Iron Man 3, or Age of Ultron. That's not to say there weren't elements of those movies that were superior to this, but - taken as a whole - I think this one works better.

This isn't the best of the summer, and it's not going to top fan's favorite Marvel movies lists, but as an installment in the series, it left me entertained and eager for more stories with these characters.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Movie Review: Inside Out

Before Inside Out starts, Pixar screens a short movie, like they always do. This one's called "Lava," and while it's sort of cute at times, over all it's derivative and a little cloying.

This will end the critical portion of this review.

After watching Inside Out, I have no idea whether we're seeing a long-term return to form for Pixar or just a one-off throwback, but I feel secure saying it's up there with the studio's best works. It is hilariously funny and impossibly sad, a complex and thoughtful exploration of depression and emotional turmoil. It is, in short, an absolutely phenomenal movie.

It kind of had to be, because unlike Cars 2 and Monsters University, this one's not likely to make a killing at box office. Sure, it'll turn a profit, but not on the magnitude of their franchise films. And they must have known that when they green-lit it, which means Inside Out is either a labor of love or an attempt to polish the studio's reputation. I don't know or care which: I'm just grateful to have the movie.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Inside Out is that, despite being as good as Pixar's established classics, it represents a completely different direction. The story told is much smaller in scope than their usual epics, and it pays homage to entirely different eras and styles than they're typically known for. In addition, it's the second Pixar movie to focus predominantly on female leads, which helps differentiate it further.

That's not to say this doesn't feel like Pixar: the animation retains the studio's style, the music choices, and even the recurring voice talent serves as a fingerprint. But there's something fresh about this one that's been missing from the studio for a few years.

There's a lot more I could go into: the brilliant use of color, the wise choice to forego an unnecessary antagonist, the great voice work, or just the fact they managed to make a movie where the physical incarnation of disgust played a key role without relying on a single cheap gross-out sequence.... You get the idea.

Ultimately, though, I don't have much to say. This one's absolutely worth your time: check it out as soon as possible.

Welcome back, Pixar: we missed you.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Movie Review: Jurassic World

Like the much maligned Superman Returns, Jurassic World is, first and foremost, an homage to the original. Unlike Superman Returns, Jurassic World just made more than 500 million dollars in one weekend.

The movie is fun, but ultimately redundant. I'm not just talking about the premise being a repeat of part one's, either: a number of elements are borrowed from other installments, and there are quite a few nods to other classic genre films, as well.

But the T-Rex's share of references and retreads were definitely from Jurassic Park. I almost wished they just done this as a reboot: just re-imagine the premise of part one where the catastrophe happens after the park opens instead of before. That's basically the movie they made, anyway.

Ultimately, I left having enjoyed the movie, but I didn't feel like I'd been shown anything new. If this had been a story-driven film, that wouldn't be a big deal, but in a summer blockbuster, I feel like we should be able to expect more surprises.

For what it's worth, Jurassic World does a decent job giving its characters individual arcs. Pratt definitely comes away feeling like the movie's action hero, though it's worth noting that Howard's character actually got a more fulfilling story arc.

The action sequences themselves were well constructed, though artificial. This comes off feeling one step away from animated, and I almost wish they'd just taken that last step. There were quite a few scenes where the disconnect between live-action sets and actors and obviously computer-generated creatures was jarring: why not replace the sets and people and remove the issue?

The movie's exciting, though not really scary. I'd have preferred if they'd pushed the boundaries of PG-13 a little more aggressively: the film has a tendency to shy away from darker elements. The most egregious example is the magically disappearing children: early on, we're shown that about 50% of the park's guests are minors, but everyone under the age of 30 is conspicuously absent when the dinosaurs attack.

I kind of wish I'd seen this before learning that this beat out The Avengers for the highest grossing opening of the past 13.82 billion years. It's not really fair to expect it to live up to those kinds of numbers. The movie accomplishes what it sets out to do: deliver a fun, family-friendly adventure homage to Jurassic Park. That should probably be enough, but I certainly wanted more.

Maybe we'll see them step up their game in the sequel. I'm still holding out hope for Jurassic World War: let's stop playing around on these islands and take this concept global already.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Give Us Your Worst, Part 26: Tank Girl

Welcome back to the twenty-sixth installment in our never-ending series looking through the back issue bins at some of the least respected, least loved comic book adaptations of all time.

I was in high school the first time I watched this, and I remember thinking it was pointless and idiotic. But that was a long time ago, and I certainly don't trust my memories or taste from that era. Besides, I've seen quite a few defenses of this movie since then, so I decided to see if it was better than I remembered.

I went in with an open mind, which ended up being a big mistake.

The premise is pretty straightforward post-apocalyptic fare. Governments crumbled, the world went crazy, evil corporate stand-ins run what remains of civilizations... you get the idea. Success or failure in this genre almost always comes down to the skill and vision of the director. Six String Samurai managed to deliver something great with one tenth Tank Girl's budget.

Tank Girl is, of course, based on a comic series from the late 80's and early 90's. I've never read an issue, but my understanding is that it's more or less built on punk sensibilities from the era. That's certainly what they tried to put on screen. The titular character is spastic, angry, and rebellious, though it's not actually clear what she's rebelling against or why. That's... pretty much inline with what I remember about the punk movement in the 1990's, actually.

The movie's villain is a ludicrously evil stand-in for the cruel, corporate stereotype once unironically referred to as "The Man." There's no rhyme or reason for his sadism, which is cartoonishly excessive. Oddly enough, there actually isn't any indication the world would be better off without him. If his company is generating water for this civilization, isn't its existence a net positive?

There's no depth or exploration of any of this here. Excluding slave labor, his company is staffed almost exclusively with expendable men in order to remove any lingering moral qualms over their deaths (he employs at least one woman, but he has her killed to demonstrate just how evil he is). Oh, and the men are extremely prone to threatening sexual violence against enslaved women. They're not alone, though: almost every male character - including allies and protagonists - attempts to exploit or sexually assault the two lead women, but when good guys do it, it's played off as clever banter.

I think they somehow wanted this to feel empowering, but it just comes off as exploitative.

A lot of the movie's apologists focus on the fact it's centered around two female characters who exercise agency and push the plot forward. While technically true, it's worth noting that, on their own, they're not particularly effective. Really, the movie's plot is resolved by a half-dozen male mutants, who are all stronger and faster than Tank Girl.

The movie tries to be subversive, but it's not clear what it's trying to subvert. Any environmental or anti-capitalist arguments come off as childish whining: if anything, sitting through this makes me more likely to go buy a bottled water.

Gender stereotypes? Tank Girl is given free range to psychotically kill her enemies without repercussions, a role typically reserved for male action heroes, so there's something to that. But this loses any real impact due to the movie's refusal to take anything seriously. The main character's friends and loved ones are killed before her eyes, and the sequence still plays out comically. She's threatened with rape and assault, but she seems to find the situation amusing. I suspect they were trying to invert the dynamic on who retained power, but the final result feels more like they're making light of these things.

Tonally, the movie is an incoherent mess. It's clearly trying to be surreal and funny, shocking and bizarre. Once or twice, it even succeeds, but the rest of the time it just feels sloppy and immature. The film clearly thinks it's hilarious that bad guys always miss and good guys always hit their targets: I think that joke was dead by the end of the 80's. Instead of coming off as clever, it sucks any tension or suspense out of the fights. When they try wedging in more outlandish gags (i.e.: Tank Girl grilling sausages in the middle of a gun fight), it just falls flat. When cartoon characters pull antics like that, there's pacing and a sense of the absurd. Here, they knew what they wanted to accomplish, but clearly didn't understand how to make it work.

Speaking of cartoons, there are a few short animated bits interspersed throughout the movie which actually are fun to watch, but mostly they beg the question why the whole movie wasn't made that way. There's also a random musical number stuck in the middle of the film as a joke reminiscent of the similar number in The Mask (which came out the year before, by the way). Only it worked in The Mask, and here... it was just embarrassing. Again, they wanted zany but got idiotic.

All of this is despite the two leads, Lori Petty and Naomi Watts, who clearly tried their best to deliver a worthwhile performance. Petty, in particular, attempts to own the twisted tone of the film and make this into something worth watching. If the director, cinematographer, and designers had a fraction of her skill and dedication, I think it could have been a very different movie. The movie had some real talent in front of the camera: it's a shame those behind the scenes squandered it.

Thanks to Petty, Watts, and the animated interludes, this is actually just barely in the better half of the twenty-six movies I've sat through for this series. It's also the second-best theatrically released superhero film with a female lead, right behind Halle Berry's campy Catwoman, but that's only because the other three were abysmally bad.

It'd be easy to say this was an overlong music video masquerading as a movie, but that's not quite right. This wanted to feel like an hour-and-half music video; but frankly, it couldn't pull it off.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Movie Review: Mad Max: Fury Road

It wasn't that long ago I predicted this would fall somewhere around 45% on the Tomatometer, based on the amount of time that's passed between Beyond Thunderdome and this, as well as the ominous mid-May release date. I assume I don't need to tell you the film's more than doubled that with 98%. That's got to be some kind of record: I can't think of another R-rated 3rd sequel to a sci-fi movie which is that universally respected.

The film is, of course, pretty great. A sort of heavy metal return to classic epic filmmaking. A nuanced blend of a cartoonish setting that inexplicably retains more weight and substance than any recent film I can think of. A movie that trusts its leads to build complex characters through quiet reflection while cars blow up and bodies fly.

A film franchise named for and built around a male power fantasy that turns its attention to a female lead and makes us wonder whether Max was even real.

It's about damn time Theron got a chance to headline a science-fiction action movie that wasn't Aeon Flux. Given solid material, she demonstrates that she's in the absolute top-tier of this generation's action stars. Somebody get her a goddamn comic book franchise or something stat. She is badass in this thing, and yet she retains her humanity.

Hardy was pretty good as a stand in for Gibson, though the character's instability felt more forced. Structurally, his role was almost comic-relief, though that's a misleading description tonally. He was more a catalyst than agent, an innovative direction that served the film well.

The remainder of the human cast was comprised of a fascinating and bizarre assortment of mutants, sociopaths, and fanatics. They had some serious competition from the vehicles, though, which deserve equal billing.

Structurally, the film's plot was more constrained. Really, you're watching a sequence that would have taken maybe twenty minutes of an earlier Mad Max movie stretched into two hours. It never once felt long, though: the decompression allowed them to explore the world's depth rather than its breadth. The film never dwells on the religious, political, or cultural ideas it raises, but wisely weaves these throughout the run time. By the time the end credits roll, you have a broad sense of how these people live and what it means, but it's tough to point to individual sequences and credit them with the insight.

It's a beautiful movie full of action, comedy, and thought. Throw Speed Racer into a blender with Conan: The Barbarian and the previous three Mad Max films, and you'll get a sense of what they were going for here, though I don't really think that covers it.

Obviously, you need to see this on the big screen, if for no other reason than to see for yourself how the hell a 70 year-old director returns to the property that made him famous three decades after his last attempt and pulls off a critical response that would make Pixar envious.

In Australia, apparently making a movie like this is what passes for retirement.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Issue with Age of Ultron

At this point, I think there's more or less a consensus on Age of Ultron. As a collection of action sequences and jokes, it was a lot of fun. But as a cohesive story, it falls flat. That was certainly my take, and - based on a quick glance at the blurbs on Rotten Tomatoes - it seems to reflect what most critics thought.

Since I saw the movie, I've been thinking a lot about where it went wrong, and I've come up with a surprising conclusion. The way I see it, the main problem with Age of Ultron wasn't actually in Age of Ultron. I think it started in Iron Man 3.

Age of Ultron was too busy. It had too many characters and plot points to introduce, and it wound up stuffing two movies' worth of content into a single film. The thing is, they had a lot more than two movies to work with. Phase Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe consisted of five movies (six, counting the upcoming Ant-Man), two seasons of Agents of SHIELD, and mini-seasons of Agent Carter and Daredevil.

Building an interconnected world on this scale requires multi-dimensional story telling. A Marvel movie needs to work as a self-contained chapter, as well as a part (or, in the case of Age of Ultron, a culmination) of one or more larger stories. Ideally, Age of Ultron would have worked on at least three different levels: a stand-alone story about established characters, a conclusion to "Phase Two", and the middle chapter of the Infinity War story. Oh, and might as well wrap up an arc encompassing Phase One and Two.

I'd argue it was a better cap to Phases One and Two than two alone, and it didn't really deliver a satisfying self-contained movie. Whether it works as a chapter in the Infinity War Saga remains to be seen, but it certainly seems to have pulled its weight in terms of set-up.

But if they'd played their cards right from the start, I think the studio could have managed it all. They had plenty of space to develop the concepts they wanted to tell without it feeling cramped, but they didn't use their screen time to its fullest.

Iron Man 3 was the biggest missed opportunity. Without changing anything substantial, they could easily have used that film to introduce Ultron as a concept, simply by replacing the small army of AI suits with a small army of AI Ultron units. Change the "House Party" protocol to him activating a swarm of Ultron bots, and you could have set up the concept - and even the character - of Ultron two years before he turned on Tony. The whole Ultron thing wouldn't have felt nearly as rushed, leaving them with more time to expand the twins and Vision.

In their defense, Marvel was making Iron Man 3 before Avengers came out, so they can be forgiven for wanting to hedge their bets on the strengths of their shared universe. The first movie that started production after Avengers's success was Winter Soldier, the one movie in Phase Two that integrated qualities of both the shared universe and stand-alone movies. Based on what we've heard about Phase Three, Winter Soldier is probably going to be the template for stand-alones based off of established Avengers characters.

There was another missed opportunity, and that revolves around Agents of SHIELD. After a rough first season, the series has hit its stride. The episodes are pretty consistently fun, the characters are strong, and the writing is sharp.

This is a good show, but it's kind of wasted. I can understand why Disney didn't want them giving away the Hydra reveal before Winter Soldier came out, but for the life of me I can't fathom why Baron Strucker wasn't the season 2 villain. His bit part in Age of Ultron could have carried some weight if he'd been used in the show. Instead, he came off as an Easter Egg.

There's a lot of potential in Agents of SHIELD: the team clearly has the talent to turn out great work. Marvel should let them play a bigger part in the connected universe.

Phase Three's in a good place, even with the issues at the end of Phase Two. This is all new territory for film, and Marvel is still ahead of the curve. I just hope they learn from their mistakes, because they've certainly made a few.

Movie Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron

There are a couple different ways to look at Age of Ultron: as a movie and as an event. As an event, it was absolutely awesome. Dozens of fight sequences as good as anything we've gotten before, interspersed with snappy dialogue and some of the best new characters we've gotten in a while.

All in all, a fun time for everyone.

Things get a little more complicated if we look at it as a movie. It's still a good movie, mind you. In some ways, it's even a great one.

But the first Avengers was more than a great movie. In decade or so, no one's going to understand why it didn't win best picture; why it wasn't even nominated. They won't understand how critics were so fixated on a specific style of a specific kind of movie that they couldn't realize someone had just elevated an action/comedy to near perfection.

Age of Ultron doesn't hit the same levels, at least not across the board. Its main issue is with pace: simply put, the movie feels rushed. Characters are introduced at breakneck speeds, emotional arcs are shoehorned into unrelated plot points, and complex elements go unexplained. The tone is also wildly uneven: the dark middle clashes with the vibrant start and ending.

I loved this movie, but it's abundantly clear it should have been two films, not one. We needed to build up the twins as characters. We needed to delve into the Avengers as a team, both in terms of what worked and where they clashed. Instead, these ideas were pushed together: the team's internal problems were literally manufactured by the Scarlet Witch's magic. That saves time, but doesn't exactly set us up for a satisfying payoff.

Rumor has it there's an extended edition coming to DVD. Maybe that will correct some of the issues.

Fortunately, those issues don't cancel out the movie's many merits. Everyone's back from part one, of course, but the new faces are even better. Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch are awesome, but even they can't compete with Vision, who in turn is only the movie's second best character. First place, of course, belongs to Ultron.

The studio might have pushed the director into shoehorning in plot points, but Ultron dialogue is Whedon at his best. The character is menacing, but he's also playful, jubilant, and - for an evil robot bent on exterminating the human race - astonishingly likable.

More importantly, while there's a price to be paid by rapidly building up a universe, there's a benefit, as well. All those toys are in play now. We've got new heroes and a much more interesting world.

Ultimately, this one ranks as my fourth or fifth favorite Marvel movie. It's a hell of a lot of fun, but I can't seriously claim it's as good as either Winter Soldier or Guardians of the Galaxy, let alone the original Avengers.

But it's definitely worth checking out in the theater. Though that should really go without saying.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Futures Market: Summer 2015

What does the future hold? This question, in one form or another, has existed since the beginning of time. And the answer has always been the same: the future holds movies. Sure, for the vast majority of the time the Universe has been in existence, it only held movies in the distant, distant future, and almost certainly in only an insignificantly small fraction of that future - a fraction that grows smaller with each passing moment - but for the time being, it's still true.

I'd like you to keep that in mind while you peruse the following list, which represents an annual tradition here in the Middle Room. And why do I want you to focus on this trivial existential concept? The answer is simplicity itself: to distract you from my "predictions," so you're less likely to remember when I'm horribly wrong.

For example, do you remember when I predicted Terminator: Salvation was going to score 80% Fresh back in 2009? Or just last year, when I was so sure the Amazing Spider-Man 2 would score 85%. Or back in 2012 when I thought GI Joe: Retaliation would get 65% and, you know, be released in 2012?

Of course you don't remember any of those things. That just goes to show how well these introductions work. And a good thing, too - it would be humiliating if anyone recalled those guesses.

As always, I'm limiting these to geek movies, minus the horror, which I generally skip. If you're at all confused what constitutes a "geek movie," you'll find no better illustration than the following list. In addition to the movie's release date (pulled from IMDB, if you were wondering), I'm taking a guess at whether the movie will be good or not and letting you know what I'm looking for when deciding whether to see it in theaters.


Avengers: Age of Ultron
Projected Tomatometer: 80%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: NA - See you opening weekend

The movie I'm most excited for is the one I'm most dreading. My expectations for this movie were already beyond the point they could conceivably be met, and that was before the last round of trailers. The first Avengers movie delivered on a scale I hadn't really imagined possible. It was a near-perfect fantasy/science fiction/spy/superhero/action-adventure, not to mention one of the best experiences I've ever had in a movie theater. Almost every critic out there agreed - it's at 92% on Rotten Tomatoes - and it's already transformed genre film making.

How the hell do you follow that up?

Everything we've seen from the sequel - at least in my opinion - looks amazing. And clearly there's no one I'd rather have overseeing it than Whedon. But as excited as I am, I'm also terrified. This one is even more ambitious than the first, which means there are more pitfalls. If they somehow manage to pull this off, the payoffs could be huge, but if it falters at all, it could be a massive disappointment.

Predicting the Tomatometer on this feels like throwing a dart in the dark. My guess is that, even if the movie is as good as its predecessor, critics will probably be a little harder. If it's even a smidgen worse, I suspect they'll be extremely harsh. Of course, if it's miraculously better, it could conceivably be in the 98% range.

I'm saying 80%, because my hopes are already too high. But, deep down, I can't help but wonder.


Pitch Perfect 2
Projected Tomatometer: 55%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: 85%, Good word-of-mouth, assurances we're past the vomit jokes, and for Avengers 2 not to be so good I go see that a second time instead

I only saw Pitch Perfect because of the sequel's trailer: the original flew totally under my radar. Part one was a sort of a musical/slapstick/parody/dramedy hybrid that was surprisingly satisfying. It goes in some interesting directions, committing completely to its desperate elements.

I don't know what to think of the sequel. It has a new director, which is always a toss-up, and it's easy to imagine them retreading a lot of the same material. But the first was such a pleasant surprise, it's certainly worth keeping an eye on.

All that said, I'll almost certainly wait for Netflix if they don't drop the vomit jokes. No judgment if that's your kind of humor, but I'd rather see that on a smaller screen, even when it's clearly fake. Just personal preference.

Mad Max: Fury Road
Projected Tomatometer: 45%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: Great word of mouth

I respect the studio's tenacity in releasing this just two weeks after Avengers: Age of Ultron hits the screen, but I'm not sure it's the most strategically strong maneuver. Mid-May release dates typically portend a lack of faith in a film's US box office potential, particularly when it's on the heels of a major event film. That doesn't always mean something's bad, but it's not exactly a good sign.

Its been a while since Miller made something especially well-received, particularly if you discount his kid-friendly fare. Again, not a good sign, if you're gambling.

In the movie's defense, the trailers look good, and Hardy is a great choice for Max. I'm hoping this is great, but I'm not betting on it.


Projected Tomatometer: 96%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: High 80's Tomatometer and/or good word of mouth

A Tomatometer score of 96% sounds high, but it would actually be about average for Brad Bird. His last movie, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, was his worst reviewed, at a measly 93% positive (though I actually agree with the dissenting votes there).

Ghost Protocol aside, Bird's one of my favorite directors, thanks to his flawless animation resume: Ratatouille, The Incredibles, and Iron Giant are three of the best animated films made in my lifetime. I'm intrigued by the fusion of Wizard of Oz and 80's adventure the trailers are implying. Family films are what he seems to do best, largely thanks to the fact he outright refuses to dumb down the ideas or tone. I can't wait to see what he came up with this time. 

Projected Tomatometer: 78%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: Good word-of-mouth, particularly around tone and genre

Whether I have any interest in seeing this really boils down to whether it's a comedic spy movie or a spoof of spy movies. If it's the latter, then its reviews may impact whether I watch it on Netflix in a few years. If it's the former, however, I might be interested, in part because this is as good a predictor for the Ghostbusters reboot as we're likely to get.

I love spy movies - especially Bond films. It's just that I'm getting sick of Bond. And no, making him American and changing a few letters in his name doesn't change that. Gender-flipping the character's a good start, but it's been done. Casting Melissa McCarthy, on the other hand, sounds like a potentially fresh take.

But here's the catch: I don't really want a movie where she spends the first hour and fifteen minutes as a bumbling idiot, only to suddenly believe in herself in act three. I want this character to be competent and effective. Funny's fine, too, but not if it's her defining trait. Having a lead with a different body type is wasted on cheap humor: it's a chance to develop dramatically different kinds of action scenes than we get 99% of the time.

The 78% is an average of Feig's last two movies. Honestly, I'd rather get a mediocre spy film than a great spoof.


San Andreas
Projected Tomatometer: 42%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: Extremely positive reviews and/or an act of God

This actually has a pretty solid trailer, but until I have reason to do otherwise, I'm inclined to credit that to whoever cut the trailer together. The movie looks to be pretty generic disaster material. This time it's The Rock vs. a big earthquake. Okay, Dwayne Johnson's a solid choice to headline a movie like this, but I still find it difficult to imagine it'll be worth seeing in the theaters. Or, you know, on video.

I'm generously predicting this will get a 42% Tomatometer score, which is the same as the higher of Brad Peyton's two prior films.


Jurassic World
Projected Tomatometer: 78%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: 87% and/or rumors the effects are cool.

Hey, it's a Jurassic Park movie director by the guy who directed Safety Not Guaranteed. I saw that! And... I think I liked it. Maybe? Honestly, I can barely remember the damn thing. It had something to do with reporters and time travel.

The trailers for Jurassic World look fun, but the premise is a waste. We really don't need another movie where a dinosaur theme park goes horribly, predictably wrong. What we need is a movie where dinosaurs reach the mainland. Maybe that's what they're building towards. But if the sequel isn't called Jurassic World War, I'll be pissed.

I've got no idea whether this will be good or not. Trevorrow's a wild card, and one hopes there's a reason this got made, beyond a short term money grab (I'm not an idealist: I'm just hoping they were thinking about the long-term profits possible in a great franchise). The 78% is an average of the last two movies made by the guy who directed Spy. Obviously, that's got no bearing on this, but the number was on my mind and it seemed as good a guess as any.


Inside Out
Projected Tomatometer: 98%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: Pretty much anything above 70%. Or, hell, a decent recommendation or two. A rainy day might be enough.

Personified emotions certainly aren't a new idea, but Pixar's take looks pretty interesting. Also, potentially scarring, based on the last trailer. It looks like they're digitizing depression with the same precision that went into Merida's arrows and Sulley's fur. If they pull this off, it should be a slam-dunk for best animated picture.

And, unless I miss my guess, Pixar will have invested the time, money, and human sacrifices necessary to guarantee this one delivers. The studio has been in a bit of a funk: their last few movies didn't get the accolades or cash they'd hoped for, and it's pretty clear the leadership has taken that to heart. They cancelled a movie mid-production and delayed others, which is why we didn't get anything last year. This is an attempt to correct course and regain their place as the industry leader.

I'm not betting against them. That said, if the reviews aren't solid, and if I don't hear it's worth my money, I'll stay home. I ignored the critics when I went to see Monsters University and kind of regretted it: I might be more careful this time.


Ted 2
Projected Tomatometer: 26%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: Money would be a good start

I still haven't seen Ted, though I did hear it was pretty entertaining. That said, comedies should rarely get sequels in the best of circumstances, and Seth McFarlane is about as far removed from the best of circumstances as you can get. Ted might have gotten 68% Fresh (still nothing to brag about), but his follow-up, A Million Ways to Die in the West, is at 33%.

It's certainly possible that whatever kind of worked in the first one will kind of work again, but it's highly unlikely. If this doesn't get dismissed as a cheap facsimile, I'll be surprised.


Terminator: Genisys
Projected Tomatometer: 70%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: Decent reviews or good recommendations

Most people seem underwhelmed by the trailers for this, but I love them. More specifically, I love the twist around Sarah Connor's back story and status at the start of the movie.

It definitely looks more action-adventure than suspense, but I'm fine with the shift. It's hard to deny this could wind up more like Terminator 3 than 2, but I'm trying to stay optimistic. Still, I'm using that movie as a guess for this one's Tomatometer.


Projected Tomatometer: 67%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: Not likely: I've never even seen the first two movies.

I've heard decent things about the Despicable Me movies (or at least the first one), but I still haven't seen them. I figure I'll get around to them some day, but I'm honestly in no hurry.

This spin-off/prequel looks extremely bizarre. The Minion characters seem to be the most popular, at least among the coveted male 18 - 35 month-old demographic, so it'll likely make some money. The movies' Tomatometer scores had a downward trajectory between parts one and two: 67% continues the slope of that line.


Projected Tomatometer: 73%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: Rotten Tomatoes score of 40% or higher

Ah, Ant-Man. Even before it was filmed, it represented Marvel's studios' first public embarrassment. The movie was originally planned by Edgar Wright, who left over some sort of disagreement. Peyton Reed picked it up and made it extremely quickly, which is all a bit worrying.

If I had to guess, I'd say this will probably be extremely mediocre. I'm not expecting bad, but I'll be surprised if it's anyone's favorite Marvel movie.

That said, it's still a MCU movie, which means we'll likely get some interesting tie-ins to Age of Ultron and who knows what else. Even if it's not great - or even good - I'm expecting it'll be fun, so I'm willing to overlook less than stellar reviews if I have to.

My guess for the movie's Tomatometer is based on Iron Man's 2 score. My gut tells me that's where the critics will settle.

Projected Tomatometer: 60%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: 90% and/or solid recommendations

I don't know what the hell to make of this thing. I can't really tell whether it's trying to feel like a fairy tale, a gritty fantasy, or a jumble of both. It seems to be a prequel to Peter Pan written by people who either don't know or don't care that Barrie already wrote an origin for the character. The 90's Hook movie certainly wasn't good, but at least it respected the world it was set in.

It's also worth noting that in making this an origin story, they're effectively shifting the protagonist from a female to male character, which is a problematic trend. Wendy is actually listed in the credits, which is almost odder, since it really doesn't make sense for her to be there. I guess this is more a reimagining than a prequel. Regardless, it's Neverland with a young Wendy, an origin for Peter where he teams up with James Hook, and - as far as I can tell - no Tinkerbell.

I'd be writing this off entirely if it weren't for the fact Joe Wright is directing. He made Hanna a few years back, and that was pretty good. Still, I don't have a lot of confidence in this project. There are few things I'd be happier to see than a really good dark retelling of Peter and Wendy, but I have a hard time believing this is what I've been waiting for.

Still, it can't possibly be worse than the 2003 version. Can it?


Projected Tomatometer: 28%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: 80% and assurances that Sandler doesn't do his usual shtick

There aren't many actors I believe can ruin a movie, but Adam Sandler clearly has that power. This doesn't mean he's incapable of acting - I've been assured that he's done a great job in a handful of movies I haven't seen. But when he does slapstick, he almost always does a variation on the same exaggerated comic relief character he's used since the 90's.

Until there's a trailer, we won't know for certain that's what he's doing here, but... it's a movie about aliens invading using ships and weapons based on 80's arcade games. It seems unlike we'll be seeing an abundance of subtlety.

This is being directed by Chris Columbus, who's made a wide range of movies. On one hand, he made the first two Harry Potter movies, which were pretty solid. Unfortunately, he's also responsible for the first two Home Alone movies, which are awful. There's a chance we'll get something good here, but I'm betting against it.

Projected Tomatometer: 78%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: Tomatometer in the 90's and great word-of-mouth

I'm probably being generous with my assessment here, but I have to assume Raimi wouldn't have produced this if he didn't have a good reason to think Kenan could pull it off. Gil Kenan directed City of Amber and Monster House, both solid movies that display real potential but weren't particularly memorable.

Good or bad, it's going to be a hard sell. No one really asked for a remake to Poltergeist: the original holds up incredibly well. But - like I said - I have some faith in the talent involved.

None of that means I'm planning to go see this. That would take some really strong reviews or recommendations.


Fantastic Four
Projected Tomatometer: 70%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: 70% positive, good word of mouth, or a few glowing recommendations

Tough one. I really liked Chronicle despite the found footage aspect, and a lot of the credit belongs to the director. I'd love to see what Trank can do with a bigger budget. In addition, the trailer was pretty good, at least as science-fiction goes.

That said, the premise of this movie - a more grounded, realistic Fantastic Four - bores the hell out of me. I appreciate that Fox wants to distance themselves from the previous movies (and who can blame them?), but trying to turn Marvel's first family into something modern and edgy misses the point. The Fantastic Four have a tone that doesn't lend itself to something in the vein of The Dark Knight. If you're not going to try and capture that tone, why use this team? I'm pretty sure Stan Lee wanted the team's name to feel nostalgic when he created them in the early 60's: if you want to create something modern, you've already shot yourself in the foot.

None of that means the movie will be bad, of course. But a decent SF movie with a passing resemblance to a Marvel team isn't necessarily enough to guarantee I'll check this out. I'm getting tired of rewarding film studios for being embarrassed they're making superhero movies.

If I go see this, it will be because I hear it's good, either from critics or fans. Otherwise, I'm sure I'll check it out on Netflix. Like I said, it looks like a decent movie: just maybe not the right movie.

Projected Tomatometer: 21%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: Good luck with that

The team that made the 2010 Gulliver's Travels is back. To be fair, I never actually saw that movie: maybe it was better than the critics thought. Lacking a better starting point, I'll just go with their assessment and predict this nets the same 21% score.


The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
Projected Tomatometer: 65%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: 90%

On one hand, this was made by Guy Richie, director of the 2009 Sherlock Holmes movie, which was decent, though not exceptional. On the other hand, Richie was also responsible for the 2011 sequel, which was nearly unwatchable (I find it baffling that 60% of critics gave that a pass).

A remake of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. might be more up Richie's alley, anyway. The trailer looked fun enough, but making a good trailer is a lot easier than making a good movie. My guess is this will be fine and likely worth checking out on Netflix.


Hitman: Agent 47
Projected Tomatometer: 12%
What it'll take to get me in the theater: A score of 90% would get me in a seat, mainly because I'd want to see how the hell they managed it.

I'm not entirely clear on why the Hitman series deserves not one but two live-action adaptations. The first came out in 2007 and received a 14% positive score from critics (close to average for video game adaptations, I suspect).

There's no reason video game adaptations have to be bad, but almost all are. My guess is that this will fall somewhat near its predecessor.

Wrap up

I usually miss a movie or two of interest. In addition, there's a decent chance one or two of these movies will drop out at the last minute and open next spring instead. But assuming everything opens as intended, here's a quick summary:

Movies I'll Almost Certainly See
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Inside Out

Movies I'll Probably See
Jurassic World
Terminator: Genisys
Fantastic Four

Pitch Perfect 2
Mad Max: Fury Road

Long Shots
Everything else

I'm struck by how short my short list is this year. I get the feeling that every studio whose name doesn't rhyme with Gisney was a bit timid when it came time to schedule movies the same season as Avengers 2.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Movie Review: Jupiter Ascending

This movie is awesome. It's a bizarre amalgamation of genre tropes, put to use in the service of a surprisingly effective (though not at all subtle) theme. The action sequences are fantastic, and the designs are breathtaking.

What is Jupiter Ascending? The short answer is Occupy Babylon 5. The long answer is, well....

It's a very political movie. Theme is critical to how the setting and characters are constructed. Babylon 5 had a very similar tone, if nothing else. This is, first and foremost, space opera, which is why there are also several parallels to Star Wars. At least one bounty hunter bears an uncanny resemblance to a similar character in The Clone Wars. I'm pretty sure most of the other bounty hunters were taken from the 80's live-action Masters of the Universe movie. The technology is largely Japanese SF. I've never actually seen any Gundam, but the designs certainly look similar to me. Well, most of the designs. At least one of the ships is right out of Battlestar Galactica.

But the movie also includes scenes, characters, and tropes reminiscent of the Riddick movies, Underworld, The Fifth Element, Dune, Blade Runner, and Brazil. Oh, and Futurama. Star Trek, Princess Bride, Aladdin, The Lord of the Rings, and Tron. I'm probably missing dozens more.

Mila Kunis actually feels pretty straightforward: she's essentially playing a modern-day Cinderella. I mean, maybe there's a little hint of Sailor Moon in the premise, but she doesn't have super-powers or a talking cat. She does, however, have Channing Tatum, who plays a fusion of Riddick, Legolas, Brian Boitano, Bigby Wolf, and Silverbolt from Transformers: Beast Wars. Together, they fight a hybrid race of vampires from Underworld and the Necromongers from Chronicles of Riddick, who are aided by Nazi draconians (the ones from Krynn, not Doctor Who), and a bunch of space-goblins.

Oh, the good guys also have Sean Bean, who's playing the exact same role he always gets handed.

The amazing thing is all of that slides together surprisingly well. Kunis's role isn't just there for plot: her Cinderella credentials are integral to the movie's politics. Same goes for the villains' over-the-top vampiric nature. There was a great deal of thought behind this.

You wouldn't know that judging by the reviews, though. Jupiter Ascending is at 22% on Rotten Tomatoes right now. While 22 sounds low, it's not as low as 18, which is the number of millions of dollars it's expected to pull in this weekend. Wikipedia says the movie was budgeted at $176 million. I'll let you do the math.

If you're having flashbacks to Speed Racer, you're not alone. To be fair, Jupiter Ascending isn't as good a movie as Speed Racer, but then again few things are. Speed Racer was damn near flawless (okay, maybe pull out the monkey poop jokes, but after that, you're pretty much set), while Jupiter Ascending had a few issues, some of them pretty serious. The biggest problem revolved around the plot. It's hard to deny the film was bloated. There were two minor villains who could have been combined with the primary bad guy or cut. It felt like the Wachowskis were building up the world for sequels, which - let's be honest here - probably won't wind up happening. Likewise, given the role Jupiter's family played, they probably should have been likable characters.

It's definitely got its flaws, and anyone who isn't on board with the many genres is going to suffer whiplash. But it's one of the cooler, crazier space operas out there. If you've got Chronicles of Riddick and The Fifth Element in your DVD collection, you'll almost certainly love this quirky space adventure/live-action Disney princess mash-up.

I should mention I saw it in 2D, a decision I currently regret. The space battles were extremely cool, and I think the added depth would have made them even more so. I'm tentatively planning on going back and checking it out in IMAX if I can find the time.