It: Chapter 2 (2019)

Director: Andy Muschietti

Screenwriter: Gary Dauberman

Cast: Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, and Bill Skarsgård

Is It good? Does It get better or worse? How much money did It make? Should I see It before I see It 2? I will answer these confusing questions and more in my review of blockbuster horror sequel, It: Chapter 2.

As horror sequels go, this is one of those perfect studio no-brainer scenarios. Hey, we have the rights to remake this film adaptation of this really beloved horror novel, and we just have too much material! Let’s make two movies. Better yet, let’s split the films so that the first one covers the children storyline, and the second covers the adult plot. Brilliant! And that’s how the highest grossing horror film of all time came to be.

That’s right, as readers of Stephen King’s bestselling novel know, every 27 years, a monstrous demon and “Eater of Worlds” comes to feed on fear, preferring children because their fears are easier to elicit. To the kids from the first film, this demon manifests as a dancing clown known as Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), who preys on them until they seriously wound it, sending it back to the nether-regions from whence it came…until now. 27 years later, The Losers Club is all grown up, but the past is not done with them yet.

The film opens with some really effective horror that gets the attention of Mike (Isaiah Mustafa), the only member of the Losers Club who remained in Derry, Maine. The event reminds Mike of the pact they all made as kids after vanquishing Pennywise; if it comes back they all come back. And remembering is key because it turns out if one leaves Derry, the memory of what happened there fades away, so Mike is the only one who fully remembers what happened all those years ago. The film’s first act essentially follows Mike’s contacting of each member of the group convincing each to return, moving the plot forward as well as reintroducing us to each of the characters, all now grown adults. The casting of the adult characters is very spot on including the aforementioned Mike, chubby intellectual, turned hunk Ben, (Jay Ryan), chatterbox Richie (Bill Hader), asthmatic Eddie (James Ransone), neurotic Stanley (Andy Bean), ringleader Bill (James McAvoy), and outcast Beverly (Jessica Chastain). This first section of the film is quite engaging and works very well as both character and plot driven story that balances humor and drama nicely.

Unfortunately, when they are all inevitably reunited, the movie starts to drag a bit. The film wisely continues to play games tonally with the audience. One moment we’re gripped with intensity and another, we’re laughing (this tone is perfectly signified by the Stephen King cameo mid-way through the film). Unfortunately, while the Pennywise threat is real, and the conflict is clear, I didn’t feel the critical nature of what was at stake this time around. There’s an odd sense surrounding the action in this film in terms of what is experienced by individuals, what is experienced by the group, and what is really happening in the physical world. This confusion distracts from the action lessening the film’s impact. An impact that has tremendous potential. It was conceived by Stephen King to be a novel about primal fear – the things that scare us as a child and how those things stay with us and haunt us long after. I’m not sure the execution quite hits the mark when all is said and done. However, I do think the sequel is serviceable and most will walk away satisfied and entertained, as long as they can tolerate the nearly three-hour running time! B

It: Chapter 2 is rated R and has a running time of 2 hours and 49 minutes.

Molly’s Game

MollyDirector: Aaron Sorkin

Screenwriter: Aaron Sorkin

Cast: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera, Graham Greene, (and an Aaron Sorkin cameo, of course)

Those of you who like your Wing West, your Network Social, and your Men, Few and Good already know who Aaron Sorkin is. You might know him as the author of some of your favorite long, witty monologues delivered while walking down a hallway. What you don’t know him as is a film director, until now. Molly’s Game is the directorial debut of one of the most celebrated screenwriters in Hollywood, Aaron Sorkin, whose films and television shows have earned every major critical writing award imaginable. Now, he takes his turn in the director’s chair with Molly’s Game.

Molly’s Game is the true story of the Olympic hopeful turned “Poker Princess” Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain). When a freak accident dashes her hopes at Olympic glory, Bloom turns her focus to business, and while working as an assistant to a real estate schemer named Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong), Molly is inadvertently introduced to the world of poker. Dean hosts a weekly game with pretty high stakes and a core group of relatively famous attendees. When Dean forces Molly to take on the role of organizing the game, taking records and accepting the buy-ins and giving the pay-outs, she is hooked to the intricacies of the game and begins improving the experience for the players. Soon, Molly is the real draw to the weekly game, much to Dean’s chagrin, leading him to box her out and try to rein her in. Molly instead decides to make a move and start her own game – Molly’s Game.

Things are all Aces for Molly for a little while. She plays by the rules, never takes a rake, and keeps things for the most part, legal. Until she discovers that some of the players in her game, unbeknownst to her, may have ties to the Russian mob. This catches the attention of the FBI and forces Molly to hire a lawyer, Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) to help save her game, her name, and her life.

Sorkin’s film is anchored by a lights out performance by Chastain. If I were the real Molly Bloom, I’d be in love with this portrayal of my life. Sorkin also proves a credible director. Many a film has fallen victim to the struggle of envisioning how to depict Sorkin’s verbose and chatty repartee between characters (See Steve Jobs), but it turns out Sorkin knows Sorkin better than anyone! He also is smart enough to hire an actor turned Oscar-winning director, Kevin Costner to play Molly’s father, a resource that I assume Sorkin tapped for directorial advice from time to time. Perhaps the casting of Costner’s Dances With Wolves costar Graham Greene as Judge Foxman is also not so coincidental. This is a tight, authentic thrill ride through the lavish highs and deplorable lows that come with games of risk. The film may get a little heavy-handed in its use of The Crucible references to get its message across, but you can’t argue with the timeliness of these references and the relevance to the national conversation right now about reputation and its importance in Hollywood, in politics, and in society in general. Molly’s Game is by no means a flop, and with an ace in the hole like Chastain, you can push your chips in at the turn and let the river run. A-

Molly’s Game is rated R and has a running time of a “Sorkin-y” 2 hours and 20 minutes.

Designing Women

GTY-Jessica-Chastain-ml-170530_12x5_1600If you’ve been following the film festival circuit, you no doubt have heard the fascinating observation from Cannes Film Festival jury member, Jessica Chastain about the current role of women in films. If you are unfamiliar with Chastain’s comments, the basic gist is that it is uncommon to find a female character whose main motivation is not simply reacting to what the male characters do. This complaint is not unfamiliar territory for Hollywood; however, Cannes is a renowned international film festival. In fact, most of the films that screen there are not from American filmmakers. Additionally, many of these films do not even get distribution in the United States, including the winning films.  My point being, the inferiority of women’s roles in film is often attributed to the American film industry, but Chastain’s comments open the conversation to a global stage.

What makes Chastain’s words ring even more true than most is the genuine way she presented herself. She introduced herself as someone who loves movies, and then discussed the unique experience of viewing 20 movies in 10 days, which is the process for the Cannes jury members. Having that broad and expansive experience allowed Chastain to make a relevant and sustained observation that with few exceptions, women in film are “mostly passive and empty shells of characters,” rather than resembling any woman she’d encountered in real life.

And, to put an even finer point on things, all of this occurred on the eve of the release of the American film Baywatch, a film supposedly all about the women starring two men, Zac Efron and Dwayne Johnson, and some women presumably – I don’t believe the trailer or promotional posters gave any names of the female stars.

Speaking of Johnson, just to prove I am not simply a bandwagon feminist, please take my review of another of his films, San Andreas, a film I enjoyed actually, but contained plenty of blatant and institutional misogyny…and also raked in $474 million globally.

Here’s the interesting thing though. Money is not necessarily where the sexism is. As I mentioned, the Cannes Film Festival is not the destination for films that generally rake in the box office dollars. Cannes is more of a home for the prestige pictures that hope to play in awards circuits. In many cases, these films represent a more accurate picture of how artists see the real world. Blockbuster films present, in many cases, a fantasy that can and often does include well-developed female characters.

Top grossing film of each of the past three years:Rey-Star-Wars-Rogue-One-mother

2015: Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (female protagonist, Disney)

2016: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (female protagonist, Disney)

2017: Likely to be a battle between Beauty and the Beast (female protagonist), Wonder Woman (female protagonist), Star Wars Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (female protagonist) – Disney, Warner Brothers, Disney.

Best Picture for each of the past three years:

2014: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (male protagonist fighting with another male who wants to be the true protagonist)

2015: Spotlight (a bunch of male protagonists uncovering criminal conspiracy of men molesting boys)

2016: Moonlight (three separate actors portraying one male protagonist)

So what does all of this mean? It means that as an art form, the studios, auteurs, actors, writers, and directors who are responsible for the underlying reputation of the business are compelled to depict the stories that matter most to our culture from an overwhelmingly male perspective. It’s not that these artists or the system is sexist, but rather the society of which they wish to reflect is.

Fortunately, the art that imitates life has an impact and the response from Jessica Chastain is evident of this. As our Cineplex’s continue bombard us with the traditional summer fare, take notice of the entertainment the film industry thinks we want to see and how the stories are portrayed. More importantly, after the blockbuster season, be aware of the films that are selected as the year’s best and think about if they represent the society and culture you want to live in!

 

The Martian

Martian PosterDirector: Ridley Scott

Screenwriter: Drew Goddard

Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Jeff Daniels

Quite honestly, if you have seen Apollo 13, Cast Away, Interstellar, or The Right Stuff, then ironically, The Martian, the new film from Ridley Scott about an astronaut left behind by his crew on Mars, treads no new territory.  That being said, why did we all love those movies if they basically explored the same things?  The answer is that we have an insatiable appetite for watching humankind’s intelligence put to the test.  When The Martian is over, that is the piece that stays with you, not the performances or even the directing, but the way human intellect is pooled to solve unsolvable problems!

The Martian stars Matt Damon as Mark Watney, a NASA botanist who is part of a six-person, 31-day mission to explore the surface of Mars.  When an unexpected dust storm escalates with no warning, Watney is struck by debris, disabling his spacesuit’s communication device and forcing his crew to assume he has been killed.  With the storm jeopardizing the integrity of their ship, Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) makes the tough call to evacuate the planet early and consequently leave Watney’s body behind.  Now as Lewis and her crew begin the 10-month journey back to Earth, Watney awakens from being struck unconscious to discover that he is alone on a dessert planet 34 million miles from Earth and potentially years from being rescued, and that is if he can somehow communicate to NASA that he is not dead.

For a film with such a discouraging scenario at its heart, The Martian is extremely upbeat thanks to a terrific performance by Matt Damon who masterfully captures the brilliance of Andy Weir’s original character from his novel of the same name.  Damon displays a resourcefulness, wit, and spirit with his portrayal of Watney, and it reminds us all of the importance of “mindset.”  A film that could so easily present a protagonist’s slow dissent into madness at the mercy of isolation is instead wisely turned on its head early on when Watney declares, “I will not die here.”  Whether or not this declaration becomes fact remains to be seen, but this decision to persevere is precisely why this film is such a joy to watch and not a test of our sensibilities.  Watney’s decision to live comes with the caveat of finding a way to survive for an indeterminate amount of time on a planet with no atmosphere, extreme temperatures, and no food or water source.  It is endlessly fascinating to watch Watney work his way through these dilemmas and according to director Ridley Scott, NASA validates nearly all of the survival methods Watney employs in this film.

It is no spoiler to reveal that Watney does eventually manage to contact Earth and establish that he is alive, creating a new element of tension as the film evolves from a survival film (like Gravity) to one that introduces the concept of rescue.  As exciting as it is to examine the power of the individual in films like Gravity and Cast Away, The Martian introduces a type of global effort that can be assembled when the people of Earth put aside their differences and work together on a common goal.  Consequently, like Apollo 13, The Martian wisely balances the space scenes with others that show the ingenuity and frustration of the scientists on Earth as they try to develop some kind of plan to save Watney.  That being said, a simple glance at the promotional poster for The Martian clearly demonstrates that this film was developed as a vehicle for Damon, but there are many other big names in this movie and boy are they wasted.  Michael Peña, Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Jeff Daniels, Kristin Wiig, Sean Bean and others all share about 20% of the running time and don’t get to do very much.  This is slightly disappointing especially when one thinks back to Ed Harris and Gary Sinise in Apollo 13 and realizes how powerful these roles could have been with some slight refocusing.

With Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian, and soon Star Wars: The Force Awakens, we are firmly in the midst of a science-fiction renaissance.  While box office has plenty to do with this current fad, what makes these films most enticing to the big name directors is their opportunity to dazzle us visually.  I saw The Martian in 3-D, which I normally avoid.  I still believe that 3-D releases are nothing more than a way to make you pay an extra few dollars for a ticket, but I will admit that Ridley Scott has crafted a beautiful and exciting film with The Martian that does use the technology to immerse the audience in the experience better than most.

The Martian is everything you want in a big budget, exciting, tense blockbuster.  It is entertaining, researched, and impressive.  Still, while it features brilliant people doing brilliant things, The Martian does all of the heavy lifting.  It would have been nice to walk away with a little bit more to think about, but it does let you walk out with plenty to celebrate, and that is good too. A-

The Martian is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 21 minutes. 

Oscar Predictions: Part 4 – The Big Ones

OscarsOscar Predictions: Part4 – The Big Ones

The final installment of The People’s Critic’s Oscar prediction series lists my picks for the six major film awards: Directing, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Actor, Actress, and Picture.  These are the categories decided by the largest blocks of voters and, thus reveal the academy’s consensus feelings on the great films of the year.  Readers are invited to continue to weigh in with their own opinions by submitting to the public polls following each category’s predictions.

Best Director:

Nominated directors are Michael Haneke for Amour, Benh Zeitlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild, Ang Lee for Life of Pi, Steven Spielberg for Lincoln, and David O. Russell for Silver Linings Playbook.

The Best Director Oscar is basically the Cinematography Oscar crown jewel.  The director oversees every chosen element on set to ensure his/her vision is secure and successful.  In the Classic Hollywood Cinema days, this award was a bit easier to come by as directors like William Wyler, John Ford, and Frank Capra were nominated often and won more than any other directors in history.  Over the years, the award has become much more aloof; very few directors earn more than one Best Directing Oscar.  The award is closely associated with the Best Picture winner as well, however these awards are becoming more independent of one another now that the Best Picture field of nominees has been increased to up to ten films.  This year will be an upset year no matter which way it goes.  Not since the 1930s has it been more likely that the Best Picture will go to a film who’s director was not nominated.  Additionally, it is quite likely that the Best Director will go to a film that does not win Best Picture.  Therefore, it is critical to look at each of the nominated films for director’s merit alone. Haneke and Zeitlin turned out two emotionally charged human dramas that are deserving of immense appreciation.  In terms of directing, Zeitlin is the better choice between the two, but these small films rarely make a dent in the voting pool.  Spielberg does not deserve to be nominated for this award this year.  Russell has once again made a great film that would have won last year, but he will find himself beaten this year.  The award is between Russell and Lee.  The Peoples Critic Selection: Ang Lee for Life of Pi


Best Supporting Actor:

Nominees are Tommy Lee Jones for Lincoln, Christoph Waltz for Django Unchained, Robert DeNiro for Silver Linings Playbook, Philip Seymour Hoffman for The Master, and Alan Arkin for Argo.

Best Supporting Actress:

Nominees are Anne Hathaway for Les Misérables, Helen Hunt for The Sessions, Sally Field for Lincoln, Amy Adams for The Master, and Jackie Weaver for Silver Linings Playbook.

Acting categories need the least amount of explanation.  The supporting role awards are traditionally a bit more exciting.  These Oscars have gone to some surprising upsets over the years and is more likely to go to an edgier or younger performer than the awards for Best Actor/Actress.  On the men’s side, this year’s field has two performances that are practically lead roles (Waltz and Hoffman), and this will most likely work in one of their favors.  On the ladies’ side, there is a clear winner, so I’ll simply explain why she wins.  Much has been made of the fact that Anne Hathaway is only in Les Misérables for a short period of time.  However, this award has gone to many recipients whose screen-time is limited.  The Oscar for Supporting Role is designed to recognize superior support, regardless of screen time.  What Anne Hathaway does with her segment of an otherwise dull film is give a Hugh Jackman quality performance and then leave you wanting more.  What worked for her will unfortunately not work for Jackman since his Best Actor field also has a clear winner who accomplishes a similar feat in that category.  The People’s Critic Selection for Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz for Django UnchainedThe People’s Critic Selection for Best Supporting Actress: Anne Hathaway for Les Misérables.  

 

Best Actor:

Nominees are Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln, Hugh Jackman for Les Misérables, Bradley Cooper for Silver Linings Playbook, Joaquin Phoenix for The Master, and Denzel Washington for Flight.

Best Actress

Nominees are Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook, Emmanuelle Riva for Amour, Jessica Chastain for Zero Dark Thirty, Naomi Watts for The Impossible, and Quvenzhané Wallis for Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Hugh Jackman picked the wrong year to turn out his best performance of his career.  What he does as Jean Val Jean in Les Misérables is raw and spectacular.  However, it will be the one-two punch of excellent writing by Kushner and flawless delivery by Day-Lewis that will allow him to make history as the first to win three Best Actor Academy Awards.  Meanwhile, the Best Actress category has already made history by nominating both the youngest and oldest nominees ever considered for the Best Actress Oscar with Riva and Wallis.  Unlike the men’s race, no clear winner exists here.  Riva has enjoyed a surge as of late given her heart wrenching performance in Amour along with the fact that Oscar night just happens to be her 86th birthday.  However, it seems that the “girl on fire” this year will come away with her first trophy, solidifying what will likely be a long and dynamic career.   The People’s Critic Selection for Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln.  The People’s Critic Selection for Best Actress: Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook. 


 Best Picture:

Nominated Films are Amour, Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, Les Misérables, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, and Zero Dark Thirty.

Nine films were deemed worthy of Best Picture honors this year.  The jury is still out on this callback to the olden days where ten (even twelve!) films could be nominated for this award.  In 2009, the Academy expanded the limit of nominees from five to ten, but finding that there are not always ten worth-while nominees, the rule currently allows the list to vary between five and ten nominees.  This year’s collection of nominees would all have beaten last year’s winner, The Artist substantiating what an excellent year at the movies 2012 was.  As stated earlier, this award is often tied closely together with the winner for Best Director; however, no year in recent history has provided a lower likelihood of this happening than this year.  Therefore, how does one judge a film on its merits alone without necessarily taking the director’s choices into strong consideration?  How much does one weigh the writing, the cinematography, the set design, the acting, etc.?  These are tough questions.  One major element is to examine the editing.  Best Picture is more about conveying a message, entertainment, structure, and overall effect than anything else.  Editing (along with direction) is the key to all of those characteristics that make a movie great.  Therefore, if direction becomes a lowered value in the equation for determining greatness, the vacuum will be filled with editing.  The result is an upset that has only happened three times in history and not at all since 1989 – a Best Picture winner where the director was not even nominated.  The People’s Critic Selection: Argo

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