September 8, 2017 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Bill Skarsgård, Jaeden Lieberher, Finn Wolfhard
Directed by: Andy Muschietti (Mama)
Written by: Chase Palmer (debut), Cary Fukunaga (“Sin Nombre”) and Gary Dauberman (“Annabelle: Creation”)

Everyone will go into Andy Muschietti’s “It” with vastly different expectations. Some will be hoping for a solid adaptation of Stephen King’s book, while others may have no knowledge whatsoever of King’s property. There are miles of expectations existing between those two platitudes. I’ve read Stephen King’s lengthy novel; it’s not my favorite of his, but it’s impossible to deny how singular of a work it is. However, this is not the review to read if you’re looking for an examination of faithfulness to the source or comparisons to the 1990 miniseries that isn’t as good as you remember. Those critiques can be found elsewhere on the internet, and many of them are very much worth your time. Warner Bros and New Line seem to be at least partially aware of audiences’ multi-faceted relationship to Pennywise and the Losers Club, as they have put out a movie that is clearly meant to appeal to the masses, with the final product revealing itself to be somewhat of a mixed bag.

Don’t get me wrong. I am beyond giddy that this movie exists. I’ll be happy to see it make money and am wildly intrigued to see the direction in which the inevitable sequel takes its characters. From this movie’s opening moments, Andy Muschietti crafts a vision that is uncompromisingly violent, twisted and bloody. He introduces us to a group of young friends that are genuinely likable and then fucks them up, one by one, repeatedly for nearly two-and-a-half hours. There’s something genuinely scary about children in peril, and recent films like “Annabelle: Creation” have employed this notion effectively, but no mainstream movie in recent memory has been as unrelentingly brutal as “It.”

That violence is an essential theme to the movie, and it never feels excessive or exploitative. Childhood is messy and bloody. Yes, we see how the film’s villainous otherworldly clown harms children, but the script from Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman doesn’t stop there. There is real world violence present in King’s fictional town of Derry, Maine. Child-on-child violence appears in the forms of knife-wielding bullies and concussive rock fights. Abuse from adults rears its heads in both physical and psychological ways. Not even the animals are safe.

At its core, “It” is a coming-of-age tale where a band of misfits overcome their real-world fears while simultaneously destroying a monster that feeds off said fears. It’s a fantastic idea ripe with potential. Muschietti does an exceptional job setting the stage to explore it. His images are striking and individual moments are uniquely scary despite a familiar formula. The cinematography from Chung-hoon Chung (Chan-wook Park’s longtime collaborator) is a hypnotically stunning and eerie. Additionally, Benjamin Wallfisch’s deceptively simple score does a lot of heavy lifting. In fact, all the behind-the-camera elements, by any genre’s standards, are of the highest caliber. This is a great looking, astonishingly directed move. But strip Muschietti’s film of its glossy elements and there’s little left to chew on, especially when the film commits to its by-the-numbers third act.

To be fair, there’s plenty of compelling stuff here. It nails the complicated state of childhood, and the best moments involve the kids hanging out with each other. Jaeden Lieberher is great as Bill, the leader of the gang going through agonizing grief after losing his younger brother. Sophia Lillis gives a star-making performance as Beverly, easily the highlight of the film until she’s reduced to a catatonic rallying device for the final act. I enjoyed all of the kids, their awkward interactions and sophomoric sense of humor. And they’re definitely smarter than what the script has them go through for the end. That ending, by the way, is something lifted straight out of an early “A Nightmare on Elm Street” movie. It’s a storytelling decision that is familiar and doesn’t take any risks. For all its alluring sheer, well-crafted scares and bold choices, “It” ultimately regresses back to its mainstream roots, and the film suffers from that decision.

Annabelle: Creation

August 11, 2017 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Lulu Wilson, Stephanie Sigman, Miranda Otto
Directed by: David F. Sandberg (“Lights Out”)
Written by: Gary Dauberman (“Annabelle”)

As its tagline and advertising has repeatedly stated, David F. Sandberg’s “Annabelle: Creation” is the latest entry in the “Conjuring Universe.” Everything has a cinematic universe now, and it was only a matter of time before a horror franchise joined the bandwagon. With at least two standalone films already announced, one of which is teased here a couple of times, any scoffing at the very notion of a “Conjuring Universe” is outdone by the fact that there really isn’t a better franchise out there from which to pull.

One of the main reasons James Wan’s “Conjuring” films work so well is both films stage truly chilling and technically astute set pieces while also giving us rich characters that we care about and enjoy spending time with. The first “Annabelle” chapter, which was produced by Wan, had neither of these things and was derivative to the point where I’m still not convinced that parts of Gary Dauberman’s script weren’t just copy/pasted from better films. Furthermore, director John R. Leonetti’s 2014 original film also felt strangely restrained and dissonant, only fitting into the Warren lore by name. With Leonetti out and Sandberg at the helm, we are treated to moment after moment of finely crafted horror. Sure, the characters are still lacking, but at least we’re invested this time.

The first act of the film follows Samuel and Esther Mullins as they raise their daughter in a small village out in the desert country. All their happiness comes to a tragic stop when their daughter is killed in an accident. Some years later, a nun and a group of girls from a shut-down orphanage show up at the Mullins residence. Sandberg immediately establishes his location with a fluid tracking shot throughout the house, then creates set piece after set piece where things go bump in the night.

“Annabelle: Creation” takes its sweet time putting all its pieces in place, and that style of pacing creates a vital level of investment and intrigue. As Mr. Mullins, Anthony LaPaglia is the true heart of the film, injecting each of his scenes with a level of palpable emotion despite the fact that in some scenes he doesn’t even have any dialogue. Miranda Otto provides great supporting work as his wife, though she gets saddled with a chunk of exposition later in the film. While there isn’t much done to flesh out the group of girls, all of whom occasionally blend together, Sandberg makes things interesting by hinting at the terrible, isolating things that children can do to each other.

“Annabelle: Creation” works as a great mystery, but it is ultimately a great show of style from its director. There’s a great visual gag early on in the film involving an upside down cross, and there is one bone-crushing moment in particular that genuinely took me by surprise. It’s a concise and effective horror movie, a much-needed course correction and enticing look at things to come.