Monday, September 16, 2019

It follows


Second verse, same as the first.  And that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Directed by Andy Muschietti
Written by Gary Dauberman (based on the novel It by Stephen King)

Spoiler alert: moderate

I can't imagine how anybody could've been actually disappointed by It: Chapter Two, though that is the consensus on it—"big ol' disappointment" is without a doubt how it'll be remembered, emphasis on the "big" part, since one of Chapter Two's most salient features is its absurd, almost-three-hour length. Personally, I wasn't disappointed by it, because I couldn't be disappointed by it; I got my disappointment out the last time. 2017's It: Chapter One beat every fair and unfair expectation I had out of me, over the course of its own, also-too-long-but-somehow-not-nearly-as-long running time, and it already basically laid out what we should expect from its sequel: that it would double down on the mostly-enjoyable, mostly-unscary CGI-driven waking-nightmare setpieces, and these would be fueled by a bigger budget than the first film, giving it a sense of blockbustery escalation, resulting in the kind of production value that remains a real selling point for a horror film, even here in 2019.

Lo, this is exactly what Chapter Two does, arguably not to any particularly diminished effect.  Meanwhile, in one respect, Chapter Two is even a pleasant surprise, because as we braced ourselves for the uninterrupted adaptation of the "adult" or "boring" half of Stephen King's novel, with a whole new cast of grown-ups, we had precious little reason to expect it to ever replicate the most worthwhile thing about Chapter One, this being the lived-in sense of rapport the first film's child actors managed to bring to their interactions as a clutch of seven shitheeled kids from 1989.  And yet!  With a few caveats, Chapter Two absolutely does replicate that feeling within its adult ensemble.  That doesn't make It: Chapter Two any kind of great, not even the deeply-shaded greatness of the first part.  But it does make it a tiny bit miraculous, and even a tiny miracle is nothing to spit at.

So, having made the decision that we would split the two interleaved halves of King's book into a "1989" part and a "2016" part—always very blatantly not the best idea, and the updated chronology introduces its own complications, but in any event it's the decision we're stuck with—we pick up 27 years later, with our self-styled Losers having mostly left Derry, ME, in search of a town not built atop a hellmouth.  In the almost three decades since they first put the entity that called itself Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgard) back into its hole in the ground with the power of self-esteem and friendship, or something along those lines, our gang has forgotten almost everything about their supernatural adventure—this will later be attributed to the malign power of the Derry monster—and while they did manage to escape death-by-clown back in 1989, they've never quite escaped Derry, their lives still defined by their respective childhood traumas and heartaches, even if those traumas and heartaches are all-but-lost in a fog of memory. Bev (Jessica Chastain/Sophia Lillis), daughter of an abusive father, has managed to marry a cartoonishly abusive husband.  Ben (Jay Ryan/Jeremy Ray Taylor) has traded in his fat for a buff-making body dysmorphia.  Richie (Bill Hader/Finn Wolfhard) has honed his trashmouth to become a famous comedian.  Eddie (James Ransone/Jack Dylan Grazer) has parlayed being a weenie into a job as a highly-compensated professional weenie, and married a clone of his overprotective mother.  As for  Bill (James McAvoy/Jaden Martell), he's become a horror novelist, not unlike a certain other horror novelist, which is both strangely on-the-nose and something the movie does very little with (perhaps the book did more with how Derry impacted his art), other than using it as an excuse to make a half-dozen jokes at the expense of King's reputation for shitty endings, which is a little worrying, since this is one of them.

It's not the only thing the movie does nothing with; it's difficult to say whether the absence of a single offspring between the seven of them, a serious statistical improbability, is a loaded implication or just the avoidance of a narrative inconvenience, though I reckon again the novel would probably answer this question.  And one of the caveats about the cast is that, well, they're movie actors, which means that there are six men in their forties and not one of them is balding, not even freaking McAvoy.  It fits in well enough with their general movie glossiness; it's arguably a minor little relatability issue that of the six in the diaspora, even the ones with "normal" lives are abrasively successful, and not one but two of them are straight-up celebrities.  It's like a Halloween episode of Friends, except the gender balance is off and the girl's job is fucking somebody, which I grudgingly read as thematic.

Anyway, while they've been out striving in their various ways, Mike (Isaiah Mustafa/Chosen Jacobs) has stood fast in Derry; I think he owns the library, which is also kinda odd. Mike remembers everything, and he's been waiting for the day that It would rise again, and now the time has come.  He reassembles the band, with the exception of Stanley (Sir Not Appearing In This Film/Wyatt Olef), who, within minutes of receiving Mike's call, slashes his wrists out of sheer dread at the prospect of facing the cosmic demon a second time.  This leaves it up to the remaining six to find totems of their past throughout the town, perform a ritual Mike's learned about that is so foredoomed to failure that it's (almost) surprising that no one, even the writer, ever brings up what an enormous plot hole it represents, and, finally, to face the incarnation of all the wounds inside them that haven't closed.

In this regard, the new cast is pretty fantastic, though given its top-heaviness with power-actors like McAvoy and Chastain, it's surprising that the names further down on the marquee make the biggest impressions.  They also generally do a better job resembling their childhood selves: McAvoy is the biggest problem, playing his American accent plus a stutter well if without particular distinction—I didn't know McAvoy still had restraint in him, but he somehow manages not to make this a 24th personality for the Horde—but also failing to provide much physical continuity with Martell, who already has a deeper voice than the full-grown version of his character does.  Chastain, on the other hand, is white and redheaded, which is where the physical resemblance ends, but she captures Lillis's performance style better, perhaps because Martell didn't have one for McAvoy to capture.

Anyway, Ryan's hunk version of Ben has a striking similarity to Taylor around the eyes, and he uses them to emphasize Ben's helpless awareness that all it takes is one look at  Bev to send him straight back to puberty (it's possible that Ryan perceiving himself to be out of his league against Chastain dovetails especially well with Bev remaining Ben's unobtainable crush object).  Ransone, a veteran of Sinister that I'm glad to see get bigger parts, is pitch-perfect as a grown-up iteration of Grazer's Eddie.  I assume Hader (whose resemblance to Wolfhard is that his character also wears glasses) has gotten all the plaudits for being the film's effective comic relief, which is fair enough given that he manages to entwine comic relief with terrified desperation and with his own heartbreak—and in a movie that's this long, I don't think it would kill it to clarify certain things a little bit more—but in any event, Hader's only effective thanks to the rest of the cast, especially Ransone.  (As for Mike, he was such a miniscule part of Chapter One that Mustafa is essentially creating a character from scratch regardless.  Judged on his own merits—as Chapter Two's exposition machine—he's certainly better than good enough.)

This (general) commitment to the Losers as emotional beings, or at least emotional vessels, is why it's okay, for a certain value of okay, that It: Chapter Two is barely ever scary.  The downside is that It: Chapter Two is only occasionally rigorous as a psychic journey, and indeed spends much its time apparently deliberately eschewing rigor, even when rigor ought to have been easy to come by.  E.g., it's damned hard to understand why Bev is confronted with a naked old crone, or why Ben is threatened with drowning in dirt, when their nightmares would almost seem to orchestrate themselves, and in other cases even do.

No, for whatever reason, director Andy Muschietti is once again perfectly happy with a whole lot of chaotic nonsense.  Some of this works on a deeper level than just digitized horror-comedy: Richie's repressed sexuality is represented by a parsable metaphor, if a goofy one.  Sometimes it simply acknowledges, in its bizarre stream-of-consciousness way, what an 80s kid probably would find scary: a direct reference to The Thing here, a bizarre cameo from The Shining there, the gratifying homage to champion FX artist Rob Bottin everywhere.  And sometimes you simply can't imagine what Muschietti was thinking when he did it: the needle drop of Juice Newton's "Angel of the Morning" in the middle of one of his setpieces has been universally excoriated, and rightly so, since it's outlandishly terrible.  But it's also the kind of thing that sounds like it ought to at least be wild—poor Eddie menaced by a leprous ghoul whilst an incongruous AM hit blares on the soundtrack—but it's not even that.  It's just fifteen seconds of the swell from the song's chorus, it pokes right out of the film like an unhammered nail, and it really might represent the most impenetrably opaque choice I've ever seen made in a movie that cost more than ten million dollars, where I can't even begin to guess as to what its function was supposed to be.

But mostly Chapter Two is characterized by setpieces that are at least modestly impressive in their imagination and staging, trying so hard that trying hard seems to be at least half the point, and since you're stuck with a great deal of it, best to find it charming since the alternative is to wither away.  It's funhouse horror, figuratively.  In one triumphant moment, it's funhouse horror literally, and it's in the heart of a carnival twisted by illusion that Chapter Two finds its sloppy philosophy expressed the most perfectly—heaps and heaps  of disorienting imagery and explosive gore loosely tied to a character's inner demons thrown at a wall, over and over, until at last Pennywise (and Muschietti) finally find that one scare that actually sticks.

Given that I was rarely less than entertained, I just can't see getting too mad at it—well, except to the extent that it is indeed quite natural to get mad at any movie indulgent enough to reach 169 minutes, especially when half its story has already been told in a previous, 135-minute movie, and when the whole thing's content consists almost exclusively of variations upon "evil alien clown eats folks."  That is, as noted, maybe not ideal; and I won't say that by the time it gets to a wearying Marvelesque climax that reminds you that this film really is bringing you closer to your own death than most do, you don't feel that it's at least slightly too fucking long.  But that's just Life At the Movies in 2019, and, as with Chapter One, there's something about Chapter Two that just works—even when it's not working at all—and, hell, it might just be down to the pair of them being Ambliny adventures in R-rated horror clothing, which is rare enough to be pleasurable, even if they don't always hit all the right marks for either adventure or horror.  Or it might be that Chapter Two succeeds so well in the conversation between its two casts, and the way it throws its characters back into childhood not because childhood is good, because in their case it was awful, but because it gave them what they needed most, which was a chance to kill their past for good, and start afresh for the first time.

Score: 7/10


  1. I'm so glad that ANYBODY else is spotlighting James Ransone! I thought he was terrific in the film, while McAvoy and Chastain struggle with extremely boring stock characters and Bill Hader doesn't do anything he hasn't already done better in Barry.

    1. I mean, I did still like McAvoy and Chastain--I feel like my desire to put this in under 2000 words kept me from mentioning that I found the former's restraint admirable, and I kind of love the way he naturalistically reads whole scenes with a hand in his pocket like a nerd--but, yeah, he's not driving the film the same way, which is curious for a putative "lead." And I think Jay Ryan may be best in show.

      Nonetheless, does this mean I have to give Sinister 2 a spin now? I kind of resent that movie for existing even though it's supposed to be perfectly fine.

    2. And oh yeah, B: do you think that back in the 50s when Stephen King and Steven Spielberg grew up, that kids actually did spend a lot of time walking around in the sewers?

    3. Kids 100% walked around in the sewers all the time, kids are weirdos.

      Also do yourself a favor and pretend Sinister 2 never came out. Just ignore its existence and sleep well.