Pet Sematary (2019)

Maybe I would have been better off skipping the early version of this film. You know, the one from 1989 that is a favorite of kids who grew up in the 80s. I’d never seen it before this year but in anticipation of the remake, I went to that well and took a draught. The film was terrible, and I will be making some comparisons in just a moment, but the premise had potential. It’s that potential that made this movie seem so promising. Unfortunately both the first film and the trailers tell you everything that is going to happen, and there is just not enough to justify this movie, even though it is a dozen times better than the original.

Let’s get a few of the comparisons out of the way. Starting with the cat, this movie is better cast. The animal that plays “Church” the first return visitor from the Pet Sematary of the title is great. He looks like a real pet at the start of the film, and the shape he is in near the end fits pretty well. I don’t think Director mary Lambert cared much about the Pet” part of the story in 1989, but the directors here, Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer emphasize the cat a lot more and it adds to the creepy vibe of the film.  Also, the actors in the family are all much more invested and effective than the original cast family. The two biggest adds are Jete Laurence as the doomed daughter Ellie and Jason Clarke as the bereaved father Louis Creed. Laurence has a degree of professionalism around her that makes her more believable in the role than her predecessor. Jason Clarke is simple a much better actor than the wooden and painful to watch Dale Midkiff. As he has shown in a variety of films, even bad ones, Clarke can convey emotions and function as a human being, which he does pretty well here. The one actor from the original that was not an embarrassment was veteran Fred Gwynne as the neighbor who knows secrets, Jud. In this go round we are provided the excellent John Lithgow, who lends gravitas and some skill to the supernatural explanations.

The main problem for me continues to be the story. The willingness to ignore what they know to be a dangerous action, both for a pet and a child, defies all the emotional pressures that are built up. Rachel, the mom played by Amy Seimetz, is incredulous at the action her husband must have done to get to the twist in the story, and so am I. A man who is learned, had several warning from the afterlife and also has some negative experience to go with it, simply is blinded by inconsolable loss. I suppose it could happen but all that is required is to think past the next day and I think you would back off. Maybe the one place that the previous film was more successful was in the use of the character Victor Pascow. He was visualized more ominously in the 89 version and was better used to set up how dire things could be. That character is substantially reduced in this rendering, and that is a weakness.

Local ritual was brought up early in the film as kids bury their pets, but other than one creepy sequence with kids wearing masks as they take a dog to his final resting place, there is just nothing that comes from this. The new directors and screenwriters wisely trimmed the role of the grandparents down. We never really hear from them and the unpleasant history of Rachel and her sister is presented with just enough detail to be horrifying and relevant without stealing too much focus from the main horror.

Since I knew all of the story beats already, and the trailers, previous film (and this review unfortunately) probably telegraph them to you, there is not suspense, just dread as we await the results of Louis’ action. The final scenes with Jud are not as scary as they were in the first film, but everything at the Creed home is more frightening this time around. I was not terribly disappointed because my expectations were tempered by the earlier film and the story. Early buzz had the film becoming a major upgrade and a modern horror classic. As someone once said , almost certainly in a movie, “reports of my demise have been greatly exaggerated”.  I’m sorry to paraphrase, but it seems appropriate here, “reports of this films excellence have been greatly exaggerated.” It’s mildly satisfying, but it is not the shocker it so strives to be.

Chappaquiddick

Over the weekend, I saw two films. One made me clench my arms and legs, bite my lip and hold onto my seat. The second made me sick to my stomach. This is a paraphrase of what my daughter said after seeing Chappaquiddick. This straightforward retelling of the tragedy from 1969, should enrage, depress and gut punch you in a way that is a lot less enjoyable than a horror film. This episode from the life of a lionized political figure should cause some serious reassessment of his place in the pantheon of Kennedy family heroes. Ted Kennedy may have grown from this time to represent something more in political fields, but the social reputation he had towards the end of his life  suggests that he had the same aura of entitlement that lead to the disgraceful events depicted in this movie.

The film does not really depict anything that was not known about the events leading up to the death of Mary Jo Kopechne. There was a party, he drove her to meet the ferry, he was flustered on the road and seen driving erratically by a local police officer, then drove down an unpaved road and off the side of a bridge that had no guardrail. Ted Kennedy got out of the car, she did not. Some officials believe she had suffocated rather than drowned. It is possible had they been called earlier, she could have been rescued or maybe she was already dead. There was no autopsy. Ted Kennedy did not report the accident for nine hours, by that time it had already been discovered by others. Kennedy denied drinking or driving under the influence, but ten hours after the accident, BAC tests were not likely to discover much. Before he contacted authorities, Kennedy contacted his group of political advisers, his friends and his family. There was some talk of saying that she was driving, but the Senator did not make that claim to the police.

The visualization of all the events in the film seems to be as objective as possible. This movie is not a hit piece, no suggestion of a sexual encounter is made, and most of the aftermath is public record. Some phone calls and conversations between Kennedy and his Father are dramatized. If there is a sense of the melodramatic it is in those moments, which are of course the most speculative. Everything else demonstrates how political necessity trumped justice in this case. Within a week Kennedy plead guilty to leaving the scene of an accident, and got a two month suspended sentence. One thing the film definitely gets right is that much of the news impact of this event was washed away in the other news story of the day, man first stepping on the moon. The media did address the accident, but it was mostly willing to let the explanations of public officials who had connections to the Kennedy family, go by without much follow up.

Actor Jason Clarke, who coincidentally was born the day before the events depicted in this film, portrays Ted Kennedy and does a solid job. While not a perfect physical match, he seems to have the same sort of expressive face as Kennedy and his accent and vocals match the Senators without being mimicking. The screenplay highlights the self centered attitude and actions taken by the Senator. The suggestion is that he did not like being managed, but that he was not capable of managing himself. The ridiculous neck brace that he wore in public to the funeral of Miss Kopechne is emblematic of how important it was to listen to advisers with better political instincts. Clarke almost makes Kennedy a figure of more than self-pity, even though as is pointed out by his friend, cousin and political retainer, “you are NOT the victim.” Kennedy was surrounded by friends who gave him good advice, and they were lawyers including a U.S. Attorney. He ignored their pleas and made things worse. Clarke uses his narrow eyes and gaping mouth to convey Kennedy’s befuddlement over his own stupidity.

If there is a moral conscience to the film it is Ed Helms as cousin Joe Gargan. Helms conveys the loyalty of a friend with the pragmatics of the circumstances. Every time he thinks the Senator is getting it right, he will end up being disappointed.  You can see his growing disdain for the choices that are being made and when he ultimately ends up holding the cue cards for the supposedly “from the heart” moment of Kennedy’s television address, the visual loss of respect on his face shows that Helms is in fact a good actor, capable of much more than the comedies he is known for. Clancy Brown makes an imposing Robert McNamara, the second portrayal of this figure on screen in the last two months. Bruce Dern is suitably old, and quiet as Joseph Kennedy Sr., who is presented as having little respect for his youngest son.  The politics of personal destruction, which is the current game plan of most politicians these days, may not have started here, but this is where it grew up. Spin management requires an active and immediate response. Too bad for Mary Jo Kopechne that Senator Kennedy did not learn those lessons before he drove off the bridge.

Terminator Genisys

I suppose it is faint praise to say “I didn’t hate it”, but that was my first impression of the new version of “The Terminator“. I was highly dubious when confronted by the most recent trailer (not the one above) which gives away more plot elements than most of today’s narrative revealing advertisements do. This is an attempt to make “Terminator” a continuing project without the messiness of having to deal with the narratives from previous versions of the story told in other sequels. The creators here have the right fulcrum for moving us to that point, but they use it so often, it is nearly impossible to keep track of all the variations.

On a technical level, the movie looks good. The special effects are up to snuff and there are several spots where practical effects seem to be used instead of the now dominant paintbrush of CGI. Believe me, there is plenty of CGI also, but the frequent car chases, crashes, and combat scenes are much more realistic than you would find in most computer generated effects. The opening sequences which are set in the future and feature Reese and John Connor are actually a well told story of that relationship and the events leading up to the original insertion of a Terminator into 1984. The mix of elements from the original into this current version was effective, and although Bill Paxton’s punk character is recast, you would almost believe that the sequence was lifted whole cloth from the first movie. Almost immediately though the plot twists start and it is apparent that a complete revision is being undertaken.

Time travel stories are always interesting, at least they are to me, but they can be confounding. It would be helpful to have Doc Brown in the basement with a chalkboard, diagramming all the possible contingencies so that we can keep track of what is going on. Everyone who loves cinema wants a movie that is thought provoking as well as entertaining. The problem with this movie is that the thoughts provoked have nothing to do with morality, politics, society or history. Your brain will start thinking about the mechanisms of the story rather than the implications of the characters choices. Instead of pondering what choice would be the most ethical to make, or whether we as a society are surrendering too much power to the technology we use, you are left wondering “how did this timeline get started, or what happens to the future if John Conner kills his own parents, or how do we get John Conner when his parents don’t seem to be getting together?” You end up thinking about the machine that is driving the plot rather than the social implications. That turns the discussion into a nerd fest rather than a philosophical imponderable. Kyle Reese says it himself in more than one scene, this story is hard to keep track of. “Pops” may come along and say it is rather simple, but that does not make it so.

Instead of lingering on plot loopholes or time travel conundrums, I want to discuss for a moment the philosophical question, is Skynet already happening? In 1984, before we had the sort of internet and dependance on technology that exist now, it was scary enough to contemplate. Today, Google and Apple know almost everything that everyone does. The NSA is mining that data, most of us operate electronically in banking, services, communication and almost every other part of our lives. The “Genisys” app in this movie is not far removed from the kind of technological innovation that is going on right now. Earlier this year, there was the spy film “Kingsmen: The Secret Service” which postulated a nefarious takeover of technology that was more cartoon like but which could be plausible because just as in this movie, it recognizes that we are all wired in to each other in some way. A couple of weeks ago, I saw a story about an A.I. experiment where the computer got a bit nasty with the the programmers. That’s just the kind of thing that might make us believe that the combination of Artificial Intelligence and widespread dependence on computer technology might not be a match made in heaven. “Terminator Genisys” touches oh so briefly on this concept, but it is mostly focused on building an action plot to attach visual spectacle to.

I don’t watch “Game of Thrones” so I am largely unfamiliar with the work of Emilia Clark. She is made up to resemble Linda Hamilton enough to sell the idea that she is the same character. Jai Courtney is an actor I can’t quite seem to warm up to. I’m not sure he is being cast correctly but someone has decided he is the next big thing, I’m not sure he’s not the next Sam Worthington. Jason Clarke is an actor that I have admired in a number of films but he seems to be directed here to play the character of John Conner a bit over the top in the opening and then a little too subdued in later sections. Arnold continues to be Arnold. I am so much happier with him as the Terminator than as Governor that a couple of awkward moments don’t even register. There are some pieces of humor plugged into his part and the usual stoic mannerisms seem to be working. The explanation of his aging is acceptable and I thought the three different time periods he appeared in seemed matched appropriately.

The movie is ambitious and attempts to put all of the elements of the story we have come to know into play. Judgement Day has been shifted somehow and that is one of the unclear lines of thinking created by the multiple time line angle. We don’t yet know how Terminator 2.0 gets sent to protect Sarah at age nine, it looks like this is being set up as a series of films and that will be a plot point for another entry. The movie is under-performing in the U.S. market (largely I suspect because of the lingering demand for Dinosaur mayhem). Internationally it may do well enough to justify continuing the series. I don’t think anyone will become emotionally invested in the story enough to be disappointed if this is the last in the series, but I won’t roll my eyes in disbelief if a new entry is eventually announced either.

If you would like a ranking as a way of assessing this opinion, I’d put the first two films on a level all their own. I prefer the original to Terminator 2 but that is mostly because I love that last sequence with the stop motion and puppetry. “Terminator Genisys” and “Terminator: Rise of the Machines” are also pretty equivalent, to each other. They are action generating plots and each has some spectacular stunt work but neither has the depth or imagination of the first two films. “Terminator Salvation” is a vague memory. I enjoyed it well enough at the time but it is six years later and I have never rewatched it since then so it must not have impressed me that much. I’d be willing to see this film again but I will never be willing to try and figure out all the time line confusion that this entry in the series introduces.