Friday, December 30, 2016

2016 Movies Revisited

Every year I set aside my sense of individuality to conform with the masses and create a generic wrap-up list.

This year's count is longer than it's been in a while, with the caveat it should really be even longer. I really wanted to see Arrival, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and La La Land, at the very least. But with everything else going on, I ran out of time.

As always, I'm going through every new movie I saw, starting with my least favorite and working my way to the movie I liked best.

19. Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice
This movie didn't need to be great. It didn't need to be good. All this had to be was fun. Instead, Zack Snyder peppered this with cheap reference shots and inane themes. The characters yell and glare at each other, but the actual fight is boring.

And then there's the resolution. I'm not talking about the pair of coffins, one holding Superman's supposedly dead body and the other containing our hopes for a decent Justice League movie; I mean the resolution to the title fight, when Batman forms a connection to Superman due to a hilarious oversight from seventy-five years ago when lazy writing caused the two characters' mothers to share the same name.

This wasn't just bad - it was astonishingly bad, boring, and idiotic. It's rare for a superhero movie to actually make me angry. Dark Knight Rises pulled it off, but this makes me want to apologize to Christopher Nolan for my harsh review. Hell, this makes me want to apologize to Joel Schumacher. At least they tried.

Sure, Wonder Woman was really cool, but more or less everything else about this movie failed completely. It's the only thing I saw this year that felt empty and pointless. Unless you consider the extended cut to be a separate film - that was even worse.

18. Warcraft
This has to be one of the biggest budget B-movies ever made. It's schlock fantasy, complete with melodrama, magic, and simplistic life lessons. The moral of this is basically the same as (but significantly less nuanced than) the average episode of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (on a related note, Twilight Sparkle and friends would have wrecked the Horde).

But it was kind of fun. Plus, the movie's zany, non-traditional structure was a little refreshing. It's nice to watch a movie without knowing what's going to happen (unless you're a fan of the game - I guess those people had a different experience).

I'm glad to see fantasy getting more exposure on screen, even if it's less than stellar. The magic was interesting, the costumes were fun, and the orcs were cool: that counts for something.

17. Kung Fu Panda 3
It's always hard with movies like this. There were so many things I loved about Kung Fu Panda 3 and only one thing I didn't. I loved the vibrant designs, the gorgeous action, and the beautiful animation. I thought most of the jokes were funny, and the characters remained engaging.

If it hadn't been part of this series - if this were a standalone movie that was this good - I'd have placed it much higher. But I said in my review I had no interest in being fair. I simply love part two too much to be happy with what's ultimately a mediocre sequel.

If they do make a fourth, I hope they stop one-upping the mystical destiny shtick. I hope they build up their side characters more, maybe even do a spin off with the Furious Five or just Tigress instead of having Po be the star of another cheap power fantasy. This world has incredible potential, as does Po, provided they stop upping his power-level by orders of magnitude Dragon Ball Z style.

It's not that this is bad, just that it feels like such a wasted opportunity.

16. Pete's Dragon
I liked this movie a lot, but it took some effort. I tried to love it, and there were portions when I succeeded. But it's telling I had to put in the work: the movie didn't win me over on its own.

It's not a bad flick - it's pretty solid, all things considered. It'll do for the next generation what the original did for mine: offer relatively inoffensive entertainment to kids. It's a good kid's movie, and in other years, that might have bought it a higher spot on this list.

But the world isn't starved for family movies. I can think of a half-dozen movies that are light years better than this, at least four of which were also made by Disney and released this year.

This was a good movie; on DVD, it'll probably be really good, especially if you're only half paying attention. It's one of those movies. But it's not Inside-Out, Finding Dory, The Jungle Book, or Zootopia.

Or, if you want to stay focused on the same age bracket, it's no Paddington. Kid's entertainment isn't second rate anymore: things like this don't get a pass the way they used to.

15. The Nice Guys
Shane Black doesn't exactly leave his comfort zone for the The Nice Guys. The good news is that it's a good comfort zone. The bad news is that we've basically seen this movie before. Lethal Weapon was released almost thirty years ago, and - as much as I love a good comedy noir - what I really want is for Shane Black to expand his range.

All that said, there's so much to like here - the comedy is topnotch, the characters are well developed, and the setting is fantastic - that it's easy to set aside any issues with redundancy. Crowe and Gosling work amazingly well together, and the supporting cast is wonderful.

14. X-Men: Apocalypse
Cards on the table - this movie is benefiting heavily from both lowered expectations and from the ranking system powering this list. If I were basing this on the best movies, it would be quite a bit lower. Because this movie is a complete and total mess.

But you know what else was a complete and total mess? Every iconic and important run of X-Men from the comics. Those stories were jumbles of conflicting ideas and non sequiturs. And that's okay - the X-Men have always been at their best when their stories were about throwing everything under the sun into a blender and mixing it all up.

And this was no exception. I was annoyed with the unnecessary sidetracks rehashing Magneto's past. And Mystique may have just overtaken Wolverine as the most overused character in the movie franchise. But who the hell cares? This finally started embracing its comic book origins and delivering on the promise of big-scale adventure. I had a lot of fun with it.

13. Suicide Squad
It took them long enough, but Warner Brothers finally produced a movie set firmly in a passable version of the DCU. Now they just have to figure out how to produce good movies, and they'll be set.

I kid, but Suicide Squad, despite its dismal Tomatometer, was pure fun. The movie was quirky, and its leads were great, with Margot Robbie's pitch-perfect Harley Quinn leading the pack. The movie might suffer from comparisons to the far superior Deadpool, but she doesn't: her take is no less inspired or true to the character's roots than Reynolds's.

If they'd done nearly as good a job with the Joker, this would be even higher on the list. But Leto's disappointing turn, coupled with some poor editing and several lifeless scenes, hold it back. I don't mind the weirdly convoluted plot or the scores of superfluous characters (in fact, I consider those a plus). But, while this was a far better experience than I anticipated, it had some major faults.

But for a DC movie, that's a massive step forward.

12. Ghostbusters
I almost want to put this a little higher, because I appreciate the concept and execution so much. But, at the end of the day, I loved the existence of the movie but only liked the experience (well, except for McKinnon's Holtzmann, who basically walked onto the screen and plucked the "history's greatest Ghostbuster" award right out of Bill Murray's hands).

I still maintain the aspects I didn't love weren't calibrated for me to love: this movie was painstakingly constructed to appeal first and foremost to a female audience in a way few other blockbusters do. It knocked that out of the park, and I applaud Feig for pulling that off.

This wasn't my favorite movie of 2016, but I think it was one of the most important. This one's going to inspire generations of young geeks. And I'm not giving up hope for a sequel.

11. Kubo and the Two Strings
I'm extremely torn on this. I loved how this movie looked, and the witches rank among my all-time favorite animated antagonists (honestly, you don't even need to qualify that with "animated"). I loved how scary it became and how energized the fights were.

But I couldn't fully immerse myself in this because of the comic relief and a few missed opportunities (the big one being Kubo's lack of reflection immediately after his mother died - I'm assuming they were worried it would get too dark if they dwelled on that).

Elements of this rank among the best of the genre, but taken as a whole, I was much more lukewarm on it, at least after a single viewing. All that said, I felt the same way about several movies that have grown to become favorites - I can easily see this getting better over time as the flaws fade. But, for now, I feel like this is where Kubo belongs.

10. Deadpool
It's hard not to love a movie that was made with this much love. It took a decade for this to get through development, and it only made it after some test footage was leaked online. But damn if it wasn't worth the wait.

Between some fantastic writing and a cast who embraced the concept wholeheartedly, they found just the right recipe to bring the anti-hero to the big screen, and - I can only hope - to revive the film franchise he's part of.

9. Star Trek Beyond
Before this came out, my honest hope was that it would do a decent job ending the series. I liked the 2009 reboot and enjoyed Into Darkness despite it's problems, but the return of Star Wars kind of made the new Trek feel redundant. The franchise was too far removed from its own roots, and it was hard to get excited about a fake Star Wars now that the real thing was here.

After seeing Justin Lin's take, I want more. I want more of this crew, this director, and these writers. Because, while this wasn't a perfect movie, it was a great one. And, more importantly, it distinguished itself from the competition by playing up the camaraderie between the crew. These people are connected; together, they can accomplish incredible things.

The sequence where they piece together how the enemy fleet operates, along with how they could dismantle it, is one of the most high energy scenes of the year. It's exciting and riveting... despite the fact it's just a bunch of scientists and engineers analyzing a situation. You know what? Strike that: BECAUSE it's scientists and engineers analyzing a situation.

Yeah, the cinematography wasn't on par with the previous two installments. And, sure, there were a few minor continuity issues and logical leaps. But who the hell cares? We got to see the crew of the Enterprise in action, working together, cementing bonds, and saving millions. I absolutely loved this movie.

8. Doctor Strange
It might not be as good as Captain America: Civil War, but that had nine earlier films feeding into it, while Strange had none. This is at least my favorite "new character" comic movie since Guardians (and, honestly, this might have edged that out). It expanded the Marvel Universe in directions that have been ignored far too long. Comics have always been a blend of SF, fantasy, and pulp; the "fantasy" aspect has been somewhat neglected (even Thor's been spun in a bit too much of a science-fiction direction. This corrects course. While there's still a somewhat rationalized edge to the spells, it's unquestionably magic, and that's a breath of fresh air.

Add in the effects, and you'd already have a hell of a fun film. But this also offered some great acting (I was skeptical of Cumberbatch's casting, but he was a perfect choice), and - even if the critics might dispute this - some great writing. The dialogue was funny and engrossing, and the twists - mainly courtesy of Strange's "creative" solutions - were a huge departure from the same old tired resolutions ("punch it until it falls" and/or "distract it and activate the McGuffin").

This felt different in all the right ways. I loved it.

7. Finding Dory
It's a little hard to settle on a spot for Finding Dory. The movie is subtle, intelligent, and astonishingly fun. The one thing stacked against it is that it's not all that ambitious a production. But, frankly, that's the brilliance of the thing: instead of remaking Finding Nemo with a shuffled cast, they took a character and re-contextualized the setting, premise, and even the title around her, and in the process managed to tell a very different kind of story. Where Nemo was epic, Dory's is a personal story, about a beautiful mind finding itself and achieving peace. It's the kind of spin on franchise entertainment you'd never expect, and it's exactly why the movie succeeds.

6. Moana
I just barely squeezed this one in yesterday. By my count, this is the sixth consecutive Disney princess movie that's fundamentally about not being a Disney princess movie (I'm counting Enchanted and Brave, for those of you playing along at home). If the 90's represented Disney's revival and the codification of the Disney Princess, this is the franchise's postmodern phase.

It's a fantastic movie through and through, thanks to a depth of mythology, great songs, stunning visuals, and wonderful characters. It's a worthy addition to Disney's lineup.

5. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
The Force Awakens topped my list for 2015 (though it actually would have come in second if I'd seen Paddington in time), while this doesn't fare quite as well. That's not actually because it's an inferior movie - I think there are compelling arguments it may be as good or better. But this isn't a contest of quality; it's an exercise in preference.

And while I love Rogue One, it didn't move me the way Force Awakens did. Ironically, the thing I loved most about Force Awakens is what I was most happy they omitted this time around: its mythic nature.

If you think it sounds like I'm being unfair, rest assured I agree. Rogue One is almost exactly the movie I wanted it to be: a relatively grounded story set in the Star Wars universe but with a strikingly different tone, direction, and even genre. It serves to build up the setting, even though that means the movie itself is a tad less engaging by design.

This is a Star Wars movie that wasn't supposed to be the biggest, most exciting movie of the year - it was more interested in expansive world-building and developing the property. I wish more franchises would learn to do this every now and then. It gives them a little contrast to play with to make the big, epic installments feel that much cooler.

4. Captain America Civil War
Civil War took characters we've been following for years and turned them against each other without sacrificing their rationality. It managed to handle twelve characters without making a single one feel obsolete. It reintroduced Spider-Man in a way that left me certain he was being played by Peter Parker, not Tom Holland. It finally gave us Black Panther, faked us out into thinking they were going to misuse the character, only for them to complete a movie-long character arc culminating in him becoming precisely the hero he should be.

And, after two and half hours of seeing them fight, all I wanted was more. The airport fight goes on a very short list of absolutely perfect superhero movie scenes.

There have been years this would easily have topped my list. But 2016 was a hell of a good year for cinema.

3. The Jungle Book
Like Avatar, The Jungle Book managed to build a realistic world almost from scratch. Unlike Avatar, it did so in a movie containing complex characters and strong writing. Besides the integration of the effects, the real feat here was how skillfully Favreau managed to combine different genres and tones into a satisfying package. The comedy is hilarious, the adventure exhilarating, and the horror is scary. But, despite all that, you never feel like anything's out of place. This is woven together, not tossed in a pile, and the effort shows.

2. Zootopia
It's not unheard of for animation to tackle serious issues like racism, but you'd be hard pressed to find an example of anything that managed the topic nearly as well as Zootopia. Rather than offering platitudes or simple solutions, this movie used a familiar cartoon trope - a city of diverse anthropomorphic animals - to confront multiple facets of the problem, even going so far as to use an underdog story to make us unwittingly root for the wrong side before allowing us to see a broader picture. The moment when Judy, realizing the damage she's been complicit in, hands over her badge rather than bring more harm to the marginalized inhabitants of the city is heartbreaking.

It's the kind of movie where context transforms huge swaths of the movie retroactively. There are sequences that initially come off as encouraging, optimistic, and genuine, only to feel chillingly regressive in retrospect.

It's a fantastic achievement in writing and animation.

1. The Little Prince
I found this movie deeply engrossing and moving. Maybe it helps that I've never read the source material, so the turns of that story alone caught me off guard. Alternatively, maybe it was the peculiar blend of genres that produced a unique dystopian fairy tale.

Whatever the reason, I love this movie. The visuals pulled me in, and the deliberate pace won me over.

Sure, elements were a tad heavy-handed, particularly in its unsubtle portrayal of the "adult world." But then again, it's difficult to challenge the movie's verdict, given that even the absurdist, over-the-top rendering of its cartoon villain was still more three-dimensional than the soulless Paramount executive who decided to pull this from wide release.

Seriously. Who the hell watches a movie like this and decides there's no point putting it in theaters?

Closing Thoughts
This was a great year for geeky movies - possibly one of the best in my lifetime. It says something that the cutoff for movies I absolutely loved was at ten - that's pretty astonishing. Everything at seven and above I at least had to consider whether it deserved the top spot - this was very close.

I also want to draw attention to fact that seven of my top ten (actually, seven of my top eight) were made by Disney. While the rest of the industry is stagnating, Disney gets better and better. While they still have some issues with formulaic writing (though even this seems to be improving) they're by far the most consistent company out there. Especially compared to WB - their only real competitor, based on franchise rights - Disney's name denotes actual quality.

If you think that's just me being some sort of fanboy, go check out the average score on Rotten Tomatoes for Disney's films versus other studios. Or take a look at box office returns. No matter the metric you choose, it's becoming increasingly clear that they've built a substantial lead. And unless WB stops making films like Batman V Superman, that isn't going to change anytime soon.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Movie Review: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Note: I'm going to refrain from spoiling what I consider the movie's significant points, but what you consider a spoiler could differ greatly. If you haven't seen Rogue One and want to watch it untainted, now would be a good time to stop reading.

The original Star Wars opens in medias res with the implication that there was a chapter just beforehand culminating in Vader hunting down Leia's ship. The opening scroll crawl was basically lifted from Flash Gordon - it was supposed to deliver the sensation of picking up a serial mid-story, implying a vast universe of context and depth to the setting.

I'd argue Lucas made a strategic mistake when he retroactively numbered the movies. Sure, starting with Episode IV gave him the option of going back and producing a few prequels, but the larger concept was lost in the shuffle. The crawl to each movie starts in the middle of a cliffhanger that's implied to have closed the last installment, even when that installment never existed. Specifying Empire immediately follows Jedi, for example, glosses over the implied events that took place between movies, even while the movies themselves allude to ongoing serialized adventures.

Either numbering them in the hundreds with a jump between films or skipping the numbers altogether (as they did in The Clone Wars animated series) would have been a more faithful tribute to the pulp tradition, and it would have left them in a better position to open Rogue One correctly.

Because, for the first time in a Star Wars movie, we're actually seeing a real "prior installment." This takes place directly before A New Hope, and - as a result - the missing crawl feels like a missed opportunity.

If this seems like an exceptionally nerdy way to start a review, rest assured that Rogue One is an exceptionally nerdy film, even for Star Wars. The movie drops bits of lore into casual conversations, referencing minutiae about weapons and vehicles. You'll be able to understand the movie without a background in this stuff, but if you don't know what a T-16 is, you'll probably wonder why all the nerds start chuckling.

Oh, also Rogue One is an absolutely brilliant, kick-ass entry into the series. Maybe I should have opened with that.

Setting the movie directly before A New Hope means, among other things, no Jedi appear in the picture. While that does severely limit the lightsaber combat we get to enjoy, it also means the filmmakers are finally free of the burden of the mystical side of Star Wars. That's still in here, largely thanks to Donnie Yen's character, but it's no longer the central point of the movie. In other words, they finally get to do something other than rehash The Hero's Journey.

This is especially fortunate, because there's a vastly unexplored aspect to the Star Wars movies: namely, the "wars" part. The Clone Wars series did a good job with this, but the films have always steered clear of anything resembling a war movie. Until now, that is. At last, we get a taste of a soldier's eye-view of battles on distant worlds. We get a sense of what's at stake when there aren't wizards wielding energy swords there to bail everyone out, and it's extremely refreshing.

For once, we get a little nuance to the heroic rebels and sinister empire narrative we've seen until now. Well... at least we get some nuance to the rebellion - the Empire remains pretty unambiguously evil. But the "good guys" do bad things in this movie. They make mistakes, act out of fear, and even kill innocent people. There are finally shades of grey presented to the conflict.

The cast is terrific, and the new characters are fantastic additions to the series. It's hard to pick favorites, but K-2SO was absolutely wonderful as a very different droid than the ones we're used to. In addition, Yen's Chirrut Îmwe stood out as the closest thing they had to a Jedi.

The movie's weak points mostly show up when it lets nostalgia get the better of it. Some of the new Vader stuff is cool, but there was something off about his outfit. Also - and it seriously pains me to type this - they could have found a better voice actor. James Earl Jones sounds very different today than he did four decades ago, and it's jarring. Not as jarring as the CG-recreated Tarkin, though - they either needed to put in more time and effort or find another way to recreate him (or, hell, only shoot him reflected in glass windows - those shots were fine).

Likewise, the movie should have skipped the big space battle at the end and resolved everything on ground level. The X-Wings were cool when they showed up mid-film, but the giant space battle felt out of place and a touch redundant.

Those are minor issues, though - overall, this was a fantastic genre film that expanded the Star Wars universe and hopefully opened the door for them to explore other sub-genres and different types of stories. There's room in that setting for spy movies, horror, gangster flicks, love stories, giant monster movies, and just about anything else you can think of - I'd watch them all.

But for now, this was a really, really good start. It's nice to finally have a Star Wars prequel worth watching.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Movie Review: Doctor Strange

The consensus on Rotten Tomatoes seems to be that Doctor Strange's awesome visual effects make up for a formulaic script - that the movie's cooler than it is good. I completely agree with the first half, that the movie is gorgeous and fascinating to behold. But frankly, I think critics are being too harsh on the script, which offers some incredibly satisfying twists and deviations from the typical superhero origin story.

That's not to say it's unrecognizable as a Marvel origin, nor that it doesn't have its share of familiar story beats. But that's really more a critique of Strange's creators, Steve Ditko and Stan Lee: for better or worse, there are a lot of repeated themes and concepts in 1960's Marvel heroes. Sure, Doctor Strange and Tony Stark are both arrogant geniuses who sustain life-altering injuries that lead them down a path to becoming heroes. And, yes, they've even got similar facial hair.

I don't begrudge critics - particularly those who weren't prepared for these commonalities - from maybe tuning out a bit at this point and writing the story off as generic comic book nonsense and enjoying the eye candy. But if you peer a little closer, you might notice some fairly big differences.

While Tony Stark started out as a weapons inventor, Doctor Strange was a surgeon, and both his outlook and strategies proceed from that origin. It's difficult to overstate how his distaste for violence permeates his decisions, even in combat. Simply put, he's not a fighter, even after learning the basics, and that fact alone offers a breath of fresh air.

Go in accepting that there are superficial similarities between Strange and other Marvel heroes, and you'll have an easier time catching the more nuanced shifts in this adaptation. The movie kind of fast-forwards to Doctor Strange's induction into the mystic arts, anyway, at which point it definitely stops feeling like a retread.

Even if you disagree that the writing was solid (at least for big-budget entertainment), I can't imagine not being impressed by the bells and whistles. The magic on display is well thought out, delivering the bizarre surrealism of the comics. Physics become playthings, as does spacial geometry. Forget Inception - that movie's simple games with space and time are tame in comparison.

No less importantly, Marvel has once again dramatically scaled up the scope of their universe. If I have once complaint with Doctor Strange, it's that it felt like it barely teased the richness of this new corner. I want monsters, demons, spirits... all of it. Doctor Strange was fairly limited in its depiction of the denizens of its multiverse, but it certainly feels like the doors are wide open.

I doubt many of you need convincing, but this is absolutely worth a trip to the theater.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Custom Krypto and Streaky

Several years ago, I made a custom Ace, the Bat-hound, using a cheaply acquired, unarticulated plastic toy dog. I'd intended it to be the first of several custom super-pets - at the time, I'd planned on delving a lot further into custom toys (hence the blog geared in that direction).

I soon had bases for both Krypto and Streaky, the pals for Superman and Supergirl, respectfully. I sculpted on capes for them and then...

...Then I was moving cross-country, I was busy with other projects, and Krypto and Streaky got lost and forgotten in the bottom of a plastic tub.

I came across them a few weeks ago.

These are new images: if I ever had truly "before" pictures, I lost them a long time ago. The sculpted capes were done years ago, but the collars on both are new.

I did a full repaint on Krypto. I probably should have on Streaky, too, but I decided what he had was good enough (i.e.: I was lazy). The symbols on the backs of their capes are stickers: the one on Krypto's collar is painted.

Technically, the color scheme on the symbols on their capes is inverted: the 'S' and the outline should be yellow, while the interior should be red. I considered trying to repaint these before applying or even just paint from scratch, but I didn't trust myself to get it right, so I just went with the stickers. Again, lazy.

Krypto's cape is removable; Streaky's is part of him now. I'm generally happy with how these came out. Like with Ace, the fact I'm starting with a figure displaying animal (as opposed to heroic) behavior, leaves them looking more pet than super... and that's what I wanted. It highlights the absurdity of the concept, which is really what I love about these characters.

No promises, but this might not be the last super-pet I make. I'd love to add both Beppo and Comet to the collection, if I can find the time.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Open Letter to Hasbro

Dear Hasbro Executives,

Over the past few years, you've been hit pretty hard over issues of representation in your toy lines. While some of this was a tad exaggerated (I thought you did a decent job on Episode VII), a lot of the criticism was fair. Making Slave Leia the first woman in the Star Wars Black line then waiting years to produce a second is a good example of a serious misstep.

But that's been covered elsewhere - most of your shortcomings have. That's not what this is about.

I'm writing this to draw attention to the fact that, over the past couple of years, you've dramatically improved your assortment of minority and female characters, particularly in your Marvel Legends line, and I don't think we've given you the credit you deserve.

For a few years now, almost every wave I've seen has included at least two female characters (out of six or seven total, for anyone not familiar with these things). There were a few exceptions, but this seems to have become the new default for the line. That's about double what we were getting a few years ago.

The X-Men wave that just hit store shelves contained three women - Rogue, Phoenix, and Kitty Pryde. All of them are awesome.

The fire stand was made by a different company - I just liked the way this photo came out.

More than that, we're seeing some diversity. I just picked up Miles Morales, Silk, and the Ashley Barton Spider-Girl. Half that wave was devoted to characters of color, two of whom were women. As a collector who wants a more diverse collection, these are of course more interesting. Far more importantly, I can only imagine how wonderful it must be for non-white kids to finally find themselves represented in the superhero section.

I wanted to write this because I haven't seen a lot of acknowledgement towards the outstanding work you're doing, and I feel like that's just as important as criticizing what you do poorly. So, thank you. This is fantastic.

Of course, there's more that needs to be done. I'd encourage you to revisit the bodies you're using for female characters - they're much more sexualized than the men (maybe back off the sculpted buttocks and arched backs). And there's still the imbalance over in Star Wars (I'm still waiting for that promised 6-inch New Hope Leia, and I'd love to see an Episode VII General Organa and Maz Kanata, while you're at it).

To be fair, I'm not helping with the pose.

But, setting that aside, I wanted you to know your work's appreciated by a lot of geeks out here. We've been asking for a better assortment of figures for years, and you've clearly been listening. This is a huge step forward.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Pilot Review: The Tick

Amazon recently produced a pilot for a rebooted live-action version of the The Tick, and if you're a Prime member, you can watch it for free. Supposedly, they're going to base their decision whether to move forward on the feedback.

Before I offer my thoughts, here's a little background. My introduction to the character came through the brilliant 90's animated series, which is best described as a comedic spin on silver age super-heroics. To me, this will always be the definitive version of the character.

But of course it wasn't the first: The Tick was a comic book before it was a cartoon show. I've read a handful of story lines from that over the years - I like it, even if I find the cynical tone a bit off-putting. The comics feel more like a parody than an homage, and while the writing is funny (extremely funny, to be fair), attempts to simply make fun of the absurdity of the genre rarely work as well as celebrations. There are quite a few reasons for this, but the most notable is that comics readers and writers are perfectly aware of how absurd the premises are, and comics have explored that internally since the beginning. In my opinion, The Tick worked better as a superhero operating in a humorous setting than he did as a joke mocking superheroes.

There was also a short-lived live-action sitcom in 2001 starring Patrick Warburton. I saw about half of the episodes at the time and caught the rest years later on DVD. The show started out a bit mixed, but it improved as it went. I'd have loved to see what they'd have done with a second season: it wasn't a perfect show, but it was certainly fun to see superheroes operating in a sitcom environment.

I think most of us expected Amazon's reboot to follow in its predecessor's footprints - I certainly did. Perhaps I should have stopped and considered the trend, however: the one constant in every new incarnation of The Tick has been a complete overhaul of the tone and direction. The Amazon show reused some jokes from earlier versions, but it was an entirely different creation.

More specifically, this was closer to Netflix's Marvel shows than it is to any version of The Tick that's existed previously. Hell, there might be some Birdman in this thing.

The first indication things weren't going to proceed as expected came from the rating: TV-14 for violence and language. And it's easy to see why - while The Tick's sole fight scene was pretty harmless, the pilot features a rather brutal flashback sequence where a group of heroes are executed. In addition, the world this is set in is gritty and realistic, in spite of the presence of caped heroes and villains.

The episode's (and possibly the series's) main super-villain is colorful and zany, but he comes off more scary than whimsical. If anything, he feels like an extremely accurate version of a generic super-villain from comics: ridiculous in theory, but horrifying up close.

The Tick, however, seems to grasp none of this. Peter Serafinowicz channels Adam West, playing the character as if unable to recognize the world he inhabits isn't Gotham circa 1966. The effect is certainly funny, but it's almost more troubling. It feels as if something is deeply, truly wrong.

Which it almost certainly is. The Tick isn't the main character - that's Arthur, and his backstory has some legitimately tragic elements. The show implies heavily that The Tick may be a manifestation of Arthur's subconscious. Maybe that's a red herring, but questions around the nature of reality and sanity permeate the pilot.

It's certainly an unexpected direction to go in with a character who's always been more slapstick than anything else. But grounded exploration of superhero worlds is something I love, and this has more tolerance for the more colorful aspects of the genre than almost anything I've seen.

My largest complaint is that they based this on The Tick, rather than create new characters. I don't mind the radical reinvention - I just find the retreading of situations a bit tiring (we've seen The Tick wreck Arthur's apartment looking for secret levers a few too many times now). Still, I'll deal with reliving old jokes if that's the price for a weird superheroic dark comedy/psychological drama.

Here's hoping this odd, intriguing series gets picked up.

Movie Review: Kubo and the Two Strings

I was ultimately a little disappointed by this movie, but that's more a factor of my expectations than anything else. Between the trailers and the movie's Freshness rating in the high 90's, I was expecting to walk out with this firmly placed in my #1 spot for the year. Ultimately, I think it's trending somewhere between #4 and #6, which is still impressive given the volume of phenomenal genre movies released in 2016.

On visuals alone, this movie does even better. The animation in this is absolutely stunning. It's easily one of the most beautiful stop-motion productions in history, surpassing everything in Laika's already astonishing catalog in this category. The monsters in this movie are incredible to behold and even more incredible to consider. The scale on some of these is almost inconceivable (stick around during the credits for a taste of what went into creating this movie).

My issue definitely wasn't with how things looked, nor was it with the plot. The premise and plot were both solid, and the characters's motivations and obstacles were constructed well. The element that didn't quite click for me was tone, which felt extremely uneven to me. It was trying to be everything: a mythic fantasy adventure, an exciting samurai tale, a dark horror, an emotional drama, and a light comedy. It's possible to blend that many tones into a movie, but it requires everything to be on-point. If there's a single weak link, the movies breaks apart.

The weak link, at least in my opinion, was the comedy. The jokes just didn't work for me - I found the endless string of gags about Beetle's memory more cloying than funny, and it kept pulling me out of the story. Likewise, there were some key moments where the movie held back from exploring the more traumatizing aspects of the plot - missed opportunities for reflection and depth.

That said, Kubo is definitely worth checking out in the theaters. The movie goes to some dark places with its villains, particularly the pair of witches. These are some of the most striking antagonists in the history of animation, and I expect them to endure in both film history and the nightmares of kids taken to see this.

Likewise, the action is fantastic. The fight on the boat of leaves is one of the most imaginative animated fantasy action sequences I've ever seen: it's simply incredible.

My assumption is that the comedy was present to appeal to kids, and I'd rather have gotten this beautiful movie with that caveat than not have gotten it at all. If you're a fan of genre and animation, you need to see this on the big screen - I wish they'd exercised more restraint when it came to the tone, but it's still one of the most beautiful films of the year.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Movie Review: Pete's Dragon

Pete's Dragon is a good movie, but you should probably know what you're getting. If I'd had a better grasp of what I was in for, I think I'd have waited for this to show up on Netflix. That's not to say this is something everyone should avoid at the theater, but its target audience is much narrower than most of Disney's recent releases.

To me, the trailers implied something mythic, something primal. And while the movie delivered a solid kid's adventure/drama, it didn't pull off more than that. A few years ago, that might have been enough to earn a more enthusiastic recommendation, but the past few years have given us Paddington, Inside Out, Zootopia, Finding Dory, and most significantly, The Jungle Book: my expectation is that "family entertainment" should be better than films aimed at adults, not worse, and if Disney has a problem with that, they mostly have themselves to blame.

I don't want to imply this will come off as offensive or obnoxious to adults: on the contrary, it's enjoyable enough. But coming out the same year as The Jungle Book makes it virtually impossible to ignore the similarities. Hell, there's a sense in which the story is a spiritual sequel to The Jungle Book. The premise is largely built around a boy, raised in the wilderness, returning to civilization - it's more or less pulled from one of the stories in The Jungle Book Disney hasn't gotten around to yet. On top of that, it's hard not to compare the CG Elliott to the animals in The Jungle Book. And while Elliott is all sorts of cute, he falls far short, as does his movie. While the Jungle Book felt like an evolution in film making, this felt regressive. Set aside the effects, and this could have been made in the 80's or 90's.

To be fair, some of that was intentional. This was definitely a throw-back to the 80's adventure flicks - think ET and Neverending Story. It even seemed ambiguously set in the 80's, judging by the lack of technology. The themes fit that template as well: the importance of family and a vague environmental message.

The movie's tone struck a good balance, and avoided most of the major pitfalls. It deserves credit for taking its premise seriously. Likewise, they refrained from making any of the characters evil - the film's antagonist doesn't come off as irrational or cruel: he's a man who sees an opportunity and pursues it in a manner that's perfectly reasonable, from his perspective. Karl Urban does an impressive job juggling his role in the plot with his character's much less sinister motives.

All the actors do solid work, in fact. Unfortunately, they're held back by the script, which is frustratingly mediocre. Note I didn't say bad: the movie makes no cardinal sins, but it rarely exceeds expectations. The trailers implied something powerful: a complex adventure bogged down with the complexities of an impossible situation. But everything comes off feeling a little too simplistic in the movie.

On top of that, this has the distinct feeling of a movie developed by committee. A better committee than usually gets assigned to this sort of project, but a committee nonetheless. The movie reveals Elliott to the audience in the first few minutes and makes him a major character, even when he and Pete are separated almost immediately. To then play up the mystery around the dragon feels forced.

I think there could have been a better movie in this, perhaps one using Bryce Howard's character as the POV instead of Pete. As it is, she's pretty much wasted in this role: her character is present, but she rarely feels like anything more than an object. This time, she's playing a motherly lamp instead of a sexy one, but it's the same problem she had in Jurassic World - she's a better actress than the script demands.

Despite the script, the movie's enjoyable enough. If you're the parent of a six year-old boy, you'll likely be much happier with this than 90% of what your kid makes you sit through. For the rest of us, it's a good enough movie for a Tuesday night on Netflix, but I'm not sure you need to rush out to the theater to see it. It's good, but there are far better options available.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Movie Review: Suicide Squad

Suicide Squad is currently sitting at 26%, which is one point below Batman v Superman. Just like with BvS, I walked into the theater will extremely low expectations. But unlike BvS, Suicide Squad exceeded those expectations. This movie has issues - I understand why critics panned the hell out of it - but speaking as a fan of superheroes, I enjoyed this quite a bit.

My impression is that most critics go into a movie wanting a coherent story where every character and element serves some purpose, be it thematic, plot, or tonal. Suicide Squad doesn't do that. It doesn't even come close to doing that: the story line makes very little sense, half the characters are superfluous, and massive subplots could be culled without negatively impacting the film.

Like Iron Man 2, Suicide Squad is more about world-building than storytelling. Katana's a good example: her role in this makes absolutely no sense from a traditional filmmaking perspective. She gets only superficial development, she undergoes no real character arc, and serves no purpose beyond looking badass and cutting down some monsters. But she's a pretty well-executed take on Katana, and now she exists in the DCEU.

Keep in mind, I love Iron Man 2. I love comic book universes, and I'm always up for seeing them brought to life on the screen. I can appreciate carefully balanced, minimalist story telling, but I don't need it. If a movie's goal is to build a cool universe at the expense of story and character, I'm game.

And unlike Batman v Superman, this delivers a universe that feels like the comics it's based on. Not every character is perfect, but they get enough right to make up for their shortcomings.

Let's get a little more granular. By my count, the movie knocked two major characters out of the park: Harley Quinn and Amanda Waller. Robbie's take on Quinn was good enough to make me overlook the fact she only wore the iconic jester suit for a few seconds. I love that suit, and I barely missed it, because the character's personality and humor were perfect. Margot Robbie's been pursuing a Quinn-centered film built around some of the DCU's female superheroes: this makes one of hell of a case that movie should exist.

Likewise, Viola Davis wouldn't have been my first pick for Waller, who's meant to be a much heavier woman. But, once again, the personality is perfect: Davis channels the Wall's strength, confidence, and ruthlessness. She was fantastic in this.

Will Smith's Deadshot is a little more complicated. I liked the character on screen well enough, but it wasn't Floyd Lawton. The abilities were there, but they wanted someone more redeemable than the character from the comics. In the scheme of things, I can live with that - does anyone really care that they remade Deadshot?

While we're on the subject of characters who were done well, let's take a moment and breathe a sigh of relief at the Batman scenes. In about a minute of screen time, Batman displayed far more compassion than we saw in all of Batman v Superman. This time, they got him right.

On the other end of the spectrum, you've got the Joker. I think most of us cringed when we saw the first images of Leto's Joker, but we hoped for the best. Hell, the early images of Ledger's Joker didn't fill us with confidence, either: we had to see him in action to appreciate what they were going for.

But Leto is no Heath Ledger. There were a few interesting choices around him (I love that the Terrible Trio had a cameo as some of his henchmen), but overall he was just uninspired and dull. It didn't help that the character was constrained by the movie's rating to the point of incoherence. There's a scene early on supposedly establishing how terrifying and brutal he is that ends without establishing anything other than the fact the movie was badly edited. But even setting that aside, the character spent every second on screen looking angry. The Joker is supposed to be scary because of his sense of humor. Take that away, and you've missed the joke entirely.

The Joker's presence is also extremely problematic thematically. It's hard not to interpret the movie's ending as affirming the love he shares with Harley Quinn. Given that their relationship started with him manipulating then literally torturing her, that's a big issue. Fans of the comics and the 90's animated series will know this is anything but true love, but that really should have been made clearer in the movie itself.

If you overlook that and the fractured plot, bizarre editing, messy plotting, and the host of other issues, it's actually a fun bit of comic book mayhem. It's decades late, but we finally get the DCU on screen in a meaningful way, and - for me, at least - that was enough.

Well, that and Harley Quinn. I can't stress enough how good Robbie is in this. She may be dressed like the New 52 version, but she's channeling the character right out of the Batman animated series.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Movie Review: Star Trek Beyond

In hindsight, I should have had more faith in Justin Lin. He did, after all, direct three of the best episodes from Community's first season. If you don't think that's a sufficient litmus test for Trek, you haven't seen enough Community.

Of course, he's better known as the guy who directed half of The Fast and The Furious franchise, but I've yet to see any of those. I've heard there's a lot of relationship building and cooperation. If so, it was a good call.

Because that's what makes this movie such a success. I like the first two installments of the new Trek series, but they were extremely focused on Kirk and Spock. The other characters got cameos and moments to shine, but structurally they were closer to buddy cop movies than anything with a team dynamic.

This one shuffles the deck, putting the entire bridge crew in play and letting them team up in interesting configurations. One of my biggest complaints of the first two films was that McCoy, one of the three most significant characters of the original series, had been almost completely sidelined. This oversight is finally corrected - he's paired up with Spock this time, who actually may have drawn the short straw in Beyond. Spock's still given some great lines and moments, but this definitely wasn't his movie. He's a member of the crew, not the co-star, which buys them time to let everyone else prove their worth, both on their own and as part of a whole.

If, like me, you've been wanting to see Uhura be more effective, you're going to pretty happy with her scenes. Same goes for Sulu, who has some great moments. And there's no surprise that Scotty gets some screen time: he co-wrote the movie, after all. They also bring in a great new character in Jayla, who I suspect will be appearing in future installments, as well as a fascinating one-off villain in Krall.

You've likely heard Beyond is more evocative of the original show than its predecessors. I'd describe that as partially true. My assumption is that's based on the movie's emphasis on teamwork, which is built into the core of Beyond. There's a bit of social commentary, but I'd argue that Into Darkness's message about drone warfare and militarization checked that box more fervently (whether or not that was a good thing is a separate issue).

Along with its focus on teamwork, Beyond also brings Starfleet closer to the one we know from the old days: the bleak, vaguely dystopian elements have been scrubbed away, returning us to a brighter tomorrow.

Visually, though, it's almost more reminiscent of the Next Gen movies. I suspect I'm not alone in cringing a bit at the trailers because of those associations. But this didn't turn out to be a bad thing - the brighter palette gave the cast and crew a chance to have fun, an element Into Darkness could have used a little more of.

None of this is to say that Beyond was all sunshine and roses. The body count climbs through the roof, and there's plenty of suspense, along with the humor and action. One of my few complaints is actually in this area: there were one or two more deaths than I'd have liked. A couple bit parts with more potential were snuffed out before their time - I suspect you'll know what I mean when you see the movie.

There were some other elements that could have used some work. Lin's proven his ability to work with a small group, but he could use some work on armies. Both the Enterprise's crew and Krall's minions seem to swell and shrink in size in bizarre ways. By my rough estimate, Krall must have tens of thousands at his command in space, but they just kind of vanish when the action moves planet-side. Are they all just hanging out inside their fighters for that time?

In addition, he's not quite on par with Abrams when it comes to setting up grand shots in space. But then Abrams could take lessons from Lin when it comes to capturing character dynamics, and that's more important in Trek, anyway.

I went into this deeply skeptical the franchise would be able to continue past this movie. After all, it was launched as sort of a Star Trek/Wars hybrid, only to see its auteur pulled away to create the Star Wars movie he wanted to make in the first place. But between an inspired script, excellent direction, and great acting, I'm cautiously optimistic this might pull in the fans it needs to continue its mission.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Movie Review: Ghostbusters

A lot of people call the original Ghostbusters a perfect movie. It deftly blends humor with genre, it contains numerous brilliant lines, and it has one of cinema's all-time best comic characters. More than that, it performs an act of hero building that's rarely been matched. The characters of Ghostbusters didn't exist before the movie came out, and by the time the end credits rolled, they were legendary.

But, for all that, the original Ghostbusters is not perfect. There are some slow bits, Rick Moranis's character is way too over-the-top, the dream scene is idiotic, Ray and Egon undergo little to no development, Winston is cut down to the point he feels almost unnecessary...

I think most people would admit most of these flaws exist; they just don't impact their enjoyment of the film. They love the movie so completely, the flaws fade to features. They wouldn't even want them changed. Because, intentionally or not, the movie is calibrated to work for them. It feels perfect, even if it isn't.

The absolutely astonishing thing about Paul Feig's Ghostbusters is that it does that, too. But it doesn't do it for the same people.

Let me back up. All that stuff I just said about the original, that's mainly for male viewers. That's not to say that women can't be die-hard fans and love the movie as much, but I think it's safe to assume most of the 1984 movie's most fervent followers are men. I also think it's safe to say they see something in one or more of the main characters (probably Venkmann) that they associated with themselves. It helps that the team is made up of underdogs and geeks: these are characters who remind us of ourselves.

Again, if we're men.

Watching the new Ghostbusters was a bit of an odd experience for me, at least for the first two-thirds. I liked it well enough during the build-up, but I certainly didn't love it. But the predominantly female audience in the packed theater loved it. They laughed, cheered, and applauded as if it was, well, Ghostbusters.

Part of it was the fact the main characters were women. Not super-models or athletes - flawed, funny women. Underdogs and geeks who reminded them of themselves. I'm not entirely sure how or when the movie duplicated the formula from 1984 - it was an entirely new plot - but must have. It achieved the same end result: building these characters into bona fide heroes.

That, more than anything, is why this movie earns the right to be Ghostbusters.

Okay. I guess I should tell you what I thought of the movie. The first two-thirds were fine, though a little weak. I found the humor mixed - there were some phenomenal jokes I loved, but plenty others just fell flat. The characters were likewise 50/50. I thought McCarthy and Wiig were a bit wasted in their roles, to be honest. Fortunately, Jones's Patty was more fun, and Hemsworth might have just gotten the role he was born to play.

Meanwhile, McKinnon was... McKinnon was...

Jesus Christ, I'm just going to come out and say it: Jillian McKinnon's Holtzmann is the greatest character in the franchise's history.

Go ahead. Let that sink in for a minute.

I also thought the movie overused comic relief, both for the leads (exempting McKinnon and Hemsworth) and for the minor characters. The tone for the first two-thirds was inconsistent, as well.

Then the movie reached its last act. This still wasn't precisely what I wanted, but damn, was it close. The fight sequence where the Ghostbusters take on the villain's minions is great until Holtzmann gets her turn in the spotlight. Then it transcends greatness.

Look, no one in this movie asks Holtzmann if she's a god, but if anyone ever does, the unambiguous, factual, indisputable answer is YES.

The fight's over faster than I'd like, but that would have been true if it had gone on for six hours.

So, all in all, I thought it was a good summer comedy with an amazing character. So, decent but not great. But to the mostly female audience I saw this with, it was a cultural milestone on par with the original.

Maybe this was just a good crowd. I suppose it could have just been a fluke. But, here's the thing. I've seen hundreds of movies in the theater. I saw Avengers opening day, Star Wars movies, you name it. And I've never seen a movie end and more or less the entire audience sit in their seats through the entire credits.

Until now.

I've seen movies before and walked out of the theater thinking it wasn't made for me (Mamma Mia springs to mind). This was different. I really liked this - it was still made for everyone, but it wasn't calibrated for me. This was calibrated for female audiences the way Fight Club, Conan, and the 1984 Ghostbusters were calibrated for men.

And it's about damn time.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Movie Review: Warcraft

The critics haven't been kind to Warcraft, and it's not hard to see why. The producers basically made a checklist of the things that critics typically expect out of a movie, then systematically made sure none of those were handled well. You want acting? A coherent story line? Explanations for what's happening? A self-contained plot? Not a chance.

But that doesn't mean the movie is all bad. Visually, it's a fascinating production, and there's a great deal of campy fun to be had. This is schlock fantasy, nothing more and nothing less. If sitting through two hours of that sounds like a chore, this isn't the movie for you.

Was it the movie for me? Honestly, I'm still trying to sort that out. I had fun with quite a lot of this, including a handful of scenes that were actually intended to be watched that way. One of the nicest things I can say about this is that some of the comedic moments managed to be funnier than the dramatic moments. It was a close call, but few movies manage to come close to that line without crossing over. It is, in fact, a delicate balancing act.

The movie is exceedingly weird. I went in expecting weird, but I wasn't prepared. If you think the trailers looked weird, you're in for a world of surprise. They throw new CG sets at you at a rapid-fire speed without offering any explanation for why you should care. I would estimate there were something like five or six elaborate locations which appeared briefly and where nothing significant occurred. Keep in mind, my estimate might be off by a few hundred.

Also, some major characters die without actually contributing much to the plot. It's difficult to overstate how jarring this is: these are characters who seemed like the main characters, only to wind up fridged to set-up what I assume will be the fifth or ninth movie. Meanwhile, nothing much is resolved or dealt with at the end of the movie. You kind of get the feeling that every surviving character, including the film's antagonist, walks away having no idea what the hell just happened. Even more so than the audience.

In other words, this was not plotted like a Hollywood production.

Is that a bad thing? It depends what you want to get out of this. If you want anything resembling a complete story, you can forget it. If you want the first installment of what may be a dozen films chronicling the history of an unapologetically generic fantasy world, you're going to be much happier.

But, again, you're not really going to find much in the way of characters to pull you through this. The movie provides, by my count, four POV characters. The least significant of which seems to be the driving force behind the theme of the movie, which - and I'm at least half serious here - seems to be that it's awesome if you want to play video games for weeks on end, but it's really important you play multiplayer with your friends.

That's what I got out of it, anyway.

Beyond that, there's a great deal to like and dislike. The magic's cool, some of the fights are neat, the CG's decent... you know the drill. On the other hand, I'm not sure I can think of teeth more distracting in a movie than the half-orc's perfectly aligned, white chompers. Seriously - everyone else has tusks, while she could get work as a spokesperson for Crest.

What else? They tried making the orcs believable by basing them off a real-world culture. Only someone forgot to tell them that Klingons aren't real. Eh, that's fine. I like Klingons.

If you want this boiled down further, I'm happy to oblige. In my opinion, this was as good as Underworld: Rise of the Lycans. And I mean it was exactly as good; no better, no worse. Eerily so.

If you're still torn on whether to check this out before it leaves the last theater in town forever, I'm afraid you're on your own. It's an extremely dumb, but kind of fun, ridiculously absurd fantasy movie about warring nations. Only, again, it's really about working with your friends to beat the next level.

That's basically something someone says in this movie. I'm not even making this up.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

We Need to Talk About the Anthropomorphic Elephant in the Room

I've seen nine movies in the theater so far this year, and I can't help but notice the four best are all made by the same company.

Disney. I'm talking about Disney. Obviously.

Before you assume I'm only looking at this subjectively, three of the four Disney movies in question are also the top three highest grossing movies of 2016 so far (the fourth, Finding Dory, is almost certainly going to join them soon enough). Also, all of these movies have a Freshness rating at or above 90%.

Oh, and I'm not even considering The Force Awakens, which opened late in 2015 and made a ton of cash both years. That's at 92% Fresh, incidentally.

Disney's making more money faster than their competition, and they're doing it far more efficiently. Year-to-date, Disney's commanding 32% of the market share with nine movies. WB can't manage half that with 21 movies.

Okay, there are caveats and forces and side notes and all that... but those are ultimately excuses. The simple fact is that Disney's making vastly superior movies than the other studios, at least looking at high-budget, effects-heavy productions.

I think that's an important distinction - there are, I'm sure, numerous phenomenal low-budget, award worthy movies being made across the board. Hell, Disney might even be behind the curve on that. But I'm focusing on the blockbusters: things budgeted at and/or raking in hundreds of millions of dollars. The event films, love them or hate them, are what the movie industry exists to produce.

Disney's not just dominating this category: no one is seriously even challenging them. WB's closest attempt was the dull, pointless Batman v Superman. 27% of critics were generous enough to give it a pass, and it made what may be the bare minimum possible for a movie commanding that kind of IP. Enough for the executives to argue it's not a total failure; not enough to beat the worldwide haul of The Jungle Book.

Look back over the last few years and it becomes clear this isn't a new phenomenon. There's the occasional exception, like Fury Road, but for the most part, there's only one company that delivers movies that are both high grossing and well reviewed, and that's Disney. Sure, they've got their missteps (Age of Ultron had some serious issues), but they're the one company that seems to be on an upswing.

To their credit, I feel like Fox is at least staying in the game. But it's notable their highest grossing movie so far this year, Deadpool, is one they tried their damndest not to make. It only got greenlit when the test footage was leaked, and even then its budget was hilariously low.

In other words, even when they produced it, Fox bet against it. They were expecting to make a fortune on X-Men: Apocalypse and Independence Day: Resurgence. While both these movies were bailed out by Chinese audiences, neither performed up to expectations. That should be a massive red flag that the people at the top don't know what they're doing.

Meanwhile, with the exception of Alice Through the Looking Glass (which was also saved by China), Disney's having a flawless year. Every big-budget production they've released has been critically and commercially successful.

I find it remarkable that their rivals seem complacent in the face of all this. The industry's falling apart, and Warner Bros is producing movies like last year's Pan. That approach isn't going to fly anymore.

If other studios want to compete anywhere near Disney's level, they need to take a long, hard look at every step of their process. Otherwise, we're going to quickly reach a point where it won't matter what the movie is - audiences will learn to skip anything that's not from the House of Mouse.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Movie Review: Finding Dory

Finding Dory is the third Disney movie featuring talking CG animals released in 2016 so far, and the third to exceed my expectations. If you haven't seen it yet, I'll tell you it's surprisingly intelligent, extremely entertaining, and hilarious. It returns to the world and characters of Finding Nemo, and even uses a superficially similar premise, but the movie doesn't rehash the same story or concepts. It could have - I don't think anyone would have complained if it reused the same epic adventure template that made the first a success, despite the fact it would have felt a little like a cash grab. But it didn't feel like Finding Dory was conceived as a cash grab: it felt like they saw an opportunity to tell a different story.

And, if you haven't seen the movie, that's your cue to stop reading until you've rectified that. From here on out, we're crossing into deeper waters. And spoilers lurk within these depths.

While its predecessor was an external adventure - a father's odyssey where he overcame obstacles in an attempt to get his son back - Dory's journey is primarily internal. Marlin and Nemo have a B-plot in which they're looking for her, but this is a red herring (or clown fish or whatever). This is a movie about Dory finding herself.

In a lot of ways, Finding Dory is as much a companion piece to last year's Inside Out as it is a follow-up to Nemo. Only while Inside Out was about emotion, Finding Dory explores memory and identity. Symbolism is used heavily, with dark depths standing in for lost memories, coral reminiscent of folding brain tissue, and even the music evoking firing neurons.

But while there's a cerebral aspect to Finding Dory, the movie also provides zany antics, ridiculous characters, and a little excitement. On top of the cognitive science, there's a sort of heist/escape movie going on, centered around a Marine Life Institute in California. Despite the film's layered themes, this is one of Pixar's most cartoonish productions - they play much faster and looser with animal behavior, appearance, and abilities than they did in Nemo. A few minor characters feel more like they wandered in from a rival studio, but the movie does a good enough job developing relationships to avoid any issues.

Without a question, the movie's break-out star is Hank, an octopus who just wants to retire and live in a tank somewhere. He's grumpy and timid, but he's also something of a master escape artist, able to infiltrate anywhere on land or sea.

Sigourney Weaver's minor role is also fantastic (not to mention reminiscent of her part in Wall-E). I hope Pixar finds a way to slip her into more movies in a similar fashion. With all due respect to Pixar's good luck charm, I'd have a lot more fun trying to spot Weaver's cameos than Ratzenberger's.

If I had to log a complaint, it would be that Marlin's story felt wedged in here. He essentially winds up having to grow and develop in almost the same way he did in part one. His scenes were still fun, but it was the one part of the movie that felt redundant.

Asking whether Finding Dory rises to the heights of Finding Nemo is the wrong question. Wisely, Andrew Stanton didn't try to compete with the classic. Instead, he saw elements in the character of Dory that could support a very different movie and offer a completely different experience. This was a great film that exploited our affection for the character of Dory and delivered an entertaining, thought-provoking story.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Give Us Your Worst, Part 28: Fantastic Four (2015)

Welcome to the twenty-eighth installment in my ongoing series exploring despised superhero movies. If you'd like a better explanation, I'll refer you to my 2011 introduction post expanding on the concept.

There have been four attempts at adapting the Fantastic Four for the screen, and to date none of them have been good (if you seek wordplay or puns, try elsewhere - I take my responsibilities more seriously than that). At nine percent, this is the lowest-rated movie in its franchise by a factor of three. I skipped this in theaters last year but it finally showed up in my Netflix queue.

First of all, this movie is underrated. It's not good, but it's easily the best movie ostensibly about the Fantastic Four that's been made. I can't quite bring myself to say it's the "best Fantastic Four movie," because that would necessitate equating the characters in this movie to Marvel's first family. And, while this is the best film, it's the furthest from an accurate adaptation, at least of the classic incarnation of the team.

These aren't the FF, and this isn't a superhero movie. It's a science fiction film where the characters get powers halfway through, and the movie falls apart as a result.

Until then, I actually thought it was pretty good. It opens with Reed and Ben as kids. At this point, the movie feels like an 80's adventure story - think ET or Goonies - which is a fairly inspired way to re-imagine Reed Richard's childhood. Unfortunately, we only spend a few minutes with this before jumping ahead to them as young adults.

The movie doesn't lose all its energy yet - as it introduces the new Sue, Johnny, and Victor, it swerves into standard SF material. None of these characters resemble their comic alter egos, but they're likable enough as scientists in a cheesy genre movie.

It's when they get transformed that things take a quick turn for the worst. The plot falls apart, and the characters stop being interesting. As the movie careens towards a contrived and ultimately meaningless action sequence where the fate of the world hangs in the balance, it becomes tedious and dull. There are a few moments when the action and effects offer an interesting image or sequence, but not nearly enough.

I remember rumors that this production was marred by studio interference and altered plans - I can't imagine that wasn't the case. It felt like someone had a vision for what this could be, but that whatever that vision was, it got dissected by committee. There was no way this was ever going to be a perfect adaptation, but it could have been a solid re-imagining. For a while, it was exactly that, but it couldn't sustain that level of quality past the first act.

Instead, we're left with something that's hard to pin down. It's nowhere near as bad as its 9% score suggests, but it's not some sort of misunderstood gem, either. It's a movie that's got very little reason for existing - obviously, Fox was trying to keep the rights, but they had no interest in the classic version of the team. They turned to the Ultimate Fantastic Four for inspiration, then used it as an excuse to cast young actors. But the Fantastic Four were about nostalgia when Stan Lee made them in the early sixties - the name itself rejects attempts to modernize it. The hilariously pitiful box office response demonstrates that. If the world wants a Fantastic Four movie, it wants one that pays homage to the team's roots.

Hopefully, Fox will toss in the towel and hand the rights back over to Marvel, so we can finally get a decent cinematic version of the team and their nemesis. I'm sick to death of these technorganic monstrosities sullying the name of Victor von Doom.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Movie Review: X-Men: Apocalypse

While calling X-Men: Apocalypse the third best Marvel movie released in 2016 so far is technically the same as calling it the worst, I think the nuance is important. This has been an extremely good year for comic movies which don't involve Batman attempting to murder Superman because he thinks their moms have different names. Coming in behind Civil War and Deadpool is nothing to be ashamed of.

As a whole, movie critics are fairly split on this one - it's absurdly close to 50% on Rotten Tomatoes right now. My guess is the divide can probably be tied to whether or not the reviewers are familiar with the X-Men. I suspect if you've never picked up any of the comics or seen the various animated incarnations, your odds of enjoying this are going to be heavily diminished (though I'm sure some of the movie franchise's fans will still be happy enough).

This movie made mistakes, especially from a more critical perspective. There are character beats that feel misplaced, plot points that serve little purpose, and thematic elements that fall flat. If you want a comprehensive rundown of these errors, I'd suggest looking up a few reviews from actual movie critics. I won't dispute their claims - aspects of X-Men: Apocalypse's story absolutely grated on the writer in me - but the truth is I was more interested in something else.

And what is that? Well, I'm going to let me from two years ago explain. Here's a passage from my 2014 end-of-year wrap up when I talked about Days of Future Past, a movie I generally respected but that ultimately left me underwhelmed:
I loved a lot about this movie, but I feel like the X-Men franchise has been fifteen years of build-up without much payoff. I'm ready for something big and exciting, and I'm hoping Age of Apocalypse delivers that.
I'm happy to say that Apocalypse did, in fact, deliver some honest-to-goodness superheroic payoff. The stakes were huge, the fights were cool, and the sequences were operatic - in short, it was the opposite of Days of Future Past.

The price is that the opposite thing cuts both ways (with a psychic energy blade, no less). While Days of Future Past did solid work building a tense political thriller constructed around ethical dilemmas and philosophical differences, Apocalypse just kind of threw a ton of stuff against a wall to see what had the mutant power to stick.

But a lot of that stuff was really cool. There were moments in this I'd been waiting for since the first movie hit back in 2000. And, while not all of it met my expectations, enough did to make up for the rest.

Sure, there were plot-lines here that hurt the movie - hell, you could have cut every character whose name starts with an 'M' from this movie (Magneto, Mystique, Moira, and Magda) and been left with a stronger product. I'm a big fan of Magneto overall, but his story here just kind of drew attention away from the plot (though the effects around his powers were cooler than they've ever been). Also, the movie suffers from a timeline that doesn't fully accommodate all its actors - shouldn't Havok be 40? How old is Quicksilver now?

But, again, I'm sure you can read about such trifles in real reviews. I walked into this movie caring far more whether I got something that felt like the X-Men, and I was extremely happy with the result. Not as happy as I was with Civil War - this is still a Fox movie - but it was definitely a major step forward in terms of iconography, action, and premise.

My biggest complaint is that it sounds like Singer wants to jump ahead another decade. I'd rather he picked up with this team a year or two later. These are X-Men I really want to see.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Movie Review: The Nice Guys

The best thing about The Nice Guys is also its main flaw - this is a Shane Black movie. And, if we're going to be perfectly honest, his films are getting a bit redundant. Granted, redundancy is more forgivable when it's something worthwhile being repeated, but even so, I just couldn't shake the feeling I've seen this movie before.

Black clearly has a solid formula he likes working with. Almost every script he's written is a noir action/comedy revolving around two men who need to overcome their differences and their personal demons to solve a complex mystery. His movies almost always include a child who's unusually competent, and they typically amass a sizable body count of attractive young women in over their heads.

Just to reiterate, they're also always good. And The Nice Guys is no exception. The leads do fantastic work, the characters are great, the kid is awesome, and the 70's setting offers a much appreciated deviation. Plus the jokes are hilarious, and the mystery offers a good number of twists. This is a fun, complex movie with layers of thought. I caught dozens of side jokes and references, and I suspect I missed countless more.

But the caveat remains. I keep feeling like Black's spent most of his career revising and reusing the same ideas he put into Lethal Weapon. It's not necessarily a bad thing, but personally, I'd like to see him show a little more range. I'm glad the next two projects he's working on are Predator and Doc Savage: it's well past time he put his genius to work in other genres (and let's hope he actually does other genres this time - I like Iron Man 3 quite a bit, but it was still a noir action/comedy).

This movie - and maybe Black's career in general - has a somewhat mixed relationship with women. He's done a great job writing strong, interesting female characters. Angourie Rice plays Gosling's daughter in this, and she's probably the most consistently effective character in the entire movie. Likewise, there are some cool female villains, and even the movie's damsel is anything but passive.

But for better and worse, Black is very committed to the conventions of noir. The world of The Nice Guys contains a clear schism between noble innocence and corruption. The former, represented only by Rice's character, can do no wrong. In contrast, every single other woman given more than a few seconds of screen time is either revealed to be mentally unbalanced or evil. And quite a few of them die to move the plot forward. The movie opens with a brilliantly shot sequence examining how a woman's death impacts a young boy. I think the scene was moving and considered; there's an incredible depth of thought given to this moment. But the fact remains it's still all about how men see women.

I don't want to be unfair here - the men in this movie are are pretty consistently corrupted, too (the only innocent, idealistic character is that little girl), and there's a real argument to be made that he's justified in respecting the traditions of the genre. But, right or wrong, he doesn't leave the genre's tropes behind.

I don't think this is a major problem here. Aside from one random shooting with no consequences (you'll know it when you see it - it's significant in the moment, then never even mentioned again), the deaths are at least justified by moving the story forward. There's also one choice Black could have made differently in the resolution that would have at least started to bridge the innocent/corrupted schism and added in a nice twist, as well, but I won't dwell on one missed opportunity.

I hope I didn't overbalance the positive aspects of this movie while discussing my reservations. This was a great comedy/noir: if you're a fan of Shane Black's work, rest assured this is yet another wonderful installment. I had a lot of fun with this movie, as did my wife.

It isn't quite as good as Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, but The Nice Guy's lighter tone might make for a slightly more fun Friday or Saturday night movie.

Is this really something you need to see in the theater, though? That's a little harder to answer. If you love the genre, absolutely. But, if you don't feel like you missed much waiting for Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang to hit DVD, you can probably make the same call this time.