Second only perhaps to the prestige biopic, every filmmaker, actor, and other Hollywood hanger-on seeking the mantle of “serious artist” has turned his or head to the hellscape that was World War II. That specific trajectory assumes greater importance for those who established their names on popcorn-fueled blockbusters and action heroism. Even cinema’s mainstream iconoclasts have found reservoirs of inspiration in the European theater and “Natzi”-killing. The conflict proving that its predecessor had neither made the world completely safe for democracy nor ended all wars is tailor-made for silver screen appraisal. The villains were worse than any screenwriter could conjure. The settings crisscrossed continental Europe, North African deserts, the great oceans, and the deep blue skies. Is there any wonder that over 1300 movies have used its narrative to extract the best from the business?
Christopher Nolan takes this heritage seriously with his true magnum opus, “Dunkirk.” Very seriously. Just as his spiritual predecessor Steven Spielberg used the Second World War to break free of aliens and dinosaurs, Nolan invites us to witness his directorial prowess unburdened by comic book flash or CGI wizardry. And witness you should. “Dunkirk” is, hands down, the best genre entry since “Saving Private Ryan.” I might even wager that it’s better.
Leaflets raining down upon deserted streets announce that Germany has pushed Allied forces to the beaches of Dunkirk, France. By late May 1940, More >
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is about as jumbled and overstuffed as its title makes it sound, and it’s a real shame that Luc Besson’s baldfaced attempt to recapture the quirky, super-saturated essence of probably his best and certainly his trippiest film (The Fifth Element) collapses into a heaving, straining mess of dialogue best suited for a middle school play with a story to match even though the aliens are so quirky and shiny and very different looking and it’s in SPACE with lasers and star destroyers and the space weapons make noise which they of course wouldn’t do and there are stern-faced commanders in galactic uniforms and — oh look, another alien!
Boy, that was painful and I’m sorry to have written it. (Interestingly, this is also what Luc Besson said when he finished the script.) But swaddle that run-on opening in high-dollar CGI and you’ve pretty much got this movie.
Valerian tells the story of one Major Valerian — a hopelessly miscast Dane DeHaan, whose pasty emo loping does not sit well with the role of galactic federal super-agent — and his headstrong, quippy partner Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevigne). From their very first scene together we’re battered with shockingly unsubtle dialog that sets forth in no uncertain terms Valerian’s sole apparent motivation in this world: The dogged romantic pursuit of his partner and rank subordinate. (To the grand dismay of women and compliance officers everywhere, Laureline does not immediately report him to More >
World peace. Never-ending financial security. Unlimited wishes. If you paused to reflect for a few moments, I’m sure you could think of some pretty epic wishes you’d make if given the chance. At the very least, you’d likely choose your wishes with more forethought than a distractible, excruciatingly self-involved teenager. But that’s why there aren’t any teen terror films about you, and why Wish Upon will probably rake in more money from theatergoing horror fans than it deserves this summer.
In Wish Upon, protagonist Clare seeks what these films tell us any teenage girl wants—her crush to give her the time of day, the mean girls at school to finally welcome her to their inner circle, and of course, to move past witnessing her mother’s suicide—you know, classic coming-of-age stuff. Clare’s well-meaning dad is played by my generation’s middle-school crush, Ryan Phillippe—who wooed us all with his sweet nothings in I Know What You Did Last Summer: “You two should check out a mirror sometime. You look like shit run over twice.” Swoon. But I digress.
Anyway, Dreamboat Dad brings Clare a magical box with mystical Chinese symbols. Her basic Chinese language skills help her determine that the box offers her seven wishes. She gives it a try, and behold, it works. But as the people in her life start dropping like flies, Clare finds herself wondering if she may have missed something in translation. She revels in her wishes and basks in her greed, but at what cost?
Well, I’ll tell you: More >
June 2017, apparently.
I had high hopes for 47 Meters Down, and I still argue I had good reason to. For starters, Mandy Moore, a throwback favorite, is the star. A beautiful, down-to-earth, second-career actress who is actually not half bad at acting (especially when off-screen—sorry Mandy). And come on, sharks? Forty plus years after Jaws, we pretty much know by now exactly how to use our favorite fearsome fish to build the suspense.
Then for me there was this whole other layer of anticipation. I’ve always been fascinated by what goes on below the water’s surface, ever since I spent my childhood’s Independence Days fishing with my family in northern Michigan. Sitting in that little boat on a massive lake, it felt crazy to me that there was a whole world right below my seat that I’d never get to see.
But although it throws together the same ingredients used in last summer’s The Shallows (girls in bathing suits, huge sharks, bloody gore, beachy scenery), 47 Meters Down fails to deliver a dish we can sink our teeth into.
The premise really is beyond simple: a pair of sisters is diving in a shark cage when the cable snaps and they drop—you guessed it—47 meters down to the ocean floor. Getting back to the surface is complicated by the 25-foot sharks swirling around them, and they have no idea how to evade the predators and make it to safety without getting decompression sickness, or the bends.
But More >
I’ll never forget my first English class. I mean my first real English class. I’m not talking about when your worn-out, second-career, elementary school teacher would ham-handedly thunk themes down before you like thick slabs of meat she oafishly hacked from the chapter you were assigned to read that day—of course, all while watching the seconds tick down until that precious moment when the bell would ring and she could hustle home to her hungry cats.
No. I’m talking about that high school English class with that one quirky teacher (shoutout to Mr. Gruber) who could have easily taught college courses but who was so passionate about teaching young people that he spent his career punching below his weight. The one whose syllabus was comprised entirely of books that at one point or another were banned for their content. The one who made you question everything while awakening in you the realization that you have the ability to craft your own answers to anything.
You know what I’m talking about—in that class, you read that one book (shoutout to The Catcher in the Rye) that taught you that what you thought you enjoyed reading was actually slop. That one book that made you crave works about the world as it truly is, in all its layered, changeable, and complicated glory. That one book that confusingly was nothing you expected to like, but everything you needed.
After last year’s double throat-punch to hero films — the rambling Suicide Squad, and the interminable and downright dismal Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice — the DC franchise was pretty much on life support. As the premiere date for Wonder Woman drew near, the usual promo engine was strangely silent, chugging out posters and ad spots at a rate better suited to a subtitled art-house pic. None of this seemed promising. Fool me once, shame on DC; fool me twice? Well, I will say that going into Wonder Woman, I didn’t expect much.
And I hope you don’t either, because that’s the best way to see Wonder Woman: a brilliant hero picture that clambers atop its hokey source material to deliver a stunning aria to old-fashioned heroes, 2017 style.
This triumph is due in chief to two women: Director Patty Jenkins (whose main prior film credit is Monster, 14 years ago) and Israeli bombshell Gal Gadot (who cut her teeth with supporting roles in three Fast and Furious films while doing her level best to elevate some pretty lousy comedies). More on Gadot shortly.
I’ve waited until the fourth paragraph to tell you this is essentially a movie about an Amazon princess from a mythical island of beauties who ventures out into Europe during the First World War. Because that sounds silly. And it is. But it’s so well done, and has so much heart, that even the thick-necked tough guy beside me whose main love in life is a seatbelt extender (I reckon) was sniffling through act three.
To hell with More >
The setting? The far reaches of space, of course. The characters? A loveable bunch of couples with far too much to lose. The foe? A foreboding, hero-goading, chest-exploding, ode to old-fashioned sci-fi aliens. So what could go wrong? See Alien: Covenant if you want to find out.
The story unfolds as robot assistant Walter (think Rosie the Robot meets Data in a Michael Fassbender shell) awakens the crew of a ship destined to colonize a far-off planet so that they can handle an onboard emergency. Now awake (and bored?) the crew chases after a curious transmission they track to a planet perfect for human colonization. Mysteriously, in their years of preparation for their mission they seem to have missed this speck of the universe. What to do, what to do…well, nobody is ready to go back to sleep for another seven years, so they decide to forego all plans and explore the unknown planet. The crew takes its dangerous detour, and before we know it, they start dropping like flies.
Now I’ll admit that the film starts out quite strong. Our first encounters with the aliens are raw, visceral (literally), and flat-out fun. It’s exactly what those of us who grew up watching Sigourney Weaver stare down a nasty mini-alien (emerging from its mama like an angry, possessed tonsil) had hoped for—good, old-fashioned, sci-fi horror.
But the plot soon twists and betrays us loyal fans. The struggling crew stumbles upon David (Fassbender again), an out-of-date Walter who you will of course remember More >
You may not know that the original Baywatch TV series was canned after just one season on NBC. It wasn’t until its reanimation in 1991 for first-run syndication (executive produced by David Hasselhoff) that this show-zombie became a worldwide sensation. That makes it sort of the self-published surprise-smash novel of its time. Fifty Shades of Bay.
And Baywatch was never a particularly good show, but it sure did scratch a decade-plus global itch for hot bodies in red onesies jogging along the Coppertone-drizzled beaches of L.A. county. Our needs, it turns out, are basic.
And that’s really all this reboot had to do. Cast the Rock? Gravy. Make it a comedy, with a deep-R rating? Bonus. Spin some fanciful crime-lite plot? If you like. But give us the beauties on the beach, and if ever you falter, give us those beauties again. It’s so easy: Any time this film threatened to skip the rails, all director Seth Gordon had to do was shout that safe-word and show us some flesh. Boobs and abs shall be your guardrails, your training wheels, your guiding light home at night. Thus spake the Hoff.
So it’s hard to grasp how something so dead-brained simple has gone and gotten itself so thoroughly botched. It’s a true shame to take a film so promising in its own fleshy way — one shamelessly showcasing for its first fifteen glorious minutes the superhero bodies of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Zac Efron, Alexandra Daddario, Kelly Rohrbach, and Ilfenesh Hadera — and so promptly devolve it into an More >
I doubt anyone could confidently have foretold the runaway success of Marvel’s original Guardians of the Galaxy. When it opened in summer 2014, I had never once heard of its characters; moreover, talking raccoons and pleasing filmgoing, in my experience, rarely co-localized. But the raccoon Spoke, and It Was Good. Actually really good.
It also made lots of money, so it’s no surprise what happened next. Marvel is the glowing crucible where dollars and follow-ups are forged. I know of no entity that can so reliably cultivate any and every celluloid success, spawning from each seed a thick and verdant bed of sequels and spinoffs. So now, three years later and as it must, comes Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
Expectations run high, and the question is whether writer/director James Gunn (returning once more here) can deliver.
He does. Volume 2 is at least as funny, and has even more heart, than the first. The visuals are stunning, the banter is easy, the laughs are solid. The characters feel lived in, each one gets plenty of screen time, and Baby Groot is just as terrific as the many trailers suggest. (Though Vin Diesel is again credited, the gravel-voiced actor’s relation to this miniature CGI walking tree now seems tenuous at best.) The plot is a bit shallow and resorts once more to the old Marvel playbook, generating some new universe-menacing threat that somehow no prior hero has yet encountered. In positive news, though, it does have Kurt Russell. And some legitimately More >
One of my favorite horror movies, if not my absolute favorite, is Lake Mungo, an unexpected little gem of an Australian film. It’s a faux documentary that centers around a family mourning the loss of a teenage girl, who they mysteriously start seeing around their house long after her death. It’s simple and straightforward enough, yet I watch it again and again and never tire of it. The filmmakers gently but persistently build an ominous mood, hitting all my favorite ghosty pressure points and revealing dark, unexpected secrets along the way.
Phoenix Forgotten closely tracks all the things I love about Lake Mungo. In Phoenix Forgotten, our narrator is the sister of a teenage boy who disappeared with two friends in the desert outside of Phoenix, Arizona. The trio of teens had set out to find answers to the real-life unexplained appearance of a UFO-like string of lights over the city in 1997, but they never returned from their excursion. Now, the sister is back in town, looking for answers about her brother’s disappearance, and of course, making a film. She interviews local experts, family members, and even military officials, and mixes in video recorded by the teenagers themselves.
So what makes it work so well? I think some of it is what has made true crime so maddeningly popular. Many experts have written about the explosion of investigative TV shows and podcasts. They’ve postulated about the “armchair detective” effect of entertainment that walks you through a tragic story More >