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Movie Reviews

The Dark Tower

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Reviewer: Philip Price

Director: Nikolaj Arcel

Stars: Abbey Lee, Dennis Haysbert, Fran Kranz, Idris Elba, Jackie Earle Haley, José Zúñiga,Karl Thaning, Katheryn Winnick, Matthew McConaughey, Nicholas Pauling, Tom Taylor

Released: August 18th, 2017

It seems like there have been rumblings of a Dark Tower adaptation for as long as my memory will allow me to recall, but never did it actually seem as if a feature film version of the material would make its way to the big screen. Well, here we are, the summer movie season of 2017 winding down and the feature film version of what is said to be Stephen King’s magnum opus of sorts, his most expansive series to date which now consists of eight novels, 4,250 pages, and introduces concepts and characters from King’s many other works that come into play as the series progresses has arrived. The first volume in the The Dark Tower series, subtitled The Gunslinger, was published in 1982 and comprised itself of five short stories that had been published between 1978 and 1981 to which those stories have now been condensed down into a 95-minute, PG-13 would-be blockbuster that never takes off in the way it would seem it was always destined to. Rather, director Nikolaj Arcel’s (A Royal Affair) tight, but exposition-heavy film suggests there is much mythology left to be explored, but for one reason or another it was decided the Cliff Notes version was the best way to go out of the gate so as to no doubt make the movie on the cheap and hopefully as accessible for the uninitiated as it would be pleasing to the fans who’ve been waiting on it for twenty-five years. Sure, the film makes sense in the way that point A leads to point B which inevitably leads to a CGI heavy point C, but never do we feel compelled by anything that’s going on, invested in any of the characters taking part, nor-as one of those uninitiated members in the audience-do we care to see the series continue which one might think would have been the key to Sony finally ponying up and making a Dark Tower movie in a current world of shared cinematic universes. Truthfully though, it kind of fails to emphasize this factor at all. In many ways one wants to commend the studio for telling a more contained story rather than baiting viewers with tease after tease so that they have to come back for a sequel to see what they really wanted to see the first time around, but at the same time fans also want to see what they imagined while reading the source material come to life in a good movie and whether or not The Dark Tower is that is what’s up for debate. The Dark Tower is not necessarily a bad movie, but it’s not very good either. It’s very much a middle of the road affair; not bad enough to hate, but not good enough to remember. Let’s put it this way: the best thing you can say about The Dark Tower is that it’s competent and the worst thing you can say is that it’s uninspired.

If you think you can make a better movie than The Dark Tower, you might need an expert in video production to help you create a great movie!

The premise is interesting enough despite the movie itself feeling rather generic. We are introduced to the kid, Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), who is and always will be the smartest person in the room and just so happens to be having these vivid dreams of a man dressed in all black (Matthew McConaughey) who is parading around a futuristic dystopia collecting kids to try and use their minds to make the titular tower fall (that’s some of that mythology we’re told about up front, but is never elaborated on). This tower exists at the center of what is referred to as “mid-world” and apparently holds the universe together restricting whatever monsters and evil is outside the universe from coming into any of these existing worlds Also in Jake’s dreams is a man dressed in a trench coat who carries a revolver and is able, for one reason or another (we don’t know, we’re never told), to resist the “magics” of the Man in Black. This man who we come to know as Roland (Idris Elba) was once a part of what seems to have been an elite and esteemed group of gunslingers that protected these many worlds from evils such as McConaughey’s gleefully cheesy Man in Black. The crux of this whole deal though (or at least the first half hour) is the fact Jake believes these dreams to be real while his terrible mom, Laurie (Katheryn Winnick), and the even worse step-father she chose for her son in Lon (Nicholas Pauling) after his firefighter father Elmer (Karl Thaning) died in action think Jake is crazy. Laurie and Lon (these names! Elmer!) are sending Jake to a psychiatrist (José Zúñiga) who naturally believes these dreams and the distress they cause to stem from the loss of his father, but Jake knows he’s not crazy and is intent on finding out what these dreams mean and where they might lead him. After locating a hidden portal in Brooklyn (it would have been really cool if they’d set this movie in 1977 New York) Jake travels to mid-world where he meets Roland, gets a ton of that aforementioned exposition dumped on him because the movie hardly has time to showus anything, as well as of course beginning to pull back the layers of who Roland is, where he came from (there’s a quick sequence featuring Dennis Haysbert as his father), and then eventually onto how Roland’s going to help Jake track down the Man in Black and stop him from destroying the tower and subsequently, our world.

In hindsight it seems apparent that if Sony really wanted The Dark Tower universe to work they would have poured in enough money to adapt four or five of the books into a trilogy or so of films that were all filmed simultaneously a la The Lord of the Rings. In fact, had Sony treated The Dark Tower property the same way New Line, WingNut, and The Saul Zaentz Company had treated J.R.R. Tolkien’s holy grail of high fantasy adventures we might be looking at an entirely different situation. This goes as far as not pitching the film as a summer blockbuster, but a holiday event as well as hiring a director with more vision who might have brought something unique to what is undoubtedly a unique world as one can see the deep and fascinating aspects peering around the corners of what Arcel presents as a rather flat and monotone world. There are of course scenes here and there that look more visually impressive than others-the scenes during the day where Roland and Jake travel through mid-world come to mind-but other portions of the film look insanely cheap in their attempt to feel bigger than this film’s budget would clearly allow for. This is getting away from the point though, with the point being that neither Arcel nor the writers for hire Sony assigned to this project have singular enough minds or strong enough intuition to guide a series such as The Dark Tower to what it could so clearly become. Granted, I haven’t read the books so this assessment is based on what I’ve read about the books and what those who have read the books have told me. More, it is how those who have read the books have communicated how they felt about them meaning there is a consistent theme of passion and adoration for this world and these characters that the movie lacks completely. And the more one thinks about this the more the root of the issues seem to come from the screenplay which was written by a quartet of writers led by Akiva Goldsman (a frequent Ron Howard collaborator) and favors dialogue that does little more than explain the functions of the plot rather than cultivate actual human relationships we can believe in. Now, I know the job of a critic is not to critique a film based on what we hoped it to be versus what it turned out to be, but that’s the thing with The Dark Tower-I had no hopes for what it might or might not be nor did I even really know what the story concerned outside of what the trailers told me. There was little to no expectation walking in and while, again, I didn’t walk away thinking it was an unsalvageable dumpster fire I was more disappointed that what is so clearly present in the material if you read between the lines wasn’t-and likely won’t, at least any time soon-be given the chance to breathe and be fully realized.

All of this taken into consideration, The Dark Tower is definitely a movie and it’s one that probably wouldn’t be too disappointing if one were to walk in off the hot and/or muggy summer streets into the cool, air conditioned theater on a discount matinee day were they little more was required than a beginning, middle, and end with a few facts and details sprinkled in while condensing a plot down as tightly as it possibly could be to tell only what is necessary in a brisk hour and a half. While there is something to be said for brevity there is also something to be said for appropriateness and the type of compact, adhering to fantasy tropes for the sake of safety rather than exploration storytelling that The Dark Tower operates on just isn’t a suitable set of circumstances for such economical movie-making. Like I said though, this isn’t all bad and when the movie finally gets to its third act where Roland joins Jake in New York City there is a spike in the fun element as Elba does well to transition his up until that point stoic gunslinger into a still serious, but comical subject of a few fish out of water jokes. While this type of situational humor isn’t fresh-hell, even the situation itself is something we’ve seen countless times before-these laughs are still worth noting because it’s the first time the film garners any kind of reaction whatsoever. On top of this, as Jake and Roland’s adventures in New York continue they come across a devastating revelation that is almost tangible in its brutality and again-makes you feel something as it evokes something akin to an emotional response. It’s too bad these moments are too few and far between though for one can see the camaraderie between Elba and Taylor is one that could easily evolve into a more endearing partnership we might actually be willing to invest in while McConaughey is having a ball being the baddie. Is he a little over the top? Sure, but so is the score from Junkie XL. Is he in line with what the majority of readers imagined this demonic sorcerer to be? I have no idea, but I’m guessing probably not. Still, it’s evident the charismatic actor is pouring a fair amount of grease into his performance and you can see it leaking out of his pores. It’s sustainable fun-especially at only ninety minutes. Ultimately, The Dark Tower functions to serve its purpose just well enough. It’s an average movie that very obviously comes from far more interesting material than was given credit for. Zipping through such dense mythology just hoping the audience understands what is going on rather than worrying about if it is immersing that audience in this new world The Dark Tower, while competent, ends up feeling like a rushed hatchet job from a studio that wanted to deliver something simple and straightforward rather than the layered and complex adaptation that King’s novels seem to no doubt deserve.

I love movies, simple as that. I watch them with an intent to write about them and have always enjoyed discussing the latest news and releases with others. I received a Bachelor of Arts in Writing and Mass Communications/Digital Filmmaking and combined those interests when I began writing about cinema. Hope you enjoy the reviews, Happy reading!

Movie Reviews

LFF 2018 Review – Colette

Colette can feel a tad velvety at times but is lifted by Keira Knightley’s sensual performance and liberating battle that painfully resonates today.

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Director: Wash Westmoreland

Stars: Keira Knightley, Dominic West

Released: London Film Festival 2018

Born in 19th century France, Sidonie Gabrielle Colette wrote more than 80 volumes depicting her childhood, her life, her pains and pleasures. Her writings were sensual, vivid and all published under her husband name, “Willy”.

No stranger to female-centric stories, Wash Westmoreland follows up on “Still Alice” and “Echo Park, L.A.” with this dazzling period biopic starring Keira Knightley and Dominic West.

The film starts, the young country girl, Colette (Knightley), marries writer and critic Henri Gauthier-Villars (“Willy”) who introduces her to Parisian salons. Willy soon finds himself in debts and is desperate enough to seek his wife’s help. She will write. Colette writes what she knows and her first novella, “Claudine à l’école” (Claudine at school) is a success. Willy forces her to write the next ones, locked in a golden cage, to ensure his fame and success.

The settings are sumptuous and we gladly follow the camera through the stunning but confined Parisian apartments where the outside light only comes through when she feels inspired. Costumes evolve, as Colette, from heavy and restricted dresses to wild and daring clothing as if Mademoiselle Chanel had designed them herself.

Colette finally loosens from her husband and experiments with woman, society and dancing, feeding her inspiration. Forced and uncredited, Colette cannot enjoy writing and runs off to perform in the music-hall in her own name. In like most biopics, we go from one key event to another, regrettably quickly and often without knowing how we got there. Willy’s sudden appointment of his wife is left as unexplained as the abrupt ending that could have potentially seen Colette, a happy writer.

In the second part of the film Westmoreland seems more interested in looking at the awakening of a young woman rather than at the birth of an author whereas Keira Knightley shines in the lead role. Often known for playing the innocent and rebellious youth, Knightley still pulls off the young Colette in the first part of the film but is at her best when she evolves into a mature woman, aware of own desires. The best scenes of the film come when Colette is free and herself, usually in the company of other woman, particularly the terribly charming Missy (Denise Gough). Westmoreland multiplies two shots and close ups and creates impactful intimate scenes but regrettably gives up on them too fast.

It is a change to see a character such as “Willy” that is both ridiculous and loving. This duality creates, perhaps, a more truthful relationship between the two. No one is born an artist and behind every writer there is an intuitive editor (and in 20th century France, who else could it be than a man?). For Westmoreland if there is no Claudine without Colette, there would have been no Colette without Willy.

With its lavish setting and jumping plot, Colette can feel a tad velvety at times but is lifted by Keira Knightley’s sensual performance and liberating battle that painfully resonates today.

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Movie Reviews

LFF 2018 Review – If Beale Street Could Talk

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Beale Street Movie Marker

Released: 8th February 2019

Directed By: Barry Jenkins

Starring: Kiki Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Brian Tyree Henry

Reviewed By: Darryl Griffiths

In his entrancing and eventual Best Picture Oscar winner ‘Moonlight’, it was the longing to be authentic. To be accepted in an often volatile environment that powered its narrative.

Clearly in this pitch-perfect adaptation of the James Baldwin novel, director Barry Jenkins is consumed with longing of a different kind that is just as potent. Justice. An eradication of the infuriating systemic abuse of law and power against black people in America, that sees this luminous love story in 1970’s Harlem, strike modern-day parallels with our own divided, morally skewed society.

An incandescent portrayal of young romance. The tenderness, respect and sheer revolve that underpins the relationship between Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) will leave you spellbound from the outset, as their lives are soon mired in despair. The rapturous joy of new life as Tish falls pregnant, backed up by the triple threat of mom Sharon (Regina King), dad Joseph (Colman Domingo) and sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris). Quickly cancelled out by the malice of Fonny’s staunchly religious family and a false yet potentially devastating rape allegation made against him, as they scramble to prove his innocence.

Punctuated by Kiki Layne’s wholesome narration and an overwhelmingly beautiful Nicholas Brittell score that i would be content listening to for days on end. Jenkins exchanges the melancholic blues of his previous effort for a broader but no less lush visual palette, with its exquisite interiors and classy costume design almost serving as a rainbow for the tears that have streamed down their faces through such hardship, but their spirit and love continues to illuminate their gritty surroundings. Whether it be lingering close-ups of sweet embrace or deep sorrow. Its director doesn’t flinch for a second in conveying the simmering emotions on display and in doing so, leaves you completely transfixed by his tactful approach to the source material.

There is a raw resilient energy that permeates throughout its central romance. Kiki Layne’s Tish serves as the remarkably understated, calming influence to Stephan James’ broken-hearted prisoner, a slave to a corrupt system with a searing monologue by Fonny’s dear friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry) reinforcing the pain inflicted. Through it all, their hopeful adoring looks and stifling intimacy simply captivate. In Regina King’s marvellous mother figure, she peppers the film with considerable candour, armed with dialogue that pierces your soul. Whilst Jenkins leaves enough room for inspired cameos that are best left a secret, which gorgeously represent a sense of community and a progression in attitude, that defies the period.

A steady panning shot as Fonny smokes may seem throwaway. In this case, it is awfully fitting to articulate the finesse of its director. Lose yourself in the mesmeric haze of ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’.

A lyrical experience that reminds you of the poetic power cinema can truly possess. His love for the art form brought him here. On this form. Trust Barry Jenkins to go all the way.

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Movie Reviews

LFF 2018 Review – Stan & Ollie

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Stan and Ollie Rating Movie Marker

Released: 11th January 2019

Directed By: Jon S Baird

Starring: Steve Coogan, John C.Reilly, Shirley Henderson, Nina Arianda

Reviewed By: Darryl Griffiths

Products of classic Hollywood whose superior slapstick routines triggered endless laughter from their legion of fans, propelling them to legendary status. The sheer physicality and comedic prowess displayed by the English/American duo of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, still puts many modern-day efforts to shame.

But like so many comedians, there is a tragic element to their careers that contradicts their profession. Through this solid biopic by Filth director Jon S. Baird, it looks to give us a poignant insight into the duo’s grueling twilight years.

Their popularity slowly dwindling. Their bones creaking. Whether on the big screen or the stage, Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Hardy (John C.Reilly) are suddenly not the hottest ticket in town in the early 1950’s. Lumbered with Rufus Jones’ Bernard Delfont, a wisecracking promoter who seems more invested in the likes of Norman Wisdom, they look to reignite interest with a lengthy theatre tour and a long-gestating film project. Yet with audiences middling, contract negotiations stalling and the workload far beyond what was expected, it puts a significant strain on the health and friendship of these two towering talents.

Inevitably with its story, you would expect ‘Stan & Ollie’ to be assured in its abilities to make you laugh. However much of the first half feels surprisingly stilted as Coogan and C.Reilly throw themselves into the pair’s much-beloved routines, with regular cutbacks to their adoring audiences. For the uninitiated, it may initially make you wonder what the fuss was about. Thankfully as the film’s supporting players are introduced to spar with our central characters, it finds a more consistent comedic rhythm, neatly intertwining with the film’s simmering emotion.

Whilst it’s undoubtedly a few visual flourishes away from being a formulaic BBC Christmas special. The admiration of S.Baird for Laurel & Hardy certainly shines through in its refined production, beginning with an exquisite tracking shot on a studio lot as he works his way through the duo’s masterful mischief with fondness.

The rapport between John C.Reilly and Steve Coogan anchors proceedings wonderfully, skilfully capturing the mannerisms and effectively articulating how dependent they are of each other, despite their ongoing disputes. In C.Reilly’s Ollie, his fully-fleshed turn pierces through the fat suit he wears, whose willingness to perform despite failing health is soul-stirring. Whilst the relentless nature of Coogan’s Stan, as he looks to churn out the material strong enough to breathe new life into their double act, makes for compelling viewing. The real danger posed however, is that the film’s main attraction are nearly upstaged by their witty wives, with Shirley Henderson’s Lucille and Nina Arianda’s Ida threatening to steal every scene they grace.

Entertaining enough to gently applaud. Yet perhaps not an act that quite raises the roof. ‘Stan and Ollie’ coasts by on its endearing nostalgic charm and committed performances.

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