FlixChatter: THE RENTAL (2020)

When Ruth asked me if I wanted to cover The Rental, I said yes as soon as I saw that Dan Stevens was in it; I enjoyed him in 2017’s Beauty and the Beast, and my boyfriend and I have been on a Downton Abbey kick (we just finished season three and I am HEARTBROKEN), so I thought it could be fun to see him in a horror movie. Unfortunately, while he (and the rest of the cast) give great performances, there’s not much else that’s fun about it.

Dan Stevens with Alison Brie

In The Rental, married couple Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Michelle (Alison Brie), Charlie’s younger brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White), and Josh’s girlfriend/Charlie’s business partner Mina (Sheila Vand) rent a vacation home for a weekend trip. While the weekend should be fun and relaxing, personal tensions mount, and the group might not be as alone as they thought.

This movie is a weird mashup of a romantic drama, psychological thriller, and slasher. That’s not to say that a movie can’t incorporate all of these genres, but The Rental doesn’t do it well. Rather than blending them together, the first half of the movie focuses on the relationship drama, the next chunk turns into a thriller, and the last ten-ish minutes is a lazy slasher. It’s a clunky, jarring way of telling the story and makes the end feel somewhat underwhelming after the buildup earlier in the movie.

There’s also a decision a couple of the characters make that is obviously there to move the thriller part forward, but it’s incredibly dumb to the point of being unbelievable. I don’t like being too nitpicky about plotholes, and I understand suspending my disbelief is important to a certain point, but if characters act more stupid than people would in real life, especially when the characters have seemed relatively intelligent up until that point, it’s disappointing.

Alison Brie in The Rental

Despite the underwhelming and frustrating writing, the cast does well with what they’re given. Dan Stevens is both funny and infuriating, and it’s kind of fun hearing him use an American accent. Allison Brie is likeable and sympathetic, as is Jeremy Allen White. Sheila Vand gives an understated but intense performance. And Toby Huss as Taylor, the creepy caretaker of the rental home, is excellent; he keeps you guessing whether he’s just a weird, unpleasant guy or if he has more nefarious intentions. The fact that they had a competent director must have helped too; Dave Franco does well in his directing debut here. Not only are the performances well done, but there are some well-composed shots that help keep the suspense high. It’s just unfortunate that his (and the other writers’) screenwriting skills weren’t as impressive.

Overall, The Rental is an underwhelming and messily-written movie. If you especially like any of the actors, maybe check it out; otherwise, I would recommend skipping this one.

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Have you seen The Rental? Well, what did you think?

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FlixChatter Review – THE WRETCHED (2020)

Written and Directed by: Brett Pierce, Drew T. Pierce

In The Wretched, 17-year-old Ben (John-Paul Howard) goes to stay with his father (Jamison Jones) in the small summer vacation town where he works. He notices their neighbor, Abbie (Zara Mahler), acting strangely, and soon discovers that she has been inhabited by a witch who preys on children. Along with his new friend Mallory (Piper Curda), Ben fights to defeat this ancient evil being.

Like many teen horror movies, The Wretched is pretty underwhelming. There’s nothing particularly inspired about the cinematography or direction, the characters feel like cliches, and melodramatic music nearly always plays right before the unimpressive jump scares (although there was one really good jump scare involving a baby toy that actually got me). The dialogue feels like most teen horror movie dialogue written between 1999 and now, although the actors mostly make it work.

That said, it’s not a bad movie. The special effects are pretty good, mostly practical and not over-reliant on CGI, and I really liked the creepy, saggy skin makeup for the witch. It was refreshing watching a movie with a unique antagonist (not that there aren’t other horror movies with witches, obviously, but this movie has its own interesting interpretation). As I mentioned before, the acting is pretty good, and there are some surprisingly talented kid actors in the cast. And the twist near the end genuinely surprised me without feeling like it was unearned; there’s some decent foreshadowing leading up to it.

While The Wretched isn’t an amazing horror film, it’s still entertaining enough, and at a little over an hour and a half run time, it’s a relatively quick, easy watch. If you like horror, are easily scared, and this happens to be on a streaming service you have, you might enjoy this movie.

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Now playing at select Drive-In Theaters and Digital Platforms everywhere


Have you seen THE WRETCHED? Let us know what you think!

FlixChatter Review – THE BOOKSELLERS documentary(2019)

Directed by: D.W. Young

Ruth asked me to cover The Booksellers because she knew I was a bookworm, and she’s not wrong. I majored in English because I love reading; the most memorable part of my first date with my boyfriend was browsing Mager’s and Quinn’s discount corner; and my regular visits to Winona aren’t complete without visiting Chapter 2 Books and scouring their densely packed shelves. But my love of books doesn’t compare with the sellers and collectors featured in this beautiful documentary.

The Booksellers is a documentary exploring New York’s book world, from the history and importance of its independent bookstores to a collection of passionate book collectors. The film discusses the practice of book selling and collecting, the future of the printed word, and how the changing times has affected the bookselling industry, and how there is still progress to be made.

Much of the documentary focuses on how technology-specifically, the internet-has affected booksellers. One collector noted that in the 50’s, there were 378 bookstores in NYC; as of the time this was filmed, there were 79. Before the rise of the internet, sellers would scour estate sales and church basement sales to find rare books for their stores. Once it became easier to find rare books online with decreased prices, independent booksellers suffered. Dwindling bookstores are leading to fewer book collectors, as used bookstores are often the introduction to budding enthusiasts. The fact that the world of bookselling hasn’t been particularly welcoming to women or people of color doesn’t help either; even today, only about 15% of independent booksellers are women, and while the number of people of color in the industry has increased, the field still isn’t very diverse.

That’s not to say the world of book collecting isn’t still very active. This documentary is full of people who are so enthusiastic and knowledgeable about rare books, and it’s not just about collecting for the sake of collection. One comment that particularly struck me was that “books are not trophies;” people who collect rare books differ from people who collect art because they usually have a deeply personal connection to the books they buy, whereas art collectors are often more in it as a display of wealth. To view a piece of expensive art someone has feels more like a statement that they have it and no one else does, whereas viewing a rare book in a collection feels like an invitation into the collector’s world.

The documentary itself is a little scattered and unstructured, especially for its over an hour and a half length, and it can feel a little dry in some parts, but it’s still clearly a labor of love. The Booksellers will make you want to run out to your nearest used bookstore (once it’s safe to go out again) and spend a few hours browsing the comfortable, dusty shelves to find something that speaks to you.

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Have you seen THE BOOKSELLERS? Let us know what you think!

FlixChatter Review – CATS (2019)

Directed by: Tom Hooper
Screenplay by: Lee Hall, Tom Hooper

Most people who know me probably think I’m a huge Cats fan; I’m a choir nerd and a crazy cat lady (my Instagram account is mostly pictures of my boyfriend’s three adorable kitties), so a musical that combines two of my loves sounds tailor-made for me. Honestly, though, I never really got into it. I saw it at the Orpheum during an anniversary tour, and while I appreciated the beautiful music, clever choreography, and elaborate costumes, I had trouble connecting with the story- unsurprising, considering it’s based on a collection of T.S. Eliot poems. When I heard the musical was being adapted into a movie, though, I figured I would give it another shot.

Cats is about a group of alleycats called the Jellicle Cats (no, I STILL don’t know what Jellicle Cats are; based on the songs, it sounds like they’re basically just normal cats but some of them are maybe magic?) preparing for the Jellicle Ball, an event where their leader, Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) chooses one cat to ascend to the “Heavyside Layer,” basically a cat heaven where they will be reborn into a better life. The cats each perform for Old Deuteronomy in order to convince her to choose them. However, a nefarious cat named Macavity (Idris Elba) is also trying to be chosen, and is doing his best to get rid of his competition.

Okay, let’s get the obvious out of the way: the uncanny valley CGI character design. It’s not quite as bad as I was expecting-at least close up. The CGI fur is very realistic-looking, and it seems to be combined with practical costuming and makeup in some cases. That said, the full body shots looked so much creepier, and I am still super weirded out by how aggressively human the faces look. They put so much detail into the bodies, but the faces are mostly left as is, save for some CGI whiskers and occasional tufts of fur. Couldn’t they have done something with makeup or prosthetics? As it is, all I could think of was that scene in What We Do in the Shadows where Jemaine Clements’s character tries to turn into a cat.

Besides the unsettling character design, the movie is mostly pretty to look at. The production design is beautiful, and the choreography is impressive (if not necessarily well-shot); mainly casting professional ballet dancers was one of the best things they could have done for the movie. Some of the “cat-like” movements are a little uncomfortable, though. There’s this weird sexual energy about it, which for some stories or musicals is totally fine, and I know the stage show has a similar vibe, but knowing that it’s about literal cats makes it kind of awkward.

The other big topic I obviously have to comment on is the music. Overall, it’s decent; the Andrew Lloyd Webber classic hasn’t endured as long as it has for nothing. Several of the songs are fun, catchy, and in some instances, haunting. I liked the ensemble numbers, although the orchestration sometimes drowns out the vocals in some parts. Jennifer Hudson as Grizabella  obviously sounds fantastic in the best-known number, “Memory.” Jason Derulo gives a solid performance as the flirty and energetic Rumtumtugger; his diction suffers a little because he’s trying to sing with a Cockney accent, but I still really enjoyed his voice. Steven McRae as Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat is especially delightful; he has such a clear, bright, strong tone.

Taylor Swift’s Bombalurina only has one song, Macavity, and it’s…fine. She was obviously a stunt cast, because they gave her a song that’s not that vocally taxing. The song itself has this sultry vibe that Taylor’s breathy voice sort of works for, although it some parts it sounds more breathless than breathy, and I really would have loved to hear some more power behind the chorus. My biggest issue with the music was the shoehorned in Oscar-bait song, Beautiful Ghosts. It was written by Swift and Webber, but it definitely sounds more like the pop star’s song than the Broadway composer’s and doesn’t really fit the rest of the show’s tone. Worse still, it comes immediately after Grizabella’s first snippet of “Memory,” and having this slightly pretty but underwhelming song follow it dampens the effect of that moment.

The rest of the cast quality is pretty mixed. Judi Dench as Old Deuteronomy and Ian McKellen as Gus the Theatre cat are amazing actors in general and could make reciting the phone book sound good, so they do well with what they’re given. Rebel Wilson as Jennyanydots and James Corden as Bustopher Jones are pretty groan-worthy; they’re the comedic relief, but they have way too much addded dialogue that’s basically just the individual actors’ brands of humor, and it doesn’t mesh with the rest of the movie. Idris Elba tries so hard, and he’s clearly giving it his all, but his character has been rewritten from a mysterious and malevolent presence to a cartoon villain, so there’s not much to salvage there. Lastly, newcomer Francesca Hayward as the abandoned kitten Victoria is, again, fine. She’s primarily a dancer, so her acting and singing aren’t spectacular, but she does okay with what she’s given. Her role in the movie is mostly as an analogue for the audience-someone for the other cats to explain the plot to- so there’s not much needed from her acting-wise.

This movie isn’t great. It’s not even so bad it’s good, which would at least be fun. Honestly, the source material just doesn’t lend itself to being adapted to a movie. Even with the added dialogue explaining the weird plot, the lyrics are still pretty bonkers and the anthropomorphized felines writhing around is uncomfortable, and  and while that might work on stage, it just doesn’t in film. Even if the character design hadn’t been terrifying CGI and the cast had been stronger, I don’t think anything could salvage Cats as a movie.

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Have you seen CATS? Let us know what you think!

TCFF19 CringeFest Shorts Block Reviews – chills, thrills, & post-apocalyptic frills

TCFF may have come and gone, but hey, doesn’t mean that we’re all done with our coverage and reviews. Just in time for Halloween, we’ve got reviews of 9 horror/thriller films in the Cringe-fest shorts block. Thanks to our horror reviewer Laura Schaubschlager.

For all the TCFF coverage, type TCFF2019 in the search box on our homepage.


I was lucky enough to spend my Tuesday night at TCFF’s Cringe Fest – a block of 9 short horror films advertised as “chills, thrills, and post-apocalyptic frills.” Because of the number of films, I’ll keep my reviews of each brief, but overall, this was a spectacular variety of shorts and it absolutely delivered on its promised chills and thrills.

Killer Hike 7

I had the same problem with this film that I had with Puppet Killer: it makes fun of teen slasher movies, but it doesn’t have any new takes-it just points out how the teens are played by older actors and the characters each fit into specific tropes; again, even the jokes about the horror cliches are cliches themselves. I will say that the cast was a lot of fun to watch despite the stale material; they all gave really over-the-top performances that could have been embarrassing if done wrong, but were genuinely entertaining thanks to this talented group of actors.

Meat Eater

I’m not even sure I should review this one, since it is really short-a couple minutes long at most. We see a young woman running through the woods, trying to escape an unseen tormentor, towards what she hopes will be her salvation. It does manage to keep the suspense high despite its short run time, which is impressive.

Footprints

This one could have easily been boring-a supernatural found footage movie sounds almost lazy-but I really enjoyed it. The found-footage style really worked with the dark, snowy forest setting, and using the set-up of a husband suspecting his wife of cheating as a framing device was a creative way to tell a story about an otherwise traditional movie monster.

Wrong Level

Based on “The Elevator Game,” an internet urban legend about riding an elevator to a different dimension, Wrong Level follows a young man trying to rescue his girlfriend by playing the game himself. As silly as it sounds, I actually think the “Elevator Game” story is kind of creepy, and it’s a great idea for a short film; the tension literally rises as the elevator ascends. The set-up allows for excellent pacing, which isn’t easy for a short film.

Break In Break Out

This was another suspenseful, well-paced short, and is one of two fantastic films by the talented Michael Drisoll in the Cringe Fest block. Not only is it wonderfully tense and full of twists (I don’t even want to try and describe the plot because I worry I’ll give too much away), but the color scheme and lighting are also gorgeous in a gritty sort of way.

Frost Bite

I didn’t expect a zombie movie to make me cry, but Frost Bite managed it. The young actress playing the girl leading the zombie across the frozen wasteland is incredibly talented. The zombie effects are creepy and well-done. And if the ending doesn’t make you shed at least one tear, you’re made of stronger stuff than I am.

The Birdwatcher

A quiet, awkward corporate employee on a birdwatching hike through the woods stumbles upon a potentially dangerous situation and has to decide what to do. With the majority of the focus on one actor with absolutely no dialogue, The Birdwatcher is lucky to have a talented lead- he’s goofy and charming but mysterious enough to make you wonder if there’s something darker going on with him. I also really enjoyed the ending; the short did a great job of building up to it, and it struck the perfect balance of comedy and horror.

To The Boats

The second film in the Cringe Fest lineup by Michael Driscoll, To the Boats follows two men running to the coast of England, trying to reach their final method of escape from the horror of their once beloved home country. This movie is visually stunning, with some gorgeous, sweeping shots of the countryside and coast, and the actors give a gripping, emotional performance.

Check out Ruth’s interview from last year with Michael about this film.

Mr. Sam

Oh, boy. This movie was…a lot. It’s about Sam, an eccentric mortician and his relationship with his mother, a young girl he tutors, and the corpse of a man he’s infatuated with. There are a lot of incredibly dark topics in this film-rape, incest, child abuse, and necrophilia-that feel like they’re mostly there for shock value. I’m not saying dark subjects shouldn’t be included in movies, but because this was a short, there was no time to explore them, and it never felt like there was a real reason for them to be there, as there barely seems to even be a narrative arc, just these loosely strung-together plot points. The cast is good, with Sam and his young student being the stand-outs, and hopefully their roles in this lead to bigger projects, but this was an uncomfortable film to end on.


Stay tuned for more TCFF reviews and interviews!

 

 

TCFF19 Horror/Thriller Reviews: Puppet Killer + Scream, Queen: My Nightmare on Elm Street + 3 Day Weekend

We’ve already reached halfway of the film fest!! You can search TCFF2019 for ALL of the posts we’ve done so far this year.

Check out the recap from Saturday (thanks to our media producers + TCFF interns!):

Well, since it’s almost Halloween, here are a trio of horror/thriller reviews of films screening at TCFF! Thanks to our horror reviewer Laura Schaubschlager. Two of the films below are screening Wednesday night.


I love that Twin Cities Film Fest happens to be right before my favorite holiday (Halloween, in case that wasn’t obvious). I’m already in the mood to binge watch horror movies in the weeks leading up to the 31st, and the festival gives me a chance to see ones that I might not have heard of otherwise. I’ve been lucky enough to watch a few screeners ahead of the festival, and what I’ve seen is a promising sign of what should be another fantastic TCFF season.


Puppet Killer

Looking for a more traditional horror flick for your Halloween fix? Check out Puppet Killer for a fun, bloody parody of teen slasher movies. When Jamie (Aleks Paunovic) is a little boy, his stepmother mysteriously goes missing-but he’s convinced she was murdered by Simon, the fluffy pink puppet his late mother gave him. Ten years later, Alex returns to the cabin in the woods where his stepmother disappeared for Christmas break with his girlfriend Jessie (Lisa Durupt) and their friends Curtis (Lee Majdoub), Rick (Richard Harmon), Brooke (Gigi Saul Guerrero), and Lee (Kyle Cassie).  They find the seemingly innocent puppet in the basement, and soon after, the bloodbath begins.

The writing in this movie isn’t spectacular; it’s clearly meant to poke fun at teen slasher movies, but it doesn’t say anything new about the subject, and some of the jokes about horror cliches feel like cliches themselves. There are also these two characters, a couple sisters trying to hide the body of a guy one of them killed, who show up maybe 20 minutes before the end of the movie whose subplot is never acknowledged or resolved; they’re pretty much just there for a couple extra kills, and considering the movie already has a solid group of high schoolers, more serial killer fodder seems unnecessary, especially when the characters add nothing else to the story.

That said, this is still a really fun movie. In traditional teen slasher fashion, the actors cast as high schoolers are obviously older than their characters, and in this movie, I mean obviously; Alex Paunovic as the main teen, Jamie, is 50 years old. This makes several bits of dialogue extra funny, and the actors are clearly having a lot of fun in their performances as obnoxious, melodramatic adolescents. As far as horror goes, the movie has some fun, solid kills, with decent and bloody practical effects.


Scream, Queen: My Nightmare on Elm Street (doc)

If you’re not a Nightmare on Elm Street fan, you might wonder why anyone would make a documentary about the second installment of the popular 80’s slasher franchise. But Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge is more than just one of many sequels: it’s a movie laden with gay subtext and stars a young gay actor, Mark Patton, who, at the time of filming, hadn’t come out. The mid-80’s were especially hard for the LGBTQ community, thanks to the AIDS epidemic being at its peak and causing the public to demonize homosexuality. For an up and coming movie star who felt like he had to stay in the closet to protect his career, the overt homosexual tone of Freddy’s Revenge– and writer David Chaskin’s insistence, after the movie received negative reviews, that he hadn’t written it that way and that it was Mark’s performance that made the movie gay- halted his path to stardom and forced him into a life of obscurity. He went off the grid, living in a small town in Mexico until 2010, when he was tracked down to be a part of Never Sleep Again, a documentary about the Nightmare franchise.

Since then, Mark has embraced his role as a male “scream queen” and gay horror icon, attending several conventions and using his celebrity platform to talk about bullying and homophobia in the horror community. The documentary is not only a fascinating exploration of Mark’s acting and personal journey, but an insightful look at how homosexuality was viewed in the 80’s (especially in Hollywood), and why many members of the LGBTQ community connect with the horror genre.

The documentary is also narrated by Cecil Baldwin, a gay horror icon in his own right (he’s the lead in the popular podcast Welcome to Night Vale), adding to what is already an excellent film.


3 Day Weekend

Okay, this isn’t exactly horror-it’s more of a thriller- but the idea of being alone in the woods and stumbling across what at first appears to be a kidnapping gone wrong, then trying to evade the criminals with no car and a phone with no service, is a pretty scary concept. When Ben Boyd (Morgan Krantz) goes on a solo camping trip in the middle of the woods, he discovers a bloody mess in the front seat of one car, a woman (Maya Stojan) bound and gagged in the trunk of another, and the apparent kidnapper (Nathan Phillips) chasing after him. But all is not as it seems, as more of the story is revealed through the different characters’ perspectives.

This movie jumps into the suspense quickly and maintains that tension throughout the hour and twenty minute run time. There’s next to no dialogue, which allows the actors’ talent to really shine. It’s well-paced, allowing a pretty even amount of time to focus on each character’s perspective.

The story-telling gets a little murky and convoluted toward the very end, and some of the brief bits of dialogue feel forced or out of place, but overall it’s a gripping mystery that keeps you on the edge of your seat and constantly going “Wait, what?!” at every new reveal.


Stay tuned for more TCFF reviews and interviews!

 

 

FlixChatter Review – IT Chapter Two (2019)

Directed by: Andy Muschietti
Written by: Gary Dauberman

It Chapter 2 takes place 27 years after the first film. When children again start mysteriously dying in Derry, Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) calls his childhood friends (James McAvoy as Bill Denbrough, Jessica Chastain as Beverly Marsh, Bill Hader as Richie Tozier, Jay Ryan as Ben Hanscom, James Ransone as Eddie Kaspbrak, and Andy Bean as Stanley Uris), to return to their hometown and finally defeat the fear-hungry entity that terrorized them in the form of Pennywise the clown (Bill Skarsgard) all those years ago.

The highlight of this movie is absolutely its stellar cast. Everyone has excellent chemistry and genuinely feel like lifelong friends, especially Bill Hader and James Ransone. The actors clearly studied their younger counterparts thoroughly, because past just looking similar to them, their mannerisms mirror those of their younger counterparts incredibly well; my cousin pointed out that James McAvoy is slightly duck-footed when he walks, the same way young Bill (Jaeden Martell) is. All of the actors give impressive performances, but Bill Hader is the stand-out; while he’s as hilarious in this movie as anyone who has seen him on SNL would expect, he also gives an absolutely heartbreaking performance toward the end.

(L-R) Isaiah Mustafa, Bill Hader, James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Jay Ryan

My main complaint with this movie has to do with its length. It’s nearly three hours long, and while the first one was pretty long too-about two and a half hours-this one felt much more padded. There were several flashbacks to the kids having additional encounters with It, and while the scenes were mostly well-done, and it was nice having more screen time with the talented young actors, it felt like the filmmakers were just trying to squeeze in more scares. This is especially frustrating when the time focused on unnecessary flashbacks could have been used to flesh out parts that were mostly glazed over-Bill’s relationship with his actor wife Audra (Jess Weixler), Bev’s struggles with her abusive husband Tom (Will Beinbrink), and pretty much all of Mike’s background.

One of my main problems with the first movie was how little development they gave to Mike, and I had hoped that would change in the sequel, since he’s the only member of the friend group who stayed in Derry and is responsible for bringing them back, but he’s once again sidelined; I’m pretty sure we go nearly an hour without seeing him onscreen after the group’s reunion. Even his big scene from the book with former school bully/current psychiatric hospital escapee Henry Bowers (Teach Grant) is cut very short.

That last bit brings me to my other big complaint about the movie: there are several parts played for laughs that shouldn’t have been, especially most of the scenes with Bowers. His brief attack on Mike is handled more seriously, but the majority of his scenes, as bloody as they are, have this weird comedic tone that doesn’t mesh with this character that has been established as a genuinely intimidating figure. It’s not like this movie lacks for comedy-as scary as it is, there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments-so I’m not sure why the filmmakers felt the need to inject humor into non-humorous situations.

While I have my issues with trying to pack in extra scares in this movie, I did still enjoy them. There are plenty of slow burning, suspenseful scenes, jump-out-of-your-seat moments, and creative and unsettling imagery. The famous fortune cookie scene is frenetic and terrifying, Bev’s unnerving encounter with the strange old woman (Joan Gregson) in her old apartment is exquisitely tense, and there’s a moment toward the end involving young Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff) that really made me shudder.

Despite my complaints, I still really enjoyed It Chapter 2. It’s scary, funny, heartfelt, and well-acted. While I think the first movie is a little better (or at least more succinct), the second movie is a satisfying follow-up and a wonderful conclusion to a great horror story.

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Have you seen IT Chapter Two? Let us know what you think!