It (2017)

aka It: Chapter One

2018 #118
Andy Muschietti | 135 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA & Canada / English | 15 / R

It

The highest-grossing horror movie of all time, It is the story of a bunch of teenagers in small-town America coming face to face with an ancient evil… who looks like a clown. Well, it can look like other things too, but mostly it’s a clown. Why did it stick with that form? I dunno. Maybe coulrophobia is even more common than we think.

Adapted from a novel by Stephen King (which was previously filmed as a miniseries), It actually only tackles half the book, meaning they get to crank out a sequel too (currently due next September). This actually works in the film’s favour, however: the novel takes place across two timelines, and, rather than just adapt the first half of the book, the film only adapts the earlier timeline. That means it makes for a complete experience in itself, rather than feeling like you’ve only got half the story.

It also focuses our view of the characters. Rather than seeing them at two very different times in their lives, it becomes a coming-of-age tale… albeit one where they come of age thanks to having to battle a supernatural horror. “It”, aka Pennywise the clown, is effectively and unpredictably scary, because he’s able to turn up at any time in any form. It seems almost like a cheat — a free-for-all excuse for the film to be scary whenever and however it fancies, without the need to follow any monster rules. At the same time, that makes the film less predictable, and therefore more effective, at the headline goal of a horror movie, i.e. scaring you. Also, if we’re parsing this as a coming-of-age tale more than a monster movie, it allows It’s various forms to further develop the characters: each identity it assumes is custom-made to terrify the individual being targeted, and the only rule is you defeat It by overcoming your fear, an act which is (in this movie at least) explicitly tied to growing up.

I've got 99 red balloons and this is one

Plenty of people will line up to tell you It isn’t actually all that scary, a level of assessment that is to watching horror movies what boasting who can eat the hottest curry is to dining. Obviously, everyone’s mileage will vary. I found some of it to be suitably unsettling and disturbing, and the “any time, any place” aspect keeps you alert and on edge. The downside is that, for the first chunk of the movie, the film just seems to be a series of unsettling scenes without much of a plot. It gets over that when the gang really comes together, but I can see why the movie ended up being so long: there are too many characters, and because It assaults each with their own personalised horror, we have to wait while the film gives them all individual sequences. Not that any of it is bad, but it threw the pacing off for me. Maybe it would’ve been better if they reduced the size of the gang by deleting a character or two.

One thing that did get ditched between page and screen is one of the most infamous scenes in King’s novel: a ten-page pre-teen orgy. Though, as it occurs during a section of the plot that we don’t actually see depicted on screen, I guess you could imagine it still happened, if you want. Ironically, while the film may have removed that overt sexuality, it still very much male-gazes the gang’s only female member, Beverly: there’s a scene where all the boys ogle her as she sunbathes in her underwear, and she begins the film’s climax as a “damsel in distress” who has to be rescued by a “true love’s first kiss” kinda deal. She’s not completely useless or without agency, but there’s room for improvement.

The Losers Club

What’s perhaps most baffling is that, by the sound of things, the early drafts for this movie (which were rejected and rewritten after original writer-director Cary Fukunaga left the project) did a lot to modernise that stuff. For example, there’s a scene where Beverly flirts with an (adult) pharmacist as a distraction, but, in the original draft, one of the other kids just faked a medical emergency for the same result. No, that’s not the most egregiously sexual thing they could’ve put in (child orgy!), but it’s still putting her in the position of being an object of lust. I guess, much like the scariness of the horror, your mileage will vary on how distasteful this stuff is. Ultimately, it’s a fairly small part of the movie.

Even if the film runs a little long, I mostly enjoyed It. Its scary scenes are unnerving enough that it works as a horror-show ride, while its coming-of-age aspect is bolstered by really good performances from the young cast, and clear thematic stuff about overcoming fear and the value of friendship. Which almost makes it sound like a kids’ film, but, yeah, don’t go putting this on for younguns — coulrophobia would be the least of their problems.

4 out of 5

It is available on Sky Cinema from today.

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The Dark Tower (2017)

2018 #25
Nikolaj Arcel | 95 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

The Dark Tower

The Dark Tower started life as a literary work that is, according to its author, Stephen King’s magnum opus: a series of eight novels, written over 30 years and spanning some 4,250 pages, that not only tell their own genre-mash-up story, but also reference or connect up many of King’s more widely-known works. Since 2007 there have been various efforts to try to wrangle such an epic work onto the screen, with perhaps the most high-profile being Ron Howard’s ambitious plan to spread it across both film and TV, alternating a trilogy of big-budget movies with seasons of TV on HBO in order to adapt the whole saga. This clearly proved to be too formidable a goal, but eventually paved the way for what was released: a single 90-minute film. From one extreme to the other, eh…

It’s easy to imagine why fans of the books have found this film disappointing, then — I mean, there’s no way they’ve managed to accurately condense seven novels (and some of them very long novels at that) into an hour and a half. But, despite the series-encompassing title, it’s my understanding that it’s primarily an adaptation of the first novel, so surely fans would know they could expect the rest of the narrative if sequels were produced? The perceived problems must go deeper, therefore, and be more general: leaving aside fan reaction, the film has a Rotten Tomatoes score of just 16%.

Strut

Well, I don’t know what people were hating, because I thought it really wasn’t that bad. I can’t comment on its faithfulness or thoroughness as an adaptation, but as an action-fantasy movie in its own right I thought it held together pretty well. It only cost $60 million (a bargain for a blockbuster nowadays), but they got good value for money: it doesn’t look cheap, and it has a respectable lead cast as well. Idris Elba’s presence may’ve pissed off some people (his character has consistently been depicted as white in illustrations accompanying the books), but he seemed to fit the role. Matthew McConaughey makes for a decently unsetting bad guy. Our identification figure is a kid played by Doctor Foster’s Tom Taylor, who’s fine here but got to show more chops in that series.

The relatively stringent budget probably explains why it’s a little light on things like epic action sequences, with those that are included feeling like the makers were probably doing their best on a limited expenditure — the action isn’t bad, but those scenes aren’t as awesome as the film thinks they are. Less readily excused is the plot, which is a bit slim — the story is very straightforward, despite the intricate fantasy gubbins dressing it up, moving directly from A to B to C with minimal complication. Similarly, familiar character arcs are efficiently executed. But if a film’s biggest crime is unoriginality, it’s no worse than the majority of Hollywood’s output for the past 20 or 30 (or more) years, is it?

Slinging guns

Well, according to script editor (and fan of the books) Andrew Ellard in his discussion of the movie, that’s precisely the problem. He argues the film represents “the exact same competent mediocrity we’ve seen before from — say — I, Robot or I Am Legend. Not a bad film especially. Just kinda nothing. Or like Inkheart or Assassin’s Creed, fantasy you won’t remember tomorrow. But the books are fascinating. Full of ideas & imagery that haunt you. To pick the blandest, most generic stuff? Dumb.” This, I do suppose, is what fans were primarily upset about. If you don’t know the books then the film we’ve been given is fine as just a reasonable time-passer, but if you feel that it could — should — have been something truly special, how frustrating that must be.

The Dark Tower grossed $113 million, which, at less than double its budget, probably isn’t enough to secure the mooted sequel (especially when it’s put in comparison to 2017’s other Stephen King adaptation, It, which surpassed $700 million). I guess someday it’ll get re-adapted, probably as a TV series, maybe by Netflix, or Amazon, especially if they still haven’t found the Game of Thrones-beater they’re currently looking for. Until then, this version stands as a reasonably enjoyable quickie — not as bad as you may’ve heard, but apparently not all it could’ve been either.

3 out of 5

The Dark Tower is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Christine (1983)

2016 #85
John Carpenter | 106 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

ChristineOne of a couple of films John Carpenter directed “for hire” in an attempt to restore his Hollywood reputation after the box office failure of The Thing, Christine is an adaptation of a Stephen King novel about a car possessed by evil. Yes, a car. I guess if you wait long enough, anything and everything will be possessed by evil eventually (in fiction, at any rate).

Despite that pedigree, Christine is about as scary as… well, I was trying to think of something soft and fluffy that hasn’t ever been used in a horror movie, but that list is increasingly short. But you get my point: it’s not scary. Its 18 certificate is earned by an abundance of very strong language — which, according to screenwriter Bill Phillips, was added for that exact purpose: the film wasn’t violent enough to get an R, and they didn’t think people would see it if it was a PG (this being before the PG-13), so they just inserted a lot of swearing. It’s still a pretty entertaining film, though, thanks to some humour and the almost-there thematic subtext of America’s obsession with the automobile.

The central (human) character is Arnie, a nerdy teen who becomes obsessed and then empowered by the eponymous vehicle. Keith Gordon is pretty good as this “worm that turned” type, albeit in a somewhat melodramatic way: he’s a heightened version of a nerd at the start, and a heightened version of a car-obsessed teenage dick later on. One review I read reckoned the film “sacrifices character logic” — what, there’s a flaw in the logical behaviour of a guy who’s semi-possessed by his demonic car, you mean?

Girl on girl action, of a sortEven if Carpenter was doing it only for kudos with the studios, he still turned in solid work. Christine may not be scary, but she is menacing, and her attacks work as individual sequences. Unsurprisingly it’s not his strongest film, and it’s not the greatest adaptation in the Stephen King movie canon either, but if all movies by jobbing filmmakers were this good then we’d be luckier moviegoers.

4 out of 5

Christine is one of the first releases from new UK Blu-ray label Indicator, out today.

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #83

Fear can hold you prisoner.
Hope can set you free.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 142 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 23rd September 1994 (USA)
UK Release: 17th February 1995
First Seen: TV, c.1999

Stars
Tim Robbins (Jacob’s Ladder, Mystic River)
Morgan Freeman (Driving Miss Daisy, Invictus)
Bob Gunton (Demolition Man, Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls)

Director
Frank Darabont (The Green Mile, The Mist)

Screenwriter
Frank Darabont (A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, The Green Mile)

Based on
Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, a short story by Stephen King.

The Story
When Andy Dufrense is incarcerated in Shawshank State Penitentiary, he soon finds himself helping the corrupt warden money-launder his bribes. With a measure of protection from the guards, Andy’s common decency leads him to try to improve life for his fellow inmates, all the while thriving on the hope he’ll one day get out.

Our Heroes
Andy Dufrense is an intelligent fella, who earns himself protection and privileges by helping with the guards’ finances, and befriends fellow inmates by overhauling the prison library. He’s serving two consecutive life sentences for murdering his wife and her lover, despite claiming he’s innocent — like everyone else in Shawshank. Conversely, his new best friend, Red — the film’s narrator — is the only guilty man in Shawshank. He’s the guy you go to if you want anything smuggled in, like, say, a rock hammer…

Our Villains
Warden Samuel Norton is outwardly a good Christian and forward-thinking prison governor, but is actually a corrupt and vicious sonuvabitch, only too happy to use Andy’s skills to fiddle the books — and punish him harshly for any signs of dissent. His right-hand-man is the captain of the guards, Hadley, who’s not above giving a wayward prisoner a life-altering beating, or worse…

Best Supporting Character
The prison’s librarian, Brooks, who’s been locked up for almost 50 years. The old chap gets paroled, but the outside world has become a very different place by 1954, and he has a heartbreaking fate.

Memorable Quote
“The funny thing is, on the outside I was an honest man, straight as an arrow. I had to come to prison to be a crook.” — Andy Dufresne

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“Get busy living or get busy dying.”

Memorable Scene
Left alone in the warden’s office, Andy comes across a record. He puts it on the turntable, locks the door, and switches on the PA system, broadcasting opera to the entire prison. Guards and prisoners alike stop where they stand to listen. Meanwhile, the warden bangs on the door and demands Andy turn the music off. He leans toward the record player… and turns it up. The insubordination will cost him, but, for a few minutes, the beautiful music makes the prisoners feel free.

Making of
The American Humane Association monitored filming that involved Brooks’ pet crow. During a scene where it’s fed a maggot, the AHA objected — because it was cruel to the maggot. They demanded the filmmakers use one that had died from natural causes, which was duly found.

Awards
7 Oscar nominations (Picture, Actor (Morgan Freeman), Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Score, Sound)
2 Saturn nominations (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film, Writing)

What the Critics Said
“The mood swings rigorously through every emotion as the cranky, wiseguy and downright crazed array of criminals bare the brunt of the turbulent life within the doomy Shawshank catacomb. […] If you’re miserable enough to look for gripes then, yes, it does drift on too long and who needs prison buggery again? Yet the ending has such poetic completeness you’re too busy contentedly chuckling to worry about sore behinds. This may have confounded American audiences — it flopped big-time on planet Yank — but a more divine movie experience you will not find this side of Oscardom. […] If you don’t love Shawshank, chances are you’re beyond redemption.” — Ian Nathan, Empire

Score: 91%

What the Public Say
“it has these amazing feel good moments yet it doesn’t feel contrived. Most of us film lovers can see right through that. If Shawshank was guilty of that, it wouldn’t have stayed in the number one spot for all these years. […] I think there are a lot of things that make The Shawshank Redemption such a widely loved film and the movie just gets so many things “right” that they all combine to give us something spectacular: Feel good moments like the beer & opera scenes (which never fail to move me no matter how many times I watch this movie). Andy & Red’s friendship. The lesser characters such as Brooks & Heywood (and the heartbreakingly beautiful “Brooks Was Here” theme from Thomas Newman). Seeing the posters on the wall change, showing the passage of time. Alexandre Dumbass. The pet bird. Rita Hayworth. And, of course, the overall message of hope. More than anything, though, I think it’s Stephen King’s story and Darabont’s ability to give us scenes of pure beauty in a movie based someplace as awful as a prison” — table9mutant, Cinema Parrot Disco

Verdict

The Godfather sat seemingly unassailable atop IMDb’s Top 250 for nine years, until The Dark Knight kicked it off, not everyone agreed, and when the dust settled Shawshank was the new #1, a position it’s now held for eight years. Naturally that means there’s been a backlash in some circles. It’s a particularly snooty kind of reaction in general, I find, probably because Shawshank is exactly the kind of movie primed to emerge as a consensus favourite: it has drama and darkness, but also humour and optimism, and elicits emotions across the spectrum — it’s neither too grim to depress people into not enjoying it, nor too sentimental to make them do that mock “throwing up” noise some people do when things get really schmaltzy.

I wager some people confuse the notion of “consensus favourite” with “produced by committee”, which sound similar — a large group of people coming to agree on something — but are actually very different. The latter typically produces bland work that no one loves; something that wouldn’t curry favour with the former. Is The Shawshank Redemption the greatest movie ever made? Not in my opinion. I’d wager not in the opinion of most of the people who’ve given it a score on IMDb that’s contributed to it being #1. But it is a very good film indeed — and, clearly, most of us can agree on that.

#84 will be… not a fucking Merlot.

Room 237 (2012)

2015 #56
Rodney Ascher | 99 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | 15

Room 237Possibly-crazy people offer definitely-crazy theories on the subtextual meaning of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining in this controversial film analysis documentary.

Some believe it’s presenting the theories for genuine consideration, and get angry because they’re patently insane. Others believe it’s an implicit criticism of such outlandish readings, exposing how ‘dedicated’ individuals can see things that aren’t there. I don’t think it’s the former, but the lack of objective commentary means it falls short of achieving the latter.

It’s fascinating what deluded people can concoct, though. As a bonus, they do expose passingly-interesting minor facets of Kubrick’s work that you probably missed.

3 out of 5

The Shining (1980)

2014 #80
Stanley Kubrick | 120 mins* | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

The ShiningFêted director Stanley Kubrick turned his hand to horror for this Stephen King adaptation. Poorly received on release (it was nominated for two Razzies: Worst Actress and Worst Director) and reviled by King (he attempted his own version as a miniseries in 1997. It didn’t go down well), it has since been reassessed as a classic. I’ve never read the novel, so have no opinion on the film’s level of faithfulness or (assuming it isn’t true to the book) whether that’s a good thing or not. As a movie in its own right, however, The Shining is bloody scary.

The plot sees Jack Nicholson, his wife and young son travelling to a remote hotel to be its caretakers while it’s closed over the winter. As the weeks pass by, strange things begin to happen. Nicholson begins to go a little stir crazy… or is it something worse? As the hotel becomes cut off by a snowstorm, everything goes to pot…

It’s somewhat hard to summarise The Shining because, in a way, nothing much happens. There are some mysteries, but few (if any) answers. That prompts plenty of wild theories — there’s now a whole film about them, even — but whether any of those are right or not… well, you know what wild theories are normally like, right? Really, story is not the order of the day. Kubrick seems to have set out to make a horror movie in the truest sense: a movie to instill fear. And that it does. And then some.

But you're not called JohnnyGradually, inexorably, the film builds a sense of dread; a fear so deep-seated that it feels almost primal. There are few jumps or gory moments, the easy stomping ground of lesser films. There’s just… unease. It’s a feeling that’s tricky to put into words, because it’s not exactly “scary”; even “terrifying” feels too lightweight. There are undoubtedly sequences of suspense, where we fear what’s coming or what will happen to the characters (everyone knows the “Here’s Johnny!” bit, for instance), but that’s not where the film’s impact really lies.

I guess some find it slow and aimless. There are certainly fans of King and his original that are just as unimpressed as the author by the way it supposedly shortchanges Nicholson’s character. There may be some validity to both of those arguments. Nonetheless, I found Kubrick’s realisation to be probably the most excruciatingly and exquisitely unsettling film I’ve ever seen.

5 out of 5

The Shining placed 3rd on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2014, which can be read in full here.

It was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2014 project, which you can read more about here.


* The Shining was initially released at 146 minutes. After a week, Kubrick cut two minutes off the end. Following a poor reception, he cut even more for the European release (some say 31 minutes, but that doesn’t add up). He maintained the shortest version was his preferred cut, though it’s not the one released in most territories… except the UK. ^

The Running Man (1987)

2014 #116
Paul Michael Glaser | 97 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

The Running Man25 years before Jennifer Lawrence had to fight for her life on TV, Arnie had to do the same.

In an ever-so-’80s vision of the future (my God, those costumes!), Arnie’s wrongfully-convicted fugitive ends up on TV’s most popular show, where criminals fight for their freedom against a variety of imposing opponents. Secretly, he’s there to try to overthrow the corrupt regime.

The implications of the central concept have been explored better several times since, but, despite dated design, the solid direction from Starsky (yes, as in and Hutch) ensures this is an entertaining SF action movie for genre fans.

3 out of 5

In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.

Stand By Me (1986)

2009 #29
Rob Reiner | 89 mins | download | 15 / R

Stand By MeStand By Me is a film an awful lot of people love an awful lot, which it always seemed to me was down to first seeing it at the right age (more or less the age of the main characters, I think) and possibly to being part of a certain generation — would it have the same effect for kids today, when the relative innocence and freedom of the ’50s is arguably lost? As I say, “seemed”, because now I’m not sure either of these factors really matter.

Irrespective of age, generation, or being able to remember the kinds of experiences suggested by the film, Stand By Me is still an effective and affecting little film. The level of enjoyment for some may depend on how much they can stomach child actors, though as kids go they’re mostly very good. River Phoenix in particular is brilliant, highly natural while bringing a lot of depth to perhaps the most important role. Wil Wheaton also makes a good account of himself, just one year before attracting derision as Wesley Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation. (Phoenix, of course, went on to have a tragically short-lived career.) Kiefer Sutherland is as effective a villain as he ever would be, though that aspect of the plot is almost an aside.

An aside, because the film isn’t about the fights between the young heroes and a group of older bullies. Rather, it’s a paean for childhood, with the adult perspective and the ‘lost age’ setting of the ’50s succinctly highlighting the nostalgic spirit. To be precise, it’s not so much reflecting on “childhood” as on “growing up” — the choices that are open when young that either disappear with time or, for whatever reason, become closed off. The whole film is arguably about choice: choice of friends, choice of social class, Ace’s constant listing of choices (the subtext breaking into the text, as many a film teacher would point out), even the obvious choice whether to follow the tracks or take shortcuts (surely symbolic). Thematically, it’s the choice to be put down or stand up for yourself; the choice to stick around and wind up a nobody or work hard and get out, also underlined in the present-day bookends.

Perhaps being the right age is helpful to a love for Stand By Me, but at any stage in life it’s easy to relate to its depiction of the experiences and choices of childhood, be they now lost, taken, or never even had.

4 out of 5

Stand By Me is on Channel 5 today, Sunday 12th October 2014, at 2pm.