It (Muschietti; 2017)

There is little point to reviewing the story elements of It.  The classic Stephen King novel has been read by nearly every fan of horror and by a great many who aren’t, and there was also a television mini-series made of the novel in 1990 for those who haven’t.  If you haven’t been exposed to the story behind It already, it is either because you are a newborn (who apparently was born able to read – congratulations!) or you have never had the least bit of interest in It in the first place.  In the interest of full disclosure, though, I have to admit before getting into the review proper that my feelings on Stephen King in general and on It in particular is that he is horrible at writing plot, okay at writing character, and one of the best in the business when it comes to description and atmosphere, so take that as you will.

The story of It focuses on an evil clown named Pennywise who appears every 27 years to terrorize and kill the children of the Derry, Maine.  It’s never explained what the clown is, why it appears as a clown, why it has to do this, where the clown gets its powers, what its powers are, where its weaknesses come from, and any number of other questions.   The book’s story is about a group of children who have to confront Pennywise in their just barely pre-teen years then again 27 years later as adults.  This film deals only with the first confrontation as children, though it is more than just hinted at that we will get the film which shows them as adults later, and the children are fairly 2 dimensional characters painted with broad strokes, but at least they are very likable characters we can recognize as at least friends if not as ourselves in some way.

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What It wants to do more than world building, more than giving you strong characters, more than giving you ideas to ponder is scare you, and this it does.  It is an incredibly atmospheric film with days that never seem to be sunny, old buildings that have no business still standing, sewer tunnels, and many other dark claustrophobic locations which you can tell the art directors had a great time working on. The darkness is a tool here, and never a crutch meant to hide the action, just to lend a sense of dread of the unknown to the proceedings.  The special effects and makeup are also incredible making the lack of clarification surrounding Pennywise seem like less an annoying lack of effort on the author’s part and more a genuine use of fear of the unknown.

The best part of It, though, is the performances given by this group of child actors.  Again, what should normally be a weakness of story is used to best advantage in It as the fact that the characters are very two dimensional allow the young actors to grasp onto one or two strong character traits and run with it in their performance.  We have the stutterer who is loyal (Bill played by Jaeden Liberher), the girl outcast tomboy (Beverly played by Sophia Lillis), the foul mouthed smart ass (Richie played by Finn Wolfhard), and so on.  Normally, these broad swathes of characterization would make for dull, predictable protagonists, but here it actually works allowing the kids to really latch onto their roles and give an ensemble performance that really works.

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The R-rating of this version of It means that it is much closer to the book than the 1990 television version.  The kids in this version cuss, there is blood and gore including small children being dismembered, it even addresses some uncomfortable subject matter regarding kids beginning to come into their sexuality, though the incredibly disturbing ending of the children’s story in the book is smartly dropped and changed to something which still gets the same idea across without dealing with child porn.

Compared to the other horror films coming out over the last year or so, It lacks a lot of the intelligence we’ve been treated to.  In films like Lights Out we’ve been treated to three dimensional characters making intelligent decisions or in It Comes At Night we have our lack of knowledge coming from a point of view rather than from a writer lazily not filling in details.  It is a true 80’s throwback in that it relies entirely on atmosphere for its scares making those scares purely emotional, never thought provoking in the least.  While I definitely prefer the more intelligent horror we’ve been getting, and hope Hollywood continues on that trend, It is so well made that this throwback is more entertaining than annoying.

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Final verdict:  It is such a faithful, but fortunately not too faithful, adaptation that fans of Stephen King are almost sure to love it and his haters are quite unlikely to change their minds.  Just like the novel itself the story is silly and makes absolutely no sense under even minor scrutiny, but the kids – characters and actors alike – are so great and the atmosphere so intense that the story’s flaws can be easy to overlook.  Everything about the making of the film is of top notch quality, so whether I recommend it to you or not hinges entirely on how much you like Stephen King, and if you’re neutral I can only say that It is one of the best looking and acted horror movies to come out in a while, but It shows its age where intelligence in the story is concerned esecially when compared to Hollywood’s horror output over the last year, or so.

The Dark Tower (Arcel; 2017)

The Dark Tower has had quite the long journey on its way to the screen.  The film is an adaptation of the book “The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger” written by Stephen King and originally published as novel in 1982, but its roots go back even farther than that as it was first published in installments from 1977 to 1981 in “The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction”.  Rumors of a film or series of films chronicling the adventures of Roland the Gunslinger have been circulating for decades due to the books’ huge fan base, but until now, 40 years after the initial story was printed, no one has actually been able or willing to make it happen.  Columbia Pictures has plans for this movie to be the first of a number of installments which will be released both in movie theaters and as television shows, another cash grab ala Marvel Studios and their Cinematic Universe, but while the rabid fanbase of the books may be able to still make that a reality, the quality of the flagship film in this series’ launch does not bode well for future endeavors in this Stephen King franchise.

The Dark Tower focuses on three main characters, two protagonists and an antagonist.  We are first introduced to Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) a young man of an indeterminate age, but young enough that if he has hit his teenage years its barely.  Jake has dreams which he draws in his art book of a tower, a man in black, a man with two six shooters, and the numbers 19-19.  His dreams are accompanied by earthquakes when he wakes up and everyone thinks he is crazy.  Matthew McConaughey plays the Man in Black from Jake’s dreams, and he is an evil sorcerer who uses psychic children as a weapon to destroy the Dark Tower which will allow demons to entire our universe and several others attached to ours.  Finally, Idris Elba plays the Gunslinger Roland who wants to kill the Man in Black as revenge for the murder of his father and the rest of the Gunslingers at the hands of the Man in Black.

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Let’s start with the good in this movie, which would be the acting.  Matthew McConaughey in particular is a lot of fun as the villainous Man in Black chewing the scenery with aplomb and radiating a cartoonish charm which you can’t help but enjoy.  Idris Elba is much more subdued as Roland, but an actor as accomplished as he can’t help but ooze charisma even if he tries to hide it.  Finally, while Tom Taylor is not the greatest child actor, he holds up his part of the story well enough to never be distracting.

Past that, there is not much to like about The Dark Tower.  The film is shot in the annoying fashion of the day with incredibly tight close ups at inappropriate times, jerky camera movements, and lighting dim enough that what we are seeing is barely more than a sillhouette.  Trying to follow the action here is nearly impossible as we are never given any anchor for our perspective and the action takes place willy-nilly with no context as to positions and movement.  The camera is more interested in framing whatever is the most spectacular thing to look at at the moment than it is with giving us a coherent vision of the action of the story.

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As bad as the camera work is, though, the script is far worse.  The visuals are at least decent during The Dark Tower‘s quieter moments and the special effects are fun, but the script has no saving grace whatsoever.  The entire story is written to formula, and very obviously so at that, with no thought given to anything beyond how the action of the story would fit into said formula.  Character motivations are non-existent.  Why does the Man in Black want to destroy the universes?  Er, he’s evil, and evil guys do that?  What did the Gunslingers do before they were all killed?  Hell if anyone knows.  What is a Gunslinger for that matter?  A guy with guns as far as I can tell.  Decisions made by the characters are nonsensical, doing something 2 seconds after they said they couldn’t do exactly that thing for reasons never really explained well, or just plain idiotic.  Characters make relationships just because it seems like they should and all of a sudden can do incredible things because they need to do it at that moment.  The story is easy enough to follow, so it isn’t Michael Bay level bad, but it is so obviously contrived it’s distractingly hilarious.

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I’ve never read “The Dark Tower” series of books, so I can’t speak to the quality of the film compared to the quality of the books.  However, I can say that knowing the books have such a large and loyal fan base, consisting of quite a few people whose taste I respect, I can only guess that fans of the books are going to come away greatly disappointed by the film, and those who have never read the books are not going to understand what others see in this series.

Final verdict:  With good acting and absolutely nothing else going for it, give The Dark Tower a big miss.  It’s possible Columbia will go ahead with further film and television installments in this series, and it’s possible some of them could be good – the premise does have promise and Idris Elba has charisma and talent to spare.  If this is the case, then maybe come back and give this one a watch to catch up on the action.  Until then, though, I can’t see this formulaic to a nonsensical degree story appealing to anyone, fan of the books or no.  And, what is it with the Gunslinger’s mantra they say over and over in the film?  That thing isn’t cool or comforting, it’s downright creepy and disturbing.