Let’s Talk About the new Justice League Trailer

Film | News | Opinion

By: Benjamin Ferrarini

I’ve got some thoughts on the new Justice League trailer that was released at New York Comic Con this past weekend.  As of this writing the official Warner Brothers trailer has twelve  million views on YouTube.  There  has been quite a lot of buzz around this trailer and much of it is positive.

justice league

The new trailer opens on Lois Lane finding Clark Kent standing in a field outside his families farm house.  As she approaches Clark he smiles and mentions she’s wearing the engagement ring so she must have said “yes”.  Suddenly Clark is gone and instead Lois is holding a wad of dirt in her ringed fist, poised as if to drop it on Clark’s coffin.  Then it seems Lois wakes up as if what we just saw was a dream.  After that is a collection of scenes some new some recycled with voice over of Batman talking about the threat which he believes is coming.  It is likely the most polished trailer we’ve gotten so far and my guess is that it also includes some footage from the now infamous reshoots.  It showed a little more of Steppenwolf’s army and a ton of hero shots.  At it’s best the new trailer solidifies just how visually stunning “Justice League” will be.  It is definitely more diverse in terms of the aesthetics.  However, this is just affirmation on something we already knew.  At the same time there are a couple of things that have me concerned.

This is the fourth trailer we’ve gotten and still have almost no plot details.  We get that Bruce and Diana are gathering more heroes and we know the villain Steppenwolf attacks with an army of flying creatures.  But we have no context for any of this.  This has been true of some of the other DCEU films most notable “Batman V Superman” and “Suicide Squad” both of which suffered in the story department.  Thus it is hard to tell if a lack of details on “Justice League” is just Warner Brothers keeping their cards close to their chest or if it foretells some serious problems.

The second concern is the differences in tone.  There is a couple humorous moments that are reminiscent of what you’d find in a Marvel movie.  For instance one clip sees Barry Allen, Diana Prince and Bruce Wayne are standing around when the Bat Symbol appears in the sky.  Berry starts to geek out telling Bruce his symbol just appeared in the sky only to realize they are in their normal personas.  This moment is mixed in with plenty of shots of “Batman V Superman” style action and destruction.  With the knowledge of the Joss Whedon directed reshoots and additional footage there’s enough reason to be concerned about a clash of styles here.  “Justice League” could very easily fall victim to heavy tonal shifts as it tries to balance two directors, the studio and the perceived wishes from the fan base.  It obviously has Snyder’s visual flair, it has the big bombastic action/destruction DC is known for and is also attempting Marvel-esque humor.  Whether it can bring all these elements together with a strong plot and strong characterization is yet to be seen.  They proved a lot with “Wonder Woman” though that film’s success doesn’t really mean anything for “Justice League” as they were in production at the same time.  WB hasn’t had enough time to take the lessons we hoped they learned from “Wonder Woman” to apply them to “Justice League”. They are also so different that what made “Wonder Woman” work just wouldn’t translate.

Wonder Woman Poster

One thing we can say for sure is that Warner Brothers has done an admirable job of turning around the perceptions of the DCEU.  After the bad press and negative reviews from “Batman V Superman” and “Suicide Squad” many were less than optimistic about “Justice League”.  The overwhelmingly positive reception of “Wonder Woman” helped breathe some much-needed life back into the DCEU, but still a lot of pessimism remained as evidenced by the largely discredited Batman-on-Film report back in August that an early cut of “Justice League” was “unwatchable” before the reshoots.  Still with the newest NYCC (New York Comic Con) trailer a high amount of positive buzz is carrying this film into its release.

Stay tuned to The Glitch for more on “Justice League” and a review when it releases on November 17.  If you have any thoughts on the film or the new trailer leave a comment below.

Advertisements

Blade Runner 2049 Review

Blade Runner 2049

Sci-fi, Action, Thriler

Rated R: for violence, some sexuality, nudity and language

Review by: Benjamin Ferrarini

Blade Runner 2049 poster

The original “Blade Runner” is a classic sci-fi masterpiece.  It was released in 1982 and was directed by Riddly Scott.  It’s considered by many to be one of the best sci-fi films ever made, that also heavy influenced what later became known the Cyber Punk genre.  It’s story, themes and special effects hold up incredibly well even today.  “Blade Runner” is a formative film that grew my appreciation of the artistry and power possible in the medium.  Because of this I hold the original  (and by original I mean Riddly’s director’s cut without Deckard’s voice over) I approached “Blade Runner 2049” with a healthy dose of skepticism.  After all, films that get sequels many years after the original don’t have a great track record.  Nonetheless here comes the first sequel to Blade Runner after 35 years.

“Blade Runner 2049” is directed by Denis Villeneuve who came to prominence after last years highly lauded “Arrival”.  However, Villeneuve is also known for his indy thriller  “Enemy” in 2013 and his 2015 action, crime drama “Sicario”.  In other words Villeneuve is one of the few directors who has the proven chops to take on the Blade Runner franchise.  It’s written by Hampton Fancher who worked on the first “Blade Runner” and Michael Green who worked on “Logan” and Star’s series “American Gods”.  The cinematography is done by the legendary Roger Deakins who is known for such films as “Shawshank Redemption”, “No Country for Old Men”, and “A Beautiful Mind”.  It stars Ryan Gosling as K, Robin Wright as K’s boss Lieutenant Joshi, Jared Leto as Niander Wallace, and of course Harrison Ford returns to reprise his role as Rick Deckard.

As the name suggests the film takes place in 2049, thirty years after the events of the first film.  In the interim Tyrell Corporation folded and Replicants were briefly outlawed.  In this vacuum stepped Niander Wallace who bought up all the old Replicant technology and created a new generation that promised to be far more obedient then the older generation.  The new Replicants were welcomed and became ubiquitous.  Of course some older Nexis 8 models who are in hiding so there is a new generation of Blade Runners who’s primary responsibility is to hunt down and retire the older models.   The story centers on Gosling’s Agent K, one of these new Blade Runners who stumbles upon a mystery in during a routine mission.  I won’t go into any more specifics to avoid spoilers, accept to say the plot does directly related to the first film.

Visually “Blade Runner 2049” is a beautiful film.  The cinematography and art design are brilliantly executed paying homage to the original film while also updating it and taking full advantage of modern special effects.  This film looks similar enough to feel like “Blade Runner”yet with just enough difference to set it apart so it avoids being just a copy.  For instance Los Angeles is still a dark rain, soaked dystopia only now instead of giant animated billboards the city is spotted with mile high holograms that sell everything from personal electronics to digital girlfriends.  This film also does a decent job of matching the pacing of the original with long, brooding scenes that take their time to develop.  As K walks through an old abandoned city choked with yellow radioactive dust you get the sense of what the place used to be before some tragedy turned it into a ghost town.

Thankfully the cast is up to playing in these spaces carrying long quiet moments, the emotion of sentimental moments and the frantic energy of the action.  Each member of the cast handles some rather complicated material with ease.  Hampton Fancher’s presents can be felt throughout as the tight sparse dialog is what you would expect from “Blade Runner”.  Taken all together “Blade Runner 2049” is immensely successful to carrying on the banner of the original, to a degree that both surprised and delighted me.

With all this it pains me to point out some areas in which “Blade Runner 2049” stumbles.  Ryan Gosling’s K is not as dynamic a protagonist as Deckard.  While there are a few sparse attempts to build his character Gosling’s stoic exterior doesn’t curry the charisma Harrison Ford does.  As a result K just isn’t as interesting to watch and some of his pull has more to do with the story then something organic that comes from his character.  The film also spends quite a bit of time on some subplots that don’t fully resolve leaving you to wonder why they were there in the first place.  It’s entirely possible the filmmakers are hoping to make further sequels with a plan to make use of  these dangling elements.  However, even then it means a lot of the films runtime is padded with sequel bait.  Lastly, and this is a bit of a nitpick, “Blade Runner 2049” isn’t as deep or philosophical as it’s predecessor.  If “Blade Runner” is a poem then “2049” is a puzzle box, simple and straight forward in what it is and what it’s trying to do.  That isn’t necessarily a bad thing just a little disappointing considering how heavily the original relied on philosophical musings.

“Blade Runner 2049” is beautiful and at times awe inspiring, I can’t say enough how many times this film gave me a similar feeling to the one I got from the original.  It feels like “Blade Runner” and that in and of itself is an amazing feat.  However, as much as I could talk about the things I liked about the film there are a few flaws that do mar what is one of the best films of this year.

 

 

New 4 1:2 stars
Final Score: 4 1/2 Stars

 

For more on the ratings see our ABOUT page.

American Made Review

American Made

Action, Biography, Comedy

Rated R:  For language throughout and some sexuality/nudity

Review by: Benjamin Ferrarini

american made poster 2

 

American Made is based on the true story of Barry Seal, a commercial airline pilot who begins working as a currier for the CIA in the late 70’s and early 80’s.  It’s directed by Doug Liman known for “Borne Identity”, “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”, and “Edge of Tomorrow” also known as “Live Die Repeat”.  It is written by Gary Spinelli a relatively new writer with only one prior credit to his name.  It stars Tom Cruise (“The Mummy”), Domhnall Gleeson (“Ex Machina”), and Sarah Wright (“Marry Me”).

 

Seal, played by Cruise, is a talented pilot who occasionally smuggles things like cuban cigars into the country for friends.  Seal is approached by Domhnall Gleeson’s Schafer a CIA agent who wants to recruit Seal to take aerial reconnaissance photos of communist insurgents in central America.  As time goes on Seal takes on more jobs for the CIA drawing the attention of Pablo Escobar and his emerging drug cartel.  Escobar wants Seal to use his new found job and resources to smuggle drugs into the United States.  Not exactly in a position to refuse, Seal starts playing both sides flirting with the authorities and making a ton of cash in the process.

American Made weaves an impressive web of history, espionage, action and drama with a surprising amount of humor to lighten up what is a rather dark story.  It has some solid writing which keeps the film moving.  This is a good thing as the story covers a large span of time.  The transitions between time periods is handled well and helps keep context for each stage of Seal’s story.  The acting is also well done with Cruise giving one of his best performances since 2008’s “Valkyrie”.  The supporting cast also does a good job especially, Glesson who expertly plays off Cruise with a healthy measure of ambiguity.  It’s Glesson’s most naturalistic role since Ex Machina.  The production design sets and grounds the film in each time period.  The film is shot with a subjective style bordering on mocumentary.  For most of the film the cinematography is made to make you feel as if you are following the characters with a camera watching events play out.  This third person perspective works well enough keeping the perspective grounded, dispensing with flashy camera movement and editing that would have felt out of place given the context.

American Made still
Domhnall Gleeson (right) and Tom Cruise (left) in American Made

“American Made” does play fast and loose with the real history of Barry Seal, at times making it more fiction then fact though the filmmakers do seem intent on representing Seal’s story even if it normalizes some of the more sensational events.  However, the biggest let down is a lack of a human element.  Seal is married with two children during the course of the film and his work flying all over central and north America takes him away from home quite a bit.  Unfortunately we don’t see the toll this takes on his family.   Instead Seal’s wife and family play in the periphery and don’t factor into the film as much as they should.  Instead “American Made” spends far too much time on Seal’s lifestyle.  Things he buys, parties he attends, people he rubs shoulders with.  There are several montages showing off the excess of Seal’s ill-gotten wealth that it becomes redundant.  It would have helped to have a better picture on Seal’s personal life, to understand the dynamics and feel the cost of his actions on his family.  Without it there’s a lot of sensationalism without enough heart to carry much emotion.  Additionally the moral ambiguity the film treats Seal’s character with is a problem.  Seal is portrayed as neither hero nor villain, he isn’t a patriot or a traitor, but just a regular guy in over his head as he’s used as a pawn by more powerful people.  It’s obvious the filmmakers are attempting to depict Seal’s story without any baked in judgement and while this has it’s merits it can make it hard to root for a man who gleefully helps to deliver huge shipments of cocaine to America while selling shipments of military assault rifles to the Columbian cartel.  It leaves the awkward question of why you should root for Seal, why would you want to see him succeed at all?  As such there is simply an air of ambivalence over Seals character which takes some of the power the film could have had.

“American Made” is a well written and acted take on a little known story following a significant sequence of events in American history.  It marks high points for both Doug Liman, and Tom Cruise.  However, the absents of a human element and the dubious morality of the main character make the film uneven and lacking in an emotional core.

 

 

New 3 1:2 stars
Final Score: 3 1/2 Stars

 

For more information on the ratings see our ABOUT page.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle Review

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Action, Adventure, Comedy

Rated: R for Sequences of strong violence, drug content, language throughout and some sexual material

Review by: Benjamin Ferrarini

Kingsman the golden circle poster

“Kingsman: The Secret Service” was released in 2014, based on a comic by Mark Miller and David Gibbons.  It garnered a 74% on Rotten Tomatoes and played well with audiences earning a B+ Cinema Score.  It was primarily a satirization of the spy film genre with a particular focus on the James Bond franchise.  It took many of the elements of spy/action movies, violence, sexuality, and product placements and turned them all to eleven.  It’s interesting we now have a sequel given the niche  “Kingsman” operated within.   The prevailing question I had going in was, where could they take “Kingsman” that would keep it from imploding in on itself?  Is there enough material to keep it from becoming a redundant retread?  The answer is yes and no.

“Kingsman: The Golden Circle” is directed by Matthew Vaughn and is written by Vaughn and Jane Goldman who collaborated with Vaughn on “Kick Ass” and “X-Men First Class”.  It brings back much of the original cast including Taron Egerton as Eggsy, Mark Strong as Merlin, and Sophie Cookson as Roxy.  It also brings in several new faces such as Channing Tatum, Halle Berry, Jeff Bridges and Julianne Moore as the films manic villain Poppy.  “Golden Circle” picks up a couple years after the first one ended.  Eggsy has stepped into Harry Hart’s position in Kingsman and has developed a committed relationship with Princess Tide who Eggsy rescued at the end of the first film.  His positive trajectory is derailed when the charismatic hyper Poppy launches an attack which all but wipes out the Kingsman.  Eggsy and Merlin then travel to America to team up with their bigger and more advanced cousin organization Statesman.  But, time is ticking as they try to discover Poppy’s end game and attempt to stop her.

Kingsman the golden circle still
Julianne Moore as Poppy in Kingsman: The Golden Circle

“The Golden Circle” is exactly what you’d expect from Matthew Vaughn.  It’s loud, violent, and crass.  This is showcased early on as Poppy demonstrates how she disposes of disloyal henchman and let’s just say it involves a meat grinder and burger patties.  Like the first film “Golden Circle” revels in the ridiculous overindulgence of these elements with glee.  Each member of the cast does a good job with the material, Egerton especially has a wider range portraying a slightly older and more mature Eggsy.  The Statesman cast works well playing against Egerton and Strong but some of them like Jeff Bridges just aren’t in the film enough.  I thought Moore did an decent job with a character that was simply over the top in terms of how mirthfully deranged she is.

The action pushes the stunts and visuals from the first film to another level utilizing a ton of CG camera moves and perspective changes.  There isn’t anything that quite rivals the church scene from the first film but there is a rather stunning sequence in a high-tech mountain gondola.  For the most part the action works but the artificial camera moves do get old and don’t quite feel real enough to have much impact.  Likewise “Golden Circle” doesn’t really deliver on the promise of the premise from the trailers… the proper British agents of Kingsman clashing with the good old southern boys of American Statesman.  There are a few moments of cultural humor to be had but as a whole the dynamic isn’t used to its fullest potential.  Perhaps the most controversial element is one that was also spoiled in the trailers and that is the return of Colin Firth as Harry Hart.  Back from the dead courtesy of some hyper advanced medical tech Statesman used.  This buyback of Harry’s death from the first movie has its charm but also robs “The Secrete Service” of one of its most emotionally impactful moments.

The problem with “Golden Circle” is that it doesn’t really do anything the first film didn’t do.  The plots of both are ridiculous, the villains caricatures of Bond baddies, the violence over the top.  Yes, it works in some commentary on drug use and American politics with the satire but not to the same effect the first film did.  While “Golden Circle” shifts what it makes fun of it does feel a bit redundant.  Thus while taken on its own terms the film is a fun and over-the-top action spy film.  As a sequel it doesn’t do enough to distinguish itself.  Like a joke that becomes less funny the more you hear it this film just doesn’t work as well.  If you enjoy Matthew Vaughn’s style of films, and you liked the first “Kingsman” then “Golden Circle” is right up your alley.  However, if you find Vaughn’s style offensive or if you didn’t like the first film then there is nothing here that’s likely to change your perceptions.

 

New 3 1:2 stars
Final Score: 3 1/2 Stars

What Happened to Monday Review

What Happened to Monday

Sci-fi, Drama, Mystery

TV-MA: Strong Violence, language and some sexuality/nudity.

Review by: Benjamin Ferrarini

Monday Poster

 

“What Happened to Monday” is a film produced in Europe under the name “Seven Sisters” and distributed in America by Netflix.  It stars Noomi Rapace (“Prometheus”), Glenn Close (“The Girl with all the Gifts” ), and Willem Dafoe (“Boondock Saints”).  It is Directed by Tommy Wirkola best known for his horror comedies “Dead Snow” and “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters “ and written by Max Botkin and Kerry Williamson (“Alex Cross”).

It takes place in a not too distant future in which over population is threatening the earth.  Over farming to produce food is ruining the ground so people turn to genetically modified crops but this in turn causes women to conceive multiple births making the population problem even worse.  Until Nicolette Cayman, played by Glenn Close, lobbies for and passes a one child per family law.  This law is enforced by the Child Allocation Bureau which takes away children to be cryogenically frozen until the population crisis lessens.  The film focuses on seven identical sisters who lose their mother in child-birth.  Their grandfather Terrence Settman played by Dafoe manages to keep the girl’s birth from the authorities and raises them in secret.  Settman names each girl after a day of the week and tells them they each go outside on the day that coincides with their name.  Together they collectively take on the singular identity of Karen Settman.  This works for years until one day Monday doesn’t come home.

“What Happened to Monday’s” greatest strength is in it’s main cast.  Rapace, Close, and Dafoe all do a stellar job carrying their respective rolls.  This is especially true of Rapace who has the added job of playing 7 characters each with their unique personalities and quarks.  However, while Glenn Close and Willem Dafoe do a good job with the material they are given they are not given nearly enough screen time.  Close’s character Dr. Cayman isn’t fleshed out enough to be a felt presents as the film’s villain and Dafoe drops out of the film far too early with no explanation as to what happened to him or how the seven sisters coped with the loss of their father figure.  The setting likewise has strengths and weaknesses.  The futuristic city has elements that feel real enough but there is a lot left undeveloped.  For instance the Child Allocation Bureau seems to be an omni-present force all over the city but there is no sign of traditional police even when the sisters end up in running shoot outs with bureau agents through the streets.  Likewise the use of wrist ID bracelets seems an unlikely technological development in our day and age.  retinal scenes, finger print scanners or D.N.A. scanners which have been featured in other films are a more logical extension of our current technology.  In other words there are too many things about this world that are conveniently set up in such a way as to make the story possible but doesn’t make it very believable.  Though one thing the film does do moderately well is it’s action sequences.  There isn’t a ton of action in the film but what it does have is shot well with solid choreography.  However, as I mentioned there are times the action doesn’t make sense in the context of where it takes place.  For instance a shoot out in an apartment building which draws no attention from police or other residents.  Finally the mystery of what happened to Monday isn’t as complicated or mysterious as the filmmakers would like you to think.  There are a number of plot points and reveals that are to obvious or to over played.

Monday still
Noomi Rapace playing 7 identical sisters
The premise and even the trailer might lead you to believe “What Happened to Monday” could be campy sci-fi fun but unfortunately the film has a grim tone and takes itself too seriously to be fun.  It’s a shame because there are some interesting ideas and a few good elements here.  Unfortunately none of these things come together to work effectively.  In the end “What Happened to Monday” sidelines its best elements, doesn’t developed its world or its characters enough to have any real impact and isn’t nearly as intelligent as it seems to think it is.

 

New 2 stars
Final Score: 2 Stars

One Bad Day: The Problem with the Stand Alone Joker Film

Film | News | Opinion

Written by: Benjamin Ferrarini

News broke on Tuesday August 22 that Warner Brothers and DC are in the early stages of preproduction on a new Batman film focusing on the Joker.  The film is being produced by Martin Scorsese (“The Wolf of Wall Street”)  and has Todd Phillips (The “Hangover”) and Scott Silver (“8 Mile”) writing the script with Phillips also handling directing duties.   It is in fact one of many spin-off films in Warner Brothers aggressive plan to expand the Batman Universe.

joker
Heath Ledger as The Joker in “The Dark Knight”

There are a couple of things about this news which are particularly concerning.  One is apparent confusion surrounding Warner Brothers interest in pursuing these “stand alone” films that may or may not exist outside the DCEU.  Presumably this means there will be multiple parallel story lines that don’t connect to each other.  Characters may be portrayed by more than one actor.  As a more recent reports suggest that unnamed producers at Warner Brothers are interested in Leonardo DiCaprio for the part of the Joker in Scorsese’s Joker film.   Of course this is an early report and WB was quick to clarify no deal had been struck with DiCaprio yet however the desire to so quickly recast the iconic role after “Suicide Squad” last year highlights  the schism I’m talking about.  This on top of the slate of DC television shows which already feature divergent stories and actors separate from the DCEU.  It’s a recipe for a convoluted mess that could confuse film goers as they try to figure out what is cannon and what isn’t.  Which stories are relevant and which are ancillary.

Additionally, in a Deadline article there is talk that the film will emulate “Hard Boiled” 1980’s crime noir stories.  While conceptually there is nothing wrong with this.  It makes sense given Scorsese’s involvement and could give it a feel closer to Burton’s Batman.  At the same time however, DC is still trying forge a personality for the DCEU, having a film so tonally and esthetically different could add some much needed diversity but my feeling is that DC has a bit of an identity crisis, unsure of what they want their film slate to be.  After “Batman V. Superman” and “Suicide Squad” there was a perception that DC and WB cared more about stuffing movies with characters then they did about the stories they were actually telling with those characters.  Now I fear they believe they can find success by pumping out a large volume of films thus confusing quantity with quality.

justice league

However, this isn’t the primary issue with the proposed Joker origin film and that brings me to my second concern.  The biggest issue is the news that the film will explore the Joker’s origin story.  This is an issue because the Joke has had several origin stories over the years and DC has never shown any desire to offer clarity on which version is the “true” version.   Christ Nolan played with this in “The Dark Knight” with Heath Ledger’s Joker giving his different back stories.  One of the more famous one of course comes from “The Killing Joke” (Said to be a loose adaptation of the Joker origin in a previous Batman comic “The Man Behind the Red Hood”) and there are fans who hold this as the true origin for the Joker.  However, given the recent animated film based on the “Killing Joke” it is unlikely they will go that route for this new film.   Joker’s origins have been veiled in secrecy and truth be told, that’s how a lot of fans, myself included, like it.  You could make the argument that a future film would be just one more version to add to the various storylines, after all Tim Burton’s 1989 “Batman” had a depiction of Joker’s origin.  Still for Warner Brothers to release an official “origin story” would add a lot of credence on one particular take on the character.  It’s unclear at this point if that’s something fans even want.  Of course all of this is speculation… such a film could be a powerhouse success or it could backfire terribly.

One more thought on the greater DCEU.  Back in 2014 Marvel held a press conference where they announced the nine films that would make up phase three of the MCU.  Some criticized Marvel for showing their hand so completely believing it robbed them of any ability to surprise audiences since everyone knew what was coming down the road.  While there may be some merit to this critique it left no doubt that Marvel had a plan for where they wanted to take the MCU.  While some changes have been made in the intervening years the heart of Marvels phase three plans have remained intact.

mcu phase 3
Kevin Feige introducing Marvel’s Phase Three slate.

By contrast DC and WB don’t seem to yet have a plan and if they do they have yet to communicate it effectively.  While there is certainly some reasons for WB to keep their cards close to their chest at this point “Wonder Woman” is there only qualified success and there is a lot of consternation surrounding “Justice League”.  Giving some idea that they are taking critical responses in to consideration and that they have some idea of where they are taking their DCEU may help ease fears down the road.  For the moment though I feel confident saying a lot of eyes will be on “Justice League” which releases next month, because it’s success or failure at the box office will be an indicator which may foretell the fate of these up coming DCEU films.

If you have any thoughts on DC’s films or want to share your reaction to news about a Joker origin movie feel free to leave a comment below.

IT (2017) Review

IT (2017)

Horror, Drama

Rated: R for violence/horror, bloody images, and for language.

Review by: Benjamin Ferrarini

IT 2017 poster

 

“IT” is a new film based on the 1986 novel of the same name by Stephen King.  It was previously adapted as a two part television mini series in 1990.  The film is directed by Andy Muchietti who is mainly known for his indy horror film “Mama” released in 2013.  It starts Jaeden Lieberher (“Book of Henry”),  Sophia Lillis (“37”), Finn Wolfhard (“Stranger Things”) and Bill Skarsgård (“Atomic Blond”).  The film also boasts several other up and coming child actors.  Handling the writing duties for this adaptation is Cary Fukunaga (“Beast of no Nation”), Gary Dauberman (“Annabelle”), and Chase Palmer.

 

The film is set in the 1980’s in the small town of Derry, which is being terrorized by a malevolent force that seems to come after children.  The opening sees one of the main characters Bill making a small paper boat for his little brother Georgie who takes the boat out into a rain storm to see if it floats.  When the boat is washed down a storm drain Georgie meets Pennywise played by Skarsgård.  A monster who takes the form of a clown.  Georgie is pulled down by Pennywise and it is this disappearance that kicks off the rest of the film.  A year later we pick up with several young boys who make up a group of misfits known as “the Losers”.  Early on the Losers accept a, girl, Beverly into the group.  The film takes some time introducing each character giving reasons why they are each outcasts in their own way.  As each of them encounter Pennywise they begin to awaken to the reality of the monster who is preys on their fear.  The question is can they find a way to overcome it.

IT’s strength is in its cast which bolsters an ensemble of strong child actors who play their respective rolls.  The screen writers do a good job representing Stephen King’s brand of banter and humor among the group of Losers and the cast pulls it off with a surprising deftness.  Most of it feels natural enough to be believable and compelling.  Especially Finn Wolfhard who plays the trash talking Richie a character totally unlike his character Mike Wheeler in “Stranger Things”.  However, it’s Bill Skarsgård that steals the show as Pennywise.  In the 1990 mini series Pennywise was masterfully played by Tim Curry.  There is a marked difference here as Curry’s Pennywise had a goofy, even campy veneer over his dark evil nature while Skarsgård’s performance is straight out of a nightmare.  His on screen presence is skin crawlingly creepy which perfectly sets the tone for the whole film.  The production design is also spot on from the hair styles and wardrobe, to the wood paneled cars and the calculator wristwatches they well establish the 1980’s time period which becomes an immersive part of the setting.  Like “Stranger Things” before it the time period, aside from being faithful to the book, keeps intact some limitations on the situation.  There are no smartphones, no high speed internet, Facebook, Snap-Chat or other modern forms of communication that would isolate the characters from some of Pennywise’s tactics.  As for the horror elements “IT” has a number of jumps scares only a couple of which are genuinely effective.  Otherwise “IT” plays up the creepy factor providing a number of tense and unsettling scenes that stretch on to the point of being uncomfortable.  It’s a dynamic that works well for the film.   “IT” bolster a fairly long run time for a horror movie coming in at two and a quarter hours.  For the most part the film does a good job with pacing, building tension leading to each of its scares and then slowing down again before building to the next.

It Still
Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise the clown

I say for the most part because there are one or two places where the pacing falters a bit.  Most notably near the end of the second act which doesn’t allow enough time to feel the desperate situation the characters are in and robs the third act of some of its power.  There is also a problem with a school bully, Henry, played by Nicholas Hamilton (“The Dark Tower”) who serves as a fringe threat to The Losers.  However, Hamilton’s character disappears from the film for too long, robbing him of the impact he should have.  It also suffers from a horror movie cliché of characters doing things that aren’t particularly believable.  Even after understanding the nature of the threat they are facing characters are still inclined to follow strange noises down dark hallways.  It’s hard to fault the film too much for this though because as I said it’s a mainstay of the genre.

“IT” is a very competent adaptation of King’s novel that stands on it’s own merits as a fun thrilling horror film.  It is by far the best adaptation so far this summer.  It highlights the importance of friendship, overcoming your fear and letting go of the things that haunt you.  If you enjoy King’s brand of thriller/horror then you will likely enjoy this incarnation of “IT”.

Slight Spoiler Warning…

The film only covers about half the book… it stays with The Losers in their first encounter with Pennywise and ends with them swearing to come back together if IT ever returns to Derry.  The final image is a title card declaring the film to be “IT chapter one”.  Obviously the filmmakers plan to expand the film into a franchise with at least one sequel.  Early reports are that “IT” is on track for a record breaking opening with Box Office Mojo and Variety predicting it’s weekend hall being north of $100 million… if this holds true then future installments are all but assured.

 

 

New 4 stars
Final Score: 4 Stars

 

For more on the ratings see out ABOUT page

 

Death Note (2017) Review

Death Note (2017)

Death Note Poster

Death Note is a new Netflix produced film based on Japanese the manga of the same name.  The Manga was released in America by Viz Media and ran from 2003 to 2006 with an additional “epilog” chapter released in 2008.  It was adapted into an anime in 2006 and also into a number of Japanese live action films in 2008 and 20016.  The American Netflix adaptation attempted to tell a condensed version of the story while also changing some key elements to make it better fit a western setting.  It stars Nat Wolff (“The Fault in our Stars”) as protagonist Light Turner.  Margaret Qualley (“The Leftovers”) as Mia Sutton, Light’s ally and girlfriend. Lakeith Stanfield (“Get Out”) as the mysterious investigator L and Willem Dafoe (“Boondock Saints”) gives voice and life to the mythic CG “Death God” Ryuk, the one who passed the Death Note to Light.  It’s directed by Adam Wingard who is best known for low-budget horror films such as his contribution to the horror anthology “V/H/S”.  So, it’s worth noting there is a good amount of talent involved with this adaptation.

The basic story concerns a high school student named Light who happens on a mysterious notebook with the words “Death Note” stenciled across it.  The inside instructs that if holder of the death note writes a persons name while visualizing their face the victim will die in whatever manner specified.   Light tentatively used the book just on a school bully just to see if it really works which it does to a gory effect.  Following this Light decided he should use the Death Note to take care of all the evil people in the world who have escaped the law.  A girl from school, Mia, is drawn into this after she befriends and subsequently starts to date Light.  Though his actions have not gone unnoticed as Light has taken on the persona Kira, a “god” of vengeance responsible for all the killings.  The alphabet agencies along with several world-wide law enforcement agencies seek to find Kira/Light.   Then L, an enigmatic and almost erratic teenage genius, joins in the hunt to bring Light down.

The story of “Death Note” is rather straight forward but the Netflix film manages to muddy it a bit as it has a few odd tonal shifts.  When Light first gets the Death Note he is goaded into using it by Ryuk.  Light hears a school bully terrorizing a female student and decides to write the bully’s name in the book stipulating he die by decapitation.  The film then channels “Final Destination” as a series of accidents leads to the bully literally loosing his head.  A short while later the film shifts gears feeling more like a dark teen drama as Light begins a relationship with Mia and later it shifts again into thriller territory as Light and Mia play cat and mouse games with the police.  These changes in tone don’t work as none of them are done particularly well and the combined effect makes the film feel as if it isn’t sure what it wants to be.  Some of the characters likewise are uneven and inconsistent.  Light shifts from hero, to villain attempts to swing back to hero only to end in a highly ambiguous place.  L is introduced as a genius level detective but his character ends up essentially being a plot device with little to ground him and nothing to actually make him relatable or compelling.

Death Note 2017 still
Lakeith Stanfield as L (left) and Nat Wolff as Light Turner (right)

At best “Death Note” could skate by as cheesy low-budget teen horror with all the focus it places on the Death Note’s gory kills, but it’s a terrible adaptation of Tsugumi Ohba’s manga.  They keep the names and some of the plot architecture but everything that made the original special is gutted.  In the manga and the anime “Death Note” plays with the themes of justice, morality, and the corrupting nature of power.  It is also primarily about a mental game of chess between two intelligent adversaries.  The relationship that forms between Light and L is a key component that makes the original compelling.  None of this factors into the Netflix adaptation which essentially hollows it out and makes it a husk of it’s source material.  Just about the only positive thing I can say is that Willem Dafoe does an excellent job as Ryuk the demonic “god of death” who is tied to the Death Note.  It’s never clear whose side Ryuk is on or what his goals are and Dafoe is pitch perfect playing in this ambiguity.  The main fault here is that, like Lakeith Stanfield’s L, he is criminally under utilized.

With poor writing full of forced exposition, uneven performances and odd tonal shifts the Netflix Death Note is a mess with little to recommend it.  It may be fun for teen horror fans but otherwise I would suggest you stick with the 2006 anime which is far more faithful to the manga and can also be found streaming on Netflix.

 

New 2 stars
Final Score: 2 Stars

 

For more on the ratings see the ABOUT page

 

Marvel’s The Defenders Season One Review

Marvel’s The Defenders Season One

The Defenders poster

“The Defenders” is the fifth and newest Marvel show produced for Netflix.  It joins “Daredevil”, “Jessica Jones”, “Luke Cage” and “Iron Fist” each of which has at least one season of stand alone shows already.

The first episode opens on Danny Rand as he and his partner Colleen Wing hunting for information on the Hand which sends them back to Manhattan.  Luke Cage has gotten out of prison and attempts to go back home. Jessica Jones is still buried in booze and self loathing as she refuses to deal with what happened with Kilgrave.  Matt Murdock has stopped being Daredevil and hung up his costume, focusing instead on helping people as a lawyer.  The first episode is especially good at taking time with each of our down trodden heroes quickly catching up with each of them.  “The Avengers” were round up and placed together by Nick Fury, not so here.  Each of our heroes end up working on separate cases which of course are all secretly related.  The Hand which had been a presents in Daredevil and Iron Fist is executing some fiendish plan which will leave New York in ruins.  The leader behind this is Alexandra Reid, played by Sigourney Weaver (“Alien”), a charismatic woman who may be far older then she appears, and who is running out of time to accomplish what ever her goal is.  However she isn’t alone as other members, like Madame Gao, make an appearance.

The first couple of episodes are full of character intros, set ups, and more than a few cameos.  However, most of them don’t feel forced or out of place.  If anything they feel like a natural extension of the world Netflix has built across the previous 4 series.  It’s note worthy that none of the main characters cross paths in the first episode.  It is a different approach that works well as each of these characters, even more so then the Avengers, have little interest in working as part of a team.  Jessica doesn’t even see herself as a hero, Matt’s trying to get away from vigilantism, Luke believes he’s just trying to do what’s right for his neighborhood leaving Danny as the only one who has taken on a hero mantle.  As with the “Avengers” part of appeal of “The Defenders” is seeing the different personalities mesh and clash as they attempt to work together.  It’s nice they take time to get reacquainted with each of the characters and their respective worlds before they come crashing together.  Again I will stress how they attempt to do this organically.  For instance when Jessica Jones gets arrested while pursuing a lead in an investigation Matt shows up as her lawyer.  Matt is taking Jessica’s case because Foggy, who now works for Hogarth, has been passing Maett work to keep him out of the DareDevil suit.  Some of these things amount to plot convenience but it works well enough to be believable.

defenders 1
Finn Jones as Danny Rand (Left), Mike Colter as Luke Cage (Center), Krysten Ritter as Jessica Jones (Right) in “The Defenders”.

Each of the four have different strengths but the weakest of the four is Danny Rand.  He swings between passive aggressive brooding and glowing fisted fighter at the drop of a hat.  Neither side of him is very consistent though Finn Jones’s performance is stronger here then in the “Iron Fist” series.  Mike Colter does a decent job as Luke Cage but it’s really Cox and Ritter who carry the bulk of “The Defenders”.  Likewise Matt and Jessica continue to be the most engaging and complex of the heroes.  Both Matt and Jessica are struggling with the events they been through and aren’t as eager to jump into trouble as Luke and Danny are.

It’s interesting that The Hand was chosen as the main antagonist for “The Defenders” as they have been present either as a shadow threat or a direct one in other Netflix Marvel shows.  In “The Defenders” the hand reveals itself fully for the first time showing themselves to be a formidable adversary because their reach exceeds what anyone knows and their plan isn’t immediately evident.  It’s another thing the series takes time to develop.

the defenders 2

While it’s good that the series takes time to develop it’s unfortunate that “The Defenders” is only eight episodes long because the last couple of episodes rush an awkward and uneven conclusion.  Parts of it don’t work as well as they should while others feel like a retread of things that have come before.  The last episode ends on a lot of quick snapshots of the different characters as they are maneuvered to jumping off points for each of the stand alone show’s next seasons.

Overall “The Defenders” does some things very well other less well.  The four main characters and the supporting cast are balanced and compelling while the villains sadly are not developed very well, especially Weaver’s Alexandra who is woefully underutilized.  The story ends up being uneven as the first part builds well but then the pacing speeds up with a rushed resolution.  If you’re a fan of the other Netfilx Marvel shows then you will enjoy this one as well, if not there isn’t much here that’s likely to change your perception.

 

new 3 stars
Final Score: 3 Stars

 

For more information about ratings see the ABOUT page.

Ghost in the Shell (2017) Review

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, suggestive content and some disturbing images.

Review by: Benjamin Ferrarini

Ghost in the Shell Poster

“Ghost in the Shell” is a long running franchise which started with a Japanese manga first run in 1989.  The manga received its first big screen adaptation in the anime film of the same name in 1995 which was considered a classic masterpiece of Japanese animation and a functional adaptation of its source material.  A 2002 spin off anime series “Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex” took inspiration from the film and manga but built its own story around the core characters and world.  Thus the live action “Ghost in the Shell” released earlier this year is only the most recent incarnation of this beloved franchise.  The film made headlines early on for a white washing controversy surrounding the casting of Scarlett Johansson as a main protagonist who is largely known as Major.  There was also quite a lot of fans who quickly dismissed the film based on the early pieces of information that began to trickle out.  Being a fan of the original anime film I was fairly critical of a western adaptation.  However, having finally settle down to watch it I am finally able to render my take on whether the new film lives up to its name.

Rupert Sanders (“Snow White and the Huntsman”) helms this version of “Ghost in the Shell” focusing on Johansson as the Major.  She is part of a cyber crime police force in some unnamed futuristic city with an odd mix of western and eastern features.  In this vision of the future nearly everyone has adopted some form of cybernetic augmentation.  Robotic arms, cybernetic eyes and even synthetic livers are all common place.  Major however is unique as she is the first true cyborg.  Her human brain was “shelled” inside a robotic body due to some mysterious accident.  While attempting to adapt to her new reality Major is drawn into the hunt for a terrorist who is assassinating the employees of the company that created her.  This mysterious assassin named Kuze, played by Michael Pitt, has a strange pull on Major causing her to begin questioning much of what she’s believed.  This is a slightly different take on the character with a Major that is still trying to get a handle on her new body.  She also suffers from memory loss of everything before the shelling process.

Standing on it’s own “Ghost in the Shell” is competent enough bolstered by Johansson’s performance.  She plays Major with a compelling mix of strength and vulnerability.  There are a number of other characters that stand out too, chief among them Major’s partner Batou and boss Aramaki.  What really stands out, though, is the world Sander’s created.  The futuristic city “Ghost in the Shell” takes place in has rich cinematic visuals.  Towering holographic billboards dwarf buildings and people alike, the costumes and production design work together to flesh out the world Major lives in.  This is especially true of the people, almost all of whom show signs of cybernetic augmentation.  Likewise robots and androids walk around constantly reminding you of the technology that pervades this world.  It makes the city a character in itself and helps to imbue the whole film with a certain flair.  Much of the action is done well with energy that keeps things moving.

However there are a couple points where energetic devolves into frantic and it’s hard to keep up with what’s happening on screen. Likewise the film’s attempts to make use of John Woo style slow motion that sometimes works but more often then not feels unnecessary. Some of the characters come across flat and one note without enough substance to make them feel believable.  The mix of Japanese and American elements is odd because there’s no real explanation given for it.  English speaking American actors like Johansson play along side actors like Takeshi Kitano who speaks only Japanese.  There’s seemingly no rationale for this and it becomes somewhat distracting as the film goes on.

That brings me to my biggest problem with this film.  “Ghost in the Shell” doesn’t stand on its own very well.  The film uses some rather iconic imagery from the manga and the anime but repurposes it.  It also makes an attempt at the existential philosophizing that defines the other incarnations but cat pull it off as successfully.  Both the manga and the anime serve as a sort of commentary on technology and humanity.  It ask questions about the nature of what makes us human.  In fact what defines the other iterations of “Ghost in the Shell” is that they ask these questions without answering them.  The philosophical elements in the new film don’t work because it spends too much time setting up some rather cliche questions and then attempts to answers them itself.  Because there are so many callbacks, references and even recreations of moments from the manga and anime it is hard to separate them, to see them as distinct, if parallel, entities.

If “Ghost in the Shell” were an original sci-fi property it would stand as a competent though cliche adventure, but as it represents what many still see as Shirow Masamune’s masterpiece it falls terribly short of the mark.

 

New 2 1:2 stars
Final Score: 2 1/2 Stars