Sunday, December 31, 2017

2017 Movies Revisited

2017 was a hell of a year for genre movies - quite possibly the best we've ever had (and, no, I'm not forgetting 1982). Horror, superheroes, and science fiction all seemed to grow up, for lack of a better term. We've gotten great films in all these genres before, but I don't think we've ever seen a volume of geeky movies this good before. Five of the seven big budget superhero movies released this year had Freshness ratings above ninety percent - a few years ago, that would have been unthinkable. But here we are.

As in past years, this list reflects my preference for the new movies I saw, from least to most favorite, NOT FROM WORST TO BEST. There are a few cases where I think movies are objectively better or worse than their placement on the list dictates - I try to point these out when I think it's important. But overall this whole exercise is so subjective, I find it works better to work from that premise.

There are a few bad apples I saw this year, but the vast number ranged from solid to fantastic. Of the twenty new releases I saw, I'd only call numbers 20 through 18 deeply flawed, and even these had redeeming qualities.

20. Alien: Covenant
Prometheus was a far worse movie, but in some ways it felt like less of a waste. This was just as pretentious, but it lacked the ambition of its predecessor. In the end, it felt like a low-budget horror script that somehow got a massive amount of money and a prestigious director.

It delivered very little of substance - no real scares, no excitement, and certainly nothing thoughtful (no matter what the director claims).

Still, it wasn't a total loss. Parts were fun, and Fassbender gave a great performance (A great performance, mind you - only one out of his two roles was interesting). More than that, the designs of the ship and aliens were solid.

19. Split
The hard part about Split is that it's much better if you don't know about the final twist, but until you know about that twist, I'm not sure why you'd bother watching it (I certainly only watched to see the ending play out). Even now, almost a year after its release, I'm keeping quiet in the off-chance there's anyone alive who hasn't been spoiled yet. If you were a fan of Shyamalan's early work, you should really consider watching this as soon as possible.

Otherwise... don't bother. Honestly, aside from the ending, the movie is essentially a less engrossing version of 10 Cloverfield Lane. Much less engrossing. Also, more offensive.

Yeah, McAvoy and Taylor-Joy were great, but you'll be putting up with some abysmal dialogue and a total dearth of narrative payoff: that's not worth it. The thing is, I'm under no illusion I wouldn't be singing a different tune if I'd seen this unspoiled. I'd have loved this movie and probably put it halfway down this list.

But, again, I did know - it's the only reason I gave Shyamalan another chance. And, for what it's worth, I'm still intrigued by the promise of another installment, despite the fact this one was pretty weak.

18. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Maybe my expectations were too high for this one. It definitely had some fun scenes, but I couldn't get over the blandness of the leads or the awful writing. The visuals were a nice distraction, but I didn't feel like they offered the same richness or depth we've gotten from other offerings in the genre.

I didn't need brilliant film-making from this, but I wanted something more engrossing than what I got. I appreciate that a lot of the elements we've seen in everything from Star Wars to Avatar were inspired (if not outright stolen) from Valerian and Laureline, but the adaptation still needs to outdo its predecessors on a few of those metrics if it wants to compete.

17. The LEGO Batman Movie
It's difficult to deny The LEGO Batman Movie was expertly realized, a fact reflected in both its high Freshness rating and in its box office success. It's not hard to see why - it's fun, the humor works, and it gets a lot of mileage out of its access to the DC Comics roster.

But in another sense, it's hard to ignore just how blatantly commercial this movie is, in every meaning of the word. To be fair, every blockbuster is greenlit in the hopes it will make money, but this one barely tried to disguise the fact. It's a toy advertisement, and unlike its predecessor, it doesn't bother being more.

As a wacky comedy, it's a solid enough way to kill an hour and a half. But at the end of that, I felt a little cheated. Usually I don't have to pay for the privilege of being sold something.

16.Justice League
This was a bad movie - I think everyone should be able to agree on that point. But, by and large, it was also a fun movie. If it hadn't been for the tedious stretch in the middle, I'd have placed this quite a bit further on the list.

Like Suicide Squad before it, Justice League fails as a coherent narrative but delivers some great characters. It's a far better movie than Suicide Squad, incidentally (though I don't think anyone pulled off a performance as inspired as Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn). More importantly, this may have corrected course and pointed us towards a brighter and more interesting DC Universe going forward.

15. My Little Pony: The Movie
This isn't the best story line My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic has delivered, but then it doesn't really try to be. Instead, it serves as an almost nonstop barrage of fun new characters and inventive fantasy settings. And, frankly, that's a far better use of the medium.

That said, I'm not entirely convinced this absolutely needed to be done as a movie instead of a multi-episode (or, hell, season-long) arc. That honestly might have been even better. But, if the studio was absolutely going to put this on the big screen, this was a great way to do it.

14. Kong: Skull Island
This is one of funnest giant monster movies I've seen in a while: it might even be the funnest America's ever produced. A case could be made for Pacific Rim, but that was a touch too self-serious, while Skull Island seemed to grasp its limitations from the start. This was never going to be an Oscar contender - wisely, it didn't pretend otherwise.

Yeah, it's kind of dumb. And, yeah, the human characters were two-dimensional caricatures of overused Hollywood tropes. But while there wasn't a lot of thought put into the character development, there seemed to be a great deal invested into every detail of the setting and monsters. Hell, the movie's refreshing spin on Kong's relationship - just friends this time - with Brie Larson's character was probably the most thought out in the film, and it was barely a side note.

In some ways, this was structured closer to a Jurassic Park movie than a King Kong remake. But Kong's been remade too many times as it is, and this was a much better Jurassic Park movie than Jurassic World.

This set achievable, modest goals and met them. It's not "best of year" material, but it was a few hours very well spent in the theater.

13. Baby Driver
I enjoyed Baby Driver much more as an experience than as a movie. Even then, it was a good movie - the story and characters were solid. Well, most of the characters. As I said in my review, Wright would be well advised to take some time and reflect on the female leads in his movies - it's a notable weakness in an otherwise phenomenal director's skill set.

The way the chases are put together is nothing short of stunning, though. Any one of them could serve as the high point in an action film. They're meticulously constructed, exciting, and fun, and they display a rare talent in an industry that's shifted away from this sort of expertise in favor of computer-generated tricks and shoddy editing.

That alone deserves recognition. But this list isn't about recognition: it's about personal preference. And the simple truth is I just didn't find Baby Driver as memorable as many of the other movies I saw this year.

12. Thor: Ragnarok
I assume I'd have liked this better if I hadn't gone in with such ridiculously high expectations. Even so, I enjoyed this pretty thoroughly start to finish. It was fun, the action scenes were great, and it embraced the comic book elements of its source material (I know this doesn't make something objectively better, but damned if I don't appreciate it).

But in a year with so many amazing superhero movies... it just struck me as a little underwhelming. Everything was a little too silly for my tastes. That doesn't mean I wanted it dark and grim, but I'd have liked some weight, particularly behind some of the losses. I'd also have preferred a more artistically satisfying tone or direction.

Again, this was still really, really good. If this had come out a few years earlier, it probably would have been in the running for my favorite movie of the year. But the genre has evolved since then, and this - while good - just didn't win me over like some of 2017's other offerings.

11. Coco
I've rarely been this torn over a movie. I devoted the majority of my review focusing on the film's problematic aspects, which is to say its depiction of women. While that bothered me quite a bit, I still found the movie fascinating and beautiful. The emotional beats were touching and the story worked.

It's just that 2017 was the wrong year to make a movie where women were objects and obstacles, and Pixar was the wrong studio to make it.

10. Colossal
This bizarre and fascinating movie was completely different than what I'd expected. From what I knew going in, I assumed it was a comedy/monster movie, but neither is really accurate. There are funny moments, but it's more drama than comedy and far more magical realism than monster movie. Sure, the genre elements being played with are kaiju, but the way they're approached is closer in spirit to Being John Malkovich.

Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis are both excellent in this movie, and writer/director Nacho Vigalondo does a fantastic job selling some extreme ideas as both believable and emotionally engaging.

I had a small quibble with a few seconds near the end that pushed this back a few spaces on this list, but overall I loved this movie.

9. Logan
Logan was a great superhero movie, but it was somewhat undermined by its lack of focus on the father/daughter relationship between Logan and Laura. This was central to the movie, but the decision to leave Laura silent through the first two thirds gave them little time to build anything believable or moving by the end.

Fortunately, we were left with a wonderful portrait of Logan at the end of his life, a kick-ass introduction of X-23, and some great moments and scenes. But a little more development could have elevated the movie's resolution to something truly meaningful.

8. Get Out
Just a reminder, this list is based on personal preference, not my opinion of the movie's quality. Because if it was based on "best," this would at least need to be in the top three (and quite possibly in #1) - it's a masterful work of genre storytelling. But that genre is horror, which I've just never loved the way I love fantasy, SF, or superheroes.

Even so, this one drew me in. It communicates a sense of alienation and dread as well as any movie I've ever seen. It approaches its themes earnestly and honestly, and as such never once feels heavy handed.

If you haven't seen this yet - even if you're not normally a fan of horror - track down a copy as soon as possible. It's absolutely brilliant.

7. War for the Planet of the Apes
The third installment in the Apes reboot/prequel series was an introspective psychological study of its lead character. The fact that character was a talking ape doesn't detract from the film's impact in the slightest. The movie commits to taking its world seriously and trusts its audience to do the same. As a result, we're given a genre film that plays out like a war drama.

I suppose I shouldn't have expected less. The new series has been great up to this point, with the second movie building and improving on the first. But War exceeded even these expectations: that's a stunning accomplishment.

6. Wonder Woman
Okay, the last act fell apart, but that happens in these movies; the rest of the film was damn near perfect. I loved the comedy, the romance, and action, and how expertly these were woven together. It was the first DCEU film that felt like a superhero movie - that's no small feat.

If the last act of this had maintained the quality of the first two, it really could have been a contender for the best of the year. As it is, it's still an absolutely phenomenal movie.

5. The Shape of Water
I spent the better part of the last hour trying to figure out where to place this bizarre, wonderful movie. At times, I was leaning as high as #2; others, I was thinking 9 or 10.

It would be higher if I was trying to name "best" instead of my favorite, but even preference isn't helping here. The amount I like The Shape of Water varies depending on how I'm thinking about it and how I define the word "like."

At any rate, this was a beautiful meditation on film and history. It deconstructs old movie tropes even as it celebrates them, examining the prejudices of the era that gave birth to those genres. And somehow, out of all that, it manages to assemble a compelling story and gorgeous film.

I enjoyed this immensely.

4. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
God, I love this movie.

To me, this is a comedy, through and through. I laughed more at the jokes in the movie's wake than I do at some comedies. I laughed so much the person sitting beside me got up and moved after a half-hour (sorry!).

There's a innocence in this movie's imagination and humor that makes it work even when it shouldn't. There are extended, juvenile jokes about poop that come off feeling brilliant. That comes down to tone, something Guardians Vol. 2 excels at.

3. Spider-Man: Homecoming
It's hard to overstate how good this movie was. The word I used after walking out of the theater was "perfect," and that may hold up. The movie's eagerness to explore street-level crime in a superhero universe was refreshing, as were its homages to John Hughes.

This wasn't as flashy or exciting as Avengers or Civil War, but then it wasn't supposed to be. This was a masterpiece of big budget film making. I loved every minute of it.

2. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
I don't expect my reasons for placing The Last Jedi this high on the list will surprise anyone. The characters were expertly realized, the story spun off in some fascinating directions, and the writing was the best we've seen from this franchise since Empire.

I almost think the more interesting question is why it's here and not at #1. There are a few reasons for that.

As good as Last Jedi was, it felt a bit disjointed. I was less bothered at the structural level (i.e.: I had no issues with the separate story lines) than visual. The movie waffled between a fun adventure and a dark melodrama. This wasn't necessarily a problem - there's nothing intrinsically wrong with a movie that tries (and succeeds!) in being "everything at once."

But while I enjoy movies like that, I don't love them as deeply as I love films that mesh visual, audio, and characters to create a tone that tells its own story or draws the viewer into a believable world. I'd argue The Force Awakens came closer to delivering that particular experience (though, as I said in my review, there are plenty of aspects The Last Jedi delivers better than its predecessor).

Since this ultimately does all come down to preference, this one - which I love - lands here. Leaving the first spot for...

1. Blade Runner 2049
I think most of us were skeptical when we heard the universe of Blade Runner was getting revisited. The original is so influential, the setting has almost come to feel generic. What's the point of making a movie there, rather than cherry-picking the ideas and visuals and telling a new story, as so many other movies and TV shows have done?

By rights, this should have been an abject failure. Hell, if Ridley Scott had directed it, I'm convinced it would have been. But instead it was handed to Denis Villeneuve, who seems like he could care less about the pitfalls that come with making a sequel to a 35-year-old classic.

And... damn. He pulled it off. The world felt even more vibrant and real than it had the first time around. Sitting in the theater, I felt like I was there, listening to the rain fall, feeling snow land on my skin, looking down at radioactive urban sprawl. It was beautiful and heartbreaking in the best way. I loved every second of this movie.

Closing Thoughts
Considering how crappy reality was in 2017, I'm glad entertainment improved to pick up the slack. As I said at the start, this is one of the best years for movies we've ever seen (well, nerdy movies, at the very least). It's certainly been a good - if bittersweet - year in pop culture.

If I had to pick out themes, I'd point to a general lightening of tone in superhero movies (Wonder Woman was a game changer) and the return of science fiction. Eight of the twenty movies above were either set in space or the future (I'm counting Logan as a dystopia) - that's quite a lot.

And, of course, there's the increased focus on representation. Women and minorities, long relegated to side characters or excluded entirely, have been taking center stage as studios finally realize there's a demand. The top three highest grossing domestic movies of the year had a female lead - that's certainly worth noting.

I'm optimistic we'll see more great movies next year. I'm particularly intrigued by Black Panther, Infinity War, and the long-awaited sequel to The Incredibles. All of these look great, though they've got their work cut out for them if they want to challenge 2017.

Movie Review: The Shape of Water

I almost didn't write a review for The Shape of Water, since the main thing I want to say can be summed up as, "Go see the damned movie."

Sorry - no need for cursing.

But if you drop by Rotten Tomatoes anywhere near as often as I do, you already knew it was good. The movie's been critically embraced and widely celebrated by fans of genre and film. It's not for everyone (I heard confused grumbling sounds from some of the audience), but I think a pretty safe litmus test is if you're reading a review on a site as geeky as this one, it's for you.

While there's actually a great deal more I could say, most of it's in the realm of analysis, not review. This movie begs to be analyzed in depth, poured over by film students, and discussed over bottles of wine. Draw a Venn diagram with circles representing art films and geeky genre movies, and you'll find The Shape of Water dead center in the overlap.

That doesn't even touch on the nature of genres. It's well publicized that this is a mash-up of monster movies in the Universal mold with classic romance flicks, so there's no sense trying to keep that quiet. In the hands of a different director, that might have come across as superficial or gimmicky, but del Toro weaves a story out of these conventions organically. The premise, setting, design, characters, tone, and theme all fit together. This isn't a monster movie or a romance with a twist; it's a complete and unified story constructed from the pieces of multiple genres, as well as all too real history and current events. It's a movie that has something to say.

It's difficult to overstate del Toro's mastery. He's working in a drastically different style and tone than, say, Pan's Labyrinth. This is a movie set in a world of old movies, almost closer in spirit to Wes Anderson than most of what we've seen from del Toro. But it never feels like del Toro's out of his depth - this is as brilliantly realized a film as any he's made.

That's not to say it's perfect. As a storyteller, del Toro's biggest weakness has always been his characters. They tend to be good, but rarely (if ever) great. Sally Hawkins picks up the slack - her Elisa may be the best character to headline a del Toro movie - but some side characters feel underwritten and misused. It's not a major issue, but I think it's the one area the movie doesn't excel.

Still, this is an absolutely fantastic film that will rival Pan's Labyrinth as del Toro's best and (in all probability) most reflected upon work. I suspect movie lovers will devote a great deal of time debating which is his masterpiece. At least until he makes something else.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Movie Review: Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Why did you click on this? It's Star Wars, you already know it's good from its score on Rotten Tomatoes... just go see it.

Are you still here? Does that mean you've already seen The Last Jedi? I hope so, because I'm about to spoil everything. Seriously. From here on out, it's open season on spoilers - I'm not holding anything back. Plot, twists, revelations: it's all fair game. Let's throw in an official warning to be safe.


What the heck - let's toss in another.


Okay, I lied. I'm not actually going to talk about the plot at all, but I wanted to try and scare away people who haven't seen it yet. Because, while I'm not going into details, The Last Jedi is unusually spoiler-prone.

Hell, I heard the movie was nothing like Empire, and that was enough for me to parse out what was probably the movie's biggest twist. I'm not going to spell it out, but it was that scene where that thing happened (apologies to anyone who read that without having seen the movie, but - in my defense - you were warned).

Ultimately, The Last Jedi is largely built around subverting expectations. From Luke's first action through the closing scene, pretty much everything that happens is the opposite of what you'd think would happen, given the series's trends and patterns. But that means if you go in knowing they're messing with your expectations, you actually can start predicting where it's going. Some of the time. Maybe 25%?

At any rate, it's certainly a welcome change of pace from The Force Awakens, which was far too faithful to A New Hope, but it's worth noting this isn't always a merit. There are a few points where The Last Jedi is too fixated on being surprising and ends up tying itself in knots. The resolution to the last showdown is a good example: there were cleaner (and more satisfying) ways to get to that point. It kind of felt like the script took two immediate U-turns, rather than appear to be driving in a straight line.

But I'll take a handful of awkward scenes in exchange for a genuinely surprising story. And that's just the first improvement made to the writing.

The Last Jedi also represents an improvement in character dialogue (which was already pretty solid). Several characters - particularly Poe, Finn, and Leia - are far more interesting than they were in the prior installment. New characters Vice Admiral Holdo and Rose Tico are also great. Hell, there's an argument that Rose is the main character of The Last Jedi (at the very least, she's definitely the movie's heart).

I also want to applaud the amount of diversity in the casting. Not just major characters, either - the rank and file Resistance personnel and pilots are far more reflective of the real world than we've ever seen in a Star Wars movie. Kudos!

All that said, I felt a little cheated when it came to Rey, the MVP from The Force Awakens. She's still good here, and her scenes with Luke are a joy to watch (as were her interactions with another returning character who won't be named here, in case anyone ignored the previous 17 spoiler warnings), but the focus definitely seemed to drift away from her this time. I'm not sure this was a bad choice - it leaves them open to do more with her in the next movie - but I'd been hoping to see more of her journey than I got.

The other thing worth noting - and again, I'm not entirely sure this was a flaw - is that movie noticeably leans heavier on CG than The Force Awakens did. It looks good most of the time, and there are some nice payoffs, including some wonderful alien creatures and some cool new ship designs, but they lost a bit of the tactile, handmade feel that Episode VII delivered.

Is this better than The Force Awakens? Worse? I tried parsing that out when I left the theater and almost gave myself a headache. The Force Awakens succeeded in resurrecting the Star Wars Universe with a new cast of fascinating characters, but it followed the outline of its predecessors far too closely. The Last Jedi took the characters from Force Awakens and made them even better, then it tossed in story development you actually care about. But, at least in my opinion, it doesn't quite pull off the same visual feat.

I'll let others argue which is better - I love them both. I'm excited to see where these characters go from here and how the franchise develops.

So my recommendation is to get out to the theater and see this. Again, I mean, because obviously you've already watched it at least once.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Movie Review: Coco

Coco is the sort of beautiful, engrossing movie that reminds audiences why Pixar is the absolute best there is in computer animation. The characters' emotions are relatable, the setting is vivid, and story flows organically. And let's not lose sight of the fact it offers some welcome cultural representation.

And, if this weren't 2017, if their record of featuring women as the central lead was better than three out of nineteen, if John Lasseter's name hadn't been plastered across the screen on the same day he stepped down over vague harassment issues... if any of those weren't the case, I suspect the rest of this review would just be an expansion of that first paragraph. It's a Pixar movie, with everything positive that implies.

But things being what they are, I feel like I need to address the misogyny permeating this otherwise wonderful movie.

I spent quite a bit of time weighing whether that's the right word, but I really think it is. The movie features three female characters in predominant roles. One, the title character, is basically a hundred year-old variation on the sexy lamp test - in a real sense, she's a device that the male characters care for and want to adjust, but she has no character or agency herself. I'm making her role sound a little worse than it is - in context, it makes sense, and if the movie had more female characters, it wouldn't be worth bringing up at all.

Let's talk about the other two women. Actually, calling them two separate characters might be generous - they're functionally reflections of each other. That's by design - one is the deceased grandmother of the other, who's filling her ancestor's shoes (quite literally). Think the Wizard of Oz (which is pretty clearly the inspiration for Coco's story); the family matriarch exists in both worlds the way the Lion, Woodsman, and Scarecrow were double-cast.

They're not exactly the movie's antagonists, but they are its primary obstacles. I'll spell it out: due to something that happened generations earlier, the family has outlawed music of any form in their home. Don't get too bogged down in the Footloose aspects - the movie sells this better than you'd think, and it's not the main problem. The issue is that the power and will behind this ultimatum lies fully with these two matriarchs, both of whom are irrational and headstrong to the point of being cruel. This is the stereotypical cold spinster - a classic sexist trope. Hell, one is actually a woman scorned: that's her motivation.

And that's the sum total of women in significant roles. There are a few bit parts, some of which come off a touch more sympathetic. The main character's mom seemed fine in her brief seconds on screen, and there were a few other small roles, but nothing adding up to much. Unless I'm forgetting a throwaway scene (and I don't think I am), this doesn't come close to passing the Bechdel Test.

There is redemption for the women by the end, including some pretty great moments for the original matriarch, but it doesn't entirely address the root problem. Over the course of the movie, the two male leads go on a journey, both literal and spiritual, and learn a lesson. The two female characters, on the other hand, are taught a lesson by the men: that's not the same thing.

This was less an issue with this movie than a pervasive problem at Pixar. If it weren't for the confluence of events I mentioned at the start, I don't think I'd have devoted more than a sentence or two to the movie's depiction of women. But while Pixar has given us some of the best animated movies ever made, the company has a bad history with women. They made twelve movies centered around men before they made one with a woman. For a brief period, it seemed like they might have addressed the issue - we got Brave, Inside-Out, and Finding Dory in a relatively short span of time (all great movies).

But it seems like we've taken a step back, and that's a shame. In part, because this is a really good movie. I found it moving, funny, and both visually and aurally spectacular. But every time one of the two main women did something horribly cruel or irrational for the point of giving the men something to overcome, I was reminded that there's something rotten on Pixar's head. And I found myself wondering whether removing the infection for six months was really going to be enough time for the company to heal.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Movie Review: Justice League

How do you make a sequel to what's almost certainly the worst movie of its genre? Hell, Batman V Superman might be the worst movie of any genre, at least in terms of missed opportunities and bad decisions (incidentally, if you haven't seen the first part of this YouTube miniseries, you're missing out).

Warner Bros' solution seems to have been to throw two directors, a stack of studio notes cribbed from every negative review, and - if rumors are to be believed - three hundred million dollars at the screen, in the hopes of getting something remotely watchable.

And... honestly... they kind of succeeded.

I know, I'm as surprised as you are. But while I wouldn't call the movie good, the vast majority is absurdist fun in the form of an unabashed love letter to the DC Universe and its history.

But what's the movie like? That part's easy - this is camp to the core. Aside from an extremely dull thirty or forty minute chunk of the film that tried to wring out some drops of drama, this feels more like a big-screen version of Superfriends, Adam West, or Batman: Brave and the Bold than a continuation of the franchise. The movie that made it to screen is basically an extended self-aware joke, for better or worse.

Granted, it's a movie fraying at the seams. Remember that scene in BvS where Flash traveled in time and appeared briefly in the Batcave? It's pretty clear how that was going to tie in with the resurrection of Superman, but the entire subplot was abandoned in favor of a streamlined story. The resurrection story that's left is hilariously idiotic, lacking any real tension or payoff, but - again - that's probably better than the alternative. Superman's return to the land of the living here is as emotionally hollow as his death, but at least Justice League has some fun with it.

And - credit where credit's due - the Superman who appears in this movie is damn near pitch-perfect. Henry Cavill finally gets to demonstrate he was a good choice for the part all along - he just needed a film where he was allowed to smile. Plus, it's hard to overstate how effective a few seconds of the Donner Superman and Burton Batman themes are.

But remember those stories about Cavill's digitally-removed mustache? You will be able to tell, and it will be jarring. You've been warned.

And while I'm issuing warnings, this seems like a good a time to tell you that whoever directed the sequence with the Amazons was a piss-poor substitute for Patty Jenkins. There's an extended fight on Paradise Island that feels like it belongs on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Also, if you've seen any cut scenes from the Injustice games, expect flashbacks during the final battle at the end of the movie. Visual effects were not this movie's strong suit.

And... for the love of God... Batman either needs to be recast or Affleck needs to lay off the gym. He's way too bulky for the role - he looks ridiculous.

But if you can stand all that, you'll be rewarded with some solid interpretations of these characters and some good moments. This might not have been the movie where Warner Bros figured out how to tell a good superhero story, but at least they stopped being embarrassed by the genre and had fun. The critics tearing this to shreds aren't wrong - the flaws in Justice League are legion - but I still enjoyed the experience. And I think those of you who are into the comics or any of the animated incarnations of the team will be at least entertained if you check it out.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Movie Review: Thor: Ragnarok

Thor: Ragnarok has a great deal in common with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Both are comedic, nostalgia driven 80's superhero movies set in the cosmos that lean heavily on music to carry their tone. But while I certainly enjoyed Ragnarok, I didn't love it the same way I loved Guardians. In fact, Ragnarok is currently my least favorite live-action American superhero movie of 2017, which means it's nothing more than a wholly enjoyable comedy/adventure movie that corrects numerous flaws with its predecessors while opening exciting possibilities for the franchise's future.

And here I'd hoped for so much more.

Okay, so obviously the bar's been set pretty high. Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Guardians 2, and Logan were all excellent - we've been spoiled. Fortunately, Justice League is right around the corner, and it's almost guaranteed to correct the curve. But until then, the competition is steep, and - for me, at least - this one didn't quite measure up.

I say that despite finding it consistently funny and entertaining, with great characters and some phenomenal fight sequences. There are numerous fantastic moments and pieces in this. But with one exception, I just didn't feel those parts coalesce into anything more. There wasn't much to the larger story, and the tone - while fun - never gripped me or pulled me in.

Doctor Strange's role (that shouldn't be a spoiler unless you missed the stinger at the end of his solo movie) is a perfect example. It was a great scene that allowed Strange to feel as bizarre as he does in the comics - I'm glad it was in the movie. But that doesn't mean it needed to be there - you could cut him entirely, without it impacting the story. The scene doesn't integrate or build off the themes in a meaningful way.

Strange isn't alone - most of the movie unfolds as a series of mini-adventures. The Hulk/Thor gladiator fight is wonderful, but there's not really much logic behind it. Hulk is funny, and they do offer some intriguing exploration of his childlike mentality and emotional problems, but there's not much in the way of development. Likewise, Valkyrie is a wonderful addition to the team and universe, but her turnabout on whether she'll help Thor feels far more dependent on the movie deciding to move on than on her personal story.

To the movie's credit, all that is reminiscent of comics. Ragnarok, perhaps more so than any Marvel movie before it, recreates the experience of tearing through a small pile of issues. I just wish those issues had been a tad more substantive.

I promised one exception - that's Odin and his relationship with Thor and (to a lesser extent) Loki. The scenes built around the Allfather come closer than anything else to tying the movie together. There's something enticing here - I wish it permeated the rest of the movie a little deeper.

Ragnarok felt more like a big-screen version of Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes than an installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Keep in mind, Earth's Mightiest Heroes was the good Avengers animated series, so that's not exactly a bad thing. This is light, ridiculous fare; popcorn entertainment. There's nothing wrong with that: I just found myself wishing there was something more. Either something more developed structurally, more artistically satisfying, more emotionally impacting... take your pick.

Your mileage will likely vary. This one was better received than Guardians 2 (or pretty much anything else). And it deserves to be praised - it is really, really good. But, in my opinion at least, it doesn't quite live up to Marvel's other offerings this year.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Movie Review: Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049, like the original, is better defined by its tone than its plot, characters, or even themes. Those elements are all present in both movies, but what's memorable is the world. It's the visuals and sounds of Blade Runner that defined thirty-five years of dystopian cinema and influenced damn near every Japanese animated movie since.

If you've seen Blade Runner and have no idea what I'm talking about, let me save you three hours: you can skip this one. But if, like me, you loved the world of the original and would welcome a chance to visit it again... holy crap, are you in for a treat.

It's difficult to convey just how successful a movie this is. It manages to both rebuild and dramatically expand on the world of the original to a degree I don't think we've seen before in any property. The new Star Wars movies come closest, but not even these can compare to the sense of authenticity Denis Villeneuve achieves. I suspect part of that comes from wisely borrowing from the well of genre work that sprang out of the 1982 film. There are characters and settings here that feel like they fell out of an anime, and none seem out of place.

In case anyone cares, the rest of the movie is good, too.

The themes and story are extrapolated from the original without feeling like carbon copies. This doesn't retread the story from Blade Runner, nor is Ryan Gosling's K just an updated Deckard. As a piece of science-fiction, this stands among the most intelligent and complex ever put on film.

If you want to nit-pick, there are opportunities to do so. The movie's primary antagonists could be excised entirely from the movie without impacting the story (Robin Wright's role could easily have been expanded to pick up the slack). I didn't mind Leto's comic supervillain or Sylvia Hoeks's sociopath android (actually, I liked her quite a bit), but it's hard to deny they were a bit over-the-top. On top of that, the movie occasionally offered a touch more exposition than was strictly necessary.

But I didn't mind any of that. There are enough unanswered questions and open threads to spark endless hours of speculation. And even the weaker scenes were a joy to watch. This movie was almost three hours long, and I honestly think I could have sat there happily for three more if it had kept going.

I find it oddly fitting that Blade Runner 2049 was Denis Villeneuve's follow-up to Arrival. Arguably, we haven't gotten a better SF double-header from the same director since Ridley Scott made Blade Runner right after Alien.

As a final side note, I want to mention I saw this in IMAX in 2D. If you have the chance to do the same, I strongly suggest you do so. This thing is an experience: the more immersive, the better.

Movie Review: My Little Pony: The Movie

The new big-screen adaptation of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic feels familiar to me, but not in the way I expected. I suspect the makers looked to another Hasbro property, the 1986 Transformers movie, for inspiration. If so, they learned the right lessons.

There's often a temptation when adapting a running TV series into a film to slow down and use the larger canvas to tell a more thorough version of the sort of story the show is known for. Look at the '98 X-Files or the 2002 Powerpuff Girls movies - both tried to enlarge the show into something cinematic, and both are pretty forgettable.

The Transformers movie, on the other hand, took the franchise in a wildly new direction, heading off into space to explore bizarre worlds and threats. My Little Pony takes a similar path - the majority of the movie is set in new lands filled with new creatures. It also shares a similar spastic, adventurous energy. Both movies leave you a bit frustrated you didn't get to spend more time with the new concepts, but that's better than the alternative.

Not surprisingly, this is also willing to get a touch darker than the series. There's nothing here as traumatic as the death of Optimus Prime, but I heard a few frightened gasps from kids in the audience when the movie shifted to dark places. Plus the ending crosses a line the series has never stepped over.

Despite that, the story isn't actually all that different from multi-part adventures that have opened or closed seasons of the show. This is hardly the first time we've seen Equestria invaded, nor is this the most powerful threat the ponies have faced. That was another wise choice, incidentally - it allows the movie to culminate in a struggle where the heroes need to rely on themselves and each other, rather than activating a McGuffin to magically solve everything.*

They also found a good solution to ensure the villain, who's not as powerful as Queen Chrysalis, let alone Tirek, still feels threatening: they made her dangerous. Tempest Shadow might not be able to blow up mountains, but she's by far the most competent adversary the franchise has provided. She's ruthless, driven, and - above all - effective. Plus, she has a fleet of airships at her back.

She's not the only good addition. The movie introduces a number of new anthropomorphic characters, including parrot pirates, ape warriors, and a cat con-artist. I'm hoping the show finds ways to return to these characters and their homes going forward, even if it means recasting a few voices.

This movie had issues and inconsistencies, sure, but provided you're a fan of the series, you'll find a lot to like. It's not 'best of year' material, but personally I found it far less pandering than the other big-budget toy commercial I paid to see this year.

*Just to head this off in advance... I realize there technically was a magical device that sort of fixed everything, but it didn't play into the same tropes structurally as a McGuffin. The movie even set up a false McGuffin in order to subvert the cliche and force its heroes to find a more responsible way to confront their problems.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Movie Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

It's been more than a decade, but I remember watching the Star Wars prequels and wondering what I'd think of them if they hadn't been Star Wars. I know I'm not alone in this - a lot of us were preoccupied with what those movies were doing to the franchise, and we were conscious of the fact we couldn't really look past that. What would it be like to watch them divorced from the classic film series?

For better or worse, Valerian offers us a rare opportunity to answer that question. It's not just the same genre - the aliens, technology, and (tragically) dialogue would have fit in perfectly with Lucas's prequel trilogy.

A lot of that is due to like source - the comic this movie's based on was influential in the design of Star Wars. But there's also something to be said for visual approach. Valerian has a budget significantly higher than Luc Besson has controlled previously, and he spends like it's 1999. That means going extremely heavy on the CG, cutting loose with everything he's ever wanted to put on screen.

Visually, it isn't awful, but then neither were the prequels. At times, Valerian is gorgeous to look at and fun to experience, but - also like the prequels - the level of inspiration wavers. For every sequence that's awesome to behold, there's another that's dull and pointless.

Speaking of dull and pointless, let's talk about the characters. Valerian and Laureline are undermined from the start by a relationship that's explained in one of the most awkward exposition scenes I've ever seen. Aside from this, their characters would have been serviceable as stoic points of view; space-police patrolling a surreal setting they're accustomed to. When the movie drifts in this direction, it does a little better, but it always tries to bring it back to something emotional, only to sink into melodrama.

That's not surprising given the director's past: we all remember the end of The Fifth Element. But that had Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich to salvage the writing. With all due respect to DeHaan and Delevingne, they just don't have the same star power. I think Cara Delevingne comes a little closer, which makes it all the more unfortunate that the movie leans heavier on Dane DeHaan for the dramatic moments. He's not a bad actor, but he's just not the right choice for this part.

This is the part in the review I wish I could say the third lead, the city of Alpha itself, salvaged the movie, but that's another missed opportunity. The titular City of a Thousand Planets is a cool concept and what we saw of it was great, but most of that was in the trailer. I'd have loved more of the city's bizarre nooks and crannies, but we just didn't get it.

Another set piece serving as a playground for an inter-dimensional showdown was much more satisfying, despite only being around briefly. This sequence - let's just call it the third or fourth prologue - offered a wonderful barrage of gadgets, monsters, action, and mind-warping SF puzzles. Overall, the movie was at its best when it threw ideas and obscure genre conventions at the screen. It delivered an impressive volume of weirdness, and I appreciate that.

But, ultimately, it never quite worked. I think better casting decisions and a little more thought to the tone would have made a huge difference; strip out the sappy love story, and you could have had something brilliant. But as it is, you're left with a sub par, albeit fun, big budget space opera that's not as good as Fifth Element, Avatar, John Carter of Mars, Jupiter Ascending, or Chronicles of Riddick. And it doesn't even hold a candle to this year's Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Movie Review: War for the Planet of the Apes

We should really stop giving awards to actors who wear make-up. Any make-up, of any sort. Or a hat, scarf, or glasses. You really shouldn't be eligible for an Oscar if your face is obscured by any of these, since it's impossible to tell whether it's your acting or if it's sunglasses creating the character.

Alternatively, they could just give Andy Serkis a goddamn Academy Award, since he's more than earned it. Hell, he deserved at least a supporting actor nomination for Gollum fifteen years ago (not to mention a nomination for the last two installments of this franchise). But he really deserves to win for his portrayal of Caesar in War for the Planet of the Apes, the third film in this rebooted series that is far, far better than logic dictates should be possible.

You can go look up videos on Youtube that demonstrate the CG skin is nothing more than a modern update on make-up and costuming: it's his performance shining through. I'm skeptical Serkis will get the recognition he deserves, which will seem hilarious to acting students fifty years from now, when his work is studied and analyzed as the most significant of the era.

Serkis was always the lead in this series, but he's barely sharing the screen this time. War is his movie, through and through. There are only a handful of human characters with significant roles, and none come close to getting the focus Caesar's given. There's no James Franco or Jason Clarke role - Woody Harrelson's Colonel plays an antagonist, but even then, he's more a stand in for elements of Caesar's internal journey.

This is ultimately an introspective movie about an aging warrior trying to find inner peace. It has a lot in common with Logan, actually. Both even overlay classic movie templates on top of science-fiction stories. While Logan used a blend of western and road trip, War for the Planet of the Apes is modeled after POW films. There's an awful lot of The Great Escape in this film's DNA.

I'm not sure whether this is it for the franchise, or if Fox will circle around to telling an updated version of the 60's movie. Either way, War wraps up this trilogy, and it does so eloquently. If this is it, we've got nothing to complain about. If there's more, there's every reason to be optimistic they'll be great.

If you've seen the first two in the series, I highly recommend you check out the resolution on the big screen. If you've never seen Rise and Dawn, I suggest you stream them online then go see War for the Planet of the Apes in the theater.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Movie Review: Spider-Man: Homecoming

Before I get started, I just want to take a minute and appreciate that we're four superhero blockbusters into 2017, and the lowest rated of the bunch - Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 - is still 81% Fresh. This year has had its share of disappointments, but not in this genre. Logan, Guardians, Wonder Woman, and now Spider-Man have each exceeded all reasonable expectations.

And Spider-Man: Homecoming is the best of the bunch. Sure, Logan has a better shot at Best Picture, Wonder Woman was more timely (pun not intended - I'm fully aware that Timely Comics was the forerunner of Marvel, not DC), and Guardians was more visually stunning. But in terms of successfully accomplishing the film's goals, Homecoming is just better.

And don't think those goals were easy. Marvel had to clear a high bar with this one. They had to assure Sony the company's trust wasn't misplaced, and they had to demonstrate the world needed yet another Spider-Man series. That's a tall order, given that Raimi's series helped establish the tone and look of the modern superhero film (along with Blade and X-Men, obviously). Plus, Spider-Man 2 is often regarded as one of the genre's best. And while the Garfield reboot wasn't as good, it was already fairly close to the MCU (the tech was similar, and Sony and Marvel came close to a deal to have their universes at least partly connected).

In short, Marvel had a lot to prove.

We already had high hopes after Peter's introduction in Civil War, and Marvel was uncharacteristically upfront about modeling this after John Hughes's filmography. But that barely scratches the surface of what they delivered. Homecoming represents a fantastic reimagining of one of comics's most famous characters.

The movie captures the source material's humor and thematic elements perfectly, far better than any of its predecessors. But it actually strays quite a bit when it comes to the details. We already saw the new Aunt May in Civil War - if that feels like a departure, wait until you meet the new Flash Thompson. Or when you realize the Daily Bugle has been replaced by YouTube (at least for now - I'd be surprised if they didn't work some version of the Bugle into the sequel). This is a new version of Spider-Man built to fit in the MCU, which is only a hair's breath from our world. Anything that wouldn't fit has been transformed.

Presumably, Spidey's origin is more or less unchanged, but there's no way to know for sure. He talks about the spider but we neither see it occur, learn whether it was radioactive, or learn any details. Likewise, the movie doesn't even namedrop Uncle Ben. Instead, the movie trusts us to know Parker's origin story. It's interested in where his story goes from here.

And I loved every minute of it. I loved the new Vulture, who bears only a slight superficial resemblance to his comic counterpart. I love Parker's relationship with Tony Stark and others in the MCU. I love Peter's high school life and how expertly the movie handled Spider-Man's frustrations balancing his two lives.

Spider-Man 2 remains a great work, but - frankly - I don't think it can compete with Homecoming. I'm not sure many superhero movies can. This is one of the best movies we've seen from Marvel to date. Personally, Avengers remains closer to my heart, but I suspect Homecoming might be a little better. It's really that good.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Movie Review: Baby Driver

Baby Driver's name and much of the premise evokes Speed Racer, and the movie can almost be described as a re-imagining of the concept. In some ways, Baby and Debora bear a similarity to Speed and Trixie, though you'd be hard-pressed to find any other parallels among Baby Driver's cast.

I'd love to try watching this back-to-back with the Wachowski Sisters' 2008 adaptation - I think the two films would compliment each other, despite representing polar opposite approaches to automobile racing/chases. While the Wachowskis delighted in using CG to build an unapologetic cartoon world, Edgar Wright uses practical tools to transform the setting. Baby Driver's world is still surreal, but that emerges from pacing, editing, and music, rather than imagery. I love both movies and suspect the contrasts and similarities would be fascinating.

That's a rather long-winded way of trying to touch on the experience of watching Baby Driver, a beautifully intense homage to crime cinema. Homage is nothing new to Wright, who's probably best known for Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim, but this represents a very different approach. There's still comedy, but it's far more muted than we're used to. The film is very much a work of genre, not a statement about it. And, unlike Shaun (and the other movies in Wright's Cornetto Trilogy), it starts and ends in that genre. There's no fake-out where it evolves from light comedy to horror; it's an action/crime movie, through and through.

I don't consider that an inherently good or bad thing, but crafting a movie with a relatively conventional approach to plot and character should raise expectations that those elements will be handled well. And, if there's anywhere the movie disappoints, it's here. The story is less original than I'd have liked, and two key characters, namely Baby and Debora, are under-developed.

I'm more forgiving of that with Baby. He almost seems more like a video game protagonist than a lead, but the movie's experience ties to this so completely, it's hard to view it as much of a flaw. Sure, he's more a force pushing forward than a developed character, but it's that force that makes the movie worth seeing.

Debora, on the other hand, is harder to hand wave. She's the movie's love interest, and by the end of the movie represents the bulk of Baby's motivation. And yet, there's really very little justification for her choices or the leads' mutual affection for each other. As far as I can tell, Baby loves her, because she talked to him, and she loves him, because... I guess the script calls for it?

Come to think of it, Wright's filmography doesn't include a lot of significant female roles, outside of fairly generic love interests. It might be a good idea for him to experiment with some new points of view, along with his shifts in genre.

Fortunately, the movie's other characters pick up a lot of the slack. Jon Hamm, Eiza González, and Jamie Foxx are all great, as is Kevin Spacey, who plays a character who could almost be an aging Keyser Söze. The script does a good job shuffling them to keep you guessing which represents the real threat.

Likewise, the story might be light, but the storytelling, driven forward by music and an instinct to escape danger, is expertly handled.

The script could have been better, but the direction was damn near perfect. The choreography and cinematography alone make this well worth a trip to the theater, especially if you could use a break from CG-heavy blockbusters.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Movie Review: Wonder Woman

I'm seeing a lot of reviewers saying Wonder Woman is the best movie in the DC Extended Universe, which is really just a long-winded way of saying it's better than Man of Steel. That's true, incidentally, but I think we can set the bar a tad higher. How's this: exempting the Avengers, Wonder Woman is as good as - and quite possibly better than - any of the first installments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

That's not to say it's perfect - I've got some complaints coming later - but damn, it's good. And not just for the DCEU (fun fact: Wonder Woman's Tomatometer is higher than the sum of any two of the other three movies in the franchise). It's actually a really good movie.

So let's all just take a moment and breathe a sigh of relief.

Now then, let's get into the details, starting with what works. And there's no better place to begin than tone. Unlike its predecessors, this movie includes moments of levity. In addition to delivering some welcome fun, this also adds weight to the more somber moments.

They also get Themyscira and the Amazons right on a level that's stunning to behold. The island and its inhabitants are pitch-perfect - every second they're on screen is a gift. The Amazons are presented as an army of warriors, each fighting with a level of skill on par with Batman - I loved every second on the island.

Speaking of Amazons, this version of Diana is virtually flawless. A lot of the credit goes to Gal Gadot, who delivers an amazing performance, but I don't want to lose sight of what Patty Jenkins brings to the table. By building a movie around compassion, she gives Wonder Woman the emotional core she deserves. Incidentally, this is precisely what's been missing from the heroes of the DCEU to date.

Don't infer that the movie's emotional core detracts from the action, though - Jenkins delivers some phenomenal fights. Occasionally the CG gets a little obvious, but it's a small price to pay for actually being able to see what's happening.

Which brings us to yet another strong point: unlike the previous DCEU films, Wonder Woman is actually presented in COLOR. After three movies where everything appears as shades of washed out grey, it's refreshing to see blues, greens, reds, and golds again. It's kind of sad this sort of thing needs to be heralded as a wise artistic choice (as opposed to the obvious default), but that's where we are.

What am I missing? Chris Pine is great as Steve Trevor - he balances gender-flipped damsel and pulp adventurer in a way that works, plus his banter with Wonder Woman is everything you'd hope for.

All that being said... the movie isn't perfect. In fact, there are a few fairly major issues.

The largest of which concerns the end. Without going into details, the plot kind of crumbles in order to bring in the "big bad" in the last act. This is a pretty common issue in the genre, but it's more disruptive than usual. Almost everything about the last fight feels wrong - the scale is too large a departure, the villain is bland, and there are some odd emotional beats.

That's the only flaw I'd describe as "objectively" wrong (i.e.: I think it hurts the movie whether or not you've heard of Wonder Woman before watching this). My other main problem concerns the movie's benching of the Greek goddesses.

Aside from a few call-outs in the context of objects (i.e.: Armor of Hephaestus, Lasso of Hestia), I only recall hearing the names of two Greek deities: Zeus and Ares. The origin of the Amazons (and of Diana) is certainly reduced to these two. Thematically, I'm more than a little bothered that the Amazons' power springs completely from a male patron.

That holds double for the version of Diana's origin story they went with. Yes, I realize there's precedent from the comics, but it was a mistake there, as well (which is why they've since reversed course).

I think that does it for the major complaints, though I have one more set of elements: the bizarre. There were a few decisions that didn't completely bother me but did leave me perplexed. I'm assuming you've seen the movie or don't care about spoilers if you're still reading, but just in case, I'm about to get a little more specific than I've been up to this point. Considered yourself warned.

Okay, the first did bother me a little, but I'm starting to rethink it in hindsight. The movie changes the mythology so the Greek gods were all killed by Ares. This is somewhat limiting in terms of future stories they can tell (unless they want to undo that choice, which wouldn't be all that hard). Still, it's a surprising alteration to the status quo.

Surprising, but maybe clever, depending on what they have planned, given that the classical premise of Jack Kirby's New Gods hangs on the death of the old. Originally, he was taking a swipe at the Avengers, but changing that to the Greek pantheon might make for an interesting connection. Plus, if they play up the divine aspect of the New Gods, it could allow them to give Wonder Woman a central role in the Justice League movie. Nothing wrong with that.

I also feel like I should mention the movie's two "lesser" villains. I actually liked them, but I'm a fan of over-the-top villains in this genre (you can all go to hell - Viper was awesome in The Wolverine). If you're less enthusiastic about this kind of absurdly evil bad guy, they could definitely grate on you. Personally, I'd take them over the movie's main villain in a heartbeat.

Next up is the era. Rather than set this in the present day or during the character's first appearances in WWII, they changed it to the first World War. I've read a few explanations why, some of which seem more plausible than others. Regardless of the rationale, I didn't really feel like the movie capitalized on the era. The suffrage movement was reduced to a throwaway line, and the novelty of this form of war was undercut by the presence of characters already broken and jaded by it.

All in all, I didn't feel like the movie would have changed at all if it had been set in WWII. The good news there is it didn't feel any worse for the change; it was just kind of an odd choice.

Lastly, the movie includes a minor frame story set in the present. This of course ties back to Batman v Superman and points ahead towards Justice League, as if they felt like they had to remind you it's part of a bigger world. It's not painful, but it really adds nothing (unlike the larger DCEU, which still adds nothing but is painful).

I think this is one of my longest reviews here, which makes me wonder if anyone's still reading. In the off chance there is, I'll reiterate that this is absolutely worth seeing. It has a few issues, but it is such a dramatic step up in quality I feel embarrassed even comparing it to the last few DCEU films. By all means, check it out this weekend.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

If I had to pick a movie to compare to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, I'd set its predecessor aside and turn instead to 2008's Speed Racer, itself a brightly lit, nostalgic experience. And, as long-time readers of this blog already know, that's high praise in these parts.

Want more? When the credits finally finished, I turned to my wife and said, "I think that's the greatest comedy I've ever seen." It wasn't entirely an off-the-cuff remark: I'd been reflecting on that through most of the movie.

That was a day ago, and over the past twenty-four hours I've found myself revisiting that statement, questioning it, and applying caveats. It's certainly one of the most fun comedies I've ever seen; perhaps not the most reflective or contemplative. And then there are questions of originality, influence, and a host of other factors. Is it really better than Princess Bride, Shaun of the Dead, or a host of other classics? Is it really in the same genre?

Who cares? That's not the point.

It's that visceral reaction that deserves recognition. It's entirely possible this won't hold up to repeat viewings at all, or it will settle into a far more modest spot. In fact, that's likely. But it doesn't change the fact that the experience of sitting in a theater watching this yesterday was an absolute gift.

And if you're a genre fan, I invite you to stop reading, drive to the nearest theater, and buy a ticket. Seriously, don't read another word. Go see it before you trip over the countless spoilers littered below.

That was actually a joke - I couldn't spoil this movie if I tried. Hell, the trailers did their best to show us as many twists, key moments, and important sequences as they could squeeze in a minute and a half, and it didn't diminish the impact in the slightest. Because this movie wasn't built around story - it was built around character relationships.

Well, those and jokes. If we're being honest, it was mostly built around jokes, but those were built out of relationships, so it works out.

Every moment of this movie, every argument and fight, was about characters, their love for one another (or, in the case of the villains, for themselves), and their personalities. Every time the movie is presented with a choice between showing you something epic and a character moment, it doesn't just show the character moment: it flaunts it. And right off the bat, you'll love it for it.

I wish I could say that I found myself deeply invested in the characters' journeys. There was a lot here to sink your teeth into in that respect - every character was given at least one arc built around a relationship with another character - but, if I'm being completely honest, I was laughing too hard to care. Intellectually, I love what Gunn did with Nebula, Yondu, Gamora, Rocket, the list goes on.., but these didn't click with me emotionally on this viewing.

I don't think that's a failing, at all. The content was there, but at the end of the day, I connected with this as a comedy and loved every minute at that level. Your mileage may vary - I'm seeing plenty of testimonials from people who loved other aspects.

It's not hard to see why. The first Guardians, while a lot of fun, contained a couple cloying flaws. Gamora was under-utilized, the team was under-powered, and the scale was too small, while the story was perhaps a little too big. This time, every one of those issues is addressed, several in the opening fight.

In addition, Gunn manages to improve on the already fantastic setting. This is outer space filtered through the collective imagination of the 1970's and 80's, a neon-lit universe of rock and pop music album covers.

There's more to say. So much more. Fans of Marvel Comics will get whiplash catching the references and Easter eggs. The post-credit stingers alone are just awesome.

But I think I've gone on long enough. I went into the theater expecting something great, and this still caught me off guard. If it's not the best blockbuster of the summer, this will be a year to remember.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Futures Market: 2017

Last year, I had to start early, thanks to Warner Bros dumping Batman v Superman in March. 2017 is a bit more muted - I think we can safely place the starting line for the summer movie season on May 5th, with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

Granted, the entire concept of the "summer movie season" is outdated. This year's already given us Logan, LEGO Batman, Kong: Skull Island, and Beauty and the Beast - any or all of which could have qualified as "summer movies" if their release dates had been moved back. It took the industry fifteen years longer than it should have, but they seem to have realized they can release an interesting movie any time of the year and get "summer movie" level returns.

By rights, I should be writing this in December for the following year - dropping this whole "summer" thing altogether and just running through the biggest upcoming geek flicks on the horizon. But I'm busy in December, so we're stuck perpetuating the delusion that there's something special or unique about movies released between May and August.

For those of you new to this annual feature, here's how it works: I'm attempting to predict the Freshness score for every upcoming summer movie that looks geeky enough to be of interest. These predictions are essentially arbitrary guesses.

You are, of course, welcome to come back at the end of summer and mock me for things I get hilariously wrong (though I actually did pretty well last year).

Oh, I'll also subject you to what I'm looking for (i.e., what it will take to get me to seriously consider heading to the theater). And, just for the hell of it, a random prediction about the movie.

May 5
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Projected Tomatometer: 78%
What I'm Looking For: I'll almost certainly see this regardless of what critics say
Random Prediction: This will make more in merchandising than any other summer movie, except Cars 3

The 78% is something of a hedged bet. The original Guardians is currently sitting at 91%, and it's entirely possible Gunn will manage to meet or exceed that. Possible, but unlikely: Guardians of the Galaxy was widely seen as quirky and unique, a fact that made critics somewhat generous. A sequel, regardless of whether it's good or bad, is naturally going to feel derivative, so it's going to have to clear a higher hurdle to get the same score.

On top of that, Gunn is facing raised expectations, a larger cast, and (in all likelihood) studio pressure to set up Infinity War. It starts to sound dangerously similar to the recipe that brought us the deeply flawed (but still fun) Age of Ultron.

All that said, of course I'll check it out. I'm a big fan of Marvel's movies, and the trailers look great.

May 12
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword
Projected Tomatometer: 60%
What I'm Looking For: 85% and/or a substantial number of glowing reviews
Random Prediction: This will be extremely polarizing

This is one of those situations where I have very little idea what to expect. The trailers imply a bizarre genre-twisting approach to the Arthurian legend, but they're ambiguous to the point I can't tell what it is. Is this myth reinterpreted through the lens of modern genres partially descended from that myth? Is it a fun and quirky parody where we see the King Arthur story imagined as pulp fiction? Is it a worthless piece of crap, like the director's last Sherlock Holmes movie?

No. Goddamn. Clue.

I've like about as much of Guy Richie's work as I've disliked, so I'm holding out hope. The Tomatometer projection matches A Game of Shadows, incidentally, so that's actually a pessimistic appraisal (I hated A Game of Shadows). I hope I'm wrong, though - I'd love to see an interesting, alternative take on this story.

May 19
Alien: Covenant
Projected Tomatometer: 68%
What I'm Looking For: 90% or higher, or some great recommendations
Random Prediction: This will be worse, not better, than Prometheus

I still haven't seen The Martian, the only movie Scott's directed in years that's actually supposed to be good, but I understand it proves he's still capable of producing quality work. That's reason to hold out a little hope, but the rest of Scott's filmography post 1991 is less promising.

The trailers don't fill me with confidence, either. Sure, the visuals look fine, but that's never been a problem for Scott. It's the premise that's leaving me underwhelmed.

First, it looks like his takeaway from Prometheus was that he needed to make the next one more like Alien. Which is fine, except we've already got Alien. We need something new. But the larger issue is how it resembles the last installment. I don't mind Fassbender's android - I'm fine seeing him make another appearance - but I'm less excited by the Garden of Eden metaphor and the fact Scott seems to have decided his xenomorphs need to have permeated every significant moment in humanity's future.

I think he's missing the point of Alien. They're not supposed to be a dark manifestation of our souls: they're supposed to be completely and utterly ALIEN. Come on - it's the name of the damn franchise for a reason.

I'm fine with incorporating Judeo-Christian mythology into SF horror (actually, that can be awesome). But the core of Alien is built around Lovecraft, not the Bible. Scott would do well to remember that.

May 26
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
Projected Tomatometer: 41%
What I'm Looking For: 80% or some reason to believe this franchise returned to the quality of the first movie
Random Prediction: This will make less money than any other movie in the franchise

I never did get around to seeing On Stranger Tides, and honestly, I'm not sure I care. Given that I love the original, that's kind of sad. This franchise has fallen faster than my opinion of its star.

The projection this time is actually based on REAL NUMBERS. Check it out:

Mathematically, it appears that the critical consensus of the Pirates franchise has been decreasing towards a limit of approximately 40%. Unless, of course, this is parabolic, in which case it should eventually recover. Or if the trend has no meaningful predictive value, since a sequence of non-causal events forming a pattern is ultimately meaningless (spoiler alert - it's that one).

Still, I've got nothing better, so I'm sticking with the chart. Besides, the fact that this movie has three listed directors and none are experienced suggests even this guess could be generous.

Projected Tomatometer: 40%
What I'm Looking For: 90%
Random Prediction: This movie will have at least 2 sequels. Vin Diesel will appear in at least one of them.

Dwayne Johnson has presence. As far as I can tell, he's a solid comedic actor capable of good work. And if you've ever seen an interview with the guy, you know he's just all kinds of awesome. Like most people, I find myself rooting for him.

Unfortunately, his live-action filmography has been less than stellar. Less than lunar, actually. Street lights may be a stretch.

He just doesn't seem to pick the best projects (exempting Moana - that movie ruled). And before you get too hopeful this might be the movie that turns his career around, check out the director's background.

Seth Gordon's done some documentary and TV work that's decent, but his highest rated movie is Horrible Bosses, at 68%. His other two don't break 45%. Combined.

But maybe this one is different. The trailers were certainly more fun than they had any right to be.

Maybe. But one of the director's past projects was Four Christmases, a movie I sat through for Mainlining Christmas. And I don't do second chances.

June 2
Wonder Woman
Projected Tomatometer: Not a clue
What I'm Looking For: I'll see it unless I hear they completely failed the character
Random Prediction: This will make more money on its opening weekend than the upcoming Justice League movie

I am standing with my back turned at the edge of the table. My arms are crossed over my chest, and my eyes are closed. There are numerous bruises and scrapes across my back from the last times I fell. And I ask, pleading, "You're going to catch me, right? RIGHT?"

"Huh?" I hear the Warner Bros producers say. "Oh, yeah. Yeah, we totally got you this time, bro. No worries."

As I start leaning back and cross the point of no return I hear a sound, but I can't tell if it's them bracing to catch my weight or if they're snickering.


So. Here we are again.

It took DC about a decade longer than it should have to start working on a shared movie universe, and when they finally released an attempt... it was awful. God awful, in fact.

I say this as someone who likes Man of Steel. Hell, I even like Suicide Squad! But Batman v Superman was one of the worst superhero movies I've ever seen. Its one saving grace was Diana Prince - Wonder Woman, who clearly was in a better film than literally everyone else present.

So we should be excited, right? RIGHT? Because, after waiting ten years too long to work in a shared universe and - I don't even know how to calculate this - twenty? thirty? years too long to give one of comics' three most iconic characters her own movie, they couldn't possibly screw this up, could they?

Of course, they could. This is Warner Bros, the current poster child for screwing up franchises. But they did overhaul their DC team after Batman v Superman. And you can't fault their choice of directors. Plus, the trailers look pretty cool. So...

No idea.

This is Patty Jenkins v Warner Bros. If she wins, we could be looking at a score in the 80's or 90's. If the studio manages to push her into making the movie they want, we'll be lucky to see something in the 40's.

June 9
The Mummy
Projected Tomatometer: 60%
What I'm Looking For: 85% and assurance the movie isn't as boring as its trailer
Random Prediction: Tom Cruise's character becomes a Mummy, and he'll be joining the Universal Monster Shared Universe in that capacity

Tough one to call. The Mummy's trailer is difficult to sit through - it's not a good sign they couldn't find more engaging footage than that. Likewise, the fact Alex Kurtzman ended up in the director's chair doesn't fill me with confidence.

However, the movie boasts a pair of promising writers, so I wouldn't be entirely surprised if it winds up including some major twists. The decision to build a shared monster-verse intrigues me, as well - keep in mind, Universal has been doing crossovers almost as long as Marvel's been making comics: theirs is the original shared cinematic universe. I'd be interested in seeing that relaunched well.

That said, I'm not convinced this is going to deliver on that promise. Everything about this screams "cash grab." Still, here's hoping for the best.

June 16
Cars 3
Projected Tomatometer: 74%
What I'm Looking For: 90% or higher, or some assurance the movie is at least interesting
Random Prediction: Good or bad, this will be the last Cars movie. Dear God, let this be last Cars movie. Unless they want to do one that verifies the fan theory this is all set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland populated by the descendants of the machines that wiped out the human race.

The Tomatometer projection is based on the first movie's score: the trailer - along with the released plot synopsis - implies this is more in the mold of part one than part 2. Pity - I think I'd actually prefer to watch Finn McMissile execute more enemy agents. Oh well, he'll probably get a cameo or something.

It looks like this is going to be somewhat darker than part one, based on Disney's dramatic teaser. When I first saw that, I was hoping they were going to have McQueen retire to train the next generation of race cars - sort of step into Doc Hudson's shoes... er... tires?

But it looks like this is going to be another story of him building himself back up again. Whatever: maybe they'll do something interesting. Pixar's been known to pull off miracles before.

My best guess, though, is it'll be a slightly darker rehash of part one punctuated with some lesson about... something. I figure that'll be good for another low-to-mid-seventies rating.

June 23
Transformers: The Last Knight
Projected Tomatometer: 18%
What I'm Looking For: You know what? If Michael Bay pulls a score of 60%, I will go see this in the theater. Swear to Primus.
Random Prediction: I will not see this in a theater.

There aren't a lot of people who still defend the first movie, but I'll step up. It was deeply flawed and the designs weren't what I'd have liked, but it was stupid fun. And the opportunity to see a big screen adaptation of the show, complete with Peter Cullen reprising Prime, was enjoyable enough.

But it was all downhill from there. I've see every one of these, but only bothered to watch the first two in the theater. If you want to know why that was a wise choice, just read a few reviews of the later installments.

I'm assuming this will be about on par with Age of Extinction, the last entry in the series. But, given Bay's generally been getting worse reviews over time, that may actually be a generous assessment.

June 28
Baby Driver
Projected Tomatometer: Currently at 100% (guessing it'll drop to around 90%)
What I'm Looking For: 90% should warrant a trip to the theater
Random Prediction: Best movie of the summer

The vast majority of movies in this list are ones I've been aware of for a year or more. But, every once in a while, something slips through the cracks and I discover the trailer looking for things to include.

This is one of those. I clicked through because it's directed by Edgar Wright. The trailer has an irresistible energy to it, and the cast looks great. I was pretty much sold before swinging by Rotten Tomatoes in the off chance it had already opened at a festival.

...Which it has. 21 critics have weighed in, and every last one of them gave it a pass. Skim the summaries and you get the impression these aren't tepid endorsements, either.

Okay. Let's ground these expectations a bit.

Wright's done some great work, and I haven't seen a single movie he's made that was awful, but he's done a few I thought were mixed. As for that 100%, it's not uncommon for movies to play well to the first round of critics, only to falter when more see it. There's a chance this isn't going to be as good as it looks.

But there's a chance it will be. This is the guy who made Shaun of the Dead, after all.

July 7
Spider-Man: Homecoming
Projected Tomatometer: 88%
What I'm Looking For: Basically anything north of 20%. Hell, I'll probably still see it if it's lower.
Random Prediction: This will break Marvel's timeline.

I'm extremely excited for this one. Spider-Man was one of the nine hundred and fourteen best elements of Captain America: Civil War, which is pretty high praise (damn, I love that movie). After his introduction, everyone's expecting a lot from this, which does mean there's room for disappointment. But I can't help it: the trailer was great, the casting was inspired, and Vulture looks awesome.

There's no real science to that score - mostly, I'm just assuming Marvel and Sony put in the effort and got this one right. Besides, critics tend to be kind to the webslinger, provided his movie doesn't suck (looking at you, Spider-Man 3 / Amazing Spider-Man 2).

But I really don't think they'd have made those mistakes again. Everything I've seen looks good - I'm betting this will be one of the summer's standout blockbusters.

July 14
War for the Planet of the Apes
Projected Tomatometer: 80%
What I'm Looking For: 70% or higher
Random Prediction: Andy Serkis will, once again, be snubbed at the Oscars.

I'm being cautious with that prediction - Dawn scored a solid 90% with the same director. But I suspect critics will be a little stricter this time around: if the movie isn't appreciably better, they'll likely rate it lower. And, honestly, I'm not convinced this franchise could get much better. That's not a slight against the premise; it's a compliment to the last installment. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was absolutely fantastic.

Whether it's better or not, I'm really looking forward to this. I'm a fan for talking apes in almost any capacity (there was a time a younger, naive version of me spoke favorably of Tim Burton's botched attempt).

I was shocked when Rise came out and was actually good, and even more so when Dawn exceeded it. I'd love to be surprised a third time, but I'm not getting my hopes up quite that high: like I said, Dawn sets a really high bar.

July 21
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Projected Tomatometer: 35%
What I'm Looking For: Forget the average - I'll be looking for a handful of glowing recommendations.
Random Prediction: The first two-thirds will be fun, then it will fall apart in the third act.

Luc Besson's filmography looks like a scattershot of random scores, and as often as not I think the critics are nuts. I remember really enjoying The Messenger (30%), while I found The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec (83%) more than a little disappointing (though still enjoyable).

I'm not turning to his past for my prediction: rather, I'm looking at the brutally unfair 26% slapped on the Wachowski sisters' fascinating SF romance, Jupiter Ascending. Granted, that was a flawed film, but what a ride.

The trailers for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets remind me of that, even more than they remind me of The Fifth Element. The unbridled, unapologetic SF/fantasy on display is just beautiful. I'm hoping this delivers a similar degree of weird-ass excitement.

I'm sure I'll go see it if it's critically acclaimed, but a low score - even if it's below 20% - won't be a deal breaker. What I'll really be looking for are critics, even if they're a small minority, who just love the hell out of this film. We saw that with Jupiter Ascending, Speed Racer, Chronicles of Riddick, and Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters - all wonderful films that deviated from the norm.

That's what I'm hoping for with this one, something weird and imaginative.

July 28
The Dark Tower
Projected Tomatometer: 60%
What I'm Looking For: A trailer, for starters. 60% if visually interesting; 90% if not
Random Prediction: This gets moved to a later date

Annual release schedule's a wheel, do ya ken? Summer comes round, and with it the movies. But there's other plans than this, and other times this might be released.

Sorry. I'll stop now.

The Dark Tower is a massive story with a lot of potential for adaptation. Only if the rumors are true, this isn't technically an adaptation, but instead a continuation of the story from the books. Well, it's sort of both, but... if you've read the books, just know that Roland's supposedly carrying the Horn of Eld at the start of the movie.

So, that's cool.

Also, Elba is a damned good pick for Roland, and the movie poster looks like unofficial fan art. No, no - that's good, too. Fan art is almost always better than the cookie-cutter Hollywood posters getting churned out.

What has me a little concerned is the budget - $60 million is certainly nothing to sneeze at, but it's going to limit just how much they can squeeze in. This is Steven King's epic - I'd love to see it budgeted accordingly.

We've yet to see a trailer, which has me a little skeptical this is going to materialize this summer. I half expect it will get pulled at the last minute and released in the fall or next spring. But that's just a guess, as is the projected Tomatometer and my own expectations - until we get a trailer, I honestly have no idea what to think.

Atomic Blonde
Projected Tomatometer: Currently at 71%
What I'm Looking For: Good recommendations from people with similar opinions
Random Prediction: This will be way better than Spectre

Okay, that Spectre jab was a low blow, but what's 007 going to do about it? Let me torture him, stop me from destroying London, then NOT KILL ME because after more than 50 years of making movies he suddenly decides that killing is wrong?

Basically, Bond's era is over. Oh, I'm sure there'll be more movies, but after the tedious mess that was Spectre, I honestly don't think I care.

The trailer for Atomic Blonde, on the other hand, I love - it's everything a James Bond movie should be and isn't: a period film, unafraid to be violent, stylish, and starring Charlize Theron, who is arguably the most promising star in Hollywood.

Okay, okay. I probably misstated that last part. Theron is unarguably the most promising star in Hollywood.

There. That checks out.

The only thing that has me a little worried are the reviews. They're certainly not bad, but they're not as glowingly positive as I'd expect after watching the trailer. Worse, they imply the movie is too slow, save for a handful of cool sequences. It's not hard to wonder if those sequences might comprise the trailer.

Let's hope that's not the case. Theron deserves a major franchise, and the world deserves a decent set of spy movies.

Huh. I guess that's it.

To be fair, August is still something of an unknown. My guess is several big movies will get dropped in that month that either haven't been announced or aren't things I recognize. Something called "The Hitman's Bodyguard" is opening on August the 18th - it's labeled action/comedy and includes some big names. But I don't see a trailer, so I have no clue if it's worth including.

I'm also being a little more selective in what I discuss. I've omitted Captain Underpants and The Nut Job 2. In the past, I've included most animated features in the off chance they turned out to be relevant... but that hardly ever happens unexpectedly.

But overall... not a lot compared with prior years. I think we're seeing the aftereffects of a year-round blockbuster season, along with studios cutting back on things like Tarzan and the BFG. That's probably for the best.

Here's the final breakdown for how I expect my summer to look:

Movies I will Almost Certainly See, Good or Bad:
Spider-Man Homecoming
Guardians of the Galaxy
Wonder Woman

Movie's I'm Anticipating Seeing, but I'll Lose Interest if the Reviews are Poor:
Baby Driver
Atomic Blonde
War for the Planet of the Apes
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Wild Cards:
The Dark Tower
Cars 3
King Arthur Legend of the Sword

As for everything else, I really doubt I'll bother.