Monthly Archives: July 2017
Free Fire is an intense scene of an action movie, stretched out to ninety minutes. It’s a shootout that takes place entirely in an abandoned warehouse, between different and splitting parties. By extending that premise to a whole movie, director Ben Wheatley explores the fun you can have with a limited scope. Unfortunately, he also discovers the problems you can run into when your concept isn’t backed up by writing or imagination.
It’s the 1970s and we meet a whole bunch of gun traffickers looking to close a deal. Of course, things go wrong, bullets start flying and not everyone is going to make it out alive. That’s the premise and I’m not too sure Wheatley thought more beyond that. The movie feels trapped in the warehouse and not in a good or suspenseful way. There’s just not a lot to do or see once the killing starts.
The action in the movie never rises above fine. Guns fire and shoot people but that’s it. There’s never a great, inventive moment of violence. Yes, the movie is low budget but other cheap action films have found ways to impress. Because the shootout keeps the characters grounded and seeking cover, it’s all very impersonal. When one character shoots another, it doesn’t feel connected. If the gun play was there to simply move the plot along, that would be easy to deal with, but when the whole concept of the movie is based around bullets going everywhere, it wouldn’t hurt for a little style. Heck, most of the movie’s posters have more style! Even the seventies setting is really only there for costumes and lack of cellphones.
The dialog never does more than it needs to do. The only reason characters come across as likable is because we have some fun actors on hand. Brie Larson and Cillian Murphy are the straight men of the assemble, playing relatively grounded characters. Sharlto Copley brings his unique brand of insanity and detachment to the screen. He’s not a fantastic character, but Copley injects the role with much needed uniqueness. Armie Hammer, for the first time in his career, impressed me. He plays Copley’s bodyguard and he’s a character with skill and poise. In a movie set in the 1970’s, Hammer is the only one looking to have fun with the decade. His character might be the only stylistic choice with any impact. If he could play more roles like that, I might not think of him as the blandest face in film.
Free Fire is adequate. It’s an easy, uninspired way to pass an afternoon. But it’s not going down as a classic. Maybe a curiosity, or an example of how far you can stretch an idea without bringing real life to it. Free Fire isn’t as stylistic as Smokin’ Aces and the characters aren’t as “out of this world” as that film either. Free Fire isn’t as clever as Reservoir Dogs, the movie it’s most likely trying to ape. The dialog isn’t as biting and it’s missing a soundtrack to breathe life into the the void. In a world where John Wick is the standard for brutality, Free Fire comes across as rather toothless. The characters take hits, but when they start dragging themselves along the floor, the movies slows down with them. There’s a twist here or there, but nothing that affects the plot or how you feel about the characters.
I think given a better director, Free Fire could have been a new classic. The ingredients are all there, but most people can make cornbread if they follow the directions. What Free Fire needed was funny, clever dialog between more unique characters in between interesting gun play. If you’re staring at a TV and Free Fire is on, I’d say let it play. But it’s not something you need to seek out. Watch John Wick: Chapter 2 or Hardcore Henry instead. They bring new life into all that killing.
Return to Castle Wolfenstein is a game that I never played as a teen. I didn’t buy my PS2 until the summer of 2002 and I didn’t go looking for many of the earlier games for the system. That means a first-person shooter from 2001 that was part of a series I never had any attachment to was ignored.
I think I first heard of the game when it was ported to the XBox but, again, I never went back to find it. Many years later, more than a decade even, I saw the game on a Steam sale and picked it up for about a dollar. I can never know when I need an old school shooter to pick me out of a funk.
As I mentioned in another post, I just played the Mass Effect for the first time. It was fun, for the most part, but near the end I was getting impatient. I decided during the last few hours that my next game had to be faster and have more action. Since Return to Castle Wolfenstein was one of the oldest games in my collection and some gameplay footage I watched looked just right, I gave it a go.
The game taught me that I’m not as good at older shooters as I used to be. Where once it was my genre of choice, now it feels like I’m an old man wondering where the bullets are coming from. I’ll admit, since there’s video evidence proving it, that I quick saved like a maniac who gets an electric stimulant whenever he presses F5. It’s the only way I was able to beat the game in a reasonable amount of time because it was tougher than I expected. I was a bullet sponge with no aim.
The bosses weren’t tough, but the levels took forever for me to get through. There were many sections where I was repeating the same corridor fight like a digitally violent version of Groundhog’s Day.
In the end, Return to Castle Wolfenstein was the type of game I was looking for, but it was a frustrating time. I wish I had been better at it, but I’ll excuse myself for it being an older game. I guess I’m now moving through first person shooters that I missed in chronological order, continuing with the first Far Cry. And there’s a bunch more after that, so maybe I’ll get better as I go along. I doubt it will be the same as when I was a teen. Gone are the days of playing the same game through multiple times for hours at a time. Now is the time of praying for body armor and checkpoints, just so I can finish the game at all.
Dunkirk is the most stressful movie I’ve seen all year. It starts with a ticking soundtrack, with a loud, drawn out retreat from gunfire and then doesn’t stop, even for a second.
The movie takes place during the evacuation of Dunkirk, in World War II before America became involved. Over the course of the film, we follow four stories; fighter pilots coming to provide air support, civilian ships coming to help with the retreat, soldiers trying to make their own escape and officers trying to get as many people off the beach as they can.
Director Christopher Nolan uses a time shift throughout the movie, switching between stories, which then gives us multiple points of views of the same events. It’s a technique that allows for the most stress-inducing ways to to watch the movie, giving Nolan the ability to go back and forth between near-death experiences by the minute.
All the performances are strong, with most actors going for a minimalist style. It helps with the desperation, that all of these soldiers are so worn out from waiting for the next bomb to drop that emoting is a thing of the past. Tom Hardy, one of the pilots we follow, is behind a mask the whole time, forcing the actor to express everything with only his eyes. I don’t think I realized how much Hardy could convey that way, even with his take on Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. Hardy’s story is also the one I found the most heart wrenching. His choices and story lead to some of the most inspiring and frustrating moments of the movie. Mark Rylance gets to show a little bit more emotion, playing a man just trying to do his part in a hopeless situation. It’s Cillain Murphy who gets to be the most emotional, though. Murphy’s a soldier who almost gets away from Dunkirk but, due to Rylance picking him off a sinking ship, has to contend with heading back in that very direction.
I should point out that I have no idea what Harry Styles looks like so I can’t say if he was good or not. Since no one gave a bad performance, I can assume he did fine. He doesn’t stand out for those of us who don’t have his poster on our walls.
Nolan has a a clear and widescreen eye and he films a war movie that looks unlike anything that’s come before. Where other films have made us feel as if we’re following troops on the ground, Dunkirk also shows how tiny someone can appear during these great events. At the same time, Nolan does create moments where we feel on the ground but it’s different than something like Black Hawk Down or Saving Private Ryan. It doesn’t feel like we’re following the characters through these events, but that we’re experiencing them as well. That’s one of Nolan’s great strengths, creating immersive movies that feel like events rather than just a viewing. I was stressed because I felt like I was sinking with the ships, like I was avoiding being shot down.
Helping create that experience is Hans Zimmer’s score. While he does use more traditional music every now and then, Zimmer employs a constant ticking throughout the movie, along with an ostinato of strings that somehow seems to only ever speed up. Alone, the soundtrack would make you anxious. With Nolan’s film, it’s almost too much. And, while other Nolan films may suffer from weird sound mixing choices, they only add to the Dunkirk experience. Bullets sound unstoppable, water sounds crushing, planes sound like harbingers of mercy or doom.
Dunkirk is a perfect movie-going experience, though not a fun one. It’s a movie that should be seen in theaters so that you can be fully immersed in it’s story, in it’s cinematography, in it’s sound. I don’t know how the movie will hold up during a second viewing, as I’ve only ever seen Inception and Interstellar once each. But Dunkirk should be seen, if only ever once, because it will be an experience you won’t forget, It’s one of the best movies of the summer and will probably end up being one of the best movies of the year. If this is the future of Nolan’s career, I can’t wait for his next film.
We shouldn’t compare Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets to The Fifth Element, even if director Luc Besson is behind both of these films.
We shouldn’t compare the two because The Fifth Element had lead actors we liked, like Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich. Valerian, on the other hand, has Dane Dehaan and Cara Delevingne. Dehaan, who was compelling in Chronicle, is a black hole of charisma in this film. As the action lead, he’s a failure. Too young to be taken seriously, too much of a snot to be likable, Dehaan’s portrayal as one of the galaxy’s best soldiers is hilariously off mark. Delevingne, who you might remember as the shaking, shadowy non-character Enchantress from Suicide Squad, fairs betters in the film but not by much. She has a flat, no-nonsense delivery that helps some of the lifeless dialog seem planned that way. But, she too comes across too young for the type of character she’s playing. If I’m supposed to believe either of these two have the field experience to be given any of the responsibility they have in Valerian, then consider me unconvinced. The only time I had any affection for them was when the two were dressed like characters from Final Fantasy X. Then they changed clothes and I lost all my positive feelings.
We shouldn’t compare Valerian to The Fifth Element because that nineties film had an energy that felt more like a comedy than a drama. It’s almost a scifi Rush Hour and not just because of a manic Chris Tucker. Valerian’s plot moves at a snails pace but I still found myself forgetting what our “heroes” were doing or if it had anything to do with the plot. The movie’s second act is a huge detour from anything that matters to the story and, when it finally gets back to the main plot, I had almost forgotten the goals and problems I was supposed to be invested in. A good example of why we shouldn’t compare the two movies is how The Fifth Element has that famous opera scene that connects to main plot. In Valerian, we had a strip tease from Rihanna that has little to do with the threat to the city (of a thousand planets). Sure, Dehaan needs her help, but only because of a sidequest that’s taking up forty minutes of the movie.
There’s not much more to say about Valerian. It was an exhausting film and not in the way that War for the Planet of the Apes left me ragged. I was bored after the first half hour and was never won back. Clive Owen gives a performance that left me feeling bad for the guy. None of the supporting characters, alien or otherwise, were charming. While I complained about the reason Rihanna’s character is involved, she’s has an energy that the film desperately needs but then ignores. The alien race we follow from the beginning is too noble to be interesting and too passive to connect with. The film’s opening of humanity greeting hundreds of new races to it’s space station, all set to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” is charming but false advertising for the rest of the movie.
Yes, we should support original scifi (even adaptations), especially the ones that get bigger budgets. But, when the results are movies like Valerian, it’s hard to fault studios for not wanting to fund one hundred and fifty million dollar films, no matter how pretty they are. We shouldn’t compare Valerian to The Fifth Element because we still talk about that movie and Valerian will probably not last in the public consciousness. Heck, this review is running short because there just wasn’t enough on screen to talk about.
All the complaints people had about the Star Wars prequels apply here. Technical aptitude over plot, archetypes over characters, and stilted dialog over, well,, human dialog. George Lucas was torn apart by fans. Yet, for some reason, I’ve seen people trying to give Luc Besson a pass because he tried something big and grand and failed in the process. Maybe they’re just fans of The Fifth Element. But Valerian is no Fifth Element. Let’s not compare the two.
When I say I’m behind in the world of video games, I’m not kidding. I just beat Mass Effect. The first one. From 2007. For those keeping track at home, that’s a decade old.
I could review the game but who needs that? Most have heard of it, played it and moved on. You’ve had ten years to find reviews, you don’t need mine. Well, fine, if I must. Combat is fun until you’re too strong, the story is entertaining until it gets in the way of it’s own momentum. The driving sections are the most frustrating “adventureing” I’ve ever done. I’m sure my opinion has greatly affected your purchase of this game.
But what I wanted to focus on was how this is now the first game I’ve streamed on my Twitch page from beginning to end. See, I’ve streamed before but never a whole game. On my YouTube, I only have the last three episodes of the second season of Telltale’s Walking Dead. As long as I keep playing the first Pillars of Eternity and recording it, that one will join the “complete” club, but I’ve only got two videos of that game out.
In the past, I’ve only streamed pieces of games. Some Knights of the Old Republic II or Doom 3. A lot of Hearthstone and FTL: Faster Than Light (why the abbreviation then?). But, again, it wasn’t a start-to-finish event.
During Mass Effect, I had some people visit, mainly my wife and a few friends. But, what happens is, I keep talking and joking while playing the game, even without an audience. Just turning the camera on switches something in my brain. Suddenly, it doesn’t matter if I’m alone or not, I’m “on”. It might not make sense to others, but it makes the whole experience a bit more fun.
It makes me interact with the game more, like I would with friends around. If I’m playing alone and not streaming, I’m silent, just staring at the screen and passively thinking about the game. If I am streaming, I talk back to the characters, even if I have the same option to converse with them in-game. I make fun of the game, make comments on something being cool or impressive. I’m more likely to laugh or get angry. It sounds silly, but even pretending there’s an audience makes me more engaged in the game.
Which is good, because I think that explains a quarter of the enjoyment I got out of Mass Effect. Again, it’s a fine game but I think I would have become bored with it as I went along. The pacing might have been too slow, or the planetary exploration might have been too frustrating. Turning it into a performance, even slightly, made the game easier to get through, especially during the rough patches.
It also creates a sense of responsibility, if that makes sense. It puts a reminder in my head that, yes, I need to keep playing so I can keep streaming. I don’t want to miss a part of the game off-Twitch and have a gap in the play through. It’s not an addiction, but it does activate the completionist in me.
And by exporting my Twitch videos to my YouTube page, I can save them indefinitely (until the internet collapses and we’re hunting with packs of wolves in the dying twilight of humanity). It gives my YouTube a new life, a new sense of purpose. It means my old videos that I made with my friends can be surrounded by new material, whatever the form. I means I can share the playlist of all ten videos of me playing Mass Effect.
The whole process made the game a better time. And when people do show up and talk about the game, it makes it better. I’m glad I had the few viewers I did during those driving sections. I’m glad I had someone else to talk about how annoying the characters could be or call me Neo when I tore an enemy force to ribbons. So, I’ll keep going. I’d like to record more games from beginning to end. If you’d like to see that happen, head over and say “hi”. Or stick to the Youtube and watch from there. Or I’ll just post finished playlists in their entirety here, since that was the point of posting a blog that was planned to to be much shorter.
When I first watched Night of the Living Dead, I was fifteen. I had only gotten into the world of zombie fiction earlier that year when I watched the first Resident Evil movie. The very concept of zombies was relatively new to me, and creeped me right out. Even with that fear, as someone who found the first Alien movie not scary or that great, I wasn’t expecting to be put on edge by an older horror film, no matter the monster.
Watching George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead made me check my attitude at the door. It didn’t matter how old the movie was, it was still unsettling. The zombies were still creepy and only grew in number throughout the night. The building tension was just as palpable as I imagine it was at the drive-in during 1968. It also showed me what zombie fiction was really about, the living. The whole movie is a boiler because the occupants of the house are flawed, sometimes destructive people and just because there’s a horde of zombies outside doesn’t mean the survivors are going to work together. Technically, it’s an amazing achievement of budget constraints and independent film making. While aspiring directors may look to Scorsese or Tarantino for inspiration, what Romero did is both attainable and impressive. It helps that Ben is one of the great movie heroes of all time and the shambling extras make for convincing zombies.
Dawn of the Dead is all of that but bigger. While not as focused as the laser-sighted storytelling in Night, the sequel is great and stands on it’s own. Less frightening, its an examination of consumer culture, as well as the struggle to survive in a world that will never get better. The opening raid in the rundown apartment complex is brutal, but so is watching the relationships break apart. I’ve watched both Night and Dawn multiple times and they both bring something new to table with each viewing.
It was by luck that I came upon Day of the Dead on TV. I was hooked by that creepy synth playing over the calls for any survivors during the opening credits. The story is maybe less focused and maybe the budget wasn’t up to the Romero’s vision. Taking place in an underground military base, the movie does have a sense of claustrophobia akin to Night. New to the table is the idea that zombies can be domesticated, maybe brought back from the brink. Of course, being the dark film this is, it doesn’t work out but the journey is still entertaining. The end is one of the best shock/relief moments of the series as well.
For my money, one of the most underrated movies is Land of the Dead. It made money at the time, riding the wave of growing zombie mania, and most critics liked it, but no one talks about it like the previous films. The focus on rich vs. poor in the undead landscape is just as depressing as the zombies themselves. And Dennis Hopper’s character, ruling over the high tower, might have been too ahead of it’s time. If this movie was released today, it would be considered a political attack on the current administration. Luckily, the themes are relatively timeless. And it has some of the most impressive zombie carnage the series has to offer.
Romero would go own to make more zombie movies, such as Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead and he has a whole career of non-zombie films that are worth checking out. But what I find so fascinating with the man is that he created a genre of film, of storytelling, and then used it to make the movies he wanted to create. Others might have decided to focus on the lore of these new worlds or made them into action films, like World War Z or the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead. But not Romero.
Romero wanted to tell stories about people, politics, race, consumerism and classism. So he told those stories, tricking viewers with zombie horror and gore. Creating a brand new genre wasn’t enough for him, he had to perfect it and show how many layers could be found within it. Heck, Night of the Living Dead could be done as a stage play and it wouldn’t lose anything in scale and would be just as compelling as Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
Because of that, Romero made movies that will outlive him and remain watchable and timely. Because, while zombies may someday fall out of fashion, the ideas that fill his films will always be relevant. They’ll continue to inspire hopeful directors, writers and viewers. And they’ll continue to scare those who think age has weakened their potency.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is one of my favorite movie going experiences of the last ten years. I wanted to see it, but in no way did I think it was going to be good. Even when the reviews dropped, I had no real idea what to expect. I was taken aback by the movie. The “NO!” moment of Rise made my jaw drop, it was so shocking and thrilling. It was, and still is, a fantastic film.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a stressful one, because everything you want to happen goes wrong. The conflict between the fading humans and “dawning” apes of the movie felt like it was tipping over for two hours and was intense with little relief. It’s an impressive sequel, and darker as well.
And with that we come to War for the Planet of the Apes. The first thing to mention is that this third film is bleaker than the last two. This isn’t a triumphant, crowd pleasing series topper. It’s dark, depressing and the light at the end of the tunnel feels dimmer than one might hope to see.
The movie opens with a battle between human military and an ape fort. The military is out to end the ape problem once and for all, hoping to kill the simian leader (and hero of the series) Caesar. When Caesar offers peace once more and things go wrong again, it’s time for treaties to end. Caesar gets selfish and, of course, things don’t work out and the rest of the movie is about Caesar trying to amend his mistakes.
Did I mention the movie is bleak? It’s winter, so the movie is full of dead landscapes and gray skies. The world feels like it’s fading away. The people left alive aren’t the best humanity has to offer. Even the apes feel directionless, trapped between annihilation or all out war.
The movie also spends a lot of time in a military base that really brings the dark. Cages, work forces, fanatics with omega tattoos. Director Matt Reeves seems to be channeling his best Spielberg with this set, with more than one allusion to Schindler’s List. And that won’t be the last movie referenced either. The film is built off of the blueprints of The Ten Commandments, Apocalypse Now and True Grit.
While Rise was a boiler and Dawn was an all out blockbuster, War is character piece. It’s a contemplative film, more focused on Caesar’s journey than an actual war. This might put some off, as there’s very little in the way of action set pieces, save for the opening and climax. Nothing on par with the apes escaping in Rise or the raid on the human settlement in Dawn. The moments of action we see are more harrowing than thrilling. While I liked the film, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little disappointed that the series ends on smaller notes. But it resonates at the end, in ways that Dawn didn’t.
Woody Harrelson is a scary guy in the movie. He’s crazy, sure, but he’s focused. He’s in charge. His life is violence and he’s made tough choices, even if he wasn’t forced into them. He’s a bit like Patton, a bit of Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now. He hates the newly intelligent apes, but needs them. Like Caesar, his mistakes might threaten his own people.
Of course, it’s Caesar who owns the screen. Ever since the first in this new reboot series, Caesar has carried these movies. Surrounded by character actors, Andy Serkis continues to be the most compelling actor on screen and makes Caesar a hero to root for. The work begun with Gollum has been refined to perfection. Caesar is now one of the great movie characters of all time.
Like this year’s Logan, which left me depressed in all sorts of ways, War attaches itself to you and ruins your day. I don’t know how rewatchable a film like that is, as blockbusters don’t do that too often. The Hunger Games and it’s sequels had a stronghold for a while on depressing, big budget dystopias. The “fun” of Rise is gone in this third chapter and replaced with something that’s a bit more meaningful, but less enjoyable. It’s a movie that’s good for you, it tricks you into eating your vegetables with large scale storytelling and CGI apes. But you wouldn’t want to see this every weekend at the movies, it would be horrible for your good mood. A fun time? Not really. Recommended? Absolutely.