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.