Movie Review – Pop Aye

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EXPECTATIONS: A sweet, gentle buddy comedy/road trip film.

REVIEW: Although I am a fan of all film genres and tropes, the specific genre trope that I have an affinity for is the human-fantasy friendship trope. Whether it’s between a human and a horse (War Horse), a human and a robot (The Iron Giant), a human and a mutant super-pig (Okja) or a human and a Totoro (My Neighbour Totoro), a strong bond is a strong bond, no matter how bizarre the circumstances are.

In the case of Kirsten Tan‘s directorial debut, Pop Aye, it’s between a human and a elephant. Unlike Tony Jaa‘s action epic The Protector where the man kills billions of people to get his elephant back from mustache-twirling bad guys, the main lead in Pop Aye reunites with his eponymous childhood pet and tries to take him back to his village. Will the film be as touching as the prior examples or will the film need to be put down?

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Thaneth Warakulnukroh makes his acting debut as Thana, a middle-aged architect, who is bored at work as well as at home with his wife Bo (Penpak Sirikul). One day, as he wanders the Bangkok city, he spots an elephant which turns out to be his childhood pet, Pop Aye.

Faster than you can say “Don Quixote”, he buys Pop Aye and then decides to take the elephant back to the village where they grew up together and into his uncle Peak’s (Narong Pongpab) care. Thus, they embark on a road trip through the rural Thailand to their hometown of Loei Province, Isan.

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Okay, maybe the last statement in the introductory paragraph was a bit mean-spirited but there are many examples out there that are downright terrible like Marley and Me (which is as incorrect as the grammatical error of a title) and the recent film A Dog’s Purpose (why kill off one dog when you can kill off five?). Those films are inferior examples because of the filmmakers insistence in getting every single tear out of the audience that it borders on grievous bodily harm.

Thankfully, Kirsten Tan‘s Pop Aye is on another level in comparison, as Tan provides an amiable, bittersweet and surprisingly surreal piece of work. The subtle and contemplative tone and the script by Tan makes the film more than the sum of its parts.

One of the things the film gets right is the titular character itself, Pop Aye. Named after the cartoon but renamed for copyright purposes and played by Bong and two other elephants, Pop Aye is as contemplative as he is charming. His reactions towards the many bizarre characters in the road trip are funny. But he really stand out when you see his final shot of the film, as he stares into the horizon.

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In fact, the humour in the film is quite sharp. Whether its showing a sex toy to prove a point, seeing the interactions between Thana and Bo or the great spaghetti western-like score by Matthew James Kelly, the film is not without its levity. But overall, the film is basically a low-key character study for Thana.

Thaneth Warakulnukroh gives a great performance as the lead, as he lends the right amount of gravitas, melancholy and restrained jubilation. Penpak Sirikul (last seen in The Hangover Part II) lends a surprising amount of humanity to the role of Bo, who could have easily be seen as a materialistic person.

Other surprises come from the supporting cast, such as Yukontorn Sukkijja as Jenny, a transgender woman whom Thana meets in a nightclub. Her enigmatic presence, her brief exchanges of dialogue and her sharp wit understandably makes her a stand-out to Thana as well as the audience.

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But the biggest surprise is Chaiwat Khumdee as Dee, a vagrant who is content with where he has ended up life. His optimism and modesty and Khumdee’s performance make Dee the best character in the film. His character also offers an opposing view in comparison to Thana, as both have cherished memories that may not be as idealized as they think.

Speaking of what is expected, there are a few surprising curveballs in the narrative that lend a lot of depth to the film, as the journey is more than just revisiting the past, but is more along the lines of sheer remorse.

The film does drag a little bit in terms of its pacing and the destination the film gets to is a bit slight compared to the journey preceding it but overall, Pop Aye is a film that stands out from the pack of human-fantasy genre trope and is worth looking out for.

Quickie Review

PROS

Great performances

Subtle storytelling and filmmaking

Narrative curveballs surprise and lend a lot of weight to the story

Beautifully shot and scored

CONS

The ending is quite slight

Slow pacing

SCORE: 7/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Thaneth Warakulnukroh, Bong the elephant, Penpak Sirikul, Chaiwat Khumdee, Yukontorn Sukkijja, Narong Pongpab
Director: Kirsten Tan
Screenwriters: Kirsten Tan

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Movie Review – IT (2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: Something that will live up to the vast potential of the novel.

REVIEW: In the early ages of youth in a person’s life, there is always that one scary story, whether it’s told in a form of a book, a tale or a film, that will inherently scar a person for life when one witnesses it. And in my case (as well as many), that is the story of Stephen King‘s IT.

There’s just something eerily demonic about the presence of a clown in the eyes of a child. Whether its the surrealism of the world the clown is originated from or the twisted view of how a clown needs the presence of children to technically survive, King twisted that point of view and made it into a wonderfully demented horror story as well as an exploration of fears of the youth.

After the novel, we had the 1990’s mini-series, which was questionably successful (as are most Stephen King film adaptations) as a film, but one thing is for certain. And that was Tim Curry as Pennywise, the dancing clown. His performance and his combination of menace and sadistic humour still haunts people to this day.

So when I heard that Hollywood was planning to adapt the Stephen King novel, I was excited. Especially when Cary Fukanaga (director of Sin Nombre, Jane Eyre, Beasts of No Nation and the first season of True Detective) was named as the director of the film(s) and Will Poulter (Son of Rambow and the upcoming Detroit) as Pennywise. But my expectations turned quite sour when the two left the project due to creative differences/scheduling conflicts.

And now we have Andy Muschietti, the director of Mama, a good horror film that was more touching than terrifying. And with a cast of new young talent as the kids of The Losers Club and Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise, the film kicked into gear. Will the film live up to the source material and scare the wits out of everyone? Or will it fall flat like a low-budget practical effect of a giant spider?

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The film starts off with a kid, who is playing with a paper boat out in rainy weather and then it suddenly falls in a sewer drain. As the kid tries to retrieve the boat, the sinister and demonic clown Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) appears and allures him with sadistically amusing chit-chat until he lays his jaws on him.

This sets off the events for The Losers Club, a group of young social misfits, who decide to fight the demonic clown to prevent children from being abducted. The club consists of Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), the leader of the group who has a stutter and has never gotten over the fact that his younger brother had disappeared; Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), a knowledgeable boy with an inkling for New Kids on the Block and is being bullied for being overweight; Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), the lone female member of the club who is struggling through poverty as well as harbouring a dark secret involving her father; Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), the joker, bigmouth and attention seeker of the club; Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff), the religious kid of the club, who has problems with being left alone; Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer), the hypochondriac of the club who could have been kept hermetically sealed in his home if his mother had gotten her way and Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), the last member to join the club, who is home-schooled and has problems with finding his place in the world.

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The opening scene of the film is basically a litmus test of whether you’ll like the film or not. If violence towards young children on-screen puts you off in a big way, then stay away from this film because the predicaments that they go through are quite harrowing stuff, especially ones that do NOT involve Pennywise. Scenes of bullying, domestic abuse, potential rape are there and the film does not hold back on those elements.

Ironically enough, the scares involving the fantasy and Pennywise are sometimes incredibly overstated that they would scare one into laughter. Whether that is seen as a bad thing is entirely up to one’s perspective, but since Pennywise is a clown, it ends up being incredibly fitting.

If you can stomach the violence, then you will be able to experience the fun, nostalgic, bonkers experience that is IT, which most importantly captures the spirit of the novel. Director Andy Muschietti captures the 90’s setting really well, without resorting to excessive use of period music or fashion, but more on filmmaking techniques thanks to acclaimed Korean cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon and composer¬†Benjamin Wallfisch, who both capture the nostalgia, the wholesomeness and the horrific feel of the story. Even the font of the opening credits feels like they would be used in films of the 90’s.

The film is quite faithful to the novel but it does tone down the rough edges as well as the controversial moments i.e. the sex scene involving minors in the climax. Characters are also changed slightly to positive effect i.e. Richie Tozier no longer makes jokes that involve racial epithets and caricatures.

But let’s get down to the real question that needs to be answered. Is the film scary? For the most part, yes. Muschietti executes the scares quite well, as he uses practical effects (including extensive make-up effects by Amalgamated Dynamics) to create some horrific imagery like the leper, the creature from the painting and of course, Pennywise himself. But the scares are sometimes hindered by wobbly CGI, but it can be easily overlooked, since the rest of the production values are ironclad.

The film does resort to jump scares but Muschietti never overuses that technique and the noises are always accompanied by something that would make such noises, unlike inferior horror films which would have scenes where loud noises were obviously put in place during post-production.

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And like most great horror films, the scares only truly work if the audience cares about the characters and the young ensemble cast are all fantastic in their roles. So much so, that this may be the best ensemble cast of 2017. Everyone is just on point that the upcoming chapter would have a lot to live up to in order to cast the adult roles of these characters.

Bill Skarsgard lives up to the family name and provides a great performance as Pennywise, although he is sometimes overshadowed by the effects utilized to create the terrifying effect of the character. But when he makes his physical presence felt, he makes a positive impression. It certainly helps that he stands at 6’4!

Jaeden Lieberher (who resembles a young Ben Foster) is committed as Bill, as he portrays the guilt and determination of the character really well. Sophia Lillis (who resembles a young Amy Adams, *hint hint*) is fantastic as Beverly, as she portrays the allure, the suffering and the determination of the character convincingly. The scenes involving her character and her father are truly intense and she handles it like a pro.

Finn Wolfhard (famous for the Netflix show Stranger Things) is a hoot as Richie, as he handles the profanity, innuendos and quips with class and thankfully, great timing. The rest of the cast are all up to their level like Jack Dylan Grazer as the amusingly panicky Eddie and Jeremy Ray Taylor as the shy yet lovable Ben, who has fantastic interactions with Lillis. Special mention must go to Australian actor Nicholas Hamilton, who plays the bully Henry Bowers, as Hamilton portrays the role with such conviction that it becomes easy to see him as psychotic and not histrionic.

As much as good IT is, there are some problems and it is mainly due to the condensing of the source material. Some of the events of the novel are cut down and lose their effect in the process like the character development of Mike, which is quite rushed, as well as the character development of Bowers, who becomes increasingly terrifying a little bit too quick.

Also, the tone of the film does shift haphazardly, whether going for fantasy to reality or going for something lighthearted to sadistic. In one particular scene, there is a scene of bullying at first, then it changes to something more fun due to a certain choice of music and it ends up being quite jarring and off-putting. And at 135 minutes, the film does run a bit too long and it easily could’ve trimmed some scenes to make it an even 120 minute run-time.

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But overall, IT succeeds as an incredibly fun film that provides ample scares, exemplary cinematography and music by Chung Chung-hoon and Benjamin Wallfisch, a genuine love for Stephen King‘s source material and of course, a fantastic cast of young talented performances that surely will go far in their careers. Don’t float! Run to see IT!

Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic acting from the ensemble cast

Stellar cinematography and music that captures the wholesome feel of the 90’s

Ample amount of scares that elicit both fun and terror

Very faithful to the novel

CONS

Overlong running time

Abrupt tone shifts

Condensing of the source material result in story hiccups

SCORE: 8/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Bill Skarsgard, Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Nicholas Hamilton, Jackson Robert Scott
Director: Andy Muschietti
Screenwriters: Chase Palmer, Cary Fukanaga and Gary Dauberman