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Send in the clowns – ‘It Chapter Two’

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The next chapter has arrived: Pennywise the Dancing Clown is once again creepily cavorting across movie screens.

“It Chapter Two” concludes the cinematic diptych begun with 2017’s “It” – both films were directed by Andy Muschietti, while screenwriter Gary Dauberman handles the new installment solo after co-writing the previous film, all of it adapted from the iconic 1987 horror masterpiece of the same name by Stephen King. That creative carryover goes a long way toward building an aesthetic and tonal consistency across the two films – important in any case, but particularly vital when you have a movie whose narratives are both chronologically separate and utterly entangled.

This second installment brings to an end the story of the self-styled Losers Club, a group of childhood outcasts forced to confront an ancient evil that has poisoned their hometown of Derry. Despite believing that they had emerged victorious – and allowing themselves to compartmentalize away the trauma that came with the triumph – it seems that their foe merely slumbered, awaiting an opportunity to victimize the town anew.

“It Chapter Two” is an aesthetic triumph, one where every frame seems perfectly crafted to elicit the creepy weirdness and absurdity of the circumstances. And the ensemble is exceptional, with outstanding work from performers of all ages. However, it doesn’t quite clear the (extremely high) bar set by its predecessor – not that there’s any shame in that. The film’s pacing occasionally undermines the meticulously-conceived look and feel; the 169-minute runtime could have been trimmed to two-and-a-half hours pretty easily. It’s more tense than scary.

But again – that’s OK. Ultimately, any quibbles are minor. If this film’s biggest sin is that it isn’t quite as good as the one that came before, then you’ve still got a damned good movie – which this absolutely is.

The members of the Derry Losers Club go their separate ways after the horrifying battle against the evil known as It that took place in 1989. But the seven youngsters swear a blood oath that if the monster has not been defeated, if It ever returns to resume its reign of terror, that they will come back to Derry and finish the job. They leave town, grow up … and forget.

Bill Denbrough (James McAvoy, “Glass”) is a best-selling novelist struggling to adapt his books to the big screen. Richie Tozier (Bill Hader, TV’s “Barry”) is a popular standup comedian. Beverly Marsh (Jessica Chastain, “Dark Phoenix”) is an apparel executive dealing with being in an abusive relationship. Ben Hanscom (Jay Ryan, TV’s “Mary Kills People”) is an architect and Eddie Kaspbrak (James Ransone, “Captive State”) is a risk analyst, while Stan Uris (Andy Bean, TV’s “Swamp Thing”) has become an accountant. All have achieved real success in their time away.

But when they receive calls from old friend and fellow Loser Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa, “The Clinic”), the walls to memory that they all erected start to crumble. Mike tells them that the time has arrived; they must come back to Derry. There’s no choice: Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard, TV’s “Castle Rock”) has returned … and blood is spilling.

Upon their return, the now-grown Losers are forced to confront not only the otherworldly evil of It, but also the flooding influx of childhood memories that they had long since hidden from themselves. Those memories are rendered via flashback, with the exceptional young cast from the first film reprising their roles: Bill (Jaeden Martell), Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Bev (Sophia Lillis), Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), Stan (Wyatt Oleff) and Mike (Chosen Jacobs).

After some initial missteps and misgivings, the group comes up with a plan they hope will end the capering cruelty of Pennywise, but each of them will have to deal with a multitude of wounds – some fresh, others from only-recently-remembered childhood horrors. But to do it, they’re going to have to rediscover the bond that once held them together in the face of overwhelming odds – it’s their only shot to survive.

Again, “It Chapter Two” is not as scary as the first film. It operates more in a realm of creeping foreboding than of active fright. And that’s OK – it works. It’s just a different experience. There are a handful of jump-scares and a couple of genuinely horrifying moments, but for the most part, the vibe is powered by tension and dread. Adult fear and child fear are very different animals; this new movie finds interesting ways to bring that delineation to the forefront.

A commonality between the two films is director Muschietti’s focus on the relationship dynamics between the characters. Those connections are what elevated King’s novel and they’re what elevate these films. Where the first film showed the raw power of those childhood ties that bind, the second found ways to show the way that those ties might fade and fray, but never break; the adult Losers rediscovering their love for one another is incredibly engaging in its own right.

Oh, and it’s funny. The filmmakers have a lovely sense of comic timing, showing a knack for sharp back-and-forth exchanges while also creating moments of tension built to almost unbearable levels before bursting the balloon with a well-placed joke.

But the best thing about this movie is the work done by the cast. Chastain is able to convey the underlying feelings of brokenness that define the adult Beverly. McAvoy does solid work in capturing the steadfastness – and the stutter – of Bill. Mustafa mines the quiet desperation of Mike, while Ransone is reliably funny as the thin-skinned, twitchy Eddie.

But this movie belongs to Bill Hader. His performance as Richie is just outstanding, a nuanced portrait of a guy who has spent his entire life using a quick wit and a filthy mouth to hide the hurt. He is crass and clever in all the right proportions, emotionally engaged and utterly captivating. It’s one of the best performances in a career full of great ones.

And lest we forget, Bill Skarsgard is an impeccable Pennywise. The leering, gibbering clown springs to unsettling life at his behest. His use of vocal affect and flexible physicality blend with makeup and CGI effects to create an unforgettable villain. Again, he’s not quite as scary this time around, but his shadow still looms large over the entire story.

Oh, and the kids are across-the-board awesome again, recapturing the magic of the first film in an assortment of flashbacks. Everyone’s great – Wolfhard, Grazer and Lillis are highlights, but they’re all good. Each kid gets a moment or two to shine and they all take advantage; I said it the last time out, but this really might be the best assemblage of young actors in one place that we’ve seen in a generation or more.

(One thing worth noting about “It Chapter Two” – watching it was an event. I was privileged to attend an early screening hosted by local radio station WKIT – a station owned by Mr. King – and wouldn’t you know it, the man himself was in the house. One of the many joys of living in Bangor. That said, this is definitely a movie worth seeing on the big screen, surrounded by like-minded cinephiles.)

“It Chapter Two” has its flaws; it could have benefited from slightly tighter editing and a few shifts in focus in spots. But it sports far more pros than cons – a wonderful visual style, a ratcheting tension and a sense of humor, plus more strong performances than you could count on two hands.

Again – it isn’t quite as good as its predecessor. But taken together, this pair of films is a fantastic cinematic representation of one of the seminal works of 20th century horror written by one of the greatest storytellers of his generation.

Send in the clowns.

[4.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Thursday, 05 September 2019 14:50


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