Doctor Sleep (2019)

doctor sleep poster

In 1980, Stanley Kubrick adapted Stephen King’s novel, The Shining, into one of horror’s most famous movies. In the story, Jack Torrance (famously played by Jack Nicholson) goes slowly, murderously mad in the empty Overlook Hotel, endangering his wife and young son, Danny. When asked at a book signing, “What happened to Danny?”, Stephen King was inspired to write this sequel – so, are you ready to find out what did happen to little Danny?

Even if I hadn’t read the book, I think that this is an adaptation would seem clear from the way the story unfolds. We spend far longer than I expected with little Danny and his mum (recast to resemble the previous actors), watching Danny’s childhood and young life unfold into something of a mess – unsurprisingly. As with so many King stories, the horror is never just the monsters, it’s the reality of things like turning into a violent alcoholic like your father.

However, Danny (Ewan McGregor) eventually faces his demons – in more ways that one – and carves out a quietly satisfying kind of life for himself. Until, that is, gifted Abra Stone comes looking for him, hoping for help in tracking down the group of nasties killing young kids with ‘the Shining’.

I’ve said quite often that I’m not a fan of the horror genre, so why this one? Well, in my teens I loved Stephen King, including The Shining. The sequel manages to pick up on a classic story and add to it, expanding the concepts without spoiling the original.

This adaptation does a great job at bringing that to screen. The cast is excellent, including McGregor and Cliff Curtis on the good side, and the always excellent Rebecca Ferguson and Zahn McClarnon leading up the baddies of the sinister ‘True Knot’ group. There are layers of horror: snatched and murdered kids, monsters that eat your life, the childhood demons, and facing death. This makes for more subtlety than the silly ‘jump scares’ kind of horror that I dislike so much.

Indeed, I wasn’t too perturbed until the story takes us back to the Overlook Hotel, at which point all those memories of The Shining and the haunted hotel upped the unsettling levels dramatically. Appropriate, that: it mirrors Danny’s own childhood horrors back to haunt him once again. But it’s also deeply satisfying seeing old ghosts resurrected for the new story, including a few familiar-ish faces…!

Overall, I’m surprised at how much I enjoyed this. It’s a good story done well, rather than out and out terror, but with enough creepiness to warrant the horror tag. Worth having seen The Shining first, though, as the nods back really add to the creepiness.

Released: 31st October 2019 (UK)
Viewed: 1st November 2019
Running time: 151 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 8/10

Snowpiercer (2013)

snowpiercer poster

A disastrous attempt to fix global warming sees the planet plunged into an ice age. Humanity’s only survivors are the passengers of a world-circling train, a ‘luxury liner’ affair built by a train-obsessed rich industrialist.

Seventeen years later and the wonder of engineering might still be in full working order, but society on board is anything but. There’s nothing subtle about the class warfare, with the elite living it up towards the nose while the tail section is a malnourished underclass of slave-like workers. Revolts have failed before, but perhaps this time…

Usually I try to leave the personal stories out of my reviewing, mostly, but this movie looms large in my radar. It was shown at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 2014, practically on my doorstep, and I very nearly managed my first festival film 🙂 However, I reasoned that I’d save a ton of cash if I waited ’til the general release – only for a big argument with the distributor see this never again shown, legally, on UK soil. Argh!! So, imagine my delight when it turned up on Netflix…

Of course, with such a build up (see The Great Wall, far less anticipated, massively not worth the wait) I was half-expecting this to be a huge disappointment. But hurrah, I rather enjoyed it! It’s a bit bonkers, a lot unbelievable, but well told, looks great, and acted very well.

The whole thing does come across as very allegorical, with zero subtlety on the class system commentary. And yet, it’s still got a bit of punch.

Story-wise, it’s deceptively simple, with the rear-train workers making an attempt to take over the engine at the front, led by Chris Evans and John Hurt, assisted by the likes of Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, and Ewen Bremner. Life is so awful for them, there’s no surprise in this. As in High-Rise (2016), the excesses of the ‘upper’ classes is mercilessly ridiculed and ridiculous, so it’s not hard to forgive the awful violence.

But, without spoiling anything, not everything may be exactly as it seems, and the last act has a few reveals that give a whole other view…

I’m glad I saw this. It’s not perfect by any means, but it was a bit different, a lot interesting, and overall worth a couple of hours for fans of dystopian futures and low-key sci-fi without the splashy space stuff.

Released: 22nd June 2014 (EIFF)
Viewed: 27th May 2019
Running time: 126 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 8/10

Hellboy (2019)

hellboy poster

When the Blood Queen, Nimue (Milla Jovovich), first tried to usher in an Age of Monsters, it was King Arthur (yes, that King Arthur, as the voice over tells us!) and Merlin who stopped her. Unable to end her unnatural life, they settle for dismembering her and sending the caskets of her pieces (arms, head, etc) to be buried at the four corners of the world.

Rescued as a spawnling at the end of World War II and raised by Professor Broom (Ian McShane), Hellboy (David Harbour) is about to have his ‘teenage’ angst moment, wondering why he helps the humans kill the ‘monsters’, when he himself is so obviously part of the latter group. And of course, a sorcerous little voices isn’t shy of pushing that thought into his head…

This is a reboot of the Hellboy series, following two films starring Ron Perlman in the titular role. He was so good, even if the movies were a bit mixed, it was a tricky prospect thinking of anyone else stepping into those boots. In fact, I’d say David Harbour (previously the sheriff in Stranger Things) is one of the best things about this adaptation, capturing the look, the snark, the entire attitude.

Alas, reviews were not promising going in to this – but it does help having low expectations. It’s not actually bad, just a bit overly-busy and slightly odd in tone. It is, however, very comic-book-esque, which fits rather well with the source. I think that sways how people find the whole thing.

Still, it was far from perfect. It loses points from me because it rehashes the story I’ve already seen. I was going to say the fantasy-leanings were a bit fresher, but no, we’ve had faeries and goblins and that kind of thing in both of the previous attempts. Ho-hum.

Harbour was good, but the rest of the cast did very little for me except hurt my ears with atrocious, plummy and fake English accents. Why?! Although of course it’s tough not to like Ian McShane being very himself. His voice-over at the beginning is a high point, detailing daft fantasy things with a lot of swearing and a very non-fantastically sensibility (“They were call the dark ages for a f-‘ing good reason”).

Ah yes, the swearing. This is a 15 and they do seem to be going to town on the blood splatter and cursing to try and make the most of it. There were a few points that did make me wonder just how awful you’d have to get for an 18 rating.

So… yeah, and no. It wasn’t awful, by any stretch. I was plenty entertained. But I couldn’t say it was a good movie, or even the best they could have made. Disappointing? A little. But no regrets on having seen it.

Released: 11th April 2019
Viewed: 14th April 2019
Running time: 120 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 6.5/10

The Umbrella Academy (season 1)

umbrella academy poster

If you’re thinking “I need another superhero show in my life like a hole in my umbrella” then I can tell you, I was too. And then curiosity got the better of me and I have never binged anything so hard! They might be superheroes – super strong, able to talk to the dead, bend minds, or teleport – but they are also a dysfunctional family that’d put the Osbournes to shame!

On the same day in 1989, 43 women across the world give birth at the same time – only, none of them had even been pregnant the day before. Sensing the likelihood that these kids will be special, eccentric billionaire, Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore) manages to adopt seven of them. Thirty years later, his death brings them back together for the first time in years, and through flashbacks we discover how their young lives turned out, and what ultimately drove them so far apart.

And, of course, there’s the small matter of literally saving the world from total destruction.

Okay, so upshot is: I loved it 🙂 It’s quirky as heck, even though everyone is playing it straight. It’s pretty dark – lots of blood and deaths and violence – but there are moments of such humour. Top billing goes to Vanya (Ellen Page), the only sibling without a super-power, but my favourite was easily Klaus (Robert Sheehan), whose ability to see the dead drives him to a life of drug addiction and pure hedonism – and he’s a hoot. His character definitely brightens all the angst from a group who shared a harsh upbringing, and who have seen their potential dwindle into most variations of failed lives.

There was something here that reminded me as much of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (which is weirder, a bit more niche, but worth a viewing) as the Avengers. The time travelling probably added to that, and the mysterious suited assassins. And what is the significance of the glass eye?

This is definitely a binge-worthy show. There are no recaps, just ten episodes of single story. And what a story!! It does have an ending, of sorts, but at the same time – please please please let there be a season 2! 🙂

First broadcast: February 2019
Series: 1
Episodes: 10 @ ~45-57 mins each

My rating: 9/10

The Legend of Tarzan (2016)

legend of tarzan poster

Almost a decade has passed since Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle, returned to his inheritance in England as Lord Greystoke, John Clayton III. But as Europe tries to carve up Africa for their own economic gain, all is not well in the Belgian Congo. Struggling to pay his debts, the Belgian King Leopold invites Clayton to tour the ‘improvements’ he’s made to the lands where Tarzan once roamed.

Clayton (Alexander Skarsgård) is unwilling to return, but wife, Jane (Margot Robbie), is keen to get back to the lands where she, too, grew up. Finally he concedes when an American (Samuel L Jackson) asks him to go to look for evidence that the real ‘economy’ is slavery, that they might put a stop to it.

I’ll confess up front that my main reason for watching this movie was to perv at Alexander Skarsgård’s eight-pack a bit, and so it probably serves me right that that’s actually the highlight of the movie. He’s worked out hard, has the boy, and kudos to him. Alas, solid abs do not an entertaining movie make, and somehow – given the pedigree of the source material and the dozen or so film adaptations before it to learn from – they’ve managed to make the whole thing, well, kinda dull.

Lord Greystoke is a taciturn, brooding character, all the better to highlight how much more relaxed he was/is as Tarzan. Jane is supposed to be a bit less of a damsel in distress here, but it only half works. The rest of the impressive cast aren’t given enough to work with and just don’t pack the punches they should, including Christoph Waltz, who we know fine and well can pull off evil much better than this.

The story isn’t dreadful, and yet somehow it never gels. Flashbacks interrupt the otherwise kidnap-and-rescue tale, telling us of Tarzan’s upbringing in the jungle, with an ape (not a gorilla, bigger and meaner) as a surrogate mother, his first meeting with Jane, and other things that make the plot make some sense. The CGI isn’t bad, but it’s quite forced: Tarzan rubbing heads with lions, for instance, to make up for all the bits of story that were skipped over in favour of a darker, more serious kind of story.

And overall, I think that’s the problem. When you’re making movies with a premise as vaguely absurd as this, you either go the po-faced serious route, or you have a bit of fun with it. I think I’d rather watch George of the Jungle, tbh.

Released: 6th July 2016
Viewed: 23rd February 2019
Running time: 110 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 5/10 – it’s not awful, just dull

Alita: Battle Angel (2019)

alita poster

When Dr Ido Dyson (Christoph Waltz) finds a cyborg head/heart in the junkyard under the world’s last sky city, he applies his technical expertise to connect it to a new cyborg body. When then girl opens her eyes, she has no memory of who or what she is – time to go explore the world!

Iron City, where our tale is set, lies beneath the only remaining Sky City, a place where many dream of escaping from their working class poverty, servicing the elite above. Shady things go on under the banner of ‘earning’ a trip up; one supposedly sure-fire way is by winning the brutal MotorBall game.

Into this oft dark but always fantastic world, we get to view everything through Alita’s naive eyes. As she slowly begins to have flashbacks, often triggered by violent moments, she starts to realise that she is not what she seems. But, is she an enemy or an unlikely ally? Who are the real villains in this unequal world?

If that’s not the best description I’ve ever managed to write, I’m going to say that it’s not the easiest film to describe. I will heap praise on the visuals, and on the world building (although that comes from the manga, I presume). The CGI to bring an anime-esque, massive-eyed Alita to life is excellently done, if occasionally a bit disturbing.

The world building here is absolutely the best thing about the movie. Cyborg-ism has become commonplace, with really only the brain needing to remain human. Some go for limb replacement to help their jobs, other more shady types are walking around in brutal robot bodies. It’s perhaps more odd that there are as many ‘meat sacks’ as there are still left.

However, a problem lies in the fact that the story is a bit all over the place. Alita’s discovery and introduction to the world are handled well, but obviously not enough action – so we’ll throw in the brutal ball sports. And some vigilantism. And some cyber-kidnapping. And mysterious power structures. And. And. And.

Overall it felt a bit like the film makers loved this world, but didn’t quite know what story to focus on. As a result, nothing comes through strongly, making a bit of a surprisingly bland overall effect. Which is utterly a shame, as a smaller tale showing us just part of this world could have been far more impactful than the odd bursts of drama, action, and tension, that don’t wholly fit together or produce a coherent narrative.

Of course, actually having an ending might have helped the story immensely. As it is, we finally get a bit of momentum going far too near the end – and then it stops. I mean, the film just stops. Clearly they’re expecting a sequel, but I’m not entirely sure it’ll ever arrive.

Released: 6th February 2019
Viewed: 16th February 2019
Running time: 122 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 7/10 – 6 at most for the story, but bonus marks for the visuals.

The House with a Clock in its Walls (2018)

House with a Clock poster

Orphaned Lewis Barnavelt goes to live with his eccentric uncle, Jonathan (Jack Black). From the moment he enters his new home, however, he can tell something isn’t right… stained glass windows that rearrange themselves, an armchair that’s never where you left it, were those tentacles purple!?, and so many clocks – but not all the ticking is coming from them…

Lewis is soon learning magic from his warlock (“More than just a boy witch!”) uncle and strange neighbour (Cate Blanchett). But the ticking goes on, and Lewis’s attempts to fit in lead to some disastrous decisions.

I’ve not seen the Goosebumps movie, but kid-friendly horror starring Jack Black does sound familiar. He plays pretty much the same character he always does, but it works well with the creepy yet family-friendly vibe here – which, to be fair, is about the only level of ‘horror’ I’m okay with these days! Child star (Owen Vaccaro) manages not to be too annoying despite the character’s moments of neediness. Stand out for me (always!) is the lovely Ms Blanchett, rocking a purple wardrobe and swapping insults with Jack Black in a humorous fashion.

I’ve also not read the book this was based on, but there are many ideas here that intrigue me. The 1950s setting, the use of WWII as a catalyst for magical issues – I’d like to read more of this. The visuals are a high point of the screen version, right enough.

Director Eli Roth is not known for children-appropriate movies, being one of the drivers of the ‘torture porn’ genre. It’s an odd mix, and I think pushes the boundaries just a little in odd ways. For instance, creepy as heck puppets, and there’s a scene with a ‘baby’ that I found rather… unsettling.

My level of halloween movie, this is a decent enough younger scares kind of a flick without being particularly outstanding.

Released: 21st September 2018
Viewed: 15th September 2018
Running time: 104 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 7/10