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.

mv5bmtk4nzyzotqxmf5bml5banbnxkftztgwmjy4mjcwmzi-_v1_sy1000_cr0015531000_al_

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

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

mv5bymzlmdm0n2etyjvizs00ytaxltg0m2etmtdmzja1zte5nwm3xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymzc0oda1mjm-_v1_

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.

bdcast640

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

King Arthur is great fun when it forgets about legends

Is there anyone out there who was clamouring for a new King Arthur movie? With certain standards, like Sherlock Holmes and Robin Hood, there’s a real sense that there is a fanbase out there, and that those characters have stories in them to tell. King Arthur though? Sure, his story is the backbone to plenty of other stories, but the Knights of the Round Table themselves have never really popped onscreen (give or take a Holy Grail). Since no one is interested in seeing a King Arthur movie (a truth I will assume correct until proven wrong), it’s no surprise that Guy Ritchie had no interest in making one either. His King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword is really a sneaky way for him to make a familiarly Guy Ritchie Cockney crime lark, with some Arthurian legend in the margins to convince the studios to give him a budget. At least, that’s what it seems like, but far too often those margins grow and swallow the energy of the rest of the film.

After a ten-or-so minute intro on the backstory of kings and mages, King Arthur reaches its absolute peak: a wordless quick-cut montage that zooms through 20-odd years of history, showing us the maturing of Arthur on the streets and in the brothels of London (then Londinium) and the rise of the evil King Vortigern. It then catches us up with Arthur as he recounts an encounter with a Viking who assaulted a prostitute to the local leader of the guards, with a four-way narration between Arthur, his two mates, and the guard leader. Colorful names abound, from Goosefat Bill to the three Mikes (Flatnose Mike is the main topic of discussion), and energy pops off the screen, reminiscent of the best moments in Ritchie’s crime trifecta of Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch, and RockNRolla. It’s all very much like the second coming of A Knights Tale, just a bit less anachronistic and a bit less noble.

For these moments, King Arthur looks like a winner, but it loses steam when it tries to say something about the “King” part. There are moments here and there after Arthur pulls the sword from the stone that hint at some originality and some joy, but with the exception of a montage of Arthur dealing with rodents of unusual size, they all relate to the city and its crooked side. An assassination attempt midway through the movie is a blast for the most part (best one-line character in the movie: “I’m a target, aren’t I?”), but falls flat when it moves from talk to action. Mostly, this has to do with the use of Excalibur, which puts Arthur in some kind of fighting super-mode. It’s about as much fun to watch as someone play a videogame on the easiest setting. Jude Law doesn’t get much to chew on as Vortigern, although thankfully the magical elements of his character have been played up in the trailer; he’s at his best growling from the throne, collar open like some kind of medieval Elvis impersonator. It’s obvious from this movie that Guy Ritchie could make a really fun period piece if he focused on his strengths. Epic storytelling just isn’t one of them.

C+

charlie-hunnam-king-arthur-legend-of-the-sword-movie-wallpaper-03-1280x784

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017)
Directed by Guy Ritchie
Starring Charlie Hunnam, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Djimon Hounsou, and Jude Law
Rotten Tomatoes (26%)

King Arthur is great fun when it forgets about legends

Free Fire is as cheap and joyless as its poster suggests

Let’s look at the poster for Free Fire, shall we?

free-fire

First off, the tagline “All Guns, No Control” feels like it was tossed off in the first marketing meeting for Bowling for Columbine, only to dusted off in a moment of ah-fuck-it by whoever picked up the rights to this one. Secondly, the poster looks like something released direct-to-VHS two years after Reservoir Dogs, getting a quickie re-release after Brie Larson’s (well-deserved) Oscar win. After Tarantino made it looks easy to make an engrossing crime flick in almost a single location, a flood of imitators came out, and Free Fire is a twenty-year late entry into the genre of lazy Tarantino ripoffs. Unlike more forgivable entries in this storied genre, Free Fire has a well-known team behind the camera (Amy Jump and Ben Wheatley) and a reasonably well-reputed cast. But instead of being the fun lark its Rotten Tomatoes rating would suggest, Free Fire is an example of why great writing exercises don’t always make for great movies. Or even good ones.

Aside from twenty-odd minutes of table setting, Free Fire takes place entirely within a single location, within a single firefight. A deal goes bad between a American/South African arms dealers and IRA rebels, all decked out with the appropriate ’70s attire, leading to both sides hiding behind warehouse crates and scrambling to get their hands on the briefcase of money in between them. The setup is simple, and could have been a lot of fun if the characters were fun to watch. Unfortunately, they’re shit. The characters that don’t go full ham are essentially non-entities, and the often great lead actors (the aforementioned Larson, Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer) and usually memorable character actors (Michael Smiley, Noah Taylor) never get enough individual focus to make them pop in any way nor provide even a baseline of character motivation. As for the characters who get some personality, they’re uniformly irritating, especially Sam Riley’s Irish junkie Stevo, but more especially Jack Reynor’s hotheaded asshole Harry, but MOST especially Sharlto Copley’s idiotic arms dealer Vern. The movie could devolve into a bit of slasher-esque scorekeeping, where you could keep a bit of a fun betting pool going as for who’ll make it alive, but none of the characters make enough of an impression to be worth rooting for, and Wheatley and Jump seem interested in giving the absolute worst of the lot the most screentime.

What may catch many off guard is how quickly things turn to shit once they turn to shit in Free Fire. Pretty quickly, every character has at least one wound on them, resulting in a whole lot of immobility and people crawling at each other. Free Fire could have said something about the futility of violence here, or at least injected some colorful dialogue to make it a bit of fun to watch, but instead it tells the same joke over and over: ohh Stevo/Harry/who cares got shot again, looks like it hurt eh? Even at only 85 minutes long, that joke gets old.

free-fire11

D

Free Fire (2017)
Directed by Ben Wheatley
Starring Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer, and Sharlto Copley
Rotten Tomatoes (79%)

Free Fire is as cheap and joyless as its poster suggests

Get Out is unsurprisingly thoughtful and surprisingly terrifying

Catching up on Get Out a little later than most, I knew to have my expectations high, but I didn’t know precisely how high. Based on the trailers and director Jordan Peele’s sketch comedy pedigree, I expected a subversive and satirical take on suburban racism, kind of like if Cabin in the Woods was more interested in the world around it than horror tropes (the presence of Bradley Whitford certainly didn’t hurt that expectation). Suffice to say, Get Out is not the film I prejudged it to be. It’s insights into white-collar racism are sharp, but I expected that. It has its moments of deadpan hilarity, but I expected that. What I didn’t expect is how terrifying and tense the film is, and how visually distinctive and original Peele’s production is. This is not only a movie that deftly highlights a rift in the modern discussion about race, but it is also 2017’s answer to It Follows and The Witch as an original vision in horror, and an announcement of Jordan Peele as a filmmaker well worth following.

get-out-trailer-screen2

Let’s start by looking at the frame above, which despite its presence in the trailers caught me completely off guard during the film. The push-in is uncomfortably close, actress Betty Gabriel’s face uncomfortably strained, all of which would be textbook unnerving scene-setting. But then there’s that damned bedpost on the left side of the image, which is ever-so-slightly tilted, temporarily destroying our frame of reference, and dark, making the push-in feel even more closed off. There’s nothing objectively scary in the image, no jump scare introduces it, but it’s among the most effective in the film. As the film slowly details its situation, the type of horror it plays with naturally shifts, and Peele constantly finds interesting ways of expressing it. His sense of humor certainly comes in handy to break the tension (a VHS recording late in the film manages to end on a note that’s equally unsettling and hilarious), but don’t be fooled by Peele’s sketch-comedy resume: Get Out is self-aware but not self-satirical.

Of course, Get Out is being discussed mostly for its social commentary, which makes nuanced points that beg further dissections (sample titles for the inevitable undergraduate papers on Get Out: Deer, Colonist Avatar or Symbol of Bondage?, and Appropriation Reappraised: The Folly of Colorblindness). Peele avoids making its upper-class white villains unbelievable Stepford-esque twats or hood-wearing cartoons; at the start, they feel very much like well-meaning but out-of-touch suburbanites (Bradley Whitford’s Dean Armitage would have voted for Obama a third time, after all). Get Out doesn’t engage with the alt-right; such a target is too easy. Instead, it questions the post-racial line of thinking, exposing the often unintentional and non-malicious white supremacy that is pervasive in liberal communities. That it doesn’t fall into hamfisted preaching, nor feel the need to pat its white audience members on the back, is great. That it seamlessly marries its commentary to visceral terror is masterful.

Film Title: Get Out

A

Get Out (2017)
Directed by Jordan Peele
Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, and Catherine Keener
Rotten Tomatoes (99%)

Get Out is unsurprisingly thoughtful and surprisingly terrifying

Ghost in the Shell is too underwhelming to justify its controversy

I’ve never been one for manga and anime personally. Not out of spite for the medium, or nativism, or unearned self-superiority about “cartoons”; there’s just too much damn fiction out there to ingest, and Eastern animation never managed to rise to the top of my to-do list. Which is to say that, while I’m aware of its influence on The Matrix and its ilk, I’ve not particularly familiar with the Ghost in the Shell source material. But even if I was completely ignorant of the source material, Ghost in the Shell betrays its manga origins in the same way Zack Snyder’s Watchmen or Ang Lee’s Hulk betray their comic-book source. Ghost in the Shell tirelessly recreates scenes that feel like splash pages of a graphic novel, which works in small doses but feels engineered to be distant, kind of like an entire movie with the style of the dream sequences of The Big Lebowski. Rather than find a way to bring the story and characters to a style more suited to film, director Rupert Sanders has tried very hard to jam something that looks like a manga sensibility into every frame, exposing the weakness of film for these sorts of tricks (things that look slightly fake and dumb suddenly look *really* fake and dumb). The wanton attempts to create memorable visuals are rendered nearly completely moot by forgetting to first build an environment that we can imagine ourselves in, by forgetting to give us a reason to care in the first place.

The plot of Ghost in the Shell isn’t complex, and can in some ways be summarized as Shitty Blade Runner. After an accident, robotics developer Hanka has Mira Killian’s brain transplanted into an android shell, successfully fusing the human soul (“ghost”) with android strength and providing her with a decidedly fake-looking body suit. Because there is a need for action sequences, Mira is of course renamed Major and used as a supercop. In case this didn’t make it obvious that Hanka aren’t the good guys here, bad-guy CEO Cutter is introduced saying, out loud, in a line of scripted dialogue, “I don’t care about her, I want to use her as a weapon,” as if we couldn’t understand that through the next scene where she shoots about twelve goons after crashing through a window. Firstly, Cutter is the absolute worst, a completely forgettable, mustache-twirlingly evil villain played by an actor who is trying to chew scenery but completely unable to exert any kind of presence. Secondly, the entire first half of the movie is full of lines like this. One of the advantages of basing a movie off of an influential piece of work is that, even if the audience is unfamiliar with the specific material, you can trust them to be able to follow the general flow. Ghost in the Shell has absolutely no faith in its audience to be able to understand a single thing, and despite its emphasis on crafting capital-b Big visuals, very little confidence in using those visuals to convey anything other than cool desktop backgrounds.

There’s precisely one moment where the movie threatens to legitimately become something a bit more than a Hollywood actioner, where Major peels off fashionable artifice from a human plucked off the street to intimately examine the difference. It’s a short scene, cut off and never really revisited, but feels yanked in from a better movie (really, it feels like something out of Under the Skin, a much better Scarlett Johansson sci-fi film about what it means to be human). On the other side, at one point near the end, the great Takeshi Kitano’s Section 9 Chief character finally gets something to do and the movie threatens to become pulpy and fun, a kind of neo-Tokyo A-Team. But its attention span isn’t long enough to even pull this off, instead ending quickly in an cold showdown with a stylistically neutered final boss. The action sequences overall seem maybe better suited to a video game, interesting in concept and nicely loud but completely unengaging to observe. While I’m willing to live with a Hollywood sci-fi that doesn’t deliver on its thematic potential, but Ghost in the Shell does so in such a horribly uninteresting manner. It’s hard to get mad about something so completely dull.

1491594123437

D+

Ghost in the Shell (2017)
Directed by Rupert Sanders
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbaek, Takeshi Kitano, and Juliette Binoche
Rotten Tomatoes

Stray Observations

  • While I can’t say for sure, I’m willing to bet the movie does a decent job of capturing the city design from the source material, only because it looks more like something people in the early 90s thought the future might look like rather than anything resembling a modern interpretation. The blocky holograms all feel supremely tacky, and worse than that, often feel decidedly less futuristic than what the world looks like right now. Sure, the billboards in NYC might not be 3D flying things, but at least they don’t look as poorly rendered as Brain Age guy.
  • I don’t want to get in the weeds about the casting controversy, and plenty of digital ink has been spilled about that. I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong about adapting foreign fiction to Hollywood (e.g. The Departed, which transplanted the basic plot of Infernal Affairs but made its new Boston setting an important part of its style), but Ghost in the Shell tries to have its cake and eat it too, retaining strong Japanese elements while casting all of its lead characters (Takeshi Kitano aside) as white folks, and putting it in the hands of a white Hollywood director whose only previous credit is Snow White and the Huntsman. There’s probably an interesting American adaptation out there, exploring the separation of ghosts and shells in terms of how our body, be it our race or gender or whatever, determines our self, but this certainly isn’t that. Instead, this version strongly co-opts its Japanese stylistic origin, which does make the whitewashed casting fairly icky.
  • That being said about the casting, Scarlett Johansson doesn’t really work here (her understated style conflicts with the movie’s need to vocalize everything), but just in case that sounds like I’m dismissing Johansson getting these kinds of roles, I cannot recommended Under the Skin enough, where Johansson plays an alien who slowly grows empathy and curiosity about the men she abducts and her own human form, and I have an unabashed love for Luc Besson’s Lucy, that dumb movie where Johansson can utilize 100% of her brain and uses it to kick all kinds of ass. She can clearly fit both sides of the bill to play Major; the production here just does her no favours.
Ghost in the Shell is too underwhelming to justify its controversy