The Dark Tower (2017)

2018 #25
Nikolaj Arcel | 95 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

The Dark Tower

The Dark Tower started life as a literary work that is, according to its author, Stephen King’s magnum opus: a series of eight novels, written over 30 years and spanning some 4,250 pages, that not only tell their own genre-mash-up story, but also reference or connect up many of King’s more widely-known works. Since 2007 there have been various efforts to try to wrangle such an epic work onto the screen, with perhaps the most high-profile being Ron Howard’s ambitious plan to spread it across both film and TV, alternating a trilogy of big-budget movies with seasons of TV on HBO in order to adapt the whole saga. This clearly proved to be too formidable a goal, but eventually paved the way for what was released: a single 90-minute film. From one extreme to the other, eh…

It’s easy to imagine why fans of the books have found this film disappointing, then — I mean, there’s no way they’ve managed to accurately condense seven novels (and some of them very long novels at that) into an hour and a half. But, despite the series-encompassing title, it’s my understanding that it’s primarily an adaptation of the first novel, so surely fans would know they could expect the rest of the narrative if sequels were produced? The perceived problems must go deeper, therefore, and be more general: leaving aside fan reaction, the film has a Rotten Tomatoes score of just 16%.

Strut

Well, I don’t know what people were hating, because I thought it really wasn’t that bad. I can’t comment on its faithfulness or thoroughness as an adaptation, but as an action-fantasy movie in its own right I thought it held together pretty well. It only cost $60 million (a bargain for a blockbuster nowadays), but they got good value for money: it doesn’t look cheap, and it has a respectable lead cast as well. Idris Elba’s presence may’ve pissed off some people (his character has consistently been depicted as white in illustrations accompanying the books), but he seemed to fit the role. Matthew McConaughey makes for a decently unsetting bad guy. Our identification figure is a kid played by Doctor Foster’s Tom Taylor, who’s fine here but got to show more chops in that series.

The relatively stringent budget probably explains why it’s a little light on things like epic action sequences, with those that are included feeling like the makers were probably doing their best on a limited expenditure — the action isn’t bad, but those scenes aren’t as awesome as the film thinks they are. Less readily excused is the plot, which is a bit slim — the story is very straightforward, despite the intricate fantasy gubbins dressing it up, moving directly from A to B to C with minimal complication. Similarly, familiar character arcs are efficiently executed. But if a film’s biggest crime is unoriginality, it’s no worse than the majority of Hollywood’s output for the past 20 or 30 (or more) years, is it?

Slinging guns

Well, according to script editor (and fan of the books) Andrew Ellard in his discussion of the movie, that’s precisely the problem. He argues the film represents “the exact same competent mediocrity we’ve seen before from — say — I, Robot or I Am Legend. Not a bad film especially. Just kinda nothing. Or like Inkheart or Assassin’s Creed, fantasy you won’t remember tomorrow. But the books are fascinating. Full of ideas & imagery that haunt you. To pick the blandest, most generic stuff? Dumb.” This, I do suppose, is what fans were primarily upset about. If you don’t know the books then the film we’ve been given is fine as just a reasonable time-passer, but if you feel that it could — should — have been something truly special, how frustrating that must be.

The Dark Tower grossed $113 million, which, at less than double its budget, probably isn’t enough to secure the mooted sequel (especially when it’s put in comparison to 2017’s other Stephen King adaptation, It, which surpassed $700 million). I guess someday it’ll get re-adapted, probably as a TV series, maybe by Netflix, or Amazon, especially if they still haven’t found the Game of Thrones-beater they’re currently looking for. Until then, this version stands as a reasonably enjoyable quickie — not as bad as you may’ve heard, but apparently not all it could’ve been either.

3 out of 5

The Dark Tower is available on Sky Cinema from today.

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Pacific Rim (2013)

2014 #62
Guillermo del Toro | 131 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Pacific RimThe names writers choose for their characters can sometimes tell you a lot about a movie. Pacific Rim is the kind of film that has characters called Raleigh Becket, Stacker Pentecost, and Hannibal Chau.

This is a film about giant monsters invading Earth, and we fight back with giant robots. It has the logic of the Japanese movies, anime and art that inspired it rather than any basis in the real world. Which is fine — del Toro has said it was aimed at 11-year-old boys (hence the “for over 13s” rating, of course), and it slots pretty neatly into that world. Which means it should also cater to a good many “adult” genre fans, which does make it flopping in America a little surprising. I suppose the lack of a recognisable brand name is a deciding factor in that market now.

Stand out features include blunt, functional, over-explanatory dialogue delivered in largely second-rate performances, but which at least carry us through the story solidly; and fights that are moderately exciting, but could do with zooming out to give a proper sense of scale, not to mention some variety in their primary black-and-blue colour palette. There’s a whole featurette on the Blu-ray about how hard they worked on conveying scale. Oh. Didn’t come across for me. OK, the giant robots didn’t move super fast, but it still felt quicker than I’d expect from something of that extreme size.

Perhaps the problem lies in how the film was obviously made for 3D — not because stuff’s poking out at you all the time, but because of shots that are clearly meant to have great depth, but where everything is in focus. For 2D it could probably do with a shallower depth of field, and maybe this is where the scale went awryRobot rescue — it was the 3D that added depth and height, and without that (or, as I said, an adjustment of focus to compensate) it’s all a bit… not flat, but not big either. That aside, it is beautifully shot, with excellent lighting.

Yet, for the easy criticisms, Pacific Rim largely entertains. Compared to most of the blockbuster fare targeting 11-year-old boys these days, it’s a positive triumph. Heck, compared to the other films for that age group that star giant robots, it’s Shakespeare. Similarly the music, by Game of Thrones’ Ramin Djawadi, is a little obvious but also suitably fist-pumping, which at least renders it easily enjoyable.

Goodness knows where the mooted animated series and confirmed sequel are going to go with the world that seems so wrapped-up here — but hey, at least this one told a complete, self-contained story. It might fall short of excellence in many areas, but it’s an exciting, fun thrill ride nonetheless.

4 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012)

2014 #61
Neveldine/Taylor | 91 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA & UAE / English | 12 / PG-13

Ghost Rider: Spirit of VengeanceBest known for the trailer that showed its hero pissing fire, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is a semi-reboot of the Marvel comics franchise about a demon-possessed vengeance-seeking motorbike rider.

This new take has trashier, almost grungy, stylings, which at least make it more interesting than the “mainstream blockbuster”-styled first attempt. That doesn’t make it a good film by any means, but it does make it somehow less objectionable — it seems to better suit the tone of the character, which is inherently dark but also a bit bizarre and pulpy. It allows the directors (best known for the trash-action Crank films) to have fun with it too. While that only pays off occasionally — just as often it’s crass or cheap — that’s more than could be said for the previous movie.

Again taking the title role, Nicolas Cage looks considerably older and pudgier than last time. Maybe it’s all the scenery he’s been chewing. A villainous Ciarán Hinds gives him a run for his money, though — between them it’s a wonder there are any sets left. Maybe that’s why it all takes place on location, apparently in the country of Eastern Europe, I'll eat you like I ate the scenery!where adults have east European accents but kids sound American, and Idris Elba pretends to be French.

With classy dialogue like, “Everyone’s robbing me! It makes my balls hurt!”, it’s a wonder anyone allowed a superhero franchise from a major studio to receive this treatment. Points for boldness, but most of them are negated by uneven execution.

2 out of 5

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is on Film4 tonight at 9pm.

Thor: The Dark World (2013)

2014 #70
Alan Taylor | 112 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Thor: The Dark WorldThor was one of the best surprises of Marvel’s Phase One for me: they took a character I had no interest in, and if anything thought seemed like a silly idea (what’s a Norse God got to do with superheroes?), and produced one of the first wave’s most entertaining and accomplished movies. They followed this up by turning the widely-acclaimed Avengers Assemble team-up into Thor 2 in all but name: sure, there’s plenty for all the other sub-franchises’ characters to do, but the major villain and cosmic scope are much closer to the events of Thor than any of the other lead-in films.

Cut to the real Thor 2, The Dark World, and there’s no small degree of expectation to live up to — not to mention that director Alan Taylor and the five credited writers (story by Don Payne and Robert Rodat, screenplay by Christopher L. Yost and Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely) are landed with the need to resolve plot threads left dangling by not one but two preceding films. What are the chances of them succeeding?

Mixed, as it turns out. When it works, The Dark World is exciting, inventive, and often genuinely hilarious. Placing most of the movie’s biggest laughs during its climactic battle — which already features a thrilling conceit in and of itself — makes the ending one of the best action sequences in the entire Marvel movie canon. Sometimes that climax is a long time coming, though, with a story that has so many disparate elements to juggle, you can be certain some have got lost in the mix. There’s hints of a love triangle, which disappears almost as soon as it begins; the rules of Loki’s green-tinged cloaking-y-thing are never expounded upon, meaning it can be whipped out whenever a cheap twist is required — indeed, it’s ultimately used once or twice too often.

Dark Who, Doctor ElvesGood will towards the participants counts for a lot, though. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki steals pretty much any scene he’s in, but Chris Hemsworth’s Thor is not an unlikeable hero, building further on the responsibility-and-honour story arc of the first film. Idris Elba also benefits from an expanded role, but others are less lucky: one of the Warriors Three is ditched as soon as we’re reacquainted with him; more criminally, Christopher Eccleston’s villain has nought to do but stomp around spouting exposition in a made-up language. Anyone could play that role, you don’t need an actor of Eccleston’s ability. Maybe something got cut (though it’s not in the Blu-ray’s deleted scenes), because I don’t see why else he’d’ve taken the part. Well, possibly the payday.

At the helm, Taylor was a late-in-the-day replacement for Monster director Patty Jenkins. Previously best known for TV’s Game of Thrones (as well as episodes of pretty much every other major HBO series), thanks to Marvel Taylor is now a Major Motion Picture Director: his next project is the Terminator reboot/prequel/whatever. He steps up to feature film level well enough, though the much-heralded “more grounded” Asgard he was supposed to be providing is little shown: we see a pub and a training area, and other than that there’s too much going on to linger in the one-realm-to-rule-them-all. In fact, we get a better look at the film’s Stonehenge-and-sunny-London version of England, where if you get arrested at Stonehenge you’re locked up in London. Ah, American movies.

Ooh, look at his hammerDespite the title, there’s much fun to be had with The Dark World. It can’t deliver on all of its aims — the equally-promised expansion of Thor and Jane’s relationship is equally sidelined — but there’s enough entertainment value to make it a worthwhile proposition. Perhaps the longer lead-in that the third film seems to be getting (there’s no announced slot for it among Marvel’s numerous future release dates, meaning it’s unlikely to arrive before 2017) will allow them to round everything out a little better.

4 out of 5

Thor: The Dark World is on Sky Movies Premiere from today at 4:15pm and 8pm.