Friday, March 23, 2018

It Part 1 (2017)

It (Part 1) (2017)
Dir. Andy Muschietti
Written by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, Gary Dauberman
Starring Jaeden Lieberher, Bill Skarsgård, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, The Incorrigible Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs, Dylan Jacob Grazer

            I have never read Stephen King’s novel It. I have also never seen the landmark 1990 ABC miniseries IT starring Tim Curry. Shocking, I know, but there it is. Seems like the sort of thing a person would watch before resorting to, say, THE AMERICAN SCREAM (1988) or SATAN’S BLADE or TIME WALKER or FROGS, but such is the path I walk. Somehow it just managed to slip through the cracks. And yet, I still sort of know what the deal with IT is, just like you do, just like everyone does. IT’s become an inescapable seasoning of the cultural stew in which we all swim, and over time everyone just sort of absorbs it through osmosis until we seem, almost instinctively, to know the basics. Pennywise the clown, “we all float down here,” it jumps between 1957 and 1984, and it ends with (spoilers for the book) an insane unpublishable-yet-somehow-published prepubescent sewer gangbang.* And also it’s really long.

            The 2017 movie which bears the name IT incorporates two of those five elements (mostly because it adapts only the 1957 part of the book [pushing the date for ‘childhood nostalgia’ up to 1988 instead of ‘57], while leaving the adult years for the inevitable sequel) and obviously they picked the two right ones, because the damned thing made some 700 million dollars worldwide at the box office, to comfortably become the highest-grossing horror movie of all time and the 3rd-highest grossing R-rated movie of all time (!) as of this writing. That’s like, crazy money, like HARRY POTTER money (in fact, it actually outperformed at least two POTTERs domestically). How on Earth did this happen? I honestly have no idea. I mean, it’s a solid enough little movie, but so are lots of movies that don’t make goddam 700 million bucks. It boggles the mind. Of course, the last time we discussed such an inexplicable financial juggernaught of a horror movie, we were talking about CONJURING 2, a film which I vaguely recall being well over two hours in length, and yet the only thing I can specifically remember from it is that there’s this huge improbable spike that Patrick Wilson has to avoid falling on. So maybe I’m just out of touch with what people are into these days.

            IT 2017 and CONJURING 2 do have one thing in common, though: they’re both fairly extravagantly budgeted (for the horror genre) and invest most of that budget in two things: elaborate (but not entirely convincing) CGI effects and a generally slick, professional look with acting and production values closer to a real movie than you’d typically get in any movie about a killer clown, or even a Killer Klown. Those things have their value, but I’m bearish about how valuable they are to a horror movie, and IT 2017 doesn’t exactly force me to reevaluate that view. There’s plenty of expensive, elaborately rendered special effect work here that looks pretty cool, but very little that wouldn’t be at least as effective --and probably more so-- using cruder methods and hiding them in shadow or through editing.

That’s the problem with putting more resources into the hands of someone without a real distinct vision (and I think it’s fair to call director Andy Muschietti --whose only previous film was 2013’s equally solid but unimaginative MAMA-- such a person); it becomes tempting to just foist everything off on the computer nerds instead of really thinking through all your options. When you can easily just throw money at the effects crew and immediately depict anything, the danger is that you stop asking “how are we going to do this?” and just figure the one’s and zero’s will take care of it. In theory, that sounds good -- the director can realize his or her vision without any logistical compromises for puppets that don’t work quite right, or composite effects that aren’t quite there and have to get obscured by editing or lighting. But in practice, this can be a devil’s bargain, because it means a director no longer has to really ponder how to make a sequence work. Very often limitations, not resources, force artists to get creative, to think about the scene in a different way, to carefully focus on crafting the details so it works just right. I’m by no means some kind of anti-CGI zealot, but I do think that the idea that it’s simply interchangeable with practical effects overlooks some key distinctions which can end up having a subtle but significant impact on the final product.

The end result of both techniques looks superficially the same, of course -- a special effect on film. But the means by which that effect is achieved are radically different, and require entirely different skillsets. CGI effects are, essentially, animation; not really meaningfully different from a WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT mix of cartoons and real-world actors and objects. Practical effects have much more to do with the kind of in-camera, real-world photography that exemplifies most film directing. Some filmmakers are equally skilled at both; see, for example, how Robert Zemeckis’s career has merrily criss-crossed the border between the two words.*** Often, however, directors with great strength in one medium will struggle in the other. Guillermo Del Toro is exhibit A: witness the enormous difference in impact between the excellent (mostly) man-in-suit subway fight in HELLBOY and it’s completely enervating CGI tentacle finale. Or the profound contrast between the eye-popping practical monsters in PAN’S LABYRINTH and the weightless afterthoughts of PACIFIC RIM. Del Toro is something close to a genius when it comes to physical filmmaking, but something about that massive talent just doesn’t seem to translate intact to animation. (Conversely, anyone wanna argue that Brad Bird or Andrew Stanton’s live-action work has anywhere near the potency of their animated output? Anybody?)

That sure is a scary lot of 1's and 0's.

What accounts for this difference? In part, I suspect it’s a purely biological phenomenon: the physical process of being present around real-world objects (in practical effect work) gets the brain working in ways which looking at still images simply cannot, and consequently inspires lines of thinking that you otherwise wouldn’t get. There’s plenty of evidence for this in studies which measure the difference between stimuli similar as reading on-screen text vs paper text.  But more importantly, it is also an effect of different creative process. CGI is actually kind of a static creative process, because once the nerds get started doing the animation, you can’t really fuck with it very much, it’s way too expensive to go back and significantly alter or pare down. You can’t do a few takes and then see how it looks and try again, or have an actor experiment a little with how he moves his body, or decide that there’s not enough whammy and cut your sequence down to a single shot. Sure, you get to storyboard it and see some models and mock-ups and stuff, but once you’ve made it through the initial creative process, there’s not much flexibility. You’re stuck with just your first batch of ideas, and can’t let it naturally evolve while it’s being created. It’s a tightly controlled process, utterly removed from happy accidents. Practical effects done on-camera, on the other hand, are not just something that gets computered into existence far away and then they send you a link -- someone has to be sitting there in person, seeing how the lighting hits the effect, deciding how long each beat is going to take, noticing how a particular tendril of smoke curls in a nifty way, contemplating how to best capture the tangible artifacts on film. All this takes hours and hours, sometimes days, of walking through physical spaces and manipulating real objects. And that, I think, is where the difference is: forcing that kind of slow-down, and that kind of direct, feet-on-the-ground, hands-on interaction with real objects, forces a director to engage with the scene, and the way it will play out, in a way which he or she cannot meaningfully do with CGI.

Consequently, I nearly always find that expensive, computer-assisted horror feel implacabley anemic, like unknowingly drinking a diet soda or listening to Paul Ryan talk about an ethical issue. You can’t put your finger on exactly what’s missing, but your brain immediately registers an unmistakable and vital deficiency which makes the whole endeavor completely pointless. And that’s usually gonna be a detriment to a horror movie, which is gonna live or die on whether or not it can impact you at a gut level. Which brings us back to IT 2017, the movie I was supposedly writing about 50,000 words ago. Horror directors in particular -with their necessary technique rooted in tightly controlled image, editing, and mise-en-scene- are especially vulnerable to losing control of that kind of film craft when they cede so much power to animators, and that’s certainly in evidence here. There are maybe one or two sequences in IT 2017 that rise to the level of “scary” --one, a scene where a burnt torso pursues a kid through a dingy basement vault, was enough to get my heart racing a little-- but most falls somewhere closer to “cool,” in that it’s cool to watch a flagrantly unreal computerized clown body which is under no obligation to obey the laws of physics float around in front of some scared-looking kids. I definitely enjoy watching it, but it’s hard to argue it comes anywhere near actual horror.  

Still, while obviously you’d love to have pure, white-knuckled terror in your Stephen King killer clown demon movie... that failing, “cool” is a not-unwelcome substitute. There’s a moment where Pennywise the evil clown (in person played by an excellent Bill Skarsgård, THE DIVERGENT SERIES: ALLEGIANT****) starts crawling out of a slide show projection, RING-style. But here’s the thing, since he’s being projected on the wall, larger-than-life, when he emerges from the screen he’s a gigantic teeth-gnashing monster who can’t even fit his whole body into the tiny garage and has to awkwardly let his back half languish in 2-D. That is pretty cool, I have to acknowledge. You don’t get to see something like that in a horror movie very often, because who can afford it? It’s a highly enjoyable, and even exciting sequence.

            Not very scary, though.

            And I guess that’s kinda the thing with IT; It’s really a pretty good movie, all things considered. But it’s not all that great a horror movie, and I think it would really like to be. It definitely posits itself as a horror movie, and structures itself as a stately march from one fright set-piece to the next, so it’s a palpable disappointment that it so rarely lands an effective jolt, or even a sustained sense of dread.

Where it is surprisingly adept, oddly, is as an ensemble kids’ movie -- and that’s no small thing in itself. King is known as a horror writer, of course, but while his gift for scary ideas is usually at the forefront of people's’ conceptions of him as a writer, I’d be willing to argue that it’s his rock-solid gift for relatable characterization that really makes his stories work in a way that most other horror authors --Clive Barker, Lovecraft, Robert Bloch, etc-- either can’t manage or don’t see as important. Even a horror icon as untouchable as Poe was little interested in crafting relatable, likeable protagonists to menace with unholy nightmares; he was interested in intense, extreme psychological states, not characters we’d like to hang out with. But King is the polar opposite;***** he cares about his protagonists, on a personal level, and he does a surprisingly consistent job of ensuring his readers do, too. That strength in his writing has only sporadically made it to the big screen, and almost never to horror adaptations (STAND BY ME, THE GREEN MILE and THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION are probably the best examples, though you could probably add SILVER BULLET and maybe THE MIST to that list) but it is the secret foundation of IT 2017, and the thing that comfortably pushes the film from “decent enough killer clown flick” to “legitimately pretty good movie.”

            At least as much as it is concerned with killer Clowns and/or Klowns (I don’t think they ever specify), the movie is interested in its seven protagonists, chiefly Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), Bev (Sophia Lillis), and Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), but also Ritchie (Finn Wolfhard), Stan (Wyatt Oleff), Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) and Mike (Chosen Jacobs), a group which makes up a loose gang known as the “Losers Club” (though the movie just barely touches on the last point). That is a lot of characters for any film to handle --even one with a comfortable 135 minutes to stretch out into-- and bear in mind, those are only the protagonists, and we’ll meet most of their parents, bullies, victimizers, classmates, and fellow citizens as well. So the fact that anyone leaves much of an impression is by itself somewhat miraculous, and amazingly, almost everyone manages to leave an impression. That’s partially an effect of the generous script, which is impressively nimble at giving each kid a rudimentary arc and at least one showpiece scene, but mostly a function of the director and the young actors’ confident proficiency at investing in the characters in more subtle, unspoken ways. With seven primary characters running around, that approach can only take you so far --the film is occasionally willing to substitute superficial characteristics as shorthand, which leaves Eddie as “The hypochondriac one” and poor Stan and Mike as “The Jewish one” and “the black one,” respectively--  but even in those cases, the film’s obvious broad affection for its characters and its clear eye towards the way they naturally organize and interact with each other, leave you with the unmistakable sense that you’re one of the gang. It’s a surprisingly rare thing in film, and IT can hold its own with the best of its competition, plus it has a killer clown.

            This being IT, of course, the clown is really the featured attraction, and if he must ultimately collapse into a dispiriting heap of shiny, weightless CGI nonsense, at least for awhile we have the immense pleasure of Bill Skarsgård’s magnificently inhuman portrayal. If King writes humans with surprising earthy care, his other strength runs more Lovecraftian: creating strange, unknowable intelligences for whom even adopting the physical form and human language seem an awkward fit. I’m immensely partial to the suffocating, nonsense-babbling entity in his short story 1408, for instance, which didn’t quite survive the transition to the big screen version. But Skarsgård nails it here, treating his Pennywise as a malignant intelligence which can only barely be bothered to offer a passing facsimile of a human. He --with the likely assist, I’m forced to admit, of some hated computers-- does this wonderful thing where while he’s talking to you, his eyes subtly of wander off, as though keeping up the illusion of a functional human face is a effort he can’t quite keep together unless he’s really focusing on it. As I said, I haven’t seen the original 1990 IT, but Skarsgård is so strong he I honestly can’t imagine how even Curry could top it (I am given to understand that the performances are quite different).

            A performance like that justifies the film’s existence all by itself, and paired with the excellent young cast, a splendid evocation of everytown 1980s America which mercifully eschews cheap nostalgia porn, and a brisk but unrushed pace that spools through a capacious tangle of exposition and plot with an ease that belies how much material it has to cover, the movie goes down real easy indeed. I don’t know if all that justifies more than a half-billion dollars in profit, but it does, I think, justify something a bit more honorable: the designation of “good movie.” I don’t think the horror works quite the way it should, but it turns out the movie writ large does -- which leads one to suspect it was really about something other than horror in the first place. Probably something about friendship and finding a community and growing up and stuff. And on that level, it’s a pretty unmitigated triumph. I guess coming from my perspective, a great killer clown movie with some decent coming-of-age drama in it would probably be more welcome than a great coming-of-age drama with some decent killer clown stuff, but I think I speak for everyone here when I decry the shameful paucity of both of them. This might not be the IT that I want, but it’s a damn sight better than anyone had any right to hope for. And that ain’t nothing.

            So let us all take a moment to really savor this feeling before they muck it up with a sequel that, by all accounts, is going to be composed of 100% the bad parts of the novel that they left out of this one.

Well, not the gangbang, I guess. You don’t make 700 million bucks without knowing what to leave out.

*Look it up.**

** Wait for the love of God stop! Look up “End of the novel IT,” not “prepubescent sewer gangbang,” come on dude what the hell you know better than this.

*** Other notable crossovers: Steven Spielberg, who’s animated TINTIN movie is one of his most Spierbergian efforts in modern times, and Zack Snyder, whose animated owl movie was, OK, bad, but basically indistinguishable in quality or style from his live-action works.

**** Huh?

***** If anything, he can sometimes be a little too sentimental about his characters, to the point of disliking THE SHINING because it makes Jack Torrence too unlikable.


The Discreet Charm of the Killing Spree

You’ll Float Too
They sure do say “it” a lot.
Yep, of half of Stephen King’s 1986 novel
First of a two-parter.
It was previously made in 1990, though this is billed as an adaptation of the book, not a remake of that film.
Stephen King, Killer Clown, Demons
None, actually, a cast of young mostly-unknowns who really knock it out of the park
Stephen King, Pennywise the Clown
There’s a strong suggestion that one of the characters is being molested, or at least is in danger of it, though it’s not explicit
Nah. IT sometimes embodies what you fear (when it feels like it) but none of them are afraid of giant spiders or tapirs or something.
Not really, although there is an evil house, as with so many King stories.
No, though Pennywise seems to be able to put people into something like a hypnotic trance
Just the clown
Well, Pennywise does a good bit of transforming
Nothing notable
Might as well adapt just the good parts of a book.