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: “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”

There are a lot of things one could say about Quentin Tarantino’s movies, but “formulaic” is not one of them. “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” isn’t a taut, densely plotted thriller like “Pulp Fiction.” Nor is it a sprawling historical epic like “Django Unchained” or “Inglourious Basterds,” or a locked-room mystery like “Reservoir Dogs” or “The Hateful Eight.” It’s something else altogether.

Set in 1969, “Hollywood” follows the adventures of western TV icon Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his longtime stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) as Dalton attempts to transition from TV into film. As the two men drift from opportunity to opportunity, they cross paths with their actress neighbor Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), who positively exudes joi de vivre.

At first blush, it’s hard to grasp what the idea of this movie is, because most of the film’s extended runtime is comprised of seemingly disconnected vignettes: Booth brawls with Bruce Lee in a Hollywood alleyway; Dalton contemplates his career decisions on the set of a TV pilot, with some help from a spunky child actress; Tate goes to a movie theater to watch herself in a comedy flick; Booth stumbles into the lair of the murderous Manson Family; Dalton and Booth head to Italy to star in a series of “spaghetti Westerns”; and so on.

As a result, “Hollywood” comes off as a leisurely, reflective sort of movie, an experience steeped in California cool. Here, all of Tarantino’s best filmmaking tendencies—and few of his worst—are on display. “Hollywood” has plenty of crackling dialogue, creative cinematographic moments, and high-tension sequences without ever lapsing into “Kill Bill” levels of bloodshed or “Django”-esque fourth-wall-breaking.

But that’s not to say, of course, that this is a family-friendly film—or that it’s ultimately pointless.

(Spoilers follow. Read on at your own risk.)

As is Tarantino’s wont, the film’s closing minutes veer into ultraviolent alternate history. When Manson Family killers come for Tate at the film’s climax, Dalton and Booth spring to the rescue. Booth employs his stuntman training to demolish two assassins, while Dalton retrieves the flamethrower he used in a World War II flick and uses it to incinerate the remaining killer. It’s an explosive denouement that comes almost out of nowhere, and yet somehow it serves as the fulcrum around which the entire experience turns. And more interesting still, it doesn’t feel like the kind of exploitation-flick homage for which Tarantino is well known. Something else—something deeper and more thoughtful—is going on in “Hollywood.”

There have already been some good takes on what “Hollywood” is really trying to say in its coda. Atlantic writer Caitlin Flanagan reads the film—in particular, Pitt’s heroic stuntman character—as a defense of traditional masculinity against its contemporary critics. Theologian David Bentley Hart makes a good case that the film’s ending is a kind of spiritual eucatastrophe, a glimpse into a Kingdom of Heaven where evil is decisively vanquished and history’s sins are made right. I have to admit, though, that those of us who didn’t live through the Tate murder or its aftermath—which is to say, my whole generation—can’t really relate to the observations made by Flanagan and Hart.

It’s taken me a long time to write this review, because I’ve spent a long time puzzling out my own thoughts. After much pondering, I tend to think that in large part, “Hollywood” subverts—and even inverts—the old maxim that violent cinema inevitably corrupts the moral sensibilities of those involved with it. Throughout the film, one watches Dalton and Booth feature in numerous pulp Westerns and low-budget action pictures. And when the time comes for them to be truly heroic in the real world—to defend the innocent Tate against pitiless killers—they rely on the dispositions, skills and tools cultivated in their roles as actors (that is, bravery, karate moves and a flamethrower) to defeat real monsters. They embody, that is, the heroism and talents of the characters they played onscreen.

Put a different way, Tarantino suggests that to the extent that actors’ and moviegoers’ moral dispositions are formed by the cinema, the cinema ought to depict the virtues that are actually necessary to confront and defeat evil. Movies can thus be a kind of laboratory for at least the four cardinal virtues of classical thought—fortitude, prudence, justice, and temperance.

There’s an old G.K. Chesterton quote that comes to mind here: “Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey.” And that latter—the idea of the possible defeat of the world’s wicked forces—is the moral core of “Hollywood.” 

In short, if you’re a film buff—even if most Tarantino films aren’t your speed—“Hollywood” is absolutely worth seeing. (It’s probably the film that’s haunted me the most all year.) And in an cinematic season of endless reboots and sequels, it’s a nice reminder that thoughtful moviemaking for grown-ups isn’t quite dead yet.

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Posted by on August 25, 2019 in Historical

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