At 135 minutes, It: Chapter One covers only the childhood half of Stephen King’s magnum opus, saving the adult portion for the sequel, set twenty-seven years later. The decision to split the movie in two was a wise move on the part of the studio, as it gave the filmmakers more time to flesh out both the story and the large cast of characters. But with a nearly three-hour run time, It: Chapter Two is a full thirty-five minutes longer than Chapter One, begging the question: how much time did the filmmakers really need?
I hate to start on a negative note, but at a bloated 170 minutes, the length of Chapter Two becomes a major stumbling block that must be addressed. Where director Andy Muschietti’s vision for the first movie perfectly recaptures the novel’s supernatural terror and childhood bonding, It: Chapter Two moves fast — maybe too fast — and yet, it never quite captures the weight of its nearly three-hour runtime. You’d figure that an additional thirty-five minutes would give the storytellers more time to flesh out the characters, the relationships, the backstory, and the supernatural entity at the center of Derry, but instead, the film feels frustratingly thin — and, dare I say, self-indulgent. The final result is a mixed bag in which your patience is tested, your attention brought to bear, and your precious time demanded.
Still, there’s also a lot to love here.
The problem with flashbacks…
The narrative of It: Chapter Two is pretty-straightforward, and anyone who’s seen the first film, watched the original TV series, and/or has read the book knows what to expect. Minus a few key sequences, such as the controversial sewer orgy, Gary Dauberman’s script is mostly faithful to the heart of King’s story. When Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgard) returns to picturesque Derry, the seven (well, really six) people who defeated him in 1989 must return to their hometown to defeat the horrible creature and bring his reign of terror, once and for all, to an end.
As the group reunites in Maine, the proceedings are padded by extended flashbacks as the now-adult members of the Losers Club struggle to rebuild the bonds they forged as children, as all but one (Mike) experiences temporary memory loss. It turns out that moving away from Maine has somehow made their memories foggy, and now it’s up to Mike to find a way to make them remember those horrific clown-related encounters that have vanished from their consciousness.
The film’s focus on these flashbacks sometimes works to its advantage, and sometimes to its detriment. The upside is that these dream sequences allow the charismatic and talented young actors who previously played the characters to return in It: Chapter Two, and as with the first film, some of the best parts of It: Chapter Two have nothing to do with the cackling manifestations of the murderous Pennywise, but rather with the camaraderie, bickering, and curiosity among these kids. The teenagers get a fair amount of screen time here, reminding us of the sparkling chemistry of the lively young cast. Unfortunately, the downside is that these endless flashbacks are the biggest culprit in stretching out the film’s running time; if you cut them out entirely, we would most likely be left with a two-hour movie.
When we bury our feelings, we bury who we are…
Where, It: Chapter One uses the fight against Pennywise as a metaphor for the characters facing their deepest fears as they enter adulthood, Chapter Two tackles themes of memory and childhood trauma, exploring the loss of innocence decades after our heroes faced off against the creepy, dancing clown with outsize yellow teeth, a high-pitched squeak of a voice, and a habit of eating kids. And like Chapter One, Chapter Two deals with grief, insecurities, trauma, and guilt. These characters may be older, but they continue to be haunted by their own personal demons, and they have ways to go before they can ever heal.
James McAvoy plays Bill Denbrough, now a best-selling mystery novelist who married a movie star (Jess Weixler), but is still not over the death of his little brother, Georgie. Beverly Marsh (Jessica Chastain) is a successful fashion designer trapped in an abusive marriage. Jay Ryan is the once-bullied, overweight Ben, who’s currently an architect and looks hotter than “a team of Brazilian soccer players,” but never quite got over his childhood crush, and still carries around Beverly’s signature from a page in his yearbook. James Ransone is the hypochondriac Eddie, who grew up to be a terrifyingly high-strung adult. Bill Hader is the foul-mouthed smart-aleck Richie Tozier, a now-famous standup comedian who doesn’t write his own material. Andy Bean stars as Stanley, still the weakest of the bunch and still trying to get his life in order, and last but not least, Isaiah Mustafa stars as Mike Hanlon, the only member of the Losers Club who remained in Derry. He’s the town librarian, and the only one who clearly remembers Pennywise. They’ve grown into restless adults, each of them scarred by the events of their past, and now the seven (really six) must search out and destroy It. And the only way they can defeat the clown is if they work together.
James McAvoy’s Bill might be the story’s beating heart, but Chapter Two really belongs to Ritchie. Hader’s spin on Richie is easily the film’s standout, since no other actor better matches their younger counterpart than him. He pretty much nails every line of dialogue, and the subtle subplot about his secret desires carries more emotional weight than expected. Meanwhile, Mustafa (best known as the Old Spice guy) has an impressive breakout as Mike, while Teach Grant’s offbeat turn as Henry Bowers (an escapee from a psychiatric ward) brings equal scares and laughs. The rest of the cast is fine, although the adult group doesn’t demonstrate the same level chemistry as their younger selves, as we’re reminded by the narrative lift we feel each time we are shown a flashback.
Here comes the horror…
Regardless of how you feel about the near-three-hour running time, the good news is that It: Chapter Two packs enough suspense and genuine scares to satisfy even the biggest horror hounds. It really is at times terrifying, and features three if not four scenes that are as good as the astonishing visual centerpiece of the first film. For a movie classified as ‘horror,’ It: Chapter Two features some thrilling setpieces punctuated by each of the character’s deepest and darkest fears, including a claustrophobic encounter in a mirrored funhouse, an even more catastrophic sequence that jumps between a shocking hallucination that sees Jessica Chastain drenched in more blood than Johnny Depp in A Nightmare On Elm Street, and a scene in which Jay Ryan sinks deep into the earth.
Another highlight comes when Chastain’s Beverly visits her childhood home looking to reunite with her father, only to be greeted by an elderly woman named Mrs. Kersh (Joan Gregson) who insists she come in for tea. As Beverly awkwardly tries to stir up a conversation, Mrs. Kersh becomes momentarily paralyzed. The expression on her face here is far more frightening than what comes next. Meanwhile, a reunion at an Asian restaurant is one of the movie’s best scenes, showcasing Hader’s comedic flair and introducing the first of many digitally enhanced effects used to realize Pennywise’s grotesque transformations, including a later nod to John Carpenter’s The Thing. It’s here that the grown-up Losers are quickly reminded of the terrifying shape-shifting abilities of Pennywise the clown. It’s stuff like this that makes It: Chapter Two well worth seeing.
Make no mistake, Chapter Two does earn its R rating, and like the first film, the greatest asset is still Bill Skarsgård as the sadistic, child-chomping, demonic clown. There really is something special about watching him twitch, crawl, shriek, and work his way into the minds of the children of Derry. Amidst the movie’s many monstrosities, the shapeshifter is by far the most menacing, best exemplified in one single shot where he appears out of disguise as a man simply covering his face in clown paint. It’s all good stuff thanks to the first-rate special effects, gross-out visuals, and Checco Varese’s gorgeous and dreamy cinematography, which conveys a sense of danger even in the bright daylight.
About that cold opening…
The first horror we witness in this second installment, however, is oddly the most terrifying — and also the most troublesome µ scene of Chapter Two. The scene in question details a grotesque act of homophobic violence against a gay couple (played by Taylor Frey and Canadian director Xavier Dolan) that transitions to the first appearance of the now-iconic red balloon and the words “Come Home” scrawled in blood under the bridge before Pennywise himself appears. What this has to do with the main story is unclear, except to maybe serve as a reminder that Pennywise isn’t the only monster residing in Derry. But while the hate crime is true to the book and based on the real-life 1984 drowning of Charlie Howard, the scene is confusing in this context, and feels tonally out of place with the rest of the film, as the filmmakers never bother to revisit neither the scene nor the characters to give it any sort of closure.
But it’s not just the cold opening that feels disjointed and tonally out of place — the ending does as well. 170 minutes is plenty of time to build to a satisfying climax, but It: Chapter Two concludes the nearly six-hour, two-movie saga without much in the way of surprises. Worse is that screenwriter Gary Dauberman beats you over the head with meta-joke after meta-joke about how Stephen King never quite knows how to nail an ending, and in case you missed it, King even pops up just to reinforce this fact, which only further reinforces just how disappointing the climax really is.
The film needs a better ending…
For better or for worse, It stands out as one of the rare films that have attempted to remain as true as possible to the source material. However, I can’t help but think Andy Muschietti had a chance to trim some fat, not feel the need to resolve every subplot, nor cram in another anti-climactic, big-budget action-movie spectacle which not only sucks the life and imagination out of the film, but isn’t the slightest bit scary. There’s a lot to like here, as It: Chapter Two oozes with spectacular scenery, stupefying effects, an epic score, and plenty of nerve-jangling scenes that will have viewers shrieking, but Chapter Two is also painfully long, and could use a better ending. In between the odd prologue and the disappointing climax is roughly two hours of well-crafted filmmaking and fifty minutes of excess.
- Ricky D
‘Rojo’ Takes Carefully Composed Aim at Argentina’s Murky Past
Getting off to a creepy and crackling start, Benjamín Nasihtat’s Rojo can’t quite live up to its opening promise while admirably trying to navigate a muddied maze of vague suspicion around a small town in Argentina during the 1970s before the coup. Still, though the story bumps into a few dead ends before finally emerging into some light at the finish, exquisite compositions — punctuated by occasional bursts that mimic the time period’s cinematic style — and a quietly simmering performance from star Darío Grandinetti manage to keep things engaging enough throughout this low-key thriller.
After a mysterious opening shot in which an abandoned house in a pleasant neighborhood is calmly looted by various locals, Rojo directs our attention to a cozy, upscale restaurant where respectable lawyer Claudio sits alone, waiting for his wife, courteously acknowledged by other similarly well-off patrons. He draws the ire of another customer, who abrasively chides Claudio for occupying a table when he is not ready to order, thus depriving those who are. Pretending to take the higher road, Claudio gives up his seat, but can’t resist also giving this rude young man a lecture of his own — one that despite its refined vocabulary, smacks of hostile superiority. From there, an altercation ensues that will not only haunt Claudio for the rest of the film, but also stand for a certain societal rot that took over a country.
The sequence is chilling in its callousness, the way in which a person is removed from a restaurant — and a community — with nary a blink of an eye; soon, everyone is back to chattering away, enjoying their meals as if a mere pest had entered and was quickly shooed away. Beneath their civilized faces, however, their are subtle signs of deep unease. Rojo expertly creates a tension here that it will then go on to very slowly dilute, as more and more tangents are given prominence in an attempt to reinforce already clear themes without shedding new light on them.
The paranoia and guilt lurking beneath nearly every interaction in Rojo serves to bring attention to the various disappearances that take place and are alluded to throughout the story. That fear of being “disappeared” without a trace is a clear reference to the “los desaparecidos” — political dissidents from the era who either fled the country or were kidnapped and murdered in the wake of a military coup that wanted to silence opposition. The premise that one can suddenly say the wrong thing and summarily be erased from society while everyone looks the other way is an inherently scary one, and that pervading atmosphere goes a long way toward making Rojo highly watchable.
However, once the general idea is firmly and skillfully established, Rojo seems to have little place else to go with it. A subplot involving selling the house from the prologue is mildly interesting in how it portrays the opportunistic behavior that capitalized on atrocity, but the process eventually fizzles out. American rodeo cowboys pay a visit, alluding to U.S. involvement during the coup, but not much else. A trip to the beach perhaps shows a bit of the pressure that gets to those who have had to turn a blind eye for so long, but little else is garnered outside a stylish depiction of a solar eclipse that washes the screen symbolic red. A teenage romance seems like it’s reaching for something important to say about dominance and jealousy, but can’t come up with more than another disappearance — and of a character who might as well be a nobody regardless, for the few minutes they are on screen.
A missing doctor, a magician’s act, a church confrontation; the power of the vanishings is undermined somewhat by their frequency. But maybe that’s the point — that we all can be desensitized to injustice.
Still, whether or not one finds meaning, it’s hard to take one’s eyes off such gorgeously composed images as Nasihtat has crafted here. Though its plot often seems to lack focus, Rojo still emits a feeling of pinpoint exactitude through pictures. Nearly every frame is a joy to examine, creating a palpable sense that angles and staging have been meticulously prepared to convey important information key to unlocking the script’s mysteries. Restrained use of zooms and freeze frames also help inject some period style into the proceedings, and can be effectively startling. Holding it all together though is the repressed performance of Darío Grandinetti, who masterfully finds the quiet fear and hypocrisy in a certain kind of ‘upright’ citizen. As the various pressures grow (including from a big-city TV investigator played by Alfredo Castro), will he be able to hold it together?
The payoff is a bit anti-climactic, but Rojo has already been trending that way since the beginning. Nevertheless, it does conclude on a more explicit note, and there is a great visual pleasure to be had from simply watching this story unfold in such sharp, capable filmmaking hands.
‘Rojo’ is now available on digital formats from 1844 Entertainment.
‘Queen of Hearts’ is a Frank and Difficult Look at Sexual Desire
Trine Dyrholm is typically brilliant in Danish film ‘Queen of Hearts’ — playing an older woman embarking on an affair with her stepson.
Queen of Hearts starts with a rather banal scene. Anne (Trine Dyrholm) walks through the woods with her dog. Her children are just outside her large, glass-heavy house. She goes inside, where her husband, Peter (Magnus Krepper), says police have called and he has to go. She looks outside at some barren trees, dramatic strings play, and the title credits come on; it’s a seemingly innocuous moment curdled into something far more ominous.
This opening salvo with something moody and dark hiding within the banality and reliability of a simple family scene (later revealed to be in the future) sums up the Official Danish Best International Film submission Queen of Hearts as a whole. This is a film of bad decisions, loneliness, and creaky moral boundaries, interrogating the mores of modern womanhood against the backdrop of supposed domestic perfection.
Our protagonist, Anne, is a lawyer who works with children who have been abused. She knows how to talk to young victims of rape and neglect, balancing a firm sense of what’s right with the necessary language to give these children hope. But she has difficulties switching from work to home, unable to give her twin daughters the affection they deserve. One way for anyone to switch off and focus on life outside of work, of course, is to engage in some form of intimacy; yet, her hypocritical, workaholic doctor husband has little time to give her any attention in the bedroom.
When Peter’s teenage son, Gustav (Gustav Lindh), turns up to stay for the summer, Anne is immediately attracted to his moodiness and sexual swagger. Their slow seduction scenes seem to all come from different movies: porno (he suddenly comes out of the shower in the towel), summer indie drama (a scene in a lake with splashing water and an ecstatic soundtrack), and eventually horror (a writhing, overly staged sex scene in the dark that is extremely shocking in its frankness).
These shifts in tone reflect the film’s queasy study in shifting sympathies, making Queen of Hearts a modern morality play baked in typically Scandinavian seriousness. Is Anne simply engaging in a harmless affair, rediscovering her long-dormant sexuality? Or is the age difference simply too far? With echoes of both The Hunt (2012) and the women-focused sex-dramas of Lars von Trier, it is sure to provoke a mixture of praise for its brazen female sexual gaze, and eventually disgust for where this gaze finally takes us.
Most of us assume that we are good people, even as we are engaging in less than savoury activities. It may look bad to people on the outside, but we have our reasons. The ever-reliable Trine Dyrholm turns in another mesmerising performance here, balancing her own lack of sexual self-confidence against her outwardly authoritative presence as a lawyer. Even if we cannot agree with what she does, Dyrholm successfully conveys her character’s complexity, making her sympathetic throughout. But just as we can never judge ourselves objectively, we can never know the ultimate effect our actions may have on others, especially in a dynamic such as this, leading to some bitter results.
Queen of Hearts asks the viewer to never make assumptions, to think outside of clichés, and to really dig deep into the true heart of the matter. Director May el-Toukhy knows she has strong actors and a strong screenplay here, employing minimal tricks to just let them get on and really chew into the material. While unlikely to make it into the final Oscar shortlist, Queen of Hearts deserves a lot of credit for its utter brazenness and steadfast commitment to its difficult premise.
‘Ford v Ferrari’ Drives Fast with Little Under the Hood
A classic Hollywood drama with fast cars and a stellar Christian Bale performance that feels great despite a lack of emotional substance.
Many directors always struggle with producers and other businessmen to retain their vision. What might work most for that vision may not be what focus tests and audiences have proven to enjoy, so the film gets reworked and reworked until it becomes a box office hit, and potentially retains a director’s intent. Ford v Ferrari doesn’t necessarily feel like that — this is a James Mangold film in many regards — but by the end of its story of vision and skill versus marketing and business agendas, Mangold’s latest wrestles with placing trust in an individual against an entire body of suits.
When Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is approached by Ford Motors to create a car fast enough to beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (an annual racing event where drivers go all day and night around the same track), he is forced to fight tooth-and-nail to get the best driver for the job: Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Shelby’s fight is singular; he wants to win the Le Mans, and knows that Miles is the only one who can do it. Yet, Ford Motors is still a company with many eyes on them, and employing the hot-headed Miles as a driver could be disastrous. So begins a struggle for Shelby and Miles to have their desires met by a company looking at the bottom line. That struggle — one that underscores every decision made by the characters in the film — is what sits at the core of Ford v Ferrari, and keeps things interesting. Set that aside, however, and the film loses a lot of momentum.
Still, the racing will grip audiences throughout. The final Le Mans challenge runs for a decent portion of Ford v Ferrari and is engaging throughout, but there are several other races and practices where Mangold’s craftsmanship as a filmmaker shines bright. Miles sits in the driver’s seat of all of these moments, and Bale’s performance is never stronger than when his character has that need for speed. Miles is a passionate driver with pure intentions, and Bale gives him a lot of wit and heart in between huge swings of emotion. It’s a performance that stands tall but doesn’t distract, instead meshing extremely well with the action.
Meanwhile, the other performances are also solid. Matt Damon is very good in the role of Shelby, though his character is quite often reserved because he has to be. When you put him against Bale, however, it’s clear that Shelby pales to the race car driver’s fleshed-out character, as we follow the latter’s family, his rejections and successes, and his pure heart. In the backdrop is a wide array of supporting actors, including Caitriona Balfe as Mollie Miles, Josh Lucas as the thorn in Shelby’s side, Jon Bernthal playing a standard Jon Bernthal role, and Tracy Letts chewing up scenery whenever he can as Henry Ford II. Letts and Lucas in particular give great caricatured performances, planting Ford v Ferrari into a more standard Hollywood drama.
Largely that’s the problem: Ford v Ferrari is a technical achievement with some incredible craftsmanship and performances that just never feels as great at slow times as it does when it’s moving past 7000 RPMs. It has a need for speed, and the pacing shows that, but it also doesn’t really rise very high above what’s needed to please an audience. Mangold is great at deriving emotional substance out of a subject, but a lot of that in Ford v Ferrari is left on the shoulders of Bale’s performance. Instead, the film focuses heavily on the bureaucratic side of things, and how that hinders talented people from being who they are destined to be. While fun to watch, there isn’t much more that will have Ford v Ferrari lingering with audiences. Instead, this will be a movie that resonates with racing fans and those that struggle against restrictions, keeping general audience satisfied in their big Hollywood dramas for the time being.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 14 as part of our coverage of The Toronto International Film Festival.
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