Movie Review: It (2017)

It 1

Stephen King is why I love horror. I was a big old wuss for the first 12 or 13 years of my life, afraid of stuff like Jumanji and The Shaggy Dog (JUST BECAUSE IT’S A MOVIE FOR KIDS DOESN’T MEAN IT ISN’T A WEREWOLF, GUYS!) until I picked up a Stephen King short story collection in my 8th grade English class and read “The Boogeyman,” a story about a monster hiding in a closet and then in plain sight. And then I was hooked. I read literally every Stephen King story I could get my hands on, with It following closely on the heels of The Shining and Cujo. While I was able to follow those two books up with a viewing of the film based on them which began my obsession with horror films, It lived in my mind for a good while. I eventually caught up with the mediocre 90’s TV adaptation of the gigantic book, but other than Tim Curry, there’s really nothing to recommend in that. This new cinematic version, then, had a chance to bring something great to the table. It could have recaptured that first burst of love for a new genre. It could have been a new favorite. It isn’t, but it’s still pretty darn good.

The story of It feels like something everybody knows, due in part to stuff like Stranger Things having been heavily influenced by its mix of coming-of-age anxieties and full-on horror. This is still the best version of that combination, as the menacing monster is able to take the form of whatever scares its victims while King deftly mixes real-world horror with the supernatural stuff. As the 7 kids that make up the Loser’s Club spend their summer vacation looking for dead kids and trying to survive bullies, they discover that there’s something supremely evil in the town of Derry and they’re the only ones who can stop it. It’s all become standard horror stuff by now with movies like Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and the aforementioned Stranger Things taking heavy cues from the book. None have quite nailed the sense that the kids are distinct entities with complicated relationships to each other and their families, nor have they matched King’s impressive world-building which really sells the idea that the whole town is rotten thanks to the corrupting force that is It. This movie almost reaches the book’s level, but misses in key ways that keep this from being the masterpiece it could have been.

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Top 100 Movies (2017 Edition): The Index

As long-time followers of mine might remember, I used to make really complicated plans for unveiling my yearly revisions of my Top 100 Movies lists. Those kinda went out the window recently thanks to a very busy grad-student schedule. But I’m on a temporary (fingers crossed!) break from that for the moment and so I can take a little bit of time to do up something fun for this year’s list. I’ve made the list already, and for the first time ever, it’s longer than 100 films. When it came right down to it, I just couldn’t justify cutting any of the films to make it an even hundred. That’s kind of exciting!

This year I want to do a mix of things I’ve done in the past. Since this is one big list, I thought breaking it down into mini-lists would be a fun way of exploring a topic or director or technique that features in 5 films from my list. These Top 5 posts won’t be crossing over with each other and they’re totally arbitrary, but that’s part of the fun, I think. Anyways, since I won’t be spending a whole ton of my time on this project (I hope to do one list per week), I’m also including the full list here for your immediate perusal. It’s not super different from past lists in that you’ll see quite a few movies return, but the spots are all different.

Some people like to be mathematical in their calculations on lists like this but I think the best method is to embrace the arbitrary subjectivity of it all. So like, I really loved The Sound of Music when I revisited it two years ago, so much so that I rewatched the first half while reviewing student papers this past semester and avoided the second half which just isn’t as fun as those amazing first half scenes and songs. So this year it rocketed up to the third spot on my list. And I just watched Stalker a month ago but loved it so much that it’s now occupying the second spot on my list. It’s likely to move down in subsequent lists, but I’ll leave that to future-Alex to decide.

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Back Catalog Review: Breathless

Breathless

The Back Catalog is a series following my quest to watch all the movies I own. Check out the index, or follow the Back Catalog tag to see what I’ve watched and what I’ve thought of the films. 

I missed a step. Somehow, in the space between going to a lot of movies in my childhood to today when I own what some would call too many Criterion and other movies, I missed the French New Wave. I knew of it, of course, but my first-hand experience with it was almost entirely lacking. I could see in movies like Submarine and Reservoir Dogs a kind of shared reference point and I could figure out what that reference point was by seeing what those kinds of movies had in common. However, when that actual reference point would come up in conversation, I’d just nod and smile. I started fixing this last year with The 400 Blows, which I absolutely loved. I picked up Breathless and Hiroshima Mon Amour recently thanks to that movie and we’ll see how it works out for me.

Breathless is one of those movies where it feels like you’ve seen it even when you’ve missed it for 29 years of your life. The details are intriguing and pulled me along when things felt a little rote. For example, the plot is such a straightforward genre type that when the movie focuses on that part it feels like almost any other crime thriller. The bits in between those standard plot beats are what make Breathless a movie to pay attention to, even though I didn’t end up loving it. There is a part of the film that ends up being almost a third of its 90 minute length which might have been five or ten minutes in another movie. It’s the seduction scene that takes place almost entirely in one room and features both Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo at the height of their strange mix of chemistry and philosophical musings. In what amounts to a short film on the topics of purpose, meaning, and desire, the two of them dance around each other wonderfully. Here are the beginnings of the Before Trilogy except I don’t particularly care if the two end up together or not. But then there’s 20 minutes of “necessary” cat and mouse policing and kind of standard moral conundrums that make the genre what it is and I start to disengage.

Jean Seberg in Jean-Luc Godard's BREATHLESS (1960). Courtesy Ria

The ending is really great, though, especially after Seberg’s Patricia decides to turn her lover in for his murderous past. The consequences of this play out in two long shots that first map the dissolution of their relationship and then his bloody (almost comically dragged-out) end. Here Godard breaks from what has become the film’s most important feature–the jump-cuts that almost accidentally revolutionized filmmaking–and because the rest of the movie is full of moments spliced together which unmoor the audience to some degree, the long takes that close the movie brings everything crashing back down to earth. It’s a great effect and it’s these shots that I’ll remember from this movie, along with that audacious seduction scene. I’m not sure I’ll revisit this lovingly in the future, but I’m glad I watched it (and own the disc which features a lot of great supplements that I will seek out as I continue to learn more about how movies work. I’m glad I’m finally filling in this hole in my movie knowledge, and I’m excited to check out Hiroshima Mon Amour to see if Resnais can bring the power of Night and Fog to a feature film.

B

Back Catalog Review: Forbidden Planet

Forbidden Planet sets the stage for pretty much every sci-fi movie that followed it and manages to be its own thing in the process. It’s a heck of a historical document, matched by sci-fi greats like 2001 and Planet of the Apes which say as much about their own times as they do about the futuristic story they’re telling. This time its an invisible threat that originates from the depths of humanity with a heavy dose of psychoanalytic mumbo-jumbo to season the broth. This is a fun, pretty, smart-enough, and pretty well-paced movie, and I’m glad I watched it on a big tv so that I could admire the sets and painted elements in all their glory.

forbidden planet

I want to wrap up by comparing this a little to Stalker, the last movie I watched for this project. They’re surprisingly similar for being almost nothing alike. Where Stalker hides its sci-fi musings in some horror trappings, Forbidden Planet takes the opposite path and hides some horror elements inside a sci-fi story. You can see this happening most clearly in the scenes with the invisible monster, but it’s also evident in the “electronic tones” that comprise the score and the shifting disposition of the mad scientist-esque character played by Walter Pidgeon. Although it’s never particularly scary, it is fun to see the seeds of movies like Prometheus and Sphere planted in such colorful soil.

B+

Back Catalog Review: Stalker

Stalker 1

How come nobody told me this was a horror film? Well, maybe it’s my fault, since I tried to avoid spoilers for a movie I suspected would be a unique experience. I wasn’t wrong. The movie is poetic in the way that people get upset at, slow and full of impenetrable visuals married with philosophical ramblings. But it’s also poetic in the sense that it is like poetry, built on images and details and not really a story as much as a flow of feelings and a sense of place. This is the stuff that makes it a horror film, the way that the Zone (which mysteriously appeared one day and caused its inhabitants to disappear and is now a trap-filled ruin that has nature mostly taking over human constructions) feels like the fourth character, and it’s not a benign one. Though nothing really happens, it feels like something might at any moment. The characters walk in straight lines, wary that their footsteps might doom them to an incomprehensible death. The camera follows behind, one of my favorite kinds of shots, and the characters often turn to look back at the camera/the others. It’s paranoia 101, and it’s so interesting here juxtaposed against the sheer beauty and ruin that the Zone represents.

The three characters are a Writer looking for inspiration, a Scientist looking for truth, and a Stalker, looking to get them where they’re going. Tarkovsky, of course, doesn’t let it lie at that, and the paranoia builds as they start to reveal their deeper selves. This is all fine and dandy, story-wise, but it isn’t really a story movie. It’s a Zone movie. The camera seems to take up the point of view of the Zone. It’s a point of view that rarely blinks as many of the shots are long and often contain several recompositions (a wide shot turns into a close up as a character enters the frame from below, for example). So you get absorbed into the world of the film, you succumb to its slow flow of time and space. You see the way the world works and recognize that it isn’t at all like our world. And it’s a little terrifying and a little exciting but mostly you’re just waiting to see if you can get out of this camera setup all the while knowing that the next one will be just a little bit more twisted as the characters and you delve deeper and deeper into the Zone. Once Stalker has its grip on you (and for me that happened with the shot of the family at the beginning in the bed), it doesn’t let you get away easily.

Stalker 2

I’ve said several times that this isn’t a story movie, but there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, so to speak. Somewhere in the Zone is a room that will give you your deepest desire once you enter it. Seems like a good deal, except maybe it isn’t. The final half an hour or so becomes less about the Zone and more about the nature of humanity, desire, happiness, faith, and, most interestingly for me, cynicism. That this movie which spends so much time on what seems like an absurd quest to an impossible destination ends up as (so far as I can tell) an argument for the power of belief (and cinema to create that belief, because what have I been talking about except the very pinnacle of believing in an unprovable thing) is what moves this from a high spot on my next top 100 to a likely top 10 spot. It is like that other movie you’re probably all tired of hearing me talk about, Fanny and Alexander, in that its own technical prowess is not only a tool for the story being told but also the essence of the story itself. Stalker is a truly amazing film experience that demonstrates exactly why movies are magic.