Ready Player One(4/1/2018)

Ernest Cline’s book “Ready Player One” was this weird sounding science fiction book I used to hear about here and there.  I never read it, in part because I rarely have time to read fiction in general much less novelty books about video games, but the title was clever and as literature of questionable merit goes I’ve certainly heard of dumber sounding ideas and a lot of people seemed to enjoy it.  There was, however, something of a backlash to the novel with a lot of people finding it to be total pandering nonsense and I could certainly see how that could be true as well.  What I never did was pick up a copy of the book myself to judge because, well, life’s too short.  Honestly there was always something that seemed kind of weird about the backlash against the book.  Like, if you’re so above this kind of thing why are you even reading this whole nearly 400 page book?  Hatewatching sort of makes sense to me in moderation, hate reading does not.  Fortunately there is finally a way to get a taste of what Cline was up to without having to be seen lugging around his tome: they’ve adapted it into a major motion picture directed by, implausibly enough, Steven Spielberg himself.

Ready Player One is set in the year 2045 after a series of calamities society has become something of a shithole where everyone lives in bombed out slums where the only escape is into a video game like virtual reality universe called “The Oasis” where everyone can be what they want to be and engage in mass combat in order to get loot.  This world was created by a guy named James Halliday (Mark Rylance), who was a huge geek obsessed with the pop culture of the late 20th Century.  After Halliday died it was discovered that he had devised an elaborate scavenger hunt within The Oasis involving three keys that can be found by solving riddles and the prize is that once all the keys are found the entire Oasis is put under the control of whoever finds all three first.  One of the people who has been seeking out these keys for years is a teenager named Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), who plays in the Oasis under the alias “Parzival” and has been obsessively studying the life of James Halliday and the movies and video games that he as so interested in.  His search for these “Easter eggs” is bolstered when he encounters another legendary Oasis dweller named Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) but if he wants to get all the keys he’ll have to contend with a private army of “sixers” that are deployed by a CEO named Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) who wants to claim the prize for his company and thus gain control of the world’s richest company and the center of world culture.

When it was announced early on that Steven Spielberg would be directing an adaptation of “Ready Player One” it certainly seemed like an odd choice to me.  Cline’s book seemed like it was very much the manifestation of a Generation X and Millennial conception of culture, of people who grew up on Spielberg’s films rather than Spielberg himself.  It’s a project that would make all the sense in the world coming from J.J. Abrams or from the creators of “Stranger Things” but from Spielberg himself?  That threw me for a bit of a loop, but it perhaps makes more sense when you remember that Spielberg’s own movies were very much a collection of references themselves.  Raiders of the Lost Ark, for example, lifts all sorts of shots from the adventure serials of Spielberg’s youth and if you look closely at E.T. or War of the Worlds it becomes abundantly clear they were made by a guy raised on paranoid science fiction movies from the 50s.  The difference is that Ready Player One is even more upfront than Tarantino about exactly what it’s lifting and is making the lifts part of the story rather than bending it into a new one.  For instance, early on there’s a race of sorts in The Oasis where our hero is driving the DeLorean from Back to the Future, Art3mis appears to be racing one of the hoverbikes from Akira, and they need to race past a T-Rex from Jurassic Park, and find some way to keep from being attacked by King Kong.  We have seen these sort of “copyright violation en masse” ideas before, perhaps most notably in Disney’s Wreck-it-Ralph and the ImaginationLand episodes of “South Park,” but never this extensively or at this scale.

It takes a couple of leaps of logic to accept The Oasis as a concept.  For example it’s certainly not clear how the economy of the real world works in this future or where all these destitute people get the money to play these video games all day.  The death system in The Oasis also seems a bit off.  It’s established early on that if you “die” in The Oasis your character does re-spawn but you lose all the stuff you earned along the way, which makes sense given that there does need to be some stakes to the action scenes here, but that seems like quite the penalty.  Even the Dark Souls games aren’t that harsh when your character dies.  Are we supposed to believe that all these characters have gone for years in all these warzones and haven’t died once?  It’s also a little unclear who’s programming all of this.  The opening voiceover seems to suggest that you can be whatever you want in this world but the characters can’t exactly conjure things up at will so someone has to be actually creating all this stuff.  It’s also a bit curious that these characters are so infatuated with the pop culture of the 80s rather than anything that’s been created since and we never once see Watts step out of the Oasis to watch an actual 2D movie or TV show. There’s this big plot point which suggests that he’s an ace Atari 2600 player, which… I’m old enough to be into some pretty old school video games and even I don’t have the patience to play 2600 games and if I had access to The Oasis I sure as hell wouldn’t take time out of my day to play Pitfall.

Despite all of that, Spielberg does doe a commendable job of bringing The Oasis to life.  The inside of The Oasis appears to be entirely CGI with all the characters being represented by avatars.  This shouldn’t work and should be highly distracting and yet Spielberg somehow makes it work.  The Oasis really does kind of look like a real video game but twenty years in the future and in VR rather than something like The Matrix.  It also makes action scenes which would feel absurd in any other context sort of work.  Like, that race I was talking about earlier with the T-Rex and King Kong would seem stupid and over-the-top in a movie set in any kind of “real” world, but it fits pretty well in a movie that’s supposed to be a video-game player’s psyche writ large.  There’s also a set-piece related to a classic movie midway through the film which I won’t give away but needless to say it’s quite the sight to see and it’s not something you are likely to see much of anywhere else.  I’m not going to claim to be above geeking out at some of the parade of references here, some of them certainly caused a visceral reaction when they emerged.  It would have been nice if they’d dug even deeper with some of the namedrops but given that this is such an unabashed celebration of low culture even that kind of seems fitting.

The human side of the story is… serviceable.  If anything I feel like being “serviceable” is kind of a victory given how easily this gamer wish fulfillment fantasy could have descended into cringey territory.  The romance plotline between Watts and Art3mis is certainly kind of groan inducing, especially when Watts declares that he “loves” her based almost entirely on the fact that she’s really good at the film’s central video game.  From what I hear this element is even worse in the book but I do think the actors here do a fairly good job of salvaging this sub-plot and keeping it from dragging the film down too far.  In general the movie does a pretty good job of finding this nice tone where it doesn’t take itself too seriously but also doesn’t turn the whole thing into such a joke that you aren’t able to really get involved in the story.  At the end of the day this is a pretty shallow movie and it certainly doesn’t do nearly as much as it could have to push back on some of the fan-servicey elements of its source material.  By the end it seems to suggest that the point of all this is that you should engage in fandom with a degree of moderation and not let it get too much in the way of “real life” but I’m not so sure that the movie that proceeds this moral really supports the thesis.  This certainly isn’t a Spielberg classic and I still have trouble really thinking about it as one of his films, but for what it is and what it wants to be I think it’s pretty successful.  I certainly had a lot of fun with it anyway.

***1/2 out of Five

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Isle of Dogs(3/28/2018)


Over the years I’ve made it known in various reviews of family movies that I kind of hate children.  However, it should probably be known that my grumpiness does not end there, I also hate dogs!  In fact I hate dogs way more than I dislike children, who will at least grow up to be something less annoying one day while dogs will always be dogs.  I’ve never owned a dog even while I was younger and everything about owning one seems like a pain in the ass. You have to walk them everywhere, clean up all their shit, and listen to them bark all the time.  I have no desire to own a cat either but that seems like a much more reasonable prospects as they can pretty much take care of themselves outside of feedings and litterbox cleaning.  But really what annoys me about dogs is the way they seem to turn their owners into crazy people.  The way some of these “dog lovers” talk they seem completely delusional about how much these animals care about them.  They’ve got it in their heads that these creatures actually “love” them rather than that they’re doing what they’ve been trained to do over the centuries in order to get food from humans.  All this is to say that when I learned that director Wes Anderson was going to follow up The Grand Budapest Hotel with a stop-motion animated movie about an island full of talking dogs I found myself groaning a little as I could easily picture how easily that could turn into cutesy nonsense, but Wes Anderson has made groan-inducing ideas work before so I was willing to give it a shot.

Wes Anderson’s films generally don’t take place in realistic universes even when he has regular actors in them but when he goes for animation he really goes all out and this is not an exception.  The film takes place in an imagined near-future Japan where the dog population had become so out of control and afflicted by diseases that the mayor (Kunichi Nomura) signed an order to have all the dogs removed and sent to an uninhabited island filled with garbage and the first dog to go is his own family dog Spots (Liev Schreiber).  From there we flash-forward and start following a group of dogs consisting of Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Boss (Bill Murray), and Chief (Bryan Cranston).  Of those five Chief is kind of the odd ma… dog out as he was a stray dog before ending up on the island and has always rejected the notion that dogs should be obedient servants to humans.  The action really kicks off when a twelve year old boy named Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin), the adopted son of the aforementioned mayor Kobayashi, flies a small airplane to the Isle of Dogs in search of his beloved Spots and meets up with the film’s main group of canines who decide to help him out on his quest, which of course proves to be more dangerous than they expect.

Wes Anderson’s previous film to use stop-motion animation was of course his 2009 film Fantastic Mr. Fox, a movie that was generally liked by critics but was a box office disappointment.  I think where the studio went wrong marketing that movie was that they hoped that it was going to cross over to the traditional family film market more than it did, which was probably a mistake because the central joke of that movie, showing animals talking and acting like yuppies, was kind of going to go over the heads of most young people.  Personally, I liked that movie for the most part but that one joke it goes for over and over again did start to wear on me after a while and I ultimately think it’s a lesser Wes Anderson because of it.  This follow-up also has some of that “animals talk like human hipsters” joke as well, especially when Chief interacts with a lady dog named Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), but there is a bit more going on in this one on top of that.  The movie is a lot more interested in the ways that animals interact with humans than Fantastic Mr. Fox did, likely owing to the fact that this is about domestic rather than wild animals and it also comes up with more fantastical world-building owing to the fact that it’s set in this odd sort of dystopian Japan.

The Japan depicted in the film is of course a rather fantastical version of the country, in much the way that The Grand Budapest Hotel was set in a sort of pastiche of pre-war Europe rather than the actual nation of Hungary.  I don’t think there’s necessarily anything intrinsically Japanese baked into this story about dogs being sent to islands, but Anderson’s fascination with the country clearly gives the movie a lot of its flavor.  Some of the film’s logic about all of this is a bit inconsistent.  A title card early on suggests that the film’s Japanese characters will speak entirely in their native language without subtitles unless translated by a third party, which is interesting but the movie so frequently finds exceptions to this rule that I kind of wonder why they bothered.  It’s also a bit odd that Anderson chose to make all his dog characters into essentially American characters by giving them names like Spots and Duke and having them voiced by Americans even though they’re theoretically supposed to be Japanese dogs.  The film also plays a bit fast and loose with how able certain characters, especially Atari are able to interact with these dogs and understand the human-like intelligence that Anderson has opted to give them.

I do wonder to some extent what Anderson is trying to say with this movie, if anything.  If you look at it sideways you could see something of an allegory in it to the Trump era in that mayor Kobayashi is essentially deporting these dogs and claiming to be doing so for some semi-sensible reasons while actually just being prejudiced against them because of his association with an ancient cat-loving samurai clan.  A lot of that is a bit in the background though and its foreground stories are a little more curious, namely Chief’s arc in which he rejects humanity only to then allow himself to become a servant to Atari in Spots’ place.  I would think that if Anderson was trying to afford human-like intelligence and dignity to these dogs that this story of a dog coming to accept this role as a servant to a human.  Maybe that’s supposed to be an allegory for “settling down” but the power dynamics of such a relationship is a bit different… or maybe that’s just the dog hater in me not finding this as cute as a normal person would.

Ultimately my final verdict on this comes down more to form than to message.  I generally like Wes Anderson’s early films like Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums the best, which are different from some of his later movies in that his style came more from film grammar, music selection, and acting choices than from elaborate set decoration and world-building and the more successful he gets the more he’s been enabled to make these heavily constructed films like The Life Aquatic and The Grand Budapest Hotel which feel increasingly detached from the real world.  Now don’t get me wrong, I do still like those movies and admire their audacity but I do still kind of miss that other Wes Anderson that we haven’t really seen since Moonrise Kingdom.  These stop-motion films are like that problem but turned up to eleven and are even further removed from the Wes Anderson I want.  But I would probably be doing myself a disservice by pining for Wes Anderson to deliver what I want from him rather than enjoying what he’s actually interested in delivering and there’s plenty to enjoy in Isle of Dogs.

***1/2 out of Five

The Death of Stalin(3/24/2018)

Every year I spend a good deal of time and expend a lot of thought into making a yearly top ten list of the best in cinema, and for as open-minded as I am I have noticed over the years that it’s pretty rare for a pure undiluted comedy to make those lists.  Movies that are sort of hybrid comedy/dramas are actually kind of common, in fact my 2017 list had three movies that could be argued to be comedies in The Square, Ladybird, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri but these are not generally movies people go to when they’re straight up looking to laugh at a movie theater.  Outside of those edge cases the comedies that usually make year end lists are movies like Birdman, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Wolf of Wall Street which have a whole lot going on in their production beyond their apparent wit.  I don’t think this is exactly a bias that I’m alone in.  If you look at most top ten lists and Best Picture slates you’ll probably see a similar pattern and it maybe says less about critics and more about how unambitious dedicated comedians can sometimes be in their craft.  As if being funny is in itself so hard that they can’t be bothered to also build a great movie around a great set of jokes.  I bring all this up because I think the highest a 100% comedy has ever gotten on one of my top ten lists was in 2009 when I put Armando Iannucci’s dark political comedy In the Loop in my number two slot right behind Quentin Tarantino’s magnum opus Ingourious Basterds (itself a semi-comedy), and the new film The Death of Stalin is in many ways Iannucci’s follow-up to that future comedy classic.

The film is set early in 1953 and begins with Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) at his most powerful and most feared.  NKVD agents (the spread police) are actively hunting down people on lists made by the party and throwing them in gulags and or executing them.  We spend a great deal of time early in the film watching a producer (Paddy Considine) at Radio Moscow scramble beyond reason to recreate a broadcast the dictator has requested a recording of just to establish the extent to which the normal Soviet citizen will piss their pants at the possibility of having slighted this regime.  But this will prove to be something of a turning point because the night of that broadcast Stalin suddenly becomes violently ill and it becomes clear to everybody in his inner circle that there’s about to be a transition of power in a global superpower and they immediately start jockeying for power.  Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) begins trying to paint himself as the people’s advocate, much to Nikita Khrushchev’s (Steve Buscemi) chagrin and both men try different approaches to gaining the favor of Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) and manipulating the parliamentary process that Georgy Malenkov (Jeffery Tambor) rather lackadaisically tries to assert.  They also try to gain the favor of army officer/war hero Georgy Zhukov (Jason Issac) and to manipulate Salin’s heirs Svetlana Stalina (Andrea Riseborough) and Vasily Stalin (Rupert Friend).

Iannucci’s In the Loop was more or less an adaptation of a British TV show he ran called “The Thick of It.”  These were both projects that sought to demystify politics by suggesting that behind closed doors elected officials were petty and vulgar people who would make decisions for entirely self-serving reasons, but not in a glamourous way like on “House of Cards,” more like the kind of relatable human shortcomings on something like “The Office.”  If this sounds familiar to American audiences it’s because after the success of In the Loop Iannucci tooke this idea to HBO and created the much awarded series “Veep,” which is if anything even more cynical in its outlook.  With The Death of Stalin Iannucci has perhaps taken this idea to its logical extreme by applying it to one of the most infamous regimes in world history.  The various Stalin cronies who begins sniping at each other here are a bit smarter and more competent than some of the politicians Iannucci has brought us elsewhere but their personalities and shortcomings are not dissimilar from what we’ve seen in the director’s other films.  The key difference is that here’s they’re playing games that have life or death stakes to a degree that some of his other characters aren’t.

I’m not terribly knowledgeable about Soviet history and when it came to do with this particular power struggle I didn’t go in knowing much except for the fact that it wasn’t Lavrentiy Beria who would famously end up on the other side of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Consequently I’m not terribly knowledgeable about the specifics of how accurate this film is but I have a hunch that the movie’s approach is to be very accurate about the facts of what went down during this period while changing the tone of everyone’s mannerisms to fit more with Iannucci’s usual vision of how politics happens.  One part of this is that he’s casted nothing but British and American actors in the various Russian roles in the film and has clearly instructed them not to attempt any kind of Russian accent but to simply speak in their usual comic voice.  In the case of Stalin himself, who sounds like a “cockney geezer” I’m not sure this works, but for the rest of the movie it was a shrewd choice which really brings out the personalities in these characters who might otherwise be kind of hard to relate to on any level.  For instance, the Georgy Malenkov here is like the guy who finds himself in a position of authority and Beria is like the guy who’s got a plan but is so transparent in implementing it that people move against him while Khrushchev is like the guy who doesn’t have the force of personality to speak up in a meeting but ultimately sees things a bit more clearly than the people around him.

The Death of Stalin is a movie I’ve been pretty excited about ever since it started getting raves on the festival circuit and in part because of the buildup I must say that as audacious as the film was and as much as I could see the wit here the movie never quite lived up to my high expectations.  The movie is certainly funny, but it never quite had me in stitches like In the Loop did.  I think part of that might simply be that after In the Loop and six season of Veep this particular brand of comedy might just not have quite the potency it used to.  I also suspect that the foreign/period setting might have taken a few weapons off the table.  The writing here can’t really employ pop culture references for example and the actors don’t quite seem to have the same freedom to improvise that they might have in some other contexts.  Additionally there are a couple stray elements here that just feel a little sloppy like the occasional title cards which pop up to display applicable Soviet laws which don’t look great and aren’t really used frequently enough to fully integrate into the film’s grammar.  That’s a minor quibble but I think the bigger thing holding this back is that making a movie about a foreign country’s history simply feels less subversive than mocking one’s own government.  If this had been made while the Cold War was going on or been made by Russians it would have felt really daring, as it is it just feels like a strange but mostly well executed bit of gallows humor.  But “strange but mostly well executed bits of gallows humor” don’t come along every day so perhaps I should stop complaining.

***1/2 out of Five

The Killing of a Sacred Deer(11/4/2017)

Warning: Review Contains Plot Spoilers

There are weird filmmakers and then there’s Yorgos Lanthimos, who’s proven to be one of the more outlandish voices in modern cinema and who has managed to bring his curious visions to the screen on a larger scale than I would have expected without making any compromises.  Lathimos first emerged when his controversial 2009 Greek film Dogtooth showed up in Cannes and surprisingly won the Prix Un Certain Regard despite being a crazy disturbing movie.  It fascinated fans of international cinema so much that it even garnered a nomination the next year for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, a choice that was almost certainly made by the special selecting committee.  His follow-up, Alps, was something of a sophomore slump.  People didn’t dislike it, but it just didn’t really cause the stir of his nominal debut.  He did, however, rebound with his English Language debut The Lobster.  That movie didn’t fully work for me but it was certainly interesting and provocative and made me interested to see more.  Fortunately that “more” has arrived in the form of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, another English language film starring Colin Farrell and quite possibly his darkest film yet and that’s saying something.

The film looks at the life of a successful heart surgeon named Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) who lives in Cincinnati with his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), teenage daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy), and adolescent son Bob (Sunny Suljic).  The family is mostly happy despite a couple of strange quirks like Steven’s curious role-playing fetishes.  As the film begins Steven has recently reconnected with a strange sixteen year old boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan) whose relation to Steven is not immediately clear.  He tells his anesthesiologist Matthew (Bill Camp) that Martin is a classmate of his daughter with an interest in medicine who he’s been sort of mentoring, but he stills his wife that Martin is the son of a former patient of his who ended up dying in a car accident.   Wherever it was that Steven first encountered Martin it becomes clear that Martin is more and more finding his way into Steven’s life whether Steven wants him to or not and when his son mysteriously stops being able to walk it becomes all the more urgent to understand who or what Martin is and find out just what it takes to get rid of him.

This movie is basically impossible to talk about meaningfully without getting into spoilers so I’m going to get right to it.  The title “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” is a reference to the Greek myth of Agamemnon, who found himself invoking the wrath of the goddess Artemis after he unknowingly kills a deer that was under her protection and was eventually forced to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia in order to satisfy her, thus allowing his troops to move on to the Trojan War.  A similar dilemma comes into place here when it’s revealed that Martin has cursed Steven’s wife, son, and daughter through some form of unexplained magic in retaliation for Steven having killed his father through malpractice and will let them all three of them die unless Steven chooses one of the three and kills them himself.  There are of course noticeable differences between the myth and the film, most importantly the fact that Steven is given less of an out than Agamemnon (who could have chosen to forgo going to Troy despite the incredible blow it would have dealt to his honor and reputation) was and unlike Agamemnon’s wife the wife here is ultimately on board with the sacrifice even if self-preservation is part of her reason.

The myth, at least in Aeschylus’ rather influential telling of it, is something of an exercise in an eye for an eye leaving the whole world blind.  Agamemnon’s wife never forgives him sacrificing their daughter and upon her husband’s return from the war she conspires to kill him and in turn her surviving children, Orestes and Electra conspire to kill her and are then only themselves saved from the furies through divine intervention.  Needless to say much of that isn’t paralleled in the movie so this probably shouldn’t be viewed as a complete one to one parallel of the myth but the film does have a similar interest in the morality of revenge and of what an eye for an eye truly means.  There’s a point in the film where Martin bites Steven on the arm and then suddenly bites his own arm similarly out of some kind of warped sense of needing to restore the balance of power.  I don’t, however, know that the film necessarily delves too deeply into the morality of this kind of revenge outside of the general ghastliness of Steven’s situation and perhaps the ending in which the family essentially turns the other cheek rather than perpetuating the cycle of violence that the myth descended into.

I found the overall plot of The Killing of a Sacred Deer fascinating and I also liked the way a lot of it was constructed.  The sticking point for me is probably the same thing that tripped me up about The Lobster: the way that Lathimos has his characters interact it weird and off-putting.  Where most writers and directors strive for conversational naturalism Lathimos is a filmmaker that tends to have his characters who speak in somewhat blunt and stilted dialogue and just do strange things when talking to each other.  This wasn’t as clear in Dogtooth, firstly because it was in a foreign language and secondly because it was assumed that the family at its center was a sort of aberrant cult in the middle of a world of otherwise normal people.  It also kind of made sense in The Lobster given that that movie was set in an otherworldly dystopia but was still a bit of a distraction that I pegged on Lathimos’ adjustment to making movies in English.  With his latest film I’m pretty sure it’s intentional and it’s increasingly hard to explain given that the movie seems to take place in the real world despite the supernatural element strange psychodrama that the principal characters are involved in.  It’s also distracting here because it becomes increasingly hard to tell whether it’s an important part of the puzzle that these characters are willing, for example, to discuss body hair and menstruation without any kind of filter.  Does that make some grand statement about the kind of people these are or is it just a quirky red herring?

This is not an insignificant problem, it makes it kind of hard to get a real grasp of the characters when their personalities are prone to swing a lot and that becomes an issue when much of a film’s appeal is in seeing how its characters are going to respond to a fantastical situation.  The benefit of the approach, I suppose, is that it primes you for the strangely casual way that the film introduces the supernatural at about the halfway point and also just that it adds flavor to the movie.  Was that worth it?  I don’t know but I wouldn’t say it was a deal breaker.  In many ways this is a film I maybe want to give another look before making a final judgment, but it seems like another bold film from a filmmaker who is doing things that few other people are doing right now in cinema.  It is however a movie that’s hard to pinpoint an audience for.  It’s certainly not a movie that I’m going to recommend to random movie-goers and even among cinephilles it’s going to be a film that’s hard to describe without spoiling, especially if I want to get across just how weird and dark the film can get.

It(9/9/2017)


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.

War for the Planet of the Apes(7/14/2017)

There’s nothing quite as annoying as being out of touch with the popular consensus about a movie, but only by a little.  When you love a movie everyone loves you get to luxuriate in the world’s excitement, when you hate a movie everyone hates you get to join in on the feeding frenzy, when you love a movie everyone hates you get the privilege of being an iconoclast who sees in something what everyone else doesn’t, and even when you hate a movie everyone else loves you at least get to smugly point out that the emperor has no clothes.  However, it’s a lot less fun to be the guy who’s going “hey, you know that movie everyone’s going crazy for? I also like it a lot but think you guys are maybe going overboard, it’s not that good.”  This is a difficult position to be in because it requires you to engage in nuance when the internet masses would rather revel in hyperbole.  It’s also difficult because you find yourself sounding like you dislike the movie more than you actually do because you focus so much on the negatives in order to justify your position that you don’t bother bringing up the positive elements with which you more or less agree with the consensus.  Ever since it debuted in 2011 the rebooted Planet of the Apes franchise has kind of been putting me in this annoying little boat, and it’s particularly annoying in their case because my slight disconnect with them is less the result of me seeing gaping holes in them and more just a matter of not being quite as impressed by their achievements as some people are.  This will be put to the test once again by the latest film in the series: War for the Planet of the Apes.

Set months, maybe years after the end of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes this new entry begins with Caesar (Andy Serkis) capturing a handful of human soldiers after a skirmish and opting to free them rather than execute the captives, hoping they’ll send a message that the apes are willing to live peacefully if left alone.  Anyone familiar with this series’ take on human nature will not be surprised to learn that this message fell on deaf ears and they are soon attacked once again, this time by a special forces quad being personally led by the commanding officer of this outfit, a guy named Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), and their raid leaves Caesar’s son and wife dead.  Swearing vengeance Caesar decides to seek out McCullough and kill him and orders the rest of his ape brethren to march away in the opposite direction towards a safe spot that they’ve scouted.  As he heads for McCullough Caesar is joined by other close associates who insist on accompanying him including Maurice (Karin Konoval).  Along the way they encounter a chimp who wasn’t part of their tribe (Steve Zahn) and a little human girl named Nova (Amiah Miller) who’s been rendered mute by an evolution of the plague that caused all this trouble in the first place.  These two tag along but it quickly becomes clear that their dealings with McCullough will be more difficult that they initially imagined.

As previously stated, I liked the first two rebooted Apes movies but they never really exuded greatness to me despite having a no shortage of great elements on paper.  I think I more or less feel the same way about this one, and yet I also kind of liked it better than both of its predecessors even though I think it has more glaring flaws than both of them.  I think the main thing that makes it work better for me is that it’s the first of these movies to entirely get rid of human good guys.  Rise and Dawn were both ultimately movies about Caesar and got endless credit for managing to build movies around a non-human character, but let’s not forget that those movies also prominently featured James Franco and Joel Edgerton respectively as humans who would try to form friendships with the apes only to see their work undone by their intolerant human brethren.  There’s almost none of that here.  I suppose Nova it technically a human being who is a “good guy,” but her young age, absence of speech, and lack of apparent loyalty to humanity in many ways makes her an honorary ape more so than a human.  With that exception pretty much the only human character that really has a notable speaking role is the villain played by Woody Harrelson, who chews scenery very effectively as the film’s villain.  To make up for this Caesar has become increasingly verbose to the point where he can pretty much speak clearly and with a full vocabulary and feels more human than ever.

On top of that I feel like the filmmaking on these movies has only gotten better and better.  This third installment is still using the same basic technology that brought the apes to life in the last two movies, and it looked great before make no mistake, but it has only gotten more refined over the years and really looks pretty much seamless at this point.  Beyond that though it seems like director Matt Reeves (who boarded the series with the second installment) has only grown more and more confident behind the camera.  This isn’t exactly the war film that the title would imply insomuch as it doesn’t play out like a military campaign with Braveheart-like battle scenes, but there is an oppressive and martial atmosphere throughout which plays into reeves’ strengths.  So the film is great visually but what about the substance?  Well, the thing about this series is that it talks a good game and generally maintains its dignity (which is no small achievement in this blockbuster atmosphere) but its scripts have never really been as smart as it advertises itself and this is no exception.  The series’ primary question of whether humans and apes can co-exist was more or less answered in the previous movie (the answer was “no”) so now we’re more or less left see how things play out to explain how the apes are going to take over and make the planet theirs.

For the most part things play out in a pretty satisfactory manner although there are some rather strange storytelling decisions towards the end.  I’m thinking in particular of a moment that I probably shouldn’t spoil but let’s just say that there’s an element of chance involved in the ultimate victory of one side over the other and this was so odd that I was really kind of baffled that anyone thought it was a good idea.  That’s not a huge deal though really.  My problems with the movie have less to do with what it is than what it isn’t.  Namely I’ve never really thought these movies were really they biting works of social commentary that they masqueraded as and aside from the not so radical proposition that humanity can be cruel and self destructive I don’t know that they really have all that much to say.  Compare that to the original series from the 60s and 70s, which if anything suffered from having too much to say at times, and these feel a little shallow.  Where those movies prioritized science fiction ideas and political undertones, these movies focus on pure execution and coherent plotting.  And hey, there’s nothing wrong with that, but I’ll save my praise for the movies that manage to do both.