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Fri08182017

Last updateFri, 16 Sep 2016 12pm

A couple of years ago, there was talk of Ron Howard directing a big-screen adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower. The film would act as an introduction to the Dark Tower universe, and was to be followed by a TV series. Javier Bardem was cast as Roland the Gunslinger, the main protagonist of King’s multi-novel series.

The original plan was jettisoned in favor of Idris Elba as Roland, and a relatively novice director in Nikolaj Arcel (A Royal Affair) at the helm in Howard’s place. (Howard took on producer’s duties.) The debut film’s budget was reduced to less than $70 million, a price you would normally see for a Hollywood rom-com, not the launch of what was proposed as an epic, blockbuster franchise.

As a result of all of this, this movie is a catastrophe, and a complete insult to fans of the books, fans of Matthew McConaughey, and fans of science fiction/fantasy. Oh hell, this thing insults everybody: It looks like a low-level episode of Doctor Who, and we’re talking schlocky, 1970s Doctor Who. It feels like they used the same soundstage for all of the interiors, and just repainted shit. The CGI is terrible; the pacing is ridiculously, unnecessarily fast; and the plotting is confusing for those who haven’t read the books. (I’ve never read the books, and after watching this, I don’t care to ever read them.)

The story involves some kid named Jake (Tom Taylor), a sad teenager who is gifted with “The Shine,” the psychic powers Danny had in King’s The Shining. He dreams of another world where there is a Dark Tower that acts as some sort of barrier between other dimensions, protecting planets like Earth from evil. He also dreams of a gunslinger (Elba) who is trying to kill the Man in Black.

No, it’s not Johnny Cash; the Man in Black is some sort of devil man played by McConaughey. His intention is to hunt people with the Shine, because their brains harness the power to shoot laser beams into the Dark Tower, thus destroying it and releasing goofy CGI monsters upon the Earth. Tom winds up traveling to something called the Mid-World, where he takes a brief hike with Roland, then winds up back on Earth in present-day New York City for some kind of apocalyptic battle.

Go ahead and badmouth me if I got any of this wrong; I assure you that is the best I could gather from this hackneyed, rushed, underwhelming production. There have been reports that this is, in fact, a sequel to King’s novels, and not a faithful beginning to the actual saga. I can’t report on the authenticity of such a report. I can just tell you that the movie sucks.

When considering the apparent scope of the novels, it’s a bit of a shocker that the film clocks in at 95 minutes. There is a definite sense that a lot of backstory and exposition has been removed in order to dumb things down and streamline the pace.

Elba growls intermittent dialogue, with his character amounting to nothing more than a shallow archetype. Also: If you are going to have a gunslinger with a Western motif, give him a cool hat. Elba, as always, looks cool, but something as simple as a hat would’ve made a little more sense in fleshing out the gunslinger character.

McConaughey roams from sloppy set to sloppier set, looking lost and perhaps even a little pissed that he signed on for this garbage. He’s not all that bad; he’s just given next to nothing notable to do.

There are still some sketchy plans to follow up this film with a TV series. Whatever the plan is, producers need to scrap it and start over a few years from now, when the memory of this unfortunate cinematic event has subsided.

The Dark Tower is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

While Star Trek Beyond could use more soul and a more cohesive story, the film scores high on the zip factor, and introduces a creepy new villain. The latest film in the franchise’s reboot might be the weakest of the three featuring the newish cast, but it is still a lot of fun.

J.J. Abrams stepped down to direct his revamped Star Wars, relegating himself to a producer’s role. In steps Justin Lin, best known for making cars jump between skyscrapers in the Fast and Furious franchise. It’s no surprise that Lin’s take lacks a certain depth that Abrams managed to bring to his two installments. It’s also not a surprise that some of the action scenes motor along with the efficiency of a Dodge Challenger Hellcat.

The film picks up with James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and his crew in the midst of their five-year mission. Kirk (as he was in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) is starting to get a little bored. He’s up for an admiral’s position, and might soon find himself grounded to a desk job.

The movie has barely started up when the U.S.S. Enterprise is attacked by thousands of marauding spaceships, and the crew finds itself shipwrecked on a sparse planet inhabited by few other beings. Unfortunately, one of those few would be Krall (Idris Elba), a nasty-looking alien with evil intentions involving an ancient weapon. The crew must reform to band against Krall, get off the foreboding planet, and save the Federation.

Star Trek Beyond is basically Star Trek on steroids, with crazy action sequences involving motorcycles and thousands of ships rather than just a couple of ships squaring off against one another. Some of this action is top-notch, but occasionally hard to follow, thanks to the editing style Lin employs.

One of the script’s greater aspects isolates the grumpy Doctor “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban) on the planet with his spiritual nemesis, Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto). Spock is dealing with some awkward news: Spock Prime, a parallel-universe version of himself, has passed away. So he’s dealing with the realization of his own mortality in a most bizarre fashion. (The movie offers a touching tribute to the late Leonard Nimoy, as well as the rest of the classic Trek cast.)

This, of course, will be the final journey for Anton Yelchin as Chekov, who has a formidable role in this installment. It’s actually a little hard watching the movie when Yelchin is onscreen: It’s strange knowing this excellent young actor has left the planet.

There are times during all of the chaos when it’s hard to connect the dots and comprehend what exactly is going on with the story. There are many subplots at play (Kirk’s spiritual dilemma, Spock’s relationship with Uhura, Bones’ perpetual grumpiness, etc.) along with the Krall confrontation, and portions of it don’t make a lick of sense.

Those portions, however, are often wiped out by the film’s firepower, most notably during a space battle that deftly utilizes Kirk’s favorite Beastie Boys song. (Yes, Adam Yauch helps save the universe.)

This new film has a lot in common with the campy TV series, and has a throwback element to it. Your enjoyment of this chapter probably hinges upon whether you prefer the old TV show or the movies. While some of the goofier plot elements do recall old-school Trek, the action sequences definitely have a more Fast and Furious, modern feel. I was half expecting Vin Diesel on the bridge in a wifebeater.

The next chapter is reportedly in the works, and supposedly aims to bring back Chris Hemsworth as Kirk’s dad. While I’m glad to see Justin Lin didn’t totally blow his chance at the Star Trek helm, I’d like to see somebody with a more nuanced touch take a stab next.

Star Trek Beyond is playing across the valley in a variety of formats.

Published in Reviews

The Jungle Book, Disney’s latest live-action take on one of its animated classics, is clever: It actually contains sly nods to Apocalypse Now and Saturday Night Live.

Jon Favreau’s delightful and funny take on Rudyard Kipling’s tale of a boy raised by wolves is an all-around winner. Kids and adults will love the talking (and sporadically singing) animals, while adults and some of the cooler kids will enjoy the movie references and clever Easter eggs.

The story is pretty simple: A young boy, Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi), raised in the jungle, is pursued by a pissed-off tiger (the voice of Idris Elba) who had his face burned by a human when he was young (shades of Darth Vader). When plans to leave for a human village are rudely interrupted, Mowgli winds up staying in the jungle longer than he planned. He encounters Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), an evil temptress snake, and other perils while building a special friendship with a big bear.

As far as I could see, he never stops to wash his red shorts. A swim in the river doesn’t count. You need detergent.

Bill Murray is a masterstroke of vocal casting as Baloo, the big bear who befriends Mowgli on his extended jungle trek. But casting Christopher Walken as King Louie, the Kong-sized master of all apes, actually tops the Murray casting feat. It gives Favreau’s film an opportunity to become truly weird, very funny and even a little scary.

Favreau finds some clever ways to mix musical performances into the movie, even though it’s not a bona fide musical. Baloo and Mowgli happily sing part of “The Bare Necessities” together while floating down a river, accompanied by a full orchestra led by John Debney. It’s great, but it’s not the film’s musical highlight: That comes when Walken’s King Louie, portrayed with undertones of Brando’s Col. Kurtz, suddenly busts out “I Wanna Be Like You.” Walken is perfect for the song and perfect for the character, making the scene an instant classic. Johansson performs another song from the animated movie, “Trust in Me,” during the credits.

Incredible special effects seamlessly mesh with live animals, motion-capture work and puppetry. The talking animals actually look like they are really talking.

Other voices include Ben Kingsley as Bagheera, the panther who raised Mowgli, and Lupita Nyong’o as the wolf, Raksha, who acted as his mother figure. Giancarlo Esposito, aka Buggin’ Out, lends his chords for Akela, leader of the wolves, and Garry Shandling voices Ikki in what turned out to be his final film.

If you have a couple of extra bucks, shell out for the 3-D or, better yet, IMAX version of the movie. Favreau was very conscious of the technology, and he gives the movie some nice extra scope. Tree branches look like they are going to poke you in the face, and it almost seems as if Kaa might get you into her death coil. The 3-D also makes the pop-up-book end credits all the more fun.

It’s worth noting that the movie, which appears to be very outdoorsy, was filmed entirely on studio sets and made within computers. Every landscape you see is artificial, making the filmmaking achievement something of a miracle.

Sethi, the only live actor with a big part in the film, is good enough as Mowgli, although interest in his character’s plight is diminished by the fact that the film is so much cooler when the animals are at the center of the action.

Talks are under way for a Jungle Book 2 already, with Favreau returning, so the adventures of Mowgli look to be continued. Perhaps a main plot point could be Mowgli finding some new shorts or a bathing suit. He’s going to get a fungus in those red shorts!

Hopefully, Murray will get over his sequel stigma and be back as Baloo. And Walken … I gotta have more Walken!

The Jungle Book is playing at theaters across the valley in various formats.

Published in Reviews

Disney has delivered another animated winner with Zootopia, a cute, uplifting story with a surprising dark side. It’s the sort of movie that’ll have kids asking parents questions about some tough topics—while entertaining anyone who sits down to watch it.

Judy (Ginnifer Goodwin, in a performance worthy of the Voice Acting Hall of Fame) is a little bunny determined to be the first bunny cop on the force in Zootopia, a metropolis populated by animals. However, she faces a lot of opposition—both because she’s a bunny and a girl. Judy beats insurmountable odds, and winds up on the force, much to the chagrin Chief Bogo (Idris Elba).

The chief assigns her to traffic, of course, where she meets up with shifty fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) who is running an ingenious Popsicle scam. When some mammals come up missing, Judy finds herself on the case. She eventually enlists the help of Nick, and they seek out a missing otter.

The film is co-directed by three guys: Byron Howard (Tangled), Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph) and Jared Bush (making his feature debut!). Directing by committee certainly works in this case, as the film has a nice, unified feel while sustaining a surprising depth. Among the themes successfully tackled are sexism, racism and bunnyism.

When discussing these aspects of the film, go ahead and get bunnyism out of the way first with the kids. Here’s a potential hypothetical dinnertime conversation regarding Zootopia when a child asks if a bunny can be a cop:

“No, my dear child, a bunny can’t be on the police force,” the parent answers.

“But Mom and Dad, dogs are allowed on the police force. Why not bunnies, too?”

“Because dogs are big and strong and have heightened senses of smell that help us to find drugs and things.”

“Actually, rabbits not only have a very keen sense of smell, dear parent, but they also have those big ears which makes them really good listeners and potentially awesome detectives! Their presence on the force could provide a new level of insight and outreach for a branch of civilization often roundly criticized for its lack of empathy and compassion.”

“Shut up and eat your broccoli!”

To give away how the film approaches the topic of racism would be to give away too many aspects of the plot. There’s a good mystery at play, and it’s done in an intelligent way that will keep parents and kids guessing and engaged.

Other members of the voice cast include J.K. Simmons as Mayor Lionheart, Tommy Chong as the fly-infested Yax, Jenny Slate as Assistant Mayor Bellwether, and Shakira as Gazelle the pop star. Let it be said that Shakira’s performance of “Try Everything” is better than any movie music 2015 had to offer. Man, last year truly sucked for movie soundtracks, didn’t it?

The animation is top-notch and inventive, with cute little touches throughout. Judy’s hometown is farmland, distinguished by an Easter-pastels palette. At one point, Judy chases a thief through a rodent community, sending a bunch of mice running for cover in their little buildings as if she were Godzilla. I especially liked a moment when a train arrived in a station, and a little door opened up besides bigger doors to let out a stream of chipmunks. Freaking adorable!

Disney now has another great bunny to add to the souvenir rack at Disneyland alongside Thumper, Roger Rabbit and Rabbit from Winnie the Pooh. (I feel Rabbit from Winnie the Pooh doesn’t get the recognition he deserves.) Judy is a true winner, as is Zootopia, already a solid contender for Best Animated Film of 2016.

Take the kids knowing you might actually enjoy yourself, and appreciate the film—even if it does act as a shred grenade on your wallet, especially if you spring for 3-D. Jeez, movie-going is expensive.

Zootopia is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Gigantic alien beasts get their asses handed to them by robots that don’t turn into trucks and cars in Guillermo del Toro’s alternately exhilarating and stale Pacific Rim.

This movie is full-on crazy, often in a way that’s rather fun. This is del Toro’s first directorial project after abandoning The Hobbit—and he made a good call. I had a hard time staying awake during The Hobbit. Such was not the case here.

It’s the near future, and freaky beasts called kaiju are rising from the ocean depths and tearing cities to shreds. Do we nuke them? No. That would be too easy. Instead, we spend kazillions to build a bunch of hard-core robots that are driven by pilots melding their minds together. It makes absolutely no sense, and I don’t care—because it’s fun.

Nearly all of these battles take place in the dark, in the rain or in the ocean. Normally, I would scream “Copout!” because this is a technique used by directors to cheat a bit on the CGI. (Obviously, it’s a lot harder to create computer-generated monsters doing things in broad daylight.) Even if del Toro is cheating, it works. Having the battles go down in the dark makes them scarier.

As for the people inside the robots: Watching them throw their fists and move their legs as a means of controlling the robots results in something immersive. I felt like I was throwing punches and wielding swords; del Toro puts the viewer into the battles.

Unfortunately, some of those people are a little dull outside of their massive steel shells. Charlie Hunnam, who plays the main protagonist, Raleigh, has one of those movie-trailer voices. Every time he spoke, I thought he was going to say something like “IN A WORLD WHERE ROBOTS BEAT MONSTERS … .” He fails to distinguish himself. Rinko Kikuchi is fine as Mako Mori, a wannabe pilot with a secret past that is keeping her from her robot dreams.

Speaking of Mako Mori's past, it provides perhaps the film’s greatest moment. Del Toro takes us into her memory as she is running away from a monster on a city street. Experiencing the horror of one of the monsters from the vantage point of a child is powerful stuff; del Toro makes it an amazing sequence.

For comic relief, there’s Charlie Day as a hyperactive scientist who collects kaiju tattoos. The bespectacled Day is 2013’s answer to Rick Moranis; his presence here reminds of the nerdy Louis in Ghostbusters.

Ron Perlman gets perhaps the film’s biggest laughs as Hannibal Chau, a monster collector who sells their crap for fertilizer. Idris Elba lends his formidable presence as Stacker, leader of the robot guys and the deliverer of huge, rousing “Cancel the Apocalypse!” speeches.

When the movie isn’t dealing with robot on monster smackdowns, it’s a little boring—perhaps even tedious. Those looking for a summer blockbuster that delivers the action goods, however, won’t mind sifting through the sleepy passages to get to the good stuff.

The kaiju are great movie monsters, because they come in many incarnations. They look like everything ranging from a rhino to the devil; they spit plasma lasers that act like acid; and the bastards even fly on occasion.

Pacific Rim isn’t the all-time classic for which I was hoping, but it is good, and in a summer when many, many blockbusters have faltered, I’m glad to get one that is at least enjoyable.

Also: If you can catch it in 3-D, do so. It looks great.

Pacific Rim is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews