Solo is Star Wars fanfic done right

Early in Solo: A Star Wars Story, our intrepid scoundrel finds himself signing up with the Imperial Forces. Asked for his name, he responds “Han,” but when asked for his second name, he responds that he has none. He has no people. The recruiter looks back at him and says, “No people, eh!?! Guess we’ll just call you Han SOLO then!” (paraphrased), and in one short moment, every fear I had about a Han Solo prequel movie came true. This point is by far the nadir, but basically every important detail of the Han we know, from his last name to meeting Chewie and Lando to getting his conspicuous blaster, is implied to occur within the span of a single adventure. It’s completely unnecessary detail, and its really easy to dismiss Solo as completely unnecessary. But even if its a trifle, damned if it isn’t a good time, effectively using the Star Wars universe as a grimy toybox to make what amounts a fleet piece of fanfic.

Did we need a dramatic fight situation for Han and Chewie to meet? No, and it really just raises questions about why Han spoke Wookie before meeting Chewie, but Chewie quickly becomes the MVP of Solo, so I’ll accept it. Did we need to see the Kessel run in all its glory? No, but it sure is a lot of fun, especially when it ropes in a droid labour revolt. Did we need Han to run into an early form of the Rebel Alliance? No, but its done with the straightest take on the concept of “space western” that Star Wars has ever indulged, and it is marvellous (there’s also a solid train heist, just to really sell it). Did we need to go deeper into the crime syndicates of the outer rim? Actually, yeah, this part of Solo is genuinely interesting and I hope to see it followed up on in the also-probably-unnecessary Fett (in which I seriously hope Han and a certain late-movie character have small-but-significant supporting roles).

Like Rogue One and unlike The Force Awakens and The Last JediSolo does not feel like an event of any sort. It doesn’t evoke a sense of wonder, or have particular artistic merit. But unlike Rogue OneSolo feels coherent, maybe lacking in theme but not lacking in sense. It’s an umambitious popcorn movie, but also not a dumb or condescending one (outside of that one goddamned “Han SOLO, right?!?” moment). It cools down on the fanservice, sticking to references that make sense in Han’s orbit (Jabba gets alluded to, but R2 is nowhere to be found). It’s a minor pleasure, but its pretty damn pleasing.

B

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
Directed by Ron Howard
Starring Alden Ehrenreich, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, and Woody Harrelson
Rotten Tomatoes (71%)

Obligatory updated ranking:

  1. Empire
  2. Star Wars
  3. Jedi, The Last
  4. Jedi, The Return of the
  5. Force Awakens
  6. Solo
  7. Rogue One
  8. Attack of the Clones
  9. Revenge of the Sith
  10. Phantom Menace

More like Infinity Snore, right folks?

Infinity War is a protracted third act which quickly and cheaply cashes in the often excellent groundwork of the previous installments. 

(SPOILERS)

Avengers: Infinity War lives and dies by its ending. Talking about Infinity War without discussing details about how it all shakes out is tantamount to just spouting niceties about the very nice beards everyone in the movie has, and not just because the ending is legitimately worth talking about (take that as a big giant SPOILER WARNING). Infinity War is constructed in such a way that the ending is the ONLY thing worth talking about, with the previous two hours simply barreling towards the end without really doing anything in themselves. Sure, you can say that about any story to an extent, but Infinity War is a protracted third act which quickly and cheaply cashes in the often excellent groundwork of the previous installments.

Take the trials of Thor in Ragnarok, which I didn’t love but did have an honest-to-goodness arc with meaningful consequences. Infinity War undoes all of it within the first ten minutes. Thor goes on to be one of the better-served characters in Infinity War, thanks to an inspired pairing with Rocket Raccoon, at least before being shipped off to hang out with a kinda-terrible Peter Dinklage in search of a tertiary MacGuffin.

Perhaps most infuriatingly, take the conclusion of Gamora’s storyline. Infinity War is decentralized enough that the character who can best claim to be the “main” character is probably Thanos. To the credit of the movie, Thanos is actually a really good villain (creeping at the edges of the Top Five for the MCU), with clear motivations and a bit of humanity to him. Sure, he’s an abusive genocidal maniac, but he’s coming at it from a place of concern and pain, without quite as much ego as might be expected from his giant gold armor, and with an endearing affinity for bubbles. But when Gamora’s big moments in Infinity War happen with her as a supporting character in Thanos’ story rather than the other way around, it cheapens her development in her own films. Not to mention that the deadly rules for obtaining the Soul Gem transparently play out as if they were originally labelled “INSERT DRAMA HERE” on the script outline.

But for all these faults, Infinity War often succeeds at spectacle. Aside from the mentioned Thor/Rocket dynamic, Doctor Strange is an infinitely more interesting character bounced against Tony Stark than he was in his own movie. Thanos’ henchmen are a memorable crew, particularly the slinky Ebony Maw. After wearing a bit thin in Guardians 2, Drax once again runs away with the whole damn movie every time he shows up here. And, for a brief fleeting moment, I was overjoyed at the thought of never seeing Bucky ever again.

So here’s where we get to the ending. It’s an incredibly bold move on paper, immensely changing the status quo, but immediately cheapens itself by going too far. The Avengers are in need of thinning, as Thanos and much of the audience would agree on, but trying to convince an audience that you’ll completely kill at least three highly profitable franchises is a stretch. It’s an ending that exists only to be undone, and while a final moment between Parker and Stark is touching in the moment, its emotional enormity is overshadowed by the logistical probability of it actually sticking. Infinity War and next year’s Avengers 4 were originally billed as Part 1 and Part 2, and the ending here makes it clear that Infinity War never had a single intention on standing alone. While, as a crossover spectacle, that’s fine, it also leaves Infinity War without anything to be about itself. It’s a 150-minute third act that’s missing any semblance of a conclusion.

C

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo
Starring Robert Downey Jr, Chris Hemsworth, Zoe Saldana, and Josh Brolin
Rotten Tomatoes (84%)

Infinity War MVP Rankings

  1. Thor
  2. Drax
  3. Ebony Maw
  4. Thanos
  5. Gamora
  6. Spiderman
  7. Rocket
  8. Hulk
  9. Scarlet Witch
  10. Proxima Midnight

Tower, The Florida Project, Good Time, and Annihilation are all must-sees

Also, quick thoughts on Gringo and I Tonya, which aren’t

Time to play catch up with some movies I didn’t have a chance to write in full about, thanks to, you know, life and stuff. But there were a few VERY good ones that I’d be remiss about not discussing at least a little bit

Annihilation (2018) / A-

Available only on Netflix is Europe, yet I wish I had a chance to see it again in cinemas, because Annihilation is an audio-visual wonder that my setup didn’t do justice to. It has one of the scariest original setpieces in recent memory and builds to an abstract marvel whose comparisons to 2001 are far from unearned. I kinda wish we got to spend more time with the supporting cast, who never get their full due, but I appreciate the fleetness of it; its contemplative, but rarely languid.

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Tower (2016) / A

“We just fell in love and decided to take anthropology together.” Tower takes a big risk, veering dangerously close to exploitative in animating over real news footage to create a dramatic recreation of the 1966 University of Texas shooting, with talking head interviews with animated subjects whose survival of the events is unknown. But Tower walks that line with such grace, keeping its focus on those affected by the tragedy and refusing to even show the face of the shooter. It’s a deeply affecting, strikingly beautiful, and haunting piece of docu-art. [Available on Netflix and you should watch it.]

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I, Tonya (2017) / C+

I, Tonya has two main desires: redeem Tonya Harding as a person worthy of sympathy and to whom the world gave an unfair shake, and to make an entertaining idiot-criminal movie in the vein of Elmore Leonard. It mostly succeeds at the first, but its failure at the second brings the whole thing down a bit. It may be a case of truth being stranger than fiction, but Harding’s operative-wannabe bodyguard was just too much to take a certain point. While Harding’s voiceover narration is welcome, the multiple talking-heads perspective is a bit pat, particularly in giving anything regarding a sympathetic voice to Harding’s abusive ex-husband. But its portrait of Harding and Margot Robbie’s performance really are quite good, and the first half focusing on Harding and her mother is really engaging.

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Good Time (2017) / A-

Robert Pattinson will win an Oscar one day, and his performance as bleach-blonde slimeball Connie Nikas in Good Time will be at the top of the list of “Reasons Why This Shouldn’t Be a Surprise”. The plot is essentially a string of half-brained schemes whose sole goal is correct the failure of the previous one, but the way Connie obscenely and plainly abuses his charm to keep his head above water is both stomach-churning and fascinating. A scathing and uncomfortable critique of capitalism and white privilege is just under the surface of it, but even as a pure surface experience, Good Time is full of striking imagery, piano-string tension, and a fantastic Oneohtrix Point Never score. If there’s a criticism, its that it knows how clever it is and doesn’t hide it, but when the experience is this visceral, who cares.

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Gringo (2018) / C-

There’s a really fun crime romp for a Saturday afternoon hidden somewhere in Gringo, but damn could it use some editing to get there. It feels like the ever-growing ensemble chaos is building to a huge climax, but instead, the energy fizzles and half the characters just kinda wander off to do their own unrelated thing, like Charlize Theron’s alpha boss getting tanked with Alan Ruck. The odd monologues about The Beatles or the monkey business illusion feel like a ripoff of 1990s Tarantino ripoffs. But its concept is pretty fun when it commits to it, and the cast is game. It really leaves a bad taste with a fat-shaming gag at the end though.

The Florida Project (2017) / A

If I had made my list for 2017 a bit later, The Florida Project would maybe have taken the top spot. Incredibly warm, incredibly funny, just incredible. It’s not not a message movie, but in viewing everything through the eyes of children, it finds a sincere, honest, and pure sense of joy anchored in inevitable pain. Moonee and Jancey forever.

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Ready Player One offers references, not fun

I wouldn’t expect to dislike a big summer movie for its failure to properly consider the democratization of shared online spaces, but welcome to 2018.

I wouldn’t expect to dislike a big summer movie for its failure to properly consider the democratization of shared online spaces, but welcome to 2018.

When Ready Player One, based on an Ernest Cline novel which apparently everyone but me heard of back in 2011, was announced, the conversation surrounding it seemed to revolve in how it would deal with the toxic culture surrounding gamer fandom after GamerGate. On the surface, Ready Player One has painted an inclusive picture of the community, with enough rah-rah community spirit to feel less like a celebration of geeky lonerism. But its a bit of a smoke screen, as it still relies on its audience getting the references with exactly as much subtlety as an episode of Family Guy. Yes, I get the reference of the Holy Hand Grenade, but its not used in any inventive fashion, and its weirdly distancing for those who, understandably, don’t get the often forty-year old references.*

If the Holy Hand Grenade seems like an easy one, how about a piece of tech which is a complete deus ex machina unless you know the name of the director of Back to the Future? For the most part, Ready Player One doesn’t do anything artful with the references, scattering them as background flavour without really engaging with the material. An extended second-act The Shining riff is the sole exception, which filters the CGI action through a film filter and has actual fun with the setting, as an orc-creature avatar unfamiliar with the source material innocuously calls for the elevator. The ending may give us the Mecha-Godzilla vs. The Iron Giant/Gundam tag-team fight we never asked for, but The Lego Movie and Lego Batman did the whole licensed-materials toybox with a lot more creativity earlier.

But if it barely dodges gatekeeperism on its pop-cultural reverence, it falls face-first into a pile of manure on its reverence for silicon valley tech bros. The movie neatly slots cartoonish corporate green into the villainous role for reasons of ease. Of course no one wants an internet with financial interests at the helm, leaving extra room for ad space and ticking away at your bank account through microtransactions. But the movie posits that the only way to fight bad corporate overlords is to impose benevolent nerdy overlords. Not only is this kinda terrifying, particularly within a month of the Facebook / Cambridge Analytica scandal, but its internally inconsistent. The virtual reality world of The Oasis is portrayed as a wonderful escape, but also one whose penalty for in-world death can be a driver of real-life suicide, and one that has allowed the very corporate baddies that do occupy villainous roles to flourish. Mark Rylance gives a tender performance as the creator of The Oasis, but while his imperfection are admitted, he’s never held to the fire as a responsible party. Society is quickly waking up to the fact that just because you claim to be pro-freedom and pro-democracy doesn’t mean you get a free pass when insidious elements take easy advantage of the structures you provide while you let them line your pockets, and in failing to grapple with this at all, Ready Player One ensures that, in forty years, no one will be making nostalgic references to it.

D+

Ready Player One (2018)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendehlsohn, and Mark Rylance
Rotten Tomatoes (75%)

* That being said, if Ready Player One gets one person to watch The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, it will have been worth it.

Here’s hoping Father Figures had a nice on-set sandwich table

Ugh, what a piece of utter shit this movie is.

Who exactly was Father Figures made for? It has a number of over-edited road-trip montages despite the fact that the characters go nowhere interesting. Its soundtrack feels like someone walked drunkenly into a studio, shouted “indie”, and took whatever came out. It clearly wants to have deep emotional resonance, but also has no less than three “we’re inside each other” jokes in the first ten minutes. It feels like the kind of inoffensive fluff you can just turn on when you need some background noise while visiting your parents, but it also has a gag about a cat’s giant testicles that seems to exist because, fuck it, they had the animatronic testicles handy.

Ugh, what a piece of utter shit this movie is. In case the obviously photoshopped in-post poster doesn’t make it clear, here is a movie that a bunch of big names showed up to for a half-day to collect a paycheck. Christopher Walken, king of showing up for the paycheck, utters something about “the kitties” in a transparent attempt to pull a Joe Dirt and get something memorable out of the whole thing. In Ving Rhames’ case, he showed up because he was already in Miami I guess? Katt Williams turns up as a hitchhiker, and he’s maybe the only person in the whole thing not phoning it in, and christ I wish he had. He at least sets up an almost-clever riff on a certain pervasive trope that the movie goes absolutely nowhere with. There’s precisely one good gag in the whole thing, involving June Squibb’s delightfully manic reaction to a gun. The rest of the attempted humour just kind wilts into thin air or, like a recurring gag about how loose the central twins’ mom was in the 70s, keeps reaching for the same ineffective tricks over and over.

But then, just when it seems like it’s all ended in an out-of-left-field reveal that, hell, probably sounded poignant when the writer put it on a post-it note, it even goes ahead and has the gall to tack on an epilogue whose sole purpose seems to be undoing every lesson the characters were supposed to learn. Owen Wilson’s Donald (er, Kyle) was supposed to learn to be a bit more responsible? Nah, he manages to convince millions of people to buy a useless app. Ed Helms’ Pete was supposed to open himself up to new experiences? Nah, he’ll stick with the girl who pays him any attention, and convince his son to love him through unclear methods (I’m assuming beating the devil at a fiddling contest). Ugh. Hopefully Ving Rhames had a nice time in Miami.

F

Father Figures (2017)
Directed by Laurence Sher
Starring Ed Helms, Owen Wilson, J.K. Simmons, and Glenn Close
Rotten Tomatoes (25%)

 

Twisted justice, texting spirits, and a dive back into The World of Tomorrow

Quick thoughts on The Lost City of Z, Downsizing, Personal Shopper, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and The World of Tomorrow 2

The Killing of a Sacred Deer – B

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In his English-language debut, The Lobster, Yorgos Lanthimos had his actors speak in a stilted, direct manner to both immediately make its otherworldliness clear and for pitch-black comedy. In his follow-up, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the same technique is used, once again to increase our willingness to suspend disbelief, but this time in the service of psychological horror. Sure, the movie earns some laughs (“I’m not letting you leave until you’ve tasted my tart”), but the buildup is a bit off-putting, paid off when the central conceit of the latter half of the film is explained succinctly and directly. From there, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is entrancing, a nightmare crash in slow motion and a rumination on culpability and the arbitrary nature of justice. It’s lack of a strong emotional throughline or a singular visual style keep it from reaching the heights of its predecessor, as does its ultimately unsuccessful attempts to have one “The Scene”, but its strong command of tone and deliberate drip of tension still work wonders.

Downsizing – C-

downsizing

Downsizing is a complete a total mess, but it takes its dear sweet time making that clear. In Alexander Payne’s first attempt at tying his humanistic comedy to a sci-fi concept, his reach exceeds his grasp, with a half-dozen good-to-great ideas that he tries to pursue simultaneously by the films end, only leading to general annoyance and confusion. If it wants to be a movie about running from problems, the material is there, but it also wants to be a movie about the inescapability of inequality, even in utopia, and the incredible sacrifices that life demands in order to achieve some semblance of prosperity. But the themes dogpile on top of each other into an aimless mash after a fitfully funny opening act, which concludes with the single greatest use of a spatula in film history. If the second half were funnier, a lot would be forgiven, but it leans away from its fantastical elements surprisingly often, with certain shots and elements re-emphasizing the tininess of its characters but for the most part seeming to forget about it (there’s a party/rave scene that screams for little details, but never feels like it takes place in a doll’s house). The concept and first half are solid enough to make Downsizing an interesting curiousity, but it should have thought considerably smaller.

The Lost City of Z – B-

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There’s certainly a classic beauty to The Lost City of Z, an expedition film hewing closer to Master & Commander without sails than Raiders of the Lost Ark without whips. While itself a period piece, the film feels like it comes from another time, with nary a hint of modern humour or camera-winking. It only betrays itself with shoehorned-in attempts at wokeness, having its main characters act as occasional unsubtle mouthpieces for more modern takes on feminism and white superiority. The classic feel comes with all the drawbacks, and the film often feels cold and distant, interesting but unengaging. But when its in the Amazonian jungle, The Lost City of Z is plenty absorbing, with lush frames and stirring suspense. Main character Percy Fawcett spends the film itching to get back to the adventure, and that feeling is certainly contagious.

Personal Shopper – B-

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Personal Shopper is a simultaneously infuriating and fascinating film, but certainly not one that thinks of its audience as dumb. In many ways, its refreshingly direct. Very soon after we find out our main character Maureen is looking to communicate with her brother’s ghost, we see a ghost pretty clearly, removing unnecessary ambiguity. In one very important way, the ending is left confusing deliberate, resulting in an absolutely beautiful sequence of shots through a hotel but leaving the conclusion of one of its story threads unnecessarily open, distracting heavily from the remainder. Personal Shopper does pull off a neat feat throughout, acting as an effective supernatural thriller, technological suspense, and big-city millenial malaise film all at once, anchored by Kristen Stewart’s embodiment of twenty-something stressed and tired, and the film has a lot to say about how we process grief. But it’s late choices keep it from coming together in a satisfying way.

World of Tomorrow Episode 2: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts – B+

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Don Hertzfeld’s World of Tomorrow is one of my favourite fifteen minutes ever created, an beautiful and idiosyncratic sci-fi dive into life, love, and doom. The second installment, The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts, is longer but seems to contain less. It still features the voices of Julia Pott and Winona Mae, the latter Hertzfeld’s five-year-old niece whose ramblings are edited into the character of Emily, and the former her clone from hundreds of years into the future. With Winona Mae a full year older, her musings are considerably more coherent, moving from single-word exclamations to the point where her voice is used to play multiple characters conversing with each other. Segments such as these and the appearance of “memory tourists” more than justify the existence of the sequel, which is hilarious and often poignant, but it can’t help but feel a little less revelatory than its predecessor. The animation is certainly more ambitious, but in increasing the number of 3D effects, it feels less painterly. Still, by diving deeper into clone dystopia, Hertzfeld has produced a vivid, funny, and original short. It’s just not his masterpiece.

 

mother! is a truly unique gonzo journey

mother! is a thrillingly grand experiment, an unforgettable wackadoo journey through human nature

One of the chief thrills of Darren Aronofsky’s mother! is in rooting for the film itself. mother! is wild and wildly ambitious, and veers dangerously close to self-parody many times. With a less sure hand behind it, mother! could be the most mocked movie of the year. Hell, it still might be. But its consistency and intensity amongst the chaos wipe away any complaints about such relative trivialities as logic and narrative structure. mother! is a thrillingly grand experiment, a love-it-or-hate-it experience that I firmly come down on the “love” side of.

Aronofsky purposely withheld almost all information about mother! before its release, and perhaps it is best left that way, as a puzzle to slowly piece together. In that spirit, I won’t discuss the plot, but suffice to say that a literal interpretation of the events of mother! is simply ludicrous. mother! is a metaphor wrapped inside an analogy, and while the metaphor itself could be either tacky or pretentious, its blunt presentation of it pays dividends. While the first act plays out as a chamber drama with metaphysical portents, after a spat between brothers enters the storyline, there’s no mistaking mother! for a literal story. Over the course of two hours, Aronofsky lays out his thesis on human history and human ugliness in the space of a single farmhouse, starting from social rudeness and culminating in mass chaos. The historical and environmental allegories it lays out are obvious but thrilling, while its commentary on partnerships, artistry, and sexism could take multiple viewings to fully unpack.

mother! is assuredly not for everyone. Some will find its allegorical nature obtuse, confounding, or pretentious. Many will find that it goes too far in its last act, which contains a level of violence well beyond what normally makes its way to mainstream cinemas. But as a piece of gonzo filmmaking, mother! is an absolute masterpiece, an unforgettable wackadoo journey through human nature that left me shaken and exhilarated on the way out.

A

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mother! (2017)
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, and Michelle Pfeiffer
Rotten Tomatoes (70%)

HIGHLIGHT FOR SPOILERY COMMENT: So, the mother! in question is most likely Mother Nature/Gaia, as embodied by Jennifer Lawrence, with Javier Bardem’s “Him” being God. The link between the house and our planet is pretty clear, painting humanity as uninvited houseguests who destroy the planet (in probably my favourite small moment, a guest barges into the bathroom and apologizes to Lawrence, saying “Just exploring!”). But does the metaphor fold back unto itself? If God is a inattentive partner and poet laureate, are artists also God to a extent? Is mother! arguing that fan bases destroy the personal world of the artist, with the artist themself as a willing participant in the destruction?

The Dark Tower is not good

This is pure clock-punching from all involved, a soulless creation with no good reason to exist.

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%)

Dunkirk is a beautiful, terrifying mess

The score tries to glue them together, but the crossed narratives drift apart.

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.

Baby Driver is a (mostly) expertly choreographed thrill ride

Baby Driver isn’t Edgar Wright’s masterpiece, but it is the kind of popcorn movie that begs endless rewatching

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%)