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

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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.

Movie review: ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ wraps up franchise on a moving, thought-provoking note

apes-1_1Although it may not draw the same level of feverish buzz as its superhero peers, the Planet of the Apes reboot is actually one of the best — and most underrated — currently running franchises. The films have combined breathtaking motion-capture special effects and acting with surprisingly thought-provoking storylines that ask deeper questions than many summer blockbusters dare to. The series (presumably) comes to an end with the somber but powerful “War for the Planet of the Apes.”

The trilogy began in 2011 with “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” where scientist Will Rodman inadvertently creates a hyper-intelligent ape named Caesar (Andy Serkis). The experiment backfires, and a decade later, in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” much of humanity has been wiped out by the simian flu. Caesar and his band of increasingly intelligent apes want to live peacefully, but a misunderstanding sparks a war between apes and humans. Now, in “War for the Planet of the Apes,” the conflict threatens the survival of both species.

“War for the Planet of the Apes” has a lot less action than you might expect for a film with the word “war” in its title — but that’s actually okay with me. That leaves plenty of time for quieter moments between characters and the film’s exploration of its main theme, which is the danger of fear and hatred. The film primarily focuses on Caesar’s journey after he experiences a personal tragedy and goes on a quest for revenge, putting both himself and his friends at risk.

It’s really a shame that Andy Serkis has never been nominated for an Oscar for his motion-capture work, because it’s far more than just standing in front of a green screen. Serkis’ facial expressions and voice acting give Caesar his soul and make him the most powerful character in the franchise. He is noble and thoughtful, but not without flaws. By the time we reach “War for the Planet of the Apes,” you can see in his eyes how the hardships he’s been through have taken a toll on him.

What’s so interesting about this film is that it has, on the surface, quite a few film tropes — a hero going on a quest for revenge that leads to self-discovery, a hard-nosed military commander, and a lost little girl who ends up accompanying Caesar and his friends on their mission. However, even though we’ve seen similar features in films before, this movie takes these tropes and either presents them in a new way or uses them with a surprising twist. Although Woody Harrelson’s Colonel, leader of a human military group, could have easily become a caricature, about halfway through the film he reveals a devastating secret that takes his character to another level. The little girl who joins the apes on their journey is also an interesting character and ends up relating to the secret the Colonel is hiding.

The cinematography is bleak but gorgeous, the muted tones and snowy landscape fitting in with the film’s somber tone. The special effects enhance the film but never take over, keeping the focus on the characters and their story. The apes are expertly animated, appearing lifelike and never too CGI-manipulated.

Although the film’s protagonists may be apes, the movie actually has a lot of say about humanity and issues we are facing today. Both sides in the “War for the Planet of the Apes” hate each other mainly based on fear, and a lack of understanding prevents a resolution to the conflict. Violence occurs when that fear turns to hatred and spirals out of control. And the idea that humans could someday be the architects of their own destruction is a chilling one.

“War for the Planet of the Apes” ends on a sad but hopeful note, bringing an end to one era and beginning a new one. I’m not certain if this is actually going to be the last movie in the franchise, but I think this story is a good one to end on. If you haven’t seen any of the films in this trilogy, they’re definitely worth catching up on.

Movie review: ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ brings everyone’s favorite friendly neighborhood superhero into the Marvel Cinematic Universe

maxresdefaultInitially, I was more than a little skeptical about Sony’s new Spider-Man film. In the past 15 years, we have had six Spider-Man movies, two reboots, and three different actors playing the character. And it’s only been three years since the previous reboot fizzled out. However, seeing Spider-Man’s cameo in last summer’s “Captain America: Civil War” started to change my mind. Tom Holland’s lovably excitable Spidey was a highlight of that film, and I was curious to see if Sony could pull off a feature-length film with this re-envisioned character.

So, did we really need another Spider-Man reboot? After watching “Homecoming,” I say yes. It’s a joy to see the friendly neighborhood superhero officially join the Marvel Cinematic Universe. “Homecoming” hits all the right notes and is a genuinely fun film that captures the spirit of the character in a way we haven’t seen before.

One of the first things “Homecoming” does right is skipping the origin story that audiences have already seen twice. The action picks up shortly after the events of “Civil War” (the film begins with a hilarious home video montage Peter Parker puts together highlighting his adventures in “Civil War”). Peter is thrilled to be working with Iron Man and can’t wait to take his place alongside the Avengers. Except, he keeps waiting and waiting for another call from Tony Stark, only to be disappointed. He wants to do more than retrieve stolen bikes and give directions to lost people on the streets. He thinks he’s found his big break when he stumbles upon a business scavenging alien equipment from the New York attack in “The Avengers” to manufacture illegal weapons. However, he quickly finds he’s in way over his head, and it will take some time without the high-tech suit given to him by Tony Stark to figure out what it really means to be a hero.

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As I mentioned before, Tom Holland’s Spider-Man was one of my favorite parts of “Civil War,” and he does a great job carrying his own movie. He’s now my favorite on-screen Spider-Man. Although previous Spidey actors Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield each brought something to the role, Holland’s version is the one that feels the most like a real teenager. I love how Holland brings so much joy to the character; his Peter Parker isn’t as weighed down by angst as some of the past versions. He genuinely loves being Spider-Man, though his eagerness occasionally gets him into trouble.

Sometimes Marvel movies are faulted for their lackluster villains, but that isn’t the case here. Michael Keaton does a great job as Adrian Toomes/Vulture. I appreciated the smaller scale of “Homecoming” and how the villain wasn’t out to take over the world. He felt like an appropriate villain for Spider-Man’s skill level; he was too powerful for local law enforcement but not enough of a threat to call in the Avengers. Keaton really humanizes the character, who starts the movie owning a salvage company and almost loses everything when the government takes back the contract they gave him to clean up the rubble following Loki’s attack on New York. He’s just a regular guy wanting to provide for his family, until he makes compromising choices that take him down a dark path. There’s also a gut-punch of a plot twist involving the relationship between Toomes and Peter — I won’t give it away, but it definitely ups the tension in the film’s final act.

There are several great supporting characters, including Jacob Batalon as Peter’s best friend Ned. It was nice for Peter to have an ally his own age who knew his secret, and their teenage awkwardness is adorable.

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It’s always the little moments that separate good movies from great ones, and “Spider-Man: Homecoming” includes several of those type of moments. Perhaps one of the most powerful is when Peter is trapped under a pile of rubble and panics because there’s no one to save him. Then he has to find the strength within himself to escape. The movie has plenty of humor and is probably the funniest Marvel movie since the underrated “Ant-Man.” I also enjoyed all the little references to the other MCU films. Captain America has several hilarious cameos in school inspirational videos, and I’m glad Sony and Marvel reached a deal to include Robert Downey Jr. in this film. I thought the film had just the right amount of Iron Man, similar to the use of Darth Vader in “Rogue One.” He made the film extra special but didn’t take away from the main characters or action. I enjoyed seeing him adjust to the role of mentor, and he actually had some important lessons to teach Peter.

Warning: Spoilers ahead!

I also really appreciated the film’s ending battle between Spidey and the Vulture. Spidey has to go back to using his homemade suit after Iron Man takes away his high-tech one for being irresponsible. This helps Peter see that he’s more than just a suit. I also liked that Spider-Man didn’t end up killing Vulture. It wouldn’t have fit with the tone of the film, or with this version of Peter’s character. He was able to stop Vulture and bring him to justice without harming him.

End spoilers!

I really don’t have any complaints about this film, except that the trailers for the movie gave away a little more than they should. However, I had a blast watching this movie, and I left the theater with a big smile on my face. I hope Sony and Marvel can continue to work together to keep Spidey a part of the MCU — the MCU and Spider-Man are both better for it.

Movie review: ‘Baby Driver’ is a slick, stylish ride

baby-driver-1A film about heists and car chases isn’t normally the kind of movie that immediately catches my interest. However, “Baby Driver” had something special going for it, and that’s the magic words “written and directed by Edgar Wright.”

I’ve been a fan of Wright’s since I saw his quirky zombie romantic comedy “Shaun of the Dead.” I’ve since followed up with Wright’s two other films in the Cornetto trilogy (“Hot Fuzz” and “The World’s End”) and his offbeat comedy series “Spaced.” Although his graphic novel-based “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” wasn’t really my cup of tea, “Hot Fuzz” is my all-time favorite comedy. I’ve been curious to see how he develops as a director, and “Baby Driver” appears to be an indication of exciting things to come.

“Baby Driver” is a slick, stylish film with hints of “Reservoir Dogs” and “The Fast and the Furious,” with just a splash of “Guardians of the Galaxy” (I’ll explain that later). “Baby” (Ansel Elgort) is the nickname of crime kingpin Doc’s (Kevin Spacey) getaway driver. Although Doc never uses the same crew to pull off his heists, he always uses Baby, whom he sees as a lucky charm.

Baby doesn’t like living a life of crime, however, and after he pays off his debt, he plans to get out of the business for good. In the meantime, he brings along his trusty iPod and earbuds to every job, both to drown out the tinnitus caused by an accident in his childhood and to distract himself from the darkness of the world around him.

“Baby Driver” is actually more of a serious action film than I was expecting, since Wright is primarily known for his comedies. While I can definitely see hints of Quentin Tarantino in Wright’s work, it’s cool to see him develop his own voice and style. “Baby Driver” has some of Wright’s trademark “quick cuts,” and the cinematography is a lovingly shot work of art. The cast is stacked with some of Hollywood’s coolest people — Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, and Jon Bernthal — and the soundtrack is excellent, reminiscent of the groovy tunes from Guardians of the Galaxy’s awesome mixes. I love a big-budget special effects spectacle, but sometimes it’s nice to see more practical effects, such as in movies like this. The film’s love story between Baby and Debora (Lily James), a waitress at a diner, could have easily distracted from the plot, but I thought it was a nice touch, especially since Elgort and James had such charming chemistry.

The one thing I might have changed about the movie is the ending. The film is a tight, fast-paced ride but the ending seemed to drag on a bit and could have been streamlined. (Warning: Spoilers ahead!) Baby’s final confrontation with Jon Hamm’s thug in the parking garage went on a bit long, and I actually would have preferred a more open ending, without the montage of Baby’s trial and his time in prison. I would have ended it right after Baby surrenders to law enforcement: telling Debora goodbye, getting out of the car, and walking towards the blockade with his hands in the air. But that’s just my personal opinion. I was also a little sad that Bernthal wasn’t in the movie more and thought it was a little odd he just disappeared. However, I saw someone on social media point this out (I’m embarrassed that I initially missed this!) that one of Bernthal’s final lines of dialogue is “if you don’t see me again, that means I’m dead.” So I guess we can assume he won’t be showing up in any “Baby Driver” sequels. (End spoilers)

Like I mentioned before, “Baby Driver” isn’t my normal style of movie, but it was definitely a cool film and I hope Hollywood takes more notice of Edgar Wright. While I love his comedies, it’s neat to see him branching out into some other genres as well.

Star-spangled cinema: Best movies to watch for the Fourth of July

404626-captain-america-background-hdFor film fans looking for something fun to watch this weekend in between barbecues and fireworks, Entertainment Weekly’s recent issue includes a list of the top 25 most patriotic movies. The complete list includes films such as “Top Gun,” “Patton,” and “Stripes,” but I’ve highlighted a few of my personal favorites. This list also serves as a shameful reminder of the fact that I still haven’t watched “Saving Private Ryan.” Maybe that should be my Fourth of July movie this year!

Apollo 13

I’ve always loved reading about the NASA space program, and I remember geeking out as a kid when I got to do a report about the Apollo 11 moon landing for school. Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13” is one of my favorite space movies that doesn’t happen to be science fiction. Apollo 13 was supposed to be a routine lunar mission — until it wasn’t, and three astronauts had to trouble-shoot in space in order to survive, with the help of Mission Control back home. Even though I know from history how the story ends, it’s a nail biter for me every time. Entertainment Weekly calls it an “ode to a bygone era of space exploration and American optimism”; every time I watch it, I hope that humanity won’t give up on its quest to explore the stars.

Air Force One

Harrison Ford’s badass fictional president James Marshall is a politician everyone can agree on: when Air Force One is taken over by terrorists, he refuses to give in to their demands. He fights to regain control of the aircraft, saving lives and just generally being awesome. It’s a great action movie and tense thriller up until the final moments when Marshall (spoiler alert!) saves the day.

Independence Day

No Fourth of July movie list would be complete without “Independence Day,” right? “Independence Day” is the quintessential summer blockbuster, with Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum facing off against a fleet of aliens attacking Earth. Plus, Bill Pullman also co-stars as my personal favorite fictional president, Thomas J. Whitmore, who actually climbs on board a fighter jet and goes to war against the aliens himself. After making a totally epic speech, of course.

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Captain America: The First Avenger

“Captain America: The First Avenger” was my first real introduction to “the star-spangled man with a plan,” who has now become one of my favorite superheroes. What makes Captain America such a powerful symbol is that he doesn’t begin his story as a beefed-up superhero with muscles or cool powers. Instead, he’s a man with a good heart and a sense of justice who is unafraid to stand up to bullies. Steve Rogers is the moral compass of the Marvel movies, and his next two films — “The Winter Soldier” and “Civil War” — are so fascinating because we see circumstances challenge his ideals. Yet he continues to hold to those ideals, even when it requires great personal sacrifice.

Gettysburg

Time for another confession — I’m not sure if I have watched “Gettysburg” all the way through, as I’ve seen it mostly in parts. It’s a long movie, but this American epic is worth a watch, memorializing one of the most violent and tragic periods in American history. Jeff Daniels’ Union commander Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain is the heart and soul of this movie; his idealism is an inspiration to the soldiers around him.

The Right Stuff

The U.S. achieved an important milestone by landing an astronaut on the moon in 1969, but the space program got off to a much rockier start. Delays and technical problems plagued the program. Yet there was plenty of determination in the early days of NASA, and “The Right Stuff” chronicles the cocky pilots who dared to become astronauts and risked their lives as brave explorers. They were made of the “right stuff,” indeed.

Fresh or rotten: Has Rotten Tomatoes helped or hurt the film industry?

Untitled-1As a film junkie, I’ve gotten into the habit of checking the Rotten Tomatoes website every week. I like to see what movies are coming up and what kind of buzz they’re getting, whether it’s good or bad. If a movie I’m looking forward to gets a “fresh” rating or a high score, I breathe a sigh of relief. But if a movie is “rotten,” I lower my expectations…or I might end up skipping it altogether.

Love it or hate it, Rotten Tomatoes is becoming an increasingly powerful player in the film industry. A fresh rating has become a badge of honor to tout in advertising, and a rotten rating is a mark of shame that can have an impact on box office sales. Some fans and industry insiders argue that the website’s rating system is unfair, while others say if film makers are upset about their film getting a rotten score, they should have just made a better movie in the first place.

Overall, I’m a fan of Rotten Tomatoes, though I do think it’s important to take the ratings with a grain of salt. The website is an easy way for viewers to get an overall perspective about how good a film is from a diverse array of critics. I’ve found if a film hits in the 80-90+ percent range, I’m probably going to love it, and I need to see it opening weekend. If it’s 60-70 percent, well, it will probably still be fun but there may be some issues that keep it from achieving greatness. The 40-50 percent range is where things get a little dicier; I’ve enjoyed films in this range, but they’re probably going to be more polarizing. And if a film hits at 30 percent or below, this is usually an indication it’s probably better to stay at home and wait for the DVD (if at all). However, that *usually* is an important caveat, but more on that later.

It can be tough sometimes to tell just what kind of impact a Rotten Tomatoes score can have on a film, and really, it’s just one piece of a larger puzzle that determines whether a film fails or succeeds. Highly rated films like Tom Cruise’s “Live Die Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow” (91 percent) have floundered at the box office, while the critically panned “Suicide Squad” (25 percent) still pulled in a lot of money. Yet rotten scores for recent summer films like “King Arthur” and “The Mummy” certainly didn’t help those films at the box office. And “Wonder Woman’s” glowing score certainly did.

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For me personally, a Rotten Tomatoes score is just one part of my decision of whether or not to see a film, but it definitely plays a role. I decided to skip “King Arthur” due to its low score and spend money on a second viewing of “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” instead. Conversely, the high score for “Mad Max: Fury Road” a couple summers ago (97 percent) made me way more pumped to see that movie, even though I actually hadn’t seen any of the other movies in the franchise.

While Rotten Tomatoes is often helpful to get a quick read on a film’s quality, occasionally we can see the dogpile effect, where negative reviews for a film pile up and the movie gets a lower score than it probably deserves. Earlier this summer, “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” received just 29 percent, a rating I felt was too unfair for a movie that had its flaws but was still a really fun experience for me as a Pirates fan.

In addition to viewing a film’s Rotten Tomatoes score, I try to read a sampling of reviews to get a deeper idea of what critics thought about a movie. Sometimes I can tell that while critics didn’t love a film, it might be something I’m still interested in, and the things that bothered them may not bother me. I also try to check out the audience score, which can differ from the critics score (audience rating is 67 percent for the new Pirates film).

Overall, I feel Rotten Tomatoes is a fairly good indicator of what’s great (80-90+ percent), good (60-70 percent), okay (40-50 percent), “meh” (30 percent) and awful (20 percent or below), with a few notable exceptions. While sometimes movies do get unfairly trashed, Rotten Tomatoes can be a helpful tool that assists film fans in purchasing their tickets wisely.

So, what do you think? Do you like Rotten Tomatoes? Do you hate it? Do you think the ratings are fair and accurate?

Franchise fatigue, movie misfires, and the changing world of big-budget blockbusters

the-mummy-2017Film franchises generate big business for Hollywood. Star Wars and Marvel seem to be leading the trend, with their brand names wielding enough power to regularly generate $100 million+ openings. Audiences just can’t seem to get enough, and even risky gambits have paid off — like “Rogue One,” a Star Wars movie that doesn’t feature any Jedi, and films that star some of Marvel’s more obscure characters.

However, that trend isn’t holding true for all of Hollywood’s would-be franchises. Despite “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” kicking off the summer blockbuster season with a strong start and a major boost from “Wonder Woman,” 2017 has seen a number of franchises flounder with critical misfires and would-be blockbusters that are limping to the finish. “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” and “Alien: Covenant” under-performed, and plans to turn Guy Ritchie’s “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” into a franchise are likely gone due to a disastrous opening weekend. Things aren’t looking good for Universal’s planned “Dark Universe” monster movie franchise, either; “The Mummy,” starring Tom Cruise, posted a $32 million opening weekend — not good for a big-budget film that’s supposed to generate buzz for a new shared universe franchise.

Negative reviews have played a big role in these stumbling franchises, and fair or not, Rotten Tomatoes wields a decent amount of power. The fairness of Rotten Tomatoes ratings is a complicated topic for another time (I felt “Dead Men Tell No Tales” was rated too harshly at 29 percent, and “Alien: Covenant” was treated too leniently with 71 percent). Still, people do pay attention to that rating. If a film gets a little green splat, people may decide to save their time and money and skip the film. After the trends we’re seeing this summer, I’m very curious to see how the next Transformers movie preforms at the box office, considering the fact the franchise hasn’t exactly been a critical darling over the years.

I can see why every Hollywood studio wants a franchise or shared universe — as mentioned earlier, Star Wars and Marvel have brought in big bucks for Disney. A successful franchise does a lot of the marketing for you — if you loved “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1,” you’re automatically going to be hyped for “Vol. 2.” However, simply creating a franchise or shared universe isn’t enough to bring people to the theater, especially when these franchise films seem rushed. DC Comics made several films before finally hitting their stride with “Wonder Woman”; instead, they should have come on strong right out of the gate.

The fact is, people have a lot more entertainment choices than they used to. People can access high-quality content right from their home with streaming services like Netflix. For a low monthly fee, you can watch previous movies and new TV shows like “Stranger Things” that are sometimes better than the content currently available at the movie theater. Also, movie tickets and concessions can be expensive, particularly if you’re bringing the whole family. People want to wait until there’s a really good, buzzworthy film to spend their money on.

You also have to know when to let a franchise go. Nostalgia isn’t always enough to guarantee success. It may have worked for “Jurassic World,” which captured some of the spirit of the original movie (and Chris Pratt’s rising star power certainly didn’t hurt). But nostalgia for the past wasn’t enough for “Dead Men Tell No Tales,” “Alien: Covenant,” and “The Mummy” — either people have already kind of forgotten about these properties, feel that the existing movies are enough, or they aren’t really in the mood for more at this time.

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Franchises have to offer something both familiar and exciting. I like the Marvel movies because I know pretty much what sort of movie I’ll be getting, but I still want them to show me something different and cool, like with “Doctor Strange.” I think the upcoming Spider-Man movie will succeed where some of this summer’s other blockbusters haven’t because while it IS the third Spidey reboot in recent history, it’s bringing the character into the much-loved Marvel Cinematic Universe and features a cameo from the ever-popular Iron Man/Tony Stark.

I love a good franchise — in fact, many of my all-time favorite movies are part of franchises, and aren’t always the first chapter in the franchise either. Yet with increasing competition from Netflix and the fact that there’s practically a new blockbuster demanding our attention every weekend, Hollywood may have to do a little better. That’s where the power of word-of-mouth comes in. A movie’s best marketers aren’t necessarily trailers or ads on social media; it’s people who, if they love a movie, tell all their friends and family about it. For example, I loved “Wonder Woman” so much that I’m still talking about that movie a week later. I saw it opening weekend and was so excited to see it again that I went back a few days later and brought a different person with me so they could see the movie too.

It will be interesting to see how the rest of this summer will play out at the box office. I don’t see any of the movies topping “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” or “Wonder Woman” in terms of box office success, but hopefully things will pick up. Although we’re not going to see the franchise trend die down any time soon, Hollywood may be getting the message that it’s not an automatic recipe for success.