Thursday, October 5, 2017

It, mother!, Stronger, Tulip Fever Reviews

Note to Readers:
Hello, my movie blog-reading friends! Thank you for your readership and support over the years - it's truly meant a lot to me and I hope to continue this hobby for years to come. However, my life has been getting busier and busier, so the frequency with which I see and review "Talkies" might be fewer and farther between than before. To say I've been occupied with other things lately is the understatement of the century, so it might take me a while to make a new posting. It's probably none of your concern, but I just wanted to let you know - you can rest assured: Talking the Talkies is still alive!

Dir. Andrés Muschietti
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The original IT novel from 1986 is a brick-sized tome that was the result of massive amounts of cocaine. While commonly hailed as one of Stephen King's greatest achievements, I think most people have no idea just how crazy it is: there's a giant floating space turtle-god, children building their own Native American hallucination-inducing "smokehole," a schoolyard bully being pleasured by his friend in an open garbage dump, and - worst of all - an 11-year-old girl participates in a pages-long orgy sequence in the sewers with six younger males. It goes without saying that to expect a straight adaptation of such an insane novel would be asking too much. Besides reading like the fever dream of a coked-out pedophile, one thing that the IT novel could not be labelled as, however, is cliched or boring. Unfortunately, in this Stranger Things-inspired 2017 adaptation, little is done with the property to make it interesting, complex, or particularly worth revisiting.

Arbitrarily updating the original story from the 1950s to the 80s, the story follows the "Losers Club," a group of seven young outcasts with exactly one characteristic each. Kids are going missing all around the small town of Derry, Maine, and it seems only the "Losers" have the power to stop the force responsible: a shape-shifting evil clown named Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård). Essentially, IT (2017) is a conventional fright-flick filled with non-sequitur scares until it ends with the promise of a sequel. Instead of a plot with momentum, each cast member gets one big "jump scare" moment with Pennywise which gets repetitive and predictable (not to mention the music score broadcasts literally every scary beat before it happens).

The change in time period does little else than evoke similarities between this movie and Netflix's hit series Stranger Things (both featuring Finn Wolfhard among its main cast), another property that clunkily crams 1980s nostalgia down the audience's throat. However, Stranger Things had the luxury to breathe over 9 episodes, whereas IT (2017) barrels through to its conclusion.  The "Losers Club" is made up of a fine group of young actors, but due to the limits of the 2-hour run time and a bland script, the characters come off as really shallow.

But the #1 thing that IT (2017) gets wrong is that it's just not scary enough. Although I appreciate the new direction Skarsgard was going for with his portrayal of Pennywise - turning him into a kind of rat-like vampire creature - his performance takes the magic out of what made Tim Curry's Pennywise from the 1990 miniseries so legendary. In comparing the iconic "Georgie" scenes in each film, you can see how Curry is delivering a real, chilling performance -  a clown that has just enough human qualities to seem inviting to a naive child. Skarsgard's version gets rid of that tension for pure bombast, with a clearly demonic clown that no child would conceivably be lured by.

Another thing dampening the scares is the fact that there seems to be little consistency in what Pennywise's actual "powers" are. IT (2017) almost acts like a Nightmare on Elm Street, only without the rule that you have to be sleeping to be attacked by Freddy. The fact that Pennywise can seemingly manifest anywhere at any time completely takes the tension out of the film, because there's nothing left to do as an audience but wait until he pops up again (in increasingly big CGI spectacles, rather than legitimate scares).

As a nostalgic fan of the 1990 miniseries, I was hoping this updated version would be able to transcend its material. Much more could have been done to illustrate how complicit the adults are in letting violence happen in their neighborhood, refusing to acknowledge anything strange is going on - a key theme in both the novel and miniseries. However, with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, IT (2017) is disappointingly conventional, overlong, and stuffed with more CGI than there are clowns in a clown car.

Rating: C+

Dir. Darren Aronofsky
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Mainstream audiences are PISSED. Paramount Pictures tried to pull a fast one on the movie-going public by advertising Darren Aronofsky's latest film mother! as a kind of traditional horror thriller. What people weren't expecting was an allegorical, provocative, demented Biblical acid trip! The result: an 'F' CinemaScore from polled audiences and a lot of angry folks taking to the Internet to vocalize not just their dislike, but violent hatred of this movie. So, clearly mother! isn't a crowd-pleaser, but I've never been one to follow the crowd. I personally think this film is a fantastic, intense fever dream that continues onward into a level of filmed insanity that I've never quite felt before. In our current world of giant hurricanes and mass shootings reaching record highs seemingly every week, mother! captures that intangible feeling of helplessness that unfortunately is pervading modern society right now.

The single-location film follows a nameless couple (Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem) living in an isolated, "fixer-upper" house. All seems tranquil when a mysterious, coughing stranger arrives to stay overnight (Ed Harris), forming a wedge between the partners. Soon enough, more and more people start coming into this home that Lawrence's character literally built herself, slowly turning into a whacked out nightmare where people continue to invade and harass the couple.

While disguised under the premise of a "home invasion" thriller like The Strangers, mother! has many interesting, abstract ideas bubbling under its surface. The most obvious is its religious parallels - in a way, this movie is like a super-abridged version of the Old and New Testament, with Bardem playing "God" as the head of household. There is also a major theme of environmentalism, with Lawrence's character being "Mother Earth," and her inability to stop humans' destruction against the home she built. Additionally there's an undercurrent of celebrity culture as a kind of "worshiping false idols" that probably hits home with the stars of the film. mother! isn't one of those movies with a single, digestible meaning - it's one of those movies film geeks will spend hours afterwards unpacking at a diner.

It's insane to me that mother! had a wide release in theaters. Paramount has even stepped out and released a statement defending their decision to release it! It was ballsy and stupid of them to think fooling audiences into seeing an art film would receive any other reaction, but I'm happy they did. While it's definitely not for the faint-hearted or those wanting a straightforward thriller, I thought mother! was another great, challenging film from one of today's most audacious filmmakers.

Rating: B+

Dir. David Gordon Green
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Earlier this year, Patriots Day, a well-crafted manhunt thriller about the Boston Marathon Bombing was widely released. It was intense and it dramatized a horrific real-life event in the kind of documentarian immediacy that director Peter Berg is an expert at. Stronger takes the same event but goes in the opposite direction - instead of focusing on the "big picture" of the day, he closes in on how one single man was permanently affected. That man is Jeff Bauman, who lost both of his legs on April 15th, 2013 all because he wanted to cheer on his on-again, off-again girlfriend. Stronger is not only a story about a man overcoming his physical problems, but his personal ones as well, and Jake Gyllenhaal predictably conveys his journey with an amazing sense of raw and unsentimental emotion.

What makes Stronger avoid the potential "inspirational" Lifetime-movie-of-the-week feeling that a film like Megan Leavey suffered from is director David Gordon Green's willingness to linger on the characters' most painful moments. Sequences like the moment Jeff's bandages are taken off for the first time, or one where he enters a bathtub upon his return home, that most other movies would cut away from. It also doesn't shy away from Jeff's personal problems with alcohol and his relationship with his anxious mother (Miranda Richardson) and overwhelmed girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany - who is Oscar-worthy in this movie).

Although there are sporadic moments where the drama is lost in the service of sappiness, for the most part, Stronger is an uncompromising, but hopeful drama that would be difficult not to be inspired by on some level. If Jeff can get it together and learn to walk after losing his legs - I think I can knock a few more things off my to-do list.

Rating: B

Tulip Fever
Dir. Justin Chadwick
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While critics and audiences were split on mother!, there's one film that seems to bring everyone together in their mutual hatred: Tulip Fever. A beautifully-produced period piece from the always Oscar-desperate Weinstein Company, the film currently rests at 9% on Rotten Tomatoes. Well... I must be out of my mind because I actually, legitimately, unironically enjoyed this movie.

Set in 17th century Amsterdam, the story follows an orphaned girl, Sophia (Alicia Vikander), who is forced to marry a much-older, powerful merchant, Cornelius (Christoph Waltz), to save herself from poverty. The two have hilariously unlusty "relations" in an effort to create a male child to continue the family line - but Sophia just isn't conceiving, and they've now been at it for three years. The reverse could be said for their housekeeper Maria (Holliday Granger), who regularly scores some kitchen-side action with the local fishmonger (Jack O'Connell). However, when Sophia's husband commissions a portrait, Sophia quickly falls in love with the painter Jan Van Loos (Dane DeHaan).

The whole movie has a kind of farcical, yet dramatic, love triangle at its center, but what makes it stand out is its period piece detail. I had no idea before this film about the underground tulip black market that was going on at the time, and I loved the symbolism between Sophia and the flowers; the rarest of all the tulips is white with a red stripe - just like Vikander's character, seemingly pure and beautiful, but with a not-so-innocent streak underneath. The costumes and sets were top-notch as well; as the camera swoops in and out the market square, it really feels like you're in another time.

While some of the plot lines strain believability and the whole period-piece love triangle thing has been done before, I thought Tulip Fever was a beautiful-looking, well-acted drama set in a distinct, interesting historical backdrop that's totally undeserving of its abysmally bad reviews.

Rating: B-

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