IT (USA/16/134 mins)
Directed by Andy Muschietti. Starring Bill Skarsgard, Jaeden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, Jack Dylan Grazer, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Chosen Jacobs.
THE PLOT: Summer, 1989. Derry is not like any other town. Children go missing every 27 years and are presumed dead. Teenager Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) is still mourning the loss of his young brother Georgie the previous autumn. Then he starts seeing a spooky Georgie and a malevolent clown known as Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard). His friends Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) and Stan (Wyatt Oleff) have had different yet similar experiences with the shape-shifting Pennywise. They’re not the only ones – new kid Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), bullied kid Mike (Chosen Jacobs) and the troubled Beverly (Sophia Lillis) find common bonds with the others. They will have to confront this evil presence in their town – but only if they’re together and can face their fears… THE VERDICT: Stephen King’s 1986 book ‘It’ is one of his best, most chilling novels. Spanning multiple characters over decades, it played on childhood fears of clowns and the unknown. A 1990 TV mini-series fronted by Tim Curry’s memorable Pennywise terrified a generation. Now the first half of the story has been adapted for the big screen, after a long and protracted birth that saw ‘It’ change scripts and directors. Is the end result just a re-heated rehash… or the second coming of Pennywise after an appropriate gap of 27 years?
The answer is resoundingly in the latter category. This version of ‘It’ retains the palpable, nerve-shredding fear and tension of King’s novel, while also being visually and narratively inventive enough to distance itself from the mini-series. Think of this ‘It’ as another take on the material, rather than a remake. With 134 minutes to play with, director Andy Muschietti has more time to set up the younger versions of the characters and explore their home lives in more detail. While Bill and Beverly are the key characters, each of the kids gets their moment to shine. The young cast do an excellent job here. Having worked with spooky kids on Mama has paid off for second-time director Muschietti. He coaxes very natural performances from them and their onscreen chemistry and camaraderie is very apparent. The shift in time period from the 1950s to the 1980s works well too, re-telling the story for another generation.
The other crucial element is Pennywise, the most common form of the presence known as ‘It’. Inevitably, Bill (son of Stellan) Skarsgard will be compared to Tim Curry. However, Muschietti and Skarsgard have wisely chosen not to copy Curry (though look closely in one scene and you’ll spot a brief tribute). Instead, they’ve tried a different angle on the character in the same way as Heath Ledger did with The Joker. This Pennywise is less chatty and sinisterly playful. He’s more of an anarchic, malevolent presence. Mix in a a touch of Beetlejuice with incredibly sharp teeth and it’s an unsettling physical performance.
Muschietti uses the big-screen canvas to portray Pennywise’s dank underground world with more visual invention. The sight of dead children floating in the air is a stand-out, as is the infamous bathroom sequence with Beverly (Muschietti takes it to another level). The only disappointing aspect is that we could be in for a long wait for the adult-set second half. In a sign of current Hollywood caution, the second half going into production all depends on the first half’s box office returns. Not a frame of the second half has been shot, but the script is ready to go. Warner Brothers need not worry. This version of ‘It’ is a sure thing. It’s confidently directed, well acted and proper scary. ‘It’ will once again do for clowns what ‘Jaws’ did for swimming. Be afraid, be very afraid… RATING: 4 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
THE DRUMMER AND THE KEEPER (Ireland/15A/94 mins) Directed by Nick Kelly. Starring Dermot Murphy, Jacob McCarthy, Charlie Kelly, Peter Coonan. THE PLOT: We first meet the troubled Gabriel (Dermot Murphy) as he burns a sofa. He’s not having a good day. He’s a drummer who is a bit different – he has bipolar disorder, leading to wild mood swings and erratic behaviour. His band mates Pearse (Charlie Kelly), Toss (Peter Coonan) and his concerned sister organise an intervention. Gabriel is sent to play soccer at a home for gifted young people and to put his energy to a useful purpose. It’s here that he meets and annoys the sensitive Christopher (Jacob McCarthy). Christopher is different too – he has Asperger’s Syndrome, which means that he’s lacking in social skills and has difficulty understanding other people’s behaviour. Despite Gabriel’s indifferent attitude towards Christopher, the two become friends. They need each other more than they know… THE VERDICT: ‘The Drummer And The Keeper’ is an impressive, quietly assured feature debut for writer / director Nick Kelly. Anyone who saw his 2010 short film ‘Shoe’ will remember the simple humanity of its message, that of holding on to hope when your life is on the rocks. There’s a similar aspect to his debut here, in that we have two characters who are initially poles apart but find common ground and an urgent need to connect with each other on a human level. How these two very different characters became such close friends is the heart of this involving, well-made film.
Kelly’s script is honest about its two lead characters and where they’re at in their lives. Gabriel needs direction and purpose, Christopher needs independence and understanding. Both of them have parental issues that trouble them, but don’t define their behaviour. Gabriel is quite cruel to Christopher at times, but a grudging respect develops nonetheless. Christopher takes his friendships seriously, even if Gabriel doesn’t. Kelly also takes a non-judgmental approach to their behaviour. Like another fine Irish film recently, Sanctuary, the film is keen to stress the humour and warmth of these characters, whatever their disorders. Nobody’s perfect after all.
The performances are so good here that one hopes that the Irish Film And Television Academy will remember them come next year. Murphy and McCarthy do small wonders with their characters, never betraying the truth of their behaviour or their ambitions. Murphy is given a meatier role here than in the forgettable Black Ice, while newcomer McCarthy has a touch of a young Ethan Hawke about him. They play off each other well, to the point where the acting disappears and they just are the characters. Kelly’s sterling direction is a key factor here in teasing out these performances. ‘The Drummer And The Keeper’ is a lovely character piece built around an unlikely friendship. It’s a keeper for sure and a sign that modern Irish cinema is as strong as ever. RATING: 4 / 5 Review by Gareth O’Connor
THE WORK (USA/Club/89 mins)
Directed by Gethin Aldous, Jairus McLeary.
THE PLOT: Folsom maximum security prison, California. Many of the male prisoners there are serving long terms and beyond-life sentences for violent and gang-related crimes. Twice a year though, the prisoners are given the opportunity to take part in group therapy sessions dubbed The Work, as part of a rehabilitation programme. Joining the prisoners in this one room are male civilians from ‘the outside’ who for their own, deeply personal, reasons have found themselves in this very unique situation. As the prisoners and civilians bond over their shared experiences of unfulfilled lives, a deeper understanding grows, along with a real chance to heal… THE VERDICT: Here’s something you don’t see every day. ‘The Work’ is a compelling documentary about prison life that feels immediate and relevant, without ever feeling judgmental about its subjects. Set almost entirely in one room and focusing on one group of men of varying ages, races and beliefs, the film adopts a fly-on-the-wall aspect where the camera becomes invisible and gets in remarkably close and intimate to its subjects. It’s the stuff of great documentary filmmaking, where barriers are broken down, walls and barbed wire seem irrelevant and the only real prison is the one constructed by the prisoners and civilians in their minds.
Here are there are some tragic stories of gang members who were abandoned by their brothers once they got caught, men whose fathers ignored them or treated them with contempt, or men who are lost and directionless, looking for someone to even notice they exist. The most troubled man here isn’t even a prisoner – he’s a judgmental civilian who is battling a major demon inside him. He’s one bad argument away from being on ‘the inside’. Guided by experienced facilitators, the men draw deep from their wells of pain and regret, to hopefully find a common link among each other, to guide each other through the dark and into the light.
Co-directors Gethin Aldous and Jairus McLeary capture some truly electrifying, extraordinary footage here. A quiet young man confronts his father’s disregard for him and breaks down, letting years of bottled guilt out. Early on, there’s a sense that tensions could explode at any moment given the potentially volatile mix of men here. It’s all the more remarkable that they don’t, that they actually protect and help each other through the process. In a society that generally frowns upon men showing emotion and tears, this film is quite cathartic. It’s a primal howl of bruised masculinity, but kept in check at all times by its message of rehabilitation for those on the outside as well as the inside. This is no new-agey nonsense. The proof is there in the closing credits. ‘The Work’ is a remarkable, powerful film that simply demands to be seen. RATING: 4 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
WIND RIVER (UK / Canada / USA/16/107 mins) Directed by Taylor Sheridan. Starring Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Graham Greene, Gil Birmingham, Jon Bernthal. THE PLOT: On the snowy Wind River Indian Reservation, a scared young woman runs out into the snow barefoot and alone. The next day, hunter and wildlife expert Cory (Jeremy Renner) discovers her dead body in the snow. As per procedures, tribal police chief Ben (Graham Greene) hands over jurisdiction to Las Vegas FBI Agent Jane (Elizabeth Olsen). It appears that the victim suffered an attack, with homicide suspected. However, the local coroner believes she died of natural causes due to exposure to the extreme cold. Jane enlists Cory’s help, as he knows the reservation like the back of his hand and also knew the victim. Finding the killer proves to be more difficult than imagined, as they get caught up in jurisdictional matters and the don’t ask-don’t tell policy that exists in this neck of the woods… THE VERDICT: Having written ‘Sicario’ and ‘Hell Or High Water’, Taylor Sheridan’s completes his separately connected frontier trilogy with ‘Wind River’. This time around, he’s directing too. No wonder he scooped the Best Director award at Cannes earlier this year. ‘Wind River’ is a rock solid genre piece, a police procedural with an authentic, knowing sense of its own time and place. Inspired by true events, it recalls the likes of Peter Weir’s Witness as the audience surrogate (Jane) is plunged into a culturally different environment where the people can be as cold and harsh as the unforgiving weather.
It would be easy to pigeonhole the film as a straight thriller, but it’s a lot more than just that. If anything, Sheridan is less interested in who the killer is and more interested in playing out the character dynamics. As tensions rise and Cory uses his hunter instincts to sniff out clues, the pieces gradually fall into place. There’s one hell of a stand-off in the third act that would no doubt impress Quentin Tarantino. Amid the shoot-outs, Sheridan finds time to explore Cory and his partnership with Jane, as well as his friendship with the victim’s father Martin (Gil Bermingham). The pacing of the film is just right here – enriching the characters while moving the plot along at a smooth pace.
While surrounded by great performances all round, this is very much Renner’s film. It’s his best performance yet, soulful and determined, as his character is haunted by the loss of someone close to him. Renner gets to show a lot of range here, much more so than in the Marvel movies in which he co-stars with Olsen. Cory has a firm sense of justice too, so by the end you nod in agreement with his practical approach to it. Sheridan’s direction doesn’t falter here, signing-off with a great closing scene. That’s followed by a sobering thought which raises some questions about what really goes on in these Indian Reservations. ‘Wind River’ is easily one of the year’s best films and comes highly recommended. RATING: 4.5 / 5 Review by Gareth O’Connor