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Romantic Elves, Bombast and Spooky Hotels this Week in Theaters

George Wolf George Wolf Romantic Elves, Bombast and Spooky Hotels this Week in TheatersPhoto via IMDb
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A sequel nearly 40 years in coming tops the list in a big Hollywood week. If you’re ready for the Christmas rush, we’ve got you covered, too. Let us help you decide. 

Doctor Sleep

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

The Shining was always going to be a hard act to follow, even for Stephen King.

But as soon as King revisited the horror with Doctor Sleep, the bigger challenge instantly fell to whomever was tasked with bringing it to the screen.

That would be writer/director Mike Flanagan, who’s trying on two pairs of pretty big shoes. His vision will not only be judged next to one of the most iconic horror films of all time, but also by the source author who famously doesn’t like that film.

While Doctor Sleep does often feel as if Flanagan is trying to serve two (or more) masters, it ultimately finds enough common ground to become an effective, if only mildly frightening, return trip.

After surviving the attempted redrum, adult Dan Torrence (Ewan McGregor) is struggling to stay clean and sober. He’s quietly earning his chips, and is even enjoying a long distance “shine” relationship with the teenaged Abra (Kyliegh Curran).

But Abra and her unusually advanced gifts have also attracted the attention of Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson, sweetly menacing) and her cult of undead travelers. Similarly gifted, Rose and her band seek out young shiners, feeding on their powers to remain immortal.

Flanagan breaks the spooky spell to dive into terror in a truly unnerving sequence between Ferguson’s gang and a shiny little baseball player (Jacob Tremblay). Effectively gritty and hard to shake, it is the one moment the film fully embraces its horror lineage.

Reportedly, Flanagan had to convince King that it is Kubrick’s version of The Shining that reigns in popular culture (as it should), and that their new film should reflect that. Smart move, as is the choice to hit you early with lookalike actors in those famous roles from 1980.

Is it jarring seeing new faces as young Danny, Wendy, Dick Halloran and more? Yes it is, but as the film unfolds you see Flanagan had little choice but to go that route, and better to get comfy with it by the time Dan is back among the ghosts of the Overlook hotel.

King has made it clear he needed more emotional connection to his characters than Kubrick’s film provided. McGregor helps bridge that gap, finding a childlike quality beneath the ugly, protective layers that have kept Danny Torrence from dealing with a horrific past.

Flanagan (Oculus, Hush, Before I Wake, Gerald’s Game) stumbles most when he relies on awkward (and in some cases, needless) exposition to clarify and articulate answers. Kubrick was stingy in that regard, which was one of The Shining‘s great strengths. Questions are scary, answers seldom are. 

Whatever the film’s setbacks and faults, it is good fun getting back to the Overlook and catching the many Shining callbacks (including a cameo from Danny Lloyd, the original Danny Torrence). Flanagan’s vision does suffer by comparison, but how could it not? Give him credit for ignoring that fact and diving in, leaving no question that he’s as eager to see what’s around each corner as we are.

Doctor Sleep can’t match the claustrophobic nature or the vision of cold, creeping dread Kubrick developed. This film often tries too hard to please—not a phrase you’d associate with the 1980 film. The result is a movie that never seems to truly find its own voice. 

It’s no masterpiece, but check in and you’ll find a satisfying, generally spooky time.

Grade: B+

Last Christmas

by Cat McAlpine

Last Christmas, Kate (Emilia Clarke) had a lifesaving operation. Instead of gaining a new lease on life, she seems to have stumbled onward with a bad attitude and very little hope. 

This Christmas, she works days at a Christmas shop in Covent Garden run by “Santa” (Michelle Yeoh, wonderful). She spends her nights lurking at bars and begging friends to let her crash on their couches. In between, Kate rushes to West End auditions with little to no preparation. 

She’s a grumpy, miserable elf. 

Last Christmas is, first a foremost, a Christmas rom-com. There’s baggage that comes with that specific niche, and in a desperate effort to buck the norm, a truly awful and predictable plot emerges. 

When Last Christmas isn’t trying to be a Christmas rom-com, it shines. The script, penned by Oscar-winning writer Emma Thompson (who also plays Kate’s mother) and Bryony Kimmings (story by Thompson and Greg Wise), has witty and heartfelt dialogue, developed characters, and b-plots that flesh out the main story rather than distract from it. 

The film’s best moments come when it explores the relationships between women, the power of embracing your heritage, and the scariest parts about being a family.

Even some of the most melodramatic moments are made gut-wrenching by Clarke’s honest and genuine performance. “They took a part of me and they threw it away.” She cries, and you feel it. 

If this film had been written as a family drama or a late-in-life coming of age, it would be a strong seasonal flick. Director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, The Heat, Spy) has shown time and time again that he can do female comedy, and do it well, but the expectations and trappings of this specific and outdated genre hold him back. 

In the end, if you enjoy a good rom-com, Last Christmas soars far above any of its recent direct-to-Netflix counterparts. If you already roll your eyes when men work hard to convince messy women that they are, in fact, worthy of love – this one’s not for you.

Grade: C

Midway

by George Wolf

After Independence Day, 2012, The Day After Tomorrow and more, the book on Roland Emmerich is fairly easy to read: expect spectacle over storytelling.

Midway is Emmerich’s latest, and that checks out.

A grand production respectfully dedicated to the American and Japanese forces that fought the legendary battle, the film does have heart in all the right places. But too often, it feels more inspired by war movies than the real thing.

Patrick Wilson is Edwin Layton, whose description as “the best intelligence officer I’ve ever known” gives us an early introduction into screenwriter Wes Tooke’s plan for character development.

“I told you she was a firecracker!”

“He’s the most brilliant man I know.”

“Best pilot in the world!”

“Knock off the cowboy b.s.!”

Layton still feels guilty about the intelligence failures of Pearl Harbor, and he pleads with Admiral Nimitz (Woody Harrelson) to trust his prediction of an upcoming Japanese invasion of Midway Island. 

Names such as Nimitz and Halsey (Dennis Quaid) may be the only ones familiar to non history buffs, but no matter, none of the characters feel real anyway. They’re just humans who pose nicely while spouting the dialog of actors explaining things to an audience.

So much for the storytelling, now for the spectacle.

It’s pretty damn thrilling.

When the battles are raging, especially in the air, Midway soars. Constructed with precision and clarity, these extended set pieces allow Emmerich to indulge his showy instincts for maximum payoff. 

Director John Ford famously filmed on Midway Island while the battle took shape. Emmerich and Tooke don’t ignore that fact, a not so subtle reminder that this is their movie about war, and they’re going big!

And about half the time, that’s not a bad thing. 

When it needs to be big, this film is huge, detailed and epic. But when it needs to be small, and make this history breathe again through intimate authenticity of the souls that lived and died in it, Midway just can’t stop flexing.

Grade: C+

Also opening in Columbus:
50 First Dates
108 Stitches
Autonomy
Bala
Dulce Familia
Eight Out of Ten
The Good Girls
Guiedanis Navel
If I Were You
My Best Friend’s Wedding
My Dear Liar
Mirreyes Contra Godinez
Pain and Glory
Playing with Fire
Thipparaa Meesam
To Be of Service

Read more from George and crew at MADDWOLF and listen to their weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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