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Schultz reviews: ‘Doctor Sleep,’ ‘Last Christmas,’ ‘Midway’ & ‘Playing with Fire’

Schultz reviews: ‘Doctor Sleep,’ ‘Last Christmas,’ ‘Midway’ & ‘Playing with Fire’

Carl Schultz

 

“Doctor Sleep” Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, 152 Minutes, Rated R, Released Nov. 8:

 

Writer Stephen King’s disdain for filmmaker Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of his novel “The Shining” is the stuff of entertainment legend.  

 

Citing the movie’s deviation from the novel, the author actually prefaced “Doctor Sleep,” the 2013 literary sequel to “The Shining,” with a disclaimer which read in part, “Of course there was Stanley Kubrick’s movie, which many seem to remember — for reasons I have never quite understood — as one of the scariest films they have ever seen.”

 

“If you have seen the movie but not read the novel,” King significantly continued, “you should note that ‘Doctor Sleep’ follows the latter.”

 

And that makes it all the more ironic and perplexing that the new motion picture adaptation of “Doctor Sleep” makes a point of inviting comparisons with Kubrick’s 1980 classic horror picture. The similarities are unmistakably deliberate, to an extent that fans of Kubrick’s picture will undoubtedly consider “Doctor Sleep” more of a cinematic sequel that a completely separate adaptation of a King novel. Worse, the movie’s title, “Doctor Sleep,” is never clearly explained — as far as the viewer is concerned, the picture’s title might as well be “The Shining 2.”

 

Written and directed by Blumhouse Pictures veteran Mike Flanagan, the filmmaker behind the low budget “Oculus” in 2013 and the motion picture adaptation of King’s “Gerald’s Game” in 2017, ”Doctor Sleep” positions itself beside Kubrick’s film to an extent that iconic shots from “The Shining” are referenced and even recreated, employing lookalikes for the 1980 film’s cast members Danny Lloyd, Shelley Duvall, Scatman Crothers, and even Jack Nicholson.

 

Otherwise fairly accurate to King’s novel, in “Doctor Sleep” Danny Torrence, the telepathic child survivor of the events described in “The Shining” — both novel and film — is now an adult, a recovering alcoholic troubled with occasional flashbacks and memories of the horrific events he endured as a boy at the remote Overlook Hotel.

 

Danny is contacted telepathically by Abra, a child with psychic powers even more potent than his own. It seems Abra’s being hunted by a traveling caravan of new wave vampires who consume life forces harvested from victims who also have “the shining,” Torrence’s childhood term for his telepathy. Eventually the adult Danny and the child Abra need to band together and combine their psychic abilities to defeat the predatory band . . . making their stand against the cult’s powerful leader at the now-deserted Overlook Hotel.

 

“Doctor Sleep” — the movie — should be able to stand on its own as a perfectly chilling little horror picture. A moderately-budgeted movie with big-budget aspirations, had “Doctor Sleep” been produced without Stephen King’s name or the cinematic devices borrowed from Kubrick’s 1980 horror classic, it might’ve been hailed as a low-budget masterpiece. It’s only in comparison with Kubrick’s classic that “Doctor Sleep” is mundane and inferior . . . much as Peter Hyams’ exploitative 1984 film “2010: The Year We Make Contact” was to Kubrick’s enigmatic “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

 

Containing solid performances by Ewan McGregor as Danny, Rebecca Ferguson as the leader of the cult of vampires, movie newcomer Kyliegh Curran as the child Abra, and a standout supporting turn by character actor Cliff Curtis as McGregor’s friend and sobriety coach, “Doctor Sleep” is earning enthusiastic reviews from the critics, including an approval rating of 73% from Rotten Tomatoes and 60% from Metacritic. Exit audiences polled by CinemaScore award the picture an average grade of B-plus.

 

“Doctor Sleep” is rated R for disturbing and violent content, bloody images, language concerns, and brief nudity.

 

“Last Christmas” Distributed by Universal Pictures, 103 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released Nov. 8:

 

You might be more likely to be whistling the title tune of “Last Christmas” on your way in to see this movie rather than on your way out.

 

Pointedly quirky and purposefully adorable, “Last Christmas” labors mightily to do for the late pop star George Michael the same thing 1942’s “Holiday Inn” did for Irving Berlin — make his name and music synonymous with the holiday. Part of the trouble with the picture is that Michael’s music contains neither the depth nor the resonance to sustain a persuasive two-hour dramatic narrative.

 

In “Last Christmas,” hard luck seems to stalk the hapless Kate. Once a singer of some promise, Kate’s career and life were derailed by a medical crisis involving her heart. Now treading water on the worn edge of youthful promise, Kate seems to exist on the periphery of life, barely holding down a job as a professional elf in a year-round London Christmas store. Often transient, too stubborn to send an SOS to her overbearing mother and family of first-generation Eastern European immigrants, Kate in the words of another character has “made a career out of being a victim.”

 

One especially harrowing day, Kate happens to meet Tom, a relentlessly cheerful and optimistic stranger. A nuisance at first, Tom soon becomes a diversion, then a silver lining, and finally something of an involuntary — and chaste — emotional crush. With his seeming ability to materialize during moments of particular gloom, Kate quickly, albeit reluctantly, finds herself falling for the charming stranger, and rediscovering the Joy of Life. But Tom has a secret . . . and it’s somehow intertwined with Kate’s past.

 

Each holiday season seems to have at least one contender for a rarefied spot among Our Perennial Christmas Favorites: Recent holidays have seen such entries as last year’s “Instant Family,” and “The Greatest Showman” and “Mary Poppins Returns” the year before. “Last Christmas” seems to be an early applicant for this year’s Perennial Favorites position, but misses its shot by aiming too hard . . . and too deliberately.

 

With the late George Michael’s lyrics occasionally paraphrased and interwoven into the picture’s dialog in banal lines like “I’m not gonna heal my heart and then give it to someone who’s gonna break it,” the script by Bryony Kimmings and actress and co-star Emma Thompson (from a story by Thompson and actor, producer, and husband Greg Wise) is filled with dialogue that’s just too precious, and calculated, to be true — literally: Virtually every line in a conversation between characters is a zinger, and nobody really talks like that. “Last Christmas” has a brain . . . but no heart.

 

With similarities to the 1947 Christmas Classic “The Bishop’s Wife,” “Last Christmas” has a sweet enough moral and an M. Night Shyamalan twist you’ll probably see coming from a half-hour away. But two pointless and dramatically unnecessary epilogues almost clobber the viewer over the head with the picture’s overabundance of ersatz Christmas Cheer. By the time the title tune is turned into a splashy musical production number, some viewers might feel so covered with sticky, saccharin goo that they’ll be waiting for the airbags to drop from the theater’s ceiling.

 

The movie’s biggest strength — and it’s a considerable one — is its casting. Fresh off her appearances on the cultural phenomenon “Game of Thrones,” Emelia Clarke as the hapless Kate, teamed with “Crazy Rich Asians” heartthrob Henry Golding as the mysterious Tom, have charm, charisma, personality, and just-plain-adorableness to spare . . . and, boy, do they know it. As individuals, the two play the camera like seasoned musicians playing twin Steinways, and together they’re like a Lunt and Fontanne of romantic comedy. Whatever charm “Last Christmas” contains is due to the stars.

 

Directed by “Bridesmaids” and “Ghostbusters” filmmaker Paul Feig and filmed on location in London, “Last Christmas” is receiving decidedly mixed reviews from critics. Rotten Tomatoes reports an approval rating of 49% for the picture, while Metacritic assigns a similar 51%. Reviewing the picture for Variety, critic Owen Gleiberman writes “It’s precious, it’s forced, and it’s light on true romance, maybe because the movie itself is a little too in love with itself.” The Wrap reports the movie “fulfills a craving for sticky Christmas pudding.”

 

Playing in 3,448 theaters in the United States and Canada, “Last Christmas” is rated PG-13 for some language concerns and sexual content.

 

“Midway” Distributed by Lionsgate Pictures, 138 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released Nov. 8:

 

Good production values and excellent computer-generated effects highlight “Midway,” the new movie from Lionsgate Pictures retelling the story of the 1942 battle that shifted the balance of naval superiority in the Pacific Ocean during World War II. The Battle of Midway was the first naval encounter in history in which the opposing fleets were never within sight of each other.

 

“Midway” covers much of the same material as Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor” in 2001. In describing the events which led to the June 1942 confrontation between the U.S. and Japanese fleets, “Midway” also depicts the December 1941 Pearl Harbor attack, the April 1942 Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, and the Battle of the Coral Sea in May of 1942 — the actual Midway sequence occupies only the final hour of the picture. But advances in computer generated imagery and realistic recreations of actual events turn this historical review into surprisingly compelling — and often startling — motion picture viewing.

 

The script by rookie screenwriter Wes Tooke is a little deficient in explaining the intricacies of the battle: A delay in sighting the Japanese fleet led to the U.S, Navy’s launching an uncoordinated attack. And without support from fighter planes, virtually the entire first wave of American torpedo bombers was shot down by the Japanese, leaving it to the dive bombers to carry most of the burden of the battle. The picture also glosses over the pivotal role of Rear Admiral Spruance in the absence of the ailing Admiral Halsey, and mostly ignores the sinking of the U.S. aircraft carrier Yorktown. In the plus column, the historical importance of the encounter is given its due, if not emphasized.

 

Among the standout performances in the ensemble cast, Patrick Wilson is harried and devoted as naval codebreaker Edwin Layton, Dennis Quaid is blowsy and blustery in an extended cameo appearance as Admiral “Bull” Halsey, and Aaron Eckhart is a steely, flinty General Doolittle, leading the U.S. Army’s bomber raid on Tokyo. Woody Harrelson is unusually subdued and thoughtful as Pacific Fleet Commander Chester Nimitz (with his wavy white hair, Harrelson resembles a cross between Bill Clinton and Billy Graham). Tadanobu Asano and Jun Kunimura are the Japanese admirals Yamaguchi and Nagumo.

 

In the grand tradition of pop stars appearing in war pictures, Nick Jonas plays an especially heroic radioman/gunner, and almost singlehandedly earns the movie’s PG-13 rating by dropping its solitary F-bomb. Ed Skrein, late of HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” is the picture’s nominal leading man as the dashing Navy flyer Richard Best, while Mandy Moore as a Navy wife wrings her hands on the home front in Honolulu. But the picture’s best characterization is contributed by the eclectic Luke Evans as legendary U.S. Navy squadron commander Wade McClusky. Evans’ chiseled countenance and humorless demeanor camouflage the occasional zingers in his dialogue.

 

“Midway” has long been a passion project of motion picture director Roland Emmerich, the blockbuster filmmaker behind 1996’s “Independence Day” and its 2016 sequel, the 1998 “Godzilla” remake, “The Patriot” in 2000, and 2013’s “White House Down.” For years, Emmerich couldn’t obtain the necessary backing for the film, and finally resorted to raising the reported $100 million budget himself, much of it from Chinese investors. As a result, “Midway” is one of the most expensive independent pictures ever produced.

 

Released during the Veteran’s Day weekend to some 3,242 theaters across the United States and Canada, preliminary estimates indicate the gamble of “Midway” is paying off: Originally projected by distributor Lionsgate Pictures to earn up to $15 million over its opening weekend, “Midway” was able to bring in some $6.3 million on its opening day alone. The picture scored the first place spot in the week’s Box Office Mojo Top Ten with $17.5 in ticket sales, over the new “Doctor Sleep” in second with $14.1 million. “Playing with Fire” placed third, and “Last Christmas” fourth.

 

Film buffs will enjoy the brief subplot in “Midway” featuring actor Geoffrey Blake as legendary filmmaker John Ford. The Academy Award-winning Ford was commissioned a Commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve during World War II and assigned to the Office of Strategic Services, where he supervised the production of propaganda films. Stationed on Midway at the time of the battle, Ford and a small camera crew filmed portions of the actual fighting even after being strafed and wounded by a Japanese fighter plane. Ford’s resulting 18-minute color documentary, “The Battle of Midway,” is easily available for viewing on YouTube.

 

Filmed on location in Hawaii with some additional production in Montreal, Quebec, “Midway” is rated PG-13 for sequences of war violence and related images, and for language concerns (thank Nick Jonas) and scenes of smoking and liquor consumption.

 

“Playing with Fire” Distributed by Paramount Pictures, 96 Minutes, Rated PG, Released Nov. 8:

 

A genuinely likable cast and a heartwarming premise make up for an overabundance of familiar situations and tired gags in the badly-titled “Playing with Fire,” the new comedy from Paramount Pictures starring pro-wrestler turned budding movie star John Cena.

 

In “Playing with Fire,” a group of U.S. Department of Forestry smokejumpers — firefighters who parachute into forest fires to fight the conflagrations from within, the toughest of the tough — find their lives and routines interrupted after they rescue a trio of rambunctious children from a remote cabin, and are charged with their care and protection until a responsible relative arrives.

 

Directed by “Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2” filmmaker Andy Fickman from a script by movie newcomers Dan Ewen and Matt Lieberman, “Playing with Fire” goes precisely where you expect, with the outrageously rugged and capable firefighters getting in touch with their sensitive sides and finding their most daunting adversaries in a group of school-age kids. But it all goes down surprisingly smoothly, in an especially comfortable ride with an agreeable group of people.

 

John Cena, maturing nicely into a position as a sort of second-string Dwayne Johnson, is a particular hoot as the hypermasculine but clueless leader of a firefighting battalion, with support from the occasionally addled John Leguizamo, the nervous and obsessive Keegan-Michael Key, and the hulking, Lurch-like Tyler Mane.

 

Judy Greer is cute and adorable as a conservationist who’s been spending too much time with frogs, and “Deadpool” veteran Brianna Hildebrand is the oldest and sassiest of the rescued kids. Ubiquitous Allstate Insurance TV commercial spokesman Dennis Haysbert — you’ll recognize his voice — also has a nice cameo role as a spit-and-polish Department of Forestry division leader with a heart of gold.

 

Filmed on location in Burnaby, British Columbia, “Playing with Fire” is rated PG for some mildly suggestive material and rude humor, including the customary poo-poo jokes.

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