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Film Review: Doctor Sleep

“When I Was A Kid, There Was A Place, A Dark Place. They Closed It Down, And Let It Rot. But The Things That Live There, They Come Back…”

With Hollywood at a particular period in cinematic history where every single word written by the steady hand of Stephen King is set for some form of live action adaptation, with the release of Pet Sematary and It: Chapter Two alone this year resulting in very successful box office returns, the release of Doctor Sleep this week reminds that the best King adaptation in the form of Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterpiece, The Shining, has yet to be truly tested even after nearly forty years. With King’s original novel undoubtedly one of his most iconic and well regarded by literary readers, the fear of any sequel to the tale of the Torrance’s and the Overlook Hotel were first raised when Doctor Sleep was published in 2013, and whilst King’s novel passed the time nicely during my university years with some interesting ideas and charming call backs to its’ predecessor, the narrative never held the same sense of supernatural wonder that the 1977 original novel had in spades. Cue the big screen adaptation therefore, one directed by the overly impressive skills of horror aficionado, Mike Flanagan, the mind behind both Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House series and of course, Stephen King’s own, Gerald’s Game, and what we have is a movie which succeeds in paying both homage to Kubrick’s classic horror and staying as faithful to the novel of Doctor Sleep as humanly practicable, a decision which ultimately simultaneously both hinders and supports Flanagan’s latest big screen project.

With Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining only carrying a slight sense of faithfulness to the source material in the first place, Flanagan’s movie directly follows events which take place in the 1980 horror classic after a decision was made that most people heading into Doctor Sleep would have probably seen Kubrick’s portrayal of events rather than read the original text, and with a central narrative which follows a now alcoholic and middle-aged Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) and his discovery of both others who “shine” and Rebecca Ferguson’s (Mission Impossible: Fallout) band of vampire-esque killers who feed off the “steam” of those inflicted with the power of the shining, Flanagan’s movie for those who would not have read the novel is a substantial diversion from the confines of the Overlook Hotel. Blending mystery, scenes of downright horrific violence and a really beautiful genre aesthetic, Doctor Sleep does have elements of real intrigue, even for someone who has read the source material, but at a staggering two and a half hours, the movie doesn’t half drag at times, particularly when we are exposed to utterly blasphemic reconstructions of scenes from Kubrick’s original movie and a tendency to focus on particular characters who suffer from a unhealthy balance of being both uninteresting and underwritten. The Shining it is not, but as a direct adaptation of a middling King novel, Flanagan’s movie is good enough but fails to ignite the sense of haunting wonder its’ predecessor continues to evoke even after nearly forty years.

Overall Score: 6/10

Film Review: The Goldfinch

“When I Lost Her, I Lost Sight Of Any Landmark That Might Have Led Me Someplace Happier…”

Around twenty minutes into The Goldfinch, Jeffrey Wright’s overly mawkish and completely unbelievable side character says something along the lines of “it’s a reconstruction, and not a very good one,” and if ever there was a key segment of dialogue to accurately summarise a movie as whole, that one is pretty much bang on the money in the case of The Goldfinch. Directed by John Crowley, whose previous work in the form of the absolutely superb Brooklyn confirms he is a filmmaker who understands when a film is undoubtedly working or not, The Goldfinch is a bloated, overlong and thoroughly unengaging adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize winning 2013 novel of the same name by American author, Donna Tartt, a two and a half hour marathon of a movie which sacrifices an interesting narrative for dull, hateful characters and a sanctimonious, chin-wagging sensibility which assumes all audience members are the type of people who could spend all day finding interest in the texture of a painted wall instead of having, you know, a bit of fun.

Told in a narrative structure akin to that of an over-exuberant art spinner, Crowley’s movie predominantly focuses on the life of Theodore “Theo” Decker, whose witnessing of a museum bombing and the subsequent death of his angelic-esque mother results in him stealing the titular famous painting from within the rubble of the attack and then spending the majority of his young life moaning about past life choices and feeling up furniture in order to impress the love of his life. With the younger form of Decker being portrayed by Oakes Fegley of Pete’s Dragon fame, the first eighty minutes or so sees Decker move from family to family and location to location without any real sense of dramatic point, with the plot strangely content with introducing boring character after boring character, each of whom feel the need to talk about some of the most face-palming waffle I have ever had the displeasure of hearing within the confines of a cinema without any purpose whatsoever. With the elder side of Decker being handled by Ansel Elgort (Baby Driver), the movie then concludes with a pondering, self-absorbed level of crass melodrama which makes Hollyoaks look like a masterpiece in understatement, and even with the likes of Radiohead on the soundtrack not once, but twice, The Goldfinch is the type of holier than thou cinematic garbage which made me want to leave five minutes in, but like the good old fashioned cinephile I am, I withstood the wave and took comfort in the safe knowledge that nothing this year can be as skull-crushingly dull as Crowley’s latest.

Overall Score: 2/10

Film Review: Hustlers

“This City, This Whole Country, Is A Strip Club. You’ve Got People Tossing The Money, And People Doing The Dance…”

Based on the 2015 New York magazine article, “The Hustlers at Scores”, by American journalist, Jessica Pressler, Hustlers is the latest from the superbly named New Jersey filmmaker, Lorene Scafaria, who returns to cinemas in a directorial sense after the successful one-two of the 2012 Steve Carell staring, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and the 2015 comedy drama, The Meddler. Featuring a particularly starry, female-led ensemble cast, Scafaria’s latest primarily follows Constance Wu’s (Crazy Rich Asians) Dorothy over the course of nearly a decade as her career as a stripper leads her into the path of Jennifer Lopez’s (Out of Sight) Ramona, a powerful and streetwise matriarch who soon teams up with her fellow strippers in order to rip off high profile clients in response to the economical effect of the 2008 Financial Crisis. Less The Big Short and more a spicy blend of Showgirls meets Ocean’s Eleven, just without the R-rated extremism of the former, Hustlers is a thoroughly engaging and brilliantly acted original crime drama, one which benefits from a tight, well-judged runtime and an element of spicy exoticism which most mainstream pictures would be too afraid to touch let alone actually produce.

With a central narrative which feels comfortable remaining within the confines of reality and seemingly sticks close to the real life events, such a decision both benefits and hinders Scafaria’s movie, one which shifts along an elongated, year jumping time frame with relative sharpness and ease, due in part to some Scorsese-esque storytelling, cut-throat editing techniques and key characters which manage to be both well-rounded, charismatic and engaging. Central to the film’s success is undoubtedly Lopez who in her career best performance manages to evoke a wide range of characteristics, traits which develop her character from the savvy, sexy titan of the stripping industry to a relentless, greed-inflicted criminal, one who is determined to return the pain of the financial crisis on those who she believes is responsible. With Constance Wu continuing her excellent leading form after her success with Crazy Rich Asians and the movie having a fundamentally likeable sensibility, the only real downfall of the picture is how forgettable the central plot device actually is, with the inevitable outcome predictable and therefore lacking any sort of gut-punching memorability, but where the movie lacks in any sense of grandiose it more than makes up for in terms of style and for a movie which clocks in at just under two hours, Hustlers is well worth your time.

Overall Score: 7/10

Film Review: The Informer

“The General Is One Of The Major Importers Of Fentanyl. We’re Going After Him…”

If ever there was a movie which had me sold on the trailer alone, The Informer is exactly that. Presented as a prison crime thriller produced by the gritty minds behind the superb one-two of Denis Villeneuve’s, Sicario, and the action series of the decade, John Wick, The Informer, at least on a production level, definitely had a lot going for it heading in. Helmed by Italian filmmaker, Andrea Di Stefano, an actor turned director responsible so far for the little seen, Escobar: Paradise Lost, starring Benicio Del Toro, and based upon the 2009 novel, Three Seconds, from the Swedish crime-writing team of Anders Roslund and Borg Hellström, The Informer is an English speaking adaptation which sees Joel Kinnaman (Suicide Squad, Altered Carbon) as Pete Koslow, a former decorated war veteran turned criminal who escapes the confines of prison after making a deal with Rosamund Pike’s (Gone Girl) FBI Handler as part of a complicated plot to bring down the renowned Polish drug baron known as “The General”.

With a tonal sensibility which includes as many laughs as a night time funeral, The Informer presents itself upon the darker range of the thriller genre, harbouring a rather depressing nihilistic viewpoint pretty much throughout in a similar vein to the likes of Sicario, albeit a movie without the technical nuance or strange, ambiguous mystery which made the Villeneuve original so damn good. Instead, the central plot involving Koslow, his family and his role within the war between the cops and the drug dealers is too cliched and tacky to come across as anything other than mechanical, resulting in a rather aggravating sense of patting myself on the back when particular plot twists and discoveries brought themselves to the forefront of the plot without any real sense of shock or enjoyment as the entire audience could see such developments walking into the movie. Whilst Kinnaman is his usually reliable self as he plays the “wounded soldier” role which his recent past performances have all seemed to have based upon, the muddled and shallow plot doesn’t allow for anyone else to particularly shine, with the likes of Pike and Clive Owen resorting to bit-part players within a plot that really could have done with a bit more umph, and whilst expectations may have been unjustifiably high heading in, The Informer is well made but boy is it bland.

Overall Score: 5/10

Film Review: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

“Some People Believe If We Repeat Stories Often Enough They Become Real. They Make Us Who We Are. That Can Be Scary…”

Based upon the collection of short stories of the same name first published in 1981 and abstracted from the mind of American author, Alvin Schwartz, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is the long-awaited big screen adaptation of Schwartz’s tales after first being picked up for production by CBS Films in 2013. Produced by horror and fantasy aficionado, Guillermo Del Toro, a filmmaker fresh after his Academy Award win for the strange if impressive, The Shape of Water, and the man first tipped to direct, the mantle instead falls to Norwegian filmmaker, Andre Øvredal, whose previous work on the likes of Trollhunter and The Autopsy of Jane Doe results in a slight step-up into the cinematic big time with an extensive wide release. Part Goosebumps inspired mystery, part portmanteau in the ilk of recent excellent examples such as V/H/S and its’ impressive sequel, Scary Stories is a very familiar and well-worn ghost train of a ride, a well designed genre flick which takes very interesting ideas and creature concepts and produces them in a strangely lifeless fashion, a particularly irritating outcome considering both the talent and the gothic sensibility which for a horror fan such as myself, is always great fun to see on the big screen.

With recent years seeing the “revival” of coming-of-age genre fiction being embraced by people across the globe, whether it be on television thanks to the success of Stranger Things or on the big screen with the likes of It and its’ upcoming sequel, it’s fair to say that Scary Stories works around an incredibly recognisable narrative structure, one which sees our central teen heroes, led by the rather impressive Zoe Colletti, attempt to tackle the forces of darkness after venturing into a particularly creepy household and stumbling across a mysterious book which continues to write stories by itself, tales of which soon spring to life and place the younglings at the clutches of a murderous spectre hell bent on revenge. With the movie then churning out set piece after set piece as it revels in the sight of throwing monster after monster at the audience in a similar fashion to Cabin in the Woods, it is clearly the individual acts which make the film rather entertaining, with fundamentally nightmarish ghouls designed within an inch of their life to scare the absolute pants off you the best aspect of the drama. Where the movie ultimately falls down is the rather dire central mystery itself and a sense that for a fifteen rated movie, it really isn’t that overly threatening or scary, resulting in a picture that is too young for adults and too adult for the young and with such a crushing conflict at the heart of it, Scary Stories is neither a great movie or a guaranteed box office smash, two factors which means it will come and go like the snarly creeps at the heart of its’ tale.

Overall Score: 6/10

Film Review: Animals

“Sooner Or Later The Party Has To End…”

Less of a coming of age drama and more like a raging alcohol and drug fuelled stupor, South Australian director, Sophie Hyde, brings to life Emma Jane Unsworth’s 2014 novel of the same name in the form of Animals, an internationally produced “buddy” movie which sees Holliday Grainger (My Cousin Rachel) and Alia Shawkat (Green Room) as Laura and Tyler, two close friends hitting the tender age of their mid-30’s who spend their time frolicking, excessively drinking and partaking in hard drugs in the name of staying young, keeping fresh and shying away from the responsibilities of the “adult” world. Screened to the public at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and departing with a overly positive buzz, Hyde’s movie is a refreshingly low-key if wildly spirited take on the trials and tribulations of adulthood, one which embraces many of the plot devices and genre conventions evident in previous and better works of a similar ilk, but too a film which works off the strengths of its’ leading characters as we follow them through a particular path which audiences of similar age range will undoubtedly understand and sheepishly relate to.

With 2019 seemingly being the year where the coming of age movie has re-emerged into the cinematic spotlight, Animals follows most closely to the likes of Booksmart in some ways, a film which takes the American Graffiti route of exploring one last childhood hurrah before venturing into the world of growing up, and whilst of course the age ranges of our particular characters in each film differ by a decade or so, the central narrative of Hyde’s movie focuses on two friends seemingly reluctant to take that next step into becoming what they fear most; serious adults. With Grainger’s Laura then becoming the first to attempt to bridge the gap between child and adult as she falls in love with Fra Free’s (Les Misérables) mopey, piano loving straighthead, tensions soon build up between the pair, with each seemingly beginning to resent each other as they slowly drift apart as Laura falls more into the trap of modern-day normalisation involving marriage and family, whilst Tyler continues her life of unemployment, heavy drinking and endless partying. With the film relying on the central double act to basically hold the film together, the performances of both Grainger and Shawkat are good enough to keep you more than interested, aided nicely by some sharp comedic dialogue and snappy sarcastic quips, and whilst Hyde’s movie will come and go without leaving much of a lasting impression, Animals is an enjoyable, if slightly wandering, tale of friendship and the ability to drink many, many bottles of white wine.

Overall Score: 6/10

Film Review: The Sisters Brothers

“Charlie, When You Kill A Man, You End Up With His Father Or His Friends On Your Tail. It Usually Ends Badly…”

Acting as a cinematic vessel for his first work in the English language after the critical success of foreign language gems including Rust and Bone and the 2015 Palme D’or winner, Dheepan, French filmmaker, Jacques Audiard, brings to life the 2011 novel, The Sisters Brothers, by Canadian-born author, Patrick deWitt, for a “revisionist” Western tale which blends True Grit style black comedy with Hostiles levels of realism, one all held together by a simply stellar cast led by the brilliant one-two of Joaquin Phoenix (You Were Never Really Here) and John C. Reilly (Stan and Ollie) as the titular brothers, Charlie and Eli Sisters. Already classified as a box office bomb after making just over a quarter of its’ respective budget, Audiard’s latest is a prime example of a finely crafted move which deserves to be subject to a wider audience but due to the likes of the awful, Hellboy, among others taking up cinema screens due to their “blockbuster” appeal, The Sisters Brothers is unfortunately not likely to be seen by many at all, a real shame indeed considering how enjoyably dark, comedic and thoroughly engaging Audiard’s first foray into the English language is, with an added Jake Gyllenhaal.

Working from a central narrative which primarily focuses on the blood-bound titular siblings, a pair of very differently minded yet infamous hit-men working under the command of Rutger Hauer’s (Blade Runner) ruthless Commodore, Audiard’s movie sees the bickering duo attempt to track down the whereabouts of Gyllenhaal’s (Nightcrawler) John Morris, a fellow employee of the Commodore and private detective sent to locate Riz Ahmed’s (Venom) Hermann Kermit Warm, after he is accused of theft. Whilst the movie does indeed follow particular genre conventions with hard-edged shootouts, campfire musings on the meaning of life and of course, alcohol-laden bar brawls, Audiard is undoubtedly much more interested in his central characters, with each performance wonderfully directed and expertly written, creating individuals rather than templates which make the drama much more emotionally engaging that I would ever have expected. With Phoenix blending that off-kilter comedic edge he has shown in the past in the likes of Inherent Vice with murderous sadism, his reckless ways are balanced by the lighter touch of Reilly, who amidst murdering people for money, comes across as the much more focused and rational of the pair, with certain set pieces in particular so well designed, you immediately recognise both the strengths and weaknesses of each without the need for exposition or clumsy dialogue. With superb supporting performances from Ahmed and Gyllenhaal, The Sisters Brothers is a tale of greed, redemption and brotherhood, and for a film which is being shown exactly nowhere in my local area, ironically Audiard’s movie is one of the best of the year so far.

Overall Score: 8/10

Film Review: Pet Sematary

“Sometimes Dead Is Better…”

Acting as the most recent entry into the Stephen King revival era which has been embraced gleefully both on the big screen and the small thanks to the success of the likes of It, Mr. Mercedes and Netflix’s Gerald’s Game, Pet Sematary is the latest contemporary adaptation of one of the American writer’s most well-known novels from 1983, acting as a completely fresh adaptation after the rather lukewarm reception given to the 1989 and original film version which on retrospect, hasn’t exactly aged at all well. Directed by the film-making duo of Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, whose previous work includes the little-seen horror flick, Starry Eyes, as well as credits on the television version of Scream, Pet Sematary sees Jason Clarke (First Man) as Louis Creed, a well-respected and straight-thinking university doctor who after moving his family to a remote woodland house on the outskirts of Ludlow, Maine, soon begins to experience a wide range of supernatural and nightmarish encounters, all of which seem to stem from the discovery of the local titular graveyard, a particularly powerful area which seems to be much much more than a quaint location for the local deceased bunny rabbit.

With King’s original novel undeniably one of his most nihilistic and terrifying tales to date, Kölsch and Widmyer’s movie does impressively manage to transfer the overarching sense of dread onto the big screen for pretty much the majority of the film’s one hundred minute run-time, and with the added boost of a particularly haunting musical score from horror auteur, Christopher Young (Hellraiser, Sinister) and enough creepy fog and pitch black cinematography to make David Fincher’s Seven look like something from CBeebies, it’s fair to say that in terms of atmospheric setting, Pet Sematary circa 2018 doesn’t just tick the box for the horror genre, it absolutely smothers it. With a superbly crafted cast which features a quartet of impressive performances including John Lithgow (Dexter) as the wise and elderly neighbour, Jud Crandall, and Amy Seimetz (Upstream Color) as Louis’ wife, Rachel Creed, the movie also benefits from the decision made by both screenwriters, Jeff Buhler and Matt Greenberg, to alter the central death at the heart of the story, a bold choice which is understandable in the way it makes complete cinematic sense whilst offering the chance for young Jeté Laurence to absolute oodles of fun with her role as the Creed’s young daughter. Whilst some differences to the novel do feel slightly jarring, including a shock-tastic ending which doesn’t carry the same impact as the book’s own conclusion, and the lack of real depth ultimately resulting in the film nowhere near as rewarding as the book, Pet Sematary doesn’t hold back on the sheer nastiness of the source material, and with a heavy dedication to King’s own written word, is a movie which is up there with the much better examples of what a Stephen King adaptation should ultimately look like.

Overall Score: 7/10

Film Review: Border

“If You’re Different Than Others It Means You Are Better Than Them…”

Undoubtedly taking the award for one of the strangest foreign language films I have seen in a good while, Iranian-Swedish filmmaker, Ali Abbasi, writes and directs his second big screen feature, Border, a strange blend of mystery, horror and fantastical mythos based on a short story from Let the Right One In writer, John Ajvide Lindqvist, from his collection of short stories, Let the Old Dreams Die, published in 2011. Featuring Swedish actress, Eva Melander, in the leading role, Abbasi’s movie sees Melander as Tina, a customs officer whose facial and genetic deformities allow her to have a heightened sense of smell regarding guilty parties who venture into the country. Spending her spare time isolated in the middle of the woods alongside her dog obsessed on-off lover, Tina soon becomes heavily embroiled in the discovery of a child pornography ring on behalf of the local police force and simultaneously fascinated with the arrival of Eero Milonoff’s similarly disfigured, Vore, a insect loving figure of ambiguity who soon sees himself become a close companion to that of Tina who seeks to understand her true identity and the reason behind her natural yet horrifying deformities.

When looking back and admiring the horrific beauty of Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of Let the Right One In, it’s easy to fall into the trap of heading in to Border believing that the movie may be on similar narrative ground, and whilst Abbasi’s movie does indeed flirt with ideas of folklore and particularly ambiguous mystical elements which are shared with Alfredson’s best movie to date, it’s fair to say that Border is a completely different beast entirely as it twists and turns its way through a rafter of genres resulting in a very rare case of being particularly hard to sell or even describe without giving away too many spoilers. What can be said however is for all the film’s positives, including a superb central performance from Milonoff, beautiful cinematography from Nadim Carlsen and particular set pieces which leave you absolutely jaw-dropped, Border is ultimately too bizarre to be worthy of a repeat viewing, and thanks to a strange discomforting sensation which ran through the entire film’s runtime, is a film which seems to fall into a category shared with Funny Games by being I film I truly admire but would be undeniably torturous to actually sit through again. Do I recommend it? Yes. Is it great? Yes. But boy, is it truly surreal.

Overall Score: 7/10

Film Review: Piercing

“The First Step Is To Get Her Tied Up And Gagged. She’ll Probably Try To Run…”

Presenting itself as one of the more difficult releases this month to try and seek out amidst flying, glowing superheroes and wide-eared elephants, Nicolas Pesce, director of both The Eyes of My Mother and the upcoming remake of The Grudge, returns for his second big screen feature in the form of Piercing, a scathingly dark adaptation of the 1994 novel of the same name from Ryū Murakami, the Japanese author most famous in the world of cinema for his 1997 novel, Audition, which formed the basis for the unforgettable Takashi Miike directed horror of the same name from 1999. Featuring a joint leading role between Christopher Abbott (First Man) and Mia Wasikowska (Crimson Peak), Piercing sees Abbott take on the role of Reed, a seemingly successful white collar family man with a newborn baby to boot, who after feeling a sudden urge to inflict pain on his ever-crying child with an ice pick, decides to take his murderous impulses elsewhere away from the family home. Cue the introduction of the blonde infused Wasikowska as Jackie, an anxiety ridden but sure footed prostitute who quickly takes up the opportunity for work and makes her way over to the stylish high rise in which Reed awaits for a night with messy consequences.

Whilst any story stamped with the Murakami name upon it is guaranteed from the offset to get you ready for a narrative which won’t exactly be for everyone, let alone mainstream audiences, Pesce’s movie at least attempts to startle and amaze in all its’ B-movie charm as it works its’ way through a splendid eighty minute runtime in which a high proportion of the action is simply Reed and Jackie together in various hotel suites. With strange animated backdrops which look like outtakes from the Anime section in Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Volume 1 and a wicked blend of jet black humour and stomach twisting violence, Piercing is indeed effectively flashy and features an abundance of art-deco inspired style but is also a movie which strangely suffers primarily from being hesitant in its’ depiction of exploitation, resulting in a endpoint which doesn’t seem to go far enough. Whilst there is no denying that the movie features an underlying and unnerving sensibility as you watch two people of similar strangeness come together, the final credits certainly left me gasping for more of a killer, no pun intended, instinct, but with two superb central performances which manage to effectively balance the gap between comedy and horror, Piercing is good enough but by no means on a par with previous adaptations of Murakami.

Overall Score: 6/10