Friday, April 26, 2019

“RED JOAN” IS AN OLD-FASHIONED THRILLER STRUGGLING IN A NEWFANGLED TIME


If you’re the kind of person who is always saying, “They don’t make movies like they used to” then the new spy thriller RED JOAN might be right up your alley. It’s an old-fashioned film, a period piece made with expert care and production values. It has a feel to it similar to Steven Spielberg’s 2015 thriller BRIDGE OF SPIES, though this one is not nearly as gripping. There’s a subdued calm to this one though, inexplicable in a film billed as a spy thriller, and indeed throughout, there’s an arms’ length approach that keeps it from ever getting under your skin. RED JOAN is the type of movie that BBC-TV might have made 50 years ago, that’s how old it feels. Unfortunately, its old-fashioned politics almost sink the film, playing far too safe with Communism, stealing atomic age secrets, and the effect of such crimes.

Director Trevor Nunn found the book of the same name by Jennie Rooney in an old bookstore in London and fell in love with the story. Rooney based her book on the real-life exploits of Melita Norwood, an atomic age spy for the Brits who stole secrets and passed them off to Russia during WWII. Norwood’s history of sabotage was only discovered when she was well into her 80s. Lindsay Shapero’s screen adaptation handles the tricky back and forth between two periods – Joan’s arrest and WWII history. However, the stories are not evenly measured. The core of the film showcases the past when young actress Sophie Cookson plays the young Joan Stanley. Judi Dench’s part as the older Joan is mostly there to set up the flashbacks. Despite sharing the poster, this is Cookson’s film.

Dench is terrific as always, even though she’s mostly a framing device. Her interrogation finds her acting the feeble old woman, but one still steely enough to evade and lie to the British authorities shaking her down for information. That’s why one casts Judi Dench in such a part, after all. But this film is all about Cookson, and she’s very strong in a difficult role.

Her performance is mostly reactive, responding to the world around her, often without words as young women in those days didn’t have as many opportunities to speak their mind. The old-fashioned men around her barely look at her as little more than the girl who makes tea when she goes to work for the British government. Soon, however, she’s speaking volumes by stealing atomic secrets in her attempt to level the playing field and not let America gain too much dominance on the world stage.

That’s already motivation that doesn’t stand the test of time, but the film doesn’t even explore that thoroughly enough. Instead, the film becomes a yesteryear romance with the idealistic Joan falling headlong into affairs with two men who are not particularly good for her. The first is her college flame Leo Galich (Tom Hughes), who promised marriage when they were both Soviet sympathizers during college. He keeps popping up in her life as he stays with the Communist Party and is working to keep them on par with America and Britain. The second she falls for is Max Davis (Stephen Campbell), who’s the married scientist she goes to work for as he tries to break the atomic code to create “The Bomb.” 

It’s a credit that Cookson that we still feel invested in Joan even though she continues to screw up her romantic life and let it betray her professional one. Her decision to start passing atomic secrets to Leo are driven half by lust and half by a calling to level the playing fields. That seems painfully naïve, if not woefully out-of-date, but that becomes Joan’s cause and calling.  

The name Joseph Stalin is barely mentioned in the film, and the horrors that his regime was committing while fighting the Nazis barely discussed. Even a casual glance at WWII suggests a dangerous devil’s bargain that both FDR and Churchill made by aligning with the Soviet despot.  Granted, they stopped Hitler, but Stalin was terrible news from the start, and everyone knew it. Everyone, except Joan it would seem.

Joan’s motivation mars Dench’s scenes too because the old bird still believes what she did was correct. She even ends up convincing her government bigshot son (Ben Miles) of the righteousness of her actions. Wow. Not helping any of it is the calm, almost too blase of direction by Nunn, who fails at most opportunities to even deliver a crackling thriller. Joan passes secrets and has clandestine meetings with various spies, and most of it seems as thrilling as an average rendezvous for tea. Where is the tension in this material? It’s all too safe and old school in its execution, rather like all those procedurals on CBS. This is a thriller as comfort food. 

The script strikes the note for feminism, having Joan roll her eyes at her sexist bosses, but then again, she’s always mixing her business and personal life. If the film wanted to take such a stand against the patriarchy, why is Joan constantly caving to the romantic charms of those two bad men? Even Max, on the Allied side, is a man who’s got 20 years on her, happens to be her boss, and is the man she’s betraying by stealing his work. 

Perhaps if the story were about the real Norwood, a woman whose family were true socialist believers from the get-go, this story would have had more teeth. Instead, this supped up fictional version plays as dusty as that old book that Nunn found in the second-hand bookstore. This period piece fails to even capitalize on the story of the last four years regarding Soviet intervention in our American elections. Would Joan still be so pro-Russia if she saw how they attempt to tilt the scale? Her dreams of world balance are not quaint by today’s standards. They’re downright foolish. 

Thursday, April 25, 2019

AN EMOTIONAL “AVENGERS: ENDGAME” DELIGHTS AND SURPRISES WITH ITS WIT AND TWISTS

Original caricature by Jeff York of the characters from AVENGERS: ENDGAME. (copyright 2019) 


Keeping ahead of the fanboys and pundits online is a ceaseless task. When Marvel Studios decided to split its concluding AVENGERS opus into two parts, it was a Herculean one. Not only would they need to deliver two incredible films after such hype, but they’d need to keep all the spoilers a secret by keeping the gossipers, fanboys, and trolls at bay in the year between chapters. Thankfully, Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) head honcho Kevin Feige and crew have not only managed to deliver two thrilling epics back-to-back, but they’ve kept most everything very close to the vest. Not only is AVENGERS: END GAME a fitting conclusion to AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, but it’s moving, profound, and filled with unexpected twists and genuine hilarity.

The MCU has always ensured that their stories are character-driven. Stan Lee and Bruce Kirby laid down a template that no matter what incredible powers the superheroes they created had, they were even more fascinating as people behind the masks. And vulnerability is the key to ensuring that, providing an ironic counter to their out-of-this-world abilities. That’s why Tony Stark (AKA Iron Man) is so stubborn and egotistical. It’s why Captain America is so idealistic, almost to the point where you’d want to jam his shiny, white teeth down his throat. It is why the Guardians of the Galaxy resemble a group therapy session more than a band of planet savers. They’re all relatable people. 

In AVENGERS: ENDGAME, the film succeeds mostly because we care about those vulnerable heroes as they try to restore goodness to the universe or some sense of purpose to their lives. It's not easy, what with the world falling apart with 50% less to occupy and take care of it after the villainous Thanos snapped his fingers and wiped out half the galaxy. How these heroes succeed or don’t succeed is what gives the film its power and most of the surprises. It starts right off the bat with a malnourished Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) lost in space, adrift in a ship with Nebula (Karen Gillan), the only other remaining survivor from their battle on Titan in INFINITY WAR. It’s a very dark beginning, and the film actually stays dark throughout. Sure, the movie balances it out some with overt hilarity and exciting adventure scenes, but make no mistake, this film has a real edge to it, with serious stakes and repercussions.  

(NOTE: I will reveal some plot spoilers in the next three paragraphs, but if you’ve seen the trailer, you likely expected them. Still, if you don’t want to know anything, skip ahead.) 

Not that it’s much of a surprise, but Stark's ship is rescued by the most logical superhero to pull off such a stunt - Captain Marvel, the only one who can fly through space all by her lonesome. But from there, the first big shocker in the film is in how quickly the team heads out on their mission to avenge what happened in INFINITY WAR. Most of the online chatter expected such a set-piece to be held more towards the climax of the film, but the bold folks at MCU throw it in after just 30 minutes. From there, many more rugs are pulled, and part of the delight is in how shocking most of them are. 

Did anyone expect that the narrative would pick up with a title card announcing “Five years later”? Indeed, that's what happens, and even more shockingly the world has gone to seed along with the team. There aren't enough citizens to keep the world in smooth working order, so it's become a dilapidated mess. Meanwhile, the Avengers struggle to police it. Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) keeps going through different hairstyles, likely thinking that the change will do her good, but the effects of Miss Clairol are only a temporary boost. Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) tries to keep a positive attitude, but he gets lost in his own past and regrets. Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) has finally managed to live with his Hulk side and find a daily routine where he's a blend of his two personas. He's kind of a big lug, and one of the genuine surprises is how the Hulk is really a complete comic character now.

Meanwhile, the lack of Captain Marvel's presence in the narrative is another big shock given expectations after her stand-alone movie. (Almost as surprising is her new shorter haircut, a nod to the look of the character in the comic pages.) She's needed elsewhere in the universe, and it's unfortunate that the appealing Brie Larson has such little screen time in this chapter.

If you’ve seen the trailer, you know that Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) shows up, and that time travel will play a crucial part in correcting the universal landscape. However, even with that inevitability, the film manages to zig when it would have probably been wholly acceptable for it to merely zag. I won’t give away much more except to say that Karen Gillan’s Nebula is the key female character this time and that Chris Hemsworth steals the film. 

The film manages to blend in serious, moving moments buttressed right up against LOL lines and thrilling set-pieces. Certain characters find out that they can’t go home again, and others realize that they can. It’s a rather profound film in what it has to say about love and loss, showing that having a silver hammer or an infinity stone doesn’t always make a world of difference.

As if all that isn’t entertainment enough, the film continues to traffic in sly little Easter eggs and inside jokes that weave into the mix to dazzle the loyal followers. Specific quotes from the 20-year oeuvre return, as do well-known bits and scenes. Additionally,  several characters are welcomed back, from those we expected to return to some we probably didn't. (Ahem, Robert Redford!) One of the best bits includes a riff on Michael Douglas’ hair and the way he used to always run around in movies and TV shows from the 1970s. Another highlight is a discussion between some of the characters about how time travel works in movies and shows. The argument manages to reference several pop culture references, from BACK TO THE FUTURE to STAR TREK, and the only shame of it is that Gillan's Nebula character doesn't mention DOCTOR WHO. 

Yes, there is a lot that is inevitable here. The ‘all-hands-on-deck’ set action climax is a given, of course. Equally predictable is the return from the dead of various characters who have sequels already in the pipeline. Additionally, some of the time travel logic doesn't stand up quite as well as it should, and Doctor Strange’s prophecy from INFINITY WAR is given little more than a passing glance. But with everything that's done so well, these are mostly just quibbles.

So, where do the Avengers go from here, after this vivid and satisfying saga's end? Will a new team emerge? (A new Captain America seems apparent in the last few moments.) Perhaps the MCU will take another stab at getting the Fantastic Four right, or maybe straighten out the struggling X-Men franchise. But right now, they deserve their victory lap. The MCU has delivered a helluva decade's worth of joy and adventure at the cineplex. Bravo! 

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

A REVISIONIST TAKE ON "MARY MAGDALENE" TELLS THE STORY OF JESUS CHRIST ANEW

Original caricature by Jeff York of Rooney Mara as MARY MAGDALENE. (copyright 2019)
It’s Easter week, and appropriately, a new movie about Jesus hits theaters this weekend. He’s not the main character here, as this one is entitled MARY MAGDALENE. Indeed, this tale of Christ is told through the experience of the second most famous Mary in all of Christianity. And if you are expecting to see her presented as a prostitute, you’re going to be very surprised. The material here is revisionist, grittier, blunter, and yet still incredibly moving and poignant. 

For centuries, Pope Gregory’s wrongful interpretation of Mary Magdalene in 591 A.D. has colored her story. The besmirching of her character was a vicious idea to hoist the patriarchal agenda, and this film will have none of it. Thankfully, the Vatican formally identified Mary as Apostle of the Apostles in 2016, and this film treats her that way from the get-go. In fact, the character is introduced as an invaluable member of her community, one who has similar qualities of the Messiah already inside her. 

The film starts with a young woman about to give birth, and the pain is pushing her into a panicked frenzy. Mary (Rooney Mara) is called, and she’s not only able to hold her down with her physical strength, but she connects with the mother-to-be, lying next to her on the ground and soothing her with compassionate words. This scene is echoed shortly afterward, only with Mary in the vulnerable position. She rejects her father’s pick for a suitor and is nearly drowned by her brothers to force the rebellious ‘demon’ out of her. As she shivers uncontrollably on the floor, wholly discombobulated by her near murder, a healer is brought in to provide comfort. That man is Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix).

As he connects with her, similar to how Mary calmed the expectant mother, the healer realizes that she is strong enough to recover on her own. He leaves, thoroughly impressed by Mary’s gumption and strength, recognizing a kindred and brave soul in his midst. Soon, she will follow him, more and more impressed by his words and actions, and vice versa.  

Soon, Mary leaves all she has known to follow Jesus. She witnesses him, talking casually to a crowd about how thinking outside yourself and helping others, particularly the suffering, is a righteous path to God. As Jesus inspires her, let alone all of them with his ideas of inclusion, he discovers a blind woman. She is smiling as his stories of inclusion make her feel welcome, not shunned. Then, he calmly touches her eyelids, and in a matter of seconds, she is healed and can see again. It’s an incredibly delicate scene, played evenly, realistically, with no underscore, and it’s incredibly moving. 

Such acts take a lot out of Jesus, however, and he almost faints afterward from the exhaustion. Mary catches him and helps ease his weary body to the ground. The film will continually show the partnership of Mary with Jesus like that throughout the story. He will inspire her, and she will respond in kind. In fact, the shrewd script by Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett suggests that all of Jesus’ disciples were less groupies and more like a rock band, relying on each other to keep the harmony in their messages.  

Yet, even with the male disciples being shown as enlightened beings, they still lean towards patriarchal thinking and continually question Mary's standing. She frequently has to prove herself, even though she never expresses doubt in the cause whereas Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is forever uncertain. Mary finally wins him over when they happen upon a small abandoned village that's been ransacked by the Roman guard. Only the ill and crippled remain, left behind as the able scattered. Peter argues that these castaways are lost causes, but Mary stubbornly stays with them to provide aid and comfort. Her plucky caretaking inspires Peter, and she helps him walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

I couldn’t help but be reminded of the classic scene in BEN-HUR where Judah storms into the leper colony to save his mother and sister. That is the kind of bravery and righteousness that Mary exhibits in that scene and throughout the film. Few play stalwart and righteous as well as Mara, and she brings some of that Lisbeth Salander stubbornness of hers to this part too. 

Director Garth Davis, who scored such an intensely emotional connection with audiences two years ago with LION, wisely underplays the pathos and drama here. Instead, what he focuses on is giving the material both a realism and a modernity that such adaptations of scripture rarely have shown. Jesus is not treated like some ethereal saint, but rather, as a caring teacher. It's almost as if he's an engaging prof pulling his flock into discussions of life and purpose. Phoenix looks like a ruffian, more vagrant or nomad in the desert than a prince of peace, but it works very well. This is a working, striving and driving Christ, one as no-frills and unadorned as all the other honesty and grit Davis pours into every scene.

The film takes a very modern slant on its look and its verbiage as well. While no one speaks with the Brooklyn accent that Harvey Keitel kept while playing Judas in Martin Scorsese’s THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST in 1988, the words here ring with a contemporary flavor. At one point, a woman in the crowd balks at Mary who's speaking on behalf of Jesus. She criticizes her, complaining, “We are women. Our lives are not our own.” Mary doesn't defend herself in this instance, Jesus does. He replies to the woman, “Your spirit is your own. And you alone answer for that.”

Even if you are a non-believer or someone of a different faith, it’s hard not to be inspired by such language. The film could almost serve as a sly rebuke of the great divide everywhere today, or at the very least, the asinine mansplaining that the patriarchy still engages in. This Christ even condemns the bitterness driving the gap, asking how those live with themselves when they're filled with such hate. “Does your hate lessen as the days go by? Or does it instead seep into your days, your nights, until it consumes everything you once were.” Such words should give all of us pause. What are we doing to make the world a better place? Are we out there making a difference, or just sitting at home and bitching on Twitter? 

Some may quibble with Phoenix and Mara in the lead, rather than actors of color. If the film were wholly revisionist, such roles would be cast considerably different, i.e., with Middle Eastern actors. Still, both acclaimed actors give terrific performances here, never overplaying their iconic characters. It's a film uninterested in showiness, as Davis doesn’t exploit the crucifixion or the resurrection. (They take up very little screentime in all actuality.) Instead, the director uses these famous scenes mostly to showcase Mary’s steadfastness to the cause. She was there for it all, risking her life with every appearance. After all, she was the Apostle of the Apostles. 

MARY MAGDALENE is both a feminist and humanist approach to the most famous story of all time, albeit one bringing more honesty and integrity to the telling. Friends, Romans, countrymen – they all underestimated Mary and fought here at every turn. She never shirked, never prostituted the cause or herself, and always kept positive. The film is showing us the brave path she took with a quiet and deliberate manner similar to her. How fitting. And how inspiring. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

THIS “HELLBOY” PUTS THE GOO IN ALMOST GOOD


Some films are the longest (LOGISTICS from Sweden, 51420 minutes). Some, the most awarded with Oscars (BEN-HUR, TITANIC, LOTR: RETURN OF THE KING, tied for 11). A movie like the reboot of HELLBOY? Its desire seems to be the squishiest. Never have I ever seen a film that is so crammed with goo from frame to frame. Slimy, sticky blood and guts are tossed around on screen like rice at a wedding. Arms, legs, and heads are lopped off, torsos ripped in two, guts spill out everywhere…it would make Jack the Ripper blush. But in HELLBOY, it’s just another 10 minutes of screen time. 

Indeed, HELLBOY is a romp, a silly, over-the-top, violent slaughter fest that gets most of its laughs and story beats from dismemberment. Oh sure, ostensibly the story is about the half-demon summoned from Hell to Earth as a baby by Nazi occultists, at six-six-sixes with his past and a need to fit into the modern world as a grown man-beast. What it's really about, however, is just how Hellboy will slay those coming at him. Whether it’s occultists, giants, witches, or Satanic minions, he'll always get the upper hand, particularly his right one made of stone. And with his prowess, he'll turn each and every one of them into a bloody, gooey pulp. 

Hellboy is pretty indestructible, though the film is verrrrry inconsistent about how much punishment he can take. The red-tailed menace can be tossed a thousand feet or thrown into walls and barely show a scratch, but an electrode through the clavicle? That smarts. 

He’s also quite the smart-ass, quippy as hell as it were, though you'll wish the film would give him pithier things to say. The script's one-liners are somewhere between Connery's Bond and Schwarzenegger's Mr. Freeze. (Hellboy actually says, "Don't get ahead of yourself" after he beheads someone. Yeesh.) Actor David Harbour plays the title role this time out, picking up the role admirably from where Ron Perlman left it when he starred in the two HELLBOY films in 2004 and 2008. Harbour isn’t quite as droll and physically intimidating in the part as Perlman was, but at least he's having a blast. The film is a lot of fun for about an hour, clipping along at a good pace, and blending its CGI with the human characters on screen in a nice ratio.  

The reboot's story finds Hellboy tracking an evil witch named Nimue (Milla Jovovich) who's back and means business. She wants to destroy the world and turn all into her slaves. It's a revenge plan, simmering since King Arthur defeated her centuries ago and carved her body into six pieces to prevent her from becoming a whole bad-ass ever again. But when an evil, hog-faced fairy named Gruagach starts collecting all the boxes with her limbs in them, Hellboy must stop the reformation.

Thwarting the fairy and the witch isn't easy as all kinds of scoundrels get in his way, including a group of double-crossing occultists who would've been right at home in EYES WIDE SHUT. Additionally, Hellboy must contend with the combative Trevor Bruttenholm, the head of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, his adoptive dad and employer. He’s played by Ian McShane, who makes the most of his part which is very similar to the wizened old coot who lords over everyone in the JOHN WICK series.

Harbour's Hellboy also gets to engage in some quippy banter with his sidekicks aiding in his hunt for the witch. Alice (Sasha Lane) ticks the teenager audience box as his old family friend with magical powers. And Daniel Dae Kim shows his range playing Ben Daimio, the macho military man helping out the BPRD. Kim even manages a funny British accent in the vein of Terry Thomas and David Tomlinson. Veddy, veddy, I say. 

For a while, the film breezes along with the three heroes fighting with foes and each other, moving from one gooey set-piece to another. Then, around the time he has to vanquish three giants, the film starts to lose control. It seems the filmmakers think that it's not enough for  Hellboy to merely take out three giants, but he must do so with maximum grotesqueries. Eyes are gouged, limbs severed, and intestines spilled with buckets of innards. Watching the super-sized mouth-breathers sliced and diced is fricking hilarious, but everything after that has the same over-the-top good and gore. 

Every scene after that seems to try to out-gross the last one. Hellboy battles an old hag of a witch named Ganeida (Penelope Mitchell), and her decrepit body twists and contorts with more snaps, crackles, and pops than a Kellogg's breakfast. Every fight and every death after is not only gory and gooey but loud in its carnage too.  

Even when, Daimio morphs into a leopard creature, his transformation is accompanied by an overzealous amount of stretching, flesh-ripping, and crunching. Director Neil Marshall and his effects team are showing off, not necessarily advancing the story, with such excesses. 38 years after John Landis and Rick Baker turned David Naughton into a werewolf in AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, their Oscar-winning schtick almost seems quaint compared to the graphic scenes here.

Make no mistake, there’s a lot of fun to this HELLBOY. The movie moves, it’s mean, and a lot of it is an absolute hoot. It's just too much in love with all of its grossness. By the third act, the film starts to play more like an autopsy than actioner. If you take this one in, I suggest you finish your popcorn by Act Two.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

CLARE COONEY'S SHORT FILM "RUNNER" TELLS AN UNNERVING STORY ABOUT FLIGHT OR FIGHT

Original caricature by Jeff York of Clare Cooney in her short film RUNNER. (copyright 2019)

It’s always exciting to witness a filmmaker who demonstrates an acute sense of storytelling right off the bat in their very first movie. Such is the case with Clare Cooney, a young actress who has made a short film entitled RUNNER. She’s not only the lead in the deft new thriller, but the newbie wrote, produced, edited, and directed it too. Cooney seems to be an absolute natural. Her script is smart, the direction nuanced, and the camerawork and editing utterly precise, knowing just when to cut or hang on a moment a tad longer. Expect this incredible talent to become a star very soon, both in front of the camera and behind it.

Cooney made this film for just $900 in 2017, but it looks better than a lot of Oscar-nominated shorts I’ve viewed in the past. This one has a crackerjack story going for it too. The film begins with its main character Becca (Cooney) starting her daily run through the streets of Chicago. Becca, in a few quick strokes, is presented as an exceedingly careful woman. She looks down the various streets for traffic as she runs and maintains a pace that is slow and deliberate. 

But then she turns down an alley and discovers a twentysomething couple having a hellacious argument. The man (Will Allan) suddenly grabs his girlfriend in a rage and throws her hard against a dumpster. She crumples in a heap and doesn’t move. Neither does Becca who freezes, watching in disbelief at all that has occurred. 

The expression on the man’s face suggests he can’t believe what he’s done either. It’s one of the first moments in the short where you see the genius of director Cooney. For starters, actor Allan has a wide-eyed, sweet looking face. He’s hardly the sort you’d immediately cast in such a killer role, but Cooney has made a good living as a casting agent in Chicago for some years and clearly realizes that zigging while others zag is the key to avoiding casting clichés. 

When Becca’s eyes meet those of the killer, they’re both terrified, but then his flight or fight response goes haywire as if egged on by his inner id, and he starts to chase after Becca. Before she can even fathom that she could be his second victim, she high tails it out of there, easily outrunning him. 

Cooney could have told the story in a straightforward style, but she cuts the story apart, juxtaposing images against each other that startle and challenge our thinking. Just as Becca starts to run away from the crime scene, the story cuts to a day or two later with Becca loudly crunching her slice of toast. She’s on the sofa with her boyfriend Griffin (Travis Knight), enjoying a lazy Sunday afternoon together, when he reads in the paper that the victim she saw did die. That retriggers Becca’s terror and her memory of rushing home to Griffin to tearfully tell him all she saw in that alley. Are we to assume, by the order in which Cooney has cut her narrative, that Becca’s testimony ended with Griffin? I think so.  

That begs questions about Becca’s character. Does she feel powerless? Is she afraid or passive? What? We don’t quite know, and Becca remains enigmatic, but we do see her trying to move on, even though she hasn’t quite put all of the terror behind her. 

When the story fast-forwards to the winter, the weather isn’t the only thing that seems chillier. Becca seems a bit icy herself, even remote, and definitely isolated within her own thoughts. When the last part of the short film moves to a local bar for trivia night, Becca will discover that she may have been able to run away from the killer, but she can’t outpace her moral responsibilities, her guilt, or coincidence. Fate has a funny way of tailing one. 

Cooney’s direction throughout is tense and nervy, yet never overplayed. No joke or metaphor is underlined, and even though the filmmaker has a degree in psychology, she doesn’t overanalyze Becca’s foibles. Her script stays shrewd and subtle too. If you’re not paying attention, you might miss the throwaway references to Stephen Sondheim musical ASSASSINS and Sarah Koenig’s podcast SERIAL. Cooney also draws superb work out of her talented cinematographer Jason Chiu, particularly when he frames one character entering the bar out of focus, yet we can see just enough of time to know precisely who he is. The whole film works like gangbusters, and it does it in less than 12 short minutes.

RUNNER was part of a Seed & Spark campaign to crowdsource funds to enable the music licensing and add some finishing touches to the film before nationwide distribution. In the past year, it did manage to play brilliantly as is at 15 film festivals, taking six prizes in the process.  Cooney should start clearing more mantle space. She’s an exquisite actress, on par with someone like Jessica Chastain or Emma Stone, as indicated by her stellar turn in Michael Glover Smith’s charming comedy RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO earlier this year. Perhaps even greater rewards await Cooney for her work behind the camera. Based on RUNNER, that’s an assumption to run with. 

Friday, April 5, 2019

THIS “PET SEMATARY” IS NOT THE CAT’S MEOW


Stephen King has stated that of all the books he’s written, PET SEMETARY is the one that scares him the most. Undoubtedly, the death of a child, which drives a large amount of the plot, has a lot to do with that. Losing a child is probably every parent’s worst fear. So, with something so primal and horrifying at its center, shouldn’t this new big screen take on the material be a lot more terrifying? The audience I saw it with laughed more than screamed. A lot more. What happened to make such potent material so risible?  

Perhaps it has something to do with the issue of certain King tropes being challenging to visualize due to their outrageousness. Granted, most horror is to some degree or another, but while marauding semi’s or a rabid St. Bernhard terrorizing a mother and her child in a car was terrifying on paper, the physicalizing of such conceits on celluloid made them look, well, a little cheesy. The same plagued Church the cat when he returned from the dead in the first PET SEMATARY movie made in 1989. He looked pretty fluffy after being dead and buried, and his new glowing eyes looked like a bad special effect from ELECTRO-WOMAN & DYNAGIRL.

Today, production values can squelch a lot of such obstacles. And by and large, the new version of PET SEMETARY looks a whole hell of a lot better. And yet, now Church is so mangy to the point of caricature, his appearance draws big laughs when he appears. He doesn’t seem so much like a newly bedeviled feline as much as an uncomfortable animal trained to sit there and not blink away all the mousse styled into his coat.  

The story of the overworked Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) moving his family to a country home to take a teaching job at the University of Maine was relatable on the page. But here, from the get-go, the movie makes a lot of unforced errors. Wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) is so on edge from the beginning, it’s not foreshadowing it’s foreboding. The reveal of her peccadilloes – guilt over feeling she helped cause the death of her crippled sister Zelda - should be much more insinuating.

Then there’s the moody daughter Ellie (Jete Laurence). She’s supposed to love her cat Church like nothing else, but she not only forgets to take him out of the car to enter the new home, but she’s barely shown playing with him or doting on the pet. That will make for a critical error a few reels later when she’s supposed to be wracked with guilt when he ‘runs away.’

John Lithgow shows up as Jud, the friendly old man next door, looking dirty and weather-beaten. Even at a funeral later in the film, he looks like he slept in his clothes and hasn’t bathed in weeks. Why? Directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer push everything as if they didn’t trust the material. Yes, Jud is supposed to be old and crusty, but must he look like he’s caked in crust? Fred Gwynne did the part just fine with a trim, silver haircut and proper posture. 

You know that the filmmakers have misplaced emphasis when they introduce scary children in masks, toting a dead dog up to the Pet Sematary to be buried, and they act like they’re the costumed guests in EYES WIDE SHUT. These are parlor tricks, added to boost the story, but King’s prose didn’t need it. They needed to be played seriously and make us believe all we’re seeing. 

But by the time, Louis schleps up the mountain with Jud to bury Church, everything is too over-the-top. The semi trucks roaring by on the road that took the cat’s life are mixed way too loud. The cemetery looks like something out of a comedy skit and is clearly an indoor set for most of the time. And the wall of branches cutting off the cemetery from the old Indian burial ground, which will bring back Church and others, looks like the fortress out of LES MISERABLES. Why is everything too much? 

By the time, Zelda is revealed as little more than an arching bony back and sweaty, matted-hair mess, the film loses empathy. Yes, we should be horrified by the ravages of her illness, but she still is a person. She should induce some pity in the audience, as well as her younger sister Rachel in those flashbacks, but the filmmakers just want to go for big scares. Unfortunately, they yield little credibility and mostly, large laughs. 

And when the parents’ worst nightmare occurs, and they lose Ellie to the road as well, we know her death will be short-lived. Still, the filmmakers take forever to return her. They waste oodles of time showing Louis dig her up,  carry her up the mountain, and bury his child on the secret grounds. What they don’t spend time on is Ellie to begin with, getting to know her, or like her. The same with Louis, who we never see make the proper turn from stalwart MD to unraveling grave robber. When Ellie shows up as if she's a left-over cast member from THE WALKING DEAD, with her droopy eyelid and gray skin, it plays almost like a parody. Hearing her call her mom an “old cow” should devastate. Instead, such outrageous dialogue comes out of left field. 

The fact that screenwriters Jeff Buhler and Matt Greenberg did a switcheroo on King’s kid characters here doesn't add much other than more frustration to this version. In the original story, it’s the son who’s killed. Here, Gage is an innocent toddler, blithely unaware of what’s happening around him. The two writers also manufactured a silly ending too which becomes the perfect icing to this already sour and dispiriting take. Clarke tries to elevate the material by underplaying where he can, and old-pro Lithgow works up some audience empathy, but every other element is too heightened to really connect. 

Kolsch and Widmyer have done excellent work before. I was a big fan of their film STARRY EYES and gave it a rave when I was the horror movie critic for the Chicago Examiner. It built up incredible dread, slowly but surely, and never overdid things. Here, it seems as if they're kids in a candy store, using a big, studio budget to make more hay out of every set, set-piece, and scare. The audience should’ve been covering their eyes. Instead, they were rolling them. To borrow a sentiment from King,  the worst fear when watching a horror film is realizing it's more unintentionally hilarious than horrifying.