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Saturday, September 07, 2019

It: Chapter Two

Like a lot of sequels, It: Chapter Two ups the ante over the original horror blockbuster from exactly two years ago this weekend.  There's more blood, more eerie voices rising from the sewers, a lot more ghouls to terrorize the heroes, and naturally, more of the diabolical Pennywise the Dancing Clown (once again played by Bill Skarsgård).  Also like a lot of sequels, because it goes bigger in so many ways, it ends up losing some of what made the first movie such a great entertainment.

Oh, there's still plenty of stuff that works here.  It's well made, and the performances are great.  There are just more setbacks than before.  This is a much longer film than the original, clocking in at about three hours, and because of that, it feels a lot less focused.  The plot meanders a lot, especially during the very long middle portion of the film, and the whole production just kind of feels overstuffed.  It's never boring, but it does seem to be spinning its wheels a lot.  We get a lot of scenes where the characters intentionally do stupid things (like sticking their hand down a sewer grate when they hear voices coming up from within) when they obviously should know better.  They do it, because the movie needs another special effect shot of some kind of monster.  This time, the effects seem to be the main attraction, and not the story or the characters we grew to love before.

The original It was obviously a great thriller, but it was also a wonderful coming of age dramatic comedy and an exciting adventure.  That film focused on a group of likable kids played by some wonderful child actors who joined up to battle a supernatural evil that was terrorizing their town.  But it wasn't just about the kids having to rise up against the demonic entity that was stalking them.  The kids themselves felt real.  They had real dialogue, relationships, concerns, and bonds with one another.  When they faced danger from the local bullies or were threatened by the evil that usually manifests itself in the form of a clown, we genuinely cared about them.  We wanted to see them succeed.  The sequel is set 27 years later, so we are introduced to these same characters as adults.  And while the group is played by some fine adult actors, and they are all giving strong performances, they don't quite have the bond that we remember them having when they were young.  The kids were more interesting than who they grew up to be.

I can say this with certainty not just because I have recently watched the original again to prepare for the follow up, but also because the sequel contains a number of flashbacks where the kids return, and their scenes just strike me as being so much better.  Again, this is not the fault of the adult actors.  All of them fit the roles they're given.  They just seem to have been written with less personality for some reason.  Of the returning heroes, Bill Denbrough (played by Jaeden Martell as a child / James McAvoy as an adult) has become a horror writer who has trouble coming up with endings, Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis / Jessica Chastain) is married to an abusive lout who comes across as a cartoonish, screaming villain of a bad domestic melodrama, Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer / James Ransone) has become a risk assessor with a needy wife, Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor / Jay Ryan) has lost weight and become a successful architect, and Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard / Bill Hader) is a stand up comedian, so that means everything that comes out of his mouth has to be a one liner or a quip, no matter what may be happening. 

The group is reunited by Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs / Isaiah Mustafa), the sole member of the group of friends who never left their original hometown of Derry, Maine.  He is the first to realize that the evil entity that they battled as children has come back when there are a new rash of murders and child kidnappings around town.  He summons his friends home to face it once again, as this time, he thinks he's found a way to defeat the shape-shifting monster once and for all.  It's kind of interesting at first to see these characters reunite as adults.  We look forward to the film developing them, and showing us how they have changed.  Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be what the filmmakers are going for.  Aside from learning that Ben still secretly longs for Beverly, we don't really learn much about what's happened to these people in the past 27 years, aside from what I told you in the previous paragraph.  I wouldn't call them boring, as the performances from the adult actors is enough to hold our attention.  But they definitely come across as underwritten, and not quite as complex as their young counterparts in the flashbacks.

Once all the friends are back in Derry, It: Chapter Two suffers from a lengthy and unfocused middle section where the individual characters explore the town, and are usually menaced either by the monstrous Pennywise, or some kind of CG ghoul that include zombies, vomiting demons, entities that can disguise themselves as harmless old ladies, creepy crawlies coming out of fortune cookies, and an awful lot of creatures that resemble spiders to the point that you wonder if the movie has some kind of strange fetish when it comes to arachnids.  It was during these moments that my heart sunk a little, and I realized that this sequel was not really interested in further development of the characters, and was instead going to be a spookhouse thrill ride where computer generated monsters leap out and scream at the camera repeatedly.  Not only are these moments repetitive, they just are not scary in the slightest.  All of the monsters are so blatantly computer animated, they often don't fit in with the live actors or settings.  The most embarrassing attempt is when the movie tries to create tension in the audience with a statue of a lumberjack that comes to life.  The effects used are not convincing in any way, and it kind of looks like we're being menaced with a deranged CG cartoon character.

There is an over reliance on special effects that really kills the tension.  The first movie kind of had the same problem, but nowhere near the extent as here.  That's because last time, the filmmakers were confident enough in the memorably creepy performance of Bill Skarsgård as the clown who lures in children, then murders them.  They emphasized his innocent, almost child-like nature that he would use to gain the trust of his victims.  This time, Skarsgård is overpowered by the CG effects and monstrosities, and at times becomes a special effect himself, such as when he turns into a giant half clown-half spider.  There are only two scenes where he gets to stand out like he did last time, one involving him luring a little girl under the bleachers during a baseball game, and the other involving a fun house mirror maze.  The rest of his screentime is devoted to short bursts where he shows up to threaten the heroes, then disappears, or is replaced by an unconvincing effect. 

There are moments throughout It: Chapter Two that work, but the movie doesn't come across as the fully realized and satisfying entertainment like the first half.  Maybe this was inevitable, as it has always felt to me like the stuff involving the adults was never as interesting as the stuff with the kids.  It was true of Stephen King's original novel, it was true of the 1990 TV Miniseries, and it's unfortunately true here.

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