Sunday, November 19, 2017

A League of their Own: DC’s Big Screen Team-Up “Justice League” is Fine but Underwhelming

Full disclosure: If I’m being honest, I could take or leave the first big Marvel team-up “The Avengers;” I enjoyed it at the time, but has since receded from my memory. I can’t recall a single plot element or joke that made me laugh. I’d rather watch any of the other Marvel films. I’d rather watch “Wonder Woman.” I’m dumbfounded that people rank it so high in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Released several months after the outstanding aforementioned “Wonder Woman” and practically days after the surprisingly fun retro-chic “Thor: Ragnarok,” “Justice League” easily feels disappointing in comparison but is nowhere near the trainwreck some have described. Have they never seen “Batman & Robin?” The thing that hurts “Justice League” the most is that “average” comic book films feel so slight and underwhelming when there are so many great ones already in existence. Having said that, there’s no reason someone can’t have an enjoyable experience with “Justice League” though it does feel much more like a product than the Marvel films do. The movie doesn’t feel depressing, overly long, or as self-serious as the previous DC outings and while some of the humor feels forced I’ll take what I can get when it comes to an already overcrowded marketplace full of caped crusaders.

One has to admire the courage it took to kill off Superman in “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Of course, no one will be surprised if the Man of Steel returns somehow. Superman has always been the weak link in this universe mostly because the filmmakers could never quite figure out how to make such a dated character feel relevant, even in such a shit-show of a world we currently live in. We already know Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) is great and she’s great here as well, teaming up with grizzly Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) who wasn’t as terrible as most strangely hoped last time around. Then there are the newbies who we got flash of (pun intended) in “BvS.” There’s Ezra Miller as Barry Allen/The Flash, injecting some fun but slightly awkward humor into the proceedings, Game of Thrones’ Jason Momoa, perfectly cast as a beastly Aquaman/Arthur Curry, and probably the least interesting being Ray Fisher’s Cyborg/Victor Stone.

And now the real disappointment and I’m not alone here. Does anyone care much about “Justice League’s” generic CGI villain Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarán Hinds)? I’d much prefer to see a human performance. Of course, why would we need five of the world’s most super humans to defeat someone like, say, The Joker? You need a big, bad villain whose goal is total destruction of the human race and/or planet. I get it, it’s just not all that interesting.

It must be said that director Zack Synder still sort of feels like the thing that makes these films so uneventful. He has made some very good movies, most notably “Dawn of the Dead” and “Watchman,” so he’s not incapable. But “Wonder Woman” gave us a fresh perspective and a new eye. We need some new voices in the DC world. “Justice League” has suffered from rewrites and such and even “Avengers” helmer Joss Whedon was brought in to fix things up. Even the God himself couldn’t make this a perfect work of art. Bottom line: the film is fine, it’s entertaining, and it has finally reunited Danny Elfman and Batman. You could do a lot worse.  GRADE: B

Sunday, November 05, 2017

The ‘Rok: The Thunderous “Thor: Ragnarok” is Retro Fun with a Capital R

Let’s be honest, the Thor films have sort of been the weak link of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. So obviously they took a cue from the wild success of “Guardians of the Galaxy” and injected a wonderful sense of fun, humor, and retro-coolness into the surprisingly enjoyable third Thor outing. Gone is the fish-out-of-water story that was the basis for the first “Thor” film and so is the convoluted “Portal”-like plot device of “Thor: The Dark World” and we finally get a wild comedic action-adventure that is completely amusing and funny from beginning to end. Hot off the silly horror-comedy “What We Do in the Shadows,” director Taika Waititi goes full retro-vibe in “Thor: Ragnarok” which is a welcome change of pace for a series that always took itself a little too seriously; even 17 movies (!) deep into the MCU, the film is fresh, funny, looks cool, and the always charming Chris Hemsworth again proves his comedic ability is impeccable.

The last time we saw Thor (Hemsworth) at the conclusion of “Avengers: Age of Ultron” he was leaving Earth in search of Infinity Stones. At the beginning of “Thor: Ragnarok” he’s been captured by a gigantic, fiery demon creature. In a perfectly wonderful opening, Thor escapes his clutches while spouting snappy dialogue provided by screenwriters Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost and learns of a prophecy of destruction known as Ragnarok. He returns to his home of Asgard to find a Shakespearean play version of his life unfolding live in front a captivated audience that consists of his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Of course it’s really his evil adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in disguise. With the help of another Avenger Thor and Loki locate their dying father who tells them about their even more evil sister Hela (Cate Blanchett) who will basically take over Asgard once Odin passes. She does lookin’ like a wicked, futuristic Victoria’s Secret model stag complete with pointy antlers and everything. She destroys Thor’s hammer and he’s whisked away to a colorful foreign planet where he’s imprisoned and forced into a deadly gladiatorial death match with… you know who. Oh and there's Jeff Goldblum at his most Jeff Goldblumy.

Oh boy, does anyone really care about the plots of this films? After sixteen of them we just want to see fun action and “Thor: Ragnarok” certainly delivers. The film is a visual treat thanks to Waititi’s flamboyant direction and the humor has thankfully been dialed up. There are some truly inspired bits here that are too good to spoil. Blanchett always makes a fantastic villain, but of course we knew that already. The film’s synth-heavy score by Mark Mothersbaugh completely works with the film’s colorful imagery as do some of the interesting song choices. It’s like an 80s cartoon come gloriously to campy life.

At this point are reviews even matter when it comes to the MCU? You know what you're getting into when you see one of these things. Marvel and Disney have proven that these movies are of high quality. Sure they don't always take many risks but they are unabashedly fun. Some are better than others. “Thor: Ragnarok” is definitely in the top tier. Even 17 movies in the film proves that the MCU still has plenty of fun tricks up its sleeves. Here's to 17 more!  GRADE: A-

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Puppet Master: “Jigsaw” is Back Whether We Like It or Not

“Jigsaw” is the return of the peculiarly popular moralistic gore-fest “Saw” series which sort of got old before the first movie ended. The first film, released back in 2004, was a surprise hit. The film looked great from it's clever marketing campaign but director James Wan, who would later go on to better successes like “Insidious” and “The Conjuring,” had crafted a disappointing film from an ingenious premise. And then it went on for six more films with the advertising practically threatening the public with Saw film after Saw film every Halloween for seven years straight. All these years later, we now get “Jigsaw” a reboot of sorts that's overall not a very good movie, but is way better than it has any right to be. Like it's predecessors it still features bland characters we don't care much about, brutal and somewhat suspenseful death scenes, and a surprisingly delicious if preposterous twist that somewhat makes the entire thing watchable.

The “Saw” films were like the fast food of horror, constantly being churned out, terrible for you but people ate it up anyway. This new entry follows in the series' footsteps by providing a new batch of “victims” who are being tested by an unknown perpetrator. The film begins with five strangers locked in a room with chains around their necks. They're dragged towards a wall full of spinning buzzsaws and must give blood as a sacrifice. The game is only the beginning for these unfortunate folks. As these folks get picked off one by one by more and more gruesome traps a pair of detectives on the outside are trying to solve the mystery of where these bodies are coming from. It seems to be the work of the “Jigsaw killer” John Cramer who died a decade prior.

There's a lot of “plot” here that feels out of place in a movie that people see just to see annoying characters get hacked up. It's mostly confusing for a while when the detectives begin suspecting the forensic pathologists they asked to work on the case to begin with. It's all very eyeball inducing… until the final twist is revealed and then I sat up and was like “oh that's better.” The more you think about it the more ridiculous it really is but can you blame writers Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger. They aren't exactly adapting Shakespeare here. They're also the guys who wrote the remakes “Piranha” and “Sorority Row.” So basically, don't think too hard and you might find yourself having a decent time.

If you were never a fan of the Saw films you may not be converted with “Jigsaw.” I'm somewhere in-between. The films were never all that “scary” but they did offer some pretty imaginative death scenes. They were basically the “Friday the 13th” film of the aughts: bad movies with great gore. New to the franchise are directors Peter and Michael Spierig. They follow the formula and make things interesting just enough to give the film the extra oomph to make it slightly better than anything that came before. “Jigsaw” is just good enough to recommend for those intrigued but others are wise to steer clear.  GRADE: B-

Monday, October 23, 2017

In the Loop: “Happy Death Day” is a Perfectly Winking, Goofy Twist on the Slasher Flick

Let’s hear it for Blumhouse huh? The production company really know what they’re doing when it comes to horror. Hot off the heels of “Get Out” from earlier this year is “Happy Death Day” which is basically “Mean Girls” meets “Scream” filtered through “Groundhog Day.” First of all it’s not exactly a rip off of “Groundhog Day” since a character even mentions the film at one point. The film uses that repeating day premise to basically tell a “Christmas Carol” type story about an unlikable person who becomes likable over the course of a ridiculous, fantastical situation. Except this time it isn’t a miserly old man, it’s a bitchy sorority girl who learns a lesson after repeating the last day of her life over and over again. “Happy Death Day” is a fantastic ode to the slasher subgenre with plenty of winking nods, a delightful cast, and a premise that never takes itself too seriously. It knows exactly what kind of film it is and just has fun. The film isn't the scariest horror flick to be sure, but it makes up for it with pure wit and charm.

Breakout star Jessica Rothe stars as sorority girl Tree Gelbman and she’s quickly obnoxious. She wakes up, disgusted that she’s in a dorm room and unable to remember the night before. She meets Carter (Israel Broussard) who took her home with him and she storms out of the room and back to the sorority house to start her day. It turns out it’s Tree’s birthday and she doesn’t seem very excited about it. Her dad keeps calling and she won’t answer the phone. We learn she’s sleeping with one of her married professors and is a generally unpleasant person. Then she gets murdered. Oh but then she immediately wakes up back in Carter’s dorm room and it’s the same day she just experienced. She got stuck in one of those pesky time loops you see in movies like “Groundhog Day” and “Edge of Tomorrow.” “Groundhog Day” tackled the comedic elements of that story and “Tomorrow” tackled the sci-fi action element. “Happy Death Day” applies it to the horror genre. And rather well I might ad.

Director Christopher Landon who wrote a bunch of the “Paranormal Activity” films and “Disturbia” really gets to the meat of the matter by giving us one of horror’s most interesting character arcs in quite some time. Horror films are usually too occupied with blood and guts to care much about the characters but here Tree is a full-fledged human being. She’s despicable at all the right parts but as she begins to live the same day over and over you get a sense of what’s been making her such a miserable person. And Rothe really brings her to life. By the film's end I wanted to hang out with her. Landon takes Scott Lobell’s witty script and just runs with it. Making some parts appropriately suspenseful and creepy (the baby mascot mask is equally eerie and silly) and making things funny at just the right moments. The film functions as a horror film should with plenty of things to make you jump balanced with plenty of tension-busting laughs. But it's not really all that frightening. But that's ok. There are enough bitchy catfights to make up for the lack of true scares.

It’s amazing how quickly you buy into the ridiculous premise in “Happy Death Day” (that’s thankfully never explained) and you find yourself rooting for something you started out hating. But that’s the point of course. Tree learns to be a better person by experiencing her own death over and over and over again. And for a film in which we’re forced to watch the same day over and over it’s surprisingly fresh and interesting each time and offers plenty of fun surprises along the way. This is highly recommended for genre fans who are willing to sit through something a little quirky, and purposely over-the-top in a fun, borderline campy way.  GRADE: A- 

Saturday, October 07, 2017

Battle of the Nexus: “Blade Runner 2049” is an Over-Stuffed, Slowly Paced Visual Treat

“Blade Runner” is one of those cult films that has just many ardent fans as it has detractors. “Blade Runner 2049” is much like its predecessor in that way. Many will absolutely love it, while many will be scratching their heads and trying to awaken their asleep rear ends. Like the first film, this new trip to the Blade Runner world is sort of a slog to sit through and while its visuals are nice and a handful of scenes are pretty spectacular, it doesn't quite add up to a completely rewarding and fulfilling cinematic experience. In other words, if you think “Blade Runner” is ‘kinda boring’ then just wait until you see the beautiful but lethargically paced “Blade Runner 2049.”

Ok ok, just calling a film long and boring doesn’t add up to much. And it’s impossible to call this movie terrible; it’s far from it. I love the world of this film. I love how the technology that was introduced in the first film has evolved here. (Let’s be honest, the 1982 film hasn’t aged very well) There is ingenious stuff to be found here for sure. I love the film’s take on Alexa-like AI technology. K (Ryan Gosling) has a holographic AI “girlfriend” named Joi (Ana de Armas, giving what is probably the trickiest performance in the film and she nails it). It’s his only real companion. This is a depressing, dystopian future highly reliant on technology of course. I love the grounded reality Gosling and D Armas bring to these scenes. Wonderful. Also great is a stunning performance from Sylvia Hoeks and her bangs, who bring terrifying robotic depth to a fantastic android villain.

Roger Deakins. The go-to brilliant cinematographer. Arguably the best living DP working today. It’s not surprisingly a visually arresting picture. What he can accomplish with light and color is breathtaking. Is this the best looking film he’s ever worked on? Not necessarily, but it’s certainly worthy of praise. I say it’s between him and Hoyte Van Hoytema (“Dunkirk”) for Best Cinematography this year. The same goes for the music; Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer’s loud score is fine with faint reflections of Vangelis’ original brilliance. But great visuals and music can only get you so far in a film that’s pushing three hours.

The story is what’s hard to become emotionally involved in. In such a bleak future I find it hard to find anyone to really care about. Hampton Fancher (who wrote the original) and Michael Green’s script has a lot to say about technology and where it’s going. But it takes too long to say it. Is it even possible to describe the plot of “Blade Runner 2049?” I don’t believe in spoiling anything so all I’ll say is that Gosling is a young Blade Runner (one who tracks down and kills Replicants) who’s discovery will lead him to seek out Deckard (Harrison Ford’s character). There’s a mystery element to the film that follows closely to the “noir” style of the original which works here.

Denis Villeneuve is a fascinating filmmaker ("Arrival" and "Prisoners" are damn near perfect) and is graceful when it comes to paying homage to the original film while pushing things forward in a new and interesting way. In a lot of ways he was born to make a Blade Runner film. Looking at the slower paced, deliberate style of his previous efforts, it all makes sense. Every shot is composed so well; I find no fault in the direction, it’s the story that just doesn’t click with me. The performances work, Gosling fits in perfectly playing up his dark, brooding charm that he does best. The Blade Runner world works, and the evolution of this world all makes sense. The films complement each other greatly, but I found the first movie’s pacing is shockingly slow. And that similar pacing and longer running time makes this a challenging film to really love.

Fans of “Blade Runner” are sure to love this new vision. It furthers the story in a way that makes sense, but I can’t really say it offers much to those who never got the appeal of the first film. Movies based on Philip K. Dick stories are always something original to be sure. I always admire the technical aspects of both films. The set design, the costumes, the visual effects are all top notch. The actors are outstanding. The world of both films is unique. The fact that it favors contemplative scenes over action scenes is fine. I’m sure it’ll be remembered as a classic of the genre years from now like “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Don’t really like that one either. GRADE: B-

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Volley Girl: “Battle of the Sexes” Serves Up Some Fun 70s Nostalgia




“Battle of the Sexes” continues the 70s nostalgia streak that Hollywood has fixated on in recent years. There’s been funny stuff like “American Hustle” and “The Nice Guys” and thrillers like “Argo.” “Battle of the Sexes” is fixated on the famous “battle of the sexes” match between feminist Billie Jean King and chauvinist Bobby Riggs. The film is about so much more than just a tennis match. Its themes and social issues are just as relevant today as they were back then and the film presents us with a fascinating character study of two very different people who were united by their love of one sport. “Battle of the Sexes” is a glorious and authentic recreation of 1970s Americana and features dedicated performances from an outstanding cast.

“Battle of the Sexes” is really three stories in one. So for my money it’s totally worth the price of admission. One story is about a woman, married to a man, who falls in love with another woman and begins to act on her repressed feelings towards the same sex. Another story is about the woman’s liberation movement of the 1970s and the equal rights half the population felt rightfully entitled to. And lastly the film is about a self-proclaimed male chauvinist and compulsive gambler. Maybe huge tennis fans will be disappointed? I mean this isn’t your typical feel-good sports movie. Though there’s a bit of that of course. The film’s script by Oscar-winning screenwriter Simon Beaufoy juggles the storylines impressively.

The film focuses mostly on tennis star Billie Jean King—played by reigning Best Actress Oscar winner Emma Stone—after becoming the woman’s tennis champion. It draws national attention and when she finds out she-and her fellow female players-won’t be getting as much money as male players, break off into their own division. It attracts the attention of aging tennis star Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell doing a sort of a creepy real life Austin Powers thing). The guy is a compulsive gambler and his wife (Elisabeth Shue, geez where’s this lady been?) has had enough. He figures his own way of redemption is with a special exhibition match between him and the world’s best female player. What better way to draw attention than male chauvinist pig vs. woman’s lib feminist?

Ms. King is dealing with her own conflict as she starts to have feelings for her hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough). The only thing is that Billie Jean is married to Larry (Andrew Stowell) who  has pretty much functioned as a beard for the world renowned  tennis star. A large chunk of the film focuses on Billie Jean and Marilyn’s relationship with both Stone and Riseborough having tremendous chemistry. Stone goes beyond just impersonation and gives a magician, touching performance. It’s easily her most mature performance to date. Everyone gets a moment or two to shine including a great supporting turn from funny lady Sarah Silverman as plucky manager Gladys Heldman.

“Battle of the Sexes” is assuredly directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton who rose to fame as the helmers of 2006’s breakout hit “Little Miss Sunshine.” They balance humor and drama magnificently. Emma’s story is very serious and Steve’s is more comical. The shift in tones works for the film and is dripping with 70s style, from the costumes and hair to every pan and zoom. The film has the prestige of a “based on true events” docudrama while making important points about where we are in society today. And it’s not afraid to present to us the type of characters who aren’t normally featured in mainstream films. There’s a palatable honesty there that really works. And I dug it.  GRADE: A-


 

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Boston Common: “Stronger” is a Powerful Tale of a Flawed, Reluctant Hero

“Stronger” isn't so much about the Boston Marathon bombing as much as what it's like for a normal person to experience a terrible tragedy. David Gordon Green the director behind silly stoner comedies “Your Highness” and “Pineapple Express” and the upcoming “Halloween” reboot seems like the last person to be telling this story but his roots in independent dramas set the stage for a harrowing drama about a person who reluctantly became a “hero” in a time of tragedy. He's a flawed person and the film doesn't shy away from it. “Stronger” transcends your standard issue “based on a true story” drama by refusing to wallow in sentimentality and cliches and instead presents us with a serious character study about post-traumatic stress that is all the more powerful because the actors give complete, and moving performances.

Jeff Bauman was a regular guy when he showed up at the finish line of the Boston marathon to cheer on his his on and off again girlfriend. Then a bomb went off right next to him and his life changed forever. He lost his legs. And he was able to help identify the bomber. Very quickly, a photograph of him after the bombing became front page news. He became the face of the bombing. He was a hero because he survived. He was not only a victim of the bombing, but he was a victim of being thrust into the spotlight. He suffered for quite some time after the bombing only only having to deal with the loss of his legs but having to deal with constantly being thought of as a hero. It messed with his mind. And in “Stronger” Jake Gyllenhaal gives an outstanding performance as Jeff.

Through the magic of modern technology Jake's legs are wiped away onscreen and it's extremely convincing. There's even a joke at one point about how he's like Lt. Dan from “Forrest Gump.” His girlfriend Erin is played by Orphan Black's Tatiana Maslany and she also gives a fierce performance. It might be easy to dismiss Erin's characters as “reactive” since most of her scenes involve watching the hell that Jeff is going through. But the onscreen chemistry between Jake and Tatiana is palatable. They feel like regular people. The stand out supporting player certainly is Miranda Richardson as Jeff's working-class mom Patty. She's eccentric in that Bostonian way and reminds me a lot of what Melissa Leo was doing in “The Fighter.” In fact, maybe it's just the accents, but the film sort of reminded me of “The Fighter.” That film's wasn't so much about boxing as it was about a family. In that way “Stronger” isn't so much about the tragic marathon bombings. John Pollono's script is about one man's experience in the aftermath of it and how it affects him and his immediate family and friends.

I imagine it would be a lot of pressure to be the symbol of “Boston Strong.” Being thrust into the public eye when you never asked for it is a lot to deal with. Add having to learn to walk again without legs is something most people couldn't even fathom. Green's film is small and intimate. In a lot of ways it's the complete opposite of last year's Boston bombing film “Patriots Day” which functioned as a thriller. “Stronger” is more interested in getting into the mind of a reluctant hero than making any political statements. It's a wise move in a movie that surprisingly refuses to play it safe. Or maybe I'm just a sucker for a good Boston-set film.  GRADE: B+
 

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Jennifer’s Body: “mother!” is One of the Weirdest Movies Ever; I Can’t Stop Thinking About It



“Mother!” is that crazy movie that your artsy film professor loves, made you watch in class, and no one gets. Think Jean-Luc Godard’s “Weekend” or Peter Greenaway’s “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover.” Except it stars people you've heard of. If you haven’t even heard of these movies, it’s probably best that you skip “mother!” I’m sure most people are expecting to see a creepy home invasion thriller starring their favorite movie star it-girl Jennifer Lawrence. Wait, are audiences are turned off by the fact that there’s little exposition and weird stuff happens (like beating organs appearing when Lawrence touches the walls of her house)? If you haven’t walked out by this point you must be game for one of the strangest and far-out studio films I’ve ever witnessed in a multiplex. “mother!” will frustrate your mind, mess with your mind, confuse it and then challenge it. It’s a film that will hardly make a lick of sense as you’re watching it but just might come together if you discuss what the hell you just saw with those around you. And the internet, thank God for the internet.



Literally “mother!” is about a couple played by Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem who live in an isolated farm house. Jennifer is fixing up the place and Javier is a poet with a severe case of writer’s block. Their idyllic life is complicated by the appearance of a strange man (Ed Harris). Javier wants to be hospitable and Jennifer begrudgingly obliges. But then the man’s weird wife (Michele Pfeiffer) shows up and causes more chaos. At this point audience members should be screaming at the screen for Jennifer to kick these annoying house guests/strangers out of their freaking house. But can anything that is happening in this movie really be taken literally? Soon something tragic happens and Jennifer is STILL just trying to be accommodating. But everyone around her, including the eventual mob of people who show up at one point are just plain rude and refuse to listen to her.



And then Jennifer becomes a mother, literally. Like overnight. How can you NOT real this as an allegory, fable, metaphor for fill-in-the-blank.  (Like I would spoil it for you). Even if you “get” what’s going on, and most people, myself included, don’t really right away, many have labeled the film pretentious rubbish. That’s a fair criticism. However, this is the type of movie that makes zero sense while watching it but makes me want to learn as much about it afterwards. Think “Under the Skin” with Scarlett Johansson. Or “Enemy” with Jake Gyllenhaal. Those are fun movies to discuss and analyze, but aren’t exactly the most fun to actually watch. Nothing in these films are supposed to be taken literally but in that way a majority of this nonsense actually makes plenty of sense. If you’re willing to put forth the effort. I'll help: environment and religion.



This all comes from the twisted mind of Darren Aronofsky of course. Who traumatized art house audiences with his big breakthrough “Requiem for a Dream.” He’s sort of a shock artist. He knows that. He wants to get under your skin and show you something you probably haven’t seen before. He’s an assured director and makes very specific choices. The cinematography in “mother!” might even annoy you. So many tight shots. Jennifer Lawrence going up the stairs, coming down the stairs. Claustrophobia. There’s also no music score. The sound is the score. The film is a triumph of production design. The third act is an orgy of visuals and captivating choreography. It’s fascinating filmmaking, even if it seems to make no sense. But every decision is purposeful.



Do I recommend you see “mother!”? I found it captivating and frustrating. Your mileage may vary. There are some shocking images in here that most viewers aren’t used to seeing. Some will find it appalling. Some will find it disgusting. Some will just complain that it’s boring and makes no sense. I was never bored. But I was always confused. Maybe there’s one too many metaphors in there sure. I’m surprised mainstream audiences haven’t stormed the projection booth with pitchforks and tiki torches. But I have a question. Without giving too much away, if religion is still so darned popular today how come more people aren’t praising “mother!” as the second coming of Christ? You’ll know why if you take a chance.  GRADE: B+
 

Saturday, September 09, 2017

The Fears of a Clown: Moviegoers Will Never Forget the Truly Fantastic “It”

In the 80s the Stephen King adaptation was practically its own genre. There were over a dozen Stephen King films stuffed into one decade ranging from diverse titles like “The Shining” and “Christine” to “Stand by Me” and “Pet Sematary.” And I’m not even including all those TV movies like 1990’s “It.” But like all fads they eventually fade. There have been some here and there like the utterly miscalculated “Dreamcatcher” and some bright spots like “The Mist” and “1408.” And now we have the extremely popular “It;” its first time being adapted for the big screen. With the popularity of nostalgic successes like Netflix’s “Stranger Things” and a surprise recent surge in quality studio horror films, the new big screen “It” improves immensely on the well-respected but sluggish 90s TV mini-series. The filmmakers aren’t clowning around; it’s an intense flick and features appealing characters brought to life by charming kid actors, imaginative direction, and an amusingly wicked performance at its center.

Clowns. They're terrifying. Or at least a certain segment of the population thinks so. That's probably why so many people remember the 1990 TV adaption of Stephen King's popular novel “It” as being particularly frightening. Let's all admit the truth. The film is somewhat of a slog and most people probably just remember the 20 or so creepy minutes Tim Curry appears on screen as Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Now, finally, director Andy Muschietti has brought Pennywise to the big screen where he deserves to be. And what a fun roller coaster ride the film is.

This epic horror flick follows a group of prepubescent friends as they deal with typical teenage things like bullies and an evil being that takes the form of their worst fears, which is mostly a creepy clown. It is Pennywise and here he's played with charming, horrific glee by Bill Skarsgård. The story centers around young Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) after his younger brother Georgie goes missing. Apparently the small town of Derry, Maine has a terrible history of tragedy and death, which includes lots of missing children. All of Bill's friends have been seeing a creepy clown and other frightening manifestations. There's Stranger Things' Finn Wolfhard as the smart-mouthed Richie, portly new kid on the block Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), home-schooled outcast Mike (Chosen Jacobs), hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), the Jewish kid Wyatt (Stanley Uris), and the girl of the group Beverly (Sophia Lillis).

Every one of these young actors bring their fully formed characters to life. Truly outstanding performances all around. You're instantly are on their side and are easy to identify with. Focusing solely on the kids' traumatic experiences dealing with this scary monster sort of makes the film feel like a creepy (and profane) version of “The Goonies.” The film's witty script (from True Detective's Cary Fukunaga, Annabelle's Gary Dauberman, and Chase Palmer) focuses just as much on humor and heart as it does on frights. Humor and fear has always gone together hand and hand and Muschietti finds a surprisingly successful balance. The film goes to some truly dark places, but you'll laugh just as much as you'll jump. The frights are brought to the screen with fantastic effects and some truly creepy imagery. The R-rated film also has enough tense moments to give the most seasoned horror fans a jolt (my favorite being the tense Nightmare on Elm Street-like sequence involving hair, a sink drain, and lots of blood). It helps that you really like these kids and watching them in peril is a stressful experience.

You wouldn't know it from the clever marketing (or even opening titles) but “It” is actually technically “It: Chapter One;” which appears onscreen during the film's closing credits. I'm sure producers were waiting to see how this film turned out. I'm happy to report that Chapter Two (which would most likely focus on these characters as adults) can't be far away. And rightfully so; “It” is a sheer delight from beginning to end. It's not often that a horror film is described as a delight but there you go. It's funny, it's scary, it's nostalgic without going overboard. The film feels like a strange mix of “Stand By Me” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” It hits all the right emotional buttons, I was hooked instantly and you're practically guaranteed to see a bit of yourself in these kids. “It” is sure to frighten a whole new generation of kids who are probably too young to be seeing it and piss off anyone who makes a living as a circus clown. If films this good only came around every 27 years it'd certainly be worth the wait.  GRADE: A

Monday, August 14, 2017

Agonize & Dolls: The Creepy “Annabelle: Creation” is a Welcomed Addition to the “Conjuring-verse”

Almost every movie series is a “universe” nowadays. It's not always superheroes. Sometimes it's a shared universe revolving around... paranormal investigators from Connecticut? Is the “Conjuring-verse” really a thing? I guess so. Kicking things off in 2013, “The Conjuring” told the true story of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren from Monroe, CT. Locals know them well and the rest of the world got to know them as a somewhat fictionalized versions of themselves that got transported to the big screen. The movie was a deservedly massive hit and, best of all, it was scary. The film is a new classic of the horror genre. It wasn't going to end there. A spinoff followed called “Annabelle;” it was appropriately critically reviled as it felt somewhat neutered compared to “The Conjuring.” It was completely fine if somewhat cliché-ridden. “The Conjuring 2” turned things back in the right direction because you realized how fantastic Ed and Lorraine are as characters. And actors Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga embodied them so well. Now we're back to Annabelle, the real-life Chucky, in a prequel to a prequel that no one really asked for but here it is. And it's thankfully nowhere near terrible. “Annabelle: Creation” has decent characterizations, doesn't follow the formula, and offers enough fun thrills to make it worth your time.



“Annabelle: Creation” is successful most likely due to director David F. Sandberg's who conjured up his own feature length debut with last year's clever horror flick “Lights Out.” He brings the same ingenuity here and it shows. Set years before the events of “Annabelle” the film follows a small group of orphan girls who seek refuge in the home of a couple who years prior lost their own little girl in a car accident. Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) is the guy who created the creepy Annabelle dolls, whom he had named after his daughter. His wife Esther (Miranda Otto) is bedridden and hides behind a mask for initially unknown reasons. The girls are accompanied by Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman) who is one of the stronger horror characters of recent memory. But the real stars here are the young girls who dominate the film's story. Janice (Talitha Bateman) is a girl with polio who after some exploring finds the Annabelle doll locked away in a room she shouldn't be going into. Linda is her friend whom she quickly forms a sisterly bond with. (Linda is played by Lulu Wilson who is sort of the Jamie Lee Curtis of child actors having previously appeared in last year's “Ouija: Origin of Evil” and 2014's “Deliver Us From Evil”). All hell breaks loose after that. Things begin to go bump in the night and it becomes obvious that the Mullins are holding a terrible secret and the doll might be the vessel for something extremely sinister.



“Annabelle: Creation” doesn't quite feel like it's predecessor. Even if it has some haunted house movie elements, it feels somewhat fresh. If anything the film has a Foreign gothic horror vibe and reminds me more of something like “The Orphanage” or “The Devil's Backbone.” The film earns it's scares and even if I didn't find anything outright too scary, the look of the sinister being – as first seen in the first “Annabelle- is perfectly designed and completely terrifying. The performances here are also extraordinarily above average for this type of film which is amazing considering a majority of the cast are children and young teens. Screenwriter Gary Dauberman wisely takes a different approach from the first film. I really like the period setting; it's refreshing to not see characters relying on smart phones with no service or other means of “this isn't working at the moment” technology that riddles most modern horror films. The story is also almost completely set in the Mullins' home. You'd think the same location would eventually get dull, but Sandberg is always keeping things interesting. Like other films in this universe, the film doesn't rely on graphic violence, which is surprising given all four film's R ratings. The films are definitely disturbing. “Saw” they are not.



“Annabelle: Creation” is a completely fine addition to the ever expanding “Conjuring-verse.” “The Nun” is already in production and this film even hints at it. The “Annabelle” films aren't as good as “The Conjuring” or it's fantastic sequel, but considering the genre's penchant for diminishing returns I'm happy to report that the latest trip to the Conjuring-verse is a creepy trip worth taking.  GRADE: B+


Thursday, August 03, 2017

Blonde Ambition: The Highly Stylized “Atomic Blonde” is More Style than Substance



Gunplay. Chases. Double agents. Communism. A fetching Charlize Theron. We’ve all seen it before. “Atomic Blonde” doesn’t really add anything new to the spy thriller genre, but what it does right it does really well. It’s completely style over substance- it’s difficult to care much about anyone onscreen- but it features a few standout sequences which make it worth checking out. And the story is somewhat confusing in a way that makes it way too easy to want to tune out. Theron gives another great performance and the action scenes are directed flawlessly. But cool camerawork will only take a view so far after all.

How does one explain the plot of “Atomic Blonde” without droning on and on? Charlize Theron is Lorraine Broughton a British MI6 agent tasked with tracking down a list of Soviet agents hidden in a wrist watch that was initially in the hands of a murdered colleague. She’s sent to Berlin during the Cold War and the entire film is set during the collapse of the Berlin Wall. In fact, every time clips of real Berlin Wall footage was shown on TV screens I sort of wish I was watching a documentary about the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. This isn’t that movie. There’s lots of guns and fights and rather graphic deaths. Oh and Theron’s character is a lesbian – or is at least part of her cover- so let be that worth to you whatever it may be.

At some point my eyes began to glaze over as I was bombarded with stylish action scenes and heavy dialogue that just made the plot more muddled. I found myself not really caring about these people. There’s also James McAvoy as a British agent – he’s great in the role – but like most of the characters we don’t get to know much about them so it’s hard to root for anyone. The soundtrack is awesome and filled with delightful 80s pop tunes that match the beautiful neon-drenched scenery. But the real showstopper is a glorious long take action sequence which begins as a fight scene in a stairwell and ends with a car chase. Savvy viewers will spot the hidden edits but it’s no less impressively staged.

“Atomic Blond” is based on a graphic novel (“The Coldest City”) and that’s obvious. We’ve seen so many graphic novel adaptations it’s hard to keep track. They all sort of tend to feel the same after a while. The direction from David Leitch is impressive; he doesn’t always just follow the formula. And Kurt Johnstad’s script, even if it’s a big convoluted, offers a few decent twists and turns, though the flashback framing device has been done before and feels stale. I enjoyed the setting and the soundtrack. Theron is good as always.  Overall what we have here is a mixed bag and a film that prefers style over substance. I’m not completely surprised.  GRADE: B-