Doctor Sleep Movie Review

Doctor Sleep often shines the most when it isn’t burdened with following up on its classic cinematic source material. Director/writer Mike Flanagan has one tough assignment here. Not only is he adapting Stephen King’s 2013 novel which served as the sequel to his beloved novel, but he must incorporate Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 vision of that original work. That adaptation, in case you didn’t know, did not count King among its ardent admirers due to many deviations from the book. Yet the iconic filmmaker’s take on The Shining is ardently admired by legions. This delicate balancing act isn’t always completely successful, but Flanagan sure makes it work most of the time. And that’s no small feat.

The opening takes place shortly after the events at the Overlook Hotel as Wendy Torrance (Alex Essoe) and young son Danny (Roger Dale Floyd) attempt to move on from their trauma and cold loss of their husband and father. Living in Florida, Danny is still blessed and cursed with the ability to “shine”, which encompasses numerous psychic powers. He’s able to put his visions and bad memories in a box (literally and figuratively) for years. We flash forward over 20 years and Danny now takes the form of Ewan McGregor and he’s not in a good place. He’s a raging alcoholic much like his dad was.

After hitting rock bottom, grown Danny enters a different kind of light in recovery. Through the kindness of his AA sponsor (Cliff Curtis), he’s given a small apartment and gets a job as an orderly in a hospice wing. He soon becomes known as Doctor Sleep with the ability to comfort patients in their last moments. Outside forces soon bring him back to past events. A group of vampires known as the True Knot are led by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson). In order to survive, they feed on small children with psychic abilities similar to Danny’s. One brutal scene depicts their practices with a famous young actor who cameos. It’s pretty terrifying. The new mission of the True Knot is tracking down teenage Abra (Kyliegh Curran), whose shining game is quite bright. When Danny and Abra team up, their fight eventually takes them to the well-known production design of that Colorado hotel.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Doctor Sleep is the introduction of its new characters courtesy of King’s novel. Ferguson’s performance as the cult leader is terrific. She appears like a roadie for an alt rock band, but she excels at making her character a demonic force to be reckoned with. Her supporting band of devotees are also memorable. I suspect a picture focused solely on the True Knot could have been fascinating. Curran gives a winning performance as Danny’s partner in shine.

Flanagan must pay homage to King and Kubrick. There’s a Spielberg connection here too. Henry Thomas (yep, little Elliot from E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial) fills in as Jack Nicholson’s boozy and demented father figure from the 1980 original. That’s in addition to previously mentioned actors playing young Danny and Wendy. Carl Lumbly fills in for Scatman Crothers as the telepathic Dick Halloran. It’s unavoidably jarring to see these roles inhabited by others if, like me, you’ve seen The Shining multiple times. I did admire the way they decided to bring Nicholson’s iconic ax wielder back.

There’s probably no way to avoid the Overlook set third act and it is a pleasure to see those sets recreated. That also constitutes another Spielberg link as that director brought back the haunted hotel for scenes in 2018’s Ready Player One. It is also the weakest segment of the bunch, though not without its nostalgia inducing pleasures. Flanagan is able to engross the audience with the grown Danny and especially the new players around him prior to check in. In that sense, there’s certainly no legacies darkened in Doctor Sleep.

*** (out of four)

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker Movie Review

We talk about the Star Wars franchise the same way we speak of politics or sports. With passion and fervent opinions and disagreements. Perhaps we are giving it too much credit, but it’s become an American cinematic pastime. No group of films has inspired as much thought and re-thought. So we arrive at the ninth episode, The Rise of Skywalker, with all that baggage and more. After all, this one is tasked with closing out the saga that began at a time far, far away in 1977. Returning to direct with that weight on his shoulders is J.J. Abrams, who kickstarted the series for new owner Disney four years ago with The Force Awakens.

He does so two years following The Last Jedi from Rian Johnson, which sharply divided fans and critics by going in unexpected directions. Even Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill, didn’t jive with the choices Johnson made with his character shuddered on an island and not wishing to utilize his Jedi skills. That was one compliant from some diehard fans, among others. You could say they had their knives out for it, so to speak.

I found The Last Jedi to be flawed and disjointed, but also filled with great moments. There aren’t many of them here in Skywalker. As I ponder it, episodes VII-IX do follow a similar arc as the iconic I-III. The Force Awakens was tasked with introducing new and exciting characters from these galaxies. It also had to mix in Luke and Leia and Han Solo and Chewie. I felt, for the most part, that it did so successfully. That especially applies to Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). In fact, their little therapy sessions from The Last Jedi were highlights of the whole trilogy. The common critique of Awakens is that it was a rehash of the first Star Wars. While this is with some merit, it didn’t take away my immense enjoyment of it.

As mentioned, The Last Jedi was more of a mixed bag. Yet with Johnson’s sometimes confounding but often daring choices, it was also the boldest. This is where a comparison with 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back seems fair. Don’t get me wrong. It’s nowhere in its league, but it did take what happened in the predecessor and take it in unexpected directions.

And now The Last Skywalker. Like 1983’s Return of the Jedi, this trilogy finale has to wrap it all up. Allow me to throw in this disclaimer – I don’t hold Return of the Jedi anywhere near the regards of what came before it. While I feel there are terrific moments, there’s a lot that didn’t work me and not just the Ewoks. It often felt a little tired and unsure of what to do with itself for a chunk of the running time. That applies to Skywalker and there’s aren’t as many terrific moments.

The similarities don’t end on just a quality level. Ultimately, the main plot here finds Rey facing a choice of whether to stay a Jedi or follow her lineage to the dark side… just as Luke did in Jedi. By the way, those lineage inquiries are addressed. Another complaint in Rian Johnson’s script was how he handled that aspect. Rey’s supporting cast is around with Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) marshaling support to take on Kylo. And as the trailer suggested, Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) is back in the mix, too. So is Billy Dee Williams as cocky fighter pilot Lando. His return isn’t exactly as pined for as what we got with Luke, Leia, and Han. As for Leia, Carrie Fisher does return utilizing unused footage from Awakens and Last Jedi. It’s handled delicately.

There are new players with Richard E. Grant joining Domhnall Gleeson as one of Kylo’s top lieutenants. Abrams throws some small parts to Keri Russell and Dominic Monaghan (who both starred in his TV shows). The short shrift is given to Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), who had more of a presence in Last Jedi, but is basically ignored. That’s not exactly a problem as this is the Rey and Kylo show. Once again, both Ridley and Driver’s performances are first rate. Truth be told, though, Johnson wrote their dynamic better the last time around.

For the major detractors of The Last Jedi, perhaps this episode will feel like a return to Star Wars normalcy. I’m happy to listen to an argument that Johnson’s effort pairs well with the return of Abrams, but it would take lots of convincing. Skywalker often reeks of a course correction. This is becoming more common with franchises. We just saw Terminator: Dark Fate ignore the three pictures ahead of it. The X-Men series had to get creative with their timeline and do away with it under specific circumstances.

Those franchises aren’t Star Wars. The meeting between Han Solo and his son Kylo in The Force Awakens was a memorable, emotional, and surprising one. Whatever Mark Hamill and others might think about his treatment in The Last Jedi, a brief reunion with his sister in it was marvelous. In Skywalker, Abrams goes for a lot of those moments. And it felt, well, forced. The visual splendor and incredible production design (and the rousing John Williams score) is intact. A few scenes with Rey and Kylo work. Ultimately, I suspect my feelings about The Rise of Skywalker will be somewhat similar to Return of the Jedi – as an inferior product to its two predecessors.

**1/2 (out of four)

Ad Astra Movie Review

Roy McBride has major dad issues in James Gray’s Ad Astra, a space epic that’s more consumed with the personal. As played by Brad Pitt, McBride is a supremely subdued astronaut with a legendary father. He disappeared years ago and is assumed deceased after his mission to Neptune to find extraterrestrial life. This is all a giant metaphor for a father and son relationship that’s literally and figuratively separated by billions of miles. Tommy Lee Jones plays distant papa Clifford and Roy accepts a classified mission to retrieve him after it turns out he may be alive. Only the Earth’s fate hangs in the balance as all of human life is threatened and perhaps by dad’s activities far far away.

We are told that Ad Astra takes place in the near future, but there’s been time for moon bases, plenty of Mars exploration, and the capacity to get to Neptune in a relatively short period of time. Roy is not just estranged from Clifford, but so focused on work that his emotions leave him ambivalent about his wife (Liv Tyler) leaving him. For both him and the father who abandoned him, the mission of work trumps anything familial.

Much credit should be given to the design of Ad Astra. This is a beautiful looking picture as Roy’s travelogue takes him to stunningly desolate set pieces. Director Gray and his team pay attention to how this future world functions in a way that Minority Report did. Those details are worth exploring. It’s the rather tired dynamic between Roy and Clifford that gets in the way. The screenplay seems to think their relationship and what it represents is more profound than it is.

Astra is certainly a visual feast and a bit of a non-starter on a poignancy level. Midway through, I thought of the Dave Matthews Band track “The Space Between”. That could have been the title of this picture, which is more admirable than engrossing. There’s been efforts in this genre with parental themes (Gravity and Interstellar to name two) that landed the emotional stuff with more accurate precision. They didn’t leave me with Dave Matthews warbling gooey lyrics in my head either.

**/2 (out of four)

The Two Popes Movie Review

The Two Popes volleys back and forth between light and dark tonal shifts, but is benefited greatly from moments of divine inspiration by its two leads. At its base, the film is about one man replacing another for a job. It just happens that this occupational transition involves taking over the Catholic Church and that impacts over a billion followers worldwide. The transfer of the Papacy from 2013 was a nearly unprecedented event as a sitting Pope hadn’t resigned in over 700 years. The screenplay here from Andrew McCarten imagines the potential talks that could have happened behind giant Vatican doors between the outgoing Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and the current Cardinal Bergoglio and soon to be Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce). Both men’s crises of faith are explored in dramatic ways, but they also eat pizza, talk music, and take in a soccer match while the weighty stuff is happening.

This gorgeously edited version of history from director Fernando Meirelles takes us behind the scenes of two conclaves and the Sistine Chapel as the church is experiencing various scandals. The death of Pope John Paul II in 2005 posits the question of whether the Catholic upper echelon should move in a different direction. German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger represents the old guard while Argentinian Cardinal Bergoglio advocates for a different and more inclusive approach. The old guard prevails for years until Benedict contemplates the unthinkable act of renouncing the position.

The picture is mostly a two-man show that would probably work well as a stage play. It’s an excuse for Pryce (who bears a very passing resemblance to Francis) and Hopkins to have lengthy conversations about flagging faith and the pristine halls of power. And because these two leaders are human, after all, even contemporary subjects like ABBA and the Beatles come up. Hopkins is no stranger to portraying figures staring down the prospect of abdicating the throne (he did so in alternative fashion in Oliver Stone’s potent Nixon).

Like that film, the use of flashbacks is incorporated for context into the protagonist’s background. That character here is Bergoglio and the makers of The Two Popes are clearly in his corner with his focus on the poor and the environment. Yet the often humorous script is sympathetic to Benedict as he ponders his momentous choice. Juan Minujin plays the future Francis from a young priest hearing the call of his Father to a more seasoned one grappling with political upheaval in his native country. These sections are more hit or miss. They’re perhaps a little less involving because we want to get back to the master class of acting courtesy of Pryce and Hopkins. These two veterans make this well worth the price of the Netflix streaming admission.

*** (out of four)

Hustlers Movie Review

Designer clothes and designer drugs fill the screen in Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, inspired by a true story adapted from a New York magazine article. Focusing on a group of strippers who must figure out creative ways to make money after the 2008 financial crisis, this is a crime saga that often feels like a Mob movie trading tailored suits for Juicy Couture  and exotic heels. There are dramatic drawbacks and a lack of character depth in the director’s screenplay. It also features a dynamite performance from Jennifer Lopez and a pounding music score that renders this mostly gratifying.

Constance Wu is Destiny, who’s just nabbed a gig at NYC strip club Moves. She’s a novice in her new trade, but life perks up when she falls under the mentorship of fellow dancer Ramona (Lopez). They form a strong bond (Ramona is a mother figure that Destiny never had) and are a financial force among the Wall Street types that frequent the establishment. This turns out short-lived as the bottom drops out of the economy within a few months.

Destiny leaves the business and has a child from an unhealthy relationship. A lack of income brings her back to Ramona. However, the dollars aren’t rolling in like they used and Ramona is singularly focused on ways to keep the coffers filled. That’s when the duo enlist fellow employees Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and the weak stomached Annabelle (Lili Reinhart). The quartet takes on scores away from Moves and it involves drugging deep pocketed gentlemen and running up those black cards.

Hustlers is told in flashback as a journalist (Julia Stiles) interviews Destiny, who’s conflicted and guilt ridden about her actions. That trait does not apply to Ramona as she feels little sympathy for their marks. The picture is filled with energy when Lopez is onscreen, even if the script shies away from what motivates her (beyond the obvious monetary considerations). Destiny’s story and Wu’s portrayal is less captivating.

It is rather refreshing to watch something that has a Scorsese influence, but filled with much different looking glamorous law breakers. There’s no traditional score in Hustlers as the soundtrack is turned up loudly with primarily pop and hip hip hits from 2007 to 2014. A woozy sequence set to Scott Walker’s late 60s track “Next” turns out to be the musical highlight. We also hear a lot of Janet Jackson, who Lopez herself used to dance for. Other than some occasionally effective bits extolling the virtues of this odd family, don’t look for too much substance here other than the ones up a patron’s nose or mixed in their drink. Yet this is undeniably a pleasurable experience while it lasts.

*** (out of four)

Marriage Story Movie Review

If there’s one message that’s abundantly clear throughout Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, it’s that divorce is awful. Not only due to the wrenching emotions involved (though they’re clearly on display here), but for the process itself. The separating parties here play Monopoly on a regular basis with their son. And the lawyers involved here often treat the dissolution of Charlie and Nicole’s union as a similar game of take and take. It’s so personal, but it’s also business.

Adam Driver’s Charlie is an acclaimed NYC playwright married to Scarlett Johansson’s Nicole, a former teen actress who turned feature player in his theater productions. We meet them as they’ve already decided to divorce. They talk as if they want the procedure to go as smoothly as possible, but soon discover that’s impossible. The problems include custody disputes with their boy Henry (Azhy Robertson), a bicoastal disagreement as Nicole moves back to L.A. to go into TV, and their attorneys always trying to get an edge. Laura Dern’s high-priced Nora represents Nicole while Alan Alda’s weary Bert and Ray Liotta’s unrelenting Jay take turns with Charlie.

Apparently based somewhat on Baumbach’s own experiences, the writer and director is careful not to take sides. Marriage Story doesn’t have heroes or villains and even the counselors are doing their job. It’s the system that’s created them and Baumbach spares no witty anger in condemning it.

This subject matter is nothing new to big screen and it was 40 years ago that Kramer vs. Kramer also took on the divorce industry and won Best Picture for it. We are fortunate that Baumbach spends the time developing Charlie and Nicole into fully formed beings. You’ll root for them and against them. You may hope for a reconciliation, but with a knowing that this incompatibility is legitimate. Lesser films might attempt to find the easy way out.

Marriage Story has a stagey feel to it. There’s long monologues and lengthy scenes of actors discussing their game plan. We even have a couple unexpected musical interludes from the divorcees. Driver and Johansson are certainly up to the task with particularly solid supporting turns from Dern and Alda. The former may have the flashier part, but Alda’s character is equally intergral. When Charlie points out that these proceedings are unnecessarily complex and often contradictory, Bert can’t even muster the energy to counter these points. And while the auteur’s latest doesn’t exactly break new ground, it is often absorbing and exceedingly well performed.

*** (out of four)

The Irishman Movie Review

There are the types of characters we have met before in Martin Scorsese’s gangster genre works, but never quite like this. There are characters we never really meet here, but we’re introduced to the way they die. There are characters that never speak, but we’re aware of their thought process. And it’s that time consuming process that the filmmaker goes through here that makes The Irishman feel both invigorating and melancholy.

The thought of reuniting this director, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and anything involving the Mob is enough to get many running to the theater or, in this case for most, Netflix. Add Al Pacino to the mix (working with Scorsese somehow for the first time) and there’s more incentive. Yet this is far from a rehash of previous material. It’s an often stunning work that stands on its own merits. There is no coasting happening with De Niro or Pacino and that’s something they can rightfully be accused of in the past quarter century or so. The pair (who shared just a couple of scenes in Michael Mann’s masterful Heat and greater screen time in the unfortunate Righteous Kill) contribute some of their finest work in years. For Pesci, he hasn’t worked in years and his return finds him playing a Mafia boss but in a way you won’t expect.

The unexpected is key here and welcome. Just as GoodFellas gave audiences a final act kinetically viewed from Ray Liotta’s coked out perspective, the last segment of The Irishman is made from a considerably lower dosage. As De Niro’s character enters his final act, we witness him finally pause to consider his existence. And it’s not of a glorified nature.

In this tale based on certain truths and possible myths, De Niro is Frank Sheeran. He’s a World War II vet and truck driver residing in Philadelphia. Frank saw plenty of combat overseas and he’s willing to have a career of killing back stateside. His employer becomes Russell Bufalino (Pesci), the area crime boss and confidante of labor leader Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). Frank soon becomes Hoffa’s body man, enforcer, and trusted friend. Whether on assignment from Bufalino or Jimmy, Frank’s speciality is to “paint houses” (code for taking out whomever he’s ordered to). He’s skilled at it and the screenplay from Steven Zaillian gets into the occasional minutia and necessary strategy of carrying out such tasks.

Hoffa’s bigger than life personality (something Pacino is perfect to portray) often conflicts with the more buttoned down approach of Bufalino (something Pesci is more surprisingly adept at). This frequently leaves Frank in the position of mediator of murder or no murder. There’s plenty of it here, but The Irishman is noticeably less bloody than GoodFellas or Casino. 

De Niro has by far the most screen time and his work is perhaps the most impressive in a picture loaded with two other heavyweights in excellent form. It’s ultimately his film to carry and he does so with an ability he hasn’t shown in a long while. There’s plenty of other familiar faces from Harvey Keitel as another boss to Ray Romano as the group’s very busy attorney. Frank’s family is given the short shrift, but that’s no accident as he doesn’t have much time for them. His relationship with one daughter played by Anna Paquin is a constant thread and it’s a quiet and powerful one.

The Irishman transpires over several decades and Scorsese made the choice not to use younger actors to play the main roles in their 30s and beyond. This is done through de-aging visual effects that, while certainly not perfect, are the best I’ve seen yet. Most importantly, I didn’t find it as a distraction after a couple of minutes.

Just as Hoffa is obsessed with punctuality, The Irishman is about time. In this world of criminals and betrayal and violence, time moves fast. The film itself doesn’t at three and a half hours. That didn’t feel overly padded to me. This is good company. However, as this draws to a close, time slows down for some characters as well. And as Scorsese and three legendary actors expertly show for 209 minutes, some doors for reflection are slammed shut with a bang. Others are left slightly open for it.

**** (out of four)