‘It’ Proves To Be one of the Best Stephen King Movies in a Long Time

It teaser poster

It” isn’t just one of my favorite Stephen King novels, it’s also one of my favorite books ever. On one hand, it is a terrifying tale of a malevolent force who takes the form of a clown and feeds on the fearful children living in Derry, Maine. On the other, it is a thoughtful and deeply felt examination of kids who are forced to endure a tougher childhood than anyone ever should. I read King’s massive novel (1,138 pages) back when I was a teenager, and it made me realize it was okay to be different than others. Looking back, it also reminded me of a line of dialogue from one of my all-time favorite movies, “Pump Up the Volume:”

“High school is the bottom. Being a teenager sucks, but that’s the point. Surviving it is the whole point.”

For those who have read this novel, you can see how it is more about the kids than it is about Pennywise the Dancing (not to mention incredibly vicious) clown. Thank goodness director Andy Muschietti realized this when he came on to direct the long-awaited film version of “It.” While Muschietti delivers the requisite thrills and chills a horror film like this one demands, he keeps a very observant eye on the kids and the conflicts they are forced to endure, and I don’t just mean Pennywise.

The film focuses on the book’s first half when the members of “The Losers’ Club” were suffering the slings and arrows of daily life at school. But while King set this half in the 1950’s, Muschietti moves things up to the 1980’s, a time of Ronald Reagan, calculator watches, New Kids on the Block, and movies like “Gremlins” and “Beetlejuice” which, like “It,” were released by Warner Brothers. This was a decade defined by greed, but for these kids, it was a time of innocence which would be destroyed for them far too quickly.

“It” was previously made into a wonderfully entertaining television miniseries by Tommy Lee Wallace, but Muschietti lets you know right from the start how the censorship of American television was not going to apply here. Little Georgie Denbrough suffers a most terrible fate when Pennywise bites his arm off and drags his body into the sewer, and even if you know this event is coming, it is still chilling to witness as this is the kind of thing movies typically avoid showing. From there, I couldn’t help but remain in a state of heightened anxiety as while I knew what was going to happen, the safety of network television was not around to reassure me about the horrors I was going to witness.

The misery and sufferings of The Losers’ Club feel much more unnerving on the silver screen than on television. It’s especially galling to see poor Beverly Marsh get wet garbage poured all over her in the bathroom as she has become the victim of unsubstantiated rumors that she is promiscuous. But judging from the moment she when she puts her backpack over her head for protection, she has been dealing with this stigma for a very long time. Or how about Ben Hanscom, the overweight new kid in town who has zero signatures in his yearbook, one of the saddest sights the audience is forced to take in here. While these kids’ sufferings don’t feel as raw as what Sissy Spacek endured in “Carrie,” it’s still easy to feel for these kids who have been cast out of what is perceived to be the realm of normal.

Heck, even their parents prove to be an emotionally distant, and if they are not, they instead prove to be ridiculously overprotective. Beverly’s father seems to care for her a little too much, and this care seems to imply crimes more insidious than our imaginations can ever handle. Eddie Kaspbrak’s mother is determined to keep him safe from any and every germ planet Earth has to offer, and at times she threatens to be as scary as Pennywise due her raising her son as if he is the reincarnation of Howard Hughes. As for William Denbrough, things will never be the same between him and his parents following the death of his brother Georgie.

There’s some passage in the Bible which says God only gives you what you can handle, but the members of The Losers’ Club have far more than anyone should ever be made to handle, and this is made clear before Pennywise begins to disrupt their unfairly depressing lives. As a result, they need each other to get from one day to the next, and the strength they have together allows them to be a formidable force against Pennywise. Muschietti’s attention to these kids’ struggles makes this film very effective as we come to care for them deeply, and this makes their stand against this homicidal clown all the more involving.

Speaking of Pennywise, Bill Skarsgard makes him into the freakiest clown and scarier than any clown Rod Zombie could come up with. Whereas Tim Curry’s Pennywise was at first approachable and then murderous, Skarsgard’s is vicious right from the get go whether the kids realize it or not. Even before those set of jaws come out, Skarsgard more than reminds the audience of how clowns have always been creepy, and he makes Pennywise into the clown who gleefully inhabits all our nightmares.

So where do I rank this particular Stephen King adaptation among the many already unleashed on the public? Hard to say. It is easily one of the best King adaptations in a while, but it is not as scary as “The Shining” or “Carrie.” This is not a motion picture filled with jump scares every 5 minutes as Muschietti is more in creating something which is infinitely chilling and suspenseful. What results is a highly entertaining movie which never feels like a simple remake of the miniseries. He is also blessed with a terrific cast of actors who are not afraid to embrace the depressing natures of their characters. I just hope none of them have to deal with this shit in real life.

I’m also thrilled no one tried to fit the whole book into one movie. There’s no way you could have done that without messing everything up. There was already talk of a sequel long before this movie even opened, and this is a sequel I am more eager to see than any “Star Wars” movie which has yet to be released. It’ll be interesting to see how The Losers’ Club will transition from childhood to adulthood as they attempt to put the past behind them. But as Peter Gabriel once sang, “Nothing fades as fast the future. Nothing clings like the past.”

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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St. Vincent

St Vincent movie poster

Leave it to “Saturday Night Live” alum Bill Murray to play the ultimate sad sack loser whom you manage to find some empathy for. Other great actors have played this kind of role to great effect like Al Pacino, Gene Hackman, and Billy Bob Thornton, but I am convinced after watching the movie “St. Vincent” that no one does it better than Murray. Even if the character he plays appears to be an irredeemable jerk, Murray still makes you see there is at least one redemptive quality in this infinitely cynical soul.

Murray plays the Vincent of the movie’s title, but he doesn’t look anything like a saint when we first meet him. We see him getting liquored up frequently and betting on the horses, and he clearly he has more luck getting drunk than he does at gambling. Then he comes to discover he is beyond flat broke (there is such a thing) as he borrowed money against his house to an alarming degree, and a local bookie named Zucko (Terrence Howard) informs him he has a serious debt to pay.

We watch Vincent dance all by himself to Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love,” and we can’t help but wonder if he cares if anyone loves him in the slightest. In case you haven’t noticed, Vincent is not the nicest person to be around.

As his troubled times ramble on, Vincent suddenly discovers he has some new neighbors which include the recently divorced Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her 12-year-old son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher). They don’t get off to a good start as their moving van accidentally hits a tree and damages Vincent’s fence and his “antique” car. Vincent doesn’t seem the slightest bit interested in giving them a warm welcome as he is in getting reimbursed for the damage done, but when Maggie finds herself forced to work long hours, she has no choice but to let Vincent babysit Oliver while she’s away.

Vincent’s idea of taking care of Oliver includes going to the racetrack where his luck with the horses changes dramatically, and he teaches Oliver to defend himself which comes in handy when he has to get back at the school bully. Now these are not the kind of things you teach a child, but it helps break the ice between them to where they come to enjoy each other’s company.

Murray does not need to win an Oscar to show us all what a great actor he is because we have known this for years now. His performances in “Rushmore,” “Lost in Translation” and “Groundhog Day” show just how far his range stretches, and he does wonders with a character we would be quick to hate in real life. Even when “St. Vincent” becomes a little too sentimental for its own good, Murray never fakes an emotion and we feel for him regardless of how he treats others. The sad look in his eyes speaks volumes and tells us what we need to know about Vincent without him having to spell it out for everyone.

It’s also nice to see Melissa McCarthy in a good movie for a change. Ever since her brilliant supporting turn in “Bridesmaids,” she has been stuck doing solid work in bad movies like “Identity Thief” and “Tammy,” but here she is served by a good script and a role which allows her to take a more serious turn. She’s wonderful here as Maggie, a single mom who’s doing the best she can under difficult circumstances, and she scores some funny moments as well, especially when it comes to a certain plant.

Seeing Chris O’Dowd play Catholic school teacher Brother Geraghty is amusingly ironic as we last saw him as a very anti-Catholic character in “Calvary,” and he is wonderful to watch here. As for Terrence Howard, he has this brilliant ability to take stock characters like the angry bookie and make them seem not the least bit cliché, and his performance as Zucko is yet another example of that. And then there’s Naomi Watts who knocks it out of the park as pregnant Russian stripper Daka, and she gets the accent down perfectly.

But seriously, the performance I was most impressed with in “St. Vincent” was Jaeden Lieberher’s as Oliver as he gives us the perfect example of a child who can see right through adult hypocrisy. It’s such a genuine and unforced performance to where Lieberher inhabits Oliver more than plays him, and he makes this young man come across as smarter and far more mature than the adults around him.

“St. Vincent” was written and directed by Theodore Melfi, and he travels through the familiar “Scent of a Woman” territory to where you have a good idea of where this movie is heading. As I said earlier, it does get a little too sentimental at times, but Melfi throws some interesting twists into the mix I didn’t see coming. I also like how Oliver fights off the school bully and then becomes really good friends with him. It’s not often in movies that you see something like that happen.

When it comes down to it, “St. Vincent” doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it is very well made and features some truly memorable performances. Will Murray get an Oscar nomination for his work here? Probably not, but that’s because he gives a subtle performance the Academy never appreciates enough. Regardless, he continues to turn in one great performance after another, and his work in this movie is just the latest example.

* * * out of * * * *

The First Trailer for ‘It’ Floats to the Surface

It teaser poster

I count Stephen King’s “It” as one of my all-time favorite novels, and I very much enjoyed the 1990 miniseries based on it, and that’s even though the ending was incredibly disappointing. Now, after many false starts which saw actors and directors come and go from the project, “It” is finally making its way to the silver screen courtesy of Warner Brothers and New Line Cinema, and now we the first trailer for the film.

After watching this trailer several times, my interest in this new adaptation has tripled. Pennywise the Clown, this time portrayed by one of the many actors from the Skarsgard family, Bill Skarsgard, comes across as far more lethal than the one Tim Curry gave us, and seeing Pennywise leap out at us in the trailer’s final moments has me believing anyone with a clown phobia should seriously consider not seeing this movie. We never get to see all of Pennywise here, and he is instead shown through quick flashes throughout, but it’s enough to send a chill down my spine.

The cast of actors is led by Jaeden Lieberher, who left a strong impression on audiences with his performances in “St. Vincent” and “Midnight Special,” who plays Bill Denbrough, the leader of the Loser’s Club who vows revenge against Pennywise for murdering his little brother Georgie. It’s hard not to be reminded of the Netflix series “Stranger Things” while watching these young actors as they too are on a mission to find out what evil lurks in the underbelly of their hometown of Derry, Maine. The story has also been moved up from the 1950’s to the 1980’s (the slide projector is a dead giveaway), so the filmmakers look to be playing on our collective nostalgia which should make this movie extra fun.

Cary Fukunaga was set to direct this adaptation, but although he eventually dropped out due to those “creative differences” filmmakers just love to throw out there, he is still listed in the credits as one of the screenwriters. Directing “It” is Andrés Muschietti who previously directed Jessica Chastain in the box office hit “Mama.” From this trailer, it looks like he is having lots of fun exploring the many ways Pennywise terrorizes the young children of Derry, Maine as he gets at their deepest fears and exploits them for all they are worth. My hope is he focuses on the characters of King’s classic novel as well as on the scares. One thing’s for sure, he certainly knows how to make a red balloon look especially ominous.

“It” is clearly covering the first part of King’s novel when the members of the Loser’s Club were kids. Here’s hoping this adaptation scares us silly enough to where we get follow-up which will follow them into adulthood as we all know the past stays with us in one way or another. Adaptations of King’s novels range from brilliant (“The Shining,” “Misery,” “The Shawshank Redemption”) to horrendous (“Maximum Overdrive,” “Graveyard Shift”), so let’s hope this is not just one of the better ones, but one of the best.

Check out the teaser trailer below.