Monday, December 31, 2018

2018 Movies Revisited

We're coming up on the end of another year, so that means it's time for my annual ranking. 2018 was a phenomenal year for movies. It's been quite a few years since I saw anywhere near this number of new releases, and the vast majority were at least good. Only the bottom three were out and out disappointments, and at least the top eleven were films I absolutely loved.

As always, I'm ranking from least to most favorite, not from better or worse. Where applicable, I mention if a great movie is held back by this system or if I think a mediocre movie is being elevated.

Most of these lists ignore movies that are bought by Netflix or Hulu without a theatrical run, but I'm a little less picky. A lot of movies that end up streaming were intended for the big screen, but the studios decided they'd be better off selling the rights. If I believe a movie was at one time being developed for a theatrical release (like Mute or The Christmas Chronicles), it shows up, while films clearly produced for TV or the like (such as Santa Jaws) are omitted. I realize that's a bit arbitrary, but so are these lists.

28. Pacific Rim Uprising

There were a handful of moments and elements in Uprising I genuinely liked: the opening chase scene with Scrapper, the weird twists with Newt, the Jaeger/Kaiju hybrids... these were neat. But every time I thought I was about ready to get on board, something stupid or dull would pop up and distract me.

This wasn't an awful movie, and aspects were fun. But overall I just couldn't connect with it.

27. Ready Player One

It's not that there's nothing good about  The Live-Action Lego Movie  Ready Player One: there are absolutely cool visuals, a few great fight sequences, and some cool moments. It's just that, despite all that... it's... Just. So. Stupid. Plus, the movie's theme and premise are entirely at odds (leading to the real world being bright and sunny and the virtual escape looking like a post-apocalyptic wasteland).

Yeah, there are moments of magic, thanks to Spielberg. And the extended homage to The Shining was pretty great as a meta love letter from the director. But overall, I wasn't impressed or entertained.

26. Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle

"Not quite as good as I'd like, but easily the best live-action adaptation of The Jungle Book we've ever gotten or are ever likely to get."

...Is what I'd be saying if Disney hadn't just released a brilliant version two years ago. You kind of have to feel bad for Andy Serkis - it's not his fault a far better movie was made simultaneously, released first, and buried any hope for his production.

And there are definitely good aspects of his movie - I honestly think I preferred his Baloo, for one. But overall there's just no comparison: Mowgli feels like the knock-off made-for-streaming flick it turned into. There's just no magic or myth here.

25. Mute

It's essentially an exercise in tone and genre, but at least it does that well. It would take a long time to list all of Mute's flaws, but it's worth noting none of them really detract from the experience all that much. Overall, it winds up feeling more like a pilot for a really good TV series than a movie, but given the fact it was picked up by Netflix, I'm fine with that.

I enjoyed watching this, and I'd recommend it to anyone who likes SF noir. If I'm being honest, I'd have to add I probably enjoyed this MORE than Moon (but if I did that I'd have to admit to not really getting why everyone's head-over-heels in love with what feels like a pretty mediocre SF flick, and I really don't want to pick that fight, so... I'll lie and pretend I agree with the critical consensus that it's tragic how Duncan Jones's career hasn't been living up to his promise).

24. The Grinch

Eh. It's fine.

I know that's hardly a ringing endorsement, but honestly it's about as good as any feature-length adaptation of The Grinch was likely to be. This isn't a story meant for this format, and the changes necessary to make the transition aren't going to improve it.

If anything, I'm shocked this wasn't an outright disaster. Some lovely designs and decent gags elevate this to the level of mediocre kid's entertainment.

Again, not a ringing endorsement, but the thought of watching this again doesn't fill me with despair. I can't stress enough how large of a step up that is from the Jim Carrey version.

23. Teen Titans Go! To the Movies

I skipped this when it was in theaters - it felt like I'd be paying cinema prices for television quality. And in a sense, I think this was the right call, for me at least. There's a degree to which we have a right to expect spectacle from the movies. That's all they still have over TV.

That said, when I finally caught this on DVD I was pleasantly surprised. Not because it was good - I'd seen the numbers on Rotten Tomatoes - but because it managed to justify its existence. Both the narrative and theme were structured around the medium. This had be on the big screen for the premise to work.

In contrast, I don't think you can say the same about the LEGO Batman Movie, the My Little Pony Movie, The Simpsons Movie, or the Powerpuff Girls Movie. These all relied on scale to sell the decision to release on the big screen. And, for what it's worth, I liked most of them. But you could have cut their budgets and released any of them direct to DVD or as multi-part episodes. This actually belonged as a movie.

On top of that, it delivered a good story and some great laughs. I was surprised how fun this was. But while it's fun enough to make it this far on my list, it wasn't quite memorable enough to climb any further. It pulled off what it set out to do beautifully, but its goals were somewhat less ambitious than I'm used to.

22. The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

If I were ranking these objectively, as a critic rather than a fan, this would come in just ahead of Pacific Rim Uprising. In no world and under no definition of the word is this a "good" movie. But sometimes a bad movie comes along that just appeals to your sensibilities. I pride myself with being able to tell the difference between one of those and an underappreciated gem. And while I really liked The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, the critics were right to tear into it.

Yes, this movie's a mess. The dialogue's bad, the story is underdeveloped, the showdown is underwhelming, and it's obvious at a glance it was torn apart and stapled back together by executive mandate. And yet, there's a giant clockwork mech run by a woman aided by a swarm of mice who form together into a giant mouse-man. And on top of everything else it's set at Christmas?

Honestly, it's a testament to how many (actually) good genre movies came out this year that this isn't ranked even higher.

21. The Cloverfield Paradox

I didn't watch the Super Bowl, but I did catch The Cloverfield Paradox that night. And while I don't think anyone would seriously call it great cinema, it was a lot of fun. It embraced its B-movie roots and went in some bizarre directions. The severed arm alone is enough to make me recommend this one.

Yeah, it could have used more of that. It could have really cut loose and thrown in genre elements blatantly outside the boundaries of those they were ostensibly using. And, had they done that, this would have fared better on this list.

But as it is, I still really enjoyed the experience of watching this intentionally cheesy, impressively fun throwback to a type of movie that's all but died out. More please!

20. Sorry to Bother You

Obviously this deserves a higher spot than it's getting on this list. Objectively, this was a fascinating, inventive movie. It was weird and creative and...

And it just didn't connect with me, at least not completely. I don't know - maybe it was too weird in a way that didn't align with my tastes. I generally found it funny, and I certainly thought it was clever, but I couldn't really get caught up in the world the way I wanted to.

If you've got this at or near the top spot of your list, rest assured I agree you have better taste in art than I do.

19. A Wrinkle in Time

This was mixed. I loved the characters and the emotional moments. The film was pulsing with sincerity to a degree that's rare in children's entertainment. Sadly, there was something missing in the worlds being created, and that "something" was substance. Nothing felt real or lived in - instead, the alien planets came off as CG set pieces.

Ultimately, I enjoyed this movie - I'll take sincerity over believability any day - but the flaws definitely held it back, both at the box office and in my personal assessment. But who cares? This was crafted to be streamed by preteen girls for decades to come - don't make the mistake of thinking it was in any way a failure.

18. Upgrade

This was a really solid, engaging cyberpunk flick. I'm not convinced the end twist worked with everything that came before (at least not without really straining the limits of rationality), but it was still a extremely satisfying experience.

The reason it's not higher on this list is less a complaint than an acknowledgement that movies, as a form of media, have gotten bigger. As a result, things like this feel closer to great TV than film. I'll be the first to admit that's completely unfair, but if you asked me whether this felt closer to Blade Runner 2049 or Mute, I'd have to say the latter (though, just so we're clear, this is a far better movie than Mute).

17. The Christmas Chronicles

While Netflix may not have been all that subtle in their attempt to generate a Christmas classic, the writing in this was surprisingly clever, as I covered in depth over at Mainlining Christmas. All of that is in addition to the inspired casting of Kurt Russell in the role of Santa Claus. I enjoyed this quite a bit and expect to revisit it numerous times in future Christmases (and I doubt I'll be alone in doing so).

16. Deadpool 2

This was an absolutely fantastic comedy - I almost fell out of my seat laughing more times than I can count. That said, I was slightly - only slightly - disappointed by just how committed Deadpool 2 was to mocking the superhero genre. While the first leaned towards a self-aware superhero movie with humor present, this definitely embraced all-out parody, exemplified by the rather quick and brutal resolution to the X-Force subplot. I already thought X-Force was kind of a silly concept, but I'd have preferred getting a movie that challenged that preconception, rather than killing them off as a punchline.

15. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

This was a movie with a lot of issues, from poor plotting to bad characters. But for all its faults, it was well designed and directed, which made for an enjoyable experience. The Gothic mansion made for a fantastic change of scenery, and the erupting volcano even made the old island feel new again. The whole thing had a great 80's Amblin vibe. The blend of light horror and adventure reminded me of movies like Gremlins or Poltergeist, even if it couldn't quite match those in quality.

Would I have preferred better writing? More interesting characters? An even more outlandish story? Of course. But considering the franchise's limitations, this delivered something far better than I'd anticipated.

14. Solo: A Star Wars Story

Full disclosure: this is a full spot higher because of that surprise cameo at the end. And I don't even like that character all that much. But I do like extended universes and fun connections. And I love surprises, which that moment absolutely delivered.

Beyond that, Solo was a lot of fun. It had its issues, granted - I'll acknowledge there were serious problematic implications to L3-37's fate (though I loved the character so much, I was willing to overlook them). Likewise, the movie wasn't exactly inspired. But I enjoyed it regardless as a fun summer adventure.

13. Ant-Man and the Wasp

This wasn't one of the year's most memorable films, but it was a joy to watch. It delivered a light, enjoyable tone, coupled with some of the MCU's funniest moments. It wasn't exhilarating or suspenseful, but then it wasn't supposed to be.

Instead, it was a character-driven comedy adventure. What's not to love?

12. Mission: Impossible - Fallout

One hell of a ride. There's a lot more to say about Fallout, but I think that sums up why it's as high on this list as it is. This movie was start to finish action and intrigue with a relentless, exhilarating pace. Oh yeah, it also managed to mine the previous installments and cobble together a character for Ethan Hunt and still find time to sell the idea this series is a connected story, as opposed to a disjointed set of movies with the same lead.

I don't quite think this lived up to Rogue Nation, but that's more a compliment to just how good Rogue Nation is than any kind of condemnation of Fallout. It was an effective, exciting summer action flick.

11. Annihilation

I really wish I'd seen this in a theater.

I honestly meant to, but I was busy and just didn't get around to it. But I put it in my Netflix queue as soon as it was out, and the minute it was over I regretted not doing everything in my power to catch this on the big screen.

It was a freaky, tone-driven sci-fi dream; almost a fairy tale. Just the sort of thing I love.

I'm not sure if it would have ended even higher on this list if I'd seen this the way it was intended, but it's a definite possibility. Even on the small screen, this was immensely enjoyable, but I'll add it to my mental list of movies I failed.

10. Isle of Dogs

This is a hair away from being three spots higher. Honestly, if the ending had been a little less awkward (not even a lot - just a hair would have done it), I'd have placed it higher. I really, really liked this movie - it's easily my new favorite Wes Anderson film.

That's not an endorsement of his decision to set this in Japan, nor am I denying there are some very questionable script choices. But, right or wrong, I just loved the dogs and the story (excluding the resolution, which felt a little too deus ex machina). But this managed to deliver Anderson's style while also adding some heart and tension, two elements he's typically ignored.

9. Christopher Robin

Cards on the table: I'm pretty sure I love this more than it deserves. It's certainly a good movie, not to mention a great use of nostalgia (for a discussion of crummy uses of nostalgia, reread what I said about Ready Player One).

But I can't deny a big part of why this is as high as it is has less to do with quality and more to do with my childhood associations with these characters. But, hey, this is a "favorites" list, so here we are.

8. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Spoiler warning: I've been to the future, and this won the Oscar for best animated picture.

This movie feels like something new, and I honestly don't know the last time I could say that about an animated US production. Sure, Pixar keeps delivering near-perfect films, but they all feel like they're made from the same template.

This honestly doesn't feel like it comes from the same universe. Its use of color, motion, editing, references... they're all different from anything else out there. And that alone is worth celebrating.

Throw in some fantastic characters, wonderful designs, a great script... yeah, this is fantastic.

Is it my favorite movie of the year? Nah. Is it even my favorite animated movie? Once again, the answer's no. But that's all preference. Speaking objectively, when this wins the aforementioned Academy Award, it'll have earned it.

7. Mary Poppins Returns

I could almost copy and paste what I said about Christopher Robin, with a few caveats. I think Mary Poppins Returns was technically a little better, but of course that isn't why it's a few spots closer to #1 than CR.

Ironically, the issue is I have more of an attachment to Winnie the Pooh than Mary Poppins, and in this case that worked against the Bear of Very Little Brain. Both movies have a problematic side to their construction, but I was far more bothered by the the issue with Christopher Robin.

Regardless, this a fantastically well-made throw-back to the era of musicals. I had a lot of fun watching this.

6. Aquaman

This is probably the second most ambitious movie made this year, and it would easily hold that title any year an Infinity War wasn't being fought. Sure, the movie falls far short of those ambitions - this really would have needed another hundred million or so to actually pull off the scope it was going for, but...

God bless them for not backing down. They delivered a bizarre, quirky film with moments of astonishing beauty and scale. And, yeah, moments of clearly blue-screened CG with silly hair effects: this wasn't a perfectly immersive experience. But between fun dialogue and a fast-paced script, I found it impossible to focus on the movie's shortcomings. This was a great experience, and I loved every minute.

I'll add that I spent a great deal of time torn on whether to put Mary Poppins ahead of or behind this. In the end, I decided to break the tie by counting the number of Julie Andrewses in the film.

5. Bumblebee

While the plot isn't particularly original, the movie delivers a heartfelt character story about a girl dealing with depression stemming from the loss of her father as she tries to put her life back together, make friends, and learn to experience joy again.

Oh, and there are Transformers.

The fact I was just as riveted by the human characters as I was by robots I've waited three decades to see faithfully realized in live action is nothing short of astonishing. I loved this movie and hope it becomes the template for dozens more.

4. Avengers: Infinity War

In some ways, Infinity War is everything I've ever wanted out of a superhero movie. It's brightly colored, funny, and surreal, yet still emotionally powerful. This is a movie that has weight to it, that understands that the subjects of a story don't dictate whether it's serious or not.

God, I just respect the hell out of this. And those fights are incredible. We've never seen heroes and villains clash like this. Forget Thanos for a minute - the battles with his lieutenants alone are amazing.

So why am I holding this back? Why isn't it in the top 3?

The thing is, while I completely respect the movie's gutsy, risky decision to end a summer blockbuster by killing off 50% of the heroes - including arguably the company's two most significant characters - I can't deny feeling a bit unsatisfied. Yeah, that will probably change in hindsight when I see the next installment, but until then, it leaves a mixed taste in my mouth.

I love the studio for being willing to do that to me, but it does hold this one back a little on my favorites list. Just a little, though.

3. Black Panther

We've gotten comic book movies that transcended the level of a Hollywood blockbuster before. And we've seen comic book movies that manage to capture the tone and flavor of their source material. But I don't think we've ever once gotten a movie that pulled both off at the same time, at least not the way Black Panther did.

The movie is inventive, genre-crossing, fun, and intelligent. The characters and setting aren't tethered to reality in the way many of its predecessors were - the source material is truly unleashed. We're treated to a world where super-science, mysticism, and espionage intermingle. And, obviously, it's a profoundly important cinematic work that delivers long overdue representation, along with an unapologetic exploration of the evils of colonialism.

I have a hard time thinking of anything negative to say. I guess it felt a little rushed at times, but "this movie felt too short" is a pretty good flaw to have.

2. Paddington 2

I kind of wish this hadn't been the first movie I saw in the theaters this year, because it set an absurdly high bar. Like its predecessor, this was an absolutely, astonishingly brilliant movie. It's progressive, intelligent, perfectly structured, beautifully shot, painstakingly enhanced... honestly, I can't think of a single aspect to critique. The few areas it didn't live up to part one weren't due to failure; they were wise choices on where the sequel should or shouldn't focus its time.

I've been reviewing movies as a pastime for about a decade now, and not surprisingly, I find myself reusing phrases and ideas. One cliche you'll see me use in reviews for movies I like is, "It's not a perfect movie."

But you won't find that one in my review of Paddington 2, because - frankly - it kind of is a perfect movie. There's very little (if anything) that could be done to improve it. I loved every second.

1. Incredibles 2

Some of this movie's placement is due to personal preference, but it's worth noting this was, by any objective metric, a goddamn amazing film.

But let's not lose sight of the fact I love superheroes, and it doesn't get much better than this family. Brad Bird's original remains one of the best in the genre, and the most critical thing I can say about the sequel is it's probably not quite as good. I think?

But even if that's true - even if this isn't as good as part one, I honestly think I enjoyed it more. If there's one thing I wanted more of after the first movie, it was Elastigirl. She was already awesome, but she didn't get anywhere near as much screen time in The Incredibles as her husband. Apparently I wasn't alone in wanting an Elastigirl spin-off movie, because that's more or less what this was. A street-level, superhero detective story in the vein of a Batman adventure, complete with a villain who feels like they stepped out of DC Comics.

God, this movie was a joy to watch. I hope they make more of these, preferably closer than fourteen years apart.

Wrap up

So. That's 2018. This has been an amazing year for genre in general and superhero movies in particular. There were nine theatrically released superhero movies this year, and all but one (Venom, which I still need to see) were fresh on Rotten Tomatoes (hell, of the remaining eight, only Aquaman was below 80%). On top of that, two of them (Black Panther and Into the Spider-Verse) are being heralded by many as the best live-action and animated installments in the genre ever made. And while I'm not quite ready to endorse that title for either, I think there's certainly at least an argument to be made.

If you're looking for a brief summary for the year in cinema, that's probably a good place to start. It's also worth noting that nostalgia was once again a major factor. Much of that was geared towards the 80's (Ready Player One, Bumblebee), but it also expanded to include earlier properties (Mary Poppins Returns, Christopher Robbin) and even the early 2000's (Incredibles 2).

Once again, it was an extremely lucrative year for Disney - they hold the top three highest grossing movies domestically, and just barely lose the #3 spot to Fallen Kingdom worldwide. Already, four movies released this year have surpassed a billion dollars worldwide, and there's a decent chance Aquaman will be the fifth.

That said, several movies were overlooked. I'll own my share of the blame around Annihilation and Isle Of Dogs - both were phenomenal films I regret waiting for DVD. Likewise, Bumblebee really deserves more attention than it's getting (though I kind of think Paramount has no one to blame but itself - pitting it against both Aquaman and Mary Poppins was a major misstep).

On the critical side, I want to mention a trend I find a tad disconcerting. In my opinion, movies released directly to streaming services are being reviewed harsher than those released traditionally. Cloverfield Paradox and Mute are at 19% and 20% on Rotten Tomatoes, and - while these certainly weren't flawless films - I feel like they're comparable to films in the 50% to 70% range. Likewise, I still think Christmas Chronicles is a bit underrated at 70%. It'll be interesting to see if this trend continues.

Next year's already looking exciting. I'm looking forward to Captain Marvel, Avengers: Endgame, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Alita: Battle Angel, Shazam, and others. There's a lot coming out before the end of June, and I'm planning to catch as many as possible.

After that... I'm going to be busy.

This might be the last year I do one of these, at least for a while. Lindsay and I are expecting a new, miniature human next year with a due date between Avengers: Endgame and Spider-Man: Far from Home, and I'm not naive enough to think I'll have time to keep up with current releases. We'll see what that means for this blog - I might go on hiatus for a while, or I might just pare back the number of posts.

Either way, I can't wait to see what 2019 holds.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Movie Review: Mary Poppins Returns

I mean, it's delightful.

What else would you expect? Right or wrong, Disney's mastered the art of planting, aging, and harvesting nostalgia. They pulled it off with Christopher Robin, and they're doing it again with Mary Poppins Returns. Your enjoyment is of course dependent on some familiarity with the original and your ability to either miss or not care that your emotions are being manipulated.

If you push back on the movie's premise, you're not going to have as good a time. And, frankly, I think that's reasonable. I pushed back a bit on Christopher Robin, because it really grated on me that Disney was essentially laying claim to the soul of a real human being who had a troubled relationship with a series of books his father wrote him into. Mary Poppins Returns has a questionable background of its own: this is a property the studio wrestled away from its creator. Maybe that should bother me more, but... honestly, it didn't.

Technically, these movies are marvels. Mary Poppins Returns recreates the feel of the original beautifully while using modern effects to create a brighter, more vivid world than was possible in the 60's. Music from that movie lives on, woven into the score. Meanwhile, there's a lineup of new songs that fit right in.

The cast is wonderful - if Disney wants to make more of these, I'm willing to watch Emily Blunt deadpan Poppins' lines forever. And of course Lin-Manuel Miranda is fantastic in this. On a meta level, I'm not sure this movie could exist without a genuine, recognizable musical super-star, and until Miranda we hadn't had one in decades.

The story here is, of course, fairly light, but that's by design. If you're feeling cynical, you can (accurately) dismiss the ending as a bit of Deus Ex Machina, but then you'd also have to contend with the fact the premise is more or less that of a goddess descending from the sky to help out a family. These movies are less driven by suspense than by the joy of watching scheming bankers unaware they're actually contending with someone at a power level that would make Thanos quake.

My real complaints have less to do with stuff like that and more to do with a handful of scenes that get a little too cute for their own good. There's a sequence with Meryl Streep that didn't work for me, then a number at the end that really felt like it hinged on an actor making a cameo who *didn't* show up. The replacement they went with... okay: I get it, and it's the only other person in the world who'd make any sense in that role, but the connection is a little too tenuous for the weight given to that scene and those lines.

In short, it's a charming, beautiful continuation of the original film. If that sounds good to you, you'll probably be as happy with the finished product as I was. But if you've never really cared for the classic, this isn't going to convert you.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Movie Review: Aquaman

I'm honestly not sure whether I'd characterize Aquaman as good or bad - there are a lot of aspects the movie juggles exceptionally well and others that are technically failures. I'll get to some of that in a moment, but...

Here's the thing. I don't care whether this is a good movie or not, and I have a feeling you won't either. This is one of those movies you smile through, beginning to end. It's a wonderful experience, in spite of its flaws, and my only regret is I didn't spring for IMAX.

There are a handful of reasons this is as enjoyable as it is. First, the pacing in this movie is phenomenal. It moves quickly from backdrop to backdrop, showing off a fantasy undersea kingdom at a scale we've never seen before. The movie features diverse settings that feel like a half-dozen different worlds.

There's one location lifted from DC comics that had me staring in wonder and shock at the screen. It's a short bit, and I don't want to give anything away, but it comes right after the most artistically impressive sequence of the film. The movie had already blown my mind with that, then it dropped them into a place I honestly couldn't believe they'd included in a live-action movie. This is the kind of thing even Marvel's too timid to include, and here it's barely a side note.

DC Comics are at their best when they embrace the fact they're composed of fairy tales, modern myths, and absurd premises. And this, more than any other adaptation of any DC property, doubles down on that. This is the first DC movie in decades that feels like it's proud it's based on a comic.

Even if you don't care about any of that - if comics have never interested in you - this is still an engrossing, ridiculous fantasy/adventure extravaganza. It's like a cross between Star Wars and the 1999 Mummy with visuals borrowed from Tron. Imagine an entire movie full of the best moments of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, and you'll be close.

Is that good film-making? Sometimes. The stuff with Black Manta is incredibly well done. Both his back story and the fight in Italy are incredible. But most of the movie is technically flawed. I'm seeing estimates that they spent around 200 million on this - I'm not sure 300 million would have come close to paying for the effects they really needed. This is one of those movies where you can tell you're watching actors standing or being dangled in front of green screens for 80% of the run time. A lot of it looks, well, cheesy. And a lot of the acting's cheesy. Dialogue: cheesy. Then there are plot contrivances, background that's illogical or under-explained, motivations that don't add up...

And you won't care at all, because you'll be sitting in a theater watching superhumans interact with undersea monsters. I've seen reviewers discuss whether Aquaman is closer to Thor or Thor: The Dark World, and I'd like to weigh in on that debate. For my money, the experience is on par with Ragnarok - I don't care if that's sacrilege.

This movie is silly, absurd, and at times campy... and I really think you'll love it as much as I did.

Movie Review: Bumblebee

I know it's a cliche to refer to a movie as a love letter, but I can't think of a better metaphor for Bumblebee. Only it's not one letter - it's a mailbag full of the things, and each of them was carefully considered and meticulously written.

If' you grew up with any incarnation of the various Transformers animated series, you're going to feel like this movie's a love letter to your childhood. Hell, you won't have to wait long: the opening on Cybertron is going to be one of the best things you see in theaters this year - it's worth the price of admission on its own. It's a short sequence, but if you remember the 80's show, it's a thing of beauty.

Even if you don't have any attachment to this property, don't write this off. This is a movie containing transforming robots, but unlike its live-action predecessors, it's actually still a movie. There are human characters with engaging stories, believable emotions, and genuinely touching arcs. And it's all told with loving nods to John Hughes, Steven Spielberg, and their contemporaries.

Yeah, yeah, it's hardly the first love letter to 80's adventure cinema we've gotten in the past few years. Amblin throwbacks have become commonplace, we've become too attached to 80's nostalgia, and so on and so forth. We should probably address all that at some point, but... maybe not today. Because this one just nails the formula. I mean, it doesn't just capture the magic of 1980's summer adventure movies; it recreates it in a way that should appeal to you whether you're 40 or 8.

There's some fighting in this, but it's not an action movie. The Transformers are part of the movie, but they're not the stars - that role's taken by Hailee Steinfeld, who plays a teenage girl with a knack for cars and some seriously unresolved issues stemming from losing a parent. This is more her story than Bumblebee's, and for once that isn't a complaint. If Christina Hodson's script, Travis Knight's direction, or Steinfeld's acting had been anything less than perfectly sincere, this would have felt like a distraction - instead, you find yourself ready to watch a sequel following the character even if it doesn't include a single alien robot.

Side note: If Hasbro wants to make a movie set a year later with Steinfeld's character somehow getting mixed up with a secret government organization called G.I. Joe, I'm ready to pre-order tickets today. Hell, John Cena could return, as well - if they want to launch a shared universe, they'll never have a better opportunity than this.

Simply put, this is a wonderful movie. It's not a complex movie - you've seen this outline a dozen times, at least - but it's so lovingly constructed, you won't mind. The story's simple, but they use that as a backdrop for teenage comedy and a touch of drama. And, of course, robots that transform into cars and planes.

Right. I should probably mention those.

They're fantastic. Unlike Michael Bay, Travis Knight actually likes the property he's developing. He likes the original designs, he likes the characters, and he likes the audience... and all that comes through. You know what else comes through? What's happening on screen. In addition to Transformers, Knight likes color, so you can actually tell the robots apart for a change. The fight scenes, when they do come up, are fun to watch.

But most of all, I think Knight and Hodson love the fans. They deliver moments and characters (albeit briefly) most of us never thought we'd see done justice in a live action movie. Also, I should note there's a scene that serves as a love letter to a subsection of the fanfic community I really never thought would get a nod in a live-action movie like this.

And it's a touching scene, too.

I'm saying you should go see this movie. Especially if you're a fan of the property, but even if you're not, this is worth making time for this holiday weekend. And... look. I know some of you are probably skeptical, because I'm one of the few people left who will still defend Bay's first installment. But I want to be clear about something: the 2007 movie has its merits, but when it say it's arguably a good movie, that's with a dozen caveats relating to distinctions between technical success versus narrative, movies designed to play for a world audience versus US preferences, and semantics around the term "good."

When I say Bumblebee is a great movie, I just mean it's a really great movie.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Alternative Movie Review: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Longtime readers of this blog will no doubt have forgotten I've breached the boundaries of our dimension in the past to travel to other worlds to watch movies that, sadly, could never exist in our own. In general, I've given up this practice due to the dangers involved (accidentally visiting a world where Brett Ratner directed Episode VII is enough to make one rethink the value of venturing beyond the fields we know).

But I'd burned through the new She-Ra series, caught up on The Good Place, and - frankly - grown tired of the weather, so I decided to drag the old Cosmic Treadmill out of the closet and take it for a spin. And doing so brought me to a world like our own in many ways yet... decidedly different. There, I came across a movie (released theatrically, no less) that was strange, fascinating, and wonderful; a film that seemed a manifestation of contradictions: it was animated but not dumbed-down, action-packed but character-driven, fun but still emotionally powerful. And, strangest of all, a universally acclaimed superhero movie... made by SONY.

I know, I know - what I'm describing seems impossible, but remember that in a multiverse, there are no limits to what can exist.

This movie was called "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse," and it delved into the lore and history of Marvel comics to a degree far beyond what would be conceivable from Hollywood productions in our own universe. From the opening credits, it embraced its origins, referencing its past and the mediums it sprung from to a degree that put our Earth's Deadpool to shame. It elicited humor from crossing styles and ideas without sacrificing gravitas. It injected comic sensibilities into its style in ways unthinkable to audiences of Earth-Prime.

This looked and felt like no animated movie I've ever seen.

Can you imagine a movie studio in our world being willing to put Spider-Ham on the big-screen in a film that wasn't a parody? It boggles the mind.

More than that, the film utilized (coincidentally enough) multiversal travel, and,within the context of a cartoon, the filmmakers trusted their audience to keep up. Perhaps it was the meticulously structured script that made this possible, or maybe the people of the world I saw this on were simply better educated than those on our Earth - either way, the crowd followed along and seemed to love it.

If ever there was the platonic ideal of a fantastic movie that could never be made in our reality, this was it. That thought stayed with me as I left the theater, recovered my Cosmic Treadmill, and returned to this world.

And all I can do is tell you how sorry I am that our dimension's film studios are so limited in their capacity for imagination. Because if anything like this ever came out here, I'd like to think it could change everything. It could demonstrate movies don't have to all look and feel the same way, that the range of styles available to storytellers is as wide as the multiverse.

It's a beautiful idea and it was a lovely film. I wish all of you could have seen it with me.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Movie Review: Christopher Robin

It's hard to look at Christopher Robin without wondering if it was made in an attempt to steal a bit of Paddington's thunder. It certainly feels like Disney's answer to the film franchise currently redefining family entertainment and removing decades of negative associations with live action/CG hybrids. While Christopher Robin isn't as good as the Paddington movies, it comes closer than it has any right to. It also has a very different tone, which helps set it apart.

I suppose it would be more accurate to say it has two different tones; the movie's largest flaw is that it's really two movies (well, one movie, followed by a 30-minute short). The longer segment tells the continuing story of Christopher Robin, starting with his leaving the Hundred Acre Wood at the end of The House at Pooh Corner. It gives us a quick overview of how his life progressed, including some fairly dark chapters.

All of this develops into an astonishingly well done story about him and Pooh. It's reflective, complex, and more than a little tragic, albeit with a mostly happy resolution.

Then someone at Disney reminded them they needed a kid's movie, so everything changes gears, Christopher Robin's daughter gets promoted to lead status, and the problems driving the narrative suddenly have conveniently easy solutions.

This isn't a new problem for Disney live-action. I had similar issues with Maleficent, and - to a lesser extent - Into the Woods. If anything, Christopher Robin managed its tonal imbalance better than the other two by virtue of keeping the sections separate. There are narrative connections, but it really feels as though the movie ends then a new story kicks off. It almost feels like a beautifully realized adult story with a kid's movie ending tossed on as some sort of addendum. My guess is that's a big part of the reason why it wasn't better received by critics.

All that said, I found the movie delightful from start to finish. However, it is worth noting I grew up with the Disney classic and am a fan of the original books. Unlike the Paddington movies, that level of familiarity with the source material is kind of a prerequisite for loving this. Nostalgia has become a common tool for attacking audiences' emotions, but this thing... it's weapons grade nostalgia if you're from the right generation.

That's either a merit or a flaw, depending on how you look at it. On one hand, there's something kind of cheap about leaning that heavily on our associations with these characters. On the other, these are characters most of us - at least most of us over the age of 30 - know pretty damned well.

And, frankly, this isn't the sort of simplistic, surface-level nostalgia we sometimes get from the Mouse House's live-action team (looking at you, Beauty and the Beast). The writers, director, and designers of this movie knew what they were doing. There are layered, subtle references to the source material that aren't remarked on or explained. You either understand why Rabbit and Owl are real talking animals as opposed to stuffed ones or you don't; the movie never addresses it.

The characterizations are also on-point. They weave in moments and bits of dialogue without it feeling forced or obnoxious. I never doubted for an instant that the people who made this movie loved and understood Pooh and his friends. The craft poured into this is awe-inspiring.

But, like I said before, the pivot to the kids movie is a bit disappointing. In addition, there'll always be a part of me a little uncomfortable with the idea that Disney effectively hijacked Christopher Robin's life. Let's not forget this was a real person who lived a completely different life than the fictitious one Disney invented for him.

Ultimately, though, very little of that had any bearing on how I actually felt about the movie. As a lifelong fan of the Bear with Very Little Brain, I was swept up from the start. If you've got positive associations with this character from your own childhood, I suspect you will be, too.

But if you've got young ones, you might want to leave them at home - this just isn't for them. Maybe go see this and send them to see a more appropriate film, like The Meg or something.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Popularity Contest

In an attempt to feign relevance, the Oscars are adding a new category for "Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film." They're hoping this will let them toss an award to blockbusters (and, of course, give audiences a reason to watch the ceremony) without altering the kinds of movies they give the real awards to.

If this weren't happening the same year Black Panther is poised to be nominated for Best Picture, I'd probably be less cynical. Hell, I'd go so far as to say there's a version of this that actually makes sense. It's just not the version we're getting.

First of all, the "popular movie" paradigm is already a mistake. They're essentially treating big budget genre films the way they treated animated movies in the 90's. But setting aside that the "Best Animated Picture" solution is already problematic (how many Pixar movies were robbed of the top prize by virtue of being seated at the kid's table?), this is several times worse. For one, there are significantly more "popular" movies than animated.

What they should have done was split Best Picture into two awards, based on budget, essentially admitting that forty million dollar films are a different art form than two hundred million dollar productions. Splitting Best Picture would have conveyed the idea that the different weight classes (for lack of a better name) were equal, rather than sending the message that genre isn't "real art" unless it's low budget and/or unsuccessful.

And that's exactly the message I take from this. It's way too early in the year to say for certain what deserves to win Best Picture, but Black Panther absolutely deserves a nomination. It might still get one, but make no mistake - this is absolutely going to be an impediment. And its chances of winning are virtually nonexistent now that voters can justify another choice by assuming Black Panther is guaranteed its participation award.

This would be a badly conceived plan at the best of times, and the fact it's happening this year makes it far, far worse.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Movie Review: Mission: Impossible - Fallout

Arguably, the most impressive feat Fallout achieves is selling the idea that the preceding five movies all played out in the same world and involved the same characters. That includes Ethan Hunt, incidentally, whose character is far more central to this movie than any of its predecessors. Even MI3, which was written around Hunt's private life, left the character something of a mystery box.

Fallout takes the unprecedented step of letting us peer into his head and glimpse his insecurities. And in the process, it pulls together threads of ideas and weaves them into an actual character. Granted, this should really have been done in Mission: Impossible, but better late than never.

I'm not sure the character we end up with is still all that compelling, but it's still a remarkable accomplishment. And, as I mentioned above, the process also binds the world together. We're reunited with characters, set pieces, and ideas drawn from every preceding film in the series. And, yes, that includes Mission: Impossible 2. Hell, the core of Hunt's character may have been drawn from a throwaway line from that movie, and Fallout succeeds in selling it through sincerity.

The movie takes some other risks, as well. Tonally and stylistically, it's quite a bit different than Rogue Nation, despite featuring the same writer/director. It also includes a moment or two that flirt with magical realism - I don't believe we've seen that from this series in the past.

I should also mention the movie plays out quite a bit differently than the trailers implied. Despite appearances to the contrary, this is only the second movie where... You know what? I'm going to stop that sentence, because I don't want to spoil it. Suffice to say, there was something about this movie that made me extremely happy.

That's not to say I was thrilled with every choice. The film telegraphed several twists in advance, and while they went off-book with a few elements, others played out fairly by-the-numbers. But like Rogue Nation before it, Fallout successfully builds a compelling narrative out of action sequences, ridiculous stunts, and absurd heists. I think it deserves a pass for a handful of obvious twists.

As always, the supporting cast is more interesting than Ethan Hunt, though it's closer than usual. My concerns this was going to sideline or mistreat Rogue Nation's MVP were unfounded - once again, Rebecca Ferguson's Ilsa Faust reminds the audience she's ready to take over this (or any other) franchise if the need arises. Likewise, Luther and Benji are wonderful as always, as the support. The team is also utilized more effectively than in most installments. While Fallout is definitely built around Hunt, it embraces the premise of a group of professionals with (somewhat) specialized skills required for pulling off an impossible mission.

The new characters are fantastic, too. Henry Cavill was perfectly cast as a strongman, and longtime fans of the series should be delighted by Vanessa Kirby's character (I sincerely hope we see more of her in future installments).

Then, of course, there's the action. I'm assuming you already know this from seeing the trailers, but this movies manages some jaw-dropping chases, fights, and stunts.

I enjoyed this movie a lot. At the end of the day, Rogue Nation is still my favorite, but keep in mind I think that's better than any Bond film. This one's still better than any Bond film made in the past forty years. That's not a bad consolation prize.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Movie Review: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Honestly, I didn't expect to like this. I was underwhelmed by the previous installment, and Fallen Kingdom's Freshness Rating (barely over 50% at the moment) didn't instill me with confidence.

But it turned out low expectations were for the best - I enjoyed this one quite a bit. Despite numerous flaws (most of which were inherited), Fallen Kingdom offered one of the best experiences in the series. At the very least, it's the best since The Lost World, if not the original Jurassic Park.

It helps this was the first Jurassic Park/World movie to feel at all different. That's not to say it didn't contain some familiar beats - there were a handful of plot points and twists that felt photocopied from earlier movies - but the setting, style, and tone were altered enough to make this feel new.

If you've seen the trailers, you already know the movie features two main locations. The first returns us to the island from the earlier movies, but the presence of an active volcano makes for a fresh change of pace. The whole thing feels somewhat reminiscent of the asteroid strike that killed the actual dinosaurs (well, technically it's reminiscent of the fake narrative of the asteroid strike, but the dinosaurs themselves aren't exactly scientifically accurate, either). Regardless, the apocalypse gives new life to the action sequences and makes a final trip to the island worthwhile.

The other set piece is a gothic mansion, which evokes the dusty museums and libraries where 19th-century scientists formed the concept of dinosaurs this franchise uses. The backdrop makes for a nice change of pace. Together, the two settings make this feel like more than just another retread.

And anything new is appreciated, because this movie has plenty of old artifacts trying (and mercifully failing) to hold it back. There's a new old man filling Hammond's shoes, a new villain barely distinguishable from the guy from Lost World, and the new monster is basically a scaled-down rehash of the Indominus Rex.

That said, the Indoraptor is a lot of fun. It's a small, streamlined killing machine. It's smart, fast, and... yeah, at the end of the day, it's just another raptor. And they'll probably never beat the kitchen scene from the first Jurassic Park in terms of suspense and thrills, but this comes closer than anything since. Fallen Kingdom makes full use of its haunted mansion aesthetic to make its new raptor feel demonic. The bedroom scene you saw in the trailer was the most extreme example of this, but most of the third act plays with this dynamic. This certainly isn't terrifying, but it has a few moments that are creepy, in that 80's PG-13 way.

In terms of heroes, we're still mostly stuck with the returning leads from Jurassic World. There's nothing particularly wrong with Owen and Claire, but they still feel more like they're copied out of other franchises. But as generic POV characters, they get the job done.

This falls far short of being amazing, but it's the best Jurassic movie we've seen in quite some time. In addition, it ends on an extremely promising note... which is going to make it all the more disappointing when Colin Trevorrow returns and inevitably drops the ball.

Please prove me wrong, Colin. Please.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Movie Review: Ant-Man and the Wasp

Since I started this blog ten years ago, I've tried to avoid puns in movie reviews whenever possible. It's not that have anything against puns - as a point of fact, I have immense respect for the art form - but the practice is widespread to the point of being ubiquitous. I'd like this blog to be different, and as such I've always attempted to find another path.
I bring this up to clarify that when I call Ant-Man and the Wasp a small film, it not intended as a joke, a reference, or - God particle forbid - a pun. It's merely because the movie's scope and stakes are refreshingly limited, which is both welcome and unusual for this genre.

That "God particle" line, on the other hand, was a pun. Look... I slipped up. I'm only human. Moving on.

This has already been an extremely busy year for superhero movies (this is the third MCU flick of 2018, the fourth Disney superhero movie, and the fourth Marvel superhero movie - with more on the way). I think it should be obvious this isn't topping anyone's best-of list, even limited to this genre. Ant-Man and the Wasp was a great film, but it would be unfair to compare this to the ground-breaking Black Panther or the unprecedented scale of Infinity War. 

The thing that makes Ant-Man and the Wasp worth seeing is that it doesn't try to compete. It doesn't stick a giant portal in the sky to try and convince you the world's about to end. It doesn't feature a sociopath out for world domination or destruction. There's no apocalypse that needs to be prevented. The closest the movie comes to a generic villain is a tertiary antagonist who wants to monetize Pym's technology. And not even through weaponization - he wants in on the clean energy industry.

I heard the term "romantic comedy" bandied about while this was in development, but I don't think that's entirely accurate. There are a couple romantic subplots, but overall I'd call this a family comedy. The movie is far more interested in the relationships between its characters than it is in its superhero shenanigans.

Not that those shenanigans aren't great. The movie has a lot of fun with its conventions, playing with the size-altering powers of its leads in innovative ways (though it's worth noting the trailers have given away several of the best gags).

I had to double-check the rating. I'm guessing they added some harsh language to bring this up to PG-13: it feels like it should be PG. Hell, if they'd toned down a few minor things, it could almost have been G.

And, frankly, I'm grateful. There's no shortage of uniform, edgy superhero flicks out there. Thankfully, Marvel has been willing to expand this genre in other directions. You can view Infinity War as the absolute pinnacle of the generic, gritty superhero movie. It essentially takes the formula that everyone else has failed to emulate and perfects it. Meanwhile, movies like Thor: Ragnarok, Spider-man: Homecoming, and this incorporate superheroes in other types of stories. Comic books have been doing this for ages, but it's a relatively new direction for movies to take.

It was absolutely the right choice for these characters. This was a great summer movie, the sort of pop-corn flick air-conditioned theaters were made for. But if you don't get get around to seeing this on the big screen, don't sweat that, either. It won't lose much shrunken down on your television.

Damn it! Puns again.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Movie Review: Incredibles 2

Let's start by addressing the wrong question: Is this as good as the first one?

The answer is not really, but it doesn't try to be. And that's important because, had it attempted to be as good as the original movie, it wouldn't have been as much fun as its predecessor. And Incredibles 2 actually does manage to pull off that feat. Hell, it might even be more fun.

The first installment was as good as it was largely due to the sense of wonder we experienced watching Dash and Violet discover their powers. But that's done - if this tried rehashing that, it would have been a mess. Wisely, it goes in a very different direction. No, wait - that's not quite accurate. Incredibles 2 goes in two different directions.

Most of the characters are tied up in a super-powered family comedy that feels like a 1960's sitcom bathed in radiation. It's weird, crazy, and hilarious. By now, you'll probably have heard that Jack Jack is a concentrated ball of awesome. True, though seeing everyone else interact and attempt to adapt to that is where the real fun comes in.

Meanwhile, the other half of the movie follows the revamped Elastigirl on her new job, which...

Okay, you know how we spent the last fourteen years repeating the mantra that the original was the closest we were ever going to get to a real Fantastic Four movie? Yeah, well, this might be the closest we ever get to watching a Batman story play out on the big screen. You'll see what I mean - this is some of the best superhero action/adventure ever made. Executives at Warner Bros. may want to bring along a notepad and something to write with.

While Incredibles 2 absolutely feels like two separate movies playing out side-by-side, there's a point to this. The stories are tied together not by forced story connections but by the ways characters are impacted. The movie is pulled apart by the conflicting plots, but it's supposed to be. That's the idea - the theme is built on that dynamic.

There's a lot to love here, and I'm barely scratching the surface. The new heroes are great, and the new villain is even better. Yeah, you'll have a pretty good idea where this is headed 25 miles in advance, but that won't spoil the fun.

I'll give you a head's up about the tone: this isn't the original. There's still exhilarating adventure and danger, but nothing remotely as dark and scary as we saw last time.* This may have been a studio mandate, but - honestly - it works surprisingly well as a commentary on where the genre has drifted. The first Incredibles movie asked us to take superheroes seriously, but that was a long time ago. In a post-Batman v Superman world, it's nice to get a reminder this genre can also be optimistic.

This might change after I see it a few more times, but Incredibles 2 is currently my favorite superhero movie of 2018. And, in case anyone's forgotten, that's high praise this year.

If you don't already have tickets, what in the world are you waiting for?

*Caveat. There was nothing all that dark in Incredibles 2, but parents of young children should be warned I heard the kid next to me BAWLING during the pre-movie short. This will make a lot more sense when you see it.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Mission Rewatchable, Part Rogue

After realizing I hadn't seen most since their theatrical runs, I'm rewatching and reevaluating the Mission: Impossible film series in preparation for Fallout.

This one just came out a few years ago, so I'm not even going to joke about the *SPOILER WARNING* - if you haven't seen Rogue Nation yet, watch it before reading. It actually matters this time.

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015)

When I wrote about Ghost Protocol, I mentioned that I found its 93% Freshness Rating baffling, because I found it far higher than I thought the movie deserved. By coincidence, Rogue Nation has the exact same score on Rotten Tomatoes, and once again, I find it baffling. Only this time, it's because 93% feels absurdly low.

Watching through Rogue Nation for a second time, I found myself engrossed in every scene, despite the fact I remembered what happened fairly well (it's only been a few years, after all). I think there's an argument to be made - in fact, I'll be making this argument in a moment - that this is as close to a perfect movie as this sub-genre has ever produced. I'll be clearer: in one sense, I think this is a better movie than any of the Bond installments.

Though in a different, less fair sense, it isn't.

Rogue Nation is a fantastic film, easily the best in this series and one of the best genre movies in recent years. However, there's one area where it falls a little flat. It's not all that memorable. The issue is the same that's plagued this series since Mission: Impossible II, the movie that made Ethan Hunt into a generic lead. This movie is clearly evoking Bond, but Hunt is no substitute for 007. In the first MI installment, Hunt was at least different. He had his own set of skills and didn't rely on Bond's techniques. But, again, MI2 threw all that out, and in doing so essentially established a ceiling for how good this series could possibly be. Rogue Nation, to its credit, hits that ceiling in the cold opening and never drops an inch.

This wants desperately to be a Bond movie. Even the music occasionally nods to the more famous franchise. And, of course, its premise is outright stolen. Yes, there was a version of "The Syndicate" on the original television series, but the Syndicate presented here is clearly a spin on Spectre. It feels trivial to say it's a far better spin than the movie Spectre managed, so I'll take this a step further: this is a more interesting version of Spectre than the Connery Bond movies employed.

It's not a better Blofeld, though. I mean, it's better than the "Bond's lost adopted brother" garbage they employed in Spectre, but the same can be said of Doctor Claw from the live-action 90's Inspector Gadget movie. The villain at the core of Rogue Nation's Syndicate is, like Hunt, a generic facsimile. He's a really good facsimile, but there's no mistaking him for the genuine article.

There are actually some advantages to being generic versions of iconic figures. For one, Ethan Hunt isn't obligated to sleep with every woman he comes across. Only the second movie imposes a cliched romance - the third did have Ethan in a relationship, but it subverted almost every spy movie trope in the best way possible. Rogue Nation introduces Rebecca Ferguson's Ilsa Faust, who is mercifully never paired romantically with Cruise.

It does falter around at least one unfortunate trope, though. Early on, we get a fairly classic fridging. The character killed is a new one, and her death is explicitly there to motivate the lead (or at least that's the villain's intent). It works in the context of the movie, but I wanted to mention it due to this series's history. One of the few constant character traits Hunt has is that he gets angry when young women die. It was established in the first movie, and it keeps coming up. I suppose it's better than if he didn't care all that much (i.e.: the current incarnation of Bond), but it's unfortunate this series has become such an easy go-to example for the trope.

Rogue Nation moves at an absolutely breathtaking pace, shifting effortlessly from location to location as the characters chase the McGuffin, which we actually care about for once. The reason we care is because the mystery behind the McGuffin is directly tied to one we actually have a reason to be invested in - Ilsa Faust, a double (triple? Quadruple? I honestly lose track) agent whose loyalties, background, and future are bound to the magical digital mystery box everyone's chasing. We care because she's intriguing, and we can't understand her without understanding what she's after.

In Ghost Protocol, they were ostensibly fighting over a McGuffin that could bring about nuclear Armageddon. This time, they're after money, and somehow the stakes feel far higher.

The action sequences in this movie are staged and executed beautifully. We get a opera sequence evocative of the one from Living Daylights, only here it's escalated by several orders of magnitude. We get an exhilarating chase sequence that uses comic relief to build tension - seriously, this thing is a work of genius. Ferguson is used heavily - Ilsa's is about a hair away from getting equal screen time to Cruise. This is much appreciated, since both her character and fighting style are far more interesting.

Ultimately, this is a movie that's somehow better than it can possibly be. It's essentially the perfect encapsulation of what this genre is capable of, a virtually flawless execution that, by all rights, should be celebrated by genre fans the way The Avengers or The Dark Knight are. The difference isn't due to quality; it's due to cultural significance, the one ingredient Rogue Nation - and the Mission: Impossible series in general - lacks.

All that being said, I'll be really interested to see if Mission: Impossible - Fallout can prove me wrong and maybe find a way for this series to distinguish itself. I'm skeptical it's possible at this point, but after rewatching Rogue Nation, I'm hesitant to bet against McQuarrie. This movie really is incredible.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Mission Rewatchable, Part Ghost

After realizing I hadn't seen most since their theatrical runs, I'm rewatching and reevaluating the Mission: Impossible film series in preparation for Fallout.

This is where the *SPOILER WARNING* goes, though - honestly - it barely matters for this one.

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011)

This one's awkward. Up until this point, my opinions have vaguely trended with critical consensus, but that changes here. Ghost Protocol is tied with Rogue Nation on Rotten Tomatoes with a stunning 93% fresh. And I just don't get it.

The weird thing is, I usually like the director. Strike that - I usually love Brad Bird's movies. I even found Tomorrowland compelling and beautiful, and that's below 50% on Rotten Tomatoes. But Ghost Protocol leaves me underwhelmed.

While I don't like it, I don't hate it, either. The action is solid, the comedic bits are funny, and there's a twist at the end I really dig. But overall, the movie feels completely devoid of substance. Aside from the first, every movie in this series is kind of forgettable, but most have something about them I feel is deserving of being remembered. But Ghost Protocol is just... there's very little here aside from a disjointed series of action beats.

The movie pretends there's more, of course. It introduces a pair of new agents, each with a brief backstory/motivation that interferes with the mission. The first, played by Paula Patton, wants revenge against the hired assassin who killed her boyfriend. I actually appreciate that her arc is mirroring Hunt's from early movies (i.e.: she held her lover as he died, and she's driven by a desire for justice). But all this makes up a fairly minor portion of the film, and it's all just so silly. Given her profession, you'd think she'd have some sympathy for the hired killer and maybe be more interested in the mastermind who ordered the hit.

The backstory given to Jeremy Renner's character is a little more interesting. He was tasked with protecting Ethan and Julia in an off-screen mission which resulted in Julia's death. Ethan has no idea he was in charge of his wife's security, which promises drama that's never delivered (for good reason, in my opinion - the reveal at the end is more in keeping with the franchise's commitment to misdirection and illusion).

All of this results in a lot of squabbling when the mission goes south in the second act, but it gets hand-waved so fast, it comes off feeling trivial. When the team fights each other, they fail. When they work together, they win. In other words: cooperation is good, knowing is half the battle, enjoy your breakfast cereal.

That's all you get in terms of theme, and it's got jack to do with the actual plot, which centers around a madman trying to start a nuclear war. Though "plot" may be a generous descriptor, since there's very little connective tissue. You can connect the dots (i.e. they went to place 'x' because of clue 'y') if you want to, but it's pretty obvious everything that's introduced is present to justify either a set piece, a new location, or a joke. Nothing feels organic or satisfying.

The villain is barely in the movie - we are literally told instead of shown his paper-thin motivation, and we're never told why, exactly, an academic is able to go head-to-head with the world's best spy in a fistfight. If he has a personality, we never see it. At the end of the movie, the only things I really know about him are he's a nihilist, and he's willing to die to bring about World War 3. That's not a lot to hang a movie off of.

This movie has no backbone, nothing holding it together. There are some good action scenes (the Russian prison escape, Hunt scaling the world's tallest building, the fight in the automated parking garage, etc.), along with some clever gags, but that's all. There's no interesting tale of espionage, no inner conflict, and no unique tone. Just one zany thing after another, punctuated with a moral that feels ripped from an 80's Saturday morning cartoon.

All of that being said, this is far superior to MI2. Ghost Protocol is lacking substance, but the sequences are far more interesting and far less offensive. I appreciate how it subverts the trend towards fridging that permeates the first and third movies. It actually subverts it twice by having a male character die to motivate a woman, and again with the fake-out around Hunt's wife: everyone assumes he's driven by losing her, but he secretly knows she's fine.

Plus, this comes closest to getting back to the team dynamic missing from this franchise since it moved to the big screen. It can't quite pull it off, because the cornerstone of a cinematic team is specialization, and three fourths of this group are interchangeable super spies. But of course that's an issue inherited from the second installment - I'm not sure there's a good fix at this point, short of removing Cruise from the series and rebooting with a more balanced team.

At the end of the day, this doesn't strike me as an awful film, but it certainly doesn't feel like a great (or even good) one. It's watchable, but instantly forgettable. There's nothing about the characters to make them interesting, the villain is as boring as they come, and the plot is so thin it's almost nonexistent.

Am I missing something here? I feel like I must be, given how much critics (and fans) loved this. If anyone has a different take, I'd love to know why this is as popular as it is. I just don't see it.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Mission: Rewatchable, Part III

On rewatch, I found I loved part one and hated part two, so we're tied. Or we would be if we were keeping score.

We'll see how #3 fares right after this obligatory *SPOILER WARNING*

Mission: Impossible III (2006)

J.J. Abrams doesn't get nearly enough credit for being the guy you call to salvage fallen franchises. Think about it a minute: he's been hired to direct a new installment in three franchises that were more or less dead, and in each case, he delivered a film that revitalized the series with a fresh take. Sure, he's had missteps (though I kind of think history has been a tad harsh in how it's remembered Into Darkness), but he brought back Star Wars, Star Trek, and Mission: Impossible. I feel like that should be a bigger deal.

At any rate, my opinion of this movie hasn't really changed since I last saw it in 2006. It does a wonderful job recapturing the suspense of the first without rehashing the story. Abrams ingeniously gives Ethan a fiance and a civilian life, then builds the movie around his attempts to balance these with his secret identity. The tension is established from the opening, which seemingly shows his fiance executed in front of him. The movie then rewinds and shows us the lead up to this inevitable tragedy...

Which (spoiler alert for a twelve year-old movie?) isn't all it seems. There actually is a fairly textbook fridging in the movie, but it's not her. Honestly, I think the fridging (a fellow spy Ethan trained who dies early on) is justified by the narrative, but it's still more than a little troubling how often this trope pops up in this series.

Regardless, the movie's main antagonist is Owen Davian, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Davian is easily the most memorable villain this series has had, and I certainly wouldn't be the first to suggest he inspired aspects of both The Dark Knight's Joker and Skyfall's Silva. He's frightening without being inhumanly powerful, he's brilliant but prone to human weaknesses, and he's evil without being cartoonish: he's an absolutely fantastic nemesis for Hunt. And, in the end, he does manage to kill Ethan (sort of - it obviously doesn't stick).

The script is tense and well constructed. The story rearranges the standard elements you'd expect from the series in a way that's surprising and fascinating. There's a touch of humor, but it doesn't detract from the suspense in the least.

I should mention Abrams's infamous "mystery box" makes a somewhat literal appearance in this movie. The villain's motivation is to get his hands on a mysterious object the IMF wants kept safe, and the film goes out of its way to dangle the fact they're not going to tell you what's inside. I liked this in the context of the movie - the resolution implies it doesn't matter, and that the whole thing is silly, which is really the best way to wrap up a mystery box. It does leave you wondering if Abrams realized that would be the takeaway, or if he actually thought we'd be interested in the McGuffin. But ultimately his motivations will remain a mystery box, as well.

The action isn't quite as consistent as I'd like. There are definitely some cool sequences and some wonderful fights, but the large-scale set pieces sometimes feel forced. Even then, Abrams does a decent job giving you something interesting to see, even if it's by skipping a sequence entirely to follow the team waiting in the van instead.

It holds up well and manages to recover the franchise after the mess that was Mission: Impossible II. All that said, I don't find it quite as compelling as the first in the series. I think a lot of that is due to the fact that, despite the novel conceit of having Hunt struggle with balancing his home life with his work, this still feels like a fairly conventional (though good) action flick, while part one felt bizarre and quirky. It probably would have helped if MI2 hadn't reduced Hunt to a generic, gun toting super-spy, but that genie would have been hard to put back in the bottle.

This isn't revolutionary, but it's still a great flick that's worth revisiting.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Mission: Rewatchable, Part II

Last time, I looked at the first film in the series and found it held up nicely. Let's see how the second installment fares...

But first: *SPOILER WARNING* I'll be talking about the plot, so if you haven't seen this movie yet, be warned there is astonishingly little to talk about.

Mission: Impossible II (2000)

While I liked the first Mission: Impossible movie both when it came out and on rewatch, I remember being incredibly disappointed in part two. I hoped I'd have a different experience seeing it again eighteen years later, but if anything, I came away feeling like my memory had been generous.

Before I get into why I disliked this, I want to take a moment and touch on a few details I think this does well. To date, this is the only movie in the series where the main character is given a mission, assembles a team to complete that mission, and is never disavowed, branded a traitor, and/or hunted by his government. In other words, it's the only one that actually delivers on the premise of the franchise.

I'll also admit the twist in the cold opening was cool. Essentially, we see the same setup where an IMF team pulls off an impossible mission, only this time it's a renegade team using their skills for evil. Granted, the whole premise of the movie is lifted from GoldenEye, but it's still an interesting direction for this franchise.

Pity the movie squanders that premise. The villain may have been a good idea, but the execution is abysmal. The bad guy epitomizes every cartoonish cliche imaginable. He's at once overly effective and laughably idiotic, leaving no plausible explanation for how he's as successful as he is. Likewise, despite having had previous interactions with Hunt, the two have no relationship or arc together. They were never friends, they're not really presented as rivals (aside from working at cross purposes), and their opinions about each other don't change over the course of the movie. We're supposed to view them as each others' nemeses, but there's no depth or reason to care.

Likewise, the movie conveys none of the suspense delivered by part one. John Woo manages to deliver some pretty shots, but there's nothing beyond the imagery. There are points this almost feels like a Michael Bay movie - visually impressive, but void of feeling or substance.

This is most obvious when it relates to Hunt. In the first movie, he was always shaken, always in danger. He spent the entire movie on edge, and I felt that while watching it. In the sequel, he seems impervious. Villains unload machine guns in his direction, and he barely breaks a sweat. I understand the impulse to sell your hero as cool under pressure, but there's a fine line between making a character badass and just killing the stakes. To put it another way, it's as though the franchise went from Die Hard part one to Die Hard part five in a single movie.

And of course everything else interesting about Ethan Hunt is either dropped completely or watered down to get a cheap laugh. He's still good at acrobatics, but he's equally good at hand-to-hand combat, motorcycle riding, and slow-motion gun fights. There's a throwaway line about him preferring stunts to body counts, but it's primarily there as a joke. Meanwhile, everything setting him apart from being just another generic super-spy is gone. Cast a British actor and change his name, and this script could literally be a Bond movie - and not a particularly good one. Hell, they even have Anthony Hopkins phone in a generic version of 'M'. And, of course, there's a Bond-girl.

To be fair, Thandie Newton was a good pick for the role. She brings some presence to the part and deserves far better than this script, which introduces her as a capable expert before immediately relegating her to an object for the men to stress over. I mean, Jesus, the central conflict in the movie concerns her being asked to sleep with her ex so Hunt can spy on him. All so we can wallow in Hunt's distress at being forced to put her in this position, of course. The movie does take pains to give her a little agency, but it never comes close to justifying the trashy premise.

The other two members of Hunt's IMF team are bit parts - they're basically sidekicks. It's a shame the one movie in this franchise to adhere to the basic structure of the source material wound up being the worst. I'm convinced this is part of the reason every other installment veered closer to part one's structure (which is probably the least impressive aspect of the first movie).

Mission: Impossible II started with an interesting premise, but instead of following through, all we got was a generic action movie surrounding an even more generic love story. We wound up with a Bond movie, minus the style that makes even a bad Bond movie watchable. In the end, all this really did was establish that Ethan Hunt was good with a gun, removing what could have been a distinguishing trait from the character.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Mission: Rewatchable, Part 1

So, the sixth Mission: Impossible movie is coming out this year, and I haven't seen most of the others since they were in theaters. Well... turns out the box set containing the first five movies was absurdly cheap on Amazon, so...

You get the idea.

Oh, and before you ask in the comments: of course, I thought of doing a "your mission is to re-watch these movies" gag for the intro, but I decided against it because that would be stupid and obvious.

So... nothing's self-destructing, no one's getting disavowed, and nothing at all hinges on whether or not you read this. However, I do have one dramatic thing to say:

*SPOILER WARNING* This movie came out in 1996, if you haven't seen it... you are probably under the age of 20. Regardless, I'll be talking about the plot, so... consider yourself warned.

Let's get started.

Mission: Impossible (1996)

I was kind of shocked to realize this is the only movie in the franchise I didn't originally see on the big screen. I did see it on VHS a few times (side note: it's also the only one in the series I'd seen more than once before last week), but it's been at least fifteen years since I last watched it. And while I remembered liking it, I really didn't expect it to hold up. Not a lot of action movies from the 90's age well.

I'm pleased to report this one doesn't just hold up; it may have improved over time. The cool stuff remains cool, and some of the more awkward elements come off as charming. Yes, a large number of the sets are obviously on sound stages, but the movie infuses these with an astonishing amount of suspense. Moreover, it manages to use this to create a world that feels unreal but believable. Even the ridiculous CG helicopter sequence at the end seems like it belongs.

Of course, not quite everything holds up. The movie is a little too eager to kill off female characters in order to show Ethan Hunt's horror and rage at their deaths. If memory serves, we'll be revisiting this issue in later installments - I seem to remember this franchise having an addiction to fridging characters. That said, it's worth noting there's another side to this here - they may not last long, but the team at the start of Mission: Impossible is split 50/50 male to female. I think that's the only time the series pulled that off.

Speaking of the team not lasting...

Another complaint many people have - or at least had - with this film was its decision to do away with the team dynamic and focus instead on a single action hero. I'll admit it still bugs me a bit. The concept behind the series was for a team of specialists to carry out an elaborate mission making use of their talents. Essentially, it was a perfect blend of the espionage and heist genres. Dropping that idea basically reduces the premise to a Bond knock-off.

But there are a few mediating factors in the movie's favor. First, it's hard to stay disappointed in something like this for two decades. It may have felt like a dramatic departure in the 90's, but by now, it's just kind of a background fact.

More than that, I love how, despite being pushed into the role of a lead, Hunt remains a specialist throughout the film. I'd love this more if the movie didn't downplay it - they actively identify him as the team's "point man." But - and this is to the movie's credit - he's not the point man. He's their gymnast. Aside from throwing on a disguise every now and then, there's not much Hunt does in the film that deviates from this skillset. The scene where he breaks into the Langley server room is of course the most iconic example, but this is true of the train fight and aquarium escape, as well. Even the brief sequences where he fights hand-to-hand rely mostly on kicks and acrobatics. The one time he tries using brute strength, he gets knocked on his ass by a man twice his age. Likewise, Hunt never once fires a gun. He threatens someone with one, but there's never a point where he has to pull the trigger. Hell, for all we know, he's a terrible shot.

My impression is that was intentional: Hunt wasn't a super spy with an infinite catalog of skills to draw on. Sure, he's clever, driven, and resourceful, but at the end of the day, he's a specialist used to relying on a team who's now being forced to go it alone. Obviously, they throw out any limitations (along with his aversion to firearms) in the next movie, but we'll get to that in time. In this installment, he's about as far from the Bond-esque uber-spy as 90's action movies allowed.

This also subverts action movie conventions in a manner that shouldn't be (but sadly is) highly unusual: this film actually seems to treat human life as something with value. I'm not adverse to films with dark tones, but I do have a pet peeve when movies amass huge body counts without consequences. It's typically in there for shock, and it pulls me out of the story when dozens of civilians die without a believable response. This was more or less the default for 90's action, but Mission: Impossible shows admirable restraint. By my count, exactly eight people died over the course of the movie, and all were current or former agents. And if anything, it made the deaths occurring on screen all the more shocking.

I've seen people complain about this movie's plot, but I've never agreed with that. Yes, it's complicated, but that's all part of the fun. If you don't want to follow along, there's nothing stopping you from zoning out and just enjoying the action/adventure elements, but if you're willing to tune in, there's a fun little mystery going on. I'll admit they tipped their hand a little early by giving away the twists through voice-overs and flashbacks, but this didn't really bother me on rewatch.

Mission: Impossible honestly still felt like an exciting, engaging action movie. It's not quite the best of its decade (that title's taken), but it's definitely worth seeing again.