Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back

Journey to the West

I watched 2013’s Journey to the West movie with no foreknowledge, but the entire time, I kept thinking… this feels just like a Stephen Chow film. So I was pleasantly surprised when the end credits rolled, and it turned out that Chow was the director! After sitting through this sequel, it’s very clear how much of a difference a touch of Chow makes. The Demons Strike Back feels like a lower-budget, direct-to-DVD production in comparison, which makes even less sense when you realize that Chow still wrote and produced it. But he did step away from the director’s chair, an absence that hurts as much as the entire cast changing, as well.

Yep, nothing about this movie is the same. The new monk is not nearly as charming, and the new Monkey doesn’t feel at all mischievous or playful. He’s just a guy doing a dumb smirk through most of the film. The jokes are also pretty lame, the fights (particularly the final battle) are visually confusing, and the character progression is extremely forced. There was huge potential in the love-hate relationship between Tang and Monkey that was never delivered on, and Pigsy and Sandy often served no purpose or had nothing to do. Like so many other things here, they just felt like items on a checklist.

Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange

I think I’m starting to get MCU fatigue. As a standalone movie, Doctor Strange probably wouldn’t have been that bad, but the whole time I was watching it, I couldn’t help but wonder how much this is going to shake up the Marvel universe. Doctor Strange adds a huge amount of magic to the proceedings. Not that magic hasn’t been at play before, but past Marvel movies (especially the non-Avenger ones) felt at least a little more grounded. Poor Hawkeye might as well retire for good if he’s expected to fight alongside Doctor Strange.

And this late into the MCU, I’m getting kind of bored with origin stories, too. The last origin story I liked was Deadpool, because it played around with the timeline. Doctor Strange walks a very straight path from normal guy to magical dude, and his transformation isn’t even that fun to watch. Sure, Benedict Cumberbatch plays the perfect smarmy asshole, and we get the occasional Marvel zinger, but it wasn’t as relatable as I thought it was going to be. We jump right into, “Oh, I guess magic is real now,” followed by, “And here’s your generic villain to beat.”

So the story is pretty weak, but the movie is still fun for no other reason than the visual effects. This is like watching Inception through a kaleidoscope. Fights take place while entire cities fold in on themselves, and one scene plays out in real-time and backwards… at the same time. It’s the most impressive-looking Marvel movie to date. Of course, it’s also the weakest in terms of character development. I never felt like I understood why anyone was doing anything or why we should care about Doctor Strange as a person. I know he’ll show up in future Marvel movies, but unless he brings his effects team with him, I don’t really care.

Kubo and the Two Strings

Kubo

It’s disheartening how all animated movies are practically the same now. Same style. Same jokes. Same pacing. So the Laika films truly are something special. I love stop-motion animation, after all, and I’m glad there’s at least one studio that still embraces it. I just wish they would hire better writers. Kubo is probably my favorite of their efforts, but it, too, falls victim to lame attempts at humor, forced dialogue, and inconsistent characters. Kubo, for instance, starts out as a very mysterious and soft-spoken boy, but once his adventure begins, and the stakes are significantly higher, he’s suddenly sticking his tongue out and acting immature. Same goes for the monkey character. The more we learn about her, the more her previous actions don’t make much sense.

The adventure itself is fun, though. While it does feel a little video gamey in the sense that Kubo has to find three artifacts before he can defeat the “end boss” (where each artifact is guarded by a mini-boss), I walked into the movie kind of expecting that. Not like Coraline where the game-like finale came out of nowhere. Plus, despite the cast being quite small, all of the characters were very memorable. Bringing in big stars like Matthew McConaughey wasn’t even as distracting as I thought it would be. More importantly, though, is that Laika’s signature animation style is perfect for this type of project. Kubo benefits from stop-motion more than anything else they’ve done. The world feels real and fantastical at the same time, and I really hope they continue down this direction. But they’ve got to up the quality of the writing to match!

X-Men: Apocalypse

X-Men: Apocalypse

In X-Men: Apocalypse, one of the characters cheekily remarks that the third movie in a trilogy is always the worst, which was probably them taking another potshot at The Last Stand, but it ironically reflects my feelings about this movie. To be clear, I didn’t hate it. I really like what these newer X-Men movies are doing with the characters. They look great, their powers are awesome to see in action, and the brief moments where they actually have personality are fun. But there’s the rub. Most of the time, characters are just… there. Were you worried Olivia Munn wouldn’t be a good Psylocke? Well, she does so little in Apocalypse that it’s hard to form an opinion either way.

I’m mostly baffled by Mystique’s inclusion, though. She serves no purpose to the plot and pretty much plays moral support for the other characters. I think they only included her, because they already had Jennifer Lawrence on board to play the character. They’re gonna drag her along as much as they did Hugh Jackman, though to be fair, Wolverine’s cameo here was kind of cool. I also enjoyed Nightcrawler’s and, once again, Quicksilver’s presence. Quicksilver’s going to have a show-stealing scene in every movie now, isn’t he? But it was starting to feel like he was too powerful, and I was gearing up to complain that he could have taken out the bad guy by himself.

Thankfully, they do finally address that, but the Apocalypse character as a whole is dumb. He’s honestly the weakest part of the movie. His origins are silly, he spends most of the movie standing around and monologuing, and the fact that he was able to sum up his thoughts on modern society by touching a TV set and then, in a very Ultron-like way, determine the Earth needed cleansing was a little contrived. But that wasn’t nearly as bad as watching the movie restart Magneto’s fall to the dark side in the most clichéd way possible. It’s like every X-Men movie feels the need to “reboot” something. Granted, X-Men are usually more fun to watch when they’re first coming to terms with their powers and identities, but this franchise is going to stagnate (again) if they can’t start building off of that.

Captain America: Civil War

Captain America: Civil War

I liked Civil War, but I think we’ve reached that moment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe where things start to get muddy. While I’ve been good about keeping up with most of these movies, I did miss out on Age of Ultron. And skipping just that one movie already caused a lot of confusion here. Like, who the heck is Vision? Where did he come from? This felt more like a sequel to Age of Ultron than a sequel to the last Captain America movie, which is a little annoying, because… well… this is being branded as a Captain America movie! And yet it is just as much a story about Iron Man as it is a story about the Captain.

This could easily be overwhelming for viewers who passed on more movies than I did. If you didn’t see Ant-Man, for instance, his introduction would have absolutely no effect on you, and his powers would seemingly come out of nowhere. However, I really enjoyed the brief humor Ant-Man brought to the movie. He and Spider-Man collectively stole the show and helped balance out Civil War’s otherwise gloomy mood. The inter-fighting made sense for the most part, though. The growing ensemble was handled pretty well, and the action sequences were fun. The MCU build-up did pay off in the end. I just hope the next big Marvel movie doesn’t require quite so much foreknowledge.

Minions

Minions

The Minions movie represents everything I’ve grown to hate about modern animated films. I fully realize a kids’ movie is for kids, but a good kids’ movie can also be fun for the adults. I recently enjoyed Zootopia, after all, so I’m not totally immune. But, man, the Minions movie was so annoying. The plot felt like it had no purpose, the characters were bland, and the humor could be broken up into two types: simple-minded slapstick or obvious British/pop culture references. I think I laughed once through the whole thing, and the one gag I did like I can’t even remember.

To be honest, I just don’t find the minions very amusing. While their design is cute, their personalities are obnoxious, especially in large doses. The gibberish talk in particular is really grating; I feel like they would be funnier if they were silent and relied purely on physical comedy. A movie about a thousand little Harpos running about would have been a delight to watch. Instead, we got a “prequel” that does more damage to the Despicable Me universe than good and kind of ruins who the minions are when you stop to think about it. Oh, but it’s a kids’ movie. No room for thinking, right?