Thursday, August 10, 2017

In Theaters: THE DARK TOWER (2017)

(US - 2017)

Directed by Nikolaj Arcel. Written by Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen and Nikolaj Arcel. Cast: Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor, Jackie Earle Haley, Katheryn Winnick, Dennis Haysbert, Abbey Lee, Claudia Kim, Fran Kranz, Nicholas Hamilton, Jose Zuniga, Nicholas Pauling, Eva Kaminsky, Robbie McLean. (PG-13, 94 mins)

After a decade in assorted stages of development and pre-production hell, with both J.J. Abrams and Ron Howard attached to direct at various times, the long-planned adaptation of The Dark Tower, a series of Stephen King novels that began with the publication of a short story in 1978, is finally a thing. And they mostly blew it. A labyrinthine series of books that get larger and more unwieldy and self-indulgent with each new volume, going so far as to include King himself as a character by the time it's all over, the entire saga is nearly 5000 pages long. Something that complex, with its own internal mythology and the large cast of characters, is impossible to streamline and still be effective and probably needs to be a TV series along the lines of GAME OF THRONES to realize its full potential in a visual medium. But in the hands of Danish director and co-writer Nikolaj Arcel (best known for helming 2012's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winner A ROYAL AFFAIR and scripting the original film version of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO as well as the three DEPARTMENT Q movies), making his Hollywood debut, THE DARK TOWER is a jumbled, confused pastiche of the book series and other King tropes and references (a kid who "shines," someone walking a St. Bernard, a framed photo of the cinematic Overlook Hotel, a portal labelled "1408") that goes off on its own tangent, with the closing credits rolling at just under the 90-minute mark. At times feeling like a really long "Previously on..." recap of a DARK TOWER TV series that doesn't exist, Arcel and co-writer Anders Thomas Jensen (MIFUNE, WILBUR WANTS TO KILL HIMSELF, BROTHERS), who reworked an existing script from Abrams' and Howard's time with the project by, respectively, Jeff Pinkner (LOST, FRINGE) and human focus group response Akiva Goldsman, try to cram in as many recognizable "Dark Tower"-related things as possible to keep the die-hards happy. King adaptations don't need to be faithful to work on their own terms--THE SHINING is proof of that--but the makers of THE DARK TOWER blowtorch through the exposition so quickly, with no context or frame of reference, that the whole thing will come off as either completely incoherent to anyone who hasn't read the books (I stopped after the third) or as pointless Dark Tower fan fiction to those who have. Arcel keeps the pace fast to a fault--almost certainly so you don't have a chance to ask questions until it's over, by which point you'll have forgotten most of it--and he gets a lot of mileage out of a well-cast star, but this thing is a total mess, and what could've been the beginning of an ambitious, epic big-screen franchise (that was the plan under Howard) ends up being 2017's JONAH HEX.

Still dealing with the death of his firefighter father in the line of duty, 12-year-old Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) is haunted by visions in his dreams of another dimension where a huge tower keeps order in the universe. The tower is what stands in the way of the master plan of the nefarious sorcerer The Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), who rules Mid-World, a world of monstrous creatures in human masks who abduct psychic children, the only beings capable of destroying the tower, which is the Man in Black's plan to unleash the ultimate evil. No one believes Jake--not his sympathetic mother (Katheryn Winnick), his asshole stepfather (Nicholas Pauling), or his psychologist (Jose Zuniga)--and a vision of a dilapidated house leads him to a condemned building in Brooklyn, where he discovers a portal to Mid-World. After going through, he encounters Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), the last Gunslinger, sworn to avenge the death of his father (Dennis Haysbert) at the hands of the Man in Black. Armed with pistols forged from Excalibur (yes, that Excalibur), Roland takes Jake under his wing as they're pursued through Mid-World into Manhattan, on what Mid-Worlders call "Keystone Earth," just one of many dimensions that exist in the universe, of which the Dark Tower is the center of all planes of existence.

The script takes ideas from various points in the books and mashes them all into a barely coherent story. The Man in Black is also known as "Walter Padick," but it's not clear when he became the force of evil that he is (it seems like something pretty big has to happen to turn a guy named Walter into the ultimate manifestation of demonic evil), and the movie never even bothers to mention another of his identities in the book: Randall Flagg, the name of the antagonist in both The Stand and The Eyes of the Dragon. The Man in Black (this is not one of McConaughey's better performances) has some kind of sci-fi command center where he makes pithy comments to his underlings, all of whom seem to be completely incompetent, since he's constantly being beamed into Keystone Earth to take care of everything himself (example of how sloppy the finished film is: at one point, he makes a special trip to interrogate someone for information he was already made aware of a couple scenes earlier). The film was rushed through production and after some bad test screenings, underwent some hasty reshoots in an attempt to make sense of everything (three editors are credited), and about half of McConaughey's scenes appear to be from this second round of production, the major tell being that he has spiky bedhead in some scenes and a slicked-back, helmet-like wig in others, the production in such a mad rush to get done that they didn't even carefully monitor J.K.Livin's hair continuity. Other characters drift in and out with little purpose--Abbey Lee (MAD MAX: FURY ROAD) was described as "the female lead" in initial reports when she signed on, but her character is a mostly silent sidekick whose primary function is to stand beside by the Man in Black (or, if you prefer, Walter), and Jake's bullying school nemesis Lucas Hanson (Nicholas Hamilton) is reduced to about 30 seconds of screen time where he swipes Jake's sketch book and we never even get his name. Arcel essentially turns King's saga into a post-HUNGER GAMES/DIVERGENT/MAZE RUNNER YA adaptation, wasting a strong performance by Elba, who's very good in the action sequences and in the fish-out-of-water section when Roland goes through the portal and ends up in Manhattan. He and Taylor are apparently committed to a DARK TOWER TV series planned for 2018, which will hopefully be a more faithful take on King's saga than this misfire, which doesn't seem so much completed as it does abandoned. As far as Arcel is concerned, add him to the always-growing list of European filmmakers with cautionary tales of being seduced by Hollywood studios and a bigger budget than they've ever had only to find the film subjected to compromises, business decisions, and the fickle whims of test audiences, neutering any of the individuality and vision that got them the job in the first place, and sending them back home to regroup and focus on a small-scale, back to basics project.

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