Monday, October 9, 2017

The History of Video Game Movies (Part 5: 2015-2017 and the future)

At this point, Hollywood had been adapting video games for over 20 years, and despite a few financial successes here and there, none of them managed to combine that with pleasing critics and fans.

Unfortunately, this trend is still going strong as of 2017 and there still hasn't been a quality video game movie.

The first example of this era was 2015's Hitman: Agent 47, inspired by IO Entertainment's stealth series that began in 2000 and is still active.

This has the worst Rotten Tomatoes score of any film in this article at 8% and it's easy to see why. Hitman: Agent 47 is dull and uninteresting in every way and doesn't even do the audience the favor of being bad in an entertaining way.

Perhaps the film's most unforgivable sin of all is that it doesn't even have good action scenes, partly because of the overly quick editing. There' are also some dodgy special effects at times, although nothing blatantly obvious.

Basically, there's no reason for anyone to watch this ever. Regardless, it was moderately profitable, making over $80 million worldwide and costing $35 million to produce. Director Aleksander Bach has not worked on a film since according to his IMDB page.

Skip Woods, the writer from the first Hitman film from 2007, returned for this, but it's a total reboot set in a new continuity.

2016 had four big video game movies and the first came out in April. That was a lackluster CGI animated film called Ratchet and Clank, adapted from the platformer and shooter series of the same name. It began in 2002 and the most recent entry came out in 2016 and was exclusive to the PlayStation 4. The style of the film was pretty close to that version of Ratchet and Clank.

Friday, September 15, 2017

What Makes for a Successful Film Franchise? (Part 1: Keeping Cast and Crew Consistent)

Film franchises have been incredibly influential and great at making money for the big studios. But what makes for a good one, not only in terms of financial success but also critical acclaim?

This is far from an easy question to answer and there are many factors that can make a difference.

These are some of the factors that I'll analyze over the course of the series and see how they may or may not apply to various well-known film series.

  • Keeping the cast and crew consistent throughout
  • Planning the story out ahead of time, or making it up as you go along
  • Staying true to either the source material or the original film
  • Waiting a long time between sequels or rushing out the next film
  • How much continuity is kept between films and if each film works on its own
  • Keeping the series fresh and introducing new elements or characters

First, let's look at keeping the cast and crew the same throughout the series, and how much effect that may have on the quality of the films.

Often sequels are criticized as a cynical, unnecessary cash-in if they don't have the original creators and cast members involved. If the directors, writers and/or stars return it can lend it an air of legitimacy.

Bringing the creators back for sequels should theoretically make it easier for them not to stray too far from the tone and intent of the franchises' beginnings.

Obviously, losing cast members can alienate audiences who may be upset to see their favorite characters played by a new actor or absent entirely.

The Star Wars franchise is an interesting example. For the original trilogy, the cast was very consistent. Of course, the main three actors and even a lot of the supporting cast returned for all three. It might have been quite odd for audiences to see a new actor portraying Luke, Han, or Leia and I think the movies definitely would have suffered from a major recast or writing out a main character.

When it came time for the prequels, most of the main cast was new as it was set decades prior to the original films. This was definitely something fans complained about as the absence of Ford, Fisher, and Hamill was sorely felt, especially in comparison to the much-maligned performances of Jake Lloyd and Natalie Portman.

However, they did attempt to bring back cast members whenever possible, such as Anthony Daniels as C-3PO and Ian McDiarmid as Emperor Palpatine, with this undoubtedly being to the films' benefit as they provided a necessary link to the original trilogy. 

Obviously, Star Wars was, at least at one point synonymous with George Lucas, who wrote and directed the first film. This gets a bit complicated as he didn't direct the next two films. He got a story credit on The Empire Strikes Back and wrote the story and co-wrote the screenplay on Return of the Jedi. Lucas was a very influential producer on the sequels and the success of the original trilogy is often greatly attributed to him. However, it's worth noting that The Empires Strikes Back was actually directed by Irvin Kershner and that is considered to be as good, if not better than the original by many fans.

For the prequels, Lucas would write and direct all three. Usually having the original creator back in control is seen as a positive thing. If they had been made by some other director it may have been seen as an unnecessary addition solely made for money.

Unfortunately, the films ended up causing an extremely divisive reaction among the public and this shows that having the original creator back for the new installments is far from a guarantee of artistic success.

In fact, this may have actually been a negative since there are plenty of filmmakers who could have made better prequels given the chance.

Once Disney bought the IP, many new directors were brought in, while still keeping on some Star Wars veterans like Lawrence Kasdan. Many actors returned to reprise their roles, but the main characters were pretty much all new faces, especially in Rogue One, which brought back a few known characters in small parts, but with new actors, sometimes aided by CGI. This didn't seem to hurt as the new films were box office hits and generally well-regarded among fans and critics. This was one case where the fanbase was ready for new filmmakers due to the original creator having already made polarizing additions to the universe.

It's not surprising Star Wars could still be popular without the original cast, as it was never hyper-focused on a particular actor, especially compared to series like Indiana Jones, Die Hard, or Rocky. Sure, Luke was clearly the main character of the OT, but many lesser characters ended up being fan favorites as well, even ones that didn't say anything or have more than a minute of screentime.

A lot of people love the franchise for the overall world and not just any one actor or actress. Because it's a whole galaxy with thousands of years of history it's much easier to tell stories in that fictional world that don't even feature the same characters, much less the same cast. The animated shows are great examples of this, like Rebels that focuses on new characters and the voice actors who have been in Star Wars before are mainly relegated to supporting roles.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

It Review (2017, directed by Andy Muschietti)

The newest adaptation of the Stephen King novel It comes from director Andy Muschietti, whose only previous feature was the 2013 horror film Mama starring Jessica Chastain.

I had high hopes for this due to the good reviews, but I was mostly disappointed. My main issue was that I didn’t take Pennywise seriously as a villain, partly due to the overuse of noticeable CGI that looked like it might have needed some more work and unfortunately made those scenes feel silly. On top of that, while I do find clowns creepy in real life, they are too goofy to be effective horror antagonists for me. However, if you are scared of clowns, I wouldn’t be shocked if this movie terrifies you.

All this isn’t to say the costume design and makeup for Pennywise  was bad, those aspects of his character were about as scary as they could be. And actor Bill Skarsgard from Atomic Blonde and Hemlock Grove certainly does as well as he can portraying Pennywise and his acting is never what’s silly about the character. He avoids going over the top which would have been very easy to do with such a role.

The film also relies heavily on jump scares that you can almost always see coming and end up feeling rather rote.

It is much better when just showing the kids hanging out with each other, as they all give great performances and the characters are well-written, 3-dimensional, and varied. With kid characters, it’s easy to fall in the trap of just writing stereotypes, but they manage to avoid that here. These scenes are really fun and should be nostalgic for people that grew up in the 80s. They just aren’t good enough to outweigh the boring nature of the supposedly scary parts. I also felt like the score was a bit overwrought and tried too hard to make the audience feel scared.

I especially liked the performance of Finn Wolfhard, who showed how versatile of an actor he is with a brash, crude character that’s far from who he plays on Stranger Things.

This film is only part one of a planned two movie series, with the second half going to be about the sections in the novel when the Loser’s Club is all grown up. Despite this, it’s a complete story and doesn’t feel like it’s only the first half a larger plot. And the novel is over a thousand pages, so it’s probably for the best not to try to tell all of that in one movie.

My disappointment in the movie seems to put me in the minority. Right now, 88% of critics on Rotten Tomatoes have given it a positive review and it has an 8.4 out of 10 on IMDB. It’s also doing fantastic at the box office, making 13.5 million on its opening Thursday alone and then a massive $51 million on Friday. According to Variety, it’s on track to break multiple opening weekend records, such as for R-rated films, movies released in September, and the highest grossing opening for a horror film. It was tracking at an opening around $60 or $70 million but now looks like it will break $100 million.

This was a much-needed boost for the box office, which had a disappointing summer financially, with the last month or so being especially bad.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Ingrid Goes West Review (2017, directed by Matt Spicer)

Ingrid Goes West is the first feature from director Matt Spicer, who plays it relatively safe here in terms of directorial style and instead lets the film’s well-written script and actors do the heavy lifting.

The main one doing the lifting here is clearly star Aubrey Plaza, who plays a mentally ill woman named Ingrid that becomes obsessed with people she follows on Instagram and starts stalking them. She gives a great performance and presents a very 3-dimensional character. She doesn’t go over the top and manages to avoid becoming a caricature as many actors do when portraying someone with mental illness.

Plaza shows plenty of range and while her character does lots of awful things to people, she somehow manages to not lose the audience’s sympathy and still feel like a real human being. She’s amusing in her awkward moments and compelling in her dramatic ones.

Usually, movies like this don’t tell the story from the perspective of the crazed stalker, so it’s a nice change of pace. Most filmmakers would probably center the story on Elizabeth Olsen’s character, as she plays the target of Ingrid’s fascination. Olsen is good enough here, but her character doesn’t really give her that much of a chance to show her talents.

The plot manages to avoid being too formulaic and yet events still don’t ever feel contrived. Spicer also weaves in social commentary without being heavy-handed and effectively satirizes social media as well as Los Angeles culture.

In addition, Ingrid Goes West depicts cell phone use in a very realistic manner that eschews the visual gimmicks that movies so often use.

In conclusion, I give this movie an 8 out of 10. It’s worth a watch, but isn’t necessarily essential and probably won’t be one of the best of the year or anything like that.

Ingrid Goes West has an 87% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes with an average score of 7.2 out of 10. The low budget film has made around $2.5 million at the box office as of now.

I’d also like to mention that at my screening there was a short film attached at the beginning called Hi Stranger. It’s a bizarre, surreal animated work that achieves being cute and touching in very short runtime.

I really appreciate when they put shorts before a feature as it can expose these sometimes hard to discover works to a broader audience.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Good Time Review (2017, directed by the Safdie Brothers)

Good Time is the newest movie from the up and coming film production company A24 that has released an absurd amount of quality works since 2013, like Oscar best picture winner Moonlight, the understated, creepy horror flick The Witch, and imaginative science fiction like Ex Machina and Under the Skin.

Admittedly, what was making me excited the most about Good Time was the score, by an artist named Daniel Lopatin who makes experimental electronic music under the moniker Oneohtrix Point Never. I’ve been a big fan of his since the 2010 album Returnal, and I’ve had the good fortune of seeing him perform live twice.

So, of course, I was even more intrigued when I heard that Good Time had won the award for best score at the Cannes Film Festival. The score is certainly excellent and in my opinion, the best part of the film, although I’m admittedly biased as such a fan of the artist.

However, I was a bit disappointed as I felt the movie’s aesthetics didn’t really complement the music that well, and there were often long periods with no score. We were teased in the beginning with a retro looking title card perfectly fitting in with the music, but the rest of the movie didn’t live up to this potential.

Image result for good time 2017 movie poster

Good Time was directed by brothers Josh and Ben Safdie who had previously made indie films often starring unknowns like Heaven Knows What and Daddy Longlegs. Ben Safdie also appears in the movie and gives a subtle performance as the protagonist’s mentally challenged brother. The main character is played by Robert Pattinson of Twilight fame who does an excellent job here as his acting is quite realistic. We know very little about his backstory, but we still get a great feel for the character. The only thing is that Pattinson’s character is highly unlikable and often manipulates those around him in immoral ways. I don’t find this to be a problem, but for many, this is a dealbreaker.

Good Time is full of many varied, interesting supporting characters as well, and they all felt like real people to me.

The cinematography is not my usual kind of style, but it’s interesting. The film is shot largely in close-ups with handheld camera and we often don’t get a great sense of the space the characters are in, leading to an immersive, disorienting experience.

The story moves along a tense, brisk pace that never lets up, and there’s not much exposition in the 100-minute long feature. The plot is interesting enough, but Good Time is more about setting mood. However, the lack of a strongly compelling plot keeps this particular film from being a truly great work.

The Safdie Brothers have lots of potential and I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for what they do in the future.

The reviews have been quite positive for Good Time and it has an 88% on Rotten Tomatoes. I couldn’t find any details on the films budget, but it’s made 1.6 million so far at the box office.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

The Defenders Season 1 Review

Hello and welcome to my review of Season 1 of The Defenders, the newest Netflix show from Marvel. The first section will be spoiler free and then I’ll get into spoilers at the end.

Overall, the show is very good and I think anyone who liked the previous shows will like this, but if you didn’t, The Defenders won’t do much to convert you, as it is mainly intended for fans of the earlier Marvel shows on Netflix.

I’m not sure how many people this even applies to, but if you were wondering if The Defenders would still be enjoyable if you haven’t seen everything else, I’d say you can, but it’s much more rewarding the more you’ve seen. Having watched Daredevil is especially important as the plotlines and supporting characters from that show played a key part. I think as long as you’ve seen at least 2 or 3 of the shows you can figure out the rest.

Image result for the defender poster season 1

The Defenders generally assumes you’ve seen the other shows, and doesn’t stop to go into in-depth explanations of their powers and backstories. There are a few lines of dialogue that reference past events and they do a pretty decent job of not making them feel like obvious exposition.

To me, not trying to re-explain who all of the Defenders’ are is surely to the series’ benefit, as there really isn’t much time to get bogged down in recapping the other shows.

I really liked Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage, but I was a little nervous for The Defenders after the abysmal Iron Fist. However, The Defenders turned out very solid, and I’d give it an 8 out of 10. Despite some significant flaws, it succeeds at what it’s trying to be. At this point, Marvel Netflix fans pretty much know what they are getting and The Defenders doesn’t have any major surprises in store. It’s mostly what you would expect going in. But it’s still the culmination of some of the best comic book shows ever made and there are enough awesome moments to make the show worth watching.

My biggest concern was the Iron Fist character, and he is the weakest link of the main 4 and still comes off as cheesy at times, but he has clearly improved from his own show. Perhaps it’s partly that he works better in small doses, as opposed to being the main character.

The show starts out with a somewhat of a slow build, with not that much action in the first two episodes. I didn’t have a problem with it and there’s plenty of action later, but just keep that in mind going in.

The Defenders is only 8 episodes long, compared to the 13 episodes that Daredevil and the others got per season. This lets the plot along at a quick pace and there really isn’t any noticeable filler.

Everyone felt true to the way they had previously been portrayed and I didn’t notice any glaring out of character moments. It’s really fun seeing people from different shows interact with each other, which I’ll get more into in the spoiler section.

The cast is very good with the main exception being Finn Jones as Danny Rand as I alluded to earlier. Sigourney Weaver is great as always in her role as the villain Alexandra Reid, but the character itself didn’t really work for me that much, and we never get to see her do anything to establish herself as a great villain. It’s hard to explain fully without spoilers, so I’ll get into that later. From what I understand, Reid is not from the comics, which seems like an odd choice to do for the first season of the team up of all Marvel’s Netflix shows, given the ridiculous amount of villains Marvel has its disposal.

The fight choreography is basically on the same level as Daredevil and a huge step up from Iron Fist. A few moments are a bit awkward as Luke Cage and Jessica Jones have a much different fighting style compared the more martial arts focused characters, and they can be less visually interesting because of this.

The cinematography is fine with a few somewhat long takes here and there, but nothing mind-blowing. It doesn’t look too far off from Marvel’s other Netflix efforts.

The dialogue is okay, with some moments that were too on the nose, although nothing blatantly awful, but also good lines sprinkled in here and there.

The music is also about average, as it rarely stands out one way or another.

That’s the end of the spoiler free section so stop listening here if you want to avoid spoilers.

I really liked how there was a slow build to the Defenders actually teaming up. None of them meet up in the first episode and don’t really see them action much, but we still get fun interactions like Foggy talking to Luke Cage. Then in Episode 2, things slowly start to come together with Iron Fist and Luke Cage meeting for the first time and having a neat fight scene. Matt Murdock and Jessica Jones meet at the end of the episode, with Jones also having an interesting scene with Misty Knight. When they finally come together for a well-made action scene at the climax of Episode 3, it feels earned.

They did an excellent job of incorporating all the supporting cast from the various shows, with key characters from all of them showing up, like Elektra and Stick from Daredevil Madame Gao and  Colleen Wing from Iron Fist, Claire Temple, and even Carrie-Anne Moss as Jeri Hogarth.. The only big one I personally was missing was The Punisher. He would have probably felt out of place though, I just really liked him in Daredevil Season 2.

One substantial complaint I had was with the character of Alexandra Reid. They got a fantastic actress like Sigourney Weaver and build her up a lot, but she never really does much before getting unceremoniously stabbed by Elektra in Episode 6. Then Elektra and Madame Gao basically become the main villains. Elektra is great as always, but Gao just isn’t that compelling. I wasn’t too crazy about the reuse of The Hand in general and I think they need to move on to new storylines.

The finale was satisfying, but with few moments that stood out as exceptional. One thing I really liked was when Misty Knight gets her arm chopped off and then Colleen Wing decapitates the guy. I was aware that having only one real arm was part of her character in the comics, but I wasn’t thinking about it at that moment so I still found it surprising when it happened.

And then there’s a definite hint towards her getting her bionic arm, so that was cool to see as well.

They try to play it off as is Matt Murdock is dead for a little bit, but I just heard they will be filming season 3 of Daredevil this October, not that I really thought they were going to kill him off anyways.

That it’s for my review of The Defenders Season 1, thanks for reading,

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Batman and Harley Quinn Review (2017, directed by Sam Liu)

Welcome to my review of the newest animated movie from DC called Batman and Harley Quinn. It was directed by Sam Liu, who made previous DC animated films Justice League: Gods and Monsters and the controversial Killing Joke adaptation.

Right off the bat, I’m going to say that I wasn’t really a big fan of this one, with my main complaint being the tone. It’s very comedic and silly, which in of itself isn’t a problem, as I’ve enjoyed Batman being portrayed that way in stuff like the 1960s Adam West show and the animated series Batman The Brave and the Bold.

But those were more innocent, whereas this has much more ostensibly adult content like a bit of violence, but mostly just sexual humor and explicit language. So it’s not really a tone that I’ve personally seen in Batman media. It kind of goes overboard in the risque material and is far from subtle. They also oversexualize the female characters to a ridiculous and juvenile degree.

As you may expect given the title, Harley Quinn plays a huge role in this movie to the point of basically being the main character. She has never been one of my favorite Batman characters, but this actually wasn’t that bad of a portrayal of her as her personality isn’t quite as over the top as it sometimes is. Usually, Harley comes as a package with the Joker, but he’s only referenced and doesn’t appear.

I don’t claim to be a Batman expert, but I’ve read my fair share of comics, watched the shows, and seen all the movies, and not once have I encountered a fart joke. Not only does this movie have one, but it goes on for a long time and isn’t particularly funny or clever.

There’s also part of the plot that’s been very controversial and it happens near the beginning so I don’t consider it a spoiler. That’s the fact that Harley Quinn and Nightwing hook up, which is played for laughs and doesn’t really have an effect on the story.

Batman and Nightwing and made to look a little too incompetent for my tastes in order to make Harley Quinn look better. Having an odd tone is one thing, but going against the essence of the characters is much less forgivable to me.

The voice acting is one of the strengths of Batman and Harley Quinn and that starts with the legendary Kevin Conroy as Batman, who is great as always. Loren Lester also reprises his role as Nightwing, but I thought his performance was mediocre.

Instead of Arleen Sorkin, the most popular Harley Quinn voice actor, she was played by Melissa Rauch from the Big Bang Theory. Even though a lot of people have been complaining, I found her version less annoying and silly than how she often sounds.

The art style is highly reminiscent of Batman The Animated Series, which makes sense as Bruce Timm was an executive producer, one of the writers, and makes a quick cameo as Booster Gold. The animation may nostalgic for those who watched the cartoon, but this isn’t nearly enough to cancel out the negatives about this film.

The story is serviceable but generic and involves Poison Ivy trying to turn anyone into plants. She has help from a pretty obscure villain that I had never heard of called Floronic Man.

The plot ends in an incredibly abrupt and anticlimactic matter that borders on insulting the audience.

Some of the dialogue is pretty cringy with Nightwing actually using the term “BFF” and lines like “Human won’t give a crap unless we force them to.”

There’s even an extended musical number that goes on for two whole songs. It’s mildly amusing at times but doesn’t deserve this much time devoted to it. It’s sort of just filler to pad out the runtime.

In conclusion, I’ll give this movie a 4 out of 10. There were a few fun aspects but not nearly enough to outweigh the glaring flaws.