The Dark Tower (2017) Review (as written by a Tower junkie)

Finally, after years of waiting, we have the first adaptation of Stephen King’s magnum opus. But how well does it succeed for this Tower junkie?

Let me make one thing clear about the new Dark Tower movie: it’s not the books. It’s certainly not the first volume, The Gunslinger. And if I’m honest, I never really thought it was going to be.

Compared to so many other fantasy epics out there, The Dark Tower was always going to be harder to adapt than most. It’s not just because of the larger scale, or the fact that the author himself shows up once or twice in the story. There’s also the way it’s told.

With The Gunslinger, we’re introduced to Mid-World directly through the gunslinger’s own eyes. It’s a bit of a strange world already, but that perspective adds some distance between that world and us as the audience. Mid-World is almost abstract in that first volume.

It’s not really that surprising that The Gunslinger is seen by some fans as one of the weaker volumes of the series. It’s not terrible, far from it. There’s a great spaghetti western feel to that opening volume. But things definitely picked up in a major way with The Drawing of the Three. As I’ve written before, that was the volume that actually changed my life.

What’s interesting about the new movie is that it avoids telling either of those stories, at least directly. The Dark Tower uses particularly strong elements from The Gunslinger, it has to be said. But it also uses a lot of characters and places from later volumes, too.

This film essentially lets you know right from the very beginning of how different it is compared to the first volume by presenting Jake Chambers as the key perspective. This isn’t that surprising, really. Since he’s actually from our world, Jake makes a natural choice for giving the audience a key point of view on this strange universe. So it’s a change that makes sense.

Mythology: how much is too much?

In fact, the whole film is like that. There are a lot of changes from the original source material in terms of the story, but there’s a lot of key mythology that still feels the same.

Actually, that brings me to one key criticism I have for this movie. It isn’t that it changes the mythology of the original novels, but rather, that it arguably uses far, far too much of it for a ninety-minute movie. This movie features portals, the Breakers, “Low Men”, and a lot more. At the very start, it explains exactly what the Dark Tower is via a very unsubtle caption. By comparison, the novels didn’t fully explain what the Dark Tower was – or even why Roland was trying to get to it – until the third volume!

I’m not saying we should’ve had to wait for the third film to get the full explanation, but there were a lot of moments where the exposition got a bit heavy handed. I really wish this film had been given just another half hour, just to flesh things out a little better.

The ideas that King had in the novels, they weren’t original ones. Psychic kids, fantasy worlds, monsters from beyond, these had definitely been done before. However, along with a rather interesting mix of these ideas, King was also able to flesh them out and give them so much depth. That’s what made both the world and the story so appealing. Which is easy to do in a novel, but not in a movie, especially in a relatively short movie. So a lot of these concepts that I’ve adored in the novels have the risk of coming across as generic in the film adaptation as a result.

Trying to cram in too much mythology in one go were problems that were shared by the Stallone Judge Dredd movie and the Paul McGann Doctor Who movie, which were also both adaptations and fresh introductions to stories that were important to me. Once again, I’m given another example of how “less is more”.

However, that’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy The Dark Tower at all. Far from it, really. In fact, now that I’ve got my key criticism out of the way, I’ll go into what I did enjoy about the film.

Great performances

First, there are the main characters. For the Gunslinger and the Man in Black, this movie gets them exactly right.

Roland is absolutely spot-on. He’s not given too much dialogue, which is what you expect from his character. But even better, he’s given moments of humour. I don’t mean that he’s suddenly joking and pulling witty one-liners before shooting up some bastards. That would definitely be the wrong way to do it.

But there are nice moments with Roland in our world where he really clashes, and the humour comes from those scenes. This was something that worked with the character in the novels, particularly when he was in New York with Eddie Dean. (One of my favourite smartasses of all time.) So it’s nice that the film at least doesn’t take him too seriously, even while Roland takes himself seriously, at least.

Elba’s performance is also great. When I was reading the novels again a few months back, I was picturing what his version of Roland would be like. I could actually see Elba saying these lines I was reading and how he would say them. And he didn’t disappoint. Seeing him in the film was exactly what I had imagined.

If there’s one performance that overshadows even Elba’s, however, it’s definitely Matthew McConaughey as the Man in Black. In the original volume, he’s less interested in killing Roland than he is pushing him to breaking point, and comes across as more of a force of nature or a mystery than a man. In later volumes, he’s much more clearly out to kill him by any means necessary.

What I really liked about the film’s interpretation is that there’s a really nice balance between the two. McConaughey comes across as pure evil as Walter, and he has fun with it without taking away how sinister or deadly his character is. Again, how the character is written for the film also helps. One of my favourite moments includes the words, “Hello, there!” It’s a perfectly evil scene that gets this sheer force of evil exactly right.

I’m not gonna lie: I really enjoyed the climax of the film. It’s really cool to watch, and storywise, it’s pretty satisfying. I’m wondering if it will divide the fans though. To be honest, I’m wondering that about the whole of the film.

The Dark Tower is far from the worst possible adaptation of its source material, but its frankly far from the best, too. It gets a lot right, and it gets a lot wrong. Overall, I liked it and took it for what it was.

I do think it could’ve been made more accessible for a general audience, however. I can’t help but think that this is going to be a film that will appeal more to the fans of the existing source material than for newcomers, and for a blockbuster film, you definitely need to be able to appeal to a wide audience.

It hasn’t been very receptive to critics so far, but time will tell whether it makes enough to earn a sequel, at least. If a sequel is made, let’s hope that it builds on the strengths and drastically irons out the weaknesses of this opening installment.

Review: Baby Driver (Movie)

Last year I, like many comic fans, went and saw Suicide Squad. It wasn’t very well received, and frankly, with good reason. Among the film’s many key problems, one thing that leapt out was the soundtrack. It wasn’t that the soundtrack itself was bad. On the contrary, included on it were such classic songs such as House of the Rising Sun, Seven Nation Army and Bohemian Rhapsody. But, with the possible exception of the last one, none of them truly matched the visuals.

It made me realize something: for a film’s soundtrack to truly work, it needs to be more than just a great mixture of songs to release on CD. Even generally matching a character in terms of style isn’t good enough. For a song to really work on the film’s soundtrack, it has to match the visuals. There’s a real art to this, an art that’s usually almost invisible.

When it’s done well, and with a really great song, you don’t notice it, you just think to yourself, “Fuck yeah, this is a fucking awesome scene with a really fucking awesome song!” It’s when it’s done badly, though, such as in the case of Suicide Squad, that you notice.

With the exception of Edgar Wright’s new movie Baby Driver. This film isn’t a great example of how incredible a fusion of great visuals with a great soundtrack can be. It’s actually the perfect example.

Wright’s first directed movie outside of the comedy genre, Baby Driver is in many ways a familiar yet equally fresh take on the crime movie. Focusing on young getaway driver “Baby”, the film focuses on his involvement in several robberies, how he ended up in a life of crime and his dreams of escaping from it, as well as his sweet new relationship with the more innocent Debora. Like I said, this film uses a lot of familiar plot elements that we’ve seen in many other crime movies. So what is it that makes Baby Driver so different?

Well, there is one little interesting thing with Baby that makes the film a lot more interesting. Specifically, it’s his love of music. He is listening to his iPod(s) virtually all the time. And considering it’s mainly his point of view that we’re experiencing the story from, that means we’re getting a constant stream of great songs to listen to.

It’s how the songs are used that make this film, despite being outside of the comedy genre, that distinctly make this an Edgar Wright movie. It isn’t just that he uses cool songs to make a cool visual even cooler. It’s how every single shot of the film is carefully mapped out to match every lyric, every note, every single beat to perfection. From quick cuts to long shots, nothing is wasted, and you can tell that Wright has meticulously planned out every visual to match the audio completely.

We’ve had hints of this for years. The most obvious example would be the Don’t Stop Me Now scene in Shaun of the Dead, but even before then, (with the help of Simon Pegg’s and Jessica Hyne’s great script,) we had the best use of a phone and a clock ever in Spaced.

What’s even more brilliant is how aware Baby and even the other characters are of how an awesome song has to match with what’s happening directly. Moments like Baby needing to play a song from the start to match a robbery is a brilliant little moment that helps to make Baby that much more relatable.

Wright also makes sure to include a really great mix of distinctive characters. In a way, this is carried over from his comedy movies, particularly The Cornetto Trilogy. While the characters played by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost would usually be the main focus in those movies, there’d be a few other characters who would stand out, too. (I’m still a big fan of David in Shaun for being the classic “enemy within” figure.)

However, Baby Driver might just have my favourite group of characters in an Edgar Wright movie yet. This is partly because of the shift from comedy to more straight-forward crime movie. While each of these characters may have their quirks, some of them are scary in how sociopathic or even psychopathic they can be. Some of these criminals could snap at any moment, helping to add a lot of tension to the film.

Of course, there are some really great performances too, which helps. Jamie Foxx is fantastic as “Bats”, who is so trigger happy, that you can probably guess what his nickname is short for. But my favourite performance is definitely Jon Hamm as Buddy. He comes across as really likeable. He’s not particularly close with Baby, but there are a couple of genuinely sweet moments when they have a conversation and can really relate to each other. You’re still reminded that he is an armed robber, and therefore not exactly a good person, but Hamm really brings a lot of charm and likability to the character.

While I’ve mentioned that this film isn’t a comedy movie, it still has plenty of great humour. Some of it is due to dialogue, some of it is due to some really absurd moments (my favourite example has to be the argument between the robbers caused by confusion over the masks they’re going to be using). And some it is due to, once again, Baby’s love of music and how well it’s used. “Was he slow?” is quite possibly the funniest scene in the whole movie.

Wright moving outside the genre of absurd comedy that he’s so well-known for was a risky move, but I’m glad he did it. In many ways, Baby Driver is very different to all of his previous films. The American setting, the darker tone, the number of genuinely tense moments throughout.

And yet at the same time, it’s in many ways very typical of his style. The perfect use of visuals to comedy, the great mix of characters, the sheer love of the genre.

Because of all of this, Baby Driver is one of the coolest crime films of the decade, and just might be Wright’s best film yet.

The Bleak Midwinter: Filth Review

My second review for the Bleak Midwinter, following Black Christmas, is for the Scottish film Filth, starring James McAvoy. Below is a review I typed up 3 years ago on message board thedarktower.org, but after watching it again, while I still love it, I currently don’t have anything new to say. The first impression of the film hit me incredibly hard, and I had to process a lot to write up my thoughts. Incredibly dark and tragic, it was a film I had to include in the Bleak Midwinter.

***

Ever since seeing the initial red-band trailer, this film had my attention, for several reasons. For one thing, it seemed to be aiming for an excess of crudeness and disgust that wasn’t done purely for comedic or stupid reasons. For another, it was a chance to see James McAvoy in a role that was very different to the usual upper class pretty boy English characters he played – oh don’t get me wrong, he usually played them well, but the role of Bruce Robertson seemed a far cry from everything he’d done before. And lastly, the fact that it was based on a book by Irvine Welsh, who wrote Trainspotting, suggested that, as long as it was done right, there might be more to it than what the trailers were showing. But, having just seen this film, even I was surprised by how much I loved it.

The basic plot of the film involves Scottish cop Bruce Robertson as he does his best to get a promotion ahead of his workmates, in the (hardly believable) hope of reconciling with his separated wife. One way he plans to do this is by being the first to solve a local murder, but that’s just one method – he also plans, at any and every opportunity, to deceive, humiliate and generally ruin any possible chance of each and every one of his fellow colleagues have of getting promoted before him. Worse, he loves to do the same with his friends who aren’t remotely in his way as well, just for the sheer thrill of it. The number of truly despicable and cruel acts he pulls on the people around him genuinely make him a true cunt.

And that’s the beauty of this film: at first, Robertson’s tricks, devious schemes and even juvenile pranks are funny to watch in a very dark way, but as the film goes on, and the distance between us and the characters, particularly Robertson himself, is slowly decreased, Robertson starts to become a lot more despicable, and you come close to hating him many, many times…but what makes the film really tragic is that Robertson is as much of a victim as the people he torments, perhaps moreso. It slowly becomes clearer and clearer that his “games” aren’t just extreme ways of aiding his ambition, but the products of a very disturbed and damaged mind, as he continually suffers vivid hallucinations, depression and ever increasing desperation in his attempts to gain a promotion by any means necessary, no matter whose lives are ruined in the process.

The real tragedy of Robertson’s character – and what makes him so compelling – is that he’s not a complete monster. There are moments of genuine humanity to his character, moments where he does actions that aren’t for his own pure benefit and that he genuinely cares about. This includes trying to save a random stranger in the street from a heart attack while everyone else watches, but my personal favourite moment is simply putting a flower back in the funeral arrangement it had fallen out of. These moments remind us that Robertson isn’t completely beyond redemption, and he knows it and becomes completely shamed by his actions…before running away from it and committing even more despicable acts against anyone and everyone he knows.

There are other characters in the film – my favourite (other than Robertson), Bladesey, a naive and surprisingly close friend that Robertson perhaps torments more than anyone, is one you always feel sorry for – but it’s definitely McAvoy’s absolutely amazing performance as Robertson that drives the film. His journey from arrogant arsehole to a man rapidly losing his grip on both reality and his sanity, a performance that challenges us to feel either total loathing or genuine sympathy, or perhaps simply pity, is powerful to watch.

Filth really amazed me. I went in expecting a black comedy with moments of dark drama. Instead, what I watched was a mixture of comedy, tragedy, and even psychological horror that sent me on a whirlwind of emotions – disgust, sympathy, despair, horror and, towards the end especially, total fucking heartbreak. At times, it’s not the easiest film to watch, but that’s exactly why it’s one of my favourite films of the year, if not the favourite. I look forward to watching it again and catching up on the original novel as soon as possible and giving it the detailed analysis that it deserves.

***

There is one more thing I will add about the film. It has one of the most incredibly powerful and heartbreaking endings I’ve ever seen. It’s built up really well, and so many things make it. How well it’s shot, an excellent cover of Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ playing on the soundtrack, and of course, one final gut-punch the film delivers. But it’s McAvoy’s performance that really stands out about it. It’s an ending that never fails to break my heart, and made Filth into one of my favourite films, as difficult as it is to watch.

Film Review – It Follows

It Follows is a wonderfully refreshing horror. It’s not a slasher, it’s not a ‘found footage’ movie and, bar one or two very nasty scenes, it doesn’t rely on an abundance of gore, either. It’s just a very well made film with a very neat little idea that provides plenty of suspense and does it very, very well.

I’m reluctant to go into too much detail of the plot – half of the reason  of why I wanted to watch this film was the teaser trailer, which told me almost nothing, and that worked beautifully at capturing the film’s essence because, like so many great horror films like Halloween and Alien (the original films, at least), it’s more about the unknown and the fear of that that makes this film terrifying.

What I will say is that the plot focuses on teenager Jay who, after having sex with someone, finds herself stalked by something. I won’t say what that something is (and to be honest, by the end of the film, it’s still not exactly made clear what it is, and that was something I really liked about it,) only that it doesn’t run, it doesn’t walk through solid walls or any of the usual cheap horror tricks you’d expect, and that was something I really appreciated. But it doesn’t stop either.

Some of my favourite horror stories are really great at taking something ordinary – the dark; shadows; statues; dreams – and make them absolutely terrifying. This is the first horror film I’ve seen since the original Halloween that has made fucking walking absolutely fucking scary. Just walking. And that’s the real beauty of this film. You’ll be watching scenes as closely as possible to see if there’s anyone or anything in the background that’s walking at all, coming closer and closer. And then, when the film’s over, you’ll be paranoid of anyone who’s walking towards ya. I haven’t felt that paranoid after watching a horror for a good long while, and that’s something I was really impressed with over this film.

Lead actress Maika Monroe is great in this. The character of Jay needed to be played convincingly with a lot of vulnerability to really draw us in, someone who gets pushed to their absolute limit and beyond, and she portrayed that beautifully. After appearing in last year’s excellent action/horror The Guest, she could very well end up as a ‘scream queen’ for modern horror if she keeps this up.

I mentioned earlier about how closely you’ll be watching this film, and I’d just like to mention that the film in general is shot really well. There’s plenty of really great wide shots that build up the suspense really nicely (is that person walking towards us actually a person, or is it…?), and some nice close-ups, too. In fact, the whole cinematography of this film is just fantastic, and really adds a lot, especially in the climax – there are plenty of horror movies where the suspense is gone towards the end, but this isn’t one of them, and, while I won’t explain why, there were quite a few points when I was ducking at times, something that I just don’t ever do.

I’d also like to mention the soundtrack. It’s fucking gorgeous. Reminiscent of 80s horror soundtracks while avoiding being derivative, it’s the kind of electronic, synthesized music that you just don’t hear anymore in horror films these days, something else that reminded me of last year’s The Guest.

The only niggles I have are ones that this film could’ve avoided – namely, a couple of moments that I just thought were really, really dumb, done to provide more suspense at the cost of potentially ruining the suspension of disbelief. One such example gave me the following reaction: “HOLYSHITHOLYSHITHOLYSHIT, THIS IS GETTING REALLY- wait, why are you running up the stairs? This thing will FOLLOW you, no matter where you go, but it only walks and you can run away easily with enough space, and instead of being near an easy exit, you run UP THE FUCKING STAIRS?!” (Not that I said any of this out loud, obviously.) It’s something that’s bad enough to see in an average horror film, but this film has such a great concept and is so well made that it makes it even more of a shame that it includes very old horror cliches like this from time to time. However, these moments are thankfully rare and fail to ruin the overall enjoyment of the film.

If you’re looking for something that’s reminiscent of classic 70s and 80s horror while also providing something fresh, then this is definitely a must-see. 9/10