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.

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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.

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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.

Valerian – Movie of 1000 disappointments

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I am told that Luc Besson is a great filmmaker, with credits like The Fifth Element, Leon, La Femme Nikita. Unfortunately, the only Besson movie I had seen to date was Lucy (my review), and so I was a bit reluctant heading out to see Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.

Based on a graphic novel, the movie tells the story of two young military operatives—Valerian and Laureline—sent on a mission to recover an eternal replicator (too hard to explain), but who get embroiled in an ever-shifting landscape of political and military intrigue that may involve an extinct alien race.

Woven throughout this action-adventure-mystery-thriller is a hormone-riddled romance between the leads that is so execrable that Harlequin and most YA publishers would turn it away.

I walked into this movie expecting almost nothing in terms of story; Lucy lessons learned. And that is precisely what I got.

The story is pretty easy to follow, but gives you little reason to follow it.

The action sequences aren’t particularly thrilling, and the dialogue is cliché if not outright ham-fisted. That said, I am sure the scripts were printed on very nice paper…maybe with watermarks and all that.

But whereas I had few expectations of the story, I held out some hope of being dazzled by visuals of alien worlds.

To its credit, the movie started that way, presenting us with the alien paradise of Mül, a pastel portrait straight out of a 70s acid trip.

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Once we leave the wonder-world though—primarily to the space station/ark known as Alpha—the sets quickly degenerate to things we’ve seen a million times in other films.

Each of the visuals is as two-dimensional as the screen onto which they are projected, offering zero depth to the two-dimensional characters that flit across the screen like dying fish. The irony of seeing this movie in 3D is not lost on me.

So, no story and no stunning visuals, but the actors, am I right? Wrong.

I cannot put the blame completely on the actors, but they certainly earned some of it, as pretty much no one was able to imbue the wooden script with any emotion or pathos.

Dane DeHaan’s Valerian and Cara Delevingne‘s Laureline had zero chemistry, and so every attempt at love-making or wit fell flat. And if anything, Valerian comes across as a petulant child with multiple personality disorder.

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One of these is a sedative. The other is a plant.

No sooner does he completely thwart the military hierarchy with his own brand of pseudo-macho anarchy and independence than he delivers a grandiloquent lecture to Laureline about being a soldier who follows a code.

One of my friends suggested that Valerian should have been a film series to allow for better world building and character development. I can’t say that he’s wrong.

That said, if you asked me to watch even ten minutes more of this movie, I’d laugh in your face.

 

Is Bill Nye really helping science?

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So, Netflix Canada has started showing Bill Nye Saves the World, a science series designed for adult audiences, and in the first two episodes, he has tackled issues such as climate change and alternative remedies. The premise of the show is that Nye will use the scientific method to debunk the myths.

In theory, I am all for this approach. Unfortunately, the entire show is theory. In two episodes, I have seen nothing of a scientific method.

Episode 1: We’re going to heat a liquid to show you that heat causes things to expand. We’re going to tell you that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and that things get hot because the gas traps heat energy. The rest of the episode is mostly just people yelling about how silly deniers are.

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Bill Nye, the gimmick guy

Episode 2: Magnetic patches don’t cure disease because there is nothing to magnetically attract in the body. Oh, and this is how clinical trials work. But we’re not going to test magnetic patches in a clinical trial because we don’t have to. There was one scientific experiment to show that Milk of Magnesia neutralizes acid while a Whole Foods purchased stomach remedy did nothing to neutralize acid. Thing is, there is more to upset stomach than acid neutralization, and we don’t know the mechanism of action of a lot of FDA-approved medications. The rest of the episode was Nye yelling “that’s stupid” (not literally).

Despite his self-proclaimed mission, Nye seems to be playing into the hands of the anti-science faction by trying to cram complicated subjects into 30-minute windows of reality-style television that is more Jerry Springer than Mr. Science.

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Ridiculing the other side with unsupported taunts and name-calling is NOT good science. Shoddy, make-shift experiments that don’t actually prove your point are NOT good science.

If you say claims have not been supported by scientific evidence or clinical trial, then run those studies to prove the claims aren’t true. THAT is good science. But it is lousy television.

So, Bill Nye; are you a television personality or a science advocate?

If you remain the latter, then cut the bullshit and get back to the method.

If you are the former, then take off the lab coat, and I’ll go back to Thomas Dolby.

 

With Genius, the play’s the thing – a review

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Early last year, I saw a trailer for a biographical movie that recounted the love story between a novelist and his editor. For every bit that the novelist was a flamboyant, erratic larger-than-life character, his editor was a buttoned-down, controlled one. And yet, between the two of them, they produced works that sit among the sleeves of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, two of the editor’s other writers.

I was intrigued.

Last June, Genius had its theatrical release in North America, only to disappear almost as quickly. I had completely forgotten about the story, until this week, when the movie launched on Netflix.

Now, I know why it disappeared. Not because it is a bad movie, but rather because it was produced for the wrong medium.

The theatrical release Genius should have had was on a stage, not in a cinema. Although not written intentionally as such, Genius is a play.

Based on A. Scott Berg’s 1978 National Book Award-winner Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, the film recounts a tempestuous period in the 1930s when the first frenzied pages of Thomas Wolfe’s (Jude Law) autobiographical O Lost found their way onto the desk of Scribner’s editor Max Perkins (Colin Firth). It then follows the bond that forms between the two men as they fight to tame Wolfe’s creative furies, eventually honing it into the retitled Look Homeward, Angel and his sophomore novel Of Time and the River.

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The loves they left behind: Laura Linney (top) and Nicole Kidman

The process was not without its victims, however, and as minor secondary plots, the film unveils the impact of the men’s singular focus on their loved ones: Perkins’ loving wife Louise (Laura Linney) and his five daughters, as well as Wolfe’s loving but jealous benefactor Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman).

As I watched the film—directed by Michael Grandage with screenplay by John Logan –I found it structurally constrained and yet exuberantly written. With the exception of links between plot sequences, every scene played out as intimate conversations with the characters largely speaking in poetry, especially Wolfe and Perkins. It was as though Logan was trying to capture the Joyce-like prose of Wolfe’s mania and cast it from the mouths of his characters.

After pausing the movie for a few moments about 40 minutes in, not completely sure what I thought of it, I came back to the film and immediately realized what was challenging me. This was a stage play that was unaware of its identity.

Once I had that in my mind, the movie proceeded to unfold beautifully and naturally.

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Defining the act of falling in love

As a writer and editor myself, I was enthralled by the ongoing debates over how best to describe the emotions of falling in love and that tortuous feeling of having the words you bled to write being torn asunder with the simple stroke of a red pencil.

I understand, however, that not everyone would be as appreciative or have such a personal connection to these scenes.

The movie was eviscerated by the critics I read, and rightly so if viewed as a movie.

“Hammily acted, overstylized and lacking in subtlety.” – The Guardian

“Dressed-up box full of second- and third-hand notions.” – The New York Times

The Independent reviewer apparently saw what I saw:

“The acting, along with John Logan’s script, belong to the theatre.”

Like many stages plays, there is essentially no build up, and we are immediately dumped into central relationship of Perkins and Wolfe, two artists straining to make the other see his vision for the project at hand. Thus, when Kidman’s Aline or Linney’s Louise show up in the story, we are given almost no backstory to help us understand their perspectives or reactions to the intellectual love affair that blossoms.

And to the subtlety comment, Logan inserted F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce) at the nadir of his career as an omen to Wolfe about what lies ahead, and Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West) as an emblem of a man who possessed his life, much as Wolfe tried to do and failed.

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The fates: Guy Pearce as F. Scott Fitzgerald & Dominic West as Ernest Hemingway

But perhaps the biggest tell for me that this was a stage play—and something that hits the subtlety debate—is the hat that Perkins wears throughout the entirety of the film. No matter where he is, no matter the time of day, no matter how he is otherwise dressed, Perkins wears his grey Fedora. It is what allows him to maintain his control on the world.

And because of its importance to Perkins—the true hero of this story—the hat is what brings power to the film’s close, in a scene that could otherwise be seen as cliché (and may yet be, by some).

The audience for Genius will be a narrow one, unfortunately. It has, however, piqued enough interest in me to look into the works of Thomas Wolfe, as well as A. Scott Berg’s biography of Max Perkins.

 

See also:

Colin Firth and Jude Law’s literary bromance needs an edit (The Guardian)

Michael Grandage should have stuck to his day job (The Independent)

‘Genius’ puts Max Perkins and Thomas Wolfe in a literary bromance (New York Times)

Warmly welcoming – La Sala review

La Sala

(photo not mine)

A relative newcomer to The Beaches neighbourhood in East Toronto, La Sala is an Italian restaurant that bridges the gap between family dining and fine dining.

Hosted in a renovated home just off Queen Street, La Sala offers a cosy, welcoming environment akin to visiting the home of a good friend. Decoration is subtle and the yellow walls both inside and out bring warmth to the dining experience.

While offering a variety of dishes, the menu is clean and simple, covering only a single page of $12 appetizers, $16 pastas and $20-$24 main courses that should please any palate.

For an appetizer, I opted for the eggplant parmesan (Parmigiana di Melanzane), which was generously portioned and nicely featured baked eggplant rather than what I expected to be fried. The surprise was my own fault, however, as the menu actually states the eggplant is baked. Baking the eggplant meant that you still got the full flavour of the vegetable while it retained its body (frying often seems to turn them into mush), and the eggplant nicely stood against the generously portioned tomato sauce, providing distinct mouth-feel and compartmentalized flavours.

My dining companion ordered the Romaine fennel and kale salad, which was generously accompanied by avocado dressing, bacon and croutons. Nicely, the salad did not appear to be drowned in dressing and the bacon was short strips rather than crumbles, giving my guest something to bite into.

(BTW: I know I am using the word generous a lot…you are not going home hungry.)

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Warm, inviting atmosphere (photo not mine)

As a main course, I ordered the butternut squash ravioli, my go-to dish when available both because I like the dish and because it affords me an opportunity to compare between restaurants. Covered in a beautiful butter and sage sauce that was very subtle both in flavour and weight, the ravioli were slightly undercooked, the pasta being a bit chewy. For its part, the butternut squash puree was nice, but could have stood with a bit more spice for my tastes, although my dining partner had no problem with it. For me, the challenge was that the puree struggled to compete with the strong saltiness of the parmesan shavings, and so the dish ended up being somewhat one-note.

More of a seafood fan than me, my partner ordered the seafood linguine (Linguine Frutti di Mare), which looked amazing and I am told was even better. La Sala did not scrimp on the seafood in this dish, the large plate being almost overwhelmed by the mussel and clam shells. And according to my companion, the calamari and octopus were cooked to perfection. Add in some shrimps and my friend spent the better part of the meal picking through the linguine to make sure she got all of the seafood available in the dish before digging into the pasta. To quote her: “This is the best seafood linguini I have ever eaten in my life.”

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La Sala’s warmth fits nicely with The Beaches eclectic vibe

Having filled up on her salad and main course, my companion could not manage dessert, whereas I had little choice but to order the chocolate mousse with crispy almonds and whipped cream. The full-bodied mousse was delicate on the palate and yet offered plenty of flavour. And nicely, the portion size was large enough to share, but not so large as to leave this well-fed diner in distress.

As to the service, La Sala seems to pride itself on being very attentive to its customers as rarely did our water glasses empty before someone offered to refill them. Likewise, as we finished each course, the next one arrived dutifully. One of the staff was perhaps a tad too diligent with replacing our cutlery and napkins, as we almost ended up with a third napkin by the arrival of dessert, but as much as anything, I put that down to a half-filled house with a full staff—people had time on their hands.

Overall, the evening was a wonderful success and despite the minor setback with my main course, I will quite eagerly return to enjoy what is sure to become a neighbourhood favourite and as good a reason as any to visit The Beaches neighbourhood of Toronto.

Criminal should be more Self/less

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Ryan Reynolds is a hot commodity in Hollywood, these days. Unlike so many starlets, however, they want him more for his brains than his body…quite literally.

Or at least that’s the only way I can explain why twice within a year they have tried to scramble his brains: first with that of Sir Ben Kingsley, and more recently with Kevin Costner’s.

In Criminal—recently released to Netflix (trailer)—Reynolds is CIA agent Bill Pope trying to protect a hacker called the Dutchman (Michael Pitt) who has managed to wormhole his way into the American defense system, enabling him to launch missiles at will. But before he can bring his man in, Pope is captured by the evil rich anarchist Xavier Heimdahl (Jordi Mollà) who tortures Pope to find the Dutchman.

When his CIA handlers, led by Quaker Wells (Gary Oldman), find Pope dead, they enlist the help of neuroscientist Dr. Franks (Tommy Lee Jones) to essentially transfer Pope’s memories into the world’s most cold-blooded killer Jerico Stewart (Kevin Costner), a man completely devoid of conscience.

(Did these people not see Young Frankenstein?)

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Give a psychopath super-spy skills and knowledge? What could go wrong?

As expected, shit goes to pieces and the hunt is on—by the CIA, Heimdahl and even the Russians—for both Jerico and the Dutchman.

Despite being an action-thriller with plenty of gore—Jerico kills and maims indiscriminately—Criminal ultimately asks philosophical questions about who we are, how we got that way and can we be redeemed.

As the movie progresses, we witness the influence of Pope’s good-guy neurological engrams on the social and moral chaos of monster Jerico. Something is wrong, Jerico explains as he grasps his head; something is seriously interrupting his thoughts and actions.

In a humorous moment, Jerico learns he is experiencing something the rest of the world calls emotions, possibly for the first time in his life. He is unimpressed.

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Requisite internal conflict moment

Given the stellar cast, which also includes Gal Gadot as Pope’s grieving and confused wife, the performances are mostly passable, especially given the woodenness of the dialogue—the screenplay was written by Douglas Cook and David Weisberg, who previously penned The Rock and Double Jeopardy. This is an action film, so we shouldn’t really expect much.

To my mind—and friends disagree—the deepest performance is offered by the coldest, most heartless character Jerico, much as the same could be said for Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein and Michael Fassbender’s robot David in Prometheus. In a very dark turn, Costner embues his merciless killer with dark humour and ultimately, as Pope’s neural influences and memories kick in, a confused heart that many of us can understand.

Assuming you can leave your credulity in a drawer, the story is minimal but passable. That an action film makes any attempt to ask lofty questions is laudable.

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Largely wasted stellar cast who spent movie doing exactly this

Unfortunately, as I alluded at the start, Criminal suffers in comparison with another brain transfer film: Self/less, released in 2015 and also starring Ryan Reynolds (trailer).

In that film, Kingsley plays billionaire industrialist Damian Hale at the end of his life but desperate for more time. Meeting with a neuroscientist who essentially offers him immortality, Hale arranges his own “death” and has his neurological patterns transferred to Reynold’s brain, assuming a new identity as Edward Kidner. Reynold’s character volunteered for the experiment to raise money to rescue his daughter from life-threatening disease.

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Requisite internal conflict moment

Again, chaos ensues as Reynold’s memories invade Kidner’s consciousness, and the neuroscientist and his mob race to capture their subject, destroying everything in their path to maintain their secret.

Like Criminal, Self/less asks questions about what defines our identity. But it delves even deeper, going into questions about one’s right to an identity and the ultimate costs of consuming another’s. And for all characters, it is a story about sacrifice.

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Dead husband finds grieving widow and daughter

Given this backdrop, Criminal might have been seen as a better movie if only for what it tried to do. But on the heels of Self/less, it simply looks like a pale imitation that made a valiant, if ultimately doomed, attempt at significance.

Ironically, it reflected its own plot.

See also:

MovieReview360 w/ Shannon Leahy (YouTube)

Criminal (RogerEbert.com)

Criminal: Film Review (The Hollywood Reporter)

Kevin Costner steals the show in far-fetched but entertaining crime thriller (Deadline)

Self/less (RogerEbert.com)

Not too Bad Santa 2

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As a cynic, particularly around the holidays, it seems strange that I have never seen Bad Santa, but then I am not much of a fan of Billy Bob Thornton, the titular character. Thus, as I headed out to see Bad Santa 2, I had few expectations and simply held out hope that I wouldn’t be completely bored.

Surprisingly, I actually enjoyed myself while watching this seriously flawed but nonetheless funny movie.

I suspect the new edition seems very much a reprise of the original with the main characters Willie (Thornton) and Marcus (Tony Cox) getting together to pull off yet another caper; in this case, the robbery of a Chicago charity run by scheming Regent Hastings (Ryan Hansen) and his almost pure wife Diane (Christina Hendricks). Complicating matters this time is the presence of Willie’s mom Sunny (Kathy Bates), the woman who raised Willie to be the miserable, alcoholic, criminal shit that we see today.

In many ways, the movie becomes one long series of double-crosses and opportunities for Willie to do the right thing, particularly by the doting man-child Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly), but failing to live up to the moments.

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Mommy dearest Bates is guaranteed to let you down

To say that Bad Santa 2 is dark and cynical is to cope with a language that simply cannot catch the nihilism of these characters and their life choices. Thurman is the only redeeming character in this story and that is likely only because he is a clinical moron, incapable of guile and oblivious to sarcasm. As the title indicates, this is the anti-Christmas Christmas movie that would drive even Jesus Christ himself to suicide (likely some time around Easter).

And annoyingly, this is exactly why I liked this film. It was so dark and treacherous, so cynically funny, that I could not help but find the darkness endearing. This is a seasonal film for the purely jaded and given the language and adult scenes, should not be viewed with a broader family.

As no doubt in the first film, Thornton’s Willie continually finds himself let down by the people around him, feeding his suicidal neuroses. Bates is a delight as Kathy Bates under the pseudonym Sunny Soke, a woman devoid of tenderness except when it is part of a larger scheme to screw someone over. And Hendricks is the inveterate do-gooder who has her baser side, Christian charity coupled with carnal itches that need Santa’s attention.

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Hendricks allows her libido to cloud her better judgement

There are so many things about this story that don’t work as a story, and the ending is a complete waste of celluloid, the screenwriters Shauna Cross (who also wrote Whip It) and John Rosenthal in his debut feature film seeming to have simply typed until they ran out of toner. And yet, for all of the short-comings, you don’t really care because that is largely life. Nothing ends where it should and never satisfyingly.

If you aren’t at least intrigued by the idea of setting your nearest nativity scene ablaze or mounting Rudolph’s head on your front bumper, I am not sure you should see Bad Santa 2. But if you were not repulsed by either of those ideas, you may find some dark dark pleasure in this film.

See also:

MovieReview360 w/ Shannon Leahy (YouTube)

Same old dirty tricks (The Guardian)

Bad Santa 2 works through mommy issues (New York Times)

Movie Review: Bad Santa 2 (Danny F Santos)