It Chapter Two

The first chapter of It, released in 2017, ended with the adolescent Losers’ Club promising, should their victory over the film’s titular cosmic terror prove temporary, to come back and finish the job. Of course, such a return engagement would be inevitable, seeing as director Andy Muschietti and screenwriter Gary Dauberman left roughly half of Stephen King’s beloved epic doorstop unadapted. So what happens twenty-seven years later, when the now-adult Losers return to the haunted town of Derry, Maine, to once again do battle with Pennywise the Dancing Clown?

I didn’t expect the answer to be “hilarity ensues.” But It: Chapter Two places the comedic elements front and center. It’s not just a case of Saturday Night Live vet Bill Hader, playing pathological wisecracker RIchie, accidentally stealing scenes from heavyweights such as Jessica Chastain (as the tough, no-longer-tomboyish Beverly) and James McAvoy (Bill, now a beleaguered novelist). James Ransone provides his share of comic relief as the grown-up Eddie (no less hypochondriacal than he was as a child), and even McAvoy gets in a camp-laden rant in a memorable scene with a kid on a skateboard. Is this entirely a bad thing, though?

Well, probably, considering it consistently undercuts most attempts Dauberman and Muschietti might make to scare or disturb. With a few exceptions — most notably an early hate crime against a gay couple and a later encounter between Pennywise and a little girl with a facial birthmark — most of Chapter Two’s set-pieces are more likely to elicit amusement than fright. In the case of Hader and Ransone’s encounter with a certain Pomeranian, that’s clearly intentional. Ditto Bill’s encounter with a pawnshop proprietor played by a certain Stephen Edwin King. But one of Ransone’s earlier scenes, where he confronts his childhood demons in a pharmacy basement, probably wasn’t meant to come off as quite so funny.

Most of the film’s comedy comes from the filmmakers’ attempt to condense the source material (one of King’s longest and densest novels) into something that can be portrayed visually. The screenplay preserves the spine of the modern-day half of the novel’s narrative — the adult Losers are introduced, reunited, split apart, and finally reunite again to fight the final battle — while replacing the actual plot beats. Infidelity to King isn’t the problem here, as much of the novel’s action is either internal or metaphysical, and wouldn’t translate well to cinema. (That scene in the book — you know the one I’m talking about — at least makes thematic sense, even if to say it doesn’t work is an understatement.)

But the new beats and concepts (and there are a lot of them; Chapter Two has a runtime just short of three hours) often run the gamut from ridiculous to the profoundly stupid. Both book and film center on a ritual the Losers must enact to overcome It. King portrays it as a largely intuitive battle of wills with its own internal logic; the film transforms it into a silly pile of faux-Native American hogwash, with a scavenger hunt bolted on to facilitate the series of quest subplots that make up the second act. Everything culminates in a climax and denouement so bad that some observers have wondered if it’s intended as a meta-commentary on King’s own reputation as a writer of terrible endings.

I’m tempted to say that Chastain, McAvoy, Hader, and friends deserve better. (In fact they do. Chapter Two underserves the character of Mike as much as Chapter One did, and also conceives the grown-up version of Ben as some sort of sentient wallpaper.) But to be honest, the ensemble’s total commitment to the material makes the film entertaining even when it’s not particularly good. The kids are back, as well, appearing in flashbacks, recreating that easy camaraderie that was one of the first film’s highlights. Meanwhile, Bill Skarsgård, whom Chapter One afforded very little opportunity to actually, y’know, act, gets a lot more to do here than dance a janky jig or lend his visage to a dodgy CGI effect. And some of the film’s most memorable moments belong to him.

Still, it can’t be denied that, qualitatively, It: Chapter Two is, to say the least, highly uneven. As a narrative, it’s (to quote Douglas Adams) a crazy piece of near-junk. As a cinematic experience — well, your mileage may vary, but it’s been a while since I laughed so hard at a movie. I’m not entirely certain that’s what the filmmakers intended, but I’ll take an ambitious failure over a successful mediocrity any day.

Starring Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, Jay Ryan, James Ransone, Andy Bean, Bill Skarsgård, Jaeden Martell, Wyatt Oleff, Jack Dylan Grazer, Finn Wolfhard, Sophia Lillis, Chosen Jacobs, Jeremy Ray Taylor. Directed by Andy Muschietti. 169 minutes.

Capsule Reviews: September & October 2017

Capsule Reviews: September & October 2017

It

United States. Directed by Andy Muschietti, 2017. Starring Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Chosen Jacobs, Finn Wolfhard, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Bill Skarsgård, Nicholas Hamilton. 135 minutes.

Muschietti takes the same approach to the flashback half of Stephen King’s massive 1985 tome that he took to his Del Toro-produced début Mama: take a live-action performance, CGI it up, and throw it at a bunch of tweens. All that’s missing is Jessica Chastain (and she’s heavily favored to star in the sequel—although my ideal adult Bev would be Lizzy Caplan).

Astonishingly, it actually works, even if the parallels with Stranger Things are inevitable (but let’s be honest: Finn Wolfhard is the ideal Richie Tozier). The cast are the key to this, particularly Wolfhard, Sophia Lillis and Jack Grazer. Unfortunately, Jaeden Lieberher was a bit of a wash, but he didn’t impress me much in Midnight Special either.

But Bill Skarsgård, who plays the film’s titular clown-monster, deserves better than to be buried under all this CGI. He only gets to actually perform two or three times over the course of the film, and they’re easily the most memorable moments. More scenes like those would have made the difference between “very good horror movie” and “possibly the best horror movie of 2017.”

Mother!

Mother!

United States. Directed by Darren Aronofsky, 2017. Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem. 121 minutes.

By the time I figured out what was going on, the film was three-quarters over—which turned out to be a positive thing, because that was also the point at which I stopped caring about what was going on. But hey, I’m glad that someone was willing to finance and distribute the most alienating film of Aronofsky’s career (and I’m saying this as someone who loves The Fountain). I mean, it’s quite an accomplishment to make a film with Jennifer Lawrence that nobody wants to see.

Theory of Obscurity

Theory of Obscurity: A Film About the Residents

United States. Directed by Don Hardy, 2015. 87 minutes.

In the late sixties, a quartet of disaffected artsy individuals made the journey from Shreveport, Louisiana, to San Mateo, California. Operating on the premise that artistic clarity could only be achieved by entirely hiding their identities from the public, thereby insulating oneself from the expectations of the outside world—they formed the Residents, the cult rock band to end all cult rock bands. They gained notoriety for wearing eyeball masks in public and released classic records such as The Commercial Album (forty songs, each exactly one minute in length), Duck Stab!, and The Third Reich ‘n Roll. They pioneered postmodern deconstruction of pop songs, musical mashups, and music videos as an art form.

Sadly, Don Hardy’s documentary Theory of Obscurity can only get so close to a group of artists whose commitment to anonymity is such that they refuse to speak for themselves on-camera. Hardy gets plenty of interviews with collaborators and admirers (including Penn Jilette and members of Devo, Talking Heads, Primus, and Neurosis), along with the band’s longtime management team, the Cryptic Corporation. But the Residents themselves don’t break five decades of precedent.

In his defense, Hardy does offer a few highlights, mostly of interest to hardcore fans, such as interviews with ex-Cryptic officers and a video recording of a 1972 guerrilla open-mic performance by the band’s (probably fictional) mentor N. Senada. But with these exceptions, very little material seems actually revelatory.

Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049

United States. Directed by Denis Villeneuve, 2017. Starring Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Lennie James, Dave Bautista, Jared Leto. 163 minutes.

The world may not have needed a sequel to Blade Runner, but since it has one, we can all breathe a sigh of relief that it doesn’t suck. Blade Runner 2049 isn’t the mind-blower its predecessor was, but then again it never could be, not after nearly forty years of future-noir and cyberpunk. What it does do is advance the aesthetic somewhat, bolting it to an intelligent and thoughtful story. This is the benefit of having Denis Villeneuve at the helm: while I’ll readily admit to liking Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, I don’t think Ridley Scott’s treatment of the Blade Runner themes would have had quite the power.

My main criticisms are that the film is too long and does not feature enough Mackenzie Davis.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Ireland. Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, 2017. Starring Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Barry Keoghan, Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Suljic, Alicia Silverstone, Bill Camp. 120 minutes.

With his latest effort, Yorgos Lanthimos dials back his comedic sensibility (understanding that the definition of the word “comedic” shifts somewhat when applied to a Lanthimos film) to reveal something more nakedly disturbing.

Don’t take that to mean that The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a conventional specimen of whatever the hell it’s supposed to be. If it’s a horror film, it’s one in the same way that Funny Games is. Lanthimos puts a textual layer between the characters and the audience, usually represented by the actors’ somewhat stilted and awkward line-readings (this filmmaker’s trademark; you’ll recognize it if you’ve seen The Lobster), rendering even the most intense moments a little chilly.

This works very well for the film’s antagonist (played by relative newcomer Barry Keoghan), whose dead-eyed stare emphasizes the disturbance in the character’s mind. Most of the rest of the cast aren’t so lucky, and only Nicole Kidman seems to be her character as opposed to acting (this is one of my favorite Kidman performances in a long time).

This is almost certainly Lanthimos’s intent, and in all fairness, I liked Sacred Deer a lot—I enjoyed its Kubrickian aesthetic sensibility. But I couldn’t help wondering if the film would work better if he took a more conventional approach.