It (2017)


A young boy is about to float forever.

(2017) Horror (New Line) Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Bill Skarsgård, Nicholas Hamilton, Jake Sim, Logan Thompson, Owen Teague, Jackson Robert Scott, Stephen Bogaert, Stuart Hughes, Geoffrey Pounsett, Pip Dwyer, Mollie Jane Atkinson, Steven Williams, Elizabeth Saunders. Directed by Andy Muschietti

Childhood can be a rough time, particularly that transitional time moving from childhood into the teenage years. As we go through that transition there are no instruction manuals, no online courses; we simply have to feel our way through. Of course, this transition is made all the more difficult when you and your friends are being stalked by a malevolent clown.

One rainy afternoon Georgie Denbrough (Scott) is playing with a toy boat his big brother Bill (Lieberher) made for him in the rain gutters near his home in Derry, Maine. Georgie idolizes his big brother and Bill loves his kid brother fiercely; unfortunately, Bill has a bad cold and can’t watch over his kid brother who loses his boat in a fast current that takes it down a storm drain. There dwells Pennywise (Skarsgård) the clown and there Georgie will meet a grisly end – but his body will never be found..

It’s summer and things are the same and different around Derry. Kids, like Georgie, are disappearing and while it is noticed, it doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of urgency. That’s mainly because the adults in town are monsters just a shade below the level of Pennywise; Bill’s stutter has become even worse since Georgie disappeared and his father (Pounsett) Bill is pretty sure doesn’t think he can do anything right. Eddie Kaspbrak (Grazer) has become a hypochondriac thanks to his hand-wringing overprotective mom.

Mike Hanlon (Jacobs) is queasy at the thought of killing the lambs his father provides to local grocery stores and butchers and Richie Tozier (Wolfhard) is as annoying as they come and swears like a sailor. Stanley Uris (Oleff) is terrified he’ll mess up at his upcoming bar mitzvah under the stern gaze of his rabbi father but worst of all is Beverly Marsh (Lillis) whose dad (Bogaert) is sexually abusing her. It’s really tough to be a kid in Derry.

But Bill has figured out that Pennywise, with his signature red balloons, is the culprit behind the disappearances, especially after new kid Ben Hanscom (Taylor) looks into the history of Derry and discovers that every 27 years there is a rash of kid disappearances – and it happens to be 27 years since the last group. And clearly visible in some antique photos of Derry – Pennywise the Clown.

They’ve tracked the clown to an abandoned house on the site of an old well which leads into the tunnels and sewers of Derry which is the domain of Pennywise now. There they will find out the fate of the missing children – and confront the demonic clown on his own tuff.

As everyone knows, this is one of Stephen King’s iconic novels. It was made into a miniseries back in 1990 with Tim Curry famously in the role of Pennywise. That’s about when the current It is set – an update of about 20 years. Appropriately enough, it has been 27 years since the miniseries – the exact number of years between kid killings in the book and in the miniseries and now in the movie. Make of that what you will (I make of it coincidence but a terrific marketing opportunity).

There is a bit of a Stranger Things vibe here and it’s not just because Wolfhard, an integral part of the acclaimed Netflix series cast, is also in this one. The camaraderie between the kids is genuine and unforced and while it is set basically in the same era as Stranger Things there are some critical differences – It isn’t as wedded to its time frame as the TV show is and in some ways that’s a very good thing.

In fact, the ensemble cast does a bang-up job and in particular Lieberher and Lillis show the most promise and give the most satisfying performances while Wolfhard is a natural as the wise guy Richie Tozier – a part not unlike the one he plays in Stranger Things but enough of the comparisons. These are definitely two very different animals.

Pennywise is something of an iconic villain, the killer clown to end all killer clowns. Curry made the part his own back in 1990 and his performance is still one of the great monster portrayals in the history of the genre. Skarsgård is inevitably going to be compared to that performance and quite frankly, while he’s a very good actor in is own right he just doesn’t have a chance between the passage of time that makes memory fonder and the fact that Curry is so universally adored. That’s not that Skarsgård doesn’t do a great job – he does – but he simply can’t compete and he is kind of forced to by circumstance.

The special effects are for the most part special indeed and while the scares aren’t many they are entirely effective when they do come. There is a reason why this movie has been so successful at the box office and one viewing of it will tell you what that is. It isn’t the best horror movie of the year – it isn’t even the best Stephen King adaptation of the year – but it’s a very good movie that should get your Halloween scare needs easily met.

REASONS TO GO: The young cast does an exceptional job as an ensemble. The special effects are quite impressive.
REASONS TO STAY: Although Skarsgård does a pretty decent job, he’s still no Tim Curry.
FAMILY VALUES: As you would expect there is a good deal of violence and horrific images, gore and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Had the biggest opening weekend gross of any horror film ever; went on to become the all-time highest-grossing horror film ever.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/31/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Clowntown
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness concludes!

Midnight Special


Abracadabra!

Abracadabra!

(2016) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Jaeden Lieberher, Adam Driver, Bill Camp, Scott Haze, Sam Shepard, Paul Sparks, David Jensen, Sharon Landry, Dana Gourrier, Sharon Garrison, Allison King, Sean Bridgers, Lucy Paust, James Moses Black, Yvonne Landry, Maureen Brennan, Ann Mahoney, Garrett Hines, Kerry Cahill. Directed by Jeff Nichols

It goes without saying that a father will do just about anything to protect his son. But what if protecting your son means the world dies? Would you trade your son’s life to save the world?

In a dingy Texas hotel room, a news broadcast tersely announces an amber alert for a young boy named Alton (Lieberher). Watching intently are Roy (Shannon) and his friend Lucas (Edgerton) – and Alton. In the dead of night, the two men grimly leave, taking their young charge with them.

A Texas ranch is raided by the FBI and the leader of the cult that lives there, Calvin Meyer (Shepard) reiterates that Alton, the boy kidnapped from their ranch, isn’t just some ordinary kid. The vision he has may be the key to Armageddon – and saving those who listen from being destroyed in the fire of the end of days.

As it turns out, Roy is Alton’s dad and he took him away from the cult, which has sent a couple of true believers to bring Alton back. Also on Roy’s tail is the NSA in the person of Sevier (Driver) who has more than a passing interest in the case – apparently the lists of numbers that Alton has been having visions about contain sensitive NSA data.

But where Roy, Lucas and Alton are headed is to see Alton’s mom Sarah (Dunst). You see, they know that what Alton’s visions are telling him is that he has to be at a certain place by a certain time. And it’s literally a matter of life and death – the death of everyone on the planet.

Jeff Nichols has only four films to his credit (a fifth, Loving, is in the can and should be out in late 2016 or early 2017) but they have all received heaps of critical praise and as you can see by the scores in Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, so has this one. Nichols, who also co-wrote the film, makes subtly thoughtful films, movies that on the surface look pretty straightforward but the more you think about them, the more there is to think about.

He’s also a very visual director and some of the visuals here are thrilling, from the flaming wreckage coming down from the sky like meteorites to the expansive denouement which is largely computer generated. The big graphics seem a bit out of his style, but then Nichols has largely worked indie films – this is his first studio-made film. And it’s a good one.

Shannon has appeared in three of his four films, and he is his usual intense self. I have become a big Michael Shannon film in recent years and for the life of me I can’t recall a truly unsatisfactory performance that he’s given in a long, long time. He’s as versatile as they come and here, he plays the desperate loving dad with the same force of will as he plays, say, the psychotic dirty cop, or the amoral collection agency owner. Every role he takes on he makes his own and the amazing thing about Shannon is that no two characters that he portrays ever feel alike.

A lot of this movie is spent riding around in cars. There are some car chases in it (a good one during the climactic scenes) but mostly the main characters are just trying to get from point A to point B. I don’t mind some travelling scenes but I found the movie could have used fewer of those in this case. Also, the climax includes some very striking visuals but in a sense they almost felt like they come from a different movie.

There is a bit of a Spielberg vibe here, particularly in the relationship between father and son. But in a lot of ways, Nichols is the anti-Spielberg; he’s not dealing with kids in suburban homes but in kids from rural environments. Like Spielberg, growing up is a central theme in his movies but while adults can be more white noise in his movies, the adults in Nichols’ movies are often flawed and a central part of the story.

There are a lot of good elements here; I actually like it more than the rating I’m giving it, but I think most moviegoers will find this less rewarding than I did. More discerning movie buffs however might find much more here to offer than just a road movie with science fiction overtones in a family atmosphere. It’s a lot more than the sum of its parts in that aspect.

REASONS TO GO: An intense yet subtle performance by Shannon. Thought-provoking material.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending is a little bit over the top. A little too much riding around in cars.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a modicum of violence and sci-fi action, as well as a child in peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Adam Driver found out that he had been cast in Star Wars: The Force Awakens on the first day of filming for this project.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, FandangoNow
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/13/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Starman
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Everybody Wants Some!!

St. Vincent


Sometimes you have to dig in the dirt to get clean.

Sometimes you have to dig in the dirt to get clean.

(2014) Comedy (Weinstein) Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts, Chris O’Dowd, Jaeden Lieberher, Terrence Howard, Kimberly Quinn, Lenny Venito, Nate Corddry, Dario Barosso, Donna Mitchell, Ann Dowd, Scott Adsit, Reg E. Cathey, Deirdre O’Connell, Ray Iannicelli, Greta Lee, Melissa Elena Ramirez, Ron McLarty, Niles Fitch, Emma Fisher, David Iacono, Alexandra Fong. Directed by Ted Melfi

Some people just have mean and nasty dispositions. Maybe they don’t like people in general. Maybe they get some sort of satisfaction from putting other people down. Or maybe there’s another reason they act the way they do.

Vincent (Murray) is as curmudgeonly as they come. He lives in the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood of Brooklyn. He is either unemployed or retired. He spends his days drinking in a run-down bar, betting on the horse races at Belmont or hanging with a pregnant Russian prostitute named Daka (Watts). He smokes like a chimney and is generally a pretty unpleasant guy to know.

Into the neighborhood moves Maggie (McCarthy), a single mom still in the process of a bitter divorce from her unfaithful husband David (Adsit), and her precocious son Oliver (Lieberher). Things don’t get off to a good start with their new neighbor when her off-the-books movers accidentally knock a tree limb on top of Vincent’s car, damaging it. Vincent is predictably upset and reacts – also predictably – rudely. Welcome to the neighborhood.

Oliver is the sort of kid who just seems to attract bullies. He’s undersized and of course he doesn’t know anybody. To top it off, he’s a Jewish kid in a Catholic school. So on his first day of school at St. Patrick’s Academy a couple of bullies take his phone and keys. His mother is working as an MRI technician so he has to make his way home and when he gets there, she’s still at work. Left with no choice, he asks Vincent if he can use his phone. Vincent, somewhat begrudgingly, allows him to. Maggie can’t get away to let her son back in the house, but she arranges with Vincent to watch Oliver until she gets there – which Vincent insists on getting paid for.

Vincent has money troubles with a loan shark (Howard) on his back trying to collect. He also has  bills coming due, so he asks Maggie if she would like to make a regular gig of it. Maggie, not really having much of a choice, agrees.

So into Vincent’s world Oliver goes. Oliver joins him at the track, and at the bar. He also gets an insider’s look at what makes Vincent tick. Oliver is introduced to Daka whom Vincent describes as a “Lady of the Night.” Vincent teaches Oliver self-defense with the disclaimer “Don’t worry, you won’t get it right.” He also teaches Oliver something about self-confidence and of creating your own moral compass.

Still, there is a lot of stress in Vincent’s world, with money problems coming to a head and a loved one in dire straits. There’s also plenty of stress in Maggie’s world as she has to take additional shifts to make ends meet, and then her ex-husband is suing for custody of Oliver – mainly to punish Maggie. When Vincent’s style of “babysitting” comes to light, it threatens to destroy everyone’s world.

Murray has come a long way from his SNL days, and has delivered some strong performances such as in Lost in Translation and What About Bob. This is right up there with his best. Murray has said in interviews that Vincent is a lot like who he really is and let’s be frank, he tends to play very similar characters most of the time and Vincent has a lot in common with other characters Murray has played. Yet there is a humanity in Vincent that comes out unexpectedly even as he sometimes erects additional height on the walls he’s built around himself.

We’ve come to expect these sorts of performances from Murray so the success of the movie is going to hinge on how well his co-star Lieberher can hold his own with the star. The surprising answer is, rather well. Lieberher is absolutely convincing as the kind of wallflower that Oliver is, and while Oliver is clearly wise beyond his years, he’s not the kind of precocious kid actor who never lets you forget he’s pretending to be someone else. Instead, Lieberher kind of inhabits the role and makes a fine foil for Murray throughout.

The rest of the supporting cast is pretty strong as well, McCarthy and Watts in particularly impressive in roles that aren’t typical for them. McCarthy is more of a straight woman here, although she does get a few zingers off. But she shows that when she’s not being cast as a boorish slob, she can be extremely likable and sympathetic. Watts turns the traditional “hooker with a heart of gold” role on its ear, making Daka acerbic and sometimes as curmudgeonly as Vincent but despite the Natasha Fatale-style accent, the character comes off as real and believable. Chris O’Dowd is also impressive as a teacher at St. Patrick’s, a priest who is more worldly than you’d expect.

The movie does tend to go for the schmaltzy cliches a bit too eagerly with the ending becoming a bit too sitcom for my liking. I also have to admit that there are a few plot points like the loan shark that don’t really get resolved; they just seem to fade from view.

Still, any movie with a performance like this from Bill Murray is worth seeking out and St. Vincent is certainly one that you should. It’s funny, there’s plenty of pathos and while parts of it are sitcom-like, there is at least a heart here that hits you unexpectedly rather than clubbing you over the head throughout. This is a gem of a movie.

REASONS TO GO: Murray’s a hoot and Lieberher does an impressive job of staying with him.  Fine supporting performances by Watts and O’Dowd, and McCarthy is excellent in a very different kind of role for her.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit cliche and occasionally boggles the mind with sitcom sugary sweetness.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of adult thematic material some of which involves sexuality, alcohol and tobacco use and a plethora of cursing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At one point, Jack Nicholson was rumored to be taking the title role but eventually it went to Murray.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/11/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grumpy Old Men
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: John Wick