The Dark Tower

For F*** Magazine

THE DARK TOWER 

Director : Nikolaj Arcel
Cast : Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor, Claudia Kim, Franz Kranz, Abbey Lee Kershaw, Jackie Earle Haley, Katheryn Winnick, Dennis Haysbert
Genre : Action/Adventure
Run Time : 1h 35m
Opens : 3 August 2017
Rating : PG13 (Violence)

After ten years in various stages of development, Stephen King’s Dark Tower series finally arrives on the big screen. At the centre of the universe stands the titular structure, protecting various realms from entities that seek to tear the universe apart. On Mid-World, the evil sorcerer Walter Padick/The Man in Black (McConaughey), has been conducting experiments on gifted children, attempting to use their minds to bring down the tower. The Man in Black’s nemesis is Roland Deschain/The Gunslinger (Elba), the last living descendant of his world’s version of King Arthur. On earth, teenager Jake Chambers (Taylor) has been plagued with nightmares in which he sees Walter and Roland. Locating an abandoned house he sees in his dream, Jake steps through a portal and into Mid-World, accompanying Roland on his quest to defeat Walter and prevent the collapse of the universe.

King’s series of eight books, with allusions to it scattered throughout his other works, has many devoted fans. This reviewer, being completely unfamiliar with the series, is not one of them. It must have been a challenge to adapt the series, which spans the genres of science-fantasy, western and horror, hence the succession of filmmakers who came and went. The approach with this is that it isn’t a straight adaptation, folding in elements from several books while also acting as kind of a sequel to them – we don’t fully understand the mechanics of that.

The resulting film is a serviceable fantasy adventure, but can’t help but feel underwhelming given the breadth of the source material. Director Nikolaj Arcel goes about the set-up with workmanlike efficiency, and the story isn’t difficult to follow at all. There’s just the nagging feeling that everything’s been condensed into its simplest form, and that the richness of the world that King has woven together is being sacrificed for something easier to digest. Visually, The Dark Tower isn’t too exciting, but the action sequences, especially Roland’s various reload tricks, are quite fun.

Actors including Viggo Mortensen, Javier Bardem and Russell Crowe have all been connected to the Roland Deschain role at some point. Elba is a fine choice for the part, cutting a heroic figure and possessing the stoic poise necessary to sell the character. There’s a strength and a grace to the way Elba moves, and he does have a larger-than-life quality to him. He just doesn’t have very much to do here, and even though Roland’s storied past is hinted at, the character feels a little flat.

The relationship between Roland and Jake is apparently key to the books, but it doesn’t get too much development here. It makes sense that Jake, as the audience identification character, is given more emphasis, but it detracts from the inherently interesting Gunslinger and Man in Black characters. Taylor, a relative newcomer, does his best as the troubled character and is generally sympathetic throughout the film. Jake winds up being an extreme example of the ‘chosen one’ trope, and the handling of the character nudges The Dark Tower into Young Adult fiction territory. He must overcome tragedy, has fantastical abilities he must hone, and stumbles into an adventure in a magical world. While this approach is too generic, it gets the job done.

McConaughey has as much fun as he can with the role of the mercurial, wicked Man in Black. There’s a seductiveness to his brand of menace, and McConaughey practices enough restraint so that he does not chew the mostly drab scenery to pieces. When McConaughey and Elba are pitted against each other, the sparks don’t fly as fiercely and as wildly as one hopes they would. Just as with this iteration of Roland Deschain however, the Man in Black doesn’t feel as substantial a character as he should.

There will be a TV series planned to bridge this film and its sequel, which Arcel has promised will be more faithful to the books than this film is. The Dark Tower is meant to launch a ‘Connected KINGdom’ cinematic universe uniting all of Stephen King’s works, with Easter Eggs from It, The Shining, The Shawshank Redemption, Cujo, Christine and others hidden in the film. Given all this, The Dark Tower feels sufficiently self-contained, and doesn’t come off as merely a long trailer for what’s to follow.

The Dark Tower is intermittently thrilling, sometimes entertaining, and runs a lean 95 minutes. It doesn’t have the feel of a sprawling epic, but that isn’t entirely a bad thing, since the audience isn’t overwhelmed with exposition-dumps and massive amounts of lore to process. However, it makes more of a dent than an impact, and isn’t especially memorable given the potential in its premise and the extent to which King has developed his universe. We’re far from the most qualified to judge how this stacks up against the source material, but we have a feeling that those who’ve been waiting a decade for a Dark Tower movie to materialise might feel indifferent if not disappointed.

Summary: The Dark Tower has charismatic leads and doesn’t twaddle in setting up its plot, but it comes off as generic and slight when it should be an absorbing epic.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

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Sing

For F*** Magazine

SING 

Director : Garth Jennings
Cast : Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Seth MacFarlane, Scarlett Johansson, John C. Reilly, Tori Kelly, Taron Egerton, Nick Kroll, Nick Offerman, Garth Jennings, Peter Serafinowicz, Jennifer Saunders, Jennifer Hudson, Beck Bennett, Leslie Jones, Jay Pharaoh
Genre : Animation
Run Time : 1h 50min
Opens : 8 December 2016
Rating : PG

sing-posterIllumination Entertainment aims to unite all creatures great and small through the power of song in this animated musical comedy. Buster Moon (McConaughey) the koala is running out of options. After a string of flops, the showbiz entrepreneur’s theatre will soon be foreclosed upon. Moon and his business partner Eddie (Reilly) the sheep mount a singing competition to save the theatre. The contestants include harried housewife Rosita (Witherspoon) the pig, the flamboyant pig Gunter (Kroll) who is paired with Rosita, an arrogant jazz crooning mouse named Mike (MacFarlane), punk-rocker porcupine Ash (Johansson), stage fright-afflicted elephant Meena (Kelly), and Johnny (Egerton), a mountain gorilla who goes against the wishes of his criminal father Marcus (Serafinowicz) by pursuing his passion for singing. As Moon seeks the financial assistance of wealthy diva Nana Noodleman (Saunders), Eddie’s grandmother, this motley crew of animal performers must sing to save the theatre.

sing-group-shot

“Hey, let’s put on a show!” is a stock trope as old as Hollywood itself. To save an orphanage/theatre/hospital/school from being demolished, an unlikely group must draw on their talents and mount a fund-raising production. Babes in Arms, starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, codified this formula. Sing adds funny anthropomorphic animals and top 40 hits to the mix, but the results feel rote. Illumination Entertainment is quickly gaining on the big boys like Pixar and Dreamworks, what with the Minions taking over the world and all. Sing is the studio’s second film this year, following The Secret Life of Pets. Sing is probably Illumination’s most Dreamworks-like film yet, with its celebrity voice cast and surfeit of pop tracks. For a studio trying to set itself apart from the competition, perhaps that’s not the wisest move.

Sing suffers immensely for being released in the same year as Disney’s Zootopia. The design of Zootopia was thoroughly thought through, and each frame was bursting with clever, amusing details to notice. In Sing, anthropomorphic animals are plonked into a non-descript coastal city. While some might appreciate an animated film that isn’t hyperkinetic, Sing lacks dynamism and forward momentum. There’s a nicely staged set piece in the middle and the film’s climax is enjoyable, but Sing lacks the energetic visuals and propulsive pacing of Zootopia or The Secret Life of Pets. For a film with lots of dancing in it, it feels oddly static in parts.

sing-buster-moon-and-miss-crawley

As a tribute to old-fashioned movie musicals, Sing seems half-hearted at best, and the selection of songs isn’t especially inspired. There are shades of A Chorus Line and The Producers, but there’s no thematic cohesion to the musical numbers, and Sing often feels like an animated variety show with a bit of plot tacked on. If you roll your eyes whenever a cheery pop ditty shows up in a Dreamworks movie, prepare to cringe through a good amount of Sing. This reviewer did appreciate that Queen and David Bowie’s Under Pressure makes an appearance, when it seems more likely that the filmmakers would’ve gone with the Under Pressure rip-off Ice Ice Baby.

To accommodate the large cast of characters, most of the arcs are simplistic. McConaughey delivers an amiable, earnest performance, but seems miscast. There’s the dissonance of a Texan drawl coming out of a koala’s mouth – perhaps Hugh Jackman would’ve been a better fit, especially since Jackman has more of a slick, old-school showman vibe than McConaughey does. It might be difficult for kids to care about a character who can’t pay the electric bill to keep his theatre operational – there’s a difference between mature themes and adult worries.

sing-gunter-and-rosita

Rosita is the overtaxed stay-at-home mom who struggles to care for her 25 children and jumps at the chance to break out of her routine and embrace her inner diva. It’s a predictable arc and Witherspoon’s performance isn’t distinctive. MacFarlane’s character is smug and self-important, with a penchant for big band jazz – we can’t argue with that casting. Johansson’s Ash is spurned by her boyfriend and is out to prove that she can make it as a solo act – shooting quills into the audience while rocking out is pretty punk. Director Jennings’ cameo as Miss Crawley, a senile green iguana with a glass eye who works as Moon’s assistant, might not be a patch on Brad Bird as Edna Mode in The Incredibles but it has its moments.

sing-ash

The big revelation here is Taron Egerton of Kingsman: The Secret Service fame, who shows off some impressive pipes. We’ve often seen the archetype of a kid who marches to the beat of his own drummer, much to the chagrin of his parents – Johnny the Gorilla is not unlike Lenny from A Shark’s Tale, who wanted out of the mob headed by his father. The Cockney street tough accent sounds right coming out of a gorilla.

sing-johnny

If you were moved by Tori Kelly’s rendition of Hallelujah during the In Memoriam segment at this year’s Emmys, you’ll get to hear her sing it again here – never mind that the song is overused. Since Kelly is the one professional singer in the principal cast, it’s a shame that Meena sings as little as she does. Jennifer Hudson, as the younger version of Nana Noodleman, gets to open the film with a soaring rendition of Golden Slumbers, and then is absent from the rest of the film.

Sing isn’t just clichéd, it’s a gathering of lots of clichés in one place. If singing and dancing cartoon animals are all you’re looking for, then Sing has you covered – but then again, the history of animation is filled with singing and dancing animals. Sing has several entertaining sequences and a talented voice cast, but is too generic for its own good.

Summary: You know how this song goes: Sing’s “let’s put on a show plot” doesn’t offer any surprises, and will inevitably be compared to stronger animated films from this year.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Interstellar

For F*** Magazine

INTERSTELLAR

Director : Christopher Nolan
Cast : Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Ellen Burstyn, Mackenzie Foy
Genre : Sci-Fi/Adventure
Rating : PG13 (Brief Coarse Language) 
Run time: 169 mins
Following the conclusion of the Dark Knight trilogy, director Christopher Nolan could only head in one direction – up. Way up. In this sci-fi adventure, we journey into the cosmic unknown with engineer Cooper (McConaughey). It is the near-future and with most of its natural resources depleted, earth is dying. NASA scientist Dr. Brand (Caine) ropes in Cooper to embark on a mission through a wormhole in search of a new planet to call home on the other side. Rounding out the crew are Romilly (David Gyasi), Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Brand’s own daughter Amelia (Hathaway). Cooper leaves behind his teenage son Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and young daughter Murph (Foy). Because of the time slippage that results from being near a black hole, Cooper stays the same age while his children back home grow older. The now-adult Murph (Chastain) holds out hope that her father will return home as the situation on earth worsens.

            The marriage of heart-tugging sentiment and awe-inspiring sci-fi spectacle in Interstellarbrings the work of director Steven Spielberg to mind. Indeed, Spielberg was attached to the film in its early stages, with Jonathan Nolan hired to write the screenplay. Eventually, Jonathan’s brother Christopher came on board to rewrite the script and direct. Just as we’ve come to expect from the director, big ideas are tackled in grand fashion. Going to see a movie in the theatre isn’t quite the event it used to be and sure, big-budget blockbusters are a dime a dozen, but Nolan seems keen on delivering a true film-going experience. Shot and finished on film as per his insistence, this is quite a visual feast on the giant IMAX screen, enhanced by theatre-shaking sound effects and Hans Zimmer’s ethereal, techno-tinged score.

            Of course, just as Spielberg’s work is often decried as schmaltzy, more cynical viewers might be unmoved despite the best efforts of Nolan and his cast. There are moments when the seams are visible and the film strains under the weight of its ambition to appeal to both heart and mind. The line “love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends the dimensions of time and space” could be described as “hokey”. Nolan does make full use of the anguish inherent in the idea of time passing faster for one party than the other, having played with the concept differently in Inception. Interstellar attempts to explore the themes of how tenacity and the survival instinct in mankind might be a two-edged sword when push comes to shove.  Interstellaris inspired by the work of theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, who is the technical consultant and an executive producer on the film (and for whom one of the robots in the movie, KIPP, is presumably named). The film does feel well-researched and credible and once it inevitably enters metaphysical territory, suspension of disbelief has been well and truly earned.

            Fresh off his Oscar win for Dallas Buyers Cluband having broken free from rom-com purgatory, Matthew McConaughey makes an appealing leading man here. Cooper has his eyes towards the stars, refusing to be bound by the mundane despite what society dictates. The scenes McConaughey shares with Mackenzie Foy are sufficiently touching. Any other film would have an obligatory shoehorned-in romantic subplot between Cooper and Anne Hathaway’s Amelia Brand, but that’s not the case here, with Cooper’s arc driven by his desire to return home to see his children while time keeps on slipping. Unfortunately, the emphasis on the emotional core of the movie is at the expense of meaningful character development for the crew of the space mission. The grown-up Murph is still angry at her father for seemingly abandoning her but this is only because she misses him so, something Chastain conveys effectively. We never thought a comic relief robot would show up in a Christopher Nolan movie, but here we have the garrulous TARS, entertainingly voiced by comedian, clown and character actor Bill Irwin.

            Nolan has made no secret of being inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey, and that film’s influence is very much evident here. It would be an injustice to call Interstellar a “rip-off” because of the care taken in realising the film, the photo-realistic visual effects work supervised by Paul Franklin of Double Negative particularly impressive and a shoo-in for the Oscar. As is his style, Nolan played his cards to close to his chest, keeping the production secretive and while there are a few great surprises, Interstellar feels more familiar than one might expect. Perhaps this familiarity makes the sweeping epic with its wormholes and spacecraft that much more accessible.


Summary: Interstellaris a thrilling, moving sci-fi adventure and while the end result isn’t as earth-shatteringly profound as the filmmakers probably intended, it’s still a superb movie-going experience.
RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong