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Film Review: Skyline

Skyline isn’t a perfect venture but in its attempt to marry large-scale feel with gritty human complexion, finds itself comfortably straddling the line between the two types of alien invasion films.

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There is a difficult line to tread between the introspection and scale of the two kinds of alien invasion films. The first, the Cloverfield and District 9 kind, are often heavy on the socio-political undertones and focus more on a close-knit group of individuals who drive the narrative along. The second, Independence Day types, are more the global event; with stories that interweave characters, nations, and feel in every sense, scaled to be as massive as the galaxies it places us within.

The Brothers Strause (known more for their special effects work, music videos, and the less than stellar Alien Vs. Predator Requiem) weave their alien invasion paradigm somewhere between the two schools of thought. With a fairly limited budget of around $10-20million (with only $500,000 of it spent on physical production), one can see that it would be tough to compete with the grandeur of a Roland Emmerich flick. Yet the duo, along with writers Joshua Cordes and Liam O’Donnell, do their damndest to stretch the boundaries of imagination with more than ample success. The difficult part is of course, when aliens invade, the entire world tends to know about it. So making a small slice of this pandemic work is no easy task. If Cloverfield was Blair Witch, then Skyline is your Paranormal Activity of alien invasion films.

Skyline focuses on a small group of the young and beautiful as they deal with the global alien attack. Led by Jarrod (Eric Balfour) and his girlfriend Elaine (Scottie Thompson), they find themselves trapped in a skyrise Los Angeles apartment alongside their friends as they fight for survival against an unknown alien entity that appear to feed off the human brain. But unlike Independence Day, we get to know very little about the humans. A light backstory has Balfour’s character visiting his good friend Terry (Donald Faison) while a seemingly interchangeable trio of beautiful female companions provides conflict within. The moral compass of the cast is strengthened by the hardnosed Oliver (Dexter’s David Zayas; the concierge of all people), who adds a sense of wisdom to the much younger cast’s angsty bravado. Some of the dialogue is painfully hokey but we do get pretty convincing performances from the entire cast. Balfour and Zayas carry their weight and would fit just as well in bigger productions of the same ilk.

We know even less about the aliens- other than the fact they’re quite tough to kill, large in number and have very keen hunting skills. They just show up and kill everyone, using light to attract the weakness in humans and consume in mass quantities. The Strause’s special effects history and work means that the actual design and finish of the aliens are really quite good, with a believable sense of purpose and scale.

The limited budget however, means that the breadth of the film suffers from severe claustrophobia. We are enclosed within, literally, the apartment building and the immediate surroundings- never really letting the atmosphere of the film breathe and expand. Instead, the vastly unused terrain of Los Angeles and its surrounding vistas are merely a distant backdrop, seen in brief montages during the air battle between the largely anonymous human armed forces and their galactic counterparts.

The most frustrating aspect of the film is that it only feels like its getting started as it closes. The last frames of the film finally give the audience a sense of ambition, but before we can get really excited at the potential of the unfolding narrative, the end credits roll. Skyline isn’t a perfect venture but in its attempt to marry large-scale feel with gritty human complexion, finds itself comfortably straddling the line between the two types of alien invasion films. The Brothers Strause are good at getting as much as they can from limited resources, and one can only deduce from the way Skyline ended, that the pair have much more up their sleeves.

SKYLINE
Directed by: The Brothers Strause
Written by: Joshua Cordes, Liam O’Donnell
Cast: Eric Balfour, David Zayas, Scottie Thompson, Brittany Daniel
Released by: Rogue Pictures / Relativity Media / Hopscotch

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Film Review: It Chapter Two

The sweet spot between Stephen King fans, horror fans and (believe it or not) comedy fans

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The final installment in the It saga is a clever, scary, probably-too-long allegory about the power of friendship — complete with a 20-foot clown spider. Sure, it’s probably a half-hour longer than it really needs to be — but It Chapter Two is still a fantastic film that hits the sweet spot between Stephen King fans, horror fans and (believe it or not) comedy fans.

It’s a story about friendship, and just like the first film, it’s those relationships that make this story so compelling and keep it woven together in a way that you really care about what’s happening to all the folks Pennywise has been menacing across these two films. Sure, Bill Skarsgård’s absolutely terrifying performance as Pennywise is what puts butts in the seats, but at its heart, this is a story about the power of friendship to win out over pretty much anything. If we work together, we can overcome fear, loneliness, doubt, depression — and yeah — even a supernaturally godlike killer clown. Thankfully, all the blood keeps that message from getting too sappy along the way.

The first It in 2017 was a surprise, monster hit — but for good reason. The Stephen King adaptation by director Andy Muschietti is pretty much a horror masterpiece wrapped in a compelling coming of age story. Think Goonies meets a face-eating monster flick with jump scares galore to keep the blood pumping. But, despite a decently-closed ending to the first chapter, the story was always conceived as a two-part film run, which is pretty much the only way one could hope to possibly wrap up King’s massive tome (the studio actually briefly considered splitting Chapter Two into two films, because there’s just so much material). 

It Chapter Two makes a wise decision to keep the stellar younger cast from the first film involved via ample flashbacks, while still providing space for the adult Losers to live and breathe (and, ahem, die) while bridging the gap between who they were and who they all grew up to be. It also embraces the inherent silliness and insanity of its premise to laugh, now seen through the lens of middle-aged adults as opposed to middle school minds. It’s a hard tone to hit, and it arguably might come off with more laughs than scares, but it’s true to the inherent madness of Pennywise.

The adult cast is also a home run by and large. James McAvoy makes for a capable adult Bill; Jessica Chastain is the embodiment of adult Bev; James Ransome nails grown-up Eddie; and Isaiah Mustafa does a capable job providing the necessary info-dumps as adult Mike. But the real breakout is Saturday Night Live alum Bill Hader as grown-up Richie. There’s scattered buzz that Hader could be worthy of an Oscar nomination for his performance, and he deserves every bit of it. We knew Hader had comedy chops, and he uses them plenty to keep this dark tale from getting too dark, but he really taps into the emotion of what it’d be like to go through something so traumatizing. And the moments that break Richie will almost certainly break you, too.

As for the changes to King’s original novel, sure, they’ll certainly be noticeable for fans. That said, the book itself — especially the ending — is absolutely wild and arguably impossible to adapt in a way that could work on the screen. The ending on-screen largely stays true to King’s themes built into the novel, and for the story that’s been told across these two films, it really does work. Hell, even King himself shows up in a cameo to make a joke about just how hard it can be to get an ending right.

Thankfully, despite a few bumps, It Chapter Two pretty much nails the landing. In a world filled more and more with King adaptations, this two-film run will stand as one of the best.

It Chapter Two is in cinemas now

IT CHAPTER TWO
Directed by: Andy Muschietti
Written by: Gary Dauberman
Cast: James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, Bill Skarsgård
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Run time: 169 minutes

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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Fight Club, and the Quest For Authenticity

An exploration of the struggles in constructing an authentic self

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As with any of Quentin Tarantino’s films, his ninth is a fountain of hot-takes. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has something for everybody with an opinion about just about anything. The film has touched off conversations about #MeToo, nostalgia, Christianity, and foot fetishism. In short, I fully understand that the last thing anybody needs is yet another angle on this movie. 

Nonetheless, I would like to propose that Tarantino’s latest is not only the sweetest, most optimistic film of his career, it’s also a rather profound exploration of the struggles in constructing an authentic self. By looking at this film’s use of doubling, and by contrasting it with how doubling functions in David Fincher’s Fight Club, I want to argue that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood offers unexpected wisdom about the possibility of finding authenticity in a world of artifice, even as it creates an artificial past.

The film is utterly unique in Tarantino’s catalog, lacking (until the ending) the gruesome violence that characterizes so many of his films. The specter of that violence still hangs over this film and adds a lot of juicy tension to scenes like Cliff’s visit to Spahn Ranch. One has come to expect carnage in scenes like this in the past, and Tarantino masterfully uses that expectation to create a scene that is a masterclass in suspense. 

Once Upon a Time‘s directorial craftsmanship is joined by absolutely stellar performances across the board. Leonardo DiCaprio’s lead performance as Rick Dalton is a complex web of rage, vulnerability, and desperation and should earn the actor an Oscar nomination if there is any justice. Likewise, Margot Robbie is simply dazzling as Sharon Tate and, like the film itself, she makes the viewer long for a world in which Tate survived Charles Manson’s impotent rage. 

It is Brad Pitt as Rick’s stunt-double, Cliff Booth, that I want to focus this analysis on, however. Pitt’s performance pairs nicely with DiCaprio’s and his characterization of Cliff is a kind of negative to DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton. For all Dalton’s frantic, nervous desperation, Pitt’s Cliff is a rock of bemused stoicism, and the two performances feed seamlessly off one another. So seamlessly that they function as two parts of a single whole, which is of primary concern to the film, I argue.

The doubling of Cliff and Rick offers substantial food for thought about the nature of identity in this film, and I want to suggest that Once Upon a Time says something important about personal redemption. Some viewers have dismissed Tarantino’s latest as mere wish-fulfillment, but others, such as David Bentley Hart, see a sincere moral imagination in the film’s re-imagination of the Manson tragedy, and its attempt at crafting an alternative narrative that redeems the broken past through art. Hart’s reading of the film seems right to me and I think that central to the film’s power is Rick Dalton’s process of reconciliation with himself. He struggles with being two people at once, the biological Rick Dalton, and the Hollywood creation “Rick Dalton.”

DiCaprio’s Dalton is an amalgam of an old-Hollywood system actor. He is part Clint Eastwood, part James Arness, and part John Wayne. He is meant to be taken as an archetype of an actor who is a product of a star-driven system. Whatever role Dalton was playing, he was, for his audience, “Rick Dalton,” and his strength was in delivering on the expectations that system created. The problem with that for Dalton is that he became a fictional version of himself in the process. His individual identity, as an artist and as a man, was lost, replaced with the product “Rick Dalton” that was crafted and sold by the entertainment industry. And as Hollywood began transitioning away from the system in which this was successful, Dalton experienced a profound identity crisis.

The forging of that artificial identity required the pairing of Rick with Cliff, his confidant, and stunt double. “Rick Dalton” could not very well be an action hero if he could not fall off a horse. However, to do so would eventually bear a heavy toll upon Rick Dalton. Cliff, the rugged stunt man, could bear the physical burdens that made the on-screen persona possible. 

The resulting partnership was a two-sided coin for Dalton. Sure it made the creation of “Rick Dalton” possible, but it stunted the human development of Rick Dalton, and in the midst of epochal changes in the industry threatened his very existence. Cliff made Rick look powerful on-screen, but off-screen, Dalton’s life became similarly dependent upon Cliff, who could not fix his own TV antenna or even drive his own car. To create the heroic, powerful “Rick Dalton,” Rick Dalton became nothing but a spider-web of powerlessness and anxiety. 

“Rick Dalton’s” power resided fully in Cliff’s preternaturally capable hands. He may or may not have killed his wife, but he is a master stuntman nonetheless, an expert driver, a skilled handyman, and he even beat Bruce Lee in a fight. This is all before his near single-handed massacre of the Manson family at the film’s climax. In short, the power he brings to the creation of “Rick Dalton” is dangerous, with a mystical violence lying just below the grinning, calm surface he presents. He is the id to Dalton’s superego and together, they form a precarious ego.

Here a comparison to Fight Club is in order.

David Fincher’s 1999 adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel also dealt with a character split into two halves. The crafted persona of “The Narrator” (Edward Norton) comes to depend on the unbridled violence of his other half, Tyler Durden (performed by, coincidently or not, our own Brad Pitt). Durden is the id to The Narrator’s out-of-control superego, and he frees the depressed white-collar worker from the constraints put on him by consumer society, supposedly connecting him back to his state as a “natural man.” 

Like Rick Dalton, The Narrator lives a life curated for success in the machinery of his industry. The demands of this effort eventually replaces any authenticity his life might contain with a manicured performance. His is a kind of simulacrum rather than a man. 

Here is precisely where Once Upon a Time in Hollywood diverges from Fight Club, however, and the change helps make Tarantino’s film far more optimistic than Fincher’s. 

For Fight Club’s Narrator, Pitt’s Tyler Durden is a hammer used to destroy the carefully curated image. Trapped in a consumer nightmare existence, Norton’s character invents a psychic projection of himself that frees him from the shackles of his inauthentic lifestyle. What many viewers of the film miss, however, is that, despite the apparent ethical move toward authenticity, what this actually results in is a kind of fascist movement (today we might call the Fight Club an Alt-Right group) based on a mythology of the past. In short, The Narrator and Durden replace one form of inauthenticity with another. 

Once Upon a Time inverts the relationship between Pitt and his double. Here, the free and violent Cliff is not the solution to Rick’s problem of inauthenticity, he helps facilitate it in the first place. (One other major difference is, of course, that here Pitt’s character literally exists and is not a psychic manifestation of The Narrator’s subconscious). When, at the film’s end, Rick and Cliff amicably part, both are given the new opportunity to exist without dependency upon the other in this optimistic fantasy world in which Old Hollywood and New Hollywood come together without the violent fracture of the Manson murders.

The difference is significant. Because Cliff is not leading Rick from one artificial life to another, Rick is free from his codependency upon his stunt man and free to create a whole version of himself. 

And as it turns out, Rick is a good actor. In the film’s third act, while separated from Cliff, he blossoms in his craft. Hired by a director who breaks with practices of the system that created “Rick Dalton,” Rick is forced to act, not merely perform “Rick Dalton.” DiCaprio’s performance in these scenes are the moral centerpiece of the film and we see a transformation in Dalton. Freed of the constructed identity that created “Rick Dalton,” including his id, Cliff, he sheds the confines of the old system and metamorphoses into an actor that may one day star in Roman Polanski films of an imagined New Hollywood. 

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