Review Roundup: August + September 2019
It Chapter Two
How is it possible for a 2 and ¾ hour film to feel so rushed, so bloated, and so uneventful, all at the same time? Split over two films (with talks of another cut that would splice the two films together), Andy Muschietti’s adaptation of Stephen King’s mammoth book is wrapped up in a disappointingly disjointed manner, a hugely frustrating and staggeringly uneven watch that leans too hard on CGI and drags out every creative idea to a tedious extent.
The sequel finds us returning to the Losers Club as Pennywise makes his grand reappearance in the town of Derry, leaving behind his usual trail of bodies and walls covered in blood grafitti. Standard stuff so far. But of course this time, the Losers are all grown up, the story here being set 27 years after the first. So we have an impressive cast including James McAvoy, Bill Hader, and Jessica Chastain, all bolstering their CVs with some mainstream horror fare, and doing their best to lighten up an exposition heavy script.
The major issue is that, despite their talents, this cast lacks the banter and chemistry of the kids from the first (who reprise their roles in throwback scenes that are ruined by some bizarre digital de-aging effects). Sure, Richie (Hader) is still cracking jokes at, mainly, Eddie’s expense and Beverly (Chastain) is still juggling her feelings for Bill and Ben. But the group dynamic is far less convincing and appealing here, and the film hugely suffers as a result.
On top of this, despite promising that the sequel would be scarier than the first (and to “bring your adult diapers"), Muschietti seems to have ended up reining back such moments, making for a lukewarm and largely forgettable mishmash of obvious jumpscares and generic monsters. This is largely due to the over-reliance on visual effects, which range from the wonky to the downright bad, and, apart from a cute nod to the spider-head creature from The Thing, there is very little to love here.
The film’s crucial saving grace is of course Bill Skarsgård’s performance as Pennywise. Son of Stellan and brother of Alexander, Bill again showcases the best of the family’s acting talents as the demonic dancing clown, using his impressive physical and vocal skills to fantastic effect. Sadly though, nothing is safe from the ballooning (ahem) budget of the sequel, and so Skarsgård’s performance is continually swamped by the overabundance of special effects, so much so that any of the potentially more effective scares of the film are rendered goofy and plain dull.
Perhaps the real horror is the news of a potential It 3… Maybe it's time to let this horror juggernaut just float away.
Midsommar: Director’s Cut
If killer clowns aren’t your usual cup of tea, then the killer cults of Midsommar offered a very enticing alternative this summer. The new poster boy for alternative horror fare, director Ari Aster followed up the deeply traumatizing Hereditary with this similarly trauma-streaked adventure into the heart of Swedish pagan rituals, although the true focus is on Florence Pugh’s Dani, a current contender for performance of the year.
You can check out my thoughts on the original release of the film here, but I recently also saw the limited release of Aster’s director’s cut, containing an extra 25 minutes of footage, and what a delight it was to be reminded just how brutally effective this film is while also relishing the various new and extended scenes. There is more backstory provided for Dani and Christian’s relationship and more time is spent in showing what a colossal tit Christian is (when Dani picks him some flowers for him, she is subjected to a berating about guilt-tripping and manipulation).
Elsewhere we see another ritual performed by the community, this time involving Christmas trees and a small child being prepared for a drowning in a lake. Cheerful stuff as usual. This scene is also significant as it is the only one that plays out at night, serving to further discombobulate us by suddenly disrupting the oppressive sunshine setting of the original.
All in all, while I believe the original version is a possible masterpiece in its own right, this cut just adds that little bit more to the central conflict of the film and helps to further expand on the practices and general wackiness of the Harga.
+1000 points too for any film that has the line “So are we just gonna ignore the bear there?” Truly Iconic.
Shot in black and white on 16mm film in a Cornish fishing village, British director Mark Jenkins’ latest feature is a lovingly made exploration of the dangers of gentrification and a hand-crafted ode to the best and boldest of British cinema. The style and story of the film go hand in hand here, the authentic nature of Jenkins’ approach to filmmaking perfectly complementing the film’s focus on one of Britain’s oldest industries and its heartland in rural tight-knit coastal communities.
The story centers around Martin (Edward Rowe), a fisherman who is struggling to keep his job going in the face of an influx of tourism and increased competition, all the while dealing with the death of his late father, who appears in apparitions to remind Martin of his duty to protect the communal spirit of the village and keep the family business going. Martin’s main opposition appears in the form of mega-poshos Sandra (Mary Woodvine) and Tim (Simon Shepherd) and their two weedy children, turning up in their obnoxious Range Rover to rent out Martin’s old family home and generally cause a nuisance, much to the anger of Martin and his brother Steven (Giles King).
From the film’s fragmented and fast paced opening, scenes interspersed with future fracases and eruptions of violence, it is clear that Jenkins is not content to play it safe when it comes to narrative and stylistic conventions. The gorgeous monochrome look of the film lends an important mood of homeliness and nostalgia to the proceedings, while the choice to re-dub audio post-filming injects a strange eeriness into character interactions.
It may take a while to get adjusted to Bait’s staccato pacing and boldly original filmmaking techniques, but once you’re in, this is a fascinating and consistently surprising homegrown feature that channels the visuals of Nicholas Roeg and pacing of Harold Pinter while managing to remain a boldly unique affair in its own right. Apart from some mixed feelings about the events that unfold towards the end of the film, this is a daringly risky film that is sure to strike a chord in the Britain of today and bolster the power of British independent filmmaking as it goes from strength to strength.
Through a powerful body of work that has included films like Exhibition, Archipelago, and Unrelated, London-based director Joanna Hogg has established herself as one of the most exciting filmmakers working today, her use of long takes and unflinching camera work helping to create some of the most incisive and socially-reflective work of the 21st century.
So it is no surprise to find that Hogg has pulled off another blinder with her latest project The Souvenir, another masterful depiction of the tension and emotional-undercurrents that muddy the waters of fragile relationships, the focus this time on Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) and Anthony (Tom Burke) and their tempestuous affair. But, unlike her past ouvre, here we find Hogg delving into her own past in a more explicit fashion, with Julie’s ambitions to work as a director and her increasingly murky relationship with Anthony being drawn from the filmmaker’s own memories of her early 20s (this New Yorker article makes excellent reading on this subject).
I won’t say too much about the narrative intricacies of the film or the dark emotions that lie at its center, as all this is far better off witnessed without prior knowledge, but just know that Hogg is in scintillating form here in marrying her unique stylistic signatures to this semi-autobiographical story. The film is a visual delight, with gorgeous cinematography playing fast and loose with formatting standards and superb production design from Stephane Collone accentuating the intricacies of Julie’s life and relationships (the interiors were actually modelled on Hogg’s memories of her past residencies).
Besides all this though, what I loved most about The Souvenir, and what resonated with me most deeply, was the way it captures the essence of memory, its transient, fluid quality. Some things that we have done in our lives, many decisions we have made, are simply impossible to explain, especially by, and to, ourselves, and this is captured in perfect clarity through Hogg’s unflinching directorial and personal gaze. The Souvenir is a film to be treasured and adored, a work of pure intimate beauty that will most surely be featuring highly on my best of the year list. It is absolutely sublime.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
What more is there to say about this one? Possibly the most talked about and debated film of the year, Quentin Tarantino’s latest was perhaps my biggest surprise of the year so far. I’ve had a rocky relationship with his work, with films like Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill, and Inglorious Basterds showcasing the director’s distinctive bravura and violent sense of humour to blistering effect, while later efforts The Hateful Eight and Django Unchained dragged heavily under the weight of poor pacing and a general sense of over-indulgence.
So what a fantastic surprise it was to find Tarantino back to his very best with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a sprawling, luxurious journey through 60s Los Angeles that is so unapologetically in rapture with the Hollywood of old, it is impossible to resist falling head over heels in love with the whole thing. At 2 hours 40 mins, this may be a daunting prospect on the surface, but the whole affair whisks along at a rapid pace, Tarantino depicting his own nostalgia for this bygone era with a knowing wink and skip in his step.
Blockbuster performances from Leo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt aside, it is Margot Robbie who packs the biggest punches in the film. Despite not having many lines (although, of course, Tarantino would “reject” that “hypothesis”), Robbie steals the show time and again as Sharon Tate, her dreamlike presence reinforcing the loose structure of the film and its misty-eyed rose-tinted gazing at the past (alluded to with the “Once Upon a Time…” of the title). The scene within the cinema as Robbie watches the real-life Stone on screen in The Wrecking Crew is a particular highlight, a beautiful homage.
Most surprising of all though, is that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood sees Tarantino at his least Tarantino-esque, delivering a film that eschews the importance of the narrative drive in favour of creating an all-encompassing world that delights in its untouchable nature and irresistible glamour and grit. Whether we are watching Pitt navigate the streets of LA in perilous fashion as stuntman Cliff Booth, DiCaprio acting in a Western TV serial as actor Rick Dalton, or Robbie breezily enjoying the delights of the movie star life as Tate, it is a delight and I found myself never wanting to leave these characters.