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HONEY BOY is Shia Lebouf’s love letter to… Shia Lebouf.

Let me start by saying, the promos are misleading. The pie in the face imagery seems like something pulled off of some of the shots of Booksmart, and while I didn’t take issue with that, nothing could have prepared me for the untenable bag of insufferable cruelty masking as a cohesive narration that Shia LeBouf, an actor who at one point I thought had great potential, unleashes on his audience. This is something that tends to occasionally pop up in independent cinema: among the clever new entries and occasional borefest man the 1,000 coming of age stories there is one that is none of them. It’s about pain, and anguish, and the horror of surviving it, and while I don’t mind a good story being told, once in a while we get something so painful one feels almost dirty after the credits roll.

That experience is Honey Boy.

I don’t want to eviscerate the movie because it seems to, at least in concept, to have been born from Shia LeBouf’s own painful story of growing up basically parentless while he worked as a child actor. A lot of actors have had horror-parents that pushed their kids to the utmost limit while cashing in on their fame and then shoving their acts of theft down their terrified kids’ throats with the logical explanation that if it wasn’t for them, the monster parents, those kids wouldn’t even be alive.

And that’s a sorry, unforgivable situation, one that I struggle with because abuse is abuse no matter how you color it. Once kids are subjected to any level of abuse, it will always be an uphill battle to escape that nightmare and hopefully emerge intact by virtue of spiritual fortitude at the end of the tunnel. Note that I say the word hopefully, because more often than not, the scars remain, and the child now becomes just as bad as the abuser, or repeats a cycle by marrying into it, or, as in Shia LeBouf’s case and as acted by Lucas Hedges in a performance and role that should have been expanded more on, acting out. That, in short, is just pain begging for attention and unable to express itself other than acts of mindless rage,.

The movie focuses on LeBouf’s alter-ego Otis (Noah Jupe as a child; Hedges as a young adult) and his often contentious relationship with his walking train-wreck father (Shia LeBouf). As an adult, Otis finds himself coming out of a violent altercation with the police and having to go into therapy to potentially remedy his situation. HIs therapist (Laura San Giacomo) suggests Otis revisit the past (like most therapists always do; find the source of the pain and then through immersion, get past it). We flash back to when Otis was a 12 year old at the mercy of his deadbeat father who believes himself to have been a lost prodigy of sorts and is not above stealing Otis’ earnings, or upheaving the boy’s life to serve his needs. Otis starts a tentative relation with an older woman he calls Shy Girl (FKA Twigs), which does not go over well with Otis’ father (or let’s say, Otis’ father’s unbelievably massive ego).

Undeterred, Otis attempts on more than one occasion to understand the sordidness of his life and in all builds up to a boil when he confronts his monster-father. That does not go down well, and Otis is left, again, destitute and helplessly codependent on his father.

The worse part of Honey Boy is that, even though it is autobiographical, it makes no attempt to resolve this untenable situation between father and son, and while the indie crowd might have applauded it for not going into easy resolutions, at one point one has to wonder, who did Shia LeBouf make such a horrible movie for? It brought me back to another, equally repulsive movie I saw years ago by Asia Argento, The Heart if Deceitful Above All Things, itself based on JT Leroy’s (Laura Albert’s) novel of the same name. That one was even crueler. Honey Boy serves as neither great cinema nor story telling; the characters flit in and out without any narrative purpose and we get only Shia LeBouf letting his father off the hook at the end (this is not a spoiler) and Otis in limbo. You can watch this for an experiment in how much torture you can stand. I just wouldn’t recommend it if I had any say in it.

The Last of November releases: KNIVES OUT, A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD, QUEEN & SLIM, and I LOST MY BODY

Image from The Atlantic

I’m starting to wonder if the murder mystery is back in style because since last year’s apt but less than stellar Murder on the Orient Express, the genre seems to be experiencing a slight revival with the addition of not-quite-murder-mystery-but-genre-adjacent Ready or Not, Death on the Nile (due next year), and Rian Johnston’s Knives Out, still playing strong in theaters all over the country. Knives Out comes with all the bells and whistles you’d expect from a whodunit. You get the gigantic mansion that must have at least thirty rooms on top of hidden tunnels and secret spaces. You get a family that has little love for each other and their patriarch, famed murder author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer). The family has come together for — what else? — a family reunion. When you meet them, they couldn’t be more disparate, from alpha daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) who’s a CEO mogul married to a louse (Don Johnson), bland brother Walter (Michael Shannon), shallow lifestyle guru Joni (Toni Collette), and playboy grandson Hugh Ransom (Chris Evans), who’s basically there for the hell of it. None of them have any love for the old man and all of them are after his money.

And then there is Marta (Ana de Armas), Thrombey’s nurse.

To truly appreciate Knives Out, you have to focus in on the position that Marta occupies in this house of cards as she will be the focus of the narrative, not the others. As Harlan Thrombey’s nurse, Marta enjoys a relationship that one could say goes a bit past a simple caregiver and moves into that grey territory called a surrogate daughter. Seeing them interact, you can basically tell these are two people who almost finish each other’s sentences. Now, for the Thrombey’s, she’s “family”, sure, but you realize it’s all show as they treat her like a commodity and can never quite get her ethnicity right. The former will figure heavily into what part she plays here, since her mother is an illegal alien, the movie takes place in the Trump administration, and well… we have a problem with a young woman working as a nurse who has a mother who didn’t come here legally, who would be, in fact, deported at the snap of fingers. Especially when Harlan turns up dead the following morning, his throat slashed from ear to ear.

Another movie would have kept the whodunit factor right up until the last 30 minutes or so, but Knives Out has another story to tell, and again, it will involve Marta. We learn much more about Harlan’s premature demise, which has its own set of rules which Marta must follow to the letter. It’s then that Knives Out becomes more of a how than a who because it now places a seemingly powerless woman in a game of life and death where she now holds the cards and they are all Aces. It still holds quite a bit of surprises, however, and it works to the movie’s favor that it never spills into silliness (so anyone expecting the slasher crazy of Ready or Not might be a bit disappointed). Even so, this is a clever, well-thought out picture that respects its genre and sneaks in a few moments to As of the performances, they are a mixed bag: as I said, the strong point is Ana de Armas (and to see her interactions with Plummer is the movie’s heart). Jamie Lee Curtis does what she can with a small role as does Johnson, Chris Evans kind of telegraph it a bit thick; Daniel Craig almost steals the show with his Benoit Craig. While Michael Shannon and Toni Collette both play against type (he’s a weakling; she’s a paper-thin head-in-the-stars guru with a penchant for money), they don’t quite register as much. The rest of the cast, which features Lakeith Stanfield, Riki Lindhome, Jaeden Martell (recently seen in It: Chapter Two), and Edie Patterson don’t register as much, but that is to be expected when a movie like this features a large ensemble.

When I heard of this movie earlier in the year I thought that this was going to be yet another biopic of the now legendary (although he would be the last to admit it) Fred Rogers, a man with whom all of America owes his childhood to. Clever marketing, because it worked; when I saw this the day after Thanksgiving the theater was packed and it was barely an early morning showing. I saw people with their kids, entire families, in couples or singles, but it was clear: everyone was there to see a movie from the man who gave us Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

We weren’t disappointed. True, the subject matter is not the center of gravity of the narrative. When the movie starts, we see an award-winning journalist from Esquire magazine, Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) getting into a violent altercation with his father Jerry (Chris Cooper) at his sister Lorraine’s wedding. This is followed by an assignment by his editor (Christine Lahti, in a welcome small part) to write a short 400-word blip about Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) for the magazine. Lloyd travels to Pittsburgh to meet Rogers at WQED for an interview and is baffled by Rogers flat-out Zen attitude on life. Lloyd thinks this to be an act — surely a man who plays a part on a kid’s TV show can be like that in real life, right? There’s got to be a catch here. Even the most hardcore entertainer eventually reveals his cards.

However, Rogers has none. In a later interview Rogers does open up and hints that his relationship with his sons was a bit… difficult due to being the sons of Fred Rogers. When Rogers flips the tables on Lloyd using a stuffed animal, he hits a nerve. A big one. It will show up later when Jerry, who has been trying to make amends with Lloyd, shows up at Lloyd’s place and introduces the woman he left his mother for. Needless to say, the event goes extremely south, Jerry lands in the hospital, and this will leave Lloyd in a state of unresolved limbo where he’s torn between the wounds of the past and carrying on the scars from that past into the present and future.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is so good in its quiet but poignant little story of two men affecting each other in life-enriching ways that it runs the risk of being overlooked as “too zen”, or “safe, but didn’t we have that documentary last year already?” I personally don’t care, this is a movie about people we need more of, people who understand the concept of forgive and forget, of helping others in need, and of bringing harsh truths without using lacerating language (but not sugarcoating them either). Tom Hanks instantly disappears into the role of Fred Rogers and he’s so good that, again, he may be overlooked in favor of other, more impactful performances in a supporting role.

Marielle Heller’s second film (after last year’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?) establishes her as a director of note. This very well could have been a sentimental by the numbers, but she clearly understands both the nature of the article (that eventually became something over 10,000 words and made the front page of Esquire) and of its topic. She also has great respect for Rogers the man and the educator and manages to cleverly insert elements of Mister Rogers Neighborhood into the narrative in ways I found truly touching. I’m looking forward to what she may be directing next. Go see this movie and leave with your heart exalted and a better appreciation for making amends.

Image by EurWeb

Prepare to be outraged. Melina Matsoukas’ feature film debut Queen & Slim arrives with a roar and goes out in a blaze of injustice, This is a newsreel of the latest in a series of hostile encounters between African Americans going on with their lives and officers too eager to gain brownie points and stats in their badges who continue to perpetuate the myth that black men and women must be subjugated at all times, and if there is clearly no evidence of them having done anything wrong, then evidence — justification for the stop — must be produced. The plot is simple as it is harrowing: a criminal defense attorney (Jodi Turner-Smith) and young man (David Kaluuya) meet for a dinner date that doesn’t promise anything relevant. On the way home they get stopped by an officer who happens to be white. The officer makes Slim, the young man, get out of his car as he performs his routine inspection. When Slim does not comply since he was simply driving Queen (Turner-Smith) home, events begin to escalate and become hostile. Queen intervenes, getting shot by the officer. In trying to defend Queen, because by now the officer is out of control, Slim shoots the officer.

A moral conflict ensues: Slim wants to report the event, but Queen, who is law-savvy for obvious reasons, informs Slim that just by being black they would be thrown in jail, and chooses to go on the run. They begin a trek across the country, going south where they hope to find a way to evade capture while deciding what their next move might be.

All throughout the film we keep rooting for Queen and Slim to somehow find a way to make their truth known — after all, they weren’t career criminals. Much like the African-American couple in Crash, these are regular people facing racism in America, a country with deep-seated problems between Whites and Blacks going back hundreds of years.

It’s why I had an issue when promotional advertising and even a character in the movie itself compares Queen and Slim to the “Black Bonnie and Clyde”. I would go out on a limb to perhaps find a similarity with the couple at the center of Badlands, but that couple also was also violent from the get-go (and also based on real-life killers Charlie Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate. The only other reference I could glean from Matsoukas’ punishing yet poetic road movie is Thelma and Louise, another story of two people caught in unfortunate circumstances who also decide that taking the road is better than facing any excess baggage coming with the consequences.

Melina Matsoukas clearly has a strong voice and wow, does she use it! This is a movie that had to be made, Absolutely. It is a love letter to all of the Eric Garners, the Trayvon Martins, all who faced the horrible end of a loaded gun because in this country, when you’re black, and made to show license and registration or you’re simply at the wrong place at the wrong time, you are already marked as guilty even when it’s blatantly clear that you are not. Both Turner-Smith and Kaluuya give standout performances that describe two people progressively finding a spiritual bond that will ultimately end in sacrifice. Hopefully the Academy will acknowledge at least one of them, because my God are they good.

Image from Netflix

Moviegoers, this one broke my heart in two. I don’t tend to see many animation films mainly because a) Pixar and Disney tend to focus on sending a message movie, and that’s boring, b) I’m a little over anime and some of these rather wild stories that I can’t connect with sometimes. Of course, nothing would have prepared me for a movie that not only dabbles in the strange, but also carries with it a heavy dose of sadness right from the opening sequence and into its shattering end.

So, imagine you’re a hand that comes to consciousness inside a lab. You realize that you were once attached to a body. You don’t recall how you got here in the first place. However, blind instinct to return to your place of origin takes over and you make your escape into the unknown. That is one half of this visually stunning picture directed by Jérémy Clapin (in his feature debut, and while I’m at it, my God have there been no shortage of strong to impressive film debuts this year!). The other half involves a young North African young male, Naoufel (voiced by Dev Patel in the English language version, who has found a job a a pizza delivery guy that delivers in 30 minutes or less. However, one delivery to a young woman named Gabrielle takes a bit longer than expected; the encounter, mainly through intercom, has a bit of pregnancy to it. Naoufel is intrigued by the young woman and wanting to get to meet her, takes on a job as an apprentice to a wood craftsman who turns up (after scouring all over for any info on her) to be her uncle. Eventually the two meet, but Naoufel makes a terrible mistake.

He tells her he was the pizza delivery boy.

While all this is happening we go back to the hands trek across town. What is remarkable about the way Clapin approaches the topic of a severed hand trying to find its way back to its owner is that it treats the hand as a completely integrated character full of emotions, hopes, and desires. One encounter with some hungry rats in the Metro is a high spot, as is one where the hand soars through the skies on an umbrella. Meanwhile, in the present, Naoufel’s revelation has taken a halt when Gabrielle freaks out at his confession and disappears.

Eventually, through clever flashbacks and some symbolism of a fly-motif that recurs throughout the movie we come to realize what happened to the hand and who it happened to, and its there that we root more for the hand to reattach itself. When that moment arrives the movie reaches its emotional peak. I’ve never seen an audience react so strongly — so emotionally — during a scene so surreal. This is not your garden-variety crowd pleaser, people: and for Clapin to bring so much beauty into a movie that would be pressed hard to find a crowd shows commitment to the art of animation and making a compelling, tragic story that manages to find a glimmer of hope during the cold of rejection,

ONE CUT OF THE DEAD, A zombie-experimental mash-up.

Still from The Guardian

Just when you couldn’t get another zombie-movie, and with Zombieland: Double Tap still in its last throes in theaters (as of late November), here we get a surprise import from Japan that is sure to satisfy those who like their horror with a healthy dose of the chuckles and a meta slant. Shin’ichirô Ueda’s movie One Cut of the Dead, now available to stream on Shudder, doesn’t invent new grounds, but it offers quite a bit in terms of the fictional suddenly becoming real. A director of art films goes into a closed-off military base where “horrible experiments were made on people” — itself perhaps a nod to Japan’s own checkered past going back to World War II — to film a zombie film, and before you know it, his stage becomes itself invaded by zombies hungry for the entire cast.

It’s all done in a rather impressive shot lasting 40 minutes in length and ends in the Final Girl having disposed of her beau. What the movie then becomes — we then realize — is its own movie within a movie, with the director yelling “Cut!” which then throws us out of the horror narrative proper, and back into the making of the movie per se, from conversations with producers to get it done to finding the cast to then settling down to the actual location in order to start filming proper, which leads us then to the final third of the movie, which is where it delivers on its premise on showing us how it somehow became a meta-horror picture in the first place.

One Cut of the Dead is, honestly, nothing new in the zombie genre. But for a picture to take such a tired, overdone theme and subvert it unto itself to create a rollicking comedy filled with moments of choreography and improvisation, now, that’s something I can bite into. Give it a look see. You’ll be glad you did.

GET OUT YOUR HANDKERCHIEFS! – 40 Years Later

Image from YouTube

Sometimes you need someone like director Bertrand Blier to give French romantic comedies a surprise jolt of energy and his 1978 outing, Get Out Your Handkerchiefs!, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Picture in 1979, doesn’t just do that — it basically spits out its contempt in large, bold letters over a neon-lit billboard. Reader, this is not your typical movie in any way shape or form.

From the word go, where we get introduced to a married couple in a Parisian restaurant. The husband (Gerard Depardieu) is afraid he cannot make his wife happy. She (Carole Laure), meanwhile, sits there, bland and next to comatose, barely even uttering a line, as passive as a houseplant. Husband, determined to make her happy, practically dives into the deep of what seems to be madness and uncontrollable delirium, bringing in outsiders more than happy to help. Sounds nutty? Nope, this is barely the start. Enter the man (Patrick Dewaere, who died too soon) who will become the wife’s paramour with the complete, absurd blessings of Depardieu. Meanwhile, the wife? Still silent, knitting her grey turtleneck sweaters which every cast member will at one point use, a sly wink to their interchangeability. What we don’t expect is that, through Dewaere’s school, she will meet the man who will finally make her happy. And that man, dear readers, is none other than one of Dewaere’s students, a young 13 year old boy played to precocious perfection by Riton Liebman.

It’s quite a surprise to me that nowadays movies have to age their underaged characters to meet approval requirements when in the 70s having a character like Christian (Riton) fall in love with Laure’s character and establish a true connection was more or less okay. Perhaps because Blier’s movie often skirts the edges of farce and pure surrealism, audiences then seemed to accept its premise without question. The movie is not without its flaws; at times it seems Laure is there to be desired, since she has barely any lines and merely remains a passive player in the ludicrous dreamed that is her life amongst the men who navigate her spectrum. However, as a whole, this is one of France’s crazier productions, one that is not devoid of the message of what it is for a person to find a romantic connection in the unusual while everyone around them screams and acts like chicken who have lost their heads.

A Swirl of Comedy and Tragedy in Taika Waititi’s wonderful blend Jojo Rabbit

[Image by Vanity Fair]

Here we arrive to a movie that I’d been putting off for almost a month now mostly due to the fact I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to see another Holocaust movie, even if it was a comedy, even if it was someone given to the absurd like Taika Waititi. It’s not that there have been a huge list of Holocaust satires — you would have to go back to Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece The Great Dictator or something more recent like Mel Brooks’ The Producers for something that outlandish — but I wasn’t just in that kind of mood, to see something that yet again touched the topic of the Third Reich. Even if it was for laughs.

So as the movie started, I saw myself getting thrown into a wicked intro in the style of Beatlemania in which I saw stock footage of German women openly weeping at the mere presence of Adolph Hitler, whom they revered as if he was Christ the Saviour Himself. It’s blsartantly funny, but hints at the mania that spread itself over the Germans looking for something to believe in, in this case, a new leader who could correct the problem. Right away I was aware that Waititi was about to introduce a special kind of story, and not just a ha-ha movie played for cheap laughs at the expense of caricature.

Once that is over, we get introduced to Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) who has joined the Nazi Youth in order to serve Deutchland, but who can’t muster the courage to kill a chicken. And it’s not for lack of trying; Jojo simply seems unfit for this type of recruiting; his only motive to join seems to be his imaginary friend who happens to be the Fuhrer himself (Taika Waititi). An accident at training forces Jojo to remain at home at the behest of his doting mother (Scarlett Johannson), where he finds out that someone is hiding within the walls of his house. That someone is a teenage girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie, quite the standout), who was a friend (and dead ringer) of Jojo’s sister. Elsa also happens to be Jewish, and hiding one is a capital crime. Jojo’s mother somehow convinces him that Elsa might just be a ghost, but Elsa and Jojo form an uneasy acquaintance based more on curiosity of each other which leads to some truly unexpected developments and discoveries.

Jojo Rabbit is a movie that starts as something closer to What We Do in the Dark and and slowly reveals its true cards much later. For a chunk of the film’s initial run the tone is flatly satirical verging on the ridiculous and the laughs will come in droves one after another. Once the movie veers away from the silly — like seeing Sam Rockwell as a variation of the character he played in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri as he trains his protégées into being killing machines when its clear no one seems to know what the hell they’re doing (in this sense the movie also does a sly nod to M.A.S.H) — it becomes something much more dramatic, more urgent. Elsa, while safety hidden, is still in mortal danger of discovery, and the war is creeping ever closer to Jojo’s front door. And why is the Gestapo stopping at his house?

Like I said, this is a movie that has big themes that place it more aligned with Germany Year Zero and Schindler’s List while still keeping a tone closer to the positive. There are scenes of incredible beauty due to their simplicity — one of them, which got to me the most, has Jojo following a robin’s egg blue butterfly down the street, which could be an analogy of him slowly falling in love with Elsa. Another one just comes out of nowhere, and it is tragic as it ids horrifying even when it is telegraphed rather early with one set of unfortunate characters who stepped up to Nazi Germany. Its this one that veers the film right into the middle of the horror of war and its aftermath as Germany self-destructed. Its not as though it would have come as surprise; still, when it happens, if you cannot produce a single tear, well…

Jojo Rabbit, while still in the key of satire, delivers a knockout emotional blow by placing the power of friendship over the evils of hatred, and that to me is more than enough.

THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS, Not Very Strange, Too Much Melodrama, but Stanwyck Makes it Work.

[image from YouTube]

Whenever I would hear about Lewis Milestone’s The Strange Love of Martha Ivers I would get the impression of a work of great complexity layered by loads of character development and dark plot machinations. Perhaps because I’ve become used to seeing Barbara Stanwyck play hard-as-nails women on the screen even in her early period that I would expect her to practically drive the plot to the ground with her sole presence as she did in Double Indemnity. In The Strange Love of Martha Ivers it takes a while for her character to enter the story proper as we’re given an extended prologue in which the young Martha Ivers, played by Janis Wilson, receives the blunt end of harsh treatment from her elderly aunt (Judith Anderson). When their animosity reaches a head, and the aunt buys her ticket to the Promised Land without knowing it, Martha and her tutor’s son Walter (who was a witness to the murder) keep their secret to themselves.

Years later, we meet Martha as an adult, now a powerful woman married to Walter (Kirk Douglas, in his film debut). There isn’t much love in this marriage, or let’s say, Walter loves Martha but Martha really could not care less. Enter Sam (Van Heflin), an old friend with whom Martha was going to run away with in order to escape the oppression of her aunt. Walter immediately suspects Sam is in town because he knows what happened that fateful night. Sam on the other hand revisits old haunts and comes by a young woman on parole, Toni (Lizabeth Scott). The two hit it off and Sam decides to help her out, make an honest woman of herself. In the interim, Sam also reconnects with Martha. This definitely does not go well with Walter who remains convinced Sam is out to get him, and has Sam be the victim of a set-up by blackmailing Toni. The ruse fails; Sam remains in town, remains with Toni, but still feels compelled towards Martha.

For the most part, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers works solely a a melodrama; noir it is not. The story is just too sloppy to be taken seriously, with enough head scratching moments as to why does Sam remain in the story when the story has far moved past him, or why is Toni, a marginal character at best, even included as a cog in the wheels of Iverstown. It seems to me that, because of the rise in popularity of noir (in all but name; film noir proper would not be called as such until the 1970s) demanded that there be a foil with perhaps dubious alliances to add a crack in the story. Toni is the only character not tied to any of the events from Martha Ivers’ younger years; she has nothing really to offer the story other than the appearance of a red herring.

Lizabeth Scott and Van Heflin in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.

The only saving grace of Milestone’s silly movie is the presence of his threesome. Cast against type Van Heflin and Kirk Douglas make strong impressions of men caught under the bonds from the past and Douglas especially makes the most of his emasculated persona. Stanwyck is not at her best here; that would have been in Double Indemnity (as I mentioned above). Her Martha Ivers is merely one-dimensional, a woman in love with power more than anyone else, but who doesn’t really commit any action of savagery to warrant her own depravity. For a chunk of the movie all Stanwyck does is enunciate her lines with precise chilliness, convey a vague sense of menace, and that’s all. When she suddenly proposes Sam to do the unthinkable it kind of comes a bit forced, but okay, this was the 40s and movies were not as complex then as they are. Even so, I have seen many movies from this time period and even those called “women’s pictures: featured women with strong characters and solid motives. I just didn’t quite see it here, and that just makes the movie not much else than a footnote in 1940s cinema.

And that is a shame. The story is good, meaty even, but too much time is spent on recreating the past, and even more time on bringing these four people together, that by the time this happens there isn’t much more story to tell and events seem to happen to force the story into a violent resolution between Stanwyck and Douglas. Even so, an okay movie with Stanwyck is better than nothing, right?

DOCTOR SLEEP: a rich, satisfying adaptation of both the novel and its predecessor, the horror classic the shining

[Image from Flickering Myth]

This review contains spoilers below.

Right on the heels of It: Chapter Two and even the relatively minor success of the Netflix-released In the Tall Grass comes Mike Flanagan’s ambitious adaptation of not just the title novel Doctor Sleep, Stephen King’s 2013 short novel (well, short for King anyway) which follows Danny Torrance as an adult after escaping the Overlook with his mother Wendy. [And kudos to the producers to keeping the title intact and not inserting The Shining anywhere as they now do with most sequels. It’s boring, lazy, and frankly, unimaginative to a jaw dropping level, as if the audience had to be explained from the title itself what they were going to watch.]

Doctor Sleep focuses, as I said, on the further life of Danny Torrance, whom we see as a kid in the opening shots, but more on him later. Who we first meet is another kind of monster (Rebecca Ferguson, who nails the part), and she comes in the form of a beautiful woman with long, somewhat matted (lived in) brown hair and goes by Rose the Hat due to the top hat she constantly wears. She is a part of a cult of vampires called the True Knot who feed on the essence of children who have that special precognitive talent called “the shining” that was amply discussed in the previous book, and start the movie proper by luring a little girl into a nefarious end.

At the same time, Danny continues to experience terrifying nightmares of The Overlook. Dick Hallorann (Carl Lumbly), or namely, his ghost, comes to Danny’s aid to give him an idea on how to lock those creatures up so he can continue to live quietly and not fear their relentless persecution of him. However, years later, Dan (Ewan McGregor), is sort of lost, barely alive, and rolling like tumbleweed through the country as he also has succumbed to alcohol. An encounter with a young mother who’s a drug addict and her baby son will leave him further marked, but its when he finds himself wandering aimlessly into New Hampshire that he finally finds the healing he needs to his drinking and a purpose to his life (and a poignant use to his own psychic talent).

[Image from Complex]

Enter Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran), a little girl who also has psychic powers. Hers, however, are dramatically enhanced and she is not shy of using them. A circus act she sees gives her the inspiration to scare the living fuck out of her parents who frankly, don’t know what to do with her. However, they do take care of her the best that they can, as she slowly morphs into a young teen who reaches out to Dan, perhaps because likes attract likes, energy attracts energy. Quickly, a psychic bone is established, and Dan becomes Abra’s Tony — the same way Tony, Danny’s future self, became Danny’s own friend. Interestingly, Abra at first thinks he’s not really real but an invisible playmate. However, their lives will take a sudden turn when the True Knot commit an act of cruel, sadistic vampirism on a boy (Jacob Tremblay), an act of which Abra unwittingly becomes a psychic witness.

Rose also becomes aware of Abra through Abra’s interloping, and senses her great power, the kind that can supply her and her clan with energy to last them a lifetime. It takes a bit for Rose to crave this kind of energy, but Abra’s need to find closure for the boy starts to close the arc that separates and shields her to Rose. When forces collide, however, Rose makes it her mission to steal this energy by whatever means necessary, which forces Dan to become her protector. Abra however, is a force much too strong to be held down and has some tricks up her sleeve and is more than ready for a fight against evil. All these forces, which in other circumstances would have never crossed paths, start to dance towards each other for some unimaginable conflict, a superstorm of massive proportions if you will, and when they do collide, it becomes an epic battle of good and evil that leads those who remain — Dan, and Abra, and Rose — on the way to the root of all evil in King’s universe, the place that was in itself its own sick monster: The Overlook Hotel.

Mike Flanagan is quickly becoming a deep connoisseur of the King universe and the horror genre. As I said, he has an ambitious eye for bringing a story to life without sacrificing the necessary translation from book to the moving image. With Doctor Sleep he takes his time, like the book, to let the action simply meander along at its own pace, and this might be a deterrent to horror movie fans who are used to a 90 minute movie and having a scare or a shock with almost numbing precision, complete with a bloody resolution and even a hint of a sequel. Flanagan doesn’t once go that route. While the very first scene is shocking, he gives you ample views of all his characters, good and bad. It’s a unique approach to horror that is not being done by practically anyone. Perhaps because the novel has a large timeline and overlapping plot developments, he lets his people grow on you as a form of preparation for when the plot gets darker. It never seems like the characters even know what story they are in; the aforementioned trio live in their own worlds, some in the dark, some in the light and Dan as a half-ling (as he was described in The Shining), caught in between, tormented by visions he would rather not see, but wanting to do right.

[image from Good Morning Wilton]

And reader, that is exactly how I like my horror. I thoroughly enjoyed his adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House which takes the seed of Shirley Jackson’s classic novel and runs with it, revealing more tragedy than direct scares, and any jump-scares come with their own sense of worth instead of the usual shrieking violins and a cut to a cat, or an inconsequential character. Doctor Sleep has one or two of these but for a long time, it never truly shows its cards, so much that because of this, and its running time of 150 minutes, it might turn off viewers. And I think we need to start to rethink what we want in a horror movie. Yes, we have those that don’t merit more than 80 – 90 minutes of time, but this story is too detailed, with ample prologue and a prolonged chapter devoted solely to how one young woman gets recruited into the True Knot. That attention to source material is what makes Flanagan’s work stand out from the rest.

From here on, spoilers.

Flanagan even finds a way to merge both novels into one entirely satisfying without venturing into plagiarism of Kubrick’s own version. Yes, tonally and musically, the movie does pay a lot of homage to the 1980 version but Doctor Sleep remains its own movie, its own story. Perhaps because those who didn’t quite like the way the 1980 movie went in its final act — an outside maze? and… no confrontation between father and son? — will be satisfied by the way Doctor Sleep resolves its climactic scene. I did, and I didn’t, and I will tell you why.

While I liked that it went that way, it basically reduces Abra to a damsel in distress who never gets to truly inflict some carnage with her own unbelievably powerful magic. [She does get to do some grievous harm, but when Dan tells her to run, she mysteriously does not sense the danger he is in.] By having her assume the role of Danny in the book it makes Abra’s part rather reductive… but then, we’d have no movie. Abra would quite frankly let it all loose and reduce the Overlook to smithereens. We’d be left without a movie, or at least, with too easy a conflict resolution and I think that what Flanagan wants to do is to find a true closure to the events of 1980 and close that chapter for good.

[Image from NBC]

All that is left is to wonder if Doctor Sleep will stand the test of time on repeated viewings. Keep in mind that The Shining (like many Kubrick movies) was not very well received upon its initial release. After almost 40 years it has grown in stature to now stand as one of the most frightening horror movies to have been made down from its striking visuals and oppressive feel (despite the vastness of the Overlook) to its downright repellent, nightmare-inducing score which featured compositions like Wendy Carlos’ Dies Irae and Kryszstof Penderecki’s hair-raising Utrenja (movements Ewangelia and Kanon Paschy). Doctor Sleep comes with deeply layered characters. Dan Torrance emerges as a reluctant hero who would rather not revisit the darkness he was put into, while Rose, a somewhat two-dimensional villain in the book, all but walks away with the movie with her own addiction to other people’s energy much in the style of Pennywise. I loved how the movie gave her this New Age look of someone who does yoga and incurs in astral projection, which is essential to the characters’ stalking, to great effect. Not many horror movies employe those tactics and they may want to do so.

However, the star of Doctor Sleep is unabashedly Kyliegh Curran. She comes into the movie about 45 minutes in as a teenage version of Abra and her entrance is rather powerful. Like the Abra in the book, she expresses an equal level of hatred for the True Knot, but where she differs is her mercilessness. Abra is without a doubt one of the strongest female characters to emerge from any King story. Curran plays her with enormous vulnerability and street-smarts that make her a force to be reckoned with.

All and all, to finalize, I’m glad to see good horror that ls really trying to get under your skin and stay there for a while. That’s the only kind of horror I want to see being made. I’m sure King is squealing for joy with this adaptation, and that it somewhat resurrected his vision for his now classic 1977 novel that somehow, as a Kubrick movie, became the basis of much contention, documentaries, and even conspiracy theories.

The Children of Dora Maar School take control in Eric Baudelaire’s UN FILM DRAMATIQUE

It’s not that I don’t go see documentaries; I do, but usually I tend not to review them being I find that the medium, while visual, is more presentational and discursive rather than a strict narrative. Of course, for the past decade or so the medium has been morphing and delving into meta-narration, docu-fiction, and docs-dramas or a hybridization of visuals and exposition to create something completely new and challenging to the viewer. Eric Baudelaire’s Un Film Dramatique — Americanized as A Dramatic Film for its 2020 release — is one example. A movie I missed at the New York Film Festival, I managed to see it at The Contenders at the MoMA with barely a notion that it was a filming of the lives of a group of children at the new Dora Maar School in the outer limits of Paris, and that it played at Locarno to great acclaim. As a matter of fact, Festival Scope had it for a solid month in September in its Locarno section and I, occasional documentary watcher that I am, kept pushing it farther and farther back until it became unavailable until it made its second appearance at The Contenders. So, lucky me to have seen it and share it with you.

[For those of you who don’t know what The Contenders at the MoMA is, it is a screening of films that either premiered in the current year or were screened at film festivals around the world that bring a heavy quota of artistic value to cinema. It runs annually from November to January at the MoMA and I strongly urge movie lovers who aren’t aware of it go at least once and experience a new film or revisit one that somehow stuck in the memory for its bold visuals.]

Baudelaire began filming at the Dora Maar school what would have been a more traditional documentary (it seems), but eventually morphed into the movie that took on a life of its own. Twenty-one children for a period of about four years documented aspects of their own lives, sometimes in playful manners, other times in rather precocious discussions of class, race, politics (it becomes clear none of them care much for Marine Le Pen or our current sitting president), and the plight of immigrants in Paris where, much like here, if you do not have a reason to be in France you will be unceremoniously asked to leave. For such a large cast — we get introduced to them sometimes in groups, but sometimes in solo vignettes — Baudelaire assembles a rather colorful collage of living in the Seine-Saint Denis area of Paris, a jurisdiction often referred to by its administrative number 93, a number associated with ghetto, poverty, and low-income families. Some of the children — including friends Guy and David — are extremely outspoken, while one of the girls, Fatima, has no idea what to say to the camera and instead quietly films herself going about the day at home. Another group of girls wonder the fate of their friend who moved to a “place with palm trees” and debate to whether she may be still in France or perhaps the Caribbean. [It turns out, she moved to Reunion.]

This is a wonderful experimental film in which children express themselves in simple interactions with the camera and amongst themselves, and in a way, due to its time-lapse, could even have elements of a coming of age film. Often incisive as well as laugh out loud funny solely based on these incredibly bright, observant children, A Dramatic Film emerges as a commentary on what the future will be like once these kids grow into their adult selves. hoper Baudelaire will do something in the likes of Michael Apted’s ongoing, similar experimental Up series (now in its ninth iteration, 63 Up, which I will be reviewing once it makes its debut In theaters).

The Wicked Little Noir called DETOUR

They don’t get bleaker and darker and grittier than Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1945 Poverty Row film Detour, a movie that not just plunges headlong into its own soullessness but practically basks in it as if it were predators ripping apart its prey and bathing in its blood. With an anti-hero who gets lured into a plot involving stolen identities and large amounts of cash and a femme-fatale that dominates the story even before she enters the story proper, this is the essence of film-noir, hard-boiled to the core and not apologizing for it.

Tom Neal plays Al Roberts, a down and out piano player dating lounge singer Sue (Claudia Drake). Sue longs for a better life and heads out west to make it as a performer. Al follows suit soon after, and while hitchhiking in Arizona he makes the fateful meeting of Charles Haskell, Jr. (Edmund McDonald), a man with a gambling addiction who also seems to be hooked on pills. Al notices Haskell’s right hand is full of scratches, which Haskell explains it came from a dangerous female. Disquieting enough, but even more so is when Al takes the wheel to give Haskell a rest and Haskell simply dies in his sleep. Not wanting to attract attention from the police, Al disposes of Haskell but takes his vehicle and ID.

As he continues driving into California, he has the unfortunate luck of encountering the last person he would expect, and she comes under the form of the woman Haskell had picked up before Al, the woman who Haskell had a row with, and boy, does she have claws. Vera (Ann Savage) at first enters the vehicle sullenly but soon wakes up to realize where she is, and before you can bat an eye she has managed to secure the upper hand on Al, threatening to inform the cops of his taking Haskell’s car and money and is ferociously dragging Al alongside with her down a road where all one needs to do to get money is take it and run and spend the spoils on the quick and easy.

What makes Detour so effective is how nasty its story is, how completely self-serving its characters are, and how unsure we are that what Al is telling us is the truth. If you’ve seen it, you’ll note that the movie is one long flashback in which Al continues to remind us how he seems to be the victim of circumstance. We don’t know for sure if he truly had a girlfriend who left him for a better life, or if any of the events in which he hitchhikes in order to reunite with her actually happened. Haskell’s death simply happens, and sets up the entire chain of events in motion. Could Al have made up the whole Vera-Haskell fight as an alibi to justify his later encountering her down the road? We never know, and the movie is so bare-bones that is basically leaves this and the escalating cat-and-mouse relationship between Vera and Al that ends with them joined by a telephone wire open to interpretation.

Adding to this is Ann Savage’s merciless interpretation of a woman on top. Had this movie received more publicity (it played well, yes, but not enough so to garner an Oscar nomination) Savage may have received the attention from the Academy and perhaps secured roles in A-pictures. Her Vera rivals even Bette Davis at her bitchiest and has her walking off with the entire movie. Why her career didn’t take off is a mystery. Savage later claimed that her antagonistic relationship with the character Tom Neal played wasn’t too far from reality; Neal allegedly was rather unprofessional to Savage, and this, she believes, helped her react back at him under the guise of acting.

Detour is available on YouTube, but if you can, check the restored version on either Prime or iTunes. Highly recommendable.

Pet Sematary VS Pet Sematary

[Image from Slashfilm]

At one point, Mary Lambert was a promising director who seemed to have a vision and a future in film making. Lambert’s music videos for Madonna often held striking imagery, so the step to movies seemed to be inevitable. Her debut movie Siesta was weird in the way most first-time directors attempting to score a name and visibility in the festival circle tend to be, and that is perfectly acceptable, Directors often go to great lengths to make their first mark memorable, and more often than not, plot believability moves to second place when the visuals and themes are strong, which Siesta had. I remember seeing it on Showtime where it seemed to play on a loop. I also remember watching it twice, and not really knowing if what happened was inside Ellen Barkin’s character’s mind or if the film itself was some incursion into the surreal. Did it matter? At the time, I would say no, because I had he same experience after watching David Lynch’s Eraserhead, a film I still cannot grasp 40 years later. Anyway. Before I lose track, what I meant was, Siesta seemed to announce a strong visual voice under the direction of Mary Lambert.

So, when HBO showed a sneak peek into the making of Pet Sematary, complete with Stephen King announcing how absolutely frightening it was, I was prepared to see a truly disturbing, nightmarish entry into the horror genre. At the same time, a part of me was hesitant. By the time Pet Sematary was revealed to audiences the genre was all but dead in the water, with the occasional surprise. Even so, I was excited for a new Stephen King adaptation and hoped for the best.

Well, folks; Hereditary this is not. I lay blame on Stephen King himself who wrote the screenplay, and while by now calling King a master of horror would be like calling water wet, his entry into the screenplay genre is another story altogether. While the 1989 movie follows the book almost page by page with some slight deviations too small to really notate, some subtlety could have been used to at least make the story as unsettling as possible. From the opening credits, we get shots of the cemetery and a use of creepy children singing slightly off-tune, both tropes of earlier films. A family, moving into a spectacular new home overseeing a lake, but who is inexplicably entranced by a next to invisible path that leads to the woods. Yes, it’s in the novel… but who on earth would be this drawn to a tangential part of a property with that lake steps away (which would most likely have a dock, but I digress)? An all but too on-the-nose ominous explanation of what the path is, and where it leads to. Cardboard conversations that just don’t feel natural. And I was barely 20 minutes into the movie. Then Victor Pascow’s over-the-top introduction and how he infiltrates himself into the Creed’s life, all but shaking heavy chains and moaning, and an out of left field flashback in which we learn Rachel’s sister Zelda (could the sisters have been more disparately named?) died from spinal meningitis, leaving Rachel scarred. [It never fits into any of the events in the novel, so why King felt it was necessary to include it eludes me.]

All this gets filmed with the interest of a dead cat on the road. It’s as if Lambert, who again, displayed strong visuals in many of her videos for pop artists, either didn’t get the backing she wanted to truly show what she could be capable of, or she figured the movie itself would be a blip in her career and she could just get it done and move on. She shows no clue as to how to build any scene to meet a satisfactory end — family dinner sequences look and feel flat, characters behave only in service to when the plot needs them (or when it doesn’t), and there is a lot of filler thrown in for good measure and a couple of glaring continuity flaws. Several lines, whose repeated appearances on page works (“The soil of a man’s heart is stonier,” is one of them) could have been omitted altogether because let’s face it, no one will guess what that means and it doesn’t matter because while what happens midway is truly horrific and the one sequence in the story that sustains some nail-biting suspense, we never get into the heart of Louis Creed (or Jud Crandall for that matter). Louis serves to be the poor hapless victim trying to do his best to keep his family together.

Thirty years later, and we have a new version of Pet Sematary. This one arrived with about the same anticipation and title spelling as last time, complete with teaser trailers and all. The story is basically the same — family moves into a wonderful new home that harbors a terrible secret just beyond, with one crucial plot switch, which again had me scratching my head when I saw it last April because as awful as that plot development is, it is the one thing that pretty much unspools the entire Creed family and everyone around it.

Pet Sematary 2019 breezes by, touching plot points as though it were an Impressionist doing a rendition of a scene as barely remembered. That works even less this time around because there is, again, next to no time to flesh a story out. Lambert at least attempts to let her characters breathe even if the air was badly manufactured and her actors are from soap and TV stock. For characters to reach a point where there is no other option to alleviate the grief, there should be enough scenes to slowly walk them there. However, this version is even less interested in the why’s and how’s which posits the question, was the remake really needed? Did we truly need to see an adaptation of a novel that was never one of the more salient works of Stephen King? I would say no, but in light of the recent successes of several adaptations of works large and small, the directors thought they could bat it out of the park.

They couldn’t. And because of that, I think that we should let this one rest the sleep of the dead. It didn’t work the first time, it didn’t work in 2019.

Perhaps, the book itself is to blame. It is too… eager to go and wreck havoc on a family for the sakes of self-fulfilling a cursed ground that seems to have a sentience of its own. [Places like these abound in King novels.] It is a shame because the story on its own, without the horror overtones, would have worked — family loses a loved one and falls apart. Again, Hereditary doesn’t just tread those waters; it goes for the deep blackness beyond and perverts the entire concept of what a family is. If both Lambert and the team of Widmeyer and Kolsch hadn’t gone for tired tropes and perhaps gone for a story steeped in dread, an air of inescapable doom, gallows humor, and made the place a truly menacing location wed have a different kind of movie. Instead we now get a completely re-imagined ending that is so twisted it’s almost funny, and that isn’t exactly a compliment.