Category: Film

Doctor Sleep


Doctor Sleep (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

In many horror movies, there is almost always an assumption that the antagonist is evil. It has become an awful habit not to tell us how evil the villain can be and thus why it must be vanquished at all costs. About a third of the way through in writer-director Mike Flanagan’s occasionally impressive “Doctor Sleep,” it proves to be more potent than its contemporaries: it takes the aforementioned extra step. It dares to show a child murder that includes all the details: how he is targeted; how he is lured; how he is kidnapped; how he is handled; the precise moment the boy realizes he will die that night; the blood gushing from his small frame; the screaming, crying, and begging due to extreme pain; the terror in his last breath. It creates a level of urgency so high, that when the enemies finally get their comeuppance the viewers are inspired to yell at the screen, “Get him!” “Shoot her!” “Don’t let them get away!”

The work is a solid sequel to one of the most iconic horror films, Stanley Kubrick’s unforgettable “The Shining.” However, it does not start strong. In its attempt to bridge the gap between the terrifying events that took place inside the Overlook Hotel in 1980 and 2011 when mid-thirties Dan Torrence (Ewan McGregor) has become an alcoholic in order to suppress his shine (psychic powers), the work relies far too often on familiar imagery such as patterns on walls or floors, word-for-word dialogue taken directly from the previous film, its use of primary colors, how the hair of Danny’s mom (Alex Essoe) tend to fall a certain way so that attention is drawn to her ears.

On the surface, those who have seen Kubrick’s picture multiple times may find some enjoyment from spotting every reference. On the other hand, these images and lines of dialogue pale by comparison against the original. There is a sense of preternatural discipline in the predecessor that this one lacks. The mimicry is amusing twice or thrice, but one wonders eventually when the work will forge an identity of its own. Auspiciously, the story moves at a brisk pace; it does not feel like a two-and-a-half-hour movie.

Perhaps because the film, based on the Stephen King’s novel, is interested in expanding the story in ways that are curious and magical. For example, shine, as turns out, tend to vary from one person to another—not only by degrees as “The Shining” implied but also in terms of nature. One person’s shine can mean having the ability to read minds, while the next person’s shine means having the ability to control individuals’ actions by mere suggestion. We usually learn the advantages and limitations of these abilities. We meet about a dozen characters with the shine and so we become curious about their specific talents. It is refreshing that our central protagonist, Danny, is not the most powerful. His experience makes him formidable, but there is least one who we feel has mastered her abilities. She is named Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), the leader of a cult who feeds on children’s shine. Cult members aim to prolong their lifespan.

The story is about finding the courage to move on from one’s past—nothing fresh. Dan is haunted by literal ghosts. Eventually, he lands a job at a hospice and we learn how he earns the titular nickname. (It involves a cat.) Meanwhile, the highly gifted Abra (Kyliegh Curran) must come to terms with her strange abilities by overcoming her fear of being regarded or treated as a freak. Her parents are aware of her abilities, but it is never talked about directly. Why? Because there is shame there. (I wished the screenplay delved into this further.) The template is unimpressive, but there are enough jolts and plot twists that make for an intriguing watch. Dialogue can be as revealing as overt action.

McGregor and Curran share terrific chemistry. Flanagan’s script consistently underlines the big brother/little sister relationship, the connection between the mentor and the mentee. It never syrupy, just sweet enough to hint a possible happy ending for haunted Dan. He deserves it. Curran embodies the role with gusto; she is not simply required to look scared or cute. She possesses a natural knowing look and so we believe the character is beyond her years. I hope Curran would choose character-driven work in the future, rather than just another role for a child or pre-teen that can be played by anyone.

“Doctor Sleep” is not composed merely of cheap jump scares. Horror is often situational—which is an example of a great nod to its predecessor. It is interested in how people relate to one another, what scares them, how they attempt to find solutions. Flanagan understands why Kubrick’s film works and, for better or worse, he dares enough to modernize the scares while putting his own stamp on what or how a horror movie should be like. He is confident of his storytelling, the craft propelling the scares, and the capable cast. It is a worthy follow-up.

FirstBorn


FirstBorn (2016)
★ / ★★★★

“FirstBorn,” based on the screenplay by Sean Hogan and Nirpal Bhogal, lacks the depth necessary to create a horror picture with a fascinating mythos involving a little girl born with a special ability. Instead, it concerns itself with the usual, expected, exhausted tricks in the book. For instance, there are far too many occasions in which it attempts to make the viewers jump by belting out sudden, loud noises. It is a horror film that feels saddled by movies that came before instead of one that dares to forge its own path.

Most fascinating about the story, about halfway through, is when the little girl named Thea (Thea Petrie) is sent to an occultist (Eileen Davies) so that she can be trained to manage her gift of seeing those from the world of evil. These scenes provide an eerie feeling because there is something about Davis’ interpretation of her character that one feels shouldn’t be trusted. And yet later scenes show that the training does help Thea in putting the monsters at bay, protecting her parents from being attacked by invisible creatures. Clearly, Davis is the picture’s secret weapon because she infuses subtlety in a screenplay that lacks such a critical element.

I found it strange that the filmmakers are afraid to show the creatures without the need to employ quick cuts and extreme closeups. From the glimpses presented, the special and visual effects team, as well as the makeup artists, do a solid job in creating spooky, menacing villains. The lack of willingness to keep the camera still when the monsters make an appearance communicate an absence of confidence in the images. In horror movies like this film, the creature begs to be seen. After all, numerous scenes are shown using the child’s perspective. It doesn’t make sense that we do not see what she sees; what terrifies her should also terrify us.

There is an angle worth pursuing but the writers neglect to provide enough dimension to the characters involved since they are too busy embracing clichés. From time to time, Charlie (Antonia Thomas) and James (Luke Norris), young parents of a six-year-old, are shown as being completely exhausted from having to take care of a child with special needs. Aside from the first few scenes, once Thea is born we no longer see them living a life of their own, together as a couple or apart. Focus is on one confronting occurrence after another. Charlie talks about abandoning her child so she can have her life back. While an interesting admission, the material brings it up and just as quickly pushes the revelation under the rug as if it never happened.

Directed by Nirpal Bhogal, “FirstBorn” is wildly uneven but most egregious is a lack of resolution. It just ends—invoking a feeling that it had run out of ideas. Obviously inspired by classic horror-thrillers involving children potentially being possessed or are evil attempting to possess children, the filmmakers needed to have looked further into what made those pictures work in terms of their mythologies as opposed to providing cheap, easy, forgettable jolts. Here is a work with some good ideas but one that limits its own potential.

Creed II


Creed II (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Steven Caple Jr.’s “Creed II” succeeds in delivering big entertainment because it has a knack for forcing the audience to taste the bad blood between Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) and Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu)—which stems from the former’s father having died in a boxing ring in the hands of the latter’s father, Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). And just like strong “Rocky” pictures that came before, the director proves to have an eye for placing us in the middle of action as punches are delivered with lightning speed and droplets of blood are pummeled out of the pugilists. It cannot be denied that the project is made with skill.

The material brings up the question of what happens after a fighter becomes a heavyweight champion. And yet it is not about defending the belt or the title. The screenplay by Juel Taylor and Sylvester Stallone (who returns as Rocky Balboa, Adonis’ trainer and mentor) is smart to root the drama in something more grounded, a core with a higher dramatic pull. It is about people coming to terms with the hand they are given and playing it as astutely as they are able. Sometimes you lose and hands turn into fists; sometimes you win and it is cause for celebration. And sometimes, still, you win without being aware of having won and so, in your eyes, an external element that stirs your own insecurities must be correct. And so, too, the picture is about having to face one’s demons.

Central and supporting performances are all on point. Jordan and Stallone share such wonderful chemistry, their characters need not say even a word for us believe that the men respect one another not solely as fighters but also as men who’ve survived and lived. There are small but moving moments—in the boxing ring nonetheless—when Adonis regards Rocky as a father—not as a trainer—and the latter knows precisely what to say or do in order to give his son just a little bit more confidence in order to move forward. The boxer-mentor, father-son relationship is not explained but expanded upon from the previous “Creed” film—smart because the sequel manages to avoid the usual expository scenes and dialogue most of the time.

Although the romantic partnership between Adonis and Bianca (Tessa Thompson) may play like a Lifetime movie at times, I found sweetness in it. Like Adonis’ relationship with Rocky, there is mutual respect between the boxer and the singer-songwriter; they consider one another to be equals and so when one falters, the other picks up the pace. The pacing might have been improved if some of their interactions were written more elegantly, leaving something for the audience to consider rather than showing every significant moment between their engagement and raising an infant. The passage of time is questionable on occasion. Here, it seems that serious, nearly grave injuries, including physical therapy, can be overcome in less than a year. This might come across as nitpicking, but minute details matter in strong dramas.

But I had an absolute blast with the boxing matches between Creed and Drago. Munteanu creates a formidable villain due to his sheer size, strength, and agility. It is acknowledged that his character has been brought up in hate. This is thoroughly convincing in the way the character pummels his opponents right when the bell rings, often knocking them out in a single round. He is like a tank wearing human skin and one cannot help but feel anxious simply by looking at his frame. You look at the young Drago and wonder how in the world Creed, who is also well-built, would—or could—manage to overcome such a hungry, rabid dog.

Welcome Home


Welcome Home (2018)
★ / ★★★★

About fifteen minutes into George Ratliff’s wan suspense-thriller “Welcome Home,” one cannot help but wonder why the filmmakers felt the need to tell this particular story. With its familiar plot involving an American couple vacationing in a foreign countryside and coming across a creepy neighbor coupled with an execution so lacking in energy and urgency that by the time we hit the hour mark it is still laying out exposition, the entire work is an exercise in pointlessness. There are images paraded on screen, but the work fails to go anywhere genuinely interesting.

The couple is played by Aaron Paul and Emily Ratajkowski; although they are attractive together and apart, there is a desperate lack of chemistry between them. This is problematic because Bryan and Cassie are shown in various states of undress and having sex from what it feels like every other scene—as if the material were a cheap erotic thriller—we remain unconvinced of their hunger for one another’s flesh. It isn’t the least bit titillating. And when the central drama between the characters is introduced, the reason why Cassie and Bryan decide to rent a vacation home in the country of romance, it comes across so bland, superficial, and recycled one grows curious of writer David Levinson’s inspirations. Did he have any?

The strange neighbor is not written to have enough cunningness to him. He lacks flavor and danger. Riccardo Scamarcio possesses the ability to balance charm and mischief, but his Federico is reduced to behavior: he finds sexual gratification in spying on the couple, establishing a rapport with them—especially with guilt-ridden and vulnerable Cassie—by being of use like cooking meals, and stalking them around the village. But we never discover what makes him the perfect antagonist against those he terrorizes. And because he is not particularly strong, or smart, or unhinged, he does not feel at all formidable. He is simply there to cause tension because no other character can be pit against Bryan, Cassie, or both. It feels forced.

There are beautiful shots of country home’s exteriors: verdant grass swaying with the wind, the sunset’s ability to underscore the geometry of cobblestone paths, the white wine-colored open sky that promises endless summer. These are worthy of being posted on Instragram. But inside the home there is conflict, distrust, anger, regret.

Bryan and Cassie are unsure whether they have a future together; their bodies are as close as can be but their spirits are miles apart. Is the relationship even worth salvaging? Had the writer focused on our obsession to create a picture of perfection for the world to see, the standard story might have had a chance to stand out and feel relevant today.

Instead, “Welcome Home” feels like a sham—a movie so uninspired that instead of taking risks, like striving to make a compelling or haunting statement about broken relationships, it would rather pile on clichés on top of an already bland premise. By the end of the story, we have two dead bodies and yet we are not moved or surprised by the plot developments. Even its major twist lacks special punch.

The King


The King (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Leave it to director David Michôd for pushing a more introspective take on a typical historical drama in which a person who does not wish to be king ends up with the throne, the crown, and every problem that comes with it. Based on several plays from William Shakespeare’s “Henriad,” “The King” stars Timothée Chalamet as Henry Prince of Wales (referred to as “Hal” by those closest to him), the wayward son of King Henry IV of England (Ben Mendelsohn) who would rather drink all night, sleep all day, and spend time with muddy commoners than to learn the finer points of how to lead a kingdom. It is an inspired choice of casting because the performer knows precisely how to convey crippling loneliness, as he has shown in Luca Guadagnino’s sublime “Call Me by Your Name,” and Hal is a subject plagued with this emotion from the moment he agrees to take on the responsibilities of a king.

Propelled by a slow but calculated pacing, I admired the writers’ decision (Michôd, Joel Edgerton) to focus solely on who Hal is as person—a young man with a title but without power—for about a third of the picture. (An exploration of who he is as a leader comprises the rest of the film.) It is a risk because political machinations are pushed to the background and we hear of civil unrest and war abroad mostly in passing. It would have been the more generic choice to insert confrontations among old men of power—whether it be war of words or weapons—in between moments of characterization in order to compel the audience into paying attention. Here, overt action is used sparingly; most of the action employed is internal.

Instead, the viewers are flooded with instances of Hal being tested prior to becoming ruler. We learn about his level of patience, what gets him angry, who he considers a friend, what qualities he respects in a person, his fears. We take note of his weaknesses which may come to haunt him later. And so when he becomes king eventually, we have an understanding or appreciation of his core values. We expect how he might react to certain challenges surrounding his crown and country, but he retains the ability to surprise—just like a real person. Chalamet ensures to highlight the flaws of his character, especially during moments of deafening silence, because imperfection is interesting.

The relationship between Hal and Falstaff (Edgerton) is begging for refinement. For far too long Falstaff is shown as a jesting fool who just so happens to possess bouts of wisdom. Later, he is revealed to have a prodigious reputation. It would have been a compelling angle to tell their stories in parallel: the directionless young man who would don the crown and the drunken buffoon who must revert to becoming a warrior-tactician. Particularly during the latter part of the story, when political machinations and war have migrated to the forefront, I felt as though the friendship is somewhat disconnected rather than one that functions as symbiosis. I did not feel the big emotions being conveyed during critical moments.

It is without question the filmmakers are intrigued with political chess. The number of meetings that must be had is somewhat amusing, and these give way for the more colorful personalities to stand out or be introduced. Most memorable is the Dauphin of France who claims to enjoy speaking in English because it is simple and sounds ugly. This rough, vile, hilarious character who deems himself superior to everyone else is played with infectious joy by Robert Pattinson. He demands to be heard, to be seen, to be respected—just like Hal, interestingly enough. But there is a vast difference between the two figures. It is a risk-taking performance because most will regard the Dauphin as a joke. Yet he proves to have a venomous bite.

“The King” shows that a period drama need to be stuffy to be respectable. It is accessible, intelligent, aware of how human nature and psychology works. There are short as well as drawn-out battle scenes—every single one well-choreographed—but these are not the central attractions. Instead, we are invited to learn about a person who must find peace—peace for his kingdom, peace within himself—amidst the chaos he inherited. Ultimately, it is a sad story, I think, because although Hal is a king, an argument can be made that from the second he agreed to carry on the torch, he has chosen to become a prisoner of tradition, of great expectations.

Terminator: Dark Fate


Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

It could have been just another “Terminator” sequel in which Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger reprise their roles as badasses Sarah Connor and T-800, protectors of John Connor, the boy who would grow up to become the Resistance leader of the war against the machines, so it is a most welcome surprise that these figures are actually critical to the heart and plot of “Dark Fate,” a swaggering, risk-taking sci-fi action picture that is not afraid to make contact with old ideas from the first two films and expand upon them. It feels like a natural evolution of the series, and I enjoyed the direction it took. Should they decide to continue with this timeline, I look forward it.

Screenwriters David S. Goyer, Justin Rhodes, and Billy Ray appear to have a thorough understanding of how to hook the viewers sitting in front a “Terminator” film. Like “The Terminator” and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” the work opens with two portals transporting two characters from the future (2042) to the current time (2020). The first is Grace (Mackenzie Davis), who appears to be machine. She moves fast and she hits hard… but she is no machine. She is an “augmented human.” Here, the idea of old coming in contact with the new is introduced. The second is Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna) who also moves like a bullet and hits like a tank. It is a machine through and through. Like the impressive T-1000 from “Judgment Day,” it has the ability to change its shape like liquid and harness its limbs into weapons. It is made all the more terrifying, however, with new abilities—like its flesh being separated from its metallic skeleton at will and so there is not one enemy but two—old ideas paving the way for new ones.

The first action sequence is more intelligent than just another brawl or shootout. The showdown between Grace and Rev-9 is a showcase of their strengths and, more importantly, weaknesses. Although Grace, whose mission is to protect Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), a young woman, seemingly ordinary, who lives in Mexico with her father and brother, but notice that unlike the T-800, T-1000, and Rev9, she gets tired eventually. The screenplay is efficient in that at the same scene it is established that the protector this time can be an advantage as well as a liability. Yet despite this, Grace is an interesting character not because of her weakness or emotions but because of her background as a soldier who volunteered 1) to become more than she was and 2) to give up her life during a critical mission if necessary. Flashbacks of a post-apocalyptic future are well-placed.

In the 1984 and 1991 “Terminator” films, we see glimpses of the future. They follow a formula: flying vehicles shooting lasers, intimidating red-eyed cyborgs stepping on human skulls, humans fighting back with old weapons and sheer desperation. This installment takes it a bit further. While it would be unfair to reveal who or what they are fighting against, I appreciated that more details than expected are provided when humanity collapsed. There is talk of food shortages, people turning against one another instead of the machines, when technology stopped connecting people. It is a bleak peek into a possibility—or a reality depending on how one looks at it—and director Tim Miller makes appropriate transitions between present and future.

Particularly effective is in how he focuses on a human face after a memory—at the tired, worn expressions of those who have already experienced their own wars. At times I wondered if they were tired of fighting. If they thought their actions would be worth it. (Certain plot surprises point to the idea that it might not be.) If they considered the potentiality that if they actually won this battle, would they be able to talk away from it. If this war against the machines was tethered to their fates; if these battles were their very purpose. It surprised me that these were the sort of questions that popped into my head while watching a mainstream, sci-fi action movie. Clearly, it is a cut above its contemporaries.

There is a shortcoming. Because Hamilton, Schwarzenegger, and Davis are such powerhouses when it comes to exuding charisma, humor, and dramatic gravity, oftentimes simultaneously, Reyes does not get enough moments to shine. An argument can be made that, although a challenge, she must stand out from her veteran co-stars. The picture, after all, centers around protecting Dani because it is claimed she has an important role in the coming war. Reyes, while capable, does not hold a candle against Edward Furlong’s John Connor. The boy had so much personality, the character became an instant pop culture icon. You cannot help but remember him. Nevertheless, I am interested in seeing Reyes grow in the role should there be a direct sequel. I hope there will be because there is terrific potential here.

Assimilate


Assimilate (2019)
★ / ★★★★

Take any version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and dilute the creativity, energy, surprises about ten to twenty times and you get close to the crushing blandness of “Assimilate,” a horrible, unconvincing sci-fi horror knockoff by writer-director John Murlowski (Steven Palmer Peterson also serving as co-writer). With a smorgasbord of mainstream and independent movies pushing a similar premise right at the writers’ fingertips, it is astounding that just about every decision is uninspired, predictable, and boring. I felt sorry for the young performers on-screen because they are actually quite watchable. They deserve better. And we do, too.

The story opens with Zach (Joel Courtney) and Randy (Calum Worthy) starting yet another video project that they hope would become a success since their last foray was a complete failure. They live in middle-of-nowhere Multon, Missouri and their goal is to show the residents—should they actually choose to watch the enthusiastic duo’s videos—who they really are. Their approach is to attach small cameras onto their shirt collars and capture raw, unedited moments. But something strange is afoot. People are beginning to claim that their loved ones have been replaced by near-perfect copies somehow. These copies stand out because they fail to show emotions. Zach and Randy decide to investigate.

A critical element that the writers seem to forget is the fact that body invasion movies are not just about regular people running all over town to avoid becoming copies themselves. The sub-genre is a tool by which to exorcise fears or concerns of a specific time period and so the movie becomes an allegory. By taking this familiar premise as is, it doesn’t work because the project is reduced to a regurgitation of what came before… but devoid of meaning or context.

There is, I think, a way to circumvent this—and it is not easy. The screenplay must function on such a high level that every scenario must have a twist on the familiar. This way, we are forced to stand on our toes and constantly evaluate situations opposite of what we expect. There must be suspense, foreplay, irony, perhaps even a savage sense of humor prior to pummeling us with truly horrific imagery. This route can offer entertainment value. But the movie is not at all ambitious. Too many times we are forced to endure the usual motions of a character looking sad after the discovery that his or her family members have fallen victims to the extraterrestrial invaders.

It opens with some promise. It is established early on that Multon is a small town where religion is of dire importance. If this weren’t the case, the pastor (Terry Dale Parks) would not be such a respected figure of authority. It is a shame that the material fails to expand upon the idea that religion can be utilized as a weapon to brainwash a population. (Hence why the copies act like zombies.) Maybe this angle is rendered less sharp in order to appeal to more people? But that does not make sense because “Body Snatchers” films are risks; they are meant to function as social commentary.

Despite its lack of thrills and scares, the young actors share good chemistry. I wanted to know more about Zach and Randy’s failed video projects because Courtney and Worthy exhibit an effortless goodness and a sense of camaraderie when playing off each other. There is also a cute—but predictable and at times syrupy—romantic subplot concerning Zach and a childhood friend named Kayla (Andi Matichak). As the movie crawls toward the tired finale, I wished for the three leads to find work in the future that would actually make use of their talents.