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.

 

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 – 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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Film Review – The Accountant

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THE ACCOUNTANT

Rainman meets John Wick in this complex and original drama about a high-functioning autistic maths savant who offers services above and beyond the usual cooking of the books. Crime thriller starring Ben Affleck, JK Simmons and Anna Kendrick.

For years Ben Affleck has suffered from never quite being taken seriously enough in Hollywood while best buddy from school, Matt Damon, has carved out an envious career as one of the most bankable – and likeable – stars on the red carpet.
All that started to change in 2012 when Argo, which he both directed and starred in, picked up the best picture Oscar. Since then, there’s been a little more respect and a lot more kudos coming his way, though whether he can make a decent leather-clad fist of the upcoming Batman movie is another story ..

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Christian Wolff is an accountant with a difference.
At first glance, he appears to be a successful, small town book-keeper with modest premises just outside Chicago. He runs an unremarkable business in an unremarkable part of Illinois and has an unremarkable client list consisting of unremarkable local firms.
However, being blessed with a most remarkable numerical ability, Wolff also runs a neat sideline in money laundering for drug cartels, dictators, mafia bosses and the like, which is why he’s being pursued by hound-dog Treasury agent, Raymond King (Simmons). King, though quite the maths whizz himself, hasn’t quite put two and two together yet and doesn’t even have a name for his target, just a nickname ..

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The Accountant is a quirky and unusual movie in that all the pre-release marketing pointed towards a run-of-the-mill thriller about a mysterious genius who “uncooks the books” of some of the most dangerous people on the planet. While that does remain true, there’s a whole lot more to the tale than meets the eye.
For starters, his personal travails are revealed minimally at first in flashback, meaning there’s a rather back-to-front element to the plotline. Normally I don’t particularly enjoy films shot in this way as I tend to feel it’s all just a gimmick as an unoriginal director tries to go all Tarantino on us, but with The Accountant it’s done for a reason.
The dramatic effect is that there are one or two big reveals towards the end which will – hopefully – astonish you if you’ve been paying close attention. I get the impression this is one of those films – a bit like The Shawshank Redemption – that will not only reward repeated viewings, allowing you to pick up more clues the more times you see it, but also that will grow via word-of-mouth.

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As you can probably tell by now, I very much liked this picture.
The cast is superb : Affleck for once being allowed to under-act as it’s part of the deal with this somewhat anti-social anti-hero – though his detractors would say he’s been doing that for years – JK Simmons again flexing his hard-man muscles and Anna Kendrick proving she’s not just a comedic talent. There’s also a strong supporting ensemble including everyone’s favourite nutty uncle, Jeffrey Tambor (Arrested Development, Larry Sanders and The Hangover), everyone’s favourite unhinged matriarch, Jean Smart (Fargo, 24 and Frasier) and everyone’s favourite mad scientist, John Lithgow (3rd Rock From The Sun) among others.
There’s some lighter moments too, both in the flashbacks and the present, particularly when the story focuses on social interaction, or the lack of it ..
The script is tight, realistic, funny and dramatic all at the same time, while the plot itself is nicely paced and pitched at an intelligent audience. If you just want action, take a look at Affleck’s back catalogue from pre-2010. If you enjoyed the more cerebral dramatics of, say, Spotlight then this should be right up your street.

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Having said that, there are still strong hints of the stylised violence of renowned Hong Kong director, John Woo, most recently revisited in the seriously under-rated Keanu Reeves’ picture, John Wick.
When The Accountant puts down his calculator long enough to make his point a different way, he usually does so with panache and controlled aggression : precisely what made Wick such an interesting film. Both roles, while at times temporarily sociopathic, make for largely sympathetic character studies as well, leaving the audience in the dark as they wrestle with trying to decide who to root for. Both movies paint bleak portraits of broken individuals in broad and deliberate strokes of grey .. but then (Hollywood) life itself hasn’t been black and white since the 1950s.

As the plot unfolds, the levels on which The Accountant operates begin to be revealed.
The treasury agents investigating his dealings can’t quite piece all the elements together and though they inch ever closer to their prey, Wolff always remains one step ahead of the authorities. The question is, can he do the same with one of his clients ?

… and that’s about where we have to leave it in terms of the story.
The Accountant is an excellent thriller and a great winter movie which will leave you asking questions days after seeing it .. which you need to do, now.

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Film Review – Spotlight

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SPOTLIGHT Gripping journalism drama telling the true story of how a swathe of paedophile catholic priests were discovered and reported by the Boston Globe in 2001. Directed by Tom McCarthy and featuring an all-star cast including Liev Schreiber, Mark Ruffalo, … Continue reading

Film Review – Joy

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JOY
True story biopic of American entrepreneur and inventor of the Miracle Mop, Joy Mangano, starring Jennifer Lawrence with all-star support from Robert DeNiro, Bradley Cooper, Virginia Madsen and Isabella Rossellini.

Being one of the biggest movie stars on the planet means you can pick and choose when you work and control the direction your career will take. Tom Cruise, George Clooney and Tom Hanks have been in that Hollywood elite for years now and have made countless successful movies during that time.
Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro – along with Johnny Depp – have been less consistent despite also being part of the select few.
Note that all the names mentioned so far have been men …
Jennifer Lawrence is almost in the same league and possibly set to break through that infamous glass ceiling. There’s been a lot of talk this year about the disparity between what male and female stars earn, especially given their relative value at the box office.
A recent survey saw Lawrence and Scarlett Johannson at the top of the budget/return ratio (money spent producing a movie vs. revenue from ticket sales and merchandise) while poor old Johnny languishes at the bottom of the league following a series of financial flops, including the critically acclaimed Black Mass.

So which way is she going ?
Well, overall the trend is upwards. The Hunger Games movies have been hugely successful and though she’s set to turn her back on the teenage sci-fi series, her star is definitely in the ascendancy.

And yet it’s not been plain sailing. Serena – also starring Bradley Cooper – was a big disappointment, though American Hustle – yet again, starring you know who – was at least a critical success, if not so much so at the box office.

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Which brings us to Joy.
A feminist picture before feminism really took off ?
Maybe.
Or is that just the modern take on it, given the recent debates about how Hollywood itself is still as sexist as ever ?

It tells the tale of the working class gal made good, one Joy Mangano, who was forced to stay at home just as she was about to leave for college. Her dreams dashed and her ambitions shelved, she found herself working in a dead-end job for minimum wage, with a broken marriage and the entire family depending on her. And this was all in the mid-70s, when men were supposed to be the bread-winners, remember ?
Well, so far, so American nightmare.

She then has her “Eureka!” moment and creates the Miracle Mop and goes on to make millions …

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Of course it’s not as simple as that.
The road was long and twisting and she took many a wrong turn and was led astray by both her own family and outsiders at various points. This is no fairy tale and Joy is no angel.
What she was though was one tough cookie and a determined woman who believed in her product and herself and was actually spurred on by the dreamer husband, the soap-watching mother, the philandering father and the dilapidated house they all shared.
For some, they’d be excuses.
For Joy, they were the reason.

The story is chaotic.
There’s a lot of characters and a lot of individual plotlines running through, across, around and alongside each other, but Joy is the one common thread that ties them all together.
The film is chaotic too.
At first, it seemed like one of those rare American black comedies that come along about once a decade to remind us that Hollywood isn’t just about sitcom remakes and Will Ferrell. There were genuine laughs in the opening twenty minutes, with DeNiro hamming it up as another relationship bites the dust, forcing him to move back into the familial home.
The script is witty and fast and everyone plays their part setting up what could become a cult classic. Think Royal Tenenbaums meets As Good As It Gets.
About half an hour in, the movie takes a bleak turn as the grim reality of Joy’s situation becomes apparent and the film itself also becomes darker and more serious, like someone turned off the “comedy” setting and hit “drama” instead.
It really is like two different stories altogether and whatever wit and warmth there was in the first section dries up leaving a miserable husk, bereft of any humanity.
From then on, as our heroine meets the producer of one of the first shopping channels, Joy turns into a generically bland biopic more akin to the average TV movie than anything starring some of Hollywood’s finest.

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I can’t quite put my finger on what happened.
Why did it go from being a zippy, fun, knowingly dark comedy one moment and then a slushy, sisters-are-doing-it-for-themselves backslapper the next ?

It could’ve been a really clever vehicle for feminism, slyly digging at men in the seventies – stereotypes no less ridiculous than those of, say, Miss World which was at its height at the time – and yet it slipped back into lazy cliché …

Joy is an opportunity missed and a big disappointment as a result.
While the mops may well be miraculous, the movie is just messy.

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