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Movie Review: “It: Chapter Two”

I’m quite aware that many of the people who will read this have no intention of watching “that scary clown movie.” Yes, those creepy red balloons are back, and yes, there are plenty of jump scares and gooey CGI creations. But honestly,  “It” and its sequel are not really horror movies on the level of, say, this summer’s “Crawl”—products churned out for a few million dollars and calculated to make some quick cash thanks to the genre’s massive multiplier effect. Instead, I’d classify them as those rarest of cinematic things: big-budget adventure stories for adults, which have more going on beneath the surface than merely a hunger for fast profits.

Picking up 27 years after the first film, “Chapter Two” follows the members of the Losers’ Club (Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, Jay Ryan, James Ransone, and Andy Bean), who all moved away during the years following the first film, as they reconvene in their hometown of Derry, Maine. Strange killings have begun again, signaling that the eponymous clown-demon (Bill Skarsgård) is once more on the prowl. This time, the Losers must vanquish it once and for all—by recovering “tokens” of their past that, when joined together, offer a chance of defeating the evil creature.

The film clocks in at almost three hours—and, to be fair, it does sag at a few points (the “token hunts” follow a formulaic pattern: buildup —> Pennywise attack —> resolution). But the storytelling pieces come together at last, and all the stray plot points resolve in an extended and intense climax, one that serves as a satisfying payoff of all the themes that’ve been built up across both films. There aren’t many films that still feel like cathartic experiences, but “It: Chapter Two” is one of them. 

There’s lots more I could write about the film itself, but what’s been especially interesting to me is the film’s mixed reception from certain critics—many of whom seem to be writing about a different movie than the one that played onscreen. Perhaps the most obvious example is a particularly atrocious review of the film by Vox’s Aja Romano, which contains the following remarks:

“The story always reminds you that Pennywise is born out of the rotting putrefaction of small-town America, specifically Derry itself. . . . [The film] wants us to know that the real evil in Derry is Derry itself and that Derry is every small American town. It delivers a few pointed establishing shots of the waning factory town completely covered in American flags. But despite the clearly political overtones of the adaptation, It doesn’t evince much self-knowledge about what its own politics are. In fact, if anything, it reifies rather than deconstructs the societal factors that cyclically make America evil again.”

Virtually everything in this is wrong. For one thing, the film takes pains to establish that Pennywise, the clown-demon, is a kind of cosmic extraterrestrial invader (the film’s final conflict even takes place at the site of its initial impact)—not a kind of avatar of rural rage. It makes no sense at all to treat Pennywise as a metaphor for American Deplorables, because it’s not as if our heroes become existentially fulfilled as soon as they leave the town. Their urbane post-Derry lives lives have plenty of dark edges of their own. Whatever Pennywise represents or symbolizes, it’s not something that maps seamlessly onto the contemporary political landscape.

Moreover, Romano’s take totally misses the genius of Stephen King’s original work. The film’s entire moral core is built on the juxtaposition of “good” elements of small-town life (friendship, tradition, bicycles, paper boats, swimming holes) with the “bad” (bullying, failure to reckon with the past, and so on). That is consistent with the broader body of King’s works: their lingering power comes from the intersection of the universal (common human experiences, such as coming-of-age, first love, marriage, parenthood, and so on) and the particular (the distinctive features of any individual life, which no one else can share). There is little room in this storytelling paradigm for “structural” critique—that which inherently blurs messy particularities in favor of a motif of unified struggle. And when King has attempted to get “political,” as in 2017’s “Sleeping Beauties,” the results are…not satisfying.

In short, “It” is simply not a story about America as a whole or about universal patterns of oppression. It is an irreducibly localist narrative, one that cannot really be understood or appreciated apart from affinity with a particular place and a particular set of childhood memories. If King’s “The Stand” is an urbanist’s vision of horror—massive, apocalyptic-scale destruction resulting in the collapse of civilization and the emergence of new political communities—“It” is the mirror image, a story that captures the anxieties specific to smaller communities.

The film adaptation—as glossy and viscerally satisfying as it is—doesn’t perfectly capture that sensibility (most notably, the unforgettable weirdness of the novel’s Ritual of Chüd, a ceremony capable of banishing Pennywise, doesn’t really come through on film). But the DNA of the story remains intact, and that’s something to celebrate. 

For plenty of audiences, “It: Chapter Two” (and its predecessor) will always just be “the scary clown movie”—no more, no less. But happily, the soul of the novel—or at least its best parts—is still there, reminding viewers the humblest and most mundane things in life (one’s town, one’s memories, one’s childhood promises) are worth fighting for. Indeed, they may be the things most worth fighting for.

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Posted by on September 7, 2019 in Thrillers


Movie Review: “Midsommar”

I can’t say I was the biggest fan of director Ari Aster’s last film, “Hereditary.” Aside from a few gut-churning moments (including one visual that really ends up burned into your brain—you know the one), the movie often felt like an exercise in pointlessness. The chaos and violence on display was largely disconnected from any sense of moral desert, leading to a dispiriting and dissatisfying conclusion. 

Alas, Aster’s “Midsommar”—despite its artsy affect and stylish trailers—is not much better. In Aster’s hands, a story that wants desperately to be about something, to build to a shatteringly satisfying climax, lands with a dull thud.

The journey begins with young Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh) reeling from a horrible family tragedy. As part of her healing process, Dani tags along on a trip to northern Sweden with boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), anthropology student Josh (William Jackson Harper), mulish Mark (Will Poulter), and Swedish expat Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren). Their destination: Hårga, a small village home to Pelle’s family, where every 90 years a great Midsommar festival is held to commemorate the solstice. It promptly becomes clear, however, that Hårga’s festival is a surprisingly dangerous place.

It’s obvious that “Midsommar” (sporting a nearly two-and-a-half-hour runtime) very, very much wants to be a kind of art-horror film in the vein of Luca Guadagnino’s “Suspiria” remake. It is not such a film: at bottom, this is a gussied-up version of “The Wicker Man” with more existential angst and prettier cinematography. Virtually everything that happens in “Midsommar” is telegraphed well in advance, and even the movie’s climax is altogether too predictable. 

To the extent there are underlying themes in play here, “Midsommar” seems to be a somewhat ham-handed parable about embracing the Dionysian element in life—staring defiantly into the cold indifference of existence and choosing to live (or die) on one’s own terms. (It’s surely no coincidence that Dani’s boring boyfriend’s name is Christian, while her last name is Ardor.) In line with that vision, the film sees to celebrate a kind of Nietzschean pantheism, a pagan ethos without a pagan cosmology. The naturalistic religion of Hårga does not appear to recognize an afterlife, any kind of deity, or much of anything beyond the rhythms of the world’s physical processes. Indeed, Aster’s camera regularly lingers on broken bodies and torn flesh, as if to say we are only masses of meat in motion. There is no room for transcendence in this world.

That angle isn’t particularly interesting: it’s nothing we haven’t seen before in the genre. But there’s an alternate reading of the movie that, I’d suggest, is a significant improvement. Just as in “Hereditary,” Aster implies that the therapeutic ethos of late liberalism suppresses the Dionysian elements of life. As the film’s conclusion makes clear, Dani can only become fully actualized—fully herself—in Hårga, far away from the world of doctors and therapists and antidepressants. But where the protagonists of “Hereditary” found themselves torn and destroyed outside the edifices of the therapeutic world—when they realized their enemies were not psychological, but demonic—the heroine of “Midsommar” embraces and assimilates her encounter with the weird. I have no idea if such an interpretation reflects Aster’s intent—it strikes me as a little extravagant–but it’s certainly a step up from the mundane take on Nietzsche that plays out onscreen.

That’s not to say that “Midsommar” is a total wash—Pugh is fantastic in the lead role, and the film’s production design and cinematography are both exceptional. But it’s hard not to see this movie as a major disappointment: why, for instance, doesn’t the movie end with Dani fully embracing her Dionysian side and doing something truly dramatic—like self-immolating, or ascending to oracular status, or violently taking over Hårga? Instead, we get a conclusion that anyone with a passing familiarity with this genre could’ve anticipated from the start.

In short, for a film that demands so much time and attention of the viewer, the payoff of “Midsommar” is tragically paltry. And given the movie’s obvious potential, that is sad indeed.

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Posted by on July 11, 2019 in Thrillers

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