IT happens (review)

IT-2017-PennywiseI have never read a Stephen King story and did not see the previous incarnation of the movie, so I saw IT: Chapter One with almost as open a mind as anyone can have. That said, I do not like horror in general and am easily startled, so I saw the film with some trepidation.

Fortunately, I did not need to worry as IT was a horror in genre only and had zero moments that startled. Rather, IT was a coming-of-age story better described as graphic young adult (YA) with all the attendant overwrought melodrama.

Without giving much away, the story revolves around the disappearance of a number of kids in small town Anywhere, U.S.A. With a growing group of friends, the brother of one of the missing kids look for clues to the disappearances, only to be haunted by a malevolent clown called Pennywise.

Although the evil clown is the titular IT, the movie is more about the bond that forms between the kids and the slow realization that they are stronger as a group than on their own.

Losers club

The demon-battling Loser’s Club make this more YA than horror

For me, this is where the movie could have been so much better, because the bigger evils in town were the day-to-day horrors these kids faced, forces as malevolent as Pennywise but insanely more powerful for all their normalcy. If anything, the clown was simply a metaphor.

To their credit, the child actors brought depth to the otherwise trope preteen outsiders—the skinny kid, the chubby kid, the African-American kid, the loner girl, the bespectacled smart-ass nerd, the Jewy kid and the whiner—and their connections felt real. It also helped that they had some really funny lines to take the piss out of each other.

It bullies

Clown horror weakened by everyday malevolence of kids’ lives

But this is where the film was more YA than horror. Rather than probe deeply into issues of bullying, sexual predation, grief management or drug-doping kids into docility, the film instead tapped into its inner Goonies, almost completely removing the horror.

A decently constructed film, performed well, the thing you need to fear the least is turning out the lights when you go to bed.

IT is just not that into you.

Startlingly meh: The Conjuring 2 (review)

conjuring 2 poster

I don’t really have the stomach for horror films. It’s not so much that I scare easily, but rather I am incredibly jumpy and therefore startle easily…and I don’t enjoy that sensation.

That being said, I have an idea for a horror film and decided I really needed to watch some before trying to write one. Thus, I finally acquiesced to my friends’ attempts to get me into a theatre, and last night, saw The Conjuring 2.

In many ways, including the opening scenes, this movie is a grandchild of the paranormal investigation classic The Amityville Horror. In the same timeline as that “based on” true event, a family in North London is being haunted by the spectre of an old man who is quite literally turning their lives upside down. The church sends American investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren to determine the merits of the case, only to discover it is linked to haunting visions in their own lives.

Lots of booming, thrashing and screaming ensue. Faces suddenly appear over shoulders. Bodies fly around rooms. More screaming. Demons, crucifixes and biting, oh my.

You can probably tell from that last part that I wasn’t very enthused about the movie. And to a large extent, I blame that on me more than the movie. I just don’t like horror and I don’t like being startled, which is really all this movie was: a two-hour effort to make me jump. Even at that, I think I jumped about six times and was never horrified or even mildly disturbed.

My friends were more effusive in their praise. One said it was the best horror film he had ever seen; he had never been more frightened. Others said it was a solid horror film that they quite enjoyed, although almost universally they said it wasn’t as disturbing as the original The Conjuring, which they insist I watch.

The story was pretty linear. Sceptics vs believers. Haunted, possessed child with glowing eyes and altered voices. Spectral specialists who speak wooden dialogue about God while dealing with their own demons. And underneath it all, an adorable love story between the real-life Warrens that went nowhere and added nothing to the story.

Twin warrens

Lorraine & Ed Warren: real and as portrayed by Vera Farmiga/Patrick Wilson

If you can get past the dialogue, the performances weren’t too bad. Patrick Wilson (Ed Warren) and Vera Farmiga (Lorraine Warren) do what they can with relatively two-dimensional Bible thumpers. Frances O’Connor, who played British mom Peggy Hodgson, did a very admirable job of portraying a woman who has taken about all she can from a world determined to crap on her at every turn. This could easily have been two hours of her screaming insanely, but she brought realism to the role.

But my biggest praise goes out to Madison Wolfe, who played Janet Hodgson, the young girl through whom the spectre works its evil. Half victim, half conduit, Janet’s struggles first to understand what is happening to her and then cope with feelings of abandonment as her friends and school become terrified of her (rather than the evil) are heart-breaking and play out across the young actress’s face. A true example of where a performance rises far above terrible material.

Janet

So many questions in those eyes

Unfortunately, even the stellar performances of O’Connor and Wolfe cannot save a bad movie that looks and feels like so many of its genre. That it is based on a true story—the Enfield poltergeist—doesn’t make it any more real for me; it may mean more to people wrapped up in poltergeist lore.

The slide show of the actual event participants during the closing credits, however, is an interesting touch. If nothing else, it tells me the set designers did a good job.

So, by the end of the evening, I wasn’t really any further ahead in my understanding of horror films and if this is an example of what is available, no more inclined to take in other films of this genre (or at least, sub-genre).

 

See also:

The Conjuring 2 fails to raise goosebumps. Bruce Demara, The Toronto Star

The demon-hunting Warrens are back in The Conjuring 2. Richard Crouse, Metro News

The Conjuring 2 is gorgeously shot and smartly conceived. Brad Wheeler, Globe & Mail

 

Blood red poppies

Remembrance Day

Every year, as October transitions into November, I go in search of a new red poppy pin in honour of Remembrance Day on November 11. It is a tradition in my family and across Canada to append the crimson flower to our lapel as a reminder of the bloody sacrifices made a century ago.

I also wear it to honour my great-grandfather Francis Sowden, who came home from the Great War, unlike so many others, including siblings on my great-grandmother’s side who are sadly just names without faces to me so many years later.

I am one of few in my generation to have known Francis Sowden.

I am one of few in my generation to have known Francis Sowden.

Recently, I have heard people complain that the commemorative symbol of the poppy has been co-opted by those who want to hail it as a symbol of the glory of serving in the military, if not actually the glory of war itself. This bothers me.

I greatly thank all those who have, do and will serve in the military both in Canada and abroad, many risking their lives to keep others safe. Although I was an unthinking idiot in my youth, I have learned that these people, while frail humans, are noble titans who see conflict as a last resort.

For all that nobility, however, the poppy must remain a separate symbol.

A painting from the Royal Ontario Museum that haunts my dreams. (sadly, I cannot remember artist)

A painting from the Royal Ontario Museum that haunts my dreams. (sadly, I cannot remember artist)

The poppy reminds us of the horrific toll of war. It is a crimson stain upon our lapels that taints us all and reminds us of the fragility of the peace that surrounds us. The bloody hue taunts our civilized smugness with a warning of how easily we can fall into the pit of violence, whether as individuals, communities or countries.

While we wear the blood red poppy to honour the fallen of World War I, we also wear it as a badge of shame that the war ever took place, and that the war to end all wars wasn’t.

This dual purpose must never be diminished. We must strive to be better.

And next year, as October transitions into November, I will go in search of a new red poppy pin in honour of Remembrance Day on November 11.

I will never forget.

A cemetery near my home reminds me of the sacrifices

A cemetery near my home reminds me of the sacrifices

It (tediously) Follows – A review

It Follows

We all remember the dire warnings from health class or worried parents: If you have unprotected sex, you run the risk of coming down with an STD.

Well, for the kids in the movie It Follows, the itch of crabs or the need for antibiotics would be a welcomed distraction from the STW they risk by having sex with the wrong partner.

Choose your partners wisely

Choose your partners wisely

STW? Sexually transmitted wraith.

It Follows tells the story of Jay, a sexually active late-teen who finally succumbs to the charms of her newest beau Hugh, only to learn that not only did she accept his penis, but she also accepted a curse that involves a plodding ghost trying to kill her.

As long as Jay stays alive, the ghost leaves Hugh alone. The best advice, he suggests, is for Jay to pass the curse onto someone else as soon as possible, hooking up like he did with her. If the wraith gets Jay, it then comes after Hugh and then continues up the line of transmission.

Complicating life is the fact that only the cursed can see the wraith, which can transform from a urinating half-naked mutilated woman to a senior citizen to someone you know. Thus, even when Jay enlists her sister and friends to help her, they are largely useless other than as a source of comfort and uncontrolled screaming and running.

Crazy kids hatch a plan

Crazy kids hatch a plan

Now, I don’t like horror movies. I am a jumpy person by nature, and so sudden surprises bother me. Thus, when my horror-loving friends suggested we see It Follows, I was reluctant. But I am trying to expand my genre repertoire and so joined in.

As it worked out, there was no reason to worry.

(HEREAFTER THERE WILL BE SPOILERS.)

Throughout the entire 100 minutes of the movie, I jumped only once, and as it turned out, at nothing that had anything to do with the story.

None of the appearances of the wraith (okay, maybe one) were particularly startling or unexpected. And aside from the musical cues to the audience to become anxious—music that would not have been out of place in any classic 80s horror—the movie offered little suspense. And after more than a few musical feints, even that ceased to make me uneasy.

Aggravating the lack of tension was an excruciatingly plodding pace to the story, which triggered more yawns in me than shudders. The only thing slower than the pace was the plodding approach of the wraith.

My friends—the horror aficionados—suggested that this gave the demon (and the movie) a relentless feel…the wraith was often shown slowly approaching from a distance in wide-angle shots. But to me, the movie was relentless in the way a train travelling at one mile per hour is unrelenting.

It will crush you…eventually…once it reaches you…assuming you don’t simply step off the tracks.

What I will admit was relentless was that truthfully the story could only end one way. (I am trying not to tell you how the movie ends.)

Because the wraith will always move up the chain of transmission, Jay is fated to die. Even if she passes the curse onto another. She will die. It is simply a matter of when.

Not taking the news well

Not taking the news well

The writer and/or director essentially painted themselves into a corner from the outset.

This is not to say that the kids only run away, but they also had no information to help stop the wraith…if possible. And no one seemed interested in determining what is was or why it was.

This is yet another reason why I could not engage in the movie. It gave me nothing to do but wait, and watch the kids attempt roughly the same actions time and again.

Maika Monroe

Maika Monroe as Jay

Given the nature of the beast—horror movies, that is—the performances were solid. The acting was quite good—Maika Monroe as Jay was quite effective—and the relationships between the characters felt real. Aside from a few subtextual set-ups that had no payoff, most of the character interactions satisfied.

Sadly, the actors were completely let down by the writer and/or director.

With the wraith largely incapable of harming her sister or friends (it only wants the cursed), all of Jay’s (our hero’s) actions were self-serving. Simply put, Jay did everything not to die.

And while this is understandable and even compelling early on—again, Maika Monroe is very likeable—it eventually lacks nobility. There were no other stakes, and how do you raise the stakes from gonna die? After a very short period, I was ready for Jay to die simply so my friends and I could get to the pub.

I appreciate that I am in the minority here (and at the pub).

It Follows will inexorably spawn a sequel—no doubt entitled It Still Follows—and possibly a third (Yep, Still Following) and fourth (Hunh, Where’d It Go? Oh, Jesus, There It Is) chapter.

For me, however, I’ll just go back and watch Poltergeist (the original, thank you) and have nightmares about clown dolls.

Now THAT is scary

Now THAT is scary

Now, if you want a good (and shorter) counterpoint to my antipathy for It Follows, check out a post written by another friend Danny F Santos, which can be found here.

The Voices gets a hearing (a review)

poster

Not one to generally participate in the Toronto International Film Festival, it was a rare evening in which I found myself standing in a rush line to see a movie, but a friend of mine wanted to see the latest Ryan Reynolds film called The Voices. This is not your typical Ryan Reynolds film.

Reynolds is Jerry Hickfang, a good-natured if skittish guy who works in the shipping department of a bathroom fixtures company in Milton, the derelict remains of a town in Nowhere, USA. Jerry is a nice guy, who lives above a derelict bowling alley with his dog Bosco and cat Mr. Whiskers. And of course, Jerry has the hots for office cupcake Fiona, a misplaced Brit with a craving for bigger things, played by Gemma Arterton. For her part, Fiona finds Jerry a little creepy, but is not above using his puppy lust to get a lift during a rain storm.

Jerry Hickfang (Ryan Reynolds) struggles to understand Mr. Whiskers' advice

Jerry Hickfang (Ryan Reynolds) struggles to understand Mr. Whiskers’ advice

Oh, and the other thing you probably need to know about Jerry is that he is in court-appointed psychiatric treatment, isn’t really good about taking his meds, and has a family history of hearing voices, but that’s not something he likes to talk about.

So far, so harmless. But after a literal run-in with a deer who begs Jerry to finish him off, the blood-letting never really stops and the rest of the movie becomes a giant slip-and-slide of mostly implied blood and offal.

So, The Voices is a thriller…and a drama…and a comedy…and a farce. You squirm in revulsion (never really reaches horror) as often as you LOL.

Director Marjane Satrapi (who brought us Persepolis) attended the screening and describes the story as completely fucked up. She said she was mesmerized by the screenplay and desperately wanted to meet the man who penned it to see what messed up human could conceptualize such a story. So she was surprised when she met Michael R Perry, a tall normal-looking fellow.

Marjane Satrapi

Marjane Satrapi

As Perry explained, he wanted to look at the life of someone of multiple personality disorder from their perspective rather than society’s. And in that, he succeeded.

With Satrapi’s help, the two clearly crafted the oddly idyllic yet troubled world within Jerry’s mind, giving the audience only the briefest glimpse of how the rest of the world saw things. With Jerry, it was all perfect love and butterflies. To the rest of us, it was squalor and pain.

Where the story fell down for me was in explaining why everything went wrong so suddenly. In writing circles, we talk about “Why today?” Why does your story begin today, at this moment, and not 6 weeks ago or 5 months from now? In this case, what was the event that caused Jerry to go from lovable schmuck to… Some might suggest it was the deer accident, but even Mr. Whiskers called that bullshit

The other place I felt let down was that the conflict never escalated, it merely accumulated. Rather than find interesting ways for Jerry’s mania to manifest itself, the writer simply repeated the same event over and over, as though each of the characters voluntarily walked into a wood chipper.

And I don’t know if the ending was presented as written or was something that blossomed out of Satrapi’s mind, but it was lazy and bordered on the ludicrous. It was a bad after-taste on a film that had merits.

Ryan Reynolds, Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick

Ryan Reynolds, Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick

On the plus side, Ryan Reynolds was amazing to watch…this was not the charming goofball romantic comedy, although Jerry was sadly charming when he wasn’t obviously tortured by his snarky brogue-spewing cat. (NOTE: Bosco and Mr. Whiskers easily have the funniest lines in this film.)

Gemma Arterton’s Fiona was a delight. She was delicious to watch as the voluptuous vixen whose biggest fear in life is being bored. Problem solved!

Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air), as tier-two love interest Lisa (see, the writer even repeated this beat), was largely wasted. Her character was pretty two-dimensional. As nice girl looking for a nice guy, her function was to have Jerry explain his condition to the audience (exposition disguised as opening up).

The Voices is definitely worth seeing, if only for what it attempts to do. I can’t help feeling, however, that if they had rewritten the screenplay a few more times, they would have achieved their goals much better than this.

My recommend (and that of my friend) is that this is a Cheapie Tuesday movie (or whatever your local half-price day is).

 

PS I was unable to find a trailer for this movie, so I offer the following interview with Satrapi at Sundance London…I will warn you, however, that it does include a lot more info about the plot than I gave above.

Hoar-ror Show

The silence screamed

As unyielding steel

Violated the ground.

Frozen corpses flung

To cadaverous skies,

Plummeting anew

O’er sacrificed brethren;

Unwelcomed freefall

Not insult enough

To be ignored

By violent injury.

Territory reclaimed,

Only to await

New fodder,

New victims.

Winter, it seems,

Is getting to me.

(Image is property of owner and is used here without permission…the horror…the horror.)