The Dark Tower Review

The Dark Tower

Rated: PG-13 for Thematic material including sequences of gun violence and action.

Review by: Benjamin Ferrarini

Dark Tower Poster

“The Dark Tower” is based on a set of serialized stories by author Steven King.  It is Directed by Nikolaj Arcel (“A Royal Affair”) and staring Idris Elba (“Pacific Rim”) and Matthew McConaughey (“Interstellar”).  King’s original series spanned eight books written between 1998 and 2004.  A film adaptation has been in production since 2007 and has gone through a number of changes in that time.  In its current form I suspect the film is adapted from the first novel “The Gunslinger” as it is only an hour and a half and only covers part of the overall story.  While I know some of the basics of the story from the books I have not actually read any of them and that means my review will be purely of the film.  Thus the question is: does the film stand on its own?

The film opens on a boy named Jake Chambers played by new comer Tom Taylor.  Jake is having vivid dreams of another world, of a man dressed all in black and a lone gunmen wondering a wasteland.  Jake is convinced his dreams are actually visions and that they are tied to a series of earthquakes.  Jake’s visions lead him to a derelict house which contains a portal into Midworld, the place of his visions.  Jake comes across the Roland and gunman from his visions.  Roland played by Elba tells Jake that his visions are indeed true.  The dark tower he’s seen is at the center of a number of realities protecting them all from a malevolent force known as the darkness.  The man in black, Walter played by McConaughey, is an agent of the darkness seeking to destroy the tower so evil can overtake all the realms.  Jake begins traveling with Roland not realizing Walter is hunting them believing Jake holds the power to destroy the tower once and for all.

“The Dark Tower” is basically a good vs. evil story with some action/fantasy elements.  There are callbacks to other Steven King stories such as Jakes psychic abilities which are dubbed “shine” reminiscent of King’s “The Shinning”.  The dialog is solid and the acting passible for the most part.  However, there’s no question Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey carry the film.  Elba with his strong stoic “Gunslinger” is compelling to watch. McConaughey exudes a cool charisma as he swaggers across screen.  Director Nikolaj Arcel does his best balancing the dramatic human elements with the action not letting one overtake the other.  Instead he uses the human elements to motivate the story going for something character driven more then plot driven.  The action scenes themselves have a good sense of energy with a nice visual flair.

The film is only 90 minutes and it moves fast with is both to its benefit and detriment.  The pacing keep things moving, building energy and keeping the film interesting.  Unfortunately the film moves a little too fast for its own good.  There is an inescapable sense that there is a lot more story then what we’re seeing, a larger world that we only get a slight glimpse of.  That is to say there are times, names and places which the film employs but without enough context to understand them.  Walter has a number of minions he uses to do his bidding but it’s never revealed what these creatures are or where they came from.  Likewise Roland’s order of Gunslingers is never explained either.  We know they are defenders of the Tower but are never told where they came from.  There are other moments sprinkled throughout that seem to be references to elements I assume are from the books.  Roland and Walter’s powers are never quite defined so there doesn’t appear to be anything to anchor what they can or can’t do.  This is especially true in one sequence which sees Roland with some wound that troubles him one moment then suddenly isn’t a problem anymore.  Perhaps the film is too dependent on a knowledge of the novels or it is counting on future sequels to build out the world.  Either way this film doesn’t stand on its own very well as it leaves too many fundamental questions unanswered.

“The Dark Tower” is a fun film that is enjoyable if you’re not looking for anything too deep.  It offers action and a simple enough plot.  Sadly however, there are too many parts that don’t quite work.  With out more context to ground the fantastical elements they offer spectacle but not much else.  Again I can’t speak to how well the film represents the books but as a film it doesn’t stand on it’s own very well and that’s a shame as some parts do work pretty well.

new 3 stars
Final Score: 3 Stars

 

For more on review scores see the about page.

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Book to Screen: The truth about film adaptations

Film | Opinion

Written by: Benjamin Ferrarini

Hunger Gamers Poster

From the beginnings of cinema there have been adaptations.  Big screen versions of classic works go back to silent films based on Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” in 1911 and Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” in 1914.  Novels also got adapted with two of the most famous being released in 1939.  The first was Margaret Mitchell’s 1937 novel “Gone With the Wind” which lost academy award for best picture to “The Wizard of Oz” based on L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel.  Since then there has been a steady stream of adaptations some of which have ranked in the top tier of the best films ever made.  “The Godfather” (1972),  “Silence of the Lambs”(1991), and “Schindler’s List” (1995) are all academy award winning films based on prior works.  For many having a work adapted to film is the pinnacle of success.  To others it seems a final insult.

Of course for every successful film that masterfully adapts it’s source material there are films that fail miserably. “Sphere” (1998), “Along Came a Spider (2001), “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” (2005)  For one reason or another films like these simply do not capture the essence of what they are built on.  “Sphere” and “Along Came a Spider” eject to much of what made the original stories work.  Meanwhile it can be argued the dense commentary and irreverent satire which made up the “Hitchhiker’s” books simply couldn’t be translated to screen.  Zack Snyder’s take on Frank Miller’s graphic novel “Watchmen” was as competent an adaptation as it could be but still left a lot of fans cold.  So it’s easy to wonder what makes a good adaptation form a bad one?  Why do some work while others do not?  Is it in the eye of the beholder?  Or is there some objective measure we can apply?

One of literatures greats strengths for readers can become a liability when it comes to adaptations.  When you sit down to read “The Hunger Games” or “Lord of the Rings” you begin to imagine the world it is set in.  To create what the characters look like and sound like.  Very often those expressions of our imaginations are not met by those of a distant screenwriter and director.  For instance I am not a fan of the “Hunger Games” films.  The production design, art direction and casting just didn’t match up to what I wanted out of an adaptation of Susan Collins novels.  They hit most of the main story points sure, but too often “The Hunger Games” films felt like they were going through the motions without enough of the context that gives the books their emotional weight.  That judgement is apparently subjective as the film series was a critical and commercial success.

But, subjectivity aside a defining attribute for a film adaptation is that it stands on its own apart from the source material.  This is an important but often overlooked precedent.  There is a fine line between sticking to source material and creating something tailored for a different medium.  Some adaptions have trouble because they stick too close to the source material others because they deviate too much.  There is no hard and fast rule on this so let me demonstrate with some examples.  The Tom Clancy novel “Patriot Games” was developed into the 1992 film directed by Philip Noyce.  The film retains some elements from the book but is also very different.  The main source of conflict in Clancy’s novel is between a rouge IRA faction attempting to terrorize British royalty.  Most of the political intrigue and complicated plot dynamics are dropped in the film.  Instead they introduced a subplot that wasn’t in the original.  The main character Jack Ryan kills the younger brother of one of the IRA terrorists while thwarting one of their assassination plots.  The older brother, Sean Miller played by Sean Bean (“Game of Thrones”) becomes obsessed with getting revenge.  This works by taking a couple hundred pages of dense plot and boiling it down to a conflict between two men.  It gives the story a more personal note with different stakes that can easily translate to a two hour film.

patriot games still
Harrison Ford as Jack Ryan in “Patriot Games”

Conversely Peter Jackson’s adaptation of “The Hobbit” is perhaps too tied to it’s source material.  This proved to be a problem because Jackson and New Line Cinema wanted to stretch out the novel into a trilogy of films.  They padded the films talking material from the novel as well as some other Tolkien’s writings.  It was done in the name of “world building” but whatever you call it the result was a diluted meandering mess that didn’t work.

Sometimes adaptations are so successful they become more popular and better known.  “The Wizard of Oz” is more widely known then the novel its based on.  Many don’t know the Sci-Fi films “Bladerunner”, “Minority Report” and “Total Recall” are all based on stories written by Philip K. Dick.  In as much as each of these films have accumulated cult status they can be considered to be successful films even if they only faintly resemble the written sources from which they sprang.  Perhaps there is a distinction then between good films that are also good adaptations and good films that are bad adaptations.

hobbit poster

 

Perhaps the matter is mute because as stated before art is subjective and art based on art even more subjective.  Some will always prefer novels over films while others will always prefer celluloid over paper and still others will land in the middle.  Which ever group you find yourself Hollywood will continue to adapt novels and plays into films.  In 2017 two of Steven Kings novels “The Dark Tower” and “It” are coming to theaters while an American live action version of the Japanese comic “Death Note” will premiere on Netflix.  Time will tell if these adaptations will succeed or fail but you will find reviews with my thoughts on them right here on the Glitch.

Atomic Blonde Review

Atomic Blonde

Rated: R for sequences of strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity.

Atomic Blond Poster

“Atomic Blonde” is an action spy thriller from director David Leitch, a former stunt performer who worked on such notable films as “Fight Club”, “300”, “The Born Legacy”.  It is based on the black and white graphic novel “The Coldest City” and stars Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, and John Goodman.  “Atomic Blonde” takes place in the waining days of the cold war just before the fall of the Berlin Wall and centers on covert agent Lorraine Broughton played by Theron.  Lorraine is sent into Berlin following the murder of a fellow agent to retrieve a list that is said to contain the names of covert agents from numerous agencies on both sides of the iron curtain.  She is supposed to be working with British agent David Percival played by McAvoy.  But, nothing is simple and Lorraine is targeted by the KGB as soon as she arrives in Berlin.  It seems there is a turncoat going by the name of Satchel who is leaking information.  Lorraine must navigate the different dangers and stay alive while attempting to keep the mysterious list from making it into the wrong hands.

Most spy movies are fairly straightforward when it comes to the economics of their plots.  James Bond works for MI6 and represents the good guys as he attempts to stop some villain from a nefarious scheme.  While there may be some intrigue when it comes to uncovering the specifics of the plot there is a lot that isn’t questioned in traditional spy films.  “Atomic Blonde” is different because those lines are a bit more blurry.  It’s not so clear who the good guys or bad guys are or if those distinctions even apply in a world where lies and deceptions are the norm.  The plot is a Rubix Cube of constantly shifting elements that start to make sense as the different sides click into place. Right up to the end of the film there are reveals that continue to change your perception of what’s happened.  In amidst all the twists and turns “Atomic Blonde” manages some subtle commentary on the genre it’s steeped in.  While Matthew Vaughn’s “Kingsman” was more of a parody of spy films, “Atomic” takes the opportunity to make quiet observations and challenge preconceptions.  For instance one character tells Lorraine spies don’t know the difference between truth and lies to which she replies that they know the truth they just choose to ignore it.  Another example is the decision by Theron and writer Kurt Johnson to give Lorraine a female love interest in Sofia Boutella’s Delphine.  Some of these elements work, some feel forced but either way “Atomic Blonde” does stand out from the field.

Powered by David Leitch’s stunt background the action sequences and fight scenes are brutal and visceral but grounded enough to be utterly believable.  It’s worth noting that Theron did a majority of her own stunt work in the film which gave the filmmakers the freedom to shoot the action sequences with a high degree of clarity.  That is to say there isn’t a lot of fast paced jump cutting sequences as has become popular in many action films today.  In contrast in “Atomic Blonde” action is both energetic and followable which helps build tension as it keeps you in the moment.  The Director of Photography Jonathan Sela (“John Wick”) beautifully handles the cinematography, using a predominately cold palette of blues to convey the chill of the city and the characters.

“Atomic Blonde” is beautifully complex… but it is perhaps a little too complex.  The twists and turns come one after another each building on the last.  If you aren’t keeping up you’ll quickly find yourself lost.  While there’s nothing wrong with this per se there are points where “Atomic Blonde” could have done more to clarify it’s plot.  The pacing is a little uneven moving from quiet moments of Theron brooding in an ice bath, to break-neck action sequences, to the final act which contains a lot of dense plot reveals.  These shifts don’t break the film but does make it feel a little uneven.  Next “Atomic Blonde” spends a little too much time on some of the more sensationalistic elements edging on gratuitous amounts of nudity and sex.  Some of these moments are well motivated and justified by context but I can’t help but feel they were carried a step or two too far.  I tend to feel less is more in these situations but again this is more a matter of personal preference then an objective critique.  Lastly I had an issue with the films sound track.  Like “Baby Driver” earlier this summer, “Atomic Blonde” is fueled by none stop music.  However, unlike “Baby Driver” there’s no anchor for it and it comes in and out at odd times.  Sometimes this works while at others it is more distracting then motivating.

atomic pic 1

“Atomic Blonde” is a complex if somewhat superficial film with enough intrigue and well executed action to make it a successful entry in the spy genre.  While some have suggested Theron is the first female 007 I don’t think the comparison holds.  Sure she drinks vodka, kills people and isn’t above using sex to get information but Lorraine is a more nuanced character then Bond and as I’ve said the film is a bit more complex.  The historical setting helps add another layer of intrigue and helps elevate “Atomic Blonde” above some of it’s cut and paste brethren.  If you are a fan of the spy genre you will likely enjoy this film.

New 4 stars
Final Score: 4 Stars

 

See the about page for the rating rubric.

Dunkirk Review

Dunkirk

Rated: PG-13 for intense war experience and some language

Dunkirk Poster

Dunkirk is a special film.  There has been no shortage of World War II films.  Many based on well known true stories such as the massive D-Day offensive on the shore of France.  Further the storming of the Omaha beach is the most well known of the D-Day stories.  It was the start of the allies retaking occupied France from Nazi forces.  However, there is an earlier story many of us in America don’t know.  A story that takes place before America entered the war, during the fall of France to the Nazis.  After a devastating defeat close to 400,000 British and French troops were left stranded on the shores of Dunkirk.  Hitler’s army was closing in on all sides and it looked like it would end in a massacre.  But, Winston Churchill pursued a daring plan to save as many men as possible using navy and civilian boats under cover from daring fighter pilots.  This is the story Christopher Nolan has undertaken to tell in his newest film.

Dunkirk is an unconventional film,  it isn’t heavy on plot.  Nolan drops viewers onto Dunkirk beach after the crisis has started and from there makes you a passive observer following three groups of people.  First is the soldiers on the beach, of which we primarily focus on two young men with occasional cut aways to a couple officers.  Second is a British spitfire pilot as he attempts to offer air support for the evacuation.  Third is a group of boats answering the call to help rescue soldiers from Dunkirk.  Here we focus in on a family of a father and his two sons.  From these three groups we watch events play out.  Noticeable here is a lack of any third person perspective.  Nolan keeps you trapped with each group wether it’s on the beach, spitfire cockpit, or small boat.  For instance one scene in which a Nazi plane bombs the beach.  The soldiers duck and cover as the bombs fall.  The camera stays on one soldier as a series of explosions move move right at him.  The camera never flinches leaving us in the path of the relentless bombs as well.  The way Nolan uses the camera pulls the audience into the action on screen.   The reality of what’s happening is as inescapable for us as it is for the characters.  The cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema who previously worked on Nolan’s “Interstellar” and Spike Jonze’ “Her”  is extremely effective at creating an immersive experience.

The special effects carry on Nolan’s pungent for practical over CG.  What little digital effect there are blend perfectly into the practical making them virtually indistinguishable.  This emphases  is another element that keeps Dunkirk grounded and believable.

While there are a few notable faces in Dunkirk’s cast like Tom Hardy, (Inception) Cillian Murphy, (Inception) and Kenneth Branagh (Valkyrie) there are several young actors who are not as well known at least to American audiences.  However, the films lack of “star power” isn’t in any way a hindrance.  Every member of the cast delivers performances that are grounded and naturalistic.  At no point did I feel like I was seeing a big budget movie star acting on screen, rather I was swept up in the characters and their struggle to survive.

In terms of criticism, I feel some elements are subjective which makes it hard to mark them as pluses or minuses.  Dunkirk doesn’t follow a traditional story structure and is somewhat non-linear.  This can be disorienting until you figure out what’s happening.  Despite being unusual I think the presentation works for the film though I understand it may frustrate or even annoy some.  Likewise the lack of an objective view point may trouble or confuse some viewers, again I thought keeping audiences trapped in these environments created something uniquely compelling.  Lastly the charge could be leveled that there isn’t enough resolution at the end of the film.  There is some merit to that, however there is another side to the argument.  Dunkirk is a story that takes place in 1940 relatively early in World War II.  Thus it is only a small snap shot, one story in set a midst a much bigger backdrop.  Thus Nolan starts the story after it starts and closes it before it ends.  As you can see there are arguments for or against each of Nolan’s choices however the biggest indictment may be on Nolan himself.  Critics and audiences have been waiting to see Christopher Nolan do something different.  When news came the he was making a war film there was hope that he would lay his trademark style aside for once.  That Nolan would tell a straightforward story and tap into a human element some thought missing from his past work.  The narrative and editing choices in Dunkirk don’t mark a departure from Nolan’s usual style.  This is bound to trouble some who have been wanting something different.  However, if you love Nolan’s films then you will likely enjoy this one as well.

Dunkirk is one of those films that is more of an experience, especially in Imax where the imagery and sound envelope you.  British Spitfires and German Luftwaffe’s scream over head rattling the seats.  Gunfire rips through the screen leaving reverberations in your gut.  It’s almost overwhelming which may or may not work for you.  Dunkirk is a magnificent film no matter what formate you see it in but as the bulk of the film was shot in Imax formate it is the truest way to experience it.

New 4 1:2 stars
Final Score: 4 1/2 Stars

The Problem with Mass Effect Andromeda

The Problem with Mass Effect Andromeda

Gaming | Opinion

by Benjamin Ferrarini

ME 1 Cover

Mass Effect is a series of sci-fi themed video games developed by Bioware, a Canadian based software company, and Published by Electronic Arts.  The first game in the franchise is an RPG with third person action elements.  It follows a protagonist known by their surname Shepard.  Shepard can be male or female based on player choice.  Either way Shepard is a commander in the navy protecting humanities interests in the galaxy.  In Mass Effect humans are just the newest arrivals in a galaxy thriving with alien species all with their unique backgrounds, cultures and philosophies.  All these races are governed by a ruling council made of representatives from the various races.  Humans are still the new kids on the block fighting to have a seat at the table.  This changes when Shepard’s ship, the Normandy, uncovers evidence of an ancient race of sentient machines.  These machines labeled “Reapers” clean the galaxy of life once every 50 thousand years and time is almost up.

The Mass Effect Trilogy follows Shepard and their crew as they seek to prevent the Reapers from returning.  Mass Effect is another game that required you to make decisions between possible paths to your goal.  Mostly these choices fall into two categories, moral delineations the game dubs Paragon and Renegade.  The Paragon path tends to be more altruistic, compassionate,  and diplomatic.  The Renegade by contrast is more confrontational and combative, favoring ends justify the means tactics.  As such Mass Effect tries not to cast either as good or bad but different methods reflecting

Mass Effect 2 still
Conversations offered different approaches

different play styles and different philosophies.  While there are benefits playing predominantly one side or the other it is possible to walk the middle ground responding to each situation differently.

These kinds of choices are nothing new but Mass Effect did take the concept to a another level.  It was one of the first series which carried your choices from one game to the next.  Repercussions were felt across the trilogy depending on the decisions you made.  There was a range of levels this worked on.  The most subtle involved an optional conversation in the second game.  If you chose a certain response that same character will feed that line back to you in the final act of the third game.  This is where Mass Effect really shined, less in the big decisions but the subtle small interactions that build lasting impressions.

This year Bioware and Electronic Arts released the fourth installment in the Mass Effect franchise.  Billed more as a spin off then a direct successor to the original trilogy, Mass Effect Andromeda sought to redefine the series taking it in a “bold” new direction.  Unfortunately a host of flaws and poor decisions hurt the game. Upon release it became known as the most poorly reviewed Mass Effect to date.  I want to briefly take a look at why Mass Effect Andromeda failed and what it means for the future of the franchise.

Mass Effect Andromeda

When working on Mass Effect Andromeda the development team promised a departure from the original trilogy.  First and foremost the game would be set in a new galaxy.  All new worlds and races to discover and explore.  Second none of the OG characters would return including Shepard.  Then came news they were going to ditch the Paragon/Renegade system believing it too tied to the original trilogy.  Finally they said they wanted to create a more open world feel by allowing the player the freedom to go anywhere and explore the game anyway they saw fit.  But this freedom would come at a price.  Mass Effect Andromeda would be open and less linear then it’s predecessors.  The Developers claimed a “vast majority” of the game would remain open after completion of the main story.  Each of these things marked departures from the other games leading to something that promised to be more of a spiritual successor set in the same universe.  The question is: after changing so much does Andromeda still feel like Mass Effect or is it Mass Effect in name only?  I suppose the answer lies in the minds of the beholder but there is a measure of objective criticism we can apply.

One of the developers said in an interview with Kotaku “The goal was to go back to what Mass Effect 1 promised but failed to deliver, which was a game about exploration…”  It is my opinion that developers missed the point.   Exploration wasn’t the promise of the first Mass Effect and it wasn’t what primarily drew people in.  Bioware had managed to create a world people fell in love with and characters they wanted to spend time with.  The beating heart of Mass Effect was the characters that inhabited the world.  From Shepard to the compelling sympathetic antagonist “Saren”.  The first game told a story that built out the world and gave reason to hop from one planet to another.  The second and third games continued to emphasize characters and story.

 

MEA Ryder
Ryder the main protagonists in Andromeda

These are the things that were missed in Andromeda.  The characters were not interesting or compelling.  The villain archetypal and one note.  The story rudimentary  and too open with an ending that was simply underwhelming and anticlimactic.  The new team missed what made Mass Effect special and tried to make a game from the elements that make up every other game.  Unfortunately Andromeda is just a generic action RPG built atop the bones of something far greater.

In just the last few weeks Bioware announced there would be no single player DLC to expand Andromeda.  Future games in the franchise have been shelved indefinitely and the team that worked on it has largely been dismantled.  For now it seems Mass Effect is in limbo and one has to ask is this a good thing?  Critically Mass Effect Andromeda received a lukewarm reception with most agreeing that it is an okay game but that it falls short of the original trilogy.  Gamers have had a wider range of reactions from declaring the game worthless to those who love it.  Personally I did not enjoy Andromeda much.  I felt the best parts were buried under layers of bland gameplay that was more monotonous then fun.  The worst part though was that it carried the Mass Effect name.  If Andromeda had been a new IP I may have been more forgiving of some of its failings citing the challenges to create something new.  However, Andromeda is the fourth game in a highly acclaimed series which is known for the traits we’ve covered here.  Andromeda stripped out most of those defining qualities and presented something that didn’t feel right with a host of flaws and a stunning lack of polish.  Thus taking some time to pause and reconsider what direction Mass Effect should take could be beneficial for any future games.

One last thought, news just broke that the current head of Bioware Aaryn Flynn is stepping down and leaving the company.  Casey Hudson the creative director on the Mass Effect Trilogy will be returning to the company to replace him.  With Hudson taking over the studio there is perhaps a glimmer of hope for the future of Mass Effect.

To read more about Mass Effect Andromeda’s troubled production you can see the excellent Kotaku story quoted above here: http://kotaku.com/the-story-behind-mass-effect-andromedas-troubled-five-1795886428

 

 

War for the Planet of the Apes Review

War for the Planet of the Apes

Rate: PG-13: Sequences of sci-fi violence and action, thematic elements and some disturbing images.

Review by: Benjamin Ferrarini

war-for-planet-apes-1000x1480

“War for the Planet of the Apes” is the last film in the reboot prequel trilogy produced by Twentieth Century Fox.  “War” picks up a couple of years after the end of “Dawn” as it sees Caesar and his apes battling human military.  Caesar has kept to the woods engaging in gorilla (pun intended) tactics with the sole purpose of protecting their home.  The film opens on a band of soldiers stalking through the forest looking for Caesar.  They believe Caesar is the brain behind all of the ape’s tactics and that taking him out will ensure their victory.  After a brief battle, which the apes win, Caesar decides to spare the surviving soldiers and sends them back with a message; “leave us alone and we’ll leave you alone”.  After two years Caesar is still making appeals for peace as he fights a war he never wanted.  The spirit and actions of Koba, the ape that started the war in “Dawn”, very much haunts Caesar as he feels he could or should have done more to stop Koba.  As you can probably guess Caesar’s offer of peace isn’t accepted and a team of special forces soldiers perpetrates a devastating attack under the cover of night.  This leads Caesar to set out in an effort to track down and kill the Commander, pushing Caesar far closer to becoming Koba then he wants to admit.

Once again Weta has topped themselves delivering photo realistic CG characters that are able to deliver remarkably nuanced performances driven by the human actors that portray them.  Thankfully the actors are also on the top of their game with Andy Serkis leading a dynamic cast.  Serkis is at his best here with a Caesar that carries all the events of the past two films with him.  It’s a remarkably subtle performance that carries the bulk of the film.  There’s an old adage that a hero is only as good as the villain opposing them.  Opposite Caesar is The Colonel played by Woody Harrelson (The Hunger Games).  The Colonel is the leader of the band of soldiers that has been fighting Caesar.  He is the one who led the attack that sends Caesar on his quest for vengeance.  The soldiers under him have raised The Colonel to a mythic status, they don’t follow just out of duty but reverence.  Harrelson, plays a character walking a fine line between sympathetic and evil with enough charisma to pull off both.  More so then the previous films, The Colonel has a well fleshed out motivation for doing what he does.  By the end you understand the “why” of his actions even if you don’t agree with him.  The supporting characters like Maurice continue to add depth and complexity to the group of apes who are undeniably the films protagonists.  New comer Steve Zahn (playing “Bad Ape”) brings a level of heart and comic relief that for the most part works well.

Michael Giacchino’s score is mesmerizing as he builds on the work he did in “Dawn”. The music in “War” perfectly captures the emotion of the film.  Likewise Michael Seresin returns to do the cinematography.  I criticized “Dawn” for it’s desaturated color palette feeling it was a little too generic, however this isn’t true for “War”.  “War” does a lot more to very the look and feel of it’s environments.  From green forests, to snowy mountains, to muddy military camps there is a bevy of visual treats that help to liven up the film and set it apart from it’s predecessors.  Credit also goes out to Seresin and the VFX team that filmed most of the movie on location rather then on green screens.  It may be subtle but there is something about watching snow fall on human and CG characters alike that adds an additional layer of authenticity.

My gripes about this film are few.  While I thought Harrelson’s villain is the strongest of the series, there is still an aspect that much of his character is laid out in spoken exposition.  Specifically in a couple of the conversations between The Colonel and Caesar.  Giving Harrelson a little more to do may have helped flesh out his character even more.  The comic relief provided by Steven Zahn is something different from the other films in the series.  I think it is needed here as “War” is arguably the most heavy film in the series.  However, I think there are one or two points where Bad Ape’s antics are taken just a little too far.  Lastly I think elements of the third act felt a little rushed.  All and all though this is the strongest film in the series.

“War of the Planet of the Apes” isn’t exactly what I was expecting.  It isn’t a war of guns and tanks but a battle of wills.  A struggle between two characters who represent their respective races.  There is some fighting but it isn’t the focus.  “War for the Planet of the Apes” is a film that doesn’t mistake spectacle for story.  It doesn’t substitute action for emotion.  Like the other films before it “War” keeps itself incredibly grounded in relatable characters who are driven by understandable motives.  Because of this the “Planet of the Apes” reboot prequels stand together as one of the best trilogies out there.

“War” does open with a very brief recap, meaning you don’t have to see the other films first, however I would highly recommend it as they each build on each other making “War” a far more rewarding experience if you’ve seen the other films first.

You can find my reviews for “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” right here on the Glitch.

 

New 5 stars
Final Score: 5 Stars

The Ethics of Survival: A Case for CW’s The 100

Television | Opinion

The 100 season 4 poster

Written by: Benjamin Ferrarini

The CW channel has had a long running reputation going back to when they were still the WB.  Then and now the channel was synonymous with teen melodrama and love triangles.  Though today its shows are made up of vampires and super heroes it’s past reputation has continued to plague it.  I believe it is this perception that has caused viewers to discount one of its best shows “The 100” which has more in common with “Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones” then “The Flash” or “Vampire Diaries”.  If you are not familiar with the show “The 100” is set in a post apocalyptic future where nuclear war laid waist to the Earth.  Supposedly the only survivors were the citizens who inhabited a number of space stations in orbit.  The disparate stations eventually joined together creating one large structure they dubbed “the Ark”.  Because of limited resources every crime on the Ark is a capital crime carrying the penalty of death by spacing.  Unless you are under the age of 18.  Minors are incarcerated for varying lengths depending on the severity of their crimes.  When the show begins it’s been nearly a century since the nuclear apocalypse and the Ark is dying.  Needing to buy time the ruling council decides to send 100 of the incarcerated minors down to Earth to determine if it’s become viable for human life again.  The show focuses on a few of these characters who’s crimes range from drugs, to theft, to violent assault.  Very quickly though the youths are confronted with the fact that they are not in fact the only humans on earth.  Survivors of the nuclear fallout have formed militant clans that are fiercely territorial.  Seeing the new comers as intruders the “100” are thrust into a fight for survival against a foe they are not equipped to face.   Meanwhile the show also follows the adults on the Ark as they seek a way to prevent the utter failure of the station’s life support.  Two groups both fighting for survival.

To be sure the first season of “The 100” is the most CW-ish with more then its fair share of teen drama and even a love triangle thrown in for no apparent reason.  However, over the proceeding 3 seasons “The 100” grew from these roots adding a depth and complexity to its world and characters.  Some of the core cast have undergone radical, but believable shifts, maturing to levels that were unforeseeable in the first few episodes.  The best example of this is Marie Avgeropoulos’s Octavia Blake.  Octavia starts out an angry angsty teen trying too hard to prove herself to her peers.  However, Octavia has grown into a strong and independent warrior more intent on her code of honor then what anyone may think of her.  This progression of character is one of the things that sets “The 100” apart.  In later seasons as the writers grew the characters and expanded the world a lot of the teen drama tropes fell away.

The 100 still
Marie Avgeropoulos (center) as Octavia Blake

However, the chief thing that makes “The 100” tick is its central theme of survival.  The show continually puts its characters in no win situations where survival is questionable.   “The 100” is the equal of shows like Walking Dead as far as it’s bleak tone and its capacity to kill off likable main characters.  Watching how the Characters react when put in desperate situations, dealing with the aftermath and who manages to survive is the engine that drives the show.  Each crisis grows over the last pushing the cast further, leaving their mark on the survivors. Many of the situations they face and decisions leave lasting consequences.  For instance in season one Raven, played by Lindsay Morgen, is shot while trying to thwart a plot by one of the seasons antagonists.  Her wound sticks with her through the rest of the season an into season 2 affecting her ability to function in the group.  Then in season 3 the continued fallout from that one gunshot plays a deciding motivation in a major decision Raven makes.  This is something the show is particularly good at, stringing together events building larger and more complex stories.

These things may make “The 100” special but it isn’t even its most compelling aspect.  What makes this show truly compelling is the commentary on what I’ll call the ethics of survival.  What is survival worth?  What would you be willing to do to save the people you care about?  What would you be willing to sacrifice?  These questions permeate this show as it asks them again and again at different times in different scenarios.  The bulk of the choices reflecting these questions fall on the central character: Clark.  She is arguably the most important character who has made the bulk of heavy decisions.  At times Clark has wondered if she is doing the right thing, if there even is a “right” thing or if there are no “good guys”.  Clark never comes to an answer nor the the show itself.  Like “Walking Dead” or even “Game of Thrones”  The writers seem to want you to make the judgement; asking the question what would you do?  If this kind of unqualified moral ambiguity bothers you, then you likely won’t enjoy this show.

The 100 Clark
Eliza Taylor as Clark Griffin

 

Of course “The 100” isn’t, by any means, a perfect show.  It’s pacing can be uneven, at times, moving too fast for its own good.  Some times it works but more often than not   rushing plot elements skips over an appropriate level of motivation.  This results in characters behaving in ways that don’t quite feel right, it is also guilty of using character deaths for little more for shock value.  The third season was especially guilty of these flaws making it the weakest season thus far.  But, these problems are intermittent speed bumps that slow but doesn’t stop the compelling nature of the show.

 

Grim, complex, and emotionally punishing “The 100” is one of the best shows on television.  If you’re already familiar with the show let me know what you think in the comments.  If I’ve encouraged you to give it a try the whole run of “The 100” including the most recent season 4 is currently available on Netflix.  You can also check out this four season recap here.

Spider-Man Homecoming Review

Spider-Man Homecoming

PG-13: Sci-fi action violence, some language, and brief suggestive comments.

Reviewed by: Benjamin Ferrarini

Spider-Man Homecoming

Spider-Man has had a rough go of it in his cinematic versions.  Marvel sold the cinematic rights to Spider-Man in 1999 to Sony but it wasn’t until Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” in 2002 that Spidey got his big screen debut.   Staring Toby Maguire “Spider-Man” faired well with critics garnering an 89% on Rotten Tomatoes and went on to gross a little over $4 hundred million at the domestic box office. The sequel,“Spider-Man 2” released in 2004 is, prior to “Homecoming”, widely agreed to be the best entry in the franchise sitting at a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes.  However, after the fiasco that was “Spider-man 3” in 2007 Sony decided to reboot the franchise with a new director and new Spider-Man.  In 2012 “The Amazing Spider-Man” premiered starring Andrew Garfield and directed by Marc Webb, who prior to this had been better known for his work on music videos for bands like Maroon 5 and Green Day.  Webb’s follow up “Amazing Spider-Man 2” in 2014 struggled with critics and fans alike, criticized for being overloaded with villains, having a convoluted plot and it’s handling of Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy.  After “Amazing Spider-Man 2″ Sony was again faced with the prospect of rebooting their Spider-Man franchise.  Then came word that Marvel and Sony had at long last worked out a deal to allow Spider-Man to appear in the MCU.  This time the wall crawler was portrayed by Tom Holland appearing first in “Captain America Civil War”.  The question everyone’s been asking is: can Holland carry a solo film?  Can Spider-Man come home to the MCU so late in the game?

“Spider-Man Homecoming” acts almost as a sequel itself picking up right after “Civil War”.  Tony Stark drops Peter off back home in Queen’s, New York with his high tech suit and the promise to lay low.  This of course is easier said then done as Peter is still riding high from his experience in “Civil War” and desperately wants to rejoin the Avengers for another adventure.  But, he tries to make due busting bike thieves and purse snatchers.  This changes with the emergence of the Vulture, a villain in a winged suit that is stealing remnants of technology left by aliens and Ultron.  He then uses that technology to create overpowered weapons he sells on the black market.  Peter becomes determined to take Vulture down, but this is a young Spider-Man who doesn’t have a good handle on his powers or his new suit yet.  All of this may make up the comic book plot of the film but it isn’t really what the film is about.  “Homecoming”, like some of the other films in the MCU, is a grounded story set in everyday life.  Peter Parker has always been one of the most normal characters on Marvel’s slate.  A regular guy with regular problems who just happens to have super powers.  “Homecoming” handles this aspect of Spider-Man better then the other films that came before it.  There is nothing larger then life about Peter’s high school, where the biggest worries are talking to girls and dealing with a bully that likes to call him by an obscene nickname.  This balance between Peter’s “real” life and his super heroics is what drives “Homecoming” and works well enough carry the film.

Tom Holland is my favorite Spider-Man thus far. His exuberant youthful take on the character works from his social awkwardness to his pubescent voice cracks.  Holland sells this film’s take on a Peter Parker that is still struggling to come into his own.  Holland is flanked by a strong diverse cast of supporting characters.  Michael Keaton (“Birdman”) also does a great job pulling off an intimidating antagonist with just enough characterization to stand out in the catalog of MCU villains.  “Homecoming” also features Robert Downy Jr. returning as Tony Stark.  If, like me, you had any fears of Iron Man taking over what’s supposed to be a Spider-Man film, rest assured Stark is used sparingly and to good effect acting as a mentor for Peter.

Keaton’s Vulture may have a bit more character then the villains in some of the other Marvel films but only just a bit more.  There is still more that could have been done with Vulture to build his motivation and personality.  Keaton does a great job with the material he is given, it’s just a shame he wasn’t given more.  Furthermore, it’s worth pointing out that six different writers worked on the screenplay for “Homecoming” at some point during the process.  Showcasing the diversity in the writers, two worked on the 2011 film “Horrible Bosses” while two others are responsible for the new “Jumanji” reboot due out in December.  For the most part all the different writers jive together but there certainly are some places with strange tonal shifts.  The differences between the writing in the comical high school world and the super hero world are rather apparent.  Juggling so many writers and the duality of Peter Parker’s world is no simple task; hence despite a misstep or two “Homecoming” works remarkably well.

“Homecoming” isn’t over loaded with action sequences but the few it does feature are well choreographed and shot highlighting Peter’s character and driving the plot forward.  It also carries Marvel’s now trademark bright color pallet which matches the over all light tone.

Despite being absent from the first two phases of Marvel’s MCU Spiderman has received a proper homecoming with plenty of hope for his continued presents in Marvel’s unfolding plan.

 

 

New 4 stars
Final Score: 4 Stars

A Matter of Choice: Player Agency in Video Games

Gaming | Opinion

By Benjamin Ferrarini

A popular mechanic in many video games is having the player make choices during gameplay.  These choices can range from something as inconsequential as deciding what to say in a conversation to as momentous as judging the fate of characters, cities or even whole civilizations.  Sometimes outcomes are the summation of choices made over the course of hours of gameplay.  Other times the effects are felt more immediately and don’t reach beyond a single serving repercussion.  Like any device choice can be implemented well or poorly.  At their best games take the choices made by players into account using them to shape the narrative or build the characters.  At their worst games offer an illusion of choice but don’t use them in the narrative to any meaningful degree.  Of course all choice in games is, to some degree, an illusion.  There is no path that hasn’t been preordained by the developers and writers.  Every option, every “choice” has been meticulously created by someone, each guiding the player along a number of paths.  However, this time I want to expand on this concept and show how this can be done well.  Giving enough freedom that players feel a sense of ownership over their choices and offering enough variations to make their journey feel unique.  “Mass Effect 2” is a brilliant example of this concept.  Warning spoilers ahead for “Mass Effect 2” and “Life is Strange.”

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The second entry in the prestigious “Mass Effect” franchise “Mass Effect 2” is a sci-fi action RPG released in 2010.  It casts players in the roll of Shepard a commander in the Alliance Navy.  Shepard takes on a mission which everyone says is suicide.  Whether they are right actually depends on the player and the decisions they’ve made.  The core of “Mass Effect 2” is gathering resources in preparation for this final suicide mission.  The resources range from collecting upgrades to Shepard’s ship and arsenal to recruiting team members and earning their loyalty.   How much you explore, which characters you interact with, how you interact with them and how you choose to build your resources all have an effect on the final mission.  If you’ve failed to collect the necessary materials to upgrade your ships shields it is more vulnerable during the mission.  If you haven’t gained the loyalty of your crew they won’t fight as effectively.  Further during the mission Shepard must choose crew members to perform different tasks.  For instance in order to get into the enemy stronghold someone must be sent into a crawl space to bypass security.  Some of Shepard’s companions are better suited to this task then others.  Knowing which will be most successful comes from how much time you’ve taken getting to know them.  In “Mass Effect 2” it is possible to fail the mission and loose every member of the crew including Shepard.  It is also possible to succeed in the
mission but loose some or all of the characters.  Finally it’s possible to succeed and keep everyone alive. Not only does the end reflect choices you’ve made but the depth that is added when you explore the relationships between characters adds another layer to this extraordinary game.  What you get out of your experience with a game like “Mass Effect 2” depends on what you put into it.

life is strangeNow that we’ve looked at an example of player agency done right let’s look at a casewhere it’s done poorly.  In 2015 polish developer DontNod released the episodic adventure game “Life is Strange”.  Telling the story of a young high schooler named Max Caufield “Life is Strange” takes place over 5 episodes spanning around 10 or 12 hours of gameplay.  Max is a photographer who discovers she has the ability to go back in time, which is quickly dubbed a “rewind”.  Max discovers her ability upon witnessing a friend, Chloe, get gunned down.  Max rewinds time and saves Chloe’s life.  This touches off a harrowing adventure much of which rests on the friendship between Max and Chloe.  During their adventures Max can undo most of the games choices and try another option.  In this way “Life is Strange” heavily emphasizes player choice.  Credit where credit is due, for the majority of 4 episodes this holds true.  The choices you make due seem to impact Max and the world around her.  Unfortunately episode 5 “Polarized” undoes pretty much everything the first 4 episodes built.

Throughout Max has visions of a massive tornado laying waist to their coastal Oregon town.  Max believes this to be a premonition of an impending disaster.  Feeling her foresight makes her responsible to prevent it.  So Max attempts to help Chloe and prevent the storm.  Each of the decisions open to you in some way work toward one of those goals.  Only in “Polarized” it is revealed that you cannot do both.  The game wants you to believe that the storm and the tornado come as the result of Max keeping Chloe alive when she should have died.  It ends with the player being given two options.  You can go back in time and allow Chloe to be killed thus putting things back the way they were meant to be and preventing the storm.  The other option is to do nothing, allowing the tornado to wipe out the town with untold numbers of casualties.  Not only does this ending boil hours of decision making into a single unsavory binary choice, but it betrays what is supposed to be the foundation of the game.  “Life is Strange” reiterates over and over again the importance of your choice on the past, present and future.  Yet, the message it leaves you with is the immutability of fate.  If you are to save the town and the people in it you must acquiesce to the belief that Chloe was always meant to die. Further that every choice you’ve made as Max to save and value Chloe’s life has been wrong.  It dictates fate cannot be changed, at least not without some terrible penance to be paid by innocents.  Either way Max’s final choice is to do nothing.  To do nothing inthe past while her best friend is murdered or in the present do nothing and allow the
tornado to destroy a town.  Fundamentally both options are counter to the whole rest of the game.

life is strange still

Visual forms of entertainment tend to be a passive experience.  Even in video games which require some amount of interactivity, players only follow preset paths limiting their level of involvement.  The best games that feature choice as a mechanic, hope to engage players on a deeper level and make them feel like co-creators shaping their own personal experiences.  It is important though as this medium is developing to point out when this is done well and when it is done poorly.

Baby Driver Review

Baby Driver

Rated R: Violence and Language Throughout

Reviewed by: Benjamin Ferrarini

Baby Driver Poster“Baby Driver” is the newest film from writer director Edgar Wright who is best know for “Shaun of the Dead”, “Hot Fuzz” and “World’s End”otherwise known as the Cornetto Trilogy.  “Baby Driver” follows a young getaway driver, Baby played by Ansel Elgort (“The Fault in Our Stars”) as he works for crime lord Doc portrayed by Kevin Spacey (“House of Cards”).  Baby is a reluctant participant in these heists, but doesn’t have a lot of options as he is working of a debt he owes to Doc.  But, his desire to escape increases as the people he is forced to work with grow increasingly more psychotic.  Crooks like Jamie Foxx’s (“Django Unchained”) character Bats who plays up his “eviler then though” persona by maiming and killing without provocation.  It all comes to head when Baby meets a local waitress named Debora played by Lilly James (“Cinderella”) and decides to go on the run with her.

Even though Wright is known for making action comedies “Baby Driver”, while having some humor, is not a comedy in the same vain.  This is a action, crime, drama fueled by the nonstop music tracks on Baby’s iPod.  Those tacks are the pulse of the film, driving the tone and emotion of Baby’s character as he navigates through the deadly world he hopes to escape from.  Much of “Baby Driver” has a kind of lyrical quality. The driving scenes which show off Baby’s skill behind the wheel feature practical stunt work and offer some beautifully crafted set pieces.  The dialog when it’s at its best likewise has a kind of flow that offers enough characterization to keep you invested in Baby’s journey.  Even the cinematography has it’s own rhythm.  The camera is continually moving throughout the film, at times feeling like it is dancing through the scenes.  This all works together to make what could have been a generic story about a reluctant criminal into something with style and heart that transcends it’s parts.

I also give credit to Wright with his twist on the genre.  One of the draw backs to traditional heist films is the ambivalence audiences feel about rooting for characters who in other films would be considered the “bad guys”.  Most attempt to skirt this with the concept of the “moral thief”.  Some one who is doing a wrong thing for a right, or just, cause.  Think “Oceans Eleven” or “Italian Job” where the adversary is so much more evil or unjust that the heroes are exacting just vengeance or else bear a Robin Hood mantle.  “Baby Driver” avoids all of this because it doesn’t even attempt to rationalize or moralize the thieving.  This is a corrupt world populated with crooked people who do bad things.  Baby is told right at the beginning that he will become one of them if he continues in the life.  What’s at stake isn’t just Baby’s life but his character, who he is and who he will become.  It also gives a look at what happens when an honest person is pushed too far and what they may be willing to do to get away from a corrupting influence.

While I think the pacing is solid over all, there is a segment in the second act where things slow down a little too much.  It offers an important look at what life could be like if Baby were free from driving for Doc, but at the same time it lasts a little long and skips a beat or two.  Also late in the second act Bats and some of the others criminals start to invade Baby’s personal life which leads to added confrontation within the group.  These scenes were a little forced and could have been set up better so that it felt more organic but these are very minor flaws in what is otherwise a well crafted film.

Baby Driver is as a fun action pact ride that doesn’t sacrifice the intelligence of its material or its audience (cough, “Transformers”) to deliver a thrilling adventure.  It is as smart as you’d hope an Edgar Wright film to be and rates with the best crime films in the genre.  If you are not a music fan the relentless pounding beats pouring from Baby’s ear buds might put you off, but if you enjoy music, action and cleaver writing then this is one of the best films you’ll find this summer.

 

New 5 stars
Final Score: 5 Stars