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Movie Review – First Man

I went to an early screening of First Man, and while I enjoyed it, I wasn’t blown away.  It should be noted, this is a biopic about Neil Armstrong, so the technical details about the space program are in the background.  What you have is a deep dive on Neil as a civilian pilot and father, and how that affected him getting to space.

We learn about Neil Armstrong through the lens of his family.  He struggles mightily with the death of his 2 year old daughter from a tumor, leaving his wife Janet (Claire Foy) to try and cope with little support.  She lives with the constant stress of how dangerous Neil’s job is, even before he becomes an astronaut.  At one point Janet mentions that they attended ‘four funerals at Edwards’ which drives that home.

Armstrong (as played by Ryan Gosling) is a fairly reserved fellow; he’s “pleased” to be chose as the commander of Apollo 11.  Damien Chazelle made an odd choice to film a lot of the emotional scenes super-close to Gosling’s face.  It’s a stark contrast to the action scenes, which are mostly first-person Paul Greengrass-esque shakycam.  Not that it isn’t appropriate for a rocket blasting off, but it is a shift.

First Man is well acted from the leads, and has some recognizable faces supporting.  I like Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin. He would definitely punch out a moon landing denier.  I don’t know that I’d give it the Oscar but it’s a good way to spend an afternoon.

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Movies Review

Movie Review – Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

The first Jurassic Park is a classic. Plenty of tension, action, humor.  When we have fond memories of this franchise, that’s the movie we’re all thinking of.  As you move forward, they decline rapidly in quality.  Most of the good feelings you have for The Lost World and Jurassic Park 3 are due to Jeff Goldblum and Sam Neill.  The hugeness of Jurassic World’s success came as a bit of a shock, so despite the actual plot of THAT movie being pretty dumb there was no way a franchise-hungry production company wasn’t going to follow it up.  Which means we get stuck with Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.  Spoilers from here on out.

“No, you’re making all new ones”

Your mistakes will always come back to haunt you.  It’s been a cornerstone of this series.  Hammond and many others make tons of mistakes, mostly out of hubris.  Why not bring dinosaurs back, what could go wrong?  What happens if the computers fail?  Or the power goes out?  Every subsequent movie compounds this, because the mistakes just get worse every time.  “Let’s bring a T-Rex to San Diego!”  “You know, that ten ton engine of murder wasn’t nearly dangerous enough, let’s genetically engineer something worse!”

That Fallen Kingdom

That brings us to Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.  After yet another park fails catastrophically, we find Claire…wait, nobody’s in jail?  I know Masrani was killed, but were there NO CONSEQUENCES?  Hundreds of rich white people got trampled and eaten!  We’re expected to believe that Claire somehow cares deeply for dinosaurs?  Before this, she was a business woman, and seemed to regard the dinosaurs as attractions, no different than amusement park rides.  Then they very nearly eat her AND her nephews.  Yeah, not their fault but where in there did she become an animal rights advocate?  Oy.

A previously-unmentioned volcano threatens to destroy the dinos on the island, and Claire wants to rescue them.  Luckily for her, Hammond had a previously-unmentioned partner in the past who wants to save them too!

Everything goes wrong

Except they double-cross Claire (and Owen, who wants to go back and save Blue, the best character in these two movies) and take the dinosaurs to sell to what amounts to a bunch of supervillains.  Seriously, Arnim Zola from the Captain America movies is there and everything.  Owen and Claire (with the required cute kid sidekick) manage to thwart the bad guy (Eli Mills, who killed Hammond’s partner earlier in the movie and looks like an uncanny valley copy of Ryan Reynolds) but in doing so, they release a few dozen dinosaurs into the wild.  Of the United States.

That right there has the potential to be a complete ecological disaster.  It’s not clear if there are breeding pairs, but we’ve already seen nature “find a way” previously.  You only have to look at Australia to see what could happen.  Maybe the final movie in the Jurassic World trilogy will deal with that?  Not sure if that would have enough big dinosaur fighting action for the studio though.

Owen!

It’s not all bad, as Chris Pratt is still charming, and the cinematography is fine.  They show too much of the dinosaurs though, which has been an issue since the The Lost World.  Bryce Dallas Howard no longer wears high heels in the jungle.  Jeff Goldblum’s extended cameo, most of which you saw or heard in the trailers, is great, and is well-used.

If you can see it cheap (Moviepass, matinee) it would be fine.  If you need to refresh your memory on Jurassic World first, rent it at Amazon.

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Movies Review

Movie Review – Death Note (Netflix)

Oof, where to begin?  I come to Netflix’s adaptation of the Death Note manga not from any sort of fandom.  It’s one I was dimly aware of, but haven’t read or watched any of the anime.  I was interested mostly because of the “Willem Dafoe voicing a death god” angle.  Having watched it now, I don’t feel it was a complete waste of time but it wasn’t exactly a paragon of entertainment.

The elephant in the room

This movie is based on the Japanese manga of the same name, and when you take media from another culture and adapt it, you’ve got to be extra careful.  I’m not against adaptations like that, some great material has come about from doing just that.  However, there has to be a reason you made that move.  There’s a great example in the Hollywood Reporter story about Death Note by Rebecca Sun.  The Departed may be a remake of Infernal Affairs, but the cultural differences are a tool used in the story.  It’s different because of who it’s about.  Here, they made Light white but it doesn’t matter to the story.  Beyond seeing the Space Needle, there’s no way to tell this is even an American city, let alone Seattle.  If you’re going to change the culture the movie is steeped in, make it matter.

The rest of the story

For the movie itself, there were a few good performances mixed with some not-so-good.  I liked Lakeith Stanfield as L, and Shea Whigham fills the cop-dad role well.  And yeah, Willem Dafoe, awesome.  Unfortunately, Nat Wolff and Margaret Qualley as Light and Mia fail to carry the movie.  Uneven performances combined with odd directing choices (see below) means you end up laughing at a scene that was not supposed to be funny a few too many times.

Yikes.  Light is supposed to be a genius, but beyond a little cleverness with the ending, it’s mostly lip service.  Mia is annoying as heck, and I definitely don’t see why this guy would want her to stick around.

Is it the worst thing on Netflix?  No, they keep letting Adam Sandler make movies.  But I’d have to get pretty far down the my list to think about re-watching, which is not a good sign (I re-watch stuff all the time despite the list).  Maybe just read the manga or watch the anime instead (which you can currently see on Netflix also).

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Movies Review

Movie Review – Spider-Man: Homecoming

*some spoilers, but seriously I’m like the last person to see this*

I really loved Spider-Man: Homecoming, though I can see why there were a few people who didn’t.  It’s not what you expect from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, not exactly.  Sure, it’s a superhero story, there’s Iron Man flying around, supervillains with crazy weapons, the usual.  But it is counter-balanced by teen drama (and comedy) which is a bit of a shift compared to the rest of the MCU.  I thought it was a solid balance, and very entertaining, even if it won’t supplant my top MCU movies (which are, in no particular order, Iron Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Winter Soldier, and Civil War).

The other thing which bothers a certain subset of fans is changes from the source.  Whether it’s Ned basically being Ganke, or hot Aunt May, or “MJ”, they’ll find something to complain about.  I’ve said it before, an adaptation HAS TO change things to be interesting.  Sure, there’s a balancing act where if you go too far, you don’t recognize how one connects to the other but we’re nowhere near that line here.  Peter still got bit by a radioactive spider, he lost Uncle Ben, he’s got the ol’ Parker luck.  The words may not have been said directly in this or Civil War but Peter is absolutely living by “With Great Power comes Great Responsibility”.  Tony Stark was quite different from RDJr, but it worked out for everyone.  Peter Quill didn’t stand out at all until they ported in James Gunn’s version to the comics.

Okay, to the rest of the movie.  I loved Michael Keaton as Toomes/The Vulture.  I found myself both feeling sorry for him (seriously, Tony Stark fucks up EVERYTHING), and recoiling from a legitimately scary villain.  The scene when Peter goes to pick Liz up for the prom, and the car ride was tense.  I can hear Zendaya’s MJ calling Parker ‘Tiger’, easily.  I love Marisa Tomei, and you can’t help but laugh at the mom jeans and ugly glasses they try to use to make her seem old and unattractive.  Laura Harrier, Jacob Batalon, and the other “kids” did a solid job as well.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is great if you like your MCU mixed up with a coming-of-age tale.  There’s superheroics, teen angst, marriage proposals, and goofy public service announcements.  And Peter, maybe learn to lock your door.

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Movies Review

Movie Review – Sing

Illumination’s latest movie, Sing, is a song and dance you’ve seen before.  Heck, the Muppets have done it twice at least.  Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey as a Koala) grew up loving the theater, and eventually (with financial help from his blue-collar dad) he buys a theater.  Buster’s not very good at running it, though, so it’s in pretty dire straits with the koala dodging the bank and having trouble paying his employees.  He’s got one last chance to save the theater, with an American Idol-ish singing competition.  Hijinks, of course, ensue.

The animation is fine, with some decent visual gags, and of course, the music works fine (it better, considering).  The one thing they needed to do is trim the cast.  There’s too many characters we are supposed to care about packed into too little movie to actually build them up.  They could easily drop the wannabe gangster mouse so we could flesh out the other characters a bit more.  This is fine for kids, probably, but adults will see through it as they rely on the fact we’ve seen these stories before to fill in the blanks.  At least the music is entertaining.  The voice cast does a perfectly fine job but nobody leaps out, except maybe Taron Egerton as the young gorilla Johnny.  Uh, no pun intended.

Sing is worth a matinee showing if your kids are clamoring to see it.  It’s cute.  Exactly what you expect happens right when it should.  Just don’t expect to think about it or remember much about it a few days later.  I’m still thinking about Kubo.

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Movies Review

Movie Review – Doctor Strange

I saw the Scott Derrickson-directed Doctor Strange over the weekend, and enjoyed it a lot.  It’s not going to unseat any of my favorite MCU movies (currently Iron Man, Winter Soldier, Guardians and Civil War) but it was a fun if familiar tale.  I’ll get all the non-spoiler notes out of the way first:  the effects are as amazing as advertised, and I can’t wait to go back and see it in 3D.  The cast (for all the difficulties with casting a movie from a source so steeped in racial stereotypes) are great as a Marvel movie’s cast usually is, with Benedict Cumberbatch filling Strange’s robes admirably as the arrogant surgeon/distracted driving consequences example.  I really liked Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo, he’s got such a great delivery of his lines.  It’s no surprise why he got to say most of the artifact names.

The visuals are simply jaw-dropping.  For those who scoffed at the early clips and trailers that mostly showed the city bending as “psh, Inception” that barely scratches the surface.  Basically take the visuals of the Quantum Realm in Ant-Man, add a bunch of psychedelic color, and jam the accelerator to the floor.  So cool.

<spoilers from here on out>

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Movies Review

Movie Review – Kubo and the Two Strings

We saw Kubo and the Two Strings a while ago, but I’m just gathering my thoughts on it now.  It’s quite possibly my favorite Laika movie, and that’s saying something as Coraline gets a ton of play, especially this time of year.  Kubo deals with complex feelings with mind-numbingly gorgeous visuals.  It’s the sort of movie (like When Marnie Was There) where you are tearing up at the end and you’re not sure if you are happy or sad or both.

It’s funny, if I try to explain the plot, it sounds really convoluted.  I think my wife (who didn’t go see it with us) is still confused.  Watching the movie, though, everything is crystal clear, and it kept me so emotionally invested that I never saw the twists coming, even if I should have.  That’s a sign to me of a great movie.  Travis Knight is the director, having been a lead animator on many of Laika’s previous works, and does a fantastic job.  While you may scratch your head a bit at Matthew McConaughey as a beetle-Samurai, the voice cast does great work, with Art Parkinson (GoT’s Rickon Stark), Rooney Mara, George Takei, and Ralph Fiennes all pulling their weight.  There are scary parts, and creepy parts, so keep your younger/more sensitive kids close.

Really, just go see this movie.  You complain about everything being a sequel or franchise movie, nothing original?  SEE THIS.  On the biggest screen you can.  Bring a few tissues, and a child young enough that they’ll let you hug them afterwards.

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Movies Review

Movie Review – Storks

We saw Storks at a preview screening, and it had some really cute parts and fun actiony bits.  However, I think they just had no idea how to start the movie to get to those bits and just decided to use the “I’m giving you the company as long as you don’t screw up this one final task” trope.  Throughout the movie characters keep asking Junior (the star that’s a stork, voiced by Andy Samberg) why he wants to be the boss, and he doesn’t know.  I don’t think the filmmakers did either.

Once they get past that part, the movie is fun.  Basically, storks used to deliver babies made in a magical device, but now people get their babies some other way.  Yeah, it’s strange.  Now storks deliver packages for an Amazon clone.  Tulip is the one human on Stork Mountain, a failed delivery after the stork assigned to her ‘fell in love’ with the cute little baby and refused to fulfill his duty.  She’s a free spirit, but doesn’t fit in despite her best efforts.  Tulip accidentally makes a new baby after getting a letter from a kid who really wants a baby brother (who has a whole subplot about busy parents reconnecting with him), and Junior and Tulip go on an adventure to get the baby to her family.

I normally wouldn’t have been that detailed about the plot but I feel like the commercials and early trailers didn’t really give you any idea what the movie was about.  I enjoyed it, all of the principal cast did a solid job with the voices, including Key and Peele as a pair of wolves that want to take the baby to raise as their own.  But there is one character so bad that it came way too close to ruining the movie – Stephen Glickman’s “Pigeon Toady”.  He speaks with an extremely annoying ‘Dude, braaaaah’ affectation that I don’t think one person found funny.  I never understand how a character that poorly made gets past everyone that sees the movie before release.

Storks has some funny bits and some heartwarming bits, but wasn’t a home run.  If your kids want to see it, there are worse ways to spend an afternoon, but it’s not required viewing.  If you do go, plug your ears whenever the pigeon is talking.

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Movies Review

Movie Review – Pete’s Dragon (2016)

Full disclosure:  if I saw the original movie as a kid, I don’t remember it.  This version of Pete’s Dragon starts out in the most Disney manner ever, with Pete (Oakes Fegley) losing his parents but being rescued by Elliott.  Pete lives in the forest for several years with Elliott, until he’s found by Grace Meacham (Bryce Dallas Howard), a forest ranger who reminds him of his mother.

Look, I’m not going to surprise you if I tell you what happens.  Bonds will form, there’s danger, happy ending, lots of tears if that’s your thing.  It’s a well-made movie, and Elliott is beautifully animated.  It moves a bit slow on occasion, so if you have younger children who are fidgety, keep that in mind.  The cast is rounded out by Wes Bentley, Karl Urban (as the closest thing to a villain, he wants to capture Elliott), and Robert Redford.  All are very earnest, I guess is the best way I can describe it.

Pete’s Dragon is a great way to spend an afternoon with your family, and hey, sometimes you need that.

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Movies Review

Movie Review – Star Trek Beyond

I’ve got a bit of a love/hate relationship with the “Kelvin-verse” Star Trek movies.  I really like the cast, and have come to grips with the fact that, since it’s not a TV show, the movies need to shade a bit more to the action side of things than the more cerebral Trek episodes.  Still, the first two movies (especially Star Trek Into Darkness) made some really painful story choices and had me looking at Star Trek Beyond with a bit of trepidation.  I’m happy to report that Star Trek Beyond was pretty darn great, and definitely my favorite of the three so far.

I think what works here more than the previous two movies is, you actually feel like these individuals have come together as a crew.  There are quiet moments of contemplation and camaraderie mixed in with the action beats and it just makes it feel more like Star Trek.  I could actually believe this crew having to deal with some of the stranger stuff from the original series, like Trelaine or Apollo or planets where everybody talks like a gangster.

Beyond follow this crew right in the middle of their 5 year mission, with Kirk handling a diplomatic exchange between two warring races.  Unlike what we’re used to with Picard, it does not go well.  “I ripped my shirt again,” Kirk laments at one point in a tongue-in-cheek moment.  He feels a bit lost, which makes sense as this version of Kirk didn’t have his Starfleet dad to watch and look up to his whole life.

It isn’t uncommon, you know? It’s easy to get lost. In the vastness of space, there’s only yourself, your ship, your crew.

This line comes from Commodore Paris, played by Shohreh Aghdashloo of The Expanse, as Kirk discusses taking a desk job with her.  This is a different spin on the original cast movies, with Admiral Kirk leaving the desk job behind to get out and make a difference in the galaxy again.  Pine’s Kirk is chafing under the monotony of a five year mission, feeling ‘episodic’ (:wink:) and having trouble with the idea that you never really reach a destination out in the vastness of space.  It also works as a counterpoint to the villain, who was sent out into space himself (remaining vague so as not to spoil things) and was broken by it.

I loved the character beats between the leads, it felt very much like the classic series Kirk/Spock/McCoy interactions.  Sofia Boutella’s Jaylah fit in fairly well, and I liked that they didn’t shoehorn in some romantic subplot just because they were adding a female lead.  If there’s one thing that bothered me about Beyond, it’s that 20-21st century music played a role again.  Yeah, it was a callback to the first movie but it felt a bit out of place then and it still does now.  Minor quibble, though, to be sure.

If you are a Trek fan but were turned off by Star Trek Into Darkness, give Star Trek Beyond a try.  I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

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Movies Review

Movie Review – Ghostbusters (2016)

I’m happy to report that I have seen the new Ghostbusters movie and did not, in fact, experience the death of my childhood.  We all enjoyed it quite a bit.  Sure, there’s a few bits that don’t land but that’s true of the original Ghostbusters if you can manage to view it without the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia.

The story focuses mostly on Melissa McCarthy’s Dr. Abby Yates and Kristen Wiig’s Dr. Erin Gilbert, who used to work together and wrote a book on the paranormal.  Gilbert distanced herself from it, while Yates continues to research ghosts.  They come back together when Yates puts the book up on Amazon, threatening her tenure at Columbia.  Of course, they DO end up both finding a ghost and losing their jobs which leads to the creation of the Ghostbusters.

Abby’s new partner, Dr. Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), comes along with her as the engineer who builds the ghostbusting equipment, and Leslie Jones’s Patty Tolan joins up after she encounters a ghost in the subway, bringing her knowledge of New York City (and her uncle’s hearse) to the team.  Chris Hemsworth rounds out the main cast as Kevin, the extremely dim-witted but hunky secretary.  I thought all the leads were great, especially Kate McKinnon as you no doubt have heard by now.  Holtzmann is wonderfully weird, and my daughters both loved Abby.  I even saw my son, who was totally “Why did they remake it with GIRLS?” before smiling and laughing at multiple points.

The original Ghostbusters cast (those still with us, RIP Harold Ramis) all had fun cameos, especially Bill Murray as a James Randi-esque paranormal debunker. There’s a bit of off-color humor, though not nearly as much as the original, about on par with Guardians of the Galaxy.  There’s a lot of fun to be had here, so if you haven’t seen it yet, it’s worth a trip to check it out.

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Movies Review

Movie Review – Captain America: Civil War

note:  some spoilers

There’s a huge reason Captain America: Civil War works and Batman v Superman doesn’t, and that’s emotional investment.  I know Zack Snyder and DC/WB wanted to do thing their own way and not ape Marvel’s so far successful approach, but when you are rebooting two legendary characters and making significant changes, you need to get the fans used to these new versions.  We KNOW Tony Stark and Steve Rogers.  We’ve seen them overcome numerous obstacles, both separately and together.  They’ve fallen on hard times, been betrayed, beaten, come back stronger.  Mistakes were made, characters have evolved, things have changed.  It’s why we can believe Captain America, the guy who wears flag colors and beat the snot out of Nazis and HYDRA for his country, would now decide “the safest hands are still our own”.  Why we can believe Tony Stark, the rebel genius whose not a team player, admonished for his ‘ready-fire-aim’ mentality, would toe the line this time after never even looking for the line before.  Cap, since being unfrozen, was lied to by Fury, found out SHIELD was infiltrated by his greatest enemy, and then had to bail Tony’s ass out after one of his creations came within a hair’s breadth of destroying the Earth.  Tony for his part, finally has to come to grips with the fact that his first impulse may not always be his best.  And this time, it wasn’t just his own life getting torn to shreds, but the entire planet.

Batman V Superman just didn’t have that weight behind it.  WB wanted us to care about them fighting, and spent a lot of words during the movie hyping it up, and trying to tell us how important it was, but during Civil War?  Didn’t need a word of it.  I felt every punch in that final battle especially.  Tony, GUTTED by the horrific video of the Winter Soldier killing his parents, feeling the sting of their death again, the betrayal that Steve knew about it (remember in CA:TWS it was shown by Zola), lashes out.  The battle, which had so far been over an idea, becomes brutally personal.  I was enjoying the movie to that point, but at that point?  Riveted.

She's got her own fan art already! @marcusthevisual
She’s got her own fan art already! @marcusthevisual

Shifting gears a bit, it’s kind of amazing that I can be this far in and only now discussing everything else that happened in the movie.  We meet Spider-Man!  And it’s a poor, nerdy kid whose quippy yet awkward.  Tom Holland nails it.  BLACK PANTHER, I mean, come on.  His moves are unreal, he dismantles Bucky, but even in the midst of righteous anger over the death of his father, T’Challa can step back from his vengeance to serve justice.  What an example for the two sides fighting, eh?  The Russos made Florence Kasumba’s “Security Chief” (gotta be one of the Dora Milaje) more interesting in one scene with one line than BvS did for 90% of the characters in it.

If you are concerned this sounds too heavy, well, it’s got more weight than a lot of Marvel movies, but rest assured, it brings the funny.  Many of the best lines aren’t in the trailers, including the scene with Falcon and Bucky in the car, or Falcon fighting Spider-Man.  Or Ant-Man and the truck.  Even crazier, there was a character building moment or two for everybody.  OH, and much has already been said about the Vision and his dapper look – his relaxed home attire always slays me in his current comic, and I’m glad to see it here, but it’s his interactions with Wanda that are most interesting.  He isn’t yet to “even an android can cry” territory yet, but the groundwork is there.

Zemo, technically the villain since he really sets in motion the acts that get Avengers fighting Avengers, fares better than some of the recent Marvel villains.  Quite different from the comics but built with real, complex motivations.

As for flaws, I think the movie wasn’t as well paced out as The Winter Soldier.  Considering the sheer amount of content, that’s understandable.  With that, Captain America: Civil War can’t quite dethrone Iron Man and The Winter Soldier as my go-to Marvel movies, but it gets massive, Giant-Man sized points for being to pull off as many heroes and storylines as it did.