Thursday, July 2, 2015

Sigh. Unnecessary Sequels & Reboots

Hollywood is a business - and a costly business. Movies are expensive to make, distribute, and market. Therefore, when a studio hits a home run, they want to repeat the experience. Sometimes the "repeat" is in the form of a sequel; a continuation of the original story, often with the same actors playing the roles. Other times, studios dust off an old success and try to freshen it up for a new generation. Every now and then, it pays off - the reboot of the Planet of the Apes franchise has been both commercially and critically successful and big plans are in the works there - and sometimes it doesn't - by the end of the original Planet of the Apes franchise, things were looking pretty shabby.

And ever since Spielberg launched the modern summer blockbuster with Jaws, studios have looked to summer as the season to make moneymoneymoney.

Put those notions together and you get Jurassic World and (heaven help us) Ted 2. Let's take a brief look at both of these efforts.

Jurassic World is trying to cash in on the success of the Jurassic Park movies, which started 22 (!) years ago. There's a whole new generation of viewers out there and dinosaurs are always popular, so why not make them bigger, toothier, and moremoremore? Because it doesn't work and playing John Williams' soaring theme music over shots of the park, rather than shots of these incredible creatures sort of - well, underscores that point. I like Chris Pratt just fine and Dallas Bryce Howard deserves better than the cardboard cutout, severe-business-woman character she's given to play in this one. (She's paid for The Village by now.) There's still a message in here - but it's watered down and honestly, the movie isn't a big screen requirement. It goes back to the old saying from The Critic - "If a movie is a remake of a classic, rent the classic." It's not that Jurassic World is awful, it's just dull, which is nigh-unforgivable in a movie about giant man-eating lizards. But it does feature a Jimmy Buffett cameo, so there's that. He's not in the recut, fan-made, trailer, but it's still worth a watch.



Ted 2 is a bear of a different color. The original Ted was profane, lewd, and hilarious because it was such an original idea (but is this just Macfarlane speculating on the nature of Stewie and Rupert from Family Guy? Hmmm). This second outing just feels tired - and that's not just my opinion. The audience in the theatre when I saw it was trying to laugh, but it was just too much effort. Some chuckles, but really - no surprising, "hey, did you catch that?" belly laughs are in this one. It's still profane and lewd, but sadly - it's not funny. Well, there is one funny, totally random cameo from Liam Neeson (who was also in Macfarlane's A Million Ways to Die in the West), but aside from that - I'm not even comfortable recommending it as a rental.

Both films will make money - in fact, Jurassic World is breaking box office records, but trust me, that's no guarantee of quality.

Advice worth taking!

Monday, June 29, 2015

It's Been a While!

Sorry - my intention was to be back in mid-June, but between a family crisis (now thankfully under control and on the upswing!) and preparing for the second Joss in June conference, I've been away longer than I ever intended.

Don't worry - I've seen plenty of movies I want to chat with you about, as well as what's looking like an absolutely astonishing TV series. I'll be catching up on my postings this week and I appreciate your patience, but boyhowdy! getting ready for that conference took every spare moment I had (plus a few!).

I had been invited to deliver the keynote address at this conference - keynotes are big deals. You're given more time to present your ideas, so they need to be tightly structured and well-supported. Since I was presenting on Avengers: Age of Ultron, there was only so much I could do prior to early May and I had no way of knowing if what I thought would fit, would actually fit until I'd seen the film. (It's more than a little nerve-wracking writing that way, to be sure!) It all worked out - and I even worked in a puppet, since the presentation was about Ultron's links to Disney's Pinocchio and the evolution of artificial intelligence. Sounds crazy, but I think it works.



But I'm back now - check back in a day for my first "catch up" summer movie post!

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

A Better Tomorrow

OK, I'm beginning to notice an actual trend and it's a shocking one - girls are saving the world! As a delicious counterpoint to the undeniable game-changer that is Mad Max: Fury Road (click here for my post about that film, although there's muchmuchmuch more to write about it!), I recommend Tomorrowland. Reception for this film has been rather meh, which is a shame, so go see it.

Without giving too much away (and the film isn't perfect), Tomorrowland is the bookend to Mad Max in just about every way. It's also crammed full of Easter eggs, since it's a Disney film and Disney owns both Marvel and Star Wars. Look around the "Blast from the Past" store and you'll catch a lot, including toys from director Brad Bird's magnificent Iron Giant film and John Williams' unmistakable triumphant score from Star Wars. George Clooney is disillusioned, Hugh Laurie is chewing the scenery, and newcomers Britt Robertson and Raffey Cassidy shine. Plus - jet packs!

Tomorrowland is all about hope in the here and now, not in some desolate dystopian wasteland. That doesn't have to be our future; we can change it if we only have the will. Yes, it's a film with a moral and that moral is telegraphed and underlined. Yes, some sequences feel like they really should have been animated (ask and ye shall receive - Pixar created an animated sequence for the film, but Bird thought it hurt the pacing of the overall movie, so it was cut. But the Internet saves everything.) But for me, it works. I read some commentary on the film after I watched it, and one line in particular stood out - "When did it become cool to not care?" Tomorrowland asks us to dream bigger and to do better, and even if it's corny, I just don't think that's such a bad idea these days.

This blog is taking a brief vacation break, but I'll be back mid-June with news and thoughts about all sorts of summer movies at that point. And be sure to keep up with Meet Me at the Movies through the new streaming service! Click here for the latest! And if that link doesn't work for you, go to the Cleveland Community College website at clevelandcc.edu and click on the C19TV link at the top, then pick Meet Me at the Movies from the available options!


Wednesday, May 20, 2015

It's a Girl's World!

Funny, but the last three movies I've seen have all prominently featured women and not a single one of the films has been a romantic comedy. The times, they truly are a-changin', my friends. Not everyone is happy about this (particularly a small, extremely vocal group of menfolk who find a female lead character in an action movie some sort of estrogen encroachment), but you just can't get through this world without offending some numbskull or another.

 So - the first (and admittedly weakest) of the three was the "buddy road movie" Hot Pursuit. Starring Reese Witherspoon as a by-the-book cop and the cantilevered Sofia Vergara as a mob moll on the run, this film is just fine. It's a silly, light popcorn movie that's heavy on jokes about the differences between the two women - both in appearance and in temperament. No great shakes, but worth a rental when the time rolls around.

Then there was the science fiction thriller Ex Machina. 2015 seems poised to be the year of the AI movie and Ex Machina is a fine addition to the genre. The title itself is a little bit of a play on words (I'll just leave it at that - go look it up and then ponder a moment) and the movie toys with your perceptions and your allegiances. At what point does a machine become intelligent? At that point, does the machine stop being an "it" and have rights and agency or is it just a fancy word processor? And who's being played? Ex Machina has a great deal of brilliance going on, but it's a quiet, thoughtful film which may cause it to be overlooked in the summer blockbuster season. That would be a shame as Ex Machina is the best artificial intelligence-themed film I've seen in ages.

On the entirely other end of the spectrum is the loud, in-your-face noisefest Mad Max: Fury Road. Directed by George Miller, who directed the first three Mad Max films, thereby giving the world both Mel Gibson and the Thunderdome, this film is a celebration of all things that go *boom*. The violence level means it's not for the kiddies, but if you like your entertainment apocalyptic and over-the-top nuts, this film's for you. Much of the fuss is directed at the role of women in the film, who (shockingly enough) are not portrayed as victims and/or sex kittens. Instead we get young, hard women willing to do hard things to survive, along with biker grandmas who just might save the world. Miller doesn't have to show us sexual violence to have it be an undercurrent of the film and we understand why these women are willing to chuck the security of their bank vault to live on something more like their own terms. Light on dialogue, but hey - you get a blind guitarist strapped to a bank of amps with a bungee cord and that's not CGI! Go and enjoy and seriously - it's a surprisingly balanced film in terms of gender roles.

And be sure to keep up with Meet Me at the Movies through the new streaming service! Click here for the latest! And if that link doesn't work for you, go to the Cleveland Community College website at clevelandcc.edu and click on the C19TV link at the top, then pick Meet Me at the Movies from the available options!

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Whedon's Cantata in B: Age of Ultron

With the national release of Avengers: Age of Ultron, the summer blockbuster season has begun. Much is riding on Ultron for Disney, which owns Marvel and hence, the characters featured in those carefully-planned-for-release-lo-unto-the-next-generation films. Also, Joss Whedon, who directed the first Avengers film, is at the helm again for Ultron, which promised moreMoreMORE! and he's got a lot riding on this one as well. Known for being both a "Marvel boy" who grew up loving these titles and characters and also known for his deft handling of true ensemble casts (Firefly leaps immediately to mind), Whedon brought over $1.5 billion into the Mouse's coffers and there is a great deal of pressure for him to catch that lightning in a bottle again.

He almost does.

Early in Ultron, we see Bruce Banner sitting off to himself after a battle in which his alter-ego, the Hulk, played a pivotal (and highly destructive) part. He's wearing headphones, concentrating not on the banter of his teammates, but rather on the "Casta Diva" aria from Bellini's opera Norma. It's no secret that Whedon likes music - he's a noted Sondheim fan and he crafted both the Buffy episode "Once More with Feeling" and Dr. Horrible. Norma is the story of a powerful Druid priestess who is betrayed first by her love for the enemy and ultimately by her own tribe. The "Casta Diva" aria is a prayer for peace - Norma is trying to protect her lover by cooling the flames of war.

Interesting choice for Banner/Hulk, yes?

I mention this because I think Whedon was trying to write his own version of an opera - or at least a cantata, which is a musical form that has evolved over the years to encompass many different configurations. But I think he forgot that most operas - including Norma - don't really have plots that are all that complicated (ridiculous, maybe, but not complicated). Whedon is notably for his smooth incorporation of large ensemble casts and multiple storylines, so who better to hand Ultron over to? After all, Ultron is setting up Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so elements from the past films need to be present here, this story needs to advance and hints need to be dropped for events yet to come. He's got plenty to work with, including a huge cast - not only the core group of Avengers (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Hulk, Black Widow, and Hawkeye), he's also folding in Ultron, Vision, Scarlet Witch, and Quicksilver, with small parts for everyone from Fury and Maria Hill to Falcon and War Machine.

Whew! I'm tired just from typing the list!

The fact is, Ultron's a good flick. Buy your popcorn and enjoy yourself. There are cool fight scenes, the Hulkbuster suit, a bit of character development, and Vision and Scarlet Witch are just fantastic. (I'm also in favor of about anything that lets Andy Serkis act without motion capture.) But it's not without flaws. He's working with some interesting ideas - security v. freedom, creator v. created, family v. team, and the nature of monstrosity, all with a healthy dose of man's hubris thrown in for good measure. That's a lot of horse to ride.

I keep hearing, "well, Whedon had to do what the studio said, so this isn't really him" and "at least 30 minutes was edited out." All well and good, but Whedon's name is on this, so he owns it - he doesn't just get to claim the quips and the 360-degree heroes' circle. As readers of this blog know, I admire the bejeezus out of Whedon's work, but that in no way means that I think he's above criticism. (I'm looking at you in particular, Dollhouse!) And Ultron is not a perfect movie.

For instance, it's downright clumsy to have everyone in the imaginary town/country (the movie is a bit muddy on that point) of Sokovia speak English with a heavy, vaguely Russian, accent. One element of Marvel's comics that I always enjoyed is the snippets of foreign languages that are then translated at the bottom of the panel - it shows the international focus of the teams and missions - and it feels like Whedon doesn't trust the audience to glance at a few subtitles. Also, while Black Widow still kicks tail and takes names, she's also relegated to "taming the beast" status with a subplot involving the Hulk that just clunks. (Plus, I've seen the "safe word" thing before with Simon and River, so this felt recycled to me.) And really - Tony Stark has gone from being a smartass to just an ass. (By the way, the events of Iron Man 3 apparently didn't happen, based on Tony's "wheee! Lookit me, flying around, perfectly comfortable in my iron skin!" attitude. Then again, I loathed that movie, so . . . )

I get that Ultron is a large-scale set-up for future movies. I just wish I'd been so excited when I saw this one that I squeed! in Marvel-girl delight more.

Whedon's cantata is also his swan song for this franchise - the Russo brothers (of Captain America: Winter Soldier and the upcoming Civil War) take over from here.

Well, at least Hawkeye got some good lines this time.