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%)

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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

Valerian gets distracted by itself in all the best ways

Comprehension can sometimes be disadvantageous, particularly when it comes to fantasy movies. Movies that we might have loved as kids don’t play as well as adults, since we’re aware of the cliches, the bad metaphors, the underlying problematic pieces. It’s easy to overlook how much of a creep Venkman is in Ghostbusters as a kid, but it really threatens to derail the whole thing as an adult (it’s still fun). There’s a pretty boring subplot about corporate theft and lawsuits going on in Jurassic Park that I didn’t comprehend one bit in 1996, but its absence made me enjoy the film more if anything (it’s still great). The Phantom Menace has plenty of eye candy for kids and some seriously interesting visual ideas, but doesn’t work as soon as you hit 12 or 13 and can start recognizing the stiltedness of the dialogue. It seemed that Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets might be more sensitive to these problems of over-comprehension than most, judging by headlines such as “Valerian Would Make a Great Silent Movie“. With a director like Luc Besson (The Fifth ElementLucy), Valerian had a pedigree suggesting an ambitious and thrilling mess lay in wait, so I decided to put this “silent movie” bit to the test.

I live in Germany, and was on vacation for the one English showing of Valerian in the town I live in, so I went to see it in German. My German is awful (bad enough that the teller warned me while I was buying the ticket), so any nuance in the dialogue was entirely lost on me. I could follow the broad strokes of the plot, but any technical details were downright incomprehensible. But it turns out you don’t really need to understand the words to get a lot out of Valerian und die Stadt der Tausend Planeten.

The movie is constantly distracted by its world, bouncing from set piece to set piece that have little to nothing to do with the main plot, and its all for the better. There is an overarching plot about a lost civilization trying to reclaim its riches, which is only notable for the homeworld that it shows, a beautiful beach-laden cartoon reminiscent of the best parts of Avatar (there were good parts!). But the majority of the film sees the space-cowboy agents, Valerian and Laureline, alternating hero roles to save each other from mostly unrelated hostile aliens. The design of the alien species and the fun it has building up the city of a thousand planets is reminiscent of the Star Wars prequels, in that it really does try to fill every frame, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in that it revels in the cartoonishness of it all, but it makes for a lot of fun. Some of the set pieces are crazily inventive, such as an opener taking place in an quasi-virtual marketplace where Valerian’s body gets stuck between two dimensions, or a wacko comic act involving a neanderthal king, a selection of dresses, and a lemon. There are certain pieces whose plot function I couldn’t follow due to the language barrier, but when they involve a submarine pirate re-enacting the “there’s always a bigger fish” bit from The Phantom Menace while heisting a jellyfish, maybe ignorance is best.

There’s also the excellent prologue sequence, showing the first contact and building of the interspecies city set to “Space Oddity”, which really shouldn’t work but does through sheer earnestness. The earnestness maybe gets a hand from the casting of Dane DeHaan and Cara Develingne, who can easily pass for teenagers despite being adults portraying adults, giving it the vibe of a Last Starfighter or Narnia-style preteen adventure. That being said, they have a weird sex thing going on and shoot a fair number of things, and Ethan Hawke plays a character named “Jolly the Pimp,” so maybe it’s not quite The Neverending Story. DeHaan doesn’t exactly light up the screen (and apparently does a Keanu Reeves impression in the English version, which sounds hilarious), but Develinge is a fantasting presence and adds a lot of necessary spark (they really are co-leads, despite only Valerian’s name being in the title). The movie goes on probably twenty minutes too long, and the resolution of the main arc is a total slog, but when Valerian just lets loose and gets weird, it’s one hell of a trip.

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B+

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)
Directed by Luc Besson
Starring Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, and Rihanna

Rotten Tomatoes (51%)

Litmus test: If you like this stupid scene, you’ll find something to enjoy in Valerian. And I love this stupid scene. The eye shimmy with the sound effect at 0:44 kills me.

Valerian gets distracted by itself in all the best ways

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

Mass Effect: Andromeda has its priorities in the wrong place

Mass Effect: Andromeda is maybe mostly disappointing because of what does work well about it. The setup, of the Milky Way races seeking new worlds and having to find their place among a native population, is perfect for a series where exploration has always played a role, and opens the door for some acute social commentary. The mechanics are also fantastic overall. The RPG elements have been greatly streamlined, and the options to let your character’s skills evolve in new ways hours after character creation are much greater. Suddenly decide that you want to give biotics a try? No problem! Just spend some points there and you’ll get access to those class perks. The combat is also greatly improved from the previous entries in the series, allowing you to jump-jet around while satisfyingly throwing out ammo and biotic charges in equal measures. All of this adds up to make Mass Effect Andromeda perfectly enjoyable. But it lacks the spark that made the first trilogy, even the buggy and mechanically turgid first entry and the somewhat overburdened third entry, so special*.

Even after putting 70 hours into the game, completing nearly all of the side quests and trying to squeeze every bit of dialogue out of my squadmates, it took until the last moments of the game to really come up with a good reason why this is the case. Mass Effect 1 presented you with a plethora of choices that had dire effects on the characters, the world, and the future games. Maybe the ambition of it all made BioWare’s life harder when it came to Mass Effect 2 and sowed some regret, as the choices in Andromeda pale in comparison. There are decisions to be made, to be sure, but outside of the requisite romances (this is still a space-banging simulator at its heart), none of them seem to really affect the major characters for more than a moment. There is only one squadmate whom you can make mad enough to leave your squad, and no major deviations in the climaxes for their individual arcs. You have some choice in terms of how much power the Milky Way races cede to the native Angaran race of Andromeda, but it’s mostly window dressing; the way the world is at the end is more-or-less independent of your decisions. It all seems to be set up for inertia to make sure a sequel can follow without being too dependent on your decisions, but it also makes for a game about blazing a trail that seems to be far too much on the rails. Andromeda also leaves too many plates spinning at its end, as if a sequel (and our attention) is all but guaranteed. Even stories about beginnings need endings.

Because it wants to make a 50+ hour game that exists mostly to set up sequels, a lot of Andromeda feels half-baked. While the combat mechanics are great, the actual combat scenarios get repetitive well before the end of the game, with no unique fights to speak of; a couple of neat minibosses (Remnant Architects, Kett Ascendants) show up a few times, but there are no boss battles to speak of. But since the combat works so well, the game throws cannon fodder at you constantly in terms of scavengers, outlaws, and anti-human activists. While the armies of Kett feel fine and satisfying to plow through, the shoot-first approach to the others runs in direct opposition to the narrative, where the Tempest crew are generally seen as agents of peace (there doesn’t seem to be quite a full-Renegade option here). The side quests are nearly all disposable, even the ones that aren’t fetch quests with a reward of 100 XP and a single line of dialogue. The loyalty quests for the squadmates are a highlight though, with an overall lighter feel and some really fantastic setpieces (Liam is the worst, but his gravity-bending pirate-fighting loyalty quest deserves to be in the conversation for best Mass Effect mission). The squadmates as a whole don’t quite measure up to the best of Mass Effect, but I generally liked all the non-human ones (as per Mass Effect tradition, the human ones are the worst). Andromeda isn’t a total failure, but considering its pedigree, it’s not difficult to imagine how great it could have been.

kett

C

Mass Effect: Andromeda (2017)
Developed by Bioware Montreal
Published by EA Games

(*) Mass Effect 2 is a perfect gem and I will hear no arguments against it.

Mass Effect: Andromeda has its priorities in the wrong place

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