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.

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Red Riding: 1977 Review

Unlike my review for ‘1974’, which I wrote up pretty much as soon as I had finished it, it’s been over a week since I finished reading ‘1977’. There are, of course, a few obvious reasons for this. The holiday season meant focusing on other things, like the Bleak Midwinter (which I will admit, I didn’t write as many reviews as I had aimed for); spending time with friends and family, and of course, re-playing L.A. Noire and getting back into The Sopranos after signing up with on-demand service Crave. (Seriously, a service that has a ton of HBO and Showtime series to watch, as well as Doctor Who? I can’t tell you how happy I am right now.)

But I think a key reason why it’s taken me longer to write a review for the next volume of the Red Riding Quartet is that, in some ways, ‘1977’ is a harder book to review. ‘1974’ was dark, brutal, horrific, challenging and with many layers. But its plot and “murder mystery” were relatively straightforward.

‘1977’ aimed for a rather different approach. There is a new murder mystery to solve in some ways, but it’s also one we know won’t be resolved by the end, at least not if you know your British history. For the killer the protagonists are chasing in this story is the Yorkshire Ripper, and he’s only just started his long killing spree. Of course, both leading characters start to find out a very real possibility that there’s more than one killer, but even that isn’t the focus of the story.

Essentially, it’s the characters who are the focus here: Detective Sergeant Bob Fraser and crime reporter Jack Whitehead. Both share first person narrative equally, with the perspective between the two switching with every new chapter.

There’s a lot that I enjoyed about this approach. For one thing, it allowed the case they investigated to be seen from two very different points of view, at least in terms of their job. One official, one not. Surprisingly, these two perspectives rarely intertwined, with them working almost entirely separately for most of the novel. Even when they do meet, it’s very brief. Essentially, they’re in their own separate worlds, with the only links the crimes that they’re investigating, and the legacy of Eddie Dunford, the protagonist in the first novel.

That’s something else I love about the dual narrative in this book. In ‘1974’, Fraser and Whitehead were characters, but they had relatively small roles. Heck, Whitehead, (or as he was called by Dunford, “Jack Fucking Whitehead”,) was regularly seen as something of an antagonist to Eddie. Not in a villainous sense, just as a more experienced reporter who kept stealing Eddie’s chances of glory (or so Eddie liked to believe).

So it’s interesting exploring these characters from a completely fresh perspective. Especially Whitehead, who’s suffered a major tragedy of his own since the first volume. He’s not just a man grieving, but a man who’s haunted by his past, and continually seeing twisted, horrific visions of his dead wife. He’s clearly a man who has suffered and is continuing to suffer a great deal, and it’s a key reason that he comes across as a great deal more sympathetic than he did in the previous volume.

Certainly, he’s more sympathetic than Bob Fraser. Initially seeming to be one of a few genuinely honest coppers in the Yorkshire police, it soon becomes clear that he’s far from the decent family man that he tries to be. The novel begins with him already in the middle of an affair with a prostitute, and it gets worse for him from there, as it grows from just seeing someone that he fucks on the side, to a dangerous obsession that leads him to making terrible and horrific choices.

I’m not sure I’ve read a protagonist as fucked up as Fraser. He’s not a hero, an anti-hero, or even a villain. Just someone making a ton of bad decisions and continuing to destroy his life and his very soul in the process. It’s a bitter irony that he’s one of two people who genuinely care about the fact that there is more than one killer out there.

If there’s one thing that connects Fraser and Whitehead other than the case itself, it’s Hell. Oh, don’t get me wrong, there’s no supernatural or occult angle to the story here. But there is the theme of Hell and damnation with both leads. With Fraser, he’s someone making his own way there through his own choices. With Whitehead, he’s a good man who finds himself in the middle of it through no fault of his own, with no escape.

‘1977’ is undoubtedly a more confidant novel than David Peace’s debut. While still dark, gritty and horrific, there’s a greater sense of poetry to it too, and a great deal less importance on a straightforward plot. It’s a risky move, especially as I’ve just finished watching season 2 of True Detective, and one thing that made it a far weaker story to season 1’s was the choice of including a plot that was far more convoluted than it needed to be.

That’s not the problem in ‘1977”s case, though. Particularly as it went in the opposite direction – the mystery’s there, it’s just not the focus of it, and it’s a mystery that’s far from neatly wrapped up by the end. Instead, the key focus in ‘1977’ are the two leads, and the very different worlds that they inhabit. And it’s a very strong novel as a result of that focus.

Dark, violent and yet strangely poetic, ‘1977’ is a worthy sequel to ‘1974’, and another great reason why I’ll more than likely be revisiting the Red Riding Quartet after I’m finished with the series.

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.

Red Riding: 1974 Review

I don’t usually do book reviews. Not because I don’t love books, but because I’m an awfully slow reader, I don’t always absorb everything, and I tend to get distracted all too easily, even by other books. In fact, I was still in the middle of a couple of others when I decided to make a start on “Nineteen Seventy-four” by David Peace.

I had picked it up at BMV, a very cheap bookstore here in Toronto. I had been looking for something closer to horror to read, but the book somehow caught my eye. I had heard of The Red Riding Quartet, and I had been curious to read the series after Channel 4 made an adaptation of 3 of the books several years ago. I didn’t watch it, but I heard many great things. I’m not a big follower of crime fiction, but everything I had heard about the story implied that these books were more than just “whodunnit” mysteries.

So, after finishing the book earlier today, what did I think of it, overall?

Oh.

My.

God.

Like I said, I had expected something more than just your basic mystery. What I didn’t expect was how much I would get completely sucked into it. This book is nothing short of pure, hardcore noir. It portrays a relentlessly grim and vicious world, reeking of paranoia and corruption. It’s a world ruled by villains, without hope and without mercy. This is the world of Yorkshire, 1974.

Any story that begins with the gruesome murder of a child pretty much lets you know from the start that this is far from a happy tale. The protagonist, crime reporter Eddie Dunford, is initially looking for a good story. He thinks he’s found one when he discovers a possible link between the murder and the disappearances of other children.

However, as he digs deeper, he soon learns that there’s far more depth to the horror than he initially realized, and that there are many dangerous people out there who’d want the secrets he uncovers to remain buried. Especially the police…

From the very beginning, it became clear that Eddie Dunford is far from a likeable protagonist. He’s very self-centred, wanting to get a good story even when he has other important things to focus on, like his father’s funeral. He has a girlfriend that he doesn’t really care about, and the idea of a child murder to report is something that he’s actually hoping for, at least when the novel begins.

As the story goes on, however, he finds himself going on a journey. This isn’t the kind of spiritual journey that improves him, however. Instead, he finds himself heading deeper and deeper into his own personal hell. And the reader is dragged along with him. The fact that the narration is done in first-person means that we’re always inside his head, we always know what he’s thinking, even when he’s thinking or doing terrible things himself, and as he pisses off the wrong kind of people, we share his torment with him. Seriously, it’s shocking how much suffering this guy goes through.

And that’s a thing that stands out about the novel: its aim to really, really shock and repulse the reader. Whether it’s brutal torture that go beyond physical and into deeply psychological; shockingly graphic and violent murder, or even just seriously detailed sex scenes, reading the novel genuinely feels like a tough experience to go through. I mean this in the best way possible. You’ll be shocked, disturbed and deeply appalled by everything Eddie goes through – or even just by the actions he makes – but you won’t want to stop reading.

And that’s the sign of a remarkably strong writer. Anyone can write something that’s aimed to repulse, if they really put their mind to it. Anyone can shock. Anyone can use the word “cunt” in a sentence. (See? But seriously, he uses this word a lot in the novel.) But it takes a truly gifted writer like David Peace to take you by the hand and pull you deeper and deeper into this world of darkness and horror. Especially when it’s a world that’s feels just beneath the surface of your own.

“Nineteen Seventy-four” has been like nothing else I’ve read. It’s noir fiction of the blackest and best kind. Perhaps due to my limited experience of this genre of fiction, the only thing I can compare it to is season 1 of True Detective. Finishing it left me emotionally drained while leaving a dark mark on my soul, and yet I’m incredibly eager to read the next volume, “Nineteen Seventy-seven”.