Review: Pet Sematary

Church the cat

Pet Sematary is probably Stephen King’s most notorious novel, famed for its dark and disturbing subject matter—especially child death— and its power to scare.  The 1989 film, scripted by King and directed by Mary Lambert, was fairly trashy but undeniably effective.  Do we need another one?

Jete Laurence is electrifying

            Probably not, although King’s renewed popularity explains why a studio would go ahead with one.  The new version, directed by Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer (who made the unnerving, pitch black Hollywood satire Starry Eyes), is intriguing both for that duo and for the intriguing choice to make 10 year old Ellie (an impressive Jete Laurence) the kid who dies rather than toddler Gage.  The setup is the same: the Creed family moves from Boston to rural Maine, with a busy highway looming just off their property.  Kindly old neighbor Jud (John Lithgow) befriends the clan, and when Ellie’s beloved cat gets run over, he shows dad Louis (Jason Clarke) a secret burial ground with the power to bring it back to life.  “Church” (played by five different cats) comes back wrong, and yet that isn’t enough to stop Louis from bringing Ellie there when tragedy strikes.  Meanwhile, mom Rachel (Amy Seimetz) is haunted by the memories of her dreaded, bedridden sister—a trauma soon weaponized against her.

Jason Clarke digs deep

            Pet Sematary has a solid cast.  Clarke is dependable as always, and acts rings around the original’s hunky but dull Dale Midkiff.  Seimetz is equally strong as Rachel, but the movie belongs to Laurence.  The preternaturally talented actress is equally vivid as the sweet, precocious “good” daughter and the sinister abomination she comes back as (the effect is aided by some outstanding makeup and a perfectly twisted use of “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies”).  The biggest disappointment here, oddly, is Lithgow.  He’s solid, but his Jud just can’t hold a candle to the lovable, folksy, and compellingly haunted man Fred Gwynne played in the 1989 movie. 

            The script may be partially to blame.  Matt Greenberg and Jeff Buhler make plenty of good contributions—the masked funeral procession that opens the picture, a twisted set piece involving a dumb waiter, and the switch to Ellie among them.  But they skimp on characterization.  In the novel, Louis remarks that Jud should have been his father, but that bond doesn’t quite come off here.  The family shares some thoughtful scenes, like their debate over how to explain death to their daughter; but the aftermath of Ellie’s death is glossed over far too quickly.  We know that a resurrection is coming, of course—even those unfamiliar with the source material will be able to see the writing on the wall when Church transforms from cuddly to malevolent.  But the overwhelming experience of grief is what fuels that development, and that needs to be conveyed in more detail.  The other sticking point for me is the ending.  I won’t get into detail for obvious reasons, but I had difficulty reconciling myself with how thoroughly it deviates from the novel.

            Still, Pet Sematary has much to recommend it: vivid visuals (in spite of some dodgy CGI); unforgettable performances from Laurence and the cats (including breakout viral star Tonic as the “good” Church);  an appropriately sweeping score by legendary composer Christopher Young (Hellraiser, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2); and some fun Easter eggs for fans.  But perhaps Pet Sematary should have stayed buried.

Us – Review

Lupita Nyong’o, Evan Alex, Shahadi Wright Joseph, and Winston Duke in Us

Us opened last weekend to a mammoth $70.2 million, becoming the highest opening original horror movie and biggest ever opening for a film with a black female lead.  What’s more,  Us, Jordan Peele’s follow-up to his Oscar winning instant classic Get Out, is just plain awesome.  It’s a fun, immersive, thoughtful spectacular that just happens to center on an African American family.  It’s as if Jordan Peele is shrugging, saying, “I make outstanding horror films with black leads, NBD” while his doppelganger is brandishing a pair of golden scissors and shrieking “it’s a very big deal.”


Us opens with a bizarre opening title sequence—Get Out composer Michael Abels provides an even better score here—that won’t make any sense until much later in the narrative.  Then there’s an excellent 1986 set sequence on the Santa Cruz boardwalk, wherein a little girl wanders away from her squabbling parents and encounters her mirror image in a spooky funhouse.   Flash forward to the present: the Wilsons are a middle class family headed to their vacation house.  Gabe (Winston Duke) is an endearingly goofy dad.  Jason (Evan Alex) is an oddball kid with an affinity for Halloween masks and magic tricks.  Sister Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) is a high school running star alternately amused and annoyed by most of her family, aka every teenage girl ever.  Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o, transcendent) is a fiercely protective mother who anchors the clan, but something’s bothering her.  That was her in the funhouse, and she’s intensely triggered by this return.  It doesn’t spoil anything to say that her doppelganger soon arrives with copies of the entire family in tow; mayhem ensues.  Anyone who gives away more than that deserves to dine on raw rabbit.

Nyong’o

The construction of Us is exquisite.  Portents of doom and symbolism abound, from the Biblical quote to the mirror imagery everywhere you look.  The Wilsons’ friends, the Tylers, are a parallel family.  Two parents, two kids: white/black, rich/not so rich, happy/deeply dysfunctional.  (As boozy mom Kitty, Elisabeth Moss gets to show off her acting chops—though no one can hold a candle to Lupita here.)  There are clues and winks saturating the movie, but Peele isn’t showing off.  He’s just inviting you to immerse yourself in his world.  He beckons the audience into his nightmare kingdom as surely as the characters are drawn into that funhouse.  At the risk of belaboring a point, Us truly is a funhouse; while Get Out was deadly serious, this movie is a thrill ride, leavened with humor and as enjoyable as it is creepy.

Alex and Alex

For the past week, I’ve been debating this movie with friends.  Does the mythology make sense?  Are there plot holes?  Is it overrated, poorly written, etc., etc.?  I’ve engaged with the conversations—it’s the kind of movie you should see with friends, and plan to talk about over coffee or cocktails immediately afterward.  But I remain unshaken in my conviction that this is an extremely well made, imaginative, and entertaining film that is destined to become a classic.  Peele displays such complete command of his craft, from script to camera to lighting to the inspired choice of songs: Janelle Monae and N.W.A. are among the standouts.  All of the performers turn in excellent work.  Everything you’ve heard about Nyong’o is true.  She is utterly remarkable as Adelaide and her scissors-loving “Tethered” counterpart, Red.  If there was any justice in the world, she would be nominated for an Oscar for this movie, but the Academy will probably snub her.  No matter.  She makes this movie, aptly supported by the entire cast.  Duke is endearing and truly outstanding in his own right.  He’s also one of the sexiest bears I’ve seen onscreen in a long while.  (Add unconventional body types to the Hollywood standards this movie casually upends.)  He and the kids are adept at vividly portraying their sinister “shadows,” too.


We already knew Jordan Peele was one to watch.  This terrific movie only serves to confirm it, and as a horror fan, I’m thrilled to have a new master to follow—especially one slicing through barriers.

Review: Fags in the Fast Lane

With a title like Fags in the Fast Lane, you expect a certain type of movie: politically incorrect. Exploitation throwback. Very, very silly. Australian production company Zombie Zoo Productions delivers on all of these counts, though my take is that co-writer/director Josh “Sinbad” Collins’s film is ultimately so good-natured, it’s unlikely to offend anyone. I once read a review that described the “candy-colored, amiably slapdash” Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, and that review popped into my head while watching Fags in the Fast Lane, with its fanciful costumes, arch performances, and hilarious miniatures, which make no attempt at realism whatsoever. (A dinosaur scene is about as convincing as the time I filmed my Jurassic World toys for YouTube.)

 

What semblance there is of a plot involves dynamic duo Sir Beauregard (Chris Asimos) and Reginald Lumpton III (Matt Jones) and their attempt to track down the burlesque gang (played by performance troupe the GoGo Goddesses) who stole precious jewels from Beau’s mom Kitten (these names!). Kitten is played, naturally, by Kitten Navidad, who earned her vintage sexploitation bonafides as the star of Russ Myers’ infamous Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Here, she’s a Madame running a GILF bordello. When she’s not having hilariously energetic sex with the villainous Chief (Pugsley Buzzard), she’s wailing about her stolen jewels. Beau, who always calls her “mama” because of course he does, enlists the Chief’s twink son Squirt (Oliver Bell) and Salome (Sacha Cuhar) to take on the gang’s fearsome leader, Wanda the Giantess (Aimee Nichols). Wanda’s voice is intensely, hilariously deep, and she is in possession of something even more precious than jewels: the powerful “Golden Cock”!

 

Really, this is all an excuse for a series of loosely connected skits, action sequences, and musical numbers. Highlights include a cheeky ballad sung by Hijra (Arish A. Khan) when he loses his “precious Golden Cock” and a stop motion animated sequence in which Squirt is “threatened” by all manner of phallic swamp creatures. As a cis gay man, I wasn’t personally offended by any of this nonsense, although a baseball bat is shoved pretty severely up a character’s butt (the “special effects” are too low grade for it to be all that gross) and Salome’s gender bending character leads to some offensive terminology: a “she-male worshipping cult” that is one of the approximately thirty-five brief subplots. Salome herself is sexy and ass-kicking, in any case.

 

Interestingly, director Collins is straight. According to the entertaining press notes, he and his wife Barbara “have created a variety of retro parties, theme bars, and happenings around the globe.” With Fags in the Fast Lane, they give us queer characters to root for and a memorable slice of ridiculous fun.

 

Fags in the Fast Lane is available on DVD

 

 

Review: Picnic at Hanging Rock

This twisty mystery could be your next obsession. Amazon’s miniseries Picnic at Hanging Rock is an adaptation of the Joan Lindsay novel (previously adapted into what has become a cult film directed by Peter Weir) about the mysterious disappearance of a group of girls at an Australian finishing school circa Valentine’s Day 1900. Based on the premiere episode screened at the Tribeca Film Festival, the series will be way more complex than even that tantalizing description suggests.

 

Fan fave Natalie Dormer (Game of Thrones) stars as Mrs. Appleyard, the enigmatic (to say the least) headmistress of the boarding school, who rules with an iron fist. From the very first scene, in which she poses as a widow scouting a potential home for the school (actually played by multiple houses, all ornate and gorgeous) and “converses” with her dead husband, we know there’s much more to her than meets the eye. The same can be said for the students, including rising star Samara Weaving (The Babysitter, Mayhem) as Irma, the girl all the boys want, and Inez Curro as pretween Sara, who’s wound up at the school following some mysterious trauma at home. By the time the girls embark on the all-important Valentine’s Day picnic, there’s enough intrigue for a season’s worth of soap opera afoot. Irma and her clique excuse themselves for a mountaintop excursion, which they’ve obviously planned ahead of time—but why? Just how close are these girls, anyway? The shit suddenly hits the fan, seemingly due to some supernatural force, and the hour ends on a cliffhanger.

 

Picnic at Hanging Rock is one of the weirdest things I’ve seen in a long time– and it’s glorious. Garry Phillips’s cinematography is exquisite; the costumes are colorful and eye-popping; the mostly female cast is superb across the board. Dormer in particular is in fine form, clearly relishing this enigmatic role. At the festival panel, she joked that she was dead set against “another corset job” but was persuaded by a chat with the director, and watching her sink her teeth into this part, it’s easy to see why! The eerie, hallucinatory effect of the program is enhanced by unnerving sound design and a great score by Cezary Skubiszewski. I am very much looking forward to bingeing this series, and based on the pilot, it could definitely catch on with a cult audience.

Review: Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley, my favorite feature from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival (and now available to stream), casts an electrifying Elle Fanning as the woman who invented science fiction with the classic novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. Mary’s been portrayed on screen before, by the likes of Elsa Lanchester (who was both creator and creation in Bride of Frankenstein) and Natasha Richardson (in Ken Russell’s baroque and bizarre Gothic), but never before with any sense of realism, and certainly not in so feminist a manner as this movie.

 

Which isn’t to say that Mary Shelley—which, ahem, was directed by Saudi Arabia’s first female director, Haifaa Al-Mansour—is without style. It’s a gorgeously shot, meticulously designed work that dramatizes its real world characters with immediacy and excitement. Still reeling from the death of her mother, and stymied by the tyrannical presence of her stepmother, Mary is a misfit who buries her nose in horrific, “unsavory” books and has no one to rely on apart from her sister Claire (Bel Powley). That is, until she meets the beguiling poet Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth), her father’s literary apprentice, and the two embark on a forbidden romance. Eventually the lovers run away together, taking along Claire, but happiness proves elusive for the trio. The mercurial, philandering Percy causes Mary no small amount of pain, and Claire’s affair with the enigmatic Lord Byron (scene-stealing Tom Sturridge) causes her equal misery. Through it all, Mary manages to persevere and put pen to paper for the masterpiece that is Frankenstein—even if she has to convince sexist publishers to take a chance on such a ghastly work for a female author. The inspiration for this monstrous tale is rendered in gripping cinematic fashion, by a “Phantasmagoria” stage show the characters witness and an eerie nightmare Mary has while staying at Byron’s Swiss villa.

 

Mary Shelley makes many such flourishes, and takes liberties with the truth—but it works, and the effect is beautiful. The poetic dialogue sounds like it belongs in an exceptionally witty play; it’s delivered by a great cast led by the excellent Fanning. Booth is appropriately beautiful and narcissistic as Percy, while Powley brings levels to the tortured Claire. Sturridge, as Byron, makes quite the impression on characters and audience when he greets Percy with a kiss on the lips; sadly, his bisexuality is left largely unexplored, save for a vague allusion later on. It’s forgivable considering how much material the writers (Emma Jensen and Al-Mansour) had to whittle down. There’s also a gorgeous score by actress/composer Amelia Warner.

 

Mary Shelley is a fast-moving, fanciful, yet resonant treatment of the life and talent of the famous author. It reveals a uniquely female perspective on love, loss, and sisterhood, and sheds a very modern light on the pitfalls of navigating a sexist world. Go see it.