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‘Justice League Dark’ is a Decent Primer for DC’s Paranormal Heroes

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Though infinitely less well-known than their caped and cowled counterparts, the more paranormal-themed characters of DC comics are some of the most interesting and storied characters in the publishers’ pantheon. Characters like John Constantine, Swamp Thing, and others represent a dark flip-side to the more bright, colorful worlds of the DC, a more complex underbelly full of antiheroes and uncertainty. At no point was this distinction and the potency of this more apparent than in the late 80s and 90s, when these characters thrived under DC’s Vertigo imprint. Vertigo was created as a mature-audiences imprint of DC, a line of comics tailored for darker, more complex stories. It was the place where legendary writers like Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Garth Ennis, and others wrote stories that would shape their careers and the comics industry at large in books like The Sandman, Swamp Thing and Hellblazer. Though those halcyon days are behind us, the characters that became poster children for this era are still around, and they’re among the subjects of DC Animation’s latest film, Justice League Dark.

But there’s a problem, at least if you’re a part of that group of comic-book fans who hold 80s/90s Vertigo comics in a special esteem: while Justice League Dark has some familiar faces and a few fun shout-outs to offer Vertigo fans, make no mistake — you aren’t the target audience. Justice League Dark is intended as a primer on these characters for new audiences, and probably also as a proof-of-concept for the in-development live-action movie of the same name. While JLD could have been a slavish and artistically-charged tribute to this special era of comics, that simply isn’t the route they took. The good news is that if you’re able to adjust your expectations accordingly, it’s still a fun enough romp through DC’s paranormal areas, with a brisk pace and some fun visuals.

Justice League Dark

The story opens with a plague of grisly murders rocking the DCU, as ordinary citizens start hallucinating that their friends, family and neighbors are hideous demons. The Justice League are stumped, so Batman enlists the help of several paranormal characters to try and get to the bottom of things. This team includes Zatanna, DC’s resident stage magician/magical superhero, British urban sorcerer John Constantine, the ghostly acrobat Deadman, and demonic Etrigan. The adventure leads them on a whistle-stop tour of the DC Universe’s paranormal hotspots, with cameos from the likes of Felix Faust and Swamp Thing.

While early entries in the DC Animated canon felt like they had a bit more character to them, stylistically they’ve since settled into a consistent house approach in terms of animation, and to a lesser extent tone. While this makes it easier to present the films as installments in a consistent universe, it also leaves less room for experimentation and style. And if any DC Animated film could have benefited from a little style, it’s Justice League Dark. That isn’t to say that the animation and overall presentation is bad; it’s just a little on the bland side. Very rarely, if ever, does it feel like the animation or style really suits the characters, or adds to the film’s atmosphere of paranormal spookitude. This is the biggest hurdle the film has to overcome for layman viewers. While anime-infused projects like Batman: Gotham Knights could coast on visuals, Justice League Dark relies on its script and characters to carry it.

And carry it they do, for the most part. For many, the make or break is the depiction of John Constantine, the hard-bitten London mage with a knack for getting himself embroiled in magical trouble. Constantine is a hard character to get right, as the ill-fated Keanu Reeves movie demonstrated. He’s harder still to get right in the confines of a film where he can’t curse or smoke — two of his favorite activities. Surprisingly though, Justice League Dark pulls off a fairly faithful depiction of the character, despite these limitations. The supporting cast fare a bit less well, but not by much. Deadman, Zatanna, Etrigan, and Batman are pretty much along for the ride, only getting in little bits of characterization here and there where they can.

Justice League Dark

Frequently it feels like Batman in particular is excess baggage, there only to demonstrate how nervous DC gets about any property that doesn’t involve their golden boy. His monosyllabic grunts are occasionally amusing, at least, but bit players like Swamp Thing get the worst of it. The character once molded into a nuanced, tragic, and endlessly interesting hero by Alan Moore now feels tragically shoehorned into the story, only appearing in a few key sequences. Perhaps even worse is a cameo by Black Orchid, whose Neil Gaiman-penned miniseries almost single-handedly launched the Vertigo phenomenon. She feels like pure window dressing, a pointless addition that will be confusing for non-fans, as the film never quite explains who or what she is. If you have no knowledge of Black Orchid, the film won’t really fill you in. If you do, however, you may get more than a bit irked by seeing the character reduced to Constantine’s housemaid.

And that’s Justice League Dark in a nutshell, honestly. Longtime DC fans, particularly those with fond memories of the Vertigo golden years, may find themselves chafing under the film’s depictions of characters who once leaped of the page in nuanced, artistically charged stories. They feel homogenized, dumbed down, stripped of nuance. Newcomers, meanwhile, will fare much better, even if the occasionally ham-fisted exposition and uneven characterization leaves something to be desired. It’s far from DC Animation’s previous greatest-hits, like Under the Red Hood or Assault on Arkham, but for someone just looking for an hour and change of paranormal superhero fun, Justice League Dark is a pleasant enough distraction. But if you’re a Vertigo die-hard, you’d be better off keeping away, as the film’s versions of the characters that once haunted the pages of that hallowed imprint feel like shallow echoes of their former selves.

Beginning as a co-host on a Concordia TV film show before moving on to chief film nerd at Forgetthebox.net, Thomas is now bringing his knowledge of pop-culture nerdery to Sordid Cinema. Thomas is a Montrealer born and raised, and an avid consumer of all things pop-cultural and nerdy. While his first love is film, he has also been known to dabble in comics, videogames, television, anime and more. You can support his various works on his Patreon, at https://www.patreon.com/TomWatchesMovies You can also like the Tom Watches Movies Facebook page to see all his work on Goombastomp and elsewhere.

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‘Tigers Are Not Afraid’ is Dark Fantasy at its Best

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Tigers Are Not Afraid Review

Issa López immediately sets the stage for her latest film, Tigers Are Not Afraidwith an opening text screen detailing the horrific loss of human life in Mexico’s ongoing drug war. The voices of schoolchildren enter the soundtrack, as they recount the creatures and heroes of fairy tales. Moments later, their classroom falls into chaos as gunfire begins to thunder outside, and bullets perforate the walls over their cowering heads. The dichotomy is striking, and purposeful; ‘What use are fairytales to these children?’ the film seems to demand. ‘What business do princes and genies have when we’re confronted with such brutality, such callous disregard for life?’ Tigers Are Not Afraid spends the rest of its runtime grappling with these questions, and the result is one of the best and most urgent fantasy films in recent memory, destined to be a classic among fans of socially-charged fantasy and horror. It stands alongside works like Pan’s Labyrinth in contrasting the fantastical and the brutal, but speaks in its own voice from the first moments to the last.

After that harrowing opening, schoolgirl Estrella returns to find her mother missing, seemingly one of the ever-increasing number of innocents spirited away by the local Huascas gang. Estrella joins up with Shine, a boy trying desperately to keep a small band of fellow orphans safe from the Huascas after stealing a gun and cell-phone from one of them. But strange forces linger in the background, pursuing Estrella and her new friends. Estrella was given three pieces of chalk by her teacher, along with the promise that each one would grant a wish; this magically appears to be true, but Estrella’s wishes also seem as much a curse as a blessing.

While other films have positioned fantastical elements as a relief against the harshness of the ‘real’ world, Tigers Are Not Afraid is more ambiguous. In López’s film, the entities silently following Estrella and her new friends are often sinister and threatening. These aren’t comforting fantasies meant as a means of escape, but simply another aspect of an endlessly threatening world. The film is as much horror as it is fantasy, and walks a fine line between the two. Like the gun and cell phone that Shine steals in the opening scenes, Estrella’s chalk brings as much danger as power — power and control over one’s environment is really at the core of the film.

Shine especially is in a constant search for control, and at first meets Estrella’s newfound position of authority within their group with hostility. Estrella, meanwhile, simply wants to regain control over her previously ordered life. In their pursuit of these goals, both grapple with dangerous power that does not on its own offer clear salvation. Like many films before, Tigers Are Not Afraid cannily blends fantasy elements with a stark appraisal of the world we currently live in, and the two elements play off and enhance each other like an alchemical potion.

López, along with cinematographer Juan Jose Saravina, has also created a film that’s both visually and thematically captivating. The camera is often free-floating — sometimes even letting the subject stray into the corner of the frame — but nonetheless maintains an intimacy with its subjects. The darkly lit streets feel dangerous and threatening, and even more so when the occasional dragon flits from the shadows. While sparse, the visual effects are at home against the dingy backdrop, and the more horrific makeup effects by Adam Zoller help the threats of violence feel real and grounded.

The cast, almost entirely composed of young children, is in top form. At this point, the old stigma about child actors really needs to be put to bed. Paola Lara and Juan Ramón López, as Estrella and Shine, carry the film magnificently on their shoulders. If Tigers Are Not Afraid has any real shortcoming, it’s really that it’s too short. The credits roll after a mere hour and seventeen minutes, and more time to flesh out the side characters — or even to let the audience drink in the atmosphere — would not have gone amiss. One important moment, which won’t be spoiled here, feels critically undermined by the film’s rather quick pace, although there is plenty of time given to the aftermath.

There are worse issues to raise with a film, however. That is the cardinal rule, after all: always leave them wanting more. Tigers Are Not Afraid absolutely does that, presenting a dazzling and often harrowing mix of fantasy and brutal realism, and establishing Issa López as the new director to watch for genre fans.

Tigers Are Not Afraid is streaming now on Shudder

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‘Stephen King’s IT’ Is Dated but Not Toothless

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Stephen King's It 1990 TV Series

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 8, 2017, but for obvious reasons, we’ve decided to spotlight it again. 

With the release of the new, big-budget adaptation of Stephen King’s IT, attention is invariably turning to the previous attempt at bringing King’s gargantuan novel to the screen: the 1990 miniseries. The original IT is mostly remembered for Tim Curry’s performance in the role of Pennywise, the sinister clown that terrorizes the children of Derry, Maine. Curry’s Pennywise can often be found on lists of the most iconic horror characters of all time, and it would be easy to assume that without this one element, It would most likely have fallen into the same obscurity that many of those King miniseries now find themselves in, and as the number of people who’ll be watching the 1990 version before flocking to catch the new adaptation are finding out, the original It isn’t actually that good. It’s not exactly bad, but aside from one memorably over-the-top performance, it’s ultimately still an above-average early 90s miniseries.

The story takes place (as the vast majority of King properties do) in a small town in Maine, and something is targeting the local children, in particular, the group of outcasts and misfits dubbed the Loser’s Club. But rather than a run-of-the-mill serial killer, the entity leaving a trail of dead children in its wake is Pennywise, a sinister clown with supernatural powers and a thirst for blood. With the adults seemingly blind to Pennywise, the Loser’s club must band together to put a stop to his reign of terror, and then meet again thirty years later when their old nemesis returns.

Stephen King's It 1990 TV Series

It’s place as a beloved horror property — or at least a fondly remembered one — can largely be attributed to one element: Tim Curry’s Pennywise. To be sure, it is a memorable performance, full of the kind of enthusiasm and gusto that Curry made a name for himself with. To what degree you’re bound to find Curry’s character actually scary depends a lot on how you feel about clowns. If coulrophobia isn’t something you suffer from, it’s very likely that Curry’s antics, dripping with camp from start to finish, won’t do much to send chills up your spine. Then there’s the infamous ending, which sees Curry’s Pennywise drop away in favor of a giant spider creature, ostensibly his true form. Full credit to the effects designers — it’s a great looking effect, but it’s also completely devoid of subtlety, substituting the sinister, unsettling vibe of much of the series for a big monster in a surprisingly well-lit cave. Luckily for IT, there’s a deeper horror lurking under the surface, but more on that later.

When Curry isn’t onscreen, which is the vast majority of the time, the series rests solely on the shoulders of the cast and production staff, who usually strain under the weight. In a surprising twist, the child actors who portray the Loser’s Club in their initial encounter with Pennywise vastly outshine their adult counterparts, whose performances generally leave a lot to be desired. Even usually dependable players like John Ritter fall short more often than not. The inadequacies of the adult actors are made somewhat worse by the fact that the second half of the series is notably weaker than the first, with the atmosphere undone by too many montages set to upbeat music.

The production staff, including director Tommy Lee Wallace, also don’t do much to stand out. Wallace’s direction is fine, occasionally capturing a spooky atmosphere, but for the most part the direction in IT feels like exactly what it is: flat, by the numbers TV direction typical of the time period.

So if Pennywise isn’t that scary and the formal aspects of the 1990 production aren’t that interesting, what is there to IT in the end? The series’ best moments, the ones that almost make it worth sitting through all three hours, are the moments of true horror scattered in between clown attacks and the giant spider finale. The Losers Club, like so many child protagonists in horror properties, are the only ones who can see Pennywise and all the aftermath of his antics, but IT throws a twist into this tried and true formula. Horror fans will doubtlessly be familiar with this scenario: during a moment alone, one of the protagonists will see a horrifying vision, in this particular case an explosion of blood from a drain or a family photo album. They’ll run and grab their parents, only to return and find everything normal. What they saw was a vision, a hallucination. IT throws a curveball in this formula by having the blood, creatures, and other terrifying manifestations stay around when the adults are in the room. These aren’t visions or hallucinations, but reality — a reality that adults have trained themselves to overlook.

Stephen King's It 1990 TV Series

Why does this matter? Because the true horror of IT isn’t the scary clown or the giant spider — it’s the willingness of societies to look the other way when something is clearly wrong. There’s a key scene when Bev, the only female members of The Loser’s Club, recalls being attacked by the neighborhood bullies. A man across the street sees this happening, and rather than intercede, he quietly returns to his house. It is about what happens when people become so used to cruelty and horror that they train themselves not to see it, to look the other way when presented with something clearly harmful. It’s about the normalization of the abnormal, about the seductive power of willful ignorance when the alternative — action — puts oneself at risk. Look at Henry Bowers, the local bully who’s clearly a dangerous sociopath to anyone who pays attention. What is he, if not just another Pennywise? He’s a problem that everyone looks past because trying to fix it is harder than ignoring it.

Admittedly, this far more interesting aspect is something native to King’s novel rather than something concocted by the makers of the series, so we can’t credit Stephen King’s IT with bringing this particular aspect to the table. We can, however, be grateful that this crucial element was preserved rather than putting a focus on the much shallower horrors of scary clowns and giant spiders.

Watching the 1990 IT, it becomes clear that a second stab is needed to really plumb the depths of the novel and do it justice, as there is a lot of interesting material to be mined. In addition to the more interesting commentary on societal apathy, there’s also King’s dabblings with cosmic horror, something the miniseries pays the barest of lip service to. By the sound of things, Andrés Muschietti has presented us with a far superior version of King’s novel. Does that make the 1990 version obsolete? No, not entirely. Tim Curry’s performance, campy as it is, is still fun to watch. But apart from that element, it won’t be hard for the upcoming second attempt to overshadow its predecessor in most regards.

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Fantasia Film Festival

Fantasia Film Festival 2019: Thomas O’Connor’s Most Anticipated Films

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Fantasia 2019

The Fantasia Film Festival is once again looming on the horizon, promising three weeks of fun for Montreal film geeks. As always, the lineup is chock-full of new works by familiar creators and promising new talents, and it can be intimidating to decide where to start. But worry not, for GoombaStomp has you covered. In the lead-up to our coverage of this year’s Fantasia Fest, we’ll be bringing you some of our most anticipated films from the selection.

Also, be sure to check out:

Fantasia Film Festival 2019: Patrick’s 5 Most-Anticipated Films

Fantasia Film Festival 2019: Edgar’s 5 Most Anticipated Films

Fantasia Film Festival 2019: Ricky D’s Most Anticipated Films

Critters Attack!

The 80s nostalgia craze seems to be winding down a bit, but that hasn’t stopped numerous franchises from getting revivals and reboots. After all, a new Child’s Play reboot only just landed in theatres. The Critters franchise is the latest to board the revival train, with a quasi-reboot from series producers Barry Opper and Rupert Harvey. Critters is probably the best-remembered product of a wave of “tiny terrors” movies that sprang up in the wake of Gremlins. In the case of Critters, the titular pint-sized creatures are ravenous aliens that devour anyone and anything in their path.

The original films are fun, creative creature features with a dedicated fan following, and while the new installment seems to be positioning itself as a soft reboot, there also looks to be a lot of love for fans of the originals. The new film will continue the franchise’s commitment to practical creature effects, and at least one cast member from the original (Dee Wallace) is returning. Critters Attack! promises a lot of what Fantasia audiences love: nostalgia, gore, and black humor, and seeing it with a lively audience will no doubt enhance the experience of seeing this franchise make its return.

Garo – Under the Moonbow

If you’re into Tokusatsu, the colorful world of live-action Japanese superhero shows, you’re probably familiar with Keita Amemiya. Amemiya has worked with numerous major Toku franchises, having directed episodes of Super Sentai, a pair of short films in the Kamen Rider franchise, and even an installment in the Metal Heroes series. But Amemiya seems to prefer playing in his own sandbox, and projects like the feature films Zeiram, Mirai Ninja, and especially his long-running Garo franchise prove that. Garo follows the adventures of a number of armored demon hunters, men and women dedicated to the destruction of the demonic “Horrors” who prey on unsuspecting humans. Garo in many ways acts as a continuing showcase of Amemiya’s talents for atmosphere and visuals, with ever-expanding mythology thrown in for good measure.

It’s that last part that may keep some audience members at arm’s length from Garo – Under the Moonbow. This is a franchise that’s been going on since 2005, and the chances of the new film sparing much time to get newbies caught up is low. But there’s another element worth considering: Amemiya will be there in person not only to present the new film, but also to offer a Master Class to fans. Even if you can’t tell your Kamen Rider J from your Kamen Rider ZO, the chance to hear an industry veteran with a clear and distinct voice and passion share his experiences as a filmmaker is not one that should be passed up lightly.

Ride your Wave

Anime director Masaaki Yuasa has become a regular presence on Fantasia screens, and you’ll get absolutely no complaints from us. Yuasa quickly stood out from the anime pack thanks to his 2004 breakout Mind Game, and he hasn’t slowed down since. His films are singular in most regards, often sporting a signature flat animation style, a wonderful surrealist edge, and a mile-a-minute rhythm. His films are like jazz, as trite a comparison as that is. They’re uptempo and bold, determined to take the audience by the hand and pull them on a wild ride.

But what makes him especially exciting is his refusal to become too bogged down in a style. He equally comfortable with light, enchanting fare like last year’s excellent The Night is Short, Walk On Girl, and the infinitely darker Devilman: Crybaby series. You never know quite what you’re going to get with Yuasa, but you do know it’s going to be something worth seeing. Fantasia always boasts a solid anime lineup, and this year appears to be no exception.

Master Z: Ip Man Legacy

The Ip Man franchise has become a mainstay of modern blockbuster martial arts films, with new installments every few years. While Ip Man 4 will be releasing in China towards the end of July, its 2018 spinoff will be making its Fantasia debut. Max Zhang stars as Cheung Tin-chi, a Wing Chun martial artist who was defeated by Donnie Yen’s Master Ip in the previous installment.

Whether you’re invested in the series or not, Master Z has enough sheer talent in its roster to draw in fight movie fans in droves. Zhang proved beyond a doubt in Ip Man 3 and SPL 2: A TIme for Consequences that he’s one of the martial arts actors to watch out for, with a dazzling onscreen presence and some seriously impressive fighting chops. But throw in a supporting cast that includes Michelle Yeoh, Dave Bautista, and Tony Jaa, and you’ve got the kind of cast guaranteed to fill seats. As if the film didn’t already have enough winning cards in its hand, the legendary Yuen Woo-ping sits in the director’s chair, bringing his decades of experience to the table, making this an absolute must-see for fans of martial arts films.

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