Friday, June 30, 2017

Monster Trucks


When you think of monster trucks, you probably normally think of jacked-up pickup trucks with ridiculously large wheels that are able to handle pretty much anything. People were probably wondering when this movie was first announced what they were going to do with it; it would probably be dumb, right? Just a movie about monster trucks? Well, as they found out when the trailers showed up, they should've looked at the word "monster" and taken it more literally. (And then some people decided that was even worse.) 

Yes, this film does include "monsters" of a sort. But not really. They're just creatures from a whole different ecosystem that an evil oil drilling company stumbled upon in the midst of their drilling. And they're in the way. And being the typical evil movie oil company that they are, of course they don't care. One of these creatures escapes and a high school kid finds it... and then it gets in his truck. As in, it goes under it and actually becomes/controls the truck. If that makes any sense. So yeah, this movie really is about "monster trucks!" Get it? Because they're trucks and they have monsters in them? It's funny, right...? 

Well, at least we can give them credit for a creative idea. It's a bit of a goofy and silly one, for sure. In fact, this almost feels at times like a movie that was made in the wrong era. It might've done better in the 70's or 80's and then *maybe* been a cult classic. Because the general premise isn't unlike E.T. And the goofiness of the whole thing does kind of feel like something that maybe would've been more accepted then. 

For a movie that has kind of an interesting (albeit silly) one, it hits a lot of the wrong notes. It tries to be a fun popcorn movie geared towards kids, but it's not really even good at that. The characters are quite uninteresting and have very little development. In fact, we kind of come to appreciate the monsters themselves more than the humans. And a few scenes just feel ridiculous; probably the worst offender is the one where the kid and his monster truck race alongside his love interest on her horse with a country pop (I think?) song in the background. It's just terrible. 

Among other issues are some rather illogical moments where you have to suspend your disbelief more than you probably expected from a movie about monsters (mostly regarding how civilians/mercenaries are blind as heck to the monsters in view), and the acting. There's not that much good in there. Lucas Till is actually kind of annoying in his role; and everyone else is just kind of there. Rob Lowe and Danny Glover are in this movie, but they're not given a whole lot to do. 

But there's got to be some action involved, right? Well, there is. Most of it just isn't that good. There's a car chase about halfway through, and not much of note happens--except a "driving on rooftop" bit that could've been awesome... but somehow looks dumb instead. They save all the actually cool stunts involving the "monster" trucks for the bonkers and admittedly fun final act, which involves a truck chase on a mountainside with a lot of fender-bending. This climax was actually fun, and it makes me wonder why the rest of the movie couldn't have been like that--especially considering they had a pretty good budget. 

It's not a total disaster, ultimately. There's a few decent moments here and there, and it's not really unwatchable (even if there are a couple awful moments). It could've definitely come out worse, but it also could've come out a little better too. This isn't a movie meant to be taken seriously, obviously, but even when you're not doing that, it just isn't fulfilling even in a "stupid fun" way at the end of the day.  

Saturday, June 24, 2017



Movies based on video games have never generally done well. There'll be a few fans of said video games here and there that maybe do like it, but mostly no one likes them and they end up bombing. Thus, there is actually apparently such a thing as the "video game movie curse." And in 2016, there were *two* movies that were supposed to break it--this and Assassin's Creed. The result of this particular one?

Well, it actually depends upon who you are. If you're a World of Warcraft fan to begin with... apparently you'll love it. Everyone else? Not so much. 

The single greatest flaw about this entire movie is that it actually assumes you're a World of Warcraft fan and that you're more or less caught up on the lore. The guys who made this apparently actually thought literally everyone on planet Earth plays World of Warcraft. Either that, or they deliberately made this movie just for the fans... which is rather pointless in my opinion if you could just make another video game or "MMO" story line for it. In other words, that's a lot of wasted money. 

This movie is quite frustrating for someone who hasn't played the games/online franchise. It starts off utterly incomprehensible. You do begin to pick up the basics of what you need to know over time, but there's still some things that you never do figure out. The plot goes something like this: this race of orcs (different from the Lord of the Rings orcs, mind you) are leaving their destroyed world, and this evil warlock of theirs uses evil green magic to build a portal to a human world *not* called Earth. Said evil warlock intends to purge the land of humans and use them as fuel for... more evil green magic stuff, apparently. One orc clan chief does not agree with his leader's plans. He wants to team up with the humans, who are just kind of caught in the middle of all the crazy stuff going down in their world. There's more plot beyond that, but do you want to know any backstory? Yes? Well, forget about it, because there is none. 

It's quite unfortunate the path this movie takes, because there actually are traces of a good movie in here (perhaps due to director Duncan Jones?). There's a couple surprising plot twists, and there are some dynamics about the orc race that actually are kind of interesting, and there's a nice surprise non-orc antagonist thrown in as well. Despite the sometimes-iffy CGI, some of the action scenes are decent as well. 

But there is also constant frustration as you try to keep up with all the lore and places and names and things and... yeah. Among various questions you'll likely have: what happened to the orcs' original world? How did this extra-evil orc find and start using this evil green magic? What is this evil green magic anyway? And how did the non-orc antagonist revealed later get infected with the evil green magic *before* the events of the movie start? And loads of other ones that I can't really say because either it would require more explaining on my part, or there would be spoilers. 

I'm sure, of course, that there are reasonable explanations in the canon for everything I just asked and other non-WOW fans will ask when watching this movie. But if I have to go through years of games and online play just to understand it, then it's not worth it and I don't care. A video game movie like this should strive to make newcomers to the franchise understand everything without them having to go through all the lore. If they actually *want* to go through the lore afterwards, great, but the movie shouldn't depend upon that. 

While this movie is not truly awful, it is quite frustrating. As I mentioned earlier, there are traces of a good movie in here and I could see how WoW fans would actually probably like this. But this movie not only assumes we're already gonna know a lot, it also assumes it will have a sequel, which means there isn't really an ending. I doubt I'll care much about a sequel if it does ever happen--unless they actually decide to explain the lore a bit more next time around. 

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Wonder Woman


The DC Extended Universe had a bit of a rough year in 2016. First, Batman vs Superman received mixed reception and disappointed many; then the dumpster fire that was Suicide Squad happened that no one but hardcore DC fans liked. At this point one would probably be skeptical of any future entries in the series, especially if they also disliked Man of Steel (which I actually really liked). 

Interestingly enough, Wonder Woman (aka Diana Prince) was actually one of the better things about Batman vs Superman (even if she wasn't in it a ton). So despite the mixed bag of a movie she was in, she gave us a pretty good intro to her character already. Now, we get an origin story for her--which takes place in World War I--which helps us learn even more about her and see her even more in action. 

Unfortunately, the movie actually gets off to a bit of a slow start--not much really happens before Chris Pine shows up except for Hippolyta being an overprotective mother of Diana. And probably one of the dumber things about the "origin story" of Diana is the fact that it ties in with Greek gods and their mythology... except for when it doesn't and ignores the normal mythology you'd expect. It's really better to not think about all of that much, even if one of those said Greek gods (Ares) is actually heavily involved in the film. 

Elsewhere, the "origin story" centers around Diana being stuck on an island with her fellow Amazons, and she's constantly training for something. That something happens when a WWI skirmish is brought to Diana's doorstep, and the British pilot Steve Trevor who's left behind warns the Amazons of the "war to end all wars," which Diana believes has Ares's fingerprints on it. (It's actually not as stupid as it sounds from this outset.) So she joins Trevor and heads to Europe, believing she can end the war for good. 

There are a lot of fun action sequences in this movie--particularly in the second half. Wonder Woman gets to go rampaging past hapless minions a few times times, and those are probably the most awesome scenes--though watching her going up against a more powerful opponent in the explosive finale is pretty great as well. There is a lot of great use of slow-mo, and the action throughout the movie shines all the more for it.

There's quite a bit of substance elsewhere, though. The movie is essentially about Diana learning about humanity--and the good and bad things that come with that. It works quite well, especially in the context of a war. Diana's a fish out of water who doesn't fully understand some of mankind's idiosyncrasies and straight-up evils, but she still feels the need to "fight for those who can't fight for themselves," even if she comes away disgusted with us on occasion.

At this point, the character of Wonder Woman in general is easily the best thing about the entire DC Extended Universe. While I like the new take on Superman more than most, he still can't carry this universe that well. And Batman? Well, even if Ben Affleck turned out better than expected, it's still too soon since the Dark Knight trilogy and too tough an act to follow to really make him a good point about this franchise. Wonder Woman, however, is not only exciting to watch fight, but she's a character that is much easier for anyone else thus far to root for. She's kind of the equivalent of Marvel's Captain America, and while I enjoy a hero with human flaws and dark sides, I also can definitely find a more morally strong hero like Diana or Cap quite refreshing. 

If anything, perhaps the greatest flaw about this film is that Diana's way ahead of everybody else; aside from the main antagonist and maybe Trevor, none of the other characters in this movie are noteworthy or even really likable. It's surprisingly easy to forget about that though; the movie carries itself well regardless. 

Wonder Woman's solo movie isn't without its flaws (that first half does drag at times), but it's still an exciting superhero movie that's not nearly as cliched as some of its peers, and there's more going on than just the awesome spectacle. While obviously the jury's still out as to whether the DC Universe can fully get its act together, it's clear they've got at least one character done right. 

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Great Wall


As far as fantasy action films go, I'll admit that a movie set in the 11th century about the Chinese army plus Matt Damon fighting a bunch of monsters that doesn't appear to have much else to it isn't exactly gonna get me running to the theater. It's unsurprising then, that this film was kind of left in the dust. Because it was pretty doggone difficult to market and make it look actually original or special or *something.* 

The plot for this film is pretty basic, as mentioned earlier. It centers around a large Chinese military using the Great Wall of China as the main line of defense against a bunch of monsters who attack once every 60 years. If you're hoping to learn more about them, forget it: all we ever find out about them is they first emerged after a weird meteor apparently sent by the gods (or something) struck the Earth. This said military is joined by a couple of random mercenaries--William Garin (Matt Damon and Pero Tovar--whose initial mission in the general area was searching for black gunpowder. And yeah, that's pretty much all there is to it. 

What then, could possibly be actually that good about this film? Well, we'll give much of the props to director Zhang Yimou--who's apparently pretty popular in Chinese circles, but this looks to be his most well known venture elsewhere in the world (it's his first film in English). He has a flair for creating some pretty good looking action sequences, with some excellent cinematography around them and an impressive amount of detail. Despite letting up a bit in pacing during the third act initially, it redeems itself with a gorgeous-to-watch climax. Another quite memorable action scene includes a ground battle against a few monsters surrounded by fog, 

It is kind of unfortunate that other areas of the movies struggle a bit more. As mentioned previously, we never find out much about these monsters. We also don't find out a whole lot about Matt Damon's almost-impossibly-good-at-archery character--it's hinted he has a dark past and that he can't change that easily, but that is never really fleshed out and he does go heroic pretty easily. Also, Willem Dafoe is in this movie. And while his acting is good per the usual, his character sadly feels pretty pointless. Most of the characters in general really just aren't that memorable. 

As for the casting, Damon and Dafoe do well as the two main big stars of the group. Aside from Pedro Pascal, the entire rest of the cast is unsurprisingly Chinese. Thus, most American viewers will probably recognize none of them. Jing Tian and Andy Lau are the ones with the most screen time, and both do quite well. Tian is apparently going to be in more Hollywood movies (Kong: Skull Island already and Pacific Rim 2 next year), so watch out for her. This might be the only time some see the rest of the actors however, depending upon how much Chinese cinema they watch. 

Despite me not expecting much from it, I still feel like it actually could've been even better with some more fleshing out of the characters and the lore behind the story. It actually could've been pretty good with some work. I almost want to call it a wasted effort, but I was pretty entertained most of the way through, and the spectacle was still quite fun to watch regardless. All things considered, I'd say that's a bit of a victory itself. 

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Pirates of the Caribbean 5: Dead Men Tell No Tales


If one thought the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise was in a bad place after At World's End, it was in an *even worse* spot after On Stranger Tides, which was a muddled mess written by a director who had no experience with action/adventure movies and did not include Orlando Bloom or Keira Knightley and thus didn't have the chance to fix the ending of At World's End. Considering that they were both out for the fourth movie, they shouldn't even have bothered. 

But things are different now. I was interested almost immediately when it was announced that at least Orlando Bloom was returning to play Will Turner. It meant that maybe, just maybe, the mess that At World's End created could be fixed. And then in the final months leading up to the movie, an international trailer revealed Keira Knightley was in it as well. Even if her role was going to be extremely minor, this only furthered my hopes. 

Of course, you can't necessarily make a sequel based upon that issue alone. So they had to come up with something else as well. There are actually kind of two main stories at play here. One centers around Will and Elizabeth's son, Henry (Brandon Thwaites) who is trying to free his father from the Flying Dutchman's curse. The other centers around the latest big bad: yet another "undead" guy in Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), who is simply after one thing: revenge against Jack Sparrow for trapping him in the "Devil's Triangle" (I have no idea why they call it that when it's apparently just the Bermuda Triangle). Henry and Jack ultimately need to team up to go after a new mystical item: the Trident of Poseidon, which can grant the user control of the seas. Henry believes that he can use it to free his father, and Jack can use it to stop Salazar. Oh yeah, and there's also this girl named Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario) who's thrown in there as the new female lead who's also after the Trident... for reasons that are never really made that clear. (More on her later.)

The good news is that Dead Men Tell No Tales definitely gets right much of what On Stranger Tides got so wrong. It's flawed, but it actually kind of *feels* a bit like a proper POTC movie again. It doesn't hardly ever feel boring. The action isn't cut to shreds by camera editing nor does it feel subdued. There isn't as much good levity as I'd like, but at least it felt like they were kind of trying this time. And I guess that's part of the key here: even if the result is a little mixed, they were actually trying this time. 

There is some bad news, however. While Johnny Depp has been the face of the franchise in his role of Jack Sparrow for some time, he ends up taking a bit of an odd backseat in this movie. And unlike previous movies, where he was a bit crazy but still very cunning, he's actually a bit of a bumbling idiot here who gets more lucky even than usual here. The other characters are left to carry the actual plot (Henry, Carina, Barbossa) while Jack is kind of just along for the ride. 

And then there's Carina. Now, much of her character is an area where the filmmakers were trying a little *too* hard at. They were trying so hard to make her not a carbon copy of Elizabeth. They were also trying so hard to make her a more empowered female character. And while there's actually a pretty clever twist about her past later on, the attempt kind of falls flat on its face. Because in those desperate attempts, they forgot to make her an endearing character the average audience could get behind the way they did with Elizabeth. I don't know how much of that is the writing or Scodelario, who isn't a bad actress but is very average compared with Knightley. The only reason *anyone* might care about her at all when it's all said and done is because of the previously mentioned plot twist. 

Among other complaints are the ridiculous forced wedding scene on an island (seriously, how did that even make the final cut?), the fact that according to the men of Britain, because Carina is an astronomer who's also a woman she must be a witch (which is stupid and makes the Britain of that time look increasingly cartoonishly exaggerated), the fact that there is very little to the character of Salazar, how easily the Black Pearl is restored (which also kind of negates the need for the Tia Dalma knock-off witch who's thrown in), and the whole "Trident of Poseidon" thing which manages to succeed at being a super-vague MacGuffin. I also could've done with more Will Turner, who's in the film for a little over five minutes in total--but the ending sort of makes up for that.

There's still some pretty awesome and fun stuff, though. Namely, the "zombie sharks" sequence comes to mind. And there's also the fact that Salazar's ship can actually rise up out of the water partially on one end to help it literally crush other ships; and the visual design of the ship as it's doing this makes it almost look like it's literally *eating* the ships. How awesome is that? There's some other fairly fun action scenes elsewhere too. The plot itself is still interesting, as a bit of further mythology in the POTC universe unfolds and we watch Henry try to free his father--which we actually do care about. The final confrontation, after starting off a bit cliched, ends on a surprisingly big note. And maybe it's just the fact--again--that there aren't really any other film franchises like this, so it's kind of fun to watch regardless as long as the director(s) at least sort of knows what they're doing. (So not Rob Marshall.)

And then there's the ending. I personally think it's very easy to guess what's going to happen before you even go into the movie, but I'll still throw up a "spoiler alert" here if you really don't want to know and you can just skip the following paragraph and go to the final one. 

If you were frustrated and angry by the end of At World's End like I was, then this ending will only be all the more fulfilling for you. It's rather perfect too, because it leaves the franchise in a place where it can finally rest in peace and that would be fine. We can pretty much just pretend On Stranger Tides never happened and just stick with the other four movies. At World's End will be a bit easier to swallow now from here on out with the knowledge that it's ending was fixed later on. And yet, of course, they give us a post-credits tease for if they are able to make another sequel... which may or may not happen. 

Ultimately, the film's audience may admittedly be a bit limited to super-fans of the franchise, and to those who are anxious to see if the ending of At World's End is fixed or not. And that works, because most of that audience will probably be at least somewhat satisfied. Other viewers may not really care at this point, and that's fine. While some people may not realize it, this possibly final installment was actually truly necessary for just one purpose: the ending. And indeed, it is that ending which makes the ride truly worth it.