Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Ready Player One


This film is a bit of a strange beast of a sci-fi/fantasy flick (if it can even be called that). It's essentially what you get when you put Tron, Garry's Mod and Sword Art Online (yes, seriously) into a blender, stuff a crap-ton of pop culture references into it, and then get Steven Spielberg to direct it. It's a strange combination for sure. And what's odder is that the plot of the movie is actually sort of unique--but is also stuffed with all the pop culture references, and while those things do fit in-universe, that does kind of make for a hit-or-miss deal for some.

This movie takes place in a futuristic world (2045, specifically) where the world has pretty much become a wasteland because... uh... reasons. But Columbus, Ohio is one of the main hubs of activity left in America, and yet it has more in common with Detroit or Chicago... minus almost all the skyscrapers. Despite the Earth apparently being in bad shape, there's still good technology available. In this case, most of it refers to whatever is needed to enter the Oasis--a virtual reality where literally anything is possible. (Hence the Garry's Mod thing.) As the main character puts it, real life kind of sucks right now. So everyone just wants to escape into the virtual reality. That mentality is kind of spurred on by the fact that the dead creator of the Oasis has an ongoing quest there which involves finding three keys by way of crazy challenges. And whoever wins this "quest" will inherit control of the Oasis. And pretty much everyone--our main character Wade/Parcival included--wants to win this quest. And because the Oasis is essentially the future right now... that includes an evil corporate dude. The Earth may be a desolate wasteland, but there's still no shortage of corrupt corporate types. 

This is a pretty bonkers movie at times. The scenes in the Oasis are often pretty over-the-top, due to how stuffed they are with... well... a lot of stuff. It would be near-impossible to list all the pop culture references/appearances in this thing; some of the more memorable ones include the Iron Giant, T-Rex from Jurassic Park, King Kong, Chucky, and a mech version of Godzilla. There's way, *way* more and I probably didn't even catch all of the references/cameos. And I haven't even mentioned how jarring it can be to go from the normal live-action real world to the virtual reality world--which looks more like what a modern high-end video game would look like.

Despite how overwhelming some could find this movie... it's actually pretty good. The characters are likable enough (despite some forgettable acting), and the world that exists in this movie is still a pretty interesting one. And despite how over-the-top things in the Oasis can get at times, it will still often be difficult to not get excited at times. And the story itself is pretty interesting, particularly the story of the dead Oasis creator's life which is revealed over time. Despite what the marketing made it seem like, there's a pretty balanced dose between life in the real world and life in the Oasis; and what's going on in either place actually does keep you interested, even if you find the whole "virtual reality" part a bit much. And for all the reveling in the digital reality that the marketing does (and that even the movie does at times), it's really not the kind of movie you'd think it is from that.

This movie is definitely better than it has much right to be. With all the overwhelming stuff that occurs in the Oasis, this easily could've turned into a fun but ultimately hollow fantasy. But despite all on the craziness on the surface, the heart of the movie is a bit of a different beast entirely--and that does help it stand out. There are definitely elements that one could have mixed feelings on--namely whether it relied too much on existing pop culture or not. But at the end of the day, this film still delivers a compelling story, and strikes the right balance of being fun and yet also being serious at the appropriate times. And perhaps it also delivers a cautionary tale to a certain degree--although that part may get lost in the shuffle for some viewers. 

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Mission: Impossible 6: Fallout


Normally if you manage to get as far as *six* installments in one movie franchise (not including reboots), we're not talking about that sixth one being one of the very best in the series. And we're certainly not talking about it being arguably one of the better action movies of the decade. By this point, even if the series in question is still making plenty of money and there are plenty of fans who like it, many others are still lamenting the fact that the franchise still exists. And yet... both Rogue Nation and now this one have made us want more. The fact that the more recent sequels in this series have been this good is definitely improbable; yet it's a trick that Christopher McQuarrie makes look easy. 

The story here involves some plutonium cores that are out in the loose, with certain evil types wanting to use said cores for... nukes, obviously. And while I rolled my eyes at them apparently going back to *that* well again, this isn't another Ghost Protocol. This time, much of the evil plots are a bit more personal. Remember the bad guy from the last movie? Solomon Lane? Yeah, he's back and still alive (a first in this series for a villain). And he is broken out of prison. And his plan involves dealing Ethan a world of hurt as revenge for the last movie--while still dealing the actual world quite a bit of hurt as well, because anarchists gotta do anarchy stuff. 

So how good is this movie? It's pretty excellent. And how good are the action scenes? So good that they make much of Rogue Nation (an excellent movie as well) look like an afterthought. Rarely will you ever see this many action sequences that are this well directed, this well shot, and this exhilarating. I talk a lot about exciting action scenes in movies, but these ones are truly special. Heck, they are arguably some of the best ones I've ever seen. And almost each one is unique and special in its own right. You have the bathroom fistfight scene, which immediately became one of my favorite fight scenes ever. And then you have the excellent breakout and chase scene. And then you have the helicopter scene, which becomes the latest popular example of Tom Cruise's apparent insanity as he continues to do his own dangerous stunts for our enjoyment. And those are just the biggest highlights. 

Really, the action scenes are so great that they can actually make you forget about how convoluted the plot gets for a little bit midway through the movie. There's a lot of names in play and it's pretty easy to lose track of who's betraying whom. And a few characters' motivations and actions are a little confusing at times, but it irons out a bit more clearly down the stretch. Still, even if you're feeling a little confused at times, you'll be wowed pretty shortly by a great action sequence that'll make you forget about it and marvel at how Cruise manages to keep on doing what he's doing at age 56. 

Speaking of the cast, we still have a pretty good one. Besides the typical returning members that do well (Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson), there's at least one special mention to be made. Henry Cavill has been merely serviceable as Superman, but he is excellent here and establishes himself as a strong action movie actor as well (when given a better movie to work with). Sean Harris also does well; he was in the last movie too (as Solomon Lame), but he does a good job of seeming more unhinged this time around. The more relatively unknown Vanessa Kirby does well too; her character is unfortunately a little underused. 

With both Rogue Nation and Fallout to his name, Christopher McQuarrie has established himself as one of the better action directors in the business. While I hope to see one more M:I movie out of him (and only one more, for Cruise's sake), I'm very interested to see what he does next besides this franchise. He's going to have a tough time topping himself with whatever he does next regardless, though. The story is nothing special, but that's never been the biggest strength of this series anyway. It's good enough to get by and to prop up the various set pieces that feel intended to dominate the screen here. And while that might be a risky gamble to some, it works for Fallout. Because on a pure action entertainment level, it really does not get a whole lot better than this. 

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Mission: Impossible 4: Ghost Protocol


Here's one of those movies that was never expected to actually succeed... but then it went and beat the odds anyway. At this point in the franchise's history, it was definitely on thin ice. The movies were making money, but not necessarily standing out from the crowd. The one prior to this--the third one--was actually pretty good, but would still probably have ended up forgotten in the depths of movie sequel history if this franchise hadn't exploded onto the scene with this movie (and its follow-up). 

In this fourth installment... when a IMF infiltration goes awry and the Kremlin gets blown up, Ethan Hunt's team is blamed and the entire IMF is disavowed. The IMF secretary privately orders Ethan to continue his mission (basically, finding the actual person responsible). The only problem? No help from the rest of the IMF or CIA this time. All Ethan's got is Benji (Simon Pegg), who was introduced in the previous movie; and newcomers Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and Carter (Paula Patton), and a lone train car full of IMF tech. And that's about it. 

Here's the thing about this movie: it's definitely got a couple of the more fun scenes in the franchise, namely the Dubai "scaling the giant building" part. And this one's less focused on Ethan than previous movies, which often works to its credit. The problem? It's got the most cliched bad guy and evil plot of the entire series. The bad guy's plan? Start a nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia. Never heard that one before, right? And his reasons, motivations or backstory? Uh... I have no idea. And Michael Nyqvist certainly isn't as prolific as Phillip Seymour Hoffman or even Jon Voight from previous movies. Although in his defense, he's not given much to work with. 

That said, it's not like this movie's not enjoyable. It's a tad slow at times earlier on--it takes 45 minutes to actually get to the part where "Ghost Protocol" is initiated and the plot really starts moving. But the pace is pretty slick from there. Aside from the signature Dubai sequence, the climactic act stands out due in part to its more visceral nature. The sandstorm chase scene (also in Dubai) is pretty nice as well. 

Ghost Protocol may likely be the most overrated movie in the series. But it's still pretty difficult to not like. It might've been better if the villain hadn't been so inconsequential (heck, even the terrible second movie's villain was somewhat more interesting). But what we get is still pretty enjoyable. And it's not often that a franchise with this many sequels actually continues to do well, so that's a positive mark on them.  

Saturday, July 14, 2018

The Spiderwick Chronicles


This film might be one of the more improbable successes of the past decade or so, if you think about it. Sure, it didn't get a whole lot of money or attention when it was released; it wasn't that kind of success. The success here is it actually being good. And really, this movie should never have worked. This is adapted from a series of five rather short children's books. And it's all squashed into one movie with no intention for a sequel that's barely 100 minutes. With that much possible material being squashed into that relatively short of a movie, it's a wonder this movie did not turn out incomprehensible and sloppy. 

This came out during the age when movie adaptions of children/young adult fantasy novels/series were all the rage; we hadn't quite hit the young adult dystopia trilogy phase yet. This particular one involves a fantasy world in which the actual fantasy world is actually right there in the real world with us--just invisible to the eye. Unless you get the veil lifted, that is. Then you come across a world of fairies, "brownies/boggarts," goblins, and one ugly shapeshifting ogre. Some guy named Arthur Spiderwick uncovered all this information (somehow), and stuffed it all into one "field guide"--which his descendants Jared, Simon and Mallory discover eighty years after his disappearance. And of course, the not-so-nice creatures of this unseen world--namely the previously mentioned shapeshifting ogre--want this "field guide" for themselves for nefarious purposes. 

So how exactly do you squash five books (short ones; about 150 pages each, if memory serves) worth of mythology into one movie? Well, obviously you don't include everything. It's been a *long* time since I read the books, and I only did so once. But I do recall that there are plenty of creatures that get left out entirely. And in a sense, the whole plotline of the books is somewhat changed. In other words, if you're actually a fan of these books and are hoping for a faithful adaption... well, good luck. 

Surprisingly, what we get is actually pretty good. Things are explained surprisingly concisely and there doesn't end up being a whole lot of confusion. The plot itself is pretty exciting; there's plenty of pretty exciting fantasy action scenes. The sibling rivalry between Jared and Mallory is rather annoying at first; and it makes no sense how the former gets blamed for some of the early chaos when that is straight up impossible. But that's really the biggest gripe here. The CGI is sometimes a little obvious, but other times it's quite good. There's a pretty decent cast; Freddie Highmore does impressively considering he plays both Jared *and* Simon (who are twins). Mary Louise-Parker doesn't get to do much, but David Straithairn fares better. There's some good voice casting too, with Seth Rogen and Nick Nolte--the latter being well-cast for the ogre Mulgarath. There's also a surprisingly touching ending thrown on that definitely wasn't in the books. 

As previously mentioned, this movie really should not have worked. Combining five short books into one movie is a recipe for disaster; a lesson they probably should've learned from the film adaption of Series of Unfortunate Events. But this one actually really works. It's an exciting film that blends modern fantasy tropes with hints of elements from such films of years past (ex: some of the goblin scenes might bring to mind Gremlins). Credit to director Mark Waters for being able to pull that off, especially considering that basically the rest of his entire filmography is more comedy oriented rather than fantasy or even just action. Spiderwick Chronicles is certainly no classic, but given what it had to do in a short amount of time, it's a pretty impressive piece of work. 

Monday, July 2, 2018

Tomb Raider


Despite all the failures of video games movies over the years, Hollywood still keeps cranking them out. Even though most of them don't even make that much money. But they keep trying, hoping something will stick eventually. And so far... nothing really has. Some might say Warcraft did, but basically anyone who hasn't played the game and still saw the movie will say otherwise. Which is kind of the problem for some of these movies: they don't make much effort to allow people who haven't played the games to understand the movies. 

This particular video game turned movie is actually one we've already seen before. Yes, it's a reboot. We already had two Lara Croft: Tomb Raider movies back in the early 2000's with Angelina Jolie. I have not seen those, but my understanding is they're a bit campy. This new iteration of Tomb Raider is just the opposite. I don't know which version comes closer to the games... because I've never played them. But I will say that this movie feels more like a female-led version of Indiana Jones. 

Because origin stories are a thing these days, this is indeed an origin story. Alicia Vikander takes the lead role of Lara this time. And Lara isn't exactly in the tomb raiding business yet. Here, she just stumbles upon some long-lost clues regarding her father, who's been presumed dead for seven years. And wanting to find out what happened to him, she sets sail for some random hidden island her father was looking for. Some random island that is supposedly hiding the resting place of some random Japanese queen with supposedly supernatural powers. Why is her father (named Richard Croft) looking for this guy? Um... good question. There's kind of some conflicting answers/possibilities there. But he's not the only one, because as it turns out some evil hidden organization not named the Illuminati that wants to use supernatural power for controlling purposes is *also* looking for this supposedly supernatural corpse. 

Like I said before, I don't really know much the Tomb Raider franchise. And thus, I wasn't really aware of the supernatural stuff. Which helps to give the film an extra point of interest, I suppose. But for the most part, it's still too much like Indiana Jones or even National Treasure for its own good. But then it kind of cops out on the whole supernatural thing late in the game, giving us a weird twist that wants to be clever but is instead kind of dumb. And yet... the manner in which the bad guys are dispatched still kind of feels Indiana Jones-esque, only a little less gruesome. 

Tomb Raider is kind of an oddity at times. It's got a better story to tell than usual for a video game movie. There's some kind of confusing parts and a few wasted opportunities, but at worst it's more unoriginal than anything. It's also actually got some decent action scenes here and there; the film gets off to a slow start, but once we hit the island the pace picks up. And really, even if the film feels a little familiar at times, we still don't see this type of movie too often. So it has that going in its favor as well. 

In a way, the film's tone is the biggest issue. It's serious, but not serious or dark enough to actually move us. Also, the film is almost totally devoid of levity. Perhaps they were worried about either being too dark or too light-hearted. That is a dilemma some other franchises have grappled with in recent years, but this film doesn't even seem to have an answer. It's just kind of stuck in the middle, and it does suffer for being that way at times.  

Tomb Raider is certainly above average for a video game movie. The problem is, that's really not saying much. There is actually some room for decent material going forward, but they might need to get a better director. And that's assuming there will even be a sequel. But like I said before, these things almost never make that much money relatively and they *still* get at least one sequel! So who knows? I can't say I care a whole lot one way or the other whether we see another Vikander Tomb Raider movie or not. But at least they didn't totally bomb this one.