IT (*****) is a triumph of skill and understanding

IT-2017-Movie-Poster

IT – 2017

Director Andy Muschietti
Screenplay by  Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, Gary Dauberman based on the novel by Stephen King
Starring  Jaeden Lieberher, Bill Skarsgård, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Nicholas Hamilton, Jackson Robert Scott, Owen Teague

There is a sweet moment midway through IT when the still forming “Losers” take a dive into a quarry for an afternoon swim. There is only one girl, Beverly (Lillis) in the group. She has a crush forming with Bill (Lieberher). Meanwhile, the chubby, thoughtful Ben (Taylor) has unrequited feelings for Beverly. Everyone is treading water with their heads halfway above the surface. Beverly’s innocently beautiful stare hits a slightly aloof Bill. Just to the side, the camera pans to Ben, who stares even more beautifully and innocently at Beverly. The kids are too young in 1989 to have anything but love to put out towards each other, even if the world has shown them some amount of brutality. As important, its obvious that the person holding the camera loves these kids, and what they represent to everyone experiencing this film. This is the point that won me over in IT.

The people who worked on IT, in every version of this film on its path to theaters understand the importance of the fact that all of the film’s viewers were all young at one point. To say that they understand the power of Stephen King’s ability to write about youth at least as well as Rob Reiner (Stand By Me) is cutting short how well they nailed this feeling. It’s amazing that they were able to stitch together a cohesive story, much less one of the best in a great year for movies.

Having watched the mini-series last weekend in preparation, my expectations were minimal. The first attempt at the story feels like agony when Tim Curry is not onscreen. The acting for the kids half of the story is passable, but the adult characters are some kind of torture. To be fair, even the source material feels this way. King’s kids have always felt more relatable than his grown up characters. Thankfully, the filmmakers gave themselves the gift of being able to establish the story with these stronger characters as we don’t get a whiff of the adults in the second half of the novel.

Even more, the story is streamlined to maximize the effectiveness on what it is preying on the children. IT is much better defined on its own terms. The effect is helped by making more subtle, realistic and separate the effect of the adults on their kids in the town of Derry, Maine.

For the few out there who don’t know, IT is represented most often in the guise of a clown, named Pennywise. Pennywise is not IT’s only form. There are changes from child to child, depending on what it is that makes them the most scared. Fear is an important factor in the disappearing of the children in this town, as we discover in the abduction and death of George Denbrough. He’s definitely dead, but he’s lured towards that gruesome end in such a deliberate way as to infer there’s something larger going on. George’s brother, Bill, has the same idea. In the months following his brother’s death, Bill has done some investigating. He knows something bigger is going on, as more and more kids are disappearing.

As school lets out and summer begins, he comes across more kids who have had similar but not identical experiences. These kids are given abbreviated backstories, but each of the most important aspects are covered. The Bowers gang works as a brutally scary force to push them together in an organic way. As their bond forms, they share their fears and begin to investigate them.

The acting for each of the kids is pretty much spot on. Lieberher has a sensitive nature that absorbs feeling and pushes it back out into the world in the form of empathy. Lillis carries the lonely role of idealized young girl with a grace and bravery worthy of the character. Given that she is almost an exact miniature of Amy Adams, she has the skill to match that belies her age.

As Ben, Taylor gives the sweetest performance. His moments resonate with anyone who didn’t look the way they wanted to as a child, but found a way to push forward through the disappointment. Wolfhard is excellent at showing the natural comic ability (note, I didn’t say “chops”) of Richie Tozier. The character is head and shoulders above the novelization. His is a face we’re seeing a lot of lately. And with the incredible Stranger Things about to embark on its second season, we’re bound to see him a lot more.

As Pennywise the Dancing Clown, Skarsgård succeeds in wresting the mantel of most effectively creepy clown away from Curry. At the very least, it’s a draw. He is a full-fledged, cohesive character with actual motives and a consistency that the nature of the mini-series did not allow the first time. There is a tricky, sweet cajoling that he employs that is effective as it is creepy. His clown draws you in before pouncing. There is a chance that his Pennywise could trick me, while there’s no way in hell I would give Curry’s the time of day. I don’t ever think I will hear the word “popcorn” the same way again.

Most of the film’s success I have to give to the collaboration of Muschietti and the writers Palmer, Fukunaga and Dauberman. It’s no accident that the feelings of winsome and terrible youth ring true. Each of the contributors have a track record that shows they have the ability to create authentic characters that possess authentic emotions. This helps when it comes to scaring the hell out of someone. You need to feel like there are real people to ever get a sense that the stakes are real.

The camera work is ethereal, even for standard shots. The chase scene with Ben is given a grandeur and desperation that would be absent were it not for the overhead shot of his running down the river in sheer terror. You can’t see his face, but the scenery threatens to reveal him to his pursuers. Terror like this is unexpected in a typical film.

This is definitely in the top 10 of Stephen King stories put in front of a camera. It may even be top 5. Stand By Me, Misery, Shawshank Redemption and maybe Dolores Claiborne are better than this. Some may argue The Shining, but not even King likes the Kubrick version that much.

The people making this movie love the art of making film. There is no ham handed jokes that play out awkwardly. Even if some of the scares are telegraphed, some very important ones take you unaware. This is a movie for people who don’t require spoon-feeding. A prominent example happens when Eddie (Grazer) has his cast signed by one of his schoolmates who is not exactly a friend. The joke doesn’t materialize until several minutes later, wordlessly, as the rest of his friends discuss something entirely different.

This should be on everyone’s list of top films, even in this banner year for movies. IT is a triumph of skill and understanding what it is to move human beings.

(***** out of *****)

 

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Adams and Jefferson on Vertigo and Aliens in 70mm

AdamsJefferson

CoolPapaE:

The 70mm film Festival at Seattle’s Cinerama is almost a moot point by now. So many theaters offer a premium movie experience Cinemark’s XD is the one closest to my house, it’s hard to imagine driving to Seattle to see it there would be much better than what I could get within 3 miles.  Still, the big reissues don’t make their way to the suburbs often, so when WeMissE said we had an opportunity to see one of our favorite Hitchcock films along with another of our favorite films in the Alien franchise, I couldn’t pass it up.

When it comes to Hitchcock, I offer not much in the way of expertise, certainly not as much as WME, the author of the Alfred Hitch-Blog. I doubt any one of my friends or acquantances are as invested in the Xenomorphs as CPE. So I figured we compliment each other enough to give it our best back and forth.

Vertigo70mm

To start, let’s go to the nearly 60 year old Jimmy Stewart classic performance as John “Scottie” Ferguson. Watching this movie, I became aware of many things. Primary among these: I don’t know if anyone could play the role of a man as completely as James Stewart. I can’t say I have ever seen any male actor express the curiosity, bravery and vulnerability so completely. My appreciation for his skill has never been higher. The big screen allows us the rare opportunity to view nuance that we kind of assumed, based on his voice and mannerisms. Seeing him in this detail brought out something more than the small screen ever afforded us before. What do you think?

WeMissE:  

Yes, seeing Jimmy Stewart on the big screen was a revelation.  I’ve seen this movie before at least 5 times, so I felt like I knew it pretty well.  But seeing Stewart’s face in close up on that big Cinerama screen showed me things I’d never seen before.  There is always something going on behind those bright blue eyes of his.  You can see his thought process, as his character goes from interest, to love, to loss, to obsession, to anger.    For anyone who thinks of Stewart as a lightweight, this movie is exhibit A to refute that. Funnily enough, Hitchcock said years after the movie’s release that maybe one of the reasons Vertigo didn’t perform better at the box office was because Stewart was too old for the part.   I think Hitch was dead wrong on that count.  This role needed a seasoned actor, because Ferguson is someone who has been around the block a few times, which makes the final act all the more profound.  And I agree, I don’t think any other actor could have given the shadings to the character that Stewart does.

How about Kim Novak?   Specifically seeing her on the big screen.  Novak as Madeline, in the first half of the film, is exquisitely beautiful.  She as an almost other-worldly beauty, particularly in a couple of scenes.  What do you think about Novak?

Vertigo bed

CoolPapaE: 

So many things came to mind when seeing Novak’s Madeline waking topless, strategically covered after Scottie rescues her from beneath the Golden State Bridge. First of all, it’s one of the most overtly sexual scenes I have seen from that era. The feeling that Stewart is in a bedroom with what we know of as a married woman feels wrong. That feeling of dread grows slowly, to the point where we are in a near frenzy by the time he kisses her for the first time. We know this is all horribly indecent. We know it has to happen. Hitchcock plays the audience beautifully. Never before did this scene or those after it move me, even though I have seen it easily a half dozen times.

That is the power of Hitchcock on the big screen for me. The overly descriptive eyes of Stewart exploring every inch of Madeline. We become just as obsessed as Ferguson, to the point where we too are ignorant of the very pretty Bel Geddes in our quest to complete the journey with Scottie. We have to play this out .

By the time we get to the scene with Judy coming out of the green haze, it makes complete sense to us, even though we’ve made it through some pretty silly and dated dialogue (“Judy, please, it can’t matter to you.”) by that point. Hitchcock uses every inch of the very large frame to capture us in his ever shrinking world. It’s incredible how he can do this, but it’s often his casting of Novak isn’t any kind of mistake.

Kim’s frame is very statuesque and her acting is never sharper than it is here. She is completely a captive to her time. Manipulated by one man (Bailey’s Elster) and then another. She completely commands the screen early on with a helpless Scottie, only to be commanded by him after the death of Elster’s wife. It’s a completely mesmerizing experience on the big screen. One I completely dismissed up to now.

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Is it possible for us to be cheated so badly of Hitchcock’s power by not seeing all of his films the way he intended for us to see them?

WeMissE:

Very insightful points about Kim Novak.  Interestingly, Vera Miles was originally cast in the role of Madeline/Judy.  She became pregnant, and the film was locked into a tight shooting schedule because Jimmy Stewart was already committed to another project after this.  Hitchcock was furious with Miles, and had to find a replacement in relatively short order, ultimately settling on Kim Novak.  As fine an actress as Vera Miles can be (I’m thinking of The Searchers, and Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man and Psycho) she has a wholesomeness that would not have worked at all for this role.   Her pregnancy was a blessing from the movie gods, because Novak gives a career-defining performance.   I would go so far to say that she is the ultimate Hitchcock blonde, the perfect idealization of what he was constantly trying to portray with his leading ladies.

To answer your question, there is something to be said for seeing a movie like this on a big screen, as the director originally intended.  This is the second Hitchcock movie I’ve seen on the big screen, the other being North by Northwest.  While I was impressed with that one in the theater, the difference was not as profound as in this case.  I think the subtle psychological complexities of Vertigo can be missed on a small screen.  I am sure that seeing it in a theater has altered my perceptions, and will affect future viewings.  And I definitely have a short list of other Hitchcock movies that I think would benefit from a big screen viewing.

One of Hitchcock’s great strengths, on his best films, was recognizing and surrounding himself with an incredibly talented team of filmmakers.   This film basically features the Hitchcock all-stars:  Bernard Herrmann as composer, Edith Head as costume designer, Saul Bass as title designer, Bob Burks as cinematographer.    How important do you think it was for Hitchcock’s overall vision to have such a great team?  How much do their individual talents contribute to the vision of the movie as a whole?  Is Hitchcock ultimately the auteur, or is there more than one hand guiding the creative output?

CoolPapaE: 

There can be no question of the combination of skill, talent and drive of which Alfred Hitchcock is comprised. I don’t even think I am qualified to assess exactly how much this combination was pollinated or did the pollinating.

Indeed, there is an incredible wealth of talent for this film, and this is not the only film that he made that approached this amount, even if they didn’t all work with him every time. What’s more amazing is that the film was such a complete non-event at the time of its release. Barely making its money back and significantly under-performing  many of Hitchcock’s other releases. It did receive two Oscar nominations for Best Art Direction and Best Sound.

From a Hitchcock layman’s point of view, I have to say the film is incredibly moving, in spite – no maybe because of its unusual plot, its incredible attention to detail and its spiraling, obsessive soundtrack. These things grab your attention when you are watching on a huge screen and the true vision of a genius takes a hold of the crowd and doesn’t let you go. If I were more a fan of his popular work, would I have enjoyed this as much?

Which is to say, how much does what one expects affect their enjoyment of what they see?

WeMissE:

I think expectations can definitely impact enjoyment.  I believe this is precisely why this movie was not a bigger hit upon its release. It certainly did not bomb;  it made around $7 million upon its initial release.  But compare that to the $36 million that Rear Window had made just four years previously.  Audiences had come to expect certain things from a “Hitchcock movie.”   And this movie subverted those expectations. Hitchcock was always very conscious of what the audience was seeing, and how they would interpret his images.  But in this case, he was self-indulgent;  he made the film he wanted to make.  Audiences were expecting the thrills, but they also wanted to see some some typical Hitchcockian humor, and a happy ending for the romantic leads.  But these elements are lacking here.  A 1958 audience was not ready for these dark themes.

One final note, while Hitchcock often called Shadow of a Doubt his own personal favorite of his own films, he described Vertigo as his most personal.  Many critics have taken this to mean that he saw himself in Scotty Ferguson.  Hitchcock took actresses, molded and shaped them, told them what to wear, how to walk and talk, made them into idealized versions of themselves, and then discarded them when the filming was complete.  I’m not sure if I believe this was a conscious choice, but I do think this movie is one of the most visually haunting films I’ve ever seen on the big screen.

CoolPapaE:

Speaking of haunting, Aliens is one of the few sequels that actually expands on the first film. Just like Empire Strikes Back, this sequel is seen by many as the best in the series. Indeed, there likely would not be a “series” continuing to present day were it not for this powerful film. This is one of only two films that I had not seen on the big screen and I am so happy I was able to partake on this special adaptation, given that I don’t think it was originally intended at 70 mm. Even so, the conversion process is magnificently rendered, except for a few uneven spots in the third act.

Everyone knows the story by now, but the story we all know is not the version that was originally released, or even re-released. Primarily what we miss this time is some implied plot points (Hadley’s Hope being sent to the derelict ship by Burke is spelled out and a little more set up in the barricade being two). The biggest thing that we miss with this version is finding out that Ripley had a daughter. This is pretty important to the future of the franchise as well as the movie itself. Having that cut out just takes some of the resonance from the story, not to mention her Oscar worthy performance.

How does this affect the film in 70mm? For me it brings more focus on the gifts inherent in Cameron’s pure vision. The press for the film has emphasized the militaristic imagery. We have space marines heading into the fight with much gusto and little forethought. The best thing about this take is really how quickly those who weren’t “listening” to Ripley’s warnings are dispensed with and we’re really just back to basics in record time. Still, it’s great to see all of that macho shit in a big screen. It makes the fall seem that much more drastic.

What stood out for you, WeMissE?

WeMissE:

The one thing that really stood out to me was the close-ups.  Cameron gives Sigourney Weaver lots of close-ups, and you really feel the impact on the big screen.  Also I was reminded how great Bill Paxton’s performance is.  Of course, its all the more poignant now that he has left us prematurely.

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I also thought, as I watched this on the big screen, that James Cameron had a very specific visual aesthetic in the 80’s and early 90’s.   Ignoring his last two mammoth films, whose box office was exceeded only by Cameron’s ego, and focusing on the films from Terminator through True Lies, he has a distinct style and sure-handedness in his direction.  I’m feeling like I haven’t given him enough credit.  My question to you is:  does Cameron get his due as a director?  Was he never considered a serious director because he made nothing but Sci-Fi and action prior to Titanic?  Or has he lost points in the ensuing years?

CoolPapaE:

There has never been another director like Cameron. He’s not one to follow anyone’s path or expectations. I have absolutely no qualms with his choices, even if his last few movies have been bigger spectacle and less story.  To the point when he directed Aliens, he had less power than he ever would again. It took exactly two releases to change this forever. You have to admire what he has done, and I look forward to what he does in the future, Avatar sequels or not.

We see his power with actors in Aliens. He takes a bunch of faces you’ve never been aware of previously and he makes them permanent fixtures in the national psyche. I have been a huge fan Henriksen and Biehn since this film. Paxton, what more can I say but he’s got his own category in this blog. Say what you want about Cameron’s technical prowess, it’s the fact that his actors keep coming back to work with him that makes me realize his skill with them is something special.

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As for the closeups, yes, this film has perhaps the best closeups I have ever seen. From Bishop’s intensely ambiguous stare to the look between Vasquez and Gorman’s look before they meet their end and of course Ripley’s subtle tilt of her head when she makes up her mind in the last act, Cameron knows the power of adding one’s face into the puzzle to be solved.

Cameron is not the perfect director, but he is certainly one of the best we’ve ever seen. His optics have consistently improved with every film and his stories, while not perfect, are always HIS stories. His movement from the Abyss, through T2, then Titanic and finally Avatar have constantly pushed movie making technology forward. 70mm shows the technical precision in the most intricate practical effects of the time. One can’t tell where Winston ends and Cameron’s lens begins. For me, he’s beyond Spielberg in this realm and at least on par with Lucas.

Am I pushing the comparison too far?

WeMissE:

No, I think that is an apt comparison.  Hell, Lucas has only directed six movies.  Just the fact that he is the creator of the most popular film franchise of all time elevates him to an almost mythic status.  And the prequels were a perfect illustration of the limitations of digital trickery.  And Spielberg is far more prolific than Cameron, but he tends to follow every good movie with two or three throwaways.  I hadn’t really thought about it until I read the way you put it, but Cameron really has just kept slowly climbing that mountain, doing what he wants to do, and improving the medium.

Nice observation about Cameron’s use of actors, too.  I guess that is one thing this movie shares with its predecessor.  Every character is a genuine person, not a caricature.  The soldiers have a genuine camaraderie; we can feel their backstory without even needing to hear it.   This is a quality sorely lacking in the more recent entries in this franchise.  But this one improves upon the original.

Just as was the case with Vertigo, I left Cinerama that night with a deeper appreciation for a movie that I thought I knew inside and out.   Some movies really deserve to be seen on a screen as big as the directors’ ambitions.

Any final thoughts, CoolPapaE?

CoolPapaE

One thing that had amazingly never occurred to me is about that the drop ship that had the Alien aboard (“Spunkmeyer?“). All this time, after at least 30 viewings, I never could understand how an Alien had made it aboard when it seemed the ship had only dropped for a second at the beginning. Seeing this on such a huge screen made it clear to me that this was not the only time the ship dropped. After they get to the Med Lab and just as Bishop is getting set up, we see him pushing boxes on a wheel cart in the background:

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All this time, I thought I had caught Cameron on a technical detail. Nope, he just was not obvious and transparent with every move.

Yes, this film has elevated the Alien franchise to a height and mythology that it hasn’t even approached since. Sure, Ridley seemed to be onto something when he posted what looked to be the Alien Queen on a mural in Prometheus. Now with the foolishness in Alien Covenant seems to have washed it all away though. It’s like Ridley is the only one in the universe that thinks a robot created the Xenomorph. What a waste.

It was a great night and a wonderful experience. It indeed broadened my appreciation and changed my vantage on two remarkable films. I can’t wait to do it next year.

 

Mississippi Grind (****1/2) – Wind it out

mississippi-grind_posterMississippi Grind – 2016

Written and Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck
Starring Ryan Reynolds, Ben Mendelsohn, Sienna Miller, Analeigh Tipton, Alfre Woodard, Robin Weigert, James Toback

“How much do you owe?”

“A lot.”

“To who?”

“Everyone.”

This is the rallying cry that brings a burgeoning friendship between Gerry and Curtis to the decision of throwing their lots together and bringing their trains of misery on a trip towards glory.

The fact that they are trapped in a miserable existence doesn’t hinder the process of decision-making. In fact, it informs their decisions. They didn’t end up at the same table by accident. They didn’t get there by providence, either. Though you’d be hard pressed to convince them of that. Each is caught in the circular existence of thinking the next big win is on the horizon. Meanwhile, they try to keep the collection of their losses from being the sunset of their chance.

Until then, there’s always a chance.

There is no one better at playing the hard luck loser than Mendelsohn. His power is in having his power steadily and constantly eroded. His Gerry is in a losing battle with dignity. He’s got losses piling up. He has not seen his child for several years. In fact, he has no idea that his ex-wife remarried. He does know she still keeps a stash of cash in the purple socks in her dresser, though. He has no clue what to do with a winning hand except to bet it all on the next loser.

There are 100 ways to define misery, and Mendelsohn has mastered 99 of them. If one wanted to watch the one film that defined his career, this could be it. He’s done it so well for so long. There’s something to say about having some range in your career. There is something else about finding what you’re good at and becoming a master.

Amazingly, the usually self-assured Reynolds finds the last one in this film. Curtis is a few miles short of where Gerry is on this journey towards misery, but he’s carrying his own fatal flaw. He’s got more going for him than Gerry, but it doesn’t stop him from picking up a few of his friends flaws. It’s kind of like a drug. He says he doesn’t care about winning. To watch him, you’d have to believe he’s telling the truth. He really is in it for the journey, as much as anything.

It’s wonderful watching how much these two feed off each other. What vibes they pick up, the amazing details they remember. They so desire to push their way to the next game, anything they can use to get them there is in play. Boden and Fleck are adept and bringing out the details in pictures that no amount of words could accurately describe.

The last act of the film brings everything where it needs to be. Gambling films often find their moral there. This is where they teach us the lesson that gambling doesn’t pay off. Thankfully, Boden and Fleck take the cliché and turn it on the viewer. Where it ends up and what we learn is for us to develop. They’ve just given us a little more research to inform our own decisions.

(***** out of *****)

The Guest (****) While we’re on Adam Wingard…

The-Guest-2014

The Guest – 2014

Director Adam Wingard
Screenplay Simon Barrett
Starring Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Leland Orser, Sheila Kelley, Brendan Meyer, Lance Reddick

Dan Stevens is everything one would hope an intensely “touched” veteran could be in yet another solid collaboration between Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett. The film is a solid thriller that devolves into a high minded gore in the last act while managing not to lose any of the intensity Stevens carves out in the first two.

The strength of the film is in the script and Wingard exploring the range of his lead antagonist. Stevens enters the story as David Collins, a soldier in Caleb Peterson’s platoon who comes to visit Peterson’s family sometime after their son died in service. He says some of the right things and does enough other things to work his way into the family of four that includes Laura (Kelley, Spencer (Orser) and their two remaining kids Anna and Luke (Monroe and Meyer).

The fact that he doesn’t win everyone over in one, or even two fell swoops bodes well for the talent. Anna takes her time, but even after she is won over a bit, she is not so smitten that she just falls in line. As a result, we get to see Stevens constantly at work, attempting to improve his footing on the shifting sand. Even better, the Petersons get to experience their own problem with the constantly moving landscape.

It’s a winning choice that we never get a clear backstory for Stevens. To go much further than they do would risk going into Bourne territory. Instead we get a man who seems unhinged but moves with cold precision simultaneously.

One can understand how a film like this might slide under the radar. The title doesn’t tell you much and I personally got it confused with The Gift at times. Give it a chance, though. You won’t be disappointed.

(**** out of *****)

Death Note (***) is Pandora’s Box by another name

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Director Adam Wingard
Screenplay by Charles Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides, Jeremy Slater
Starring Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, Margaret Qualley, Shea Whigham,
Paul Nakauchi, Jason Liles, Willem Dafoe

Before we go too far in any direction, this film is not great. It’s not a giant disappointment, though. It is just a little one. Anyone who has time to accuse the filmmakers of whitewashing the original material take a long walk. They’ve already done enough in front of the camera in Japan, from where the original manga emanates. There was a time when it would have been called an homage, but everyone has to be offended these days. Grow up and just take this for what it is, a borrowed tale of a borrowed tale of a borrowed tale.

The disappointment for me is only that I’ve seen Wingard do better and not all that long ago. You’re Next is one of my favorite slasher films of recent memory, and the word on The Guest is good enough it makes me wonder why I missed it. He’s been hired to do the upcoming Godzilla vs. Kong film too. Ears perked when this property he was attached to suddenly got placed in limbo. Then they perked again when Netflix picked it up and made it at full budget. One could almost feel the palpable disappointment just waiting for critics to express when the burgeoning monolith released the film in late August.

The story is quite recognizable to anyone who’s studied anything written before this date. A kid named Light (Wolff) literally has a book called Death Note drop out of the sky in front of him. He picks it up. He reads. It becomes clear through a series of screen flashes what the book wants him to know and what the director wants us to know. Write a name in the book, picture the face that goes with the name and that person dies.

The book comes with a death god, named Ryuk (Dafoe). The purpose of this demon is unclear. It seems like he wants to bust out somehow, but really he just wants the person who has the book to put him to work. He likes the rules, but he likes mischief even more. This mischief is pretty gruesome.

The movie has some good performances, in particular Stanfield as L and Qualley as Mia. Dafoe is right at home as the evil Ryuk. His brand of vitriol feels sinister and is, if anything, underused here.

They could have done better than Wolff for a leading man, but it’s hard to tell if its as much his issue as it is the writing. He’s somewhat annoying, like a more annoying Adam Goldberg, though I am not sure how he got there. Somehow he feels disconnected from the material, like he’s waiting for it to be worthy of him. Maybe its unfair, but I’ve never watched anything he’s been in twice.

If anything, they could have tethered Ryuk much closer to Light, or at least featured their back and forth more prominently. Though they take an original twist introducing the Adam and Eve element to it, in the end it serves as a distraction to what could have been much more interesting material.

I am not real familiar with manga, and there’s nothing here that draws me in. Wingard’s hold on the material seems fleeting here. It’s got nothing of the control he’s exhibited with his early work.

About that early work, I am watching The Guest now. Dan Stevens. Holy crap. Now that’s control.

(*** out of *****)

Midnight Runners (***): I think I’ve figured out how to be sweet

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Midnight Runners – 2017

Written and Directed by Kim Joo-hwan
Starring
Park Seo-joon, Kang Ha-neui, Park Ha-sun, Sung Dong-il

Growing up in the land of John Wayne, it can sometimes be difficult to absorb an idea of being a man that varies from the stoic, joke at your expense and “I’ll be on my way” scenes in the cinema of my youth. My vision of my daughter’s recent (well, the last two years) plunge into the world of Korean entertainment has been somewhere between the two Coreys, to New Kids on the Block, straight on through to One Direction. It’s like the early 1990’s American Tiger Beat scene departed for Asia and once there, merged into whatever they have.

I am aware through a myopic lens of a lifetime watching baseball that Korean men can be a little different than their American brethren. To what degrees can vary by age, but it seems to me that in Korean pop culture, any man younger than 25 can be just as likely be seen holding a kitten as they could be seen balling their hand up into a fist. That’s okay with me, I guess, as long as that kid can pay their own way and act when circumstances demand it.

To this viewpoint, the new action comedy Midnight Runners fits quite nicely. Two young men find friendship in the early days of their journey through the Korean National Police University. Ki-joon (Park) is the more impulsive and his friend Hee-yeoi (Kang), well, he wears glasses.

Their reasons for being there are different. Ki-joon is looking for a free education and Hee-yeoi is more idealistic. After another student shows them a picture of a recently procured girlfriend that he met at a local club, the two friends decide to use a night off to test their luck.

They spend the early part of the night striking out at Club Octagon. Later, on their way through the city, they stumble across an operation where young girls are being kidnapped and victimized.

After trying to report their findings several times to authorities and even their own commander, they get a variety of rebuffs and eventually a threat of expulsion if they don’t leave it to “the process” to solve the crimes.

It is here that the film departs from common sense most steeply. The early part of the film shows their professor (Sung) talking about the concept of the “critical hours,” which is the likely amount of time a young woman has from the time she is abducted until she is killed. That’s 7 hours, if you are keeping track.

Later, to end the second act, this very professor tells them they must ignore these teachings in order to – get this – concentrate on their studies and learn more stuff. One must presume the things they learn in the future would similarly be discarded in the same process, if logic follows.

Alas, our heroes take a compromised route. Heading back to school, they dedicate as much free time as they have to tracking and preparing to face the kidnappers in order to save the young women. If you are wondering if they succeed, lets remember our audience is the very same age group that they are looking to rescue.

To be fair, the moral quandary they face is kind of on the dopey side, but the feeling and dedication with which they face it is enough to overcome that. If one adds the customary message from the professor admitting they made the right choice, it becomes a pretty good vehicle for someone in middle school to early high school. Which I suppose is the point. That moral, clearly stated, is that they did what was right by their conscience compared to what they were told by their superiors that they should do. It’s not quite as well portrayed as Huck deciding he’s not going to turn in Jim, but few things are.

Our leads are fully seasoned, and rarely make a misstep. They understand what drives their appeal and they forge ahead fearlessly. Seeing two men fawn and stumble over themselves in the presence of a girl is a welcome sight, even if it is a certain amount of fantasy.

The film is no masterwork, but it is entertaining throughout. South Korea’s entertainment machine is moving full steam ahead. If it’s not entirely what I am used to, that’s okay. It’s a big world out there.

(*** out of *****)

 

Annabelle: Creation (***1/2) Altered Formula

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Annabelle: Creation – 2017

Director David F. Sandberg
Screenplay
Gary Dauberman
Starring
Stephanie Sigman, Talitha Bateman, Anthony LaPaglia, Miranda Otto, LuLu Wilson

The strength of The Conjuring universe is that the threads are as consistent and strong as anything we’ve seen with an extensive history. When one considers that this universe does not have an extensive history, it’s even more remarkable. Gary Dauberman has been the creative force behind these two films, as well the upcoming film The Nun.

His vision for Annabelle, played in chronological order, seems a whole lot less interesting than the way the first two films have been presented. As it stands, the formula works based on the skill of the directors in presenting the same thing we’ve seen before, diced up, mixed around and put together in a unique way.

Sandberg has taken the creation of an absolutely classic short of Lights Out into two good, but ultimately average films. The imagery repeated from just in the George C. Scott classic The Changeling is enough to fill a quarter of the running time.

That’s not to say it’s not any fun. This film gives good characters a scare that builds at a reasonable pace. The only character that doesn’t work completely is LaPaglia’s somber, creative father figure who doesn’t know if he’s a grouchy loner or a charitable giver of his heart.

That Lulu Wilson spent her last big film cozying up to a demon in Ouija: Origin of Evil. This time, she watches in horror as the same thing happens in a similarly titled film to one of her friends. Thing is, she gives really good horrified face. It’s a blessing and a curse. Let’s hope it doesn’t get old before she grows up.

The scariest parts of the film are subtle allusions to Valak. I won’t tell you what happens, but just pay attention to incidental conversation, quiet walks in the chair, show and tell and wait for the end of the credits.

If you like the first film, you should love the very clear connection to the first film. It’s the most original aspect of a series that doesn’t really need originality. I can’t believe it works, but it really does.

(***1/2 out of *****)

The Dark Tower (***) deserves more…

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The Dark Tower – 2017

Director Nikolaj Arcel
Screenplay by Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen, Arcel based on the series by Stephen King
Starring Idiris Elba, Matthew McConaghey, Tom Taylor, Claudia Kim, Fran Kranz, Abbey Lee, Jackie Earle Haley

If there is a giant sucking sound that followed the long-awaited and feared release of the film version of The Dark Tower, it’s been the steady stream of negativity that the press could not wait to heap upon this above average, only mildly disappointing tent pole. Many who approach the film as a straight across translation of the book series will be confused. Word has it that the events of the film take place after the King series, with the premise that Gunslinger (Alba) is in some sort of time loop.

Luckily for me, I never made it out of the first book. So my mind is open to what they want to show me without the expectation that they hit certain points or deliver anything other than a man with two guns chasing down the evil walkin’ dude (McConaghey).

For those two aspects, I was entertained.

McConaghey gives a great performance that outpaces those around him. But he’s supposed to, because who has more charisma than the personification of evil who has traipsed through Kings novels with many names and one goal?

Alba, the primary reason I still wanted to see the film after initial negative press, gives me a good portion of what I had hoped he could. His charisma is hampered by being the one in pursuit, but he is the coolest with a gun since Keanu Reeves.

I know, It hasn’t been that long since Reeves held a gun.

What I like about the film is that sets the premise. We have a young boy named Jake Chambers (Taylor) with “The Shine” (yes, the same one as Danny Torrence) who is about to cross paths with Walter Padick and Roland Deschain. These, of course, the two antagonists that dominate his dreams since he watched his father killed by the former.

Walter, The Man in Black, has a habit of killing parents, along with many others. He is seeking a child to help him break down the Dark Tower of the title because it will break down the barrier between people who live in every part of this universe and the bad things that want to do them harm. Well, the bad things that aren’t there already.

Deschain is the last Gunslinger, who’s lost all hope and is more bent on revenge than saving anyone at this point. Being a hero is a hard habit to break, and we will get to see the flash of his barrels plenty.

The relationship between the boy and the Gunslinger is pretty routine, with some good points, fewer bad ones and one completely touching scene after a tragic revelation. None of the top billed trio is as disappointing as the legions of completely disposable television level actors that pass through the screen around them. I’m talking about the extras on Star Trek level disposable. Or even worse, Star Trek Insurrection level.

Even Jackie Earle Haley is wasted in a role that seems like might have been more significant in the book series. He’s here and gone quicker than it takes for one to figure out if Earle is his middle name or the first part of his last name.

The thing about it is the film stands as a starting point for a tv series as well as future movies. So if characters pass by now, they can move forward and back and catch up with the characters later in the endless loop to which they seem tied.

Will they get a chance to move forward with either or both?  I hope so. Alba and Taylor are already signed. There is plenty to learn about this myriad of characters and places to which they are all connected. In this way, the filler tv characters make more sense.

It also makes this movie seem more disposable than it probably should, though. When there is so much at stake, one would hope they could come up with a more established director than Arcel, who is more competent than memorable. I am not even sure producer Ron Howard could have advanced this material much more. JJ Abrams likely could have.

So what are we to make of this film? If nothing else, think of it as an addition to everything you know about the other adaptations, with a hope that they make more to flesh it all out a little. What I saw so far worked for me as a mild form of entertainment. It would be much better if it is followed up with more. And much sadder if they don’t.

(*** out of *****)

The Mummy (**1/2) guesses wrong…a lot

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The Mummy – 2017

Director Alex Kurtzman
Screenplay  David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie, Dylan Kussman
Starring  Tom Cruise, Annabelle Wallis, Sofia Boutella, Jake Johnson, Courtney B. Vance, Russell Crowe

Every summer, there is at least one movie that misses on an approximation of what a movie should be. Sahara is a great example of this. This year’s example might as well be The Mummy. Kurtzman’s bloated estimate of a movie doesn’t know if it’s an adventure movie that needs to be funny, or a comedy that needs to have adventure. If you throw an overarching drama in there, then you really got a mess. Wait, isn’t this supposed to be horror?

The film starts off with two adventurers who awkwardly end up finding an ancient tomb of an Egyptian princess (Boutella) who’s been erased from history because she wanted to rule a little too soon. This results in one of the adventurers (Johnson) becoming zombified and killing his commander (Vance) while en route somewhere with the casket of the princess. Then the plane they’re on crashes…man I am getting bored even recounting this…leaving the main adventurer (Cruise) dead after saving the life of science girl (Wallis). Then the real crazy stuff begins.

The rest of the first two acts finds Cruise and Wallis running around ancient Oxford England, among other places. They are trying to avoid the reconstituted princess and her zombies (including Johnson, who becomes some sort of Griffin Dunne American Zombie in London). They quickly realize that Cruise is not only hard to kill, but he is drawn to the mummy Boutella. Tough as he is, he still can’t beat her with a stick.

Enter Russell Crowe and his merry band of secret society soldiers. Crowe, whose name is Dr. Henry Jekyll. His main job is to give Cruise’s Nick Morton a bunch of exposition which translates into a welcome into the Universal Monster franchise, which he calls Prodigium.

One really hesitates to blame Cruise for the ineffectiveness of The Mummy. He gives it the old college try, even if he never quite fits into the role as a lovable rogue. The movie throws him around like a rag doll and gives him little motivation or character beyond being tethered to The Mummy. Anyone who’s hated Cruise might like this film, because he gets the unholy hell beaten out of him.

Wallis is the girl who gets to be smart and vulnerable. She runs along side Cruise for as long as she is able. As we know, no one can out run him, even if he does have tiny legs.

Who knows what Johnson is supposed to be. He’s a discipline, but he’s a buddy, and he’s also kind of a bad guy. In every iteration, he is more annoying than funny. That’s too bad.

Fortunately, as Ahmanet, Boutella at least feels like she has a plan. Hers is not exactly a menacing Mummy, but she is driven to succeed. So she’s got that going for her.

What is the point to a franchise of classic horror villains? We can’t let them win, but can’t exactly kill them off. So everything leading up to the end is just stuff that happens while we wait for the next film. At least in the Marvel Universe, we can kill off the bad guys once in a while. We can give points for originality here, but it sure doesn’t feel like a victory.

This film is messy, but it’s not a complete disaster. It guesses a lot and most of those guesses land awkwardly. One can wonder if that good line was by McQuarrie, or if the bad plot line was Koepp. Or if it would have been better but for second time director Kurtzman. The film is passable, but in no way can we consider it the solid basis for the Dark Universe franchise. The sense of adventure exhibited in this film could lead to something better. It’s a long shot, though.

(**1/2 out of *****)

Dunkirk (*****): They know where you were

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Dunkirk – 2017

Written and Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring  Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy

There’s not much can be said about this film that hasn’t already been mentioned. It’s a great film. An apolitical film. It is a patriotic film. It is a smart film. It is anonymous. It is deeply personal.

Taking place by land, by sea and by air over three different time periods, Dunkirk covers the escape attempt of over 400,000 soldiers from the shores of France early in World War II. The Nazis are faceless. We barely see even one. But they are a looming presence. The film starts off with the starling noise of gunfire. 5 out of 6 soldiers never make it over the fence to safety. And that’s just the start of it.

The film documents each of the stories in an overlapping but still cohesive manner. We don’t know exactly how things are lining up, but we do know that everyone ends up on the shores of Dunkirk eventually. It’s a masterwork of timeline manipulation by a filmmaker who’s already shown the propensity to cleanly slice up time in Inception. Everything pieces together in a tense bundle.

We feel the desperation of young soldiers (Whitehead, Barnard and Styles) looking for a way onto a boat that might survive the trip off shore. We get to experience the urgent need of a pleasure boat owner (Rylance) who quickly joins his fellow boat owners in a pursuit against time to make sure the boys get a ride home. We see two pilots (Lowden and Hardy) who take their chances against waves of German Luftwaffe planes as they try to protect the boats from the air.

Watching this film made me feel like I was living history. It is a gorgeous, horrible masterpiece that shows what the British Army of WWII had more pluck than luck. More guts than glory. This feels like the loss that turned everything around.

Is there a better director right now than Nolan?  No one seems to be able to handle grand scale on such a personal level. To tell a story that everyone can relate to without one bit of preaching. His voice is very human and there is nary a scene so obvious as a red coat in a black and white background.

Sure, he has his tells, but they are truly more mesmerizing than others. Like the man walking into the sea in the middle of the story. The soldiers just look on. Like us, they can do nothing but watch and keep looking for opportunities to survive.

The lack of gore while still capturing the horror is an achievement as well. There is no need to fill in the gaps. Our minds can do this and still resonate to the truth of the situation.

The best thing Nolan does with Dunkirk is to never lose focus. He is the mariner, Mr. Dawson, and we play the part of Peter. He knows the plane just by the sound, but he still lets us see it so we can remember too. Feeling like it might be hopeless, one might be tempted to speechify and let us know the significance of it all. He just moves towards the battle, but picks up one life at a time.

In the end, we know where they were. And now we know why it mattered.

If this film doesn’t win any awards, it’s still the best film of the year.

(***** out of *****)