‘Doctor Sleep’ Demonstrates That You Can Never Fully Outrun the Darkness of Your Childhood

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CREDIT: Warner Bros.

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Kyleigh Curran, Cliff Curtis, Carl Lumbly, Zahn McClarnon, Emily Alyn Lind, Bruce Greenwood, Zackary Momoh, Jocelin Donahue

Director: Mike Flanagan

Running Time: 152 Minutes

Rating: R for Creepy Nudity, Shotguns Fired at Supernatural Villains, and an Overall Generally Disturbing Vibe

Release Date: November 8, 2019

The end of 1980’s The Shining did not promise that all would be well for little Danny Torrance. But the opening act of Doctor Sleep is much more encouraging. Danny and his mom Wendy have made it out of the Overlook Hotel, but they haven’t quite escaped it. Danny is still being harassed by the spectral residents, but thanks to a few words of advice from the ghost of Dick Halloran (Carl Lumbly taking over for the late Scatman Crothers), he is able to firmly close the door on them and keep them at bay. But cut to thirty years later, and Dan (now played by Ewan McGregor) isn’t looking so good anymore. We meet him anew as an alcoholic getting brutally beaten up at a bar and stealing money during a one-night stand from a single mom after she stole money from him to buy cocaine.

I am not an alcoholic myself, so I do not know what it feels like to deal live with that disease. But now that I have seen Doctor Sleep, I imagine that alcoholism must resemble the experience of being constantly surrounded by relentless supernatural villainy. Or at least I imagine that’s what it feels like for Stephen King, who has been public about his struggles with the bottle and has used it for inspiration in his own work. How else to explain the prologue to Doctor Sleep, which feels like a happy ending, but is instead a red herring that leads into more than two hours of evil letting us know that it’s not done with us? It must be agony to endure all that pain when intellectually you know, as Danny does, how to fight it off but you just cannot bring yourself to do it.

But perhaps that understanding of the darkness is ultimately where Danny is able to draw his strength from. He certainly needs all of it, as there is a new threat in the form of Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), who leads a band of vagabonds who are basically energy vampires. They are not quite immortal, but they have lived for centuries by feeding off the life force of people with remarkable abilities. They have their sights set on thirteen-year-old Abra Stone (Kyleigh Curran), who exceeds perhaps even Danny with her mastery of the shining (which is basically a combination of telepathy and clairvoyance, as well as something akin to astral projection).

One of the biggest pleasures of the film version of The Shining was how it left so many of its striking images ambiguous, often cutting away before we had a chance to make sense of what was happening or even where we were spatially or temporally. Doctor Sleep is at its strongest when it follows this approach, and there are plenty of opportunities to do so as Danny and Abra commune via the shining. Even moments of revisiting specific settings from The Shining do not play as fan service, but rather, they have an ominous sort of “we shouldn’t be here, we’re playing with fire” vibe. The only major misstep is when writer/director Mike Flanagan’s script over-explains what is happening. I haven’t read the Stephen King novel that the film is based on, but King has a reputation of being a little wordy, and that seeps into the film a bit. But otherwise, Doctor Sleep is a solid frightener about how the darkness within human brains can be quite demandingly resilient.

Doctor Sleep is Recommended If You Like: The Shining, But the Stephen King Element More Than the Stanley Kubrick Element

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Mind Tombs

This Is a Movie Review: The Defense of Journalism Mounted by ‘The Post’ is Admirable and Often Rousing, But Almost Quaint

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CREDIT: Niko Tavernise/Twentieth Century Fox

This review was originally posted on News Cult in December 2017.

Starring: Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys, David Cross, Alison Brie, Sarah Paulson, Bradley Whitford, Jesse Plemons, Carrie Coon, Zach Woods

Director: Steven Spielberg

Running Time: 115 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Deadline-Related Light Profanity

Release Date: December 22, 2017 (Limited)/Expands Nationwide January 12, 2018

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees some fundamental freedoms, but certain limits on those freedoms are understood. Hate speech is not protected by free speech, for example, and human sacrifice is not protected by freedom of religion. But there is not quite the same shorthand for limits on a free press. Publishing anything demonstrably libelous is certainly unacceptable, but when is it inappropriate to print what is in fact true and has hitherto been hidden? This question is at the heart of so many present-day media matters, so in comes Steven Spielberg’s The Post, which examines a time when this conflict was a momentous occasion and not an everyday one.

In 1971, The Washington Post finds itself in possession of the Pentagon Papers, a trove of documents detailing the United States’ involvement in Vietnam over the past few decades. Executive editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and his team of journalists think the public deserves to know this information. The federal government says it would be a felony to print it. There is no mistaking where The Post (both the paper and the film) comes down on this conflict. This is not new information and thus serves no imminent threat to American troops in Vietnam. The only harm it can cause is embarrassment for former presidents. The actual conflict that The Post grapples is the attempted reconciliation between ethical and business concerns.

The constant struggle of press outlets, even institutions as big as The Washington Post, is figuring out how to make money by delivering the truth. That struggle is writ large when making a public offering, which is what we’ve got here. Do you make a stronger case to your investors by laying low or by making a ruckus in the course of standing up for your principals? As publisher Katharine Graham, Meryl Streep is all contorted faces and knotted anxiety as she takes the lead to make the decision of printing the Papers or not. The drama is wrung in screwball fashion, with Bradlee appealing to her over the phone at the last a minute, as a gaggle of other interested parties hop on the line.

For as grand as The Post’s ambitions are, it is strange to consider that most of it takes place over the course of just one day. It all then feels almost inconsequential, but of course, certain individual moments can change the course of everything. When that is the case, there has probably been months, or even years, of work behind the scenes setting up those moments, as conveyed by an early scene of Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) gathering and absconding with the Papers. Also delivering the dynamic agita is Bob Odenkirk as Ben Bagdikian, an old buddy of Ellsberg’s who tracks down the delivery. Odenkirk’s comedic background is an asset – he moves about with a paranoid shuffle that is somewhere between absolutely necessary and hilariously unnecessary. Also rousing is a typesetting montage following the decision to publish the Papers. This mechanical peek at how things are done is a valuable reminder of underlying structure in much the same way that Michael Mann’s Blackhat spent so much visual space on the wires that undergird the Internet.

Ultimately, while The Post’s advocacy for journalism is timeless, its story feels small-scale, a prelude to the much bigger fallout of Watergate and all the modern-day scandals that use -gate in their nomenclature. The Richard Nixon of The Post is only ever seen from behind and through a window. His fight against the press was fought in the shadows, but today his same tactics are being employed right out in the open. The Post’s lessons are ones I hope everyone takes to heart, but I wonder (despair?) how useful they are when the sorts of secrets exposed by the Pentagon Papers are now nonchalantly tweeted every day.

The Post is Recommended If You Like: All the President’s Men, Spotlight, a Free Press

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Sealed Documents

This Is a Movie Review: Kingsman: The Golden Circle

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CREDIT: Giles Keyte/Twentieth Century Fox

The Golden Circle is just as exciting as the first Kingsman, and it features a hell of a villainous turn from Julianne Moore. Its attitude is a bit arch, and it often pretends that it isn’t, but that isn’t a huge deal when the action is assembled impressively and the humor does let loose often enough. But ultimately while these flicks are fun, I find it hard to embrace them fully. There is just something weirdly insidious about their politics (or something like politics). It may not even be intentional, but intentional or not, it does unnerve me. I could have forgiven all that if Channing had danced more. Why didn’t Channing dance more?

I give Kingsman: The Golden Circle 2 Cannibal Burgers out of 3 Butterfly Effects.

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Gerald’s Game’ Handcuffs Carla Gugino to a Bed and the Ghosts of Her Past

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Geralds-Game_Carla-Gugino_Bruce-Greenwood

CREDIT: Netflix

This review was originally posted on News Cult in September 2017.

Starring: Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood

Director: Mike Flanagan

Running Time: 103 Minutes

Rating: Unrated, But It Would Easily Be an R for Cuttingly Physical and Psychological Entrapment

Release Date: September 29, 2017 (Streaming on Netflix)

If you watch Netflix’s new movie Gerald Game, chances are you might do so on a computer. Often in such a viewing scenario, it is advisable to wear headphones to get the full aural experience. But in this case, it must be noted that that full experience might be unbearable. Bones are squeezed, flesh and blood is squished around, and the sound mix does not hold back in making all that as nauseating as possible. I generally have decent fortitude when it comes to horror grossness, but I had to look away and unplug my headphones for significant stretches. In case there was any doubt, a personal computer is more penetrative than a public theater.

Based on a 1992 Stephen King novel, the setup of Gerald’s Game is viciously simple. Jessie (Carla Gugino) and her husband Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) head up to a remote cabin to spice up their marriage with a little S&M. He handcuffs her to the bed, but before they can get going, he has a heart attack and dies. And thus the majority of the running time is devoted to Jessie’s attempts to break free.

Gugino is mostly on her own for about an hour and a half, but she does have some visitors, whether real, hallucinated, or remembered. A feral, hungry dog is a nuisance that pays no respect to the dead. Jessie’s internal back-and-forth monologue assessing her chances of escape is represented by the most oppressive version of Gerald convincing her she can’t do it and the most confident version of herself discovering that there might just be a way.

Occasionally Jessie falls asleep, revealing repressed memories of her father (Henry Thomas) sexually abusing her when she was a teenager, which turn out to be the key for how to save herself. This is fascinating, and filled with striking symbolic imagery, but it is also maddening, a classic example of King at his most on-the-nose. Furthermore, it begs the question: why does Gerald’s Game even need the backstory? The action could easily be contained to what is actually physically happening in the room. Although, to be fair, not everyone has the patience or the stomach to withstand this story without any breaks. Ultimately, there are two legitimate of presenting this premise, and considering the one not taken remains for now a fruitful “what if.”

At the end, there is a huge exposition dump that confirms the existence of another villain (Twin Peaks’ Carel Struycken) who easily could have (and probably should have) had his own movie. He is actually present throughout the film, but it sure does not feel that way once it is explained what his deal is. This conclusion comes out of nowhere and serves no narrative purpose other than allowing Jessie to stand up to one more roadblock. Still, despite this and other odd detours, Gerald’s Game is high-quality claustrophobic horror and a powerhouse showcase for Gugino.

Gerald’s Game is Recommended If You Like: Saw, You’re Next, The flashback scenes in Split

Grade: 3 out of 5 Slices of Kobe Beef

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House’ is a Minor Addition to the Watergate Canon

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CREDIT: Bob Mahoney/Sony Pictures Classics

This review was originally posted on News Cult in September 2017.

Starring: Liam Neeson, Diane Lane, Marton Csokas, Tony Goldwyn, Josh Lucas, Michael C. Hall, Ike Barinholtz, Tom Sizemore, Julian Morris, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Kate Walsh, Maika Monroe, Bruce Greenwood, Brian d’Arcy James, Noah Wyle

Director: Peter Landesman

Running Time: 103 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for FBI Agents Yelling When Suspected of Leaking

Release Date: September 29, 2017 (Limited)

Former FBI Associate Director Mark Felt has been portrayed or parodied in plenty of movies and TV shows, his presence an easy source of tension, frequently cloaked in the shadows of intrigue and mystery. When Hal Holbrook set the template for all Felt performances in All the President’s Men, he literally remained in the shadows. Of course, for decades, the role was not “Mark Felt” but “Deep Throat,” the pseudonym for the informant who provided The Washington Post with key details about the Watergate scandal that led to Richard Nixon’s resignation. Now that Felt (here played by Liam Neeson) has been revealed as Deep Throat, a fascinating film about the man behind the informant is ready to be made, but The Man Who Brought Down the White House is too erratic and overstuffed to be that film.

The story of the Watergate break-in and its fallout is familiar to basically every American who has lived during the last 45 years. It is an ur-scandal, providing a lens through which all governmental scandals – really all public scandals – are interpreted. We don’t need Mark Felt to re-tell that story, and yet it does. To be fair, seeing everything through Felt’s perspective – the channel through which all information in this affair goes through – is fascinating, but not so fascinating to make the familiar exciting again.

As far as I can tell, Mark Felt’s main purpose is to draw back the curtain on all the hoopla that springs up around any person who exists anonymously for so long. There is plenty of material to mine for a rich domestic drama. Felt’s wife Audrey (Diane Lane) is alcoholic and shares much of the stress he’s under, but her story seems like it could be that of any FBI agent’s wife and not Deep Throat’s specifically. The film’s other major point is that for all the good Felt did as an informant, he was not exactly a hero through and through. He was as guilty as (perhaps more so) anyone else in the FBI who violated American citizens’ civil rights. But save for one compelling scene snuck in at the end, that aspect is merely glossed over.

The major shortcoming of Mark Felt is all it attempts to stuff into just a little more than an hour and a half. Every name in the impressively sprawling cast list brings their bona fides, but nobody has the space to carve out a memorable character. Mark and Audrey reunite with their daughter (Maika Monroe) at a hippie commune in a third act twist that plays like it is so supposed to put everything that came before in perspective but mostly feels like it comes out of nowhere. If Mark Felt makes any cogent point, it’s that you always need folks like Woodward and Bernstein to compile everything together cogently and lucidly.

Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House is Recommended If You Like: Watergate completism

Grade: 2 out of 5 (Nonexistent) Secret Files