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3 of This Year’s Best: Atomic Blonde, Brigsby Bear, Logan Lucky

The damage sustained to the film industry is, as of late, woefully overstated. While, yes, oftentimes the most prominent films are stupid or disappointing and, yes, it seems like a new stupid idea for a movie is announced everyday.

Yet, it should be clear that as long as we’ve had a film industry (or any commercialized creative profession), we’ve had expensive failures and we’ve had stillborn ideas. Every “Golden Age” in anything had a few bad ones. The number one single of 1969 was “Sugar, Sugar” by The Archies, the same Best Picture category that included The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde also included Doctor Doolittle.

All of this really comes to the point for all the handwringing, there’s still a remarkable amount of quality in the film industry, inventive stories being told the way only film can convey. It’s also a not-so-subtle way of justifying why I’m giving three movies an A all at once. So, without further adieu, let me explain why Atomic Blonde, Brigsby Bear, and Logan Lucky are three of this year’s best reasons to hope out into the theaters.

Atomic Blonde

Summary: At the end of the Cold War, spycraft still runs hot. MI6 Agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is sent to Berlin to recover a stolen microfilm that contains a list of every active agent in the Soviet Union. With her contact David Percival (James McAvoy), Broughton plunges into a world of doublecross, murder, and the existential dread of being a spy with plenty of neon and New Wave.

Why This One Is Getting An “A”: 

If there’s a movie more obviously made for me, I’d be hard-pressed to describe it. An action spectacle in ’80s Berlin directed by one of the fine folks who brought us John Wick? I’m intrigued. The film’s aesthetic courses with neon and shadows and the soundtrack pumps the great synth-heavy hits of the 80s, including a beatdown set to George Michael’s “Father Figure”? I’m down. It features a lead performance from Charlize Theron at her icy, slowly revealing best? I bought tickets already, quit selling me.

Atomic Blonde is the kind of film that feels like a modern James Bond more than any other attempt has, short maybe Casino Royale. It keeps all of that intrigue and style and glamour that those old James Bond films had. Its protagonist is hard-drinking, hard-thinking, and making love to beautiful women who eventually meet terrible fates.

But it doesn’t feel glamorizing or worshipful of its hero. Its storyline becoming so wrapped up in double and triple-turns that the only story becomes the crushing existential despair of spycraft, of the isolation of removing every identity you have in the service of ideals that are on their way out. It’s not for Queen and Country when the Queen is far away and its hard to remember what your country is anymore.

Atomic Blonde, on top of its sorrowful rumination, is also gifted with some positively bone-crunching action sequences. It should be no surprise that David Leitch can design a good action sequence given his past work, but it’s still a pleasant discovery that he can couch it well in the film around. Theron is a coil of physical efficiency and even as she takes blow after blow, the film revels in the damage that she can do. Most impressive, even despite its hype, is a 10 minute sequence done in what appears to be a single take, a masterwork of tension and choreography, a brutal sequence where no one goes down after one hit and where you never know who’s going to take the final blow. Kudos to Theron for actually playing through every beat of this sequence.

It’s a physical component to what is a surprisingly impressive performance from her overall. Broughton is a well-worn character, wearing so many masks and telling so many lies that she’s lost track of who she actually is. The cast around her is strong as well, McAvoy playing a perfect spy scumbag and Boutella bringing a lot of intrigue to very little time.

Atomic Blonde is a 21st century spy film looking back into the 20th century. The morality is muddled, the style isn’t.

Brigsby Bear

Summary: When James Pope (Kyle Mooney) was just a child, he was kidnapped by Ted (Mark Hamill) and April Mitchum (Jane Adams) to live in a bunker underground, told the world had basically ended, and only given children’s educational show Brigsby Bear to connect with the outside world. Then, one day, he has all that ripped from him. His parents, his show, his world was a lie. So James has a new world to adjust to that he’s had no conception of.

Why This One Is Getting An “A”:

It’s hard to avoid cliche when you celebrate your own medium in the making of a work. Concept albums about defiant musicians, books about complicated novelists, and films about filmmakers who find a lens into the world. Brigsby Bear isn’t necessarily innocent of cliche, of playing into celebrating the people who are creating the work. But it’s a film that doesn’t feel so self-serving, so masturbatory.

At the heart of Brigsby Bear is sweetness, of an earnest affection for the creative process and the people who make it up. But not just the creative process, but the people who love the creative process. Brigsby Bear is a work on fandom, the people who use creative works to feel out and understand the world around them. Brigsby Bear is a celebration of passion and what it means in people’s lives.

It also understand that it’s not just the beats you move through that make a story feel unique, but the way you tell it. Writers Kevin Costello and Kyle Mooney (who also stars) give the world such unique flavor and imbue such odd details into the Brigsby Bear show. It feels studied, like these people actually know what becomes cult phenomena and what people raise fandoms around, without ever feeling condescending to the work itself.

It’s that razor’s edge of understanding how weird this thing is without ever looking down on James for being so in love with it. Much of that is helped by Kyle Mooney. Look, you know you feel about Mooney from watching him on SNL. If you don’t like his shtick, you may not be into it here, but if you love it, it’s basically what he does for the whole of the film. He just turns that awkwardness and that difficulty interacting with the world into a dramatic character, one who grows in the smallest ways and one who really is very easy to connect deeply with.

Brigsby Bear is just a film imbued with a deep empathy for the people in its movie and for the people that it’s about. It understands its world and tells it with a unique dynamic and a unique sense of humor.

Logan Lucky

Summary: Them Logan Boys, Jimmy (Channing Tatum) and Clyde (Adam Driver), get up to some trouble. With the help of their sister Mellie (Riley Keough), current-con Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), and a couple other ne’er do-wells, they’re gonna rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Why This One Is Getting An “A”:

I could pretty much live forever in films about charming Southerners running afoul of the law. If they’re doing it in the South, it’s only a bonus.

Steven Soderbergh’s return from his “retirement” (during which he directed a season of television and helped make a few other movies) is a call-back to his Ocean’s Eleven days, trading the high-class slick hucksters for the very real poor of the South.

It’s clear Soderbergh grew up in the South (the same South I did, largely), as he really does understand what a Southern culture looks like in the contours of the real world, and what it looks like for the real people living in it. The way they talk and the way they interact and what they think about. It feels tangible and easily recognizable.

It’s also a lot of fun. Logan Lucky is not a manic film. It has the pacing of any Soderbergh art film. Deliberate and measured and letting it all unfold just as it should, it’s as classically composed narratively as a heist film gets. But Logan Lucky is an absolute hoot, populating its world with weirdos that are just specific and bizarre enough without ever going full cartoon. Hell, the movie gets an enjoyable live-action performance out of Seth McFarlane, certainly no small feat.

But as much the heist motivates, it’s about the people that are doing the thieving. What drives them and why take this step? What do they unveil about themselves? There’s all these great little motivations and these little steps. Joe Bang revealing his chemistry knowledge, the Logan brothers able ability to spin a few lies to put some people in the right place. Even an extended riff on Game of Thrones and George R.R. Martin’s writing speed (which may be one of the funniest and nerdiest Game of Thrones jokes ever) reveals this penchant for these little and unexpected unveilings Soderbergh and writer Rebecca Blunt revel in.

It’s also the little nuances the cast gives their characters. If you asked for a list of “leading actors who do character actor-level specific work” you couldn’t have produced a more comprehensive one than Logan Lucky. From Channing Tatum (Soderbergh’s current muse) and his soulful outlaw to Driver’s specific and sweet and deliberate as hell performance as Clyde Logan to Daniel Craig clearly having the most fun he’s ever had in a role ever to Riley Keough continuing to be every film’s secret weapon to a host of surprises I don’t want to spoil too much, Logan Lucky is a veritable buffet of actors.

It’s also Soderbergh at his best, absolutely controlled filmmaking, tight and interesting and propulsive without ever being fast. Its deliberate pacing recalling older films with its warm digital look eyeing towards the future. That plus the best use of “Country Roads” this summer so far makes for a fantastic piece of work.

Game of Thrones Season 7, Episode 6: Beyond the Wall

Where Is Everybody?

  • Beyond the Wall
    • The Westerosi Suicide Squad goes to capture a wight. Shit gets real.
  • Winterfell
    • Arya and Sansa’s division over the letter Arya found explodes. Sansa is never sending anyone abroad ever again.
  • Dragonstone
    • Dany and Tyrion have issues.
  • On a Boat
    • So, Jon and Dany are gonna do it, right?

What Worked?

Look, I get this was a messy one. We’ll get to a lot of the reasoning for that later, and I want to be clear than I can and do want to criticize this show when it’s gotten to it. Trust me, had I been writing these during Season 5, we would have had a lot more shit to talk.

But at this point, we’re in the third act of a story that was never really designed with an ending and a show that’s attempting a scope and scale of event that’s limited to largely the most expensive of Hollywood filmmaking and almost impossible on television up until this point. Even when it doesn’t work, there’s a sort of magic in the fact that what’s happening is happening at all.

All this is to say that even if it never quite comes together like a lot of this season has, “Beyond the Wall” is still a hell of a time, still working thematically and visually even if its narrative issues are a little more lain bare.

The centerpiece sequence of this episode, the journey beyond the Wall to capture a wight to prove to the Seven Kingdoms that the threat of the Night King is real, is not necessarily the best the show has ever done, but it’s still an absolute nail-biter bit of tension.

Visually, the show has perhaps never been more apt at conjuring up its fantasy imagery. Flaming swords battling armies of the dead led by demon kings. Dragons swooping in from on-high with hell-fire. In addition, the plotting of the show has never been more unabashedly fantasy. Soap opera with wizards, high-strung turning on each other not through machinations but through emotional revelation. The final act of Game of Thrones is perhaps its most nakedly high fantasy moments and for those on board with that, it’s an absolute delight.

For all the talk of deus ex machina driving this episode (and I certainly have some issues with it), there’s a centerpiece ex machina that really is a smart move for this show.

That, is of course, Dany swooping to save the day with her dragons and getting Viserion murdered. Yet again, Jon has to be saved by an outside army, I understand the frustration and there was certainly a more graceful way to handle it.

But the show is getting its narrative and thematic ducks in a row for a later. Honestly, it’s one of the smarter bits of writing the show has done. From a narrative perspective, it answers the two big questions of any final war this show could undertake.

Namely, “how do you handle the dragons vs. the Night King” and “How do you handle the Night King vs. the dragons.”

The show has posited the dragons as essentially an unstoppable force. The atomic bomb of Westeros, the way when fully unbound to end any war in an instant. Cersei could not stand up to them, neither could the Wights and Walkers handle dragon’s fire. The justification with all three dragons of extending any battle would be squeezing blood from a stone.

Establishing the power of the Night King to kill them gives the dragons a threat (and therefore a stake to increase tension) and his resurrection of Viserion evens out the forces (the Night                           King now has a weapon on the same scale). It’s a bit of short-term sacrifice for long-term gain and Game of Thrones is certainly no stranger to that decision.

But what it also does is give Dany a personal stake in the fight and slide her in with the rest of this show’s thematics. Game of Thrones is, in a large part, about the short-sighted nature of the ruling class, how power so narrowly focuses your aims that kingdoms fall around a honed look at only your own gain. The Night King is a massive existential threat and everyone but Jon is ignoring it or denying it for their own petty struggles that won’t last to an army unprepared for something as powerful and all-consuming as the Army of the Dead.

Dany having issue taking part in the fight until she saw it with her own eyes and saw the destruction it could cause lines her right in with that conception of power, as a sort of moral blinder. Ripping it off her puts her in the fight, even if it is after the Night King has grown even more powerful.

What Didn’t?

Even in the positive section I alluded to this multiple times, but this is a surprisingly messy episode in terms of its logistical and narrative construction. Season 7 is a season that really could benefit from more episodes because the rapid pace means some narrative threads are being frayed rather than unraveled.

I’m thinking specifically of Arya and Sansa at Winterfell. It’s easy to understand what’s being put into place here, a conflict to eliminate any other conflicts to the Stark power as they come together to take out an enemy that would seek to have both of them out of Winterfell. But the show’s had to move through it so rapidly that every beat feels off. Arya quickly believes the worst of Sansa, Sansa has no idea how to address. What the Faceless Men did to Arya is brought up without warning and will likely be resolved with little address.

The season as a whole, even with its pace, has needed more time to pull things out. The relationships that have been set up and the storylines put in place work, but any new dynamics have had to be run through a little too fast.

Jon and Dany’s relationship, Tyrion and Dany’s splitting apart, Sansa and Arya’s issues, all of these things would have really been helped by an extra episode or two driving the wedges or pulling them together. It’s the more important part of the convenience this season has been accused of.

The quick movement through the continent is just fantasy rules. The deus ex machinas are annoying (Benjen came from nowhere legitimately. No set-up, no pay-off, just a way to get Jon out of a situation he probably shouldn’t have been in) but they’re not breaking the show. What hurts the show is when you don’t have time to play your characters and play your relationships and some of those wobbly foundations are really showing in this episode.

Also, this episode should have honestly been all Beyond the Wall and in a longer season it would have been. It feels like breaking up a climax with first act exposition to go anywhere else.

Who Got A Win?

  1. The Night King
    • He got a dragon. A Zombie Ice Dragon. That’s pretty sick.
  2. Littlefinger
    • Actually managed to pull it off, pitting Arya and Sansa against each other. I don’t think that’ll go well for him, but good for now.
  3. Jon
    • He got his wight and Dany’s help in the fight against the Night King.

Who Made A Mistake?

  1. Arya and Sansa
    • Fell for Littlefinger’s shit. Guys, Stark in-fighting is dumb and don’t do it.
  2. Tyrion
    • Dany is really gonna cast him out if he doesn’t get it the fuck together.
  3. The Redshirts
    • If you’re not important, don’t go on the obvious suicide mission. Lesson 1 of living in a genre world.

Game of Thrones Season 7, Episode 5: Eastwatch

Where Is Everybody?

  • Roseroad
    • Jaime and Bronn managed to survive the lake. The Tarlys don’t manage to survive dragonfire.
  • Winterfell
    • Arya has a few issues with how Sansa is running things around here. Littlefinger keeps an eye on that.
  • Oldtown
    • Sam is really just not enjoying his internship. Gilly makes the biggest discovery of the whole show and no one cares.
  • Dragonstone
    • Jon pets a big lizard and has a big idea. Tyrion is getting concerned about all this.
  • King’s Landing
    • Cersei has some big news for Jaime. Gendry finally stops rowing and joins Davos.
  • Eastwatch
    • Some kinda…Suicide Squad…takes a mission to get a wight.

What Worked?

After three episodes in a row ending on an adrenaline-racing, pulse-pounding spectacle of a battle, I actually do have to admit that it’s nice to get a bit of a breather. There’s surely a lot to come in the supersized last two episodes of this season (71 and 81 minutes) and so it’s really nice to get a second to just put the pieces in place, move a few things around, and let these character combos breathe and operate dramatically for a second.

Which is by no means a bad thing when a show is as dramatically and narratively en pointe as this season of Game of Thrones has been. I’ve said it enough, but the shuffling of characters and the steady drawing together of them all has been the biggest shot in the arm for this season. These actors have had years to dig in and letting them bounce off each other in a story that is now almost entirely forward momentum is a rare delight.

Some of those are the reunions that are now happening. Coster-Waldeau and Dinklage have always really pulled the best out of each other (Dinklage’s best moments are with the Lannisters, Coster-Waldeau best moments are with anyone who isn’t Cersei) and even the brief scene they share is just truly heartbreaking to watch. The betrayal on Coster-Waldeau’s face, the desperation of Dinklage trying to reconnect and get something out of his brother. Just good stuff.

But it’s also the fresh combinations the show is managing to create and how those build on the ideas and themes already made.

Let’s take, for example, the new folks Jon Snow is about to deal with. This episode’s fan-favorite highlight was the return of Gendry, Robert Baratheon’s bastard son. Joining up with Jon lets the show recreate season 1’s relationship between Robert and Ned (even directly calling back to Ned point out Robert’s weight) with the power dynamics shifting. It was a short scene, but I’m hoping to see more out of Young Christian Bale in the show to come.

The other set of new folks is Jon Snow’s Magnificent Seven riding off to capture a wight to prove to Westeros that the threat is real. It’s an undoubtedly exciting dynamic, time-tested, to put a group of people who have good reasons to hate each other (Mormont v. Tormund, The Hound v. Other People) but need to come together to face a bigger threat. This whole thing works so so well because we’ve had the time to see these fault lines grow and to make the existential threat known. This is a story that works based on seasons of growth and an impressive amount of charisma and forward momentum, and it’s a delight to see the new things it can unveil.

Speaking of unveiling, I will comment on the boldness of the show dropping what is almost certainly the single biggest plot revelation so far so casually. For those of you who didn’t notice, Gilly’s reading included mention of an annulment by Prince Rhaegar and his marriage to someone else. This is almost certainly Lyanna Stark, which would make Jon Snow the true-born son of a Targaryen-Stark household and would give Jon the strongest claim to the throne, completely rewriting the dynamics of the show so far. Sam hears it, doesn’t much care, and moves on. But sending Sam back North seems important.

On a general note for the whole episode, director Matt Shakman (returning from the gangbusters previous episode) does some really strong work here. The moment between Jon and Drogon is a moment of mythic grace the show doesn’t indulge in near as often as it should, and Arya’s stalking of Littlefinger and its quick reverse is just a wonderful little bit of staging.

 

What Didn’t?

The temporality of this show is definitely something that can and should rightfully drive folks insane. It never necessarily breaks the show’s own reality (no inherent contradictions in the narrative) but how does any of this shit work?

 

Who Got A Win?

  1. Gendry
    • He got out of King’s Landing and made some new friends. Good for him.
  2. Sam
    • Said “Fuck it” and left his terrible internship. Good for him.
  3. Jaime and Bronn
    • They didn’t drown in a lake. Good for them.

Who Made A Mistake?

  1. The Tarlys.
    • Burned alive by a dragon and basically ended their whole line.
  2. Those Gold Cloaks
    • Got greedy and got a hammer to the face.
  3. Arya and Sansa
    • Littlefinger’s exploiting them new Stark dynamics. Don’t fall for it Arya!

Wind River is a gritty directorial debut that could have used a stronger hand

Exchanging the delirious heat for the mythic snow does little to dull the quickly notable Taylor Sheridan brand of crime story. Through Hell or High Water and Sicario, Sheridan has become famous for his stories of the frontier and how quickly that frontier destroys human decency, his stories of procedure and his stories of the places that people live away from most eyes.

Wind River trades on all of that, though this time there is no filter between Sheridan’s writing and the film we see on screen. This is Sheridan’s directorial debut, which may not necessarily be to the film’s benefit. Removed from Denis Villeneuve’s haunting precision or the quiet desperation that David Mackenzie brought, Sheridan’s shaky directorial foundation finds Wind River falling far shorter than its predecessors.

Set on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, the story starts with the body of Natalie (Kelsey Chow) found barefoot in the snow by US Fish and Wildlife Service Agent Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner). FBI Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is brought on to investigate, as the elements and the violence and despair visited on the Reservation by the elements and by the sins of America begin to consume the investigation.

Much of what has worked about Sheridan’s writing in the past is still fantastic here. The sense of environment is immaculate, the specific nuances of Wyoming feel as real and tangible as his Texas does. Isolated and lonely but something beautiful in the snow and in the pain. It’s the frontier, but one both mythical and rare. The movie’s compassion to the Native Americans is absolutely admirable, if a little clumsy.

His sense of procedure is also still incredibly intact, and playing even more of a role here. Sheridan’s interest is clear without the filter of other director’s interests. It contributes to that tangibility, a well-researched run through what form these things may actually take. Concerns about what the cause of death is listed as, getting the right back up, whose jurisdiction a given area is sounds boring, but Sheridan has a penchant for pulling the emotion and tension out of these decisions.

And whether it’s his work or just good casting, Wind River pulls strong performances out of just about everyone. Renner and Olsen have strong duo chemistry and each managed to play big and emotional without ever losing the gritty thread of the story. Most of the supporting cast are good to “does their job” but real MVP work is done by Gil Birmingham, the Native actor who plays the father of the murdered girl. Birmingham’s performance is heartbreaking at every step and between this and his scene-stealing in Hell or High Water, one wonders why Hollywood doesn’t seek to snap him up.

One also wonders if perhaps Wind River chose the wrong protagonist.

Where Wind River really begins to fall down on the weakness of a first time director. As strong as Sheridan’s writing is, Villeneuve and Mackenize’s sensibilities both provided a specific filter. Both are excessively visual directors in the subtlest ways, letting movements speak for monologues and moments speak for scenes.

Sheridan’s visual eye simply isn’t as strong. His vistas feel a little less grand, his tense handheld close-ups feel more shaky than chaotic. His action staging often has great surprise, but rarely manages the sustained tension of something like Sicaro‘s border crossing.

He also just isn’t great at making the story connections yet. His raw material is strong, but he can’t bring it coherently together. His thematics rarely feel connected (there’s a thread about Cory and Martin [Gil Birmingham] and their parallel children that is brought up and dropped from time to time). There’s also a lot of clunk that feels like material that would be trimmed by more experienced hands. Much of Wind River is told in monologue and has its ideas stated openly.

Wind River is still a cut-above crime film and perhaps it seems unfair to compare it so heavily to its predecessors. But when your material is so often shaped so expertly, it seems right to note when the potential is lost.

Grade: B-

The Worst and, more importantly, THE BEST of 2017, so far

So, as I am the grand arbiter of all things film, I’m officially calling the summer movie season at its close. Alas Logan Lucky, The Glass Castle, or Annabelle: Creation, you’re all part of the fall movie season. However will you survive?

And at the close of summer movie season, we’re essentially halfway through the movie year. I know we’re more than halfway through the calendar year, but trust me, that back half is always as packed as it gets. There’ll end up being things that are Oscar nominees that aren’t even on our radar right now. The worst movie of the year is likely still yet to come (though it’s hard to imagine right now).

But since I’m a fiend for lists, let’s make one, shall we? Let’s give a few check-ins and see where we are, starting with the worst (because it gets the attention) before taking a full celebration of the best.

Bottom 5 Films of 2017 So Far

5) The Dark Tower

Idris Elba

Ahh, The Dark Tower. The best franchise that will never quite be. Based on Stephen King’s series of epic fantasy western Lovecraftian meta-novels, some much smarter studio could have had a new Game of Thrones on its hands. Alas, it was in the hands of Sony and they instead produced a fall flat on its face. A mess of bad studio production, The Dark Tower wastes its actors, murders its pacing, and takes all the material and tosses it out the window for a mid-90s adaptation premise. Any film that features Matthew McConaughey saying “I see you’re still impervious to my magicks” with a straight face has an uphill battle. The Dark Tower doesn’t win it.

4) The Circle

image

A bland mess of technophobia, I really just feel bad for the people involved here. The Circle is Black Mirror without the brains or heart, an aesthetic rip-off by a huge number of people who should be able to make some better stamp. Staring a pitch-perfect satire of late capitalism in the face, The Circle is content to shake its fist at social media and ultimately end up going nowhere.

3) Transformers: The Last Knight

transformers

Look, who the living fuck expects anything out of this franchise at this point? The best Transformers has ever been able to aspire to is Bay’s weird hypercompetencies managing to shine through the material. But when they don’t, it’s the same thing that happens every goddamned time: A mess of story with awful design with a runtime that lasts for aeons.

2) Ghost in the Shell

ghost-in-the-shell-2017-trailer-ed

A pile-up of decisions so bad that you’re more baffled that it ever happened than mad that someone chose to do it. That all said, this is a film that was never going to be great and still manages to enrage far above its station. A messy script, terrible direction, and boring setpieces would sink any movie, but a movie that white-washes like this one does deserves all the ire that can be thrown. When your material is so fertile with intellect, you can’t be this fucking stupid in putting it together.

1) The Book of Henry

the-book-of-henry-movie-3

Colin Trevorrow is a rare sort of filmmaker, one who in a past era would have perhaps been run out of town after town after the people found out his snake oil elixirs just weren’t working. The Book of Henry is his raw nerve put on screen. Excessively manipulative, baffling in every plot point put on screen, and a masterpiece of inhuman behavior, seemingly put together by a man who’s never met a human but is fairly certain he knows how they work. Fuck this movie.

Game of Thrones Season 7, Episode 4: The Spoils of War

Where Is Everybody?

  • Winterfell
    • Bran makes Littlefinger shit himself and is a dick to Meera. Arya and Sansa reunite and Arya sword fights like a motherfucker.
  • Dragonstone
    • Jon and Dany uncover some ancient drawings that prove Jon Snow knows something. There’s a disagreement over the next step to take.
  • King’s Landing
    • A Lannister pays her debts.
  • Roseroad
    • SHIT. GETS. REAL. AND. ON. FIRE.

What Worked?

It’s hard to top this almost immediate reaction. When a show is this consistently strong and pushing the limits of scope and scale on TV action and genre conventions, it’s rare to feel like anything but an event episode can take you off-guard or really and truly thrill you.

I have a feeling that this will become a cliché over the increasingly high budgets of these last episodes, but the final battle sequence ranks among the show’s best. It’s rare to be able to make such a thrilling sequence out of such a brutal beat-down but my god if director Matt Shakman doesn’t pull it off. The ominous beating of the hooves turning into the terrifying whooping of the Dothraki soldiers descending down on the Lannisters, facing a kind of enemy they never have before. Christendom being beaten by the Mongol Hordes. That sheer terror you see on the trembling soldiers, the prepping for a battle is so well-done and the tension gets ratcheted so high.

Then the dragon comes screaming over the hill and Dany speaks “Dracarys” and the whole thing jumps to the next level. We’ve seen what the dragons can do and heard tale of their warfare. But Game of Thrones pays off that build-up in the most spectacular of ways, showing us exactly what all this lore actually is. The dragon is TERRIFYING here, the touch of seeing the soldiers turned to ash and blown away is one of the best touches I’ve ever seen in a battle, an image up there with Jon facing down the Bolton Cavalry.

But what especially makes this sequence work is a point the creators made in the behind the scenes feature at the end. This is the first time we’ve seen two main “hero” characters face off against each other. Dany vs. Jaime, we’ve got our attachments to both and the emotions are swirling. Tyrion watching his brother charge into near-certain death is exactly what works about this, that sickening feeling of how these powers are going to push against each other. The stakes are high, even if we know nobody can die, because our characters are now forcing each other to suffer setbacks, the people we’ve been rooting for can win or lose by each other’s hands.

But let me not solely praise this episode for its final battle, though it’s the easiest to remember. This episode stages some truly great drama that deserves recognition.

The Starks slowly begin to congregate back at Winterfell with Bran still acting weird after his trip abroad (because he’s functionally no longer human). The dynamic they’re playing here is interesting, with Bran acting like an asshole because it’s becoming increasingly clear that he’s functionally no longer Bran. Along with Arya’s shapeshifting, the idea that the Stark’s reunion has come at the cost of them all losing some part of their Stark identity (minus Sansa, Bran is the three-eyed Raven, Arya is No One, and Jon is a Targaryen) provides that melancholy undercurrent to what has largely played as the show’s happier storyline as of late.

Oh yeah, Arya is back at Winterfell. This continues the play with Arya’s storyline turning from one of its most brutal to one of its most joyous and oddly comedic. Her mocking the guards is certainly a fun sequence. But the undoubted highlight is the sword fight between her and Brienne. Not only some of the show’s best fight choreography in some time, but it’s rare to see these character just get to show off. Maise Williams definitely has a future in action roles, just a thrill to watch her go for it.

Outside of a brief sojourn to King’s Landing, the other main event of this episode is at Dragonstone, as Jon and Dany get closer and Jon reveals the ancient drawings of the Night’s King and his forces. The impasse between them is frustrating, but deliberately so, there’s a slowly developing dynamic between the two of them pushing and pulling against each other. Clarke and Harrington are not often this show’s most dynamic actors, but there’s an increasing chemistry between them that works.

A chemistry that Davos comments on. This is a great episode for Davos, one of the show’s more understated characters. His role as Jon’s advisor has been a consistent delight and he does so much with even just a few lines.

What Didn’t?

The show’s shortcuts still show through the seams from time to time (how’d the Dothraki get there? How many ships are still left?) but this is an undoubtedly strong episode of television.

Who Got A Win?

  1. Dany
    • Injured dragon aside, this was a brutal and decisive victory against the Lannister forces. The Field of Fire 2.0 harmed their siege capacity and made it clear that the Lannisters only have so much they can do against the forces Dany has assembled, how much what she brings is foreign to Westeros. A win for a character who hasn’t had many.
  2. Bronn
    • Dude knocked a dragon out of the air. Once in a lifetime.
  3. Jon
    • Serious progress on getting Dany to work with him and growing towards actually maybe getting someone to fight the Night’s King.

Who Made A Mistake?

  1. The Lannisters
    • Dany beat their ass down. They’ll be fine, but DAMN that’s a morale shaker.
  2. Littlefinger
    • Bran made it clear that he know what Littlefinger has done. That plus the return of Arya who takes no shit means that Littlefinger loses the backing role he plays and has the vices closing in on him.
  3. Bran
    • Gotta stop alienating people around you. I get you’re the Three-Eyed Raven but damn dude.

The Dark Tower is the most impressive book adaptation of 1999

As a total fucking nerd, I used to follow the rumors and stories of geek properties and comic book movies in development.

I still do, but I used to too.

Before the 2008 Iron Man/The Dark Knight swing that meant Hollywood found the money in taking all this shit seriously, it was pretty commonplace that while they wanted to adapt things with built-in audiences, a lot of this geek stuff was just a little too weird or expensive to treat the right way. You had to bust down the budgets (and what the audience would take at face value) and find some way to remove the most fantastical portions of it while keeping the name that people already knew.

So, that meant you often got the “They come to Earth” adaptation. It was a surprisingly popular genre at the time, some fantastic thing coming to Earth and teaching us all a new lesson, whether it was an angel or an alien or Gary Busey. So it made a sort of sense for these properties that took place on other worlds to pop on over to Earth and let the characters roam around in like…New York or something. Most infamously was an adaptation of Sandman, Neil Gaiman’s masterpiece of comics, that mostly took place as a bad combination of Terminator 2 and every movie about the “Coming Millennium”

This is all context to get into my main point about a movie that doesn’t have one. The Dark Tower feels so much like those kind of adaptations, one that isn’t totally into its property and one that extracts so much of what’s loved to try to make it into a more marketable product. The kind of adaptation that was more common before we realized common audiences could get into geek shit and just feels out-dated now.

It doesn’t help that The Dark Tower is somehow dreadfully slow and has way too much going on, is slapped together like a reel of film falling down a stairs, is as cheap-looking as a feature film could possibly be, and has great actors struggling valiantly against the writing of Akiva Goldsman (coincidentally, often responsible for the kind of adaptations I railed against at the beginning).

Based on Stephen King’s epic dark fantasy tale, The Dark Tower takes the task of compressing his vast mythology down to roughly 90 minutes. Told through the eyes of Jake (Tom Taylor), a troubled young man who sees visions of another world, an evil man, and a valiant gunslinger. That world comes crashing into his reality as The Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) hunts Jake down in order to harness his growing psychic power to destroy The Dark Tower and allow the monsters outside the universe through the barrier. The only man who may be able to stop him is Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), a broken man seeking only to take his revenge on The Man in Black.

This doesn’t even break the surface of what’s going on here, as the movie is trying to cram even more detail from these books in an incredibly small amount of time while still trying to move forward under its own momentum, create an actual watchable stand-alone film. There’s too many cooks in this kitchen, and that’s the beginning of the problem.

Side note: In fact, there’s so many cooks I don’t know who to blame. I could blame the director Nikolaj Arcel, but he is 100% the kind of dude they brought on to give a chance if he succeeded and blame if he failed. This movie reeks of studio interference through and through, a bad adaptation made worse.

I have never been more bored by a film that’s trying everything it can to keep the pace up. A ton of stuff happens and yet it’s all so low-energy. There’s no sense of wonder, no sense of how cool all of this is.

Because it is cool! Elba is a badass playing a dude who does gunplay like nobody’s business fighting an evil sorcerer in a post-apocalyptic wasteland for the fate of the universe against Lovecraftian evil. Yet The Dark Tower is either enamored with the much more ground-level story of Jake (thinking we need him as the audience surrogate) or completely disinterested in conveying the actual scale and scope of The Dark Tower story in front of it.

Of course, it doesn’t help that this film adaptation would hardly be equipped to do that. The fingerprints of too many hands are all over this film, cut to ribbons and overexplained within an inch of its life. Bad ADR and scenes spliced in make The Dark Tower a jarring experience to watch.

It’s also a surprisingly cheap looking movie. Action scenes are almost entirely staged in the dust or the dark, the monsters are in shadows or avoid the use of prosthetics, and there are roughly 5 locations, all shot very flat.

And a strong cast could have possibly saved this and should have considering who was on deck. Yet Idris Elba is pretty much the only one worth a damn, owing to his intense charisma, the kind of star performance that’s trying to keep things afloat.

Nobody else is given the time or the performance space to do anything. Performers like Jackie Earle Haley, Abbey Lee, and Kathryn Winnick basically pop in and disappear almost instantly. Anyone who isn’t them is giving a performance that I would suggest just not mentioning on their resume.

That includes Matthew McConaughey who is chewing the scenery in a way that is not fun enough to overcome how completely out of step he is with the rest of the movie. A few corny jokes aside, McConaughey is vamping in a way that just makes you feel kind of embarrassed for the Academy Award-winning actor. The Man in Black is an evil character with a goofy side, but McConaughey is more showboat than cackling. There’s also two moments that made me stifle long giggles in the theater (one where they find him cooking chicken, the other involves the use of the word “magicks”), which is not great for your big villain.

The Dark Tower is just an absolute swing and a miss. You see what could work here, but none of it does.

Grade: D