Thursday, September 28, 2017

IT COMES AT NIGHT ((Trey Edward Shults, 2017, USA)

A family of three despairs of what waits beyond the red door, fearing plague and those driven to their most base impulses who will murder for a drink of fresh water. But when gazing into the doorway…the doorway also gazes back. Director/Writer Trey Edward Shults tells a minimalist survival tale mostly set within a boarded-up rural house; a chamber piece of nightmares and secrets.
The plot is fairly straightforward but Shults doesn’t give us much exposition; we have to piece together the images and fragments of nightmares to come to any satisfactory conclusion.
The film begins with a gruesome sight: a zombie-like man gasping for breath surrounded by people in gas masks. This man is obviously sick and dying. He is lifted into a wheelbarrow and taken out into the woods and shot through the head. His body is burned. We soon learn he was the Patriarch of a small family that now includes 17 year old son Travis and his mother and father. This is a bi-racial family yet the story makes no mention of this fact, it is not a plot device to make some bold statement: refreshingly, it just is. We then settle into the daily routine of survival and grieving without much explanation. However, this triptych is much like the Renaissance lithograph that hangs in the house (Hieronymus Bosch?)  that alludes to a world and society decimated by plague. If the painting seems contrived as a way to offer information elliptically then it makes a bit more sense later in the film when Travis’ father explains his pre-apocalypse vocation: History Teacher. The next day a stranger is caught breaking into the house and after a brutal struggle he is knocked unconscious and tied to a tree outside (in case he’s infected).  This stranger soon brings his family of three (wife and six year old son) into the fold as the six of them try to survive in their wilderness abode. But this stranger is later caught in a seemingly prosaic half-truth.
Shults’ taught direction is mostly relegated to indoors: both metaphorically and physically. He films in 2:35 with mostly tight middle-shots but I thought this film would have benefitted from the Academy ratio to be more claustrophobic. The tension seems more imagined or paranoid between the families than forthright: this lends a very realistic quality to their dilemma. When your very survival is at stake can you truly trust anyone…even family? But Shults isn’t just interested in the mundane activities of survival; he’s more interested in the psychological toll upon Travis. Shults takes us on a few dream-journeys that belong to Travis’ point-of-view and we soon discover that imagination and reality have some crossover point.  Using POV fade-outs from Travis’ perspective, we experience some nightmarish images and possible recollections that haunt his traumatized mind. This would make an excellent double-feature with Michael Haneke’s TIME OF THE WOLF.
The focal point of the story is the red door: it is the only way into or out of the house as all other doors/windows have been boarded over. This door is always locked at night and they never go at after dark. The climax of the film and its violent third act concerns the mystery of the unlocked door after dark and the return of the Travis’ dog. This causes panic in the household as the dog carries the plague. Travis discovered the unlocked door but swears he didn’t open it. Could the six year old have opened it? Is the disease (dis-ease) already in the house? Shults shows this from Travis’ POV but alludes to the explanation a few minutes later. We have already seen into Travis’ nightmares and his nighttime wanderings and his decisions to disobey his father (like leaving the room when they’re supposed to be locked down). It’s peripherally explained that Travis, in a nightmare fugue, left the house at night and went looking for his lost dog. He brought the dog back to the house because there is no other explanation for how it entered the initial threshold. So what does come at night? I believe it’s fairly evident from the depiction of Travis’ traumatized consciousness that it’s the nightmares and sleepwalking that comes at night. And this is the fatal revelation that leads to the final Act.
The third and final Act has the two families split and locked down in their separate bedrooms. It’s already been explained that the plague appears within 24 hours so the tension is cranked up to 11. Travis sneaks out of the room (not following directions) and hears the little boy crying. This leads to a final and brutal confrontation where the other family tries to leave the house but won’t reveal if their child has symptoms of the plague. A shootout ensues and the other family is killed. We suddenly cut to black and see Travis in bed with the plague, death mere hours away. The film ends with his mother and father covered in blood, emptied of all humanity and severely traumatized, starring at one another across the kitchen table.
Travis will die of the plague. But did his parents contract it? If they survive, is life still worth living? They shot and killed an entire family of three (like their own) to survive. Where they morally justified? And was it indeed Travis who brought all of this on unwittingly? None of these questions is answered by the film’s conclusion. We are left like our protagonists in limbo and doubt.
Final Grade: (B+)

Thursday, September 14, 2017

IT: CHAPTER ONE (Andy Muschietti, 2017, USA)

Seven children take the first tentative steps towards adulthood as they must not only face the idea of a world of random unjust violence but conquer it as well. Stephen King’s IT is once again adapted for the screen (this time the silver one) and Director Andy Muschietti gets more right than he does wrong…though there are a plethora of missed opportunities and missteps.
First of all, the structure of the film has been streamlined from the source material and previous mini-series. Gone are the cross-cutting and flashbacks that introduce each character and tie the children and adult actors together into a whole character. The mini-series did a wonderful job of introducing the adult or child and giving them a unique quirk such as an unconscious impulse to pull one’s ear when stressed, or put a hand over one’s mouth in revulsion, Bev’s hair of January embers or Bill’s recurring stutter. These visual cues work perfectly so there is no doubt which child actor grows into the adult playing the same character’s role. In this film version of IT, Muschietti eschews this structure for telling the childhood story (now set in 1989 instead of 1957) which allows this world of corrupted innocence more room to breathe and thrive. We are able to spend more time in direct contact with the children’s world and experience it almost exclusively from their perspective. Like the Peanuts cartoon, there are very few adults and the ones allowed any significant screen time are tainted (though it’s never overtly stated) by the alien presence that will soon taunt our pubescent protagonists. The film is already two hours long and trying to shoehorn in any flash forwards for seven characters would have stretched the film too thin. Bottom line, this structure works well for this film. Time will tell if the second Chapter is as coherent and cohesive as the first.
Next I’ll discuss the film’s overall style to include editing, framing, score and soundtrack, set design, and special effects/CGI. Editing is where the film stumbles and becomes rather prosaic. Let me give you an example (with Spoilers, of course. So read on at your own risk). The opening credit sequence introduces us to Bill Denbrough and his soon to be dismembered little brother Georgie as they make a paper boat coated with paraffin wax. When the boat races into the storm drain we get our first look at Pennywise the Dancing Clown. But Muschietti fails to give this BIG REVEAL any narrative weight. Though the killer clown and his Cheshire grin are creepy, the shot sequence fails to build any suspense; that is, it doesn’t really put us into Georgie’s shoes. Frustratingly, he cuts away to an old woman and a placid cat in the middle of this sequence thus allaying any inherent fear he’s built thus far. Cut back to Georgie talking into the drain with the glib Pennywise. As he reaches into the storm drain to get his paper boat from his new friend the suspense builds once again but is already compromised. The clown changes and bites Georgie’s arm off then drags him into the sewer. Cut back to the old lady and her cat that sees only a dark stain like muddy water near the curb. The missed opportunity is relevant: Muschietti cuts away at a dramatic moment for no narrative reason at all. If the old lady/cat was a reaction shot that added something to the scene then it’s desirable….especially a deliberate non-reaction shot. If the cat hissed or became violently freaked-out while the lady sees Georgie get pulled into the drain then this is a powerful statement for the adults turning a blind-eye to the murders and disappearances. The revelation later that Pennywise may have an influence over the entire population becomes foreshadowed.  But here, it just impedes the suspense of the scene and gives us a confusing series of shots away from the main action. Not the way to introduce one of the most important monsters in recent film history! And the CGI looks rather rushed and unfinished. Why not have the actor actually dragged into the drain (safely, of course) or use prosthetics for the close-ups. As it stands (Stephen King pun intended) the first five-plus minutes looks a bit forced and visually awkward. Fortunately, the film mostly recovers.
Continuing to discuss the style, the whiff of nostalgia works well enough for those of us who grew up (or continued to) in the late 80s as the film’s set designs are beautifully rendered and well-conceived. This was my favorite part of the film! A Replacements poster on Bev’s bedroom wall! Kudos. The soundtrack blasts The Cult’s Love Removal Machine to introduce Beverley (nice touch) and XTC’s atheistic anthem Dear God in the third act (another nice touch). The use of period music isn’t overblown and hackneyed but the film’s score is, like the framing and editing, rather mundane. I couldn’t discern any style or Vision (with a capital “V”) that Muschietti imprinted upon the work. Like any recent Marvel film IT is workman-like and banal but gets the job done. Part of this problem was most likely the liberal use of CGI so framing/shot selection gets a bit limited. At least there were no Zach Snyder god-awful slow-motion battles and reaction shots! This is a shame because the DP is Chung Chung-hoon who lensed a few of the most beautiful thriller/horror films in recent memory for the (nearly) legendary (and one of my favorite contemporary Directors) Park Chan-wook. Chung-hoon was DP on STOKER, OLDBOY and the visually stunning THE HANDMAIDEN. Muschietti just doesn’t allow him to utilize his abilities to their potential! Frustrating! Establishing shots also seemed a bit confusing because the film was cut from a longer run time in post-production. Two scenes stand out. The first is the scene when Ed’s mother shows up at the dilapidated house after the group’s first battle with IT. There is no explanation on how she arrived (the kids never told anyone) at the exact moment they come running out. Another occurs later in the film when Bev is practically sexually assaulted by her father: Bill is first seen riding his bike by the Standpipe (which features prominently in the book but is never mentioned in this film) then is suddenly in her apartment calling her name. Maybe a Director’s Cut will help explain these bizarre transitions?
The Monster: Pennywise the Dancing Clown. But it’s (or IT’S) not really a clown …is it? This is a shape-shifting creature of nearly unlimited potential that lures children into its lair to feed upon their fear and flesh. So IT is something that pretends to be a clown, like a fishing lure, but can’t help to reveal its true intentions. Bill Skarsgard imbues the creature with this otherworldly intenseness while still retaining a bit of its assumed inhumanity: that is, he makes this one creepy fucking antagonist! Though I liked Tim Curry’s predatory interpretation here Skarsgard makes us believe that this is indeed a monster from some other realm or reality. Curry’s Pennywise could have been the creepy uncle who is never invited to family reunions! This makes his performance terrifyingly humane in the original mini-series. Which do I prefer? I think Curry’s is genuinely frightening because of its rationality but Skarsgard’s doppelganger works well within the confines of this story. I’ll give the nod to Curry because he’s not slathered in CGI. But the fault with this reincarnation is that Pennywise seems to be anywhere at any given time: he seems powerfully ubiquitous. Since the Barrens as an important reservoir of his power is removed from the plot he seems like a Deus Ex Machina plot development. Story slows down, just throw in the clown! The rules for his preternatural powers are not delineated enough to wholly build credible suspense. On the other hand (or claw), I like the fact that the film doesn’t spend much time on exposition. Even as Pennywise is attacked and subsequently vanquished (for another 27 years, at least) we are shown the reason as opposed to being told over and over: the love and bond between true friends! As they act together and stick up for one another this group of Losers becomes more powerful than this demented pariah. This isn’t THE GOONIES awful melodrama, thankfully!
The children are particularly wonderful and propel the story towards its inevitable climax. We get to know Bill and Beverly more than any other character but they’re all perfectly cast. Some criticism has been directed at the child who plays Stan Uris (or “Urine” as he’s called in the book) as being to stand-offish and stone-faced but I believe this is intentional: Stan in the book is the uber-rational one who eventually can’t withstand the penetration of the irrational into his rigid worldview. This will probably be better explained in Chapter 2. I think his acting was perfectly in-line with Stan’s characterization from the novel. One scene in particular captures the essence of the children’s (especially Bill’s) trauma:  the condemned house when they decide to confront Pennywise. As the group seems about to fracture Bill walks towards the front door and speaks about a different kind of ghost, that of his little brother, which haunts his parent’s home: the ghost of PTSD. He’s alluding to a reality that awaits him every day when he goes home, and we can see in our mind’s eye his parents shuffling about empty rooms struggling with memories that are more real that the tangible world. Bill looks towards this house that squats like a Lovecraftian horror and says, “I’d rather go in there than go home”. His friends immediately understand and rally around him: the bond cannot now be broken by pain or fear or suffering…because they have already faced the worst that a random universe can throw at them. It’s called Life.
I hesitate to mention subtext because I believe it’s hidden in plain sight: Beverly’s sexual abuse at the hands of her father. Her dominating father “You’re still MY girl, aren’t you Bevy? I worry about you a lot” and his perverse ownership of his daughter is one of the most troubling and frightening aspects of the entire film. When Pennywise wears the face of her father to instill debilitating fear she grabs a phallic symbol (spear) and shoves it down IT’s throat. Again, the metaphor is worn on her sleeve: she violently forces something down his throat, for once.
IT is a coming of age film that thankfully is quite unlike Spielberg’s or Zemeckis’ childish sentimentality. Instead of caricatures coming together to play-fight, we experience children suffering adult trauma discovering that in friendship and companionship this burden becomes a bit easier to bear. Muschietti elevates this to a child-like wonder and awe and doesn’t get mired in the morass of faux melodrama. He has made an adult horror film with children.
Final Grade: (B)