‘Doctor Sleep’ Review: Mike Flanagan’s ‘Shining’ sequel reconciles Kubrick with King to adequate effect

This review was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here.

 

Even before considering anything that happens in the actual movie, Mike Flanagan’s “Doctor Sleep” – the latest Stephen King adaptation from the burgeoning horror filmmaker – is a fascinating specimen. It’s obvious why; TV spots have been well-seasoned by audio and visual cues from 1980’s “The Shining” – a genre cornerstone infamously dismissed by Stephen King, beloved by seemingly everybody else and the story which “Doctor Sleep” continues – as Flanagan’s film wears its calling card on its sleeve, as well as its dubious nature.

Much like Denis Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner 2049,” the mere existence of “Doctor Sleep” calls into question its intentions and loyalties, even as Disney’s shameless, financially-driven IP-mining goes unquestioned. “Doctor Sleep,” more than any “Avengers” or Joker origin story, begs the question, even if it doesn’t mean to: What responsibility, if any, do movies have to what’s come before? Most of the time, even asking that says more about our belief that stories belong to us – and only us – than the stories themselves. Though, in the case of “Doctor Sleep,” it’s a more nuanced question, thanks to the legacy of “The Shining” that is as robust a mythology as that of the Overlook Hotel itself.

That “Doctor Sleep” would rather all that nonsense not be where the conversation about it starts speaks volumes. With varying degrees of expectation on its shoulders, Flanagan’s movie is an often-riveting, deeply contemplative genre offering almost completely of its own creation, expanding the (admittedly scant) lore of “The Shining” without leaning on it…too much. Die-hards will probably label it a triumph that the movie doesn’t do anything to renege on what makes Kubrick’s movie so good, but “Doctor Sleep” also exhibits enough devotion to its themes of withholding and confronting trauma that the fact it isn’t all that capital-S Scary doesn’t really matter. Continue reading →

‘Jojo Rabbit’ Review: Taika Waititi’s anti-hate crusade is a surprisingly introspective one

This review was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

 

In a recent episode of NPR’s “Fresh Air,” a former member of the Westboro Baptist Church – infamous for putting its hateful ideology on shameless display at the funerals of U.S. servicemembers – discusses liberating herself from the beliefs that had indoctrinated her into an isolated worldview of faux moral righteousness.

The way Megan Phelps-Roper puts it, emerging from the dangerous cocoon of the church was a “devastating” exercise in isolation in and of itself—isolation from everything she had known and from the family that had taught her. The cognitive dissonance was world-shattering, and what followed was the start of a lifelong journey to piece together a new perspective.

“How could we have possibly believed that we alone had had the one true answer, and to believe that everyone else was wrong?” she says. “There was just this special kind of shame and humiliation, and this reminder to me of the need for humility and how we see the world and other people.”

Taikia Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit” knows all about the discomforts of changing your entire worldview. Large stretches of it are spent dwelling on the the solitude of being stranded in a moral No Man’s Land, though you’d be forgiven early on for thinking the director of “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” “What We Do in the Shadows” and “Thor: Ragnarok” has no intention of broadening himself beyond the sanitized sentimentality of Hallmark Channel Christmas movies. The Kiwi auteur is a sucker for pathos here, and it’s best exemplified by the transformation of Roman Griffin Davis’s adorable Jojo, who has exactly the kind of face Pixar storytellers will search for when they begin making live-action movies. Continue reading →

Review: ‘Lucy in the Sky’ is a miscalculated disaster of an astronaut drama

This review was originally published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

 

Like many of the early missions undertaken by NASA’s astronauts, “Lucy in the Sky” is obsessively go-for-broke, a project that isn’t preoccupied about where it will plant the flag at its destination so much as how it will even get there. Unlike NASA’s successes, the movie is an amalgam of big ideas, aspirations and faint messages that never even gets the Moon in its sights, let alone reach it.

Based on yesterdecade news headlines, Noah Hawley’s movie – his first feature project after making a name for himself with “Fargo” and “Legion” on the small screen – about an astronaut struggling to re-adjust to life on teeny tiny Earth after “seeing the face of God” (read: space) is about as erratic as its main character, Lucy Cola, here portrayed by Natalie Portman. “Lucy in the Sky” begins on her eyes peering through her helmet, floating in space and drawn to the great dark canvas of a shadowed Earth in front of her—urban lights break the sprawl of night like splotches of yellow of a cosmic Jackson Pollack panting.

She tells her co-adventurers that she needs just a few minutes to soak it all in—she’s in awe. Could we blame her? Continue reading →

Review: In ‘El Camino,’ Jesse Pinkman’s road is paved, finally, with his own intentions

This review was originally published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

 

The most remarkable thing about “EL Camino,” the Breaking Bad one-off (maybe? Maybe not?) sequel that sees Vince Gillian going feature-length in his return to gritty, grimy Albuquerque is how precisely unremarkable it is.

Ever since those khakis soared through a clear, dry New Mexico sky, Gilligan’s landmark TV show excelled at an attention to detail—instead of trying to outdo himself, it was all about letting his story take its natural course…against as exquisitely-realized a neo-Western tapestry as possible. For all intents and purposes, Gilligan was the cook of a product that was as pure as Walter White’s blue sky, and once the story’s finish line began to come into view the question wasn’t so much if White would end up on the road to hell; it was in what gear he’d be heading there.

“El Camino” adopts – in great measure, and to mostly satisfying success – that same matter-of-factness that fueled “Breaking Bad’s” homestretch. Gilligan isn’t trying to outdo himself; there are no shocking revelations that upend or change our view of everything that’s come before. If you watched “Breaking Bad” (and there’s plenty to be enticed by for those who haven’t) and had three guesses, you could very well describe broadly how this two-hour joyride focusing on the tormented Jesse Pinkman ends.

But what happens in those two hours makes for a worthwhile return to Albuquerque…and a world that remains as delectably murky and dangerous as ever. Continue reading →

Review: An Americon icon’s story is finally told in ‘Harriet’

This review was originally published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

 

Late in the third act of the historical superhero origin story “Harriet,” a white slave owner tells Cynthia Erivo’s abolitionist icon to prepare for the reckoning that’s to come in response to her now-revered efforts. “They’ll tear you limb from limb,” he says, hate spewing from his lips.

In a movie I struggled to engage with beyond the name-brand recognition of its protagonist, I suddenly found myself more involved than I had been for the two hours prior, and wondering: “Wait, is that where Harriet Tubman’s story ends up? Does she become a martyr, ending her life in the name of something she had devoted it to?”

Chalk it up to a blend of minimal education on Harriet’s life – which I’m now able to recognize the extent of – and the expectation that director Kasi Lemmons’s new film – by all accounts prioritizing accuracy over manufactured drama – would inevitably give in to urges of the medium that we often mistake to be obligatory. But (and this may be a spoiler of history) nothing of the sort constitutes “Harriet’s” finale. Instead we get a brief, pre-credits lesson on what happened after Harriet’s time as the most successful conductor of the Underground Railroad—a coda much more worthy of any blaze of glory that a fictionalized version of this story may contain, and a lesser-known aspect of her life I found myself wishing I had spent two hours learning more about.

“Harriet” – working off a screenplay written by Lemmons and “Remember The Titans” scribe Gregory Allen Howard – is a document of history more than anything, an awkwardly-paced biopic feeding off an effective leading turn by Erivo and the weight of America to build visual muscle on a story most of us only gleaned the skeleton of from middle school textbooks. Continue reading →

Review: ‘Joker’ reimagining is an artificial, bloody circus without a punchline

This review was first published on KENS5.com and can be viewed here. 

 

The humble beginnings of “Joker” invite us to get unnervingly close to a lanky-as-a-corpse, long-haired Joaquin Phoenix. Here he’s Arthur Fleck, a pseudo-everyman unable to keep his frown hooked into a smile as a tear smears his clown makeup. The man who will eventually become director Todd Phillips’s stripped-down version of the Clown Prince of Crime has clearly been doomed from the start, but we never really learn what is contained in that tear—nor how it evolves into flashes of violence as brutish as anything we’ve seen in comic book movies since 2009’s “Watchmen” as they are empty in meaning.

“Joker” would love for you to believe it’s a story mirroring what is happening, in isolated spaces, outside our walls. The product of a seeming thought experiment – “What if a comic book supervillain movie, but without the comic booky-ness?” –this gleefully cruel film from the director of the “Hangover” movies is supposedly set in a version of Gotham City that lives in the 1970s, though that detail’s impact extends only so far as to pay homage to the world of the cinematic inspiration it tries so hard to honor that it ends up parodying: Martin Scorsese’s 1976 drama, “Taxi Driver.”

But no—if you make the mistake “Joker” is interested in the era of Watergate and Vietnam and Travis Bickle, you’d be corrected early on. We only get a single real glimpse of Phillips’s world – another moment of vulnerability for Arthur when a group of teen rascals baits him into a spontaneous beat-down in a back alley –  before he wonders aloud to a social worker, “Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?” Continue reading →

Review: ‘The Death of Dick Long’ is a poignantly ridiculous Southern-set thriller

This review was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

 

Like most movies that we expect to devolve into chaos before the characters we’re watching ever do, “The Death of Dick Long” begins with images of everyday, carefree life involving everyday, carefree people. Three friends shatter the serenity of a quiet rural evening with their rock music – “Pink Freud,” their band is apparently called, a hint at the imitation game the movie will deftly play – and we quickly learn that this, in fact, is what constitutes their serenity.

Zeke (Michael Abbott Jr.), Earl (Andre Hyland) and Dick (Daniel Scheinert, also the movie’s director) continue their night with an appropriately obtuse carousel of friendly redneck tomfoolery; drinking, smoking, lighting couches on fire, lighting fireworks from their crotches. They’re somehow able to keep their irresponsibility in check while resembling the kind of infantile thirty-somethings who always luck their way out of trouble. Or worse.

Our intuitions prove fruitful—moments later, they’re speeding—through red lights and through the middle of the night—Dick bleeding from somewhere in the back seat—Zeke and Earl panicking before leaving him collapsed and unconscious outside a hospital. They’re in trouble, clearly, though Scheinert and the film’s writer, Billy Chew, leave it to the audience to piece together what exactly happened to make things go so south so fast, at the same pace that this small town’s small-town police force does, and why Zeke and Earl suspiciously abandoned a third of their trio. Continue reading →

Review: Stardom glints and dims in ‘Judy’

This review was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

 

Perhaps it’s high time we decide on a name for the subgenre of biopic pictures where directors place the spotlight on the lives of celebrities, fictional or otherwise, who have fallen from grace and are trying to claw back into relevance. For better and for worse – it’s mostly for worse – Rupert Goold’s “Judy” would check all the boxes.

A movie that so often has us staring directly into the eyes of a fantastic Renée Zellweger’s Judy Garland begins with the American performer center stage, only it’s as a young girl being lectured by an MGM boss, an uncannily Harvey Weinstein-esque figure who will soon take command of her life, on the costs and privilege and celebrity. She could have chosen to be just like any of the other girls out in some expanse the movie suggests we are residing in, but her voice can turn her into something more immortal.

There’s an obvious reason this sequence – with its poppy optimism and overt symbolism of strolling down the yellow brick road – stand out two hours later. None of that brightly-lit disposition comes to pass the way anyone would like to fantasize that it does; these are the precious final few moments of a life which Judy still has some say in.

What transpires next is an unusually cold repudiation of the hope in the young starlet’s eyes—Zellweger’s grown-up Garland is still recognized at parties, but now she is struggling to find a place to sleep, arguing with her husband and popping pills in front of her children. “Don’t worry, these aren’t that kind,” she says in one heartbreaking moment when her daughter begs her not to go to sleep in the taxi they’re in. Continue reading →

Review: ‘Ad Astra’ sees Brad Pitt explore the cosmos, and his emotions

This review was originally published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

 

To strap into the vessel through which writer-director James Gray chooses to explore the cosmos in the meditative “Ad Astra” is to understand the emotional turmoil endured by the astronaut we’re accompanying, Brad Pitt’s Roy McBride.

Despite its opening notes and frames being injected with a just sense of grandiosity that we’ve come to expect from modern space movies, Gray’s latest film is just as much an introspective journey as it is an intersteller one. The premise is straightforward – astronaut must travel through space and communicate with his long-thought-dead father, who may have a role in ongoing Earthly catastrophic phenomena – but this space odyssey is contemplation and adventure in equal measure, guided by one of the year’s most effectively somber performances and a startling level of self-awareness on Grey’s part about Hollywood’s historical teachings on the isolation of intergalactic exploration.

The “Lost City of Z” and “We Own the Night” director also offers up a counter-argument to our perhaps-overzealous ambitions of reaching the stars as a pinnacle of human achievement, one we should have been considering all this time: Why should we expect humanity’s problems to be bound to Earth? Continue reading →

How ‘It Chapter Two’ robs book-readers of Stephen King’s bittersweet finale

WARNING: SPOILERS FOR “IT CHAPTER TWO” AND STEPHEN KING’S NOVEL FOLLOW. 

No one who’s read the behemoth that is Stephen King’s “It” was fooling themselves that Andy Muschietti’s 21st-century duology would have been completely faithful in its translation to the big screen. Fully fleshing out the Loser’s Club’s friendships and King’s trademark themes of childhood innocence lost is one thing; imbuing visual language into the cosmic origins of the extra-terrestrial being that is Pennywise and his eternal battle with a space turtle who vomited the universe is another ask altogether.

2017’s “It” realized this to a successful degree, subtly drawing on the aspects of King’s novel that would best cater to the attentive contours of mainstream horror audiences – the omnipresence of evil in Derry’s history, the emotional anchor of the young Losers, a malevolent force that could shapeshift into our worst fears – while mostly leaving to the page the bits that were too eccentric and narratively ambiguous for a studio movie to try to recreate. This is a buzzy Warner Bros. production, after all. Not an A24 joint. Continue reading →