Saturday, December 30, 2017

Pacific Rim


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


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


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


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



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...