Category Archives: hollywood

“It” features strong characters and silly jump scares

The original “It” is a campy yet well-remembered miniseries that created the distinctly memorable Pennywise (originally Tim Curry). Adjusting for modern day standards, the possibility to create a new terror clown for a new generation is ripe with potential. The filmmakers behind the new “It” hit most of the right marks whether or not their intention was pure horror.

Directed by Andy Muschietti, “It” tells the story of a small Maine town called Derry, where a demonic, transforming creature hunts and devours children. After his brother, Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), disappears, Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) struggles with coming to terms that Georgie in fact may be dead. A loser in the town, he, along with his friends Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer), and Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff), are bullied and tormented by older kids and misunderstood and disrespected by their parents and the adults around them. When they meet new girl in town Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis) and discover the secrets of Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), they must band together despite their past and fears to stop him.

The characters are fleshed out and strong. Each of the kids has a distinct personality and arc that contributes to the overall story. Their harsh parents admonish in some cases abuse them, really reflecting author Stephen King’s sensibilities and tone. The kids’ bond is so strong because of their lack of upbringing and support. With no one else to turn to, their friendship is their only hope. Adults and adulthood are toxic and this is represented by Pennywise, a manifestation of the fear of growing up.

Skarsgard excels as the demonic clown, bringing new terror to an already iconic role. He manages to make Pennywise his own creation quite different and more extreme than the previous version. He is scary, campy, funny and disorienting.

The scares of the film are where things fall either positively or negatively depending on your experience. For those genuinely frightened by modern-day jump scares, the film will be terrifying. For those who find such tactics hokey and pedestrian (writer included), there is little terror and indeed several instances of laughter. But in a film such as this, it’s okay if not everything is not taken very seriously. It is a story about a demonic clown after all. Much like Freddy Krueger, Pennywise is so fantastical that the ingenuity of his terror is fun. In a way, this can be construed to show us how silly our fears really are in the grand scheme of things.

The film is a bit too long, but a beating heart at the core of the story powers the narrative through to its conclusion. It is definitively Stephen King’s original work brought to life onscreen.


“Murder on the Orient Express” is fine but lacks gravitas

Directed and starring Kenneth Branagh, “Murder on the Orient Express” tells the story of Hercule Poirot (Branagh) in one of his most famous cases. When Mr. Ratchet (Johnny Depp) is murdered in the dead of night aboard the Orient Express, everyone in the coach is a suspect. Could it be Miss Debenham (Daisy Ridley)? Or Dr. Arbutnot (Leslie Odom Jr.)? Or perhaps the butler, Edward Masterman (Derek Jacobi)?

The film is a fun, if ultimately forgettable, jaunt into an old time mystery. The movie plays it up hokey at times and it could have done so even more. Keeping things light and campy would have really accentuated the classic sense of the film and harken back to an oldtime era. As it is, the reason behind the movie is more of a mystery. It tries to incorporate modern technique into an old story but comes across as too beholden to the past. Perhaps it is just a vanity project as it is directed, starred in and produced by Branagh.

The cinematography is great and the acting is solid. It’s an enjoyable ride that just glides along the surface. The original 1973 version seems so much more memorable though. It really took time to delve into the characters and the story and focused on the mystery as the driving plot. This film is adequate but lacks muster.

“The Theory of Everything” misses the point

Another British film. Another leading actor who transforms himself for a role and is helped by a supportive female character without much depth. Another biopic. Another overcoming-physical-ailment plot. Another love story that ebbs and flows and plays fast and loose with the facts. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before because “The Theory of Everything” is exactly the type of film you’d expect it to be.

Written by Anthony McCarten and directed by James Marsh, the film examines young Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his relationship with his girlfriend and then wife, Jane (Felicity Jones). As Stephen’s ALS ravages his body, his bond with her is tested and outside influences change their relationship.

The film deals much more with the familial relationships in Hawking’s life rather than the physics which makes him world-famous. In a way, this is a detriment as it minimizes Hawking’s contribution to the world of scientific thought and instead looks at him as some sort of inspirational figure, plugging in a story that really isn’t there and is meant solely to pull at the heartstrings.

The film is a cookie-cutter, Oscar-bait narrative meant to tell a simple story, not offend anyone, and not to engage beyond purely surface detail. There’s as little thought here as in many a modern blockbuster.

The acting is good. Both Redmayne and Jones fill in the empty story with a degree of relatability and charm. You can always count on that with a film like this.

But “The Theory of Everything” should have been so much more than just another Oscar-bait narrative. You could imagine an exploration into Hawking’s theories and dramatic representations of them onscreen. You could see the mental fortitude needed to come up with his ideas while restricted to a wheelchair. Perhaps the film balances Hawking’s life with his theories and shows how one influences the other. There’s a moment near the end of the movie where the film plays back in reverse, highlighting one of Hawking’s theories about time, and we see how his life is played out back to a single instant. It’s just a glimpse into the kind of film we wish we had.

“Seven Psychopaths” a fun character story

There are actor’s movies. There are director’s movies. There are even cinematographer’s movies. “Seven Psychopaths” is a writer’s movie.

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, the film tells the story of struggling screenwriter Marty (Colin Farrell) who becomes entangled in the story he’s writing as he becomes surrounded by seven psychopaths, including Billy (Sam Rockwell), Hans (Christopher Walken) and Charlie (Woody Harrelson). Hans makes his living kidnapping dogs and returning them for ransom money. When he accidentally steals mob boss Charlie’s dog, Marty is thrown into the struggle of his life as he, Billy and Hans go on the run.

The story of the seven psychos is intricate and interesting. Seeing how they all interact together with Marty’s journey gives a fascinating portrait of madness and how it ties into violence. Though all violent in their backstories, all 7 characters find solace in peace at the end, asking the question, what qualifies you to being a psychopath? And can you change once you realize what you are?

The film is well-acted, well-shot and decidedly well-written, with many funny lines and sublime character arcs. Some have compared the film to a Tarantino-esque style, but it is definitively McDonagh’s style, blending violence, comedy, high ideas and deep characterizations. He does a good job in all of his films of building the themes of his narrative up to the conclusion. Who would have thought that a movie like “Seven Psychopaths” would ultimately be a story about finding peace?

“Thor: Ragnarok” goes for straight-up fun and it works

The previous “Thor” films were admirable action adventures, but lacked heart and individuality. It’s hard to make a serious film when your protagonist is a hammer-wielding god and the villains are weird space aliens. So Marvel has wisely decided to ditch the pretense and go straight past logic into pure fun. These films are better for it.

Directed by Taika Waititi, “Thor: Ragnarok” features the titular character (Chris Hemsworth) trying to prevent the foreseen end-of-days. Despite his best efforts, his long-entombed sister and goddess of death, Hela (Cate Blanchett), emerges to destroy the nine realms. Trapped on an alien planet with his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor must team up with the Asgardian Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) to escape his bondage from the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) and save his home before Hela destroys it.

In lieu of trying to capture the serious tone and majesty of “Game of Thrones” or “The Lord of the Rings”, “Thor: Ragnarok” instead throws caution to the wind and tells a fanciful adventure-comedy that ties in to its predecessor’s mythology. Never taking itself too seriously and playing up the dynamics of the visuals, the film is a constantly enjoyable ride. Most answers to the plot seem to be as simple as why not. We want to see Hulk and Thor in a gladiatorial match. Why not. Wouldn’t it be cool for Jeff Goldblum to be in a Marvel movie just playing himself? Why not. No room for Natalie Portman in the story? Cut her. Why not. Let’s have Thor fight a literal Satanic creature. Why not. Let’s put in Dr. Strange for pretty much no reason. Why not. There’s something oddly commendable about such an approach.

For the returning characters of Thor, Loki, Banner, Heimdall (Idris Elba) and Odin (Sir Anthony Hopkins), having been with the franchise for so long, they have developed a comforting rhythm. The viewers know what to expect and they deliver their part.

It’s sad to write, but again, it’s the role of the villain that is a tad shallow and forgettable. Even with an actress with the chops of Cate Blanchett, there’s just not a lot you can do with a one-dimensional, evil villainess role. Her desire is to destroy the galaxy because she’s the goddess of death and hated her father. That’s not very interesting. Throwing in that she’s Thor’s sister does little to deepen their connection since they’ve never actually met before. If Thor and Hela remembered each other, if they used to play as children until Odin banished her for being evil or Loki tricked her into becoming goddess of death, that would have added some personal stakes. Thor would be remiss to kill his sister because he cared about her once. Perhaps Hela might have second thoughts about annihilating everything, but chooses to forge ahead regardless. But instead we get just another going-to-destroy-the-world story.

Regardless of that, the even humor and colorful visuals keep the story entertaining. Most other characters, no matter how insignificant they at first seem, are fleshed out, interesting, and given good character arcs such as the Grandmaster, Skurge (Karl Urban), Valkyrie and Korg (voice of director Waititi). It gives the film an intriguing ensemble usually lacking in Marvel films.

The film fully feels like Thor’s story as the stakes for him grow higher and the personal choices he has to make impact his character. Can he take his father’s throne? Can he make the hard decisions he needs to without corrupting himself as his father did? Can he bring Loki, Hulk and Valkyrie to his side? At the film’s conclusion, the weight of responsibility for his people is all that matters and his love for them drives his heroic nature. His story therefore, with actual stakes to the film, is memorable.

“Coco” is gorgeous, heartwarming

Tackling a subject like death in a children’s film is a tough balancing act. You can’t be too light or else risk seeming disingenuous. Too serious however and the film can become a morbid mess. Pixar has done a good job of straddling that line in films such as “Toy Story 2” and “Up” and they continue that streak with “Coco.” Their success lies in finding the silver lining in finite life: joy in family and experience over despair and anguish.

Directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina, “Coco” tells the story of Miguel (voice of Anthony Gonzalez), a young boy kept from playing music by an old family superstition. When he is accidentally transported to the land of the dead on Dia de los Muertos, he must find his great-great-grandfather and gain his blessing to return before he becomes a spirit as well. He recruits Hector (voice of Gael Garcia Bernal), a bumbling castaway, to aid him in his quest.

The film is a beautifully told, if ultimately somewhat familiar, tale. The land of the dead may be one of the most impressive animated environments ever created, full of bright colors, depth and brilliant hues. The imagination behind the construction of the dead characters and the spirit creatures is superb. The film plays out like an old fable told from generation to generation, timeless as it confronts childhood acceptance, manifest destiny and the concept of eternal familial love.

The music is respectable, if not exactly memorable, but it’s the emotions they represent that imbue them with cinematic power. When Miguel sings, it’s a reflection of his desire to live, an oxymoron considering he’s in the land of the dead.

A weak point however is the film’s second act twist. Pixar has always done a good job of building up their films with complex characters and themes only sometimes to feature stereotypical hollow villains. In “Up”, there is Charles Muntz. In “Brave”, there’s Mor’du. In “Wall-E”, there’s Otto. They do sometimes make a complicated antagonist such as Ego in “Ratatouille” or Lotso in “Toy Story 3”, but the twist in “Coco”, and the villain that permeates through the final act of the film, diminishes an otherwise strong story with a higher degree of schmaltz than is necessary.

But “Coco” is an otherwise solid film, fun and ultimately joyous with plenty to love and remember.

Best Films of 2003

2003 saw the ending of a fantasy saga as well as some great indie films and big-budget animation giants. It was an eclectic year that saw a return to form for directors like Clint Eastwood and the emergence of new greats like Sofia Coppola.

Best Film – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Capping off the greatest film trilogy of all-time, director Peter Jackson delivered his most grandiose and dramatic Lord of the Rings film in The Return of the King.

The quest has taken a toll on Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood). On the last leg of the journey, the evil forces opposing him and his shattered fellowship push forward with devastating effect. Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) must ascend to the throne he has hidden from and Gollum (Andy Serkis) continues to plot his own nefarious deeds that could spell doom for the world.

Relieved of the pressures of needing to introduce realms and species to an audience, all of the building storylines are brought to a close that is heartfelt, intimate and epic, creating a sensation few films have ever been able to achieve. In due time of course, Jackson would return to Middle-earth to complete another trilogy in The Hobbit series, but he needn’t have bothered. With The Return of the King, Jackson delivered an emotional epic that may never be topped.

Finding Nemo

Pixar delivered one of their greatest hits and most memorable films in Finding Nemo.

The tale of a father clownfish, Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks), searching for his young son, Nemo (voiced by Alexander Gould), Marlin is forced to swim across half the ocean, aided by his bumbling sidekick, Dory (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres). They come across sharks and jellyfish and all sorts of dangerous creatures, pushing forward to find young Nemo, who must confront his own mortality in a dentist’s fish tank.

Featuring great comedic moments, mesmerizing animation and a heartwarming message, the film still stands today as one of Pixar’s finest achievements.

Lost in Translation

Sofia Coppola’s masterpiece of finding simple connections between people regardless of gender, age or status, Lost in Translation features two of the best performances of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson’s careers.

Bob Harris is a past-his-prime film star scraping work together in Japan, where he is completely out of his element. He meets Charlotte, similarly lost, her husband a photographer on assignment. Finding each other and trying to find themselves on the crazy streets of Tokyo, they learn about the nature of connection and what their futures entail, whether it is what they want or not.

Understated in its approach, strong in its emotional power, Lost in Translation succeeds by using Bill Murray’s brilliant sense of comic timing to punctuate the laughs and bring meaning to the story.

Mystic River

Clint Eastwood had been a touch out of step after his instant classic film Unforgiven (1992) won him two Academy Awards in 1993. Making rather average movies such as The Bridges of Madison County (1995) and Blood Work (1992), it was natural to wonder whether the movie icon would ever reclaim his past success. With Mystic River (2003), those fears were laid to rest.

Dave (Tim Robbins), Jimmy (Sean Penn) and Sean (Kevin Bacon) are three friends growing up together in Boston in 1975. When Dave is kidnapped by two mysterious men and sexually abused for days, their friendship wanes. Now adults, they are drawn together once again as Jimmy’s daughter, Katie (Emmy Rossum), is found murdered with Dave the prime suspect and Sean the police detective working the case. Fate has brought them together again and their destinies are all intertwined, for better or worse.

The film is about childhood loss of innocence and how that loss impacts us for the rest of our lives. Dave, Jimmy and Sean are all tied together through their past, present and future, helpless against the pain of time and regret. Mystic River is a haunting, beautiful film that truly explores the connections between people and the past.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring

Ki-duk Kim’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (2003) is a story of rebirth. The soul, the body and the world are reborn over the course of its telling, set in the Korean countryside.

A young boy (Jae-kyeong Seo) is raised by an elderly Buddhist master (Yeong-su Oh), who yearns to teach him the ways of peace and solitude. But the young boy, as all boys are, is impatient and gives in to his emotions, torturing animals and acting destructively. Once he gains sexual lust, he abandons the master and ventures off into the world. Only after he commits a heinous crime does he return to try and find the peace that the monk had tried to teach him. But both wonder whether it is too late; too late for the boy to find the inner peace he desires and too late for the master to overcome his previous failure and purpose in life.

Featuring beautiful cinematography and a deliberate pace, the film is a touching examination of the essential forces at work in the world: love, nature, mentorship, anger, desire and the continual rebirth of those forces over and over again.