Movie Review ~ Those Who Wish Me Dead

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A smoke jumper and a 12-year-old boy fight for their lives as two assassins pursue them through the Montana wilderness while a forest fire threatens to consume them all.

Stars: Angelina Jolie, Nicholas Hoult, Finn Little, Aidan Gillen, Medina Senghore, Tyler Perry, Jake Weber, Jon Bernthal

Director: Taylor Sheridan

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Back in the days of “Old Hollywood”, stars would do most anything to get onto the lot for a big studio, a role in coveted film, or to work with the best directors.  Just look at all the ballyhoo actresses went through to try to nab the part of Scarlett O’Hara in 1939’s Gone with The Wind?  Documentaries, movies, and even plays have been fashioned around that race for the role.  With the antiquated studio system getting the heave-ho decades ago and stars working as free agents, they were given more autonomy to take command of their own careers and that’s when the real ‘movie stars’ emerged.  That’s why it’s often true now that getting a star to board your film sometimes means that the film itself has to bend to their needs and not the other way around. 

Take Those Who Wish Me Dead as the latest example.  One only has to read the plot summary of author Michael Koryta’s 2014 book to glean that the part Angelina Jolie is playing in the big screen adaptation premiering in theaters and HBOMax isn’t the lead as originally written by the author.  As Hannah, a grief-stricken smokejumper assigned to a lone fire tower outpost after a bad decision in the middle of an already unpredictable fire resulted in civilian casualties, Jolie is a natural fit for the role but would have seemed like too big of a star to be playing a supporting character (i.e. second fiddle) to the main cast members. 

That’s where Oscar-nominated screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water) comes in.  Purportedly brought in to rewrite the script submitted by Koryta and Charles Leavitt (In the Heart of the Sea), he took such a shine to the story and the character of Hannah in particular that when the original director stepped down, he asked Warner Brothers if he could stick around and direct the film too.  Promising to get Jolie (Maleficent) for the role, Sheridan was granted the chance to direct only his second studio feature (after 2017’s Wind River, though it may seem like he’s directed more after writing the screenplay for 2015’s Sicario, it’s 2018’s sequel, and most recently Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse).  While the script retains the basic ideas found in Koryta’s best-selling novel, Sheridan has largely shifted its focus of characters, jettisoning lengthy plot fabrications that added time and winds up delivering a taut thriller in the process.

Realizing his life and the life of his son Connor is in danger because of what he knows and has shared with the D.A. of Florida who was recently murdered, a widower (Jake Weber, Midway) flees with Connor to the only place he can think of that would be safe, the survival school of his friends Ethan and Allison Sawyer (Jon Berenthal, The Accountant, & Medina Senghore).  Unbeknownst to him, sibling assassins Patrick (Nicholas Hoult, Tolkien) and Jack (Aiden Gillen, Bohemian Rhapsody) Blackwell are already in pursuit and one step ahead of them.  When Connor (Finn Little, 2067) escapes a backroads ambush, he disappears into the forest and runs into Hannah who, displaced from her fire tower because of a lighting strike, is having a bad day herself.

With the brothers tasked with finding the boy that was given critical and damning info by his dad, a forensic accountant that uncovered some shady business dealings, it becomes a race to keep Connor away from the Blackwell Brothers while avoiding a large forest fire they started to smoke out the young witness and his protector.  Needing to overcome her own fears of failure in her recent past, Hannah eschews taking on a total motherly role for Connor and opts instead to treat him like one of her young recruits, pushing him forward as a way to make sure he remains safe in the face of danger.

In moving Jolie’s character to the front of the line, Sheridan does sacrifice some of the business Koryta had involving Connor and the Sawyers…but that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t have anything to do, either.  Senghore in particular is a real find in one of her first major movie roles and by the time you are biting your nails for her character your remember how well Sheridan has written for strong female characters in the past…though he could do to include a few more here and there.  What Sheridan doesn’t do as well in Those Who Wish Me Dead is fill in the character details as richly as he has in the past.  There’s obviously some deeper and darker things going on in Hannah’s life and connections she has to a few of the men in her squad (not to mention Ethan, Jolie and Bernthal share an excellent scene early on in the film that makes even more sense later) but save for showing viewers her penchant for risk-taking by zoom-zooming in the flatbed of a truck down a highway and then opening up a parachute, the character development is lacking in a lot of places.

The good news is that Sheridan has assembled a fine cast that mostly make it over these hurdles with ease.  Jolie’s gamine gait can easily clear unevenly written parts, so she’s taken care of but Hoult and Gillen struggle with defining the Blackwell’s as more than just rote killers.  From what I gather, the brothers were the true stars of the original novel (so much so that family members turned up in unrelated novels by Koryta in the future) but the chemistry between the two men is off.  Heck, I didn’t even know they were brothers until I read the press materials.  Holding much of the movie on his young shoulders, Little acquits himself nicely as a boy that’s seen too much and will pay the ultimate price unless he gets some immediate help.

Running a short 100 minutes, I appreciate that Sheridan kept this running at breakneck speed and think it’s fine how it is but wonder at the same time if Those Who Wish Me Dead might have also benefited from a little extra in its midsection.  The opening has a lot of ground to cover and we all know diving right in is always advisable to grab your audience from moment one and as you approach a finale you should never let the ending dip in energy.  I’d have been OK with having a few more breaths to take around the halfway mark and I think audiences who are enjoying the film will too.  This is above average popcorn entertainment that strikes the right balance in having a movie star paired with the right script/director.

Movie Review ~ Mortal Kombat (2021)

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The Facts:  

Synopsis: Washed-up MMA fighter Cole Young, unaware of his heritage, and hunted by Emperor Shang Tsung’s best warrior, Sub-Zero, seeks out and trains with Earth’s greatest champions as he prepares to stand against the enemies of Outworld in a high stakes battle for the universe. 

Stars: Lewis Tan, Jessica McNamee, Josh Lawson, Tadanobu Asano, Mehcad Brooks, Ludi Lin, Ng Chin Han, Joe Taslim, Hiroyuki Sanada, Max Huang, Sisi Stringer, Matilda Kimber 

Director: Simon McQuoid 

Rated: R 

Running Length: 110 minutes 

TMMM Score: (6/10) 

Review: In 2013, as part of my In Praise of Teasers series I featured the still-burned-in-my-brain teaser for the 1995 adaptation of the classic SEGA game Mortal Kombat.  With its throbbing electronic score, flashy editing, hype-inducing character introductions, and hints that every teenage boy’s favorite video game was about to spring to three-dimensional life, Mortal Kombat was poised to clean-up at the box office when it was released that August.  And it did…to a tune of over 70 million here in the States and nearly that overseas.  For a modestly budgeted film, this was a win.  Here’s the thing about that PG-13 movie though: it was missing a key element that made the video game such a adrenaline boost to play and wound up for many fans feeling defanged, bloodless, and watered-down.   

A sequel recast a number of players and went nowhere and soon after video games shifted to different arenas and interests as the ‘90s gave way to a new millennium.  I honestly hadn’t even thought about Mortal Kombat (the movie or the game) for years until I heard that Warner Brothers and New Line Cinema were partnering up for reboot of their franchise, this time allowing the film to embrace the ultra-violence present in the game and giving longtime fans their long awaited bloodsport.  An early trailer released mid-pandemic landed at a perfect time to rack up the best kind of fan buzz, so once more the stakes were high for another Mortal Kombat movie as it powered up for a rematch with audiences. 

Shortly before the release date, to generate even more fervor, Warner Brothers released the first seven minutes of the film on its partnered streaming service HBOMax and I can totally see why.  The opening prologue contained in those seven minutes takes place in a remote 17th century Japanese village where Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada, Life) is forced to defend his family from the onslaught of chilly killer Bi-Han (Joe Taslim, The Raid: Redemption) and his deadly assassins.  It’s an energizing way to start the film and if I saw those seven minutes and were on the fence about heading to the theater to watch the rest of the movie in IMAX or finishing it at home on a much smaller screen, in less concerning times I might have been checking for seats at the first showing the day the film came out.  And I think everyone at the studio is counting on those previewing the preamble to have that same thought. 

The honest thing to do would have been to show the first seventeen minutes as those give you a little better idea of what director Simon McQuoid and writers Greg Russo and Dave Callaham have concocted to follow that promising beginning.  For as fun as it is to finally see the violence of the game on full display in its gory glory, as jaw-dropping a vision it winds up being watching hearts ripped out and sharp objects plunged into every conceivable nook and cranny of the human body that hasn’t already been broken or broken off, you begin to realize that the whole fun of playing Mortal Kombat the game was, y’know, playing it.  Not watching it. 

Moving from the past to the present (or maybe slight future?) we’re given info about the ongoing battle between Outworld and Earthrealm.  Outworld, led by sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Han, Skyscraper, preening so hard throughout the film it almost borders on a drag performance) dominates in Mortal Kombat, fights to the death that determine the rulers of both worlds.  Outworld is one victory away from having Earthrealm under their control and Shang dispatches his top warrior, Sub-Zero (also played by Taslim) to hunt down Earthrealm’s greatest remaining warriors to eliminate any hope of them winning.  Over in Earthrealm, a motley crew of underdogs have assembled at the temple of Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano, Battleship) for their training, hoping to find their unique power that will assist them in defeating Sub-Zero and his horde of vicious killers. 

As far as plot goes, that’s all Russo and Callaham seem to lay down as their base and about an hour in you realize that it’s all been designed to get contenders in various locations to do battle with only the bare minimum of exposition between set-ups.  For acting purposes, that’s fairly good news for the likes of Lewis Tan (Deadpool 2) as Cole Young, an MMA champion haunted by visions of Hanzo Hasashi now transformed over time into a vengeful spirit waiting to take his revenge.  He can take a licking and keep on ticking (never damaging his movie-star good looks, natch) but Tan’s lack of true conviction in any of his line readings robs the film’s lead of some much-needed empathy when it’s desperately needed.  At least Tan can get the lines out without looking like he’s laughing, not so for Jessica McNamee (Black Water:  Abyss) as Sonya Blade.  Either McNamee was trying for something that didn’t translate or she just gave up, but the lone female of the group is a serious let-down.  He’s supposed to be the most annoying (and he is, trust me) but Josh Lawson (Bombshell) as Kano goes a special extra mile to make his character atrociously unlikable.  It’s only Mehcad Brooks as “Jax” Briggs and Max Huang as Kung Lao that create the type of fully realized creations that don’t let the script limitations impact their own work.  

The film mostly belongs to Taslim and Sanada, though, so much so that they wind up smartly bookending the movie with fight sequences that are a thrill to see no matter what size of screen you view it on.  Well-staged and filled with moves the camera can follow and pick-out nicely, McQuoid and his crew obviously spent a great deal of time figuring out how they wanted to present these passages and made sure they looked the best for maximum impact.  As with several of the fights during the film, there comes a moment when you sort of inadvertently let out a whoosh of air, aware that you’ve been holding your breath a little too long. 

The film is worth seeing for how it differs from the 1995 version, both in the way it takes itself a little more seriously and the way in which it accepts its origin as a video game at the same time.  Understanding it can have its cake and slice and dice it too, Mortal Kombat isn’t a flawless victory, but it finishes the job with style.   

Movie Review ~ The Little Things

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A burnt-out deputy sheriff is sent to Los Angeles for what should have been a quick evidence-gathering assignment and becomes embroiled in a crack LASD detective’s search for a killer who is terrorizing the city.

Stars: Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, Jared Leto, Sofia Vassilieva, Natalie Morales, Terry Kinney, Michael Hyatt, Chris Bauer, Isabel Arraiza, Joris Jarsky, Sheila Houlahan, John Harlan Kim, Tom Hughes, Jason James Richter, Stephanie Erb, Kerry O’Malley

Director: John Lee Hancock

Rated: R

Running Length: 127 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  During the recent long weekend I sat through nearly four hours of the mesmerizing documentary Night Stalker on Netflix which chronicled serial killer Richard Ramirez’s reign of terror over Los Angeles and neighboring counties in the mid ‘80s.  Here was proof positive of evil at its purest form, the killing of innocent people chosen at random with increasingly depraved brutality.  Anyone that’s ever read up on serial killers (or seen the movie Copycat) knows at least a little about Ramirez but I hadn’t truly experienced the full-on assault of his crimes until Night Stalker came along.  The fascination of the film for me wasn’t in the details of his actions, though, it was in the work of the dedicated detectives that called upon their resources, ingenuity, and plain old detective gut instinct to nab the predator.

This investigative work is always what draws me to these serial killer films and why I’ve been sad to see them fall by the wayside in recent years in favor of less complex plots that hinge more on luck than on genius.  Where are the Clarice Starlings from The Silence of the Lambs in film today?  Or a wise William Somerset from Se7en to take young recruits under their wing?  Heck, even Andy Garcia’s troubled detective in the not so beloved Jennifer 8 actually takes the time to investigate the reddest of all herrings. (I love that movie, by the by).  Even more than that, these are popular films that have entertainment value if generated with a modicum of competent thought, despite their often perilously dark subject matter.  Yet they’ve become less prestige over time and more the kind of films that top level B-grade stars frequent…rarely attracting A-list talent.  Plain and simple – we’ve been needing a movie like The Little Things to come around.

Writer/director John Lee Hancock (Saving Mr. Banks) has delivered an agreeably formulaic but nonetheless efficiently crackerjack excursion back in time to 1990s Los Angeles, allowing viewers to follow along in a puzzling mystery.  An opening prologue applies just enough pressure to get the blood pumping but then withdraws for a time as introductions are made all around.  After a health scare several years earlier, former L.A. detective Joe ‘Deke’ Deacon (Denzel Washington, Roman J. Israel, Esq.) has retreated to a quieter life of public service as a deputy sheriff in Kern County, two hours outside of Los Angeles.  There’s a slight apprehension when he’s sent back to the big city to retrieve important evidence in a local case and we’ll find out why (but on Hancock’s slightly drawn-out timeline) after he runs into his old partner (Terry Kinney, Promised Land) and a medical examiner (Michael Hyatt, Nightcrawler), both of whom he shares a well-kept secret with.

Deke happens to arrive at an opportune time because his previous department could use an extra set of eyes to help find a killer targeting women.  At first, lead detective Jim Baxter (Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody) wants Deke far away from his case but once Baxter sees how the veteran lawman works, he realizes if there’s a key to catching the evil roaming the streets at night, Deke is holding it.  After examining the latest murder scene and discovering new evidence, the men are threatened with losing the case with the impending arrival of the FBI.   The two men combine their efforts in an attempt to flush out a criminal in hiding, eventually targeting a potential suspect (Jared Leto, Blade Runner 2049) who checks all the boxes to be the man they’re looking for but might also turn out to undo all the work they’ve done if he’s innocent.

Playing like a truncated season of True Detective, The Little Things doesn’t have the meat to fill out an five or six episode order on HBO but for a two hour movie that’s debuting on HBO Max, it’s a largely satisfying endeavor.  It has the appropriate amount of thrill to it at the beginning but benefits from a heat that sparks more than slow burns.  Now, this may be insufficient for some who want that slow burn gradient for their films and enjoy watching the waters rise over the nose the ears the eyes of their protagonists, but I almost found it more interesting how Hancock more or less would dunk his characters in cold water from time to time.  It’s also two mysteries in one, with the current murders being looked into while Deke has re-opened an older case that has haunted him for years.  It’s not always an equal balance between the two cases and I still haven’t decided if Hancock has resolved either fairly enough but it’s certainly more ambitious a plot than not.

You wouldn’t expect an actor like Washington to show up in film that didn’t have some extra oomph to it, would you?  While it falls into one of Washington’s more outright commercial efforts like the 2016 remake of The Magnificent Seven, you can tell Washington is bringing more to the character than what was on the page…and what was on the page is clearly what attracted him to the role in the first place.  Deke is a flawed character with a range of setbacks he’s been working around.  His return trip to L.A. is causing him to confront those and his relationship with Baxter is a chance for further reflection on the mistakes he’s made both personally and professionally.  In typical Washington fashion, he takes what could have been an average role that a good actor could have made better and turns it into a bona fide star turn.

He’s followed pretty closely by Leto as one of the creepiest characters I’ve seen anyone play in some time.  Wearing dark contacts, a paunch, greasy hair, and a strange gait, he also takes on an affected voice that I was dubious about at first but starts to work into the freak factor if you buy into Deke and Baxter’s hunch that he’s the man they seek.  He certainly plays into their suspicions and Leto goes full, well, Leto in the performance.  I was genuinely unnerved by the actor and he’s well cast from my vantage point.  In the shadow of these two, Malek can’t help but look a little chilly and reserved.  Apparently unaware he isn’t wearing his Freddie Mercury teeth anymore, Malek always appears poised to ask Washington if he has any Grey Poupon and his attempts at being serious come off as bug-eyed confusion.  He’s just the wrong fit for the role as a family man young detective that becomes obsessed with finding this killer.  Another note about the cast in general, Hancock has amassed a fairly phenomenal supporting cast of bit players comprised of, among others, familiar faces (Lee Garlington, Psycho II in a small role as a harried landlady) and grown-up child stars (I didn’t even recognize Free Willy’s Jason James Richter as another LASD detective) – so it’s all around a strong world that’s been created for viewers.

Built on Hancock’s sometimes wobbly script that does require your rapt attention, the editing of the film is what detracts from the overall quality the most.  Several key scenes are hard to follow because, without giving any spoilers, the editor doesn’t properly establish location of certain characters.  That’s a big problem when you’re trying to put a puzzle together with only your brain storing the pieces.  My advice is to pay close attention throughout because important information about characters are given in sometimes offhanded ways, almost as toss away lines.  For a number of people, The Little Things will be seen as a creaky serial killer thriller that’s past its expiration date but it’s actually one that has outlived its sell-by window with better than average results.

Movie Review ~ Wonder Woman 1984

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Set in 1984 during the twilight years of the Cold War, the film follows Diana and her past love Steve Trevor as they face off against television huckster Maxwell Lord and archaeologist turned half-wildcat Barbara Minerva aka Cheetah.

Stars: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Kristen Wiig, Pedro Pascal, Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen, Natasha Rothwell, Ravi Patel, Gabriella Wilde, Kristoffer Polaha, Amr Waked

Director: Patty Jenkins

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 151 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  Earlier in 2020 when theaters started to close and movie release dates began to be bumped, the first films discussed were the most immediately affected: the latest James Bond film No Time to Die, Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan, and Christopher Nolan’s highly anticipated Tenet.  Each film has followed their own path to getting in front of audiences, from sticking to a theatrical release at all costs to its own detriment or embracing the streaming/on demand option that is available to millions in more immediate platform providers.  Arguably, out of all the movies in 2020 that audiences, studio heads, and investors in the future have been looking to for a sign of what’s next is Wonder Woman 1984 and like its bold titular superheroine, it wound up being a leader for its peers.

Rather than just debut the movie in theaters and have a streaming date follow weeks later, or have the film premiere for a fee on demand first, Warner Brothers stopped giving the film a seemingly endless set of new release dates and decided to gift everyone the movie on Christmas Day via HBOMax as well as select theaters in areas where it was safe to open.  The new streaming service has launched this year to a good buzz with nice content and an even better supply of films so far that have bypassed a theatrical run due to the pandemic like the remake of The Witches, Let Them All Talk, and Superintelligence.  To further entice those wanting a more cinematic experience, Wonder Woman 1984 would be the first film on HBOMax to be released in 4K, and would also support Dolby Vision, Dolby Atmos, and HDR10.  So if your home theater is tricked out, you were going to get a great show.

Still…there was the question of the quality of the film, a much (and I do mean much) anticipated follow-up to 2017’s origin story of how the Amazonian princess (Gal Gadot, Furious 7) made her way from her home island of Themyscira to the battlefields of the first World War, fighting alongside Col. Steve Trevor (Chris Pine, People Like Us).  Eventually joining the Justice League for more modern adventures (and being featured in two other DC films, 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and 2017’s Justice League) she stands as a symbol of truth and is always “fighting for our rights…and the old red, white, and blue.”  Original director Patty Jenkins was wisely brought back, this time co-writing the script with Aquaman screenwriter Geoff Johns.  The result is a solid sequel that builds on the excellent groundwork set in the first film but struggles with focus and juggling two villains with only one proving to be effective.

I’m going to assume from this point on you’ve all seen the first film so we’ll discuss some key events that happened in that movie.  You’ve been warned on spoilers from that movie!

Jenkins begins her film with a true thrill, an extended pre-title sequence set on Themyscira showing the young Diana (Lilly Aspell, Holmes & Watson) going up against older Amazons on a grueling obstacle course race that takes them in, up, over, and under the beautiful isle.  Under the watchful eye of her mentor Antiope (Robin Wright, Blade Runner 2049) and mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen, Sea Fever), Diana learners an early lesson about truth above all else.  Jumping time periods from 1918 to 1984, Diana is now operating out of Washington D.C. working at the Smithsonian as an anthropologist when she isn’t taking long lunch breaks to solve crime and save lives as Wonder Woman.  The apprehension of a set of mall thieves (one of several well-orchestrated action set-pieces) winds up overlapping with her day job as items from the heist are actually antiques, one of which holds a special power that changes all who come in contact with it.

One of those people is Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig, Where’d You Go, Bernadette), a co-worker of Diana’s that largely goes unnoticed day in and day out.  Mousey and easy to push around, she begins to change once she makes a casual wish to be more like Diana and that’s when her world, appeal, and physicality start to change overnight…and soon not for the better.  Another individual that seeks the artifact is smarmy Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal, If Beale Street Could Talk), a pyramid scheme sham-artist about to go down in flames whose fortunes change after making a deadly pact with a force of unknown power.  Still mourning the loss of Steve, who sacrificed himself at the end of the first movie, Diana, too, becomes part of this when her innocent wish for him to return brings him back…kinda.  Everyone has been wondering how Jenkins was going to bring back Pine for this film after his character, well, died all those decades earlier but she and Johns have worked out a clever way for this to happen within the context of the story being told.

That’s pretty much all you need to know about Wonder Woman 1984 because it’s the gist of the set-up introduced in the first quarter of the movie, the rest is all how these characters react to the new powers they’re given or, in Diana’s case, the person she’s given back.  For Barbara and Max, the power becomes an intoxicating drug they need more of.  Max begins to be unable to hold back and it starts to manifest itself outwardly but for Barbara while the change is somewhat external, the majority of the alteration is to her internal confidence and prowess.  Unwilling to be manhandled, exploited, intimidated, or second-guessed, an animal emerges…and this is long before her eventual transformation into Wonder Woman’s famous rival, Cheetah.

For Diana and Steve, it’s a far more emotional journey and Jenkins allows Gadot and Pine to have these moments, much to the chagrin, I’m sure, of the many fanboys and fangirls that just want to see wall-to-wall action.  Yes, I would have loved to see Gadot show up one or two more times in the Wonder Woman get-up in that first hour (there’s a frighteningly long passage in the first 75 minutes where she’s tiara-less) but would I have sacrificed the nice moments generated by the two actors?  Not at all.  If Gadot and Pine weren’t so engaging, I might have said yes but both elevate their characters to something bigger than big-screen versions of comic book creations.  It also paves the way for one of the film’s most stunning moments for Gadot, a “never look back” sort of scene that demonstrates not only why she’s underestimated as an actress but why she’s made a fantastic Wonder Woman so far.  Still…a nice mixing of the two is a 4th of July ride for the two on an invisible jet plane through a mass of fireworks.  It’s a romantic interlude in an otherwise more action-oriented scene.

Wiig is another huge revelation, I’m glad to say.  Everyone is a fan of the actress for her comedic turns but I’ve struggled with her in more dramatic roles, finding them a bit on the sly and overly produced side.  Not so here.  I loved watching how her Barbara turns from being a wallflower (that maybe only thinks she’s a wallflower) to a full-fledged creature out for dominance.  She begins by wanting to be like Diana in terms of being noticed, but when she realizes that her wish came true and then some…she becomes addicted to the “then some” more than anything.  Emma Stone was rumored to be the first choice for the role but Wiig is such a better selection, it’s hard to consider anyone else playing it so well.

Then we come to the biggest problem with the film, Pascal as Max Lord.  In a role that should have been played by (and I would wager a guess was written for) Matthew McConaughey, Pascal is by far the weakest element of the movie and that becomes a huge detriment the more Lord shifts into a leading villain role throughout the overlong 151-minute run time.  Popular right now more than ever due to his role as The Mandalorian on Disney+, Pascal may have his fans from that series but he’s almost unwatchable here as he overacts and oversells Lord while others around him are operating at a different level.  Someone should have taken him aside and helped him make an adjustment because it just looks like he’s in a completely different kind of movie.  In the hands of a McConaughey or even a Jeremy Renner (if he wasn’t already tied to Marvel), Lord could have been a true foe for Diana but under Pascal’s watch he’s a complete annoyance more than anything.

True, some of the CGI near the end gets a little iffy, especially when Wonder Woman and Cheetah finally meet face to face but as is typical of a DC film, it’s a strikingly rendered bit of entertainment for the most part.  Plenty can be said about the plot holes around the logic surrounding the central artifact, not to mention inconsistences in its usage but isn’t that true of all superhero movies at some point?  I mean, let’s not even go there with Marvel and it’s various magic objects that do the impossible.  Yes, it may not hold up to a careful inspection and isn’t as unique as its predecessor but its still eons better than most of the other films released so far in the DC Extended Universe.  It has a distinct moral compass that it’s not afraid to be open about; messages about telling the truth to yourself and, if you are in a position of power, telling the truth to those you have the ability to communicate with seems pretty pointed and timely for today’s audiences.  I like that it has a point to it and also how it keeps its emotions close to the surface, allowing them to rise up when necessary.  Gadot gets several key moments to emote and they don’t feel forced, her sincerity is what continues to make her engaging.

You can bet that all eyes will be on HBOMax this Christmas to see Wonder Woman 1984 make its premiere on the service (and I’ll be watching it again sometime soon, I’m sure) and I’m not worried about the future opportunities to see the Amazonian princess on the screen.  Make sure to stick around for the first few minutes of the credits and clear out any annoying windows that pop up so you can see the full screen – there’s a brief mid-credit sequence that is not to be missed for anything.  As a long-time fan of Wonder Woman dating all the way back to that original Cathy Lee Crosby movie (yes, even that one!) I kind of lost my mind for a moment.  It’s just the capper on Jenkins understanding what makes the character so appealing and proving that she knows how to give fans what they want.  Another absolute winner.

Movie Review ~ Superintelligence

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: When an all-powerful Superintelligence chooses to study the most average person on Earth, the fate of the world hangs in the balance.

Stars: Melissa McCarthy, James Corden, Bobby Cannavale, Brian Tyree Henry, Jean Smart, Michael Beach, Karan Soni

Director: Ben Falcone

Rated: PG

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  On a late-night last week it was getting close to one in the morning and the internet went out at my home and you’d think the stone age had started anew.  Nothing worked.  I couldn’t watch TV, I couldn’t access the internet and instead of, y’know sleeping, I spent about thirty agitated minutes trying to figure out what the problem was because I just couldn’t go on not knowing if I’d once again be hooked up to the net.  It’s tiny incidents like this and full-scale freak-outs such as when YouTube or another major website goes down that shows you just how much the public is relying on computers and artificial intelligence as well as how much of our information we put in the hands of non-human entities.  I’m not easily sucked into doomsday conspiracies but that’s something to be worried about should anything happen and we lose all of that data in some catastrophic event.

Thankfully, I’m not reviewing some Gerard Butler-esque movie where just such an event occurs but Superintelligence, a genial comedy starring Melissa McCarthy arriving on HBO Max just in time for Thanksgiving.  The film, written by Steve Mallory (Life of the Party) and directed by McCarthy’s husband Ben Falcone (Office Christmas Party) who also has a small supporting role, is another theatrical casualty of the pandemic now making its debut on a streaming service.  I actually only heard about its existence a few weeks back, it wasn’t even on my radar until the premiere on HBO Max was announced but then again, marketing on films sort of stopped all together back in April.  While several titles bypassing a run in cinemas would certainly play better on the big screen, this is one I think might have actually benefitted from this type of modified rollout.

Former corporate bigwig Carol Peters (McCarthy, The Boss) left her high paying job that felt unfulfilling in favor of work with non-profits that she could do some good for.  At the start of the film, she seems a bit aimless and unsure of what to do next, a state of affairs that confuses her close friend Dennis (Brian Tyree Henry, If Beale Street Could Talk) and perplexes a former co-worker (Jessica St. Clair, Like a Boss) who offers Carol a job at a brainless dating corporation.  Things take a strange turn when Carol wakes to the voice of James Corden (Into the Woods) speaking to her through a variety of different devices within her home and self-identifying as an artificial intelligence who prefers to be referred to as Superintelligence.  Controlling not just her electronics but stoplights, ATMs, cars, and ambient sound in restaurants, Superintelligence has chosen Carol as a case study because it has deemed her the most average person in the world.

From its short scope, Superintelligence has seen the destruction the world has caused and thinks there is no hope for humanity and wants Carol to prove it wrong.  Speaking in the voice of James Corden (and occasionally appearing as him in TV monitors) is meant as a way to come across as non-threatening and the AI even hilariously changes to a voice of an Oscar-winning actress for Dennis when Carol lets him in on her newfound follower.  It has given Carol three days to prove things aren’t as bad as they seem before it saves, enslaves, or destroys the world so for the next three days we ride along with Carol and Superintelligence as they give Carol a make-over and try to get her back-together with her ex-boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale, Annie) that she rather mysteriously broke up with.  They’ll also continue to avoid federal agents authorized by the President (Jean Smart, A Simple Favor, looking quite Hilary Clinton-y) to quarantine this virus.

About as good-natured as any McCarthy film has been, this is a welcome PG addition to her list of titles on IMDb and one that is likely fine for family viewing.  There’s no real villain in the piece and the stakes are never high enough to ramp up any palpable tension or suspense.  While that may leave Mallory’s script a little on the shallow side, it does give Falcone and McCarthy room to breathe and find their sweet spot to be, well, sweeter than normal.  There’s far less of the tendency to make McCarthy’s character the physical manifestation of a crude punchline by tossing her down a flight of stairs or some other painful-looking fall we’re supposed to laugh at.  The one bit of physical comedy we do see is used to good effect, showing the husband and wife team are learning less is more.

One still wishes for a bit of surprise at some point in the movie.  There were moments throughout the final act where I kept waiting for some twist or readjustment of the narrative that would alter where we thought we were headed but, alas, Mallory’s script is just a straight line from start to stop without any creative detours.  I guess that’s what allows McCarthy to shine the brightest (and she’s wonderful here, looking great and at her most relaxed) while at the same time piecing together her relationship with Cannavale who I liked but often feels like he’s attempting to match McCarthy’s goofy charm and comes off just goofy.  He works better when he’s simply sincere…anything more than that and it feels staged.  You’d think a movie on this scale with this type of talent would have something in the way of a ending to match such a high concept so the curious lack of that full bodied feeling of storytelling is noticeable.

This is the fourth film McCarthy and Falcone have worked on together and it’s their most effortless to date.  Considering where they started, the rancid Tammy, and then looking at Superintelligence it feels like a totally different duo.  Though overlong in my book, this is light entertainment that is easily watched and enjoyed with little to be gained in the process.  Sometimes, that’s totally OK.  It would pair nicely after your Thanksgiving meal when you’re full and need to rest in the glow of family togetherness.

Movie Review ~ Birds of Prey

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: After splitting with the Joker, Harley Quinn joins superheroes Black Canary, Huntress and Renee Montoya to save a young girl from an evil crime lord.

Stars: Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Pérez, Chris Messina, Ewan McGregor, Ella Jay Basco, Ali Wong

Director: Cathy Yan

Rated: R

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: In the summer of 2016, hopes were high that Suicide Squad could help bring back the DC Universe from extinction after the disappointing reception of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which was released earlier that year.  Seems that critics and audiences that had come to like the flashy spark of the Marvel Cinematic Universe weren’t grooving to the darker tones and turns DC was taking and while I personally thought BvS was far better than it got credit for, even I had to admit that the world needed to snap out of its mellow dankness.  Trouble was, the people behind Suicide Squad (and, likely, studio execs) course-corrected too much (largely after the fact) and delivered an awful tire-fire of a comic book movie…and made it PG-13 on top of it all.

If there was one thing that emerged victorious from the rubble of that failed effort (which is getting an overhaul reboot in 2021) it was Margot Robbie’s take on Harley Quinn, the Joker’s main-squeeze.  Robbie brought just the right amount of self-effacing fun and tongue-in-cheek cheekiness to the film, giving off the impression she was the only one who really understood what kind of movie she was in.  It definitely set the stage for her full-blown arrival to the big leagues the next year with her Oscar-nominated turn in I, Tonya followed by her regal showing for 2018’s Mary Queen of Scots.  After dominating 2019 with lauded parts in Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood and nabbing another Oscar nom for Bombshell, she’s back to make good on a deal that was sealed shortly after Suicide Squad opened to big business and stellar notices for her…a spin-off featuring Harley and a new group of female superheroes.

I admit, I first heard about this sequel while Suicide Squad was fairly fresh in my memory and I just wasn’t on board.  While I liked Robbie in the movie I didn’t find myself eager to revisit this take on Gotham City if it was going to be the same tone and annoying approach.  My dial wasn’t turned any more to the positive side when the full title was revealed: Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn).  I mean…must we?  Thankfully, we aren’t required to use the full title when discussing the film so Birds of Prey this one will be forever more.  Even hearing some decent buzz from those that got an early look didn’t totally convince me.

Well…when I’m wrong I’ll say I’m wrong and I’m wrong…a little bit.  The first ten minutes of Birds of Prey is exactly the kind of obnoxious experience I feared it would be.  Crazy edits, arch characters, voice over narration that felt like it was written by a fourth grader.  Then, just as I was settling in for a rough ride the film, written by Christina Hodson and directed by Cathy Yan, suddenly came alive and decided to find its own voice and that’s when things started to get interesting.  Sure, it maintains most of the elements that make it easily identifiable as a comic book movie but it strips away anything (and anyone) extraneous and focuses simply on the characters.  Don’t worry, this isn’t a Taxi Driver-esque character-study like Joker but it hits many of the same beats…just with more flair.

Harley Quinn (Robbie, The Wolf of Wall Street) has officially broken up with “Mr. J” and does so explosively (literally).  Without his protection she becomes a prime target for members of the Gotham City underworld that have been waiting to get back at her…but catching her is only half the battle.  Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor, Doctor Sleep) finds this out when he nabs Harley and is about to have his henchman Zsasz (Chris Messina, Live by Night) send her to that great circus in the sky until she sweet talks her way into a deal to get him a priceless diamond from a young  street-wise pickpocket (Ella Jay Basco) in police custody.  Finding that girl is a cinch for Harley (a police station breakout is a highlight of the film, one  many impressive action sequences) but she isn’t the only one with an interest in the teen.  There’s Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez, The Dead Don’t Die) a Gotham City detective working with Sionis’ driver Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) to get the jewel and save the urchin and the hooded Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, 10 Cloverfield Lane) whose own vested interest crisscrosses with all involved.

Much like she did with her script for Bumblebee, Hodson injects the film with female empowerment without laying it on thick like you’ve seen it before.  Working in tandem with Yan’s smart visual eye, once Birds of Prey sheds its slimy opening layer and finds its own fun it never stops until the fireball of a finale set at a rundown boardwalk amusement park. Kudos to the production design here…a truly imaginative funhouse was created for the battle royale that closes the picture.  I also appreciated that while the film wasn’t restricted to a PG-13 rating, Yan doesn’t take her R and run with it either…this is a movie that has violence but uses it in wise and, dare I say, fun ways.

Having more time to dig into Harley, Robbie sharpens her rough edges a bit more and that’s sometimes fun, other times a bit grating.  Like I said, it gets better as the movie goes along but the character is inherently meant to be on the insufferable side…but what makes her such a great character is that you still like her even though she’s bad.  And Robbie gets both those sides of the character right.  If there’s one thing Robbie is good at, it’s knowing when to share the spotlight.  It’s the sign of a confident star (and make no doubt about it, Robbie is a bona fine A-list movie star) who can yield the stage to others so they can shine and shine they do.  Perez is in rare form as a dedicated detective who has played by the rules and watched others with less scruples pass her by.  Skilled at comedy, Perez isn’t often asked to be on the more dramatic side and she ably holds up her end of things.  Surprisingly, Winstead’s role is smaller than you’d think, with the Huntress not having much screen time until the final ¼ when her presence is all but required.  I enjoyed Basco’s modern taken on a wide-eyed Artful Dodger and you’re either going to love what McGregor is doing or be completely perplexed.  For me, I loved it in all its slithery nastiness.  I sort of get where Messina was going in his laid back approach to the knuckles and muscle sidekick but think his performance is more Suicide Squad territory.  The one to really look out for is Smollett-Bell who sings up a storm and kicks butt like a pro.  Appearing in film/TV since she was a child, this feels like Smollett-Bell’s true arrival to adult roles and she’s undeniably one of the best things about the film.

It’s already known Robbie will be back for the Suicide Squad reboot next year but we’ll have to wait and see what’s next for the rest of the Birds of Prey.  I think this first outing is absolutely worth the flight time and would welcome another adventure if the same team was brought together again.  It can’t be a coincidence that the most successful DC Comic movies have been female centered and directed by women, right?  With Wonder Woman being the spark that kept the lights on at the studio and this one impressing with its wild style, here’s hoping Wonder Woman 1984 shows everyone that we need to keep letting the women run this world.

The Silver Bullet ~ Tenet

Synopsis: An action epic revolving around international espionage, time travel, and evolution.

Release Date:  July 17, 2020

Thoughts: Shrouded in mystery, if you’ve been to the movies the last few months you may have caught a super exclusive theatrical-only preview for Tenet, the new thriller from Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk, Interstellar) but the time has finally come for a full trailer to be released.  Starring John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman) and Robert Pattinson (The Rover), little is known what exactly is up Nolan’s tricky tricky sleeves and this first look appears to leave viewers with even more questions.  In other words, it’s a pretty fantastic way to get people excited for the July release – here’s hoping Nolan can maintain that secrecy until it opens.

The Silver Bullet ~ Wonder Woman 1984

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Synopsis: Fast forward to the 1980s as Wonder Woman’s next big screen adventure finds her facing an all-new foe: The Cheetah.

Release Date: June 5, 2020

Thoughts: THIS IS HOW YOU MAKE A TRAILER AND GET PEOPLE EXCITED!

Let’s face it, when Wonder Woman rolled into theaters in 2017 the odds weren’t exactly stacked in her favor thanks to the recent efforts from DC Studios.  Yet the film was an unimpeachable knockout, with smart direction from Patty Jenkins and led by Gal Gadot (Keeping Up with the Joneses) to critical, audience, and box office success.  True, subsequent DC films failed to build upon the good example Wonder Woman set so in summer of 2020 expectations are even higher for Wonder Woman 1984 to get things back on track.

From the looks of this trailer, we’re in for a rad delight with Jenkins and Gadot leaping ahead several decades to a story set in 1984 that finds Wonder Woman reunited with Steve Trevor (Chris Pine, A Wrinkle in Time) and dealing with super villains Barbara Minerva (aka Cheetah) (Kristin Wiig, Where’d You Go, Bernadette) and Max Lord (Pedro Pascal, If Beale Street Could Talk). The full plot is unknown but is it too much to hope they’ll take a page from Cheetah on the Prowl, the read-along book I had as a kid (see below)? 🙂 Everything about this preview is on point and gave me the kind of goosebump chills of excitement I used to feel when I was a teen waiting for the next ‘90s summer blockbuster.  Love the editing, love the music choice, already looking forward to Wonder Woman’s visit to an ’80s mall.  This just jumped to the top of my most anticipated list of 2020.

 

Movie Review ~ The Good Liar


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Career con artist Roy Courtnay can hardly believe his luck when he meets well-to-do widow Betty McLeish online. As Betty opens her home and life to him, Roy is surprised to find himself caring about her, turning what should be a cut-and-dry swindle into the most treacherous tightrope walk of his life.

Stars: Helen Mirren, Ian McKellen, Russell Tovey, Jim Carter, Mark Lewis Jones, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson

Director: Bill Condon

Rated: R

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  When you know you’re in good hands, it’s easy to settle back in your seat at a movie theater.  That’s why looking over the cast and crew of The Good Liar the other day I was able to get comfortable early on because I just had an inkling this would be one I didn’t have to fret much over.  Two iconic actors starring in a movie for a Oscar-winning director based on an international bestselling thriller adapted by a MN-connected screenwriter I quite like – you are speaking my cinematic language with perfect pronunciation.  Add in my general craving for something sophisticated and, y’know, adult and I was primed for a sly con movie that would have the usual twists and turns that came with the genre.

Now I’ve seen the trailer for The Good Liar several times over the past few months and more than a few key moments have been shown already so I’d advise you not to take another look before seeing this or avert your eyes if it comes on the telly before you get to the theater.  What’s nice to report is that, for once, the marketing team has elected to omit a key piece of the puzzle and that’s what makes The Good Liar such a fine treat to receive in the middle of a shaky November at the movies.  Instead of telegraphing what audiences should expect to see, they’ve left it for you to find out if you choose to venture into this adaptation of Nicholas Searle’s acclaimed debut novel from 2016.  If you do, you’ll be in for a fine ride featuring excellent performances in a movie that comes with crisp edges and is cool to the touch.

After meeting on a dating website for seniors, Ray (Ian McKellen, All Is True) and Betty (Helen Mirren, Woman in Gold) hit it off right away at their first dinner and strike up a friendship.  She’s looking for companionship after losing her husband the year before and he’s looking for…something different.  Well, not at first.  At first he seems genuinely a little interested in her as a potential love interest, but once he finds out Betty is sitting on a hefty nest egg, he moves in for the con and brings along his partner (Jim Carter, Downton Abbey) with plans to swindle his new friend.  As Ray and Betty’s friendship deepens, so does his ability to charm her and it’s to the script’s great credit that it doesn’t immediately turn Ray into an obvious money-hungry sociopath that Betty should be able to see right through.

That’s not the extent of Ray’s criminal dealings though, as he’s also involved with another scheme involving businessmen investing in a fake real estate corporation.  Opting to lay low until that blows over, he moves in with Betty, under the disapproving eye of her increasingly suspicious grandson (Russell Tovey, Muppets Most Wanted) who knows something is off about Ray but can’t put his finger on exactly what.  Driving a sly wedge between grandmother and grandson, Ray starts to separate Betty from her resources of safety until he’s practically all she has to rely on.  As Ray grows closer to Betty and gains her trust, his plan starts to come together…but when the time comes will he be able to go through with it and wipe her bank account clean?   Will his feelings get the best of him?  Or is there another player in the game that no one is yet aware of?

The answers to all these questions and more are laid out cleanly in the graceful screenplay by Jeffrey Hatcher (Mr. Holmes) which is generous to both Mirren and McKellen in the way it allows them to play each scene without rushing.  The same goes for director Bill Condon (Beauty and the Beast) who takes his time setting the film up in its first hour as we are introduced to Ray’s duality as a slick (and surprisingly nasty) crook one moment and a fragile aged elder leaning on Betty’s compassion in another.  There’s a tendency to let the victim of these stories look like a of fool for not seeing through this ruse but you get the sense in Mirren’s performance she knows Ray’s not always telling the whole truth but also that she has maybe emerged from a marriage where certain things went unsaid as well.

The final act of The Good Liar contains a few satisfyingly head-turning game changers and I didn’t see all of them coming…at least not the exact direction they were coming from.  You may have an inkling what corner the movie is about to go around but with Hatcher keeping Searle’s secrets so well he easily throws you off the scent, and that’s where the movie becomes less of a thriller and more of a cat and mouse drama that Mirren and McKellen revel in.  Both are playing against their perceived type here, he less as the warm-hearted gentlemen he appears to be and she far removed from the ballsy dame we know she is.  That’s fun to watch and seems like it was fun for them to perform.

If there’s one thing I’d change about The Good Liar is that it didn’t need to be quite so hard of a film.  Certain elements I’d agree have to play out against a backdrop of vicious crimes for specific plot tricks to work but there are parts of the movie that take place in strip clubs for no real purpose and key scenes of brutality that feel out of place.  While it contributes some element of surprise, it didn’t feel like an overall value add to the story Condon and company set out to tell.  Thankfully, any inclination to turn a pivotal moment into a bloody mess was avoided and the film as a whole retained its level of maturity when it very well could have sold its soul for cheap shock value.

There are certain actors some people would pay to hear read the telephone book and I honestly don’t think I’d be happy just watching Mirren or McKellen be stationary going through the alphabet.  What they’ve shown in The Good Liar is that they’re keen on taking on roles that require them to take action and get their hands dirty, not remain sedentary and stodgy.  Using their bodies as well as their trained voices, they’re actors that are fascinating to watch teamed in a project that holds your attention with ease.  If only more movies were made with this amount of class, patience, and trust in the audience.

Movie Review ~ Doctor Sleep

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Dan Torrance meets a young girl with similar powers as his and tries to protect her from a cult known as The True Knot who prey on children with powers to remain immortal.

Stars: Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Cliff Curtis, Kyliegh Curran, Zahn McClarnon, Carl Lumbly, Alex Essoe, Bruce Greenwood, Emily Alyn Lind, Jacob Tremblay

Director: Mike Flanagan

Rated: R

Running Length: 151 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  It’s time to own up to the dark truth that I’ve seen every Stephen King movie but never read a Stephen King book.  I know, it’s a horrible thing to admit and I don’t offer it up with any amount of pride, only to say that I’ve appreciated that King is a writer with work that has provided so many wonderful adaptations.  Way back in 1980 when The Shining first premiered, it’s well known it wasn’t King’s favorite interpretation of his work.  Legendary director Stanley Kubrick took quite a lot of liberties with the source novel, eliminating characters or changing their make-up all together, to say nothing of the reworked ending.  While a TV adaptation hewed closer to King’s original vision, it paled in comparison to what Kubrick had created.   Over the years, King came to some finality with the movie, for better or for worse, and it was generally accepted by all in thinking of King’s novel and Kubrick’s film as two separate entities that shared similarities.

Re-watching The Shining again (released in a spectacular 4K BluRay) for my 31 Days to Scare, I was struck by how little actually happens (in terms of on-screen action at least) in Kubrick’s film up until the final third.  Over the years I’d always remembered the movie to be this non-stop cabin fever scare-fest that was a journey into madness from the start but that’s what a young imagination falsely remembered will do to you.  Seeing it through a more adult eye with a critical angle, I was taken by how well Kubrick turned up the heat on the Torrance family as they came to the Overlook Hotel in Colorado and the horrible fate that befell them.  Jack Nicholson’s performance is legendary to say nothing of Shelley Duvall’s unfairly maligned and unjustly ignored heroic work as his wife who comes apart at the seams on account of her husband’s own mental breakdown.

Kubrick’s The Shining ended (spoiler-alert) with Jack Torrance frozen to death in the Overlook’s hedge maze and his wife Wendy and son Danny high-tailing it down the mountain to safety.  So when King went to write a sequel to the novel years later, he obviously was writing a sequel to his story that ended with the Overlook destroyed.  King’s follow-up, Doctor Sleep, was a well-received best-seller and soon it was time to consider making that into a movie as well.  Yet, how to merge this book with the previous movie?  Enter Mike Flanagan, riding high off of his success with a series of successful genre films Oculus, Hush, Gerald’s Game, and the series The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix. Hired to adapt and direct Doctor Sleep (he also edited the movie), Flanagan worked with King to adjust the novel to fit with Kubrick’s original film and the result is a seamless continuation that’s supremely satisfying and frequently frightening.

Picking up in 1980 where Kubrick left off, Doctor Sleep starts not with the Torrance family but with Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson, The Greatest Showman) and other members of The True Knot.  Surviving on the essence, or “steam”, of those with special powers like Danny has, they move throughout the country hunting children because that is when their “steam” is at its most potent.  The more they feed, the longer they live and the stronger they become.  At the same time, Danny and his mother (Alex Essoe, Starry Eyes) have relocated to Florida where Danny sees visions of a familiar friend from the Overlook.  Jumping ahead 31 years, Danny (Ewan McGregor, Christopher Robin) has dulled the memories of his past and stifled his “shining” with alcohol and drugs and is barely standing when he meets Billy Freeman (Cliff Curtis, The Meg) in a small New Hampshire town.

Finding a new life and sobriety, Danny spends the next eight years working at a hospice and often using his gifts to help patients transition to the other side with peace.  He’s also been communicating telepathically with Abra (Kyliegh Curran) another child possessing the power of the shining equal to Danny who has caught the attention of The True Knot.  When she begins to see visions of Rose the Hat and The True Knot in action, eventually finding a link into Rose’s consciousness, Abra knows she can’t take them on alone.  Asking for Danny’s help, he has to decide if he can open up the door to let his dark past back in he’s worked so hard to keep boarded up for these many years.  With so many ghosts from the Overlook locked away inside their individual Pandoras boxes, if that portal opens Danny isn’t sure what else might return with them.  But does he have a choice when a hungry cult will stop at nothing to get to Abra and now for the first time has also sensed his power and presence?

At 151 minutes, Doctor Sleep outpaces The Shining by 5 minutes but offers more movement and thrills at the outset than Kubrick did in his film.  Now, some may see that as a good thing or it could be a sign of Flanagan not totally trusting the audience to wait for two hours to get to the main event – but I don’t agree with that.  This is a movie that has measured out it’s shocks in just the right places, aiming squarely for maximum impact and not just to goose audiences with short attention spans.  No, Flanagan has previously demonstrated in his projects that he knows just when to push the button on the scare machine and here again he proves his timing is spot-on.  He doesn’t even have to push hard, simple things like music cues or familiar images can get those tingles started in your tailbone and send them upwards fairly quickly.

The references to The Shining are both obvious and sneaky and you’ll have to keep your eyes peeled for some fun ways Flanagan and his production team have tipped their hat to Kubrick’s original design.  While some scenes from the original are recreated in part, I was so glad to see it wasn’t with old footage made to look new or digitally altered to appear as if Nicholson and Duvall had come back for reshoots.  Casting new actors in these roles that aren’t exactly lookalikes but aren’t doing a pronounced impression was a wise choice too – you get the general idea of the previous actors but it’s more the character that’s important above all else.  Someone at my screening whined at the end they wished Nicholson had returned…but that would have been a huge distraction.

As is typical, Flanagan has assembled an interesting array of actors and it’s not just those at the top.  While McGregor is in fine form as the tortured Danny and nicely conveys the sense of loss and ongoing struggle he’s going through, he often takes a backseat when someone like Ferguson is onscreen because she’s such a commanding presence.  Stalking around the movie (and other actors), Ferguson’s character is wicked scary and doesn’t oversell why she’s the leader of this bloodthirsty pack.  There’s no campy acting going on with Ferguson.  Rose the Hat has survived for a number of years doing what she does and she has little qualms about taking the lives of the young — it’s a really evil role and Ferguson is impressively menacing in it.  I also quite liked Curran’s Abra, delighting in her burgeoning powers but also realizing the reality of the terrifying visions she’s seeing.  She ably holds her own against more seasoned performers and does so in the face of some disturbing material.

That’s another thing about Doctor Sleep that got under my skin and I couldn’t shake, it’s a very unsettling film.  Horror movies are meant to jostle you a bit and then let you go on your merry way into the night but Flanagan’s film digs in and sticks with you for a while after the movie is over.  While the imagery might not be all that gruesome, there are some suggestions of terrible acts that are hard to brush off and it adds to the growing sense of dread leading to the climax of the film.  While I won’t say how or where the film ends, speaking for myself I left the movie feeling satiated with where Flanagan (and King) led these characters.

Bound to keep a new generation of viewers up at night by pairing this with the original, Doctor Sleep is another win for Mike Flanagan and well as fans of Stephen King.  It’s a handsome production that provides the requisite shivers and shudders but takes it’s time to find an emotional core beneath it all.  Adding in the strong performances from the leads and supporting players and you have a solid effort worthy of sitting on the shelf next to its predecessor.