Tag Archives: popcorn

The Dead Don’t Die

[3 stars]

Is there anything quite as indie as a Jim Jarmusch (Paterson) movie? His latest foray into genre isn’t quite as sharp as his last, sadly, but it is still full of dark, flat humor. The Dead Don’t Die is more of a satirical/meta take on the zombie apocalypse rather than an exploration of what the condition might mean to characters. But the humor is unique and fun. And the story, while unashamedly inevitable, has plenty of surprises.

Part of those surprises is the cast. Jarmusch has always had his stable of actors. Tilda Swinton (The Souvenir) for one, Bill Murray (Zombieland) for another. Along with Adam Driver (The Man Who Killed Don Quixote), the three really drive the story, but they’ve plenty of help from others, like Tom Waits (Old Man & the Gun), Chloë Sevigny (Golden Exits) and Steve Buscemi (The Death of Stalin). Jarmusch is also great at getting his actors to work against expected type. While broad in its approach, everyone remains very grounded and matter of fact. Not quite naturalistic, but definitely not the high drama of your typical horror film either. It is a quiet, if bloody, apocalypse.

What the story lacks is something more than the sly genre humor and in-your-face societal slams. There isn’t a lot being said that is new nor anything being done in a particularly special way (absent one amusing take on zombie focus). Perhaps that is, in part, due to the speed and challenges of its filming? However, if you like his work as I do, you’ll like this latest. It was definitely an enjoyable time spent for me.

Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase

[3 stars]

This is a nicely updated Nancy Drew that captures the original’s sense and sensibility, but anchors it nicely in today’s world without altering it beyond recognition as the CW did. (While I was never a  particular fan of Drew or the Hardy Boys, I can see where drifting too far from that material was disturbing to some.)

But the best reason to see this amusing tween adventure is its lead, Sophia Lillis (It). Her positive energy, sense of timing, and vulnerability make for an engaging and even complex Ms. Drew. The rest of the young cast is good, but not particularly exceptional, though Andrew Matthew Welch (Ma) negotiates a nicely supporting role as Drew’s police assist. She also has some adult help selling the story with Sam Tramell (3 Generations) and Linda Lavin (How to be a Latin Lover) as her family and clients in need of rescue.

Katt Shea directed the tale with a sense of fun without losing the sense of urgency. She kept the mystery just edgy enough to provide suspense while not allowing the danger to exceed the boundaries of its target audience, which is clearly young. She definitely had some advantages with her Handmaid’s Tale writing duo, Nina Fiore and John Herrera, producing a clever adaptation.

For a simple and fun evening, you could do way worse. And, should you have young women in your home, it is good choice you all can share without insulting either side too much.

Doctor Sleep

[3 stars]

How do you create a sequel to a classic? It was never going to be an easy task for The Shining. Forgetting the fact that it is a terrifying bit of modern horror, Sanley Kubrik really muddied the waters with his 1980 “interpretation” of Stephen King’s book. King’s recent book sequel is less terrifying than its Shining origins, but it is also more emotionally complex and satisfying…and it rightfully ignores Kubrik’s reimagining.

Enter Mike Flanagan (Ouija: Origin of Evil) who tackled the project. As with his previous movies, he wore multiple hats: writer, director, and editor. He succeeded at differing levels at all of these.

To be honest, it is an interesting adaptation, taking much from the book but also finding a way to marry it to the Kubrik outcome…without insulting either side. However, what he decided to keep and what to dump was a bit of a confusion. Unlike It, which navigated a long timeline and complex story while remaining tense and tight, Doctor Sleep takes a while to get rev’ing. There is a lot of setup and then a good deal of compaction in the tale as it races to the end.

The cast is certainly solid. Ewan McGregor (Christopher Robin) as the grown Redrum boy himself does a great job of being broken while searching for peace and a path forward. Rebecca Ferguson (Men in Black: International) is wonderfully creepy and hard while remaining seductive, as she must for this character. I wasn’t really happy with her casting originally, but she won me over with her performance. And Kyliegh Curran as the young lead did a great job as well.

Of the smaller roles, frankly only Zahn McClarnon stuck out as worth noticing, though Jacob Tremblay’s (Predator) brief turn as the young victim that sets it all in motion was very effective and bravely nasty.

But is Doctor Sleep worth seeing? Yes and no. It really needed to be higher tension or more tightly edited. Though Flannagan did a good job collapsing many of the threads that spanned years in the book, he left in other aspects that left characters and ideas hanging. And while I was glad it had room to breathe at 2.5 hours long, I also wanted it to move a bit faster and feel scarier. The final quarter of the film, which diverges widely from the book, is the best structured and most tense. It was certainly beautifully filmed and well acted. It is a nice character study for McGregor and Ferguson, but as a horror film it won’t deliver for many people. It is more an emotional movie of recovery than a tense drama of psychological horror.

Your going to have to make your own decision as to when and how you’d like to catch this sequel to a seminal classic. However, if you read the original book, I do recommend the book sequel regardless. King found a path for Danny Torrance that feels both real and heartbreaking, even if Rose the Hat and her gang are less terrifying than the denizens of the Overlook Hotel.

Terminator: Dark Fate

[4 stars]

I find myself having a complex reaction to this sequel/reboot, so stick with me here. Dark Fate is the sequel we deserved…15 years ago. But after three interceding sequels, I find it disingenous, and not a little petty, that they are to be swept aside and utterly forgotten (other than T3, which was so far outside the story line it is rarely acknowledged as existing anyway).

I know I’m in the minority, but I thought Terminator: Genisys was both clever and enjoyable (even if imperfect at times). It was a smart way to reset the universe and get it back on track after couple of weak sequels (Terminator 3 and Terminator: Salvation).  In fact, if you had rewatched the first two movies and then Genisys, it was even more impressive.

It could be argued that with time travel as a central aspect, that it’s a perfectly legitimate choice to bail on the previous storylines. In a fluid timeline, why not just pick up threads where you want them? Well, I’d argue that you don’t because of the fans…even if you think you’re serving them, you need to respect them and what’s come before. This installment was entirely an ego thing for James Cameron (Alita: Battle Angel), who can’t write to save his skin. Honestly, T1 and T2, for all their fun are just painful at times on screen (I rewatched them again before seeing Dark Fate). Some of that is writing and a lot of it is directing on his part–together you just want to look away at moments in embarrassment.

Fortunately, in this case, Cameron’s clunky style was taken to screen by Tim Miller (Deadpool, Love, Death, + Robots), which saved it. Miller pulled good performances from his cast even while hitting the big moments and chases well.

But, the truth is that it’s the inclusion of only two actors that created the buzz and main draw for this movie: Linda Hamilton (Defiance), Arnold Schwarzenegger (Maggie). The return of these iconic actors in the roles they originated and cemented into film history was great fun and got butts in the seats. Joyfully, Mackenzie Davis (Izzy Gets the F*ck Across Town), Diego Boneta (The Titan) and Natalia Reyes also not only held their own, but brought depth and interest to their new characters. Are they as iconic as the originals? Not really, though Reyes and Mackenzie were certainly interesting to watch as they developed before our eyes.

The upshot is that this is a great ride and clears the decks for a whole new direction in the Terminator universe. We’ll probably never see those other possible stories as the film just isn’t doing as well as the studio hoped so far. But you never know, and with streaming services available now, perhaps we’ll see the world expanded on smaller screen. In the meantime, if you want to see a fairly solid action film and an interesting possibility for the timelines, Dark Fate is certainly a feast of visual fun and quipy dialogue.  And, unlike any of the other movies that came before, some real character work and respect for their situations.

Like I said, I’m having a complex reaction to this one.

Zombieland: Double Tap

[3.5 stars]

Did we really need this sequel? Of course we didn’t, but Ruben Fleischer (Venom) managed to bring back his 2009 hit and carry it off in style nonetheless. From its opening moments through to the final after-credit gift, he is clear that this is just going to be silly fun.

Woody Harrelson (Venom), Jesse Eisenberg (The Hummingbird Project), and Emma Stone (Maniac) return without missing a beat. Abigail Breslin (The Final Girl) is a bit less sure, but she also has a very different challenge retackling her role 10 years down the road; growing up is never straightforward.

Banter abounds and craziness ensues. But don’t be fooled, this is a tight film that fits together wonderfully. The additions of Zoey Deutch (Flower) and Rosario Dawson (Iron Fist) were particularly welcome, while Luke Wilson (Soul Survivors) and Thomas Middleditch (Godzilla: King of Monsters), not my top choices for comedy, add some good fun to the tale.

While this movie isn’t as original as some other zombie comedies out there (see Anna and the Apocalypse), this is the rare sequel that seems to have retained its roots while aging. Double Tap is completely self-aware about what it is and what is expected, and it delivers. If you enjoyed the original Zombieland and are looking for a distraction, this one’s for you.

The Secret Life of Pets 2

[3 stars]

When a sequel can’t even be bothered to come up with a cleverer title than “2” you have a sense of the effort they put in. The movie isn’t awful, it just isn’t anything new compared to the first one. In fact, in many ways, it is less interesting than the first because the whole sense of reality of that “secret life” wasn’t a part of this movie. It was all crazy impossibility, often right in front of the humans.

I will admit that there are just enough clever moments (and one brilliant one) to keep it all going, but the truth is that this just isn’t a required story. Young kids who loved the first would probably be thrilled there was more to see, but not much more than that. Even the addition of Harrison Ford (Blade Runner 2049) only barely elevated a section of the tale.

For a throw-away, popcorn evening that you will likely soon forget, it will work fine. If you want something new and memorable, look elsewhere.

Aladdin (2019)

[3 stars]

Guy Ritchie (Robin Hood) may have rehabbed his reputation in the industry with this remake of the beloved animation classic, but I can’t say he did much for me. I will grant him, and co-writer John August (Frankenweenie), a nod for their re-negotiating the end of the story. But it was otherwise a fairly unmagical journey.

Part of the challenge was that the two leads, Mena Massoud (Jack Ryan) and Naomi Scott (Power Rangers) felt out of place in Agrabah. Their accents are flat American against a rich backdrop. And while Scott has some levels to her, Massoud is fairly empty despite some complex plotting around him. Added to this was the choice for Jafar. Marwan Kenzari (Murder on the Orient Express) is too young and, oddly, not manipulative enough to be believable for me. Jafar should drip smarm so that you understand how he rose to and kept his position of power. That is what makes him so dangerous.

And, of course, there is Will Smith (Gemini Man) stepping into the shoes of the late and glorious Robin Williams. Smith made the part his own, but it still fell short of equalling the iconic performance built out of the storm that was Williams’s brain. But, like many, I don’t think I ever expected him too, and he was smart to not try.

There is something about the escape of animation that allows the fantastical to take on life. Adapting it to live action, even with the tech we have today, is a dangerous leap. In this case, I think misstep. Sure it was pretty, but even the biggest numbers couldn’t match the frenetic insanity and overload of the animation. The result was that they came across as less impressive in this incarnation; exactly the opposite reaction you’d want from an audience. And even some of the character CGI fell short. While the parrot Iago looked relatively real, Abu the monkey looked a tad plastic to me, which kept dropping me out of the moment.

Generally, the entire movie felt like a paint-by-numbers rehash. The new music was also glaringly out of place in feel. I liked the idea, but it didn’t fall seamlessly into the score. For kids who never saw the original, this is probably a magical journey. I wonder what they’d think of the animation that spawned it…would they be as unimpressed with the drawn characters as I am with the live? I don’t honestly know, but I’d hope they’d see the magic of it, even if it wasn’t in the latest on-screen formats. Certainly the original has more humor to keep them entertained.

Gemini Man

[4 stars]

Movies, generally, shouldn’t be recommended solely for their technology. But there are exceptions. Avatar, was a lousy movie, but amazing 3D. Life of Pi was a gorgeous fantasy that pushed limits, but wasn’t a perfect film. Gravity took liberties with physics to tell its own (strained) story, but also used the value of 3D in exciting ways. In each of these cases, seeing the film in 2D was a disservice to the director and to the audience. They were conceived in 3D and were intended to be seen that way. You wouldn’t view a statue only as a photograph if it was there in front of you, why should we see a flattened version of story?

Ang Lee (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk) attacked Gemini Man very much in the same vein. He wanted to push the value of 3D and to create a new experience for his audience with a high frame rate (HFR) presentation. He succeeded, but far too few people will see the movie as intended. And, to be fair, without 3D and HFR the movie will seem like just a rehash of older adventure film without much to offer. See this movie as intended. It is either the swan song of 3D in movies or the genesis of a new approach and experience.

But let’s talk about the story first. One of the challenges with this film is that the original material had been in development for over 20 years. That sensibility continues to inform it. The studio also didn’t know how to promote it without giving away a huge portion of the plot, so we’re all in on the crux of the tale going in. It’s not as bad a reveal as ruining The Sixth Sense or The Crying Game for someone, but it certainly changes your viewing of it.

Will Smith (Bright) is compelling as an aging assassin and as his younger self. He isn’t just world weary, he is awakening. By his side, Mary Elizabeth Winstead (The Hollars) offers up a solid companion and comptent fighter, while Benedict Wong (Annihilation) helps focus the humor and assist in the action.

Clive Owen (Anon), on the other hand, is a little cookie-cutter in his bad merceny role. There were levels there, but they didn’t quite sell for me. This was as much a choice as a fault and part of the 80s/90s vibe of the overall movie that writers David Benioff (Game of Thrones), Darren Lemke (Goosebumps), and Billy Ray (Overlord) baked into the script. But the story is exciting, entertaining, and enjoyable…just not revelatory for spy thrillers.

Now let’s get to the technology layer that brings this film over the top. First off, the digital Will Smith came across as completely real for me. However, I saw Gemini in a modified HFR 3D (60 fps/2K resolution). Unfortunately, only four theaters in the country can show the fim as intended (120fps/4K resolution)…and I envy those that could see it that way. Why? Because at even at half the rate and resolution of the intended viewing, it was astounding. The clarity was jaw dropping. The action was visceral. The use of 3D was mostly carefully selected to enhance the tale. The movie literally jumps off the screen putting you in it at points. HFR tricks your brain into making it feel real. Typical films keep you at a distance at 30fps. Your brain sees it as unreal. But at 60fps it can’t always tell the difference.

It does cause some cognitive dissonance. At least for me, when there were extreme closeups, putting giant heads into frame, my brain balked at the relative perspective issues. But action sequences were like being on a roller coaster. No motion sickness, but you do feel like you are strapped in with the characters. The point is that the tech doesn’t just make it all pretty (though wait till you see the water scenes) it changes your experience of the film.  An interview with Lee goes over some of the technology and story aspects if you want it from the horses mouth.

Go see Gemini in HFR 3D if you can. It is fun and it is something you haven’t seen before, unless you were fortunate (or unfortuanate, as some have claimed) to see The Hobbit in its HFR release. In 2D, Gemini probably will leave you a bit underwhelmed because half the story and experience won’t be there for you.

Anna and the Apocalypse

[3.5 stars]

Subtle this movie isn’t, but it is clever and fun. It is also a nice alternative holiday movie, though less on point than, say, Rare Exports. The main focus is really the evolving Apocalypse and the relationships between the high schoolers involved rather than Christmas. And, yes, it is also a musical (as the original creator suggested of its genesis: think High School Musical meets zombies)!

While clearly tongue-in-cheek, it is executed with complete sincerity and effort. It could have used a couple more songs to make it feel more like a musical and less like a movie with a few song and dance numbers in it, but that’s a quibble as the music that is in it is really pretty good.

Ella Hunt (Robot Overlords) leads the cast with some solid talent and chops. She has a long career ahead of her if she wants it. Hunt is supported by a cast of other mostly unknowns, but all of whom bring moments of emotional complexity to what could have been cookie-cutter performances in lesser hands. Malcom Cumming, Christopher Leveaux, Marli Siu, Ben Wiggins, and Sarah Swire (who also choreographed) are generally all in new projects you’ll be seeing in the coming year.

And then there were the known faces, like Tom Benton (Shakespeare & Hathaway) who brought all his vulnerable best to bear as Hunt’s father. Only the prolific Paul Kaye really disappointed me in the cast. His choices and antics were notched up just a bit too high from the start…I never believed him nor had any sympathy for him. It’s probably the one truly bad choice I felt director John McPhail made with the otherwise very tight and clever delivery.

When you’re in the mood from something in the Cockneys vs. Zombies range, but with a beat, you should definitely check this one out.

 

Pet Sematary

[3 stars]

Unlike It, Pet Sematary is a very simple, straight-forward bit of Stephen King horror. That made it a fun read and and kitschy movie in the 80s (when King’s brand was both riding high and getting generally destroyed by Hollywood), but it doesn’t give it a lot of meat for what is just a clever retelling of The Monkey’s Paw.

But there are some nice effects employed, and a few moments to make you jump. Fortunately, the real focus was on suspense rather than splashy gore and cheap surprises. Jason Clarke (The Aftermath), John Lithgow (Late Night) and Amy Seimetz (Alien: Covenant) have been given some intense backstories to help drive the tale, but none are really effective. However, the young Jeté Laurence (The Snowman) makes a solid impression and has great fun through her arc. In fact, the little blighter can put on an angry face that will freeze your blood.

Co-directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer did a fine job with their actors and the visual telling of the story. But it was still a simple story that may have worked better as a one hour drama than a 100 minute feature. Jeff Buhler’s (Nightflyers) script tried to provide depth, but it all felt rather forced. However, it managed to maintain the original material’s intent while still finding its own way…eventually.

I’ll admit that by the time the movie diverged radically from the book, I had sort of checked out emotionally, which was a shame. The last 10 minutes are mostly predictable, but very well done. And the final frame is delightfully chilling. It isn’t the best film, but if you’re a fan of King’s ouvre, it’s a nice translation from the book. I think it is mostly hurt by its timing against It and even Us, Halloween, Hereditary, or Get Out, that are moving the horror genre into a more complex space even when staying squarely in their box.