Tagged: Matthew McConaughey

Box Office Democracy: The Dark Tower

I wonder if it bothers Stephen King that his 54 novels and 200 short stories have produced exactly one great movie.  (Two if you count The Shining, and you probably shouldn’t, considering the very public feud between author and director.)  We have the greatest pulp author of a generation, perhaps of all time, and he just keeps sending his ideas off to Hollywood to die.  I don’t mean to turn the man in to too much of a martyr; he keeps cashing the checks, so he knows what this is.  But to see The Dark Tower, the sprawling thirty year epic he wrote threading through so much of his work, turn in to a pale reflection on the silver screen must sting worse than most.  The Dark Tower is probably the best attempt we’ll ever see to turn a 4,000 page story in to a 90 minute movie, but also maybe no one should ever try that again.  There just isn’t room for any nuance.

I’ve never read any of the Dark Tower novels and I’ve never felt particularly tempted.  I understand that this movie is a sequel of sorts to the books and also that it tries to tell a fair bit of the overarching plot of the novels in this 95 minute movie.  I don’t understand how both of those things can be true but there’s no possible way this is a reasonable adaptation of eight Stephen King novels, that man writes a dense book.  I appreciate that this isn’t anything like the Peter Jackson Hobbit movies and they didn’t turn this in to an endless stream of movies with endless amounts of exposition until I feel like I’ve been ground to dirt.  The Dark Tower, for all of its other faults, has a sense of tempo that is lost with books by directors that make movies like an overly defensive book report needing to prove they did the reading.  I always felt The Dark Tower wanted to get to the next scene and wanted to be entertaining.  It didn’t always succeed but it was trying.

Of course, I can’t tell you anything about what this movie was about.  There’s the eponymous tower and it’s good that it’s there but some bad guys who are basically all Vincent D’Onofrio from Men In Black are trying to use psychic children to destroy the tower.  The first half of the movie has a fairly compelling plot about family and trust but that just completely falls away.  It ends up just being a boy (Tom Taylor) hanging out with The Gunslinger (Idris Elba) in a barren dessert world that looks an awful lot like a studio backlot but according to the credits was South Africa.  Occasionally an evil sorcerer (Matthew McConaughey) will turn up and make everything interesting but they try to keep him as far away from the action as they can.  Probably because it’s all building to a confrontation that takes less than three minutes.

Matthew McConaughey seems like he was basically born to play a slick Stephen King villain.  He has the honeyed way of American speaking that I always tried to do in my head when someone was trying to talk someone in to giving up their soul for a trinket or whatever.  He’s playing a rather generic villain here, I presume because the intricacies of licensing made The Man in Black a little smaller than his literary equivalent (I don’t know how I know so much about this character despite never reading the books but here we are).  He shows up to be menacing and he backs up his bluster by being very mean to his subordinates and characters who are no longer useful.  He’s like a Saturday morning cartoon villain that can actually kill people.

Idris Elba is a talented actor given no chance to act.  The Gunslinger is every gruff hero you’ve ever seen in anything ever.  He doesn’t want to form emotional attachments and he doesn’t want to talk about why that is.  He’s very good at shooting things and there’s solid work given to showcasing that talent but it’s a waste of Idris Elba.  All they needed from Elba was a look and while he looks amazing (he’s a handsome man) there’s no there there.

I’ve seen something like 250 movies since I started reviewing them in 2012 and I’ve learned a little bit about good movies and a lot about bad movies.  The Dark Tower is a bad movie but it’s a great bad movie.  It isn’t excruciating to watch, it has the sense to be short, and there’s always something to pay attention to even if the story is bland nonsense.  They put a giant amusement park sign that said “Pennywise” and I was on edge for a whole scene that had literally no other content.  The Dark Tower is the kind of bad movie that you can walk out of feeling refreshed, remarking to yourself that it “wasn’t really as bad as people said” and while it might not be true it feels better than the movies where you can’t wait for the lights to come up.

Box Office Democracy: Kubo and the Two Strings

Kubo and the Two Strings fills a void I didn’t realize had grown in the movie landscape until I was watching it— it’s an earnest adventure movie for all ages without a trace of camp. There’s very little winking at the audience, there are no topical references, and the celebrity voice actors even try not to sound like themselves. It is refreshingly straight-laced and serious about the mythology in a way that seems lost sometimes even among supposedly serious films. It’s easy to get lost in the wonder of the story because everything is pushing you to do exactly that. I’ve scarcely been so happy to be lost in a film.

Kubo is like a fairy tale that you forgot. It combines a litany of familiar tropes like evil elders, a bumbling but noble sidekick, and the enduring magical power of parental love and combines it in to something that feels timeless, more a Monet than a paint-by-number. It’s a fairly basic hero’s journey story— Kubo has his life destroyed and must flee with only a few magical artifacts to protect him, and must gather legendary items to defeat the evil moon king. The artifacts in question don’t actually seem super helpful in defeating the villain, but that’s never what these things are really about. If I want to nitpick the metaphor gets a little clunky at times and might completely break down in the film’s climax, but I was consistently entertained and the last shot is killer so the rest is meaningless details.

There’s a level of base discomfort one can get from watching a movie so clearly trying to be Japanese but with no Japanese people in anywhere in the writing or directing credits. This is further compounded when white people voice all of the principal characters. It didn’t feel disrespectful to me, it felt tone consistent with the fables and myths I was familiar with from taking a few East Asian literature classes in college, but it isn’t my place to tell other people what is or is not over their boundaries for a piece of media like this. In a perfect world I would like to see movies like these, love letters to legitimate cultural artifacts, have more people from that culture playing the roles, but I understand that that isn’t where Hollywood is right now. I can’t find any Japanese people criticizing the film on these grounds, so I’m content to enjoy the movie and hope for the time when representation is a little better.

Representation issues aside the cast is uniformly fantastic. Charlize Theron is tiptoeing this line between loving maternal figure and fierce protector and absolutely nails it. Matthew McConaughey gives his strongest performance since winning an Oscar, and it’s probably not even worth looking up what those movies are to figure out how much of a compliment this is. Art Parkinson does most of the heavy lifting in the movie and might finally be moving away from being “that kid who plays Rickon Stark”, if he can keep doing work like this (or any work where he gets actual lines). Ralph Fiennes is such an unexpected delight and is wonderfully understated, but I couldn’t help but think that David Carradine would have 100% gotten that role if he were alive. Rooney Mara is going to be in my nightmares for her exquisitely creepy work. I’ve already mentioned this, but the greatest part of all of this work is the actors are willing to disappear in to the role instead of just sounding like themselves and cashing a big paycheck. I’m especially impressed with McConaughey, who even in his best work sounds an awful lot like himself but manages to fall away in to the part here.

Kubo and the Two Strings was a movie I wasn’t excited to see, it didn’t grab me from the trailer and it was put in a week that just seemed to scream “we’re done putting out the big movies this summer, here’s what’s left over” and I was so pleasantly surprised. Kubo is a strong contender for best animated movie of the year and could probably make a run at best action movie. I loved how it had a childlike sense of adventure built-in, but didn’t feel childish in the way a lot of kids movies can. It seems to be cursed to never find an audience, perhaps because it wasn’t willing to pitch itself as young as possible but it deserves to be a bigger hit. Kubo and the Two Strings is the best movie I’ve ever seen from Laika, and I hope it’s a sign of things to come and that the soft opening numbers don’t scare them back to The Boxtrolls or similar fare.

Box Office Democracy: “Interstellar”

Interstellar is a movie that in the hands of most directors would be a failure. It’s a movie about space and time that assumes an awful lot of knowledge on both subjects from the audience. It’s a movie with a moral compass that swings so wildly that at the end I can only point to three characters and say I absolutely know how the film wants us to feel about them. There’s a healthy dose of paradox and deus ex machina flowing through the third act of the movie. Even good directors would mess this up; this script could have been Neill Blomkamp’s Waterloo. Christopher Nolan turned it in to one of the best science fiction movies in years. I was delighted to watch this movie and hope that every bit of Nolan’s post-Batman career can be this enjoyable.

It must be quite hard to make a movie about space travel. No one in the audience has ever been in space and I have no reason to believe that any of the depictions we’ve seen in movies over the years have been particularly accurate. Instead of trying to one-up Gravity or anything Nolan seems content to draw upon the history of the depictions of space in film. Scenes in Interstellar felt like they could have been in Alien, or 2001: A Space Odyssey. Nolan decides to use our shared visual vocabulary to tell quick, expressive stories out of fleeting shots. I don’t mean to suggest that he sits back and only uses images from other directors, far from it; the wormhole and black hole sequences are mind-bendingly wonderful images. Nolan puts more on the table than any director in the genre since Kubrick. It’s the most I’ve been impressed with just sheer directorial force of will in recent memory. Nolan elevates this move more than any acting performance could ever hope to.

It’s a good think Nolan is here because the acting is not the strength I thought it would be. We may be waist deep in the ongoing flood of latter-day Matthew McConaughey’s talent but he feels like he does little except not mess up this movie. He’s not bad or anything but he doesn’t bring anything to this part that any equivalent leading man couldn’t have brought unless Nolan thinks that halfway drawl was essential to portraying this engineer/rocket pilot. Unfortunately this kind of stretches across the cast; I only thought Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, and John Lithgow did work that was above replacement level in their roles. The cast is an embarrassment of riches and has the kind of cast that defies belief. I have a strong feeling this cast will one day be looked at like The Godfather or Murder on the Orient Express as one of those films where it’s just unbelievable the top to bottom talent they got. I wish I could come away raving about more of the performances unfortunately they’re all just really good and not spectacular.

It’s hard to walk out of a movie that’s almost three hours and not think it’s a little bloated and Interstellar is no exception. There’s a subplot that slowly worms its way in to the main plot that is just not as clever as either of the Nolan brothers think it is. It leaves us with a very long scene where the characters figure something out that was pretty obvious two hours ago. The script is just a bit shy of being as clever as it thinks it does and those moments become a little more obvious when you’ve been sitting for over two hours.

These are little, meaningless, complaints. Performances that are very good but not great, 15 minutes that could be easily trimmed from a 169 minute movie, trifling little nothings. This is a masterpiece of filmmaking and the bar that I will be measuring science fiction against for years to come. It’s a spellbinding, emotionally gripping, visually arresting piece of filmmaking that is, as of now, the best film Christopher Nolan has ever produced.