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Tuesday, September 12, 2017

"It" Movie Review (We All Float)...

So here's something that doesn't happen every day - a movie review!  You see, every now and again there's a movie event.  Something big based on something bigger that gets a lot of hype in geek circles and either delights or disappoints when it finally comes out.  And this summer, in a season full of lackluster disappointments (my opinion), there's something which, thankfully, succeeds and (interestingly enough) is also a perfect fit for late summer going into early autumn - Stephen King's classic novel IT!

Now, in the name of full disclosure, I'm a rather huge Stephen King fan.  But that's not the big reveal.  We publish fantasy RPGs, so I imagine people think I do fantasy like the Cookie Monster tackles an Otis Spunkmeyer chocolate chip.  Not so much.  And that's the big reveal.  Aside from a few notables (well, a respectable amount), I don't read an awful lot of fantasy anymore.  Tolkien?  Moorcock?  I love 'em all.  Blood of Pangea is heartfelt.  And I thoroughly enjoyed Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn by Tad Williams (get it)...

But when it comes to fantasy, I prefer mine as gaming.  To me, that's where it makes sense and feels right.  Guess I'm a crappy geek.  Book-wise (and despite the fact that my all-time favorite is Kingdoms of the Wall, a sci-fi masterpiece by Robert Silverberg), I prefer literary horror after King, Straub, and (the great) T.E.D. Klein.  This is modern fantasy with all the pretensions of John Updike.  Stories about real people facing off against the innumerable monsters in their lives - only some of them supernatural!

And King has always been about people.  Plausibly real and relatable.  There's nothing like our own world with all its intrigues, and his movie adaptations didn't start getting good until the Hollywood types finally figured that out.  Yeah, King loves his monsters.  And he certainly created a compelling mythology.  But his stories were always about people...

Enter IT.  The 2017 Muschetti IT and not the (inferior) 1990 miniseries.

SPOILER ALERT:  The town of Derry, Maine sees a sudden rash of disappearances, and a handful of kids discover the culprit's a monster.  Read the book or see the film.

Disclaimer:  This is a movie adaptation, so it doesn't perfectly follow the original book, which begins with adult characters in the 80s being summoned back to Derry and recalling their childhoods in the 50s - and the evil they temporarily defeated.  The movie focuses on the childhood end of things, with a planned sequel for the adult reckoning.  That said, a few scenes are missing or changed.  Most notably, a giant bird and the animated Paul Bunyan statue.  But movies flow differently, so I mostly forgive them...        

We all float down here...

OK, first things first.  The movie is well cast and acted.  The banter between the kids is a bit frantic at times, but I imagine my own adolescent ramblings were at least as much, if not worse.  And the decision to shift this portion of the story to the 80s was a truly inspired move by the producers.  Some have made unflattering comparisons to Stranger Things.  But I think the choice had more to do with giving contemporary audiences a sense of nostalgia they could relate too.  Remember, the kids come back 27 years later to finish things, and that works out to being roughly in the present day for moviegoers.

At any rate, there's enough 80s pop culture going around that even youngsters can relate to its imagined yesterday and, really, those days weren't all that different (and the movie would doubtless lose some of its magic if the kids were face down and transfixed by their cell phones all the time anyway).  So younger audiences get both a feeling of familiarity plus a glimpse into a lost, but relatable, past.  All in all, a sound choice.  Now, I straddled two decades (I turned 13 in 1980), so it really hit the sweet spot for this reviewer!

And the cinematography?  Well, it certainly delivers.  Its perspective and timing is eerily effective, and the famous scene with Georgie in the rain works perfectly.  I don't like violence against children.  Not one bit.  And I'm not a huge fan of suffering or splatter flicks that glorify it, so this was a little hard to watch on the face of it.  But it's part of the story, after all.  This scene, to me, was the most important indicator (and an early one at that) as to how well the film would perform.  A clown in a sewer drain is pretty ridiculous imagery, so you have to get into the head of a little boy and create something both seductive and menacing  (I've always thought that the two overlap).  And it works because Pennywise is depicted as just human enough in dark shadows, and because Muschetti wisely retained King's original dialogue.  Let's just say I was both pleased and disturbed. 

What the @#$% is this?  The 1990 
miniseries was a floater of a different kind...

Now, something that stands out is how kid-centric the film manages to be.  Adults exist, obviously, and we see glimpses of them all.  But this is mostly a story about kids at a time in their lives when they stop being appendages of their parents and start forging their own identities and relationships.  And sometimes, the adults become the villains by proxy and, in the case of Beverly's character, actual villains of the worst sort.  We see glimpses of who they are through the effect they've had on their children, and this helps keep the emphasis squarely where it belongs.  It's an approach that only occasionally falls flat.

But what about the film's titular villain?  Pennywise the Clown is played with fiendish enthusiasm by Bill Skarsgard and is both closely human and horrifically, well, off.  The depiction works.  One thing I didn't like about the 1990 miniseries (aside from pretty much everything) was how common Pennywise appeared.  He (she/it) just looked like a clown with bad oral hygiene.  And the garb was too similar to what you might see at the circus today.  But Muschetti's version achieves something positively baroque; an outfit from another century that's creepy and profane in the way early black and white pictures are creepy and profane.  It's the grotesque imagery of 1865's advertising.   

And, of course, CGI helps.  Pennywise is portrayed as the cosmic entity "he" truly is (read the book, people), deadlights and all (really, read that book).  And there's something vaguely spider-like in its movements, which also plays into the story, albeit in the inevitable sequel.  This isn't Freddy Krueger or some other lame (and generalized) thing of earthly evil (I like literary horror and not the swill served up in most horror films).  And because the original book began in the so-called present, with a grown-up Loser's Club returning to Derry to end things for good, we know the sequel isn't destined to be some cheap extrapolation of a superior original.  This, alone, gives me high hopes... 

Now, a word about scares.  A few have complained about the lack of them.  I find this absurd because the scenes where each character individually encounters Pennywise are pretty frightening and, in the case of Bill Denbrough, atmospheric and spooky.  But it's doubly absurd because scares are cheap thrills.  Scares are bullshit.  Going to war was scary.  So what?  I can't stand the vapid "jump-scare" crap (some of which was advertised in the trailers) being served up these days.  No, this is a story about people.  Young people facing off against evil and ultimately winning.  And the intended effect is more that of a knight entering a dragon's cave.  Scary, sure, but also rather heroic.

The film has its flaws.  Bill Denbrough's stuttering is shown, but never referenced.  Same with the spoken device used to counter it.  Likewise, Richie's penchant for silly voices is shown in dialogue, but the "beep, beep" reference (used only once in the movie) is likewise never explained and would doubtless fall flat with the uninitiated.  Hurried editing, perhaps?  Maybe an extended DVD release can fix this, and maybe that's the plan.

At a little over two hours, IT never drags.  The film does what it needs to, although I found myself wishing for just a little more.  Movies aren't books.  They can't achieve the third person deep King is known for, leaving the audience to rely on their eyes and the dialogue to get the point across.  And this one pulls it off where the miniseries failed.

And so Stephen King gets what he deserves.  A movie franchise (of sorts) and an adaptation that actually works.  And no John-Boy as Bill Denbrough either.  Yep, that's a bonus!

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