Review: It (2017)

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Who wants to see my jump scare slide show?: New Line/KatzSmith Productions

Nobody does a slow build like Stephen King. In both THE STAND and IT, he’s still introducing new characters and concepts with 250 pages to go and he can spend chapter after chapter establishing history, geography, mood and layer -upon-layer of hangups and neuroses driving his heroes and villains. I think that’s why a lot of his material works better on TV: it’s all a matter of time. In the new film adaptation, King’s doorstopper book has been split right down the middle. Part One tells the kids’ story, the adults’ encounter with the shapeshifting It will follow…

Something rotten lives below Derry, Maine. It takes many shapes and I’s been there for a long time, every 27 years waking for a spree of child-killing. After his brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) is taken by It, Will Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher) and his gang of Losers face their fears and battle It’s multiple guises, most notably Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård).

What they do get right with It is is casting. What a talented young ensemble this is. Straight from the page steps a determined, passionate Will, a wisecracking Richie (Finn Wolfhard) and a nervy, hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer – the highlight). Reinterpreted we have Tomboy outsider Beverly (Sophia Lillis), tragic orphan Mike (Chosen Jacobs), local history nut Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and a world-on-his-shoulders Stan (Wyatt Oleff). It’s interesting the character traits they swap around in this version, the changes in the kids’ backstories they make, but they all make sense, especially in this setting, updated from the 1950s to the 1980s (tying neatly into the story’s 27 year cycle – this will make Part Two contemporary). What makes an outsider and the dynamics within friendship groups have changed a lot over three decades.  I would have liked to have seen psychotic bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) get less of a short shrift, but there are admittedly a lot of characters to divide screentime between, and the chemistry between these kids is just right everywhere else.

What makes even more sense in this adaptation, and the thing that gives it its most hard-hitting punch is what they do with the concept of fear. Rather than the grab-bag of horror tropes and stories around the camp fire King presents in the book, here every form Pennywise takes is tied to, and is essential to who each of the Losers are. They each get their own horror set-piece that delve into their respective psychologies and the traumatic events that made them.

The kids are all great, but Skarsgård is something else. I know I’m going to tread on a lot of toes here, but the 1990 TV movie was fine, and that’s about it. Nothing against Tim Curry, but this was TV limited by budget and the time it was made. In the film, Pennywise is primal and animalistic but also chillingly calculating and malicious; creepily almost human. He plays with his prey, mocks them for their weaknessesAndy M and wears them down, changing into manifestations of each child’s phobia but always settles back into the shape he has grown accustomed to over the centuries (at least three judging by the ruff and stockings), the dancing clown. You get glimpses below the surface, hints at what It really is, but they’re saving mist of these reveals for the (presumably more sci-fi- tinged) sequel.

But here’s the rub: for me, It wasn’t all that scary. I’m not saying this will be the case for everyone – on the contrary I can see many well-placed and executed moments that will scare the bejesus out of some – it just didn’t particularly chill me. I’m more into creeping dread, much like director Andy Muscietti’s previous exercise in horror, MAMA (which is cannily referenced in one of It’s forms). Perhaps they’ll be able to do something more stylistically daring and different with the horror element beyond jump scares and unnatural, jerky J-Horror movement in the sequel, when they have to nail on what scares grown adults.

It might not be an original horror in its presentation, but it connects where it counts and brings King’s Losers and their struggles with fear and growing up to real life. What Muscietti and his writers understand from Stephen King’s words and living life itself is that what really scares kids the most, beyond blood and ghosts and clowns, is growing up and having adult responsibilities. Because adults themselves are the scariest thing in the world. SSP

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Review in Brief: The Discovery (2017)

THE DISCOVERY is quietly thought-provoking sci-fi, and more worth your time than a lot on Netflix. The premise: what would the world’s reaction be if scientists proved the existence of an afterlife? The debate over faith, the meaning of life and human nature is covered from several angles, and often not the most obvious ones. The film’s final stretch packs a punch and manages to keep a few final, stubbornly ambiguous revelations under wraps right to the end, and it’s not a film which offers answers, only more questions. I don’t know whether Jason Segal is the most compelling dramatic lead in the world (at least not at this stage in his career), but he has good chemistry with Rooney Mara and does seething family resentments well. Having Robert Redford on board – even when he doesn’t have to try very hard – can’t hurt your film’s chance to get noticed, whatever the outlet. SSP

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Review: God’s Own Country (2017)

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Come here often?: Inflammable Films/Magic Bear Productions

I’ve wandered a fair bit around Brontë Country over the years, but I’ve never seen it quite as stunningly presented as in GOD’S OWN COUNTRY. Much like some of the best British films of the past few years, such as RADIATOR and THE LEVELLING, this rural Yorkshire romance utilises the British Isles’ uniquely desolate brand of beauty to match the heady emotions of love and passionate yet petty family squabbles.

Johnny (Josh O’Connor) is a young farmer without passion or drive, barely able to keep the family farm afloat and only blackout-drunk nights out to keep him sane. When his increasingly frail father (Ian Hart) hires help for the busy lambing season, Johnny finds something to live for with the arrival of Romanian migrant Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) .

Farming is dying, and this death is only accelerating thanks to Brexit. The film takes great pains to regularly remind us of this changing landscape (though it was in post-production by the time of the referendum). Look at the scene when Johnny takes a cow to market, a room full of old boys aren’t going to be around forever, or the industrial farm we see at the end seemingly manned entirely by migrant workers. This essential processes, hard work that keeps society fed and warm, from lambing to putting down animals and using the woolly fleece (and scent) of a dead lamb to give a runt a chance of survival, are presented full-on and matter-of-factly. These scenes could only have been achieved so convincingly if they were for real, which they are. It must have been an interesting audition for the two leads, not only bringing chemistry and passion but a willingness to live and work as farmers for a few weeks. Speaking of which, what a double breakthrough for O’Connor and Secareanu.

I’m from the same area the film is set and filmed in, “Bradford, or somewhere”, but I’m a city boy. I could not live this harsh a life of early mornings, long days and longer winters and subsisting on pot noodles when you need to keep a closereye on the sheep. Be on the look out for shared locations with 80s classic RITA, SUE AND BOB TOO, this story explores very different thematic territory, but gets pretty dark and intense at times as well.

I’m a big fan of THE ROYLE FAMILY, and the best episode of that Northern sitcom had Nana finally confess to her long-suffering, ever-patient daughter, “I do love you Barbara”. There is a moment like that in God’s Own Country, with Johnny and his cantankerous father finally showing vulnerability to each other, that absolutely floored me.

Talk about sex appeal. Not so much the full-on, sometimes rough gay intercourse, but between Johnny’s sheepish smile and Gheorghe’s big sexy jumper I can completely understand if this becomes a favourite in LGBTQ Cinema. Their relationship has a real power to it, as well as heady love-almost-at-first-sight there is an honesty that doesn’t try to sidestep Johnny’s sometimes abrasive and self-destructive side or Gheorghe’s idealistic views on romance and how he doesn’t quite fit into the world (especially the UK and Europe) the way it is.

If I’m being ultra-critical, the pub scene doesn’t quite convince (especially if you’ve been in said pub and have never seen it quite so quiet) and the film could have ended a few shots sooner to make it feel a bit less tidy and more real.

What a punchy, passionate debut from writer-director Francis Lee, born and bred in Keighley, West Yorkshire and basing a lot on his own experience as the son of a farmer. It’s telling that this film was fighting for funding against The Levelling (which secured a release first), another farming drama and another of my favourite films of 2017. I guess there’s (sadly) only so much support to go round for small grounded movies filmed and set in the UK (thanks Brexit). SSP

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Review in Brief: The Founder (2016)

THE FOUNDER could have easily been a shrine for brand worship, and this story of the birth of McDonald’s must have been signed off by the fast food franchise. The filmmakers largely avoid this by making a very clear (romanticised if not entirely inaccurate) distinction between the principles Dick and Mac McDonald founded their modest company on and what Ray Croc turned it in to. We are under no illusions that Croc (Michael Keaton, tanned and appropriately reptilian) would throw his own mother into the frier if a buck was in it. Dick (Nick Offerman, dignified and formidable) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch, a big teddy) may be very different kinds of businessmen to Croc, but see eye-to-eye on his hard work ethic and revolutionary improvements to their industry, eventually seduced and exploited by their partner. The film is stylish (look at the aerial shot staff training drill on a chalk-sketched restaurant) impeccably acted and sharply written, but it requires you to be a little bit enamored by those Golden Arches. SSP

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Review in Brief: Lion (2016)

LION, the meaning of which is not revealed until the film’s closing moments is sometimes remarkable. There’s no denying this true story is remarkable. The script is punchy and well-judged, with very strong work from Dev Patel, and especially newcomer Sunny Pawar (for some reason only Patel seemed to get nominations despite probably not being on screen as Saroo for any longer). But annoyingly, this is very standard storytelling for such a miraculous life story. The odds of lost boy Saroo not only surviving childhood poverty and being separated by hundreds, then thousands, of miles from his family, then finally succeeding in finding his mother in adulthood (not a spoiler, it’s a true story) demands something more special. I think we’re past chronological biopics, and Nicole Kidman, well she’s just Nicole Kidman with different hair. I challenge you not to shed a tear at the final real footage they insert at the beginning of the credits, – having this cap off the film makes it all worth it. SSP

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Review: Batman and Harley Quinn (2017)

In 1992 Paul Dini and Bruce Timm created Harley Quinn. Since then, the Joker’s abused girlfriend has been a popular but problematic character. In BATMAN AND HARLEY QUINN, she’s finally over Mr J, a limited supply of his Joker venom “the only useful thing I ever got from that asshat”. She’s still crazy, but she wants to be her own kind of crazy. If there’s one thing I wasn’t expecting of a Batman film, even an animated one, it was PINK PANTHER-esque slapstick titles. If there was another, it was Batman’s rogues gallery henchmen singing Karaoke. Both are in this film, along with childish humour and risqué jokes throughout. It’s all pretty entertaining and doesn’t outstay its welcome. I’d happily see Melissa Rauch play Harley again on her vocal work here, and Warner Bros Animation need to keep on giving their big projects to Sam Liu to direct to ensure the quality is kept high (though he may have peaked with JLvTT last year). SSP

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Review: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)

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There are friends, and there are friends who will help you move a body: Warner Bros/Silver Pictures

Nobody writes stupid as well as Shane Black. Much like his contemporary Aaron Sorkin, he doesn’t write people talking how people actually talk, but within his own distinct worlds his dialogue for bewildered characters crackles almost as much as Sorkin’s dialogue for the brilliant. He’s also really funny and self-aware, a master of salty one-liners and wry commentary on increasingly bizarre events taking place, all served up in a pleasing black comic broth that is his directorial debut, KISS KISS BANG BANG.

Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr) is a swindler living in a town of swindlers, Los Angeles, more specifically Hollywood, LA. When he reconnects with childhood friend Harmony (Michelle Monaghan) at a party, people start dying in strange circumstances and along with PI “Gay” Perry (Val Kilmer), the three of them are drawn into a sprawling mystery straight out of a pulp rag.

With Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Black has fun pointing out the worn-out conventions of the detective genre, but indulges himself in a fair few along the way as well. Usually I’d get annoyed by a filmmaker who makes fun of cliché but still commits the same tropes to screen with an eye-roll, but Black pitches it about right. The plot is convoluted as one might expect from a pulp mystery story and the twists come thick and fast just as you think you’ve figured everything out. The fictional series of Harry Gossomer novels that feed the plot and drive character action as well as giving Black an excuse to reference tried-and-tested formulae (such as foreshadowing that two unrelated plot-lines will inevitably turn out to be connected and realising when the body count isn’t high enough  just before the resolution of the mystery).

Despite heavily referencing other noirish stories and employing well-worn tropes, what is refreshing is that characters also react to the bizarre turns of the plot and the grisly deaths with an appropriate whimper. We see some nasty things as the mystery unfolds, but it never feels sensationalised, just portraying a dark, real world. Nobody is unfeeling in this story and many are changed, and not necessarily for the better. When Harry is forced to take a life, Downey plays it as a soul-destroying catastrophe.

Juxtaposed against the added realism is Black’s trademark postmodern commentary. And Christmas, because of course a Shane Black picture is set in the holidays. In a blatant nod to SUNSET BOULEVARD (that I, to my shame didn’t pick up on first time round), Harry introduces himself to us while staring into a pool. “I’m Harry and I’ll be your narrator this evening” is just a taste of Downey’s anti-hero’s disdain for the events and how they are being relayed (by him and by the filmmakers). We know Downey cracks wise well, but he also brings a compelling flawed humanity to Harry, and along with Michelle Monaghan’s fiery turn as Harmony and Val Kilmer’s career-best as the sardonic Gay Perry, Black has assembled one of the best lead trios around.

Shane Black films are always entertaining, but he may never strike as perfect a balance as he did with this, his directorial debut. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is clever without being smug, self-aware without being glib, playing to the cast’s strengths without just recycling what they’ve done before. If you don’t like Black’s other work, you’re definitely not going to like this, because it is very “him”, but if you’re  a fan of his writing for mismatched buddy movies or this one has passed you by, Kiss Kiss is well worth checking out. SSP

 

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Review: A Ghost Story (2017)

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Sheet’s got real (sorry): Sailor Bear/Ideaman Studios

A GHOST STORY is completely and utterly its own thing. Films have explored these themes before, but rarely have we had an extended narrative from a spirit’s perspective that didn’t use that fact as a twist.

M (Rooney Mara) loses her husband C (Casey Affleck). As a ghost, C observes M in her grief as time marches on in his little corner of the world.

A Ghost Story explores and exploits the varied thematic poignancy of a sheet wonderfully. Early on in the couple’s tender love scene it’s a sensual object, as we transition to the morgue it’s a sombre and lifeless thing, as the soul in the shroud starts observing time passing around him it draws your eye and adds a strikingly, endearingly weird element to serious subject matter.

“C” may very well stand for Casper. I don’t think we should ignore how funny it is that for much of the movie, Best Actor-winning Casey Affleck is playing a slightly perplexed ghost standing in the corner of a room. That’s not to say C is a comic character, but the sight of him, if other characters could see him, might not induce an entirely horrified reaction. As is often the case in horror movies (though this isn’t one), children are far more aware of the supernatural, but a particularly moving moment towards the end of the film implies that C might not always be imperceptible by those he observes.

The film has a narrow focus on the most expansive of subject matters. Writer-director David Lowery  explores life, death, our perception of everything from time to love, all within one house, within one intimate aspect ratio and limited field of vision. You know, the big stuff, except small. I saw this in a moderately sized cinema, with the curtains half-closed to accommodate this purposefully narrow point of view, and I was completely enraptured, almost hypnotised, and there was so much to unpack and discuss afterwards.

What a poignant image to have two Ghosts signing at each other from houses opposite each other. C’s opposite number in the spirit world (look up who plays her, it’s bizarre) matter-of-factly stating, “I’m waiting for someone”. Imagine if this is what the afterlife is, that you can carry on, but only observe your loved ones leaving?

Rooney Mara’s pie eating long-take (not a euphemism) is likely to be the scene of the year. It’s such a simple idea, and such an affecting and raw display of pure grief. I’d do something like that if I lost someone essential in my life. Affleck and Mara both earn plaudits for different reasons: Affleck has to convey so much with so little and clearly workshopped his body language extensively; with Mara there is nowhere to hide and our image of her character is so intimate and naked.

The music and wider soundscape is subtly emotive, the repeated signature track for C causes your spine to tingle, your eyes to mist. If it wasn’t for the crowd-pleasing BABY DRIVER track selection and the thematic wall of sound in DUNKIRK (funnily enough these make up my top three films of the year so far), I’d be calling Daniel Hart’s sonically playful creation my soundtrack of the year as well.

My only real criticism is that I feel A Ghost Story could have been longer. Not a lot happens, but you’re so immersed and emotionally invested that it’s gone in a flash, and a bit more time would allow the already strong emotions to really envelop you. If my only negative is that I would like to spend longer in this world, to have more time, I think everyone involved would approve, because that’s what it’s all about: time. This is a thoughtful, fulfilling, nigh-on spiritually enlightening experience at the cinema. SSP

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Review in Brief: Fences (2016)

While FENCES loses a few points for taking a shortcut in the portrayal of a disabled character, for the most part it is powerful stuff. A well-mounted stage-to-screen adaptation with the cast of the Broadway revival from a few years back, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis are completely spellbinding. There is very little to remove you from the pain of this unflinching, gritty human story. Characters rarely even wander into a different room between scenes and any cinematic embellishments, from striking cinematography, heightened lighting or even noticeable music, is almost non-existent. Perhaps Fences is more compelling on stage with no distraction at all from the performances, the audience weighing up whether to breathe or not between tense exchanges, but if you’ve missed the latest or you don’t see live theatre all that much then you could still do far worse than giving your time to Washington’s film adaptation. SSP

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Review in Brief: Elle (2016)

ELLE is like the darkest soap opera you’ve ever seen. You get all the extra-marital affairs and mummy and daddy issues you might expect from nightly soft drama telly of the like of EAST ENDERS, but it also subjects us to a brutal rape scene multiple times a-la Gaspar Noé and takes us on an odyssey of moral repugnance in the style of Lars Von Trier. It’s a story all about taking ownership of a horrible event through action, of coming to terms with, and getting past being a victim. Paul Verhoeven has never being shy of presenting controversial views of the world, but thankfully he doesn’t fetishise the rape itself, but does present us with a unique (problematic?) perspective of events with perhaps a bit too much unnecessary spectacle. The group of characters we follow are all pretty awful people, but fascinating in their way, entertaining and hilarious to be around and thoroughly believable in their passive-aggressive bickering. Isabelle Huppert juggles so many contradictory and difficult elements in her performance that she is worth watching Elle for alone. SSP

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