Tag Archives: matthew mcconaughey

The Dark Tower is the most impressive book adaptation of 1999

As a total fucking nerd, I used to follow the rumors and stories of geek properties and comic book movies in development.

I still do, but I used to too.

Before the 2008 Iron Man/The Dark Knight swing that meant Hollywood found the money in taking all this shit seriously, it was pretty commonplace that while they wanted to adapt things with built-in audiences, a lot of this geek stuff was just a little too weird or expensive to treat the right way. You had to bust down the budgets (and what the audience would take at face value) and find some way to remove the most fantastical portions of it while keeping the name that people already knew.

So, that meant you often got the “They come to Earth” adaptation. It was a surprisingly popular genre at the time, some fantastic thing coming to Earth and teaching us all a new lesson, whether it was an angel or an alien or Gary Busey. So it made a sort of sense for these properties that took place on other worlds to pop on over to Earth and let the characters roam around in like…New York or something. Most infamously was an adaptation of Sandman, Neil Gaiman’s masterpiece of comics, that mostly took place as a bad combination of Terminator 2 and every movie about the “Coming Millennium”

This is all context to get into my main point about a movie that doesn’t have one. The Dark Tower feels so much like those kind of adaptations, one that isn’t totally into its property and one that extracts so much of what’s loved to try to make it into a more marketable product. The kind of adaptation that was more common before we realized common audiences could get into geek shit and just feels out-dated now.

It doesn’t help that The Dark Tower is somehow dreadfully slow and has way too much going on, is slapped together like a reel of film falling down a stairs, is as cheap-looking as a feature film could possibly be, and has great actors struggling valiantly against the writing of Akiva Goldsman (coincidentally, often responsible for the kind of adaptations I railed against at the beginning).

Based on Stephen King’s epic dark fantasy tale, The Dark Tower takes the task of compressing his vast mythology down to roughly 90 minutes. Told through the eyes of Jake (Tom Taylor), a troubled young man who sees visions of another world, an evil man, and a valiant gunslinger. That world comes crashing into his reality as The Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) hunts Jake down in order to harness his growing psychic power to destroy The Dark Tower and allow the monsters outside the universe through the barrier. The only man who may be able to stop him is Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), a broken man seeking only to take his revenge on The Man in Black.

This doesn’t even break the surface of what’s going on here, as the movie is trying to cram even more detail from these books in an incredibly small amount of time while still trying to move forward under its own momentum, create an actual watchable stand-alone film. There’s too many cooks in this kitchen, and that’s the beginning of the problem.

Side note: In fact, there’s so many cooks I don’t know who to blame. I could blame the director Nikolaj Arcel, but he is 100% the kind of dude they brought on to give a chance if he succeeded and blame if he failed. This movie reeks of studio interference through and through, a bad adaptation made worse.

I have never been more bored by a film that’s trying everything it can to keep the pace up. A ton of stuff happens and yet it’s all so low-energy. There’s no sense of wonder, no sense of how cool all of this is.

Because it is cool! Elba is a badass playing a dude who does gunplay like nobody’s business fighting an evil sorcerer in a post-apocalyptic wasteland for the fate of the universe against Lovecraftian evil. Yet The Dark Tower is either enamored with the much more ground-level story of Jake (thinking we need him as the audience surrogate) or completely disinterested in conveying the actual scale and scope of The Dark Tower story in front of it.

Of course, it doesn’t help that this film adaptation would hardly be equipped to do that. The fingerprints of too many hands are all over this film, cut to ribbons and overexplained within an inch of its life. Bad ADR and scenes spliced in make The Dark Tower a jarring experience to watch.

It’s also a surprisingly cheap looking movie. Action scenes are almost entirely staged in the dust or the dark, the monsters are in shadows or avoid the use of prosthetics, and there are roughly 5 locations, all shot very flat.

And a strong cast could have possibly saved this and should have considering who was on deck. Yet Idris Elba is pretty much the only one worth a damn, owing to his intense charisma, the kind of star performance that’s trying to keep things afloat.

Nobody else is given the time or the performance space to do anything. Performers like Jackie Earle Haley, Abbey Lee, and Kathryn Winnick basically pop in and disappear almost instantly. Anyone who isn’t them is giving a performance that I would suggest just not mentioning on their resume.

That includes Matthew McConaughey who is chewing the scenery in a way that is not fun enough to overcome how completely out of step he is with the rest of the movie. A few corny jokes aside, McConaughey is vamping in a way that just makes you feel kind of embarrassed for the Academy Award-winning actor. The Man in Black is an evil character with a goofy side, but McConaughey is more showboat than cackling. There’s also two moments that made me stifle long giggles in the theater (one where they find him cooking chicken, the other involves the use of the word “magicks”), which is not great for your big villain.

The Dark Tower is just an absolute swing and a miss. You see what could work here, but none of it does.

Grade: D

Sing is a slick and soulless product

It’s not you Sing, it’s me.

There is, on the face of it, nothing by necessity wrong with Sing as it exists. It is exactly as its creators intended it to be. A feature-length adaptation of that part at the end of every animated movie where all the characters break into a licensed pop song, this thing seems absolutely designed to be a holiday hit.

It’s got a cast of celebrities from all walks of life (Matthew McConaughey, Scarlett Johansson, Seth MacFarlane, Reese Witherspoon). It’s got a whole gaggle of popular songs (all coincidentally owned by Universal Music Group, the conglomerate that made this film). It’s got a script that’s not too offensive or challenging, seems designed for literally every person in the audience to get something out of, and just ultimately ends up being designed to become the perfect puff of ephemera. Leave the theater going “Oh, that was nice” and never think about it again.

Which is not necessarily something wrong with Sing. It is what it is, it’s a product, slick and manicured to be exactly what it’s supposed to be. If that’s what you need, then go for it. But talking about it feels less like talking about art and more like talking about a toaster. All its features work and are in the right place, but there’s nothing interesting there. It’s a thing you buy and shove away except the occasional times that you may end up needing it.

It’s my problem because I ultimately think we as an audience do deserve better than a film like this. Children specifically deserve better and they’ve been given better too. 2016 is full of films that grapple with more difficult things and films that challenge and reward kids while never losing a sense of wonder or fun. Wafting a bit of snake oil under their noses feels like a step backwards.

Snake oil is really what this is, you can see whatever you want in it. Look at the emotional arcs that make up this film, it seems like a lab took a cross section of what an average family might be feeling at any given time and made sure they had something in the movie for them.

Are you a father/son who just wants your son/father to know that you’re proud of him/you want to hear he’s proud of you for who you are? Then Johnny (Taron Egerton) and his father (Peter Serafinowicz) have a storyline for you.

Are you a sullen teenager who needs to find your own voice and went through hard romantic times? You’ll feel just like Ash (Scarlett Johansson)!

How about an underappreciated mother? That’s Rosita (Reese Witherspoon). Ooh, maybe you feel like your dreams aren’t working out? Then that’s architect of the whole singing competition that brings these characters together, Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey). Way too scared to live your dreams? There’s Meena (Tori Kelly). What about if you’re just an asshole? Then you’ve got Mike (Seth MacFarlane, slowly living his dream of becoming Frank Sinatra).

There’s nothing wrong with having any of those things, the problem is that the way the movie handles it is like throwing cooked spaghetti at the wall, you’re just trying to see if it sticks. There’s so much noise here, desperately and vainly hoping that any one of the things they’re doing is resonating with people in the audience. Sing is trying so hard to make sure that people like it that it forgets to dive in, it gives these storylines glances just to make sure you understand enough that it’ll have its necessary effect.

Sing is a pop crowd pleaser at its heart, working overtime to give itself to everyone. We’re not even getting into the musical sections yet, oriented as big show-stopper jukebox numbers, feeling like a series of animated musical videos over anything integrated. They essentially stop the narrative to watch a concert play out over familiar songs which especially holds true in the singing competition audition scene. This feels less like a look at a group of eclectic characters, but rather like flipping through the radio and finding nothing on you particularly want to listen to.

Also that scene put “Butterfly” back into the cultural aether so screw you Sing.

It’s also a crowd pleaser given its celebrity loaded cast. And like most celebrity loaded casts, it’s pretty much just about getting the name on the marquee. No one is doing anything particularly interesting, but hey, at least everyone’s got good singing voices. MacFarlane is no surprise doing his Sinatra thing, Johansson sounds good depending on what they have her doing (though pop-punk does her no favors), Kelly and Witherspoon are exactly as good as you would expect. It’s there to please and to recognize, not to actually do or use anything.

I just feel exhausted talking about this, honestly. There’s nothing here. It’s a shallow film in a year that had films of great depth doing everything this movie is trying to do. It’s working overtime marketing-wise and will succeed where far better movies have failed. It’s exactly what it’s marketing itself as and there are no surprises and nothing intriguing, but it’s loud and shiny and a lot of parents and well-meaning relatives will take their kids to it. Which should be no surprise coming out of Illumination, the creator of Minions, that yellow horrorspawn.

But this year, there’s been better. You want to see a family-friendly musical? Sing Street or La La Land. You want to see a great animated movie? Moana or Zootopia or Kubo and the Two Strings. You want a family movie? Pete’s Dragon or Hunt for the Wilderpeople! There’s so much that makes Sing unnecessary for those who actually care and for those who don’t you can still do better.

Sing is the ultimate “Just don’t think about it, enjoy it!” experience this year. Smoothly produced product that just wants basic reaction and nothing else, to give you exactly what you expect. But that is anathema to what film can and should be, being entertained ABSOLUTELY does not mean that you shouldn’t be challenged or hell, that you shouldn’t demand quality or surprise. Sing is boring and pointless, and there’s better out there in theaters and at home right now. Ask for more.

GRADE: N/A

The Sea of Trees is impressively incompetent

Like finding a ball gag in your dad’s nightstand, The Sea of Trees is the kind of movie that permanently alters your perception of everyone involved.

From director Gus van Sant to actors Matthew McConaughey and Ken Watanabe and Naomi Watts to distributor A24, there’s just a chain of people who should have taken one look at what’s going on with this movie and run miles in the other direction. I’m earnestly baffled and impressed that, with the pedigree on display here, not one single person ever seemed to try to make something redeemable out of it.

This isn’t some franchise picture that would likely be successful no matter what the critics thought or something that has enough of a built-in audience that it’ll be fine. This is ostensibly a prestige picture that lives or dies on being a love of tastemakers and a work of quality. But Sea of Trees is just such a fundamental, horrifying misfire on every level involved that it’s shocking that it ever saw the light of day.

The Sea of Trees is a tale of Arthur Brennan (Matthew McConaughey), a Physics adjunct in the midst of a deep depression after the death of his wife Joan (Naomi Watts). He goes to Japan to die in the Aokigahara Forest at the base of Mount Fuji. While beginning his suicide, he encounters Takumi Nakamura (Ken Watanabe), a Japanese man stumbling through the forest after his own attempt who has decided to live. Brennan helps Nakamaura out of the forest and on his way embarks on a journey of self-discovery as he relives the memories of his last days with his wife. Spoiler alert: They were not positive.

Let’s just go from the bottom up with this one. Start at the story level. Sea of Trees wants to be roughly three different movies. All in one, it’s a survival thriller, a disease weepy, and a relationship drama. Yet, remarkably, it can’t find a compelling version of any of those.

As a survival thriller, it doesn’t have a proper escalation nor a sense that their environment is dangerous. It’s a forest we’re told is cold and dangerous, yet there’s no sense that the danger is organic to the world, but rather the machinations of a screenwriter. There’s nothing compelling about it, nothing visceral on their danger. We’re just told it’s dangerous and bad things happen to our heroes because they’re kind of dumb.

As a disease weepy, it’s practically nothing. The disease is so deeply unspecified and there’s no mediation on the death, no idea of what it means. Death is a plot mechanism and not a particularly good one. The Sea of Trees meditates that death is sad and grief is hard, but in ways that feel like no one involved has experienced death. Also, the disease doesn’t ultimately matter, in a way that’s so badly telegraphed that it had me laughing when it happened.

As a relationship drama, man, who gives a fuck? This movie gives us the ending and all the stakes in advance and never gives us a reason to care about the two of them. Which is the point on Naomi Watts’ end, but Arthur Brennan seems to be a character that solely revolves around being filled out with McConaughey’s dramatic tendencies. I can’t remember a single identifiable trait or reason to care about his redemption in the movie. A relationship drama only works if there’s meaning to the relationship on the audience’s end. There’s not. Nothing. Zero.

Perhaps the worst of it though is when these things blend. That’s when The Sea of Trees becomes something truly awe-inspiring as a monolith of bad storytelling. These blend to build up to a twist that’s Nicholas-Sparksian in how cloying, manipulative, and just pointlessly bad it ultimately ends up being. The film telegraphs it so far in advance that it shouldn’t be surprising, but if you missed it, I don’t blame you. Paying attention to this film is a bit too much to ask of a reasonable moviegoer.

At least the filmmaking isn’t irredeemable. By which I mean it’s pretty. The setting is great and there are some fairly striking images of the forest our men inhabit. Not meaningful, but certainly striking.

Structurally however, this film is a nightmare. It runs over the same material again and again, retelling the meager few story points that it ultimately has. The flashbacks seem random, and also seem necessary to make much of what it’s trying to tell in the present day work, which means piecing them out holds back the weight rather than adds to it.

Let’s take one more shot while we’re at it. Holy shit is the score for this bad. I don’t often mention scores unless they’re exceptional, but this one is truly the pits. It’s cloying and overpowering, completely killing any atmosphere or delicacy that the movie could have had.

Much like the acting. The three at the center area all good actors, but every one of them seems to have nothing to do. Watanabe most criminally spends most of his time whimpering and moaning and saying cryptic things. McConaughey has no character and is largely just playing with his own tics and voice, when he’s not furrowing his brow and staring into the middle distance. He also gets like three really on-the-nose monologues, which may be the reason he decided to appear in this. Watts approaches the closest to fine, but it’s not good. She just has a angry, passive-aggressive character to play with, which can be fun.

Which leads us to A24. Why the fuck did they pick this one up? I get there are probably business reasons. But this is just bad. So bad. Unpleasant to watch and earning more derisive laughter than I’m ever comfortable admitting with a film. The Sea of Trees is just incompetent on a level no work with this pedigree should be. It’s something in the area of a student film pretending to be a prestige drama.

GRADE: F