2017

Atomic Blonde (2017, David Leitch)

Far more often than not, Atomic Blonde is not more than it is. Atomic Blonde is not a “realistic” late eighties spy thriller à la Graham Greene or even John le Carré (see, I can do nineties “New Yorker” levels of extra too). It’s not a James Bond movie with a female lead (Charlize Theron). It’s not a great part for Theron. It might be a great role–Blonde’s got its problems but none hurt the idea of a sequel for Theron. In fact, if it weren’t filled with so many twists and turns–which is, unfortunately, what Atomic Blonde is, what it wants endeavors to be—full of twists and turns. Because Blonde really doesn’t care about logic, it cares about effect. I was going to say impact and effect but… actually, not so much impact. Because Blonde also isn’t some amazing all-out action picture with Theron kicking ass for a hundred minutes set to an amazing eighties soundtrack. There’s some Theron kicking ass, there’s some excellent action, there’s some… great songs… adequately applied, but all of those successes are extremely qualified.

First—Theron. Who is in every scene save a handful and the action is centered around her. She’s a British spy going to West Berlin to get a master list of spies out of East Berlin before the wall falls or the Soviets find it. Now, maybe biggest logic problem in the movie? Who made the stupid list. See, there’s the super-secret double agent who is doing terrible damage. Double agent British and Soviet, so originally a British spy, but then turned to the Soviets. The movie takes a while to introduce that detail—originally Theron just thinks the list is about not outing all the other spies, she’s not even aware of the double agent until the action in the movie takes place. Also there’s a dead ex-lover in Berlin. There’s a lot. And Blonde does a good job establishing it. The first act is incredibly solid. But once it becomes clear it’s not going to do anything particularly interesting with Theron or anyone else… it gets a little tedious. Even the action, which isn’t good.

See, Blonde increases the spans without action as the film progresses. Less action overall, longer action scenes. Sometimes it’s a car chase all in a “continuous” shot, sometimes it’s a fistfight. Actually, in the case of the car chase, it’s the fistfight then the car chase. It’s a whole lot. Atomic Blonde can be a lot, but never quite the right a lot. Where to gets going in the third act, with all the reveals and consequences of twists… there’s enough material it could’ve been a much better part for Theron. If it had been more Graham Green or John le Carré. Or if it had been less. If it had just been the action, the endurance aspect would’ve been awesome for Theron. The in-between doesn’t leave her much in the end. Potential for a better written sequel, which isn’t great.

It would also help if James McAvoy weren’t so bland. He’s the British West Berlin station chief and he’s “gone native,” or so spymaster Toby Jones worries, which immediately makes McAvoy suspicious re: the double agent to the audience and Theron and even Bond girl French spy Sofia Boutella, but not Jones or big boss James Faulkner or, seemingly, anyone in Berlin. Maybe it’s bad exposition on the double agent thing. Blonde sometimes rushes exposition—it leverages the direction, the photography (Jonathan Sela), Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir’s excellent but underutilized editing, and lead Theron being cool to get over the pesky details. Blonde avoids the details of the twists and turns to get the effect. Hence the aforementioned lack of impact.

Anyway.

Director Leitch doesn’t care enough about the soundtrack—and, I’ve been wanting Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry” in an action movie since the late nineties and it’s finally in one and it’s in a very problematic sequence involving Bond girl Boutella. They do a really weird job of establishing Boutella in the film—including via a Blow Out homage—and she’s one of the film’s biggest misses. Biggest miss? James McAvoy. He’s got less heft as a Berlin spy in the late eighties than Til Schweiger, who’s in three thirty second scenes, with no close-ups, always sitting down. Theron carries McAvoy through their scenes, which isn’t easy because she doesn’t get a lot of lines opposite him. She does with some of the other characters, but McAvoy’s supposed to be dominating their scenes and Theron literally has to hold it up with silent energy. McAvoy’s exhausting. And he never pays off, even in a little, in performance or script. The latter isn’t the bigger problem but it never giving McAvoy anything good, even at the end… eh.

McAvoy being so bland hurts the rest of the cast. John Goodman being bland in a much smaller role, an extended cameo maybe—he’d be able to get away with it if it were’t for McAvoy. Even Jones, who does an entirely serviceable job… it’d be nice if he had some personality. Faulkner’s good though. Eddie Marsan’s good enough. Roland Møller and Bill Skarsgård are both fine and likable, but there’s not much for them to actually do.

Last minute callouts to Cindy Evans’s costumes (she makes Theron into an unironic fashion icon and David Scheunemann’s production design; Blonde does look good.

As a “Charlize Theron, action hero” vehicle, Atomic Blonde’s solid enough. But it’s not Atomic or Blonde and doesn’t even really try to be. It’s perfunctory.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by David Leitch; screenplay by Kurt Johnstad, based on a graphic novel by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart; director of photography, Jonathan Sela; edited by Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir; music by Tyler Bates; production designer, David Scheunemann; costume designer, Cindy Evans; produced by A.J. Dix, Eric Gitter, Beth Kono, Kelly McCormick, Peter Schwerin, and Charlize Theron; released by Focus Features.

Starring Charlize Theron (Lorraine Broughton), James McAvoy (David Percival), Eddie Marsan (Spyglass), Sofia Boutella (Delphine Lasalle), Roland Møller (Aleksander Bremovych), Toby Jones (Eric Gray), James Faulkner (Chief ‘C’), John Goodman (Emmett Kurzfeld), Bill Skarsgård (Merkel), and Til Schweiger (Watchmaker).


John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017, Chad Stahelski)

If—and it's a big if—there's anything interesting about John Wick: Chapter Two as a sequel, it's how poorly the original filmmakers execute the sequel. It feels like a contractually obligated affair, only with the original principals returning.

Well, save David Leitch who produced the first film and was the (uncredited) co-director. Guess we know who brought all the energy. Because Chapter Two’s direction and action scenes are exactly what you'd expect from a contractually obligated sequel. There are big set pieces but with the locations, not the fight choreography, not the direction, not the editing (Evan Schiff’s cuts are middling at best). There's not even good (or enthusiastic) soundtrack selections. There aren't any sequences with distinct accompanying songs. The score’s no better; Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard’s score does a minimalist Western theme for unstoppable assassin Keanu Reeves and it's a bad choice. It doesn't bring anything. John Wick: Chapter 2: it doesn't bring anything.

The movie starts shortly after the first one. In the first one they killed his dog and stole his car; Chapter 2 begins with him getting the car back from an exceptionally bad Peter Stormare. One cameo from John Leguizamo later (the film would’ve been immeasurably improved with more Leguizamo, who’s likable in a film without much likable) and Reeves is retired. Moments after re-burying his suitcase of guns and assassin credits (the criminal underworld, globally, operates on single gold coins in John Wick world), bad guy Riccardo Scamarcio shows up at Reeves’s door with a job he can’t refuse because in John Wick world, the plots don’t work if there aren’t jobs you can’t refuse. Being an assassin means following the rules; returning Ian McShane, who’s possibly the only consistently welcome frequent supporting player, can’t shut up about the rules. At least he’s amusing with it. Common, who plays Reeves’s target’s bodyguard, can’t shut up about the rules and he’s terrible at it. The film’s bereft of good villains. Common’s not good to start then gets worse the more the film asks of him. Scarmarcio doesn’t seem terrible when he arrives, then gets worse as things progress, but some of the problem for him is the stupid plot being, you know, stupid.

After getting his house burnt down for initially refusing the offer he can’t resist, Reeves meets up with McShane (to get McShane in the movie before he needs to be), then has his equipment prep sequence, which has him getting a bulletproof suit—like, tailored suit, not special outfit, suit suit, just bulletproof—and guns from Peter Serafinowicz (whose Q cameo is one of the film’s better ones). Reeves of course using all the guns he gets, including the AR-15 the film includes to show its love for gun culture, which never gets actually exciting because they’re not gadgets or even distinct weapons. The bulletproof suit comes in handy for Reeves walking around twisting and adjusting his suit jacket to block during gun fights. Handy for Reeves. It looks really stupid.

Also stupid-looking is the big finale with the amped up hall of mirrors shootout. For a second it seems like director Stahelski is including the hall of mirrors to do something fresh or innovative with the trope. Instead, he just adds some CGI to it and calls it good. Then it goes on forever. A lot of John Wick 2 is tedious. Especially the fight scenes, which are never well-choreographed enough to be interesting on their own; they don’t have much dramatic weight as it seems unlikely any of the goons Reeves fights are going to be able to take him.

Speaking of Reeves… he’s really bad here. It’s Derek Kolstad’s script, which seems unfamiliar with how Derek Kolstad’s script for the first film dialogued Reeves. Reeves has a lot of action hero one-liners. They’re all bad, with some being stupider than others.

Can’t forget the Larry Fishburne cameo. He’s really bad. Obviously he’s a Matrix stunt cast but you’d think they’d make sure he and Reeves would at least be fun together. They’re not

I guess Ruby Rose, who plays a deaf (or possibly just mute, it’s unclear) assassin, gets away somewhat unscathed. She’s not good, but she’s also not bad. Not being bad is a rarity in John Wick: Chapter 2. It’s a great example of sequel as pejorative.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Chad Stahelski; written by Derek Kolstad; director of photography, Dan Laustsen; edited by Evan Schiff; music by Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard; production designer, Kevin Kavanaugh; costume designer, Luca Mosca; produced by Basil Iwanyk and Erica Lee; released by Summit Entertainment.

Starring Keanu Reeves (John Wick), Riccardo Scamarcio (Santino D’Antonio), Ian McShane (Winston), Ruby Rose (Ares), Common (Cassian), Claudia Gerini (Gianna D’Antonio), Lance Reddick (Charon), Laurence Fishburne (Bowery King), and John Leguizamo (Aurelio).


The Swindlers (2017, Jang Chang-won)

The Swindlers is all about being all about the con movie. No one in the film is meant to be trusted, though some of the characters are more sympathetic than others. The film is full of twists—the titular Swindlers aren’t a well-functioning unit, but a collection of blackmailed con artists and their corrupt district attorney boss—so someone is always either about to screw over someone else or has just gotten screwed over. How much screwing over everyone can take… well, the characters are meant to end up on a collision course. The sandbox they’re in is so small it’s inevitable, though sometimes for unrevealed reasons.

Those reveals aren’t exactly surprising, because the film invites an examination of its subterfuge; without the fun of unravelling the cons, The Swindlers wouldn’t work. More than not working, it wouldn’t exist. Writer and director Jang is very directly out to entertain, ditto his cast.

The film opens in flashback. South Koreans have just fallen victim, en masse, to a Ponzi scheme. The perpetrator escapes, with millions. Jang moves between various victims (and various kinds of victims) before settling on ostensible lead Bin Hyun. Bin’s a small-time crook, son to a world-class forger; turns out dad (Jung Jin-young) is also involved with the Ponzi guy. Bin gets a little bit of character development, mostly reactionary, then the movie jumps ahead to the present. And Bin disappears.

Instead, the film follows con artists Im Jin-ah, Ahn Se-ha, and Bae Seong-woo. Im is the gorgeous con woman who apparently likes jewelry (none of the three get any actual character details after their first two scenes). Ahn is the computer guy. Bae is the straight man. Yu Ji-tae is their boss, a corrupt district attorney who’s on a mission to shutdown the Ponzi schemer’s collaborators. Sometimes he uses his team of con artists, sometimes he uses the cops and his staff, sometimes he uses a street gang he’s also blackmailing. The film never really pauses to dwell on Yu’s villainy. But it’s considerable, especially as the film progresses, as he adds greed to his list of sins. Once hundreds of millions of won are in play, Yu becomes even less trustworthy.

Of course, the alternative is to trust Bin, who eventually aligns himself with Yu and team to take out the Ponzi schemer, who’s too smart to come back to Korea so instead he sends straight-edge stooge Park Sung-woong. Im ends up with the job of gaining Park’s trust, leading to some rather amusing sequences. Park and Im work well off each other; no one else in the film really has the opportunity to work up any rapport. So it’s nice they’re so good together.

Though it’s never clear how Ahn and Im, in particular, operate in such a dangerous world. Bae’s a brute and Bin and Yu are dueling masterminds, but Ahn and Im are kind of just nice people. Sure, they’re con artists, but they lack the temperament for all the potentially perilous situations they’re in.

Again, Jung doesn’t really care. He just wants Swindlers to amuse and he succeeds. Ahn and Im are both perfectly good. Bae’s good. Bin’s really likable. Choi Duk-moon’s hilarious as one of the marks. Yu’s not likable, but he’s a pleasant bad guy to follow around. He’s always got to be on guard with his team, which somehow gets him some sympathy. For as long as the movie needs it before things get more intense, once the money score aspect of it gets introduced. Because everyone’s got a different agenda they’re trying to achieve.

Because if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be Swindlers.

The film’s technically solid. Jang’s not a great director by any measure, but he’s competent at directing the actors through the various plot twists. Their general likability makes it work. Nice editing. The music is a little much but composer Bang Jun-seok seems to understand the film needs help and goes all out to provide it. If Jang were a better director, the music would be way too much. But its enthusiasm is good, given the circumstances.

The Swindlers is slight. It’s also consistently amusing and has a great pace. It’s cute. Not in a pejorative sense at all, but like many of its cast members (Bin, Im, Ahn, Park), it’s just cute.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Jang Chang-won; director of photography, Lee Tae-yun; music by Bang Jun-seok; produced by Sung Chang-Yeon; released by Showbox.

Starring Bin Hyun (Hwang Ji-sung), Yu Ji-tae (Park Hui-su), Im Jin-ah (Choon-ja), Bae Seong-woo (Ko Seok-dong), Ahn Se-ha (Kim), Park Sung-woong (Kwak Seung-geon), Choi Duk-moon (Lee Kang-suk), and Jung Jin-young (Hwang Yoo-suk).


Baghead (2017, Alberto Corredor)

Baghead ends up feeling a little exploitation-y, even though it’s rather classy. Great production design from Marie Boon—it takes place in a dank pub and then a danker pub cellar—and great photography from John Wade. Hollie Buhagiar’s music is classy too. Corredor isn’t a sensational director (at all)–meaning sensational in the sensationalistic way, not as a dig; his composition is good–and a fantastic Julian Seagar keeps everything even acting-wise.

The short opens with a guy whimpering and getting punched in the face, repeatedly. The shot’s offered without explanation or context and until the opening titles, what seems most important is the guy can’t even get tears out. Crocodile tears. Then, after the opening titles, Oliver Walker shows up, going into the aforementioned dank pub and meeting the aforementioned Seagar. Seagar wants to go home but Walker’s heard he keeps a witch in the basement who can do seances. Seagar warns Walker to go home, warns him he’ll find no solace in the experience, but Walker insists.

Then there’s the scary introduction to the witch (who’s got a bag over her head, hence the title), which Corredor and the crew handle quite well. What doesn’t help is all the bad will towards Walker, who’s not good. He gets better, once the plot twist comes out, but it’s a somewhat problematic better (and a somewhat problematic plot twist). But following that opening, where you’re mostly just wondering if Brett Kavanaugh would even get out real tears if someone repeated struck him in the face? Walker’s just not good enough. Seagar makes up for a lot of it, but Walker’s plum annoying.

And then there’s the twist and all of a sudden, even though Walker’s still a worm, he’s a different kind of worm. There’re some logic holes—like how he’s the first person to surprise Seagar with his specific seance request (is Seagar new? He doesn’t seem new). But it works. The short’s been patient, it turns out; solid production while waiting for the script to do its thing.

The plot twist isn’t not predictable—I was hoping for a similar twist, though less problematic—but it’s effectively done. And Walker’s sufficiently engaging by the end.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Edited and directed by Alberto Corredor; written by Lorcan Reilly; director of photography, John Wate; music by Hollie Buhagiar; production designer, Marie Boon; released by ShortsTV.

Starring Oliver Walker (Kevin), Natalie Oliver (Lisa), Tama Phethean (Mike), and Julian Seager (barman).


The Blue Door (2017, Paul Taylor)

The Blue Door opens with home healthcare worker Gemma Whelan starting a new job working for infirm, bedridden Janie Booth. The house is a mess—the kitchen is full of dirty dishes, there’s a room with sheets on all the furniture—and Booth is a mess. Whoever last fed her not only didn’t take the dishes into the kitchen, they left a quarter of the meal on Booth’s face. Besides the general creepy factor of being alone in a strange house working for someone who doesn’t speak (or even seem to realize you’re there), Whelan doesn’t see much out of the ordinary. Booth’s got a tattoo on her wrist, which Whelan—and the short—focus on hard. A little too hard as it turns out.

After doing a handful of dishes—also, when she goes to throw out the old milk, Whelan just puts it on the floor? She doesn’t dump it so she’s presumably not recycling. Is recycling not a thing in the UK? Anyway, after doing like five dishes (leaving ninety), Whelan goes in to take the sheets off the furniture in the one room. Because… well, because it’s an effective way to introduce the titular Blue Door. It appears out of nowhere. One moment it’s there, the camera tracks away, following Whelan, then when they get back, there’s the door.

And there’s something on the other side, leading to Whelan running around the house trying to escape the blue door, which pops up and someone on the other side tries to get in. Eventually Whelan ends up back in Booth’s bedroom and it’s time for the big surprise finish. Only it’s not much of a surprise once all the pieces are revealed because director Taylor doesn’t really do nuance.

The film’s well-shot (by Benedict Spence) and Taylor’s composition is fine. The script… well, the script is thin. Because it’s just stage direction for Whelan.

Whelan’s awesome. Until the finale, her expressions reacting to her surroundings and the goings-on is the whole show. The short kind of dumps that approach in the last moments, which is just another of the many problems.

It’s disappointing; Whelan puts in a lot better work than the short deserves, especially with the predictable finish.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Paul Taylor; written by Ben Clark and Megan Pugh; director of photography, Benedict Spence; edited by Dan Mellow; music by Ben Carr; production designer, Lynn McFarlane; produced by Clark and Pugh for 13th Door.

Starring Gemma Whelan (nurse) and Janie Booth (client).


Hard Surfaces (2017, Zach Brown)

Hard Surfaces is pretty thin. Sometimes it’s translucently thin. The film itself never has any depth, but fairly regularly the actors at least show they could give it some depth, if it weren’t for the thinness. Ostensibly the film’s well-meaning, but that quality comes off as fake. Like writer (and director) Brown is using trying to leverage melodramatic tropes to tell his story, which even he doesn’t care very much about because it’s impossible to care very much about successful cokehead Winston-Salem, North Carolina photographer Shawn Pyfrom (who also produced). He’s such a big hit, he goes to red carpet openings—which later makes no sense when you find out he’s been living a lie in Winston-Salem for years. Surfaces exists in a world without much of an Internet. It’s not even clear the cellphones can text. Pyfrom is dating professional mean girl Julia Voth (who also produced); actually she’s a prosumer mean girl; Voth not being some kind of YouTube influencer is one of Surfaces many misses. She couldn’t be a YouTube influencer, however, and not just because the Internet doesn’t exist, but because Voth’s character isn’t allowed that level of depth. She’s just the bitchy, sex-crazed harpy who seduces Pyfrom whenever there’s a pause in dialogue. Because Pyfrom doesn’t want kids, so all Voth can give him is sex. And enable his cocaine and prescription pill addiction.

Pyfrom’s hit photographs are all of people on drugs. His studio is in his apartment and even though these subjects sometimes make Pyfrom uncomfortable (Sterling Hurst in the film’s only thing approaching a standout performance), he doesn’t worry about it ever coming back on him. His buddy—and the guy who sells pictures—Chase Fein hires the subjects. So they’re paying people to get dangerous high and then Pyfrom takes pictures of them drooling, then Fein sells them. Fein, we later find out, is all about his AA-fueled sobriety. Fein knows drugs are bad, he just doesn’t care about them being bad for other people. He’s even got an overdose story at one point. He’s also a… hipster? I mean, he walks around barefoot all the time, mostly wears long-sleeve shirts and shorts, eats in front of people at a place of business and talks with his mouth full, and does yoga on his desk. Given Brown doesn’t appear to direct his actors at all, it’s impressive how much Fein’s able to get away with when the script and direction aren’t ever there to back him up.

But then Pyfrom’s past catches up to him; his sister and her wife die in a tragic boating accident off Catalina. Because where else does anyone die except in tragic boating accidents except off Catalina. They’ve left him their daughter, who—before they kicked him out of the state and he left in tears, they all promised he’d care for if they ever died. There’s some twenty-first century “not that there’s anything wrong with it” from the two female characters in the film, bitchy girlfriend Voth (who needs to have a kid to validate her existence we later find out) and virginally wonderful social worker Sophie Kargman. Voth can get away with her surprise at lesbians existing because she’s supposed to be playing shallow, but Kargman’s awkward delivery of “partner” instead of wife in a legal setting? It’s a creative decision on someone’s part and a dumb one.

There are a lot of dumb creative decisions in the film, but they’re mostly Brown’s script. It’s not like Pyfrom ever screws up a scene. Quite the opposite. He’s perfectly fine doing this movie all about how sad it is this thirty-something white guy has to take a measure of responsibility–basically, it’s about him realizing it’s not a good idea to get high around tween ward Hannah Victoria Stock. Stock ought to give the movie’s best performance, but she doesn’t because Brown’s so bad at directing her scenes. It’s like they used the worst take in every scene, then cut it wrong. But it’s not like Pyfrom has any arc with Stock. Or, more, the other way around. See, once Stock is introduced and starts eating instead of being locked away in her room while Pyfrom day drinks (it’s okay though, thanks to the coke, he never gets drunk; it’s established in the first scene because the script is all about priorities), she pretty much disappears. Fein becomes her babysitter while Pyfrom and Kargman have this awful courtship then disappointment once someone (psst, it’s Voth) calls into social services he’s a drunken cokehead who probably shouldn’t be caring for a tween.

However, since Pyfrom never has any problems other than, you know, passing out on his counter, and never actually does anything with Stock except maybe feed her and drop her off at Fein’s gallery… it’s hard to see a problem. But then you realize it’s because Brown is manipulating everything to make Pyfrom a victim, even when Fein’s accusing him of playing victim, there’s another layer to make Pyfrom the victim. Because we don’t have all the details. Sure, he lied to pal and business partner Fein and live-in girlfriend Voth about his past and they never found out not just because there’s no Internet but because it turns out the local newspaper, which apparently does multiple stories about Pyfrom’s photography, never did some basic checking into his identity. It’s not like he had his name legally changed, so Voth never looked at the water bill either.

The suspension of disbelief Surfaces requires, not just for plot points but for characters and the ground situation itself… it needs to bring something more than the acceptable acting of a typo-free but insipid screenplay. And whatever screenwriting book Brown read to help with the third act needs to be burned; it’s reveal after gimmick after reveal after gimmick after reveal.

If Brown had some personality as a director, there might be something to Hard Surfaces. If Voth and Kargman had switched roles—Voth implies depth, Kargman never does—it’d be something. If Brown knew how to direct his actors, it’d be something. If Noel Maitland’s photography weren’t so perfectly competent, it’d be something. Hard Surfaces is the kind of thing where the only thing it can’t be is vapid and Brown brings nothing to it but vapid. The way he avoids the female characters is astounding. Like, Stock ought to be the main character. Instead, she gets less to do than anyone else. It’s also weird the sister left him her kid but none of the kid’s possessions.

Pyfrom’s okay. It’s actually surprising how well he maintains that okay throughout the film. Stock’s likable, but should be good. She also doesn’t get to grieve because she’s not given that much character. Voth. Voth could be the film’s secret weapon, instead she’s just as much a drag on it as Kargman. And Kargman’s a drag.

But, hey, Fein’s good in a crap role and that Hurst guy is awesome.

Hard Surfaces has some decent, if insincere, performances, but nothing else. Except director Brown in a bit part where the gag is he stutters.

Wait, wait, I forgot—the Panavision aspect ratio for the DV. Really, really, really, really, really bad idea.

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Zach Brown; director of photography, Noel Maitland; edited by Patrick Bellanger; music by Ryan Rapsys; production designer, Kristen Adams and Jayme Helms; produced by Julia Voth, Shawn Pyfrom, and Brown; released by North of Two.

Starring Shawn Pyfrom (Adrian), Chase Fein (Steve), Hannah Victoria Stock (Maddy), Sophie Kargman (Sophie), Julia Voth (Liz), and Sterling Hurst (Dale).


The Dark Tower (2017, Nikolaj Arcel)

The Dark Tower is the story of unremarkable white kid Tom Taylor–wait, he’s supposed to be eleven? No way. Anyway, it’s the story of unremarkable white teenager Tom Taylor who discovers, no, his visions are real and he is a wizard and he’s going to travel to another dimension and bring a legendary hero back to modern New York City. Once back they will battle to save the universe itself, thanks to the hero’s gunfighting abilities and the kid’s vague magical magicking.

Okay, well, it’s not actually vague magicking. Taylor’s got the Shining. You know, like in The Shining. When they tell him he’s got the Shining, you have to wonder how he got to be fifteen without seeing The Shining. Maybe because he’s supposed to be eleven.

Taylor’s dad died at some point before the movie starts so mom Katheryn Winnick has remarried. She went with astounding tool Nicholas Pauling, who wants Taylor out of there because papa lion? Maybe it’s because Taylor’s got problems–he draws visions of a mythic fantasy world, Idris Elba’s gunfighting hero, and Matthew McConaughey’s creepy man in black. Maybe they sent Taylor to the shrink for drawing pictures of Christopher Walken. At the start, it seems like McConaughey’s going to just do a Christopher Walken impression, which would be a lot better than what he ends up doing. The Walken impression would at least be amusing. Dark Tower is short on amusing.

Because Dark Tower is serious. Director Arcel plays it straight. The screenplay plays it straight. Taylor lives in a New York City infested with disguised demons but it’s still safe enough gun shops have zero security. And no one has cell phones. If Arcel had any personality in his direction, there’d be a possibility for this New York City. The sad thing about Dark Tower is all the missed opportunities. Because, even if it’s short on amusing and McConaughey isn’t as amusing as if he were aping Christopher Walken, none of the principal cast half-asses it. They’re just in an under-budgeted production. They hold together admirably.

Though it gets depressing watching Elba try to do acting while the film’s got no need for him to do any. The script’s got no need for him to do any. All the characters exist entirely through exposition, usually exposing about themselves to others. It’s a weak script. As pragmatic and unenthusiastic as Arcel’s direction gets, it’s nothing compared to the script. Junkie XL’s score does most of the heavy dramatic lifting, just because the script doesn’t have time for it. Of course, the script doesn’t have time for anything while it ought to be doing character development either. Sure, once Taylor gets to Fantasia, he immediately becomes fetching to the opposite sex and finds out he’s a wizard, but it’s not character development. It’s just setup for the finale. Sure, the film’s uninspired and disappointing, but it’s pragmatic as heck.

Taylor’s fine as the Boy Who Lived-lite. Elba’s… potentially good. He’s never near bad, but the part’s crap and Arcel’s got no time for acting. Arcel doesn’t even have time for McConaughey’s ostensible excesses as his evil, magical, maybe Satanic character. It might help if Elba and McConaughey–who have been nemeses for untold ages–had some chemistry. Elba can do lack of enthusiasm, but McConaughey phones it in during their handful of scenes together. Spellbinding acting it ain’t.

Dennis Haysbert and Jackie Earle Haley have glorified cameos. Haysbert is overly portentous but not embarrassing. Haley’s is embarrassing.

Technically, there’s nothing terrible. Rasmus Videbæk’s photography is fine. The special effects are all right. There’s not enough of them–either the budget limitations held back establishing shots or Arcel just doesn’t like them. Given his bland competence as a director, it seems more likely they’re budgetary omissions. There are a lot of budgetary omissions. They’re kind of Dark Tower’s thing–frequent, unexplained, inexcusable absences.

Because with what they had, the filmmakers should’ve been able to turn out a much better ninety-five minutes. The script’s the big problem. And Arcel does nothing to transcend it.

The worst thing about Tower is it actually does end up disappointing. The first half is riddled with problems and always seems absurdly unaware of itself in terms of being a knock-off Neverending Story, Princess Bride, and, I don’t know, Star Wars, but Taylor is sympathetic and compelling. Elba always seems like he’s eventually going to get some great scene. It’s just around the corner.

Only it’s not. A perfunctory ending is around the corner. Because the script, despite being low on ideas from the start, manages to run out of them as things move along.

It’s also–almost–too technically competent to be such narrative slop. Competencies aside, The Dark Tower is poorly written and badly produced. Those lacking qualities sink the picture further than it ought to sink.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Nikolaj Arcel; screenplay by Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen, and Arcel, based on characters created by Stephen King; director of photography, Rasmus Videbæk; edited by Alan Edward Bell and Dan Zimmerman; music by Junkie XL; production designers, Christopher Glass and Oliver Scholl; produced by Goldsman, Ron Howard, and Erica Huggins; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Tom Taylor (Jake), Idris Elba (Roland), Matthew McConaughey (Walter), Katheryn Winnick (Laurie), Nicholas Pauling (Lon), Claudia Kim (Arra), Dennis Haysbert (Steven), Jackie Earle Haley (Sayre), Fran Kranz (Pimli), Abbey Lee (Tirana), and José Zúñiga (Dr. Hotchkiss).


I, Tonya (2017, Craig Gillespie)

Despite the rather declarative I in the title, I, Tonya, Margot Robbie’s Tonya Harding is not the protagonist of the film. Writer Steven Rogers avoids making her the protagonist as long as he can–really, until the third act–and instead splits it between Robbie and Sebastian Stan (as her husband). Allison Janney, as her mother, has a lot to do the first hour, not so much the second. So little, in fact, Janney–in the present-day interview clips (with the actors in old age makeup and a perplexing 4:3 aspect ratio despite, you know, digital video)–comments on how she’s not in the story much anymore.

The distance from Robbie (and Harding) lets I, Tonya get away with things like Robbie making fun of Nancy Kerrigan (played by Caitlin Carver, who literally has no audible dialogue other than moaning “why” over and over again after her assault, which the film plays for a laugh). Kerrigan, Harding (Robbie) opines, only got hit once. Harding had been constantly beaten first by Janney and then Stan her whole life until that point. What’s Kerrigan got to be so upset about. Ha. Funny.

Whether or not Harding actually made that statement–the script is based, in part, on interviews with Harding and the real-life Stan–is immaterial. Rogers and director Gillespie play it for a shock laugh. But I, Tonya is hardly sympathetic to Harding; Robbie will recount abuse in voiceover–or in scene; the characters occasionally break the fourth wall for effect–and then, next scene, I, Tonya will play her being assaulted for a laugh. Not so much with Stan, whose casual vicious abuse is presented utterly matter-of-fact, but with Janney. Janney’s abuse, physical and psychological, is always good for a chuckle.

Because I, Tonya wants the audience to laugh at its subjects. Bobby Cannavale, in the present day interview clips as a Hard Copy producer (the film doesn’t do anywhere near enough with explaining the Hard Copy coverage for people not somewhat familiar with the actual events), talks about how some of the participants–maybe the guys who actually attack Kerrigan–are the biggest boobs in a story made up entirely of boobs. I, Tonya, despite Harding’s participation, feels no differently about it.

Robbie’s Harding is terrorized and terrified, without an ounce of joy or even the capacity for it. The script’s got to follow a historical timeline–there’s accomplishment the first time Robbie gets away from abusive Stan, but then when she goes back to him, the movie skips ahead instead of examining. Robbie’s not just not the protagonist, she’s not even a good subject. You can’t get too many laughs out of it if you chart her descent into (apparent) alcoholism after returning to the abusive relationship.

Meanwhile, Stan’s a little bit closer to the protagonist. See, the ice-skating stuff–despite a solid performance by Julianne Nicholson as Robbie’s trainer (who simultaneously champions her for her ability and loathes her for being poor)–barely figures in. Robbie doesn’t get to essay accomplishment, just abuse, whether from Janney or Stan. Her character is completely defined by other people. Not much I in it.

But Stan. Until he starts hitting Robbie, he’s a cute boyfriend. Then he’s a scumbag one, but he’s always around in the story. Now, Stan is eight years older than Robbie, but the actual age difference was three years. Even though Stan’s performance is excellent, it might have worked better age appropriate. Because I, Tonya’s Stan is a different kind of creep than the real guy. Of course, they’re both playing characters far younger–starting at fifteen for Robbie–and, well, it’s not like the film’s going for verisimilitude. It’s going for laughs. Often really easy ones.

Like Paul Walter Hauser, as the guy who orchestrated the attack on Kerrigan and Stan’s buddy. Hauser’s great. Maybe the movie’s best performance. Because he doesn’t bring any glamour to the part. Janney, despite the makeup and the funny hair and all the affect, is still doing a movie star turn. Hauser’s just this schlub.

He also gets to be the butt of some of the film’s working class poverty jokes. Though there’s a truly stunning one in Robbie’s voice over where you wonder how craven Rogers and Gillespie have to be to spit on the real-life Harding to characterize her as such. And they’re far from gracious to the character–the film conveys Harding’s assertion she knew nothing about the attack and doesn’t directly contradict it… just strongly implies there are possible unknowns. It does the same for Stan. Hauser’s character–the real-life person having died ten years before the film–gets to be the film’s single premeditating villain.

Performance-wise, outside Hauser’s kickass supporting (practically bit) turn, Stan, Robbie, and Janney are all excellent. They’re all caricatures to some degree, though Stan gets to be super-likable in the interview sections, which is problematic. Especially since, initially, Robbie doesn’t. And even after Robbie gets to be more sympathetic, she never gets to be likable. The end credits of the film exemplify three of the film’s major fails. First, the real Tonya Harding–in Hard Copy footage perhaps–is immediately more likable and sympathetic than Robbie ever gets to be. Worse, than Robbie ever tries to be. A sincere smile wouldn’t hurt. Similarly, when the film shows Harding’s heavy metal skate recitals? It’s unimaginable why Robbie, as Harding, would make that creative choice. She’s utterly joyless. The real Harding, in footage, is clearly exuberant.

Final big fail? The skating. Director Gillespie uses a lot of digital help with the editing–so again, why does the film pretend contemporary cameras for the interviews would be 4:3, but whatever–so lots of digital help for editing. He gets these long, obviously digitally-aided shots–Tatiana S. Riegel’s editing is technically outstanding, regardless of content. He also uses digital help for the skating. Presumably to put Robbie’s face on a figure skater, but also to recreate Harding’s actual skating.

You’d think, given CGI technology, they would’ve been able to make that skating a tenth as impressive as Tonya Harding’s actual skating ability. They don’t. All the camerawork, all the digital help, all the editing… it’s nothing compared to the television footage of Harding skating during the end credits. I, Tonya’s Harding is as feckless about her skating as the film is about presenting her story. It would’ve been nice if the film didn’t do a constant, active disservice to itself just for some laughs.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Craig Gillespie; written by Steven Rogers; director of photography, Nicolas Karakatsanis; edited by Tatiana S. Riegel; music by Peter Nashel; production designer, Jade Healy; produced by Tom Ackerley, Margot Robbie, Rogers, Michael Sledd, and Bryan Unkeless; released by Neon.

Starring Margot Robbie (Tonya), Sebastian Stan (Jeff), Allison Janney (LaVona), Paul Walter Hauser (Shawn), Julianne Nicholson (Diane Rawlinson), Bojana Novakovic (Dody Teachman), and Bobby Cannavale (Martin Maddox).


Voyeur (2017, Katharine White)

Voyeur has five shots. Maybe six… but I think five. The main shot is of star (and writer and producer) Stephanie Arapian’s front door. A little of the apartment interior is visible, but mostly in shade. Or, during the night shots, it’s just a lighted window. Over the film’s six minute run time, Voyeur explores Arapian’s life (as it relates to her parents). They live on the other side of the country, they’re getting older, they’re getting sick, they’re not communicating well. The short starts on Arapian’s birthday (or thereabouts) and ends just before Christmas. In between, a lot happens. The viewer hears about some of it, some of it is just implied in the dialogue, some of it is just on Arapian’s face and in her expressions, as the time wears on her.

The short is a showcase for Arapian’s acting. Even though there are only five (or six) shots and most of it is that one shot, Arapian does a lot, often when she’s on the phone. Even more than when she and her friend (Kate Volpe) are sitting outside talking through a particularly emotional scene, nothing feels quite as voyeuristic as those times Arapian is on the phone. Because in the conversation, her expressions and the emotion in them aren’t private–Volpe’s there–on the phone? Those moments are when the short is peeking in.

Of course, there’s also a phone scene where Arapian’s in the apartment and only visible–occasionally–walking past the window. That scene showcases Arapian’s acting from just voice alone. Again, it’s a great showcase for her.

Great photography from director White; nice editing from Tiffany Gibson. Voyeur’s simple and direct and rather affecting.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Photographed and directed by Katharine White; produced and written by Stephanie Arapian; edited by Tiffany Gibson.

Starring Stephanie Arapian (Lynn) and Kate Volpe (Eva).


Come Swim (2017, Kristen Stewart)

As Come Swim gets under way, the short provokes a couple thoughts. First, it’s not really going to be eighteen minutes, is it? Spoiler, not only is it eighteen minutes, it’s two separate short films stuck together with the first nine minutes or so being a dream sequence. Or is it a dream sequence? Oh, the symbolism and the motifs, so much to parse through.

Second thought. Is it really supposed to be this pointlessly pretentious? Is director (and writer, though not much writing) Stewart going anywhere with Swim? In the first half, she’s got some great special effects. Protagonist Josh Kaye–who’s game in his performance, which is about all it requires–is drowning. Not just in the ocean but when he gets out of the ocean. He sits around the open air of his apartment and is drowning. Water dripping down and so on. Pretty good effects work with it. Jacob Secher Schulsinger’s editing is never better than when giving that impression. He’s also extremely parched, while–in his head–he keeps hearing the same conversation about drowning and dying and blah blah blah. Even though Stewart wrote said conversation and likes it enough to endlessly repeat it over the action, even she drowns it out with the St. Vincent score.

Right after the worst effects sequence–Kaye turning into a human prune, which is the worst effects work in the movie but still disturbing–he wakes up from his dream and turns out to be an office drone slash wanna-be yuppie who spends his birthday (the movie’s set on his birthday it turns out) all by himself at the Waffle House, haunted by the repeating conversation.

When Kaye wakes up and Stewart sticks Swim into his mundane life (he smokes weed, but apparently not enough not to vividly dream, he smokes cigarettes in his bathroom with the window open so the landlord doesn’t find out, he has a MacBook Pro on his work desk next to his regular computer), it becomes pretty obvious she’s not going anywhere with the short.

John Guleserian’s photography–which is never more than competent–takes a real dive with the office stuff too.

Other than the first half special effects, the only thing impressive about Come Swim is its lack of self-awareness. It’s a tedious chore.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Kristen Stewart; director of photography, John Guleserian; edited by Jacob Secher Schulsinger; music by St. Vincent; production designer, Margaux Rust; produced by David Ethan Shapiro; released by Refinery29.

Starring Josh Kaye (Josh).


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