Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Happy 100th Birthday To Jack Kirby!

Happy Belated Birthday to the one and only Jack Kirby, who would have been one hundred years young on 8/28. 

Kirby passed away back in 1994, but fortunately fir us his amazing body of work lives on. Kirby, together with writer Stan Lee, created most of the Marvel Comics Universe back in the 1960s. The two of them had an unusual working relationship, which they dubbed the "Marvel Method." First they'd briefly discuss a general idea for a plot. Kirby would go off and draw the whole thing, often adding new characters and ideas they'd never talked about. Then Lee would come in and write the dialogue over the art. It was an offbeat way of producing comics, but it worked! And how!

I've been a fan of Kirby's bold, stylized work ever since I was old enough to hold a comic book. He had the ability to infuse his drawings with action an energy, resulting in still images that almost looked like they were moving. 

His characters also stretched the boundaries of human anatomy to often ridiculous lengths. It's like he broke the rules and put them back together in a completely new and different way for his own purposes. Somehow it worked though, as his figures always conveyed an amazing sense of power and grace.

Oddly enough, Jack Kirby actually LOOKED many of the characters he drew! Or maybe it's the other way around.

Kirby's influence lives on in comics of course, and in film as well. There would be no Marvel Studios movies without Jack Kirby, as every frame is filled with his characters, designs and ideas. It's too bad he didn't live to see the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Happy 100th, Jack Kirby!

Monday, August 28, 2017

It Came From The Cineplex: The Dark Tower

The Dark Tower was written by Akiva Goldsman (oy!), Jeff Pinkner (double oy), Anders Thomas Jensen and Nikolaj Arcel. Yep, believe it or not, it took a whopping FOUR people to write this gem. It was directed by Nikolaj Arcel.

Goldsman is a prolific and VERY uneven screenwriter, who previously penned The Client, Batman Forever (!), A Time To Kill, Batman & Robin (!!), Lost In Space (!!!), A Beautiful Mind, I, Robot, Cinderella Man, The Da Vinci Code, I Am Legend, Angels & Demons, Winter's Tale, Insurgent and The 5th Wave. You read right— somehow the man responsible for the Oscar-winning A Beautiful Mind also wrote the execrable Batman & Robin! The world is a very strange and nonsensical place.

Pinkner has mostly worked in TV, writing episodes of Ally McBeal, Profiler, Alias, LOST and Fringe. He also co-wrote The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (the one with Electro) and The 5th Wave. Jensen is a Danish writer with fifty one credits to his name, not a single one of which I've ever heard of.

Arcel is a writer and director, who previously helmed King's Game (?), Island Of Lost Souls (??), Truth About Men (???) and A Royal Affair (????).

The film's VERY loosely based on Stephen King's The Gunslinger series of books.

It's a bland, dull and mediocre film that tries to cram eight books worth of world-building and mythology into its brief ninety five minute runtime. Little of what's happening is ever explained and none of the scenes are ever given proper time to breathe, as it races from one nonsensical setpiece to the next.

As a result of this breakneck pace, none of the various characters have any motivation, as they do the things they do simply because it says so in the script. For example, main baddie Walter wants to topple the titular Dark Tower, which will destroy the entire multiverse. But why? What's he plan to do after that? What's in it for him? Where's he gonna keep all his stuff once the universe is gone? Apparently it's none of our business, as the reasons for his villainy are never addressed.

The Dark Tower is a Sony film, which explains everything. Sony Pictures is the wonderful studio that pumps out hit after hit, year after year to universal critical accla... HAW, HAW, HAW! Sorry, I couldn't finish that sentence with a straight face. Sony's the absolute worst, as they consistently turn out flop after flop. Why, in just the past three years they've produced such wonderful films as:

The Monuments Men • Robocop (2014)
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 • 22 Jump Street • Think Like A Man Too
Sex Tape • The Equalizer • Fury • The Interview • Chappie
Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 • Aloha • Pixels • Ricki and the Flash 
Hotel Transylvania 2 • The Walk • Goosebumps • Freaks of Nature 
Spectre • The Night Before • The 5th Wave • The Brothers Grimsby
Money Monster • Angry Birds • The Shallows • Ghostbusters 2016
Sausage Party • The Magnificent Seven • Inferno • Passengers
Resident Evil: The Final Chapter • Underworld: Blood Wars
Life • Smurfs: The Lost Village • Rough Night

With the exception of Spider-Man: Homecoming (which they made with the help of Marvel Studios) and Baby Driver, this year was another grim one for Sony. Seeing them desperately try to come up with a hit is like watching a train wreck in slow motion. Virtually every decision they make as a corporation is wrong. How the hell do Anthony Vinciquerra and Tom Rothman keep their jobs?

An example of some of Sony's brilliant thinking: Ever since the success of the Harry Potter and Hunger Games films, studios have been scouring bookstores, desperately searching for series they can turn into lucrative movie franchises. Stephen King's The Gunslinger Saga consists of a whopping EIGHT books, just waiting for some savvy filmmaker to come along and adapt them.

Yet for some unfathomable reason, Sony chose to ignore all that and make ONE short film that bears little or no resemblance to the source material. What the hell? Why wouldn't they hire a top notch writer and director and simply film all eight books? It's like a license to print money! Yes, yes, I've read the articles that claimed the books are "unfilmable." But that's what they used to say about The Lord Of The Rings, and look how that turned out. With the right talent, nothing's impossible. Jesus Christ, is it any wonder Sony's film division is bleeding cash?

The Dark Tower has been in Development Hell as far back as 2007, when the "dream team" of JJ Abrams, Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof (shudder) were attached to the project. Fresh off the success of LOST, they were thought to be the perfect candidates to translate the book to the screen. Abrams and the others eventually bowed out, as they were unwilling to take on another lengthy project while still working on LOST.

After that Ron Howard was set to direct an adaptation which would alternate between theatrical films and TV series, which sounds needlessly complicated. Unfortunately Universal Studios got cold feet, slashing the budget before scrapping the project altogether.

Sony then picked up the project, scheduling it for a January 2017 release, with Nikolaj Arcel attached to direct, and Ron Howard staying on as producer. Sony then pushed the film back to February. As we all know, any time a movie is pushed back for any reason, it's ALWAYS a bad, bad sign. Sure enough, poor test screenings caused Sony to contemplate replacing Arcel with "a more experienced filmmaker," until Howard talked them out of it for some reason.

Sony then spent a whopping $6 million on reshoots to refine the confusing story and flesh out Idris Elba's Roland character. The movie was then pushed back to July 28, 2017, and finally to August 4. Oy. I hope all that was worth it, Sony!

The fact that The Dark Tower is a dud should come as no surprise to anyone, as the red flags were there months before the film premiered. The mild PG-13 rating angered and upset fans of the books who thought it warranted an R. The film's slim $60 million budget meant the filmmakers wouldn't be able to properly realize King's intricately described alien vistas. And the short runtime meant there was no way the nuances of the story could ever be properly adapted.

In the end, The Dark Tower doesn't seem to be a film for anyone. Fans of the books will be put off by how much is left out, while newbies will be completely lost by the truncated mythology and dimension-hopping. It's a movie without a country, so to speak.

Oddly enough this isn't even a proper adaptation of the book series, but is actually a SEQUEL to it. How can that be, you ask? How can you make a sequel before you make the original? WARNING! SPOILERS FOR THE BOOKS AHEAD! The way I understand it, the Gunslinger character spends the whole series searching for the Dark Tower. He finally finds it in the final book, only to discover he's been there many times before. He's cursed to play out the same quest over and over for eternity as some sort of cosmic punishment. Apparently this film is not an adaptation of the books, but instead represents the next cycle in the Gunslinger's never-ending quest to destroy the Tower, and explains how Sony can make a sequel before it films the original. Ugh. I can't imagine a more unsatisfactory scenario.

For the record, I know little or nothing about The Gunslinger series. I tried to read the first book many years ago, but just couldn't get into it and gave up after fifty pages. I've been told by many people that this is common, as the first book is a hard read, but "once you get past that, it gets really good!" Thanks, but I read books for pleasure, not pain. I don't want to have to slog through one I don't like just to get to the "good stuff."

Anyway, because I'm not steeped in all the mythology, I didn't despise the movie. I didn't like it by any means, but I couldn't summon up the conviction to actually hate it. It honestly made me feel nothing one way or the other. It feels like there are things going on just under the surface, that the film doesn't care to share with the audience. I have a feeling if I was a fan of the books this film would have made my head explode.

Supposedly producer Ron Howard has plans to turn The Gunslinger books into a TV series that's connected to this film. Yeah, that's never gonna happen. At least not for several years, until the stench of this film has faded from the public's mind.

The Dark Tower had a VERY modest budget of just $60 million, which is surprising in these days of $200 million blockbusters. So far it's only managed to gross an anemic $44 million here in the States, and $43 million overseas, for a total of $88 million. As you're tired of hearing me say, due to marketing and other hidden costs, movies need to gross around twice their production budgets just to break even. It seems extremely unlikely The Dark Tower will ever reach the $120 million amount, much less surpass it. Chalk it up as yet another disappointment for Sony.


The Plot:
A helpful caption gives us a brief rundown on the Dark Tower. Apparently the Tower exists in the center of the multiverse, and somehow protects all the various parallel Earths from ravenous CGI monsters. If the Tower ever falls, all universes (universi?) will be doomed.

On End-World (I think that's what it's called— honestly, it doesn't matter), a group of children frolic in slow motion in an idyllic playground. Suddenly a harsh klaxon sounds, and the kids line up and file into a large, bucket-shaped building. Inside, strange creatures (known as the Low Men, although I don't think the movie ever calls them that) wearing human masks pick one of the children and strap her into a chair. They fit an apparatus to her head, which drains her brain power or life essence or something. The Man In Black, aka Johnny Cash, er, I mean Walter O'Dim (played by Matthew McConaughey) looks on. The child's energy is then catapulted into the air, where it sails across the sky and slams into the side of the Dark Tower (!). Fortunately for us, it doesn't destroy it.

Cut to our world, which for some reason is called Keystone Earth. We're introduced to Jake Chambers, an eleven year old boy who lives in New York City. Jake has vivid nightmares about the Dark Tower, the Man In Black and a mysterious Gunslinger who opposes him. Jake draws his visions and plasters his room with them, much to the concern of his mother, who's afraid he's been traumatized by the recent death of his father.

When Jake gets into a fight at school, his principal contacts his mother, suggesting she send him to an upstate psychiatric hospital. When the hospital officials arrive at his apartment, Jake recognizes them as Low Men, and sneaks out.

With nowhere else to go, Jake tracks down a mysterious abandoned house he saw in one of his dreams. Inside he accidentally activates a machine (complete with old school dial-up modem sound effects!) that opens a portal to another dimension. He's then attacked by a "house demon," and runs through the portal to escape it. He emerges in the barren landscape of Mid-World, as the portal closes behind him. Jakes looks up and sees several large planets hanging in the sky, in a shot designed to show even the dimmest audience member that this is another planet.

Jake  wanders the desert landscape, slowly dying of thirst, until he encounters Roland Deschain, the Last Gunslinger (played by Idris Elba). Jake recognizes Roland from his visions, and asks to tag along. Roland has near supernatural skill with his guns, and can kill virtually anything. He's seeking revenge against the Man In Black, who killed his father Steven (played in a flashback by Dennis Haysbert, the Allstate commercial guy).

As the two travel through the wasteland, Roland infodumps the story of the Man In Black and the Dark Tower to Jake. He takes him to a village, where a Seer senses that Jake has the Shine, aka psychic powers. Right on cue, Walter detects Jake's psychic energy, realizing it's powerful enough to topple the Tower for good. He travels to Keystone Earth, determined to find Jake. He kills Jake's stepfather, then interrogates his mother before killing her as well. He admires Jake's drawings, and somehow figures out that he went to Mid-World. He sends his minions (called the Taheen) to Mid-World to capture Jake.

Meanwhile in the village, the Seer tells Roland where to find Walter's secret base in New York on Keystone Earth. Before they can go, the Taheen arrive, attack the villagers and capture Jake. Roland easily shoots 'em all dead. He and Jake then use a portal to travel to New York, in a desperate attempt to give the movie's budget a break.

There's suddenly lots of "hilarious" fish out of water humor, as Roland is amazed by the sights and sounds of New York. Jake returns to his apartment (which seems like a bad idea, as it's probably the first place the Man In Black would look for him) and finds the bodies of his parents. Roland comforts Jake, and vows to avenge them. He teaches Jake the Gunslinger's Creed ("I shoot with my heart, not with my hand" or some such nonsense) and shows Jake how to fire a gun.

Jake takes Roland to an gun shop, where he "comically" robs the owner and stocks up on ammo. Just then Walter shows up and captures Jake. He drags Jake back to his HQ in New York, and uses a portal to take him to End-World.

Walter watches breathlessly while his minions hook Jake up to his Tower-destroying machine. Back on Keystone Earth, Roland battles Walter's henchmen. Jake sends a psychic signal to Roland, telling him where he is. Roland's about to travel to End-World, when Walter comes through the portal and confronts him. They have an epic (sort of) battle, as Roland fires shot after shot at Walter, who easily catches or deflects each one. Finally Roland uses a trick shot to ricochet a bullet off a wall, which strikes Walter in the head, killing him instantly. That was easy! A little too easy, if you ask me!

Roland enters the portal to End-World, frees Jake and destroys Walter's machine. Hooray, the Dark Tower is saved! Roland tells Jake that he can't stay on Keystone Earth (although why is apparently none of our business). He points out that Jake has no reason to stay either, and invites him to join him on further film adventures that'll never happen. They both enter the portal to Mid-World.

• Honestly there's not much to say about this cinematic turd, so this'll be mercifully brief.

• Months before the movie premiered, the internet went crazy over the news that English actor Idris Elba had been cast as Roland The Gunslinger (despite the fact that Stephen King said he based the character on Clint Eastwood). Social Justice Warriors praised this progressive, colorblind casting.

Annnnnnd then Elba was immediately demoted to second fiddle status, as the filmmakers inexplicably chose to shift the movie's focus onto the Jake character. So much for diversity! Who needs a strong black actor as your lead, when you can cast an unknown child?

I assume they made this change so they could use Jake as an expository device. Once he enters Mid-World he has no idea what's going on and asks a ton of questions. Roland then explains what's happening to Jake, and by extension, the audience. It's a cheap trick used a lot by hack screenwriters.

• Javier Bardem, Viggo Mortensen, Russell Crowe and Liam Neeson were all considered for the role of Roland The Gunslinger. Eh, honestly I don't think it mattered who played him. Movie Roland bears so little resemblance to the book version that they could have cast Danny DeVito and it wouldn't have made any difference.

Personally I wasn't happy with either of the film's leads, as I felt they were both severely miscast. Idris Elba looked suitably heroic, but I thought he was too stern and humorless to be likable. He'd have made a much more suitable villain, in my opinion. On the other hand, Matthew McConaughey as The Man In Black was a bit too easy going to be the literal embodiment of evil. I think it would have worked out much better if Elba and McConaughey had swapped roles.

• The Dark Tower had a budget of just $60 million, and it shows! Everything looks cheap and uninspired, like it's an episode of a TV series. Heck, Game Of Thrones has better production values than this thing.

A good part of this cost-cutting was accomplished by having a large hunk of the story take place on Earth. The filmmakers would have to create every single aspect of Mid-World. If the characters come to New York, then the film crew doesn't have to build anything!

• Jake suffers from terrifying visions of the Dark Tower and The Man In Black. To cope with this he draws the things he sees in his nightmares.

He's quite an artist for a kid, with a very eclectic style. In fact it almost looks like his drawings were done by several different production artists working on a film crew, who all had different levels of talent. But that's impossible, right?

• At one point Roland takes Jake to a village, where he's examined by a mystic Seer. Shortly afterward the Taheen invade the village and kill the Seer. Hmm... she must not have been much of a psychic if she didn't see her own death coming.

• So Walter's a sorcerer who possesses terrifying supernatural powers. In fact he can even kill just by telling people to "stop breathing." And yet this ultra powerful demon is killed by a simple bullet to the head. Really, that's it? That's all it takes to kill what is basically the Devil incarnate? Talk about anti-climactic!

• An early poster for the film showed Roland with his trademark guns, which were glowing with a cool blue light. Unfortunately there's no gun glow in the actual movie. They're just plain old six shooters, forged from Excalibur or something.

So what happened? Why'd the director change his mind about the glowing guns?

This is just my theory, so it could be completely wrong, but I think they changed it because of Legends Of Tomorrow. Over on that show, former Time Master Rip Hunter wears a full length duster much like Roland's, and his weapon of choice is a futuristic six shooter that fires blue energy bolts!

I'm betting the filmmakers planned for Roland's guns to glow blue until someone on the crew flipped on The CW, saw Legends Of Tomorrow, said, "Son of a bitch!" and changed their minds.

Almost all of Stephen King's novels and short stories take place in various realities that are linked together by The Dark Tower series. For example, Randall Flagg, the evil antagonist of King's The Stand, is supposedly an aspect of Walter O'Dim.

Of course at just ninety five minutes, the movie has no time to adequately dive into any of these connections. Instead it packs the screen with tons of references, shout-outs and Easter eggs. Most of these will sail far, far over the head of the average viewer, while likely infuriating fans of the books.

Ultimately these references are completely meaningless, as they have absolutely nothing to do with the plot. The movie's basically shouting, "Hey, remember this?" over and over. Even worse, these constant references will likely infuriate fans of the books, as they shake their heads and realize what could have been.

Anyway, here are a few of the King connections in The Dark Tower. There may be even more, but I honestly don't care.

At one point Jake visits his psychiatrist, to discuss his visions. We get a very conspicuous shot of the doctor's desk, which contains a framed photo of the Overlook Hotel, which was the setting of 1980s The Shining.

Note to would-be directors— it's never a good idea to remind the audience of a better movie while they're watching yours.

Also, the Seer tells Jake that he has "The Shine," aka psychic powers. That's exactly what Dick Halloran called Danny Torrance's supernatural ability in The Shining. This is a movie-only connection though, as in The Dark Tower books psychic powers are called "The Touch."

Early in the film there's a scene in which Jake plays with a red toy car. This is obviously a reference to Christine, the evil 1958 Plymouth Fury from the book and movie of the same name.

While wandering through Mid-World, Jake finds an abandoned theme park called "Pennywise." That's of course the name of the evil clown in King's It.

Roland enters Jake's room on Keystone Earth, and sees a message— complete with smiley face— from Walter. Supposedly this is a reference to King's 2014 novel Mr. Mercedes.

Over on End-World, Walter has a copy of Misery's Child. It was written by Paul Sheldon, the novelist hero of King's Misery.

When Jake discovers the portal, the numbers "1408" are scribbled above it. That's a reference to 2007's 1408 (starring John Cusack), which was based on King's short story of the same name.

On Keystone Earth, Roland takes a long hard look at a poster of actress Rita Hayworth, which is of course a shoutout to King's The Shawshank Redemption.

Also on Keystone Earth, Roland stops near a store sign that reads "Barlow and Straker." They were "partners" who ran an antiques store in King's vampire novel 'Salem's Lot.

There's also a very quick shot of a woman walking a St. Bernard on Keystone Earth. That's gotta be a reference to King's Cujo. There's no other reason for it to appear!

I don't have a photo of it, but after the Taheen invade the village, Jake hides out in a cornfield. This is likely a nod to King's Children Of The Corn.

As I said, this is all meaningless window-dressing, added in a desperate attempt to make the film look like a proper adaptation of the books.

The Dark Tower is a bland and mediocre film that's VERY loosely based on Stephen King's eight book series. It fails in every measurable sense though, as newcomers will have little or no idea what's going on, and fans of the novels will be infuriated by how much was left out. Skip it and read the books instead. As someone who's not read the books, I give it a well-deserved C-. If I were a fan of the books I'd probably give it a D!

Buzz Off!

Walked into my kitchen a couple days ago and found one of these things lying dead on the floor (the bug, not the Tic Tacs). It's a cicada killer!

They're a type of wasp that's common in the eastern half of the country. Unlike typical wasps which are social and build giant communal nests above ground, cicada killers are solitary and dig underground burrows.

Once a female digs its nest, it then cruises around looking for cicadas. When they find one they paralyze it with their stinger, then carry it through the air and drag it into their nest. They then lay an egg on top of the cicada, which hatches in just a couple of days. This larva feeds on the paralyzed cicada, much like the chest bursters in the ALIEN movie! Jesus, sometimes nature is horrifying!

The larva then mature in about two weeks, and enter a cocoon stage. They remain in that state until the next summer, when a fully mature cicada killer emerges from the cocoon, exits the underground nest and the whole cycle starts all over again.

My backyard has been lousy with cicada killers for the past month or so. Fortunately, despite their large size and terrifying appearance, they're virtually harmless (unless you're a cicada). Only the females have stingers, and they won't use it to attack unless they're stepped on or you try to grab one. I've walked through big buzzing swarms of them in my yard and they all completely ignored me.

A lot of people try to rid their yards of 'em, but personally I think it's best to just leave them be. They're actually somewhat beneficial, as they kill cicadas which can seriously injure your trees. Yeah, they do dig holes in your yard, but I don't think it's that big a deal. The holes are small, maybe a bit wider than a pencil, and the dirt they displace is about the size of an anthill. They only live for about two months, so they're a short-lived nuisance. Personally I think it's kind of cool to see a huge, scary-looking wasp that's not actively trying to kill me.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Eclipse Day 2017!

Hope everyone had a lovely Eclipse Day yesterday!

We ended up having a little impromptu Eclipse Party at work. It started here around noon, which worked out perfectly as that was everyone's lunchtime. I walked out to the lake behind our building, thinking I'd be the only one out there, but I was surprised to see about ten or twelve people already there. By the time totality hit at 1:24 PM, there were probably fifty or sixty people staring up at the sky. A few of the managers even came out to gawk as well. Eh, what the heck? It only happens every twenty eight years or so!

My home town of Evansville was in the path of 99% totality. I thought for sure that'd be enough to snuff out the light altogether, but apparently not. It got kind of twilight-ish, but it never actually got completely dark, which was kind of disappointing. Shows how powerful the sun is, though— even 1% of it is enough to light the world! I guess if I want to see darkness, I need to be in the 100% totality path. Lesson learned.

Even though it didn't get completely dark, it was still a pretty cool experience. It was like it was evening, but the sun was somehow still overhead, which looked just plain wrong. It got dark enough that the parking lot lights came on! And the thrice-damned cicadas started chirping. And the temperature actually dropped! It was a very miserable and muggy 97ยบ before the eclipse started, but it was actually quite comfortable during totality!

A thought occurred to me while watching the eclipse (and yes, I had the special glasses on). All my life I've heard tales of how ancient civilization would freak out during eclipses, fearing the sun was going out or being eaten by a giant demon. I wonder how much of that is actually true, and how much is myth?

Most ancient people had a pretty good understanding of the sky— far more than the average citizen does today! They kind of had to, as they kept track of the planets and stars to determine when to plant their crops, when the rainy season started and so on. They probably understood that every now and then the moon would cover up the sun for a spell.

Even if they were ignorant of eclipses, they don't last all that long. Four minutes, tops. That doesn't really seem like enough time for an entire ancient civilization to freak out. Seems like people would think, "Hey, what's going on? It's noon and getting dark already? OH MY GOD, IT CAN ONLY MEAN A GIANT SKY SNAKE IS DEVOURING THE SU... OK, it's back. Get back to work, everyone!"

Lastly, I'll leave you with this. For months before Eclipse Day, the media warned everyone ad infinitum that staring at the sun is a bad thing that can cause irreparable eye damage, and to only view it through specially approved glasses.

So of course this happened at the White House yesterday...

And this.

And even this.

I... I just don't know anymore.

In the interest of fairness, this also happened a bit later. But Jesus Jetskiing Christ...

It Depends

So I'm typing an email on Yahoo this morning, glance over at the right side of the screen and see this ad:

Jesus Christ, Yahoo! What the hell are you trying to say? I'm not old enough to need this. Yet. Not even for two dollars off.

Welp, that's it for today. I'm going home and spending the rest of the day sitting on the edge of my bed, staring at the floor.
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