Review – Doctor Sleep

FILM REVIEWDOCTOR SLEEPWith Ewan McGregor, Kyliegh Curran, Rebecca Ferguson, Cliff Curtis, Zahn McClarnon. Written and directed by Mike Flanagan. Rated R for disturbing and violent content, some bloody images, language, nudity and drug use. 151 minutes.

Even though Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s “The Shining” is considered an iconic horror film, the author famously disliked it. This presented a unique challenge for writer-director Mike Flanagan in tackling King’s sequel novel, DOCTOR SLEEP. He manages to thread the needle in making it both an adaptation of the novel and a sequel to the earlier film.

At the start there are two stories. One story involves Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) who, as a boy, was terrorized by his father and other horrors at the Overlook Hotel, while struggling with his gift of the “shining,” which allowed him to tap into supernatural powers. It’s not been an easy life. Like his father, he has been self-medicating with booze, but thanks to a new friend (Cliff Curtis), joins AA and sobers up.

Meanwhile Abra (Kyliegh Curran), also has the shining, and becomes aware of a group led by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), who torture and kill their young victims since the “steam” they release in their fear and suffering is their sustenance. Eventually Danny and Abra will meet up and join forces in a battle with Rose and her gang. This leads to a climactic battle at – wait for it – the abandoned Overlook Hotel.

Although overlong, the film has a lot going for it. McGregor provides a nuanced turn as Danny, a man with great powers who has been haunted by his past and tries to reconcile the two. Curran, in her first major role, is a definite plus as the tween Abra, handling not only the horror elements but some of the comical elements as well, including a scene where she’s supposed to be a conduit for Danny. Ferguson brings out Rose’s sexiness and lust for control, given that her success means extended life spans for her and her followers.

As usual with King, the proceedings are overwrought. Flanagan might have followed Kubrick in reining in or ignoring the author’s excesses, but instead chooses to focus on recreating characters, sets, and situations from the 1980 movie. Kudos for casting substitutes for Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, and the late Scatman Crothers, all of whom evoke the originals without turning into parody. Yet the payoff is over-the-top and may not work for everyone.

In the concluding moments, the film offers an evocative conclusion that echoes its early scenes and provides a neat conclusion. However, it ends with a final moment that seems to contradict what we’ve just seen. Viewers can come up with their own interpretations for it, but it comes across more like a setup for yet another sequel.

The lesson of “Doctor Sleep” is that making a movie longer doesn’t necessarily make it better, and that offering up an ambiguous ending doesn’t make it deep. This is a movie that will attract interest of fans of the novels or the earlier movie but falls short of its epic intentions.•••                                                             

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Jojo Rabbit

FILM REVIEWJOJO RABBIT. With Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Scarlett Johansson, Taika Waititi, Sam Rockwell. Written and directed by Taika Waititi. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, some disturbing images, violence and language. 108 minutes.

jojo_rabbit_ver2Writer-director Taika Waititi’s asinine JOJO RABBIT begins with footage from “Triumph Of The Will” recut to an early German-language Beatles recording of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” The joke here – which I keep seeing praised in print by people who really should know better – is equating Hitler’s rise to power with Beatlemania, a bunch of screaming, empty-headed teens losing their mind over the latest fad. Like most attempted insights in this deeply obnoxious movie, it’s a comparison that falls apart if you spend more than five minutes thinking about it. But then this picture has been designed in such a way to circumvent thought, instead congratulating the audience for catching its references and inviting them in turn to admire the filmmaker for his “daring” tweaks of taboos, wrapping it all up in a warm bath of sticky sentiment to send you home with a smile. I really hated this movie.

It’s Berlin in the waning days of WWII, and 10-year-old Jojo (played by cuddly Roman Griffin Davis) wants nothing more than to be a Nazi. Raised by his single mother (Scarlett Johansson), he ends up housebound after a grenade accident at his Hilter Youth camp, a schticky sort of Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kristallnacht” presided over by a closeted SS-washout (Sam Rockwell). All the adults here seem to realize that the war is just about over and it’s not going to end their way, but they nonetheless go through the motions of Nazi-ism – which they all admittedly find pretty silly – in a half-assed fashion for the sake of the kids, who really want to believe in the Reich like it was Santa Claus or something.

Young Jojo even confides in an imaginary friend who happens to be Adolf Hitler (played by the director in a grating, loose-limbed performance that’s like being trapped in an elevator with an improv comic) and the two happily frolic through their anti-Semitic “Calvin and Hobbes” while the rest of us wonder why any of Waititi’s loved ones didn’t intervene tell him that this was all a really gross idea. Billed as “an anti-hate satire,” the movie intends to skewer Nazi-ism for its stupidity, adopting the fanciful tone of a children’s fairy tale to present these Aryan adventures as exercises in arrested development. It’s all a phase – like Beatlemania, I guess – that Jojo is soon going to grow out of. (Waititi has apparently forgotten that people still really like The Beatles. Nazis, too.)

The plot thickens when the boy discovers that mom has stashed a young Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie of the excellent “Leave No Trace”) in the cupboard, and how much do you want to bet that much to his imaginary friend’s frustrations, Jojo’s gonna learn to move past his prejudices after getting to know her? For anyone who ever wanted to see the Anne Frank story re-done as a cutesy tween romance with a happy ending, I’ve got good news.

I got even angrier as the movie went along, recoiling at Waititi’s twee production design and winking, anachronistic dialogue. It made me start thinking about the difference is between a movie told from a child’s POV with an adult’s perspective and a film that treats its audience like children. There’s a long tradition of movies seeing war through the eyes of a child – heck, John Boorman’s “Hope and Glory” and Steven Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun” even came out the same damn year – while Federico Fellini’s “Amarcord” depicted the rise of fascism in Italy as an extended adolescence, authoritarianism as a fart-filled wank.

None of those films pissed me off like “Jojo Rabbit” because they didn’t pull their punches the way Waititi does. Late in the running time, Jojo discovers that something horrible has happened, but the movie doesn’t allow us to see it. We’re kept safe from any grisly images, to the point where Jojo’s allegedly “disfiguring” grenade accident leaves just a couple of minor scratches on his adorable face. There’s a running gag about a kid from camp who keeps getting blown up in battles and miraculously reappearing, joking to the camera about how apparently he’s very difficult to kill. A dead child would derail all the upbeat, feel-good whimsy, and who wants that to happen in a movie about the Holocaust?

“You’re not a Nazi, Jojo. You’re not one of them,” his cool new Jewish girlfriend tells him before they dance in the street to a David Bowie song. (You can probably guess which one.) In fact, deep down none of these Nazis are all that bad, with Rockwell heroically even stepping in to save Jojo’s life near the climax. The point, I think, is that we’ve all gotta grow up and get past these silly differences, which strikes me as a dangerously Pollyanna-ish attitude considering what a comeback actual real-life Nazis have been making lately. But it’s emblematic of the movie’s stunted worldview, snickering in-jokes, and deliberate distance from anything resembling reality. Waititi tells us that people are truly good at heart in a movie where Anne Frank lives at the end. This is a deeply, distressingly insulated picture – the Funko Pop collector’s edition of “Shoah.”•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 0 out of 5.Over the past twenty years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – Western Stars

FILM REVIEWWESTERN STARS. With Bruce Springsteen, Patti Scialfa. Written by Bruce Springsteen. Directed by Thom Zimny and Bruce Springsteen. Rated PG for profanity. 83 minutes.

western_starsBruce Springsteen has said in interviews that this companion film to his 19th studio album WESTERN STARS was intended as the completion of a three-part project that began with his 2016 best-selling memoir “Born To Run” and continued through his long-running one-man-show “Springsteen On Broadway.” What these efforts all have in common is a surprising candor from the usually cagey, press-shy superstar, stepping out of his longtime comfort zones for frank confessions and self-assessments in unfamiliar artistic forms. Indeed Springsteen, who turned 70 in September, makes his (co-)directorial debut with this compact, finely-tuned concert film. So who says you can’t teach an old Boss new tricks?

The long-gestating album was released back in June to some of the best reviews Springsteen’s gotten in decades. Miles away from E Street and more expansive than his sparse solo records, “Western Stars” is a collection of terse character sketches accompanied by sweeping orchestral arrangements that aurally unfurl with an almost cinematic grandeur. The songs attempt to reconcile the two sides of Springsteen’s – and in a sense, America’s – mythology (the two have become pretty much interchangeable anyway) pitting born-to-run loners on the open road against a longing for hearth, home, and community. It’s a record full of hitchhikers, wayfarers, and roadside bars where everybody can feel welcome for a few hours.

“19 albums in and I’m still writing about cars,” Springsteen quips in the film’s opening moments. The bulk of the movie is “Western Stars,” performed in its entirety by the singer, his wife Patti Scialfa and a 30-piece orchestra inside a massive, 100-year-old barn on the couple’s New Jersey ranch home. Shot in collaboration with Springsteen’s longtime videographer Thom Zimny, it’s an excellent performance that doesn’t radically reinvent any of the arrangements from the album but rather draws us closer inside them, with the movie theater surround setup really bringing out the stabbing strings and distant, lonely horns. The boss sounds raspier than he does on the record, putting an extra splash of whiskey on lyrics like, “She liked her guys a little greasy and beneath her pay grade.”

The men in these songs are all worn out and broken, like the title track’s former big-screen cowboy now doing Viagra commercials who’ll tell the old story about how John Wayne once shot him in a movie if you’ll buy the next round, or the washed-up stuntman who both begins and ends his song with a litany of medical mishaps. Springsteen’s sneakiest structural trick on the record is that the orchestra allows access to their inner lives, the soaring sounds conjuring vast expanses and dreams of escape, only more often than not the music melts away and Springsteen circles back to repeating the same opening lines, leaving us with the feeling that these guys have traveled so many miles while getting nowhere at all.

I suppose every song anyone’s ever written is at least a little autobiographical, but these characters still are most assuredly not Bruce Springsteen, which makes his inspirational, interstitial introductions an occasionally awkward fit. Each song is proceeded by a couple of minutes spent with shots of Springsteen on his farm, doing very Springsteen-ish things like driving old cars, looking at horses and putting on his cowboy hat in slow-motion. Via voice-over narration he talks us through the metaphors and personal journeys in the songs you’re about to hear, a nice but completely unnecessary gesture as the lyrics are already so beautifully written they require no explanation.

At their worst these chats sound like a Springsteen magnetic poetry kit, with “faith,” “work,” “perseverance,” and “dreams” all jumbled up in front of stock footage of empty highways. I love the guy but he can get a little airy sometimes, and his writing’s always been best when grounded in the everyday. That’s why the movie’s most satisfying introduction is to the album’s closing track “Moonlight Motel,” during which Bruce brings out home movie footage of he and Scialfa’s honeymoon, reminiscing about the early days of their relationship when they “had to sneak around” (Springsteen was still married to model Julianne Phillips) and would secretly meet up for picnics on a New York City bench. He’d bring a brown bag full of beer.

There’s something so beautifully precise about that detail of the six-pack in a paper bag, not to mention the mental image of rock’s biggest superstar sneaking beery lunches in plain sight on 21st street with his backup singer. It says so much more than the sermonizing that sometimes swamps the spoken word sections of “Western Stars,” and like the wonderful songs herein is a potent reminder of this writer’s once-in-a-generation gift for turning the quotidian into poetry.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3.5 out of 5.Over the past twenty years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – Harriet

FILM REVIEWHARRIET. With Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Janelle Monáe. Written by Gregory Allen Howard and Kasi Lemmons. Directed by Kasi Lemmons. Rated: PG-13 for thematic content throughout, violent material and language including racial epithets. 125 minutes.

harriet_ver2What do you know about Harriet Tubman? Like most people, including this reviewer, you probably respond with “Underground Railroad” and that is the extent of your knowledge. HARRIET is the long-overdue movie about this incredible American hero. It is also a breakout role for Cynthia Erivo.

Tubman was born into slavery and saw members of her family sold off, never to be seen again. Married to a free black man, she did not want to have children who would be owned by the master of the estate where she was bound. She escaped, managing to survive on her own for hundreds of miles before arriving in Philadelphia. It’s what she did next that makes her not only heroic, but an iconic historic figure. Having made it to freedom she went back – at risk of her own life and freedom – to help other slaves escape.

Tubman was a real-life superhero, astounding everyone from the free blacks of Philadelphia to the family members she left behind. As depicted here, Tubman was surrounded by skeptics who insisted that there was no way she could succeed. She refused to be dissuaded, demonstrating that a woman – no less, a woman of color – could define her own destiny and not have it dictated by others.

As Tubman, Erivo gets a chance to make her mark after a number of supporting roles. It is a powerful performance, depicting Tubman as more of a biblical prophet than military strategist. She seems to have had some form of epilepsy, occasionally falling into unconsciousness but returning with visions of what the future holds. This comes to a point in a confrontation with Gideon (Joe Alwyn), son of her late owner who has his own abuses to answer for, where she holds back from exacting vengeance, instead sharing a vision of his future that we know is true even as it’s horrifying to him.

“Harriet” brings to mind “12 Years A Slave” in presenting us a vision of this dark stain on American history. Both films focus on the horrors of slavery, which has been characterized as America’s “Original Sin,” but there’s an important difference. As powerful and praiseworthy as “12 Years” is, it is a movie of black victimization. telling a story where a good white man is crucial to its protagonist’s redemption. “Harriet” does have those good white people contrasting with the slave owners, but that’s a sideshow. This is a movie where a black heroine defies everyone who tells her she cannot succeed in her plans to liberate slaves, and then proceeds to do just that.

The current administration has put plans to put Tubman on the $20 bill on hold. Contemporary politics aside, “Harriet” shows that she should not only be so honored, but that her recognition as a true American hero is justly deserved.•••                                       

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 4 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Motherless Brooklyn

FILM REVIEWMOTHERLESS BROOKLYNWith Edward Norton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Willem Dafoe, Alec Baldwin, Bruce Willis. Written and directed by Edward Norton. Rated R for language throughout including some sexual references, brief drug use, and violence. 144 minutes.

motherless_brooklyn_ver2Anyone who counts such movies as “Chinatown” (1974) and “L.A. Confidential” (1997) among their favorites will want to put MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN at the top of their “must see” list. Triple-threat Edward Norton stars, directs, and adapts Jonathan Lethem’s novel, making an improbable hero credible as the story plays out in 1950s Brooklyn.

Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton) works for private detective Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) who recognizes his talents despite his tics and outbursts from Tourette’s Syndrome, which he describes as having an anarchist take over part of his brain. When Minna is gunned down near the start of the film, Lionel pursues leads that might reveal who did it and why.

It’s a complex plot, revolving around Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), whose control over the construction of highways, bridges, and parks makes him a powerful force in the city. Patterned on the real life Robert Moses, he is ruthless in pursuing his goals which he believes are noble: build the infrastructure that will serve the city into the future. If that means the displacement of people currently living where he wants to build, so be it.

The mystery soon brings in other players, including Paul (Willem Dafoe), a critic of Randolph who is harboring a few secrets of his own, and Laura (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), whose work for a non-profit opposing Randolph’s latest project proves to be complicated as well. In classic noir style we follow Lionel, who has to apologize for his unexpected behaviors even as he’s quietly putting the puzzle pieces together. Norton knows the genre, even giving a nod to “Chinatown” by having his character having to wear a small bandage after a brutal beating, much as Jack Nicholson’s J. J. Gittes had his nose taped after a similar encounter.

What’s impressive is that in only his second film as director, after 2000’s “Keeping the Faith,” Norton shows himself to be as impressive behind the camera as he often is in front of it. Somehow, he also was able to carry the film as the investigator whose condition leads others to underestimate him. Mbatha-Raw more than holds her own as a young African American woman who relates to Lionel because she has been marginalized herself. Norton has also been able to attract a strong supporting cast including Willis, Bobby Canavale, Fisher Stevens, Dallas Roberts, Cherry Jones, and Michael Kenneth Williams.

One of the hallmarks of film noir is its visual style, and Norton proves to have an eye for both the big picture and the small detail, with both in evidence in a key scene in Randolph’s office. Indeed, look for art director Michael Ahern and his team to be major Oscar contenders for their recreation of 1950s Brooklyn which is so credible you might think Norton simply took his crew back in a time machine. Mention should also be made of an outstanding jazz score by Daniel Pemberton, a film composer whose already successful career should receive a major boost from his work here.

For the next several weeks there will be a number of releases that are a.) prestigious, b.) over two hours long, and c.) intended for award consideration. “Motherless Brooklyn” ought to be in the running and, regardless, prove to be a modern landmark in the genre.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 5 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Terminator: Dark Fate

FILM REVIEWTERMINATOR: DARK FATEWith Linda Hamilton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Natalia Reyes, Mackenzie Davis, Gabriel Luna. Written by David S. Goyer & Justin Rhodes and Billy Ray. Directed by Tim Miller. Rated R for violence throughout, language and brief nudity. 128 minutes.                                  

terminator_dark_fate_ver3The ads for TERMINATOR: DARK FATE call it the “day after Judgment Day.” That’s a way of signaling to viewers that this movie is ignoring all but the original “Terminator” (1984) and it’s first sequel, “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1991). So, don’t worry if you haven’t kept up. Everything you need to know is provided here.

The original premise was that a supercomputer system called Skynet had achieved consciousness and declared war on humanity. A killer cyborg, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, was sent back into the past to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), whose yet-to-be-born son would lead the revolt against Skynet. Sarah saved the world, with the help of the cyborg, who became a good guy in the second movie.

In the present film, it turns out that while Skynet was defeated, another malignant AI (artificial intelligence) has arisen, and so the problem arises all over again, this time with new generation of Terminator known as Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna), who has come back to present day Mexico City targeting Dani (Natalia Reyes). Also sent back is Grace (Mackenzie Davis), an “augmented” human able to fight the Terminators. What follows is essentially an epic chase that will leave many bodies along the way but will end up in Texas where the original Terminator (Schwarzenegger) now leads a quiet life as Carl, who runs a home décor business.

Many people are credited with the story and/or script, including original director James Cameron, with the result being a lot of action set pieces, nods to the earlier films (including the signature line “I’ll be back” which gets two unexpected iterations here), and what we can presume are valedictory appearances by Hamilton, 63, and Schwarzenegger, 72, in roles that first brought them enduring fame 35 years ago. As the new Terminator, Luna and a raft of special effects prove to be relentless, while Reyes and Davis offer what are, essentially, variations of different aspects of the characters from the original films.

Beyond the effects and some truly thrilling action scenes, the movie also takes some not-so-subtle digs at the political debate over border security and, perhaps surprisingly, offers a strong story of female empowerment. Hamilton, Reyes, and Davis dominate the first half of the film with a much younger Schwarzenegger (through SFX) appearing briefly, and the older “Carl” not showing up until the second half.

The more devoted fans can debate if the new timeline for the series makes sense. Those simply wanting to root for the good guys will find that easy enough. “Terminator: Dark Fate” delivers on its promise of mixing action, special effects, and character moments, and treating the series elders with respect and affection. If the series ends here, it goes out on a high note.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 4 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Black and Blue

FILM REVIEWBLACK AND BLUEWith Naomie Harris, Tyrese Gibson, Mike Colter, Frank Grillo, Reid Scott. Written by Peter A. Dowling. Directed by Deon Taylor. Rated R for violence and language. 108 minutes.          

black_and_blueBLACK AND BLUE isn’t likely to make anyone’s ten best list, yet this sturdy genre entry is a movie that says more about modern times than most of the year’s releases. The reason for that is that the formulaic nature of the plot and characters lets the filmmakers use that formula to address other matters. While providing plenty of action and suspense, it’s what this film says about race and policing that makes it stand out.

Naomie Harris plays Alicia West, a veteran who has come back to her old New Orleans neighborhood as a cop. She joined the military to escape a life of poverty and crime, and now she wants to give back. To the people she left behind, though, she’s changed sides. Looking at the housing projects on her beat, her partner (Reid Scott) tells her they don’t even go there until another cop is in trouble. She finds that she’s shunned even by people who knew her.

The story takes off when she agrees to take an extra shift and witnesses a corrupt cop (Frank Grillo) murder a drug dealer in cold blood. Worse, the dealer was working for him and was killed so he wouldn’t talk. West not only sees what went down – her body camera recorded it all. The victim was the nephew of the local drug kingpin (Mike Colter), who is told West was the shooter. Now she’s on the run with her “brothers in blue” and the gangbangers out to get her. She gets help from Mouse (Tyrese Gibson), a supermarket manager who, initially, doesn’t want to get involved.

West is no innocent, she is an idealist, believing in her job and that there are good people in the community who deserve protection. What she sees is not only the corruption, but the fear and loathing the residents have for the police, and the contempt and arrogance the police have for them. There are exceptions on both sides, of course, but West can’t always be sure who can be trusted which is, in fact, the problem that everyone else around her has as well.

That’s what makes the film compelling. When the news is filled with stories of not only the deaths of black citizens at the hands of police, but two different people killed in their own homes, the tensions between citizens of color and the people ostensibly protecting them are real and palpable. Harris and Gibson play the film’s heroes not as symbolic figures in an editorial cartoon, but as two people in over their heads, improvising on the run.

In taking on a story that might seem familiar, “Black and Blue” manages to reflect our world while providing the requisite thrills.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.