Review of “Gretel & Hansel”

Gretel and Hansel (Sophia Lillis and Sammy Leakey) live in a dark time of plagues, poverty and famine. Their father has died and their mother, unable to feed them and becoming mentally ill, sends them out to find work and food on their own. Traveling through the dark woods, they become more and more hungry, resorting to eating wild mushrooms that cause them to giggle uncontrollably and hallucinate. Eventually, they run across a house that emanates the smell of cakes, bacon and other delicious foods. Gretel sends Hansel in through a window where he finds a huge table set with a roast pig, fresh fruits, pies, breads and more. Looking through the window, Gretel sees her brother swept up by a dark figure. Trying to break through with a rock, Gretel is preparing to start a fire when the home’s owner appears. Holda (Alice Krige), holding Hansel, is an elderly woman that invites Gretel to come in. Inside the dark house, Gretel and Hansel eat to their heart’s content. Holda is a bit odd but unthreatening. She tells the pair they are welcome to stay as long as they wish. Hansel thinks the pair have hit the jackpot, but Gretel is unsure. She has experienced some of the world and knows nothing is given without something expected in return. Holda doesn’t seem to want anything from the two but accepts their offer to do chores in exchange for food and a bed. Gretel notices there are no animals or fruit trees around and wonders where the pig, beef and milk come from. Holda begins to teach Gretel the ways of witchcraft and she is a quick study. Soon, Gretel begins having nightmares of secret rooms filled with corpses and children hiding in the woods. Nothing in Holda’s cabin is quite what it seems: The food, the dreams, nothing.

As I left “Gretel & Hansel,” I wasn’t exactly sure what to think. The film is stylish, going for a combination of depressing grey and smoky orange color schemes to light the film. There are massive storytelling gaps that might be considered artistic in a French impressionistic film from the 1950’s but now cause more confusion that anything else. There are no scares in the movie, only moments of tension and dread as you wonder what might be about the happen next. There’s also a thread of sadness and pity for these two children, sent out into a world that has nothing to offer but abuse, arduous labor and death. It’s not exactly the film to see if you’re looking for a lighthearted romp or a scary dive into a nightmare, but it might work if you’re forgiving and looking for a challenge.

To be honest, nothing much happens in “Gretel & Hansel.” There’s backstory involving the dark magic that appears later, a moment of peril as a strange man attacks the pair and a funny moment where the desperately hungry children trip balls after ingesting some magic mushrooms. Once the pair arrives at Holda’s cabin, the story puts on the brakes until the very end. There are some nightmares where Gretel sees a room under the house with a big table. The table has corpses under a sheet. There are other nightmares that might be real. Much of the film involves Holda and Gretel talking. It isn’t anything that interesting yet is presented as a revelation of dark insights. It works well enough to instill a desire to see what’s next, but the film only delivers anything truly interesting at the end. That ending feels undeserved and beyond what could be expected. I don’t want to spoil it for those wanting to see it, but “Gretel & Hansel” requires patience to find enjoyable.

“Gretel & Hansel” is rated PG-13 for disturbing images/thematic content, and brief drug material. I described the drug material earlier. The pair eat the mushrooms out of desperation, not to get high. There are scenes of blood, entrails and a severed limb poured onto a table. There is also a dream sequence showing children appearing on the other side of a mirror and pounding to get out. A crazed man is shot by an arrow in the head to prevent him from attacking the children. A nobleman asks Gretel if she’s a virgin. There is no foul language.

The original fairytale has received Hollywood’s attention before, most recently in 2013 with “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters,” an R rated action movie where Jeremy Renner plays Hansel as a diabetic, caused by all the sweets he ate at the witch’s house. He and Gretel, played by Gemma Arterton, roam the countryside, killing witches for money. It was a silly film with more in common with “The Avengers” than Grimm’s fairytale, however it made over $250 million worldwide on a $50 million production budget. Perhaps that’s why this film got made.

“Gretel & Hansel” didn’t make me feel much of anything. It is an interestingly shot film with a great deal of potential. Focusing on Gretel, as the title suggests, is a good idea from co-writer and director Oz Perkins, son of “Psycho” himself, Tony Perkins. It is a shame that so little came from it. Made for a paltry $5 million, the film will likely make a profit and provide Perkins with more directing opportunities, however this seems like a missed opportunity. Sophia Lillis is a very good actress. She made an impression with “IT: Chapter One” and deserves a vehicle that will fully showcase her talents. Unfortunately, “Gretel & Hansel” only makes her stick out like a sore thumb because she doesn’t put on a British accent. It seems like a careless oversight to not have her a voice coach so her character would blend in better with a largely UK cast. That is just one of many mistakes this film makes. And still I found myself enjoying the movie despite its best efforts to turn me against it.

“Gretel & Hansel” gets three stars out of five.

There’s only one new film opening this week, “Birds of Prey.”

Listen to Comedy Tragedy Marriage, a podcast about life, love and entertainment, available wherever you get podcasts. Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman123@gmail.com.

Review of “IT”

Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher) is dealing with the mysterious loss of his little brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) with the help of his friends: Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), A.K.A. “Trash Mouth” Tozier, Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer), a sickly boy that can’t go anywhere without his inhaler and Stan Uris (Wyatt Oleff), a germaphobe preparing for his bar mitzvah under the glaring eye of his rabbi father. Constantly under threat of a beating by a gang of bullies lead by Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) that calls them the Losers Club, Bill and his buddies are just trying to navigate school and deal with the traumas going on in their lives. Soon to join their group is Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), the “new kid” that has no friends but has the wrath of the bullies in common with the Losers Club. He has a crush on Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), a girl that is rumored to be the school tramp but really is living a different kind of hell with her abusive father. The most outside of the outsiders is Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), an orphan living with his grandfather and working on his sheep farm. Mike is homeschooled and is one of the few African-Americans in Derry. This draws particularly violent attention from Bowers and his bully friends. But the scariest thing in Derry is an ancient evil that lives in the sewers and comes out every 27 years to feed on the flesh and fear of children: His name is Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgard). Pennywise takes on the appearance of a clown to lure children in close so he can collect them. He ripped Georgie’s arm off before dragging him down into the sewers. Now more children are going missing and no one knows what to do about it or who will be next. Investigating Georgie’s disappearance, Bill has put together that whatever is killing the kids of Derry, it travels through the sewers. He also learns he and his friends have all seen Pennywise and been threatened by him. Bill wants to find it and kill it.

Based on Steven King’s book of the same name, “IT” was brought to life in a 1990 two part TV movie starring Tim Curry as the clown. For the time, it wasn’t half bad. It had a fair number of known TV actors playing the grown-up versions of the kids in a final showdown with Pennywise. While it had limitations of special effects and a TV budget the four hour production did find an audience and a place in my memory. Now director Andy Muschietti has more money, digital effect and more time to devote to a more faithful telling of the story of a killer clown preying on the children of a small town. “IT” is a sizable improvement over its TV ancestor.

The best part of the film is probably the ensemble cast of terrific young actors making up the Losers Club. From top to bottom, the entire group is perfect. The standouts are Finn Wolfhard as Richie Tozier and Jack Dylan Grazer as Eddie Kaspbrak. Wolfhard’s Richie is the kid that tries too hard to be the leader of the group when everyone knows he’s not it. Richie wears thick glasses and has the mouth of a horny sailor. Dropping inappropriate insults and one-liners like bad habits, Wolfhard is certainly the most entertaining member of the group.

A close second is Grazer’s Eddie. A hypochondriac with an overprotective mother, Eddie is constantly on the lookout for anything that might make him sick. The rundown of everything in the drainage tunnel that likely will give him some sort of infection is hilarious; particularly since much of the medical information he spouts is wrong. He tells a long story of how a friend of his mother’s told her about a friend of his that caught AIDS from the pole of a subway. He becomes more and more frantic as his get deeper into the story and the misinformation just keeps growing. While all the kids are great these two really stand out.

What also is impressive about the young cast is their depth of emotion in dealing not only with the threat of Pennywise but the dangers within their own families. There isn’t a missed beat or out of place reaction as we get brief looks inside the lives of almost all the kids. Most troubling of course is Beverly and her sexually abusive father. While nothing is shown on screen, it is clear there is something inappropriate about the way her father touches and talks to his young daughter. We don’t know where Beverly’s mother is or why she isn’t around but clearly there is something out of whack about this household over and above their poverty. Sophia Lillis shines in these dark scenes as she tries to sneak past her father, hoping he won’t notice she’s there. Starting the movie with long hair, Beverly cuts it short in an act of defiance and an effort to make herself look less attractive to her father. It is at once both a heartbreaking and liberating scene as she takes a pair of shears to her long auburn locks. None of the children in the story have easy or perfect lives and the cast is able to bring a surprising amount of depth and maturity to these complex roles.

Another interesting aspect of the film is how all the adults seem to be just a little off. There’s a creepy pharmacist that’s a little too greasy and blond and takes too much of an interest in Beverly. Eddie’s mom is sedentary, very overweight and requires too much attention from her own son. There’s a library worker lurking in the background behind Ben taking too much of an interest in the boy. The local cop lurks around too much and is clearly abusive to his son that happens to be the leader of the bullies. Bill’s dad is distant and doesn’t want him to continue investigating Georgie’s disappearance. None of it is over-the-top but there’s something not right about nearly every adult character we see.

Of course the most not right character of them all is Bill Skarsgard’s Pennywise. Skarsgard is an energetic killer clown often dancing or hopping or twisting himself into and out of difficult shapes. His voice is screeching at times and soothing at others. When we first meet Pennywise he’s talking to Georgie from a storm drain in the street. He’s smiling and seems friendly but you notice drool dripping from his mouth and his glowing red eyes. It isn’t long before Pennywise shows his true colors, and his mouth full of jagged sharp teeth, and rips Georgie’s arm off then drags him into the sewer. Even though you know something bad is going to happen (it must since this is the first few minutes of the movie) it still comes as something of a surprise when Pennywise’ mouth opens overly large and row after row of teeth is exposed, quickly clamping down on Georgie and sealing his fate.

Director Andy Muschietti uses Pennywise sparingly but effectively. It feels like Pennywise is in every scene but he disappears for long stretches of the movie only to pop back in briefly to try and eat one of the Loser’s Club. Muschietti digitally centers the clown’s face in a couple of scenes so no matter how he moves his face is always the focal point of the image. It’s an effective technique that keeps the audience centered on that malevolent mouth and the damage it is waiting to inflict on its next victim. Pennywise manages to be both terrifying and interesting and we may get to learn more about him in the sequel.

“IT” is rated R for language, bloody images and violence/horror. We see the aforementioned biting off of Georgie’s arm. A character has a capital “H” carved in his stomach with a knife. Various people are shown in various states of decay. Several people are shown being hit by rocks. A woman from an impressionist painting comes to life and threatens one of the children. A man described as a leper is shown with oozing face sores. A person is shown getting their throat stabbed by a knife and bleeding profusely. A person is shown being smacked in the head with a toilet tank lid and bleeding a great deal. A bathroom sink begins gushing blood out of the drain. A character is shown being impaled with an iron bar a couple of times. Foul language is common throughout the film.

A second chapter is coming. The enormous opening weekend box office for “IT” means a sequel is already being worked on. This film will likely focus on the adult versions of the kids coming back to Derry to face off with Pennywise in a battle to the death and, if reports are to be believed, we’ll also learn more about the history of the clown. I hope we get a flashback as I’d like to see the kids again because they are such good actors. Everyone watching the film will likely see themselves or someone they know in the characters. While “IT” may not be the scariest movie ever released it works as a film that has memorable characters behaving in a way that is relatable and believable. It is a minor miracle that “IT” works on so many levels.

“IT” gets five stars.

This week I’ll review “American Assassin” for WIMZ.com.

I’ll also review one of the following for this webpage:

All I See is You—

Mother!—

Listen to my podcast The Fractured Frame where each week a couple of friends and me talk about movies. It’s available everywhere you get podcasts and on WIMZ.com. Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman123@gmail.com.