Tag: jason clarke

Pet Sematary

Pet Sematary (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

The second reimagining of Stephen King’s “Pet Sematary” is better than the first—but not by much. It is composed of the same mistakes that modern horror movies tend to make: a noticeable score designed to tell the audience what to think and how to feel, silly jump scares that can be predicted beat by beat, laughable instead of genuinely horrifying violence, and a rushed final act that offers minimal catharsis. The viewer is likely to walk away feeling cheated because of the generic nature of the experience.

I found the exposition to be safe but tolerable. Hoping to spend more time with their children, Louis (Jason Clarke) and Rachel (Amy Seimetz) decide to uproot their family and start anew in rural Maine, away from the hustle and bustle of Boston. In Ludlow, Louis will work in a clinic instead of a hospital while Rachel will stay home with the kids. But when the family cat, Church, dies in an accident, their friendly neighbor, Jud (John Lithgow), has an idea: to bury the cat in the woods where the land has a reputation of bringing the dead back to life. About a third of the way through, although the pacing is slow, each step is purposeful. There is a sense of foreboding. We even learn about Rachel’s relationship with death, particularly the guilt and trauma that linger in her regarding her sister’s passing.

However, once the typical horror elements begin to take over the plot, especially those normally found in slasher movies, the picture falls apart. One gets the impression that screenwriter Jeff Buhler has failed to find true inspiration and so he decides to utilize shortcuts as a substitute. The dead coming back to life should be a terrifying notion, especially if these beings are able to retain their memories and the ability to communicate. Already they are different from zombies who only wish to bite flesh and eat brains. Instead, there is more attention placed in the running around, the stabbings, and the struggles of getting to a weapon. It all just feels so tired and pointless.

There are watchable performances here by Clarke, Seimetz, and Lithgow. The actors who play husband and wife are believable in that the more recent changes in their lives are not easy for either of them. And yet they try to make it work. The widower, too, is a curious character. When he is finally invited for dinner, we feel his joy of being welcomed by the family, including the cat. However, the enthusiastic yet grounded performances still fail to save a screenplay lacking both strong vision and fresh execution. The entire work must be effective as a horror picture above all.

“Pet Sematary” is directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer in a most pedestrian fashion, especially when it comes to the scares. If anything, precisely because the work is both based on a book and a remake of an overrated would-be classic, every second should be dedicated to surpassing them. Instead, it appears to be content in delivering familiar tropes that lack imagination and tension. It feels like another cash grab.


Serenity (2019)
★ / ★★★★

Points for “Serenity,” written and directed by Steven Knight, for trying to rise above a standard thriller involving a boat, an abused wife, and a murder plot. There is a massive but elusive fish, a mysterious businessman who sticks out like a sore thumb, a combat veteran who is estranged from his son, a lone bar on an island where everyone appears to get information, and acknowledgements of rules being changed suddenly. There are psychic connections and a bird that follows the boat around. At one point, even our protagonist declares that there are strange goings-on. It is all very aware and ambitious, but these disparate elements never come together in a way that makes us feel as though it is worth the time and effort we invest in attempting to put the pieces together.

The problem lies in the screenplay. It relies on one big twist that is revealed about halfway through and smaller twists dispersed throughout the remainder of the story. After the game-changing revelation, it forges on telling the story it initially presented, but this is an incorrect decision, you see, because the more interesting angle is the one not being explored. Once we know what is really going on, the initial story, and whatever happens in it, feels so inconsequential. If I sound like I am being vague on purpose, that is because I am. Pulling out the rug from under us is quite neat, and to spoil it would reduce the film into pointlessness.

This leads us to the second major problem. Brilliant twists do not make a movie, not even in superior films like “The Sixth Sense,” “The Crying Game,” “The Usual Suspects,” “Se7en,” and even “Sleepaway Camp.” In these aforementioned movies, take away the respective reveals and the picture is still able to stand strong on its own. In Knight’s work, however, the pieces are not only amorphous and nonsensical, there is no convincing emotional arc. The main character, Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey), a father who chases a fish so obsessively because he has not seen his son in years, undergoes numerous suffering—psychological, financial, physical—but we are not compelled to learn more about him, his lifestyle, and those around him.

The film is beautifully photographed, especially shots of the fishing boat leaving the harbor and when the camera looks into the deep water before fish is pulled out of it. There is also some excitement when there is silence and suddenly the clicking of the fishing reel builds up to a heart-racing staccato. This should have been a segue for the viewer to understand Baker Dill’s all-consuming quest of reeling in Justice, a large tuna. But these postcard-worthy shots are disconnected from the neo-noir thriller with moments of paranoia. It made me wish that I was at the beach instead of sitting inside the movie theater hoping for all the ideas to come together.

The performances are fine, nothing special. I must note, however, that those hoping to see McConaughey in various states of nakedness are likely to have a ball. For instance, we watch him jump off a cliff and swim in the ocean with nothing on. Perhaps, to some, that is a selling point. For me, though, Anne Hathaway who portrays an abused wife is the most watchable because she, as usual, milks every moment. As I walked out of the theater, it struck me that I don’t remember her character’s words, but I do remember how Karen holds her eyes when she is desperate, the way she moves her body when she is humiliated, the manner in which her lips quivers just so when freedom is at arm’s reach. Like the audience, the actors deserve stronger material.


Winchester (2018)
★ / ★★★★

Touring the actual Winchester Mystery House is exponentially more fun than having to sit through this lifeless, boring, pedestrian film with nothing of value to offer. At least with the former, although you go through the house in a group with strangers, each of you is given a flashlight and nearly every room is worth looking into because it is almost completely shrouded in darkness. Creaky floorboards make you question whether moving forward would be wise. And despite the tour guide’s occasionally unnecessary explanations, such as a significance of a room or decoration, and obvious attempts to amp up the creepiness of the place, you can choose to allow your imagination fill in the gaps regarding the possible reasons why Sarah Winchester decided for her home to undergo construction twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

Given the chance, I would like to sit down with directors Michael and Peter Spierig and ask about their inspirations for the project as well as what inclined them to tell the story the way they did. I suspect a lack of a convincing answer because the film is a hodgepodge of bad ideas and executions. It lacks a defined identity. For instance, it is deeply frustrating that the story takes place in 1906 and yet its approach to entertain is merely composed of jump scares, employing tired setups and played out placements of the camera. Thus, we know exactly when the scares will come and where. Had the writers, Tom Vaughan and the Spierig Brothers, really thought about their material, they would have come to the conclusion that the best way to tell the story is to start off as a serious period drama as horror elements creep in steadily. It requires elegance, finesse.

Early in the picture, it is emphasized that house contains several stories, numerous rooms, and curious hallways that lead to dead ends. Yet for some reason, the filmmakers fail to provide some kind of tour that is organic to the pacing so that we grow familiar with the layout of the place. So many horror movies, especially those that fall under the haunted house sub-genre, get this wrong. Or ignore it altogether. This torture to be endured, so unimaginative every step of the way, is no exception. It is actually worse because every image we see on screen looks like a piece of a set. Scenes are incredibly well-lit… when they shouldn’t be sometimes. At times getting it wrong on purpose is the right way to go.

It is important to establish a mental map for several reasons. First, it creates a connection between setting and audience—a sense of place imprints on the mind. Second, when the scares begin, and thus the action, we do not feel lost or confused with regards to where a character might be heading, what he or she might be planning in order to overcome a set of trials. Another reason is specificity. It is crucial that we come across details specific to the story being told. It helps to establish a memorable experience. Perhaps the best example is Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.”

“Winchester” stars Helen Mirren as the widowed owner of the haunted house and Jason Clarke plays a doctor who is hired to assess Sarah Winchester’s mental state. Both performers are capable of communicating a range of emotions without uttering a word, but their strengths are not utilized here. These are dramatic actors who are forced to play dumb—they are given uninspired characters we have all seen hundreds of times. Eventually, I found I was actually rooting for the malevolent spirits simply because I wanted the movie to end already. Halfway through, it is apparent that those from behind the camera have already used up all of their cheap parlor tricks. Every scare is forgettable. Every single one.

Terminator Genisys

Terminator Genisys (2015)
★★ / ★★★★

In 2029, just when the final assault against Skynet, led by John Connor (Jason Clarke), is finally won, it is discovered that a Terminator had already been sent to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke), mother to the leader of the Resistance, as a fail-safe. John’s righthand man, Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney), volunteers to go back in time to protect Sarah, but it turns out the mission is not as straightforward as it seems. Upon arrival in 1984, Kyle learns the timeline had already been changed and it appears as though he has memories of events he never in fact experienced.

“Terminator Genisys,” written by Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier, takes elements from James Cameron’s “The Terminator” and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” puts them in a blender, and a few original ideas are sprinkled into the mix to create a reimagining. Although the picture is superficially entertaining as a whole, one foot remains deeply embedded in the past. Thus, due to nostalgia, a great limitation prevents this sci-fi action picture from turning into one that will be remembered positively from years to come.

Some action sequences are quite enthralling. The first half is particularly strong. Standouts involve increasingly difficult encounters with a T-1000 Terminator dressed as a cop (Byung-hun Lee). There is a nastiness to this villain because even though chaos is happening all around—bullets flying, vehicles exploding—there is an eerie calmness to Lee’s performance. The body is tough, agile, strong but the face is serene. We believe that our protagonists are really up against a tank-like robot that will not stop until its assignment is accomplished.

The various intersections of timelines require the audience to pay careful attention to dialogue—which is problematic because this is not the film’s strong point. The script is plagued with expository lines that explain, for example, a character’s thoughts or feelings rather than going through a more demonstrative avenue. Although the performers do the best they can to inject emotion into these lines, the words and phrases still come across as forced. As a result, we do not buy completely into the human drama behind the conflict. This is highly apparent with Kyle and Sarah’s interactions—a critical misstep because how their relationship is built is central to the plot.

The numerous flashbacks hinder the material’s forward momentum. While Kyle’s new memories provide the necessary mystery to keep us wondering how he managed to acquire them, they are redundant and tend to take away tension that is created. It might have been better if these images were only seen once and are only referred to again via dialogue—as if it were a way for Kyle to hold onto them the deeper he gets into his mission. The movie has an annoying habit of assuming that audiences are not paying attention. To pass as an intelligent film, even only superficially, first the filmmakers must assume that viewers have relatively long attention spans.

Directed by Alan Taylor, “Terminator Genisys” entertains because it moves fast and action pieces occur every ten to fifteen minutes. Deeper questions about time travel and repercussions that are worth getting answers are set to the side so it is not for viewers who wish for a more cerebral experience. However, such a warning should have been apparent to those already familiar with the franchise.


Everest (2015)
★★ / ★★★★

“Everest” offers a compelling story based on a real tragedy that occurred on May 1996, but the film is nowhere near the former adjective. Under the direction of Baltasar Kormákur, the work is, for the most part, problematic in terms of its choices. What results is a sort-of disaster film that works somewhat on a thriller level but not at all as a dramatic ensemble.

It suffers from an extended exposition aimed to get the audience to care about the climbers of the summit. Of particular interest are Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), the guide with a pregnant wife at home (Keira Knightley), Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), a mailman who wishes to inspire kids to reach for their wildest dreams, and Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), a climber who is undergoing a difficulty with his marriage—of which much of the details are vague. The supporting characters are given superficial, two- to three-bullet notes just so we are familiar with them. At the same time, as forty minutes to an hour passes, we sit there wondering when, or if, the material will pick up in pacing and interest.

The dialogue is not particularly well-written or engaging—a shame because these people are supposed to be from different parts of the world. At one point, writer Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly) asks the climbers why they feel the need to climb Mount Everest. We get one good response, but the scene is, for the most part, played as a joke. While it may have happened like so in actuality, it ought to have been treated as a critical scene from a cinematic standpoint. People like myself who believe it is foolish to take on such a dangerous task might genuinely be interested in knowing why. It takes the lazy avenue by sweeping the question under the rug.

The picture is photographed beautifully, particularly the aerial shots. I enjoyed looking at the different types of ice and snow and how they blanket the jagged peaks and slanted terrain. There is a lived-in quality to the various camps, inside and outside of tents, which works because we are convinced that a business is being run and that the people in charge are experienced, professionals. At times it tends to have the look of an outstanding documentary where the filmmakers know that their subject is already fascinating and so the work embraces no pretension.

By the time the final forty minutes roll around, it is too late to save the movie. This is most unfortunate because some of the sequences are quite harrowing and a few of the imageries are horrifying—from the unstoppable, powerful avalanches to the grizzly details of frostbite and gangrene.

Based on the screenplay by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy, “Everest” commands images that demand to be seen on the big screen, but the manner in which the human drama is drawn, including the final results, has the quality of a direct-to-DVD, C-grade picture. I would rather have seen a documentary of the doomed commercial expedition.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

The so-called simian flu having wiped out half of the planet’s entire population, a small faction that remains, led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), hopes to fix a dam and reactivate electricity. Doing so will allow them to send a transmission and reconnect with other survivors. However, the dam is located within the territory of Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his fellow apes, many of which have grown to fear and hate humans.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” written by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver, is highly visually-driven, at times a feast for the eyes, but it lacks well-established human characters that function as Caesar’s sounding board. As a result, the story is only interesting up to a point and while the images are beautiful, the material is not emotionally involving overall. And with its overextended finale, it challenges the patience.

The computerized apes are convincing especially when their faces are front and center. There is a humanity in their eyes which is important because it helps us to buy into the gamut of emotions they have toward each other and those who threaten their existence. Perhaps most entertaining are the interactions between Caesar and Koba, the latter driven by revenge for having been treated badly by humans. Although both are apes, there is a significant difference between the way they act and reason. The former is very human-like while the other likens that of a rabid dog.

The apes eventually do speak but it is most effective when they communicate via sign language. With the latter, we get a sense of their camaraderie and culture. The former, on the other hand, comes across too forced. At times I found the speaking patterns to be uneven. For instance, earlier in the film, pronouns are uncommonly used. Later on, it is more prolific. Thus, the difference sounds jarring.

Malcolm (Jason Clarke), along with his girlfriend (Keri Russell) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), volunteer to go to ape territory and fix the machines that will enable the dam to work again. It is reasonable to expect that at least one of them will be a viable character worthy of exploration by the screenplay actively establishing subtleties and various shades with respect to human-ape relationships.

Instead, the changes that Malcolm goes through, if any, are quite elementary and so quickly presented that a believable arc is not created. And although there are instances when these characters are thrown into grave danger, I did not feel particularly moved by whatever fate awaits them. I grew worrisome of the possibility of yet another speech denoting how much they care about each other.

Directed by Matt Reeves, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” entertains on a visual level during the first hour or so but when firearms in the latter half get involved, there is a certain level of detachment often found in shoot-‘em-up action films. While I liked the subtle differences in firearm technical proficiency between apes and humans, this detail is not enough to save a limp, rather brainless third act.

Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Two years after the September 11 attacks in New York City, Maya (Jessica Chastain), an officer of the CIA, is sent to the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan to work with another officer, Dan (Jason Clarke), who is charge of interrogating Ammar (Reda Kateb), suspected to be connected to important Saudi terrorists. Torturing the detainee when he fails to cooperate, Dan and Maya eventually hear about a man named Abu Ahmed. Ammar claims that Abu Ahmed is a courier for Osama bin Laden. Other men who are questioned under similar conditions confirm this. Over the years, Maya devotes her life tracking this piece of information which inevitably leads to the killing of bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Written by Mark Boal and directed by Kathryn Bigelow, “Zero Dark Thirty” has received a lot of censure for supposedly endorsing torture by means of extracting information. This is most unfortunate because some of the bad press have convinced many not to see a quiet but incredibly thrilling film about a great manhunt that has lasted over a decade. As a film, not a collection of hard facts, “Zero Dark Thirty” commands elegance in characterization and construction of tension from gradual heat to a boil.

It is understandable that most will find themselves exasperated during the first half. Nothing much happens. At least not on the surface. And that is exactly what I liked about it. A recurring theme is the fact that gathering reliable and valid intelligence takes time. We are so used to amphetamine-fueled action movies involving the CIA and other government groups finding out all there is to know about everything and everyone in a matter of minutes that when something like this comes along, some of us do not know what to make of it. Plenty of names and technical terms bounce around our eardrums that all of them sound the same eventually. It is easy not to care until something goes boom!

The sudden bursts of violence break the slow stream of questions, muffled hopes, and quiet disappointments. One of the most chilling scenes, at least for me, is the bombing that takes place in a hotel. After the explosion and smoke starts to blend with dust, there is no score to suggest that something exciting is happening. No, music would have masked the tragedy that has happened. There are only screams of pain, disoriented people shuffling about and trying to get on their feet, a collective fear and confusion. Because it looks and feels so real, I found myself shaking and wanting to detach from the material but could not do so. I craved to know what will happen next.

Two women characters are given the chance to shine. There is Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), an officer in the embassy who we suspect might butt heads with Maya. She believes that money is so persuasive that even those who seem like they will never break from their ideologies will be enticed in the least. Her relationship with Maya is taken into an unexpected direction. Meanwhile, Chastain plays her character with the most convincing intelligence mixed with sophistication, resolve melded with obsession, and courage to push and demand others not to partake in a state of quiescence. Chastain’s scenes with Kyle Chandler, playing a CIA station chief, contain the right amount of balance between animosity and respect. When details get confusing, it is helpful that she is there to serve as our compass. Due to the nature of her job, it is necessary that she knows she is always right.

“Zero Dark Thirty” can be too cold at times given its procedural nature but this does not lessen the material’s power in any way. On the contrary, I respected the focus and vision from behind the lens like the raid scene shot in heavy darkness on purpose to prevent us from seeing anything concrete. In a way, it can be taken as the antithesis of a commercial action picture that glorifies violence where we are forced to see every chunk of tissue flying into the air.