Category Archives: Reviews

Movie Review: Detroit

Kathryn Bigelow‘s newest shows off her impressive talent as a director capable of creating relentless tension, but her cast and the social message are the real stars here.  This is, unfortunately, one of those great movies that all the people who really need to see it and understand it never will. (See also: Fruitvale Station)

Set against the backdrop of the 1967 Detroit riots, this tells the true story of the police raid on the Algiers Hotel where several people were shot and police accused of misconduct and brutality. This has been described as a horror movie where the unkillable monster is racism, and that is about the perfect description.

But even better, it depicts racism not as just a character flaw of a few bad apples, but as a systemic oppression that disadvantages people of color at every turn. So, the monster is not just specifically the bad cops– it’s the whole system. And so even though this is a movie about what happened 50 years ago, it’s a movie about what’s happening yesterday, today, and tomorrow as systemic racism continues to plague us. It’s also a morality lesson about what happens when a director like Bigelow, who is white, uses the privilege she has to elevate the stories of others and speak out against these injustices.

A director at the top of her craft

Kathryn Bigelow is amazing here. All of her ability to craft tension and human drama that we’ve seen in previous outings like The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty are on full display here.  Most of this centers around the major focal point of the movie: a situation at the Algiers where the police line up everyone against the wall and interrogate them about who has a gun and who was shooting at the police.

She also expertly draws out amazing performances from her cast. John Boyega plays Melvin Dismukes, a security guard who gets caught up in the raid on the Algiers and is stuck between worlds as he tries to de-escalate the situation. Algee Smith is Larry Reed, lead singer of soul group The Dramatics, who was at the hotel along with his friend and the band’s manager, Fred. Smith also lends his singing voice to the film, which provides some amazing color to an otherwise stark, bleak depiction of those days. He also appears on the soundtrack with Reed himself to provide a sort of musical denouement for the film. Some final scenes showing his life in shambles after the incident also show the after-effects of this brutality, and his performance is on point.

Anthony Mackie (Captain America:Winter Soldier, Civil War; The Hurt Locker) also delivers a stellar performance, but both he and Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton, Keanu) are drastically underutilized. In fact, neither of them shows up until halfway through the movie. But given how the film was marketed and Mackie receiving top billing, you might expect more screen time. But that expectation will be unfulfilled. But what it lacks in quantity, it amps up in quality. Playing a recently discharged Army vet, you can see the wheels in his head turning: “I risked my life in ‘Nam for this?!?”

What you can say, though, is that each actor gets their due, gets their moment to shine, and it all plays in to making the main story a cohesive whole. Bigelow knows not only how to extract every ounce of tension out of these scenes, but also Oscar-worthy performances from several of her actors.

The movie’s major flaw that is also its biggest strength

But, this movie has some problems. I mentioned Mackie not showing up until halfway through. That’s part of it. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve come to the following conclusion:

My wife and I recently celebrated our 16th wedding anniversary. (WHAT?!) It made me think back of the time of ring shopping and what a process that was. But we ended up getting a great deal on the main diamond in her ring because it had this giant inclusion, or flaw, in the middle of it. But somehow that little hollow space made the gem sparkle even more brightly.

Detroit has a problem like this. We don’t meet any of our main characters until almost 20 minutes into the movie. Our opening scene is the incident that sparks the Detroit riots, as police raid a club operating without a liquor license, and we’re introduced to Officer Frank (Chris ChalkGotham, Homeland), the only black officer in this all-white police squad.

His story is then abruptly dropped and we don’t see him again.

As the riots begin, we see a young Congressman John Conyers speaking to an angry crowd and calling for peace.

And then we never see him again.

And Mackie and Mitchell don’t show up until halfway through the movie.

The audience gets a sense of violent whiplash as we’re thrown new characters and left wondering exactly whose story we’re supposed to be following.

This is a problem, but when you look at it again, it is brilliant.

One of the things Bigelow does best is she inherently sides with the rioters. A riot is a grim, irrational and desperate act. But the opening of the film serves to put us in that mindset and gets the audience to take part of the mob mentality where it truly does seem like the only solution is to start smashing and burning things.

It hurts the cohesiveness of the story, but I think the payoff in tone and theme is a good trade-off. But, it’s still a flaw in what is otherwise a really good film.

The race issue and using your privilege in a positive way

So, a lot has been said about Bigelow, a white woman, making this movie so specifically about racism and police brutality.  In a post film Q&A livestreamed to Alamo Drafthouse locations nationwide, Chris Chalk mentioned that this was the way it was supposed to be: Kathryn Bigelow could choose to make any movie she wanted to, and she chose to tell this story. That’s how you use your privilege — to lift up others’ stories and others’ voices.

She’s not appropriating the story, nor making it about white characters, nor telling it from their point of view, as is often the case with so many movies about race (Mississippi Burning, for example).

And perhaps most importantly, she isn’t telling a story just about racism and racism as a personal flaw. She paints it as systemic and woven into all of the various ways a black person may interact with the system.

This centers specifically on her depiction of the police and the other law enforcement involved. On the micro-level, we have our three main cops who are eventually charged with the murders and assaults at the Algiers. And we see three very different types of people– I will call them the Three Little Piggies.

WARNING: The rest of this section contains plot elements/historical elements that some would consider SPOILERS. If you don’t want to know more, skip to the next section until after you’ve seen the film.

The first pig built his house out of straight-up racism. But even he doesn’t think he’s a bad guy– he sees people burning down their community and asks “How is this America?” He sees this as a failure of the government to smack down bad behavior– that the police need to come in with a strong hand and take out the bad guys. (Sound like anyone we know?)

The Second Little Pig isn’t necessarily racist, but he’s working the system pretty hard. When The First Little Pig says he shot someone because he was reaching for his gun and had a knife, he corroborates the story, “Yeah, I heard him say ‘Drop the knife.'” Good cop covering for bad, and is indifferent about race, or at least not inherently anti-black.

Our Third Little Pig is really nervous and probably isn’t malicious at all. But because he isn’t playing the same game the other two are, ends up using their same tactics to even more brutal effect.

Pigs 2 and 3 eventually squeal, because they know their actions were bad, but then their confession is thrown out because they were deprived of their union lawyer before they were questioned. The system worked to protect all three cops under a code of silence where they all cover for one another.

And so it doesn’t take every cop being a racist to cause a problem. The system is the problem.

One of the other problems was the lack of accountability or oversight by other law enforcement. The raid on the Algiers took place because National Guard troops thought they were under fire from that vicinity, and fired back. National Guard and State Police personnel were on the scene, but eventually left when they saw what a shit show it was becoming. A Michigan State Police officer saw how bad it was, and walked out, telling the three white Detroit PD members, “this is a local police issue.”

And there were other failures– ones all too common today, yesterday, and most likely tomorrow. There was the all white jury. There was the slick lawyering that made the case that we couldn’t be sure who shot whom at the Algiers. And then there was the sea of faces in the courtroom– the front rows filled with white faces in blue police uniforms, and the back rows filled with black faces. Again, Bigelow’s eye for detail here helps show how even these more subtle nuances create a tone for the system and set it up to fail to deliver justice.

Again, in this whole narrative, there only had to be one guy who really hated black people. But the system literally allowed him to get away with murder.

I’m not so naive to think we can ever get rid of racial prejudice, (nor should we try to legislate this), but I do hope that we can take a hard look at our systems and ask how they might perpetuate inequalities and oppression.

Detroit vs. Dunkirk

It’s hard to talk about Detroit without referencing its peer, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.  Spoiler alert: (not really) I’m giving both films the same rating– a solid 4 out of 5 stars. But when I wrote my review, I noted how white and male-centric Nolan’s choices were and why that rubbed me the wrong way.  Others have weighed in on whether telling the story this way whitewashes history, eliminating the contribution of non-white soldiers.

No matter where you come down on this argument, I want to make one thing extremely clear: these are artistic choices, and especially when you have directors like Nolan and Bigelow who have a large amount of creative control over the film (in the case of Nolan, he was acting as writer, director, and producer), these choices are worth pointing out and asking why.

Whenever a director makes a film that is completely white and completely male, that erases from the historical record the contribution of non-whites and non-males and contributes to a culture that says that white and male is standard, and everything else is an aberration.

That is not to say that Dunkirk is racist, or Christopher Nolan is racist. But they are films designed to do well at the box office by portraying white male heroism at its best, just as in hundreds of previous movies about white male heroism in World War II. And they are designed to be awarded by the Academy and other groups who judge films. It’s not that individual Oscar voters are racist– but there’s a reason #OscarsSoWhite was a thing, and it’s that a film like Dunkirk is designed to please that section of the audience. It is a movie that is everything we are told makes a movie great.

Let’s also be clear– Detroit is also designed to be that same sort of Oscar-bait, but for a completely different reason. When people talk about Hidden Figures, 12 Years a Slave, Fences, or Selma, they don’t bring up the same things a person brings up first when praising Dunkirk. They immediately go for talking about the racial aspect of the film and how heartbreaking it is, etc, etc.  It’s simply not the same sort of meritocracy we expect, or want, out of our prestige pictures. Even in judging the relative merits of movies, we hold movies with a racial element to a different standard. And that’s the difference between personal racism (let’s be clear– no one who needs to see this movie to understand what’s happening in terms of race in this country is going to see it or have their minds changed by it) and systemic bias. Oscar voters didn’t need to be personally racist to snub Ava DuVernay for best director for Selma and instead nominate Bennet Miller for Foxcatcher. (Yes, I’m still mad about that. Probably always will be.) But systemic biases can be in place that cause these outcomes.

As for directors’ choices, Nolan chose to make a war movie about World War II– a story that anyone who paid attention in history class knows about. He chose for his heroes archetypal British stiff-upper-lip types, especially the people he loves to work with, and did great with them!  Bigelow chose to make a movie about an incident largely forgotten, and also largely prescient in terms of the current state of affairs in 2017 with the Black Lives Matter movement responding to the murder and assault by police of hundreds of  African Americans across the country. She chose a story with a diverse cast and diverse characters. And even though there were two white women who were brutalized by the police as well, she never makes the story about them.  (As an aside, there are still not enough female roles in this film, especially not enough for women of color. Despite history being history. . .  well, I’m just tired of Samira Wiley showing up in a walk-on supporting role and not getting to do more– you know what I’m saying?) And she told her story in a gripping way that never lets the audience go. And despite the film’s dropping characters in a jarring and unsettling way, it serves the tone and theme of the film.

Nolan took an easy story to tell– one that has been told before in dozens of different ways– and made it intentionally hard with a chopped up timeline and continuity. Bigelow took a hard to tell story and delivers it seared and sizzling to the plate, but still raw and bloody in its center– “black and blue” as you would order it at a steak joint. Nolan chopped up the story and timeline to show off how smart and skilled he is. Bigelow chose to drop characters and make the audience uncomfortable for the sake of making them uncomfortable and in the mindset of what it must have been like to be in Detroit in 1967. They’re both ultimate craftsmen at the top of their game. But the reason they’re making unconventional choices is a world of difference.

So both of them are excellent films with a few flaws, but the context of why they are the way they are is all the difference.

Final thoughts

It’s pretty clear how much I liked this movie. I am still not perfectly comfortable with its problems, but I think it was a good way for Bigelow to get what she wanted. Again, this is one of those unfortunate films that everyone who needs to see it never will. And those who will probably already know– but hopefully this will fuel their passion to maybe make real changes in how we do things in our country. Bigelow might be preaching to choir, but someone needs to be passing out hymnals. And this is as good of a song as we’re going to get.

4 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: The Emoji Movie

emoji_movie_posterJust how bad is it? It’s really, really, really bad.

💩 💩 💩 💩 💩 out of 5 🌟

But were we really expecting anything less from this? The very idea of it sounded terrible from the outset. No one in 1975 decided to make a kids film about the pet rock. There’s no 90’s-tastic The Slap Bracelet Movie or Pogs! The Movie! (We do have Space Jam, but that’s not all that terrible.) The biggest problem is that huge amount of legitimate talent they must have had kompromat Russian dossiers on in order to blackmail them to make this.

TJ Miller is a “Meh” emoji 😒 living inside high school freshman Alex’s phone, where every app is its own city. And on his first day on the job he messes up the face he’s supposed to pull– and emoji aren’t supposed to be able to have more than one emotion. So he goes on a quest with Hi5 ✋ (James Corden) to find a hacker (Anna Faris) who can upload them onto the cloud where he can fix his code. Sound dumb? It is. And so much worse.

Literally the only moment of joy in this entire film is when they wander through YouTube and are momentarily mesmerized by a cat video.

There. You’ve now experienced 100% of what is good and entertaining in The Emoji Movie.

Mentioning YouTube, this film is chock-full of internet product placement. Twitter, Facebook, Dropbox, Crackle — they all make cameos. And the worst is a sequence in the Just Dance app introducing The Emoji Dance, which is one of the most cringeworthy moments in a movie chock full of them.

SmilerAnd then there’s the film’s purported antagonist– Maya Rudolph as a smiley emoji whose presence is nails on a chalkboard  in a movie that is a swimming pool full of glass shards, razorblades, and lemon juice.

When a movie like The Lego Movie works, it’s partially because its villain Lord Business delivers a greater meaning about the dangers of conformity. But Smiler is just an awful generic discount store brand version.  So while a positive message about being yourself and it being ok to have other emotions might have been intended, it’s so lost in an incredibly uninspired and dumb script.

It’s a shame because Rudolph is incredibly talented. So are Miller, Faris, Corden and the rest of the cast. To a person — up to and especially including Sir Patrick Stewart who has a brief cameo as the poo emoji — the entire cast are talented people who deserve better material. Indeed, the first trailer and the cast led me to believe this might not be awful. But it wastes their talents like gold-plating a toilet does. Just because it’s covered in gold doesn’t make what’s in the bowl stink any less. This movie is a gold-plated commode filled with a mountain of filth like you’d find on one of those episodes of Hoarders.

For another perspective, this is how my 11 year old daughter — the target demographic for this “film” — responded: halfway through, she got up to leave the theater to text her friends how bad it was:

texts emoji movie

1- Imminently proud that my daughter knows NOT to text in the theater.

2- Even more proud that she can recognize how terrible this abomination is.

It’s sometimes the case where a critic sees a movie and it doesn’t resonate, because, well, it just wasn’t made for them. I get that. This is not one of those cases. This is a case of where the movie doesn’t understand itself.

One needn’t be 13 to understand the appeal of emoji. But the people who made this movie obviously don’t. And they also don’t understand how smartphones and apps work, either.

giphy

It’s also not clear any of them know or regularly interact with any teen or tween of any sort. As much of a creative wasteland as Hollywood movie studios can be, this is the absolute most uninspired and creative nadir of not only the year, but perhaps the decade.

This was made by the same out of touch corporate groupthink that gave us Poochie, the Edsel, and New Coke.

So, yes. The Emoji Movie is truly that bad. And, unfortunately, according to box office figures and how it beat the vastly superior Atomic Blondethis is a sign of why in America we can’t have nice things.

ZERO stars out of 5

Movie Review: Atomic Blonde

atomic_blonde_posterMix source material graphic novel The Coldest City with classic thrillers like The French Connection, add in some modern Hong Kong-inspired action sequences and killer-thrillers like John Wick, and set it to the soundtrack of a 1989 Berlin discotheque, and you have Atomic Blonde.

It’s a perfect cocktail of fun, sexy, cool, and brutal as MI-6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) combs through Berlin on assignment to find a secret dossier that details all the identities and dirty laundry of secret agents around the world on all sides of the Cold War. It’s literally the weeks before the Berlin Wall is about to fall, making it even more dangerous as both sides are playing as though they have nothing left to lose.

Complicating matters is Britain’s station chief David Percival (James McAvoy) who has gone native, engaging in smuggling and information brokering beyond his normal job duties. Lorraine is also tasked with using the hunt for the list to uncover a mole within the agency who has been passing information to the Soviets. Further complicating things is French agent Delphine LaSalle (Sofia Boutella), with whom things get too close, and too personal, for Lorraine.

The film is absolutely gorgeous to look at. Scenes are framed like comic book panels, and the cold blue and grey color palate — punctuated by the occasional stark neon — help evoke  the specific time and place of the film’s setting.

What helps set this even more in late 80’s Cold War Berlin is the film’s soundtrack. A heavy industrial synth backbone of Depeche Mode, Ministry, and New Order are offset by the tenderness of Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry,” which takes on an added emotional resonance as a sort of love theme in the film. Depeche Mode reminds us “Sweet little girl/I’d prefer/ you behind the wheel/ and me the passenger” which becomes a sort of feminist anthem as we recognize that songs is now about Lorraine and Percival– and also gets us amped for a cool action sequence. Flock of Seagulls’ “I Ran” is used perfectly in an eye-popping, jaw-dropping chase scene, and David Bowie makes not one, but two appearances on the soundtrack, giving the film its sort of ethos of “putting out fires with gasoline.”

As amazing and perfect as the soundtracks to Baby Driver and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 were, this is the soundtrack of the year.

One of the other most fun elements in the film is how it’s told– completely in flashback, with a beat-up, post-mission Lorraine being debriefed by her MI-6 handler (a perpetually uncomfortable-looking Toby Jones) and a senior official from the CIA (an incredibly annoyed John Goodman). The interplay between Theron, Jones, and Goodman is masterful and is the apotheosis of the beautiful character work that prevents this film from being simply a bloody spy thriller. We also see Lorraine holding back key details, letting us know she isn’t exactly the most reliable of narrators. This draws heavily from other great thrillers that use this device like The Usual Suspects, but also manages to be its own film.

One of the things that makes this so unique is its portrayal of a completely bisexual protagonist. And unlike James Bond who seems to hold little sentiment for his various romantic conquests who end up dead, Lorraine is motivated by her feelings for those she has fallen for. But, she’s still a kickass spy who puts her business first– we just also see a very human emotional toll this takes.

So much of the credit for this film need to go to director David Leitch. Best known as a stunt and second unit director who also cut his teeth on John Wick, Leitch is able to bring a dazzling and unique visual style sorely lacking in so many blockbusters. He also puts together a hell of a fight scene, one where we as the audience feel the weight of every blow and crunch of every bone and sinew. It helps that he’s drawing from The Coldest City graphic novel, whose authors get a script credit, to bring such a great story to life. But he does it with such great visual and auditory panache that this becomes one of the best movies of 2017, and a super cool way to chill out during the dog days of summer.

Go see this, then spend hours with your friends coming up with slash/fiction where Lorraine, John Wick, and the characters from Kingsman all meet up and fight each other.

4 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: Dunkirk

Dunkirk-IMAX-posterThe battle and evacuation at Dunkirk set the tone and narrative for much of the Allied response to the Nazi advances. Christopher Nolan‘s new ensemble war drama distills that heroism into a set of interweaving narratives, telling a powerful story with all of the technical prowess he is known for. While not the masterpiece some are claiming it is, Dunkirk is a great war film– and emphasis on film.

For those who missed that day in history class, (spoiler alert?) Dunkirk was the time the French and English armies found themselves surrounded and trying to evacuate from the Northern coast of France. Only 50 or so miles across the English Channel, almost half a million soldiers waited to be rescued– and British citizens took to their small boats to help bring everyone back.

Nolan tells us three main stories, focusing on a single person on the beach, a fighter pilot (Tom Hardy), and a British man help with the rescue (Mark Rylance). With typical Nolan panache, he mixes up the timelines and weaves them together thematically rather than by time, so Hardy’s heroic sky antics (in reality stretching across several hours) seems to stretch for the days that the soldiers waited on the beaches.

Beautifully filmed in wide-screen format, if you are going to see this in theaters, it deserves to be seen in a theater with the biggest, best screen and best sound system possible. While this highlights Nolan’s skills as a filmmaker, this timeline is also something that was incredibly distracting. When a scene changes from night to day to night again and then to day, it’s jarring, and not in a good way. This seems almost like Nolan trying to show us how clever he is rather than just focusing on telling a story. While this sort of temporal tomfoolery works in a story like Memento or Inception, it just seems out of place in a grounded war movie like this about actual events that transpired. I’d like to see a cut of the film with the story simply told in linear fashion– it would be better sans Nolan trying to show us how clever he is.

Speaking of jarring, (but this time in a good way)there’s also Nolan’s sound design. Every bullet, every bomb hits with an intensity that you feel. As they cross the channel on his boat, Rylance’s Mr. Dawson teaches his son and his friend George to tell the differences in engine sounds between the Luftwaffe and RAF fighters, and soon we as the audience can listen for the differences as well– and feel the dread that comes with the sound of an incoming German plane diving towards stranded soldiers on a pier or on the beach. A line of bombs explode on the sand in spectacular fashion, the final one hitting mere meters from one of our protagonists. It’s raw, it’s visceral, and shows just how good Nolan can be in delivering cinematic greatness– when he’s not busy trying to show off.

Nolan also chooses an intentionally bleak color palatte, helping to reinforce the dire situation. In fact, the only brief bright colors we get are some brief sunsets at the end of the film, as if to imply that their darkest hours were over. He also manages to use all of the real estate available to him on screen. Again, see this on the largest screen possible with the best sound system possible.

On top of its technical achievements, you also have some excellent performances. Mark Rylance delivers a perfect self-effacing Englishman charm, complete with stiff upper lip. On his way to Dunkirk, he picks up a stranded, shell-shocked sailor played by Cillian Murphy, whose performance is also one of the highlights of the film. But the best part here is Hardy– a major complaint with this is that his story is so strong and the stories of the people on the beach are far less compelling. It almost would have been better to just do a Tom Hardy RAF movie. (Although, there is always the possibility for a sequel. . . )

Nolan makes some interesting choices here, not the least of which is to ever mention “Germans,” “Nazis,” “Fritz,” “Jerry,” or any other name. They were simply “the enemy.” This is an interesting choice, as it begs the question why it’s necessary? When you have literally the most universally hated and recognizable modern manifestation of pure evil, why shy away from it? If there was a point, it was lost in the film, but it has the air of apologism.

In isolation, this wouldn’t be so disconcerting. But then you recognize that there is not a single woman or non-white male given any sort of speaking role in this film. It’s a historical fact, yes, that most of the soldiers on the beach at Dunkirk would have been white men. But when Michael Bay manages to make Pearl Harbor,  one of the most universally reviled war films of all time, more diverse and inclusive than your film. . .  well, that’s strike two. For an example of other types of stories that could be told about the heroism at Dunkirk, you can check out Their Finest from earlier this year.

Luckily Nolan never gets to strike three, but given his comments earlier this week about Netflix, and responses from directors like Ava DuVernay and Bong Joon-ho (who have released films through Netflix that otherwise wouldn’t get distribution) it’s clear Nolan is perhaps the least “woke” major director working today.

That is all incredibly sad, as the film on its own is quite good. But, with great filmmaking power comes great filmmaking responsibility. Doing another white man’s heroism war film seems really superfluous in 2017.

But if you do go see this (repeated for the third time because, yes, it’s the most important thing to know) go see it on the biggest screen with the best sound system you have access to.

4 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

valerian french posterDon’t discount Luc Besson‘s newest film because it seems derivative: it’s based on classic French comics that inspired everyone from George Lucas to Besson himself. But, you should discount it because its characters are flimsy, script is weak and the film, while interesting to look at, is terminally boring.

Our story centers around Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne), federal agents from the space station Alpha, a giant city of millions of inhabitants from thousands of worlds. When sent on a mission to retrieve a valuable item from an inter-dimensional crime lord, they find themselves at the heart of a conspiracy to cover up something rotten at the heart of Alpha.

It’s gorgeous to look at. The inter-dimensional crime boss? He’s played by John Goodman, and literally is in an alternate dimension. Tourists show up to this barren wasteland and by putting on goggles and going through a special scanner, can see and interact with a giant open bazaar dozens of stories tall and miles across that exists in an alternate reality. It’s like Space Mall of America times 1000. It is the most amazing concept and pulled off brilliantly, as is a gag involving Valerian literally having one hand (and his gun) in one universe and the rest of him in ours.

And then there’s Alpha itself, which you can directly see as an inspiration on Besson’s vision of future New York in The Fifth Element as well as George Lucas’s visions of Coruscant as a giant city-planet in the Star Wars prequels. It’s breathtaking, and a chase through multiple levels is one of the best realized action sequences in the film.

But that’s where the good parts of the film end. If you turned the sound down and made up your own script, it might be more enjoyable. If Besson had spent anywhere near as much attention to writing good dialogue that illuminated his characters as he did to his visual design and effects, this would have been a stellar movie.

Instead, characters are left spouting drivel that sounds more like a middle schooler trying to ape pithy, pulpy verbal patter reminiscent of 1940s classics or noir. Unfortunately, Dane Dehaan is not Humphrey Bogart or Cary Grant. And Cara Delevingne is not Ingrid Bergman or either Hepburn.

Their characterizations are strained as well. The film starts with a proposal on a beach, but Dehane and Delevigne don’t act like longtime work partners or seem to have romantic interest in one another. They try to create a sort of Sam and Dianne bickering sexual tension, but it just never works. You don’t get that either of them actually cares for one another except that they’re expected to because. . .  movie trope.

There are other dubious character choices. Remember the inter-dimensional crime lord? Sounds like a cool character to have throughout the movie, right? Yeah, no. He’s inexplicably gone after the first act. Rihanna and Ethan Hawke show up as a shape-shifting alien named Bubble making her way as an exotic dancer(/hooker? it never gets that far) and her pimp, but they come and go far too soon. We’re also expected to feel for the death of a character who had only been introduced fifteen minutes earlier. Spoiler alert: we don’t.

However, the film ends with a nice rumination on colonialism and how we treat civilizations who we feel are inferior. It’s too bad this wasn’t a stronger theme throughout, or it might have made the wooden acting and hollow script more palatable.

No, this is not as good as The Fifth Element. Somehow just because Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich make it look effortless to make their way through their film, we think it is. But that script looks like Shakespeare compared to this. And missing is Gary Oldman and his Mangalore cohorts– this film has no discernible villain and the absence is noticeable. Both Fifth Element and the Star Wars prequels, despite their flaws, look so much more impressive when compared to this.

There’s certainly an audience for this film, but your tolerance for style over substance will have to be incredibly high. That said, it’s visually stunning and should be lauded for bringing the fantastic vision of the future from these classic comics.

2 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: War for the Planet of the Apes

Somebody get Andy Serkis an Oscar, stat. And possibly Woody Harrelson. Then get ready to think deep thoughts about what it means to be human, to feel all the strong feelings you can think of, and to watch one hell of a summer action movie.

War for the Planet of the Apes is one of the few third films in a trilogy that in no way disappoints. It is, in some ways, the best of the three. It’s the strange summer blockbuster that doesn’t skimp on the action but still manages to leave us deeply pondering our own existence.

The new film ends only a few years after the close of the last film. Caesar (Serkis as the masterful CGI-mocap ape creation) is considering leading his people out of their home in the woods north of San Francisco to a new promised land. (They lay on the Moses symbolism pretty heavily). far away from the humans whose soldiers continue to lead attacks against them.

Their leader is The Colonel (Harrelson) whose soldiers form a squad (really more of a cult) called Alpha-Omega.  Their attacks on the apes are not without purpose, as we learn (slowly, deliberately) the Colonel’s tragic backstory and why they believe they are fighting for their lives. As part of this, they end up enslaving most of Caesar’s people and force them to build a giant wall around their base, setting up a final act that is mostly a prison break.

There is a battle of wills between Caesar and The Colonel, and an internal ethical struggle they both face on the brink of extinction. How far will I go? To see revenge? To protect my people? They are perfect foils for one another and especially amazing performances given that Harrelson and Serkis are playing off each other with one of them in a mocap suit.

But one of the best parts of the film is one of the new characters– a former zoo chimp who calls himself Bad Ape (Steve Zahn) who dresses in human clothes and adds very needed comic relief to a very otherwise heavy, dense narrative.

And for those who missed the first two films? Everything you need to know is told in a couple of title cards at the opening. You’d be fine walking into this completely unaware of any of the other films — a true rarity for a franchise film such as this.

Perhaps even more spectacular, there are numerous nods, references, homages, and Easter Eggs to the other films in the series. Fans will get payoff in ways the rest of the audience won’t quite grasp, but it never feels like fanservice or like anyone is left out.

In short– it’s the perfect film no matter how familiar you are with the Apes universe.

Speaking of homages, they are almost too numerous to mention. But needless to say that the fact that Harrelson is playing a Colonel should not be lost on anyone, as the second half of the film could basically be described as Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now running the prison camp in The Great Escape. Having mentioned the heavy Moses symbolism, this also draws heavily from both the Old Testament story and The Ten Commandments as there is a definite Charlton Heston vs. Yul Brenner level of gravitas in the interplay between our two lead characters.

There is also a surprising amount of prescient social commentary in the film. The fact that the humans are trying to build a wall should not be lost on anyone and may, perhaps, date the film a little bit. The Colonel plays the best on-screen fascist in a big budget Hollywood film since Domhnall Gleeson yelled at stormtroopers in The Force Awakens. So the commentary hits home, if a bit on the nose. But if you take it as a human instinct to desperately and futilely build walls in order to protect ourselves from forces beyond our control, the commentary lands a little more softly.

But, regardless of politics, it should inspire all of us to consider how desperation and grief lead us to make decisions opposed to our morals.

It bears considering, however, in a world filled with CGI apes that the film still can’t manage to pass the Bechdel Test. One can even bring the claim that female characters are “refrigerator-ed” to provide reason for the male characters to act. This was a trap the second apes film managed to avoid with stellar performances by Judy Greer and Keri Russell that did not transfer over to this final chapter. A lone ray of hope here is the continued stellar work by Karin Konoval as Maurice the orangutan, who continues to act as Caesar’s conscience. While tropey (and it should be mentioned Maurice is apparently canonically male, which is why the film fails Bechdel) her performance here is so excellent that it deserves praise among of cast of apes who all do amazing work. Amiah Miller also puts in a great performance as the mute human Nova, adopted by Caesar. But unfortunately those do nothing for the gender politics of the film. Even in a post-apocalyptic future, both and ape and human society remains rigidly patriarchal. *Sigh*

Oh, and did I mention that are some great action scenes with giant explosions? The film begins with an assault on Caesar’s camp, and ends with a climactic battle between opposing forces. While the Apes franchise is never trying to be The Fast and Furious, there’s enough action in here to be enjoyable.

Some may complain the 142 minute runtime is too long, it’s hard to say what deserved to be cut. A great movie can never be too long, and a bad one can never be over too quickly.

It’s worth noting that director and co-screenwriter Matt Reeves will next tackle Batman, taking over directing duties after Ben Affleck decided starring in and directing the film would be too much. Given Reeves’s work on the Apes film and his study of nuance and character, ability to weave action and dark characterization, The Bat should be in good hands.

As amazing as Spider-Man: Homecoming and Baby Driver have been, this, by the width of a chimp’s hair, is the best movie currently in theaters.

4.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Spider-Man: Homecoming is the Spider-Man movie you have been waiting for

Greetings, True Believers! Rest assured– Spider-Man: Homecoming is the Spider-Man movie you have been waiting for.

When we last left our friendly neighborhood wall-crawler, he made a small, but memorable, appearance in last summer’s Captain America: Civil War. He stole Cap’s shield, and basically the entire movie, in just a couple of scenes.

Our film opens with a video diary from his point of view of everything that happened in Germany. “a Film by Peter Parker” it says in courier script as he narrates, “Queens, New York. A rough borough, but it’s home.”

“Who are you talking to?” an irate Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) asks from the driver’s seat, as he puts up the privacy divider in the car to stop being pestered by the teen’s questions: “Why do they call you Happy?”

As Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) drops Peter Parker (Tom Holland) off at his Queens apartment, he tells him, “Can’t you be more of a. . .  friendly neighborhood Spider-Man? . . . Just don’t do anything I would do. And definitely don’t do anything I wouldn’t do. There’s a little gray area in there– and that’s where you operate.”

And there is no better summation of how this movie fits in with the broader Marvel Cinematic Universe. Those movies span the globe– the universe, even– and this is a story that is mostly confined to Queens and a single school field trip to Washington, DC. Instead of this being about fighting a galactic menace, he’s focused on the people robbing the ATM in his neighborhood or a stolen bike. The Avengers handle the big stuff. Peter Parker handles the little stuff. Manhattan vs. Queens.

But, oh, he does not like that. At all. Every day he’s texting, asking when the next time they’ll need him is. He spends all of his time trying to prove himself, and when he bites off a little more than he can chew with Adrian Toomes aka the Vulture (Michael Keaton), we actually see what a screw-up he is. No, he isn’t ready for the big time, and that’s perhaps the hardest lesson of adolescence.

But one of the best things they did right in this movie is what they don’t do. There’s no origin story of being bitten by a radioactive spider. No Uncle Ben. And while I kind of wanted to see Spidey being motivated by his great power and great responsibility, this just isn’t that story. This is the teenager who wants to grow up too fast. It’s the MCU colliding with John Hughes. The simple fact that there are two very obvious homages to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (one right after the other in case you didn’t get the first one) tells you that’s exactly what they’re going for. And they nail it. I can’t decide if this is a reason I dislike the film or that I like it so much, but it’s that it’s so full of teen angst. And that’s a bold move for a superhero genre movie to stray so far from the formula of what we expect in a reboot.

I only briefly mentioned Keaton before, but he is the real breakout star of this movie. (Insert obligatory Birdman joke). Possibly other than Loki he’s the best MCU villain– because he’s not a bad guy. He starts off a normal guy who gets stepped on and decides to use stolen space technology to provide for his family. Even his name makes sense– the Vulture– because he’s picking the scraps off of whatever fight The Avengers and SHIELD just had. 

But he’s menacing. A scene near the end reminds you just how amazing an actor Keaton is. You can almost see the gears in his head turning as he figures things out. And he also has a sense of honor about what he’s doing. But despite his bluster about being against the 1%– let’s be super real, here. We find out he’s doing just fine financially. Yes, he’s worried about providing for his family, but he provides for them in a pretty upper-middle-class way. There’s something to be said here about the rise of the Trump voter and the fear of loss of privilege. . .  but I’ll save that diatribe until more people have had a chance to see the movie and can discuss this in more depth with spoilers.

This is not to say the film is flawless. Again, the emphasis on teen angst was certainly intended, but I would’ve liked to see the other side of the character. And as many comedic moments as there are in the film, none were quite as memorable as some of the Joss Whedon or James Gunn moments from The Avengers or Guardians of the Galaxy, or even the most recent Thor: Ragnarok trailer. And a final nighttime action sequence set against the black sky on top of a dark stealth aircraft made the action harder to see and follow. See this in the best theater with the best contrast you possibly can.

This is the Spider-Man movie we’ve all wanted to see. And it’s a great reminder that Marvel Studios understands their characters better than anyone else out there. This should be a wakeup call to Fox or anyone else who has a languishing piece of the Marvel intellectual property– please let Marvel Studios co-produce your next Fantastic Four movie. They might make it not suck. Because Spider-Man: Homecoming does anything but that.

4 out of 5 stars

 

Movie Review: Despicable Me 3: Family, Fun, and Hollywood’s Sequel Obsession

The only thing more inevitable in Hollywood than a sequel to a popular franchise is a sequel to a popular children’s franchise. And so we have the fourth movie surrounding supervillain Gru (Steve Carell), his Minions, and his rapidly expanding family. Despicable Me 3 finds Gru fired from his job at the Anti-Villain League for failing in to bring in 80’s obsessed former child star Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker), whose schemes involve him acting out the tv show he starred in as a child as. . . a child supervillain.

Down on his luck, he is contacted by a long-long and mega-rich twin brother Dru (also Carell), who wants him to rejoin the family legacy of supervillainy. Meanwhile, his wife Lucy (Kristen Wiigis trying to bond with their adopted daughters and become as much of a super mom as she is a super spy.

Sibling rivalry, daddy issues, mommy issues. . . they’re all in there. Oh, and plenty of the Minions doing their typical schtick for everyone who loves that.

It’s not a perfect film, or anything really groundbreaking, but it’s enjoyable and will make children squeal with laughter while not annoying or boring parents. Indeed, many of the 80’s throwback jokes seem tailor-made for adults, though broad enough that it doesn’t completely go over kids’ heads.

But where these films have always succeeded is in having a great heart. This has always come from the three little girls who stole Gru’s heart in the first film, and they continue to do the same here. A specific highlight comes from Agnes and her search for a supposed real-life unicorn. Even better comes from the emotional payoff of Lucy finally bonding with her adopted girls. If your heart doesn’t cry just a little bit, you may be a supervillain yourself.

The film all ends with a spectacular action sequence of Balthazar Bratt literally attacking Hollywood in a giant robot in a re-enactment of one of his classic tv episodes. You can’t help but feel there is a little bit of commentary here about Hollywood’s lack of creativity and insistence on recycling and rebooting everything coming to destroy the city, a literal robot covering it in literal sticky-sweet bubble gum. Or maybe it’s just a fun action sequence: one which other big budget directors could take some cues from in terms of pacing, excitement, and–most of all–fun.

There’s nothing earth-shattering here, but given your others choices in theaters right now (shudder. . .  Transformers. And the snoozefest cashgrab that is Cars 3) you could do much worse. And if you liked the previous movies, there is a nearly perfect probability you will enjoy this one, too.

3 out of 5 stars

Grimlock Reviews Transformers: The Last Knight

Three years ago, unable to cope with the awfulness that was the last Transformers movie, I outsourced my review to Grimlock, King of the Dinobots. Feeling similarly stricken and unable to comment on what I’ve just seen, I again phoned my old pal and asked him to help me review this one.

Me Grimlock, angry about new Transformers movie.

Michael Bay take hundreds of millions of dollars and blow them up and still make it look boring! Why can you no make Transformers fun?

Grimlock fun. Dinobots fun. Grimlock only in movie for five minutes. Decepticons attack Autobots in abandoned junkyard in Badlands, North Dakota. Dinobots there! Dinobots can fight! But no– Michael Bay move action to abandoned small town. Somehow ghost town in North Dakota have two giant art deco skyscrapers. Why? What small town is this? And why heroes going there? And why they go up into building to flee Decepticons? So Marky Mark Wahlberg can fall out of giant elevator? Even Grimlock with small brain understand that dumb.

This movie have more plotholes than explosions. And it have lots of explosions! They just not fun.

And no think Grimlock just sour grapes he not in movie. You know who else not in movie much? Optimus Prime. Why?!?! Me King Grimlock, but me know fan favorite and franchise leader! Why no Prime? When Prime fight in finale, it good movie. But stupid movie decide that it better for Prime to be on Cybertron most of movie, and then somehow he tricked into being bad guy when he come back? Grimlock small dinobot brain, but even Grimlock know that super dumb.

Everyone in movie dumb. No one smart. Even smart English people like Anthony Hopkins not smart. He what stupid person think smart person is. And me Grimlock know what stupid people think. He also have Transformer butler, played by Jim Carter— he also butler on Downton Abbey. He and Anthony Hopkins best part of movie, and they try to have fun, but it just not enough. Michael Bay make Grimlock hate Downton Abbey. Grimlock will murder Michael Bay for this.

Hopkins tells everyone Merlin and King Arthur work with Transformers, make secret society that protect secret of Transformers on Earth. That dumb. Everyone look for Merlin staff because it actually Transformer powerful object that can restore Cybertron, but would kill Earth. Who care?!? It big space macguffin. So is “important” talisman Marky Mark find. It not important. Just stupid. Movie need actual plot.

In other Transformer movie, at least there some big action scene that fun. Nothing fun here. Only stupid. Only explosion. It not offensive same way Stepin Fetchit robots were in Revenge of the Fallen, or ruin childhood like Leonard Nimoy in Dark of the Moon. Those movies aggressively bad. But this also not have anything good in it. Boring. Need more Dinobots. Needs more Optimus Prime.

Grimlock want his two and a half hours back.

1 star out of 5

Movie Review: Wonder Woman

“You can save the world.” Those words are spoken by Chris Pine who plays Steve Trevor in Wonder Woman, the latest superhero comic adaptation film that debuts in theaters this week and has all eyes on it for a long list of reasons. While those words focus on Wonder Woman’s role in the film it can also be taken as a statement about the movie as a whole which has the potential to transform cinema or become an excuse that’ll damn it for decades to come. I can’t think of a movie that has more pressure on it and has the potential to shape cinema like this film does.

Played by Gal Gadot, Wonder Woman is the film that many are looking towards to see if DC Comics and Warner Bros. can right their cinematic universe, whether a woman can headline such film and turn it into a blockbuster, and if so how much of a blockbuster can it be. It has the potential to shatter a ceiling that has plagued women led action films and especially comic films which have been dominated by testosterone. And, much like the rocks on the side of a tower as she climbs it, Gadot, director Patty Jenkins, and everyone involved crushes it delivering a film that while not super, delivers consistent entertainment that is one of the best origin story comic adaptations released by any company.

Wonder Woman is fun. Wonder Woman will have you cheering. Wonder Woman will put a smile on your face. Wonder Woman delivers the summer experience and leaves you wanting more and wondering why we’ve waited so long.

Much like Batman v Superman, Wonder Woman is framed through Bruce Wayne picking up from that film and the mysterious photo from World War I. Through that narrative we’re taken through an adventure that begins with Diana at a young age and her growing up until a mysterious individual crash lands in the waters off the shore of their island. Man has found their land of Themyscira the magical and hidden land of the Amazons. With war looming we learn of the mission of the Amazons, to protect the world from Ares who may or may not be behind the “War to End All Wars.”

The use of World War I as the setting, as opposed to World War II like some suggest, shows some of the intelligence that went into the film as the details, no matter how subtle, that create a film that soars. World War I provides the setting and helps with the theme of the birth of technology on many levels as technology is part of the enemy here embodied in Dr. Maru played by Elena Anaya. That extends to the world of the Amazons being shaken by the introduction of man and their technology easily represented by the bows versus guns battle that really kicks the film up a notch and Diana having to enter that new world to save it and defeat Ares.

Again, it’s the details that makes this film soar with its feminism firmly in place. Diana, as she’s introduced to the world of man, questions its norms through her actions, her words, the looks on her face. This is a warrior who fights for equality and freedom and has a pure innocence that radiates. She questions why a woman is a secretary. She questions why a room is just of men. She questions why she’s not allowed to speak up. She’s a stranger in a strange land and through her we’re shown that all of mankind is corrupted in different ways. She’s similar to Leeloo in the Fifth Element in a way. Innocence as a warrior who will save the world from a god.

But, what might have surprised me most is the film’s comedic tones to it all. While it could easily have taken a serious tone in lecturing the evils of man, instead, much of that is addressed through comedy. Much of that is just through Gadot’s actions and facial expressions showing this actress can do more than kick ass. She was surprisingly funny, not something I’ve ever seen in the previous action films I’ve seen her in. She’s helped by Pine who brings his usual charm but Gadot also plays off the brilliants cast including Lucy Davis, Ewen Bremner, Saïd Taghmaoui, and Eugene Brave Rock, with whom the film turns into a version of the Dirty Dozen.

Visually the film is engrossing from the varied Amazonians to a diverse cast, here the use of colors is deliberate taking place mostly in the drab mechanical world contrasted with the beauty of Diana’s homeland. While some have complained of the pallette choices of previous DC films, this one it adds depth and to the story.

Not everything is perfect though, the film falls a little flat in the final boss battle, though almost all comic adaptations have fallen flat in similar ways. The genre hasn’t overcome that villain in storytelling, yet. The story also has a little too much Steve Trevor who acts as Diana’s guide throughout the film and while their missions are on similar paths, at least aren’t one and the same.

95% of the film is fantastic and while it doesn’t do anything superb, it does everything to such a level I left entertained in a way I haven’t been at a film in a long time. This is one of the best comic origin stories to have been released and one of the best comic films to be released hands down from any company. The crowd cheered at the end with smiles, laughter, and energy buzzing about. Wonder Woman defeats the villain in the end but also feels like it will shatter the box office in many ways.

Overall Rating: 9.5

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