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IT: Chapter Two (2019)

14 Sep

The second part of a cinematic adaptation of Stephen King’s famed horror novel, IT: Chapter Two takes place 27 years after the events from IT (2017), helmed again by director  Andy Muschietti and screenwriter Gary Dauberman who collaborated on the first film. Set in the fictional town of Derry, we see the return of our characters from part one – this time as adults in their late 30’s – who formed a bond of friendship after discovering they each had shared traumatic experiences involving an evil clown capable of manifesting their inner fears and vulnerabilities. As it turns out, the evil known as Pennywise has returned again to Derry, and has begun preying on a new round of child victims.

After marking a massive box office success two years ago, it’s safe to say part 2 of the franchise was one of the most anticipated horror films of the year. Muschietti and Dauberman have doubled down on the same formula that apparently made the first film such a theatrical hit: horrific CGI scenes of various characters’ visions of pennywise fleshed out with brief moments of levity and a small romantic subplot. While the terror factor of 2017’s IT was surprisingly effective, children swearing and making sex jokes are no replacement for emotional beats that are essential to any given story, and I found part one to be mostly a disjointed mess. Unfortunately, part two copies the same incohesive story structure which no doubt will leave audiences who haven’t seen part one or who are unfamiliar with the source novel to speculate on many details left out of Stephen King’s mythical world of IT.

Though Pennywise certainly is just as frightening here as he was in the first film (thanks in part to a particularly gruesome set of CGI eyes and teeth), the real villain of It Chapter Two is the film’s editor.  Scenes come and go in the movie without much thought of why they should be there in the first place, and the tone jumps around so often from claustrophobic moments of body horror to comedy to nostalgia without giving time for the audience to embrace any single particular mood. This is made worse by the fact that every character who encounters Pennywise is given not only their own little hallucinogenic scenes of terror, but we also see those of their child counterparts, given to us in abrupt nonsensical flashbacks at pivotal moments in the movie.

The one string of consistency providing any sense of direction in this movie comes from the character Mike (Isaiah Mustafa) who is the only one to have stayed in Derry and has spent the last 27 year reading up on Pennywise’s mythology (he has been haunting Derry for over a millennia!) and obsessing over newspaper clippings from his latest victims. Unfortunately Mike is also the only prominent person of color in the movie, and the fact that his only sense of purpose is to share expository insight on the supernatural mysteries of Derry so that the rest of the white cast can defeat Pennywise harkens back to the magical negro archetype that has existed with genre films since their inception.

The silver lining here that makes It Chapter Two better than the first lies with its great ensemble cast. Not only do they look and feel the part of their child characters from part 1, but they embody a better sense of realism which helps ground the story and creates some emotional semblance to hang on to. The scenes between Beverly, Bill, and Ben (played by Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, and Jay Ryan respectively) are mostly solid, and the dialogue here avoids the clunky bits from the first movie where these characters got involved. Bill Hader and James Ransone not only provide a good dose of comic relief but also both give genuinely good performances – especially in the movie’s later half.

Still, a stellar cast isn’t enough to make It Chapter Two very memorable, and the movie is just too messy and scatterbrained to emulate the singular vision found in Stephen King’s book.

Bottom Line: Scares run amok, but much like its 2017 predecessor, It Chapter Two suffers too much from its own shoddy editing and patchy story elements to deliver much of anything substantial. 

Rating: 5.5/10

Film Recipe: Stranger Things + The Ring + Stand By Me 

Midsommar (2019)

10 Jul

There is a sinister characteristic that runs throughout Ari Aster’s work. The director of 2018’s landmark horrorshow Hereditary seems to embrace all things taboo and macabre.  His latest creation, Midsommar, is no different.

Mostly set in the Swedish countryside, the film follows a couple, Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor) as they try and process Dani’s recent family trauma by attending a pagan summer solstice festival.  Strange occurrences start to make the two suspicious of the festival group, and the couple soon have to reckon with not only the problematic aspects of their own relationship, but also disturbing history and traditions of the reclusive commune.

Midsommar is not your typical horror movie; in fact, it might not even be one at all. Aster shuns most tropes of the genre here, opting instead for a disturbing, slow-burning psychodrama about a relationship in chaos. In Hereditary, Aster’s more conventional take, the long shots and empty atmospheric scenes lessened the overall impact of the film’s more truly shocking moments. Here, with Midsommar, this slow kind of editing plays up the film’s strengths, and deepens the emotional beats that detail the character’s headspace.

Horror fans should feel instantly at home with the texture and shape of Midsommar; Aster does enough to play the genre’s narrative notes in a way that still feels fresh and exciting. Ever the provocateur, there is a perverse sense of accomplishment that seems a part of Midsommar’s shell shock; Aster knows exactly what gets under the skin and delivers it to us tenfold. Part of the film’s ability to effect lies in it’s beautiful contrast between the ugly and the sublime elements of both the movie’s unique environment and the ritualistic traditions of the commune. The cinematography works wonders here, with a bright blue, green, and white palette coloring scenes so brightly lit you feel like squinting.

Most surprisingly, Midsommar is quite funny. Smart amounts of humor are dabbled in and out of the script which adds again to the film’s bold contrasting components and the audience’s eventual discomfort. This isn’t the campy, popcorn-munching stuff of Zombieland or Evil Dead fame; what’s most haunting here is that both the comedic and horror aspects feel so intimate and real. All performances are on point, but in particular Florence Pugh steals the show, giving an impressively grounded portrayal of someone in an extended state of crisis. Over the course of the movie, we explore the world of the Swedish commune through the POV of our star couple, sometimes separate, though more often than not from the perspective of Dani. We feel her psyche heat up into a frenzy, fueled by both her past trauma and her current relationship’s turmoil (and the occasional hallucinogen). As layer by layer of the festival gets exposed, the audience’s anticipation and dread gains more weight, building up finally to a fated but terrifying destination.

Bottom Line: While on paper, Midsommar seems like familiar territory, the stylish execution of the drama and weighted anticipation of mystery make for a singular moviegoing experience that is hard to shake. 

Rating: 7.6/10

Film recipe: The Wickerman (1973) + Magic Magic + Antichrist 

Child’s Play (2019)

24 Jun

There is an odd sense of nostalgia running throughout the new Child’s Play reboot. Sure, the characters all have smart phones and watch YouTube; this particular plot couldn’t even function without self-driving cars, in-home surveillance cameras, and other forms of modern smart-household tech. But throughout its tiny 90-minute runtime there is a playfulness embedded within Child’s Play‘s DNA harkens back to a time when some of the best horror films didn’t take themselves too seriously.

Though it’s based of the same IP as the 1988 original film of the same name directed by Tom Holland, the two films feel worlds apart with the latter only taking the most basic of story elements and giving them a contemporary setting. Tech conglomerate Kaslan has released a new line of products called the Buddi doll (played by veteran voice actor Mark Hamill) –  a nightmarish-looking Alexa counterpart that can essentially control other Kaslan devices via voice commands. Andy (Gabriel Bateman) is a bit unenthused when he receives a refurbished Buddi doll for his birthday (the new and improved Buddi 2.0 model hits the shelfs in a few days) but he soon discovers his new “friend” to be quite useful for scaring his mom (Aubrey Plaza) and her boyfriend Shane (David Lewis). Things get gruesome when this particular Buddi realizes the potential of having his “violence inhibitors” shut off, and he will go to great lengths to ensure his friendship with Andy is never replaced with an actual human.

Director Lars Klevberg makes a point to distinguish his version of the killer doll story apart from Holland’s original (screenwriter and creator of the original Chucky, Don Mancini, has denied any involved in the 2019 project) mostly by moments of sly humor including a playful tone that borders on camp. The world in which Child’s Play takes place, with its emphasis on corporate tech playing a more prominent role in nearly every aspect of our lives, does at times feel a bit too eerily like our own. But for the most part Klevberg employs such a whimsical aesthetic to the more chilling bits of Child’s Play reminiscent of cheap, direct-to-video horror sequels from the 2000’s or, alternatively, the best works from horror aficionados Sam Raimi and James Gunn. Parts of the movie are incredibly fun, including how the characters subtly introduce Chucky to acts of violence (thank you Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2) and the amount of comedic irony layered into the plot. However, the film’s second half feels too rushed and carefree as the story completely abandons its grounded approach to the original material and resorts to tired genre tropes.

Still, in an era where most reboots seem to lack effort for originality, Child’s Play feels like a refreshingly creative endeavor. Just one that looses its way a little too quickly.

Bottom Line: Though this year’s Child’s Play avoids most of the common mistakes that plague other horror reboots, it doesn’t quite have the spookiness or writing chops to turn the film into much more than an engaging sideshow. 

Rating: 6.3/10

Film Recipe: Drag Me To Hell + Snakes on a Plane + Krampus

Late Night (2019)

15 Jun

With all the competition from streaming services and youtube, 2019 can be a rough time for late night television. Even more so when you are the sole female host in the country and the network’s president is threatening to have you replaced due to sinking ratings.  This is the world of Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson), once a multi-award winning comedian who, along with her longtime husband Walter (John Lithgow) are staring down the corridors of irrelevancy. Could hiring a female writer be the the solution to saving the network and making late night comedy culturally relevant again?

Late Night sets about to answer that question in the most clunky, ham-fisted way possible. Directed by Nisha Ganatra and written by co-star Mindy Kailing, most of the movie stumbles in circles over the same ideas regarding women’s empowerment, millennial masculinity, and corporate nepotism. This is would all be fine and dandy if it wasn’t for Late Night’s tendency to exploit cliche after cliche – making almost every character (even the good-intentioned protagonists) seem like absolute frauds.  For a film that markets itself with an edgy anti-patriarchal agenda, most of Late Night feels depressingly sterile and safe. There are a few great threads late in the story that could have amounted to something notable had they been taken care of properly in the first half, but the film is too busy hitting the same tired beats over and over rather than exploring any new ideas with its painfully bland set of characters. Late Night doesn’t have any amount of gritty realism to sustain the amount melodrama it aspires to, but it isn’t smart or brave enough to be much of a social satire either, leaving the film in a mostly flavorless state of limbo.

There are some clever comedic bits sewn about here and there however, and Emma Thompson is such a stunning and charismatic actress that she brings an interesting depth to her character in moments of crisis. But it’s not quite enough to overcome the script’s many blemishes and awkward moments that mostly rob the narrative of any emotional payoff.  Late Night has a powerful statement somewhere – it just struggles to say it in any cohesive or authentic way.

Bottom Line: Despite a stellar leading performance from Emma Thompson, Late Night puts too much emphasis on its socially-woke window dressing and not enough veracity or bite within its message, resulting in a painfully missed opportunity.

Rating: 5.3/10

Film Recipe: Trainwreck + a toothless, sanitized version of Booksmart 

The Dead Don’t Die (2019)

14 Jun

American indie darling Jim Jarmusch enters genre territory for arguably his first time in The Dead Don’t Die with frequent collaborators Bill Murray and Tom Waits in tow. Known for his poetic portrayals of subtle human interactions, Jarmusch would seem, on paper anyway, to be an obvious mismatch for taking on a horror-comedy about zombies eating their way through a rural Pennsylvania town, and the mixed reaction from its Cannes premiere had me less-than-enthused.  Fortunately, the acclaimed director leans into the material with a self-aware smirk and gives the colorful cast of characters room to breath and embrace the absurd.

The film opens with a country radio track (an appropriately-titled song bearing the same name as the film) that soon gives way to a breaking news alert: the moon has been knocked off its axis and is affecting the earth in all sorts of spooky ways including – you guessed it – zombies.

Along with the aforementioned Murray and Waits, the film boasts what has to be one of the best ensembles of the year. Adam Driver, Selena Gomez, Chloe Sevingy, Danny Glover, Tilda Swinton, Steve Buscemi, even Iggy Pop and RZA make an appearance.  Jarmusch, who also wrote the film’s screenplay, gives in to his inner camp sensibilities with the comedy and delivers some of the best bits tongue-in-cheek.

The Dead Don’t Die is stacked with sly pop culture references and meta commentary. Hell, there is even a near-perfect caricature of the film bro here (played brilliantly by Caleb Landry Jones) who only seems to be missing his Criterion Collection pins. Puns, winks, and in-jokes are drawn out almost to a fault which would become annoying if not for the sardonic chemistry between the cast members.  Driver and Murray are particularly great together, playing up the buddy-cop moments with ease.

There are a few left-turns in the script for sure, and some of the dad-joke-worthy moments induce more groans than laughs. Still, there is no denying the sense of charm on display here, and most notably The Dead Don’t Die knows exactly what kind of film it wants to be and hits all the right notes with total consistency.

Bottom Line: Delightfully absurd and genuinely funny, The Dead Don’t Die shows Jarmusch embracing the best of his comedic sensibilities and plays perfectly to its audience’s expectations. 

Rating: 7.7/10 

Film Recipe: What We Do In The Shadows + Zombieland 

Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)

19 Feb

After the searing portrayal of a neurotic video journalist from Nightcrawler, I was ecstatic to see director Dan Gilroy and actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo team up again, this time in a pseudo-horror satire set in the world of exclusive art collecting.

Gyllenhaal plays Morf, a well known critic in the Los Angeles art scene. He has just ended things with his Partner Ed and begins to pursue a romantic relationship with art broker named Josephine (Zawe Ashton) whose boss Rhodora (Rene Russo) is constantly on the lookout for new, fresh exhibits to showcase at her prestigious gallery. Josephine, upon returning home one afternoon, discovers her mysterious neighbor has died and left behind all his paintings (though he ordered the property manger to destroy all his work upon his death). Claiming she found all the paintings herself, Josephine and Rhodora begin exhibiting the paintings and circulating the deceased artist’s work throughout the community – with spooky results.

Boasting an ensemble cast (Natalia Dyer, Daveed Diggs, John Malkovich, Toni Collete, and Billy Magnussen all play minors roles throughout the movie) Gilroy creates a vibrant and colorful vision of art-fueled Los Angeles. In Gilroy’s world, all the major players overflow with such vapid narcissism so that they become caricatures themselves rather than actual characters; every person on screen turns up the gaudiness dial up to 11 but perhaps none more so than Gyllenhaal’s Morf, who acts more as unintentional comedic relief than an audience conduit for Gilroy’s whimsically slimy universe. Watching the conversations and interactions weave in and out of this web is devilishly entertaining – Gilroy’s penchant for writing glib dialogue shines brightly here and is one of the reasons Velvet Buzzsaw remains so damn entertaining even when it ventures off into trope-ridden genre territory.

The editing also deserves special praise. Things start off mid-conversation inside an art gallery where most of the setting is delivered to us through characters hamming off into their phones. A quick pace keeps things tidy though and the layers of the story get slipped in gradually rather than in specific plotting points. This makes the film strangely gripping and near impossible to turn away from, although many individual scenes are relentlessly awkward and cringe-inducing. Above all else, Velvet Buzzsaw manages to be a very playful film – unpredictable and engaging – even when it meanders off with a wild goose chase in the second half.

Bottom Line: Self-indulgent to the point of parody, Velvet Buzzsaw certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but for those inclined to leave most (or at least some) reservations at the door, the film is a wildly entertaining romp. 

Rating: 7/10 

Film Recipe: Nocturnal Animals + Neon Demon