The Dark Tower Beckons You

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

Thus begins Stephen King’s sci-fi/fantasy epic Dark Tower series. It’s such a great first sentence. It pulls you in and makes you wonder who these people are, and why one is chasing the other. It’s such an evocative sentence that King wrote eight books from it.

For a while, it looked like the man in black fled across the desert, and Hollywood followed. This is because a film adaptation of the Dark Tower saga has been in the works for years, with multiple directors and stars attached. The version that ended up being made was directed by Danish filmmaker Nikolaj Arcel, and stars Idris Elba as the gunslinger and Matthew McConaughey as the man in black.
I’ve only read two of the eight Dark Tower books, so I’m no expert, but I have a passing familiarity with the series. King loves to fill his books with references to his other books, and his multi-dimensional Dark Tower series encompasses pretty much all of them. Fittingly, the film is full of references to other Stephen King works. I caught references to The Shining, Misery, It, Christine, Cujo, The Shawshank Redemption, 1408, and Mr. Mercedes. There were probably some that I missed, too.

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The film has had a long road to cinemas. There was some controversy regarding the casting of Elba as the gunslinger, since Elba is black and in the books the character is white. But King himself has stated he doesn’t care if the character is portrayed as black or white, and Elba is a good enough actor that his casting never bothered me. Also, there was the announcement that the film would be a sequel of sorts to the books, which sounded…odd. But then, how else are you supposed to adapt eight richly-detailed books that span several thousand pages into a film? Some liberties have to be taken, although adapting such a complex and beloved book series is always a risky proposition.

And the results in this case are mixed. The film got terrible reviews and scored a modest box-office opening. It’s not a terrible movie, but it could have been a hell of a lot better.

The movie’s audience surrogate character is 11-year old Jake Chambers, who has been having vivid dreams about a man in black attempting to destroy a tower and bring about the end of the world, and a lone gunslinger who seeks to stop him. The world has been suffering from a string of severe earthquakes, and Jake can’t help feeling that the earthquakes and his dreams are somehow related.

Long story short: he’s right. I try to avoid spoilers for brand new films, so I won’t go into too much detail, but Jake ends up traveling through a portal into another world, where he meets Roland, the gunslinger he had seen in his dreams. From Roland, Jake learns about the Dark Tower, which stands at the center point of the universe. The man in black wants to destroy the tower, the destruction of which would allow monsters from other dimensions to invade and destroy us. Or…something like that.

The movie’s main problem is that it feels too conventional. The setting of the books is a dreamlike sci-fi/western that’s kind of like a cross between the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and the spaghetti westerns of Clint Eastwood. The world(s) of the film don’t feel nearly as unique. The book’s protagonist is an interdimensional cowboy/knight who wields revolvers forged from the steel of Excalibur. That’s probably the coolest sentence I’ve ever written, but the movie doesn’t live up to the coolness and weirdness of the books, instead feeling like a somewhat generic sci-fi thriller.

Image: Sony

That’s not entirely a bad thing, since the movie is entertaining enough, but it’s a shame that it doesn’t have more personality. There are some fun, exciting action sequences (Roland can do some badass things with those revolvers) but the plot feels rushed and the stakes don’t feel high enough. Part of this is due to the surprisingly brief 95-minute running time of the film. The advantage of the short running time is that there is no fat: everything in the movie has a point. The disadvantage is that the characters and conflicts aren’t given enough time to breathe. Roland and the man in black are supposed to be eternal enemies, but the movie gives all of one scene to establish their antagonism, so their enmity doesn’t register as strongly as it should.

But Elba and McConaughey are both very good. In my post about Atomic Blonde I talked about my theory of coolness, which is that coolness speaks for itself. Both Elba and McConaughey are perfect examples of that. They are cool as hell, and so are their characters in this film. Elba is a grumpy badass with a heart of gold, while McConaughey seems to relish playing an evil multidimensional sorcerer who kills people simply by telling them to stop breathing. How would it not be fun to play those characters? The young actor who plays Jake is named Tom Taylor, I believe making his big-screen debut. He’s very good, and there are some genuinely sweet and often funny interactions between Jake and Roland. There are also some funny fish-out-of-water moments when Jake brings Roland into our world, which reminded me of Gal Gadot and Chris Pine in Wonder Woman.

You’ll probably hear a lot about how this movie is terrible and it ruins the legacy of King’s books and it sucks and it’s the worst adaptation ever and so on and so forth. I think that kind of hyperbolic nonsense is a load of hogwash. The movie isn’t an abomination. It has entertaining sequences and performances, but the direction is lackluster and the truncated plot can’t help but feel rushed. Its biggest sin is that it takes the surreal, dreamlike quality of King’s novels and turns them into a run-of-the-mill sci-fi thriller. It’s an entertaining way to spend 95 minutes, but it doesn’t have much staying power. A prequel TV series in reportedly in the works, so we may not have seen the last of this series on the screen. Given the sprawling nature of the story, it seems like a better fit for TV anyway. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Coming up next is…well, I’m not sure. I was going to write about Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, but it’s not playing near me so I’m going to have to put that on hold. I’ve got some other ideas I’ve been kicking around, so I’ll probably go with one of those. Tune in next week to find out which one I picked.

To Infinity and Beyond

Everyone is all doom and gloom these days. Every time you turn on the TV or open a newspaper, it’s all, “WE’RE DOOMED” and “THEY’RE COMING FOR YOU AND YOUR CHILDREN”. In the midst of all this fearmongering, it’s a genuine pleasure to find something that conveys a sense of hope for the future.

Thank God for Star Trek.

One of the reasons for the franchise’s enduring popularity has always been its sense of hopefulness, its embracing of all the good things mankind is capable of. Star Trek Beyond, the latest film in the storied series, is no exception.

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Early in the new movie, the crew of the starship Enterprise visits Yorktown, one of the Federation’s newest space stations. Yorktown is a beautiful creation, a snowglobe-like installation with its own atmosphere. As the camera explores the structure and the music swells, there’s a real sense of hopefulness, a positivity that says, hey, look what we can accomplish together.

That may sound cheesy, but I appreciated the movie’s upbeat tone. It’s especially significant considering the recent loss of two of the cast members. The legendary Leonard Nimoy passed away last year, and of course Anton Yelchin died in a tragic accident a few short weeks ago. The film is dedicated to both of them, and the passing of Nimoy is worked into the plot in an organic way.

The filmmakers announced that they will be retiring the role of Chekov for future sequels, which is a classy gesture. It ensures that the role of Chekov in the rebooted movie series will be remembered as Yelchin’s. It would be very difficult to recast the role, and any actor who did play it would have had big shoes to fill. I will miss Chekov in future Trek adventures, as I’m sure many other fans will, but Beyond gives the character a good sendoff and reminds us once again of the talent we lost with Yelchin’s passing. The way he pronounces “Captain” as “Keptin” is something I will always treasure.

As the movie begins, the Enterprise is about three years into its five-year mission, and lethargy is starting to set in. “Things are starting to feel…episodic,” Captain Kirk says in one of his captain’s logs, in a funny nod to the television roots of the series. I find it kind of hilarious that a space mission could become boring, but it works in the context of the story. Think about it: when space travel has become commonplace, a really long space voyage could feel akin to an endless road trip or plane flight. Being in space on a high-tech starship wouldn’t necessarily alleviate the boredom after a while.

But this is James T. Freakin’ Kirk we’re talking about here, and it doesn’t take long before the intrepid crew of the Enterprise find themselves in a heap of trouble, shot down and marooned on an alien planet. They’re scattered and disorganized, and have to regroup and figure out what the hell is going on.

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The movie was co-written by Simon Pegg, who plays Scotty. The dialogue crackles and the chemistry between the cast members is very strong. All of the actors wear their characters like gloves, and their familiarity and camaraderie with each other is palpable.

The villain is an ugly son of a gun named Krall, who is played by the great Idris Elba. Decked out in makeup and facial prosthetics, and speaking with a growly Bane-like voice, Elba is unrecognizable for most of the film. His character isn’t quite as memorable as Benedict Cumberbatch was in the previous entry, Star Trek Into Darkness, but Elba is a strong presence nonetheless.

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Also new is Jaylah, an alien scavenger the crew encounters on the planet on which they become stranded. Jaylah has her own reasons for helping them fight Krall, and she kicks plenty of ass along the way. She’s played by Sofia Boutella, best known for playing Samuel L. Jackson’s razor-legged henchwoman Gazelle in Kingsman: The Secret Service. She’s a great addition and I would like to see more of her in future installments.

As you would expect from a sci-fi epic with a nine-figure budget, the movie looks great. Krall has a drone army which swarms like a massive cloud of pissed-off bees, and they make mincemeat of the poor old Enterprise pretty easily. It’s sad to watch the old girl get ripped to shreds, but the effects make it look great.

Chris Pine delivers another solid performance as Captain Kirk, effortlessly projecting the magnetic charisma the character is known for. The rest of the cast is also terrific. When they get marooned, the crew is broken up in pairs, with Kirk meeting up with Chekov, Sulu and Uhura getting captured by Krall, Scotty meeting Jaylah (whom he adorably calls “Lassie”), and Bones being paired with Spock. Bones and Spock are particularly great, since their personalities are so wildly different, and Karl Urban and Zachary Quinto have fun bouncing off each other in a combative but still friendly way.

Star Trek Beyond is the first film in the new series to not be directed by JJ Abrams, since he was busy with another sci-fi franchise with the word “Star” in the title. Instead, Beyond was directed by Justin Lin, best known for bringing us four of the seven films in the Fast and Furious series. Lin is a talented action director who also shows a deft hand with character development.  The crew of the Enterprise is similar in structure to the ensemble cast of Lin’s Fast and Furious films, and he juggles the various characters and storylines with ease.

Star Trek Beyond is probably my least favorite of the new Trek flicks, but I don’t mean that as an insult. If anything, it’s a testament to how good Abrams’ two Treks were. Beyond is still a rollicking good time, a fun, action-packed sci-fi blockbuster which delivers on the action and the characterization in equal measure, and lovingly pays homage to departed cast members and to the legacy of the films before it.

Guillermo del Toro: Nerd Hero

Pacific Rim is a dream come true for nerds everywhere. No movie since The Avengers last year has had more Nerdgasms-per-minute than this one. It should cement Guillermo del Toro’s status as Nerd Hero of the Highest Order, on a level with Saint Joss Whedon. And, as with World War Z (and The Avengers for that matter), I consider it a minor miracle it even got made in the first place.

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It would have been so easy to screw this up. I think it’s safe to say that there are perhaps a fair number of people out there (myself included) who would go to see a movie about giant robots duking it out with giant monsters regardless of the talent involved. It really is somewhat miraculous that A) this movie got the nine-figure budget required to do this sort of concept convincingly, and B) the movie got a director who actually knows what the hell he’s doing.

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Guillermo del Toro is a respected filmmaker with an Academy Award under his belt (Best Foreign Film for Pan’s Labyrinth in 2006) but he hasn’t really been known as a big-budget blockbuster sort of director. Sure, he’s directed action movies and comic-book adaptations (Blade 2 and Hellboy 2 are my favorites) which have been well-received and modestly financially successful, but until now he hasn’t made a megabudget tentpole blockbuster.

If you’ve seen any of del Toro’s other films, you know he’s got a thing for monsters.

Monsters like this…

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Or (nightmare fuel alert) this…

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Seriously, the scene in Pan’s Labyrinth where this guy shows up is one of the most terrifying scenes I have ever witnessed in any movie ever. Being on the set of a del Toro movie must be like walking into another dimension.

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Just another day on the job.

But what is so great about del Toro is that he doesn’t let the monsters overwhelm the story. Pan’s Labyrinth is an incredibly, heartbreakingly human film despite the fantastical creatures, and Hellboy 2 in particular really makes you feel for the big red guy, because he’s such an outcast. A lot of people can identify with that.

What I’m trying to say with all this is that GDT was the perfect choice of director for Pacific Rim. He’s a talented filmmaker, he knows how to direct an action scene, he’s got a vivid imagination, and, come on, he clearly loves this stuff. His enthusiasm for the material is pretty infectious.

Well now that I’ve waxed eloquent about how great GDT is, let’s get on to the movie, shall we?

Yes, Pacific Rim is a movie about giant robots punching giant monsters in the face, and vice-versa. But there is more to it than that.

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Okay, backstory time. I won’t say too much about the plot, but I think a bit of explanation is appropriate.

The giant monsters are called Kaiju, which, as the movie informs us, is a Japanese term for “giant beast.” The giant robots are called Jaegers, which, as the movie also informs us, is German for “hunter.” Some years ago, the Kaiju started appearing out of some sort of dimensional rift in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The first one annihilated San Francisco (the poor Golden Gate Bridge is always the first thing to go in these kinds of disaster movies) and blazed a path of destruction before us humans managed to finally bring it down.

We killed the beast, but the cost was just too high. So, when more Kaiju started appearing, we had no choice but to create the Jaegers and deploy them in the ocean where the Kaiju appeared and attempt to kill them before they could reach any major cities. All of this is shown to us in the opening few minutes of the movie.

The way the Jaegers work is that there are two pilots in the cockpit of the robot, which is located in the robot’s head. The pilots are connected to each other via a kind of neural link in a process known as drifting, and they control the robot together. The stronger the bond between the pilots, the better the robot is able to fight. Two pilots are required because the Jaegers are so complex that they are too much for just one pilot to be able to handle.

This has some pretty significant drawbacks, of course. Piloting a Jaeger is still almost too much for even two pilots to handle, and the neural link between the two of them can be problematic. Also, they are so connected to the robot and to each other that they are surprisingly vulnerable. Basically, when the robot gets hurt, the pilots feel it too.

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So it’s not just the robot who is hurting here, the pilots are also in pretty bad shape.

I love this because it makes both the Jaegers and the pilots vulnerable. I mean come on, you’d think a couple of guys encased in several thousand tons of steel would be pretty safe, right? But no. They’re not.

When I saw the trailers for the film, for some reason I had assumed the pilots were controlling the robot from a distance, like they would hang back and control the robot from base or something. I really don’t know why I assumed this. It wasn’t until a few minutes into the film itself that I realized the pilots were actually in the robot, which makes so much more sense in just about every way.

It’s also brilliant because del Toro clearly realizes that it might be just a bit difficult for audiences to care about characters who are safely encased in a giant monster-killing deathbot, so he makes them vulnerable in a way that makes sense in the world the movie creates. If you care about the people in the robot, then you care about the robot, too. Well played, Guillermo.

I’m not going to say much about the actual plot, since the plot itself isn’t really all that special. Suffice to say that a former Jaeger pilot who quit after his brother (who was also his co-pilot) got Om Nommed by a Kaiju in the movie’s opening battle scene is called back into battle by his former boss, the wonderfully-named Stacker Pentecost, to help in the final battle blah blah. You can probably see where this is going, and the plot follows some familiar paths that aren’t all that surprising.

But hey, who cares when the movie is this much fun? The effects and action scenes in this film are pretty stunning, brought vividly to life with the help of that nine-figure budget. A large budget does not always equal a good movie (I’m looking at you, Michael Bay) but it would have been pretty damn hard to make a movie like Pacific Rim convincing with anything less than $200 million.

The movie’s battles are similar in special-effects powered destructiveness to those in Man of Steel, only on a much bigger scale because the combatants themselves are, you know, much, much bigger.

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Like, getting-chucked-through-a-building-demolishes-the-entire-building bigger.

The robot/monster smackdowns in this film are truly epic, and no words I can use to describe them will really do them justice. They deserve to be seen for themselves, in all of their fantastically-realized glory.

Another thing I love about this movie is how well thought-out it is. I’m sure if you really wanted to you could poke holes in the plot, but I still think that this is one of the most fully-realized sci-fi films in some time. The world it portrays is very convincing, and del Toro and his co-screenwriter Travis Beacham really did a stellar job exploring different aspects of the giant robot/monster world that you wouldn’t necessarily have thought of.

For example, there’s a slum in Hong Kong called the Bone Slums, which is built around the skeletal remains of a fallen Kaiju. There’s also del Toro regular Ron Perlman (he played Hellboy in both Hellboy movies and has been in several of del Toro’s other films) as a dealer in black-market Kaiju body parts named Hannibal Chau. It seems that Kaiju bone powder is good for the, ahem, male potency, and even Kaiju crap makes damn good fertilizer. It’s details like these that make the film’s world seem really genuine and easy to get lost in, despite the film’s far-fetched premise.

There’s also Idris Elba as Stacker Pentecost (how’s that for a winning combination of actor and character names?), the Commander of the Jaeger program. Elba is a darn good actor, and he effectively conveys the world-weariness that comes with all those years of punching giant monsters right in their ugly faces.

He’s also suave as hell.

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Cuts a pretty great figure, doesn’t he? This film has me firmly convinced that Elba is one of the smoothest, most badass mofos on the planet. He was also easily the best part of Prometheus last year. Just sayin’. (Also, check out a little movie called The Losers for another fun Elba performance.)

Pacific Rim won’t be for everyone. It’s very BIG and very LOUD, with lots of monster-screeching and metal-tearing. It almost borders on sensory overload at times. Not everyone out there will find this sort of thing appealing. That’s fine. I get it. Not everyone really wants to watch robots punch monsters in the face. Which, again, is totally fine.

HOWEVER, if you do think robot/monster beatdowns sound like a good time at the movies, you owe it to yourself to see this movie. You will not be disappointed. It’s extremely well-made by a director who clearly loves the material, it’s got a surprising amount of depth, and it is simply a blast to watch.

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I mean seriously, people. Adam Sandler doesn’t need any more freaking money. Support Guillermo instead. That might become my new slogan.

SUPPORT GUILLERMO 2013!!!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch.

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Seriously. He’ll eat you if you don’t see his movie.

Christmas Cheer in a Movie Full of Slimy Tentacle Monsters

I’ll bet you didn’t know that Prometheus is a Christmas movie! I didn’t either until I re-watched it last week. But sure enough, there is a Christmas tree in one scene so that is enough for it to qualify as an Off-the-Wall-Christmas-Movie under my extremely lax standards.

For those who haven’t seen it, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is about what happens when a group of well-meaning but painfully naïve and unobservant folks go looking for the origins of life on a distant alien planet. Bad things happen, but hey, Christmas!

The aforementioned Christmas tree shows up after the crew of the spaceship “Prometheus” has been awakened from cryosleep when they are finally nearing their destination. Their destination is the also-aforementioned distant alien planet (maybe it was a moon and not an actual planet, I forget), and they have been asleep in cryostasis for something like two and a half years because that is how long it took for them to get to the alien planet where the bad things will happen.

The ship’s captain Janek, played rather awesomely by Idris Elba, sets up a Christmas tree in what I guess was the ship’s rec room. When the character played by Charlize Theron asks him what the hell he is doing, he responds that the crew needs a holiday in order to orient themselves in time after having been asleep for so long. Makes sense to me. If I had been in cryostasis for that long I can imagine that it would be a bit difficult to anchor myself.

Of course, it’s not like I can really identify with that or anything since cryostasis or cryosleep or whatever you want to call it doesn’t currently exist the way it is portrayed in science fiction. As far as I know.

This silly little discussion reminds me of a similar scene in one of the Walking Dead comics. I’ve forgotten the exact details but there’s a scene in one of the comics where someone tells protagonist Rick that, if so-and-so’s calendar-keeping has been correct since the whole zombie apocalypse thing started, it will be Christmas soon. Rick tells her not to tell anybody, especially the kids in their group, since the last thing they need in the midst of a zombie apocalypse is for the kids to be expecting Santa to show up.

I always liked this scene. It just, I don’t know, made a certain kind of sense to me. I also liked it from a storytelling perspective, since it helps give the reader a sense of time and it orients the characters, and it helps to show how much time has passed since everything went to hell in a handbasket. So I guess Janek had the right idea.

There’s a scene later in Prometheus where Janek plays some snippet of a Christmas carol on an accordion. This man is full of so much Christmas cheer that I half-expected him to put on a Santa hat at the film’s climax. Interestingly, at the end of the film the last surviving character mentions that it is New Year’s Day, so I guess Janek’s Christmas tree made more sense than Charlize Theron’s character realized. But then, she doesn’t seem like the type of person who would really enjoy Christmas much anyway. Santa must not have brought her a pony when she was eight.

Prometheus is a deeply flawed film, I’m not going to go into more detail because this film has already been so thoroughly dissected on other parts of the interwebs that there’s not much I could add to the discussion that hasn’t been said already. But watch it and you’ll find a surprising amount of Christmas cheer (you know, maybe an iota or two) amongst the stupid character decisions, gaping plot holes, frustratingly unanswered questions, sumptuous visuals, and tentacle-monster maulings.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch.