While certainly an improvement on the Tim Curry miniseries “It” is still overtly reliant on pyrotechnics too surreal to truly scare. Many of Stephen King’s finest works have been those that grapple with realistic horrors,: “Misery,” “The Body” and “The Green Mile” being pertinent examples. “It” a tale delving into the horrors of the unknown, simply can’t manage that same feat. And as fine an actor as Bill Skarsgård is, he can’t justify the horrors behind makeup in the way Heath Ledger did with his definitive Joker, while also not even having much humor either (you could make the argument that Curry knew the performance was mostly for laughs- his Pennywise gyrated a stairwell!) And though it is substantially scarier than the 1990 series (the series is popcorn fodder, nothing more), Chung Hoon-chung’s camerawork is too ponderous and placid to truly work (the indelible shot of Pennywise hiding himself behind a balloon doesn’t have the torrid effect that it should). Credit to director Andy Muschietti, he tries to make a visceral film out of King’s lackluster prose, but this is a King adaptation that pales mightily compared to the masterworks of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” or Rob Reiner’s “Stand By Me.”
Based on the true story of a 1983 IRA breakout, ‘Maze’ is the best film based on the Troubles since Steve McQueen‘s ‘Hunger ‘(2008). Starring Tom Vaughan-Lawlor (fresh from “Peaky Blinders” delivering a killer Northern Irish accent here) in one of his most magnetic performances yet, ‘Maze’ is a fresh piece of energetic Irish cinema. Barry Ward (“Jimmy’s Hall”) gives the performance of his life, as a weary prison guard, torn between sympathizing with the inmates and following his duties. While the film has upset Unionists in Ireland (unlike the more neutral “Hunger,” there is a decided bias here towards the incarcerated, hunger-striking Republicans) behind the obvious political steering lies a prison movie as thrilling as ‘The Great Escape’ and as character-centred as ‘Papillon’. And the family scenes between Larry and his wife may be the most affecting in an Irish film since Brendan Gleeson pardoned his killer in ‘Calvary ‘(2014).
Overrated: “The Killing Of A Sacred Deer”
Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest put me in a weird position. I’ve loved all of the Greek helmer’s films to date, with “The Lobster” being my favorite film of its year, and I’ve always rejected the claims by those who’ve never gelled with his work that he’s artificial, sour and misanthropic. And then I saw “The Killing Of A Sacred Deer,” and it felt like Lanthimos had finally made the film that his haters have accused him of. I didn’t hate it, exactly: it’s much too well made for that, and much too brilliantly acted by a tremendous cast, including Colin Farrell, my favorite Nicole Kidman turn of the year, and breakout turns by Barry Keoghan and Raffey Cassidy. And perhaps if it had come before the more textured, more varied, more interesting “The Lobster,” I might have had a better time with it. But as it was, the film felt kind of reedy and thin to me, a steady slide towards an ending that feels inevitable, but without much sense of tragedy. It might be that the film simply caught me in the wrong mood this year: the evidence of the cruelty of existence was all around us already, and Lanthimos drawing further attention to it felt somehow redundant.
Underrated: “Their Finest”
We’ve reached such a crescendo of sort of gray-dollar-seeking, handsome, faintly interchangeable British prestige pictures (especially if you live in the UK like I do) that even I, someone with a giant soft spot for films about filmmaking, couldn’t muster up much enthusiasm for “Their Finest” in advance. But fortunately I did check it out, and it proved to be the surprise of the year. Lone Scherfig’s return to the form of “An Education” and then some sees Gemma Arterton play a young Welsh woman hired to write propaganda public information films during World War Two, only to end up penning a feature film about a (semi-made-up) true story about the Dunkirk evacuation with drink-sodden misanthrope Sam Claflin. And yeah, duh, they fall in love, but there’s so much more than that to Gaby Chiappe’s screenplay: a love letter to the team spirit of moviemaking, a deep bench of supporting players (Bill Nighy at his Bill Nighiest in a wonderful way, lovely work from Eddie Marsan, Helen McCrory and Paul Ritter), a rather better evocation of the Dunkirk spirit than, well, “Dunkirk,” and an ending that doesn’t shy away from melodrama but feels utterly earned. It’s the kind of movie that people say they don’t make anymore, but thankfully, they did, at least this once.
Overrated: “The Beguiled”
Now that the Oscar buzz seems to have cooled for this latest dreamy/sleepy effort from the incomparable Sofia Coppola perhaps it’s a bit extreme to put the film—an adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s southern gothic novel and a remake of the 1971 Don Siegel version starring Clint Eastwood—on blast here. But I stand by the choice, remembering well my supreme disappointment upon catching up with this one in the Summer, not long after its Cannes premiere where Coppola won the festival’s award for Best Director, for some reason. Of all her films, “The Beguiled” is least deserving of praise for her direction. Therein lies my problem: Coppola essentially drains all the pulpy, lurid life from this story, which throughout its run time, at least to my eyes, was screaming to be more of a trashy B-movie. Instead, it’s draped in her typically immersive, often cinematic moodiness and atmosphere, which is all well and good. But it’s also drained of any sense of humor or desire to wring any tension from an inherently tense and funny setup rife with potential. Coppola can’t help herself by making things elegant, when it needed to be campy. It’s by no means a bad film, but sure seems like a missed opportunity.
Underrated: “The Bad Batch”
Here it is. The bastard stepchild of 2017 movies. This second feature from writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour who, after making a relatively large splash with her hit debut “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night,” seemed like the new indie filmmaker du jour we all just wanted to love. Then came “The Bad Batch,” which after a small indie release, was almost instantly derided as yet another example of the sophomore slump. I can see why most folks hated this film, but that doesn’t keep me from loving it, despite, and sometimes even because of, its batshit messiness and Tarantino-esque self-indulgent hipness. There’s plenty to deride in this film, but after two viewings, I’m even more convinced it’s kinda awesome. The first 20 minutes are a near-perfect short film, and while the rest of the movie can’t match it, there’s still a lot to admire: Gorgeous dreamy/druggy visuals, the soundtrack and sound design; an unexpected sweetness and out-of-the-blue romanticism in the climax; Keanu Reeves monologuing and generally just being awesome; and a great example of the female gaze in cinema (there’s no doubt this film was made by a hetero woman, and it’s all the better for that), which is still rare, unfortunately. I get it, you hated this movie, if you saw it. But me, I wanna be friends with “The Bad Batch.” And it sure could use some.
Overrated: “Lost City of Z”
There’s a lot of craft that went into the making of this James Gray historical adventure, particularly in its shot-on-film visuals from Darius Khondji and the performances from a strong cast, including Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller and Angus Macfadyen. But all that effort couldn’t make me invest emotionally in the slow-moving, pointless journeys of Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) into the Amazon to find the remains of an ancient civilization. “The Lost City of Z” romanticizes its real-life hero, who disappears for years at a time in pursuit of his quest. Fawcett sacrifices time with his actual living wife and children in favor of restoring his family name, and we’re supposed to cheer for his persistence while they struggle back home in England. Each time he leaves them behind for the prospects that await him in the jungle, my frustration with both the character and the film that reveres him grew. “The Lost City of Z” may think it’s a cautionary tale about hubris, like the excellent source material from David Grann, but it’s too busy lionizing Fawcett to offer more than a half-hearted warning.
My apologies to the people next to me at the NYFF press screening for Todd Haynes’ latest because I audibly cried through the last 30 minutes. And then continued to do so through the entire press conference once the lights were up. “Wonderstruck” got to me, with each revelation in its dual plot prompting a new round of tears and a search for a dry corner of a concession stand napkin. But it wasn’t just the emotional beats that worked, it was the loving cinematography from Edward Lachman and the work from the entire cast, especially Millicent Simmons. Based on Brian Selznick’s novel and adapted by the author, this magical film is an ode to the titular feeling, capturing the awe of two children, one in 1927 and one in 1977. I recognize that I may be uniquely susceptible to its charms, given that it highlights two of my favorite spots in my adopted home of New York. However, I was surprised that it never caught on with wider audiences in its brief theatrical run before finding a home on Amazon Prime.
Overrated: “Baby Driver”
Edgar Wright’s hybrid of heist film and jukebox musical struck a chord with critics and audiences this summer, and it’s easy to see why. Released amidst a myriad of franchises well past their sell-by date, “Baby Driver” felt like an exuberant breath of fresh air: R-rated, dynamic, and not based on an established property. But, no matter how well-edited the film is, how strong Wright’s vision, or how great the soundtrack , all of it is in service of a routine “one last job” storyline, and a dated, undercooked love story that stops the momentum dead in the second act; the energy only comes back in spurts. As fun as the movie can be at times, it wastes a colorful cast of supporting players (Jon Hamm, Jon Bernthal, Jamie Foxx, Eiza Gonzalez) in service of a charisma-vacuum lead in Ansel Elgort, whom the others constantly (and conveniently) go out of their way to say has a good heart. Despite the blood and carnage in the overwrought third act, this attitude towards the Baby character drains the film of all stakes. It often feels like you’re watching the world’s greatest music video, only to keep getting interrupted by the mediocre crime film that creeps in from time to time.
Underrated: “A Cure for Wellness”
A Hammer Horror throwback with a sprinkling of giallo, a Verhoeven-esque corporate satire (a “RoboCop” toy even makes an appearance), and a haunting mood piece thanks to an amazing Benjamin Wallfisch score and Bojan Bazelli’s gorgeous, grotesquely jaundiced cinematography, Gore Verbinski’s box office disaster has all the ingredients of a future cult classic. Despite the failure of “The Lone Ranger,” Verbinski still has “fuck you” money from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series and an Oscar for “Rango,” and decided to use that power for good by making a confrontational, 150-minute horror film about cyclical nature of the corporate machinery and how it’ll chew you up, spit you out, and then take three more just like you. It also works as a self-reflective meta-commentary for Verbinski’s experience making four films for the Disney/Bruckheimer factory. If this is the vent session where Verbinski confesses to the horrors of being on those sets, I’m not sure whether he needs a therapist or to get crackling on another screenplay, but one thing is for certain: “A Cure for Wellness” is the kind of gonzo, untamed vision that, while occasionally sloppy, we need more studios to take chances on. While it may have the bad rep of being one of the year’s biggest bombs, time will be extremely kind.