Friday, April 27, 2018

Movie Review: Avengers: Infinity War

As a far of the genre, I'm in awe of Infinity War. I think I can say that without spoiling too much. I can also say the movie looks absolutely stunning, the action sequences significantly raise the bar on what live-action blockbusters can pull off, and the interactions between heroes and villains are wonderful.

Obviously, you expected most of that from the trailers. But we can't go on without talking a little about spoilers. Note that said talking about spoilers. That's different than including spoilers, though be warned, even a fairly high-level discussion about the experience offered by this movie and its somewhat unique relationship with spoilers, may spoil some aspects for some people.

But I'm not sure that's a bad thing. Because, depending on your background around comics, the level of knowledge you have about the stories Infinity War is based on, and how closely you follow Marvel's long-term plans... you may want a little preparation.

The litmus test is a bit counter-intuitive: the more you know about the source material, the less information you should seek out beforehand. If you know who Thanos is, what he's after in the comics, and what happens along the way, you've already read more of this article than you should before seeing the movie.

To put it another way, the source material is a sort of spoiler, albeit one you may be better off having some experience with. That's not to say this is a straight adaptation - it isn't - but understanding what's happening on-screen versus what's happened in the comics may provide some welcome context.

If you're just a casual fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you may want to know, for example, that this is essentially the first half of a two-part project, the second of which is slated to come out next summer, when we'll also get the next Spider-Man installment.

At this point, I'd advise seeing the movie before reading further, no matter who you are. I'm not going to go into details, but I am going to say some things that might let longtime fans connect some dots.

Starting with my main takeaway from Infinity War: this is easily the ballsiest thing Disney's ever done. Hell, it may be the ballsiest thing ANY studio's ever done. Because, while die-hard nerds like me may have some idea of what's coming next year, it was pretty clear hearing the audience react that most of them did not.

I never want to hear another complaint that these movies play things too safe. This was perhaps the least safe movie imaginable, to the point I'm a little worried they made a major miscalculation. The MCU is the largest franchise in history, and Disney's taking an astonishingly risky wager on how the public will react. We won't know whether it pays off until next year. For what it's worth, I really hope it does.

So. Was it any good?

It was great. It was incredible. The Russos pulled off something absolutely unbelievable, delivering a cosmic superhero story on a scale grander than we've ever seen a live-action movie pull off. This thing is as surreal as the Guardians movies, as funny as Homecoming, and as tense as The Dark Knight. In one film, they fully refuted the notion that genre needs to be visually dark to have weight.

Because... my God... this has weight. Maybe too much. It leaves you feeling uncomfortable and shaken. That was clearly the goal, but... kudos to Disney's executives for green-lighting this. I hope they don't come to regret it in the next few years. Regardless of what happens in the next movie, they may have already ostracized a number of fans.

Infinity War juggles two dozen characters better than most movies can handle three or four. With only one exception, I felt like everyone got their due. Unfortunately, that one exception was a personal favorite - I was a little let down with their portrayal of Gamora. But pulling off a cast of this size with only one misstep is nothing short of amazing.

We've never had a blockbuster like Infinity War before, in more ways than one. The movie succeeds on a level that was previously unthinkable. I'm grateful to the Russo brothers for making it and to Disney for not stopping them. But I can't help but wonder if the rest of the world is ready for this movie.

I certainly hope so, because they're clearly going to see it.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Futures Market: 2018

Yes, the summer movie season is dead, and the world is no worse for its absence. But tradition is tradition, so I'm going to continue this exercise for at least another year.

For those of you who weren't here last year, here's the idea: I'm going through the big-budget, nerdy movies coming out over the summer months and taking a blind guess as to how well I expect them to be received critically on Rotten Tomatoes. Why Rotten Tomatoes? Because it's the simplest, most easily understood review aggregator. Most years, I end up embarrassing myself (though I actually did pretty well last year).

In addition, I let you know what I plan to be looking for when I decide whether to see it. Plus, I throw in one other random prediction for good measure. You know, because there wasn't already enough for me to be wrong about.

Everyone up to speed? Good! Let's get started.

April 27
Avengers: Infinity War
Projected Tomatometer: 92% (but I wouldn't put money on this)
What I'm Looking For: Doesn't matter - I'm seeing this
Random Prediction: This will easily be the highest grossing movie of the summer, but it'll make less domestically than Black Panther

I mean, it looks amazing. The sheer scale of this is incredible. But, as we've seen in the past, "big" doesn't always translate into "good." If anything, the correlation trends in the opposite direction. And this is arguably the biggest movie Hollywood has ever produced.

But the Russo brothers haven't let us down yet. Winter Soldier and Civil War were both absolutely phenomenal films - some of the best the MCU's had to offer to date. And every indication is they get this material and fully appreciate the opportunity they have here.

As I said above, I'm seeing this no matter what. Hell, if every critic pans this, and word of mouth says it's worse than Batman V Superman, I'll still show up to see for myself. But that doesn't get us any closer to an actual prediction.

The truth is, this one could go a lot of different ways. It might deliver a big-screen event on a level the world's never seen, and critics might reward that. Or, it could be dismissed - fairly or not - as an example of style over substance.

But at the end of the day, I'm betting on the directors and the studio.  My best guess is critics will respond favorably to this, similar to the last three Marvel productions. Just know I don't feel as confident in that guess as I'd like to be.

Regardless of how good this is, I expect it'll make a lot of money. It'll bury whatever the April record is, and almost certainly be the highest grossing movie of the summer. But despite everything going for it, my random prediction is it won't beat Black Panther's box office total. At this point, I'd be shocked if anything other than Black Panther takes the #1 spot domestically for 2018 (international might be a bit more of a toss-up).

May 18
Deadpool 2
Projected Tomatometer: 70%
What I'm Looking For: 80% Freshness and/or a Comic Book tone
Random Prediction: This movie will move Deadpool even further away from any kind of shared X-Men Universe

Everyone's focused on how Solo's directorial shake-ups will impact the movie - to be honest, I'm a little more concerned about Deadpool's. Tim Miller exceeded every expectation with the first installment, not only delivering a fantastic Deadpool movie, but also making the first live-action X-Men movie that embraced the superhero aspects of the franchise. I find the studio's decision to drop him a bit alarming.

That said, you could do a lot worse than David Leitch, director of Atomic Blonde. Leitch has definitely demonstrated a masterful understanding of action. The issue with Blonde was a lack of an engaging story (which, to be fair, is more of a deal breaker in the spy genre than in superhero/comedies).

I'd feel better if Miller were returning, but there are certainly indications this one's in good hands. I'm thrilled they're including Cable and X-Force, and I'm hoping to get more of what made the first one great.

All that being said, I doubt critics will be as generous this time around. My guess is reviews will be a little harsher, hence the drop in my prediction versus part one.

If this is universally recognized as a good movie, I'll of course check it out, but I'm also interested in whether the tone manages to sell a legitimate superhero universe the way the first one did. If this feels like the X-Men, I'll see it even if I hear it's otherwise a disappointment.

What can I say? I like superhero movies.

It was tough coming up with a random prediction here, mostly because these movies are already random by design. Instead, I'll mention a prediction I'll be a little sad to see come to pass if I'm right: that this will more or less cement the end of any kind of shared X-Men Universe. Between the upcoming merger with Marvel and the fact one-offs like Logan seem to be working better, I'm betting we'll see Deadpool essentially cement his place in his own, independent X-Verse. For what it's worth, I'd rather Fox used the setting and aspects of the tone established in Deadpool as the basis for an updated shared Universe. Obviously, you'd want to dial back the comedy, but I maintain sincere versions of characters like Colossus would work in a variety of sub-genres.

May 25
Solo: A Star Wars Story
Projected Tomatometer: 83%
What I'm Looking For: Anything short of universal disdain
Random Prediction: A movie centered around Donald Glover's Lando gets announced within a few months of Solo's release

You may think that "random prediction" is a little obvious, but at least I didn't go with the far more obvious one: "This will be the lowest grossing Star Wars movie of the Disney era." I mean, is this even in dispute?

That being said, I'm certainly not writing this off. If anything, I'm excited. Sure, it's worrying that the directors were replaced late into production, but this is hardly the first time Disney's been in a situation like this: Brad Bird was a late addition to Ratatouille, Ant-Man switched directors right before filming, and while Rogue One stuck with Gareth Edwards, it's no secret Disney made some major changes to his movie late in the game. 

We'll probably never know if Disney made the right choices in all (or even any) of those cases, but that's beside the point. All those movies were at the very least good. If there's one studio that seems to know how to churn out solid blockbusters even when the executives don't get along with the artists, it's Disney.

My guess on the Tomatometer is based on Ant-Man and Rogue One, incidentally. Needless to say, it could be way off - this might be the movie where Disney's movie-machine finally breaks downs and dumps a Suicide Squad on the world (not that this would be the worst thing - I enjoyed Suicide Squad). But I'm betting this will be closer to Rogue One: an imperfect movie that's still wildly entertaining.

Ultimately, it'll make very little difference to whether I see this or not. Unless everything I hear about it is awful, I wouldn't miss checking this out in the theaters.

June 8
Ocean's Eight
Projected Tomatometer: 88% (Sorry - couldn't help myself)
What I'm Looking For: Let's go with 88% fresh
Random Prediction: Clooney will appear in a post-credits scene.

I saw Ocean's Eleven when it was in theaters, but I never bothered with either of the sequels. This one looks pretty solid, though. The studio's clearly betting that a large audience will be ready for something different than a big-budget, effects-heavy sci-fi action flick after May. I'd describe that as a fairly high-risk, high-reward gamble, which seems appropriate given the franchise.

This one's being written and directed by Gary Ross, who has a pretty good filmography. Obviously, they should have gone with a woman in the director's chair, but if they were absolutely going with a man, the guy who made Hunger Games was a decent choice.

In terms of my prediction, 88% might be a little generous, but I figured I'd play along. This definitely isn't on my "must see" list for the summer, but if the reviews are strong enough I might give it a shot.

June 15
Incredibles 2
Projected Tomatometer: 96%
What I'm Looking For: 80% Fresh should be plenty
Random Prediction: Disney will announce a spin-off television series (probably on its upcoming streaming service)

Talk about consistency - Brad Bird's made three animated movies before this, and they've all scored either 96% or 97% on Rotten Tomatoes. I guess that makes my guess conservative?

It's worth noting he hasn't done quite as well in live-action. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol got 93%, while Tomorrowland got 50% (though, for what it's worth, I liked Tomorrowland quite a bit and found Ghost Protocol kind of dull and by-the-numbers, so... not sure what that means).

All that being said, I'm not sure how to take this one. The Incredibles is one of Pixar's best movies, but it feels odd they're returning after all this time. It's possible we'll look back at this and see it as nothing more than a cash grab (looking at U, Monsters).

But there's no way I'm betting against Bird, not when it comes to animation. It doesn't hurt that the trailer they just released is distilled joy.

June 22
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
Projected Tomatometer: 82%
What I'm Looking For: Freshness above 85%
Random Prediction: This will make around $430 million domestically

I enjoyed aspects of Jurassic World well enough, but mostly I found it kind of bland. This is one time I'm more than happy to see a new director at the helm. The trailers for Fallen Kingdom definitely seem like a step up from its predecessor, though I'm disappointed to see we're still stuck in the "dinos on an island" paradigm. This really should have shifted away from that for the sequel. Not just this sequel - I mean, the sequel to the original Jurassic Park should have moved into some sort of "World War Dinosaur" premise. This franchise has been spinning its wheels since its inception. Granted, there may be more to Fallen Kingdom than its trailers imply, but I can't imagine we're going to get anything truly new or exciting.

All that being said, the effects look less cartoony than the last installment, and the tone offers hints of of nightmares and fairy tales - that's absolutely a step in the right direction. And, hey, dinosaurs are cool - I'm certainly not denying that.

I'm almost more interested in how well this movie does than whether it's good or not. Jurassic World's reception shocked everyone - it's still one of the highest grossing movies in history. I suspect this one won't fare quite as well, mostly due to a drop-off in repeat business.

July 6
Ant-Man and the Wasp
Projected Tomatometer: 82%
What I'm Looking For: Unless Infinity War really sucks, I'll see this no matter what
Random Prediction: At least two other Avengers appear in this movie

I don't have a huge amount to say about this. I'm assuming it will be roughly as good as the first one (i.e., pretty good, but not quite great). It's nice to finally see a female character at least get co-billing on an MCU movie (it only took them 20 tries).

Overall, I'm probably more excited than most people. I love the low-powered Marvel movies, so this should be a nice palate cleanser after the epic scope of Infinity War (not that I don't love those, too). Personally, I'm hoping they really embrace the romcom/superhero blend they've promised. Spiderman: Homecoming delivered a high school comedy; I'd love to see the MCU continue branching out.

July 13
Projected Tomatometer: 34%
What I'm Looking For: Tomatometer above 90%, or there's no way I'm wasting my time. Unless it's set at Christmas - if it's a Christmas movie, I might be interested.
Random Prediction: You'll be sick of hearing "Die Hard in a building" jokes long before this hits theaters.

Yeah. As far as I can tell, someone really green-lit a movie that's essentially "Die Hard in a building." That's been a joke for years, and yet... here we are.

To be fair, there are a few caveats. The building looks like some sort of scifi set piece (I'm sure it'll be "a character in its own right" or some nonsense). A bit more promising is the decision to have the lead action hero be an amputee. It'd be even nicer if they'd hired an actual amputee, but - let's not kid ourselves - this only got green-lit because of The Rock.

But the trailer's tone makes my 34% guess feel optimistic. It could be misdirection, but there's nothing there that feels campy or fun. Given how many set pieces in the trailer alone shout out to Die Hard... I'm not sure "serious and suspenseful" was the way to go.

July 27
Mission: Impossible – Fallout
Projected Tomatometer: 93%
What I'm Looking For: Anything north of 80% should put my butt in a seat
Random Prediction: This will be heralded as one of the best action movies of the year, then everyone will forget about it a few weeks later

The last installment in this series, Rogue Nation, was easily one of the best spy movies we've gotten in decades. It was everything that Spectre should have been but wasn't.

That makes it all the more bizarre that everyone - myself included - has to pause and try to remember what happened in Rogue Nation. Go ahead: try it. Take your time. I'll wait.

The plots to the Mission Impossible movies are basically Mad Libs designed to move the leads from one set piece to the next, but... the same is true of Bond movies, and I remember those. I think the main reason it's so hard to remember Mission Impossible movies is they lack unique villains. Based on the trailer, I doubt Fallout will break the mold.

But I'm betting it'll still be a great ride. Christopher McQuarrie is returning to direct this, so my expectation is it'll be packed with more of whatever made Rogue Nation so good. Granted, a few years from now it'll probably be impossible to recall which of the two movies had Cruise performing which absurd stunt, but I'm willing to live for the moment.

Teen Titans Go! To the Movies
Projected Tomatometer: 47%
What I'm Looking For: Trailers offering some sense of the what the movie's going to be
Random Prediction: Will be better than most live-action DC movies

I recently discovered that Teen Titans Go!, a series I'd mostly dismissed out of hand, was quite a bit better than I'd assumed. The episodes I've seen certainly haven't been uniformly excellent, but there were a few absolutely brilliant ones mixed in.

How's that going to translate to the big screen? No clue. And, to be honest, I'm not all that optimistic. There have certainly been animated shows that pulled off the transition, but rarely anything slapstick. Movies - even comedies - usually gravitate towards some kind of emotional arc, while Teen Titans Go! seems geared towards subverting that kind of thinking at every turn.

My hope is this project started with a brilliant premise, something that really justifies the project. And there are definitely reasons to cling to that hope - casting Nicolas Cage as Superman shows real interest in superhero adaptation history, and the teasers have certainly been intriguing.

But, honestly, we don't know much about this yet, and translating absurdist comedies to the big screen tends to be forgettable, even in the rare situation where the movie is mostly good (Powerpuff Girls, anyone?).

My guess is this will fall in the same traps, but I wouldn't mind being wrong. I found LEGO Batman underwhelming, but it certainly demonstrated it's possible to pull off something like this. Here's hoping this pulls off a similar feat.

August 3
Christopher Robin
Projected Tomatometer: 82%
What I'm Looking For: I'd take a high Tomatometer score (80%+), a few glowing reviews from trustworthy sources, good word of mouth, or... hell, they might pull me in with a few more trailers.
Random Prediction: This makes less than $100 million over its domestic run

The existence of this movie is baffling. It seems to be a melancholy fantasy about a grown-up Christopher Robin reuniting with Pooh and reclaiming the wonder of childhood. The sort of unnecessary, studio-driven garbage that--

GODDAMMIT. Every time that bear opens his mouth, I feel my heart melt into a pool of gore and nostalgia. It's just...

I'm going to see this movie, aren't I? I'm going to go see it, because I'm a goddamn sucker for anything remotely related to the Hundred-Acre Wood.

But... it's weird this exists, isn't it? Because I don't think I'm all that representative of the public at large. There aren't that many Pooh fans compared with other children's fantasies, and I can't believe most people who do love the bear with very little brain are interested in seeing him interact with adults.

On top of everything else, this is being overseen by Marc Forester, director of Finding Neverland (which, while relevant, wasn't especially all that memorable).

But what does it matter? Unless this gets universally panned, I'm going to wind up seeing it. Who am I kidding?

The Spy Who Dumped Me
Projected Tomatometer: 75%
What I'm Looking For: Tomatometer around 90%
Random Prediction: Good or bad, this will be better than any Bond movie we'll get in the next decade

The trailer for this looks entertaining, though it's of course easier to cut a good trailer for a comedy than it is to make a good comedy. Still, pairing Kate McKinnon with Mila Kunis in an action/buddy comedy has a lot of potential. And I like the idea we might be getting two fun spy movies in quick succession.

It's a pity this was made by a different studio than Spy - it would be cool to get a crossover.

August 10
The Meg
Projected Tomatometer: 40%
What I'm Looking For: 80% Freshness or really good recommendations
Random Prediction: This will make more money domestically than Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

I'm going to tackle that random prediction first. I wouldn't put even money on that coming true. Fallen Kingdom is the sequel to one of the biggest movies of all time, and it opens just a week before the 4th of July - it'll probably be huge.


I have a suspicion Jurassic World capitalized on a niche market that might be more fickle than the studio believes. I'd be shocked if it didn't do well, but I also think there's a decent chance it'll fall into the "middling blockbuster" range (let's pretend that's a thing).

Meanwhile, I think there's a chance The Meg is going to have wide appeal. When was the last time we saw something offer an unapologetically campy experience at this scale? It's a blend of Jurassic Park, Jaws, and Godzilla. It's a ridiculous premise being sold honestly while still offering sharp effects.

I don't think the odds of this beating Fallen Kingdom are anywhere near 50%, but I think it's in the realm of possibility. And if that does come to pass, I want to be able to point at this wacky prediction and gloat.

All that said, I doubt I'll catch this in theaters unless it's surprisingly good. I'm not holding my breath for that, by the way - the last time this director had a movie above 50% on Rotten Tomatoes was 1995's While You Were Sleeping. And I HATE While You Were Sleeping.

But tell me that trailer wasn't fun.

Closing Thoughts
You may have noticed this year's list is a bit sparse. Part of the reason is that the first half of summer is locked down by a handful of massive blockbusters. Infinity War, Solo, Deadpool 2, Incredibles 2, Jurassic World... yeah. I don't blame studios for giving these some breathing room. There's a reason the first four months of 2018 have had more big movies than we used to see in the summer months.

But there's something else going on here. There are actually several science-fiction movies slated for July and August that I didn't bother including. The thing is, I can't tell at a quick glance (or even a long glance) how many and which ones are major motion pictures, and which are going to be sold to Netflix.

We've entered an age where mega-blockbusters absorb a lion's share of attention, while movies that would have been huge two decades ago are instead trapped in a state of Schrodinger's direct-to-streaming. And, honestly, I think that's okay. Movies are evolving towards better and better forms of spectacle, and other mediums are ensuring there's still a place for less flashy, story-driven films. I love that superhero movies have gone from low-end schlock in the 90's to middle-of-the-road entertainment through most of the past decade, all the way to genre-defining masterpieces in the last few years. I love that Star Wars is back and as good as ever. I love that $200 million dollar blockbusters appear in the theaters year round, and most of them are actually pretty good.

And I love that smart, complex science fiction movies are still being made. Some will get national releases, while others will just be streamed on Amazon. I don't see a downside here.