It Chapter Two (2019)

SEPTEMBER 5, 2019

GENRE: SUPERNATURAL
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (IMAX SCREENING)

I've revisited the 2017 It a couple times since my theatrical experience, and realized along the way that the real MVP here was the casting agent. The kids are all so good in the roles, it more than makes up for the movie's faults (some dodgy FX, a repetitive middle section), and keeps it rewatchable long after its ability to scare has worn off. It's almost like a hangout movie as opposed to a horror movie; I'd almost rather watch the kids go swimming and ride their bikes than fight the evil clown. And the tradition continues here in It Chapter Two; in addition to the kids all returning (some noticeably aged for scenes that are supposedly taking place during the original's events), the adult cast is largely terrific as well, and whenever I found myself sighing or even rolling my eyes at some of the script's decisions, I'd be instantly back on board whenever it got back to letting these performers bounce off each other.

You should all know the story by now: It, most commonly in the form of Pennywise the clown (Bill Skarsgård returns as well, naturally) returns to Derry every 27 years, and while the kids did a good job of putting him in his place and maybe having him go back to his hole a bit early, they didn't actually kill him at the end of the first film. Well it's 27 years later, and the murders have started again, prompting Mike (Isaiah Mustafa, a standout) to call his fellow Losers - all of whom moved away, unlike him - and cash in on their promise to come back if it ever returned. All but one of them do (the marketing has made zero attempt to hide this, so don't give me any "spoiler" shit), and the fun begins again.

While the book and original miniseries started in this present day and filled in the kids' part of the story via flashbacks, the 2017 film didn't have as much of a hint of the adult stuff - apart from the "Chapter One" title (which it only got at the end), there was nothing to suggest it wasn't a standalone story. And that worked perfectly there, but here it's slightly odd that the adult characters reunite literally moments after we've first seen Bill Hader, James Ransone, etc., not to mention maybe 20 minutes into a movie when it's something designed to be around the story's halfway point. But that's just testament to how good their chemistry is; in fact I flat out loved their Chinese restaurant reunion, as it really did give me the same feeling I get from some sequel with a long gap when two old friends share the screen again (Han and Leia in Force Awakens would be a good example), even though it occurs, in Bev's case, the next scene after we first see her in the form of Jessica Chastain.

I bring this up because the movie as a whole has to constantly overcome its peculiar situation: staying faithful to a book that they consciously went out of their way to rework the last time. I almost wonder if leaving the kids out of it entirely (or perhaps confining them to bookending scenes) would have been better, as most of the scenes with them are repeats of what we saw the first time. At around the hour mark, Mike tasks them with finding a token to sacrifice to perform a ritual he believes will stop the monster, and tells them they all have to go out on their own to find their own unique object, which means that a big chunk of the middle of the film robs us of its best asset: the adult cast's chemistry. In its place, we get a series of repetitive sequences where Ben, Bill, Bev, etc go off to retrieve their object, have a flashback about some scary incident that occurred in 1989 (one they didn't show us last time, obviously), then encounter It again in the present before running back to the inn where they're all staying.

This isn't too far of a departure from the book, where Mike asks them to go around town to restore their memories, but the "fetch quest" element is what makes it not work here, not to mention treading water narratively. In the book it made sense - we hadn't gotten the full story of their first encounter with It yet, so it was still filling in gaps, and it made sense to have each character remember those things when off on their own. But we already know what happened last time - seeing this or that isolated, previously unmentioned incident doesn't really offer us anything necessary, and it's worse if you aren't easily scared by BOO! scenes because that's their actual function anyway. And by changing the purpose for this "let's split up" mission in the first place, the movie opens itself up to a rather silly plot hole, as one character goes off to their old school and goes through his motions, even though his token was in his pocket the whole time anyway (and this isn't even a reveal - he shows it to us before he's even arrived in Derry). I understand the motive on the creative team's part for this 30 minute chunk of the film (get the kids back! Add some scares!) but it really does the movie no favors.

Another "quirk" of the film is a bit too much comedy. I am ride or die for Bill Hader and I think he is great as Richie, but they overuse his ability to make a joke - I'm of the "less is more" school of thinking, and he undercuts more than one scare or emotional moment with a crack that wasn't really necessary. When Bev actually "Beep Beep"s him at one point (the only instance of it used in the original context, I think?) I silently thanked the woman and hoped it would stick. Don't get me wrong - I laughed my ass off at a number of his lines (there's one in the clubhouse that damn near killed me) but they lean on it a bit too much. And there are other things that had me shaking my head, including a bizarre four second-long needle-drop during a scare scene that comes off as an editing error more than an intentional decision, and a truly awful nod to The Shining - in a movie where things had to have been cut (Bev's big line in the trailer isn't in it, for starters) I had to wonder why this stuff got left in at all.

And not for nothing, but the first movie made 700 million dollars worldwide - why couldn't WB improve their FX budget for the sequel? Once again It takes several forms, and while some look fine, others look downright last-gen video game level "not good", undercutting the effectiveness of what might otherwise be a perfectly good setpiece. And if you ever want to prove to someone the value of practical FX over CGI, just show them the fortune cookie scenes from the miniseries and this film back to back - it was one of the 1990 film's most lauded scare moments, and it doesn't work at all here. Skarsgård's stuff, unsurprisingly, always works perfectly, though I swear he's in it a lot less this time, which doesn't help the overall feeling that the film doesn't generate as much nightmare fuel as its predecessor (which itself wasn't exactly the scariest movie ever made). The suspense is there, particularly in the finale since they've proven they're not going to do everything the same way it was originally written, and there are a couple of great moments like Pennywise bashing his head against a funhouse mirror, but perhaps because of the length of the film spreading these moments out more, I can't say I was ever truly tense or unnerved (at least, not after the brutal opening scene, which book readers will know but was left completely out of the miniseries: the horrible death of Adrian Mellon).

But the cast! Chastain is always wonderful, but I loved seeing this two-time Oscar nominee fully commit to the traditions of a horror movie, including getting covered in blood and diving/ducking her way around whatever CGI nonsense was going on around her. Ransone (as Eddie) was also a terrific choice (possibly the best "look alike" beyond Stan, who... well, you know), though like Hader they tend to let him go for laughs too often (as well as F-bombs - between the two of them I swear they rack up more than the Pulp Fiction characters), and again, Mustafa as Mike was a knockout; his scenes of trying to explain what's going on to his old friends who have forgotten everything (including him) are kind of devastating in a way. James McAvoy as Bill was less impressive, however; not only did he look the least like his younger counterpart, but he never quite made the role his own either (doesn't help that young Bill was a standout for the original), and he also has to keep sighing his way through the film's endless running gag about how his writer character can never come up with a good ending, a nod to a traditional criticism aimed at Mr. King himself. It's cute the first time, but by the 5th or 6th? Not so much.

That said, the repetition of this idea, that the endings he had aren't good and need to be changed (when we meet Bill he's on the set of an adaptation of one of his books, where the director is insisting on a new ending), had me thinking that they were just warning us that things wouldn't go down the same way. And indeed, there are some modifications to the finale, most of which I think are improvements. In fact even though I've lived through ______'s death in two other incarnations at this point, this time was the first time I cried about it, and I attribute it to the actors (one in particular) just flat out killing the loss they were feeling. Also, Audra doesn't follow Bill to Derry this time, so Bill doesn't have to save her, allowing the focus to remain on our Losers the entire time, which is the right choice (there's also a new plot point involving a letter that I quite liked) and helped make THIS ending a winner.

(Also, I have to assume it's intentional since other King adaptations are given little nods here and there - Bill's writing room at the end looks almost identical to Gordie's at the end of Stand By Me, which is a lovely tribute to a fellow "the ending made me cry" King tale.)

So ultimately it's... a lot like the first one! If I were to rattle off a list of strengths (the cast, the general vibe, the story) and weaknesses (the FX, the repetitive middle) in broad terms you wouldn't even know which one I was talking about, which I guess makes it a successful sequel that unfortunately has to combat higher expectations (and a longer running time; it's basically one sequence shy of being a full three hours*), hence the very mixed (even downright negative) reviews. Is it a perfect film? No it is not - and neither was the 2017 one, and folks were pretty kind to it and also it made a lot of money, so I'm not sure why folks seem so surprised that this one is, for better or worse, following its structure and overall tone pretty closely. An "ultimate" cut has been teased; maybe it would work better in that regard (or, as one friend suggested, recut entirely to match the book's structure), but for now I think it's a solid followup that was probably as good as it could be considering they had the unenviable task of tackling the trickier parts of a book they wanted to remain faithful to, while also working around the fact that they had to live with their decision to make the first one as if this one might have never existed. I think they got it more or less right.

What say you?

*Indeed, we aren't shown Mike's own quest to get his sacrificial object, presumably because he already had gotten it before everyone arrived. I've seen complaints that the movie wastes Mike and points to this as an example, which is absurd on all levels because a. these same people were complaining about the entire "get the object" subplot anyway, so I don't know why they'd want it to last LONGER, and - SPOILER! - Mike isn't attacked by Henry this time around and forced to sit the big battle out. Instead, he goes down to the sewers with the others, giving Mike "more to do" than ever before. So it's a very stupid complaint in my opinion.

4 comments:

  1. Agreed!

    for a three hour film, lots of it felt rushed, if that makes sense.
    Also the needle drop was so strange.
    It was also a little odd to me, like you mentioned, that they basically ended up emulating a weird version of the books structure even though that's what they were trying to avoid. I think I would really love to see both movies edited together. That would also probably help Pennywise feel like a much stronger/more present character.
    I think really the only time I felt unnerved and scared was the head banging scene. That was great. But ya, Pennywise was so infrequent that it was hard for me to feel tense/scared whenever he appeared.

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  2. I absolutely loved IT and IT 2 was well GOOD but I liked IT more! You have some really good points! But I also agree with TOADMOAD, it felt kinda rushed.

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  3. The "Beep, beep Richie" line appeared once in the original film too, though it was Pennywise of all characters saying it. I'm assuming it was meant to be a running gag that got edited out.

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    Replies
    1. Yeah but was he saying it as a "OK, stop talking now" request, as Bev is here?

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