Tag Archives: film review

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 

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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

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 

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

11 Nov

Based on the book of the same name, Can You Ever Forgive Me marks director Marielle Heller‘s sophomore feature film, following up on 2015’s excellent Diary of A Teenage Girl. 

The film follows Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel, an aged New York author going through a rough financial patch. Unable to write anything her publisher is satisfied with, Lee decides to sell off some her valuable memorabilia – mostly signed letters from famous authors she has collected over the years. The quick-and-easy cash she accumulates as a result soon gives her the idea of forging fake documents and passing them off as real collectibles. Soon, a distant acquaintance named Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) enters the picture, and the two form a friendship over booze, writing, and fraudulent activity.

McCarthy, mostly known for her comedic work in films like Bridesmaids, The Heat, and 2016’s Ghostbusters remake, seems absurdly perfect to play the part of Lee; she absolutely steals up every scene she is in, giving a subtle but memorable performance as the depressed writer down on her luck.  Grant provides a nice counterpoint, and the two together make an endearing and engaging criminal couple. Most of Can You Ever Forgive Me? plays out like a great conversation with an old friend, complimented with good food and lots of alcohol. The strength of Jeff Whitty and Nicole Holofcener’s script is evident here, and the nuanced way Heller brings in the emotional beats of the story is very remarkable.

Though the film gets bogged down a bit in its later half, McCarthy brings a welcome authenticity into her role which makes her character instantly relatable. Hardly comparable to anything with the “crime genre” label, Heller’s film never reaches the dramatic highs and lows a traditional true-crime hollywood movie would employ – opting instead for a quieter character study of loneliness and desperation.

Bottom Line: While parts of Can You Ever Forgive Me? drag a little longer than they should, Marielle Heller’s sophomore feature shines with plenty of emotion, humanity, and a stellar performance from Melissa McCarthy. 

 

Rating: 7/10

Film Recipe: Beginners + Certain Women + Inside Llewyn Davis 

 

SUSPIRIA (2018)

5 Nov

Luca Guadagnino’s evocative, buzzed about remake of Dario Argento’s supernatural horror Suspiria is finally here in all its bloody glory. Starring Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth and Chloe Grace Moretz, 2018’s version – though almost more of a sequel of sorts than a direct remake – is very much a work that stands on its own; it’s something that strives to challenge both new audiences and diehard fans of the cult classic. Set in 1977, (the year the original Suspiria was released in Europe) the film opens on a rainy day in Berlin where Patricia (Grace-Moretz) stumbles into the home of her psychiatrist, Dr Josef Klemperer (one of Tilda Swinton’s many roles here). After some incoherent ramblings about witchcraft and her dance instructors (it’s fitting that one of the film’s first audible lines is “they took my eyes and now they watch me everywhere”) Dr Klemperer decides his patient is delusional. Cut to the mennonite home of our protagonist Susie (Dakota Johnson) who, over a series of title cards, is flown to Berlin to audition for a prestigious dance school. She gets the role, but not after catching the attention of the school’s leadership who have a sinister pact with an ominous supernatural being known only as Mother.

The first act of Suspiria plays out like some frantic fever dream; Guadagnino creates a rich and impressively detailed atmosphere from the opening and employees jump cuts and sound design choices that become more unnerving and disorientating as the film progresses. It’s a lot to soak in at first and we never get the chance to really connect with any of the characters or their entwining subplots. Nor do we need to. The camerawork in conjunction with the editing does most of the heavy lifting here, utilizing the its own cinematic language to establish an overwhelming sense of unease. Suspiria is a powerfully paradoxical work that manages to be playfully surreal and imaginative while simultaneously still grounded in its expression of visceral human emotion. Scored by the dizzying compositions of Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, the aesthetic setup of Suspiria plays out like a love letter to the European psychodramas of the 60’s and 70’s that Guadagnino assumedly grew up on; almost a sort of romantic tribute to the kind of films that – in the age of the big budget Disney franchise – we just don’t see room for in American megaplexes.

Romantic notions soon give way to horrific displays of violence in Suspiria; it should be seen as more of an occult book of spells than any kind of possible love letter. Guadagnino, in contrast to Argento’s abundant use of vibrant blood, plays down the impact of color in the film’s lavish setpieces, but he does not skip out on the level of unease, anxiety and uncomfortableness from the original. I became physically ill during parts of Suspiria – the breathtaking art direction provides a clarity to details and even simple acts like the closing of a curtain feel weighted and ominous. Certain scenes doubledown on the grotesque factor as an outright assault to the audience’s senses – I haven’t seen something so provocatively disturbing since a particular scene from Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (you know the one I’m talking about). However, Guadagnino is less inclined to play things for shock value more than he is interested in the juxtaposition between the obscene and the beautiful. Suspiria constantly maneuvers this exploratory space into a variety of unexpected places, right up to its cataclysmic and frenzied nightmare of a climax. Guaranteed to be divisive among audience interpretations, Suspiria is the kind of work that implants itself deep in your brain and begs you to make some sense of it. If that’s not the definition of engaging cinema then I don’t know what it is.

A sophisticated, enchanting, and disturbing take on the beloved cult classic, Suspiria creates and then deconstructs its own artful and hallucinogenic universe resulting in a profound viewer experience that pushes the limits of conventional genre cinema.

Rating: 9.1

Film Recipe: Black Swan + Eyes Wide Shut + Possession (1981) + Twin Peaks: The Return

Mid 90’s (2018)

30 Oct

Academy-Award nominee Jonah Hill takes a turn behind the camera with his directorial debut Mid 90’s, a nostalgia-soaked coming of age story about a group of teen skateboarders in southern California.

Sunny Suljic plays the lead Stevie, a lonely pubescent kid who befriends a group of older boys at the local skate shop. Desperate to escape the constant fighting between his 18-year-old brother (Lucas Hedges) and his fragile mom (Katherine Waterston), Stevie spends as much time as he can with his new friends, including following the group to a drunken party or two. There is the older leader Ray (Na-kel Smith), a pair who go by the nicknames of Fuckshit and Fourth Grade (Olan Prenatt and Ryder McLaughlin, respectively) and the younger Ruben (Gio Galicia) who becomes Stevie’s entry point into the world of skateboarding.

Mid 90’s never directly tells us what year the story is set, but the film is packed with a slew of references from the obvious musical choices to the costume design to the billboards strung along a Los Angeles highway.  The cinematography itself is also a sort of reference; shot on grainy 16mm and featuring a nifty 4:3 aspect ratio, Mid 90’s is a time capsule of a film that seems directly lifted from the VHS era. The score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross feels almost inappropriately irrelevant, given that just about every scene features some 90’s tune (everyone from Wu-Tang-Clan to Bad Brains to the Beastie Boys makes an appearance). Jonah Hill is a clever enough director to not let pure nostalgia be the focus here, and he naturally centers the story around Stevie’s emotional journey of friendship and discovery. Beautifully acted, the film’s strength comes from it’s breezy, (and at times hilarious) natural dialogue and youthful chemistry between the boys. The group of teens are all phenomenal and put just enough emotional weight into their performances to give the script a lively energy.

There is some unnecessary melodrama near the film’s end and things ultimately fail to wrap up in a satisfying way during its final moments. At a tidy 85 minutes, Mid 90’s almost feels too sleight and insufficiently empty by the time the credits roll. Still, the film marks a skilled accomplishment for Jonah Hill as both a confident director and promising screenwriter.

Bottom Line: Packed to the brim with teen angst and musical montage aplenty, Jonah Hill’s directorial debut Mid 90’s is a breezy, endearing portrait of 1990’s youthfulness and counterculture. 

Rating: 7.6/10 

Film Recipe: Kids + The Florida Project + Boyhood Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 

 

 

 

 

Bad Times At The El Royale (2018)

25 Oct

Take a few strangers, a bag of cash, some heroin, a heavy rainstorm, a rifle or two, CIA operatives, domestic violence, PTSD, and alcohol – throw it all together with some 70’s Americana (complete with an abundance of disco soul) and you have Bad Times At El Royale. 

Written and directed by Drew Goddard (Cabin In The Woods), the film details the events bestowing a group of unfortunate strangers who happen to be at the same hotel over the course of a stormy night along the California/Nevada border. In fact, the hotel itself straddles the boundary, with half the rooms being in the “sunny and relaxing” California section and the other half in “glamourous and indulgent” Nevada – or so the marketing pitch goes – with a bright red line dividing up the property. It’s in the El Royale’s lobby where we are introduced to a trio of travelers looking for a room. There is the priest, Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a single woman named Darlene (Cynthia Erivo) en route to Reno, and a vacuum salesman with a southern drawl named Mr. Sullivan (Jon Hamm). After some chit-chat, the hotel clerk finally shows up in the form of a boyish young man named Miles. Things get complicated as secrets are revealed, and a few surprise guests arrive at the hotel throughout the course of the night.

Bad Times is the kind of film that invests itself heavily in plot. It’s the sort of grounded, single-location storytelling that you see with movies that also work well as theatrical pieces like Wait Until Dark, 12 Angry Men, or August: Osage County. With a film like this, having a character-driven narrative is absolutely essential – especially so when the thing is over 2 hours. Unfortunately, Bad Times collapses under its own weight about halfway through and doesn’t have enough dramatic prowess to justify its lengthy runtime. Goddard is a much better director than he is writer; most of the characters in Bad Times feel stale and onenote. He gets away with it just fine in Cabin In The Woods, a horror venture co-written with Joss Whedon, where the leads are intentionally variations on common genre tropes. Here, Goddard tries to substitute unnecessary flashbacks as a proxy for fleshing out complex character motivations. What he fails to realize is that providing already-thin characters with their own backstory only reinforces their one-dimensional traits.

While I appreciated the overall narrative beats that makeup Bad Times, the characters’ behavior simply does not make enough sense to propel the script along like they need to. The best (worst?) example of this is with Billy (played by Chris Hemsworth), who is the biggest fruitcake-of-a-bad-guy to come along since Jared Leto’s Joker in Suicide Squad. Hemsworth chews up every line with a portraly that veers on the edge of camp but whose role is essential enough in the story so that Goddard demands we take him seriously (one can’t help but wonder if this character’s most effective contribution here is the image of a shirtless Hemsworth to use in the film’s marketing).

There is a lot to admire with Bad Times – a lot more than there is to dislike. I particularly dug the noir-infused tone and beautiful interior set design. The post-modern story structure (complete with title cards!) is an admirable but obvious attempt to try and emulate Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, a film which Bad Times owes a lot to. But unlike that film, (Tarantino is a master at understanding the brevity of writing nuanced, complex characters) Goddard’s work trails off around the third act right when the script should be picking up steam. In retrospect, I liked the film’s first act the best simply because I knew the least about all the players at the hotel and appreciated the intrigue. Most of the second half becomes a prime example of style-over-substance and some parts of Bad Royale end up feeling like a music video that goes on for way too long.

Still though, the film showcases Goddard’s skill as a director who can effectively use the slow-burn to ramp up tension. There are enough clever stylistic choices in the film to keep most viewers happy – including some surprising plot elements that caught me off guard in a give-you-goosebumps kind of way. Bad Times At The El Royale is good. So frustratingly good that its biggest sin might be in exposing the possibility of how much better it could have been.

Bottom Line: Bad Times At The El Royale is a nifty piece of dramaturgical theatre that unfortunately relies too often on underwritten characters as its crutch. 

Rating: 6.5/10 

Film Recipe: The Hateful Eight + Identity + Wait Until Dark + Suburbicon