Flashback review: ‘Kingsman: The Secret Service’ (2015)

kingsman-hollywood-film-6-14-6-movies-you-need-to-watch-before-you-watch-kingsman-the-secret-service“Kingsman: The Secret Service” (2015) is one of those love it or hate it movies — you’ll know within a few minutes whether it’s a movie for you. The British action-comedy both celebrates and sends-up spy movie tropes, with lots of wacky, over-the-top action sequences and gadgets, as well as Samuel L. Jackson as a decidedly unique villain. In the middle of it all, Colin Firth maintains his classic, debonair poise as a spy who serves as a mentor to a young man with a chip on his shoulder but lots of promise (Taron Egerton).

Although I sadly missed the first Kingsman movie when it was in theaters in 2015 (the sequel is out this weekend), a friend got me the DVD for my birthday that year, saying it was something I’d probably love. She was right — I did. After watching it, my first thought was, “That was crazy. I’m not sure what I just watched, but I have to see it again.” It’s now one of my favorite movies.

As mentioned earlier, Colin Firth plays Agent Galahad, a member of Britain’s highly secretive espionage organization the Kingsmen. He’s been keeping an eye on young Eggsy (Taron Egerton), the son of a former Kingsman who saved his life. While Eggsy does have a knack for getting into trouble, he also has a good heart, something Agent Galahad recognizes. He recruits Eggsy to the Kingsman training program, hoping to give him a brighter future. Meanwhile, Samuel L. Jackson’s eccentric tech genius Richmond Valentine announces a plan to implant chips in people and give them unlimited free cellular and internet service. Galahad suspects he has nefarious motives.

“Kingsman: The Secret Service” is directed by Matthew Vaughn, who also directed my favorite X-Men film, “First Class.” “Kingsman” has a few similar elements to “First Class” — a group of talented young adults (or in the case of “First Class,” mutants) who are recruited to join a secretive organization protecting the world from outside threats. Both have a stylish production design and a great cast of actors who genuinely appear to be having fun on set. It’s a blast to watch the always-dapper Colin Firth in such a fun (and funny) movie, and Taron Egerton does a good job showing his character’s progression from juvenile delinquent to junior James Bond. The often-underappreciated Mark Strong is also great as the movie’s “Q”-esque character.

One of the things I love most about “Kingsman” is the way it simply embraces how over-the-top it is. I love a good, gritty spy film with a darker tone (Daniel Craig’s “Casino Royale” is one of my all-time favorites). However, sometimes it’s fun to just willingly suspend disbelief and let a movie take you on a wild ride. And there definitely are some crazy moments in this movie, including one of the strangest, most violent fight scenes I’ve ever seen on film (if you’ve watched “Kingsman,” you know which one I’m talking about). Even when this movie veers a little too far into the ridiculous, you just have to smile and go along for the ride. Because this genuinely is a fun movie.

If you missed out on “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” I would highly recommend it, especially since the upcoming sequel looks like tons of fun. Although I’m not sure how they’ll top some of the set pieces in the last movie, I’m looking forward to watching them try. Especially since they’ve add the fun touch of bringing on the Kingsmen’s American equivalent, the Statesmen.

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Musical (director) chairs: Why the recent shakeups at Lucasfilm aren’t necessarily a bad thing

gallery-1487697013-han-solo-cast-photo-1So far, I’ve been very pleased with the way Disney has handled the Star Wars universe since they purchased Lucasfilm back in 2012. I loved “Episode VII: The Force Awakens” and “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” I’m still a little bummed Disney made the old Star Wars Expanded Universe novels go away, but the new canon novels are getting better (the “Rogue One” novelization is excellent, by the way).

However, there have been a few road bumps in Star Wars land this year. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller — directors of the upcoming Han Solo prequel film, perhaps best known for their work on “The Lego Movie” — were fired in June over alleged creative differences regarding the project, and Ron Howard was asked to step in. Most recently, Colin Trevorrow was ousted as the director of Episode IX. “The Force Awakens” director J.J. Abrams will take over.

It’s easy to feel concern over something as major to a project as a director shakeup, and wonder if the studio is being too controlling or lacking a cohesive vision. Especially when, in the case of the Han Solo movie, months of filming had already taken place when the directors were fired. However, based on Disney’s handling of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the previous Star Wars films, I’m going to side with them on this one. Of course I’ll have to wait until I see the finished product, but I think they likely made the right call.

I loved Lord and Miller’s Lego movie — it was one of the funniest and most creative movies I’d seen in a long time. But an overly comedic tone is not really what I want from a Star Wars movie. According to rumors, the directing duo was trying to make the Han Solo movie into a comedy with supposedly too much improvisation. Although I do think it’s good for directors have some room to bring a fresh vision to these well-established franchises, you don’t want to veer too far off course from that classic “Star Wars feel.” Gareth Edwards did a great job bringing a gritty war movie tone to “Rogue One” while still having it feel like a Star Wars movie. The Wikipedia page for the Han Solo movie calls it a “space western” and I really hope that’s the tone Ron Howard is able to draw out.

I also feel it was ultimately a good decision to part ways with Colin Trevorrow, at least for now. His “Jurassic World” was a fun movie but not a flawless one; nostalgia, dinosaurs, and Chris Pratt carried the film more than the plot. Trevorrow’s recent “The Book of Henry” was not well received by critics, and I have a feeling his removal from the Episode IX project had at least something to do with this.

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Not everyone has been thrilled J.J. Abrams is returning to the Star Wars universe, but I’m personally really excited. Abrams is actually one of my favorite directors. I think he approaches filmmaking with a lovely sense of childlike wonder, and I believe he will bring an epic closure to the Star Wars sequel trilogy. I liked all the elements of nostalgia in “The Force Awakens”; after the prequel trilogy, a lot of fans felt burned, and it was probably best to take a safer approach with Episode VII. I think Episode VIII will push into some newer, darker territory, and Abrams will (hopefully!) be able to blend all that together in the final film.

As I was chatting with my husband about the Star Wars director shakeups, I did have to admit that Abrams and Howard are fairly “safe” choices for the franchise, and Disney doesn’t seem keen to take a whole lot of risks at this point. At least for now I want the Star Wars movies — at least the main ones — to keep having that similar, classic feel. However, in the future I think Disney should feel confident enough to take a few risks with the anthology films, venturing out beyond the template they’re comfortable with. We may never see a gritty, R-rated Star Wars bounty hunter/gangster movie set in the seedy underbelly of Coruscant or the back alleys of Mos Eisley, but wouldn’t that be awesome?

TV review: Thoughts on the complete season of Marvel’s ‘The Defenders’

defenders_marvelThe Marvel/Netflix partnership has, so far, been a winning one. With only one real miss (sorry, “Iron First”), the hype was definitely high when Marvel and Netflix announced a team-up series featuring characters from all the individual superhero shows. Together, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron First would take on the Hand, a shadowy criminal organization hiding supernatural secrets.

Although I posted my thoughts when I was about halfway through the series, I wanted to circle back around now that I’ve finished all the episodes, for a final verdict. As much fun as it was to see all the characters together (the chemistry between the actors was great!), I still feel the parts were better than the whole. It’s probably my least favorite of the Marvel/Netflix shows, aside from “Iron Fist,” which I still haven’t finished.

For whatever reason, the individual Marvel/Netflix shows didn’t blend together as well as the individual Marvel Cinematic Universe films blended into “The Avengers.” Because the separate MCU films have a more homogeneous tone, perhaps it’s easier to pick and choose characters to throw together. “The Defenders” wasn’t able to reflect much on the individual themes that made the solo shows so powerful and relevant, such as the way “Jessica Jones” raised awareness about the trauma caused by abuse and domestic violence. “The Defenders” doesn’t have as much weight to it as the past Marvel/Netflix offerings. Which is a shame, because I think several plot points could have been teased out to have a greater philosophical impact. The show could have reflected more on the concept of immortality and whether vigilantes have the right to operate outside the law if they’re committed to doing good.

As for length, I think the show’s eight episodes were the right amount, even if the time could have been used a little more efficiently. By the end of “The Defenders,” the limited TV-sized budget showed through a little more than in the individual shows, which did an excellent job presenting a polished, stylish product without blockbuster dollars.

I also thought the main villain, Sigourney Weaver’s Alexandra, was underused. Since Weaver is such a strong actress, I feel she could have been given a little meatier material to work with. The revelation that she *spoiler alert!!!* is the immortal leader of the Hand was fascinating, but I found myself wanting to know a lot more about her as a person and about her history/background. She isn’t as richly layered a villain as, for example, “Daredevil’s” Kingpin. I also thought she was killed off too soon; I really would have liked to see her present for the final showdown with the Defenders. *end spoiler*

However, I don’t mean to dwell too much on the negative, because it really was fun to see the heroes together. I loved all of Jessica Jones’ wisecracks, particular her jabs about the fact Daredevil is the only one in costume. The portrayal of Danny Rand is also much stronger than in his individual show; this made me interested in the character again and will probably motivate me to watch the second “Iron First” series, even though I’ll probably never finish the first. My favorite Defender is tied between Daredevil and Luke Cage; between the two, I think Daredevil had better storylines in “The Defenders” — I wish Luke Cage had been given more to do.

The Hand made for an intriguing adversary, and I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of them in these shows. I’d like to see even more about the inner workings of their organization and their past, although perhaps some of that was covered in “Iron Fist” and I just missed it. I’d also like to see the Defenders continue to make cameo appearances in each other’s shows, like Luke Cage in “Jessica Jones.”

“The Defenders” was an entertaining team-up, although hopefully the next group outing will be even stronger. I’m also definitely looking forward to more of the solo shows, and especially “The Punisher” spin-off.

Fall/winter 2017 movie preview

thelastjedi-1280-1487278502126_1280wLate August to early September can be a pretty “blah” time at the box office — in fact, this past weekend, the box office hit its lowest point in 16 years. However, help is on the way! There are plenty of great movies scheduled for fall and winter this year — perhaps an even stronger group of films than the summer blockbuster season. It’s tough to narrow it down, but here are the ones I’m most looking forward to:

Kingsman: The Golden Circle
Sept. 22

The first “Kingsman” was a love it or hate it movie — it’s a quirky, violent, very British spy action/comedy that features a wacky villain played by Samuel L. Jackson and one of the most off-the-wall fight scenes I’ve ever seen on film. After I finished the movie, my first thought was, “I’m not entirely sure what I just watched, but I loved it and I need to see it again.” While sequels tend to have trouble recapturing the same magic, this one at least looks like it’s doing things right, bringing in the U.S. counterpart to the Kingsmen, called the Statesmen. I’m looking forward to seeing Channing Tatum and Jeff Bridges join the crew as American agents.

Blade Runner 2049
Oct. 6

Revivals/reboots of classic films can vary a lot at the box office. They range from excellent — “Mad Max: Fury Road” and the new “Planet of the Apes” trilogy — to bad/forgettable — remember the 2012 “Total Recall” remake? Yeah, me neither. We’ll have to wait to see which category the new Blade Runner film will fit into, but it does have a talented director (Denis Villeneuve also directed the much buzzed-about “Arrival”) and a good cast, with Ryan Gosling joining Harrison Ford, who is reprising his role as Rick Deckard.

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Thor: Ragnarok
Nov. 3

I’m not entirely sure what to expect from “Thor: Ragnarok,” but that’s actually a good thing. The colorful trailers have been packed with humor and intergalactic action, and I’m really looking forward to seeing Cate Blanchett as the villain (hopefully she’ll rank as one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s stronger adversaries). The Thor films provide a unique opportunity within the MCU to mash up a variety of styles: the mix of sci-fi and Norse mythology elements create a unique blend of “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Game of Thrones,” with even a little “Gladiator” thrown in this time. Hopefully the movie will be just as fun as it looks!

Murder on the Orient Express
Nov. 10

This period murder mystery based on the book by Agatha Christie is arguably the most star-studded flick this fall (the cast is almost too large to list, but know you’ll be seeing lots of famous faces). Kenneth Branagh directs and stars as detective Hercule Poirot, who must solve a whodunit on a snowbound train. I’ll be interested to see how much traction this film gets, but the large cast should generate buzz.

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Justice League
Nov. 17

Ah, “Justice League.” I worry about you after seeing “Batman v. Superman” and “Suicide Squad,” but I won’t count you out of the fight just yet. This summer’s “Wonder Woman” was a triumph for the struggling DC Cinematic Universe, and it’s my favorite movie of the year so far. Hopefully “Justice League” will feature some of the same elements that made that film a success. Geek icon Joss Whedon’s involvement in the project also may help smooth over some of the film’s rougher edges and make the final movie more relatable.

The Disaster Artist
Dec. 1

“The Room” is perhaps the greatest worst movie ever made. Written, directed by, and starring one man — Tommy Wiseau — this film is a masterpiece of bad filmmaking, with performances, dialogue, and a script so awful you can’t help but watch, horrified yet transfixed. “The Disaster Artist” tells the story of how that film was made, based on the memoir by Wiseau’s friend/co-star Greg Sestero. “The Disaster Artist” is one of the funniest, most fascinating books I’ve ever read, and I hope the film version does it justice.

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Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi
Dec. 15

Although some fans felt “Episode VII: The Force Awakens” played it too safe and echoed “A New Hope” more than it should, I thought the film did exactly what it needed to do: put the Star Wars franchise back on firm footing and celebrate the original trilogy while also subtly moving in a new direction. And now that the franchise is in better shape, I’m hoping “The Last Jedi” can take a few more risks. Rumors abound, and I’m really looking forward to seeing Mark Hamill return to the role of Luke Skywalker. When he calls for the Jedi to end, what does he mean? Will he lead Rey on a different path, learning to use the Force but breaking free of the Jedi and Sith codes? Will Kylo Ren turn back to the light? And just who is Supreme Leader Snoke? The film will (hopefully!) answer at least some of these questions.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
Dec. 20

As mentioned earlier, rebooting/revisiting a well-loved film is always a gamble. “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” could either turn out to be a cash-grab gimmick — swapping the original film’s board game premise for a video game — or it could turn out to be a clever twist that brings in a new generation of fans. In the trailer it was funny to see Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart and Karen Gillan playing the avatars of four teenagers. Will that premise hold up over a whole film? I guess we’ll find out!

So, what fall or winter movies are you most looking forward to? What will be the biggest hit, or the biggest flop?

TV review: It’s team-up time for Marvel’s ‘The Defenders’

defendersposter3We’ve watched Matt Murdock try to balance working his regular day job as an attorney with moonlighting as the vigilante Daredevil. We’ve seen Jessica Jones show off her detective skills and outsmart the mind-controlling villain Kilgrave. We’ve cheered for Luke Cage as he used his courage and bullet-proof skin to become a protector of his city. And we’ve watched Danny Rand fulfill his destiny as the immortal Iron Fist.

Now, it’s time for all those characters to team up in the Marvel/Netflix series “The Defenders,” which unites these four very different superheroes for a common cause. The eight-episode miniseries premiered Aug. 18 on Netflix. Although I was at Gen Con in Indianapolis this past weekend and didn’t get to watch it right when it came out, I’m about halfway through the series and enjoying it so far.

“The Defenders” starts out a little slow — perhaps slower than an event series with only eight episodes should. The first couple episodes focus on the Defenders’ individual storylines and begin introducing us to the series’ main villain, the mysterious Alexandra (Sigourney Weaver). Although it was good to get caught up on what all the heroes were doing, I think the series took a little too long to team them up, especially since, as mentioned earlier, there are only eight episodes. Still, it’s a genuine thrill when the Defenders’ paths finally converge for a big fight scene that shows off their individual powers, and they have great chemistry as a group.

While it’s tough to delve into the plot without veering into spoiler territory, the story kicks off with the Defenders chasing different threads that lead them all back to the Hand, a shadowy criminal organization that dabbles in the supernatural. Daredevil’s former associate Elektra has been resurrected as a living weapon known as the Black Sky and now plays a key role in the Hand’s ultimate plot.

“The Defenders” may not have the same budget for epic special effects as “The Avengers,” but I think the show uses its smaller scale to its advantage. This isn’t a battle for the survival of the universe, and that’s actually refreshing. These Netflix shows excel at telling taut, gritty stories within the confines of New York City. The well-choreographed fight scenes provide plenty of action, and the mystery surrounding the Hand and Alexandra kept me intrigued.

Alexandra almost remains too much of a cipher early on in the series, and isn’t as immediately compelling a character as Kingpin, Kilgrave, and Cottonmouth. That air of mystery could pay off in the end, though. I also wasn’t a huge fan of Elektra in “Daredevil” Season 2 (I thought the relationship drama weighed down the show), but I like how she’s used in “The Defenders.” I also love that Rosario Dawson, as nurse Claire Temple, has become the Nick Fury of this series, her story interweaving with all the Defenders.

At the halfway point, I feel that as fun as “The Defenders” is, it’s not necessarily greater than the sum of its parts. Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage’s individual seasons are stronger than the team-up, at least based on the episodes I’ve seen. Perhaps because these shows have such distinctive styles/themes, it’s tough to blend them all together (even though I did really like the use of color in the cinematography to signify character POV). Yet maybe the show will continue to build as I keep watching — and I’m definitely going to keep watching.

It’s also worth noting that Iron Fist is used better here than in his individual show. Although I had intended to watch all of “Iron Fist,” I got sidetracked after the first few episodes and as more time passes I haven’t felt too motivated to go back. That series is the weak link in the Marvel/Netflix partnership, so I was glad to see the character used better here and (hopefully!) better in his second individual season.

So, what are your thoughts? Did you enjoy the team-up series? Who’s your favorite Defender?

Adventures at Gen Con 2017

gencon2017Before I met my husband Aaron, I had no idea there was a huge world of board games beyond the family games I was aware of, like Clue and Monopoly. He and his family love attending Gen Con, a tabletop game convention here in the U.S., and this year I got to go for the first time!

I think Gen Con is the largest game convention of its kind in the U.S., and sometimes the crowds of people got a little overwhelming, but overall I had a blast trying some new board games and watching cosplayers. It was also the 50th anniversary of the convention, which was pretty cool.

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My favorite new game that I played is called The Captain is Dead, by AEG. The volunteer running a demo of the game said that they can’t legally call it a Star Trek game…but it’s pretty much a Star Trek game. 😉 It’s a cooperative game where all the players are crew members trying to save a ship after the captain dies. You have to go around repairing parts of the ship and fighting enemies that beam aboard, before the time runs out. It was really fun and got pretty intense towards the end, but we managed (just barely!) to survive.

I was also able to pick up a copy of Legendary Encounters: Firefly, which I’ve been wanting for a while. It’s similar to the Marvel Legendary deck-building game, but set in the Firefly universe. I haven’t gotten to play it yet but I’m looking forward to trying it.

We also got to meet Tom Vassal with the The Dice Tower, which runs reviews of board games. We always like to watch reviews from The Dice Tower before purchasing a game, so it was cool to meet Tom in person. He was really nice!

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Although the focus was definitely more on gaming, there were quite a few cosplayers at Gen Con, including many Star Wars costumes.

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I also wore my Jedi costume in public for the first time! After watching other cosplayers, I think I definitely want to add a Jedi robe to the ensemble and maybe experiment with a little facepaint to give my character more of an “alien” look. But it was fun to wear my costume, and I’m excited to finish up the Rey costume that I’ve been working on as well. I’m still working on trying to convince my husband that he should cosplay with me, though. 😉

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Overall, I had a great time at Gen Con and would definitely like to attend again in the future.

 

Blockbuster report: Summer 2017 in review

194131It’s hard to believe that another summer movie season has already come and gone! Not surprisingly, the big winners this year were superhero films. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” “Wonder Woman,” and “Spider-Man: Homecoming” all enjoyed big opening weekends. Although people continue to speculate when the superhero bubble might burst, the demand for these movies continues to be strong. Of course, it will be interesting to see what happens to the genre after Marvel wraps up the Infinity War storyline and “Justice League” succeeds or flops this fall, but expect superhero films to keep doing big business for at least the next couple of years.

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” kicked off the summer in a fun, colorful way. While I didn’t enjoy it or its accompanying soundtrack *quite* as much as the first, it was still a very entertaining ride. The characters that particularly stood out this time were Michael Rooker’s Yondu and Kurt Russell’s Ego. I’m really looking forward to watching the Guardians characters join the party next year in Infinity War.

“Spider-Man: Homecoming” may not have been groundbreaking per se, but it was a lot of fun, and Tom Holland really nailed the awkward-yet-earnest teenage aspect of the character. It was also a blast to see Robert Downey Jr.’s extended cameo in the film as Iron Man/Tony Stark.

“Wonder Woman” ended up being the highlight of the summer for me and is actually my favorite movie of the year so far (pressure’s on, “Star Wars: Episode VIII”!). Gal Gadot was a wonderful Wonder Woman, and was just the sort of hero we needed this summer — a confident, compassionate superhero who still believes in the power of love and that people are worth saving. The scene where she charges up out of the trench into No Man’s Land brought tears to my eyes the first time I watched it and continues to be one of the most powerful scenes in a movie this year. Chris Pine also was fantastic as WWI spy Steve Trevor.

Although audiences continued to show their love for superhero franchises, they didn’t respond as well to some other franchise continuations and reboots this summer. “Alien: Covenant” proved to be a missed opportunity, offering up some scares but doing little to excite audiences (you were better off staying at home and watching “Alien” and “Aliens” instead). Even though I personally had fun watching “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales,” this franchise couldn’t return to its former heights, either. And Universal’s planned “Dark Universe” monster movie franchise is on shaky ground after audiences failed to respond to Tom Cruise’s “Mummy” reboot, while Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower” wasted performances by Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey.

It’s easy to see why Hollywood loves franchises — they’re a great way to capture a regular audience — however, just because you start a franchise doesn’t mean audiences will flock to it. Consumers have lots of entertainment choices and limited dollars, and good (or bad) reviews from places like Rotten Tomatoes are carrying more clout. Audiences want to be confident they’re spending their time (and money) on a worthy film.

Franchise continuation “War for the Planet of the Apes” may not have made as big a financial impact as other films this summer but was still an excellent movie. The rebooted trilogy has turned into a surprisingly somber and powerful series, offering some deeper philosophical themes than one might expect.

Although summer often belongs to the franchises, some riskier original projects from well-loved directors did pay off. Edgar Wright’s slick, stylish car-chase-and-heist flick “Baby Driver” was a hit with fans and critics, and Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” eschewed dialogue for a more realistic tone that really made you feel like you were part of the action. “Dunkirk” is the true story of the evacuation of about 300,000 British and French soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, France, during WWII, made possible through the help of civilian boats. It’s an inspirational story about the triumph of the human spirit over adversity and despair.

So, what do you think were the winners and losers this summer? What were some of your favorites and least favorites? Here’s my quick list — I’d love to see yours!

• Favorite movie: Wonder Woman
• Least favorite movie: The Dark Tower
• Best scene: Wonder Woman conquering No Man’s Land
• Best soundtrack: Wonder Woman
• Best laughs: Spider-Man: Homecoming
• Best special effects: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
• Best character: Yondu from Guardians 2
• Least favorite characters: The crew from Alien: Covenant (I can’t even remember their names!)
• Most suspenseful: Dunkirk

Movie review: ‘The Dark Tower’ is a missed opportunity

the-dark-tower_0Sometimes watching a disappointing movie is harder than watching a bad one. With a bad movie, you at least know right away what you’re in for, when the acting, the dialogue, and the premise are bad from the very beginning (“The Emoji Movie,” anyone?) But then there are movies like the recent adaptation of Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower,” which have a great cast and an intriguing premise. Although “The Dark Tower” wasn’t a terrible movie, it was, in my opinion, a deeply disappointing one. The film was frustrating because I left the theater thinking it could have been so much more.

Although I’m not much of a Stephen King fan (the trailer I saw for “It” is more than enough to give me months of nightmares), “The Dark Tower” immediately caught my interest. A gritty post-apocalyptic sci-fi quasi-western? Starring Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey? Count me in! However, the final product does not live up to its potential.

The film is about a boy named Jake who has terrifying nightmares about a Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) and a mysterious Dark Tower that protects the universe. As the Man in Black gets closer to destroying the Tower, the barriers between worlds begin to break down. Jake flees to a place called Mid-World, where he meets a stoic Gunslinger (Idris Elba). Together, they must hunt down the Man in Black and stop him before he destroys all worlds, including our Earth.

Since I haven’t read Stephen King’s original writings about “The Dark Tower,” I’m not sure exactly where the movie started going wrong as an adaptation. Yet as a film fan, one of the things that bothered me was how the movie didn’t delve deeply enough into the rich mythology lurking in the background. The film does a good job introducing Jake, but it’s hard to get invested in the overarching story. Clocking in at only 95 minutes, a film of this (potentially) epic scale should have had at least another hour of run-time. I wanted to learn a lot more about the Dark Tower; perhaps I missed some of these details, but I was left wondering who built it, how exactly it protects the universe, how many other worlds are out there, and whether there are plans to safeguard it in the future from other villains like the Man in Black?

And speaking of the Man in Black, I felt Matthew McConaughey was really underutilized in this movie. I felt they either showed too much of him or too little (if that makes sense). They should have either kept him super mysterious, revealing only flashes of his face and playing a few snatches of his dialogue, so suspense keeps building as he manipulates events in the background. Then when he, Jake, and the Gunslinger finally cross paths, it (should be) a major showdown. Or…they should have shown way more of the Man in Black. McConaughey was genuinely terrifying in parts, such as when he uses his mind control powers and when he interrogates Jake’s mother. Instead, the movie devoted too much time to him giving orders in a control room.

The best part of the movie is definitely Idris Elba, who was a great choice to play the world-weary Gunslinger. I liked his character and the concept of the Gunslingers as protectors of worlds, but again, the movie went by too quickly to make much of an impact. With another hour added on, the stakes would have felt a lot higher and the characters a lot deeper.

Based on the lackluster opening weekend box office, I’m not sure if we’ll be seeing more of “The Dark Tower.” However, this is a case where I’d be really excited for a reboot a few years down the road. “The Dark Tower” is a really cool concept that deserves a second chance.

Looking for a good King Arthur adaptation? Try the BBC’s ‘Merlin’

merlin-merlin-on-bbc-2683111-1024-768The legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table seems like the perfect material for a film adaptation. It’s got knights, castles, magic, epic characters, and shocking plot twists. We all know the stories of Lancelot and Guinevere, the Sword in the Stone, and the Lady of the Lake. Yet for whatever reason, recent film adaptations of the King Arthur tales haven’t always been a hit with critics and audiences. The supposedly more “historically accurate” 2004 King Arthur film starring Clive Owen scored a 31 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and Guy Ritchie’s “Legend of the Sword,” out on DVD this coming week, didn’t fare much better, flopping at the box office.

Why Hollywood struggles to effectively translate this story to the big screen is probably a topic for another time. However, if you’re willing to trade big-budget special effects and head over to the small screen, I’d highly recommend checking out the BBC series “Merlin” (2008-2012). It’s one of my favorite TV shows, and although it takes some liberties with the traditional tales, I believe it manages to stay faithful to the heart of the legend.

“Merlin” veers away from a more traditional retelling in several key areas. The series features Arthur (Bradley James) and Merlin (Colin Morgan) as teenagers, before Arthur has become king of Camelot and before Merlin has become a powerful wizard. Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon (Anthony Head) is opposed to the use of magic and has outlawed its practice in Camelot, creating a risky environment for Merlin as he develops his powers. Merlin has to find ways to secretly help Arthur using magic, and their destinies become increasingly intertwined.

The special effects in the show are passable and about what you’d expect on a TV budget. Yet what really stands out are the characters. I love how the characters grow throughout the series, as Merlin transitions from a lovably awkward teenager to an accomplished practitioner of magic. Although Arthur is actually a bit of a spoiled jerk at the beginning of the series, his friendship with Merlin and his relationship with Guinevere (Angel Coulby) slowly change him into a better, more compassionate person. By the end of the series, he becomes the truly great king we know from the original legend.

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Another tweak to the traditional story that I appreciated was the portrayal of Guinevere. In this version, Guinevere is actually a servant in the castle. She helps Arthur learn humility and appreciate that every person is valuable in the kingdom. I’ve never really been a huge fan of the whole Lancelot/Guinevere subplot, but “Merlin” finds a really creative (and heartbreaking) way to handle this famous plot twist. Santiago Cabrera’s Lancelot is noble and melancholy, a man who tries to do the right thing but finds circumstances never align in his favor.

The series does a good job developing its characters over time, including the villains. Without giving away any spoilers, the series’ main antagonist starts out as a “good” character who makes a slow descent to the dark side. In some ways, Uther is also a villain, executing those who use magic yet at one point allowing the use of magic to save someone close to him. The characters’ actions have real and sometimes tragic consequences that follow them throughout the show, and Merlin in particular has to make some morally complex decisions. He decides to save one character from death, even though he knows this person could be capable of great evil in the future. Then another time he accidentally kills a major character while trying to heal them.

The show does get off to a bit of a slow start (I think the first season is my least favorite). So if you’re not in love right away, definitely stick with it. There are a few moments early on that are a bit silly (it’s probably best if we don’t talk about the two-parter where Uther is enchanted and falls in love with a troll). The second and third seasons are my favorite, finding a balance between fun banter, a spirit of adventure, and the weight of the original legend. The series gets progressively darker as it goes, and the ending is tragic, though not without hope.

If you love the King Arthur stories and are looking for a series that tells these stories in a new yet authentic way, I’d recommend giving the BBC’s “Merlin” a try!

Movie review: Christopher Nolan brings history to life with WWII thriller ‘Dunkirk’

yZSPq9cThe Word War II historical thriller “Dunkirk” isn’t the type of movie I’d normally expect from Christopher Nolan — whose resume includes “Interstellar,” “Inception,” and the Dark Knight trilogy. However, that’s one of the things I admire most about Nolan as a director. He never seems content to just coast on past successes; he strikes me as a person who always wants to push himself creatively and try something new.

“Dunkirk” is the true story of the evacuation of about 300,000 British and French soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, France, during the dark, early days of World War II when many feared the Nazi war machine was unstoppable. As the Germans pressed closer to the coast, the British Expeditionary Force found itself trapped and in an increasingly desperate situation. England called up a force of civilian boats of all sizes to come in and rescue the soldiers, saving thousands of lives and ensuring the British army survived to keep fighting.

Since Christopher Nolan is my husband Aaron’s favorite director and he joined me earlier this year for a Nolan blog-a-thon, I invited him back to share his thoughts on “Dunkirk” also.

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Ashley’s thoughts

As I mentioned before, this isn’t the type of movie I’d normally expect from Nolan, although stylistically it is still very much a Nolan film. In order to tell this story, he weaves together three different timelines: he follows a group of soldiers for one week on the beach; a civilian for one day who sails his boat to Dunkirk to participate in the rescue; and a pilot for one hour who flies in to clear the skies above Dunkirk. The use of three alternating timelines heightens the suspense, and it’s really cool to see the timelines start converging as the clock ticks down to the moment of rescue.

The characters and dialogue are actually pretty sparse here; there’s not a lot of talking, and we don’t get to dive too deeply into the character’s lives or personalities. Although I normally like movies that have a lot of character development and meaty dialogue, I respect that that’s not the kind of movie Nolan was trying to make here. The characters are everyday people in an extraordinary situation. Nolan could have picked any soldier, any civilian boat owner, or any pilot and used them as a lens through which to show this story — and that’s the point. “Dunkirk” gives us a snapshot of what it was like to live through one of the war’s darkest periods. We experience fear, frustration, and confusion right along with the people onscreen.

“Dunkirk” is certainly an intense film, and it actually triggered a panic attack for me during the scene where a German U-boat torpedoes an Allied ship and it starts sinking, trapping the soldiers inside. I felt my heart beating too fast but I made myself stay in the theater, because I wanted to experience what it would have been like for these young soldiers fighting in World War II. Parts of “Dunkirk” made me uncomfortable but it was good to get a better appreciation for the people who fought and died in the war.

Although “Dunkirk” is a somber, high-stakes film, it is beautifully shot, and Nolan really makes you feel like you are a part of the action, particularly in the scenes with the dog-fighting. You feel like you are in the cockpit with Tom Hardy’s Royal Air Force pilot (I would love to watch a Nolan movie with more true-life stories about WWI or WWII pilots). And there are a few moments of genuine emotional triumph, such as when the civilian ships finally appear over the horizon to save the day. I know Kenneth Branagh’s Commander Bolton wasn’t the only person in the theater with tears in his eyes. Without giving away a spoiler, there is also a sad but lovely moment at the very end of the movie honoring a local boy’s act of heroism during the boat rescue.

While I don’t see myself watching “Dunkirk” over and over and over, I don’t think that’s the type of movie it was meant to be. It’s a cinematic experience, allowing audience members to relive an important moment in our past and giving us a deeper respect for history. Before watching this movie, I didn’t know the story of Dunkirk. I’m glad that now I do.

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Aaron’s thoughts

I really appreciate the fact that Christopher Nolan is never satisfied to just do the same old thing. A lot of directors have niches which they pretty much stick to. The infamous Michael Bay is the poster child for this, though I would say even Tarantino, with his varied genre films, does it as well. No person can be perfectly varied though and Nolan seems to feel most comfortable in two zones: crime dramas (“Memento,” “Inception,” “Insomnia”) and films about the triumph of the human spirit (“Interstellar,” the Dark Knight trilogy). “Dunkirk” fits very nicely into category number two.

Contrary to a lot of war films, it’s not about showing a bunch of fighting and a glorious victory. Very few enemies are shot and all three or so of them are fighter planes shot down by other fighter planes. It’s about retreat in the face of total defeat. Four hundred thousand Englishmen, not even counting Frenchmen, trapped in a small shore-side town, surrounded by an army with tanks and nearby landing strips for constant, unhindered aerial bombardment. It’s about endurance in the face of great adversity, where merely surviving is enough.

The thing that really makes this a Nolan film is that it is split into three sections. The soldiers on the beach (one week), the civilian boat (one day), and the fighter pilot (one hour). Sometimes the same event is shown multiple times from different perspectives, I think, to great effect. A ship being bombed looks a lot more distant in more than terms of length from a fighter plane versus a passenger on said boat.

The story is far simpler than his usual fare. Dialogue is sparse and long conversations are virtually non-existent. This leaves Nolan unable to shine as much in an area where he normally knocks it out of the park. I’m sure he could have come up with some excellent character-driven dialogue like he has in all his other movies, but it would have seemed out of place in a setting where men tend to avoid forming close bonds as any person may die at any time. For me, I appreciated his willingness to lay off the dialogue in favor of non-verbal acting.

One bit that I noticed which maybe some others didn’t pay attention to as much is how wonderfully English the characters are. Nolan’s been doing movies about Americans for a while and our emotions are worn a lot more on our sleeve than would’ve been normal for a 1940s Englishman. Kenneth Branagh’s well-acted Navy Admiral is stalwart and resolute in the favor of monstrous odds and admirably (get it) restrained when rescue arrives. The civilian boat pilot dutifully puts country before personal safety and fails to get riled even in the face of death. It pleased me to see the attention he paid to getting the correct behavior out of the actors.

That’s about all I have to say about “Dunkirk.” All in all, I liked it. It didn’t blow me away but I also wasn’t disappointed by anything. After all, not everything can be a magnum opus.