Review: It (Chapter Two)

Is it really three months since I last shared my inane thoughts with you? How time flies!

I saw “IT (Chapter Two)” tonight for the first time, having been too ill to get to the cinema to see it when it came out.

What in hell’s name are we meant to make of this likeable mess of a film?

Credit where credit is due – the film is nearly three hours, but it doesn’t feel it. It zips along rather quickly, in fact, but then it has got a lot of things to fit it. The telephone calls at the beginning of the film are done especially well, I think, and I like how they are linked through visual elements. Here we have nigh-on two hundred pages of the book condensed into ten or fifteen minutes of film – quite an achievement. In fact, I would return to the book more often if it wasn’t for the thought of wading through that lumbering section at the beginning. Also I’ve got to give credit to the fact that the acting is ten times better than how the adults were in the 1990 version (I still prefer the 1990 kids). In five cases, the casting is superb, and the performances believable. The casting and portrayal of Eddie is the exception here – nothing like what he was like in the book or the first adaptation, and that is a mistake. Ritchie doesn’t need a jokey buddy as Eddie is portrayed here. The whole point of the seven people coming together was that they were all so different. Eddie has morphed into a gym-fit second Ritchie and it doesn’t work, and nor is it logical.

MILD SPOILERS IN NEXT PARAGRAPH!

There are some other changes which are very strange. Much of the tension in the adult part of the book comes from the fact that Audra, Bill’s wife, follows him and gets caught by “It.” That is completely missing here, and a huge mistake I think. I’m not quite sure what the thinking was behind that. I also don’t know what the thinking is for changing Bill’s reason for not playing with Georgie when he was a kid. In fact, that change makes no sense whatsoever. He didn’t want to play, but was happy to spend several hours making a boat? That is completely nonsensical – and also goes against what we see in the first movie. It’s a twist too far which, thankfully, can be put to the back of the mind, but it seems odd that, considering how many problems the film has to surmount, time was given over to adding something in which didn’t need to be addressed.

SPOILERS OVER

But the main issue I had with the film is that it doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be, and that it misses the reason why the book is so acclaimed. The movie should have been serious and terrifying, and for much of the time it doesn’t come across as either because the so-called horror is so comic-book and juvenile. When Beverly goes back to her home and sees the old woman, she turns into what? A CGI naked eighty year old with boobs down to her knees that looks like Ann Widdecombe on a night out. What’s THAT all about? And then we have the animated Stan’s head. Again, absolutely ridiculous – and not in the book, as far as I recall. The fortune cookie sequence has always been problematic enough for its comicbook nature – both in the book and in the previous adaptation – but the new film seemed to have an identity crisis outside of this. There were times when it felt like a serious movie, times when it felt more like “House” or “Idle Hands,” and then it moved into an adventure movie at the end akin to “Raiders of the Lost Arc” or “Romancing the Stone.” At least there wasn’t a giant spider, I guess.

The other issue is the underlying message at the core of the book – that the clown/monster/It was a kind of representation of the corruption and failure of society. Floating Dragon by Peter Straub (written just prior to It) does exactly the same thing. And perhaps that element is why the second half of the story simply doesn’t work well on screen. It is missing its guts. Whereas the book has some gravitas, the film versions eventually turn into a monster movie and little else. What we get is enjoyable and likeable popcorn fodder – an epic, big budget, three hour B-movie, in fact, and the text of the book is much more than that, which is no doubt why it disappointed many people. No doubt the running issue of Bill not knowing how to finish his books was intended as an in-joke about this very issue – the last section of the book is notoriously hard to translate to screen. But even that attempt at humour was somehow heavy handed. And, despite the fact that the adult characters are better drawn, acted, and cast (for the most part), the film still only really shines when the kids are back on screen during the flashbacks.

Finally, it was interesting that the decision was made to include the gay-bashing incident at the opening – and even more interesting that it turned out to be the most horrific sequence in the whole movie, and not because of CGI. Many thought it would be cut – and a few years ago I think it would have been. But with hate crime increasing in western countries, it suddenly became more relevant again.

I would like to say that I was surprised by the level of violence in those few minutes of Xavier Dolan’s cameo, as it is really quite severe, but for some reason both American film and TV seem to have upped the violence quota in the last five or six years or so. I watched the first few episodes of Titans on Netflix at the weekend (no, I don’t think I’ll be watching the rest) and was rather shocked by the gratuitous violence in that as well. Even something as inane as Riverdale or as ridiculous as Supernatural has become seem all too keen to make their violent sequences as dark and bloody as possible. I’m not quite sure how I feel about this trend – especially considering three of those examples are either from comic-book adaptations or in that style of storytelling. Whatever happened to traditional comicbook violence? Perhaps I’m just getting old and squeamish, but I’m guessing I’m not alone in my thinking given the commentary there has been on Joker since it was released (although I confess I haven’t seen it).

Doris Day

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Doris Day, who passed away this weekend, had the rather unusual position of being one of the most beloved, and yet underrated, acting and singing stars of the Twentieth Century.

She is remembered first and foremost by many as the lead in the fluffy romantic comedies of the late 1950s and early 1960s that paired her with Cary Grant, Rock Hudson, and James Garner.  But those films were just the tip of the iceberg of her achievements.  Well-made and well-performed though they are, they give little indication of what a great actress Doris Day really could be when she was given material worthy of her talents.  Many will cite as one of her best the film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, The Man Who Knew Too Much, in which she introduced the hit song Que Sera Sera – but even that doesn’t contain a performance as good as Love Me or Leave Me, Young Man with a Horn, or Julie.  And she wasn’t afraid of courting controversy such as in 1951’s Storm Warning, a Warner Bros social conscience film primarily about the KKK, a movie with a final reel that is still shocking today, and one can only wonder how it got past the censors at the time.   And it’s worth reminding ourselves of just how popular she was on the screen – she won the Laurel award for top female star every single year between 1957 and 1964 inclusive.

But it is her musical achievements that seem forgotten partly thanks to her on-screen stardom.   Her string of albums for Columbia from the late 1940s through to the mid-1960s contained mostly first-class renditions of songs from the Great American Songbook.  She wasn’t always paired with arrangers of the quality used by the like of Sinatra, but her thoughtful interpretations of the material nearly always made one forget that.  Every word was crystal clear, and if any female songstress was going to compete with Frank Sinatra when it came to the intelligent reading of lyrics, then it was Doris Day.  Take a look at Mean to Me from Love Me Or Leave Me, as she sings the song with her abusive husband (James Cagney) in the night-club audience.  No histrionics, very little volume, just absolute perfection.

Her best known hits were pure pop, but her best recordings found her adding jazz inflections into her interpretations.  What Every Girl Should Know is an album with a horrible title and cringe-worthy liner notes, but try and find a better vocal rendition of Mood Indigo by Duke Ellington than the one tucked away on that little-known album.

A year or so after that was recorded, she finally got the chance to do a full-blooded jazz album, paired with pianist Andre Previn (who we have also lost this year).  It was called simply “Duet,” and it remains one of the best jazz vocal albums ever recorded, and how it didn’t get recognised at the Grammy’s that year is anybody’s guess.  Day and Previn proved to be a dream team, complimenting each other beautifully, and while the album concentrated mostly on ballads, the up-beat jazz numbers were a delight.  The version of Close Your Eyes that opens the album may well be the very best recording of Day’s career, and her treatment of Fools Rush In is simply stunning.

Sadly, though, Duet wasn’t the commercial success that might have been hoped for, and Day’s later albums, while good, never really hit the mark in the same way as the pre-Duet album had done.  There was an awful religious album, a Christmas album, a kids album – pretty much everything but the albums of great standards that she should have been singing.   In 1965, she recorded Sentimental Journey, an album of songs associated with her big band days of the 1940s, and that rather apt release which took everything back to where it started for Day, was her final album release for three decades.  In 1994, a set of songs recorded in 1967 was released, and in 2011 came My Heart, a hugely successful issue of some songs that she had (mostly) recorded for her TV series in the 1980s when Day was in her mid-60s.   Any notion that she might have retired in the 1960s because of a failing voice was blown out of the water with this album, with Day (aged 89) the oldest person to have a hit album in the UK charts with a record of new material.

Sadly missing from that album was her wonderful 1985 reunion with the band of Les Brown, with whom she had worked in the mid-1940s.   One watches the video and wonders whether there really is something in those eyes that says “I’ve missed this.”  Whether or not she had  missed it, we shall never know – but one thing is for certain: we had missed her.  Her retirement from music in the 1960s deprived the world of so many more wonderful albums that, no doubt, we would still be listening to today.

But the 1960s had been a changing time in the music industry, especially for artists like Doris Day.  By the end of the decade, Sinatra was announcing his retirement, Ella Fitzgerald was without a stable recording contract, Bobby Darin had become “Bob” and was recording protest songs, Julie London and Jo Stafford had both effectively retired, and many jazz musicians who had made their mark in the 1930s and 1940s were musically homeless until Norman Granz came to their rescue with the Pablo label in the 1970s.

Despite attempts to lure Doris Day out of retirement, she couldn’t be tempted.  Only a short-lived, low-budget TV show entitled Doris Day’s Best Friends got her back on screen, where she was visited by human friends, but mostly it was about sharing her canine ones.

And now, aged 97, she has passed away.  Tributes are pouring in, as they should.  No doubt her films will be shown on TV in the coming week from Calamity Jane through to A Touch of Mink and maybe even a thriller like Midnight Lace.  Move Over Darlin’ and other hits will be played on the easy listening radio stations.

But take time out, if you can, to dig that bit deeper and listen to some of what I think was probably the real Doris Day – the superlative singer of jazz ballads both on screen and on record.  And, while you go hunting, here’s Doris in 1975 from the second of her two TV specials singing perhaps one of the most fitting songs for this occasion.  This was her final network TV special and a fitting and dignified end to her entertainment career.

Review: The Birth of the Blues (1941)

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The Birth of the Blues should perhaps be called The Birth of Jazz, or perhaps even more appropriately, The Birth of Jazz According to Hollywood.  If you want to know just why this film from 1941 is problematic in 2019, just check out the last sixty seconds, where the audience is informed that Louis Armstrong learned jazz from an all-white, middle-class jazz band.  Armstrong appears (for two seconds, literally) in a montage of the great jazz musicians of the age, of which only he and Duke Ellington are African American.  The really great jazz musicians of the early 1940s were apparently Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Paul Whiteman, and George Gershwin.

The films charts the rise to fame of a group of jazz musicians headed by Bing Crosby.  It is a loose re-telling of the story of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, whose claim to fame were that they were the first group to record jazz, back in 1917.  This claim to fame is pretty much glossed over in the film, which seems a little odd considering it should perhaps be the climax of it.  Instead, the film concentrates on how the group popularised jazz in New Orleans polite society and how they worked to take their new music to the rest of America.

It’s hard to know whether to be completely offended by the whole endeavour, or to allow yourself to be charmed by the effortless performances by Bing Crosby and Mary Martin.  But for every good performance, the film presents us with a racial stereotype or a rewriting of history.  Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising, but this movie seems to be more problematic than most from the period, if only due to its endless endeavour to whitewash history.  There are the occasional moments when the film tells us that African Americans might just have had something to do with the beginnings of jazz – in the rather cute prologue (see below) and where Eddie “Rochester” Anderson teaches Mary Martin how to jazz up a Tin Pan Alley number – but they are few and far between.

Musically speaking, many of the songs are Tin Pan Alley numbers rather that jazz as such, but Bing Crosby and Mary Martin sing beautifully and work very well together on screen.  However, the best number in the film is a wonderfully staged and arranged St. Louis Blues, sung by Ruby Elzy and a chorus. Unfortunately the sequence from the film is not on YouTube, but a performance from a radio appearance from the time is, although it is not as good:

The current DVD of the film runs around eight minutes shorter than the given run time on the internet, and so it may be possible that it is slightly edited for whatever reason.  Picture and sound are very good.  The film was released in the UK on DVD as a double bill with Blue Skies.

Love, Simon (2018)

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Well, we finally made it.  2018 is the year when a major Hollywood studio thought it could finally make a mainstream high school movie with a gay lead character.  Considering gay characters have been part of teen TV dramas for around twenty years, I have no idea why it has taken this long to reach this point, but Love, Simon carries a great burden of responsibility with it.

And the film is a delight.  No, it’s not a cinematic masterpiece, nor is it intended to be.  But it lacks any sense of self-importance, and is a well-made, unassuming, charming, likeable teen high school movie.  Note that I don’t say “gay teen high school movie.”  And this is the key thing here, and why the film has created interest.  This isn’t a film aimed at a gay audience, it is aimed at a general teen audience.

As a forty-something gay man this is a big deal.  There have been plenty of high school movies made before with gay teenagers as the central character, but they were indie movies made by gay men for gay men.  There was never a suggestion that such a protagonist could or would be of interest to a general audience.  And yet, tonight (when the film opened in the UK) the cinema audience appeared to be made of teenagers just having a normal night out at the movies.  And, remarkably for a UK audience, they actually applauded and cheered.   The gay protagonist didn’t matter, and surely that’s the way things could be.  The movie is being viewed as a teen rom-com, not a gay teen rom-com.  I wonder how much of a difference that must make if you’re a gay teenager growing up today.  I could never have imagined twenty-odd years ago going to a cinema with a group of straight friends to see Beautiful Thing or Get Real.  

The fact that Love, Simon betrays none of its historic significance on screen is part of what makes it so likeable.  But credit also has to go to the writer, director and actors for making sure the near two-hour film (Ok, it could have been trimmed just a little) actually works.  Nick Robinson (who I know very little about) was a superb choice in the lead role, but the supporting cast was also filled with faces familiar to the teen audience thanks to roles in The Flash, 13 Reasons Why, and others (a rather canny way to reassure those potential audiences who might be unsure of the subject matter).  And, while the film has attracted attention, there is a vast difference between this and the self-trumpeting pomposity that accompanied Brokeback Mountain thirteen years ago.  It’s a shame that it has taken a dozen years to get from that (all gay guys live miserable lives or die premature deaths) to this (it can be difficult, but it will all work out), but now we’ve finally made it, hopefully this will lead to other movies of a similar ilk very soon.

Geography Club (2013)

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Cameron Deane Stewart and Justin Deeley star as Russell and Kevin, two teenagers at the rather oddly named Goodkind High School who are gay and closeted – as are virtually all of the LGBT teens at the school.  But one night Russell and Kevin are spotted kissing by Min (Ally Maki), who is part of the “Geography Club,” a group where LGBT teens can get together without the worry of arousing suspicion thanks to the name of the group.  Russell joins, but getting Kevin, a star football player, to join is altogether more difficult.

It is easy to dismiss Geography Club, a relatively family-friendly film (only minor swearing and no nudity or sex) about LGBT teenagers (and others who view themselves as outcasts) at a high school in America.  It is bland, even twee in places, and yet it is remarkably charming  for the most part, even if there is something of a sting in the tale’s conclusion.

The film is refreshing in a number of ways.  Firstly, it’s a gay-themed film without sex and nudity at every opportunity.  Anyone who watches gay-themed indie movies regularly might be surprised to even know they exist at all.

Secondly, this isn’t really aimed at gay adults, but gay teens – arguably younger teens at that – and that separates this from the crowd.  The artwork for the UK edition of the DVD compares it to Glee, and the comparison isn’t totally unwarranted, but it also does the film something of a disservice.  Glee, even at its best, was never really believable in any way.  This, of course, was intended for the most part.  People don’t break out into song at every opportunity in real life, and the often-surreal nature of the show didn’t really place it in the real world, despite it’s attempts (both successful and unsuccessful) to cover virtually every topic important to teenagers – with the strange exception of drug abuse.  But my point is that the target audiences for Glee and Geography Club are the same, although they approach things is a very different way.

Thirdly (and this ties in with my first point), the film is well-acted, well-directed, and clearly has a higher budget than most indie gay-themed films from America.  This looks like a real movie rather than a student piece put together by eighteen-year-olds.

However, there are some issues.  Cameron Deane Stewart is superb as Russell – likeable and charismatic, and, ultimately, believable.  However, Justin Deeley was twenty-seven at the time the movie was made.  And he’s playing a sixteen year old.  No matter how fine an actor he might be (and he plays the part well), it’s obvious that the guy is not sixteen.  Quite why filmmakers insist on using men in their mid-to-late twenties to play teenagers is a mystery to me.  A few years older isn’t a problem, but ten year older is, and even more so when major films are now using kids/teens who are the actual ages of their characters (or thereabouts).  This is a relatively new phenomenon – Tobey Maguire was twenty-seven when he played high school student Peter Parker in Spiderman (2002).  Tom Holland was twenty when he played the role for the first time.  The difference is startling.   The same is true of the young cast of It (2017) who were, for the most part, roughly the same age as their characters.  It isn’t just a case of whether someone’s face looks sixteen or twenty-six – the believeability comes about by how they walk, how they talk, their build, etc.  This is not to criticise Deeley’s performance, which is fine, but it does rob the film of some realism.

That issue aside, Geography Club works rather well, and is worth revisiting, especially with the release this year of Love, Simon.  I haven’t seen that movie (it’s not out in the UK for another week), but it is a mainstream movie aimed a gay teen audience in the same way Geography Club is.  It will be interesting to see how the two movies compare, not just in plot and budget, but how they address their intended audiences.  Either way, Geography Club is well worth a watch, and is an important movie in its own right.  No, it’s not a gay teen movie made by a major studio, but it is still a gay-themed movie aimed at teens and, despite the plethora of gay-themed movies over the last fifteen years or so, that is still a rarity – which is rather surprising given the popularity, and almost classic status, of UK gay-themed movies such as Beautiful Thing and Get Real, made in 1996 and 1998 respectively.  In 2013, Geography Club managed to fill a void in the market – or, at least, provided a stop-gap until Love, Simon came along.

The Maze Runner Trilogy

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“They’re late,” are the first words spoke in The Death Cure, the final film in The Maze Runner trilogy.  They are rather appropriate, considering the fact that the film is finally hitting cinemas in the UK this weekend, after production was held up for a year following an on-set accident that seriously injured star Dylan O’Brien.   Sadly, the delay not only injured  O’Brien, but also stopped the momentum that the series had gathered, with audiences not used to waiting for three years for a conclusion to a group of films when the first two had been issued only one year apart.   The gap in production is obvious in some ways – O’Brien and some other members of the cast don’t look just six months older (as the film requires) but several years older, but such minor issues are forgotten after a few minutes and you get used to the difference.  The final film has received very good reviews, and with good reason.   Despite this, it is not the best in the series.  To my mind, the first installment wins that prize for managing to combine a sense of mystery, intrigue and action/adventure, and all of that in a lean running time of under two hours.  The Death Cure is more in line with the second movie, The Scorch Trials, concentrating on action sequences and, despite being nearly two and a half hours in length, no-one could complain that they were bored while the series reaches its explosive climax.

The Maze Runner, despite its production problems, might not be the most recognisable name in the cycle of films based on young adult dystopian novels, but it is arguably the best.  The Hunger Games has received more attention, but that series also seemed to have an air of self-importance that The Maze Runner does not.   The Maze Runner is there to entertain first and foremost, whereas The Hunger Games, for example, is almost a call to arms.  And I’m certainly not complaining about a series of movies or books that are trying to tell youngsters that people in power are not to be trusted and will screw you over in order to better themselves.  The earlier kids recognise that, the better.  But Hunger Games also seems sanctimonious about it, not helped by the lead character.  The same message is perhaps hidden away somewhere in The Maze Runner but it’s not what drives the narrative, and Thomas’s motives are not to bring down the establishment, but to save his own friends.   That he may or may not bring down the establishment whilst doing that is a simply a bonus for him, and this is clear throughout the final film.  Whereas the second ends with the decision to bring down WCKD, the third is still centred around rescuing his mate rather than getting too wrapped up in the bigger picture.  Thomas is a flawed character, and his decisions aren’t always the best ones, but that makes him more believable that Katniss in Hunger Games. 

The final film is a fitting finale, even if there are some moments towards the end where the action sequences just seem to go on for too long, no matter how big and loud and impressive they may be.  This series has always been more than being about big bangs.  But, again, there is no intention to be grandiose here – no desire to drag this adaptation of a single book over two full-length films.  That decision brought Hunger Games to a rather leaden, dull conclusion, whereas Divergent didn’t ever reach a conclusion at all, with the final movies having been shelved after the series ran out of steam and cinema tickets.  The Death Cure also rather unexpectedly manages to reunite viewers with characters from the first film that never got seen at all in the second.

When this cycle of youth adult films has left the cinemas and is looked back upon in five or ten years, The Maze Runner will, in all likelihood, be viewed as the most accomplished – and some reviewers are already saying that.  This is all the more remarkable given that these three movies were the first features directed by Wes Ball.  The casting was, in most cases, superb.  Dylan O’Brien managed to take the lead role and not allow it to dominate the films – despite his presence in most scenes, this is still an ensemble piece, allowing others to shine as and when required.  Thomas Brodie-Sangster as Newt, in particular, is superb, as is Will Poulter who rejoins the films in the third episode.  Despite this, Aiden Gillen seem to be on autopilot as the bad guy, with his motives never really explained, other than he has a job to do and he does as he’s told.   This is perhaps a flaw in the script, but there seems to make no attempt to add any depth here unlike, for example, Patricia Clarkson as Ava Paige, the head of WCKD, who is as morally ambiguous as Teresa (played by Kaya Scodelario), a trait that adds to the list of elements that separates these from similar films.  It will, as always in these cases, be interesting to see what the talented young cast that headed these movies, and director Wes Ball do next.

 

She-Wolf of London (1946)

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The release last year of the complete series of the 1930s and 1940s Universal Mummy, Dracula, Frankenstein and Wolf Man movies on blu-ray has, no doubt, had many, like myself, revisiting some of the films from these cycles that they hadn’t seen in some time – only this time in much better quality.  It is worth adding that, perhaps appropriately, the Invisible Man movies are nowhere to be seen on blu-ray with the exception of the original movie.  Without doubt, these films look wonderful in high definition, and some of them really come to life in a way they hadn’t in their DVD incarnation.

Dracula’s Daughter (1936) is a key example.  This is a weird, dark, and eerie film that came at the end of the first cycle of Universal horror films during the sound period.   On blu-ray, all of that weirdness seems even more startling, and the picture quality for a film of this vintage is truly stunning.

Werewolf of London (1935), from a year earlier, was another that I enjoyed revisiting over the Christmas period.  Not part of the Wolf Man series at all, but a stand alone effort from six years before Lon Chaney Jr started having a problem with facial hair, this one suffers a little from rather sedate pacing, but is still an interesting movie nonetheless and is certainly better than many of the Universal horror movies of the 1940s.

In fact, Werewolf of London was the last film I saw in 2017, and so it only seemed right that She-Wolf of London (1946)  was the first I screened in 2018.  This is probably the least-known of all the films on the recent blu ray sets, and yet it is also one of the best.  As with Werewolf of London, it is not part of the Wolf Man series, but a stand alone feature starring June Lockhart as a young woman who fears she has the family curse of becoming a werewolf when there are a series of murders and attacks in a park close to her home.

I confess I don’t have much time for the “House of” series, in which the various Universal monsters come together in one film, that dominated the 1940s horror cycle.  By this point, the series had, arguably, lost its way, becoming more fantasy (and comedy) than horror.  She-Wolf of London isn’t really traditional horror either – no hairy beasts are seen within the movie at all, with the except of a couple of dogs.  Instead, we have a film which seems to be a mix of Gaslightthe Val Lewton films for RKO, and even Rebecca.   It seems almost ironic that Universal, who at one point led the way with regards to horror during the previous decade, here borrows from what other studios were doing.  The central character’s obsession with her supposed family curse has a great deal in common with Cat People (1942) from the Lewton/RKO series  and The Undying Monster, made by Fox.  Sadly, She-Wolf of London doesn’t have the same intelligent script or sense of dread as Cat People, although it certainly treads some of the same ground thematically.  It is still a taut little thriller, aided and abetted by some really fine performances, including the wide-eyed June Lockhart herself, but also Jan Wiley, who does well in a far less showy role.  Sara Haden, meanwhile, chews up and spits out the scenery.

Running at only 61 minutes, the mystery element isn’t given room to be taxing, and the ending comes about rather suddenly, but the film seems remarkably classy compared to the other horrors that Universal were producing at the time, and the period atmosphere is nicely sustained throughout.   Certainly an enjoyable way of spending an hour if you prefer your horror to be of a sinister rather than supernatural variety.