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Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049 can’t be the enduring classic the original is.

For a large part, that’s based in the impossibly different approach the two films take to their world. Not just in the actual material, but in the process that got it there.

Blade Runner had cut after cut, a formative legend that eventually pulled some grand truth out of raw material. Blade Runner 2049 arrived fully formed on the back of three decades of legacy-making. Blade Runner is a film that was forced into ambiguity, its questions more important and more formative than the answers it gave. Blade Runner 2049 is founded in its directness, barreling forward into a world in the hope of unraveling its mysteries.

Blade Runner is a sci-fi film told with detective flair. Blade Runner 2049 is a mystery story told with a sci-fi thought process. The former can leave threads for years, the latter must leave only its reactions.

But despite all this, let it not be said that Blade Runner 2049 is not a staggering and extraordinary work of cinema. Few films could come in with such personal attachment for me and such difficult mountains to surmount and end up creating something that feels as real and vital and alive and as ahead of its moment as the original did, even if it only expands where the original created.

Part of the reason I chose to wait to write this review was because I needed a while to let the initial reaction wear off, the other because I wanted enough time to actually be able to safely talk about some details of what happened. This is a film that has a lot to uncover.

K (Ryan Gosling) is a Blade Runner, a cop specifically designated to hunt down the superhuman slave-clones known as replicants, in LA in the year 2049. K is also a replicant himself, tasked specifically with turning in his own kind.

A job hunting down runaway replicant Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista) puts K on the trail of a possible replicant child, a child that turns the world around as replicants become capable of reproduction. But K is by no means the only one interested as creator of the current, more compliant replicants, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), stays on K’s trail, sending his badass assistant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) after him as K follows the obscured trail to the truth.

There’s almost no way to begin talking about Blade Runner 2049 without talking about its visuals. There’s a lot underneath them, but Blade Runner 2049 is undeniably one of the most striking works of cinematic visualization put out in theaters in sometime. Director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins have joined to create something that I imagine looks like what every blockbuster will in about 5 years.

It’s not just Villeneuve’s able visual direction, tight and focused and maintaining an almost supreme control over its pace where the extreme length (for a blockbuster) feels absolutely deliberate and unfurling.

It’s not just Deakin’s camera work, deep and inky shadows unveiling and unfurling its world and brilliant neon illuminating a cold and unforgiving air. The natural and clever lighting creating something magical and aching and impossible.

It’s not just Dennis Gassner and Renee April’s production and costume design, real and advanced and functional and just as tangible as ever despite its scale and its distance from our own world.

It’s not just the special effects work, the ingenious holograms, the unnerving de-agings, the ads in the background sprinkling information.

It’s all of those things. Blade Runner 2049 is a stack of visual wizards doing the best work they’ve ever done, creating something ahead of its time and something that makes the loudest and best possible argument for seeing a movie on the big screen that anything ever has. To say nothing of the need to hear this thing on the big screen, one of the loudest movies I’ve ever heard sure, but one where every sound only heightens the envelopment of this movie.

Was it just the technical work, Blade Runner 2049 would earn the praise many have given. But to earn the praise I’m going to give, it’s also the story being told by the people who are telling it.

Villeneuve begun his career looking at the worst of humanity, its violence and its repression. Prisoners about tragedy, Enemy about control. Arrival seems to have signaled a possible shift for the filmmaker, a turn to something (while keeping his icy brutality) more about humanity. Arrival was about what it means for us to communicate as humans with each other.

Blade Runner 2049 is down to that very fundamental question…what is humanity anyway? It’s the same question Blade Runner asked, of course. But 2049 wants to attack it from a direct angle, interrogate what specifically divides us between the human and non-human, whether there is a difference, and whether it matters.

2049 turns things we identify as human and gives them a sheen of technological separation. One of the best cyber-sex scenes since her turns sex into something both recognizable and advanced beyond our years, asking what point this became that very human act.

Again, to ask, what is our humanity, what makes it ours? If the original was Biblical, Roy Batty a Lucifer tempting towards a better world, then 2049 is Nabokov asking what meaning these things have that we give them and Kafka asking what barriers we’ve set up to divide ourselves from the inhuman world.

Hampton Fancher and Michael Green have done all this in a script that still manages to function well on its narrative level. Every twist and turn is in service of that larger thematic and the stories we tell about these people, but it’s strong enough to keep you engrossed and difficult enough to force you to peel underneath the surface to find what’s going on. It’s remarkable this kind of storytelling, deliberately poetic and meditative, was in a studio film and in a blockbuster framework. Fancher, Green, and Villeneuve have created something beautiful and bold on the kind of scale few get to.

Its cast does remarkable work. More than Blade Runner, it’s the female cast that gets to stand out and drive its narrative. Ana de Armas gives a hypnotic performance as K’s girlfriend Joi, pushing and prodding him to ask questions of himself. Sylvia Hoeks gives a performance worthy of every henchman from Blade Runner, badass and cool and yet somehow petulant, like she’s going after K to be the best. And points to Mackenzie Davis for making the most of a short few scenes and reminding us why we need to see way more of her.

This also may be one of Ryan Gosling’s best performances. He’s given a complex character, a cold and difficult person who does hunger to reach for something more, who believes in a possibility that he’s greater. Gosling uses that great star persona (cool, calm, collected with rage willing to burst through) with just hints of the humanity appearing underneath that he’s so good at in other roles (see: The Big Short, La La Land).

Blade Runner 2049 has its flaws, yes. Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s score just doesn’t feel as apt or deft as the now-legendary Vangelis score. And Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace feels sewed on from another movie. Not bad but just not of a piece with the rest of the film.

But for someone who holds the original as one of the greatest films ever made, Blade Runner 2049 is as worthy a sequel as I can imagine. An expansion of the universe, a new story being told in a new way by a new storyteller using the same world looked at through new eyes. It joins films like Creed and Mad Max: Fury Road as a filmmaker carving out a new path through a classic.

Grade: A

 

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All You Need To Know About Blade Runner 2049

There are two fundamental questions everyone is ultimately going into Blade Runner 2049 with. One is the same question that everyone asks about every other movie: Do I need to see it?

The answer is simply enough, yes. I’ve chosen to tell you about this movie in this way because Blade Runner 2049 is perhaps one of the most surprise-packed major blockbusters in some time. There are twists and spoilers loaded in the very framework of this film. If you see it, read as little as you can about the film. The trailers, the original, and the shorts are all you really need.

What lies behind the veil of mystery is one of the most breathtaking achievements of big-budget sci-fi visualization in years. Blade Runner 2049, with Denis Villeneuve at the helm and Roger Deakins lensing, is absolutely jaw-dropping to look at like few films have ever been. Every frame is incredible, shadows deep and revealing the motion, color deeply saturating, and light glowing. There are visual ideas I can’t believe I haven’t thought of and special effects I couldn’t believe they pulled off. This is possibly the best work out of Deakins for a man who does nothing but excellence. And let it not just be Deakins. The production design, the costumes, the sound, the special effects work, every moment is incredible.

But it’s not just the visual work. Blade Runner 2049 is a tight and engrossing detective story with a surprisingly strong heart at its core. The cast pulls (largely) great performances, including out of some actors who’ve been coasting for a bit. A great narrative told beautifully is always worth getting out to the theater.

The other question? Does it live up to the cult classic original?

The original is one of my favorite films ever made, so I have enough authority here for it to matter when I say it absolutely does.

It’s not better, but that’s a tall order for any film to achieve. Especially because this is an entirely different sort of film, less ambiguous than the original, more unfolding a sci-fi flavored detective story than a detective-flavored sci-fi story. It asks and answers more directly, expands on a world rather than creates it, and comes from an entirely different conception of a future tradition.

But Blade Runner 2049 is in every way worthy of the original even after all these years. It stands firmly alongside films like Creed and Mad Max: Fury Road as one that takes its original and makes something just as rich and fascinating as its predecessor.

See it this weekend, give support to a film this huge and ambitious and simply stunning. We’ll talk Monday.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle is exactly the sequel you’d expect (and that’s the problem)

A genuine surprise is pretty rare in studio filmmaking, we pretty much know what’s gonna succeed and what’s not from a mile out. But Kingsman: The Secret Service was an incredibly obscure comic book adaptation R-rated action film with the biggest stars being its antagonist (Samuel L. Jackson) and someone would have never fit anyone’s idea of an action star (Colin Firth). It was also counterprogramming, intended only to pull some viewers away from 50 Shades of Grey.

Yet its impossibly slick and kinetic filmmaking combined with a naughty sense of humor that, though it often muddled its point or parody, made the film connect with a surprisingly large audience and stick in the culture just slightly longer than I’m sure anyone expected.

So, when a movie works unexpectedly, business demands a sequel. And the only thing most filmmakers can ever think of for a sequel like this? A one-off that’s all of the sudden gotta be a franchise? Go bigger, give ’em more. More of the surprises, more of the action, more of the emotions.

But Kingsman: The Golden Circle is perhaps the best show of why that isn’t by any means a one-size fits all solution. Its predecessor’s greatest delight was its surprise and Kingsman: The Golden Circle ends up with few surprises. Vaughn’s filmmaking remains as entertaining as ever, but it’s all around a film that’s already shown its hand and ends up only giving the same versions of tricks that don’t work as well any more.

Hot off saving the world, Eggsy (Taron Egerton) has well-settled into his groove as an agent of the Kingsman. Kicking ass, saving folks, and trying to keep his relationship with Swedish princess Tilde (Hanna Alstrom) moving forward.

Then the headquarters of the Kingsman are destroyed, most of the agents killed, by a mysterious drug lord known as Poppy (Julianne Moore). Eggsy and tech wizard Merlin (Mark Strong) seek help from the Statesman, the American counterparts of the Kingsman led by Champagne (Jeff Bridges), in order to track her down and take their revenge.

Let’s start out easily by praising what does work about this movie. If you’re already down with Matthew Vaughn’s action style, this has gobs and gobs of great action. Vaughn films his fight sequences like our eye is part of the action, the camera swinging and pushing and panning along with the choreography, creating a uniquely kinetic and thrilling look to the action, always coherent and never dull. Nothing ever quite tops the first movie (it’s really missing Sofia Boutella’s Gazelle as well as anything as balls-to-the-wall as the Church Shootout) but there’s still plenty to get excited by.

Kingsman also still has a remarkable knack for casting. Egerton has settled very comfortably into a leading man position and the development of Mark Strong in this movie is an absolute delight. Julianne Moore has also clearly never been having more fun and Pedro Pascal manages to find the most surprisingly nuanced take on a character in this movie. Kingsman: The Golden Circle, even though it underuses most of its cast, is loaded to the brim with actors who are clearly having the time of their lives.

So Kingsman: The Golden Circle doesn’t lose track of its surface pleasures. Slick, stylish, and a lot of fun to watch. The problem is that all those surface pleasures are used to coat over film that’s bursting at the seams, there’s too much and its threatening the structural integrity of what’s going on here.

It’s not so much that the film is overstuffed in the traditional sense, there’s no more going on here than any other spy flick or even the last Kingsman. Rather, it’s that what’s going on feels so heightened and the film’s not properly calibrated to handle it and so it spins off into dull desensitization over insane thrills.

Think Die Another Day, possibly the most infamous Bond entry. The ridiculousness of what’s going on (Elton John has a supporting role as himself, Poppy is an evil 50s housewife living in a theme park, John Denver plays a major emotional undercurrent in a very British film, a major spy thing requires Eggsy to fingerblast a girl) never feels properly grounded. Some vague father/son stuff (Colin Firth’s Harry returns and his recovery from his being shot in the head is fairly rushed) and a muddled politic (we’ll return here in a second) are all we get to keep this movie grounded and without a stronger narrative or emotional structure keeping it together, it spins off into insanity.

The further issue is how underbaked its new elements are. For a movie that clearly feels intended to move forward a franchise, the worldbuilding feels slight or secondary. The Statesman are introduced, given a cursory explanation, but we get little sense of their history or operations. They seem more like parody, an excessively masculine American version of an excessively British masculine organization. Which is possibly interesting, had anything about them been developed.

The organization, and most of the new elements on the whole, feel much like Channing Tatum’s appearance in this film. Playing Agent Tequila (all agents of the Statesman are named after Liquors), Tatum was much hyped, only appears briefly, and ends up playing little to no role in the actual proceedings, though he is set up to end up playing a larger role later.

With its returning elements feeling too big and its new elements feeling too small, it ends up putting Kingsman: The Golden Circle in a weirdly listless place. At two-and-a-half hours, any movie would struggle to put up that much time. But without anything keeping the propulsive momentum moving (read: keeping the viewer interested), it just ends up feeling surprisingly dull, a whole lot of noise that ultimately ends up amounting to nothing.

Except for its weird politics (see, told you). This franchise has had a penchant for presenting liberal causes as the causes of its villains (climate change, drug legalization) and presented any (small-d) democratic or personal political belief on a range from naive to cynical to villainous. The only people of valour are the representatives of a certain form of hierarchical or entrenched masculinity or those who serve a similar system.

Yet the film (and its predecessor) also spends a lot of time pointing out the flaws in their aristocratic control and in their beliefs in the world. The entire previous film was about wresting control from the aristocracy for a working class. It’s hard to know what beliefs are held by the film, maybe a secret set of Tory allegiances(?), and it speaks to the just entirely too muddled direction of this film.

It’s a shame because Kingsman had potential to be a vital and exciting action franchise. But it seems to have leap-frogged the good parts of its cinematic predecessors growing as franchises and gone straight to the most annoying parts.

Grade: C

mother!

It’s gonna have to go without saying but…spoilers.

Nature proceeds by blunders; that is its way. It is also ours. So if we have blundered by regarding consciousness as a blunder, why make a fuss over it? Our self-removal from this planet would still be a magnificent move, a feat so luminous it would bedim the sun. What do we have to lose? No evil would attend our departure from this world, and the many evils we have known would go extinct along with us. So why put off what would be the most laudable masterstroke of our existence, and the only one?

Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror

Do you think God stays in heaven because he too, lives in fear of what he’s created?

Steve Buscemi, Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams

 

Is humanity good for creation? Who is at fault for our destruction of all that we touch, is it God? Something greater, something lesser?

Ask mother!, Darren Aronosfsky’s singular new work, and he’ll try to give you answers. No, Yes and Yes.

Or maybe he’s not. Maybe he’s talking about his personal pain, the pain of being a filmmaker or an artist. Maybe it’s an environmental screed. Or maybe it’s a gritty reboot of The Giving Tree, nothing so existential but a pan to selfishness.

Perhaps rarest of all for a film put on 2500 screens, mother! refuses to give the easiest answers to what it is. It’s refused to give the easy hooks into the story and it’s been absolutely willing to piss off as much of its audience as it pleases. Few films have seemed so divisive. Even among those who love it, this is a film that can produce 10 separate interpretations among 9 separate people, all totally valid and all getting to some part of the truth of this film.

That’s the absolutely incredible thing about mother! This is a livewire movie, one that divides and one that lights up conversation almost entirely through its mere existence. A film that’s gonna be a lot of things to a lot of people, a legitimately provocative and incredible work of art.

Summary of this film is almost pointless, almost takes away from the pleasures of it. But the demand is made for anything else I’m about to write to make sense. A couple (Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem) live in a house in the middle of nowhere, a paradise for Him (Bardem) to create and for mother (Lawrence) to rebuild.

Then, a disruption. A Man (Ed Harris) comes by and stays the night. Shortly thereafter, his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) joins him. They outstay their welcome. They transgress and are asked to leave. Then their children come in, two brothers (Domnhall and Brian Gleeson). One kills the other.

If you’re like me, this is about the point you start figuring out exactly what the fuck is happening here.

mother! builds on the work Aronofsky was doing in Noah or The Fountain but in perhaps its fullest form yet. This is Aronofsky’s retelling of Genesis and the decline of creation that ended up following.

Yet, it must also be understood that this is not a retelling of the Bible that exists in the mainstream consciousness. As Noah did, mother! pulls on an older tradition. The tradition of Gnosticism and how it related to Christianity.

To be honest, it’s a difficult tradition to explain. But understanding a few key points helps to illuminate what mother! is doing.

In Gnosticism, matter itself is evil, the human body is sinful by its very existence (which is why Christianity held it as a heresy, given how it would invalidate the sinless nature of Christ by the virtue of his existence in a physical body. And on the flipside, if Christ’s body wasn’t human, then his sacrifice would not have the same foundational nature in Christianity). So, in other words, Gnosticism holds human existence as inherently sinful and its goal as transcending with the divine spark in humanity.

The other key thing to know is that in Gnosticism, God is not necessarily a monotheistic and unified entity. There is a supreme and perfect divinity and a demiurge, a flawed creator being that made the material world and trapped the divine inside the sinful material. We experience two aspects of God.

Through this lens, mother! becomes a retelling of Christian belief through this pessimistic and dark view of the divine. mother and Him are both God, mother the perfect creator in terror of the corruption of the divine Eden by the flawed demiurge that is Him.

Through this lens, our sin is inherent from our first entry and our very corruption of creation itself. Adam and Eve chose to sin because they were material (there is no temptation in this version, the Man and the Woman commit the sin on their own volition) and Cain slew Abel for his selfish needs.

Every attempt we have to get closer to the Divine is flawed. Him cannot create. He’s a poet and a famous one, but he cannot write. Until mother forces the inspiration, his part of the divine, and he’s able to breach some creation he makes that is perfect and beautiful. A poem released to the world that attracts enormous success, a manager who comes to take care of his newfound fame (Kristen Wiig), and admirers who come to his home.

And tear it apart. And war. And start a faith that executes and tears things apart.

In that Gnostic ideal, we cannot attain the divine, we can’t even come close. We can only corrupt it, we can destroy each other for it. We corrupt the divine through our very attempt to engage with it, we corrupt any part of its creation.

mother is pregnant. She wants a child, it’s all she wants. She’s finally given one. When it’s born, Him demands it from her to give to his admirers. mother refuses until Him takes it. Among his followers, it’s killed and devoured to become part of something greater.

In what is, and I’ve never actually had to use this one for a movie, a blasphemous image, it posits that Christ is a creation of the divine torn apart by humanity. It turns communion into cannibalism…a fraught image to say the least.

In the end, mother destroys the admirers, burning creation down. Yet Him takes her heart from her and makes one last attempt to create the world again. The Demiurge takes the divine and traps it in a material world again.

It’s an unequivocally dark idea of humanity. That we cannot and will not ever be a part of the divine and that the Demiurge, the God that we would worship and can be known, must be condemned for our creation. Outside of something like True Detective‘s pulling on Thomas Ligotti, few mainstream works have ever been so damning of us, that we can only destroy ourselves and only be evil.

Yet that’s not where this ends. My review could have been about this as an allegory for the creative process, where mother is the muse that Him, Aronofsky himself, allows to be ruined and torn apart because he cannot separate himself from adoration. His works destroyed and devoured by being taken from Him and his muse only because he seeks to please us.

By the way, that doesn’t put us in a better light, just so we’re clear.

mother! is an absolutely brutal and unexpected and shocking piece of art, the kind of art that’s hard to find on this scale, put in front of this many eyes, or made this much a centerpiece of discussion.

I’ve spent so much on a discussion of what this film exactly is (to summarize: a retelling of Christianity through a Gnostic lens that condemns God for humanity’s creation) that I haven’t talked much about it as a film.

Aronofsky is one of my favorite filmmakers and it shouldn’t surprise to say that he continues to be exceptional here. His control over the tone of this film is supreme, at equal parts deadly serious and yet letting the black comedy of a film like this simmer under the surface. Laughing and gasping at this film are equally valid reactions. It conjures beautiful imagery when it needs to but lets the overwhelming sense of horror and dread overwhelm the film as it goes on. It’s a movie with no music, but the sounds of the environment turned up to the rafters.

He extracts fascinating performances from his actors. Lawrence abandons her usual lead for something passive and off-guard, subject to the whims of the evil around her. Bardem is terrifying and Pfeiffer is a true masterwork of simmering resentment.

mother! is the kind of film that comes along once in a while. Not wholly unique, Aronofsky is pulling on the traditions of Luis Bunuel here. But the kind of work that is bold and powerful and terrifying and shocking and that refuses to leave you whether you love it or hate it.

There are few films that have felt so much like a work of art, few films that have felt so destined for conversation in film culture and academic halls from the first viewings, few films that feel like they’ll burn you just by touching. Few films that feel like you’re actually going to have a fucking conversation about it.

mother! is a film that everyone should see, but I can’t guarantee anyone will like. Because it hates you.

Grade: A+

 

All You Need To Know About mother!

mother! is the kind of movie that someone’s probably going to end up getting fired for approving.

mother! is the kind of movie that represents someone getting studio money and lighting it afire, as any director worth a damn should.

mother! is a movie that will actually manage to change the image of Jennifer Lawrence, a star so big that she won an Oscar before most of us graduated college.

mother! is a movie that no commercial or trailer has come close to selling, a movie that’s better if you don’t know a damn thing about it going in.

mother! is a movie that will have 20 people in the theater and only 2 of them will end up walking out liking it.

mother! is a movie that has already spurred pretty much the starkest divide between the people who love it and people who hate it since Boyhood, with even less middle ground.

mother! is a movie that everyone will walk out totally 100% assured that they know what it’s about. They will disagree with everyone around them.

mother! may be a gritty reboot of the Giving Tree. That also may be the least insane interpretation of this film.

mother! is a movie that is made with supreme confidence, chilling thought, and immense skill.

mother! is a movie that had my jaw on the floor for the entire last half hour. That is when I wasn’t cackling in disbelief.

mother! is the best thing I’ve seen all year and I don’t think I can recommend it to any one without a million caveats up front.

I’ll have a full review Monday, but for now, let this basically be something that sells you on the film and absolves me of responsibility for your reaction.

IT terrifies both as a portrait of the pains of childhood and as a movie where a clown jumps out at you

Summary: The town of Derry has a secret. Every 27 years, a great evil strikes, a tragedy happens. In 1988, children begin disappearing, including young Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott). His brother, Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), begins to pursue Georgie’s disappearance which leads him and his friends into a collision course with the great evils of Derry, all embodied in Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), a monstrous clown who can embody the personal demons of the children.

There’s something powerful about seeing great depictions of childhood on screen, something eternally evocative. The memories may be fuzzy, but the feelings burn as strong as ever. The joy of leaving school. The exhilaration of playing with your friends. The sadness at that parent fight you overheard. The anger at the bully. The pangs of first love. The terror as an ageless clown monster opens his gaping maw and tries to eat your flesh in his murder dungeon.

Okay, so director Andy Muschietti’s IT may have a few childhood events that may have never happened to you.

But that absolutely doesn’t take away from the heart of what works about the latest Stephen King adaptation. Perhaps as much (some would say more, but I am not some) a character study of the children its about as a shock-and-awe supernatural movie, IT takes an incredibly strong central cast and a steady hand at the camera to craft a story as much about the fears and traumas of youth as it is about the terror of the unknown stalking monster.

Adapted from what is likely the ur-Stephen King text, IT takes the liberty of adjusting the timeline, now putting the child Loser’s Club and their battle against Pennywise in the unsettling town of Derry, Maine in the late 80s.

I will say it feels like a bit of a missed opportunity. As evocative as the time period is aesthetically, IT does little to place its children within a cultural sense of the 80s, a sense of losing themselves to a fracturing and greedy culture. King’s work evokes the 50s very specifically, and outside of a few music cues and posters, this Derry loses that place in time.

Maybe I’m chastising the film for something it isn’t trying to do. For Muschietti, Derry isn’t about its place, but rather what it is. For this IT, Derry is reflection of the evil that inhabits it and what it does to those who succumb. You get the feeling that at any time, the grotesque adults who inhabit the town could turn into some horrifying monster…or maybe they already are. The leering pharmacist, the abusive father, the program on the television that seems to speak directly to you. All of these things create a world that makes it hard to understand and makes it even harder to feel safe.

You know, like being a kid. You never understand why anyone is the way they are, you’re at the mercy of powerful people and stronger people who choose not to use their power in your favor or even choose to use it to harm you.

What perhaps works better about IT than anything else is how accurate a portrait it is of being a child. Of that sense of adventure, that sense of mystery, and that sense of how terrifying the world around you is. Of how important your friends are to you and how they can mean everything when the world is hostile to you. The movie brings you back to those primal feelings of childhood, ones you maybe didn’t have a name for.

It also helps that the movie has an extraordinary child cast. It’s rare to cast one kid that works well in a movie, it’s a bonafide miracle to make a whole cast work. Enough ink has already spilled on them, but I must emphasize how extraordinary Jaeden Liberher (Bill) and Sophia Lillis (Beverly) are. Both give legitimately strong performances that transcend “for a kid.” Liberher plays the obsessiveness and pain of someone who can’t get over a loss so well and Lillis is a powerhouse performer, a surprise who manages to do so much with just a look or a moment where she says nothing at all.

There’s plenty of praise to spread around though. Finn Wolfhard (the most “experienced” member of the cast in this mode, coming off Stranger Things) as Richie manages to thread the needle between totally likeable and impossibly irritating (he also definitely gets the movie’s best applause line). Jeremy Ray Taylor does really sweet work as Ben and Jack Dylan Grazer as Eddie plays through one of the film’s best character arcs.

You don’t want to just hear about the kids though. The big question looming over this work: How’s Pennywise? Tim Curry’s take on Stephen King’s most iconic monster (don’t @ me) is legendary and so I’m happy to report that Skarsgard really does avoid trying to echo or copy it and instead carves his own take on the character. Curry played his Pennywise all too human, something like John Wayne Gacy or Dahmer, the mocking charm giving way to monster only at the last second.

Skargard chooses to play on the Lovecraftian undertones of the character and makes Pennywise, for lack of a better term,a thing that should not be. His Pennywise is very much a thing that pretends to be human. His eyes drifting away from each other, his movements distorting the very reality around him, his body a twisted tangle barely kept together for appearances. Some dodgy CGI and a bit of overdesign play a role, but there’s even something deeply disturbing about those moments too, when his jaw unhinges to reveal rows of teeth that seem to briefly distort reality.

Is it scary? I’m not the best to ask here, but I certainly thought so. Of course the movie rests mostly on jump scares for its most direct moments, getting a couple of truly effective ones in. But there’s a dread, a paranoia that sets in throughout the film that adds a layer of terror. At any time the monster can appear, it could be anyone or anything. We can never quite trust our eyes, Pennywise seems to make it a mission to challenge our perception.

A film like that requires a lot of confidence behind the camera and the team here is more than up to is challenge. I’ve thrown enough praise to Muschietti’s vision that I need to throw praise behind his collaborators. Writers Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga (originally intended to direct), and Gary Dauberman do a fine job of pulling King’s vision into coherent cinema, a surprisingly rare and difficult achievement. Benjamin Wallfisch crafts a beautiful score that infuses a little mysticism and wonder into the terrifying proceedings. Cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung (famous for his work on Oldboy) gives the camera a distorted and constantly moving look at its world that befits a paranoid air and gives Derry and its residents and its underworld a perfectly grimy and shadowy sheen.

IT is the kind of film that is a collective experience, the kind of film that everyone’s gonna see and everyone will see themselves in. Terror and tragedy all told in the time that everyone’s gone through.

Grade: A-

 

 

Tulip Fever Dream

Gather ’round. Let me tell you a tale.

In the year 2000, Deborah Moggach wrote a novel. That novel was called Tulip Fever. Based on the true story of the Dutch Tulip Mania, a real and hilarious thing, the novel set a tale of class, lust, and tragedy (apparently) against one of the most truly bizarre economic collapses in European history.

But even before that book came out, it was ready to be a movie. Dreamworks bought it in the proof stage (meaning they knew the idea was primed for lurid prestige) with the eventual intention of direction by John Madden, somewhat hot off Shakespeare in Love, for a film starring Jude Law, Keira Knightley, and Jim Broadbent. This was gonna be a big budget (for the time) production at about 48 million. Remember, it’s Dreamworks, that means this thing once had Spielberg money.

However, in the first of many curses that would befall this project, the British government closed a tax loophole that helped the film’s funding. Production shut down, though not after planting 12,000 tulip bulbs for the film.

More than a decade after that initial attempt, interest remained. After all, Moggach had Hollywood connections (wrote the 2005 Pride and Prejudice and had another novel adapted into The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel).

Then, in about 2013, comes in Harvey Weinstein. A tighter budget, about 25 million, but it still managed to get a fairly deep cast with Alicia Vikander and Dane DeHaan starring and also featuring Oscar winners Christoph Waltz and Judi Dench! He also got a script from Tom Fuckin’ Stoppard and direction from Justin Chadwick, best known for The Other Boleyn Girl. Weinstein actually managed to get the film made and wrapped in 2014.

Which…would normally be the end of that.

After the release of Ex Machina, where Vikander’s jaw-dropper performance made her a huge commodity, Weinstein saw room to get Tulip Fever even more attention. So Tulip Fever was promoted at Cannes and slotted for a November release, up against The Danish Girl, another period prestige piece that would end up winning Vikander her Oscar.

It was then pulled and moved to July 2016 (signaling a lack of awards-season hopes). Then to February 24th, then August 25th, then finally to September 1st to capitalize on a totally empty Labor Day weekend, the only major wide release.

In the meantime, the film became something of a legend. The film was test screened for the first time in November 2014 and recut time and time and time and time again. Critics saw it at multiple stages and began doubt that they ever had and indeed, if the film actually existed. It was even pulled shortly before a WGA screening, only contributing o the legend.

The film industry only became sure of Death, Taxes, and that Tulip Fever would never come out. It took so long that star Dane DeHaan actually managed to shoot a massive space epic with Luc Besson alongside fellow eyebrow-endowed-American Cara Delevingne in the meantime.

Then, on September 1st, the film finally came out. The marketing had shifted from a prestige play to a steamy erotic thriller. Didn’t help the film, which ended up being the centerpiece of the worst holiday weekend since 1998.

So, what happened? Was the film really worth all that fuss?

Well, I tell you the story because it ultimately ends up being more interesting than Tulip Fever itself. This thing is ultimately more interesting as a legendary curio than an actual movie.

It’s not horribly campy enough or horrendously terrible to recommend for a hatewatch. It certainly doesn’t have the prestige to be good or the luridness to be entertaining. It’s just embarrassing for most of the people involved, this stack of moments cut to the bone from years of retooling and attempts to make worthwhile.

The actual story is reasonably bog standard. Set against the Dutch Tulip Mania, Sophia Sandvoort (Alicia Vikander) is an orphan married off to a wealthy Dutch businessman, Cornelis (Christoph Waltz).

Cornelis commissions a painting from artist Jan van Loos (Dane DeHaan), who quickly falls in love with Sophia. The two start a torrid affair and get into the tulip market in the hopes of being able to start a new life together.

Perhaps the biggest sin of this movie is its wasting of the backdrop. The Tulip Mania is truly one of history’s weirder incidents and the film seems largely uninterested in any of it besides functioning as a backdrop. Had this film been set in the 90s about Beanie Babies, it’s hard to imagine any appreciable difference, outside of perhaps wearing some stranger costumes.

I get it, it’s a hard thing to make a whole movie about. But when it’s the only notable thing in your movie and you don’t use it, it’s hard to overlook how bland the rest of the story is. You see where this movie tried over and over again to pull something lurid out of this story or even something entertaining and it just ends up in a bizarre tonal mishmash. Part screwball comedy, part sex thriller, yet none of it is compelling. None of this is funny, none of this is erotic.

Much of that is on its leads. Vikander is absolutely fine here, doing great silent work while reading the dialogue about as fine as anyone does in this movie. But Dane DeHaan is not a leading man. His nonexistent charisma and lack of chemistry with Vikander leaves me feeling that had the producers ended up drawing eyebrows on a plank of wood, the effect of having Vikander mime sweet tender love with it would have been functionally the same.

To be fair, DeHaan is really the only bad performance here, just not selling anything. Everyone else is totally fine, not rising past totally fine though. It’s just that they have almost no material to work with. Everything is telegraphed and everything is a slog to get through. No character is given any substance or motivation or anything short of action descriptions, so no drama means anything.

I found myself giggling more often than not, nothing feels appropriately pitched or placed right. It’s just a trainwreck, stacking up bad decision after premature moment. It’s the kind of film that reeks of excessive trimming, cleaving all the connective tissue in the hopes of creating a lean, mean sex movie machine. In the end, they just created a movie that can never live up to the legend surrounding it.

Grade: D