Doctor Sleep

Thirty-five years ago, someone created a sequel to a Stanley Kubrick film, using material from the original author of the piece. It seemed foolish to try to ride the tailcoats of Kubrick’s Masterpiece “2001: A Space Odyssey“, but “2010: The Year We Make Contact” was not a disaster and it did make a little money. Well, writer/director Mike Flanagan has attempted the same feat. Kubrick’s “The Shining” had a sequel written for it by original author Stephen King, and that story has been adapted to make this sequel almost forty years later.

“Doctor Sleep” is substantially different in tone from “The Shining”. The single location of the first film made it feel like a Gothic haunted house story, although there are many elements of the “shine” that are present. King was famously dissatisfied with the Kubrick approach. While I never read the novel, I suspect his unhappiness stemmed from the minimal relationship of the psychic ability of Danny Torrance to the film story. That may in fact be why King returned to the characters, so that he could elaborate on the mystery of “Shining” and not simply be trapped in the haunted hotel.

This story does start off at the time of the original events, and there are a couple of moments recreated for the prologue, but we quickly move forward thirty years to Danny Torrance as an adult. He is a troubled man who has been haunted by the spirit of the house that he feels has pursued him over the years. Ewan McGregor plays the adult Danny and he wanders aimlessly until another spirit visits him and he commits to a fresh start with new friends and no chemical solutions to his anxiety. As his story is playing out we are introduced to a new group of people who seem to thrive on those that shine. At first it is unclear whether they are spirits or something else. Ultimately, this group of wanderers lead by the magnetic Rebecca Ferguson, turns out to be the antagonists in a deadly hunt of those who can “shine” and those who use the shiners for their own purposes. It’s basically a vampire story with creatures that are human but who have supernatural abilities. It certainly is a horror story, but it is not the slow burn descent into madness that the original focused on.

The strengths of the story ,as told in the film, are first and foremost McGregor, who has to be desperate, sometime despicable and ultimately re-deemed. The character is strongest in the scenes where he is working as an orderly in a hospice, and conversing with those who are soon making the trip to the other side. He develops the sympathy and heroic nature that he will need when the story leads him to direct confrontation. Cliff Curtis, a familiar supporting actor and welcome presence helps steady Danny in the road to empowering his Shining Skills. Inevitably there is a figure that brings the two sides into conflict. I won’t spoil the horror for you but suffice it to say, it involves children, and that is introduced as a theme early on but taken to it’s most horrifying place mid-way through the film.

Modern film techniques allow directors to do things that seem physically impossible. The CGI moments remind us of that impossibility. That is one of the reasons that practical effects are so important, because they tie a sense of reality to the impossible. Two sequences in the film took be out of the story a bit because of the computer work. One involves a young girl rotating a house and levitating, this was preceded by an episode with spoons years earlier. Both of these moments would have worked more in a frightening way if they had more practical elements to them. “Shining” moments are less problematic because we are in a fantasy world at that point so the lack of reality is less egregious.

Just like how 2010 took the metaphysical world of it’s predecessor and moved it into a traditional political conflict, Flanagan  and King take the supernatural horror from the first story and turn it into an action story, and it works. There are moments of horror in this film that are shocking for sure but it will be most noted for the game playing being done by two sides that we get to understand pretty well. It feels like an adaption of a complex universe that has been created in a book, and I think it is largely successful at turning that material into something cinematic.

The Greatest Showman

 

I’m of the opinion that Hugh Jackman should do a musical on an annual basis and that it ought to be released at Christmas time. Those pieces just fit together. Everyone has their own Christmas traditions, one of ours has been a visit to a movie theater on Christmas Day.  If you are interested, here is a link to my Letterboxd List of Christmas Movies.As it turns out, there is a Hugh Jackman musical and a Zac Efron musical on the list as well. Even for a subject as grim as Les Misérables, the fact that it is a musical makes it feel more holiday appropriate.

This film is an original musical, supposedly based on the life of P.T. Barnum. Barnum did have a Museum of Oddities, and was married to a woman named Charity, and did tour the singer Jenny Lind as an attraction after discovering her in Europe. Everything else is made up out of whole cloth. For dramatic purposes, the screen writers and director have gone the old school Hollywood fashion and tacked pieces of Barnum’s history onto a story that they want to tell which has little to do with the biographical subject. That’s OK, but Barnum had a very interesting life and was a significant public figure of the American scene in the nineteenth century. On the other hand, a hip hop musical probably needs some romantic stories to hang onto and a little social justice subtext seems to fit with the personality of the film.

First time director Michael Gracey, shows his roots as a visual effects guy, as he shoots segments of the background in slow motion and has the main figures operating at live speed. There are so many beautiful moments that it sometimes feels like a visit to the eye candy store and maybe we over indulge a little. Still, the modern dance numbers and elaborate aerial ballet look fantastic and when combined with the show stopping mood of each segment, it does feel like a series of crescendos. The dances are staged in clever ways when the ensemble is performing, you can see the contemporary influences easily. When the story focuses on a single performer at a time, the mood is a little more traditional although the songs never are.

 

Jackman and Efron are joined by several performers who stand out. Zendaya is an actress/dancer who was recently seen in “Spider Man Homecoming”. She actually performs the acrobatics in the film and as the love interest and face of victimization from racism in the last century, she makes a solid impression. Keala Settle is a singer with some stage experience, but her voice and demeanor as the bearded lady in Barnum’s show, belie any masculinity and show the toughness that a woman and a so-called freak would need to have. Michelle Williams is always solid and her part here was enhanced with some singing and dancing that seems to extend her range even more. Rebecca Ferguson plays the song bird Jenny Linn, and although her singing voice is dubbed, her performance on stage will make you a believer as it did the audiences in the film.

So the movie looks amazing, the music is inspiring, the story is mostly nonsense but the heart of the film is what matters. Hugh Jackman for years has wanted to do a film featuring P.T. Barnum as a character. He seems to have put his heart into this movie and it shows. Modern Audiences would certainly flock to this if it were a stage show and was performed on Broadway. Movie audiences on the other hand are more fickle and less likely to embrace this until it has an established reputation. Expect this to be a widely loved cult film among cinema fans in about five years. As for me, although it is apocryphal that P.T. Barnum said “there is a sucker born every minute”, I’m with the newspaper man from “The Man who Shot Liberty Vallance”, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” I’m a sucker for musicals and show business stories, so I can say I loved this piece of catnip and I hope you will go out and see it.

LIFE

[This is traditionally a spoiler free site. This review may have content which indirectly gives away some plot elements. Sorry, but the movie turned me a bit reactionary.]

I will hold my powder dry until the end of this post. There are so many things I liked about this movie that it would be a disservice to start with the thing that irritated me the most. Instead, we’ll concentrate on the strong points at the outset and hope that my ire calms down enough to be fair to the movie. “Life” is a horror film in a science fiction atmosphere. That makes it sound derivative of “Alien”, but that’s OK because as great as “Alien” is, it is also a product of ideas that came before it, and it made a great film, so this could do the same.

An International Space Station, set up to process materials from other planets, (basically Mars), receives a sample back after the delivery capsule encounters some problems on it’s way to them. A group of six scientists and engineers are ready to take possession and begin analysis in the safety of space, above the Earth. Naturally things do not go as smoothly as expected. Proof of life beyond our planet becomes an international moment of celebration, but the initial joy of the scientists becomes dread as the life form begins to develop some dangerous characteristics.

As with all horror films, the group of potential victims is faced with a variety of options. Almost all of the choices are bad and most of the actions of the crew will in retrospect seem foolish. An early mistake that supposedly can’t happen allows the life form access to a larger area of the space lab. This sequence happens so fast that it is difficult to tell exactly what happened. However, the sequence that immediately follows is the best section of the film. Astronaut Ryan Reynolds attempts to rescue his comrade from a seemingly sudden attack. Just like in “Alien” someone has to break the protocol to allow events to play out. Immediately we get a sense of the power and potential intelligence of the new life form. Just as with Alien, the use of fire is not particularly effective.  The results are gruesome and frightening in a very tense five or six minute scene. It is exactly the kind of thing you hope for in a story of this type.

It begins to feel like we are playing out the “Ten Little Indians” scenario in a horror film one more time. We are given glimpses of the personalities of the crew and one by one they will be killed by the monster. A few red herrings are set up and the plotline plays them out reasonably well for a while. The visual effects of the activities on the station and the movement of the creature are very disturbing and effective. The actions of stars Jake Gyllenhaal , Rebecca Ferguson, and the rest of the cast, sometimes are heroic, sometimes lucky and occasionally clever. For most of the ride we get the kinds of action and suspense that we paid our money for. Just as I thought last year’s “The Shallows” was a reasonably entertaining variation of the “Jaws” concept, I found this to be a pretty effective variant on “Alien”. That is until we get to the Ian Malcolm moment.

[Potential spoilers. We wary of proceeding].

In “Jurassic Park”, the character of Ian Malcolm explains very simply that  “If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us it’s that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously, but, uh… well, there it is. …”Life” finds a way.” We might be lead to believe that this is a description of the science team, and that gives us the rooting interest that an audience will need. Unfortunately just as most of the characters make a mistake  or bad choice along the way, just as we think the writers responsible for “Deadpool” and “Zombieland”  are about to show that they can find a way the make “Life” work, …they choose poorly. The twist suckerpunch at the end of the film destroys most of the goodwill the film built up for me. There were a lot of other options that could have been more satisfying, but no, the film makers go for a big finish and they flop.

There will be people out there who like the choice made at the end, I think those people are wrong. It denies the value of most of what we saw for the opening hour and forty minutes of the film. I saw this coming as soon as a sequence continues past a natural stopping place. I guess I could do what some folks do, step out at that point, or turn the movie off before the finale. That’s not in my nature. Which is why, like Sky Masterson I say, “Daddy, I got cider in my ear.”

The Girl on the Train

Certain types of films seem to grow in different eras. The fact that many of those films originated as books, written in those time frames will explain some of that congregation. I believe the culture influences much of those trends. In the 1980s, with the U.S. resurgent in world affairs under a new Presidential administration, action heroes flourished and Stallone and Schwarzenegger were the big stars. In the 1990s, as HIV and AIDS were frightening Americans, we got sexual thrillers starring the likes of Michael Douglas and Ashley Judd. Murder mysteries have always been a staple of theaters so it is no surprise that they continue to draw in audiences, but the tone has changed. No longer are women stalked by strangers and voyeurs,  they are active participants in the crimes. Not simply as victims or femme fatales but as curious witnesses or antagonists with non-sexual agendas. The complexity of modern thrillers is in the psychology of the women involved in the crimes. Forget “Silence of the Lambs” gothic horror trappings, the modern American nightmare is suburbia. The big cities prowled by Sharon Stone have become bedroom communities haunted by wounded women.

 

“The Girl on the Train” deserves some obvious comparisons to “Gone Girl” from two years ago. Both films are set primarily in quiet neighborhoods where soccer moms are raising their children in lavish surroundings. There is comfort, space, and a family unit that is supposed to provide support. Yet when those spaces are violated and the support disappears, there are some ugly truths under the surface.  Three women are tied together in a mystery. All of them are victims of some sort, the question is whether they can find the strength to discover the truth. Emily Blunt is Rachel, a psychologically unbalanced woman who has sought solace in her inability to conceive by drowning herself in alcohol. The inebriation allows her to indulge in elaborate fantasies concern a couple she sees every day from the train that she takes to the city. The couple live in the neighborhood she used to be a part of. Just a few doors down from where her ex-husband and his new wife and baby now live. While her intoxication may fuel her imagination, it also blanks out her memory and the complex relationship between her imagination and reality is tangled.

Very much like Rosamund Pike dominated “Gone Girl”, Blunt is the main force in the film. The big difference is that in “Gone Girl” we are waiting to see what will happen, in this film, we are trying to discover what did happen. Our sympathies for Rachel will rise and fall as memories flood back into her head. Memory is a tricky master however and the damaged Rachel is challenged to interpret the events of her own life from a alcoholic haze. Anna, the woman who has replaced her in real life, is an indifferent and needy woman, who loves being a mother but is not really strong enough to be one on her own. Megan is the young married neighbor who serves as Nanny in Anna’s house. While there are three male characters that serve as suspects, red herrings and psychological motivation, the story is really about the lives of the three women. Rebecca Ferguson, so great in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, does not get as much to do as she should, playing the former mistress and new wife to Rachel’s ex.

Blunt however, has a meaty role that she pulls off without the ferocity of Rosamund Pike but with equal skill. She is a lost soul finding meaning in empty bottles, but she forces her way back into a real life in a particularly twisted narrative. Haley Bennett is the Jennifer Lawrence look alike that nearly steals the movie. She is an unsatisfied women that we at first might dislike because of what seems to be her selfish nature. As the story unfold in flashbacks arranged in chronological order, we will change our perceptions of her as much as we do those of Rachel. Bennett was just in the Magnificent Seven Remake, and except for the last line of that movie she was quite credible there. In this film she is completely convincing as the sexual plaything of oppressive men. She has a juicy scene with the therapist she comes to for comfort by bearing to him an unbearable secret. Both Blunt and Bennett could be contenders for awards consideration if the movie is accepted for it’s emotional script rather than the lurid nature of the plot.

You have to pay close attention to the time sequence and a large number of characters. It would be easy to get lost in the events if you stepped out to go to the bathroom for a couple of minutes. Allison Janey plays a no nonsense police detective investigating the disappearance of one of the characters. She is usually used to lighten the tone of a film but not in this case. She is brutal in the honesty with which she confronts Rachel with the truths that she sees. Despite being insightful, her character is not going to be the one who solves the mystery. There is a lot of intrigue but not much action in the film. Those places where violence occurs are infrequent but startling. The downward spiral that Rachel falls into is depressing as heck and when all is said and done, although things look up, they don’t look up much. Don’t expect a vicarious sense of relief at the outcome, but consider how much your sense of self can hurt not just you but everyone you love.