Thursday, January 7, 2021

Wonder Woman 1984


 RATING: B

The DC Extended Universe has had a bit of a shaky run. The attempt to rush out the Justice League was a colossal failure for multiple reasons, and while the series is still sort of kicking, their future doesn't look bright. That said, they have been pretty good at doing solo movies. The first Wonder Woman and Shazam were excellent, Man of Steel was pretty great as well, and even Aquaman was surprisingly serviceable. Now, we get the first sequel to one of those solo movies (Batman vs Superman doesn't count as a Man of Steel sequel) in Wonder Woman 1984. Rather fitting, since Wonder Woman has been pretty easily the best thing to come out of the DCEU and the one thing that is universally believed to have been done right. 

Much like its predecessor, this one takes place in the past--although it does take a rather large time skip from World War I. The advantage of your protagonist being basically immortal is that you can put them in whatever time you want--and the chosen setting here was the American 80's, a rather promising idea. At this point, Diana is continuing to do Wonder Woman things, while somehow managing to remain fairly underground in the process (some suspension of disbelief is required there). When a mysterious artifact turns up that turns out to grant wishes, it puts her into conflict with an ambitious businessman (Maxwell Lord) whose plans/use of it eventually cause chaos--as well as (eventually) one of the more famous villains in the Wonder Woman canon--the Cheetah. Oh yeah, and the supposedly dead Steve Trevor is back somehow!

To get right to the points, WW84 is not as good as its predecessor. There's definitely some good Wonder Woman action as always, and the character herself is still enjoyable--but this is a more bumpy ride at times. To start with, there's actually barely any WW action for almost 90 minutes (save for a mall heist at the beginning, but that's more comedic than anything). The movie's first half spends a lot more time on establishing the characters of the two villains (which isn't a bad thing) as well as playing up the MacGuffin of this movie for a bit. Some of this still could've been cut down--namely, the very first scene involving a flashback to Themyscira could've been left out and it wouldn't have mattered one bit. 

Those are mostly issues with pacing and editing, but one more foundational flaw is that, for a movie set in the 80's, they do not bank on that setting or nostalgia as much as you'd think. There is a bit where Diana shows Steve around the city and a hilarious scene involving him trying on 80's fashion (and poking fun at it), but not a lot beyond that and a little of satirizing the more toxic consumerism/megalomania of the time. Not even one 80's song is played. Captain Marvel did a much better job of banking on the nostalgia of its 90's setting in multiple ways. Heck, the Bumblebee movie from the Transformers franchise did a much better job with the same 80's setting itself! 

Still, there's plenty to like here. As previously stated, there are some good action sequences, even if it takes a while to get to them. An Egypt highway chase and White House fight scene are particularly of note here. There's some impressive visuals as well, particularly in a scene where Diana and Chris drive a jet through a fireworks show. As usual, Diana/Wonder Woman herself (and Gal Gadot's performance) is a delight, and Chris Pine does well with the "man in the wrong time" role. But arguably of higher note are the villains. Kristen Wiig's Cheetah is actually played as more of a tragic villain, and it mostly works--though as an outsider to the comics, I do find myself wondering why a cheetah-human hybrid would be one of the most iconic villains of this canon. 

However, Pedro Pascal's performance as Max Lord is one of the very best things about this movie. He excellently plays a stereotypical charismatic 80's businessman with some unexpected depths who goes from silly to desperate to sympathetic to insane to power-hungry (and not necessarily in that order) quite convincingly. (And despite a mildly similar appearance, he's not really an expy for a certain real-life businessman of that era you may be thinking of.) It's Pascal's performance and Max's character arc that perhaps make this thing work the most, besides Diana herself. 

One other issue of note, though, is just *how* Steve Trevor ends up being in this movie. There were multiple theories before the movie's release, some of which were actually pretty good--but pretty much none of them ended up being right, and the actual explanation ended up being rather stupid--and odd/bizarre in the context of the plot, with a lot of unanswered questions. 

(SPOILER ALERT for the next paragraph, regarding the above subject.) 

Essentially, Steve unintentionally ends up in another man's body--which makes zero sense, and does raise some questions about whose body it actually is during that time period. Did the other guy get erased from existence temporarily? Is he still in there but suppressed? Why did Steve have to inhabit someone else to begin with? The movie is interested in answering exactly zero of these questions, and for some reason Diana and Steve don't seem to care that much either. This plot device could've been handled a *lot* better even in the context of the plot/MacGuffin that spawns him, but instead it's borderline hand-waved. 

Ultimately, WW84 isn't as great or even as impactful as its predecessor, but it's still a fairly good follow-up overall. It does stand on its own well too and doesn't depend on being a part of the further DCEU canon (though it does briefly set up its own threequel). As much as I've enjoyed the immersive Marvel Universe, these DC movies seem to work a lot better when they're more self-contained. This may be more of a bumpy ride than its predecessor, but it's still worth the watch, particularly if you're a fan of the character. 

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Gemini Man

RATING: C+

CGI has come a long way since the usage of it in movies became more mainstream. We're to the point now where we can use CGI to de-age actors or even create a human model from mostly scratch. Let's not forget, there was a time when if they wanted to do a scene with a younger (or older) version of a character, they either had to use elaborate makeup or a wig, or hire another actor altogether even. Now? Just slap some CGI on it. Gemini Man is what happens when you base the entire concept of your film around this technological achievement. 

The idea for this actually existed as early as the late 90's, but at the time the technology didn't exist for what they wanted to do. So it stayed in development hell for 20 years, until doing something like de-aging was not only possible, but relatively more commonplace (at least among big-budget movies, anyway). 

Here, Will Smith plays an aging assassin (Henry Brogan) who's decided it's time to retire. His retirement is unfortunately short-lived when he ends up being targeted by another assassin. The problem? It's himself... literally. Or rather, a younger version of him. And that's where the "basing your plot on a technological achievement" comes into play, as Will Smith has to fight a de-aged version of himself... on the same screen. 

Now, what they're trying to do here is certainly impressive--and it mostly works. The younger Will Smith (known as "Junior") looks quite good, for the most part--and the fact that they were able to put both the real and the younger versions on the screen at the same time is pretty astounding. It is worth noting that the CGI for Junior does become a bit more obvious during a couple of outside daytime scenes, but when there's less reliance on lighting, they pull it off very well. And Will Smith does do a good job of playing both versions of himself. 

Where the problems start with this movie is the script. Apparently, despite the fact that they had 20 years to make this thing, they didn't do much re-working of the dialogue, which is borderline goofy at times and definitely clashes with the tone. The other problem here at times is the pacing--it takes a surprising amount of time to get from Henry retiring to his doppelganger showing up. There's also a bit of a lull at times going from their first confrontation to their next one. 

While the plot itself is fine, it's also rather predictable. Interestingly enough, the trailers for this revealed quite a bit--though they didn't really need to, seeing as a good amount of viewers would be able to figure out the "twists" anyway. Regardless, there's also a couple things here and there regarding how Junior got to where he is now that don't make a lot of sense.

But besides the Young Will Smith CGI, there's also some good action to be found here--such as a motorcycle chase that ends with one of the bikes being used as a projectile (it has to be seen to be believed), as well as a fistfight between the two Smiths. The final act is fairly entertaining as well. 

The movie ultimately is far from bad--what they manage to do here with the power of CGI is a little too impressive to altogether dismiss, and the film itself is generally entertaining. The issue is that the film trips itself up a bit along the way at times, and besides the motorcycle trick, doesn't really do enough to stand out from the action-film crowd besides the visual effects. For something that took so long to make *only* because they were waiting for the technology to catch up, it's rather crazy that they didn't take the time to better iron out other certain facets of this. But it's still worth a watch anyway--for the CGI achievements, if nothing else, but it's hardly a dud otherwise either.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Tenet

RATING: B

It's been a while since we got a normal showing from Christopher Nolan. His last flick in 2017 was Dunkirk, a nonfiction war movie--which, while it was definitely a good movie, did lack the usual Nolan flairs like mind-screwing and plot twists, due to it being nonfiction. So the last "Nolan-esque" film we got was Interstellar, way back in 2014. All things considered (and Dunkirk aside), it feels like Nolan has been trying to test his audience's limits to see how much mind-screwing they can take before they finally decide he's gone too far. And his newest offering, Tenet, is probably the closest he's gotten so far.

Tenet is marketed as a spy movie, although I wouldn't put it with the likes of James Bond or most other actual spy stuff. Regardless, this is mixed with time travel--or rather, time *inversion.* Here, our protagonist (whose name is literally never given) is recruited by a mysterious shadow agency trying to prevent an armageddon plot--which would be induced by way of screwing with the time stream too much, and which an insane Russian oligarch (Kenneth Branagh) is at the forefront of. 

The result is another ambitious Nolan movie which has more bumps to the finish line than you'd expect from a Nolan movie--but the finish line is indeed a satisfying one. While the plot and setting can be difficult to follow (more on that later), if you're able to keep up and be patient, you are rewarded as the film goes on--and we do get some pretty good twists in the final minutes.  

Some of the action sequences are also top-tier for Nolan; there's the airplane scene that was alluded to in the marketing (which involves zero CGI!), as well as a highway chase that makes great use of the time inversion technique for a thoroughly exciting scene. The fight scenes also benefit from this unique plot device. 

Now, as said earlier, this one's a little more bumpy than usual. As said earlier, the plot and setting can be difficult to follow. If you had significant trouble understanding Inception or Interstellar, you're going to have a bad time with Tenet. They don't do quite as good of a job of providing exposition--or they just expect you to sit tight and wait until it's explained later, which can be frustrating in a longer movie like this. And it's just complex concepts that they give us here.

But Nolan challenging our minds isn't out of the ordinary. So that could be potentially overlooked, especially assuming that, like with other movies of his, re-watching it is rewarding. But there are a couple unexpected issues that haven't really cropped up in Nolan movies before. 

The tone of this movie, especially in the earlier goings, is surprisingly impersonal at times--and the characterization suffers as a result. Instead of having much of distinct personalities, it often feels like most of the characters are only there to serve a role. Robert Pattinson's character is pretty much just there to create awesome plans and be a partner to the protagonist (which isn't a slight on Pattinson; he does fine with what he's got). Bizarrely enough, the protagonist (John David Washington) seems to be written this way by design; after all, we aren't even given his name. And most of the other characters are just there to be of service to our main characters; their personality traits or *anything* important about them are apparently irrelevant. They're just there.

The only characters that really do stick out here are Kenneth Branagh's antagonist and his character's wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki). And it's for that reason as well as both Branagh and Debicki stand out the most in terms of acting, because they've been given the most to work with. The focus here seems to have been more on the idea/concept--and while that aspect does ultimately work, the bizarre lack of personality in the majority of the characters does stick out. And I can't believe I'm saying such things about a Christopher Nolan movie. Michael Caine is in this movie for about exactly two minutes and he's more enjoyable than almost any other character in this.

Side note, but people are not kidding about the sound mixing in this movie. For some reason, some of the noise effects and soundtrack clash badly with the dialogue here, resulting in it being hard to hear what everybody's saying at times. Hopefully that won't be a problem on home video/digital, but prepared to use subtitles if necessary. (Speaking of the soundtrack, Hans Zimmer's absence in a Nolan movie is definitely felt here--Ludwig Goransson really overdoes it on the electronics to the point of insanity.) 

Ultimately, Tenet is definitely another thinking man's action film; it's very inventive and cerebral. Nolan continues to deliver in that aspect, as well as giving us entertaining action scenes. Unfortunately, he did sacrifice some personality in the process of this one; and that combined with this movie being a little more difficult to follow may leave some underwhelmed. Still, if you're a fan of what Nolan's done so far or if you're just looking for a more unique/cerebral action movie, you'll absolutely want to check it out, whether that's in theaters or on your home screen later. This may be on the lower tier of Nolan movies, but even a lower-tier Nolan movie is still way above average. 

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Bloodshot

RATING: C-

Bloodshot has the distinction of being the last movie released in theaters before... well... you know what. Released March 13, the day of the emergency declaration, put it in a quite unfortunate spot in terms of making money. Now, as of this writing, the movie theaters are open again (depending on where you live, anyway); but for a while it seemed within the realm of possibility that Bloodshot might be the last movie we saw in an indoor theater for a very long time. And that... would've definitely been a case of going out with something of a whimper rather than a bang. 

So what is Bloodshot, exactly? Well, it's a comic-book superhero movie--but it's not based off Marvel *or* DC. It's from another group called Valiant Comics, known for stuff like Bloodshot and the Harbingers. There's a fair chance that if you're not much of a comic reader, you've never heard of any this stuff. But they've made their way to the big screen, so here we are. 

Bloodshot (aka Ray Garrison, who is never actually called "Bloodshot" in this movie) is a character who gets killed and then resurrected by a private organization by way of infusing his body with ludicrous levels of nanotechnology, which basically make him nigh indestructible as long as the nanites are active, which quickly heal him. So... sort of like Wolverine, but with nanotechnology instead of a natural healing ability or metal skeleton, and without claws. Ray does have enhanced strength as a result, though. And of course, the shady organization in question has ulterior motives for "bringing him back"... which, it turns out, is more complicated than expected, and nothing is what it seems and stuff. 

Here's the thing about Bloodshot. It's not bad, necessarily. It just doesn't do enough to stand out in a crowded genre. There actually is a surprising twist of sorts regarding the shady organization and what they're doing to Ray, but the result makes the early movie's sequences feel like a waste of time -- even if what follows is a semi-unique plot, at least in the superhero world.

More problematically, there's very thin characterization here and basically zero development. Ray's character development basically begins and ends with Vin Diesel, who often feels about as robotic as the technology coursing through his character's veins. That, and swearing revenge on foes. The evil guy is evil, but we aren't given enough about his motivations. And there's also two forgettable side "antagonists" of sorts, one of whom is mostly just an annoying jerk for no tangible reason. 

Actually, that "robotic" word earlier probably sums fairly well how much of this feels. This movie isn't boring, and it's not like the plot in of itself is stupid. But there's just not much heart or soul here. The action scenes happen and some of them are fun, but it's hard to be that invested. The CGI being mostly rather "meh" at best doesn't help either. Lamorne Morris's character at least brings some comic relief to the fold. Guy Pearce and Eiza Gonzalez also at least seem like they're trying. 

As previously stated, the movie's not bad. It just feels too hollow and lacks too much heart to really make it be that worthwhile. If you're a mega-fan of the genre and want to see something new, I suppose it's worth a look, although there wasn't much of anything to make me interested in future installments. It's interesting to see a newcomer to the comic-book movie scene, but Valiant will have to do better in the future to stand out.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Spies in Disguise

RATING: C+

Before Illumination and their Despicable Me/Minions series showed up, Blue Sky Studios was pretty much the "other animation studio" not named Disney/Pixar or DreamWorks, responsible for the Ice Age and Rio series. While most of their material has generally been targeted towards a somewhat lower age demographic than the other animation studios, their latest (and maybe last? I have no idea how they're going to co-exist with Disney Animation now that Disney owns them and Fox) movie branches out a little, into a spy adventure comedy. 

This one centers around a secret agent named Lance Sterling (Will Smith), who ends up crossing paths with an ambitious late-teens inventor named Walter (Tom Holland), who--unlike the rest of the people at the fictional agency--is more interested in creating less destructive and deadly gadgets to vanquish bad guys. When Sterling is on the run after being framed, he ends up getting accidentally transformed into a pigeon by Walter. Now they have to stop a cybernetic terrorist with... drones? We really like using drone armies in our action/adventure movies now, don't we?

There actually are some interesting concepts in this movie; they do some interesting things with the idea of "secret agent pigeon." And the film's more pacifistic angle is treated mostly well, with both sides of the argument getting a fair day, and it not feeling overly preachy (even though some of Walter's "gadgets" in that pursuit do feel rather silly--like kitty glitter bombs). 

I also like how most of the main characters in this movie are animated to be vague-but-somewhat-similar representations of their voice actors--and their most popular types of roles. Will Smith voices a cocky, swaggering agent. Tom Holland voices an awkward genius. Ben Mendelsohn voices a very-not-nice guy.

Where a lot of the problems come in here is in some of the choices at humor. There are some actually funny moments in this movie. But there's also some more juvenile and bizarre moments that are supposed to be funny, as well as some moments that just leave one going "What were they thinking?!" Case in point: when we learn way more about a pigeon's anatomy than necessary. Not to mention a couple cheap shout-outs to not-cool pop culture gimmicks, like Will Smith's character saying "now *that's* hot!" as if we needed a YouTube Rewind reference. 

There's a couple of other annoyances along the way--some of Walter's ideas are genuinely clever, but others are a bit over-the-top (as mentioned earlier). There's also an action scene or two that is rather difficult to follow, due to it being hard to tell who's firing what and what rays of something are actually dangerous. 

This is not a bad movie by any means, but it does hold itself back a bit much with some of its ill-advised humor and thus wastes some of its more interesting ideas. While Blue Sky's made a couple of hits, they've never been top-tier quality-wise in the animation department, and despite some of its better efforts, this one doesn't really change that status either.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Sonic the Hedgehog


RATING: C+

Here's the latest attempt to make a successful video-game movie... the vast majority of attempts which have failed. However, in the last few years we have seen attempts that at least were seen as okay and not dumpster fires (Pokemon Detective Pikachu, Alicia Vikander's Tomb Raider, and Rampage of all things). So here comes the newest one of those "not bad but not that great either" video game movies--Sonic the Hedgehog, one of the more prolific and long-running franchises that's not an FPS or Nintendo-related.

This film puts Sonic the super-fast blue Hedgehog on an otherwise-normal plant Earth with a somewhat more cinematic (and thus cliched) backstory, and he's been in hiding for many years. However, when he accidentally activates some powers that I don't think he had in the games (I could be wrong though; I've only played a relatively small number of the large catalogue of Sonic games), he ends up revealing his presence. Cue the mad scientist Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey) coming to find him, and intending to experiment on him. Sonic teams up with a local sheriff (James Marsden) to help him escape the planet by retrieving his lost rings, which here serve as... portals to other worlds? Sure, let's go with that. To be fair, going with the normal trope of Sonic rings being magical items that let you survive anything as long as you have some wouldn't have translated that well to a live-action feature.

This definitely qualifies as a quite mixed bag. On one hand, despite some aspects of this franchise being difficult to translate to a live-action movie, it's actually decently faithful. We do get a nice high-speed chase towards the end, which truly does feel like a Sonic level (albeit not in the usual settings). Plus, the very final battle between Sonic and Robotnik definitely does not feel unlike a normal Sonic boss battle. While the writing is a bit goofy, there are some genuinely funny moments to be found here. And there are a few quite nice nods to the Sonic canon and fandom (there's even a "gotta go fast!" moment of sorts).

And the CGI creation of Sonic actually looks fairly good, especially when you consider the abomination that they originally had (seen in the infamous first trailer). It's been said many times by many others, but credit should absolutely be given to the animators for completely re-working Sonic's design for the entire movie in just three months, and to the studio for actually listening to the fans' complaints.

The problems mostly come down to the writing and the often rather cliched plot. There's a fair amount of lame dialogue here. And the character of Sonic is actually a bit annoying at times--this is basically an adolescent version of the character whose mouth is as fast as his feet, and it shows. This doesn't ruin the movie, but it does make the goings a little tedious at times.

What absolutely helps knock this movie up a notch is the performance of Jim Carrey as Dr. Robotnik. Carrey is clearly having a lot of fun in this role, and hams it up to the extreme--which is absolutely to this movie's benefit, and actually does kind of fit the character. It may be hard to believe we're saying this about a Jim Carrey movie at this point, but he alone makes it worth watching. Even some of the less good lines he has, he makes them work by being deliciously over-the-top.

This Sonic video game movie, like its competitors, doesn't break the mold due to its average story and below-average script. But it does get by with some charm and some of its more faithful-to-the-source-material moments, plus a deliciously fun villain (seriously, name the last time a video game movie villain was memorable at all). Definitely above-average for a video game movie adaptation--which isn't saying much, but between this and some of the other above-average attempts recently, these types of movies may finally be on the right track... sort of. Sonic fans will want to give it a shot, and for more casual fans or even non-fans... you could do much worse, especially given the lack of new movies in the last few months since this movie's release.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Onward



RATING: A

It's hard to believe that this is Pixar's first original film in three years. Even more so, that in the latter half of the 2010's, they only had one original feature at all--and that was Coco, which was indeed their best film in several years. During those past five years, we've gotten sequels of varying quality to The Incredibles (finally) and Finding Nemo, a third Cars movie, and a fourth Toy Story--the last of which is probably their most unnecessary sequel ever (which is saying something). Fortunately, things seem to balancing out at least to start the 2020's, as we've got Soul dropping later this year (well, hopefully) plus four more untitled features on the docket which are allegedly all originals.

Onward was an idea that had my interest from the start--or at least, the setting did. Director Dan Scanlon described it as a "suburban fantasy world"--which is pretty accurate. A world where anthropomorphized magical fantasy creatures populate the Earth instead of humans, and pretty much everything about Earth--including modern-day tech--is exactly the same otherwise (well, except for the pets/wild animals--those are also fantasy creatures). A very interesting and original concept, and a lot of potential there.

In this suburban fantasy universe, magic actually did use to exist--but it faded out over time when the creatures started inventing technology that negated the need for a lot of the natural magical abilities or magical spells that could be performed. And yes, that means that the fantasy creatures got too lazy to do anything magical (almost like WALL-E, except not taken even close to the extremes of that movie). Which... oddly feels fitting and appropriate for our times, if you take the obvious fantasy out of the equation.

The plot itself revolves around two elf siblings--Ian and Barley--voiced by Tom Holland and Chris Pratt, respectively. Ian, the more quiet and nervous one; and Barley, the enthusiastic RPG/quest-obsessed one. They're given the opportunity to meet their long-deceased dad through way of a temporary resurrection spell... but after it backfires halfway through, they're left with only the bottom half of their father. Cue a quest to go and find a magical MacGuffin to bring the rest of him back before time runs out and he's gone for good.

Overall, this is up there right alongside Coco among the best that Pixar has offered in almost the entire past decade. There's a great blend of comedy, action (some of which is also comedic), and the heart we've come to expect from Pixar--all put to the backdrop of one of their more inventive settings in a long time. (Yes, I know Inside Out exists, and that certainly was very inventive. But I wasn't as crazy about that movie as... well, almost everyone else.) And there's hardly any missed beats or missteps along the way. Some of the best parts include Barley getting accidentally shrunken and the hilarity from that, and a "battle" that ensues not too long after with some biker punk pixies. No, seriously. It has to be seen to be believed.

Beyond all that, despite the quest to get dad back, the heart of the movie rests heavily upon the relationship between the two brothers--which really works well. They're quite distinctive, but they play off each other quite well--which can probably be attributed in part to Holland and Pratt, the latter of whom is clearly having a lot of fun lending his voice here. But all of that builds up to a very strong ending, which--given the storyline of "will they get their dad back briefly or not"--could've easily missed the intended impact. But it sticks the landing near-perfectly. I don't think they could've done it any different and still had the heart-filled/emotional impact necessary for the intended resolution/takeaway. Knowing that a lot of the basic story background came from director Scanlon's own life, it's clear that a lot of this is close to home for him--and that perhaps makes it all the better, regardless of whether the viewer can relate or not.

Onward may still live somewhat in the shadow of some of Pixar's highest-acclaimed works, but this one shouldn't be overlooked. Even if it relies on a handful of story cliches, it uses a very unique setting and has some quite strong character moments and development. And it has plenty of laughs to go around, too. In other words, it actually is more or less what we've come to expect from Pixar. And once again, they're giving us another periodic reminder that they do still have some of their old selves left in the tank.