Author: guysgurugrades

My name is Erick Phill. I review: movies, TV shows, and other odds and ends.

‘Murder on the Orient Express:’ all style, no substance

*This was my last assignment for The Examiner.  It’ll probably be the last review you see for awhile.  Not only do I have finals week powering towards me like the Orient Express itself, but I have some personal things to work through which take a lot of my energy (so please be patient).  If I don’t get the chance again to say this, have a Merry Christmas!*

 

Hollywood has a serious problem with excessive remakes, if the recent fad of live-action Disney remakes is anything to go by, but when I first heard of a “Murder on the Orient Express” remake, I was excited. The original 1974 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel was OK. The actors (particularly Albert Finney’s charismatic performance as the lead) were entertaining and the mystery was interesting. However, I greatly disliked the beginning and ending. It took a while for the plot to get moving and the resolution, while original and clever, made the rest of the film feel overly-complex.

Flash-forward 43 years and multi-talented British artist Sir Kenneth Branagh brings us his interpretation of the classic book. Is it worth seeing?  Well, yes and no. We’ve got a complicated one today.

“Murder on the Orient Express” (2017) is written by Michael Green and directed by Branagh. Set in the 1930s, impeccable detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh) seeks a vacation from solving crimes so he sets to board the Orient Express on its way to France. Much to his horror, a violent murder of one of the train’s passengers was committed overnight and the train is blocked by snow the next morning. Now Poirot must solve the mystery before the train is cleared and the murder can escape… or kill another passenger.

There are many things this movie does right, but there are many more it does wrong.  Branagh shines as Poirot and I haven’t seen better casting for Johnny Depp since “Rango” in 2011. However the rest of the cast, try as they might, never seem to reach their full potential (with the exception of Michelle Pfeiffer).

The movie is presented very well. Creative camerawork, grand music and sleek sets/costumes recreate a bygone era and it’s cool to see. Unfortunately, the movie is not as engaging on a story level.

While the opening scene felt somewhat cartoony, the tone changes from lighthearted and intriguing to dead serious and sad. The second half of the movie felt entirely different that the first. I don’t mind a comedic murder mystery (“Clue” is probably the best example of that subgenre), but the tone should be the same throughout. Otherwise you end up with a movie that doesn’t quite know what it wants to be.

As far as what they changed from the original, not too much. The characters are largely the same, the ending is the same (sadly) and I was left with the same unsatisfied feeling I had with the original. Both movies put too much stock in the climax (when the killer is revealed) and not nearly enough with making the characters fun to watch. Granted, they could be worse, but there is almost no rewatchability with these movies.

At the most, they added a few completely unnecessary action sequences and an additional twist which could have been cut completely. As much as I don’t want to say this, there was much more effort behind this movie than most remakes, there is no reason for this film to exist. Not even Branagh’s awesome mustache can save it.

I believe every mystery should warrant a second viewing so the audience can see what they missed or how the killer did it. Such was not the case for this remake. “Murder on the Orient Express” (2017) had just enough wit, flashy visuals and intrigue to keep my attention, but only just.

Murder on the Orient Express gets Guy’s Guru Grade of a C+.

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‘Thor: Ragnarok;’ an energetic, hilarious crowd-pleaser

*I would have published this review first, as it’s undoubtedly the most popular of all the movies I reviewed for The Examiner.  However, I like order, and this was the second-to-last review.  Also, I noticed that I didn’t have grades in the reviews.  The Examiner doesn’t want them, so they were not in the original reviews.  I went back and added grades to them.”

 

As consistently successful as Marvel’s Cinematic Universe continues to be, the God of Thunder does not have a standalone film worthy of his name. That is, until “Thor: Ragnarok” arrived, and it packs some punches.

Directed by Taika Waititi and written by: Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost, “Thor: Ragnarok” follows Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) as they are overthrown by Hela, God of Death (Cate Blanchett). Imprisoned on a wasteland, Thor must fight in gladiatorial contests in order to secure his freedom, return to Asgard and save his people.

The general audience consensus I heard prior to watching this blockbuster boiled down to, “it’s a lot like ‘Guardians of the Galaxy,’” or “it was extremely funny.” After watching the movie, I can confidently confirm these comments. Of course, this does not sum up the entire movie: I have 350 more words to do that for you, faithful reader.

The change in tone, while very sudden and slightly out-of-character, is welcomed because the first two “Thor” films were some of the most forgettable in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. They lacked personality, but Waititi (known for his independent productions like “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”) breathes new life into the franchise with style, wit and plenty of memorable jokes.

Since the film takes many of its cues from “Guardians of the Galaxy,” there are a few things you can predict such as: a soundtrack with classic songs, self-aware humor and a color palate that would make a Picasso painting blush. I actually prefer this movie over “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.”

The story is built on a firm foundation that bears more than one resemblance to the Russell Crowe film “Gladiator,” and supported by a collection of superhero movie clichés and predictable character arcs. As lazy as that sounds, I was able to ignore the narrative faults because the movie puts its focus on the character interactions, action sequences (which are absolutely incredible to watch) and worldbuilding. Seeing these new worlds, cultures and challenges face our stalwart hero is more investing than I thought it would be.

The cast thoroughly enjoys their time on screen and the script gives them plenty to work with.  The only issue I have is the familiarity of these character types. While Thor and Loki get some really good development as characters, some of the supporting cast falls into overused clichés. I’m not listing them for fear of spoilers, but if you see the movie, you can probably predict them yourself.

“Thor: Ragnarok” overcomes the narrative lows with its sense of adventure and steady sense of pacing. I wish the trailers didn’t spoil all of the shocking parts of the movie, but what can you do? The grand scale makes you feel like you’re watching a movie with gods in it. One can only wonder why it took them three tries to get it right. Either way, today’s film should not be missed, especially if you need a break from that mountain of textbooks.

Thor: Ragnarok gets Guy’s Guru Grade of a B.

‘Blade Runner 2049’ is a pretty-looking film with one terrible ending

*The second review I did for The Examiner.  I’m not particularly fond of this one.  I didn’t even include a paragraph about Philip K. Dick’s great influence as a writer!  Anyway, here you are.*

If movies were only judged based on visual presentation, then today’s review would be nothing more than 500 words of, “go see this movie right now.”  Unfortunately, there is a certain thing about “Blade Runner 2049” which needed more work; the story.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve (“Arrival”) and written by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, “Blade Runner 2049” is a direct sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1983 film, “Blade Runner.”  The movie follows ‘K’ (Ryan Gosling), a new blade runner, special police officers that hunt down rogue replicants, who discovers a deeply-hidden secret about the history of the replicants (the “race” of androids made of organic matter designed for specific services).  Both films are adaptations of Philip K. Dick’s famous novel, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”

There is little else I can reveal about the plot without giving away anything vital.  Well, anything the trailers haven’t already spoiled (they definitely should have not revealed Harrison Ford’s involvement).  In any case, this movie does require a lot of patience from its audience, which is good.  “Blade Runner 2049” is not the fun, action-packed, “Star Wars” type of science fiction that typically dominates the genre.  However, when a filmmaker chooses to tell this type of story, one that is very visual and quiet, taking its time to develop the world and characters, there simply must be an excellent payoff at the end.  “Blade Runner 2049” does not have that payoff.

What makes this critical storytelling error even more disappointing is that the first two acts are amazing.  The set design, Roger Deakins’ gorgeous camerawork, colors, and the music blend together to create a beautiful spectacle that completely made me forget I was watching a movie.  Ryan Gosling is also excellent.  He gives a largely emotionless performance (which is necessary within the context of the story), and there are a few choice scenes that showcase his abilities as an actor.  Because of this, ‘K’ is one of the most sympathetic movie heroes of all time.  The audience watches him search endlessly for the truth, as well as how it affects his philosophy.  It’s the kind of head-scratching stuff you’d find in a “Matrix” film.

The movie falls short once the third act begins.  In addition to an underdeveloped villain, the final 40 minutes drops a “big reveal” which makes a good chunk of the first two acts completely unnecessary.  In a nearly three-hour-long film, the worst thing the film can do is waste the viewer’s time.  Imagine nearly graduating, but right before the semester ends, it is announced that all graduating seniors need to re-take their generals.  It makes no sense, infuriates everyone, has little point, and turns what should have been a great ending into a waste of time.

Again, “Blade Runner 2049” has two wonderful hours of intrigue, suspense and character, but the last 40 minutes ruins a good portion of it.  Considering that the ending is the last thing the audience sees before leaving the theater, it dampens the entire experience.  An experience that does not live up to it’s predecessor.

Blade Runner 2049 gets Guy’s Guru Grade of a C+.

‘American Assassin’ delivers high-octane thrills, but little else

*Here is the first actual review I wrote for the paper.  Came out nicely I think.  The different writing style is the result of following the rules of the class.  For example, the titles are newspaper headlines.  Once again, I apologize for the lack of posts lately.  From now on, I will post my reviews one day after they are released in The Examiner (that’s the law).  Look forward to reviews of: Blade Runner 2049, Thor: Ragnarok, and Murder on the Orient Express (2017) these next two weeks.  Thank you, and let me know what you think!*

 

Of the many highly anticipated films of 2017, the big screen adaptation of Vince Flynn’s (what a cool name) best-selling novels about a counter-terrorism agent rank pretty high.  The Minnesotan author’s works have ridden the New York Times bestseller list for multiple weeks.  Unfortunately, Hollywood took the easy route again, and left us with a watered-down imitator.

“American Assassin” is directed by Michael Cuesta and written by: Stephen Schiff, Michael Finch, Edward Zwick, and Marshall Herskovitz.  The film follows Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brian), a young man who loses his fiancée in a terrorist shooting and sets out to eliminate radical organizations.  He is recruited by CIA agent Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) who along with former Navy SEAL Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton) train him to prevent global terrorism acts.

The story about a rogue intelligence agent who plays by his own rules has been done before, to varying levels of success.  In the case of “American Assassin,” the genre familiarities greatly outweigh the positives.  Not to say those positives are not worth mentioning.

O’Brian plays the “lone wolf action movie hero” very well.  His dry, almost emotionless approach to playing Mitch Rapp fits the character, and the hand-to-hand combat scenes are believable because of his devotion to learning the choreography and use of weapons.  Keaton provides charisma as the typical, tough, wise, mentor.  While it’s great to report that no fault can be found with the cast, the same cannot be said for the screenplay.

Even though the premise is solid and promises one tense picture, what the film ends up being is a predictable mess of poorly-shot action sequences and way too many scenes of government-driven dialogue.  Which sounds interesting, but there is actually very little substance in this movie.

Similar to this year’s “Power Rangers” and “Ghost in the Shell,” there are enough decent characters and potentially interesting stories to spawn some much better sequels.  However, that doesn’t forgive the lack of effort with the first film.  Much of this problem comes down to how fast the story goes.  There is never enough time devoted to the characters before they are thrown into the next big action scene.  Needless to say, the movie could have used another 30 minutes in the runtime, and the result would have been a much more investing story.

As far as how faithful this film is to the source material goes; head writer Stephen Schiff explained in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter that, “Most of what’s in the movie is not in the book.”  This includes a villain whose entire character is an overdone cliché.

This is perhaps where the movie missteps the worst.  The villain is almost exactly the same as: Tai Lung from “Kung Fu Panda,” Kaecilius from “Doctor Strange,” or Anakin Skywalker from “Revenge of the Sith.”  Instead of having Rapp battle terrorists, he fights a boring former American soldier.  This change simply takes away the entire purpose of Rapp being a counter-terrorism agent.

The last thing worth noting is the implied moral dilemma.  The main motivation of the protagonist is revenge, which is not a biblical principle.  An eye for an eye is not the best way to create peace, and yet, the methods the United States use to fight terrorism often function on a basis of “the ends justify the means.”  “American Assassin” understands this question and devotes dialogue to discussing how Rapp combines rage and impeccable skills to make the world “safer.”  Considering American’s current culture of hatred and lack of understanding, this is certainly a topic that should be discussed.

In the end, “American Assassin” is a barely-serviceable action thriller.  The action scenes are worth watching and the two leads entertain, but the characters and story needed much more work.

American Assassin gets Guy’s Guru Grade of a C.

Story Article (what I’ve been up to)

Hello everybody!  Nice to see you again.  The last two and 1/2 months have been indisputably exhausting for me, and things like: watching movies, Tweeting, and breathing have been pushed to the back of my mind to make way for everything college has to offer.  Never in my life have I worked as hard as I am now, and let me tell you, God is certainly using this rattling culture shock to change me.  I’m more excited (and worrisome) than ever before.

If you didn’t know (which makes sense since I have not been very specific), I’m enrolled at The University of Northwestern – St. Paul, and my major is professional writing (couldn’t you tell?).  One of my classes is a journalism workshop.

“What do you create in that class?” you may ask.  Why, The Examiner, the school’s newspaper, of course!  There are over 25  student writers in the class who report to specific sections (feature, lifestyle, opinion, etc.) and are assigned stories by a section editor.  I’m writing for the lifestyle section (because it deals with entertainment, something I understand), and I’ve written two stories for it so far.  It’s taxing work, but my gosh, it’s satisfying and is giving me some genuine experience.

I’d like to talk more about what’s happening, but I have much work to do.  I’ll leave you with the links to see what me and my fellow students are creating.  By the way, I am still seeing movies and I have a few ideas for the future, so don’t think I’ve quit this blog.  Also, you should know that I write differently for college classes, so tell me what you think.  See you later!

The Examiner’s official website.  They are working on the site, so it might be a bit difficult to work with.

My first story.  I’ll post my reviews for the paper in my blog.  I have permission to do this, don’t worry.

Update-College Move-In/My Thoughts On: “The Dark Tower”

Oh boy, it’s finally that time.  In four days, this guy will be moving into a dorm and will be earning his BA in the next three years.  To be clear, I have been in PSEO courses for the past two years (earning college credits in high school in order to skip the obligatory general courses required for a degree).  I commuted from home and had much more time to watch/review movies.  Since this is my first semester for real, there will be fewer posts.  This is due to a combination of: getting used to the new schedule and setting, not having my car (it would be a hassle to take it with me), and the lack of a job.  I’m not broke, and the school has a bus so there will be a few reviews here and there.  When in doubt, check my “About” section for the most updated version of my schedule.

You may have noticed that the website has not changed, though I said there were a few things I wanted to change in the last update.  Well, a lot of it has to do with the fact that this website costs me nothing.  I would have to pay a monthly fee to have complete control over design and presentation; but since I don’t have a job, and do not get paid for these reviews, it will stay this way for a while.  Sorry (unless of course you don’t mind how it currently is).  Now let’s get to the main attraction.

The Dark Tower is the newest entry into the “disappointing Stephen King adaptation” genre (along with The Shining Mini-Series, Dreamcatcher, Maximum Overdrive, Thinner, Lawnmower Man, and The Langoliers).  Of course Mr. King’s legacy has brought us some of cinema’s most famous stories like: Shawshank Redemption, Misery, Stand by Me, Carrie, and Kubrick’s The Shining.  Considering that he’s published over 250 novels, short stories, etcetera, Hollywood will squeeze every last penny out of his bestsellers.  Today, we have The Dark Tower, a film so standard, so lazily-executed, you’ll forget it 1 hour after leaving the theater!

The main problem with The Dark Tower is the utter lack of detail.  You know how Peter Jackson made Lord of the Rings (the story that was supposedly impossible to adapt) into movies?  It was not by pure luck that the end result was near-perfect.  The books told of fantastic battles, memorable characters, and one heck of a universe!  The Dark Tower shares many of these traits: multiple books, loyal fanbases, both stories are fantasy epics, and their film adaptations were both highly anticipated.  Only difference is that you could see the effort and love behind every scene in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  The Dark Tower felt like it was written by a Sony computer, shot by a hummingbird, edited by a cocaine addict, and directed by a coffee table.  This is an enormous shame because the marketing was great.  The two leads looked cool and the action sequences promised some stunning visuals.  In reality, the characters are blander than bread, the PG-13 rating ensures that all the potentially awesome violence is gone, and the story is a compilation of fantasy movie clichés rather than an original story.

Despite the short runtime, the pacing is boringly slow and there are more “talking head” scenes than you would ever want in a Stephen King adaptation.  When the action does show up, it’s only slightly less generic than Power Rangers (2017).  The aforementioned neutered rating prevents any real impact, the camera does whatever it wants, and the actors, much like the audience, look uninvested.  The story is even worse.  Most of the narrative is a mishmash of King tropes, and all the interesting stuff is not explained.  Who built this tower?  Why are there so few people protecting it?  What is the backstory (and motivation for that matter) of our antagonist?  Where do these alternate beings come from?  None of these vital questions are answered very well, if at all.  The best we get are a handful of references to much better King adaptations in one pathetic attempt at fan service.  For all of you who subscribed to the “Stephen King universe” thing, I didn’t see any overarching plot that connected to any other one of King’s works.  Granted, I haven’t read The Dark Tower novels so the connection could be in the books, but it’s certainly not in this bare bones flick.  The only mildly entertaining things about the film are a few cool slow motion moments and Matthew McConaughey (who you could tell was enjoying every second of screentime).  Unfortunately, that only goes so far, especially when the climax, the final battle between Idris Elba and McConaughey, is the definition of “all buildup, no payoff.”  This confrontation was almost as bad as Batman vs. Superman… almost.

Bottom line, The Dark Tower is a thoroughly skippable waste of time and money.  Quite a shame too, because many potential fans were likely turned off from King’s (supposedly) great magnum opus epic.  As for me, I’m much more apprehensive about the new It film.  The Dark Tower gets Guy’s Guru Grade of a C-.

Thanks for understanding my transition into college life; I’ll get back to reviews once everything is sorted out.

My Thoughts On: “Detroit”

I apologize for the lack of posts last week.  I did see this film on Friday, but it left me… contemplative.  It was necessary to sort out the emotions, let the anger cool, and then the Charlottesville drive-by happened and American media erupted.  Now, as much fun as I have writing these things, when it comes to politics, I try to stay out of political/social issues.  Mostly because I don’t trust myself enough not to say something stupid or ignorant on the Internet.  Now that I have everything figured out, let’s talk about Kathryn Bigelow’s intense, but manipulative drama.

I’ll admit, this is definitely a film that educates (somewhat), but the filmmaking approach favors harsh racism and brutality as opposed to character development and a good balance between tension and morals.  The first act is tame compared to the other two: showing us the causes of the Detroit riots in 1967.  Unfortunately, the movie forgoes whatever narrative it had to assault the viewer with uncomfortable scene after uncomfortable scene.  Seriously, A Clockwork Orange (which featured rape, torture, murder, and ultra-violence) wasn’t as hard to watch as Detroit, only difference is that Detroit focuses on the stuff that makes movies like Moonlight win Best Picture.  The film attempts something similar to what Patriots Day did, telling the larger portion of the event in one night through multiple character perspectives.  However, the pacing is terrible.  Looking at this movie from a writing standpoint, the climax starts at the forty minute mark and goes on for thirty minutes.  Thirty, incredibly uncomfortable minutes.  Most of the movie takes place at a hotel, where the main black characters (and a few others caught in the wrong place at the wrong time) are intensely interrogated by Will Poulter’s group of hostile city police officers.  For the sake of time (and the film itself admits that some scenes were dramatized), all I’ll say is that this is one excessive sequence.

The most interesting thing about this film is Poulter’s detestable, prejudiced, white-cop, antagonist.  Not only is Poulter giving his all for this character, he’s the only one who has any inner conflict.  The motivation is not clear-cut and it’ll leave you thinking twice about a character that was written to be hated.  This brings me to my biggest complaint; the movie gives you nothing to chew on.  Look, I’ve seen a lot of black history films, shows, books, etc.  I’ve noticed a few common traits and manipulative techniques.  In the end, the most effective ones where movies like Glory and In the Heat of the Night (1967).  The films that put the story and characters first before getting into the tough stuff.  I can only care so much about your movie when I cannot remember the names of the main characters as they go through these atrocities.  It’s not difficult to get the audience to cringe, police racism is a hot-button topic in America; it takes much more effort to create something that the audience can come back to.  Once the credits roll, you’ll feel absolutely terrible, then completely forget the film a week later.  Not something a filmmaker wants, regardless of the point you were trying to get across.  Detroit gets Guy’s Guru Grade of a C.

Thanks again for your patience, I’m moving into my dorm next week and final preparations are being done.  However, I’ll have something on The Dark Tower on Monday.

 

“The Emoji Movie” Review

Ha heh ha heh ha ha heh heh hoooooh!  Oh gosh, I haven’t had this much fun since that NyQuil-induced fever dream where I was a black Rambo who fought off mercenaries and space aliens whilst driving in the jeep from Lilo and Stitch!  I mean that.  Granted, it is likely I lost my sanity watching/researching this atrocity of a motion picture.  Be that as it may, I have successfully maintained a crazed smile for the last 3 days, and it may turn into something worse if I don’t get this review published.  Prepare yourselves for the most numbing trek through the most stereotypical movie of the decade.

The Emoji Movie is directed by Tony Leondis and written by: Tony Leondis, Eric Siegel, and Mike White.  Stars-T.J. Miller, James Corden, Anna Faris, Jake T. Austin, Maya Rudolph, and Sir Patrick Stewart.  Premise-Gene (the “meh” emoji) causes trouble when he makes the wrong emotion, so he sets out a journey through the phone to become his assigned trait.

Where to even start?  Why, at the production company logos of course!  Yes, Sony has given us even more proof that the downfall of children’s cinema is at hand.  The Emoji Movie (20 of my brain cells die every time I say that) panders so much, it would make Michael Bay, Stephenie Meyer, and every Illumination Entertainment executive blush.  The moral-which is a cliché at this point-is the, “you be you” message that went from earnest and fresh, to tired and annoying.  To make things even better, they use all of the following clichéd lines, “Just be yourself,” “I like you just the way you are,” and “You be who you want to be.”  It’s hilarious watching these adults try to relate to kids.  Almost as fun as watching a handful of funny people phone it in.  Rudolph is playing the same character as the dog in The Nut Job, Corden is agitating, Miller’s voice naturally sounds like he’s disinterested, Faris plays a freaky hybrid of Wyldstyle and a Tumblr feminist, there’s 1,000 useless celebrity cameos, and since Patrick Stewart is more respected than the Apollo 13 crew, there’s no point in making fun of his choice to voice the visual representation of Sony films.

Some probably think this movie’s worse than Ghostbusters (2016) or Norm of the North, but I disagree.  Ghostbusters wanted to tick people off, The Emoji Movie wants to hit every single mark on the “by-the-numbers kids movie (Politically Correct Edition)” handbook.  Awkward protagonist?  Check.  Diverse-even though their personalities are stereotypes-cast?  Check.  “Don’t listen to the haters” moral?  Check.  Brightly-colored 3D animation that looks like candy?  Check.  Distracting sexual innuendos and pop culture references in a pitiful attempt to entertain parents?  Check-a-roony!  All that’s missing are some pointless pop songs in the soundtrack… spoke to soon.  They got Christina Aguilera to play a character called Akiko Glitter in a scene where our main emoji’s enter a Just Dance app and must dance their way out of certain doom.  Wow.

Likewise, Norm of the North is the stupidest animated movie of all time; but The Emoji Movie rips off Wreck-It-Ralph, Inside Out, and A Bug’s Life (without ANY of the emotional connection whatsoever).  Sony adds its trademarked product placement, this includes: Crackle, Facebook, YouTube, and at least 5 others, while subjecting the audience to every predictable joke in the book.  The logic of this movie is nonexistent, the characters are forgettable, and the film defenestrates any opportunity for actual entertainment that comes along.

When all this is said and done, The Emoji Movie will be hastily forgotten.  This movie is like Styrofoam; light, forgettable, lacking substance, takes up space, and will cause slight indigestion if consumed.  If you need more proof of this film’s objective failure, check out these facts.  It’s rated #6 on IMDb’s Bottom 100, the box office gross is $31 million ($19 million less that the budget), and take a look at the official Twitter page.  As of the time of this post, it has 13 likes.  Thirteen!  None of which were likes of Tweets posted by actual people (all companies).  No one likes this movie, no one has anything nice to say about it, and it makes me so happy because of that.  I’m not that worried or angry (I’ll leave that to the YouTube critics), the last 3 movies I saw in the theater were: The Hero, The Big Sick, and Dunkirk, everything’s gonna be fine.  The Emoji Movie gets Guy’s Guru Grade of an F, for Failure to Try.

“Dunkirk” Review

Dunkirk is written and directed by Christopher Nolan.  Stars-Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden, and Kenneth Branagh.  Premise-Over 400,000 allied soldiers are trapped on the beaches of the French city of Dunkirk with little to no means of escape.  As the Nazis close in, the evacuation options seem nonexistent, until allied civilians take matters into their own hands.

I got the credits out of the way because we’re going to dive right into the meat of this epic.  The Dunkirk Evacuation is undoubtedly one of the most important moments in history, and the fact that one of Britain’s greatest filmmakers has taken up the mantle to tell the story to the masses greatly boosts my hope for humanity.  While, the amount of respect I have for the crew is unparalleled, my enjoyment of the finished product is a little shaky.

Since it’s a Nolan film you can expect the technicals to be freaking perfect!  I saw Dunkirk in a dingy auditorium with a minuscule screen, but every bullet, bomb, and machine reverberated through me like a crash of thunder.  Add Hoyte Van Hoytema’s Oscar-worthy camerawork (the wide shots… just wow) and you’ve got yourself one immersive war film.  Oh, and let’s not forget Hans Zimmer’s intensely powerful music!  Academy, if you don’t give these two nominations, there will be blood, because they bring out the best in each other.  Supermarine alone is packed with fear and suspense, and the practical effects and sets are 100% believable.  Seriously, watching this movie is like being there with our characters because the direction is that good.

Now on to the writing, this (unfortunately) is where all my complaints lie.  When this film was first announced, I wondered if Nolan would change up his writing style a bit for it.  After all, this is his first movie based off real events.  A few of these changes would be a much shorter runtime (1 hour, 46 minutes), and a plot that doesn’t put much emphasis on character development.  It’s an experience film if anything (we get two actions scenes before we learn anyone’s name) and that works in the movie’s favor since the scope and spectacle are so engrossing.  The performances are just as excellent (Rylance, Whitehead, and Murphy especially stand out), and there are definitely a couple characters to like.

Now bear with me, because I know some of you will see these upcoming problems as nitpicks.  Truth be told, I thought the same thing, but nitpicks don’t usually get on your nerves now do they?  More or less, these are questions.  First, we never get a good look at the Nazis.  The only time we ever see actual German soldiers, it’s in the last 10 minutes of the movie, and they’re cast in shadow.  There is absolutely no adaptation of World War I or II that should sanitize how evil the Nazis truly were.  Especially since over here in America, Nazi ideologies (like white supremacy) have resurfaced (for many reasons, but there’s no time to go into that here).  This is a pure guess, but I think Dunkirk was made in a way to educate as well as entertain.  After all, Nolan went for PG-13 when some of the stuff in this film could have easily been much more realistic (aka, pretty violent/profane).  I can imagine this film playing in every school in England, and that’s great!  Young people (including myself) need to know this stuff, but playing down the evil of the most racist ideology of all time is not a wise decision.  If you want more proof, the opening credits that tell us the date and what’s happening use the term, “The Enemy” to describe the Nazis, and they don’t give the date of the event (which will confuse anyone who doesn’t already know that Dunkirk happened in 1940, before the U.S. got involved).  I apologize if I’m dragging this out; I have very low tolerance for the party that killed over 14 million innocent people.

That last paragraph aside, Dunkirk is still an exceptionally well-made thriller that depicts the horrors of war.  Considering how unbelievably bland this year has been, it’s very satisfying to see Nolan deliver once more.  The proof of this movie’s success is feeling that sense of victory even though the event was essentially a loss, and skill of that caliber simply must be recognized.  Dunkirk gets Guy’s Guru Grade of an A-.

Top Ten Christopher Nolan Films

If you’ve viewed Christopher Nolan’s IMDb page over 50 times, like me, then you’d know that Dunkirk is his tenth feature-length film.  This means no one has been able to make a proper Top Ten list.  Many of you will think I’m crazy for pre-writing a top ten list in anticipation for a new release (I started this thing last month).  To them I say, “Since I’m not making any money off of this, I might as well have fun.”  Anyways, today I am going to rank each respective film from one of the-hands down-best directors of the millennium.

Rules/Notes:

  • There will not be a synopsis for most of these films.
  • There will be no spoilers in this list.
  • This list is determined by: 80% overall quality and 20% my opinion.
  • Please watch every one of Nolan’s films so he never stops making movies.

No more delays, let’s begin.

 

#10 – The Dark Knight Rises (Grade – C)

Let’s start out this fanboyish countdown by saying that I really don’t like this movie!  Bear in mind, Mr. Nolan is incapable of producing anything resembling garbage, and the effort is clearly on screen.  The action sequences are well-choreographed, the scope of the movie is huge, and the music added so much emotion to every scene.  That said, the performances are awkward, it has more plotholes than The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and the social commentary was akin to a pretentious high schooler’s first social studies essay.  Some believe The Dark Knight was never meant to be a trilogy, and when you compare The Dark Night to its sequel, you can see the difference in quality.  Still, the action is jaw-droppingly cool, so it’s not a complete waste of time.

 

#9 – Following (Grade – B)

One year after releasing his short film Doodlebug (which is worth checking out), Nolan wrote, directed, produced, shot, and edited his first film, Following; about a writer who follows random strangers around to gain inspiration (until one of his targets, a criminal, shows the man his operation).   While many have said there’s nothing special about this movie (considering what the director would go on to make much better stuff), but Nolan unlocked his inner Robert Rodriguez by doing most of the work himself.   Might I say, the end result is very pleasing.  The black and white film allows for some interesting camerawork, and the pacing, while slow, builds to one stellar ending.  This low-budget gem has made it into the Criterion Collection for a reason, and is a must-see for fans of the genre.

 

#8 – The Prestige (Grade – B+)

In late 2014, a very young, and even more naive, Erick was about to do his weekly routine of ironing clothes while watching a movie.  Obviously, my attention would be more concentrated on the scalding-hot piece of metal near my fingers, so I’d typically watch something that didn’t demand much attention.  As it turned out, The Prestige was a bad choice.  After the first 2 minutes, I knew this movie was going to require the audience’s complete cooperation.  Figuring the black slacks could wait, I sat down and restarted the film.  Two mind-bending hours later, and my understanding of cinema as a whole was changed.  At that moment, Christopher Nolan became one of my favorite filmmakers.  Now that I’m older, and have studied the art form for a while, I can properly appreciate the work.  This movie does so many things right, like casting David Bowie as Nikola Tesla, treating the audience (and the subject matter) with maturity and intelligence, having Michael Caine say the word “prestige,” there’s a lot to be found with this movie.  It’s an excellent period piece drama/thriller that will require a few trips to the Internet in order to fully understand what the heck that ending was.

 

#7 – Dunkirk (Grade-A-)

I just saw this war film a few hours ago; and I will have the full review out on Sunday.  For now, it is a fine example of passionate filmmaking and attention-to-detail.  Nolan uses a very traditional approach to this one, and it pays off for the most part.  The performances felt real, the narrative is respectful (if not a bit sanitized), and the suspenseful scenes are rattling.

 

#6 – Batman Begins (Grade-A-)

In preparation for this list, I watched a butt-ton of videos on Christopher Nolan.  One video in particular puts my writing skills to shame, and ironically, it was an essay about Batman BeginsStrange.  Well, better to try and fail than regret not taking the chance.  Batman Begins is a masterpiece of storytelling, and revived the superhero genre by treating its source material in a mature fashion.  This movie features some of the best exposition any screenwriter could ever ask for, and it all balances out with moments of action, complex characters, fine performances, and an engrossing tone.  It’s one of the three pre-2010 superhero flicks that started the superhero craze, and it shouldn’t be missed.

 

#5 – Insomnia (Grade-A-)

Did you know that this is the only Nolan-directed movie that he didn’t write?  Did you also know it’s a hallmark of subtly, suspense, cinematography, and acting?  Insomnia is one of those purposefully quiet productions that-while major critical hits-typically bomb at the box office (like Take Shelter or Donnie Darko).  In keeping with that genre, Insomnia is a feast for cinephiles.  The plot is simple, two detectives are sent to Alaska to search for the man who killed a 16-year-old girl.  What unravels is Nolan at his most ruthless (by the way, this film’s rated R).  First off, my gosh, the acting is fantastic.  This has to be one of Al Pacino’s most sympathetic roles of his career.  He struggles to find this killer while also dealing with his own personal issues, Hilary Swank is supportive, but also very intelligent, and Robin Williams…this is one of his most authentic performances.  There is little to no humor in his character, but what he brings to the table is one of the most impressive breakaway performances in history.  His dialogue is limited, but every second of it is incredible.  Forgive me if this all sounds rather vague, I am nowhere near the level of intelligence that this movie is on, so it’s difficult to explain how well it’s made.  Despite this, it is one heck of a film for anyone looking for underrated classics.

 

#4 – Memento (Grade-A)

“Okay, so what am I doing? Oh, I’m chasing this guy. No, he’s chasing me.”  There are so many brilliant moments in this brilliant movie.  Memento catapulted Nolan into critical acclaim much similar to M. Night Shyamalan with The Sixth Sense.  Meaning they both did something narratively that audiences had either never experienced, or weren’t expecting.  In the case of Memento, the story is told backwards.  This movie was unbelievably risky, as it easily could have alienated viewers, but pushing the boundaries of storytelling is one of Nolan’s best skills, and this psychological thriller is a fine example.  As far as second features go, this one feels like it was made by an archaic master rather than a newcomer because the quality of the filmmaking is top-notch.  Not only is Wally Pfister’s camerawork oozing with atmosphere, the constantly uncertain tone keeps you on the edge of your seat as the story unravels.  Speaking of amazing things, Leonard Shelby is one of the coolest protagonists in film history.  Guy Pearce is at his best in this film, his character design is like something out of a comic book, and his motivations make him a very sympathetic hero.  It’s one of the most original movies you’ll ever watch, and the mere idea of remaking it is asinine.

 

#3 – The Dark Knight (Grade-A)

Oh, stop crying just because the second best superhero movie of all time is #3.  If it were not for the last 10 minutes (the Joker should have died, and Batman didn’t have to take the fall for everything), it would be higher  Also, don’t be upset because Unbreakable is better than The Dark Knight.  We all know why this movie’s awesome.  Heath Ledger is the best Joker of all time, it was nominated for more Oscars than any other movie about grown men in goofy costumes, the practical effects drop jaws, and the script is packed with more smart commentary than a season of early Simpsons.  On a filmmaking scale, you could study ever frame for 5 minutes and get enough out of it to write a film report.  The Dark Knight proved that superhero movies could be dark, better than their predecessor, and make bank (over $1 billion to be precise) all at the same time.

 

#2 – Interstellar (Grade-A)

Ever noticed that this guy has a talent for titles?  Even though I’ve given this movie its own-somewhat crappy-review and talked extensively about it in the Study Scores list, I could go on forever with this one because it makes me so happy!  Oh, there are problems, but this movie requires faith from the audience to stick with it for the 3-hour runtime.  Those who do are greatly rewarded.  Many people think this was the point where Nolan ignored common sense and just wrote whatever complex nonsense came into his mind.  Whew!  That was difficult to type in and of itself.  Forgive me audience (and any future employers who may see this), but these complaints are pure balderdash!  The amount of research I put into this movie rivals that of college essay finals!  One of the factoids I came across explained that Nolan did his dang research about space, black holes, and other sciency things I can’t pronounce before writing a movie where Ron Woodroof saves humanity.  Guy’s, he knows what he’s doing.  Even if (which is a pretty big “if”) the story doesn’t grab you, the visuals definitely will.  Interstellar features some of the most impressive CGI and sets of our time.  It also features one of Hans Zimmer’s best scores.  I won’t deny, there is a bit of filler, but what’s excellent (like the action scenes) is truly magnificent.  When people talk about spiritual successors in film, Interstellar is the true sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

 

#1 – Inception (Grade-A+)

“I try to be all about story.” – The greatest storyteller in Hollywood today

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this movie (nothing of any consequence that is).  Every single thing about it works so well!  The effects (both practical and CGI) are convincing, the action sequences are creative and exciting, the actors have charisma, the ideas are interesting, the plot is original, the emotional element is strong, the music is intense, and it should have won Best Original Screenplay!!!!  Pardon me… I just can’t stand the Academy some times.  For someone to tell me they didn’t enjoy this monument, leaves me in a state of bewilderment.  Sure, everyone loves The Dark Knight, but Inception is the perfect summer blockbuster.  Action sequences that actually entertain, characters that you like, and a script that doesn’t treat you like a statistic.  I’m greatly inspired by this movie if you couldn’t tell.  It’s actually my favorite movie of all time, and for good reason.  Nolan knows where the movie starts and ends, and once the story (which he was apparently working on since Memento in ten years earlier) is perfected, the rest runs like clockwork.  You could watch this movie countless times and learn something new each time.

 

Ahhh, now that was fun!  Whether or not you like Nolan’s approach to filmmaking, you cannot deny that he has consistently delivered high-quality stuff.  The guy simply hasn’t made a bad movie, and I don’t think he ever will.  Now that being said, I’m going to go to bed, have an awesome dream inspired by Inception, and watch a lot of movies tomorrow!  Goodnight and thank you for your time.