The Dark Tower (2017): They Should Have Just Adapted the First Book

    It is possible to have a good or even great adaptation of a book or book series. This sadly is not one of them. I haven’t been this bored and dissapointed in a film since “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” as that film as well had so much potential and so much amazing source material it was pulling from, only to end up on a list of films that I can’t stand and will offer ways to fix later (much like how I approached “Twilight”).

I have a bias (I loved the first book and am reading the rest of the series currently), but like I said before in regards to adaptations…it is possible to make a great adaptation of source material…”Atonement” succeeded, Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” succeeded and countless others. This one does not and for the non-spoiler reasons why, it had a bland protagonist, the world is boring and we aren’t given a chance to really know the leads, so even great performances by Elba and McConaughey can’t save the poorly written characters they are given. I’ll elaborate on my points further down in the review, suffice to say, save your money and go see something better.

“The Dark Tower” was directed by Nicolej Arcel who co-wrote it with a committee (4 writers wrote this script – Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinker, Anders Thomas Jensen and of Arcel himself).

The story follows Jake (Tom Taylor), a psychic boy who dreams about the Gunslinger (Idris Elba) and the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) who seeks to tear down the Dark Tower and bring hell upon all worlds.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The Main Leads – The best part of this film is Idris Elba as the Gunslinger Roland and Matthew McConaughey as the Man in Black Walter. Now the characters don’t have the complexity that they have in the first book, there isn’t the weight or history behind their actions and we never really know it. The story is from Jake’s perspective and that was the biggest mistakes this film could have made. Our leads are wonderful at working with what they are given, Elba is hardened and distant and McConaughey has a lot of fun hamming it up as the villain. He’s wonderfully sly and oily and it works well when he is on screen. Sadly they are trapped in a dull universe where neither character feels fully realized.

The Cons: Presentation of the World – The world is presented through our protagonists Jake’s eyes. He sees the Gunslinger’s dimension and the Man in Black in dreams before they finally arrive into his life when he is running from the Man in Black’s minions who want to use him as a weapon to bring down the Dark Tower. The special effects aren’t all that good and we hardly spend anytime in the Gunslinger’s post-apocalyptic world and instead spend most of it in our New York. Given how rich the Gunslinger’s world is and all the stories in it, this was a mistake. There is nothing special about New York in this beyond it having ways to dimension hop between worlds.

In the first book we only follow the Gunslinger and we get to know Roland’s past and how he lost everything as well as how his following the Man in Black has lead to him losing so many others, and that to defeat the Man in Black he’ll have to give up everything again. The book is a powerful story of loss and the Man in Black is more a subtle agent of chaos (resurrecting the dead, giving people riddles to drive them mad) and sadly you don’t get any of that in this. This world isn’t even apparent in this film, the only thing from the first book that is in any way similar is the wasteland being largely empty…but the mutants and mad people who make up the landscape are nowhere to be found in this film. Seriously, they should have adapted the first book and it could have been at least good. There is more than enough material to make it happen.

The Protagonist – Jake is such a worthless protagonist. Sadly the actor can’t act and his cliched family life is really uninteresting. His dad died and him mom got into another relationship but by the time the supernatural catches up with her Jake has moved on and adopted the Gunslinger as his new parent. I don’t remember him ever caring about her being at risk or what happened to her after the Man in Black is defeated. Apparently the writers couldn’t even care enough about their main character to care about mattered to him. Having a young protagonist is hard to do, “Harry Potter” pulled it off but it is one of the few stories outside of “Stranger Things” that has well written kids who drive the story. The protagonist should have been Roland the Gunslinger like in the first book. What a waste of a main character.

Story Structure – We get flashbacks through Jake’s dreams and after that is him running from the Man in Black and his forces through the film before the Gunslinger has to rescue him and after the story ends when he is saved. It is simple but surprisingly incoherent, thanks largely to how the dreams are interspersed through the story. This hurt any chance we had to care about any of the characters which is in the end the biggest reason why this film fails. We are never given a reason to care about anyone in this film.

As you can tell I didn’t enjoy this film. This is film I plan to come back to in the future and in it go over ways that could have saved this film and made it at least good…Just like what I plan to do with “Batman v Superman” when I eventually suffer through a re-watch. The actors in this deserved a so much better script as they are good with what little they are given, but good actors can’t save a poorly told story, and at the end of the day that is exactly what this is. Unless you want to do a hate-watch, don’t check out this film.

Final Score: 4 / 10.  2 points for Elba and 2 points for McConaughey.

 

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Kubo and the Two Strings (2016): A Masterpiece of Animation With an Unforgettable Story

Kubo and the Two Strings

  “Kubo and the Two Strings” is my favorite movie of the year. Whether it was hold that place remains to be seen but thus far, it is the most perfect film I have watched this year. Not only is the stop-motion animation and soundtrack amazing but the story and characters kept me involved through the entire story, and the story starts out slow to let know become familiar with the world. You should see this film, I want more films like this to be made and it needs all the support it can get, given it is only Laika studios that is keeping this form of art alive.

   The film was directed by Travis Knight, who was also one of the producers, written by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler with the other producer being Marc Haimes.

    The story involves Kubo (Art Parkinson), whose eye was stolen by his grandfather the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) and must not go out at night unless his grandfather finds him and takes his other eye. During the village’s festival he stays out too late and finds himself hunted by his two Aunts (Rooney Mara) who have come to take his other eye at his Grandfather’s behest. He must collect his father’s armor, sword and helmet in order to stop the Moon King and is helped by Monkey (Charlize Theron) and a former samurai turned into Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) along the way.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The World – The world is wonderful and full of amazing monsters! From a Garden of Eyes, Witches and Gods to a Ten Foot Skeleton…this is a world that is lived in and all the powerful for it as it embraces Japanese mythology while creating a mythology all it’s own.

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack is beautiful, Dario Marianelli manages to create a soundtrack infused with magic that is full of power in depth, where you feel each loss and the power behind each action or fight.

The Writing – Marc Haimes and Chris Butler did a fantastic job on the writing! There is powerful drama and humor that gives it a balance that doesn’t really exist in “Deadpool”(which is a favorite film). It is their mixture of humor and drama mixed with a powerful message and characters are what made it my favorite film this year thus far.

 The Animation – “Kubo and the Two Strings” is my first Laika film. Suffice to say after this I plan on watching the rest of the films they’ve made. Stop-motion animation is a lost art that they keep alive and continue to improve upon.

The Characters – The characters are extremely memorable! Each of them is an archetype to some degree, but also manage to get beyond those archetypes in how they are written. They have humanity and flaws and it makes them worth rooting for or makes them feel threatening.

Hosato – George Takei plays one of the people in the village who takes care of his daughter who is Kubo’s biggest fan. He’s a nice solid presence in the film and in a way reminds Kubo of the fact that he believes his father to be dead at the beginning of the story and his mom is only lucidly present of him…

Kameyo – Kameyo is the older woman who is a beggar in town and the soul of the town. She is a mother figure to Kubo a bit as she is one who looks out for him and helps him with his storytelling. Brenda Vaccaro is fantastic.

The Sisters – The Sisters, who are Kubo’s Aunts are amazing! Rooney Mara gives a haunting performance as these two mask wearing witches who are so powerful that they kill both Kubo’s mother and father. They are one of the best animated threats I’ve ever seen.

Beetle/Hanzo – McConaughey is wonderful in the role of Beetle, who we learn was turned into a Beetle by the Sisters and the Moon King to punish him for leading their sister out of immortality. He has a lot of humor to him and isn’t very bright but his heart is in the right spot and he has great humor. His death is powerful too as he risks his life to protect Monkey/his wife Sariatu.

Monkey/Sariatu – Theron plays my favorite character in the film. Monkey and her Sisters are the best parts of the film. In Monkey we get the strength of her personality and her love for her son and husband while as Sariatu she is a traumatized shell destroyed by her family being cared for by her son. The dichotomy is powerful and gives her humanity and depth. She was a God and gave it up to protect Hanzo from her family…She is the best part of this film.

Kubo – Kubo is a great protagonist who feels very much like Link a Zelda game but has so much more depth and layers to him as we see him finally allowed to be a kid after he leaves the village and is collecting his father’s sword and armor. Before that he is forced to be an adult caring for his mother and making money for food. He had no childhood until his life was at risk and seeing how they explore it is something you have to see for yourself.

Facing Loss – He loses both his mother and father twice, both times as they protect him and in the story we see him face that loss and remember the memories as well as honoring them with the lantern ceremony the village does as who they both are live on in him. The missing of another never goes away, but those we lose become a part of us like the strings on Kubo’s instrument.

The Power of Story – Story is a major theme as the Grandfather is trying to force his story upon his Grandson and make him like him, the village story of his Father’s past is never finished until he becomes a literal part of it when myth (his grandfather the Moon and his Aunts) hunt him and the stories of the dead are interwoven through the film. The self and it’s connection to story is powerful…how a story can change or be erased is captured in the story of his family as at different points they lose their story.

The Hero’s Journey – Kubo’s Hero’s journey is powerful as he discovers connections only to lose them and has to adapt to change all around him. From his mother becoming Monkey, his father being a live and Beetle…to losing them both and in the end having to care for his Grandfather who loses his memory as well. Even as he discovers joy and childhood circumstances force him to lose it and from it find himself.

Okay/Pro: Raiden the Moon King – Raiden has great minions in his daughters and I liked the fact that he is like a sympathetic old man until he turns into a monster…in the story it is left open too if he ascended to Godhood and was once human or was forced into humanity by Kubo…there is so much possibility in this character that I can’t just put him as okay as he is interesting in what they do with him.

    Minus the fact that Raiden is a bit underdeveloped (though still interesting)…this is  a film that I can’t really find any faults with. Kubo doesn’t really get his happy ending, his parents are dead and he has to face it. This is a film that is well worth your time and you should really see it if you have the chance. Give strength to these stories that don’t exist as franchises and are timeless and powerful. This is the best film of the year I have seen thus far and is well worth your time, it is in the timeless stories that we are reminded of our own and this story does it with unforgettable power and beauty.

Final Score: 10 / 10. First perfect film of the year.

Interstellar (2014): Creating a Future

interstellar-imax-movie-poster

      We complete the First Sci. Fi. Movie Week with “Interstellar.” “Interstellar” is by no means the greatest film of the year, or the greatest science film I have watched…but it is great and a favorite. The themes it explores with humanity at the edge as explorers and as a dying species speak volume to problems that exist or could arise and the possibility of something more. The folks in charge of this did their research as well, of course there are science fiction elements since this is a fictional film, but a lot of how they present ideas are solid. I’ll get into more of what I mean in the assessment.

    The film was directed by Christopher Nolan who was also one of the writers and producers. His brother Jonthan Nolan was the other writer and the other producers were Emma Thomas and Lynda Obst.

   The premise is the not so distant future where the death of crops has turned society into an agrarian society with limited means. This has lead to extreme environment devestation and dust storms are a usual occurrence. In this world former NASA pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is raising his children with their grandfather (), after tracking a strange occurrence he stumbles on the last of NASA who have a plan for discovering a new planet to settle since Earth is dying. He decides to take the mission, and the story unfolds from there.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: The Cinematography – “interstellar” is a beautifully visual film. Be it the desolate wasteland Earth is becoming, or the Black Hole that they pass through or any of the different worlds…each feels large, unique and powerful. Hoyte van Hoytema really did an astounding job.

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack is beautiful and great. It is Hans Zimmer so it makes sense. My one issue with it was sometimes it was difficult to hear the dialogue because of how loud the music could become. The techno rhyme throughout the film gave it a very real high science fiction feel though and Zimmer is once again amazing.

The World – The world is rich in this Universe. From Earth being a dying world where climate is making crops unsustainable, to a planet of Water, a planet of Ice and the planet Amelia settles and how Space is shown as well as Cooper’s Station at the end. It is a Sci. Fi. Universe that feels real and close enough to our own to inspire us to try and make that reality (the good parts anyway).

The Science – We are presented different scientific concepts that strengthen the film. From the bend of space and time in regards to Black Holes or theoretical wormholes would work, to planets with greater gravity where time is faster or slower than on Earth. These ideas haven’t really been tackled all that well in modern cinema (that I can think of) except this film.

The Main Cast – The main cast is fantastic. I’ll get into the details of the characters and their arcs next, but I found the drama rich and the dilemmas real.

Amelia – This is not Hathaway’s greatest role as her motivation is one of the simplest ones…to find her boyfriend. She has other aspects to like love of exploration but when it comes down to the final choice that is her focus and is part of what leads to her ending as she heads off to Edmund’s planet at the end. Hathaway does a good job with what she’s given though, and she does survive.

Tom Cooper – Is the son who becomes stuck in the mindset of the dying Earth as he has lost children but refuses to leave as his home is all he has left. When Murphy calls him out on it he asks he never come back again leading to her burning his crops and attempting to save his children. He is the one whose scars are the most blatant after Cooper left as he sends his father a video of him saying good-bye. He moves on and becomes a part of the world destroying himself and his family. Casey Affleck does great.

Doctor Mann – Matt Damon plays a character who has gone mad and sees the only end because of how Doctor Brand used him. He wants humanity to die because he’s stared into the abyss and seen only humanity’s destruction. He nearly succeeds too and it’s only due to TARS, Amelia and Cooper that he doesn’t. His story is a tragedy as he had to live alone with his fears on a strange world with no way of getting back and knowing he was sent to die…all he had was sorrow.

TARS – Is the Artificial Intelligence that travels with them. TARS is pretty cool as it has personality and wit and the ability to make choices and withhold information. It builds a relationship with Cooper by the end and saves Cooper and Amelia a few times. I like it’s design as it’s like dark metal Tetris cubes all put together, and the voice is human but alien sounding. Glad that it survives the film.

Professor John Brand – Michael Caine’s character is the one who sets everything in motion and who didn’t have all the answers. In this way he was sending the crew off on a suicide mission which Murph finds out later as he’s on his death bed. She takes up her father’s and Brand’s work and makes sure he doesn’t die in vain as all of his character drive is for the salvation of humankind. He’s idealistic, flawed and very human.

Donald – John Lithgow play’s Cooper’s Father-in-Law and is our glimpse into the past/our present as he talks about everyone owning electronics and devices and how people get anything. His view is a reaction to this as he is fine with the way things are and values being a farmer and having a family. He’s let go of the past and moved on.

Murphy Cooper – Murph is our main protagonist on Earth as she joins Brand’s team to try and find a way to get off of Earth or reach the team that went through the Black Hole. We see that even as a young child she is curious and really attached to her dad as she is unable to talk to him after he leaves and only talks to say that he isn’t there when he said he would be. Resolution is reached in this as she works with her dad to solve the equation that makes colonizing space possible and finding her Dad. In end they meet and she’s an old woman, but they are finally at peace. The Coopers saved the human race. I really liked her character.

Cooper – Cooper is the one who is reluctant, but goes when he learns how bad Earth is getting since it would be the last chance he has to save his kids. His story is sad as his actions destroy his relationship to his son and for his daughter for a lot of her life. In the end all he has is the mission until the Black Hole placed by the Future humans gives him a way to communicate the equation or Murph which leads to his eventual rescue and the colonizing of the Solar System. He is there as his daughter dies and in the end takes off to go and search for Amelia as he fixed TARS who he became friends with and the adventure is all he has left. It’s bittersweet but awesome as it captures the essence of his character and how living his dream…no matter how costly it was, shaped him to forever be that explorer.

The Messages – There are a few messages in this film, the greatest of which is our ability to create a future. The Black Hole that’s a Wormhole was created by us to make certain that we would have a future in the first place. We see this in how Murph working with her father through space and time is able to figure out the code which makes human colonization of space possible and we see it in how TARS, Amelia and Cooper work together to get the ship back and stabilize it after Mann attempts to destroy it and in the afterword where we see people worked together to create Cooper Station off of Murph’s vision.

Okay: Red Shirts – There are two crewmen who die, but they are so unmemorable that they aren’t really worth mentioning. There’s the one who knows the science and math who Mann kills and the other guy who dies on the water planet because Amelia tries to do the mission to the point of stupidity and puts them all at risk. Their deaths only exist to raise the stakes, so they are at least successful at that.

The Cons: The Beginning – I really didn’t like the beginning. It was showing interviews with old people who are implied to be the people we’ll be seeing (and we do) and this shows that everyone lives. We don’t know how the characters live, but they live. This takes away from what could have created good tension, since there already is so much tension in the film.

Doctor Mann’s Story – I wish we could have got more of his story…be it from Professor Brand, who was his friend…or more of his story when we meet him and find out he’s an antagonist. I get why he is mad but I still don’t fully get it…What was his life on Earth like? We know how Amelia’s and Cooper’s life was, why not Mann?

   This was a great film and a wonderful way to end the First Sci. Fi. Movie Week. I highly recommend this film if you like Nolan, High Concept Science Fiction and space travel as it executes all of these really well. The minor characters don’t get justice done to them, but the main is given good exploration in what motivates them and in how they relate to one another.

Final Score: 9.4 / 10. A few things could have got more exploration, and I would have cut out the spoiler beginning.

Contact (1997): Better Use of Characters But Better Point in the Book

Contact-movie-poster

    We continue Sci. Fi. Movie Week with the before the last film we’ll be covering. That film we’ll be covering is “Contact.” “Contact” is an interesting film to review. I liked it, though the director putting it in Carl Sagan’s honor while presenting a message at the end that contradicted the point the book and Sagan’s work felt like it missed the point. First off, Carl Sagan is one of my favorite people…but wasn’t that good of a fiction writer. Contact the novel was very detached so it was hard to get invested in the interesting things that were happening. The film is very different from that and you care about the main characters…though I think Sagan’s point in the book comes out much stronger versus the film where the message is a bit muddled and not entirely clear in it’s execution.

     The film was directed by Robert Zemeckis who was also one of the producers and written by James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg. The other producer was Steve Starkey. The story was by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, which I am glad about as it’s Sagan’s story so at least his core points were able to get through than if he hadn’t been a part of the process.

     The premise of “Contact” is that Ellie (Jodie Foster) is seeking alien life in the Universe but is having to fight for it every step of the way as funding for SETI gets pulled by her boss Drumlin. She finds away around it as she gets funding to use some government radio telescopes and right when she is about to lose it an alien signal is heard and contact made. From here the story unfolds as there is a rush to interpret the message as religious and political factions seek to use it to their gain. From here the story unfolds.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: The Cinematography – The cinematography is clear and captures the sense of wonder and personal trials of the characters really well. It reminds me of “Apollo 13.” Don Burgess truly did an amazing job on this film.

Theodore Arroway – David Morse is back and fantastic (really liked his performance in the “Green Mile”) and in this he’s great as Ellie’s father who inspires her to look towards finding life in space and becoming a scientist…and whose death makes it hard for her to be in relationships as she was not able to save him. I wish we’d seen more of his character as he did not get enough screen time.

Palmer Ross – Matthew McConaughey plays Ellie’s love and the other side of the coin in the debate between religion and science. His arguments aren’t great but his coming from a place of emotion and connection (reason he doesn’t support her going on the mission is fear of losing her) are a nice contrast to Ellie’s fear of connecting to people. He is the person who connects to people easily and it’s because of the language and emphasis on religion. He goes from religious to agnostic religious as he trusts Ellie’s experience of meeting the aliens. Ellie’s arc goes in the other direction.

Kent Clark – William Fichtner is good as a blind SETI scientist who is one of Ellie’s major support folks and is the one fighting at the front lines for her for the first half of the movie. He kind of disappears later, which is a shame as he’s a great neurotic scientist who adds character to every scene he’s in.

Ellie Arroway – Jodie Foster is great in this as she’s a character who has trouble connecting to others because of the loss of her father but over the course of making contact with the aliens is able to heal from that and to understand the perspective of faith a little more. She’s an active character and her flashbacks lend to her present as we see how rich her relationship was with her dad.

First Contact – Ellie meets the aliens after the first machine gets destroyed by a religious fanatic, killing the original pilot but a secret base gives her the chance to finally go. The machine creates a wormhole and she talks to an alien who takes the form of her father and tells her that they do this will all species but not all species make it here. It’s a cool scene and the world they are in feels alien and unreal the entire time. The feel of the aliens is very true to the book.

The Cons: The Antagonists – There is a religious fanatic, militaristic government official and Ellie’s boss who are just one dimensional villains. This is where the problem in the book “Contact” really comes out as these simple caricatures only disprove the points they try and make which makes Ellie look good even if she’s acting from a place without evidence. I really didn’t like that. James Woods is even one of the folks but how they were written cannot save this film and it’s one of the biggest reasons I can’t consider this film great or a favorite. They are used to prop up the directors point and because they are unfair antagonists Ellie looks noble in all her actions no matter how stupid said actions may be. Not going to list their names since they don’t function as characters, just plot devices to advance Ellie’s plot and the director’s point.

Who Needs Evidence – At the end after Ellie has visited the aliens, everyone things she was lying because there was only static and the pod just fell through the machine. Rather than seeking evidence to prove what she experienced and prove intelligence in the universe she falls back on the faith argument which completely ruins her point and why she doesn’t believe in God and is an agnostic. This really annoyed me as Sagan was writing from his own perspective of skepticism and agnosticism in his novel and the director completely missed that point. Experience is good and should be valued but that wasn’t the point of Sagan’s book or his shows and work.

     This is a movie worth seeing, and it is a good. The main issues I have though is how the scientific process gets ignored in the end when so much of Jodie’s arc is fighting for that and helping others to recognize that what she found is based in the scientific process. The acting is good though and is the greatest thing that makes it better than the book, where the detachment from the characters really made it hard to care about them. If you want a movie that captures wonder, check it out. The cinematography does a good job at capturing that, even if it does get a bit sidetracked at the end. Glad this movie got made and grateful that it was made in honor of Carl Sagan, one of the greatest scientists who has lived.

Final Score: 8.4 / 10. Solidly good and actors and cinematography elevate a script that has issues in it’s point and execution.