Doctor Sleep review

For F*** Magazine

DOCTOR SLEEP

Director: Mike Flanagan
Cast : Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Kyliegh Curran, Carl Lumbly, Zahn McClarnon, Emily Alyn Lind, Bruce Greenwood, Jocelin Donahue, Alex Essoe, Cliff Curtis, Henry Thomas
Genre : Horror
Run Time : 2 h 32 mins
Opens : 7 November 2019
Rating : NC16

After nearly 40 years asleep, the Overlook Hotel reawakens. Doctor Sleep is based on the 2003 novel of the same name by Stephen King, which is in turn a sequel to King’s 1977 novel The Shining. That novel was famously adapted into a film directed by Stanley Kubrick, which is often considered one of the finest horror films of all time. Writer-director Mike Flanagan ushers audiences back into the cavernous lobby of the Overlook Hotel and into King’s world.

Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor) was five years old when his father Jack was driven insane during the family’s stay at the Overlook Hotel. Dan has become an alcoholic and has never fully gotten closure or come to terms with what he experienced as a child. Dan’s psychic ability, called ‘the Shining’ by the Overlook Hotel’s head chef Dick Hallorann (Carl Lumbly), has never gone away. There are others who possess the Shining, and yet others who feed upon those who do.

Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran) is a young girl with unfathomable powers. She is pursued by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), the leader of the True Knot cult. Rose and her followers subsist on the “steam” of those who possess the Shining, particularly children. Dan wants nothing more than to forget about the past and never have to use his powers again, but when Abra reaches out to him, Dan is drawn back into the world he so wants to escape. Dan and Abra must face off against Rose, and their quest to bring her down takes them to the one place Dan never wanted to revisit: the Overlook Hotel.

Making a sequel to The Shining is a daunting task, so it is admirable that writer-director Mike Flanagan even tried. Flanagan has a good track record as a horror filmmaker – his body of work includes Oculus, Ouija: Origin of Evil, Gerald’s Game and the Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House. His knack for exploring the inner emotional lives of characters rather than focusing merely on set-pieces and scares makes him the ideal candidate to make a movie about a character who confronts deep-seated childhood trauma and deals with addiction.

Doctor Sleep takes its time, making audiences eagerly anticipate the return to the Overlook Hotel and the horrors that lie in wait there. Even though the imagery of The Shining has featured heavily in the promotional material, this is not a movie about the Overlook Hotel. It’s a movie about Dan, how he has struggled in the intervening decades, and what happens when he is drawn back into the fray. Ewan McGregor is compelling and sympathetic in the role, convincingly portraying a man who has been through the wringer and is trying to outrun his past. Dan is always the centre of the story, and even when the movie gets carried away with callbacks to its predecessor, Dan’s journey is an important emotional anchor.

Once we get to the hotel (and in one scene before that), the movie goes full-bore fanservice. It becomes a seemingly endless parade of “look, here’s that thing you remember!” which might overstay its welcome. There’s a thrill in seeing locations and scenes from The Shining recreated again for the big screen, but especially given how remakes and belated sequels pile on the nostalgia, more cynical audiences might be unmoved by these scenes.

While Doctor Sleep is often effectively scary and includes some genuinely harrowing and disturbing scenes, some of the scares are unintentionally funny. The visual effects work is strong, especially in the dream/fantasy sequences, but several CGI-driven moments are not quite as creepy as intended. It isn’t nearly as noticeable as in IT Chapter 2, another Stephen King adaptation, but it still sticks out.

In Singapore, the film is rated NC16. In order to achieve this and avoid an M18 rating, some scenes featured a section of the screen censored with a blurry box. This is wont to pull many viewers out of the proceedings, but at least none of the scenes were cut.

Beyond McGregor, all the performances are good. Kyliegh Curran has a large amount of heavy lifting to do and is more than up to the task. Abra is powerful and eager, but also underestimates the immense danger she is up against. The mentor-mentee relationship between Dan and Abra adds even more heart to the film.

Rebecca Ferguson is clearly enjoying herself as the wicked Rose. She’s hamming it up just enough such that she’s still sinister and is surrounded by capable actors like Zahn McClarnon and Emily Alyn Lind as the True Knot devotees. The character is a villain out of a fairy tale, a wicked witch who preys on children, eating them to sustain her power. There is a poignancy to a fairy tale villainess being the person whom our heroes, one who survived trauma as a child and another who still is a child, must defeat.

Cliff Curtis is a warm, reassuring presence as Billy, a kind man who befriends Dan and helps him get back on his feet. The actors who play the characters from the previous film are all good matches, but Carl Lumbly is especially outstanding, uncannily echoing Scatman Crothers’ indelible turn as Hallorann in the first film.

While many hold Kubrick’s The Shining as the pinnacle of cinematic horror, the movie had its detractors, chief of which was King himself. Flanagan has tried to appease King by drawing on more elements of the Shining novel, while also including the iconography of Kubrick’s movie, striving to let the best of both worlds shine. This is very ambitious, and he is mostly successful.

The movie certainly works better if one has seen The Shining but does a fine job of explaining who Dan is and what he has gone through such that newcomers will not be lost and might be motivated to seek out the original film and book.

Summary: Making a sequel to a film that has an almost mythic status is a nigh-insurmountable task, one that writer-director Mike Flanagan is mostly up to. Doctor Sleep might lean just a bit too heavily on the imagery of The Shining but said imagery would be missed if it weren’t included in the film. This is an absorbing, intense and well-crafted exploration of confronting trauma and breaking free of substance abuse, and against all odds, a worthy follow-up to The Shining.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Post movie review

For inSing

THE POST

Director : Steven Spielberg
Cast : Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bruce Greenwood, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Matthew Rhys, Allison Brie, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemons, David Cross, Zach Woods
Genre : Biography/Drama/Historical
Run Time : 1h 56 min
Opens : 18 January 2018
Rating : PG13

         Every awards season, there are bound to be at least a few ‘big important movies’ – films based on true events that have a timely relevance, boasting pedigree in front of and behind the camera. The Post ticks all those boxes.

It is 1971. The New York Times runs a story about how the U.S. government has been lying about the Vietnam War to the public, based on leaked clandestine reports which document the ongoing war, going back over 20 years. These reports were compiled on the instructions of Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), the former Secretary of Defence, for academic study.

Katherine “Kay” Graham (Meryl Streep), the first female owner of The Washington Post, is about to publicly list the paper. While the Initial Public Offering will broaden the Post’s reach, Graham also fears losing the control entrusted to her by her late husband, who succeeded Graham’s father as the owner of the paper.

President Nixon and the Attorney General file an injunction against The New York Times, taking the paper to court over the story. Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) sees the opportunity to dig further into the story. Assistant Editor Ben Bagdikan (Bob Odenkirk) tracks down the source, former analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), and procures more than 4000 pages of the Pentagon Papers. Graham must choose whether to publish, at the risk of her and Bradlee being imprisoned, and with the paper at stake.

The sitting President of the United States has made no secret of his disdain for the press, branding any outlet which runs stories unfavourable to him as “fake news”. This climate prompted Steven Spielberg to rush The Post into production, and he made this film while his next movie Ready Player One was in post-production. The Post makes a statement about the importance of the freedom of the press, but perhaps it makes that statement a little too obviously. “We have to be the check on their power. If we don’t hold them accountable — my god, who will?” Bradlee exclaims, in one of several lines that spell out what the film is about.

Because The Post is made by people who more than know what they’re doing, it gets a lot right. Spielberg’s regular cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, composer John Williams and editor Michael Kahn (with additional editing by Sarah Broshar) do their usual fine work. The movie looks and sounds like how one would expect a 70s-set political thriller to look, and the setting feels authentic – complete with a multitude of unfortunate hairdos. While the first half of the film can be somewhat dry, things get genuinely thrilling as the movie heads towards an exciting conclusion. The stakes are clearly established, and it’s clear that the decisions the characters must make are consequential ones.

Behind the scenes, there’s the success story of Liz Hannah, for whom every aspiring screenwriter’s dream came true: her first screenplay was made into a film by Steven Spielberg. Josh Singer, who won an Oscar for co-writing Spotlight, rewrote Hannah’s script. Hannah had long been fascinated with Graham, and the writer’s boyfriend encouraged her to pen a screenplay about the newspaper heiress.

The Post wants to be a personal story in addition to being a historical account, but struggles with the balance. A scene between Graham and her daughter Lally (Allison Brie) comes off as a slightly awkward attempt to generate emotion while also supplying some backstory.

The Post is at its best when its talented actors are turned loose. Putting Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks in a scene together, regardless of context, is bound to produce electrifying results. The role of Kay Graham is comfortably in Streep’s wheelhouse: a powerful woman grappling with a monumental dilemma. Graham must make her way in a man’s world, facing doubt at every turn. She remains warm and personable even in the face of adversity, and is at once a magnetic and comforting presence.

Hanks has fun, biting into the role with relish. Bradlee is a dogged, persistent editor, who is described at one point as a “pirate”. Bradlee is a little more abrasive than your standard charming, affable Hanks part, and he spars with Graham and other characters throughout the film. Hanks and Streep visibly enjoy playing off each other, and Spielberg brings out the best in his stars.

The supporting cast is first-rate too: Paulson is especially likeable as Bradlee’s wife Antoinette, and gets an excellent scene in which she lays out why she admires Graham as Bradlee seems to dismiss his boss’ predicament. Better Call Saul star Bob Odenkirk is funny and down-to-earth as assistant editor Ben Bagdikan, who flies back to Washington with the Papers safely buckled into the airplane seat next to him.

There’s no denying that The Post is timely and well-made, but perhaps it’s a little too aware of its status as a big important movie. It takes audiences from Point A to B with enough clarity, but perhaps not enough nuance, and it will be hard for some viewers to see past how obviously The Post is calibrated for awards season appeal.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Truth

For F*** Magazine

TRUTH

Director : James Vanderbilt
Cast : Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace, Elizabeth Moss, Bruce Greenwood, Stacy Keach
Genre : Biography/Drama
Run Time : 126 mins
Opens : 17 March 2016
Rating : M18 (Some Nudity And Coarse Language)

The Bible tells us that “the truth shall set you free”, but there are times when it can feel like the truth can hold you prisoner, as Cate Blanchett finds out in this drama. Blanchett plays Mary Mapes, the producer of CBS’ primetime news program 60 Minutes Wednesday. In the months leading up to the 2004 presidential election, 60 Minutes airs a story about President George W. Bush receiving preferential treatment from his superiors at the Texas Air National Guard, with memos allegedly authored by Bush’s commander Lt. Col. Jerry Killian as proof. Mapes, her team and veteran news anchor and 60 Minutes presenter Dan Rather (Redford) come under fire after the program is aired, with multiple viewers calling the veracity of the documents procured by 60 Minutes into question. Rather, hitherto a widely respected figure in broadcast news, finds his reputation threatened as Mapes scrambles to defend herself and prove that 60 Minutes did not lie to the American public.

            Truth is based on Mapes’ 2005 memoir entitled “Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power.” Writer/director James Vanderbilt adapted the book for the screen and he makes his directorial debut with this film. Because Mapes’ account of events is the primary source, it cannot be expected that Truthis an objective depiction of the Killian Documents controversy, which came to be colloquially known as “Memogate” and “Rathergate”. The 60 Minutes story was one of the first pieces of investigative broadcast journalism to be dissected and torn apart online by bloggers and CBS was blasted for apparently exhibiting a liberal bias by running the anti-Bush story without thoroughly verifying these documents. Somewhere in there, there’s a gripping tale of the profound responsibility that journalists must uphold and Truth did get this reviewer invested in Mapes’ journey, but the film is pervaded with a sense of heavy-handed portentousness and turns out to be far less incisive than it thinks it is.

            Contrary to its title, Truth can’t help but feel phony at times. While this is a slicker, better-made film than many directorial debuts, Vanderbilt’s attempts to drum up the excitement and establish grave stakes feel slightly overblown. One of the culprits is Brian Tyler’s musical score, which heaves with bombast and sounds like something out of Air Force One. Quaid plays Col. Roger Charles, a member of Mapes’ investigative team, and it seems his primary function is to dispense exposition. There is a cringe-worthy scene set in a plane in which Charles explains to freelance reporter Mike Smith (Grace) that Mapes’ father physically abused her and that Mapes sees Rather as a father figure. There are also so many “what have I done?” moments in which realization dawns on Mapes that the scandal has taken another terrible turn, that it borders on self-parody.

            Vanderbilt’s trump card is his cast, especially lead performers Blanchett and Redford who are expectedly excellent. In spite of how many times the story trips over itself, the duo carries it to the finish line in tandem. Blanchett’s Mapes is doggedly persistent and suffers no fools, someone who is dedicated to her job and witnesses her life’s work crumbling around her. Truth would very much obviously like us to take Mapes’ side, and Blanchett’s portrayal of her ensures that we do – at least up until the movie ends and we start reflecting on the proceedings in-depth. Redford bears little physical resemblance to the famous newsman, and when playing someone so recognisable, perhaps physical resemblance should count for something. However, he has no trouble at all creating a warm, trustworthy and respectable figure and the interaction between Redford and Blanchett does possess a degree of heart.

            The rest of the characters are disappointingly two-dimensional; propping up the story as it progresses – Grace is the comic relief, lying on the couch, tossing a baseball in the air and asking the rest of the people in the room “you guys feel like pizza?” Quaid, as mentioned earlier, recaps things “as you know”-style for the audience. Moss, as associate producer Lucy Scott, has precious little to do. The various CBS higher-ups grumble/yell at Mapes and her team, occasionally flinging objects across the room in frustration. It turns out that securing Blanchett and Redford is a casting coup not just because they’re talented actors but because there’s little else to recommend in the film beyond them.
            Truth is made with polish but lacks finesse, an indignant cry that is far from altogether convincing in making us re-evaluate the events of over 10 years ago. The film desperately wants viewers to see Mapes and Rather as righteous martyrs laying their careers on the line and going down with their ship, a point of view that CBS has slammed. It’s not a case of “here are the facts; draw your own conclusions” because of the side the film takes, but the look behind the scenes at the politics of journalistic ethics, however flawed, is nonetheless fascinating. Perhaps Vanderbilt did as a good a job as possible with the stipulation that Mapes and Rather must be portrayed as the good guys, but then again, it feels like the title “Truth?” would be a better fit.



Summary: Truth is clumsy, preachy and Oscar-baity, not entirely successful in convincing viewers that its protagonists’ lapses in judgement were justifiable and forgivable. However, it’s impossible to overlook Blanchett and Redford’s stellar performances.

RATING: 3out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Good Kill

For F*** Magazine

GOOD KILL

Director : Andrew Niccol
Cast : Ethan Hawke, January Jones, Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood, Jake Abel, Peter Coyote, Alma Sisneros, Alma Sisneros
Genre : Drama/Thriller
Run Time : 102 mins
Opens : 28 May 2015
Rating : NC-16 (Coarse Language and Sexual Scenes)
            “The war machine keeps turning” – so sang Black Sabbath in their antiwar anthem “War Pigs”. In the 21st century, the war machine has evolved and the last several years have seen an increase in the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in warzones. Major Thomas Egan (Hawke) is a U.S. Air Force pilot who has been flying UAVs since the demand for manned fighter jets has decreased. It seems like a cushy job, flying the drones via remote control from a base in Las Vegas, far from the thick of it. However, Egan has become disillusioned and longs to be back in the air for real. His work takes a toll on his relationship with his wife Molly (Jones) and when his new co-pilot Vera Suarez (Kravitz) realises the job involves more than she’s bargained for, Egan begins to question the nature of his missions. When the unit is ordered to run ethically dubious missions for the CIA, even Colonel Jack Johns (Greenwood), whom Egan and Suarez answer to, has second thoughts of his own.
            The relationship between Hollywood and the military is a fascinating one. Hollywood is perceived as being run by liberals, but maintaining ties with the military and portraying them in a positive light is key to getting permits and clearances for filming on military installations or gaining privileged access to equipment and personnel. There was even a recent superhero movie that ran army recruitment ads in the theatre before the feature. Good Kill is written and directed by Andrew Niccol, who helmed the underrated, searing arms dealer drama Lord of War. Niccol’s best works, like Lord of War and sci-fi flick Gattaca, examine relevant sociopolitical issues in addition to being stylish and entertaining. Drone warfare is as topical as it gets – the collateral damage resulting from a covert drone strike was recently a major plot point in the fourth season of TV series Homeland. Good Kill spells out its themes in the biggest, blockiest letters available. Watching drone pilots cooped up in a small box flying missions from thousands of miles away does sound somewhat boring, and perhaps this lack of subtlety is compensation for it.

            Niccol takes particular relish in juxtaposing the shiny decadence of the Las Vegas Strip with the life-and-death stakes of the Air Force drone missions being controlled just a few miles out from the casinos and strip clubs, the partygoers oblivious to the war on terror being waged from next door. He has succeeded in creating a war movie unlike any before it, presenting post-traumatic stress disorder and the questioning of authority in a new look but with the same queasy flavour. The disconnect is a big part of it – the targets on the ground are mostly faceless, but so is the ominous voice of Langley, Viriginia over the speakerphone, the CIA portrayed as a shadowy éminence grise. Colonel Jack Johns, played by Bruce Greenwood, gives a big bravura speech to a gaggle of recruits that is gloriously on the nose but yet not out of place in the context of the film. With lines like “this aircraft isn’t the future of war. This is the here and f***ing now” and “war is now a first-person shooter”, the audience is brought up to speed with the changing landscape of combat in layman’s terms, and there’s also the sense that the Colonel is desperately trying to convince himself.

            Ethan Hawke is on a roll following his Oscar nomination for Boyhood, Good Kill reuniting him with Niccol, who directed the actor in Gattaca and Lord of War. Hawke has the unique challenge of playing a shell-shocked soldier who never steps foot into the battlefield and the film is carried by the tormented humanity he imbues the character with. Bruce Greenwood brings his trademark blend of paternal warmth and no-nonsense grit to the role of Colonel Johns, who despite moments like the abovementioned speech, is never a stereotypically over-the-top hard-ass. Unfortunately, January Jones’ character Molly is every bit the stock type of the nagging wife who doesn’t understand the psychological torment her husband suffers as a result of his occupation, even with the requisite scenes that are meant to make her sympathetic. Zoë Kravitz’s Vera Suarez is an archetype as well, the recruit who has her idealism broken down piece by piece. She handles the emotional beats well and is excellent opposite Hawke.


            Good Kill has a lot to say and it does seem like Niccol has taken the effort in understanding the various sides of the drone warfare argument. However, it doesn’t quite need 104 minutes to say what it does and while it is bereft of the raw bombast of most war films, it is still painted in very broad strokes. Even with these shortcomings, the film still is adequately unsettling, tense and moving.
Summary:A different breed of war film, Good Killcan get heavy-handed and repetitive in its exploration of the moral implications of drone warfare, but still has its powerful moments and is anchored by a superb leading performance from Ethan Hawke.
RATING: 3out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong