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!

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Shaun the Sheep Movie


Shaun the Sheep reads the early reviews.

Shaun the Sheep reads the early reviews.

(2015) Animated Feature (Lionsgate) Starring the voices of Justin Fletcher, John Sparkes,  Omid Djalili, Richard Webber, Kate Harbour, Tim Hands, Andy Nyman, Simon Greenall, Emma Tate, Jack Paulson, Sean Connolly, Henry Burton, Dhimant Vyas, Sophie Laughton, Nia Medi James, Stanley Unwin, Nick Park. Directed by Mark Burton and Richard Starzak

Variety asserts that Shaun the Sheep is comparable to the legendary French comedian Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot and while that is a bit of a stretch, I can at least see where the reviewer is coming from. Certainly Shaun is about as loquacious as the French comedian.

Shaun the Sheep (Fletcher) made his first appearance in a Wallace and Gromit short before getting a series of 7-minute shorts of his own, more than a hundred of them most of which have been broadcast on TV. This is the first full-length feature and it follows the storyline of most of the shorts, to wit Shaun and his fellow sheep try to get out of doing any farm work, having to outwit the dog Bitzer (Sparkes) and the unnamed balding Farmer (Sparkes). The shorts are clever and cute.

This time, however, things get a little out of hand when after lulling the Farmer to sleep by jumping over a fence until he nods off, they store him in what the Brits call a caravan and we call a trailer. When Bitzer gets wind of the deception, he goes to wake up his master, only to send the Caravan on a beeline for the city – London although not specifically named. Upon arrival the farmer is bonked on the head and loses all his memories. Having no ID on him, he wanders the streets, trying to find some sort of clue as to who he is and what he does for a living. He ends up mistakenly figuring out that he’s a hairdresser and uses the clippers to sheer the heads of his celebrity clients, recreating the same sorts of styles he used to give his sheep.

Shaun knows he needs to go retrieve the Farmer so he heads out to the City, only to be followed by the rest of the flock and Bitzer. A super-zealous animal control catcher named Trumper (Djalili) is on the prowl for Shaun and his friends and eventually captures Shaun and Bitzer, imprisoning them in a dog shelter which looks much more like death row. There they meet the world’s ugliest dog who has no hope of being adopted. Their new friend helps them escape and eventually hide out, where Shaun comes up with a last-ditch plan to get their Farmer back home to the farm – and put everything to right.

I have to admit that my hopes weren’t high for this, as it is the first Aardman animation feature in awhile to arrive with little or no fanfare and quite frankly, it may very well be one of the best things the studio has ever done. One thing I’d worried about is that there is absolutely no dialogue – the animals communicate with gesture, look and an occasional bleat or woof. Humans speak in an unintelligible gibberish that puts the “WAH WAH WAH” spoken by the adults in the Peanuts cartoons to shame.

There is obviously a great deal of affection for the rustic way of life; the farmhouse is one of those beautiful old stone farmhouses that dot the English countryside, the meadow is beautiful and even the “work” that is done doesn’t seem all that taxing. The bucolic setting and the obvious affection the sheep feel for the farmer and vice versa is kind of moving. You would think that a farmer who has grown to middle age without a human partner might get unutterably lonely but that doesn’t seem to be the case here.

Like most of Aardman’s animations, this is clever as all get out. It certainly seems to be aimed at a very young audience, certainly toddlers on up but unlike a lot of American entertainment aimed at the very young, this is just as easily digested by adult viewers. It’s very short as you might expect (barely over an hour) and not for a moment did I ever feel bored or talked down to. The opening sequence, done as a Super 8 film of the Farmer as a young man with Shaun as a baby and Bitzer as a puppy establishes the mood; it’s a rather sweet sequence and while critics have praised it, some might find it too treacly. Those who don’t like cute movies for kids would be well-advised to move on.

The charm here is undeniable and quite frankly although it doesn’t have the lofty aspirations of Inside Out or the epic setting of Minions this certainly belongs with those two films as the very best family films of the summer. Some families might be unaware of the character or the movie, but this is one I’d highly recommend for an afternoon out at the movies with the kids.

REASONS TO GO: Super charming. Clever like all Aardman films. Good for adults and kids alike.
REASONS TO STAY: Might be a little over-sentimental in places. Those who don’t like kid movies that are cute will not like this.
FAMILY VALUES: Some rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Twenty animators worked on the film, each producing about two seconds of footage per day.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/27/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Mr. Holmes

In Darkness


It's a fiddler in the sewers.

It’s a fiddler in the sewers.

(2011) True Life Drama (Sony Classics) Robert Wiekiewicz, Benno Furmann, Maria Schrader, Herbert Knaup, Agnieszka Grochowska, Marcin Bosak, Julia Kijowska, Jerzy Walczak, Oliwer Stanczak, Milla Bankowicz, Krzysztof Skonieczny, Kinga Preis, Olek Mincer, Piotr Glowacki, Maria Semotiuk, Michal Zurawski, Zofia Pieczynska, Etl Szyc, Weronika Rosati. Directed by Agnieszka Holland

There are those who society tends to write off as incorrigible. These are the dregs, those who cannot be redeemed. They were always destined to be criminal and so they will always remain.

In Nazi occupied Poland, a group of Jews have fled the ghetto of Lvov and made their way into the sewers. Sewer inspector Leopold Socha (Wiekiewicz) has discovered them in there. Socha and his compatriot Szczepek Wróblewski (Skonieczny) have supplemented their incomes with petty crimes and they see the Nazis as no particular change from the situation they’ve been in all their lives. However rather than turn the Jews in, Leopold seizes the opportunity to extort the Jews from their money in exchange for protecting and supplying them.

As time goes by the heat grows more intense to turn in wayward Jews and the penalties more severe for sheltering them. The Jews’ money begins to dwindle and the expense of buying food for the small group has become exorbitant. They wonder how long their opportunistic savior will continue to keep them safe.

In addition the toll of living underground amidst the smell and the grime is taking their toll on the refugees who have begun to squabble among themselves. Nazi patrols are actively scouring the sewers but the deft Socha, the only man in Lvov who knows the sewers well, steers them away most of the time. Still, Socha is at heart a criminal – who knows how long it will remain true.

This is based on the book In the Sewers of Lvov by Robert Marshall which chronicles the real-life Jews who fled to the sewers and the real-life Leopold Socha. Holland, one of Poland’s most acclaimed directors, manages to capture the dim lighting and claustrophobia that the refugees surely must have experienced.

One of the main misconceptions about this movie is that it’s about the Holocaust. I beg to disagree. While the Holocaust is the setting, this isn’t the story of the refugees but it is Socha’s story. It is his change of heart that is the crux of the story, his movement from petty criminal to heroic protector which seems nearly impossible on the surface.

Holland wisely doesn’t turn the Jews in the tale into stoic survivors who endure each atrocity and degradation with clear eyes and full heart. They aren’t always heroic nor are they always nice. They are in a terrible situation with the prospect of being caught and killed hanging over their heads at every moment. We cannot imagine that kind of pressure; it seems pretty understandable to me that they would not always deal with it well.

Most of the actors are largely unknown over here (although Furmann was in the Wachowski’s Speed Racer) and do pretty solid jobs. Sometimes reading subtitles on the screen can distract from really enjoying an actor’s performance and I think that’s definitely the case here. It’s hard to catch subtleties when you’re just trying to read the translation.

Still, this was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film at the 2012 Academy Awards and justifiably so, although it didn’t win (it was heavily favored to do so). While comparison to Schindler’s List are pretty easy to make, this isn’t the same thing. The Spielberg film had a larger canvas and a much broader brush. Here, we are kept mainly underground in tight spaces that are dimly lit. If Schindler’s List is a Michelangelo, In Darkness is a Goya – but they are both fine art.

WHY RENT THIS: A fascinating look inside the legend. Some great footage from the old “Playboy After Dark” television show.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Doesn’t really challenge much. Presents Hef as a bit of a saint.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of violence, some bad language, sexuality and nudity as well as some disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although filmed in Poland with a mostly Polish crew and in Polish, the writer of the film was Canadian and some of the financial backing came from Canadian sources. When it and Monsieur Lazhar were both nominated for Best Foreign Film at the 2012 Academy Awards, it marked the first time that two Canadian films were nominated for the award in the same year.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Holland interviews one of the actual survivors of the Lvov sewers. There is also an interview with Holland in English.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $4.6M on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Schindler’s List

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Take Shelter