Playing Catch-Up With The Films of 2017: The Dark Tower (dir by Nikolaj Arcel)


What the Hell was The Dark Tower about, anyway?

It’s a legitimate question.  I know that the film was technically a continuation of Stephen King’s overrated Dark Tower books.  Matthew McConaughey was Walter, the Man in the Black, the man who is kidnapping psychic children so that he can weaponize their powers and destroy The Dark Tower.  Idris Elba was Roland, the last of the gunslingers, who is obsessed with killing Walter because Walter killed his father.  And Tom Taylor is Jake, an eleven year-old boy who lives in New York City and who keeps having visions of the Tower, Walter, and Roland.  Walter wants Jake.  Roland wants Walter.  Jake wants to understand it all…

And that’s pretty much the entire movie.  Jake switches back and forth between his world and Roland’s world.  Walter occasionally pops up in New York so that he can kill Jake’s family and assure that Jake won’t have any reason not to continue traveling with Roland at the end of the movie.  It all basically feels like the pilot for a television series and, to be honest, it probably wouldn’t be that bad of a show.  For one thing, if The Dark Tower was a tv show, there would be more of an opportunity to develop the characters of Roland, Walter, and Tom.  The Dark Tower movie only last 95 minutes and the majority of those minutes feel very rushed.

Obviously, if you’ve read Stephen King’s Dark Tower books, this film will be easier for you to follow than it will be for people who have never had to suffer through them.  I know I’m in the minority as far as this is concerned but I find The Dark Tower series to be King at his most pretentious.  Interestingly enough, a little bit of pretension probably would have helped the film version of The Dark Tower.  As it is, The Dark Tower is almost too workmanlike and straight-forward.  It could have really used a pointless Stephen King-style soliloquy about faith, innocence, and horror.  At the very least, they could have had someone in the background, droning on about politics in a Maine accent.

I have to admit that I really, really, really wanted to like The Dark Tower.  I love Idris Elba.  I love Matthew McConaughey.  Even more importantly, I love being a contrarian.  Whenever a film gets as many negative reviews as The Dark Tower, my natural instinct is always to assume that it has to be a secret masterpiece.  I mean, seriously, who trusts critics?  I really wanted to watch The Dark Tower and then write a 1,000-word defense of it.  I was hoping that, much like The Counselor, it would turn out to be a masterpiece that only I could recognize.

Sadly, that didn’t turn out to be the case.  I will say that Matthew McConaughey seemed to be having a sincerely good time playing the bad guy.  And Idris Elba had just the right mix of weariness and compassion to play Roland.  But otherwise, the movie just felt so pointless.

Overall, this has been a pretty good year for Stephen King film adaptations.  It deserves to be nominated for an Oscar, though it won’t be.  Gerald’s Game made people thankful for Netflix.  The Dark Tower, though, will be quickly forgotten.

A Movie A Day #325: Damnation Alley (1977, directed by Jack Smight)


Anyone who has seen Damnation Alley knows that the only thing that matters is the Landmaster.

Damnation Alley has a slight plot.  A nuclear war has knocked the Earth off of its axis.  The skies are green and purple.  The scorpions are huge and the cockroaches eat humans.  Crazed survivors are living like savages, attacking anyone that they come across.  When a radio signal seems to indicate that there might still be civilization in Albany, four military men (George Peppard, Jan-Michael Vincent, Paul Winfield, and Kip Niven) decide to drive across the country to check it out.  To reach Albany, they will have to cross an inhospitable stretch of land called Damnation Alley.  They will be making the journey in two Landmasters, amphibious vehicles that provide RV comfort with the extra advantage of a rocket launcher.  Along the way, they fight scorpions, roaches, and pick up some extra passengers (Dominique Sanda and Jackie Earle Haley).

The radioactive sky looks cool but otherwise, the scorpions and the cockroaches are all obviously fake and no one in the cast makes any effort to do more than recite their lines.  But no one who has watched Damnation Alley cares about any of that.  We just want to drive a Landmaster.

There is nothing that the Landmaster cannot do.  It  can speed across desert sand.  It can tear up city streets.  It can break through walls.  It can turn into a boat.  It can fire missiles.  It also appears to be bigger on the inside than the outside, just like the TARDIS.  Either that or whoever did the set design for Damnation Alley was not detail-oriented.

Despite the awe-inspiring Landmaster, Damnation Alley was neither a critical nor a box office hit.  It was one of two science fiction films released by 20th Century Fox in 1977.  The other one was Star Wars, which was a good movie but didn’t have a Landmaster.

As for the Landmaster itself, it currently resides in California and has appeared in a handful of other movies.  Sadly, it missed out on the opportunity to appear in any of the Smoky and the Bandit movies.  Burt Reynolds driving a Landmaster?  That would have been box office gold.

Right, Burt?

Back to School Part II #12: Breaking Away (dir by Peter Yates)


Has Indiana changed much since 1979?

I ask because I just watched Breaking Away, a 1979 nominee for best picture.  Breaking Away was shot on location in Bloomington, Indiana and on the campus of Indiana University.  And though the film doesn’t go out of its way to idealize either the state, the town, or the university –in fact, the title refers to the desire of several characters to break away from their life in Bloomington — it still manages to make Indiana look like the nicest place on Earth.  Add to that, Indiana University is home to the Eskenazi Museum of Art, which I will someday visit.

Breaking Away is actually a film about a lot of things: it’s a comedy, it’s a quasi-love story, it’s bittersweet coming-of-age story, it’s a sports film, and it’s a sweet, good-natured film that made me cry.  At the heart of the film is Dave Stoller (Dennis Christopher), who has just graduated from high school and whose cheerful and eccentric exterior hides the fact that he appears to have no real future.  Dave is obsessed with bicycle racing and idolizes that the Italian cycling team.  In fact, he idolizes them so much that he decides to be Italian.  He rides around Bloomington, greeting people with a merry “Ciao!”  At home, he listens to opera and renames the family cat “Fellini.”  While his mother (Barbara Barrie) is understanding, his father (Paul Dooley) cannot understand what’s happening to his son.  Of course, Dave doesn’t truly believe that he’s Italian.  He just desperately wants to be something other than who he is.

And who is Dave?  He’s a citizen of Bloomington, a town that is divided between the upper class students at Indiana University and the blue-collar townies.  The students call Dave and his friends “cutters,” because the only real industry in town is working in the quarry, cutting stone.  The students look down on the cutters and the cutters resent the students.

Dave has three close friends, all of whom were big in high school and who are now facing an uncertain future of anonymity.  Cyril (Daniel Stern) is the funny and quirky one, the former basketball player who talks about how he would like to be a cartoon character.  Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley) is usually easy-going but loses his temper whenever anyone mentions that he’s short.  (At one point, Moocher’s boss orders him to, “Punch the time clock, Shortie!”  Moocher literally does just that.)  And finally, there’s Mike (Dennis Quaid).  Mike is their leader, a former high school quarterback who idolizes the Marlboro Man and who knows that he’s destined to spend the rest of his life in Bloomington, going from “20 year-old Mike” to “mean old man Mike.”

When Dave meets a student named Katherine (Robyn Douglass), he pretends to be an Italian exchange student and, soon, he’s serenading her on the lawn of her sorority house.  That doesn’t make Katherine’s boyfriend, Rod (Hart Bochner), happy.  Rod and his friends beat up Cyril, which leads to another fight at a bowling alley.  (Cyril, for his part, gets his finger stuck in a bowling ball.)  Seeking to broker some sort of peace and understanding between the students and the town, the university president (played by John Ryan, who was the real-life President of Indiana University at the time) announces that the cutters will be invited to take part in the annual Little 500 bicycle race at Indiana University.

And you can probably guess how the race turns out.  It’s a feel-good sports film so you already know who is going to win and that he’s going to have to win after initially falling behind and sacrificing a big lead.  You know all that but it doesn’t matter.  Breaking Away is such a sweet and well-acted movie that it still brought tears to my eyes even if the ending didn’t surprise me.

And really, the film does have a few surprises.  For one thing, Rod turns out to be not as bad a guy as you initially think he’s going to be.  Over the course of the film, he gets two small reaction shots, both of which hint that he’s not as much of a jerk as he often appears to be.  It’s a minor detail and it’s easy to miss but what’s important that it’s there and it’s one of the many small details that makes Breaking Away feel alive.  After watching the movie, I feel like I could go to Bloomington and still find all these character hanging out at the quarry.

There’s another scene that I want to mention.  This is the scene that made me cry.  Dave and his father walk around the university and his dad talks about how he and the fathers of all of Dave’s friends helped to cut the stone that was used to build campus.  His dad admits that, even though he helped to build it, he’s never felt comfortable on the campus and then tells his son that he doesn’t have to be a cutter.  And it’s such a heartfelt scene and so beautifully performed by Paul Dooley and Dennis Christopher that I started to cry.  Perfectly acted, perfectly directed, and perfectly written, what a great scene!  Fantastico!, as Dave might say.

I loved Breaking Away and I bet you would to.

Breaking Away

London Has Fallen Official Trailer


London Has Fallen

The White House under siege film Olympus Has Fallen from 2013 was a surprise hit and pretty much took the prize in the match-up between it and the bigger-budgeted White House Down starring Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx. What the latter didn’t have was the presence of Morgan Freeman, the steadfastness of Aaron Eckhart and the utter badass that is Gerard Butler. Olympus Has Fallen had all three and thus was the better of the two films.

It didn’t take long for the studio who made Olympus Has Fallen to start on a sequel with the three core figures from the first film (Freeman, Eckhart and Butler) back to fight the evil of terrorism on all freedom-loving citizens. I think the studios just thought the audience who saw the first film loved just how much Gerard Butler’s character kept stabbing people in the face.

Here’s to hoping London Has Fallen didn’t try to fix what wasn’t broken…and more Gerard Butler stabbing people in the face.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #119: Shutter Island (dir by Martin Scorsese)


Shutter IslandThe 2010 film Shutter Island finds the great director Martin Scorsese at his most playful.

Taking place in 1954, Shutter Island tells the story of two detectives, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio, giving an excellent performance that, in many ways, feels like a test run for his role in Inception) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo, also excellent), who take a boat out to the Ashecliffe Hospital for The Criminal Insane, which is located on Shutter Island in Boston Harbor.  They are investigating the disappearance of inmate Rachel Solando, who has been incarcerated for drowning her three children.

Ashecliffe is one of those permanently gray locations, the type of place where the lights always seem to be burned out and the inmates move about like ghostly visions of sins brought to life.  It’s the type of place that, had this movie been made in the 50s or 60s, would have been run by either Vincent Price or Peter Cushing.  In this case, the Cushing role of the cold and imperious lead psychiatrist is taken by Ben Kingsley.  Max Von Sydow, meanwhile, plays a more flamboyantly sinister doctor, the role that would have been played by Vincent Price.

When a storm strands Teddy and Chuck on the island, they quickly discover that neither the staff nor the patients are willing to be of any help when it comes to tracking down Rachel.  As Teddy continues to investigate, he finds himself stricken by migraines and haunted by disturbing images.  He continually sees a mysterious little girl.  He has visions of his dead wife (Michelle Williams).  A horribly scarred patient in solitary confinement (Jackie Earle Haley) tells him that patients are regularly taken to a lighthouse where they are lobotomized.  When Teddy explores more of the island, he comes across a mysterious woman living in a cave and she tells him of even more sinister activity at Ashecliffe.  Meanwhile, Chuck alternates between pragmatic skepticism and flights of paranoia.

And I’m not going to share anymore of the plot because it would be a crime to spoil Shutter Island.  This is a film that you must see and experience for yourself.

This is one of Martin Scorsese’s most entertaining films, an unapologetic celebration of B-movie history. He knows that he’s telling a faintly ludicrous story here and, wisely, he embraces the melodrama.  Too many directors would try to bring some sort of credibility to Shutter Island by downplaying the film’s more melodramatic moments.  Scorsese, however, shows no fear of going over the top.  He understands that this is not the time to be subtle.  This is the time to go a little crazy and that’s what he does.

Good for him.

Back to School #32: Losin’ It (dir by Curtis Hanson)


Losin-It-The-Poster

Originally, my 32nd entry in my Back To School series was going to be Made In Britain, a film about a 16 year-old Neo-Nazi played by Tim Roth.  And, while I still suggest that you track down and watch Made In Britain (mostly for Roth’s amazing performance in the lead), I have to admit that, as I rewatched it, I found myself really struggling to find a way to fit it into the Back to School theme.  Made in Britain is a good film about a juvenile delinquent but it just didn’t seem like it was right for this series.  Maybe I’ll revisit it when I do my long-threatened series of “Europe Is As Messed Up As America” series of film reviews.

Instead, I decided to close out the 1983 portion of this series by taking a look at Losin’ It.  Along with Risky Business and All The Right Moves, Losin’ It is one of the three films released in 1983 that starred Tom Cruise as a high school senior who is obsessed with losing his virginity.  Much as in Risky Business, Cruise’s initial plan is to hire a prostitute.  And much like in All The Right Moves …. well, actually Losin’ It doesn’t have much in common with All The Right Moves beyond the presence of Cruise.  For that matter, it doesn’t really have much in common with Risky Business either.  Whereas All The Right Moves was a coming-of-age drama and Risky Business was a satire on capitalism, Losin’ It is pretty much a straight comedy.

And an amazingly generic one at that!

Set in 1965 and featuring a soundtrack that appears to exist solely to remind you that the film is set in 1965, Losin’ It tells the story of four teenage boys who go down to Tijuana, hoping to get laid.  There’s Woody (Tom Cruise), who is the nice guy who smiles all the time.  There’s Spider (played by future director John Stockwell), who we’re told doesn’t have to pay for it but wants to go down to Tijuana so he can see a “donkey show.”  (If you don’t know what a donkey show is, I’m sure it can be looked up on Wikipedia.)  And then there’s Dave (Jackie Earle Haley), who is short, loud-mouthed, and idolizes Frank Sinatra to the extent that he even wears a Sinatra-style fedora.  Tagging along is Dave’s younger brother Wendell (John P. Navin, Jr.), who is too young to get into any Mexican brothels but is hoping to buy some fireworks that he can then sell at school.

Anyway, they may think that they’re just going to Mexico but it soon turns out that they’re on a collision course with wackiness!  Dave and Wendell end up being held hostage in an auto junkyard.  Spider gets in a fight with a bunch of Marines and ends up in a Mexican jail.  And Woody — well, listen, we all know that there’s no way fresh-faced, All-American Tom Cruise is going to lose his virginity in a dirty old brothel!  Instead, he ends up pursuing a tentative romance with Kathy (Shelley Long), a newlywed who has come down to Tijuana to get a quickie divorce.

(Do they still give out quickie divorces in Tijuana or is that just something that happens in the movies?  I’m just asking for future reference…)

Anyway, of the Tom Cruise Must Get Laid Trilogy, Losin’ It is easily the most generic and forgettable but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a terrible movie.  Curtis Hanson keeps the action moving at a steady pace (and, if that sounds like faint praise, just try sitting through a film with an unsteady pace) and the cast is likable.  Tom Cruise is the one who gets all of the attention on the back of the DVD and he’s likable enough but really, if I had been alive and a film critic in 1983, I probably would have picked the handsome and charismatic John Stockwell as the one most likely to become a star.

Instead, 31 years later, Tom Cruise is the star (albeit a fading one) and John Stockwell is the one directing movies about life on the beach.

It’s a strange world.

Jackie Earle Haley, John Stockwell, and Tom Cruise

Jackie Earle Haley, John Stockwell, and Tom Cruise

Film Review: Lincoln (dir. by Steven Spielberg)


I am a history nerd.

If you’ve read my previous reviews here on the Shattered Lens, that’s not necessarily a major revelation.  Still, before I talk about Steven Spielberg’s latest film, the sure-to-be Oscar nominated Lincoln, you should know where I’m coming from as a reviewer.  Cinema may be my number one love but history, and especially political history, runs a close second.  To me, there is nothing more fascinating than learning how those in the past both viewed and dealt with the issues that we still face in the present.  Whereas some people take pride in being able to name every player that’s ever played for the Dallas Cowboys, I take pride in the fact that I can not only name every President and Vice President in order but I can also tell you exactly who they had to defeat in order to serve in those offices.

I love history and therefore, it was hard for me not to feel as if Lincoln was a film that was made specifically for me.  Covering the final four months of the life of the 16th president, this film tells the story of Lincoln’s struggle to pass the 13th Amendment and to bring an end to the U.S. Civil War.  The film also documents Lincoln’s troubled marriage to the unstable Mary and his son’s decision to enlist in the Union Army.  Even though Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner don’t include any vampires*, there’s still a lot going on in Lincoln and it is to their credit that the film remains compelling despite the fact that everyone already knows how the story is going to end.

Daniel Day-Lewis is getting a lot of critical acclaim for his performance in the title role and, for once, I actually have to agree with the critics.  Abraham Lincoln is one of the most iconic figures in American history.  He is such an icon that, at times, it’s hard to believe that this larger-than-life figure, with his stove-pipe hat and his homely face, was an actual human being who lived and breathed and died like any other human being.  It’s easier to think of him in the same way that Jesus Christ used to be represented in films like Ben-Hur, as an inspiring character who is always standing just a little bit off-camera.  The brilliance of Day-Lewis’s performance is that he makes us believe that this legendary figure could actually exist with all the rest of history’s mortals.  For lack of a better term, Day-Lewis humanizes Lincoln.  His performance contains all the bits of the Lincoln legend: the fatalistic melancholy, the steely resolve, the quick humor, and occasional flashes of self-doubt.  The genius of the performance is the way that it takes all the legendary pieces and arranges them to create a portrait of a very believable man.

Though the film is dominated by Day-Lewis’s lead performance, the film’s supporting cast does a good job at bringing to life the people around Lincoln.  Whenever one film can manage to find roles for Hal Holbrook, David Strathairn, Jared Harris, James Spader, John Hawkes, and Jackie Earle Haley, you’ve got good reason to be optimistic about what you’re about to see.  Probably the film’s showiest supporting role goes to Tommy Lee Jones, who plays the firebrand abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens.  Admittedly, Tommy Lee Jones gives a standard Tommy Lee Jones performance here but, especially when paired with Day-Lewis’s more internal acting style, the end result is still fun to watch.  Also giving a good performance is Sally Field, who plays Lincoln’s mentally unstable wife.  Historians have rarely been kind (or fair) to Mary Lincoln but Field makes her into a difficult but sympathetic figure.  Finally, even though the role of Lincoln’s son is not a challenging one, I’m always happy whenever Joseph Gordon-Levitt shows up onscreen.

Ultimately, however, Lincoln is a Steven Spielberg film.  Spielberg is a very good director but he’s also a very safe one.  The same can be said of Lincoln as a film.  The film’s cinematography, art design, and costume design are all brilliantly done and award-worthy but it’s still hard not to occasionally wish that Spielberg would have enough faith in his audience that he wouldn’t feel the need to have John Williams provide constant musical cues to let us know what we are supposed to be feeling about what we’re experiencing.  If you’re looking for hints of moral ambiguity, an unflinching examination of the rivers of blood that flowed on the Civil War battlefield, or for an in-depth portrait of Lincoln’s personal demons (and most historians agree that he had a few), you might want to look elsewhere.  This is not Martin Scorsese’s Lincoln.  This is Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.  This is a film that is meant to be inspiring (as opposed to thought-provoking) and, for the most part, it succeeds.

I have to admit that I went into Lincoln expecting to be disappointed.  Ever since the film first went into production in 2011, websites like Awards Daily have been hyping this film to death.  Before many of them had even seen the completed film, online critics were announcing that both the film and Daniel Day-Lewis were the clear front-runners for the Oscars in 2013.  As anyone who has read my previous reviews on this site knows, nothing turns me off more than the bandwagon mentality of the critical establishment.  Often times, when a film is embraced as vehemently and as early as Lincoln has been, I feel almost honor-bound to be a hundred times more critical of it than I would be of a film like Step Up Revolution.

However, Lincoln is a rarity.  It’s a film that, for the most part, actually lives up to all the hype.

—-

*I imagine that little joke will cause a lot of confusion to anyone who, ten years in the future, happens to stumble across this review.  To you, future reader who has forgotten all about Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, I can only apologize.