Friday, August 18, 2017

Logan Lucky: Redneck Robbers Stage An Ocean's 7-11


Steven Soderberg is one of those directors whose name you hear and think about all his artsy, froofy, indie movies that sometimes win awards, but aren't very crowd-pleasing. I'm talking about films like Sex, Lies & Videotape, The Limey, Erin Brokovich, Traffic, Full Frontal, Solaris, The Good German, The Girlfriend Experience, and Side Effects. You don't (well, I mean, I don't...) associate him with summer movie popcorn fare and/or comedies. But, then you forget that he directed the Ocean's Eleven franchise, Contagion, and Magic Mike. He'd "retired" from directing for the last three years and has made his return with Logan Lucky... which is essentially just like Ocean's Eleven except replace all of the smooth-talking, slick-looking, suave participants in the heist and replace them with five rednecks who couldn't even spell the word 'suave'. A lot of the elements that made the Ocean's movies so fun are recycled for this film, yet somehow... and this truly does take a talented director working with a good writer and a terrific cast to do... it feels fresh and original.

Channing Tatum is Jimmy Logan, a hard-working, blue collar, single dad with a gimp knee. His brother, Clyde Logan (Adam Driver), is a soft-spoken bartender with one arm... excuse me, hand. Their sister, Mellie Logan (Riley Keough), is a caring, trailer-trash hairdresser with a much higher IQ than she's willing to reveal to the world. Together the three of them live their simple lives separately just trying to make ends meet. Jimmy spends his off time with his young daughter... when he's allowed visitation from his ex-wife (Katie Holmes). Clyde humbly tends bar operating under the notion that their entire family suffers from the "Logan Curse"-- one that his caused Jimmy's bum knee to get him fired from a construction job and Clyde to, well, have one arm... excuse me, hand. After finding out that Jimmy's ex-wife is going to be moving with her new husband across state lines and taking his daughter with her, he realizes he needs to do something quick to make himself some cash. This is where the idea of a redneck heist comes into play (the motivation here for the robbery is kind of murky... it's like he needs the money for his daughter, but it's also like something he's always wanted to do just for shits and giggs). After convincing his brother and sister to be players in the heist, they need one last piece of the puzzle-- an ex-con, currently in-car-cer-a-ted, named Joe Bang (a hilariously scene-stealing Daniel Craig). Together they, and Bang's dim-witted brothers, decide to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway during a packed NASCAR race.

The plot of this movie could've easily turned into a Larry the Cable Guy Netflix vehicle under the guise of a lesser filmmaker, but Soderberg and newcomer writer Rebecca Blunt, have crafted a very intelligent, very fun, very funny film with some of the most simpleminded Southern characters since O Brother Where Art Thou. Though these characters look like you wouldn't be able to penetrate their thick skulls with the sharpest of hammers, the plan that they enact is smart and creative, and the twists and turns of the heist are just as fun as any Ocean's film. What's great is that the movie is so down-to-Earth, it almost pierces the soil. Unlike the Ocean's films that use multi-million dollar, highly technological equipment to get their score... the Logan clan use the most rudimentary of tools to enact their robbery (things like stolen construction equipment, cockroaches, baked goods, bleach, jumpsuits, "borrowed" dealer cars, and gummy bears [yes, gummy bears are integral to the heist]). The creativity of the planning and the characters themselves enacting said plan is some of the most fun I've had watching a movie since Baby Driver.

A clever script, offbeat directing, and the genre bending of taking a heist movie and putting it in the hands of these numbskulls isn't all that makes the movie work... it's the cast. There are a LOT of recognizable faces in this film from Seth MacFarlane to Katherine Waterston to Dwight Yoakam to Sebastian Stan to Hillary Swank. But it's our leads who really drive the film. Channing Tatum is still enjoying the fruits of his Step Up career turnaround (thanks largely, in part, to Soderberg's Magic Mike as well as the 21 Jump Street franchise). He's less a six pack with a voice, and now a lovable bundle of abs (actually... he got a little pudgy for the film). Then, there's also Adam Driver. I'm not a fan of Girls. I thought his "comedic" timing was severely off in This Is Where I Leave You and he's serviceable in Star Wars. But the dude has very much won me over with his performance that's so understated and hilarious I kept waiting for him to just outright say, "Everett... my beard itches." Finally, Daniel Craig, with his strange-sounding, but equally hilarious southern drawl kills it as Joe Bang, the wild card of the group, who, in most instances, appears like he could go insane at any minute, but keeps you on your toes with his high-pitched giggles and "science" abilities.

Really, the only problems I had with the film were very small. I felt like it took a little too long to get going. I didn't really understand WHY they needed to do the heist in the first place (the stakes were very low). I didn't understand why everyone in the movie had the same accent, but Seth MacFarlane had a strange British one. And the ending reveal is presented almost exactly as the reveal of the first Ocean's movie. That's about it. Taking extra time to get going just gives us a little bit more characterization, something that seriously lacks in most summer movies. The reason to pull the heist, while absent, somehow doesn't FEEL like it's necessary. They just kind of want to. MacFarlane's accent... who knows. It's out of place, but not egregiously so. And the ending, while a carbon copy, still works within the scope of this film as well. These are just nitpicky things I have to address, so that I sound like a legit critc.

Look, in the current political climate, and overall state of the world right now, we need movies like Logan Lucky for escape. They take us out of the nightmare we're in and distract us with good wholesome, enjoyable entertainment for two hours and remind us that there is some good in this world. I feel as though the movie is going to unfortunately fly under the radar this year, but it has everything: silly, yet smart characters, a great deal of heart, a heist, and a whole lotta laughs. It's a terrific film.

A-

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Annabelle: Creation: The Damn Doll Doesn't Move; The Movie's Okay Though


Let me give you the quick run-down of the Annabelle storyline in films that have led up to this one. My job as a critic (shut up... I know I don't get paid) as well as a film lover allows me to already know this information you may not be privy to. The Annabelle doll first showed up in The Conjuring. She showed up in the first five minutes of the movie in order to establish some sort of backstory for our ghost-hunting heroes. She's creepy... she just sits there... and winds up doing nothing at all for the entire movie. There's even a lingering shot of her at the end of the film where she does... again, nothing. Then, some executive asshole decided she was creepy enough to warrant her own film. So, we got Annabelle the movie. The movie was a cheap, poorly written, executed even worse, teen PG-13 schlock that wasn't even good enough to call "so bad it's good". In the movie, the Annabelle doll does so much nothing one might start to think it's not the doll that's haunted, but you know, literally anything else. Finally, Annabelle apparently made enough money it warranted a prequel to a prequel. Yet, this time, they actually hired a capable horror director (David F. Sandberg who directed last year's underrated Lights Out), did away with all the cheap PG-13 scares, grew a nut or two, and went for Conjuring-style R rated horror. And while the film is leaps and bounds more superior than its predecessor, guess what the running theme is of the movie, however... the goddamn doll doesn't do anything!

Here's the deal with Annabelle: Creation... it didn't need to be an Annabelle movie. The plot, the characters, the circumstances all have very little to do with the fucking doll that I'm now convinced the doll has just become a useless MacGuffin that's more of an inside joke between the filmmakers who want to see how many movies they can make about a doll that's as active in this film as a deaf mute is into the grunge scene (is there still a grunge scene?). You have to imagine that screenwriter Gary Dauberman had to realize he had nothing to write about. He's got a blank word document up on his screen and his inner monologue is like: "The doll doesn't do anything... how the hell do I make a horror movie?" Well, he found a way around it which is a much better standalone horror movie about a demon than it ever will be as an Annabelle film. We start with dollmaker guy, his wife, and young daughter. He makes the doll after his daughter's likeness... she gets hit by a car and killed... they become creepy humans 12 years later. They have offered up their large house to an orphanage for young girls. The dollmaker wife has been in some sort of undisclosed accident and is bedridden. Dollmaker is now an old, bearded, creepy lurker who bustles about the house with a chip on his shoulder. This is where shit starts to get weird. Our hero orphans: girl with a Polio leg, and her bff, start hearing noises, seeing doors and dumbwaiters open on their own, until finally the inanimate doll Annabelle starts showing up in random places to do absolutely nothing.

Turns out, the doll is just a conduit for a real demon. Dollmaker and wife thought that their daughter was trying to reach them from the beyond, asks permission to enter the doll, and they grant it. However, it was just a demon pullin the old dead-daughter-fake-out on these guys so he can collect souls and rip out eyeballs and shit. If you got rid of the doll and kept the story the same (seriously, it doesn't even need a "conduit" since said conduit participates as much as a guy with no arms in a high-fiving competition) it would be a much better standalone horror movie. But, we know in 2017 that giving the okay on an original horror movie is much riskier (apparently) than slapping a known title to it and calling it a prequel. Writer Dauberman was very creative in working around the doll problem and what ends up happening is a whirlwind of seriously dumb ideas mixed with some actually terrifying moments. Seriously, the last 35-40 minutes of the movie makes up for most of the incompetence of the first hour. There's some good stuff here.

First of all, it improves nearly every aspect that the first Annabelle movie failed at. They went for the actual terror instead of cheap scares. Yes, there are still the jump scares that feel cheap (and kind of are), but they also went for terror and unease and intensity that'll send your gut up into your throat. If you can overlook the jump scares and wait for that last 35ish minutes of the movie, it's genuinely going to creep you the hell out. There's also some pretty good child actors in here. Polio leg girl astounded me because she was one of the few who didn't sound like she was reading her lines off of cue cards and her bff, who was also in last year's surprisingly okay Ouija prequel, is also very good. Director David F. Sandberg also seems to be working in the right direction as far as getting his feet wet in the genre. Lights Out was a very capable horror movie and he ups the ante here with this film. He's very focused on sound, as well as the absence of it. Generally, there's not a lot of music, instead he focuses on amplifying little noises like a footstep or a creak or bell ringing instead of sharp violin noises or fists pounding on piano keys. He also doesn't try to use gore as a crutch. Yes, it's an R rated movie, and yes there are a couple of shocking images involving blood, but it's mostly what you don't see that scares the piss right out of you. There is a lot of good working in the back end of this movie. And there is plenty here to get you good and scared.

However, there is a LOT of dumb shit also. Immediately I noticed that, once again, we apparently just cannot write dialogue in horror movies anymore. This is just an impossibility unless your name is James Wan (director of The Conjuring films). And then there are the jump scares. I understand that we need to set a tone somehow and audible screams to horror filmmakers are as gold as laughs are to comedians, but they're cheap and they feel cheap. I think what really got me though were the rules of the movie. There's this demon on the loose frightening a few of the kids. Not all of them... just a few. The demon can move an inanimate doll, open doors, appear out of nowhere... but in the middle of a showdown it can't handle a locked door. We also have no idea what the demon wants. There's one (very laughable) scene where the demon changes from a small child to a dark-faced, yellow-eyed demon alerting the child that he wants "YOUR SOUL"! But, for what reason... I have no idea. At one point the demon is possessing one of the girls, then also possessing a scarecrow and attacking the other girls, but also appearing as his actual demon-self to another girl. Like... were there three demons? Can it clone itself? What does it actually want? And why can't it open a locked door or figure out how to work the rope of a dumbwaiter? If you can figure out a way not to focus on these lingering plot holes and open questions, you'll enjoy the film. And I can't stress this enough: it does get better the more it goes on. About 45 minutes into the movie I was convinced it was just another average, run of the mill, horror spin off cash grab that wasn't going to provide any of the terror my ticket was paid for. But it eventually did and won me over.

Let's be clear, though... the horror of the movie won me over. I have not, nor will I ever be won over by the goddamn focus of the film being the stupid Annabelle doll which strikes as much fear into your heart as a pug dressed up as the Easter Bunny (are my analogies getting through?!). It's almost frustrating that the studio has started to invest a lot of interest in expanding the Conjuring universe instead of funding more films to become the next Conjuring itself. The Nun from The Conjuring 2 is getting her own film next year (there is even a direct reference to the Nun in this film), and a third Conjuring film is also on its way down the line. We know we can't put a stop to it (though I figured with how bad the first Annabelle film was, that was going to be it... little did I realize how many shits Hollywood does not give when it comes to expanded universes), but at the very least if we can get skilled and competent directors like Sandberg who can emulate and possibly even elevate James Wan's previous works, then there is a bit of a silver lining. The doll is stupid, the movie has shades of dumb... but if you can wade through all of that... you're gonna have a good time.

B- 

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Kidnap: Pulp Friction


What happened to Halle Berry??? She was an Oscar winner. She murdered it in Monster's Ball. She got in to X-Men. She was a Bond girl! Where did everything just kind of fall apart for her? Was it actually Catwoman? How was she not given more and more roles that showcased her talents as an actress, rather than trying to replicate the magic by way of a movie called Things We Lost in the Fire? I mean... do any of you actually know what this is:
That came out (apparently to theaters) five years ago. Me, the dude who studies IMDB like it's my last chance to pass the BAR exam before I give up being a lawyer and open an imitation Irish pub, had not heard of this movie. It's movies like that one, like The Call she was in a few years ago, and now... Kidnap. And while the movie isn't as excruciatingly bad as it looks like it could (should) be... it's still too dumb for a quality actress like Halle Berry. We need her to start picking up better roles again because we don't want what happened to Cuba Gooding Jr. to happen to her. 
From Oscar... to Dolph Lundgren... is a dark, dark path.
Kidnap was actually a lot different than I was expecting. One, because I hadn't seen a single trailer for it, just several billboards advertising the film. Second, because said posters suggested to me that it was a movie that should be going to On Demand, not theaters. What I expected from the film was Berry's kid is kidnapped, she tracks down the kidnappers and takes the law into her own hand. There is also the R-rated aspect of the movie, which gave me a smidge of hope that we'd get to see Berry dispensing her own kind of (ultra violent) justice. However... I was only kinda right. Berry plays Karla, a diner waitress who is going through a divorce - her ex-husband is fighting for sole custody - look... it doesn't matter. None of this matters in the rest of the movie. There are no more scenes/characters from the diner later in the film. There is no sudden appearance of the ex-husband. This, apparently, is what we like to call in the movie business as "character building"... even though we didn't need it at all. Anyway, Karla and her son Frankie are at the park when Karla gets a phone call, looks away for a minute, and Frankie is kidnapped by hillbillies. Karla sees them shoving Frankie into the back of their car and decides to chase them down in her soccer mom minivan. This is the entire movie, folks. Karla involved in a high speed pursuit of her son's kidnappers with no phone, no weapon and no plan of how to get him back. And it's actually better than it sounds. That, by no means, means it's good... but it's better than you'd expect.

Somehow, some way, the filmmakers involved in this film found several ways to keep this movie interesting. I wasn't hanging on the edge of my seat, but I also wasn't wanting to turn the movie off (I watched this movie on my laptop... there's no way in hell I was going to pay to see it, so let's clear that up right now). And though we do care enough about Karla and her little boy, and we do root for her to save him somehow (like, seriously... even if she gets the car to stop, how is she supposed to overpower these hillbillies and get her kid back?), there are some seriously questionable moments in the film. Without a plan, even though we're watching the "action" happening on screen, there's always that little thing in the back of your mind going: what the hell is she planning to do? Why haven't they just stopped the car and shot her? These questions are dealt with... not intelligently... but not unwisely. It's always strange to watch a movie and realize that what you're watching isn't good, but it also isn't terrible. 

The film is rated R. The MPAA rating states it earned this rating due to "violence and peril". Okay. As movie goers we pretty much know what to expect when we see a movie is PG-13 due to violence and when a movie is rated R due to violence. PG-13 might give you some quick shots of blood, but there will be absolutely nothing that even encroaches upon 'gory'. R will give you blood. R will give you bones snapping and dismembered body parts and pretty much anything violence-related. I legitimately don't know how Kidnap got an R rating. There is one use of 'fuck' (perfectly allowed in PG-13) and the "violence" in the movie is so tame even a PG rating wouldn't be out of the question (though the thematic material around it could elevate it to PG-13). The only blood involved in the film have to do with a few car crashes that cause... wait for it... scrapes and bruises. The MPAA apparently thought these scrapes were violent enough that only an audience of 17-year-olds and above could handle it. The 'peril' by the way... all happens off screen. I want to be able to say how unfair I think it is for this movie to get the PG-13 rating (Dunkirk is above and beyond more violent and has much more peril than this film) and how it's going to hinder sales... but it's not like very many people are going to see this movie anyway. However, the teenager demographic (who is really the only people that will probably enjoy this movie) has been almost entirely eliminated by the unjustifiable R rating. 

Look, Kidnap was never going to be a success. Halle Berry doesn't have the pull that she should have. And the plot of the film (as well as the rating) aren't going to convince the average moviegoer to see the film. But, where do you release the movie? It's a little bit too dumb to get a wide release into theaters, but it's not dumb enough to garner a straight-to-Redbox release. It's just one of those movies that would've been kind of fun to watch back in the 90s when they used to make those pulpy made-for-TV movies on random Friday nights. But in 2017... there's just no place for it. But, it's harmless. There will be moments you're invested in, and there will moments when you're screaming at the screen for Karla to do something more. That's about it. It's one of the most average movies I've ever watched. And those who are already dubbing it the worst movie of 2017 went into it wanting it to be so. I though it was going to be near the bottom of the 2017 totem, but it's so unbelievably average, when I wake up tomorrow morning I won't remember a thing about it. At least bad movies will stick with you for a long time. 

C

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Dark Tower: Perspective #1 - He Who Hath NOT Read The Books


There are two types of people who are going to see this movie - Type #1: Someone who has never read the books, but likes the trailer and/or Stephen King and/or the cast, especially the two leads Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey, but knows very little about the actual story. Or Type #2: Someone who has read the books... all of them... probably multiple times... who is filled with joy that they FINALLY made an adaptation of one of the best (if not the actual best) series Stephen King has ever written.

I am Type #2.

Well... not exactly. I kinda read the first three books about fifteen years ago. Here's what I remember from them - I liked them because I read three of them. There is a Gunslinger named Roland. There is a Man in Black. There is a Dark Tower. That's it. So, I think I'm entitled to claim I'm in the Type 2 category. Most of you are aware of these facts. Hell, two of them are in the title. But I'm here to give you my take on the film as a movie fan only. I will not be (because I can't) giving you any breakdown of the movie vs. the book. My friend Matt will do that HERE..

So, I'm guessing your first question is this: is The Dark Tower as bad as critics are saying it is? I mean, as of this moment it stands at a putrid 16% on Rotten Tomatoes. There are Adam Sandler movies with higher scores. My answer is simply no. It is not even close to as bad as the word is spreading it to be. I personally thought the film was quite enjoyable and I have quite a bit of positive things to say about it. There are also some really terrible elements to the movie that I have quite a bit to say as well. But, let's wait just a second for that. For those who don't know, the film stars Elba as Roland, the Gunslinger, in a world outside of ours. He is given the task of protecting "The Dark Tower" which is exactly as it sounds... a huge, dark tower in the center of essentially every universe that keeps the world of demons out of every world. If the Dark Tower is ever destroyed, unspeakable evil will control everything. Roland is to make sure this never happens. Enter Walter, also known as the Man in Black, also known as Alright, Alright, Alright, also known as Matt McConaughey. He's essentially the Devil incarnate and he's out to make sure that the Dark Tower IS destroyed. It has been said (by who... I don't know) that only the mind of a child can destroy the Tower. So, he's out collecting kids to harness the power of their minds to destroy the Tower. Enter Jake, a "troubled kid" with visions of Roland and Walter, who has found his way through a portal to another world. Together, Jake and Roland must take down the Man in Black and save the universe. (Again, this is what I got from the movie's explanations... if I'm off, avid book readers, don't blame me.)

Elba is damn near perfect in this movie. He's a damn near perfect human being in general, but my guess is that fans of the book will all agree (I literally have zero evidence to back this up) that they have found the perfect Roland. He dominates every scene he's in, he's a magnetic action star with acting chops to boot, and a bit of stifled charisma that escapes every once in awhile through the stoicism. His chemistry with Jake, his fight sequences, his entire presence in the film is outstanding. If you're going to see the film for any reason, it should be to watch this man act. However, and this is actually more surprising than Elba being the perfect Roland, McConaughey is AWFUL. I am a big fan of MM. His performances in Mud and Dallas Buyers Club and True Detective and Interstellar and damn near anything he's made in the last seven years have been off the charts fantastic. But, his performance as the Man in Black is quite possibly the worst performance of his entire career (and I've actually seen Fool's Gold). One thing I've learned from this movie is that MM should never be a villain. He doesn't have the credibility for it. He's so much better as a leading man with his intensity mixed with that great southern charm. Here, he hams it up to a cartoonish level. You know in kids movies when they have the bumbling villains (like Blank Check or Power Rangers), he makes those guys look like Hans Landa. I kept waiting for the MM we know and love to shine through and defend that Best Actor award, but he kept doing the opposite. Everything was so over-the-top and muwahahaha-evil that it was unintentionally laughable. I can't lay the blame entirely on him, though. While a lot of the movie is very well-written and characters given decent depth... his lines of dialogue were abysmal. He's a sorcerer with the power to make anyone do anything he wants. So, instead of just waving his hand and a guy is on fire or waving his hand and having a guy aspirate... he actually has to say "BE ON FIRE" or "STOP BREATHING"! It's not scary... it's comical, and it shouldn't be.

But back to the positive. The film was very entertaining. For being a 95 minute PG-13 film, there were some excellent sequences. All of the shootouts were very fun and exciting to watch. There are a couple of scenes where it felt like a PG-13 John Wick. It's the combination of the badass character of the Gunslinger himself and just the badass nature of Elba's entire existence on this Earth. Jake, the kid, was also very good. You take a risk having a child protagonist (who normally comes off as annoying, not thrilling), but they found the right actor in Tom Taylor. The scenes with him and Roland are by far the best scenes of the film, and some of them are quite hilarious (intentionally). However, there isn't much original for Jake to do. He's a very powerful psychic, but doesn't know it. He's just the type of kid the Man in Black is looking for... kinda cliché. I genuinely thought they were going to tell us his midichlorians were off the charts. By doing this though, the film feels watered down. From what I've heard about The Dark Tower series... shit gets dark... like really dark. It's supposed to be very genre-bending and extremely gritty. Yet, this Dark Tower adaptation kinda felt like a YA Stephen King adaptation. Like not as YA as say Divergent... but not too far off. This threw me off a little bit. Yes, I get that we have to world build in the first film. We have to get a lot of information to understand the world and the rules surrounding it. But that doesn't mean we have to "teen" it down. The way I picture The Dark Tower working best is - watch the trailer for Blade Runner 2049 and pay attention to the shots of the desert wasteland. That is how you pull off gritty. That is how I imagine The Dark Tower is supposed to go. I don't want Stephenie Meyer's version.

Here's what I take from this film: it's like a decent pilot episode for a show I'm on the fence about. While it certainly has its many flaws (MM's acting, some CGI moments that looked really bad, some of the on-the-nose explanatory dialogue), I was still intrigued and I was still entertained. If this was the pilot to a show... I'm not turned off by it. I might be slightly annoyed, but I'm still running to watch episode two. If after episode two and three it's still heading toward mediocrity and away from greatness, I might turn it off... but as far as an intro, a pilot, is concerned... I'm definitely interested in watching more. The other thing I take away from it is I have definitely found my next book series to read. I've always been a fan of Stephen King's writing anyway (those of you who think he's niche and have anything negative to say about the man... you don't get good writing... the dude is a genius), but if nothing else I'm definitely reading the books. And while I know it's nearing the end of summer and most of us are heading back to work (if we haven't been working through summer anyway) and there's little to no time left to head to the movies, but if you're even a tad bit interested in checking this movie out, don't listen to RottenTomatoes on this one. Check it out. You'll still have a good time.

C+

The Dark Tower: Perspective #2 - He Who Hath ACTUALLY Read The Books


 --Written by Guest Reviewer Matthew Martin-Hall

EDITOR'S NOTE: I asked Matthew (and he offered as well) to write a review from the perspective of someone who has read (and loves) The Dark Tower novels (as well as graphic novels) for those of you who have read them also, or would like a review from that perspective. I did not discuss my views of the film with him beforehand, and he did not discuss his views with me beforehand. Both reviews were written blindly of one another and published as-is. Enjoy!


First and foremost, I did not see the same film you did, nor was I under any illusion that I would. I have been around the Tower three times with Roland and his Ka-Tet, twice with the additional book The Wind Through the Keyhole and I have been long into his past up to the fabled last stand at Jericho Hill, by way of the graphic novel collection published by Marvel (Bleh...). I know this story better than most. That being so, I didn't come to the Tower on its Last Time Around (Ka is a wheel) with any expectations. I came to it by way of the same compulsion that draws Roland to his Tower, something described in the books as more powerful than a heroin addiction. I came to look Roland in the eyes and watch him remember the face of his father one last time. And Roland, as he's prone to do, broke my heart.

Now, this is no critique of the film. If you want that, I'll pull out that toolkit real quick and tell you it had about as much of an arc as one of Roland's bullets and spent too much time force feeding the audience "on the nose" lines for it to be anything remarkable. Also, let's be clear... it's called The Touch. Not Shine. What the fuck is Shine, if not something out of a bathtub still that could potentially make you go blind? That word bugged me more than anything else in the film to be honest; when it comes to canon, at least. I digress...

Roland broke my heart. Not because they did anything wrong with him; In the land of Mid-World (or with anything involving the Tower, really) one gets used to the creation of new rules that make believing in the notion of wrong an exercise in futility. Such qualifiers really hold no water in this... Multiverse? Omniverse? Whatever... let's just say one gets so used to being confused that the shit just stops penetrating and one is forced to realize (as with most things) the path of least resistance is best. Anyhow, Roland broke my heart because he lost his way. The existential crisis he had in the film so nearly tore me, I almost didn't stick around long enough to be as confused and bloated with theories as I am now.

Let's be clear, in the books, there is not one time EVER that Roland is not, in every way, shape, and form, an absolute Gunslinger. The quintessential King Errant whose very goal is to keep a quavering... Hyperverse? Megaverse? from crumbling upon itself, guns forged from Excalibur in tow. The pursuit of the Tower literally IS Roland. Every decision he makes, every person he kills, or lets die, or sacrifices, or uses, is in service of the beam that leads him to his Tower. He questions this in the books at times, but never once does he falter from his station. He wants to, and at times needs to, but he never does. He is The Gunslinger, through and through, and it is what defines him. So, suffice it to say that when he sat at that table and denounced every existence before the tribesmen and women, something inside me churned. Again, not in a way that would compel me to qualify the film as good or bad. But more so in the way that we anguish when we see a good friend or family member make a terrible decision with lifelong consequences. When a favorite poet or playwright moves on. When we're told one of our pets has a terminal illness. That was what happened when I saw Roland blaspheme so tragically, and it physically hurt.

Once that pang subsided through a flurry of creative trick shots and speed loads as I got to see Roland's hands go to work (a personal moment of triumph, don't ask me how) I was left to wonder, where does this all fit?

Okay, I guess this is somewhat of a spoiler alert, but it's really not because I'm a huge proponent of the whole "it's about the journey, not the destination" philosophy. But skip this paragraph if you're reading the books and are a shitty traveler. I'll try to keep it as ambiguous as possible, just the same.  Ka is a wheel (Ka also isn't mentioned or explained once in the film which was about as troubling as the whole Shine thing, but I digress again). The series ends with the same words that it opened with. The Man in Black fled across the desert and the Gunslinger followed. As all things in this... Parallel universe? Paniverse? it is cyclical. All that being said and understood, when I went to bed last night pondering the question as to whether or not this film can be considered canon, I came to my answer and (as most things revolving around the Tower are) it's contingent upon something. That something is what Roland does and doesn't know/remember. If Roland is aware of the cyclical nature of his existence and in some way remembers the events that took place during the books in some form or fashion... that completely explains both his existential breakdown as well as his rather moot pursuit of the Man in Black for revenge. I sincerely hope this is the case, for this is the story's saving grace.

We'll all have to wait and see. But as we wait, we know something very important... Roland has something that he didn't have in the books: We know that this time around, he has, in his possession, the Horn of Eld!

Should he make it to the base of the Tower, through the field of roses (Can'-Ka No Rey) just outside the clutches of Dandelo (IT!) on Odd Lane in the White Lands of Empathica, by way of Fedic (thanks to the Mani) outside of the Calla, all to cry the names of his fathers, his mothers, his friends, his Ka-Tets, his lovers (and maybe a few gillies) in a single herald from his horn last blown at the fall of Jericho Hill... I would very much like to see what happens.

Say thankee-sai big big.

To conclude: I'm sure a lot of fans of the books will see this and cry it the product of the Crimson King himself. But I would staunchly argue that they have forgotten the face of their fathers. This film is as much all of the books as it is none of them. And in that way, it truly is a spirited installment to the canon, should it make the cut. To fellow readers, if you came to this expecting to see the genocide of Tull, the Weigh Station, Muties in the mountains, and Tarot card reading in a talking circle with Roland ending up on a beach somewhere in Mid-World, then I advise you find your beams again and be true.

You've lost your way, and it isn't a Dark Tower film that got you there.

To everyone else: was the film bad? No. Was the film good? No. Should you go see it? Yes, if for no other reason than to give them some motivation to continue making this series. If for no other reason than you all getting to meet Susannah (both Delgado and Dean), Eddie, and (of course) Oy! They are worth your time and effort.

If this film was to give us our Gunslinger (and I suspect it was), we have him now. Let's get him to his Tower, so we can all watch him stand, and be true.

If I were to give the film a grade from A to F, I'd give it a big, fat...

19

Friday, July 28, 2017

Atomic Blonde: Charlize Theron Will Straight Up Murder Your Ass


Charlize Theron is 42 years old. She's been on the Hollywood scene since she was twenty-one. She played minor roles in films until a true leading role in Disney's Mighty Joe Young. From there she was either given or chose very mediocre films like The Astronaut's Wife, Reindeer Games, and The Legend of Bagger Vance. Her first most noteworthy film role, one that also earned her an Oscar, was in 2003's Monster. When she was 30 years old, in 2005, she was given the chance to lead a female-driven action film with Aeon Flux, and as we all know that was a complete disaster. For the next ten years it was a slew of under the radar indies, dramas, Snow White re-imaginings and Seth MacFarlane westerns. Finally, ten years after Aeon Flux... and now at age 40... we got to watch Theron show off just how unbelievably badass she truly is in Mad Max: Fury Road. Most of the time I forget Tom Hardy was even in that movie. Due to the success of that film and the word of mouth of Theron's badassery... at 42 years old... we have Atomic Blonde. Now, I am only highlighting the age thing here for two simple reasons: First, to show that Theron is getting more impressive with each passing year. And second, because had Hollywood actually realized just how impressive she was back when she first started... we could've been getting badass femele-led (or just plain Theron-led) action movies for the past two decades. It's a shame we had to wait as long as we did to be able to rank Theron up there with the rest of the action greats.

So, before we get into Atomic Blonde I feel there is a bit of a disclaimer I should throw out there. Over the past few months I've seen quite a few trailers for the film. The advertising for this movie has made it look like we're about to watch the Theron-equivalent of a John Wick movie. Some sort of plot with a catalyst that leads Theron on a mission to kick as many asses as possible in a two hour time frame. This isn't exactly the case. The story of Atomic Blonde is this: Theron plays Lorraine, a British Intelligence Operative sent to Berlin in order to retrieve a stolen list of all British agents. There, in Berlin, she meets her contact David Percival (James McAvoy), and the two of them do some super-secret crazy spy shit in order to get the list back. The list contains the names of every British operative currently active (including double agents and triple agents and double triple agents, etc.). However, there is a mole working for the KGB, setting Lorraine up, exposing her, and basically causing all sorts of trouble.

Now... here's where this movie and a movie like John Wick differ. John Wick has a very simple plot. Some bad guys killed his dog. He kills them all. That's it. There's the invention of the underground society of assassins and all that, but the plot is very simple. There's really no twists and turns, no mystery to unravel. It's just John murdering anyone connected to the organization of the dude who killed his dog. And he kills everyone. Literally... everyone. Atomic Blonde is different. It is an action movie, but it is more a spy/espionage movie first. A good two-thirds of the movie involve Lorraine tailing leads, finding out information, evading attack, discovering who the mole could be, and the like. It's not until the final third of the movie that almost all of the action you see in the trailers comes forth. But, boy, when it does, watch out. It comes fast and it comes furious (hey, Charlize was in the last Fast and Furious movie... they should do a crossover movie with Mad Max called Fast and Furiosa). The fight sequences and shoot-outs and brawls she gets into are some of the best visually stylized action sequences I've ever seen. If you haven't seen it yet, go check out the YouTube behind-the-scenes video of Charlize training for this film. The director even says that normally in an action film you'll get a couple punches in, then have to cut in order for it to look authentic. Charlize works so hard and is such a badass chick that they were able to do multiple punches and kicks and flips in this film because she was so committed to the film. In fact, there is an action sequence that lasts probably a good twenty minutes of Charlize engaging in hand-to-hand combat with at least ten thugs... and it's one shot. Obviously there is trick photography at work here, but it doesn't take away from the impressiveness of both the choreography or Theron herself.

The one thing that hinders Atomic Blonde, however, is actually its story. Where John Wick knows that it is purely a vehicle for numerous action sequences and gun fights, so it doesn't waste too much time on a story... Atomic Blonde is all about story. This is good because now it's not just hundreds of random henchmen scurrying about waiting to be shot in the face. There's actually reasons behind each of the fights in the film, and this makes it feel a lot more organic. However, the problem with Atomic Blonde's story is that it's kinda weak. There isn't anything super new here that plunges you into this story with really any emotional connection. It's entertaining enough, but it's nothing new. You're here for her. There aren't any twists or turns you didn't already see coming from the beginning, there isn't anything new introduced into a standard spy movie that you haven't really seen before... except her. Theron drives this movie with full force. And if it wasn't for her and the perfectly executed fight sequences, this movie would be totally forgettable. Even an actor as strong as McAvoy just falls by the wayside under Theron's thuderous performance. This is a movie where you don't go for the story. You don't go for the action. You go to see Charlize in full force kicking ass and taking names.

The reason I'm comparing it so heavily to John Wick is that stylistically it's very similar. The action is similar, the look and feel of the movie are similar as well. This is partly because one part of the directing duo of John Wick, David Leitch, has helmed this film. You're able to tell that he is trying to mature as a filmmaker, relying a little bit more on story than action, but really dude... just do what you're good at. We like it. So, don't go into it thinking you're getting a female John Wick. You aren't. Go into it knowing you're watching a mediocre spy movie with a mind-blowing performance from a powerhouse actress who should've been making movies like this a long time ago. And, today, at 42, she's showing us that she's got the mind, spirit, body, and kick-ass moves of a 20 year old. Hollywood... listen to us now... Charlize Theron is the action star we want. Keep doing movies like this and the audience will show.

B

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Girls Trip: A Dual Perspective


I know this is going to come as a surprise to my loyal and faithful followers, but I had absolutely no intention of seeing Girls Trip. It's not that I think a comedy featuring an all female cast can't be funny, I just didn't think this particular all female comedy would be all that funny. I saw the green band trailer that didn't make me laugh. Then I saw the raunchy red band trailer that didn't make me laugh. I thought it looked lazy, with jokes meant to shock you into laughing rather than actually being funny and clever enough to illicit a laugh. But... my opinion of movies based off their trailers have been wrong before. I would've bet money that Rough Night was going to blow Girls Trip out of the water with hilarity, and that movie wound up being pretty bad. So... what actually convinced me to see this film? Well, there were two factors. First, every time I saw one of the trailers for this film, I was with my lovely girlfriend who was laughing much more than I was and she wanted to see it. Second, if you venture over to Rotten Tomatoes, you'll see that Girls Trip sits at a very respectable 89% fresh with over 70 reviews registered. If I think a movie looks bad enough that I don't want to see it, but it gets a grade that high... it piques my interest (kind of like Valerian... I have absolutely ZERO desire to see that movie, but if it was sitting on 89%, you better believe the review would already be up... however, sitting in the low 50 percent... that one is just going to have go un-reviewed). However, after seeing the movie... and understanding that the film definitely has an audience... one that isn't exactly targeted at someone like myself... I feel that it is unfair for me to be the only voice in this instance. Therefore, I have asked my lovely girlfriend, Ashley, to lend her perspective to the film as well... so you can make your own choices.

****QUICK SIDE NOTE: Each review was written blindly, so as not to influence each other's take on the film.****

Ashley's Take:
Ryan asked me to throw in my two cents about Girls Night, maybe partly because I think he knows that a review of a film, which focuses on a group of black women in their mid-thirties spending a weekend in New Orleans to attend Essence Fest, from the perspective of a white man in his late twenties is probably a bit of a limited view... so he asked his white girlfriend in her late twenties to bring some, albeit still very white, insight to the table.

Before I start, I want to say that Tiffany Haddish, who plays crazy party girl Dina, is going to be the next big thing. She is HILARIOUS and beautiful and Girls Night is going to catapult her into the spotlight where she belongs. I'm going to go one step further and put in writing that I think Haddish is going to gain some momentum in comedy, but she's going to blow our minds with a dramatic role. When that happens, know that I'll be sitting here stewing in how right I am.

The chemistry between Queen Latifah, Regina Hall, Jada Pinkett-Smith, and Tiffany Haddish is real. That's what makes the movie one of the better ~lifelong friends get into a mess on vacation~ movies I've seen. More importantly though, these funny women are giving us a comedic narrative that we need more of. I had a good time watching Girls Trip. I laughed a lot, cringed over how truly terrible and awkward white people are, and found myself imagining a life where Tiffany Haddish is my wife and we live happily ever after. The only reason I didn't give Girls Trip an higher grade is because the predictability of the story left you wanting more. Regardless, I'm very much looking forward to the sequel (because if Pitch Perfect can have three fucking movies, this BETTER get a sequel).

My Take: 
I didn't hate Girls Trip, but I certainly didn't enjoy it. I'd read a few reviews saying it was the next Bridesmaids, but if that's what we're comparing it to on the comedy spectrum, it falls pretty far from the target. I thought most of the humor in the movie was quite lazy. Most of the jokes in the film were recycled from previous films that performed them better. I thought a lot of the sight gags in the film were leading up to something funnier than what was delivered. However, there were moments that actually caught me off guard and had me laughing. One of the biggest turn offs for me in the trailer is a scene when Jada Pinkett-Smith's character is supposed to be zipping across a crowded pathway from one rooftop to the other, but gets stuck in the middle. The catch here is... she's had a lot to drink and has to pee. She is unable to hold it in and lets it out on the onlookers below. Parts of this are shown in the advertisements and I thought it made the movie look even worse. Turns out this is one of the funnier moments in the movie. Turns out the scatological humor here was actually a lot funnier than it appeared and the cast went further with it than I expected... with very humorous results (this is something Rough Night failed to do entirely). And with most ensemble comedies there is always one performer who stands out above the rest. Here, it's relatively unknown actress Tiffany Haddish. Not all of her jokes land (in fact I'd say it's about 50/50), but when they do, even the most curmudgeonly of movie patrons will find it hard to stifle their laughter. She gives 110% to the role and I applaud her comedic courageousness.

The structure of the film was also something I had a big problem overcoming. The plot is so predictable, by the end of the first act I could've looked over and told the people next to me exactly how the movie was going to go. There are so many blatant set-ups, there are only obvious payoffs and that's exactly what we get. Yet, there was earnestness in the characters, which (barely) overshadows the rigid structure the film plots out. I can appreciate that these characters aren't stock characters (even though they're in a stock plot). They're multi-dimensional and very earnest women. In fact, the best part of the movie isn't even a very funny scene. One of the women gives a speech on respecting yourself as a woman and it is a speech that every young woman (hell any young person) should hear because it's empowering as well as poignant. Normally, when a character in a movie like this has a big revelatory speech at the end of the film, it's nice to see a change in the character, but there's no real powerful message delivered. Girls Trip actually delivers this powerful message. So, for all its faults, there are still some diamonds in the rough. I think, though, most of the humor just wasn't targeted at a viewer such as myself. It isn't a total waste of time, but it's nothing I say you need to rush out to see. In fact, I still maintain that the only two movies worth anyone's time right now are Baby Driver and Dunkirk.  Go see one of them. Now.

Ashley's Grade: B-
Ryan's Grade: C-

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Dunkirk: Saving 400,000 Private Ryans


Lately, Christopher Nolan has become a very polarizing director. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me, but typically what people do is when someone becomes very popular for their great work, people decide that the person is no longer great in order to not fit the status quo. Everyone loved Inception. Everyone. Yet, now, most people consider it overrated or they claim they never really liked it in the first place. But just take a look at his track record. Christopher Nolan transcends genre. He took a simple comic book character and turned it into a Heat-esque crime drama. Whether you love him or hate him as a director, you have to respect that his visions for films are truly remarkable. I think this division began at Interstellar. Nolan inserted some truly ridiculous philosophical ramblings and crammed his head just a little bit too far up his own ass for his own good and this didn't exactly sit well with viewers who weren't super fans. I was a fan of Interstellar when I first saw it, but I didn't love it. Dunkirk, however, I fell in love with instantly. This may be his best film to date, or if not best, his most matured as a director.

Dunkirk tells the story of 400,000 French and British soldiers in WWII stranded on a beach surrounded by the German army, trying to get home, and the hundreds of civilian sailors who came to their rescue. The movie is told from three perspectives: the land, the air, and the sea. On land we follow Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a scared and alone British soldier helping the wounded and trying to find a way off the beach. In the air we follow two allied pilots (one of them played by Tom Hardy) heading toward the beach to ward off attacks from German planes. Finally, at sea, we follow a civilian, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his kids, and a stranded soldier (Cillian Murphy) headed to the beach of Dunkirk to save as many soldiers as he can fit on his tiny boat.

Before seeing the movie, once I found out that the film was only an hour and forty-six minutes, that there was hardly any dialogue in the film, and that it was rated PG-13... some tiny, little red flags went up for me. Then I remembered how I felt way back in the day when Nolan announced that Heath Ledger was playing The Joker and how upset I (and, be honest with yourself, everyone) was that some pretty boy "actor" was stealing a role made famous by the great Jack Nicholson. Then, of course, we all saw the movie and realized that not just Heath, but Nolan was a genius. None of us could've predicted a performance so iconic. In Nolan we trust. So, when I read up on these red flags, who other than Chris Nolan himself, gave up explanations. As far as the PG-13 rating, he revealed that this isn't your typical war movie. It isn't Saving Private Ryan or Hacksaw Ridge. There aren't intense epic war sequences. There are battle sequences, but no war sequences. This is a movie about survival set during wartime, not a war movie. Okay... that seems reasonable enough. But, what about a lack of dialogue? According to Nolan, the lack of dialogue was because he wanted to visually thrill the audience. Apparently, he studied numerous silent films in order to learn how to create suspense through details, rather than dialogue. Finally, the length of the movie. You go to see a movie set in WWII, you're pretty much under the assumption you're going to be there a good 1/3rd of your day. Yet, this is Nolan's shortest theatrical film, what gives? Nolan revealed (and I'm paraphrasing of course) that he wanted the movie to be as tense as possible from beginning to end. He doesn't want the audience a second to catch their breath. He wanted to create a film that begins with you on the edge of your seat and doesn't stop thrilling you until the credits rolled. To be completely successful, he isn't going to be able to do this for two and a half hours. His script for Dunkirk was a tight 76 pages. And he achieves his goal. It's the perfect amount of thrills and suspense because the film is at the perfect length.

I bring all of this up because Nolan's vision is unparalleled. He sets out to do something and not only does it, but does it better than most people. We all have a vision of how we want something to go or what we want something to look like when we're doing a project, and rarely does it become exactly what we want. Nolan does it better. Dunkirk is exactly what he wanted it to be. It's a fantastic film and one that is probably going to age better than most war movies. We're given a film with hardly any dialogue at all, especially with scenes involving Tommy and the beach. He's a near silent character and yet... we care about him. Nolan doesn't give us any long speeches about backstory and who these characters are internally and what haunted pasts they have... no... they're scared young men desperately trying to get home. Or they're frightened civilians just trying to do their human duty and save lives before losing their own. These are very human characters and we don't need them to tell us that they are. We understand it.

If you have the means, I implore you to see this movie in IMAX. Whether you loved or hated Interstellar, you can't argue that it wasn't visually beautiful. Somehow Nolan has upped his game with Dunkirk. Simply using shots of the actual sky or the actual ocean or the actual beach... it's like nature has bends to the will of Nolan. He goes out there and finds the most breathtaking shot possible... and then does it again and again and again (practically, too) to produce a movie with a setting we've all seen before... in a way we've never seen it before. The cinematography, the movement of the camera swiping side to side from the point of a view of a fighter plane or swishing back and forth, choppy, like the rough waters of a boat, or calm and still like the beach... all of these keep the tension high, and add to the glory of the film. It will be beautiful in any format, but this is one of those very few films that was intended to be seen in IMAX and worth the $20 admission fee.

Finally, the last great thing about Nolan as a filmmaker is his relationship with Hans Zimmer. Zimmer has scored nearly every Nolan movie and if you've seen one, you know that the music is just as much of a character in the film as the actual actors. Here, Zimmer uses the sound of a pocket watch to contribute to the intensity of the film and the very little time these men have left. It's so beautifully crafted, you'll find your own heart beating in rhythm with the ticks of the watch... especially when it speeds up for maximum suspense. Dunkirk is a very understated movie that when reflected back upon feels almost like a quiet success.  However, this is far from true. It's a movie that will visually stun you while you try to find a way to breathe. Nolan is a very accomplished filmmaker, but in Dunkirk he has found his most unique voice yet. I think I'll always consider The Dark Knight to be his best film, but this one certainly knocks the rest of his filmography into the water. It's absolutely fantastic.

A

Monday, July 17, 2017

War For The Planet Of The Apes: Schindler's Chimps


It shouldn't work. It shouldn't. There's no way there should be three movies about talking monkeys battling humans. And if that is the plot to a movie... it shouldn't be serious.  It should be a comedy, right? No one would go to see this movie. No production company would spend millions upon millions of dollars to make a movie with that idea in mind. There should not be a trilogy of these movies and they should not be making any money. Yet... somehow... it does work. Every time we hear that another one is coming out we immediately do a little eye-roll and giggle assuming it's going to be just as stupid as it sounds. Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a surprise because it rebooted the Planet of the Apes franchise in a new, smart, and creative way. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was even more of a surprise because it was basically like a Shakespeare play involving monkeys and it was unexpectedly beautiful and brilliant. I've thoroughly enjoyed both of these films, but even I thought continuing on with the story (a story about talking monkeys at war with human beings) was something silly. Fool me three times... and you've got War for the Planet of the Apes... another great entry into the fighting talking monkey saga that continues its streak of fantastic films.

We are now even further into the future after the events of Dawn have transpired. Caesar (played by genius Andy Serkis) is still the leader of the apes. They're living somewhat peacefully deep in the heart of the forest, just trying to survive. An angry and insane Army Colonel (Woody Harrelson) sends troops into the forest to take the apes out. After many, many casualties (including Caesar's wife and eldest son), the apes realize they need to find a new place to live and hide because they won't be able to survive another attack. Caesar and a small group loyal to him, leave the pack and seek out the Colonel. By the time they reach him, however, he's already intercepted the rest of the apes and put them into what is essentially a monkey internment camp. There they are brutalized, beaten, whipped, and forced into hard labor to build a wall and stronghold for the Colonel. Caesar and his small group, including a new ape, called Bad Ape (voiced perfectly by Steve Zahn), can help save the apes, get them out of the camp, and stop Woody Harrelson before it is the end of the apes for good.

To begin, War for the Planet of the Apes is still, most definitely, a blockbuster summer film. There is plenty here for you to watch, enjoy, and munch your popcorn to. It fits in nicely with the rest of the loud, CGI-riddled summer fare. However, it is a very dark film. And it is not subtle either. When I think of summer blockbusters I think of Transformers. Nothing of substance. Loud. Outrageous. But entertaining. War is here to show us that we no longer have to sit in the dark ages of summer theater. Even though a movie may be loaded with action and CGI, it doesn't mean they can't have substance. War is actually not an easy film to watch. There are many allusions to the Bible, slavery, and the Holocaust. The captured apes are, for lack of a better term, tortured in this movie. And what's worse is it's somehow just as hard to watch humans beat on computerized apes as it is to watch human beings beat on human beings. The cruelty to animals in this movie as an allegory for all of the atrocities we, as actual humans, have committed is visually heart-breaking to sit through. And us viewers are given very little levity in the film to breath before yet another harrowing scene of injustice toward the apes. The message here is clear: we haven't evolved as intelligent beings. In fact, in our current climate, we've de-volved. We study history in school so we are not doomed to repeat it. But, War clearly shows that not only are we repeating it, but we're making even worse mistakes. Director Matt Reeves provides us with a movie showing our faults as human beings with the subtlety of a nuclear blast. It's very difficult to watch, and even harder to digest. However, it is quite necessary. The best part is, it doesn't come out of nowhere. The third film, even though it deals with some very harsh themes, is an organic move forward in the story we have been told thus far.

It's not all hard to watch (I mean, most of it is...), but there is still a great deal of entertainment. I don't want to say it's "fun"... because it's kind of... well... not. But it is entertaining. Each time an ape is tortured, you know in the back of your mind that the person doing it is going to meet an even worse fate (and the film will not let you down here), but it takes a long long long time to get to that point. The film is 140 minutes long and the apes are in dire straits for damn near 120 minutes of that time. But there are some solid action sequences and wonderfully written characters. I love what the writers, and particularly Serkis, have done with the character of Caesar. In Rise, by the end, he could only speak in short one-syllable words. In Dawn he is able to speak in full thoughts and convey most of what he wanted to convey, without the syntax of a full sentence. Now, in War, he is able to speak more eloquently than even most of the human beings I know in real life. It's a nice evolution to the character which plays along well with the theme of the movie. And even though Caesar is a fully animated character, Andy Serkis shines through in the role. Every movement, every mannerism, every facial expression, Serkis comes out in the role. I don't know the rules about nominations, but he definitely deserves an Oscar nod (finally) for his role in the film. He's a marvel to watch and is the leading reason why these movies are so well received. Thankfully and graciously given to us, as well, is the character of Bad Ape. He's a very helpful character, but he's essentially inserted into the film to provide the tiniest bit of levity for the audience to get a chuckle before back to the harrowing scenes of monkey mistreatment.

Also, once again, everything else is gorgeous. Each new Apes movie we're given is just another reminder of the marvel of our technology. Only a few years ago could we still tell when something is crudely animated and it takes us out of the movie. Without this tech, Apes wouldn't work because it is relied heavily upon in all of these movies. Now, there's so much confidence in this technology that  Reeves lingers longer on Apes faces. So many more close-ups on expressions, even in back and forth dialogue. What used to look silly, now leaves us in awe. War for the Planet of the Apes may not be the most fun film in the trilogy, but it is the most intelligent. Unlike Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, the philosophical questions posed in this movie are actually very thought-provoking and challenging. Matt Reeves has shown us that we're never going to be without the explosions of summer movies, but it doesn't mean these movies have to come without a brain. As silly as the stories of these movies are, they really are worth watching.

B+

The Big Sick: The Resurgence Of The Smart Rom-Com


Thanks mostly to the Marvel/DC/Superhero/sequel/prequel/spinoff/etc. state of movies right now, there has been a damn near elimination of romantic comedies. Not that long ago, Judd Apatow and crew lept onto the scene and showed us that romantic comedies don't need to be Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson only affairs. Rom-coms can be raunchy as well as heartfelt and sweet. Movies like Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Wedding Crashers, Crazy Stupid Love, etc. gave us fresh voices and movies that were equally romantic and hilariously funny. Yet, can you remember the last time you went to the movies to see a rom-com? Silver Linings Playbook maybe? Thankfully, Judd Apatow hasn't given up on the genre and in a time when rom-coms aren't in high (or any) demand, he's one of the few directors/producers who can squeeze one through. I love little movies like The Big Sick in the middle of the summer. It gives us a nice break from the big-budget popcorn movies saturating the theaters. The Big Sick is a wonderful little film to give you that nice breath of fresh air in the midst of a loud and explosive summer.

Silicon Valley regular Kumail Nanjiani plays, well, himself in this autobiographical tale of how he met his now wife, Emily (played by Zoe Kazan). Kumail is a Pakistani man in the world of amateur comedy. He spends his nights performing at a small club with a group of friends and then on the weekends going to his parents' house on the weekend for dinner and to be introduced to a new Pakistani woman for him to marry. Unbeknownst to the family, Kumail doesn't practice his religion as they expect him to. When they send him down to the garage to pray over dessert, he sets a timer on his phone for five minutes and watches YouTube videos. He's also not into the whole "arranged marriage" thing, but cannot admit this to his family for fear of excommunication. Enter Emily. Kumail and Emily date off and on until she finds out about his lies to his family and the two break up. A few days later, Kumail receives notice that Emily is in the hospital with an infection that the doctors can't figure out what it is. She's put into a medically induced coma until they can figure it out. Kumail spends the rest of his time at the hospital with Emily's parents Beth and Terry (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano), bonding with them, realizing who he truly is inside, and falling back in love with Emily.

The reason the movie works so well to begin with is the chemistry between Kumail and Emily. Because it is based off of Nanjiani's actual relationship with his real-life wife, it feels authentic. There are no real clichéd rom-com tropes at work here. There are just two people having humorous conversation and falling in love a little bit at a time. I'd always said that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was one of the most authentic portrayals of a real-life relationship, well, chalk The Big Sick up there as well. What's also great is that it stays that way for the entirety of the film. There are no big moments of unrealistic professing-my-love grandstanding. They (I assume) don't take many liberties with the relationship outside of what (again, I assume) actually happened. The biggest conflict facing the couple is Kumail's family who are very strict Muslims and can not allow Kumail to marry someone outside his religion. The conflict between losing the love of his life and losing his family drives the movie and opens characters up to heartache and pain and love. It's heartwarming and very much endearing... along with just flat out hilarious.

The other relationship in the film that really works well is between Kumail and Emily's parents, especially with her mother. What begins as a very toxic relationship turns into something sweet and funny. Holly Hunter nails it as the tough mom hiding her vulnerabilities. One of the best scenes in the film is when Kumail is doing stand-up and a heckler calls him "ISIS" because people in this country and genuinely morons. Beth, without even liking Kumail, near-drunkenly tries to verbally, then physically, fight the idiot. Then, there's Kumail and Terry's interactions. This is where a majority of the comedy comes from (though the scenes involving the stand up world are quite humorous too), but Kumail, who is still relatively new to comedy and Romano, a comedy veteran, steal scenes displaying their similar comedic observation stylings that the pair actually wind up being a very good match. They're both the quiet, awkward, yet hilarious comedians just trying to make it in their own respective worlds. It's through all of these relationships that makes the movie great.

The Big Sick is one of those movies that reminds us that there is entertainment and art and writing and acting and films out there that don't need to be based off of any previous source material (other than maybe, perhaps, a personal happening) to hold our interest. I'm astonished (and proud) that this film made it all the way into theaters nationwide. Nanjiani doesn't have that leading man power just yet (though he shows he has the ability) and no one in the movie is really "big enough" to draw a crowd. But, due to word of mouth, and the fact that it is a great film, we now have the opportunity to see it without having to wait for blu ray. July has provided us moviegoers with a string of great films lately, but this is one of the top films. It's a small movie that's earned its spot on the marquee, and anyone with any real heart or sense of humor will thoroughly enjoy it. It's time we make some more room at the theater for more movies just like this one.

A

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming: Dust Off The Cobwebs... He's Back!


The over-saturation of Marvel movies in the last few years (particularly this year-- Spider-Man: Homecoming marks movie 3 out of 4 this year... next year there will be SEVEN) has left most of us, who aren't ardent fanboys/fangirls/fan...people, utterly exhausted. I hear Marvel and immediately want to run away from any and all conversation as I'm just tired. Now, compound that with the number of Spider-Man films there have actually been... not just sequels, but this is the THIRD time we have been given a reboot of Spider-Man. So... like I said... tired. However, if you're feeling as I felt before entering the theater... that I didn't have any desire to see this new iteration of Spider-Man... that I didn't want to waste my time watching Peter Parker have to get more power and more responsibility... that I didn't want to force myself to watch another origin story of another person playing Spider-Man when they're probably going to get replaced and rebooted in five years... to those of you feeling this way I say this: don't listen to your gut. Spider-Man: Homecoming is fantastic. 

I wanted to hate this movie. For those of you who know me or have followed these reviews for years, you know that most of the time when I write a review of a Marvel or DC film, I always begin by bitching that there are too many superhero movies and there's no more creativity and blah blah blah. I still believe all of these things, but I really wanted to hate this movie. I entered the theater ready to hate it. Do you know why I even saw it? Two words: Michael Keaton. Had he not been attached, it would've been a good long while before I even entertained the thought of seeing it. When the film was over, and I was walking out of the theater... I was actually mad at how much I enjoyed the movie and how proud I am of the heads of Marvel for actually allowing some growth with the Spider-Man franchise. The biggest issue facing the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is that each movie is trying to be bigger and louder and more destructive and expand further and further with its mythos that it's going to be nearly impossible to top. Logan recognized this and scaled way down to a very manageable feat (which is probably why it's the best X-Men movie), but just look at Guardians 2. This was a good movie, but they literally had to stop a guy from consuming the universe. You can't get much bigger than that! The next Avengers movie is moving to space with fucking everyone you've ever met in a Marvel movie I have no idea how they're going to accomplish this (I mean, we saw how crowded Captain America: Civil War was and that movie was a fucking mess). Spider-Man: Homecoming scales everything way down, and in doing so, has essentially cemented itself as the best Spider-Man film to date. 

Tom Holland plays Peter Parker. In the beginning of the film it is already established and understood that he is, in fact, Spider-Man. We don't get the pleasure of watching his origins for a third goddamn time (thank the Lord baby Jesus we didn't have to witness Uncle Ben get killed again). He's only 15, but the only thing that he can think of is his fight in the Civil War against Captain America. However, he's still just a high school kid. He's not old enough to be an Avenger, but he's too old to responsibly contain the powers he possesses. He's looked out for by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr. once again) and given a suit (with training wheels of course) and encouraged not to go after big evil fish, but to be just a "friendly neighborhood Spider-Man". Enter Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), a hard working father who, over years of being over-looked by superiors, has been collecting scrap pieces of alien weaponry (from the Avengers fights), making new weapons out of them, and selling them secretly to criminals. Due to this technology, he's been able to make and equip a suit that allows him to fly and become The Vulture. 

This all sounds like standard comic book Marvel fare... however, I assure you that it isn't. The movie focuses less on the action, and far more on the evolution of the characters. Keaton's Vulture isn't evil for the sake of being evil... he's become hardened and bitter and protective slowly over time out of necessity. Peter Parker isn't a flawless hero... he's just a kid (and a bit of a wiseacre) trying to figure out not only his place in the superhero world, but his place in the world in general. He's frustrated that he's not taken seriously by Stark and treated as a kid, yet when situations that aren't manageable by a 15-year-old get out of hand, he's legitimately unable to handle them. Then, I think what really impressed me the most out of the movie is that (FINALLY!!!!) a Marvel movie didn't fall into the third act pitfall that literally every single Marvel movie has fallen into. The first two acts are generally pretty original, but the third act everything gets huge and more animated and louder and bigger and it's an all out war of epic proportions. It's the climax... it has to be the biggest thing we've ever seen, right? Wrong. Spider-Man: Homecoming finally shows us that a movie can still stay small, still be exciting, and not have to cling to the pitfall of an overly CGI'd and explosive climax. It's bigger than anything Peter has had to deal with in the film, but in the grand scheme of the MCU, the climax of this film is small potatoes... and totally earned, organic, and intelligent. 

Holland is perfect as Peter Parker. Tobey Maguire was serviceable and I actually quite enjoyed Andrew Garfield (though the first one he was in was so mediocre I didn't even bother watching the second one with purple Jamie Foxx). But Holland is pitch perfect as Spidey. He's headstrong and quippy, yet equally vulnerable and unsure. He's a nice contrast to every other hero in the MCU and well-suited to wear the costume. Keaton slays it as Vulture. You can empathize with him and fear him all at the same time. Marissa Tomei jumps in this time as Aunt May and while she may not contribute much to the story, she's her normal awesome self in every scene she's in. Newcomer Jacob Batalon as Peter's best friend Ned is really the perfect character in the whole movie. He's the literal embodiment of someone who just found out their best friend is a superhero. There's questions galore, there's using this knowledge as a means to gain popularity, there's wanting to be a part of the action... Ned does all of this and more while still being a true friend to Peter. His character is the cherry on top of an already wonderful and diverse cast of characters. 

Spider-Man: Homecoming really had a lot going against it. So many people are sick of the rebooting of the character. So many people are sick of the over-saturation of Marvel movies. And so many writers (literally six writers are credited for writing this movie) are attached to the film. This is almost always never a good sign. However, here it works. And if you look at the track records of the writers it's a good mix. You've got the writer with the flare for the dramatic, the writer with the flare for the epic, a writer who specializes only in comedy. It's six unique voices piecing together a franchise that was on the brink of losing its fandom. And the end result does reflect these voices. It's action-packed, it's got heart, it's very, very funny, it's thrilling... it's everything we've wanted a Spider-Man movie to be since Spider-Man 2. And there's only one minor thing about this movie that actually irritated me. There's a moment where a villain has the perfect opportunity to kill Parker... and no reason he wouldn't do it... and he doesn't do it... for no reason... just doesn't do it. Look, I get it. We can't kill off Spider-Man. But, everything else in the movie has worked out so perfectly, let's give this moment one final rewrite, huh? 

I don't know whether I'm happy or pissed off at how good this film was. Either way, I walked into this movie trying my absolute hardest not to like it... not to appreciate anything about it... not not to even crack a smile... and it ended up being one of the best movies of the entire year... along with being the best Spider-Man film Marvel has ever released. 

A-

Monday, July 3, 2017

The House: Like A So-So Episode Of Parks And Recreation


The House currently sits at a 19% on rottentomatoes. There has recently been this debate going on if RT is helping or damaging films with their scores. I believe the misconception about RT is that it is a singular movie review website that comes up with its own percentage of how good or bad a movie is. This is obviously wrong. It is the aggregate of all of the critics who submit their reviews of positive or negative. If 119 critics submit their reviews and 74 of them give a positive review then the RT score would be a 62%. I think that RT actually helps moviegoers more than filmmakers and production companies. As moviegoers we have seen ticket prices inflate so much that $15 for a movie ticket is now a norm instead of outrageous. I remember paying upwards of $7 a movie when I was in high school, something I thought was personally ridiculous at the time. So, if I can rely on a website to give me a general idea of the quality of a movie before I go out and spend my time and money on it... I actually appreciate it. However, movies can live and die by its RT score these days. Recently, The Mummy received a well-deserved 15% and lost the studio a lot of money. Then again, Wonder Woman received 92% (also very well-deserved) and experts say this has directly contributed to its success. We don't only have to rely on word of mouth any longer because generally we can rely on RT's information. However, you have to do your homework. For instance, if you're an Adam Sandler fan... just understand that whatever score it gets on RT is probably going to be insanely low because critics have given him enough freebies that it's going to have to be mind-blowingly funny to get anything with a double-digit score. I've also noticed this trend lately with Will Ferrell films. 2015's Get Hard was nothing to write home about, but did have some genuinely funny moments. It currently sits at 29%... which I'd say is just a bit below what it deserves. The House currently sits at 19%... and it's certainly not that bad. It's not a good movie, but it's not as awful as its RT score suggests.

I believe one of the reasons that Will Ferrell hasn't been given the love from critics lately is that he's been making somewhat underwhelming films. In the mid 00s, he was a comedic juggernaut, giving us larger-than-life characters and made simple comedies feel like mid-summer blockbusters. However, some time after The Other Guys, his movies felt smaller... he felt more tired... and he wasn't writing his own material anymore. His string of films since then (Casa De Mi Padre, The Campaign, Get Hard, Daddy's Home and now The House) just don't have the umph that his previous films had. Most of them come off as paycheck movies. He's one well-written film away from having his comedic resurgence... unfortunately, The House isn't that movie. But, it's not awful either. Much like most of his previously mentioned films, it's enjoyable to watch (especially since we dip back into R-rated territory), but they're wildly forgettable once credits roll. The House plays more like a so-so episode of Parks and Recreation than something a bunch of people spent months of their lives putting together as a feature film. (Disclaimer: I love Parks and Rec... but when something goes that many seasons not every episode is going to be solid gold.)

Ferrell and Amy Poehler play married couple Scott and Kate Johansen, who don't have the money to pay for their daughter, Alex's, college tuition. So, in order to come up with the money, they, along with their friend Frank (a wildly hilarious Jason Mantzoukas), come up with a scheme to open an illegal, underground casino in Frank's house. The casino is instantly a success, but they soon run into problems with an overly-curious cop (Rob Huebel), a crooked councilman (Nick Kroll), and a violent gangster (a pretty funny cameo I won't spoil). Scott and Kate begin the film as two nerdy, trying-to-be-cool parents and wind up acting like a 1960s mafia couple, which lends to a few of the bigger laughs of the film. It's not an overly-clever premise, but it works in terms of June/July summer movie comedies. Ferrell and Poehler are actually quite good together, honing in on their days as SNL members. They're goofy and good-natured and both of them are very talented comedians. But, it's the trifecta of them and Mantzoukas (as most of you know as Rafi from The League) that really provide the laughs in the movie. It's actually a little bit difficult to not scrutinize a movie like this one, only a short while after having seen the fantastic Baby Driver, but The House is a movie that will, in fact, make you laugh several times. It's not the quality of the laughs that drive down the film's score, but its the infrequency of the laughs. There are jokes made in every scene, but not all of them land.

Finally, what brings the movie down really is its simplistic plot. The turning point for the characters ("we should open our own casino") really seems to come out of nowhere, the conflict doesn't feel real enough for us to believe anyone is actually going to suffer any repercussions, and the story is just too silly to really care about anyone or anything. But that's not what this movie is going for. It's a dumb R-rated Will Ferrell comedy and it serves its purpose. Is it Anchorman? No. Is it Talladega Nights? No way. But it is a movie where you can spend an hour and a half of your life laughing at the stupid misfortunes of a couple of really funny comedians. The movie is no better and no worse than 2015's Sisters also starring Poehler (which, in point of fact, rests at a comfy 60% on RT). It's fun, it's silly, not all of the jokes land (in fact a few fall very, very flat), but the ones that do make the movie worth it. Unless you just aren't a Ferrell fan at all, I doubt you'll leave the theater feeling betrayed by the once-prevailing comedic force (who, I'm telling you, is due for a resurgence). It's popcorn comedy at it's most satisfactory.

You know what... forget everything I just said and just go see Baby Driver.

C+

Baby Driver: This Movie Is So F@#&ING Cool


In order to correctly and safely be able to call a director one of the best we've ever had, there's a certain amount of films they have to direct so we know the first few weren't a fluke. Case in point, I love a director by the name of Martin McDonaugh. However, he's only directed two films: In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. These are brilliant, wonderful films, however, he's got a third one coming out this year that I will see based on the merit of his previous work, but I cannot yet call him one of the greatest directors of my lifetime... yet. Five films. If someone can direct five great films... especially in a row... then, for me, they've proven they are capable of handling any directing/writing task set in front of them. Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Gangs of New York, The Departed), Steven Spielberg (Jaws, E.T., Jurassic Park, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan), Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained), hell even Christopher Nolan has joined the ranks with (Memento, Insomnia, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Inception). Now... with his fifth movie, Baby Driver, one of my favorite directors of all time, I can finally say is one of the greatest directors of my generation... is Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, The World's End, Baby Driver).

Wright broke out onto the scene hard when he and longtime friend and writing partner Simon Pegg wrote and produced Shaun of the Dead. This is where we were given our first glimpse at Wright's unique voice and directing style. He only honed his skills and craft further and better with each film he released (though I will always maintain that Shaun of the Dead is his best film). Baby Driver is his coolest and most badass movie to date. What appears on the surface to be just a Drive update to the untrained eye, is actually one of the best movies of the year, and certainly the most original. For those unfamiliar with Wright as a director and his voice, may not be going into the film with the right expectations (and that's probably a good thing!). I guarantee you there are many people taking their kids or teenagers to see this movie to watch a pretty boy do pretty boy stuff in a car and try to act cool, or as they are certain to call it: Twilight on Wheels. What they're going to be treated to, however, is a movie that's heavy in entertainment and violent action and stylized, choreographed dance. Then, there's the added bonus of Wright's sharp and cutting dialogue that's definitely too smart for most American audiences.

Baby Driver begins in the middle of a heist. The bad guys go into the bank, and out in the car is Baby (Ansel Elgort), ear buds in his ears listening to (and singing along with) music that is timed to the heist and getaway perfectly. He's crafted his own life-soundtrack that just so happens to (luckily) be the soundtrack to our movie experience as well. The robbers jump in the car and the next five minutes that ensue is a car chase unlike one you've ever seen before... it's like Drive on crack. It's perfectly choreographed, set to each note of the song Baby is listening to, and it's absolutely bananas fun. Finally, we meet the mastermind behind the heist, Doc (Kevin Spacey). We learn that Baby is driving the getaway cars in these heists as a way to pay off a debt to Doc. One final job left, and he's free to go. In the midst of all of this (and taking care of his kind, deaf foster father) Baby has fallen for waitress Debora (Lily James) who only wants to take off down route 66 with music blasting in the car and no set destination in sight. Baby is all set to join her, but... as you could probably guess... things don't work out as smoothly as planned. There's a ragtag group of hardened criminals (including Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm) who are in dire need of Baby's services and will do anything to pull him back in.

Take away the fact that this movie is a heist movie and a car chase movie and a suspenseful action flick (and pretty much all moviegoers love these)... the movie is smart and funny and cool as hell. It's shot like a music video... or hell, even a musical. The music in the movie is just as big a character as the actors are. Baby, who deals with Tinnitus due to a car accident when he was younger, uses the music to drown out a constant ringing in his ears. But the music is all set to the scene, to the sequence, to the action. Whatever situation Baby gets himself into (whether it's driving the getaway car from the police, or talking to a pretty girl at a diner) he's got several old iPods with perfect soundtracks for the occasion. The film is not only clever in its use of music, but in its car chases, characters, and dialogue. If you've enjoyed even one of Wright's earlier films, you'll thoroughly enjoy Baby Driver. One of the best things I can say about Edgar Wright as a director is that his films are so smart, you wind up catching little things you hadn't before with each watch. I've seen Hot Fuzz over twenty times, but each time I watch it I catch something new. The same goes with his entire body of work and I guarantee it happens with Baby Driver. Even as I'm writing this, I'm remembering so much going on in the movie... it's so fast and clever... I know I missed a lot and I'm dying to see it again.

This is the one movie over summer that I'm hoping will put up crazy numbers at the box office because the statement this movie makes (money-wise) will have an effect on Hollywood. First, it will establish Wright as a credible director here in America and hopefully companies will keep giving him money to make amazing movies. Second... this is one of the ONLY original movies out in theaters right now. Everything else out is either a sequel or a reboot or a comic book/novel adaptation. This is a completely original piece of work and if it makes that $$$, then it will show those fat cat Hollywood big wigs that the general public is fine taking a risk with their cash to see something they aren't already familiar with. And for a budding screenwriter like myself, that's only good news. It's even better because it's not exactly an A-list cast. Yes, Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, and Jon Hamm are all familiar faces, but they alone don't automatically put asses in seats. I would even go so far as to say with Elgort's track record of John Green book adaptations and Divergent films... he's the reason some people might be apprehensive of seeing the film. However, everything in the movie works. Elgort is better than expected (he's tough, he's exuberant, and he's not just a pretty face). James is quirky and fun and not in the manic pixie dream girl way. Space, Foxx and Hamm are having a great time... especially Foxx who doesn't go for the easy comedic laugh, but is actually a pretty frightening dude.

There is something in the movie for everyone. And once you've actually entered the theater and started the film, you're not going to be able to take your eyes off the screen. While the movie could have gone a bit further with character development, it doesn't matter because everything else surrounding the movie is so fucking cool, you're not sitting there going... man, I wish I knew Kevin Spacey's back story.  Everything works in this movie and it should be at the top of your list of what to see next. I can 100% guarantee that this movie rests comfortably on my end of the year Best Movies of 2017 list.

A