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.

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.

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.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales – Ghost Pirates and Zombie Sharks

Disney captured lightning in a bottle in 2003 with Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. The movie defied all expectations for a movie based on a theme park ride and was a hit with critics and audiences alike. It made a ton of money and even earned Johnny Depp an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Now, fourteen years later, we are on the fifth installment of the franchise that started out so well but quickly succumbed to blockbuster bloat.

I don’t think the Pirates sequels are as bad as their reputation suggests. They’re deeply flawed and none of them quite managed to recapture the magic of the first movie, but there are things I like about them. My least favorite is the fourth film, On Stranger Tides, which suffered from lackadaisical pacing, an inconsequential plot, and what I felt was a lack of exciting action. Fortunately, the new movie, Dead Men Tell No Tales, is livelier than its immediate predecessor, although unsurprisingly it still has its share of flaws. It does have the good sense to be shorter than the previous films, and at just over two hours it is the shortest film in the entire series, so at least it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Image: Disney

Let’s talk about Johnny Depp for a second. His portrayal of Jack Sparrow in the first movie was instantly iconic, and for all the issues the subsequent films had, Depp’s performance was not one of them. But in this movie, it feels less like Depp playing Jack Sparrow than Depp playing a guy playing Jack Sparrow. He’s become a caricature of himself. Remember Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder saying “I’m a dude playing a dude disguised as another dude”? It’s kind of like that. Depp had a way of purring his lines in the earlier films, and made the viewer think that he was always thinking several steps ahead, despite also appearing constantly inebriated. But in the latest film, he squeaks every line and is mostly a cartoonish buffoon. It’s hard to take him seriously as a protagonist anymore.

But on the plus side, I loved the villains in this movie. Javier Bardem, always an excellent choice to play a villain, plays Capitan Salazar, the spectral captain of a ship full of ghost pirates. The ghost pirates are extremely cool, and some of them are even missing body parts. These ghostly villains were the highlight of the movie for me, and Bardem in particular is fantastic. It’s not too surprising that Bardem steals the movie, since he neatly ran away with Skyfall and No Country For Old Men as well. Capitan Salazar is incredibly menacing, and his hair and parts of his costume appear to float around him, as if he were constantly underwater. He has history with Captain Jack and a deep hatred of all pirates, and doesn’t hesitate to kill whoever and whenever he wants. He and his crew can walk on water and unleash ZOMBIE SHARKS, which is a new one for this franchise.

Image: Disney

The rest of the plot revolves around a quest for the Trident of Poseidon, and if you rolled your eyes at that, I don’t blame you. In addition to Captain Jack and the Ghost Pirates (which would be a good name for a rock band), there are a few new characters in the mix. One is a young man named Henry, played by Brenton Thwaites, and saying his character’s last name would give away a major plot point, but he’s got his own reasons for wanting to find the Trident, which has the power to end all sea-related curses and gives its wielder power over the sea itself. There’s also a young woman named Carina Smyth, played by Kaya Scodelario, a woman of science whom everyone thinks is a witch because she’s so smart.

The new characters are a bit bland, the actors’ performances are fine but there’s nothing really special about them. But it’s always fun to see Geoffrey Rush as Hector Barbossa, the once-undead, once-actually-dead, once-evil, now-good former captain of the Black Pearl. Times have been good for Barbossa, he commands a fleet of ships and his flagship is adorned with golden skulls. His long, curly hair makes him look quite a bit like the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz, but Rush looks like he’s having the most fun out of anyone in the movie.

There is no shortage of creative action in the movie, which made me happy since the previous film, On Stranger Tides, didn’t have as much action as I would have liked, and what action it did have was played mostly for laughs. This movie is more engaging and moves more smoothly than the third and fourth movies, despite Depp’s bizarre performance and the somewhat cliched plot. It also fixes one of the biggest issues I had with the resolution of the third movie, At World’s End, although to say more would spoil it. But I am glad that the filmmakers resolved this plot point, since it always bothered me.

Dead Men Tell No Tales has its share of issues, but there’s fun to be had, and Captain Jack still has some tipsy adventures left in him. There’s a post-credits stinger that teases the possible return of a villain from the previous movies, so if this one makes enough money maybe we’ll be seeing him again, even though that wouldn’t make any sense from a plot standpoint. But it wouldn’t be the first time the series has brought previously-dead villains back to life, so who knows. In the meantime, I like to think the zombie sharks are still out there…

Image: Disney

Le Cinema de WTF: King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

Guy Ritchie is his own worst enemy. He’s not a terrible director, he knows how to film an adrenaline-pumping action scene. But his movies are so overwhelmingly stylized that any artistic merits his films have are mostly drowned out by all the weird stuff he piles on top, and his latest film, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, is no exception.

Image: Warner Bros.

On the one hand, you almost have to admire the guy (so to speak). Ritchie clearly has a way of making movies that he likes, and he sticks to his guns. But the fatal flaw with this approach is its hubris: Ritchie doesn’t seem to realize that just because he thinks something is cool, doesn’t mean everyone who watches his movies will think so too. Never is this more apparent than with his take on the King Arthur myth, which is hands-down the most aggressively bizarre cinematic experience I’ve had all year. Heck, maybe ever.

Here are just a few of the weird and/or crazy things in this movie. Giant animals (bats, rats, snakes, elephants, wolves, eagles). Demonic hell knights. Tentacle…witches, I guess? People with cockney gangster names like Goose Fat Bill and Flat Nose Mike. Slow-mo swordfights. Hyperactive, spastic editing. A completely bonkers plot. Nary a shred of plot cohesion or character development. In short, it’s a mess, a $175 million wannabe blockbuster that is the first major flop of the year, earning a paltry $15 million domestically in its opening weekend.

So what’s the plot, such as it is? Well, the movie opens with a battle scene featuring the aforementioned giant elephants, which are more akin to the huge elephant creatures in The Lord of the Rings than actual elephants. Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon defeats the elephants and the army accompanying them by killing their leader, a mage named Mordred, with the mystical powers of the sword Excalibur. And if you read that and thought to yourself, “Wait a minute, Mordred wasn’t a mage, he was the product of Arthur’s incestuous relationship with his half-sister,” then you would be right. This is the first sign that Ritchie’s version of King Arthur will have little to no resemblance to previous versions of the story.

Following this, Uther’s devious brother Vortigern stages a coup, and Uther and his wife are killed by a demonic-looking knight with a skull face, flaming cape, and double-bladed scythe. This guy looks like something from the cover of a heavy metal album, or maybe a Dark Souls boss. During his father’s battle with the Dark Souls boss, young Arthur gets in a boat which floats away, Moses-like, down the river where he eventually is found and taken in by prostitutes. There follows a rapid-fire montage of Arthur growing up rough in the streets of “Londinium” (was there ever such a place?), being raised by prostitutes, learning to fight and getting punched in the face a lot. As one might imagine, being raised in a brothel and getting face-punched a lot turns Arthur into a tough, scrappy adult. He is eventually forced to flee Londinium, ends up drawing Excalibur from the stone, and joins the resistance against the evil king Vortigern.

Image: Warner Bros.

This is definitely a fantasy movie, and is not intended to be historically accurate. That much is apparent from the very first scene, and I’m fine with that. The movie doesn’t pretend to be “Based on a True Story” or anything like that, which is good because if it did claim to be based on a true story that would obviously be nonsense. I’m still annoyed that the 2003 King Arthur movie had the audacity to claim it was “The Untold True Story Behind the Legend” when it was nothing of the kind.

And I’m fine with this being a fantasy movie, because King Arthur stories have many elements of magic and mysticism. The problem with the fantasy elements in Ritchie’s film is that they make no sense. For example, Vortigern has this weird cavern under his tower. When we first see the cavern, a mass of tentacles emerges from the water, which unravel to reveal three women. Two of them are kinda hot, the third is massively fat. What the hell are these things? I guess they’re witches of some kind? The movie never explains what these things are, and they end up feeling arbitrary.

This is a movie where things just kind of…happen. There’s no real sense of conflict, and the supporting characters, despite being played by capable actors, are underdeveloped. Jude Law makes for a fun bad guy as Vortigern, and Charlie Hunnam is a charismatic Arthur. But despite having two good lead actors, the movie never really sells the rivalry between them. It also doesn’t help that Vortigern has to be at least 20 years older than Arthur, but Law doesn’t look much older than Hunnam at all. This could be because Hunnam is 37 and Law is 44. But aside from this discrepancy, the movie never gives a reason to care about the story. I like Hunnam as an actor and I liked his portrayal of Arthur, but I wasn’t invested in the story.

Image: Warner Bros.

The movie also has editing issues. You’ve probably seen movies where people talk about doing something, then the movie cuts to the people doing the thing they’re talking about, then it cuts to them talking, then doing, and so on. This can be an effective technique when used properly. Think of a heist film, where we see the heist being planned out and executed step-by-step. This is good because it helps the viewer understand what’s going on, but Ritchie uses this editing technique when there’s really no need to, and as a result parts of the film are unnecessarily choppy.

I don’t hate this movie. It’s a mess, but it’s an enjoyable one, and it’s so full of crazy that it’s never boring. The acting is solid, the photography and special effects are good, and there are some fun action sequences. But ultimately it’s baffling. I would put this movie right up there with The Lone Ranger and Suicide Squad as one of the most bizarre blockbusters I’ve ever seen. But at least it’s more playful than other dour swords-and-sandals epics, such as Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood or Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur. Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur is a work of vision, even if it just so happens to be a completely demented vision.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: Never Break the Chain

Thank God for James Gunn. In an era of grim and gritty superhero movies, here is a guy who looks at that and says, “let’s have some fun.” Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Gunn’s sequel to his original Guardians of the Galaxy which was a hit in the summer of 2014, is finally here, and I am pleased to report that it is every bit as joyously fun as its predecessor.

Image: Marvel/Disney

I won’t say too much about the plot, since I generally try to avoid spoilers for brand-new films. But I will say that the story involves the mysterious parentage of Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord. I loved the film’s plot, it provided closure to lingering questions and did a great job of incorporating all the characters and making them feel necessary and vital. There are quite a few characters in the movie, and movies with such an abundance of characters sometimes struggle to make all of them feel important. Not the case with this movie, which manages to take Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, Baby Groot, Nebula, and Yondu and make them all vital parts of the story, while also adding a few new characters. This is not an easy feat, but Gunn’s clever screenplay makes it look easy.

All of the things audiences loved about the original are here: the memorable characters, the eye-popping visuals, the humor, and the rockin’ soundtrack. The music is a vital part of the Guardians movies. Where else will you find epic spaceship battles accompanied by 70’s pop hits? Gunn’s movies are unlike other Marvel Cinematic Universe movies in the best possible way. They’re playful and irreverent, while still delivering the thrilling action and emotional beats that make the best Marvel movies so enjoyable.

But let’s return to the soundtrack for a moment. I love the way Gunn incorporates the music into these films, and I think I liked the soundtrack in this movie even more than the first one. Every song fits perfectly, and many of them carry thematic significance, such as the Fleetwood Mac song that gives this post its subtitle. Gunn clearly put a lot of thought into which songs to use, and where in the film to use them, and he even manages to make a few of them part of the plot. By contrast, Suicide Squad is a recent example of a movie that tried to emulate Gunn’s excellent use of music, but didn’t do it nearly as well.

I would say that the movie is not quite as good overall as its predecessor, but just barely. The new film is a bit more cluttered and is slightly overstuffed. But this is a minor complaint, as it is still a heck of a lot of fun. It’s also a gorgeous movie to look at, and there is a wide variety of planets and environments that our misfit heroes’ adventures take them to, as well as many kinds of alien races and creative vehicles and weaponry, so there is no shortage of eye candy.

Image: Marvel/Disney

The cast has great chemistry, and Dave Bautista as Drax deserves a special shout-out. Who knew that a former pro wrestler could be so damn funny? Drax gets some of the biggest laughs of the movie, and this is a movie with a lot of laughs. Gunn’s Guardians films are easily the funniest Marvel movies, and the humor never feels forced. It doesn’t feel like there are jokes just for the sake of comic relief, the humor is a natural part of the story and the characters. This is also one of the more trippy Marvel movies, only Doctor Strange can come close to it in terms of psychedelic visuals, particularly during the lengthy final battle.

And oh, how I love Baby Groot. I need to go on Amazon and see if there is like, a plush Baby Groot or something that I can get, because that would make me so happy. Not only is Baby Groot adorable, but he also gets to help save the galaxy, so he’s not there just for the sake of being cute and/or funny, although he is definitely both of those things. When he gets caged by space pirates and they’re being mean to him, I spent the whole scene thinking “LEAVE BABY GROOT ALONE!!” One of my favorite lines comes when one space pirate asks the space pirate leader “Can I squish it with a rock?” and the leader replies, “No, Jeff, it is too adorable to kill!” (Some of my other favorite lines include “Die, spaceship!” and “You suck, Zylar.”) And of course there is Groot’s immortal catchphrase, “I am Groot,” which can mean anything at all. The film’s characters are all great but Baby Groot is my favorite.

Image: Marvel/Disney

And let us not forget that this is a movie with a lot of heart. We learn more about the characters and their relationships and backgrounds, and everything we learn feels meaningful, and is often quite touching. Gunn is able to deftly balance the emotional beats with the humor and the big action scenes, and somehow the tone of the film still feels consistent. There’s so much going on in any given scene that in a lesser director’s hand it could all fall apart, but once again Gunn makes it look easy. Gunn is such a surehanded director that it’s hard to believe this is only his fourth directorial feature. I hope the success of Guardians will lead to him getting more directorial gigs in the future, in case you couldn’t tell, I love this guy.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 delivers everything you want from a summer blockbuster. It’s smart, funny, well-directed, action-packed, and full of memorable characters. I could spend a lot more time going into details of specific scenes that I loved, but that would mean describing more or less the entire movie, and we don’t have all day. But suffice to say that I loved it, and I’m confident that you will, too. Also, be sure to stay all the way through the credits, because not only are there a whopping total of FIVE post-credits scenes, but the end credits also have several other little Easter eggs that are fun to look for. So go see it, have fun, and remember, I AM GROOT!