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.

A Look Back: The Shawshank Redemption

There are two kinds of Stephen King novels/novellas/short stories that get made into movies. One has a very basic message, such as beware of evil dogs, cars or perhaps clowns. These are the kind of book you don’t want to read when you’re home late alone, unless you enjoy having nightmares. The other type may put the protagonist in physical danger, but the bigger threat is psychological. This kind tends to win prestigious awards if made into a film, such as “Stand By Me,” “Misery,” and “The Shawshank Redemption,” (incidentally all parodied in a “Family Guy” episode, “The Three Kings.”)

Directed by Frank Darabont (and winning multiple awards), “The Shawshank Redemption,” is based on King’s “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.” The first two words of the title were probably dropped either because a certain portion of the audience wasn’t familiar with the name or simply because it’s less cumbersome. The movie’s message is easy to “get,” the main one is the importance of never giving up hope even when one is in a crushingly hopeless environment (and can’t leave). But there are others, including:

1. It pays to cultivate a relationship with that guy in prison who can allegedly procure anything.

And:

2. If there’s suddenly a draft near your cell, there may be a serious reason. Especially if it won’t go away.

And:

3. When in need of a place to hide something, a Bible comes in mighty handy.

And the most important of all.

4. Never ever let a prison inmate, no matter how much of a financial wizard, do your tax returns for you.

In the movie, Tim Robbins plays a banker convicted of killing his wife and sentenced to life in Maine’s notorious (literary) prison Shawshawk. Although he protests his innocence, this is hardly new for a convicted man, and he winds up stuck there for most of the movie. The narrator of the film is lifer Red (Morgan Freeman, whose character was originally Irish) who fills the viewer in on the day-to-day indignities of prison. These include sexual assault (shown in several graphic scenes), work detail drudgery, and sanctimonious or sadistic staff, including Bob Gunton, who plays the main warden and eventually gets a nice come-uppance. A savvy man in other things besides finances, Tim lies low when he first arrives, but then figures out (what we learn later) is quite a master plan to get out of there and develops a rapport with Morgan, who is “that guy” and who agrees to furnish Tim with a rock hammer and a pinup poster for his cell (several come and go besides Rita, to signify the passing of time). Although Tim is, at first, in danger of being assaulted, we come to see that his real challenge is maintaining his spirit throughout his stay at Shawshank. But he manages this, and manages to help various other inmates, including Morgan, keep theirs’ intact, too. Although Morgan’s parole possibility has come up before, he is always refused, believing that he has not yet been “rehabilitated.” But he takes inspiration from Tim.

Because Tim hasn’t lost his financial expertise along with his freedom, he eventually sets up shop doing the prison staff’s tax returns for them, in exchange for certain other favors. And of course, he maintains his innocence, but because this is Shawshank, this is seen as a running joke. However, about halfway through the movie, hope appears in the form of a young new inmate (Gil Bellows), who was formerly at another prison and heard something about Tim’s case that could possibly set him free. This does not work out the way Tim hopes, but he still perseveres and manages to triumph in the end. There are casualties along the way, but ultimately, he and Morgan reunite – this time as free men. In the process, he manages to completely turn the tables on his captors – even quoting their own words back at them.

Postscript: If you feel like seeking it out, there is a short called “The Sharktank Redemption,” starring Alfonso Freeman (Morgan’s son), about twenty minutes long, and involving an employee of a Hollywood agency who gets passed over repeatedly for promotion. The main message? Get busy dying or get busy faxing.

A Look Back: Stand By Me

I first saw “Stand By Me” in my high school health class.  So as not to offend our delicate sensibilities (or more likely, our parents’), we saw the edited version, which removed such obscenities as “ass.”  Which, because one of the characters’ names included this, must have taken awhile.  I remember enjoying this movie a lot more than “Beaches,” which we also saw.  I also remember that one of the questions on our follow-up test was something like, “Name two ways in which Gordie and Chris were more mature than Teddy and Vern.”  (That was one of my easier A’s.)

“Stand By Me,” based on the novella “The Body” by Stephen King, takes place on the last day of summer vacation in 1959 in Castle Rock, Oregon.  The narrator Gordie (Wil Wheaton), and his friends, delinquent-in-training Chris (River Phoneix) and crazy Teddy (Corey Feldman) are playing cards in their clubhouse, when they get an unexpected invitation from their other dweeby, overly earnest pal, Vern (Jerry O’Connell).  “You guys wanna go see a dead body?” he asks.  It turns out that a boy their age has been hit by a train and is, in fact, dead.  Jerry happens upon this piece of juicy info, when he’s under his porch, searching for his buried penny jar.  His older brother and his gang (which includes Chris’s delinquent older brother) have made plans to go see the corpse, as well.  This triggers Wil’s and his friends’ competitive instincts, too, and so off they set on an overnight trip.

You might be wondering, if you’ve never seen the movie, how they are going to get around their parents.  Well, there’s no real need to worry because three of the four boys have major father issues, and their dads probably won’t notice that they’ve disappeared for awhile.  As for Jerry, he can just use the sleepover excuse, and no one will be any the wiser.  So the boys each go home for supplies, and that’s when we learn that Wil’s parents barely register that he exists (except in the case of dad, to criticize his friends) because they’re busy mourning their dead, older son (John Cusack), who was the family superstar.  Wil takes a canteen and the cap that his brother gave him, while Jerry brings along a comb (“So we’ll look good on TV!”).  River contributes a gun, which turns out to be loaded, and which, following Chekov’s rule, becomes crucial in the climax.

The boys set off – and this is not a movie in which the characters manage to maintain un-mussed hair, unrumpled clothes, etc. – they all quickly become grimy and stay like this the entire way.  (A side trip into a leech filled swamp will also contribute to their general disarray.)  Meanwhile the older boys go joyriding in the same direction, whacking the occasional mailbox on the way.  Wil’s group also engages in some juvenile delinquency (mouthing off to a junkyard owner, scaring the daylights out of a train driver, etc.), but they also devote some time to the profound questions in life, such as what food they would choose if they could only eat one for the rest of their lives.  Also, Wil and Chris confide in each other about their parents’ (and society’s) non-existent expectations of them, what really happened with the stolen milk money at school, and Wil encourages Chris to enroll in the academic track with him when school starts, which makes what ultimately happens to Chris as an adult (which we hear about in the epilogue) even sadder.

Eventually, the boys reach their destination and have a stand-off with the older boys (Chekov’s law alert).  When they return, Wil notes that the town somehow looks smaller, and then we hear, via voiceover, how the group drifts apart, but how “you never have any friends like the ones when you were 12.”  It ends with the adult narrator (Richard Dreyfuss) typing these words at his computer, while his young son and friend wait impatiently outside to go swimming.  Very true, and as an added bonus, the viewer ends the movie with the sense that the Narrator, despite his lapses into literary reveries, is a different type of father than his own dad.