It (2017, Directed by Andy Muschietti) English 8

Starring Jaeden Leiberher, Bill Skarsgård, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs

Big budgets don’t usually equal big scares for me. The most horrifying films, I mean the ones that truly frightened me, have largely been the low-budget, gritty, raw, thrillers set in the mold of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Unnerving, punishing, with gory payoffs around the corner of every suspense scene, these kind of thrills aren’t for everybody. But It follows a different model. More Poltergeist than slasher pick, and it’s really more Goonies than anything else. It’s scary, but it’s more than that. It’s funny, nostalgic, and imaginative. It’s also a creditable big-budget spectacle.

Set in a town where children disappear at a rate well beyond the national average, we know, thanks to a vicious opening scene, that some sort of monster clown calling himself Pennywise (Skarsgård) is to blame. The film follows seven members of the “loser club,” a group of bullied junior high kids, at a time when kids are going missing left and right. Their leader, Bill, has a younger brother missing, but hasn’t given up finding him. Beverley, the only girl in the group, is abused at home and deemed a slut at school. Mike is an orphaned black kid forced to work in a slaughter house. Ben is an overweight, sensitive new kid. Eddie’s a hypochondriac. Stan’s a nervous Jewish boy on the cusp of his bar mitzvah. And Richie’s a big-mouth incapable of taking anything very seriously. Together they try to solve the mystery of the missing children, with the majority of the film’s thrills coming from visions Pennywise visits upon the protagonists.

It, with its elusive title, and alternately nightmarish and illusory qualities, speaks on the nature of children’s imaginations. Pennywise is malleable and enigmatic, which is what the title suggests. “It” is whatever scares you. “It” is what haunts you in your sleep carrying over to your waking life. Like countless children’s adventures and Disney classics, the adults in this film are either M.I.A, completely useless, or worse, something sinister. It takes that dynamic to the extreme. The children are left completely on their own to triumph against evil. Adults can’t see Pennywise or his dark illusions. At no point do any adults do anything to aid the young heroes. This is a standard nightmare scenario.

But the film isn’t simply a dark drag as its predecessor (in the form of a miniseries) was. Set in the ’80s, the film mines a number of pop-culture references and clever banter between the leads to great effect. We grow to care about the characters, which makes the impending horror scenes that much more scary. The soundtrack is fantastic (adding more to the coming of age feel). The young cast is impressive, with the characters Richie and Eddie providing much of the laughs. It easily could have been the equivalent of a one-joke comedy. You have a nightmarish clown which is scary, but not in itself interesting.  When weaved into a story about friendship and fighting back against bullies, you have the excellent movie that is It.

-Walter Howard-

10 Things I liked about Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017, Directed by Jon Watts) 7

Starring Tom Holland, Zendaya, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr., Jon Favreau,  Donald Glover, Marisa Tomei

Spider-Man is back for his third incarnation, this time being played by young Brit, Tom Holland. As you probably know, Marvel got a hold of their original property, snagging the rights back from Sony who had made a mess of the work over the years (remember the Amazing Spider-Man 2?). This time out, Peter Parker, fresh off a stint helping the Avengers, impatiently waits his turn to save the world. Tony Stark is holding him back, he feels. Treating him like a kid. All he needs is a chance to show what he can do. In comes Adrian Toomes, an abnormally powerful weapons dealer played by Michael Keaton, and Peter sees his opportunity for a seat at the Avengers’ table. This was an all around good film; not a great film, but one that perfectly manages the right mix of high stakes action and adventure movie fun. Here is a list of the things I liked about Marvel’s Spider-Man:

  1. Tom Holland-Great Peter Parker. Great Spider-Man. I look forward to seeing him again in the inevitable 7 or 8 future appearances. He’s likeable. Convincing as a young man, because he is one (Andrew Garfield was pushing 30). Awkward. Clever. Everything you’d want from a protagonist in a teen comedy.
  2. Fun and Fancy Free: The newest Spider-Man, more than any Spider-Man film before it, feels like a movie about teenagers. Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield had the weight of the world on their shoulders. Tom Holland lives in a world with Captain America, Iron Man, Black Panther, etc. He wants more to deal with as opposed to his predecessors who wanted less. The result is this film is light and fun in a way that older Spidermans couldn’t be; especially the ill-conceived Amazing Spider-Man movies.
  3. Smells Like Teen Spirit: I mentioned that this felt like a movie about teenagers. Well that comes complete with petty romances, school bullies, uncool friends, awkward moments. In this case, I love the clichés.  While battling black market deals on world domination weapons, Peter also struggles with his crush on Liz, the pretty and popular senior girl on his Academic Decathlon team.
  4. The Vulture-This could have been the worst part of the film. A vulture? As great and as dominant as Marvel has been, villains are definitely their weakness. They haven’t had anyone to rival The Joker for example from DC. They tend to go for big, abstract villains rather than compelling character based baddies, which is what they did here. Casting Michael Keaton signaled a good direction, and he is excellent in the film. Compelling, real, intimidating, even relatable at times. His Vulture is truly more of a family man who saw an opportunity and took it. He’s ruthless rather than diabolical, and a big part of why the movie works.
  5. No Origin Story-We all know by now that Peter Parker was raised by his Aunt May and Uncle Ben. That Peter makes a mistake that leads to his Uncle’s death. That the guilt Peter feels is one of his chief motivations. That he was bitten by some kind of spider that endowed him with these unique abilities. The last Spider-Man decided to recycle those plot lines, and it was a major drag. I don’t think anybody’s favorite part of a superhero story is his origin (unless we’re talking about Unbreakable). No need to retread here. When the movie, begins Peter Parker is already Spider-Man, and he knows how to use his abilities. Get on with the film. They do.
  6. Everybody Needs Somebody Sometime-Spider-Man gets a sidekick. That’s new. His name is Ned. He’s Peter’s best friend. He obviously knows his identity, and by the end begins to aid Peter with his elite computer skills. He’s also terrific comic relief during adding to the teen comedy vibe throughout the picture.
  7. Diverse Cast-Alright so Peter Parker’s still white. Fine. But his love interest: black. Best friend: Filipino. MJ: mixed. School bully: Hispanic. I approve. Plus Donald Glover is in the movie as a kind of nod to the popularity of his campaign for the Spider-Man role.
  8. The Adults- The veteran supporting cast definitely bolster the film without stealing the show from the young actors. Downey Jr., playing a more responsible Tony Stark, is a witty source of wisdom as opposed to earlier movies’ reliance on fortune cookie sayings from Aunt and Uncle. Marisa Tomei is a much more realistic Aunt to Peter Parker, and the film finds the humor in this attractive version of Aunt May. Jon Favreau, Bokeem Woodbine, Jennifer Connelly round out the cast, and I’ve already told you about Michael Keaton.
  9. Her, the Sequel-Peter gets his own version of JARVIS, and its the understanding voice of an attractive older woman (Jennifer Connelly). This makes the middle sequences where we basically are leaning about his abilities and functions way more entertaining than the instruction video it could have been. It also highlights the sheer number of abilities new Spider-Man has thanks to the suit.
  10. Surprise, Surprise-I won’t tell you what it is, but there was a pretty clever surprise towards the end of this film that I have to include on this list. It raised the stakes; both dramatically and comically. You’ll see.

-Walter Howard-

 

 

The Mummy (2017 Directed by Alex Kurtzman) English 4

Starring Tom Cruise, Annabelle Wallis, Jake Johnson, Courtney B. Vance, Sofia Boutella, Russell Crowe

Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy (1999) knew what it wanted to be and delivered. Starring the largely forgotten Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz, that blockbuster horror film which launched a trilogy was an unabashed knock-off of Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones series. Period setting, heroic male, beautiful but capable leading lady, mysterious loot. All hallmarks of the Indiana Jones franchise. But because it had no pretensions about being a great film, and thus embraced its B movie status so confidently, The Mummy was a terrific success, and still holds up as a tremendously entertaining 2 hours. Now, 18 years later, we come to yet another iteration of The Mummy story (remember that there were about a dozen or so versions well before Brendan Fraser had his turn). The new Mummy. The Mummy 2017.  This is the second worst Mummy film I’ve seen.

Starring Tom Cruise as Nick Morton, in another dedicated, seemingly effortless performance in an action picture, the film picks up with our hero and his reluctant partner fortune hunting in the Middle East. The two are Army officers who’ve stumbled on the tomb of Ahmanet, while disobeying practically every order given to them by their superior officers. Jennifer Halsey, an archaeologist played Annabelle Wallis, joins forces with the men, and together they unleash an ancient curse of unspeakable evil, in truly inept fashion. Rather than wasting time creating suspense, the film steamrolls past any possible build-up, and unleashes the Mummy first thing. The remainder of the movie deals with Morton and Halsey working together to eliminate the catastrophic power, before she…probably some kind of end of the world scenario, but I honestly don’t remember her plot. The Mummy, Princess Ahmanet, was second best in her Fathers eye, dwarfed by the existence of her brother, and so she murders her whole family. Making your monster even the slightest bit sympathetic is problematic in a blockbuster. The best example of a movie monster for me is Jaws, and what was his backstory? Filmmaker Alex Kurtzman would have been wise to follow that example. No sympathetic backstory, please. A large dose of the plot concerns the secret organization known as Prodigium, an excuse for Universal to contrive their “cinematic universe.” Russel Crowe plays Dr. Jekyll setting himself up for a follow up solo effort (although it seems pointless after this movie’s lack of success). Dr. Jekyll runs Prodigium, giving very long expositions, and teasing us with the inevitable Mr. Hyde appearance.

None of the film is done particularly well. Director Alex Kurtzman has absolutely no track record that would suggest he should have been given this job. He wrote the screenplay for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen? You’re hoping to rival Marvel with their proven cinematic universe, and you debut with this dud. To be clear, and anybody who knows me understands that I pretty much enjoy just about any movie watched at the theater. if I’m eating popcorn and sour patch kids while watching you, you’d have to be unwatchable for me not to have a good time. So this wasn’t the worst time in the world, but there’s nothing to endorse about The Mummy. There is almost no supporting cast to speak of which is incredibly odd and ill conceived for a horror film. You need characters we can anticipate dying in horrific fashion. There’s no one in this movie longer than five minutes for us to have any rooting interest in besides the stars and we know they aren’t going to die, which means there is zero suspense. Badly mediocre monster movie. Poor, probably death sentence start to Universal’s Cinematic universe.

For the record, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is the only worse film in The Mummy franchise.

-Walter Howard-

Despicable Me 3 (2017, Directed by Pierre Coffin and Kyle Balda) English 6

Voices of Steve Carrell, Trey Parker, Kristen Wiig, Miranda Cosgrove, Julie Andrews, Steve Coogan, Jenny Slate

Some film-thirds tie together and conclude epic storylines in spectacular fashion (see The Return of the King or The Dark Knight Rises for examples). The newest Despicable Me film, following the wildly and unexpectedly successful first two entries, does exactly what it did the first two times, with no apparent thoughts of slowing down or concluding. This series is going to go on for a while, more like Ice Age than Batman. And why not? They are relatively inexpensive money-making machines. The first one made half a billion on a 70 million dollar budget. The second made nearly a billion. I only hope that for as long as they make these films, they make them good, and so far, that’s been the case. Despicable Me 3 is an amusingly eccentric, fun, fast-paced, colorful film, much like its predecessors.

This time, Gru (voiced by Carrell), his new wife, Lucy Wilde (Wiig), and three adoptive girls meet Dru (also voiced by Carrell), Gru’s long-lost twin brother. When the two were babies, their parents separated, taking one child with them and keeping the other secret from his brother. Gru’s mother tells him she got second pick. Dru’s a fun-loving, gregarious type, but he doesn’t have the intelligence of Gru. So he tells his brother about their family’s history of masterminding great feats of villainy, and how he needs his help fulfilling his legacy. Gru’s given up villainy though, becoming an agent against crime along with his wife. Eventually, Dru brings Gru out of retirement, and the two plan to steal a precious jewel from Balthazar Bratt, an ’80s has-been turned supervillain.

One of the chief pleasures of these films has been the use of classic cartoonish humor. A character coming to see Gru is strapped to a rocket, launched into orbit, crash lands back on Earth, and limps his way back to Gru’s lawn. It’s looney tunes seen in modern three dimensional animation. Another hallmark of these films has been Pharrell Williams accomplished soundtracks, spawning the hit song “Happy” in the second entry. I doubt any of the songs this time around score that level of success, but they still work well with the movie. Third and finally, the voice acting is always on point, Carrell, Wiig, and Parker’s voices fully integrated within their characters.

I have no real complaints against the film except that I’ve seen this before. The combination of sweet and funny should work again to make the studio rich and the audience happy. Worth watching for those who love animation.

-Walter Howard-

 

Baby Driver (2017, Directed by Edgar Wright) English 9

Starring Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lilly James, Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Jon Bernthal, Flea, Eiza González

Edgar Wright makes well-worn genre films seem fresh. He doesn’t play by any discernible storytelling rules, and revels in flouting expectations. It’s his greatest attribute as a director, and one that he validates more than ever in his newest film, Baby Driver.

The film starts off in high gear, mid-heist, involving Buddy (a tatted-up Jon Hamm), Darling, Griff, and, of course, Baby (Elgort), a whiz kid behind the wheel hampered only by his need for music to drown out his tinnitus. We see Baby’s superhuman ability as a getaway driver, the editing and movement of the characters in step with the bizarre music, and right away we understand that we’re watching something special being done. It harkens back to Walt Disney’s ideas with Fantasia, that you could combine music and imagery to create something amazing in film. We get to know the supporting characters in Baby’s life. He’s in love with a beautiful waitress named Debora (James), like the T-Rex song, not like the song by Beck, she tells him. He lives with and cares for an elderly black man who helped raise him after his parents died.  He’s indebted to criminal mastermind named Doc (Spacey)., and realizes that Doc’s never going to let him leave his life of crime. He’s too valuable. Doc considers Baby his good luck charm as the operation’s getaway driver. The crux of the plot hinges around the buildup to a major heist, centering on the money orders at a post office. Baby plans his escape with Debora while working with a group of psychopaths that Doc’s assembled for his latest crime masterpiece: Buddy, Darling, and Bats (possibly the craziest of the group played terrifically by Foxx).

A few things besides the music separate this film from the mass of other slick bank robbery flicks it surpasses. Early in the movie, Baby pulls a job with Bats, and we see violent consequences for the crime. People are killed. Baby struggles with it. There’s a weight to the film that shows director Wright’s immense ability at shifting tones seamlessly, from light to dark, from serious to funny, at will. Secondly, as the film progresses, it becomes more and more unpredictable, which is rarely the case. As soon as you think Wright is setting one situation up, something happens to make that situation impossible, ad completely change the direction of the entire film. That takes some getting used to.  This quality could lead to disappointment for some of viewers. I know I’ve seen certain films that on first viewing didn’t match my expectations which led to me being disappointed, but upon second or third viewings, I realized what the films did was actually better than my expectations.

The film’s main selling points are its soundtrack and its action/car sequences. It delivers in full on both counts. The soundtrack is eclectic, funny, cool, original, you name it. I especially enjoyed the use of Barry White in one of the film’s most tense scenes; a showdown between Baby and an enemy. It weaves in and out of songs, altering the sound level depending on Baby’s focus. It’s very well done. The chase sequences are spectacular. They depend much on quick cut editing, so they aren’t authentic in the same way as some of the old classics like Bullitt or The French Connection, but they carve out their own territory in film history.

If the film has a flaw, I would say its ending was a little too drawn out. It’s not that the ending was bad or unsatisfying, but it lasted just a touch too long. After the unbelievable last car fight scene, it can only be anticlimactic from there. So I would wrap it up.  Overall though, Edgar Wright has made his best movie yet. Ever since his debut with Shaun of the Dead, a romantic comedy/bromance/zombie apocalypse movie, he’s proven to be a true original and an expert genre masher.

-Walter Howard-

Wonder Woman (2017, Directed by Patty Jenkins) English 6

Starring Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Danny Huston, Elena Anaya, David Thewlis, Lucy Davis, Ewen Bremnor, Saïd Taghmaoui, Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen

Word on the street was, the new Wonder Woman movie knocks it out of the park. I tempered my expectations. Just as critics have films they’re ready to shred, they also have films that they’re prepared to love. I knew Wonder Woman would benefit from following pure, unfiltered garbage in Suicide Squad. I knew that DC’s string of lousy offerings would lower the bar, so much so that any sense or sign of quality could clear it. Add to that, it’s a female superhero movie. We all know, we’ve heard the rumblings, that here aren’t enough female protagonists in movies. The damsel in distress model still far outweighs the strong battle-ready woman, and people are tired of that. So in comes Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins-her first film since the critically acclaimed Monster (2003). The first superhero movie directed by a woman apparently? Do I have that right? That’s crazy if it’s true, but regardless, the question remains does Wonder Woman hold up as a film? Aside from the social importance of it, aside from the message it offers, aside from gender politics, is it a good movie? I say, yes. Yes, it is.

The film progresses in three distinct acts. Act one is Wonder Woman’s origin story. Born Diane, the offspring of gods, molded by Queen Hippolyta (played by Connie Nielsen looking remarkably fierce) and given life by Zeus, an absentee father. Raised as a princess by her mother on Themyscira, an island nation inhabited exclusively by tall beautiful women warriors, and trained by her aunt, General Antiope (Wright), from a young age, she quickly becomes Wonder Woman, ready to take on all challengers. From here, Diane is played by Gal Gadot, perfectly suited to the iconic role, and a big reason why this film will likely be a massive hit. Her Diane is strong, beautiful, intelligent, and sweet; and what’s more, she makes it look effortless, which is crucial to making the character someone we can aspire to be rather than feeling too much like a heavy handed social message.

Second act is where the film gains steam. An Air Force intelligence officer, Steve Trevor (Pine), crash lands on Diane and her people’s island, bringing news of cataclysmic war-World War I to be exact. Diane feels it incumbent upon herself to join in, and so she travels to early 20th century London with Trevor, wanting to put an end to the war. The film’s able to pull a good amount of humor from its social inequality agenda. This Diane, a creation of 21st century minds made for a 21st century audience,  has no respect for society’s rules of the day. They hire a ragtag team of scoundrels to help sneak into enemy territory and fight Dr. Poison and General Erich Ludendorff.

Some quibbles. The third act is where the film began to lose me slightly, as the CGI took over from the actors who were thoroughly more interesting. It’s not so much a problem that a big-budget feature like this should be 2 hours and twenty minutes in runtime as it is that it feels 2 hours and 20 minutes long. That’s due to acts 1 and especially 3 over staying their welcome. The fish out of water material with Diane in London, the romance between her and Chris Pine, and the scrappy, underdog crew they employ to help them are what I enjoyed. Also, the film’s best action sequence comes around halfway through with Diane leading the charge out of the trenches of No Man’s Land. I was also disappointed by the villains. There’s extensive build up for one villain in particular, and, outside of the well done mystery element to it, the payoff is a letdown.

Overall, I enjoyed the movie, and I imagine most people will too; probably even more so than me. It’s not a groundbreaking superhero film the way I believe this year’s Logan was, or Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy was however many years ago, but it does show that DC hasn’t completely forgotten how to make a movie after all. I look forward to seeing Wonder Woman in later adventures.

 

 

Beauty and the Beast (2017, Directed by Bill Condon) English 7

Starring Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Emma Thompson, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellan,  Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Kevin Kline, Stanley Tucci

I remember Alec Baldwin speaking with the late-great Robert Osborne about remakes some time ago. The program was TCM Essentials. The movie was Judy Garland’s A Star is Born (1954, a remake of a 1937 film), and Baldwin was explaining the appeal of certain remakes. Essentially, “People would like to see the story told with actors from their era.” This view holds some merit- A Star is Born is being retold yet again, this time with Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper-but it also points out what makes redoing a Disney animated classic such a doubtful undertaking. Animation, when done right, and Disney tends to do animation right, is timeless.  How many films from the 1930s would you say the average person has watched? Now, how many people have seen Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937)? Any, and there are soon to be half a dozen, Disney live-action remake is destined to be less-than. And so we come to Beauty and the Beast, starring Emma Watson, directed by Bill Condon. That this new version of the French fairy tale is an overwhelming, dazzling visual spectacle, a well-performed, still compelling fantasy, and overall, good film is less important than that it is not as good as its predecessor. For the sake of this review, I will pretend to judge the film in its own right, but, in reality, it’s impossible to watch, for example, the Tale as Old as Time sequence without judging it against its origin.

The story, as I’m sure you are familiar, concerns Belle, our beautiful, headstrong heroine who struggles to fit in to provincial 18th century life. The townfolk think her odd. She keeps her head in books all day, and doesn’t swoon after Gaston, town hero, like all the other girls…and LeFou. After her father gets lost and becomes the prisoner of a terrible beast, Belle tracks him down and takes her father’s place. She’s imprisoned for all time in a mysterious, enchanted castle with furniture and silverware that can talk, and a captor who’s monstrous in appearance and temperament. But, she finds out, what we already know, that the Beast is actually a handsome prince, condemned by a curse. The only thing that can save him is if he can learn to love and be loved by another person.

There’s a lot of little things that keep this production from being a knock-off. This version offers more backstory for key characters, and fleshes out certain points.   Gaston is a war hero in addition to being a big game hunter.  Added musical numbers. Larger scale production. The added musical numbers are fine, if not overly memorable. The classics, the hits like “Be Our Guest” and “Tale as Old as Time” are present, and done well enough.  Belle’s mother is explained (I found this-though a somber story point-an amusing contrast to Disney’s long history of never-discussed M.I.A parents in their animated films). Add to this aside that Mr. Potts is also introduced.

Emma Watson is Belle. Dan Stevens is Beast. Luke Evans is Gaston. Josh Gad is LeFou. Emma Thompson is Mrs. Potts. Ewan McGregor is Lumiere. Ian McKellan is Cogsworth. The production team manage to narrowly escape making the latter two creepy, but are not completely successful in making them charming. LeFou is the only character that is more interesting (to some objection) this time out. He’s still comic relief, but he’s better comic relief. Luke Evans makes a very strong Gaston, as he moves from being comically narcissistic to downright villainous. The leads had a steep hill to climb catching up with the two animated counterparts that were most vividly fixed in my mind. I can’t say they fully measure up. Like the film, as a whole, they are skillful imitations, and though that is, to some degree, a credit to them, I was not completely satisfied.

Go see Beauty and the Beast if you’re in need of ready nostalgia, a big, vibrant film with its large production budget conspicuous across each frame; a good movie.

-Walter Howard