Capsule Reviews: September & October 2017

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.

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.

A scene from STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

United States. Directed by J.J. Abrams, 2015. Starring Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Max von Sydow, Peter Mayhew, Gwendoline Christie. 135 minutes. 9/10

On October 30, 2012, the Walt Disney Company announced its acquisition of Lucasfilm Ltd. With that purchase came a drive to develop the Star Wars intellectual property into a shared “cinematic universe” à la Marvel Studios’ MCU. Three years later, The Force Awakens–the first Star Wars movie of the Disney era, the first of a new planned trilogy, the first not developed by George Lucas–is finally available for mass consumption. The waiting is finally over. Is this the beginning of a new golden age, or are we doomed to repeat the prequel era?

Well, it’s like this. Having been almost eleven years of age when Fox released the film that wasn’t yet called A New Hope, J.J. Abrams (director and co-writer of The Force Awakens, as if you didn’t know) belongs to the first generation that had the mythic scope and narrative structure of Star Wars imprinted on the part of his brain that tells him how to properly tell a story with moving pictures. Because he’s a fan, he knows what a Star Wars fan wants out of a film billing itself as “episode seven,” the official successor to Return of the Jedi.

And what a fan wants from such a film is to get the same vibe, the same sense of wonder and excitement, that they had the first time they saw Star Wars (or The Empire Strikes Back, or Return of the Jedi). Whether Abrams succeeds is up to the individual filmgoer; Star Wars fans tend to have intensely personal relationships with the series. But he damn well gives it his all. Other reviews make much of how Force Awakens replicates the plot beats of the original trilogy, particularly New Hope. This isn’t a weakness; to the contrary, it’s a necessity. For better or worse, mythic adventure is a formula. Rules must be followed.

At any rate, it’s not as if simply “rhyming” the beats makes Force Awakens a remake of New Hope. Yes, Episode VII begins with the required elements: the “A long time ago…” caption, the STAR WARS logo receding into space, the opening crawl, the downward pan. From that point forward, Abrams doesn’t bother trying to George Lucas’s (Irvin Kershner’s/Richard Marquand’s) visual style. Even when he employs dissolves and wipes, Force Awakens looks like a J.J. Abrams film: more modern and kinetic and, yes, plenty of lens flares. BB-8, a spherical practical-effects marvel who has as much personality as any human character, sums up all the strengths of Abrams’ visual aesthetic in one concise, adorable package.

This extends to the script, which Abrams developed with Lawrence Kasdan (perhaps Lucas’s best screenwriter-collaborator, with apologies to Leigh Brackett) from an early draft by Michael Arndt. The lead characters have more depth than their counterparts in the original trilogy, a crucial element in the success of the main villain, Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren. Let’s be honest: as menacing as Darth Vader is, that’s more on the design and the performances of Dave Prowse and James Earl Jones than on the writing. Thankfully, Driver accepts the challenge and rises to it, bestowing a terrifying intensity and humanity to match.

There are no dud performances in what must be one of the strongest ensembles of the year: future films seem secure in the hands of Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac; Andy Serkis reminds us how he became the go-to guy for performances like this; Domhnall Gleeson and Gwendoline Christie make surprisingly good Nazis. Yet the film’s MVPs are veterans Harrison Ford and Peter Mayhew, both of whom are too old for this shit but pull it off anyway. Ford, in particular, looks more interested in his surroundings than he has in a long time.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens represents a new era for the series. It’s far too easy to be cynical about Disney’s plans for the property, planning to release a Star Wars movie every year (currently alternating Rian Johnson and Colin Trevorrow’s Episodes VIII and IX with standalones like 2016’s Rogue One) as long as fans care to see them. Only time will tell whether The Force Awakens is the herald of great things to come or a dead-end, but right now, we’ve every right to be optimistic.

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS poster.