Bill Hader, Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, and James Ransone in It Chapter Two

IT CHAPTER TWO

As with its predecessor, the best thing about director Andy Muschietti's horror sequel It Chapter Two is its murderous clown Pennywise, a role again acted to perfection by Bill Skarsgård. The worst thing, unfortunately, is everything else.

Okay, fine: That's an overstatement. There are a handful of solid scenes, effectively creepy fringe touches, and memorable images, and with only a couple of exceptions, the casting of our now-adult protagonists is almost eerily inspired. Yet if a movie runs 169 minutes, as Muschietti's does, it better have at least a few things to recommend it, and the sad truth is that this continuation of Stephen King's iconic bestseller is a dawdling, repetitive, frequently infuriating bummer. It may boast epic length and a storyline oddly familiar from Avengers: Endgame, but it's an Endgame with tackier effects and crummier (and more inappropriate) jokes, and barring Skarsgård's phenomenally loopy/creepy readings, nothing truly spontaneous seems to transpire over the course of nearly three hours. For a mostly lousy movie, Chapter Two is watchable enough. It's still mostly lousy.

For those of us who really enjoyed Muschietti's 2017 It, what makes the disappointment worse is that this follow-up actually starts out kind of great. With 27 years having passed since the first film's nightmarish events in Derry, Maine, we're immediately returned to that theoretically peaceful small town and given an instant reminder of its ugly underbelly: a brutal homophobic assault that, from all evidence, isn't initiated by Pennywise. (Not that the creature doesn't eventually take full, grisly advantage of the attack.) The scene is a chilling reminder that, killer clown or no killer clown, Derry has always sucked – a faux Leave It to Beaver community rife with bigots, bullies, and loathsome adults whose diseased complexions suggest a steady rotting of the citizens' souls. The only decent Derry inhabitant in sight appears to be Pennywise survivor Mike (Isaiah Mustafa), who faced the clown in 1989 and implicitly knows that this latest murder portends his promised return. Mike also begins to reassemble his Losers Club pals in order to – as the young teens vowed vanquish the evil for good.

You remember those kids, right? If not, their intermittent reappearances in flashbacks and Chapter Two's largely uncanny casting of their adult selves will no doubt refresh your memories. James McAvoy, as the grown-up Bill, may not resemble the role's initial portrayer Jaeden Martell, and young Sophia Lillis was so reminiscent of an adolescent Amy Adams that it's a tad disconcerting to see the adult Beverly instead played by Jessica Chastain. (Then again, Chastain played the lead in Muschietti's 2013 horror-flick breakout Mama, so perhaps her participation here was inevitable.) But beginning with Mustafa's Mike – the actor having inherited his role from It's Chosen Jacobs – everyone else is thrillingly spot-on, with Bill Hader's Richie, Jay Ryan's Ben, Andy Bean's Stanley, and, maybe best of all, James Ransone's Eddie feeling exactly like the characters played two years ago, respectively, by Finn Wolfhard, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Wyatt Oleff, and Jack Dylan Grazer.

Isaiah Mustafa, Biull Hader, James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, and Jay Ryan in It Chapter Two

The introductory scenes in which we're reacquainted with this septet are amusing partly for the chance to see where the Losers' individual 27-year paths have taken them, with some of our still-haunted heroes (principally Bill and Ben) achieving huge professional success and others (especially Beverly and Eddie) living amidst loud echoes of their traumatic childhoods. Yet these early reunions are additionally fun because man do these co-stars look and sound right – McAvoy and Chastain at least approximate the spirits of Martell and Lillis – and when six of the seven first gather in a Derry restaurant for dinner (with one of their number decisively choosing not to attend), there's every reason to expect both performative and character-driven fireworks.

Unfortunately, though, we don't get either, and from the minute the Losers start trading genial barbs and nuggets of exposition, you begin to sense, correctly, that Chapter Two won't have nearly the performance-based thrill of the first installment. Coming from the mouths of gifted actors just entering puberty, the previous film's profane wisecracks and overtly sexualized insults had edge and surprise, the way they did in 1986's Stephen King adaptation Stand by Me, where you laughed both at the audacity of the dialogue and the fact that young teens (and 11-year-old Jerry O'Connell) were the ones delivering it. But hearing similarly curse-word-laden put-downs coming from such practiced adult talents as Hader and Ransone doesn't have close to the same effect. And unlike with Muschietti's 2017 cast, nothing said in screenwriter Gary Dauberman's sequel sounds spur-of-the-moment; from the juvenile taunting to the exclamatory portentousness, nearly every spoken word has a flat, comic-book-balloon quality that routinely quashes the believability. Emotionally trapped in their grim childhoods, and reunited for the first time in ages, it makes sense that Stephen King's Losers of 2016 would talk much the way they did in 1989. That doesn't necessarily make it enjoyable to hear them talk.

Yet the movie's major problems really start after the friends leave that Chinese restaurant and escape its more-goofy-than-scary CGI fortune cookies. To begin with, as Mike informs the gang, each of the Losers has to retrieve a totem from their pasts – a half-explained Native American ritual that appears to be the only way to defeat Pennywise (who, in reality, is merely an avatar of a far more insidious, spidery evil). Ever since Oliver Stone's The Doors in 1991, my eyes tend to reflexively glaze over at any Hollywood take on Native American rituals, but this seems an especially perverse inclusion. No sooner are our heroes assembled than they're sent off on their own, each for a 10-minute excursion in which the specifics may be different, but the results are the same: Find totem; witness childhood flashback; endure clown-motivated horrors; escape with totem. (Repeat.) For all the momentary kick of watching Haden outrun a behemoth Paul Bunyan and Chastain – in a scene lifted practically whole for the trailer – making small talk with an unnerving senior, there's no real threat or shock in these sequences. (King's It novel runs more than 1,100 pages, and detours such as these are the primary reason why – though, as usual, they're Better in the Book.)

Bill Skarsgård in It Chapter Two

The bigger annoyance, however, comes after all these tchotchkes are gathered and the Losers are faced with performing the ritual … at the same damned haunted house they wound up in 27 years ago. Again, on a narrative level, I get it. The inevitability of the locale, though, doesn't change the extended finale in Chapter Two being so baldly reminiscent of the extended finale in chapter one that loads of time and money could have been saved if Muschietti just photo-shopped his adult actors' faces onto the bodies of his 2017 cast. (There's clearly some CGI trickery going on regarding the faces of the barely-pubescent It cast members who, in the recreated flashbacks, aren't quite so “barely” anymore.) This endless climax does have its moments: a touching breakthrough for Bill; a lovely bit of symbiosis for Beverly and Ben; Pennywise doing a Margaret Hamilton. More often than not, though, the protracted repetition just keeps you aware of how very, very long the movie is, and Dauberman's habit of having characters continually crack wise even amidst purportedly nightmarish situations is thoroughly maddening. He's a brilliant comedian and an excellent actor, but in all of Richie's incessant zingers, Hader may as well be facing the camera and confiding, “We're not scared of this either, folks.”

I could easily amass a lengthy list of other Chapter Two elements that irked me: the initially promising yet ultimately meaningless return of It's chief bully Henry Bowers (Teach Grant), whose entire screen time could have been excised with no noticeable loss; the presentational, Jack-in-the-box sameness of the glaringly phony CGI effects; the self-conscious, tension-killing callback to the most famous image in John Carpenter's The Thing, complete with a word-for-word repeat of that movie's most famous line. (As in-jokes go, I much preferred the barely coded references to Stephen King's inability to write a satisfying ending – an opinion delivered, in a delightfully tongue-in-cheek cameo, by King himself.) And while we're treated to Ryan's unexpectedly soulful portrayal of former fat kid Ben, a guy now blessed with a to-die-for apartment and washboard abs, the more recognizable McAvoy and Chastain give, in the end, what might be the least interesting performances of their careers. The former low points for both might have been when they partnered each other in 2014's dreary The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby. Call me a pessimist, but as opposing romantic leads, I'm thinking the McAvoy/Chastain thing just ain't in the stars.

Yet I'm at least able to end this tirade – one that, as an It fan, I was really, really hoping not to have to write – on a note of positivity. Because as disheartening as most of It Chapter Two is, there's no denying the magnificence of Pennywise portrayer Bill Skarsgård, who's so deliciously enticing and malevolent in his sing-song cadences that the movie is unimaginable without him. At one point here, we even get to see the clown briefly without makeup, and while Skarsgård himself is as handsome as Pennywise is grotesque, the actor's bone-deep impersonation of King's most iconic villain makes him almost more terrifying sans greasepaint. (He's also given a scene under carnival bleachers, luring a small girl to her death, that's nearly the equal of Pennywise's rain-gutter convo with Georgie in 2017.) Like a lot of admirers, I'll never have a bad thing to say about Tim Curry, who played Pennywise in 1990 and whose presence nearly redeemed all four hours of that year's unfortunate It mini-series. Skarsgård, though, is in a class by himself, and if Batman's nemesis can get a feature-length Joker, I'm gonna start lobbying hard for a feature-length Pennywise. He's funny, he's frightening, he's unpredictable … and he floats, too.

One Child Nation

ONE CHILD NATION and AFTER THE WEDDING

Not up for killer clowns? No problem, because if you venture to Iowa City, you'll have your choice of two area debuts completely void of them. Directors Nanfu Wang's and Zhang Lynn's One Child Nation is a wrenching documentary about China's 1979-2015 one-child-per-family law that led to widespread abortion, sterilization, abandonment, and worse. Writer/director Bart Freundlich's After the Wedding, meanwhile, is a drama about newly shattered lives in which Julianne Moore sobs, Michelle Williams sobs, and Billy Crudup sobs. Only at FilmScene! The happy fun place!

As a literal card-carrying patron of FilmScene, I say this with love, especially considering the venue is the only place within easy driving distance that you can reliably count on seeing independent releases such as One Child Nation. Heaven knows I'm glad not to have missed it. With Wang serving as off-screen narrator and empathetic on-screen interviewer, her and Zhang's doc returns the pair to their native China, where the Americanized women explore the ramifications of the national policy in which it was a criminal offense for urban families to bring more than one child to term. (Rural families such as Wang's were allowed two children, with the implicit understanding that one of them had better be a boy.)

With the law designed to stave off overpopulation and economic depression, the directors' found footage of state propaganda – billboards, songs, and even entire operas were crafted to promote the necessity and joys of the one-child system – is upsetting enough. Even more so are the remembrances of Wang's interviewees, among them members of her family, who describe in excruciating detail the horrors of abandoning unallowed infants in crowded marketplaces or selling them to traffikers, and the pummeling guilt of a doctor who, by her reckoning, performed more than 10,000 government-mandated late-term abortions. Even more so are the images that accompany news of these tragedies, with one Chinese artist devoting his life to photographic proof of discarded babies – in garbage dumps, under overpasses – sitting amidst other debris wrapped, but not sealed, in trash bags. As should go without saying, this is harrowing stuff, and you leave grateful that One Child Nation only lasts 85 minutes. Yet as directed and edited, they're 85 deeply important, thunderously powerful minutes, with the individual and group tragedies eventually coalescing into an inescapable one: that a country of more than 1 billion people could be systematically browbeaten into believing, as nearly a dozen interviewees state, “There was nothing we could do.” (Wang's own mother says that without the policy, “There would have been cannibalism.”) It's a nightmare scenario, but one all too imaginable, and you leave One Child Nation freshly educated, newly moved, and endlessly grateful to not be living under a similarly oppressive regime. You know. For now.

Michelle Williams in After the Wedding

Bart Freundlich's After the Wedding, meanwhile, suggests that there's a very fine line between drama and melodrama, and that line might just be After the Wedding itself. A gender-swapped adaptation of Susanne Bier's Oscar-nominated Danish release from 2006, the film casts Michelle Williams as the American head of an Indian orphanage who's called to Manhattan to receive a multi-million-dollar donation from Julianne Moore's über-wealthy entrepreneur. Initially unwilling to leave her Indian charges, Williams eventually meets Moore for the meeting in New York, where, before the donation is finalized, she's invited to the wedding of Moore's daughter the following day. (“It won't kill you to stay,” says Moore, while everything about Williams' subtle loathing of the woman's luxurious lifestyle hints that it actually might.) Determined to leave with cash in hand, Williams reluctantly agrees to attend, only to find that (a) Moore's husband, played by Billy Crudup, is her former lover, and (b) Moore's daughter, played by Abby Quinn, is … . Well, soap-opera music cues say it best: “Dun dun du-u-u-u-un!!!

I'm not sure I ever truly bought a moment of this movie. From the deep contrivances of its narrative to the clichéd pigeon-holing of the characters (the groom, naturally, is also one of Moore's employees) to the strings-soaked score by Mychael Danna, everything about its deck feels too stacked for comfort, and so embalmed with moneyed good taste – employed as an obvious parallel to the poverty of Williams' life in India – that Freundlich is all but blatantly imitating Woody Allen on those occasions in which Woody was blatantly imitating Ingmar Bergman. The symbolism is also grossly on-the-nose, never more so than when Moore, at a lunch meeting with Williams, insists to the waiter that they both have the sole … although Moore's obsession with a damaged bird nest would certainly run a close second. But as with a lot of ludicrous melodramas, I was at least never bored. I'm not sure that you can be bored at a movie starring Moore, Williams, and Crudup, all of whom are in tip-top form except at the moments you most need them to be. (Moore's and Crudup's mutual breakdown felt uncharacteristically strained for these actors, and while Williams is reliably incandescent, she plays her role so close to the vest that it's practically performance art: “How much emotion can one person show without showing any at all?”) A movie that crams what feels like an entire season of daytime drama into a tidy 105 minutes, After the Wedding is sufficiently juicy yet, discordantly, also strangely dry, and more than a little silly. Remake it again in 13 years with Pedro Almodóvar or Baz Luhrmann at the helm, though, and I'm there.

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