Review: It Chapter Two (2019)

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It (2017) was a grown-up Amblin film that did not use the popular eighties studio ascetic as an excuse for a nostalgic harkening back of the era. Rather it was a film that blurred the line between the real-world fears of a group of adolescents, and the demons that plagued the darkest corners of their minds (via fantastical and nightmarish sequences). In this regard, the film had more in common with A Nightmare on Elm Street then ET. The film also effortlessly impressed with the impeccable chemistry of its young cast and riveting theatrical performance of Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård).

By comparison, It Chapter Two is an ambitious and sobering effort, weaving past and present with such beautiful elegance, that the film becomes the cinematic equivalent of group therapy.

The sequel picks up 27 years after the original film. The group once known as The Losers Club are mostly living separate lives far away from their childhood town- Derry. When a vicious attack is punctuated with the message of “Come Home”, the sole club member who remained in Derry, Mike Hanlon, (Isaiah Mustafa) enlists the help of his former friends to destroy the ancient creature they once defeated as kids.

The adult section of the It narrative has always been a hard pill to swallow. Strictly viewed through the 90s mini-series, it’s a melange of mockable imagery, plodding pacing and saccharine sentimentality. To its credit, It Chapter Two tries to tackle this challenge with its tongue firmly in its cheek. The de facto leader of the group- Bill Denbrough (James McAvoy) grew up to become a novelist in the vein of the Stephen King and is frequently mocked for his endings (an allusion to the novel and miniseries’s ending) The mythologising is also relegated to the background and rendered pointless by the final confrontation.

If anything, the initial set up for the mythological quest is an excuse for the characters to confront their past selves and lives. These are the sequences that make It Chapter Two a unique horror film. Rather than indulging in the persistent cycle of setting up and scare, the sequel’s most horrifying moments are the characters realising how their fears illustrate their inhumanity. Whether its Denbrough confronting the reality that he could not save a kid (similar in age to his dead brother- Georgie) from Pennywise or Eddie Kaspbrak (James Ransone) leaving his Mum to die, because he’s too scared to fight of a leper.

This speaks to the film’s central theme of how we can never truly just hold on to the pristine images of ourselves. We must confront and acknowledge that we are more than the identities painted by our memories.

During this stretch, there is a frequent amount of new footage involving the younger cast members, intercut with their grown counterparts’ current actions. Rather than becoming a visual crutch, the use of the footage reinforces the thin line between some of the characters younger and grown-up identities. They also function as memories with the present moments awakening the past and rippling into the future. Jason Ballantine’s editing ensures that the transitions between the two timelines are often poetic and meaningful. One such moment is when Beverly (Jessica Chastain) walks through her old house and remembers a painful memory of her Dad, reinforcing the somewhat meek person that Beverly grew up to be.

In most of her performances, Chastain has always been the toughest person in the room, never allowing her vulnerability to bubble to the surface. As Beverley, this dynamic is reversed. The actress’s most striking moments are when she’s sensitive. One moment that comes to mind is when the character is subtly conveying the hidden burden she must carry about a recent event.

Bill Skarsgård returns with a captivating performance as Pennywise, adding interesting colours to the role, particularly in his human- Robert “Bob” Gray manifestation. But Bill Hader steals the show as the grown-up Ritchie Tozier. While Hader gets a lot of comedic mileage out of his zapping one-liners, it’s the character’s silent and introspective moments where Hader excels, portraying a great deal of pathos and sweetness.

Director Andy Muschietti made It soar with a persistently moving camera. It painted an idyllic and horrifying picture of Derry. He also impressed with sequences that blurred the line between fantasy and reality with appearances from Pennywise in some of the kids’s activities. In Chapter Two, Muschietti adds depth to a lot of his sequences, whether it’s the use of a long shot in the tail-end end of the “Miss Kerch” sequence or the seemingly endless nature of the Hall of Mirrors. Both these sequences also impress with their framing and Benjamin Wallfisch’s score, particularly the latter with its whining musical strings and dreamlike sound of a slowed down carnival ride in its last throws. 

Despite its virtues, the sequel does feel like it’s wrestling with some of the more outlandish aspects of its source material. The tail end set piece in the Chinese restaurant is a reminder that King’s penchant for finding the horror in ordinary objects leads to some silly avenues.

There’s a sequence involving a Derry monument coming to life that sucks out all the horror of that scene and the central creature’s menace. While Pennywise’s final form is far better than that of the TV miniseries, his appearance is marred by the persistent disco esque lighting that clashes with the tension of the scene. But above all, the filmmakers do not quite know what note they want to end the picture on, so they decide to hit them all.

In spite of this, It Chapter Two is an engrossing and therapeutic horror movie. It never forgets the human element of the story and how fear can paint us in the worst possible way.

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Editorial: My Top Five Tarantino Scenes

5) A Wanted Man and Old Man Hatch A Deal

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Honestly, I could have put this whole chapter. It’s an exercise in Tarantino filtering Sergio Leone esque buildup through his unique and idiosyncratic ascetic; boiling tension caused by mundane actions combined with punchy and interesting dialogue. However, it’s too long to count as a full scene.

But within this section, the monologue and subsequent interaction between Jody Domergue and General Smithers are riveting. Domergue allows Smithers to live by being complicit and playing a part in a plan to free his sister from John Ruth. Featuring a persistent hissing fire, Channing Tatum’s testy performance and a subdued comedic edge; Tarantino creates a moment that shows a persona and scene being constructed, before our eyes.

4) Momentary Realisation

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Call me a contrarian or perhaps a Tarantino inspired expletive, but the character of Fredrick Zollar has always fascinated me the most when watching Inglorious Bastards. Initially set up as a nebbish romantic foil in the vein of Hugh Grant, the character turns out to be a war hero and star of “Pride of Nation”, a film depicting his massacre of allied soldiers, whilst being trapped in a bell tower for three days. In the same vein, his romance with Shoshanna is sweet and endearing, but filled with underlying hated.

The French cinema owner only sees the symbol and uniform of any German she encounters and refuses to see any humanity in them. Shoshanna and Fredrick’s final encounter is a contrast between their characters. Through seeing flickers of Zoller in the propaganda film, she comes to finally see humanity in a race of people that she has detested.

Whereas Fredrick is revealed as an entitled, proud and vain person whose nastiness encapsulates what the young woman has always seen in the Nazis. The scene is an emotive Mexican standoff that has a bitter irony. At the moment that Shoshanna is starting to empathise, she is punished for holding a view contrary to the one she has held for years.

3) A Tense Encounter with Squeaky

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Recency bias aside, this scene is an effective piece of tense filmmaking from Tarantino. While the director has already created a foreboding atmosphere with cursory mentions of Charles “Charlie” Manson and the hive-like innocence of the family, this scene impresses in its simplicity.

Originally starting out as with medium shot, the scene then becomes a duel of close-ups; Cliff Booth’s amiable concern clashing with Squeaky’s hardened sternness. The ambiguity of whether or not Booth killed his wife and his capacity for violence supercharges this scene, as the aged stuntman attempts to find out if his old friend is being taken advantage of.

2) Pop Song Dissection

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From frame one of Tarantino’s debut, the indie auteur scorches the cinematic landscape with cool and hardened criminals dissecting pop culture with biting casualness. The fact that Tarantino himself begins the discussion of the meaning of Madonna’s “Like A Virgin” and inserts amusing tangents makes the scene feel authentic and ironic. The opening of Reservoir Dogs is revelatory for introducing a generation of filmgoers to the virtues of examing the cinematic content they consume.

1) Buffonish Raid

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Django Unchained has a dark comedic heart that both amuses and subverts our collective perceptions of slavery. No sequence is more evident of this than the KKK raid and meeting. Making an entrance with ominous operatic music, the group is eventually reduced to bumbling and unorganised fools, who bicker over the practicality of the sacks they’re wearing. While the scene is consistently funny, it also deflates the terror of the KKK. In so doing, it feels as though Tarantino is responding to D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, a film that gave the group cinematic immortality and infamy.

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Further Consideration: Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (2019)

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It’s an absolute testament to Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood that even after seeing it a second time, I still have more things to say about it. The first viewing provided plenty to discuss but my subsequent viewing was a sobering and clarifying experience. Crucially, Rick Dalton (Leonardo Dicaprio) came alive for me in a way that did not occur to me during the initial screening. Dalton’s fear of being a has-been actor, who feels he’s sunk low enough to start making Italian Westerns is tinged with a fear of counterculture.

Tarantino cements this fear with his presentation of the hippies. In their introduction, they’re surrounded by mist, provide a haunting chant and appear in a long shot. They seem like metaphysical creatures that would not have been out of place in a John Carpenter film.

In this regard, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is perhaps Tarantino’s most sombre and mature effort. It feels like the famed indie auteur is trying to preserve an era in time. Coming out of the second screening, my overriding question was what about the era was he trying to preserve? Strictly viewed through the prism of Rick Dalton, I first thought Tarantino was trying to hold on to this sort of journeyman actor, who effortlessly breezed from projects, without much investment or skill.

However, in part, I think Tarantino wants to retain the simpler time in which actors used to be seen as larger than life icons of the screen. Much of the film is dedicated to showing Rick as a cinematic icon, whether it’s the beginning scenes that show the actor’s earlier work or a montage that shows him on various Italian movie posters. Rick fears the counterculture embodied by the hippies because it reminds him that he can’t be that larger than life Western hero anymore.

There are a few scenes where the hippie characters viciously undress the silver screen portrait of Dalton. One key scene has a hitchhiking hippie called “Pussycat” say the following to Rick’s stunt double- Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). “Actors are phoney. They just say lines that other people write and pretend to murder people on their stupid tv shows. Meanwhile, real people are being murdered every day in Vietnam.” That line has a hint of the disenchantment towards actors’ and their relationship with violence. This is a thread that is firmly tugged at in the climax of the film and is discussed in my original review.

Music has always been a staple of Tarantino’s films, but in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, it’s omnipresent. As much as the film is the portrait of the days in the life of a rising starlet and ageing actor, the film equally presents a daily KHJ broadcast in 1969. Along with persistent music, many small moments of characters watching television and preparing to watch movies, Tarantino is trying to preserve another element from the era. He’s trying to illustrate a time when we all gathered around the television to watch the same show and tuned into an identical radio station.

This stands in contrast to today’s culture of splintering consumption where the niche is favoured over the populist appointment television; unless it’s a reality television show or superhero movie. With this aspect in mind, I don’t think Tarantino contrasts these aspects with the countercultural, other than a brief mention by one hippie that television is stupid, and some lip service of two people within the Manson family always watching the same show together.

There is no doubt that Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is an astounding cinematic work; a singular mosaic, presenting genuine existential angst through the prism of a gleaming era, which was starting to lose its sheen. But like the magic of movies, for a brief moment, Tarantino makes us believe that the magic of 1969 never truly died.

 

 

 

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Review: Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (2019)

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Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is a majestic and mature work. It’s the sort of film that feels like an intimate confession is being delivered on a grand stage. Taking place over the course of several months in 1969: the film is about an ageing actor- Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) who is dealing with the changing nature of his career as a heroic Western protagonist and the fabric of the industry.

Told almost entirely in real-time, Tarantino’s latest tips its hat to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America. That film concerned itself with the relationship between memory and time, with Robert DeNiro’s aged character walking in parts of a familiar city, immediately struck by a place or object that causes him to reflect on moments from his past. Much like Leone’s film, there are many moments in Hollywood where sequences of memory occur during mundane situations. One scene that comes to mind involves Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) fixing his friend’s roof and reflecting on why he got fired as a stunt man.

However, Hollywood is at its most engaging in its scenes of malaise with its characters expressing the personal goals that have eluded their grasp. Some of these instances of confession are often contrasted in interesting ways. One early scene at the Playboy mansion sees Steve McQueen (Damien Lewis) acknowledging why Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) would never go for a guy like him. He ends his lament by saying he “never stood a chance.” Later on, Dalton says the same thing when talking to a co-star about how he lost the role of Captain Virgil Hilts in The Great Escape to McQueen.

In this way, the film has most in common with Tarantino’s third film- Jackie Brown insofar as between the double-crosses and tense dialogue exchanges, the film gives time for its characters to ruminate about ageing and life aspirations. At the same time, Hollywood marks a departure for Tarantino. His films usually illustrate his characters taking on a persona and grappling with them like an actor interpreting a part in a script. Hollywood sheds this artifice in favour of showcasing the pure unbridled transformative experience of seeing an actor play out a scene. One sequence in the middle of the film, depicting Dalton in bad guy mode on an episode of “Looper” soars in this regard.

Dalton feels like a composite post-modern creation. He’s the sort of journeyman actor that Tarantino would have raved about and cast if he existed, speaking to the director’s tendency to celebrate aspects of obscure genre fare. But he also exists as an ironic mirror for DiCaprio. Much like the character is grappling with going from a youthful hero to being relegated to the villain of the week on various televisions shows, DiCaprio struggled with being taken seriously after being the youthful romantic lead for years.

DiCaprio’s best moments as the character are when these parallels come to the fore, such as an early scene when he’s talking to Hollywood producer- Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino). When Schwarz paints a picture of Dalton’s future, DiCaprio reacts with a sense of uneasiness, almost as though the truism of his early career are aligning with the character.

However, Brad Pitt steals the show in a captivating near-silent performance as Dalton’s stunt double and long-time friend- Cliff Booth. Booth engages in the same way as some of the male characters that have pervaded Tarantino’s films- seemingly amiable guys who have a hidden capacity for violence. Through the course of this film, this Tarantino archetype is subverted by a potent ambiguity of whether the stunt man truly enjoys the violence he commits. Pitt’s performance walks a fine line between pleasant and dangerous in a way that elevates the character to one of the director’s best.

Despite having less to say than any of Tarantino’s other female characters, Margot Robbie shines in a star turn as Sharon Tate. The character exists as an optimistic embodiment of classic Hollywood, illustrating it’s larger than life qualities and fevered dreamlike aspirations. In fact, many of her scenes, comprised of dancing to late sixties pop songs reminded me of scenes from Sleeping Beauty with Princess Aurora singing, filtered through the lens of Terrence Malick’s ethereal style.

Tate also exists as an interesting counterpoint to Dalton. In a key scene, she goes to a screening of her recent movie. While watching, she fondly remembers some of the on-set memories and innocently revels in the audience’s reactions. Tate embodies the side of Hollywood that exists at the behest of the audience, immersing them in a fantasy experience that will transport them away from everyday tribulations. In this regard, she’s portrayed without irony or complication much like how people would have seen movie stars in that era.

By comparison, Dalton is a character that illustrates what happens when the director says cut and the larger than life movie star suddenly fades and we see all the problems that engulf their daily existence. Dalton also contrasts with Tate by not caring about the audience, other than how they perceive him, and what movies will mean for career advancement, rather than mass enjoyment.

In fact, there’s a small thematic thread within the film of Dalton’s work being responsible for the violence of the Manson family. This is illustrated in a cutting speech by one family members- Susan Atkins (Mikey Madison) in which she points out that all there was on television growing up was violence. With this “brain wave,” she contends that they should attack the people who are responsible for them behaving in a violent way. At the end of this sequence, a mural of Dalton looking quite sinister is engulfed in red by a passing police siren, suggesting the actor’s violent legacy.

Although the historical revisionism is smaller in scale compared with Tarantino’s previous films, it’s nevertheless fascinating and quite poignant. By preventing Sharon Tate’s death at the hands of the Manson family, it’s almost as though the director is trying to keep the optimism of the studio system alive. In the sweet, almost Hollywood esque final moments: Tarantino believes these two disparate sides of the business can have a meaningful dialogue to keep the larger than life light, shine a little while longer.

 

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Brief Consideration: The Lion King (2019)

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Much like the Psycho (1998) remake, the live-action Lion King exists more as a conceptually interesting counterpoint to its source material, than an engaging work on its own terms. Although the film is inspired by the broadway musical and presented in a nature documentary ascetic, the narrative remains the same: A youthful and outcast lion called Simba (Donald Glover) must embrace his past and role as the king of his land in the years after his father’s death, Mufasa (James Earl Jones), who was murdered by his uncle, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor).

Crucially, the original animated film is a fantasy-based story and seeing it filtered through a National Geographic documentary lens is a mixed blessing. Mufasa’s line about Simba being destined to be responsible for “Everything the light touches” takes on profound new meaning as the rays of the sunlight and moonlight become like a dramatic spotlight, emphasising detail and highlighting important moments of the story. One memorable sequence involving Scar and the Hyenas is entirely lit by moonlight and it punctuates the group initially mistaking Scar for Mufasa, with the misty light making him seem like a shadow version of his brother.

In other places, the ascetic choice is remarkable in the off-book sequences that it creates, giving a sense of life for its animal characters, particularly one sequences that show the various paths a mouse treads before being captured by Scar. These silent scenes feel like the interludes that used to permeate vintage Disney animated features and represent the film’s ascetic at its most unconstrained.

The style is less effective in depicting the supernatural aspects of the narrative. The moment depicting Simba talking to his dead father is flat, unimaginative and lacking in resonance because it just involves the young lion hearing his father’s disembodied voice in a large dark cloud. This is a far cry from the larger than life image of Mufasa in the original movie and the back-lit puppet in the stage show. Additionally, it makes the musical sequences feel rather unnecessary because of the jarring effect of the realistic ascetic clashing with the whimsical nature of the source material. “Be Prepared” proves to be an exception as it’s delivered as a rousing military speech than a Disney villain show tune.

Much like its realistic documentary visual scheme, the 2019 remake of The Lion King truly comes alive in small moments that draw out interesting aspects in the story (Scar’s embittered attitude is further caused by being overlooked by a lioness he holds dear.) and interesting interpretations (Billy Eichner reimagines Timon as a cross between a flamboyant hairdresser and Jack from “Will & Grace”). However, these choices were more fascinating then emotionally resonating, something that the original animated feature never lacked in providing.

 

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Brief Consideration: Batman: Hush (2019)

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On the page, Batman: Hush was an unrelenting sprint through the character’s world and status quo, elevated by Jim Lee’s astounding artwork. Its much-beloved status came more from accessibility and grand heroic sketches than being an intriguing mystery that said anything about the Dark Knight. By comparison, the animated adaptation proves to be a much more engaging and interesting affair. In spirit, the comic and movie share the same story: the Caped Crusader gets embroiled in a mystery that involves much of his rogues’ gallery, Superman and old friend- Tommy Elliot. The series of events are orchestrated by a person whose face is hidden behind bandages and goes by the name of Hush.

Rather than concerning itself with being a speedy introduction, Batman: Hush instead pitches itself as an Elseworlds tale. The film does this by bringing the various narrative elements that were hinted at in the comic to the forefront. Instead of the Batman/Catwoman relationship being a minor note, it’s now fully explored and has genuine pathos, courtesy of the filmmakers taking the time to show the characters interacting outside of their costumed personas.

This is compounded by the relationship breakdown differing in its emphasis to the source material. In the animated feature, it’s far more tragic because Catwoman leaves Batman, due to his belief that he should not kill any of the criminals he hunts. Whereas, the comic ended the relationship because of Batman’s paranoia in the aftermath of the events that he’s experienced.

In an even more fascinating wrinkle, the identity of Hush is changed in the movie; making the mastermind of the comic (The Riddler), the mystery man wearing the bandages. The result is a much cleaner and efficient storytelling choice that illustrates the Elseworlds nature of the film, presenting Edward Nigma in a context outside his usual M.O. and motivation.

Despite these choices, the film has the opposite problem of the comic insofar as the art style is concerned. By not directly translating Lee’s stunning artwork to animation, the film can’t help but look flatter by comparison. This is even worsened by the film occasionally stopping to admire certain shots in slow motion. Even without taking Lee’s artwork into consideration; the film’s animation style does not hold a candle to other DC animated features, particularly The Dark Knight Returns, which split the difference between adaptation and reverence in its style. Though some shots of a nighttime Gotham with its vastly large and illuminated tall buildings do catch the eye.

While Batman: Hush does improve upon its source material with a much more streamlined narrative and compelling central romance, the film does still begs the question of why it’s still among the most beloved Batman stories. Nothing in the film particularly speaks to the Caped Crusader as much as other tales, and its interesting elements often centre on its antagonists more than anything else.

 

 

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Personal Post: First Footage from Cameron Cloutier’s Queen of Hearts

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At this point, the making of Cameron Cloutier’s Twin Peaks fan film (Queen of Hearts) would rival the sharpest tangents that the third season of the famous show took. From broken promises to persistent attempts to obtain money for little work, Queen of Hearts has seen it all. However, a rare spot of good news came in the form of the first footage being unveiled. Lasting over two minutes in length, the sneak peek sees Annie seemingly dropped from the Black Lodge. As she wakes up, she looks around the mystical woods and feels compelled to approach Jackrabbit’s Palace. Once there, the young woman repeatedly asks to be taken. The clip ends with Annie being swallowed up by a swelling vortex.

The sneak peek is dripping with atmosphere, courtesy of some excellently framed and edited point of view shots. In their stillness, they have the quality of the vast woods being like a faux reality where higher powers are indulging in a game much like a child playing with a doll’s house. The middle eastern sounding music by Peter Gabriel further entrenches us in a feeling of surreality, creating an odd juxtaposition between place and context, much like a dream that paints an odd reality that never quite feels right. The final images of Annie’s left behind heels and one of them tipping over, feels like a homage to Wizard of Oz with a black comic note. The moment would not feel out of place in any David Lynch film.

Like the best teasers, the footage tantalises and asks questions that would have us all chatting for days on end at the Roadhouse. It’s well worth your time and you can watch it at the below link.

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