The Shape of Water is fantastically, darkly graceful

A brutally violent, lusciously gorgeous film about a sexy fish-man

Within the first five minutes of The Shape of Water, Sally Hawkins’ mute maid Eliza sets a timer, hops in the bath, and masturbates. The film has been marketed as an adult fairy tale, and the first part of the statement can’t be ignored. Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t a raunch-fest about fish-sex. But unlike Pan’s Labyrinth, which was an adult fairy tale from a child’s perspective, The Shape of Water is distinctly mature through-and-through, a brutally violent, quietly introspective, and lusciously gorgeous delight. It also happens to feature a sexy fish-man.

Even if said sexy fish-man doesn’t work for you, there’s no denying how stunningly beautiful this film is, with oversaturated blues giving Eliza’s apartment the feeling of an aquarium and neon greens (or is that teal?) frequently blanketing the players. In many fantastic ways, the art design evokes Bioshock‘s Rapture, particularly when combined with its cold-war setting and record-box soundtrack. In a touch that could be viewed as cheap if I had a heart of stone, Eliza lives above a cinema, and The Shape of Water definitely earns the La La Land/The Artist movie-about-how-great-movies-are slot at the Oscars. But it does so in little ways, such as Eliza and her neighbour Giles performing a small couch dance routine, before paying it off in a big, spectacular moment.

The bloody violence might turn some off, and indeed ventures into fairly rough territory at times. Michael Shannon brings a lot of intensity to a fairly one-note heel, finding new dimensions of depravity in every act. One could also fault Del Toro for spending too much time with his side characters, but he paints Giles, Dmitri, and Zelda with a fine enough brush that I wouldn’t want to see them excised even if they occasionally feel extraneous. But the heart lies within Eliza and The Creature, whose sensitive puppy-dog attitude never feels manipulative. If this kind of fantastical twist is what movie romance needs, I for one welcome our new sexy fish-man overlords.

A-

The Shape of Water (2017)
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Starring Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, and Doug Jones
Rotten Tomatoes (92%)

Three Billboards should have gotten more than melodrama out of Ebbing Missouri

Three Billboards isn’t interested in great tragedies nor police violence, but maybe it should have been

In a three-act structure, the second act tends to be the one where the good stuff is. Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri takes this to heart, beginning well after the murder that incites the action takes place and after the failed investigation has all but folded. Feeling the world is moving on from her still-burning rage, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) rents the titular billboards, personally shaming police chief William Willoughby* (Woody Harrelson), who is dying of cancer and has perhaps the most screenwriterly name ever devised. The billboards scandal ripples throughout the town, perhaps nowhere more than in the police station, where the short-tempered, racist, and punnily-named deputy Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) gets angry seemingly on Willoughby’s behalf. But the driving background behind each character, from Hayes’ tragedy to Willoughby’s illness to Dixon’s racism, are all established quickly, sometimes awkwardly, through dialogue to cut to the chase. Director Martin McDonagh isn’t interested in great tragedies nor is he particularly interested in police abuse. He’s interested in how communities function, how defensive they can be to social upset, how putting their members into boxes begets violence. But maybe a bit of interest in the former would have helped.

Three Billboards has been marketed as a black comedy, but never finds an even tone, oscillating drastically between wallowing in melodrama and poking fun at bumpkins. Sometimes this tonal whiplash works: when Mildred’s violent ex-husband escalates a situation only to have it defused by his young girlfriend cluelessly asking for a restroom, McDonagh keeps the scene going for a hilariously uncomfortable amount of time. At another moment, a sudden intrusion of Willoughby’s illness during an interrogation provides the most intimate moment of the film. However, while a few of the performers find the right nerve to strike (notably the now-ubiquitous Caleb Landry Jones and Samara Weaving), many others never quite find it. Some, like Peter Dinklage’s alcoholic salesman, serve one scene and otherwise hang out on the margins, which does give the town a nicely lived-in feel. But others, notably Abbie Cornish as Willoughby’s far-too-young and implacably accented wife, feel air-dropped in from a movie-of-the-week. Compared to McDonagh’s fantastically odd and dark In BrugesThree Billboards is just too sincere to read as comedy.

Three Billboards commits to its second-act focus in the end, arguably cutting to black pre-climax. But before it gets there, it engages in some acts of forgiveness that have caused a fair amount of controversy, of which a lot of digital ink has already been spilled. A lot of it comes down to whether a certain act is read as redemption or a step forward, and for my money the film engages with the difficulty of redemption even after attaining self-awareness. It builds up a racial element only to unharmoniously sweep it under the rug, but it rather frankly asserts that atonement isn’t simple. The parallels it draws between its two most broken characters are legitimately interesting, although handled less-than-deftly. Thanks to the character of Ebbing itself, it’s certainly not a boring ride to get there. It’s just not as riveting as the material could have been.

C+

Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri (2017)
Directed by Martin McDonagh
Starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, and Lucas Hedges
Rotten Tomatoes (93%)

I did naht love it, I did naaaht

The Disaster Artist’s refusal to admit that its a lark proves to be its undoing

At its root, The Room is an all-time great movie in a way something like Snakes on a Plane isn’t* because it wasn’t made with the intention of being a bad movie. The Room was not made for guffaws; every frame of it screams that it is the work of an auteur. The auteur in question, Tommy Wiseau, has three main qualities that all blend together to make The Room so damn singular. Most obviously, Wiseau is perplexing physical presence as an actor, with a, let’s say, unique cadence. Secondly, as a director and manager of tone, Wiseau is inconsistent beyond the point of parody. But what can make The Room turn from camp classic to unwatchable dreck for some is that it’s also incredibly toxic. If it is to be taken as a look into Wiseau’s frame of mind, the diagnosis is clearly misogynistic, egotistical, and paranoid. Don’t get me wrong, I love every second of The Room**, but its incompetency isn’t limited to simply hamfisted moralizing; it’s also that the morals are awful.

Going under the hood of The Room and looking at its guts isn’t and shouldn’t be a purely fun adventure, and The Disaster Artist doesn’t take the assignment that way. But it doesn’t succeed at balancing the idiosyncrasy with the dark side of Tommy Wiseau. Wiseau is presented as a comic figure throughout, with any pathos or sympathy rather quickly brushed aside for a joke. The movie (and the on-set record) give us every reason to think of Wiseau as a villain, but the movie strives to give him unearned redemption, likely to avoid upsetting its subject. James Franco’s Wiseau impression is a fantastic party trick, but he plays the tics to broadly to register the more serious moments. Sure, they may be accurate, but this might be a case of life being too strange for fiction, especially given the straightforward, unadventurous cinematic style.

Much of the film is spent recreating the shooting of The Room, with the cast finding every opportunity to reference their favourite lines and moments (the breast cancer bit comes up a lot, as it should). It’s great fun, especially Seth Rogen’s bewildered script supervisor and Zac Efron’s too-brief turn as Chris R., but it never quite meshes with the Tommy/Greg Sestero tone, and its overuse of references plays as entirely reliant on The Room rather than an attempt to say anything of its own. Were The Disaster Artist just an excuse for a bunch of friends to hang out and recreate a historically bad movie, it would have been a lot more fun to be honest about that, maybe get a bit more experimental with the format, maybe a documentary framing device or something like that. If the overlong pre-credits montage of The Room footage side-by-side with their remake is any indication, that’s what the goal was anyhow.

C

The Distaster Artist (2017)
Directed by James Franco
Starring James Franco, Dave Franco, Ari Graynor, and Seth Rogen
Rotten Tomatoes (91%)

* No offense to that motherfucking plane
** I suppose I could do without the ass shots

Twisted justice, texting spirits, and a dive back into The World of Tomorrow

Quick thoughts on The Lost City of Z, Downsizing, Personal Shopper, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and The World of Tomorrow 2

The Killing of a Sacred Deer – B

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In his English-language debut, The Lobster, Yorgos Lanthimos had his actors speak in a stilted, direct manner to both immediately make its otherworldliness clear and for pitch-black comedy. In his follow-up, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the same technique is used, once again to increase our willingness to suspend disbelief, but this time in the service of psychological horror. Sure, the movie earns some laughs (“I’m not letting you leave until you’ve tasted my tart”), but the buildup is a bit off-putting, paid off when the central conceit of the latter half of the film is explained succinctly and directly. From there, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is entrancing, a nightmare crash in slow motion and a rumination on culpability and the arbitrary nature of justice. It’s lack of a strong emotional throughline or a singular visual style keep it from reaching the heights of its predecessor, as does its ultimately unsuccessful attempts to have one “The Scene”, but its strong command of tone and deliberate drip of tension still work wonders.

Downsizing – C-

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Downsizing is a complete a total mess, but it takes its dear sweet time making that clear. In Alexander Payne’s first attempt at tying his humanistic comedy to a sci-fi concept, his reach exceeds his grasp, with a half-dozen good-to-great ideas that he tries to pursue simultaneously by the films end, only leading to general annoyance and confusion. If it wants to be a movie about running from problems, the material is there, but it also wants to be a movie about the inescapability of inequality, even in utopia, and the incredible sacrifices that life demands in order to achieve some semblance of prosperity. But the themes dogpile on top of each other into an aimless mash after a fitfully funny opening act, which concludes with the single greatest use of a spatula in film history. If the second half were funnier, a lot would be forgiven, but it leans away from its fantastical elements surprisingly often, with certain shots and elements re-emphasizing the tininess of its characters but for the most part seeming to forget about it (there’s a party/rave scene that screams for little details, but never feels like it takes place in a doll’s house). The concept and first half are solid enough to make Downsizing an interesting curiousity, but it should have thought considerably smaller.

The Lost City of Z – B-

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There’s certainly a classic beauty to The Lost City of Z, an expedition film hewing closer to Master & Commander without sails than Raiders of the Lost Ark without whips. While itself a period piece, the film feels like it comes from another time, with nary a hint of modern humour or camera-winking. It only betrays itself with shoehorned-in attempts at wokeness, having its main characters act as occasional unsubtle mouthpieces for more modern takes on feminism and white superiority. The classic feel comes with all the drawbacks, and the film often feels cold and distant, interesting but unengaging. But when its in the Amazonian jungle, The Lost City of Z is plenty absorbing, with lush frames and stirring suspense. Main character Percy Fawcett spends the film itching to get back to the adventure, and that feeling is certainly contagious.

Personal Shopper – B-

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Personal Shopper is a simultaneously infuriating and fascinating film, but certainly not one that thinks of its audience as dumb. In many ways, its refreshingly direct. Very soon after we find out our main character Maureen is looking to communicate with her brother’s ghost, we see a ghost pretty clearly, removing unnecessary ambiguity. In one very important way, the ending is left confusing deliberate, resulting in an absolutely beautiful sequence of shots through a hotel but leaving the conclusion of one of its story threads unnecessarily open, distracting heavily from the remainder. Personal Shopper does pull off a neat feat throughout, acting as an effective supernatural thriller, technological suspense, and big-city millenial malaise film all at once, anchored by Kristen Stewart’s embodiment of twenty-something stressed and tired, and the film has a lot to say about how we process grief. But it’s late choices keep it from coming together in a satisfying way.

World of Tomorrow Episode 2: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts – B+

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Don Hertzfeld’s World of Tomorrow is one of my favourite fifteen minutes ever created, an beautiful and idiosyncratic sci-fi dive into life, love, and doom. The second installment, The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts, is longer but seems to contain less. It still features the voices of Julia Pott and Winona Mae, the latter Hertzfeld’s five-year-old niece whose ramblings are edited into the character of Emily, and the former her clone from hundreds of years into the future. With Winona Mae a full year older, her musings are considerably more coherent, moving from single-word exclamations to the point where her voice is used to play multiple characters conversing with each other. Segments such as these and the appearance of “memory tourists” more than justify the existence of the sequel, which is hilarious and often poignant, but it can’t help but feel a little less revelatory than its predecessor. The animation is certainly more ambitious, but in increasing the number of 3D effects, it feels less painterly. Still, by diving deeper into clone dystopia, Hertzfeld has produced a vivid, funny, and original short. It’s just not his masterpiece.

 

The Last Jedi is a more thoughtful and less captivating middle chapter

Things seem to be following a familiar path, until they’re suddenly not.

Middle chapters are hard. They have to move the story along without closing too many doors while not leaving too many open for the final chapter, appearing consequential but not too consequential. But they’re also hard to judge in a vacuum; The Empire Strikes Back is pretty universally considered the best Star Wars movie, but how much of that relies on knowing that Return of the Jedi, for all its Ewoks, follows through on all of its narrative arcs? If Episode IX builds upon what The Last Jedi lays out in a satisfying way, The Last Jedi may well be thought of the same way twenty years from now. If not, does The Last Jedi hold up on its own merits?

If “its own merits” means “Is The Last Jedi entertaining?”, the answer is a bit mixed. That hyped, pumped-up feeling I got from The Force Awakens was considerably dampened for The Last Jedi, potentially due to Rogue One disappointment, potentially due to simple sequel fatigue. But its also clear that The Last Jedi is just less interested in thrills. Indeed, The Last Jedi is the closest a Star Wars movie has come to art cinema, with no expert action sequences to speak of but a constant barrage of absolutely stunning images. From a particularly blinding light-speed jump to gorgeous speeder tracks on a salt-ridden mining planet, a dolly shot across a futuristic casino that apes a classic, or (most blatantly) an auditory infinity mirror hallucination, director Rian Johnson provides an unexpectedly sumptuous artistic sci-fi vision, all while still feeling very much a part of the Star Wars universe, but the expected thrills (lightsaber battles and aerial dogfights) fall a little short.

But The Last Jedi isn’t principally interested in getting those expected thrills. If The Force Awakens was a celebration of nostalgia, The Last Jedi is a deconstruction of it (its truest kin is, weirdly, maybe Trainspotting 2). The Rebels won at the end of Return of the Jedi, but forty years later, they seem to be back to the start during The Force AwakensThe Force Awakens ignored this sticking point a bit, but The Last Jedi digs into the demoralizing trudging of time, how we (and the world) outlive our glory moments and have to just keep moving past them, slowly. Across numerous characters, illusions of heroism and seemingly predestined paths are shattered. The very definitions of light and dark get reshuffled, but a form of balance finds itself. Things seem to be following a familiar path, until they’re suddenly not.

While it certainly gets more heady in themes than previous entries, The Last Jedi is also more obviously humorous than expected. The antics of BB-8 and the penguin-rat Porg creatures edge right up to the line of too cutesy, but stay *mostly* on the right side of it. While these scenes seem to be taking on a greater proportion of the popcorn-entertainment value of this installment than normal, they also keep the film from verging too far into darker-and-edgier territory. As entertainment, The Last Jedi certainly suffices, but as an entry into the Star Wars canon, it has potential to age into an absolute classic.

B

UPDATE:

OK, I saw it a second time, and loved it so so much more. The headiness of it all maybe distracted me the first time, but upon rewatch, having compartmentalized that the movie was going to be about failure and the deflation of legends, it turns out that it also works really really well as epic entertainment. Even if I still think things like the Throne Room Fight are a bit overrated, and that there’s maybe one too many Porg moments, I’m fully on board with calling The Last Jedi the first capital-g Great Star Wars movie since the originals.

A-

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
Directed by Rian Johnson
Starring Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, and Mark Hamill
Rotten Tomatoes (92%)

Catching up with Thor, Bad Batch, Meyerowitz, and Billie Jean King

The true winner in the Battle of the Sexes? Movie-going audiences everywhere! Also, Thor is an overstuffed turkey, but the stuffing is oh-so-delicious.

So I’ve been a bit everywhere the last few weeks, and haven’t had much time to put pen to paper (finger to keyboard?). But I’ve still seen some movies, and here are some quick thoughts! One strong recommendation, one less-strong recommendation, one surprising shoulder-shrug, and one unfortunate thumbs down, in that order…

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The Battle of the Sexes (2017) – B+

If you were worried Battle of the Sexes would be a heavy-handed morality tale reflecting the re-emergence of feminist to the forefront of the public eye in the last few years, well, you’d be right. But, in addition to being a bit too precisely timely, the film is also surprisingly tender and a fairly rousing sport film in its own right. It lives and dies on its two star performances, and both Emma Stone and Steve Carrell have a good shot at adding more Oscar noms to their resume. Stone finds a lost soul inside Billie Jean King, but makes it an integral part of her fighter’s spirit rather than a distraction. And Carrell finds some humanity in the opportunistic Bobby Riggs, peeking at the brokenness that feeds his chauvinistic persona. It’s a film that’s as relevant as it’ll ever be, but it doesn’t rely on virtue signalling to hold up as a classically designed crowd-pleaser simultaneously.

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The Meyerowitz Stories, New and Selected (2017) – B

I liked The Meyerowitz Stories a fair amount, owing mostly to the chemistry and history of its central characters, played by Adam Sandler (channeling his childlike rage for both comedy and catharsis) and Ben Stiller (his smugness neatly transferred from his selling point as a comedian to his character’s chief flaw). But perhaps what keeps it from being astounding is, surprisingly, the cartoonish performance of Dustin Hoffman as the family patriarch, whose responsibility for the flaws of his children is the focus of the film. Hoffman is occasionally quite funny; indeed, the film’s one Excellent Joke™ is staged between him and Emma Thompson (it involves gourmet hummus). But he never feels like an actual human being rather than a caricature drawn by writer-director Noah Baumbach, which undercuts the more restrained tone taken when his character is absent.

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Thor: Ragnarok (2017) – C+

Thor: Ragnarok is a fantastic Hulk movie sandwiched on either side by a half-assed Thor movie. Everything about it screams that director Taika Waititi really wanted to make the middle third, where Thor and Hulk wind up in a gladiatorial culture lorded over by Jeff Goldblum while making friends with a gentle Kiwi rock-creature named Korg, but had to advance the MCU plotline by including Thor’s long-lost sister Hela taking over Asgard on the fringes. Just look at how Waititi handles the Warriors Three, a strong presence in the previous Thor movies, to get an idea for how much he cares about Asgard. That middle third truly is outstandingly entertaining, and Cate Blanchett chews sweet delicious scenery as Hela whenever she gets a chance, but this really needed to be split into two movies instead of constantly distracting each other. Then we could get the Thor-is-a-gladiator and the Hela-is-a-colonialism-metaphor movies we truly need. There are enough fantastic moments to make Ragnarok memorable (melting stick! the retro score and effects! Banner’s buffoonish bifrost bounce!), but its less than the sum of its parts.

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The Bad Batch (2017) – D

And then there’s The Bad Batch. It opens fantastically, with a beautiful tableau of desolation at the gates of a sort-of desert open-air prison, where the undesirables among us are left to their own devices, and each others. The movie never tops its opening moments but constantly tries to, with occasional beautiful shots and a bonkers mute Jim Carrey performance being overshadowed by narrative incoherence and auteur touches that go from eye-rolling to motion-sickness inducing. The movie’s greatest sin, however, is its treatment of the central relationship of listless Arlen and the cannibalistic Miami Man, which is not sold nearly well enough to justify its resolution point. The concept is there, and the set design is killer, but The Bad Batch doesn’t work for either genre thrills or arthouse pontifications.

Blade Runner 2049 is gorgeous and deliberate

Like the original, its much more about tone and ponderousness than actual plot

Let’s start with the straightforward recommendation part of the discussion here: if you like the original Blade Runner, you will most likely love Blade Runner 2049. The last few years have seen many years-separated sequels come out to huge reception, and the successful ones have taken a variety of routes. Star Wars and Creed, for example, essentially played as tweaked remakes of the originals with the elder characters acting as guides for the new recruits. Trainspotting 2 was directly about the distance in time from the original, a sort of meditation on nostalgia. Mad Max Fury Road took its low-budget roots to high-budget fever pitch, amplifying all its existing elements to eleven.

Blade Runner 2049 is very much made in the same spirit as the original, but the plot links are secondary at best and distracting at worst. They are both movies much more about tone and ponderousness than actual plot, although 2049 is an even more visual movie than the original (which gave us Roy Batty as a fantastic monologue-delivery device). They both stop short of outright explaining what they’re about, but provide a nice amount to chew on and sort out. But, perhaps most remarkably, 2049 manages to stake out new thematic territory. While the original was about what it means to be human, what it means to face a definite mortality, and ramen, 2049 views most of those questions as closed by the original and expands its philosophical space even further. Instead of bothering to question whether the replicants have human feelings, 2049 makes no secret of the fact that Ryan Gosling’s K is both a replicant and a being with desires and wants. Instead, 2049 focuses on, among other things, the importance of personal history, questions of duty and self-autonomy, and most strikingly what makes relationships real. A side plot involving K’s relationship with the holographic software Joi starts off feeling like a minor distraction from the central mystery, but slowly becomes the beating heart of the film, even if its only a couple degrees removed from Her.

That central mystery is where some complaints might arise, as the second half’s need to involve Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard actually ends up significantly distracting from K’s arc, and so many balls are being juggled at a point that the ending can’t help but feel a little anticlimactic. But, like the original, plot details matter very little, because the tone is sold so well. Hands down, Blade Runner 2049 is the most beautiful film of the year, and should absolutely lock down the overdue Oscar for cinematographer Roger Deakins. The mystery angle involves a fair amount of trekking across dystopian California, and Deakins and Villeneuve give each location a distinct feel. A deserted sand-covered Las Vegas suddenly takes on the feeling of an Egyptian ruin, only all the monolithic statues are wearing heels, and set the stage for an absolute wonder of a fight scene with intermittent appearances from an Elvis hologram. The protein farms on the outskirts evoke the manufactured landscapes of Burtynsky. A junkyard brawl recalls Children of Men, contrasting strewn metal and dirt with bright red blood. A late scene nearly directly calls back to Drive in its brutality, frigidness, and beach setting. Jared Leto’s villainous millionaire lectures his subjects in a shimmering golden pool, which may be the best Bond villain lair that never was. The sound design and score match perfectly the lackadaisical, exploratory mood, merging the synthy Vangelis score with the unmistakable Hans Zimmer bwahm, along with a more ambient, contemplative core. Given the thematic meat, audio trance, and visual splendor on display, its easy to forgive some wonky plotting.

A-

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Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Starring Ryan Gosling, Ana de Armas, Robin Wright, and Harrison Ford
Rotten Tomatoes (89%)

Gerald’s Game bleeds its confined premise for surreal, muted terror

All in all, bed may be the place where the average human accumulates the most terror over the course of their life.

All in all, bed may be the place where the average human accumulates the most terror over the course of their life. It’s where monsters are most capable of getting us when we are kids. Its where we notice changes in our own bodies, and where we awkwardly learn about the bodies of others. Its where we get left to ourselves to stare at the ceiling and replay all our failures, consider all our dreads. But most of all, its where we sleep and where we are vulnerable. It’s where we open our eyes after a bad dream only to find ourselves surrounded in darkness and, for a moment, are left with no guarantee of our safety.

Gerald’s Game, an adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, makes expert use of these fears, and is considerably more gripping than its premise suggests. After her husband Gerald takes some role playing a bit too far and dies of a heart attack, Jessie finds herself handcuffed to a bed in a cottage far from home with no way to call for help. Rather quickly, things go south from there, but the film gets surreal as Jessie starts hallucinating. She dreams of past trauma, which comes off a bit stilted and melodramatic at first but pays off with an devastating bedside conversation. She conjures a shoulder angel and devil in the form of doppelgangers of her and Gerald. Some of her visions are much more directly horrifying, notably the bone-carrying Moonlight Man, but everything is played on a mute note, with nary a suddenly screeching violin to be found. It lets the terror settle in and burn into your brain, and when it does go for the jugular with a shockingly gruesome set piece, it was enough to have me biting into a pillow.

Carla Gugino carries the film, selling its quasi-self-actualization message, and Jessie as a character both comments on and dodges the woman-in-chains cliches that might be expected. As Gerald (and moreso as hallucination Gerald), Bruce Greenwood is hypnotic, creating chills through monologue and compellingly whispering about the motives of Death to a dehydrated and dazed Jessie. The movie even manages to capture a very King-like feeling, mixing the creeping supernatural-tinged dread with a complete, well-drawn character study. Unfortunately, the apparently epilogue is an absolute train wreck, but thankfully it is a true epilogue in that it comes after the conclusion of the main action. Gerald’s Game is excellent while it goes, and its high points are among the best of any King adaptation.

B+

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Gerald’s Game (2017)
Directed by Mike Flanagan
Starring Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood
Rotten Tomatoes (92%)
On Netflix

American Made is lighter, bouncier drug epic

Tom Cruise’s version of the crime anti-hero was never going to be Walter White, but is that such a bad thing?

There’s a lot to be said about American Made from just how it’s being marketed overseas, with an ever-so-slightly different title in Germany — Barry Seal: Only in America. Rather than the ambiguously patriotic US title (the sarcasm in it isn’t exactly screaming off the poster), the European title foregrounds an exasperation with the American system, which the film itself sometimes forgets to do. This is a movie where the main character, Tom Cruise’s Barry Seal, is a weaselly opportunist who takes blatant advantage of a crooked system, and the system that gives him another leg up at every moment. In having Seal act as the narrator and playing into Tom Cruise’s movie-hero persona, American Made occasionally loses sight of the fact that Seal himself is really the villain here, rather than a victim of circumstance. Tom Cruise’s version of the crime anti-hero was never going to be Walter White, but is that such a bad thing? It avoids the depressing and patronizing comedown stage that haunts its genre cousins, such as Blow, instead lending the eventual crash a sense of inevitability. Most importantly, American Made is a lot of fun along the way, with a whirlwind energy and a respectably fleet runtime, as well as the occasional bit of novel weirdness, such as the appearance of Caleb Landry Jones as a burnout brother-in-law or a protracted crash scene which results in Cruise biking away from the authorities with cocaine dust clouds flowing off of him. Anything which provides us with that image has to be worth something.

B+

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American Made (2017)
Directed by Doug Liman
Starring Tom Cruise, Sarah Wright, Alejandro Edda, and Domhnall Gleeson
Rotten Tomatoes (87%)

It clicks once It embraces the weirdness

Once It starts having fun with the concept and lets loose, it becomes an absolute joy.

Kids get scared of the most irrational things. Creepy basements, ugly paintings, black-and-white photographs, clowns. We form fewer irrational fears as adults, but when we re-encounter something that scared us as a kid, we often can’t help but get a little nervous (for what its worth, I still get anxious around aquariums and in the fish aisle of the supermarket). But the key to most of these fears is that they’re imaginary, that our mind outsizes them into terrifying monstrosities. Stephen King’s novel It may be about four hundred pages too long, but it taps into the reader’s imagination just enough to let it take some hints of fear and grow them into pure terror. The reliance on imagination presents a challenge for the film adaptations, where everything must be made literal, and the new It doesn’t always rise to the challenge. But it spins up some macabre fun along the way.

The first act of It mostly lives up to the worst expectations of a horror remake. The opening scene, where little Georgie meets a clown by a sewer grating, is shockingly brutal but inelegant, and that the goriness involves a small child is a bit much (indeed, a few people walked out immediately). Afterwards, as Our Gang of summer-lovin’ kids individually encounter all-to-real manifestation of their fears, It devolves into jump scares with little originality in terms of design (outside of a fantastically creepy painting come to life). However, once the gang comes together, starting by investigating a very clearly haunted house, It really finds its groove and becomes something like a Sam Raimi version of The Goonies.

Anchored by Bill Skarsgard’s performance as a Pennywise the Dancing Clown who indeed dances (and some mostly good CGI), the middle act presents a series of innovative grotesqueries that occasionally scare but consistently amuse. Not coincidentally, this point is also where class clown Richie Tozier (played by Stanger Thing’s Finn Wolfhard) suddenly clicks. Tozier is an annoyance in both the novel and the first movie, a character who is funny because the writer said so rather than actually being funny, but here Richie really works, in a natural, juvenile way. Once It starts having fun with the concept and lets loose, it becomes an absolute joy. And even though It makes no bones about it being the first chapter of a planned two-parter, the first film tells a complete tale and stands on its own as a bloody, R-rated version of Stand By Me.

B

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IT (2017)
Directed by Andy Muschietti
Starring Jaden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, and Bill Skarsgard
Rotten Tomatoes (85%)