Reel Opinions


Friday, August 25, 2017

Leap!

Leap! (And yes, the exclamation mark is part of the title.) is a very strange animated film that seems distracted by itself.  It wants to tell the story of a plucky young orphan girl who dreams of dancing ballet, but it keeps on throwing in subplots about romantic triangles, rival dancers, a young inventor, dead mothers, and the cranky old man who works at the orphanage who's really not as bad as he seems.  As if that's not enough, the movie goes completely off the rails with a ludicrous climax where the young heroine is chased up the Statue of Liberty by a crazed sledgehammer-wielding villain in an action sequence that seems to be lifted right out of the Roger Moore-era of James Bond.  To be honest, I did not see that one coming.

Originally titled Ballerina, this is a French-Canadian film that has slowly been released around the world during the past year, and is just now hitting America.  Certain actors like Elle Fanning (as the young girl who dreams of being a dancer) and pop singer Carly Rae Jepsen have had their voices connected to this film from the beginning.  But for whatever reason, certain characters have been recast for the American release, with their voices being dubbed by the likes of Nat Wolff, Mel Brooks and Kate McKinnon (who gets to provide the voice of three different characters).  The end result is, quite frankly, a mess.  The performances run the wide range of just sounding wrong (Fanning's voice sounds too old to be coming out of what appears to be a 12 or 13 year old girl), not sounding very interested or involved (Jepsen), to non-stop rambling (Brooks frequently talks, even when it's clear his character's mouth is not even moving).  It's distracting, and gives the film a shoddy feel.

As the film opens, we're introduced to young dreamers Felicie (voiced by Fanning) and Victor (Nat Wolff).  They're stuck in a ramshackle orphanage, but quickly make plans to escape, run away to Paris, and pursue their dreams.  As mentioned, Felicie dreams of practicing ballet at a world famous school.  Within a day of being in the city, she manages to scam her way into joining a class when she steals an invitation letter intended for a spoiled brat named Camille (Maddie Ziegler), and poses as her.  But don't worry, it's okay that Felicie is performing mail fraud and identity theft in order to get what she wants, because Camille was mean to her, and broke the music box that Felicie's dead mother (Kate McKinnon, in flashbacks) gave her once.  Also, Camille's mom (also voiced by McKinnon) is pure evil.  Not only does she look strikingly similar to the Wicked Stepmother from Disney's animated Cinderella film, but she's frequently cruel to the crippled girl who acts as her maid, Odette (Carly Rae Jepsen).

Turns out Odette used to be a dancer herself, until an injury ended her dreams.  She takes Felicie under her wing, and begins to train her in ballet in a series of exercises such as standing in a puddle of water, and jumping up to reach a bell, only to land without making a splash in the puddle.  But the movie's not really about dance, or learning about it.  Just about everything that has to do with dance is brushed aside in music montages set to forgettable modern day pop songs, even though the movie is set in 19th Century France.  What the movie instead chooses to focus on is the young Victor, who dreams of being a famous inventor, and winds up getting a job helping to build the Eiffel Tower.  Victor is the "Nutty Professor" type, frequently walking into things, bumping his head, and providing fart jokes when needed.  He's also apparently not smart enough to realize that chickens don't fly, even though he appears to be around 13 or so.  There's also a love triangle, when Felicie falls for a handsome young Russian dancer in the class, and Victor feels betrayed, as he has always had feelings for her. 

Leap! struggles to make us care about its plot, so it instead tries to dazzle us with its animation, which often comes across as a mixed bag.  While I wouldn't exactly call the character designs ugly, there is something very artificial and plastic to them.  Maybe it's the somewhat oversized heads, and faces that look just a little too flawless and scrubbed clean to look natural.  Where the artists have clearly put all their attention to is the backgrounds, which feature some stunningly detailed locations for the streets of Paris and the dance school.  They're lovely to look at, but since nothing all that interesting is happening in front of these backdrops, we quickly realize that staring at a still frame of one of the backgrounds in this movie would achieve the same effect. 

And then there's just the fact that the movie seems far too modern for a film that's supposed to be set in 1880.  I already mentioned the pop music that scores most of the movie.  When Felicie gets a chance to perform in The Nutcracker, I expected to hear some of Tchaikovsky's music, but instead, she starts dancing to a Carly Rae Jepsen tune.  There's also the dialogue, where people say things like "your dancing sucks" and even at one point make a reference to M.C. Hammer.  This movie simply dumbfounded me.  I didn't know how to react to it, or who exactly it was made for.  Young girls will obviously be pulled in by the story of a girl becoming a famous dancer, but they'll be disappointed to learn that this plot isn't as important to the overall movie as you would think.  And just when you think the movie actually will finally be about dancing, we get the previously mentioned action climax that manages to be both bewildering and laughable all at once.

Leap! is an all around haphazard production that never settles on what it wants to be, or a proper tone.  You can tell that all the enthusiasm here went into the settings and animating some of the dance montages.  The plot, script, characters and just about everything else were all a second thought, which is probably why this movie feels so strange when you're watching it.

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Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Hitman's Bodyguard

The Hitman's Bodyguard is an energized throwback to a genre long dormant in Hollywood - the action comedy centered on two people who despise each other, but are forced to work together in order to survive.  This genre was nearly everywhere throughout the 80s and even the early part of the 90s.  Notable examples included 48 Hours, the original Lethal Weapon, Midnight Run, Tango and Cash and The Last Boy Scout.  Not only does Hitman know the best aspects from these type of films to use as inspiration, but it gives us some genuine laughs and surprisingly strong thrills for a late summer blockbuster.

What director Patrick Hughes (The Expendables 3) has done is given us an old fashioned summer movie that, save for a few modern day references to cell phones, could have been made back in the 80s, and probably would have starred Schwarzenegger, Stallone or Willis in one of the lead roles back in the day.  The movie's mix of strong violence and playful word humor, along with some physical comedy, usually hits the right balance.  I say usually, because there is one moment early in the film where it is implied that the villain kills a wife and child that has no place being in a lighthearted comedy such as this.  Save for the rare misstep, the movie is just plain fun.  The lead stars (Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson) are obviously barely hiding their grins as they do their scenes, and it's just joyful to watch them play off each other.  The film is as much fun to watch as it obviously was to make.

Reynolds plays Michael Bryce, a man who once had a reputation for being the best in the business when it came to protection services.  His job was to transport people who others wanted dead safely to a destination, or out of the country.  That all came crashing down when two years ago, he lost his first client - a Japanese arms dealer who was assassinated right before the plane took off.  Since then, he's still in the business of protection, only he now drives a crappy car, and his clients are much lower on the ladder of importance, such as lawyers strung out on drugs.  Out of the blue, he gets a phone call from a former girlfriend, Interpol agent Amelia Roussel (Elodie Yung), who is forced to turn to him for help.  She's been placed to protect a hitman by the name of Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson), who is needed alive in order to testify against a tyrannical dictator (Gary Oldman) currently standing trial.  Due to a mole within Interpol, armed thugs have discovered Kincaid's location, and are now tracking him down and killing anyone who gets in their way.  Michael and Kincaid have had their share of differences during their run-ins in the past, but now must work together if Kincaid is able to make it to the trial alive, as he's the only witness that hasn't backed out.

Turns out Kincaid has 250 kills to his name, and has made 28 attempts on Michael's life over the years.  Naturally, this leads to a lot of tension as the two are forced to hit the road together, while dodging the various people trying to make sure Kincaid does not testify.  This not only leads to some strong and occasionally laugh out loud funny interplay between Reynolds and Jackson, but it also leads to some very well done action sequences and car chases that, like the films it draws inspiration from, seem to be done with largely physical and practical effects instead of CG.  Also like the films it seems to be following the path of, it is unapologetically R-rated, with four letter words making up a majority of the dialogue.  We expect this from Reynolds and Jackson with their humor, but the big surprise here is Selma Hayek, who plays Jackson's wife, and is often hilarious as she tries to out-curse her male co-stars in a lot of her scenes.

The Hitman's Bodyguard is not a smart movie, but it knows what it's doing.  It's well-made, has plenty of scenes that allow its stars to fling comic insults and one liners off of each other, and is thrilling enough that the audience holds their breath during some of the narrow escapes.  It's also smart enough to put its actors in roles that they are comfortable in.  Jackson is the bombastic loudmouth with a profanity-laden zinger for any situation, while Reynolds is the slightly more laid back straight man.  And yet, these are not just "types" that the actors are playing.  We get to see some flashbacks that led these two men to their current path in life (many of these are funny), and the chemistry that eventually builds between the two is real.  We're not just enjoying watching these actors share the screen, but we eventually grow to like the two characters being together.  The movie perfectly captures the silly and hyper violent tone that a film such as this requires in order to be successful, and the actors know how to carry it.

If this movie often feels like a relic from another decade, I think it's intentional.  The fact that the soundtrack features quite a few pop hits from the 80s is also probably not a mistake.  Does this mean that The Hitman's Bodyguard will probably play better with older viewers than younger audiences?  Probably, and there's nothing wrong with that.  As someone who grew up watching these kind of movies on HBO, I had a good time with this, and the presence of Reynolds and Jackson only sweetens the experience in my opinion.

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Saturday, August 19, 2017

Logan Lucky

After stepping away from feature filmmaking for four years, Steven Soderbergh breaks from retirement with Logan Lucky, a lightweight but fun caper film that kind of serves as a combination of Soderbergh's remake of Ocean's 11, and selected films from the Coen Brothers (notably Raising Arizona and O Brother, Where Art Thou).  And while the thick Southern accents and "dumb hick" cliches are laid on a bit thick at times, the film is energetic and fast-paced throughout. 

Channing Tatum is a long way from Magic Mike here, playing Jimmy Logan, a down on his luck Southern "good ol' boy" who loses his job as a construction worker, and comes up with a plan to use his knowledge to steal money from a NASCAR racetrack.  Having taken part in an excavation project underneath the speedway, he knows the inner workings of the place, and the best way to make off with the loot.  He turns to his own family to help him with the plan, including his brother Clyde (Adam Driver), who doesn't let the fact that he lost part of one arm in Iraq slow him down any when he's on the job as a bartender, and his sister Mellie (Riley Keough).  But in order to get away with the money, he's going to need the help of an experienced professional.

Enter Joe Bang, played by a platinum blond Daniel Craig.  He's serving time in the local prison for his last heist, but the Logan Brothers think they know how to not only help him escape in order to pull off the heist, but to also get him back in the prison before the guards even know he's gone.  Just like the Ocean films, the fun here comes from the large cast of characters, and watching how the heist is planned and eventually pulled off.  Unlike George Clooney's gang, Tatum and his boys don't always come across as the sharpest knives in the drawer, which is where the screenplay draws a lot of its laughs.  But the biggest laughs belong to the completely absurd moments of humor, such as when some prisoners help stage a riot, and make very specific demands for the safety of the guards they have captured, which I would not dare reveal. 

There's a large cast at play here, and some are used better than others.  Tatum, Driver and Craig steal the entire show, and get the best moments.  On the more forgettable side, Katie Holmes shows up in the underwritten role of Tatum's ex-wife (they have a young daughter together who wants to perform in a junior beauty contest), while Hilary Swank appears in the last half hour as a gruff FBI agent trying to investigate the robbery, and how nothing quite matches up.  Despite her character suddenly becoming a key ingredient of the film's last half hour, she doesn't add up to much, and easily is forgettable.  And finally, there is Seth MacFarlane, who appears as a NASCAR sponsor, and is unrecognizable behind a very bad British accent, and an even worse wig.

Logan Lucky is probably not the kind of film you expect a great filmmaker like Soderbergh to come back in order to make, but even though it is lightweight and obviously a lark, it still shows his strengths as a director.  The action is fluid and hardly ever stops during its nearly two hour running time.  This is ultimately a lively movie, and the humor and lead performances keep up with the pace quite well.  And while the characters may not always be bright, the script is, and it includes a lot of clever twists and reveals, without getting bogged down.  It's fun watching the plot piece itself together, and how certain elements take on more importance near the end than you initially expected.  This is definitely a movie where paying attention to little details will reward you in the end.

There is a certain sweetnatured innocence here that's hard to deny.  The actors are obviously having fun (especially Craig, who seems to be relishing playing the complete opposite of his James Bond portrayal), and everyone's clearly in on the gag.  As long as you can withstand some rather strong Southern country-fried stereotypes, I don't see a lot to complain about.  I'm sure Soderbergh has another great movie in him.  It's just nice to have him back in the first place.

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Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature

The only thing I remember about the original Nut Job movie is the end credits, which featured an out of the blue appearance by Korean singer, PSY, doing a rendition of his signature song, "Gangnam Style", and dancing with the CG animal cast from the film.  It was completely nonsensical and had nothing to do with the movie, but that's kind of what made it so memorable.  Sadly, nothing memorable of the sort happens in The Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature.  It's a fairly garden variety kid's movie that gets out a couple cute moments, before it jarringly turns mean-spirited and violent in the last 20 minutes.

Back once again is the hero of the last movie, Surly Squirrel (voiced by Will Arnett).  The fact that there's actually a character named Surly in a kid's film is funnier than anything he says or does.  Surly and his animal friends are enjoying the unlimited nuts that the abandoned nut store they discovered in the last film provides.  Everyone has gotten used to the easy life of not having to hunt and forage for food anymore, except for Surly's best squirrel gal pal Andie (Katherine Heigl), who thinks that this way of life is unnatural for park animals.  Eventually the nut shop blows up in an accident involving the boiler, and the animals are now forced to go back to their old habits of living in the park and hunting for their food.  It's right about this time that the city's crooked Mayor (Bobby Moynihan) decides that he wants to tear the park down and put up an amusement park in its place.  He cuts every corner (he only orders condemned rides for the park, since they're cheaper), and orders cruel animal control agents to chase the animals out of their homes.  That's when Surly and his friends decide to fight back.

There are some fleeting positive moments in The Nut Job 2.  I liked it when Andie tries to lift the spirits of the other animals by singing a musical number, but she is quickly cut off by Surly, who tells her that simply breaking into song spontaneously is just plain strange.  Sadly, this is the highest level the humor here ever gets to, as a majority of the jokes are built around puns.  When Surly enlists a gang of Kung Fu mice to help with their cause of fighting back against the Mayor, the leader of the mice, Mr. Feng (Jackie Chan), says that he is "a weapon of mouse destruction".  We also get a scene where the little pug dog from the last movie, Precious (Maya Rudolph), meets another dog named Frankie (Bobby Cannavale), and they become an item and start calling themselves "Frecious".  This leads to a moment where Frankie shows his affection by regurgitating his last meal so that Precious can dine on it.  Yes.

The movie also develops a surprisingly vicious and mean streak as it goes along.  It starts when it introduces the Mayor's bratty and spoiled daughter (Isabella Moner), who enjoys torturing animals and ripping the heads off of her dolls for fun.  She definitely takes after her father, who not only enjoys torturing animals, but also likes to drive on the sidewalk and plow into citizens.  When his amusement park is constructed, not only is it a literal death trap due to all of the condemned rides, but the scenes where the animals fight to win their home back is incredibly violent, and filled with scenes of the animals almost killing some of the guests.  We see a burning Ferris Wheel ride go off its hinges and run over some fleeing people, and the mice using their vicious Kung Fu attacks on patrons.  None of this is done in the slapstick manner you would expect from a film like this.

The best thing that can be said about The Nut Job 2 is that the animation is quite good, and an improvement over the original.  But, it easily winds up joining the list of disappointing animated features we've had this summer, as well as in 2017 in general.  Should there be another sequel, I hope they make the animals a little nicer.  Except Surly.  He needs to live up to his name more.

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Annabelle: Creation

Annabelle: Creation is a prequel to 2014's Annabelle, which itself was a prequel to 2013's The Conjuring.  It's about a group of young girls who are unfortunate enough to be orphans to begin with, but then become even more unfortunate when they are forced to reside in a ramshackle old house in the middle of nowhere with a shady old man who's obviously hiding his share of secrets, and his poor wife, who has been bedridden since an accident and is forced to wear a mask over part of her face which makes her look like the Phantom of the Opera.  Oh, and the Annabelle doll is in the house too, and anyone who has seen the previous movies knows that is never good news.  Honestly, these girls would have been better off in the Amityville Horror house.

As horror films go, this one has its effective moments.  Director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out) likes to squeeze as much atmosphere as he can out of every scene, and he gets off some nice scenes that use shadow and figures moving about just out of frame of the camera.  But, it's kind of hard to take it all that seriously when the heroes in this movie act solely by the long-held cliches of the genre, and make one bad decision after another.  I'm not sure how much time is supposed to have passed during the events, but these girls seem oddly determined to hang around this house that is clearly haunted by a demonic entity that wants to possess them, rather than catch the next bus back to civilization.  The creepy and ghostly encounters start up almost as soon as the group of young girls set foot inside, but they never once ask an adult, or avoid walking alone down the house's many dark and secret passageways.  By the time somebody finally says what I had been thinking the whole movie ("Come on, girls, we're getting out of here."), it's far too late to do any good.

As the title suggests, this film tells us the origin story of the demonic Annabelle doll, and how it came to be so evil.  I'm sure this is a question only Warner Bros. executives wanted answered, after the last Annabelle movie had a $37 million opening weekend.  It opens with a prologue set in the 1940s, where a toy-maker father (Anthony LaPaglia) and his wife (Miranda Otto) lose their sweet little daughter (Samara Lee) in a tragic accident.  Flash forward 12 years later, and the event obviously still haunts the couple.  Or maybe it's something else that's haunting them.  The husband is full of closely guarded secrets, and his wife is now bedridden, with part of her face disfigured for reasons unknown through most of the movie.  Regardless, they open their home to some girls from a Catholic orphanage who arrive with their guardian, the kindly Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman).

Of the six girls who arrive, the two youngest are the ones that the film focuses on.  They are best friends Janice (Talitha Bateman), whose leg is in a brace after a bout with Polio, and Linda (Lulu Wilson from Ouija: Origin of Evil).  They arrive clutching their sweet little dolls, and promising one another that they will be adopted together one day, so they can be sisters.  It does not take very long for the supernatural manifestations to start popping up.  Heck, their first night in the home, Janice is following crayon-written notes that lead her to a closed off room where the creepy Annabelle doll starts messing with her almost immediately.  I did admire how the movie handled the doll.  We never actually see it move, but it will either appear in a place it's not supposed to be, or its head will suddenly be facing a different direction than the last time we saw it moments ago.  The boarded-up room contains a haunted dollhouse, puppets that move about on their own, and a closet that has various pages of the Bible covering the walls within, complete with holy crosses.  That alone should be an instant clue that "something bad happened here", but Janice and Linda unwisely decide to play Junior Detectives, and investigate further.

The creepy stuff piles up, including a spooky scarecrow out in the barn, and a demonic figure that sometimes takes the form of the couple's dead daughter, and tells the young girls that it wants their souls.  And yet, not once do Janice and Linda tell Sister Charlotte what's going on, or maybe start asking questions to the couple who own the house.  Sure, maybe they wouldn't believe them, but wouldn't you at least ask or talk about these things if they were happening to you?  By the time they finally do start opening up about what's going on, one of the two girls has become possessed by the demonic entity, and is walking around the dark halls with a knife while ominously singing "You Are My Sunshine".  These are people who know they're in a horror movie.  They intentionally do the wrong thing time and again in order for there to be a movie in the first place.  Apparently the house and the surrounding grounds knows it's in a horror movie also.  The lighting and electricity is faulty, and the car won't start when danger's afoot.

And then there are the inexplicable moments, like where Linda drops the cursed doll down a well and starts to leave, only to immediately walk back to the well seconds later and stick her head down.  Why?  So creepy black hands can suddenly reach up and try to pull her down, of course!  I don't know if I missed something, but I could see no reason for her to do this.  So, while the film is filled with creepy atmosphere and a few effective jump scares, I was never completely involved.  A great horror movie makes you sympathize with the characters.  All this movie made me want to do was give the people within it a clue.  Annabelle: Creation has obviously been made by professionals of the genre, but they're also not really doing anything new here.  There's nothing that we haven't seen in other haunted house movies, so while I was admiring the craft and skill, it still felt a little bit empty.

However, the Annabelle franchise is a brand name with horror fans, and I'm sure this will make enough money to warrant another haunting.  There are even more spinoffs of The Conjuring on the way that take place outside of the Annabelle universe.  I can only hope that those other movies will realize what makes The Conjuring movies so successful, which is that we are invested with the people as much as we are the supernatural events going on around them. 

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Sunday, August 06, 2017

Kidnap

I imagine one day Kidnap will inspire a drinking game.  Said game will consist of the player having to take a shot every time Halle Berry says either "Frankie" or "Oh my God" during the course of the film.  However, since these are the two most repeated lines of dialogue in the movie, and they are used with such frequency, I can picture many who play it will be passed out or dead from alcohol poisoning before the movie hits the half hour mark.  Maybe I should hope that this game never comes to pass.

The plot of the movie is certainly simple enough.  Karla (Berry) is a single mother working at a diner as she tries to support her six-year-old son Frankie (Sage Correa).  After work, she takes her son to a local park.  While watching a music concert together, Karla takes her eyes off her boy for a few seconds in order to answer a phone call from her lawyer. (Her much more financially stable ex-husband and his new wife want full custody of Frankie.) When she turns her attention back to him, the kid is gone.  She searches the park in a panic, and eventually happens to see Frankie being forced into a car by a mysterious man and woman.  She gets into her own car to give chase (unknowingly dropping her cell phone to the ground in her panic to catch up with the kidnappers), and her attempt to follow the couple who have her kid makes up a majority of the film.

Kidnap wants to be a white-knuckle thriller built around a high-speed chase, but the move never generates the excitement it wants to, or that we expect it to.  The way the chase is filmed and staged by director Luis Prieto is simply not thrilling.  A majority of the chase is made up of close ups of Berry's face, who spends a lot of the film talking to herself as she tails the runaway car.  We also occasionally get a shot of her speedometer, or a fuel gauge once in a while.  There are a couple of narrow escape moments where Karla accidentally causes some damage to some innocent drivers on the road, but even these are not that exciting.  That's because a majority of these action shots have been filmed with such rapid fire editing, it can sometimes be hard to see what we're supposed to be looking at.  Some long and steady shots would have gone a long way in creating some tension.

Since the car chase makes up a good 85% of the film or so, you would think the filmmakers would go out of their way to make it memorable, but there's not a single thing that stands out about it.  Even when Karla happens to find herself facing down one of the kidnappers in her own car, the ensuing struggle is filmed in a dark tunnel, so we can barely see what is supposed to be happening.  There's not a single moment that manages to raise the excitement in the audience, not even when the movie resorts to some sudden brutal violence. (A scene involving an unfortunate motorcycle cop just kind of happens, and then is immediately forgotten about.) You would think that a high speed chase that lasts the good part of a day would get the attention of other motorists or perhaps the police, but since we never really leave Karla's car, we never get a good sense of what's going on outside.

Perhaps the reason why Kidnap comes across as being so inconsequential is because it's obviously been heavily edited during its long trip to theaters.  The movie was supposed to come out two years ago, but its original distributor went bankrupt, and it sat on the shelf as it got shuffled around a variety of release dates.  During that time, the movie obviously was cut quite a bit.  How can I tell?  The film's official listing states that it's around 95 minutes long.  However, my screening (complete with commercials and trailers) got out in only 85 minutes.  It's not that I wanted the film to be longer, mind you.  It's just that when I pay full price for a ticket, I expect something that runs a little bit longer than just over an hour.

I have no doubt in my mind that a suspenseful movie could come from this idea, but the execution here is clumsy and limp.  When all is said, Kidnap should have been a fun little B-thriller, but it largely comes across as a wasted opportunity. 

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Saturday, August 05, 2017

The Dark Tower

The cinematic adaptation of The Dark Tower only hints at the vast worlds and ideas that Stephen King dreamed up in his massive fantasy novel series that has created legions of fans the world over.  These fans have dissected and discussed the books as closely as possible, and probably even have their own theories and ideas.  Are they ever going to be disappointed with what's wound up on the big screen, as it takes something that should be epic and impressive, and turns it into a small and cheaply made Young Adult-knock off.

Hollywood has been making plans for a Dark Tower movie for years, but every time it got close to getting made, something would get in the way.  Now that it's here, will fans end up wishing they were still dreaming of a movie instead  of watching the one that they got?  I'm sure the fans will have no problem with the casting of the two iconic leads.  Idris Elba as Roland "the Gunslinger" is all sorts of cool intimidation, and brings the proper amount of gravitas and emotion that the character should have.  And as for the evil and mysterious "Man in Black" Walter, Matthew McConaughey seems to be having a lot of fun chewing the scenery.  But these performances are not enough when you realize how little there is to these characters in this adaptation.  The four credited screenwriters have taken these fascinating characters and a sprawling story that mixes elements of fantasy, Sci-Fi, Westerns and even the legend of King Arthur, and has turned it into a mediocre story of a "chosen one" - in this case a little boy haunted by nightmares of another world.

Yes, the two characters that have been beloved by readers the world over for over 30 years take a back seat in this movie to Jake (Tom Taylor), a sullen and moody 13-year-old living in New York with a caring mother, and a jerk of a stepfather.  His real father died saving some people from a fire years ago, and he's never been the same since.  He's also plagued by nightmares where he witnesses the mysterious "Man in Black" torturing some children in a hidden facility so that he can destroy the Dark Tower, a structure that apparently keeps Earth and the many alternate worlds in balance and order.  Should the Tower fall, evil will consume all of the many worlds.  Jake also has visions of Roland the Gunslinger, who once fought alongside his father and many others against the Man in Black and his ambitions.  Now, only Roland remains in the resistance, and he basically spends his time wandering the apocalyptic landscape seeking vengeance.  The movie tosses all of this information out as quickly as a sushi chef works their knife, in a vain attempt to please the fans while at the same time not confusing those in the audience not familiar with the characters and the world.

It turns out that Jake has a psychic power within him known as The Shining, which will be immediately familiar to King fans.  In fact, the movie contains a number of references to King's other works.  This power is what allows him to receive these visions, and to also notice the monsters who have been sent to Earth by the Man in Black disguised as humans.  The monsters are seeking the one child with enough psychic power that can be used to destroy the Dark Tower.  Naturally, Jake is that kid.  He goes on the run, and through details unnecessary to recount here, stumbles upon a magical portal that warps him to the world of Roland the Gunslinger.  They team up together to stop Walter the Man in Black.  There's a lot of portal-hopping along the way as Jake, Roland and Walter jump back and forth between Earth and the other world.  The scenes of Roland trying to fit in on Jake's world brings about some much needed comic relief, which honestly, this very dour and overly serious film could have used more of.

If I seem to be rushing through the plot, so does the movie.  Clocking in at a little over 90 minutes, The Dark Tower tosses out information, and never really slows down long enough to let the audience grasp what's going on.  There is one scene where on Roland's world, our two heroes stop at a village to get some much-needed information and rest.  During their stay, the camera keeps on focusing on this young girl who keeps on making meaningful glances at Jake and smiling at him.  We sense a connection, and obviously think that this girl is going to be important to the story.  As it turns out, most of her scenes seemingly exist in a lost longer cut of the film, because she never shares any real scenes with the kid, other than the moment where he helps her save her sheep when their village is under attack.  We don't know who she is, and I don't think even her name is revealed.  There are a lot of characters who exist in this movie, but serve no real purpose.  Most of them seem to work for Walter, and look like they live on the set of an original Sy-Fy Channel movie, but the movie tells us nothing about them or what role they play in his army.  They're just there as extras to stare at monitors, and occasionally stand next to the Man in Black.  Oh, and there's a scene where Jake confronts a "house demon" that ends just as quickly as it begins, all without really telling us what a house demon is in the first place.

There is no detectable heart behind this movie.  It simply exists as a special effects demo reel.  Then why are the effects here so underwhelming?  The monsters and demons that menace Jake largely exist in the darkness and shadow, so we never get a good look at them, likely so we can't see how chintzy they look.  It also feels like a movie that took one too many trips to the editing room in an attempt to salvage what the studio knew was a doomed production.  There's no joy, no spark, and certainly no sense that everyone involved knew that what they were working on was worthwhile.  Elba and McConaughey pull off their roles well enough, but we get the sense that the characters they're playing are hollow shells.  You want to take the actors and their performances, and give them better material while you're watching them up there on the screen.  You want to see them in something other than this.

While King's novels created whole worlds and carried a sense of purpose, the filmed version of The Dark Tower is simple and forgettable.  It's never unwatchable, but it's just been created with so little consequence that it's hard to care about anything that's going on.  When you consider how carefully the books were constructed, it's almost amazing how cold and unfeeling this adaptation is.

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Friday, August 04, 2017

Detroit

In July 1967, the city of Detroit was gripped by one of the deadliest riots in American history.  Called "The 12th Street Riot", it stemmed mostly from the brutality of a largely white police force toward the African American community.  When the riots had ended after five days, 43 people were dead, and millions in property damage was reported.  In the middle of the riots, a tense situation occurred within the Algiers Motel, where police intensely interrogated a group of young people, leading to three deaths, and an eventual trial that gripped the nation.

Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit takes a look at the events leading up to the riots, and the courtroom drama that it eventually inspired.  But it's main focus comes during the lengthy mid-section of the film, where we see a detailed yet admittedly dramatized (there is a disclaimer included at the end which states some license had been taken) of what presumably occurred within the Algiers Motel.  This sequence is easily as terrifying and as gripping as anything Bigelow has done, even reaching the levels to her best film so far, 2009's The Hurt Locker.  The only thing somewhat holding it back from greatness is the somewhat disorganized script by Mark Boal (Zero Dark Thirty), which at times jumps around the narrative a bit too freely, and doesn't have a strong central character we can get behind.  I understand the film is trying to look at this situation from multiple angles, but at times, it seemed a bit haphazard in its approach.

None of this, however, takes away the intensity of the film's entire middle section, which is set within the Algiers Motel.  When law enforcement groups (local cops, a security officer, and national guard) believe they are being fired upon from the motel’s vicinity, they raid the place. Not long after, one person is dead and nine others – seven black men and two white women – are being terrorized by three racist cops (played by Will Poulter, Jack Reynor, and Ben O’Toole). When physical intimidation fails to get the cops the information they want (the name of the gunman), they begin a psychological "game" that goes horribly wrong.  Detroit is unflinching in its depiction of cruelty and racism, making it hard to watch at times.  What makes it all the more emotionally devastating is that while we know we are watching an ugly moment in history, it eerily brings to mind recent events as well.  This is a story that could have happened at any point in recent history, and it would seem sadly plausible.

The movie's scope is large, as it tries to look at this situation from multiple viewpoints.  If there is one person who could be considered a "main character", it would be a wannabe Motown singer named Cleveland Larry Reed (Algee Smith).  He and a close friend (Jacob Latimore) find themselves at the motel after Reed's big break at possible stardom is canceled by the riots going on outside.  There they meet two white women Juli Hysell (Hannah Murray) and Karen Malloy (Kaitlyn Dever), who will later find themselves persecuted by the cops just for the fact that they were with black men.  There is also a Vietnam Vet (Anthony Mackie), home on leave, who gets involved.  Also on hand is black security officer Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), who does his best to try to rationalize the cruelty he is seeing by his fellow law enforcers, but finds it harder and harder during the course of the film.

Detroit creates an eerily plausible scenario of what happened in the motel, largely using research and eyewitness reports.  Again, parts have been dramatized, but the events up on the screen never seem melodramatic or overly staged.  However, this honesty and intensity of covering the middle section of the film does lead to one of its flaws, which is the courtroom scenes that come afterward are nowhere near as thrilling or as hard-hitting.  Regardless, this is a haunting movie.  If Bigelow's intention was to create a film that stays with the viewer long after the movie ends, she has succeeded fully.  There are images and scenes here that I will not likely forget anytime soon.  This will obviously be a polarizing movie with its audience, but I don't think anyone can deny that there are images here that will last in your mind.

The power of the film comes not from its historical accuracy, but from its accuracy of human nature and society.  Sadly, the events depicted are still happening, and most likely with more frequency than we would like to believe.  This movie is not just a powerful time capsule, but also a potent commentary on race relations, and how little sadly has changed over time.  It may not be a perfect film, but it is one that is impossible to forget.

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