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.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Movie Review: Captain America: Civil War

You know when you saw Batman V Superman, and you didn't know who you wanted to win because they were both acting like petulant dicks? In Civil War, you don't know which side to take, because, at least through nine-tenths of the movie, everyone behaves fundamentally rationally. No, not just rationally: they behave like superheroes.

It's tempting to say this is the main difference between the two, but that's absurd. Basically, everything Batman V Superman did wrong, Civil War did right. Hell, the movie opens with a fairly routine fight against a minor villain and a bunch of henchmen that's easily better than every action scene in BvS put together.

I assume this is partially because the Russo's knew Batman V Superman was going to hit theaters first. They must have realized their film would be compared to it, so they must have poured extra energy into making something they can be proud of. One assumes they felt pretty stupid in March when they realized they could have just phoned it in. Ah, well: live and learn.

In case it wasn't clear by now, I really, really enjoyed this movie. Or, more accurately, movies - Civil War was basically two films in one. Half of it is a sequel to Winter Soldier, and the other half is an Avengers movie.

I definitely enjoyed the Winter Soldier sequel, though it was slow at times and maybe a tad too dreary. But who the hell cares, because the Avengers flick was damn near perfect.

If you've seen the trailers, you know who's in this. And you've probably also heard how good they are. Well, don't believe what you've heard - everyone's underselling the new characters.

Note that characters is plural. I'm not just talking about Spider-Man swinging in and stealing scenes (though, holy crap - I was not prepared for how perfect Holland would be). No less amazing is Boseman, playing Black Panther, the character I've most wanted to see on the roster since well before the first Avengers film.

This is a hard character to get right, especially with his origin wedged in the middle of someone else's movie. But the Russo's pulled it off. Just like they pulled off Falcon, Vision, Scarlet Witch, and everyone else. They stuffed this thing full of characters and made it look easy. Every crappy superhero movie that couldn't pull off three or four characters just got taken to school: this had twelve heroes and two villains, all balanced beautifully.

And, wedged in the middle, it offered a battle sequence that competes with the alien invasion at the end of the Avengers.

The movie has a few slow parts, but they serve to set up believable stakes. Like I said, you spend the vast majority of this movie completely buying everyone's motivations and drive. There's a moment near the end where they push this a bit, but even that feels like it's fair game.

This is what a superhero showdown is supposed to feel like. It has stakes, purpose, and consequences, without insulting the audience's intellect. It builds on years of history to deliver something both meaningful and fun.

Check it out if you haven't already.

And, *spoiler alert*: the movie ends with DC Comics getting their ass handed to them.