Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017): Too Much of a Gold Thing

Kingsman: The Secret Service was the sleeper hit of early 2015. At a time when James Bond was in a very gritty phase, Kingsman allows for a light fun diversion that recalled more of the Roger Moore era goofy nature of the character, though with a bit more self awareness. Add in director/co-writer Matthew Vaughn‘s kinetic action sensibilities, an eclectic soundtrack & The King’s Speech guy having fun for a change and you have yourself a fun spy comedy. Now, Kingsman: The Golden Circle lets us dive right back into that universe and one can tell Vaughn is eager to expand about that world. Maybe a bit… too eager.

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What made the first Kingsman such a delight is the goofier tone bouncing off a more dignified frame. Given the cover of them being tailors, the titular group of spies had a typical British sense of manners that made the over the top action a fun subversion. Kingsman The Golden Circle initially brings back these themes to remind us of the relationship between Eggsy (Taron Egerton) and Harry (Colin Firth). How the former learned the manners that helped disguise the inner badass from the latter. Yet, now that Firth has seemingly died in the first film, Eggsy doesn’t seem to have retained much of any of that gentlemanly training. He still acts like a chavish idiot, even what not visiting his friends. He’s back to being a boarish oaf rather than a mixture that he managed to balance in the first film, despite Egerton’s own charms still oozing through on occasion. His relationship subplot with Princess Tilde (Hanna Alström) is so unneeded, given she’s a shallow device to make the world changing stakes plot personal, but she still has about the same amount of character as she had when she asked Eggsy to have anal sex with her. Oh, put a pin in the female character writing department. There’s a lot to talk about with that later.

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It’s a shame that Kingsman The Golden Circle diverges so much from the core relationship between Eggsy, Harry and Merlin (Mark Strong), who were the true heart of the previous film. The best scenes of the sequel involve Merlin and Eggsy trying to recoup after the fall of their beloved organization and comrades, while trying to bring a suddenly reappearing Harry out of amnesia. On paper, this whole bringing back Harry subplot is the most contrived idea, forcing Colin Firth to come back just because he was here the first time. Yet, that arc at least gives Eggsy a moment to come back to his senses and be a Kingsman agent with dignity. Plus, Firth’s slow realization back to his former self results in more than a few delightful subversions of what happened before for at least awhile… until it becomes more a convenient plot mechanism to have things go wrong. Strong even gets lost in the shuffle during all this, making a key moment of the climax feel like just another contrivance as emotional resonance whittles down to a bizarre musical number that feels especially familiar to films this year.

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So, those central characters were shuffled around to make room for The Statesman, a bunch of boasting cowboy Americans equivalent that hides behind the facade of selling liquor. Sounds like a great concept to play off our British boys… until one thinks about it for a bit. The world building isn’t nearly as airtight as when we were introduced to the titular group last time around. The Statesman are just a bunch of drunken loud southern “Good Ole Boys” who drink. There’s no point where the cover subverts the image. It just plays along, meaning there’s no subversive fun like the Kingsman. There’s nothing clever to that. It makes their action beats far more flashy and soulless rather than stylistically hilarious. Even in interacting beyond the first meeting, they ultimately seem like an extension of the same organization without any intriguing sense of individuality beyond their hats and boots.

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None of this is helped by how most of these actors are wasted. Channing Tatum has a propulsive introduction before being put on ice for most of the proceedings. Jeff Bridges does his Rooster Cockburn voice yet again. Halle Berry is… there. And has one of the worst attempted arcs of anyone. The only one with any life in them is Pedro Pascal who – even if overused – steals the spotlight with a rugged charm and some fanciful footwork during the action scenes. It’s honestly baffling that Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman bungled balancing an ensemble like this, given how well they managed to do it in not only the first Kingsman, but in previous efforts like Kick-Ass or Stardust. They’re just stuffing so much into here and not letting anything breathe, until they do stop… and the breathing room gives us lame duck character moments that just lay there. Packing a suitcase with too much, forcing the bottom to cave in under pressure as dirty clothes and used toiletries rain over the audience.

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But speaking of shoddy workmanship, let’s talk about how Vaughn depicts women. In the past, his work hasn’t been known to be all that savvy in terms of depicting women as dimensional characters. The first Kingsman even ended with an anal sex joke that gave the James Bond schtick an extra layer of creepy. Yet, there was never an illusion that such a depiction was grander than that. So even while not expecting much, I at least expected a bit of growth. Yet with the second Kingsman, Vaughn tries to disguise the misogynistic leering not in a parody of older spy tropes, but in some kind of seemingly important sense of plot or character. There’s the previously mentioned problems of Berry and Alstrom, who are merely there to introduce motivation for male characters and briefly be referred back to without a single ounce of character. They somehow have about as much character as a dead wife who briefly appears in flashback and has her character relevance exposited to the audience later in the climax.

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Yet, it gets so much worse when people like Roxy (Sophie Cookson) – a Kingsman operative with little development from the first film who at least did something and was a capable person – is unceremoniously offed early on along with the rest of the organization just to give Eggsy motivation after using her as a human Google to help impress his girlfriend’s family. Because competent women can’t even have a side plot to themselves, I guess? A side villain Clara (Poppy Delevingne) is literally just there for a double whammy fingering joke and plot contrivance for our heroes to go somewhere that’s ultimately pointless and wastes time for an action scene and developments that are repeated later anyway. Our villainess Poppy (Julianne Moore) is a drug cartel titan who feels like a copy of a copy of the type of 50s era satire that was played out by the mid 90s. She cooks and motherly condescends in ways that Moore tries to elevate, but ultimately result in her essentially playing a flat version of Mary Louise Parker on Weeds; a suburban mom who sells drugs and kills a few people. But much like Weeds, she overstays her welcome pretty quickly. All of them are underwhelming female roles that show less competence and individuality as much as they do supporting stereotypes for the sake of cheap jokes and motivations to keep this endless film going. She also introduces the weird political subplot that makes the ethics of original film look consistent by comparison.

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Not even Vaughn’s direction can quite keep this afloat. A few action sequences show some technical craft of choreography. The opening scene as Eggsy faces off against a bionic former colleague Charlie (Edward Holcroft) in a cab and the big snow slope ski lift stick out. Yet, once the climax gets going, the second Kingsman puts so much flashing lights and call backs that mean so little into such a quick package that never means much. It divulges into a cacophony of noise that wants to be entertaining and satisfying, but just starts and stops so much. 40 minutes or so can be chopped out of this sloppy story and have it be a much tighter ride that balances fun characters with flash instead of just flashing us like a broken camera with no film in it. None of this is helped by how much we go back to the well of apparent hilarity that is Elton John’s cameo-turned-unwanted-50th-supporting role. Seriously, this film is as addicted to unnecessary supporting characters as the drug addicts who Poppy profits off of are to hardcore narcotics.

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Ultimately, Kingsman The Golden Circle is a stark reminder of how bigger rarely means better. Sure, there’s more world building introduced. A new side of spies in this world we’ve never seen. Yet, that world is about as plentiful as a barrell of mediocre whiskey. Fine to get the job done of getting drunk, but lacking any flavor to savor. While pushing the old characters to the side, it gives more screen time to shove in dimensionless toothless characters that either identify with a skeevy type of male chauvinism or fade in the background to allow the former to thrive. While the first Kingsman gave us a world that both celebrated and satirized James Bond, this gives us more of a Die Another Day style shallow run through the cliches, thinking the winks and nods will be charming enough without any kind of subversion or new life. Kingsman The Golden Circle thinks the basic concept of these new ideas will be enough to charm, not wanting to put the work in like the lazy chav Eggsy used to be… and really still is thanks to a lack of forward momentum. While there are a few cool action scenes and a handful of fun character interactions, Kingsman The Golden Circle is about as half baked as some of the plot necessary stoners are. Then again, “half baked” might be too kind of a way to describe it. Perhaps “broiled over a stove until mostly diluted” would suffice?

Rating: 1.5 Out of 5 Endless Elton John Moments

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“mother!” (2017): What’s Happening?!

mother! is a blatantly confrontational film. Director/writer Darren Aronofsky spends the first half showing the small yet impactful nudges that come with allowing our titular character (Jennifer Lawrence) to be walked upon like a doormat, followed by a cavalcade of horrors that fill her house and destroy her fragile sense of tranquility. There’s a sensory overload going on with mother! that will alienate many and keep others interested. It’s a film about religion, politics, gender roles, war, famine, murder, parenthood and so many other thematic concepts that one can get lost in the barrage of ideas Aronofsky is throwing at the screen. mother! is a kitchen sink kind of film where everything is thrown at the wall to see what sticks. If you’re willing to go along with this maddening house of horrors while accepting the limited narrative at play, you might enjoy. Otherwise, it’s a true cinematic assault that could leave you hanging in a pit of confusion and disappointment. Or hell, it could even do both. That’s just how varied and crazy mother! ultimately is.

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The first thing to accept about mother! is that it definitely lacks a traditional narrative. Right from the initial setup, the entire point is to throw us off balance with confusion. Jennifer Lawrence wakes up, confused as to where her husband (Javier Bardem) is, wandering this endless house that’ll be our only setting. Showing off how truly unfamiliar she is with a domain that she herself recreated from the ashes because of the person who perceives themselves as the alpha in the relationship. Even in the gorgeous bright lights, she is in the dark. The rest of the film is an exploration into the perspective of someone in the dark due to how the world treats her and how she herself allows the world to continue in their ways of casting her aside as a doormat without much protest initially out of a sense of societally instilled politeness. It’s a delicate role to pull off, which Jennifer Lawrence does with a believable building madness and dread.

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mother! truly hinges on her ability to convey this bewilderment without ever seeming too passive. Despite her more sociable personality she’s displayed in previous works, Lawrence portrays a believable quiet introverted soul who just wants to be separated out from society with her lover, being disturbed and assaulted by the mass of onlookers who seek to invade her personal space without much concern. Lawrence gives a human tether for a character who mainly exists as a representation of everything from Mother Nature being destroyed by humanity, women in general being dismissed by society and well to do people attempting to ignore the problems of the world outside their personal bubble.

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Alongside Lawrence is Javier Bardem, playing a writer filled with pretension and adoration for those who love him that is constantly keeping Lawrence at an arm’s length distance while also wanting to cuddle up to her at the most convenient intervals for himself. Whether it be small asides to explain himself briefly when he feels it’s most convenient or bask next to his lover to pose in front of others that adore him. One could easily see this as Darren Aronofsky commenting on himself through this character. An artist who gets adoration and shuns those around him with his own inflated ego. Whether or not this is self loathing or ideal wish fulfillment is murky, particularly with the ending that mixes metaphors quite a bit. Then again, mother! is full of mixed metaphors that jumble together into a stream of consciousness mishmash that’s constantly tugging between layered insightfulness and mastubatory self reflection.

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The first signs of the outside world that intrude are Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer. Both are polar opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of performance styles here, with Harris giving the feeble toppling of a man on his deathbed and Pfeiffer subverting this as a woman in charge of herself at the expense of others. Both have allegorical connections to Adam & Eve, parental dynamics and a worrying glimpse for Lawrence into her potential future with Bardem. They’re roles that dissipate once the second act craziness kicks in, but linger in the mind of Lawrence and those on board in the audience. Pfieffer in particular is stunningly unabashed in a way that’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf levels of detached and embittered. Her presence introduces the major theme of apathy that plagues Lawrence, where no one considers her needs as a person or respects the idea of barging into her domain uninvited, then perceiving her as being rude for even suggesting that they are being uncaring.

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From her, mother! spirals out into madness in a way many films claim to do, but so few do with reckless abandon of logic and sensibility. Lawrence’s home turns into a true house of horrors, where every single turn represents a new tear in reality that leaves the other behind. This shows off Aronofsky’s biggest strength as a director. The idea that the fabric of a single room can change once the camera focuses on another corner. The reality that we once knew from a previous angle changes completely with one 45 degree turn to the left or right. At one point one can see the terror of war, then turn slightly and see the terror of human trafficking. Smothering us with the exhaustion of every single problem of the world invading a domicile we wish would just be our own quiet alcove from the scary place outside. This is really where mother! becomes a Halloween Horror Nights haunted house designed by someone under heavy duress. Only, instead of being themed around a popular horror film being recreated, it’s around every social and political anxiety we strive to forget about by going into that very haunted house. Aronofsky is putting a mirror straight up to us through horror imagery of everything we want to escape from.

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mother! is not a film for everyone. Maybe it isn’t a film for anyone other than Darren Aronofsky. It’s clearly a film laying out a lot of his anxieties, as honestly any work of art can be for an artist. Then again, is that projection really what he’s striving for? Or are we more meant to have our own psychological ideas of societal fears reflecting through this lense he is creating? Is all of this helpful or harmful to our own fragile psyches? There’s a lot to question. A lot to ponder. Which is honestly kind of refreshing and emotionally taxing at the exact same time. mother! isn’t something that can be summed up well in conversation or a review such as this one. mother! is bold, annoying, confusing, erotic, disturbed, unclear, blatant, unfocused, extremely direct and every single other adjective I could possibly throw at it. None of this may have been helpful for someone hoping to get a sense of what mother! is about. Nor did I necessarily aim for it to be so. These ramblings are merely trying to sum up the breath of feelings one can have after seeing something with so much to unpack. A brief vomiting of thoughts to try to piece together after blunt force like Javier Bardem does for the crystal shard that breaks into piece on the floor. Thus, consider this to be a man bleeding into the shards while crushing glass, a mess of human fluids covering crushed senses of narrative and thought. For that, mother! hits a lot of targets that’ll stick in my sides pretty hard like those shards of glass in Bardem’s palm. Then again, some of that pain kinda tingles in an exciting way. I’ll keep a few of those shards in my side to marinate the flesh for awhile.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 WTF moments

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“It” (2017): Doesn’t Need Floaties

Stephen King is a hard author to properly adapt. His books are often extremely long, heavily rely on interior monologues and all the character development often gets flushed down the toilet. There have been notable exceptions (Brian De Palma’s Carrie or David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone), but many of them result in terrible films or far longer – thus more boring – mini-serieses. One of the latter resulted in an It adaptation that – aside from an iconic performance from Tim Curry as Pennywise – was just as excruciating as most of the other King adaptations. Luckily, director Andy Muschietti has managed to craft a stand out adaptation of King’s massive tomb by doing something I’m surprised no one else has done yet… just adapt half of it. Yes, the interweaving plotlines of a tomb so massive that I personally haven’t read it have been divided in half, allowing the half with the child characters to thrive. Well, thrive for as long as Pennywise (now played by Bill Skarsgard) will allow them do. 

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The Losers Club of children we follow – Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Beverly (Sophia Lillis), Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Mike (Chosen Jacobs), Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) and Stanley (Wyatt Oleff) – all have traits of children we either knew or actually were when we were younger. Yet, they aren’t cliches. Rather, they have the jumping off points of being outcasted geek kids with quirks and foibles, yet manage to become fleshed out dimensional people we can get behind. Their foibles are mainly there to set up the elaborate facades Pennywise develops to frighten them, but the dimension comes in as they gradually realize how to overcome their fears.

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A main example of this is Bill getting over the trauma of losing his brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott). He feels responsible, yet gradually learns the finality of death and the mature yet heartbreaking decision of realizing what that means. The same goes for Eddie standing up to his overbearing mother, Beverly gaining the upperhand on her abusive father and Ben realizing the power of his research abilities. All these kids learn from the confidence they build together, making these Losers feel like troubled and relatable characters.Some suffer – mainly Mike who often disappears and reappears during the run time – though most of them flourish. We see most of them build as characters far more than the previous adaptation of It, allowing us to be so much more invested than we would in the prism of “how can these kids kill an interdimensional being? There’s no way.” Instead, it creates characters who we want to see find a way.

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Of course, to build up that tension we have to have a believable threat. That main threat is of course the titular It creature, which we normally see as this dancing clown of innocence trying to lure children away. Pennywise here is much more clearly a disguise rather than the clear main presentation we saw in the earlier adaptation. Every facet of the character becomes electric and terrifying. The way Skarsgard puts on this facade of joy and occasionally sinks it down through a simple facial movement is genuinely unnerving. Yet, the over the top effects work is also incredibly well realized as we see Pennywise slink around, hide behind objects and contort to inhuman ways. This can be seen in full display in a scene where he hides in a fridge. The angles his body shifts into are unreal, to a point that works for the character. There’s enough of an uncanny valley to his performance and the technical work that gives this humanoid body a disturbing quality of wrong. Like a cartoon character in the real world with only one goal: feast on the fear of the children who should be enthralled by him.

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The creepiness doesn’t stop with Pennywise, though. The variety of creatures It transforms into to scare the children are impressive, but the entire town of Derry feels so off. The adults simply look as horrible things go on and just look the otherway. Allow horrific things to happen out of self preservation. This part of It seemed particularly lacking in previous adaptations, but is so well realized here. The entire town has this Lovecraftian quality of legend around it that’s emphasized by background details and the extra’s perfectly unfeeling facial expressions. We get more of a sense that The Losers’ Club isn’t just facing off against a supernatural being. They’re facing off against a society that has been under that creature’s spell and they have to do this to escape their mawing grasp. Andy Muschetti shows this off plenty of times through brilliant details, such as how certain background characters are possessed by Pennywise or the TV set that encourages children to go into the sewers. The presence of terror looms high and all over, making the journey to destroy It all the more urgent.

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There are a fair amount of problems that carry over from the source material. Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) is still a rather one dimensional villain. Try as they might to give a bit more sympathy to the lines his co-horts won’t draw or his reactions to the abusive father’s treatment of him, this adaptation still can’t make him more than an annoying antagonist without much humanity. Plus, some of the script contrivances written for this adaptation force It to separate our heroes and force one into being kidnapped in a fashion that does less for characters’ strong motivations and more to make us wait around until the come back together for the climax.

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Still, the majority of It manages to capture the truly nightmarish scope of the story. Despite following a group of small kids on the verge of adolescence, the threat is far bigger than their grasp. And that’s not just because they’re battling a creature from far off dimensions feasting on fear. Really, Pennywise and the town of Derry is a representation of the true horrors of the world. The type of horrors that are bigger than social anxiety or rock battles. It’s the crushing of childhood innocence and grasping the idea of true mortality. It manages to capture that nightmare scenario through not only the general fears these children feel, but the uncaring asides from the world around them that show the importance of true friendship and dedication to a cause that may seem too far out of reach. That all might be heady, but at least a giant intergalactic turtle isn’t involved. Yeah, that’s apparently a thing in the book.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Floating Balloons

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“Death Note” (2017): Maybe Don’t Pass This Note Around

Adapting a piece of work from one cultural context to another can be more than a bit difficult. While I’ve never seen the anime or read the manga this American version of Death Note is based on, I can still sympathize. Not only are the white washing concerns worthy of dubious thought, but there’s so much that can be lost in adapting a long form story into a 100 minute feature film effort. Add onto that a troubled decade-plus production history and Death Note seems like an outright and damn obvious example of lame adaptation in the making. Does it fall into some of those problems? Oh yes. Yes yes yes, it certainly does. Is it an entirely horrible experience? Well… not necessarily.

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The biggest problem with this American Death Note on a purely narrative level is how rushed it all feels. Even without being aware of the long form narrative source material or the various writers involved, one can clearly tell that Death Note is trying hard to build its mythology and characters while also progressing them through what feels like a season’s worth of stories. It’s honestly kind of odd that Netflix of all places would release this as a feature film instead of trying to turn it into a bingeable series. It would help with the constraints of setting up this killer diary concept, the lead characters who are authentically whiny teenagers into something more compelling and the cultural fervor over the Kira God concept.

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To his credit, Death Note director Adam Wingard makes the entire thing visually interesting. The bigger budget action moments aside, Wingard applies his usual penchant for neon glow lighting and visually unique ways of shooting conversations. The type of direction that made his smaller budget works The Guest and You’re Next so lively and entertaining. The elaborate death scenes have a sort of Final Destination quality to them, though they often seem unintentionally wacky and rather repetitive. Wingard’s visual shorthand often does more than the story itself can in terms of developing most of these characters. There’s a pivotal moment between our lead Light (Nat Wolff) and his newfound girlfriend Mia (Margaret Qualley) at a school dance that changes the course of all events afterward. In context of the story, it feels sudden. There’s been some set up for this, but the move feels like a dramatic crank up to 11 for little in story reasons that make sense. On its own though, there’s a visual context that shows more of a believable surprise, from the editing to each face to the blue lighting that hints at something awful for our characters up ahead.

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Then again, Wingard also has the handicap of working with these lead actors. Nat Wolff as Light is a whiny brat of a lead that never really progresses. Death Note clearly wants to show us a progression to something larger by the ending, but we never get the idea that his use of the titular book is really anything more than something self serving. Light’s arc is set up as someone who uses the book starts out thinking about himself, then attempts to become vigilante justice that grows out of hand. Yet, we never quite get a handle on the cultural scope of his or Mia’s Kira God antics. Given Wolff’s hilariously awkward screams and petulant angry teen face at the start, one would hope some dimension would grow on him like moss on a tree. This doesn’t happen, making a big turn that the crux of the entire ending quite laughable. Qualley’s Mia isn’t given much either, suffering from the very rushed story that twists her around in such a variety of directions. At least she’s more tolerable than Light.

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Honestly, of the entire cast Lakeith Stanfield‘s L is easily the highlight. With his constantly shifting physicality and mysterious backstory, he’s the more engaging character to follow. Just the way Stanfield breathes meticulous life to a character as uniquely emotionally shut off as L is quite stunning to watch. One almost wishes that Death Note was more from his perspective as he investigates this mysterious string of deaths like some sort of sugar heightened insomniac Sherlock Holmes. L is a great example of how a character may be alien and unrelatable, but still incredibly compelling. The demonic entity of Ryuk (voiced by Willem Dafoe and portrayed in the flesh by Jason Lilesis honestly quite intimidating when he initially shows up. Yet, he ultimately just becomes a source for exposition and temptation that Light doesn’t really need after a certain point. A devilish figure creeping over his shoulder that’s a creepy presence, but little else.

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As to the uncomfortable issues of whitewashing, Death Note tries to integrate some of the Japanese roots into the story. L’s caretaker Watari (Paul Nakauchi) is a key presence during the second half and Kira is emphasized as a Japanese presence in the film’s Seattle setting that received praise for bringing justified death to criminals. Yet, these ideas in theory come to little in practice. If anything, these elements seem like further appropriation, one the characters are literally taking on. Unfortunately, there’s little potential satirical intent to offset that. It’s similar (though not quite as egregious) to the issues that happened earlier this year with Ghost in the Shell, who’s integration of the Japanese subplot only served to over complicate things further, to the point where they might as well have dropped the Japanese elements altogether unless they were going to have Japanese Americans in the lead roles or something. Instead, it’s just sort of… awkward.

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Ultimately, Death Note is a mess. Cramming in so much detail into a 100 minute running time. It’s not without a few gory kills, memorable performances or thrilling visuals, but nothing really that memorable. For something with a premise as intriguing as killing via writing a name in a book, “forgettable” is pretty disappointing. Even as someone unfamiliar with the source material, the breakneck pacing of the story doesn’t allow much of an entry point for either the characters or the concept to really settle. We start right out the gate with a death in the first six minutes and only pause for exposition. There’s not a lot of room to breathe, leaving the film on a note that one could describe as deadly. A… Demise Record, if you will.

Rating: 2 Torn Out Pages Out of 5

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Annabelle: Creation (2017): Life from Rotting Sources

The Conjuring was a massive surprise smash when it opened in 2013. After all, you don’t make a $20 million film and make 16 times your budget back without anticipating franchise potential. Since then, we’ve had a sequel and a spin off Annabelle, based on the possessed doll that The Warrens found in the first ConjuringAnnabelle – despite being significantly worse than the masterful two Conjuring films – did well enough to warrant the existence of Annabelle: Creation. This unnecessary prequel to the unnecessary prequel to The Conjuring is probably at its worst when attempting to connect itself too much to the overall “universe” being developed here. There’s allusions to an upcoming The Nun spin off based on one of the central ghost characters in The Conjuring 2 and even a bit of connection to the first Annabelle films that has to contort some things around to set that up. While not as offensive as certain other franchises attempting to be a cinematic universe, these moments of world building ultimately come across as shoehorned, especially when the central story of Annabelle: Creation is pretty solid ground for a stand alone horror movie.

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Yes, despite the awkward clunkiness established in the rather bland Annabelle from 2014, Annabelle: Creation manages to rise out of those ashes and create an effective little horror film enclosed within this house. The mythology of the first Annabelle is carried over here, mainly with a demon that uses the titular doll as a conduit from which it can come into the world and search for a new body to inhabit. While the initial film made all of that feel so underwhelming, Annabelle: Creation actually takes advantage of the imagery. Directed by David F. Sandberg – who made a big splash last year with the horror film Light’s Out – one can see why he’s been a sought after director.

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Sandberg takes advantage of every shot to build up atmosphere, mainly with an incredibly measured lighting style. There are traditional horror shots in Annabelle: Creation where a character looks into a dark abyss and sees nothing. Yet, Sandberg and his team know just how much to show of the young girl the Annabelle doll is named after or the demon possessing the doll in the dark hallway to terrify without teasing too much. It’s just bright enough for your eyes to adjust and look genuinely frightening. Truly, a stark upgrade on the style of lighting influenced by James Wan much of horror has had in the last few years.

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This all was present in Sandberg’s direction from Lights Out. Hell, there’s still plenty of jump scares to be had. People tend to be silent followed by someone sneaking up on them. To its credit, the jump scares in Annabelle: Creation aren’t “edit followed by BOOM sound effect.” They’re used to help create the unease of being caught by Mr. Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) without resorting to the much more obvious jump scares immediately. There’s a tension that mounts as we see more and more corners of this creeping decaying house and are petrified our investigation will alert danger. Even using wonderful props, like the toy gun that gives us a fishing horror scene in a house. It’s a great example of using curiosity of the dark for horror antics without feeling too much like “stupid character syndrome.” I mean, there’s a bit of that occasionally, but not nearly as much as one would expect for a modern studio horror movie.

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It helps that these characters are actually given a bit of thought. Mr. and Mrs. Mullins (Miranda Otto) have this creepy aesthetic that masks a real tragedy and loss that emanates through the empty house. Seeing their daughter die early on may give more than a few early clues to what is masking our demon, but it provides a solid emotional grounding for the exposition ladened reveals an inherent tragedy. There’s also a nice little core in the friendship between Janice (Talitha Bateman) and Linda (Lulu Wilson). Both orphans who dream of being adopted as sisters is simple, but sturdy set up for their friendship. Giving us appropriate stakes so the bigger reveals mean something. Same with Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman), who gives Janice a true glance at an ultimatum. One that presents a docile acceptance of ghosts or being separate from those you love.

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Yes, Annabelle: Creation actually cares about its characters and stakes. It’s just as shocking for me as it is for you. Much like last October’s Ouija: Origin of Evil (which also featured Lulu Wilson), this sequel to an unnecessary property cash grab actually works as its own self contained horror movie. Which is especially impressive for a horror movie with a doll where the doll isn’t really seen moving. It’s all about the manipulation of that doll to elicit inherent terror, especially for these girls stuck in a creepy old house. We care about the characters and give the scares more authenticity in the process. While the future of this whole Conjuring universe may be up in the air – personally  I’m not totally convinced about that Nun spin off idea – this is a clever studio horror film stuck within those constraints. Always nice to see solid craft in a cash grab.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Dangling Doll Parts

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THE DARK TOWER (2017): Exposition Ft. Stephen King References

The Dark Tower has so many elements I’d love to embrace. Never read the novels, but was intrigued by the concept. That of a Gunslinger (Idris Elba) doomed to walk the Universe in pursuit of the man who wronged him. The Man In Black (Matthew McConaughey), a charming demon out to destroy the titular literal skyscraper and bring forth monsters. Some of which come from The Dark Tower author Stephen King‘s other books. That right there sounds like just the type of weird yet familiar genre storytelling that could kick us out of the generic blockbuster funk we’re in. Yet, it ironically just ends up being the blandest type of blockbuster we’re familiar with. As is explained numerous times.

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Yes, let’s get this right out the way. The Dark Tower is very much an exposition dump of a movie. Understandable to some degree. We’re being introduced to a whole new world. Exposition is bound to be clunky. But it doesn’t need to be plentiful, as it is here. So much of The Dark Tower is telling you about the importance of its universe. What a “Gunslinger” is, but how our specific one Roland is the best of them. Why does this make him better? Because he can shoot super fast. What is the comparison with the Gunslinger? His dad (Dennis Haysbert) was also a gunslinger. Where to the guns get their power? They’re made from the metal of excalibur. What is his mission? To kill The Man In Black for killing his Dad. Who is The Man in Black? A dude who wears black and scowls at people.

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Which pretty much describes the amount of character stars Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey are given. Two of the better actors working today are saddled with exposition and moody brooding that gives neither of them any room for a real personality. Elba especially doesn’t lift much of an eyebrow to do anything but grimace and point is gun. He got the backstory, but not the pathos because of how rushed everything feels. We just know he’s some dude who wants revenge yet won’t save the universe too because… screw it I’m a cowboy lone wolf?

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Matthew McConaughey is the more interesting case. He doesn’t seem all that enthused, but not completely uncommitted. His performance gives the aire that The Dark Tower editors Alan Edward Bell and Dan Zimmerman used takes of McConaughey that were either the fourth “let’s have fun, fellas” take and the ninth “I’m tired of this” take. So either in a relaxed mood or just plain tensed up. There’s little room for his character to grow, but there are isolated moments of McConaughey charm that ooze through, often resulting in the more unintentionally funny sides of the film. Which to be fair… are more interesting than anything else here.

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This goes for our audience surrogate of Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), a young boy in search of help. He hears voices. Sees horrible visions in his dreams. Has a stepdad who lacks empathy. Gets bullied in school. Draws weird images in his notebook. I’m sorry, was I describing Jake Chambers or EVERY OTHER STEPHEN KING PROTAGONIST? Yes, when we aren’t in the other world messing with all sorts of monsters and interdimensional western stuff, we get a lot of the typical archetypes that Stephen King developed, minus a few awful Christians and drunks. Jake is our surrogate, but we never care enough about him over the course of this journey. There’s no chemistry with Idris Elba in a mentor-mentee fashion they’re striving for. He’s just a vehicle for everyone to exposit things about The Dark Tower to.

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Oh, but don’t you fret! If you’re sick of the general cliches from Stephen King’s work, just wait until all the references pop up! Look, there’s the Christine car! Oh, Jake has ‘The Shine!’ There’s Pennywise’s name over a carnival! These are really the only moments where The Dark Tower shows off any resemblance of being interesting. And it’s by merely implying a connection to King’s other stories. Stories that were adapted to popular culture with some kind of memorable quality. Surely, this at least feels better in context of a series of novels that actually expounded more upon the universe this connected to. Hell, it just gets people to remember that the upcoming It film from a completely different studio looks so much better than this one. Great universe building once again, Sony!

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The worst thing about The Dark Tower is that despite the fantastical setting and earth shattering stakes, the entire thing comes off as so slight. Such a small scale for any of these major moments to really take impact. Director Nikolaj Arcel shows no real hand or personality. Though, this likely has to do with the multitude of production problems and voices here. It seems as if all of this was truly neutered to this bland whitebread version of an epic fantasy parable. Instead, it feels like a lesser version of a 90s kids fantasy movie. Special effects and all. Especially when our climax is rocks vs guns. Woof.

Rating: 1 out of 5 Gunslinger Bullets

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A GHOST STORY (2017): The Horror of Observation

Horror cinema as of late has been going through a bit of a diverse phase right now. Mainly thanks to companies like A24 who put out challenging films that defy what tends to be put out into theaters. Stuff like It Comes At Night,  The Lobster and Tusk. Who take the horror conceits and give us something… distinct, if not always good. A Ghost Story is one such oddity. A film about loneliness, the nature of supernatural immortality and someone eating a pie for five straight minutes in an unbroken shot. It’s not like much of anything one could be seeing in a theater. That’s commendable, but not always consistently popular. Yet… I couldn’t help but fall in love with this weird little time piece.

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Director/writer David Lowery (Pete’s Dragon, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) has been a fan of genre explorations. His films take basic tenants of their genres and turn them into gripping emotional tethers to get us past the initial appearance. Saints was a wistful yet authentic twist on a crime romance and Peter’s Dragon took an awful Disney film and turned it into a soulful journey of one boy growing up after intense tragedy. Now with A Ghost Story, Lowery takes the concepts of a horror film and gives the entire thing an existential point of dread. One where we see just how ultimately insignificant we are as people in the grand scheme of things. And how that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

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A Ghost Story handles a type of existential horror and dread that few others would go through. It’s a wonderful example of exploring the genre from the perspective of the ghost. But not on a mere spooky haunt level. We see a bit of that in a sequence that shows Lowery loves horror, but it’s framed in a cruel dramatic tragedy. That our ghost (Casey Affleck) says so much with so little dialogue or direct body language. After seeing him as a live man alongside his wife (Rooney Mara), we don’t need him to express human concerns. There’s a subtle but wonderful build up to all this that shows Lowery loves the horror genre. But, taken from a different perspective.

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In a scene where two young kids and their mother are frightened by a ghost, we sympathize with the ghost as much as the humans. There’s this ongoing endless waiting for the ghost that shows us the enormity of time. The vast endless nature of time and how it swallows up many a human in its wake. A Ghost Story isn’t about the horror of dying as a means of leaving our loved ones. It’s about the horror of being immortal and seeing our loved ones go through horror we can’t help them through. Being absent in real life only to not be able to be distracted by something else. To just witness for hours on end what they’re going through from the distance. All the grief, regret and – most terrifying of all – acceptance & moving on from us they go through.

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It’s a chilling idea, which is presented in long uncomfortable shots by A Ghost Story. There’s an extended sequence where Rooney Mara eats a pie. It’s about five minutes long, in about one interrupted shot. The type of sequences that’ll drive people mad with impatience as they have to sit there and watch this elongated & unsettling scene of a woman stress eating to the point of tears. It’s uncompromised and brutal in a way that might deter people. But it’s a brilliant way of putting us into the mood of realizing what this is. How time plays a crucial part in the understanding of the world this film builds. One where we are doomed to hover over what we love most as it goes through the best and worst of times.

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Through scenes like this, we see how our titular spectre goes through generations of advancements. How the house he loved in life goes through varying phases. Ones that leave him a cold spectator as life goes on and withers without his presence ever being known. A Ghost Story directly tackles topics of human legacy and futility in a way that may just be a bummer. And in truth it sort of is. Confronting the feelings of meaninglessness and sadness are the cornerstones of this story and they don’t leave you on the highest note to think about. Especially when so much of the film is dialogue free, allowing the visuals to really sink into your brain.

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David Lowery plays with the concept of time visually in simple yet touching fashion. A Ghost Story is shot with 1.33:1 aspect ratio, with the corners rounded. The entire film feels like a faded photograph, one that’s been in a photo book for ages. It’s a feeling that gives further credence to the themes of loss and lingering dread of this afterlife. We get a few hints that this isn’t the only time this has happened. We see another ghost next door, waiting in vain for someone who never shows up. We see the history of this land both current and past in ways that blow our perceptions of linear storytelling out the window. It’s a cute image, given they’re two Charlie Brown style sheet covered ghosts. Still, those vacant eyes say so much about living and the human condition and being obsessed over the smaller details. The tunes hummed that last enough to keep us going. The books we read to lighten our imaginations. Our ghost slams those things into our senses through his limited yet impactful powers can get to people, if only briefly.

a ghost story affleck mara

A Ghost Story isn’t really a movie about how life is pointless. If anything, it’s saying that the idea of The Afterlife is pointless. Even if we do gravitate towards another plane of existence, what does that mean for us? What do we gain from existing in another plane and seeing life go on? Not much. It’s a film about showing us the most simple form of another world within our own and realizing how empty that is. How elongated and cruel a concept like that can be. It encourages us to be like Rooney Mara and not hold history or the future in higher stock than we do the present. What our actions do now and how vital they are to how we will eventually look back on them. A Ghost Story is the type of cinema we need more of. The type that genuinely pause to contemplate humanity in ways few other bigger films right now even come an inch towards. Mind bending, soul destroying and kind of beautiful all at the same time.

Rating: 5 out of 5 Spooky Sheets

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Dunkirk (2017): Simple Efficiency In Chaos

Christopher Nolan is one of the most celebrated directors of the moment. After the highly beloved The Dark Knight, Nolan has become one of the few auteurs who is given carte blanche to do whatever they want. Following the disappointing if unfairly maligned Dark Knight Rises and the over convoluted space epic Interstellar, Nolan is going for something smaller scale with Dunkirk. Rather than depict an event with over conflated stakes that are less operatic or intergalactic and more confined. A beach in France with thousands of soldiers held up for 11 days who try at every turn to escape death by leaving. Or use death as a way out of this situation.

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There’s a lot of archetypes at the heart of Dunkirk. It’s not a movie based in incredibly dense character development. There’s a lot of visual shorthand used to give us moments with these characters in the middle of this horrific battle. Which is forgivable, given we’re in the middle of a grounded war zone. Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) is admittedly someone you could easily lose in a crowd, but Nolan’s focus on him and contrasted casting with Gibson (Damien Bonnard) makes for a solidly engaging backbone. Two desperate shoulders who meet under intense circumstances. The subtleties are there, if not especially noticeable. This can hurt some of the actors’ chances to show off nuances, mainly with Tom Hardy‘s pilot character. He’s more there for the sake of the dogfight. Which is wonderfully put together, but often cuts to Hardy being tactical rather than human.

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That story is in total contrast with Peter Dawson (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his father (Mark Rylance). Two civilians who have the tools to help and risk so much in doing so. The story of Dunkirk hinges on the kindness of strangers. Their sacrifice to help those in dire need. Rylance and Carney have a believable father-son chemistry, but with the clear lack of vocal communication. Enough communication to get that Carney knows the importance of this. All to show he fully cares so the presence of a shaken soldier (Cillian Murphy) is all the more emotionally taxing. Nolan’s integration of the PTSD this soldier is experiencing shows an adjustment that Carney has real trouble with and Rylance is more willing to accept. It shows a side of WWII that wasn’t a factor at the time, especially this early into the war.

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Christopher Nolan is the modern James Cameron. Well, James Cameron is the modern James Cameron, but Nolan is taking a lot from his playbook and is having a similar career trajectory. An auteur who is being given the massive budget to do whatever they want after a series of successful genre efforts. All I’m saying is, don’t be surprised if Christopher Nolan becomes a hermit hiding technology any time soon. Usually though, Nolan doesn’t tend to make great use of visual shorthand. He’s more a fan of long winded speeches and elaborate ways of conveying how characters feel. What they’re thinking about. How they’re thematically driven. Which was honestly becoming grating in his more recent films. Dunkirk on the other hand takes more of Cameron’s visual shorthand, though without the over inflated run time. At 106 minutes, Dunkirk is one of Nolan’s shortest and all the better for it. We all get what we need about the characters to service the individual scenes at hand. Effective, but efficient.

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Beyond that, Nolan also takes his sense of spectacle from the spirit of Cameron. Dunkirk is a pretty harrowing journey to go on, following three perspectives of the battle. It’s as if the opening horror show of Saving Private Ryan was an entire movie. Yet, there’s not an ounce of blood squirted. We see the carnage play out in bigger explosions and keep the gravity of the situation firmly in hand, but the gore isn’t the important factor. Every aspect of the filmmaking fills in the holes for that destruction. The harsh sound mixing of boats crashing. Heart pounding practical explosions. Even just simple shots of bodies floating in the grey murky water show the hopelessness of this battle.

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Dunkirk is such a refreshing move for Christopher Nolan. Without his usual crutches and a bit of restraint, Nolan has been able to create some iconic sequences, but hasn’t been able to match that up with a consistent story as of recent. Luckily, Dunkirk strips down the artifice and kicks its boots deep into the sand for an authentic cinematic account of this historic event. In many ways, it feels like the best version of an IMAX exclusive feature one can ever hope to have. That’s not an insult. It’s praise for something that’s a genuine cinematic experience. Nolan usually strives for this and – while not all the characters are consistently engaging – the story of this battle never misses a beat in terms of pure unadulterated tension.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Lost Helmets

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Valerian And the City of a Thousand Planets (2017): Unbridled Besson

Valerian and the City of A Thousand Planets opens by giving us a pretty nifty standard to hold up to. In times of great turmoil such as now, the idea of humanity progressing to the point of achieving interstellar travel and finding peace with other culture and alien beings is pretty intriguing. The montage set to “Space Oddity” by David Bowie of us progressing is a wonderful one. It also leads into a dialogue/subtitle-less sequence of us seeing a prosperous alien society go about their daily lives… before their planet is destroyed. This 10 or so minutes of Valerian are so visually astounding, telling us about this world and these people with such gorgeous imagery. So, it’s a real shame that the rest of the film goes so downhill.

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It all starts to tumble when we’re introduced to our leads Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne). They’re time and space traveling agents for human governments. They’re also in love. Kind of? DeHaan and Delevingne are attempting to have a screwball back and forth throughout that never really works. And it’s really the crux of their scenes as characters. Right from their initial holodeck beach encounter, the chemistry doesn’t land. Each bit of dialogue between the two of them is honestly horrendous. They’re not charismatic or endearing enough as people to get behind, especially as DeHaan delivers a vocal inflection I can only assume is “bad Keanu.” And Delevingne’s character is hauled back and forth between being a one dimensional damsel and a one dimensional badass within the span of a scene.

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They aren’t believable as agents. Neither seem genuinely interested in each other emotionally. Even worse, at no point do they convincingly interact with what’s around them. Valerian hinges on the reality of this world feeling authentic. That we are stepping into this world and following these two on their journey. Trouble is… that journey feels so scatter shot. There’s a vague through line, but nothing that truly keeps us grounded in this elaborate environment. With Bruce Willis in The Fifth Element, there never seemed like an artifice because he felt entrenched in this world. A citizen of this neo future punk world with butt ugly aliens and Chris Tucker radio announcers, even if he was jaded by all of this. There’s no point where either DeHaan or Delevigne do the same here.

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The story also feels so convoluted. Valerian is based on a 1960s graphic novel. I haven’t read it, but much of what I’ve heard makes it feel like a 60s spy movie flip on a sci-fi premise. That’s a style that clearly appeals to a French auteur like Luc Besson. So – much in the same why 2012’s John Carter felt lagging behind thanks to production woes and 100 years of sci-fi – there doesn’t seem like much of a modern update beyond the effects work. Down to the crazy plot mechanics that honestly seem like they’ve been taken by other sci-fi franchises… and done far better. Even down to the character archetypes, like the three informative small aliens or the blobbing gangster villain from the opening. The tropes are there, but the detail in character or motivation beyond plot points isn’t there at all.

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Valerian is the key example of how far down a CG imagery treated film can go down. Besson clearly cares about the wide expanse of this world. We see bits and pieces of these varying cultures during these action moments. The most intriguing sci-fi concept is that of the interdimensional market, which people have to use VR glasses to see and pick up things as a hologram of sorts. This is such a fun conceit and a cleverly edited sequence of Valerian and Laureline. Yet, their interaction and the ultimate conceits from there are over convoluted and predictable, to the point of being brightly colored mind numbing doldrums. We know their characters, we know their lack of drive and their ultimate moments of sacrifice feel as artificial as anything about them. Especially as the film doesn’t seem to know which one they undervalue more. Though Laureline is more likely, which is such a shame given Besson’s better work with female leads.

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There’s a rich vibrant look to the world of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. But those thousands of planets seem hollow. Soulless. Aside from the translucent aliens we see during the opening, there’s no societal foundation that really makes the world of Valerian real. No person interacting with the CG characters or backgrounds seems to have a grasp on where they are or what they’re doing. Not just the leads. Every other people that populates the cast seem lost. Rihanna is some kind of shapeshifter with a main purpose that’s mainly fetishistic. Ethan Hawke randomly pops up as a pimp and plays it like a weak Elton John impersonator. Jazz pianist Herbie Hancock pops up to… badly give exposition. It’s so odd, but more in a confounding way than an interesting one.

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There’s something to encourage about Besson’s tact in getting Valerian together. Luc Besson worked for decades to adapt this comic he loved as a feature, getting $210 million to put the whole thing together. Valerian is a director driven, passion project that gives Besson total creative control. All of that is encouraging in a modern blockbuster landscape. That all being said, it’s also an awkward mess that shows the limited of such wide creative control. I can see a world where Valerian becomes well liked down the line for its daring. I’ll admit that’s commendable and could easily make this a cult hit. Like The Fifth Element. Which the central message of is ripped wholesale here and in a stunningly less thrilling fashion. Sometimes Besson reaches nirvana, but Valerian tries to go for more of a “more is more” style attitude. And it gets crushed by the megatons of weight of a thousand planets rapidly after the first ten or so minutes ware off.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5 Pooped Pearls

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The Whit of The Muppets’ Steve Whitmire

Kermit the Frog – much like Mickey Mouse – is an everlasting icon. The type of wonderfully simplistic creation that transcends eras. Jim Henson has received so much obviously deserved praise for creating something as long lasting as Kermit on every level. The design, the voice, the personality. Yet, there’s someone who often gets tossed to the side for keeping that character alive. Said someone is Steve Whitmire, a puppeteer who worked with the Henson Company for decades and continued the legacy of many personalities puppeteered by Henson himself after his untimely death in 1990.

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It’s weird thinking about that. Despite how crucial Jim Henson was to creating The Muppets, many of the productions that have been made in the lifetimes of more recent generations of fans – including myself – have been brought to life by Henson’s successor. Now, after nearly 40 years with The Muppets, it was recently revealed that Whitmire would be leaving The Muppets. One can speculate as to why this change happened, but what really matters here is celebrating Whitmire’s talents as a performer. Something that goes unsung given how often the Muppet characters are treated as identities on their own. We see so many interviews where The Muppets are treated as their characters rather than give credit to their performers. Which shows just how dedicated Whitmire and his contemporaries were and still are to these roles.

When Whitmire first took over for Kermit, like with any change, his voice was mercilessly judged for not being Henson’s. Admittedly, it is quite different. Whitmire has a more nasal approach, missing some of the natural gruffness that oozed out of Henson’s beard. The missing base was especially noticeable early on when Whitmire performed as Kermit. It didn’t help that his first performance in the role was The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson, a massive tribute special to the beloved Muppets creator. Where everyone from Steven Spielberg to Harry Belafonte pay tribute to the fallen creator. Even his own felt creatures acknowledge his death and dealt with it through mutual song. So, it was just set up for Whitmire to fail by comparison even at this very early point.

Still, Whitmire proved his performing potential in The Muppet Christmas Carol, his first major production as Kermit. Despite a lack of that clear Henson voice, the earnest charm manages to shine through even in these early stages. The musical number “One More Sleep Til Christmas” doesn’t sound like someone doing a half hearted Kermit impression as much as a person with boundless love expressing it through a slightly more nasal voice than we’re used to. Part of the genius of The Muppet Christmas Carol really is in how it utilizes The Muppet characters for casting in Charles Dickens’ story. By having these lovable characters as important human characters while new pitch perfect puppets are used for the ghosts, we allow the audience to empathize far more. Kermit as Bob Cratchit is the prime example. Kermit as the public knew him was always a hard working fellow constrained by the situation he was in. Perfect casting for one of the archetypes of the underappreciated worker. Even if it is weird to see his and Mrs. “Piggy” Cratchit’s pig & frog children.

Muppet Kermit the Frog and his operator Steve Whitmire take questions from the audience at Barnes & Noble

From here, the uses of Kermit do vary, mostly due to an inability to fully grasp what The Muppets could be after Henson’s death. Between them adapting Robert Louis Stevenson and Gonzo revealing himself as an alien, the Henson company clearly were taking things in odd directions. Still, Whitmire’s turns as Kermit never felt underwhelming. The sword fighting scenes in Muppet Treasure Island are some of the best examples of Kermit’s physical comedy abilities. He even has a few funny moments of straight man style comedy in Muppets From Space. He even kept up the hosting duties that Henson had as Kermit for the original Muppet Show during Muppets Tonight for a brief point in the mid-90s.

As time continued, he grew even more accustomed to Kermit as a character. After years of obscurity, when The Muppets film from 2011 gave the characters a return to form, Whitmire gave the role of Kermit even more life than had ever been truly brewed into the character. His Kermit in that film is one that has seen much better days and acknowledges that the puppet characters we know and love have been undervalued by time, allowing Whitmire give Kermit a sense of regret and loss that weren’t available previously. Thus, when we get Whitmire’s rendition of “Rainbow Connection” to serve as part of the telethon climax, it means more for Kermit as a performer wanting to touch as many people as Jim did before. It helps that Whitmire served as an assistant operator for Henson during Kermit’s initial rendition of that song for 1979’s The Muppet Movie, giving life to the arms that plucked Kermit’s banjo strings.

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Of course, Kermit wasn’t the only character Whitmire ever played. Probably his most famous original role was Rizzo the Rat, a streetwise New Yorker rodent who often served as a wonderful comedic foil to Gonzo The Great. The chemistry between Whitmire and Gonzo performer Dave Goelz was quite palpable. In Muppet Christmas Carol, the two show a comedic duo styling that helped breathe life into the post-Jim years. Rizzo brought a genuine grounding to Gonzo’s usual insane antics. He had the perfect type of urban charm that may have been needed when he was introduced during Muppets Take Manhattan. Whitmire took what initially seemed like a parody of Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy and turned him into a hilarious full fledged comedic character of his own.

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Steve Whitmire has also brought to life many other lasting Muppet characters. Whitmire continued the roles of other Muppets characters like Statler, Beaker and Link Hogthrob. He created the role of Bean Bunny, who was introduced to audiences in 1986 and continues to delight them in Muppet Vision 3D at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. He also gave smaller yet notable characters life in Henson Company projects like The Dark CrystalLabyrinth and the TV series Dinosaurs. Whitmire also took over important roles on Sesame Street, mainly that of Ernie. He even had a technical plunge that put his mark on the creatures on a mechanical level, as he created the mechanism that allowed Rizzo the Rat the ability to move his mouth.

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It shows just how many technological and artistic achievements Steve Whitmire ultimately provided to The Muppets characters. While he wasn’t the most celebrated person within the company, Steve Whitmire deserves so much credit. And not just for being the man who took up the mantle of Kermit for nearly 30 years after someone who created the character passed on. No, Whitmire helped give so much new life to the character in the intervening years following Henson’s death. He allowed The Muppets to endure for children in the dawn of the new millennium, who sought comfort in the age of burgeoning technology. The Muppets can often seem like a relic of the past, trying to get through modern times with new gimmicks. Given there’s been moments like the recent 2015 sitcom or lesser webshows to prove weakened attempts to adapt to the times.

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Yet, Steve Whitmire always seemed to be willing to keep the characters alive. Even through obscurity and reality TV show appearances, Whitmire was instrumental in helping keep these characters from fading into the dust and deserves proper thanks for his actions. Though he wasn’t Jim Henson, Steve Whitmire was a puppeteer who knew that these characters transcended the hands that operated them. Without people like Whitmire or recent puppeteers like Eric Jacobson, Bill Barretta and Matt Vogel (who will be taking up the role of Kermit following Whitmire), The Muppets wouldn’t be around to inspire children to laugh, love and sing for nearly 30 years.

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Jim Henson got this ball to start rolling. And that’s incredibly vital. Yet, it takes a determined and devoted person to keep things alive. That’s something Steve Whitmire helped provide to these evergreen characters at a time when they were most needed. He wasn’t necessarily Jim Henson, but he was a dedicated performer who helped keep the role alive. Now that he’s gone, it’s important to note the legacy he helped keep alive still stands to this day. Without Mr. Whitmire’s work, it’s safe to say I myself wouldn’t appreciate the lasting legacy of these characters as much as I do. They may be felt and lacking in human flesh, but The Muppets are eternal pop culture creations. Ones that may outlast Steve Whitmire, but shouldn’t keep his accomplishments in mind when looking back on their history. No matter why he decided to leave, Whitmire’s accomplishments deserve to be noted in history for all time. And they will, along the great Rainbow Connection of life.

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