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.