The first test episode of the PHB Podcast is now posted!
As I said last week, my friends and I have been getting together every Sunday for almost two years now to play Dungeons & Dragons 5e. We’ve had a blast doing it, and we want to share that fun with others.
So head on over to the new D&D Podcast menu option and check out our Beta. Leave a comment to let us know how we’re doing, and check back every Tuesday and Thursday for the next few weeks for a new episode.
I’d originally planned on posting a review of Atomic Blonde this week, but I decided to take some time off from film to work on other projects instead. So if you see Charlize Theron kicking butt this weekend — or if you want to comment on any other movies — leave a message in the comments below!
If you’d like to hear about some of the other projects/thoughts on my plate, continue reading. In addition to some things I’m hoping I’ll get to share with you soon, I’ve got a big announcement that I’m very excited about.
Upcoming Book Reviews
For a blog that touts its film AND book reviews, it’s been sorely lacking in book reviews. I’d mentioned last week that I don’t give my reviewed books a rating because I become invested in them — both bad and good.
The Breakdown by B. A. Paris is one of those less than stellar books in which I’ve invested a significant amount of time. I started it almost 2 months ago as an Advanced Reader Copy, and though the prose is easy enough to read, the premise got worn out so quickly that I dreaded sitting down to read it. So the days have stretched on, and still I haven’t finished it. Even though I want to finish it, if only so I can give a thorough review. So expect “One of the Most Highly Anticipated Thriller Novels of 2017 by Bustle” to be my next review.
The Punch Escrow by Tal M. Klein will be after that. I got my Advance Reader Copy a little late (two days after public release), but ever since I heard about this sci-fi novel set in 2147, where teleportation is a common means of travel, I’ve been eagerly anticipating its release. It might just be enough to help me finish The Breakdown.
“Art” You Not Entertained?
I also spent a little time earlier this week revisiting my art skills. Every week I get together with some friends of mine to play Dungeons & Dragons 5e, but one of our group was called up for military tour with the Army. He was always the one making sure we were going to meet each week and he really enjoyed playing.
Yesterday was his birthday, and though we couldn’t celebrate with him, we made him a care package and each member of the D&D group tossed in a card. I wanted to give him something special, so I drew his RPG character.
Tim the Enchanter is a tiefling wizard inspired by the character of the same name from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I couldn’t remember all the details of my buddy’s D&D version, but I thought I’d make him happy-go-lucky with sparklers instead of a fireball for a Dungeons & Dragons-themed birthday card.
Which I think fits with our group as a whole. As I say, my friends and I get together every week to play Dungeons & Dragons. We’ve been doing it for over a year now and we have so much fun playing that sometimes we wind up doubled over from laughter. More than once we’ve considered recording ourselves just so we can have it to playback our nonsense.
But we’ve decided to take it one step further…
Which Brings us to the BIG Announcement…
My D&D group will soon be launching a Live Play 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons Podcast!
I’ve really come to enjoy podcasts as a medium over the past few years with shows like The Joe Rogan Experience or The Dollop. But when my group and I found out there was a market for D&D, we decided to try our hand at our own brand of podcasting.
We’re still testing the waters and figuring out what works/what doesn’t. So we’re recording test episodes as we finish up our current campaign. Look for those to be posted once a week starting next Tuesday!
Again, we’re still testing the waters. Please give us feedback so that when we officially launch, the ball will already be rolling.
TL;DR – I’ve got The Breakdownand The Punch Escrowbook reviews coming soon, I drew a tiefling for my Army buddy, and my D&D group is launching a podcast!
Christopher Nolan’s war epic is immersive art but devoid of much-needed historical and dramatic context
Film Score: 6/10
After Dunkirk ended, I sat for a moment to collect my thoughts and wound up talking to a gentleman in the next row. He said he’d worked in film and studied World War II. When asked what he thought of the film, he said, “If you didn’t know anything about Dunkirk coming in, you wouldn’t learn a thing.”
I’d done some mild research before my viewing, so I knew the history. After several failed attempts by the Allied forces to break the German advance through France, British and French troops were forced to evacuate from the port town of Dunkirk on the northern end of the English Channel. German forces had surrounded the area and threatened to break through before an evacuation could be organized, prompting Britain to consider the possibility of conditional surrender. But in one of the most widely debated decisions of the war, the German forces halted for three days to regroup and ensure the Allies couldn’t break through the line. This was enough time to set a defensive perimeter – held mainly by the French – while British naval ships and smaller private vessels ferried over 338,000 Allied troops off the beach.
However, as the gentleman in my theater commented, if you didn’t know any of this going into the movie, you weren’t going to leave much the wiser. All the viewer learns is that the Germans are drawing close and the men can’t get off the beach fast enough, with a few additional lines to hint at Britain’s surrender. There’s no historical context. The importance of this “colossal military disaster” (Winston Churchill) isn’t examined until the final few moments of the film. And the three different timelines of the Mole, Sea, and Air are so confusing it took me half the movie to sort them out.
But Christopher Nolan wasn’t aiming for a history lesson or a documentary. He wanted to place viewers in the midst of the Dunkirk evacuation and immerse them in the sights and sounds of that beach. He wanted to create an experience.
Dunkirk was shot using 70mm IMAX cameras, which means the frame is twice as wide as normal film, creating expansive shots that, according to Nolan, are like “virtual reality without the goggles.” The format allows him to capture the vastness of sea and sky, the endless expanse of beach and foamy surf, and the thousands of men standing in rank waiting to be evacuated. It truly is visually stunning, which is why Warner Bros. has made Dunkirk the largest 70mm film release in a quarter-century.
The sounds are technically wonderful and add to the immersive feeling. The groaning of ships, the shuffling of men, the scream of planes, and the whistling of incoming weapons all contribute to the experience Nolan is trying to create. In the first ten minutes of the film all you can hear are the sounds of war, while the men remain virtually silent. Humanity has been swallowed whole, with only one lone voice crying out in desperation, “Where’s the bloody air force?” The opening sequence is amazing and I love it. If you go to see Dunkirk in theaters it should be because of this.
But after that the men continue to speak very sparingly, and suddenly the sounds of war give way to an incessant soundtrack that refuses to let you forget that the situation is supposed to be suspenseful. Hans Zimmer has recently developed a nasty habit of scoring films by giving each section of his orchestra a single bar of perpetually repeating notes and then introducing them one at a time. About every twenty seconds he’ll add a blaring brass note or synthetic run and call it complex. It’s annoying, loud, and numbing.
Ultimately that’s what happened with the whole film: I went numb to it. The sound mixing was excellent and will almost certainly win awards, but after an hour I’d already heard it all before. The cinematography is wonderful to behold and also award-worthy, but by the end of the film I’d already seen the beach fifty different ways and the ocean fifty others. Nolan’s desire to immerse viewers in the film worked wonderfully for the first ten to fifteen minutes. After that the awe wore off and I found myself needing a reason to continue the experience.
Not even the cast of typically excellent actors was convincing enough to return some feeling to my viewing experience. The script just wasn’t built to foster connections between the characters and viewers, eschewing dialogue and dramatic context wherever possible. Mark Rylance delivered the strongest performance as calm and steadfast Mr. Dawson. Fionn Whitehead in the lead of Tommy was a close runner-up; he handled his lack of lines with aplomb. And other than a cringe-worthy final scene, I’ll even give admit that Harry Styles can act. They did everything they could with a script that wasn’t meant to do anything except demonstrate man’s survival.
I wanted Dunkirk to be better. As art it was fresh and intriguing, but as a film I found it overwhelmingly underwhelming. The sounds and the visuals and the soundtrack all clamored for attention, but after the first fifteen minutes I had little reason to stay. Even though I was successfully immersed in Nolan’s creation, I wasn’t learning any history, I wasn’t learning about the characters, so I just stopped caring.
If you find yourself wanting to see Dunkirk, see it in theaters and definitely see it in 70mm or in one of 31 theaters showcasing 70mm IMAX format. As a piece of technical art I’d give 8.5/10 for the film, and even higher if it weren’t for Zimmer’s soundtrack which really is that irritating. Otherwise I’d say you can skip it. As the gentleman from my theater put it: “I didn’t like this one.”
I know I didn’t post a review this past week, and even though that might have been a bummer for everyone, I thought it might be better to write a post explaining how (and why) I rate the way I do.
After five films reviewed, I figured posting a scale would help readers understand my review at a glance:
10 – So good I’ll be paying to see it in theater twice. 9 – Definitely something you should watch in theater. 8 – Highly recommend it, but if you miss it in theater not a big deal. 7 – I recommend it, but wait to catch this on home video. 6 – If it’s on TV or Netflix, it’s not a total waste of time. 5 – If you never see it, you won’t be missing out. 4 – Not worth your time. 3 – Not worth my time. 2 – Why was this movie made? 1 – I’ll be suing for my money back.
And for those of you who followed me hoping to read more book reviews and wondering what my scale is for those…
I don’t have one.
I spent a full day trying to think of a good way to structure a rating system for books and came to the conclusion it’s better not to have one. When I watch film, I either like it or I don’t. There are very few instances where I dislike a film but appreciate the art behind it (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is one).
With literature, I can easily think of a dozen books that I did not enjoy reading but still appreciated the author’s style or tone or character development. I don’t have the same level of objectiveness for novels as I do for film. It takes me two hours to consume a movie. It takes me two weeks to properly absorb a book for critique. I become invested in what I’m reading. The best I can do is write out my thoughts and let others decide if the book will be worth their time.
So whether you’re looking for film or book reviews, I hope this post helps you to understand my process a bit. Thank you to all of my readers and followers. Your feedback and comments are always welcome and they certainly make my work feel meaningful.
Tom Holland is energetic and enjoyable in this superhero coming-of-age tale
Film Score: 9/10
Spider-Man: Homecoming is the culmination of nearly a decade of interlocking storylines and successful films from Marvel (see Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 review here). Each has led to a believable world in which superheroes exist. But so far none of the Marvel films really focused on what this world might be like for an average citizen.
What new jobs would be created, and which would become obsolete? How would education be affected by the presence, the science, and the battles of superheroes? Instead of movie stars and boy band crushes, which superheroes would high schoolers choose to F, marry, or kill? And would the average citizen feel more, or less, safe? Spider-Man finally answers these questions by giving us a friendly, neighborhood superhero who’s “looking out for the little guy.”
Tom Holland stars as the new Spider-Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe
After the massive events of Captain America: Civil War, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) returns home to New York, now under the watchful eye of Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) and mentorship of Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.). He’s told to sit tight and focus on his sophomore year of high school when all he wants to do is find his next mission and prove himself worthy to join the Avengers full time. Parker believes taking down the Vulture (Michael Keaton) will earn him Stark’s respect, but his mistakes at school, with friends, and even his superhero life begin to add up and he soon begins to wonder if he’s even meant to be the Spider-Man.
It’s as much a traditional high school coming-of-age tale as it is a superhero flick, which is what makes it relatable. The story is evenly balanced between the actions of Peter Parker and Spider-Man, but through it all Tom Holland plays an exceptional character. His excitement at even the smallest new detail of his life is so genuine that I couldn’t stop smiling. I was geeking out watching him geek out. And just like a real teenager, he wants to be cool, has his mind on girls half the time, and is incredibly stubborn about who he wants to be while still harboring a deep anxiety that he’ll never achieve it.
His energy in the role is best matched by Jacob Batalon, who plays best friend Ned. When he discovers his best friend is Spider-Man, he has to know everything. He wants answers to the most ridiculous questions, he wants to try on the suit, and most importantly, he wants to know if he can be “the guy in the chair.” He’s the logistical smarts behind Parker’s technical skills, and his excitement at having Spider-Man for a best friend is only outweighed by his desire to fit in at school. I thoroughly enjoyed his performance and look forward to seeing more of him. Especially since he delivers probably the best excuse I’ve ever heard for being somewhere he’s not supposed to be.
As for the villain, Micheal Keaton is a worthwhile adversary in the role of Adrian/Vulture. Adrian didn’t begin as a bad guy, but he was never afraid to do some questionable things if pushed. Keaton recognizes this and does an excellent job of never losing that character core even as he becomes the Vulture. Keaton isn’t my favorite villainous actor of all time, but I can appreciate his handling of the character’s complexity.
I’d love to speak on the overall visual aspect and CGI of the film, but as I was forced to see Spider-Man from the front row with my neck craned back, I didn’t have the best perspective (see what I did there?). Keep in mind: show up to early screenings way before you think you need to.
And even with the poor viewing experience, I know that I’d still recommend this film. The fact that I enjoyed it as much as I did, even when seeing it in less than ideal conditions, proves that a movie doesn’t need to be about spectacle. A good story with excellent actors and believable worldbuilding is all that you need. Marvel has certainly perfected that.
P.S. Stay through all the credits. No spoilers, but you’ll probably enjoy it.
New faces and old favorites can’t buoy a lackluster script that makes even Jack Sparrow dull
Film Score: 5/10
I saw the first Pirates of the Caribbean on an analog television not meant for widescreen DVD playback. The aspect ratio was so terrible that I had to watch the action between two six-inch panels of black, but I didn’t want to miss a thing so I kept scooting closer. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is the first of the series that I’ve seen on the big screen, yet it’s the only one that made me feel like it’d be okay if I looked away.
This time around everyone’s searching for the Trident of Poseidon, a magical artifact that holds the power of the sea, but their reasons never engaged me like any of the preceding films. Henry Turner (Brenton Thwiates) wants it to free his father from the curse of the Flying Dutchman, newcomer Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario) wants to connect with a father she never knew by finding the Trident detailed in the journal he left her, and Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) needs it to avoid the revenge of Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) and his ghost crew. The familial bonds drawing Henry and Karina to the Trident are sufficient for introducing it as a potential treasure, but Jack’s need of the Trident—which is supposed to be urgent as it’s the only way to save his life—comes across, to quote Dead Man’s Chest, as less of a “resolute and unyielding need” and more a “trifling need […] a passing fancy.”
Jack Sparrow never once says, “I need the Trident of Poseidon.” In Dead Man’s Chest, he was very clearly terrified of the debt he owed Davy Jones and his pet beastie. He did everything in his power to prevent collection of that debt. In Dead Men Tell No Tales he meanders around on screen drinking rum for the first hour, barely aware of the danger Captain Salazar poses. Not until he and Captain Salazar finally meet does the plot pick up again as Jack realizes the threat of vengeful Spanish ghosts (and ghost sharks) is real. Though the threat apparently still isn’t real enough for Jack to start suggesting the group goes after the Trident with all haste.
Perhaps that’s a result of Captain Salazar as a villain. His thirst for revenge helps to drive the plot and certainly makes him dangerous, but it seriously stunts him as a memorable Pirates villain. Beyond the somewhat ho-hum ghostly CGI mapped around his face, all he has is his rage and a single-minded determination to find Sparrow by whatever means necessary. Bardem delivers a few excellent scenes, but it’s mainly him making due with a one-dimensional character.
Almost all the actors have to “make do” this time around as they portray characters from across the franchise. There are some classic Pirates moments that prove no one is just going through the motions—a failed bank robbery, an escape from the gallows, and the initial meeting between Sparrow and Salazar all provide the physical comedy, action, and clever banter we’ve come to love and expect—but the rest of the film relies on a script at times contrived (e.g. Paul McCartney’s cameo and an absolutely pointless witch) and at others completely ignorant of Pirates canon (i.e. the origin of Jack’s compass). The actors are left with the task of making us believe it all. Something not even Johnny Depp can do.
It doesn’t matter how big the spectacle or how many off-the-wall antics the filmmakers convince Depp to act out, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise won’t survive without an engaging story. The original film wasn’t a hit because of its CGI-heavy action sequences. It wasn’t a hit because of drawn out misinterpretations of what a horologist does for a living. And it certainly wasn’t because the audience enjoyed watching Jack Sparrow get drunk and stay drunk on screen. The original film was a story about freedom, adventure, and a man who valued those things above all else. Depp’s Academy Award-nominated performance was inspired by that story. For the sake of that performance and the legacy of the franchise, perhaps it’s good Dead Men Tell No Tales is being touted as the final adventure.
Enjoyable performances from Charlie Hunnam and Jude Law are lost amidst a plot designed to showcase action
Film score: 6/10
I’m sure the executives at Warner Bros. were confident their Guy Ritchie-directed King Arthur adaptation would be a huge hit. Not to mention the five planned sequels. With some tweaks to the typical Arthurian legend, the right actors, and that unique Ritchie treatment of the film, it should have been the beginning of a profitable franchise devoid of superheroes with years of runway ahead.
It could have been.
It isn’t a bad film—certainly not as bad as the box office or many other critics might suggest—but King Arthur: Legend of the Sword focuses too much on pyrotechnics and not enough on substance. Even though the film has many bright spots, the filmmakers drown everything with more action, more plot, more noise. However fun it all might be, the movie keeps shouting until it becomes too difficult to pick apart the good from the bad.
Thankfully the casting of Charlie Hunnam as the newest iteration of Arthur was a check in the pros column. In this version of the story his character was orphaned at a young age and grew up without knowing he was son to King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana), who had been murdered by his brother Vortigern (Jude Law). Despite being raised in a brothel in the city of Londinium (a pleasant nod to Roman occupation and historical accuracy), Arthur knew he could aspire to more. Hunnam is regal from the moment he steps on screen, in a gentleman rogue sort of way. He’s charismatic through confidence, both as an actor and a character. I’ve never witnessed Hunnam on screen before this, but he treats the role the same way Arthur treats the other characters: knowing that not everyone knows or likes him and that’s okay, because at the end of the day they’ll still probably end up the best of friends. As Arthur says, “Why have enemies when you can have friends?”
Jude Law as Vortigern is the only true enemy Arthur has, and he plays the role of villain admirably. Law cleverly avoids melodramatic posturing in favor of quiet menace and suggested power. He is certain he will be able to continue growing his power, but just to be safe he rounds up all men of a proper age to try their luck at pulling sword from stone. Enter Arthur, the born king, and the beginning of a struggle for the throne. Unfortunately, as Arthur learns to wield the sword (which is straight O.P.) the audience never gets to see Vortigern’s “growing” power. The only instance of Vortigern actually wielding magic is when he holds flickering flames in his hand. He uses magic other times in the film, but at the risk of spoilers, suffice to say the audience never actually sees him using it.
It’s a disappointing trend throughout the film. Every instance of magic is either minimal or extraordinary. There’s no in between. The opening sequence features a retinue of mages riding the backs of elephants 100 feet tall and wielding what basically amounts to a disintegration ray against the battlements of Camelot. The climatic displays of magic quickly lose their novelty and result in sequences oddly reminiscent of video game cut scenes, ultimately adding to more of that noise. Their saving grace is that they really only happen at the beginning and end of the film, leaving the entire middle with room for more enticing fare.
Legend of the Sword is at its best when the characters are the focus. Whether it’s Arthur’s back alley mates or the ragtag team of rebels led by Uther’s former advisors, they provide an everyman face to the epic battle raging around them. They also provide plenty of proverbial storytelling meat for Guy Ritchie to chop up in his traditional quick-cut style. There are truly elegant moments of Ritchie’s style, including a montage of Arthur’s early life, a story Arthur relates to a Londinium guard, and a hypothetical situation between Arthur and Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou) which is played out for the audience’s pleasure.
Besides Hounsou (The Legend of Tarzan, Guardians of the Galaxy), the acting roster holds other notable names, including Aiden Gillen (Game of Thrones) as a rather self-serving Goosefat Bill and Annabelle Wallis (The Tudors, upcoming The Mummy) as Maggie. David Beckham has a few lines in his acting debut, and Katie McGrath makes an appearance (and unintentional Arthurian adaptation continuity, as she’d previously starred in the BBC series Merlin). If only Ritchie and his team had spent more time on them instead of relegating their names to obscurity in favor of an incredibly drawn out process to make Arthur come to terms with his past—assisted by Astrid Bergès-Frisbey as the Mage—so that he can use Excalibur and ramp up the epic action and noise again.
What Ritchie and his team fail to recognize is that just like Arthur is not defined by the circumstances of his childhood, neither does Excalibur define him as a king. The legend of the sword paves the way for the true king, but Arthur—and the men and women who fight by his side—are the true heroes. Ignore them and their story and it doesn’t matter how seamless the editing, pounding the music, or dazzling the displays. The people won’t follow.