It Chapter Two

Pennywise isn’t the only clown in the unintentionally hilarious sequel to the 2017 blockbuster

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.

The Martian

Sometimes I ask myself if Hollywood is still capable of producing something along the lines of 2001. The Martian isn’t quite in the same league, but it’s a step in the right direction.

United States. Directed by Ridley Scott, 2015. Starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mackenzie Davis, Donald Glover, Benedict Wong. 144 minutes. 10/10

So one of the things you’ve probably notice me bemoan is the lack of epic, big-budget, thought-provoking science fiction that actually bothers trying to look like it’s getting the science right. The indie scene has had some success over the last few years producing thoughtful, low-budget SF; films like Upstream Color, Under the Skin, and this year’s very own Ex Machina have all stood amongst the best films of their respective years. But even the best recent tentpole science-fiction has been more about exciting the audience with awesome effects and action rather than evoking the wonder of science. Not that there’s anything wrong with that: I loved Star Trek, Looper, and Pacific Rim. But sometimes I ask myself, “Self, is Hollywood capable of producing something along the lines of 2001?”

I wouldn’t necessarily say The Martian is in the same league as 2001, but it’s a step in the right direction. Adapted from Andy Weir’s 2001 novel by director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods, Cloverfield) evokes the real-world verisimilitude of hard sci-fi without turning into a college seminar, and thrills and excites the audience without dumbing down the science.

Key to its success is Scott and Goddard’s interpretation of Weir’s protagonist, Mark Watney (Matt Damon), a botanist attached to a six-person team studying Mars from the “Hab,” their base located at the Red Planet’s Acidia Planitia region. A severe dust storm forces the team to abort the mission, but when Watney becomes injured and lost in the storm, his crewmates, believing him dead, return to their orbiting vessel and begin their journey back to Earth. Yet Watney does survive, and with no way to contact either his crew or NASA, realizes his only hope of making it home depends on surviving long enough to meet up with the crew of the follow-up mission–four years hence at a landing site two thousand miles away.

The film puts the audience on Watney’s side immediately, granting him an indomitable, endearingly nerdy personality who pledges to “science the shit out of” his predicament and vows that “Mars will come to fear my botany powers.” The immense challenges he faces excite him, not overwhelm him, and if he dies, he’ll do so knowing he was a pioneer, the first human in history to have an entire planet to himself. This is the sort of role that Matt Damon was born to play. His performance, which he tackles with his trademark confidence, is so effortless you often don’t notice what a good job he’s doing.

The fantastic characterization and acting aren’t limited to Mars, as the story intercuts between Watney’s plot and three others: NASA management handling the fallout of the botanist’s “death” and coordination of efforts to bring him back when they discover he’s alive; the actual work of the science teams; and his crewmates’ journey home. These plots feature performances equal to Damon’s, especially from Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, and the great Chiwetel Ejiofor as the NASA managers; Jessica Chastain as the mission leader; and Community‘s Donald Glover as a scene-stealing, eccentric astrodynamicist.

If there’s one flaw in the script, it’s that it never quite convinces the audience that there’s any real chance of Watney not making it back to Earth. Yet Scott keeps the suspense high, partly through Pietro Scalia’s perfect steady pacing, but mostly through effectively communicating the scale of everything. Between the cinematography and the effects work, The Martian looks like Scott filmed it on location on, well, Mars, not a soundstage with a green screen. The script also consistently reinforces the vast distances the astronauts must brave.

The Martian earns its place among recent science fiction classics not just through its visuals or its story, but by inspiring a sense of wonder in its audience, and by embodying a faith in the human spirit that may seem corny on paper but is intensely moving in its execution. This is what science fiction, as a genre, is for. One of the best of the year.

THE MARTIAN poster.

Crimson Peak

Del Toro goes Gothic, with enchanting results

United States/Canada, 2015. Directed by Guillermo del Toro. Starring Mia Wasilkowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver, Burn Gorman, Leslie Hope. 119 minutes. 8/10

Like any storyteller, visionary filmmaker Guillermo del Toro has a set of themes and ideas that recur throughout his body of work. Children, lacking at least one biological parent if not both, forced to confront dangerous circumstances intertwined with secrets from a past not wholly dead. It’s easy to see how these fit into del Toro’s masterpieces Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone, but they even make themselves clear in less “arty” works (Pacific RimThe Mimic) and his production work (MamaDon’t Be Afraid of the Dark). These themes are also the hallmarks of the Gothic genre; it was, perhaps, inevitable that he would eventually make a film like Crimson Peak.

Granted, protagonist Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) may not be a child, but she possesses a certain naïveté at odds with her inner strength and willfulness. An aspiring author and daughter of a wealthy New York industrialist (Jim Beaver of DeadwoodSupernatural, and Justified), she meets the dashing but destitute British baronet Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston, Wasikowka’s Only Lovers Left Alive co-star), and the two quickly fall in love. The elder Cushing doesn’t approve, but his sudden death leaves the two to pursue their romance; they soon marry and move into the Sharpe estate (nicknamed “Crimson Peak”) with Thomas’s elder sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain). But life is not happy at Crimson Peak, and Edith soon takes ill and begins seeing what could be ghosts. Back in New York, Edith’s former suitor Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam, Sons of Anarchy), comes across information uncovered by Edith’s father shortly before his death…information that sheds suspicion on Sir Thomas’s real motives…

Those familiar with del Toro’s work will not find themselves surprised at Crimson Peak’s lush beauty. Crimson Peak is a place where the walls can literally run red–not with blood, admittedly, but with mud (Sir Thomas tells us his forebears built his ancestral home upon clay), but the symbolism is clear, as are the visual possibilities. The most obvious aesthetic influences come from The Shining and the ’60s Technicolor Hammer Gothics (you did notice the heroine’s surname, right?) along with more understated classics such as The Innocents and The Haunting. The special effects are marvelous, with del Toro staple Doug Jones providing fine motion-capture performances for some of the ghosts.

However, del Toro hasn’t fallen so far down the CGI/SFX rabbit-hole that he’s forgotten how to tell a human story, something that distinguishes him from other filmmakers in his niche such as Jackson, Cameron and the Wachowskis. Crimson Peak’s world-building relies as much on its characters and storyline than its visual and technical aspects. While it is, unabashedly, a work of formula, the characters are more archetypes than clichés. Wasikowska and Chastain dominate the film with fierce performances, but the rest of the cast–Hiddleston, the endearingly gruff Beaver, Hunnam, and character actors Leslie Hope (as Alan’s snobbish mother) and Burn Gorman (as a slimy private investigator)–get enough room to do what they do best.

The result is a multilayered film that attempts a lot–mystery, love story, ghost story, horror, big-budget spectacular–and succeeds at all of it. Dark, lovely, atmospheric, and creepy, it’s the perfect film for the Hallowe’en season.

Originally published by Cinema Axis.