Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Three Faces of It: Part Two

After almost a decade of false starts and behind the scenes difficulty, a new adaptation of Stephen King's It is headed for theaters this September. I'm a huge fan of the story so I'll be writing a three-part series about it - first about the book, then the 1990 TV miniseries and finally the new film when it's released. Spoilers should be expected.

See the first part if you want a refresher on the plot and characters of this story.

A long horror movie is hard to do. The few that are out there demonstrate this pretty well. Rosemary's Baby is well over 2 hours and while it may be a classic, I think you could cut about a half hour from it and it would still be just as good. Dawn of the Dead also cracks the two hour mark and the film's interminable middle act slows things down to a crawl. But if there was ever a horror story that demanded an epic canvas, It was...it. The first adaptation of the gigantic book was a three-hour miniseries (four with commercials) roughly divided by the two eras in the novel. Directed by Tommy Lee Wallace from a script by Lawrence Cohen, this version cuts a lot of the more gruesome stuff from the book was still pretty boundary-pushing for its era. It was unusual to see blood on prime time network TV in 1990, let alone balloons full of it.

However, this was also a long time before our modern era of Prestige TV and the budgetary limitations are evident. This is not an easy book to adapt in the first place and not having the means to realize the more mystical elements of the story results in only a few brief references to the true metaphysical nature of It and without the full context of the book, these moments seem like non sequiturs. Later on I'll get into just how much it trips at the finish line with a huge anticlimax of an ending. I may be sounding at bit harsh now but there was also quite a few things this adaptation got right. To start with, the enduring appeal of the miniseries over 25 years later can be summed up in two words - Tim Curry.



Among people who saw this as children, that scene is discussed in almost mythic terms. Simply saying that Curry is "good" as Pennywise doesn't seem like enough. He absolutely disappears into the part and it's become standard practice in entertainment journalism to give him sole credit for making children afraid of clowns. And indeed I have read so many testimonials and spoken to many people who recall how much Pennywise scared them. I can't imagine any other film from that era (the 1990s was pretty weak as far as horror goes) which had that kind of effect.

Considering the limitations, particularly the reluctance to show kids in mortal danger on network television, the movie did pretty well. While the most gruesome stuff was obviously left out, a large amount of dialogue and scenes from the book found its way into the script. At its best moments, the movie captures the camaraderie among the seven kids. It helps that the child actors are really very good, including a young Seth Green as Richie and the late Jonathan Brandis as Bill. The Emmy winning score by Richard Bellis is also a major asset - not just for the demented carnival music that plays for Pennywise but for its main theme, a beautiful melody that nails the novel's combination of nostalgia and fear.

If you only have time to watch half, go with the first half. The strong performances of the child actors make it even more surprising that it's the adult actors who struggle with the material in the second half. Some of this is the dialogue's fault. Adult Mike Hanlon (Tim Reid) makes a sarcastic comment about Acapulco that is borderline incomprehensible. Annette O'Toole as adult Beverly gets the groaner, "Why is It so mean?!" Harry Anderson fares best as adult Richie, who gets a big laugh right before the final showdown with It when he says "I don't suppose anyone thought to bring something really useful? Like a machine gun?" In general, the second half is just harder to take seriously. Pennywise is an intimidating presence in the first part but the intervening 27 years must have messed with him a bit since he's much more goofy. He cracks himself up shouting "Kiss me, fat boy!" at Ben and later appears as a severed head to roast the group like he's on Comedy Central. And then there's the hilarious library scene. I used to rewind the VHS over and over again just to hear that wacky laugh Pennywise does after he makes a lame joke. Thankfully, now we have YouTube.



A little trivia - two X-Files stars appear in the miniseries. Megan Leitch, who played Mulder's sister Samantha, is the librarian at the start of that clip and William B. "Cigarette Man" Davis shows up briefly in one of the 1950s scenes.

So the major issue people tend to have with this version is the ending, and rightfully so. At the end of the first half, the kids drive off Pennywise but, unlike the book, never see the creature's true form. This made sense but the confrontation with the adults is a huge anticlimax. The audience has waited 3 hours to learn the monster's true form and then...a stop-motion giant spider walks into the room. Not even very good stop-motion either, Ray Harryhausen was making more convincing stuff in the 1950s. There's a puppet used for close-ups that looks a little better but that doesn't help much. Everyone says "It's just a spider?! What a let down!" I've even seen an article on the movie that tried to blame this on the book, to which I say: Oh, hell no.

Anyone who has read at the book will remember that the giant spider encounter is just a prelude to the real final battle - the psychic Ritual of Chud where Bill and It engage in a battle of wills. As a child, Bill defeated It this way by reciting a phrase he learned to help him with his stutter. The determination required to overcome his speech impediment and repeatedly say the tricky phrase ("he thrusts his fists against the posts but still insists he sees the ghosts") severely wounds It and the creature retreats. As an adult, Bill tries again but loses the fight. He would have been dead if not for Richie, who leapt in and began spouting up different voice impersonations, showing that his powerful childhood imagination was alive and well. It is disoriented and becomes trapped in the spider form it uses to anchor Itself to Earth. In this brief window, the group beats the spider to death and rips out Its heart, defeating It once and for all. (But did they get all the eggs? Bum bum bum) There's more stuff going on, but that's the gist. In the movie, Beverly hits the spider with a slingshot (which makes no sense) and then the group beats it to death. So yeah, they didn't exactly stick the landing.

But just as in the book, 27 years have passed and sure enough, Pennywise is set to show his face once again this September. I'm beyond excited to check it out and Part 3 will hopefully come shortly afterward.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Not this Father's Spider-Man

(Mild spoilers, maybe?)

It's hard to imagine now that we're at our third Spider-Man movie series since the turn of the century, but there was a time when comic book movies were rare. Back then, the conventional wisdom was that the movies might help sell the comics. A lot's changed since Marvel Studios began its shared universe project and left other studios scrambling to catch up with interconnected properties of their own to varying success. Whereas the comics was once the core of what Marvel was, now it's clearly the movies. These things make a boatload (Staten Island Ferry load, even) of money and now it's the job of the comics to sell the films. Take a good critical look at the Marvel comics in a shop near you and I bet it won't take long to come to that same conclusion. So with that in mind, the way these films go about trying to please their target audience has changed a great deal, with much less of an interest in old guys like me who read them before there was any Spider-Man movie to speak of. That was undeniably clear after I saw Spider-Man: Homecoming.

So you may be thinking "Who cares, Rob? Is it any good?" Well, sure I guess. It's quite entertaining in that typical Marvel way. The studio's gotten very disciplined at putting out fun, unoffensive blockbusters with a welcome emphasis on character-based humor. They're usually good but almost never great and always too cool for opening credits. They are disciplined about their world-building, which is a good skill after seeing how The Amazing Spider-Man 2 crashed and burned three years ago as it tried to start its own cinematic Spidey universe single-handedly, failing to learn the lessons of Raimi's Spider-Man 3 and stuffing the film with so much backstory, villains and lore that it crashed and burned. Sony hit that brick wall so hard that it crawled on bloodied hands and knees to Marvel's doorstop, offering to share the profits if they could just help come up with a movie that felt like an actual movie and not just a checklist.

This incarnation of Spider-Man has actually already appeared in an amusing sequence in last year's Captain America: Civil War. He's played by Tom Holland as one of those Hollywood nerds who is very charming and quick-witted and yet somehow totally unpopular. Say what you will about Tobey Maguire, he played Peter Parker as a bona fide awkward geek. He's in high school, which I think was a smart place to start. Poor feeble Aunt May is also a lot younger, played by Marisa Tomei as a total AILF. (Seriously, she hugs Peter and I'm like "that lucky little bastard.") Ned Leeds shows up for the first time, not as a Daily Bugle reporter but as Peter's best friend at school. Jacob Batalon is really funny as this new Ned, one that I can't ever imagine becoming the Hobgoblin. But let's be real - the thing that makes or breaks the movies most of the time is the villain, so how did we do?

I might have cast Charles Dance as the Vulture, but Michael Keaton is damn good as Adrian Toomes. The Vulture is a fairly one-note villain in the comics, so there's a lot of room for a movie to experiment with him. This version is a working-class mechanic/construction type who gets screwed over thanks to bureaucratic bullshit before making a name for himself as an illicit arms dealer (unlike respectable arms dealer Tony Stark, but we'll get to him later). The flying costume itself is the same armor-plated look that we've seen in a hundred movies like this already, but Keaton is great. He's at the center of the film's best scene, when Peter Parker unexpectedly encounters him in a civilian environment. Plus, his right hand man (Bookeem Woodbine_ is the Shocker, a nice way to fit in another villain without succumbing to bloat.

So that's what I liked. What I didn't like, ironically, is what was supposed to make this one superior to its predecessors - the connection to the Marvel cinematic universe as a whole. In the comics I remember, Spider-Man could be standoffish around other superheroes. It made sense, he was picked on so much in school that he didn't trust people to treat him fairly so he generally operated as a loner. I don't mind the "guy in the chair" friendship with Ned Leeds in this movie, but Peter's desperation to be a part of the Avengers and impress Tony Stark/Iron Man just hits a sour note. Especially when we find out that the Stark-designed Spider-Man costume has all sorts of hidden systems and gadgets in it and even a Siri-esque artificial intelligence. Really? It's all just such corporate cross-promotional wankery.

But Marvel's not worried about what a old-school Dad like me thinks. Not anymore. Marvel needs kids to be obsessed with the Avengers, so Spider-Man is obsessed with the Avengers. This Spider-Man is tailored to this era, not my era, and I think kids who have grown up over the least several years of Marvel movies will find this one delightful. I can either reject that and tune out entirely, or keep watching them with the interest of what directions they will take the characters. Plus it's always fun to speculate about the upcoming movies. This one makes it pretty clear that the Scorpion will be showing up next time, although I'm still waiting on Mysterio, preferably played by Bruce Campbell.

There's also some other rumored Spidey content on the way, from characters that Sony has held on to. Tom Hardy is set to play Venom in some kind of solo movie, and how they will introduce that particular character without Spidey himself should be pretty interesting. At least it's better casting that Topher Grace. Another benefit of more movies for old Dads is that new collected editions of the old comics usually show up when a movie is coming soon. Always a silver lining.