DUNKIRK (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 46 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense War Experience and some Language

Directed by: Christopher Nolan

Written by: Christopher Nolan

Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance & Tom Hardy

Christopher Nolan is easily one of the best filmmakers working today and he seems to be constantly moving through different genres. Besides knocking viewers’ socks off with non-linear thrillers (MEMENTO, THE PRESTIGE), Nolan also crafted arguably the best superhero trilogy ever (THE DARK KNIGHT) and made an effort to play with heady science fiction (INCEPTION, INTERSTELLAR). Nolan’s latest film is a World War II drama that’s crafted in an experimental way, but throws the viewer on an intense ride. DUNKIRK hardly wastes a moment of its fast-paced running time or its three interwoven narratives (land, sea, and air). In my usual format of anthology reviews, I’ll be covering each of these three narratives on their own merits and then grading the film as a whole…

THE MOLE (One Week): The first narrative takes place over the course of a week and follows young British soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) as he attempts to escape from the beaches of Dunkirk. As the situation grows grimmer with each passing second, Tommy finds himself trying to escape through desperate measures that threaten to strip him and his fellow soldiers of their humanity. This narrative is easily DUNKIRK’s most powerful storyline. The dialogue is kept to a surprising minimum as Nolan lets the sheer intensity of hopeless situations combined with believable visuals, powerful non-spoken acting, and Hans Zimmer’s score speak for itself. This storyline also has something to say about the disconnect that comes from two differing perspectives (e.g. one soldier’s reaction to a blind guy handing out blankets at a pier). A+

THE SEA (One Day): The second narrative follows elderly citizen Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his teenage son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and their young hand George (Barry Keoghan) as they take their recreational sail boat to the beaches of Dunkirk to rescue stranded soldiers. This storyline really showcased how everyday heroism and good deeds can make a huge difference in the grand scheme of things. Rylance’s performance is especially powerful as he faces severe emotional stress from escalating situations and difficulties onboard his boat, while Cillian Murphy shows up as a shell-shocked soldier. This narrative also intersects with the Land and Air plotlines in cool ways, ala a more serious WWII version of PULP FICTION. A

THE AIR (One Hour): While I truly admire what Nolan did with his land and sea storylines, DUNKIRK seems somewhat lacking in its third plotline. Taking place over the course of a single hour, we follow three Spitfire pilots (mainly Tom Hardy) as they attempt to thwart enemy planes from bombarding rescue boats and ships. This plotline starts off intense as we get high-altitude combat and (literal) high stakes. Tom Hardy does a phenomenal job in his role, especially because he’s acting purely through his eyes when he wears the flight mask and goggles. However, this storyline seems a bit too simple and nothing too remarkable occurs by its climax. Especially when compared to the DUNKIRK’s other two narratives, this third storyline is a slight step down in quality. B

DUNKIRK weaves its three narratives across each other in a similar fashion to the Wachowski siblings’ CLOUD ATLAS. This makes for a piece of interesting experimental filmmaking combined with a very intense WWII drama. Don’t expect deep character development or set-up as Nolan immediately thrusts you into the action of the three plotlines, but somehow makes it gripping from the first frame of each narrative. Though one of the narratives is considerably weaker and less impactful than its two counterparts, DUNKIRK is a war epic that’s well worth watching and serves as a nice return to stellar quality for Nolan after his good-but-not-great INTERSTELLAR.

Grade: A-

ATOMIC BLONDE (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Sequences of Strong Violence, Language throughout, and some Sexuality/Nudity

Directed by: David Leitch

Written by: Kurt Johnstad

(based on the graphic novel THE COLDEST CITY by Antony Johnston & Sam Hart)

Starring: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Til Schweiger, Eddie Marsan, Sofia Boutella, Toby Jones & Bill Skarsgard

In MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, Charlize Theron proved that she could be a bad-ass action star. In stylish spy thriller ATOMIC BLONDE, an adaptation of the graphic novel THE COLDEST CITY, Theron steps away from the sidelines and into the main role. Many reviews and a lot of early word-of-mouth have called this flick a “female JOHN WICK” and that’s quite a poor comparison. If you’re expecting gun-fu from start to finish with ridiculous high stakes, you may find yourself occasionally bored by ATOMIC BLONDE. However, it will likely blow away folks who enjoy unpredictable, adrenaline-pumping espionage thrillers that are packed with action, sex, and a killer soundtrack of well-chosen 80s hits. ATOMIC BLONDE is pretty friggin’ great in those respects and lands as one of 2017’s best action films so far.

After an MI6 agent is killed in Berlin and “The List” of secret agents winds up missing, Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is assigned to recover “The List” and assassinate a mysterious traitor known as Satchel. Once in Berlin, Lorraine immediately finds herself immediately beset by murderous KGB agents, a French lesbian spy (Sofia Boutella), an eccentric contact (James McAvoy), and a politically turbulent climate (during the final days of the Berlin Wall). As Lorraine investigates her fellow spy’s murder, the whereabouts of “The List,” and the possible identity of Satchel, the bullets fly and bodies pile up.

Judging ATOMIC BLONDE strictly from its premise, this spy-thriller doesn’t sound all that original. However, the film’s execution, pacing that starts off slow and then throws a barrage of unexpected twists during the second half, and constant balls-to-the-wall style make this film well worth watching. I am kind of shocked by how much I enjoyed this movie. I was expecting just another fun action flick and I received a smart, suspenseful, and violent spy-thriller. Again, don’t expect a female JOHN WICK (like the marketing and countless reviews have compared this to) and your expectations will be appropriately geared towards what ATOMIC BLONDE offers.

Charlize Theron does a fantastic job of kicking ass and taking names as Lorraine. This BLONDE heroine is smart, sexy, and always tries to be step ahead of those who want her killed, though her mistakes add considerable intensity to certain moments in the latter half. James McAvoy is fun as her colleague David Percival, capturing a quirkiness and a hard-to-read nature as the viewer suspects that he’s not quite telling our protagonist everything that he knows. John Goodman and Toby Jones are enjoyable to watch as two interrogators, while Sofia Boutella adds extra sexiness as the aforementioned French lesbian spy.

ATOMIC BLONDE’s success also derives from telling a been-there-done-that premise in a fresh way. This film’s cinematography looks amazing (with lots of bright neon colors) and the 80s soundtrack just might have the best song choices of 2017 (arguably better than BABY DRIVER‘s never-ending feature-length playlist). The film’s narrative is constructed in a non-linear fashion with flashbacks and flash-forwards to and from Lorraine’s eventual interrogation about her Berlin mission. This allows for the film to feel like it’s constantly moving, even during the slower moments of character development and clues revolving around possible double-crossings (after all, there is at least one rogue agent afoot).

In terms of action, ATOMIC BLONDE excels in these moments. Accompanied by kick-ass 80s pop and alternative songs (lending authenticity to the 1989 setting), these scenes have steady camera work (none of that shaky-cam bullshit) and believable choreography. The action ranges from shoot-outs to beat-downs to car chases. No two action scenes are alike and the stakes are established early on, making these sequences even more gripping as a result. I especially like how the characters get worn out by their frequent confrontations. One of this film’s best fight scenes features Lorraine and a thug stumbling around as they try to go at each other. It makes sense that they would be tired, because they were both just thrown down two flights of stairs and had already taken blows from each other. Yet another moment (unforgettably set to ‘Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry”) has a guy struggling to get a knife out of his back and it feels cringe-inducingly brutal.

ATOMIC BLONDE’s only big flaw comes from the final 10 minutes packing in possibly one twist too many and then not giving the viewer time to fully digest the new revelation. Still, this film is so damn entertaining from start to finish for a variety of reasons. The performances are great from every cast member and the entire film sheds its cliché-sounding premise through clever non-linear storytelling, kick-ass action sequences, and sheer style. Don’t expect ATOMIC BLONDE to be “the female JOHN WICK” and do expect it to be a smart, suspenseful spy-thriller. On those grounds, this flick is an absolute blast!

Grade: A-

VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 17 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sci-Fi Violence and Action, Suggestive Material and brief Language

Directed by: Luc Besson

Written by: Luc Besson

(based on the VALERIAN AND LAURELINE comics by Pierre Christin & Jean-Claude Mezieres)

Starring: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Kris Wu, Rutger Hauer, John Goodman, Elizabeth Debicki & Sam Spruell

VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS has been a passion project for director/writer Luc Besson since the late 90s. While filming THE FIFTH ELEMENT, Besson believed that a VALERIAN adaptation would be unfilmable because special effects still needed to catch up to the ambitious material. James Cameron’s AVATAR (which had a mediocre plot, but sported fantastic visuals) served as the signal Besson needed. VALERIAN is based on the 1960s French comics VALERIAN AND LAURELINE, predating STAR WARS and serving as a massive influence on loads of sci-fi material that arrived in its wake. Besson’s big screen adaptation of VALERIAN has phenomenal visuals and is guaranteed to gain a cult following over time (much like THE FIFTH ELEMENT), but it suffers from undeniable flaws (much like THE FIFTH ELEMENT).

Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are special agents in the 28th century. Their latest assignment has them guarding Commander Arun Filitt (Clive Owen) as he gives a special conference on Alpha, a vast space station that houses millions of alien races and has many strange cultures. Valerian and Laureline soon find themselves on a rescue mission when Filitt is kidnapped by an unknown race of aliens. This leads the two special space agents into Alpha’s most dangerous areas as they attempt to save Filitt, possibly thwart a terrorist plot, and discover long-buried secrets.

VALERIAN is visually phenomenal. While THE FIFTH ELEMENT has aged a bit in its computer effects and looks pretty cheesy today, it’s impossible to imagine VALERIAN looking like its dated at any point in the near future. The effects in this movie are fantastic and you will believe that the human characters are interacting with many different monsters. The design of Alpha itself is insane as we see underwater worlds, various otherworldly climates, and (of course) a BLADE RUNNER-esque city of humans. One chase sequence has Valerian jumping from alien climate to alien climate and is absolutely breathtaking to behold. Taken on sheer spectacle, VALERIAN is amazing.

That’s not to say that this film is perfect though. The visuals, action sequences, and goofy sense of humor are on point, but VALERIAN struggles when it comes to plot and performances. The main plot takes a little too long to fully take off because the audience is treated to two different prologues. One of these prologues is a blast to behold as Valerian and Laureline infiltrate an interdimensional market to take down a space pirate (featuring an all-too-brief role from John Goodman as the blubbery alien bad guy). The prologue before that prologue reveals too much of VALERIAN’s hand, so that later revelations which are played for surprises wind up not being surprising at all. This results in the plot feeling predictable and by-the-numbers, even though we get many fun subplots of Valerian and Laureline encountering different alien threats.

In a movie that revolves around two special space agents, it’s also sad to say that VALERIAN’s two leads occasionally stumble. Dane DeHaan can be phenomenal in the right roles, but he seems a bit uncomfortable here and has some wooden line delivery early on. This is especially true in scenes where he’s trying to woo Laureline, played by a much-more assured and comfortable Cara Delevingne (who’s significantly stepped it up after her dull performance as Enchantress in last year’s SUICIDE SQUAD). The chemistry between DeHaan and Delevigne is there as partners, but feels terribly forced in a romantic subplot. Their unbelievable love-interest chemistry ensures that certain moments are eye-rollingly stale.

On a positive note, VALERIAN features colorful supporting characters who chew the scenery in over-the-top ways. Clive Owen is fun as the stern commander, even though his character is unconscious for a majority of the film’s running time. Ethan Hawke shows up as a flamboyant pimp, while Rihanna is memorable as a shapeshifting stripper. Besides the already mentioned John Goodman in a voice role, Rutger Hauer briefly shows up for a cameo. The non-speaking alien characters are pretty damn enjoyable too, with a hungry monster king receiving one of the funniest scenes in the entire film.

VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS works as sci-fi spectacle with a goofy sense of a humor, but stumbles in its on-and-off chemistry between the two leads, a very predictable plot that offers little in the way of surprising revelations, and annoying attempts at unearned emotional moments. However, there’s more than enough entertainment value here to make Luc Besson’s latest offering worth a recommendation. If you’re a fan of THE FIFTH ELEMENT, I imagine that you’ll likely be a fan of VALERIAN too. This is far from Besson’s best, but VALERIAN is guaranteed to receive a passionate cult following and reputation in the years to come. This is the new generation’s FIFTH ELEMENT.

Grade: B

WISH UPON (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Violent and Disturbing Images, Thematic Elements and Language

Directed by: John R. Leonetti

Written by: Barbara Marshall

Starring: Joey King, Ki Hong Lee, Sydney Park, Ryan Phillippe, Elisabeth Rohm, Mitchell Slaggert, Shannon Purser & Kevin Hanchard

There’s something to be said for lowered expectations. For example, I’d heard nothing but horribly negative things about WISH UPON. When a friend asked me to go see this movie with him, it seemed like I was walking into a watered-down, teeny-bopper excuse for a horror flick that would give THE BYE BYE MAN competition as a contender for the position of 2017’s worst horror film. Surprisingly, this was not the case. WISH UPON is what would happen if you threw WISHMASTER, FINAL DESTINATION, and a GOOSEBUMPS episode into a blender. It’s undeniably cheesy and dumb, but I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t mildly entertained by this movie.

Clare Shannon (Joey King) is a high school outcast and constantly carries the mental scars of her mother’s suicide. One day, Clare’s dumpster-diving daddy (Ryan Phillippe) finds a weird Chinese music box and gives it to her as a gift. Clare soon discovers that this mysterious item is actually a wishing box and will grant her seven wishes. There’s always a downside in dealing with magical matters like wishes, meaning that the box will take a life (a blood sacrifice) for every wish granted…unbeknownst to Clare. Soon Clare’s life starts changing, her wishes take darkly ironic turns, and bodies pile up in chain-of-event death sequences (reminiscent of FINAL DESTINATION and THE OMEN).

WISH UPON’s plot has been executed many times before. Horror stories about grim wishes date back to early fairy tales, W.W. Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw,” children’s entertainment (like a GOOSEBUMPS book and its subsequent TV episode adaptation), and even the slasher genre (e.g. the WISHMASTER franchise). My point is that before WISH UPON even starts, you’ll likely be able to correctly guess how this entire film plays out. However, this morbid morality tale is decently entertaining in a dumb way and might serve as a nice gateway horror flick for teenagers (who will likely stick it in during a sleepover or a party or whatever young hooligans do these days for amusement). For all of its predictability, WISH UPON doesn’t over stay its welcome at a fast-paced 90-minute running time.

There are only two big notable performances to speak of. Joey King (who’s mostly been regulated to supporting parts in blockbusters and indie flicks) does a pretty good job in the role of Clare. King gives this angsty teenage girl a believable existence and has the viewer borderline sympathizing with her frame of mind, while also playing a very flawed character who might learn a valuable lesson from this whole supernatural experience…if it doesn’t ruin her life first. Surprisingly, Ryan Phillippe puts in the only other noteworthy performance as Clare’s dad. Phillippe also has a genuinely good scene in which he discusses his wife’s haunting suicide with his daughter. As far as the supporting characters go, they are one-dimensional teenage stereotypes and walking plot devices. In other words, you probably won’t miss anybody who dies in a horrible way.

Speaking of which, WISH UPON’s death scenes are a bit scattershot. Some of the kills are surprisingly graphic for a PG-13, while others are downright comical. The former mainly belongs to two unexpectedly gory bits (shown in snippets) and a sequence that lets the audience guess who’s going to die next (in a way that echoes the better suspenseful moments of the FINAL DESTINATION series). The latter comes in the rest of the body count, some of which are mind-bogglingly ridiculous. The way that these rooms, certain furniture, and an ill-placed garbage disposal switch are set up seem to be constructed specifically so that people die in stupid ways. The two silliest deaths have already been revealed in the film’s trailer (the garbage disposal scene is stupid and hilarious). It’s also worth noting that I really liked this film’s conclusion, but I won’t get into that because of obvious spoilers.

WISH UPON is like a darker, more violent episode of GOOSEBUMPS or ARE YOU AFRAID OF THE DARK?. I don’t necessarily mean that as a completely negative thing either, because there’s fun to be had in that stuff. This film is far more unintentionally campy than it is creepy, but I still found enjoyment in its sillier moments and a few legitimately well-executed scenes. I don’t think this film deserves the amount of hatred it has received from critics and audiences thus far, because I can think of loads of other recent theatrical horror releases (both with PG-13 and R ratings that are far worse than this film). WISH UPON joins the ranks of horror flicks that loads of people hate, but I somehow enjoy (alongside THEY and APOLLO 18). Take that as you will.

Grade: C+

THE DARK HALF (1993)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 2 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence and Language

Directed by: George A. Romero

Written by: George A. Romero, Paul Hunt & Nick McCarthy

(based on the novel THE DARK HALF by Stephen King)

Starring: Timothy Hutton, Amy Madigan, Michael Rooker, Julie Harris, Robert Joy, Chelsea Field, Royal Dano & Rutanya Alda

The 90s were loaded with Stephen King adaptations that ranged from great to good and mediocre to downright terrible. There are a handful of efforts from this decade that seem unfairly overlooked (especially when the crappy IT miniseries gets much more acclaim than it should) and George A. Romero’s big screen version of THE DARK HALF is one of these underrated King flicks. Proving to be a faithful adaptation of its source material and translating King’s words into a compelling on-screen narrative, Romero made his second big studio film into a tense thrill ride that brims with suspense, violence, and dark imagination. This is basically King’s version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Thad Beaumont (Timothy Hutton) writes highbrow literature under his own name and publishes gritty pulp fiction under the pseudonym of George Stark. When a scumbag discovers Beaumont’s secret writing habits and blackmails him, Beaumont decides that it’s time to lay Stark to rest…complete with a magazine article, interviews, and a fake funeral. When people connected to Stark’s “death” turn up murdered in ways that resemble his novels, it becomes clear that something spooky is afoot. George Stark was an imaginary alter-ego of Thad, but somehow he’s physically manifested himself and wants to exist again. All the while, Sheriff Alan Pangborn (Michael Rooker) suspects that Thad may be the culprit behind these bloody killings.

Of the entire cast, Timothy Hutton easily delivers the film’s best two performances in dual roles. He plays Thad as a quirky writer and it’s obvious that this character was based on Stephen King himself (who loves creating author protagonists because he relates to them). We feel Thad’s frustration as more clues keep pointing back to him as the murderer and he tries to cope with/solve this supernatural scenario. As Stark, Hutton lets his evil side shine. He seems to be constantly snarling, fits in a few one-liners, and is clearly having a blast as a razor-wielding villain who seems like he was pulled straight out of a pulp novel.

On the supporting side of things, most of these characters exist purely to get brutally offed by Stark. They still deliver enough colorful personalities so that the viewer can distinguish who’s being killed at any given time. Amy Madigan shows a believably strained relationship as Thad’s wife, though this disappears when the film takes a more focused Thad vs. Stark approach during the final third. The novel’s ending originally had this relationship come to a depressing end, while the film’s conclusion just sort of ends with a shrug and cuts to credits. Also, Michael Rooker is a welcomed presence as Sheriff Pangborn, even though he seems to exist purely to fill Thad in on the details of Stark’s murders and is noticeably absent from most of the film’s finale.

THE DARK HALF’s script is true to King’s novel, even though certain characters don’t get enough time to really shine. There’s a creepy atmosphere hovering this Jekyll and Hyde tale crossed with a serial killer thriller. The clues behind Stark’s physical manifestation (sparrows, a gruesome discovery in a hospital, etc.) are intriguing and there’s never an eye-rollingly detailed exposition dump. King himself has referred to his favorite stories as tales where the horror just sort of happens with no rhyme or reason. THE DARK HALF follows these fast-and-loose scary guidelines; putting the focus on the string of killings, Thad’s weird mental connection with Stark, and the unavoidable confrontation between two different halves of the same person. It’s also worth noting that this film isn’t a gorefest, but the blood and guts are very effective when they do show up. There’s a stand-out moment in the final minutes that’s an incredible creation of cleverly disguised CGI, stellar practical effects, and gross make-up.

While THE DARK HALF is far from one of the best King movies and it’s not even the best King adaptation from the 90s, George A. Romero’s cinematic treatment of this story is very underrated, fun, and undeniably spooky. Timothy Hutton puts in two great performances, while Romero evokes frights in interesting ways. The set up to a few of the killings are sure to put the viewer on edge and there’s a great would-be jump scare that turns into a hilarious comedic bit. If you want a solid King flick that’s adapted from one of his more unique novels, then I highly recommend giving THE DARK HALF a look.

Grade: B+