Tag Archives: review

“Rules of Engagement” fails to become the definitive military courtroom drama

Released: Oct. 10, 2000

Director: William Friedkin

Starring: Samuel Jackson, Tommy Lee Jones, Guy Pearce, Bruce Greenwood, and Ben Kingsley

Writer(s): James Web and adapted by Stephen Gaghan


Synopsis:

Rules of Engagement (2000) is a military courtroom drama starring Samuel L. Jackson as Lieutenant Terry Childers, and Tommy Lee Jones as Lieutenant Hayes Hodges. It largely details the relationship between two men: Lieutenant Terry Childers (Jackson) and Lieutenant Hayes Hodges (Jones), during the court-martial of Childers for the murder of 83 foreign civilians outside of a US embassy in Yemen. It asks questions about soldier’s ethical responsibility during hostile engagements (sort of), and accountability in leadership when it comes to American soldiers on foreign soil.

Analysis:

The latter of the two themes—accountability—is more pervasive and especially evident in the film during a dinner scene in which Hodges is visiting his father, Gen. Hayes Lawrence Hodges (Philip Baker Hall), who says, “Even if you thought you weren’t responsible—it went wrong and you were there.” Purely for the contention of the movie, Childers and Hodges seem to be the only two who accept this idea as truth, whereas everybody else denies culpability in the war crime that took place.

The story behind Rules of Engagement is not a new one, and films of similar substance certainly had some impact on its arc and character development: A Few Good Men (1992) comes to mind. Rules of Engagement has an expectant ending, but I think what troubles me most about the film is that we don’t see definitive changes in the character, or any meaningful development in theme. “This movie is about accountability,” it says. “And at the end it is still about accountability (sort of).”

I suppose if a film offers something to the viewers in regards to this plot—a different take, an odd angle—I may be more interested in the story it has to tell. Samuel L. Jackson’s character commits a horrible atrocity in this film and yet he is vindicated at the end of the film, which should be unsettling, regardless of the clear picture of corruption in the legislature that the film is also trying to illustrate. I mean, we see him give the order to fire on civilians.

There was an annoying bit at the end, too, which involved a closing credit caption sequence as Samuel L. Jackson is strolling away from the court room, free of guilt. The words state that everyone who had lied and tried to cheat Jackson in the film was held up to high legal standards and convicted of some crime or were forced to leave their political position. I found this irritating because in a film that is asking questions about accountability, we suddenly understand that accountability is black and white, which simply isn’t true. The reason accountability is a problem in the United States is because it’s a difficult topic to parse, and assessing blame is a difficult action to pursue. Contrivance, I say.

I did enjoy watching Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones kick the shit out of each other in sloppy indoor fistfight; but, that kind of interesting storytelling and action is short-lived.

Both Jackson and Jones’ characters are carbon copy military characters as seen in myriad military dramas. Their superiors are the barking dogs walking in the shadows of George C. Scott’s Patton (1970), which makes the film a bit….blah. It has all been had and troubles an otherwise compelling (ish) narrative. Nevertheless, Guy Pearce really kills it in this film. During a scene in which he lays out the case to his legal team, he consistently displays his acting ability, strolling around the room, running the finer points through his head like a legal cheese grater. He has wit and is intellectually quick. The viewer understands that by watching him command the role he has been given. It’s good stuff in a film that is stacked full of cardboard simulacrums.

The film is shot in a very generic sense but it works to the advantage of the narrative. As I stated, the film isn’t doing anything new, so the filmmakers could only go in a few directions: either take a very general story and shoot it like a David Lynch film, or shoot it in a safe and practical way, which is what they did. The battle scenes look like battle scenes—the Vietnam flashbacks are so Vietnam-y it’s actually a little unsettling, as they look more like a satire of Vietnam than a historical recap. The courtroom scenes are straight out of JAG, so you can anticipate how the movie will play out before it unfolds. On the other hand, it’s a little comforting, but I think the viewer would want more. With such a violent introduction to the film, some more unnerving imagery might help the story of unlawful murder more gritty—more real.

On the score side of things, Rules of Engagement has a startling lack of music, and I believe what music exists is very stereotypical TAPS-style melody and rhythm, which is meant to evoke patriotic fervor from the audience, I suppose. I honestly wasn’t really wasn’t sure what the movie was getting at sonically. A subtle form of jingoism, maybe? Mark Isham provided this scarcity of score and seemingly committed to it intentionally, but it doesn’t work for the emotional weight of the film. Stark silence works for a thriller (sometimes) but for a dramatic court room drama—there has to be a bit more (typically)—especially if it the story is about a more controversial case. The audience may need to be keyed into what emotions they should be feeling.

I would recommend Rules of Engagement to viewers who enjoy war movies and courtroom dramas. I think there are a few interesting beats here and there—the fight scene between the embattled Jackson and Jones is one such moment—but it lacks something more that might push it out of the boundary of stereotypical drama. Of course, there are better ones, but if you are looking for a lazy, hangover Sunday film—this does the job.

Overall: 1 ½ stars (Writing 1/2 + Acting ½ + Sight 0 + Sound + Recommend ½)

A Domestic Nightmare in the documentary “Crazy Love”

Released: June 2, 2007

Directed by: Dan Klores, Fisher Stevens

Written by: Dan Klores


Crazy Love (2007) is all about psychosis. It’s about the intentions of the protagonist and the antagonist. It’s about the director’s decision to use a score that is totally incompatible with a film that is satirizing the institution of marriage; but, most importantly, Crazy Love is about two people who have lost touch with reality and a director who documents the two with sensationalist lust.

First, let me address the film’s content: it’s a good documentary. It’s good if only for the audience to scream at Burt Pugach and Linda Riss who are far more socially-handicapped than they or the director is willing to let on. There is a spectacle being made of these two, and they are going along for the ride with a candid “tell all” attitude.

There are long moments where Pugach talks about how much money he made as a lawyer, and there are equally long moments of Linda Riss talking about how much she loved him for having so much money. Their shallow relationship gets uglier with each minute of the film, and the viewer quickly comes to the conclusion that a marriage like this can’t be a successful one. Though Pugach is certainly a deviation from the norm, Riss comes off as comparably warped and jaded. If this documentary does anything well, it’s that the viewer begins to share the spoils of the couple’s unhappy relationship, which really makes one look at their own relationships more critically and will find (hopefully) that things could be a lot worse. In this way, the documentary works: the content is surprisingly good. It’s like a late night murder mystery on television, and the sheer macabre of the whole affair is intriguing.

The score, however, is incompetently weak. It stands in stark contrast to the theme of mutually assured destruction. Where there should be notes of distress and dissonance when Pugach pulls out his creeper peepers, there is instead a jovial laugh-track of guitar and horns.

“And then I threw acid in her face!” Pugach screams. *slide whistle*

(The above was not actual dialogue, but he did throw acid in her face).

It’s similar to watching Michael Madsen lopping off a cop’s ear to “Stuck in the Middle With You” by Stealers Wheel in Reservoir Dogs (1992). In attempting to use the juxtaposition of disparate music and imagery as an exclamation mark to punctuate the insanity of Pugach’s and Riss’s unholy matrimony, the sound designer compliments the documentary with all the subtlety of a hacksaw cutting bone. I would love to believe this was intentional, as if it was a sort of joke; but, alas, it feels accidental. I don’t believe Director Dan Klores and Fisher Stevens completely understood the implications (or lack thereof) of what they were attempting to create and instead jammed two warring parts together with seriously insane results.

It’s difficult to have patience with a film that is documenting two truly unlikeable people. The entire film is very similar to the (thankfully) dissipating trend in horror filmmaking of “torture porn,” in which the audience is supposed to sit in approving disgust as people are mutilated and dismembered. While I love good gore in horror movies (and movies in general when it’s necessary), I don’t know that I can abide a two-hour movie where someone’s body is being slowly torn apart. That is, violence and effects are not a substitute for storytelling. The qualities that I just sighted can be applied to Crazy Love, as the main difficulty of the film is sitting through long moments of hedonism and grotesque narcissism with very little payoff.

If one can get past the sensationalist attitude of the film and the circusy score, Crazy Love is an interesting documentary, as it shows just how far the human psyche will go to convince itself that it is, in fact, in love when it definitely should avoid it at all costs.

12. Black Sabbath (1963) Movie Review (Podcast Episode!)

Happy Halloween!

Are you looking for something scary to listen to on this spooky day, when the walls between the living and the dead are at their weakest? Well, then this is definitely the podcast for you!

Black Sabbath (1963) is a curious film. It has an overeager Boris Karloff in both the lead role as an anthology curator, and he appears in one of the segments as a violent vampire-like creature that is trying to eat his family. He hams it up and things certainly do get weird.

There are two other weird shorts featuring witches (black magic corpses) and a segment about a haunted telephone…or it’s just a telephone (we are not entirely sure).

Nevertheless, Black Sabbath is a fantastic anthology that prizes atmosphere above all else (and really succeeds). So join host Josh as he discusses this 60s horror flick with his brother Adam on this special “spooktacular” version of The Vintage Talk Bag!

Also, Boris Karloff’s name is Gorca in this movie, which is pretty rad.

Live in Cook County Jail is King of Chicago Blues albums

I was immediately swept up with this album as I was riding on a train back home from Chicago with my future wife sitting next to me. I can still remember us grinning at each other when the crowd on the album erupts in applause at the line, “I gave you seven children, and now you want to give them back.” King’s genuine attitude really sealed the deal for me, regardless of a few clunky executions on the album.

Synopsis

King was invited to Cook Country Jail by the new warden Clarence Richard English and played for 2,117 prisoners. English had seen king play at the Chicago nightclub Mister Kelly’s (Kapos).

The set included older material, and the track list is laid out as such:

  1. Introductions
  2. Every Day I Have the Blues
  3. How Blue Can You Get?
  4. Worry, Worry, Worry
  5. Medley: “3 O’Clock Blues,” “Darlin’ You Know I Love You””
  6. Sweet Sixteen
  7. The Thrill is Gone
  8. Please Accept My Love

Live in Cook County Jail is still regarded as one of King’s finest performances alongside Live at the Regal.

Analysis

I love the way this album opens. The jeers from the crowd at the very mention of prison and state officials sets the mood (and the reform in living conditions that took place after the concert at Cook County Jail hints at why they were not pleased to hear such esteemed names). The first track, though, is rushed, and King’s voice gets muddled in trilled horn instruments as he barrels through the lyrics. Nevertheless, most of the tracks are all around sonic bangers, and I always enjoy the crusty pentatonic peel that King attempts to pull off at the end of “The Thrill is Gone.” It’s authentic.

Even the sometimes ambling “Every Day I Have the Blues,” which is perhaps played too quickly (perhaps the live-stage jitters?), still affords that necessary energy to kick off the album. When the second track “How Blue Can You Get” came on I was completely riveted. My excitement trickled over, and I handed my wife one of my ear buds. It was such a perfect moment between us, and I can thank Chicago Blues for that.

This is a classic blues album, and I believe if you go in listening to a generic blues album, your expectations are typically met. There is going to be some yelling, some soloing, and some twelve-barring. Live at Cook County doesn’t disappoint in that regard, but it has some tricks up its sleeve. King monologues and inserts his discreet sort of guitar playing into all the right nooks and crannies. If we analyze it from the idea of intention in complexity, the listener will be comfortable with the bluesy-ness of the album, and will be delighted by the content and delivery.

This is a live album so I can cut it some slack in regards to fidelity, but I would also say that in that way, the audio is one of its best parts. It sounds like a blues album, and the listener doesn’t have to find a faux-blues band to hear them use vintage amps and equipment. It’s right there on stage. As far as the ideas go, King and the band play laid-back music on purpose (I’m guessing because of the setting), and jam and vamp their way through the album, setting a real tone for both expectation and reality.

I think B.B. King, much like everybody on the planet, is as authentic a blues player as one can get, and I also think on Live in Cook County Jail, King lives and breathes his blues music like a true blues man.

Trivia:

  • Press related to the album described the poor living conditions at Cook County Jail and necessitated prison reform. The prison had been referred to in the press as “a jungle” because the conditions were so rough for inmates.
  • The album reached Number One on the “Top R&B” chart, which is the only B.B. King album to do so throughout his career.
  • It was ranked 499 out of 500 on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.”

Musicians:

B.B. King – guitar, vocals

Wilbert Freeman – bass

Sonny Freeman – drums

John Browning – trumpet

Louis Hubert – tenor saxophone

Booker Walker – alto saxophone

Ron Levy – piano

Sources:

Film Festival a slice of delight for local horror fans and creators

I attended the Slice of Fright Film Festival with my mum in Bay City, MI on Saturday, Oct. 12. The festival showcased 32 international and national short films and micro-films from the horror genre.

Typically, I go to movie-outings with low expectations (this is done intentionally—not out of malice or snobbish contempt), because I’m a popcorn junkie and it gives me a reason to drink non-diet soda, which I otherwise avoid. If the outing features these offerings, then I can safely say it was a great experience without having to use the festival films as a critic’s egregious crutch.

The Slice of Fright Film Festival offered both popcorn and soda, and some really great mini-flicks to boot.

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I went with my dear mum, and at one point I asked her to buy me a sticker (because they only took cash, and I only had a card). My mom turned to me and said, “You’re eating into your popcorn money!” As a 30-year-old man who looks twelve, I probably should have felt more ashamed, because we were in a room full of people, but deep down I knew she was right.

As highlighted by the official selections, the short films were both national and international (and Michigan-made films as well), including Canada, France, Ireland, and Germany. The wide range of diverse voices provided interesting takes on atypical stories, so there were lots of little surprises throughout the evening.

Some of the film highlights:

  • Hypnosis: This French short by Director Grégoire Vaillant kicked off the film festival and had a great deal of depth. By analyzing viewer expectations as moviegoers, the short was able to play with horror movie clichés in an original way. The sound design in Hypnosis helped convey the fear, dread, and revelatory moments throughout its evenly-paced story. This was one of my two votes for the “Viewer’s Choice” category.
  • The Animator: I’ve loved clay animation since the first time I watched Rank/Bass’s Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer (1964) and Santa Clause is Coming to Town (1970). South Carolina Director Trent Shy’s The Animator does not disappoint either, as it explores the notion of the creator and the creation…and the masochism that sometimes occurs when one is literally shaping the world of their creations with their own hands.
  • Grave Sight: One common factor throughout the festival was the level of humor that the creators employed in their films. Of all the films, I think Grave Site by Canadian Director Angus Swantee executed this skill with the most expertise. Grave Site tells the tale of a husband and wife who are digging up a witch’s grave to steal her rings, and hilarity ensues (there’s eye-popping, monsters, and some really fun sight gags). Grave Site was my second and final choice for the “Viewer’s Choice” category.
  • Verso: Verso was just damn cool. Michigan Director Joseph Victor proves that reverse linearity in narrative can be just as effective as telling one’s story front-to-back. The short works in reverse to tell the story of a man’s transformation into a zombie-like monster. The slow reveals through the literal reversal of film is both a neat execution strategy and it’s an engaging way to inform the viewer of plot detail.
  • Death Cleaners: This short by Director Cynthia Bergen uses the macabre profession of crime scene technician as a lens to tell a ghost story. I am highlighting it here because I think it tells a fairly conventional tale replete with “jump scares” but manages to use both a competent and unique voice to tell its story.

Overall, the 2nd Annual Slice of Fright Film Festival was a fun event that had a lot to offer in showcasing unique voices in horror and short films. I’m already looking forward to next year.

In the Tall Grass (Spoilers!)

Details

  • Released: Oct. 4, 2019
  • Director: Vincenzo Natali
  • Starring: Laysla De Oliveira, Avery Whitted, Patrick Wilson, Will Buie Jr., Harrison Gilbertson, Tiffany Helm, Rachel Wilson

Synopsis

A group of disparate characters (a mother, father, and son; a brother and sister; and an old flame) enter a field in the middle of the US to find themselves lost physically, spatially, and spiritually. They have to work together in order to defeat an ancient evil, and find their way out of a maze of tall grass and supernatural forces.

Review

In the Tall Grass (2019) is rife with Stephen King tropes, but has some of the charm of a Joe Hill narrative, which creates a compelling mixture of familiar and genuine moments.

The movie tells a story about an unknowable evil (tropey) that is both pervasive and permeates its way through miles and miles of tall grass somewhere in middle America. It also happens to embody a giant stone that sits at the center of the miles and miles of green ocean grass, and it has the ability to generate some a sort of psychic control over those that touch it, which dominates their minds and bodies.

Our protagonists are pulled off the road in pursuit of “time-loop” versions of themselves who have become stuck in a sort of wretched feedback loop where they either die or become extraordinarily insane (the rules aren’t made abundantly clear). The first two to enter, Becky (Laysla De Oliveira) and Cal DeMuth (Avery Whitted) follow after a young child’s voice(Will Buie Jr.), who is searching for his parents Ross (Patrick Wilson) and Natalie Humboldt (Rachel Wilson).

There is a great deal of time in the beginning of the film that is spent acclimating the viewer to the tall grass’s abilities, which is actually neat for the first minutes until it degrades into everybody screaming each other’s name for an excessive amount of time. I felt as though this section could have been trimmed a little as it doesn’t further the movie in any meaningful way.

As such, I have come to the conclusion that if a film forces the audiences to follow characters around and around in setting circles then there might be trouble with the story or the particular act itself; and, that’s pretty much what happens throughout much of In the Tall Grass. There’s a lot of walking in circles and returning to the same set pieces, which actively steals forward momentum from the audience, and it feels like they haven’t gotten anywhere in the story. Oddly enough, the viewer feels as though they are walking through a maze of tall grass.

In a very Stephen King fashion, one of the characters becomes possessed by the ancient evil and begins eliminating the support cast. This isn’t necessarily an issue, but Patrick Wilson is a good actor who could do much better in a role which doesn’t call for him to transform into a zany, wise-cracking villain (Damian Lewis’s change in Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher [2003] comes to mind). And, Patrick Wilson really embodies that zaniness to a fault.

I was not really familiar with the cast, but I think that was a good choice for the film, because there are some deaths in the film that are unique and unexpected, and it helps to not know who you are supposed to be rooting for when those climactic moments occur. Not having a familiar face to cling on to certainly creates more tension for the audience.

Moreover, I enjoyed many of the visuals in In the Tall Grass, as there seemed to be an actual interest in using practical effects to achieve some of the more expansive visuals. The tall grass, for instance, looks like a moving, tricky mass of sentient life, and the ancient stone looks like a real piece of architecture that could be interacted with and touched. I think it’s important to have those moments in film that are visually awe-inspiring on a practical level to stand in contrast to the unnecessary use of heavy CGI in modern film.

Likewise, the sound is not remarkable but does convey the horror atmosphere by using disjointed tones and what sounded like Gregorian chants, I think. I may need to update my sound system, though, because early in the film, as the characters are shifting around the tall grass, their voices pan from right to left and back again to denote the inconsistency in their location, but I don’t think I was catching the full effect, or it just wasn’t executed very well.

In the Tall Grass is a good horror film. It has surprises and a few solid performances. Also, the premise is interesting, and I can really appreciate a film about unknowable evil. I think fans of Stephen King would enjoy it. As for modern King (and Hill) adaptations, I think this is more consistent in tone than IT: Chapter One (2017) and IT: Chapter Two (2019). There is some gory stuff, too, but it’s pretty tame in comparison to modern horror cinema.

The premise is interesting but then fizzles down in the third act. I am also uncomfortable with the rules of the tall grass. They make it a point to hint that there are some, so why not show the viewer the whole game? Or, just don’t hint at them at all. I can live with either choice. I guess it is supposed to be this disorienting, perennial evil that encourages confusion, but this actually creates a perplexing world for viewers.

Overall: 3/5 (writing 1/2+acting 1/2+sight 1+sound 1/2+recommend 1/2)

11. Village of the Damned (1960+1995) Movie Review (Podcast Episode!)

The two versions of The Village of the Damned (1960+1995) have their moments—both good and bad (alien babies? communism? Luke Skywalker?)—so this week, hosts Josh and Will sit down to talk about which moments elevated each film to space (because aliens), and which moments…well, crash landed on Earth?

Join us for this week’s episode and don’t forget to Like and Subscribe to catch future episodes!

“Quigley Down Under” excites but doesn’t live up to its epic aspirations

Details

  • Director: Simon Wincer
  • Writer(s): John Hill
  • Starring: Tom Selleck, Laura San Giacomo, Alan Rickman
  • Released: Oct. 17, 1990

Synopsis

The film centers on Quigley, who travels to Australia after being hired by Marston to shoot Aborigines—a fact that Quigley did not know upon accepting Marston’s invitation. This leads to a conflict between the two characters and a series of battles ensue between Quigley, Marston, and his cohorts.

Review

Quigley Down Under (1990) has the draw (rifle?) of what might be a good western for its time, but it falls short of being an exceptional film by erroneously wasting the viewer’s time with a lack of depth in the setting and frivolous villainy.

Quigley (Selleck) himself is a one-dimensional character, but Tom Selleck (the would-be Indiana Jones) brings the character to life due to his natural charisma, wit, and charm. Also, a welcome change to the stereotypical western genre—one that was more spaghetti than gritty for a such a long time—is that of Quigley’s gun: a rifle that allows him to hit targets at great distances (a fantastical weapon, perhaps even silly, but a welcome change nonetheless). It provides explosive action any time Quigley pulls the trigger, which often offsets some of the boredom brought on by the film’s poor attempt at character development and plotting.

Laura San Giacomo plays Crazy Cora, who follows Quigley around during his adventure in the Australian Outback—seemingly against her will for the most part. She wonderfully acts the part, and sells the Gremlins-esque backstory scene with command, as she bounces between talking about her road-worn dress and how she smothered her own child to save herself from pillaging Indians. This inciting incident literally drives her (by her husband) to exile in Australia. Of course, late in the film, she has to relive this torturous experience while hiding from carnivorous wolves in a cave.

Alan Rickman plays Elliot Marston, who is truly evil because he needs to be evil, and Quigley punches him in the face for that—twice. Rickman is so exaggerated in the role of Marston that one can almost imagine him threatening to cut out Quigley’s heart, “with a spoon,” circa Robin Hood (1991). Yet, Rickman fails to be even half as charming as his diabolical doppelganger from Sherwood Forest, which is a bummer because The Sheriff of Nottingham is a silly/fun character and Rickman is an extraordinary actor. Regardless, Quigley shoots Marston with a pistol in a final, engaging standoff where it is revealed that Quigley is not only good with a rifle but he is also a quick draw with his pistol. Ultimately, this hammers home Quigley’s point (or pistols home his point?):  don’t mess with the best … or with Quigley … or whatever. Wait, did he have a point? At the very end of the film, Quigley is standing in a corral that is littered with bodies, he is a million miles from his house in Montana, and he just spent a week romancing an insane woman who smothered her kid some years ago, and all I could think was: “Why are you still there? Go home already! Just go home.”

Quigley (2)

Visually, the movie looks good in ordinary shots and camera angles, but some of the more glaring issues can be attributed to its use (or lack thereof) of setting: the location is the sprawling outback of Australia—and it was filmed on locations there—but this fact is not exploited very well. One would think that if it was filmed at a specific location, then perhaps utilizing it would be paramount. In other words, if you are filming a movie about a cabin in the woods, one should maybe use the trees around the cabin, or the streams, or the rocks, or the nature (not unless it’s one of those damn arthouse films—then to hell with you!).

The sweeping shots of Australia could have been easily replaced with sweeping shots of Utah or Arizona (circa Outlaw Josey Wales) or any other ambiguous western scenario from any film (take yer pick). With such a concoction, there is bound to be a bunch of cool stuff you can do with the characters, villains, and extras. Alas, the depth of setting is overlooked by the film creators, who pursue a story about a man with a modified rifle—and the result is a mundane traipse through the backyard of someone’s ranch out west.

Moreover, I could not understand the use of music in this film. It navigates its way through sci-fi, John Carpenter-level symphonic explorations, to the typical cowboy guitar strumming that a viewer might expect from the genre. The musical styles don’t mesh well and I was left confused as to how I should feel emotionally during many scenes. Take for instance: space music harvested from an obscure, futuristic alien movie from the 80s is a little strange when showing enormous panoramic shots of what is supposed to be a lawless continent set in the 1860s.

Nevertheless, Quigley benefits from a strong cast (even Alan Rickman is a little entertaining in a less-than-riveting role) and from some fine visuals as well. Oh, and even though I’ve never fired a gun in my life, Quigley’s rifle is a neat addition.

Overall: 2/5 stars (writing 1/2+acting 1/2+ sight 1/2+ sound 0+recommend 1/2)

It: Chapter Two Review (Spoilers!)

As I watched It: Chapter Two, I had to ask myself, “Why did they make this a two-part movie?” The second installment is a staggering two hours and 50 minutes long, and as I recall, there were a few advertisements (or fan-made advertisements) that boasted its length: “You’re gonna get so much bang for your buck.” And bang is what you get, as the movie tells the story of the kids from the Losers’ Club returning to Derry, Maine, as adults after they are alerted to the reemergence of Pennywise the Dancing Clown, who is back to slake his thirst for humankind after a 27-year hiatus.

I can really feel the amount of story on writer Gary Dauberman’s shoulders, too, but all I can think is that the entire production should have been cut in half (a three-hour movie cut in half is still 90 minutes, after all), and the first film should have been done away with because it doesn’t reveal anything that the sequel avoids. That is, It: Chapter Two adeptly does what the first one could not, which is that it doesn’t show us trauma as it’s happening but how adults deal with trauma after its (har, har) happened, which I think is a far more interesting story. Thus, the most powerful moments come from the adults as they look back at their adolescence in a perennially tormented town infested by an alien shapeshifter who likes to pull pranks on the residents…oh, and he eats them, too.

In comparing this adaptation to the 1990 miniseries, there is sort of a flip as to what works and what doesn’t work between the two cinematic properties. For instance, the first installment of the miniseries has widely lauded performances from its young cast, while the second-half of the miniseries takes a nosedive due to the lack of charm from the adult counterparts.

The adults in It: Chapter Two, meanwhile, are outstanding, for the most part.

James McAvoy as Bill Denbrough is magnificent, and the viewer gets to watch him slowly slip back into his childhood stutter, which gets more intense as the film moves on, and James Ransone’s Eddie Kaspbrak is so well done (he’s neurotic, he’s weird, he’s hopelessly addicted to domineering women) that he is very nearly my favorite character of the group. Very nearly, I say, because Bill Hader as Richie Tozier was an excellent move on Casting Director Rich Delia’s part, and leaves Harry Anderson’s miniseries portrayal of Richie far behind.

However, I felt as though Ben Hanscom and Beverly Marsh were under characterized. Jessica Chastain gives a sort of haunted reading of Beverly—she seems somewhat conflicted, somewhat aloof, and always fearful—which doesn’t play as well as Sophia Lillis’s performance as the younger version of Beverly. Lillis is audacious, unafraid, and confident. She is a tomboy and embodies that spirit exactly, which makes the viewer really believe she will dive off a cliff and into a watering hole before the rest of the Losers’ Club even considers looking over the edge. I did not get the same vibe from Chastain.

Jay Ryan as Ben Hanscom, meanwhile, suffers the same lackluster fate in the film. While the other characters all have identifiable voices (the funny guy, the leader dude, the neurotic one), Ben is simply the guy that used to be the fat kid who was in love, and still is, with Beverly. (side note: Brandon Crane, who played 12-year-old Ben Hanscom in the It miniseries makes an appearance in It: Chapter Two, discussing one of the new architectural designs that Jay Ryan’s Ben Hanscom has dreamed up). Ben’s story arc resolves as expected, which is fine, but that little extra thing just isn’t there the way it is in James McAvoy’s Bill or Bill Hader’s Ritchie.

My final note on casting is that it took me two-and-a-half movies (which is something like six hours) to warm up to Bill Skarsgard as the titular IT. One of the first truly traumatic movie-watching experiences of my life was seeing Tim Curry execute the most terrifying performances of a child-eating clown ever to grace the silver screen (do you know how many goddamned drains I checked as a child?) As an adult, I realize that Curry’s performance was far more nuanced than I could have imagined as a boy—and it’s actually kind of a funny portrayal, too. Nevertheless, Skarsgard gives a winning performance because he doesn’t redo Tim Curry’s role—he makes it his own—which is somewhere between Bozo the Clown and what I imagine John Wayne Gacy was like right before he went in for the kill (morbid, I know, but you gotta imagine that some people really have seen the deadlights).

While this is mostly a positive review, the film is not without flaw.

The sound design of both It (2017) and It: Chapter Two is probably some of the worst I’ve ever heard as a moviegoer. Literally, the crescendo of music stings gave me a headache as noises hectically moved from polite whispers to full-blown cannon fire in my head. Some of this can be attributed to the film’s other committed sin, which is that it relies on jump scares as the main delivery of horror. We are in an era where “horror movie” translates to “jump scare,” which is depressing because that means such things as “subtlety” and “atmosphere” are oftentimes lost. There are plenty of jump scares in classic cinema, sure. I mean, who can forget Dallas’s final moments in Alien (1979) when the xenomorph emerges from the darkness and goes in for a less-than-polite hug; but, there is so much more to the horror elements in Director Ridley Scott’s science fiction masterpiece that both shock and surprise the audience without blowing out their eardrums with sonic explosions, or destroying their eyes with sickening quick cuts.

The final irksome moment in the film is during the finale in which Pennywise is confronted by the Losers’ Club in his own underground nest, which is actually a neat set piece—not as cool as the first film’s final set piece but cool enough. The moment I am referencing involves the use of CGI and nonsensical plotting (side note: if you have to use CGI to make fortune cookies, you should really re-analyze how effective the scene will be with or without it). I will stand by this following statement until the day I die: if the finale of your horror film is even slightly reminiscent of a boss fight in a first-person shooter (or any video game for that matter), you, as a director, must punch yourself in the face immediately and then rework your ending.

In the finale, Pennywise is a giant CGI spider thing (it doesn’t look great) and he is running in a circular motion with three glowing blue balls hovering overhead, which I think he is drawing his power from (not made explicitly clear), and he is chasing the protagonists around as they try to evade him. I mean, I have played this very scene in so many video games. The protagonists were just missing Cortana from the Halo video game series to tell them to shoot the glowing balls to weaken Pennywise enough to hurt him.

Overall, this is a well-done movie with plenty of little surprises and interesting scenes (the Beverly and Mrs. Kersh scene was nearly perfect its level of unsettling), and the cast is amazing (mostly). The sins the movie commits are excusable, too, but this brings me to my last point:

Movies shouldn’t have to have excusable scenes. The rampant use of CGI in film is really destroying movies that could be exceptional. (I’m looking at you and your gingerbread men Krampus [2015]). It: Chapter Two is almost great, but it’s ruined by the sloppy use of digital graphics and some inconsistencies in imagery (baby-headed bugs? Okie-dokie). Cruddy Spider-Clowns and fortune cookies aside, movies are an art form that should rival the best offerings from music, books, and paintings. We don’t look at a Van Gogh painting and say, “This painting is really good, except I could do without that terrible-looking Gungan and droid battle that’s happening in the background.” And, yes, not every director is a genius painter, and practical effects are expensive and time consuming to pull off, but, you know what? Moviegoers will still be talking about good use of CGI and practical effects in films long after they have forgotten about Dwayne Johnson in the The Mummy Returns (2001) or that street fight with a million agents in Matrix Reloaded (2003). I mean, are we setting out to consume and create art that requires excusable moments? At the end of the day, movies should make us feel with a balanced use of visual storytelling and dialogue. They shouldn’t make us roll our eyes.

 

10. Black Belt (1992) Movie Review (Podcast Episode!)

It’s been a hot minute but The Vintage Talk Bag is back! This week, Josh and his brother William review an early 90’s film that has all of the charm of its lead (which is not much)!

Black Belt (1992) aspires to be a kung fu action flick but lacks both kung fu and action. It also has some disturbing familial implications (ewww). So join us for this week’s episode as we discuss a protagonist who lacks charisma, a villain who loves lady fingers (not the cookie), and another villain who replaces acting with eating (and he’s not just chewing the scenery)!