Shaun Celebrates Mad Max Fury Road and its Feminism in Disguise

Mad Max: Fury Road is the best movie of 2015 and one of the best action movies of all time.  A majority out there, while not necessarily agreeing with that statement fully, will nod their heads in understanding for where that sentiment comes from.  But, when a film gets the kind of praise Fury Road has since its release it will have its fair share of backlash.  It’s understandable.  Part of human nature is to feel unique and contrary opinions are one way to achieve that.  A person can be in a bad mood upon first seeing a film most love.  Then there’s the fact that the hype surrounding some films (as well as bands, books, foods, and nearly anything one can have a positive feeling toward) is so intense that nothing can ultimately live up it.  This could very well be the case where Fury Road is concerned.

To explain at least partially what I love so much about Mad Max: Fury Road, I’ve realized while trying to organize my thoughts on the movie I could probably write a novella length piece about it and no one wants that, I’ve taken some of the most common complaints I’ve heard aimed at the movie in an attempt to replace some of the negativity with appreciation.  I don’t expect to convert anyone through this article as film appreciation is such a subjective endeavor, but I can at least hope for understanding.

Fury Road is just a two hour long car chase

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This complaint is the one I hear perhaps the most, and it’s also a great place to start since it sets up a discussion of why Fury Road is such a unique film.  I often respond to this complaint when I’m in one of my more snide mood with, “Yes.  That’s the point.”  I think this complaint comes from people who are more comfortable with and find more enjoyment in story telling which relies on dialogue.

The word “movies”, though, is a shortened slang word derived from what they were originally called – moving pictures.  Movies as a storytelling device was a happy accident (though, possibly an inevitable one) as the original intent for the invention of film was closer to a photograph than a novel or a play.  The earliest movies created to tell a story were silent, and therefore had to rely entirely on visuals to get their account across.  Eventually someone came up with the idea of using title cards for dialogue, and shortly after that sound-on-film was invented, but at its core movies are moving pictures.

Mad Max: Fury Road isn’t a silent picture by any stretch of the imagination, it’s actually quite noisy, but it uses dialogue sparsely relying primarily on images and action to tell its story.  In making Fury Road George Miller understood that while there are many ways to create a narrative, only film can use images captured over large and myriad areas from any angle as a means of depicting his.  His being said two hour long car chase.

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There are many reasons to tell a story which is essentially just one long action sequence, the first of which being exactly that.  How cool is it to craft one long action sequence?  The story is driven not by what people say, but by what people do.  Talk is cheap, and a picture is worth a thousand words, and all that.   Sure, occasionally a command is barked but little time is wasted on people speaking about their feelings or their motivations, those are shown in the most direct way possible – through the actions the characters take.

Beyond the fact that Mad Max: Fury Road fully takes advantage of the medium of film by being almost entirely composed of action, there is also the fact that making an entire film from what is normally a single beat in a standard film adds up to a truly unique experience.  It makes for a film that, in a literal sense, very rarely slows down.  The start, the finish, and during the act breaks we get an opportunity to leave the vehicles and get a little expository and character building dialogue in, but outside of those four short sections the characters, the story, and thus our attention never slows down.

This a brave decision because it had the chance to alienate a good part of its intended audience (and, I think it actually did do just that which is part of the reason I felt compelled to write this piece) and it forced the writers to get across character development and themes in the middle of a whirlwind with little speech.  The fact that they not only accomplished that, but did so in a manner more loud and clear than a great many character pieces let alone action films, is a great testament to their talent.

There is one more very important reason the film makers made the movie one long car chase.  But, that reason ties in more closely with my discussion of themes which will come along a little later.

Everyone in in the post-apocalyptic world has great hair and make-up

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The Mad Max movies portray a world in which the last humans are trying to survive on an Earth with little food and water left, in which gasoline is more valuable than any precious metal or gem, and where gangs impose their power on the weak where they can and join together with would be dictators when they become the weak themselves.  They also all apparently have attended cosmetology school and have access to whatever makeup and hair styling tools they want.

Or do they?

If you remember, when Max is discovered at the start of the film, his hair and beard are overgrown, tangled, and matted.  He’s dirty and I imagine if a film could convey smell we’d all be grateful that the opening scene is over quickly.  Once he’s captured, the first thing the War Boys do to him is shave him, wash him, and brand him and once the action starts in earnest he’s freshly cleaned up.

Furiosa has lived most of her life in The Citadel as one of Immortan Joe’s lieutenants, and so has had access to plenty of clean water to wash with.  Plus, she shaves her head so hair isn’t an issue and she doesn’t wear make up.  She just happens to be played by Charlize Theron, so of course she’s incredibly beautiful even without the normal trappings, but that’s bone structure and other genetics, not the result of being dolled up.

The War Boys, Immortan Joe, Nux, and the other denizens of The Citadel all exist in various states of ragged dress, skin disease, and uncleanliness depending on their position within the society and their age.  The young War Boys look the most fit, but even they shave their heads completely and cover themselves in a white chalk.  The elder leaders of The Citadel have boils, cysts, and oozing sores.  The commoners in The Citadel have it worst of all, bent over, covered in grime, skinny, overgrown, the throngs of The Citadel not able to fight for Immortan Joe exist in state which can barely be considered human by the standards of here and now.

Which brings us to Toast, Splendid, Capable, and The Dag collectively known as “The Wives” who are the real target of this complaint.  The Wives do have impeccable hair, make-up, and skin.  This is because until the start of the film they were considered the property of Immortan Joe, the god-king of The Citadel and controller of the entire region’s water supply.  He makes sure they have the best, but he also makes sure they look the best since they are his personal baby factories.  Sex slaves.  Their appearance is essential to several Mad Max: Fury Road‘s themes, plus it just makes sense that the people of The Citadel would make absolutely sure the Wives always looked the best the possibly can to keep their master Immortan Joe pleased with them.

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So it’s not that everyone has hair stylists and make-up artists on their personal payroll.  It’s that Fury Road understands and has something to say about social classes.  It’s not something I’m going into any more detail in this particular article, but the reason people look so good post-apocalypse is George Miller saying in effect the more things change the more they stay the same.  The rich and powerful keep people as toys, and they want their toys kept in peak condition.

It is weird that with so many high-powered, large-tired motor vehicles moving at top speed through the desert that every single character isn’t covered in sand and dirt a few minutes into the chase.  If you want to make that complaint, I’ll give you a side eye for nitpicking but will grudgingly agree.

The movie is named Mad Max: Fury Road, but Max doesn’t do much

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Max has not been the focal character in any of the Mad Max films since the very first installment, and even that one could be up for debate.  The Mad Max films are more about the world they take place in and why George Miller feels that is a world we are hurtling toward if we don’t change our ways than they are about any of the people inhabiting that world.  Max has always been closer to a very active narrator than a protagonist, he brings us to the stories, tells them, but they are not his stories.

The popular opinion is that Furiosa is the main character in Mad Max: Fury Road.  It is she who who rescues the Wives, she who steals the War Rig, she who teaches the Wives to be strong, she who leads the group, makes the deals, and she who ultimately kills Immortan Joe and becomes the leader of The Citadel after great personal sacrifice. Those are all the traits of a hero, and normally the hero is also the protagonist.  But, while she is a paragon and of utmost importance to the film’s themes she is not the main character, either, as she doesn’t have a character arc.  She begins and ends the movie in the same place, literally and figuratively, and she makes that place better for everyone around her.

My more unpopular opinion is that the War Boy Nux is the main character in Mad Max: Fury Road.  Nux begins the movie an aggressive man-child eager to be noticed by Immortan Joe who has promised his War Boys a place in Valhalla if they fight well for him.  Nux is told to stay home by his superiors instead of joining the war party going after Furiosa because he is not well (for some unrevealed reason).  Nux, however, insists that his newly captured blood bag, Max, has strong blood and as long as Max can keep giving him his blood infusion (against Max’s will) he’ll be fine to join the party seeking to recapture their god-king’s sex slaves back from the evil woman who stole them.

Nux finishes the movie sacrificing his own life to be sure the horde of hyper-aggressive men he was once proud to be a part of won’t be able to capture the women whom he now loves and respects so they can retake The Citadel now empty of the warmongering horde and turn it into the paradise they were seeking elsewhere.  Now that’s a character arc, and it is all handled organically through visually focused story telling.

Why Mad Max: Fury Road is a movie worth celebrating

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As I in my opening, I could go on and on about Fury Road.  I haven’t mentioned its spectacular, Oscar winning art direction.  I could put an entire section on how in an age of CGI laden visuals Fury Road returned to stunt work and practical effects.  Fury Road out actions most action movies without cheating (okay, CGI isn’t cheating, but you get the idea), but what really sets it apart is what it has to say and how it says it.

We have a film in which powerful men control the world’s most important resources and dish out just enough of them to the people to keep them from revolting while also controlling the masses through false proverbs and promises of an afterlife.  These lords are powerful enough that they naturally feel entitled to anything they want, including other people, and they pass this sense of entitlement on to those closest to them in their hierarchy.  A powerful woman who was stolen as a child from her clan of all women who lived in a paradise is now mature and experienced enough to see the evil her master is doing, and decides to free the women he keeps as sex slaves and take them away with her to the green place of her childhood where they can join and be protected by the matriarchy rather than mistreated by the patriarchy.

She means to sneak away, but she’s found out and every man able to drive a war vehicle and fight soon comes after her.  One of these men brought along against his will joins her crew, and soon after one of the War Boys also joins her after disappointing the lord who promised him rewards after death and finding he respects the people in this band more than those he grew up with as they are kind, forgiving, and thoughtful in addition to also being strong willed survivors.

When the woman and her crew find that the green place no longer exists and barely a fraction of the matriarchy are still left, they decide to go back to The Citadel from whence they started and take it over for themselves now that the warmongers in charge are all outside The Citadel chasing them.  The sex slaves learn they can fight against their captors and the woman and former War Boy make sacrifices, the War Boy the ultimate sacrifice, to stop the war party and their leader in its tracks.

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So, put that all together and what we have is a film about literally and metaphorically removing the toxic masculinity from a society, and replacing it with more feminine ideals to heal the damage done to it by aggression and entitlement over the decades.  It shows us this through the state things have declined to under the men who lie, coerce, and bully to get their way and contrasting that with a woman who is just as powerful but was brainwashed from childhood to believe what the rest of society believes and now realizes the error of those beliefs.  It gives us a boy who is just another cog in a machine to be used by his master, and thus is filled with this contagious toxic masculinity, but who becomes loved and respected once he is able recognize the poison inside of him and release himself from it, and revered when he acts out of love instead of out of greed and entitlement for the first time in his life.

Mad Max: Fury Road tells us that the green place actually is within our grasp, and it’s closer than we think.  It’s right here.  But, to get to it, we have to remove the toxic masculinity which has been controlling our religions, our governments, our economics, and our entire way of life for centuries and embrace the feminine.  It’s not about hating men.  Men are essential to the human race’s success.  It’s about letting the women have at least an equal voice, maybe more until we can achieve some type of balance between the masculine and feminine voices.

Mad Max: Fury Road gives us the most feminist of messages wrapped up in a style and genre which most appeals to the hyper-masculine.  It uses action and visuals, not words.  It uses spears, and fast cars, and amazing stunts instead of soliloquies and serious facial expressions.  Mad Max: Fury Road is a feminist film masquerading as the toxic, supposed alpha male’s most desired fantasy.  It delivers its message not to the choir, but to those who most need to hear it, and in a way in which they want to listen.  That’s what makes Fury Road so brilliant and worth celebrating.

 

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (Kasdan; 2017)

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a sort of sequel, but really more of a follow-up story, to the original Jumanji released in 1995.  We start this film one year after the original story of a board game which brought chaos to the town of Brantford, New Hampshire.  The mystical board game adapts to its time and transforms itself into a cartridge for a video game.  Four high school students who are given a chore to clean out some school storage areas as a punishment find this video game in 2017, and decide to give it a play as a distraction from their detention.  Each of the four students suddenly finds themself inside the video game as the character they chose to play, and they also find that they must complete the game in order to escape.

The story of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is its weakest element as it is really nothing more than an excuse for jokes and action scenes.   The villain of the film is so weak and so personality-free that he may as well not exist.  I am not exaggerating when I say that if the villain were edited completely out of the film but nothing else was changed you wouldn’t notice a difference to the story other than it would be tighter and shorter.  As to the actual goal of taking a jewel to a gigantic statue and replacing it, it’s just a reason for the characters to not remain in one place and we never get any real sense of travel in the film, we just get to see that one scene takes place in a village, another in a chasm, and so on.

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As for the movie’s greatest strength, that would be its performances and particularly the one given by Jack Black.  The main conceit of the film allows for each of the four main actors to play characters who are against type, and while all have some fun with the idea, it’s Black that really throws himself into his character of the beautiful but insecure Instagram girl and ends up giving us a performance that is hilarious but also touching, relatable, and believable.  He impresses so much that when I was describing the film to friends afterward I kept using “she” as the pronoun I’d refer to Jack Black with.  The other actors were all funny and obviously had a good time, but none manage to give the honest performance Black did.  The Rock occasionally remembers he’s supposed to be a teenage nerd who is afraid of everything, but most of the time he’s just having a grand time mugging for the camera, which since he’s so good at it is not at all a bad thing.  Karen Gillan also largely just plays herself, but does have one fantastic scene with Jack Black in which she gets to be the shy wallflower.  Finally, Kevin Hart just acts like himself the entire time forgetting he’s actually supposed to be a high school football player.  Skill of performance aside, though, all four are very funny, charming, and have incredible chemistry which do make the movie worth watching.

The video game element of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle also allows for some clever humor and situations.  The fact that the movie is meant to actually be a video game actually makes this a better video game film than any film actually based on an existing video game franchise as it never pretends to be anything else and can, therefore, have fun with video game tropes and cliches.  The downside to this is that once you learn what these tropes are or if you are an avid gamer it makes the film predictable as the rules of the world tend to telegraph how any given situation will be overcome.

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Final Verdict:  Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a fantastic film for kids, and still a relatively good one for the adults who take them.  The story is as predictable as they come, but the charming cast and the comedy at the expense of video games make up for that and make for an entertaining ride.  If the kids want to see this one, take them, but if it’s your adult friends who want to take you to see Jumanji you can wait until the movie comes out for streaming services and rentals.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Johnson; 2017)

This week’s review is going to be different than my normal.  When I review a film I assume that the people coming to my site have not yet seen it and are reading what I have to say in an attempt to decide whether it is a film worthy of their time and money.  This is not the case with Star Wars: The Last Jedi.  Since the majority of the world’s population is going to see this film no matter what reviews say, this week’s write up will be less review and more deconstruction.  I intend to talk about parts of the film in far more detail than I usually do and without trying to avoid talking about surprises and plot points which means there will be major, surprise ruining spoilers ahead.  I will write my usual Final Verdict section first without any spoilers, and from there on out do not read any farther unless you have already seen Star Wars: The Last Jedi or you don’t care at all about spoilers.

Final Verdict:  Star Wars: The Last Jedi very nearly, but not quite, manages to both take the Star Wars series of movies in a new direction while also remaining the Star Wars which enraptured us from 1977 – 1983.  Almost.  The film never quite has the guts to fully commit its bold changes to the Star Wars Universe’s usual moral tropes nor its strict adherence to the typical Hero’s Journey, but it does explore a less black and white view of morality often and maturely enough to raise eyebrows in a positive way for those who want a more modern Star Wars and in a negative way for those who find the white hat/black hat dichotomy the strongest part of Star Wars’ appeal.  The Last Jedi should appeal, and therefore I recommend it, to most audiences except for those who have never seen a Star Wars movie before, but I don’t see many coming away with it as their favorite Star Wars film.

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Establishing a universe is more than writing a story

Arguably the biggest challenge the makers of the new series of Star Wars films face is establishing a coherent universe in a series that really didn’t need one before.  We didn’t need to know how the Empire came to power, who the founders of the Rebellion were, nor what the relationships of one planetary system was to another in order for the original Star Wars trilogy to work.  We just needed to have characters we could invest ourselves in and an exciting, engaging story.  In fact, once George Lucas decided to start telling a story which needed to involve politics and a larger galactic timeline the seams of the universe Star Wars is set in not only started showing but also unraveling.

A lot has happened in the larger storyline which wasn’t created with an abundance of detail in mind, but now that we have a context of 8 films plus television shows plus a plethora of novels and even a few video games which take place in this galaxy far away questions which were unimportant before are necessary to establishing a decent amount of suspension of disbelief and show that these new films are an actual story and not just a cynical cash grab via nostalgia and toys.  After The Force Awakens, we were left with many questions.  Who are Rey’s (Daisy Ridley) parents and why is she such a natural at using the Force (and anything else she puts her mind to)?  Where did The First Order come from and how did they rise to power and crush the government created by the Rebel Alliance so quickly?  Who is Snoke (Andy Serkis), and why had we never heard of him in any of the other films before now?  What caused Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) to turn to the Dark Side of the Force?  Why did Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) go into hiding?

When you’re making a trilogy, most understand that not only do you not need to tell everything in the first installment but it’s actually best if you hold quite a bit back so you can create tension in the mystery and entertainment value from the reveal.  Since you want to establish your story and characters in the first installment and bring the story to its climactic finish in the third, most of these reveals will take place in the second installment.  The Last Jedi does hold to that pattern for the most part but it fails to answer a handful of important questions and many of the answers we get are at best unsatisfying and occasionally infuriating.

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We learn, for instance, that Rey’s parents were no one special.  They were just scavengers who abandoned her on Jakku.  There’s nothing wrong with that explanation, in fact, it’s rather nice that the makers of the film didn’t feel a need to tie her into the grander storyline through a shoehorned in explanation and went with something believable and realistic.  If that is her origin, though, how do we explain her extraordinary number of talents?  She could have learned to repair a starship and how to fight from her time scavenging, but how did she become an expert pilot?  How does she speak Wookie?  Or droid?  If she’s such a natural at using the Force, why did it never manifest itself in the many, many years she was struggling to eke out an existence before the start of the film?  The answer we’re given to Rey’s parentage is satisfying in that it is not the typical grandiose origin we expect, but it’s entirely unsatisfying in that it raises just as many questions as it answers, and in this case, those questions are not due to a mystery but due to sloppy character writing in The Force Awakens.

The reveal of Kylo Ren’s turn to the Dark Side is far more satisfying.  In fact, the two short scenes which deal with his turn are far more effective and engaging than three entire films dealing with Anakin Skywalker’s turn were.  We see his story from both Luke’s perspective and from Ren’s himself, and this sort of mini “Rashomon” shows how a character can become a Sith with far more nuance and true characterization than anything Star Wars has done before.  Luke senses Snoke’s influence in Kylo Ren, and in a moment of panic and doubt decides its best to kill Ren before he kills everyone else.  But, Ren wakes up at the last second, manages to defend himself, and Luke’s rash decision causes Ren to do exactly what Luke feared he would.  This shows that heroes in this universe are subject to panic and bad decisions, though we have seen that in good guys who aren’t necessarily the heroes before in Star Wars films, but more importantly it shows that the villains in a Star Wars story can have recognizable realistic motivations for their wrongdoing.  Sure, Snoke metaphorically whispered in Ren’s ear and planted some seeds of doubt, but it was Luke’s attack, his betrayal, which actually turned Ren.

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Examining the storylines

 The primary focus of the film is the relationships between the users of The Force.  In an obvious reference to The Empire Strikes Back, The Last Jedi starts with Rey seeking training from Luke which Luke is dead set against due to his past with Kylo Ren.  Shortly after we learn that much to their surprise Kylo Ren and Rey have some sort of mental link with each other through which they can see each other, but only each other and not their surroundings, and through which they can communicate.  It’s an odd situation which doesn’t entirely work, but it does accomplish something very important to The Last Jedi‘s plot, themes, and tone which is that the primary protagonist and primary antagonist can relate to and truly understand their opposite.  This link means that they are not just opposing forces needing to get the other out of the way to achieve a goal, but that they are mirror images who see in the other what they are seeking in themselves.  This is even more nuanced and three dimensional than the relationship Darth Vader and Luke had and it’s accomplished without resorting to familial relations and without a need for one of the characters to be ignorant of their ties.  We take this journey along with them, and that makes for a more organic and multi-faceted relationship than we are used to between hero and villain particularly in a Star Wars movie.

Luke and Snoke are also mirror images of one another in the film due to the fact that both have at one point been masters to Kylo Ren, one for the Light Side of the Force and one for the Dark.  This mirrored relationship is not as nuanced and important as that between Kylo Ren and Rey, though.  This is partially due to the fact that these two are more traditional Star Wars hero and villain, but the primary reason this relationship fails is that Snoke himself is such a nothing character with no obvious connection to any of the heroes in the story.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that with no explanation of where he was during any of the other films, where he came from, how he came to lead The First Order or any other background of any kind other than he’s Kylo Ren’s master, Snoke is less a character and more a simplistic plot device.

The way the confrontations play out between these four is also highly uneven in quality.  Snoke, once again, is nothing but a mouthpiece for stereotypical villainous dialogue –  threatening and glowering but never actually doing anything which drives the story.  When Kylo Ren kills Snoke it was so obviously telegraphed that it would have been far more surprising had Kylo Ren attacked Rey as Snoke was continuously monologuing he would.

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However, the confrontation immediately after between Rey and Kylo Ren largely makes up for the disappointment with Snoke.  This is where we see the two main characters recognizing in the other traits they need.  Ren killed Snoke where Rey couldn’t have and it was the fact that he is steeped in the Dark Side which allowed him to do it.  In Rey Ren sees the balance he needs to keep from losing himself entirely to his rage.  In earlier films, the “join me” invitation is one which comes from a tactical power grab.  Darth Vader and the Emperor get a powerful subordinate to help them in their quest for more power, but they are never prepared to make nor view their invitee as an equal.  This offer from Kylo Ren to Rey adds a new twist to this now familiar Star Wars trope.  You can tell he does view Rey as an equal, as a true partner, and this offer to join him is less a power grab and more a warped marriage proposal.  This is a great twist which gives new depth to the Star Wars Universe and its characters as we glimpse the fact that balance between the Light and the Dark does not necessarily mean an even conflict but can instead mean the two sides learning to combine their strengths and counteract their weaknesses.

Finally for this storyline is the climactic confrontation between Kylo Ren and Luke.  This is a highlight of the film cinematically and dramatically, but a lowlight thematically. Since the two major plotlines come together at this time, I’ll speak on that after I talk about the other major plot in The Last Jedi.

The other major storyline is that of the Resistance and primarily of Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran).  I found this to be the more interesting storyline of the two as here the writers had the guts to flip the usual Hero’s Journey story on its ear and also had the guts to commit to it unlike the primary storyline involving the Force users.  This is a subplot which seems to be the usual impetuous hero comes out on top by disobeying orders and showing his superiors that his way may not be by the book, but it is the best.  As we continue down the path Finn, Rose, and Poe (with BB-8 along for the ride) decide to take, though, we see that what they are doing just keeps making things worse and worse and the eventual payoff we’re expecting doesn’t appear to be coming into reach, and ultimately we learn that the more practical and less flashy plan the leaders of the Resistance came up with would have worked, but because Poe and Finn decided to buck command and be heroes, the Resistance is all but destroyed.  That is so un-Star Wars like as to be completely unexpected and is the real heart of The Last Jedi, in my opinion.  The second act of a trilogy is meant to leave the heroes at their lowest point, but it’s rare that that low point is reached due to their own arrogance and incompetence.  That is exactly what happens here and leaves room for a redemption storyline for the characters who are not Force users in Episode IX.

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The opening of the film in which Poe single-handedly confronts a First Order fleet in his X-Wing sets up this dynamic as his flyboy antics lead him to call in an entire bomber wing against the wisdom of his commanders, and while the target he wanted to destroy does get taken out, the Resistance loses nearly every pilot involved in the attack including every single bomber in their fleet.  This gets Poe demoted, but it doesn’t reign in his cockiness so when most of the Resistance leadership is killed (and Leia (Carrie Fisher) put into the hospital in a scene which is pure fan service and very out of place with the film’s overall tone) Poe refuses to listen to the deputy leaders thinking himself far more clever and instead ropes Finn and new character Rose into a desperate plan to save the few remaining members of the Resistance.

The actual implementation of the plan inside the casino is the weakest element of this storyline as not only is it tonally all over the place but also visually chaotic.  Finn and Rose seem absolutely lost as they try to take in everything around them and figure out how to find the master code breaker, and unfortunately, the audience shares that state of mind with them.  I imagine this was intended to be the most humorous scene in the film, but most of the comedy on display here falls flat (a lot of the film’s humor does as it seems to be aimed squarely at children, young stupid children, for the most part) and the attempt to make the setting look like a large, bustling playground for the rich just ends up becoming a dizzyingly busy crowd of CGI effects thrown at the screen.

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After the bit in the casino, and things calm down, the storyline really gets down to business again as we see Finn and Rose in their desperation to be heroes make bad decision after bad decision including trusting the enigmatic DJ (Benicio Del Toro) who ends up being one of the most mercenary characters in the Star Wars universe who isn’t a straight-up gangster or bounty hunter.  While DJ was definitely entertaining, he was another inconsistency in the film’s story.  I loved the fact that he was interested only in whomever could pay him the most, but seemed to want that person to be one of the good guys.  He seemed to have a political awareness and pragmatism rarely seen in epic stories and never before in a Star Wars film, but he was also so incredibly skilled and well equipped you had to wonder how he found himself inside a cell in the first place, especially since he demonstrated he could escape instantly at any time he wanted.

The inevitable capture during their mission to crack the First Order’s tracking system and subsequent betrayal by DJ is the ultimate payoff of this section of the film.  Finn’s confrontation with Captain Phasma is so disappointing that it would probably have been best not in the film at all, but aside from that the payoff of Leia and Vice Admiral Holdo’s (Laura Dern) being discovered by the First Order directly due to the arrogance and impetuousness of Poe and Finn is the most powerful moment in the film from a thematic standpoint.  The villain’s to date haven’t been that organized, intelligent, nor impressive.  The heroes fail not because the villains beat them, but because the heroes are undone by the foolhardiness of some of their own.

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The climactic scene

After those few left in the Resistance make their way to the salt planet Crait they are joined by Luke, Rey, Chewbacca, and the attack force led by Kylo Ren.  The concept of a planet made up of red salt covered with snow makes for some truly spectacular visuals.  The red and white powder being thrown into the air by the fast-moving vehicles and the impact of weapons fire is reminiscent of blood on a battlefield and makes for a gritty visceral feel you can’t normally get in a film made with a younger audience in mind.  Add to that the sense of scale and motion between the gigantic slow moving weapons used by The First Order versus the speedy but small and decrepit vehicles of the resistance followed by Luke standing on his own against an army of AT-AT Walkers and  we are treated to one of the most visually spectacular scenes ever put in a Star Wars film.

The resolution of the final conflict is also satisfying as it comes down to a battle of psychology.  By projecting his image onto the planet as Rey helps the survivors in the Resistance escape, Luke keeps Kylo Ren’s focus exactly where he wants it to be, on Luke, and plays off of Kylo Ren’s uncontrollable anger to distract him just long enough that the true objective of keeping the Resistance alive for a little while longer can be secured.  It’s also a pretty great payoff to the audience when we realize that Kylo Ren has been played and he was defeated not by greater power or skill, but by his own emotional weakness combined with the cunning of his opponent.  The only problem I had with the resolution of the final conflict was wondering why we had never seen a Jedi do something similar before with the Force.  Once again, creating a consistent universe containing numerous films, television shows, and books is far more difficult than creating a single contained story.

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Finally, we end with the death of Luke.  This was a strange choice which seemed to come from nowhere to me.  It seems almost a given that he will appear as a ghost in the next film, so unless I am completely wrong in thinking that and Mark Hamill is still contracted to appear in the next film I see no dramatic reason why he should just die alone far away from anyone he knows and apparently due to stress rather than an unnatural cause.  The wisdom of this choice will hopefully become apparent in Episode IX, but it certainly isn’t now.

So, in the end, The Last Jedi is one of the better installments in the Star Wars universe.  It still has a few too many poorly handled elements such as humor which doesn’t connect, fan service which is more distracting than pertinent, and clunky dialogue to be an honestly great movie like Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, but there are some glimpses here into true genius and talent.   Hopefully, next time around the cast and crew can continue their exploration of more realistic themes but without chickening out and returning to the standard black and white morality of the Star Wars films of the past.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Justice League (Snyder; 2017)

Warner Bros. more than just stumbled out of the gate when they started producing their line of films based on DC Comics which they are now claiming was never meant to be a cinematic universe.  They gave us a story in mid-telling with only the most minor of clues what had gone on before, they made this story overly dark both literally and figuratively, and worst of all it seemed they didn’t understand their own characters by giving us a Superman who doesn’t care about collateral damage and the lives of civilians, a Batman who mowed people down with guns, and a Joker and Lex Luthor who seemed to have switched bodies.  Then they gave us Wonder Woman.  Wonder Woman showed us they could make a character who could inspire, that they were capable of starting a story at the beginning without cloning every other origin story out there, that they could give us visuals that were both gorgeous and vibrant, and that they did understand at least one of their characters.

Justice League comes to us from Zack Snyder, the director of Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and since those are the two films which started the DC movies down the path of “what the hell are they doing?” I admit to a lot of skepticism over whether he could pull off a Justice League film.  When Snyder left the project after primary shooting was done, but before post-production was very far underway, and gave the reins of the project over to second unit director Joss Whedon my concerns became even stronger as even though I love most of Whedon’s work, the possible clashing of styles did not seem like a good omen.  I can say having now seen the film that while Whedon’s influence in the film’s script is definitely noticeable, the directorial styles did not overly clash.  Yes, you can notice Snyder’s heavier, darker style not blending that well with the more light-hearted, self-aware, bantery style of Whedon’s during Justice League‘s introductory scenes, but the film quickly hits its groove making you forget about its imperfect start rather quickly.

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Justice League also manages to get its focal characters which were so wrong in earlier DC movies right.  Ben Affleck as Batman, who I felt was the best part of Batman v. Superman, brings more of the same except without the inclination for murder and just a tad more humility and humor.  Not enough to break the character, but enough to make him more relatable.  Gal Gadot, on the other hand, does not quite give us the tour de force performance she gave as Wonder Woman in her solo movie, but she is still very much the same character inspiring those around her while also kicking ass and looking great doing it.  The only reason she doesn’t stand out as much is that she has to do so much spotlight sharing this time around.  Ezra Miller gives us a very fun, awkward Flash, and Ray Fisher’s Cyborg while perhaps the least dynamic member of the team in terms of personality is still well acted as he portrays a young man trying to come to terms with the fact that he has become something of a monster.  In the least surprising spoiler ever to be termed a spoiler, Henry Cavill returns as Superman and his performance may be most surprising of all finally showing us the Superman we all know and love who views himself as a humble, “aw shucks” protector of the weak and not as a powerhouse who happens to hate bad guys.  The chemistry among this crew is also excellent making the cast a true ensemble rather than a bunch of solo actors who happened to be thrown together.

You’ll notice I did not mention either Jason Momoa as Aquaman nor the villain (who I will not name so as to not spoil it, it’s not who you think it is) voiced by Claran Hinds, because they were the two disappointing characters in the bunch.  Aquaman may not be a character most understand past a joke character, but the one thing he has in common among all his various incarnations is a regal quality.  Sometimes he seems haughty, other times noble, but always regal.  Jason Momoa’s Aquaman struck me as a guy you’d see hanging out at a biker bar picking fights.  Sure, he’d be the wittiest guy at the biker bar, but he’s less a ruler and more an alpha dog, and there’s a big difference between the two.  Our villain is also disappointing because he is just so generic.  I don’t remember him ever rearing his head back and letting out an evil laugh but nearly every other bad stereotype a villain can encompass is there.  He even wears a helmet with devil’s horns.

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The story is a lot more coherent than the first three DC films.  Sure there are a few references here and there to past events, but never in such a way that it seemed like we missed some major plot point, so major it could be an entire film unto its own, like in Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad.  The story does have one rather large weakness in that it relies on the audience remembering Superman as the character he is in the comics rather than as the character he was in Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman, and a lot of the character motivation loses most of its oomph due to that.  The story also is awfully generic in its villainous plot which we’ve seen many times before in comic book movies, but I can, for the most part, forgive this as what we needed in a Justice League movie was a solid establishment of the universe we’re in and the characters inhabiting it, so in a way a time-worn familiar plot is what we needed so as not to overly complicate the real focus of the story which is the formation of the world’s most famous team of superheroes.

It’s that story that really shines.  Seeing the group get together is very satisfying and entertaining.  Once we get past the missteps of the past and the film’s opening, we have a team which really is a team.  In The Avengers we saw a group who was a team because everyone knew their roles and performed them well, but in Justice League, we have a group who work well together, seem to really enjoy each others’ company, and who have each others’ backs while also having their roles, as well.

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Final verdict:  Justice League is far from perfect, but most of its imperfections are due to what came before.  If you look at the plot as the villain’s attempted takeover of Earth, then what you have is a very generic film, but the true story here is not that,  that’s just an excuse.  The true story is about the formation of a group of larger than life, powerful individuals finding each other, getting to know each other, and becoming a team who really like each other.  On that level, Justice League works wonderfully.  2017 has had a great many superhero films, and while I feel both Logan and Wonder Woman stand head and shoulders above the rest, Justice League acquits itself admirably putting it in the same category I’d put Spider-Man: Homecoming and Thor: Ragnarok – movies with no real depth, but are so much fun to experience you don’t really miss it while in the moment.

P.S.  Stay all the way through the credits.  Unsurprisingly there is a teaser for a future Justice League movie.  The surprising part is what they imply the plot will be, and if it’s true it could be a lot more fun than anything I was expecting.

Thor: Ragnarok (Waititi; 2017)

Thor: Ragnarok is the seventeenth movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Fifteen movies in nine years.  James Bond, of course, has more at twenty-five, but it took fifty-six years to get there.  Batman has had seventeen movies over twenty-eight years, but that’s not a franchise so much as a popular character getting rebooted.  Star Trek got thirteen movies over thirty-seven years.  Those numbers alone should show how remarkable the Marvel film franchise is, but all of those other long-lasting franchises have also had some terrible entries and box office flops, Marvel has yet to make a film that has disappointed on either an entertainment or a box-office level, though the Thor films have come the closest to doing both.  Thor: Ragnarok not only continues Marvel’s pedigree of excellence, but it is also far and away the best of the Thor films and in the upper echelon of Marvel movies period.

Marvel is advertising Thor: Ragnarok as the studio’s first comedy, though I would argue that the Guardians of the Galaxy movies and particularly Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 were, but if you know what the term Ragnarok means you know that it’s dealing with pretty dark subject matter for a Marvel movie let alone a comedy.  (If you don’t know, I won’t spoil it for you here.)  This contradiction is a balancing act walked throughout the entire film by its cast and crew as they try to keep things light-hearted and fun while at the same time showing that the story has serious stakes and consequences for those taking part in it.  While they do have to cheat here and there to pull off this feat, pull it off they do and spectacularly enough that the cheating can be mostly overlooked.

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Chris Hemsworth (Thor) was initially cast as Thor largely because of his appearance and because he’d worked with Joss Whedon earlier on Cabin in the Woods so he’d proven he could take on a large film anchoring role.  Take on the role he absolutely did, and with gusto, but the character of Thor is one the more bland Marvel heroes as he has to be both so immensely powerful as to rarely be in honest danger, but also has to embody humility and virtue so doesn’t really have major character flaws, either.  He’s Marvel’s Superman, but without a great rogue’s gallery and level of fame, and this made for a character that even when played as well as possible by Hemsworth is still the least interesting of the Avengers.  Over the last few years, though, Hemsworth has proven he has some real comic chops between his shorts as “roommate Thor” and being the funniest character in the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot.  Marvel very intelligently ran with that and allowed Thor to also be the funniest Avenger, which is the defining character trait he’s needed all along and allowed Thor: Ragnarok to finally be a truly special Thor movie.

The rest of the cast is also fantastic with Mark Ruffalo returning as The Hulk/Bruce Banner and showing that he also has comic talent, Tom Hiddleston giving us a Loki who we already knew could be both hilarious and nefarious, and Jeff Goldblum appears for the first time in a Marvel movie as the Grandmaster and manages to steal every scene he appears in with his own eccentric brand of comedic performance.  While these four give the film its heart and soul, Cate Blanchett as the god of death Hela is incredibly menacing and captivating, and Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie and Karl Urban as Skurge hold their own in this amazing cast as two Asgardians with more personality than we get from the majority of the gods.  The only real disappointments here are Idris Elba returning as Heimdall and Anthony Hopkins as Odin who both seem like they were more or less phoning in their roles, and Hopkins not even caring if anyone noticed.

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The movie does play fast and loose with the lore of both Marvel comics’ version of Thor and actual Norse mythology.  For the most part, the changes work and add a fun unpredictability to the film for those who know either story of Ragnarok well but could annoy the geekier purists out there.  The patchwork light and dark tones also make for a story able to surprise, particularly in the film’s climactic battle which is the most daring ending to a Marvel film yet, but it can also make for inconsistent motivations from the characters as they act in ways which are more concerned with what is funny or exciting than what is consistent or realistic.

Thor: Ragnarok has one of the most unusual soundtracks for a Marvel movie to date.  Most of the Marvel films use a classic orchestral score while the Guardians of the Galaxy films are famous for their use of classic rock.  Thor: Ragnarok has a largely orchestral score, but it also mixes in techno music reminiscent of 80’s New Age music and somehow has the rights to Led Zeppelin’s “The Immigrant Song” despite the band’s legendary stinginess with giving out the rights to their music.  This mix works for the most part and allows for some incredibly epic action, but every now and then it can be distracting enough to break the movie’s spell.

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Final verdict:  Thor: Ragnarok continues the Marvel tradition of giving us an excellent thrill ride with just enough of the familiar to make us comfortable and just enough spin to make a superhero movie not quite like any we’ve seen before.  Its mix of comedy and bold plot complications makes for a bit of a patchwork, but a pretty remarkable patchwork that manages to work far more often than it distracts, though it certainly isn’t perfect.  If you’re already a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe then heading out to see Thor: Ragnarok as soon as possible on the largest screen possible is an absolute no-brainer.  If you are either not a fan or have somehow avoided seeing any of the other fourteen films for this long, it’s not quite as easy of a recommendation, but while you will miss some of the nuance longtime fans of the series will enjoy, Thor: Ragnarok is so much pure fun that I find it hard to believe that any but the most interminable stick in the muds will find a good amount of enjoyment in it.

 

 

 

Kingsman: The Golden Circle (Vaughn; 2017)

Kingsman: The Secret Service was arguably the most pleasant surprise in film for the year 2014.  It was a film that capitalized on a nostalgia for the over-the-top camp prevalent in the spy films of the 70s and 80s while also modernizing them for today’s audience.  It did for the Roger Moore era James Bond what Casino Royale did for James Bond in general.  By giving us heroes and villains with realistic motivations and plot devices that paid off in droves by film’s end alongside action sequences ripped straight from the most bombastic of kung fu movies and cool gadgets that would only be ruined if they were explained in any way we saw a movie that knew exactly where to be smart and where to be dumb to make a roller coaster ride that had honest stakes.  When it made 414 million dollars from an 81 million dollar budget and only increased its following from there with incredible word of mouth, it was inevitable a sequel would be made.  Say hello to Kingsman: The Golden Circle written and directed by Matthew Vaughn just as the first film was.

It’s less than a minute before we are treated to the frenetic action and comic book gadgets of the first film, but moreso.  The combination car chase, fist fight, and gun fight shows off more spectacle than anything in Kingsman: The Secret Service, so it seems that we are about to get the creative adrenaline fueled film we were hoping for.  But, this leads us to the film’s first problem.   While it does have a lot of action scenes, all of them way over-the-top in the stunts and special effects departments, more action does not mean better when the scenes aren’t terribly well thought out.  Most of the action scenes come from an overly contrived situation or they involve actions taken by people that make no sense given the context of the scene around them.

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One area which was very smart in Secret Service is also excellent in The Golden Circle, and that’s the motivations of its villains.  In the first film we were given a villain who saw himself as the hero, or perhaps the anti-hero, doing a job that needed to be done even if it was distasteful.  Here, Julianne Moore as Poppy gives us a villain who knows she is one, but feels it’s unfair that the world considers her one and comes up with a grand scheme to make herself socially acceptable.  It’s a pretty fantastic motivation for a villain not quite like anything I’d seen before but still makes a lot of sense.  Add to that the reaction of the government of the United States to Poppy’s plot, and you have a really true to life reaction to an incredibly unbelievable situation.  There is a problem in the plot in that the scheme affects the entire world but only the reaction of the United States seems to matter, and this in a movie that focuses on a British Spy Agency and features a Swedish Princess, but for the most part the forces that drive the plot are quite intelligent and allow for real social commentary.

The rest of the writing, though, does not share this same intelligence.  The beats of the storyline feature manufactured drama after manufactured drama.  If a simple solution to a problem is apparent, you can be guaranteed that those involved will choose the most convoluted, illogical course of action nearly every time.  Kingsman: The Golden Circle relies on easily settled misunderstandings and epicly idiotic planning on the parts of its characters to work, and this very much soils the intelligence put into its overall premise.  Add to that that the opportunity for social commentary is largely wasted, and you have a script which is no where near the level fans of the first film were hoping for.

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The music in the original Kingsman subtly added quite a bit to its combination retro and modern feel by giving us a mainly orchestral score very. and purposely, reminiscent of a James Bond film, so that when “Freebird” suddenly comes in to the forefront in the infamous church scene it’s an adrenal shock to the system which adds an incredible amount to an already bonkers scene.  The Golden Circle does away almost entirely with the orchestral score and gives us action scenes set to Prince, and ZZ Top, and covers of classic rock songs done in different styles, and therefore ruins the juxtaposition of styles which added so much the original film and made for yet another Guardians of the Galaxy clone where the music is concerned, which was fun for a while and was shown it can still work in Baby Driver and Atomic Blonde, but this is a styling that is starting to wear very thin.

The performances here are on a par with the first film for the most part, though Julianne Moore’s villain has nowhere near the opportunities to shine that Samuel L. Jackson’s did and giving Elton John such a large role in the film in which he plays himself did not work for me, which is okay.  The Kingsman isn’t a showcase for acting, so we don’t really need more than okay in my opinion, though it would have been nice if someone could have given us at least a creatively thought out character like Samuel L. Jackson and Sofia Boutella did in the original, seeing the workmanlike but otherwise unspectacular performances here showed my just how much life those two brought to the first Kingsman.

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The cinematography is another high point of the film, with shots that are both good looking and practical at the same time, and while CGI is in obviously constant use it flows fairly seamlessly for the most part, though there are a handful of exceptions to this.  Even if the plot is dipping into one of its more stupid bits or the pacing of a given scene is leaving you bored or overstimulated you at least know that whatever’s in front of you will be great looking.

Final verdict: Fans of the original Kingsman: The Secret Service will almost certainly leave Kingsman: The Golden Circle disappointed.  The script is sloppier, the nostalgic James Bond feel nearly non-existent, and the plot holes are on larger than life display.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t things to love here, though.  The over-the-top action is still incredibly fun to watch and the comic booky spy trappings are still creative and fun.  Most Kingsman fans could probably wait until this is rentable to see the movie, or even better catch a cheap matinee if possible, but if you are more into the movies for the stunts and special effects more than for story, Kingsman: The Golden Circle should scratch the over-the-top spy flick itch nicely.

The Dark Tower (Arcel; 2017)

The Dark Tower has had quite the long journey on its way to the screen.  The film is an adaptation of the book “The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger” written by Stephen King and originally published as novel in 1982, but its roots go back even farther than that as it was first published in installments from 1977 to 1981 in “The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction”.  Rumors of a film or series of films chronicling the adventures of Roland the Gunslinger have been circulating for decades due to the books’ huge fan base, but until now, 40 years after the initial story was printed, no one has actually been able or willing to make it happen.  Columbia Pictures has plans for this movie to be the first of a number of installments which will be released both in movie theaters and as television shows, another cash grab ala Marvel Studios and their Cinematic Universe, but while the rabid fanbase of the books may be able to still make that a reality, the quality of the flagship film in this series’ launch does not bode well for future endeavors in this Stephen King franchise.

The Dark Tower focuses on three main characters, two protagonists and an antagonist.  We are first introduced to Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) a young man of an indeterminate age, but young enough that if he has hit his teenage years its barely.  Jake has dreams which he draws in his art book of a tower, a man in black, a man with two six shooters, and the numbers 19-19.  His dreams are accompanied by earthquakes when he wakes up and everyone thinks he is crazy.  Matthew McConaughey plays the Man in Black from Jake’s dreams, and he is an evil sorcerer who uses psychic children as a weapon to destroy the Dark Tower which will allow demons to entire our universe and several others attached to ours.  Finally, Idris Elba plays the Gunslinger Roland who wants to kill the Man in Black as revenge for the murder of his father and the rest of the Gunslingers at the hands of the Man in Black.

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Let’s start with the good in this movie, which would be the acting.  Matthew McConaughey in particular is a lot of fun as the villainous Man in Black chewing the scenery with aplomb and radiating a cartoonish charm which you can’t help but enjoy.  Idris Elba is much more subdued as Roland, but an actor as accomplished as he can’t help but ooze charisma even if he tries to hide it.  Finally, while Tom Taylor is not the greatest child actor, he holds up his part of the story well enough to never be distracting.

Past that, there is not much to like about The Dark Tower.  The film is shot in the annoying fashion of the day with incredibly tight close ups at inappropriate times, jerky camera movements, and lighting dim enough that what we are seeing is barely more than a sillhouette.  Trying to follow the action here is nearly impossible as we are never given any anchor for our perspective and the action takes place willy-nilly with no context as to positions and movement.  The camera is more interested in framing whatever is the most spectacular thing to look at at the moment than it is with giving us a coherent vision of the action of the story.

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As bad as the camera work is, though, the script is far worse.  The visuals are at least decent during The Dark Tower‘s quieter moments and the special effects are fun, but the script has no saving grace whatsoever.  The entire story is written to formula, and very obviously so at that, with no thought given to anything beyond how the action of the story would fit into said formula.  Character motivations are non-existent.  Why does the Man in Black want to destroy the universes?  Er, he’s evil, and evil guys do that?  What did the Gunslingers do before they were all killed?  Hell if anyone knows.  What is a Gunslinger for that matter?  A guy with guns as far as I can tell.  Decisions made by the characters are nonsensical, doing something 2 seconds after they said they couldn’t do exactly that thing for reasons never really explained well, or just plain idiotic.  Characters make relationships just because it seems like they should and all of a sudden can do incredible things because they need to do it at that moment.  The story is easy enough to follow, so it isn’t Michael Bay level bad, but it is so obviously contrived it’s distractingly hilarious.

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I’ve never read “The Dark Tower” series of books, so I can’t speak to the quality of the film compared to the quality of the books.  However, I can say that knowing the books have such a large and loyal fan base, consisting of quite a few people whose taste I respect, I can only guess that fans of the books are going to come away greatly disappointed by the film, and those who have never read the books are not going to understand what others see in this series.

Final verdict:  With good acting and absolutely nothing else going for it, give The Dark Tower a big miss.  It’s possible Columbia will go ahead with further film and television installments in this series, and it’s possible some of them could be good – the premise does have promise and Idris Elba has charisma and talent to spare.  If this is the case, then maybe come back and give this one a watch to catch up on the action.  Until then, though, I can’t see this formulaic to a nonsensical degree story appealing to anyone, fan of the books or no.  And, what is it with the Gunslinger’s mantra they say over and over in the film?  That thing isn’t cool or comforting, it’s downright creepy and disturbing.