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IT (2017)

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Starring Jaeden Lieberher, Finn Wolfhard, Nicholas Hamilton, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Bill Skarsgard,

Directed by Andrés Muschietti


For thirty years, Stephen King’s IT has been one of the great modern horror tales, sparking a wave of imitators and scaring several generations off clowns for life.

I first saw the original 1990 mini-series during its initial airing, and as a ten-year-old kid, it absolutely thrilled and terrified me. Like any good horror addiction, it immediately started me down the road of Stephen King novels and turned me into a lifelong fan and constant reader. To this day, IT remains my all-time favorite horror novel. Sadly, the mini-series hasn’t aged nearly as well: Aside from a few memorable scenes and a fantastic Tim Curry performance, it’s a largely cheesy affair, full of Lifetime level drama and silly sequences that jettison most of the book’s best qualities.

IT‘s road to the big screen has been a long one, going through several false starts, budget woes, and changing of the guards, now finally coming to us on a massive hype train courtesy of Mama director Andy Muschietti. So how does this new version float?

I’m happy to say that all the stars (or, in this case, balloons) have aligned against all odds: IT is an instant horror classic and as good an adaptation as I could’ve ever hoped for. It’s the rare King movie that nails everything we love about the material and gives us a full-tilt freak show roller coaster that’s scary, emotional – and yes, fun.

Updating the book’s 1950’s setting to the summer of 1989, IT is part one in a duology (that thankfully still stands on its own) and tells the origin story of The Losers’ Club – seven children in the fictional town of Derry, Maine, who form a unique spiritual bond to face an ancient evil. “It” awakens every 27 years and feeds off the fear and flesh of the town’s children, taking whatever form terrifies them most – its favorite being the razor-toothed and psychotic Pennywise the Dancing Clown. When his younger brother Georgie becomes Pennywise’s latest victim, Losers’ Club leader Stuttering Bill unites his childhood band of social outcasts to take down “It” while contending with town bully and gang leader Henry Bowers as well as the underlying darker influence that seems to have infected the entire town.

Directing with confidence and class, Muschietti deftly juggles all the characters, layers, and themes behind the novel while cranking up the jump scares to 11 and still finding room to explore the dense mythology. Despite its 80’s setting, there’s something timeless and haunting about the town of Derry, captured perfectly by cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung. It’s among the most gorgeous looking modern horror films you’ll watch, and those astounding visuals are aided by music and sound design that have the ability to quake your insides and raise hairs during the most horrific moments.

Of course the million-dollar question is: “How is Pennywise?” For the generations that grew up terrified of Tim Curry’s commanding performance, a completely new clown has been a tough pill to swallow, made evident by the countless Internet reactions to the early photos (“He’s nothing like Curry!” “Looks too evil!“etc., etc.). After seeing this new turn, I can’t imagine a single skeptic that won’t be immediately won over by Bill Skarsgard’s terrifying version.

Sporting a more vintage look and serial killer aesthetic, the new Pennywise is instantly iconic from the second he opens his mouth. While Curry went for the smoker-voiced, evil Bozo approach, Skarsgard channels his dialogue and physicality in truly unsettling ways, bouncing from high-pitched children’s show host to guttural monster in the space of seconds. And the various forms and set-pieces he takes are equally unsettling. Make no mistake; if you have a fear of clowns, this movie will do you in like no other (every single Pennywise scare ended with mass audience applause in my screening).

But coulrophobia can only take a good horror movie so far, which is why the real heart and soul of IT isn’t the title monster, but The Losers’ Club. Think long and hard about this: When was the last time that you genuinely felt and cared for the protagonists in a studio-driven horror movie? The Hollywood fare of the last few decades has had a history of treating its heroes like cattle, at best providing fleeting moments of humanity like, say, the Elvis sequence in The Conjuring 2.

IT works so well because it bucks the trend and makes us fall in love with a terrific cast of kids. The Losers embody the nuance and realism you get from the youths in Stand By Me or the Freeling family in Poltergeist, while retaining the fun and charm of ensemble casts like The Goonies or The Monster Squad. They’re the reason why the film works in grand 80’s fashion – not because it throws nostalgia or references in your face – but because it harkens back to the glory days of Amblin, when genuine care and affection were being put into its protagonists (the crowd favorites here clearly being Finn Wolfhard’s wiseass Richie Tozier and Jeremy Ray Taylor’s adorable Ben Hanscom). There isn’t a weak link in the cast; and through every minute of the film you’ll cheer, laugh and be scared right alongside these characters.

Even at 2-1/2 hours (a run time that flies by), there’s a lot to the children’s story that needs to be covered. Thankfully, Muschietti and the screenwriters do a masterful job condensing and adapting King’s massive tome in a way that will satisfy purists and newcomers alike. Everything from the Losers’ Club to Bowers’ sociopathic gang to the town of Derry itself is given its due, without feeling rushed or glossed over. And while the second half of the film plays out much differently than the novel or mini-series, it all works while retaining the spirit of King’s story from start to finish. Even when it goes off the beaten path into original scenes and set-pieces (all of which are scary and imaginative), Muschietti has huge reverence for the source material, even going so far as to sneak in visual nods for eagle-eyed fans. (Watch out for the turtle!)

Is IT a flawless film? No, because those don’t exist. You can gripe about a few obvious CGI moments or throw out purist complaints about how they made Ben the historian instead of Mike – but this is such a well-realized work of horror that any gripes feel like the kind of petty “Get off my lawn!” variety you see on the Internet. No amount of obsessive online nitpicking can distract from the fact that this is one of the best Stephen King films yet; and in an age where the theatrical experience is slowly dying in a haze of bad franchises, iPhone texters, and over-priced tickets, IT stands as a grand reminder of why we love going to the movies. This is a crowd pleaser in the best sense and deserves to be seen on the largest screen with the most shrieking, enthusiastic audience you can find.

The final title card reads “End of Chapter 1,” confirming that we’ll soon be seeing the adult half of the story (hopefully with a wonderful vintage title like IT RETURNS or IT LIVES AGAIN). And while the next installment has a lot to live up to, this film leaves no doubt that the future of Pennywise and The Losers’ Club is in good hands. I can’t wait to float again.

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Desolation Review – The Joy of Being Rescued and All the Surprises That Come With It

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Starring Raymond J. Barry, Brock Kelly, Dominik Garcia-Lorido

Directed by David Moscow


It’s those random, once-in-a-lifetime encounters that only a select few get the chance to experience: when we as regular participants in this wonderful thing known as The Rat Race, stumble across a soul that we’ve only witnessed on the big screen. I’m talking about a celebrity encounter, and while some of the masses will chalk the experience up as nothing more than a passing moment, others hold it to a much larger interior scale…then you REALLY get to know the person, and that’s when things get interesting.

Director David Moscow’s thriller, Desolation follows shy hotel employee Katie (Lorido) and her “fortuitous” brush with Hollywood pretty-boy Jay (Kelly) during one of his stops – the two hit it off, and together they begin a sort of whirlwind-romance that takes her away from her job and drops her in the heart of Los Angeles at the apartment building he resides in. You can clearly see that she has been a woman who’s suffered some emotional trauma in her past, and this golden boy just happens to gallop in on his steed and sweep her off of her feet, essentially rescuing her from a life of mundane activity. She gets the full-blown treatment: a revamped wardrobe, plenty of lovin’, and generally the life she’s wanted for some time.

Things return to a bit of normalcy when Jay has to return to work, leaving Katie to spread out at his place, but something clearly isn’t kosher with this joint. With its odd inhabitants (a very creepy priest played by Raymond J. Barry), even more bizarre occurrences, and when one scared young woman cannot even rely on the protection from the local police, it all adds up to a series of red flags that would have even the strongest of psyches crying for their mothers. What Moscow does with this movie is give it just enough swerves so that it keeps your skull churning, but doesn’t overdo its potential to conclusively surprise you, and that’s what makes the film an entertaining watch.

While Lorido more than holds her ground with her portrayal of a woman who has been hurt in the past, and is attempting to place her faith in a new relationship, it’s Barry that comes out on top here. His performance as Father Bill is the kind of stuff that wouldn’t exactly chill you to the bone, but he’s definitely not a man of the cloth that you’d want to be stuck behind closed doors with – generally unsettling. As I mentioned earlier, the plot twists are well-placed, and keep things fresh just when you think you’ve got your junior private investigator badge all shined up. Desolation is well-worth a look, and really has kicked off 2018 in a promising fashion – let’s see what the other 11 months will feed us beasts.

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3.0

Summary

Got your eye on that shining movie star or starlet? Better make sure it’s what you really want in life – you know what they say about curiosity.

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Wolf Guy Blu-ray Review – Sonny Chiba As A Werewolf Cop In ’70s Japan

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Wolf Guy UK SleeveStarring Sonny Chiba, Etsuko Nami, Kyosuke Machida

Directed by Kazuhiko Yamaguchi

Distributed by Arrow Video


As virtually every American adaptation has proven, translating manga to the big screen is a job best left to Japanese filmmakers. There is an inherent weirdness – for lack of a better term – to their cultural media that should be kept “in house” if there is to be any hope for success. Ironically, the stories are often so fantastical and wildly creative that a big American studio budget would be necessary to fully realize such a live-action vision. But I digress. Back in 1975, Toei Studios (home of Gamera) adapted the 1970 manga series Wolf Guy into a feature of the same name. Starring the legendary Shin’ichi Chiba (a.k.a. Sonny Chiba), who at that time was in his prime, the film combines elements of crime and psychedelic cinema, delivering less of a werewolf film (despite the title suggesting otherwise) and more of a boilerplate crime caper with a cop who has a few tricks up his hairy sleeve. I should stress it is the story that plays fairly straightforward, while the film itself is a wild kaleidoscope of strange characters and confounding situations… mostly.

An unseen killer, known only as “The Tiger”, prowls the streets at night slashing victims to death and leaving behind no trace. Beat cop Akira Inugami (Sonny Chiba) is on the case, and he has an advantage over his fellow brothers in blue: being a werewolf. As the opening credits flashback shows, Akira is the sole survivor of the Inugami clan of werewolves after a slaughter wiped out the rest of his kind. Now, as the last of his brethren, he uses his acute lycanthropic skills, under the auspices of the moon, to track down underworld thugs and solve cases uniquely tailored to his abilities. As the lunar cycle of the moon sees it growing fuller Akira’s powers, too, increase to superhuman levels.

Searching for this mysterious “Tiger”, Akira is led into a subterranean world of clandestine government organizations, nightclub antics, and corrupt politicians. One night, Akira is attacked and taken prisoner by a government research lab that wants to use his blood to create werewolves they can control. Only problem is – which they don’t realize – Akira’s blood cannot be mixed with that of a human; the only end result is death. Miki (Etsuko Nami), a drug user with syphilis, comes to Akira’s aid and proves to be quite useful. She holds a secret that has the potential to vastly change Akira’s world but, first, a showdown with the criminal underbelly looms on the horizon… as does the fifteenth day of the Lunar Cycle, when Akira will be made nearly invincible.

First, some bad news: Sonny Chiba never attains full werewolf status. This is not that movie. Sure, he growls and snarls and sneers and possesses many of the traits of a werewolf but in terms of physical characteristics he more or less remains “human” the entire time. Yes, even during “Lunar Cycle Day 15”, a.k.a. the moment every viewer is waiting for, to see him turn into a wolf. Instead, he just winds up kicking a lot of ass and taking very little damage. To be fair, a grizzled Sonny Chiba is still enough of a formidable presence, but, man, to see him decked out as a full-on kung-fu fighting werewolf would’ve been badass. The film could have done better at tempering expectations because it builds up “Day 15” like viewers are going to see an explosion of fur and flesh, instead it’s just plenty of the latter. Aw, well.

Lack of werewolf-ing aside, the film plays out a bit uneven. The opening offers up a strong start, with The Tiger attack, wily underworld characters being introduced, and a tripped-out acid garage rock soundtrack (which I’d kill for a copy of). But Second Act Lag is a real thing here and many of the elements that may have piqued viewer curiosity in the first act are scuttled, and although the third act and climax bring forth fresh action and a solution to the mystery it also feels a bit restrained. Then again, this is Toei, often seen as a cheaper Toho. Wolf Guy serves as a good introduction to Akira Inugami and his way of life, which makes it a greater shame no sequels were produced.

Presented with a 2.35:1 1080p image, Wolf Guy hits Blu-ray with a master supplied by Toei, meaning Arrow did no restorative work of their own on the picture – and it shows. Japanese film elements, especially those of older films, are often notorious for being poorly housed and feebly restored. This transfer is emblematic of those issues, with hazy black levels, average-to-poor definition, minimal shadow detail, and film grain that gets awfully noisy at times. The best compliment I can give is daylight close-up scenes exhibit a pleasing level of fine detail, though nothing too eye-popping. This is a decidedly mediocre transfer across the board.

The score fares a bit better, not because the Japanese LPCM 1.0 mono mix is a beast but because the soundtrack is so wildly kinetic, exploding with wild garage rock and fuzzy riffs right from the get-go. Dialogue has a slight hiss on the letter “s” but is otherwise nicely balanced within the mix. Subtitles are available in English.

“Kazuhiko Yamaguchi: Movies with Guts” is a September 2016 sit-down with the film’s director, who reflects on his career and working with an icon like Sonny Chiba.

“Toru Yoshida: B-Movie Master” is an interview with Yoshida, a former producer at Toei who oversaw this film and many others.

“Sonny Chiba: A Life in Action, Vol. 1” covers the man’s career up to a point, with the remainder finished on Arrow’s other 2017 Chiba release, Doberman Cop.

A theatrical trailer is also included, as is a DVD copy of the feature.

Special Features:

  • Kazuhiko Yamaguchi: Movies with Guts
  • Toru Yoshida: B-Movie Master
  • Sonny Chiba: A Life in Action, Vol. 1
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Wolf Guy
  • Special Features
2.8

Summary

While the film might be a bit of a letdown given what is suggested, fans of bizarre Japanese ’70s cinema – and certainly fans of Chiba’s work – should, at the least, have fun with this title.

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Inside (Remake) Review – Is It as Brutal as the Original?

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Starring Rachel Nichols Laura Harring

Directed by Miguel Ángel Vivas


While the directing duo of the cringe-inducing and original 2007 French grand guignol thriller Inside have gone on to refurbishments of their own—Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo recently helmed a retread of Leatherface’s origin story—their flick now has an American stamp on it with the release of the remake, also titled Inside.

A cheerless Christmas eve sets the stage for heavily-pregnant widow Sarah’s (Rachel Nichols) oncoming ordeal. It’s a frigid and snowy night. She’s got a huge house to herself, following the accidental and violent death of her husband. She wants to sell the home that was meant to hold a family, to forget the nascent memories it once held. But she’s got to ride it out until the baby is born. While Sarah is lonesome, she won’t be alone. She’s got her genial gay neighbor nearby, and her mum is going to come and stay with her for a few days. Oh, and there will be an unexpected visitor too.

When a shadowy, seemingly stranded stranger (Laura Harring) knocks on the door pleading to be let inside, Sarah instinctively balks. She even calls the cops. But the woman leaves and all seems well. Crisis averted. Sarah puts the housekeys in the mailbox outside for Mom, and goes to bed. Big mistake.

Mystery Lady shows up at Sarah’s bedside armed with chloroform, an IV bag, and a case full of sharp-and-pointies (sorry, ’07 fans… those implements do not include a pair of scissors). The horror unfolds and the expected yet lively game of gory cat-and-mouse ensues. Then the tete-a-tete becomes a body-count chiller featuring one shocking moment after another.

Nichols is fantastic in the role, giving it her all. When the original Inside came out eleven years ago, she was starring in another French-helmed horror, P2—also set on Christmas eve—and she stole the show. She does the same here but with a less-intense adversary. Harring’s killer character, unlike her European counterpart, has a lot to say—which takes away from her initially mysterious manner as the minutes tick off. Still, the girl-on-girl action is a welcome change from the usual gender dynamic one sees in these things. Both deserve kudos for their performances.

While Inside isn’t a died-in-the-wool “Hollywood” remake (Miguel Ángel Vivas directs, while [REC] co-creator Jaume Balagueró wrote it) it feels like one. For those who’ve seen the original, there will be mild disappointment (which turns to major letdown at the very end). However, Inside is still a serviceable thriller that’s well-acted, beautifully shot, and effectively scored. Folks coming in fresh, and casual horror fans, will more than likely enjoy it.

  • Inside (Remake)
3.0

Summary

Inside is a serviceable thriller that’s well-acted, beautifully shot, and effectively scored. Folks coming in fresh, and casual horror fans, will more than likely enjoy it. For those who’ve seen the original, there will be mild disappointment (which turns to major letdown at the very end).

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