Review Round Up Part Three
Many of the movies on this round up have taken me so long to get around to reviewing because I simply was not sure how I felt about them. Andres Muschietti’s adaptation of Stephen King’s IT gave me the most difficultly.
One summer during the early eighties, seven young misfits from Derry, Maine, battle an ancient shape-shifting evil that arrives every twenty seven years to feed on their town. Each child has their own fear and anxieties, and It takes a shape to exploit that fear. But It’s favourite shape is Pennywise The Dancing Clown, a glowing eyed lisping clown from hell.
Tapping into the 80’s nostalgia that is so popular currently, the film is at its best when hanging out with the central gang of kids, affectionately self-labelled as The Losers Club. They’re awkward, and funny, one moment crudely inappropriate, the next surprisingly sweet. Constantly antagonising each other, whilst clearly having the unbreakable bond of best friends at that age. They are fun to hang out with, especially Sophia Lillis’s definitely brave Bev, and Finn Wolfhard’s foul mouthed Richie.
When the film follows them as they hatch schemes, shoot the breeze, or struggle with their home lives, it works like gangbusters. When it remembers it is supposed to be a horror movie, it stumbles drastically. Leaving something to the imagination is infinitely scarier than something explicitly shown. This is not a way of thinking that Muschietti subscribes to. Scares aren’t given the time to develop. You don’t feel the tendrils of dread clawing across your stomach at any point throughout IT.
The monsters that dwell in the underbelly of Derry don’t lurk in the shadows, caught in split second glimpses. They just appear, accompanied by a heavy handed stab of the score, in the clear light of day, running at camera with an awful juddery style of movement that was outdated as soon as the girl from The Ring first crawled out of a TV.
These moments last too long, and are put together without elegance. They give the audience the time to see the designs don’t hold up. That the scares aren’t scary at all. Numerous times throughout the movie the audience collectively cringed as Pennywise, or the terrible CG woman from a painting, mugged about on screen with little to no effect.
The film has gone on to be a huge hit, the highest grossing horror movie of all time, and that in large part will be down to the things in IT that are worth defending. It makes good use of its setting, both its time and place, and we see something of ourselves in these characters. We like them and enjoy spending time with them. The coming of age elements are strong and handled reasonably well. But as a horror movie, as a film intended to scare, IT is a failure.
Christopher Nolan’s telling of the evacuation of the Allied Forces from the beaches of Dunkirk in May 1940 might just be his greatest achievement. It is the perfect marriage of his typical style (and the flaws usually associated with it) and subject. It is epic yet lean, sprawling yet laser focused, unsentimental yet moving.
The genius of Nolan’s telling is in its structure. The film follows three strands, The Mole, focusing on the soldiers desperately waiting on the beach, The Sea, following Mark Rylance’s Mr Dawson as he steers his civilian vessel across across the channel in order to help, and The Air, dealing with Tom Hardy’s spitfire pilot and his high flying dogfights with the Luftwaffe. Each of these plot lines takes place over a different time period, one week, one day, and one hour respectively. But Nolan interlaces them, having them play out simultaneously. Sometimes we see the effect of one action in one plot line before we see the cause of it in another. Time expands and contracts to suit Nolan’s purposes, something he has become adept at throughout his career, but what is happening always remains clear.
This gives the film a constant narrative propulsion, ratcheting up the tension, and removing any and all fat or lag. Dunkirk is tight. Characterisation is found in the smallest of details. There is little dialogue so it all comes through these characters’ actions. Even the subtlest of expressions speaks volumes, which helps when each role has been perfectly cast.
The score contains Hans Zimmer’s trademark blasts, but is wonderfully accompanied by softer moments of quiet, the desperation of those on the beach becoming even more palpable as Zimmer’s ticking clock like rhythms start to rise out of the silence.
Dunkirk is strong from beginning to end, structurally inventive, tautly paced. Nolan’s reluctance to use CGI (and subtle use of it) helps put us right there on the beach with the soldiers, out on the water with those eager to help, and up in the cockpits with the pilots keeping both alive. The definitive movie on the subject.
Kathryn Bigelow’s powerful period piece Detroit delves deep into a shameful, and unfortunately pertinent, piece of America’s recent history. And yet it’s a shame it could not have gone deeper.
During the rioting in Detroit in 1967, the Detroit Police, the Michigan State Police, and the Michigan Army National Guard descended on the annex of the Algiers hotel after reports of gunshots. When the local police officers find that some white girls have been enjoying their night with black men, something in them snaps. And so begins a night of torture and violence that ends with three unarmed men dead.
The events set within the Algiers, and everything leading up to it, are harrowing. It is shot with a documentary like eye, forcing us into the action no matter how removed we would want to be from it. This is not something to be ignored. What was happening then is happening now. The old blood spilled, the new blood spilled, is the same blood spilled.
The actors are fantastic throughout. John Boyega, here playing a local security guard, is a man caught between his uniform and his race. He attempts to help and appease both sides only to receive scorn from both. It is not a big performance. Boyega is not playing the hero. He is a man caught in a terrible situation who did what he could to prevent it getting any worse. He is scared but he cannot bring himself to run. Will Poulter is truly chilling as the racist cop reveling in his power. His arched eyebrows and cold stare just exude menace, but he’s not a movie monster. He is real. Men like him were and are still out there.
Detroit is a frustrating film because it is three quarters of a masterpiece. It finds moments of haunting beauty, such as an aspiring soul singer belting out a cappella in an abandoned theater during the riots. It feels real, lived in, with a investigators attention to detail. Which is why it is so disappointing when the final quarter of the film, covering the court case and the aftermath, is so flimsy. The weight that every single moment of the film was given before is gone. Events are brushed over, quickly rushing towards its end.
This could very well be the point that the film is making, that after race related violence occurs, the aftermath is downplayed, the responsibility dodged, the victims ignored. But for a film that wielded such power with detail, it feels like a missed opportunity to let that power go.
Overall this should be a film that should be championed, regardless of flaws, because when it works it delivers some of the most devastating cinema of the year.
Darren Aronofsky hates himself. At least, that is the impression mother! gives. The entire film is one long self evisceration of the artist’s process to create.
Javier Bardem, as Him (and Him in this film plays with the idea of God, but is really the creator, the artist, Aronofsky himself), is an artist. A poet. But he cannot write. Life is good. He has a doting wife, Jennifer Lawrence, who seemingly does everything for him. There is no one else in this world. She loves him. Appreciates his genius. But that is not enough. It doesn’t feed him. It does not stoke the fires of creation. So he courts chaos into their lives. Strangers come to stay with them. Though are they strangers? They have pictures of him in their luggage. Their drama inspires him, despite the fact inviting it into his home is destroying it, no matter how frantically Jennifer Lawrence attempts to hold things together.
She has provided a life for him, which he in turn demolishes for his art. He creates something with her. Something that is theirs, that comes from something personal and true. And once it is born into this world he gives it away to strangers. They destroy it and devour it and make it their own. Because artistic creation is parasitic in nature. The creator feeds off the experiences of those around him in order to feed it back to them and be rewarded with their praise and respect.
If that all sounds like egotistical, metaphorical flagellation bordering on the highly pretentious, that’s because it is. mother! is such a trip of a film because it can mean such different things to different people. Some were in uproarious laughter. Is it a black comedy? Some were screaming in fear. Is it a horror? Some were bored. Is it a tedious failed intellectual exercise? It is all and none of these things.
I found it fascinating, but more for unearthing the reasons Aronofsky wanted to make it, than for the film itself.
Ridley Scott has not made another Alien movie here. His iconic creature is in it, and runs rampant through the back half of the movie, but Scott has no interest in it. He said all he had to say on the Xenomorph the first time around. Here he is focused on creatures of a different kind: Frankenstein and his monster.
Yes, the Alien may be back, but Scott’s only brought it along for the ride to stick on the poster and to put butts in seat.
Michael Fassbender steals the movie as David and Walter, two artificial life forms who look identical but couldn’t be more different. David feels Walter has been intellectually neutered by his creators, Walter feels David has gone mad.
They are the crux of the film, and all Scott is interested in. David was created by man and became unimpressed with his creator. So he found a way to supersede him. To become God himself. He is both Frankenstein and his monster, wrapped up into one.
For a moment it appeared that Scott might be using this to make a comment on his own creation and how it went on to become bigger than himself, but no, there isn’t anything as interestingly meta-textual as that going on.
The sequences that are typically “Alien” are lazily so. Recycled tropes and ideas from previous entries in the franchise. The long serving, blue collar crew members of the believably lived in Nostromo from Alien were flesh and blood. The crew this time around are halfhearted attempts of recreating that same group, even down to the central heroine’s outfit and hairstyle.
This is a remix of a greatest hits compilation. It would have been braver to make the movie Scott wanted to make, focus only on David and Walter, without the need to shoehorn in the standard Alien-esque final act. As it stands we are left with a reminder of what was, and what could have been.
BLADE RUNNER 2049
The original Blade Runner took its time earning its reputation. Largely ignored by critics and audiences upon release, especially after some heavy studio interference, it could have drifted away into the fog and been forgotten. But film makers loved it. The style of it, the fact it made you work for answers. It had a feel all of its own.
It wasn’t long before its influence could be felt everywhere.
Dennis Villenueve’s visually stunning follow up may have the opposite fate. For many, its merits are instantly clear to see. It is one of the most stylish looking films in recent years, possibly since the original. The score may have substituted some of the original’s beauty for bombast, but it undeniably works. The performances are layered and nuanced, even from Harrison Ford who has been happy to coast in autopilot in almost everything for a while now. The special effects are mind blowing. And it is all in service of a thematically rich story in-keeping with the original, whilst also having enough to it to stand on its own.
It is not without its flaws, but it is a fantastic film. As to what its influence will be, it is tough to say. It has followed the road map laid out by its predecessor, so any real influence will be attributable to the original. The fact it didn’t exactly break the bank at the box office may cement its legacy as the film that scared Hollywood from making big budget smart sci-fi ever again. But that is neither here nor there. The fact that when this was announced everyone was decrying it as a terrible idea, and yet here it is, one of the best films of the year, is achievement enough.
The film deserves more words than I’m willing to give it here, so I’ll discuss it at greater length when it inevitably makes my Films of the Year list.
So there we go, another round up of films I should have reviewed ages ago but didn’t. At this rate I’ll be reviewing Thor and Justice League in six months, and my films of 2017 in three years…