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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, September 15, 2017 - Volume 45 Issue 37
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Muschietti's It adaptation doesn't clown around
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

It
Now playing


It comes out every 27 years. It feeds on fear. It feeds on life. It feeds mostly on children. And, in the summer of 1989, in the small town of Derry, Maine, It has returned. As school comes to an end and summer begins, 13-year-olds Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer) and Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff) all discover they have more in common than being social outcasts. This so-called 'Losers Club' have all been seeing things, ominous daytime nightmares revealing their deepest, darkest fears, all of them culminating with a devilishly grinning clown named Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) attempting to feast on their souls.

Bill is the first to say out loud what they've all been thinking: these are not nightmares. Whatever Pennywise is, It is a real thing, an entity of some sort that keeps coming to Derry for a very specific reason, and whether any of them want to admit it or not, all seven of them are now in It's crosshairs. But at the same time, together they appear to be a challenge for this strange, strong malevolent It. More, It knows this. If they can hold strong, maybe they can banish It out of Derry for good, ensuring no other children, kids like Bill's own younger brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), don't end up another one of this creature's victims.

Stephen King's sprawling, undeniably terrifying novel It was first released back in 1986. Since then it [***change to It] has sold millions of copies all around the globe, did for clowns what Jaws did for sharks and spawned an Emmy-winning miniseries in 1990 that gave star Tim Curry another signature role up there with Dr. Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Darkness in Legend. The story is one of the author's signature achievements that sits alongside The Shining, Pet Sematary, Cujo and The Dead Zone in the literary horror pantheon, and for that reason alone it comes as no surprise Warner Bros has been trying to come up with a way to bring King's 1,138-page tale to the big screen for over a decade.

After parting ways with original director Cary Fukunaga (Beasts of No Nation, Sin Nombre), who still gets a screenplay credit alongside Chase Palmer and Gary Dauberman (Annabelle: Creation), the studio turned things over to Mama filmmaker Andy Muschietti, and the results are moderately spectacular. Focusing entirely on the kids and their story, leaving the portion of the tale where they're all 40-year-old grownups to be told at a later date, the movie does make a few radical changes from King's source material. But it does maintain the same coming-of-age adolescent vibe that made stories like Stand by Me and Silver Bullet so successful. At the same time it does not skimp an ounce on any of the literal horrors which assault Bill and his friends. This is a strong film, and by making it a point to flesh out the kids and their friendship in such a complex, heartfelt way Muschietti and his team end up doing a bang-up job bringing It to life.

While all of the children making up the Loser's Club are perfectly cast, it is the core group of Bill, Richie, Beverly, Eddie and Ben this version focuses on. As such, Lieberher, Wolfhard, Lillis, Grazer and Taylor get the most screen time, all five making quite the impact as things progress towards their conclusion. They manufacture an easygoing camaraderie and chemistry that's appealing, the evolution of their combined relationship the story's heart and soul. Lieberher, last seen in The Book of Henry, and relative newcomer Lillis do the majority of the heavy lifting, while 'Stranger Things' star Wolfhard is a fast-talking scene-stealer responsible for the majority of the film's well-earned laughs. Grazer, soon to be seen in the sitcom 'Me, Myself and I,' might have the film's best dramatic moment, a scene where he confronts his smothering, overbearing mother about his medication packing a somewhat surprising punch. As for Taylor, while his arc is less nuanced than the others, he's still responsible for delivering most of the historical exposition fleshing out what is going on, doing so in a way that's more interesting and emotionally involved than it likely has any right to be.

Not so lucky are Jacobs and Oleff. Even at 135 minutes, there's likely just not enough time to give every member of the Loser's Club their fair shake. Even so, Mike and Stanley really do get relegated to the background, the former's arc significantly altered as far as King's original prose is concerned. While still heroic, neither of them gets to do near as much as any of their costars, or, if they do, it's in a manner that's too simplistic to register in the same way as any of the actions taken by Bill, Beverly, Richie, Ben or Eddie prove to be. They're even overshadowed by sociopathic thug Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), the level of abuse tossed his way that's helped lead him to walk down a path that ends in homicidal rage far more multifaceted than anything Mike or Stanley get to experience during any step of their respective journeys.

There are also some perplexing changes as they pertain to Beverly, both positive and negative. On the happy end of the spectrum, the writers thankfully give her a ferocious dimensionality that is only hinted at in the novel. She's a complete character here, Beverly's inner strength coupled with a tenderly compassionate demeanor that's spellbinding, young Lillis doing a grand job making all of this come alive with beguiling dexterity. This makes the character's transition from a hero who never misses a shot in the book to a cliché damsel in distress the remaining members of the Loser's Club have to rally together to save in the film even more disappointing. It left a moderately bad taste in my mouth, one that didn't entirely wash away by this story's end.

Still, this version of It is powerful stuff. Muschietti's direction is confidently assured throughout, and while, and admittedly much like the miniseries, I often wished we saw more of Pennywise, it's also clear the filmmaker made the right decision to only sprinkle this demon into the narrative as infrequently as possible. This allows Skarsgård's morbidly terrific performance to cackle with macabre electricity, his appearances having the same effect upon the audience as John Carpenter's utilization of Michael Myers did in Halloween or Steven Spielberg's infrequent use of that Great White Shark did in Jaws.

Gorgeously shot by Chung-hoon Chung (The Handmaiden), meticulously edited by Jason Ballantine (The Great Gatsby) and featuring miraculously unsettling interiors crafted by production designer Claude Paré (The Age of Adaline), from a technical aspect things are close to perfect. Best of all might be Benjamin Wallfisch's (A Cure for Wellness) unrelentingly disquieting score, his eerie themes casting an appropriate spell over things that is as uncomforting as it is beautiful.

In the end, Muschietti's film is a big, fat, gorgeously produced love letter to King's epic novel. His version ranks up there with Tobe Hooper's Salem's Lot, Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone, Rob Reiner's Stand By Me, Frank Darabont's The Shawshank Redemption and Brian De Palma's Carrie as another great adaptation of one of the author's works. It is not without a few missteps, and for die-hard horror junkies it isn't quite as scary as some might potentially want it to be. But featuring one of the year's best ensembles, anchored by a performance by Skarsgård that's chillingly divine and featuring a number of crackerjack signature sequences that had me sitting on the edge of my seat in excited glee, I'm ready to head back to Derry for the next chapter of this story right this second. The death lights are calling; floating into the theatre to give them a look an experience most won't soon forget.


Gleefully violent American Assassin a jingoistic waste of time
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

AMERICAN ASSASSIN
Now playing


There's a moment in American Assassin that's perfect. The film's villain, a renegade former U.S. Navy officer known only by his nickname 'Ghost' and portrayed by John Carter and Lone Survivor star Taylor Kitsch, has captured clandestine CIA operative, and his former superior, Stan Hurley and is using every interrogative torture tool at his disposal in order to find out some key information. Hurley is played by Michael Keaton; and what starts out as a somewhat quiet confrontation quickly escalates into something extraordinary. The Academy Award-nominated actor pulls out all the stops, returning to his Night Shift / Beetlejuice / Batman bag of tricks in order to go bug-eyed, unhinged, excitedly angry crazy and it's absolutely glorious, this five minute scene breathing life into a movie that, up until then, had found it to be in frustratingly short supply.

Based on the best-selling book by Vince Flynn, with a script credited to four different writers and direction by Michael Cuesta (Kill the Messenger, 12 and Holding), American Assassin is the story of Mitch Rapp (Dylan O'Brien), a typical all-American college kid, who, after a vacation with his girlfriend on the Spanish beaches of Ibiza becomes the site of a deadly terrorist massacre, spends the next 18 months tracking down the cell of cutthroats responsible for planning and orchestrating the attack. Unbeknownst to him, Rapp has been under surveillance by CIA assistant director of covert operations Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan), and she's been impressed by what this revenge-seeking youngster has been able to accomplish in so little time.

After scuttling his amateur efforts, she gets permission from CIA Director Stansfield (David Suchet) to send the vigilante to a facility run by the secretive Hurley. Kennedy wants him to train Rapp how to be a spy, believing the kid's got what it takes to be a top-notch covert operative. But before he can finish training, an international incident involving stolen Russian plutonium has espionage agencies all around the globe on high alert, including those in Iran. When it becomes clear that the infamous Ghost is responsible for all this chaos, Kennedy drops Hurley and Rapp smack-dab in the middle of the carnage, the two men forced to figure out how to work together if they're going to stop this homegrown terrorist from detonating a nuclear device.

The plot is basically a Jack Ryan thriller that combines facets of Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger and The Sum of All Fears and crosses them with any of the Jason Bourne films, including the one without Matt Damon, The Bourne Legacy, but with the violence amplified to the same level as something like John Wick or Atomic Blonde. All of which would be fine if the film wasn't so consistently stupid.

Rapp is a super spy seemingly overnight. The training sequences are over even before they have a chance to begin. Character complexity is apparently based entirely on just how steely a stare one actor can direct at another. Other than the obvious gut punch of the opening Ibiza massacre, there's very little that tugs on a single emotional heartstring, and even the introduction of another covert agent named Annika (played exceedingly well by Iranian actress Shiva Negar) with her own reasons for wanting to hunt down Ghost can't add a single thing substantive to the proceedings.

Cuesta admittedly does his best. His staging of a climactic fight on a runaway speedboat is exemplary, as is a mid-movie assault on the penthouse stronghold of an international arms dealer. I also liked how nasty the movie proved to be, the cutthroat nature of it all impressively surprising. Few thrillers are as willing to kill off characters, including random civilians, as cavalierly as this one does, and in that light it did remind me somewhat of John Frankenheimer's final classic, the 1998 Robert De Niro barnburner, Ronin, a comparison I do not make lightly.

But none of that matters. Rapp is a weak hero, and as much as I've liked O'Brien in both Maze Runner adventures, watching him in this is like sitting in an empty room with no windows watching the paint dry while wearing a blindfold. While he looks the part, the performance itself never connects, the fresh-faced rising star delivering a one-dimensional portrait of revenge-fueled determination that's as obvious as it is tiresome. It does not help that Kitsch, other than in that one scene with Keaton, is an even weaker villain, and if not for his athletic physicality there would be little to nothing imposing about Ghost whatsoever.

Luckily, what the movie does have is Keaton, and while he's not asked to do a lot (it's pretty similar to what Kevin Costner was tasked with doing in 2014's Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit), the veteran actor certainly makes the most of every scene he's involved with. He is an imposing presence, both physically and mentally, making his vicious verbal explosion when Hurley comes face-to-face with Ghost have a weighty impact nothing else inside the film comes close to matching. He elevates the material to a different place each time his character is on the screen, Keaton proving once again just how underappreciated a talent he's consistently been for going on four decades now.

Which makes it even more of a pity that American Assassin is as forgettable and disposable as it proves to be, the finished film a nondescript action frolic that goes nowhere of any interest no matter how timely certain elements fueling the narrative undeniably are. It's an exercise in violently boring cinematic extremism, and while the volume of the patriotic rah-rah histrionics might please some, as far as I was concerned the jingoistic stupidity of this particular movie proved to be nothing more than an unremarkable waste of time.








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Macklemore, Mary Lambert reveal Seattle concert dates
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Muschietti's It adaptation doesn't clown around
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Gleefully violent American Assassin a jingoistic waste of time
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