Sunday, January 2, 2022

Catch-Up, Part 7: Assorted Genre

Oh, right. I'm actually supposed to be posting these. Some of these writeups are more than a year old. I was collecting them for when I had enough to post. Then I had enough and just forgot.

Oops. Guess you get a long list this time.

As a reminder, these are recent-ish movies I didn't bother giving full reviews, usually because they weren't recent enough to justify one. In a few cases, I just didn't have enough to say to warrant a full length review, but still wanted to collect my thoughts. The theme this time is assorted genre, which is a nice way of saying I had a bunch of unrelated stuff I wanted to post about.

November (2017)

This is almost certainly the most obscure entry in this list, at least as far as American audiences are concerned. It's also the weirdest, an Estonian horror/fairytale film about a medieval village contending with dark forces, magic, the plague, and more.

I wanted to see it in part because of it's extremely loose connections to Christmas movies, though I was never under any illusions I'd be able to justify writing it up for Mainlining Christmas. Still, the winter folklore elements intrigued me, so I wanted to give it a watch anyway. And it was...

Well, it was extremely bizarre. I know I already said that, but it bears repeating. The movie is sort of a mashup of ideas and characters from European folklore, all jumbled together. I believe the idea was to convey the feeling of life in the middle ages, complete with the superstition, fear, and uncertainty that would have been ever present. To that end, the Devil appears several times as a sort of comical figure (albeit a dangerous one). Likewise, the plague is personified as a character (albeit not always as a literal person). There are also automatons powered by souls, wandering ghosts, and the main character is sometimes a werewolf.

If that sounds like a lot, it is. And the movie doesn't really attempt to make it coalesce into a coherent story. This is more about feel than narrative. The area the movie really shines is in the visuals. It's shot in black and white, though that description doesn't begin to convey just how mesmerizing all of this is, appearing at times more like illustrations.

I wouldn't say I loved this one, but I definitely admire what was accomplished. This is definitely one of those times the things that didn't work for me were clearly intentional, rather than flaws, but the relatively light story and occasionally nonsensical continuity didn't entirely win me over. Regardless, it's a fascinating movie that succeeds in what it sets out to do.

Sonic The Hedgehog (2020)

I feel a little embarrassed admitting this, but I mostly enjoyed this thing. For what it's worth, I think this is as close to a good adaptation as a property like this could reasonably aspire to. I say close, because there are several areas where improvements wouldn't have been hard, starting with the color grading. The world looks drab and grey, which might be fine for a suspense, but... this is a kid's adventure, right? Like, it's supposed to be a cartoon, isn't it?

That and half the dialogue qualify as low hanging fruit: easy issues that could (and should) have been fixed. But the other half of the dialogue is solid. Not great or intelligent or anything, but funny and entertaining. Likewise, the video game superhero stuff is fun. Nothing to write home about, but compared to what I was expecting, it wasn't bad.

More than that, this threads a needle virtually every previous video game adaptation fumbles and successfully delivers something that feels connected to its source material without being abysmal. For context, this is pretty similar to Rampage in terms of quality, but that movie only connects with its source on the flimsiest, most superficial of levels. On the other end of the spectrum, Mortal Kombat does a pretty decent job capturing the flavor of the games, but it fails miserably as anything resembling a movie. Sonic walks that line pretty well, all things considered.

Is it good? God, no. But it's okay. Disposable. Kind of fun. Think the better late '90s/early '00s CG/live-action hybrids. That's a far cry from a ringing endorsement, but in the scheme of things... I didn't dislike it, so take from that what you will.

Save Yourselves (2020)

For the most part, this movie was a lot of fun. The two leads play off each other brilliantly, and the central conceit of the movie - a hipster couple trying to survive an alien invasion they spend the first third of the movie failing to notice - is hilarious.

Where the movie stumbles a bit, at least for me, is in the finale. I didn't hate the ending, but it also feels too on-the-nose, like they're trying to transform the central comedic gimmick into a theme. 

But the rest of the movie was funny enough I'm inclined to give it a pass. This makes fantastic use of its limited budget, to a degree I almost wish they'd had less money for effects. It already evokes old British TV sci-fi, and I honestly think a version literally made with those limitations would be even more effective.

Still, a nice gem of a movie worth checking out.

Tenet (2020)
This is closer to a magic trick or a complex math problem than a movie, but I actually like magic tricks and math, so... yeah, I dug this. It's a shame the characters were paper thin and boring, and obviously it would be great if someone could talk with Nolan about the whole "being able to understand the dialogue" thing, but the central gimmick was honestly a blast to watch.

The Invisible Man (2020)
I feel like this one's been covered, and there's not much more to say than, "Yeah, it was pretty great."

It lost a little steam at the end - I'm rarely a fan of "double-twist" endings (i.e.: endings where there's a last minute wrinkle that seemingly subverts where you thought the story was heading, but then it's revealed that wrinkle was a fake-out, and the original thing turns out to be true) - and... yeah, this does that. It kind of works with the theme, so it's not entirely superfluous, but it's pretty easy to imagine a version of this movie that's fifteen minutes shorter and delivers the same punch. To put it another way, this didn't need a fourth act.

But that's a minor quibble. While the ending could have been more succinct, it was still satisfying. And the movie as a whole was well constructed and executed. Also, well acted: Elizabeth Moss is amazing.

The real selling point here, though, is the conceit. This updates the "invisible man" premise in a way that's compelling, disturbing, and psychologically believable. It's science fiction done right.

The Dead Don't Die (2019)
The Dead Don't Die is kind of a blend between independent film and schlocky B movie. Think an updated, self-aware take on Plan 9 from Outer Space.

It's self-referential to a degree that's jarring, but that's intentional. The movie wants to poke its audience and watch us squirm. It's quite a bit gorier than the average comedy/horror hybrid, particularly given how heavily it leans towards comedy, but - again - it wants you to squirm. It wants to play with your expectations, your confusion, and - at times - your frustration.

I didn't like this anywhere near as much as Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai or Only Lovers Left Alive, but I still liked this quite a bit. But then I like slow-burning comedies where the goal is less to make you laugh than to build a complex, multi-layered joke over the course of a movie. That's not to say there aren't conventional jokes in the movie, but this is one of those movies that's mostly a comedy by virtue of being a joke itself.

For the record, that's just one of at least dozen ways it's "meta."

This definitely isn't for everyone. Hell, I don't even think it's for every fan of Jim Jarmusch. But I appreciated it.

New Mutants (2020)
This is one of those times I need to separate a comic book adaptation into its quality as a movie and its quality as a superhero movie, because the schism is even more pronounced with New Mutants than usual. As a film, this fails miserably: the dialogue is clunky, the tone is uneven, the characters are underdeveloped... I could go on, but you get the gist. This isn't a good movie.

And yet... I'd rank it above at least half the movies in the Fox X-Men franchise, including several that are significantly better by any rational set of metrics. Because while New Mutants is bad, it's also kind of a blast. And it's a blast in the way comics are a blast: it leans into the weird, unexplained, non-reductive logic of its source material and just... puts that on screen.

When X-Men was originally adapted more than two decades ago, a decision was made to streamline decades of continuity crossing numerous genres into what was seen as the core of the franchise. In other words, they started with the premise that the X-Men were sci-fi characters in a relatively grounded sci-fi world. Anything that didn't conform to that was dropped.

I understand why they made that call, and it's hard to fault the logic, but... Well, as someone who likes comics, I've always missed all the weird stuff. Superhero stories can be told as science-fiction, but really they're significantly larger and stranger. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with the source material knows some mutants have powers that make them adept at using magic.

New Mutants, for all its flaws, embraces that: there's inexplicable, weird magic in the movie. Sure, it ostensibly ties back to mutation, but it's still explicitly magic. And I'm not even talking about the giant demonic bear. The genre content of this movie is, well, bonkers in the best possible way. On top of that, it looks pretty great, too. When this movie cuts loose, it's a metric ton of fun.

Does that excuse the rest for being a dull, by-the-numbers YA adventure flick? Not really. But honestly I'd gladly sit through a bunch of scenes of teenagers regurgitating cliched dialogue in exchange for a third act full of comic book mayhem than endure yet another "pretty good" X-Men movie too timid to actually put the fun stuff onscreen.

One last thing, with the caveat I'm about spoil the one thing in this movie that probably shouldn't be spoiled: how the hell did the first mainstream Marvel/DC superhero movie built around a same-sex romance come out without making a splash? I mean, I know we all had a lot on our minds that year, and New Mutants was hardly critically acclaimed, but fans have been demanding better representation in these for decades and this... actually delivers.

I kind of think Fox dropped the ball by withholding this for so long. If this had been released a few years earlier (i.e.: back when it was originally supposed to come out), I think it would have been huge. Sure, critics would still have shredded it, but between the queer romance and the comic book logic, this would have had a real shot at building a fanbase. 

Mary and the Witch's Flower (2017)
So... did dubbing win the war when I wasn't paying attention? I ask because I've been running into foreign animated movies streaming where there was no longer an option to see them subtitled.

My issue with dubbing is largely that I'm often left wondering if I actually saw the right movie. Was the replacement dialogue an accurate translation or were excessive liberties taken to line up speech to mouth movements?

In the case of Mary and the Witch's Flower, it might make a difference. The animation was gorgeous, but the story was, well, incoherent. Since I only watched the dub, I don't know for certain whether character arcs were sacrificed to avoid moments of awkward translation. Then again, the reviews seem to agree there wasn't much substance here, and I'm assuming at least a few of them got to see alternate versions.

As presented, this was fine as a facsimile of Miyazaki. But there are plenty of better options out there. I can't imagine recommending anyone seek this out when there are countless better alternatives.

Game Night (2018)
I've been hearing good things about this comedy for years now, but I never found a chance to see it. I finally got around to it, and...

Yeah, pretty much what I expected. That's not a bad thing - again, I expected it to be good, and it was. I was really impressed with the digital miniature effect they pulled off in establishing shots. Plus, Rachel McAdams was hilarious in this. All in all, it made for a fun movie.

Not sure it'll be all that memorable, though. To be fair, comedies rarely are, which is why I usually don't prioritize seeing them (which in turn is why it took two years to get to this).

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (2019)
At this point, the Fast & Furious series has devolved into the equivalent of a cartoon, culminating in what may be the dumbest installment yet. And I'd like five or six more just like this, if that's not too much trouble.

No, seriously, I loved this. It's basically the GI Joe movie we wanted instead of the ones we got (side note: I haven't seen Snake Eyes yet, so don't read this as an indictment of that). The villains are COBRA or AIM or some other ridiculously evil group bent on world domination. The movie recycles the premise of the worst Mission Impossible movie, but makes it work.

I don't care that Hobbs is a watered-down version of the guy we met four or five movies ago. I don't care that there's literally no way to reconcile Shaw's turn from ruthless killer in Furious 7 to the well-meaning renegade in this movie. I don't care that the premise, setting, and physics of this franchise have been retconned to a point nothing makes a damn bit of sense when compared with earlier installments.

Hobbs & Shaw is juvenile, absurd nonsense in the vein of every '80s cartoon I watched growing up. More please.

F9: The Fast Saga (2021)

Basically, everything I thought about Hobbs and Shaw applies here, as well. These movies are GI Joe at this point, complete with absurd super-science vehicles and comic relief. I realize a lot of people consider that a bad thing, but - honestly - I just think they're fun as hell. The jokes are funny, the over-the-top action is funny, and the drama is really funny.

Is this the best in the series? No, probably not. Though, to be honest, I'm at a point where I'm finding it harder and harder to separate which installment had which plot and introduced and/or redeemed which villain. Also, I don't think I care - these things are popcorn. But they're really good popcorn, and my only regret is there's supposedly an end coming. I'd prefer these just went on forever.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
Dark Fate is tough to bucket. It's not exactly good as a whole, but most of its component pieces are excellent. The premise is comprised of layers of inspiration, but the script is, well... bad. The pacing is a mess, and some of the dialogue (particularly when the movie is trying to be serious) is hard to sit through.

But having acknowledged those flaws, Dark Fate dumps a metric ton of moments, characters, scenes, and ideas, each "worth the price of admission." The action is great, thanks to some inventive redesigns. Mackenzie Davis's Grace is a fantastic addition to the franchise mythology, Sarah Connor is somehow even cooler than she was in T2, and "Carl" is one of the best twists we've gotten in years. Likewise, the politics driving the story are fantastically thought-out, and there's some fascinating depth behind the archetypes of the film's three leads.

The skeletal structure underneath Dark Fate is damn near perfect; it's just the overlying skin that's weak. Moments that shouldn't be spelled out are made a bit too explicit (Carl's last line is an obvious example), and the constant barrage of action gets a tad monotone. I'm convinced with a little work on the script this could have rivaled the first two installments of the series. As is, it's still a damn enjoyable experience.

Creed II (2018)
There was really no chance this was going to be as good as its predecessor, but that's so high a bar I feel bad just bringing it up. Creed is easily one of the best sports movies ever made, a successor to Rocky as good or better than the original.

And Creed II is... well, it's pretty good. It's a solid movie, but it doesn't manage to deliver the gravitas that came naturally with the last installment. Something feels off with almost every character arc: the ideas are there, but I kept feeling like the movie was pulling its punches.

Side note: I feel bad about that pun, but I'm leaving it in, mostly to punish myself for writing it. Come on, Erin - you're supposed to be better than that.

At any rate, I found this enjoyable but ultimately unfulfilling. To its credit, this felt like an extension of Creed, which is no small accomplishment. I'm not sure there was any chance this wouldn't be a little disappointing following in that film's shadow.

Still, the big fight resolved perfectly, so they stuck that landing.

That's right. Stuck the landing. Because one boxing pun was already pushing it.

Palm Springs (2020)
I went into this with high expectations, largely due to the stellar Rotten Tomatoes score. Maybe I'd have been off not knowing more than 90% of critics gave it a pass, because I found the experience something of a mixed bag.

For what it's worth, I thought there was more good than bad. I like the spin on a time loop, both in how it worked with theme and its SF connections. I read a few books on the Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics back in college, and it was refreshing to see those ideas integrated into the metaphysics of the story. If what I just wrote is meaningless, don't worry - you can choose to watch this as a typical time loop story in the vein of Groundhog Day. But if you know what to look for, this actually plays with theories of the multiverse where time doesn't exist independently from alternate dimensions. It's all background, but it's definitely there. I was impressed to see that level of depth.

I was happy with the nerd-stuff, so you can probably guess my problem was with the narrative. To be fair, it was only with half the narrative, specifically Andy Samberg's character's arc. He plays Nyles, a character I was initially excited by. There was a great premise behind him, but I didn't feel like it paid off the way Cristin Milioti's Sarah's story did. Her arc felt complete and compelling, and I loved the twists and turns her story took.

But Samberg's didn't work for me. I honestly felt like it was missing an entire act where he should have grown and changed as a person instead of just... suddenly just realizing everything he needed to develop. The ending felt hollow to me, and that's a shame. If they pulled off the conclusion, this absolutely would have landed on my shortlist of great low-budget SF movies.

It's still good, thanks to the premise, concept, and cast. But I wanted it to be great, and it just missed the mark.

Bill and Ted Face the Music (2020)
This certainly wasn't what I expected.

I'll admit it's been a while since I saw the first two installments in this series, but this felt different than I remember. Not necessarily worse, mind you: just different. More than that, it felt different in the opposite way these things usually feel different. When a franchise vanishes for two or three decades than reemerges with a sequel, there's sort of an unspoken rule the new installment is going to be darker than the originals.

This was basically a kid's a movie.

Which... okay, I guess you could make a case the first two were, as well, but assuming I'm remembering right (again, it's been a while), they kind of skirted the line between kid's humor and teen comedy. Maybe that's splitting hairs, but I expected something a touch more grownup, particularly given the themes of Face the Music.

Is any of that an issue? Not really. There's nothing inherently wrong with kid's movies, and this is a solid family-friendly comedy. It's funny, sweet, and entertaining enough. I don't expect it'll be as memorable as the first two, but it's a worthy successor.

My only substantive complaint is I felt like the movie underplayed the significance of its third act twist. Said twist wasn't exactly surprising - I doubt I'm alone in knowing where this was heading from the first trailer - but it was a good direction to take the story. I wanted them to explore the significance around that reveal, but instead they just kind of wrapped everything up.

Still, this was a solid comedy and a good conclusion to the series. Maybe it could have been more, but... well... this is Bill and Ted we're talking about. These movies were good, but they never came close to being great or profound or anything. I can hardly fault the third movie for maintaining that quality.