Sunday, September 10, 2017

Andy Muschietti's stylish, scary 'It'

Based on Stephen King’s monolithic 1986 novel first adapted for television in 1990, the new big-screen production of It is a sensational film that blends supernatural horror with the real-life horrors of childhood.

The film opens with stuttering Bill (Midnight Special‘s Jaeden Lieberher) making a paper boat for his little brother Charlie (Jackson Robert Scott). Since Bill is sick, he stays home in bed while Charlie goes out to play in the rain. When the boat slips down a sewer drain, the child frantically tries to retrieve it, only to discover Pennywise (Hemlock Grove‘s Bill Skarsgård) lurking in the storm drain.
It’s a cracker of an opening scene. Pennywise, with his macabre clown make-up and preternaturally glowing eyes, alternately delights and frightens Charlie. And when those eyes change color and his jaws open to reveal row after row of terrifyingly sharp teeth, we know we’re going to be in for quite a ride.

Bill is heartbroken – and guilt-stricken – over his brother’s disappearance. Though his rather heartless father bluntly insists that Charlie is dead and that Bill should give up trying to find him, the determined teenager obsessively studies maps of the town’s sewer systems in the hopes of locating the boy. Gradually, he becomes part of a group of misfits who dub themselves “The Losers’ Club,” since they’re all ridiculed by the popular kids at their school.

Though these characters are initially sketched out in simplistic shorthand (the fat one, the promiscuous one, the germophobe, the black one, the Jewish one), the actors who inhabit them bring them to recognizable life. Aided by the snappy and surprisingly humorous script by Chase Palmer, Gary Dauberman, and Cary Fukunaga, their stories are as compelling as that of Pennywise and his assault on their town of Derry, Maine – and frequently more so.

The kids’ summer vacation is anything but carefree as they confront not only the otherworldly horror of the demonic clown but also real-life assaults at the hands of some terrible parents and the sadistic town bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton).

Set in 1989 instead of the book’s 1958, It shares thematic elements with the Netflix series Stranger Things, as well as one of the show’s actors, Finn Wolfhard. He plays Richie, the motormouth who can’t stop boasting about his obviously nonexistent sexual conquests. Among the others, Sophia Lillis is a real find as Beverly, who’d wrongly been branded the town slut by the mean girls at school. Her real-life horror is the sexual abuse by her awful father, something we’re spared a graphic depiction of.

Jeremy Ray Taylor is also striking as Ben, the chubby new kid who’d been doing research on the town and has started to uncover the secret of Pennywise. Jack Dylan Grazer brings welcome humor as the sickly Eddie, who has the ability to rattle off statistics about any kind of plague, virus, or disease at a moment’s notice. Chosen Jacobs’ Mike and Wyatt Oleff’s Stanley are also good as the “outsiders” — the black kid and the Jew living in the ever-so-white, Protestant Derry.

Skårsgard is a wonderfully perverse Pennywise. Comparisons to Tim Curry’s 1990 version will inevitably be drawn, but Skårsgard’s character has more of a cruel streak and insatiable bloodlust. His transformations, as well as the hellish lair he inhabits, are also more vividly drawn in this production. His performance is also enhanced by some well-chosen CGI.

Director Andy Muschietti (Mama) and director of photography Chung-Hoon Chung capture the small-town atmosphere with a richness and warmth that ironically betray the terrors that dwell within. Benjamin Wallfisch’s score matches the visuals, contrasting soaring, Spielberg-style orchestral cues with loud, deep bass blasts during the horrific scenes.

The film concludes with the hopeful closing title It: Chapter One, leading viewers to believe that the filmmakers intend to add the part that takes place 27 years later, when the Losers reunite as adults to do battle with Pennywise once more. If It‘s box office delivers on industry estimates, the sequel will surely be money in the bank.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Film review: 'Catching Sight of Thelma & Louise'

This is certainly a unique premise for a documentary.

Director/producer Jennifer Townsend was not in the film business at all when she first encountered the now-classic road movie Thelma & Louise in 1991. Profoundly moved by what she’d seen, she wondered if others had been similarly affected by the film. Originally setting her sights on writing a magazine article about its cultural impact, she sent out a series of press releases to newspapers across the country in search of volunteers to fill out a questionnaire regarding their feelings about the cinematic landmark.

She intended to compile the data on these surveys to use as the basis for an article about the impact the film had on a cross-section of the general public. But this was before the internet was ubiquitous, so by the time she’d received enough completed questionnaires via mail, many other stories had been written, so she decided to set the project aside.

More than 20 years later, the 75-year-old Townsend realized that if she was going to do something with the information she’d accumulated, now was the time, and Catching Sight of Thelma & Louise began to take shape.

She managed to get in touch with a group of the original respondents, even after such a substantial passage of time, and she flew out to each of their homes to conduct interviews. The director showed them the original questionnaires they’d filled out years before, and many of them were amused by what they’d written. Still, more of them stood firmly by the opinions voiced by their younger selves.

Catching Sight of Thelma & Louise incorporates key scenes from the 1991 MGM release with these insightful and often passionate interviews, and the results are fascinating. Most all of the interviewees felt liberated by the film, responding to the notion of female empowerment, which was something they hadn’t experienced in the cinema before.

It also evoked some unhappy memories for many, particularly the scene depicting the near-rape of Thelma. That scene brought back traumatic incidents in their own lives, whether they were the victims of sexual abuse or knew someone who was. They’re all heartbreakingly frank in sharing these recollections. Even Townsend has a story to make it even more blisteringly personal.

The documentary is not without its humorous aspects, however. While several of the female interviewees were unabashedly smitten by their first glimpses of the handsome visage of young Brad Pitt, male respondents expressed more enthusiasm for the vehicles being driven in the 1991 film.

The director also brought in some of the people that worked on Thelma & Louise, including editor Thom Noble as well as actors Christopher McDonald, who played Thelma’s boorish husband, and Marco St. John, the neanderthal trucker. They provide their own opinions of the original’s lasting cultural impact.

From a production standpoint, Catching Sight is amazing. The direction, by first-timer Townsend, moves quickly and keeps viewers emotionally invested. Stuart Ferrier’s photography is crisp and blends well with the footage from Ridley Scott’s film. There’s also some nice overhead desert scenery that echoes the look of the original. Sarah Ferrier’s dynamic editing makes a lot of smart choices, and Stephen T. Cavit’s score is thematically spot-on.

Catching Sight of Thelma & Louise is a surprisingly multi-layered documentary that approaches analysis of the feminist classic in a number of intriguing ways. Appropriately, like the film that inspired it, it tends to linger in the memory for some time afterward.

Reviewed August 5, 2017, at the San Antonio Film Festival.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Alejandro Jodorowsky's Sublimely Surreal 'Endless Poetry'

After a 23-year hiatus, cult director Alejandro Jodorowsky re-emerged on the international cinema scene in 2013 with his autobiographical film The Dance of Reality, which was hailed by The New York Times as “something very close to a masterpiece.” Dance is the first of a projected five-part series that some may consider an “imagination-enhanced” version of the director’s fascinating life.

His latest effort, Endless Poetry, continues the series, following young Jodorowsky’s transformation from troubled teen to twentysomething boho poet, finding himself in the company of such famous writers as Nicanor Parra, Stella Diaz Varin and Enrique Lihn.

As Poetry begins, Alejandro (Dance‘s Jeremias Herskovits) is butting heads with his hot-tempered, working-class father (Brontis Jodorowsky, son of the director), who considers his son’s love of poetry to be an effeminate weakness. Meanwhile, his doting mother (Pamela Flores) literally sings all of her dialogue in an operatic voice.

A visit to his obnoxious relatives finally pushes Alejandro over the edge and, after threatening everyone with an axe, he is taken by his cousin to an artist’s colony where he can allow his artistic aspirations to bloom. He finds a happy home there, writing poetry and building puppets.

Ten years pass, and the now adult Alejandro (played by Adan Jodorowsky, another of the director’s sons) is instructed to go to the Cafe Iris and find himself a muse, as all poets need one.

At the cafe, he is smitten by the zaftig, punked-out poet Varin (Flores again, in a somewhat perverse casting choice), with whom he enters a violently sexual yet non-penetrating relationship. She explains that she is saving her hymen for a holy man who will someday come down from the mountain and into her life. Here, Alejandro becomes surrounded by poetry and those who create it.

The director populates the film with his typically colorful characters, and there are plenty of offbeat visuals. Like Federico Fellini, whom he has cited as his favorite filmmaker, Jodorowsky possesses the ability to offer up images of extreme theatricality and human grotesquerie that never feel exploitative. They’re just a part of the director’s world, and he grants even the strangest creatures recognizable humanity. Endless Poetry will not disappoint his fans — and may indeed attract new ones, since it’s certainly one of his most accessible works.

Talent certainly runs in the family. In addition to playing the lead, Adan composed the film’s score. The director’s wife, Pascale Montandon-Jodorowsky, designed the colorful costumes. The film looks gorgeous, too, with its surreal imagery and vibrant palate nicely captured by cinematographer Christopher Doyle.

Practically 50 years after his El Topo helped to create the Midnight Movie scene, the almost 90-year-old Jodorowsky has returned to deliver more of his unique vision, and the world is better off for it.

Endless Poetry is currently playing at the Nuart in Los Angeles and the Sunshine in New York, Additional engagements can be found here.

Monday, July 17, 2017

'War for the Planet of the Apes' -- Clichéd Snorefest

Grimacing monkey popsicle.

Yes, I know I'll probably be in the minority here, but dammit! War for the Planet of the Apes was a clichéd stinkeroo!

The first half was great, but when we got to the Jar Jar Binks character about halfway through (glaring at Lucas) and the sweet little mute girl character (I'm looking at you, Cameron!), the stickiness started to cloy.

And the last 4 1/2 hours of the film in the Stalag 17 camp, in which each digital ape is allowed a "big moment," just became too smarmy to stomach. And how did the little girl pick up sign language so fast? And who the hell were all the new (ape) characters that Reeves automatically assumed we knew? And why did the female apes need beaded braids and small breasts to confirm their gender?

Jar Jar Ape.
Tip to the director — don't give one of your characters (Woody Harrelson's General) an endless 20-minute monologue to describe the entire plot while Serkis' Caesar reacts with varying CGI expressions. It's a movie, for God's sake. Fucking show us the story!

Even the CGI became dodgy. As I got bored, I started reflecting on the fact that I was watching a computer program, with all the yowling soullessness that the term implies.

Finally, the endless climax during which Reeves demands that we empty our tear ducts over and over and over and over and over again was just too much of a Spielbergian emotion-grab, something I became immune to a long, long time ago.

So disappointing, because Reeves had handled the emotion of this realm so delicately in the first two installments without reverting to the old "SYMBOLISM! Here's Caesar as the crucified Jesus! And what do you know? The General is Hitler! LOOK! The mute girl is Nova, which ties it to the first film! BANG BANG!"

And when the apes finally make it to their promised land, like Moses leading his people. it made me long to be watching the bunnies in Watership Down instead.

And all this jabbering about Serkis deserving an Oscar nomination — oh, please. If it was just him in human form glaring at the camera for 2 1/2 hours, it would've been considered "one note."

SXSW 2017 Review: Laura Terruso's 'Fits and Starts'

Wyatt Cenac and Greta Lee in Laura Terruso’s Fits and Starts.
In many ways, Laura Terruso’s Fits and Starts is the very archetype of an indie comedy one would expect to find at SXSW. Modestly budgeted and quirky, these films rely on a good cast, adequate production values, and enough laughs to keep them amusing. Fits and Starts is mostly successful in checking off all these boxes.

David Warwik (People of Earth‘s Wyatt Cenac in a well-drawn performance) is a writer who seemed destined for a great career in the literary world, but he still hasn’t been able to complete his first book. Meanwhile, his wife, Jennifer (Greta Lee), a former student, has already published two novels, the second of which has been especially successful. Naturally, he’s jealous of her and stands in the back of the room during her bookstore readings, glazy-eyed and waiting for it to be over.

After just such a reading, she is invited to her publicists’ Connecticut home to attend one of their regular “salons” (pronounced with a long “o”), and she sees it as a great way to get her blasé husband in front of a bunch of literary types so he can read an excerpt of his work in progress.  She is shocked when he is less than enthusiastic about her plan, and the friction between them increases as they pick up a rental car and drive to the country.

On the way, Jennifer is furious to discover that careless David had grabbed the wrong bag off the counter at home, so instead of the two bottles of snobby wine she’d carefully chosen for her hosts, she is holding two bottles of drinking water. A hunt for replacement wine ensues, and the two somehow manage to become separated. While she wanders around trying to get in touch with him, he goes on to the salon in hopes of finding her there. It’s during this separation that they start to realize how much they mean to each other.

Terruso packs her film with a number of quirky characters, from the cops who interrupt them as they try to engage in an impromptu session of roadside sex (“Would you like us to watch?”) to the artistés performing at the ridiculously pretentious salon.

The only other fully-developed character in the piece (besides the bickering couple) is a strange, sadistic literary agent played by Maria Dizzia, who nurtures, seduces, and attacks David — sometimes simultaneously.

More a series of comic vignettes rather than a fully cohesive narrative, Fits and Starts is still fun to watch as it skewers its well-chosen targets, and Cenac’s ennui-inflicted performance is hilarious.

Fits and Starts was reviewed at SXSW on March 10, 2017, at the Stateside Theatre in Austin, Texas.


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