IT: Chapter 2 (2019)

So there I am, trying to put together my end of the year list, and I’m trying to find the Swampflix review of IT: Chapter 2 so that I can link back to it, and to my surprise, it’s nowhere to be found. Somehow, this one managed to fly completely under everyone’s radar, even though I went and saw it opening weekend, and was a bit more fond of it than the majority of filmgoers, it seems. And then I figured, well, sometimes you just have to do it yourself.

IT: Chapter 2 continues the story of the Losers Club: Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher in 1989, James McAvoy in the present*) is now a semi-successful horror writer who’s bad at writing endings; Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard in 1989, Bill Hader in the present) is a well-known stand-up comedian; Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis in 1989, Jessica Chastain in the present) is a fashion designer saddled to an abusive husband; Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor in 1989, Jay Ryan in the present) is a chiseled, handsome architect who runs his own firm; Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer in 1989, James Ransone in the present) is a risk assessment specialist for an insurance firm and is married to a woman just like his mother; Stanley Uris (Wyatt Olef in 1989, Andy Bean in the present) is an accountant who loves puzzles; and Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs in 1989, Isaiah Mustafa in the present) is the librarian of Derry. It’s been 27 years since the Losers Club first did battle with the ancient evil being known alternatively as Pennywise the clown or the titular IT (a returning Bill Skarsgård), and IT has returned from its cycle of hibernation to spread terror anew. Mike, as the only person to have remained in Derry and thus the only one who still remembers the particulars of what happened in the summer of 1989, recognizes the rising tide of general inhumanity and indecency in Derry that portends Pennywise’s return and calls on his old friends to do battle with IT once more.

Man, people really, really hated this one, didn’t they? I guess I can see why, but I’m also not really sure what anyone was expecting. IT is a novel that could be adapted a dozen times, and there’s always going to be one shining (no pun intended) truth about it: the Losers Club is always going to be more interesting when the constituents are children, and the “adult” half of the narrative is always going to pale in comparison. There’s just no way around it; it’s baked into the narrative’s very structure. That’s even kind of the point: the extradimensional entity we call Pennywise feeds on fear, and it prefers the fear of kids because children’s fears (killer clowns, abusive parents, monsters) are specific and easy to manipulate, while adult fears (not being able to provide for a family, dying alone, being trapped in a loveless relationship) are abstract and amorphous. Director Andy Muschietti made the right call here by opting to forego the pants-soiling horror of the first film and channel more comedy into this one, although how effective you found that to be does seem to vary from person to person. There’s verisimilitude in that, though: as a child, you’re powerless against the monsters you perceive in the world, and your best hope is to hide under your bed until the “monsters” go away; as an adult, one of the only real ways to defend against one’s anxieties and fears is to minimize and trivialize them, to turn them into jokes. Unlike everyone else, I thought that the Juice Newton needle drop was a delight! Whether or not the humor of that lands for you as a viewer is subjective, of course, but to make the defanging of horror through comedy part of the film’s actual text is fairly clever.

There are legitimate issues here. My first thought after exiting the theater was “Wow, that was a really good Nightmare on Elm Street movie.” Given that Freddy Krueger first appeared on screens in 1984 and Stephen King first started work on IT in 1981 and finished it four years later, it’s unlikely that the film was an influence on the book, but the potential for NOES to affect IT 2 is left up to the interpretation. Both boogeyman primarily prey on adolescents and children, and both can be defeated by their respective victims by refusing to give in to their fear (although a longer series of films means that successive filmmakers have had to create new methods of disposing of Freddy). This isn’t a bad thing, but it does mean that the climax and ending of this film is pretty similar to the ending of the first one, especially given that the adaptations of IT (wisely) choose to exise any references to Maturin the extradimensional turtle and reinterprets the Ritual Of Chüd as the tradition of a (fictional) First Nations group called the Shokopiwah. So, at the end of 2017’s IT, the kids overcome their fears and defeat Pennywise. And then at the end of IT: Chapter 2, they, uh, do the same thing again. But, like, more this time.

But here’s something that a lot of people may not like to hear: that’s okay. This movie has a distinct Dream Warriors feel to it, and given that both Dream Warriors and Dream Child feature the return of Amanda Krueger to assist in the defeat of her evil son (spoilers, I guess), there’s precedent for this kind of thing. I understand that when people go back to a franchise, what they want is more of the samethat’s the reason that over half of the Marvel movies feature villains that are just dark reflections of the hero, no matter how varied the individual films might be. Your audience is going to experience a series of diminishing returns if you’re not able to put forth something new over a long period of time, but when we’re looking at two films that exist purely as a diptych, it’s not a crime for them to metaphorically “rhyme” with one another. I’ve seen a lot of complaints that this film turns too episodic in its middle point, when each surviving member of the Losers Club goes off on their own individual talismans for their fight against IT, but I like that each thing that the characters seek out is a kind of anti-MacGuffin, in that they are ultimately irrelevant to the plot but are significant to the characters. The individual moments that we return to the kids we got to know in the first film and see them through the eyes of the adult selves do a lot more character work than the film is given credit for. These are people who have worked so hard to put their childhood traumas in the rearview, to distance themselves from their miserable and deadly youth both physically and mentally, that they let those traumas control them still. Beverly marries a man who is abusive, like her father; Eddie marries a woman who seems identically overbearing and over-attentive to his mother (down to the fact that they’re played by the same actress); Mike has literally never moved on. One could even interpret Bill’s inability to satisfactorily conclude a novel as a metaphor for the lack of closure he has surrounding the death of his younger brother Georgie. Even if the ritual that requires these talismans is ultimately useless, the act of finding them and remembering what happened to the Losers Club in 1989 is integral to their ability to fight back as adults and finally destroy IT. I found the plot sufficiently engaging that I was never bored; others may have felt the film’s length, but I was along for the ride from start to finish. There wasn’t a single other movie this year where I saw myself as much as in the scene with young Richie asks another boy, on whom he clearly has a crush, to play another arcade game with him, only for the other boy’s interest turn immediately to false disgust and name-calling when bully Henry Bowers shows up.

There are some complaints with which I can agree, however. The monster living in Bev’s old house isn’t very convincing when it moves from shadowed elderly woman to CGI beast; in fact, much of the CGI here is slightly substandard, although Spider-Pennywise looks pretty great in the finale. The way that the film dealt with Stanley’s fateful decision leaves a bit to be desired as well, given that the film not only forgives him for the choice that he makes but ultimately exalts it, which is capital-b Bad. Finally, although I’m never opposed to a Peter Bogdanovich cameo, I’m not sure what the point of including a scene at the beginning with Bill’s wife Audra was if (unlike the novel) she was never going to appear again. But other than those few quibbles, this is a pretty solid sequel, with some truly standout scenes. In particular, both the scenes in which we see Pennywise murder children are spectacularly well done, and don’t shy away from how horrible a thing it is when a child dies (it’s worth noting that Doctor Sleep also did this). The gay hate crime that starts the film is also a perfect reintroduction to the idea that when IT rises, it does so at least in part through the complicity of others and the bystander effect; compare it to the moment in the first film in which an elderly neighbor looks down to the street where poor Georgie was just standing, sees a huge amount of blood, and then goes about her business without questioning it. The same thing happens here to the couple who are bashed, and reminds us that in the years since 1989, hatred for and violence against LGBTQIA individuals may have decreased and support for queer causes and individuals may have ostensibly increased, that kind of freedom isn’t experienced by a large portion of queer people living in huge swaths of America outside of the coasts and other urban areas.

So yeah. Don’t believe the hype backlash.

*The “present” of the film is apparently late summer/early autumn 2016, just to be clear. I assume this is because there’s only room for one monstrous clown to be in power at a time.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Knives Out (2019)

“Physical evidence can tell a clear story with a forked tongue,” Daniel Craig’s Knives Out character Benoit Blanc, “last of the gentleman sleuths,” says to Lieutenant Elliott (Lakeith Stanfield) upon being told that all the physical evidence surrounding the death of publishing magnate Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) points to suicide. This is not the first or last of a series of surprisingly well delivered bon mots from Blanc as he doggedly pursues the truth of what happened the night of Thrombey’s 85th birthday.

All the family gathered that night: Thrombey’s eldest daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), who describes her real estate business as “self-made,” in spite of actually starting out with a million dollar loan from the family patriarch; widowed daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Colette), a self-described lifestyle guru/entrepreneur and would-be influencer whose knowledge of current events comes from reading tweets about New Yorker articles; and, finally, son Walt (Michael Shannon), who runs Blood Like Wine Publishing, his father’s business. Each has their own family and hangers-on, as well; Linda is married to the largely useless and unfaithful Richard (Don Johnson), and their son Ransom (Chris Evans) is likewise a rootless gadabout and playboy of the Tom Buchanan mold; the delightful Riki Lindhome is given little to do other than spout Trump-era rhetoric about “good immigrants” and “bad immigrants” in her role as Walt’s wife Donna, and their son Jacob (Jaeden Lieberher) is a smartphone-addicted teen described as a “literal Nazi” who allegedly masturbates to images of dead deer; Joni is accompanied by daughter Meg (Katherine Langford), who is attending a prestigious liberal arts college and serves as the closest thing to a good person this family has, although she is not without her flaws. There’s also Greatnana, Thrombey’s elderly mother of unknown age, played by onetime Martha Kent K Callan, who I was surprised to learn was still alive. Also in the house that night are Thrombey’s nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas), and pothead housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson, taking a break from killing it on The Righteous Gemstones). When Ransom storms out early after a heated discussion, suspicion initially falls on him, but every member of the family has a motive, as Thrombey had announced to each of them that very night that he was cutting off their individual paths of access to his wealth. And then, 33 minutes into the film’s 130 minute runtime, writer-director Rian Johnson tells you who did it. And then things get interesting.

I’ve long been a fan of comedy pastiches and homages of genres that function perfectly as examples of those genres despite humorous overtones; my go-to example is Hot Fuzz, which I always tout as having a more sophisticated murder mystery plot than most films than most straightforward criminal investigation media (our lead comes to a logical conclusion that fits all of the clues, but still turns out to be wrong). Knives Out is another rare gem of this type, a whodunnit comedy in the mold of Clue that has a sophisticated and winding plot. Despite the big names in that cast list above, Marta is our real hero here, although to say more than that would be to give away too much of the plot–both the film’s and Harlan’s. I’m not generally a fan of Daniel Craig, but in this opportunity to play against type, his turn as a kind of Southern Hercule Poirot here is surprisingly charming, first appearing to be somewhat bumbling and ignorant in his pursuit of the truth but ultimately proving to have a sharp deductive mind. His affected drawl also helps take many of Blanc’s lines, some of the best one-liners ever committed to a movie script, and elevates them into true comedic art. From the quote at the top of the review to his description of a will reading (“You think it’ll be like a game show. No. Imagine a community theater performance of a tax return.”) to his reference to Jacob in his Sherlockian summation of the evidence near the film’s end (“What were the overheard words by the Nazi child masturbating in the bathroom?”), all are rendered hilarious in their Southern gentility. It’s a sight to behold.

The film is surprisingly political, as well, and not just in a “Communism was a red herring” way. Like Get Out before it, Knives Out mocks the occasional ignorance of the political left vis-a-vis latent and uninspected racism on the part of Joni and Meg, who profess progressive values while being, respectively, a largely uninformed buffoon and an easily corrupted intellectual. On the other side of the aisle, the fact that all of the Thrombey children and grandchildren consider themselves to be “self-made” despite succeeding only due to the generosity of their wealthy patriarch calls to mind certain statements about a “small loan” of a million dollars that a certain political figure has made. Likewise, Rian Johnson has claimed that Jacob’s character is based on blowback he received from some of the darker corners of the internet following (what some would consider to be) the mismanagement of the Star Wars franchise while helming The Last Jedi. In particular, the entirety of the wealthy white family seems completely ignorant of Marta’s country of origin, with each of them calling her a different nationality; after a few glasses of champagne, they devolve into an ugly debate about the current supposed immigration “crisis,” citing well-worn neocon talking points about “America [being] for Americans” and “millions of Mexicans” undermining American culture, as well as the purported illegality of seeking asylum. All of this is done in front of Marta, who is specifically called out as an model member of a minority group and then asked to speak to this experience, exotifying her and speaking over her (that the most useless member of this crew, Richard, does so while absentmindedly handing her his dessert plate—like one would with a server or a domestic servant—is a particularly nice detail). It comes across as rather toothless in the moment, especially given that Jacob is largely held unaccountable for his political ideology (other than Richard’s accusation that the boy spent Harlan’s party in the bathroom “Joylessly masturbating to pictures of dead deer”), but the white New England family’s desperation to hold onto property that they consider rightfully theirs despite having had no hand in building the family’s financial success is ultimately revealed to be a core part of the film’s thesis, as evinced in the film’s final frame. That having been said, there are moments when I wish that the family was a little less charming and a little more clearly depicted as being in the wrong; at one point at the screening I attended, there was a rather loud laugh when Jacob called Marta an “anchor baby,” and the effusive reaction to that line in particular chilled my blood a bit.

The first time I saw the trailer for this film was before The Farewell, and the friend with whom I saw that flick had no interest in Knives Out, asking only that I text him after I left the theater and tell him who the killer was. I initially assented, but after my screening, I texted him and told him that the movie was too clever to be spoiled that way, and I meant it. This is a movie that should be seen without as little foreknowledge as possible, and as soon as you can.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Book of Henry (2017)

If you ask around for recommendations on the best “bad” movies of 2017, you’re likely to see the title The Book of Henry listed just as often as more obvious (and, honestly, more satisfying) selections like Power Rangers & Monster Trucks. What’s surprising about that is The Book of Henry doesn’t feature the grotesque creatures, cartoonishly eccentric performances, and shoddy filmmaking craft that usually makes a good “bad” movie fun. In fact, on the surface it appears to be a whimsical melodrama about a precocious child’s struggles in an adult world. There’s nothing especially gaudy about its filmmaking craft; if it weren’t for the story it tells you could easily mistake it for a mediocre children’s film. There’s even a cast of familiar, always-welcome faces that should assure the audience that the story it tells is to be taken in good faith: Naomi Watts, Lee Pace, Sarah Silverman, Bobby Moynihan, an original song by Stevie Nicks, etc. The Book of Henry is insanely, incomprehensibly bad, though. It’s so bad, in fact, it completely derailed the career of Safety Not Guaranteed & Jurassic World hotshot Colin Trevorrow, who was on track to directing a Star Wars film before the intensely negative critical reaction to The Book of Henry (presumably) bounced him off the project. The important thing, though, is that The Book of Henry is bad enough to be a fun watch. It really is one of the more rewardingly bizarre cinematic offerings of the year, even if its appeal is the misguided lunacy of its basic premise.

Naomi Watts stars as the world’s most ineffectual mother. Left alone to raise two boys in the absence of their deadbeat father, she essentially has the emotional & intellectual maturity of a teenager: she works a low-level job as a waitress at an ice cream parlor (?) and wastes most of her free time playing video games while her oldest, smartest son Henry (IT’s Jaeden Lieberher) runs the household and raises her younger, much less special son (Room’s Jacob Tremblay). Armed with a level of over-written precociousness we haven’t seen onscreen since Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, the 12-year-old Henry is an amateur inventor & stock market genius, a burdened talent whom too many people rely on to function as adults. As much pressure as all the adults in Henry’s life put on him to solve their grown-up problems, they paradoxically insist that he not interfere when he witnesses acts of domestic violence, a mental conflict that weighs on him so heavily it gives him a deadly brain tumor that takes his life halfway into the film. Here’s where the children’s film tone of The Book of Henry gets really weird. Henry continues to run his clueless mother’s life from beyond the grave, leaving behind notebooks, letters to her boss, forged legal documents, and audience-of-one podcasts planning every detail of her life, lest she waste it getting drunk & playing video games. Featured heavily among these detailed instructions is an assassination plot to murder the family’s next-door neighbor, a brutish police commissioner Henry has not been able to convince the other adults in his life is sexually assaulting his stepdaughter (Maddie Ziegler, of Sia music video fame). The whole thing culminates in Naomi Watts going along with these assassination instructions while her youngest, most alive son participates in a middle school talent show.  The two events tonally clash in an insane crescendo as the audience is asked, in bad taste, to alternate back & forth from alphabet burping to murder to break dancing to murder to magic tricks and back to murder again.

For me, The Book of Henry’s appeal as an unintended camp pleasure is entirely due to the unfathomably poor writing behind Naomi Watt’s mother figure. Her complete deferment to her 12-year-old son for every single decision is comically bizarre. In the film’s funniest moment she’s visibly frustrated that she can’t ask him for permission to sign medical documents because he’s in the middle of having a seizure. The ease in which she slips into following his post mortem instructions, including the proposed murder plot, is awe-inspiringly bizarre. Early in the process, she puts her foot down in a stern, parental line reading of “We are not murdering the Police Commissioner and that is final,” but Henry’s conversational instructions walk her through her doubts and she follows his deadly plan anyway. Admittedly, she’s not the only adult in the Henryverse who treats him like he’s triple his age; Sarah Silverman’s alcoholic waitress even makes good on a long-running flirtation with Henry (!) by kissing him sensually on his death bed (!!) and then lingering long enough for him to get a good look at her tits (!!!). The mother’s narrative trajectory of gradually figuring out that maybe she shouldn’t get all of her life advice from a precocious 12-year-old, not to mention a dead precocious 12 year old, is treated like a grand scale life lesson we all must learn in due time, when it’s something that’s already obvious from the outset. It’s also a scenario that only exists in this ludicrous screenplay anyway. Naomi Watts is the most ridiculously mishandled adult female character I can remember seeing since Bryce Dallas Howard’s starring role in Trevorrow’s Jurassic World, another performance I’d place firmly in the so-bad-it’s-good camp.

If nothing else, The Book of Henry is solid proof that the clash of adult themes & childlike whimsy you see in the films of twee-labeled directors like Wes Anderson, Michel Gondry, and Spike Jonze is not as easy to pull off convincingly as it may appear. Thankfully, the movie never explicitly depicts the domestic sexual abuse that sparks its assassination plot, but it’s still difficult to reconcile all of its whimsical Rube Goldberg contraptions & ukulele lullabies with the fact that it’s a heartfelt melodrama about brain tumors & child rape. The way other adults finally come to believe Henry about the abuse he’s witnessed through the all-important talent show climax is just as hilariously baffling as any of Naomi Watts’s embarrassments as an ill-conceived matriarch character. The Book of Henry concludes at its most ludicrous point, leaving you in stunned disbelief that something so blissfully inane made it from page to screen, which makes it understandable why it’s being bandied about as one of the better high camp pleasures of the year. The only question now is how Colin Trevorrow is going to break himself out of director jail now that The Book of Henry has (rightfully) destroyed his path to Star Wars infamy; I’m actually super curious to see what he does next.

-Brandon Ledet