The Golden Compass (2007): Missing the Core Tragedy of the Book

“The Golden Compass” is trying way to hard to be “Lord of the Rings” rather than embracing the tragic fantasy of His Dark Materials that Philip Pullman created. This is a shame as the movie is still enjoyable and a lot of the casting is spot on, it just misses the point of the book it takes it’s namesake from, which keeps it from being good. Still, as a piece of cinema history it is still worth checking out.

The film was directed and written by Chris Weitz.

The story follows the orphan Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) when she leaves Jordan College in search for her kidnapped friend and the other missing children taken by a mysterious organization.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Soundtrack – Alexandre Desplat created a memorable soundtrack that captures terror and adventure when it needs to and fully captures the unique steampunk world that the film takes place in. Desplat’s talent is once again on full display here.

The Action – The action is great in this with some wonderful fight sequences from a duel between armored bears to Lyra and her allies against Mrs. Coulter and the Magisterium mercenaries who kidnapped the children.

The World – The steampunk world of the book is on full display in this film as we have blimps, guns, steamships, the Magisterium who rules and controls everything, the traveling Gyptians, the mysterious witches, a nation of armored bears and the mysterious “Dust” that connects different realities.

The Gyptians – The Gyptians are great in the film with standout performances being the motherly Ma Costa played by Clare Higgins who steals every scene she is in she is so great and Lord Faa played by Jim Carter who plays the wisened driven leader extremely well. The Gyptians as seafairers and outsiders is captured extremely well in the film.

Lorek – Ian McKellan is amazing as the armored bear seeking to regain his honor. He like Ma Costa, John Faa and Lee Scoresby is one of Lyra’s mentors and protectors and his getting revenge against the corrupt Ragnar to regain his throne is done amazingly. McKellan gives the role so much weight and strength.

Lee Scoresby – Sam Elliot is how I imagined Lee looking in the books and it looks like Philip Pullman did too. I love this reluctant cowboy hero and Elliot gives depth to the scenes he is in as he helps Lyra and Lorek in their missions. I wish we’d gotten more of his history with Lorek though.

Mrs. Coulter – Nicole Kidman is exactly how I imagined Mrs. Coulter looking and she plays the subtle threat really well. We see her love of Lyra but also her self-hatred and inability to fully love in it. She is fine with others dying but not her daughter and all she does is for her own mysterious ends. To some degree she does believe in the Magisterium and the authority though which clearly drives her actions. I wish we could have seen her in all 3 films. Kidman owns this role and we only see bits and pieces of what could have been explored as we never get her backstory.

The Magisterium Council – The council is simply evil and controlling and after power but it works mostly due to how well Derek Jacobi and Christopher Lee do as villains seeking to keep the status quo or use knowledge to their own ends. They work as baddies even if the nuance is gone. They are still believers even if it only in their own power, which makes them a good threat in the film.

Okay:

Lord Asriel – Lord Asriel like Lyra feels toned down in this. He isn’t cold like in the books and show and Daniel Craig feels wasted. When he has the chance to act he is great but besides the beginning the only other major scene with him is an action scene where he gets captured. This is a fascinating character and good actor who deserved better.

Lyra – Lyra when she is active in her story works but for a lot of this is only active as a last resort. She isn’t searching for Roger until she realizes what Mrs. Coulter is doing and she never questions. She is handed the plot on occasion (how to trick the King of the Armored Bears) and rarely feels like she is driving the plot or causing chaos. Dakota Blue Johnson still does okay but the script missed how Lyra is supposed to be an active agent in her story.

The Cons:

Missing Stories – Billy Costa’s death is left ambiguous, we never get how Lee and Lorek know each other, Serafina and Fadar Coram’s tragic past is missing and Mrs. Coulter’s tragic backstory. So much is missing and it takes away so much depth from the story.

Alethiometer / The Golden Compass – I hate how they show reading the Alethiometer. You basically get scenes shown in dust. All the mystery is gone and it plays more into the “telling” rather than “showing” problem the script and film has.

Roger – Roger is the most wooden actor and the script like Lyra forget about him. The character deserved better given how core he is to Lyra and the ending of the first book.

The Dialogue – The dialogue is all exposition and being told the plot and what to do. There is hardly any show in this film and the dialogue is the greatest example of why.

The Ending is a Lie – The ending is hopeful as Lyra is unknowingly taking Roger to his death. This should have never been cut as tragedy is a core part of the series. When I saw the scenes of what could have been I was so dissappointed in the studio for chickening out.

This is such a flawed film that could have been good or even great if it had remained faithful to the books. It shies away from the tragedy that defines the series and wastes an amazing cast because of it. I wanted to see how challenges would shape our characters as it did in the book and show but instead the film stayed safe and missed out on the amazing and tragic trilogy it chose to adapt.

Final Score: 7 / 10 Enjoyable but extremely flawed.

Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse (2021): Solid Action But Plot and Characters Needed More Work

Without Remorse is a Tom Clancy book I haven’t read yet. Based on the premise and story here I might though, especially if it develops the characters in this better than the film. This is a film where the core performances and action are solid but the script and supporting characters needed more development to make the film good. This film is enjoyable though and I do recommend it as a rental.

The film was directed by Stefano Sollima and written by Taylor Sheridan and Will Staples.

The film follows John Kelly (Michael B. Jordan) as he works to uncover a conspiracy of who is targetting him and his squad of former Navy SEALs.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Action – The action is great in this except for one sequence I’ll go into below. The tension is high and characters get hurt in fights. We also are given tight environments and situations are protagonists have to escape from. This and the squad in combat was solidly good through the film. It felt real and the action mostly mattered.

Secretary Clay – Guy Pearce plays the big bad who wants to united Americans against Russia by starting a war. He talks about how Americans are divided and that we haven’t been united since the Cold War. On paper this is good motivation but we never see this motive prior. He needed more development but was good because of Pearce’s performance.

Karen Greer – Karen Greer is John’s friend and squadmate who is looking out for him throughout the film. She has ambition but will always back him up in the end. Her helping John is what helps set the Russia mission in motion when he learns who killed his wife and unborn daughter. Jodie Turner-Smith does a great job and she’s the only memorable member of John’s squad.

John Kelly / John Clarke – Michael B. Jordan is fantastic as the ex-Navy SEAL out for revenge after a death squad kills his wife and unborn daughter. He plays the pain and rage so well as well as the focus and strength. You can see why he is leading the team and I was glad he succeeded and was able to save the rest of his squad in the mission in Russia.

The Cons:

The Rykov Reveal – Rykov says he and John are the same and that he is CIA but doesn’t elaborate. He only exists as a plot point to reveal the conspiracy when he killed John’s wife and unborn kid. He has all this setup as a villain and character and none of it is paid off in his motivations.

The Supporting Characters – Most of the characters in this are underdeveloped and flat. This applies to most of John’s squad as well as his wife and pastor. None of them get much development and the performances don’t elevate the material.

The Escape Sequence – The initial action against the snipers trying to start a war between Russia and the United States is good but when it is John against the Russian Police it goes on way too long and drags. In the end this lead to his escape feeling unbelievable and it took me out of the action.

This was an enjoyable rental that could have been more. There were interesting ideas here but the characters like Rykov, Secretary Clay and Ritter weren’t developed enough to make the film good. This film did illustrate how great Michael B. Jordan and Guy Pearce are as actors though as they did elevate this underdeveloped script to enjoyable. If you want a fun action movie this is worth a rent, just know these flaws going in.

Final Score: 7 / 10

Wolfen (1981): A Good Mystery That is Nearly Great

Amazon.com: Wolfen: Albert Finney, Gregory Hines, Tom Noonan, Dick O'Neill,  Edward James Olmos, Venora, Diane, Michael Wadleigh: Movies & TV

“Wolfen” is a film that has so much that I like. This is a noir and the mystery is compelling and we even have some good characters. Sadly it does kind of fall apart in the end, which is the only thing from keeping it from being great.

The film was directed by Michael Wadleigh who he co-wrote with David M. Eyre Jr. and Eric Roth and based on the book of the same name by Whitley Strieber.

The story follows Detective Dewey Wilson when he is pulled out of retirement to investigate a series of mysterious murders.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Mystery – The mystery is setup really well as we immediately have international terrorism as suspect given how rich the original murder was and all his global actions. This provides a nice contrast as the supernatural element is introduced and explored.

Whittington – Whittington is the best character in this film. He is played by Gregory Hines and is the heart of the film to the apathy and damage of Dewey. He is the Coroner and Dewey’s closest friend. Sadly he does not survive as when they have found the suspected lair of the killers he is killed in the process.

Rebecca and Intelligence – Rebecca Neff gives us the intelligence side of the story as she is a psychologist who does criminal profiling. She is a great character and I like her interviews. The only thing that didn’t completely work was her romance with Dewey.

Eddie and the Premise – Eddie is a Native American who introduces the supernatural element of the film as he speaks about the land stolen and the survivorship that comes out of it. This should have been explored further but he calls out Dewey’s ignorance and introduces the Wolfen to us as an idea. Olmos also carries every scene he is in.

The Cons:

The One-Dimensional Bosses – Dewey’s boss, Van der Veer and anyone else in a place of authority isn’t fully realized. They just kind of exist to react to the plot and even as potential antagonists are weak. So much more could have been done given the slums they played a part in destroying.

Ending Falls Apart – Wolfen, surviving wolf spirits show up and almost kill our heroes after killing their boss. They decide not to when Dewey destroys the development that is destroying their hunting grounds and home. After this these spirit wolves leave. This didn’t work for me as they hunted and killed their advocate the zoologist and them suddenly having this kind of intelligence versus the wolf pelt in the room with the people they were hunting didn’t make sense. Besides this, it is a good film though. I’m curious if the book is better and may check it out to compare the two.

Dewey feels more like an audience surrogate or author insert than a character. This is fine for showing us the mystery of the film but he never felt fully realized. He has moments of defining but they don’t define the film. It is the story that stands strong up to a point outside of him, and that is why I didn’t know where to place him. He isn’t bad but the reasons to see this film are the exploration of the different parts of the mystery that with better development could have made this film great.

Final Score: 8.4 / 10

Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013): A Fascinating Exploration of a Mad Project

Jodorowsky's Dune (2013) - IMDb

    I really should watch some Alejandro Jodorowsky’s other films. Watching this documentary gave me an appreciation for the voice he tries to bring to cinema. This documentary is amazing in how many people it brings together and how driven Jodorowsky was to make it exactly as he saw it in his mind. For this reason alone I’d recommend the documentary as well as showing the process of production and bringing a film together.

Frank Pavich was the director behind this documentary.

The story follows the production of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “Dune” and what went into this film that was never made.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Soundtrack – Kurt Stenzel’s electronic soundtrack is beautiful and does a fantastic job of catching the ideas that played into Jodorowsky’s adaptation and ideas. I plan to check out some more of his stuff after this as the soundtrack was amazing.

Recruiting for the Project – Jodorowsky had grand ideas on who he wanted to be part of his production and no person, no matter how illusive or popular they were. It made for some fascinating stories that I’ll explore below.

Pink Floyd – Pink Floyd’s recruitment to the music for the House Atreides is a fun one. Jodorowsky shows up and the band is annoyed as they are eating hamburgers but when he proclaims they’ll be part of something that could change the world they get on board. It is was a short but fun story.

Orson Welles – Jodoroswky recruits Orson Welles to play Baron Harkonnen by finding his favorite restaurant in France, paying for his favorite wine and telling him he will buy this restaurant so he can eat there everyday. This is enough to convince Orson Welles after he initially expresses his disinterest in the project.

Salvador Dali – This film does a great job capturing the mystery of Salvador Dali. Jodorowsky courted him all over Europe with mysterious meetings at bars and locations and even after Dali signed on he wanted to be anarchy upon it to the point that he’d only do it for $100,000 an hour to act in the film. The compromise would they’d only film him for a few minutes and make a caste of his head to be the rest, which Dali was okay with if he could keep the caste in his museum after the film.

The Art -There are quite a few amazing artists who were brought into the project. We had H.R. Giger designing the Harkonnens and their castle, there was Chris Foss and Gene Giraud whose art was so beautiful and fantastic that I plan on reading up on their work later. Some of their art and the ideas of “Dune” also lived on in graphic novels that Jodorowsky did that I plan on checking out too.

The Legacy of this “Dune” – Dune was going to be 14 hours long and after every studio rejected it, bringing up times that would have been a lot lesser Jodorowsky eventually lost the rights to make it. Due to all the great minds brought on board though you could see the ideas and art live on in other franchises like “Terminator,” “Alien,” “Flash Gordon” and “Fifth Element.”

Alejandro Jodorowsky – Jodorowsky is the one constant in the making of his vision. We see people brought on board but it is always within the context of what he sees in his mind. His entire life became the project and you can see it in how he talks about what he envisions his “Dune” to be. This documentary explores that dream through his eyes and it is one of the strongest parts of the documentary.

The Cons:

Alejandro Jodorowsky – Alejandro Jodorowsky is the pro and also the con of this documentary. His vision is fascinating and he brings in so many talented people. He also cares little for sharing the stories of women or their part in “Dune” and he treats those he recruits and even his family as assets to his larger vision. Basically his ego which defines the story is also the biggest part of what brings down the very story being told.

The Lack of Women’s Stories – In this documentary the voices of women are barely in it. The only person who is a part of the show is has “Salvador Dali’s Muse” as her label and the casting of Jessica, easily one of the most important characters in “Dune” isn’t even discussed or part of the documentary.

People as Assets – Jodorowsky throughout the documentary at times seemed disconnected from the people he was recruiting or were already a part of him. They felt like assets he was using many times versus people with their own stories, especially in how Dali and Welles were framed. They were needed but their stories beyond recruitment were never explored further.

This was a fascinating and mad project given everything Jodorowsky wanted to do. This was very much ego and ambition being greater than reality but I’m grateful that so many of the ideas still lived on. This film explores the power and legacy that carries on in powerful art and I can’t wait to read the graphic novels that came out this project and check out more of the art of the amazing artists who were a part of this project.

Final Score: 9 / 10 I wish we could have seen some version of this “Dune” brought to the screen. It is one of my favorite books and the richness of the universe gives so much room for adaptation.

1922 (2017): The Price of Toxic Entitlement

Netflix is the streaming service that is master of the great original shows and the okay to good movies. I have never seen a great movie on Netflix and this good film is a shining of example of a problem I see running through their films, and why they don’t reach that final point that I’ve seen come out of studio films. I’ll get into what I mean later on, as we continue Horror Week with “1922” a film adapted from a Stephen King book of the same name.

The film was written and directed by Zak Hilditch and produced by Ross M. Dinerstein and adapted from the Stephen King book of the same name.

The story involves a farmer named Wilfred (Thomas Jane) who plans to murder his wife in order to own the land and to do it with the help of his teenage son.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The Cinematography – This is a beautiful film. Visually it feels like you are inside a dark storybook and the visuals of the ghosts, especially his wife and later his son is haunting. There is great use of the shadows and light to imply danger and I couldn’t look away while watching. It is easily the best looking Netflix film I’ve watched. 

The Cost of Toxic Privilege – This is a film that tackles toxic privilege, specifically in regards to males and masculinity. We see this in how he cares nothing for his wife and her interests and how he immediately plans to kill her when she is moving on and planning to sell the land and move to the city. He gets his son in on it too as his son fears moving away from the girl he’s dating. In both cases both his son and Wilfred get what they want through violence and control. Wilfred kills his wife and his son is robbing stores around the state to take in order to keep being the the neighbor girl. They never see past themselves and no one questions his wife’s disappearance because a wife in the 1920s, “Is a man’s business.” You don’t question the husband. This is toxic privilege and male entitlement and it is the demon that leads to his Wilfred’s end.

The Tragedy of the James Family – The main arc of the story is how Wilfred’s act ruins the family. In killing his wife his son loses his guide and impregnates the neighbor girl who is 14 like him. Together they run away and he becomes a crook before finally dying as all this time his wife’s ghost haunts him and forces him to confess after he losing everything he loves. The act of selfishness and murder based on something as stupid as land are Wilfred’s undoing.

Okay: Wilfred James’s Motivation – Wilfred was a small time farmer and Thomas Jane portrays his “man of the land” mentality beautifully. The problem is I felt like the jump to killing his wife felt so contrived. I get that entitlement, greed and privilege were major motivators of the act but the steps it took him to get there didn’t feel concrete. We needed to see more of their relationship falling apart before he begins justifying what he plans to do.

The Cons: The Character Arc of the Son Henry – His son loves the neighbor girl, he is worried about losing her so he helps his father kill his mother…I know 14 is a stupid age but I never believed his motivation. The fact that the actor isn’t very good doesn’t help. He was easily the weakest part of the story and film.

Most Netflix films are very clear in their themes, have small casts and look great visually. These are all reasons that I appreciate this streaming service as I haven’t ran into too many outright terrible films to come out of Netflix. They also never reach that higher place, often because they fail to develop the motivations of their characters to the fullest degree. “1922” has an amazing cast but I could not tell you fully what the motivation of the son and father was behind the murder. I know what I was told, but it wasn’t explored enough to fully make the impact it should have had. If you like Stephen King, you will probably enjoy this film as I did, just know it could have been more.

Final Score: 8.2 / 10

Blade Runner (1982): A Beautiful Sci. Fi. Meditative Exploration of Justice and Identity

   “Blade Runner” is one of my favorite science fiction films of all time. It is also a film I had not seen for years until I saw that “Blade Runner 2049” was coming out. The last version I saw before this was “The Extended Cut” and in the future I plan on doing a comparison of all the different versions, but for purposes of this review, I’m just sticking with the original Theatrical Release. “Blade Runner” is a film that brings so much depth through ambiguity, it doesn’t tell you what to think or to believe but from character actions we can infer greater meanings and truth. This is where the film thrives and what I’ll be analyzing more fully in my review, as the larger ideas aren’t spelled out, they hinted at and let you put the pieces together.

The film was directed by Ridley Scott, written by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples and produced by Michael Deeley. The story is based off of the Philip K. Dick book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Dick is an author whose books have been adapted into many of my favorite sci. fi. films.

The story takes place in a futuristic dystopic 2019 where the Tyrell Corporation has invented Replicants as slave labor to do dangerous jobs or the populace and government. They were given a short life span and for those that manage to escape, police known as Blade Runners hunt them down and “retire” them. This story picks up with four escaping to Earth and their attempts to infiltrate Tyrell Corp. as Deckard, a Blade Runner, hunts them down.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The Universe – The Universe is easily the richest part of it all. This is a version of Earth that could happen. We have a crowded, dirty city full of adds and neon lights where the rich live above the sky and the poor live stacked on top of one another. This is also a world of indifference as watching a replicant get killed means nothing to the everyday people, just like what we see today with how people react to shootings and usually find it justified when an authority figure of some sort (police, military, etc.) is the one doing it.

The Replicants – The replicants who escape are the best part of this film. Whether it is Zhora just trying to live her life as a dancer and isn’t involved in the plots of the other 3. Leon and his desire for justice, especially after Deckard kills Zhora, Pris and curiosity and fun nature and Roy with his desire to understand and to live, a character who wants justice and to be fixed since he was made a slave and made to die. They were the best part of this film and I would’ve have watched a full length film about any of the 4. They were complex and weren’t bad beings, they were seeking freedom and justice in a world that only saw them as monsters and treated them as slaves…and they found meaning beyond that. They were so much more than how others saw them.

Human or Replicant Ambiguity in Deckard – One of the running themes of the film is what makes a person human and Deckard is used as that base, as many times it is hinted that he might be a replicant hunting his own people…as Rachel asks if he’s ever done the test and his avoidance of it shows there is more going on with him. The fact that Rachel is able to fool the Replicant test is a good example of this too and how Deckard could have been designed simply to kill. This ambiguity lends power to the narrative at it humanizes all of those in the world and shows just how unjust what Deckard does is.

Memories and Identity – Another theme that is explored is that of memories as they relate to identity. We see this when Leon is asked about his mother in the opening scene, as he knows he’s a replicant and the memory he’s been given is false and Rachel who believes her memories to be real and shares those memories as a way of getting to know Deckard. Even after she knows they are a lie they still shape her and how she relates to others, unlike Leon who’s actions come from knowing the lie and reacting to the present.

The Means of Justice – There are a few ways that justice happens in the film. Whether it is the Blade Runner Gaff, played by Edward James Olmos giving time for Deckard and Rachel to escape, or the killing of Tyrell by Roy. Tyrell didn’t care about his creations and upheld the system where they would be hunted down. Roy killing him is around the time that he finally finds freedom in what time he has left to live.

The Cons: Deckard, Rachel and Consent – The one con that keeps this film from being perfect is the scene after Rachel saves Deckard from Leon. She is troubled, doesn’t know who she is and Deckard just forces himself on her. If it isn’t rape it is the same kind of evil. I wanted Roy to kill Deckard after this as even though I think it showed that Deckard didn’t see Rachel as a person yet, it is never called out in that way and can only be inferred. Deckard never faces any consequences from Rachel from it and they still fall in love. I hated this scene and it is the one thing that keeps this film from perfection.

“Blade Runner” is a film that has had a lasting legacy and far reaching legacy on science fiction. It helped bring about some of my favorite shows like the new “Battlestar Galactica” as replicants and cylons are pretty similar, the dirty advanced sci. fi. futures of “Cowboy Bebop” and “Ghost in the Shell,” and countless other works that explore self, personhood and greater themes. I’ll be exploring “Blade Runner 2049” after this but I wanted to go back to this classic first. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. This film is a work of genius and if you are a fan of sci. fi. you will most likely enjoy this film as much as I did.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10

 

The Dark Tower (2017): They Should Have Just Adapted the First Book

    It is possible to have a good or even great adaptation of a book or book series. This sadly is not one of them. I haven’t been this bored and dissapointed in a film since “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” as that film as well had so much potential and so much amazing source material it was pulling from, only to end up on a list of films that I can’t stand and will offer ways to fix later (much like how I approached “Twilight”).

I have a bias (I loved the first book and am reading the rest of the series currently), but like I said before in regards to adaptations…it is possible to make a great adaptation of source material…”Atonement” succeeded, Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” succeeded and countless others. This one does not and for the non-spoiler reasons why, it had a bland protagonist, the world is boring and we aren’t given a chance to really know the leads, so even great performances by Elba and McConaughey can’t save the poorly written characters they are given. I’ll elaborate on my points further down in the review, suffice to say, save your money and go see something better.

“The Dark Tower” was directed by Nicolej Arcel who co-wrote it with a committee (4 writers wrote this script – Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinker, Anders Thomas Jensen and of Arcel himself).

The story follows Jake (Tom Taylor), a psychic boy who dreams about the Gunslinger (Idris Elba) and the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) who seeks to tear down the Dark Tower and bring hell upon all worlds.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The Main Leads – The best part of this film is Idris Elba as the Gunslinger Roland and Matthew McConaughey as the Man in Black Walter. Now the characters don’t have the complexity that they have in the first book, there isn’t the weight or history behind their actions and we never really know it. The story is from Jake’s perspective and that was the biggest mistakes this film could have made. Our leads are wonderful at working with what they are given, Elba is hardened and distant and McConaughey has a lot of fun hamming it up as the villain. He’s wonderfully sly and oily and it works well when he is on screen. Sadly they are trapped in a dull universe where neither character feels fully realized.

The Cons: Presentation of the World – The world is presented through our protagonists Jake’s eyes. He sees the Gunslinger’s dimension and the Man in Black in dreams before they finally arrive into his life when he is running from the Man in Black’s minions who want to use him as a weapon to bring down the Dark Tower. The special effects aren’t all that good and we hardly spend anytime in the Gunslinger’s post-apocalyptic world and instead spend most of it in our New York. Given how rich the Gunslinger’s world is and all the stories in it, this was a mistake. There is nothing special about New York in this beyond it having ways to dimension hop between worlds.

In the first book we only follow the Gunslinger and we get to know Roland’s past and how he lost everything as well as how his following the Man in Black has lead to him losing so many others, and that to defeat the Man in Black he’ll have to give up everything again. The book is a powerful story of loss and the Man in Black is more a subtle agent of chaos (resurrecting the dead, giving people riddles to drive them mad) and sadly you don’t get any of that in this. This world isn’t even apparent in this film, the only thing from the first book that is in any way similar is the wasteland being largely empty…but the mutants and mad people who make up the landscape are nowhere to be found in this film. Seriously, they should have adapted the first book and it could have been at least good. There is more than enough material to make it happen.

The Protagonist – Jake is such a worthless protagonist. Sadly the actor can’t act and his cliched family life is really uninteresting. His dad died and him mom got into another relationship but by the time the supernatural catches up with her Jake has moved on and adopted the Gunslinger as his new parent. I don’t remember him ever caring about her being at risk or what happened to her after the Man in Black is defeated. Apparently the writers couldn’t even care enough about their main character to care about mattered to him. Having a young protagonist is hard to do, “Harry Potter” pulled it off but it is one of the few stories outside of “Stranger Things” that has well written kids who drive the story. The protagonist should have been Roland the Gunslinger like in the first book. What a waste of a main character.

Story Structure – We get flashbacks through Jake’s dreams and after that is him running from the Man in Black and his forces through the film before the Gunslinger has to rescue him and after the story ends when he is saved. It is simple but surprisingly incoherent, thanks largely to how the dreams are interspersed through the story. This hurt any chance we had to care about any of the characters which is in the end the biggest reason why this film fails. We are never given a reason to care about anyone in this film.

As you can tell I didn’t enjoy this film. This is film I plan to come back to in the future and in it go over ways that could have saved this film and made it at least good…Just like what I plan to do with “Batman v Superman” when I eventually suffer through a re-watch. The actors in this deserved a so much better script as they are good with what little they are given, but good actors can’t save a poorly told story, and at the end of the day that is exactly what this is. Unless you want to do a hate-watch, don’t check out this film.

Final Score: 4 / 10.  2 points for Elba and 2 points for McConaughey.

 

The Circle (2017): Just Watch “Black Mirror” Instead

      “The Circle” is an unfocused mess full of hack characters and no discernible theme. I hear the book is good so just read the book. I’ll go into why I went from disliking to hating this film in a moment because there is quite a lot to unload on this film, but the biggest parts are that lack of theme, half-formed characters and with all of that, failure to go full ham. If you are going to be cheesy you should bank on it and in doing so create your own form of malformed beauty.

  The film was directed by James Ponsoldt who was also one of the producers, written by Dave Eggers who also wrote the book and produced by Anthony Bregman and Gary Goetzman.

    The story involves Mae (Emma Watson) getting a job at The Circle (A facebookish tech. company) thanks to her friend Annie (Karen Gillan). She soon finds it is not the paradise it seems to be when the public sharing among the circle and constant call for interaction begins to unfold leading to dark consequences.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The Concept – The concept is a lot like a “Black Mirror” episode. What happens when social media becomes a society and you are under pressure to reveal your life and what you are doing at all times? I like this concept but this isn’t the focus or the theme of the film, even though the trailers seem to set it up that way.

The Cinematography – The cinematography looks great, there are great uses of shadow and holograms to really illustrate the future. You can tell the director put a lot of love into this film…

The Cons: Hack Characters – Dave Eggars wrote the book, but apparently can’t write screenplays. None of these characters feel fully fleshed out. Mae the main character is almost set up to have a rise to power only to become a reformer…but the reasons with that don’t feel all that explored.

   She has an off the grid ex who is the “hero” of the film, which in turn shuts down her becoming a professional within her own life. He also gets harassed for his antler art? What the hell. He is a paranoid guy in the woods whose paranoia ends up being justified but we never get to know him. He is an idealized version of the off the grid blue collar hero. What the ever living hell…He’s not a character and they turn him into a martyr when people stalk him on a new program and he drives off a bridge. We are told they do things together or did things together, but we never see it. It is all tell and now show. Again, he’s an idea not a character.

Her best friend Annie is rising in the company and disappears. I wanted to see her rise and fall arc. But she is barely around…Same Ty Lafitte…John Boyega’s character who is fighting the Circle and invented another giant tech. media company…and finally Hanks’s Eamon, one of the founders whose agenda is never known and who is only around as a vague threat. These aren’t characters, these are concepts in a terrible script.

Social Media and Tech. Paranoia – We are told to fear tech. (her parents telling her not to trust the Circle and her ex being off the Grid) and we see how it turns her and Annie into monsters at times…but that is also contradicted with the ending. This is a vague theme that exists but doesn’t go anywhere and is never fully explored.

A Missed Corruption Arc – This is a hackneyed script in a hammy story…so knowing this, they should have just made Mae a villain. Her life is public, make her a Trump figure who can lampoon people she talks too and win by being horrible…since we see her do this a few times till “noble” ex gets the axe. I wanted her to take out the owners and gain control of the company. That would have made this film a beautiful disaster that is “So bad it’s good.” Sadly this potential is missed. They should have embraced tech and information as power that corrupts…what a waste.

Lack of any Theme – There is no core theme. There is a vague sense of distrusting smart phones and social media…but Mae makes everything public in the end to take out The Circle’s founders. So, what was the ever living point of this film? If you don’t have a purpose, why were you made? The sad thing is the author of the book was the screenwriter…A writer should know the themes they intend to explore.

  I don’t recommend this garbage. This was a film that could have been “So Bad it’s Good,” if it had been comfortable in tech. and information as corrupting influences of power theme, or it could have gone full revolution and had Boyega, Gillan and Watson team up early to take on the Founders. That’d be asking too much of this film though. This is a film that doesn’t know what it wants and doesn’t have any real characters, jut half formed ideas in a broken mess. Seriously, save your money and watch “Black Mirror,” you’ll get well focused themes of technology fears that have a clear focus in theme and character. This film is one of the worst I’ve watched in quite some time.

Final Score: 3 / 10

“A Series of Unfortunate Events” Season 1 – A Good Adaptation and What Should Have Been Done in the First Place

series-unfortunate-events-2017-poster-netflix

     Netflix continues to create gold and we finally get the adaptation of this series we’ve been waiting for since “The End.” “A Series of Unfortunate Events” by Lemony Snicket was one of my favorite books growing up. I read it through Middle School and High School and truly enjoyed how it never pretended to have a happy ending while being a brilliant satire of society and how easily it is that people are selfish or allow their flaws to overcome their better natures or ignorance. I won’t give anymore away but you truly should read the series, it is a fast read and brilliant Gothic Fiction.

      How the show does it is it breaks the books in to two episodes so I’m going to review each Book and give the final score based on how each of the individual books stood all together when their scores are measured against one another.

      This series was created by Mark Hudis and Barry Sonnenfield. I’m surprised this came through given the flop that was the original film, but I’m grateful it did.

     The premise is the Baudelaire orphans Violet, Klaus and Sunny are given to Count Olaf, an evil actor who wants to steal their fortune and will go to any means to do so after their parents are killed in a horrible fire.

SPOILERS ahead

the-bad-beginning

Book 1 – The Bad Beginning

  The first 2 parts feel just like the book. The dark tone is fully captured, you have the ally in the Judge played by Joan Cusack and we are introduced to Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris) and his troup and Patrick Warburton’s Lemony Snicket. The story is the darkest of the four this season except maybe “The Miserable Mill.” This is how these stories should be and solid acting on the part of the child stars who play the Baudelaires make this a solid episode as like in the book each of them have their chance to shine with Violet inventing, Klause’s knowledge saving her from having to marry Count Olaf. The only confusing bit are the bits with the Quigley Parents who early on seem to be implied to be the Baudelaire parents and nothing is done to show the audience this isn’t the case.

Final Score: 8 / 10 Solidly good. True to the book and doesn’t drag.

the-reptile-room

Book 2 – The Reptile Room

   Aasif Mandvi is wonderful as Uncle Monty, and this is the first episode the really incorporate the Spy World in. The first story doesn’t but this one makes it relevant and gives us pieces for the Baudelaire’s to put together the mystery…be it from the connection to Peru, Monty’s spyglass and his connection to their parents. Olaf is threatening in this when he has his full squad and for the fact that he kills Uncle Monty, but sometimes the comedy is played a bit too hard and that keeps it from being a perfect episode as it makes the tone of the episode a little all over the place when Olaf and his troupe are in play. Olaf’s character of Stephano is pretty weak too and didn’t feel inhabited at all. The purposeful bad acting really came out in this character.

Final Score: 9 / 10

the-wide-window

Book 3 – The Wide Window

   “The Wide Window” is the story that drags the most, both in comparison to these four stories and in the show as well. Aunt Josephine is never given the chance to do much, though Alfre Woodward is a favorite actress (Mariah from “Luke Cage”) so it is a shame the adaptation didn’t do more with her character. She introduces the Baudelaire’s to code like in the books and like the books is overwhelmed by fear. Count Olaf’s Captain Sham is fantastic and the threat and charm of his character never goes away (unlike the zero of both that were in Stephano). He is the strongest part of this episode besides the Baudelaire’s taking their agency into their own hands and seeking to solve the riddles as well as running away from Poe at the end so they can learn what happened to their parents and how they connect to Lucky-Smells Lumber Mill.

Final Score: 7 / 10 Neil Patrick Harris carries this episode.

the-miserable-mill

Book 4 – The Miserable Mill

      Up to this point, Shirley is the most threatening character of Count Olaf’s, largely because he has help from Dr. Orwell (Catherine O’Hara) who controls the workers by hypnotizing them. This creates an aura of threat around the mill as all of them are prisoners and Count Olaf is friends with the one with all the power and Klaus being controlled by Orwell and Olaf. Sir is just greedy and only cares about money and lets the corruption occur as he profits from the control of his workers and the Baudelaires. Thankfully he is chased away by his workers when the hypnotic trance is broken, which gives his partner Charles to give the children the article that shows that their parents saved the Mill and the town from being entirely burned down. This was the darkest episode besides the first story and returns to that same charm. I really enjoyed Count Olaf’s Shirley as a character too, as well as Count Olaf’s jealousy of Orwell for succeeding in villainy while he is still only striving to fully succeed. This is where we see the Parents reveal of them not being the Baudelaire’s or in the same time and place showing that all our heroes have to count on, is one another. This is where the Baudelaire’s courage finally pays off and luckily the next season sets up them meeting allies at the boarding school that Mr. Poe leaves them at at the end.

Final Score: 9 / 10

     This is a series that should have never been done as a film. There is far too much material to cover and it is hard to slim it down while still honoring the source material. The original film did not and though I liked some things about it, it was not like this. This is a perfect adaptation and the only flaws it has are those that exist in the source material itself. Excited for Season 2 and am looking forward to “The Penultimate Peril” and “The End,” as this is one of those series that has one of the endings I was greatly impressed with growing up. Lemony Snicket giving us his thoughts as narrator is powerful too and Warburton gives us a powerful, comedic and somber performance through the narrative. The side characters were cast extremely well as are the three actors who play the orphans. The only thing that really brings the series down is the tone sometimes has extreme shifts and the source material really didn’t give us much to go off originally and this is true to that source material so is bound by those same limitations. We get tiny answers but most of it is mystery and grey….which has potential depending on how they handle the mystery and reveals. Suffice to say, I highly recommend this series to any lover of the books as I am or if you are just looking for another amazing Netflix series.

Final Score: 8.6 / 10

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971): An Amazing Celebration of Magic, Childhood and Madness

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory poster

“Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” is a well deserved for a reason. I completely understand that when I did poll on which film to honor Gene Wilder should be reviewed that this was the one that won out. This film that really displays how brilliant, talented and creative Gene Wilder could be and why the world lost on of our greats. I can’t wait to continue going through his filmography and learning more about the history of this fascinating and talented man.

     The film was directed by Mel Stuart, written by Roald Dahl (who also wrote the book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory the film is based on) with help from David Seltzer and produced by Stan Margulies and David L. Wolper.

         The story involves Charlie (Peter Ostrum) finding a golden ticket and winning entrance into the magical Chocolate Factory of Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder) with four other children. Things are not as they appear though, as both Wonka and the factory are full of unpredictability and danger.

The Pros: The World – The world is one full of magic that is close to ours but manages to satire ours through exaggeration. It is imagination and possibility and I can’t wait to read the book that inspired it all.

The Writing – Dahl’s writing is brilliant. He is one of my favorite authors and he did a great job making this screenplay. He knew his characters and how to adapt them and his world screen as he worked within the limitations given and in the process created a rich story full of drama and humor.

Snapshots of Humor – A psychologist trying to use a person’s delusions to find a golden ticket, a dictator in Paraguay, the homes of each of our children that aren’t Charlie…each of these is a snapshot of some sort of corruption that in using the golden ticket as the focal point provide a wonderful satire of the different forms of corruption.

The Comedy – The comedy is brilliant! Dahl’s dry humor and satire combined with Wilder’s wit, sarcasm and energy made this film most memorable as both a drama and a comedy.

The Oompa-Loompas – The Oompa-Loompas are refugees who work at the factory. They are fascinating as we see those who lost everything teach those who materially have everything. These guys are brilliant and I really like their songs and designs. The orange face and stark colors live in the popular culture now on what an Oompa-Loompa is.

Willy Wonka – Gene Wilder owns this role. Wonka is a man who you never know if he’s telling the truth or not. He comes in limping and after walks fine, and this was done by Wilder himself to make the audience question everything Wonka does. Wonka than proceeds to let peoples’ vices destroy themselves and he doesn’t care at all except to mock. This is a man who sees himself above it all and is living in his world of madness and imagination…yet he has a good heart, he rewards Charlie for doing the right thing and it is in his relationship to Charlie we see the compassionate core underneath the lies, sarcasm and trickery. He is easily one of my favorite characters in fiction and Wilder made the character larger than life and the best part of this film.

The Take on Vices – Each of the 4 kids are different vices. Violet is spite, Mike is anger, Veruca is greed and Augustus is gluttony. At different points Charlie experiences each vice but grows beyond them by choosing compassion and courage in the end, something they all lacked and each them is destroyed by their vice in turn in the Karmatic place of the Chocolate Factory.

The Good and the Bad in People and Children – Children are celebrated in this, but they aren’t idealized. 4 of the kids are little monsters and even Charlie can be a brat sometimes. Dahl was honest about what it means to be a child and it is in this work we see how they grow and that actions have consequences that will hopefully help the kids stuck in a bad place in their actions, to grow up.

Celebrating Creativity and Invention – The core of the story is a celebration of madness and creativity. Wonka’s world is pure imagination and what he is seeking is an heir with that same madness who can see the bigger picture.

Okay/Pro: The Music – The music is memorable and good but not great. I’d never seek out this music to listen to it on my own…it works for the film though with “Pure Imagination” being the best and most memorable song in the soundtrack.

Charlie – Charlie is flawed and it makes him human. All the other children and their parents are terrible, while Charlie in looking out for his family can become like the other kids too. Charlie is greedy or angry sometimes and that’s okay. It makes the good choices he makes all the better.

Grandpa Joe – I liked Grandpa Joe but since we never learn why he became bedridden it takes away from part of what drives him to get out of bed. I like how he is a mentor and father figure to Charlie though and that he calls out Wonka for not giving them the prize at the end as promised. He’s a stand up guy.

The Other Kids and Their Parents – The other kids are alright. Augustus is forgettable as his mother but the Teevee’s have an energy about them and the Salt’s are great representations of greed, while Violet and her huckster father are entertaining in their own way. I’m not putting them as a pro though since they aren’t complex. They are interesting but lack major complexity.

Okay: Pacing – The pacing is a little all over the place at times, with the scene where Charlie and Granpa Joe take the Fizz drink as the best example. Wonka and the group just go away when before every mistake that the kids make is recognized by the group as Wonka shames their for their vice. This is the only time where he holds off on shaming until after the tour is completed.

The Cons: Certain Songs – Certain songs go on a little too long or mess with the tone a little bit. “Cheer up Charlie” definitely goes on too long as does Veruca’s song. This is made up for the fact that musical isn’t terrible but I’d only describe music as memorable and good, but not great.

     There was so much that worked in this film and managed to push it up from good to great. The greatest credit goes to Wilder with his chaotic take on Wonka whose performance was full of anger, empathy, compassion and madness. There is a reason the film is called “Willy Wonka & and the Chocolate Factory” and not Charlie. Charlie maybe the main character but the action and drama all relates to the antics and choices that Wonka makes and the gambit he puts into play to find his heir.I can’t wait to read Dahl’s original book. Dahl having power over turning his book into film was masterfully done by the studio and with Wilder’s performance and Stuart’s direction a masterpiece of art that celebrates the very nature of art and creativity was born. The three men have all passed on now but their vision, their metaphorical Chocolate Factory lives on in the lives they touched and the art they created. R.I.P. Stuart, Dahl and so recently now…Wilder. To remembering the dreamers and the dreams they made.

Final Score: 9.4 / 10