Tuesday, March 20, 2018


Director: Andy Muschietti
Starring: Jaeden Lieberher, Bill Skarsgård, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Nicholas Hamilton, Jackson Robert Scott
Running Time: 135 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

The experience you had watching a movie can often far surpass the movie itself, frequently causing confusion between the two. Strangely, such an experience accompanied my early 90's viewing of the miniseries adaptation of Stephen King's It. And while I exactly remember the when, why and where, it's more difficult to recall a single thing about the actual movie other than it being overlong and mostly terrible, as the King TV adaptations tended to be. But that second half featuring the child characters as adults was particularly disappointing, sucking whatever entertainment value remained from watching Tim Curry's evil clown wreck havoc in this small Maine town. And while it definitely wasn't scary, it's hard to point to any miniseries of the era that was.

It's fitting to discuss memories and nostalgia when examining the many merits of Andy Muschietti's reimagined vision of It since that's how he makes this interpretation connect. And if there's one thing we've learned about the frequently unadaptable works of Stephen King, it's that you need to find a way in. His mind goes to these strange, weird places, and unless the filmmaker can find a suitable entrance, it can all seem kind of ridiculous. In this case, that door was in front of our faces the whole time: Stand By Me-era King meets 80's Spielberg by way of Stranger Things. At the risk of simplifying it, that's the key, and the rest of the pieces just fall into place.

Anyone doubting the extent of Stranger Things' pop culture stranglehold needn't look any further than It, since this couldn't or wouldn't have unfolded the way it does without that series. But it would all mean nothing if they didn't put in the work and get it right, taking an approach that's exactly appropriate for material that now suddenly feels purposeful, possessing a palpable sense of time and place entirely absent from its predecessor. If someone asks what this is about, you can now actually tell them with a clear conscience. But why bother, when the film does such a magnificent job conveying that all on its own, earning a spot alongside the likes of Stand by Me, Carrie, The Shining, The Shawshank Redemption and Dolores Claiborne on any essential list of the most successful cinematic King adaptations.

It's October 1988 in Derry, Maine when nervously stuttering Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher) makes his 7-year-old little brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) a paper sailboat, which he loses down a sewer drain in the middle of a rain storm. While attempting to retrieve it, he comes face-to face with a terrifying clown who calls himself "Pennywise The Dancing Clown" (Bill Skarsgård). After initially earning Georgie's trust, he viciously attacks the boy, dragging him into the sewer, never to be seen again.

Flashforward to the following year and Bill hasn't given hope finding his little brother, despite his parents' and much of the town believing him to be dead. But when there's another mysterious disappearance under similar circumstances, Bill enlists the help of his friends, foul-mouthed Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), asthmatic Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer) and reluctant Stan Uris (Wyatt Oleff), to to go to a local marsh called the Barrens and investigate the possibility Georgie's still alive. While there, they encounter teen bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) and his gang who have been tormenting overweight new kid, Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), whose hours of research in the Derry library has provided the group with more than a few ideas about these child abductions.

Joining them is another Bowers Gang victim, orphaned African American student Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), and the only female member of what eventually becomes "The Losers' Club," tomboy Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), whose rumored promiscuity has also made her a bullying target, even as a smitten Bill and Ben compete for her affections. Soon, the kids all realize they've had visions of the same clown, the sadistic Pennywise, who assumes the appearance of whatever they fear most. And each of them have personal demons to overcome before attempting to stop this unpredictable entity who knows just how to exploit those fears, aiming to resume the reign of terror he wrecks on the children of Derry every 27 years. To beat him they'll have to bravely band together, despite the clown's best efforts to drive them apart.

Freed from many of the creative constraints that hampered previous King horror adaptations, this one rips the band-aid off right away, with a declarative opening sequence that lets you know this It means business. Shot in a washed-out VHS-era haze and backed by an unnerving, foreboding score by Benjamin Wallfisch, an unmistakable atmosphere is established that was certainly missing in the original. An "R" rating isn't necessarily a must for any horror entry, but in this specific case it really bolsters the material, at least due in part to the fact that we're just not used seeing characters this age acting authentically and being terrorized to the degree they are here. Much like Stranger Things and 80's classics that inspired it, the young actors actually look and behave like kids, and among a fairly large cast, each are given distinctive personality traits that equip them differently in dealing with the evil clown.

Muschietti masters what so many previous filmmakers adapting King's work have failed to grasp by effectively picking his spots, knowing the trigger buttons for maximum fright, as well as how hard and often to push them. After a terrifyingly graphic introduction, Pennywise's subsequent appearances are strategically placed to count, as the focus turns to building the groundwork of the kids' relationships to each other so when the time comes for that ultimate showdown, we'll care.

The more we get to know the group, the more we eventually start seeing of Pennywise, menacingly played by Bill Skarsgård in a performance that shuts down any and all comparisons to Tim Curry's portrayal, if only because the presentation feels so wildly different this time around. Skarsgård brings an innocent, almost childlike playfulness to him that somehow seems even more sinister and monstrous, as he attempts to meet them on their level. King's story always had the advantage that clowns are inherently creepy, but you can't help think this reckless incarnation is more dangerous, frequently calling to mind the differences between Ledger's and Nicholson's Jokers.

Since Pennywise is used so sparingly in the opening hour, when the time arrives for him to take center stage in the battle with these kids, it actually means something. There are moments of true terror in not only their encounters with Derry's sadistic antagonist (particularly one suspenseful scene involving a slide projector), but in their everyday lives. Darker, more adult elements of King's novel were cleaned up for a suitable network TV presentation over two decades ago such as vicious bullying, child abuse, kidnapping and murder are given a more fully fleshed-out treatment here by Muschietti. Of course none of it would work if not for the casting of these kids, each of whom overdeliver, with one delivering one of the most memorable on screen interpretations of a King character in years.

Jaeden Lieberher ably takes the lead as the reluctant but determined Bill while Jeremy Ray Taylor seems to channel a young, chubby Jerry O'Connell from Stand By Me as chronic bullying victim, Ben. The latter's story arc is sure to remind many of Stranger Things, with Nicholas Hamilton's sociopathic delinquent, Henry, baring more than a passing resemblance to the similarly psychotic Billy from that series' sophomore season. But it's ultimately the work of Sophia Lillis as the abused and ostracized Beverly that makes the strongest connection, both with viewers and the source material.

Handed the most emotionally challenging of the main roles, Beverly carries with her a knowledge and world-weariness that seems years beyond her age, even as she remains paralyzingly stunted and a prisoner of her own fear. Or more accurately, the fear of her evil, abusive father. If ever there was a bridge between the first and second chapters of this saga, it's Lillis who builds it with a performance that basically dictates where that installment needs to go, even prompting many to acknowledge there's no better actress fit to take over that role than Jessica Chastain. Aside from the obvious similarity in looks, that she might be the only one to do it justice speaks volumes about what Lillis accomplishes.

If that casting possibility is the very definition of a no-brainer, figuring out a way to make Chapter 2 as involving will still be the biggest obstacle given King's penchant for sloppy, unrealized endings. There's a reason the most successful cinematic adaptations of the author's work have frequently deviated from their sources in unexpected ways. With this being the narratively stronger section, Muschietti manages to get away with not doing much of that but it'll be intriguing to see what tricks he'll have up his sleeve to further develop the story and characters following the twenty-seven year time jump.

That the ending has us looking forward to that second chapter is something few thought was even possible after the project was announced and then spent some time in pre-production purgatory. And even fewer still could have ever guessed It would become the all-time highest- grossing horror film to date. Watching the last thirty or forty minutes should be a strong reminder why, as that slow, simmering build peaks, and the kids are forced to stare fear straight in his face. And while they do see a terrifying clown, 2017's version of It understands that their true challenge comes in dealing with their own worst fears reflected back at them.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Burning Questions from the 2018 Oscars

Did you think you had the wrong channel?

Wouldn't a black and white opening be more appropriate the year that The Artist was nominated?

Does anyone remember The Artist?

Isn't it nice to start the show at a decent time?

Can we end it at one? 

Were you counting down the seconds until Kimmel mentioned last year's envelope fiasco?

Did you think that would come before or after he joked about the #MeToo movement?

Wasn't his line about Trump liking the first third of Get Out pretty good?

What's with that stage setup?

And all those crystals?

Tribute to Superman's home planet?

How about Sam Rockwell's Philip Seymour Hoffman shout-out?

Shouldn't they really tell the winners to "get out" if their speeches run long?

Between that and the jet ski bribe, have we finally found the key to shortening the show?

Wouldn't it be sad if Darkest Hour couldn't win Hair and Makeup with only two other nominees?

Wouldn't it also be sad if a movie about costume design didn't win Best Costume Design?

Is this the first year I haven't seen any of the nominated documentaries?

Was I thrilled that BOTH Roger Ebert and Back to the Future made it into that montage?

Aren't you glad they're not still attempting to joke about not being able to tell the difference between sound editing and mixing?

When Eiza and Ansel came out, didn't you just know Baby Driver wasn't winning?

Full Sail University shout-out?

Was this the first year a man has ever hosted the Scientific and Technical Awards?

Why is film critic Kim Morgan sitting with Guillermo del Toro?

Does del Toro now HAVE to win Best Director just so we can find out what's going on with that?

Isn't that Coco song catchy?

If a film has "Woman" in its title, isn't it a pretty safe bet this year?

Wouldn't you vote for Laurie Metcalf just on that one Lady Bird clip alone?

Is "I did it all by myself" the best opening line of an Oscar acceptance speech?

Isn't it strange beyond belief how Tonya Harding is now suddenly some kind of victim?

Not a question, but Mark Hamill!

Not a question, but BB-8!

Isn't Kobe glad he was on the Lakers?

How about that shot at FOX News?

So, I guess they fit Sufjan Stevens onto the show after all?

Kind of?

I know the show runs long, but isn't it a little extreme for Kimmel to be ushering the audience out already?

You mean people actually went to see A Wrinkle in Time?

They didn't seem too upset it was interrupted, did they?

Is Ellen DeGeneres going to sue Kimmel for stealing her act?

Poetic justice that this guy mispronounced Tiffany Haddish's name?

Is that the first winner to accept their Oscar with sign language?

Haven't you always wanted to see a short film "inspired by Walmart delivery boxes"?

Didn't you just know we'd get an entire montage dedicated to #TimesUp?

But didn't Kumail Nanjiani's humorous insights make it work?

Did it convey just how strong the love for Get Out is?

If that didn't do it, then Peele's screenplay victory must have, right?

Gal Gadot is all over this show, isn't she?


How many times do you think he's rehearsed that speech over the past decade?

Is it unfair to say he should already have 5 or 6 of these statues?

Seriously, what's the deal with Kim Morgan and del toro?

Were you worried they'd have to bump the In Memoriam montage from the show?

Don't we say that every year?

Should we just pinch ourselves now that Eddie Vedder is covering Tom Petty's "Room at the Top" on the Oscars?

Isn't that a perfect match of song and artist?

Did you know it's my third all-time favorite Petty song?

Can you guess the other two?

So, does that make up for not nominating Eddie Vedder for Into The Wild?

Um, Adam West?

So, I checked imdb and apparently Kim Morgan is co-writing del Toro's remake of Nightmare Alley, so that explains that... right?

Is this del Toro's year or what?

Can you wake me after Gary Oldman wins his Oscar?

Wait, where's Casey Affleck?

On second thought, maybe don't answer that?

Where's Jack Nicholson when you need him?

On that note, didn't there seem to be a noticeable lack of stars in the audience this year?

Did the producers give that away when they kept cutting away to Timothée Chalamet and his mom?

Didn't Chalamet look legitimately thrilled to be there? 

Wasn't Foster and Lawrence's Meryl Streep bit pretty funny?

Were you bracing yourself for McDormand's speech?

Was the audience reaching for their seatbelts?

Waterhouse under the bridge?

Don't you love the story that Beatty knew the winner was wrong, and then just gave the envelope to Dunaway to throw her under the bus?

Do you miss when there were just five Best Picture nominees?

Beatty didn't seem to get any better at opening the envelope, did he?

After going 21 for 24 with predictions, do I regret not entering an Oscar pool?

Kimmel really has this Oscar hosting thing nailed down now, doesn't he?

Didn't you just know Helen Mirren and the jet ski would reappear at the end of the night?

What do you say about a show that was really well-produced, but sort of boring and uneventful?

After last year's, wouldn't anything be?

Saturday, March 3, 2018

2018 Oscar Predictions

While resigning ourselves to the inevitability that few moments during this Sunday's 90th Annual Academy Awards will come close to matching the shocking final minutes of last year's show, I have only wish for the 2018 Oscars: That they keep it about the movies.  We've had about four to six months of #MeToo, #TimesUp and Harvey Weinstein so I don't think it's asking too much, aside from the opening monologue, for the industry to spend one night focusing all their attention on celebrating and appreciating the onscreen work we've seen in the past year. That is, after all, why the Oscars exist. And boy do we badly need that celebration now, with the gap between the tastes of the general moviegoing public and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences growing by the day.

With the notable exception of box office juggernaut Get Out, there's really no 2017 film listed here that came close to permeating the culture or causing even casual chatter among the general population. And there's still the chance that may not even go home with anything. Movies just aren't at the forefront right now, but that's okay since there's still no better night all year for those who love good ones. That one of the best Oscar hosts in years, Jimmy Kimmel earned the call back can only be viewed as a positive, as is the recent news that Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway will be returning to the scene of the crime, attempting again to present Best Picture after last year's ridiculously entertaining debacle.

Speaking of which, this might be the most wide open Best Picture category we've ever had, with as many as three films or four films all with a solid chance of taking home the gold. Unfortunately for me, it could also mean owning the embarrassment of incorrectly predicting the biggest category for the third consecutive year. So, as I struggle to play catch up again and cram in viewings of all these nominees, here's hoping they build on last year's momentum to deliver another solid, well produced broadcast that doesn't run over 5 hours long. Below are my predictions, along with some comments on the major categories. As usual, I'm reserving the right to adjust these picks leading up to the start of the show.

*Predicted Winners

Best Animated Feature:
“The Boss Baby,” Tom McGrath, Ramsey Ann Naito
“The Breadwinner,” Nora Twomey, Anthony Leo
“Coco,” Lee Unkrich, Darla K. Anderson
“Ferdinand,” Carlos Saldanha
“Loving Vincent,” Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman, Sean Bobbitt, Ivan Mactaggart, Hugh Welchman

Best Animated Short:
“Dear Basketball,” Glen Keane, Kobe Bryant 
“Garden Party,” Victor Caire, Gabriel Grapperon
“Lou,” Dave Mullins, Dana Murray
“Negative Space,” Max Porter, Ru Kuwahata
“Revolting Rhymes,” Jakob Schuh, Jan Lachauer

Best Documentary Feature:

Best Documentary Short Subject:
“Edith+Eddie,” Laura Checkoway, Thomas Lee Wright
“Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405,” Frank Stiefel
“Heroin(e),” Elaine McMillion Sheldon, Kerrin Sheldon 
“Knife Skills,” Thomas Lennon
 “Traffic Stop,” Kate Davis, David Heilbroner

Best Live Action Short Film:
“DeKalb Elementary,” Reed Van Dyk
“The Eleven O’Clock,” Derin Seale, Josh Lawson
“My Nephew Emmett,” Kevin Wilson, Jr.
“The Silent Child,” Chris Overton, Rachel Shenton
“Watu Wote/All of Us,” Katja Benrath, Tobias Rosen

Best Foreign Language Film:
“A Fantastic Woman” (Chile)
“The Insult” (Lebanon)
“Loveless” (Russia)
“On Body and Soul (Hungary) 
“The Square” (Sweden)

Best Film Editing:
“Baby Driver,” Jonathan Amos, Paul Machliss
“Dunkirk,” Lee Smith
“I, Tonya,” Tatiana S. Riegel
“The Shape of Water,” Sidney Wolinsky
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” Jon Gregory

Best Sound Editing:
“Baby Driver,” Julian Slater
“Blade Runner 2049,” Mark Mangini, Theo Green
“Dunkirk,” Alex Gibson, Richard King
“The Shape of Water,” Nathan Robitaille, Nelson Ferreira
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” Ren Klyce, Matthew Wood

Best Sound Mixing:
“Baby Driver,” Mary H. Ellis, Julian Slater, Tim Cavagin
“Blade Runner 2049,” Mac Ruth, Ron Bartlett, Doug Hephill
“Dunkirk,” Mark Weingarten, Gregg Landaker, Gary A. Rizzo
“The Shape of Water,” Glen Gauthier, Christian Cooke, Brad Zoern
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” Stuart Wilson, Ren Klyce, David Parker, Michael Semanick

Best Production Design:
“Beauty and the Beast,” Sarah Greenwood; Katie Spencer
“Blade Runner 2049,” Dennis Gassner, Alessandra Querzola
“Darkest Hour,” Sarah Greenwood, Katie Spencer
“Dunkirk,” Nathan Crowley, Gary Fettis
“The Shape of Water,” Paul D. Austerberry, Jeffrey A. Melvin, Shane Vieau

Best Original Score:
“Dunkirk,” Hans Zimmer
“Phantom Thread,” Jonny Greenwood
“The Shape of Water,” Alexandre Desplat
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” John Williams
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” Carter Burwell

Best Original Song:
“Mighty River” from “Mudbound,” Mary J. Blige
“Mystery of Love” from “Call Me by Your Name,” Sufjan Stevens
“Remember Me” from “Coco,” Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez
“Stand Up for Something” from “Marshall,” Diane Warren, Common 
“This Is Me” from “The Greatest Showman,” Benj Pasek, Justin Paul

Best Makeup and Hair:
“Darkest Hour,” Kazuhiro Tsuji, David Malinowski, Lucy Sibbick 
“Victoria and Abdul,” Daniel Phillips and Lou Sheppard
“Wonder,” Arjen Tuiten

Best Costume Design:
“Beauty and the Beast,” Jacqueline Durran
“Darkest Hour,” Jacqueline Durran
“Phantom Thread,” Mark Bridges
“The Shape of Water,” Luis Sequeira
“Victoria and Abdul,” Consolata Boyle

Best Visual Effects: