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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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Election still wins by a landslide

Twenty years later, the black comedy Election is still a hysterical look at power grabs and the meaning of integrity. But while the film hasn’t changed, the story is completely different —and better than ever.

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Election

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the incisive satire Election. Based on a Tom Perotta novel, Election tells the story of a high-school civics teacher, Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), who plans to take down know-it-all student Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) as she vies for school council.

The film is still hilarious — a well-liked but sad-sack teacher tries to thwart an overachiever’s bid for school president by throwing a popular football hero into the race (and, accidentally, his disaffected sister). Thematically, it’s as relevant as ever. Integrity. Meritocracy. Nihilism. Hypocrisy. Ethics versus morals.

Watching Jim and Tracy’s battle of the wits many years ago, I recall Election posing the question not just of who would win, but who should win. The audience grappled with who to root for because Tracy and Jim’s misdeeds were presented on relatively equal footing. On paper, Jim’s deeds are far more dastardly than Tracy’s, but at the time, their personalities mattered more. Reviewers painted Jim as imperfect but well intentioned, while Tracy was obnoxious. Seductive. Even an “aggressive vixen” (cough cough Roger Ebert).

But a rewatch in 2019 reveals Tracy as more of a heroine than ever — and Jim McAllister a more pathetic and mean-spirited hypocrite than he seemed 20 years ago.

Part of what fuels Jim’s disdain for Tracy is a complicated plot point—his best friend and fellow teacher, Dave Novotny, was fired because he began sleeping with her. The film (and book) mostly portray Tracy as an equal, willing participant in this relationship, even a manipulative one at that. Tracy narrates her full consent, a point likely meant to assuage viewers and readers of the 90s, but today’s (hopefully) better understanding of power dynamics have us questioning not just the claims of Tracy’s manipulation, but her ability to consent.

A clearer understanding of a troublesome sexual relationship aside, it’s also easier to champion Tracy Flick thanks to shows like Parks and Recreation, a rare mainstream hit that humanizes ambitious women. The strong parallels between Election and Parks and Recreation are obvious. In true Leslie Knope fashion, Tracy’s mother writes letters to successful women like Connie Chung, soliciting advice for her daughter. And the race between Tracy Flick and Paul Metzler—played hysterically by forgotten teen dope of the 90s Chris Klein—closely mirrors Leslie Knope’s city council race against Bobby Newport. In every one of Paul Metzler’s ditzy and excited proclamations, it’s hard not to hear Paul Rudd’s portrayal of Pawnee’s fortunate son turned political candidate. (It’s also hard not to wonder if April Ludgate was partly based off Paul’s nihilistic sister, Tammy.)

More than anything, though, what changes how we see Tracy Flick in 2019 is how we see Jim McAllister in 2019.

Twenty years ago, Jim was far more convincing as a passionate educator. Sure, he was smug and made stupid decisions and treated people poorly. But his steadfast belief in morality (skewed as his version of it was) made him more sympathetic than he deserved to be.

Jim is truly despicable, though. His obsession with thwarting Tracy’s achievements reveals precisely who he is. He is every man who had a chance to achieve and fell short. He is every man who wasted his privilege and settled for something less than great. And he is every man who has ever resented a woman for rising to where he didn’t, despite his head start.

What Jim hates more than anything is feeling bested, particularly by women. After Linda Novotny, Dave’s ex-wife, comes clean about their affair to Jim’s wife Diane, his smothering declarations of love instantly turn dark.

“Why did you do that?” he screams into Linda’s answering machine. “You ruined my life, is that what you wanted?” Later, when Linda explains their tryst was a mistake and that he took advantage of her vulnerability, his anger turns into gaslighting.

“You hugged me! You kissed me!” he whines, as though Linda didn’t promptly reject his first hamfisted advance right after her marriage fell apart. (She did.)

Much as he lectures about it, Jim has a piss-poor understanding of morality. His treatment of Tracy shows how little he cares about a grown man taking advantage of a high-school student; his scolding judgments of Dave’s relationship with her seem performative and self-important. For all the lukewarm proclamations of affection for his wife, when his infidelity is revealed, he expresses nothing more beyond an expectation to be forgiven after a waiting period. And while he wields it often, he shows no understanding of the unfair power dynamic he briefly has with Linda, a vulnerable and confused woman who relied on him for support during a difficult time.

That’s why, when Jim describes seeing Tracy silently celebrating her victory in the hallway outside his classroom, he projects his anger and clings to his version of morality.

Defending his plan to throw the vote count in Paul’s favor, he says: “The sight of Tracy at that moment affected me in a way I can’t explain.”

But we can explain it, no problem. He is filled with pitiful male rage.

After all, underachieving Jim channels his need for validation through his relationship with women — an affair with Linda, “winning” against Tracy. But Tracy only channels hers into achievements. Extracurriculars. College applications. And winning the student council election she knows she deserves. She’s never concerned with “beating” Jim McAllister because she knows just how insignificant he will be in her life. And that infuriates and enrages him, like it does with countless other men when they’re outwitted by a woman.

While the film itself obviously hasn’t changed in 20 years, this dichotomy between Tracy and Jim used to be murkier. Tracy Flick is ambitious, cutthroat, smarter than her classmates and teachers, and shrill. That used to be all you had to say to get an audience to view a female character as at least partially unsympathetic, if not an automatic antagonist.

Back in 1999, Election relied on this assumption to paint Jim’s and Tracy’s wrongdoings in a similar light.The film’s trailer pieced together snippets of Tracy’s most stick-in-the-mud soundbites and pitched the movie as the story of an “ego the size of the Grand Canyon.” And it still is, but now we’re finally asking the right question.

Whose ego is that?

Election was originally released in April of 1999.

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Film Reviews

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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