Doctor Sleep (Review)

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* * * 1/2

I recently made a momentous decision and shifted The Shining to position number one as my all-time favourite movie (dislocating The Godfather). Kubrick’s horror masterpiece is a perfect movie, a revolutionary movie, an almost inconceivably well-conceived movie, and boasts, possibly, more iconic moments than any other movie. It can still scare me to death (when I watch it alone, late at night, in the dark, which I do every couple of years) and its artistry will forever astound me.

When I heard they were making a ‘sequel’, it naturally sounded like not just a dumb idea but anathema, like making a sequel to Citizen Kane. But Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep is staggeringly respectful, both of Kubrick’s film and Stephen King’s 2013 novel Doctor Sleep, and, for the Shining fan, great fun.

King hated Kubrick’s film, the common wisdom being because Kubrick took a lot of liberties with the story. Flanagan, who wrote Doctor Sleep’s screenplay, manages to make it simultaneously a tonal sequel to Kubrick’s film and the adaptation of King’s sequel to his original book (and if that bends your brain a bit, wait until you see the film). So, we get stylistic nods to Kubrick’s film, careful use of his original score, and even actors re-creating iconic Shining moments (which sounds worse than it is; the modern stand-ins are impeccably cast). But in the story chunks from Doctor Sleep (the novel) that have no direct resonance in Kubrick’s film, involving a troupe of other “shiners” who are more vampire-adjacent than Danny or Hallorann ever were, the feel is much more “Stephen King” than Stanley Kubrick, acknowledging and celebrating King’s motifs and tropes from his books and other films made from them (and if you’re up on both Kubrick and King, you’re in for one hell of a game of ‘spot the reference!’)

Remarkably, this bold-to-the-point-of-foolhardy strategy works. It helps that Rebecca Ferguson is quite awesome as the leader of the rogue shiners; her flamboyant character, Rose The Hat, is one of those King creations that would’ve been wicked on the page but could’ve been ludicrous on screen. In Ferguson’s hands, she’s not. Also helping are the production designers, who’ve done a superlative job of the potentially disastrous task of recreating key Shining sets and costumes. And, of course, that original score really sets the mood. If this hadn’t been a Warner Bros film, and the essential elements hadn’t been available to play with, I cannot imagine any of this being watchable, but, all credit to Flanagan and all involved, it’s highly entertaining, which certainly makes it one of the strange surprises of 2019.

Dolemite Is My Name (NETFLIX review)

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* * * *

Eddie Murphy roars back into the cultural conversation, the Awards Season, and my heart, with his flamboyant, exuberant and spectacularly entertaining performance in director Craig Brewer’s Dolemite Is My Name. He plays Rudy Ray Moore, a real-life performance desperado who broke through to cult success in the 1970s with a comedy set and subsequent record based on stories he bought from a drunk old-timer who lived on the streets. Then, with his rag-tag ensemble of friends and colleagues, he made a movie, Dolemite, under the most indie of independent circumstances. Along the way he may just have invented rap.

This joyous film has the kind of generosity of spirit that you just gotta smile, and frequently laugh out loud. Murphy powers the whole thing along but his ensemble – Keegan-Michael Key, Titus Burgess, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Mike Epps and particularly Craig Robinson – fill out Rudy Ray’s motley creative family with warmth and huge heart. The filmmaking section, which is a good half of the film, evokes Ed Wood, which was also written by Dolemite scribes Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski.

I loved this movie. Rudy Ray went on to make seven more Dolemite pictures; I could easily take a Netflix series with an episode spent on the production of every one. It may not be, cinematically, particularly ground-breaking or artful, but as pure entertainment, it’s among the films of the year; it’s certainly one of the funniest.

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Pavarotti

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* * * *

I really enjoyed Pavarotti, Ron Howard’s generous new theatrical feature documentary on the big cuddly tenor. Of course, it helps when your subject is so immensely talented, physically striking and charismatic: just seeing Pavarotti (and hearing him) for a couple of hours is entertainment enough. But Howard’s been a highly skilled storyteller for a long time now – he directed Splash in 1984 and Cocoon in 1985, and his resumé since includes A Beautiful Mind, Parenthood, The Da Vinci Code, Frost/Nixon, Backdraft and his finest film, Apollo 13 – and he knows how to flesh out a theme.

In Pavarotti, this means assembling the mass of available material – concerts, contemporaneous interviews, news reports, television specials and appearances, family photos and home movies – into a time-line that is subtly and cleverly arranged into thematic chapters. Without feeling the lanes shift, we move from Pavarotti’s anxieties to Pavarotti’s obsession with (and dependence on) food to Pavarotti’s love life to Pavarotti’s new management. It’s seamlessly and artfully done. Howard supplements the wealth of existing material with wisely chosen new interview subjects, relying most on Pavarotti’s three main lovers (who are all very elegant indeed). He, and they, quickly move past the required praising of the man’s astonishing vocal gifts and onto more personal and intriguing observations.

In the film’s second hour, Pavarotti basically owns a chunk of the 1980s as he becomes a mega pop star. Having lived through it, this section was very evocative and brought back the strange and distinct memory of much of the 1980s being dominated by such a small group of pop culture icons who all seemed to know each other and do projects with each other, often in the aid of charity: Pavarotti, Princess Diana, Bono and U2, Sting, Michael Jackson… Of course there were many others, but the placing of Pavarotti and Diana at the centre of high-end celebrity philanthropic society seems like a valid historical point.

Howard clearly loves his subject and keeps things positive, possibly to the point of hagiographic. But the main thing Pavarotti could be accused of (and his home country’s press certainly did) would be, through his love-life, a betrayal of his Catholicism, and Howard certainly doesn’t hide the love life. Thank goodness. I really enjoyed hearing from each of Pavarotti’s classy lovers about this man they, and the world, clearly adored.

Ready Or Not

The Next Big Thing.

 

Ready or Not is a goof and a hoot, a retro, completely silly, quite violent but never nasty romp that doesn’t tax the cerebral cortex but isn’t without style. In fact, rather terrific style: set in a gorgeous old mansion on a large estate, much of the film seems lit by candlelight, and the design and cinematography in general is very pleasing to the eye.

Samara Weaving – niece of Hugo, with a strong resemblance – plays a young woman marrying into a dynastic family. Their wealth comes from board games – consider them, say, the extended Parker Brothers or Mattels – and perhaps a little deal with the devil. Seems they strongly believe their ancestor may have made a satanic pact to get the family business rolling, with bad news for our young bride.

All of the cast are on the same page – peppy and upbeat and mildly ridiculous – and the directors are very sure of their tone, which echos fun murder mystery spoofs like Clue and Murder By Death. But it’s Weaving’s show. She is supremely watchable, a superb physical comedienne with a unique presence. More exciting than any other aspect of the film is watching her announce herself as the next big Australian female movie star from her very first scene. She’s buoyant, exuberant, and just plain fun to watch. See it for her.

Watchmen (HBO / Showcase)

Watchmen remains the equivalent of a sacred text among graphic novels. The 1986 tome by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons was listed among Time Magazine’s 100 Best Novels in English since 1923. It was adapted into an incredibly faithful film by Zack Snyder in 2009. At the time I wrote of that film that it was an “excellent, exciting adaptation which will please fans no end, but probably bewilder those who have not read the source material. Violent, strange, enigmatic and loads of fun.” Some of those sentiments carry over here.

Damon Lindelof’s new HBO series continues the story world of Watchmen by bringing its given circumstances into the present, but not our present. Like the source text, it presents an “alternative history” narrative. In the 2019 of the show, Robert Redford is President (and that is literal: the actor Robert Redford is not playing “the President” in the TV show Watchmen; rather, in the TV show Watchmen, the actor Robert Redford is the President). Police officers’ handguns, at least in the state of Oklahoma, where the first episode is set, are locked into gun-safes within their squad cars and may only be remotely released by an authorised higher-up back at base. Cops wear masks to protect their identities. And, most intriguingly, race now longer seems to be generally consistent within families: black parents have white children, and vice-versa.

There are a few big barriers to entry. The show’s world-building is clearly going to be deliberately parceled out, and those who need to get a quick grip on everything will feel rootless and probably frustrated. If you haven’t read Watchmen or seen the movie, the whole tone, which is intense, highly ironic (and sarcastic) and really pretty provocative, may be discombobulating or off-putting. And this is a show about vigilantes who wear masks and capes, so it is certainly superhero-adjacent.

I’m in for now. Lindelof is a TV genius (The Leftovers is one of my favourite TV shows ever, and Lost certainly was a thing) and the opening of this episode, dramatizing a horrendous moment in US racial history known as the Black Wall Street massacre, is arrestingly bold. The production values are through the roof, the music propulsive, and Jeremy Irons is in a concurrent storyline as a really weird castle dweller. One thing is for sure: there’s no predicting what’s coming next.

Zombieland Double Tap

I was totally surprised when a trailer for Zombieland Double Tap dropped onto the cinema screen in front of me a few months ago. I hadn’t thought of the original, which came out ten years ago, since I saw it, and, frankly, I’d forgotten it existed. Seeing the trailer, I felt like I’d missed some cultural phenomenon: wow, Zombieland must have become a… thing!

Maybe, maybe not. One of my film students, who was 12 when the original came out and only discovered it later when given a digital copy by a friend, loves it, has watched it multiple times, and can’t wait to see this new one. Who knew? Not me.

Anyway, the sequel’s not good. Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg do their best to energise the dialogue, but it’s all too self-conscious, and self-satisfied, to be playable. It would have been better in balloons on a comic-book page rather than on a big screen being said aloud. A lot of the lines are cringe-inducing in their desperation. Emma Stone is wasted, given little to do other than sulk – a crime against talent – and Abigail Breslin, who was nine when the first film was made, has grown up to be a flat actor. If she wants to keep going, maybe some classes would help.

The liveliest presence is Zoey Deutch, but her role is really problematic: she simply plays an old-school bimbo, right down to the blond hair and the pink outfit, and, when she’s not going for laughs by playing very dumb, Harrelson is going for them by commenting on her dumbness. It’s an astonishingly tone-deaf character for our time, but it’s all the film has; without Deutch’s idiot schtick, there’d be nothing to laugh at at all.

Hustlers

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Here’s my riddle:

This week I’ve seen

Four Martin Scorsese movies

But no movies

Directed by Martin Scorsese.

Ho ho ho. The answer, of course, is that I’ve seen Joker, thereby seeing Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, and now Hustlers, thereby taking in GoodFellas and Casino.

Luckily, Lorene Scafaria’s adaptation of a fascinating New York magazine article, despite being astonishingly derivative on a directorial level, has some fresh vibes in the excellent chemistry between Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez, as a young stripper and her mentor who turn to crime in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis. Their friendship is believable and enjoyable, and carries the movie through its otherwise unbearably repetitive (and long) second act into its pacy and legitimately compelling third. They’re supported by a terrific ensemble, including Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart and Mette Towley; when they’re not required to laugh hysterically at each other’s sass like everything that everyone says is the funniest thing ever – seriously, spending three minutes in the strip club’s raucous dressing room is exhausting given the level of bonhomie – they exude a communal warmth that fuels the film’s buoyant spirit. Fun.

Joker

After its big surprise win in Venice, a big splash (and some backlash) in Toronto, a storm (in a teacup) of opinion on social media, self-generating fear of cinema violence and even incel insurrection, Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix and directed by The Hangover’s Todd Phillips, arrives on our screens to a resounding, “hm.” It’s a fine enough film, extremely well crafted, but, in direct opposition to its buzz, there is no discernible need to see it. Indeed, if you’ve seen Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy both, there is truly nothing for you, as Joker, aping those films and setting itself in 1980 squat between them, doesn’t even update their concerns for our own troubled age.

Cinematography, art direction and Phoenix’s performance are the draws here; the story is so derivative, drawn out, empty and vapid that the film’s biggest fault is that it drags. Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy had wit and style; Joker has no wit and all its style is stolen. Its tale of a poor down-trodden wannabe urban comedian who descends into violence has been often told, with minor variations, and resonance to real-life events, most specifically to “subway vigilante” Bernhard Goetz, does not come with any insight. Ugliness is on display here purely for its own sake.

The best takeaway from this film is as a set-up for an upcoming Batman (like we need another). The final scenes are suitably baroque, befitting the Joker’s origin story as operatically linked to Bruce Wayne’s; try as Phillips, his marketing team, and everyone else at Warner Bros. may have to deny it, this is just another comic book movie, in a darker than usual key.

Judy

* * *

If subtlety – of storytelling or performance – is your thing, Judy, starring Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland in the tumultuous final stages of her career and life, will not be for you. Subtle it is not, nor is Zellweger’s performance, which, given its precision and grandiosity, will almost certainly win her the Oscar and many other statues along the way. She will have deserved it. Playing Judy seems like a feat of endurance, which is also the experience of watching the movie.

The first act is enjoyable, as mid-40s Judy, struggling to keep custody of her two children to her third husband Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell, bringing some admirable restraint), takes a gig in London at a very posh dinner theatre for a five-week engagement, while teenage Judy, in flashback, learns the cold realities of child stardom on the set of The Wizard of Oz. The film neatly sets up a cause and effect scenario around Judy’s lifelong struggles, placing, essentially, a choice of applause and addiction over “normalcy” on her young shoulders. This long section culminates with Judy’s first London performance, which Zellweger does in a one-take wonder that will be all the Academy needs to give her the gold.

From there, though, it’s downhill; repetitive scenes of drunken and drug-addled anguish and dreadful decisions (wait until you see what she does on a winter’s day in a park with a young man) get very tiresome. No one wants to hang out with a delusional self-pitying, very messy drunk for an hour, but the movie makes you, until desperately reaching for your sympathy with one of the most laboured endings in recent memory. The film splits focus by serving up multiple antagonists for Judy and underserving all of them, most egregiously Jesse Buckley’s Rosalyn, the young woman assigned to, essentially, make sure Judy got to the theatre, and onto the stage, every night. Their relationship is the film’s most intriguing but is sadly undercooked.

Ultimately overstaying its welcome by being repetitive and dramatically frustrating, Judy is worth seeing by the right audience for the inherent interest of the historical story (although there’s a lot of made-up nonsense) and Zellweger’s performance, which, however grandiose, is legitimately worthy.

Working Woman

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* * * 1/2

A young mother of three in Tel Aviv, happily married to a chef whose restaurant is struggling, gets an exciting, demanding and potentially highly rewarding job as the assistant to a very successful and powerfully connected real estate developer. But there’s trouble, and it’s him.

This is a forensic examination of just how workplace sexual harassment can not only play out but ensnare its victims in deeply complicated, confusing, dehumanising emotional and psychological webs. Without ever resorting to lurid plot developments or any hint of sensationalism, nor directorial tricks (there isn’t even a score), the film anchors you deeply within the brutal turmoil of the protagonist’s dilemma.

No film, nor book nor play, has come close to demonstrating to me – an Australian man – the subtleties of how such behaviour can continue, escalate, evolve and keep the victim on the hook as well as this. The antagonist is Weinstein-esque without being on-the-nose; the effect is to enhance the empathy one already feels for everyone who ever worked for him, or men like him. Vital viewing for our sad age, and to help us move forward to the next.