Monday, March 9, 2020

Knives Out





RATING: B

The first thing that some of you may have learned about this movie was that it was directed by Rian Johnson. Your next reaction might have depended upon how much you loved or hated that one Star Wars movie--or not, if you also happen to be a fan of Looper. Regardless, that was probably this movie's biggest draw upon first glance--aside from the fact that it was a mystery "whodunit" *without any source material.* That's actually pretty impressive, since most murder mystery movies these days (which are a dying breed to begin with) draw from some kind of source material--most recently Agatha Christie in Kenneth Brannagh's rendition of Murder on the Orient Express.

This one also has a somewhat deliberately more comedic take on the genre, though the film doesn't tend to lose its seriousness along the way. And it firmly entrenches itself in the modern day in more ways than one--besides modern technology playing a role, phrases like "weaksauce" and "Instagram influencer" are thrown in for comedy, as well as occasionally a few random political buzzwords (also sometimes for comedy--or at least, attempting it).

The sleuth detective here is Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), whose defining characteristic is his bizarre and rather goofy accent that sounds like it's trying to mimic a Southern drawl--and not entirely succeeding. Actually, it's been argued that the main character here isn't the detective but instead Marta, Ana de Armas's character, who is stuck square in the middle of this mess.

Here, the "whodunit" centers around Christopher Plummer's character, who's found dead within the first two minutes (don't worry, we still get to see plenty of Plummer's acting via flashbacks). It's set to be ruled a suicide, but Blanc suspects foul play--and getting to the heart of the mystery will involve dealing with a rather stuck-up family that is left behind.

All in all, it's a pretty fun mystery with a side of comedy to it. It probably wouldn't be overly remarkable without the unique touches Rian Johnson adds to it, despite the decent twist ending. But once you get used to some of Blanc's odd behavior, he's pretty fun to watch. It helps a lot that the cast is strong, which includes Craig, Armas, Plummer, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, and Frank Oz. Besides Craig, Evans and Shannon are clearly enjoying themselves, and it definitely does help vault the film a bit. And as previously stated, the sometimes more light-hearted feel to it also helps.

The downsides to this movie mostly have to do with the family of the deceased. Really, aside from Blanc, Marta, and one fanboy detective who's clearly enjoying every minute of this, most of the characters are inherently unlikable. Actually, some of them aren't even really characters, but rather cliched caricatures--a few of them of a political nature. Of course, all of this is in part by design which helps excuse it a little. But there's a couple of scenes in particular that are a little annoying to sit through. For somewhat similar reasons, the final shots of the movie--which are supposed to come off as a silent statement--come across as a bit corny. On an entirely different note, the film is a little slow-paced at times during the early goings before the mystery really gets properly going.

Regardless, Knives Out is very much one of those small handful of non-indie movies of 2019 that is likely to be a brief of fresh air for the franchise/sequel-weary movie viewers. It's very much worth watching, especially if you're a fan of the genre. And if nothing else, the acting and humorous parts of the script ought to keep one from being bored.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum


RATING: B

I've never been able to fully appreciate the first two John Wick movies as much as the average viewer. The first one felt too much like just a revenge shoot-em-up flick, albeit with some humorous twists and a dead dog instead of a dead wife/family. But that kind of thing just doesn't really interest me. The second one tried to expand on its predecessor, but aside from some admittedly pretty awesome hand-to-hand fights, it felt too much like more of the same--plus a couple of bizarre plot contrivances. And the series has never been nearly interested enough in the morality or soul of its protagonist--it's occasionally there, and perhaps more so than other films in this genre. But they're generally more interested in seeing how high of a body count Wick can rack up.

Still, the series has not been without its appeal. Chad Stahleski is superb at directing action scenes--the filming and editing is about as good as you'll ever see in the genre. And there's often a fair amount of humor from Wick's enemies discussing just how good of an assassin he is, and just how screwed they are as a result. So they've certainly been watchable, just nothing overall outstanding to me besides the fight choreography.

Anyway, when we last left super-assassin John Wick, he'd put himself into the unfortunate position of being excommunicated from the shadowy assassin underworld -- and thus had a *huge* price on his head, one that literally everyone else in this underworld was willing to take advantage of. Thus ensues two hours of killing.

But you know what? I enjoyed myself a lot more with this installment than I did the prior two. For one thing, this isn't a kill-em-all revenge flick, nor is it a convoluted follow-up which doesn't break enough new territory for our protagonist. Here, Wick is just trying to survive in a world where--at the moment--basically everyone wants to kill him. Of course, this is due to his actions at the end of Part 2, but unlike that chapter, this one emphasizes a bit more the whole "actions have consequences" thing. And a big part of this is the questions of "what is he living for," and "what sort of man does he want to die as?"

Granted, this stuff may not be at the forefront of the picture, but just bringing in more of this kind of substance really does make a lot of difference. Chapter 2 missed a lot of good opportunities for that, but in hindsight, I feel like they were just trying to set up this movie. And the result is... surprisingly good.

Somehow I haven't even really talked about the action yet. They hardly waste any time jumping into matters. In this movie, we see John Wick fight somebody with a book, engage ninjas with excessive use of throwing knives, and take on motorcycle drivers with knives while riding a horse. And that's just in the first 30 minutes!

But really, so much of the action in this thing is actually quite fun to watch. For one thing, instead of just a ton of headshots with the occasional knife/hand-to-hand combat, the combat in this movie is a lot more diversified. They give us a lot more various types of fights, and with one exception, none of them feel like they drag on.

What also helps is the atmosphere created by the movie--whether it's the wonderfully foreboding soundtrack, or the lighting of New York at night, or the screensaver-color-heavy lounge used as a battle ground near the end, the setting for so much of this is so well done. Chad Stahleski has always directed these movies well, but this is definitely his best job yet.

The final act is also easily the best in this series yet as well. Here, we get to watch John Wick fight two ninjas and then their master afterwards--for *20-25 straight minutes in total.* You'd think it would drag going on for that long, but it really doesn't. It's so frenetically paced and well choreographed it's difficult to not enjoy. This is probably the highlight fight and set piece of the movie.

After all these ways in which this movie improves over its predecessors, one might wonder what is actually wrong with it. Well, not really a grand deal. A few times the violence gets a bit gratuitous even by this franchise's standards. Oddly, Halle Berry's character is billed in marketing and in the cast as a major character, but she disappears midway through and is never seen again--kind of a waste. And a couple of the detours that are taken along the journey are a bit uninteresting. And in some ways, this movie still does kind of sit in the shadow of its predecessors--which, as I've demonstrated, aren't as appealing to me as to the average viewer. But hey, at least they improved on this one.

So ultimately, this is definitely the best film in the series thus far. In some ways, it may still be just a bit of a killing gallery movie, but with the setting behind it being different this time and there actually being a bit more substance to it this time, it's much closer to being the movie this series should have given us all along. Fans of this type of movie will have an absolute field day. Whether they can keep up this momentum and style for Chapter 4 remains to be seen.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Men in Black: International






RATING: C+

Here's another 2019 movie franchise follow-up that didn't necessarily need to happen: a Men in Black "spin-off," of sorts. While I wouldn't necessarily have been completely opposed to another MIB movie with Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, apparently they're too expensive now (or Smith is, at least--he sat out Independence Day 2 for the same reason). So instead we end up taking the focus to the British branch of MIB, where this time our leads are... Thor and Valkyrie from Thor: Ragnarok.

Despite the fact that this is still kind of an attempted cash grab (which failed), it's not a concept without promise. Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson leading the way, who already have good chemistry with each other, at the London division of MIB, with Liam Neeson added in? Surely they couldn't screw that up, right?

Well, they don't necessarily screw it up--but it still does fall short of its potential. Much of the problems revolve around some of the same issues from prior movies. Here's the thing about MIB movies: you probably barely remember the actual plots or bad guys from any of them. The central conflict has never been something that stood out about these movies (except *maybe* the third one). It was always the setting and the two juggernaut leads riffing off each other that worked, as well as some of the humor (though that could be hit-or-miss too at times).

That's all more or less par for the course here. This time, we're dealing with a new alien species called the Hive that could destroy the world. Agent H (Hemsworth) and High T (Neeson) stopped them years ago, but they may be coming back--if the appearance of two powerful energy beings with Hive mutations is any indication. And guess what? There's another ultimate weapon in the equation. Oh yeah, and there may be a mole in the MIB organization as well--that's something new, I guess.

The final result is one that isn't always comprehensible but is still entertaining at times. There's a couple good action scenes--the highlight is probably the extended sequence on Rebecca Ferguson's arms dealer island. There's some funny moments here and there as well. And Hemsworth and Thompson do play well off each other, even if they could've been given better material to work with. Liam Neeson's presence is always welcome as well.

Aside from the occasionally head-scratching plot, there's nothing inherently bad about this--certainly nothing as bad as Men in Black 2's lowest points (even with a few eye-rolling lines in the script). The issue is that there's not much to write home about either. The movie tries to stand out in its franchise, but at its core it's still generally the same old Men in Black with different leads. And all things considered... that's not a bad thing, but that's not good enough to make it stand out either.

Still, it's a generally harmless pastime of a movie that one might be okay with if they've liked the previous movies as a whole. It's not going to blow anyone away and many will probably be wishing that Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones were still here. And they do have a point. This isn't really a movie that needed to exist. But it's not the worst the franchise has to offer either.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Ad Astra






RATING: B+

There's always a few unexpected hits in the movie world per year (or maybe less, depending on the year). The "unexpected" factor is especially true in a world of sequels, reboots and spin-offs where most of the originality comes from already-made source material rather than 100% original ideas. Ad Astra is kind of one of those--at least in that it came out of nowhere after multiple release delays and was met with heavy critical acclaim. The audience response--and box office turnout--wasn't so enthusiastic, so at this point it's been probably already almost forgotten by the average person.

Taking place an unclear amount of time in the future, this is a more cerebral sci-fi movie--but still with some degree of adventure to it. While it could be compared to Interstellar, it does seem a little more like a couple of those "action scenes" were tacked on mostly so people wouldn't fall asleep. It does help with that, but the movie doesn't really feel that boring even though it does take on a naturally slow pace.

Anyway, in this more cerebral sci-fi movie, Earth is being threatened by a catastrophe--from millions of miles away in outer space out at Neptune from a space-exploration project gone awry. So Brad Pitt's character, Roy (the heavy focus here), sets out/is sent out into outer space to find the person responsible manning the project--his long-lost father.

There's a couple different major aspects to this movie. First, there's the space travel journey in of itself. This is all done very well, as we are given a mostly-realistic depiction of things out there. And the visuals for much of what we see there are generally excellent. There's an extended sequence on the Moon that has some excellent background shots, and a lot of the exterior scenes at Neptune look terrific as well.

Then there's the character aspect--because besides the sci-fi aspect, this is more of a character study. To a degree, perhaps too much so, because sometimes the narrative itself gets a little lost in the shuffle. Still, it does prove intriguing, as we see Brad Pitt portray what is essentially a cold emotionless robot of a human being (as is pretty much required in space, apparently). We also get a lot of narration/inner dialogue from Roy, and it's here where Pitt seems to shine best in his line readings. He captures quite well the cold and melancholy side of the character.

Actually, melancholy and introspective-ness is something this film captures quite well. The soundtrack helps a lot with that. There's one extended sequence in particular which stands out as the highlight of the movie when Roy has to make the final leg of his journey to Neptune--a 79-day one, completely alone (due to various circumstances). The movie superbly captures the feeling of solitude amidst the vastness of space with the visuals as well as Pitt's performance and dialogue.

Still, amidst the movie's ambition, it does miss the mark in a few regards. As previously stated, it sometimes gets so engrossed in its character study and vision that the narrative itself gets a little lost in the shuffle. Besides Roy and his father, other characters whom are played by some respected actors/actresses (namely Donald Sutherland) are all too one-note and cast aside too quickly.

There's also a couple of wasted opportunities in the narrative that result from tunnel vision on Roy's character. There's his father Clifford, played by Tommy Lee Jones. Despite the presence he has throughout the movie, we hardly see him until the very end. And while he (narrowly) escapes being an afterthought, his character in particular deserved more focus. He plays a big role in the background, but there's not nearly enough light shed on him or what made him the way he is by the film's end. Elsewhere, we get shown a fully established Moon base--which unfortunately has brought the ills of humanity along with it. This should've had some a little more focus as well.

While Ad Astra is ultimately a quite well done thinking man's science fiction movie, it doesn't quite reach the heights of its ambition. That's perhaps in part because it gets a little too narrowly focused at times. Nevertheless, it's still a well made movie and one that's certainly worth the watching. It should particularly appeal to those who appreciate genres like sci-fi or adventure but are franchise-weary. It's not masterpiece-level, but it's probably one of the better original works you'll watch all year.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Abominable






RATING: B+

Dreamworks Animation has seriously fallen apart in recent years. Bizarrely enough, some of their sequels have been their best features, while the original films have been alarmingly below average -- both for them and for the computer-animated genre in general. Whilst getting good installments in the Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon series, we've also been given fodder such as Home, Trolls, and the dumpster fire that was The Boss Baby. This is their first original feature since the latter (also Captain Underpants--yeah, that was a thing).

This one takes place out in China, where a girl named Yi (Chloe Bennet from Agents of SHIELD) discovers a yeti out on her apartment roof. As it turns out, this yeti has escaped from a businessman's compound--and the guy (Eddie Izzard) wants him back. Thus begins a story of what starts out initially as How to Train Your Yeti, but then turns into a plot similar to Home as Yi and her two friends help get the yeti back to his home.

Despite the comparison to Home, this movie is way better. In fact, this is the best Dreamworks Animation non-sequel/spin-off in a long time (since Rise of the Guardians and Megamind). It's far more accessible than the likes of Home or Boss Baby, which felt way too kid-oriented. Yeah, this one's kid-oriented too--but it doesn't feel dumbed down, or feel only accessible to five-year-olds. This one actually has some proper heart to it, and the humor is actually funny and not cringe-worthy (unless you hate slapstick). Not to mention that a lot of the animation is gorgeous.

The characters in this are actually generally likable, and the yeti in question does endear himself fairly quick. And while the plot doesn't really break much new ground, they do pull a little bit of an "unexpected villain" twist on us. Even the soundtrack is fairly good--and that includes the occasional pop numbers they throw in, normally one of the cringe-worthy aspects of modern movies that is actually used decently here (not to mention Coldplay's "Fix You" being thrown in a good spot). So many of the problems that have plagued other Dreamworks movies in recent years or even just other computer-animated films in general are virtually nonexistent here.

Probably the biggest issue here is the yeti's magical powers that he turns out to have -- and the lack of explanation regarding them. Maybe there's some mythology regarding yetis that I'm missing out on, but it wouldn't have hurt them to explain it anyway. The problem is the insane variance these powers have. He can control the weather, but can also create a leaf whirlwind or make a dandelion turn into a makeshift hang glider... or make blueberries spontaneously grow from nothing to dangerous sizes. As you can see, sometimes some of these powers showcased are absurd. And the fact that they don't bother to explain any of it can be frustrating.

What's also notable is how sentient the non-speaking yeti quickly becomes--at first, when he sees humans, he's of course like "What is this?" and doesn't understand them. But by the halfway point of the movie, he seems to understand much of what his new human friends say. Without much explanation as to how he picked up on their language so quickly.

Aside from the occasionally frustrating plot conveniences of the yeti, there's not much to dislike here. Some might wish the plot was more original, but the movie plays the formula just fine. And even if this movie doesn't reach the category of outstanding, it doesn't give you much reason to not like it either. Abominable is an unexpected return to form for Dreamworks. Unfortunately, with sequels on the way like Trolls World Tour and Boss Baby 2, it's unlikely to last.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Fast & Furious: Hobbs and Shaw






RATING: C

Remember when this series was about car racing? I'm not even sure Universal does anymore. We've seen this series evolve from street racing to the most ridiculous, over-the-top action franchise in existence that's been finding crazy ways to use cars or other automobiles in normal action scenes, even when it's totally impractical, as well as utilizing impossible stunts. They've gotten by due to some star power that's only increased over time, and the bits of the action that actually are entertaining. And now... we get the first spin-off in the series. Because Universal is desperate to hop on the "cinematic universe" train, and the "Dark Universe" failed after just one movie.

The concept of this movie isn't inherently bad. It wants to take the best thing of the last F&F movie--the frenemy-ship between The Rock and Jason Statham's characters--and make a buddy cop movie out of it. Not the worst idea, because they're both good action stars (who are unfortunately usually stuck in below-average movies) and they have good chemistry.

The problem is, it takes the high-tech espionage of the last 2-3 movies and ramps it up to eleven, taking the franchise straight into sci-fi territory of all things. Maybe they decided to embrace the fact that these movies are scarcely grounded in reality?

Well anyway, Luke Hobbs and Deckard Shaw are called in to help stop Idris Elba, who's playing a bio-warfare terrorist--who is also a human-machine hybrid. Yes, seriously. He's bulletproof, and he has some kind of computer network in his brain that allows him to anticipate fight moves before they arrive. He even calls himself "black Superman." So now, despite being completely outmatched, Hobbs and Shaw must somehow defeat this guy with the help of Deckard's sister Hattie (Vanessa Kirby)--who we've never met or heard of before because... reasons.

This movie rides a fine line between being silly popcorn action and being all too over-the-top to enjoy. There's definitely some fun action here--a car/motorcycle chase midway through is a standout. And a lot of the fisticuffs scenes are enjoyable as well. The partial problem is the sci-fi plot that doesn't feel like it belongs in this kind of movie. It doesn't help that there's vague allusions to a prior series villain being involved behind the scenes here, which only serves to make the franchise further convoluted.

But the bigger problem is a lot of the ridiculous writing and dialogue. Because that's often just as over-the-top, if not more. There are a lot of forced attempts at humor that fall flat on their faces. There are some funny moments, but several of them aren't directly from the dialogue (a hilarious retinal scan scene comes to mind). There's also the inclusion of Ryan Reynolds and Kevin Hart; the former's presence here is just annoying, and it feels like David Leitch is trying too hard to cash in on Deadpool there. Hart is okay, but it doesn't really feel like he needs to be here--essentially a pointless cameo.

Besides the occasionally good action and the isolated humorous moments, what does work is the acting--even if a lot of the lines they're saying are ridiculous. Surprisingly, The Rock doesn't seem as invested as usual this time. But Statham is definitely enjoying himself, as is Idris Elba. Vanessa Kirby--who you might recognize from Mission: Impossible 6--is also a great female lead, continuing to show her ability with facial expressions. Eiza Gonzalez also makes the most of her limited screentime. Some will enjoy Helen Mirren in her few minutes of time as well, although it feels like she's mostly there for the paycheck.

Hobbs and Shaw does unfortunately fall short of its potential. Granted, that ceiling wasn't high to begin with, but with a leading duo like this with decent chemistry, it certainly could've been better. But it's brought down by ridiculous writing. And not to mention the direction of the plot, which I imagine isn't a good sign for the franchise. Guess the Fast & Furious franchise going to space is inevitable at this point. Anyway, if you want your fix of The Rock and Statham together, you should probably just stick with Fate of the Furious--that movie's more enjoyable anyway (as far as that goes for a F&F movie, that is).

Friday, December 20, 2019

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker


RATING: B

When we last left Star Wars (not including spin-offs), the franchise had been kind of thrown into a state of flux thanks to the outrageous division between fans over The Last Jedi... to the point where I'm hard-pressed to think of anything non-politics related that has had as much heated debate recently. Some fans (myself included) loved it for trying to do something new with the series, as opposed to The Force Awakens (which I mostly enjoyed as well, for the record). Other fans hated it for seemingly betraying the spirit of prior movies. And still others... actually did love/hate it for political-related reasons. Ugh.

The result was that the SW writers became utterly terrified of angering the fanboys again. Hence part of why JJ Abrams was brought back on. It became clear pretty quick that Episode IX was not going to be in the spirit of TLJ. And it even looked possible that there might be retcons. Or even that this one might avoid its predecessor's existence altogether. Which one can't just do; whether one likes it or not, the movie exists and is part of the canon. You can't just pretend it didn't happen.

But now the end of the "Skywalker Saga" is here. If The Force Awakens felt all too derivative of prior works and The Last Jedi shot in a dramatically different direction, then The Rise of Skywalker tries to hit a happy medium. Essentially, it is more similar to TFA in tone. But it does not ignore TLJ, and even builds impressively off some of the things it brought to the table--while also backing off from other parts. In the case of the former, the Force bond between Rey and Kylo is expanded upon to actually pretty awesome results. In the case of the latter, the only thing that is basically totally retconned is Rose (reduced to side role)... which is hardly upsetting to me even as a TLJ fan. (Although there is also a joke about not throwing a lightsaber away like a toy.)

Also importantly, Rise of Skywalker doesn't feel like too much of a retread. There's not another Death Star. The movie doesn't end with Palpatine electrocuting Rey and her begging Kylo for help, and then him saving her by throwing Palpatine down a reactor shaft again. Yes, Palpatine is back (though in what precise capacity I won't say). Yes, there are certain moments that do feel familiar. Yes, there are certain story elements that are similar to Return of the Jedi. But such elements are gone about differently; as such, there's still a degree of an element of surprise, even if not a large one. And there's nothing as insultingly familiar as Starkiller Base, and all that entailed. 

Yes, there are problems. There's a lot that they try to cram into here; perhaps that's the fault of Last Jedi for not ending with a clear sequel hook, given that both sides were pretty decimated by the end of that one. One major plot development early on (you can probably guess which one) is alarmingly hand-waved. It's ultimately done for the sake of trying to bring all three trilogies together, so I guess I can't gripe too much. But it's at times like this where it becomes alarmingly clear that they did not have a proper outline for this movie ready back in 2015 or even 2017.

What's also noteworthy is just how much the movie blatantly tries to pander to the fans--to get certain reactions out of them, and how much it seems to have borrowed from fan forums. Some of that works fine as well. But there are a few points, namely the ending shot, that feel so blatantly pandering that it ends up feeling forced and inauthentic.

The same is to be said for a couple of points that feel like they're trying to emulate Avengers: Endgame, this year's other big mega-franchise-saga conclusion; one of them (a lite "on your left" moment) falls utterly flat due to a lack of emotional payoff. The other works fine enough, but this film is not Endgame, and they shouldn't have tried even for an instant to emulate it.

Still, a lot of this does really work. The story is wrapped up more or less neatly. The three main characters are finally paired together for most of the movie, and considering the lack of time for trio-character-development they've had together, they play off each other pretty well as characters. And if TLJ was lacking in a proper lightsaber battle, TROS makes up for that--not to mention plenty of other fun action scenes.

There's some good new actors/characters as well, such as Keri Russell's rogue type Zorri Bliss and Richard E. Grant's new First Order minion, plus an amusing droid-fixer alien. There's also some various cameos--expected and unexpected--that work quite well. Even if such things are also "pandering to the base," this is a healthier version given that it also works towards bringing the franchise full circle. And as previously described, despite the obvious level of by-the-seat-of-pants writing, some of the plot devices from other movies are built upon or pay off pretty well. (Not *all* of them, mind you. But what they do build upon, they mostly do well with.)

The Rise of Skywalker may not be the spectacular finish that many are likely to hope for. It is a little shaky at times on its way to the finish line, but it does get there and doesn't leave too much disappointment behind in the process. And given that the last movie basically broke the Star Wars fandom and made the writers utterly terrified of angering a ton of people again... the fact that this movie is remotely satisfying is a small miracle. And maybe, just maybe, that is enough this time.

I don't know that I'll look back on the sequel trilogy with as much general fondness as the original trilogy, but I know that I won't have any big issue with revisiting all three movies... even if there are some things that ultimately hold it back from being what it could've been.