The Dark Tower is not good

Everyone who has ever loved fiction has had to deal with it at some point: their favourite fantasy world being called stupid. Those stupid little Ewoks. Those stupid trash-can aliens. That stupid little Dobby fellow. It can be infuriating to defend, because the most innovative and captivating fantasy doesn’t get there without risking being stupid. That edge between stupid and scary, or stupid and cool, or stupid and fascinating is often the richest spot for creators to work. So I’d take it with a grain of salt whenever someone dismisses a movie or game or book or what-have-you as “stupid”. In the opposite spirit, however, jesus christ is The Dark Tower ever stupid.

The Dark Tower, based on Stephen King’s seven-ish-book series, lasts the longest 95 minutes that have ever existed. That kind of run time might hint that the film cut a lot of the fat; instead, almost the whole movie is fat. The movie opens with text about how the tower protects us from evil and can be brought down by the mind of a child, then proceeds to provide seventy minutes of straight exposition without ever really elaborating on why that happens to be the case. The novels apparently play with the notion of a fictional universe, and link themselves to King’s other novels, to the point where King himself is a character. The movie, on the other hand, plays like something a thirteen-year-old put together for a particularly lazy creative writing project.

Which would be fine if it were a lick of fun, but golly is it a slog. Matthew McConaughey tries his best to chew the scenery, succeeding precisely once in what is the best scene of the movie (it involves him casually frying up some chicken), but the script can’t even give him good lines to ham up as a sadistic wizard (this really should have been a slam-dunk). The presence of a preteen lead threatens to give it a Narnia-style adventure feeling, but it never balances its moments of darkness with anything approaching wonderous. Idris Elba’s gunslinger is in concept a great character to base a pulpy movie around, and Elba is more than game, but the action scenes are shockingly unimpressive and cheap-looking.

The Dark Tower has been in some kind of development for over ten years, which has to indicate that somewhere down the line, someone loved this movie. The Dark Tower we finally got is not the product of love though. This is pure clock-punching from all involved, a soulless creation with no good reason to exist. If it were awful schlock, there’d be some fun to be had at its expense, but this is like if Microsft Excel decided to make a fantasy movie.

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F

The Dark Tower (2017)
Directed by Nikolaj Arcel
Starring Idris Elba, Tom Taylor, Claudia Kim, and Matthew McConaughey

Rotten Tomatoes (18%)

The Dark Tower is not good

Okja’s performative histrionics don’t mask its muddled message

Despite being clearly an auteur work, a result of Netflix letting Snowpiercer‘s Bong-Joon Ho off-leash, Okja feels weirdly like reverse-engineered weirdness. The bare storyline is actually pretty dry, so a lot of showy performative flourish gets added to try to make it pop, but it rarely does. Jake Gyllenhaal, in particular, goes way over the top as a version of Tracy Morgan’s Brian Fellows on even more cocaine, but even Tilda Swinton gets sucked into it, trying to add any life into a dull corporate family sideplot and only succeeding in the pretty riveting opener. At its heart, Okja is about a girl and her superpig, which makes for a decently charming opening twenty minutes, where super-pig Okja is established as a caring and smart presence. But the main creature turns into a plot device rather than a character after she’s taken to New York by a Swinton’s Monsanto stand-in, and the charm of the film goes with it. The addition of the Animal Liberation Front helps insofar as Paul Dano is a lot of fun as a ski-mask wearing freedom fighter, but the movie seems to use them to push against GMO-based superfarming without offering anything approaching a nuanced critique . I’ve got nothing against giving Monsanto bad press, but Okja‘s critiques are shallow straw-man arguments, where Swinton is bad because her attempt at sustainable farming is a lovable, delicious mutant, I suppose? Pass the salt.

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C-

Okja (2017)
Directed by Bong-Joon Ho
Starring Seo-hyeon Ahn, Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, and Jake Gyllenhaal
Rotten Tomatoes (86%)
On Netflix

Okja’s performative histrionics don’t mask its muddled message

Dunkirk is a beautiful, terrifying mess

I’m in love with the opening shot of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. After a pitch-black title card, we smash-cut immediately to six soldiers wandering abandoned streets in a daze, being showered by flyers that read “surrender and live”. Everything about it, from the sudden brightness to the air of desolation, is disorienting, but for a moment its oddly, eerily beautiful. Then the gunshots come, and terror with them. A lot of Dunkirk is beautifully filmed horror, but that disorientation finds its way into the narrative structure and tears it apart somewhat. It serves some purpose to the mood of the film, but does away with a most of the emotional investment and poignancy along the way.

One aspect is worth praising unreservedly right out of the gate: Hans Zimmer’s score drives this movie, and in many ways the video feels like it serves the music rather than the other way around. There are perhaps two quiet moments in the entire film, but otherwise, the score is constantly pounding, sometimes reduced to ambient drones and sometimes to a simple metronome, but always propelling the film forward.

The score is particularly important as a glue, since the film takes on a highly nonlinear structure. It’s divided into three overlaid pieces told over different timespaces; a week with a soldier trying to escape the beach, a day with a civilian ship attempting to rescue survivors, and an hour with an ace pilot defending the ships. The three stories intersect at pivotal moments, but in such a way that when the ship encounters the pilot, it’s intercut with scenes of the pilot twenty minutes into the future. This is a risky structure, and by far the most “auteur” aspect of the film. Nolan may not have made an arthouse war film a la The Thin Red Line, but its certainly more formally daring than Saving Private Ryan.

However, I don’t think the risk pays off. In the final cut, too many climactic scenes get cut up and spliced between the three narratives, and not always with a clear emotional throughline between the action. One particular scene on a shot-up vessel should be harrowing, but instead of focusing on it during the action, we’re constantly diverted to the pilot checking his fuel gauge again. It’s one thing to ask the audience to logically follow the events, but quite another to ask us to maintain emotional investment when the narrative refuses to linger. In some aspects, the structure feels like its covering the weaker elements of the film. In particular, the sea story centers in parts around a kid who tags along with the vessel, with embarassingly maudlin and mawkish results. Additionally, he pilot’s storyline has much less going on than the other two, and effectively vanishes from the film for a good chunk, as if Nolan ran out of things to do. As a standalone story, or a continuously told one, the pilot’s lonely birds-eye view could have been touching, but instead it drags. Things are a bit more steady on the beach, but it suffers a bit from the fact that all of the British soldiers look exactly the same, which made it sometimes more difficult to follow than it should have been.

But Dunkirk does have its moments. Nolan stages some beautiful shots; my favourite is perhaps a sinking ship filmed in the ship’s frame of reference, with its mast still straight while walls of water come at it from the side. And even with the excessive cutting, there are some incredibly tense scenes here, notably three which make drowning feel real and deeply terrifying. When it reaches those moments, Dunkirk is as good as the best war movies ever made. For the most part, its just kind of a mess.

C

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Dunkirk (2017)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, and Mark Rylance
Rotten Tomatoes (92%)

Note: In the theater I saw it in, one of the speakers started acting up a bit towards the end. I cannot stress enough how much of Dunkirk relies on sound, so this definitely affected my viewing experience. If you can’t see it in a big theater, at least make sure to see it somewhere with one heck of a subwoofer.

Dunkirk is a beautiful, terrifying mess

Baby Driver is a (mostly) expertly choreographed thrill ride

Director Edgar Wright’s bread and butter, ever since and including Spaced, has been in making genre parodies that don’t only embrace the genre, but flourish in it. Shaun of the Dead, for example, has a lot of fun with zombie clichés, but it works perfectly well as a zombie movie in itself, and has a lot more visual style than most of its straight-faced kin. Baby Driver, Wright’s newest, is similarly aware of the tropes of its genre and picks fun at them, and gets away with it because it, first and foremost, is a good heist thriller. Yet, there is no mistaking Baby Driver for a parody; this is a fun thrill ride almost all the way through, and any laughs to be had at the genre’s expense are purely incidental. Playing it straight maybe makes Baby Driver a less novel outing than Wright’s previous, but the energetic flow, charismatic performances, and dazzling automotive stunts make for a hell of a fun time.

As one might have gathered from Scott Pilgrim vs The World, Wright is one hell of a kinematic director, and the audiovisual vibe he creates throughout is what really sets Baby Driver apart. Baby (the driver) has tinnitus, and always listens to an iPod to drown out the ringing. This simple little plot device gets exercised throughout the entire film, which Wright directs a lot like a music video, with everything from elevators to automatic weapon fire synchronized to guitar solos and trumpet blares. It also makes for easy (but effective and sparingly used) moments of dramatic tension whenever the music cuts out. The mood is so entrancing that when the choreography gets interrupted, we’re just as disoriented as Baby.

The cast is also more than game to play with some archetypes. In particular, the crowd of crooks have an interesting dynamic that could fill up a much longer movie. Kevin Spacey’s ringleader Doc never really comes into focus, with a few consequential moments in the third act that seem to come out of convenience to the plot rather than naturally from the character. However, the dynamic between Ansel Elgort’s Baby, John Hamm’s Buddy, Eiza Gonzalez’s Darling, and Jamie Foxx’s Bats is tense, fraught, and goes in some truly unexpected directions. Foxx almost takes over the movie in a nasty way as a hotheaded stick-up artist, but it ends up being his contrast with Hamm’s more level-headed Buddy that provides the second half with much of its thrust, and both actors relish that chance to play the heel. Outside the crime, Baby romance a waitress played by Lily James, who really only exists as an avatar for escape, a romantic ideal to make Baby wish he was in a different kind of movie. James is charming enough to make it work, but the script is clearly only interested in her insofar as she (a little inexplicably) cares about Baby, dulling the central drive of the second act.

Baby Driver isn’t Wright’s masterpiece. It’s either ten minutes too long or twenty too short, and its central character is not quite as nuanced as I might like. The ending is also a bit haphazard, with a climax that gets a bit too ugly and a bit too chaotic, as a setpiece set against Brighton Rock gets away from Wright’s otherwise steady flow. But it’s a hell of a fun time for the most part, and the kind of popcorn movie that will be endlessly rewatchable on home video. In the post-streaming era, it’s maybe the Blu-Ray release I’m looking forward to most since Fury Road. That should speak volumes louder than any little quibbles.

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B

Baby Driver (2017)
Directed by Edgar Wright
Starring Ansel Elgort, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, and Jamie Foxx
Rotten Tomatoes (94%)

Baby Driver is a (mostly) expertly choreographed thrill ride

Wonder Woman succeeds through its optimism and sense of awe

I haven’t been keeping up to date with the Zack Snyder-led DC universe films, but the criticism around their grim edginess and excessive cynicism is quite well known. Wonder Woman is in many ways a movie about evil, but using that evil to examine the limits and importance of optimism rather than stage a frown-off. Sure, stories about heroes being forced to contemplate the worthiness of humanity for their heroism have been done before. But in allowing that hero to be someone who has never encountered humanity before, Wonder Woman explores a sense of naivete about human nature but stops well short of condemning hope.

But that’s perhaps burying the lede. Wonder Woman had greater expectations and (unfairly) a greater duty to succeed than most of its ilk, which is maybe why it feels less formally risky than the best of its brethren. Wonder Woman has clearly benefited from the MCU films that came before it. It’s fish-out-of-water conceit, golden homeworld, and willingness to just go with the ancient gods angle feel very reminiscent of Thor, and its mixture of superhero conventions and a wartime setting are familiar from Captain America: The First Avenger. But Wonder Woman is a stronger film than either of those entries, particularly in how it uses the wartime setting to exaggerate both the silliness and the impact of superheroic feats. Seeing Diana walk around the streets of London in period garb carrying a sword and shield is maybe the funniest sight gag of the year, but when the bright blue, red, and gold outfit shows up on a battlefield, it’s a beacon of hope to lead the way. Also, its use of World War I rather than WWII is sly. Sure, there’s an evil German general (played by an American, naturally) to contend with, but the central thesis of there being hope for the global community is certainly an easier sell without the Nazi party in the picture.

The action scenes in Wonder Woman aren’t terribly visceral or exciting, filled with excessive slo-mo and playing a little loose with the exact level of power Diana has. At one moment, she can collapse a building with a tackle, and at another, she’s evenly matched with what’s effectively a man on PCP. But the framing of the scenes is worth highlighting. The female characters in other recent superhero movies, such as Catwoman and Black Widow, tend to be filmed as very technical fighters, relying on quick moves to gain the upper hand. Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince, on the other hand, is certainly choreographed as well trained, but what’s really stark is how director Patty Jenkins frames her as an object of power. As she fights a squadron of soldiers, she isn’t frightened for herself or relying on stealth. She takes charge and simply kicks ass. While the action isn’t tense, it’s the perfect way to handle an action scene with a nigh-invincible superhero. Diana is a figure of awe, and Jenkins makes us believe that.

By the end, Wonder Woman is far from immune to some plagues of most superhero movies. The movie may neglect the invisible jet, but the Golden Lasso of Truth is still plenty silly (played alternatively for effective laughs and ineffective drama). The finale is a mess of mostly impotent explosions with a color palette that consists of grey and rainy grey. Diana’s weaknesses are never clearly outlined, making it difficult to judge when we should worry for her. In place of that worry, we get American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and his cadre of military outcasts, whose human vulnerability is emphasized instead. Pine essentially takes the role of competent superhero love interest, occupying more-or-less the same space as Haley Atwell’s Agent Carter in Captain America, but anchors the film as a link to reality and as one hell of a charismatic foil for Diana. Make no mistake though: this is Gal Gadot’s movie, and through Jenkin’s lens, she’s commands the screen. They have the difficult task of believably creating a figure of simultaneous power, wisdom, and naivete, and they make it look effortless. Wonder Woman doesn’t break the mold the same way is breaks (or at least cracks) the ceiling, but in a vacuum it’s still a solid entry into the upper-middle tier of superhero flicks.

B

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Wonder Woman (2017)
Directed by Patty Jenkins
Starring Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Danny Huston, and Robin Wright
Rotten Tomatoes (93%)

Wonder Woman succeeds through its optimism and sense of awe

Born to Be Blue has lots of soul but lacks charm

Born to Be Blue, Robert Budreau’s chronicle of the attempted career revival of Chet Baker after imprisonment for heroin abuse, avoids many of the musical biopic pitfalls. It revels in the character flaws of its subject rather than sweeping them under the rug. It ignores the facts when they interfere with a good story. Most importantly, its a damn film. Its opening shot of a tarantula crawling out of a trumpet is the most abstract it gets, but it plays with time in interesting ways and captures more than its share of fantastic frames. It falters strongly, though, in making its central relationship believable. Ethan Hawke’s Baker is an intriguingly infuriating figure, but he never exudes charm, and because of this his romancing of Carmen Ejogo’s Jane never quite gels, especially given her devotion to him. Both Hawke and Ejogo give individually great performances, and by the end their relationship is established enough to sell the hell out of a powerhouse climax, but it takes a long time to reach that point.

B-

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Born to Be Blue (2016)
Directed by Robert Budreau
Starring Ethan Hawke, Carmen Ejogo, Stephen McHattie, and Callum Keith Rennie
Rotten Tomatoes (88%)

Born to Be Blue has lots of soul but lacks charm

Alien: Covenant is more self-mimicry than return to glory

The first horror setpiece of Alien: Covenant is a masterpiece of panic, a frantic and terrifying piece of body horror that builds a lack of communication, a lack of understanding, and a lack of precaution into a slowly unrolling disaster. It’s monster doesn’t look horribly convincing, but it doesn’t matter; the actors sell the hell out of the moment, and the camera movements put us right in the thick of it with them. It sets the film off to a fantastic start that it never comes close to reaching again. Afterwards, Alien: Covenant switches between a cheaper version of the extraterrestrial slasher (complete with a crew too dumb to live), a high-flying space trapeze act, and a half-baked pontification on birth and creation. It’s supremely unsatisfying on all counts. While Prometheus was flawed but promising, Alien: Covenant is proof positive that it’s time to put this franchise back on ice.

Notably, the aforementioned early setpiece does not involve the Alien series’ titular killing machine. The most surprising thing about Alien: Covenant might be that, after years of waiting and the tease of Prometheus, seeing the xenomorph again isn’t thrilling, scary, or even enjoyable. At least the Alien v Predator movies were moderately self-aware in their shallowness; Covenant aims to the standard of Alien and Aliens (particularly the first), but the central beast feels much lesser. Perhaps it’s because it spends most of its time in the open air rather than as a home invader; perhaps it’s because Covenant mimics iconic bits of its predecessors (rendering the intruder as a blinking dot on a map, multiple uses of construction equipment). Maybe it’s because the crew is particularly dumb this time, ignoring basic common sense by constantly splitting up in a crisis and investigating a mysterious planet during a high-force hurricane. Maybe it’s because the xenomorph is viewed in full light more often, making it look faker despite forty years of technological development.

Most likely, though, it’s because director Ridley Scott doesn’t seem to care about the xenomorph anymore, and every time it appear it feels like a distraction from is true intentions. Alien has always acted as a powerful rape metaphor, which in turn set up its hero well to become a feminist icon, and Covenant merges this not-entirely-unsuccessfully with Prometheus‘ undercooked exploration of creation. Covenant acts as a tale of impotence, as a dark-mirrored tale of man’s anger at their inability to create life, as told through Michael Fassbender’s dual performance. This provides Scott with fodder for plenty of eccentric scenes, which he made the most of in his heyday with Alien and Blade Runner but feel forced and awkward here. Alien took sexual anxieties and fears of personal invasion and spun horror out of it. Covenant tries to extend it a bit too far and in doing so exposes the limits of its structure.

D+

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Alien: Covenant (2017)
Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Katherine Waterson, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, and Michael Fassbender
Rotten Tomatoes (77%)

Alien: Covenant is more self-mimicry than return to glory