Movie Review: The Dark Tower

Stephen King once claimed in an interview that he’d like to be taken more seriously as a novelist by Those Critics Who Matter Most, but knows that’s not going to happen – partly because he’s not the greatest novelist of all time. That really shouldn’t matter at this point, however, considering that he’s in a position most writers would give their eyeteeth for – as even his grocery lists are examined seriously by Hollywood at this point to see if they could somehow work as a feature film. There are roughly two types of King movies: those grappling with big ideas in the real world without any detours into the supernatural and those that extend into the otherworldly realm. There are also films based on plots King probably came up with at 3 a.m. when he couldn’t sleep, such as “Thinner,” about an arrogant overweight guy who gets cursed by a gypsy and starts losing weight. “Dark Tower,” which opened recently, has all the ingredients of an enjoyable fantasy/action King film, but somehow doesn’t quite add up to a memorable movie. (Although the plot is far more original than “Thinner.”)

Drawing pictures in one’s spare time is usually considered a harmless childhood pastime, right up there with bike riding and marathon “Sesame Street” watching, but in the movies, it’s generally taken as a major danger signal that something is amiss in the kid’s (here played by Tom Taylor) life. According to his therapist, the pictures, along with the fact that Tom has bizarre, recurring dreams (read nightmares) of a dark tower, a man in black, and a gunslinger, are due to having lost his father in an accident. Unfortunately, the doctor no longer feels capable of dealing with Tom’s issues on his own, so when Tom’s school recommends that he be sent to an institution for further testing, his mom (Katheryn Winnick) reluctantly agrees. However, danger signals go off when Tom meets his new treatment team, and so he flees, manages to find a portal to the world of his dreams, and the adventures begin.

Idris Elba plays the movie good guy, the “Gunslinger,” and like most action heroes, he is resolute, stoic and concealing a painful past. Matthew McConaughey plays the bad guy, with his hair slicked back and a perpetual sneer on his face in case the viewer harbors any doubts. Idris soon hooks up with Tom, and explains things for him and those who haven’t read the series. Tom learns that the “Tower” really does exist, but can be brought down by the mind of a child with particular powers. Matthew is busy recruiting children who can possibly do this and so needs to be stopped. As Idris and Tom are pursued by any number of supernatural creatures, including one that resembles “The Neverending Story’s” Rockbiter but much less cuddly, Matthew pops through a portal to wreak havoc in the real world – also putting Tom’s mother and stepfather in peril. I won’t give away the ending, but it sets up things for a sequel, which I’m sure is planned and which I hope, is a lot better than this movie. I’d recommend that King fans wait for the remake of “It,” due out later, as long as they’re not clown-phobic.

Advertisements

A Look Back: Wolf of Wall Street

“What goes around comes around,” is a consoling saying we may repeat to ourselves when we wind up in a position where we are totally powerless. Even if we can’t do anything about whatever is driving us crazy at the moment, we can console ourselves with the hope of karma. If it’s a Hollywood movie, we are almost guaranteed that there will some kind of blowback for the misbehaving characters – whether or not they are the protagonists, too. Of course, if the film is based on a real-life story – like the Martin Scorsese-directed 2013 “Wolf of Wall Street,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio, you can know in advance what the ending will be, but there’s always the chance that it will be tweaked to be more satisfying to the audience. In “Wolf,” since it’s based on the memoir of the main character, Jordan Belfort, the ending isn’t an enigma – though you may wonder – since it’s a long film – how much the protagonist and his merry band can get away with before it all comes crashing down.

After Black Monday in 1987 puts a serious wrench in his Wall Street career – barely before he gets into work the first day, Leo rebounds by finding a boiler room style operation in Long Island and working his way up there. Soon enough (at least in movie time), he decides to enlist his friend (Jonah Hill) to start his own firm. Jonah, despite having a questionable sense of humor among other foibles, gets on board, and they start recruiting. If you wish to convince potential investors that you’re respectable – and not a gaggle of guys who only dimly have a clue what they’re doing – it helps to have a respectable-sounding name, and Leo nails that by naming his new company “Stratton Oakmont.” The name just reeks of dignity, professionalism and good judgment – all qualities that are in precious short supply, but with the help of his mentor (Matthew McConaughey) who appears in an iconic restaurant scene, Leo persists and finds success. He even hires his dad (Rob Reiner) who feels occasionally obliged to lecture his son on some of his less appealing high jinx, although not with much effect.

Success in this form involves lots of sex, drugs and drinking, a roller-skating chimp, and getting involved with shady characters who carry guns and offer money smuggling tips. Eventually, Leo upgrades his love interest from Christine Ebersole to Margot Robie, puts his life at risk in multiple ways (some involving a storm in a boat and a risky plane ride) and winds up on the radar of a plucky FBI agent (Kyle Chandler), who persists and eventually secures justice – even if Leo’s ultimate destination is what one critic referred to as “tennis jail.”

“Wolf of Wall Street,” was nominated for a flood of Academy Awards (none of which it won), though it did receive honors at other competitions. It also has the distinction of being the film with the most f-words – at least 506, perhaps more. Among the bushels of criticism aimed at “Wolf,” was the complaint that none of the main characters seemed very contrite for their misdeeds by the end. However, the director responded by saying that this appeared true of the real life counterparts, so this was nothing but art imitating life. As P.T. Barnum once said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” And perhaps, sadly, there’s a sociopath born then, as well.

Free State of Jones: An Abridged Script

FADE IN:

EXT. CIVIL WAR BATTLEFIELD – SOMEWHERE IN THE SOUTH

CONFEDERATE MEDIC MATTHEW McCONAUGHEY is simultaneously playing Russian roulette with his life and Civil War Era: The Suckiest Ever Jeopardy.

MATTHEW McCONAUGHEY
Colonel, I’ll take ‘Reasons Why I Should Desert” for $100.

(pauses)
What is “Because we’re outmatched to the point where it’s almost comical?”

LEADER OF MATTHEW’S REGIMENT
Cor-rect!

MATTHEW McCONAUGHEY
(hurdles corpse, keeps marching)
I’ll take $200 – the Daily Double. What is “Because JACOB LOFLAND has just died in my arms after being conscripted though he appears to have hit puberty only recently?”

LEADER OF MATTHEW’S REGIMENT
Cor-rect!

MATTHEW McCONAUGHEY
(dodges a stray bullet)
I seem to be on a roll here. What is “Because I could avoid all this misery if I were rich, lacked a conscience and owned at least 20 slaves?”

LEADER OF MATTHEW’S REGIMENT
Cor-rect!

MATTHEW McCONAUGHEY
And the final question? What is “Because I have the potential to be an awesome guerilla leader of disenfranchised blacks and whites alike?”

LEADER OF MATTHEW’S REGIMENT
Cor-rect! Godspeed, my son.

MATTHEW goes home to his wife, KERI RUSSELL.

INT. FARM HOUSE

MATTHEW McCONAUGHEY
Honey, I’m home. I’ve decided that this is a pointless war, which exploits the poor and only benefits the rich.

KERI RUSSELL
That’s nice, dear. Did you know our son is seriously ill, our farm has been ransacked in the name of “taxation,” so we don’t have any money to pay doctors, who are all conscripted anyway?

MATTHEW McCONAUGHEY
Which category is this?

KERI RUSSELL
It’s “Why Rich Confederates Are Swamp Scum In Case Anyone Still Has Doubts.” Luckily, our neighbor is sending over GUGU MBATHA-RAW to see if she can help.

GUGU saves their son’s life, making him the first person in the movie to recover from a life-threatening setback.

MATTHEW McCONAUGHEY
I wish I could offer you some token of thanks, but it appears we have nothing left.

GUGU MBATHA-RAW
I noticed. Don’t worry about it.

MATTHEW McCONAUGHEY
(yanks gold filling from tooth)
This is the only valuable thing that hasn’t been taken, so it’s yours.

GUGU MBATHA-RAW
Thanks! Oh, and if you’re ever marooned in a swamp with a life-threatening wound, be sure to look me up.

SUDDENLY the ACTION FAST FORWARDS EIGHTY YEARS to a MISSISSIPPI COURTROOM giving the AUDIENCE who thought this took place solely in the Civil War Era major whiplash.

LAWYER
Your Honor, I’m going to prove that BRIAN LEE FRANKLIN, a direct descendant of MATTHEW, is biracial and married to a white woman, which technically is against the law here because we’re all a bunch of interchangeable bigots. By the way, isn’t that this subplot one of the most awkwardly shanghaied-in subplots in MOVIE HISTORY? However, it’s necessary because without it, the audience might think that RACISM ended after the CIVIL WAR.

JUDGE
I’ll allow it.

AUDIENCE
Wait, who thinks that?

BACK IN THE CIVIL WAR ERA

EXT. OUTSIDE A FARM HOUSE

MATTHEW meets with a WIDOW with three small children, whose farm has been half-ransacked by rich Confederate scum, who are planning to come back and plunder the rest.

WIDOW
We’re going to starve to death if they do that. Especially, the little ones. And then they’ll probably just repossess the place, after urinating on our graves.

MATTHEW McCONAUGHEY
No wait, I have a plan. We’ll arm everyone, including the kids, and rig up rifles in the barn so that it looks like they’re being aimed by actual people, presumably ones that aren’t under ten.

WIDOW
You’ve got to be kidding me. Besides won’t they just keep coming back until they find a time when we’re asleep or something?

(pauses)
OK, kids, it’s never too early to learn to shoot.

Matthew’s plan works! However, because he is a deserter and has now openly defied the rich Confederate scum, they send dogs after him, which he narrowly escapes by strangling the dog that is mauling his leg and taking refuge in a swamp, where he meets runaway slaves, including MAHERSHALA ALI.

EXT. DESOLATE SWAMPLAND

MATTHEW McCONAUGHEY
Boy, this movie has a high body count, and we’re barely a half hour in. Well, since Keri has gotten disgusted and left me, what should I do now?

MAHERSHALA ALI
You can stay here, if you want. I’ll get GUGU, and she can put something on that leg, so you don’t lose it. As soon as she can escape from the sexual harassment of the prick she has to work for.

MATTHEW McCONAUGHEY
Wow, is there no limit to these people’s inhumanity? I bet they set puppies on fire for fun, too.

MAHERSHALA ALI
Historical accuracy, remember?

GUGU, as well as random other refuges looking for a place to stay end up camping out in the swamp.

MATTHEW McCONAUGHEY
So, Mahershala, would you like me to remove that awfully literal symbol of your oppression from around your neck?

MAHERSHALA ALI
Sure, but you know, the moment you try, the bad guys will come running. I mean, like literally, they will know exactly what’s going on and all be able to assemble in less than ten minutes flat, so we’d better come up with a defense plan.

MATTHEW McCONAUGHEY
OK, then we’ll just arm up and kill them.

This works, and eventually, Matthew shares his thoughts on their situation.

MATTHEW McCONAUGHEY
We’re all created equal in the eyes of God. No man should have the right to own another, regardless of skin color.

MAHERSHALA ALI
I’ve had similar notions, as I didn’t actually end up here of my own volition.

MATTHEW McCONAUGHEY
Crops belong to whoever plants them – screw this faux-taxation crap.

MAHERSHALA ALI
Yes, I’m with you on that one, too.

MATTHEW McCONAUGHEY
We’re all the same in the eyes of the rich white Confederate scum! Absolutely not a bit of difference at all as far as they’re concerned.

MAHERSHALA ALI
Uh, I wouldn’t go quite that far, considering you can own property and vote, two things I can only dream about, but your other ideas sound good.

Thus they form the FREE STATE OF JONES.

INT. CONFEDERATE HEADQUARTERS

YET ANOTHER ANTAGONIST
Colonel, it appears that a bunch of runaway slaves and disgruntled poor whites have taken refuge in a swamp, and led by Matthew, they’re going to declare their own state. One where there’s no racism and crop ransacking.

LEADER
And we should worry about this, because?

YET ANOTHER ANTAGONIST
We have cause to believe that they’re armed and dangerous. When you ain’t got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose.

LEADER
Well, tell them that if they come out, we won’t penalize them.

YET ANOTHER ANTAGONIST
(falls over double laughing)
Should we offer them cookies and milk, too as a reward?

LEADER
I’m serious. Since we’ve behaved like upstanding, honorable folk so far, why wouldn’t they believe us?

But several do, and they wind up hung!

EXT. FUNERAL PROCESSION

Black-clad mourners file past in procession carrying the coffins of the recently murdered men, while beady-eyed, twirly mustachioed Confederates watch nearby. Suddenly, everyone whips out a gun and starts SHOOTING at the Confederate scum, including the women, and that is what happens when you try to cross the residents of the FREE STATE OF JONES, a place where both genders have the right to bear arms, among other things.

EXT. FARM HOUSE

MATTHEW is doing farm stuff, when out of nowhere appears KERI and his son again.

MATTHEW McCONAUGHEY
Hi. Long time, no see.

KERI RUSSELL
Matthew, being a woman with a young son on her own in the Civil War Era doesn’t leave me with a great deal of alternate options, so here we are.

MATTHEW McCONAUGHEY
Er, well, the thing is I kind of got married again.

KERI RUSSELL
That’s nice. Have as many wives as you like, just give us a place to live.

He does.

INT. FARM HOUSE

GUGU MBATHA-RAW
Matthew, I’m okay with this bigamy deal, but the future for our biracial son will be brighter elsewhere. Might we consider moving?

MATTHEW McCONAUGHEY
We have a son? When did we find time to procreate with all the fighting for equal rights?

GUGU MBATHA-RAW
Your real life counterpart actually had nine with mine, but here it’s only one. What do you say?

MATTHEW McCONAUGHEY
This swampland has really grown on me – figuratively, that is. But do let me write our son’s name in the Bible.

GUGU MBATHA-RAW
At least, that will advance the other plotline, even if it does squat for me.

FAST FORWARD EIGHTY YEARS LATER: BACK IN THE MISSISSIPPI COURTROOM

LAWYER
Your Honor, I would like to show you this Bible.

JUSTICE
I’ll allow it.

LAWYER
Your Honor, this is the Bible that will prove Brian is a direct descendant of Matthew and Gugu. Or of Matthew and Keri. Or – seriously, is anyone in the audience really following this subplot? Anyway, I’ve changed my mind, and would like to testify that this SUBPLOT is superfluous because rest of the movie takes place after the CIVIL WAR and certainly does a bang-up job of showing that racism still exists. Also, we learn absolutely nothing about this character, except that he’s related to Matthew and so can’t feel much emotional connection.

JUDGE
(bangs gavel)
I’ll allow it.

AUDIENCE
(rubbing necks)
Glad this is finally settled.

BACK IN THE PAST AGAIN – POST CIVIL WAR

INT. VOTING PLACE

Because slavery has allegedly ended, the FREE STATE OF JONES’ citizens decide to exercise their civil RIGHTS and vote. Although no one points out that this extends only to the men, and therefore could be still seen as a PRIVILEGE. Thus Matthew and the others march into the polling building, which is full of yet more jerkwad Southerners.

MATTHEW McCONAUGHEY
My men and I would like our Republican ballots, please.

YET ANOTHER JERKWAD SOUTHERNER
I’m afraid we ran out of toilet paper in the outhouse and had to improvise, so you may have to wait awhile. Or you could just guess the number I’m thinking of from one to one billion, and then you can have them.

MATTHEW McCONAUGHEY
I’m getting really tired of this. Perhaps you’d like to engage in a shootout, or should we just arm wrestle for them?

YET ANOTHER JERKWAD SOUTHERNER
Hey, this is historically accurate. Also the part where we rig the election. Oh okay, you can vote. Just don’t let the hanging chad hit you on the way out.

The REPUBLICANS lose. but their spirit remains undaunted. Still, bad things keep on happening and happening, including the murder and lynching of Mahershala, the abduction of his son by rich Confederate scum, and more random acts of violence.

AUDIENCE
This is very tragic. Racism surely was alive and flourishing after the Civil War ended. Which meant that the war was really fought for nothing – except it was about more than ending slavery anyway. That’s just the simplified version we learn in American high school history. But we won’t go there.

DIRECTOR GARY ROSS
Told you so!

AUDIENCE
So I get it, but what about the logistics of forming your own state? Did they draw up their own Constitution and Declaration of Independence? What did the official President of the United States think of this? How did they manage to grow crops in a swamp anyway? Did any of the women who lived there ever point out the double standard?

DIRECTOR GARY ROSS
Sorry, we’re out of time. Read the book this is based on instead.

END

Movie Review: The Free State of Jones

Schedule-wise today, I had a choice of going to see either “The Shallows,” or “The Free State of Jones.” Although so far, the latter has gotten low ratings on the Rotten Tomatoes website, even being beaten by “The Secret Life of Pets,” I decided on “The Free State of Jones,” because after watching it, I was not going to have nightmares about Matthew McConaughey trying to bite my leg off.

The children’s writer, Katherine Patterson wrote a book called “Bridge to Terebithia,” (also made into a movie), in which two preteens get tired of being bullied and discounted by the various people in their lives, so they go off into the woods and found their own magical kingdom where they can be in charge. In “The Free State of Jones,” Matthew does something similar, only this is “based on true events.” In the first twenty minutes of the movie, which takes place during the Civil War,  a series of unfortunate events occur that cause Matthew to question everything he used to believe: including having a loved one die in his arms, losing another loved one, being mauled by a dog, and being left temporarily alone in a desolate, snake-filled swamp. At this point, the war is not going well for the South, so after deserting the Confederate army, Matthew returns home to his wife (Keri Russell), but soon becomes an outlaw, when his “crime” is discovered, and takes up residence in said swamp. With a runaway slave (Mahershala Ali), who he helps reunite with his children, Gugu Mbtha-Raw, who is also being mistreated by her master (but seems to have a lot of free time to sneak away and bring supplies to the camp), and assorted malcontents of different colors, ages and gender, Matthew decides to create a “free state.” However, this does not go over well with the Confederate army, who retaliates in a variety of ways, most involving people getting shot, blown up or burnt to death.

The movie occasionally jumps ahead eighty years later where a male descendant of Matthew’s character is being tried in court for allegedly having African American blood, and also having the temerity to marry a white Southern woman. This is because eventually, Matthew falls in love with Gugu and starts a family (it’s never explained how Keri supports herself while her husband is AWOL, but she eventually shows up and becomes part of the commune). After the Civil War ends, there’s more battles to be waged, over desegregation and voting rights. None of the day-to-day logistics of living in a swamp and remaining basically clean are explained, except we hear that Matthew figures out a way to grow crops there, thus ensuring everyone doesn’t starve.  The ending is not upbeat at all, and even though moving stuff happens to the characters all the way through, it just kind of meanders to an end. One of the trailers I saw beforehand was about an African-American slave in the same time period, who becomes a preacher and then leads a revolution of slaves, so if you want a movie with a non-white savior, it looks like there’s one coming out in the fall.

Movie Review: Dazed and Confused

Compressing your story into the time frame of a single day (or night) can be a challenge, but it can be done, and those who have tackled the challenge successfully include Virginia Woolf (“Mrs. Dalloway”) and Richard Linklater with the movie “Dazed and Confused.” Set in 1976 on the last day of school, it follows about a dozen teens, as they celebrate their freedom by drinking, smoking, toking, hooking up, and hazing the incoming freshmen. It features actors who would go on to become major stars (Ben Affleck, Matthew McConaughey), as well as ones that were indie darlings at the time (Parker Posey) and others whose careers would not turn out to be so illustrious.  Perhaps as a sign that the director takes these characters seriously, they almost all have first and last names, regardless of how much dialogue they’re given.  And at least a few are based on real people who were upset enough to see their big screen depictions that they tried suing Linklater.  Frankly, if it were me, I’d be kind of flattered.

In “Dazed and Confused,” there is generally harmony between the various groups, at least when it comes to sharing weed and partying, though there are a few flare ups here and there.  Marijuana and beer are the bridge between exalted seniors and lowly freshmen; jocks and stoners; bullies and victims, etc.  Partly because of the freely passed around stimulants, and partly because adolescence is a time where you take self-discovery seriously, there is a lot of philosophizing in this movie, some of it wise, some of it, well, half-baked.  There are also moral dilemmas for the characters to grapple with, such as football player Jason London (a movie jock who actually isn’t a one dimensional jerk) who must decide if he will sign an contract from his coach swearing to stay clean.  Jason’s character “Pink” Floyd gets the best line of the movie, in my opinion.  “If I start referring to these as the best years of my life,” he deadpans, “remind me to kill myself.”

Many teen movies climax with a Big Game, Big Party or Big Showdown.  “Dazed and Confused,” has all three, but they’re presented as just part of the 24-hour period.  Rather than have everyone congregate at a house party, there’s a twist where the would-be host’s parents get wind of the situation and decide to stay home.  Thus the poor kids are forced to head off into the night in search of entertainment, but they succeed admirably.  As for the game, there’s a part where freshman Mitch (Wiley Wiggins) pitches, but his concentration is impaired by a group of seniors who taunt him with the possibility of getting paddled (apparently a tradition for the boys).  The girls also undergo a ritual humiliation, but since both freshmen characters wind up getting their own back, I wouldn’t say that the movie glorifies bullying.  Actually, it probes the mixture of admiration and fear the victims have for their tormentors, such as when Jason’s character tells Wiley’s that his seniors wound up paddling the crap out of him and then took him out for a drink.  Even Parker’s character who gleefully squirts condiments all over the freshmen girls seems to have some self-awareness when she notes she’s”supposed to be being a bitch.”  Moreover, revenge ultimately happens, even if it’s a dish best tasted cold.

I was pretty young during the time period in which the movie is set, and thankfully, never had hazing like this when I did reach high school age, though I believe the athletes had something similar to the contract Jason and his buddies had to choose whether or not to sign.   In “Dazed and Confused,” there are no major moments of redemption, just small ones where the character triumphs or has a revelation.  This may make it different from many teen movies of that era, but perhaps it more accurately reflects reality for that age group.