The Dark Tower Movie Review

Stephen King fans have been eagerly awaiting his series of Dark Tower novels arriving on the big screen. Most of his other heralded works have already made it before the cameras and some of them in multiple iterations. The challenge with bringing forth this particular series is said to be the dense nature of its material. And now that we have a cinematic version of The Dark Tower, I can report a number of decisions made in making it happen are indeed dense. That’s definitely not a compliment.

The picture is an abridged and often aimless experience begging for more backstory and clarity. It’s led by uninspired performances and routine shoot-em-up interruptions. Tom Taylor stars as Jake, a New York City preteen who has vivid dreams about a Man in Black trying to destroy Earth and a gunslinger trying to stop him. Jake’s family and friends think he’s coo coo, but the kid has some legit psychic power. There is a Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) otherwise known as Walter and he is trying to take over Earth’s domain and the domains of unseen others. There is a gunslinger (Idris Elba) otherwise known as Roland and he teams up with Jake to stop the apocalypse. They also share some Daddy issues.

What follows is a bit of a head scratcher. The Dark Tower hints at a much larger universe that at least sounds kinda interesting. Yet it’s not shown. It suggests a potentially action packed past for Roland, but that’s it. I get that the idea of the movie is to set up future chapters, but it’s hard to anticipate further ones when the first is so unfulfilling.

Taylor’s lead performance is rather dull. Elba has a physical presence, but there’s no meat on the bones of what should be a far more captivating figure. McConaughey can be a terrific actor, but that’s not what we witness. His Man in Black is meant (I think) to be a scary one. McConaughey doesn’t seem to get that. His level of menace displayed here is about equal to his Lincoln commercial work.

The Dark Tower has a 95 minute length that suggests even its makers knew they had a losing hand. It represents a limp start for a building of worlds. And it’s one that may never seen the light because this fails to get it off the ground.

*1/2 (out of four)

Advertisements

Black Panther Movie Review

Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is certainly part of the massive Marvel Cinematic Universe. It shares some common themes with its predecessors, most notably the Thor franchise with its gorgeous landscapes and dramatic family dynamics. The story of the title character is picked up after his debut in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War.

In other ways, Panther does have the feel of a truly stand-alone experience. The other beings in the MCU are largely ignored. Some of the faults of the MCU features aren’t here. That includes the common and deserved quibbling of weak villains. Quite the opposite here and come to think of it – that’s another thing it shares with the Asgardian God and the baddies (especially Loki) he’s battled. Panther is, of course, also noteworthy for its nearly all African-American cast and setting on the fictional African country of Wakanda.

We’ve seen a whole bunch of superhero origin stories over the past few years. Black Panther is easily one of the most satisfying. It excites you about the character’s inclusion in his larger Avengers world while also priming you for further more self-contained adventures. We’re introduced to some memorable supporting players that often outshine the lead. And just as director Coogler reinvigorated the Rocky series with Creed, he puts a unique stamp on this franchise.

Chadwick Boseman is Black Panther/T’Challa. As you may recall, his father was assassinated in Civil War. That development causes T’Challa to become the king. His nation of Wakanda (besides being a triumph of production design) stands alone due to its abundance of vibranium, a precious alien metal. This substance allows Wakanda to have extremely advanced technology and much of it is overseen by T’Challa’s teenage sister Shuri (Letitia Wright). She is essentially the Q to Boseman’s 007 and Wright is an absolute scene stealer in the part.

The presence of vibranium offers T’Challa the powers to be Black Panther. It also offers a conundrum: keep the vibranium local to his land as his forefathers have or use it to do good worldwide. The flip side is it could do lots of bad everywhere. That’s what Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) would prefer. He lives over in the U.S. where he works alongside arms dealer Klaue (Andy Serkis, having a ball outside of his normal motion capture suit). They want the substance to wreak havoc and Killmonger travels overseas to do so. And the battle begins.

Black Panther is graced with a large cast of recognizable faces. Lupita Nyong’o is T’Challa’s ex who’s also an international spy for Wakanda. Martin Freeman is a CIA agent unexpectedly thrust into this exotic world. Angela Bassett is the Queen and Forest Whitaker plays one of T’Challa’s mentors. Daniel Kaluuya, who made a splash last year with Get Out, is Panther’s best friend who grows suspicious of his leadership abilities.

That’s a lot of cast to keep up with, but the film manages it rather effortlessly. Boseman is a sturdy anchor, but you may be chatting more about Wright and Jordan after the first credits and mid credits and final credits roll. Jordan’s Killmonger, when his full motivations are revealed, turns out to be one of the strongest comic book villains we’ve seen in some time. He’s not just a tyrant seeking earthly destruction (though he is). There’s a worthwhile back story he’s granted and it ratchets the action up a notch.

Coogler’s Panther is filled with impressive performances and most of the action sequences deliver. Most importantly, its storyline doesn’t feel cookie cutter at all. This is one of the most original MCU tales in many ways while still keeping to the age-old themes created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby decades ago. Fresh with familiarity mixed in proves to be an enticing recipe here.

***1/2 (out of four)

Justice League Movie Review

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was a bit of a mess and it earned its reputation as such in many ways. However, I found myself seemingly in the minority of those who sort of dug it. Where it failed – it failed significantly. That includes the casting of Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor with his manic and bizarre take on the iconic villain. There were some narrative choices that were questionable. Yet when BvS worked, I felt it worked well and that included Ben Affleck succeeding as Batman.

Justice League is less cluttered. Zack Snyder, directing this DC Universe for the third time, captains a tighter ship with a shorter running time than what’s preceded it… and nearly all recent comic book adaptations for that matter. It is, of course, Warner Bros venture into Avengers territory. There’s a somewhat lighter tone that we first saw in the summer’s Wonder Woman stand-alone feature. The inclusion of The Flash (Ezra Miller) and Aquaman (Jason Momoa) contribute to that. So does the fact that the unusually somber Superman (Henry Cavill) who brooded through much of Man of Steel and BvS is absent much of the time.

As you’ll recall, Superman was dead and buried at the BvS conclusion. Justice League opens with the world missing him and crime on the rise. Batman is doing his level best, but he needs a squad. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) is still dealing with the loss she experienced in her own movie, but she’s game to help. They recruit the newbies only glimpsed upon in BvS: The Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg (Ray Fisher). It is their mission to thwart the Earth dominating plans of Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds), a motion capture evil alien. The League incorporates their powers to do so, but they know they must resurrect the Big S to complete the task.

The Avengers had the advantage of having introduced several of its core characters in separate entries. That doesn’t hold true here for half of the Justice League. Miller provides some decent comic relief, Momoa has a memorable moment or two and Fisher’s backstory is a bit blah. Their inclusion feels a little rushed and a little watered down.

Curiously the villain issue of BvS, while highly disappointing, was at least fascinating to witness in a rather bad way. Here the character of Steppenwolf isn’t really interesting at all. Many of these comic book adaptations have suffered the most from bland baddies and this is another.

League finds time to bring back Alfred (Jeremy Irons), Lois Lane (Amy Adams), and Clark’s mama (Diane Lane) in limited fashion. J.K. Simmons turns up briefly as the previously MIA Commissioner Gordon. It is Gadot who shines brightest, which is no surprise considering her rock solid solo spotlight just months prior.

In essence, Justice League feels ordinary too often. It’s got the same flaws as others in the genre. It has the same bright spots with certain performances. There’s action sequences that impress and others with dodgier CG. Call me crazy, but I admired BvS often for its occasional audacity and untidiness. With Justice, it joins a league of plenty others like it.

**1/2 (out of four)

Darkest Hour Movie Review

Winston Churchill died 100 years after Abraham Lincoln. In the United Kingdom, the Prime Minister is now regarded as one of, if not thee nation’s most revered leaders in perilous times. Like Lincoln. And like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln from 2012, Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour focuses on a short period when both men’s leadership abilities were put to their most strenuous tests. Lincoln featured Daniel Day-Lewis embodying the 16th President of the United States in memorable and Oscar-winning fashion. Hour has Gary Oldman with an equally towering performance that is also barreling toward Academy gold.

The picture takes place in May 1940 as Churchill becomes the doubted but consensus choice to succeed Neville Chamberlain as PM of England. He’s known as much if not more for his failures in previous offices than his successes. Churchill enters the position at a precarious moment for the country. Hitler is on the march, conquering European countries with sights set on England. King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) is suspicious of the new leader. Office holders, especially Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), are pleading for Churchill to cut a deal with the Nazi Party.

It is Churchill’s instinct to fight on the battlefield and with his detractors. He gets support from his wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas). His historic decision-making and speech dictation is witnessed by new personal secretary Elizabeth (Lily James). The key choices he must make involve Operation Dynamo, which was just chronicled in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.

Oldman, buried under impressive makeup that render him barely recognizable, excels in making Churchill a force of nature. We’ve seen Oldman’s chameleon like abilities to disappear into a character before and it’s on full display here. The Prime Minister’s boozing and oratory prowess and connection to his countrymen are also displayed. The supporting players are all just fine, if understandably relegated to the sideline in favor of a far larger personality. Those in Churchill’s orbit probably came to realize they were part of his show. Same here with Mr. Oldman.

Darkest Hour doesn’t quite reach the heights of dramatic impact as the films mentioned from Spielberg and Nolan. It is, however, a well-crafted tale of leading with gut and gusto at a juncture when it was needed and with Oldman spearheading the eventual charge to victory.

*** (out of four)

The Florida Project Movie Review

Sean Baker’s The Florida Project portrays a slice of American life with characters who struggle mightily to get a piece of the pie. There’s kids and bright colors in a Disney setting that feels worlds away from the Magic Kingdom and short distance away from it that it is.

The film centers on six-year-old Moonee (Brooklyn Prince), who lives with mom Halley (Bria Vinaite) at a cheap hotel in close proximity to Mickey’s tourist attraction. The hotel is painted in gaudy palettes maintained by the hotel’s manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe), a kind and exasperated man who keeps a constant eye out for the kids who fill the premises. Halley is a former stripper constantly struggling to pay rent and make ends meet. Her friends at the hotel and their children are in similar situations. The never ending trials of the adults are seen, but mostly through the eyes of Moonee and friends Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera).

We know there’s a lot of sad and desperate actions that allow Halley to plunk down the rent. Yet Moonee is still of the age where she doesn’t completely notice it or begin to comprehend it. The Florida Project presents her small world through her eyes. Each day, she sees parents and their kids staying at close by luxury hotels who are there to vacation and take in the wonder of what’s behind Disney’s gates. Her situation prevents her from entering them.

The screenplay by Baker and Chris Bergoch is less concerned with plot and more with tagging along with the youngsters. They seem real and not like movie kids who are all knowing and ahead of the adults. They get in trouble. They say mean things. And they’re bored and aimless much of the time while their elders tend to their struggles. They’re also played by genuinely impressive actors, especially Prince. First timer Vinaite creates quite a character in Halley, whose rough edges are not glossed over. And Dafoe has touching and forceful moments as witness to the motel’s daily drama.

We don’t see the people explored in The Florida Project onscreen often. The inhabitants of the Magic Castle motel don’t live in flyover territory. Far from it. They do live in territory that is driven by all day and night and mostly ignored. There’s enough heart and realism displayed here to make the two hours spent there worth it.

*** (out of four)

Roman J. Israel, Esq. Movie Review

Like his directorial debut Nightcrawler, Dan Gilroy combines a myopically focused central character with Los Angeles landscapes in Roman J. Israel, Esq. Denzel Washington is Roman, the secret weapon in a small law firm known for its justice fighting pursuits. He’s a behind the scenes legal guru who’s uncomfortable in the courtroom and dealing with people in general.

When the public face of the firm suffers a heart attack, Roman (who I’ll refer to as that but always uses his full name and title) must go job searching. He pairs up with George Pierce (Colin Farrell), who runs a more successful operation that puts dollar signs over the virtuous work Roman is used to. It creates an opportunity for him to expand his wallet, as he struggles with the morality of his more high scale surroundings and assignments.

Part of the conscience searching is represented by Maya (Carmen Ejogo), a civil rights activist inspired. She works in an underpaid environment that her new friend would flourish in. Yet he also is effective with George until a questionable ethical decision about a murder case changes things.

Gilroy created a masterwork in 2014 with Nightcrawler. In that, Gilroy wrote Jake Gyllenhaal his best role as a strange but ingenious man whose work comes before all else. That traits apply to Roman and we have Washington providing a unique and always watchable performance. With big glasses, an Afro, and an extensive music collection constantly filling his ear buds, we’ve never seen Denzel quite like this and he seems to relish it.

Unlike Nightcrawler, this picture doesn’t totally work. The court case involved is practically an afterthought. The interpersonal relationships between Roman with George and Maya feel a tad underserved. This may be because the central figure here can’t get too close to anyone, but the film sometimes feels as distant as he is.

Washington almost makes it all worth it anyway, but ultimately Roman J. Israel, Esq. is well meaning and also slightly disappointing.

**1/2 (out of four)

 

Wonder Movie Review

Stephen Chbosky’s Wonder is a film, based on description, that might have you fretting it will attempt to bludgeon you into tears with sentimentality. A child with a facial deformity entering public school for the first time could be a recipe for mawkish overload. Yet I’ll be darned if Wonder doesn’t earn its tears (both sad and happy) at a rather astonishing percentage.

The child is Auggie Pullman (Jacob Tremblay), born with Treacher Collins syndrome. Going into the fifth grade, Auggie has been home schooled by mom Isabel (Julia Roberts) thus far and been somewhat sheltered from the inevitable bullying and strange looks that greet him. This all changes when he attends a Manhattan middle school. He finds the bullies, but he also finds many kind hearts in the children and adults who populate it.

In Auggie’s story, we do find similarities to 1985’s similarly effective Mask with Eric Stoltz as the outsider kid and Cher as the strong mom. What I didn’t expect here is the number of subplots involving other characters and how powerful they are.

Auggie’s older sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) has the opposite emotional issues as her cherished brother. While Auggie often wishes to just be invisible (his favorite holiday is Halloween because his mask lets him at last be just another kid), Via wishes to be seen. Her mom and dad (Owen Wilson) are consumed with her sibling and his struggles. Her best friend (Danielle Rose Russell) isn’t paying attention to her. Via’s story line is often just as touching as her brother’s.

That’s a testament to a well constructed screenplay based on R.J. Palacio’s bestselling novel. The picture takes time to explain the actions of those around Auggie, including the school children who befriend him and those that choose not to. A weaker script would have turned his classmates into caricatures, but this one knows better.

As he proved in 2015’s Room, Tremblay is a one heck of a child actor. He’s unrecognizable here and he gives another powerhouse performance. Roberts and Wilson provide solid support, as does Mandy Patinkin as the wise principal of the school. And as mentioned, Vidovic shines in the big sister role that a lesser movie wouldn’t have even paid attention to.

It’s a thin line between a film trying to guilt you into throat lumps over warranting them. Wonder has a message of kindness that we could all use from time to time. That messages comes across well and this viewer felt the screenplay more than justified the several occasions of mistiness it caused.

***1/2 (out of four)

The Killing of a Sacred Deer Movie Review

I’m not an attorney, but I’ve heard of the legal term known as Clean Hands. I might have heard it first from Judge Judy. Regardless, in layman’s speak, it means a defendant claims that a plaintiff can’t argue for equal remedy because they’re engaged in bad acts as well. I realize a lawyer might challenge my interpretation, but I’m reviewing a movie and I’m not on trial. Clean Hands could have been a more appropriate name than what I’m writing about, but instead we have the more pretentious The Killing of a Sacred Deer from director Yorgos Lanthimos.

The aggrieved party in our story is teenager Martin (Barry Keoghan), whose father died three years ago in a surgery performed by Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell, reuniting with his The Lobster director). The two befriend each other after the incident and Martin is eventually ingratiating himself with the doc’s family – wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), teen daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy), and younger brother Bob (Sunny Suljic). Martin seems a bit strange and too eager to please, but his motives turn out far darker. He blames the doctor for his loss and plans to exact revenge.

Lanthimos isn’t interested with playing in the run of the mill revenge fantasy thriller genre. No family pet is harmed in the making of his screenplay with Efthymis Filippou, though there is one. Instead Martin wants to harm the family and any one of them will do. He also manages to capture the heart of Kim while he moves forward with his acts.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a dark and unsettling experience that sometimes struggles to earn the pain we go through watching it. From a technical standpoint, it’s often expertly rendered with a Kubrick like sense of clinical precision and a loud and evocative score. Farrell and Kidman (just seen together in The Beguiled) are just fine as the parents facing increasingly difficult circumstances and choices, but it’s Keoghan who electrifies plenty of his scenes. His misguided Martin gets under everyone’s skin, including ours.

That said, the style of Deer is frequently more potent than its subject and I struggled with whether it was worth it in the end. For all its bells and whistles, it kind of is a typical revenge fantasy with art house touches. Dr. Murphy may have made his mistakes, but there’s a Clean Hands defense when he discovers Martin’s bad acts. For this viewer, I offer a mixed defense of the picture itself.

**1/2 (out of four)

Happy Death Day Movie Review

Happy Death Day begins with a universal disruption. Not the world suffering a catastrophe or anything of that sort, but the actual Universal logo repeating itself three times. It’s a signal of events to come in this horror version of Groundhog Day from the Blumhouse studio, which specializes in bargain basement budgeted genre pics.

The world as a whole may not be experiencing a crisis, but college student Tree (Jessica Rothe) sure is. Her birthday begins as many do for undergraduates. She wakes up in the dorm room of Carter (Israel Broussard) after a drunken night out. Not remembering the previous evening’s events, Tree makes a hasty exit complete with shame walking. She attends class where we learn she’s carrying on an affair with her professor. Tree doesn’t really gel with her sorority sisters, including her kindly roommate (Ruby Modine).

In fact, unlike most of the heroines in slasher flicks, Tree is a pretty unpleasant person. And she’s not that innocent. So I’ll give a bit of credit to screenwriter Scott Lobdell for changing that up, even if makes her a smidge tougher to root for. When Tree goes out for another night of frivolity, she’s stalked and stabbed by a figure donning the mask of the university’s mascot.

And then… she wakes up on her birthday again nursing a hangover in Carter’s dorm room. Unlike Bill Murray rising to the sounds of Sonny and Cher, she repeats her day less than 20 times as she tries to figure out who’s knocking her off. Along the way, we learn some of the root causes of her unpleasantness. She’s mourning the loss of her mom for one. That death factors into the mix.

Happy Death Day has a sense of humor, which is often a good thing. Groundhog Day is mentioned as it would seem foolish not to (the title has become synonymous with anything repeating itself). Rothe is convincing as the bratty coed. Director Christopher B. Landon employs a handful of effective jump scares. The 90 minute runtime is a wise choice as the concept may not be able to sustain much more.

This is an easy and brisk watch. The PG-13 rating decision is a curious one and this may have been better served with more of the gore and aforementioned frivolity actually on display. Happy Death Day probably won’t stick in your memory for long, but it’s not a complete disruption of your time.

**1/2 (out of four)

In a Valley of Violence Movie Review

For all I know, director Ti West was exposed to the films of Quentin Tarantino last week. I doubt it. His western doesn’t really like feel inspired by QT’s genre works like Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight.

Instead, it seems like Mr. West’s western could be a product of the fact that the filmmaker was a young teen when Pulp Fiction came out in 1994. Just maybe that teen wanted to make a genre pic that felt a bit like Tarantino – the sudden jolts of violence, the dialogue that sounds a little hipper than the time period, the cool vintage fonts on the title cards. In 1994, Pulp resuscitated John Travolta’s career. Here he’s cast as the nefarious Marshal ruling a deserted Old West town. Ethan Hawke became a Gen X star that year as well in Reality Bites. Here he’s the strong, silent, and complicated hero who must go up against him. Maybe I’m reaching for connections to make my point. However, that’s how In a Valley of Violence felt to me and it was an appealing experience. And I haven’t mentioned the super cool dog yet…

Paul (Hawke) and his dog Abbie (Jumpy) are making their way to Mexico (their motives are unclear for a bit) when he comes across the town of Denton. It’s sparse in both population and set design, allowing this to look like a low-budget old timey western from decades ago. Blumhouse, the studio that specializes in bargain basement priced horror flicks, is behind this so it makes some sense. It’s clear that Paul knows how to fight, but doesn’t want to. Unfortunately dim-witted deputy Gilly (James Ransone) rattles his cage in small ways at first and then big ones. Suddenly Paul’s trip south of the border is delayed for revenge purposes. And he must also deal with Gilly’s father, Travolta’s aforementioned Marshal.

Valley doesn’t take itself very seriously. There’s a lot of humor and much of it is well written and well placed. Travolta has been known to overact over the last couple decades since his comeback. Here he does it in a role that seems appropriate for it. Hawke plays the lonely cowboy straight and solidly. Taissa Farmiga provides a spark as a town resident desperate to get out. And it’s not often I’d mention the real name of the dog in a film, but Jumpy deserves the shout out for a real performance. More kudos go to composer Jeff Grace for a pitch perfect score.

Again, I have no idea if my Ti West/Tarantino hypothesis (who’s worked in horror before this) holds merit. No, it doesn’t reach the brilliant level of impact and the dialogue isn’t consistently as poetic as Quentin’s. There’s moments and enough of them, however, to make the connection worth mentioning.

*** (out of four)