by Philip Price
Director Patrick Hughes has three directorial credits to his name; one I've never seen, another the watered down third installment in the ‘Expendables’ franchise, and a third in this late-in-the-summer entry cleverly titled “The Hitman's Bodyguard” that seems intent on capitalizing on the penchant of its two stars for choosing cheap and easy over challenging and risky. Such choices typically provide audiences a few laughs and producers failed financial returns so why Lionsgate thought this might be the exception to the rule is uncertain. Whether it be Ryan Reynolds in disasters like “R.I.P.D.” or the mildly intriguing but woefully undercooked “Self/less” to that of Samuel L. Jackson in any number of the projects he tends to choose in between Tarantino and Marvel flicks the fact of the matter is it seemed obvious what we were getting into from the moment the first trailer for “The Hitman's Bodyguard” was released no matter how much of a surprise it might have felt like it could potentially be. Sure, the premise is cute, but sole screenwriter Tom O'Connor does little to nothing with the main idea and mostly puts the naturally charismatic personas of Jackson and Reynolds into tired buddy cop scenarios that result in a stale story and a bland experience that is neither consistently funny enough for us to excuse its formulaic narrative or dark enough to challenge us in unexpected ways. This brings to light the real issue going on within “The Hitman's Bodyguard” in that it doesn't have a real idea of what it wants to be. Rather, Hughes pulls O'Connor's obviously uneven script in so many different directions that it ultimately fails to succeed in any one of the many genres and/or styles it attempts. I'd like to imagine that Hughes really thought he was pulling off something special and legitimately fun by getting back to the kind of balls to the wall, abundance of blood, unafraid to show death in spades-type action movies that Steven Seagal, Nicolas Cage, or even Harrison Ford might have made twenty some odd years ago, but while Hughes shows us these tendencies time and time again they are either executed so poorly they render themselves empty or they don't lean far enough into any one genre so as to play to the strengths of the tropes of that genre-remaining somewhere in the middle of all these things it wants to be without actually being any of those things. Honestly, it will be a wonder if the film leaves any impression on viewers other than how its use of soundtrack rivals that of last year's summer movie season closer, “Suicide Squad.” That's the only thing I'm still laughing about; its blatant disregard for how such tools are supposed to be utilized which, coincidentally, effectively summarizes the root cause of everything that goes wrong in this movie.
The film begins by informing us Reynolds' Michael Bryce, a AAA rated executive protection agent, is very good at his job until he's not. An opening montage treats us to Bryce saying farewell to an Asian arms dealer-believing he has successfully completed his job-only to see that status come crumbling down in the blink of an eye. Cut to two years later and Bryce is serving as protection for coked out attorneys who have him driving around in cars that smell like ass and blaming his ex-girlfriend, Interpol agent Amelia Roussel (Elodie Yung), for his steep decline in credibility as he believes it was her who gave out the information it was he who was protecting the highly sought after Asian arms dealer. While Bryce is drowning himself in his tears of misery (and probably warm apple juice as well) Amelia is out kicking butt and taking names or, in other words, doing what she can to climb the ladder at Interpol the only way she knows how which, one would think would seemingly be through hard work, determination, and all that jazz. Amelia is getting the opportunity of a lifetime where she might display her aptitude for such work when Interpol director Jean Foucher (Joaquim de Almeida) places her in charge of transporting Darius Kincaid (Jackson), a well-known hitman whose reputation precedes him, from his holding cell to a court hearing where he is set to testify against an evil Eastern European dictator named Vladislav Dukhovich (Gary Oldman). Kincaid has agreed to testify against Dukhovich only on the terms that his wrongfully accused wife, Sonia (Salma Hayek), will be set free to which Foucher and his Interpol superior, Renata Casoria (Tine Joustra), agree to. As these things go though, Amelia's caravan is hijacked by a gaggle of assassins that seemingly only know where Kincaid is due to an inside man on the Interpol side of things. Narrowly escaping the ambush Amelia and Kincaid flee to a safe house where, due to the fact her agency has been infiltrated, Amelia swallows her pride and contacts an outsider in the form of ex-boyfriend Bryce in hopes that he might agree to finish escorting Kincaid from the United Kingdom to the International Court of Justice in the Netherlands. Bryce agrees on the condition Amelia restore his triple A rating and thus we're off where laughs and action should ensue. If you know the drill you can probably guess how this thing plays out.
There is something the movie tries to get at concerning how we see ourselves as the hero or as the villain as both Reynolds and Jackson's characters see themselves equally sharing the hero spotlight, but who view each other as an archetypal antagonist to their honorable intentions. In this effort, neither of the marquee stars do anything that make their efforts shine above the other-in fact, Reynolds and Jackson are very much on the same wavelength about what type of movie they are in and how they are cultivating the obvious arc their two characters will follow, but Jackson gets more of the genuine laughs whereas Reynolds is asked to play Bryce as this uptight, by the book-type of bodyguard that is essentially a control freak. In playing up this angle of Bryce's personality Reynolds is then kind of forced into this persona that isn't inherently funny or sarcastic which is where the actor's strengths lie (and this is the kind of movie that should play to everyone's strengths), but more Reynolds is supposed to be the guy who does funny things on accident or is funny because the audience is laughing at his ridiculous tendencies and not because the character himself is a funny guy. This relegates Reynolds to something of an awkward balance for most of the film while Jackson can play the free-wheeling, dirty-mouthed, fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants renegade anyone purchasing a ticket to this movie expects him to be. Jackson, being the kind of indestructible smartass as well as the more senior member of the duo, has the upper hand in the relationship and thus lands more of the laughs due to little more than him finding a handful of different ways to emphasize the words we've all come to love to hear the man say. Jackson also gets some solid scenes with Hayek who plays somewhat against type in the film as Kincaid's equally potty-mouthed wife who is sitting in prison with a poor excuse of a cellmate that she tortures despite the fact we're to believe she is innocent of whatever crimes she has been charged with. And while it is fun to see both Hayek and Jackson let themselves go it is a pity Reynolds wasn't given better material to work with based on the traits imposed on him. Also, criminally wasted here is Oldman who, as the true villain of the piece, is barely utilized and asked to do little more than put on a fake Russian accent and be as ruthless as one can imagine for a few scenes so that we have a third act conflict our two leads can agree needs to be finished in the same fashion. If you've seen a movie, any movie really, in the last few decades or so you'll know where “The Hitman's Bodyguard” is headed, but this is mildly disappointing due only to the fact it seems O'Connor began with the intent of using a tried and true template to say something interesting about perspective and how a hero to some might not be a hero to all, but rather than thinking too hard about how to explore those more complex ideas in an action flick he decided to instead take the easy way out and adhere to what has come before.
“The Hitman's Bodyguard” could be equated to semi-flavorful junk food that revels in its abundance of f-bombs and bloody, bloody violence. The movie also looks terrible as most of it seems to have been shot on a green screen where the lighting is blown out in hopes of hiding any discretions between the actors and the background. This is not without exception as there are two bonkers action scenes near the end of the film including a boat chase and a single shot hand-to-hand combat scene that would have worked to the films advantage were it to explore those previously mentioned themes, but again-the movie takes the easy way out. Of course, it's not totally the easy way because, as stated, the movie tries to have it both ways-dare I even say three ways, but it doesn't exceed in any facet. The movie wants to be this ballistic action film while on the other hand it has ties to being a dark comedy and while it certainly goes to some dark places it is never funny enough to make us feel comfortable to laugh at the situations it presents. Also, it's just not that funny. There are a few inspired moments courtesy of the chemistry between Reynolds and Jackson but mostly this is an excuse for Lionsgate to show off how many music rights they can put it in one film and how they can make all that money back plus some with a generic actioner in the middle of August that stars Deadpool. “The Hitman's Bodyguard” is one of those movies where you're happy people were paid and got jobs on a film of such scale, but at the same time wish the studio might have spent the money on something a little more worthwhile; a little more substantial or at the very least a little more entertaining. Add to the dark comedy/bloody action thriller aspects the fact the film tries to also throw in a little genuine heart, but instead of offering a way in which this weird hybrid might work this too only plays as false as we are never genuinely made to care about any of these characters. The worst part of trying to cram so much into a rather flat presentation is that it feels like it overstays its welcome. There is literally no need for the movie to feature the final action sequence it does because all it does is undo the momentum the previously, well-executed action scene provided. Hughes can't seem but to take advantage of his top notch cast and egregious green screen for a few more minutes though, as he allows Jackson to toss out a few more expletives as well as deal a death wish that I still can't tell whether it was meant to be as intentionally cheesy-looking as it did or not. It's evident from about the time Jackson shows up that this is not going to be a quality cinematic experience, but rather one that we'll soon forget if not because there aren't glimpses of the movie trying to do something with its fun premise, but because it is largely executed so poorly.
by Philip Price
It's not what “A Ghost Story” is saying, but how it says it. Like chimes gently rustling in the wind or chills slowly creeping up your arms “A Ghost Story” somehow manages to give a sense of being so distant you're not one hundred percent sure what is causing the noise or the feeling, but at the same time it feels so deeply personal and so intimately cutting that deep down in your soul you know what it is. You know it's the wind, but you imagine something more ethereal. You know it's the melody of the song you're listening to, but you imagine it's because the singer is speaking directly to you; into your ear. It's difficult to describe past these dumbfounded attempts at articulating something meaningful just how much “A Ghost Story” hits you-that is, if it hits you. While it's difficult to describe all the emotions and thoughts this latest film from David Lowery (“Ain't Them Bodies Saints”) left me with I realize it will be just as difficult for some people to understand what the movie is, what it's trying to do, or what the big deal is at all. And in many regards, this is understandable. This is a very quiet film-a film where people don't communicate and we, the audience, must discern what is happening and what is being felt from that non-verbal communication. We must allow Lowery and his 4:3 aspect ratio images to wash over us in a way that requires a fair amount of patience. If patient, the film seemingly speaks to you. If not, there is no need to waste your time on it. For me though, “A Ghost Story” worked in stages in that at first, I was curious; never knowing where the story might lead or what might happen to the characters we see come in and out of the picture. Then, once the structure began to take shape, it became about the ideas-the themes of subjective spirituality, the concept of time and how it's the one thing we can't get more of no matter how rich we are, or the pain of dealing with loss and death and the inevitable nothingness everyone's future is likely to be, but that we hope and pray it's not. It's bleak. It's very bleak and it's very sad in how it captures small truths about life and the relationships we form while we're here. It's a film I find difficult to comprehend fully and thus is likely the reason it continues to resonate with me even days after seeing it and having watched several other films since. I keep returning to images, to sounds, and to the thoughts it instigated in my brain. It's a movie not for everyone, but if you find it's for you it's something special.
Lowery’s film opens with a quote from Virginia Woolf’s short story A Haunted House that, very much like Lowery’s film itself, is both easy and difficult to summarize. While one could simply describe “A Ghost Story” as that of the story of Casey Affleck’s unnamed character passing away during a relationship and his search in the after-life to come to some comprehension of the meaning of his previous existence it could also easily be described as so much more than that. Yes, we see Affleck and Rooney Mara co-exist as a couple for a short time before Affleck’s unexpected death and there are implications of arguments and issues, but nothing major that might set them on different paths the way his death so abruptly does. And while the scenes in which Lowery depicts the grief of Mara’s character and the achingly sad ways in which she copes (or doesn’t) it is when she ultimately goes against what Affleck’s character wished for them after his death that the movie does something even more interesting and frankly unexpected. While films certainly shouldn’t be judged or held against any personal expectation it is almost always a strange sensation when a film goes against such expectations in a way that improves upon those initial presumptions held by the viewer. This is what “A Ghost Story” so expertly does once it completes the arc one expects the entire movie to encapsulate based on the marketing. Time is very clearly a big theme here in that time is our most valued possession on this earth and that despite trying to find things to fill it, loves to make it more meaningful, and art to try and understand it-this concept of time, this structured thing that was never meant to be understood remains elusive. It comes to present this cyclical idea of time through its structure with only a single, heavy-handed scene on dialogue to reinforce such ideas, but beyond this preachy point it seems most audience members, if on board with the movie by that point anyway, will have caught what Lowery is laying down and are already willing to go along with his approach. Lowery’s script comforts us with the idea there might be finite points when trying to comprehend or organize the universe and how it deals in dispersing this heavy yet intangible presence, but what that screenplay does most effectively with time is give the audience a fair amount of it in between certain actions being taken that allow us to contemplate and consider what the film is saying as well as to fill in the gaps with our own personal experiences which, by default, makes the film feel that much more personal. And it’s not that “A Ghost Story” is completely meditative as there are things happening and we remain intrigued and invested because there truly is no telling where Lowery’s narrative could potentially go because it could seemingly go anywhere.
What is most endearing about “A Ghost Story” though is clear from very early on as the writer/director introduces us to this setting, this place that, coincidentally, almost feels trapped in time while Daniel Hart’s haunting score plays like a theme to a much bigger, more cataclysmic film-the juxtaposition of the serene images and large ideas being implemented early. In one of the first scenes of the film we see Mara’s character pulling a piece of furniture to the end of the driveway so that they might get rid of it; to notify a passer-by they are more than welcome to it if so desired. It is everything about this single shot be it the house itself, the flat and scruffy yard, down to the small detail most likely won’t take note of in that Mara’s character hasn’t fully put her shoes on, but rather has slipped her feet as much into them as she could while walking out the front door that grabs you. Granted, this comes with the caveat of wanting to be taken by the film as there is a need to look willingly for things all might not see to make a piece of “A Ghost Story” your own. There is an authenticity to everything this picture is painting, especially if you’re familiar with such terrain and the habits formed out of it. This continues as we’re welcomed inside the house and into the relationship of Affleck and Mara’s characters as he will drift in and out of conversations as if to suggest he isn’t as focused on their relationship as he maybe should be or she will give side glances where it never reveals what she’s looking at or allows her to speak so as to explain what she’s thinking, but instead the film lets us soak in these moments and decide for ourselves what might be going on internally-little truths that might bring our focus and thoughts around to moments in our own lives akin to such scenarios or circumstances. This speaks to the biggest thread that runs throughout the film as we see Mara’s character repainting the house she and Affleck shared before moving out and in before painting over a crack in the molding of a doorway she takes a small piece of paper, writes something on it, and places inside the wall of the house. It becomes the ghost at the center of this story’s objective to retrieve this note and yet it is left up to the viewer to decipher the real meaning. There is a similar moment where, soon after Affleck’s character dies that Mara’s character returns to the home they shared together and does something as small as throw a few pieces of mail away, but in doing so notices something in the trash. What she sees could be any number of things that remind her of this man who has suddenly left her life when not a week ago he made up so much of it. It could be nothing more than what it is likely the last thing he ever threw away, but the point is we get to decide how emotionally wrecked her character is by what she sees and this option is very much what the film gives the viewer as well. You can choose to be wrecked by it or not-it depends on how much meaning you attach to certain things and I, personally, attached much meaning to these proceedings.
While these ideas and themes become the nutrition of what might at first seem to be a somewhat scant meal what is almost more impressive is how Lowery is able to use the limited range of tools at his disposal to convey such atmosphere and a dream-like quality to his movie; creating an aura that allows the film to speak a language all its own. Of course, most noticeable is the framing of the film and how Lowery utilizes this now uncommon aspect ratio to make it feel as if, at least on the big screen (and I’m happy I saw this on the big screen), we’re peaking in on this couple-watching something we’re not really supposed to see. That’s the level of personal we feel we attain with this couple and later the spirit of one half of this couple. I’ve heard others say this choice of aspect ratio makes it feel as if we’re watching old home movies, but the perception is the same- “A Ghost Story” feels like portions of someone's life that were filmed, but maybe never meant to be viewed or cut together in the way a traditional feature is. It's a movie that isn’t constructed with typical story beats in mind either, but rather a way of materializing scenes and theories that explain what we all tend to "sense". In having to illustrate such elusive and sometimes hard to explain emotions Lowery takes advantage of Hart's aforementioned score in one of the handful of ways the director allows himself to play into the tropes of a genre horror film as, initially, the score will take you off guard and leave you confused and wondering if something isn't wrong with the audio in the theater only to crescendo at this moment of pure confusion for what we'll call the protagonist despite him being anything but your conventional hero. This is to say that Lowery uses several elements to not only make the experience more enthralling, but to further emphasize the emotions that are being felt on screen. Beyond this, there are of course a few qualms with the picture that keep me from scoring the film 10s across the board, but these largely should do with some silly moments that took me out of the experience rather than providing the temporary respite or slight comic relief they are likely intended to be. There are a few sequences that feature ghost subtitles that are just a little too goofily disruptive for what the rest of the movie is trying to accomplish while the scene featuring a prognosticator spewing a monologue set to the sounds of a dollar tree pop song gave the sense Lowery wasn't completely sure his audience would catch his drift. Trust me, Lowery-we did. I didn't need ghost convos or speculative explanations to make me feel better about the deeply sad ideas your movie explores. Strangely enough, I was comforted by the conclusions you seemed to draw in the meditative parts of your film that, while heartbreaking in many ways, gave me the chills...but, you know, the good kind.
by Philip Price
If you thought the sound design in “Dunkirk” was crazy effective wait until you get a load of Kathryn Bigelow's “Detroit.” That isn't to say one is more effective than the other, but both utilize their environments and the sounds that resonate most within those environments to help push the visceral experience of both films to the next level. A level that indeed truly transcends the space and time of where one might be viewing the film and places you among the riots of the summer of 1967 where fear, uncertainty, and chaos ran rampant. I open with such a statement not to emphasize the technical aspects over everything else in a film as important and timely as “Detroit” to draw attention away from the tough and difficult subject matter at hand, but more to begin a dialogue about why the movie itself becomes equally effective and affecting. It is through this portal of sound, of genuine gunshot smatterings that ring out at any given point in the movie and make you feel not only as if you’re in the room with these characters, but are then also inherently placed in the headspace of someone such as Larry Reed (portrayed by newcomer Algee Smith), a singer and aspiring musician who just so happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is interesting, seeing how writer Mark Boal’s (“The Hurt Locker,” “Zero Dark Thirty”) screenplay brings several strands of characters, historical situations, and themes together into a single, encapsulating experience, but while we don’t meet Larry Reed until just prior to the events that the film dedicates its biggest chunk of time to it is his arc that we become most enamored with in many ways due largely to the fact he faces a wider variety of obstacles in terms of difficult choices as well as attempting to comprehend a life that seemingly has everything he ever hoped for stripped away in the matter of a handful of hours. That also said, “Detroit” is not about a single character, but more it is about how far away we still are from things being easy even if it would seem we’ve overcome so much in the fifty years since these infamous riots. As a piece of entertainment, Bigelow’s film isn’t something to be recommended for the experience which it entails, but rather because it is a heavy experience that needs to be known about and acknowledged. “Detroit” is about acknowledgment and about asking not why this happened in the past-we know why it happened-but rather if we’re doing today what we need to be doing to prevent as much from happening again. “Detroit” is a reminder we’re not doing as well as we should be in case you couldn’t tell already.
Beginning on Sunday, July 23, 1967 Bigelow and Boal first demonstrate the event that tipped the black community of Detroit from that of being non-violent to that of fully endorsing the violence that was boiling beneath them when police raided a night club that was operating without a liquor license. This was a common practice currently; making it difficult for black business owners to attain such licenses so raids such as this one could be more frequent and the film implies this is something of a common occurrence-that there is reason as much became the tipping point. It was on this night that several African Americans were taken into custody and civil unrest became the response to constantly being picked on. There had naturally been years of activism prior to the riots in 1967 as this was the decade of the civil rights movement and while Bigelow and Boal's film doesn't touch on as much in specifics the film’s opening exposition is emblazoned upon the images akin to the works of great 20th century artist Jacob Lawrence. This portrayal, in many ways, brings the audience up to date on where the civil rights movement was in the summer of 1967 and how, at least in Detroit, there was no more room for patience-the opening grenade of a scene displaying not the seeds of an uprising, but the sprouting of as much. The time had come. There had been enough. This was the breaking point. In what would go on for five days 43 people would die, 1,189 would be injured, and 7,231 would be arrested. With “Detroit” though, Bigelow and Boal focus on a single event in order to paint the most vivid picture of evil and pure vitriol one could likely paint as they document the rampant racism on display in certain parts of the Detroit police force and other authoritative units at this point in history-the point of it all being to show how quickly a single person's life can change, how much their existence can be altered, and how no other human being should have the right to have this type of power or authority over another's future. Introducing a plethora of characters from that of different backgrounds and circumstances we get to know Smith's Larry and his younger counterpart Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore), the two young white girls they attempt to court once arriving at the Algiers, Julie (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever), the girls' good friend Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell) and some of his posse that includes Aubrey Pollard (Nathan Davis Jr.), as well as a retired vet known as Greene (Anthony Mackie). It is when Detroit police, state police, and the National Guard descend upon the Algiers that things take a turn for the even worse-the likes of city officers Krauss (Will Poulter), Flynn (Ben O'Toole) and Demens (Jack Reynor) essentially torturing these victims for the sake of their own amusement with only a thinly veiled justification holding their interrogation together.
The thing with Bigelow's film is that once it begins, it doesn't stop. It is relentless in its abrasiveness, but rightfully so. Only giving respite from the horrors we see unfold and the tension we hold in our kneecaps for a clear majority of the experience when the film enters its third act and becomes something of a courtroom drama to provide a kind of contextualization to the events that have preceded it. The standoff in the Algiers is the centerpiece of the film though, and the tension it holds for as long as it holds it is unreal. Bigelow is unflinching in her depiction of the violence that occurs between the three police officers the story homes in on, but this is all in service of an idea that Boal seems to be chasing and attempting to materialize from the moment Smith's Larry Reed is introduced as a somewhat cocky, but undeniably passionate performer whose only dream is to be able to get on stage and showcase his groups talent in front of Motown producers. This dream is thwarted when the audience is asked to disperse due to the rioting outside making its way to the front steps of the theater. As a quarter of the group The Dramatics, Larry as well as Fred become separated from the rest of their group and decide to flee to the Algiers until the fighting blows over. It is in this centerpiece of the movie where Larry and Fred become the central focus of a corrupt police investigation that Larry and the others alongside him have their humanity stripped away in a fashion where none of them will ever be the same, but kind of most notably that Larry will never again be that eager young man who only wants to be on stage to fulfill his own ambitions no matter the cost. This incident in which we see Poulter's despicable Krauss physically and mentally torture and exhaust Larry, Fred, Julie, Karen, Carl, Aubrey, and Greene among others is made to repulse; it is made to paint a picture of the power trip entitled protectors can take on and instead become the predators of those who should be relying on them for the exact opposite. Bigelow's camera never stopping long enough to give a sense of calm, but more the arrogance of the officers so unbelievable and the submission of the victims so infuriating you want to explode sitting in your comfy theater chair-the visceral quality the movie expels making it feel like anything but. As “Detroit” explodes with conflict, tension, and anger in every scene, the pulse of the film beating as consistently and as rhythmically as James Newton Howard's score we are unflinchingly wrapped up in the harrowing events that are taking place in front of us. What makes “Detroit” so special is that this is not only a film about police brutality or about depicting violence against black men for the sake of exploitation or a blunt reminder of why movies like this are necessary if not enjoyable, but “Detroit” is also a film that very skillfully layers in the unseen and unmentioned complexities of each of the characters involved-every scenario bringing a new coat to the table and introducing other perspectives we might not have previously considered. In this regard, “Detroit” is a masterwork in conveying genuine emotion and evaluations of our existence through the visual medium, but as a statement on where we've been, where we are, and where we're going it feels like a piece that should be as awe-inspiring for its technical approach as it is the emotions it invokes.
In deciding what and who to focus on Bigelow and Boal paint as broad a picture being as precise as they can and this works in their favor when the objective is seemingly to evoke an emotional response from those viewing the film. That the film does evoke a response at all be it one of sadness, anger, or disappointment says much for the construction of the two and half hour epic and the techniques utilized to bring such disturbing events and individual moments to the screen, but the effectiveness of the final product no doubt owes just as much to the performances and the actors fulfilling these undoubtedly difficult tasks as it does the methods in which they are captured. To summarize, “Detroit” is something of a perfect storm of craft and method. Smith stealing the show as his character of Larry Reed comes to take on the most stunning arc in terms of revelatory moments in the wake of his experiences. In both Boal’s decision to show the energy of the young man Larry was prior to the events at the Algiers, to showing his temperament and actions during, and then of course to the devastating repercussions that experience leave on the life he never planned on having, but ended up living because of that single, fateful night both the screenwriter and Smith deliver a portrait of how these larger, societal events came down to affecting a single soul while simultaneously including those necessary bigger picture elements. Poulter, who most will recognize for his comedic turn in We’re the Millers, pulls off a terrifying and genuinely demented performance as he taps into a frame of mind that seems to truly believe that the actions he is taking are for the betterment of the black community-that this riot is the result of the police not doing their jobs as well as they should have. It’s as if Poulter’s Krauss believes there are good, wholesome, well-intentioned black people out there, but that none of them live in Detroit for as soon as he sees a looter he is running after them not hesitating to shoot them in the back. The worst type of villains is those who believe their actions are justifiable and Krauss, who sways the overly impressionable Demens and impresses Flynn enough to embrace his own racist tendencies, believes whole-heartily that what he is doing will for one reason or another benefit the city and protect the people who deserve to be protected. This, of course, is from the perspective of a guy who makes negative assumptions about every single black person he comes in contact with, even that of Dismukes (John Boyega), a security officer that stumbles upon the scene at the Algiers and is put in the unfortunate situation of having to try and bring a balance to the situation and the measures Krauss is taking to try and elicit a confession out of those he has in custody.
Krauss was no doubt a man born into a line of thought that was literally black and white and that perception has failed to adapt despite times changing and his mind supposedly evolving. Boal attempts to give even Krauss, the undeniable antagonist of the piece, added layers of context to possibly understand him better, but this still leads back to the fact he is, by all accounts, a racist who is ignorant for being just that. As for Boyega’s Dismukes this is a man who we see caught in the crossfire and while the marketing might have played up Boyega’s involvement he is largely a supporting player whose role is utilized to comment on the unnecessary line black people in positions of authority had to walk during that time. That said, Dismukes is based on a real person and the events chronicled in the film are seemingly true to life in that there is of course little justice to be had from a system that is largely flawed, but has become too big to turn back on now. If there was any thought by remorseful white people in the audience, such as myself, that there might be some redemption in the idea cops like Krauss were more an exception than the rule the third act of the film is here to clarify that no, the problem was and still is much bigger than a few bad apples. Change is always inevitable it’s just a question of how and when the film reminds us in its opening scroll and while “Detroit” may not be as tightly scripted as Boal’s previous effort or as insightful as the writer and director’s Best Picture-winner this is a film more searing and arguably more devastating than either “Zero Dark Thirty” or “The Hurt Locker” as in those films there was at least understandable cause for the violence and anger. In “Detroit” we see people allowing and inflicting harm on those doing no harm and it’s difficult to comprehend that we live in a world where what this could happen never mind the fact it’s still happening today.
by Philip Price
It seems like there have been rumblings of a Dark Tower adaptation for as long as my memory will allow me to recall, but never did it seem as if a feature film version of the material would make its way to the big screen. Well, here we are, the summer movie season of 2017 winding down and the feature film version of what is said to be Stephen King's magnum opus of sorts, his most expansive series to date which now consists of eight novels, 4,250 pages, and introduces concepts and characters from King's many other works that come into play as the series progresses has arrived. The first volume in the The Dark Tower series, subtitled The Gunslinger, was published in 1982 and comprised itself of five short stories that had been published between 1978 and 1981 to which those stories have now been condensed down into a 95-minute, PG-13 would-be blockbuster that never takes off in the way it would seem it was always destined to. Rather, director Nikolaj Arcel's tight, but exposition-heavy film suggests there is much mythology left to be explored, but for one reason or another it was decided the Cliff Notes version was the best way to go out of the gate to no doubt make the movie on the cheap and hopefully as accessible for the uninitiated as it would be pleasing to the fans who've been waiting on it for twenty-five years. Sure, the film makes sense in the way that point A leads to point B which inevitably leads to a CGI heavy point C, but never do we feel compelled by anything that's going on, invested in any of the characters taking part, nor-as one of those uninitiated members in the audience-do we care to see the series continue which one might think would have been the key to Sony finally ponying up and making a ‘Dark Tower’ movie in a current world of shared cinematic universes. Truthfully though, it kind of fails to emphasize this factor at all. In many ways, one wants to commend the studio for telling a more contained story rather than baiting viewers with tease after tease so that they must come back for a sequel to see what they really wanted to see the first time around, but at the same time fans also want to see what they imagined while reading the source material come to life in a good movie and whether “The Dark Tower” is that is what's up for debate. “The Dark Tower” is not necessarily a bad movie, but it's not very good either. It's very much a middle of the road affair; not bad enough to hate, but not good enough to remember. Let's put it this way: the best thing you can say about “The Dark Tower” is that it's competent and the worst thing you can say is that it's uninspired.
The premise is interesting enough despite the movie itself feeling rather generic. We are introduced to the kid, Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), who is and always will be the smartest person in the room and just so happens to be having these vivid dreams of a man dressed in all black (Matthew McConaughey) who is parading around a futuristic dystopia collecting kids to try and use their minds to make the titular tower fall (that's some of that mythology we're told about up front, but is never elaborated on). This tower exists at the center of what is referred to as "mid-world" and apparently holds the universe together restricting whatever monsters and evil is outside the universe from coming into any of these existing worlds Also in Jake's dreams is a man dressed in a trench coat who carries a revolver and is able, for one reason or another (we don't know, we're never told), to resist the "magics" of the Man in Black. This man who we come to know as Roland (Idris Elba) was once a part of what seems to have been an elite and esteemed group of gunslingers that protected these many worlds from evils such as McConaughey's gleefully cheesy Man in Black. The crux of this whole deal though (or at least the first half hour) is the fact Jake believes these dreams to be real while his terrible mom, Laurie (Katheryn Winnick), and the even worse step-father she chose for her son in Lon (Nicholas Pauling) after his firefighter father Elmer (Karl Thaning) died in action think Jake is crazy. Laurie and Lon (these names! Elmer!) are sending Jake to a psychiatrist (José Zúñiga) who naturally believes these dreams and the distress they cause to stem from the loss of his father, but Jake knows he's not crazy and is intent on finding out what these dreams mean and where they might lead him. After locating a hidden portal in Brooklyn (it would have been really cool if they'd set this movie in 1977 New York) Jake travels to mid-world where he meets Roland, gets a ton of that aforementioned exposition dumped on him because the movie hardly has time to show us anything, as well as of course beginning to pull back the layers of who Roland is, where he came from (there's a quick sequence featuring Dennis Haysbert as his father), and then eventually onto how Roland's going to help Jake track down the Man in Black and stop him from destroying the tower and subsequently, our world.
In hindsight it seems apparent that if Sony really wanted “The Dark Tower” universe to work they would have poured in enough money to adapt four or five of the books into a trilogy or so of films that were all filmed simultaneously a la “The Lord of the Rings.” In fact, had Sony treated “The Dark Tower” property the same way New Line, WingNut, and The Saul Zaentz Company had treated J.R.R. Tolkien's holy grail of high fantasy adventures we might be looking at an entirely different situation. This goes as far as not pitching the film as a summer blockbuster, but a holiday event as well as hiring a director with more vision who might have brought something unique to what is undoubtedly a unique world as one can see the deep and fascinating aspects peering around the corners of what Arcel presents as a rather flat and monotone world. There are of course scenes here and there that look more visually impressive than others-the scenes during the day where Roland and Jake travel through mid-world come to mind-but other portions of the film look insanely cheap in their attempt to feel bigger than this film's budget would clearly allow for. This is getting away from the point though, with the point being that neither Arcel nor the writers for hire Sony assigned to this project have singular enough minds or strong enough intuition to guide a series such as “The Dark Tower” to what it could so clearly become. Granted, I haven't read the books so this assessment is based on what I've read about the books and what those who have read the books have told me. More, it is how those who have read the books have communicated how they felt about them meaning there is a consistent theme of passion and adoration for this world and these characters that the movie lacks completely. And the more one thinks about this the more the root of the issues seem to come from the screenplay which was written by a quartet of writers led by Akiva Goldsman (a frequent Ron Howard collaborator) and favors dialogue that does little more than explain the functions of the plot rather than cultivate actual human relationships we can believe in. Now, I know the job of a critic is not to critique a film based on what we hoped it to be versus what it turned out to be, but that's the thing with “The Dark Tower” - I had no hopes for what it might or might not be nor did I even really know what the story concerned outside of what the trailers told me. There was little to no expectation walking in and while, again, I didn't walk away thinking it was an unsalvageable dumpster fire I was more disappointed that what is so clearly present in the material if you read between the lines wasn't-and likely won't, at least any time soon-be given the chance to breathe and be fully realized.
All of this taken into consideration, “The Dark Tower” is a movie that probably wouldn't be too disappointing if one were to walk in off the hot and/or muggy summer streets into the cool, air-conditioned theater on a discount matinee day were they little more was required than a beginning, middle, and end with a few facts and details sprinkled in while condensing a plot down as tightly as it possibly could be to tell only what is necessary in a brisk hour and a half. While there is something to be said for brevity there is also something to be said for appropriateness and the type of compact, adhering to fantasy tropes for the sake of safety rather than exploration storytelling that “The Dark Tower” operates on just isn't a suitable set of circumstances for such economical movie-making. Like I said though, this isn't all bad and when the movie finally gets to its third act where Roland joins Jake in New York City there is a spike in the fun element as Elba does well to transition his up until that point stoic gunslinger into a still serious, but comical subject of a few fish out of water jokes. While this type of situational humor isn't fresh-hell, even the situation itself is something we've seen countless times before-these laughs are still worth noting because it's the first time the film garners any kind of reaction whatsoever. On top of this, as Jake and Roland's adventures in New York continue they come across a devastating revelation that is almost tangible in its brutality and again-makes you feel something as it evokes something akin to an emotional response. It's too bad these moments are too few and far between though for one can see the camaraderie between Elba and Taylor is one that could easily evolve into a more endearing partnership we might be willing to invest in while McConaughey is having a ball being the baddie. Is he a little over the top? Sure, but so is the score from Junkie XL. Is he in line with what most of readers imagined this demonic sorcerer to be? I have no idea, but I'm guessing probably not. Still, it's evident the charismatic actor is pouring a fair amount of grease into his performance and you can see it leaking out of his pores. It's sustainable fun-especially at only ninety minutes. Ultimately, “The Dark Tower” functions to serve its purpose just well enough. It's an average movie that very obviously comes from far more interesting material than was given credit for. Zipping through such dense mythology just hoping the audience understands what is going on rather than worrying about if it is immersing that audience in this new world “The Dark Tower,” while competent, ends up feeling like a rushed hatchet job from a studio that wanted to deliver something simple and straightforward rather than the layered and complex adaptation that King's novels seem to no doubt deserve.
by Philip Price
From director David Leitch, one half of the team that brought us the refreshing and uniquely packaged “John Wick” as well as the guy who is spearheading next year's “Deadpool 2,” comes “Atomic Blonde” - a female version of “John Wick” set in the ‘80s, with tons of ‘80s music, action, action, and starring Charlize Theron as the titular blonde who doesn't mind messing up her make-up if a cool soundtrack is laid over her walking away from her fights. Yeah, I'd love to see that movie. Who wouldn't, right? It would seem anyone who loves having a good time while sitting in an air-conditioned auditorium eating food that's not going to help you look like the people you're watching on screen (at all) and staring up at an expansive screen would be thrilled by the combo of Theron, ‘80s, and action. I was certainly psyched. And then...please! No "and then"! And then it happened. Yes, it happened. After an equally ecstatic and moody introduction to this world in which we'd be existing for the next two hours the movie rapidly descended into a rather slow-moving, narrative heavy slog that would only intermittently bring us a sequence where Theron's Lorraine Broughton could let loose. But boy, when Leitch and screenwriter Kurt Johnstad (“300”) allow their leading lady to show off she certainly doesn't disappoint. This is also what is ultimately so frustrating about “Atomic Blonde” as it rather frequently gives us glimpses of what it could have been, what it was advertised to be, and what it seemingly wants to be as the action scenes are inspired, the backing tracks to Theron kicking ass are killer, and the film generally looks great-capturing the tone of late eighties Berlin by coating everything around our main character and her exploits in drab shades of gray to emphasize the burst of energy Broughton brings with her when she walks in a room. And yet, for one reason or another, Leitch decided to allow long stretches of his movie to become overly involved in Johnstad's plotting when what made both the original “John Wick” and its sequel so much fun was the simplicity of the plot and the building of an interesting world. “Atomic Blonde” doesn't build a world as much as it recreates one; “Atomic Blonde” doesn't keep the emphasis on the action, but wants audiences to take its twisting plot as seriously as Leitch no doubt takes his stunt work, but while “Atomic Blonde” feels carefully constructed and as precise in all aspects a director could hope it also never feels as fun or entertaining as it was meant to be.
Set in 1989 in East Berlin the film opens as we see a man who we surmise is a secret agent being killed by another man who it turns out is an enforcer in the KGB that is seeking the always reliable maguffin of a list of every active field agent in the Soviet Union. This, of course, would lead to the bad guys identifying and ultimately killing a lot of well-trained, but unsuspecting special agents who have done nothing but try and serve their country and their United Kingdom well. The film then jumps forward a few weeks where our protagonist, Theron’s Broughton, is bathing in an ice bath with bruises covering nearly every square inch of her flesh. She is deliberate in every one of her actions as she dresses, collects her belongings, and boards an aircraft to return home where she is immediately taken in by Secret Intelligence Service officials Eric Gray (Toby Jones) and the mysterious Chief ‘C’ (James Faulkner) who, along with American CIA agent Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman), interrogate Broughton to get her account of how everything went sideways in Berlin. As Broughton tells it, she was made from the moment her feet touched the ground (and probably even before) as her contact and on the ground, agent David Percival (James McAvoy), didn’t even bother to show up in time to pick her up at the airport. Percival had previously been tasked with transporting the man who stole and memorized the list who is now codenamed Spyglass (Eddie Marsan) across the border, but upon Broughton’s arrival to track down the killer of that initial agent as well as retrieve the list-which has been hidden in a wrist watch, of course-Percival begins to get a little too cagey and suspicious with his actions. Amid all this Broughton also meets Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella) who is a novice French agent also on the tail of the KGB and the ruthless billionaire arms dealer leading an espionage ring in war-torn Berlin, Aleksander Bremovych (Roland Møller). Lasalle and Broughton develop something of a genuine relationship though as “Atomic Blonde,” which is an adaptation of Antony Johnston’s 2012 graphic novel, The Coldest City, runs its course it becomes more and more clear that nothing is as it appears and that Broughton’s intentions might not only be that of bringing back the list and saving the lives of the agents whose identities reside on it, but a little more complex than even the script would care to acknowledge.
With the onslaught of trailers, clips, and other promotional materials one might have seen around “Atomic Blonde” it wouldn’t have been confusing would someone have thought this would be an energetic, no-holds barred, actioner that was set to the rhythm of a few good eighties tunes and supplied just enough plot to string the no doubt breathtaking action sequences together as well as enough of an investment in our main character so as to care about whether or not she survives through to the end despite the fact we know that she will the entire time. In several instances, “Atomic Blonde” is just that: it has a plethora of ‘80s tunes that provide a backdrop for the time and the tone of that period as well as even some context regarding the kind of statement being made or the idea being played out in terms of assisting the audience in how to more fully understand and assess the film in terms of what Leitch and his creative team were going for. There are action sequences that are as impressive as anything that has been put to screen in recent memory including Leitch and Chad Stahelski’s work on the ‘John Wick’ films as “Atomic Blonde” features a Charlize Theron who smacks a guy with a freezer door knocking him out cold (pun totally intended) and then wrapping an extension cord around another guy’s neck who she then uses as an anchor as she jumps out of a multi-story building. All of this is set, comically, to the tune of George Michael’s “Father Figure,” which works to both highlight the insane action taking place while at the same time adding something of an unexpected moodiness to the scene that combines to present this epic-ness to the presence of Broughton which is what any such action movie positioned around a single, exceptional weapon requires. This won’t be the sequence folks will be talking about as they leave the theater though, no, that one is reserved for one that takes place later in the film (ironically only using the cracks of bones, blasts of gunfire, and screeches of tires as its soundtrack) that is presented as if it has been captured in a single shot. Beginning in a stairwell with Theron taking on multiple adversaries, moving into a multi-room apartment where Leitch and his stunt team utilize corners and nooks to their advantage and allow their characters to use common household materials to theirs-the scene eventually evolves into a rather lengthy car-chase that, while likely comprised of three or four unbroken takes, are combined to look as if it were a relentless 10-plus minute single take of our heroine kicking ass and taking names while taking our breath away which it deservedly does. Unfortunately, between such moments “Atomic Blonde” fails to engage either on an intellectual or emotional level as the narrative is too convoluted to trust any logic it tries to lay down and the characters ultimately function as little more than plot devices despite the talented cast giving it their all leaving little room for the viewer to genuinely engage with them.
It would seem rather cliché to critique a film based on style over substance and you won’t find that here as “Atomic Blonde” was always going to be a movie that had style for days whereas it seemed apparent its substance could only trickle so deep, but by trying to flip such expectations the film both writes itself into a hole of spy movie conventions while never digging deep enough into certain avenues that it only begins to explore. And so, it is in these long interims between action set pieces that we come to meet the players in this game we don’t care nearly enough about and where the film makes slight attempts at being about something more than just the action, but never has the balls to truly go all-in on. Rather, Johnstad’s screenplay only tips its hat towards ideas such as the ever-balancing conscience of a secret agent or spy who, while their job is to save the world, also must consider where they might go once that world is saved. If their objective is ever truly accomplished in full what would there be left for them to do? While individuals in such positions likely know this will never actually be an issue there is the smaller scale version of this problem that has them becoming so ingrained and, for lack of a better term, comfortable in their current role that they fear having to adjust to something new or take on a different type of challenge. “Atomic Blonde” explores this to some extent through McAvoy’s character as his Percival is the one that has lived in Berlin for such a period and fallen in love with the city to the point that he’s clearly having trouble reconciling who he once was and who he’s become. As many a spy films do, “Atomic Blonde” also touches on the idea of each of its characters worlds being entirely based upon secrets and the difference in knowing when to buy in and when to call bullshit. Theron’s Broughton is a pro of sorts at this as the actresses' performance becomes more and more striking with each passing frame where she’s not kicking ass through the power of her non-verbal communications that allow the audience in on the fact she is keenly aware of the difference between the truth and lies, but simply chooses to ignore most of it in favor of turning situations into those that will favor her best interests down the road. So yeah, “Atomic Blonde” certainly has a lot of good things going for it as the performances from Theron, McAvoy, and Boutella are all gauged in accordance with the tone Leitch is seeking while Leitch and cinematographer Jonathan Sela give the movie style beyond measure, but at the end of the day for all the persistence and power the movie has it ends up feeling weak not in its execution, but in its harmony with what it thinks it is. The movie itself never being able to match up with the energy of the music.
by Philip Price
It's all about context, people. As an individual who thoroughly enjoys and kind of revels in the imagining of what's beyond our own solar system and, by default, creating something unique and fascinating out of that imagination I am always intrigued by something that looks like “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.” Intrigued being the key word here as there is always the potential for such an experiment or endeavor of such imagination to go off the rails in ways that it can't maintain or doesn't think through. With ‘Valerian,’ director Luc Besson (“The Fifth Element”) has adapted a French science fiction comic series that is no doubt close to his French heart, but while Valérian and Laureline (which would have seemingly been a better, simpler title) was first published in Pilote magazine in 1967 and went on to become one of the top five biggest selling Franco-Belgian comics titles for its publisher, Dargaud, one has to wonder if Besson's vision is what original creators Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières imagined their imaginations becoming some 50 years later. I've never read the source material and this may very well be in line with exactly the kind of style and tone Christin and Mézières utilized in their original stories, but one must wonder about the purpose of style and tone then and the purpose of as much now. Is the more irreverent and frankly, rather goofy tone in response to other science-fiction adventures being more serious or was that how it was originally intended to be read? With something of a farcical quality to it? I'm sure someone on the internet will be more than happy to oblige my curiosity with a detailed answer, but the fact of the matter is it doesn't really matter what the original intent was or how well or not well Besson has adapted the material because we're here now-in a post-‘Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets’ world that just so happens to exist in the same world that is post-‘Star Wars,’ and post-‘Guardians of the Galaxy,’ and hell, even post-‘John Carter’ so what is it about Valerian that differentiates itself and does it differentiate for better or worse? For me, ‘Valerian’ is a step in the wrong and a rather bizarre direction. Sure, it has some interesting visual ideas and some fun sequences, but with dialogue this bad, a rather hackneyed story that attempts to disguise itself by accentuating its bizarre elements, and a completely miscast Dane DeHaan I can't help but to feel ‘Valerian’ might have been better off left on the page than having come alive only to find itself dead in the water so soon after.
In adapting 43 years’ worth of comic stories, Besson has put together a screenplay that for the first hour or so really brings one into the world the director is creating for the audience with the titular city of a thousand planets, referred to in the movie as "Alpha," taking shape over the course of an introductory montage set to David Bowie's "Space Oddity." Beginning just a few years into the future and building up through hundreds of years to thousands of years into the future where, over time, more species have come to build onto Alpha and share in the community by offering their knowledge and insights around their worlds and civilizations. It's a pretty spectacular opening that establishes both a unique and genuinely cool idea and that is kind of where the rest of the movie falters in that while Valerian may have a lot of neat ideas floating around in its head it doesn't know how to convey them in a way that isn't goofy and/or through a story that doesn't do them justice. That story I've been referencing so much deals with the titular Valerian (DeHaan) and his partner Laureline (Cara Delevingne) who are "spatial-temporal" agents AKA space cops who travel through time and space and the like to stop bad guys and bring them to justice; restoring peace and all that is right to the galaxy. This simple set-up works well enough in the first act as it provides just enough plot for Besson to execute his desired sequences around, but it is when a story becomes necessary that Valerian starts to stumble and repeat itself time and time again before wrapping itself up in expected and what are conventional ways as opposed to everything else we've seen up to that point. After opening on the construction of this marvelous hub of co-existing species Besson then takes us to a planet called Mül where a humanoid race that looks like what might have once been a version of a character design for the Na'vi resides and seemingly breathes in little more than the beauty of their planet day in and day out. We are given some slight exposition via gorgeous visuals as a being, a princess of sorts we come to find, is singled out as having a reptile-like pet that one apparently feeds these valuable pearls to get them to poop out more of said valuable pearls. Yeah, you read that right-it's that kind of weird we're talking about here. Not the so strange it's kind of cool weird, but the so weird it's kind of dumb strange. Seconds later these massive ships come breaking through the atmosphere of Mül, crashing down into the planet and essentially destroying the planet and all life on it save for a few of the royals that could protect themselves in one of the crashed ships. Years later, Valérian and Laureline are sent on a mission to recover one of the last remaining reptiles from Mül, which we learn is called a "converter", from a black-market dealer. This task immediately wreaks of something fishy, especially when they return to Alpha after a mess of a mission to find the conspicuous Commander Arün Filitt (Clive Owen) involved.
This all brings about the tricky line one must walk when crafting such a genre movie as it is the same conundrum that constantly faces those studios vying to be at the top of the shared cinematic universe heap. How silly is too silly? How serious is too serious? The secret to finding just the right place to land, like in life, is balance and perspective. With ‘Valerian,’ it would seem Besson intends with both his direction and his screenwriting to want to create a mythic aura around these characters; to place them in a legend-like status where the adventures we're seeing unfold will be talked about for centuries to come. Ultimately, the goal being to establish Valerian, Laureline, and their saga as something akin to those the comics originally inspired in the first place whether that be the phenomenon that is ‘Star Wars’ or Besson's own cult hit “The Fifth Element.” Still, ‘Valerian’ is so bizarre and so...just...nutty that it never carries the necessary weight to go down with as much of a statement as those movies seemingly have. And when audiences do inevitably come around to a film that has been released over the past few years that was considered so bonkers and wacky that it was seemingly dismissed upon release only to be re-evaluated later and championed for "being ahead of its time" I hope that honor is bestowed on “Jupiter Ascending” or “Warcraft” before it reaches ‘Valerian.’ Is ‘Valerian’ ever boring? Only when Besson doesn't know what to do with his narrative and by default splits up his lead pair to allow them to continuously save one another, but other than stalling a few times in the second act I'd say no-it undoubtedly has its moments and can be rather entertaining. Is ‘Valerian’ offensively bad? No, it's fine enough, but could have easily been so much more. There are an abundance of interesting ideas going on here and even more creativity in the imagery alone-the chase sequence through what is known as "Big Market" is legitimately wonderful-yet ‘Valerian’ for all its ideas and stunning imagery still doesn't accomplish what it sets out to be from the beginning. It is serviceable sci-fi when it has the potential to be exceptional sci-fi and because of that clear line between what it is and what it could have been the film is more disappointing than anything. Again, I don't know the source material and there could no doubt be arguments made, but based solely on what this movie does there are tendencies throughout that make one believe Besson is shooting for more than just tawdry Euro cheese. There is this sense the director wants his film to be regarded as a genuine operatic space epic, but a lot of fun at the same time and has thus seemingly written the characters and much of the situational humor to mirror that of James Gunn's “Guardians of the Galaxy” movie. Like I've said, I can't speak to how faithful Besson is to his source material, but as far as what works well on screen in these types of films he certainly seems to be modeling his use of humor, pop songs, and attempts at real heart and the message of love and humanity that exists at the center of the film on that Marvel movie. The thing with ‘Guardians’ though, was that it was written in both a more intelligent and witty fashion. The dialogue, especially the banter between DeHaan and Delevingne, is bad to downright terrible while the acting isn't much better.
This sucks, it really does, for as much as I'm an individual who thoroughly enjoys and revels in the imagining of what's beyond our own solar system and, by default, creating something unique and fascinating out of that imagination I'm equally disappointed when the kernel of an idea that sets these imaginings in motion delivers a reality that seemingly fails to meet the ambition it took to bring something like “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” to life. For that first hour or so it was easier to see how such ambitions might be met, but when the film devolves into a rather formulaic action/adventure film it also tends to lose a fair amount of the creative flourishes that separated the routine story from the inspiring storytelling. Of course, the entirety of the runtime is plagued by the rough dialogue and bad acting which brings us to the curious case of Dane DeHaan. I like DeHaan as an actor as he was perfect in “Chronicle” and has prospered more in supporting, character-driven roles such as that of his role in “Place Beyond the Pines” or opposite Robert Pattinson in the James Dean story, “Life.” I even enjoyed his turn in A Cure for Wellness as his overall energy as a performer matched what director Gore Verbinski was shooting for with that film, but as Valerian was originally written as more the typical square-jawed hero figure, who is strong and dependable as well as a charming ladies' man DeHaan isn't exactly the first actor to come to mind. Worse, DeHaan puts on this voice for the role that makes him sound as if he's struggling to speak at all or, at the very least, like he's trying to sound as stoic and cool as he possibly can, but it's so out of whack with what the rest of the movie is trying to be that none of it melds. There is an effortless kind of charisma that is required to pull off a role such as Valerian and DeHaan simply doesn't have that factor in his persona that allows him to inhabit the role in a convincing way that would have made his presence more effective. Coming off much more naturally is Delevingne as the beautiful Laureline who matches more what it seems her character was meant to be and the aura she was meant to embody much more so than her counterpart. It becomes evident quick that Laureline is a badass in her own right and doesn't require much assistance from her partner-though there is naturally a love story forced between the two because, why not? - and in fact, it would seem Laureline often is the one who ends up saving Valerian's reckless self from some of the rather knuckle-headed decisions he makes. It's nice to see old pros like Owen and Ethan Hawke show up for supporting spots in big-budget productions such as this and while I enjoyed the segment in which Rihanna can dance and emulate a handful of different styles from different eras (and sometimes different planets) it would be difficult to defend why her character's presence is necessary beyond being a plot device that is disposed of as soon as it has served its purpose. ‘Valerian’ can be fun when it allows time for its creativity to breathe and thus allow you to feel immersed in the world or worlds it is presenting and while I can't say that I whole-heartily disliked the film or that I don't admire what it wants to be it is still a ridiculous excursion that I couldn't take seriously despite the fact I felt it very much wanted me to.
by Philip Price
This may come as a shock to many of you, but “The Emoji Movie” is not good. In fact, it's really bad. Bad in the way that it doesn't even try much of the time. Bad in the way that it is intended to be a funny children's film with a message about championing individuality and being yourself, but even that tried and true formula falls flat. Did I say it was supposed to be funny? It's not funny. It tries, it has obvious attempts at humor, but it's not funny. Worse, it has a talented and typically hilarious group of people providing the voices for much of these humanoid expressions that exist in a world that doesn't make much sense in the first place. Let's start over as this would be the initial issue that only leads to more of these problems that spawn from the fact this is a movie based on emoji's. It would probably be big of me to say that this movie isn't bad simply because it is a movie based on emoji's, but it is. It represents everything wrong with the studio system from the perspective of attempting a cash grab without any measure of creativity or thought put into the actual work. There are no signs of life within this thing other than our protagonist going through the motions of feeling like an outcast, being brave enough to break out of his shell, and discover that it's OK to be different. That's all well and good, but you as well as your kids have seen this countless times before and “The Emoji Movie” brings nothing new to it with the fact it's emoji's going through these (e)motions only making it that much more grating. Worse even, it's beyond transparent that writer/director Tony Leondis (2008's terrible “Igor” as well as a few other animated shorts) and his two co-writers Eric Siegel (a TV veteran) and Mike White (Mike White!) could care less about the movie they are working on. No doubt receiving an assignment from head honchos at Sony Animation that they needed something aimed at the kids after their one-two punch for teens and adults with “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and “Baby Driver” the studio latched on to current trends via “The LEGO Movie” and “Wreck-it Ralph” and demanded a movie based on those faces kids were using to communicate with on their phones. Leondis, Siegel and White mix in a little “Toy Story” as well with hopes of no one noticing and yet “The Emoji Movie” is so distractingly bad that it doesn't become an issue of the movie being based around characters who are emoticons, but more the fact the whole thing never breaks through that barrier of convincing us why it's necessary.
To describe what happens in “The Emoji Movie” or to try and attempt to describe how the world that exists in “The Emoji Movie” functions would be to try and make sense out of it, but that's kind of impossible. Still, here we go...the story centers around Gene (T.J. Miller) who was born a "Meh" emoji (so many questions already!) to his parents Mel and Mary Meh (Steven Wright and Jennifer Coolidge who produce some of the only inspired moments in the movie) who, like all emoji's, is destined to work on the board of emoji's where they provide the faces they were born with to whoever their assigned "user" is; "user" meaning human with a cell phone (but not an iPhone, this is a Sony movie after all). So, essentially, these emoji's live to stand in a cubicle all day only to *maybe" be picked by the big guy upstairs every occasionally, and when they are they are scanned making their pre-determined face that is then sent through their user's phone. See the biggest flaw in this premise already? There is no need for the world to exist in the first place. Why don't they just scan all the emoji's once, store them on the phones hard drive and upload them when necessary to good ole Alex (Jake T. Austin) who has a crush on a girl who he apparently can't talk to without the help of emoji's. Had the writers have gone this route they might have created a more interesting and original conflict where something happens with the stored emojis on Alex's phone and Gene comes to be the only one who can fix it given he has the power to make multiple expressions due to the fact some of the emojis haven't made their "faces" in such a long time that they're becoming less and less like their original state. I literally made that up as I was typing it and I would much rather see that movie than the one I saw about Gene where he flips out his first day on the job because he can't make his "meh" face properly and is then chased through a handful of different apps on the phone because the mayor of text town or whatever it's called, Smiler (Maya Rudolph turned up to eleven), wants to delete Gene after labeling him a defect. Of course, Gene needs friends to go on this journey of self-discovery with and so enter Hi-5 (James Corden) as a once popular emoji who has since been relegated to the loser's lounge and Jailbreak (Anna Faris) a rogue emoji looking to escape to the cloud and who Gene believes might be able to help fix his defectiveness; cue the awkward emoji love story (so many questions!).
Part of me really wanted to give this movie a shot despite every particle of my being telling me it was going to be a waste of time and money (it is, don't take your children to this). Part of me was hoping, even though I knew deep down in my soul it wouldn't, that “The Emoji Movie” might surprise me if not to the extent that “The LEGO Movie” did maybe at least in a similar fashion where the creators put enough imagination and were invested in trying to make something slightly original that I'd be compelled to forgive the fact this was a movie based around modern day hieroglyphics, but no-nothing. As I sat watching the movie unfold I couldn't help but to think if this might appeal to children. Trying to gauge the audience reactions around me at a five o'clock showing on the Thursday evening before the Friday the movie opened and very rarely did laughs come from even the smallest children in the audience. I mean, even “The Angry Birds Movie” had its moments and was pleasing on a visual level to the extent that it could be. “The Emoji Movie” rarely gets a laugh sans the too few moments when Wright and Coolidge's characters are on screen and on top of that it's a rather flat film to look at. Despite having an expansive voice cast that also includes Patrick Stewart as Poop, Sofi Vergara as the salsa dancer, Rachael Ray as a piece of spam mail, Sean Hayes as the Devil, Jeff Ross as an internet troll, and even Christina Aguilera as the dance instructor, Akiko Glitter, in the "Just Dance!" app. the film gains nothing from as much because it gives them nothing to do. They've piled on the big names as well as probably spending a fair amount of money on those names and these side emoji characters come to be little more than punch lines for their own jokes. Patrick Stewart only slightly tarnishes his name by making jokes about "not being too soft," while the rest of the cast has maybe two lines a piece with neither of them being memorable enough to justify their cost or trip to the recording session. Moral of the story being, don't do this. Don't put anyone through this who doesn't have to experience it because it deserves no attention as it has not an original beam in its construct or an original idea in its thought bubble. It is a cash grab if there ever was one, it promotes words being uncool for kids to use (which I'm obviously very against), and it features more product placement than Michael Bay could even dream of. Supporting something like “The Emoji Movie” only feeds the idea to those head honchos at Sony that the public want more things like “The Emoji Movie” and we don't. We really don't.
by Philip Price
“Dunkirk” is a horror movie. Make no mistake about it. You never see the villains. There is no physical trace of the German military anywhere in the film until one of the final frames. And yet, the presence of these antagonists looms over every scene. It is so inescapable in fact it is nearly suffocating. There is no relief from the situation at hand and much like a horror movie more steeped in that genre's conventions you know only one thing is certain: bad things will happen and people will die. That doesn't mean one can look past the horror by not getting as accustomed with the characters, the people, experiencing these situations though, but rather Christopher Nolan has slyly and only crafted his characters to the extent that one largely puts themselves in the shoes of these individuals. As with any good scary movie there is an allure to the uncertainty that could not necessarily be labeled as enjoyable, but is engaging nonetheless and that essentially describes the emotions one will likely feel throughout the entirety of “Dunkirk.” From the opening, breathtaking scene in which one of our young protagonists flees the gunfire of unseen enemy forces to moments in which civilians on their personal boats navigate the rough seas as they cross the channel in hopes of nothing more than saving a few lives-Nolan ratchets up the tension and holds it as tight as he possibly can for an hour and 45 minutes. Unlike most Nolan pictures, there is a brevity to “Dunkirk” that is key in sustaining the tension and keeping it at as intense a level as possible throughout, but like most Nolan films this is still very much an experience more than it is just another trip to the theater; it is immersive in a way that is difficult to put into words necessarily, but “Dunkirk” was always going to be something different as it sees one of the greatest filmmakers of our current generation crafting his version of a World War II film and to that extent this is a lean and intense piece of filmmaking that is rather exceptional. Lifting from the horror genre in terms of approach is only the beginning of what makes “Dunkirk” haunting, but much of what should do with the accomplishment the film turns out to be is the way in which each of the elements Nolan uses to craft his movie congeal in such a natural way. Whether it be the structure that is used to differentiate between the timing and perspective of the tales from the air, land, and sea or the pounding score from longtime Nolan collaborator Hans Zimmer that makes up for dialogue in the film to the face of Kenneth Branagh in general. “Dunkirk” is a work in which it would seem there was nothing easy about creating what we see on the big screen, but that comes together in such an effortless fashion it feels as if there was no other way in which the movie might have ultimately turned out. In short, it's a reality where it seems the filmmaker's ambition has genuinely been met.
While this is no “Memento,” “Dunkirk” is told in a very specific and rather unique fashion as it is a movie that presents a well-rounded depiction of the events that occurred in May of 1940 when the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and other Allied troops were evacuated from the French seaport of Dunkirk. This was prior to the U.S. joining the war which may or may not be some cause for the lack of resources in getting the nearly 400,000 stranded soldiers out from enemy territory, but it speaks to the overall tone of the war before and leading up to the events of Pearl Harbor over a year later on December 7, 1941 when the United States entered the war. To try and evacuate the beaches of Dunkirk though, Naval vessels and hundreds of civilian boats were used resulting in 7,669 men being evacuated on the first day, but a total of 338,226 soldiers having been rescued by the end of the eighth day. If that all sounds rather remarkable especially when considering much of those rescues were done through a hastily assembled fleet of over 800 boats that’s because it legitimately is and thus the reason the story is so deserving of its own cinematic account. With a scope that is very obviously immeasurable though, how does one even begin to attempt to paint a fully-realized picture of what it was like to be there on the ground, in the boats, or even in the air on those days? While most screenwriters might find their default to be that of creating a fictionalized love story that would see our protagonist fighting to stay alive so that he might make it back home to his beloved Nolan doesn’t go this way, but in fact rebels as hard as one probably could against such a trope.
Not only do we never see or hear anyone speak about their reasons for wanting to get back home (it’s more, “I just want to survive!”), but we aren’t even privy to knowing more about our handful of main characters than what their role has been in the war thus far much less any type of fleshed out backstory. Directing from a script solely written by his hand for the first time, Nolan has tackled these events by the land, sea, and air. We see many of the same events happening from these three different perspectives, but are never aware of when Nolan and his editors might switch from one to the other. We know where we are, of course, but we never exactly know when we are as we might see fighter pilot Collins (Jack Lowden) take his plane down in the middle of the ocean due to loss of fuel as he communicates with fellow spitfire pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) only to see a scene a few minutes later where we see Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), a civilian out on his own boat with his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Peter’s good friend George (Barry Keoghan), who see one of their own planes plummeting towards the water and speed up to try and assist the pilot who turns out to be Collins despite the fact we had no prior knowledge these two storylines were even taking place in the same vicinity as one another. Further, Nolan also follows the harrowing actions of soldiers Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), and Alex (Harry Styles) who are trapped on the beach itself and looking for any way out as well as Commander Bolton (Branagh) and Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy) who are officers serving as the last line of defense of sorts as they conduct who goes where and are prepared to go down with their ship if necessary.
The thing about “Dunkirk” that is rather fascinating is the fact that one isn’t immediately in tune with just how striking an experience it is going to be. There is of course a level of expectation that can’t be ignored that comes along with each effort by a director like Nolan, but what is so fascinating is that those same expectations set one up for something akin to a three-hour epic chronicling several accounts from within this story of the evacuation of “Dunkirk” and that Nolan has more or less taken those expectations that he was certainly aware of as well and flipped them on their head to instead craft as intense an experience as possible and therefore is now as lean and stripped down as anything the filmmaker has produced since his feature debut nearly two decades ago. This is, of course, very intentional and done for the sake of the fact one can only keep an audience on a wire for a certain period before exhausting them completely and while Nolan doesn’t exactly test those limits he pushes them as close to the edge as he wants while leaving the viewer wanting more, needing more, even. And yet, as the credits roll there is certainly a satisfaction in the sense of what was the, objective of the film and how well it accomplished what it set out to do as opposed to what was expected of a Chris Nolan war film. To further exaggerate on what it is about this expectations versus reality scenario that makes the difference in the two a stark, but still satisfying one is that of the topic of dialogue and or the lack there of. There are, of course, moments in which exchanges in dialogue are necessary and present without feeling as if they’re being suppressed for the sake of keeping the talking to a minimum, but while much of these scenes take place between Branagh and D’Arcy or Rylance and the crew of his civilian boat that also includes Cillian Murphy as a stranded soldier that has seen things he seemingly won’t be able to shake any time soon there are others where things are said if not necessarily understood, but the point is made nonetheless. What is clear is the fact Nolan didn't want the emphasis to be on what was being said or even particular plot points, but more than ever he was interested in the feeling his performers and the way he captured a moment would elicit a certain response from the audience. The point was not for us to necessarily understand what is happening at any given moment (the soldiers certainly didn't), but rather for us to comprehend the fear and desperation that was undoubtedly palpable that day.
It speaks volumes that “Dunkirk” can revert expectations and yet still deliver on something audiences maybe didn't realize they wanted or would take them on such an immersive journey they didn't realize they might appreciate as much, but it is this kind of gut feeling that makes the film one of those experiences you can't shake and can't wait to see again. Much has been made of the fact Nolan, per his typical championing of celluloid and the biggest, most enthralling theater experience possible, shot “Dunkirk” on both IMAX cameras as well as on 70mm film. Unfortunately, I was unable to see the film in either of these formats, but this too marks a testament to the film in that one doesn't necessarily have to see it on the biggest screen possible, but simply seeing it in a theater at all renders an impression as great as the one I have described above. On that note, it is difficult to complain about a Nolan film as every aspect of what has been included has seemingly been done so with such specific intent it's hard to not at least appreciate what the filmmaker is doing, but this doesn't change that every now and then “Dunkirk” still suffers from being a little too distant for its own good. Distant in the way that while comprehending the point of Nolan's lack of characterization is to place ourselves in the consciousness of the ensemble and ask ourselves what we might have done were we involved in such circumstances, but even if this is case there might have been less than a handful of additional or extended scenes where were we to glimpse small examples, little truths detailing just how great the stress, pressure, and desperation of what it might have been like to be present on that day in history the film might have not only given us a visceral sense of what it was like to be there, but more of an emotional one as well. It is one thing to be strung out on tension, but another completely to recognize the humanity in what it depicted. While there are certainly examples of as much scattered throughout the film and built into the various narratives happening simultaneously they don't ever reach a point of transcending the subjective experience of it all to allow us to sympathize with the flesh and blood characters we're experiencing as much through. That said, this is a small complaint within a film that expertly crafts at least three individual narratives and builds the tension within each to a breaking point that is conveyed in ways not traditional to our conditioned movie-going minds. Rather, Nolan takes us on a visual journey in a relentless fashion that doesn't bother with theatrics, but more capitalizes on our own individual and personal emotions that we pull into the experience based on the images and sequence of events we see play out on screen. “Dunkirk” is an adventure, an event if you will, but above everything it is a war movie unlike you've ever seen before and to be able to create something wholly unique out of a genre so saturated should only reassure audiences further that Nolan is the real deal and that we're looking at a genuine Hall-of-Famer.
by Philip Price
I love movies about stand-up comedians. There is something to the art form that I, personally, don’t believe I’d ever be able to successfully master and that is the factor of succeeding in such a fashion where it outwardly seems like one is struggling without struggling at all. Stand-up is very much an art that requires one to put their whole selves on the line and bank on the fact their personality is endearing enough for most of the audience to find appealing and latch onto. To do this one must express a large amount of humility while simultaneously sparking a small amount of jealousy-jealousy in the way that the audience wishes they could channel and overcome their own life’s obstacles in the same way a given comedian seems to be doing by discussing them in front of a crowded room. One can’t succeed at the job too effortlessly or they lack credibility yet if the routine doesn’t come with a certain amount of effortlessness they seemingly lack the natural “it’ factor it takes to thrive; to stand out among a sea of other would-be storytellers. It’s a fine line one must walk to be able to pull off a certain kind of aura and it no doubt comes down to knowing one’s self better than others might ever care to get to know themselves i.e. exposing or opening one’s self up to their own shortcomings, faults, disadvantages-whatever it may be that people believe takes them down a few pegs from the pedestal they constantly hope to achieve as a person. By all accounts, Kumail Nanjiani is a fine stand-up comedian though I’d be lying if I said I’d listened to any of his sets prior to seeing his feature writing debut in “The Big Sick” (and no, I haven’t seen “Silicon Valley” either). This is brought up for the reason that those strengths Nanjiani plays toward as a stand-up have clearly crossed over to his screenwriting process as not only have he and his wife, Emily V. Gordon, crafted a heartfelt and rather eye-opening story around cultural differences in relationships, but they have done so by telling their story and to do this in an effective manner one certainly has to know themselves and be honest about themselves with themselves if that story is truly going to resonate. “The Big Sick” accomplishes as much rather well and, not coincidentally, does so with just the right amount of effortlessness to be both endearing to audiences in its quest and enviable to fellow artists in its craft.
In “The Big Sick,” Nanjiani plays a stand-up comedian of Pakistani descent so not too much of a stretch for the actor/comic, but this is still very much a concrete representation of a very formative part of his life and deals in a subject matter that is obviously very near and dear to his heart, so you better believe he brings the best he can to the screen. As was true in Nanjiani's life not too long ago this version of Kumail is a struggling stand-up who hopes to make it to the big time, but for now is working as an Uber driver to keep the lights on. He has a circle of comic friends that include the likes of CJ (Bo Burnham), Mary (Aidy Bryant), and roommate Chris (Kurt Braunohler). It is on a night down at the local comedy club where the four friends along with other comics do five or so minute sets that Kumail is heckled by an innocent enough looking white girl after he calls out for his fellow Pakistani's in the house. This, of course, turns out to be a rather critical person in Kumail's story as it is none other than Emily (Zoe Kazan), a college student studying to be a therapist who is out for a night with some friends. Kumail is inherently drawn toward Emily and the conversation starts out cute enough with Kumail trying a few of his own parlor tricks that Emily sees right through. The two hook-up, but swear that’s all it is and come to the mutual decision they will probably never see one another again. Of course, this doesn’t come to pass and before we know it “The Big Sick” is offering us a tale of a whirlwind romance through the guise of a romantic comedy that is truncated into a 40-minute runtime. It is at the 40-minute mark that the film begins to alter its DNA – taking on a more serious, more dramatic role as Emily falls ill with what is known as adult-onset Still's disease (AOSD) or an extremely rare form of arthritis that can shut down major organs when left untreated. To try and remedy the situation the doctors at a Chicago hospital place Emily in a medically induced coma leaving Kumail, who has yet to meet his girlfriend’s suburban parents, to navigate the waters of their relationship and what might come to be with those parents. Enter Emily’s parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), who aren’t overly excited to see Kumail given his and their daughter’s recent turmoil having to deal with the fact Kumail had not yet informed his traditional Pakistani family he was dating outside their religion and had been evading meeting Emily’s parents due to a fear of getting so involved that undesirable decisions would have to be made.
It is this crossroads in life that makes “The Big Sick” so unique in its approach to storytelling and interesting in terms of character dynamics and other, larger themes. For all accounts and purposes the writing of this film by Nanjiani and his now-wife, the real-life Emily (spoiler alert), was a therapeutic process in and of itself for the couple who were, ten years on, able to think out loud and evaluate everything they had to in fact overcome to wind up together; the tangible things that had to be dealt with in this life for a feeling-a hunch, that there was something worth pursuing between the two of them. It has always surprised me by how much we, as humans, can let our emotions and potential feelings determine such large parts of our being-aspects that have sometimes been determined without our consent even. It takes a lot of courage to place a bet on feelings that may or may not turn out to be a love of the moment rather than the girl, but in taking this step towards evaluating their own love story we see how Nanjiani and his character of Kumail come to decide it is most the girl they are in love with over the course of her being in a coma. It is in this navigation that “The Big Sick” and its director Michael Showalter (“Wet Hot American Summer”) find their secret weapon and that is in the film’s ability to transition back and forth so effortlessly (there’s that word again) between the heavier dramatic beats that include Emily getting sick, being admitted to the hospital, and Kumail being asked by the doctor to sign a consent form so that they may put her under the medically induced coma to the more comedic ones such as Holly Hunter’s Beth manically dealing with her daughter’s illness by lashing out at a heckler at one of Kumail’s shows. All of this only for the movie to then revert to Kumail having to deal with his own parents and them kicking him out of their family because of his refusal to abide by Muslim tradition and marry a Muslim/Pakistani woman. The movie does this many times, but we never feel the tonal shifts in ways that are disruptive. Never is it jarring to go from a moment where Romano’s character is smiling and reflecting just seeing his daughter up and walking around again to that of him making a joke about her calling him if she “feels a coma coming on.” It is yet another facet of the film that is a technically difficult thing to pull off when you’re manufacturing every moment and emotion being projected on screen, but that the movie itself pulls off without so much as a hiccup. Without feeling as if it should try. It would be one thing if the film felt like two separate entities as it very much is given it charts Kumail and Emily’s relationship as well as Kumail and Emily’s parents relationship, but the script eases the audience from one scenario to the next with a structure that keeps it consistently funny enough that Showalter knows where to keep his tone and knows how to use that consistency to really drive the heavy moments home with the only downfall being that, with so much going on, it gets to feel a little more labored than it should in the last 15 to 20 minutes.
In that “The Big Sick” becomes this movie about Kumail hanging out with his girlfriend’s parents and his discovering of his love for Emily while coming to terms with what he must do regarding confronting his own parents it is the large middle chunk of the movie that features Nanjiani, Romano, and Hunter playing off one another that becomes the most memorable. For starters, Hunter is cool as hell and there’s nothing anyone can do about it making it impossible to resist her charm despite the fact she is initially opposed to having anything to do with Kumail because of that recent turmoil. Hunter is a woman and a personality so strong and so singular to herself that she automatically becomes one of those people you want to impress and you want to like you or, in this situation, that we want Kumail to overcome the obstacle of and earn her seal of approval. Hunter’s Beth is a spitfire for lack of a better word and she rightfully puts nothing in front of the well-being of her daughter. Romano is not necessarily the more emotional parent, but he is the one that is easier to read and because of this is more of a push-over than that of his counterpart. It is Terry who first invites Kumail to come eat with him and Beth at the hospital cafeteria, and it is Terry who suggests they go to one of Kumail’s shows the night before Emily’s surgery so that he might be distracted by something to take his mind off the stress of his daughter being in a coma. As Terry, Romano portrays more than just the lovable dad figure who is willing to give whatever his girl happens to love a chance because he believes there must be a reason his daughter adores something or someone, but he is a layered human being with as many faults as he has merits. “The Big Sick” is a movie that very easily could have gotten itself into the weeds of who is right and who is wrong and why so and so is justified in feeling this way, but it never makes the movie about an “us versus them” type dilemma. Rather, Kumail’s parents Azmat (Anupam Kher) and Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff) are portrayed as human beings entrenched in their heritage and who only want for their son what they have built. They are understanding as far as his ambitions despite their urging of him to be a doctor or lawyer, but they hold out for Kumail to marry a nice Muslim girl going so far as to set-up blind dates with potential candidates every time Kumail comes over for family dinner. Kumail’s arguments are made and his struggle realized, but his parents are never vilified despite the fact their actions tend to be rather radical. It is a movie about acceptance and love, about generational differences and cultural clashes that is able to preach about as much without outwardly stating as much while still leaving viewers with all the warm, fuzzy feelings they might expect from a solid rom-com.
The combination of these distinct personalities along with Nanjiani’s leading turn that sees him utilize his keen sense of humor to deflect the impossibly personal and delicate situation he encounters make this movie the diamond in the rough it no doubt felt like it was coming out of Sundance back in January. With the hype that has followed though, and with it becoming one of if not “the” hit indie movie of the summer there are expectations to temper. “The Big Sick” is an all-around good movie and is aided by the fact it not only has an interesting love story at the heart of it, but by the fact that it also champions the acceptance of different cultures in America by showing the day to day existence of a native Pakistani man and a Pakistani family while featuring all-around great performances from a dream cast with the bonus of being sincere in the emotions it means to elicit from its audience. I wasn’t as moved as I expected to be though there is a scene involving a few voicemails that will undoubtedly get anyone with any remnant of a soul, but I was invested in the characters plight and more importantly, in the characters themselves. I was happy to see Bo Burnham on the big screen for the second time this summer and I was more than moved by the amount of heart this thing showed in the moments that it let go of all the inhibitions surrounding media these days and just allowed itself and its characters to be happy and human, but this isn’t necessarily the exceptional piece of filmmaking you might have been led to believe. It’s very good for what it is and there is much to be said for that (I’ve just written nearly 2,500 words on it, so there’s that), but not every piece of art that is exemplary for its own form or, in this case, genre, should be a masterpiece and “The Big Sick,” while no masterpiece of the cinematic art form, is still a very good movie. A movie that plays as both pleasing and challenging in that it admits its love story isn't a fairy tale, but still comes with a "Happily Ever After".
by Philip Price
It's a weird feeling, rooting for the end or at least the defeat of mankind, but that is what this new trilogy of ‘Planet of the Apes’ films has done. Each of the installments has done so well at tracking the progression of how these apes, namely Andy Serkis' mind-blowing creation that is Caesar, have become more human-like in their emotions as well as their mannerisms that it has become harder and harder to differentiate between the fact that what we're technically watching is a man versus beast tale. Of course, it's easy to throw those two labels around, but who deserves to have the title of beast fall upon them is debatable and especially in this final installment. In the inevitable “War for the Planet of the Apes” we find series screenwriters Mark Bomback and director Matt Reeves (“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”) bringing the reinforcements that Gary Oldman's character contacted in ‘Dawn’ to the front lines and drawing the line in the proverbial sand. Reeves, who took over for Rupert Wyatt after the first installment, has crafted two distinct, but equally effective pieces of filmmaking that are as well-crafted as one could hope for. The film hits all the marks of a masterful technical achievement while at the same time deviating story expectations by not necessarily being generic summer popcorn entertainment, but are rather some heavy and heady pieces of cinema that have plenty of thoughts jumping around inside their heads as well as layers upon layers of allusions to the point each individual viewer could potentially see and receive something different when experiencing them. That said, both ‘Dawn’ and now ‘War’ never display that factor that pushes either of them over the edge of good, solid entertainment into something greater. It's a difficult feeling to describe given it is also a difficult thing to come up with anything negative to say or anything that specifically detracted from the experience of viewing the film, but speaking to the emotional state you reach after said experience War leaves you with a strong impression of being truly impressive, visually magnificent, but not nearly as intellectually or emotionally stimulated as it seemed you would be about midway through the movie. “War for the Planet of the Apes” makes us root for its primate protagonists, but it never lends the viewer the weight it seems to desire nor does it hit with enough of an impact that it will leave you contemplating all those ideas it has floating around inside its mind in your own for longer than a few hours. It is grand without necessarily being epic, distinctive, but not necessarily special.
All of that taken into consideration, War is indeed distinctive for reasons that must do first with being the finale of a trilogy and a link between what has been set-up by its predecessors as well as to those original films that created this mythology. Caesar has always been a mythic creature, but Reeves and Bomback have done well to establish the "wow" factor that was inherent in the first two films when Caesar had those moments where he speaks for the first time consistently throughout this final entry as Caesar has become fully human in his speech and level of intelligence. This was maybe the most fascinating aspect of the film-the full circle of Caesar's abilities-as not only is he talking and understanding what is being said back to him, but he is using deductive reasoning and he is plotting escapes as well as feeling raw emotions that might force him back into a more primal state of mind. This goes back to what the movie does narratively and its lack of adherence to any traditional blockbuster structure. Sure, we know there is going to be a third act showdown of some kind, but the action scenes (especially for a movie with "war" in the title) are sparse. Rather, ‘War’ tends to stick to the more complex character dynamics it has set up and that it knows it can pay off in spades with this third film given it must connect to the beginning of the 1968 film. There is a plot point that occurs early enough in the film that we are introduced to a new kind of Caesar rather than the sympathetic leader we have come to familiarize ourselves with. With this turn, Caesar loses his sense of thoughtfulness and perspective and becomes so focused on a single objective that nothing else matters. Nothing matters to the point Caesar is willing to be as ruthless as he needs to be, but the movie does an interesting thing the first time our protagonist acts on these instincts-it reminds him why he can't be. And as far as tentpole blockbusters go, this is something rather rare; ‘War’ holds its characters, on both sides of the fence, accountable for their actions and furthermore, self-aware of the consequences such actions might inflict. Because these characters are aware and willing to deal in what are typically dire consequences it inherently makes those dynamics more engaging and therefore much more interesting than a line of explosions. Watching Serkis navigate this self-conflict that we see Caesar struggle with from the first act on is what drives the film emotionally and Serkis is more on his game than ever, truly bringing every human in the audience to the side of rooting against humanity prevailing.
With knowing where this re-booted trilogy of films must eventually end up though, one might think the wind could potentially be swept out from under the sails of this third and final film, but along with ushering Caesar through a series of tests and tumultuous moments Reeves and Bomback are seemingly keen on keeping us focused not only on the destination, but the fascinating journey we must take in order to get there. As previously noted, in ‘Dawn’ Gary Oldman's character, Dreyfus, had successfully contacted what was left of the armed forces and they were headed for Caesar and his tribe's base just outside of San Francisco. In ‘War,’ two years have passed and battles between homosapien soldiers and evolved simians are apparently a rather common occurrence. Caesar has been smart enough to evade those seeking to kill him over the past two years, but as ‘War’ opens Reeves puts us face to face with some of the harsh realities of this particular war. The human soldiers have enlisted the loyalties of former Koba (Toby Kebbell) henchmen who wouldn't dare go back to Caesar and yet they are treated like degenerates under the thumb of their new masters. "Donkey" and "Kong" spray painted on these defector's backs show us what little hope there is left of the two species ever coming to any kind of treaty and peacefully co-existing with one another. As a battalion raids the woods where Caesar is believed to be hiding the death toll mounts until the human survivors can be counted on one hand. Enter Serkis' melancholy Caesar who, even during death, finds it in his heart and his best interests to spare the lives of those who seek to kill him. He does this as a message to the human leader in hopes of conveying a merciful tone in the way that it might display it is indeed still possible for an understanding to be reached. The apes only want to find a peaceful homeland and Caesar has sent his son and another ape to seek one out-the seeds are planted early as far as homages to the original go, people. Of course, the humans don't want peace-they want to kill the apes and they are led by a vicious Colonel (Woody Harrelson) who is running a military base that is capturing apes for slave labor due to the Colonel's own nefarious plans with it all coming down to the moment of whether Caesar can stop him.
Of course, this wouldn't be a review of one of these new ‘Apes’ movies without discussing the majesty of the special effects on display. As the intelligence of the apes has evolved over the course of the series so have the motion capture effects (and they were amazing to start out with). More than ever, the looks in the eyes of the apes are affecting in ways you likely never imagined a computer-generated character could be. As Maurice, Karin Konoval is the unsung hero of this trilogy as she is not only the heart of War in many ways, but she also guides the heart of Caesar. It is Maurice who serves as a constant reminder of the fact that without a sense of genuine humanity they truly are nothing more than animals. Caesar has always served as something of an inspiration to the orangutan and in this final chapter of this part of the story Maurice must step up and remind Caesar of why he has always been that beacon of hope. Much of this is conveyed through Maurice's discovery of a young, mute girl who comes to be known as Nova (Amiah Miller). Without going into spoilers, Caesar has somewhat gone off the rails in ‘War’ and is more hard-edged and less forgiving than he has been in the previous films and Nova comes to be the soft spot that shows him there are still humans out there who want to be good and who want to do things for the right reasons; she brings about the humanity that is absent from Caesar this time around, if you will. Of course, that is always the scariest thing about a villain-when they too think they're doing the right thing and that their actions are necessary for the world to ultimately be a better place. And while Harrelson is saddled with a lot to carry yet very little time to do it, it's easy to see that despite his merciless attitude he believes he is doing what must be done for mankind to survive. Stating that by the laws of nature apes were destined to one-day rule and that because humans tried to defy that nature that it has been punishing them for doing so ever since Harrelson's Colonel is very good at convincing us of the ugly truth. Even we, as viewers, know that as he gives this grand speech in the actor's biggest moment in the film that everything he's saying is right, even if we might not be willing to accept it. Of course, this doesn't change the fact his methods are barbaric, but his reasoning is sound and this continues that tradition this trilogy has stuck with about never having black and white heroes and villains, but rather two sides fighting for what they believe is right.
More than anything, “War for the Planet of the Apes” is something akin to a political thriller in that it certainly has aspirations of being allegorical to what is happening today, but more that it comes down to what is essentially a power struggle between these two opposing forces that will inevitably collide. And yet, while the film clearly has more on its mind than action set pieces, explosions, and cool imagery it never seems completely sure of what it wants to say. What, if any, points or messages it is trying to convey or make never come through in a way that the audience might start a conversation around it afterwards. More, what will come to be discussed are those jaw-dropping effects and Andy Serkis' praise-worthy performance. And while there are other facets of the film that I genuinely enjoyed-Steve Zahn is a scene stealer as a character who simply refers to himself as "Bad Ape" and Michael Giacchino's score is out of this world terrific-but as a piece of entertainment that clearly has something to say and wants to truly mean more than your traditional summer blockbuster it kind of comes up empty-handed. There is a real sense of how important all of what is happening is and how it isn't at the same time in War as certain characters and character moments are crafted to the point of tangible meaning while the overarching plot and structure turn out to be a more basic ride than we thought we might be in for. Ultimately, Reeves has directed a picture that veers on the side of being heavy-handed with the caveat of not coming up with anything substantial to say, but because so much of the construction around the ideas are done in exceptional fashion much is made up for and forgiven when it comes to the movie as a whole. That isn't to say this isn't a good movie because it lacks a clear direction as it is still a worthy conclusion to a rather impressive series of films. I just can't help but feel as if there could have been more. That this could have been better.