The Dark Tower (2017) | review

Thanks to The City Vault for sending me to this early screening!

Note: I have not read the The Dark Tower book series, nor have I seen… any Stephen King movie? Or read any of his books? (Horror is not my thing. I am a scaredy cat.)

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There has been SO MUCH HYPE for this much-beloved epic book series to come to life on the big screen, but there has also been so much strife for this film to actually come to fruition. Stephen King fans have been waiting with bated breath for a movie that they knew could never match the fantastical world crafted over nine books that is the link between all of King’s other novels.

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Recognize the hotel in the picture frame?

To put it in perspective for people unfamiliar with the source material: You know how there are theories that say things like all Pixar movies are in the same universe? That’s what The Dark Tower is to Stephen King novels, on a Lord of the Rings-esque scale. So… it’s a big a** deal.

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

I learned that The Dark Tower movie is meant to be a sequel/continuation of the books, so fans who are expecting a faithful adaptation of the Gunslinger book will be disappointed. There is no man in black fleeing across the desert to open the movie; that war is done when the film begins.

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The Gunslinger (Idris Elba) is the standout star of this film. He channels so much of that Man With No Name energy that Stephen King based the character on with this immense gravitas in his eyes and his voice and his posture. And while it’s obvious, it is very worth mentioning how freaking cool he is with his forged-from-Excalibur guns.

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I’m sure the books have a lot more backstory on Roland, the last of the Gunslingers, but we don’t really know what his deal is in the movie. Why is he the last? What do you mean guns forged from King Arthur’s Excalibur? Why is he able to resist the Man in Black’s magics, and why is this not a bigger mystery to either of them?

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I just really love Idris Elba, okay, he deserves more, always

Speaking of the Man in Black, Matthew McConaughey plays the villain I never knew I wanted him to be all these years of watching his career grow from the rom-coms I loved him in to an Oscar-winning actor. He has this eerie stillness to him, a complete control of the situation, and a psychopathic way of getting in people’s heads while having zero empathy for them.

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Despite all of that, the Man in Black in The Dark Tower falls victim to the same fate as many blockbuster movie villains: A poorly fleshed out motive and a, there, uncompelling foil to our protagonists. Walter (as his real name is, apparently) is this all-powerful man with at least hundreds of minions at his fingertips. He has magic that allows hims to stop bullets and tell people to stop breathing and do some straight-up Matrix-type stuff. But why? Why does he want the Dark Tower to fall? Why does he want to allow hellish creatures into the universe? And my personal beef when it comes to magical powers is always: What is the limit of these powers? (Still mad about Elsa’s vague but frighteningly limitless ice powers…)

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Tom Taylor‘s Jake Chambers showed a lot of very real emotions for the anchor of this story: he’s frustrated that no one is taking his dreams seriously, he’s mad at his stepfather for wanting to send him away to get help, he’s terrified of the monsters in his dreams coming after him in real life, he’s disappointed that even the heroes of his dreams aren’t what he expected, he’s sad about having lost his father.

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Unfortunately, with Jake, we are literally only TOLD that he has great powers, but we really aren’t shown this. Before he crosses through a portal, he has to fight off some kind of demon in the woodwork of the house and, apparently, the reason he is able to do so is because he has mega-strong psychic abilities? But we see no real indication of this until we’re told that he has these powers. It’s not like Harry Potter talking to a snake or Anakin Skywalker using the Force to win a race. We really don’t get an inkling here, and it’s a rather big failure to show, not tell by the movie, since it is the reason that Jake is important as a character in the context of the events of this story!

TL;DR The movie falls short of the epic potential it promises, and does some strange and unnecessary showing without telling. (Indicative of some strange editing decisions, maybe?) It also leans a bit too much on the fish-out-of-water humor to get by. It’s still a good time to watch, but I don’t feel compelled to watch a sequel or even the potential TV show to come based on this film.

But it is a lot of fun to watch Idris Elba and his revolvers.

The Dark Tower is in theaters today. Spoilers below the trailer.

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A Family Man (2017)

A version of this review originally appeared on Punch Drunk Critics.

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I never know quite what to expect when I watch a Gerard Butler movie. He’s been an opera phantom, a Spartan king, a Secret Service agent…
I do, however, know almost exactly what to expect when I watch a movie about a man struggling to balance his work life and his family life.

There’s nothing wrong with A Family Man. It’s just that it’s pretty predictable: Dane Jensen (Gerard Butler) is a headhunter, the kind that has become very successful by occasionally treating ethics like suggestions and being on his phone all the time. It’s a character we’ve seen before, in this type of movie, and from Gerard Butler, where he is a bit of a douche-bro gunning to run the company when his ruthless boss, Ed Blackridge (Willem Dafoe) announces his retirement. Despite us seeing that he does care for his family, we are introduced to his dynamic with his oldest son via telling him to run with him on account of getting fat. The kid is in elementary school.

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As it turns out, Ryan (Maxwell Jenkins) isn’t getting fat; he has cancer. The timing is unbelievably inconvenient for Dane, who is competing with equally ambitious Lynn (Alison Brie) for the top spot at work. Despite how tired it is to watch a dad fail at juggling increased responsibilities at work with his increased responsibilities at home, Jenkins really shined as little Ryan, who wants to be an architect. My favorite scenes are the ones of Butler and Jenkins exploring Chicago architecture together, quietly enjoying iconic buildings together. These moments are really sweet and really help to draw you in emotionally as a viewer.

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Again, there’s nothing particularly wrong with the story or the movie, but I had a few issues with it. First, Alison Brie’s talent is basically completely wasted. I don’t know if her scenes were cut from the final edit of the movie, but she is hardly in it. You have to assume that Lynn is also very ambitious only because she is the person competing with Dane for Ed’s job, but we don’t really see any sign of her ambition. All we know is that her opinion of Dane and his team of bros is fairly low because of their sketchy methods, although she does admit that Dane is the hardest worker at the firm. Willem Dafoe also didn’t have very much screen time, but he was able to do a lot with the little that he had because his character was simply written to be a much more dynamic and to have more weight in his scenes. It just seemed like a really big waste of Alison Brie.

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Second, the movie is just too long. There is really no need for this story, which has been done so many times and doesn’t really bring anything new to it, to be a nearly 2-hour picture. The pacing itself was actually fine, I didn’t feel it dragged too much at any point, but it could’ve been snappier. Maybe it’s the movie forgot about the great acting talents it had in Brie, Molina, and Dafoe and tried to shoehorn them in. While I love those actors, I don’t think the overall story would have suffered very much without them, and that’s pretty unfortunate.

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Third, and this is a personal grievance, but I felt tricked by this movie because I thought something VERY SAD had happened but it wasn’t quite what I was led to believe. I was so relieved through my TEARS because I only had set so many feels aside for this movie, so this moment really went deep into the reserves, and then it turned out I misunderstood the whole scene. Watch and let me know if you felt similarly emotionally manipulated or if I am just foolish (and salty).

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The performances from the cast are really quite good considering the kind of overdone premise, and the beautiful scenes of father and son admiring architecture together are enough to make you want to visit Chicago in person to see it all for yourself. I just wish there was a little more of what was lacking and a little less of what we have more than enough of in theaters these days.

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A Family Man comes out in US theaters today, June 28.

Baby Driver (2017) + Edgar Wright Q&A

Thanks to Sony Screenings for allowing me to see Baby Driver before its release and to Edgar Wright for a great Q&A session afterwards!

Movie poster for Baby Driver starring Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Eiza Gonzalez Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx

A few weeks ago, I was able to attend a really special advanced screening for Edgar Wright‘s latest film, Baby Driver, made special because the director himself was available afterward to answer questions! I’ll go into more detail about the Q&A after I talk about the movie itself (spoiler alert: Jake Tapper moderated!) so let’s get right into it!

Honestly, the reason this movie was on my radar was because I follow Ansel Elgort on Instagram and he promoted the movie. When Ben and I first saw the trailer, I was like “???” and Ben was very interested until the title appeared on the screen, at which point he went, “Aw, what, the title is Baby Driver are you serious I wanted to watch this movie, too…”

Baby Driver is about a getaway driver named… Baby, and he’s played by Ansel Elgort, whose incredible charm I had somehow underestimated despite following him on social media. (The boy has a great smile.) He listens to music on a variety of iPods virtually constantly because the car accident that killed his parents also left him with debilitating tinnitus – the permanent ringing in the ears that, in some people, can drive folks mad. He helps Kevin Spacey‘s Doc drive in his various heists because he owes Doc money from stealing from him in the past. The other members of the heist crews always change, leading Baby to meet characters like Bats (Jamie Foxx), the batsh*t crazy one eager for a fight, Buddy (Jon Hamm), the cool and easy-going one who is in love with Darling (Eiza González), the beautiful and troublemaking member of the lovebird duo.

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I’ll just say outright that the story and its progression are just okay, but it is very easy to forgive because this movie is not a movie.
It is an incredibly fun, nearly 2-hour-long, beautifully-styled music video.

Baby getting ready to drive in Baby Driver

The movie does not exist without the soundtrack. We listen to whatever Baby is listening to and that frames our experience of the film, just as it frames Baby’s experience. There’s a great one-take long-shot of Baby walking down the street to get coffee while listening to music, but of course, and the sounds in the background begin to sync up with the instrumentals and beat of Bob & Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle”. During the Q&A, I actually learned that this scene is a bit of a lyric video, where the lyrics of the song playing can be seen in the background! I hadn’t noticed at all, but there is graffiti that shows the lyrics, and when Baby walks back over, the graffiti has already changed to reflect the new lyrics.

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That’s the way the entire movie feels. It is how the movie was written in fact: Edgar Wright listened to The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bellbottoms” and imagined a car chase scene every time he listened to it, praying for years and years that it wouldn’t be used in a car chase scene by another director before he could use it as the soundtrack for the opening heist scene.

Awesome car chase scene

The moments of the movie hit the beats of the songs. High-action moments come with high-action beats, and slower, more intimate moments are accompanied by slower jams.

So don’t get caught up in the dialogue. Don’t get caught up in “why would they do that”? Don’t get caught up in the things that usually break a movie.

This isn’t just a movie. It’s a highly-stylized, super fun series of music videos that tell a large story. And it was so much fun. And it was so well-done.

Baby and Debora tapping their feet listening to a song
You’re free to attempt to not do this while watching, but it’s much more enjoyable if you let yourself have fun.

Baby Driver is in theaters June 28. I’ll talk about the great Q&A session with Edgar Wright and Jake Tapper after the trailer.

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Wonder Woman (2017) // review

[ NOTE: This review is in-progress but my wifi is spotty so I’m putting it up now for you to enjoy. Thank you for your patience and support! ]

Thank you to Hotchka DC for inviting me to view Wonder Woman early and to the Spy Museum for helping me win my 2nd-ever in-person raffle!

At. Long. Last. After actual decades of a Wonder Woman movie being discussed and passed from studio to studio, director to director, actress to actress, we finally have our first-ever live-action Wonder Woman feature film! Can you believe it’s taken so long? It has taken decades of pressure on studios to convince them that yes, a female standalone superhero movie is not even a gamble at the box office. People are interested in the character and her being a woman will not hurt your profit margin. In fact, women, who are also in possession of money to spend at the movie, are eager to buy tickets to see a movie starring a strong female superhero, THE strong female superhero.

TL;DR: Wonder Woman is a pretty standard Marvel movie with Zac Snyder’s visual signature and a female superhero.

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Quick confession: I have not been keeping up with the DC Extended Universe movies. I begrudgingly watched Man of Steel and found it as meh as friends’ reviews indicated, and I had almost no interest in watching Batman v Superman or Suicide Squad. So, admittedly, my comments about the rest of the DCEU aren’t entirely fair, since I don’t have firsthand experience of seeing those films.

I say that Wonder Woman felt like a standard Marvel movie because it is very familiar, both with its positive and negative qualities. Even the structure and basic premise is quite familiar: Diana, aka Wonder Woman (although no one calls her that in the movie), is a bad-ass and optimistic character who does not understand the strangeness of our human ways and finds herself fighting in a world war with literal brute force. Many critics are saying that her origin story is like a mix of Thor + Captain America. (My faves! Chris Squared!)

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However, I think it has similar pitfalls to many superhero movies now. I’ve complained about it here before and I probably will never stop but I found the villain(s) to be poorly developed and lacking of compelling characterization and motivations. “Because he’s a bad guy” doesn’t cut it anymore as the answer to “Why is the bad guy doing the bad things?” We have several antagonists in this movie and I found myself not knowing very much about them at all. Just some menacing looks and vague ambitions of prolonging World War I in the face of an armistice and for what? Because! (I’ll discuss more of our villain characterization in the spoilers below the trailer.)

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One of my favorite, too-short, parts of this movie was the scenes on Themyscira, not least of all because they are uncharacteristically sunny for a DC movie! (Don’t worry, the rest of the film remains very blue-grey with spectacular flashes of yellow+orange for effect.) While the slow-motion that Zac Snyder often gets criticized for now gets tired, I liked watching the Amazons be bad-ass in slow-mo. Themyscira seemed very beautiful, if poorly protected from outsiders. (It’s an island in the middle of the ocean that is always a sunny paradise but around it is dark and cloudy and the seas are rough. Which means that, as per the trailer, a plane can just fly in. But also boats can basically just cruise on through. Whatever, it was refreshing to see a bright and sunny scene in this cinematic universe and all these amazing women doing awesome stunts. (Don’t fret, most of the movie is filmed in the dark or on suspiciously overcast days, as per the other DC films.)

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What’s not to love?????

Gal Gadot was a pretty good choice to play Diana, Princess of the Amazons. It goes without saying that she is incredibly beautiful. (My boyfriend and I became fans of hers when Fast Five came out.) She is also very bad-ass, as someone who trained in the Israeli military. While I did find myself wishing she was a little more expressive, she was very good at being naive and finding little pleasures in things like snow and babies. She also pulled off subtle comedic moments quite well. Her chemistry with Chris Pine, who always plays a charming guy with differing levels of douche-baggery (see: Star TrekInto the Woods), was great. I really have to commend Chris Pine on playing Steve Trevor as a charming hero who recognizes that Diana is amazing and does not go hypermasculine in response to that. (It is unfortunate that this very basic demonstration of decency is commendable, but it is.) I felt that almost every other actor was… underutilized.

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Robin Wright gets top billing as the greatest Amazonian warrior of all time, Antiope, but she is so stoic and doesn’t have much depth, as with most of the characters in this movie. She is a general, she fights, she trains. She trains Diana to become an Amazon warrior against her sister, Queen Hippolyta’s, wishes. Why does Hippolyta, played by Connie Nielsen, think that she can get away with just sheltering Diana away forever, anyway? It doesn’t look like Amazons age (and I mean, we know Diana doesn’t age at all between World War I and when she meets Bruce Wayne so I mean…) so trying to just wait it out seems foolish. That is never made very clear and, in the context of the events in the film and the very little circumstantial context we are given, it seems dangerously unreasonable.

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I must say that this movie is… not the kind of feminist movie I think I was expecting it to be. There’s a reversal of the male gaze trope where Diana walks in on Steve Trevor emerging from a bath. There really is no reason for him to be naked in this scene, or for him to be naked for as long as he is, but he is naked because nude Chris Pine serves as eye candy, both for the audience and for Diana, who has to ask if the first man she has ever laid eyes upon is “average for his sex”. Even with so many awesome Amazonian women, I feel like maybe there were scenes cut out of the film that would have fleshed some of them out more. For example, at one particularly emotional scene near the beginning of the movie, one of the Amazons runs forward in tears. I have no idea who she is or why she is moved more than the rest of the Amazons? She is visually differentiated from them when she runs forward but I don’t have a clue who she is, she doesn’t even look familiar to me, don’t even ask me to tell you her name. While looking for the movie poster for this post, I wondered if she is the mysterious 4th Amazon woman on some of the posters that feature the powerful women of Themyscira but, again, I just don’t know? And there is a severe dearth of women with depth throughout the movie, aside from Diana. Etta Candy, Steve’s secretary, is sassy and loyal. Doctor Isabel Maru, aka Doctor Poison, is……. uh… she likes poison gas? I don’t know?? It’s a similar problem that we encounter with the villains.

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Before I forget, I also was bothered that, while Wonder Woman and Sameer speak a few lines of a few different languages in one scene, the Germans are all speaking English. (Some with German accents…)  Steve Trevor does, however, put on a German accent when acting as a spy and talking to Germans. (???!) We know that we aren’t simply suspending disbelief because Steve Trevor remarks that Diana and the other Amazons speak very good English. Not perfect English, as everyone on Themyscira speak with a variation of Gal Gadot’s accent, but very good. I think if that line was left out of the movie, I wouldn’t be as bothered about the language thing but it is what it is.

(Also, I’m not sure I like Wonder Woman’s musical theme. It just doesn’t seem quite in character for her, and it plays several times throughout the movie and is featured prominently in the trailer. Not a fan of it, personally, for Wonder Woman.)

I liked this movie. It was a lot of fun and I think it will send the message that Hollywood can stop avoiding making films with female protagonists and should especially stop making excuses to not make female superhero movies. (How long have we been begging for a standalone Black Widow movie???) It isn’t a perfect movie and I don’t think it deserves all the hype it has been getting. Criticism that the fight scene at the end ruin the tone and pacing of the movie is valid, as is other criticism about what about Diana is actually valued by other characters. (Has she been reduced to a token female? Eye candy? The girl who men want to bang because she acts a bit outside of her gender role?)

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Still, this movie is important. It’s so important for young girls to see a character like Diana on the big screen because it’s astoundingly important to see yourself represented in the media. So to see Wonder Woman, a beautiful woman who does not compromise on who she is or the things that make her a woman, a person who does not fully understand why wars happen and the complicated nature of mankind, is extremely powerful. And it will be similarly powerful for movie audiences to use their ticket purchases to show Hollywood that this movie is overdue and that we want more like it.

Wonder Woman is in theaters everywhere today. Discussion of some spoilers after the trailer.

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Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 [review]

You’re not friends.
No. We’re family.

(And suddenly, I wondered if I was watching another Fast & Furious movie!)

For your pleasure, feel free to listen to “Awesome Mix Vol. 2” while you read.

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Being a “Vol. 2”, everyone is comparing the latest GotG movie to the first one, the one that was a gamble, that was a show of Marvel Studios’ power over their audiences and their market share.

I really enjoyed watching Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. It was super fun, even if the story and jokes were a bit alllllll over the place. But the humor at the core of the movie really held it all together. I dare you to not have fun watching. Vol. 2 knew what people liked from the first movie and brought a lot of it back, like:

  • Adorable baby Groot (so cute I cried a little bit and I am not ashamed)
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  • Awesome throwback soundtrack
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  • Drax being a weird alien who doesn’t understand things like societal norms
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  • Yondu and his bada** arrow
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Bonus: We get a Stan Lee cameo in this one!

I did really enjoy Guardians 2. There were so many different levels of jokes in this movie, and just the amount of humor packed into the movie made for a really entertaining ride. One minute, you’d be laughing really hard at a visual gag that even your kids could enjoy and crack up at. The next, you’re drying your eyes because this movie decided to touch on some pretty heavy themes of family.

(Also, Baby Groot is legitimately just SO cute and has such a cute little voice — that Vin Diesel does himself with very little processing! — and I cried on the inside during a scene where people are being really mean to him. That being said, his cuteness is what kept him alive to see that scene out, and I’m happy for that.)

The second scene, where we see the Guardians fighting a giant alien together, is a pretty good tone-setter for the rest of the film. We have the Guardians working together(ish) to fight a monster. We have a dancing Baby Groot. We see some great dynamics between the Guardians. We have a lot of action going on.

It’s worth mentioning as well that Kurt Russell was pretty great as Ego, and apparently his de-aging for the scenes in the 80s was mostly makeup and very minimal CG! What the heck!!

There are 5 sting scenes before, during, and after the credits, so stick around if you want to see them. Be prepared to laugh, cry, and be a little confused maybe, sure. More spoiler-y type comments after the trailer.

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