2019 | DIR: ANG LEE | STARRING: WILL SMITH, MARY ELIZABETH WINSTEAD, BENEDICT WONG, CLIVE OWEN | REVIEW BY GLENN COCHRANE.
Since Scott's passing in 2012 many names have been attached to the project including Joe Carnahan (Smokin' Aces) and Curtis Hanson (8 Mile) and finally the film arrives, delivered to the screen with absolute ambition by Academy Award winning director Ang Lee (Life of Pi) who has carried on the tradition of spreading the screen with all style and no substance.
Will Smith stars as Henry Brogan, a middle-aged government assassin with unrivalled skill who has his heart set on retirement. The CIA's idea of retirement is a lot more permanent, however, and they commission the only human capable of out-gunning Brogan... his 20-something year clone. Aligning himself with a female assassin (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and a former colleague (Benedict Wong) Brogan hop-scotches around the world to uncover the truth about his junior counterpart while avoiding endless assassination attempts. And thus is the crux of Gemini Man, a 90's inspired action movie that is the equivalent of The 6th Day, Looper and Replicant... pureed.
As advertised, the glaring point of difference with Gemini Man is Ang Lee's obsession with advancing cinema into the future, and following his ambitious - yet jarring – drama Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, he has picked up where he left off by further exploring the capabilities of higher frame rates. Shot at 120 frames per second (regular films are typically 24 fps) the effect on the viewer is an extremely high clarity that gives the impression of watching reality unfold before your eyes (essentially as though the screen were a stage with the actors present). The downside to this resolution is commonly known as “The Soap Opera Effect”, which often occurs on hi-def televisions when the motion-smoothing function is active. True to that moniker Gemini Man looks more like Days of Our Lives with it's lack of Hollywood veneer and the uncomfortable sense of voyeurism that comes with the high frame rate.
The frustrating facet of Lee's new craft is that his ambition abandons the audience. He's so focused on technological advancement that he's oblivious to how it translates. I applaud his tenaciousness and dedication to cinema, however I am certainly not onboard with it. If this is his vision for the future then I'm out! Gemini Man is a jarring experience that looks more aesthetically aligned with a behind-the-scenes documentary than it does a feature film. The story is generic, featuring lacklustre performances and an uninspired production design, offering only a handful of genuinely exhilarating moments to pad the space. This is a galaxy away from his former glories of Eat Drink Man Woman, The Ice Storm, Brokeback Mountain and even HULK.
As for the elephant in the room, the film also boasts a supposedly photo-realistic computer-generated Will Smith Jr. As opposed to ageing Smith backwards with computer trickery they've chosen to recreate him entirely from scratch, much like Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher were posthumously rendered in Rogue One. We are supposed to ogle at the mastery and celebrate their achievement, and yet this strange animation only serves to offer more discomfort to an already dissociative experience. There is no masking the imitation and Smith Jr adorns the screen like a humanoid with robotic expressions and unearthly dexterity.
Had Gemini Man made it to the screen as intended in the late 90s, the effect would have been achieved with a combination of split-screen, digital augmentation and prosthetics. It would have hit cinemas without much fanfare and, in turn, found its audience on home video. It would be a movie we remember with guilty fondness - like Demolition Man or Face Off – and we'd regale those days when practical effects reigned supreme. As it is, the movie has arrived 20-years too late and serves little more purpose than being Ang Lee's play toy.
Comic books are revisionary and some of the most beloved characters have undergone multiple back-stories. JOKER picks up the aesthetic of Nolen's world of the Dark Knight and winds the story back to the early 1980s to tell a new origin story of Batman's most villainous foe. It is also the first time that an adaptation has been created independently of the source material, with director Todd Philips new entry being an original script with no relation to the comics at all (aside from a few loose references).
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck, a mentally disturbed man whose view of the world is composed from the lack of humanity surrounding him. A life-long loner, he endures daily hardships. His mother is incapacitated and reliant on him, while others abuse his mild-mannered demeanour. He is ridiculed and beaten-up and finds himself in a perpetual state of despair and depression. He tells his inattentive psychologist that he has never been happy for a single day in his entire life. And so is the foundation for the new Joker's origin story, which is apologetically entrenched in nostalgia for the early films of Martin Scorsese.
JOKER is not without its flaws, of which there are many, and it's slow and meandering story will certainly test the patience of many unsuspecting viewers. If, however, you invest in Arthur's descent into madness you will walk away numbed by the film's dank and relentless pursuit of darkness. Phoenix serves up a stellar performance, which isn't the “best” portrayal by any means, but definitely aligns itself with Heath Ledger's interpretation. The Scorsese influences are less than subtle with Taxi Driver and The King Of Comedy being major beacons for Philips' direction, a fact which he never skirts (observant viewers will see the references). Phoenix's turn is often clunky and uneven, feeling forced at times, and yet there is no escaping the effectiveness of his Travis Bickle-inspired spiral. It's uncomfortable to watch his character be proverbially spat-upon at every turn, and his madness is the stuff of nightmares. His emotional investment in Arthur is laudable and signifies a performance worthy of accolade.
Philips' steps into the drama-dome with unexpected ease and bares no resemblance to the director who gave us Road Trip, Old School and the Hangover Trilogy. He has recaptured the Scorsese atmosphere effectively and depicts Gotham City as the grimy and scum-riddled New York of old. The film looks amazing and maintains its textural quality throughout. The supporting cast includes Frances Conroy, Zazie Beetz and Robert DeNiro who all give run-of-the-mill – albeit well measured - performances. DeNiro's presence feels tokenistic, as though Philips was fulfilling his Scorsese fantasy, however it's neither distracting or detracting.
Some major flaws of JOKER include heavy-handed plot-driving devices, most of which cannot be revealed without spoilers and glaring references to previous films (look out for Travis Bickle's military jacket and a very familiar ride in the backseat of a cop car). The amount of fan-service is gluttonous and does create a disconnection from the story, however, once you recognise a few nods, it's easy to glaze over the rest.
JOKER is a nasty, depraved and violent journey into the darkest recesses of the human mind. It occupies the same space as some lesser-known films like Tony (2009) Who's Watching Oliver (2018) and Chocolate Strawberry Vanilla (2013) and never offers the viewer a glimpse of light. Nor should it. This is the human Joker as opposed to the comic-book Joker and he is a product of the current political climate, serving as a cautionary marker for those who don't look out for others.
The film’s greatest success is its all-star cast, who I felt often elevated a lazy script (more on that below). Veteran Jarmusch collaborators Bill Murray and Adam Driver take the lead as small-town cops doing their best to deal with the zombie outbreak. As a result, the pair share almost all their scenes and develop a surprisingly organic rapport. Driver commits to the role of the overeager Ronnie, immediately assuming the dead have risen at the first sign of gore, while Murray plays it straight and imbues his Chief Cliff with a calm indifference; in one scene, he literally states that he is past retirement age as if to complete the trope. Most viewers will have seen this dynamic before, but Murray’s charm and Driver’s ability to immerse himself ensure the cliché doesn’t feel unwelcome.
Ronnie and Cliff patrol the modest middle America town of Centerville, a setting which is thinly sketched in order to focus on its quirky residents. These include a forest-dwelling hermit (Tom Waits), and a Scottish mortician with some badass katana skills (Tilda Swinton, of course). Even minor roles such as the racist farmer Frank (Steve Buscemi) have some great one-liners and complete our picture of Centerville, making us want to spend more time there. However, the sheer number of characters is excessive given Jarmusch’s tendency to deemphasise story. In lieu of a traditional plot and subplot/s, THE DEAD DON’T DIE cuts between several groups of people who exchange silly small talk, or ominous remarks about how strange things have been recently. While there’s no inherent problem with this, the extended zombie attack sequence comprising the film’s second half means that some characters are simply forgotten about. For instance, the Centerville Juvenile Detention Center (sic) and its inmates eventually disappear and aren’t mentioned afterwards.
Though I won’t spoil the cause of the zombie outbreak, suffice it to say that none of the characters or even Centerville itself are directly involved. Subsequently, placing most of the scenes with zombies in them towards the end of the film removes any semblance of build-up. The actors’ delivery and expressions perfectly convey the humour in Jarmusch’s dialogue, but the rest of the script feels like it’s spinning its wheels in anticipation for the end. This is most clearly seen in the juvie scenes I mentioned above, as well as Selena Gomez being given nothing to do whenever she’s on screen.
Furthermore, THE DEAD DON’T DIE feels annoyingly smug at times, particularly during the countless mentions of its theme song of the same name by Sturgill Simpson. As someone who’s not a big country music fan, I was surprised to find myself enjoying the song when it first played over the opening credits. Yet Jarmusch insists on shattering the fourth wall throughout the film to draw attention to it, in some cases ruining an otherwise fine joke. For instance, the song plays on the radio as Ronnie and Cliff are driving and the latter wonders why it sounds so familiar, only for Driver to look into the camera and say, “because it’s the theme song”. Somehow this isn’t even the most frustrating fourth wall break in the film, as Murray and Driver later discuss “Jim” and the script at length. There’s a time and place for this technique, in fact, Ronnie’s Star Wars keychain is a perfect example. Ultimately though, I just wanted the film to get on with it.
Despite the cast’s best efforts, I simply don’t think this was the right use for the characters and setting. The zombies are an awkward afterthought, yet paradoxically take up so much time that any deeper satire of small-town America is left unfinished. Although Jim Jarmusch has never made universally accessible films, THE DEAD DON’T DIE is definitely only for diehard fans.
What is surprising though, is how cleverly these stories are stitched together within a frame that makes a very good fist of weaving them into an overall, fluid narrative that rarely feels like a contrived or forced spine upon which to hang the tales. That might be due to the influence of Oscar winning horror and supernatural writer/director Guillermo del Toro who gets a story credit along with Saw franchise alumni members Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton. Add to that, a screenplay by Hotel Transylvania (2012) and The Lego Movie (2014) writers Dan and Kevin Hageman and you’ve got a great stew of talents stirring in the scary stuff with the funny stuff.
The story this team comes up with is a bit of a classic teen trope-fest about a bunch of kids in a small town in 1968. Aspiring writer, Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) reluctantly agrees to join her friends Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur) for what might be their last Hallowe’en tick or treat. Along the way, they encounter Chuck’s sister Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn) who’s on a date with school bully Tommy (Austin Abrams). The kids play a prank on Tommy which backfires and he chases them into the local drive-in (check out George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead up on the screen). Here they meet Ramón (Michael Garza), a secretive, out-of-town kid just passing through. Before long all of them end up at the local haunted house where we learn the tale of Sarah Bellows (Kathleen Pollard) whose family locked her away in the basement where she spent her time writing scary stories. And, of course, Stella finds Sarah’s book and brings the legend back to life. Suddenly, a new batch of scary stories are writing themselves (in blood!) and each one’s climax involves the death of a teenager. It’s these stories, the ones Sarah’s ghost is writing in the book, that are taken from Alvin Schwarz’s first collection.
Setting the story in 1968 gives us more than just an excuse for a great visual look, thanks to Production Designer David Brisbin. It takes us back to a time where there was less paranoia about teenagers running loose around town as well as a time before mobile phones, allowing for a tasty combination of freedom and isolation that helps build the suspense and tension. But it also allows us to watch the progress of Richard Nixon’s ascension to the Whitehouse (on television screens in the background of several scenes)... it’s a reminder that bad things really are happening in this world and not all of them are imaginary.
Director André Øvredal - Trollhunter (2010) and The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016) –steers a confident course through these stories of a vengeful scarecrow, a dismembered corpse, the VERY unsettling pale lady and more. At the same time he keeps his eye on the ball with the overarching story so that one never suffers at the hands of the other. More importantly, this isn’t cheap horror. Yes there are a few soundtrack assisted jump-scares, but for the most part this film manages to get our skin crawling and our spines tingling by being super-creepy rather than gory and terrifying. The result is much more satisfying than that average schlock-horror flick. Øvredal is helped by a great cast of young actors who hold their own in a world where, thanks to works like IT parts 1 and 2 and Stranger Things seasons 1 to3, we’re oversupplied by bands of nostalgic teenagers battling supernatural forces. The popularity of those that came before could well have cruelled the pitch for this newcomer, but (for me, at least) there’s a freshness and a likability to Stella, Auggie, Chuck and Ramón that was compelling from start to finish.
Projects like this are a big ask. When you’re working with source material that is well-known and much loved by its readership, there’s a lot of pressure not to screw up the representations of characters that have lived in millions of imaginations for a long, long time. Simultaneously, the producers want to attract new audiences who come fresh to the cinema with no expectations of how the stories or the characters will be rendered. Marvel and DC both know this, as do the makers of the Goosebumps movies. It’s the latter two-movie franchise that this film most aligns with and, on balance, SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK delivers us a better, more satisfying and more entertaining result.
My one disappointment is that artist Stephen Gammell’s excellent original artwork for the Alvin Schwartz stories doesn’t get a credit, even though his images for creatures like Harold the Scarecrow, the Jangly Man, the Pale Lady and others are so faithfully recreated here. Actually, on the subject of giving credit where credit is due, it was my teenage son who pointed this out to me. In his opinion, the stories are only as powerful as they are because of Gammell’s illustrations, and when the scary characters appear on the screen, it’s clear that the filmmakers agree.
At the end of this movie, there’s a nice little coda that not only leaves the door open for a sequel, it begs for one. Often I find these commercial on-selling strategies detract from the enjoyment of the movie at exactly the moment where they want to send me out feeling good about it. That’s not the case here. I can’t wait for the next one. And with two more volumes of scary stories to plunder, why wouldn’t you plan for a franchise?
Perhaps the greatest advantage for writers Andrew Knight and Elise McCredie is that Payne’s life prior to finding fame is inherently fascinating. The youngest of ten children raised by a widowed father (Sam Neill), Michelle grew up surrounded by horses and quickly developed a keen love for them. Simultaneously, the Payne clan are all shown to be devoted fans of racing; their kitchen even has a whiteboard listing everyone’s scheduled events, including track, horse and placing. While these early scenes are charming, I was pleasantly surprised by the script’s brisk pace which gives each moment the right amount of focus. For instance, seeing a young Michelle (Summer North) watch the Melbourne Cup on TV at school is a sweet display of her passion, but rightly isn’t lingered on as a significant event.
RIDE LIKE A GIRL really hits its stride in the second act as Michelle reaches the end of high school. Having watched seven siblings embark on careers as jockeys with varying levels of success, the youngest Payne wants nothing more than to begin her own. Teresa Palmer takes over the role of Michelle from here onwards and is simply brilliant, capturing the palpable frustration of being told she’s not ready and receiving often contradictory advice. When Michelle later moves to Melbourne, neither Palmer nor the script idealise the struggles faced by female jockeys looking for their start. The film takes lengths to show just how little confidence trainers have in women’s abilities, even when they come from well-known racing families. In fact, one trainer openly offers Michelle work in exchange for sex. While this is (hopefully) a composite character, the anger and devastation on Palmer’s face affirm the unfortunate relatability of institutional chauvinism.
Alongside Palmer, Sam Neill is a standout as the laconic Paddy Payne. In my opinion, Neill is an actor who often appears to simply be playing himself rather than fully immersing into a role. I don’t mean this as an insult, merely a comment on how easily his offscreen charisma is transplanted into a film. His turn as Paddy is no exception, exuding warmth and affection even during arguments with his children. However, when a horrific injury sees Michelle hospitalised and comatose, Neill also reaches impressive emotional depths. Paddy’s regret at their strained relationship, fear of losing a child and cautious optimism during her recovery are heart-wrenchingly clear. Similarly, Palmer’s convincing portrayal of the physical and emotional toll of the accident make these scenes utterly compelling yet hard to watch.
Thankfully, the presence of Stevie Payne offers some moments of levity. Given how often Stevie appeared in the real-life coverage of Michelle’s victory, it’s fitting that he’s also such a central figure here. The less obvious choice is to have Payne play himself, which could’ve come across as stunt casting in the hands of a less capable actor. From his first moments onscreen Stevie feels like a natural choice, often providing the film’s biggest laughs with excellent comedic timing and a laidback attitude. He also inadvertently leads Michelle to Prince of Penzance, the horse she would ultimately ride in the Cup.
Although the character-driven moments in RIDE LIKE A GIRL are where it shines, the horse racing sequences deserve to be singled out for their incredible camerawork. Indeed, the sheer level of choreography required for these to work is likely on par with an action film, and just as entertaining. Director Rachel Griffiths shows a clear consideration for which angles to focus on, shifting frequently from behind the horses’ legs, to a camera on the back of a horse looking back at riders, to anxious spectators. There’s even footage from the actual 2015 Melbourne Cup broadcast seamlessly woven into the film during its climactic final race!
Considering how much I loved about this film, my one issue with it feels relatively minor. Nevertheless, I always relish the chance to complain about how restrictive the biopic genre can be. Most egregiously, Griffiths and the writers evidently couldn’t decide which cliché opening they wanted to use: a montage of footage featuring the real-life subject, or a time jump to quickly preview the emotional climax. As a result, we get both a selection of Payne family home videos, and a brief scene of Palmer as Payne at the starting gates of the Melbourne Cup. This is not only uninspired, but abrupt and confusing. After all, most people who watch RIDE LIKE A GIRL will already know how it ends. It’s a testament to the film, and Michelle Payne herself that the story preceding it is so engaging and triumphant.
Often the most basic premises make for the best films and AD ASTRA is a glaring example. Taking a generic rescue-mission narrative the film explores its science-fiction drama with a rare casualness, treating its fiction as though it were fact. The near future as depicted is sincere and familiar, allowing the story to unfold as though we can imagine it within our lifetime.
As Pitt's character journeys from one point to another the audience is treated to a visceral wonder, with his marker-points including a colonised war-stricken version of the Moon, an industrialised Mars and far-reaching space stations. It is a perpetual unravelling of wonderment that is cemented by director James Gray's nonchalant approach to the story. He has invested meticulous attention to detail so that the audience can let the environments wash over them. In fact I would go so far as to consider him a master craftsman.
Gray's previous film was the criminally under-appreciated The Lost City of Z and other films of his include The Immigrant, We Own The Night and The Yards. These titles attest to his level-headed and carefully considered approach to cinema, with AD ASTRA being his most accomplished film to date.
Pitt is excellent in what is essentially a one-man-show. He occupies every frame of the film and carries it with ease. His apathetic demeanour may suggest a phoned in performance to some, whereas others will recognise the level of depth and sincerity. Tommy Lee Jones co-stars as his long-lost father and occupies most of his screen time in a series of video diaries, giving clues to his whereabouts. Donald Sutherland also features – albeit briefly – as a former astronaut and colleague accompanying Pitt on the mission (yes, yes, Jones and Sutherland... Space Cowboys... we were all thinking it).
With an awe-inspiring and mind-blowing production design, married with incredible special effects, AD ASTRA soars far beyond most of its contemporaries. The drama and mystery drives the film to spectacular heights and serves as a reminder of what Christopher Nolan's Interstellar SHOULD have been. There is no pretentious parable or metaphorical fantasy closing this film, nor is there any sign of the director's ego. Instead we are taken to the edge of the known solar system to witness the fragilities of the human mind. Isolation and depravation underline this narrative and with the exception of a slightly sentimental finale, AD ASTRA reaches for the stars and snatches them from the sky.
See the film in the biggest screen possible and let the film take its sweet time. There is no rush here and the more leisurely it meanders, the more absorbing it becomes.
The second thing you'll probably be aware of when it comes to Carnahan and his Instagram-blogging, is that War Party's latest feature, EL CHICANO, just dropped and he's really excited about it. Like REALLY excited about it.
Should we be so excited? Yes. And no. Set in the heart of the LA drug cartel wars it sees suave and charismatic detective Diego Hernandez (Raul Castillo) investigating the latest drug war mass-murder in a warehouse. The more he digs into the case the more truth he uncovers about the death of his wayward twin brother (also played by Castillo). Compound Hernandez's newfound concerns with a new partner he doesn't like and the legend of the 'ghetto grim reaper' the titular El Chicano, a Hispanic superhero vigilante figure, and you have all the ingredients you need to make a dementedly violent, pseudo-superhero gang warfare feature.
Based on a muscular script that Carnahan co-scribed with EL CHICANO's debut feature director Ben Bray, this is the kind of territory Carnahan does really well in. Well, most of the time. For every NARC that Carnahan pens, there's a PRIDE AND GLORY that ever-so-slightly misses the mark. And for every THE GREY there's a DEATH WISH that just scrapes through.
EL CHICANO is essentially a super-hero origin story with a thundering motorbike instead of a Batmobile and hoodie replacing a cowl, which is fine but we really miss Carnahan's original streak. Like that french behemoth Luc Besson, Carnahan seems to keep all his best scripts for himself and dishes the rest out to others.
It's a sturdy enough film, for sure. It's fast, head-smackingly violent, has a relatively efficient script and it does hold a couple of surprises up it's sleeve (one of the most entertaining being George Lopez ditching the yucks and playing a serious role as the police captain). Add to that director Bray's (very) slick visuals and you have all the ingredients for an entertaining diversion.
Awkwafina plays Billi, an aspiring writer raised in the U.S. and the role based on Wang herself. To be honest, before last year’s Ocean’s 8 I’d never heard of Awkwafina, nor did she have much of a chance to stand out among that film’s bigger names. By contrast, THE FAREWELL reveals just how brightly she can shine in a leading role. There are plenty of moments which effortlessly show off Awkwafina’s charming side, particularly when Billi teases Nai Nai. However, I found her even more impressive when required to carry the script’s dramatic heft. Billi is the only one vehemently against keeping the diagnosis a secret but internalises this struggle; Awkwafina says more with pained facial expressions than other performers could with a weepy monologue. I’m a sucker for comedic actors flexing their dramatic muscles, and this performance is my favourite example since Bill Murray in Lost in Translation.
Although the supporting cast are all similarly excellent, I want to highlight the remarkable depth Zhao Shuzhen brings to her turn as Nai Nai. Shuzhen has clearly considered how Nai Nai’s obliviousness differs from outright naivete, making sure to convey her primary goal of looking after the family as she dives headfirst into wedding planning. Even when she briefly goes to the hospital due to her coughing fits, Nai Nai is focused on reassuring the family that she’ll be fine. Shuzhen also gets to deliver the most one-liners and does so with glee. For instance, watching Nai Nai exclaim “You’re not that skinny!” upon greeting Billi is funny in its relatability, but coupled with the scene’s subtext, it becomes delightfully wicked.
However, Wang’s achievements as writer and director make her the true breakout star of this film. Despite THE FAREWELL being just her second feature, Wang skilfully addresses the ethics at its core without every scene descending into a debate. Instead, the viewer is more often asked to consider what it means to come home, and what they would do for family. This is perfectly embodied by the clashing influences of Chinese and American culture on Billi, effectively becoming a fish out of water among her own relatives. Wang resists letting these conflicts collide until late in the film, when other characters finally cast Billi’s perspective on revealing the lie as the result of leaving China for so long. I’m not going to spoil the fallout of this moment, but it’s mesmerising.
The film pulls off a similar balancing act in its quick pivots between comedy and drama. An absurd drinking game scene at the wedding banquet is made to feel even more surreal by filming each actor in close-up and slow motion, only for Wang to abruptly cut to a minor character bursting into tears, once again in slow motion. I was initially confused by this choice, but since the film ended haven’t stopped thinking about the contrast. It’s also a showcase for THE FAREWELL’s consistently beautiful cinematography and use of sound. For the latter, composer Alex Weston favours powerful choral chants, a subtle yet clever reference to the central idea of strength through unity.
Simply put, THE FAREWELL is the best film I’ve seen in 2019 and I can’t imagine that changing. It’s an astonishingly well-realised portrait of Lulu Wang’s experiences that still manages to be an entertaining, relatable depiction of family. I was hooked from start to finish and can’t urge anyone reading this review strongly enough: You need to see this.
Arriving with anticipation Muschietti's new adaptation was a relatively faithful retelling of King's original story, and with the setting brought forward by 30-years it cashed in on the popular wave of 80's nostalgia. It served as the first chapter – The Losers Club – and told the story of seven young teenagers who were terrorised by an evil entity in the guise of a carnival clown. Aside from a few glaring liberties the film adhered to the original novel and proved to be a compelling coming-of-age drama married with suspense and horror.
IT: CHAPTER TWO picks up 27 years later, just like the second half of King's novel and the TV movie, and reunites the Losers Club as adults. Their memories of their childhood are vague and as the entity resumes its feeding on innocent children, recollections of their trauma return with it. Maintaining the same level of production value and overall aesthetic, this second-part successfully binds itself to the previous film. Sadly, the praise ends there because this concluding instalment serves as a bloated, nonsensical and ridiculously gratuitous exercise in ignorance, arrogance and disrespect.
The movie opens with a particularly horrific moment lifted directly from King's book, whereby a gay man is brutally bashed and thrown from a bridge. In today's progressive society this moment might sound relevant in a social-commentary sense, and yet it has no purpose. As originally written by King, this incident provided context and an ongoing narrative, which wove its way through the course of the first act, however on film it happens for no apparent reason and context be damned. From this moment on nothing about IT: CHAPTER TWO feels right. There is no cohesion or fluency, and with the entire film weaving in and out of flashback sequences it hits the screen like a stale funnel cake.
It must be said that the ensemble cast is very good, with Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy and Bill Hader leading their troupe of consummate players. The likeness to their younger counterparts is uncanny and credit must be given to the casting department for providing the film its only clear moment of integrity, for the calibre of talent amongst this cast is wasted and trod upon by the convoluted script, lack of vision and the hideous abundance of computer generated imagery.
Mainstream horror has changed over the years and has come to a point where filmmakers either don't understand what scares people OR audiences think that non-stop action amounts to terror. Either way there is a genuine lack of horror in this instalment, and whatever tropes returning director Andy Muschietti chose to exploit, he misses the mark on just about every one of them.
The working title for Chapter Two was “Pennywise” and it makes sense that the studio dropped that moniker considering how little time he's represented on screen. I personally never found this new depiction of King's evil clown to be scary, and the more monstrous they made him, the less terrifying he was (for my money the truly scary clowns are those without exaggeration). And so you can imagine how fatigued I became when the little screen time Pennywise had in this film was smeared with CGI thicker than Vaseline... there's so much stupid computer contortion and manipulation at play here that everyone forgot about suspense.
As mentioned earlier the achilles heel of the 1990 adaptation was the poorly executed finale, yet fans will attest to the rest of that film. It was this one major blemish which gave us reason to be excited about an all new adaptation, because with all of the advancements in technology filmmakers finally had the means to recreate King's ambitious confrontation. I'm sorry to report that they failed. They failed on an epic scale. They failed monumentally. They failed conceptually. They failed practically. They failed visual effectively. The finale of IT: CHAPTER TWO is what I would call a hot mess... or more bluntly, a cluster fuck! And the worst part? The dialogue blatantly notes McAvoy's author character being unable to write a good ending. Talk about a self-referential wank. Oy Vay!
I hated this film!!! And I hate that it sucks so much that there's absolutely no reason to revisit the first chapter. Thank God we have the 1986 novel to turn to in times of need, and thankfully Tommy Lee Wallace's telemovie is 95% good and far superior. Now lets not try this again... IT is not a story suitable for the screen...
There are many problems with this film, the least of which is its lack of originality. We start with a cheap looking ancient Egypt where, no prizes for guessing, the forbidden love between Sebek (Shamel Hashish) and Reheema (Taylor Carter) ends up in them paying the ultimate price at the hands of the Pharaoh’s henchmen. They are mummified and buried in a crypt for a couple of thousand years until our hero archaeologists, Noah (Carter – he only needs one name apparently) and Daniella (Brittany Goodwin) stumble across the lost city and inadvertently reanimate Sebek who, with the help of a couple of poorly CGI’d hounds from hell, sets out destroy the world whilst trying to find his lost love. Our innocent heroes are, of course, also working for the nefarious Sager (David E Cazares) and his evil henchwoman Dr Dragich (Deanna Grace Congo). If all this sounds a bit familiar and derivative then that’s because it is, which would be fine if the directors were able to give us some good action or even a bit of wit no and then but sadly these things are missing.
What’s also missing from this movie is a big enough budget to properly realise the ideas behind writer Justin Price’s screenplay. The settings all feel very cheap and flimsy and, as already mentioned, the CGI just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Add to this a mummy costume that gives you glimpses of the actor’s skin behind the rubber mask and you’ve got too many distractions to keep an audience focused on the action of the narrative.
The performances throughout range from wooden to overplayed and the interminable pauses and stares off into the middle distance between almost every line manage to make a film with a relatively short running time (80 minutes) seem unnecessarily slow-paced, drawn out and stilted.
As the plot unfolds, the creature pursues our heroes out of the archaeological site and into the local museum where they find themselves not only being chased down by the mummy and its hell hounds, but also under attack from Sager’s men. As Noah and Daniella return fire the exhibits and artefacts in the museum become collateral damage with no apparent distress about the destruction of these priceless antiquities from either of our heroes. Similarly, when Sager captures Noah and Daniella and has them brought to his luxurious mansion, he seems to have no qualms about executing one of his hapless men on his expensive carpets or instigating a running gun battle through the house, despite his many works of art and historical objects being destroyed in the process. Add to this a special stone that seems to inexplicably have the power to restore life to the dead and all these things end up contributing to a level of implausibility that permeates both the narrative and the characters.
By the end of the film, the overstretched budget makes a valiant attempt to offer us a sandstorm and a finale that includes a Godzilla-like creature, both of which end up doing little more than adding insult to injury.
These two spooky moments prompt Sam to re-open the old case of the missing girl and, in the process, reopen some of the associated wounds that have lingered since the girl’s disappearance. Against the wishes of her uncle, who happens to be the Chief of Police, but with the help of Abdi Khan (Gabe Grey) who was lead detective on the Katie Owens case, Sam finds herself drawn into the secrets and lies that surround the events of that prom night and strange happenings since that seem linked to an old book of occult practices that include the goat-man, the number nine and a strange symbol that keeps popping up just about everywhere Sam goes.
There’s some genuine mystery and suspense in this tale that’s working from a strong screenplay written by the co-directors and realised through some nice, underplayed performances by a uniformly talented cast. Correia- Damude finds a cool, remote aloofness in Sam that makes her vulnerable enough for us to care about but abrasive enough not to completely trust. Ironside is also good as the uncle who clearly knows more than he’s letting on. Unlike some movies that attach a ‘known’ genre actor to the cast list to generate some marketing heat, he’s really in this film and gives us a considered performance that makes the most of the handful of scenes he has. What really works for this movie, though, is the depth of character in the many smaller roles that crop up as Sam conducts her unofficial investigation. Most notable amongst these are Allegra Fulton who gives a nicely unhinged performance as Maggie Owen, the mother of the missing girl, and Shannon McDonough who is slightly hilarious as Pat, the motel receptionist who plays against the icy Sam in a couple of scenes that come at just the right time to break the tension of the main story.
That said, the screenplay is not without its problems. The occult element is well developed in the early part of the film but ultimately doesn’t really lead to as much as you might hope for as the denouement plays out. Likewise, the ‘confession’ that takes us into those final scenes and the revelation of the truth seems to come out of nowhere ending up more as a narrative function than a logical breaking down of a character who can no longer keep the secret in. Perhaps the biggest risk of the narrative, though, is the decision to give us an ending that explains the mystery of the past but doesn’t entirely deliver a satisfying conclusion to the present. I’m in two minds about how I feel about how much we’re left hanging as the credits roll.
Back on the plus side, though, one of the many strengths of this movie is the visually compelling cinematography by Michael Caterina. His photographic style is not just a delight to look at but plays a big part in both the moodiness of the piece and the tension of the more suspenseful elements. This, together with a great soundtrack by indie pop band Cults, along with the performances and the bulk of the writing, elevates this movie beyond its few less successful elements, to be a really solid and at times quite suspenseful mystery.
For a few moments at the start of this film, just after a nicely assembled credit-montage of vintage clown images and just before the horror-clowns arrive, there’s a glimmer of promise as Savana Dane (Rachel Lagen) and her lover, Cash Mahoney (Christopher Preyer) plot to steal money from Savanah’s husband, circus-owner-cum-clown, Big Ronnie (John O’Hara). The dialogue here is arch and heightened with a noirish tinge that’s delivered in a tough-talking, exaggerated accent style with plenty of purple-prose along the lines of “you were all over me like taffy on an August afternoon”. But just when you feel that this movie could have a bit of tongue-in-cheek style to it, the scene dissipates into some over-the-top, unmotivated violence and the next thing you know we’re in a scene that is trying to make us believe that eight characters in a tight shot constitutes a circus crowd while we’re treated to a bit of gratuitous nudity and some soft-torture-porn. And the film goes downhill from there.
Yes, there’s a thin conceit that sort of explains why this bunch of sociopathic clowns seem to travel by tornado, but no real logic to the fact that Big Ronnie’s revenge on his cheating wife requires his pack of clowns to join in on the dismemberment of Cash’s body in a ridiculous orgy of spurting blood and severed limbs and totally unrealistic gore. Nor is there any real logic as to why the clowns suddenly turn on the whole town in a murderous rampage that seems to consist of repeating variations on the same dismemberment scene over and over with a couple of body-horror augmentations (poor cousins to the kind of thing we admire David Cronenberg for) thrown in for good measure. But that’s not the worst of its crimes-against-the-moviegoer. With all this mayhem and viscera going on, its pace is deathly slow and it takes forever for nothing much to happen.
The remainder of the plot (if you can call it that) is a bit of a muddle and seems mostly designed to string together a series of gory killings accompanied by the soundtrack of mad, maniacally clown laughter. On the plus side, the clown make-up is pretty good, but there’s very little else in the way of characterisation to delineate one from the other (apart from Big Ronnie, of course). In the end, the film ends up with a kind of predatorial hunting of a small band of heroes led by Savanah who, we trust, will ultimately prevail. The climax of the movie involves a pretty poor tornado-versus-plane effect and some pseudo-science that suggests you can kill off a tornado with a canister of liquid nitrogen.
So, don’t be fooled by the seemingly meta movie title. We might have lucked out with another recent mash-up title for a film called Velocipastor, but that luck didn’t hold long enough to give us the same hilarious experience with Clownado. You’d be better to take shelter in the root-cellar and give this hot mess a miss.