Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Lego Batman Movie & more!

Another long break in posting anything because I've been busy editing my YA superhero novel to get it ready to submit to agents. I'm about to start sending it out so watch this space!
Anyway, I've still been keeping up with movies, so here's some quick reviews of what I've watched, starting with the most recent:

The Lego Batman Movie
Tons of fun, though like the first Lego Movie the pace might be a bit exhausting for us older folks. The best part was the huge roster of villains, both DC and beyond, including Billy Dee Williams finally getting to play Two-Face. Probably my third favourite overall Batman movie, after Batman Returns and The Dark Knight.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Visually spectacular, emotional, and leads in perfectly to Episode IV: A New Hope. CG recreations of dead actors still not ready for primetime, though

Dr. Strange
Standard hero journey 101 stuff, but the cast and insane visuals made it worthy.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
Something of a return to form for Burton. A few dodgy parts but overall I enjoyed it

Friday, September 09, 2016

Stranger Things have happened . . .

So I haven’t updated for a while. I've been busy with schoolwork and editing my novel, and then my father passed away and I had to go back to England to put his affairs in order. Yeah, this year keeps getting shittier.

Anyway, here’s a recap of the movies and TV shows I’ve seen lately:

Ghostbusters – forget the shitty Ghostbros, this was a fun remake with a great cast of characters for girls and women (and, yes, boys and men) to look up to. Shame it probably won’t get a sequel because of the controversy hurting the box office.

Star Trek Beyond – after the mess of Star Trek Into Darkness’ half-hearted attempt at remaking Wrath of Khan, this was something of a back to basics for Trek. Nothing groundbreaking, just a good, fun episode.

Stranger Things
– the genre highlight of the summer was a gripping tribute to 80’s Spielberg and Stephen King. Anything that puts Winona Ryder back in the limelight is a plus with me.

Pete’s Dragon – a typically nice, well-made film from Disney that I liked but didn’t love. It may have more emotional impact than the original, but the dreary setting and depressing storyline saps some of the fun.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Rogue One and the Problem with Star Wars Spin-offs

So, a recent rumour went around that Disney have ordered reshoots of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story because the movie isn’t testing well and doesn’t feel like Star Wars. Whether this is true or not, it brings up an issue I’ve had with the Star Wars spin-offs ever since they were announced. These movies aren’t needed, at least not at this point. Disney should have just focused on Episodes VII-IX and then gauged audience interest before embarking on any more sequels, prequels or spin-offs.

There are two reasons for this. First of all, a Star Wars movie every year is just ridiculous. Star Wars is not the Marvel Universe, where every character has their own storyline that only occasionally crosses over into other character’s worlds. Star Wars is supposed to be one epic story and (until now) each new episode has felt like a special event. The spin-offs, regardless of their quality, will dilute the Star Wars brand and make it feel not so special anymore. Spin-offs are what you make when you’ve run out of ideas, not when you’re starting out on a new trilogy.

Second of all, as these rumours (if true) confirm, mixing the spin-off movies with the regular episodes will just confuse casual audiences and make any changes in tone more jarring. Rogue One shouldn’t feel like other Star Wars movies, and if Gareth Edwards and co want to make a darker, more war-like movie, I’m fine with that. But the general audience obviously won’t be and will wonder why it doesn’t feature any of their favourite characters and isn’t as lighthearted as The Force Awakens. If Disney had waited to make the spin-offs, or explored these stories in another medium like television instead, the change in tone wouldn’t be as jarring (no one complains that the Marvel Netflix series are far darker and more violent than the movies). Making spin-offs that have to please the family audience that went to the previous Star Wars movies is just limiting them artistically. These movies should be made further down the road, when the audience is more prepared for a different take on the saga.

Having said that, I’m totally down with an Obi-Wan Kenobi spin-off with Ewan McGregor. Even have the plot worked out – it should be a detective movie like the best part of Attack of the Clones. Have Obi-Wan reluctantly called out of hiding to solve a murder or find a kidnapped child on Tatooine and then he uncovers some major conspiracy. It would be the Chinatown of Star Wars movies. Lucasfilm, give me a call.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

In flight entertainment

Got to catch up with a few movies on the flights to and from England.

First was Pride and Prejudice and Zombies which was merely ok. The cast and productions values were fine, but it works better as a Jane Austen adaptation than a zombie movie (and there are far better Austen movies out there). I pretty much forgot it by the time the credits rolled.

Next I watched Tomorrowland, which was actually better than I thought it would be. I liked the slow build before we get to the titular location and Britt Robertson makes an appealing hero. The visual design was wonderful, especially the various futuristic gadgets. I also appreciated the message of the film that mankind is too focussed on dystopia. But ultimately the plot is too meandering and disjointed for it to be more than an ambitious failure.

I saved the best for last with 10 Cloverfield Lane. This "spiritual" successor to Cloverfield abandons the found footage aspect and (for most of the running time) the monsters too. Instead it focusses on three characters trapped in a bunker when some unknown cataclysm takes place outside. The cast is excellent, with Mary Elizabeth Winstead as winsome and likable as usual and John Goodman both hilarious and frightening as her captor who claims he is acting in her best interests (the charades scene is a classic). The tension is nicely ratcheted up until the explosive finale, when we finally get to see what has happened above ground. The monster showdown undoubtedly will turn off some audiences after the claustrophobic first two acts, but it was a logical extension of what we saw in the first film. Bring on the next one!

Captain America: Civil War and Superhero Fatigue

Way behind on reviews (cause of travelling and stuff) so time for me to catch up on the movies I've seen lately.

A lot’s been written lately about how audiences and critics are becoming tired of superhero movies following the same formula and offering nothing new. To see whether this is having a diminishing effect on quality (and the box office), I thought I’d take a look at the four major comic book movies that have been released so far this year.

First out of the gate was Deadpool. Your typical “boy meets girl, boy gets cancer, boy becomes a mutant mercenary” tale, Deadpool succeeds almost entirely on the hilarious breaking the fourth wall tone and the lead performance of Ryan Reynolds. Few actors get a second chance at a character after bombing the first time (though to be fair, Reynolds was the least of the problems with X-Men Origins: Wolverine) but Deadpool’s second big screen appearance wisely ignores the previous film, except to poke fun at it. It’s amazing that a relatively low budget spin-off has quickly become the most successful X-Men movie and one of the biggest R-rated movies of all time. It’s richly deserved, since the film was clearly a labor of love (Reynolds stuck with it off and on for 10 years). The plot may be pedestrian, but the movie has heart and a really fucking dirty mouth.

Which brings us to the next superhero movie of 2016, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. You’ve already heard millions of critics tear the movie apart, and yes it is bad, but it’s worth taking some time to point out why it fails. It’s not because it’s too dark, too serious, or too deep, despite what Zack Snyder’s fans would have you believe. BvS is just a bad story, told incompetently.

The main problem is that Snyder is just the wrong filmmaker to bring these characters to the screen. Man of Steel was clearly made by someone embarrassed by the very idea of Superman, who couldn’t relate to the character unless he was either apathetic or borderline homicidal, instead of the shining beacon of hope he’s supposed to be. Batman is superficially more suited to Snyder’s style, but even there Snyder focuses on the surface details (i.e. how “badass” he is) without really examining what makes Bruce Wayne tick or his moral code. It’s telling that the only above average movie Snyder has made is Watchmen, which as a deconstruction of the very idea of heroism actually benefitted from the director’s cynical, nihilistic approach.

Of course there are many other problems with the film. Plot holes galore (though what movie doesn’t have at least some?); no development (and barely any dialogue) for Superman, who mainly just broods; feeble villains (a big CGI mess called Doomsday and Jesse Eisenberg playing Lex Luthor as Mark Zuckberg on a gallon of Red Bull); laughable dialogue (“Martha! Why did you say that name?!”); atrocious editing (scenes feel like they are just thrown in randomly with no establishing shots or connective tissue); and some of the most shoehorned-in cameos in movie history (Wonder Woman – looks cool, has no reason to be in the story. Then at one point she literally watches trailers for the other Justice League characters on a computer). So yeah, it’s a big, daft, boring mess that would turn anyone off superhero movies for a while.

To quote Nick Fury, it was “hopelessly, hilariously outgunned” a little over a month later by Captain America: Civil War, which is basically the same movie except not crappy. The 13th movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe could certainly afford to coast a little on audience’s affection for the characters, but for the most part Civil War is a solidly-constructed tale that makes some salient real world points and goes to some dark places for the characters while still being tons of fun (the latter not currently being welcome in the DC movieverse).

The throw in everything but the kitchen sink approach (Ant-Man turns up for no reason, but we love Paul Rudd so it’s okay; Spider-Man turns up for no reason, but Marvel have the character back so might as well have him kick some ass and throw some quips, which new actor Tom Holland does well) stretches credibility in parts but gets away with it because of how much goodwill the characters and this universe have generated. The airport battle is as spectacular as you’ve heard (even if the reason for the fight is somewhat unconvincing) and the conclusion is nicely understated and brutally personal compared to the sky battles that have become increasingly overused in Marvel movies.

Daniel Bruhl as Zemo actually turns out to be one of the better MCU villains, with refreshingly low-key motive and pretty much all the characters have their moment to shine. It lacks the “gotta see it again right away” excitement of the first Avengers or even Guardians of the Galaxy (which is probably why Civil War’s legs at the box office haven’t been that great) but it’s definitely a top five Marvel movie and a great kickoff to Phase III.

Finally, we come to X-Men: Apocalypse, which I have yet to see. Reviews have called it a disappointment and the box office seems to be following that trend. Bryan Singer has given a lot to the franchise, although my personal favourite (X-Men: First Class) wasn’t directed by him. But like Christopher Nolan, he seems like a director that doesn’t really want to embrace the wild and almost goofy nature of comics, and unlike Batman, X-Men really needs someone to embrace that, as the success of Deadpool has shown. I personally don’t care if Marvel gets the rights back to X-Men (unlike the Fantastic Four, the X-Men work better in a world without other superheroes) but I think it’s time for Singer to step aside. If they can’t get back Matthew Vaughn (the director of First Class) then my dream choice for an X-Men reboot would be Joss Whedon. He said in an interview before he was picked for Avengers that he was more suited to X-Men because he could relate to the pain the characters feel. As good as his Avengers movies were, X-Men would be a return to something truly personal for him, like Buffy, and I think he would knock it out of the park.

So where does that leave us? Two good superhero movies were big hits. Two apparently not so good ones disappointed but still will make lots of money. Superhero movies aren’t going away, but the time has passed for them to get by on the “Ooh, we’ve never seen these characters on screen together” wow factor. The problem with Hollywood isn’t too many superhero movies. There’s just too many movies with weak scripts and lackluster direction being made. The fix for that isn’t running a different genre into the ground. It’s just making better movies, period.

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Rogue One Teaser Trailer

This looks way better than a Star Wars spin-off has any right to be. Love that Felicity Jones' character is the focus of the trailer and the visuals look even better than The Force Awakens. And Mon Mothma's back! Disney may actually make this work . . .

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Imaginary Cinema Awards 2015

2015 was a huge year for fantasy movies, highlighted by the fact that Age of Ultron only managed to be the third most successful genre movie released last year. Star Wars and Mad Max came back, in some ways better than ever, and there were some great low budget gems. Plus, there were no Transformers movies released last year, which is always nice.

Best Movie: Mad Max: Fury Road
Runners-up: What We Do in the Shadows, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Inside Out, Ant-Man, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Ex Machina

Best Screenplay: Inside Out (Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley)
Runners-up: Ex Machina (Alex Garland), What We Do in the Shadows

Best Direction: Mad Max (George Miller)
Runner-up: Star Wars: The Force Awakens (JJ Abrams)

Best Actor: Adam Driver (Star Wars)
Runners-up: Tom Hardy (Mad Max), Hugh Keays-Byrne (Mad Max), James Spader (Age of Ultron), Paul Rudd (Ant-Man), Oscar Isaac (Ex Machina).

Best Actress: Charlize Theron (Mad Max)
Runners-up: Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina), Elizabeth Olsen (Age of Ultron), Daisy Ridley (Star Wars)

Best Music: Star Wars (John Williams)
Runner-up: The Avengers: Age of Ultron (Danny Elfman)

Best Visual Effects: Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Runners-up: Age of Ultron, Ex Machina, Mad Max

Best Production Design: Mad Max: Fury Road

Best Editing: Mad Max: Fury Road

Best Cinematography: Mad Max: Fury Road

Best Make-up: Mad Max: Fury Road

Most Surprisingly Okay Movie of the Year: Goosebumps: The Movie

Disappointment of the Year: Jurassic World - one of the blandest, most pointless sequels ever yet still became a huge blockbuster

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Star Wars: The Nostalgia Awakens

So about that new Star Wars movie. The general consensus is that it’s awesome and has saved the franchise after Lucas’s disappointing prequels. I agree with the first point (mostly), but not the second.

I’m actually a fan of all the movies. Well, maybe not The Phantom Menace, which is 90% filler. Seriously, they spend half the movie stuck on Tatooine because they can’t get their ship repaired. But Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith are both seriously underrated movies, despite their obvious flaws. The fact is that all the movies have their share of spectacular fun mixed with indefensible cheese. The ratio just varies depending on the episode. The Force Awakens definitely has more of the former than the latter and its strengths and weaknesses are both probably due to the fact that it’s the first Star Wars movie with no direct involvement from Lucas. Here there be spoilers, so read further at your own risk.

The film announces from the opening crawl that this is going to be a very different film from the prequels. No mentions of taxation disputes here, but a search for a missing Luke Skywalker that immediately grabs our attention. The opening sequence introduces us to all new characters including the immediately adorable droid BB-8, his almost as adorable owner Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Max Von Sydow in a far too brief cameo. Once Darth Vader fanboy Kylo Ren (an intense Adam Driver) shows up everything goes to hell with Poe captured and BB-8 on the run with a map that leads to Luke.

By the time Stromtrooper with a conscious Finn (the charming John Boyega) and scavenger Rey (startlingly good newcomer Daisy Ridley) join the adventure the movie has established a feel that is both comfortably familiar and excitingly fresh for the saga. In fact, the movie does such a good job of setting up the new characters that, as much as I like Han Solo, it’s almost a disappointment when he and Chewie abruptly show up and basically take over the movie. The reintroduction of the Millennium Falcon is a fun sight gag, but many of the callbacks after that (Finn accidently activating the monster chessboard, Han joking about putting someone in a trash compactor) almost seem like the lazy “hey, remember that part in the old movie?” jokes that they do on Family Guy every week.

It doesn’t help that the intriguing search for Luke plot is pretty much abandoned half way through so we can do Death Star 3.0 in the form of Strarkiller base – a planetoid that can destroy whole solar systems from afar. The capital of the Republic is destroyed in a blink and you’ll miss it moment that is given less fanfare that even the destruction of Alderaan in A New Hope. Even Lucas knew not to reuse the ultimate weapon trope in the prequels and it gives the final low atmosphere battle a rather ho-hum feel, not helped by distracting cameos from JJ Abrams’ buddies from his TV shows.

Much of the movie seems designed to distract the audience from how unimaginative and full of holes the plot is. I mean, you literally have Poe disappear for half the movie after supposedly dying and then he shows up alive and well with no real explanation (this may be because, originally, his character was supposed to die). But we like his character so it’s all good. However, this does create a general lack of peril with none of the main characters (barring one obvious example) ever seeming in danger of being killed. Even in the prequels, where we knew the eventual outcome already, there seemed to be more of a sense of danger. On the plus side, the new actors bounce off each other well and Harrison Ford hasn’t been this invested in his performance as Solo since before he went into carbonite. Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong'o) is an intriguing alien character who knows more about the Force and Luke’s missing blue lightsaber than she wants to let on. Less successful as a CG character is Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) who is basically just a giant holographic cross between The Emperor and Lord Voldemort. Hopefully in the next film they reveal he is actually six inches tall in real life and someone steps on him.

In fact, aside from Kylo Ren (who is basically Anakin Skywalker done right – a whiny, angsty dark Jedi but with better dialogue and acting than that character had in the prequels) most of villains are disappointing. General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) is a one note Hitler youth and Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) is completely wasted.

The cinematography is stylish but in many ways this feels like the smallest Star Wars film visually (the locations don’t really feel that alien and could be anywhere on Earth; JJ has a habit of using closeups a lot) and the lightsaber duel, while emotionally satisfying, lacks the visual flair of the prequels. In fact, while there is a lot of action, none of it really stands out in that effortless Saturday Matinee Serial style that Lucas was so good at. The score is fine but is also lacking in really memorable new themes. I think part of this is that Abrams doesn’t use long takes and non-dialogue scenes as much as Lucas, so it was probably harder for John Williams to really be inspired to create something as epic as the Imperial March or Duel of the Fates. The film is also so afraid of boring the audience with anything resembling the unfairly maligned politics from the prequels that it doesn’t bother to explain key information like how the First Order rose and what is the relationship between the Republic and the Resistance.

Much like JJ does with his TV shows, key information is kept from the audience not to create a sense of mystery but just to setup later stories. A little of this is fine but when key parts of the plot aren’t being explained and left to the sequels to clear up then it just becomes annoying. For example, the movie strongly hints that Rey is a secret Skywalker child and had padawan training before being dumped on the planet Jakku. If this is the case there’s no reason to not reveal this by the end of the movie. Unless they’re planning to pull a switcheroo in the next one and reveal her father is someone else, but that means they’re basically rehashing The Empire Strikes Back’s twist.

There are at least six major “trust us, we’ll explain it later” dangling plot threads, which is probably around five too many for the first film in a trilogy. Abrams is a very talented filmmaker but he seems incapable of creating fully satisfying stories. He lacks the ability of someone like Joss Whedon to set up plot twists and pay them off logically. You can see this in his previous movies where he managed to make very good movies out of deeply flawed scripts (Star Trek, Super 8) and even a good movie out of a pretty bad script (Star Trek Into Darkness).

Luckily, when the movie gets stuff right it really gets it right. The climax (aside from the aforementioned Death Star redux) is full of great character moments and powerful emotional beats. Han’s death, while predictable, still packs a wallop and the final scene between him and his son, Ben (Ren’s real name) is Star Wars at its darkest and most personal. We also get to see Chewie flip out afterwards which is a plus (though unfortunately no arms are ripped from sockets).

It’s the final lightsaber duel where it all comes together though. Rey, another prodigy who grew up in a harsh desert world, completes her hero’s journey and calls Anakin’s/Luke’s lightsaber to her in a moment worthy of cheers so she can defeat Ren (though keeping him alive for the sequel, of course). Some have complained that her character becomes too powerful too quickly (even using a Jedi mind trick to escape from the First Order despite having no prior knowledge of this power) but we’ve seen male characters with equal power as a novice and having a major female character use the Force frankly makes up for Padme losing the will to live and female Jedi in the prequels just being used as glorified extras. Though, having said that, I was disappointed that Leia is shown to have no Force ability in the movie, despite being the “other hope”. But this definitely has the most diverse cast of any Star Wars films (and more than most modern sci-fi blockbusters) which in itself is cause for celebration.

So has The Force Awakens saved Star Wars? Well, it’s brought back genuine humour (there are lots of laughs in the movie) decent acting and a restrained use of special effects back to the saga, which is enough for most people to call it a triumph. But something has also been lost in the process. The movie lacks Lucas’ visual imagination as well as his focus on deeper themes. A truly great Star Wars movie combines the best of both worlds, which is why Empire is still the best Star Wars movie. This one comes close (helped by having the same co writer as Empire, Lawrence Kasdan) but doesn’t put enough care into how the plot goes from A to B to surpass it. It’s also a little too meta. While this works for Kylo Ren’s character, who is obsessed with the fact that he doesn’t measure up to Darth Vader, some of the characters almost seem to be aware that they’re in a Star Wars movie.

Hopefully Episode VIII will keep what was great about this one (the characters, the comedy and the more adult tone) but bring back some of the goofy weirdness and old-fashioned cliffhanger fun that Lucas gave the saga. The Force Awakens is a very good Star Wars movie, but I have a feeling the best is yet to come.