Wednesday, September 11, 2019

In Theaters: IT: CHAPTER TWO (2019)

(US - 2019)

Directed by Andy Muschietti. Written by Gary Dauberman. Cast: Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Bill Hader, Bill Skarsgard, Isaiah Mustafa, Jay Ryan, James Ransone, Andy Bean, Jaeden Martell, Wyatt Oleff, Jack Dylan Grazer, Finn Wolfhard, Sophia Lillis, Chosen Jacobs, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Teach Grant, Nicholas Hamilton, Javier Botet, Xavier Dolan, Jess Weixler, Taylor Frey, Molly Atkinson, Joan Gregson, Will Beinbrink, Stephen King, Peter Bogdanovich, Stephen Bogaert, Luke Roessler, Jackson Robert Scott, Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Joe Bostick, Megan Charpentier, Juno Rinaldi, Owen Teague, Jake Sim. (R, 169 mins)

A blockbuster hit that currently stands as the highest-grossing horror film of all time (by present-day dollars and not by ticket sales or adjustment for inflation), 2017's IT, an adaptation of the first half of Stephen King's gargantuan 1986 novel, ushered in an era of renewed interest in the legendary author's work. This includes the Netflix films GERALD'S GAME and 1922, this year's remake of PET SEMATARY, this fall's DOCTOR SLEEP, a sequel to both King's novel The Shining and Stanley Kubrick's 1980 film version, which King has spent nearly 40 years criticizing, and several other announced film and TV projects in various states of development or production. Every generation has their genre touchstones, and IT--in many ways a hard-R GOONIES--has become a gateway film for impressionable young horror fans. Every generation's gateway is different, and just as aging purists who cut their teeth on Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi dismissed the blood and guts horror that gained traction in the 1970s, it's easy to for us jaded cynics now in our 40s to take a shit all over whatever it is "the kids" are into and inevitably sound all Old Man Yells at Cloud. I liked IT--it didn't blow me away, but I can see where a 13-year-old might consider it a watershed moment that hopefully leads to further exploration. IT was entertaining but it relied heavily on the now-overused trope of "scary clowns" as well as the crutch of nostalgia, especially by updating the setting of the childhood section of the novel from 1958 to 1989. Of course this also meant recurring invocations of everything 1989, from BATMAN to LETHAL WEAPON 2 to A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 5, and a running gag about New Kids on the Block. This retro fetishizing of everything '80s (all that's missing is a John Carpenter-esque synth score) is representative of the move in horror toward The Reference--the AMERICAN HORROR STORY/STRANGER THINGSification of the genre, if you will. And returning director Andy Muschietti and screenwriter Gary Dauberman push that even further in IT: CHAPTER TWO.

Running a bladder-challenging 169 minutes--a mere three minutes shorter than THE GODFATHER--IT: CHAPTER TWO is a disappointing sequel. With the first film's characters reconvening in 2016 after 27 years apart, the film is a success in terms of its effective casting choices and finding actors who, for the most part, strongly resemble the younger versions of their characters. When murders begin taking place in Derry 27 years after "It" was defeated, Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa), the town librarian and lone member of "The Losers" who never moved away, reaches out to his six childhood friends spread all across the country--Bill Denbrough (James McAvoy), a novelist and screenwriter with a habit of writing bad endings; Richie Tozier (Bill Hader), a popular but hacky stand-up comic who doesn't even write his own material; Eddie Kaspbrak (James Ransone), still a nervous hypochondriac who works insurance risk assessment and married a woman just like his mother (and played by the same actress, Molly Atkinson); Ben Hanscom (Jay Ryan), now an architect who lost all the weight that made him a target of incessant childhood bullying; Stanley Uris (Andy Bean), who grew up to be an accountant; and Beverly Marsh (Jessica Chastain), a successful fashion designer stuck in an abusive marriage. The reunion is one short when childhood memories come back to Stanley, who commits suicide rather than face the manifestation of It in Pennywise the clown (Bill Skarsgard). Those youthful traumas are only remembered by Mike, who informs the others that once you leave Derry, the memories slowly fade away. But with "It" rearing its ugly head again and the body count rising, the other Losers begin to remember. Through his research, Mike learns that the only way to defeat It is by performing "The Ritual of Chud," a Native American tribal rite that requires them to find one artifact from their childhood before venturing deep into It's lair underneath Derry.

The camaraderie of the young cast of IT--who also appear here in new scenes--was probably its most successful aspect aside from Skarsgard's wild performance as Pennywise. As in IT, the actor is too often replaced by herky-jerky CGI enhancement that almost makes his very presence pointless. IT: CHAPTER TWO, however, spends much of its length with the adult Losers on various solo quests to obtain their artifacts, during which time they have their own confrontations with the past and run-ins with It. There's also the grown-up bully Henry Bowers (Teach Grant), busted out of a mental institution by It in the form of the decayed corpse of his childhood partner-in-crime Patrick Hockstetter (Owen Teague); a little boy (Luke Roessler) who lives in Bill's childhood home and is a new target of It; and Ben's still-unrequited love for Beverly, and these are just some of the too many subplots that IT: CHAPTER TWO has to juggle while jettisoning key characters like Bill's movie star wife Audra (Jess Weixler) and Beverly's asshole husband Tom (Will Beinbrink), who are quickly introduced and never seen again, and still managing to find time for a jokey Stephen King cameo. The film seems long for the sake of being long, and certainly the interminable artifact quests, which constitute almost the entire second hour, could've been condensed or perhaps would've played better if this were made into the limited cable series that it often seems to be emulating, especially with the extended wrap-up that feels more like a series finale than the ending of a movie.

The MVP standout is Hader, whose grown-up Richie is given a new layer of characterization that could've easily come off as woke pandering but is brought to life with heartfelt empathy by the SNL vet, best known for his comedic skills but someone I can easily see morphing into a versatile dramatic actor of the Micheal Keaton variety. As it is, IT: CHAPTER TWO is the HOBBIT of Stephen King adaptations. For all its bloat and overlength despite dumping huge chunks of the novel, it's a story that could've easily been told in two hours, but its predecessor was such a success that Muschietti was likely given carte blanche to run as long as he wanted. It has its moments, but they're spread out over the nearly three-hour run time. Any experienced horror fans will see the jump scares coming a shot before they do since Muschietti's set-ups are all the same, and Pennywise's now-repetitive antics seemed much scarier when they were aimed at the childhood-era Losers (and nothing here even comes close to the terrifying slide projector scene in the first film). Plus, the endless referencing and shout-outs--to things like THE THING, ALIENS, THE SHINING, STAND BY ME, THE LOST BOYS, and even Hader is forced to utter a groaner in the form of DIE HARD's most iconic line in the final battle with Pennywise--just feels lazy. Right around the point when adult Eddie's frightful run-in with It in the dank, cavernous basement of the Derry pharmacy is punctuated by what might go down as the dumbest and most pointless needle-drop in film history in the form of Juice Newton's 1981 hit "Angel of the Morning," I was pretty much over this chapter of IT.

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