It Chapter Two an ambitious and sobering effort

It (2017) was a grown-up Amblin film that did not use the popular eighties studio aesthetic as an excuse for a nostalgic harkening back of the era. Rather, it was a film that blurred the line between the real-world fears of a group of adolescents and the demons that plagued the darkest corners of their minds (via fantastical and nightmarish sequences). In this regard, the film had more in common with A Nightmare on Elm Street then ET. The film also effortlessly impressed with the impeccable chemistry of its young cast and riveting theatrical performance of Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard).

By comparison, It Chapter Two is an ambitious and sobering effort, weaving past and present with such beautiful elegance that the film becomes the cinematic equivalent of group therapy.

The sequel picks up 27 years after the original film. The group once known as The Losers Club are mostly living separate lives far away from their childhood town – Derry. When a vicious attack is punctuated with the message of “Come Home,” the sole club member who remained in Derry, Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa), enlists the help of his former friends to destroy the ancient creature they once defeated as kids.

The adult section of the It narrative has always been a hard pill to swallow. Strictly viewed through the 90s mini-series, it’s a melange of mockable imagery, plodding pacing, and saccharine sentimentality. To its credit, It Chapter Two tries to tackle this challenge with its tongue firmly in its cheek. The de facto leader of the group – Bill Denbrough (James McAvoy) – grew up to become a novelist in the vein of Stephen King and is frequently mocked for his endings (an allusion to the novel’s and miniseries’ ending) The mythologizing is also relegated to the background and rendered pointless by the final confrontation.

If anything, the initial set up for the mythological quest is an excuse for the characters to confront their past selves and lives. These are the sequences that make It Chapter Two a unique horror film. Rather than indulging in the persistent cycle of setting up and scare, the sequel’s most horrifying moments are the characters realizing how their fears illustrate their inhumanity – whether it’s Denbrough confronting the reality that he could not save a kid (similar in age to his dead brother Georgie) from Pennywise or Eddie Kaspbrak (James Ransone) leaving his Mum to die because he’s too scared to fight of a leper.

This speaks to the film’s central theme of how we can never truly just hold on to the pristine images of ourselves. We must confront and acknowledge that we are more than the identities painted by our memories.

During this stretch, there is a frequent amount of new footage involving the younger cast members, intercut with their grown counterparts’ current actions. Rather than becoming a visual crutch, the use of the footage reinforces the thin line between some of the characters younger and grown-up identities. They also function as memories with the present moments awakening the past and rippling into the future. Jason Ballantine’s editing ensures that the transitions between the two timelines are often poetic and meaningful. One such moment is when Beverly (Jessica Chastain) walks through her old house and remembers a painful memory of her dad, reinforcing the somewhat meek person that Beverly grew up to be.

In most of her performances, Chastain has always been the toughest person in the room, never allowing her vulnerability to bubble to the surface. As Beverly, this dynamic is reversed. The actress’ most striking moments are when she’s sensitive. One moment that comes to mind is when the character is subtly conveying the hidden burden she must carry about a recent event.

Bill Skarsgard returns with a captivating performance as Pennywise, adding interesting colors to the role, particularly in his human Robert “Bob” Gray manifestation. But Bill Hader steals the show as the grown-up Richie Tozier. While Hader gets a lot of comedic mileage out of his zapping one-liners, it’s the character’s silent and introspective moments where Hader excels, portraying a great deal of pathos and sweetness.

Director Andy Muschietti made It soar with a persistently moving camera. It painted an idyllic and horrifying picture of Derry. He also impressed with sequences that blurred the line between fantasy and reality, with appearances from Pennywise in some of the kids’ activities. In Chapter Two, Muschietti adds depth to a lot of his sequences, whether it’s the use of a long shot in the tail-end end of the Mrs. Kersh sequence or the seemingly endless nature of the Hall of Mirrors. Both these sequences also impress with their framing and Benjamin Wallfisch’s score, particularly the latter with its whining musical strings and dreamlike sound of a slowed-down carnival ride in its last throes.

Despite its virtues, the sequel does feel like it’s wrestling with some of the more outlandish aspects of its source material. The set piece in the Chinese restaurant is a reminder that King’s penchant for finding the horror in ordinary objects leads to some silly avenues. There’s a sequence involving a Derry monument coming to life that sucks out all the horror of that scene and the central creature’s menace. While Pennywise’s final form is far better than that of the TV miniseries, his appearance is marred by the persistent discoesque lighting that clashes with the tension of the scene. But above all, the filmmakers do not quite know what note they want to end the picture on, so they decide to hit them all.

In spite of this, It Chapter Two is an engrossing and therapeutic horror movie. It never forgets the human element of the story and how fear can paint us in the worst possible way.

Sartaj Singh

John Wick 3 plays by its own rules

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum offers more of everything we loved about the first two movies: more of the engaging and darkly glamorous world of the assassins and the Continental hotels; more of handsome, grief-stricken, and driven Keanu; more innovative ways to die (he kills someone with a book!); and more dogs! I appreciate that the characters all believably fit into this world with its strict rules (no innocents die) that seemingly lurks just under the surface of our everyday, hum-drum city streets. Sure, it’s ultra-violent and completely bananas, and I don’t know if I ever need to see it again—but seeing it with a hyped-up audience on opening night was just plain fun.

Lisa Renninger

Listening to Vox Lux as a lament

In general, you found Vox Lux snarky, where I found it to be a lament, something perfect for an entry in your book.

The link between entertainment and tragedy is only partially about how the industry uses tragedy, and it’s much more than just a bold artistic flourish. This movie is deeply interested in the pressure put onto entertainment – and specifically, entertainers – to give us answers and context for tragedy, be it personal or national.

Consider the narration when Celeste’s song is sweeping the nation. If my memory is correct, we hear the narration over images of cameras zooming in on Celeste. It points out that the public wasn’t so interested in Celeste’s own grief (even though she was a direct victim in the shooting). The nation wanted her to help them figure out their own grief. Her own direct pain was ignored, even cast aside, so that she could provide something consumable for the masses. And her proximity to the tragedy was re-packaged as authenticity.

By the time the second tragedy happens, the reporters and press just want to know what Celeste thinks about it. What’s she going to do about it? Is she going to play for them, during their time of new grief? Or will she cancel and force them to be alone? What’s so particularly clever about the film is how it positions that question as being about Celeste’s ego to perform (which is certainly there, too), which is almost a way of tricking someone into thinking they want to do what we wanted them to do all along.

It’s also very much worth tracking Celeste’s spiritual transition from the first half to the second. In the first, she believes in God, has a sense of hope outside herself, even offering to pray for the shooter. In the second half, in the press conference, she declares herself the new religion. Why? Because instead of looking to God for answers and comfort during tragedy or crisis, now we look to pop idols (and all that that word implies). She has experienced that reality first-hand.

And at the same time that we look to entertainers for answers, we’re also very quick to criticize them (as with Celeste’s more intimate interview), to point out their mistakes, hypocrisies, scandals, failures, etc. – almost as if they weren’t so much their own people, almost as if their brand is their religious text and we’re finding inconsistencies with their gospels.

Now just when I thought the movie might be a little too cynical about all of that – since, in my view, art (rather than entertainment) can absolutely be heavenly comfort – Portman’s concert happens, and she addresses her audience, builds a link between them, encourages them. I guess one could see that as just more of “her brand” but there was something about the way she handled those lines that felt like she was “breaking character” from her pop icon, so that she could connect with people. Though, someone could certainly argue that that’s just more of the icon, her version of Jesus condescending to become human.

The more I think about this movie, the more I love it.

Jason Eaken