Film review – Stephen King’s It

STEPHEN KING’S IT
Big screen adaptation of one of the horror master’s most notorious tales, starring Bill Skarsgård and directed by Andy Muschietti.

Name one decent film based on a book by Stephen King.
Go on. Try and name a single one.

I bet most of you forget The Shining and um and ah before giving up, not realising that actually there have been three to date, with both The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption generally sneaking under the radar as even being written by the great man, given they’re not even vaguely categorisable as “Horror”.
The Dead Zone was half-decent – and scarily ahead of its time given what’s going on in the world right now – and the recent Dark Tower picture starring Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey was okay, but with most of the rest being best described as cult classics (Misery, Pet Sematary, The Running Man, Carrie) it’s high time Mr King’s work was taken a bit more seriously by Hollywood.
I’m telling you right now that from here onwards it definitely will be, because “It” is an astonishing movie.

Having written 56 novels and shifted 350 million books worldwide, you would think it might have dawned on someone that the man may actually be a rich source of stories for the silver screen, wouldn’t you ? Well, I’m happy to report that It has now grossed $400m worldwide including a staggering $125m opening weekend, so I think the penny may finally have dropped with the studios and we can expect a more serious take on the author’s work, which will actually commence with the sequel to this very picture.
So, what to make of It ?
Well, from the get-go the story grabs you. Almost right from the very beginning, we see the infamous clown, Pennywise, in all his grizzly glory. There really is something about that make-up, that sneer, the curious red hair, the white face, those lips .. those horrible lips.
Just as with those creepy Victorian dolls, the menace in something so seemingly innocent can be utterly overwhelming in a certain light, a certain situation.
Being inside a streetside drain is definitely one of those situations.

The story is told mainly in the present tense and from the viewpoint of the kids involved, rather than as flashbacks in the rather cheesy TV adaptation starring John Boy from The Waltons. One of the great things about the whole It world is that the clown only shows up every 27 years to wreak havoc on the small Maine city of Derry, based on King’s own hometown of Bangor, a few miles up the coast from Portland. You’ll never guess how many years it’s been since the TV movie came out .. go on, I dare you.
The big difference between the two isn’t the budget or modern effects, it’s something a lot simpler than that : the acting in this one is far and away superior to the amateurish efforts of the wooden cast of the 1990 version. Granted, a modern interpretation of the story – and indeed the change in society across those three decades – has meant the whole thing feels eerily believable and it’s easy to get lost in the plot and find yourself emerging from the cinema bleary-eyed and somewhat in a daze as you slowly find yourself back in the real world. The attention to detail of the period itself is stunning and time and time again I found myself comparing it to the superb Netflix drama Stranger Things.
There’s some genuinely funny moments throughout and the script is razor-sharp, the characterisation being archly funny for anyone who remembers those cheesy 80s high school movies.
… and then there’s the horror of Pennywise.

Without giving too much of the plot away, the slowly unfolding anguish felt by the group of friends affected by his presence at first doesn’t seem too horrifying at all. Maybe they’re just goofy teenage kids letting their imaginations run riot. Then again, maybe they’re not. Maybe their worst nightmares are about to come true. Maybe It is all too real after all. The rumours and legend are all there in the public library and the town does have a curiously high murder rate while children seem to go missing in spates roughly three decades apart ..
But that’s all you’re gonna get from me.
I can’t speak highly enough of Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise – he absolutely nails the part and is genuinely terrifying in the role. The pacing, effects, humour, horror and period costumes and props are all bang on too and the overall impact the film has really has to be seen to be believed. It’s almost the perfect popcorn movie and yet it feels so much more than that. Obviously I wouldn’t recommend it for young children, but teenagers and adults alike will love it, though I don’t think many of them will want to visit a circus any time soon.

 

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FIFA are fiddling again, this time with the game itself ..

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FIFA : the guardian organisation protecting the interests of the most cherished sport on the planet, or a morally bankrupt gravy train riddled with institutionalised vested interests ? Whatever you may think of football’s governing body, one of FIFA’s most … Continue reading

Film review – Get Out

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GET OUT Deceptively upbeat psychological horror-thriller about a mixed race couple’s “meet the parents” weekend in the country where all is not what it seems.  Starring Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams and directed by debutant Jordan Peele. Get Out is one of those … Continue reading

Film review – Free Fire

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FREE FIRE Anarchic ’70s arms deal caper starring Sharlto Copley and Cillian Murphy, directed by Ben Wheatley. If they ever make a biopic about Monty Python’s Eric Idle, then Sharlto Copley must play the lead role. The relentlessly hysterical South … Continue reading

Film review – Arrival

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ARRIVAL

Thought-provoking sci-fi drama about first contact with an alien race, who arrive in ships strategically placed around the planet simultaneously.
Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, and directed by Denis Villeneuve.

What would happen if aliens landed on our planet ?
Have you ever stopped to think about it ?
I mean, really stopped to think about it ?
How would it affect you and the people around you ?
How would the media react ? Or the military ? Or the various governments, world leaders, conglomerates, corporations and captains of industry ?
Would there be mass hysteria or mass apathy and an impending sense of doom ?
Maybe there would there be a swelling of hope and positivity ?
Perhaps religious fervour would take hold as some interpret it as the second coming ?

Arrival is a profound tale that asks all of these questions and more.
It answers a few of them too, but like 2001, Close Encounters and Interstellar before it, Arrival leaves its audience thinking. I like that in a sci-fi movie.
Based on a short story called The Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, the plot revolves around the eponymous arrival of twelve alien ships, each of which has “parked” – for want of a better word – hovering above the earth’s surface. In various locations around the world, they hang silently suspended : Australia, China, Denmark, Japan, the Black Sea and so on, though the story focuses on rural Montana, USA.
Like a smooth pebble stood on one end, the giant pod-like vessels are eerily beautiful but strangely menacing at the same time, with one story arc looking at the way they are perceived around the world. Maybe that’s why they were put where they were ? Perhaps the aliens wanted to see as diverse a view of our world as they could ? Or maybe it was completely random. We don’t know yet. What we do know is the world has ground to a halt as we sit and wait to see what’s going to happen next …

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Tension.
Ignorance.
Curiosity.
Fear.
Wonder.
The mind races as the possibilities abound ..
Surely they could have wiped us out already if they’d wanted to, so why are they here ?
What is their purpose ?
Questions. So many questions.
We need to be able to communicate with them.
Enter linguistics expert Louise Banks (Adams), recruited by the US military to help decode whatever messages the aliens plan on sending us. Alongside her, physisist Ian Donnelly (Renner) has been selected to cover the science side of things, with Colonel Weber (Whitaker) eager to speed up the process by playing them off against each other from the get-go. They’ve not even landed at the alien ship’s location before they’re arguing the potentials and debating the what-ifs, with Weber smug that his devil’s advocacy may just work ..
Similar scenarios are taking place all over the world and the twelve nations involved all quickly agree to share information and pool their collective resources in order to work out what’s going on. Live feeds are installed overnight with teams of interpreters working over time, banks of computers whirring and teams of data analysts and various experts all doing their best to unravel the mysteries before them.
What happens next sees Banks and Donnelly communicating with the aliens inside the ships themselves, slowly at first but increasingly rapidly as the two professors team up to figure it all out. The scenes inside the ship are incredibly atmospheric and beautifully filmed, ramping up the tension with each session spent face to face with beings from another world.
The language itself is completely different to any on earth and without the aid of computers Banks would’ve taken years to even get the merest foothold of a chance of understanding it, such is the complexity of it all. Arrival is very much a modern take on the first contact premise with none of the usual “Take me to your leader” style clichés and you’re conscious of the feeling that this film could not have been made twenty years ago.
Time itself plays a massive part in the story and – as in Interstellar – a suspension of belief is required to go with it all, kind of like a leap of faith, before everything falls into place.
The payoff is deeply emotional : for the lead characters, for the planet and for you, the audience.

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… but to say any more than that would be spoiling the sci-fi picture of the year.
Amy Adams gives the performance of a lifetime here and will surely be nominated for an Oscar. Jeremy Renner surprised me by showing some real acting chops – though admittedly I’ve only ever seen him in action movies till this point – and the chemistry between the two of them was well paced and organic. Forest Whitaker makes an excellent colonel : a strong leader, good people manager yet under immense pressure to get results.
The cinematography is stunning in places, while the effects are all too real – Villeneuve deserves a lot of credit for making Arrival so believable.
If you want laser guns and monsters, action and machismo, forget it.
If you like cerebral sci-fi and wished Interstellar had had a female lead, you need to see this picture.

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Film review – A Monster Calls

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A MONSTER CALLS Heartbreaking real world fantasy about a boy facing up to losing his mother to cancer, directed by JA Bayona and starring Lewis MacDougall, Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones and the voice of Liam Neeson. Sometimes a film hits you so … Continue reading

Film review – Allied

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ALLIED

Wartime thriller about two spies thrown together in an undercover operation in Casablanca before falling in love and returning to London to get married during the Blitz. Starring Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard, and directed by Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Back To The Future, Cast Away)

Brad Pitt returns to war-torn Europe following the success of 2014’s Fury, but rather than being cooped up inside a tank he now finds himself in the roomier but no less claustrophobic environs of French Morocco.
As a Canadian, Max Vatan would no doubt have grown up learning French as a second-language, which is handy now he’s working behind enemy lines for the RAF but he’s about to test his accent to the limit . The story opens with Max returning to Casablanca to be reunited with his “wife”, Parisian resistance spy Marianne (Cotillard), after several months away working “in phosphates” for a French  mining company.
In reality, the pair have never met and he’s only told to look for a woman in a purple dress in a nightclub. Somehow, the duo fudge their way through the joyful reunion, sufficiently fooling the wife’s circle of friends to get away as quickly as possible, seemingly to rekindle their love but in actuality to begin work on their plans to assassinate the local German ambassador at a party some ten days’ hence.
The duo keep up appearances 24/7 and as they get to know each other they hone the details both of the operation as well as of their own “marriage”. Walls have ears and there are eyes seemingly everywhere watching their every move.
Eventually, they end up getting married for real in London and have a child during an air raid. So far, so WWII, right ?
The couple have a few hoops to jump through before the authorities are happy but soon enough things settle down and family life sets in, Marianne with the baby, Max with a desk job at the air force.

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Allied has the feel of being a movie out of time, not just in that it’s a period piece story but the way it’s scripted, shot and lit. The plot feels almost Hitchcockian in its scope and visually the picture looks like it was actually made in the late 40s or early 50s, with soft, washed-out lighting and all those tiny set details on the clothing, the cars and the surroundings being just so. It’s beautiful. Even in the terrors of an air raid on a hospital, there’s an elegance to the cinematography that places you right in the heart of the action and transports you to another era altogether. Despite a run time of over two hours, I found myself completely immersed in the movie and not once noted a sense of anything dragging.
The rest of the story I’m loathe to talk about for fear of spoilers, but suffice to say the tension mounts during the second half of the film when it becomes a race against time for Max.
As the shadows grow ever darker surrounding him, Marianne and baby Anna, that sense of claustrophobia draws in again, ever more tightly binding the three of them together, yet almost tearing them apart at the same time.

Trying to engender a movie with the flavour of Hitchcock is never an easy task, but Allied pulls it off, despite lots of bad press ahead of the release. Luckily, I don’t read the gossip columns so I don’t know what was said and nor do I care.
The lavish sets serve both London and north Africa well and Pitt is superbly restrained in an almost British way as he struggles to come to terms with what’s happening around him. Marion Cotillard was a natural choice for an English-speaking French spy and handles her role beautifully as an iron-fisted woman in velvet gloves. Their chemistry is excellent and as Marianne herself says, she likes to “keep the emotions real”. I enjoyed the film immensely.

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