Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Ten Years in Nerd Time: A Decadal Retrospective

Well, that’s another decade down, with just three more to go before the Endtimes are upon us (less if you live on the coast). And every time a decade comes to an end there are a handful of traditions that should be observed. Chief among these, of course, is mocking the plebes buying into the lie that the decade truly ends because the last digit of the year rolls over from 9 to 0.

In reality, since there was no year 0, the true decade doesn’t change until the 0 becomes a 1. And if you believe that, you’re just another plebe, because you’re still too early. No, the entire "anno domini" counting system wasn’t derived until 525, based on almost certainly inaccurate assumptions about the birth of Christ. Obviously, this means decades change on 5’s rather than 0's or 1's, since we should go by the anniversary of when we started using this calendar, rather than dwell on the digit.

Or that would be obvious to you if you were yet another plebe. In reality, it's still too arbitrary. True decades can only be marked according to the second year in base 8 counting backwards from the prophesied second coming of Sinistar. But by some odd coincidence, that does coincide with midnight on December 31st this year. Well, it does on the Gregorian calendar, at least.

At any rate, such a momentous event calls for some sort of reflection in blog form, which just so happens to be another of the aforementioned traditions marking the transition from one decade to another. Which brings us to this very post.

I actually tried putting together a traditional top 10 movies list, but the results were so boring, I fell asleep on my keyboard. Oddly, my forehead did manage to randomly mash the keys and reconstruct the complete works of Shakespeare. I considered keeping this document for future use, but there were a decent number of typos, so I just downloaded a version from the internet instead.

Rather than do a "top 10" I decided to go year-by-year and pick... something. Could be a movie, a TV series that started, or an episode of an ongoing show airing that year. Could be something else entirely. I'm sort of trying to balance this between my favorite pieces of entertainment and those I think left the largest footprints, so the actual qualifiers for landing a spot on this list are kind of nebulous. This is probably true of most "end of decade" lists, but at least I'm upfront about it.

2010: My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic
I’d argue this was one of the three most influential pieces of media produced this decade (the others being my 2012 and 2015 picks), and there’s a case to be made this overshadows the other two. I realize that’s a big claim for a cartoon series about colorful talking ponies, but it’s difficult to overstate the impact this has had.

Friendship is Magic accomplished quite a few feats, but the largest and most significant was demonstrating cartoon studios were leaving piles of money on the table by picking showrunners from only one half of the population. Hell, Cartoon Network had never green lit a series with a woman showrunner until… well, wait for my 2013 pick.

The next accomplishment has been a double-edged sword. While the primary audience for My Little Pony was, is, and will always be young girls, Friendship is Magic pulled in fans that surprised even its creators. I refer, of course, to the “Bronies,” a group of adult men (well, mostly men – it gets complicated) who are passionate fans of the show.

I suspect the novelty of the Bronies made them more visible than they’d otherwise have been. Fan communities are nothing new, but grown men watching a show for little girls? That got a lot of attention.

There are some awkward facets to all this, particularly around sexually explicit fan-fiction and art that sprung up. In addition, there’s always a fringe group of fans who try to claim ownership of the property they’re watching in ways that border on harassment of its creators (there’s an episode of the show about this that’s absolutely hilarious). It’s also worth noting that isolating the adult male portion of the fanbase can downplay the significance of the rest. Yes, grown men watch Friendship is Magic, but so do adult women, as well as children of all genders.

But regardless of your opinion of Bronies, their existence is incredibly significant. Properties aimed at children have long picked up nerdy adult fans of all genders (Transformers, DC/Marvel Superheroes, Star Wars… hell, 90% of the stuff I talk about on this site basically), but these have always been properties aimed at boys. To my recollection, Friendship is Magic was the first series aimed at girls to pull in large numbers of male fans.

It wouldn't be the last. Steven Universe, Star Vs. the Forces of Evil, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, and DC Superhero Girls have all sprung up in its wake. The old gender divides have been significantly weakened, and it's largely because of Twilight Sparkle and friends.

But let's not get so fixated on the show's impact we lose sight of the content itself. This is, on its own merits, an absolutely fantastic program. The humor lands no matter how old you are, the characters are fun, and the mythology is engrossing. It’s a fascinatingly complex update on the 80’s show, perhaps the best of its kind (despite countless reboots, Transformers and GI Joe have yet to see one stick the landing the way this has). In short, it’s an inventive fantasy that’s shaped the past decade in televised animation to a degree I don’t think we’ve seen since Batman: The Animated Series.

2011: Community: A Fistful of Paintballs/For a Few Paintballs More
My last pick was a series that has run for nearly the entire decade. This time, I'm going to be far more specific. For 2011, I’m taking the 2-part season finale to the second season of Community.

These episodes center on a campus-wide game of paintball that transforms the school first into the wild west then into, well, a facsimile of galactic war. This is essentially a sequel to the season 1 episode, Modern Warfare, which cemented Community as a series willing to play with genre and convention in ways unheard of on American sitcoms. But as good as Modern Warfare is, these episodes top it in almost every way imaginable.

They’re shot with an astonishing amount of energy and emotion. The gunfights, despite being of course completely nonlethal, have established stakes that inject tension into an otherwise silly situation. Yeah, they’re shooting balls of paint at each other, but friendships and eventually the survival of the school are at stake. This takes character arcs and relationships that have been building the entire season and brings them to a head. In short, it’s fantastic storytelling.

It also got the attention of Marvel Studios, which would go on to hire the directors, Joe and Anthony Russo, to direct some of the largest movies in history.

But I honestly care more about this for its own sake. This is TV that feels like an action movie. Frankly, these two episodes might be my favorite action movie ever made.

2012: The Avengers
Does this even need an explanation? It probably does now that hating Marvel movies has become fashionable. No judgement if you're not a fan - I'll be the first to admit these have their flaws, and the "shared cinematic Universe" model isn't for everyone. But love them or hate them, this installment was game-changing on a scale we hadn't seen since Titanic (maybe not since the original Star Wars, to be honest). Sure, not all that influence was positive (looking at you, Batman v Superman), but it's hard to deny this left an impression on the medium.

It's also a wholly enjoyable movie. Again, I'm not saying there aren't flaws, but the focus on personality conflicts over physical ones was an inspired direction, and the movie doesn't get nearly enough credit for increasing the world's power levels in ways that opened the door for more visually inventive stories.

This certainly wasn't the first movie to succeed in bringing a comic book to life, but it made the world of Marvel Comics feel real in a way nothing else had. And even seven years later, it remains one of the most fun films in the expanding MCU.

2013: Steven Universe
It's difficult to describe what makes Steven Universe so revolutionary without at least hinting at spoilers. Suffice to say, the show is among the most unique, innovative animated series I've ever come across.

It's gotten some push back over the years for going in directions some fans didn't appreciate, but I couldn't disagree more. Every time the series subverts my expectations for which lessons and development its heroes are supposed to pick up, I find myself delighted. It uses convention to seamlessly integrate red herrings and false leads, only to turn around and remind you what the themes are and have always been. Every choice the series makes fits the premise and central story, but the story is so far removed from we're used to, it feels shocking and alien in the best way possible.

Of anything I'm picking, I think this will have the most academic interest in decades to come. You could write tomes on what this series accomplished artistically and how it did it. Personally, I'd love for someone to explore its relationship to Transformers - there are numerous parallels between the Crystal Gems and the 80's property, which casts the decision to present all the Gems as coded female particularly interesting.

But academics aside, the series is a revelation to watch. No, not just a revelation: it's an experience.

2014: Paddington
I'm using the UK release date to justify putting this in 2014 in order to avoid having to pit it against my 2015 pick. Maybe that's cheating, but I'd like to think it's also polite.

If you were to push me on my favorite movie of the decade, I honestly think I'd have to go with this (though I'd rather not be forced to choose between this and Avengers). I know I'm in the minority in preferring it over its 2017 sequel (which is still the platonic idea of delight), but this one wins out by a whisker. I'm not saying part 2 is in any way overrated - I just feel like the critics were unfairly ruthless when they gave the first installment a [checks notes] mere 97% Freshness rating, compared with the 100% the sequel received (which still feels a little low to me, to be honest).

Paddington is just... well, first off, it's so damn charming I'm in awe it can exist at all, particularly given what genre it comes from. After all, this a "talking animated animal" movie, technically placing it in the same category as Alvin and the Chipmunks, Yogi Bear, and Space Jam. It feels completely absurd mentioning those movies in the same sentence as Paddington.

There's just so much to love here. Paddington's relationship with his adoptive family, the genuine creepiness of Nicole Kidman's villain, the movie's precision in its use of setup and payoff... the list goes on. But for my money, the moment Paddington solidifies itself as something truly, deeply special comes when Aunt Lucy talks about how British families took in children without a second thought during World War II. Her faith that they wouldn't have forgotten, contrasted with the reality of the situation...

I'm tearing up a little now, to be honest. Hidden behind the whimsy and charm of this near-perfect film is the tragic reminder they did forget, as have we. Instead of compassion, our countries respond to refugees with mistrust and xenophobia. How amazing is it that there's a kid's movie about that? Maybe the next generation will remember.

2015: Star Wars: The Force Awakens 
(Side note before I go on: as of right now I’ve yet to see Rise of Skywalker, and I’d appreciate your discretion in the comments. I’ve been waiting for years to see how J.J. Abrams would screw up the ending, and that’s one mystery box I’d like to experience unspoiled).

While they're not at all similar in content, in some ways the cultural impact of The Force Awakens is best understood by its relationship with my 2010 pick, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Stay with me: this will all make sense in a moment [not a guarantee].

Friendship is Magic started the decade by putting a crack in the barrier dividing content between "boys" and "girls" stuff. It demonstrated the long held assumption that entertainment created for girls wouldn't appeal across age and gender lines the way "boy's stuff" has was baseless.

Star Wars was in a very different place. As a piece of "boy's entertainment," the studio would have assumed female fans would be along for the ride. You don't make a movie as large as this without expecting a decent gender split.

The thing is, prior to The Force Awakens, Hollywood took these women for granted and offered them very little in the form of representation. The rule of thumb was to include one woman in a major role, make her cool enough to placate the girls, then give the men the manly action that drives up box office returns. That's how it's been for decades. Hell, arguably Star Wars started that tradition with Leia, a fantastic character who seemed to be the only important woman in the galaxy.

But instead of relegating Rey to the damsel-in-distress, plucky love interest, and/or tough-but-secondary lead, they put her in the hero role. Again, I haven't actually seen how this all plays out in Rise of Skywalker, but in 2015, she was the new Luke, and that was revolutionary.

Then it became the biggest movie in history. And the toys flew off the shelves so fast, Hasbro didn't know what hit them. Not only did every boy in America want a Rey action figure, every girl seemed to, as well. Not just dolls and outfits: action figures, blasters, and lightsabers.

Because of this, after decades of being ignored, female fans started getting taken seriously. It was like two industries simultaneously started listening. Big budget genre action movies starring women stopped being "too risky" overnight. Fashion dolls and action figures started appearing side-by-side in big box toy stores.

And it all came down to one moment at the end of The Force Awakens, when Rey reaches out and calls to the lightsaber. I remember sitting in the theater, watching that, and feeling like the world had just changed. I've got plenty of issues with the movie as a whole, but that one moment - and the change it inspired - catapults it onto this list.

2016: Stranger Things
Honestly, this is where things get hard. Up until now, I feel relatively secure that this list would be more or less identical if I put it together today or five years from now. But from here on out, we're a little too close for me to have as much perspective.

Honestly, I'm really torn on this one. I enjoy Stranger Things a lot, but is it really the "best" (or at least most important) thing to come out of 2016?

Maybe. The first season took the world by surprise, dominating pop-culture conversations for months. Then the subsequent seasons came out, and...

Once again, I'm in the minority on this one, but by my money the show's progressively gotten better over time.

While the series started primarily as an 80's homage, the characters, iconography, and music of Stranger Things have become widely known to the point it's become it's own thing. Sure, it's still chock full of references and callbacks, but these seldom feel unwelcome. A lot of that comes down to how seriously the show takes its characters' arcs and emotional growth.

I suspect this will be widely remembered as much as a defining aspects of the 2010's as the references date it to the 80's. Someday, there'll be shows and movies selling nostalgia for this.

2017: Wonder Woman
This isn't my favorite movie of 2017 (that'd be Blade Runner 2049), nor do I think it could reasonably be called the best movie of that year. However, this is a case where the movie's cultural significance demands recognition. This is, without a doubt, the most important movie of 2017 and one of the most important of the entire decade.

It took Warner Bros. decades longer than it should have to green light Wonder Woman, one of the three most iconic heroes in the DC Universe. But that's probably for the best, since if they'd done so sooner, the project almost certainly would have been in far less capable hands than Patty Jenkins's.

Let's get this out of the way: the third act is a bit of a letdown. Contrary to most of the movie's critics, I don't think it's bad, only that it doesn't hold up the same level of quality we got in the first two-thirds. But then again, how could it? Acts one and two are damn near perfect. This is what superhero movies should look and feel like.

Audiences agreed, and the movie went on to out-gross Justice League, a film that cost twice as much to produce.

But it's the movie's legacy that really catches my attention. Just as studios were reluctant to green light action movies with women in the lead, they were reluctant to put any big-budget project in the hands of a woman director. Over the years, there have been a lot of explanations for this, but it's absurd to think it's any more complicated than sexism.

Wonder Woman changed that. The movie proved there's a massive demand for women's voices in genre entertainment. And if you need more proof, take a look at the most anticipated movies for next year.

2018: Black Panther
Black Panther is easily one of the best movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It was also one of the best movies of 2018 - touching, thoughtful, meaningful, and engaging. It explored difficult questions about identity and responsibility, and it answered them honestly.

And like Wonder Woman before it, Black Panther demonstrated there was a massive audience starving for better representation. No movie like this had ever been made before, and the response was unambiguous: this is the future of big budget movies.

Setting aside what it means for its fans, the movie is a masterclass in elevating the "shared universe" concept to Oscar-caliber film making. The world-building is intricate and layered, and the character work puts every other modern blockbuster to shame. This film introduces dozens of new characters and manages to do so without having any feel superfluous. It takes M'Baku (one of comics' most problematic villains) and turns him into a fan-favorite hero, it introduces Shuri in a way that leaves fans arguing whether she should take over Tony Stark's role, and it gives its villain a fully-realized tragic arc.

All this without feeling rushed or forced, and it still has time to casually introduce the audience to Afro-futurism, an sub-genre of science-fiction most viewers had never even heard of. And, along with everything else, it embraces its comic book roots lovingly.

Black Panther accomplishes everything, sacrifices nothing, and is in many ways the pinnacle of genre film making up to now. I can't wait to see what it inspires in decades to come.

2019: The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance
Cards on the table: I wrote up an entire entry for The Mandalorian having forgotten that Age of Resistance came out in 2019. I then spent an absurd amount of time mulling over whether or not I should change my answer. Part of me felt like it was significant I'd forgotten Age of Resistance, that 2019 may wind up being the year the tide turned against Netflix's long-form-binge model, which can make even the best shows, well, forgettable. I'm not saying we've seen the end of serialized television, but I suspect the pendulum has swung as far in that direction as it's likely to, and it's about to head the other way. If so, The Mandalorian will clearly have been the episodic series that served as a catalyst.

I even started a new intro explaining this and discussing why I was sticking with the Mandalorian. But in that intro, I began writing about the monumental artistic achievement Age of Resistance represented. I started reflecting on how much effort had gone into designing and building the plants, animals, and buildings of The Dark Crystal.

And as much as I enjoyed The Mandalorian, the entire galaxy of Star Wars suddenly started feeling small in comparison - I think everything does. In some ways, despite airing at the end of 2019, I have a feeling The Madalorian is going to feel like the first series of the 2020's, while Age of Resistance will be one of the high points of the 2010's. And which decade am I supposed to be retrospecting, anyway?

Most of the movies and shows on this list got here because they were influential, but Age of Resistance is present because it's a culmination of a philosophy that's been gaining steam over the course of the decade. It represents a level of creative talent and energy beyond anything I seriously imagined possible on the small screen. And that talent was supported with the resources necessary to bring a fantasy world to life.

In addition, I'm skeptical we'll see anything like this again. I haven't been able to find concrete numbers, but the price tag on this series couldn't have been cheap. And while Netflix got a lot of attention and critical approval, the series didn't really stick in the public consciousness (as evidenced by the opening of this entry). This feels like an experiment that was successful artistically but not financially. There are definitely a handful of upcoming projects on various streaming services that are in a similar league - the Amazon Middle Earth series leaps to mind - but it's unlikely any will be succeed in being as spectacular as Age of Resistance.

A lot has happened in nerd and geek culture over the last ten years, and not all of it's good. We've seen an infiltration from right-wing extremists, we've seen social media used as a weapon to harass women and minorities, and we've seen fan communities target directors over plot choices a handful of people disagreed with. At the start of the decade, I proudly called myself a geek. Now, it's with a lot of reservation and more than a little introspection.

But I hope the list above has demonstrated a lot of good has happened, as well. This is the decade when women and minorities got opportunities in front and behind the cameras. Those opportunities are still few and far between, but the astonishing success of those projects has opened a lot of doors.

It's also been a great decade in terms of quality. A lot of us are old enough to remember a time when everything was reality television. Now, you can find great shows in almost any genre. I'm honestly unsure whether this trend will continue - I think it's more than possible we're living in an entertainment bubble that's about to pop. But even if that happens, the content produced this decade will still be available. And, frankly, it would take decades just to catch up on everything great made over the past 10 years.

Movies Revisited: 2019

This year's going to be a little different than usual, in part because - for me, at least - this year was different. I became a father over the summer, which means the number of movies I saw theatrically between July and December is a great big zero.

Let's get this out of the way now: that means Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker isn't on the list. Maybe it's great, maybe it sucks - I don't know yet.

Also - because I like to be upfront about these things - it means the vast majority of movies I saw streaming or on DVD this year weren't seen in a single, uninterrupted viewing. A bunch of these were seen in 15 or 20 minute increments when I eventually got some downtime.

Did that impact my enjoyment? Don't know, to be honest. It likely kept me from becoming as engrossed in the narrative as I'd otherwise have been, but it also gave me more time than usual to reflect on the movie as it went. Still, feel free to take that into account.

Because many of these were things I saw at home months after release, the number I've previously reviewed is lower than usual. For a few of these, that means you'll essentially be getting mini-reviews embedded in this article, since I've got some thoughts I want to get out.

As always, this is a "least-to-most-favorite" list, not "worst-to-best." In other words, this is subjective. There are times I'll rank a better movie below one I prefer for genre or tonal reasons - that's just the nature of the game.

I also want to say a bit about streaming versus theatrical distribution. I don't limit this to movies released theatrically, because I believe that's an outdated distinction. However, I also don't include every direct-to-streaming movie I see on this list. In past years, I've generally tried to differentiate between movies that felt like they were produced for the big screen versus the small, but even this has started feeling inadequate. Now, I'm mostly playing it by ear.

With all that being said, let's dive in.

This movie is, at best, the sum of its parts. The nicest compliment I can manage is that a few of those parts were visually intriguing and/or fun. I liked how the surreal circus and amusement park looked, and the third-act elephant heist was fun, provided you're willing to overlook... God, where to start? That none of the circus performers' superpowers were set up in advance? That none of them had much in the way of characters?

And speaking of lack of character... they clearly had no idea what to do with Dumbo in this incarnation. He's not quite the main character, but he's supposed to carry the emotional weight of the movie. Only, they don't actually sell him in a way that makes him feel believable or gives him personality. He's just kind of a magical semi-realistic cartoon elephant who gets sad sometimes.

So, yeah, bad movie. But, despite that, I didn't hate it. It was bland but not boring, pointless but amusing at times, and incoherent yet... really kind of bizarrely incoherent. Sorry - I don't have another side for that coin.

Let it Snow
Honestly, I think this one should be tied with Dumbo, but I'm giving it a nudge because it was made for a fraction of a fraction of the cost. Also, I kind of feel bad for including it at all - this is a direct-to-streaming teen romcom that feels like it's simultaneously trying to be Love Actually and Empire Records.

To its credit, it's fine for what it is. There's nothing offensive or even particularly bad about the movie. Unfortunately, there's not enough particularly good, either, aside from some solid performances. The movie just doesn't have much of a point or message. The big theme is don't be afraid of the unknown, because it could be good. That's what the snow's a metaphor for, incidentally. Or at least what the snow would be a metaphor for: they kind of forgot to include any snow in a way that influences the plot.

If you've never seen one of these movies before, then you'll probably be won over by this. I kind of got the impression that's what Netflix was banking on: that this will appeal to teens who haven't seen all the movies this is mimicking. Unfortunately, I've seen enough this feels... well... boring. This movie checks boxes, but doesn't take risks.

I Trapped the Devil
I was really torn whether or not to include this solid, albeit underwhelming, Christmas horror movie, at all. It feels a little unfair, since it's clearly low budget. Like a lot of movies released these days, this went directly to streaming, which is probably where it belongs.

It's not bad for what it is: an atmospheric fantasy/horror film masquerading as a psychological thriller. With a couple serious revisions to the script, I feel like this could have been something special. But the characters (devil excluded) are shallow and under-explored. It feels like there was supposed to be some backstory, but either they forgot to write it or it got cut for pace.

The final product is still fun - I mostly enjoyed watching it - but I wish they'd put more effort into the script.

Another direct-to-Netflix production, this actually features some impressive visuals and style. Envisioned as a modernized version of traditional animation, there's a lot to appreciate in the art.

But only in the art, I'm afraid. The premise and story lack a spark of inspiration, and the final film is a little dull. There are a handful of good jokes and even a few solid characters and moments, but I couldn't get into this.

The Wandering Earth
Take this placement with a grain of salt - I saw Wandering Earth on a small screen, and that didn't do the film's incredible visuals any favors. This Chinese production absolutely proves America doesn't have a monopoly on either scale or spectacle. It delivers both beautifully, and it's a lot of fun to watch.

That said, this is spectacle in the vein of Michael Bay - everything is BIG, IMPORTANT, and IMMEDIATE, with no regard for pace. That's not necessarily a bad thing - I'm certainly of the opinion movies should have the latitude to prioritize experience over storytelling if that's their goal - but it does mean the film is less memorable than it would otherwise be.

Ultimately, I enjoyed this well enough, or at least I enjoyed enough of the visuals to overlook a number of factors that didn't connect with me.

I wrestled with including this. It feels closer to made-for-TV quality than, say, Elf, so it's kind of out of its league. However, it's also my favorite of the direct-to-streaming Christmas movies I saw this year, so I'm dropping it in.

As I said in my review, Noelle is a mess structurally, and it lacks any real tension or arc. But what it doesn't lack is a good cast, and they help make up for the movie's many shortcomings. Anna Kendrick is fantastic in the lead role, and she elevates this from a disposable kid's movie to a passable comedy.

This isn't great, and it's certainly not something you need to see, but there are far worse movies your kid's likely to make you sit through.

I Am Mother
I'm assuming this production started with someone watching Ex Machina and a literal light bulb materializing over their head and turning on. That's not to say it's at all the same movie - far from it - but the premise feels derivative, as if someone asked, "How can we remake Ex Machina without remaking Ex Machina?"

That being said, Ex Machina was probably a good movie to emulate: the combination of low budget/high concept is precisely the niche streaming services should strive to fill. Audiences want spectacle on the big screen and thought on television.

And this was good. Quite good, in fact. But the problem with this kind of SF is you really need to stick the landing, and I Am Mother misses its mark by a hair. It's so close it almost hurts: you get several twists that are great, followed by one that just...

I can't quite say it doesn't work internally, but it recontextualizes the title character in a way that comes off as cheap and gimmicky. I don't want to give it away, but I'm referring to the very last scene she appears in: it's the only time in the film the character behaves in a manner that's unambiguously irrational.

I still liked this fine, but if they'd just rewritten that one scene and had her make a different choice, I'd be placing this higher on my list.

Pokemon: Detective Pikachu
"It's fine," may sound like faint praise, but until Jordan Vogt-Roberts's Metal Gear movie comes out, it's probably the kindest thing that will ever be said about a video game adaptation. And this really is fine. Hell, the setting is more than fine: it's everything a video game/cartoon adaptation could hope for. But while the setting delivers, the characters are bland and uninteresting, and the direction is lackluster.

I had fun with parts of this movie, but - even if it was foolish to do so - I'd hoped for more.

The Kid Who Would Be King
First - and I hope this is already common knowledge - this was so much better than the trailers made it appear. Less a modern YA flick than a throwback 80's adventure, The Kid Who Would Be King delivers fun, pulpy adventure coupled with some surprisingly compelling themes (which I'm about to spoil, so consider yourself warned).

The movie is explicitly about the fact the next generation will be forced to contend with the serious problems left behind by their parents. And that's a pretty damn good justification for the otherwise silly premise of having King Arthur reborn as a high school student.

There are, however, three issues holding this back. First, the movie unfortunately feels it necessary to have two actors playing Merlin - Angus Imrie plays a young version, while Patrick Stewart plays the old one. Actually, flip those, because the premise behind Imrie's inclusion is that Merlin ages backwards, so he's technically the older. For reasons that aren't really explained, he occasionally transforms into his young (i.e.: Patrick Stewart) self. While both actors are fantastic, the transformations undercut your connection with Imrie's Merlin, who's far more interesting, anyway.

Yeah, Patrick Stewart somehow makes this movie worse. I'm as surprised as you are.

Next, the movie's stakes never feel all that serious, in part because there's never much of a cost. Or, to put it another way, none of the good guys die. I'm not generally a proponent of offing characters to fill some sort of quota, but the movie ended feeling like it was all too easy.

The last issue is the most subjective, but - for me at least - also the biggest. And that was the casting of Alex (i.e.: the titular king). Louis Ashbourne Serkis was great in the part, but...

I'll be blunt. The movie was premised on the notion that Alex was a nobody, that he was the least likely to be chosen. Look, it's 2019, and I have a really hard time taking the idea that the most worthy, least respected kid in all of England is white and male. To me, that clashes with the premise and themes of the movie.

Still, that was a solid movie.

Captain Marvel
I enjoyed Captain Marvel quite a bit, but I did find it one of the more forgettable MCU installments. There were some great characters, some incredible effects, and some fun twists... but it still kind of felt small and episodic to me. That's not necessarily a problem - the MCU is big enough it can afford to take time to set up future movies and just play in the world its filmmakers have developed. Hell, one of the things I love about the MCU is that it offers a rich, growing setting for future adventures and stories. But while the MCU is easily one of my two favorite Cinematic Universes (Star Wars being the other), this film didn't manage to make it to the top of my list this year.

Spider-Man: Far From Home
My reaction to Far From Home was fairly similar to Captain Marvel - I had fun watching this movie, but it didn't leave much impact. In some ways, Far From Home feels like the opposite of most modern superhero movies. Instead of two great acts of setup culminating in an underwhelming climax, this meandered for most of its run time before giving us a pretty great ending. The CG-heavy third-act fight was comic book nonsense at its best. Mysterio's holographic traps channeled the best aspects of animation, providing some delightfully absurd sequences.

I just wish the setup had been more consistent. There were some great aspects and sequences (I loved all the Endgame cleanup stuff), but a lot of the teenage comedy fell a little flat. Homecoming juggled its tones better, giving us jokes along with some heavier stuff I felt was lacking here. At its best, Spider-Man is a blend of comedy and drama, but while both are present in Far From Home, the emotional stuff is relegated to Peter dealing with Tony's death. I can see what they were going for, but I was left feeling like I was watching two separate Spider-Man movies spliced together.

Still, there was more than enough to like, even before we got to the magnificent credits stingers. This was another solid entry in the MCU, but it's not one of the best.

Batman vs. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Okay, I'll be the first to admit putting a direct-to-DVD animated movie anywhere near this high on my list is kind of absurd. Hell, it probably shouldn't be ranked against "real movies," at all. It had a shoestring budget, a silly premise, and most people have never heard of it.


This thing was so. Damn. Fun.

Whoever wrote this approached it as an opportunity to celebrate the two franchises being crossed over, and the amount of thought that went into every decision is astonishing. Seriously, there's a beat where Batman eats a slice of pizza that shows a deeper understanding of the character than the entirety of BvS. Likewise, the Turtles have never been better - I just had a blast watching this.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters
King of the Monsters deserved better reviews than it got. It unapologetically embraced the mythology of its source material, giving us a big-screen fairy tale. Even the humans were interesting this time around (with the exception of the generic hero-type, who felt wedged in). This was everything a movie like this should be. I'll watch as many more like this as the studio's willing to make.

Teen Titans Go! Vs. Teen Titans
I enjoyed last year's "Teen Titans Go! to the Movies" well enough. It was fun, and it justified being on the big screen, which is an impressive feat for a spin-off of a still-running cartoon show. But while it was a good slapstick genre parody, it wasn't really anything more. There was no emotional core or depth.

That was not the case for Teen Titans Go! Vs. Teen Titans, a direct-to-video sequel that pulls in both the "original" Titans and their SD counterparts (I put "original" in quotes, because the SD counterparts were originally the same as the other Titans, as opposed to separate entities). All this made for an engaging dynamic. The jokes were hilarious, and the character work was surprisingly effective, particularly with the Ravens.

It's impossible to watch something like this and not draw similarities to Into the Spider-Verse. Unsurprisingly, there are elements of the Titans crossover that feel as if they were inspired by Spider-Verse. What is surprising is there are elements of this the makers of Spider-Verse might want to take notes on. Namely, this does an even better job mashing tonal differences in ways that highlight the fact these characters come from very different universes.

To be clear, I'm not suggesting this is as good as Spider-Verse or even in the same league. But it's approaching similar comic-book crossover material in a way that puts it in a sort of discussion with that movie, and - astonishingly - it has something to say.

I've only seen a handful of episodes of Teen Titans Go!, but I've seen every episode of the old Titans. And, frankly, this is my favorite piece of media from the combined Titans animated franchise. I'm kind of shocked.

Missing Link
Why in God's name was this movie green lit?

Don't get me wrong - I liked it. In fact, I'd go so far as to say I loved it. Missing Link was brilliantly animated, cleverly written, and genuinely surprising. It was a joy to watch, and it was unlike any other animated movie I can think of.

But there's kind of a reason for that, and that reason is best expressed by a quick glance at Wikipedia to verify that not only did this bomb, it lost more money than any other animated movie in history.

Of course it did. This featured astonishingly complex stop motion sets used for mundane situations. There's a sequence in a scale on par with the giant skeleton fight from Kubo in which the main characters travel from one place to another uneventfully. There are no kids in significant roles.

In short, there's nothing in this movie pandering to the lowest common denominator.

It was too good not to fail.

Alita: Battle Angel
I just... I loved this crazy movie. Sure, the script was bad. Really bad, in fact. Laughably bad. But, you know what? Who cares? A laughably bad script can be fun to laugh at, so long as the film provides an entertaining enough diversion. And between the fantastic designs, gorgeous battles, and stunning sci-fi landscape, this was an absolute pleasure to experience. This was the first movie I caught on the big screen in 2019, and it was well worth the price of admission.

Surprisingly, the movie this most reminds me of might be Deadpool. Obviously, they're made for entirely different audiences - Shazam! is made mostly for children, primarily teenagers, while Deadpool is intended for... Okay, maybe their target audiences aren't all that different after all. But Shazam! is something kids can watch with their parents, while Deadpool is a movie they should probably watch without their parents knowing.

But despite the schism in subject matter, both movies are hilarious, both embrace their source material, and both - shockingly - had some real heart at the core of their stories.

Shazam! wasn't my favorite movie of 2019, but it really impressed me. Between this, Aquaman, and Wonder Woman, DC has finally proven themselves capable of competing against Marvel, and I couldn't be happier.

Avengers: Endgame
Endgame is easily one of the craziest movies I've ever seen. There are choices made in the movie that are utterly baffling - Professor Hulk and Lebowski Thor spring to mind (I kind of like the new Thor, but it's astonishing a studio would take a risk like that with a character this popular).

Some of these choices I like; others I didn't (Professor Hulk, in particular, felt a little tedious to me). But even the decisions that didn't agree with me earned my respect. This movie - hell, these MOVIES if we're counting Infinity War - threw out every formula and conventional philosophy around blockbuster film making. Instead, we got a pair of films that were shocking, surprising, and incredible.

But the real reason this is as high on my list as it is has very little to do with the courageous decisions made in the script and direction. Sorry, truth is I mostly just loved the third act action. They gave us a genuine superhero war on a scale that's almost impossible to imagine. This was the cinematic equivalent of a company-wide crossover event where every page is a splash panel.

You're damned right I loved this.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Movie Review: Godzilla: King of the Monsters

It's been a while since there was a movie where I thought the majority of critics were completely off base. A few decades ago, travesties like Speed Racer's 40% Freshness rating were common, but I honestly think the profession has evolved admirably with the times. There are plenty of films where my opinion doesn't align with theirs, but I'm at a loss to name a movie from the past five years that I believe critics got hilariously, embarrassingly wrong (Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters was six years ago, incidentally).

What I'm saying is I think they're due for a mulligan, so let's not judge them too harshly, despite the fact more than half seem to have missed the mark entirely on this film. This ridiculous, glorious, wonderful film.

Let's start where we usually start with monster movies. I've said before that it's generally a good sign when you see reviews complaining about human characters in a monster movie, since it's a pretty strong indicator the monsters worked. If anyone ever makes another kaiju movie film were the monsters are boring, that's all you'll hear about. Because of this, I was somewhat glad to see the majority of critics repeating the same complaints (albeit louder and with more agreement) that were lobbed against the prior film.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered the human characters (with one exception) in King of the Monsters were solid. They're not groundbreaking or complex, but they're entertaining to watch in a way the leads of the last movie weren't.

As I said at the time, I enjoyed 2014's Godzilla despite Aaron Taylor-Johnson's bland POV character. The monsters (i.e., the only things anyone paying to see a monster movie cares about) were great, so I overlooked the movie's failings.

This time, that wasn't an issue. The lead from the last movie is nowhere to be seen. Instead we're following the only kind of people we have any reason to be interested in: ones who are interested in the monsters. 

Again, with one exception. The movie does have a character who feels as though he's present because some studio executive decreed at least one white guy got to do action stuff, and he's easily the least interesting part of the film. But even so, he's far less tedious than 2014's lead, and he feels more like one character in an ensemble than the star. And the rest of the cast is made up of character actors clearly having fun with the material.

They're essentially here to excavate the lore surrounding the movie's monsters and to explore how humans might approach or understand them. Are they gods? Demons? Titans? Forces of nature?

Anyone at all familiar with the genre will answer: "Yes, all of the above." Fortunately, King of the Monsters was made by people who are extremely familiar with monster movies in general and these monsters in particular. This is a tribute to the genre and the history of the iconic creatures. I was shocked by some of the details that survived to the final cut.

Speaking of the monsters...

They look great. The designs look modern without losing the charm and feel of the originals. Depending on your preferences, I'm sure some elements will look better or worse to different viewers, but I can't imagine any genre fan disliking the look of the titans. Even more important, the monsters all have unique personalities. They're more than effects: they're characters.

I should acknowledge that while I liked everything we got to see from the monsters, I was left wishing we'd been able to spend a little more time with Mothra. She got some great moments, but I felt like she deserved more screen time.

And she's not the only one. I'm not sure whether this counts as a spoiler (it might even qualify as an anti-spoiler), but I think it's worth knowing that for all intents and purposes King of the Monsters really only features four monsters. The trailers imply quite a few more, but everyone other than Godzilla, Mothra, Ghidorah, and Rodan is basically a cameo. I don't think this is a problem, but I did feel like the marketing was a tad misleading.

Visually, the movie takes a slightly different approach from last time: compared against the 2014 movie's realism, King of the Monsters feels a little more stylized and almost has the look of a painting. It's appealing, and it helps establish a consistent tone.

We should talk a little about that tone, in fact, since it's my best guess as to why critics missed the mark. I suspect some are mistaking this as brooding science fiction based on the color palette and theme. But while the movie is about something, the experience it offers is more visceral.

In a way, this is a kid's movie. It's exciting, engaging, and mildly scary. The best comparison I can come up with is the original Jurassic Park: it feels first and foremost like a movie made for eight- to thirteen-year-olds, or perhaps for adults nostalgic for movies they watched when they were that age.

To put it another way, IT'S A GODZILLA MOVIE. An actual, honest-to-Godzilla movie that feels like an update of the films Toho has been making all along. And for the life of me, I find it baffling that so many critics seem to have missed that entirely.

If you have any affection for the movies this is based on, I'd encourage you to seek it out as soon as possible. And if you've got a ten- or eleven-year-old kid who appreciates scale, maybe take them along, too.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Movie Review: Pokemon: Detective Pikachu

Whether or not you should rush to the theater to see Detective Pikachu can be answered using an absurdly obvious litmus test: do you have any love for this property? If you do, have I got good news. Detective Pikachu does a phenomenal job adapting the cartoon creatures of the video games, anime, card games, and... I don't know? What else is this multi-media empire built out of? Whatever it is, the movie finds a way to upgrade it to three dimensions in a manner that's believably tactile without losing the distinctive look of the source material. Think more Bumble Bee and less Bayformers in the approach and execution of the world.

Incidentally, I do not have any real background with this stuff, so the nostalgia grenade I just described did very little for me.

Okay, full disclosure: I know what a handful of these creatures look like, partly because they appear in the Smash Bros. games and partly because I exist in this civilization. But I was a few years too old to care about the anime when it came out, and I never played a single Pokemon game (unless you count the aforementioned Smash Bros. series).

That's a long-winded way of saying I had to approach the movie as if it was, well, a movie and enjoy it (or not) on those terms. Specifically, I approached it as a genre movie, and more specifically than that as an "ALL the genres" movie, as it incorporates elements of fantasy, sci-fi, adventure, romantic comedy, drama, slapstick, noir, superhero, and maybe just a dash of horror watered down to PG.

If you think that sounds a little overstuffed... yeah, that's the movie in a pokeball. The world is beautiful and fascinating even without much background on its inhabitants, but the movie never really coalesces into a unified whole, nor is it willing to commit to a tone long enough to really draw you in. Ultimately, you're left with more a vignette of sequences than a concrete experience.

If we'd gotten better characters, I think this could have worked anyway, but with one exception, everyone was fairly bland and two-dimensional. Fortunately, Detective Pikachu was that exception: he's still two-dimensional, but he's anything but bland. I'm tempted to call him the movie's MVP, but the setting already won that title in a cage fight against a charizard.

While Pikachu's good, the human characters are just kind of dull. The actors do solid work, but every human in the movie is written like they stepped out of a video game. The main characters lack interesting traits or arcs, and the plot is about as by-the-numbers as you can get. If you didn't figure out the twist ending from the trailers, you'll piece it together within the first 15 minutes of the movie.

Instead, the movie incorporates a lot of comedy, and not in a good way. Rather than build characters and allow the humor to arise organically from their interactions with a whimsical world, it tosses in a great deal of physical humor, most of which falls flat. I honestly think this movie would have been far funnier if they'd skipped the jokes entirely and trusted the world to be funny on its own. I also think this could have benefited from being a little darker, say PG-13 rather than the PG they went with.

Okay, I know it sounds like I'm saying I wish this had been Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but... actually, yeah, I do honestly just wish this had been more like Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Really, shouldn't all movies strive for that?

All that being said, the world this is set in really is incredible, and I imagine it's even more so if you give a damn about these ridiculous, adorable monsters. If Pokemon was a part of your childhood, by all means seek this out and enjoy the fluffy, electrically-charged jolt of nostalgia it offers.

The rest of us could honestly do a lot worse. This is almost certainly the best video-game movie ever made, and I genuinely enjoyed the weird-ass final act where rationality went out the window and it turned into a zany superhero adventure. But don't go in expecting brilliance: this is a very flawed movie with a few saving graces, not a game-changer.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Movie Review: The Wandering Earth

I'm 40 years old, and this is the first time I ever regretted watching a foreign film subtitled.

I wouldn't swear that I'd have been happier watching the dub, but I honestly got dizzy looking back and forth between the constant dialogue and even more constant visual effects. Everything in this movie is thrown at you at an unbelievably high speed, it'd be exhausting trying to keep up even if you weren't simultaneously trying to read along.

And when I say things come at you quickly, I mean really quickly. This thing is Armageddon cranked up to 11. It's like the platonic ideal of Michael Bay was handed a trillion dollar budget and there was no studio oversight.

Is that a compliment? An insult? Damned if I know. The Wandering Earth is a bizarre science fiction film recreating the best and worst aspects of American cinema for a Chinese audience. It clearly deserves to be seen on the big screen, but chances are you either missed your chance or never had one - it only received a limited release in the US, despite currently being the third highest grossing movie of 2019 worldwide. Fortunately, Netflix grabbed the rights, so you can stream it on whatever inadequate screen is handy.

The movie is at its best when showcasing gorgeous, inventive visuals, which isn't too surprising given its premise. It's at its worst when it focuses heavily on its story, which also isn't surprising given the premise.

That premise, incidentally, is that the governments of the world united and built giant rockets on the surface of the planet to fly it out of the solar system to a replacement star. If that sounds ludicrous, rest assured the movie is mostly aware. Does that make it better? I'm still trying to sort that out.

I will spend the rest of my life trying to sort that out.

The Wandering Earth is weird, exhausting, fun, absurd, dumb, and all the other adjectives (except boring - it is never boring). It's good, it's bad, it's so bad it's good and so good it's bad. It's too much, too fast, and too unrelenting. It's the movie Michael Bay wishes he could make - hell, I half expect him to try and remake this in English.

That would never work, incidentally. If anyone ever tried to recapture this, they'd just end up making Interstellar, and we all know how tedious that was (don't bother denying it - I'll know you're lying).

I'm still no closer to being able to say whether I liked this, but it's an impressive piece of cinema regardless. It's worth seeing for the scale alone, to say nothing of the visuals. I won't promise you'll like it, but if you're a fan of genre, this is destined to be remembered as one of the most significant films of the decade. This is the moment Chinese productions proved they could be as awesome and as stupid as anything coming out of Hollywood.

And, unlike 90% of what America produces, this certainly won't bore you.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Movie Review: Avengers: Endgame

Go see the movie.

No, really. Stop reading this, and go see the movie. I don't care if there aren't tickets left or if you have work or kids or anything else going on in your life you think is more important. Wedding dates can be moved, but you only get one chance to see this spoiler free, and you're blowing it if you read further without watching the movie.

Is Endgame really good enough to warrant that level of compulsive behavior? Well, the thing is, the answer to that question is... a spoiler.

The answer to every question about Endgame is a spoiler, because... well, that's a spoiler, too. It's all spoilers, all the way down. No elephants or turtles in sight: just more spoilers.

So you've been warned, and yet you're still here, still reading. Hopefully, that means you've already seen the movie, because the alternative is too horrific to contemplate. Let's start with that earlier question: is Avengers: Endgame actually good enough to deserve the unprecedented degree of paranoia surrounding every detail of its plot and premise?

Of course it isn't. No movie is, and while Endgame is a damn fine film, it's not even the best in the series.

Before your eyes roll into the back of your head, let me assure you my earlier spoiler warning was entirely sincere. Because while it may not completely justify the level of secrecy surrounding every aspect of the film, the very fact this secrecy exists is worth taking advantage of. Plus, the elements of the movie being concealed are fascinating. This is a movie with a massive budget that was, for all intents and purposes, barely marketed at all.

We're escalating the severity of our spoiler warning now, because I'm about to tell you that the aspects you should care about aren't who lives or dies. I mean, I'm not going to type a list here, and there are certainly twists in both camps, but frankly those were perhaps the least surprising elements of the movie. Even less than the overall plot, which is also a minor spoiler at best.

What are they hiding, then? Well, genre, for one. Or more accurately, for three: each of Endgame's acts has its own distinct tone and genre. Hell, for all intents and purposes, each of Endgame's acts is its own damn MOVIE.

Yup. One of the reasons Endgame is three hours long is it's secretly a trilogy of films. There's enough of a through-line to tie it all together, but the degree to which its sections are self-contained is unprecedented among movies anywhere near this scale.

But the same goes for this level of secrecy. The vast majority of scenes from the trailers were drawn from the first 15 minutes, with a few quick shots drawn from the end and even fewer from the middle. The second act is the main part they're trying to hide, even more so than the end, which...

Okay, let's go to maximum spoiler warning. If you haven't seen this movie, you aren't permitted to read further. Seriously. I will call S.H.I.E.L.D. and have you taken to a secret government facility if you read another word without seeing Endgame first.

The end of this movie is like nothing that's ever been put on film. When Infinity War came out last year, a lot of us described it as a crossover event, similar to the big company-wide summer events in comics. I bet the Russo brothers were laughing their asses off, because that... that was nothing.

This actually delivers the scope of a company-wide crossover. This is at once a breathtaking conclusion to a twenty-two-movie-long arc AND the foundation for a whole new generation of films. It's awesome. It's incredible. It's a solid thirty minutes of brain-melting wonder. There are easily a hundred separate shots and sequences, any one of which would justify the price of admission.

And then there's all the stuff I'm still not talking about. Stuff that's at times hilarious, heartbreaking, or - in some cases - kind of dumb. There were character decisions I absolutely loved and others I really could have done without. There are plenty of things in Endgame that just didn't connect with me.

But, God, what a ride. This isn't the best of the Marvel movies, but it might be the biggest accomplishment. This is by far the most ambitious MCU movie to date. Honestly, you don't even need to specify "MCU." This is one of the most ambitious movies ever made. I never want to hear anyone accuse Marvel of playing these too safe or too "by-the-numbers" again. Endgame invents entirely new categories of risks to take. It looks at some of the company's most successful characters and cavalierly subverts everything that makes them popular and successful. Even when you're not on board with the direction, you can't help but respect them for having the guts to try something new.

If you want to nitpick this, you'll have a plethora of options on where to start. This is the first MCU movie that's fairly unforgiving if you're walking in blind. Maybe you can follow along if you've only seen 16 or 17 of the 21 preceding movies, but even that's going to be a stretch. And the... er... science-fiction trope at the core of the movie's premise is used haphazardly. The explanations don't quite work and the film contradicts (or at the very least under-explains) its own rules - I don't think there's much point denying that.

But who cares? This is weird, quirky film making you'd expect to see in an art film blown up with a $500 million budget. It's three movies and three genres in one, and none of it has any right to work, let alone invoke laughter, cheers, and tears in its audience.

But against all reason at fourteen million six-hundred and five to one odds against it, somehow it pulls it off. And everyone deserves to see that play out on the big screen.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Movie Review: Captain Marvel

The movie's story structure is inverted, so let's go ahead and open with this: in summary, Captain Marvel is a solid installment in the MCU. It's not the best or most memorable film in the mega-franchise, but if you're a fan, there's more than enough to justify buying a ticket.

Okay. Easy part's out of the way. Now let's try and actually talk about a film that... God, I don't know where to begin.

There's a lot going on with this movie, though it's all woven together skillfully enough to work. Narratively, it's successful, which is no small feat given it's a throw-back 90's nostalgia prequel built around a character suffering from amnesia trying to recover memories from the 70's and 80's while hanging out with a digitally de-aged 70-year-old actor reprising the role he's been playing for more than a decade while also sort-of channeling an unrelated character he played in a 90's action movie who partnered with an unrelated amnesiac super-spy trying to reconcile her past with who she's become...

...And you'll note I didn't even mention the galactic space empire warring against the shape-shifting alien infiltrators.

But like I said, the narrative somehow works overall. The disparate pieces, on the other hand...

Well, most of those still work well enough, but you can feel the movie starting to strain. The script doesn't quite pass the "show, don't tell" rule, which is mainly a problem concerning Carol's personality. We're informed about her attitude, humor, and drive more often than we see them, which I found disappointing. That said, the supporting characters are good enough to make up for this oversight.

I'd also have liked a little more from the movie's tone. Some of the best sequences are built around surreal visions as Carol experiences faded memories. I loved these moments, but they felt a bit muted. I'd rather the movie had embraced its weirdness a little more than it did. That's not to say it wasn't weird - there are some great surprises from the comics, as well as some good jokes - but it still left me a bit unsatisfied. I don't need every one of these movies to be Guardians, but I do think this could have used a little more of those movies' willingness to embrace absurdity.

The movie's largest tonal imbalance (for me at least) stems from an overuse of drama and a focus on theme. Make no mistake, there's still a lot of comedy and action in this, but the core of the film is a rather weighty exploration of who Carol Danvers is and - more importantly - what she represents. This is about her power and her choice when and how to use it. And those are extremely powerful themes. It's just...


Yes, I know this isn't fair, but here's the thing: When you build a movie with these themes and play them up this intensely, it really feels less like you're making a movie about a woman who's a superhero and more like you're making a template for all future movies about women who are superheroes. And Captain Marvel kind of has that vibe, like it's conscious it's an event. And to its credit, I think it's good enough that it could have been that movie, the movie that defines what the iconography of a female superhero means to the world.

It could have been that if an even better movie with the same aspirations hadn't been made a few years earlier.

This doesn't mean there isn't room for both, nor does it mean that Captain Marvel doesn't still work as a movie. But I do think a lot of the weight they were going for lands with a little less force because we've been taken on this philosophical journey before. This movie really feels like it should be the first modern movie of its kind, and the reality is it's not. That doesn't undercut the theme, but it does undercut its impact.

In a "post-Wonder Woman" world, it might have been better to make a movie about a female superhero, rather than a movie that's about the significance of a movie about a female superhero, if that makes sense.

That being said, the theme certainly isn't a total loss. Since I'm criticizing the film for contextual reasons, it's only fair to mention context also enhances some of those same thematic elements. In an extremely ironic twist, real-world misogynistic protests of the movie play into the core story to a degree that's almost shocking to behold. I don't think the filmmakers intended to predict the precise language and form of these attacks, but the movie functions perfectly as a response.

But enough contextualizing. This is a really good superhero origin story and a really good movie, all around. It's well acted, well directed, and the effects work allowing Samuel L. Jackson to turn back time even more than usual is virtually seamless. And we haven't even touched on the brilliance behind Annette Bening's casting. On top of all that, this movie also manages to deliver what might be my favorite "prequel-explanation" I've ever seen. I know it's become a little cliche to cross every 'i' in these movies, but I really appreciated this one.

Still, in a world where multiple Marvel movies won Academy Awards last year, it's worth managing expectations. This is a solid entry in what's frankly the most impressive genre film franchise ever constructed. But I don't think it's one of the best.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Movie Review: Alita: Battle Angel

I'm having trouble answering what should be a relatively simple question about Alita - I'll get to that in a moment. First, let's discuss my initial reaction to the movie.

I freaking loved it.

Visually, this thing is incredible. We're talking one of the most beautifully realized sci-fi settings populated with incredibly bizarre superhuman characters ever put on film. The trailers give an accurate taste of what's in store, but there's a lot more where that came from. This movie is a joy to watch.

As for the story and character relationships... well... those are so bad you may find yourself laughing at major emotional moments. It tries to package the excitement and world-building inside a serious dramatic epic, and it fails. Miserably.

And since we're on the subject of technical flaws, the tone is a mess, too. The movie features several moments that should, logically speaking, be horrific and shocking. We're talking about kills that would normally be relegated to hard-R cinema but the light, colorful world combined with lack of character development just makes them seem, well, fun.

Which, honestly, is why they're not a bigger problem. There's a massive disconnect between what's happening and how it's supposed to feel, but instead of being alienating, it's just sort of popcorn entertainment. To a critic, that's a serious issue; to the audience, it's more fluff to enjoy.

Same goes for the movie's disjointed, overstuffed narrative. There are characters introduced who quietly vanish from the story, deep relationships that materialize out of thin air, and major plot elements given little to no depth or explanation. Hell, there's an entire separate movie's worth of story built around "Motorball" that's crammed awkwardly into a quarter of this film's run time. I'm sure it's lifted from the source material, but it doesn't really serve a point here.

Again, you won't care. Technically, the Motorball stuff should have been cut, since it adds nothing to the narrative or the main character's arc, but the sequences are engaging and fun to watch.

It's tempting to summarize Alita as, "All style, no substance," and wrap this review up, but I think that might be selling this a little short. While the movie mostly feels like the world's best fan film, there's one aspect that feels artistic, and that's the visual storytelling. Alita's got a conventional plot with a generic love story and all that, and it's disposable. Going off of the lines being recited, the main character has no real depth. But when she fights (or hell, just practices, moves, or even looks around), the movie conveys emotion, excitement, and even development through motion. It doesn't so much build to a comprehensive personality, but does make her feel iconic, which is a more impressive feat, anyway. And that leads us back to where I started, the question I was having a really hard time resolving.

Is this a good movie?

I honestly don't know. Maybe it depends how we define the term. Elements typically used as litmus tests for "good movies" - character relationships, structure, and tone - are all areas where Alita drops the motorball. But the visuals alone are worth the price of admission, and the construction of the action sequences (of which there are numerous) is awe inspiring.

Ultimately, it doesn't matter whether this is a good movie ahead of its time or a bad movie that's cool enough to forgive its failings: either way, it's a hell of an experience you owe it to yourself to see on the big screen.