Gerald’s Game (****): We deserve the sunlight

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Gerald’s Game – 2017

Director Mike Flanagan
Screenplay by Jeff Howard and Flanagan based on the book by Stephen King
Starring Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood, Chiara Aurelia, Henry Thomas, Carel Struycken, Kate Siegel

Everything’s coming up Stephen King these days. The sheer volume of material he’s put out over the years make it surprising that we don’t see even more. The added benefit of his prodigious output is that we now have an entire universe of references from which to pull. The effect for Gerald’s Game is somewhat a boon, given the claustrophobic nature of the story.

The story is a simple one. Husband and wife Gerald and Jessie Burlingame (Greenwood and Gugino) head to a secluded cabin in Maine to spice things up in their marriage. For him, it requires objectification and role play. Jessie had something different in mind, like, say, talking. He no sooner gets the cuffs on her when she realizes their dichotomy and begs him to release her. He gets upset and an argument ensues, all while she’s still in the cuffs. During this argument, he falls dead on top of her.

The first hours are a mixture of disbelief and desperate begging for what she knows to be real to just…not be. Then we start to see the effects of her breaking down. Or maybe not.

The imaginings and reality of what she sees varies from scene to scene. Among the things that seem real, a starving dog that she’d earlier took pity on by feeding Kobe beef. For the most part, we come to accept the visions as aspects of her own breaking psyche. They are either trying to help, hurt or possibly eat away at her.

Eventually, we come to a deeper understanding of who Jessie is, why she is currently in chains and we start to understand what it might take for her to escape her bonds. If you think there is a metaphor in there, you may have seen this before.

Even if you have, Flanagan has such a gentle touch that it works. Those who have gone through similar experiences might be moved in Gugino’s performance, as well as Aurelia playing a younger Jessie. There is something in King’s study of character that works in marrying the adult to the child in experience.

There are many references to other works here, including Dolores Claiborne, The Dark Tower and Bag of Bones. I have read perhaps 5 King books in my life, so I am not an expert by any means, but I can say the references I understood made the experience a deeper one for me. Dolores Claiborne, in particular, resonates. The solar eclipse of 1963 in this story also occurs in that book. The stories are indeed bookends of the experiences of abuse detailed within.

The astounding thing is how much Flanagan gets out of the King material, considered one of his minor works by many critics of literature. To me, the scenes between Jessie and her abuser are deceptively well written and it shows how one can start digging a hole from which they reside for most of their life.

That’s where the eclipse and references to the sun come in. Such a simple metaphor shouldn’t work so well, but it does here, even better, perhaps, than it did in the movie version of Dolores Claiborne, which is itself an excellent film.

Flanagan has a vision that many of us may not see at first. He carried the hardcover version of this book around with him for years while pitching films. Most didn’t see a movie in it. He saw more than a movie. He saw something about how some of us spend our lives in the shadow of the sun. It’s an essential vision of the mask we sometimes put on our past.

There is more to the story, but it almost seems superfluous compared to the acting journey we’re taken on by the excellent Gugino and Greenwood. There is some blood and gore, but it’s handled in a manner that makes it shocking because it’s not gratuitous. If you have never questioned your past, this is a worthy film to watch.

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

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

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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 *****)

 

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 *****)