Jessica Chastaine

It: Chapter Two

25/09/19

I’m late to the party on this, mainly because I feel the previous film was overrated and I’m not exactly eager to see any more. However, in the end, curiosity gets the better of me. I’ve always considered the source novel Stephen King’s best piece of writing. So here I am, watching It: Chapter Two, and moreover, viewing it on Cineworld’s ‘immersive’ concept Screen X. (Essentially, it’s a big screen with images that occasionally go around corners. Not so much immersive as meh).

The first thing to say is that director, Andy Muschietti, has been a lot more ambitious this time around, ramping up the terror content and aiming for a much more convoluted storyline. Sadly, he’s not reined himself in on the running time. Two hours and forty nine minutes, is, to my mind, about an hour longer than this material deserves. There are things here I like a lot and things that I really don’t. Too many scenes feel over-egged; starting off promisingly enough, only to be swamped by CGI-assisted ‘horrors,’ that diminish the fear quota simply by showing too much.

‘Less is more’ is a famous adage that Mr Muschietti clearly doesn’t subscribe to.

It’s twenty-seven years since the events of the first movie and in the little town of Derry, a horrible homophobic attack signals the return of killer clown, Pennywise. Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa), the only member of ‘The Losers’ to still live in his hometown, realises that all is not well, and summons the other members of his teenage club. All of them seem to be doing their level best to live down their old nickname. Bill (James McAvoy) is now a succesful author and scriptwriter, currently shooting a film with none other than Peter Bogdanovich. Ben (Jay Ryan) is a hyper-successful architect, Richie (Bill Vader) a well-known stand up comedian and Eddie (James Ransome), an accident risk assessor. Beverly (Jessica Chastaine) has the misfortune to be suffering through an abusive relationship, but still appears to be surrounded by the trappings of great wealth. And as for Stanley (Andy Bean)… well, those familiar with the novel will know what to expect on that score and I won’t spoil it for the others.

Anyway, the old team reunites back in Derry, to honour the promise they made twenty-seven years ago…

Incidentally, the film continually cuts back and forth between present day and the characters’ teenage years and I have to say that the matching of young actors to adult ones is superlatively done. If only the film’s internal logic had been approached with such care. There are things here that simply don’t add up, which makes for frustrating viewing. This is a curious rag bag of a film. There’s plenty to enjoy but every time I start to settle into something close to pleasure an incongruous development steps out of the woodwork to smack me in the face. Also, there are fat-shaming comments; outmoded ideas of what a psychiatric institution looks like and the exoticisation of Native Americans. Not all of King’s tropes have aged too well.

Watch out for a neat cameo from Stephen King, visual references to The Shining and a direct quote from John Carpenter’s The Thing, amongst others. And be prepared for a long sitting. Somewhere in this labyrinthine film, thare’s a cracking little horror movie screaming to get out.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Zookeeper’s Wife

27/04/19

Like so many recent movies, The Zookeeper’s Wife is based upon a true story, even if closer examination quickly reveals that (as ever) several major liberties have been taken with the facts in order to dramatise the proceedings. But there is a remarkable tale at the heart of this film and it’s evident that Atonina and Jan Zabinski were an extraordinarily brave couple, who really did risk their lives in order to save those of around three hundred Jewish people during the Second World War.

The film opens in 1939, when Antonia (Jessica Chastaine) and her husband, Jan (Johan Heldenbergh), are the proud owners of the Warsaw Zoo. There’s an idyllic, chocolate-boxy feel to the early scenes, as Antonina pedals cheerfully around the zoo grounds dispensing love and care to the resident creatures – doubtless intended to contrast with the grim realities to come. And come they do, because, of course, pretty soon Warsaw has been invaded by the German army and the zoo devastated by bombing raids.  An acquaintance of the Zabinskis, German zoologist (and Nazi) Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), offers to take the zoo’s rarer species to Germany ‘for safe keeping’. He also exhibits evident romantic interest in Antonina.

The Zabinskis consequently decide to exploit this interest by offering to turn their zoo into a massive pig farm, using the resulting meat to feed the German troops, something that Heck happily agrees to – but the couple are secretly planning to use the extensive cellars of their zoo to hide Jews, smuggled from the nearby ghetto, in order to help them escape to freedom. It’s a reckless ambition and one that’ll expose them to considerable danger…

This is a decent and perfectly watchable film, built around a strong performance by Chastain in the central role but – even though the story incorporates some devastating events: the heartless rape of a young Jewish girl; the callous murder of two other women;  the desperate plight of Warsaw’s Jewish population – the film never quite manages to generate the emotional power you’d expect from a story like this. I feel somehow distanced from the onscreen horrors and that is a problem.

Still, this is nonetheless an interesting tale plucked from the pages of history, and the courage of the Zabinskis deserves to be celebrated. The good news is the film is available to watch right now on Netflix.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney