It: Chapter Two Review (Spoilers!)

As I watched It: Chapter Two, I had to ask myself, “Why did they make this a two-part movie?” The second installment is a staggering two hours and 50 minutes long, and as I recall, there were a few advertisements (or fan-made advertisements) that boasted its length: “You’re gonna get so much bang for your buck.” And bang is what you get, as the movie tells the story of the kids from the Losers’ Club returning to Derry, Maine, as adults after they are alerted to the reemergence of Pennywise the Dancing Clown, who is back to slake his thirst for humankind after a 27-year hiatus.

I can really feel the amount of story on writer Gary Dauberman’s shoulders, too, but all I can think is that the entire production should have been cut in half (a three-hour movie cut in half is still 90 minutes, after all), and the first film should have been done away with because it doesn’t reveal anything that the sequel avoids. That is, It: Chapter Two adeptly does what the first one could not, which is that it doesn’t show us trauma as it’s happening but how adults deal with trauma after its (har, har) happened, which I think is a far more interesting story. Thus, the most powerful moments come from the adults as they look back at their adolescence in a perennially tormented town infested by an alien shapeshifter who likes to pull pranks on the residents…oh, and he eats them, too.

In comparing this adaptation to the 1990 miniseries, there is sort of a flip as to what works and what doesn’t work between the two cinematic properties. For instance, the first installment of the miniseries has widely lauded performances from its young cast, while the second-half of the miniseries takes a nosedive due to the lack of charm from the adult counterparts.

The adults in It: Chapter Two, meanwhile, are outstanding, for the most part.

James McAvoy as Bill Denbrough is magnificent, and the viewer gets to watch him slowly slip back into his childhood stutter, which gets more intense as the film moves on, and James Ransone’s Eddie Kaspbrak is so well done (he’s neurotic, he’s weird, he’s hopelessly addicted to domineering women) that he is very nearly my favorite character of the group. Very nearly, I say, because Bill Hader as Richie Tozier was an excellent move on Casting Director Rich Delia’s part, and leaves Harry Anderson’s miniseries portrayal of Richie far behind.

However, I felt as though Ben Hanscom and Beverly Marsh were under characterized. Jessica Chastain gives a sort of haunted reading of Beverly—she seems somewhat conflicted, somewhat aloof, and always fearful—which doesn’t play as well as Sophia Lillis’s performance as the younger version of Beverly. Lillis is audacious, unafraid, and confident. She is a tomboy and embodies that spirit exactly, which makes the viewer really believe she will dive off a cliff and into a watering hole before the rest of the Losers’ Club even considers looking over the edge. I did not get the same vibe from Chastain.

Jay Ryan as Ben Hanscom, meanwhile, suffers the same lackluster fate in the film. While the other characters all have identifiable voices (the funny guy, the leader dude, the neurotic one), Ben is simply the guy that used to be the fat kid who was in love, and still is, with Beverly. (side note: Brandon Crane, who played 12-year-old Ben Hanscom in the It miniseries makes an appearance in It: Chapter Two, discussing one of the new architectural designs that Jay Ryan’s Ben Hanscom has dreamed up). Ben’s story arc resolves as expected, which is fine, but that little extra thing just isn’t there the way it is in James McAvoy’s Bill or Bill Hader’s Ritchie.

My final note on casting is that it took me two-and-a-half movies (which is something like six hours) to warm up to Bill Skarsgard as the titular IT. One of the first truly traumatic movie-watching experiences of my life was seeing Tim Curry execute the most terrifying performances of a child-eating clown ever to grace the silver screen (do you know how many goddamned drains I checked as a child?) As an adult, I realize that Curry’s performance was far more nuanced than I could have imagined as a boy—and it’s actually kind of a funny portrayal, too. Nevertheless, Skarsgard gives a winning performance because he doesn’t redo Tim Curry’s role—he makes it his own—which is somewhere between Bozo the Clown and what I imagine John Wayne Gacy was like right before he went in for the kill (morbid, I know, but you gotta imagine that some people really have seen the deadlights).

While this is mostly a positive review, the film is not without flaw.

The sound design of both It (2017) and It: Chapter Two is probably some of the worst I’ve ever heard as a moviegoer. Literally, the crescendo of music stings gave me a headache as noises hectically moved from polite whispers to full-blown cannon fire in my head. Some of this can be attributed to the film’s other committed sin, which is that it relies on jump scares as the main delivery of horror. We are in an era where “horror movie” translates to “jump scare,” which is depressing because that means such things as “subtlety” and “atmosphere” are oftentimes lost. There are plenty of jump scares in classic cinema, sure. I mean, who can forget Dallas’s final moments in Alien (1979) when the xenomorph emerges from the darkness and goes in for a less-than-polite hug; but, there is so much more to the horror elements in Director Ridley Scott’s science fiction masterpiece that both shock and surprise the audience without blowing out their eardrums with sonic explosions, or destroying their eyes with sickening quick cuts.

The final irksome moment in the film is during the finale in which Pennywise is confronted by the Losers’ Club in his own underground nest, which is actually a neat set piece—not as cool as the first film’s final set piece but cool enough. The moment I am referencing involves the use of CGI and nonsensical plotting (side note: if you have to use CGI to make fortune cookies, you should really re-analyze how effective the scene will be with or without it). I will stand by this following statement until the day I die: if the finale of your horror film is even slightly reminiscent of a boss fight in a first-person shooter (or any video game for that matter), you, as a director, must punch yourself in the face immediately and then rework your ending.

In the finale, Pennywise is a giant CGI spider thing (it doesn’t look great) and he is running in a circular motion with three glowing blue balls hovering overhead, which I think he is drawing his power from (not made explicitly clear), and he is chasing the protagonists around as they try to evade him. I mean, I have played this very scene in so many video games. The protagonists were just missing Cortana from the Halo video game series to tell them to shoot the glowing balls to weaken Pennywise enough to hurt him.

Overall, this is a well-done movie with plenty of little surprises and interesting scenes (the Beverly and Mrs. Kersh scene was nearly perfect its level of unsettling), and the cast is amazing (mostly). The sins the movie commits are excusable, too, but this brings me to my last point:

Movies shouldn’t have to have excusable scenes. The rampant use of CGI in film is really destroying movies that could be exceptional. (I’m looking at you and your gingerbread men Krampus [2015]). It: Chapter Two is almost great, but it’s ruined by the sloppy use of digital graphics and some inconsistencies in imagery (baby-headed bugs? Okie-dokie). Cruddy Spider-Clowns and fortune cookies aside, movies are an art form that should rival the best offerings from music, books, and paintings. We don’t look at a Van Gogh painting and say, “This painting is really good, except I could do without that terrible-looking Gungan and droid battle that’s happening in the background.” And, yes, not every director is a genius painter, and practical effects are expensive and time consuming to pull off, but, you know what? Moviegoers will still be talking about good use of CGI and practical effects in films long after they have forgotten about Dwayne Johnson in the The Mummy Returns (2001) or that street fight with a million agents in Matrix Reloaded (2003). I mean, are we setting out to consume and create art that requires excusable moments? At the end of the day, movies should make us feel with a balanced use of visual storytelling and dialogue. They shouldn’t make us roll our eyes.

 

Futility and Nuclear Annihilation in “Beneath the Planet of the Apes”

The follow-up to the legendary classic Planet of the Apes (1968) is a strange one, which I think is fair to say, but it’s also far more speculative than the first in the series and deserves a little more credit for its theme and ambition.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) picks up where the original left off, and features a second astronaut (James Franciscus) landing on the monkey planet in search of Taylor (Charlton Heston).

After stumbling upon a series of clues and realizing that he is in fact not on a different planet but on Earth and in its own post-apocalyptic future, Brent discovers a group of humans who have survived the war with the apes living deep beneath the planet’s surface. As a society of telepathic remnants who revere a massive “Doomsday Bomb,” the mutant humans decide that the inevitable ape invasion of the “Forbidden Zone” must result in the triggering of the bomb itself. It is up to Taylor and Brent to stop them from setting off the weapon to prevent the destruction of the planet.

Clearly, Beneath the Planet of the Apes was inspired by the nuclear tensions relevant the decade preceding the production of the film and the concerns for what the future held in such a hostile environment. Was it possible that every living thing on the planet could be wiped out by mutually assured destruction? It was undoubtedly on everyone’s mind during the era the film was made.

What the film does well, and what its predecessor accomplished, too, is play off the xenophobic fears of the warring factions involved in the film’s plot—especially the apes—but it also employs the real-world tensions of foreign policy that had Americans on edge from the Nuclear Age onward, partially because the idea of “diplomacy” to the common citizen is either alien or seems an easy task to execute without realizing that money and power needlessly convolute even the most minute aspects of policy in the political realm.

I should say that the human characters—other than Taylor and Brent—have a similar cynical sheen over their characterization, which is to say that human rationale, over ape rationale, doesn’t leave the film unscathed. The telepathic, underground-dwelling humanoids are clearly encumbered by their own fears of annihilation; so much so, that they would rather destroy the planet than let it fall into the hands of a few damn, dirty apes. The irony is all too real.

And, spoiler alert, that’s exactly what happens in a bafflingly genius move on the film’s part: the two main protagonists are killed and the world is destroyed by the “Doomsday Bomb” in the climactic throes of a monkey frenzy. It’s bleak but it speaks to the futility of the time, or at least the feelings of futility in the hearts of every American strolling the streets of what could be a suburban nuclear holocaust if the prevailing attitudes reached a fever pitch.

Of course, there is also a recurring theme in the “Planet of the Apes” series of racism (or in this case ‘speciesism’) that resonates in the Trump-era, but one that was surely apparent when Obama was president, and when this film was made in the 1970s.

Unquestionably, Dr. Zaius’s outburst toward Taylor at the end of the film is a reflection of this: “You ask me to help you?! Man is evil! Capable of nothing but destruction!” That sentiment can be taken as an all-encompassing look at Man itself and its countless fractured relationships within its own race; after all, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated only a few short years earlier and the tumult of race relations is still an ongoing issue even through basic public services such as housing and policing. In response to Dr. Zaius, Taylor’s final expression of hatred toward the apes is just as fitting: he exclaims, “You….bloody….bastard,” and falls forward, triggering the “Doomsday Bomb,” killing everyone and himself.

It’s very Charlton Heston-y.

What I think the film is trying to tell us in so many words is: “If we don’t buck up and knock off the schoolyard antics—we are all going to die,” and I think this gives the film a “timelessness” in a way. Not in the “Forest Gump” or “Shawshank Redemption” timeless sort of way, but in the “2001” or “Blade Runner” sort of timelessness.

With that being said, the film certainly has its problems—lack of concision, cheap effects, some rambling plot ideas—but it’s a pretty solid exploration of a very dark real-world theme and one that definitely rests somewhere near the heart of political science—futile political motivation. We definitely see this theme in US foreign policy (“us” over “them”), in other country’s treatment of their civilians (the use of violence and coercion), and in the capitalist paradigm rampant in emerging global markets (profit over human life).

That is to say, there is a lot going on in this film that is both prescient and appropriate, from the themes to the story, which makes it all the more engaging, and, frankly—that ending is pretty dang cool because it’s legitimately “shit or get off the pot,” and, boy, the filmmakers went for it.

I will end this post with the closing narration of the film, just after the planet explodes in nuclear annihilation, which I think is more than appropriate:

“In one of the countless billions of galaxies in the universe lies a medium-sized star. And one of its satellites, a green and insignificant planet, is now dead.”

 

 

 

“Zombie Hunter” fails to kill its prey

Zombie Hunter (2013) is the kind of movie I wanted to enjoy. It has all of the elements of a classic splatter flick: over-the-top comic gore, action, and Danny Trejo—who can still maintain the same level of cool even though his filmography looks like an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink-style sandwich. Plus, with a kind of gritty animation from a grindhouse flick established on the cover, one would think this movie would be a rollicking good time if only a little corny…but, it only gets a little rollicking and that doesn’t transfer to a good time.

The movie is directed by K. King, who also directed Cyborg X (2016), and produced both Zombie Hunter and a film that is currently in post-production titled The Dunes. While I’ve never heard of King, I think there should be some encomiums given for an explosively “going for it” first outing. I believe a lot of other directors would be timid when it comes to the violence associated with a splatter flick or the topic itself (zombie apocalypse), but King doesn’t pull away and this results in some pretty audacious attempts to shock the audience, including zombie decapitations and an axe fight between Trejo and a massive CGI train wreck. 

The lead actor, Martin Copping, who both narrates and portrays Hunter, a “badass” in the wasteland of future zombie-plagued America, talks with a sort of Clint Eastwood grit that adds to the films grindhouse-theme, which also helps elevate his character, but inconsistent tone create a weird void where the viewer isn’t sure whether they are supposed to take him seriously or if they are supposed to treat him as a reluctant hero. It is so utterly important to nail a good character that an audience can relate to, but I think King leaned too heavily into his setting and forgot to punch up the on-screen personalities.

In regards to the plot, the audience comes to find out that the film has little to offer in the way of original story. It is similar to the Robert Rodriguez film Planet Terror (2007) in that the heroes of the film are trying to get to somewhere else (a storyline that maims so many prospective zombie thrillers), thus it becomes a generic monster movie fairly quickly.

If you will, I would like to sum up Zombie Hunter in this short bout of dialogue:

“Man, we are stuck here at Point A!” Hunter said.

“I know of a place where there is sunshine and women, and no zombies to be seen! It’s at a place called Point B!” replied a crazy old pilot guy who will undoubtedly die because he sucks.

While the same could be said of the finale of Dawn of the Dead (1978), I would argue that Director George Romero’s film was set in an iconic-looking mall where the heroes’ plan was to remain there within the walls of consumerist idolatry indefinitely, thus the characters are able to flesh themselves out in an organic and unique way through interaction. That’s how truly great horror movies are made, by examining the experience of the prospective victims and how it changes them.

Zombie Hunter, meanwhile, does not try to play with the clichés rife in the movie. For instance, consider all of the classic Zombie Hunter characters that appear throughout the story: dirty blond lady, ripped religious Mexican guy, petite shy girl who is hot for the protagonist, old pilot guy, and fat pervert. It’s like a terrible collection of Pogs.

Not to mention, Danny Trejo’s role as Jesus, a hard-boiled leader of the survivors, is seemingly restricted to where he as an actor could shoot scenes, which appear to be mostly from his living room. There is a dinner scene in the film where it looks like Trejo is sitting at the head of the communal table as the other characters sit around and converse with one another. The camera snaps around the room, catching pieces of exposition from the other characters, and then occasionally veers back to Trejo who is nodding and smiling in a completely separate shot, never really joining the scene with anyone else.

This sort of lameness extends to the unnecessary CGI antagonist, which has no practical effect (literally), nor does it act as a separate antagonist. It merely appears, kills characters, and leaves; or, in the case of the finale, randomly shambles about in the background because the effects department didn’t know where to put it or what to do with it. The rest of the CGI comes off cleaner—but not by much.

The ideas are on the screen, but they just aren’t executed well, which I think is a good summation of the film.

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