There have been nearly 70 film and television versions of Stephen King stories and novels to date, with some (such as “The Shawshank Redemption” and “Misery”) considered modern classics and many others (“Maximum Overdrive,” “Children of the Corn”) better left forgotten.
The winners stand out when King’s stories master not only suspense, but also possess a strong emotional core that draws viewers in by making them truly care about the stakes the characters are enduring. This weekend’s adaptation of the 1986 epic “It” lands near the top of King films by bringing heartfelt life to its tale of seven outsider kids who fight back against a demonic clown that lures children in small-town Maine to their deaths.
Since the novel is more than 1,100 pages long, the filmmakers have wisely chosen to divide the story into two feature films. It’s a decision that enables director Andy Muschietti (“Mama”) to center this first half around the kids’ adventures in 1989 and next year’s conclusion around their present-day battle against the monster as middle-aged adults.
The result is a more streamlined tale than the novel, which jumped between the 1950s and the ’80s while also serving up heavy doses of the mysterious history of its fictional small town of Derry. Muschietti and screenwriters Cary Fukunaga and Chase Palmer also benefit greatly from a talented cast of mostly unknown young actors, who make the most of this breakthrough opportunity.
The movie opens on two brothers, 13-year-old Bill (Jaden Lieberher) and 6-year-old Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), making a paper boat together before Georgie runs out to set it afloat on the street amid a huge rainstorm. Georgie is on his own since Bill is ill, and soon finds himself in trouble when he discovers a creepy clown named Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) lurking in the storm drain into which the boat careens.
Pennywise kills Georgie and drags him into the drain, making him the latest in a long line of children who have disappeared in the burg. Bill believes that Georgie might still be alive, and convinces his group of friends in “The Losers Club” — a group of troubled, funny and well-drawn nerds — to follow him in the quest for the truth.
Along the way, they are joined by Beverly (Sophia Lillis), a beautiful classmate who has a mesmerizing effect on the boys even as she contends with the inappropriate advances of her creepy father. While they also struggle against attacks from a group of vicious bullies led by Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), the group comes to realize they are all separately having horrific visions of Pennywise that are rooted in their individual deepest fears.
The only way to find the truth and to survive is to stand together against the evil clown, who entices his victims with red balloons and the promise that they will float through the air if they follow him. Yet even as the Losers engage in a battle royale, they are aware that the town has a history of strange disappearances occurring every 27 years — meaning they still have a fight ahead in their futures.
“It” has some undeniably disturbing moments, both on a human level between Beverly and her father or Henry Bowers and just about anyone, and on the supernatural plane depicting Pennywise’s shape-shifting abilities to conduct pure evil. But the film also recalls the youthful wonder of “E.T.” and “The Goonies,” as well as the sadder portrayals of adolescence found in “The Breakfast Club” and fellow King adaptation “Stand By Me.”
All of it is set to a terrific score by Benjamin Wallfisch, who gives the king of film composers, John Williams, a run for his money here with melodies that are likely to wind up in Hollywood Bowl retrospectives for many summers to come. Muschietti also thankfully masters the skill of implying as much as he shows of the horror, using quick bursts of gruesome imagery without ever risking exploitation by lingering on its grotesque moments.
While “It” will likely create some resentment by inspiring a new wave of evil clown sightings nationwide, it should also be appreciated by anyone who wants good scares depicted with class. Here’s hoping that the second half can find the same magic with its adult cast. Grade: A
THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD
Stars: Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson, Salma Hayek, Gary Oldman
Length: 118 minutes
Directed by: Patrick Hughes
Reynolds plays a disgraced private security ace who is forced to take hitman Jackson from England to testify in the war-crimes trial of a dictator at the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands while dodging assassins out to stop Jackson. Extremely lazy and stupid writing reliant upon a zillion flashbacks to fill plot holes, combined with energetic yet cliched performances by its stars and a tone that veers between attempted comedy and brutality, makes this one of the year’s worst. …Grade: D
Stars: Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Daniel Craig
Length: 119 minutes
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
This Southern-fried twist on “Ocean’s 11” – also directed by Soderbergh – follows two brothers played by Tatum and Driver, who decide to rob the vault of the Charlotte Speedway during a NASCAR race, with the help of safecracker Craig and a motley assortment of friends. The heist pays off with great twists and details and the dialogue zings, while the performers invest what heart and dignity into what could have been cliched characters. Grade: B
Stars: Elizabeth Olsen, Jeremy Renner
Length: 107 minutes
Directed by: Tyler Sheridan
This unusually thoughtful and serious thriller follows Olsen a Las Vegas FBI agent shipped to a remote Wyoming reservation to investigate the death of a young Native American woman, and the local game tracker (Renner) who helps her navigate both the terrain and its people. Writer-director Sheridan shows viewers a world rarely seen in film, blending the tragically overlooked lives of Native Americans with a fascinating mystery. Grade: A
INGRID GOES WEST
Stars: Aubrey Plaza, Elizabeth Olsen, O’Shea Jackson Jr.
Length: 97 minutes
Directed by: Matt Spicer
A wicked satire of our selfie and Instagram-obsessed culture, “Ingrid” features a knockout performance by indie comedy goddess Plaza as a woman who uses a $60,000 inheritance to move to LA and stalk an online celebrity (Olsen) with an equally vacuous existence. Its sharp bite packs an extra punch when it takes a surprisingly moving turn. Grade: A
Stars: Robert Pattinson, Benny Safdie, Jennifer Jason Leigh
Length: 100 minutes
Directed by: Benny Safdie & Josh Safdie
Robert Pattinson breaks out of his teen-idol “Twilight” days for good with his riveting performance as a bank robber who will go to any amoral length imaginable to rescue his mentally disabled brother from police custody after a heist gone wrong. But the film is so unrelentingly scuzzy it becomes annoying, leaving the audience no one to root for Grade: C