Saturday, April 3, 2021

Godzilla vs. Kong


You've seen the 2014 Godzilla, that took the classic campy monster and turned him into a serious and dimly-lit force of nature; then focused the lens down to the earth, not to watch the destruction, but to see how the human characters react.

You've seen the 2017 Kong: Skull Island—the bombastic and gleefully explosive adventure romp with a cast full to the brim with A-list actors and an enlarged King that packed an entertaining action punch.

And you've seen the 2019 sequel to the former, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, where the dark and the seriousness remains but any semblance of interesting or even memorable characters are gone.

Now. Get ready... for the series to be degraded even further by pitting the two epic beasts against each other as the finalists in a literal knockout tournament, complete with brackets showing their progress in defeating Skull Crawlers and Hydra monsters in single elimination on their way to the top.

If that sounds like the direction you were hoping this "Monsterverse" franchise would take, quit reading and watch the movie. It's for you. If you were hoping that this mashup would contain even a single drop of respect for its predecessors, or human characters worth rooting for (let alone learning the names of) or a plot that tries to make sense, or fight scenes that hold more substance than CGI is capable of... you're as out of luck as this movie is out of a worthy bone in its massive, lazy body.

Its worst offense in my book is the tone-deaf way in which it attempts to borrow from the extremely stylish Skull IslandKing of the Monsters already did away with 2014's Godzilla's grounded sensibilities and that was left to lie in its discarded grave. But people still like Jordan Vogt-Roberts' use of color and fun classic tunes, so that's what this movie gives us—just sans the purpose that drove Vogt-Roberts's epic choices. There's music. But its applied meaninglessly, ignorantly splashing it against the giant monkey whenever it can't think of anything else to do. Bright colors are even more used. And while I thank copycat mentality for making it more colorful and not less, it might as well have been black and white for all the good it did.

I felt so sorry for the human actors in this. Kyle Chandler was wasted as the lead in the last film; here he gets 5 short scenes out of obligation. Meanwhile the ostensible new lead, played by Alexander Skarsgård, is treated the same way as his predecessor. I remember someone saying his name near the end of the film and realizing I'd not heard it until then. He serves to set the plot in motion, then as a reactionary sign from whom the audience is meant to take their cues. He, Rebecca Hall, Eiza Gonzáles, and the cute little girl spent the film sitting inside the cockpit of a magical ship, gasping and staring at what is clearly nothing before their eyes. How frustrating a shoot it must have been.

There's a bit at the beginning that explains how Main Character's brother died going into the Hollow Earth, leaving Main Character on the too-careful side. The cute little girl and her mom agree that he's a coward and I figured he was meant to have an arc that culminates in a redemptive moment of bravery. But he was the one who pushed to take the risk of moving Kong to the Hollow Earth in the first place. And while he looks constantly nervous and timid, the movie never allows that to become a flaw. He risks himself for others and to further the plot easily—because the movie doesn't have time to spend on things like arcs or consistency.

The movie has no time, or interest, in thinking about anything. It needs a way to get people into the Hollow Earth, so magical flying ships are already made, with no explanation to the science that makes them look like they were plucked from a Star Wars film. On the way down there's a weird scifi portal that's a hassle to travel through. So much so that going back up, the portal no longer exists. Too much trouble. Why think of an explanation when dedicated fans can explain for you? Why put in effort when the cash will come in without it just as easily?

There's one exception to the movie's aversion to thought, (a spoiler so I won't go in depth) and it was the only part of the movie that didn't seem to actively rip brain cells from my brain. Beside this one part that explains an impossible science and ties back to the last film, the movie doesn't even turn off its brain; rather, its brain doesn't exist. And it demands you leave yours at home as well. I wouldn't care so much—who am I to get in the way of people's mindless entrainment—except that Skull Island and 2014's Godzilla both were far more entraining, while keeping their brain intact and in use.

The movie knows that it doesn't need any of the things it lacks. Sense, story, characters with names... it's all moot. Godzilla and King Kong punch each other in the face, and roar, and destroy buildings. It knows that's all it needed to earn attention and accolades. I despise this film. It was bad—but not just bad. It was carelessly bad. Confidently bad. It took the easiest path to shallowest success, and what frustrates me most is that its smug, lazy judgment of audience's tolerance was correct.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

The Kid Detective


Abe Applebaum was a prodigy as a kid. He solved mysteries. "Who stole the school's fundraising money?" "Who stole from the candy store?" "Where's that missing cat?" The whole town loved him. He was so good, he got his own office at age twelve. Now, he's thirty-two. "Is this guy I'm interested in gay?" "Who stole my silver brooch?" "Where's that cat gone this time?" It's all the same deal, except no one cares anymore. He couldn't crack the only case that mattered and fell out of the town's good graces. But now, he gets a chance to redeem himself when the girlfriend of a murdered high schooler asks him to take on the case.

Written and directed by Evan Morgan. This is his first feature, and you can tell—he's clearly still passionate about his stories and dedicated to telling them well.

This movie would be good on set up alone: A dark comedy that blends two worlds of mystery-solving seamlessly together. Half a kiddie detective mystery, with all the cute tropes and cozy tone you'd expect—and half a cynical neo-noir, wallowing in the sadness of a tragic past and floundering through shadowy underworlds and oodles of booze in search of redemption. As we wind through the trail of clues and the twists and turns that we know are coming but still surprise us when they arrive, we are invited to laugh with pathos and feel warm surrounded by the gritty dark. And we do.

The thread that holds the halves together is Adam Brody. No one else can do cynical humor like he does. It's hard to make an audience sad and still get them to laugh, but Brody's hardboiled man-child loser-detective-who-still-cares has it in the bag by scene two. He probably could have played Abe in his sleep and got away with it, but he digs in and fleshes out what the script brings to make a well-rounded character of real, relevant flaws, and genuine sympathy. The role is practically custom-made for the unique persona he brings to the screen, but heck, the whole premise and plot is custom-made for that kind of character. Whether by design or lucky happenstance, this is the kind of casting that clicks like magic. 

Supporting cast is great too. The "bad guy" especially.

For me, it always boils down to character. I spent the whole movie chuckling sadly at Abe's pathetically cynical devotion to his investigation, and that's what won me over, but I have to say—the investigation plot itself was far from pathetic, holding its own alongside the strong premise and character. It incorporates a lot of "Hardy Boys" type antics and formula—hiding in closets when you're snooping in someone's house and they come home early is a running joke—and follows a tight and detailed trail of clues in a classic way that evokes noir mysteries as well as cozy detective tales. Then when the puzzle pieces all fall together for the payoff, it's as satisfying and rewarding as either genre could ever hope to achieve.

I was impressed at how effortlessly refined the writing was too. Plot details and witty lines stand out as they should, but equally as sharp, though less prominent, is the theme. The idea of tainted innocence is embedded so deeply that it permeates the whole story, but never in a blatant or tactless way. And the tonal balance is deceptively effortless. It gets serious and intense but is able to turn out consistent laughs amid it all. The duality—light yet dark, kiddie yet adult, innocent yet cynical—works as more than a fun premise idea because the filmmaker recognized the concept's value and structured everything around it.

All while slapping together a hardcore murder mystery like that's easy or something...!

A huge, popular audience may never be cultivated for this flick, and that's too bad, as even the pickiest of mystery connoisseurs would be hard-pressed to find disappointment. I think it'd make a good companion piece with Brick, and would recommend it to anyone who likes that movie, and/or cozy mysteries with some adult content, and/or darkly comic neo-noir thrillers, and/or Adam Brody's particular leading man skills. For me, that adds up to only one possible conclusion: I love it. Case closed!

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Wonder Woman 1984


This film is divisive, so I'll go ahead and open with my opinion that I don't think it's nearly as good as Wonder Woman, but I also didn't find it atrociously bad, either. I will try and translate my mild disappointment into some strong opinions for your entertainment. 

Diana (Gal Gadot) has spent the last 70-ish years alone and fighting crime. It's a walk in the park for her now. Or a spin around the mall. But then she unknowingly touches a magical wish-granting stone while wishing that her lost love Steve (Chris Pine) was back with her again, and—boom, he's back! But the stone is dangerous, especially in the wrong hands such as Max (Pedro Pascal), and maybe Diana's new work friend Barbara (Kristen Wiig). Things must be put right. So off we go!

Don't tell anyone, but I don't think my opinion is the only opinion people are allowed to have. 

Frankly, this movie had zero chance of being good in the same way the first one was. It's impossible to recreate that specific magic, because of the fundamental changes in Diana's character. She can't be naïve anymore, or out-of-touch with her comparative strength to humans and the ways she can help or influence them. She's now familiar with loss and loneliness, too. None of these things are bad or good in themselves; what matters is how the film treats them. And I think that's the fundamental problem with this movie. It understands that Diana has changed, but doesn't change to suit her. It tries to be more of the same, but instead everything feels out of joint and loose. Like ideas were being thrown at a wall to see what stuck, but nothing stuck—so they just filmed all the ideas laying on the floor.

There are still moments that have impact. Even though the message was spelled out, I was swept up by the opening sequence. And one thing that didn't and shouldn't change about Diana is the sense of wonder she conveys. (Obviously.) It didn't come across as strongly, but was still there, and I enjoyed the moments of wonder even if they were cheesy, like flying through fireworks in the invisible jet or smiling at the world just because it's beautiful. Plot-wise things had a solid foundation. I liked the concept and the bad guys, and I liked the idea of Steve being back. But it ultimately wasn't as satisfying as it should have been, and that's because of the movie's fundamental problem again.

It's not that the movie's actively bad... it just lacks anything to make it good.

This time, it's Steve who's the fish-out-of-water, having appeared in 1984 straight from WWI. So they try to reverse that "seeing the world for the first time" bit that was so cute about Wonder Woman—but it doesn't work the same. Steve is already too worldly and open to the future, while Diana is more jaded, but still aloof from the world herself, so she can't show it to him in a personal way. So why try to recreate what the last movie did? Skipping over that bit and getting to something new may have yielded better results, developing their characters further together, instead of retreading old ground in reversed positions. 

Retreading old ground is the most common misstep a sequel can take. The point of a sequel should be to further the story with more story, but filmmakers get distracted by the idea of doing more and forget that more of the same should be avoided wherever possible. Maybe Patty Jenkins had too much of a confidence boost from Wonder Woman's success. Maybe the studio encouraged this direction. Maybe all anyone could see were dollar signs. But the result is that the movie isn't refined, and that creates an avalanche of noticeable issues. Plot holes, pacing problems, underdeveloped characters, bland tone. The script isn't sharpened. There aren't any side characters. And no 80's era music. No surprises in the plot in the form of twists and turns. And it's long and indulgent—which would be fine if it weren't indulging in lazy simplicity. 

Kristen Wiig and Pedro Pascal feel like the best parts of the movie because at least they're new.

It's like Wonder Woman was a nice, yummy, chocolate cake, so Wonder Woman 1984 mistakenly thought that in order to be yummy, it needed to be a chocolate cake, too. But there was only enough chocolate for one cake, so it used carob instead. And now the cake tastes bad. Gal Gadot and Chris Pine are still there, as are the positive themes of love, wonder, and heroism, so a flavor change surrounding those things isn't such a big deal. If Wonder Woman 1984 had been a vanilla cake, or a strawberry cake, it would still have been a cake, just with a unique flavor instead of a cheapened imitation of the last success.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Love and Monsters


Seven years after the earth is accidentally turned into an apocalyptic wilderness inhabited by giant, mutated insects and reptiles, survivor Joel (Dylan O'Brien) finally reestablishes contact with his long-lost girlfriend, Aimee (Jessica Henwick). He's useless as far as monster-killing goes, and her underground colony is 80 miles away from his, but he's determined to be with her again, and rekindle what they had. So off he goes, braving the monsters for love.

Don't settle for an unfulfilled life. Even if it's the apocalypse!

I'll put it simply: it's a refreshing adventure, and a blast of entertainment. Joel meets a friendly dog who joins him, then joins in with an old man (Michael Rooker) and his unofficially adopted daughter (Ariana Greenblatt). He meets and runs from many gleefully-rendered scifi monsters, eventually learning how to survive them. It has everything I could think to ask for in an action/adventure film. It's brightly colored. Fun to watch. With engaging action sequences that don't exist just to fill a quota. And moments of wonder, which every adventure film needs to be complete. It doesn't forget the heart, and has sweet genuineness to hold it all together. It's not breaking new ground on its genres; it's just filling the established mold with high quality material.

I don't even have a "but" to add to that. It's not gonna be my new favorite movie or anything, I just don't have any complaints. There was one thing I was expecting the film to do that it didn't and felt like a loose end, but I think it was mostly me projecting that made it a thread at all. The characters are archetypal, but that's not a problem when they're done with enough dedication. And by my calculations, dedication is Dylan O'Brien's greatest feature as an actor. If a script gives him something solid, he seems incapable of squandering it. He always plays a variation of himself, but who cares—he's clearly gunning to be the next Tom Cruise, and I think he's got the job in the bag.

Not everyone can channel entertainment so effectively.

Movies like this ride on charm and how high the entertainment quality can go. And O'Brien isn't lacking on leading man skills but to that end he still gets charm backup in the form of an unrelentingly adorable dog actor. They worked so well together that it makes me wonder why more movies don't include talented doggies. It's not like he was vital to the plot or anything. He simply made the movie better by making it more entertaining. The CGI wasn't anything to write to your long-distance girlfriend about, but it wasn't bad either and far from bland visually, which makes it actively good in my book; adding to the entertainment. As does the creature designs. And the good-natured comedy. And the way it steps into serious, dark drama, but doesn't wallow in it.

Ah, entertainment. Sometimes you need an escape, and this movie is eager to give it to you. Unexpectedly, it has more to give on top of that. Everyone knows you can't make a film these days without a nice, fluffy message to make it feel complete. Some universal truth to reiterate in a positive way, so we can walk away from our entertaining escape feeling reinvigorated toward real life. Accidentally, this little flick hits the nail on the head with a universal message that it couldn't have known, at the time of writing and filming, would be so relevant to the state of humanity circa 2020.

This movie knows what's up more than it realized it knew.

Love and Monsters doesn't shy away from the fact that there's danger in the world. It openly acknowledges it, and shows how painful it can be. Then, it wisely points out that being afraid of said danger is only a hinderance. It says there are things out there worth braving the danger for—personal, and communal. It shows us that the world isn't as bad as rumors and built-up fear sometimes makes it seem; and that hiding doesn't exclude you from danger. It values freedom over safety, and suggests that freedom leads to true safety, rather than a false illusion of it. Then it literally says, "There is a great big, beautiful, inspiring world out there. Go. Live your life. It won't be easy but it'll be worth it."

Leave it to some unassuming little adventure flick about giant bug monsters to remind us to have a little courage in this real world. No matter how scary or dangerous life gets to be, there's no excuse for not living it to its fullest—let alone not living it at all.

Monday, December 7, 2020

The Personal History of David Copperfield

Dev Patel is well-off, then bad-off, then well-off, then bad-off, and then well-off again in this brisk and charmingly color-blind adaptation of Charles Dickens' novel.

I wonder if they thought, "Dev Patel would make a great David Copperfield" and then decided to ignore race in the casting, or if they decided to ignore race, and then realized Dev Patel would make a great David Copperfield.

Two hours of screen time is not long enough for an 800-page novel. I've yet to read it, but I don't need to know what was shortened or cut out to know that it was done. Severely, I expect. And that's why I'm glad I saw this before reading it. Because I enjoyed it immensely, and though I know I'm missing something, I haven't a clue as to what. Well—I do in a general sense. But more on that later. At first brush, David's journey of growing up and becoming a writer, surrounded by a rollercoaster of ups and downs, and an even more wild ride in the forms of eternally kooky supporting characters, feels like Dickens 100%. If you get a Dickens itch, this will scratch it.

It speeds along through the plot at sometimes too great speeds, although it never gets exhausting and has good pacing. The only thing I waited for was for young David to grow into Dev Patel—and once he did the film came alive and found its lively and comfortable groove. I don't know what David's personality is supposed to be like, but Patel seems to me a Dickens hero through and through. Easy-going, energetic, funny and sincere with occasional outbursts of anger and naïve stupidity. Ideal. Tilda Swinton, Hugh Laurie, Peter Capaldi, Rosalind Eleazar, Benedict Wong, Aneurin Barnard, Morfydd Clark, and Ben Whishaw all added to it, but it was Patel who made the movie sing.

There are some first-rate scene transitions in this thing.

The problem comes in when the movie reaches the dramatic parts that are meant to have stakes, and you realize that they were skimmed over so quickly that it's tough to figure out what bad had happened, let alone care about it. This movie hits the colorful, charming, and fun notes remarkably well; but in order to be fully satisfying, a story needs the audience investment that serious drama brings. And while it's not lacking in it completely, it was frustrating when the movie ended, and I realized the film had only included us in half of David's experiences. We get a full sense of his happiness, but the trials are cut short and brushed aside. I grasped that Ben Whishaw was the movie's main villain in the same scene in which he's defeated. I had no time to care. Without the downs of a story, how can an audience fully appreciate the ups?

So it left me fully charmed, but only partially invested. And that's too bad, because while I like being charmed, it's getting into the nitty gritty of caring about the characters that ultimately most important to my falling in love with a story. Still, you can hardly blame The Personal History of David Copperfield for focusing in on what it did. It may have left me a little empty, but it clearly wanted to focus on the brighter side of everything and have fun, and that's what it did. All in all, its shortcomings left me wanting to read the book—and that's a compliment in itself. 

Monday, November 30, 2020

A Rainy Day in New York


Timothée Chalamet plays the Woody Allen archetype and Elle Fanning plays the most annoyingly hyper and ditzy girl imaginable in this laid-back amble through NYC—and they do pretty good job at it. 

It's kinda like if an AI copied Woody Allen. And that's kinda part of the charm.

They go to New York from their upstate college; Elle for business (she landed an interview with a semi-popular artsy filmmaker) and Timothée for pleasure (he loves New York, naturally). They part ways, planning to meet up later. Typical Woody Allen hijinks ensue. Quirky, ponderous monologues are made. The two characters meander from place to place, finding and losing other odd characters played by other famous actors as they get into and out of niche situations. Liev Schreiber, Jude Law, Selena Gomez, Diego Luna, Cherry Jones... It rains. Then an ending place is reached and the credits roll.

It's par for the course on Woody Allen movies. If you always like his style, your mind is made up. If you always dislike his style, likewise. I'm in the middle somewhere. Watching this thing breeze by, it felt meandering and pointless, though not unpleasant. The cast was nice. Even Elle being annoying was intentional and had amusingness in it. Timothée was a little more relaxed into his role than he sometimes is. (It's not a try-hard acting part.) He comes across a little pretentious at first then warms as we follow him through the day. I was lukewarm on it overall. But then the ending shone a different light on preceding events.

This movie is all about the journey, but my taste in entertainment relies (perhaps too much) on destination.

I guess that's the thing about Woody Allen. You know to expect the meandering, the monologues, the old music. What you don't know is whether the plot is going to work for you or not. With a plot as meandering and distracted as this one felt, it seemed capable of going anywhere—until it got to where it was always going. And I have to say, I liked the destination. I liked it so much that my lukewarm feelings have turned into something more substantial. Something more distinctly positive. Something I wouldn't mind wandering through again someday.

I think that's all this minor jaunt was intended to be; I won't bother it for anything more.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

The New Mutants

This review contains some mild spoilers.

The New Mutants is exactly what you'd expect a big superhero studio to dole out for the upcoming generation. A politically correct, agenda-pushing cast of characters set against a backdrop of plot that is appealing in trailer form, but once seen up-close is too flimsy to hold up to repeat viewings. A cutting-edge technique to sell theater tickets... by 2017's standards.

I heard somewhere they released the original cut. But where were the faces in the wall from the original trailer?

I doubt it would have gone over well on it's original, April 2018 release date either, but I admit, there was a certain disappointment for me in realizing it really was just another half-baked entry into the superhero base. I was misled, perhaps by my own wishful thinking, or naiveté, or that Pink Floyd song they played in the trailer. "Disappointed but not surprised" will be my mantra for this review. Why, after all, put effort into the whole movie when you can just throw some big names together in a fun premise, and then cut corners until it's releasable? 

The premise really is a winner. The kids are in this old mental hospital and treated like rehab patients as they learn how to control their powers and stop being a danger to themselves and society. After that, it falls apart. The lead is Dani (Blu Hunt), an American Indian who accidentally wiped out her reservation in her sleep by manifesting a giant bear composed of fear. (She doesn't know it was her until later but it's no surprise to anyone who's seen an X-Men movie.) Charlie Heaton is dirty southern boy who accidentally killed his dad when he panicked in the coal mines. Maisie Williams is a devout catholic who accidentally mauled her priest to death when he tried to burn her for shapeshifting. Henry Zaga is a rich kid who accidentally burned his girlfriend alive...

Noticing a pattern? WELL.

...and Anya Taylor Joy is a cold-hearted Russian girl who created an alternate plane of existence in her mind that she can disappear into at will, which she used it to hide from creepy faceless smilers who'd come to abuse here until she got fed up with hiding and methodically murdered them all with her magical sword, invulnerable armored arm, glowing eyes, and tiny pet dragon. Yeah. There's a clear pattern until we come to her. Honestly, I'm baffled as to why the movie wasn't about her. There's a lot of implication mental questions that go into her story that would've been more interesting to unravel than a literal fear bear.

But anyway, the kids are in mutant rehab, and they fight, and bond, and tell each other their backstories one by one; but of course there's something else more sinister going on. It takes too long to get to the sinister things though, since there isn't much of it to fill the runtime. And the build-up is dry and empty. It wants to be a gothic horror—creepy, slow, and subtle—but it also wants to be a teenage drama—relatable, deep, and moral. The two don't mesh. I love the gothic horror idea but neither make it past the foundational stage, which leads me to bemoan the lack of realized potential. A typical reaction for me, I know, but it's a typical problem for a movie like this to have. 

I'll just revert to what I imagined it'd be like now...

If only if only if only. I knew I'd be disappointed; after three years of waiting and imagining what I wanted, I could hardly be otherwise. But that doesn't mean I would've liked it sans those pent-up expectations. Without the excitement and straight-up DETERMINATION I had to see this movie, I barely would've noticed it. I wouldn't have seen it yet, and probably wouldn't bother for a long time, if ever. Then I would've forgotten it instantly and moved on to the next thing—which is what I did. Except I got to enjoy anticipating. There's worthy joy to be had in anticipation. It's just too bad when—after all that effort and delay—that's all the film could conjure.