Daily Streaming Guide: March 21st Edition

My Daily Streaming Guide rolls along today with three new movies worthy of your binge watching consideration:

Amazon Prime

From 2007, David Fincher’s Zodiac finds the filmmaker in his dark and visually stylish wheelhouse. The man behind Seven and Fight Club meticulously details the case of the Zodiac Killer in the late 1960s and early 1970s with a top-notch cast including Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey Jr. (one year before his first appearance as Tony Stark in the MCU).

Netflix

Speaking of stylish, Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive from 2011 has it in spades. It also defies genre placement. Ryan Gosling doesn’t have much dialogue, but this is one of his finest roles as a stunt performer who moonlights in underground criminal circles. A contemplative pic with violent outbursts, Drive is a stunner.

Hulu

On the cinematic front, J.J. Abrams is best known for revitalizing the Star Trek and Star Wars series. His stand-alone 2011 effort Super 8 has a Stranger Things vibe before that landmark show existed. With a heavy Spielberg influence, it would have been right at home being released in 1985. It’s a lot of fun and there’s a humdinger of a trash crash sequence.

And that does it for now, folks! Until next time…

Oscars 2019: The Case of Adam Driver

My Case of posts for the acting contenders at this year’s Oscar brings us to the third performer in Best Actor… Adam Driver in Marriage Story. Here’s his story:

The Case for Adam Driver

2019 capped off an amazing decade for Driver. In addition to his high-profile role in the HBO series Girls, his filmography over the past few years has been remarkable. To give you an idea, here’s some of the directors he worked with in the 2010s: Clint Eastwood, the Coen Brothers, Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh, Jim Jarmusch, Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams, Rian Johnson, Terry Gilliam, and Spike Lee. The latter filmmaker helped Driver get his first Oscar nod last year in Supporting Actor for BlacKkKlansman. 2019 saw his best year yet with his final portrayal as Kylo Ren in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and critical praise for the political drama The Report. Yet it’s his role as the divorcing husband to Scarlett Johansson in frequent collaborator Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story that garnered his greatest reviews thus far.

The Case Against Adam Driver

He’s still young enough that there’s little overdue for a win sentiment happening. Marriage Story has fallen behind in numerous categories with the exception of Laura Dern in Supporting Actress. Joaquin Phoenix has swept the key precursors.

The Verdict

Driver will likely place second in the voting behind the rising of Phoenix over the past few weeks.

My Case of posts will continue with the third competitor in Best Actress… Saoirse Ronan in Little Women!

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)

It Chapter Two Movie Review

It bloats. That would be Chapter Two of the saga that was adapted from Stephen King’s novel to monstrous box office results in 2017. A rumination on childhood friendship and fears that happened to feature a demented clown (with a humdinger of a performance by Bill Skarsgard and his creepy eyes as Pennywise), it was easy to see why It cashed in. Set in the 1980s (when the book was released) as opposed to the 1950s, the pic had a retro vibe fitting the Stranger Things and Steven Spielberg mold. Featuring fine performances by its band of teens called The Losers, the scariest parts of It often involved what adults were capable of doing to the group as opposed to Pennywise in clown or other forms.

In Chapter Two, it’s The Losers who are the adults. They come together 27 years after the events of chapter one in the town of Derry, Maine. This was choreographed at the conclusion of It two years back, but the grownup Losers only have scant memories of warding off Pennywise in 1989. We as the audience remember it well, but it takes around an hour of the nearly three hour running time for nearly all of them to recall. And that’s a slog.

On the positive side, the casting here is impressive. James McAvoy is de facto leader Bill, now a successful horror author who can’t ever write a satisfactory ending to his works (something King himself is often accused of). In my It review, I speculated that Amy Adams could inhabit the part of Beverly, the lone female of the club who continues to suffer from physical abuse started by her demented father. Jessica Chastain got the role and she’s another obvious choice. The most memorable performances here, however, come from Bill Hader as Richie, now a standup comic and James Ransone as hypochondriac Eddie. They’re responsible for some much needed comic relief and occasional moments that are genuinely funny. And while Jay Ryan might not exactly physically resemble the younger overweight New Kids on the Block loving Ben (who still has a crush on Beverly), the casting club found a performer whose eyes match his youthful counterpart Jeremy Ray Taylor.

Of course, there’s also Skarsgard having a ball as Pennywise. It comes in many forms and in many situations. It comes at night. It comes during daytime. It comes as a creepy old lady who lives in Beverly’s old apartment. It comes as a giant spider. It comes as famous lumberjacks. It comes in ways that display decent CG and dodgy CG. It’s a mixed bag of appearances.

Chapter Two is overstuffed and overlong. It’s as if director Andy Muschietti and screenwriter Gary Dauberman (the team behind the first chapter) wanted to be as faithful as possible to King’s book and leave as little out as possible. A tightening of the screws might have been a wiser course of action. King himself (who cleverly cameos) has stated in interviews that the why of why monsters do what they do is fairly incidental. The time spent linking Pennywise to Native American rituals and the creature’s background feels just that. That Stephen King might be onto something.

The long continuation of this story does certainly feature a couple of spine tingling sequences, fine acting, and amusing bits. Unfortunately it does not represent a hefty portion of its 169 minutes and that’s why this chapter just can’t match the more tightly contained first one.

**1/2 (out of four)

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark Movie Review

Based upon Alvin Schwartz’s three horror short tale collections from the 1980s and early 1990s (with some celebrated illustrations by Stephen Gammell), Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark has caught the attention of Guillermo del Toro. He has, of course, turned his monster material into Oscar winning work. Mr. del Toro didn’t direct this and he shares a producer and story credit. However, this reminds one of Steven Spielberg’s output at the time when Schwartz’s works were originally being released. Films like Poltergeist, Gremlins, and The Goonies came from other filmmakers, but they might as well have been made by Spielberg because his fingerprints are all over them. Andre Øvredal directed this and he’s proved his genre chops previously with effective material like The Autopsy of Jane Doe. Yet you get the feeling this is del Toro’s vision through and through.

Set in 1968 when political upheaval and the Vietnam War were true scary stories of their own, this brings us to a small Pennsylvania town in a year where Night of the Living Dead is just out. Teenage Stella (Zoe Colletti) is obsessed with the living dead as a horror enthusiast and aspiring writer. Her seemingly only friends are Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur) and the trio gets their kicks by playing Halloween themed pranks on the school bullies. They are soon joined in this quest by drifter Ramon (Michael Garza), who appears to be living out of his car. Their exploits lead them to an alleged haunted house once lived in by the wealthy and mysterious Bellows family. Their daughter Sarah was a writer like Stella. The difference is that Sarah’s writing hasn’t stopped after death and her words describe the PG-13 horror antics that follow.

This plot line allows for a small number of Schwartz’s old tales to come to life. And the CG creature effects due to that are as solid as we’d expect from anything with del Toro’s name attached. A couple of sequences radiate with a ghoulish vibe that impresses. Those moments are scary, but there’s not a lot of them. The screenwriters occasionally bring the turbulent late 1960s happenings to the mix, but that feels a bit clumsy and tacked on as they don’t really commit to it.

Instead we have a novel concept from source material of anthological form. Perhaps Sarah and Schwartz’s short stories could have worked a little better had this been adapted into a series on Netflix or another streaming service. After all, it’s probably Stranger Things and its retro goldmine of success that sped up the green light here. There’s no doubt that the those involved (particularly one) have deep affection for what they’re adapting. Despite its moments, it’s the format that’s limiting.

**1/2 (out of four)

Summer 1989: The Top 10 Hits and More

In what has become tradition on this little blog of mine, the summer season brings us a lot of nostalgia on the silver screen. In the present, that means a slew of sequels and remakes and reboots coming on a near weekly basis. For these purposes, it means taking a look back on the movie summers of 30, 20, and 10 years ago.

As has been written in previous years, I’m listing the top ten hits as well as other notable pics and some flops. One thing is for sure about 1989. It will forever be known as the summer of the Batman and that blockbuster influenced what has become the predominant genre of the 21st century.

A recap of 1999 and 2009 will follow soon, but we start with what audiences were watching three decades ago.

10. Uncle Buck

Domestic Gross: $66 million

John Candy had one of his most notable headlining roles in this John Hughes family friendly comedy that also introduced the world to Macaulay Culkin. No sequel followed, but a short-lived TV series did.

9. Turner & Hooch

Domestic Gross: $71 million

Shortly before Tom Hanks started collecting Oscars and doing primarily dramatic work, he was still known for comedy in the late 80s. This one teamed him with a dog in a buddy comedy that followed the similarly themed with K9 with Jim Belushi from three months earlier. This one made a bit more cash.

8. When Harry Met Sally

Domestic Gross: $92 million

Rob Reiner’s romantic comedy (scripted by Nora Ephron) is considered one of the genre’s landmarks. Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan headlined with a diner scene that has become quite iconic.

7. Dead Poets Society

Domestic Gross: $95 million

Robin Williams seized the day and an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of an unorthodox English teacher in Peter Weir’s film, which also nabbed a nod for Best Picture.

6. Parenthood

Domestic Gross: $100 million

Ron Howard’s dramedy sported an ensemble cast with Steve Martin and a crowd pleasing vibe. This is a rare pic that spawned two TV shows. The one from 1990 flopped while the 2010 version ran six seasons. Parenthood marks appearance #1 in the top ten for Rick Moranis.

5. Ghostbusters II

Domestic Gross: $112 million

The eagerly awaited sequel to the 1984 phenomenon was a disappointment critically and commercially when considering the original’s $229 million haul. That said, it gives us appearance #2 for Rick Moranis. A direct sequel will follow in 2020.

4. Honey, I Shrunk the Kids

Domestic Gross: $130 million

And we reach the trifecta for Rick Moranis as Disney had an unexpected smash hit here. It stood as the studio’s largest grossing live-action feature for five years. Two less successful sequels followed.

3. Lethal Weapon 2

Domestic Gross: $147 million

Of the four action comedy pairings of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, part 2 stands as the franchise’s top earner. This one threw Joe Pesci into the mix with sequels that followed in 1992 and 1998.

2. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Domestic Gross: $197 million

While Harrison Ford’s third appearance as his iconic character didn’t match the grosses of Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981, it did earn more than 1984 predecessor Temple of Doom. Pairing Indy with his dad played by Sean Connery, the character wouldn’t make it to the screen again until Steven Spielberg and Ford teamed up again 19 years later.

1. Batman

Domestic Gross: $251 million

As mentioned, 1989 was dominated by Tim Burton’s take on the Caped Crusader. While the casting of Michael Keaton in the title role was controversial upon announcement, it turned out quite well (as did Jack Nicholson’s turn as The Joker and a funky Prince soundtrack). Three sequels and multiple reboots followed.

And now for some notable pictures outside of the top ten:

The Abyss

Domestic Gross: $54 million

James Cameron was riding a high after The Terminator and Aliens when he made this sci-fi aquatic adventure. Known just as much for its difficult production as its Oscar winning visuals, it had a mixed reaction that has grown more positive through the years.

Weekend at Bernie’s

Domestic Gross: $30 million

Turns out corpses are hilarious in this low budget comedy that turned into enough of a hit that a sequel followed four summers later.

Road House

Domestic Gross: $30 million

It may not have had critics on its side or been a huge success originally, but Patrick Swayze’s turn as a midwestern bouncer became a serious cult hit subsequently.

Do the Right Thing

Domestic Gross: $27 million

A cultural milestone, Do the Right Thing served as the major breakout for Spike Lee and was named by numerous critics as the greatest film of 1989.

sex, lies, and videotape

Domestic Gross: $24 million

Winning the Cannes Film Festival, Steven Soderbergh’s provocative debut helped usher in a wave of independent films that followed in the 90s.

It wasn’t all success stories in the summer of 1989 and here’s some that failed to meet expectations:

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

Domestic Gross: $52 million

Captain Kirk himself directed this installment after Leonard Nimoy made its two well received predecessors. This one was met with ambivalence and stands at the second lowest earner of this particular Trek franchise.

The Karate Kid Part III

Domestic Gross: $38 million

In 1984, the original made $90 million and the 1986 sequel made $115 million. Three summers later, moviegoers had tired of Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita in their signature roles. Yet TV watchers are currently tuned to a series reboot with Macchio back as Daniel.

Licence to Kill

Domestic Gross: $34 million

Timothy Dalton’s second turn as 007 was a stateside flop and is the lowest grossing Bond flick when adjusted for inflation. Its star would never return in the role and the six year gap that followed when Pierce Brosnan reinvigorated the series with Goldeneye stands as the lengthiest gap in its near 60 years of existence.

Lock Up

Domestic Gross: $22 million

Sylvester Stallone had plenty of hits during the decade, but this one casting him as a tortured convict wasn’t one of them.

Casualties of War

Domestic Gross: $18 million

Brian de Palma was coming off a massive hit with The Untouchables, but this Vietnam War drama with Michael J. Fox and Sean Penn didn’t find an audience.

Pink Cadillac

Domestic Gross: $12 million

Three summers later, Clint Eastwood entered Oscar territory with Unforgiven. This action comedy with Bernadette Peters is one of his forgotten efforts and stalled with critics and crowds.

I hope you enjoyed this look back on the 1989 summer period and I’ll have 1999 up soon!

Bumblebee Movie Review

Steven Spielberg has executive produced all five Transformers movies prior to Bumblebee and he holds that title here. Yet it’s in this prequel/spin-off that his influence feels the most pronounced. In the case of this franchise, that’s a welcome development. Michael Bay’s quintet of loud metal on metal action orgies that began in 2007 are generally nonsensical explosion excuses with occasional jaw dropping moments. Travis Knight, taking over directorial duties, gives Bumblebee a heart and the loudest audio belongs to the terrific 80s soundtrack.

This is a prequel and the happenings occur in 1987, which explains The Smiths, Duran Duran, and Tears for Fears providing the tunes. A prologue on the planet Cybertron shows our title character (voiced by Dylan O’Brien) being sent to Earth by Optimus Prime in order to escape death by The Decepticons. He crash lands, of all places, right in the middle of a military training exercise in California where no nonsense Colonel Jack Burns (John Cena) assumes him to be a hostile creature. Bumblebee manages to transform into that iconic 1967 Volkswagen Beetle, but not after being rendered mute when his voice box is disabled. By the way, this all happens in like ten minutes. Pacing is not an issue in this picture, unlike other bloated Transformers flicks.

That Beetle ends up in a junkyard frequented by Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), a gear head who’s just turned 18. It’s her storyline that brings the Spielberg vibes front and center. She’s experienced parental loss as her beloved father has passed. She’s an outcast in the suburbs. Charlie has an awkward pending romance with her neighbor (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.). There’s also a resistance to diving (even though she’s a terrific diver) that we correctly assume will figure into the plot. She also works at a low rent amusement park that looks straight outta Adventureland. When she commandeers the Volkswagen, she discovers the giant yellow extraterrestrial and befriends him. Their relationship is quite E.T. like, if that alien had tires strapped to his back and communicated through radio waves playing Steve Winwood.

Knight, maker of the acclaimed Kubo and the Two Strings, is making a Transformers experience that could have been made in the 80s. And it mostly works. There’s only so much he can do with the fight scenes after the Decepticons (voiced by Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux) track Bumblebee to this planet. The tech team here manages to make them easier to follow than Bay’s mashups. So when Colonel Burns and other dumber than they should be government types get involved in the plot, I found myself actually caring a bit. That’s due to screenwriter Christina Hodson’s establishment of Charlie as a full fledged character and Steinfeld’s work elevating her. Her charming interaction with Bee is enough to warrant something the Transformers epics don’t get and that’s a recommendation.

*** (out of four)