Category Archives: Reviews

Movie Review: Star Wars: The Last Jedi

2017 has been filled with “anticipated” films and yet none of them feel quite as anticipated as Star Wars: The Last Jedi, what’s sure to be a billion dollar film and a dominating presence for the next few months. The film exceeds expectations in many ways and falls flat in others, but overall, it’s 2.5 hour thing of force, action, and a surprising amount of humor.

The Last Jedi focuses on just a few settings and plot points but its themes are consistent for each. Like The Force Awakens‘ homage and comparison to A New Hope, it’s difficult to not compare The Last Jedi to Empire Strikes Back. Both are the middle chapter of a trilogy but how each film parallels each other is an interesting thing. The Last Jedi, like Empire, is about “hope.” It’s a word that’s brought up numerous times and unlike Empire‘s down take on that theme, The Last Jedi gives us a more inspired version that guides us to the yin of the Empire‘s darker and more negative yang. This film sees the light beyond the darkness the spark of rebellion from a small flame and it makes sure we see it too.

The film picks up from The Force Awakens with the Rebellion on the run and the First Order in pursuit. It’s really one long space battle and pursuit with some side quests. The issue at hand is the Rebellion’s lack of fuel making it inevitable the First Order will catch them to finish them off. Numbering just 400 individuals, hope is dim. A mission is cooked up to give the Rebellion a chance to escape and survive involving pass codes and disabling the main pursuing ship. A sidequest taken up by Finn and new character Rose (played by Kelly Marie Tran) and takes us to one of the few different locations, a gambling world that’s beautiful but with a dark undercurrent.

Here too the concept of “hope” is explored but in this case, it’s a discussion about what “hope” the 99% have against the 1% that exploit them. Though subtle, this is where the film gets its most outright political with an exploration of excess and what the wealthy 1% do with their money. Rose, representing the common worker, discusses the exploitation of ore and mineral and while she describes the world as beautiful can’t help but seeing the corrupt darkness it represents. A class warrior angle is presented and out of everything, it’s one of the more interesting aspects of themes. War has raged and there’s going to be individuals who profit off of it either through the sales of arms or exploitation of worlds and people. Here, that’s on full display.

When not focused on Finn and Rose’s quest, or the impending doom that is the pursuit in space, the movie explores Rey’s exploration as she attempts to lure back Luke Skywalker to help her and the Rebellion. Luke is a grizzled old man who has given up the ways of the Jedi instead living as a hermit at an old Jedi temple/outpost and attempting to enjoy his life. He’s seen the folly of the Jedi and the failure they represent and after his attempt to restore the Order, and it’s failure in Kylo, he’s given up deciding it’s best for the Jedi to die out and let a natural balance to the Force take over. Rey’s focus is to get Luke back into the battle thinking he represents the hope the Rebellion needs but she also wants to understand her own history and what she’s experiencing herself.

The Last Jedi is a brutal film with no problems destroying ships, sets, and killing characters and in each instance doing so with a style and look that’s jaw dropping. Director Rian Johnson (who also was the writer) delivers an amazing looking film with a style unto itself focused on using color to create the mood and setting. Every costume, everyone room, every scene has a color palette carefully chosen and to be debated for years. What’s Rey’s dark blue/grey mean? Why is Luke wearing black? There’s choices in that space alone which could see endless articles written.

Johnson also gives us nostalgia. There’s scenes that outright call back to the original trilogy. A speech in a elevator lift, a talk about what someone might do, they’re dialogue and scenes at times that feel lifted from other films emphasizing an almost cyclical nature of it all. There’s also throne room scenes that feel like they’re straight out of Return of the Jedi. And even Revenge of the Sith gets a nod in some ways.

Things aren’t all great. There’s some characters that fall flat like Benicio Del Toro‘s DJ whose delivery just feels like another take on the Marvel’s the Collector. And, the choice of the actor for the role seems rather odd as the screen time for this is rather limited. Again, Gwendoline Christie‘s Phasma goes down as the most overhyped and underused character in a long time. While there’s a final conflict between Phasma and Finn, it feels forced as if Johnson had to come up with something for the character. Snoke’s fate too feels a little too abrupt and anticlimactic with too many questions left out there. Finally, while I like Rose the character, she quickly turns into a do everything character starting as a maintenance person and then flying a plane in the final battle as if every person in the Rebellion excels at everything (the defense is she’s shown piloting a ship, which questions why she was in her maintenance role to begin with). And not all the settings work too, while I appreciated its themes of the 1%, scenes in the gambling world also feel a bit there for the kids based on some of who we meet and what happens. It lightens up what otherwise is a pretty dark film.

But, there’s also so much that’s good.

The film has a surprising amount of humor and there’s some really good laughs. It does a great job of taking our still relatively new heroes of Poe, Finn, and Rey, and adding more to them as to why we should like them. The action sequences are jaw dropping at times with space battle after space battle and an ending move that’s “holy shit” levels of amazing.

But, what I keep coming back to is that theme of “hope.” Johnson gets how to take a theme for a film and weave it into everything. From the obvious, the “hope” of escaping the First Order and the “hope” of sparking a new Rebellion, but also the “hope” we place in heroes. There’s the instance of it that Rey places in Luke where the idea of legends vs. reality is explored, but also Poe and his interaction with Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (played by Laura Dern). Poe must learn to respect “hope” in some ways and that direct results that are clear might not always be the answer. Sometimes you have to accept and “hope” things will turn out all right in the end.

And that’s where The Last Jedi and Empire Strikes Back diverge the most. Empire had us looking for “hope” but ended on a “down note.” The Last Jedi seems to recognize in this day and age that wouldn’t work and we need a real Rebellion, we need to see the sparks, and the film reminds us that from the tiniest flames a raging fire can grow.

Through it’s setting of constant pursuit, it’s acceptance of a dire situation, and it’s focus on the better tomorrow, Star Wars: The Last Jedi feels like it embodies today’s zeitgeist of “the resistance” and creates a Rebellion for us to be believe in.

Overall Rating: 9.0

Movie Review: Coco

Coco-Family-PosterPixar seems to have the magic capable of making children smile and adults weep. And with Coco, they add to that a masterful, universal story about family filled with music and visuals to delight the senses.

And while it is universal, it is also very specifically Mexican, while also never feeling false or like it appropriates their culture. Given our current political climate in the United States where Mexicans are denigrated as “bad hombres,” “drug dealers” and “rapists” (and that’s just by the president), this presents a true representation of a culture where family and remembering your legacy is key. It also ends a long and painful history where Disney has really failed in representing Latinos and Latinx culture.

Our story centers around Miguel, a young boy who is obsessed with music despite it being banned from his family for generations. His nonagenarian great-grandmother Coco was abandoned as a child by a musician father who went off to seek his fortune. Left without a patriarch, the family’s matriarchy learned to make shoes, a trade which is their family’s legacy and heritage.

On the Day of the Dead, they place all of the photos of their extended and departed family on the ofrenda to remember them, including a photo of Coco as a child with the face of her musician father torn out. Miguel comes to believe that this missing great-great-grandfather might in fact be one of Mexico’s greatest singers of all time, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), so he breaks into de la Cruz’s memorial at the graveyard to borrow his guitar to play in a talent competition.

Because of the weakening of the barriers between worlds on Dia de los Muertos, Miguel finds himself transported to the land of the dead where he must find a member of his family to give him a blessing to help him return. Hearing a con artist ne’er-do-well skeleton named Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal) mention that he knows how to get access to de la Cruz (who is still a hugely big deal in the afterlife apparently), they decide to team up. Hector’s price is he needs Miguel to put his picture on his ofrenda so he can cross over to see his family and loved ones. Having been forgotten, he is in danger of completely fading away, suffering a “second death” from which no one knows where you go.

This brings to the forefront the film’s theme on the importance of remembering your family and loved ones. Perhaps better than any other Pixar movie to date, this has well-developed themes that make it not only entertaining but meaningful.

Also unlike other Pixar movies, this is a musical. But unlike the traditional Disney princess model of musical, here the music is an organic part of the story and storytelling. They sing songs that are thematically relevant, but they always do so because there is a talent competition, a concert, or so on. In this way, it’s very similar to last year’s Sing Street. There’s also an easy comparison to Kubo and the Two Strings, although that film did less with its music as a storytelling device, but both films up the ante with delivering authentic stories about family and loss mixed with a realistic, loving tribute to another culture.

And the music is excellent. One of the recurring songs is de la Cruz’s biggest hits “Remember Me.” This takes on special significance when understanding that it is the remembrance of our family that continues to sustain them even after death. A final version of the song sung at the end with Miguel reunited with his family will not leave a dry eye in the theater.

And then there’s the visuals. Pixar is able to deliver a beautiful, stylized version of the land of the dead that is surreal, vibrant, and beautiful. The use of color, especially of orange marigold petals, brings life to the film in unexpected ways. The “sugar skull” look of so many different faces gives each character a different look and feel.

The most spectacular are some of the creatures that act as “spirit guides” in the land of the dead. Based on dragons, monkeys, dogs, and other creatures they are day-glo, beautiful, and magical. Miguel’s great-great grandmother’s spirit guide is a giant winged cat-dragon who may be the most impressive visual feat of the film.

The music and the visuals brings up one of the more interesting details many will not notice, but when Miguel plays his guitar, his fingers are playing actual chords and his strums and finger picking is correct for the music he’s playing. This is yet another example of a film taking the time to make sure all its details are right and authentic.

A word of caution: don’t go see this movie in 3D. It doesn’t need it. And wearing sunglasses in the theater will only dampen the beauty of the color palatte, as well as making it harder to wipe away tears that will flow from all but the most stone-hearted among us.

This is not a perfect film. The plot twist at the end is a tad predictable, but for a medium whose entire raison d’être is repeat viewings ad nauseum on home video, it doesn’t need to be. Will it hold up over repeat viewings? Absolutely.

With so many families now spending time during the holidays going to see movies together, there is simply no better choice out there than Coco. Make a date to take your familia as soon as possible.

Final rating: 4.5 out of 5

Movie Review: Justice League

Justice League posterIt’s hard to think of a time recently when a film has had so many expectations riding on it. 

And Justice League will undoubtedly fulfill many of those for a lot of fans of the source material. If you’ve been a fan of what Zack Snyder has done with the DC universe so far, you will continue to enjoy this. If you enjoyed Joss Whedon‘s work on The Avengers but have been “meh” so far on Man of Steel or Batman v. Superman, then you may enjoy yourself here, as the best explanation of Justice League is “Joss Whedon meets Zack Snyder.”

Unfortunately, that also means the film also embodies many of their respective weaknesses, too.

It’s no wonder this feels like a mishmash. Zack Snyder finished principle photography on the film and then had to step away from the project due to family issues. He entrusted finishing the film, including some reshoots and a script polish, to Whedon. Both of their fingerprints are evident in this film. Snyder’s stylized action is key and brings a bombasticity to the fights Whedon has never been capable of. Whedon brings some humor and teases out character elements in little asides that are key to enjoyment of the movie. In a lot of ways, this is a marriage that makes sense. In others. . . well, let’s say it’s easy to tell which parts of the film who was responsible for. It’s sort of like listening to The Beatles’ White Album — Lennon and McCartney were credited for all of their songs together, but it was very clear who took the lead on which track as the two partners styles started to diverge more wildly.

THE SETUP

Superman is dead. (Spoiler alert!) Sensing a moment of weakness and hopelessness, intergalactic conqueror Steppenwolf has returned to Earth to try to conquer it. Yes returned, because apparently he tried this schtick before and was repelled by the combined armies of Amazons, Atlanteans, and men. So he’s going back after them and artifacts he left behind that he needs to conquer the planet.

Batman (Ben Affleck), wracked with guilt over the death of Superman, is trying to put together a team to fight what he sees as this oncoming storm even before he’s aware of Steppenwolf’s presence. When Wonder Woman (Gal Godot) informs him the threat is already here, they redouble their efforts to find new teammates.

This includes Arthur Curry aka Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Barry Allen aka The Flash (Ezra Miller), and Victor Stone aka Cyborg (Ray Fisher). While Bats and Diana get top billing, make no mistake that the other teammates are not sidekicks. Indeed, each gets their due and gets their own fun moments and character arcs.

Yes, Aquaman is really f*#king cool. You would’ve told me 20 years ago I’d be saying my favorite part of a Justice League movie might be Aquaman, I’d have laughed in your face. You’ll believe a man can swim. . . and kick all sorts of ass. Momoa’s comedic skills are put on full display here as well, delivering some of the best lines in the movie.

Speaking of comic relief, The Flash has always been the Justice League’s jokey conscience. In this version, we get a much younger, greener version of the character who is only barely discovering his powers. This is a double edged sword, as it gives the character room to grow and a great story arc, as well as giving Batman a chance to play superhero mentor. Ezra Miller does a great job and tries to steal every scene he’s in, which can sometimes be a little overbearing, but is overall really fun.

Unfortunately, we also get a wildly uneven powerset and skillset. At one moment Flash is literally tripping over himself, and not ten minutes later must perform a demanding run to deliver a static electricity bolt at a precise moment. Characters can be layered and be able to grow and have varying degrees of competence, but we can’t expect someone to be so bad at something one minute and five minutes later perfect at it (without even the use of a sports training montage!) That’s not showing growth and nuance, it’s just sloppy storytelling and characterization.

Speaking of, this brings us to Cyborg. It’s a good thing most audiences aren’t familiar with the character, or else they may have expectations about his powers. Apparently, Cyborg’s main superpower is exposition. He also has the ability to pull a Deus Ex Superhero at any given time. Need your jet to take you from Gotham to Russia in under 2 hours? Cyborg can “hack” your plane and make it happen!  Need to prevent Steppenwolf from assembling his doomsday terraforming machine to conquer earth? Cyborg can “hack” it!!

To be fair, [Minor Spoiler] Cyborg’s origin in the film is tied in to one of the artifacts Steppenwolf is using, but it’s still incredibly convenient. You know what else is incredibly convenient? The Kryptonian spaceship containing all sorts of technology (for the THIRD. MOVIE. IN A ROW.) whose main purpose, again, is to move the plot forward. Equally convenient? Another alien would-be conqueror who wants to terraform the earth.

It’s almost hard for Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and The Flash to shine under the weight of all of this– but they do. It’s just unfortunate that they have to.

WHEDON v. SNYDER: DAWN OF “JUST US” LEAVE

Getting back to the description of the film as “Joss Whedon meets Zack Snyder”– Note that in this description of the film, nowhere is a mention of Patty Jenkins. And that’s with good reason. Jenkins’ Wonder Woman still stands head and shoulders above all other DC movies, including this, as Princess Diana herself does among her teammates. Nowhere here do we match the spirit and fun of Wonder Woman, but we get occasional glimpses of it.

And Wonder Woman is the best part of Justice League. Her mere introduction on screen elicited cheers and applause from the audience, and her opening intro is masterful and fun. No small amount of credit should be given to Whedon, whose trademark handling of “strong female characters” is basically a cliche at this point, but it’s still missing some of what Jenkins brought.

Indeed, the film’s best analogue is Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. That film nearly collapsed under its own weight of trying to move Marvel’s franchises forward, but forgot to really ever be or say anything in and of itself. Justice League sometimes feels that way– an obligatory team up sequel because that’s the next step in the movie franchise plan.

Another apt comparison might be to Superman II, which famously had Richard Donner fired from it and the rest of the film was completed by Richard Lester. The seams are clearly visible on that Frankenmovie where Donner ends and where Lester begins. So too is it clear how much of Whedon’s sardonic essence was brought into this film both in its script and reshoots which he oversaw.  While Snyder stepped away due to family issues (and I’m not going to give him any hard time about that) and entrusted Whedon to finish his movie, the end result is more Donner-Lester than Lennon-McCartney.

But perhaps this is best seen in the film’s most glaring flaw: Steppenwolf is a boring villain. The only thing remarkable about him is he’s big and powerful and he wants to conquer the earth, so we need an equally awesome team to work together to defeat him. In this, he’s a lot like Ultron. . . and, come to think of it, Zod. Unfortunately you don’t have as interesting an actor portraying Steppenwolf as Terrance Stamp, Michael Shannon, or James Spader. He’s not bad, he’s just lackluster. He can join Malekith from Thor: The Dark World as the least interesting superhero movie villains of recent memory.

And yet, both Avengers: Age of Ultron and Superman II are incredibly good, enjoyable films. You might invoke an aphorism about how great power brings great responsibility, and so maybe we should expect even better than this, but that’s a completely different guy– and he has his own track record of mediocre movies he’s trying to fix (and largely succeeding).

A STORY ABOUT SUPERHERO MOVIES

My son is 9. He is a frequent companion of mine to press screenings, especially when superhero movies are concerned. His first movie in the theater was The Avengers in 2012. He liked Batman v. Superman ok, but mostly just the final battle. Fast forward to 2017: He liked Guardians 2, but not as much as the first one. He was not a fan of Spider-Man: Homecoming — let’s be clear, that was a teeanagery John Hughes movie with superheroes in it, so give him a few years. He was not a huge fan of Wonder Woman —ugh. Girls. (His father is hugely disappointed in him for this)

He gave Thor: Ragnarok a “13 out of 10” and begged to go see it again as soon as possible.

He gave Justice League a 9 out of 10. Because if you can just enjoy this movie for its jokes, its iconography, its action, and its broad characters, you can have a great time with it. Truth? It made my inner 9 year old pretty happy, too– the same 9 year old who taped Superman II off of tv and watched it over and over not at all aware of the film’s flaws. It was simply “Kneel before Zod!” time, and everything else was just fine.

There are also moments of sheer brilliance in this movie, some of which we can’t get into without spoilers. DC fans will be happy, though, as other characters are referenced or implied.

And there are some sweet moments. In a flashback that opens the movie, little kids interview Superman for a podcast they’re doing. A sign of the type of hopelessness Steppenwolf and his parademons feed off of are a white skinhead hassling a Muslim shopkeeper and kicking over his fruit stands. Wonder Woman signs autographs for some little girls and I triple dog dare you not to tear up a little at how much it matters to them.

And then there are the after credits scenes. Yes, two of them. So make sure you stay. The one at the very end of the credits made me want a direct sequel as soon as meta-humanly possible.

It’s unfortunate these moments only checker the film rather than deeply permeating it like a piece of finely marbled kobe beef. Instead it adds extra sizzle to the steak, but doesn’t leave the whole thing as tender and juicy as it might otherwise be. But when you’re dining at Snyder & Whedon steakhouse, this is the meal that we expect. And at the end of the day, it’s still a pretty good steak.

3.5 out of 5

Movie Review: Thor: Ragnarok

Usually when films get around to their third, the quality dips… a lot, and we’re left with a shell of a franchise that tarnishes what’s come before. Thor: Ragnarok not only bucks that trend, but delivers a film that’s not only the best of the three Thor films released so far, but also one of the best in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. Directed by Taika Waititi with a script by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost, Thor: Ragnarok is a visual treat of a film that feels like a comic come to life in many ways. This shouldn’t be surprising as both Kyle and Yost have written comics themselves and have a long history in animated comic based franchises. Pearson was part of the team behind Agent Carter, a television series focused on a kick-ass female lead, which in itself makes some of the film not surprising.

With Odin deposed from the throne the evil Hela returns to take over Asgard and the Nine Realms. Thor is sidetracked as he’s sent to the world Sakaar where he’s forced into a gladiator role and comic book Spartacus. That latter part is a new take on comic writer Greg Pak’s “World War Hulk” storyline that saw the Hulk in a similar role. But, here the Hulk is a companion Thor must win over as we find out where he’s been all these years.

What’s immediately noticeable about the film, beyond it’s different visual tone, is the comedic sense of it all. Waititi is the director behind the hilarious shorts featuring Thor and a roommate and that same humor is here. It’s a dry sense of humor where quips are given back and forth and visual jokes are few and far apart. Chris Hemsworth in the title role plays off the humor well delivering it all with a seriousness that makes it all even more entertaining. But, that humor is also mixed with lots of action that’s well paced and keeps things flowing through the end battle. An action film with comedic elements or is it a comedic action film? That’s a hard one but the laughs were enough that I missed dialogue either because I was laughing or the audience was, making the film one you’ll need to see multiple times to get everything.

But, back to Waititi and the visuals. With an energy about it that feels like Blade Runner, Fifth Element, and bubblegum pop mixed together, the worlds are bright and visually stunning each in their own way. Sakaar is a mixed of colors which enhance each scene and brought into the design of every character. Watching the film I couldn’t help think this was Jack Kirby’s brilliance brought to the screen for us to enjoy. Warriors for the Grandmaster, played by Jeff Goldblum, look like the design of Kirby’s Celestials. The film is almost an homage to his brilliance, fitting for the year we celebrated his 100th birthday. All of it pops in the IMAX 3D I watched the film in.

The movie expands the cast too. Hemsworth is his usual entertaining self getting to up his comedic chops. Tom Hiddleston as Loki has his moments as well but generally plays the mischievous straight man to everyone else’s jokes. Mark Ruffalo, who is a newcomer to the Thor franchise, brings more interest to Bruce Banner and the Hulk, creating a neurotic man both lost and afraid of what might happen. But those newcomers are where things stand out. Idris Elba as Heimdall gets to step up and be a badass in the film, making me long for more Elba in the Marvel Universe. Goldblum brings a cosmic disco sense to it all in his Grandmaster making a villain fun. Karl Urban as Skurge is possibly the low point with just too little to do. But, Cate Blanchett as Hela and Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie are the two real highlights.

Blanchett delivers a villain role that is badass and tragic and very intimidating. She is Thor’s better in every way and this is the first villain in a Marvel film I felt this. She’s not defeated in some battle, she kills unknown amounts of people, and she does it with her own hands. Thompson too rocks as Valkyrie a bounty hunter who has a history with Asgard and Hela. Her initial badassness is confirmed later as the real battle begins and again we get a character who is every bit Thor’s equal. The two women being such highlights makes me think Pearson’s role with Agent Carter might have helped. Two commanding women are not something we generally see in a Marvel film, let alone two that are better than the male lead in so many ways. Hela whips Thors as and Valkyrie gets the better of him again and again. The tide feels like it’s turning a bit when it comes to female characters in comic adaptations with the addition of DC’s Wonder Woman who herself rocked the big screen this year.

The story itself is solid with few flaws and a finale that actually doesn’t disappoint. Third acts generally have been letdowns when it comes to comic films and this is the exception to the rule.

IMAX 3D just immersed me in the movie with moments actually causing me to feel like I was falling and moving too, a fun addition to it all.

Is the film a must see? Yes, on the big screen and preferably in IMAX 3D. Then you can see it again when you realize you’ve missed a lot from laughing and being entertained. One of the best Marvel releases yet and one of the best and most entertaining films released this year.

Overall Rating: 9.35

Movie Review: Thor: Ragnarok

Thor_Ragnarok_SDCC_PosterThor’s outings in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been. . . uneven at best, to put it kindly. Indeed, Thor: The Dark World remains the unequivocal nadir of the MCU’s otherwise good track record. But given that and Avengers: Age of Ultron also being less than stellar — the last two times we saw our Asgardian hero — you might come in to this film with zero expectations.

Prepare to be blown away by one of the best movies in the MCU and certainly Thor’s best film appearance to date. 

Chris Hemsworth reprises his role as the Norse God of Thunder. Reunited with his presumed-dead brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), they track down their missing father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), who reveals a deep family secret — an older sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett), the goddess of death who has her sights set on the Asgardian throne.

Various misadventures find Thor reunited with fellow Avenger The Hulk / Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), against whom he is pitted in gladiatorial combat reminiscent of the storyline in Planet Hulk. They must escape back to Asgard to take on Hela with the help of a recalcitrant Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) who is probably the best part of the movie and given some of the most fun action pieces and one of the best character arcs of any person in the film.

But don’t be fooled into thinking most of this is a Planet Hulk movie. Its roots go far deeper than the relatively recent storyline. But if you take one part Planet Hulk, plus equal amounts Jack Kirby and Walt Simonson classic Thor, that’s the comics cocktail from which this springs.

The ringmaster for this particular circus is director Taika Waititi, who delivers something truly unexpected: different kind of Marvel movie. One of the most common complaints against the MCU is how similar / unoriginal / mass produced they feel. Thor: Ragnarok defies that claim with its humor, characters, visuals, and soundtrack.

This movie is funny. Of course, that should be of no surprise to those who know Waititi for his time working on Flight of the Conchords or his previous films What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople. It’s a very specific humor which is undeniably Kiwi in its politeness, awkwardness, and wry sense of irony — and wholly different from Joss Whedon’s or James Gunn’s much broader humor in The Avengers or Guardians of the Galaxy films.

Waititi also brings along some familiar faces to those who know his other films, including Rachel House, who plays a lackey of Jeff Goldblum‘s The Grandmaster in Ragnarok, is very similar to the character she played in Wilderpeople. And Waititi himself shows up (as he is wont to do in his own films) as Korg, a rock-person gladiator who ends up with some of the funniest lines in the film.

Waititi’s work has always been good before, but he’s never been given this big of a canvas to paint on. Wilderpeople especially felt like they spent the majority of the movie’s budget on a climactic, over-the-top car chase full of explosions that would make Michael Bay blush. With the ability to really cut loose — and decades of Kirby and Simonson art to draw from — Waititi gives us some of the most astounding visuals of the MCU so far.

While not quite as mind-blowing as last year’s Doctor Strange, the visuals Waititi seems to be trying to give us a late 70’s/early 80’s psychedelic trip of a sci-fi movie, complete with a soundtrack by Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh — heavy on the Devo and John Carpenter synth vibe. Oh, and a heaping helping of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song in case you couldn’t get enough of it from the trailer. Waititi also borrows (steals?) visually from fellow Marvel director Sam Raimi in fun and unexpected ways and includes perhaps the most interesting nod to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory ever.

But a film always comes down to its characters and its themes. And this is where Thor: Ragnarok perhaps shines above many of its other MCU peers. Every character in this film goes on a journey. Their stories, interactions, and dialogue are incredibly well-woven together. Everything has a purpose and eventual payoff. It sits alongside its peer Logan this year for being so well-crafted from a storytelling perspective. One tiny complaint is that it gets a little too bogged down in its own exposition in the middle. It could stand to lose five or seven minutes, but not much more.

And at the end you ask yourself, “So what?”

One of the great joys of being able to analyze movies is to ask these questions. Is this just a cashgrab to get butts in seats, buy popcorn, and sell merchandising? There’s something unique in here, which requires going into very minor spoiler territory. Skip the next 5 paragraphs if you don’t want to know any more.

[Begin Minor Spoilers]

The title Thor: Ragnarok is instructive. Ragnarok — the Norse apocalypse — is the destruction of the world, and in the case of the film and the comics, of Asgard. But it often signifies a form of creative destruction or nihilism necessary for a new chapter.

Hela comes to Thor and Loki replacing their ideas of what Asgard was — a beautiful civilization that loves peace — with the true history that she once rode with Odin making war on the 9 Realms to capture their treasure and slay millions of innocents. Odin cast her out when he decided to switch brands from bloodthirsty warmonger to benevolent father-king, but he kept the gold and trinkets that made him powerful. But after a lifetime, Odin passes onto Thor the wisdom that Asgard is not a place– it’s people. You could just as easily insert for “Asgard” there the names America, Britain, Spain . . . New Zealand.

And so here we are in 2017. Maybe we’re looking at the world with fresh eyes, that the advances of “the West” are built on a bloody history of colonialism, slavery, and other forms of oppression. Perhaps we’re now seeing the chickens of our nationalism, jingoism, sexism, and quest for economic hegemony coming home to roost in the the rise of forces and ideals we long thought dead or outmoded. Perhaps Ragnarok — some creative nihilism — is what we need to wipe the vestiges of former power away to be replaced by a more pure, benevolent rule of law.

Or maybe it’s just a story about two brothers, one of whom has a magic hammer, and it gets smashed by their mean old sister, so they have to recruit a giant green monster to help beat her up. Could be that, too.

ONE OTHER THING (Is it a spoiler to reveal what isn’t in a movie?) If you’ve got your hopes up to see the final infinity stone, just tamp those expectations down. You do get a couple glances at the Tesseract (aka the Space Stone), but we already knew about that one anyway, right? Right. Just enjoy the movie without worrying about it moving that particular storyline forward.

But, of course, make sure you stay through the credits, because. . . well, you know the drill.

[End Spoilers]

It’s likely unfair to castigate the MCU for having movies that feel like they came off an assembly line. While it may have been true previously (again, looking at you, Thor: The Dark World and Avengers: Age of Ultron), it’s worth noting how unique the Marvel Phase 3 films have been:

Captain America: Civil War is a philosophical political thriller and ethical Rorschach test with action set-pieces. (I still don’t trust anyone who is totally Team Iron Man)
Doctor Strange is a psychedelic mystic Hero’s Journey where the real enemy is ego.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a family drama where a reluctant patriarch has to lose the last vestiges of his mother and father to become the father he needs to be — and where a raccoon cries at the end as he wonders whether or not there is a god.
Spider-Man: Homecoming is a John Hughes movie with superheroes.
Black Panther looks to be the most unique Marvel movie of all.

There is a theme running through all of these: the act of creative destruction. In all of these films, our characters have to give up something they love or thought defined them in order to take the next step in their hero’s journey.

Further, family looms large in Cap: Civil War, Guardians 2, and Spider-Man. Family is at the core of Thor: Ragnarok, as it’s essentially sibling rivalry writ large with intergalactic consequences. It’s almost like. . . they actually plan these things out and are trying to say something more broadly about the human condition.

Kudos, Marvel. And Kudos (or whatever the New Zealand equivalent) to Taika Waititi. You have created something unique that blends together some of the best parts of the history of the character of Thor, given us astounding visuals, great music, jokes to make us laugh, action to thrill us, and even some nuggets to ponder.

You’ve given us a film finally worthy of the God of Thunder. Go see this on the biggest, brightest screen you possibly can. And then hug your family and friends. Because even in an apocalypse, home is not just a place– it’s people.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: Only the Brave

only the brave posterJosh Brolin’s head firefighter Eric Marsh tells a story of being caught in a wildfire and a bear on fire running out and past them and it being the most terrible and beautiful thing he’s ever seen, which features prominently in the film’s trailer. It’s as apt a metaphor as any for this well-intentioned but ultimately cliched and manipulative film.

Telling the “based on a true” story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, Only the Brave suffers first and foremost from a terrible and trite title. (Shouldn’t they have just called it “Bear on Fire”? That’s at least interesting.)

The rest of the script doesn’t get much better, including its tagline “It’s not what stands in front of you, it’s who stands beside you.” I don’t even know what that’s supposed to mean. It’s so obvious that it sounds like it’s trying to sound deep, but a similar sentiment could be expressed more powerfully and in fewer words.

So much of the script feels like it was written by a computer trying to sound deep, self-important and patriotic. Some of it lands. Some of it is groan-worthy.

This is a big slab of red meat served up rare for red state audiences who loved American Sniper, 13 Hours, and so on. Who doesn’t love and respect the heroism and rugged manliness of firefighters? Apparently, this jaded liberal.

The film would be so much better if it wasn’t so obvious about everything. An early scene is a travel montage as the firefighter crew gets together to go out on a job. Set to AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top if You Want To Rock and Roll” it’s hard not to enjoy a good song and the working class hero vibe they’re setting. But then as Bon Scott sings “Riding down the highway!” they cut to a shot of them. . .  riding down the highway. And that, maybe even more than the flaming bear, is the best explanation of the film.

Also grating is the presence of charisma black hole Miles Teller. As much fun and down home gravitas as the presence of Josh Brolin and Jeff Bridges bring, Teller sucks it all up and ruins it. Teller is also apparently not acting, as he simply shows up playing a stoner douchebro who wants to join the squad to help turn his life around. He is also really the only one of the team, besides Brolin’s character, with any discernible character arc.

This is all so sad, because Brolin, Bridges, and the other supporting cast actually do good work. Even more phenomenal is Jennifer Connelly, playing Brolin’s wife. As the only woman in the cast with more than a few seconds of screen time, she’s expected to stand in for all women in the film, and she delivers.

But this is one of the biggest problems with the film. While it’s absolutely true that the Granite Mountain Hotshots were an all-white, all-male crew, and their story would not be served best by erasing that fact, it’s worth asking why only one female character has any real agency or purpose outside of being an adjunct to a man.

And why is this story being told that features the heroism of white men, rather than another story that might tell about the heroism of other communities? Why are the contributions and sacrifices of women kept behind the scenes?

Still, I’m a firm believer in the aphorism that you should meet a movie where it’s at and what it was trying to accomplish, not judge it based on what it isn’t. And based on that metric, Only the Brave does well. Its aim is low, and it meets those expectations– like a giant greasy chicken fried steak dinner served at a down home restaurant.  Its visuals and human drama are real, even if strained by a barrage of cliches. And as much as Tellar tries to drag the movie down, Connelly, Brolin, and Bridges do their best to elevate this story to honor the sacrifices of these men and their families.

Overall Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Movie Review: The Snowman

Snowman-Poster

Mister Police. You could have saved this movie. It gave you all the parts.

Even a stellar cast led by Michael Fassbender and featuring Oscar winner JK Simmons couldn’t save this movie. Director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) used his keen eye to capture the stark beauty of its setting of Norway, but even that couldn’t make up for some pretty glaring problems.

Fassbender plays Oslo detective Harry Hole on the trail of a serial murderer whose signature is always leaving behind a snowman. Given the pedigree of the film — based on the novel by Jo Nesbø, directed by Alfredson — one would hope the end product would be better.

Instead, it is cliched and predictable. Any mystery where you can correctly guess who the culprit is so early in the film is just not worth it. Our audience even laughed at several key moments that were meant to induce dread or show menace — always a bad sign that your film may be sliding into Tommy Wiseau’s The Room territory.

According to director Alfredson, they ended up not being able to shoot 10-15% of the script, leaving it “like when you’re making a big jigsaw puzzle and a few pieces are missing so you don’t see the whole picture.” When a director as skilled as Alfredson feels robbed of the tools to make their vision a reality, that’s a bad sign. Or perhaps it’s a sign of a director making excuses for a film they know not to be up to snuff.

Either way, it’s troubling. And it would be hard to conceive of this film being 10-15% longer. Clocking in at just under two hours, it feels interminably longer.

And while most of the actors here are fairly solid, an almost unrecognizable Val Kilmer pulls us out of the movie with a jarring performance that seems just off. Given the actor’s battles with throat cancer, it’s obvious his lines were dubbed in post production. But the vocal performances don’t always quite line up, making it seem more like an old kung fu movie. You hope Kilmer is able to fully recover from his health problems, because this would be a shame to be his final on-screen performance.

It’s sad that a film that should have been The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo meets Zodiac meets Let the Right One In is more Manos! Hands of Fate. Like that film, this should be enjoyable to hear the Rifftrax commentary, but not for much else. At a time when your options at the theaters includes Blade Runner 2049 and the surprisingly fun and campy Happy Death Day, don’t choose The Snowman. 

Overall Rating: 2 out of 5

Movie Review: Blade Runner 2049 is a Masterpiece

Blade Runner 2049Blade Runner 2049 is a masterpiece and 2017’s best film.

And beyond that I’m not going to tell you anything more about its plot, characters, or anything else you’d expect from a movie review. Don’t let anyone tell you too much about it apart from what you’ve seen in the trailers, as this is a film that deserves to be experienced without much else in the way of explanation.

And, for the love of all that is holy, after you’ve seen it—don’t spoil it for your friends. Just tell them to go see it, too. And go see it with them. And then spend hours afterwards obsessively discussing everything about it.

Suffice it to say it is a continuation of the story from 1982’s Blade Runner set decades in the future in 2049. Ryan Gosling works for the LAPD hunting down and “retiring” rogue replicants, the same job Harrison Ford’s Deckard had in the original. And he uncovers something that threatens to turn their entire world upside down.

Despite his prominent placement in the trailers, don’t expect this to be a Ford / Gosling buddy cop movie. It’s not. Ford doesn’t show up until later, with even less screen time than his turn in 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens. However, his role is vital, and answers lingering questions definitively (though not overtly) that fans have often asked about Deckard.

Director Denis Villeneuve cements himself here as one of, if not the outright, best directors working today. (Public Service Announcement: impress your friends by pronouncing his name correctly. Remember that he is French Canadian, so his first name sounds  more like “Deni”—think like what John Snow calls Daenerys but with an e instead of an a. And his last name is “Vill-neve.” Say it like the beginning of “villain” and “nerve” but without the r.)

Villeneuve pulls incredible performances out of his actors. He understands exactly the world and mythos he’s playing in (arguably better than Ridley Scott?) He understands pacing and tension better than anyone else working today- if you saw Sicario, Prisoners, or Arrival, those were all just the warm up act.

And on top of all of that he has the most incredibly keen eye for visuals. He brings to life the world of this dystopian wasteland in 2049, and does it all in beautiful darkness and light. Again, his play with the darkest darks and hiding things, and his beautiful eye for how different wavelengths of light bring different feelings to the scene shows a master at work.

Just know that there are some amazingly beautiful things here. Giant skyscraper-sized women advertise companionship. A fight in a derelict casino takes place between Ford and Gosling while a glitching hologram Elvis and dancers perform in the background. Ana de Armas and Mackenzie Davis meld/merge into one person.

And then there’s Jared Leto. His turn as the head of the giant corporation producing replicants has an air of a techno-Jesus Zillionaire PsychoDoucheBro. If you hate Leto, you’re going to hate him more—and be glad Villeneuve keeps him shrouded in shadow for much of the movie. If you like his performances, you’re going to hate him, too.

But the real stars of the film are the women. Apparently, the dystopia of Blade Runner is only slightly less misogynistic than the dystopia of The Handmaid’s Tale. Mackenzie Davis (Halt and Catch Fire) is Mariette—and we should likely take that name more literally as marionette—echoing exotic dancer Zhora from the original. As a newer model replicant, she cannot disobey orders and engages in sex work: she is stripped of agency and therefore the ability to consent. So every sexual encounter is therefore rape.

Ana de Armis is even more stunning, for reasons I won’t go into, because spoilers. But her place as Gosling’s girlfriend Joi make you question the nature of love. . .  and then by the end you get the rug ripped out from under you and recognize just how awful this existence is.

Leto’s henchwomen “Luv” (even the name is cringe-y for how women are treated) is also amazing, with a performance from Sylvia Hoeks that rivals any recent femme fatale. She displays a singular focus reminiscent of a Terminator and a glee in carrying out her orders.  But still, all of them are robbed of any real choice in their circumstances.

And then there’s Robin Wright – who is having a spectacular year – as Gosling’s boss and apparently the only woman in all of Los Angeles with any sort of moral agency of her own in this universe. She’s perfect, and this is the kind of role someone gets nominated for Best Supporting Actress for (but really they’re also nominating her for Wonder Woman, but can’t say they’re doing that.)

And it’s within these performances of all of these actors in top form and their various character arcs that we illuminate incredibly deep themes and questions about the nature of existence. Many of these were covered in the original Blade Runner as well, which is why this works so well as a true sequel.

What makes someone human? What purpose do memories and dreams serve? Can artificial intelligences love? Do they feel?

But this film also treads astonishing new ground. It provides a stunning critique of humanity that some might call Marxist—we’ve always depended on forms of slavery, so why not replicants? But, amazingly, we find out that even in a world with robot slaves (let’s be real, that’s what they are), we find there are still sweatshops and child labor. To what extent is everything built on the exploitation of labor? (see? Marxism.) The film reveals, but never answers. And that’s part of what makes it so impressive.

To fully understand what this movie is without revealing too much about it, I have found the best way to discuss it is by saying exactly what it is not. And perhaps the best way to discuss that is to compare it to two other spectacular failures of 2017: Ghost in the Shell and mother!

Ghost in the Shell felt the need to explain everything and dumb things down for the audience. mother!  was too pretentious and ponderous to have any meaning at all, always showing off how smart and deep it was rather than actually getting around to any real point. Blade Runner 2049 splits the difference between these two. It expects a lot from the audience, in much the same way Arrival did last year. But its themes and meanings are clear and reach a logical conclusion, while still leaving room for vigorous discussion and debate. But unlike Arrival and perhaps more like Sicario, it offers a basic narrative that even someone not wanting to watch serious science fiction could enjoy as a basic neo-noir drama with occasional fights and explosions.

Ghost in the Shell and mother! completely missed the mark on their source material (if you include the Christian Bible as source material for Aronofsky’s mess of a film) and seemed almost designed to peeve the target audience who might otherwise like what you would have to say based on their fandom. And at least in the case of mother!, one needed to be familiar with biblical stories and themes to understand what was happening. For Blade Runner 2049, fans of the original film or the Phillip K. Dick story it’s based on will be rewarded. But perhaps even more remarkably, there is zero barrier for entry. You don’t need to know these to understand or enjoy the film. Even better, Blade Runner 2049 nails its biblical allusions, while mother! shows a sophist’s view with all the understanding of the Bible of the most smug atheist subreddit known to man.

And finally, Ghost in the Shell and mother! made questionable choices when it came to whitewashing the main character and treatment of its female main character respectively. While some have tried to play this off as “commentary” (Well, that’s how it is, isn’t it?), their apologism rings hollow. Villeneuve’s previous work on his last two films shows he knows exactly what he’s doing with his female leads. While he can take the hit as the central storyline is still about men and conflict between men while women are robbed of their equality and humanity, I believe the social commentary comes down to Leto and Wright and their performances.

Leto’s Tech Jesus DoucheBro is obsessed with creation of life, and specifically procreation. [Minor spoiler] At one point he even takes a new”born” female replicant and stabs her in the abdomen where her uterus would be, pointing out the “flaws” in his creations—they can’t make babies.  Here he is at the pinnacle of technology, able to create life, of a sort, if you believe “I think, therefore I am,” but he still demeans women and sees them as nothing more than receptacles for procreation. And empty wombs must mean some sort of failure on his part. . . again, you can see why I said this was only slightly better than The Handmaid’s Tale in its misogyny.

And then there’s Wright. She’s the only woman with any agency in the film. She’s also [minor spoiler] one of only two actual women we meet in this world. So if the women in this universe are treated awfully, it’s because they’ve all been commoditized and replaced with replicants.  The other woman character in a late Act 2 speech talks about “the price of freedom,” when her version of freedom is actually complete isolation from all other people.

And in seeing that women are not free in this future, we also see that no one is free. That’s what makes this a dystopian nightmare. Are self-aware replicants actually more human than human? Are the slaves of society really its masters? Is this where we’re going as a species?

And. . . some of those questions might be more fully explored in a future film. Because, oh yeah, there’s definitely an opening for a sequel here.

This is one of the deepest and most satisfying films of the year. It’s also challenging and multi-faceted. It’s beautiful to watch and shows that even the most sacred of cows can be milked for more material.

We didn’t think we needed a Blade Runner sequel. But Villeneuve delivers here something spectacular: a sequel to a classic that perhaps is even better than the original.

5 out of 5 stars.

Movie Review: mother!

mother posterI have another name for this movie.

Yes, it starts with mother! But it ends with a word you can’t say on television that Samuel L. Jackson likes. A lot.

This is one of the most astoundingly ponderous and pretentious films I’ve seen in years. Director Darren Aronofsky can be hit or miss, and this is perhaps his biggest miss ever. It’s like he took the reactions to Noah, in which critics and audiences did not like his retelling of the story of the biblical flood, and said, “Oh, you hated that? Great, well now I’m going to do it to THE ENTIRE BIBLE.”

This is incredibly unfortunate, for a movie that is spectacularly acted and meticulously filmed. The film follows Jennifer Lawrencemarried to Javier Bardem, a poet suffering from writers’ block. When unexpected houseguests Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer arrive, they begin to cause problems, as do their children, played by siblings Domhnall  and Brian Gleeson. But Bardem’s poet can’t get enough of the attention they lavish on him for his talent, and despite his wife’s protestations to send the guests away and the damage they do to their house, more and more guests arrive. There is supposedly a metaphor in here for the biblical Genesis story, which eventually muddles through the arrival of a Messianic child and an eventual apocalypse, but it’s too ponderous and clumsily told that the metaphor collapses under its own weight.

Even the title mother! is pretentious and offputting. It literally shouts at us with its exclamation mark. And then emphasizes its lower-case m so we know this is a Very Serious Important Move about Very Serious Things, like a college sophomore who decides their name shouldn’t be capitalized so they can stand out in the crowd and show off how self-effacing they are.

This film is the textbook definition of laying it on too thick, with a steaming side of heavy hands. And, astoundingly, at the same time, it is hella confusing for the first two-thirds of the film! As an audience member coming in, you’re left wondering exactly what is going on or what you’re supposed to be taking away from this.

The themes are all over the place. Is this movie about the erasure of the divine feminine from Christianity? Is it about the lack of respect for women and the creative, nurturing force? Is this about the environment and Mother Earth / Gaia? Is this about the creative process and the relationship between artist and audience? Is it a horror movie? Are the events depicted on screen actually happening, metaphor, or some sort of surrealistic nightmare?

Apparently the answer to all of these is yes. And no. To quote Janeane Garofalo in the cult classic Mystery Men, You’re not well-liked. You’re abrasive and off-putting. You try and say pithy things, but your wit is a hindrance and so, therefore nothing is provocative.It’s just mixed metaphors.”

When you take a classic, beautifully woven epic with multiple themes like Les Miserables or Anna Karenina or The Godfather, whether the medium is the page, the stage, or the screen, the skilled autuer will fully develop those themes and make them accessible at multiple levels.

With mother!, Aronofsky doesn’t fully develop any of them, and so the film in trying to say everything, in fact, says nothing. This leaves even the most ardent lover of film confused is not a sign of brilliance. It is a sign of failure.   

And where the film really strikes out is in its attempts to have a message of feminism, it mostly just ends up glorifying violence towards and erasure of women. I’m sorry, but you can’t be a feminist movie if you can’t even pass the Bechdel Test. It’s a fairly low bar, and they didn’t even manage to get over that.

Even more creepy is the way the camera follows Jennifer Lawrence throughout the movie. Wearing an incredibly sheer nightgown and no underwear for much of the film, she is intentionally lit to repeatedly show off her nipples. The camera follows her from behind with more shots of her butt than a Michael Bay movie. (And can we point out that the movie would be 40 minutes shorter if it didn’t incessantly follow her movement throughout the house, padding an already ponderous picture?)

And then in the final climax of the film, she is brutally attacked, her clothing ripped, exposing her bare breasts. . .  in a rape scene. No. No. No. No. NO.

Aronofsky has publicly stated that we have been destroying our mother earth with our presence– message received. But to take it a step further to depict it on screen as an actual rape contributes to rape culture by not only seemingly glorifying/fetishizing the moment but also by lessening the impact of the epidemic of sexual assault in our country. I even bristle at the too-easy-to-make metaphor of pollution, climate change, etc “raping Mother Earth.” It doesn’t elevate a call to action, but it does lessen the impact of actual sexual assault. That being said, mother!’s final fiery apocalypse fueled by combusting oil and coal is a metaphor worth exploring– it’s just unfortunate that it is too glibly conflated with violence towards women that its impact is lessened.

It’s arguable that mother! wants to teach us something about the important place for women, but all we’re left with is a glorification of her erasure, abuse, and ultimate place as an adjunct to the man. And [spoiler alert, but IDGAF] at the end of the film, we also find out that her special, sacred role is ultimately replaceable, and she can be consumed in apocalyptic destruction and the ultimate in self-effacement and annihilation, and just as easily replaced by another woman.

Nice job, Darren Aronofsky. You took a movie about women, put your girlfriend in it, and made it all about you– the ultimate in white male “feminism.” And you bet those quotation marks are ironic.

And if you were trying to make a message about the environment, you absolutely failed– showing that our earth is completely replaceable. It isn’t. As an environmentalist myself, that implication goes beyond being problematic to dangerous.

What’s most infuriating is I really really really wanted to like this movie. It has some amazing elements in it that, if properly developed, could have made something cool. The environmental message is absolutely necessary and poignant, especially given the events of the last few weeks. A message about art and audience would have been cool. Something that was actually feminist would have been amazing. And Aronofsky’s visual sense is right on point here. He masterfully uses his setting to create an emotional response. I can name only a handful of other films that came out this year as competently shot/composed as this. (Detroit, Your Name, Get Out, Dunkirk) But someone needed to sit him down and tell him he was being self-indulgent and an idiot.

This is that Jerry Seinfeld joke that the original title for Tolstoy’s novel was War: What is it Good For? If Tolstoy had published that joke draft instead of War and Peace, we would laugh about how terrible that book is. mother! is that underdeveloped potential with an epic that deserves to be told in a more cogent fashion.

1 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: IT

IT posterContent Warning / Trigger Warning: Sewer Clowns.

The new adaptation of Stephen King‘s It starring Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise the Clown is one of the best scary movies in a long time and even puts itself in the running for one of the best adaptations of King’s work. It’s scary. It’s funny. It’s nostalgic. But most of all, it keeps the focus where it should be — on the kids who call themselves “The Losers Club” — to deliver a poignant, touching story about growing up, loss, fear, and grief. And on top of that, it’s just a great scary movie.

But it’s not just a scary movie. Most surprising is just how funny it is at times. The Losers Club talk more like the kids from South Park (and therefore like your average 13 year old) and the humor helps cut the tension in important ways.

And yes, the film is scary. And not just in the easy-jump-scare-loud-noise scare we’ve become accustomed to. Since the monster feeds on fears, we see supremely disturbing and scary images brought to life. This is layered on top of super-creepy atmosphere that lurks under the idyllic charms of small town pastiche.

Director Andy Muschietti understands his craft and understands how to layer on the fright. Like any good magic trick, there’s the set up, suspense building, and the big reveal.

And the big reveal here is the film’s Pennywise the Clown. While they certainly show plenty of Pennywise in the film, they definitely take a less-is-more approach with him. Bill Skarsgård is fantastic. He’s taking as much of a page from Heath Ledger’s Joker (and Mark Hamill’s Joker) as he is from Tim Curry’s portrayal, and the results are creepy and intense.

The less-is-more approach with Pennywise means the focus ends up back where it belongs: the kids. And these kids are fantastic. Jaeden Lieberher (St. Vincent, Midnight Special) gets top billing as Bill, whose brother George is the first victim in the film. Finn Wolfhard (Stranger Things) is another familiar face who is no stranger to the nostalgia-laden horror story. But here he really gets to break loose as the kid with the dirtiest mouth and dirtiest mind, giving breath to the unfettered id that it is to be a 13 year old boy.

But the best performance among them is from Sophia Lillis, the lone female in the Losers Club. She is both independent and strong, while also vulnerable and scared. With her home life as much of a hellscape as anything involving evil sewer clowns, she brings an extra layer of emotion beyond anything any of the boys do.

Gone are so many of the affectations and deep worldbuilding of King’s original story– and it’s for the better. There is no jumping back and forth between times and adult and child versions of the main characters. There is no greater mysticism, giant turtles or spiders, or mumbo-jumbo. There is (thankfully) no child orgy. By jettisoning so much of this and focusing on a simple monster vs. kids story, we get the distilled essence of what makes King’s story work in the first place.

Purists will definitely have a problem with this adaptation, but one way to approach this is that the film seems more inspired by other great Stephen King adaptations, like Stand By Me, and other classic 80’s kid-centric adventure movies like The Goonies, Space Camp, Flight of the Navigator, D.A.R.Y.L., Big, War Games, Weird Science, The Neverending Story, or Explorers than by the original source material. But, fear not– the film leaves itself wide open for the inevitable sequel, ostensibly the story of the adult versions of our characters. . . which would be set today.

The movie makes possibly the smartest choice of all in making this a period piece set in the 80’s. Not only does that allow for maximum nostalgia, but it also keeps the story simple. Without things like cell phones, social media, helicopter parenting, etc, it makes it normal for kids to be outside riding their bikes, exploring sewers, and swimming in quarries. Yes, it even has a “cleaning up” montage with a jaunty soundtrack (in this case The Cure’s “Six Different Ways” — a deep cut from one of their best and most under-recognized albums). There are also dozens of Easter Eggs throughout the movie, from the movies on the marquee of the local theater to posters the kids have on their walls. It’s enough to make any 80’s or 90’s kid’s heart flutter.

And this is, again, where the film draws smartly from things like Stand By Me. The same sort of childhood nostalgia for the 1950’s audiences had in the 80’s (see also Back to the Future) is what many audiences feel now. So of course it makes sense to update this and set the film in the 80’s.

It is not a perfect film. It suffers from a few convenient plot holes and contrivances, but no worse than your average Marvel movie. And despite wearing its heart on its sleeve when confronting fears and grief, it doesn’t feel like we’re treading any really new ground here. That could be because we’re talking about the adaptation of a thirty year old novel. Or it could be that any film that comes out in 2017, especially of the horror genre, is going to have to stack up against the social commentary and innovation of Get Out. 

So it’s not the rebirth of cool– so what? It’s still an incredibly fun flick that will make you spill your popcorn bucket in fright and make you nostalgic for 1989 and that awesome, scary, fun time of being 13. You’ll float, too.

4 out of 5 stars

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