Saturday, December 9, 2017

Despicable Me 3


RATING: C+

Hoooo boy. After becoming one of the more popular animated franchises around, the Despicable Me series suddenly found itself in quite a pickle after releasing the horrible Minions spin-off movie. There were already some divided opinions on the Minions, but now basically everyone hates them. And now some people dislike the first two Despicable Me movies just because of the Minions--which is a bit of a shame, because the first one at least was actually quite good. As a result, not many people really wanted to see a third Despicable Me movie--except the kids, and thus the parents got dragged along. And thus this movie somehow made a billion dollars? Huh? Still trying to figure that one out. 

Well, whatever. This movie's setup involves Gru and Lucy in their new life as a married couple while still being agents for the Anti-Villain League--until they're fired for repeatedly failing to catch a washed up 80's TV star villain named Balthazar Bratt. And then the Minions abandon Gru because they suddenly dislike his non-villainous ways (they didn't seem to care in the last movie, though). And *then* Gru finds out he has a twin brother named Dru. Who is basically the opposite of him.

It becomes pretty clear as you go through this movie that the act is wearing thin and they're starting to run out of ideas. Not shocking--it's amazing they even got this far after the "villain redemption" story of the first movie, which would've stood just fine on its own. What we get is not much unlike the second movie--some things work and some things don't. Dru really doesn't work. Although Steve Carell voices him as well, he kind of feels tacked on and aside from the occasional humorous moment, doesn't really bring much noteworthy material to the table--aside from the whole family theme which is beginning to take center. 

There are also some small side plots/stories that don't add much (again). Namely, Agnes's continued obsession with unicorns. The iconic "It's so fluffy" scene was hilarious in the first movie, but now the whole thing just feels forced. Once again, the middle of the film just struggles to find its footing as it kind of teeters and totters around between characters and whatever they're doing at the moment. 

So, the villain--Balthazar Bratt. Villains have not been the strength of this series at all. It seems like the writers are worried about making one too scary for the tiny tots who are watching these things, but they're generally too lowbrow for the adults to take seriously. This one is no different. He has a pretty annoying catchphrase and his main weapon is self-inflating bubblegum--which is pretty dumb. But he still ends up posing the biggest threat by far of the bunch and actually wreaks quite a bit of havoc before he's stopped. The final act (despite the stupid bubblegum thing) is actually pretty good overall. It helps that the climax actually has a sense of danger to it, which the previous movie didn't, despite still having an entertaining final act. 

What is still working? Well, there is still a fair amount of humor to go around. The series continues to shine with the slapstick humor, and Steve Carell continues to deliver. The Minions are relegated back to occasional comic relief status, and while a couple of their scenes are annoying, one of the most hilarious scenes in the movie actually involves them while they're in prison--demonstrating how funny they're still capable of being when in more limited doses like that. And if you've liked and cared about the characters so far, that won't change here. 

Ultimately, it's just the continued adventures of Gru and company once again. It's nothing special and the act is starting to wear thin, but it still just manages to keep its footing when it's all said and done. If you liked the movies before (not including the Minions spin-off), you'll probably have a decent enough time with this one. I do kind of wish they would have the sense to stop now, though--because if they continue with no end in sight, we'll really start getting sick of these movies pretty quick. Quit while you're still (barely) ahead. 

Friday, December 1, 2017

Jumanji


RATING: B

It takes some doing to make a decent feature-length movie adaptation of a children's picture book... and then actually make it good. This particular adaptation was based off a book about a board game where things come to life out of it. And being a jungle-themed board game... that mostly means jungle animals and other jungle-related stuff. Being brought into the real world to go rampage and stuff. No big deal, right? 

It starts with a boy named Alan finding this board game buried at a construction site--because he heard the sound of drums coming out of it (and for some reason, only certain people in this movie hear those creepy drums). He starts playing the game with his friend Sarah... and two turns in he actually gets sucked into the game. As in, he actually gets sucked into the game's world. As in, the game also has an alternate jungle dimension within it somehow. Try not to think about that one too much.

Anyways, 26 years later, two more younger kids--Peter and Judy (the kids who played the game in the original book)--find the game and start playing it. Havoc ensues. And Alan comes back... only now he looks like Robin Williams. (What a way to grow up, right?) After reuniting with Sarah, the four realize they have to finish the game to make everything go away. Which means... more havoc will ensue before it gets any better. 

The premise might sound a tad silly, but they actually manage to pull it off. This is because director Joe Johnston actually does a good job of striking a nice balance in the tone of the film--it is appropriately silly, but it is also serious without feeling forced. And even a little legitimately creepy a few times--although credit for that probably goes to James Horner's score. 

Regardless, the movie is both funny and exciting. The action scenes are actually pretty good. There are a few slower parts that are necessary to moving the plot but still feel kind of tedious due to the fast pace and zaniness of the rest of it. The film is funny mostly in due part to Robin Williams (RIP), who kind of carries the movie himself in a way--it probably wouldn't have been as good without him. 

One minor issue is that some of the special effects don't hold up that well now. Particularly the monkeys. Maybe it's in part because the new Planet of the Apes trilogy has come out since then, but something looks seriously wrong with these monkeys. At other times it still looks fine, but at other points the effects kind of look aged--more than some of its other action counterparts of the 1990's. 

Ultimately, Jumanji's a pretty fun ride of a popcorn action fantasy movie. It's kind of an improbable success--they could've easily made this all too dumb, but they managed to make it quite watchable. They managed to get some of the right people working on it. (Seems like there were quite a few unexpected successful action movies in the 90's, weren't there?) Even for all it does get right, it still might be a bit much for the all-too-serious viewer--but this is a good example of an entertaining movie that doesn't have to be A+ levels of storytelling but can still work quite well if done right. 


Postscript: It's still hard to believe a sequel to this is actually happening 20 years later--and still quite soon after the death of Robin Williams, which just makes it worse. So... don't go see it. Just try to forget that it even exists. That's what I try to do sometimes... 

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Cars 3


RATING: B-

Here's a movie that years ago I didn't really expect to see another sequel for. Everyone hated Cars 2, so one would've expected that Pixar would've just put the franchise on the shelf. But I guess it was still making enough money at least on merchandise. And they decided they had a passable enough storyline, so... here we go. 

Cars 2 was different from the first Cars in every way possible. While the original was one of Pixar's more slower-paced movies and was about slowing down and enjoying life, Cars 2 was a James Bond-esque spy action extravaganza taking place in the Cars universe. Cars 3, however, goes back to the roots of the franchise--at least the racing roots, anyway. Lightning McQueen is the main character again, and Mater has been demoted back to side-character comic relief. 

The movie centers around McQueen being challenged by a new generation of racers--with better technology and stuff. Basically, they're more stylish and faster than their previous counterparts. Jackson Storm is the best of the bunch, and he quickly speeds into the spotlight. McQueen finds himself unable to keep up (literally) and due to this and a season-ending crash, his retirement is expected to be soon. And he won't have any of that... but he's gonna have to learn a new trick or two. Or something. He's assigned a new "trainer" Cruz Ramirez to help him bounce back, but her role in this movie ends up being more than that. Not really much else can be said without spoilers, but she needed to be mentioned somewhere. 

Here's kind of the problem: Jackson Storm is faster than McQueen is capable of being. Even a new mentor character named Smokey says as such--"You'll never be as fast as Storm, but you can be smarter." So you might have to suspend disbelief a little to deal with the idea that McQueen can actually challenge Storm. 

Despite that problem at the core of the movie's storyline, it's still a decent movie. It's a little slow for a while after McQueen's big crash, but there's some fun stuff here and there. The demolition derby sequence stands out. And the final race/act of the movie is pretty cool too. Just like the first movie's final race ended with a satisfying twist, this one does too--albeit in a different way. 

The biggest issue with this movie is that it doesn't have much to say. Whereas the first Cars movie had a lot to say--not just the whole "slow down and enjoy life" thing, but other things such as taking the road less traveled and sticking it to the Interstates of America--this one just doesn't really have that kind of touch to it. I guess McQueen comes away with another new view on racing life and all, but it's not as memorable. 

Ironically, the other Cars sequel six years ago was Pixar's first real misstep in that it didn't hold up with the rest of the lineup. And six years later, I'm still waiting for Pixar to truly return to its glory days. While they've escaped the rut of movies that weren't even good (Brave, Monsters University), now they're stuck in a rut of movies that are decent/good... but not great. Of all things, Finding Dory was the closest they've gotten to to their former glory (sorry, Inside Out fans). While "good but not great" isn't a bad thing and is still above average, it's still kind of frustrating because we know they're capable of better. Cars 3 is another addition to that lot. You'll have a decent time with it and you'll probably come out liking it when it's all said and done. But it still feels like there was a missed opportunity here or two. 

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Power Rangers (2017)


RATING: C

Well, it was only a matter of time wasn't it? Everything else has been getting rebooted for the big screen during the past several years. Especially stuff that was once a toy/TV show/older movie for the younger ones. Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, G.I. Joe, even LEGO's. At some point the Power Rangers were going to have to come up, right? 

I can't say I know a lot about the Power Rangers. Coming into this movie, I knew a few names of characters and foes and other stuff/things (Voltron, etc). Oh yeah, and... "It's Morphin' time." But I'd barely watched anything of theirs before, and from what I did know, it sounded pretty corny and the trailers for this new movie only looked so-so at best. So I approached the movie with quite low expectations. And surprisingly... it's actually kind of okay? 

I'll just go ahead and throw this reveal right out of the gate for all the actual Power Rangers fans: there is no "Morphin'" until about 90 minutes in. And this movie's right at about two hours. That might seem pretty hard to imagine--after all, how are you going to spend the rest of the time in a Power Rangers movie? I mean sure, we get to spend a fair amount of time with Zordon and with them training and such (minus the armor). 

Turns out that they decided to mix a Power Rangers movie... with a coming-of-age high school teen drama of sorts? I guess that's less surprising in hindsight. The Power Rangers are generally teenagers, after all. And this is a 2010's movie featuring teenagers, so given the fact that it's an origin story, they probably actually didn't have a lot of other options (besides letting them start Morphin' way earlier in the movie, of course). 

Oddly enough, it actually kind of works. Once one get pasts all the ridiculous cliches in the first 20 minutes or so and we start spending time with *just* the five teenagers, it actually works out fairly well. There's actually some good character development, and by the time the climactic battle rolls around you actually care about the characters--something I would never have expected this movie to pull off. It actually helps make the big action finale more enjoyable once it rolls around.

But it's still a pretty doggone flawed movie. Our antagonist Rita Repulsa, despite being portrayed by Elizabeth Banks (for some reason), spends most of the time muttering about gold and screaming incomprehensible things. Banks seriously hams it up here, and it unfortunately doesn't work. Bryan Cranston is also in this movie for some reason as Zordon... and he actually really isn't given much to do. 

While they do thankfully limit the corniness, there are still a couple of rather silly moments. This movie does just so happen to include the most over-the-top product placement of all time. While the dumber high school cliches are toned down after the early parts of the movie, they are still pretty dumb. Finally, the climactic act would've been pretty lame if we hadn't actually grown to like the characters--because it's basically just a few generic fights against some CGI rock monsters before it suddenly turns into Pacific Rim... for all of two minutes. 

This movie is actually a lot better than it has any right to be. Given the fact that there's no actual Power Rangers for 90 minutes, our antagonist is rather lame, and the climactic battle feels toned down compared to some of its counterparts in its genre, this movie should've fallen flat on its face. But it's actually kind of decent. It doesn't suck. It's not great or even really good. But I was expecting to finish the movie and wonder why I decided to watch it. That didn't happen. I don't regret seeing this movie. That in of itself is impressive. 

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Chappie


RATING: B

We've seen our fair share of artificial intelligence movies over the years. Most of them have been pretty good. It's a subgenre that lends itself to a lot of ideas and threads that can be used--even if there's only a few different ways the whole story ends. I haven't gotten tired of it yet myself. 

This particular one starts with the backdrop of there being a robotic police force in South Africa (but *only* in South Africa, for some reason). Of course they're "AI's" of sorts, but they're more limited--made to follow orders and carry out objectives. And then they go to the idea of building a fully sentient AI into one of those "scouts." And this one, named Chappie, starts out like a child, having to learn things both on its own and from its maker (and other people). Of course, there are forces out there that either want to use Chappie for their own purposes... or just want him destroyed. Tough world for what basically amounts to a "child robot" to be in. 

What the marketing didn't really show you is that Chappie isn't actually "trained" by his actual "maker" a whole lot. He is brought into the world to be used by a small group of gangsters--two of whom are played by members of a real-life rap outfit, for some reason. He is supposed to become "the illest gangsta on the block," among other things. For a well-meaning but naive and easily influenced child-like AI, that's ultimately not a good thing. 

This is a somewhat conflicting movie. There's some very interesting material here for sure. What much of the movie basically amounts to is a quick look at a more ghetto (or "gangsta") version of life through the lens of a confused AI. This does lead to some ridiculousness due to the often over-the-top silliness of the gangsters, and the rather poor acting of the rap duo that "stars" in the movie. 

Despite that, the movie does get us to care about Chappie himself a fair amount. The poor guy goes through a lot in this movie, and although we're not really sure how fast he "ages" in his mind relative to humans, we're still led to believe that he's basically a "child AI." And he gets a rough glance at some of humanity's shortcomings. A key memorable point has an enraged Chappie asking, "Why do you humans always do this? Why do you lie?!" His tale is almost sort of a tragic one--or at least that's how it set up to be for most of the movie. Then the crazy (but quite exciting) final act happens, and when the climactic confrontation is over, we're left with a change in theme and tone for the final 10-15 minutes--which turns out quite interesting and a little alarming, but it is still quite a shift from what we've been given for most of the movie. 

That's part of the issue here, beyond some of the more annoying acting and off-tone silliness. At times it seems like the movie's trying to do a little too much. It ranges from being WALL-E-like with regard to the robot's curiosity in things, to also being a tragic discovery of humanity's shortcomings and then also dealing with life and death--and how that affects Chappie (among other things which I won't spoil). There's almost too much stuff explored in just 2 hours. They probably should have either tried to limit themselves a bit, or the movie should have been longer. (But we all know how little patience people have for *that* nowadays--150 minutes is too long now, apparently.)

Chappie's a pretty interesting and often-exciting movie, but also a little annoying at times. While I came away overall enjoying the final product, it was still kind of difficult to think back later and make full sense of what I had seen. And man, are those gangsters annoying. Chappie succeeds in a fair amount of respects, but also kind of falls apart in others and you can't help but feel it could've been more. 

Friday, November 3, 2017

Thor: Ragnarok


RATING: B+

It's been nearly ten years now since the Marvel Cinematic Universe started. And given that fact, most of us should probably know what to expect from the average Marvel movie by now. You can generally expect a relatively light-hearted superhero movie with lots of humor, exciting action sequences, great characters and heroes that we all like, one-note villains that range from pretty great to very forgettable, and ultimately no matter how dark or serious things might appear to be... there are almost never any real long-term consequences and no one ever dies. Unless their actor's contract ended. (Oddly enough, a few minor characters actually do die in this movie... only thing is, if you aren't a mega-Marvel/Thor fan, you might not even remember who they are.) 

Granted, this is a formula that has generally worked pretty well. The only issue is some of those minor annoyances that come up which start to grate on you a little more after you've seen them happen multiple times. Every now and then a few movies in the series will kind of deviate from that formula in some way, but still, we've been given kind of the same thing enough that we're starting to catch on to it. Thor: Ragnarok really isn't that much different. If anything, it takes certain parts of the formula even further than before--for better or for worse. 

This particular Thor movie--which is *very* different in almost every way from its predecessors--centers around the goddess of death, Hela, being released from her "cage" back into the world and ultimately into Asgard. Thor is initially defeated by her and ends up stranded on a distant planet without his hammer (which the trailers actually revealed him losing, for some idiotic reason) where he has to fight as a gladiator against the Hulk, get back to Asgard and stop Hela from destroying everything. 

Let's start with the good. This movie is very, very funny. It's one of the funniest in the entire Marvel series, along with the original Avengers movie and the two Guardians of the Galaxy movies. The gladiator match between Thor and Hulk is as hilarious as it is exciting, and much of the interaction between Thor and Loki is also quite amusing. We're given plenty to laugh at in general for the majority of the movie. The action sequences are decent if not great, while the final act stands out a bit (until the final resolution, that is) due in part to being a bit more serious and not constantly relying on wisecracks to keep it going. 

The film still has a good cast. Chris Hemsworth steps it up a notch by showing his comedic talent, as does Tom Hiddleston. There actually aren't a lot of other returning actors, but Idris Elba and Mark Ruffalo still do fairly well. Anthony Hopkins oddly seems like he kind of phoned this one in. Newcomers include Cate Blanchett, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson and Karl Urban--all of whom do well, although Goldblum's goofiness makes him stand out. Benedict Cumberbatch's Doctor Strange also shows up... for about 3-4 minutes, but he makes good use of his time. 

Probably the biggest issue here is the ending. One can't say much without giving away spoilers (and I probably should still warn you of vague spoilers here), but in typical Marvel fashion, they use a cop out to avoid having the ending seem too dark. That kind of makes what could have been an impactful ending... not so. Almost makes you wonder what the point even was. Not enough to ruin the film, obviously--it's too much fun to do that--but it's a problem. Other issues include no explanation as to why Hulk can suddenly speak (among other things about him that have changed since his last appearance) and the fact that the film's lighthearted tone does seem on occasion a bit off due to the fact that that film is supposed to be about the doggone Asgardian apocalypse. 

Thor: Ragnarok is absolutely not bad by any means. It's difficult to not have a fun time watching it. It's not without issues, but at this point it's not unlike what some of us have come to expect out of a Marvel movie at this point. It's been made out to be one of the better movies in the series, which I don't entirely get. It's certainly one of the funnier ones, but that doesn't guarantee by default that it's a classic. Certain flaws keep it from being that. Nevertheless, in terms of humor, you probably won't find a whole lot better in the action/adventure department this year. 

Friday, October 27, 2017

Thor: The Dark World


RATING: B

When the basic plot of your first movie around a certain character revolves around him being a jerk and then changing himself, it can be difficult to make a second movie where you're literally just killing time until the next main Avengers movie. At least with Iron Man 2, they actually had some universe-building to do. But in this movie? Um... they introduce another Infinity Stone. That's about it. 

This second Thor movie centers around a rare occurrence in the cosmos called the Convergence, in which the Nine Realms align perfectly and the lines between reality are extremely blurred... but only in one specific location on any given realm. And there's this supposedly extinct race of bad guys called the Dark Elves led by Malekith who wants to use this ancient vague weapon called the Aether and use the Convergence to destroy the universe. 

As you can see, there's a fair share of sci-fi mumbo jumbo here and a pretty generic villain plot. Thor's continued story is kind of interesting, even if there's nothing major really happening in it like the last movie. But honestly this film probably has one of the weaker foundations of any Marvel movie. 

Malekith, despite being played by Christopher Eccleston, is about as flat a villain as there is in the MCU. There's not really any backstory to him that makes him interesting, so he's basically just another dude who wants to destroy the world. As a matter of fact, it ends up being Loki who steals the spotlight--not only from Malekith, but from pretty much the whole doggone movie. We get to see much more of what the trickster is capable of in this film, and he is full of surprises. Tom Hiddleston just seems to be getting better in better in the role. 

Luckily, Loki's not the only good thing about this movie. The cast is still pretty stellar. Despite a rather average plot, the film is still pretty exciting and fast-paced overall. There's a couple of pretty great action sequences, namely the Dark Elves' assault on Asgard. The climax is a bit of a confusing mess, but at least there's comedy in it. And there's comedy thrown in elsewhere too. Even if it isn't the most well-written of the Marvel films, most people who've enjoyed the MCU to this point shouldn't have much issue finding some fun and excitement in it. 

Thor: The Dark World may be near the bottom of the MCU food chain, but it's still a quite passable couple of hours. It's another one of those films that's just good enough to help kill time until the next bigger Marvel movie. It definitely could've been a lot better, but I've said before that when even the worst entries in your movie series are well above average, you're doing something right.