What I Watched June 2019

Movies

Backdraft 2 – I don’t know why someone thought we needed a sequel to mid-tier hit from the 90’s; we didn’t. This movie is shockingly competent, if not especially good. I mean, it is full blown nonsense and I can’t recommend it to anybody. But I kind of enjoyed a bit. **

Hot Fuzz – Yup, I still love it. *****

Murder Mystery – I can’t remember the last time I genuinely enjoyed an Adam Sandler movie. This movie almost leans into the criticisms of Sandler movies being an excuse to take a vacation on the production company’s dime, but it somehow works. There just appears to be more effort put in here, on the scripting and directing, than other movies. It isn’t the best mystery I’ve ever seen, but is just kind of works. This movie isn’t great, but I think it is slightly on the side of good. ***

Good Sam – Just a straight up Hallmark romance movie. I watched it for Tiya Sircar, who I knew from The Good Place. There is no reason to watch this movie. There are worse ways to spend 90 minutes, but I don’t know why you would. **

Planes, Trains and Automobiles – This movie kind of sneaks up on you. This movie does a good job of keeping the viewer’s sympathy in between Martin and Candy. Martin’s character could have been more hateful, but you see from the start that he is actually a good guy who is getting stressed. Candy’s is kind of insufferable, but even early on he seems like a generally decent guy. The whole movie just worms its way into your affections. There aren’t many Thanksgiving movies, but with one this good do we need any others. ****1/2

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – This movie holds up shockingly well. The turtles still look good; those are some excellent special effects. Maybe there is too much nostalgia for me to adequately judge this movie, but I think it is genuinely excellent. ****

Wheels on Meals – Hey, you know who is great? Jackie Chan. You know who else is great? Sammo Hung. One final great thing: this movie. It is just so full of energy, such great fight choreography. The fight near the end it just excellent. I loved this movie. ****1/2

Rocketman – Read Review here.

Yesterday – Read Review here.

Late Night – Read Review here.

TV

Documentary Now S3 – I’ve really liked everything I’ve seen from this series. The third season expands things somewhat. Instead of all of the fake documentaries involving Bill Hader and Fred Armisen, there are a lot of guest stars, from Michael Keaton to Cate Blanchett to John Mulaney. There is also still a lot of Fred Armisen. These are still pitch perfect fake documentaries. They are funny, but there is also a humanity there. Even the subjects that are the source of comedy get a touch of empathy before the end. This show is just pretty much everything I want out of television.

When They See Us – Is this a TV mini-series or a nearly four hour movie broken up into smaller chunks? It doesn’t matter. What it is is one of the best things you can watch on any screen. When They See Us tells the story of the Central Park 5, a group of young black and Hispanic boys railroaded by the New York police and wrongfully convicted of rape and assault. This show digs in and tells the story from their heartbreaking perspective. It shows how the cultural climate of the time, egged on in part by a degenerate con man, a rapist himself, who called for their death before any evidence was shown, helped lead to this miscarriage of justice. It shows the struggles of their families as they try to get through it. It shows how the stigma followed them afterwards until they were able to prove their innocence. It is wonderfully acted, wonderfully shot, and completely heartbreaking. This is just one of the best things of the year.

Good Omens – I really wish I had encountered this book, and more Terry Pratchett in general, when I was younger. I’ve got it on my kindle and expect to enjoy it when I finally get around to it, but judging by this show it is something that would have really made an impact on me as a teenager. If I was prepared to handle it; there is still some part of my very conservative, fundamentalist Christian upbringing existing that recoils at the blasphemy here. I unabashedly love this show. Michael Sheen and David Tennant are great as the central angel and demon who are trying to prevent the apocalypse that is supposedly the plan of both sides, motivated by concerns like how hard it will be to get a good meal when all the humans are dead. Around them are a ton of other interesting, and more vital to the eventual outcome, characters, like the young woman with the book of always correct prophesies or the new witch-hunter who has problems with technology. The central conflict rest on the shoulders of a normal young boy who, it turns out, is the antichrist. It is a perfect combination of cleverness and irreverence.

Jessica Jones S3 – I’ve got a big post-mortem about the entire Marvel Netflix project in the works, waiting only on me finishing the third season of Daredevil, so I will have more to say about this there. For now, I’ll say that season 3 of Jessica Jones is a bounce back after the near disaster of season 2. It does have a complete dud of a villain, but the conflicts between its primary cast are good and believable. I don’t really like where it left things, but that is where it had to leave things after the season that was.

Hanna – I really can’t say why I stuck with this to the end. It’s not bad; it is actually quite well produced, but the show never really clicked with me. The central plot, of genetically engineered super-soldier that just happens to be a young girl, is a lot more interesting in theory than in practice.

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What I Watched May 2019

Movies:

Knocking Down the House – This pretty solid political documentary managed to catch lightning in a bottle. It focused on several left-leaning primary campaigns in the 2016 election, all of which save one ended in defeat for the candidate they were following, save one. That one, though, was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. So it follows the earnestness of these progressive primary challenges and just so happens to catch a surprising political upset and the beginning of a political star. It is very interesting, which is what you want out of a documentary. ****

The Hustle – read review here. **1/2

Long Shot – read review here. ****

The Bank Job – A solid Jason Statham vehicle that is based on a true story, though I think that is loose here. Someone is blackmailing the royal family with nude photos, stored in a deposit box at a bank. Jason Statham is hired to rob the bank, but he knows nothing of this other motive; he’s in it because he needs the money. What follows is a solid heist movie. ***

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile – This movie isn’t perfect, but I liked it. Zac Efron does a great job as Bundy, and the movie wisely does not focus on his crimes, but more on his eventual capture. It lets it focus, for a while at least, more on Lily Collins’s character as she deals with not knowing whether the man she is living with is actually a serial killer or if it is a case of mistaken identity. It doesn’t shy away from what Ted Bundy was, either. It is right in the title. Still, it doesn’t quite have anything to say other than what the title says. ***

Wine Country – A sort of hang out movie with a great cast of SNL alums. It is never quite as good as you want it to be, mostly because there are a few too many characters for any of them to get the room they need, but it is still a largely really enjoyable movie with some big laughs. ****

Detective Pikachu – read review here. ****

John Wick 3 – read review here. *****

Tolkien – read review here. ***1/2

Aladdin – read review here. ****

Rim of the World – This movie from McG is trying desperately to ape kids movies from the 80s and it mostly succeeds. It doesn’t succeed on an E.T. level, or even a Gremlins level, but it manages something around Explorers. It is fine, I could see a kid of the right age really latching on to it, but it is a mess in some ways. Still, I enjoyed it. ***

See You Yesterday – This movie is excellent. It is a time travel movie that starts out fooling you into believing you are in for a romp, with a Michael J. Fox cameo that echoes Back to the Future. It then turns into something altogether more thoughtful. The two protagonists have created a working time machine. Unfortunately, they have to test it out to save one of the character’s brother from getting shot by police. So they keep looping the same afternoon, trying to stop it and things keep getting worse before somewhat salvaging the situation. Despite that premise, it never gets too heavy. It is just really good. ****

Take Me Home Tonight – I’ve seen most of this movie before, but I forgot that I actually kind of really like it. I like Topher Grace, and [other guy] is a fun as well. It has some misses and some lulls, but overall I’ve found it to be very enjoyable. ***½

The Last Summer – It’s fine. This is a teen romantic comedy about how a bunch of kids spend their last summer before college. It spreads its attention really thin amongst a lot of characters, but manages to be just on the charming side of things. ***

American Experience: The Island Murder – This is truly an American story. A woman reports being raped and beaten, so the authorities round up the nearest brown people they can find and accuse them of the crime. Even as the criminality of the white family involved becomes not just apparent but blatant, the prosecutors, hounded by the Navy brass who are involved, just keep on going after the obvious scapegoats, despite no evidence and their involvement and plenty of evidence corroborating their alibi. What could be more American? ***

Always Be My Maybe – A pretty solid rom-com starring Ali Wong and Randall Park as high school sweethearts who have grown apart. But they end up meeting back up and a rom-com happens. It is pretty fun, with a great Keanu Reeves appearance. It is just a solid execution of a formula. ****

TV:

Dead to Me S1 – The cast is great. The premise is a little too soapy for me. The twists just get a little too ridiculous. I did like the slow reveal of just how awful James Marsden’s character is, as he comes off reasonable early on and each subsequent time he shows up he looks worse and worse. The heightened stuff in this show doesn’t work that well for me. I still liked the show, but only liked it, not loved it.

The Punisher S2 – There is a really good Assault on Precinct 13 episode early on in the second season of the Punisher. You might as well stop watching there, because little past that is worthwhile. I didn’t hate it, but I really only kept going out of some masochistic desire to watch all of the Netflix Marvel stuff. Only Daredevil S3 and Jessica Jones S3 remain.

Doom Patrol S1 – This show needs its own post. I loved it. I loved every weird, nonsensical moment of it. It is a show about a superhero team of fundamentally broken characters, all in different ways. Their struggles are reflected in their powers. The stand out, to me at least, is Robotman. Cliff Steele was a famous race car driver who was seemingly killed, along with his wife and daughter, in an accident. Except the Chief saved his brain and put it in a robot body. He has super strength and invulnerability, but can’t feel anything. He has also become just as inhuman on the outside as he feels on the inside. Because Cliff Steele was kind of a jerk. He is not really central to the conflict of the season, but he is the driving force on the team. The rest are content with or at least accepting of their exile from the world, but Cliff can’t take it. He wants to do things. He may be trying to be a better person, even though he might not be a person anymore. He is also filled with self-loathing, and maybe does not feel he deserves to live. I kind of love it.

Catch-22 – This show is kind of stuck between two modes. It is both a satire and a straight drama, but it doesn’t quite manage to square its two different genres. Which is a shame, because each of them is great. The heightened stuff is marvelous, with the amoral [], the officers sole focus on getting promotions. The weird bureaucratic decisions made all over the place and the slow break down of the protagonist as he is trapped forever running dangerous bombing missions. Then there is the true drama that deals with the horrors of war that also works, when the two are juxtaposed it all kind of falls apart. I wish it worked better, because this is so close to being something I really loved, but it misses just enough to leave me a little disappointed.

The Flash S5 – I want to do a post going into all of the superhero TV shows, a genre that is kind of getting away from me, so I am not going to say much about this year’s season of The Flash (or the other DC CW shows). I thought it was a step up from the last season. The show still seems to always want to lean into its weaknesses, but this season had some good stuff.

Supergirl S4 – Supergirl bit off more than it could chew early on, but I think it managed to kind of bring things in for a landing. I am glad it didn’t let [bad guy] get redemption. He didn’t deserve it. I really liked the Dreamer and Brainy stuff. I hope the show doesn’t turn Lena into a villain. Solid, but flawed.

Legends of Tomorrow S4 – It couldn’t keep up the excellence of Season 3, but the drop off was slight. This show, despite no longer really being based on anything that resembles the comics origins of a few of the characters, is the best superhero show on (broadcast) tv. I can’t wait for next season.

Brooklyn 99 S6 – Each additional episode of Brooklyn 99 feels like an unexpected gift. I don’t know that this season was anything exceptional, but I certainly enjoyed it.

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina S2 – I think this show could benefit from shorter episodes. There is a lot it does well. Honestly, it does almost everything well. But at the end of each episode I feel kind of exhausted. It always feels like a little too much, and that it is a little too slowly paced. The cast is great, and I really enjoyed this season, but it feels like it could be tightened up a little bit. It is no Netflix Marvel show when it comes to bloat, and the overall stories are solid, but if you are not in it for a long haul binge, it is kind of tough on an episode to episode watch.

Bob’s Burgers S9 – I don’t know that I have much to say about Bob’s Burgers. The show is great, it continues to be great. There were some really excellent episodes this season, and some that were merely fine. This show is one of my favorites ever, and though it has been running for a long time it hasn’t started slipping.

Ken Burns Civil War – A solid, long recounting of the major events of the Civil War. It is a Ken Burns documentary, you should know what you are getting. The biggest problem with it is how prominently it features talking head Shelby Foote, who is a nonsense lost-causer. His presence provides “balance” by having someone who is wrong and loves the Confederacy. Otherwise, I really enjoyed it.

She-Ra S2 – More She-Ra goodness, but only a little more. After spending the first season getting to know the world and characters, the second season has started to dig more deeply into those characters. There just aren’t enough episodes here.

Roman Empire: The Mad Empire – A sort of half-drama, half-historical reenactment of the reign of Caligula. It is fine, the history part kind of hampered by the fact that most commonly used historical sources are not especially reliable, which makes telling the “true” story completely impossible. Still, it is fine.

White Gold S2 – I wasn’t a huge fan of the first season of this show, but I think it improved a lot this time around, even if it wasn’t quite as focused. Maybe I just knew a little more of what to expect from it this time around. The problem is that I don’t really like any of the characters. It is certainly possible to have a show were all the characters are monsters, look at Always Sunny, but this seems like it kind of wants you to care about them. Still, it is pretty funny.

Tuca & Bertie S1 – This might just be a little too weird for me. There are a lot of great moments, and it handles some heavy issues well, but it is just strange in a way that doesn’t quite work for me. I don’t know what to say. It is a great show; give it a shot. But one of its strengths is having a specific voice and tone which may not work for everyone.

Godzilla King of the Monsters

I learned in the last couple weeks that more people than I realized didn’t like the 2014 Godzilla. I liked it then and I still like it now. People complained about how little actual Godzilla action we got in that movie, but the amount matched up well with a lot of old Godzilla movies and what we did get was amazing. I heard the same complaint about not enough of the monsters leveled at Godzilla: King of the Monsters, which is how I know that some people will never be satisfied. There are flaws with Godzilla: King of the Monsters, but not enough of the monsters is not one of them. As a longtime fan of Godzilla, I loved it. Instead of trying to make Godzilla serious or scientific, the movie is just an old style Godzilla movie with a ludicrous budget behind it. It is big, dumb and loud and I loved every second of it.

Getting the bad out of the way first; nothing any of the people do in this movie makes much sense or is interesting at all. It is a lot of overqualified actors spouting nonsense and giving the viewer a lens through which to watch a handful of giant monsters duke it out. Secret government organization Monarch is fighting against the military’s desire to destroy Godzilla and the other monsters that have been found. This threat is taken very seriously despite the fact that in 65 years of Godzilla movies militaries have killed exactly 0 Godzillas. Meanwhile, Charles Dance and his group of eco-terrorists want to wake the monsters and basically destroy humanity. Caught in the middle is a family consisting of Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobby Brown and Kyle Chandler, who have a device that can kind of control the monsters. Sally Hawkins is there, so are O’Shea Jackson, Jr. and Bradley Whitford. The human who matters is Ken Watanabe as Dr. Serizawa, who reveres Godzilla and seems to have some understanding of how the newly named Titans work.

The real draw are the monsters, and those are great. King of the Monsters loosely follows the outline of Ghidorah: The Three Headed monster, one of my favorite Godzilla movies. It keeps the same four main monsters from that movie. You have Godzilla and Ghidorah, of course, but there are also the other two monsters featured in that movie: Rodan and Mothra. Mothra is a Godzilla staple, Rodan was one in the 1960s. I would hesitate to say that any of the four have been reimagined for this movie, though I do have things to say about some changes to Mothra, but they have been updated. Something that this movie, the previous one and Kong: Skull Island have all done well is give each monster personality. They aren’t just big CGI nothings, they are characters. Godzilla acts the same here as he did in the 2014 movie. He is a brute; he fights mean. Instead of being more dinosaur-like, in these movies he reminds me of a kind of scaly bear. With Ghidorah they did an excellent job of making each of his three heads somewhat distinct. They all act a little different from the others. Ghidorah is cruel and sadistic. While Godzilla fights mean, Ghidorah is simply mean on his own. Rodan is probably the least distinct of the big four, but he has his own air of petty cruelty. Rodan is kind of a classic bully. He appears to get pleasure out of taking down the tiny fighter jets flying around; he’s not destroying them because they attacked him, but because they can. Rodan also crumples like a wet bag when faced with a challenge. The monster that got the most significant update is Mothra. Mothra still does the life cycle, starting as a worm like larva before cocooning and then hatching into a giant moth. Here, though, Mothra is not just a moth, she is also kind of a wasp or hornet. Mothra is also the only monster that appears to be benevolent to humanity.

The monsters fight. And they are great fights. Godzilla and Ghirodah go three rounds, and Mothra and Rodan get in there for some serious action as well. The only part where the movie struggles with this is that three of the four monsters can fly, with only Godzilla stuck on the ground. While this is used against him, it does make for the occasional unevenness in the fight scenes. I loved all of the fights. It delivered everything I wanted from them.

I haven’t really described anything that could be called plot, because there really isn’t anything worth describing. The most interesting part of the actual story is when King of the Monsters subverts the original Godzilla. In that movie, a Dr. Serizawa develops an oxygen destroyer that kills Godzilla. In this movie, Dr. Serizawa fights to save Godzilla, eventually helping him recover from an oxygen destroyer. While his sacrifice is complete nonsense, it is interesting how here he gives his life to save Godzilla rather than destroy him.

The movie left me numbed, but euphoric. It was thrilling and exhausting. I can see the inanity of the plot turning some people off, but it is exactly the big budget Godzilla movie that I have always wanted.

****

Dark Phoenix

Frankly, Dark Phoenix isn’t a very interesting movie. It is a failure, but not an egregious one. It feels compromised from the ground up, but with solid, interesting takes on various characters that are ground up and cut apart into meaninglessness. However, the core of the story comes through, even it if feels truncated and the ending takes a weird turn.

Dark Phoenix is most interesting to me as the end of a movie universe that has meant a lot to me over the years. I am a comic fan now, but I really wasn’t when X-Men came out in 1999. My relation to the X-Men movies in some ways mirrors my relation to superhero comics. I liked superheroes, and likely would have been a comic fan had the opportunity presented itself before the movies, but I lived in something of a comics desert, with the only place to purchase comics within fifty miles being a lonely, sporadically refreshed spinner rack at the local grocery store. I did purchase some comics from there, spurred on by a brief infatuation with Archie Comics Sonic the Hedgehog comic (that is a post for another day), but I never really got into superheroes.

That is not to say I didn’t have some experience with superheroes or the X-Men, that experience just didn’t come from comics. Like many people who were seven in 1992, I was a huge fan of the cartoon. That show was a gateway, a glimpse into a larger world. Even without reading the comics, I knew somethings were missing with that show, but it still set my expectations for what the X-Men should be, especially when it comes to the make-up of the team. That early 90’s team is the iconic one to me. While I don’t think there is a member of that team I didn’t like, my favorite was always Beast. And the fact that Gambit is not an integral part of the team in other media was a surprise to learn. That wasn’t my only source of superhero knowledge. My best friend was comics fan, and he had these coffee table books that went into the history of comics characters. I remember he had one about Batman and one about Marvel Comics. At his house, sitting on the floor in the tiny closet of a room his family had set up as a game room, I would read these summaries of stories and character histories while we took turns playing Super Nintendo games. They are some of my happiest childhood memories.

I really had a thing for those sorts of books. I routinely checked out a similar book about Godzilla from the school library. I had seen three or four Godzilla movies, But this book went into great (and occasionally incorrect) detail about all the movies and various monsters that Godzilla would face off against. Finally seeing the movies was a bit of a disappointment, because they didn’t quite match how I imagined they all looked. With the superhero books, it was an amazing glimpse into a world I couldn’t actually see. There was something called the “Mutant Massacre” and I didn’t know most of the details, but it sounded amazing.

So I was perfectly primed for the movie when I was 14. I liked the X-Men, but I didn’t know the comics well enough to be concerned about whether or not the movie was accurate. Honestly, at the time the only superhero movies I knew were Batman movies, so it wasn’t like I had something else to set expectations by. A lot of stuff now about X-Men makes me roll my eyes a little bit. The jabs at colorful costumes or the fact that it isn’t actually very good, you know, those sorts of things. But as a 14 year old, it hit me perfectly. It was cool, which was the most important thing for a new teenager. It didn’t have the X-Man I most identified with, the monstrous yet erudite Beast, but the rest was good enough that I didn’t care. The scene where Magneto points all the guns back at the cops blew my mind. My enthusiasm didn’t wane. I bought the movie on VHS, one of my first such purchases, and completely dissected it, searching the background for hints at characters that weren’t in the movie. Needless to say, I was excited for the sequel. And the sequel worked. Sure, it turned into even more of the Wolverine show, but Wolverine was great so what was the problem?

I think the “geek” movies of the early 2000’s don’t get the respect they deserve. Everyone probably feels that about the movies they fell in love with when they were teenagers. But starting in 1999 with The Phantom Menace and The Matrix, the next six or so years were filled with movies that just worked for me. The best remembered, and likely best all-around from the time, were Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies. I loved them. I never hated the Star Wars prequels and I didn’t lose any of my excitement when a new one was coming out. Let’s not forget Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies. But my favorites at the time were the X-Men movies. Recently, in a pile of papers, I found a list I made, likely around 2004, of the best movie trilogies. I like to make lists, so this seems like something I would have done instead of paying attention in some high school class. Star Wars topped the list, with Lord of the Rings and Back to the Future also near the top. There was a note on the page, though, reminding myself to revise the list when X-Men 3 came out, because based on the strength of the first two movies it was a contender for the top spot.

X-Men 3: The Last Stand was in some ways the end of my close relationship with the X-Men movie franchise, but not because I was disappointed in it. I convinced myself it was good for a long time. No, it is more that movie kind of marks a sort of childhood’s end for me. That was a long time coming, as I was twenty when that movie came out, but age wasn’t really the dividing line. It was that X-Men 3 was the last movie I went to see with my high school friends. We, in many groups and variations, went to see plenty of movies together. The most memorable for me were the times when we got as big a group of us together as possible, piled into my parents’ full-size Chevy van and went to see a movie. I’ll never forget the night we watched the Matrix Reloaded on DVD at my friend’s house, then all went together to see The Matrix: Revolutions. The silent, angry car ride home was excruciating. We all hated the movie, but none of us wanted to talk about it. It was crushing and we all just sullenly fumed as I drove us home. One might think that the Last Stand would have had a similar result. An unsafe number of teenagers, or recently turned not teenagers, stuffed into a van (close to a dozen in a vehicle that seats seven) making the thirty minute ride to and from the theater. But it did not. That movie got a range of reactions and we had a pretty good discussion about it on the ride home. No, it didn’t really do a great job with the Phoenix story. Yes, Kelsey Grammar as the Beast was great. We stood in the driveway talking for more than an hour after we got back. I think we all subconsciously knew that this was something like the end of an era, that we would never be together and be the people we in high school again. We were already dispersed to different colleges and these get togethers were growing increasingly infrequent. But as long as we stood there talking about whether The Last Stand was actually going to be the last stand, the longer our group lasted. But, as all things must, that night ended.

That was also the end of that take on the X-Men. Despite my claims of childhood’s end, before the next movie came out, the desultory X-Men Origins, I got into comics. With my initial love of the X-Men, the first thing I did was . . . acquire a full run of .pdfs of all X-Men comics and read them. But as my reading branched out, I moved away from the superhero team that was a favorite of my childhood. In fact, I came to realize that the characters a DC resonated more strongly with me than most of Marvel’s. When First Class came out in 2011, I actually kind of cared that they were bungling a whole handful of characters. (Really, that movie is super overrated and in many places quite bad). I would still go see X-Men movies, but I was no longer really a fan. Days of Future Past is likely the best of the bunch, but I haven’t returned to it like I did with the first two movies. Honestly, I didn’t think about the X-Men movies much at all, at least until Disney bought Fox and I realized that this movie franchise that has been there for so long was going away for good.

Dark Phoenix does not feel like a movie designed to be the end of a blockbuster movie franchise. The Last Stand did. Logan did. Dark Phoenix, for much of its runtime, feels like just another chapter. For one thing, we haven’t gotten to know this team of X-Men well enough to care. Which is really the biggest flaw with the movie. The fact that it is a low key character focused take that was hastily retrofitted into being a big action film is a problem, but that still stems out of the fact that how are we to know that Jean has changed when we don’t know Jean. For better or worse, the movies since First Class have focused on the trio of Xavier, Magneto and Mystique, with Beast always there in the periphery. This new crew of Nightcrawler, Cyclops, Jean and Storm just showed up last movie and were at best tertiary players in that movie. Also, Quicksilver is there, mostly for one cool action scene a movie and nothing else. There is what appears is supposed to be a big character moment for Nightcrawler in the final act, but it is hard to know when we don’t know Nightcrawler. Maybe Storm makes a big decision about midway, but we don’t know Storm well enough to tell. The only one it is possible to get a read on is Cyclops, and that is because he doesn’t change. Meanwhile, Dark Phoenix does almost nothing with Magneto or Mystique, and Beast’s arc is underwritten. That leaves only Xavier, and this time we never really get inside his head.

Dark Phoenix is the most disappointing kind of bad; the kind of bad when you can feel that people were really trying and really cared (maybe not Jennifer Lawrence). There is fun to be had with a big, dumb goofy movie. Something like Gods of Egypt that isn’t good, but there is at least fun spectacle to entertain while pointing to the badness. Dark Phoenix seems like it cares and is much too dour to have a good time with.

Now the X-Men have been hoovered up in that corporate megalith Disney, something we have been assured is a good thing because now they can be in the same mega-franchise as the Avengers. Maybe it will turn out to be a good thing for X-Men movies. While I think there is a lot of potential in the young actors cast to play the X-Men, a completely new take is likely for the best. Maybe someone will get characters besides Xavier, Magneto and Wolverine “right.” There are a lot that haven’t really gotten their due. I would love to see a movie that actually does something with Storm, or a movie that gets the swashbuckling nature of Nightcrawler. Colossus and Kitty Pryde. Rogue. Emma Frost. Gambit. There are a ton of characters that have never gotten a once of focus because it has all been about Xavier, Magneto and Wolverine; even when the movies are adapting stories that originally focused on other characters. Only Dark Phoenix broke from that, putting the focus on Jean Grey, but failing to flesh her out enough before her change into Phoenix for that change to have any meaning.

The X-Men movies were only intermittently good, but I’ll miss them nonetheless.

**1/2

Booksmart

I finally got the chance to see Booksmart a few days ago and I’m glad I did because it is now my favorite movie of the year so far. It is the latest high school coming of age movie, this time focusing on two young women rather than the usual young men as they

The comparison I’ve seen made a lot is between Booksmart and Superbad. It is in some ways apt, as they both deal in large part with similar themes. Both follow two life-long friends on an attempt to get to a party at the tail end of their time in high school. While the macro view might make the two movies seem very similar, they are very different on the micro level. They certainly don’t feel the same. I would also argue that Booksmart is much more ambitious in its plotting and its filmmaking than Superbad ever even thought of being.

The move rests on the charisma and chemistry between the stars, Beanie Feldstein as the driven Molly and Kaitlyn Dever as the more withdrawn Amy. They are perfect. The rest of the cast is solid as well, with excellent pinch hitting performances from Lisa Kudrow, Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte and Jessica Williams and some great stuff from other students, especially Skyler Gisondo and Billie Lourd.

Booksmart does feature a lot of tropes familiar to this sort of movie, but it kind of back burners them to the more personal drama between the two friends. Both friends have partners that they would like to hook up with, but that is clear secondary desire to their other goals. A lot of the movie is more about the personal journeys of Molly and Amy.

Booksmart is also a remarkably empathetic movie. While characters are shown being cruel, it is generally out of the thoughtlessness and not malice. It is movie that emphasizes consideration of other people’s situation. This is true of nearly every character in the movie. Molly starts the movie as more than a little judgmental, and the film makes it clear that this is out of fear. She is preemptively rejecting people before they reject her. Which causes them to reject her. The movie doesn’t make a villain out of anybody. The kids who are mean to Molly are only doing so because she is almost deliberately abrasive. That doesn’t make them right, but it adds context. Even the two teachers that play a role are more than just teachers. The supportive English teacher is shown to make some bad decisions and the struggling principal is really struggling.

It also does a great job of letting the other characters have their stories going on that only briefly intersect with Molly and Amy. The big party they are trying to get to is not the only party going on. It is a big school and not everyone wants that party experience. The theater kids are having their own murder mystery party, with very well developed roles for each guest. The rich kids are having a party on their parent’s yacht. The roles are fluid, people move from one party to another as the night goes on.

The film is also visually inventive. There are a handful of standout scenes. One is kind of a standard drug trip the ends up with the characters imagining themselves as Barbie dolls. Another is a pool scene, where one of the protagonists swims underwater in the midst of a bunch of rambunctious teens.

Booksmart is incredibly smart, empathetic and interesting. It is a movie that creates comedy through its characters, rather than have characters that exist as a vehicle for its comedy, making it much more real and believable. It is equal parts profane and thoughtful. Booksmart is just really, really good.

*****

Aladdin Review

I’ve found Disney’s live action adaptations of their animated movies to run from mediocre to downright bad. Still, I somehow find myself going to see them. The advertising around Aladdin did not do it any favors, so I went in to see it not expecting much. That is despite my love of Guy Ritchie movies and me thinking that Aladdin is one of the absolute best of Disney’s animated movies. The 2019 version of Aladdin was a pleasant surprise, because it turns out it is actually pretty great.

There is no getting around this fact; the animated version is the superior movie. It is nimbler and more energetic. While there are improvements to this version, like having more than one woman with a speaking role, it loses a little of the light on its feet snappiness of the original. However, if you can accept that this is a somewhat lesser version of the movie, there is still a lot of fun to be had.

The part of the movie that is drawing the greatest criticism online is Will Smith as the genie. The two apparently objectionable parts of his portrayal are the look and simply an unfavorable comparison to Robin Williams. I kind of agree that the movie never quite gets the look of the genie right. I don’t know what they could have done better, I think the mind just rejects a real live blue person. There is nothing really wrong with it, it just doesn’t look great. The performance is something else entirely. I like it, when they let Will Smith be Will Smith. WHen he is copying Williams, it doesn’t really work, when he has more freedom to do his own thing, Smith’s charm shines through. Fortunately, the movie has a lot more of the latter.

While they do slow things down a little bit, most of the rest of the changes are for the good, narratively. The Sultan’s character has been given a near complete overhaul. He was essentially a child in the animated movie, both small of stature and small of mind. Here, he has been reimagined as a scared old man. It adds a layer to his dealings with Princess Jasmine. He is trying to marry her because he is afraid of leaving her alone. His fear allows him to be led by Jafar, at least in some things. Jasmine is made a stronger character, with more to her than just that desire to see life outside of the palace. She has studied and made herself capable of being a strong ruler should the opportunity present itself. Jafar has been changed pretty significantly, and for the better in my book. They made him, like Aladdin, a former “street rat.” He is a man that was born with nothing and has risen to be the second most powerful man in Agrabah. It creates a strong parallel between him and Aladdin that deepens Aladdin’s struggles with the power the genie gives him and the conflict between the two of them.

This is a still a musical, and while the musical numbers do not quite match the original, they are solid, with one exception. “Friend Like Me” is a dud in this version. It is still a fun song, but this version has none of the magic of the original. Still, “One Jump Ahead,” “Prince Ali,” and “A Whole New World” are still really good. The new song’s heart is in the right place, but it sticks out like a sore thumb. Especially the second time it shows up.

While Aladdin may lack the energy of the original, it is one of the few of these adaptations that feels like it has any at all. Many of the rest fell somewhat perfunctory; this one at least feels like it is trying. Like the animated version, it is a crowd pleasing delight.

****1/2

Tolkien Review

Tolkien is a perfectly fine biopic that tries to do too much and ends up not doing most of it as well as it could have. The movie tells the story of a young JRR Tolkien, up through his experiences in WWI, largely following three threads. The first is the bond Tolkien formed with some of his school friends that last until the first world war. Another is a love story between Tolkien and his lifelong love. Last, the movie spends time with Tolkien’s experience during WWI.

The movie cuts back and forth between a young Tolkien and Tolkien during the war. The bulk of the movie follows Tolkien as he ages from child through his time at university. First, Tolkien and his mother and brother find out that his father has died and they are forced to move from the country to the city. Then, further tragedy strikes as Tolkien’s mother dies. He and his brother go to live as boarders with a rich old woman while they attend school. Another boarder living there is Edith Bratt, who soon forms a connection with Tolkien. After an initially rough time fitting in, Tolkien also forms close bonds with a trio of other boys at school, forming what they call a fellowship that lasts even when they go to seperate universities.

Interspersed with Tolkien growing up are scenes of Tolkien in the trenches of WW1. He is suffering from an illness, and looking for his friend Geoffrey Smith. Smith has stopped responding to letters, and Tolkien is afraid he might have been killed. So he treks across the front looking for him, followed by his batman, a Private named Sam. Tolkien frequently nearly collapsed, and has fantastical hallucinations.

While good, the movie bit off a little more than it could chew. There is likely a really entertaining version of this movie that focuses on the romance, or on Tolkien’s love of languages, or on his connections with his school friends. This one tries to do all of those things, and ends up shortchanging most of them. The only one that comes across truly strongly is him with his childhood friends. They call themselves the TCBS, the Tea Club and Barrovian Society. Still, even with that thread it struggles to give clarity to the relationships between the boys. While it does manage to differentiate the boys, the focus on them shifts making it hard to get a read on them at times.

The romance feels truncated, but it works. It helps that Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins are both great. It does a good job of showing why they would connect, but it does a lesser job of bridging things after the inevitable struggles happen. The WWI stuff is the clumsiest part of the movie, mostly because tries the hardest to connect his experiences to the Lord of the Rings.

The Middle Earth books are the specter that hovers over this movie, even if it doesn’t cover the part of Tolkien’s life when he wrote those stories, other than in a coda near the end. It tries too hard to relate all of Tolkien’s experiences to what he would later write in his stories. Some of it works, it only makes sense that writer’s experiences would influence his works, but it frequently tries too hard. His visions and hallucinations during the war are the most egregious example.

Tolkien is more good than bad. It isn’t anything world changing or amazing. It is simply a solidly executed, well shot and well acted, biopic.

***1/2

Pokemon: Detective Pikachu

I am a fan of Pokemon. I’ve played the games since Red and Blue were first released and while I don’t obsess over them, I can point to evidence that I have played nearly every mainline release in the series. While knowledge of or nostalgia for Pokemon is certain to greatly enhance a person’s enjoyment of Pokemon: Detective Pikachu, I think is works without much affection for its base series.

Knowledge of the details of the Pokemon world and knowledge of the close to one thousand little creatures that inhabit it are a definite plus for watching this movie. It does some work in explaining how things work, but there are significant chunks of background stuff that are helpful to a viewer. Like the opening scene with the Cubone. Tim, the protagonist, makes a comment about its bone helmet while trying to catch it. The movie never really explains what Pokemon fans already know, that a Cubone wears the skull of its dead mother as a helmet. That is the kind of information a player would find in their pokedex or the cartoon would explain. This movie doesn’t have time to explain all of the series’ accompanying nonsense; it just assumes the player is familiar. For the most part this works; most pokemon are pretty self-explanatory. The big dragon with fire on its tail breaths fire, the toads with big flower bulbs on their backs have plant abilities. When the movie needs the player to know a stranger fact, like the fact that psyduck’s have trouble controlling their psychic powers under stress, it tells the viewer. Most of the incidental stuff is just there to be spotted by fans, and the movie does a great job of filling the frame with incidental stuff.

The cast is a nice mix of relative newcomers and some favorites. I loved seeing Bill Nighy and Ken Watanabe as secondary characters. Justice Smith is a rising star, who has been enjoyable in largely enjoyable misfires like The Get Down and Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom. The star is Ryan Reynolds, who lends his voice to Pikachu, doing a PG version of his Deadpool schtick. It mostly works.

One part of the movie that unreservedly shines is its effects. I was not crazy about the realistic Pokemon renders in the trailers, but pretty quickly in the movie I not only got used to them, I became pretty impressed with how good they looked. It isn’t easy to turn fanciful, cartoonish monsters into realistic creatures, but they did it. Pikachu in particular is a success, with him appearing wonderfully real, furry and expressive.

Detective Pikachu plays out like a Blade Runner for babies; it is a child’s first noir story. And while it can’t quite bring the mystery home in a truly satisfactory way, it mostly works. Tim is a lapsed Pokemon fanatic who is called to Ryme City to settle affairs after the apparent death of his estranged father. His father was an ace detective who disappeared on a case. At first, Tim has no interest in picking up where his father left off, he just wants to deal with his dad’s stuff and get back to his insurance job. That changes when he finds his dad’s Pikachu, who for some reason can talk. This Pikachu considers himself a great detective, but he has amnesia so he doesn’t remember what happened to Tim’s dad. The two of them team up to solve Tim’s dad’s last case.

The way the mystery plays out is where it is most apparent that this is a movie for kids. I pretty much sorted out all of the characters immediately and what their roles would be. There are a couple of bonkers twists near the end that I couldn’t predict, but the general roles of every character was pretty much immediately apparent to any savvy viewer. It is a simple mystery, but a largely satisfying one up until the near the end.

That is the movie in a nutshell; deceptively simple and largely satisfying. All of the Pokemon nonsense might be hard to grasp for the uninitiated, but the parts needed to understand the film are simple.

****

John Wick Chapter 3 Parabellum

I thought I understood where this third John Wick movie was going. I thought the second movie was this series Empire Strikes Back or Back to the Future 2; a movie where the end leaves the characters kind of stranded, kind of defeated, a low point setting up a triumphant third part of the story. John Wick Chapter 3 – Parabellum is not that triumphant third piece of a trilogy. It is a bigger, messier movie in the series that sends the titular protagonist on a journey through hell, but it is a highly entertaining trek.

Parabellum picks up right where Chapter 2 left off, with John Wick an hour away from being declared excommunicado, running with no safe place to run to. Wick starts this movie desperate, and it never really gets better. First, he has to escape New York. Then he has to find a way to get the contract on him lifted, to get back in the good graces of the High Table, the group that leads the assassin world. To do this, he has to call in all the favors left to him. He has one from The Director, who runs a ballet/wrestling school and has some kind of past with John Wick. She gets him passage to Casablanca, where he meets up with Sofia, cashing in another favor to try to find The Elder, to get him to intervene on his behalf with the High Table.

While Wick fights every assassin in the world, the High Table sends an adjudicator to hand out punishment to everyone who helped Wick along the way, from Winston at the Continental Hotel to the Bowery King to people he encounters in this movie. There are fewer and fewer safe places for John Wick to go.

John Wick does not have the resources available to him in this movie that he had in the past, making the fights rougher and meaner. Lots of knives, lots of hand to hand combat. This is not the carefully planned assassination from the last movie, with John Wick getting outfitted for every contingency. This is a scramble to survive, all the way up to the final action scene.

The movie introduces more allies and/or enemies with history with Wick. The most interesting is Sofia, played by Halle Berry. Sofia is essentially a female John Wick; one who realized she would never get out of the life and did what she could for her family. She shows her similarity to Wick in one of the movies highlight action scenes, right down to her affection for canines. Then there is Zero, an assassin hired by the High Table to help them get revenge on Wick. He too is another master murderer, this one something of a John Wick fan trying to prove himself to the legend by killing the legend. I kind of want to say more about certain developments in this movie, but I really don’t want to spoil it.

John Wick Chapter 3 – Parabellum is amazing in all the ways that its predecessors were amazing. This one tries to go bigger, and I would be lying if I said that path did not lead to some diminishing returns. I don’t fault the movie for it, the previous two basically perfected this sort of balletic violence. What is there left for this chapter but for more and bigger? It mostly works here, while occasionally feeling like too much; like the movie went too big. There are still plenty of memorable fights and letting characters that are not Wick get in more on the action was a good idea. It is everything you could want in an action movie.

I misread where John Wick was on his hero’s journey. I though the last movie ended with him further along, with John Wick at the abyss, ready to start his ascension out of the underworld. With the third chapter, I realized that he has much further to go. After Parabellum, I am eager for more adventures for John Wick and eager to see him find peace.

*****

The Hustle

I love Dirty, Rotten Scoundrels. That con man caper just hits all the right notes for me, and the combination of Steve Martin and Michael Caine is just perfect. And that is saying nothing of Glenne Headly. I consider it a perfect comedy. Naturally, I was excited to see the remake, which changed the title to The Hustle and stars Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson. That remake turned out to be somewhat disappointing. I wouldn’t call a complete loss, but it is a missed opportunity.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is a movie that it is hard to get upset about seeing remake, if only for the fact that it was a remake itself. The common story to these three movies is one that lends itself well to changes to the details while keeping the core conceit in place. That conceit is that one character is an uncouth, small time con man, who meets up a refined, polished trickster. The two briefly form a partnership, but it soon becomes apparent that the town, Beaumont-sur-Mer, is not big enough for the both of them. So they concoct a competition to see who will have to stay and who will have to go. The details of the cons, and who is tricking who at any given time, could be changed without changing much of the appeal.

The Hustle, doesn’t change enough from its predecessor. Or maybe it changes too much? It gets into a weird place where things are different, but seemingly only because makers knew some things had to be different. Sometimes the changes make no sense. At one point in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Martin pretends to not be able to walk. Caine poses as a psychologist who can cure Martin’s psychosomatic condition. He takes Martin, and their mark, to a dance club, his fake theory being that seeing them moving around and having fun will snap him out of it. The same scenario plays out in The Hustle, except Rebel Wilson, playing the Steve Martin role, is pretending to be blind. How not seeing people dance will make her see again is unclear. It isn’t something she is forced to miss out on; blind people can dance and she can’t see people dancing without her. Many of the changes are like that, a seemingly small alteration that makes how the con plays out nonsensical.

The movie is at its best when it pushes things further away, like when Wilson is setting up fake tinder dates and scamming men out of money for fake boob jobs. Those bits work. As do a lot of the scenes that change nothing from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. It is when the movie gets in that halfway state that it falls apart, when it keeps the set up but changes the punch line, or vice versa.

The other part where it didn’t change enough is in taking into consideration its new stars. Anne Hathaway does a decent Michael Caine impersonation, all haughty and controlled. She brings a very similar energy here, and it works. Rebel Wilson is no Steve Martin. That is not intended to be a dig at Wilson; she just brings a different comic energy that Martin does. They give the role completely different flavors of sleaze. It means that jokes that worked for Martin do not work as well for Wilson.

The bones of a good movie are apparent in The Hustle. The musculature built around those bones is lumpy and misshapen. While I will watch anything with Anne Hathaway in it, I’d rather just watch Dirty Rotten Scoundrels again.

**1/2