The Dark Tower (2017)

Dark Tower poster

We seem to be living in a time when the old adage, “The book was much better”, doesn’t always apply. Fantasy in particular has come on in leaps and bounds, from Lord of the Rings to Game of Thrones – we know that such adaptations can be, well, pretty darn fantastic. It’s a shame, then, that Dark Tower comes along to remind us that the transfer to the big screen is still a process fraught with dangers, and doesn’t always quite reach those dizzying heights.

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

I don’t have to look those words up. This is an opening line that is stuck in my head, opening an 8-book story that has near-mythical status for me. As a teen, finding two previously unheard of books (yes, I do predate the internet LOL!) by my then-favourite author was the stuff that dreams are made of (literally: I dream variations on this scenario to this day). That I had to wait eight years between books 3 and 4 puts even GRRM to shame! 😉

Roland Deschain is a gunslinger, one of Midworld’s peacekeepers (and more); in fact, the last gunslinger: his is a world that is slowing down and growing thin. But Roland has one last mission: to reach the Dark Tower, the nexus of all worlds, to keep it safe lest the whole universe collapse. Or, at least in this movie, to catch up to the Man in Black and get his revenge for the slaughter of everyone he ever knew.

A potted version of all this is sort of squeezed into the hour and a half of movie, and I think that’s the first disappointment: of all the richness of the world built up over eight books, we get to see so little of it. I was thoroughly baffled by the choice of focusing the movie on Jake (a youngster having dreams about the Tower et al) rather than on Roland (Idris Elba), and setting large chunks in New York rather than Midworld. Bah!

“One more time around the wheel, old friend.”

While Idris is his usual wonderful self (but who should definitely be getting meatier scripts!), and the lad playing Jake is thankfully largely unannoying, the real stand out performance for me was Matthew McConaughey as Walter (O’Dim? Paddick?), aka the Man in Black. Oozing menace, he flicks his fingers and commands people to kill, or simply to stop breathing, purely because he can. Of all the changes made from the source, throwing more of a spotlight on Walter was a good one, I’d say. Without spoiling anything from the books, he seems to have more of a continuity to his story, which was actually quite interesting to see.

What was less interesting, however, was the cliched “let’s destroy the world” plot. I just kept thinking about the line from Guardians of the Galaxy: why would you want to destroy the universe when you’re “one of the idiots that lives in it?” Argh!

Through the piece there are little nods to both the books and the wider Stephen King bibliography (not that the two aren’t entwined, of course!). Look out for the fairground attractions – Pennywise and Charlie the Choo Choo – or the graffiti urging us to “All Hail the Crimson King”, or the talking raccoons in the commercial (Oy!). I was in two minds about these: they’re somewhat pointless if you’re not a fan, but if you are then in a way they’re little reminders of all that we’re skipping.

I have a feeling I could waffle on about this movie, or at least the books, for another 90 minutes myself! So, let me summarise: The Dark Tower is absolutely not the huge mess that some earlier reviewers wanted to make it out to be. If you go in expecting a straight adaptation of the wonderful books, then you will be disappointed. If, however, you can view this as… a different way the story could have played out, perhaps… then it’s at the very least rather interesting. And if you’ve never read the books at all, then it’s still a decent if short fantasy-action flick telling a fairly self-contained story with some intriguing characters.

Personally, I enjoyed it despite the flaws. I wish there could be eight movies, to tell it all ‘properly’. But this little slice is a nice addition to the overall world, which I still hope to see more of from the rumoured TV series, even if it’s not with the great pairing of Elba and McConaughey.

Released: 18th August 2017
Viewed: 22nd August 2017
Running time: 95 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 7/10

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Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

Valerian poster

Based on a French comic book, Valerian and Laureline, this movie sees these two Special Agents trying to save the titular City of a Thousand Planets – that is, a space station peacefully hosting hundreds of different alien species – from a mysterious threat.

Reviews have been pretty scathing about Valerian, and I would have to agree with most of them: the plot is both weak and convoluted, the acting is barely adequate, and even the title is insulting, leaving out the other main character who turns out to be probably more kick-ass than her male counterpart. Pfft. And as someone said: removing the painful attempts at ‘romance’ would have made for a far superior movie – it’s borderline creepy at points, tbh.

And yet, it’s still worth the watch. In fact, despite saying all of the above, I’d still go back to see it tomorrow – because it looks gorgeous. So yes, I can put up with a so-so plot and meh characters, and sit back and enjoy the spectacle.

Knowing this comes from Fifth Element director, Luc Besson, perhaps explains some of the visual marvel. I don’t think this is anywhere near as good – mind, I do love FE – but it’s definitely going to be one I leave on when it’s on the telly, purely to look at.

The one part of the movie I did think they nailed absolutely is the opening montage. Perfectly accompanied by the wondrous Space Oddity (David Bowie), we see the next 800 years of human space exploration encapsulated in a series of meet’n’greets aboard the growing ISS. It’s a hugely touching reminder than humanity can be non-jerks, at times.

The rest drifts off a little into a series of semi-random adventures for Valerian (a wooden Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne and her power eyebrows), including a subplot about a dream that feels like it’s from a different draft of the movie. Still, there are some fun alien species along the way, some well-realised (virtual) sets including a marketplace in another dimension (the future of Amazon, perhaps?), and a pretty good score to keep the feet tapping.

Go in – as I did – with low expectations, and have a little fun!

Released: 2nd August 2017
Viewed: 9th August 2017
Running time: 137 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 7/10

Big Little Lies (series 1)

“A perfect life is a perfect lie.”

Life in Monterey is pretty perfect. Great schools, great beach, gorgeous weather, gorgeous people. How irksome that Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) has to deal with her ex and his new partner, Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz), having a daughter in the same class as her youngest. Her best friend Celeste (Nicole Kidman) – gorgeous, filthy rich, and sickeningly still in love with her twins’ father (Alexander Skarsgard) – joins her in befriending newcomer and single mom, Jane (Shailene Woodley), especially after mutual ‘frenemy’, Renata (Laura Dern), starts a feud on day one of school.

So far, so mundane, right? Except, all of the above – and the bulk of the series – is actually told in flashback. In the ‘now’, we get snippets of police interviews, the other residents of Monterey sharing all the dirty gossip, all the little lies that led up to a shocking murder…

Ooh – can we say tension?! I freaking loved this TV show, not least because of the way the story is told, keeping you guessing right til the end the who, the how, and the why.

The initial draw had been that cast, and they are awesome. I’ve since heard interviews and the fact that these are ‘older’ (!) actresses getting super-meaty roles should not go unnoticed. Mostly I’m a plot person, and the edge-of-the-seat, need-to-know is still what impressed me most, but quite frankly those pitch-perfect performances, each with their own dark issues and web of lies surrounding them, would see me happily watch it all again even now I know the answers!

Now, usually I will choose to read the book before watching an adaptation, but for one reason or another I started the TV series first – but picked up the book a few episodes in. I’ll review the book shortly, but I have to say I love the way the story is subtly altered to ramp up the tensions even more.

It’s not exactly an easy, cheery, watch – this is one very dark show about all the secrets of marriages and relationships – but absolutely worth the time. And read the book, too – the alterations are a masterclass in storytelling, just as an added bonus!

First broadcast: March 2017 (UK)
Series: 1 so far, talks about a second series reported
Episodes: 7 @ ~50 mins each

My rating: 9/10

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

Following a terrible crash, Major (Scarlett Johansson) is rebuilt with the best cyber-enhancement tech available. Built and trained to be the perfect soldier, she is uniquely placed to help in the fight against a new level of cyber-terrorism: hacking into people’s minds. But, who is the mysterious figure behind it all, and what do they want from Major? She’s about to find out that perhaps nothing is as it seems.

Anime is one of the things that I think I should be more into, at least on paper. The original Ghost in the Shell (1995) was one of my first forays, partly to see the original ahead of this remake, and mostly because it gets raved about a lot. I’m afraid to say I wasn’t all that impressed – it’s definitely a genre in and of itself, and something you have to get your head around to really appreciate.

So perhaps slightly backwards to most viewers, my hopes for the live-action movie were that I’d be able to understand it a bit better – so yeah, it probably has been dumbed down, but that worked in my favour! And yes, I could follow the story a bit better, although having seen the original also made a lot of things make more sense. It’s an odd one. I completely get why fans of the original found this so disappointing.

I ended up really liking the look of the piece, transferred scene-for-scene at times from the animation, although again I might be alone with this.

Aside from all that, going in ‘blind’ you get a sci-fi-y action movie, with a futuristic Japanese setting, and a mildly convoluted story line that doesn’t quite click together.

Released: 30th March 2017
Viewed: 14th April 2017
Running time: 107 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 6/10

Assassin’s Creed (2016)

In 1492, the war between the Templars and the shadowy Brotherhood of Assassins is reaching a peak. The latter are guardians of the ‘Apple’ – a Mcguffin with the ability to remove mankind’s free will- while the former are keen to get their hands on it to ensure world peace – via perfect obedience from the entire world.

Fast forward a half century or so, and the Abstergo company has developed the ‘Animus’, a machine capable of unlocking genetic memories. Their aim is to use the descendants of the Assassins to ‘remember’ the Apple’s last hiding place, but so far they have found every memory ends in death before the answer is revealed.

The last hope is Cal (Michael Fassbender), an inmate on death row. Can the memories of his ancestor, Aguilar (also Fassbender, with brown contact lenses), lead the company to their prize – and Cal to his own answers? More to the point, will he survive the process – physically or mentally?

Reviews have been rather shoddy for Assassin’s Creed, and to be honest I can see why people are picking holes in the movie. The plot is tenuous to say the least (although it does have some cool ideas) with holes to drive a truck through if you want to go looking for them. On the other hand, it looks *amazing* and is crammed full of action – and I mean, who doesn’t like a bit of parkour!?!

I’ve never played the game(s) this is based on (and hey, there was a warning sign!), but it’s quite clear that there’s a lot of effort gone into making it look similar and/or tie-in with the game. I read that the game is praised for historical detail, which perhaps explains why the 15th Century scenes are in subtitled Spanish – not quite what you might have expected!

Aside from the fighting, the acting is all a little bit moody-stares and not much else. Alas, this doesn’t work well for leading lady Marion Cotillard, who doesn’t get to fight and is lumbered with a career-low script. I confess to being a little confused at her character ‘development’. At least Fassbender gets to distract a bit with physicality ::ahem:: 😉

This isn’t going to go down as the movie that breaks the curse of video game to screen adaptations, but if you go in expecting it to be pretty dire you might just be pleasantly surprised. I got what I was after: mindless fun and some really great visuals. Sometimes there’s a place for that!

Released: 1st January 2017
Viewed: 13th January 2017
Running time: 115 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 6/10

Arrival (2016)

This is a movie that’s worth knowing as little as possible about until you see it. And you should see it. It’s not flashy action sci-fi, like Rogue One, it’s quiet and builds slowly. You’re not sitting there wondering what the ‘twist’ is, or thinking ‘ahah, I bet it’s…’ – because it’s not that kind of movie. By the time you find out what’s going on, it’s just ‘oh’, and because the story has been revealed at just the right time.

I confess, the trailers left me cold. Alien spacecraft arrive on – or rather, hovering just above – the Earth. A linguistics specialist (Amy Adams) is called in to try to make contact, to find out what the aliens want.

To say much more would be a crime. I avoided this for ages, until reports started filtering in about how good the movie was, and the fact that it was still in the cinema over a month on was another excellent sign. Take it: this is a measured, considered story (based on a short work by the marvellous Ted Chiang), and a film with the other kind of wow factor than all of those big showy action-filled blockbusters.

Released: 10th November 2016
Viewed: 17th December 2016
Running time: 116 minutes
Rated: 12A, but very slow and measured so unlike to appeal to youngsters

My rating: 9/10

Labyrinth: one classic film, 55 sonnets – Anne Corrigan

“Perhaps, in childhood, you a movie saw; the title of said film, ’twas Labyrinth.”

Once in a while something really random catches my eye on Netgalley, such as a book of poetry based on the classic film, Labyrinth (1986). I really loved the concept: the author being a huge fan of the movie (well, who isn’t, quite frankly! :)) found the novelisation (which I didn’t know existed) lacked any of the poetry or visual flair of the screen version, and set out to do her own version.

It’s very true that the movie is worthy inspiration for any number of poems, paintings, and other creative endeavours. However, while this book has flashes of really lovely phrases, I can’t help but think that the author constrained herself too much by (a) choosing the sonnet form, which means 14 lines and a certain amount of iambic pentameter, and (b) retelling the whole movie, faithfully. Sadly the combination can lead to somewhat sticky, clunky rhymes, or scenes that just aren’t that, well, poetic. Is it anti-art to suggest that a focus on the more lyrical moments would have been preferable to trying to shoe-horn in every scene?

That said, there are some quite lovely parts of this, and I particularly liked the moments where the author’s sympathies shine out more than is warranted by the screen version. It’s been too long since I watched the movie, and this was a nice reminder of the story. Perhaps if I were a bigger fan of poetry, or more geeky about the film, I would have gotten more from this book.

NetGalley eArc: 55 pages/sonnets
First published: October 2016
Series: none
Read from 24th-28th October 2016

My rating: 6/10