Imagination is a wonderful gift we’re told, a gateway to places of creativity and wonder that keeps the old young, reminding them what it was like to once dream. Of course, we forget that it can also bring to the surface horrible nightmares, the sort that leave lasting scars on the innocence of youth before kids are forced into adulthood. The latter consequence must be one of the reasons Stephen King’s tale of a group of misfit children terrorized by an evil force that preys on their fears has endured these many years, and that element is exploited just enough by the latest cinematic adaptation of IT to reignite long-buried stirrings of the heebie-jeebies. Submerged in subtle 80s nostalgia and an abundance of jump-scare vignettes, IT is a well-crafted coming-of-age story that engages even as it plays things a tad too safe for a story involving a supernatural killer clown.
That circus freak is certainly used to good effect to start things off with a spooky intro involving a young boy chasing a paper boat down the streets of the seemingly picturesque town of Derry, Maine, where apparently Bad Things happen every three decades or so — a cycle possibly related to tragic events of the past. He encounters a sinister clown named Pennywise who peers out from beneath a storm drain, and their tension-filled conversation sets a menacing tone emphasized by the hazy, gloomy grays above ground and the shadowy lurking below. The gory events that follow set in motion a series of incidents nearly a year later, as a dorky pre-teen clique dubbing themselves “The Loser’s Club” — comprised of a girl and six boys, one of whom is the missing boy’s older brother — are themselves plagued by visions that capitalize on the things they are most afraid of. As the group delves into the dark mystery behind what’s happening, they further expose themselves to a growing list of dangers. Welcome to growing up.
Adolescence is a time where monsters are everywhere, and IT shows these youngsters coping with them in all forms, from psychotically-violent bullies to various examples of parental abuse and a cold, indifferent world. On top of that, they deal with loss, sexual maturity, hypochondria, relocation, and having a smart mouth that clearly is covering up for some sort of inferiority complex. No one will look out for these wounded birds, each with their own particular weaknesses and insecurities, and so they organically assemble into a pack dynamic where they can look out for each other. The moments of bonding between people struggling to assert themselves for the first time are some of the best scenes IT has to offer, as the cast delivers the spot-on schoolyard interplay so effortlessly it’s not hard to imagine that they are actually friends, earning precious endearment that pays dividends later when plot machinations get a bit heavy-handed. A memorable trip to the local swimmin’ hole cements the group onscreen and in our minds; despite the dread surrounding them, there is still time to have childhood summer fun — but those days are numbered.
As a group, the Losers are strong, and thus allowed to enjoy moments of happiness and triumph, but the transition to adulthood is filled with lonely moments where the relative safety in numbers is compromised, where a lack of strength and confidence exposes a solo imaginative mind to a host of terrifying possibilities. Much of IT is comprised of scenes that lays bare these fears, deep rooted or illogical as they may be, and while some work better than others, like a grotesque portrait come to murderous life, or a zombie-like leper attacking outside a decaying house, most achieve at least a basic level of tension. They also allow IT to cut loose a little from its otherwise restrained style with a great mixture of static compositions and frenetic moments of action that will probably linger as images in the impressionable minds of underage moviegoers like the 1990 miniseries did for the generation before. Director Andy Muschietti paces these scenes well, knowing exactly where to put the camera to build, and how to break free, but he does seem to be holding back as well, never willing to go all the way and risk alienating those who rely on familiar horror beats.
I was never quite tired of watching these vignettes, but the odd, almost episodic structure they’re placed in does undermine the spookiness a bit, dulling the effect of screeching sound cues and possibly desensitizing audiences to Pennywise himself. For those (like myself) unfamiliar with the source material, however, the feeling that anyone is fair game remains reasonably palpable throughout, and getting a glimpse into the inner minds of each protagonist certainly brings them more to life. IT smartly gives each Loser some special attention — even if there are a couple standout protagonists who hog a bit more spotlight — and for the most part, they are allowed to complete at least some semblance of an arc. The lone exception is one of the film’s biggest mishaps, as a betrayal of Beverly, the lone female in the group, reduces an otherwise driving force to an eventual mere damsel in distress, the groan-worthy culmination of which is sealed with lazy writing. It’s a significant disappointment in a final act that sees the story lose some steam, and by the end, IT‘s juggling act has worn a bit thin.
Still, it’s nice to see craft return to mainstream horror, and soak in the pictures a filmmaker in tune with his characters and setting can conjure. Muschietti brings 1980s Derry to life as the kind of small town that sells ice cream floats to tourists and looks great on postcards, but hides dark secrets beneath the colonial brick exterior. The school hallways and city streets are narrow, closing in on these kids and funneling them to a life of bitter adulthood, while homes are poorly lit, their shades pulled to block out the sun and hope for a future. Only outside on the green grass or the magical forest does the camera pull back to reveal a brighter world, one where maybe happiness really does exist, if only for the three months responsibility is out of session. There’s a Spielbergian vibe to much of IT‘s imagery, and it sells the authenticity of the 80s era far better than most recent attempts. Credit to cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, who has recreated the look of my childhood, right down to the blazingly-innocent color of those tighty whities.
Much of IT‘s audience may have grown up, but the film does its job in eliciting those old feelings of the struggle and dread that happens with coming of age. The world is a beautiful place where anything can happen, including savage cruelty, and having an active imagination opens doors to just as many dark places as light — it’s no wonder people stop using theirs. We’re not alone in our fears though, and even though life can be strange and deadly (like a clown with a Sarlacc pit for a mouth), there are plenty of other Losers to help us face it.
‘Greener Grass’ Is a Pain in The Ass
Maybe get high for this one
Co-written, co-directed, and co-starring Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe as two soccer moms who battle it out over who has the more perfect suburban life, Greener Grass looks like it creators are having a lot of fun. Possibly more fun than anyone actually watching the film, a surrealist satire of suburban life that is neither cutting enough to be insightful nor funny enough to be worthwhile. While watchable thanks to its strange, cartoonish world-building and bold production design, it ultimately fails both as comedy and as meaningful commentary.
Greener Grass starts with Jill (Jocelyn DeBoer) and Lisa (Dawn Luebbe) watching their kids play soccer; Jill has a new baby, which Lisa hadn’t previously noticed. In the first sign that this world is completely askew, Jill just gives her baby to Lisa as a present. This is one of the least weird things that happens in a film with little concern towards logical construction or narrative coherence.
Featuring a soundtrack giving off serious original Twin Peaks vibes, the world of Greener Grass is one of pure strangeness: cars are replaced by golf carts, characters wear matching coloured suits, and the whole town gives off a twinkling aura reminiscent of classic television adverts. Jill and Lisa are classic models of femininity, at one point switching husbands to kiss as a comment on how generic their men seem. Nonetheless, they are constantly competing, with the ever-susceptible Jill constantly on the lookout for a way that she can finally improve her life, while Lisa tries to iron out her own familial issues. Sadly, neither Jill nor Lisa ever make it past their sketch-show characterisations, making them at first unrelatable, before eventually becoming straight-up annoying.
There is a sense here that more care has been put into crafting this weird universe then telling a coherent story of what actually happens in it; Greener Grass mostly using its setting as an excuse to string together a bunch of middling skits. At first, the randomness seems freeing; when you watch so many films for a living, B constantly following A can get rather repetitive. This is a world where anything can happen and nothing is explained. For example, when Jill’s son turns into a dog — suddenly leaving the woman who once had two children with none at all — the how of it all is never asked, and the event is instead used as a means to explore Jill’s relationship to Lisa. Yet, once it becomes obvious that there is no true connective tissue between absurdities (like you might find in the tightly-wound films of Yorgos Lanthimos), the world of Greener Grass grows easily tiring — even moreso considering its barrage of adolescent, amateurish, awkward and atrocious attempts at comedy.
Comedy is a hard thing to quantify. Sometimes it simply boils down to whether something makes you laugh…or at least smile. While the madcap world of Greener Grass is aesthetically delightful, the jokes can come across as painfully awful — the kind of try-too-hard skits you find in the bottom basement of a bar at the Edinburgh Fringe. Undeniably an each-to-their-own kind of situation, its an even bigger shame that these jokes cannot even be corralled into something actually interesting.
The obvious influence here, in both form and construction (featuring a subplot with a mysterious killer), is David Lynch. Yet, while Twin Peaks (at least in season 1 and The Return) and Blue Velvet used that weirdness to expose the darker underbelly of American life, it’s hard to say what Greener Grass is actually saying about the nature of suburban aspiration. While it seems that the point is to show how suburban life is already kind of absurd, dialing the zaniness up to eleven doesn’t hammer in that point any further. It comes as little surprise that the feature film is adapted from a short. Perhaps it should’ve stayed that way.
‘In Fabric’ is a Mesmerizing Satire of Consumerism
Our obsession with shopping and consumerism is going to be the death of us all — at least, director Peter Strickland seems to think so. The constantly increasing Black Friday crowds and coupon-clipping masses will rue the day they bought that really nice pair of pants at such a great price. Or in the case of Strickland’s latest cocktail of absurdity and horror, a beautiful red dress. In Fabric is a phantasmagoric allegory for our growing obsession with buying into our wants, and losing our souls in the process — and it’s about as weirdly fantastic as it sounds.
Though Strickland may refute that he consciously went for evoking giallo films when making In Fabric (which he did at a Q&A that took place at the midnight screening of the Toronto International Film Festival), it’s difficult not to see the influence. While there isn’t much here in terms of plotting — a red dress makes its way to different owners, affecting their lives in different, negative ways — Strickland focuses more on illuminating the characters’ lives while they have this haunted outfit.
The only real connection between stories is the department store that sells the dress, filled with bald women wearing wigs and saying everything in as complicated and absurd of a way as possible. They move through the interior of the building using dumbwaiters, and are managed by a creepy old man who is a professional at customer service. The same model can be found throughout an in-store catalogue that showcases all the latest fashions; it’s an eerily intricate nightmare of normality. The women all essentially cast spells on their customers to get them to buy something, except the spells are just really flattering comments and exceptional customer service. Strickland strikes right at the heart of consumerism with his weird fixation on the ways we’re lulled into parting with our money.
Standing out is the way that the rich atmosphere is presented. In Fabric blends a deadly cocktail of sensuality and dread in every frame, from a red dress lighting up an entire room with its bright colors, to images of its smooth texture overlapping over morbid imagery; every moment in Strickland’s fourth feature is a delight. It’s not necessarily style over substance, but one of the many ways In Fabric falters is how indebted to its editing and visuals it becomes, especially by the second half. Berberian Sound Studio also fell into the same trappings, but where that was used for narrative purposes, In Fabric utilizes it solely for a more textured atmosphere. This lends it a strong voice, but one that drags on too long.
The question that many will wonder as the movie progresses: is this is horror or comedy? The truth is, In Fabric falls more on the comedic side of things. It’s not exactly a scary movie, but it evokes a lot of haunting imagery. Strickland has always written from a more humorous point of view, with maybe the exception being his debut film, Katalin Varga, but this marks the first film of his to just lean into the laughs. It’s absurd and preposterous, but grounded in something we can all relate to in some manner — either the customer service side of things, or being swindled into buying something we don’t need.
The appropriately campy performance from Fatma Mohamed as a saleswoman who manages to convince different people to purchase the possessed red dress is one of the greatest delights of In Fabric. On top of that are some of the weirder concepts that the film latches onto and decides to explore — like the semantics of washing machine repair. The monotonous descriptions of washing machines in disarray, and subsequently what parts and procedures are needed to fix them, offers a glimpse at how monotony can be hypnotic.
There’s an allure to everything here, as even its smallest jokes feel representative of some larger conversation about the items we purchase and the meaning (or lack thereof) that we attach to them. Peter Strickland exists within a very unique form of cinema. Here he’s at his most reverential for the medium, but also posits his most ambitious and relevant statements. There may not be more than just a simple self-awareness to the act of consumerism, but Strickland at least offers an entertaining satire of an industry we all submerge ourselves into for the smallest deal.
Editor’s Note. This article was originally published on September 17, 2018, as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.
‘The Painted Bird’ is An Incredibly Grim Portrait of Anti-Semitism
From 14 Films Around the World Festival: Not for the faint of heart, the latest film from Václav Marhoul, is a deep dive into human misery without much love, hope or grace.
A grueling epic of misery, The Painted Bird (based on the novel of the same name by Jerzy Kosiński) makes Come and See look like a children’s book. Taking place in the Czech Republic during the end of WWII, it finds one young Jewish boy on an odyssey to find his family, suffering indignity after indignity on the way there. Nearly all human deprivation is here — rape, murder, bestiality — which is made all the worse by its grim inevitability. It’s a difficult, brutal watch; the kind of film I’d recommend, but would find difficult to defend if challenged.
The Painted Bird is not like other birds. Due to its strange plumage, the other birds get jealous. They surround the painted bird, and they kill it. This metaphor suggests that due to the savagery of Central Europe during WWII, anything that is different — whether Slavic, gay, gypsy, or Jewish — must be surrounded and bullied and ultimately destroyed.
Our unnamed young protagonist (Petr Kotlar) is one such painted bird. The film starts with him holding a ferret while running through the woods, being chased by other boys. They beat him up and burn his pet to a crisp. He then comes home to his aunt, who tells him it’s his fault. Things get much, much, much worse from there.
It turns out that the boy has been sent away to the countryside by his parents, evidently for his own protection. When his aunt dies, he finds himself completely adrift, relying on the kindness of strangers to get by. The big problem is that these strangers aren’t too kind at all. In fact, they are kind of evil, with nearly each one finding a new way to abuse the young lad. Told in a completely unsentimental style, The Painted Bird is an incredibly difficult watch — yet, its disturbing scenes aren’t merely there to exploit or titillate, but to lay witness to the horrors of recent history.
The story is told in an episodic format, with each chapter bookmarked by one or two names. Each one brings a new sense of dread: will this person be kind, or just another monster? The genius of the screenplay is how each episode seems to change the young lad just a little bit more, showing how one’s view on life can be completely altered by experience.
Credit must go to Kotlar, who turns in all-time great child performance, Bresson-like in the simple and pure way he interprets the role. This is the right choice; if it aimed for histrionics, it would have been unbearable. As it is, it feels inevitable. Like The Irishman, the weighty runtime here really immerses us into the young boy’s life; make it an hour shorter, and his transformation wouldn’t have anything near the same effect.
The epic-length is matched by the epic 35mm black-and-white-cinematography. Making use of a huge anamorphic widescreen, our protagonist is often situated to the side of the frame while horrific things going on in the background, as if to stress his unwilling participation in a degraded world. Unlike the cinematography, the film’s moral conclusions are a complete grey zone, depicting horrific things that show how terrible the war was — and what the disease of antisemitism led to — without ever editorializing or telling us how to feel. One can only watch and watch and watch, powerless to stop the awful things from happening.
The Painted Bird makes it absolutely clear that antisemitism was not just limited to the Nazis. Nearly everyone seems to hate the young lad, simply for the unavoidable fact of his birth. Anti-semitism doesn’t end with the Nazi’s demise either; the transition to peacetime does little to placate the locals’ hatred of Jews. Coming at a time when hatred of Jewish people seems on the rise and being weaponized, The Painted Bird devastatingly shows us the inevitable end of such hate. While it definitely courts controversy, there is a method to such relentless misery. This is the story of survival. The kind of story that should never be told again.
‘The Painted Bird‘ played as part of 14 Films Around The World Festival at Kino in der KulturBrauerei in Berlin, Germany, a special selection of 14 films from 14 countries from Cannes, Locarno, Berlinale, Venice and more.
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