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.

Four for the VOD Crowd: NIGHT HUNTER, GALVESTON, IXCANUL, and THE WITCH IN THE WINDOW

Still from The Witch in the Window — image from THN

One of the perks of living in a city with so many art-house cinemas (and even a couple of multiplexes like AMC and Regal who also have at least one or two movie theaters that also mainly play Indies and foreign movies) is that you can get a wide variety of cinema that fall way on the left side of your average popcorn blockbuster. Its a blessing and a curse because when you have so many movies competing for your attention its likely you’re almost playing a losing game of swimming uphill as you scramble to see what you can for the movie’s one-week only release.

The good thing is, many of these get released almost immediately onto streaming platforms so if you’re a festival lover like me and missed half of the entries at Tribeca or SXSW or that one semi-obscure film that somehow caught your attention after reading about it on movie magazines, you will rest assured to find them on some streaming platforms for your viewing pleasure,

Night Hunter

In between Superman movies Henry Cavill attempts to prove his versatility by entering the shoes of the archetypical grizzled detective named Marshall estranged from his family because of work who gets caught in a complicated plot involving abductions, a criminal mastermind behind it, and a race against time to solve it in David Raymond’s debut feature film Night Hunter (originally titled Nomis). A body of a woman gets discovered on a freight truck, and it gets assumed she was escaping her assailant before meeting a gruesome death. At the same time, retired judge Michael Cooper (Ben Kingsley) and his daughter Lara (Eliana Jones) are conducting stings against pedophiles on their own. When Lara herself gets kidnapped, Marshall is able to locate her through her tracker, and finds several other women being held captive inside an isolated house. The other occupant, who gets arrested, is a mentally disabled young man named Simon (Brendan Fletcher). Interrogations made to Simon prove fruitless as the man clearly has no real grasp on reality… or does he?

[image from Best Buy]

Night Hunter owes a lot to 90s thrillers and cop movies in the Seven / Copycat slant, although one can also see large traces of recent movies like Prisoners as well. Without giving too much away, its safe to say Raymond;s movie is far, far from perfect and some plot developments might raise an eyebrow (bringing your child to work, then horrified when that same child gets abducted, and a key character gets kidnapped twice). I would say Raymond’s Night Hunter is more the equivalent of a pulpy novel one might find in the thriller section of any bookstore, one that contains juicy enough moments to draw one’s attention if one doesn’t care to ask too many questions about how one arrived from point A to B to C. The cinematography makes it look much more expensive than the movie is and often the movie has a faint European feel, as though one were watching a Scandinavian thriller. On the minus side, for a movie that boasts performances by Stanley Tucci and Nathan Fillion, these are largely wasted, but I get it; even A-list actors must work in tinier productions. Aiming for Paul Dano’s disturbing shoes in the aforementioned Prisoners is Benjamin Fletcher, who alternates from truly creepy to incredibly shrill. All in all, this is a satisfying movie that should fill all the base expectations.

Galveston

Melanie Laurent’s first movie Breathe (Respire) was a striking debut that had that shocking finale which made the audience which I saw it gasp; it was almost as if Laurent herself had taken a club and swung it onto the audience’s stomachs; we were left in a stupor, numb but horrified and oddly, perversely satisfied. It was the announcement on her behalf that she had something to say, and she continues to prove that streak with her sophomore film Galveston, her take on Neo-noir. Based on Nic Pizzolatto;s award winning novel (who also helmed the screenplay under a pseudonym), Galveston tells the story of Roy (Ben Foster), a hitman involved in a violent double-cross orchestrated by his boss (Beau Bridges in a welcome small role), which leads him to meet a young woman named Rocky (Elle Fanning). She’s an escort who has a secret of her own, a daughter posing as a sister who she is trying to protect. An attempt at blackmailing his former boss leads the pair into dangerous territory in which neither of them may survive,

Image from Nu Metro

Galveston has a look and a feel of Ben Foster’s character, equal parts wired up and tired, beaten up but begging for one more chance as he opens up to this lost women he’s now somehow found himself having to protect. Laurent knows her way around the camera, framing each scene with a feeling that nothing good can come of Roy’s enterprise, but she even then instills the movie with a fragile sense of hope that the both will reach safe haven and start life anew, away from the mess of their criminal lives. In a way, this movie is rather anti-noir, in which Roy comes off less an anti-hero sucked in by a shady woman and unable to move forward, but more a reluctant hero trying to do good. Rocky on the other hand is clearly defined by her sense of rescue and duty to her last surviving relative, and Fanning plays her with equal parts vulnerability bordering on helplessness and moments of bravery. This is, overall, a strong second feature for Laurent and I am anxious to see what direction she will take with her next film and it makes me now interested in seeing Diving, a movie that never was screened or released in the US, and is now available on Prime.

Ixcanul

Movies like Ixcanul don’t get the exposure they should because of the external presentation of culture that may alienate anyone seeking a more formulaic, accessible story. The irony is, Jayro Bustamante’s story couldn’t be more accessible and is as old as time itself; it just happens to be dressed in the traditions and beliefs of the indigenous people who live at the shadow of the dormant volcano that titles the movie.

The story, as simple as running water: Maria, a 17 year old girl living in a society that is a bubble and seems to exist out of time, promised to a man in marriage, but in love with another who wishes to emigrate to the US. You can almost guess what happens next with the latter part of the sentence, but Bustamante moves his story rather languorously — allowing only certain information to reach the audience without venturing into melodrama nor maudlin.

Preceding Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma by four years, Ixcanul bears a spiritual link in the presentation of a nearly mute woman rendered incapable of making her own decisions, at the mercy of tradition and what we could call superstition. Bustamante seeks to shine light on a people mostly forgotten and uses a tableau of tragedy and spiritual beliefs to inspire compassion and understanding. The looming volcano, the place where Maria and her mother go to pray and perform rituals, turns out to be more than a myth, but even in the face of exploitation and disempowerment, life must continue, as does tradition, which is firmly entrenched within the narrative down to the last beautiful shot.

The Witch in the Window

It’s never a good idea to buy a house that turns out to be haunted. Usually the lingering spirit or spirits feel as though you are invading your space and they’re not nice about it. However, we never get a feeling the the house Simon and Finn (Alex Draper and Charlie Tacker) are flipping may be hiding a dark secret until much later, so director Andy Mitton fleshes out the relationship between father and son in a way that doesn’t get done that often in horror movies. It’s a smart and also touching choice which greatly helps the movie once the house starts revealing its ghost (Carol Stanzione). Lydia, the titular witch in the window, appears almost midway, and has her own agenda, and it’s not what you might think, which is a nice surprise.

The Witch in the Window is less outright horror and more a domestic psychodrama with some slight supernatural overtones that never quite coalesce into full-blown horror, but rely more on the power of narration to deliver its premise. Think of it as one of those ghost stories you may have read in your English literature class in which the story depended less on shock and pure horror but a slow, deliberate construction of a relationship… that then got a wrench thrown into it. If you take Lydia away the movie still works well on it own. That speaks a lot for a little movie that has such a short run time like this one.

The Witch in the Window is available on Shudder.

Almodovar, at his most self-reflective, in PAIN & GLORY.

[magr from Film Affinity]

For me, it has become a truth that I acknowledge wherein a director, a storyteller, has one basic story to tell, and that is his own. It doesn’t matter that the storyteller or a movie director will navigate different schemas in order to seem versatile in various genres, and truly, many do. In the end, when all is said and done, when you look at the story from an objective perspective, the result is that details begin to emerge that will pinpoint to the autobiographical, and by essence, the most personal of confessions.

It’s no secret that Almodovar loves women, and almost always features them as the leads in his movies. So it’s rather refreshing to see that for once, Almodovar has taken a different approach and filmed the closest thing to a memory play in Pain & Glory (Dolor y gloria), featuring a writer/director not unlike himself who takes a reflective look into the past in order to find facets of himself that have made him the person he is today.

Salvador Mello (Antonio Banderas) is a director in decline whose movie “Sabo”r (Taste) has become rediscovered and re-released to a new audience who of course wants to see more of the director himself, know the person, as cinephiles do. Mello, however, is in a mental funk and suffers from physical ailments, which have him calling upon a colleague, fellow actor Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), who was the star of Sabor and with whom Mello had a fallout due to his performance. Crespo and Mello make up over some hallucinogens, which lead Mello to revisit the past when he and his mother Jacinta (Penelope Cruz, as usual, luminous and Earthy) moved to Paterna.

Crespo discovers Mello has been writing a story called Addiction which Mello considers not only unpublishable, but too personal. Crespo, however, is so taken by the powerful, moving text that he wishes to perform the play, and after some coaxing, he delivers an emotional performance that draws the presence of Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), Mello’s ex-lover and the lead character of the moving story. Mello and Federico reunite and have one of the most moving, emotionally shattering, and erotically charged conversations, an extended scene fraught with intense closure that we almost forget that Almodovar is barely halfway through his book of memories, and we still have a couple of scenes that have to come forth in order to bring the film to a proper close.

Some of these scenes are so beautifully rendered I get the feeling Almodovar took some time in fleshing out how they could transpire and look in the overall product. While there are no flashy transitions like the dramatic shift that happens right in the middle of Julieta, Pain & Glory meanders along, often using his special brand of humor and absurd scenes to pepper a moment of reconnection, and occasionally — but very sparingly — veering into pathos. As a matter of fact, this is one of the most emotionally restrained films I have seen in Almodovar’s body of work. Nowhere is there intrusive music as it happened, for example, in High Heels or All About My Mother, and simple expositions by themselves reveal layers of drama just simmering underneath. If anything, the most expressive part of Pain & Glory is the use of color, with every color getting some form of exposition, but especially his use of reds, greens, and orange.

[BFI]

Transitions to Mello’s childhood are extremely poignant and linger on much after the end; scenes in which the young Salvador wonders what will become of himself and his mother as they take refuge in a train station, or later, when Salvador confronts her on the topic of education, are the stuff reminiscent of Italian Neo-realism and cement the type of mother-son relationship that anchors the story, and even inform his own somewhat close relation to his assistant Mercedes (Nora Navas, an actress with a passing resemblance to Carmen Maura)..

Later, Salvador finds himself discovering his own sexuality in a rather delicate manner. Almodovar treats this specific sequence with extreme taste; it’s no secret that many of us found ourselves while admiring an older man, and the way this happens is almost accidental, but crucial to the future Mello. As payment for fixing up Jacinta’s house, Salvador offers to teach the young construction worker to read and write. Now, there is a reason the worker comes under a specific physicality (he is muscular and attractive), but before, it happens that an impromptu moment has the worker painting Salvador on canvas. Once he is done, he takes a shower, and that is where Salvador accidentally sees the older youth in the nude and faints dead away. The situation is not resolved, but the painting finds its way to Salvador’s hands as an adult and a short but moving letter where the young man thanked Salvador for teaching him to read and write.

The beauty of Pain & Glory is that its a personal story that anyone could relate to. While watching Salvador engage with the older Jacinta and filling her with promises that never came to fruition (because life happens), I ended the ghost of my own mother sitting quietly next to me, holding my hand, letting me know that it was all okay. You see, throughout the movie, Salvador fights with an enormous level of self-doubt stemming from his own self-worth, a stigma placed by Jacinta;s limited understanding. How many of us have had that happen, a parent who, while they loved us, couldn’t quite get us? Almodovar knows that all too well and plays that messy relationship with unbelievable compassion.

Its safe to say, and probably redundant by now, that Pain & Glory is not just a good movie but perhaps his best ever, his most mature, his most emotionally satisfying, one whose story continually reveals itself to its viewers, one that will evolve over time as a design of great honesty and emotional nakedness. It is anchored by its entire cast, but Antonio Banderas, an actor who rarely has been able to play quality roles, playing a haunted man trying to cope with his own sense of mortality and his future. Shambling throughout the movie with unruly hair and expressive eyes, he confronts all the ghosts of the past, achieving beautiful closures even when some of those might be a little messy.

On Netflix: Steven Soderbergh’s THE LAUNDROMAT

Wealth is a dirty business, and Steven Soderbergh’s The Laundromat sets out to do a vertiginous explanation of just how deep down, how entrenched into our global consciousness it has become. Focusing and using the ones who got caught, Jurgen Mossack and Elmer Fonseca (Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas) as hosts, we get a quick succession of vignettes that tell us how the entire scheme all works. Soderbergh, a director who has always employed a sharp visual style, at first presents the men in matching outfits and moves them from what seems to be an open paradise to an underground club within seconds, both with martinis in hand, to introduce one unfortunate victim, a tiny, tiny cog on a massive wheel.

That woman is Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep), who finds herself not only a widow following a freak boating accident in Lake George, but now, at the setback with the insurance agency who will not provide payment due to her husband’s untimely death. That story shifts to a conversation being played out by owner of the tour boat (Robert Patrick) whose financial advisor (David Schimmwe) informs that he switched to an agency operating out of the tiny islands of St, Christopher and Nevis in order to avoid costs. The operator of that firm (Jeffrey Wright) turns out to be living a double life, and part of a larger money laundering scheme that now has Ellen out of a retirement condo as well.

More subplots get introduced: a filthy rich socialite finds her friend is having sex with her father, but the father is willing to give her assets to banks as payment for her silence. Most intriguingly, a sequence in which Rosalind Chao and Mattias Schoenaert engage in verbal warfare over — you guessed it — money, and lots of it, which ends in someone dying. It all seems to come back to the roots that were Mossack and Fonseca, who managed a gigantic money laundering operation out of Panama and is, according to the movie, one of many operating, unscathed, controlling everything from politics to who gets what in terms of wealth.

Soderbergh’s film is less a dramatic affair than a 90 minute expose of how this all happens, and the mood is definitely cynical if not outright bouncy. That alone might detract a bit from the entire issue, which is to inspire outrage, but to be honest, in a world where there is so much of this going around it is truly hard to see anything happening other than a denunciation of one agency that has now gone under. Hurting Soderbergh’s film is the cramming of so many marquee names into one tight little picture, and having Streep play three characters is a bit much. Also, having Oldman and Banderas play theirs as smiling Cheshire cats who never once admit contrition but flaunt their guilt is a bit much — then again, I did state Soderbergh is in a cynical mood and it shows. In a way, it seems to say that in this world, pretty much, we are all fucked to the mercy of those few who have so much of the green thing.

On Netflix: EXTREMELY WICKED, SHOCKINGLY EVIL AND VILE

If Ted Bundy had had his pick of actors to play him in a crime drama about his life, he probably would have chosen himself. That alone tells you the kind of person Liz Kloepfer (Kendall) met during the time Bundy was out doing unspeakable things to women with long brown hair. An anomaly of a person, Bundy stands alone and unparalleled for sheer affront, a man unafraid to challenge authority to the bitter end, a man who leaves behind a chain of terror for the most part, unsurpassed.

Joe Berlinger’s movie Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile correctly places Zac Efron, an actor with unusually attractive looks and a body that most men would kill for front and center and while he doesn’t quite look like Bundy, Efron all but loses himself in the part, assuming Bundy’s mannerisms, charm, gift for words, self-serving theatrics, and unbelievable but fatal magnetism. Efron’s Bundy is definitely the quintessential wolf in sheep’s clothing. It is a scarily precise performance as the infamous serial killer who even when he found himself on trial, he had women like Carol Ann Boone (Kaya Scoledario) panting inside a courthouse, defending him to the end even when it was clear through evidence that he was not the kind of man you would bring home to introduce to your parents as your future husband. That Kendall (Lily Collins) survived being one of those unfortunate victims remains a mystery even to Kendall herself and sadly, the movie doesn’t spend more time with her but merely uses her (and Scoledario) as a blueprint to go where the controversy and yes, evil thrived. Perhaps this was the only way to truly make a movie about someone like Bundy, because with a personality as toxic and as narcotic as his, how else could one grasp the level to which he had a nation flummoxed as the killer of women?

Neither Berlinger nor Efron have the answers. Certainly not Kendall, who now lives a live of privacy. Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is mainly a question mark of a movie, one that simply presents the reality through KLendall’s deluded but cognizant eyes, and makes no attempt to analyze further, and that, perhaps, is all that this movie needs to be.

HARRIET, a Biopic Presented With Large, Bold Strokes, and a Performance too self-conscious to take seriously.

[image from the New York Post]

I had high hopes for Harriet since I saw the trailer first pop up during the summer at the Angelika. Actually, let me go a step farther: I was moved to tears by its rousing trailer where this woman, bound by slavery, defied it to its core and became the historical icon that she now is short of being the face on a 20-dollar bill, which she rightfully deserves.

So imagine my surprise which quickly became disappointment when, once Harriet the movie proper started, that I saw none of the passion, the urgency, the need to be free, and instead I was regaled by a color-by-number rendition so mawkish and clumsy in its depiction of Harriet Tubman that it felt at times as though I was navigating through a docudrama of the cheapest sort, the kind you could see in the 70s and 80s (and 90s, if you knew where to look) in which stock actors reenacted historical events in bad wigs, overwrought dialog, and music so shrill and derivative it could easily belong in any exercise in schmaltz starring Tom Hanks during his 90s heyday.

Harriet begins proper on a shot that looks like it was borrowed from Richard Linklater’s establishing shot of Boyhood, in which we see Minty (Cynthia Eriyo) who’s lying on the grass gazing dreamily at the sky thinking of happy thoughts when her husband John Tubman (Zackary Momoh) comes and whisks her away, only to have us realize that while the two of them are married, only he is a free person of color, while she works as a slave on the Brodess plantation. Not only that, when Minty and her mother Rit Ross (Vanessa Bell Calloway) attempt to assert their freedom based on contract, the Brodess’ family will not honor it.

Something clicks in Minty, a mix of the visions she gets — a residual from a nasty blow she received from her master when she was a girl of 12 — plus her own gumption, and she sets off away from the plantation, leaving her husband behind and taking off into the unknown. Now, you would think that Kasi Lemmons would focus on her journey, which must have been frought with peril and extreme uncertainty — remember, this is a woman blindly fleeing for her life and her freedom, in enormous peril where every white face could bring her back to slavery. Lemmons instead goes for broad emotions using Eriyo’s singing voice to signal portent and this Dramatic Moment, which falls flat on its face. It gets worse. The moment Eriyo, cornered, makes that fateful decision “to be free or die”, the movie cuts away from her peril and into the aftermath. A woman in the river fighting for her life would have been a showcase for incredible, nail-biting tension as well as supreme acting. Lemmons squanders that chance. Finally, when Minty finally realizes she’s standing on land that will make her a free woman, her reaction is… off to say the least. She just doesn’t convey the enormity of her action in such small a body. I would have loved to see that.

I thought, probably budget constraints, maybe stunts weren’t available, perhaps logistics just didn’t make her plight seem more memorable than the fairly uneventful trek from Maryland to safe haven in Pennsylvania. But the movie then continues to somewhat not know what to do with Minty’s story. Yes, once in Philadelphia, she contacts William Still (Leslie Odom, underused) and he allows herself to re-christen herself Harriet Tubman. Checklist. But she has a moment when she is re-telling/reliving the horror of what she experienced to Still. The camera kept breaking away to these blue-washed scenes that are supposed to be her own visions and I was furious. I don’t need that. I need to see a performance, the camera dead on Erivo’s face, as she tells her story, exhausted but free and still not quite knowing what comes next. The movie brushes over Harriet’s own reaction to her new life as a free woman, but then punctuates her visions with the blunt force of an exclamation point to establish the urgency the she must go back to get her husband.

The husband part misfires, and again, that singing, please, make that stop, it takes me out of the movie (even if it was a way of her communicating). Lemmons goes down the list of Tubman’s achievements in bringing her first batch of people to the North, but again, colors her own actions with too much self-awareness of her own future greatness, as if all this was somehow preordained. That preternatural confidence, historically, came much later. Her first trip back, again, happens with so much ease that in one shot they’ve crossed the river, the next shot they’re in Philly. We never sense that Harriet the slave who freed herself is even in real and present danger, with bounties on her life and Lemmons’s movie plays it way too safe. We only see the marks on her skin, not the horror that produced them. It goes for the movie as a whole. We only get glimpses of slavery, but never more than a lot of white actors having to say unspeakable words and hamming it up to maximize how evil they are.

I don’t want to say Harriet is a bad movie because it is not: it’s closer to a necessary movie to watch to see for historical purposes but that is it. I didn’t find it compelling at all. The picture is flat. The music score by Terrence Blanchard is so intrusive and so derivative of the likes of Thomas Newman and Hans Zimmer circa Hidden Figures I almost barfed at its repetitiveness. Erivo does a solid performance and will almost certainly glean Golden Globe and Oscar nominations, but I still would have preferred to have seen a character study of a woman who gradually grew into her own by defying a system that would have diminished her as a person instead of a biopic that was too self-conscious for its own good. Perhaps a longer form narrative may be the thing, although it has been done with Cicely Tyson at the helm and it’s kind of hard to top Tyson.

THE LIGHTHOUSE is the movie event of the year.

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in Robert Eggers The Lighthouse, now in theaters. [Image from KDSK]

I’m usually a bit jittery about movies that bring a lot of anticipation bolstering their US premiere because the more the promotion, the less likely it’s warrant to deliver on its premise or be watchable past opening night. Fortunately, this wasn’t the case with Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse. Knowing next to nothing other than its bare-bones synopsis of two men stranded on a remote location tending to a lighthouse, I walked in, and let his story unfold.

The Lighthouse stars Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, two actors who have been involved in back to back projects that have only managed to cement their status as two of the best working actors in cinema today. Both star as a pair of lighthouse keepers who must take care of the building for a total of five weeks. It’s a task that sounds simple enough — do your duties, rinse and repeat — but soon enough, isolation starts to sink in, and the need for the men, who already don’t like each other, to relate to something human while asserting their own presence starts to play mind games… or does it? Pattinson’s character one night walks out into the dark open to see what looks like a mermaid swimming in the waters beyond. DaFoe stands in front of the huge beaming light of the lighthouse in complete ecstasy, but what is that tentacle quickly seen and that disappears? A sea gull turns out to be more menacing than just bothersome.

Could the night and the fog and the lighthouse itself hold some dark secret?

Robert Eggers never reveals what, in fact, might be the ghost that haunts the grounds where the fabled lighthouse stands, and that is perfect for me. Exposition and backstory are kept to a minimum, only enhancing the entire movie’s mystery and whatever it is that haunts the twosome. All we get is that the previous lighthouse keeper went insane and killed himself. Pattinson’s character longs for some peace and quiet far into the Canadian country and thought this could be a next step into achieving the goal. DaFoe has been chained to the island and the sea for 13 years, a thing that took a toll on his marriage. Meanwhile, in the present, the men go through their daily chores, making irritating small talk (well, technically, DaFoe is the one who talks the most while Pattinson, who starts out as silent as a moonless night, let’s him take center stage), engaging in petty banter over who does what.

Still from the Angelika Film Center, NYC.

The more they engage in the mundane, the farther away they creep from reality. Soon, even a simple dinner sequence becomes a nightmare of repetition in hell with two men aching companionship devolving from mates to enemies to back in a furious kaleidoscopic whirlwind. Eggers movie becomes a ferocious battle of wills to see who will remain the last madman standing, all the while the looming, sinister figure of this lighthouse, the all-knowing sentient spirit, observes without pity or passion.

This is the most cinematically gorgeous movie I have seen this entire year — or this decade, as a matter of fact. It is rare to see black and white, treated with such care that even seeing it at a two-dimensional ratio one can almost see depth in the style of deep focus, and have that morph seamlessly into German Expressionism, only to do a fade out like David Lynch’s Eraserhead towards the ambiguous end. Eggers’ movie seems as though it came out of the lens of someone living and making movies 100 years ago: it is dense, exotic to a letter, alien, mythical, and yes, haunted. Two actors helm the entire production and carry it to next-level narration, something strange and sinister, with fart-jokes and base-level humor to pepper it through as if reminding you these are two uncouth men sharing tight quarters together while the endless storm rages on and they lose their minds. I firmly believe this will a film that will be studied well past tomorrow, and a template for future directors wanting to get behind a camera to make a story come alive.

Unless anything comes along the road that can surpass this movie, I will call The Lighthouse the movie of 2019. Done.

So many art-movies, so little time.