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The original cinematic take on Stephen King’s supposed scariest novel was a camp-horror hoot—a strange mixture of gore and satire that holds up pretty well today. The new take on Pet Sematary offers more of a straightforward approach to King’s story about humans who can’t deal with death, especially when it comes to pets and family members.

Jason Clarke steps in as Louis Creed, big-city doctor moving to the country, where his wonderful new house is unfortunately bordered by a pet cemetery/Indian burial ground in the back, and a road full of speeding trucks in the front. The death of the family cat leads to an ill-advised burial in the cemetery … which leads to a zombie return of the beloved cat. The cat is followed by a family member, and King fans will be surprised to see who that family member is (as long as you haven’t seen the commercials).

This remake lacks the sense of humor that made the original twisted in a solid, King sort of way. The behavior of everybody in this movie is so stupid that when things are played straight, the story comes off as moronic rather than scary.

Jete Laurence is very good as the young daughter, and John Lithgow is OK with a more serious take on neighbor Jud (played by the late, great Fred Gwynne in the original). The movie drifts away from the original book too much in the end; again, it could’ve used a few more sick laughs.

It’s admirable that the filmmakers were shooting for something other than a note-by-note remake of the original—but by going off-book too much, they lost some of the cruel sting of King’s intentions.

Pet Sematary is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Space-exploration movies based upon real events, not surprisingly, have usually made “the mission” the thrust of the plot.

First Man goes a different route. It dares to focus on a man rather than a mission—Neil Armstrong, the man at the center of the Apollo 11 mission, and what made him tick. It shows the familial struggles the man dealt with leading up to the mission and, most strikingly, his viewpoint as a bunch of white-clad workers packed him into sardine-can-like compartments and blasted him off into space. It’s an amazingly intimate movie, considering the subject matter.

Director Damien Chazelle (La La Land) doesn’t ignore the details of NASA’s buildup to Armstrong’s arrival on the lunar surface. In fact, the film is one of the most scientifically intriguing films I’ve seen regarding what astronauts go through, and the mechanics of a space launch. However, it also manages to be a moving, often haunting study of the sacrifice and pain Armstrong went through to beat the Russians to the punch.

Before this film, I did not know that Armstrong (played here by Ryan Gosling, in top form) lost his young daughter to cancer in 1962, seven years before his legendary flight. Appropriately, that event is as central of an occurrence as the moon landing in this movie. This film is about Armstrong’s sacrifices and hardships, as well as the enormous psychological and physiological tortures he went through in that decade leading up to Apollo 11. In turn, it’s a testament to every man and woman who risked their lives in the name of the space race.

Claire Foy is the epitome of patience as Janet Armstrong, who must tend to her mischievous son as the sound from a NASA intercom drifts through her house—a sound letting her know her husband is surviving his latest mission.

Chazelle brilliantly stages the launches from Armstrong’s point of view. The camera violently shakes, with the view from a small window being the only thing we see—as if we are watching from inside Armstrong’s helmet.

The final moon landing has Armstrong immersed in total silence as he watches Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) hop away from the lunar module. The film cost about $60 million to make; that’s like an indie budget nowadays. It’s to Chazelle and his crew’s credit that it looks like it cost at least twice as much.

You might find yourself justifiably bummed out for much of First Man’s running time. Besides the death of his daughter, Armstrong lost some good friends at NASA, including Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham), Edward Higgins White (Jason Clarke) and Roger Chaffee (Cory Michael Smith), who all died horrific deaths during an Apollo 1 test. There was also Elliot See (Patrick Fugit), who died in a test-flight crash preparing for Gemini 9.

Armstrong was well-known for his quiet and stoic demeanor. Gosling, working with a script by Josh Singer, shows us a calm, quiet and focused man who kept looking forward, no matter what forces tried to drag him back. The film depicts a trio of near-death experiences, including the film’s opening sequence involving a test flight in space that almost took Armstrong out. No matter how many times he had to crash or eject, Armstrong endured with almost-impossible strength and reserve—which Gosling depicts perfectly.

First Man forgoes much of the obvious patriotism and international competition that marked the space race in favor of simply showing what a dude had to endure to get lunar dust on his boots. Going to the moon was a messed-up, crazily dangerous endurance test—and this movie succeeds in making that abundantly clear.

First Man is playing at theaters across the valley.

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Toward the end of Winchester—the new haunted house movie starring Helen Mirren and Jason Clarke—a character has a moment when she says the words, “I am not afraid,” repeatedly.

My sentiments exactly.

Mirren and Clarke head a decent cast in what proves to be a movie without any real scares, personality or real reason to sit down and watch it. The acting is terrible; the editing is sloppy; and the special effects are third-rate. This level of failure is very surprising, considering it was directed by Michael and Peter Spierig, the brothers who put together the inventive science-fiction thriller Predestination.

Clarke plays Eric Price, a doctor addicted to drugs and alcohol. His wife died due to a self-inflicted gunshot wound via a Winchester rifle, a rifle from which he also took a bullet, although he survived. (The script alludes to him being dead for three minutes before being brought back to life, so he might be able to see dead people.)

Meanwhile, the members of “the board” at the Winchester firearms company want Eric to evaluate the mental health of company owner Sarah Winchester (Mirren), hoping that the disgraced doctor will basically take their bribe, declare Sarah unfit to run her company, and strip her of company control. Eric has nothing better to do, so he takes the gig and travels to the infamous real-life house—a cool-looking giant abode that makes an appearance in the film. Upon seeing the real haunted house onscreen, I was hoping for a haunted house spectacle like Kubrick’s The Shining, which featured the labyrinthine Overlook Hotel.

Instead, we get a ghost movie that trots out the same old tricks used in countless ghost movies before it. Ghosts suddenly appearing, accompanied by a loud soundtrack noise? Check. Ghosts appearing in a mirror after a user adjusts it? Check. Little possessed kids singing a well-known song in that oh-so-creepy-possessed-kid kind of way? Check.

The actual Winchester house, located in San Jose, has an impressive ghost story to go with it. The real Sarah Winchester, after inheriting the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, believed the house was inhabited by the spirits of those who fell victim to Winchester rifles. One would think that premise would make for a snappy movie, but instead, there’s just a bunch of nonsense involving Mirren’s Sarah nailing all the rooms shut and trying to avoid getting killed by her possessed, super-annoying grandson. There’s also the spectacle of Clarke doing some embarrassingly bad drunk/stoned-guy acting.

The special-effects ghosts are laughable—but even worse are the ghosts played by people wearing practical makeup. Price has a scene with his deceased wife in which she looks like somebody who tried to put her makeup on with the lights off—not a ghost. I know it would make the movie even more clichéd, but ghosts should be see through, right? When an actor or actress stands around in bad makeup in this film, it looks like somebody from the local junior high-level production of Jeepers, I Got Spooked by Ghosts in My Mom’s Basement crashed the film set.

There’s a ghost in this movie that poses as a servant on the Winchester staff. This got me thinking: Where did the ghost get his Winchester employee uniform to pull off his impersonation scheme? Is there a special costume warehouse in the afterlife where mischievous ghosts can go to rent them? When we die, are we empowered with massive tailoring abilities to go with our powers to pass through walls and shit? Or do ghosts looking to start trouble simply grab previously worn uniforms off the rack at Savers? Do they consult with Beetlejuice?

My mind was so bored, it started coming up with this kind of crap while I watched this thing. The movie is one long scene after another of Mirren and Clarke trying to make sense out of the mess. I suspect we’ll be talking about this one again in about 10 months, when we are compiling our year’s-worst lists.

Winchester is now playing at theaters across the valley.

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Director and co-screenwriter Dee Rees paints a bleak picture of post-World War II Mississippi in Mudbound, a performance powerhouse that showcases the talents of Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Clarke and, most notably, Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton).

After the war, a traumatized Jamie McAllan (Hedlund) returns home to stay on a farm with his brother, Henry (Clarke), and Henry’s wife, Laura (Mulligan). Ronsel Jackson (Mitchell) also returns to the farm, but while both men were regarded as heroes overseas, their return is fraught with alcohol abuse for Jamie—and rampant racism toward African-American Ronsel.

Henry and Laura have problems of their own as they deal with the troubled Jamie and Henry’s hateful father, Pappy (a sinister Jonathan Banks). This is one of those movies you know won’t end well, and while Rees allows for occasional moments of relief, it is a mostly somber affair with a devastating finish.

Mitchell continues to emerge as one of his generation’s best actors, while Hedlund does perhaps his best work to date. Both actors put full body and soul into their roles and create characters that leave a mark. The always-reliable Mulligan is great as the wife forced to live out her life on a muddy, flooded farm in order to appease her dopey husband. Clarke paints Henry as a man of few commitments and quiet reserve—the kind of guy you can’t depend upon in a fight.

The movie is packed with stellar acting, and Rees does a solid job with the technical elements.

Mudbound is currently streaming on Netflix.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Director Baltasar Kormákur turns in a grueling testament to the hell that is climbing the world’s tallest mountain in a production that demands to be seen on an IMAX screen.

Jason Clarke does his best work since Zero Dark Thirty as Rob Hall, who helped lead an ascent of Mount Everest that resulted in the deaths of eight people in 1996. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Scott Fischer, another of the expedition’s leaders who’s legendary for his ability to scale the mountain without the aid of oxygen. Josh Brolin is on hand as Beck Weathers, the brash Texan who has perhaps bitten off a little more than he can chew, while John Hawkes is present as Doug Hansen, an ambitious climber returning after a failed ascent the year before. Yes, some of these real people have been written a tad stereotypically, but you won’t care once the snow hits the mountain.

Kormakur has crafted a movie that puts you right in the middle of things—genuinely uncomfortable things. The effects are very good, and there’s a nice attention to detail when it comes to the perils of climbing.

The supporting cast includes Emily Watson as the mother hen at base camp, Keira Knightley as a worried wife, and a solid Sam Worthington as climber Guy Cotter.

This expedition is the one on which Jon Krakauer based his book. He was on the expedition and he’s in the movie, played well by Michael Kelly.

Everest is now playing in regular format at the Ultrastar Mary Pickford Stadium 14 (36850 Pickfair St., Cathedral City; 760-328-7100); and the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 (72777 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage; 844-462-7342). It’s playing in IMAX/large-screen format at the Regal Rancho Mirage, as well as the Ultrastar Desert Cinema Large Screen Experience (68510 E. Palm Canyon Drive, Cathedral City; 760-324-7333).

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More than three decades ago, James Cameron released a little slasher film with a sci-fi twist starring the dude from Conan the Barbarian.

The Terminator became a colossal hit—and the dude from Conan went on to bigger movies, including a rather high-profile temporary government job.

Terminator Genisys, the fifth film in the Terminator franchise, isn’t nearly as good as the original or the first sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (also by Cameron). Thankfully, it’s a slightly better offering than the third and fourth Terminator films (Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and Terminator Salvation), films in which Cameron was absent and off doing other things like Titanic and his jazzed-up alien-Smurf movie, Avatar.

Cameron himself was part of the marketing campaign for Genisys, because he admired the film’s faithfulness to his two original offerings. While I share his enthusiasm for some aspects of the movie, the film isn’t without major problems. In some ways, I’m kind of surprised Cameron liked this movie.

There are lots of tricks played using the time-travel gimmick, throwing the whole Terminator universe out of whack. This gives director Alan Taylor the chance to revisit and re-create events from the original Terminator, including naked Arnold Schwarzenegger’s first scene as the steely-eyed cyborg. The results are often fun, but a little chaotic and sloppy.

First, the good stuff: Arnold Schwarzenegger is back in his most iconic role, and he’s great. He plays a couple of different ages here, although he can’t get credit for playing his 1984 self in this film: That Arnold is a total computer creation, and an amazing one at that. Old Arnold fights his 1984 self in a scene I never thought I would see.

Arnie is as convincing as ever as an aging cyborg, with goofy pretend smiles and droll asides. As for action, the film provides plenty of good Terminator fights, and San Francisco again has a bad time at the movies, suffering through nuclear blasts and catastrophic school bus accidents on the Golden Gate Bridge.

Now, the bad: Emilia Clarke is a washout as Sarah Connor; Jason Clarke is miscast as John Connor; and Jai Courtney absolutely stinks as Kyle Reese. These are big flaws—flaws big enough to derail most movies.

Emilia Clarke seems disconnected, and there’s an insincerity in her line delivery. Jason Clarke plays John Connor like a cartoon character, which is disheartening after the good work done by Edward Furlong, Nick Stahl and even Christian Bale in the prior films. (Stahl and Bale were in subpar movies, but they still came off decently as John Connor.) His portrayal offers little nuance and feels out of place.

The biggest soul-sucker would be Courtney; he’s very bland in this one. Watch the original Terminator and Michael Biehn for a real angst-ridden, on-the-edge characterization of a guy who has been through the apocalypse. Courtney plays Reese like a soulless video-game character. There’s no reason to root for him.

Still … I like this movie. Arnold looks cool in his Terminator shades, and things blow up in really cool ways. Sometimes, I’m relatively easy to please.

Do the time-travel complications get a little confusing at times? Sure they do, but I admire Genisys for stretching out and attempting different things in the Terminator universe. Some of the paradox stuff had me scratching my head, but it all sort of ties together in the end. I did hate the total rip-off of the holographic villain from the Resident Evil series, though.

In the end, I had a good time. I want more for sure, and the movie leaves things open for future sequels, two of which there are currently planned. (Stay for the after-credits scene.)

If the future installments get the go-ahead, they should keep aging Arnie, but fire the rest of the cast. This film lacks true human charisma. As for Terminators, Arnie has things more than covered.

Terminator Genisys is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

The motion-capture apes take another step toward world domination in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a film that’s just as good as its predecessor—and a step forward when it comes to pure, unadulterated, ass-kicking ape action.

The movie picks up 10 years after a well-meaning doctor played by James Franco first shot an experimental drug into a chimp and unintentionally initiated the downfall of the human race. Caesar (Andy Serkis, doing his motion-capture best) is leading a group of genetically modified apes in the redwoods near the Golden Gate Bridge. Life is good, and the humans have seemingly disappeared, thanks to the simian flu brought on by the Franco character’s experiments.

However, some humans have survived, led by Gary Oldman’s frustrated Dreyfus, who fears the humans will soon run out of fuel for their generators. There’s a chance for some hydraulic power via a dam in the woods—a dam that just happens to be near the apes’ compound. A band of humans, led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke), sets out to repair the damn, and stumbles upon the apes—who aren’t happy to see the humans.

While Caesar has a few positive memories of humans to go with the bad ones, other apes are 100 percent, justifiably pissed at mankind. Koba (Toby Kebbell), who figured prominently in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, isn’t too happy about his days as a lab experiment. He has no interest in a peaceful existence with humans, and he’s going to do some pretty nasty stuff to ensure acrimony. This not only creates discord between apes and humans, but ape-on-ape feuding as well.

Everything leads up to an exciting battle between apes and humans in San Francisco, with a decaying Golden Gate Bridge figuring prominently in the action—along with the blessed sight of Joba blasting away astride a horse with machine guns in both hands. While this installment isn’t as strong with the human element (Franco rocked in Rise), the action in Dawn is far superior.

One of the cooler aspects of the film is that you can’t help but feel bad for Koba, with his clouded-over eye and surgical scars. No amount of compassionately delivered optimism from Caesar will ease Koba’s mind. He’s out to mulch some humans, and his vengeful mannerisms are understandable. This makes him a great, compelling villain.

Clarke, who was awesome in Zero Dark Thirty, holds his own. Keri Russell (who worked with director Matt Reeves years ago on TV’s Felicity) does decent supporting work as the soothing companion with some first-aid knowhow. Oldman is his typical, frantic self as the human with an ax to grind. (His character, like many others, lost his family to the simian flu.)

I caught the film in 3-D, and things seemed a little dark. My first thought was that the filmmakers were perhaps cheating a bit by making things dark so they could cut some corners on the CGI. However, when I lifted my glasses, the images looked a bit brighter. Skipping 3-D might be the way to go.

Reeves, who directed Cloverfield, Let Me In and the vastly underrated The Pallbearer, proves to be a more-than-ample choice for the Apes job. He’s already been announced as the director of the next film in the series, due two years from now.

It’ll be interesting to see where the Apes franchise goes next. I’m holding out hope that it’ll jump many years into the future, with the Icarus spacecraft returning to Earth to make some startling discoveries. Icarus was the ship Charlton Heston rode in the 1968 original, and it was mentioned in Rise during some background news footage and newspaper headlines. The return of Icarus would be many kinds of awesome.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is playing in theaters across the valley in a variety of formats.

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The controversial Zero Dark Thirty, director Kathryn Bigelow’s excellently crafted version of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, has a bunch of politicians and CIA officials crying foul. This makes me think the movie must contain some harsh truths and grim realities about the war on terror.

The film is virtually absent of politics, or any of that “America, fuck yeah!” nonsense. It offers an interpretation of the steps that were taken, and the deeds that were done, to rid the world of a true menace. Many of those deeds are done in a calm, calculated and perhaps even cold manner; at times, the film is spooky to watch. The people depicted in this movie mean business, and will do whatever it takes to get a job done. That includes waterboarding and literally scaring the shit out of detainees.

The film starts with a black screen and some terrifying messages left by Sept. 11 victims as they were close to death in the Twin Towers. It sets the tone for the unsettling film that’s about to happen.

We see Maya (Jessica Chastain)—a new, determined CIA officer (apparently a composite character of actual people) on the Bin Laden case—about to witness a torture chamber. Dan (Jason Clarke), another CIA agent, will use waterboarding, isolation boxes, dog collars and psychological mind games to try to draw some names out of a strong-willed detainee (a powerful Reda Kateb). Dan eventually gets a big name out of the detainee, and a long hunt that will see many casualties, including CIA agents, begins in earnest.

Is the movie pro-torture? Definitely not. Is it anti-torture? It isn’t that, either. The film is supposedly being investigated for using classified information when it comes to American interrogation tactics. Thankfully, I am no expert on the matter. This is a movie that leaves it up to the viewer to decide whether these types of interrogation methods were necessary in the pursuit of bin Laden.

Zero Dark Thirty clocks in at 157 minutes, with all but 40 of those devoted to Maya’s behind-the-scenes, dogged pursuit of public enemy No. 1. The last 40 minutes completely switch gears, as the film becomes an intense depiction of the final SEAL Team 6 mission that ended with “Geronimo.” All 157 minutes are top-notch, provocative and incendiary filmmaking. Bigelow has most certainly topped herself, including her Oscar-winning effort The Hurt Locker.

As for the raid itself, it’s dark and quiet. From the muffled “fwup, fwup, fwup” of the experimental helicopters (one of which crashed) as they swerve through mountain ranges, to the quick and decisive shots ending lives in that now-familiar structure in Pakistan, it’s all precise and stealthy. The aspect of the raid that unsettled me the most was the way Navy SEALS are depicted quietly and invitingly calling out the name “Osama?” before they shoot him.

Chastain, in just a couple of years, has become one of the world’s most dynamic, downright-reliable actresses. From her Oscar-nominated turn in The Help, to her beautiful supporting work in The Tree of Life and Take Shelter, she is creating one memorable character after another. Maya is her crowning achievement, and the role should get her another Oscar nomination.

Clarke is eerily effective as an interrogation man who needs a break and heads back to Washington, D.C., for a desk job. Kyle Chandler is appropriately complicated as Joseph Bradley, the CIA station chief in Islamabad. Jennifer Ehle plays a strangely happy and charged-up CIA agent, who goes so far as to bake a cake for an interviewee. (I know Bigelow and crew added some fiction to their story, but this seemed a little far-fetched. I was more convinced by the Maserati that somebody got for an interview than I was by the cake baking.)

As for the Team 6 sequence, Joel Edgerton (Warrior) and Chris Pratt (TV’s Parks and Recreation) are standouts. (Pratt’s character is listening to Tony Robbins as the helicopter approaches its final destination.) He tells his comrades that he has plans after the mission. Perhaps Bigelow is suggesting that the Pratt character is the Team 6 member who eventually wrote the best-selling No Easy Day.

Ultimately, Zero Dark Thirty is a film epic and efficient enough to be compared to the great films of Coppola, Scorsese and Kubrick. It’s an important and engaging piece of work from a director who looks like she is just starting to hit her stride.

Zero Dark Thirty <i>opens at theaters across the valley on Friday, Jan. 11.</i>

Published in Reviews