Doctor Sleep 2019 ****

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‘When I was a kid, I didn’t understand the shining,’ says Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) in Mike Flanagan’s adaptation of the novel by Stephen King. It’s a fair point; I saw The Shining when I was 12, and was chilled, filled with dread, hugely impressed, but also genuinely didn’t quite understand what I’d just seen. Stanley Kubrick’s film has since been much discussed and dissected, with many fanboy and conspiracy theories about the possible meanings, and that elusiveness it a key part of the haunting appeal. The biggest problem Doctor Sleep has is that, by positioning The Shining as part of a larger story, the meanings are nailed down and the sense of mystery is palpably reduced.

That said, Doctor Sleep is probably the best adaptation of King’s work since 1980, and a lot more faithful to the letter of his writing. Young Danny is seen getting advice from Dick Halloran (Carl Lumbly) about how to put his demons to rest, imagining a series of boxes into which his fears are captured and forgotten. But Danny has demons of his own, and his battle with alcohol mirrors that of his father Jack. Danny starts life in a new town, but his ‘shining’ creates a connection to Abra, a young girl with a similar gift. Meanwhile, a new plotline details the antics of Four Non Blondes-influenced vampire Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) whose crew require the ‘steam’ of innocent young victims to survive. Rose has designs on Abra, and Danny is torn between his fears of his past and his desire to help the young girl.

Flanagan is something of a whiz with post-modern horror; his Ouija: Origins of Evil showed he could take rote characters and plot elements and fashion something fresh and memorable from them. And his Haunting of Hill House tv show brilliantly used the original Shirley Jackson novel as a base for a much more expansive but spiritually connected story. He was the perfect choice for the film, and does well to create a work that’s faithful both to King and Kubrick; fans of The Shining in all its incarnations will know that Halloran’s fate differs in the film to the book, but Flanagan cleverly fudges whether the character is alive or dead as the story starts. He clearly enjoys working in the Stephen King meta-verse, and Doctor Sleep also links ingeniously with many of King’s preoccupations.

Kubrick famously cut many of the supernatural elements from King’s novel, and created something suggestive, grim and foreboding. Flanagan and King have repurposed many of the familiar elements as part of a new and very different story, one that riffs neatly on the original property while going off in a fresh direction. McGregor gives probably the best performance of his career as Danny, wrestling with his demons in some depth, while Ferguson is a slippery foe in Rose. Doctor Sleep can’t aspire to be the game-changer that Kubrick’s The Shining was, but it’s a styling, entertaining sequel that thrills and chills on route to a satisfying finale that brings back the many demons of the bad place for one more chilling go-round.

 

Grass 2018 ****

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‘I’m not a writer, I’m just writing,’ is a telling line from Hong Sang-soo’s delicate miniature of a film, a conversation piece that ploughs a highly individual furrow. Screening in the UK as part of the touring London Korean film festival, Grass has a unique structure that could easily be adopted by any streaming service; giving actors time and space to create vivid characters in a simple location; in essence, a hang-out movie played out through duets.

In this café we find Areum, played by Kim Min-hee, sitting at her laptop, listening into to conversations. A man and woman discuss someone recently deceased, and she berates him for his lack of feeling. An actor tries unsuccessfully to find someone to work on his screenplay, while another seeks a home. A grieving man seeks some kind of justice for a friend who has ended his own life after being spurned. Areum takes all of this in, as does the audience, before getting dragged into the stories herself.

Of course, there’s a reflexive quality to this; is the girl listening in to these conversations, or is she inventing them? A key moment comes when we see another female writer indecisively up and down a staircase; she’s seeking release from something holding her in place, but what, and how? It’s possible to read the film as describing a male-female divide, but the stories are not schematic enough for such a simple meaning, and the way they cross over towards the end reduces any sexual, political meaning and creates a welcome surge of warmth.

Shot in black and white, and with long static takes, Grass isn’t for everyone, but it’s a hugely rewarding film that might appeal to those mesmerised by the possible worlds featured in Chunking Express. While the presentation is very different, both films rejoice in the ways that lives, troubled as they may be, intersect and grow like blades of grass. This is a tiny but beautiful film, barely an hour in length, but well worth seeking out. Even the description offered by the google search engine captures the right mood, almost like an extended haiku.

‘In the corner of a small café, Areum types on her laptop. At the tables around her, other customers enact the various dramas of their lives: A young couple charges each other with serious crimes, an old man tries to rekindle a flame with a younger woman, and a narcissistic filmmaker works to put together his next project. Is she merely writing what she hears? Or is she hearing what she has written? As the dramas inside the café unfold, the plants outside grow taller.’

Grass is screening at the London Korean Film Festival runs from 1st-14th November in London before embarking on the annual UK tour 18th-24th November. The festival tours to: Edinburgh Film House, Watershed Cinema Bristol, Belfast Queen’s Film Theatre, Glasgow Film Theatre, Manchester HOME, Nottingham Broadway Cinema, until 24th November 2019. Further details at http://koreanfilm.co.uk/

She 1935 ***

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H Rider Haggard’s novel has, of course, been filmed several times, notably by Hammer in 1965 with Ursula Andress. But this 1935 production from Merian C Cooper is something of a rarity in that it was understood to have been lost for some time, and it’s quite a surprise to find it turning up in a not-unreasonably coloured version on Amazon Prime. Raiders of the Lost Ark this is not, but it’s quaint, amusingly stuffy and has a few idiosyncrasies that make it worth recommending.

Randolph Scott is our bold hero Leo Vincey, who travels to the ancestral fireplace of dying uncle John (Samuel S Hinds), who seems to have some knowledge of a fountain of youth. Vincey sets off with pal Horace Holly (Nigel Bruce) for an adventure in the ancient city of Kor, where they eventually encounter She Who—Must -Be-Obeyed (Helen Gahagan).

If She looks familiar, it because Walt Disney based the drawing of the Evil Queen in Snow White on this actress in costume, but that’s not all that’s familiar here. Complete with a Max Steiner Score, there’s a large swathe of the King Kong team assembled here, and some of the effects are still genuinely thrilling, notably the crashing ice-floes. In fact, the only drag here is the romance between Vincey and She, which is pretty ponderous by any standards, but given the general, cheerful chaos elsewhere, shouldn’t be an obstacle.

Human sacrifices, derring do, casual sexism, racism and all kind of random ingredients are shown to good advantage here, and if you’re not a fan of colourised films, think again; Ray Harryhausen personally supervised this restoration, and even if it’s hardly up to modern standards, it’s still watchable for fans of vintage cinema.

Sherlock Holmes in New York 1976 ***

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Ian Fleming’s short story James Bond in New York is one of the few Bond properties not to have been used in some way; Roger Moore is the link here with Boris Sagal’s sprightly 1976 tv movie, which may not offer much in the way of visual panache, but has some old-school pleasures for those who seek it out.

Moore brings his urban charm to bear on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s super-sleuth, and the novelty of his performance isn’t all that’s going on here. Avengers star Patrick McNee is a Watson very much in the Nigel Bruce mould, while John Huston slices of a thick but rich slice of ham as Moriarty, introduced in the opening scene in a confrontation with a disguised Holmes. Moriarty takes various physical swipes at Holmes with a gadget-packed desk which triggers various trapdoors, projectiles and other deadly instruments which Holmes has, of course, already figured out for himself.

The two don’t meet again until the end, and the tone is never quite so flippant, but there’s still lots of fun in the way that Holmes ventures from London to NYC to see old flame Irene Adler (Charlotte Rampling) who is a grand Broadway dame and not quite the femme fatale expected from the stories. Gig Young is a promoter rejoicing in the name Mortimer McGrew and Santa himself David Huddlestone is Inspector Lestrade. London looks much like New York here in that everywhere looks like a studio lot, but there’s a nice twist involving the building of the NYC subway, and the central mystery, involving the theft of gold bullion, is a really great mystery in that the solution is elegant, guessable but ingenious.

Chuck in a jaunty score by Richard Rodney Bennett and Sherlock Holmes in New York is a more-than-decent oddity, with big-stars, a universally known IP, and a quaint if unspectacular treatment from tv specialist Sagal. It’s a little dry and dusty in places, but the star-power carries it through, and makes it something of a hidden gem.

Scattered Night 2019 ****

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The current internet debate about Scorsese and Coppola vs Marvel present the opposite of Sophie’s Choice; surely there have to be more alternatives? Film festivals provide something fresh and new if you don’t fancy well-worn paths, and the London Korean Film festival, which tours the UK through November, provides exactly that, with Scattered Night a good example of the kind of fare that’s worth making the effort to see.

Directed by Lee Jihyoung and Kim Sol, Scattered Night is a delicate and thoughtful examination of a family on the edge of breaking apart, seen through the eyes of precocious ten year old Su-min (Moon Seunga). Together with her brother Jin-ho (Choi Joonwoo), Su-min is asked to chose whether to live with her mother or her father, a genuine dilemma for a young girl. Of course, Su-min would rather that the family stayed together, but there’s little sign of reconciliation between her well-meaning parents.

Sensation-seekers need not apply to a film like Scattered Night, which finds nuggets of truth in such uncontrived scenes as a birthday party, or Su-min diligently doing her English homework while her mother does her nails. The final act raises the stakes, but without contrivance; Scattered Night doesn’t attempt to manipulate the audience, but invites them to see things through Su-min’s naïve and yet worldly eyes.

Despite a decent festival run, Scattered Night is a hard sell in that divorce is a subject that doesn’t promise much cinematic pleasure. But there is considerable reward in a subtle film like this, which appeals to the heart but without attempting to force any issues, a la Eighth Grade. The sun-drenched South Korean locations add to a sense of richly evoked yet simple childhood, and Moon Seunga’s performance has been elicited with care. For anyone whose ideas about cinema don’t hark back to male-marketed IP from forty years ago, selecting and locating a showing of Scattered Night is an informed choice worth making, and should find a few admirers outside of urban areas when it eventually debuts on streaming services.

The London Korean Film Festival runs from 1st-14th November in London before embarking on the annual UK tour 18th-24th November. The festival tours to: Edinburgh Film House, Watershed Cinema Bristol, Belfast Queen’s Film Theatre, Glasgow Film Theatre, Manchester HOME, Nottingham Broadway Cinema, until 24th November 2019. Further details at http://koreanfilm.co.uk/

The Confirmation 2019 ****

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The Confirmation is a short film from Denmark, and one that deals with trans issues, or rather, it deals with a trans person; part of the film’s appeal is that it tries to defuse the hectoring tone of previous works on the subject. As David Mamet observed of the creative process, ‘I don’t want people to come out whistling the moral,’- there’s a way of discussing the trans experience that’s about issues and problems, and not about seeing people. The Confirmation deserves a look specifically because it strikes a universal chord, one that looks beyond issues.

Transgender actor Xean Peake plays Matthias, who wants to be a teenage boy; his mother Susanne (Ellen Hillingsø) is supportive, if anything, too supportive. She’s quick to come to his assistance, and she’s right behind him on the day of his Confirmation, the day he becomes an adult in the eyes of family and friends. But others are less quick on the uptake, and the nature of the formal event changes when Susanne gets up to defend her son’s choice…

The Confirmation has some thematic similarities to Festen in that a family gathering is disrupted by a speech with pulls on a fissure previously disguised by ritual. But in first-time director Marie-Louise Damgaard’s film, we stand on a different side of the divide; it’s agonising to Matthias what’s happening, and although he understands his mother’s protective urge, her words are not his.

Advocates are part of culture; everyone wants to be seen, in the internet age, to be on the right side of an argument. What The Confirmation skilfully does is focus on what its like, not to argue, but to be argued about. It’s a plea for understanding, but not in a hectoring way, quite the opposite. Perhaps there is idealism involved, but the film poignantly asks why anyone’s right to be themselves should be a matter of debate.

The Confirmation doesn’t overstay it’s welcome; the film makes an effective point, is well constructed and acted, and should go on to a strong festival and awards run. Once that’s over, it should also be a touchstone for viral use; a mother’s love is something that’s universal, and understanding how that love can be a double-edged sword is integral to the drama here.

The Confirmation is currently playing on the festival circuit.

The Dead Zone 1983 ****

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Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining proved to be a game-changer in terms of horror, with a major director transforming a genre tale into something at once more mainstream and also more arty. Adaptations of Stephen King’s work that followed were a mixed bag, but the property seemed to drive the project, and major talents like John Carpenter mixed with accomplished journeymen like Mark L Lester and Lewis Teague. For David Cronenberg, fast becoming a major name in horror, taking on a King project was a promising idea, and The Dead Zone establishing a number of cinematic tropes that have stuck.

The setting, of course, is Castle Rock, and the central character Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) is a man out of time, left in a five year comatose state by an accident, and emerging from the fringes of life and death, a magnet for bad things happening like Henry Deevers in the Castle Rock tv show. On his hospital bed, Smith sees a nurse’s house burning down with a child inside, and a boy he tutors will fall through cracking ice at an ice-hockey match. Smith has a gift for precognition, and with the help of a doctor (Herbert Lom), he is able to use his gift to stop these deadly events from happening, as well as helping local police to track down the Castle Rock Killer. An encounter with a crooked politician provides the climax here, with Martin Sheen reversing on the JFK character that was his 1980’s signature role.

The Dead Zone has an effective, wintry feel, bolstered by Walken’s wonderfully off-beat characterisation of Johnny. Castle Rock is shown as a bad place in various ways, with crooked politicians and businessmen, sick, twisted individuals on the loose and a decaying set of morals. And the ending packs a punch; rather than the every-increasing circles of horror featured in the Castle Rock tv show, Cronenberg nails the story down to one brief, satisfying plot twist.

The Dead Zone has a few nasty details, but it’s generally a classy, accessible horror film that’s gained in richness over the years. Many of the ideas contained here have become clichés, but Cronenberg’s restrain and visual austerity are nicely matched here by King’s ability to conjure up the inner lives of the Castle Rock denizens.

Cujo 1983 ****

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What’s so good about Stephen King’s killer dog movie? In Stephen King’s book Danse Macabre, the author writes persuasively about the 1979 version of The Amityville Horror, and a scene in which a sum of money goes missing from the Lutz family. He writes about how, rather than the flies and the axe attacks, it’s the financial horror that the Lutz family experience that really grounds the film, and King’s own ability to ground a horror conceit in domestic purgatory is very much to the fore in the film of Cujo.

Cujo is, famously, the killer dog featured here, but there’s no much Cujo in the first half of Lewis Teague’s film, bar an intro which shows the mutt being bit on the nose by a rabid bat. Instead, Teague’s film gets into the minutiae of one particular cell of the Castle Rock organism; Donna (Dee Wallace) has decanted from New York, her husband Vic (Daniel Hugh-Kelly) who is struggling with an advertising account gone rogue. Meanwhile her lover Steve (Christopher Kemp) beats her husband at tennis, runs down the street shirtless and doesn’t take it well when Donna dumps him.

If that’s not enough, we then get into Donna and Vic’s car trouble, and their attempts to get their shonky Ford Pinto into shape, which involve mechanic Joe Camber (Ed Lauter) and his family. All of these characters are extremely well described, and as a film, Cujo generates a heap of suspense before working out exactly how Donna’s life is going to fall apart. If there’s not much Cujo in the first half, the second half is all Cujo, and Donna and her son are trapped agonisingly in the confines of the Pinto while the rabid dog rampages outside.

If audiences were perhaps overwhelmed by the intensity of the latter stages of the story, the not-quite-terrifying dog make-up, or the less than satisfying ending, the majority of Teague’s film is way ahead of its time, respecting King’s characters and setting, while doubling down on intensity. Before he became a notable directorial talent, Jan De Bont does a great job with the look of the film, making something iconic of Donna’s Pinto in the abandoned yard and predating his excellent work on Die Hard amongst other films.

The name Cujo is still often bandied around when naughty dogs are mentioned, and Cujo the movie is probably ripe for a CGI-heavy remake; if anyone goes down that road, it would be ideal if they constructed the long, careful, patient build-up Teague manages here. Cujo the dog seems to feed off Castle Rock’s bad energy, and there’s far more to King’s story than just a woman in peril.

Dolemite Is My Name 2019 ****

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Who was Rudy Ray Moore and why should be care about him in 2019? This comeback vehicle for Eddie Murphy is a superficial but undeniably entertaining Netflix-lite account of the 1970’s comic who rose from club gigs, concert records and eventually Blaxploitation cinema to become a significant cultural influence. For Murphy, who has vanished from the big-time scene for some time, playing Moore gives him a chance to get back a mojo that’s been posted missing for decades, and Dolemite Is My Name certainly provides that showcase.

Moore is introduces as an unsuccessful hustler, tying to get a foothold with a uninterested record store DJ Raj (Snoop Dogg); in a script written by the team who brought us Ed Wood (Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski), the trajectory of Moore’s career is obvious from the moment he listens to a passing vagrant telling jokes, and realises that there’s nothing in his day’s media that reflects that culture. Club MC-ing comes easily to him in character as Dolemite, and making records in people’s houses propels him to a cult success. But a viewing of the comparably austere worldview contained in Billy Wilder’s 1974 film The Front Page inspires Moore to go a step further: enlisting the help of a playwright (Keegan-Michael Key) to create a movie, despite knowing almost nothing about what that might entail. The presence of funny performers like Titus Burgess and Craig Robinson has already provided a rich garnish for Murphy’s imitation of Moore, but a higher comic gear is achieved when Wesley Snipes enters as D’Urville Martin, who acts and directs alongside the inexperienced Moore, and who suffers long and hard for his art; for Snipes and Murphy, Dolemite gives them a chance to shine, and they grab it with both hands.

What’s less impressive here is that Dolemite Is My Name, directed by Craig Brewer, has little to actually say about Moore, comedy, or cinema aside from breathlessly relating a legend of financial success; Moore isn’t allowed a private life, or even a sex life, and most of his problems only occur to be resolved in the following scene. It’s the kind of approach that featured in The Wolf of Wall Street; print the legend and nothing else. The only characters not immediately in thrall to Moore are those who haven’t worked out how to make money from him; for a 2019 audience, without any real context beyond a few seconds of Wilder’s film, Moore’s routines, bravado and sexism don’t seem particularly amusing in themselves, however painstakingly brought to life.

Dolemite is My Name is the kind of rags to riches story that’s easy to relate to, and Moore’s approach to film-making makes for an entertaining film. But Brewer doesn’t actually make many points other than you can make a lot of money making blue jokes, denigrating women and acting out stereotypes. It’s easy to see why Murphy related to the idea of making this film, and there is likely to be a substantial audience who share his interest, even if the result seems to airbrush its subject to gain mainstream acceptance.

https://www.netflix.com/watch/80182014?source=35

A Good Woman is Hard to Find *** 2019

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There’s a trope in thrillers that should really have been retired, in which an inexperienced, physically weak person somehow triumphs against one, two or possibly three professional criminals. Even the likes of Quentin Tarantino, usually keen to turn a cliché inside out, isn’t averse to this unlikely scenario in films like True Romance. Maybe there’s a place for this kind of nonsense in a lightweight Jackie Chan action comedy, but it’s increasingly problematic when a film is deadly serious in intent, and it’s a frustrating flaw in Abnor Pastoll’s otherwise accomplished A Good Woman is Hard to Find.

Sarah Bolger is the big draw here, giving a big, empathetic performance as Sarah, a mother of two whose life in a Belfast housing estate has already been disrupted before the story begins; her husband has been killed, their son is rendered mute, and Sarah has a full time job just holding her family together. Callous criminal Tito (Andrew Simpson) bursts into her life when he attempts to hole up in her family home, complete with a package of drugs. But when one of Sarah’s kids opens the package, events spiral out of control in a violent way, leaving her with an increasingly difficult path to protect her family.

Ronan Blaney’s script manages to fashion a Loachian realism in the early stages, capturing a bleak, hard-scrabble existence that’s very much in line with Bolger’s grounded turn. But the plot mechanics are stretched to breaking point, with loquacious hoodlums circling and far, far too many deaths to avoid credulity going out the window. Having the bad guys discuss the connection between Tito’s name and the Yugoslavian dictator is the kind of indulgent, knowing dialogue that’s thankfully fallen out of fashion; the less we know about Sarah’s antagonists, the more frightening they are. Showing pond-life thugs engaging in writerly Alan Bennett wordplay throws the film’s gyroscope fatally out of whack.

But there’s a reason for reviewing, and for seeing a film like A Good Woman Is Hard to Find, and that’s Bolger. Increasingly the go-to girl for a strong performance, she burns up the screen as a protective, vulnerable mother, and she makes the film sing even when the clichés start to show. This is a tough, intermittently gripping thriller, but Bolger gives it a heart that makes A Good Woman is Hard to Find a cut above the norm.