Tuesday, January 18, 2022
Friday, January 7, 2022
Friday, December 31, 2021
Free Guy centers around an open-world video game much in the vein of Grand Theft Auto, with some Fortnite thrown in for good measure. Our main character is, quite literally, a video game character--specifically, an NPC (non-player character) with a generic name of Guy that is also played by Ryan Reynolds. The human players whose avatars show up in the game are distinguished by their sunglasses, and are literally called "sunglasses people" by the NPC's. One day, Guy acquires one of these pairs of sunglasses, and his eyes are basically opened as he sees the world around him as a human game player would. He falls in love with/comes into partnership with a player-character named Molotov Girl (Millie in the real world) as he comes to learn there is a threat to his world, as well as the truth of his existence.
Free Guy is certainly a heavy dose of self-indulgent fun which relies on a fair amount of modern-day video game humor that some of the older viewers in the audience may not understand--particularly some of the Fortnite nods. That's really one of this movie's biggest problems--how it can rely sometimes on current-day references where it's a crapshoot as to whether they'll have aged well 5-10 years from now.
But surprisingly, this film really does work a lot better than one might expect. There is more depth to the story than you'd expect, as the film explores at times to what extent Guy is really "alive." The characters and acting are genuinely likable and avoid more annoying tropes. Ryan Reynolds is basically playing himself again, as he has been for the last five years in basically everything he's been in--a hit-or-miss strategy, but it works well enough here. The real standout is Jodie Comer in her breakout role, as she switches seamlessly between her more dorky real-life character and the more confident action-girl avatar in the game, being quite enjoyable in both roles. Joe Keery (Steve from Stranger Things) is also a welcome presence, and Taika Waititi manages to be appropriately over-the-top in the villainous role.
And despite some of the humor relying on current understanding of hot video game fads, this movie really is quite funny; some of it is similar to the Lego Movie, particularly in the opening scenes. And there is some fun action to be sure as well; some of it does rely on fanservice/nostalgia, but it hits the mark more often than not.
The problems with the movie do revolve partially around how the plot unfolds. Despite having unexpected depth, it is still a bit convoluted. More importantly, the ending doesn't entirely feel like it properly wraps up all of the character arcs. Considering that part of it revolves around literal code--that has become self-aware--falling in love with an avatar of a human being, it's possible they wrote themselves into a corner, but it still feels mildly unsatisfying with the oddly quick manner things are wrapped up.
That said, Free Guy is an unexpected success overall. It may still be rather hit-or-miss at best for those who are less likely to find enjoyment in this kind of movie to begin with, but the movie takes a concept that could have easily fallen victim to painful silliness or mediocrity and actually makes it work for the most part--and remains genuinely fun as well. Free Guy might not be for everybody, but the target audience might be surprised to find a little something more than just disposable popcorn entertainment.
Thursday, December 23, 2021
If there's one hero that Marvel gets as much mileage out of on the big screen as much as DC does with Batman, it's Spider-Man. This is the third live-action iteration of the web-crawler on its third installment--and that's not including this version's appearance in other MCU movies, *or* the cartoon Spider-Verse movie. The latter introduced the multiverse--a concept that was slightly easier to handle from an animation perspective, and it helped that they were working with almost purely new characters with no previous appearances. No Way Home had a tougher task ahead.
If Infinity War/Endgame was the most ambitious superhero crossover event to date by bringing characters from approximately a dozen (ballpark guess) stand-alones in the MCU, No Way Home makes a case in its own right by bringing characters from different properties/movies--*with no prior connection to the MCU.*
When we last left Peter Parker/Spider-Man, the rest of the world had just found out about his secret identity--an interesting issue to deal with, given that virtually none of the other Avengers in the MCU have secret identities. A wrinkle: it was revealed by the last movie's big bad Mysterio, who framed Spidey for his own death. While the hatred of Spidey/believing of Mysterio's lies isn't quite as near-unanimous as the trailers implied, it's still more than enough to make Peter's life miserable--as well as those closely associated with him, including MJ and Ned. So Peter turns to Doctor Strange for help, who has a spell that will make everyone forget about Peter. In the moment, Peter realizes that would mean his friends also forgetting--one thing leads to another, the spell gets messed up, holes get ripped in the fabric of the universe--bringing over some visitors from other ones too. Peter quickly finds himself in over his head as he has to deal with various villains (among other visitors that I can't name due to not being in any of the marketing/trailers) that he doesn't know... but fans of previous Spider-Man incarnations will.
What Marvel tries to pull off here with this crossover event is frankly absurd; and yet, against the odds, it works. Interestingly enough, it's not just a movie for MCU fans--if anything, it's more for Spider-Man cinematic fans in general. The latter group should be overjoyed to see the return of Dr. Octopus and the Green Goblin--both from Raimi's trilogy, and those are just the biggest headliners.
The result is an installment that is easily better than the previous Tom Holland movies, particularly Far From Home--due in part to its sheer ambition, as well as having much improved action scenes. That's part of the benefit of having better villains; the Vulture was only interesting due to his backstory and Michael Keaton's performance, and Mysterio has never been a favorite of mine. Peter's fight with Doc Ock on the freeway is a particular standout and a reminder of why Doc Ock is arguably the best villain in the Spider-Man mythos.
On the villainous front, both Alfred Molina and Willem Dafoe are welcome returners, even if they had to use CGI to de-age them a bit for this (though it's pretty well-done de-aging). A pleasant surprise, however, is Electro from Amazing Spider-Man 2 getting an upgrade; his appearance and powers are closer to the comic-book source material. And thanks to better writing, Jamie Foxx is able to be more charismatic as a villain as well, and thus be a standout.
Another plus is on the characterization side; there has been some frankly odd character writing choices under Jon Watts' run, such as MJ being needlessly snarky to the point of unlikability early on. However, she showed signs of improvement in FFH (one of its few big pluses), and now she and Peter are a genuinely enjoyable couple to watch. The fact that Tom Holland and Zendaya have gotten closer in real life has probably not hurt their chemistry either. Aunt May also feels closer to the usual Aunt May, albeit a much younger version, as opposed to just being borderline comic relief/somebody for Tony and Happy to flirt with. In other words, there is more honoring of roots here, and the movie is better for it.
Among the issues this film *does* have, a couple of the villains do not fare as well as the others--the Sandman and the Lizard. I'm not convinced their actors were ever actually on set in person, because we never see them in human form for more than 10 seconds each--and they appear to just have taken old footage from their prior appearances for those parts. Clearly the two actors (Thomas Haden Church and Rhys Ifans) lent their voices, but that may have been *all* they did--which makes it slightly odd that they even bothered bringing these two villains back, especially considering that they basically just boil down to being CGI monsters for Spider-Man to fight. (Not to mention that the CGI doesn't even look the same; you can re-use old footage, but you can't re-use old CGI footage that was perfectly fine?)
This is probably the biggest critical flaw with the film. There are a few other minor gripes as well; one side character suddenly develops new abilities out of the blue with scarcely any explanation. Though the continuity is generally strong, there is one slip with a reference to a character from a previous iteration. I also personally have never been the biggest fan of the "hero has been framed for something he obviously didn't do" trope, so the film's opening can be a little tiring until we get to the good stuff.
The ending is also a bit of a point of contention for me, given that it's one of those ones that *should* have lasting consequences--but unless this ends up being the last Tom Holland Spider-Man movie, it almost certainly won't last. The MCU has a habit of doing this occasionally (think Iron Man 3), but I'm not sure I'd entirely be happy even if it *did* stick.
Ultimately though, a good number of viewers are likely here for the crossover event--and in that case, aside from wasting a couple of the minor villains, the film succeeds in impressive fashion. Spider-Man fans of *any* of the previous live-action film iterations will want to watch this, even if they aren't necessarily into the Tom Holland movies. Because, in an unusual case, this movie does less to serve the MCU at large and more to serve the Spider-Man fandom. And while I am often the first to gripe about MCU movies that do not appear to matter in the grand scheme of the franchise, an exception can certainly be made here.
Tuesday, December 21, 2021
RATING: B+Luca is another recent Pixar movie that, much like Soul, suffered the fate of "skip theaters and go straight to Disney Plus," which seemingly caused it to get forgotten pretty quickly. After a series of sequels with mixed results with the excellent Coco smashed somewhere in there, Pixar started a pretty good streak of originals again with Onward and Soul last year--particularly the latter, which was arguably the best thing they have made since their 2000's prime age. Both of those films were more ambitious, albeit for different reasons; Luca is much more simplistic, possibly their most so.
Luca centers around the protagonist who is named just that, and his friend Alberto, who are both... sea monsters. Luca normally lives life underwater in what looks like a Finding Nemo spin-off, until his friend Alberto takes him to the surface--where he's not supposed to go because humans are bad. And it is shown that when their "kind"--whatever sort of sea monster they are--take to the land, they take on a human appearance. Which means that with a little observance, they can totally blend in among the humans that fear them in the nearby Italian coastal town. Just so long as nobody splashes water on them, that is.
Normally, a Pixar movie has a certain unique theme or gimmick about it that they build the story around. What if toys came to life? What if the monsters in the closet were just doing their job? What if the emotions in your head were sentient? There has been an exception or two along the way, but this is possibly the first time that a Pixar *idea*--sea monsters that shapeshift to humans on land--almost plays second fiddle. The concept/mythology of these creatures is not given much thought at all; in fact, it's never explained *how* exactly these sea monsters can turn into humans when on land.
Instead, the focus here is the coming-of-age story centering around the three main characters, with the Italian setting and the sea monster trope mostly playing as the backdrop. The latter is set up solely so that two of the main characters can be outsiders with secrets. We have Luca, the curious but nervous protagonist; Alberto, the overly confident friend who thinks he's got it all under control; and Guilia, the actually-human girl who befriends them because she also is an underdog with her own goals (though she doesn't know their actual secret).
The movie thus ultimately does revolve around the friendship dynamics of these characters. In that sense--and in its aspirations as a "coming of age" story--it's quite successful. The characters are likable and interesting enough, and the film also handles the unhealthier side of Luca and Alberto's friendship quite well. The character development is also strong, particularly with how things culminate in a final act that would be otherwise unremarkable.
Also working in the movie's favor is the humor; from literally invoking the "2 hours later" card meme, to some of the inevitable "blending in" mistakes that occur. It does a good job at seldom feeling forced, which has been a bit of an issue with some Disney-owned productions lately.
If there is anything inherently wrong with Luca, per se, it's a lack of ambition or anything inherently special about it. Luca succeeds at what it is setting out to do and does this well; but if anything, it feels rather simplistic. Even though Pixar is no longer as consistently elite as they once were, there are still general expectations with them, particularly with an original feature. And it's not even like the film is particularly original, even if (aside from parts of the first 10-15 minutes) it doesn't feel at all like a tired derivative of what came before.
But as has been said before, Luca still does well at what it *does* set out to do. And it's a pretty enjoyable, undemanding adventure. While some might find themselves wishing for a little more, there still is not much to complain about with what we do get.
Tuesday, October 26, 2021
A minor disclaimer: I have never read the book which this is based on. Nevertheless, I was interested in a new sci-fi/fantasy epic based off some beloved source material. Heaven knows Hollywood has very little actual original material these days, so it is always pleasant to see some decent/interesting books being adapted to cinematic form. And frankly, we were due for a new successful franchise based off a book series.
Dune has been adapted before to the big screen back in 1984 by David Lynch, but that film was apparently a failure and not so well-liked by the book fans. This new one seems to be faring much better in the latter regard. Fortunately, despite this being adapted from some pretty dense source material which made adapting it properly difficult, one can still understand this film without having read the book. At the same time, it doesn't hurt to not go in completely blind.
So basically, in this sci-fi universe--which takes place in the year 10,191--interstellar travel is achieved by way of the substance called "spice"--which is also an hallucinogen drug. It also helps extend human life and heighten abilities and stuff... but the important thing is it makes interstellar travel possible, thus making everyone pretty reliant on it. And it's only available on one planet--Arrakis, a desert world.
Arrakis, which is home to the Fremen natives (as well as gigantic sandworms--more on that later), has been occupied by House Harkonnen for some time who have been harvesting the spice. Now the Emperor (what exactly he's emperor of, I never did get straight) has re-assigned it to House Atreides--whose Duke Leto, his partner Lady Jessica and son Paul, are our primary characters--with the latter being the protagonist.
The Harkonnen aren't very keen on giving up their monopoly on space's most precious resource, and Duke Leto is aware of the threat from them--among other possibilities in which this situation could go badly sideways for them. But hey, the Emperor has spoken, and that's that apparently. There's another thread or two going on here, namely the Fremen's belief that some kind of messiah is on the way to help liberate them--who could very well be Paul for reasons that would take too long to explain here.
Anyway, as you can probably tell by the fact that it took me three paragraphs to explain some basic background on what this story's about, that the lore of Dune is pretty loaded. To the point, in fact, that director Denis Villeneuve felt he simply couldn't tell the story in one movie--so technically, this movie's title is actually Dune Part One. And even Part One is loaded, because this movie is 155 minutes.
Dune does a good job of explaining its setting and backdrop, as well as its gimmicks--such as the forcefield armor that everyone fights with that prevents anything fast from killing you--and is not that difficult to follow. There may be some trouble keeping up with some of the weirdly named places and people, but so long as you've got the primary ones down, you can manage.
On a visual/technical level, this is a masterpiece. This has always been Villeneuve's primary specialty, and it is on full display here. The landscapes are gorgeous and the designs are well-done, as are the special effects. Of particular note is the first actual look at the scope of a sandworm, which is a jaw-dropper moment. The sound effects also give this a unique feel, which is helped out by Hans Zimmer's score which uses a cacophony of sounds that distinguish it from his usual work while still sounding enough like him.
Story-wise, it's nothing necessarily special--it does rely on a familiar trope or two (chosen-one-esque stuff), but it's got unique enough concepts and is intriguing enough to keep one interested. But it is ultimately a movie that takes pride in its aesthetics most of all--and in that sense, it is a complete success, and you have enough substance that you don't feel like you are watching anything remotely brainless. The all-star cast certainly does not hurt either, of which Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Jason Momoa (mostly by virtue of his character being the coolest), and Josh Brolin stand out the most. Timothee Chalamet is fine as the main lead, though sometimes he's a little too straight-faced at seemingly the wrong times.
This film does perhaps suffer a little bit from being a "Part One," but that's less the fault of the director or movie and more on the source material for being so dense that even 150 minutes isn't enough to do it justice. But, for example, we do have the result of there not exactly being much of a climactic sequence, and the final line being "this is just the beginning" further driving the point home that this is basically only half a movie. It's a good thing that Part Two has officially been greenlit, or this movie would be rendered pointless.
For fans of the sci-fi/fantasy genre, Dune is well worth dipping your toe into even if you aren't familiar with the source material. It does more than enough to distinguish itself from other works of the genre and stand on its own. While I have heard that this series gets weirder as time goes on, I am at least quite interested to see how Dune Part Two goes.
Saturday, October 23, 2021
It's hard to believe it has been two years since the last Marvel Cinematic Universe film outing. Yes, we've had a handful of miniseries' via Disney Plus, but I'm not really counting those (and am also hoping they won't expect us to have seen those in order to understand future movies). But it's been two years since Avengers: Endgame and Spider-Man: Far From Home. And this would appear to be the last throwback to the Infinity Saga before we start rolling with stuff like Eternals and Spider-Man: No Way Home and bring in the multiverse (sigh).
Ultimately, the main reason this movie exists is because the fans clamored for it; but the studio supposedly couldn't find a place for one before. Now with Natasha's storyline definitively ending in Endgame, there is nowhere to go but backwards. The result is a prequel of sorts that takes place between Civil War and Infinity War while Natasha is on the run (again). And the first thought that comes to mind is... why couldn't they just have released it in between those two movies?
So shortly after Natasha went after the run in Civil War, she finds herself crossing paths with her dark past; specifically, the brutal "Red Room" where she had been trained that had been hinted at in Age of Ultron. This leads to her reuniting with her surrogate family from those early days; specifically, her "sister" Yelena. Together, they will face off against a new threat (I think?) from the Red Room, as well as the foe Taskmaster.
There are definitely some interesting pieces in here. The film is at least partially built around Natasha and her old "family," and on at least two out of three members, it works pretty well. Yelena (Florence Pugh) is easily the highlight of the movie overall, with her frequent snarking with Natasha as well as being able to hold her own as well due to also being part of the Black Widow program. David Harbour is also clearly enjoying himself as Alexei / the Red Guardian and gives the film another strong source of levity. Rachel Weisz's mother figure doesn't fare as well, but that's in part due to her character being more complicated (and not in a good way).
There is some fun action here as well. We get some of the usual moments for Natasha as well as Yelena to have some good fighting scenes. Natasha also gets another classic moment of turning the interrogation around. Some of the earlier Taskmaster fights are quite good as well, who is formidable due to having the ability to mimic fighting styles. Elsewhere, the film does a good job at times of showing the horrors (well, sometimes more implied than shown) of the Black Widow program--to the point where real-life trafficking parallels can feel invoked. Such scenes are creepily effective.
However, there are definitely issues here. To start with, this doesn't completely feel like Natasha's film--in part because it does not do much with her character. She's supposed to be confronting her dark past, and there's good opportunity for this after a revelation about a particularly alarming thing she did. The problem is the film does not a good enough job of making her seem properly remorseful--a poor oversight on the writers' part, who seem to be more focused on the levity and family side of things--as well as the evils of the program itself--at the cost of character development, as well as sometimes borderline hand-waving the terrible things the individuals have done.
And there is also the matter of Taskmaster. I cannot say I know much about the Taskmaster of the comics, but plenty of comic-book fans were unhappy with the film version. And the reveal of the identity of Taskmaster here is ultimately rather underwhelming. Taskmaster is set up as this formidable foe and the presumed primary antagonist, but much of this gets undone by the final act as Taskmaster is revealed to be playing a rather different role than expected.
Speaking of the final act, that also in general is a bit underwhelming. There does not seem to be a grand deal in the way of stakes--or at least, not by Marvel movie standards. Yeah, not everything can be an "Avengers-level threat," as it was put in Far From Home, but it doesn't really match up to the darker tone set up earlier on, and due to the previously mentioned underwhelming reveals as well as the storyline not being entirely coherent, one can end up feeling less invested by the time stuff starts blowing up. While Ant-Man and the Wasp also did not have as big stakes (aside from Hank going to the Quantum Realm to find his wife), that one was at least a little more innovative and genuinely fun, and less fundamentally flawed. Black Widow at least gets the "fun" part more or less down, but it's too weighed down by the flaws to be particularly notable.
Black Widow is a decently enjoyable pastime, but it's also a bit of a mess. While a lot of this boils down to poor character development and arcs, it also boils down to the fact that this film does not really mean anything in the grand scheme of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It mostly just exists so that they could have a solo movie for Natasha and possibly introduce a future replacement for Scarlett Johansson. It does leave a tease for one of the upcoming Disney Plus series in the post-credits scene, but at this stage, I could not possibly care less about that. And while it may be a welcome enough addition for fans of the character, I do not think it should be too much to ask in an entertainment series this utterly vast that the installments matter in the grand scope of the series.