Review: IT (Chapter 1, 2017)

*There are mild spoilers involved in this review, but nothing that would drastically take away from the joy/horror of this new film. Enter at your own risk and enjoy!*

Written by Chase Palmer, Cary Joji Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman and directed by Andy Muschietti “IT” is the second live-action adaption of the infamous novel written by Stephen King. Things are not well in the town of Derry, Maine. Things are not well at all. Luckily, their misfortune is our bounty as this adaption for the new millennium has been crafted with great care for the source material. For the uninitiated, “IT” is about seven misfit children in the town of Derry that all separately experience the fear of being hunted by a demonic presence that takes the form of a clown and calls itself ‘Pennywise, the Dancing Clown’. Eventually they all stumble into each others’ path and come to realize that they have all been encountering the same terrifying thing. Using the power of… the library (If that doesn’t make you feel old, nothing will), they come to know that It resurfaces every 27 years (or so) to feast on the children of the town by tricking them into getting all too close before opening it’s otherworldly maw.

King’s titanic novel, nearly 1,200 pages, goes into great detail about the haunting of Derry and the workings of the malevolent shape-shifter Pennywise. However, it also dives deep into the everyday lives and histories of all of the seven main characters, especially what each one is afraid of, and why. In this way Pennywise embodies a horrific sort of pairing between the Joker and Batman as he cleverly uses each character’s main fear to his advantage. There are some major differences between the book and the film, but the spirit of the novel is fully embraced here, trusting mood and the feel of a scene or an image over the exact logic of it all. Which, I believe, is one of the larger aspects as to why the film is as effective as it is. The remainder of the weight of the story rests on the shoulders of the actors, and they carried it with great skill.

First we might as well cover the main entity itself, Bill Skarsgard’s performance as Pennywise. After the memorable role of Tim Curry’s Pennywise from the 1990’s mini-series, Skarsgard had to make this version a clown of his own accord. By the way, if you remember that series with fondness, it’s a memory shaded by rose colored glasses. Curry was most definitely the only really good part about the whole thing, give it a watch for nostalgia or comical reasons-and remember that time can be cruel. Back to the modern era though-Skarsgard is a horrifying joy as the killer clown. He’s a more brutal foe than Curry’s, but distinctly different in his approach. Skarsgard’s Pennywise lures children in with smells and sounds, at least with the iconic Georgie sequence. Here he drops the more mainstream monster foes of the book and miniseries (The Wolfman, creature from the black lagoon etc.) and directly taps into their psychological fears. He mimics a dying animal on a meat hook for farmhand Mike Hanlon, turns into an infectious leper for Eddie Kaspbrak who’s mother has induced a fear of the biological in him, and for Bill Denbrough the monster takes the form of Georgie- Bill’s dead little brother and previous victim of Pennywise. Skarsgard excels in taking the character and making him into his own brilliant version of everyone’s nightmares. The real jewel of this film however is the Losers Club.

While all seven of the kids do a remarkable effort in bringing the characters to life, you can only do so much in a roughly two hour film with that many perspectives. The standouts in this film are Finn Wolfhard as Richie ‘trashmouth’ Tozier, Sophia Lillis as Beverly Marsh, Jeremy Ray Taylor as Ben Hanscom, and Jack Dylan Grazer as Eddie Kaspbrak. Again, not to dismiss the rest of the Losers Club as they all did an impeccable job for such young actors, these four simply won me over more so than the rest. Finn Wolfhard, in particular, was a real treat as he completely owned the motormouth tendencies of Richie- and he was far funnier than expected. Sophia Lillis did a standout job as the bravest of the losers, pairing real compassion with courage, I would not be surprised to see her star in increasingly demanding roles in the future as she can act while maintaining truth in her performance. Jeremy Ray Taylor put forth a solid effort as the heart of the group and really landed those ‘New Kids on the Block’ jokes. Jack Dylan Grazer was also a real scene-stealer with his risk averse nature playing well as comedic relief.

Now that the film has hit wide-release and smashed previous horror box office opening records we can rest assured that we will indeed receive the second chapter when the Losers return to Derry as Adults to once again confront the evil that is Pennywise. Personally I can’t wait for the sequel and will revel in the assured weekly casting rumors for the months to come. This was a fine adaption of a Stephen King classic and a huge financial success, hopefully we’ll get more genre films like this in the future.

Final Score: Seven kids, one clown, and a mythical turtle


Review: High Tension (Switchblade Romance)

Written by Grégory Levasseur and Alexandre Aja and directed by Aja, “High Tension” (also known in several formats as “Switchblade Romance”), is a French Horror/Slasher film that was suggested to me by a fellow film obsessive. While this isn’t really the type of film I gravitate towards, I thought I’d give it a shot anyways. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by so called Midnight Movies before, “Bucket of Blood” by Roger Corman in particular was a film that I found to have far more entertainment value that I would have initially expected. So, I recently popped in a copy of the foreign horror flick to see what the film had in store for me.

Admittedly, I didn’t realize this would be a slasher film at the outset, but it became clear to me once the villain entered the frame. Personally, I am not a fan of this sub-genre of the overarching horror aesthetic, I often find these kinds of stories to be predictable and overly gratuitous purely for the sake of shock and awe. This film definitely sends the violence into overdrive almost immediately. The rating on the copy I was watching was emblazoned with the studio-averse NC-17 rating, and they definitely owned that rating. The story is that of Marie (Cécile De France) and Alex (Maïwenn Le Besco), best friends getting ready to study together out at Alex’s parent’s farmhouse in the French countryside. As you can imagine, things go south fairly quickly once the young women arrive at the isolated house surrounded by fields of corn. Once everyone has headed to bed, a large and imposing figure comes knocking at the door and forces his way inside by stabbing the father figure in the head through an open window in the door. From there the film evolves into a cat and mouse scenario between Marie and this unnamed brute. The Oaf quickly works his way through the house killing everyone except Alex, whom he chains up and tosses in the back of his truck. Marie scrambles to keep up, but often seems one step behind the killer.

At a brisk hour and a half, the film realistically couldn’t go on for much longer than that, “High Tension” unceremoniously ends. While the film does harbor a twist, it throws the rest of the film into question and becomes ridiculously unbelievable because of it. Honestly, it failed to keep me engaged and it was essentially what I had hoped it wouldn’t be. Overly violent without remorse, but with no connection to anything worthwhile, with no payoff and no semblance of coherence. Now, if you’re the type of person that just loves a good gore-fest and cheesy storytelling, then you might find something to enjoy here. That’s completely fine, but this film just wasn’t for me.

Final Score: Two Girls, One Chainsaw


Review: The Place Beyond the Pines

Written by Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, and Darius Marder and directed by Cianfrance, “The Place Beyond the Pines” is a film about the mistakes a man can make and how those choices effect others over time. The film plays with the expectations ingrained in most audiences’ psyche as we follow several characters that interact by chance in Synecdoche New York. Now, due to the nature of this narrative, spoilers will be included in this review, but I do recommend this film- mainly for the cinematography and flow of the narrative.

We begin the story by following Ryan Gosling’s traveling motorcyclist Luke who essentially lives with a traveling carnival. After a show in Synecdoche Luke sees an old flame, Romina (Eva Mendes) and offers her a ride home. The next day he stops back at her house and is met by her mother holding a small blonde child, Luke’s son. Once he is met with the realization that he is a father he offers to help the best way he can. So he quits the carnival, meets some guy on a quad while out motocrossing through the woods (as you do), tries to work for that guy on his property through mechanic work, then starts robbing banks once he discovers that doesn’t pay well enough. Eventually things go awry, as bank robberies tend to do, and Luke gets into a chase sequence with a rookie cop that ends in a suburban house with Luke and the rookie cop both shooting each other and Luke falling to his death.

From that point on we follow the story of that cop, Avery (who also happens to be played by Bradley Cooper). He’s labeled a hero but is constantly fraught with guilt over Luke’s death as Avery also had a son roughly the same age. After some time he finds that he’s in a police department swarmed with corruption and fraud-which is where Ray Liotta turns up and gets to play his traditional gangster bit as a corrupt cop. Shortly after this we jump fifteen years forward in time to focus on both Luke and Avery’s sons and how they eventually interact and discover the truths surrounding their fathers’ lives.

What I enjoyed most about this film was the curvy path this narrative took. There are also some real emotional linchpins throughout that are visually compelling and thoughtfully acted by both Cooper and Gosling. Both are trying to make better lives for their sons, but both fail them in different ways. The story feels more cyclical than it may be, but while the film is unique in the way it tells its story, its themes and arcs feel familiar all the same. Possibly because stories about fathers and sons are as old as time itself, but also because it connects to universal goals of fatherhood and the anxieties that come from it. In any case, “The Place Beyond the Pines” is available on Netflix (at least at the time of writing this review) and I recommend giving it a watch.

Final Score: Two fathers, two sons



Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Written and directed by Luc Besson, “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” is an ambitious adaption of the French science fiction comic series “Valerian and Laureline”. Cited as one of the many inspirations for “Star Wars”, “Valerian and Laureline” adds another dimension to the complexity of adventuring through space-they often police the timeline as well. However here in this adaption we only get traditional sci-fi flair. Which in itself is fine, a script could easily get over complicated by adding time travel in the mix. Anyways, this film almost entirely takes place in Alpha, a gigantic space station initially built by humans then added onto over time by the inclusion of other alien species tech and starship capabilities. Fast forward roughly five hundred years into our future and you have a massive sprawling structure floating through space. Alpha contains each species contributions to this effort and because of this it contains many different kinds of environments and species thriving there.

That is what is best about this movie adaption, the spectacle of it all. The world that Valerian and Laureline live in and move through is fascinating, and the pace at which we are introduced and sped through it all is akin to a stellar theme park ride. However if you’re not the kind to be wowed at visually creative sci-fi ideas, costumes, alien designs etc etc-you may not find much to enjoy here. While I personally enjoyed this film for the all the visual treats, there is not much there when it comes to the characters or plot.

Let’s get to the elephant in the room; Dane DeHaan is a good actor, I’ve seen him perform quite competently in other films, but he is grossly miscast as Valerian-the atypical classical hero that gallivants the universe conquering evil while also adding a litany of names upon his wall of sexual conquests. Dane, I’m sorry, but I don’t believe you. Maybe in five or ten years once he grows out of his wiry build, maybe then-but not now. Cara Delevingne fairs better, she is more believable in her performance and she has vastly improved from her last role in the slogfest that was “Suicide Squad”. However, there is simply no chemistry between Laureline and Valerian. Maybe there is a different relationship between the two in the comics, but here the nonexistent chemistry is hard to ignore as the film wants you to believe in the love these two characters share, even while both of them vie for the role of charming rogue.

In the end this was a fairly enjoyable, if a bit predictable, sci-fi romp even amidst the visible issues at hand. It’s a solid film that may not receive sequels- but I hope it does, there’s room to improve so I would welcome another effort.

Final Score: Three Doghan Daguis



Review: John Wick Chapter 2

Written by Derek Kolstad and directed by Chad Stahelski “John Wick Chapter 2” eloquently serves up a solid sequel that doubles down on the intense creative violence that worked so well in the first film. Opening shortly after the end of the first film John Wick (Keanu Reeves) hunts down his car held by the remnants of the villains from that film in an exquisitely violent fashion. After which he returns home to his pit bull pup as he tries to resume his grieving process, however he gets little time to mope about as he is quickly greeted by Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), an old acquaintance from John’s past looking to make good on blood oath.

While John Wick’s motivation in this film are slightly less singular than the first, it’s a great excuse to explore the world of his past that was hinted and teased at throughout the first film. John goes international this time around as he’s been roped back into the guild of assassins that he now loathes. Even in Italy John Wick’s name carries weight as he is repeatedly recognized, and feared, on sight. As he should be, for it isn’t long before we witness him murder countless rival hit-men and a variety of gun toting henchmen. Speaking of rivals, the standout in this film is none other than real world hip-hop artist Common performing as Cassian, a skilled killer nearing John Wick’s abilities. His fight scenes with Wick are relentless and white knuckled forcing Wick to flex his fighting ability beyond his trigger finger and signature grappling take-downs. One scene playfully threads the guild’s hiding in plain sight nature when both are equipped with pistols bearing silencers as they casually shoot at each other through a crowded metro station without anyone taking notice. That sense of heightened reality in this neon soaked murderfest is truthfully the hook of the film. Intense and precise gunplay within a community that prides itself on a system of rules and civility.

In fact, that is one aspect that I find quite endearing here. In the world of the continental’s guild of assassins there are rules that no man (or woman for that matter) dare break. When Cassian and Wick crash through a window into a hallway of the continental they are quickly reaffirmed of the rules and head to the bar to share a drink, like the civilized folk they pretend to be. This sequel is a more confident story after the successes of the first film, thus we get more of what worked there, and it never comes off as lazy or uninspired. What we get is an expanded version of the first movie, with an excellent set-up for a third chapter in the series, and I for one am positively pleased to know that we’ll be getting more of Keanu Reeves’ latest character.

Final Score: No dead dogs, but dozens and dozens of corpses


Review: God’s Pocket

Written by Alex Metcalf and John Slattery, and directed by Slattery (best known for his performances as Howard Stark of the Marvel Cinematic Universe after Dominic Cooper’s ww2 era take on the character) “God’s Pocket” is an adaption of the novel of the same title by Pete Dexter in 1983. “God’s Pocket” is one of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final performances as he plays the lead, Mickey Scarpato, and while the film as a whole is a middling affair in low level gangster dramas in 1970’s Philadelphia- his performance is what ultimately makes the film worth a watch.

I don’t want to sour on the film’s other aspects though, there a few solid aspects to take note of here, it’s just that the story that pulls everything together isn’t as engaging or immersive as others in the genre. The film is really just a good exercise in acting and performance as the production is filled with skilled actors like Eddie Marsan, Christina Hendricks, Richard Jenkins, and a serious character role from John Turturro as well. The direction handled by Slattery is generally impressive for a first time director as well, he has a good eye for framing and putting the actors on display, which is saying something for how grimy and dimly lit the world they inhabit happens to be.

The plot at the core of this story follows Leon, Mickey Scarpato’s step-son, who is killed after berating an older black man to the point that he cracked Leon over the head with a lead pipe. The fellow construction workers that witnessed the act stand up for the elderly black man when questioned by the police and cover up the act by citing a falling piece of machinery. Somehow word gets out that there may have been suspicious acts surrounding Leon’s death and from there we witness several converging storylines. Leon was a scoundrel of a young man that did nothing to earn any respect or sympathy with the audience so that while he is quickly dispatched after showcasing his boisterous and proud belligerent nature, the characters may mourn his loss, but we have nothing to connect with. We can see how a death effects a community, but afterwards the film solely exists to see just how bad things can get for ole Mick as he tries to stay above water in financing his stepson’s funeral and keeping a well known local columnist from digging into his life, but sometimes it feels like, why should we care? Thankfully we have the acting efforts of the cast to fall back on and inform us of the atmosphere of the lives they lead. Philip Seymour Hoffman shines here just as he does in everything else. At one moment Mick can seem at his exhausted end with frustration boiling over into a melancholy sadness that lies behind his eyes, but he can react to other character’s influences quickly and go from threatening to empathetic in one quick motion.

“God’s Pocket” may not be the gangster drama you were looking for, but it’s unique contents of absurdism and melancholy make it worth a watch. Philip Seymour Hoffman and the rest of the cast earn what the story lacked. That, along with some solid direction from John Slattery, is enough for me to give this film a recommendation. Just don’t go into this one seeking something a little more Goodfellas.

Final Score: 18 screwdrivers and 1 lousy corpse


Review: War for the Planet of the Apes or “All you need is one Bad Ape”

Written by Mark Bomback and Matt Reeves, and directed by Reeves “War for the Planet of the Apes” is a spellbinding third chapter in what is now a trilogy that can be held up next to the likes of Indiana Jones, Lord of the Rings, and even Star Wars. This film surprised me by being smarter than your typical blockbuster- and yet holding up the traditional tropes of explosions and clashing forces. What Matt Reeves has done with this property is outstanding and incredibly executed. Everything from the score to the quiet moments, of which there are more than you might expect, tells you more about the state of the world and the layers of the characters than most movies ever communicate to their audiences. I thoroughly enjoyed this film from the bombastic opening scene to the moment the credits started to roll.

What makes this film stand out from the rest of the tentpole summer films is how well the story and plot is structured. They defy expectation from scene to scene and the film keeps the line of tension and dread taught throughout. I won’t get deep into the details, as I believe the experience of going into the theater without a pretext as to how the film will play out only improves the effect of the storytelling at hand, but I have to tell you this much- this is a brutal and unforgiving perspective of war and conflict. Though to keep the most egregious expectations at bay, note that this is not a traditional “war” film. While there is plenty of apes versus human conflict, I would heed any notion of large scale D-day style battles. What you will find in place of that though are some of the very best special effects ever done in science fiction history.

There is not a single scene, or even a moment, when the motion-capture work of these intelligent apes isn’t stunning. These creations are so lifelike you’ll have to remind yourself that you’re watching a film about apes and not inherently human creatures. Andy Serkis deserves a standing ovation for his work as Caesar throughout these films. The character has a clear arc across all three films and he evolves in spectacular fashion in each. While Serkis may never receive Oscar accolades for the character, he has earned so much more. However we cannot overlook the work of the core cast of characters, as we mostly reside with the apes in this film, the story as a whole lives and dies on the shoulders of these performances. Speaking of performances, I’d be remiss to forget Woody Harrelson’s menacing colonel, he’s not always in frame- but his threatening presence is felt throughout. Oh, and Steve Zahn portrays “Bad Ape” a potentially risky comic relief character that pays off well and doesn’t distract from the overall tone of the film.

Honestly, I cannot recommend this film enough. If you haven’t seen the first two, I strongly suggest watching them before going into the final chapter. If you enjoy genre films and science fiction and fantasy films in the slightest, then this film should be on your watch list. “War for the Planet of the Apes” is an intelligent and thoughtful blockbuster that also acts as the spectacular end to a riveting trilogy.


Final Score: 1 good ape, 1 bad ape, and 1 ugly war