Saturday, September 7, 2019

My Love / Hate Relationship With It: Chapter Two (2019)

Warner Bros. Pictures
It's been two years since director Andy Muschietti's adapation of IT took the horror genre by storm. Fans have been craving, dreaming, and waiting for the second half of Stephen King's novel to finally wrap up The Losers Club's battle against Pennywise. In a weird twist of fate, the sequel combines enough elements from the book to be a faithful adaptation, but doesn't organize it enough to feel like a satisfying final chapter.

This review contains spoilers and flashing gifs- read at your own risk!

After Adrian Mellon is ruthlessly killed in a hate crime and dismembered by Pennywise, Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) recruits his old friends to return to their hometown. All grown up since we last saw them as kids, Bill (James McAvoy), Beverly (Jessica Chastain), Eddie (James Ransone), Richie (Bill Hader), and Ben (Jay Ryan) must band together to face-off  against the demented clown who wants them dead.

The entire showdown between The Losers Club and Pennywise is told in two chapters, and subsequently, two films. The prequel took the initiative to focus on the group's childhood. Avoiding the convoluted backstories, timelines, and interludes from the book, the characters were the central focus as the kids stood up against their bullies and discover why Pennywise was terrorizing them. As much as we learned about their home lives individually, we also saw them come together as a group to support Bill avenge Georgie, rescue Beverly from Pennywise, and generally not taking any **** anymore. "Chapter One's" success was attributed to its numerous scare tactics, and the performances by the ensemble was a key ingredient for putting horror back on the map. Their inherent chemistry from 80s flicks like The Goonies not only reflected the era the film is set in, but the production itself contained plenty of easter eggs which made the movie more exciting to re-watch.

However, IT: Chapter One suffers from weaknesses as well. When the horror hits, it’s mostly in the same repetitive fashion – characters are curious about something lurking in the shadows, lured into a false sense of security, and then Pennywise jumps out to chase them. It’s a lot of jump scares until the third act employs real atmospheric suspense and horror. The former is fun, but when the characters confront Pennywise face-to-face, without an illusion of who or what form he may have taken, is when the first film is at its scariest – there’s no room for the young Losers club to run or hide, and they have to face their trauma and fears straight-on.

Similarly, the sequel attempts the same kind of formula - it succeeds at some elements and fails at others.

Now the story is set 27 years later, and the production can't truly make up its mind how to organize the story.

In contrast to the first film, Chapter 2 captures the spirit of the book with one of the weakest points  by going back-and-forth between the children and adults' experiences. When the Losers Club moved out of Derry, they forgot about that fateful summer in 1989. Now well into their forties and lives established all over the world, they have to remember what happened to them to defeat Pennywise. In order to shift between the adults either recalling old memories or feeling like kids again while being attacked by Pennywise, the film uses a lot of flashbacks, but it has an odd sense of when to insert them and which ones.

Most of the film's faults comes down to editing, both in direction and the script. As heartwarming as it is to see the kids return, most of their scenes don't transition smoothly. They're either plugged into areas when none of the characters are attempting to remember anything, or newer details that didn't make it into the first film are squeezed into this one. Similar to the first film, the adults encounter their trauma by being lured into a moment in time, only for Pennywise to jump out and chase them back into reality. It's understandable that this occurs several times over the course of the film, but the way it unfolds isn't executed differently. It feels less like we're along with the characters for the ride, and mostly watching the same effects (in terrifying measure) played out over and over again. For most of the first act, and well into the second, frequently transitioning the adults into their younger selves felt repetitive. Even though I love the original cast, their extra features here didn't give me a strong grasp of the actors trying to take over the roles.

Sometimes too much of a story is a bad thing, but for a 1,153 novel, Muschietti and screenwriter Gary Dauberman has more than enough room to work with – to continue building well-rounded characters, to ease on the jump scares, to make the group feel whole again despite their fears, losses, and trauma. Where they both managed a well-rounded sense of control for IT, a lot of it is lost for the sequel.

Mostly, the script and direction feels incredibly rushed. Even though the kids are broken up in the first film, and their interactions with Pennywise are similar, the script drew out why their arcs and trauma mattered - not only to themselves but each other. While I'm not saying that's the same case here, King's nuance for diving into the Losers' history is awfully condensed down into one-liner jokes and cliffnotes - especially for Mike, Beverly, and Ben. By far, the most developed characters are Stanley, who has about five minutes of screen time and whose death is lovingly book-ended into the film. And Richie and Eddie, whose chemistry between Bill Hader and James Ranscome gives the movie a centerpiece to focus on. We get little nods about everyone as adults, but it's a struggle to feel like they're as compelling as they are in the first film.

A major part undercutting the cast's performance is the faux flashbacks, and also how Chapter 2 builds the story. Even though the Losers regaining their memories by facing their fears again is interesting enough, the script makes odd turns into side-plots that ultimately go nowhere -  Beverly being captured by Pennywise gave her visions of the future (she doesn't use this 'agency' to any real effect), Pennywise kills other random children which only offer weak symbolism to Georgie, Henry Bowers returns to Derry just to be killed (his connection to Pennywise is signaled with nothing more than a dead Patrick as his chauffeur and a red balloon). When the film focuses on the Losers revisiting Derry in their own ways, their sequences often end abruptly and leave a sense that more material was left on the cutting room floor. If the film had cut the excess, the first two acts would've flowed consistently and strengthened parts of the plot that were underdeveloped. #JusticeforMike

Outside the realm of the supernatural story, what truly binds the two generations of characters is the actors themselves. While the whole cast does a good job - McAvoy, Mustafa, Chastain, Ryan - the real scene stealers are Ransome and Hader.

Outside of the stunning physical similarities to their younger counterparts, both actors employ mannerisms and characteristics that really makes you feel like they are one person - not two people attempting to play the same character. Even though I felt like the tragic nature of Eddie's childhood is befuddled by the script, Ransome actually feels like Jack Dylan Grazer all grown up. He delivers the exact amount of anxiety and heroism that young Eddie serves in the first film, it's quite an achievement. And Hader brilliantly manages Richie's comic relief and using it as a defense mechanism for his deeper feelings. His subtle heartache and comedic timing almost makes the film feel like it'd be lifeless if he wasn't wasn't apart of the cast. They both deliver heartbreaking and hilarious moments throughout, and tethers the ending together in a well-rounded full circle of Richie's homosexuality and accepting himself, and the depth of their friendship.

Even though his character is thrown into the mix, Teach Grant as Henry Bowers was fascinating. He captured the insanity and unhinged nature Nicholas Hamilton evoked in the first film. I wish Bowers had been used more than a placemat of "you want to know if he survived falling down the well, so you here go" plot. Bill Skarsgard also returns with Pennywise in more horrifying ways than before. Similar to the first movie, I wish we saw more of him instead of CGI renditions of the characters' deeper fears, but he still recreated a horror icon for new generations.

Ironically, for me, what I loved about the book (the characters) felt slightly butchered and what I least liked about the book (world-building) was actually entertaining.

King’s novel in terms of creating his settings are, without a doubt, tedious and unpredictable, because his deep dive into the history of Derry and all its buildings, or one-note characters, don't add much to the main plot. However, it's impossible to deny that for better or worse, even when you've run out of patience to finish his mammoth stories, you still come away with a sense of knowing his world inside and out.

One of the best additions to the sequel was how it handled Pennywise's origins, and how It morphs into a spider-like shape connected to the outer-cosmos that eats planets whole and has been living off of Derry's residents for centuries. Even though it's explored a little too briefly in the film as much as it is in the book, the lore of defeating Pennywise is explained well-enough that it doesn't make you feel completely lost. In particular, The Losers Club facing Pennywise, as it takes the shape of a spider is nearly impossible to imagine on the page, but here the special effects team gives it dimension to be absolutely terrifying, and dare I say it, plausible. As creepy as the traumas the kids experienced in the first film, Muschietti makes sure to go the extra mile with brilliant set pieces throughout the film, but especially the final showdown. It's there that he maintains a strong sense of control by implementing horror without jump scares, where the stakes are heavier, and the characters' arcs grow.

My first initial impression of It: Chapter Two is that it flails more than it succeeds. The script manages to create some truly haunting sequences, while rightfully ignoring other moments that could've taken the film from weird to mind-boggling. The cast is much better than the direction, though hopefully the supercut will prove otherwise.

I honestly want to see it again in theaters, but I'm not sure what the chances of that are right now since I'm only going to have time to see other movies. I'm hopeful my opinion will change over time, especially if I watch both films back-to-back. In good ways and bad, the sequel reminded me of the book - the heart is its characters trying to survive in King's insane world, and the horror has left an nightmarish impression on me forever. It's not something I won't continue to enjoy, but it also made me wish I could cut chunks out of the story, and glue them back together in a way that made it stronger than what it turned out to be....Damn It.

Rating for the film: ★½ to

(I'm mixed on giving this 1 1/2 or 2 out of three stars)

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