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.
by Philip Price
When it comes to Sofia Coppola I tend to be indifferent; both towards viewing her films and, when I do see them, in my response to them. Granted, I need to re-visit many of her works that were released and that I saw when I was likely too young to comprehend what they were aiming for or even discussing, but even as I've grown, expanded my pool of cinematic knowledge, and have been very much excited to see her newer releases a la “The Bling Ring” (which, admittedly, is likely her worst effort) I was disappointed by the lack of any real vision, any signature voice in her films. That changes with “The Beguiled.” “The Beguiled” has made me more anxious to go back and experience “The Virgin Suicides” and “Lost in Translation” again while prompting me to finally try to see “Marie Antoinette” and “Somewhere.” “The Beguiled” is a game-changer of sorts because it brings Coppola onto a plane where she is not only indulging in the type of cinema she finds comfort in creating, but because it simultaneously provides a large entertainment factor. It's deliciously enjoyable in a way that feels fresh to this work specifically. Though I haven't the authority to compare Coppola's features with one another for, as I've mentioned, some I haven't seen at all and others I haven't seen in quite some time, but by a general gut feeling “The Beguiled” feels like the kind of jump-start Coppola's career needed to once again find inspiration. Everything about the film creates a sense of restraint around what is a boiling pot of truths and temptations just waiting to be acted upon. Coppola creates this potboiler effect by capturing the musky air of 1864 in visuals that elicit the season's soft southern sunlight and the lack of any bulbs whatsoever. Candlelight provides most of our illumination here and it is the glow, the aura of these yellow-tinged flames that underscore that air of courtesy that is all too often rendered just that by the bluntness with which our characters interact with one another. A gorgeous interpretation of the way in which people can read others based on their circumstance and furthermore, a fascinating study on the ways in which you sometimes can't-the true motivations of one or several never revealing themselves leaving any action taken to be forever contemplated. A million ideas about currently relevant social issues could make their way into one's interpretation of “The Beguiled,” but the truth of the matter is that it is very simply a smoldering tale of intuition and war.
Set in Virginia during the Civil War we are introduced to Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) who runs a school of sorts for young girls along with a fellow teacher, Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst). They have seemingly been left to their own devices since the beginnings of the war as any man who was once in any of these women and young girl's lives has either gone off to war or died during it. And so, it is easily understood why such a commotion is made when one of Martha and Edwina's young students, Amy (Oona Laurence), stumbles upon a wounded Union soldier while out picking mushrooms for dinner. Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell) lies against a tree, deep in the woods, outside the school where it is evident the soldier has been badly hurt. Doing what is undoubtedly the most Christian thing to do in her mind Amy helps McBurney onto his feet and back to the school house where his arrival and ultimate presence is a subject of much discussion, debate, and distraction. Given they reside in a Confederate state and are loyal supporters of the Southern cause (there was a slave character in Thomas Cullinan's original novel and Don Siegel's 1971 film that has been cut here) Miss Martha is largely conflicted by the situation that has been presented to her establishment while Edwina seemingly rejoices in the fact something has come to break the monotony of her day to day if not rescue her from this place in which she has been forced down into the conforming package Miss Martha requires. The younger girls come to form a fascination with the charming McBurney, especially Amy, who continues to help nurse him back to health after being his initial savior. Other students such as Jane (Angourie Rice) and Marie (Addison Riecke) either object to even the thought of a Union soldier in their presence or bring him prayer books so that he may return to health and depart as quickly as possible. It is the oldest of the students, Alicia (Elle Fanning), who brings about the unseemliest of thoughts though. Per Coppola's adaptation of the screenplay and interpretation of the visual film Farrell's McBurney is never revealed to us as either a helpless victim or a typically aggressive male who sees himself as the superior sex. Coppola never truly allows her film into the psyche of her sole male character (though it makes us think it does) and Farrell's performance keeps us on our toes until the credits roll as to whether he's an upstanding guy who gets seduced as any man might or if he's simply gunning to have control over these women and keep company with as many as will have him. We can't discern any games he might be playing, but what develops out of his presence is nothing short of sport.
The perception of McBurney and the position it takes in the film is maybe the most fascinating aspect of how Coppola tackles the subject matter. Aside from the obvious ideas and implications that deal with the large cast of women coming to the realization of their own talents and potentials is that of how McBurney assesses each of his new-found companions. That such dynamics shine through means the film does an exquisite job of defining the different types of relationships McBurney develops with each of the women, but more it speaks to the larger, more curious arc of how society views the female in general. Take, for instance, the initial meeting between Amy and the Corporal as she serves the role of savior and him that of a man fallen from grace who has fled his masculine duty of fighting and dying honorably in battle. Amy is a beacon of purity, of sweetness, and of untinged thought. Though her society tells her McBurney is the enemy she can't help but to assist the defeated individual she sees laying battered under a tree. This forever solidifies who Amy will be in McBurney's eyes and because of this it communicates how we generally see young girls who have yet to cross puberty; perceived not as sexual objects or a conquest to scale, but as a physical form of innocence and decency. This perception McBurney inherently takes after meeting and being rescued by Amy is expected and by all accounts appropriate and would hardly be something to take note of did Coppola not make how McBurney perceives Miss Martha and Miss Dabney to be as startlingly different yet completely in line with expectation despite the fact Martha and Edwina serve the same savior role as Amy if not to an even greater extent. Rather than McBurney reading the older women of the house to possess the same earnestness and good intent as their young student they are almost immediately pegged as objectified goals: Martha as the stringent and direct headmaster who needs to be let loose and Edwina as the weak and impulsive prisoner who might be preyed upon easiest. This idea that the moment a female comes to possess any type of sexuality at all is also the moment her perception in the mind of any man then shifts from that of her character to that of how much he might accomplish with her is one that would seem to be rather apparent, but there is something to the way Coppola documents the contrast in judgment here that speaks volumes to any male viewer, especially those that might have a young daughter themselves. Of course, Coppola really emphasizes this stark shift by throwing Fanning's Alicia in the mix as a curious temptation for McBurney he's not quite sure he can resist, but the point is “The Beguiled” isn't shy about showing its characters or its audience things they might not like to admit about themselves.
With that type of understanding it would then be very easy to peg “The Beguiled” as a film with a wholly feminist agenda that is meant to make men feel bad for thinking of women in any other way than in terms of how much of a gift they are to the male race and why we should constantly be thankful for them, but in truly sublime fashion Coppola reminds us we're not all that different-men and women-and that instead we're all only as blunt as we need to be in our given set of circumstances. It just so happens that, as the story of “The Beguiled” goes, Miss Martha and her school of impressionable young women, find it necessary to do anything but take the instruction of a man as they would typically be expected to in that day and age. That said, the film doesn't go the most obvious route as one might have expected given what the spoilery trailers purported the film to be and while this may be seen by some as not being as bold as it could have potentially been the terror of the situation is more psychological for it. The movie hinges on how well the scenes work between McBurney and each of the individual women as he attempts to decipher the best way to befriend them if not potentially become more to each. It is the seduction sequences that make or break the effectiveness of what “The Beguiled” is trying to make a statement around and they are executed rather magnificently, especially based on Farrell's sly performance. Photographing the actor in ways that make him seem almost ethereal we understand why the women feel a need to take care of McBurney, but it is more than this as Farrell deduces and then intellectually pounces on the unsuspecting women to not take things too far, but nudge them in the direction that makes them question what they want to do and what they should do. On the other side of things, the women of Coppola's picture are equally terrific in their performances. Kidman's face is a story unto itself as much of what is floating around in her head plays across her eyes and forehead to up the ante on the fact that while Miss Martha is indeed very direct in her dialogue there is still very much that is only implied in that directness. As the oppressed Edwina, Dunst strikes a keen balance of insecurity and rebellion that is more about herself getting over her own fears than anything else. Fanning has some fantastic moments as well despite the fact her character feels the most compacted. Speaking to compact, the film comes in at a short 90-minutes as the first hour flies by leaving the shift in action to be something of an abrupt one, but it comes because both the movie and McBurney are running out of time. With a final scene that is pure, raw tension and an atmosphere devoid of a traditional score, but instead filled with the sounds of cicadas, birds and other natural southern signatures “The Beguiled” is a moody, lurking melodrama with a lush, but dim aesthetic that is hauntingly beautiful in the same way its protagonists are.
by Philip Price
The thing that will forever allow “Spider-Man: Homecoming” to stand apart from the previous five iterations of the webslinger is that it is very much its own movie. ‘Homecoming’ stands on its own and doesn't feel the need to repeat any of the beats from either Tobey Maguire or Andrew Garfield's stints as your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. Rather, ‘Homecoming’ picks up after the first ‘Avengers’ film, carries us behind the scenes of ‘Civil War,’ and onto Peter Parker's first solo adventure where, as a sophomore in high school, he's already been bit by the radioactive spider and learned of the abilities he's adapted since that fateful encounter. ‘Homecoming’ is a movie that embraces Parker's youthfulness in its character dynamics and his eagerness to become a hero in its action scenes. Most vital though is that ‘Homecoming’ isn't the origin story we've all come to know, but it is still a movie about how Peter Parker truly becomes Spider-Man. Somehow, with six credited screenwriters, it is the screenplay that stands to be one of the strongest factors in the film’s corner when it comes to setting itself apart from a character that has had two previous actors portray them and five previous incarnations on the big screen over the last 15 years. Most startlingly is the fact this isn't a film based around a bad guy who is trying to take over the world or a villain who is trying to obtain a large sum of money to take over the world or even an antagonist who wants to steal a device that will help them take over the world, but rather this is, funnily enough, a movie that is born from the repercussions of Tony Stark's actions and one of the many enemies he's made in the process. As much as Sony and Marvel Studios have pushed the presence of Robert Downey Jr.'s Stark in the marketing for “Spider-Man: Homecoming” Downey Jr. is rarely on screen, but his influence is everywhere. From the opening frame of the film we know this is a Spider-Man who exists well within the same world as Thor and Hulk. From what motivates our villain to act in the first place, what is born out of those motivations, and how it has come around time and time again for Stark and his peers to have to dispel them “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is a result of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in more ways than one which is, thankfully, very much to its benefit. Thus, what we have is a movie that is very fun, yet another enjoyable entry in what is a TV series on the largest scale possible, and while ‘Homecoming’ is as fun as one could hope and entertaining as all get out it never reaches a point of greatness that pushes it into the realm of exceptional.
Speaking to the screenplay, it is brought to us by an amalgamation of well-known Hollywood writers including the team of Jonathan Goldstein and John Frances Daley who have previously collaborated on comedies such as “Horrible Bosses” as well as Chris McKenna and his writing partner Erik Sommers (“The LEGO Batman Movie”) and finally Christopher Ford (“Robot & Frank”) who worked with director Jon Watts on his previous feature, “Cop Car.” How this thing ultimately turned out as cohesive as it does, never mind how good it did, will forever remain a mystery, but this was seemingly a writers room and/or draft revision upon draft revision that actually worked and recognized the areas where improvement was truly needed and then properly focused on it. Properly being the key word there. For, with “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” the greatest impact it will leave doesn't come from the major action set pieces that deal with the Washington Monument or the Staten Island Ferry or even Tony Stark's invisible plane, but rather they come from the interplay of the core group of characters the film presents us. As 15-year old Peter Parker, Tom Holland is first and foremost fantastic in the role and this is coming from a guy who grew up on the Maguire films, but never really warmed to his portrayal and someone who enjoyed Garfield's darker take on the character if not largely because it wasn't Maguire. Holland is full of hope, optimism, and energy and his solo debut matches that energy with its relentless pacing and joyful tone. As stated, Holland's Parker is a super hero who yearns to play with the big boys, who feels a determination to prove himself where other characters in the MCU might not, but more than anything it is the fact ‘Homecoming’ allows the seeds of Parker as a young man and the conflicts he'll face as one of the youngest super heroes in The Avengers to really bloom. Watts and his team of writers are intent on showing us the constant sacrifices Parker must make to *maybe* achieve what he believes he truly wants at this point in his life. We see Parker forced to leave a party being thrown by his high school crush, we see him missing out on school activities he genuinely cares about, and we see him getting so caught up in it all that he begins to lose sight of who he is without Spider-Man. Holland balances this tinge of sacrifice with the joy that being Spider-Man and having his abilities would naturally bring to what is essentially a child with an ease that has never been glimpsed in a live-action portrayal of the character.
That said, Holland's Parker has something neither Maguire nor Garfield did and thus is the reason I'm hesitant to compare the performances at all. That special something though is Ned (Jacob Batalon). Ned is Peter Parker's best friend and the only person outside of Stark and Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau in a great little supporting turn) that know his secret; that know he is Spider-Man. This fresh, new dynamic to the Spider-Man story is one that allows the character to not always feel so burdened and torn between the life he feels a responsibility to and the one he truly desires with the given love interest. Does that mean ‘Homecoming’ doesn't feature a love interest? Of course not. Enter the unattainable Liz (Laura Harrier), a senior who also happens to be the captain of the academic decathlon team that Parker, Ned, and a host of their other friends are on including Michelle (Zendaya) and even the sometimes agonizing, but mostly tolerable Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori). Holland's Parker is beyond intimidated to even look in Liz's direction, but it's clear from the get-go that Harrier's love interest is more layered than the standard damsel in distress and that she has her stuff together and knows a guy like Parker does too-even if he doesn't always seem to make the best decisions for himself. It is in the setting of this typical high school that we see a majority of the conflict in “Spider-Man: Homecoming” play out and as one might expect much of that conflict deals with Parker not being in his Stark-made costume. It is in these scenes that the movie flourishes with touches of comedy that really hit including both re-occurring bits (those awkward broadcasting class announcements are perfection) and banter between the characters (both Batalon and Zendaya really kill it with their timing). Of course, a hero would be nothing without a worthy villain and as the MCU stepped up their bad-guy-game in their other production this year, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” they continue that trend with Michael Keaton's Adrian Toomes AKA The Vulture. Toomes is not your average baddie in the sense of world domination or anything that includes a blue beam shooting into the sky, but rather this is a complicated man who fell on hard times and did the best he could with the hand life dealt him. There is a rawness to Keaton's performance that simmers through the CG wings he wears half the time he's on screen. There is a correlation between his arc and that of Tony Stark's that the movie isn't afraid to acknowledge and that it doesn't retreat on when it really comes down to it. “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is admirable in this way and the performances from both Holland and Keaton keep this rather complex relationship all the fresher and engaging.
Where Watts can handle the interplay between the characters to continuously compelling extents and elicit a tone that is sincerely, and I can't say this enough, a lot of fun-it is in the technical aspects of the production that it seems things get away from the director. Whether it is because Watts, like Marc Webb before him and a handful of other indie directors since, was plucked from his modest debut and plopped into the throws of blockbuster filmmaking or not the truth of the matter is that ‘Homecoming’ isn't always the prettiest film to look at. And that isn't to say a film has to look good to be good (though it certainly doesn't hurt), but more that this is very much a spectacle of a movie-one where large portions of its entertainment value rely on massive set pieces-and while I again admire ‘Homecoming’ and Holland for giving us a Spider-Man that is still getting a handle on how exactly to operate as Spider-Man it's hard to make exceptions for a film with a budget of over $170 million that still has special effects shots featuring our titular hero that look like something out of “The Matrix Reloaded.” It's not that it is a shortcoming that is glimpsed often throughout the course of the film and I realize the creative leads on the project only have so much say when it comes to final visual effects, but it leaves a sense of falseness in the viewer's eye that is difficult to shake. We want to believe that what we're seeing is in some shape or form really Holland as Parker flipping and swinging through the city, but to so easily notice that much of the time this is a full CG character is disheartening. The action scenes themselves do what they are intended to do and there are certainly aspects of the Ferry sequence that feature ‘Homecoming’ at its best, but again it feels like the scope of the project too often got away from Watts and that he was forced to concoct a sequence in which he wasn't sure how to approach. Still, that the character elements are what work over the action in a super hero movie really says something about the film itself and I can only imagine that if Watts gets another shot with this franchise he'll bring his new experience to the table. All of this to say that “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is an origin story in the different sense of the new world it's hero has entered, but while Peter Parker is still very much figuring out his role in the MCU so is his movie. ‘Homecoming’ lacks a strong sense of definition in that it feels more like filler than a definitive point in the overall arc of Spider-Man. It walks an interesting line as it seemingly has everything anyone could want from such an experience and yet it never crosses that threshold in your gut that tells you you're watching something special. There isn't anything wrong with fun, especially when it does indeed deliver as much fun as ‘Homecoming’ does, but that won't rank it among one of the best in the current MCU line-up. On the other hand, it does have one of if not the best post-credits scene in a Marvel movie thus far, so there's that.
by Philip Price
It's a sad day when one of your comedic icons who you grew up watching seemingly puts the nail in their proverbial comedy coffin, but that seems to be where we're at with Will Ferrell's career. Ferrell needs another Adam McKay collaboration and stat. After a rather stale streak post ‘Anchorman 2’ (which I loved) that has included “Get Hard,” “Daddy's Home” and “Zoolander 2” I was personally hoping for something of a turn in what would be Ferrell's first R-rated comedy since “Get Hard” which also happens to be the directorial debut of Andrew Jay Cohen who has written or co-written the screenplays for both ‘Neighbors’ films as well as last summer's rather surprising “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates.” Cohen and writing partner Brendan O'Brien have crafted a premise that is a perfect jumping off point for a Will Ferrell comedy, but it's clear from the get-go that this is going to be one of those comedies that falls into the cheaper-feeling, amateur hour-type category. “The House” was never going to reach the intelligence levels of Ferrell's work with McKay, but it can’t even touch something like “Blades of Glory” which too felt cheap, no doubt, but was so consistently outrageous that it held itself up. Rather, “The House” is a movie that would have been a hotly-anticipated comedy five to eight years ago as it is the first time Ferrell has been paired with the ever-endearing Amy Poehler, but as things stand today there are seemingly no other marquee movie stars left besides *maybe* Kevin Hart, but even he must be in the right vehicle for the box office to reward him. Ferrell is the last of a nearly dead breed and you can see the wear on his exterior as he sleepwalks his way through “The House.” It's not only a little sad to behold, but disappointing in that I've previously always looked forward to a Will Ferrell comedy and even if no one else in the world might understand why-I was still excited for “The House” in hopes that Cohen might offer a new voice in the comedy world, someone who was hungry to jump start what has felt like an unusually stale output from the likes of Ferrell and his normal cohorts over the past few years, but instead of reinvigorating anything Cohen has made a film that fits snuggly between the letdowns that have been Ferrell's last few films.
Speaking to that premise, Cohen and O'Brien's screenplay pits its two leads as an average suburban couple who severely embrace their suburbaness. They love their upper middle-class neighborhood (where they have a house they could probably sell and make at least the first couple years tuition off if they were truly desperate) they live in, they enjoy attending community meetings, and they have become best friends with their only child, daughter Alex (Ryan Simpkins), who they are now losing to college. They are about to become the owners of an empty nest (another reason they could afford to downsize) and while I admire the fact Alex is a cool enough kid to recognize how cool it is that she has parents like Scott (Ferrell) and Kate (Poehler) that doesn't mean she doesn't want to be a normal high school senior and spend the summer before her freshman year at Bucknell University with friends she won't see as often come fall. The bigger problem that adjusting to the changes each member of the Johansen family will soon be facing though is the fact Scott and Kate have no money to afford Bucknell's tuition. They were expecting Alex would receive a full-ride scholarship through their local chamber of commerce in their cozy Fox Meadow, but at the last minute corrupt city council member Bob (Nick Kroll) persuades most of the community to dedicate their resources to a community water park rather than allowing only one family to benefit from their annual budget. This leaves Scott and Kate scrambling for ideas as to how to fund their daughter's future. Enter Scott's best friend Frank (Jason Mantzoukas) who is the midst of a divorce with his wife Raina (Michaela Watkins) and who desperately needs the vacation he, Scott, and Kate have been planning to Vegas. And so, despite the fact the crux of the plot depends on Scott and Kate not having enough money to send their child to college they presumably drop a couple grand on a trip to Vegas where Scott gives Frank the bright idea to start an underground casino in their house where they might both make enough money to remedy their problems. Of course, we all know such a plan won't possibly turn out for the best, but Scott and Kate decide to go along with Frank's plan anyway which eventually sees them become unrecognizable in their roles as "The Butcher" and "The Burner".
At a lean 88 minutes one of the few redeeming qualities the film has going for it is the fact it doesn't overstay its welcome. “The House” quickly sets up our conflict and does so in the way comedies do by adding in an ensemble of characters that are meant to provide small moments of comedy around that main conflict. Another aspect “The House” has going for it is indeed the troupe of strong comedy players sprinkled in throughout the supporting roles that offer isolated moments of funny, but aren't strong enough on their own to create a feeling of a cohesive sense of humor across the whole of the movie. Whether it be the fresh presence of someone like Rory Scovel, who I wasn't familiar with prior and who brings a sense of obliviousness to the proceedings as he is more than willing to participate in whatever he might be included in or Lennon Parham and Andrea Savage as two rival moms in the community that tend to butt heads on every topic that comes up, but mostly a potluck that left a sour taste. There are other recognizable faces such as Cedric Yarbrough, Allison Tolman and Rob Huebel who, along with the main players, each try to bring their own special something to the mix that makes this experience enjoyable to a certain degree even if it doesn't make the movie overall that much better. Examples of this would include Huebel's do-gooder cop who always gets caught in unfortunate circumstances or the blossoming relationship that isn't between Kroll and Tolman's characters that elicit, at the very least, smirks from viewers who are familiar with these character actors and accustomed to their quirks. This even goes for Ferrell and Poehler who have fine enough chemistry with one another and very clearly understand the line they're walking between what roles people expect them to fill through to the type of personalities they possess and/or come to inhabit. Many of the subplots and supporting players fill in as fine enough comedy fodder from time to time, but even as Ferrell and Poehler have something of an interesting approach to their characters in that they're coming from a place where these people are proud of what they've built despite not seeming to really have an idea of what's going on or how to “adult” the result still falls flat. Despite Scott's legit fear of numbers and the fact the script gives us no indication as to what either Scott or Kate do for a living these two have made a comfortable life for themselves and so to see two comedy minds like that of Ferrell and Poehler's take on such a persona that would then evolve into this warped sense of reality because of this growing lie would seemingly be nothing but a lot of fun, but for one reason or another Cohen simply doesn't know how to harness such energy.
What are these reasons, then? Why-given the talent involved here-could Cohen not craft a better film and a funnier comedy? One could go on and on about how much more difficult it is to craft a successful comedy than that of an effective drama, but that isn't the case with the “The House.” The case with “The House” is more the script only does half of what it's supposed to with Cohen and O'Brien assuming that they have a funny enough cast to prop up the funny side of their story. A movie is first and foremost only as strong as its script and with Cohen and O'Brien only providing a premise and a structure upon which that premise plays out what is absent are the key ingredients that would make any film worth watching: authentic and interesting characters. While Ferrell and Poehler do what they can what they're given are vague outlines of who these people are. Moreover, they are given the outlandish circumstances of the plot for which Cohen and O'Brien seemingly hoped their comic actors would react to in hilariously comedic ways. Past only being funny, comedies must have characters we care about, that we become interested in, and want to ride out the remainder of their conflict with even if we know it has been comically blown out of proportion. “The House” simply doesn't offer anything of such substance. Rather, it zips by and hits the expected beats of a generic studio comedy to check off all the boxes that need to be checked for this to be called an actual movie. Admittedly, Cohen does seem to want to try some things out aesthetically with his feature debut as the color palette changes to a more monochromatic canvas of dark grays and steel blues in some sequences and faded brown with hints of gold in the homemade casino ones over the course of the film. While it's easy to detect this shift in tone from the earlier, bright images that paint the picture of a scenic suburban neighborhood the fact the only reason such a shift takes place is because these characters we don't care about are getting deeper and deeper into their lie makes it something that doesn't really register as an artistic choice. That's the worst of it all, in fact, in that “The House” itself doesn't even care if its audience cares about its characters, but would love nothing more than if we pointed and laughed at them. This doesn't work for all the reasons stated above, but when we do laugh it's mostly thanks to Mantzoukas so thank God, but not this movie, for Jason Mantzoukas.
by Philip Price
The “Despicable Me” franchise has officially reached that point in its life where it doesn’t have any idea where to go next and so it begins digging into the main characters past to try and come up with characters to fill in roles they have yet to address. You’ve seen it before in countless films whether it be something along the lines of “Austin Powers in Goldmember” or even something as wacky as the ‘Fast & Furious’ franchise that can’t help but to keep bringing people back and connecting them in unforeseen ways. With the inevitable “Despicable Me 3” the folks over at Illumination animation have decided to take this route and approach their film as if Gru (again voiced by Steve Carell) fell into something of a “Parent Trap” situation, but the two never ended up going to summer camp together. Instead, it is after the passing of their father that his long-lost twin brother, Dru (also voiced by Steve Carell), contacts the newly married and newly heroic Gru to connect and maybe try to pull him back into his old ways of villainy. It’s a fine enough device, I guess, and it mostly works because Carell’s voice work is so amusing in how he slightly differentiates the two and then must subsequently voice both Gru and Dru doing impressions of one another in what is arguably the most entertaining and genuinely funny scene in the movie. If any other scene in the film had a hint of the kinds of layers or even this kind of wacky creativity in the sense of trying to accomplish something due only to the fact it presents an interesting challenge then the film might have in fact been more interesting, but as it is “Despicable Me 3” is more of the same, but busier. Busier in that it wants you and the children you’re presumably taking to the theater to think there is a ton of stuff happening on screen when all you’re seeing is a collection of disparate scenes strung together by the standard objective of attempting to steal the biggest jewel in the world. That said, “Despicable Me 3” doesn’t really have to be anything more than what it is as it is just funny enough and just consistently colorful enough to feel like the shiny new product it needs to be to please the masses who will spend their hard-earned money on it.
It’s kind of insane, actually-how many things “Despicable Me 3” at least starts and then decides to abandon down the line. For starters, there is the new main antagonist of the film in Balthazar Bratt (voice of Trey Parker) a failed child actor from the eighties who has seemingly refused to let it go that Hollywood dismissed him after he hit puberty and cancelled his show. Having played an evil villain on said TV show titled “Evil Bratt” it seems Balthazar has decided to take on that mantle in his adulthood as he is one of a few parties that is after this “biggest diamond in the world”. To Parker and the animators credit though, Bratt is easily the best addition and maybe the best thing about this third film in general. Sporting not only a mullet, but a bald spot along with his purple jumpsuit with shoulder pads, parachute pants, and fingerless gloves Illumination does well to capitalize on the recent infatuation with that decade by not only giving Bratt a no doubt expensive collection of songs to jam to, but also feeding into the nostalgia of the parents in the crowd while simultaneously providing something silly for their kids to point and laugh at. Seriously though, the non-Pharrell songs used in the first ten minutes of the movie probably cost Universal their share of the “Minions” movie returns as you not only get Michael Jackson’s Bad (which was used in the trailer as well), but there’s also Phil Collins’ “Sussudio,” and a-ha’s “Take on Me” for Bratt to utilize in hopes of re-living his glory days. Parker also fits well into that nostalgia factor as younger parents who grew up with “South Park” or if “South Park” was a formidable part of their teenage years will be able to have the little in-joke of knowing just how demented Bratt could really get if this animated movie were to go off the rails while on the other side of things Parker just does well to embody the, for lack of a better word, brattiness of his baddie. The problem with Bratt is that he doesn’t get enough screen time to flesh out a more creative plan or more of what could have been fun character quirks, but instead directors Eric Guillon, Kyle Balda and ‘Despicable’ pioneer Pierre Coffin (who directed the original along with Chris Renaud who is now working on “The Secret Life of Pets 2”) spread everything so thin in this 90-minute feature that no one gets their due-not even the minions. This, of course, is a fault of the writers more than anyone, but as this comes from the writing team of Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio who have essentially penned everything under Illumination’s sun one would think they’d have a better handle on how to better crank these things out. As it is though, “Despicable Me 3” feels rather rushed and as a result is the least of these films thus far.
Beyond the new storyline featuring Bratt we also come to meet the new head of the AVL (Anti-Villain League) in Valerie Da Vinci (Jenny Slate) who boots out Mr. Ramsbottom (Steve Coogan) for no other reason than to fire Gru and Lucy (Kristen Wiig) so that Gru has more reason to drift on over to the dark side once Dru is introduced. I assume they are enlisting Slate for future installments, but who knows-there certainly is no indication of that here other than the fact Slate has been killing it on the voice work side of things lately (“Zootopia,” “The Secret Life of Pets,” “The LEGO Batman Movie”). This leads to the fact Gru and Lucy do indeed find themselves unemployed leading to troubles with the minions who, as led by Mel, start a rebellion due to the fact Gru refuses to go back to being a bad guy. The movie then deals Lucy a subplot of trying to better integrate herself with the girls as she is new to the role of being a mother, but Margo (Miranda Cosgrove) kind of gives Lucy a heads up on how to handle things while Margo herself is given a nonsensical story that has something to do with cheese and the marriage traditions that come along with cheese and pigs in Dru’s country called Freedonia. If this wasn’t enough the movie also gives young Agnes (Nev Scharrel) a quest to follow that concerns tracking down a real-life unicorn, but gives Edith (Dana Gaier) nothing to do other than follow Agnes around. It’s a whole weird thing because for as much as that sounds like a ton of stuff is happening there is no real progression on any of these storylines by the time the film hits the one-hour mark and there’s only thirty minutes left to tie it all together. It’s a distraction tactic more than anything; getting the viewer invested in all these different strands only for maybe two or three to really have any type of significant payoff. There is literally no coming back around to why the AVL needed a new director or why Margo needed to almost fall into an arranged marriage with a foreigner, but they’re here! What’s even worse is the fact that it’s abundantly clear the creative forces behind these movies are genuinely funny and inventive people because you notice things in the background like billboards for fake movies like, “Gigantosaurus Wrecks,” and it’s charming, but it’s also so spontaneous if not totally absurd in how it’s integrated into the story that one quickly realizes that if they could've harnessed these juices into a concentrated effort this might have felt more cohesive and less sporadic than it ultimately ends up being.
What is maybe the most revealing aspect of “Despicable Me 3” though is the fact that the minions are missed more than anything and that is because they dare to split them up from the rest of the story. There is no Gru/minions interactions and even more critical is the fact there are hardly any girls/minions interactions as it was always the dynamic between Gru’s henchmen and Gru’s daughters that kind of provided this fun and unpredictable dynamic that would then propel the plot forward in fun and interesting ways. This time around, the plot substitutes the minions for what is an alternate version of Gru and hopes that by giving the minions a side adventure that sees them breaking onto a Hollywood lot and landing on an ‘America’s Got Talent’-type show where they get their time to sing and dance and then onto a prison yard where they again…get their time to sing and dance that audiences will be satisfied. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the minions musical sequences, they’re a good bit of fun, but they feel so disconnected from the main narrative that they are more like intermissions from the actual movie than anything else. Whatever it is the minions are doing rest assured that it has no bearing on anything else that is going on. Also, a lot of minion bum in this one. Like, a strange amount.
It isn’t just the minions that are missing from “Despicable Me 3” though, but while the little yellow henchmen may prove to be the more noticeable absence in the film what is more jarring the more one thinks about this third movie and reflects on the trilogy is the way in which each of these have tapered off-becoming less and less like the original that captured the imaginations and money of so many people around the world. That original was a rather unique piece of animation in that it took the whole villain as a hero archetype and gave it enough quirks and enough sweet moments to make it feel refreshing while largely standing out due to a unique animation style and big choices in the voice department. The point being, it felt a little bold and boldness counts for a lot. With the sequel, they upped the minion count and slapped a story together that saw Gru still evolving, but mostly through re-purposing the original. With “Despicable Me 3” it feels like they’re grasping for straws as far as what to do next with these characters. I mean, if Gru’s dad was this iconic supervillain how did Gru not know who he was if he was supposed to be these great villain himself in the original film? It just doesn’t mesh. And I get it, it’s a kid's movie, it doesn't all have to make sense, but that’s no excuse because children deserve better than this and those making movies for children should appreciate that fact rather than churning out lazily plotted dreck such as this. Early in “Despicable Me 3” we get a shot of a pair of clownfish who we take to be a reference to Nemo and Marlin from the Pixar movies just before Gru, Lucy and the minions speed past on their secret agent jet skis. It's almost as if Illumination is saying they're zipping past Pixar, but Illumination might want to step back and check themselves before calling out the likes of Pixar as something like “Cars 3” could compete with the best of what Illumination must offer any day of the week. They haven’t earned the right to make such a motion and if “Despicable Me 3” is any indication of the direction the studio is going, they never will.