Capsule Reviews: September & October 2017

It

United States. Directed by Andy Muschietti, 2017. Starring Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Chosen Jacobs, Finn Wolfhard, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Bill Skarsgård, Nicholas Hamilton. 135 minutes. ★★★★

Muschietti takes the same approach to the flashback half of Stephen King’s massive 1985 tome that he took to his Del Toro-produced début Mama: take a live-action performance, CGI it up, and throw it at a bunch of tweens. All that’s missing is Jessica Chastain (and she’s heavily favored to star in the sequel—although my ideal adult Bev would be Lizzy Caplan).

Astonishingly, it actually works, even if the parallels with Stranger Things are inevitable (but let’s be honest: Finn Wolfhard is the ideal Richie Tozier). The cast are the key to this, particularly Wolfhard, Sophia Lillis and Jack Grazer. Unfortunately, Jaeden Lieberher was a bit of a wash, but he didn’t impress me much in Midnight Special either.

But Bill Skarsgård, who plays the film’s titular clown-monster, deserves better than to be buried under all this CGI. He only gets to actually perform two or three times over the course of the film, and they’re easily the most memorable moments. More scenes like those would have made the difference between “very good horror movie” and “possibly the best horror movie of 2017.”

Mother!

Mother!

United States. Directed by Darren Aronofsky, 2017. Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem. 121 minutes. ★★★

By the time I figured out what was going on, the film was three-quarters over—which turned out to be a positive thing, because that was also the point at which I stopped caring about what was going on. But hey, I’m glad that someone was willing to finance and distribute the most alienating film of Aronofsky’s career (and I’m saying this as someone who loves The Fountain). I mean, it’s quite an accomplishment to make a film with Jennifer Lawrence that nobody wants to see.

Theory of Obscurity

Theory of Obscurity: A Film About the Residents

United States. Directed by Don Hardy, 2015. 87 minutes. ★★★½

In the late sixties, a quartet of disaffected artsy individuals made the journey from Shreveport, Louisiana, to San Mateo, California. Operating on the premise that artistic clarity could only be achieved by entirely hiding their identities from the public, thereby insulating oneself from the expectations of the outside world—they formed the Residents, the cult rock band to end all cult rock bands. They gained notoriety for wearing eyeball masks in public and released classic records such as The Commercial Album (forty songs, each exactly one minute in length), Duck Stab!, and The Third Reich ‘n Roll. They pioneered postmodern deconstruction of pop songs, musical mashups, and music videos as an art form.

Sadly, Don Hardy’s documentary Theory of Obscurity can only get so close to a group of artists whose commitment to anonymity is such that they refuse to speak for themselves on-camera. Hardy gets plenty of interviews with collaborators and admirers (including Penn Jilette and members of Devo, Talking Heads, Primus, and Neurosis), along with the band’s longtime management team, the Cryptic Corporation. But the Residents themselves don’t break five decades of precedent.

In his defense, Hardy does offer a few highlights, mostly of interest to hardcore fans, such as interviews with ex-Cryptic officers and a video recording of a 1972 guerrilla open-mic performance by the band’s (probably fictional) mentor N. Senada. But with these exceptions, very little material seems actually revelatory.

Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049

United States. Directed by Denis Villeneuve, 2017. Starring Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Lennie James, Dave Bautista, Jared Leto. 163 minutes. ★★★★

The world may not have needed a sequel to Blade Runner, but since it has one, we can all breathe a sigh of relief that it doesn’t suck. Blade Runner 2049 isn’t the mind-blower its predecessor was, but then again it never could be, not after nearly forty years of future-noir and cyberpunk. What it does do is advance the aesthetic somewhat, bolting it to an intelligent and thoughtful story. This is the benefit of having Denis Villeneuve at the helm: while I’ll readily admit to liking Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, I don’t think Ridley Scott’s treatment of the Blade Runner themes would have had quite the power.

My main criticisms are that the film is too long and does not feature enough Mackenzie Davis.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Ireland. Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, 2017. Starring Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Barry Keoghan, Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Suljic, Alicia Silverstone, Bill Camp. 120 minutes. ★★★★

With his latest effort, Yorgos Lanthimos dials back his comedic sensibility (understanding that the definition of the word “comedic” shifts somewhat when applied to a Lanthimos film) to reveal something more nakedly disturbing.

Don’t take that to mean that The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a conventional specimen of whatever the hell it’s supposed to be. If it’s a horror film, it’s one in the same way that Funny Games is. Lanthimos puts a textual layer between the characters and the audience, usually represented by the actors’ somewhat stilted and awkward line-readings (this filmmaker’s trademark; you’ll recognize it if you’ve seen The Lobster), rendering even the most intense moments a little chilly.

This works very well for the film’s antagonist (played by relative newcomer Barry Keoghan), whose dead-eyed stare emphasizes the disturbance in the character’s mind. Most of the rest of the cast aren’t so lucky, and only Nicole Kidman seems to be her character as opposed to acting (this is one of my favorite Kidman performances in a long time).

This is almost certainly Lanthimos’s intent, and in all fairness, I liked Sacred Deer a lot—I enjoyed its Kubrickian aesthetic sensibility. But I couldn’t help wondering if the film would work better if he took a more conventional approach.

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