The Dark Tower Beckons You

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

Thus begins Stephen King’s sci-fi/fantasy epic Dark Tower series. It’s such a great first sentence. It pulls you in and makes you wonder who these people are, and why one is chasing the other. It’s such an evocative sentence that King wrote eight books from it.

For a while, it looked like the man in black fled across the desert, and Hollywood followed. This is because a film adaptation of the Dark Tower saga has been in the works for years, with multiple directors and stars attached. The version that ended up being made was directed by Danish filmmaker Nikolaj Arcel, and stars Idris Elba as the gunslinger and Matthew McConaughey as the man in black.
I’ve only read two of the eight Dark Tower books, so I’m no expert, but I have a passing familiarity with the series. King loves to fill his books with references to his other books, and his multi-dimensional Dark Tower series encompasses pretty much all of them. Fittingly, the film is full of references to other Stephen King works. I caught references to The Shining, Misery, It, Christine, Cujo, The Shawshank Redemption, 1408, and Mr. Mercedes. There were probably some that I missed, too.

Image: Sony

The film has had a long road to cinemas. There was some controversy regarding the casting of Elba as the gunslinger, since Elba is black and in the books the character is white. But King himself has stated he doesn’t care if the character is portrayed as black or white, and Elba is a good enough actor that his casting never bothered me. Also, there was the announcement that the film would be a sequel of sorts to the books, which sounded…odd. But then, how else are you supposed to adapt eight richly-detailed books that span several thousand pages into a film? Some liberties have to be taken, although adapting such a complex and beloved book series is always a risky proposition.

And the results in this case are mixed. The film got terrible reviews and scored a modest box-office opening. It’s not a terrible movie, but it could have been a hell of a lot better.

The movie’s audience surrogate character is 11-year old Jake Chambers, who has been having vivid dreams about a man in black attempting to destroy a tower and bring about the end of the world, and a lone gunslinger who seeks to stop him. The world has been suffering from a string of severe earthquakes, and Jake can’t help feeling that the earthquakes and his dreams are somehow related.

Long story short: he’s right. I try to avoid spoilers for brand new films, so I won’t go into too much detail, but Jake ends up traveling through a portal into another world, where he meets Roland, the gunslinger he had seen in his dreams. From Roland, Jake learns about the Dark Tower, which stands at the center point of the universe. The man in black wants to destroy the tower, the destruction of which would allow monsters from other dimensions to invade and destroy us. Or…something like that.

The movie’s main problem is that it feels too conventional. The setting of the books is a dreamlike sci-fi/western that’s kind of like a cross between the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and the spaghetti westerns of Clint Eastwood. The world(s) of the film don’t feel nearly as unique. The book’s protagonist is an interdimensional cowboy/knight who wields revolvers forged from the steel of Excalibur. That’s probably the coolest sentence I’ve ever written, but the movie doesn’t live up to the coolness and weirdness of the books, instead feeling like a somewhat generic sci-fi thriller.

Image: Sony

That’s not entirely a bad thing, since the movie is entertaining enough, but it’s a shame that it doesn’t have more personality. There are some fun, exciting action sequences (Roland can do some badass things with those revolvers) but the plot feels rushed and the stakes don’t feel high enough. Part of this is due to the surprisingly brief 95-minute running time of the film. The advantage of the short running time is that there is no fat: everything in the movie has a point. The disadvantage is that the characters and conflicts aren’t given enough time to breathe. Roland and the man in black are supposed to be eternal enemies, but the movie gives all of one scene to establish their antagonism, so their enmity doesn’t register as strongly as it should.

But Elba and McConaughey are both very good. In my post about Atomic Blonde I talked about my theory of coolness, which is that coolness speaks for itself. Both Elba and McConaughey are perfect examples of that. They are cool as hell, and so are their characters in this film. Elba is a grumpy badass with a heart of gold, while McConaughey seems to relish playing an evil multidimensional sorcerer who kills people simply by telling them to stop breathing. How would it not be fun to play those characters? The young actor who plays Jake is named Tom Taylor, I believe making his big-screen debut. He’s very good, and there are some genuinely sweet and often funny interactions between Jake and Roland. There are also some funny fish-out-of-water moments when Jake brings Roland into our world, which reminded me of Gal Gadot and Chris Pine in Wonder Woman.

You’ll probably hear a lot about how this movie is terrible and it ruins the legacy of King’s books and it sucks and it’s the worst adaptation ever and so on and so forth. I think that kind of hyperbolic nonsense is a load of hogwash. The movie isn’t an abomination. It has entertaining sequences and performances, but the direction is lackluster and the truncated plot can’t help but feel rushed. Its biggest sin is that it takes the surreal, dreamlike quality of King’s novels and turns them into a run-of-the-mill sci-fi thriller. It’s an entertaining way to spend 95 minutes, but it doesn’t have much staying power. A prequel TV series in reportedly in the works, so we may not have seen the last of this series on the screen. Given the sprawling nature of the story, it seems like a better fit for TV anyway. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Coming up next is…well, I’m not sure. I was going to write about Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, but it’s not playing near me so I’m going to have to put that on hold. I’ve got some other ideas I’ve been kicking around, so I’ll probably go with one of those. Tune in next week to find out which one I picked.

GIRL POWER: Atomic Blonde

When we first meet Lorraine Broughton, she’s submerged in a bathtub full of ice water. As she emerges, she extracts a couple of ice cubes and deposits them in a glass, which she then fills with vodka.

It’s a badass introduction for a woman with ice in her veins. Lorraine is played by Charlize Theron, and she is effortlessly cool. Her coolness is immediately apparent. The movie she stars in is Atomic Blonde, and it doesn’t need to have people talking about how cool Lorraine is, her coolness speaks for itself. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the rest of the film.

Image: Focus Features

I have a theory about coolness. I call it, creatively, Colin’s Coolness Theory. I am open to suggestions for better names. The main principle of CCT is that coolness speaks for itself. Everyone knows that some loudmouth going on about how cool he is is not actually cool. If you have to tell people how cool you are, then you are in fact uncool.

Atomic Blonde doesn’t tell the viewer how cool its protagonist is, because it doesn’t have to. But the rest of the movie tries too hard to live up to Lorraine’s coolness, and it can’t quite do it. The movie was directed by David Leitch, a veteran stuntman who co-directed the first John Wick film with Chad Stahelski. Stahelski went on to direct John Wick Chapter 2, while Leitch decided to make Atomic Blonde his first solo directorial feature. Unfortunately, while John Wick 2 is one of my favorite movies so far this year, Atomic Blonde is a much more mixed bag.

The main problem I have with Leitch’s film is that it is overly stylized. It’s full of neon lights and pounding 80’s music, heavy on the bass, percussion and synthesizer. I don’t have much of an ear for this kind of music, and it all started to sound the same to me. I get that the music is meant to set the mood, but unlike other music-heavy films like Baby Driver or Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Leitch’s use of the music in Atomic Blonde doesn’t resonate, it gets repetitive.

Let’s talk about the story. Atomic Blonde is a Cold War spy thriller that takes place in Berlin in the late 80’s, just a few days before the Berlin Wall came down. This setting has made for great spy fiction in the past, but Atomic Blonde’s storytelling is lacking. Lorraine is sent to Berlin to investigate the death of a British agent, who was also in possession of a list revealing the identities of every undercover operative in Berlin. This information could be devastating if the Russians get hold of it, and Lorraine is ordered to find the list, at all costs. There is also a Soviet defector code-named Spyglass, who claims to have memorized the entire list. Lorraine is also ordered to extract him. On top of all this, Lorraine also has to track down the man they suspect of killing the British agent, and find and eliminate a double agent code-named Satchel who has been feeding the Soviets intelligence for years. Lorraine’s got her work cut out for her.

She is put in contact with David Percival, the head of station in Berlin. Percival has been in Berlin for a long time, and has gone native, meaning that his superiors no longer trust him. He seems to enjoy being in Berlin a bit too much. His shiftiness is apparent from the moment we first meet him. Percival is played by James McAvoy, who is a great actor. His character here is poorly written however, and it is obvious that he is Up To No Good. The viewer doesn’t trust him, and neither does Lorraine.

As well she shouldn’t, because Percival is an asshole. I like James McAvoy a lot, but his character here is so unpleasant I hated him immediately. He is an abrasive, sleazy, duplicitous bastard who smokes and swears constantly. You might argue that the viewer is not supposed to like Percival, and you’d be right. But the movie goes too far in depicting him as a corrupt, amoral douchebag. It’s completely obvious that he’s bent, and some of the suspense is taken away by his almost-comically nefarious behavior. The plot gets so convoluted, and piles on betrayal after betrayal, that by the end it’s hard to care about any of it.

The movie’s cast also includes John Goodman, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, and Sofia Boutella, who was the best thing about this year’s Mummy movie. Here, she plays a young French intelligence operative named Delphine, and when she meets Lorraine…well, let’s just say that sparks fly. It’s a great cast, but it’s Charlize Theron’s movie, and she owns every frame of it.

Image: Focus Features

For all the movie’s many flaws, Lorraine is one of my favorite new movie characters of the year, and Theron is magnetic. She is a stone-cold badass, and Theron proves herself to be completely convincing as an unstoppable action hero. I’m not forgetting about Mad Max: Fury Road, because she was great in that movie too, but in Atomic Blonde her role is much more physical. The action scenes in Mad Max are largely vehicle-based, whereas in Atomic Blonde it’s all up close and personal.

David Leitch’s storytelling skills could use some work, but his skill as a director of action sequences is considerable. Atomic Blonde has one of the best action sequences of the year, a brutal, close-quarters brawl that probably lasts around ten minutes and is filmed to appear as one continuous camera shot. It begins in a stairwell and goes into and out of several rooms, before going back outside and ending in a car chase. It’s fantastic, and Theron kicks ass. The movie doesn’t hesitate to show Lorraine getting her ass kicked as well. She gives better than she gets (since by the end she’s alive and her opponents are not) but she takes a lot of punishment in the process.

By the end of the epic battle, she’s coughing and gasping and limping, her face is bruised and cut, her eyes are bloodshot and streaks of red highlight her hair. This movie gets rough, and it captures how exhausting it would be to fight like that for an extended period of time. When it’s over, Lorraine can barely walk. The movie also features the most persistent henchman of the year. This freaking guy gets stabbed in the face with a car key and just will not quit. He keeps showing up when you think that, surely, there’s no way he could get up from that.

Image: Focus Features

Atomic Blonde is a deeply flawed film, but it’s one I will watch again in the future. Maybe the plot will make more sense to me on a second go-around, since it was pretty baffling the first time through. Despite the movie’s issues with plot and characters, the action sequences are top-notch and Charlize Theron’s lead performance is terrific. There’s a good movie lurking in here somewhere, and if David Leitch can tone down the stylization and get a better handle on the storytelling, he could be a great director. Atomic Blonde doesn’t live up to all of its promise, but it doesn’t completely squander it either, and I do hope that Theron gets to make more action movies, because she’s great at it.

Coming up next, it’s the long-awaited film adaptation of The Dark Tower, Stephen King’s epic sci-fi/fantasy series. It stars two of my favorite actors, Matthew McConaughey and Idris Elba, so hopefully it’ll be good. Tune in next week to find out.

Dunkirk is An Intense War Experience

Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Dunkirk, is rated PG-13 for “intense war experience and some language.” “Intense war experience?” I puzzled over the meaning of this. Usually the rating would say “intense war violence” or something like that, but “intense war experience” is a phrase I don’t remember seeing in a movie rating before.

But it turns out that it’s a perfect description of the movie. Dunkirk is an extremely intense war experience, and is one of the most harrowing and riveting films I’ve ever seen.

Image: Warner Bros.

The film tells the story of the Dunkirk evacuation, which took place in Dunkirk, France in 1940, early in World War II. 400,000 Allied troops were cut off by the Germans, and were becoming surrounded. The movie wastes little time in establishing this, and we learn early in the movie from a British Naval Commander played by Kenneth Branagh that the large British ships were too big to come in to the beach where the troops were because the water was too shallow, and they didn’t have enough smaller boats to ferry troops to the bigger ships. The soldiers were stuck on the beach, while being strafed and bombed by German fighter planes as the German army drew ever closer. A dire situation, to say the least, until a flotilla of hundreds of civilian boats came to the rescue. They ended up successfully evacuating more than 300,000 of the 400,000 troops.

Nolan’s film of this event is an unconventional war movie. There are no discussions between the troops about their lives away from the war, no scenes of generals in war rooms discussing strategy, most of the characters aren’t named, and there are long stretches with little to no dialogue. And yet, Nolan has made an honest-to-God masterpiece and released it right smack in the middle of summer movie season. You’ve got to admire his chutzpah.

Nolan has a reputation for doing things for real in his movies (like the famous semi-truck flip in The Dark Knight), and this is on full display with Dunkirk. He used real boats, real planes, and thousands of extras. He filmed the movie in Dunkirk, where the actual events took place, and even used some of the actual boats that were used during the evacuation. The sense of realism pervades the film. There is nothing to distract the viewer from the desperate situation these men were in, and everything in the film feels completely genuine.

The film is composed of three interlocking segments, all of which take place over different periods of time. Nolan loves to play with the concept of time in his movies (Memento, Inception, Interstellar etc.) and he does so again here. The first segment is The Mole, which takes place over the course of one week. The word “mole” refers to the long pier stretching into Dunkirk harbor, not to a small creature that burrows around in your yard. The second segment is The Sea, which occurs over the course of one day, and the third is The Air, which transpires over one hour. These three segments intersect at various points during the movie, and Nolan doesn’t hold the viewer’s hand, meaning that it is necessary to pay close attention, since the intersections between the three segments aren’t always spelled out clearly.

I don’t want that to sound like a complaint. I felt like I had a good grasp of what was going on, but there are details that can be missed if you’re not paying enough attention. Nolan respects his audience enough to let them figure things out on their own, and doesn’t bother to spell everything out for them. The three segments take place on land, sea, and air, and together they give the viewer a complete picture of the event from all angles.

Nolan said that he studied silent films to learn how they used details to convey suspense and emotion without relying on dialogue, and there is little dialogue for much of the film. And yet, it’s the most harrowingly intense film I’ve seen all year. It has a brisk running time of 106 minutes, which makes it a solid hour shorter than Nolan’s previous films Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises. It’s the perfect length. Everything in the movie feels important and has a reason for being there. There’s no fat, the movie never drags, it’s straight-up suspense for the entire running time.

In many ways Dunkirk is more of a survival story than a war film, closer to The Grey than Saving Private Ryan. Nolan keeps the Germans off-screen, we never see the enemy directly for the entire movie. It’s also akin to a disaster movie, in which people are menaced by unstoppable forces of nature they are helpless to stop. The Germans may not be seen directly, but their presence is constantly felt. No sound I’ve heard in a movie theater this year has terrified me more than the sound of incoming German fighter planes. I wasn’t breathing for most of the movie, and one scene late in the film was so unbelievably intense that I was close to hyperventilating. If you have a phobia of drowning or are claustrophobic (or both), you seriously might not want to see this movie to avoid having a panic attack. That’s how intense it is.

In addition to Sir Kenneth Branagh, the movie’s cast includes Nolan mainstays Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy, as well as Oscar-winner Mark Rylance. It also features a large cast of mostly unknown actors, several of which are making their big screen debuts. One of these is Harry Styles, member of the boy-band One Direction. This isn’t stunt-casting, though. Nolan was unaware that Styles that was already famous when he cast in the film. Nolan cast Styles because he felt Styles was right for the role he cast him in. And while I’m not a One Direction fan, Styles is good in the film, as are all the other actors. There’s nothing flashy about any of the people in this movie, they’re all normal people thrust into an impossible, desperate situation. It’s a very human story, and the film never loses track of the humanity of those involved. They’re scared and vulnerable, and we care about them despite knowing little about them.

Image: Warner Bros.

The movie looks amazing. The real planes and ships Nolan used make the film feel incredibly authentic, so much so that it doesn’t feel like you’re watching a movie most of the time. The aerial photography during the dogfight scenes is stunning to watch. Much of the movie was filmed using IMAX cameras, and the results are breathtaking. Christopher Nolan is one of the best directors working today, and his talents are on full display with Dunkirk. If this movie doesn’t finally earn Nolan his long-deserved first Oscar for Best Director, as well as a whole host of other awards, I’ll eat my hat. The score from frequent Nolan collaborator Hans Zimmer is also excellent, and helps ratchet up the already considerable tension to nearly unbearable levels.

Dunkirk is not a mindless summer movie. Christopher Nolan doesn’t make those. It’s a challenging film that requires a certain degree of patience, and it’s not a movie that I would call “fun,” but it is a damn good movie nonetheless, easily one of the best of the year, and it is a movie that holds many rewards for the attentive viewer. It is indeed an intense war experience, and will stay with you long after you see it. It’s a visceral, terrifying film, and I can’t wait to see it again.

Next on the Summer Movie Watchlist is Atomic Blonde, starring Charlize Theron as a professional badass, and directed by John Wick co-director and veteran stuntman David Leitch. Will she be Jane Wick, or perhaps Jane Bond? Tune in next week to find out!

The Fate of the Furious is a Fun Movie with Problematic Writing

The Fast and Furious series has overcome humble beginnings to somehow become one of the biggest blockbuster movie franchises in recent memory. The eighth and most recent installment, The Fate of the Furious, was released in April and grossed a staggering $1.2 billion, which puts it at the number 2 spot on the list of the highest-grossing films of 2017 so far (only Beauty and the Beast has made more).

I saw the movie when it came out but I was in a bit of a funk at the time and never got around to writing about it. But since the movie just came out on Blu-Ray I thought it would be a good time to share some thoughts about it. Besides, given the fact that it made such an immense amount of money, most people who wanted to see it probably already have, so I figure the statute of limitations on spoilers has expired. This is my way of saying that the rest of this post will be chock-full of spoilers. You have been warned.

I like The Fate of the Furious. It’s a fun movie that delivers exactly what the fans of the series expect: nonstop over-the-top vehicular action and an emphasis on family and teamwork among the protagonists. So I can’t fault it too much for delivering on its promises. However…I do have some issues with the storytelling.

I might sound like a prude for saying that. After all, no one, myself included, goes into a Fast and Furious movie expecting Shakespeare. But while it is entirely possible to forget the storytelling issues and enjoy the movie for the solid piece of entertainment that it is, there are some glaring flaws with the writing that are hard to ignore.

Image: Universal

The movie’s trailers intentionally caused a bit of a stir by making it look like Dominic “Dom” Toretto, the unkillable protagonist played by Vin Diesel, had turned on his team and become the villain. He does work against his team for a good part of the movie, but he never goes full-evil. That’s okay, because he’s the main character of the series and the filmmakers would never kill him off or make him permanently evil, so clearly the film’s true villain, the dreadlocked super hacker Cipher (played by Charlize Theron) was manipulating him somehow.

Let’s backtrack a bit. For those of you unfamiliar with the series, Dom’s girlfriend and now wife Letty (played by Michelle Rodriguez) was presumed dead for a while, and during that time Dom shacked up with a Brazilian cop named Elena. It turns out that this relationship resulted in a child whom Dom was never aware of, and Cipher now has Elena and Dom’s baby son held hostage. This is the leverage she uses against him to make him do her bidding, which includes stealing an EMP device and a Russian nuclear football.

It’s a pretty decent twist, and since the series emphasizes family so much, it makes a degree of sense that Dom would risk so much and work against his team in order to save his son. I’m okay with that part, but it starts to get messy.

The movie re-introduces Deckard Shaw (played by Jason Statham), the villain of the previous film, 2015’s Furious 7. Deckard was one of my favorite villains of 2015, an unstoppable ass-kicking force of nature. The grudge match between Deckard and Dom felt like it had real dramatic stakes, but The Fate of the Furious retroactively undermines it.

Deckard reluctantly joins the team to help them catch Dom and Cipher, and this leads to some fun macho rivalry between Deckard and Dwayne Johnson’s character, the equally-unstoppable badass Luke Hobbs. But then the movie starts to try to make Deckard look like not such a bad guy, by revealing that he had won medals for valor while serving as a member of British special forces. He even starts to bond a little with Hobbs, and Hobbs appears genuinely upset when they hear Deckard has been killed by Dom.

But before this happens, Deckard explains that Cipher was the mastermind behind the team’s most recent adventures, hiring Deckard’s brother Owen (the villain of Fast and Furious 6) and other villainous characters in Furious 7. Remember in Spectre, when it was revealed that Christoph Waltz’s Blofeld was the mastermind behind the villains of the previous Daniel Craig Bond movies? I thought that approach worked well enough in that film, but in The Fate of the Furious it feels…rushed.

It turns out that Deckard is not actually dead, and that he and Dom (somehow) faked his death. And then, during the movie’s climax, Deckard and Owen (who got kicked out of a plane during the climax of Fast and Furious 6 and was last seen catatonic at the beginning of Furious 7, kicking off Deckard’s plans for revenge against Dom) infiltrate Cipher’s mobile command center to rescue Dom’s son.

If all of this sounds convoluted, that’s because it is. The movie ends as these movies usually do, with Dom and his team (which now includes Deckard) sitting down to dinner.

I have so many problems with this.
Image: Universal

First of all, this series has a tendency to take antagonists from previous movies and turn them into allies. Let us not forget that Dwayne Johnson’s character Hobbs started out hunting Dom and his team back in Fast Five. I’m fine with Hobbs joining the team, because who doesn’t want more Dwayne Johnson in their movies? Hell, I want Dwayne in every movie.

But it’s so much harder to accept Deckard (and potentially Owen) joining the team as well. Hobbs was never portrayed as a bad guy in Fast Five. Dom’s a criminal, Hobbs is a cop, his job was to catch Dom and by God that was what he was going to do. Hobbs was a guy doing his job, and even though his job was to catch Dom and his friends, Hobbs was never evil, and he became sympathetic towards Dom once he realized that there were far worse criminals around.

That makes sense as a character arc, but with Deckard is just doesn’t work. Furious 7 spent the entire movie establishing Dom and Deckard as the most bitter of enemies. Dom kicked Deckard’s brother Owen out of a plane, in return, Deckard killed one of Dom’s team members. But The Fate of the Furious undermines this by showing that Owen is apparently fine now, aside from some facial scarring he seems A-Okay despite having been kicked out of a plane that was going at several hundred miles an hour. Deckard’s grudge against Dom is therefore nullified, but Deckard still killed one of Dom’s team members. Dom seems willing to forget about this, and since the movie makes no mention of Dom’s friend that was killed by Deckard, I’m guessing the filmmakers wished the audience would forget about it too.

This also undermines the conflicts in Fast and Furious 6 and Furious 7. It makes it seem like Owen and Deckard were not that bad after all, despite both movies working hard to set them up as Really Bad Dudes. I mean heck, even if Owen was hired by Cipher to steal whatever the hell it was he was trying to steal in the sixth movie, he still drove a tank on a highway and annihilated several carloads of innocent people. Even if Owen and Deckard had been manipulated by Cipher to some extent, that doesn’t exonerate them of their past misdeeds.

You might argue that in a movie full of over-the-top action and people surviving things no actual human ever could survive, the storytelling issues aren’t that big of a deal, but for me, it’s the other way around. The Fast and Furious movies have always been about crazy action and stunts. Sure, some of it may be impossible, but after eight movies of death-defying mayhem, I can accept it. The plot contrivances, however, are much harder to swallow.

It also doesn’t help that it’s inelegantly done. Much of the final half-hour or so of The Fate of The Furious is composed of non-stop action, and for the most part it’s great fun. As much as I don’t like the whole “let’s make Dom and Deckard be friends now” angle, it is always a lot of fun to watch Statham kick ass, which he’s very good at. The scene where he battles Cipher’s henchmen with a gun in one hand and Dom’s son in a baby carrier in the other hand is one of the highlights of the movie (and also owes a clear debt to John Woo’s masterpiece Hardboiled).

But before this happens, the movie cuts back to show the audience how it transpired that Deckard was not killed earlier and how his mother (played by an uncredited and of course fabulous Helen Mirren) hatched a plan with Dom. I hate it when movies go away from exciting action scenes to show us people talking. It kills the momentum of the movie. I understand why the film is structured this way (so that the appearance of Deckard and Owen comes as a surprise) but for crying out loud, there’s got to be a better way of doing it than cutting away from the frenetic action scenes that are this series’ bread and butter. It interrupts the pacing and always feels like the filmmakers patting themselves on the back for being so clever, but to me this sort of thing always feels contrived.

My other main issue with the movie is Tyrese Gibson. I HATE Tyrese Gibson. The guy is an absolutely terrible actor and his character Roman is an irritating, obnoxious, loudmouthed asshole who does his best to ruin every scene he’s in. What’s worse, every director of every Fast and Furious movie seems to think that he’s hilarious and gives him way too much screen time for his incessantly smug mugging (smugging?). I REALLY wanted him to die during the movie’s climax, although I was sure it wouldn’t happen and sure enough, it didn’t. GAH. I HATE HIM.

Anyway, Tyrese Gibson rant over. Despite its profoundly flawed and somewhat lazy storytelling, The Fate of the Furious is still a fun movie. Even though I spent most of this post dissecting its many problems, I don’t want people to think that I hate it. I don’t. It’s a fun movie that delivers what fans want, and I can watch it and enjoy it as long as I don’t think too much about it. Maybe I’m my own worst enemy here and I need to stop thinking so much (DAMN YOU CLASSICAL EDUCATION) but I can still enjoy the movie as a fun piece of popcorn entertainment, even if it ultimately fails in its aspirations to be much more than that.

Thanks for checking out this spoiler-filled discussion of The Fate of the Furious. I hope it didn’t seem like a rant, except for the part about Tyrese Gibson. That part was definitely a rant. Next up is Christopher Nolan’s epic-looking war movie Dunkirk, which I’m very excited about. Tune in next Wednesday for a review.

Spider-Man’s Welcome Homecoming

Spider-Man has been called the most put-upon superhero in all of comics, and that applies to his life off the big screen and the comic-book page as well as on it. Since 2002, there have been six solo Spider-Man movies (not counting his appearance in Captain America: Civil War), he’s been played by three different actors and rebooted twice. His latest adventure, Spider-Man: Homecoming, is a co-production between two major studios (Marvel and Sony) and has exactly SIX credited screenwriters.

Given all that turmoil, it’s remarkable that the new movie is as good as it is. And make no mistake: the new movie is very good. It captures the essence of Spider-Man and reminds us of what makes the character so appealing, all while telling an original story that stands on its own and connects to the overall Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) in a logical and meaningful way.

Image: Sony

If you think that yet another Spider-Man origin story doesn’t sound very appealing, then you’re in luck: Homecoming is not an origin story. Here are things we do not see happen in Spider-Man: Homecoming: Peter getting bitten by a radioactive spider, and Uncle Ben dying. The makers of Homecoming know that we have seen these things multiple times before, so they don’t bother rehashing them. Also, Peter Parker doesn’t take any pictures, there is no mention of the Daily Bugle or J. Jonah Jameson, we don’t hear anything about great power and great responsibility, and Peter doesn’t even call Aunt May “Aunt May.” He just calls her May.

Which makes sense, because May is played by Marisa Tomei and is much younger than her previous onscreen incarnations. She’s great, fiery and self-sufficient. She’s more of a help to Peter, instead of the hindrance she usually is in comics and movies. She helps him out instead of just being another problem to make his life more difficult. She even tells Peter to cut the bullshit at one point, and it’s hard to imagine hearing that from the Aunt May of previous films.

This is but one example of how the filmmakers have made the familiar world of Spider-Man feel fresh and new. In this version, Spider-Man’s suit is made by none other than Tony Stark, and comes with a wide variety of hidden secrets. It even has its own AI, silkily voiced by Jennifer Connelly, whom Peter dubs “Karen.” Peter and Karen have many funny interactions, especially since she knows more about the suit than he does.

I’ve somehow forgotten to mention that Spider-Man is played by Tom Holland, a 21-year-old Brit who is 100% convincing as a fifteen-year-old American high school student. Holland perfectly captures Peter’s youthful exuberance, while still conveying his soulfulness and intelligence. Homecoming isn’t an origin story, but it does take place early on in Spider-Man’s superheroic career. As such, he isn’t always as graceful as we’ve seen in previous films. In one very funny scene, he tears through people’s backyard fences and knocks over treehouses in his dogged but somewhat hapless pursuit of the bad guys, and in a couple places he straight-up faceplants instead of landing on his feet. He’s very vulnerable, which is one of Spider-man’s defining characteristics, and a big part of what makes him relatable.

The movie lets us see him be scared a few times. It lets us see him mess up. Homecoming is less angst-ridden and more playful than the earlier movies, but it still emphasizes Peter’s humanity. It’s also very funny, easily one of the funniest MCU movies. The filmmakers have said that the films of John Hughes were a big influence on Homecoming (and there’s even a brief clip from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in one scene). It’s a breezy and very fun movie, while still being emotional when it needs to be.

Image: Sony

It also does not repeat one of the biggest mistakes made by the earlier movies (namely Spider-Man 3 and The Amazing Spider-Man 2) in that it does not have too many villains. There is ONE main villain, which is all there needs to be. It helps that said villain is played by Michael Keaton, who seems to like playing characters associated with flying creatures. First Batman, then Birdman, and here, Keaton plays Adrian Toomes, aka the Vulture. This is a character who has not been seen on the big screen before, and the filmmakers have given him a motive that makes sense and connects nicely to the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. Keaton is very menacing in the role, with a sardonic sense of humor. He’s easily one of the best MCU villains, and there’s a great plot twist that for once the movie’s trailers and advertising managed to not completely spoil, so I won’t spoil it either.

Spidey himself also looks great. The costume he wears is close enough to his original look in the comics to satisfy fans of the character, while adding a few tweaks. The filmmakers have also thought of a clever way to make Spidey more expressive, by making his eyes change size. In earlier movies, the eyes stayed the same size, but here they get bigger and smaller, which gives Spider-Man a wider range of expressions.
Peter Parker’s relationship with Tony Stark is another great aspect of the movie. They’re both huge nerds, Tony just so happens to be insanely rich and Peter is dirt-poor. Robert Downey Jr. brings the same sarcastic wit he’s brought to Tony ever since 2008, and he helps Peter learn a very important lesson: that he is more than just a fancy suit. This is a lesson Tony himself had to learn the hard way, and it’s important for Peter to learn as well.

The movie doesn’t skimp on the action, either. Highlights include a battle on a ferry which starts to split in half, a dramatic rescue atop the Washington Monument, and a climactic midair battle. I thoroughly enjoyed all of these, and it is always a joy to see Spidey effortlessly sailing through the concrete jungles of New York City, even if he does occasionally fall flat on his face. The movie also addresses what happens when there aren’t any buildings or trees around that are tall enough for Peter to use his webs on: he just has to leg it.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is a fantastic movie: full of colorful action, great characters and acting, it’s well-written and often very funny, and it tells a story that makes sense on its own while still fitting into the sprawling Marcel Cinematic Universe. It’s everything you want a Spider-Man movie to be, and it doesn’t get bogged down in franchise-building or sequel-baiting. It may not be quite as good Sam Raimi’s near-flawless Spider-Man 2, but in my opinion it more than qualifies as the second-best Spider-Man movie, which is no small feat. And as always with these Marvel movies, make sure you stay until the very end after the credits for a cheeky extra scene. I won’t spoil it, but remember, kids, patience is a virtue.

Next on my summer watchlist is Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, but that won’t be out until July 21, so in the meantime I’m going to back a few months and talk about The Fate of the Furious. I saw it when it came out but for whatever reason never wrote about it, so I’m going to rectify that next week. And since it came out a few months ago and made about a bazillion dollars, I figure the statute of limitations on spoilers has now expired, so I’m really going to dig into it. Tune in next week for a spoiler-filled discussion!

Baby Driver: Nowhere To Run To, Baby

Thank God for Edgar Wright. In an era where so many movies (looking at you, Transformers) feel like the filmmakers are making them up as they go along, Edgar Wright is a guy who makes movies that are coherent, thrilling, and emotionally resonant. He makes movies where you can see that he had the whole movie planned out in his head before the cameras even started rolling, and the results are spectacular.
Baby Driver is only his fifth theatrical feature, and he is five-for-five. I adore all three films he made with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Shaun of the Dead is my favorite zombie movie of all time, and I absolutely love Hot Fuzz and The World’s End. Those three movies are endlessly rewatchable, as is Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, his hyperkinetic take on the beloved comic book series. It’s been a long four years since The World’s End, which was his last feature (he was going to direct Marvel’s Ant-Man but ended up leaving the project), but since Wright is only 43 years old, hopefully we’ll see a lot more films from him in the future.

Image: Sony

Baby Driver is the story of Baby, who is a driver. Baby is played by appropriately baby-faced The Fault in Our Stars heartthrob Ansel Elgort, who is fantastic in the lead role. Baby is a man of few words, who expresses himself through body language and music. He suffers from chronic tinnitus as the result of a car accident when he was a kid that also killed his parents, and drowns out the humming with a constant stream of music from one of several different iPods. He has different Pods for different moods, and you get the feeling that he knows every song on every one of them by heart.

He’s also the best getaway driver in the business. He works for a gangster called Doc (played perfectly by Kevin Spacey), who makes not-so-veiled threats like “Your waitress girlfriend, she’s cute. Let’s keep it that way.” Once, Baby made the mistake of stealing from Doc, and now gives Doc most of his take from the various jobs they do as a means of paying off his debt. Also along for the ride are various miscreants, the most notable of which are Buddy (Jon Hamm), his girlfriend Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), and the violent sociopath known as Bats (Jamie Foxx).

Every actor seems tailor-made for the part they play, and Jamie Foxx is just terrifying. He clearly enjoys being a criminal way too much, and his violent outbursts during their heists are part of what makes Baby long to escape from these dangerous people he finds himself involved with. Baby’s problem is that he has a conscience. “The moment you catch feelings,” Bats explains to him from behind the barrel of a shotgun, “is the moment you catch a bullet.” Bats hasn’t caught a bullet yet because he has no feelings for any of the people he hurts, which sets him on a collision course with Baby.

Further complicating matters is the aforementioned waitress girlfriend Baby meets one day in his favorite sparsely-occupied diner. Her name is Debbie, and she is played by Lily James, who is perfect as the girl the hero must risk everything to be with. Debbie is as sweet as Bats is frightening, and when Bats brings Baby, Buddy and Darling to the diner partway through the movie the tension is nearly unbearable. It’s a beautifully-acted and -directed scene, with Debbie and Baby pretending not to know each other and trying not to make eye contact, lest Bats figure out that Baby cares about her.

Edgar Wright directs the hell out of this movie. The many car chases are beautifully chaotic, and they manage to be frenetic and intense without sacrificing clarity. While Baby Driver is not a comedy in the way Wright’s earlier films were, there are still some very funny moments, and Wright deftly balances the tone of the movie so that it never feels out-of-control.

And of course there’s the music. I’ll admit that most of it is music I was unfamiliar with, but much like the actors, every song feels perfect for the scene it’s in. Wright is also a master of editing, and precisely times moments during the action scenes to correspond with the beats of a song. That’s what I meant when I said earlier that you can tell how he’s envisioned the whole movie is in his head before he even starts filming, since that level of precision with the music, editing, and stunt choreography doesn’t happen by accident. It all blends together to create a seamless experience.

Image: Sony

The movie is very stylized, and some might say it’s style over substance, but I disagree. Partly that’s because I love Edgar Wright’s style, but there’s also a strong emotional connection to the characters. I really cared about Baby and Debbie, and during the suspenseful, action-packed second half of the film I was on the edge of my seat. This movie is such a breath of fresh air after the pair of crummy blockbusters that were the subjects of my previous two posts.

If there’s one thing I didn’t love about the movie, it’s the ending. It’s not terrible, and I won’t spoil it, but it’s the weakest part of a really good movie so it stands out. I don’t hate the ending, but it goes on a bit longer than it should. It’s one of those endings where there’s a perfect moment where it could have ended, but then it keeps going for two or three more scenes that didn’t need to be there. This is a minor complaint when I loved everything else about the movie, but I do feel that Wright didn’t quite stick the landing with regards to the movie’s conclusion.

I hope it doesn’t take four years for Edgar Wright to make another film, he’s one of my favorite directors. But until he makes another one, I’m very glad we’ve got this one to rewatch. Coming up next on the Summer Movie Watchlist is Spider-Man: Homecoming, the latest reboot of everyone’s favorite wall-crawling superhero, so look for that next week.

Transformers: The Last Knight is a Tale Told by an Idiot, Full of Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing

Transformers: The Last Knight is the worst film I have seen all year. After King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and The Mummy, I didn’t think I would be seeing a film that sucked more than either of those two, but Michael Bay’s latest Transformers atrocity is worse than King Arthur and The Mummy combined. I usually try to avoid spoilers in my reviews, but this movie was so full of dumb crap that I have to talk about it, so be aware that there will be spoilers ahead.

I generally don’t think that the Transformers movies are as bad as they are made out to be. I genuinely like the first one, and despite the many problems the sequels have, they’re still good for some mindless fun (aside from the second one, that is. Revenge of the Fallen is even worse than The Last Knight). But there is almost nothing good about The Last Knight, which is the fifth movie in the franchise. I would give this movie a grade of D-, and the only thing preventing it from getting an F is that the special effects are good, and there is a three-headed robot dragon. But everything else sucks.

Where to even begin? Let’s start with the story. But wait, there isn’t one. This is a two-and-a-half-hour movie with a plot thinner than a daytime soap opera. It took well over an hour into the movie before anything remotely resembling a plot began to come together. Nothing that happens in this movie has any emotional impact or any reason for happening at all.

Image: Paramount

And here is where we get in to the spoilers. The trailers for the movie made it look like Optimus Prime, the leader of the Autobots, aka the good robots, was the film’s villain.

This is a lie.

Optimus is barely in the movie. He has a couple scenes near the beginning, and then there’s maybe an hour and a half with no Optimus whatsoever. He then shows up, fights one of the other good robots, sees the error of his ways, and becomes good Optimus again. Optimus has maybe fifteen minutes of screen time, which is a generous estimate. The trailers made it look like this big emotional thing, with Optimus turning on his former allies, but this turns out to be a huge bait-and-switch. A trailer for a movie hasn’t lied this blatantly since the trailers for Suicide Squad made it look like the Joker was actually an important part of the movie. Hell, Optimus has barely more screen time than the Joker did in that movie.

And for a movie about robots fighting, there is remarkably little robot-on-robot action. Not only is Optimus barely in the movie, other robots are barely in the movie either. Remember the samurai robot and the T-rex robot from the fourth movie? They don’t get to do anything here, except provide a few moments of comic relief. The Transformers feel like an afterthought, like after five movies even Michael Bay doesn’t give a shit about them anymore.

Instead, we get meaningless scene after meaningless scene, and none of it means anything. It’s all fluff. It’s soulless. The lights are on, but no one’s home. We get a crap-ton of ridiculous backstory and mythology about how the robots have been a part of human history for thousands of years, and how they hung out with King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and fought Nazis, and Shakespeare and Leonardo da Vinci and tons of other historical figures were pals with the robots, and all of this is told to us by Anthony Hopkins, and the girl in the movie is the last descendant of Merlin and only she can wield the power of Merlin’s staff and oh my God they’re not even trying anymore.

Image: Paramount

The dialogue is atrocious too. Sample line: “Oh my God, look at that. It’s a big alien ship.” Seriously? This train wreck cost 260 million dollars to make, and that garbage is the best you can come up with? Or how about this one: “Sir, you know that strange thing we’ve been waiting 1600 years for? I think it’s finally happening!” I hate this movie.

There is nothing to hold on to with this movie. Trying to write about it is like trying to catch smoke with your hands. You can see that it’s there, but you can’t grasp it. Remember Bilbo’s line in Lord of the Rings where he tells Gandalf that he feels thin, like butter scraped over too much bread? That’s what Transformers: The Last Knight is. Someone had a germ of a good idea (“Let’s make Optimus the bad guy”) but had no idea how to build the rest of the plot around that, so what we’re left with is a movie that is 95% filler. We get scene after scene of the filmmakers trying to convince us that the movie is about something, but it isn’t. There’s nothing there.

It’s not even so-bad-it’s-good. It’s just bad, period. I’m not a Michael Bay hater. He may be a scumbag, but he’s made some fun movies (not that that’s an excuse for being a scumbag). I like the first Transformers movie. I like The Rock, The Island, 13 Hours, and the second half of Transformers: Dark of the Moon (the third movie). But with The Last Knight it seems like he doesn’t care anymore. It’s made with all the care for characterization and story coherence that an overcaffeinated 12-year-old might display. It’s just awful. I don’t usually bash movies like this when I write about them, generally I think people are way too hard on movies. But in this case, I agree with the haters. This movie is terrible, and it makes me sad. Moviegoers deserve better. Heck, Michael Bay can do better. He’s said that this is his last Transformers movie (although he’s said that before), so maybe his next movie will have more spark to it than this rote nonsense.

My next post will be about Edgar Wright’s new film Baby Driver, which, if the reviews are to be believed, should be more than good enough to wash away the bad taste left by the latest Transformers atrocity, so look for that soon.