Thursday, March 22, 2018

Available for home viewing: The Shape of Water ★★★½

Although Guillermo del Toro was never given the opportunity to bring his vision of The Hobbit to the screen, movie-goers over the years have not been deprived of his brand of horror-tinged fantasy. With his latest, the story is a variation on Beauty and the Beast with a "monster" who resembles the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Yet, as is sometimes the case in tales of this nature, appearance is no determiner of true beauty, and gentleness and compassion rarely go unrewarded. The Shape of Water is an adult fairy tale that encourages the same emotional responses often engendered by such simple, heartfelt stories. It’s hard to come away from this film and not believe that, in his heart, writer/director del Toro is a romantic.

The movie is set in the 1960s and, as with del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, real world concerns (in this case, Cold War espionage) are conflated with fantasy. The three protagonists are members of a minority or suffer from a disability — Sally Hawkins’ Elisa is mute, Octavia Spencer’s Zelda is black, and Richard Jenkins’ Giles is a closeted gay man — while the antagonist, Michael Shannon’s Strickland, is a clean-cut, hard-working WASP. By thus establishing the foundation, del Toro is able to make a social statement before introducing the merman into the equation. The Shape of Water is very much about cultural and racial myth-busting.

Hawkins is one of the most accomplished working character actors but she is not what one would consider to be conventionally beautiful. She looks more like a next-door neighbor than a movie actress. For The Shape of Water, it doesn’t matter — you’ll fall in love with her in what amounts to the best performance of a career of often overlooked top-notch portrayals. She’s luminous. She sells the movie, transforming an inter-species romance into something delicate and delightful. And she does all this without a line of dialogue. Purportedly, in order to play Elisa, she studied Chaplin and other silent film greats and, through this, discovered how to convey emotion through gestures and expressions.

Few actors can play a handsome monster better than Shannon. The guy is scary and intense and that intensity makes Strickland a frightening villain: a sadist, a butcher, and the ugliest sort of patriot. Even in his home life — a typical suburban existence — he’s a coiled spring ready to go off. Jenkins, playing a part originally envisioned for Ian McKellan, mixes wry humor with deep humanity as Giles, Elisa’s father-figure. An underused Spencer brings warmth to the stereotyped "best friend" role and Doug Jones, a frequent collaborator of the director (he played the Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth), imbues the amphibious man with a degree of humanity that might have been difficult to achieve via motion capture (del Toro opted for the old-fashioned 3-hour makeup job instead of pure CGI).

The movie opens by introducing us to Elisa and providing a snapshot of her daily routine. She makes a living by working as a cleaning woman at a military facility. After work, she comes home to an apartment she shares with Giles and goes about her nightly activities: hard-boiling eggs, taking a bath, and masturbating. All the while, the muffled sounds of movies float up from below; the apartment is atop a theater. Then, one day, Strickland arrives at Elisa’s workplace along with a scientist, Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), and something referred to only as "the asset." Elisa is curious about the creature, who is kept chained in an oversized tub of water. She sneaks in to see him and, by offering him an egg, establishes the beginning of a tentative bond. She teaches her new friend sign language and, when Strickland receives permission from his superiors to vivisect the creature, she enlists Giles to help her with an elaborate escape plan.

The romantic aspect of The Shape of Water touches in ways many conventional love stories do not. Both Elisa and the creature are lonely souls. We know little about his background except that he was "discovered" in the Amazon where he was worshipped as a god. Elisa’s story is equally murky, although we learn that she was orphaned after someone tried to slit her throat as a child. Physical appearance is irrelevant; it’s the heart that matters. That’s the message of Beauty and the Beast and The Shape of Water, except Elisa isn’t a princess and the creature isn’t a man trapped by a magical spell.

Aspects of The Shape of Water recall E.T. As in Spielberg’s classic, this movie features of a group of unlikely heroes defying government forces to save a beloved friend and return him home. Or maybe Starman would be a better comparison because in John Carpenter’s 1984 feature, love and romance blossomed. Regardless of which antecedent you prefer, The Shape of Water is a special movie with relevant themes and a strong emotional payoff. It rebukes intolerance, affirms love in all its forms and guises, and does so with a strong dose of adventure and suspense. It arguably didn’t deserve the Oscar as the best picture of the year, but it is definitely one of last year’s best films.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Aggies could easily reach title game

I don’t know if anyone could have been more off-target than I in my original predictions for this year’s NCAA basketball tournament. But the great thing about this I can call a Mulligan. Why? Because I make up the rules as I go along, that’s why.

So now we’re down to the Sweet 16 where the right side of the bracket looks fairly normal (I can see a first and a second seed in the final four there) while the left side is a mess (where the final four could see seventh seed play a five, with the No. 7 winning it all to advance to the title game). In fact, I will go so far as to state the winner of tomorrow night’s Texas A&M/Michigan game stands a real good chance to face Villanova in the April 2 title game.

So without further adieu, here is my revised Elite Eight: Kentucky, Nevada, Gonzaga, Texas A&M, Villanova, Purdue, Kansas and Duke. From that group, the Final Four will be Kentucky, Texas A&M, Villanova and Duke with Villanova ultimately defeating A&M to the win the title.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Running once more

I watched  one of my favorite all-time movies, Running on Empty,  one more time this evening. My favorite moment in this film comes in a scene between Christine Lahti and Steven Hill, but for some reason -- even after all the times I have watched this -- I had forgotten this wonderful moment in the film when the family, along with Martha Plimpton, celebrate the Lahti character's birthday. It's a wonderful scene that perfectly defines a family and the process of welcoming a new member into that family.

Democrats' problem is lack of courage, fortitude

Available for home viewing: The Snowman ★

 Apparently, someone turned up the heat because The Snowman is a sloppy mess.

One of the most shockingly awful wastes of talent imaginable, this adaptation of Jo Nesbo’s thriller is mostly incoherent and, just when it starts to make sense, it is hijacked by a series of laughably bad clichés. These include, but are not limited to, the "talking killer" (in which a criminal holds the hero at gunpoint and reveals the details of his plan) and a deus ex machina (in which an extreme contrivance resolves the story). If The Snowman didn’t feature such a dour tone, one might suspect the whole thing was assembled as a satire — albeit a frustrating and overlong one.

Figuring out the story is like following a trail of bread crumbs through a labyrinth. According to director Tomas Alfredson, the production schedule was so tight that key parts of the screenplay were left unfilmed and there was little the editors (Claire Simpson and frequent Martin Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker) could do to salvage a coherent storyline. The narrative problems go beyond mere plot holes. The story skips back and forth in time without rhyme or reason. Key scenes seem to be missing. Ambiguity abounds but not of the good kind. The book has been chopped up and reassembled. The fate of one character has been radically altered and a romance has been eliminated. It’s almost as if the movie went into production with a one-page synopsis and the filmmakers made everything up as they went along.

The ending is so horrendous that it caused my jaw to drop. Even B-movies try to avoid this kind of thing. First, we have a scene in which the killer explains his motivation so the audience will understand. Then there’s fight scene so chaotic that it’s nearly impossible to figure out what’s going on. Finally, the climactic confrontation ends with … an act of God. There’s no other way to describe it. Even had the rest of the movie been perfect, the unsatisfying resolution would have crippled it. However, considering how bad the majority of The Snowman is, this is just another in a long list of reasons why the production should be avoided. (The ending bears little resemblance to what happens in the book — it was created out of whole cloth by the screenwriters for reasons only they could explain.)

Distilled to its essence, the main narrative trajectory follows that of the novel. Detective Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender), the leader of an elite homicide squad in Oslo, begins an investigation into a series of murders that have one thing in common — all are committed under the watchful gaze of a snowman. Aided by a new recruit, Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson), a promising investigator with a secret past, Harry follows the clues, which lead to a high-profile businessman, Arve Stop (J.K. Simmons), and his doctor/pimp, Idar Vetlesen (David Dencik). The closer Harry gets to the truth, the more red herrings he discovers and, on several occasions, he realizes he has been following the wrong trail. Meanwhile, away from the job, Harry struggles with an unsatisfying personal life that involves a still-simmering connection with his ex, Rakel Fauske (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and obligations to her son, who views Harry as a father-figure.

At one point, The Snowman was perceived as a prestige project. Nesbo’s novel is acclaimed and, when the rights were first optioned, Scorsese was attached as the director. (Scorsese remained involved as an executive producer.) Talented actors like Fassbender, Ferguson, Gainsbourg, and Simmons signed on. Scorsese’s replacement, Alfredson, has a respectable resume that includes Let the Right One in and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Somehow, the final product is considerably less than the sum of its parts. Like Tulip Fever, this is a case of a production going disastrously wrong in so many ways that nothing could fix it.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Available for home viewing: Last Flag Flying ★★★


Despite being adapted from a novel by co-screenwriter Darryl Ponicsan, Last Flag Flying feels like a Richard Linklater film. The director’s sympathy and affection for the characters is evident. He doesn’t judge them although they may have done terrible things. The tone is thoughtful, shying away from the harsh, jaded approach of many productions that deal with war and its aftermath. Structurally (although not narratively), the movie bears a resemblance to Before Sunrise — it’s about characters taking a road trip, talking, interacting, and eventually coming to a deeper understanding of one another. Along the way, there are moments of pathos and light humor but Last Flag Flying only occasionally ventures into melodrama or silliness, and those instances are easily forgiven.

The premise is brutal. Larry "Doc" Shepherd (Steve Carell) arrives in the Virginia bar owned by Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston). At first, there’s no recognition then the light goes on as Sal realizes this is his old Vietnam buddy. The next morning, Doc takes Sal on a short trip to a nearby church. The preacher there is Reverend Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), who they once knew as "Mueller the Mauler." Doc has a reason for reuniting with his old comrades. He has had a bad year (it’s 2003). His wife died of breast cancer. Now, his only son has been killed in action in Baghdad. The body is being flown home for burial at Arlington. Doc would like Sal and Richard to be by his side at the funeral.

Sal readily agrees but Richard takes some convincing. Eventually, the three of them get in a station wagon and head for Dover Air Force Base, where the flag-draped coffins arrive. Standing watch in the hanger is Washington (J. Quinton Johnson), a friend of the deceased. When he tells Doc the details about his son’s death, Doc decides that he doesn’t want the Arlington burial. Instead, he wants to take his son’s body home to be buried next to his mother in Portsmouth. Thus begins a trip that features stops in New York City and Boston, a train ride, and reminiscences about Vietnam and the reason why all three men carry a weight of guilt.

Last Flag Flying is based on Poniscan’s novel, which is a sequel to an earlier work, The Last Detail. That book was adapted into a movie in 1973 by Hal Ashby (it starred Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid, and Otis Young). It was nominated for three Oscars, although it won none. Linklater has tinkered with the storyline to make Last Flag Flying a stand-alone story. Among other things, the characters’ names have been changed as have the details of their past interaction. But enough connections remain for this to be considered a sequel of sorts.

Calling Last Flag Flying an "anti-war movie" would be too facile a description. The movie features many discussions by the men about the nature and purpose of wars (including the quote "Men make wars and wars make men"). There is much bitterness and cynicism about the military, the government, and the purpose of war. When Washington notes that he and his comrades are "fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them here", Sal remarks that the opponent may have changed but the excuse hasn’t. Nevertheless, the men retain a love of country and the corps. They have a strong sense of patriotism. (The flag, for example, has great meaning for them.) And their love for each other and the bond they formed while serving their country remains unbreakable. In short, they are conflicted — something that’s true of many soldiers who bled for their nation but later had doubts about what they were fighting for. Linklater captures this ambiguity perfectly — right up to the tearjerker of a final scene.

Last Flag Flying features a trio of strong performances. Carell plays Doc with meekness and quiet sadness. We feel most deeply for this character who has lost so much and is groping to find meaning for a loss that has left him alone and devastated. Carell’s decision to underplay the role emphasizes the pain and despair. Counterbalancing him is Cranston, who takes on Sal with the restraint of a dog gnawing on a bone. A loud-mouthed alcoholic with no self-restraint, Sal is frequently a source of friction and Cranston commits fully to the man’s audacity. Fishburne avoids an easy stereotype as Richard. Once a hard-swearing, hard-drinking, violent man, he found God and turned his life around. Now, reunited with men who remind him of his past, Richard can feel Mueller the Mauler stirring. But whatever "bad" impulses percolate to the surface neither shake his faith nor tempt him to the dark side. He remains a changed man. Fishburne’s performance is suitably restrained with occasional fiery moments.

There are some missteps. The bit about the men being mistaken as Islamic terrorists, although intended as comedic, is unworthy of the rest of the screenplay. The movie also falls prey to the occasionally somnambulant rhythms of the road trip. By their nature, road trip movies are episodic and some of the episodes are more compelling than others. That’s the case with Last Flag Flying. This isn’t about reaching a destination — it’s about what happens along the way as the three men re-connect with one another, try to find meaning in what they’re doing, and discover the addictive power of cell phones. A thoughtful meditation about war and surviving in its aftermath, Last Flag Flying avoids descending into the hell where many such movies take us and, as a result, is more hopeful and life-affirming.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Available for home viewing: The Square ★★½

The Square is an indicator that not only Hollywood blockbusters can be afflicted with bloat. At nearly 2½ hours in length, this production takes what could have been a lean, incisive satire of art, commerce, and altruism and turns it into an endurance contest. The interminable setup and unfocused ending bookend an otherwise engaging experience but the good parts of The Square — and there are quite a few of them — can’t overcome the weaknesses, making this a decidedly mixed bag. The movie, which features numerous dead-end side-stories and glaring plot holes, is short on narrative and long on allegory.

The first 45 minutes of The Square are turgid and unengaging. Although some degree of background is necessary to get things going, Swedish director Ruben Ostlund (Force Majeure) takes his time introducing the main character, modern art gallery curator Christian (Claes Bang), and setting up the various issues defining his life. At work, he’s busy establishing a marketing campaign to highlight a new exhibit called "The Square" (which, as the title implies, involves a square, the pompous purpose of which is to form "a sanctuary of trust and caring"). Away from work, he’s playing an amateur detective in tracking down the pickpockets who lifted his wallet and cellphone while he was distracted out on the street.

By the one-hour mark, The Square has settled into a nice rhythm of social satire and low-key drama. Ostlund’s No. 1 target is the art scene (or what passes for it). One exhibit in Christian’s gallery is a series of gravel piles laid out across the floor of a room. When a cleaning crew accidentally scoops up some of the loose material, a panicked underling approaches Christian. After asking her two questions ("Do we have the gravel?" and "Do we have photographs of the exhibit?"), he proposes that they rebuild the mounds as they were and no one will be the wiser.

Then there’s the outside marketing company hired to promote "The Square." In their zeal to create something guaranteed to go viral, they employ some "outside the box" thinking that results in a highly inappropriate YouTube video. Ostlund is making a serious point about the difficulties of generating interest in art and the genesis of this campaign, although bitingly funny, also seems plausible. In the end, what is the barometer of success: the number of pageviews, the number of outraged engagements, the people who show up to see "The Square", or something else?

Despite working on a project that advocates utopian ideals of caring and sanctuary, Christian doesn’t practice these in his real life. He’s stingy, self-serving, and emotionally unavailable. After having sex with a woman, he refuses to let her dispose of the condom, afraid that she might impregnate herself with the sperm. Later, when she corners him and asks him if he can remember her name, he dithers before finally coming up with it. He also has two children that we don’t find out about until midway through the film when their mother dumps them at his apartment for a visit.

Perhaps the most incomprehensible and disturbing sequence in The Square involves a dinner when Christian’s latest promotional idea — a man pretending to be an ape — goes awry. The actor gets so deep into the role that it results in a freakishly genuine performance that no one, not even Christian, can stop. This may be intended as a counterpoint to an earlier scene in the film where a real-life chimpanzee is shown sauntering around a woman’s apartment.

This combination of satire, weirdness, and offbeat drama is sufficient to make the middle portion of The Square engaging, if not compelling. Unfortunately, toward the end, the screenplay slides into the realm of sermonizing as it offers a lecture about how it’s bad to stereotype based on economic situation. There’s also a half-baked argument about freedom of speech that ignores some basic tenets of that right.

The Square stars Danish actor Claes Bang as Christian. His nuanced performance makes some of the duller stretches bearable. Physically, Bang is a cross between the To Kill a Mockingbird-era Gregory Peck and Jon Hamm. He has a gift for deadpan humor and is able to handle the quasi-dramatic sequences. The diverse supporting cast includes American actress Elisabeth Moss (who curiously starred opposite Hamm in Mad Men) and The Wire’s Dominic West. Gymnast and "movement choreographer" Terry Notary plays Oleg, the method actor who goes full ape.

The Square demands patience and, unfortunately for those willing to supply it, the rewards may still not be at the level one might hope for. Still, it’s a quirky, offbeat production and its best episodes are strangely engaging. The length, however, is a barrier — one that will be insurmountable for some potential viewers.

Monday, March 12, 2018

NCAA tourney predictions (in brief)

I am not going to bore you with all my game predictions. Suffice it to say I have two -- count 'em, two -- No. 12s (South Dakota State, New Mexico State) beating 5s in the first round and three ACC teams -- Virginia, Duke and North Carolina -- making it all the way to the Final Four. In the end, I see Villanova defeating Virginia for the championship.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Available for home viewing: The Foreigner ★★★

For Jackie Chan, The Foreigner represents a change of pace. Best-known for light-hearted action/comedies, Chan has never before descended to the level of darkness required by this film. In this thriller, directed by James Bond filmmaker Martin Campbell (Goldeneye, Casino Royale), Chan plays a grieving father seeking revenge. With his ex-Navy SEAL training, he is a perfect machine for vengeance and single-minded determination makes him seemingly unstoppable. Although Chan is given an opportunity to show off his martial arts skills (given his age, however, one has to assume he no longer does all his own stunts), the tone is somber. Absent is the playful, Keaton-esque quality so often used to frame the actor’s fight scenes. This role also gives Chan an opportunity to show a degree of dramatic acting we have not previously seen from him.

Although parts of The Foreigner echo the likes of First Blood and Point Blank/Payback, there’s more going on here than simple revenge. The overarching narrative, based on Stephen Leather’s 1992 novel, The Chinaman, involves a terrorist bombing in London and fractious negotiations between government official Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan), a former IRA stalwart now working to maintain the peace from his office in Belfast, and his former compatriots. The movie has some difficulty with the IRA aspect of the story. When Leather wrote the book, the Provisional IRA was active. Now, 25 years later, The Troubles have ended so a "new" IRA had to be invented to endanger the current stability.

Quan Ngoc Minh (Chan) becomes involved in this international situation when his beloved teenage daughter, Fan (Katie Leung), is killed in a bombing. Devastated, Quan begins a peaceful but persistent campaign to learn from the police who the bombers were. Commander Richard Bromley (Ray Fearon), who is in charge of the investigation, sees Quan as a nuisance and sends him away. Learning from a TV news program that Hennessy is handling the investigation in Northern Ireland, Quan makes the trip. His meeting with Hennessy is no more satisfying than his interaction with Bromley and, pushed to the brink by stonewalling, he takes decisive action. After a series of swift, brutal activities, he dispels the notion that he’s nothing more than a disheveled old "Chinaman".

The political aspects of The Foreigner are fairly complicated and an understanding of the recent history of Ireland would be helpful in sorting things out. (In the U.K., everyone knows the backstory but that probably isn’t true in the United States.) At times, it almost seems as if there are two separate movies running in parallel. There are lengthy segments when Quan is off-screen as the story concentrates on Hennessy’s machinations and motivations. Likewise, there are times when we follow Quan almost exclusively as he sets up and executes traps. He wants one thing — the names of the people responsible for his daughter’s death — and, believing Hennessy to be in possession of that information, he makes the former terrorist his target.

The Foreigner delivers plenty of action and showcases the fact that, even at age 63, Chan still retains his physicality. However, perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Chan’s performance has little to do with stunts and martial arts. Early in the film, following Fan’s death, there’s a quiet scene in which Quan wanders around her room, looking at stuffed animals and smelling a dress to catch a last, lingering scent. It’s a heartbreaking moment and Chan plays it perfectly. Later in the film, as the brutality of his actions escalate, we remember this scene and understand the pain that motivates him. This is much more than most thrillers give us.

Brosnan, who previously worked with Campbell on Goldeneye (the movie that introduced him as 007), is credible as the aging hard-liner turned diplomat. Brosnan plays Hennessy as conflicted and complacent, enjoying the attentions of a much younger mistress (Charlie Murphy) while largely ignoring his bitter wife (Orla Brady). He is unprepared for the wave of terror unleashed on his watch and, when he is being stalked by Quan, he is forced to call in his special forces-trained nephew (Rory Fleck Byrne) to track the ex-Navy SEAL.

In terms of overall visceral impact, The Foreigner is perhaps not as satisfying as a John Wick or the aforementioned Payback because it’s a more serious, complex movie. Nevertheless, it’s well-made, nicely paced and accomplishes what we expect from this sort of film. The violence (of which there is a fair amount) seems organic rather than gratuitous and parts of the story are accompanied by a surge of genuine emotion. The most compelling reason to see The Foreigner is Chan, whose step into new territory reveals things we haven’t previously seen from him.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Available for home viewing: Goodbye Christopher Robin ★★½

When reading the Winnie the Pooh books as a child, I remember being amazed by the revelation that Christopher Robin was a "real" boy. That caused me to wonder whether all the animals were real, too. Goodbye Christopher Robin tells the story of that "real" boy and the difficult relationships he had with his taciturn father, his distant mother, and fame itself. Although hewing close to the established facts, the movie amps up the sentimental content for maximum effect. Goodbye Christopher Robin, a "based-on-a-true-story" yarn directed by Simon Curtis and written by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughn, has some interesting things to say about someone thrust into the spotlight against their will but the sometimes heavy-handed emotional manipulation limits the production’s overall power and effectiveness.

Perhaps the only child in the world to despise A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh stories was his young son, Christopher Robin Milne (Will Tilston as a boy; Alex Lawther as a young man), for whom they were written. Christopher, who went by the nickname of "Billy Moon", viewed the books as having taken something private and made it available to the entire world. Furthermore, since he was known to be the inspiration for the stories’ boy character, he was frequently forced to dress the part for photo ops and publicity events (such as a tea party with contest winners). He went along with all these things until his father belatedly realized that Winnie the Pooh was a trap not only for Billy but for the whole family. Nevertheless, Christopher Robin haunted Billy into adolescence when he was bullied at school and he eventually joined the army to fight in World War II in an attempt to escape his "legacy."

Much of Goodbye Christopher Robin follows traditional bio-pic rules. We see the strained relationship between the affection-starved son and his father, famed author Alan Milne (Domhnall Gleeson), who, as a result of psychological trauma caused by World War I, is emotionally closed-off. The self-absorbed mother, Daphne (Margot Robbie), is rarely present and, when she is, she’s more apt to do damage than help. The nanny, Olive (Kelly Macdonald) becomes a surrogate mother and father until she "betrays" the boy for a life of her own. Thematically, the narrative gains traction when it focuses on the unintended consequences of Winnie the Pooh’s success. Daphne is delighted, Alan accepts it all with a stiff upper lip, but the brunt of the publicity avalanche falls on Billy, who is ill equipped to cope with it. "I had a wonderful childhood," he would later say. "But growing up was hard." An idyllic period in his life spent playing in the woods is followed by the horror of becoming hunted by the paparazzi and his adoring "fans."

Goodbye Christopher Robin’s attempts to trace the development of Pooh and his band of friendly animals is unevenly presented. One key theme — that of the way the between-wars era was fraught with trauma and angst for a generation that lost so much in "The War to End Wars" — is broached but never fully explored. This is unfortunate because Alan’s relationship with Billy is grounded in this. He was damaged in World War I. He wrote to salve the wounds yet, in the end, that writing drove his son to enlist as a way of escape. The movie hints at but never fully captures the grimness of the 1930s as Hitler’s rise to power made it apparent that "The War to End Wars" might not have been anything of the kind.

For Gleeson, who seems to be in every other movie made these days, this is another fine performance for his resume. It’s not flashy or showy; he captures the internal conflict experienced by Alan as he balances his own issues with his growing awareness of the damage he’s inflicting on his son. Robbie plays Daphne as an out-of-touch, narcissistic socialite who is contrasted with Macdonald’s caring nanny. Tilston, making his feature debut portraying Billy at age 8, seems overcoached. Technically, his acting is fine but at times it feels artificial.

There are some odd parallels between Professor Marston and the Wonder Women and Goodbye Christopher Robin. Both transpire at least in part during the 1940s and chronicle the factors that resulted in the creation of pop icons as well as the consequences of that work. The movies also offer elements of social commentary — Professor Marston about feminism and Christopher Robin about the downside of fame. The differences in tone, however, make the former film superior to the latter. Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is lively and passionate where Goodbye Christopher Robin is formal and sentimental. The problem with Goodbye Christopher Robin is that, although it tells its story, there’s no sense of freshness or energy to the approach. Winnie the Pooh is timeless and unforgettable. The same qualities don’t apply to this tale of the real-life people and circumstances that inspired his creation.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Available for home viewing: A Bad Moms Christmas ★★½

A Bad Moms Christmas is one of those plot-by-numbers sit-com movies that tries hard (perhaps too hard) to reproduce the elements that made the earlier film successful. As such, it never strays far from its safe place and, although it offers occasional chuckles and even a few solid, laugh-out-loud moments, the picture as a whole seems redundant and superfluous. In offering more of the same as Bad Moms, it paradoxically provides less — something often true of sequels for films initially designed as one-off properties.

Writer/directors Scott Moore and Jon Lucas have returned along with their three leading ladies, Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, and Kathryn Hahn, and many of the supporting actors. (The chief villain from the first film, Christina Applegate, gets a cameo.) This assures continuity and, at least in terms of the overall tone and approach, A Bad Moms Christmas falls into lockstep with its predecessor. It’s painless enough that fans (and there were tens of millions of them) of Bad Moms will likely enjoy the second go-round. However, with the freshness gone, the sequel falls into the familiar pattern of regurgitating rather than advancing, making A Bad Moms Christmas feel stale.

The movie picks up shortly after the end of the first installment. The titular "bad moms" Amy (Kunis), Kiki (Bell), and Carla (Hahn) remain friends and each continues living in much the same vein as when we last saw them. Amy is now dating Jessie (Jay Hernandez). Kiki and her husband are doing better with co-parenting. And Carla is paying more attention to her son. But winter is coming and along with it are ghosts of Christmases past and present. All three moms get visits from their own mothers. Kiki’s (Cheryl Hines) is clingy with no sense of boundaries. Carla’s (Susan Sarandon) rarely visits and, when she does (like now), she’s looking for money to feed a gambling habit. And Amy’s (Christine Baranski), who comes with a mostly mute husband (Peter Gallagher) in tow, is a Type A personality who belittles everyone except her grandchildren. Happy ho-ho-holidays to all and to no one a good night.

A Bad Moms Christmas is primarily about the three women "taking back Christmas" and forging new (adult) relationships with their mothers. In true sit-com fashion, everything is resolved and placed in a neatly wrapped package with ribbons and bows by the time the final credits dance onto the screen. The light drama is tepid and the narrative is threadbare, but that’s expected with this sort of production. The keys to enjoying A Bad Moms Christmas are appreciating the individual performances, laughing at the comedy bits, and absorbing the chemistry that evolves over the course of the movie’s 105-minute running length. Baranski steals the movie with Sarandon coming in a close second. The three original actresses willingly take a back seat for long stretches to allow their older co-stars to have the spotlight. Hahn gets some solid laughs but the other two, Kunis and especially Bell, don’t have much to do and, except for a few moments, fade into the background. The movie as a whole is a mixed bag and recommended primarily for those who enjoyed the first one or who love to devour any and all Christmas-themed movies no matter what time of year it is. This is a sugary snack and not a fully satisfying main course.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Columnist criticizes Oscars' Malone omission

Jeff Wells, who writes an on-line column on the movie industry called Hollywood Elsewhere correctly, in my opinion, took the Oscars’ producers to task today for their failure to include Academy Award winning actress Dorothy Malone in its "in-memoriam" segment (I must admit I don’t particularly care for Wells referring to this as "the death reel" — that gives me uncomfortable chills). Oscars’ only defense would be that Malone died this year — on Jan. 19 — but as Wells also points out Tom Paxton died last year before the Oscar telecast and he was not included in either this segment or last year’s.

Here, in part, is Wells’ rant on the issue;

"The decision by Oscar telecast producers Mike DeLuca and Suzanne Todd to omit Oscar-winner Dorothy Malone from the death reel was a stunner. Malone was iconic in the ’50s and ’60s — what were they thinking? Even if she hadn’t won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance as a sexual compulsive in Douglas Sirk‘s Written on the Wind (’57), Malone’s book-store scene with Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep (’46) would have more than sufficed.

"These plus her performances in Sirk’s The Tarnished Angels (’57), Andrew Stone‘s The Last Voyage, Robert Aldrich‘s The Last Sunset (’61) and her Constance MacKenzie character on ABC’s Peyton Place series from ’64 to ’69 … .c’mon.

"Why are some Hollywood luminaries included in the death reel and others ignored? The process seems haphazard and arbitrary.

"Deluca and Todd could have made up this year for excluding Bill Paxton (who passed on 2.25.17) in last year’s death reel, but naahhh.

"They also blew off Powers Boothe, Adam West, Glen Campbell, Robert Guillaume, David Cassidy, Fats Domino (although they included Chuck Berry), Hugh Hefner and Jim Nabors.

"They included Jeanne Moreau but without a dialogue clip or brief image montage. On both sides of the Atlantic Moreau was a thriving legend in the ’50s, ’60s and early ’70s. Orson Welles (yeah, I know … who?) once called her "the greatest actress in the world," and her sepia-toned image appeared for less than two effing seconds?"

Available for Home Viewing: The Mountain Between Us ★★

It’s hard to imagine a more generic wilderness adventure-turned-romance than Hany Abu-Assad’s The Mountain Between Us. Saved from the cinematic purgatory of direct-to-video by the screen presence of Idris Elba and Kate Winslet and some spectacular cinematography, the movie fails to excite as a tale of survival or ignite as a love story. The ending — a 15-minute anticlimax — flops around like a dying fish on dry land. It’s as if the filmmakers didn’t realize their story was over and started telling another one. The last scene is unforgivably cheesy in a non-self-aware fashion. And don’t get me started on the dog…

The survival aspects of The Mountain Between Us are adequate. There’s nothing special about them but they are well filmed. The cast and crew went to actual mountains with actual snow and cold air and subjected themselves to the elements. Winslet has been through worse, having soldiered under James Cameron in Titanic, but this may have given her flashbacks. The storyline is a stitched-together patchwork of stranded clichés (think of it like Robinson Crusoe in the snow) with several all-too-convenient cheats like a cougar with enough meat to feed two people and one dog for 10 days and a cabin in the middle of nowhere.

The Mountain Between Us starts in an airport with travelers stranded due to an incoming storm and canceled flights. Two people — neurosurgeon Ben Bass (Elba) and journalist Alex Martin (Winslet) — desperately need to get out of Dodge. He has surgery the next morning and her wedding is less than 24 hours away. When Alex manages to charter a flight, she invites Ben to join her. With the jovial pilot (Beau Bridges) and his dog in the cockpit, everything seems to be going well until the storm makes an unexpected turn and the pilot suffers a stroke and dies. The result is a crash on a mountain in the middle of nowhere. Both humans are injured — Ben has broken ribs and Alex has a fractured leg — but the dog appears completely healthy. The next hour features Ben and Alex braving the elements when, after realizing a rescue is unlikely, they recognize that survival depends on them finding civilization. As they solider on, they fall for one another.

Winslet and Elba are magnetic actors and neither sleepwalks through their part. To the extent that The Mountain Between Us works, it’s because the actors sell their struggles. Unfortunately, the storyline is so predictable and obvious that it’s difficult to become involved. For example, there’s one scene halfway through the movie when Ben loses his footing and tumbles toward a sheer drop of several hundred feet. But we’re never worried because, hey, it wouldn’t be much of a movie if he died at this moment. And the romance is as inevitable as breathing. Generally speaking, the last thing men and women in survival situations worry about is having sex but why inject an element of reality into this fantasy?

Maybe the dog is in the book. The Mountain Between Us is based on a novel by Charles Martin. I haven’t read it so I don’t know. But the dog serves no purpose beyond the obvious audience-friendly one. Sometimes viewers get more worked up by canines in peril than humans. It feels like someone read the script and said, "You know what would make this even better — put a dog in it! That’ll really get viewers involved!" At best, the dog is a distraction. At worst, it creates major plot problems and elevates the suspension of disbelief bar. What’s more, excising the animal from the movie would have changed nothing.

Technically, the movie is top-notch, excepting the cheap-ish CGI used to create the cougar. Mandy Walker’s cinematography gives us a number of postcard-worthy shots and Ramin Djawadi’s score is effective without being intrusive. (Not surprising — this is the man responsible for the music of both Game of Thrones and Westworld.) Sadly, there are only so many holes that solid production values and charismatic performances can paper over, and the flaws in the narrative prove to be too much. The Mountain Between Us seeks to be a serious-minded story about people discovering hidden strengths in themselves and others when trapped in a desperate situation but ends up being old-fashioned cornball entertainment.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Available for home viewing: Battle of the Sexes ★★

About halfway through Battle of the Sexes, I found myself wishing I was watching a documentary rather than a feature film. Some of the issues raised by the movie — mainly related to a culture that marginalizes women and the struggles of those in the "Women’s Liberation Movement" to fight against the status quo — are interesting but the way in which directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) and writer Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty) frame them are not. Battle of the Sexes isn’t really about the so-called "Battle of the Sexes" — a 1973 made-for-TV exhibition tennis match between Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) and Billie Jean King (Emma Stone). Instead, it’s a surprisingly flat bio-pic of King’s life between 1972 and 1973 with little attempt to make Riggs into anything more than a two-dimensional caricature/foil.

One can make a case that Billie Jean King’s life is sufficiently interesting to warrant a biography. She was, after all, one of the foremost athletes fighting the gender equality wars during the ‘70s and one of the first gay tennis players to come out of the closet. Large swaths of Battle of the Sexes are devoted to King’s struggles with her sexuality but those scenes are flat and obligatory. Her first lesbian relationship, with a hair stylist named Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), lacks anything resembling heat, romance, or sensuality. It’s plot point.

As portrayed by Stone in a bit of questionable casting (Stone’s physical resemblance to King is poor under the best of conditions), King is more of an icon than a person. The movie’s treatment of Riggs is even worse. The filmmakers are largely uninterested in him. Riggs is depicted as a caricature, as if his true personality was reflected by the clown he showed to the public. The perfunctory glimpses we are afforded into his life do little to flesh him out. Carell’s performance, however, is an excellent example of mimicry. Not only does he look eerily like Riggs but everything about the way he moves, talks, and acts is evocative of how the champion-turned-hustler presented himself in public.

Two supporting characters are given odd (and historically inaccurate) portrayals. The first, Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), is rendered as a living representation of male chauvinism — the kind of man who likes women "in the bedroom and the kitchen" but doesn’t have much use for them elsewhere. For Riggs, sexism is a marketing tool; for Kramer, it’s a sacred birthright. The over-the-top portrayal feels more like a parody than a genuine portrait of a ‘70s caveman. Then there’s tennis star Margaret Court (Jessie McNamee) who, despite having an impressive record, is treated as something of a second-rate player.

The central match is poorly staged with no sense of how to draw on the natural momentum and drama of even the hokiest sporting event. This one seems slapped together, with random points being shown before the action jumps forward to another stage in the match. Howard Cosell’s original commentary has been retained, once again emphasizing that this material might have been better served as a documentary.

Battle of the Sexes overemphasizes the cultural impact of the Riggs/King match. The filmmakers would have us believe this was an important touchstone and turning point in the war for women’s equality. It was nothing of the kind. Yes, King’s victory gave a boost to women’s tennis (especially in the wake of Court’s unceremonious defeat at Riggs’ hands months earlier), but the match was never viewed as more than a publicity stunt by the millions who watched it on TV. Riggs’ hucksterism stirred the pot and made it must-see TV, but that’s all it was. It wasn’t a referendum on equal rights or a manifesto for Women’s Lib. It was a carnival and a sideshow — things the movie acknowledges in passing but doesn’t fully accept because it would weaken the thesis. Battle of the Sexes is disappointingly shallow and superficial, recreating people and events from an earlier era as the Hollywood of today would like them to be remembered not as they necessarily were.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

The Oscars: Predictions and Preferences

Someone connected with the Oscars is showing a lot of class. I’m not sure who it is. Possibly someone with the Motion Picture Academy. Or it could be one of the show’s producers. But I want to go on record as complimenting whoever it was who made the decision to have Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty rectify last year’s disaster by having them present the best picture Oscar again this year.

All Oscar groupies remember what happened in 2017 when Dunaway and Beatty announced La La Land had won the Oscar only to be corrected by one of that movie’s producers who admitted Moonlight was the real winner. For some reason, Dunaway and Beatty became the butt of countless cruel jokes and cheap shots over a mistake that wasn’t of their making. Some dope simply handed them the wrong envelope.

The way the Oscars worked — at least the way they worked last year — was that one representative of the accounting firm that tabulated the Oscar ballots was stationed at each side of the stage so that when the presenters came on stage — regardless from which side they entered on — there would be someone there to hand them the envelop containing the information they were to read at the podium. When someone entered from stage right, for instance, the accountant stationed stage left was then supposed to discard his copy of the envelope for that award in his possession. What happened was one of those accountants failed to discard the envelope for best actress when his cohort on the other side of the stage handed it to the presenter of that award. So when Beatty and Dunaway came on stage, that dolt handed them the best actress envelope. That’s why Beatty had this befuddled look on his face when he opened what he thought was the envelope containing the best picture winner and the card inside said the Oscar was going to Emma Stone for La La Land. So when Beatty hesitated, Dunaway basically saw only the movie title on the card and announced it as the winner.

Regardless, Beatty and Dunaway were immediately and unfairly inducted into the Bill Buckner Hall of Shame. Now someone — someone displaying some real courage — is extending them their get-out-of-jail-free card. Yeah!!!

So now the question becomes what will be the name of the picture contained on the card they extract tomorrow night from inside that envelope. I’m hoping it will be Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, easily the best picture of last year. But the year’s best picture rarely wins the Oscar. And it would be especially difficult for Billboards to win this year because (1) there has been a terrible and undeserved PC backlash against the movie and (2) its director, Martin McDonagh, failed to receive a nomination from the director’s branch of the Academy. The last time a picture won without its director being nominated was 2012 when Argo prevailed, but that was an unusual circumstance. Argo was not even considered a frontrunner until the Academy’s nominations were announced and the motion picture, correctly I’m guessing, assumed a conspiracy among the director’s branch prevented Argo’s director, Ben Affleck, from being nominated. The directors were angry around that time over the fact that on two separate occasions one of this country’s most revered directors, Martin Scorsese, was denied a directing Oscar he deserved and, in both instances, actors, in their first attempts at directing a film, won instead. The acting branch of the Academy comprises more than 35 percent of its total membership and the directors felt those actors rallied around one of their own instead of giving the award to its rightful recipient. Thus, the directing branch conspired to make sure that wouldn’t happen again when Argo was being considered. It was OK that Affleck was nominated by the Directors Guild because only directors vote for the winner of that award and they could make sure Affleck’s only honor would be the nomination. But they felt if Affleck was nominated for a directing Oscar, the actors would unite to support his nomination, giving him the trophy instead of it going to "a real director." The rest of the Academy was outraged at the actions of the director’s branch and went out of their way to register their displeasure by supporting Argo in other categories in which it was nominated, including best picture. Before that, you have to go all the way back to 1989's Driving Miss Daisy to find a movie that won best picture without its director being nominated.

Another thing Billboards has going against it is the preferential ballot. Academy members either loved the movie, the way I did, or they despised it on PC grounds. With the preferential ballot, the best picture winner is not going to be the one with the most first place votes, but the one with the most second, third, maybe even fourth place votes. That rewards a safe choice like the undeserving remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers Get Out or the movie I’m predicting to walk off with the top prize, the updated version of Beast from 20,000 Fathoms The Shape of Water.

Billboards does have a couple of things in its favor. It is loved by the acting branch, which I said, can dominate a category if all its members unite behind one film. After all, Billboards has three acting nominations, two likely acting wins and it won the Screen Actors Guild’s version of best picture. The second thing Billboards has going for it is the Winter Olympics. Seriously. Word out of Hollywood in the last month is Billboards has garnered a lot of last-minute momentum and, because the Academy did not want to compete with the Olympics for television viewers, it pushed back the date of handing out its awards this year, giving more time for that momentum to build. So we’ll see. Still, I’m rooting hard for Billboards, but predicting Water.

The acting winners — McDormand, Oldman, Janney and Rockwell — are all carved in granite and I don’t have any real strong objections about any of them although, except for McDormand, those are were not the nominees I would have really preferred to win. I like Allison Janney. In fact, I really like Allison Janney. But so do a lot of other people so she will be one of those winners who will be celebrated for the entirety of their career; but, personally, I would have cast my ballot for Laurie Metcalf in the supporting actress category. And I think Timothee Chalamet and Willem Dafoe are more deserving recipients of the actor and supporting actor Oscars respectively.

It seems foreordained that Guillermo Del Toro will take home the Oscar for best director, but since the inscription on that award reads "Outstanding Achievement in Direction of a Feature Length Motion Picture," I would have voted for Christopher Nolan’s direction of Dunkirk as the recipient. Think about it. Seriously. Was there a more outstanding directorial achievement last year than what Nolan pulled off with that film?

The overly praised Get Out (OK, it’s a good movie, but certainly doesn’t rise to the level of greatness) stands a good chance of winning for Original Screenplay and I won’t be terribly surprised, although I will be disappointed in the Academy’s judgment, if it does. But I’m sticking with my prediction of Billboards being triumphant in that category,. The superbly written adapted screenplay for Call Me By Your Name should and will win in that category.

I’ve heard The Shape of Water is also favored to win the cinematography award, which is no surprise since Academy voters often simply check off their best picture preferences in the craft categories as well. But Roger Deakins, whose been the cinematographer for some of the most visually stunning movies of the last quarter century but has yet to win an Oscar in spite of numerous nominations, has a lot of "he’s due" support. Not only that, he deserves to win for his shooting of Blade Runner 2049.

I’m predicting Dunkirk will win the film editing prize, but my preference for that Oscar is Baby Driver, one of the most arrestingly edited films in years.

And, finally, yes all you basketball fans out there, I’m betting that Kobe Bryant will win an Oscar.

The rest of my choices look like this:

Costume Design: Phantom Thread
Makeup and Hair Styling: Darkest Hour
Production Design: The Shape of Water
Score: The Shape of Water
Song: "Remember Me" (Coco)
Sound Editing: Dunkirk
Sound Mixing: Dunkirk
Visual Effects: War for the Planet of the Apes
Animated Feature: Coco
Documentary Feature: Faces Places
Foreign Language Feature: A Fantastic Woman
Animated Short: Dear Basketball
Documentary Short: Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405 (although Edith + Eddie has a shot at winning this)
Live Action Short: DeKalb Elementary

Friday, March 2, 2018

Available for home viewing: Victoria and Abdul ★★★

Victoria and Abdul, based on (mostly) true events as related in Shrabani Basu’s historical chronicle of the same name, is effectively a sequel to the 1997 film, Mrs. Brown. That movie, directed by John Madden, detailed Queen Victoria’s friendship with Scottsman John Brown — a relationship that lasted from shortly after the death of her husband, Albert, until Brown’s demise in the early 1880s. Victoria subsequently met Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) in 1887 and the two would remain close until her death in early 1901. Both Mrs. Brown and Victoria and Abdul star Judi Dench as the queen and her performance provides the strongest element of continuity. Also, because Dench aged 20 years between the movies, she has little difficulty playing an older, wearier Victoria. Dench’s portrayal is, hands-down, the best thing about Stephen Frears’ film.

The tone, as is often true of the director’s work, is lighthearted without being frivolous. He deals with some difficult subjects — in particular the cultural racism that existed in England (and, indeed, across the world) against those of dark skin. The close friendship between the queen and her Muslim Indian servant was deemed scandalous by all of her advisors not only because of the class difference but because of his race. Some have said that nothing did more to rehabilitate John Brown’s reputation than the queen’s attachment to Abdul.

Frears doesn’t cloud the racist nature of the court’s objections to Abdul but, by making many of the principals bloated, self-important, fatuous asses, he illustrates how ridiculous their opposition is. Outside of Victoria, Abdul, and perhaps a few others, no one looks good in Frears’ portrayal. The only one to appear noble and good-hearted is Victoria. Abdul’s presentation is nuanced. Although he is mostly seen as a true friend to the queen, there are inklings of selfish motivations. He isn’t always truthful and there are scenes in which Ali Fazal presents him almost as an Indian Rasputin, complete with piercing eyes. History argues there was a strong element of opportunism in his rise. Victoria and Abdul acknowledges this when the queen hears the accusation and remarks "How is that different from any of the rest of you?" but it is generally downplayed.

The movie consists of three basic elements: exploring the racism of the age, showing the behind-the-scenes details related to royalty that outsiders are never privy to, and developing the friendship between the old queen and the young Indian. There’s backstabbing and double-dealing but the queen, who has been at this for 60 years, knows how to play the game better than her advisor and her son, Bertie (Eddie Izzard), who would eventually become King Edward VII. There’s also an element of suspense regarding what happens to Abdul once Victoria dies because, outside of the queen, he has no high-placed supporters in England and few dislike him more than The Prince of Wales.

When we first meet Abdul, he’s busy doing his job at a prison in India, where he catalogues the essential information about the inmates. He is given the honor of traveling to England with another Indian, Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), to present Queen Victoria with a commemorative coin. Abdul and Mohammed view the journey differently with the former seeing it as an honor and the latter perceiving it as an unwanted intrusion. At the palace, the visitors are given explicit instructions about the do’s and don’ts of approaching the queen; rule No. 1 is not to look her in the eye — something Abdul does and, in doing so, attracts her attention. Rather than being reprimanded, however, he is asked to stay and eventually elevated to the position of clerk. Then, as Victoria and Abdul grow closer, she asks him to teach her about his country, language, and religion. She begins to refer to him as "The Munshi" (a teacher and master of languages), a title that enflames the universal disdain among Victoria’s advisors for the Indian visitor.

Dench plays a version of the Victoria she essayed in Mrs. Brown. Here, she has become worn-down and disillusioned by life. Despite enjoying immense power, Dench’s Victoria is a tragic figure; the reverence is such that she is disallowed basic human contact and things like friendship and love are, if not denied, at least discouraged. It’s an open question whether Victoria would have developed bonds with "undesirables" like Brown and Abdul had she not been surrounded by opportunists and sycophants. She found in these men something no one else was able or willing to give her: a friendly ear, frank words, and an emotional connection.

Fazal’s interpretation is layered. He chooses not to play Abdul strictly as a good man who becomes the target of a massive racist campaign. Fazal’s Abdul is a mixture of shrewdness and naivete. And, although his devotion to the queen is never in question, there is, as I mentioned above, an almost Rasputin-like quality that emerges as he works to win Victoria’s favor. Many of the supporting roles are played by respected British actors. Olivia Williams is Baroness Churchill (Winston’s mother). Michael Gambon is Lord Salisbury, the P.M. Also appearing are Simon Callow, the aforementioned Izzard, and Tim Pigott-Smith.

Frears hasn’t just made an historical recreation; he has made a movie containing a message with universal implications for all places and times when racism rears its head. Victoria and Abdul isn’t about "punishing" racists but about showing the foolishness of demeaning others purely on the basis of skin color or cultural/religious differences. Frears isn’t just telling a pleasant story about an unusual friendship; he’s asking us to take a look at whether we have advanced as far in 120 years as we believe we have. The question lingers after the movie is over.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Available for home viewing: It ★★★

What is it about clowns, anyway? Why do some people find them hilarious while others are creeped out by them? Whatever the case, author Stephen King exploited the duality of clowns — always smiling, seemingly-friendly, weirdly inhuman — in his 1986 novel, It. The title creature, which appeared most frequently as Pennywise the Dancing Clown, was a macabre, homicidal homage to Claribel, Bozo, and Ronald McDonald. It’s no wonder there was a drop in professional clowns being hired for kids’ parties the year after It’s publication. According to King, this is one of his favorite books (at least among those he has written). A 1990 TV mini-series exists but this new motion picture represents the first time It has been brought to the big screen. The movie, which lingered for a half-decade in preproduction, represents the culmination of the efforts of a large number of people, including the teams led by departed director Cary Fukunaga and eventual director Andy Muschietti.

King fans will note that the best movie adaptations of the writer’s work have been his non-horror stories: Stand by Me, The Shawshank Redemption, Misery, The Green Mile. His horror-related films have been of variable quality, with the best two being (arguably) The Shining (King would disagree) and Carrie. It may represent the best movie version of any King horror story — and it covers only half the material in the 1,100+ page book.

Plans are in place for a Chapter 2 of It, although that will likely take three years to reach screens since it’s only in the earliest stages of pre-production. However, the screenwriters have parsed the source material in such a way that this installment of It can stand on its own, eliminating the frustration that could result from Chapter 2 never being produced. Although the story is mostly faithful to the novel, the screenwriters have made some deviations in the adaptation process. Aspects of the ending have been reworked to be more cinematically coherent and several controversial elements have been removed. The result is a strong narrative that doesn’t fragment at the end.

The movie relates the events presented in the book’s "early" timeline — the one in which the protagonists are 11 years old — and time-shifts things from the late 1950s to the summer of 1989. The action centers around a group of outcasts who call themselves The Losers: Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Mike (Chosen Jacobs), and the only girl, Beverly (Sophia Lillis). Following the death of Bill’s younger brother, George, at the hands of the sewer-dwelling Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), all seven of The Losers begin experiencing visions of the clown and/or physical embodiments of things they fear. Pennywise, they learn, emerges every 27 years in the town of Derry, Maine to kill children and feed on their terror. This group, however, is determined to fight back — something easier said than done in these circumstances.

One reason why It works is that it doesn’t rely solely on jump-scares and gore to startle audiences. Yes, there are some of both, but It is more about building tension than cheap gimmicks. The film also offers more than traditional horror. There’s a strong element of childhood friendship — the hallmark of Stand by Me — and a statement about how not all monsters are inhuman. The film’s bullies — older kids like Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) and adults like Henry and Beverly’s abusive fathers — are as terrifying in their own ways as Pennywise. Although It didn’t scare me (few horror films, even the best of them, do), it left me unsettled.

For the cast, the filmmakers went with a group of little-known actors. This is true not only of the children but the adults as well. Pennywise is played with uncommon spookiness by Skarsgard (the brother of Alexander and son of Stellan). Emerging from the long shadow of Tim Curry, whose interpretation of the clown was a highlight of the TV mini-series, Skarsgard makes Pennywise his own from the shocking first scene, which violates a Hollywood rule about how young children are treated on-screen. Lieberher, who plays the stuttering Bill, was recently seen (although not by many) as the title character in The Book of Henry. Wolfhard is probably best known for his role as Mike in Stranger Things, a TV series inspired in part by King’s writings that incorporates the same kind of childhood bonding that occurs among The Losers.

It isn’t perfect. There’s too much repetitive wandering around in the sewers and the running time seems long for the material as presented. There are credulity problems with the resolution but this is common in horror where the vanquishing of a creature of great power and evil typically requires a contrivance. However, horror, like a road movie, is more about the journey than the destination, and It offers a strong and creepy ride. Stephen King fans can rejoice that Hollywood has done justice to one of the author’s scary books.