It (2017) – Film Review

“It” wasn’t supposed to garner the biggest September box office opening of all time. “It” had been in development turmoil for awhile, swapping directors, dropping Will Coulter as the actor to play Pennywise, and generally being bogged down by a bad streak of Stephen King movies. The Dark Tower was a disaster both financially and critically. But despite all of the doubts, the team behind “It” moved past it through great casting, a distinct visual palette, and a star turn from Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise the Dancing Clown.

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Finn Wolfhard, the main character from Netflix’s Stranger Things, plays the wise-cracking Richie in “It”, a change in tone from his earnest TV persona. He swears and brags about sex he’s never had. He brings a great comedic lightness to the movie, an important glue character that ties the group of troubled kids together.

Bill, played by Jaeden Lieberher, is the stuttering older brother of Georgie, the infamous victim of Pennywise’s sewer tricks. He has an emotional arc surrounding his brother that’s very intense and heartfelt. It’s made all the better by the filmmakers choosing to focus only on the characters as children, not flashing back and forth between their adult years. That will be the sequel, apparently.

Sophia Lillis plays Beverly, the tomboy girl with both an undeserved reputation at school and a hostile relationship with her heated father. She’s looking for someone to latch onto, and the losers, the main group of kids that hangout together, including Bill and Richie, a sympathetic fat boy and a home-schooled outsider, are the first she finds. She is more mature and even looks three years older than all of them. She fits in within their little squad very quickly.

Pennywise isn’t just a scary killer clown; he’s a monster capable of transporting and morphing into different entities. His mouth can shape-shift into a long, wide black hole filled with a hundred spears of teeth. But the natural physical gestures performed by Bill Skarsgard are plenty creepy enough.

An “It” producer said in a press interview that they consciously created a strategy to keep Skarsgard out of the late night circuits and press junket interviews. By doing this, the producer explained, the viewer would see Pennywise the monster first and Skarsgard the actor second. His piercing eyes and odd lip movements are huge aspects of the performance, and his real-life interviews don’t mask these intense features/expressions that landed him the role in the first place. If his face were all over magazine covers, the mystique of the Pennywise look wouldn’t be as immediate or as thrilling. Viewers would look at the clown and be able to point out the quirky gestures of the Swedish actor.

Bill Skarsgard made some sort of comment comparing his performance as Pennywise to Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight. I don’t know the context of his actual statement, but if he was saying that he had taken inspiration from Ledger’s Joker, it’s very apparent within the film. He shakes his head and laughs hoarsely at the kids, mimicking their state of absolute terror in the same way Ledger laughed as he was beat down by Batman while being interrogated. The reckless, unfiltered joy in the chaos and violence. They share a lot of common qualities in their performances, though Ledger’s makeup was dried and peeling and Pennywise’s face has been intricately painted and adjusted with CGI effects.

The new Stephen King adaption is a definite success on a long checklist of big-screen failures. “It” is a classic, well-known story with a tantalizingly creepy, enduring villain. If you’re worried about “It 2: The Adults”, be reassured that Pennywise will return and be as welcome as he has been in 2017. He’s a timeless character that will always hold some sort of grasp on audience’s fears.

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Get Out (2016) – Film Review

Get Out is a marvel of a movie in an age where explosions and VFX are the main magnets that pull popular audiences out and into a comfy multiplex armchair. On the surface, both in the trailers and in the first act build-up, it’s a story about characters and social interactions. It plays off cultural stereotypes and commonly misused/abused racial phrases, contrasting some very real and at times shocking attitudes without pulling any punches. Yet it all seems too on the button, too hyper-focused and self-aware to be a movie that’s just about a family not accepting their daughters black boyfriend. And it’s not just that; there’s much more to it.

Daniel Kaluuya plays Chris, an excited but hyper-nervous boyfriend. He leans on his girlfriend, Rose, played by Allison Williams, helping to ease her worries through cute jokes and quips. Rose’s innocent, red-cheeked demeanor feels like a sort of android or human replicant that acts exactly like a stereotypical white college girlfriend acts. She’s way too accommodating to him; there isn’t any real drama between the two of them, only love and kisses, smoke and mirrors.

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The films marketing campaign focused heavily on the concept of a white young woman bringing her dark-skinned, African-American boyfriend out to the families farm estate.

The advertisements didn’t reveal much about the intricate plot details. With a very reasonable budget of 4.5 million, the producers of Get Out were hoping that, as a hybrid 2017 horror movie, the film would work best as a word-of-mouth product as opposed to releasing it in a more traditional manner through relentless TV marketing.

The studios certainly didn’t need to buy big TV ad spots in the end. As of mid-April, Jordan Peele’s horror film has grossed an impressive 184 million.

With overwhelming critical approval and praise, as well as the instant name recognition stemming from Peele’s hit show, Key & Peele, the film’s producers had very good reason to take a step back and let the quality of the movie speak for itself.

Director Jordan Peele has always professed a love for horror films, good or bad or atrociously bad. He has also expressed his fairly unique perspective on race. Peele is a half black man raised by and growing up alongside a predominantly white family.

A major part of Get Out involves small interactions between Chris and Rose’ parents’ white, country-club friends. These encounters are sometimes staged bluntly for comedic effect or in a more subtle manner to help build ambiguity and mystery.

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At times, the social satire veers towards being a bit too transparent, such as when the father, Dean Armitage, played by Bradley Whitford, insists to Chris that he would definitely vote for Obama for a third term, if he could.

A white man complimenting an African-American man on his “prowess” or “muscular strength” may appear to be a compliment at face-value, but those on the receiving end of the compliments clearly feel uncomfortable. They feel like they are being evaluated. It’s as if their body and entire being are being mentally measured and weighed for current or potential value, similar in a way to the extreme scouting tactics used on young, pre-teen athletes.

The story arc comes and goes without any lingering moments dragging down the fast-paced narrative. The first half introduces us to the characters and scenarios, giving the audience time to think about the direction of the story, to ponder about the potential twists and turns. Peele buys himself enough time in the first half of the movie to convince the audience that we know what kind of movie we’re watching, only to have the rug firmly pulled out from under us in the final act.

Some of the plot points don’t entirely add up, though I won’t go into spoiler territory. I think It’s important, though, to think more about the social and cultural messages rather than the labyrinthian, complex narrative.

The story details don’t 100% hold up upon multiple viewings, but the entertainment value remains the same. There’s plenty to talk about, and part of the fun is seeing it with someone for the first time and helping them fill in the pieces to the puzzle. Compared to the multitude of uninspired and unoriginal horror films being punched out these days, Get Out should get an oscar nom.

Overall, Get Out is a thoughtful look at race relations in America. It’s both funny and bleak in the way that it shatters stereotypes that people still commonly use to this day. A piercingly bold and occasionally frightening ride through the eyes of a young African-American man.

The Star Wars in “Star Wars”

“Rogue One” takes the worldwide phenomena, entitled Star Wars, and serves up exactly what the title describes better than any other episode has. The final 50 minutes of the film is absolute pure adrenaline, spreading several sequences of space battles out evenly and thickly across the vast sandbox of outer-space.

The rebel X-Wing’s spin through the black, starry backgrounds like whirring darts, while the evil TIE fighters dash confidently after the rebels like submarines on auto-pilot.

The TIE fighters are the unflinching first line of the Imperial’s heavily-equipped military, while the rebels are scrapping more urgently for their lives than for the overall cause. The sense of duty can truly be felt extemporaneously through the genial, average-looking faces of the rebel pilots. Gareth Edwards cuts to the orange-clad pilots in the same manner in which George Lucas did almost 40 years ago.

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Edwards builds a feeling of camaraderie, making the fall and destruction of the pilots ever the more devastating. The characters are always trudging up the hill, always facing some sort of strategic disadvantage. We feel for them as a pack of truly unrelenting underdogs.

J.J. Abrams, on the other hand, must have enjoyed playing with his Jedi action figures a lot more than he did with his toy X-Wing models as a young fan. The Force Awakens had a lot to juggle and accomplish in a single 2 hour movie, and it did so fairly successfully. The space battles, however, had no sense of urgency, tension, or excitement.

What makes it all the worse for Abrams is the fact that he had introduced his prodigy pilot, Poe Dameron, as a prominent character in The Force Awakens universe. In the end, Abrams doesn’t put Dameron in a great position to shine, despite Oscar Isaac being a top-notch actor. It’s forgivable, or at least understandable, though, given that Abrams’ job was to slide wet cement under the stepping stones of the franchises’ future sequels.

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Their is nothing workman-like about Poe Dameron. He comes off as surefire and confident. He doesn’t look as vulnerable or homespun as the other rebel pilots. These pilots are essentially flying through dangerous, highly-weaponized atmospheres within the confines of jerky metallic cans. It’s not a job that offers very many long-term benefits other than life insurance, maybe.

The rebel fleet is commonly used as an ex machina plot device, a last resort to sweep in and clean up any leftover storm troopers. They are efficient, skilled professionals, trained like neurosurgeons to locate, maneuver, and eliminate waves of Imperial garrisons.

Luke Skywalker was the ultimate example of a surgical and precise pilot, squeezing his way through narrow tunnels in the Death Star’s hull, searching for the weak chink in the weapon’s armor.

In Rogue One, one of the rebel X-Wings is literally ordered to act as a shield to the rebels on the ground, hovering over the running soldiers of the resistance as if they were some sort of intergalactic secret service agents.

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Rebel resistance pushing through Imperial-controlled beach.
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Rebel ship hovers over to shield rebel soldiers on the beach.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Film Review

“The Force Awakens” is everything that the Star Wars prequels weren’t – self-referential, nostalgic, practical, and mythological. It uses the franchises deep well of origin stories to display the vastness of all of the galaxies far, far away.

The Star Wars franchise is a white canvas where the filmmakers, present and future, can draw as many stars, planets, and storylines as they can reasonably fit. It has so much potential to expand beyond the original films. Hopefully, the spin-off films will fill this void, bringing light to unseen corners of the universe.

The mainstream criticism of the first canon-advancing film produced by Disney is that it’s a fancy, dressed-up copy and paste job of the original Star Wars film, 1977’s “A New Hope”. The story template is certainly familiar, but the visual style and characters are a new breed that I like to call iconic shadows.

Many of the new characters appear and act childish and petty, like some of the hardcore fans of the Star Wars franchise. Other new characters are ambitious but yet hesitant, plagued by self-doubt about whether or not the boots they’re trying to fill are just too big and overwhelming.

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General Hux appears overwhelmed and ill-equipped to handle the guilt and sheer power that comes with his Death Star 2.0 device. His imitation of Hitler falls short, though his master plan doesn’t.

General Hux, in some ways, acts as a metaphor of the filmmakers themselves. They feel a duty to complete their mission successfully, though they are uncertain and afraid of the results. JJ Abrams, no matter how confident he felt during the production, couldn’t possibly know how the fans and critics would respond to his highly anticipated film.

Overall, the film succeeds at bringing back old fans of the franchise while also reaching new viewers. With a brisk pace, a fun tone, and plenty of young characters, the future of the force appears to be heading in a good direction.

Mystic River (2003) – Film Review

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Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River props up three childhood friends and puts them into adult, full-grown shoes. It’s one of the few films that pulls off this sort of generational time-lapse premise, mostly as a result of the childhood memories having been constructed in a swift, concise manner. The characters pasts aren’t dragged down by long, overdrawn back stories.

A car pulls up next to three kids on the sidewalk. They are writing their names on a wet concrete filling. A confident man climbs out of the car, declaring himself as an officer of the law to the three kids.

He demands one of the boys to come with him. They don’t realize that the man isn’t wearing a uniform or driving a patrol car, warning signs ignored amidst the oddness of the moment.

The film shifts suddenly to adulthood. One of the boys, Dave, played by Tim Robbins, has a sort of quiet, troubled look in his eyes. It’s clear from the beginning that Dave is an embodiment of suspicion: who knows what had happened after he got in the fake officer’s car?

The other two boys appear to be doing fairly well: Sean, a hothead of a boy, played by Kevin Bacon, now works as a police investigator. The third boy, Jimmy, played by Sean Penn, runs a store, employing his nineteen-year old daughter, the light of his life.

When Jimmy’s daughter doesn’t show up for work, her disappearance meshed with his own past turns into a toxic mix. He doesn’t make a big deal out of it at first and assumes she’s simply slacking off work. But when he spots a crowd surrounding a crime scene, he catches a glimpse of his daughters car. She has been murdered.

Jimmy’s daughters murder begins a long, emotional investigation. Throughout the film we discover more about Jimmy’s past, heightening our expectations of the manner in which he’ll confront his daughters killer, if he does. An extra twist thrown into the mix: the investigator of the homicide is Sean, Jimmy’s childhood friend.

The Invisible War (2012) – Film Review

The Invisible War, directed by Kirby Dick, is a movie brimming with incest and systematic injustice, probing into the issue of sexual abuse in the military in an open, graceful manner.

The film doesn’t back down from the truth. Like many great visual essays before it, it contrasts shocking statistics with real people, warts and all, on screen. The film states that twenty percent of women are raped during their military service.

It then goes on to pound the nail in even deeper with interview subjects explaining the hesitancy women have towards telling anyone, thereby likely doubling or at least highly doubting the statistics released by the military.

It’s a cautionary tale to women on what to expect when going into the service. It makes a strong argument for necessary change in the biased process of enforcement in the military. Hopefully, the culture will turn around for the better and women will be able to enter and serve in the military without fear of being harmed by their own fellow soldiers.

On The Waterfront (1954) – Film Review

“On The Waterfront” has become an American classic through the years, and the most credit, unsurprisingly, has gone to Marlon Brando, the supreme acting force anchoring the film.

Brando plays a washed up boxer, Terry Malloy, whose main source of income stems from mob deals; he works on the waterfront, where whiskey, packed and boarded, are loaded up by the tons in large fishing nets. He works hard, a common everyday laborer, but we soon discover that Malloy is very much entangled within the puppet-like strings of the mob.

Characters are often seen asking questions or talking to bystanders, as if they are talking to a blank wall; the cold hesitancy and isolating fear that the citizens feel about the mobs presence. If they slip up just once they’ve lost the opportunity for a second, or first, chance.

At one point, a box of crates fall upon a man standing directly below it; this seems to be done accidentally, a simple labor accident. Then, however, we see the mobsters smoking and gazing down into the deep cellar. They don’t care how much whiskey they’ve shattered and wasted to stage the killing. Murder is their profession and they are indeed very skilled at knocking off the rotten apples easily and economically.

The Magnificent Seven – Film Review

The greatest moments of “The Magnificent Seven” aren’t the scenes where all the magnificent’s are sitting around, talking about their magnificent adventures. Movies should show, not tell, and I agree. But if you aren’t willing to show a characters journey, their past, their present state in the world, then you’ve got to try to tell us a little bit about them.

Cowboys talk in gravely, deep-voiced mumbles, I understand. But not all of them. Josh Faraday, the alcoholic magician played by Chris Pratt (or is it just Chris Pratt played by Chris Pratt?), has a lot to say. The quiet one, Chisolm, played by Denzel Washington, talks and acts as if he were living in an entirely different cinematic universe, a slow-burn, darkly-lit drama photographed by Roger Deakins.

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Luckily for Chisolm, he isn’t required to interact a whole lot with this ensemble, other than the obligatory assembling and introductions of the squad. We’ve got 7 here? One, two, three…I count six. Never mind, the seventh is standing over there, as Pratt’s character says in the beginning of the film, “Oh, good, we’ve got a Mexican!”

On-screen diversity is a hot topic in Hollywood and they’ve responded, if not in any dramatic way. They’re learning that people don’t just want diverse characters, they want actual characters. You know, a person with a motive other than revenge or a skill unrelated to their culture.

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The Chinese cowboy, Billy Rocks, played by Lee Byung-hun, is very skilled at throwing all sorts of sharp, metallic weapons, even his own hair-pin. It’s typical to cast a Chinese man as the prototypical knife-thrower (with a twist, albeit), but at least his stereotype isn’t dull. Billy actually rocks. He’s a quiet character but arguably the most entertaining of them all.

The second most engaging character arc would have to be Ethan Hawke as Goodnight Robicheaux, a PTSD-ridden sharpshooter who uses Billy as a circus entertainer for the locals, splitting the dividends between them. Their relationship seems very complex: Billy feels bad for Goodnight’s war-torn suffering, while Goodnight takes advantage of a foreign mans abilities for his own gain.

The film doesn’t come close to replecating the greatness of the original film, or even close to The Seven Samurai, Kurosawa’s original telling of the tale. But beyond the sketchy, loosely-plotted characters, there is a thirty-minute plus action sequence that’s very entertaining. If anything, you can be assured that director Antoine Fuqua hasn’t lost his interest or his touch in direction large scale, dynamite-driven action sequences.

Whiplash (2014) – Film Review

 

“Whiplash”, a deservedly praised, knockout hit, is the first feature film of Damien Chazelle, a clearly talented young director. It follows a college-aged drummer, Andrew, played by Miles Teller, as he struggles to achieve his highly ambitious musical goals.

Young and consumed by equal parts doubt and confidence, Andrew ends up in the crazed hands of a vulgar, extremely intense composer and instructor, Terrence Fletcher, brilliantly played by a wide-eyed, spit yelling J.K. Simmons.

The film explores the pressures put upon those who participate in elite, highly-competitive orchestras. The writer/director, Damien Chazelle, has had direct experiences within the field of musical performance.

The movie has a very specific idea that it poses to us on an even narrative strand throughout its running time. And that is: how far should a person be pushed and pressured towards absolute perfection? Is there such a thing as too far? Is  being healthy but lesser better than being great but maniacal?

These aren’t easy questions to answer, and that’s what makes them compelling to both ask and watch unfold, as Andrew is humiliated and berated by his teacher in order to come out the other side as the best drummer he can possibly be (which he would never know, the film asserts, if he wasn’t pushed in the first place).

The screaming dialogue fiercely performed by J.K. Simmons must have been a riot to sit down and actually write. It seems like such a contradiction to see a man teaching beautiful and archaic symphonies one minute, and then violently screaming imaginatively-worded obscenities the other.

Andrew walks into a bar late one night after recognizing his old instructors name plastered on the marquee outside. We witness Terrence actually performing, his face calm, his eyes closing slightly in an unusually serene expression of peace.

The feisty former instructor seems very much at ease as he plays the melodic piano music. But what does the man love the most? The literal sound of the music or the sense of perfection felt from hitting all the right keys? Does he cherish his abilities in contrast to all of the cues his students fail to hit?

A Most Violent Year (2014) – Film Review

A Most Violent Year focuses on a few small pixels in a larger, more dangerous canvas of events. Set in New York City in the year 1981, where crime-rates are quickly rising to an epidemic level, the story sets its eye on an immigrant man, Abel, as we follow his bumpy ride up towards his homegrown American dream.

The film stars a stone-faced Oscar Isaac, playing the ambitious immigrant as a mix of quiet intensity and disgruntled vulnerability. It’s hard for him to accept even the most simplest of things. Alongside him is Jessica Chastain as his shady wife. Chastain’s scenes with Isaac’s Abel are absolute dynamite, a constant battle of wits and ego sparking off of each other. Two of the best young actors/actresses working today.

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The films premise is basically a sub-plot from a lot of other sprawling, ensemble mobster flicks. Remember in Goodfellas, when Jimmy Conway holds up a delivery truck, unloads the goods, and drives away? Well, that’s essentially the main problem in A Most Violent Year, only it’s shown from the microcosmic perspective of the driver and the effect such thievery has on that particular company.

There are a few other key distinctions between the two, though. In Goodfellas, the drivers are complicit: they aren’t getting paid enough to risk being shot in the face, and it’s usually made mutually-beneficial for them anyways. In A Most Violent Year, the driver is a young immigrant man whose not complicit, doesn’t want to be robbed.

The face and owner of the company, Abel, doesn’t want his drivers to back down, although he doesn’t want them to be armed, either. So, waxing in an intelligently cyclical manner, he’s essentially explaining to his low-end drivers that they should be willing and prepared for possible injury or death while delivering the many gallons of oil that will one day make him rich; a very morbid pep speech by any standard.

Through the course of the movie, Abel’s character slowly shapes and grows into his true dimensions. With each conversation or argument he has with others, we’re given small chunks of information about his past; the fact that he’d bought the company from his wife’s father, or that he himself used to be a driver.

It’s these small, subtlety placed nuggets that change not only our perception of him as a character, but also the overall tone of the film as well. With each piece of new knowledge, we cast increasing doubt on the legitimacy and honesty of Abel and his business.

With breathtaking cinematography and a handful of brilliantly brooding performances, A Most Violent Year is an unusually intelligent and entertaining mob film.