Home Video Round-Up: 10/11/2017 (Halloween Edition)

A Cure for Wellness (9/25/2017)

A Cure for Wellness was Gore Verbinski’s “one for me” after making four a whole lot of commercial Johnny Depp movies and was his long awaited return to horror after making his great remake of The Ring back in 2002.  It seemed like this really bold and original idea… so what went wrong?  Well before we get to that let’s consider what went right.  The film is in many ways feels like a slick attempt at making a modern Dario Argento film with its visual focus and a dreamy atmosphere but instead of focusing on gore it focuses on trying to find some fairly original horror imagery.  The basic production values here are really strong: Bojan Bazelli’s cinematography looks really sharp and the art department does a great job of making the Swiss spa that the film is set in look really cool.  The basic ideas that the film was built around were strong, unfortunately it had to be saddled with a rather meandering screenplay that never really kicks into gear.  The villains’ evil scheme really doesn’t make very much sense if you hold it up to even a little bit of scrutiny (Why are they keeping Dane DeHaan around? Why are they choosing as their victims rich and powerful people who will be missed?) and the protagonist doesn’t prove to be as interesting as the movie thinks he is.  I kept hoping for a twist that would make all of this seem worth it, but one never really came.  There is also the little fact that the movie bears a fairly strong resemblance to Scorsese’s recent film Shutter Island.  The two movies have their differences and Scorsese’s movie has its problems too, but the similarities that are there are just a little too big to ignore.  Having said all that I do still kind of like this thing, or at least I can’t dismiss it.  The atmosphere and visuals go a long way and even when it starts getting downright silly towards the end I was still largely entertained, especially when compared to other horror movies that don’t try nearly as hard.

***1/2 out of Five

The Belko Experiment (9/30/2017)

The Belko Experiment is less of a true horror movie and more of an exercise in violence mixed with what are at least attempts at a satire of office culture.  The movie it most closely resembles (to the point of basically being a ripoff) is the Japanese film Battle Royale in which a group of school children are dumped onto an island and forced to fight to the death for what are basically unknown reasons, and the usual tensions of grade school life are played out in rather extreme form in their fights.  Here we are instead focusing on office workers who are trapped in their building and told over an intercom that if they don’t begin killing each other they’ll all be killed by small bombs that have been implanted in their heads.  What follows is a movie where people who essentially like each other are forced to murder each other in fairly brutal fashion.  The derivativeness and general sadism of this idea probably made it unlikely to succeed no matter what anyone did, but there were additional mistakes it also makes along the way.  I feel like I would have liked the movie better if it had stuck to its guns and populated this office who were more or less average joes, but instead the movie take a pretty deliberate step to add a clique of “bad guys” and since everyone’s essentially being forced to be bad in this contrived situation the film needs to make them really just cartoonishly awful people, which kind of robs the movie of any nuance potential it might have had.  That and some routine bad performances and just a general lack of suspense make this a pretty nasty piece of work without a lot to redeem it outside of its decent pacing and occasional witty moments.

*1/2 out of Five

Colossal (10/5/2017)

Colossal is a unique little movie about a woman who is something of a functioning alcoholic and who is close to hitting rock bottom after she loses a job and gets kicked out of her apartment by her boyfriend and returns to her home town after years away.  Things start to get weird, however, when a giant Godzilla-like monster suddenly begins attacking Seoul, South Korea during her blackouts and she begins to have legitimate reason to believe there’s some connection between her behavior and the monster attacks.  I certainly give the film points for originality, I certainly wouldn’t have been able to come up with a way to combine a Sundancey indie movie with a damn Kaiju movie, but somehow it happened and the combo works better than you’d think for the most part and some of the monster effects are actually pretty impressive for a lot budget movie like this.  The problem is that, while the movie works as a metaphor, it kind of gets a bit ridiculous if you are just watching it as a regular narrative.  The film is meant to show a rather extreme example of how self-destructive behavior can actually be pretty destructive to other people as well and to show the danger in enabling such behavior.  That fits for the most part, but it also sets up the consequences for this kind stuff to be so extreme that it becomes hard to believe that anyone would continue to be as much of an unrelenting jerk as Jason Sudeikis becomes at the end of the film.  In some ways I kind of wish they’d made this thing as a short film or as an episode of an anthology TV series or something because I’m not sure there was enough material in the idea as a feature film warrants, but when the film is working it works quite well.

**1/2 out of Five

Raw (10/10/2017)

The influence of Roman Polanski on the horror genre is becoming more and more clear to me as I see more and more psychological freak-out movies in which the viewer follows a character as he or she slowly goes insane.  The new franco-Belgian film Raw is also one of these movies, but it also has elements from Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon and Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day.  The film concerns a freshman student who is starting out at a truly out of control veterinary school that puts her through some absolutely wild hazing rituals, one of which involved eating a raw rabbit kidney, which really sets something off in the mind of this former vegetarian and sends her off in some rather murderous directions.  The film is plainly a metaphor which takes the anxieties that students feel when suddenly on their own and surrounded with various pressures to conform to the sometimes wild things that the people around them are doing and tells it from the perspective of someone who maybe can’t handle those things as well as the others.  Not the most insightful metaphor but one that certainly leads to some memorable moments like a very awkward scene about half way through the film involving Brazilian waxes, a pair of scissors, and cannibalism.  I’m not sure that it ultimately adds up to something profound and I also wasn’t a fan of the film’s ending, which offered something of a pat explanation for what came before, but there’s no doubt that it’s an interesting little horror film for the adventurous viewer.

*** out of Five

The Mummy (10/11/2017)

In response to negative criticism director Alex Kurtzman famously said “we didn’t make this movie for critics, we made it for the fans.”  The “fans” of what, exactly?  This is a movie that actually has less in common with the 1932 Boris Karloff movie than the 1999 remake with Brendan Frasier did and given that Universal’s “Dark World” doesn’t have any fans yet on account of this being its first entry and no one seems to have liked it.  The movie actually has more in common with the Hammer version of The Mummy than anything, but its relation to past movies isn’t really the problem here so much as its own failure to know what it wants to be.  It feels like there are about three different movies in this thing competing with each other: there’s the dark semi-horror movie that wants to mix Egyptian adventure with gothic imagery, there’s the jokey action movie starring Tom Cruise, and there’s the 21st century franchise/superhero movie.  That middle one is probably the biggest problem: Tom Cruise makes zero sense as the star of this thing and it feels like they adjusted the movie a lot in order to fit in with what people expect from Tom Cruise action movies and add in some really strange attempts at humor (including an element which is a blatant ripoff of An American Werewolf in London) that feel like they were added in at the last minute in response to a studio note.  The franchise stuff setting up a shared universe is also a problem of course, I can maybe envision a version of this where that stuff works better but it still seems like a mistake to have even tried to do that.  Hollywood, take a closer look at Marvel before you try to rip them off, you’ll note that they focused on just making good movies and kept that shit contained in the post credits sequences until they knew people were hooked and on board.  The Mummy does have its moments here and there, I don’t think it’s quite the disaster that its 16% Rotten Tomatoes score suggests, but it is a mess and a missed opportunity.

** out of Five


Battle of the Sexes(9/30/2017)

I’m not exactly sure why it is that Tennis is the one sport where people seem to be genuinely just as interested in the female competitions as the male competitions, outside of certain Olympic events anyway.  The WNBA has a small fraction of the viewership of the NBA for example but at least there is a WNBA, I don’t even know if there’s a comparable league for female baseball players or hockey players and I don’t even know of any female football teams even at the collegiate and high school levels.  There’s some interest in female soccer in America, largely as a product of the U.S. female soccer team being noticeable better than the men’s team, but that also sort of seems to be a product of the European and Latin American markets that actually love soccer not really caring enough to build up competition for them.  As for other individual sports I know there are some female boxers and female MMA fighters, but again, they don’t seem nearly as popular as their male counterparts.  Clearly there must be something about tennis that leads to equal coverage, maybe it’s that it’s such a finesse sport that the difference in strength just isn’t apparent on TV… but then you’d think that female golfers would have more of a platform.  Maybe it’s just a matter of female tennis players having gotten a useful platform from early on in the sport’s history.  They play in the same Grand Slam tournaments at the same time as the men and tend to get coverage at the same time.  Whatever it was it was something unique and the new film, Battle of the Sexes is about (among other things) a moment where a major star in women’s tennis stood up to defend that one shard of relative gender equality in sports and managed to make a statement about gender equality in the rest of society as well.

Set in the early 70s, the film follows tennis great Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), who is already more or less at the peak of her career at this point and has just won a major tournament which has netted her a hundred thousand dollar check.  News of this gets to Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell), a 55 year old man who was a tennis champion in the 1940 and was old enough to actually have his career interrupted by World War II.  At this point in life he’s playing on the senior circuit and is having marital problems caused in no small part because of his compulsive gambling.  Jealous that King is able to get those kind of paychecks he starts to get it into his head that even in his advanced age he could still beat her and feels like he deserves to still be making that kind of money because of it.  He approaches her with the idea of doing a “battle of the sexes” exhibition match but King has a million other things on her plate at that time.  She’s in the middle of a boycott of the main tennis authority because their director Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) is refusing to offer them equal prize money with the men, and she’s also in the process of beginning an affair with a hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), unbeknownst to her future ex-husband (Austin Stowell).  However, when Riggs manages to win a similar exhibition match against the other female tennis great of the era, Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) King decides that enough’s enough and accepts Riggs’ challenge.

Battle of the Sexes was directed by the husband and wife pair of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who are probably still best known for having made the 2006 film Little Miss Sunshine and that gives you a pretty good idea of the kind of filmmaking you’re in store for with the film.  This is a pretty safe and pretty straightforward telling of this period of Billie Jean King’s life.  I’m sure some of the standard issue creative liberties have been taken (I think some of the events are compressed into a shorter period of time) but otherwise the film does not take too many risks in its format and aims.  Emma Stone does some of the best work of her career as King and does a good job of changing herself into this butch athlete and capturing the uncompromising but at times playful aura that King needed to take on through this whole episode.  Steve Carrell perhaps unsurprisingly emphasizes a lot of the over the top and comical elements Bobby Riggs’ persona and doesn’t need to go too far outside of his usual wheelhouse to do it.  The movie is a bit on the fence about how much of a sexist Riggs really was; on one hand it’s very clear that his main motivation for making this happen was money and that some of his “male chauvinist” bluster was not too far removed from the antics of a bad guy professional wrestler taking a heel turn.  On the other hand, some of his resentment does seem legitimate.  He sees himself as being equally talented to King (and given his performance against Court that might not have been completely irrational) and felt that because of this he was deserving of an equal amount of money and attention despite not being in the same league as younger male players anymore.

Ultimately I don’t think it matters too much what Riggs’ true motivation was because at the end of the day he was probably doing a lot of harm.  His trolling plainly brought out the worst in a lot of people (the number of people who showed up to the big match carrying signs like “Team Male Chauvenist” is kind of disturbing) and he also may well have done some real damage to the entirety of women’s tennis if he had actually won his big match against King.  At a certain point it doesn’t matter if you’re doing it for greed, lulz, or genuine hate, the end result is still shitty and saying “I didn’t really mean what I said” just isn’t a good excuse.  That little observation is mostly something I’m bringing to the movie as the film itself is not overly hard on Riggs and instead largely just dismisses him as a clown rather than a truly insidious figure when compared to the real institutional sexism represented by Jack Kramer.  That would be easier to roll with if not for the fact that this country recently went through another battle of the sexes of sorts in which a vulgar self-promoting asshole challenged an over-qualified female to a contest of sorts in a cynical attempt to regain relevance in his old age, and unlike this event the heroine didn’t vanquish the unrepentant chauvinist.  Clearly this movie was already well into production before the final results of the 2016 election were known and had sanity prevailed during that contest I suspect that seeing the feminist kick the chauvinist’s ass would have had a lot more resonance, but the actual election results really just make the film’s “and then everything got better” ending ring kind of false despite obviously being historically accurate.

Battle of the Sexes is the kind of movie that won’t really leave you with many concrete complaints.  The performances are all solid, the look is appropriate, it gets exciting when it needs to, it’s hard to really place your finger on a single element that you want to change really and yet it also leaves you wanting more.  The movie takes a pretty safe approach that guarantees it will be warmly received by most audiences but never really rises too much above the level of average.  Then again maybe that’s the right approach for this particular story.  This was after all a silly exhibition tennis match whose ultimate effect was largely symbolic.  Hyping it up further might not have worked and taking a more overtly satirical approach might have cheapened it a bit too much.  Maybe the light prestige approach was perfectly suited to the story but I consequently my personal response to it was a bit muted.

Home Video Round-Up: 9/22/2017

Song to Song (8/13/2017)

Terry, buddy, you really need to check yourself before you wreck yourself.  I’m about as big a fan of Terrence Malick’s early films as you get and I even defended him through To the Wonder but his last movie Knight of Cups lost me in a big way and while I like this follow up a little bit more I still think the path he’s been going down is proving to be a stylistic dead end.  I think part of the problem with these last two films may simply be that making movies about the idle rich brings out the worst in him.  Seeing these people float through the life of luxury has the effect of making his usual style look less like poetry and more like a perfume commercial.  The film is a bit more structurally understandable and coherent than Knight of Cups, which does make it a bit more enjoyable to watch, and it does also have all the usual beautiful photography and imagery you’d expect from a Terrence Malick film.  Eventually film historians are going to have to reckon with this era of Malick’s filmography and I suspect that these movies are going to have their defenders.  I’m not completely closed off to the idea that there isn’t something to these last two films I’m missing, but one first viewing they really just seem like these aimless if pretty montages that were cobbled together in editing rooms.

**1/2 out of Five

Free Fire (8/19/2017)

Free Fire has been described as a movie long shootout, which is both true and kind of misleading.  The film is about a group of criminals in the 70s who meet up at a rundown warehouse for a weapons deal but things go south and people start shooting.  The rest of the movie does involve a lot of shooting but it doesn’t necessarily play out like a frantic action scene.  Characters quickly take cover at various points of the building and start taking shots at each other a few at a time and occasionally yell at each other.  It’s sort of like if Reservoir Dogs dispensed with the flashbacks and most of the talking and went straight to the Mexican standoff and had the shooting go on for a hell of a lot longer.  It’s not a terrible idea but I can’t say that the various characters really grabbed me and some of them (looking at you chronic over-actor Sharlto Copley) are downright annoying and when bodies start hitting the floor it never quite had the impact it was supposed to.  Also, the sheer amount of endurance a lot of these guys have seems a bit ridiculous and at times it was hard to even tell which of these mutton chopped 70s guys was on which side.  I still think Ben Wheatley is an interesting filmmaker but each movie he’s put out since Kill List has kind of been a letdown in some way or another and I hope he can turn things around soon.

**1/2 out of Five

Ghost in the Shell (8/27/2017)

It’s been quite a while since I’ve seen the original anime version of Ghost in the Shell and I actually remember not being a big fan of it (Akira is my sci-fi anime of choice, thank you).  To my eyes, this live action version in many ways plays to both the original film’s strengths and weaknesses.  Most notably, the film does a pretty good job of translating the anime’s visuals to live action in some interesting ways and the action scenes mostly work.  Oh the other hand this remains a fairly cold and humorless narrative with themes that somehow seem both on the nose and rather muddled.  The anime remains the superior product both because it did it first and because it’s a bit tighter and just comes off a bit more naturally in that format, but this isn’t necessarily the hatchet job that some people will make it out to be.  Ultimately I kind of wish they’d just used all the effort they put into creating this elaborate science fiction world and put it towards creating a different, better, and more original story.

**1/2 out of Five

The Fate of the Furious (9/17/2017)

There was a certain sense of finality in the way that the last Fast and Furious movie, Furious 7, ended.  Brian was leaving the crew, and events that occurred while the movie was filming made that seem particularly true, but it looks like the show is going to go on and they are continuing to make films into the post-Paul Walker era.  Truth be told I don’t know that I missed Paul Walker too much here as this is enough of an ensemble franchise at this point but I do think that soldiering on so quick was a mistake just the same if only because this is a franchise that could use a break.  This is the third straight movie they’ve made which has more or less put Dom’s crew in the position of being super spies working for the government for various reasons, and while I do think there’s an opening for such a franchise given what’s been happening to James Bond lately, I do think the pressure of making each of these movies bigger and crazier than the last is starting to get to them.  This one in particular is really pushing that line between “fun stupid” and just “stupid stupid.”  There is enough silly energy here to keep it from being a true failure though and there was enough in the way of standout action sequences that I certainly wasn’t bored by watching it.  Still if I’m comparing it to the Bond franchise this is more of a Tomorrow Never Dies than a Goldeneye and they’re going to need to do better if they’re going to give this thing some real longevity.

**1/2 out of Five

All Eyez on Me (9/22/2017)

Since his death in the September of 1996 Tupac Shakur has basically joined the ranks of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Kurt Cobain among the martyred young American musical icons and even without that mystique he’s widely been considered one of if not the greatest rappers ever.  I think a big part of his appeal is that he has something to offer to pretty much any kind of Hip Hop fan.  If you go to a rapper looking for biting social commentary he had something for you, if you want gritty street stories he had those, and if you just wanted some party songs he had some of those too.  He was the son of Black Panthers and a student at an art academy but also someone who sported a “thug life” tattoo and got involved in various violent confrontations including the one that ultimately ended his life.  The man was multi-faceted and filled with contradictions, and the biopic All Eyez on Me isn’t unaware of this but it also doesn’t illuminate it in a particularly interesting way either.  Critics seem to have picked up on this and the movie currently sits at 17% on Rotten Tomatoes because of it, and that seems a bit harsh to me.

The film certainly has a number of strong elements, not the least of which is Demetrius Shipp Jr.’s really strong performance as Tupac which is really uncanny in its imitation at times.  The movie also does a pretty decent job of fitting the many events of Tupac’s life into a reasonable running time and it’s generally pretty competently made.  That said, this kind of straightforward “birth to death” musical biopic seems a bit redundant at this point.  Unlike Straight Outta Compton, which was set over a shorter period of time and could feel more like a story and less like a character study, this film feels a bit too surfacey and a bit lacking in real creativity.  The movie also seems oddly disinterested in Tupac’s actual music and doesn’t really spend a whole lot of time actually showing him performing or recording much of it.  Still, I do think the movie fares better than the Biggie Smalls biopic Notorious from a handful of years ago, in part because it seems less interested in smoothing over the rougher aspects of its subject’s life and does as good a job as one could expect of keeping it from descending into hagiography.  Over the years there have a litany of Tupac products released so I suspect that this won’t be the last movie that gets made about him and I hope the next one finds an approach that’s more worthy of his legend, until then this one will do well enough.

*** out of Five


Warning: Review contains plot spoilers

In the abstract, it’s often assumed that directors working in the indie space ultimately want to use their small scale successes in order to convince Hollywood studios to finance their bigger and more expensive visions.  Darren Aronofsky at one point seemed like he was destined to do just that after the increasing successes of his micro-budget debut Pi and his indie classic Requiem for a Dream.  In fact he was actually approached to pitch ideas for Batman movies around the same time that Christopher Nolan (a guy who has very much succeeded in blending his vision with Hollywood sized budgets) was, but unlike Nolan Aronofsky style and vision proved to be a little too weird and intense for general audiences and he didn’t seem interested in making a compromised commercial work like Insomnia as a stepping stone to bigger things.  Instead he put all his efforts towards The Fountain a crazy little movie made on a lower budget than he probably wanted and which likely baffled the few general audiences who went to it.  From there he went back to indie ambitions and made a pair of small movies about obsessive performers called The Wrestler and Black Swan, the latter of which became an unexpected hundred million dollar hit with the mainstream.  With that clout it seemed like Aronofsky was finally going to enter the world of blockbuster filmmaking but the big budget movie he chose to make with his clout was of all things a biblical epic called Noah which did make some money but was seen more as an oddity (and not the good kind of oddity) than as any kind of artistic triumph.  As such he’s back to the world of small budgets and seems to have picked up where Black Swan left off with his new film mother!.

mother! is set entirely within a large house in the country in an unknown state and features characters who aren’t given proper names, for simplicity’s sake I will largely be referring to characters by the names of their actors.  It begins with a character played by Jennifer Lawrence waking up and looking for her older husband, a poet who’s been experiencing writer’s block played by Javier Bardem.  The two are childless and the wife is in the process of renovating the old home that they live in.  Everything changes one day when a man played by Ed Harris shows up at their door and the husband quickly invites him to stay with them, in part because he seems to be a fan of the author’s work, without consulting with his wife.  Harris quickly proves himself to be a bore who smokes in the house and overstays his welcome, especially when his wife played by Michelle Pfeiffer shows up and proves to be even more intrusive than her husband and things very quickly escalate from there.

As you might guess from the business with the names and a few other rather surreal aspects, mother! is not a movie that you should necessarily take literally although this isn’t readily apparent from moment one.  Right away it becomes apparent that, like Black Swan before it this is a film that draws heavy inspiration from some of Roman Polanski’s more paranoid early films like Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby and much of the film’s tension lies in the way its protagonist finds herself in situations she finds sinister while everyone else seems nonplussed.  However, there are other elements of the film which feel surreal in ways that a Polanski thriller wouldn’t and there are elements that go entirely unexplained like an open wound she spots on Ed Harris’ back and the medication that she takes throughout the film and as things progress it becomes more and more clear that this film is set in a sort of world of the mind rather than conventional reality.

That the main character here is a woman is integral and not just because of the title.  The Jennifer Lawrence character here is in a very decidedly unequal marriage to a domineering husband who is twenty years her senior, views the home they’re living in as his rather than theirs, and doesn’t seek her permission or advice when making decisions that affect both of them.  In some ways she almost feels like a woman driven mad by the “benevolent” control of her husband like the protagonist of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” and it might not be a coincidence that one of the first things we see her do in the movie is paint one of her walls yellow.  There is also the element here that Bardem’s character is a celebrity of sorts and that adds a certain element to their relationship.  Aronofsky was married to Rachel Weisz from 2001 to 2010, perhaps this is an expression of what it’s like to be married to a movie star who has people constantly trying to find out more and more about their personal lives.  Alternately the movie could be something of a confessional effort expressing his own guilt for having subjected the various women in his life to the pressures of being married to someone who’s perhaps more dedicated to their work and the inspiration thereof than they are to their marriage and who constantly has people coming in and out of his life telling him how much of “genius” he is while ignoring the woman next to him.

So far I’ve looked at ways to interpret the movie when looking at it as a somewhat straightforward narrative, things get even crazier when you start looking at it as an elaborate biblical allegory.  Perhaps Bardem is a stand-in for God (the creator), perhaps Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer are Adam and Eve, the study is Eden, the crystal is the fruit from the tree of life, and the sink breaking which transitions the film into the second half is the great flood that occurred at the end of Genesis.  The second half can similarly be interpreted as the New Testament and its aftermath with the child being Jesus, the published poem being the bible, and the finale being a stand-in for the apocalypse.  The parallels are pretty hard to deny once you spot them.  What isn’t so clear is what Jennifer Lawrence’s role in this allegory is supposed to be.  Her role as the mother of the child who is killed and whose flesh is then eaten to save people would suggest that she’s Mary, but she’s no virgin and her presence in the first half would seem to clash with this interpretation and so would the timing of the Messiah’s birth and her place in the film’s ending.

It is more likely that her role ties in with another coded allegory embedded in the film involving environmentalism.  In this view of the film she is playing “mother earth” or a sort of spirit of and personification of nature.  Someone who looks on with disgust as Bardem/God lets loose humanity upon her paradise and watches powerless to intervene as they wreck things and generally abuse the freedoms they’ve been granted and get it into their heads that they own the place.  This would certainly explain her general ineffectualness in stopping all the unwanted guests and under this framing the film’s climax would perhaps be a stand-in for global warming causing humanity’s extinction and the rebirth of sorts at the end would perhaps suggest the Earth persevering eventually after humanity has died off.  The spirit of the earth, of course, is not really part of the bible so this fusion of Judeo-Christian stories with a strong environmental message is certainly reminiscent of what Aronofsky was trying to do with Noah and the vaguely new age idea of the Earth spirit perhaps points to The Fountain.

Either way, the fact that he’s mixing his allegories like that is certainly audacious if perhaps a little messy.  All that said, I don’t want all the search for interpretations to overshadow the fact that mother! simply works as a piece of cinema.  The early scenes are tense in the way they put you in the middle of Jennifer Lawrence’s frustration and they way things get increasingly crazy in the second half is pretty thrilling.  That second half reminded me a little bit of the ending of Ben Wheatley’s High Rise but I think it works better here, in part because it establishes a point of view character better and it “goes there” in a way that feels more organically interesting.  The film also reminded me of Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist with it’s unnamed protagonists, religious imagery, dips into surrealism, and occasional interest in shock value during its second half.  What the film is not really is a horror film, which is what the film’s trailers make it look like.  That misleading advertising is probably a big part of why there have been a number of reports recently about angry audiences leaving the film confused and unsatisfied.  That reaction is unfortunate, but perhaps not unexpected.  If Luis Buñuel had somehow gotten Paramount pictures to finance The Exterminating Angel and made it with major movie stars and got it released nationwide in-between screenings of Dr. No and How the West was Won I’m guessing that wouldn’t have gotten a great Cinemascore either, but sometimes filmmakers need to break out of their usual mold and if they’re able to do it on a scale like this that’s something that should be celebrated.


If there’s any one profession whose practitioners I find some amount of sympathy for it’s that of the professional clown.  These poor sons of bitches have dedicated their lives, at great personal sacrifice, to a trade they must genuinely think brings laughter and joy to children when more often than not it does the exact opposite.  Personally I never had much distaste for clowns when I was a child but I can totally understand how in the mind of a small child it would be more than a little unsettling to have a strange man intrude on one’s birthday party and doubly unsettling to have this man wearing garish makeup and bizarre dress and perform mysterious magic tricks like pulling scarfs out of their mouths and exiting en masse from tiny little cars.  It’s a strange and rather outdated form of performance art and people have been interested in the dark side of these demonically painted jesters at least as far back as an 1849 Edgar Allen Poe story called “Hop-Frog” and has continued through such creations as the operatic “Pagliacci” and Batman’s arch nemesis The Joker.  However, the idea of the evil clown got a huge boost in the 70s and 80s by the one-two punch of the John Wayne Gacy murders and the 1986 publication of Stephen King novel “It” which is sometimes considered to be that author’s magnum opus.  In fact, the World Clown Association has recently released a press release blaming the 1990 mini-series adaptation of King’s novel for causing the fear of clowns in children and putting their trade at risk, a position that perhaps ignores the many many many other reasons kids have for finding guys frightening.  That press release was of course created in response to the release of a new theatrical adaptation of It which is set to be a major hit and which will at the very least cause a couple more cases of Coulrophobia.

I read a great number of Stephen King novels when I was in high school, but “It” was not one of them.  I’d heard it was great and I always wanted to get around to it but given that the thing is literally over a thousand pages long it just seemed a bit too daunting.  I never watched the ABC miniseries adaptation either, in part because I still hoped to read the book some day and in part because I’d heard mixed things about it.  Some people seem to think that TV version is really scary, others seem to hate it.  I’ve heard it theorized that the positive assessments are mostly the result of people having seen it when they were young and that it’s actually pretty bad outside of Tim Curry’s performance, and that explanation of its reputation makes sense.  In retrospect I was kind of glad I missed that adaptation because it meant this more ambitious screen take would be my first experience with the story, though I should note that this was not fully uncharted territory for me.  Through cultural osmosis I did know a decent amount about the original novel’s basic story and structure as well as its most iconic images like the paper boat going towards the storm drain and the sight of Pennywise’s teeth and hands.

My understanding is that the novel is set in two timelines; looking at the characters dealing with this threat as children in the late 50s and the then as adults in the then contemporary 80s, and that it intercut between the two through flashbacks and the like.  This movie adaptation ignores this structure and focuses entirely on the characters as children and that they plan to deal with the adult material in a potential sequel.  The setting has been moved to 1989, which would put a sequel right in 2016 and which has the added bonus of placing the movie squarely in the sweet spot of nostalgia for Spielbgergian adventures of children with free reign to travel extensively by bicycle without adult supervision with other projects like Super 8 and “Stranger Things” have been riding as of late.

Set in the fictional town of Derry, Maine (which shows up in a lot of Stephen King books) the film follows a group of outsider kids called “The Losers Club.”  The most prominent of them is probably Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), whose younger brother disappears one day after being scene peering into a storm drain, one of many children who have disappeared in this town recently.  In fact the rate of disappeared people in Derry is off the charts high but the adults seem to be in denial about this.  Over time everyone in “The Losers Club” start seeing frightening visions of the things they fear the most and at the center of most of these visions is the frightening figure of a clown called Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård).  Soon “The Losers Club” is joined by other children who’ve had these visions like Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), who is ostracized at school and is forced to contend with an abusive father, and Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs) who lives with his uncle on a farm outside of town.  Soon, through the research of a group member named Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor) they learn that this evil force seems to surface in this town every twenty-seven years and the group resolves to face this monster rather than back down in fear.

I mentioned earlier that the movie is in many ways latches onto the look and feel of the Amblin movies of the 80s, but I don’t really think this is (entirely) a case of cynical nostalgia peddling.  After all, this childhood nostalgia element was clearly present in the original novel and King adaptations of the time like Stand by Me clearly contributed to the wave of movies that the “Stranger Things” of the world were aping from.  The decision to move events from the 50s to the 80s also seems logical enough and the movie doesn’t seem too shameless about throwing in tributes to the pop culture of the time and I like that they made these kids of some kind of lame relics of that era like The New Kids on the Block and Nightmare on Elm Street V rather than making them implausible fans of The Clash and The Thing (though showing one of them playing the original Street Fighter in an arcade, which wasn’t nearly as popular as its eventual sequel, is a bit odd).  More importantly I think the aim here is a little different.  Spielberg made movies about these cadres of suburban child bicyclists because his target audience could relate to them (and the adults in the audience could nostalgically relate back to them) and excitedly want to go along with them on their whimsical adventures.  Here I feel like the goal is more to make you like them enough to want nothing bad to happen to them and build suspense that way, not unlike John Carpenter envision the protagonist of Halloween as someone who could be a stand in for everyone’s sister, girlfriend, or daughter and create a sort of paternalistic protectionism between her and the audience.

Indeed one of the film’s great strengths is its ability to establish its characters in a very short period of time and make you like each of them.  Granted, there’s not a whole lot of depth to any of these people and most of the kids are identified by one simple quirk: Bill misses his brother, Ben like history and has questionable music taste, Richie talks too much, Eddie is overly pampered, Mike lives on the other side of tracks, and Stan is the most cautious.  When the movie actually does try flesh some of these characters out a little more it can feel a bit rushed and awkward like when it tries to establish that Mike’s parents were killed in a fire and then does very little with this information.  The character who’s given the most in the way of unique characteristics is Beverly, who is plainly the boldest member of the group and who (along with Mike) comes from the most adversity and has the most tumultuous home life.  Some of the supporting characters fare worse.  For all of his strengths as a writer Stephen King is kind of bad at writing human villains and often turns them into these insanely over the top creations that don’t ring true in the slightest.  You see that here both in Beverly’s abusive father and in this teenage schoolyard bully named Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) who seems extreme in his almost psychotic cruelty even for a bully in the 80s.

The other character I’m not so sure about is actually Pennywise himself, whose motivations seemed a bit unclear.  In the film’s opening sequence Pennywise seems to have taken the form of the clown as a means of luring children into his grasp.  He gives the boy at the beginning a false sense of security before lunging in for a quick kill.  Makes sense, but he completely switches up his M.O. for the rest of the film.  Every other time we see him he seems to have taken the form of the clown specifically for the purposes of scaring the crap out of the kids he’s elected to target for unknown reasons and he spends a whole lot of time playing largely ineffective mind games with them and seemingly putting himself in danger by giving away hints of his identity.  There’s some talk late in the movie of him feeding off their fear, which makes some sense outside of the way it clashes with his behavior in the opening scene, but I still ultimately just find the rules of this world a bit muddled and unclear.  I suspect that this is explained in more detail in the novel and may be explained more clearly in a potential sequel, but looking at the film as a self-contained work I do think this is a bit of a problem.

This iteration of It was directed by a guy named Andy Muschietti, a Guillermo del Toro protégé whose previous film credit was a 2013 horror film called Mama which I frankly didn’t really care for.  Muschietti, like Del Toro, is a guy who is perhaps a little too in love with monsters and is overly excited to show them on screen at times.  Del Toro gets away with this because most of his movies aren’t really horror movies and aren’t really trying to scare the pants off his audience, but Muschietti’s are and his over-eagerness to show his CGI ghosts ultimately made Mama a rather deflated experience.  Muschietti does fare a lot better here because he’s working with much better material and has other things to fall back on, but when this is trying to be an actual suspenseful horror movie I think it ultimately does still have that same weakness.  At times the film shows its hand with Pennywise a little too quickly and never quite lets the mystery of this entity play out as long as it could.  The opening scene is a good example of this: a weird freaky clown in a sewer turning a kid into a puddle of blood should have been enough, we didn’t necessarily need to see Pennywise’s semi-convincing CGI teeth as he bit into said kid’s arm that early in the film.  In fact questionable CGI is kind of a problem throughout the film; there are some effect in it that work really well but there are other shots that are pretty weak and kind of undercut the suspense a bit.  An approach more akin to Jaws where the big shots of the shark were saved until later would have been helpful.

This is not to say that there aren’t some legitimately great scenes and images to be found in the movie because there certainly are, possibly even too many of them.  When this movie is on it really cooks, but I ultimately think it works better as an adventure movie than as a pure horror film, and as an adventure film it seems kind of incomplete.  The movie ends with a title card that all but says “to be continued” and there are elements of it like the Henry Bowers sub-plot which I would criticize as being superfluous and in need of cutting if not for the fact that I suspect it will come up again in the sequel and there are other things like that which I’m not quite sure what to make of until I see how all this plays out.  In many ways it feels like a movie I feel like withholding judgement on until that second part comes out.  That could be an issue because that sequel is not going to be easy to pull off.  A lot of the appeal of this first movie comes from the charming cast of child actors and from its period setting and the sequel will have to eschew both.  If the second part is able to stick the landing I think it will make the original that much more meaningful as a setup and if it shits the bed I think that could tarnish the first film’s legacy completely.  That’s the long term assessment, in the short term I don’t want to come off like I’m damning this thing with faint praise, if I’m critical of it it’s only because of how much potential it has.  This is plainly has a lot more to offer than most major studio horror movies and anyone whose been intrigued by the trailers should give it a shot.

Good Time(8/26/2017)

I feel like we need to stop being surprised when actors from disreputable YA adaptations suddenly turn out to be decent actors when given legitimate material to work with.  I can’t tell you how many people seemed to be downright gobsmacked when Kristen Stewart, star of the Twilight franchise, managed to win a César Award the second she started working with a respectable director like Olivier Assayas.  Maybe if I’d actually seen one of those Twilight movies I’d be similarly impressed with how much she had to climb to get to respectability, but really it just seems unfair to judge someone’s whole acting career when they can’t spin gold from material like that.  Her Twilight co-star Robert Pattinson has had similar difficulty getting respect has he’s moved on from that franchise.  In many ways he’s in the same position that Leonardo Di Caprio and Ryan Gosling were in recently: forced to prove that he’s a real actor and not just a pretty boy who’s famous because teenage girls swooned at him.  In my eyes he’s had a bit of a tough time doing this, in part because some of his first attempts at respectability came from his work in a pair of David Cronenberg movies that didn’t really work and were so weird in tone that they didn’t give Pattinson a lot of room to humanize himself.  Outside of that his most prominent roles have been in David Michôd’s The Rover and James Gray’s The Lost City of Z, which both showed some growth but which weren’t quite fully convincing star turns. Of course those were ultimately supporting performances and he has a much bigger showcase in his latest high profile indie Good Time from a pair of upstart directors named Ben and Josh Safdie.

In Good Time Pattinson plays Constantine Nikas, a petty New York criminal who early in the film tries to rob a bank alongside his mentally handicapped brother Nick (Ben Safdie), but the two are captured in the process.  Constantine makes bail but Nick doesn’t and Constantine soon finds he isn’t able to obtain the funds to get Nick out from his upper middle class girlfriend Corey (Jennifer Jason Leigh) as he planned.  When he learns that Nick has been beat up in jail and transferred to a hospital Constantine comes up with a scheme to break his brother out of his hospital room, and much of the rest of the film looks at how the aftermath of this plot plays out over the course of a single crazy night in New York.

Good Time is a bit reminiscent of Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin in that it’s a crime narrative that follows a criminal who’s kind of bad at his job but not so bad that he fails right away.  Unlike that movie, the protagonist isn’t a guy who’s been pushed to the edge by actual wrongs against him but is in fact a total bag of dicks with very little in the way of redeeming qualities.  I’m trying to put my finger on what it is about this guy that I despise so much but I was really disgusted by him.  It’s not that his actions are all that horrible, at least by the standards of movie gangsters.  He doesn’t kill or (successfully) rape anyone over the course of the movie and he doesn’t exactly go out of his way to hurt anyone.  I think what gets my goat about him is the total indifference he shows towards everyone else around him with the possible exception of his brother.  He’s like a sociopath who doesn’t feel compelled to kill necessarily but who will take hurt, cheat, or swindle anyone who gets in his way and gets downright offended whenever they resist.  He doesn’t really seem to be a “product of his surroundings” and doesn’t really have some twisted noble end he’s working towards, and the real kicker is that you can tell his plans are probably doomed and that he’s probably not even going to get much out of these schemes himself, it all just seems futile.

The film was directed by a pair of upcoming sibling directors named the Safdie brothers, whose previous project was a film called Heaven Knows What, which looked at the rather hellish life of a drug addict.  I didn’t really think the Safdie’s penitent for stylization really worked well for that movie and I especially thought that film’s Tangerine Dream style synch score by Paul Grimstad and Ariel Pink seemed especially out of place.  That directorial style and the not dissimilar score by Oneohtrix Point Never make a bit more sense here given that the film has more genre elements than Heaven Knows What did and I do think they’ve improved a bit between movies and benefit from the film’s increased budget.  In fact I worry that they may have swung too far in the other direction.  This is a movie that walks and talks like a hard edged gritty movie with a lot to say about modern crime, but I’m not really sure that it has much of anything to say.  At times it will hint towards some kind of societal failure in the lives of these people but these things never really connect and the movie ultimately feels kind of pointless both as a statement and as a story.  After a night long romp the characters end up in the same place as they began and not in a way that’s particularly profound either.  Frankly I think the Safdie’s would do well for themselves if they’d just sell out and make something for Hollywood because making these hard edged indies doesn’t really suit them.  Still, I don’t want to come down too hard on this, it is a crime yarn that’s ultimately fun to watch and there are some well rendered scenes.