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Review: IT (2017)



I have to admit two bias’ before I launch into my thoughts on IT:

  1. The 1990 miniseries from Tommy Lee Wallace scared the mother-loving crap out of me and certainly influenced my idea of how this story should be told. I saw it when I was 9 and as far as I was concerned Pennywise was standing in my closet with Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers for a decent portion of my youth.
  2. Since overcoming those childhood fears of this story, I’ve read Stephen King’s source material twice. Like with any movie based on a book, it’s impossible not to compare what you’ve read with what you’re watching on the screen and not to have expectations. Having been a reader of the book, it’s likely my brain filled in gaps of information from the book when the movie omitted something.

Having stated both of those things, I have to say I would consider Andy Muschietti’s IT a slice of fun entertainment rather than a faithful adaptation or terrifying update on the story. As such, it neither really succeeds nor fails. Let me explain.

(May contain some spoilers ahead)

Stephen King’s novel has multiple bedrocks the narrative is dependent upon that are missing here. One is that the Loser’s Club has a power to them and they possess an otherworldly force that guides them through their story. This is hinted at but not substantiated in any way, which removes the transcendent, pseudo-religious element of the story. There is a question of destiny and cosmic involvement in the novel that makes the story so much larger. In a way the “power” is a metaphor for the power of childhood and imagination.

Another is that the power of IT is ancient and is more than just a physical threat, which is momentarily displayed towards the end of the movie but is never given its proper weight. (Maybe in Chapter 2, as Bill Skarsgard hinted at here?) In tandem with the power the Loser’s Club possesses, IT represents the fear present in childhood and not just a physical manifestation or a monster. These dialectical forces are pitted against one another and thus we are given a battle of childhood versus fear.

And the other lynch-pin of the book is the Mike Hanlon character. In the book he is the glue of the group and the one who figures things out. He’s not the leader (that’s Bill) but he is the character who weaves the tumultuous history of Derry together with the presence of IT, a part that was given to the Ben Hanscom character in the film. As important as he is being the sometimes-narrator and source of information for the reader, his relationship with his father and his family’s relationship with the Bowers’ family is key to several developments in the story. This is definitely the most egregious omission from the novel and I didn’t care for how they changed that character.

(And, briefly…..barely any inclusion of The Barrens?? There are over 400,000 words in Stephen King’s novel and I’m pretty sure “The” and “Barrens”  together accounts for about 90,000 of them.)

These deviations will likely only bother fans of the book, but all of these elements added to the texture of the story and without them it feels like something is missing.

Now, no movie could ever tell every bit of the book. The novel is over 1100 pages and contains such detail and minutia of every blade of grass in Derry, Maine that it would take 10 feature-length films and the lyric camera of Terrence Malick to properly show the love of the landscape.

With all that out of the way, here comes the good: this movie is fun as hell!

The best part of the movie is the kids, which is unquestionably the #1 element they hadIt_09162016_Day 57_16230.dng to get right. If the kids weren’t people we cared about and identified with then nothing else would work. The important distinction is these are characters, not characterizations of these types of kids. They all display ranges of emotions and aspects of humanity that make them feel real.

The stand-out actors are Finn Wolfhard as Richie Tozier (constantly the funniest character), Jaeden Lieberher as Bill Denborough, and the best revelation of the film, Sophia Lillis as Beverly Marsh. Being the only female in a group of young kids requires a strong will, and the actress has a wonderful amount of gravity within the group with her own perspective and agency.

More than any single performance or character, it’s the interaction of the characters that is most essential: the big brother-little brother dynamic between Eddie and Bill, the romantic moments between Bill and Bev and Ben and Bev, the tension between Richie and Bill. If these relationships don’t exist then the story is just about a clown stalking a group of kids, which would not elicit any type of emotional investment in the film.

The characters who are under-served are definitely the parent-figures, each of them portraying an evil element of childhood and the dangers of beings kids, i.e. emotional abandonment, sexual invasion, misplaced ideologies of masculinity and femininity. They feel like bosses each kid has to defeat before they square off with the final boss, which is fine except that reduces the adults to caricatures when they didn’t have to be.

And, sadly, the other character not given enough depth is Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), who is such an intricate element of torment in the novel, an extension of IT, that I think I would rather he wasn’t in the movie at all as opposed to being such a minor figure. He’s used in the movie to show that the kids are under constant threat and, at times, to guide the Loser’s Club toward each other, but his presence in the novel is almost more menacing and ubiquitous than even Pennywise. To see him reduced to a mere bully who loses his mind undermines what he is supposed to represent.

And now, for the part you’re waiting to read about….

Everyone’s favorite child-murdering clown, Pennywise!landscape-1501172411-it-movie-trailer

First off, Bill Skarsgard has to be commended for taking on the part. It requires lots of make-up and costume prep and will undoubtedly be compared to Tim Curry’s original performance no matter how well he does.

The performance, itself, is what you might picture of an evil clown. The pitch of his voice dances through several octaves and his mannerisms are chocked full of evil grins and head tilts and everything else out of the villain handbook. Where they differed from the novel is in the amplification of the character. As opposed to a figure in the dark who might cause you to think “Did I just see that?”, he is larger than life in the movie and Skarsgard goes over-the-top to give that essence. It also doesn’t hurt that he has the facial structure to look genuinely creepy under that make-up.

Lots of credit goes to Andy Muschietti for his stylistic choices, as well. The craning, swooping camera and the canted angles all make for a fun-house effect that works for a story like this. It’s as if the entity of evil possesses the camera when Pennywise is near, often contorting the image into a hellish frame.

Also of note: Films can be touchy and often glossed-over when it comes to displays of sexuality and horror in the presence of kids, but this film does not exercise restraint and it succeeds because of it.  A lesser film might have made suggestions about their sexuality and hinted at the horrors they’re facing, but here we see it on screen and I think that makes the horror more emotional.

I want this movie to be great and succeed (not just at the box office, which is going to be massive) because I know if they did the story right it would be such an incredible film. Despite my criticisms of some aspects of the film, I really enjoyed watching it and I have hope Chapter 2 will clarify some of the missing elements.

Here’s to hoping kids see Bill Skarsgard in their closet and under there beds from now on!

Review: FOXCATCHER (2014)

Dark, bleak and still. These are three words that categorize the feeling that permeates Foxcatcher. I would be hard-pressed to say people would “enjoy” this film in the classical sense. Despite the fact that both main characters, Mark and David Schultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo), have won Olympic gold medals for wrestling they seem quietly reserved and sort of sad. And that’s basically how the film makes you feel.

They wordlessly go through their training exercises, and Mark, in particular, seems to do nothing but sit around wait for the next training session. At least, that’s what we’re shown. That is, until he meets John du Pont (Steve Carell), the filthy rich oddity that causes the lives of these two brothers to change forever. The film at first gives you the sense that it’s about Mark’s journey back to the Olympic podium, but really it’s about the pairing of the Schultz family with the du Pont world and what becomes of the two of them as a result. It is safe to say neither family will be the same by the end, especially if you know the facts of the actual events this film is based on.

Mark and John are presented as similar people: Mark trains as a wrestler as a way of impressing while separating himself from his older bother, meanwhile John focuses his attention on becoming something his disapproving mother never allowed him to be and something he never had; an athlete and a father-figure. The thematic tension lies in the struggle between their internal similarities and their external differences. Both men wish to be their own man.  Mark has the physique and the freedom (no attachments) to be an Olympic champion. While John lacks these qualities, he has the means and the power to attain his goals. The way the two characters play off each other is basically the story.

There is a permeating sense of dread throughout the film, which is embodied in the character of John and played patiently creepy by Carell. There is never a moment between John and the Schultz’s where you feel John isn’t a predator of some sort, and perhaps that comes partially from Carell’s “Hannibal Lector”-esque performance and partially from the way rich people are generally portrayed in film. We’ve seen hundreds if not thousands of movies that center around the rich being naughty with their wealth and sophistication. I think it’s worth pointing out that du Pont isn’t evil simply because he’s rich, but rather because of his upbringing. There are a few scenes where he interacts with his mother, including one particular non-verbal interaction that tells a bigger part of their history, that basically reduce him to a child seeking his mother’s approval. This is much the same way Mark seeks the approval of his brother while simultaneously wishing to be his own person.

This psychological angle is the strength of that one character and the weakness of the rest, as there are really only two characters with any depth. Tatum plays Mark as a one-note, somber child waiting to throw a tantrum. He is a child who is physically able to act-out, but rarely does, instead choosing to brood and pout in his room with his toys. There is also a team of wrestler’s that assemble on the du Pont residence that somewhat resemble a stable of horses, which is a common metaphor shown in several places during the film, but are not shown as real people. David is the only character other than John that has a multi-dimensional motivation, as he is a family man and he wishes to help his brother on top of honoring his employer.

Again, it’s tough to say I “enjoyed” this movie as much as I would say it was a decently compelling story that’s driven by Carell’s performance and the character of John du Pont. If director Bennett Miller had fleshed out the rest of the cast it would be a better watch, but it’s still a solid movie soaked in dread and bleakness. Adjust your expectations accordingly.