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Nice try.

This is a tough one. In order to be a good critic, I have to get my biases out of the way. The Dark Tower books are pretty personal for me, so this movie was always going to be personal for me. I first read The Gunslinger when I was thirteen, pulling it down off the shelf to be my first Stephen King book, because the back cover said “fantasy” and the book seemed thin enough to get through quickly if I didn’t like it. I was living in a small town in Saskatchewan, halfway through what would be a pretty terrible year there. A year where I needed frequent escapes from bullying, poverty, and the brewing frustrations and confusions of puberty. I needed something like The Gunslinger, much like Jake Chambers maybe, and the series delivered. I followed it since, waiting for King to hurry up and finish with ten times the anticipation and fear than I could ever feel about A Song of Ice and Fire. I always knew that a movie version of The Dark Tower was inevitable, and that it would be a difficult sell (especially now) as is. I followed the production of this movie with a lot of trepidation but always a little bit of hope. As it neared release, article after article came out to talk about how troubled its production was, how compromised and messy the movie would be, and I settled down to very low expectations. And yet, this movie surprised me by how truly awful it is. I haven’t seen a movie this bad since Assassin’s Creed and it’s bad in almost exactly the same ways.

I’m not a megafan of anything, seldom letting fandom get in the way of what I like to think is an honest and critical appraisal of the stories and media I engage with. That said, there are two basic approaches to a movie like The Dark Tower. There’s approaching it as an adaptation and approaching it as a movie like any other. People generally conflate their reactions, especially if they don’t have a vested interest in film criticism as a craft, and so you’re gonna see a lot of reactions that blur the lines between reacting to how The Dark Tower fails as an adaptation and how it fails as a movie. But it does fail at both. If it was just a bad adaptation, I would be far more forgiving. I’m cool with adaptations that beat out their own path or try to present another take on a thing. My critical history is full of remarks to this effect, so I don’t think anyone could say that I don’t like The Dark Tower just because it’s a “bad Dark Tower movie”. Most of this review will be about how it’s just generally bad, but I will also talk about it as an adaptation. ‘Cuz I have to at least a little bit. I owe it to that kid who walked through Mid-World and beyond with Roland’s ka-tet.

Brass tacks is that The Dark Tower is exactly the kind of gutless, cut to death, and misguided genre movie that is cynically trying to ride the coattails of other genre hits. Particularly, in this case, the recent wave of “YA” movies, some good and some bad, which are made from “YA” books, some good and some bad. The Dark Tower puts minimal effort into every single distinguishing element until the result is boilerplate and meaningless. It casually name-drops bits of lore from the books like its trying to win a #nocontext contest and its few characters are underserved, inconsistent, and rushed through a movie that is probably thirty minutes too short. The result is incredibly rushed, messy, incoherent, and probably mostly frustrating for people who didn’t read the books but actually like fantasy and lore and shit. Those people will have precious little to grab onto here, as almost nothing is explained or presented in the movie meaningfully.

To try and summarize it in a sentence: imagine looking forward to Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and getting Eragon instead. That, on every level, is what The Dark Tower is like.

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They just can’t quite carry it.

So I was very in for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. There’s a bunch of reasons, but foremost among them is that I fucking love this kind of whiz bang, go for broke science fiction. Throw me all the weird tech and weirder aliens. I am down for the French comic book sensibilities, especially the ridiculous fashion, and I’ll even put up with the clunkiest dialogue this side of a Syfy Original. This is my kind of movie and if there’s any kind of nested audience for the Valerians of the world, it’s me.

However, this is no Jupiter Ascending situation. It’s safe to say that if you didn’t like that movie, you will loathe this one. In most ways, they are dissimilar, but it’s hard to not be reminded of the slightly more serious but also more coherent and well-plotted Wachowski Sisters’ foray into manic space opera. The same genre DNA gave birth to both films, though Valerian is a direct adaptation of a seminal French comic while for Jupiter, the comic Valerian and Laureline was just one of many influences it wore on its sleeve. Many might also compare this one to the Guardians of the Galaxy films, but I’d caution against that since kicking this movie while its down (it really bombed) to that extent just seems cruel.

If you like imaginative space opera and come for just the visuals, world-building, and literally hundreds of weird and wonderful aliens, you may be able to put aside this movie’s narrative problems and enjoy it. I mostly did. Valerian is dizzyingly ambitious, so it’s tempting to brush aside that it doesn’t really work. And while the story is nothing special, it plays out in an offbeat way and is packed to the brim with worthwhile diversion. There’s hardly a frame in the first half of this movie that won’t light a scifi fan’s mind up. It has that same special quality Jupiter Ascending had where every five minutes, there’s a new idea that you could make a whole movie out of. For example, the concepts and mechanics of Big Market, a virtual bazaar in another dimension, are just a set-piece here, but the whole of the upcoming Ready Player One will deal with somewhat similar ideas. Valerian has imagination to spare but suffers from an overindulgence in its own poorly executed dramatic core, which aggressively sucks, and also fails to trust its own plot enough to avoid a third act recap sequence that, frankly, was where the movie really fell apart for me. I love Luc Besson, even when he makes a bad movie (Lucy) and while I might summarize Valerian as “The 5th Element for kids” and while that might sound good… it’s only really two thirds good. That said, the opening ten minutes are straight up wonderful and honestly worth the whole movie. Read the rest of this entry »

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This looks like just another war scene, but it’s threaded with horror. That’s this movie in a nutshell.

I was pretty conflicted about Interstellar and I’m kind of conflicted about Christopher Nolan in general. I, to an extent, agree with most of the criticisms that dog his work. But I also think Inception is one of the best movies ever made, with his Batman movies being some of the most overrated. To say I had low expectations for Dunkirk would be disingenuous because I had no expectations for Dunkirk. Good or bad. I was curious because it was a wartime event that hadn’t been covered in a huge movie, at least as a focus piece (Atonement has Dunkirk-related scenes). I was also curious to see what Nolan would do with a war movie, since he’s been doing high concept genre stuff for almost his whole career. On some level, I suspected that Dunkirk was about the safest move Nolan could have made after Interstellar failed to light the world on fire. I was wrong about this being a safe movie, but my lack of expectation was rewarded by one of the most pleasant and arresting surprises I’ve had in a theater for a super long time.

“Pleasant” is not really a word that you’d associate with this movie except maybe in the way I just did, where I’m really talking more about the feeling of surprise. Dunkirk is not so much aggressive as it is relentless and that energy, an almost constant rising action toward a very rewarding climax, is mostly steeped in the emotional resonance of horror even as it is delivered with familiar tropes of the war genre (duty, courage, banding together, grandiose and personal heroism, and so on). So while this is definitely a war movie, it’s also the second best horror movie of 2017. It is intense and it’ll make you squirm in your seat. A lot. All this while being one of the least violent, but loudest, war movies since Saving Private Ryan changed the game. What helps is Nolan’s mostly unsentimental point of view. This movie is not full of the customary jingoism and sentimentality of the American war film (these elements are present sparingly, and are mostly earned), but nor is it political in the sense of having a clear message about “war” except perhaps that it is something you survive rather than win.

There have been criticisms that there’s no story or characters here, but I think it’s interesting that Nolan stripped down his usual reliance on plot, exposition, and high concepts. He has the most trouble with plot and theme across his work, and these things are less important in Dunkirk than is the craft of telling a story through moving pictures.  There’s very little dialogue, so character comes across subtly through facial expressions and the few important choices that are available to each person. Dunkirk has a small, intimate cast, and approaches the historical events with a clever and almost seamless editing conceit of showing events at different points as if they are happening all at the same time… until they are. Dunkirk is a tremendous movie, and one that deserves to be seen at the best theater you have access to.

KIND OF HARD TO SPOIL THIS MOVIE, BUT FAIR WARNING ANYWAY Read the rest of this entry »

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This movie is more tightly focused on a small cast of characters than the marketing would indicate.

Without much fanfare or celebration, the new Planet of the Apes movies have quietly become one of the best blockbuster and/or science fiction franchises we have right now. While Rise focused heavily on the issues of our treatment of intelligent animals and the practical ramifications of their personhood, Dawn began both a post-apocalyptic fable of the collision of diametrically opposed civilizations (a First Contact fable) as well as a tight civil rights allegory with two influential apes taking on the roles of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, struggling for the soul of the rising Ape nation and how it would deal with the dwindling but still threatening human oppressors (very similar to how Xavier and Magneto intersect in the X-Men comics and movies). The wrestling match between hate and love, vengeance and mercy was a critical piece of Dawn‘s thematic content. Now arrives the closing chapter of the trilogy with War for the Planet of the Apes, a movie that continues parts of the civil rights allegory (and adding some contemporary dimensions) while also adding a broad swing for the mythic, with elements of the movie recalling Biblical stories and the foundation myths of several cultures.

It’s important to note that War is not the gigantic humans vs. apes war movie that the marketing promised, but neither was Dawn. All three movies played up the warrior apes stuff in their marketing. I remember the trailers for Rise heavily relied on the Golden Gate Bridge battle. Dawn had more war scenes and action than War does. But that doesn’t mean that War for the Planet of the Apes is disappointing or somehow not a war movie. It’s both extremely satisfying as well as being a pretty unflinching and bleak war/anti-war movie. The thematic struggles of Dawn are still present, with the specter of Koba (Toby Kebbell) and his vengeful hate haunting both Caesar (Andy Serkis) and the events of this film. But instead of big battle scenes, War emphasizes the personal and there’s a lot of dialogue, most of it the hybrid ape language of vocalizations and sign language. Stopping to appreciate that this is a huge movie where tons of the dialogue isn’t English and most of the characters are CG apes is sort of obligatory at this point, but it’s no less impressive here than before. They keep managing to up the ante and making these characters even more lifelike and believable.

Though it is a pretty bleak and emotional movie (hoo boy), there probably more humor and comic relief here than in the previous two films. The tonal mix is potent and very well handled by Matt Reeves, who has really built magnificently on what Rupert Wyatt and his team began with Rise. This movie is also more gorgeous even than Dawn, with shots that are just jaw-dropping as well as many iconic tableaus with the apes especially. There’s also all the world-building, attention to detail, and believability that we’ve come to expect from this series. What’s perhaps lacking is the scale promised by the trailers, but I think by the time the movie starts to kick into gear, most viewers won’t mind the movie we got, even if it comes at the cost of the (potentially more shallow) movie we seemed to be getting. Read the rest of this entry »

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This is Spider-Man.

I once wrote a blog post singing the praises of casting Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker/Spider-Man. He had something I liked for it (one of my very first blog posts, so be gentle) that Tobey Maguire did not. I also really dug the first Amazing Spider-man movie (don’t know what happened to the second one that it was so very bad) and have always been pretty lukewarm about the Sam Raimi trilogy. I think I’ve cooled on TASM and am considering a reappraisal of the Raimi trilogy, but even back when they came out, I liked them but I was never into them. I feel like after five tries, though, it’s kind of reasonable to expect that basically everyone and their uncle understands how to make a decent Spider-man movie. One that will please just about everyone by getting all the most fundamental parts of the character right while changing things up just enough to be fresh and exciting. And so, now we have one.

That may sound like I’m underselling here, and I don’t mean to. Spider-man: Homecoming is a greatly entertaining movie and it has a little bit of depth even though a lot of people are talking about how shallow it is. How formulaic. How Marvel. I have some issues with a few choices they made with the movie and with how muddled its messages are, but I don’t think any of it hampers the enjoyment of the movie itself. I think at most you could say my misgivings are a direct result of the MCU’s usual insistence on playing it safe even when they’ve definitely earned the right to take larger risks. Not so much with big game-changing events like character deaths as I don’t really agree with the people clamoring for that and I’m comfortable with the incremental storytelling the MCU specializes in. More like I think there’s a little too much here that’s on the nose, that shows a lack of trust in the audiences to “get it”. I chose the title quote not only because it’s a good line, but because it is brought in twice and the second time is definitely one of those moments where we don’t need it. It’s this movie’s “with greater power comes greater responsibility” and it’s probably not a great idea to remind the audience how much weaker a statement it really is. To say nothing of the fact that, in the end, the “suit” cake is had and eaten too.

I think if you are one of those folks who is tired of the MCU or superhero movies in general, Homecoming is unlikely to sway you. It’s easy to see many of the exact same problems in it that are well-documented par for course with the franchise overall (less for female characters to do, underdeveloped romance), but it’s also true that Homecoming sidesteps one or two of them (bad villains, clunky greater universe connections). Still, it’s a breezy fun time and it’s delightfully confident even when it sort of stumbles.

FRIENDLY NEIGHBORHOOD SPOILER WARNING

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Rhythm is what ties everything in this movie together. Rhythm defines Edgar Wright’s style.

Edgar Wright had a disappointing couple of years, I think. Getting over all that work he put into Ant-Man must have been rough but I’m so glad it meant that this movie, which Wright first developed in the 90’s, got to exist. As pointed out elsewhere, Wright might have a little Marvel still stuck in his teeth but ultimately I think everybody is going to agree that he hasn’t lost a step. Baby Driver is full of the inventive filmmaking and action he’s known for while also being vastly different from his other movies.

What most people are saying about Baby Driver is how fun and entertaining it is. I’ll echo that while also adding that it’s a surprisingly dark and consequence-laden movie. Wright has always been deft with tonal shifts and messing with genre conventions and while Baby Driver does balance a light-hearted romantic tone with some heavier elements, it’s actually kind of refreshingly straightforward when it comes to its genre. Wright has made his version of a Michael Mann film in a film where every character thinks they are in their own movie. Wright’s genius here is that he’s making all those movies by referencing, recycling, nodding, and reinventing parts of them.

I think Baby Driver is destined to be a crowd-pleaser. There’s too much to like about it and it’s kind of universally appealing, I think. Part of that is the really joyous way it uses music, and part of it is just that everybody loves a crime movie. If there are any complaints to be made, they’ll probably arise from the nuts and bolts mechanics of the story and its somewhat misleading structure. The last act will not fully work for everyone, but I think it’s not going to really damage anyone’s enjoyment of the movie overall. I’ll talk about these issues later, but I really think they are likely to end up being footnotes on a masterpiece.

SPOILERS RACING BY!

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It’s all resting on his shoulders now!

It’s late, I know. I’m sorry. I didn’t a chance to see The Fast and the Furious 8 or otherwise known as The Fate of the Furious (I’ll refer to it as Fast 8 as we go) when it first came out. Weird time of year for me, what can I say? I’m seeing more movies now, though, and I finally got around to the latest entry in one of my absolute favorite franchises. This is a key entry, too. When Paul Walker died, everybody asked “how the fuck is this thing gonna work from now on?”. Many critics wondered whether the series would focus more centrally on Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) with the beloved ensemble taking a back seat. The central relationship of the series was always Dom and Brian (Paul Walker) and it seemed like there were two possible directions for this to go: try and replace Brian, or center it on Dom alone (at least for now). It looks like they decided to focus on Dom after all, and the results are just fine though that central relationship is certainly missed.

In many ways, Fast 8 feels more thematically grounded and focused than the last few. This was a bit of a surprise, and worked better than I think a lot of people might have expected given the general attitude about Diesel’s ability to shoulder a movie. I think he’s pretty good, though, and while he isn’t stretching the emotional range of Dom much here, there are a few nice subtler moments and we’re definitely seeing Dom in a new situation. With the key relationship of the series missing, Fast 8 decides to trouble the very thing that has kept the characters and the audience along for this very bizarre and now very lengthy ride: fambly.

Is Fast 8 better than the last few movies? Not really. As always, the highs are pretty high but I think this is maybe the least light-hearted of all of them and offers less of the jokes, camaraderie, and goofy warm heart the series is known for. Of course, all this stuff is still here, but this is also the entry where Fast 8 goes darker. That’s not going to work as well for some people, but I think this movie is less uneven than Fast 7 was (particularly the action). The important question isn’t even really if this movie lives up to the rest of the franchise, because of course it does, it’s more about whether it leaves you with a sense that this franchise can keep going without Paul Walker. I think it can, but I think Fast 8 is unable (and probably this is intentional) to fully get to a new stable dynamic on its own. There are seeds of it, but it’ll probably take the next movie before we see where they’re going with certain elements, which this review will explore in detail.

DOING SPOILERS A QUARTER-MILE AT A TIME Read the rest of this entry »

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Is she with you?

Wonder Woman is good. Like, Marvel Phase 1 good. In fact, it owes such a massive debt to both Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor that the weird and often toxic fandom around DCEU and their obsession with being “better than the MCU” is even more ironic than usual. However, forgetting about those kinds of people as they so richly deserve leaves the question as to whether it should count against this movie that its creative team bothered to finally learn something from their wildly more consistent and successful counterparts at Marvel. I don’t think so. I think good superhero movies with actual shit to say is a tide that raises all the ships. I have given this current generation of DC superhero movies a lot of shit, we all have, but most of us still want them to be good.

And with Wonder Woman, there’s a glimmer of hope that they can be. People are looking for a fluke reason why Wonder Woman is good, like this success couldn’t be replicated without secret handshakes and spinning around in place an arbitrary number of times before sitting down to write the script or pick up a camera or whatever. It’s nonsense. This movie is good because it gives a shit and the people who made it give a shit. They aren’t embarrassed or cynical about this being a sincere story about heroism. They lean into it. On top of that, it’s probably one of the most if not the most culturally significant superhero movies there is. It’s embarrassing at this point, 10 years into the era of shared superhero universes, that we’re only now getting Wonder Woman. I will talk about Wonder Woman‘s feminism and its impact (including some similar ideas), but I also want to point my readers to a great piece by BMD’s Meredith Borders, who offers a nerdy woman’s perspective on the significance of this movie.

That all said, there are definite imbalances and flaws in the movie. I’ll talk about them below, but by and large this movie stands up well against the MCU, or I should probably say alongside it? Honestly, I don’t think many people would be able to make a meaningful distinction between MCU and DCEU properties using Wonder Woman as a basis. And I think that’s okay, but it may disappoint DCEU fans who are looking for something more distinguishing besides just beating Marvel to the punch on having a movie focused on a woman. Wonder Woman focuses on what works best for these kinds of movies: character, humor, symbolism, and heroism.

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Feels much more like the original Alien in terms of design and aesthetic.

Alien: Covenant is getting positive reviews it just doesn’t deserve and that I didn’t expect. The negative reviews make more sense to me, though I don’t fully agree with them. I think it boils down to a collective sigh of relief that it is not nearly as bad or as stupid or as bewildering as Prometheus was. At the same time, it almost makes me miss that movie. Which, if you know me at all, would seem a completely fucking loony tunes thing for me to say. I hate Prometheus and though I tried many a time, I never made it through a rewatch. That movie just falls apart about 45 minutes into it and never, ever recovers. But, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, at least it had some ambition, misdirected and poorly executed though it was.

Covenant is not really a good movie. It isn’t terrible, though, it’s just kind of there. Like I was saying, I find myself aligned neither with the ridiculous positive reviews nor with the ridiculous negative reviews. They all make points, some solid and some not so much, but I feel squarely in the middle in terms of my critical response. This was a movie where I couldn’t summon up much ire over the parts where it did get stupid. Nor did I really feel much in those moments where something interesting, whether visually or narratively, happened.

I don’t know if Covenant could rightly be described as a boring movie, but like Mass Effect: Andromeda, it does feel like a pseudo-remake of the first one. A movie that arises not to put a bold new chapter in the Alien book, but to basically try and remind us why we liked these movies in the first place. This is a problem because it fails by playing it too safe, too conservative, and by splitting its priorities so distinctly and unimaginatively that you wind up feeling like you’re watching three different movies, stapled together so ineptly that it becomes distracting if not ruinous for the whole franchise.

IN SPACE, NO ONE CAN HEAR YOU *SPOILERS* Read the rest of this entry »

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Pick it up. You know you want to.

So if we take a really loose version of the Arthurian mythology, marry it to a cockney London (er… Londinium) gangster story, sprinkle in a bunch of references, some in tribute and some mocking, to other fantasy movies… this is what we get? This is what we get. The result is ridiculous and will offend the sensibilities of just about every type of nerd out there. Your history nerds will scratch their heads about everything from wardrobe to chronology to props, your mythology and literary nerds will want to know why King Arthur is suddenly Robin Hood, and your fantasy nerds might be placated by the most awesome magic sword in the history of magic swords, but their literalist tendencies will be set alight and pissed on by this movie’s utter disregard for consistent or coherent world-building. And we already know what the movie nerds think. Spoiler: they are not happy.

For my money, King Arthur is a more enjoyable movie than either of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock films mostly because it dares to be far more bonkers and far more often at that. But it also has the same issues, including an overly dour colour scheme which mars some otherwise beautiful compositions and sequences. It also has an overly smug lead, which I’ll talk about more later. The visual issues are compounded by a really bad (in my theater anyway) use of 3D. Like, 2005 bad. This movie is so dark that many of the aesthetic details especially in CG-heavy scenes are lost. I would bet that this is not a theater issue but one with the quality of the post-processing, since many people are complaining about the uninspiring visuals of the movie. They aren’t totally correct, there’s a lot to love visually here, but the movie consistently holds itself back by being 3D for absolutely no fucking reason. When I get to see it again, it will not be in 3D and I’m hoping the visual elements register more clearly more often. On the other hand, the music in this movie is brilliant. Even the non-score anachronistic songs. Forget the term for those, but they are well-used here.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is overall a baffling movie. I don’t want to ruin anybody’s fun here, because this movie actually is plenty fun, it’s just that the whole thing doesn’t really come together the way you want it to. There are many elements that work well, especially when the movie isn’t taking itself seriously, but many more that do not. It’s a huge boys’ club, with almost no female characters and the few present get very little to do besides support the male hero or die trying, but it also wins some diversity points by not pretending the medieval world was lily white the way the racists like to. Some will accuse King Arthur, kind of wrong-headedly, of casting it like it’s taking place in Modern London rather than ~500CE Londinium. It’s a fascinating exercise, really, because here we have this remix, this mash-up, and who better to do that with Arthurian myth, especially with the music video sensibility that King Arthur displays, than Guy Ritchie? But honestly, did they ever stop to think if they should do it? No, they did not. They were planning like five of these. I doubt we’ll even get two.

MY KINGDOM FOR A SPOILER WARNING.

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