Sunday, January 6, 2019

Escape Room

Spoiler-free!

Six strangers are sent fancy invitations to try out a new state-of-the-art escape room that's yet to be solved, with a prize of $10,000 for anyone who wins. While in the waiting room, they discover that the game has already started, and later, when the first of them die, they realize there's more at stake than an opportunity to win big.

Like... they could also DIE. So that's fun.

The initial, and only significant problem, is simply that I watched the trailer. I wouldn't say it revealed too much as you have to entice people somehow, but a side effect of it getting me to buy a ticket is that I knew more or less what would happen for the first thirty minutes or more. There was still details to see and characters to get to know, but it killed suspense and surprises more than a few times. So I recommend avoiding it, if you have so far. The movie is a pure-blooded, small-scale, gimmicky thriller and works well within those parameters.

A classic January thriller, and maybe it's the expectation of the month talking, but it wound up being better than your average beginning-of-the-year fare. Each of the six have a backstory -- a reason to be there, both thematically and structurally. They play off each other excellently, and probably the most fun thing about the film is how they argue and interact. I found them all interesting to a degree, and had a couple favorites to root for too. The movie isn't groundbreaking, and certainly not high art, but it crafts thrills to be sufficiently tense while not forgetting that it's entertainment. It's fun to watch, all the way through; know as you might that what you're watching isn't of particular high quality.

They sure do make good use of the certainly small budget though.

Still it has all the required pieces, and the pieces only seem to be ill-fitting once or twice. The ending, for instance, felt rushed and weak compared to the rest; but it's not the sort of movie that banks on the ending. If it meant to have shocking twists, I saw through them, but I never felt a lack because of that. Not all thrillers need a massive twist, and this one gets by on what you see. Namely, its characters, and its set pieces. Even with previews of what the sets looked like, it was still great fun watching the characters navigate them. None lasted to long or felt under-explored. The clues were perhaps simple, but making them easy to follow was the right choice for what the movie wanted to be.

The characters are: Zoey, played by Taylor Russell, who I recognized from Netflix's Lost in Space. She was good to the point of if I see her name for another film it will be a drawing factor for me. Also, Logan Miller as Ben. I've seen him in a few things, but he makes himself worthy of notice here for the first time. Deborah Ann Woll is Amanda, and though the actress was the most familiar to me because of Daredevil, she wound up being the biggest surprise. Then there is Tyler Labine as Mike who seems like he might just be filler, but makes himself stand out; Nik Dodani as Danny, who was amusingly annoying; and Jay Ellis as Jason. He was interesting, and that's all I'll say. The film never delves too deeply into their stories, but we do get a strong sense of who they are, and I found it easy to care for them.

But not so much that it was a buzzkill at deaths.

Obviously, this isn't a movie you shouldn't expect too much out of. It's not going to blow your mind with its plot, or present you with moving themes or award-worthy performances; but if you enjoy the genre, and gauge your expectations properly, this a diverting and fun time. It's paced excellently to hold tension and attention, and there aren't any glaring flaws to take you out of it all. As long as you're willing to suspend your disbelief, and are prepared for something a little over-the-top, I think you'll be humored with a film that is sincerely out to thrill and entertain, not just trick folks into wasting their money.

So no, it's not just the traditionally garbage month talking when I say this one earns a recommendation from me. 3/5. Would escape again.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Juliet, Naked

Spoiler free!

Don't mind the title; this movie is more pure than it sounds, I promise.

For fifteen years Annie (Rose Byrne) has put up with her boyfriend Duncan's (Chris O'Dowd) obsession with American rock star Tucker Crowe, who disappeared after releasing his first hit album, Juliet, in the 90's. Juliet, Naked is a demo version of said album that finds its way into Duncan's hands. Partway to get revenge for an argument, and partway because she finds the demo album boring, and exploitative of the original's success, Annie posts a scathing review on Duncan's fan site. Later she gets an email saying that she hit the nail on the head... that's signed Tucker Crowe.

An almost You've Got Mail kind of premise but without all the waiting and the initial hating.

And yes, Tucker is played by Ethan Hawke. He and Annie bond over email, describing their disappointing lives; Annie keeping their exchanges secret from Duncan, and Tucker juggling a life full of strained relationships that involves three ex-wives and five children. But this is a rom-com so eventually, when Tucker's London-resident daughter Lizzie (Ayoola Smart) makes him a granddad, they take the opportunity to meet. Then other circumstances allow for an extended stay.

The movie takes care to make its protagonists likable despite the growth they need. For example, Annie never cheats on Duncan; and Tucker is determined to maintain a good relationship with his youngest son Jackson (Azhy Robertson). His last chance to not mess something up, he says. And Annie herself longs to have children, in a refreshingly un-progressive turn. Her dynamic with Jackson is almost as cute as her and Tucker. And maybe it's the British rom-com thing to do, but everything feels so down-to-earth and realistic, but not at all in a cynical, "real-world grit" kind of way. It's just relatable, normal, life things. Except becoming pen-pals with a famous person of course.

It's based on a novel, so maybe that's where it's unexpected depth without the weighty tone came from.

My favorite is when Annie and Tucker meet in real life. It's awkward, yet not painful to watch, cut short and not screaming with unnecessary sexual tension. They really do become friends first. And in the inevitable scene where Tucker discovers that the weird guy who runs that fan-site of speculative misinformation was her boyfriend, things don't escalate like some rom-coms might push them to. No misunderstandings, no jumping to wild and angry conclusions for the sake of drama; just a character-driven relationship between two unlikely people.

Even Duncan isn't left out. One of the movie's best moments is the instance of Duncan meeting Tucker and not recognizing him. Also O'Dowd is the movie's most consistently hilarious aspect, but isn't tossed out once his usefulness to the plot is fulfilled. He even gets a few moments of poignancy, and I really liked what he had to say about art not being for the artist but for the consumer. Rose Byrne is as charming as ever, hitting comedy and drama equally well. And Ethan Hawke, always excellent, doesn't phone in because he's in a rom-com, and (with help from the script) turns his character into something fascinating and nuanced that you wouldn't expect.

And he sings. They wrote songs for the Juliet album which we hear, and he sings Waterloo Sunset live. Like, I probably should have led with that, right? (there's even a soundtrack available!) 

The rom-com genre may be dead, but Juliet, Naked makes itself relevant and worthy -- by being devoted to its characters beyond the romance that can be fabricated between them; by effortlessly avoiding dead pitfalls of the genre; by not relying on comic shortcuts and cliches; and by still appealing to rom-com sensibilities by being sweet and romantic and leaving you happy and satisfied in the end. For my money they could have sold the ending even more, but they can't resist adding a little extra as the credits roll that adds extra satisfaction and one more laugh to the more abrupt indie-style end.

Don't get distracted by the odd title. Juliet, Naked is more than meets the eye.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Upcoming Movie Roundup - January 2019!

Happy new year! I hope 2019 is full of great times and great movies for you all!

I got a few things done in December: I watched Mowgli, Dumplin' and Bird Box on Netflix -- but only reviewed Mowgli (review here). Oh well, none of them were anything special. Then went to the theater for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, (review here) which was absolutely wonderful and slipped into my top five of the year... and then Mortal Engines (review here) which disappointing by being a not great film and by making no money so there's no chance or continuation and redemption. I'm 100% going to read the books now.

AND THEN we saw Aquaman, (review here) because I'm a member of a family that goes to see all superhero movies. It was alright and a fun time. And finally, Bumblebee (review here) in a kind of spur of the moment decision because we were having our roof redone, and needed to get away from the noise. It wasn't super great but was fun and easily the best of the Transformer franchise.

Now it's January, and the movies are gonna slow down for a bit -- and that's great for me because all that plus catching up on 2018 releases that I missed made me a little overwhelmed with film. I wound up seeing 70 movies released in 2018, which isn't a lot compared to some cinephiles, but it was over twice my number from 2017! I enjoyed branching out a little more and took a few risks with movies I didn't think I'd like that payed off really well. I look forward to the surprises that 2019 has to offer!



Escape Room
Jan 4th; PG-13
The trailer make me a little uncomfortable though it definitely looks more thriller than horror, but my brothers are interested too so this may actually turn into a theater trip. I just hope it's good, because if it's not good it seems like it'd be torture to watch. People win a free escape room experience, but things get actually dangerous -- with a mildly familiar cast including Deborah Ann Woll of Dardevil, Taylor Russell of Lost in Space, Tyler Labine, and Logan Miller. It's got a tight vibe; I have hope.




State Like Sleep
Jan 4th(limited) NR
Very clearly a noir thriller with a nicely classic noir plot -- a woman gets into mystery after her secret-keeping celebrity husband commits suicide. Katherine Waterston stars with Michael Shannon and Luke Evans! I like that cast. I like noirs. I'm a go.




Replicas
Jan 11th; PG-13
The original trailer I saw bored me to death and this one gives away too much, but the movie itself might be worth watching. Or it might just be weird or boring too. Keanu Reeves and Alice Eve and something to do with cloning humans, action/scifi stuff. I dunno, it really doesn't look very good. But hey, it's January. Par for the course.




The Upside
Jan 11th; PG-13
The trailer for this was really good, but I'm not sure if the movie itself will be. I get a feeling that all the best moment were put in the trailer. Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston seem to make a fun team anyway. And Nicole Kidman. I like Nicole Kidman. Based on a true story, and also based on a French film. So was the French film based on a true story too? That's probably the thing to watch.




Glass
Jan 18th; PG-13
I still have to see Split before this comes out, but I liked Unbreakable a lot, so I have plans to watch, and hopefully enjoy. Not entirely sure of the crossover/team-up idea, especially since superhero movies do nothing but that these days, and the thing I loved about Unbreakable was how unlike a superhero movie it was. Still, that could still be the case. Bruce Willis should be the lead, but it seems like the movie's more about Samuel L. Jackson and James McAvoy's characters. I guess they are the most obviously interesting. I also like Anya Taylor Joy a lot, so glad to see her!




Serenity
Jan 25th; R
This looks like a pretty good movie, but I can't exactly say I'm interested in it. Maybe I would be if I liked the cast, but Matthew McConnahey and Anne Hathaway? Again? I had enough of them together after five minutes of Interstellar. Still I'll try not to be prejudiced and keep an eye out. Maybe the story -- a thriller that doesn't seem to give away much -- will be worth it. If it isn't I won't bother.




The Kid Who Would Be King
Jan 25th; PG
I know it's a kiddie movie, and I really can't predict if it'll be good or bad, but something about it make me want to see it. Modern British school kids doing a King Arthur story... I dunno, it just seems like a great idea. The trailer looks adventuresome, and rather self-aware which could go well, or maybe not. Patrick Stewart is Merlin. Rebecca Ferguson is Morgana. And Andy Serkis' son, Louis Ashbourne Serkis, is the lead. Kid's movies are tough but if they don't skimp on the actual movie this one could be a winner!



Friday, December 28, 2018

Bumblebee

Mild spoilers.

BUMBLEBEE. (As Optimus would say.) Set in the late 80's this is the origin story of the best Transformer character, and how the group of Transformers established their base on Earth. The main character is 18-year-old Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) and the movie is essentially what you might imagine if someone attempted to combine Michael Bay with John Hughes.

Directed by Travis Knight. He brings genuine sweetness to this bizarre friendship. Better writing and this could've been a top film.

From moment one I was wowed by two things: First how unmistakably EIGHTIES it looks. The first shot is of a city on the Transformer home planet of Cybertron, and that's not something that's necessarily 80's, so how loudly it screamed 80's made me extremely happy as a fan of the era. The only thing that really fails the 80's tone is the characters, but I'll get to that. I was pleased as punch by the song choices and the fashion, and even the plot took some cues from fare of the era. Yes, they played Tears for Fears' most known song, but they played Tears for Fears. And The Smiths. And Take On Me by Aha. I was all for it.

The second thing to wow me was the design of the Transformers. They are much simpler and more clearly visible than the shiny mess they are in the Bay films. They're distinct, recognizable, and still fit in with the other movies. When they transform it gives you the impression that you can almost tell how the mechanics work, and when they fight each other you can tell who's who. The next best choice the movie made is to have the main conflict of the story be only between Bee and two Decepticons. No huge mishmash or trying vainly to figure out what "that one's" name is (though there's plenty cameos for the fans). I also appreciated how Bumblebee himself was the MacGuffin. He's the thing everyone's looking for, AND an actual character at the same time.

Haha I just saw that Dylan O'Brien voices Bee (for the brief time he has a voice) I KNEW he sounded familiar!

From there, things spiral down a bit. I get the appeal of the Bay films; nothing looks like them, and certainly not this, as nice as it looks. But while this flick finds satisfactory replacements for "the Bay" in the look by setting it in the 80's, it also seeks to be a coming-of-age teen flick in the style of John Hughes -- most obviously, specifically Sixteen Candles -- and in that, it seems oddly misguided and distracted by what it must perceive to be modern boxes to tick. The tirade that is to proceed may seem a bit like nit-picking, but it really does bring the movie down a notch or two with its sadly degrading persistence.

Charlie is quite a good character and her tom-boyishness makes her fit into the world of fighting-robots-that-can-turn-into-cars excellently. She's likable and easy to cheer for but has a nice, frustrated edge. Literally every character that surrounds her is a degradation. Her oblivious mom, her idiot of a step-father, a brat brother, and worst of all, a neighbor who has crush: Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) Today, a geek is the coolest thing you can be, but you'd never know it watching this pathetic excuse for a character. Beta-male, stumbling over himself, completely accepting of his position on the absolute bottom of the food chain. Think Anthony Michael Hall in Sixteen Candles but with no self-confidence and never tries.

She's so effortlessly The Best™.

It was as if they had a good side-kick character written, but because GIRLS can't lead movie or something, they had to destroy him, to be sure he never overshadows her. Dumb, because Hailee Steinfeld won't even let the likes of Jeff Bridges overshadow her. I honestly can't remember anything helpful this kid does. Several times they make it a joke how useless he is. It isn't funny, and he drags Hailee down with him. Weirdly, there's a "hot dude" that she interacts with a couple times (think Jake of Sixteen Candles) but I could never figure if we were supposed to like him or not. He hangs out with the Mean Girls, but seems a friendly guy when he talks to Charlie.

Instead of the story pursuing this guy as romantic interest on the side (as cliche as it might be, it matches the 80's theme perfectly) it stubbornly shoehorns in Memo at every opportunity, only to sideline him for a laugh. The actor seemed perfectly capable of playing a fun, cool geek in the same vein, but the script goes out of its way to emasculate him and turn him into a useless, irritating punchline. And while he's clearly interested in Charlie, she friendzones him brutally. I'm all for a good friendship, but they set up romance here; only to swat it away when payoff time came.

Looking at him you wouldn't think it, right? He looks cool. They should've cast a more waify actor, OR let this guy be normal! (Or cut him completely!)

Speaking of payoff, both Charlie and Bee have these moments where things built up in their characters come to fruition. Normal character arc stuff, you know? Bee's is a cute running joke that pays off into a surprisingly sweet moment; and Charlie's is an issue she struggles with the whole film, that lends her a lot of character depth and feels very unique in itself and I was compelled easily by it -- until the payoff moment, when it becomes completely irrelevant to the plot and feels weirdly anti-climactic. I still appreciate its inclusion, but it was disappointing that they couldn't find a better way to bring it back around.

Action was pretty good. The opening sequences were super engaging, but I did find myself zoning out during some of the later fights. Still they were staged sensibly and don't forget to bring emotional weight to the battle. Overall an excellent time at the theater, but I was surprised how hard the awful side characters hit the bottom line. They distracted me from the good, and there's a lot of good. Hailee Steinfeld has real chemistry with a CGI robot and it's genuinely sweet. The movie has a lot of fun with its 80's setting, and the plot holds together to the end, despite boring side scenes featuring villains and John Cena (who's actually the third best character to Charlie and Bee).

Because of them the movie shines.

I wish they'd given the side characters a bit more TLC and ultimate likability, or else just cut them altogether and focused more on Charlie and Bee's wonderful dynamic. When they're together the movie clicks, and in those moments, the Michael Bay and John Hughes amalgamation works unexpectedly well. Bumblebee, even at the disadvantage of occasional misguided writing, is still easily the best of the Transformer franchise. So far; the door is now open wide for better things to follow.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Aquaman

Spoiler-free!

Pro tip for the DCEU: don't try to copy Marvel. First, because you're bad at it so you'll fail, but also because it's an over-saturated market anyway and as the off-brand you'll never be anything but last place.

I'm so tired of Disney's Marvel movies that when I go to movies like Aquaman and something bad happens I think to myself, "Well, at least I'm not watching another Marvel movie." But Marvel movies are (mostly) still objectively better. (They have a secret ingredient, and unlike your grandma, it isn't love.) I want a new, better, game-changing method to be thought of, so superhero movies can be exciting again -- so, Dear DCEU, I have your best interest at heart.

Okay maybe MY interest is at heart, and your interest is right next to it.

Here's what you need to do, from the perspective of someone who wants to like superhero movies, but more often than not doesn't: Take risks. The last risky Marvel movie was Guardians of the Galaxy and that movie changed their game. The biggest risk y'all ever made was Wonder Woman, and she is, without a doubt, keeping your franchise afloat. Aquaman is a decent movie. It's got a fine cast who are having fun, a unique central setting, a basic plot with lots of locations to visit... but for a live-action movie that takes place 50% underwater, it's surprisingly un-risky. It's good enough. But in today's world, good enough is practically bad.

It has a lot of individual issues, each one speaking to a different origin of misguided intention. For one, it wants to be funny, but outright jokes rarely land and are mostly used to cover up lazy writing. Example: "You could've just peed on it." Yes. Or spit on it. That line draws our attention to the fact, but does little to endow the scene with any more sense. It would've been funnier to me if he had stopped her halfway through collecting his sweat with her superpowers and just spit a nice glob of foamy saliva on the thing. What is most genuinely funny in the movie is when it embraces its own bombastic clichés, so we laugh with them, not at them.

Self-awareness that circumvents the cliché > self-awareness that points out the use of a cliché.

Jason Momoa's presence is amusing in a completely natural way that works. Things like the hair flip, the way he plays off jokes, and his epic poses and awesome hero moments -- he's having a blast and it translates. For that reason, a comedy tone seems like a good idea, but the movie misses matching its tone to him still; it's comparatively dead. He even plays the drama well and comes across as sincere and comfortable, and kinda leaves the film behind in his wake. It gets bogged down in its effort to keep up with him by trying to structure that free-spirit vibe too much. Movies need structure, but this was an undisguised step-by-step adventure, and could barely establish itself in a location before he was ready to move on. It was holding him back.

When the focus was solely on him it always seemed to work. But I rather liked the supporting players so I'm not sure I'd wish for less of them. My favorite was his half-brother Orm, the primary villain played by Patrick Wilson. There was a early-era Loki vibe there, but not in a copycat way, that I enjoyed. Orm is very theatrical and I loved how often he'd yell and it would almost sound like he was singing. His motivations are also not convoluted, unlike the secondary villain (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who is necessary, yet still distinctly feels like he detracts from the film. I also loved Nicole Kidman and the drama that she brought. Her strange romance with Arthur's father (Temuera Morrison) was a highlight of the movie.

I figured he'd be my favorite part of the movie, and I figured right. His hair was awesome and that's saying something because everyone's hair was a really big deal.

Mera (Amber Heard) I could take or leave. She stole too much of Arthur's thunder, but her presence was necessary, and the Shakespearean battling wits might've worked excellently with a smidge more chemistry and more biting writing. Willem Dafoe was perhaps underused, but better that than overused. The movie seemed afraid to put Arthur in scenes alone, but the best scene was the one where he was alone (well there was a giant monster there too, but it counts), and got to carry the scene without someone inadvertently stepping on his toes. I'm sure it wasn't intentional, but his interactions with Mera especially feel more like a passive-aggressive fights to upstage the other instead of an actual scene where the actors play off and elevate each other.

Visuals are a big part of the movie, and overall, I was impressed. Atlantis looked vast and vibrant and almost like a lived-in futuristic water city. Creature design was cool -- they went all out for that giant sea-monster thing. And there was some memorable and neat camera work. Especially in underwater fight scenes it takes on a less 2D perspective of the environment like scenes in outer space. (Should've taken that further!) The underwater effects were my biggest worry and turns out they were well-founded. The animated floating hair was so distracting, I couldn't pay attention to the actors' expressions. And the water distortion bothered me a bit too. I was always relieved when scenes took place on ground or in air pockets.

 Lol check out Willem photo-bombing in the back.

The action isn't anything particular except when paired with good visuals or a pleasantly hammy performance. That second one-on-one brother duel would've been quite good if only Orm had lost that dumb helmet at the start of it. Seems like the whole movie was that: pretty good ideas killed by lazy details and no follow-through. Still, my experience skewed toward enjoyment with the deviance from the Marvel formula -- though I'm sure the idea was to copy it. People have called it a rehash of Black Panther but that's in passing plot points only. Overall, taking tone, theme, and plot into account, it's more similar to Thor, and in a way that I liked.

I had a fine time watching, but it was more the lack of irritation and less the presence of good that was the cause. It's silly, cheesy, and pleasantly extravagant; but in such a risk-less and amateurishly calculated way that much of the magic gets dried up before it reaches us. So, in the end... and I'm sorry for this... it doesn't make any waves. I'll see myself out.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Mortal Engines

Very mild spoilers.

This one's a mixed bag. Based on the book series, Mortal Engines tells the story of a steampunk scifi world where survivors of an ancient nuclear war have turned their cities mobile and swallow up other cities for resources. Valentine (Hugo Weaving) runs things on the predator city London, and he has dark plans for long-term survival. In the way of said plans was Hester's (Hera Hilmar) mother, and now Hester is out for revenge. Tom (Robert Sheehan), a history buff, is caught between them, and he and Hester form a reluctant alliance against Valentine.

Non-scifi/adventure fans need not apply, I guess.

And that leads me straight into the film's first and main problem. Hester and Tom always know how Valentine is evil, but his plans are discovered and planned against only once the third act starts. Hester has vague notions of revenge, and Tom has vague notions of helping her, but they wander through the second act without anything particular to do. The resident badass, Anna Fang (Jihae), picks them up and proceeds to steal their heroic moments by being better than them at everything. They kind of putter along behind her, uselessly. It was frustrating, as I wanted to root for these two, but the movie made it nigh impossible by letting them do nothing I could root for them to accomplish. Adventure was laid out right in front of them, but they were never allowed to dive in.

I wanted this to be this year's Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Debatable in quality, but enjoyable in a way that doesn't require quality. In Valerian, the two are extremely hands-on and that's what makes the adventure work. Hester and Tom are practically observers of adventure, not participators or instigators. Romantic tension between Tom and Hester falls flat too. They have very little chemistry to keep it fueled, and it's saved for far too long. Acting-wise the only cast member who's genuinely commendable is Hugo Weaving. He runs circles around everyone and doesn't break a sweat. That wouldn't matter, as adventure isn't a high-acting genre, but better performances would've been useful to bolster the meandering.

The epic music swell during his reveal was magnificent

What this movie gets right is its production and art design. Director Christian Rivers has a background in this kind of thing, and it shows. The places created are awesome, and I was disappointed every time they weren't sufficiently explored before they blew up or burnt down. Our heroes don't explore so much. They stride through places on their way in, and run through them on their way out. The world created here is too good for the characters and events that inhabit it. And even the cinematography lacks the ability to show it off properly. The script has practiced beats and structure, but I'd rather it be uneven and messy than this by-the-numbers.

Every new turn started in a direction so full of potential, and each time it seemed snatched away by having to follow rules. Screenplay 101, with no bells and whistles. At one point, there's a threat of their being auctioned off and turned into sausages, but two seconds later the threat is nullified and they're off to somewhere new. Most of the film is spent in narrowly avoiding those rabbit holes instead of exploring them, and where's the fun in that? Rescues and escapes are just conveniences, so the plot can continue, not cleverly implemented, and carried out by characters I cared zero about (sorry, Anna) instead of the heroes themselves. It's all competent, really, but only in the most base sense.

It was great at engaging my imagination, which at the same time made it all the more frustrating when it took it nowhere.

I hate that I have to mention this, but that Minion gag was -- to be as brutally honest as possible -- the worst thing I've ever seen happen it a movie. Ever. In my entire lifetime. It's not only that it's a dumb and already dated joke, but it snatched me out of the movie similarly to how being bashed upside the head with a bag of bricks might. Whoever thought of it and whoever approved it must've been on stupid pills, and anyone who didn't say anything against it are complicit. It doesn't ruin the movie. But it might as well have. I wanted to love this movie. Its structural bones are exactly my thing. The hero duo; the setting; the potential for high adventure. There are capable moments, and a wonderfully solid world to build on, but the completed structure is amateurish and rickety.

Because of my disappointment I'm focusing on the bad, but there is good here, I promise. It's book-ended in high-flying goodness, for example. The opening sequence really clicked, and it wowed me. And the climactic buildup finds its footing again. I loved the culture and world-building, like Tom getting excited over finding a vintage toaster. And I like the idea of Tom and Hester's dynamic. Her being wild, cold, and scary, and him being fascinated but totally out of his depth. He gets the hero arc. She's leading a revenge tale. It squeaks by, but the intention is strong. And I weirdly liked the stuff with Shrike (Mo-capped by Stephen Lang). One rabbit hole that was explored a little after all.

I don't mind her scar being toned down, but they still play it up inside the movie, which is silly.

Despite it all, if there's ever a sequel I will be there. I'll probably even watch this again someday, and maybe now that I've explained the ways it let me down, I'll be able to continue enjoying what it did right for me. I'm sure it'll always be a mixed bag, with some of it junk and some of it treasure. Treasure on par with vintage toasters anyway -- but hey, vintage toasters are valuable to some, and I guess count me in as one; metaphorically, anyway. You have to sift through a lot of junk to find them, but if you find them fascinating too, this may be a mixed bag worth diving into.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Spoiler-free!

Ever since Tobey Maguire, we've seen plenty of silver screen iterations of Peter Parker. Time to give Miles Morales a place in the spotlight. He sure does make it shine.

In a movie that could easily be overstuffed and distracted, it all serves to help him along his way.

Plot, premise -- whatever. It's a tale as old as time, really, and you know it already. There's Miles. (Shameik Moore) He becomes Spider-Man. Through related circumstances, other Spider-Men/Women/Beings accidentally get pulled into and trapped in his universe. They need to get back. Spider-Man is the only one who can get them back. And Miles Morales is the one-and-only Spider-Man!

Somehow I didn't expect this to be an origin story. Not sure why, as in retrospect it's obvious. But while it is an origin story for Miles in the sense that when the movie begins he's not Spider-Man and when it ends he is, it does away with the dragging feeling of a typical origin tale by doing away with one thing. See, the main restriction of origins like Spidey is that they're lonely. The hero randomly obtains these incredible powers, and has no one to tell. No one to confide in. No one to give clear advice. So, he flounders by himself. It's natural, and it's not like it doesn't work as a story. It can be and has been compelling. Many, many, many times. Time for a fresh angle.

Like a super strange mentor situation maybe...

Enter Peter Parker (Jake Johnson), Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), Spider-Man Noir (Nicholas Cage), Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), and Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn). It may sound complicated but no worries. The first is the classic Spidey, just older and a bit washed up. Then, naturally, Spider-Woman. The noir one exists in edgy black and white newsprint and wears a fedora, the next is a cartoon pig (self-explanatory if you ask me), and finally the anime version with a cute little girl and her pet spider. They're what drive Miles to truly becoming Spider-Man -- in that if he doesn't, they can't get home, and they're there to instruct and advise. There is still floundering, and loneliness to deal with too, but it all hits so much harder when it's sudden, and not par-for-the-course.

It only felt like an origin it the obligatory power-manifestation scene (which was unusually funny; it's usually just cringe to me) and then near the end for a moment. In between it could've any other day of the week, of missions and plots and action/adventuring. Miles spends a lot of time sans webslingers. A great choice because the lessened ability made for higher stakes. And he wears a Spider-Man Halloween costume. No, I'm not kidding. There were moments I wished he'd get a real suit already, but once he did, I understood why they delayed it so long. Well, besides thematically. The personality comes through so much better in the pieced-together, home-spun suit, it really does. And Miles is not a character you want to hide.

Plus, the long-awaited suit reveal moment was spectacular. (Or should I say "ultimate"?)

Anyway, the movie very respectfully but very firmly sidelines the side-Spider-Beings. If you're worried the movie might be crowded with them, don't be. They appear when they're useful and don't hog the scenery. If Spider-Ham isn't doing something worth looking at, you don't see him. Plain and simple. And there's a definite hierarchy of importance with these characters. Miles is number one. Always and forever, and the movie never forgets it. Peter is next, then Gwen. They have arcs. The rest get solid moments to shine. The temptation to overuse Spider-Ham had to be huge, but they never do. This is Miles' movie, and boy is it Miles' movie.

He's instantly established as the every-kid type, with his own passions (street art and music), his own issues that would seem big for a normal kid (being transferred to a boarding prep school) and complex relationships. He has no annoying-level problems with his dad (Brian Tyree Henry), but there's enough tension between them to be important as the plot rolls on. And he admires his maybe-not-so-great-but-definitely-very-cool uncle (Mahershala Ali). He's also enough of a dork to consider the friend-zone a fine place to be, and I think that's just too cute. Fact is, you care about this kid from the get-go, and from there it's only up.

Gwen is so extra. She has ballet shoes, and they're teal, AND they're point shoes, AND she USES them!

The voice performance by Shameik Moore is infused with teenage innocence and pathos to remarkable levels. To the point where I was shocked at how relatively inexperienced an actor he is. I took him for a long-time professional voice actor. Jake Johnson also is remarkable. He hits the comedy and the genuine drama equally well. Zoë Kravitz is Mary Jane. Liev Schreiber plays Kingpin. Chris Pine is there for a hot second. I mean -- Nicholas Cage! As a hard-boiled Spider-detective! There's not a bad performance in the lot -- whether for pitch-perfect comic delivery, or heart-breaking drama, or both together -- and since I don't have space to individually praise everyone who left an impression, I'll have to leave it at that.

Animation style is the big thing that sets this film apart. Without it, it would feel fairly typical, and even cheesy if they kept the filming style. It was a risk -- the thing that had most potential to put off viewers. Its goal was to maintain a comic-book look. There are print dots and hashing in the bright, comic-y colors. The motion is sometimes visibly choppy, like the movie's running at a slow frame-rate. (Much like The Lego Movie, for comparison.) And there's sometimes panels and split-screens. Miles' thoughts even translate to thought boxes for one sequence. In my opinion, it not only works -- it's the thing that makes the movie. I'm a firm believer in a movie's style matching the style of it's main character, and they nailed it here.

Even without the stylistic flair the animation is wonderful. Those expressions and character designs!

I couldn't ask for more. Grand, colorful, peppy and powerful in turn, uproariously hilarious beyond expectation, with gleefully involving characters and a plot line that doesn't feel stretched thin in this comic-book-movie world. Yes, this movie may be one of many, but like it's new-to-the-team hero, it plays it like it's the one-and-only. I could have happily existed in that crisp, splashy, and moving little universe for another adventure, or two, or five. So, welcome to the team, one-and-only Spider-Man!