Saturday, December 30, 2017

Pacific Rim


RATING: A-

I think that there is a part in almost all of us that is at least somewhat interested--if not excited--at the idea of giant robots punching giant monsters, even if some of us would not totally care to admit it. The problem is getting this Transformers vs. Godzilla monsters concept done right. We all know how flawed the Transformers movies are, for example. The problem is getting a writer and director that is going to take such a premise remotely seriously and is not just going to try and appeal to the lowest common denominator with no regard for things like plot or script. Pacific Rim--directed by Guillermo del Toro--has succeeded in doing this right. 

The premise is this: monsters called Kaiju come out of a dimensional portal at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. (It makes more sense later on in the movie.) They start wrecking everything. So what does the world do? It "builds monsters of their own." Giant robots called Jaegers that can kill the monsters--either by punching them in the face or with some sort of specialized attack. 

Now this is where things get weird--two people have to pilot these robots in tandem through some pretty confusing neural link. There is some nonsense about "drift compatibility" that is never properly explained--which is odd because they actually go to a few more lengths to explain things (such as the Kaiju race) than normal in a movie like this, but they never really explain what exactly drift compatibility really is or how it even works. But you tend to forget about that kind of thing once two people get those robots working and start fighting monsters with them. 

As is to be expected, the action sequences--the robots vs. monsters fights--are totally awesome. The most memorable set piece is the battle in Hong Kong, which actually takes place from two different points of view. With the two points of view combined, this goes on for about 30 minutes--and one is never bored. Actually, one is almost never bored during the movie. After the title reveal (which oddly comes 15 minutes in), things are kind of slow for a little bit, but other than that things are pretty fast-paced throughout. The awesome action sequences and outstanding visuals (particularly near the very end) help with all of that. 

But even the characters are decent enough. The main character Raleigh is a little dull, but Mako has a more interesting backstory. Idris Elba often kind of steals the screen in one of his more memorable performances, which includes a good speech near the end. Then there's the two scientist characters--they're a little annoying at first, but they get more amusing over time and their side plot to find out more about the Kaiju is interesting enough on its own--especially when one of them encounters Ron Perlman's character, who also kind of steals the screen when he's on it (even though he's not on it for very long). These characters are nothing outstanding, but they're good enough that aside from the bully-esque secondary antagonist of sorts, we almost never straight up dislike them or get bored by them. 

Pacific Rim is a popcorn action movie, plain and simple. But it is also about as good as a film can get in that category, not unlike Independence Day. It's fun and exciting enough to keep us interested. The story quality isn't Christopher Nolan level, but it's just good enough. And it doesn't feed us a ton of ridiculous character interaction that is both super boring and totally irrelevant to the plot or anyone's story arc. (Are you listening, Michael Bay?) It's rare these days that such a movie of this caliber can get things right as much as it does. While some will definitely enjoy more it than others, I kind of feel bad for those who can find no room in their heart at all to enjoy this super fun movie. 

Friday, December 22, 2017

The Boss Baby


RATING: F

What has happened to DreamWorks Animation? Sure, they were never really Pixar. Sure, they made the Madagascar franchise. And some of their movies do rely on more lazy/cheap humor. But they did have some good moments of their own at one time. The How to Train Your Dragon and Kung Fu Panda franchises hold up with any other great computer animated movies. There have been a few pretty good one-off movies here and there as well that were sadly forgotten (Over the Hedge, Megamind). 

But lately things from them have just been straight up bad. In the last few years they have made that terrible "Home" movie, a quite underwhelming Mr. Peabody & Sherman movie, and that Trolls movie--which I have not seen, but to put things in perspective, I would rather watch this movie again rather than watch Trolls even for a first time. Ironically, the only good movies DWA has made lately are sequels. The last remotely above-average original movie they made was The Croods way back in early 2013--and even that movie just barely hit that mark. This movie, "Home," and others in their recent terrible lineup seem to indicate the company now pandering more to 5-year-old's--and not giving the adults something to enjoy like they used to. How unfortunate. 

I don't think you really need me to tell you that this movie is stupid. You look at the poster, watch the trailer, and you are probably already wondering as well what DreamWorks was smoking. Guess what? It is just as bad as it looks. This exists in a world where some babies, instead of being sent directly to families when being born, are sent to some alternate dimension called Baby Corp where they drink some formula that gives them the mind of adults while still in baby form and then they work in management or something. I'm not sure at all what their normal purpose is, but in this movie they are concerned that love for babies is disappearing across the world in the form of love for puppies due to a villainous corporation called "PuppyCo." And one of these "babies"--a "Boss Baby" who sounds like Alec Baldwin-- is sent to main character Tim Templeton's family, who immediately dislikes him. But the "Boss Baby" needs Tim's help to foil PuppyCo's evil plan to create a new puppy which will leave infants basically an afterthought.

I just watched this movie, but I honestly still cannot believe I just wrote that paragraph. I cannot believe that someone actually thought that any of this sounded like a good idea, that any of this made sense, that it did not sound weird to them after they wrote it, et cetera. This movie gives us lazy writing/jokes, frequent dumb sequences set in Tim's imagination that sometimes actually coincide with reality and sometimes don't and thus leaving one super-confused, terrible parents, and just that colossally stupid plot overall. The idea that puppies (despite their merits) could actually *replace* babies and make people forget about babies--parents apparently included--is actually arguably very insulting, and I'm not even a parent. 

Is this film without its moments? No, not completely. There were a couple of jokes that actually did make me chuckle. The Gandalf-based mannequin called "Wizzie" that Tim talks to now and then in his imagination was amusing. But such moments are very few and far between, and they do not make up for the stupidity one sits through pretty much the entire rest of the way. 

Ultimately, this movie sucks. There is no way around it. Which makes me all the more appalled that there might actually be a sequel to this--DreamWorks has flip-flopped a crazy amount in their schedule over the years though, so I'm holding out hope. Regardless, this is the kind of movie that is likely to drive adults to the brink of insanity if their kids actually like it. And you know what? When there are *tons* of better animated kids' movies out there, perhaps we should just draw the line and give the children better stuff to grow up on instead of letting them watch garbage like this. It's probably better for everyone involved in the long run. 

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi


RATING: A-

So far I had honestly been a bit underwhelmed by the Disney Star Wars offerings. The Force Awakens was exciting and fun, but it didn't really bring anything new to the table and was kind of a rehash of the original first Star Wars movie. It even had another Death Star with another weird weakness for our heroes to exploit. Rogue One was a bit of a mess--an entertaining mess, mind you--but a mess of underdeveloped characters and plagued-by-reshoot issues. At this point, I was trying to keep my expectations more tempered for the next "main" entry in the series. The film kind of had a difficult task--it had to be a great middle chapter like The Empire Strikes Back, but it also needed to not just totally rip off The Empire Strikes Back. 

And let's be clear. This film does not reach the heights of The Empire Strikes Back. And it definitely has some issues of its own. But it gets so much more right--and overwhelmingly so--than it does wrong that I did not come away conflicted between satisfaction and disappointment this time. Instead, I came out mostly just feeling the former. 

This film has more than one thing going on it at once. Picking up more or less where the last movie left off, Rey is seeking the help of Luke Skywalker as she tries to find her path and what role the Force has in that. Meanwhile, the First Order is about to tear apart the Resistance despite the loss of Death Star III (aka Starkiller Base)--leaving Poe Dameran, Finn, Leia and others to try and escape in a very extended space chase. 

The film opens up with quite a bang for a colossal space battle sequence. It's nothing special, but it's exciting enough to get us hooked immediately. And for the most part, it doesn't let up too much. Parts of the extended interstellar chase get a little tedious at times, but it's balanced out with the much more interesting story of what's going on with Rey and Luke. There are some unexpected twists and turns there--Luke is a bit different now. They needed to shake things up somehow on that front without completely disrespecting the character, and I think they pulled it off quite well. The film slows down in the middle for a "side quest" of sorts with Finn and his new friend Rose, but then it picks up again for the long third act--in which there is almost nothing to complain about at all and the awesomeness is delivered in spades. Although there are great moments throughout the rest of the movie (as well as a couple of really dumb moments), it really is the final 45 minutes or so that make the film as great as it is. 

As mentioned before, there are some issues for sure. Let's start with Supreme Leader Snoke. Without spoiling anything, he's rather underwhelming despite being played by Andy Serkis. He was supposed to the big bad controlling everything--and technically he still is--but he really isn't given enough to do. Something else that bothered me was that during the "space chase," they end up manufacturing a conflict among the good guys. Normally I don't complain about cheaply created conflict like this, but it could have been so easily avoided that it's rather stupid instead. Elsewhere, there's a somewhat long-ish casino scene that's the sore spot of the movie--and a jailbreak shortly after that reminded me more of Jurassic Park for some reason than Star Wars. Also, in an issue that seems to have bled over from Marvel, sometimes it feels like there's too many jokes or they're being used in the wrong situation. That does sound like a weird complaint, so let me spell out why it *can* be an issue (even if not all the time). Yes, I'm laughing, but that's not the point. Note to Disney: not everything has to be a joke, sometimes it's okay to be completely serious--and to not undercut the seriousness of the situation. 

It might seem weird having all those gripes about a movie that I claim to actually really like. There's a couple more too, but I can't really say them without giving away spoilers. But most of the issues are relatively trivial. And the good stuff just outweighs the not-as-good stuff so much better this time around. The product as a whole is better. And it doesn't feel rehashed most of the way through either--yes, there is some stuff that is a bit derivative of previous SW movies, but in lesser quantities and not as blatant (no Death Star this time). 

And here is another thing that is quite possibly key to how I've felt about VII and VIII. Force Awakens, while enjoyable, did not really do almost anything to change the status quo. It was the same old Star Wars. That's not really a bad thing, but given the title I was expecting a little more--and I certainly wasn't hoping for another doggone Death Star. The Last Jedi *does* change the status quo more. It gives us surprises and twists. But it still truly feels like a Star Wars movie like its predecessor. It's not perfect, but it's so much closer to what I was hoping for in the first place out of new Star Wars movies. 

So ultimately, The Last Jedi is not The Empire Strikes Back. But it is the best Star Wars film of the Disney era thus far. And if you had been feeling underwhelmed by The Force Awakens or Rogue One the way I was, this should be a breath of fresh air. But even if you're a hardcore Star Wars fan and loved both of those movies, you should still get your money's worth. Hopefully Episode IX can close out the new trilogy in similar fashion. 

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. 

Friday, October 20, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming


RATING: B

It's hard to believe this is the third iteration of Peter Parker/Spider-Man in only 15 years. But after Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire's trilogy ended, Sony just had to make a reboot in order to keep the rights. But it was actually going pretty well. The two Andrew Garfield films weren't great, but they were good enough and they were setting up some pretty interesting stuff with the Sinister Six being on the way.

And then the deal between Sony and Marvel happened to share the film rights. At probably the worst time. Things were actually probably going to get pretty good in the Garfield reboot. But it all got canned, and everyone got *seriously* screwed over. All so we could put Spider-Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And put up yet *another* doggone iteration of the character. At that point, I was feeling pretty Spider-Manned out. 

With all of that, this movie had no right to be any good. This movie probably should have crashed and burned, and Spider-Man should have been written out of Infinity War and put on the shelf or whatever for about 20 years to give everyone time to get over everything. And yet... it actually turned out fairly good. 

They're quite fortunate in that their latest actor for the character--Tom Holland--has turned out to nail the character of Peter Parker/Spider-Man quite well. But it also helps that the director and writers did him some justice too. They wrote in a lot of good humor and snark for Spider-Man. While I don't find Holland groundbreaking, he does enough to distinguish his performance of the character and not feel like a tired cliche.

This particular Spider-Man film with a rather lame title ("Homecoming?" Really?) takes place during Peter's sophomore year in high school, where he's trying all too hard to become a part of the Avengers after the events of Civil War, while Tony Stark/Iron Man just wants him to be a "friendly neighborhood Spider-Man." However, the appearance of goons in Spidey's neighborhood with way high-tech weapons leads him to investigate, leading him into conflict with... the Vulture (Michael Keaton). Or at least, an upgraded version of the Vulture with high-tech wings and stuff, since the original Vulture was too dumb for today's audiences. 

There is a lot to like here. There's a whole lot of humor, and though they don't do the "Uncle Ben dies/"...comes great responsibility" backstory here, there is still growth for the character of Peter here, albeit of a different sort. Michael Keaton's performance helps the Vulture avoid being a forgettable villain--though a late plot twist regarding him doesn't hurt either. While I'm not sure how to feel about the "twist" in the final minutes regarding Zendaya's character Michelle, she's still quite amusing in the scenes she's actually in.

There's still some issues, though. The film does have way more emphasis on the "high school" part of Peter's life than previous films really did--and thus more of the cliches and cringing that comes with such things. Also, although director Jon Watts mostly did a good job, he does not know how to film an action scene. Virtually all the fights with the Vulture take place in the pitch dark with horrible lighting (save for the daytime ferry scene) so it's quite difficult to tell what's going on and there's a little bit of choppy editing too. 

Also, it's still difficult to shake the feeling  that this is the third Spider-Man iteration in 15 years. While this movie is good, it's not better than most of the other movies we've seen featuring the character over the years. While it's easy to enjoy the film in the moment, it's hard to shake that feeling when you think about it more. 

But at the end of the day, it's a fun enough movie. Like many of the other Marvel movies, it relies on humor and lightheartedness for the majority of its runtime, and it works here. While it might be in the lower tier of MCU movies, that's still above average. Indeed, this movie is a lot better than it has any right to be. Maybe there is a place for Spider-Man in the MCU after all... even if I'm not completely happy about that. 

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Transformers 5: The Last Knight


RATING: D-

The Transformers movies have never been works of art. Works of visual and special effects art, maybe. But that's probably the best thing most people can say about them. That said, the formula sort of worked for the first three movies... somehow. As silly and sometimes dumb as those movies are, they are also extremely entertaining and I could see myself going back to watch them again. But then the fourth movie happened and they got lazier on every front. I think to myself, the odd-numbered movies (the first one and Dark of the Moon) are the better ones so far... so maybe this one will be an improvement? Uhh... no. Not even close. 

If you thought the Transformers movies were brainless, annoying and overwhelming before, fasten your seat belts. This is actually one of the most brainless and nonsensical action movies I have ever seen. I'm not sure I've ever seen so little effort get put into a big-budget movie like this. It's like the writers had all their sessions while drunk on the strongest drinks possible. 

And yet I have to try and somehow explain the plot. That will prove difficult... but I will try. So Optimus Prime went looking for his "creators" at the end of the last movie... and finds one now. Quintessa. On the remains of Cybertron... even though Cybertron was totally destroyed at the end of the third movie. (But you surely don't remember silly details like that, right? Apparently that's what Michael Bay thinks...) Quintessa brainwashes him and turns him into Nemesis Prime. Now that all sounds kind of interesting, right? 

Well... now it starts to get ugly. Quintessa *and* the Decepticons on Earth are both after this mythical staff that's hidden somewhere on Earth. It was used before by King Arthur, of all freaking things--in one of the most incomprehensible opening scenes I've ever seen. Turns out the Transformers have been on Earth much longer than we expected somehow (even though that's totally impossible in this series' continuity), and all this time they've been searching for this staff. Because it can rebuild Cybertron. Or something. I mean, forget that silly All Spark or that weird space bridge from the third movie, right? No, *this* is the real deal. Sigh.

This movie is seriously frustrating in a lot of ways. The only part of the plot that's even interesting is Quintessa's brainwashing of Optimus, but after that initially happens he kind of disappears for a while and then once he shows up as Nemesis Prime... it is resolved in about ten minutes or less, with still over thirty minutes to go. And although the battle between Prime and Bumblebee is pretty good, the way in which it is resolved is also another blast to continuity.

Beyond that, the plot ranges from boring to stupid. Somehow Mark Wahlberg's returning character and Laura Haddock's new character are "keys" to the whole thing. Unicron is introduced in this movie, but only through an unbelievably dumb twist. Megatron is back and so is his original voice actor Frank Welker, but even the "Galvatron" shell he possessed in the last movie looks different. This new young girl character named Izabella is introduced and is actually kind of decent, but is quickly put to the side about an hour in, making one wonder what the point was.

The script is incredibly bad; even moments that might've worked before like Optimus Prime's latest rallying speech feel weak and rehashed. The biggest victim of the script is Anthony Hopkins, who somehow got dragged into this. He seems like even he doesn't know what to do with his ridiculous lines. John Turturro's character is back as well, but he's sadly only on screen for about two to three minutes.

Even most of the action scenes feel a little more lazy than before. There's a couple decent moments, but they don't really stand out with any of the better action scenes from the first three movies. Now normally things get a little bit better in the climactic act on the action front. That doesn't happen here. Instead, we're given a bit of a ridiculous finale in which Cybertron's remains enter Earth's atmosphere, leading to a battle mostly in the sky on terrible CGI platforms that I'm not even sure how to describe. Sure, there's a few cool moments isolated within this chaos--such as Optimus dispatching about six of Quintessa's minions at once--but overall it's more difficult to keep up with what's going on in this final act. Steve Jablonsky's soundtrack is probably the best part about it. And once it all ends, not very much is even resolved--which presumes to set up a sixth film not too much unlike this one, but who knows what they'll do since we might finally be getting a director change and these guys have proven they don't seem to mind breaking their own canon.

I've defended some of these Transformers movies a little bit more than most. I recognize what they are, but I've also kind of enjoyed them. But this one is pretty much indefensible. It's honestly depressing, because the Transformers deserve better. And even if you hate these movies, you still have to admit they were better at one time than this. Even Michael Bay is capable of better than this. It is quite enraging to see a movie this lazily made when you know it can be better--even if only to a certain point. I'd like to see what a new decent director could do with these movies, but whoever it is will have their work cut out for them. 

Saturday, October 7, 2017

The Fate of the Furious


RATING: C+

It's hard to believe this franchise has gotten as far it has. They didn't even start becoming "good" until the fifth one, and even then they still had issues. The increasing ludicrousness of the plots and impossible stunts eventually caught up with them a little in the last movie, so I had to wonder if the franchise had run out of what little gas it had to begin with. The title of this one certainly didn't help much. "The Fate of the Furious." Fate. F8. Get it? Ha. Ha. 

This particular plot centers around the idea "What if Dominic Toretto, the guy who preaches 'family' so much, turned his back on them?" That was what the trailer gave us. The problem in the actual movie is that the big twist as to why he does it is telegraphed almost *immediately* after he meets Cipher, our new villain. And then about 20-25 minutes later, they just flat out give up on trying to hide it and just give the reveal anyway. (Despite the predictability, I have to give some props at some point for Vin Diesel's acting through all of this--he actually does *really* good in this movie.) 

With that said, the plot and storyline of this movie still in general makes more sense than Furious 7. That one advertised Jason Statham as the bad guy, but then they threw in Djimon Hounsou as well and created a rather convoluted plot that was lost amidst sloppy direction and writing, and stunts and impossible survivals that were ridiculous even by this franchise's standards. This one at least feels a little more simple. Or at least simple in that it's kind of familiar. Because what the bad guy (or girl in this case) wants is nuclear launch codes to gain access to nuclear missiles. Simple enough, right? And even the "blackmailing Dom" plot that happens here isn't completely unheard of. Sure, there's a bit of technological nonsense along the way, but don't tell me you weren't expecting that by this point in these movies. Cipher herself is kind of annoying though, due to her constant ridiculous monologues on things like fate and choice.

The good news is that director James Wan is gone. No more ridiculous circling camera movements when characters are fighting. And the writing's better too--not great or anything, but it certainly feels less amateur. And, believe it or not, suspension of disbelief isn't as big of a problem here as it was in the last movie--maybe even the sixth one. We have two main big action set pieces--one in New York where Cipher is able to hack a *ton* of cars remotely to create a "zombie" car chase of sorts. It's actually pretty awesome. And the final set piece on the icy tundra is quite good too, and not that unbelievable--at least not until the submarine shows up and then the film reverts to the usual F&F "impossible things" antics for a few minutes. But there's nothing here that's as ridiculous as driving a car off a parking garage ramp, actually hitting a helicopter with it, falling multiple stories in said car and still surviving. 

Now we get to an interesting point of contention--Deckard Shaw's return. Due to having his own vendetta against Cipher, he actually kind of *teams up* with the heroes.  I won't say too much even though you might be able to predict how it goes from there, but they try to make him a bit more sympathetic. Which is difficult, given his actions in the last movie. And yet they somehow actually kind of pull it off--even though I'm also left confused as to how the rest of the team is able to work with him without constantly scowling. 

But what we do get out of that is the glorious continuation of the rivalry between The Rock's and Jason Statham's characters. It was cut short last time when Hobbs got injured early in the movie, but this time we actually watch their "frenemy-ship" build. Which ranges from the prison break scene where the two of them beat the crap out of other prisoners and cops (the most fun part of the movie) or the hilarious jargon they trade. It's enough to make me actually kind of interested in the newly announced spin-off featuring the two. 

At the end of the day, The Fate of the Furious does what I did not expect--improve on the previous movie and actually makes the franchise kind of fun again. There's still problems, of course, but you wouldn't expect anything less. The series has gone back to embracing its spectacle without going too over-the-top. I don't know if they'll be able to keep it up--especially if they ever go to space, since that's actually apparently a small possibility--but they've still given us at least one more fun popcorn action movie out of this long-winded series to watch. This movie doesn't really have much right to be that good, so the fact that it kind of works is a bit of a victory in of itself. 

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Thor


RATING: A-

After the release of Iron Man 2, which truly began to set the wheels for The Avengers, they still had to bring in other superheroes of course. They had already done an "Incredible Hulk" movie, but due to a re-casting of the Hulk, no one really knows if that movie is canon or not. So this was really the first movie in the Avengers series to feature a hero other than Iron Man... with a cast member who actually stayed on. 

Much like Iron Man, Thor takes us into somewhat more obscure territories of Marvel. Norse mythology in the Marvel universe? Seriously? Well, they had to set up the sci-fi part of the MCU somehow since they weren't ready to give us Guardians of the Galaxy yet. 

Thor does indeed center around the God of Thunder and his large hammer with insane power. While he hails from Asgard--another "realm" entirely, also from Norse mythology--much of the movie actually does take place on Earth. Why? Because Thor--heir to the throne--does something really stupid and starts a war. Early on in the movie, he's both arrogant and a bit battle-hungry. So his father Odin strips of him his power and banishes him to Earth. 

So thus he is stuck on Earth, forced to live without his power and to learn a few life lessons and be confused by Earth customs. Meanwhile on Asgard, there's still trouble as Thor's brother, Loki, wants to stir up some trouble of his own. Unfortunately the original trailers never even tried to hide the twist of Loki being the main antagonist--even if it's not that shocking anyway. 

While Thor may throw us quite a bit of Norse mythology--which many may be unfamiliar with--and does some more universe-building, it's actually fairly simplistic. It's actually not that different from Iron Man's origin story in that the titular character ends up in a situation that makes him rethink life and have to become a better person. The only difference maybe being that Thor takes more strides--he's more obviously a hero and changed man by the end of this movie (not to discount Tony Stark's redemption). 

Now one thing that might seem strange to some is that this movie is directed by Kenneth Branagh. A guy who's mostly known for his Shakespearean film adaptions doing a superhero movie? He actually pulls it off quite well. We're given mostly likable and memorable characters--from Thor himself and his love interest Jane Foster to even the antagonist Loki, who got a good start to his long tenure as the most memorable Marvel villain. It's a well-made movie with strong action sequences and special effects and good pacing. The story, even if predictable, is well done too. There's also quite a strong cast, including Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Stellan Skarsgard, Idris Elba and Anthony Hopkins. Plus Samuel L. Jackson in another post-credits scene. 

While Thor may not be among the strongest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe pack, it's still quite good enough to stand on its own. It's noteworthy in that it was really the first big risk for Marvel Studios--it could've easily misfired--but they pulled it off quite well and continued to set up future movies too. It may not be truly special, but it's still as good a superhero film as any. 

Friday, September 22, 2017

Collide


RATING: D+

I have to admit, I'm not entirely sure how to introduce this one. Apparently the people who made this weren't either--they start off with a car crash that leads to a voice-over monologue before giving us the incredibly boring setup that we have a hard time caring about. But this is a movie that, despite a strong cast and decent enough looking action, was filmed in 2014 and then somehow took nearly three years to get released. That's not a good sign. 

The film centers around this guy Casey (Nicholas Hoult) in Germany who's working for a drug dealer and falls for a fellow American in Germany--Juliette (Felicity Jones). He gives up his old life to be with her, but trouble comes up in their new life pretty quick when it turns out Juliette needs a kidney transplant. Which they don't have the money for and it can't be done in Germany because reasons. So Casey is left desperate in need of money to help keep his new girlfriend alive. Hmmm... where do you think he'll turn for *that?* 

The tagline for this film is "How far would you go for the one you love?" And the idea is pretty much anything goes if you're trying to save someone you love. (Which of course opens up another can of worms... but that's besides the point.) Kind of like Taken, only this time it's two boring lovebirds instead of Liam Neeson trying to save his daughter. In this case, it ends up being difficult to care about the whole "romance" angle and "I'm doing it for her" deal when their relationship feels rather forced due in part to a very lazy script and sloppy direction. I like Nicholas Hoult and Felicity Jones, but they don't have much chemistry here and they're given very little to work with on their own in general. So ultimately we have a dull plot with questionable direction, some nonsensical moments and two main characters we don't really care about. 

So what is salvageable about this film? Mostly Anthony Hopkins and Ben Kingsley. Yes, they somehow got dragged into this mess. But unlike Hoult and Jones, they make the best of what they're given, resulting in rather gloriously over-the-top performances. Hopkins in particular gives a rather hilarious monologue to Hoult's character before an attempted torture scene. It works quite well, especially given the fact that you've been pretty bored for most of the movie up to that point. 

Also, while most of the action scenes aren't anything special, it is worth bringing to attention that because this movie takes place in Germany, it also takes place on the autobahn at times. In other words, we actually get an autobahn car chase at one point--and that turns out to be pretty awesome. It's the best and arguably only good set piece of the movie (save for *maybe* a climactic bar confrontation). Considering how rare an autobahn car chase is though, it's just a shame that it had to be in a below-average movie like this. And not even in, say, a Fast and Furious movie. 

So yes, Collide has a few fun things about it that make it not a total waste of time--even if most of the first half is pretty boring. But it's still kind of a wasted effort that didn't have a whole lot of hope from the start. The biggest draw is the cast--and many will probably wonder why they signed up for this. I enjoyed watching Hopkins and Kingsley ham it up, though. The film's a mess, but it's an occasionally enjoyable mess. And I guess that's better than being a nonredeemable mess.  

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword


RATING: F

Who knew it could be this difficult to put out a halfway decent King Arthur movie? The last wide-release outing with the character back in 2004 (simply titled King Arthur) was a complete mess that barely had anything to do with the actual mythology, taking place in the Roman Empire era for some reason. It was also surprisingly boring. Now we have a new outing, and this one's actually a little better... which is not really saying anything at all. 

This one at least actually takes place in Camelot, and it does use the classic Excalibur "sword in the stone" mythology here. It also involves Arthur being unaware of his heritage due to a treacherous relative having taken over the throne who is ruling the general populace with an iron fist. Once Arthur pulls out the sword, a small resistance of sorts immediately bands with him. He is encouraged to use the sword to mow down Vortigern, the kind of Britain who stole his birthright, but he is rather reluctant to accept his destiny. 

The story itself isn't too awful--it sort of adheres to the Arthurian legend a bit more than the last attempt did. And there's a few interesting ideas here and there. Merlin isn't involved much, but there are some more mages in this general version of the King Arthur universe, which is an interesting touch. Excalibur's powers are seemingly upped quite a bit to some slightly cool effect (although the editing kind of robs such scenes of actually being that good). 

The big problem is that the film is rather incoherent. Guy Ritchie's directorial style worked well for his Sherlock Holmes movies, but it does not work well here. We're given an overdose of horrible editing, some awkward camera jumps, confusing transitions, and out of sequence dialogue (discussing what will happen in the next scene while we're actually watching said next scene). Simply put, all too often you will probably have no idea what the heck is happening. 

The action sequences do not fare that well either. Once again, there is a lot of poor editing, as well as weird camera angles, shaky cam, and some weird use of going from slow-mo to overly sped up and back again which really doesn't work well here. It's a shame too, because there's a couple of sequences that would've probably been pretty cool if not for all that.

The acting is a bit iffy as well. I just wasn't sold with Charlie Hunnam as Arthur. He never showed much charisma or much of anything, really. Jude Law fared better as the villain, but the few remaining actors you might've actually heard of (Djimon Hounsou and Eric Bana) aren't given much to work with in general, which also suggests an iffy script.

This movie is pretty close to being a complete disaster. There's a couple of decent things about it here and there, but it's just all too hard to follow and lacks coherence. There are times when you say "that's cool," but then there are other times when you wonder how this actually ended up being the finished product. Thus, this is another failed attempt at adapting the King Arthur legends and it could potentially be the last one for a while. 

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Iron Man 2


RATING: A-

Universe building is a fun thing, isn't it? If they weren't quite fully doing it yet in the first Iron Man movie because they didn't know if it would take off, they certainly were in this movie. It might be called "Iron Man 2," but it's also what begins the actual steps towards The Avengers. But because Iron Man was the first movie they made and the Hulk movie from that year didn't take off as well, it's also an Iron Man sequel. 

Tony Stark is Iron Man now and he's a better person than he was before, but he's still got work to do. And he's trying to make the world a safer place, but again... he's still got work to do. It might be easy at first when no one else is really a match for you, but when some Russian dude builds his own weapon out of the arc reactor technology, that might be a bit of a problem. You know what might also be a problem? Having the palladium core in your arc reactor that's keeping you alive also ironically slowly poisoning you to death. So yeah, Tony's new life isn't so easy. 

Elsewhere in the movie, we also get to deal with the continued dealings with SHIELD and Nick Fury, and we also get to have the introduction of Black Widow, who later becomes a frequent character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe series. Oh yeah, and there's a post-credits scene teasing the next film, Thor, so yeah... they're universe building.

When this movie first came out, it was considered disappointing to many for not being as good as the first Iron Man. But it's actually pretty great as well--it stands alongside the first just fine. It has a good enough storyline with various subplots and a couple of twists here and there. Jon Favreau's direction still works quite well. On the action front, the final confrontation is somewhat underwhelming, but there are still some great action scenes--namely the racetrack scene where the villain Whiplash is introduced, Black Widow vs. a dozen security guards, and Tony having a skirmish with his buddy Rhodes--with both of them in Iron Man suits. Things get slightly slow two-thirds of the way through, but they kick up again eventually--otherwise, the film manages to keep one's interest throughout. 

The casting is still pretty great. Robert Downey Jr. owns his role as usual and Scarlett Johansson works quite well in her introduction. Samuel L. Jackson is in this movie more, and he's also great as usual. Although I enjoyed Jeff Bridges' over-the-top performance in the first movie, Mickey Rourke is decently threatening as the main villain in his own right--especially once you see where his character is coming from. Sam Rockwell is also good, and he and Rourke have a lot of pretty hilarious snark with each other. 

Iron Man 2 is actually a pretty underrated film. While it's not necessarily a classic or anything, it still does what it's supposed to do--be an Iron Man sequel *and* start setting up The Avengers--and it does it well. It's not quite on the top tier of MCU movies, but it's not on the lower tier either. Of course, when you have Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark around, it's pretty much impossible for one of these movies to be a complete letdown, isn't it? 

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Circle


RATING: B-

Everyone loves a good Big Brother tale, right? George Orwell and all that stuff? I know I do. Some people view them as far-fetched science fiction that "will totally never happen." And hopefully they're right about them never happening. I like to view them as cautionary tales or warnings. Obviously some scenarios that we are given are more plausible than others. This is one of the more relevant ones in recent years, though--because some of what is going on in this movie is already happening to a lesser extent and is already relevant. 

This particular one centers around one Mae Holland (Emma Watson) who gets a job at the famous tech company "The Circle"--which is one part Facebook, one part Google and one part Ultimate iCloud. Their latest product that gets introduced by spokesman Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) shortly after Mae joins? "SeeChange"--which is basically an initiative to put cameras everywhere that produce real time video all for the public. Bailey's mantra (and the film's terrifying tagline) is this: "Knowing is good. Knowing everything is better." You can imagine things only spiral from there.

On its outward dealings, The Circle is a big brand corporation that cares nothing for privacy--and even sees privacy as one of humanity's greatest flaws. On the inside, the workers are almost a weird cult-like community--one where they are encouraged to be on the property as much as possible "participating" in whatever activity and where this community wants to be involved with everyone in their "circle"--no matter what they're doing or where they are. Creepy, no?

It gets better. Particularly when Mae goes "transparent"--having a first person camera on her at all times viewable to the entire public while the social reactions pop up on the screen repeatedly. Those might be a slight annoyance at first as many of them are cliched Internet phrases, but some of them are actually kind of interesting and serve as a further indictment of the heavy reliance on social media. But yes, a person's entire life is livestreamed and available for the public to watch and react to. Repeatedly. And the idea is to get more and more people in on the act, of course--livestreaming their entire lives. Creepy indeed.

All of that to say that The Circle is a cautionary tale indeed. Perhaps intended to warn us of what we could become one day. As such, many of the concepts presented are pretty enthralling and we're giving a pretty interesting movie with quite a bit of food for thought (often presented from the movie kind of playing devil's advocate).

While I do not understand fully why this film has gotten panned, it is still rather flawed at times. The direction is a bit sloppy and at times it feels like some footage was cut out (particularly near the ending). For example, we're not given much background about the "Circle" company before we're hurled into it. There are also some things that make no sense. Namely John Boyega's character--despite an early scene with him clearly being troubled by the Circle, his motivations and what not are just all over the place. He's a difficult one to figure out. The script is also up and down--and while most of the star-studded cast that includes Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, Patton Oswalt, Karen Gillan and Boyega is mostly able to make the best of it, Bill Paxton is sadly wasted in his final (and posthumous) film role.

And then there's the ending... and the fact that there's not really much of an ending. Shortly after the final of the film's many "press conference/presentation" scenes, a rather alarming pull-back "reveal" shot happens. And then it ends--boom. But there's quite a bit that's not answered--like what happens to certain characters or how they react to the final events of the movie. Again, it feels like some footage was cut out.

While none of these flaws really ruin the movie, at times they can bring it down a little--making the film feel a bit underwhelming. It really does feel like the film could've been even better with a bit more coherence and better direction. Heck, with a super-relevant storyline like that and the all-star cast, it should've probably been one of 2017's better films.

And while it's definitely nowhere near as awful as most would have you believe and it's actually still above average, you still can't shake the feeling at times that they probably could've done better. This makes one of the film's earlier lines more ironic. During Mae's interview for The Circle, she is asked (among other questions) this: "What is your greatest fear?" Her response (this apparently being the one that lands her the job)? "Unfulfilled potential."

Indeed, Mae. Indeed. 

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Despicable Me 2


RATING: B-

Despicable Me was quite the unexpected success from a rather unknown animation company. But it worked because for the most part, they put all the right ingredients in. It was hilarious and it had heart to it. What wasn't to like? 

One probably wondered beforehand where they could go from there in a sequel. At the end of the last movie, Gru had cast aside the "evil" mantle, and had devoted himself to being a good father instead. But because the first movie made lots of money, that means they had to come up with something. What do they come up with? 

Well, let's see. They introduce the Anti-Villain League, a league dedicated to preventing villains like Gru from exacting their evil plans. (Considering their absence in the first movie, I'd say they're doing a terrible job of it thus far.) And the AVL picks up Gru to help them foil one of these villains--who stole some purple serum from an arctic lab--and his ultimate plan turns out to be to create purple demon Minions. No, seriously. That's actually his plan. And to what end? Umm... just the generic "take over the world" type deal. Also, there's the villain himself. They sort of try to fool us into thinking he's a red herring... but it never works. The whole thing's quite predictable. 

So yes, the plot took a little bit of a backseat in the sequel. Thankfully, the humor (in general) didn't. Steve Carell still does his voice role as Gru very well, and while there a couple of rather dumb scenes involving the Minions here, they're still quite hilarious for the most part. Heck, even the purple Minions--dumb as the plan involving them is--are still pretty funny. Elsewhere, the introduction of AVL Agent Lucy Wilde is nice as well. The climax itself is pretty suitably exciting. 

Here's the deal with this movie, though. After a pretty great start during the first third of the film or so, things actually kind of slow down to a near crawl for a bit--where a bunch of loosely tied sequences are thrown together to extend the movie's length. Most of which are not so good--such as the ridiculous date Gru is set up on at one point, or the "Happy" song montage. Granted, there's a couple breaks in this slower part of the movie--such as the fire alarm scene--and it does kick back up again later--but this is quite an unexpected turn for a sequel to a movie that never slowed down for a second. 

Despicable Me 2 isn't a bad sequel, and it's still a pretty funny movie. But it lacks that key ingredient of a feel-good storyline/ending that helped set the first movie apart from its peers. And that slow middle of the film seriously does hurt it. Of course, few were probably expecting the film to live up to its predecessor anyway, so it's not too shocking. Ultimately, it's mostly just fun comedy, a return to the characters you liked the first time around, and not a whole lot else. 

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Going in Style


RATING: B-

So guess what? This film is a remake. You probably didn't know that. A lot of people probably didn't know that. I actually didn't know that for a while. But it is a remake. A remake of a film from 1979. Well, even in an age of endless remakes, I guess it's okay to remake a movie when the original has been completely forgotten about. 

This film centers around three elderly men--Joe, Willie, and Albert--all played by famous older actors. As in Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Alan Arkin, respectively. These three guys are just living the retirement life--until their retirement pensions are cancelled by some evil bank due to their former company being bought out. Or something like that. So basically, these three guys are now screwed. Until they get the idea to rob the bank and take back what is rightfully theirs (and *only* that). 

To be frank, this movie gets by pretty strictly on the power of its main stars and the chemistry they have. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman both being in a movie to begin with is great, but Alan Arkin arguably gets many of the better lines with his character's dry sense of humor. Also, Christopher Lloyd is in this movie--and though he doesn't have a whole lot of screen time, he steals the show whenever he is on it with his over-the-top performance. Some scenes in the movie are more funny than others in general--namely the "test robbery" run of a discount grocery store. 

That said, this movie is a little bit *too* simpleton in some ways. There's not much to this movie's storyline other than the bank robbery and everything leading up to it (as well as the immediate aftermath). And there's not a whole lot payoff at the end (no pun intended). While things go mostly as you might expect, nothing really big happens before the final resolutions. Basically, the 15 or so minutes immediately following the robbery (but before the actual ending) kind of almost feel like a waste of time and were perhaps intended to just stretch the film to 95 minutes. 

It's a decently funny movie, but it also plays it a little too safe at times and doesn't really do anything special with the storyline. Not that you would expect much in a mere comedy like this, but you'd expect something a little more. That said, it's an alright way to pass about an hour and a half of your time--thanks to the cast and their chemistry. You might forget about it fairly quick, but you won't feel like you wasted your time either.