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It (2017/I)
2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Floats Above the Original, 19 September 2017

In the first 10 minutes of the remake of Stephen King's "It", I was taken aback by how much more violent and graphic it was than its 1990 predecessor. I recalled a creepy yet campy made-for-TV movie that was ultimately forgettable were it not for the spectacularly unsettling performance by Tim Curry in the title role. I initially attributed this upswing in gore to the Hollywood trend of remakes, dial it up to 11 and hope for the best. It didn't take long for me to see that there was something more at work here. As the familiar story ticked on I realized that this movie isn't for those who are being introduced to the story for the first time. It's for those, of my generation, who knew that the evil of "IT" was waiting its obligatory 27 years to reemerge and scare the hell out of us again as adults.

In the small town of Derry Maine, big brother Bill is paper folding the ill-fated SS. Georgie on his bed. Little brother Georgie scampers in to take his toy boat out to the rainy gutters of the neighborhood. Bill and Georgie have an unrealistically precious relationship. Georgie is literally too cute to live. As the little tike chases the makeshift sail-boat down the street, it becomes clear that the swollen $35 million budget was put to good use. From the original, we know Georgie's floating destiny, but how he arrives there is a red flag for the extremes we can expect for the 135 run-time. Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) looks nothing like the Bozo interpretation by Curry. More like a mix between John Wayne Gacy and John Leguizamo from Spawn. The only real acting Skarsgard gets to do is in those creepy few minutes, menacingly gawking out of that gutter. The rest of Pennywise's appearances are too heavily CGI'd to require an actor. Most of the character's appearances are relegated to creepy waving and jump- scares. This might sound disappointing if Pennywise's only manifestation was as a clown.

More than the terror of this ever-morphing entity, the town of Derry itself is a certain type of hell for children. There are sadistic bullies that would be showing mercy by simply punching you in the face. There are no adults in the traditional sense as they are all guilty of apathy, predatory hungers, or just being former bullies who now own small businesses. The 7 protagonist children have nowhere to turn when their personal nightmares starting coming to life. Bill has lost his brother the year before with parents who have all but moved on. Beverly is becoming a woman in a home where her single father's loving touch is completely unwelcome. Mike, the home-schooled slaughterhouse worker, may have the most traumatizing past which is only briefly capitalized on. That brevity might have been a good idea considering how it would clash hard with the tongue-in-cheek humor that makes most of the horror palatable. The other members of the group, Richie, Ben, Eddie, and Stanley have their own triggers but they don't stem from trauma… At least not yet.

Pennywise gets a disappointing amount of dialogue, but it is made up for by our 7 heroes, self-dubbed The Losers. Richie (Finn Wolfhard of "Stranger Things" notoriety) is particularly hilarious with one- liners that would kill in any Apatow flick. The others are given depth of character through realistic interpersonal relationships and convincingly fitting into the late 80's aesthetic. Their world is a terrifying fantasy, but the nostalgia is refreshingly real.

With the reverence that the creators of IT have shown the material, I was surprised to find the small catalogue they have contributed to in the past. Director Andy Muschietti created the stylish, but ultimately forgettable "Mama." Only Gary Dauberman of the three screenwriters has had notable contributions to the genre, writing the disappointing "Annabelle" and much better "Annabelle: Creation." So it is quite satisfying to see that this was likely a passion project for these artists. The result being a dutiful and exhilarating remake that has every right to stand up to, and even float above the original.

7 out of 16 people found the following review useful:
What do you really see?, 6 August 2017

The immediate question I had to ask myself after watching It Comes at Night was, "What did I really see?" Certainly there are horrific images and dangers beyond the superficial; but the true fear didn't come from tangible figures, it was evoked from filmmaking that makes the fear personal to each viewer. Whether you are predicting monsters lingering out of frame, or feeling feverish on behalf of the characters, this film has the guts to require the audience to engage.

Earlier this year I was pleasantly surprised by the sequel to Cloverfield, 10 Cloverfield Lane. Rather than expanding the story to global catastrophe, we entered a very intimate setting with only 3 characters. In that film we knew what waited outside the bunker, making it an emotional game of duality, prison or sanctuary? Somehow, It Comes at Night accomplishes something very similar, without a prequel to add any suggestion as to where the terror is derived. In a remote woodland, in a boarded-up two-story cabin, we again have three characters that have secluded themselves from an unnamed horror. Paul, Travis, and Sarah don't go out at night; they wear gas masks at the slightest foreign element; and seem prepared for anything. Paul (Joel Edgerton) is a hardened man, shouldering the desperation so that his wife and son can live rather than just survive. His son, Travis, is in his late teens and has just buried his grandfather. The grandfather's death, from an unspecific disease, is both a red herring and catalyst for what we begin to understand is an isolated life amidst an apocalypse.

The nature of the threat, beyond a sickness, is maddeningly hinted at. Can we expect zombies? Might there be mutant animals in the hills? The ambiguity of the threat could easily become a cheap plot device, if indeed the movie were about the threat. The real story begins when a second family ends up on Paul's doorstep. They are a mirror to Paul's family; a husband, Will; wife, Kim; and child, Andrew. Will's family is younger, and in greater need. Paul sees it as a duty to save those who can be, but makes it clear that his obligations go no farther than that.

Social graces work juxtaposed to desperate measures so that politeness is relegated to curt respect. Nothing is free in this environment so harsh rules are accepted without question, and hard work is an expectation. Andrew is only 4 years old and Travis becomes the bridge between this young family and his stern father, breaking protocol for the sake of harmony. The protocol of safety is broken down on the first day. Gas masks are to be worn under strict conditions; the only entrance to the home is under Paul's control, and trust is a privilege that will ride on a razor's edge.

The performance that carries this movie is from Travis, Kelvin Harrison Jr. He is the "us" in the movie and expresses every human emotion the setting deprives from others. Travis is a teenager almost non- existent in horror films. He loves, fears, but never shows that he is trying to prove himself. His character in almost any other suspense thriller would be gunning to live up to his father's expectations, and add to the divide between the two families. We find from his mourning over his grandfather, and horrible nightmares of suffering the same fate, that he is a child appropriately acting his age. He lusts after Kim, but doesn't create untoward drama. He dotes on the young Andrew, and respects Will. We feel his misery as he watches the humanity in his home unravel.

Always in the margins of each scene is the implied horror. I found my speculation for what it might be waning steadily to the film's conclusion. Some might find the ending cheap, or anti-climactic. I can't imagine it ending any other way. The final moments are a subtle reveal that make the earlier climax all the more heart wrenching. If you feel that you missed something when the credits start rolling, you were looking for the wrong monster.

2 out of 11 people found the following review useful:
Frustrating Alien Prequel, Exemplary Prometheus Sequel, 28 May 2017

This is a rare film review for me. It's one that will celebrate the quality, imagination, and depth of a story, while also never settling on being a firm recommendation. Alien: Covenant rounds out one of the most spectacular universes in all of cinema, while doing little to live up to the advertised subject matter. This dissonance makes for a frustrating Alien prequel, and an exemplary Prometheus sequel.

Ridley Scott lit a fuse for a boundless concept in 1979 that spread beyond his own imagination. Developments brought about in Aliens and Alien 3 have become such companion pieces to the original that when Scott began working on a prequel in 2000, he tapped James Cameron as a writer. When inferior prequels such as AVP perverted tangential focus from their ideas, a broader scope was sought. The connections in Prometheus to the original feature were incidental; As much as Alien was a pure horror that was incidentally Sci-Fi. Based on the lukewarm reaction to Prometheus, I have always believed that viewers were unsatisfied with the light touch it used to bridge the two features, and how heavy handed it was in its own direction. Therefore, those expecting a true "Alien" film will be disappointed in Covenant's approach to the alien itself, but enthralled with how thoroughly it delves into the thoughts provoked in Prometheus.

The colonization vessel Covenant is on its long journey to a new planet. It's not made clear what shape Earth is in, but the 2000+ colonizers and crew seem to be making a one-way trip. After an incident (similar to that of Passengers) forces crew members awake, that all-too-familiar signal from another planet is detected and rouses interest. The source is a planet, seemingly better suited for colonization than their original. The decisions at this point are made without a firm resolve, as the captain has perished during the aforementioned incident. Oram (Billy Crudup) has taken command and is so anxious he seems to second-guess nervous ticks. The Ripley- esque voice of reason, Daniels (Katherine Waterston), has lost her husband (the captain) and is none-too-keen and deviating from the plan. Daniels is not alone in having a spouse on board, as every member of the crew is working alongside a husband or a wife, colonizing by example.

Once on the surface of the source planet, we find an environment more suited for Predator than Alien. Torrential rain feeds a never- ending forest and there is scarcely a flat surface to be found. The constant flow of water from lakes and falls masks an unsettling quality, silence. Such a hospitable environment is void of all animal life. The ground crew is made up of the essential characters. The captain, Daniels, some armed muscle and a new generation of synthetic man, Walter (Michael Fassbender). Walter is noticeably different from Prometheus's David. More than a different accent and physicality, Walter's personality lacks the deceptive and self- assured nature of David, effectively a more efficient slave. The stark difference between the two Fassbenders is made much clearer when the crew finds the sole inhabitant of the planet, David.

Ten years have passed since the events of Prometheus, and David has been busy. Having lost his only companion since his arrival on the planet, Shaw (Noomi Rapace), he has built a lonely and elaborate dwelling in the mausoleum of a lost society. It is in this setting that the marvelous possibilities posed in Prometheus are elaborated on like poetry between Walter and David. Fassbender plays both roles with impeccable timing. Even in identical close-ups, it is unmistakable which synthetic is which. From this encounter the central theme is revealed, the privilege and hubris of creation; Creation being the essential difference between the two. In David's chambers, countless experiments are displayed. Amazing drawings are laid out as if David had H.R. Geiger on commission. With a plentiful supply of Engineer canisters at his disposal, the mysteries surrounding the vacant planet start to become darkly clear.

From the trailers, and even the poster, we know that Xenomorph will eventually make its appearance, along with some inventive other creatures. And it is in this vein I would imagine viewers will get decidedly less than the bargained for. Prometheus was, wisely, never promoted as an "Alien movie." Covenant has been advertised as a Xenomorph absorbed horror film, and it simply isn't. The discord of expectations will inevitably cause unnecessary disappointment. When the focus turns to the favorite movie monster, the beats of formula start drumming and the final half-hour feels like a misplaced fourth act. An overly-familiar sequence trying to deliver on a promise that shouldn't have been made in the first place.

Other elements of the film are praiseworthy. Because this isn't purely a horror feature, when the crew experiences loss the actors have time to show range through grief and hopelessness, rather than simply running for their lives. Danny McBride as the pilot Tennessee isn't relegated solely into the role of comic relief, giving more than you might expect. Samantha Waterston is too numbed by tragedy from the start to go through the same descent into madness as Weaver or Rapace, but creates a heroine all her own. In most other features, Crudup can be counted on to be a muted and self-assured everyman. Here, he breaks new ground as convincingly neurotic, un- composed and unsure. By far the best performance is by Fassbender. As David, he is an amalgam of great villains and powerful leading men. As Walter there is an understated kindness that challenges David. The synthetics are the profound and pivotal creations of the film, just perhaps not the ones you paid to see.

White God (2014)
2 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Hagen the Everydog, 16 April 2017

Thematically, foreign films in the U.S. gain acclaim for universality. In the past, directors had pressure from their own country to stay true to their local form while studios wanted to appeal to the huge market in America. Therefore it is an impressive feat that the independent film "White God" out of Hungary is unmistakably European in style and execution, while dealing with unanimously effective subject matter. Cruelty to animals transcends language and customs as a viscerally hated act. However, one man's sacred cow is another man's steak. There are only a handful of species that bridge these gaps. Number 1 with a bullet is man's best friend.

Dogs in "White God" are seen as little more than a nuisance in Urban Hungary. The used plot of an adolescent going to stay with the lesser of two divorced parents is less establishing the setting here, and more lulling you into a false state familiarity. Lili is all friction with here jaded father, and his disdain for her only friend Hagen is palpable. Hagen is the Jimmy Stuart of dogs. Not in the "Greatest Dog Actor of All Time" sense, but in the sense that he is the "Everydog." He is lovable, loyal, appropriately misbehaved, and expressive. And since the beginning of filmmaking, any character that provokes this level of emotional involvement will have to take some licks to build conflict. And man does this dog take some licks (Pun shamelessly intended).

Lili's father is human but questionably humane in his actions of turning this dog away, adding him to the throng of strays in the city. From the moment of their separation, Lili and Hagen begin to break traditions as "lost pup" and "sad little girl." After the mandatory dodging of the dogcatcher, Hangar gets put through the ringer. His struggles against humanity become a statement against humanity very gradually and unrelentingly. Apart from the singular brutality that Hagen endures, originality is apparent in Lili's life juxtaposed to her lost dog.

Lili isn't pigeonholed into the "Lost Dog Poster" wielding girl for 2 hours. She is more than a girl that lost her pup. She is a talented musician, spiteful daughter, sexually confused co-ed, and part of the world that is putting her best friend through hell. Her struggles are tame compared to those of Hagen, but relatable as a teen experience. She is not defined by her lost dog and we are torn between understanding and cynicism for her among these mirrored conflicts.

This film is ever-building to the degree of farce by the end. There are customs and specific rules that are foreign to us in the US; but everything that matters is instantly relatable. We can argue that our immediate environment is more conscientious to the vulnerable than this world; but if you can get to the last frame of this film without an ache of guilt, being a White God has done you no favors.

0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
The Fabled, Dialed-Down Sequel, 16 April 2017

In the months before its release, there was a resurgence of rentals and purchases of 2008's Cloverfield. As with any anticipated sequel, the mentality follows that you will be lost if you aren't fresh on the original. After seeing 10 Cloverfield Lane, I truly wished I had not seen the original first. Note, I say "first", not that I regret ever having seen Cloverfield. This is a special sequel, where the less you know, the more effective it is. This is a high praise. We know from the original that there is an alien invasion. There are suggestions of global impact, but the found footage element kept things intimate, perhaps the film's greatest strength. Seeing a bridge demolished by a monstrous claw with 500 helpless civilians screaming can't carry the weight of seeing 5 people we care about in danger. Subject matter like this begs for sequels to raise the stakes; more destruction, wider carnage, higher casualties. Therefore it is unprecedented that 10 Cloverfield Lane shoots for more intimate, with 3 people we can't look away from.

I may have painted myself into a corner here. The less you know the better so I will follow the lead of the well edited trailer. At the 15 minute mark of the film, I noted that I had seen everything the preview had unveiled. Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is a 20- something driving down a dark country road. She is alternating her attention from scratchy but ominous radio broadcasts, to a voicemail from a pleading boyfriend. A car approaches from the opposite direct and following a few screeches and flashes of light, Michelle awakens in a concrete cell. Her leg is bound and she has two lines leading to her; an I.V., and an ankle chain. She sees a small mattress, her belongings, and a large steel door. After a moment, a gruff John Goodman opens the chamber and enters. He is cryptic, brash, and solemn. From this moment on, we are making up our mind about his intentions. She leaves her cell, freely, and finds she is part of a bigger prison, a bunker. Another captive, John Gallagher Jr, lounges without any sense of skepticism to their situation. It is explained that the air outside is deadly, for reasons unknown.

If the first Cloverfield adds to this film in any way, it is to add weight to the possibility that the bunker is a sanctuary, not a prison. We know what could be waiting outside, and we allow the setting to make its case. There is no diegetic music to suggest anything beyond what we are seeing. The setting holds all the implications we need, ping-ponging between surprisingly homey and claustrophobic. The tension and relief of this mood is hinged on the performance by Goodman, who is equally capable of playing a lovable oaf and a menacing antagonist. You'll have fun making up your mind every step of the way

0 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
For Anton, 16 April 2017

It probably doesn't exist, but I would love to find out there is a special club of Hollywood extras, made up entirely of faceless members of the Starship Enterprise who were sucked into space during an attack. This particular death is exclusive for the faceless, because it is not dignified enough for the 8 crew members we care about. Star Trek Beyond was written with reverence to the franchise, but may have stacked the deck against making enough characters matter. It begins on a familiar, but entertaining note. The Enterprise is hitting its 3rd year in deep space, doing the good work of The UFP (United Federation of Planets.) Kirk notes that he is coming up on a significant birthday, 1 year older than his father was when the Romulans made him a martyr. Despite Kirk's young age, he is considering taking a high-end desk job. Spock is doing his own form of Vulcan soul searching when the Enterprise docks at the Federation space station. Just when it seems we will be diving headlong into these characters' hearts and minds, duty calls and distracts.

There were easily identifiable themes in the last two installments. In "Star Trek" it was lineage and destiny. In "Into Darkness" it was morality and friendship. With Beyond we believe the set-up will come full circle with a poetic remark on the crossroads' of these characters, but the spectacle becomes the theme. After a few minutes of docking at the beautifully expansive space station, The Enterprise is put through the ringer and the crew finds themselves held on an uncharted planet under the thumb of another monstrous villain. Krall (Idris Elba) is the leader of the hornets' nest of ships that dominate a remote nebula and veiled planet. The swarm of ships and carnage wrought by his innumerable army is the highlight of the aforementioned spectacle. Moving as an ever-morphing war unit, hundreds of ships attack like sentient thorns. Krall has an interesting look: a mix of between Worf and Jerry from Enemy Mine. His features are never consistent, as he uses an ancient technology on the planet to revitalize himself. I couldn't go into more specifics if I wanted to as the story hinges on the mayhem, not the details. Krall's planet is home to stranded races of aliens spanning generations. Jaylah is the local with a marvelous set of skills and technology. She has a great dynamic with Scotty and provides all the need-to-knows to get everyone into a final showdown.

The showdown, of course, is the point. All the shortcomings in plot and character development fall quickly into hindsight when the epic space battle steals the show. Interestingly, the action and visuals are more Star Wars-like than ever. That's because J.J. Abrams isn't at the helm of this latest installment. Justin Lin (of Fast and Furious credit) directs Beyond with a heavier hand than the previous films. It doesn't extend into Michael Bay territory, but the cut- rate becomes pretty unforgiving during combat. When it comes to a space adventure, deep implications and well-established drama isn't what draws the crowd. However, all the spectacle doesn't amount to a great deal of memorable scenes. The resolution puts an obligatory bow atop the forgotten introspection at the beginning, and memories of the film play like a highlight reel instead of a story.

Honestly, Beyond does not fall short of the other films. It carries the people we love into dazzling places, and I left with a smile. But after the tragic news of Leonard Nimoy and 27-year-old Anton Yelchin, I naturally wanted the best swan song for their talents. If anything is truly memorable about Star Trek Beyond, it is the words before the credits roll.

"In memory of Leonard Nimoy."

"For Anton."

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
A Bull's-Eye of Horrible Execution, 16 April 2017

Admit it, you want to like this movie. Even if you never heard of Suicide Squad prior to the trailer's unveiling at Comic-Con, it just looked like a winner. Then came the reviews last week… Headlines have denigrated Suicide Squad for all manner of politicized reasons. It has been labeled as misogynist, racist, and morally vapid. I simply do not agree. You do not need to stand on a soapbox of social superiority to call attention to how this film failed in political correctness; it is much easier to blatantly call it out for being an incoherent mess of atrociously executed plot lines and editing. I have to call attention to the editing, because I like to think there may very well be a better movie left on the cutting room floor. This is little consolation for the monumental disappointment fans are flocking to see in record numbers.

The introduction is hopeful. Director and writer David Ayer wastes no time in getting us into the miserable and eccentric prison lives of the beloved Gotham villains. Will Smith as the world's greatest assassin, Deadshot; Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as the mutant crocodile-human hybrid, Killer Croc; Jay Hernandez as the repressed pyro-kinetic, Diablo; Jai Courtney as the slovenly Australian thief, Boomerang; and of course Margot Robbie as Joker's right hand wild card, Harley Quinn. More than looking the part, this cast admirably puts their backs and hearts into these characters. This is almost tragic considering so many other elements of the movie failed to do them justice. Viola Davis plays the government spook who masterminds the "Suicide Squad Initiative", a worst-case-scenario operation that involves taking the nation's most dangerous prisoners and thinly offering them clemency in exchange for defending the home team.

So, what atrocity leads to the gang being organized? Enchantress, an ancient witch inhabiting a doctor's body, breaks free from the government's leverage and wreaks unholy havoc on a global level. The issue with this, Enchantress is initially a member of the Suicide Squad. The rest of the team is organized for the first time to battle one of their own members who went rogue. And I kid you not, this paradox is never addressed. The loose debates about letting these mass murderers walk the streets pivots on an assurance of control. Once the control is lost with one member, the rest are allowed out of their cages to get it back. Our love for the characters is stretched so far that we are expected to turn a blind eye to gaping plot holes and lazy justifications. The story ostensibly fast forwards through necessary expositions and tangents to get to the next battle or witty exchange between squad members.

For all its faults, there are short stretches of entertainment when you feel the joy Jared Leto and Margot Robbie bring to their roles. Flashbacks to Leto's Joker with Robbie will make you lament that they didn't just ride that tangent instead of letting this story go so astray. Will Smith has moments of embodying Deadshot in very satisfying ways. He can strike a pose in the heat of battle that summons more fond memories of the comic character. The actors have a reverence for the material that is unfortunately not shared by everyone on the project. Because Suicide Squad can officially be called a blockbuster despite critical backlash, it's a lock for a sequel. When that project comes to fruition, you may still want to like it, but you at least may not expect to.

0 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Sweet Manipulation, 16 April 2017

There is a special arrangement exclusive to the horror/thriller genre that audiences subconsciously agree to, we want to be manipulated. If manipulation is detected in any other style, it is met with incredulity and a sneer. The makers of "Don't Breathe" are shameless in their understanding of this paradigm. I surprised myself in how much I was willing to overlook the lazy writing of the first 20 minutes, and the gaping plot holes of the last 60, just to feel that enthralling sensation only a good thriller can provide. If you are such a stickler to continuity and details that "Don't Breathe" has no effect on you, it might make you a more astute viewer, but also a more pitiable one.

In simple terms this is an imperfect, but highly effective movie that sidesteps story structure to deliver one hellova setting. Once in that setting, we are given ample time to marinade in it, and believe it. 3 twenty somethings; Rocky, Alex, and Money (guess which one is the white guy with corn rows) start to grow more confident and desperate in their small burglary enterprise. Rocky is the stealthy blonde with doe eyes and small build, perfect for squeezing through tight entrances (or hiding places.) Alex is the brains and voice of reason; which doesn't amount to much as his breed of character never has enough confidence to be heard. And Money is the reckless muscle with an attitude who functions only to provide leads, break locks, and roll his eyes at good advice. When their most promising lead has a possible six-figure payday, aspirations of getting out of the gutters of Detroit bring them to a rundown suburban home with a plan that borders on incompetence. The reason for their frivolity, the target is blind. Stephen Lang is billed only as The Blind Man, a war veteran sitting on a possible fortune, hidden somewhere in a three-story pile of squeaky floorboards and crawlspaces.

This house has a familiar feel, like that of "The People Under the Stairs" and "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," where daylight does nothing to brighten it. Knowing the present state of Detroit, it's unsettling to know this house is far from one-of-a-kind. Once our young prowlers enter, we get our first clear glimpse of the blind man. He whimpers almost pathetically with a sotto voce "Who's There?" His eyes don't look blind-stricken, more like something exploded from inside the eyeball. With battle scars spreading like cracked glass from the socket. After he appears in a doorway, you will find it hard to believe him as a victim. Stephen Lang is 64 with a body MMA fighters train tirelessly for. He wears a wife- beater for the duration, intimidating arms half-cocked at his sides. It becomes clear why he's not billed as the blind "old" man. With his loyal Rottweiler and dilapidated abode, the blind man draws on a nearly universal fear of the house around the corner you don't dare sell cookies to.

As you might expect from the trailers, power roles reverse and you ping-pong between antagonists and protagonists. If the twists and turns were set only on this basis, it would still be a compelling thriller, but "Don't Breathe" has much more up its sleeve. There are a few moments where things stretch a bit too far for shock value, but it is praiseworthy how infrequently "Don't Breathe" relies on them. This is a technical achievement with beautifully choreographed long-takes and staging that you can't call natural, but certainly can't call ineffective. At 90 minutes and a $9 million budget, it's a welcome break from the 9 figure marathons Marvel produces every 9 months. And as a side note, you will undoubtedly have a few plot holes start nagging at your brain on the ride home. If you think they're enough to ruin the movie, just imagine telling them to Stephen Lang in a dark room.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Cat and Mouse, Niffler and Newt, 16 April 2017

An interesting idea from the world of Harry Potter is that wizards could possibly exist parallel to our reality. You can take that world with you and throw suspicious eyes to previously innocuous things. Discarded coffee cups could be port keys. Strung-out homeless people, holding passionate conversations with themselves, could be talking to a great witch or wizard with a concealing charm that we mere muggles can't see. Their private world is such a marvelous amalgam of centuries past that it translates effectively regardless of whether it's 1920 or 2020. What "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" brings is a stunning marriage of the eccentric wizarding world, and New York during the roaring 20's. More than simply changing the venue to a different nation, FB (we are now using this shorthand, word count be damned) grows the fantasy without losing the familiarity of Rowling's brilliant series.

One of the greatest elements of this setting is the preexisting climate that parallels the wizarding world. So much of New York's society in the 1920's was underground. The laws dictating temperance and gambling made for an underworld so iconic that it comes to mind, today, much quicker than the standard lifestyle at the time. Think back to when Harry took his first trip to Diagon Alley, through the back of a pub, to the brick wall, a secret knocking sequence opened you to that amazing world. All the best nightclubs in New York in 1926 worked the same way. Between these two subcultures, everything in the margins of the setting holds something astounding.

A small concern I had before going into FB was how much time they would take bringing the audience up to speed. As it turns out, virtually zero. If you have no knowledge of the world of Harry Potter prior to seeing this movie, you will unfortunately be lost. For those of us who have devoted a shameful amount of time to accruing Potter knowledge, it's appreciated to get into the theater and hit the ground running. The familiar John Williams score brings us into the cobblestone streets of New York before we get our first glimpse of dark magic.

Graves (Colin Farrell) investigates the Nomaj (muggle) streets after a dark force has destroyed half a block. Graves is a Tim Burton wet dream, all black and white without a hint of grey. Based on what we know of the title, a beast is loose. Soon an awkward Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) docks off of Ellis Island wielding his Mary Poppins case that bumps and squeaks with life. Redmayne has a great way of being both boyishly innocent and obliviously selfish in his pursuit to acquire his beasts. He has a one track mind and doesn't seem to have much regard for collateral damage. How he accomplishes this whilst remaining likable is… (adjective pending.) The climate of the city is tense. The magical community is up against a Salem-like resurgence of anti-witchcraft evangelicals. Newt couldn't have arrived at a worse time. The Nomaj community's blind fear of magic is paralleled by the magical community's ignorant fear of magical creatures. Newt, obviously, becomes a suspect for the havoc wreaked in the city, and the rest of the film is a whirlwind of cat and mouse, niffler and Newt.

We are introduced to many creatures and characters that I won't spoil, but there are two actors who deserve high praise for bringing a level of joy to the feature that makes FB endearing. Dan Fogler as the Nomaj Kowalski, adds beats of humor that are easy to overlook. With Redmayne playing everything straight, the comic relief is necessary but requires Fogler's discipline. The other is Alison Sudol as the witch, Queenie. Sudol is contagious in how much fun she has with this role. Queenie is the perfect complement to Kowalski's fish out of water Nomaj. Their dynamic with each other and as supporting characters is the highlight of the film. The Harry Potter films matured into some truly dark territory that FB doesn't quite venture, but the more kid-friendly feature doesn't feel overly precious. The mysterious antagonist and conflict may grow too far into the absurd for its own good, but how it all fits into the beloved world doesn't give the impression of a spin off cash-grab. The hunger for all things Potter is insatiable and the inevitable sequels to come have an admirable bar to hit.

La La Land (2016/I)
0 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
Low Stakes Escapism, 16 April 2017

In the years of the Great Depression, the average American went to damnable lengths just to pay bills or scare up food for their family. And yet, Hollywood was still able to pull off successful numbers at the box office. The reason, escapism. The late 1930's brought movies of pure joy and carefree lifestyles. Films like My Man Godfrey, Top Hat, Chaplin and Marx Brother comedies were a tonic to forget hardship. La La Land is a film in this vein. 2016 is coming to a close and has yet to pump its breaks as a freight-train of ugliness. La La Land will have one of two effects on viewers, the desired effect of escapism, or one of jaded cynicism. It was a telling experience that I fell firmly into the second category.

I will begin with how this movie succeeds, and it does so spectacularly. La La Land is a beautiful, engaging, and technical feat of production. Long choreographed takes and sparkling settings compliment music and dance that act as an ode to Hollywood classics that could sweep you away. The opening song and dance number sets the mood for how dutiful the production will be for the rest of the film. Hundreds of dancers jump and glide over car hoods on the interstate in perfect step, in a single take. The shot pulls back and the line of cars, and dancers, go on for miles. Here we meet our stars. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are Sebastian and Mia, classic dreamers. Mia is a part-time barista and even more part-time actress. Sebastian is a talented pianist that is willing to spin his wheels to the grave rather than sacrifice his integrity as an artist. They have a modern meet-cute, a middle finger on the interstate.

Like any classic musical, their relationship develops through a series of musical numbers rather than dialogue. They start as flirty enemies who dance at one another. When the romance picks up they dance with one another. We follow their romance as they court us through this new Hollywood that isn't so unlike the old. Sebastian lives and breathes Jazz, perfecting pieces off of garbled records that were pressed before he was born. Mia auditions for any tired cliché that will have her, all while going to sleep with a 9-foot Ingrid Bergman banner on her wall. La La Land certainly follows a formula, but it does so while celebrating it.

Now for the cynics. When you have a year like 2016, cute cat videos and puff stories on the news just can't quell the acidity of what's going wrong. La La Land takes place in a world void of these struggles. Consequently, it's hard to see these beautiful people and think of their struggles as anything but trivial. I found my smile frequently turning to an eye-roll when prompted to care about the conflict. Based on the overwhelming praise coming from countless other sources, I count myself as unfortunate for falling victim to this dissonance.

If there is anything imperfect about the musical arc of the film it's that it plays more like a score than soundtrack. The songs are as grandiose as any great Broadway number, but not as memorability. They may not be meant to be, but the songs don't exactly stay with you. This is a true romance, featuring actors with perfect chemistry. You root for them to a point, but when things get hard, their worst case scenario is still a dreamy existence in La La Land.

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