Posts Tagged ‘Cliff Curtis’

We have, of course, previously discussed the question of the Optimum Period Before Sequel, and whatever your personal views may be, I think most people would accept that waiting forty years to do a follow-up is really pushing the boundaries of common sense. Then again, it might be somewhat more excusable if the sequel wasn’t exactly a sequel per se. Which of course brings us to Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep, based on a novel by Stephen King, which was itself a sequel to his earlier book The Shining. This means that Doctor Sleep is, by some metric at least, a sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film adaptation of the novel. King famously hated the changes that Kubrick made to the story and disregarded them in the second novel. So where does this leave the film? Is it going to stay faithful to King, make the most of its connection to the iconic and very well-regarded Kubrick film, or somehow try and split the difference and risk satisfying no-one?

The prospect of a potentially pedestrian cash-in on The Shining made my heart sink, and it’s not even as if I’m a particular fan of that movie; the fact that Doctor Sleep actually manages to be slightly longer than its sizeable forebear did not help lift my apprehension as I approached the movie. And the opening of the film hardly seems designed to dispel these sorts of concerns – straight away they reuse one of the most famous music cues from the older film, and there is a sequence with a painstaking recreation of the hotel set, right down to that very distinctive carpet (which may or may not intentionally replicate the layout of the Apollo 11 launch pad).

The story proper gets going with young Danny Torrance struggling to come to terms with the frightening ordeal he and his mother went through in the snowbound Overlook Hotel in Colorado, something made only worse by his burgeoning psychic ability. Helping him in this respect is Hallorann (Carl Lumbly), the former chef at the hotel. Here, of course, the film hits its first real crunch point – is Hallorann a living mentor or a ghostly apparition? (He survives in the novel, but is axe-murdered in Kubrick’s version.) Suffice to say the early scoreline is Novelists 0, Film Directors 1.

Danny eventually grows up into Dan (Ewan McGregor), a lonely drifter haunted (sometimes literally) by his past, who tries to suppress his psychic gifts through drink and drugs. Eventually he pitches up in a small New Hampshire town, where the kindness of one of the locals (Cliff ‘Maori Jesus’ Curtis) allows him to settle and build a life for himself, using his power while working in the local hospice. (Here he is known as ‘Doctor Sleep’.)

However, he is not the only gifted individual in the world, and the film also follows a group of others: a pack of vicious and sadistic vampire-like killers who devour the souls of psychic children. The fact that they resemble Fleetwood Mac on tour may make them slightly less terrifying, or perhaps not. Their leader, Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), eventually identifies a powerful young girl named Abra (Kyliegh Curran) as their next victim.

However, Abra is a sort of psychic pen friend of Dan’s, and she recruits his aid in helping stop the hunters’ reign of terror. Faced with an enemy whose powers may outstrip his own, Dan is forced to choose the ground for their eventual confrontation carefully. Could it be time to make a reservation at a certain hotel he was once a resident in?

Making adaptations of Stephen King books is hardly a time-honoured path to sure-fire success, and doing films derived from Kubrick movies has likewise been a slightly dodgy prospect in the past. This, together with the enormous duration of Doctor Sleep, gave me some trepidation as I approached the film – but, rather to my surprise, it turned out to be a very superior dark fantasy movie, filled with the traditional narrative virtues and with a great deal to commend it. It may not have the magisterial clarity and formal brilliance of The Shining, but neither is it quite as oblique and impenetrable – The Shining is an undeniably impressive piece of work, but Doctor Sleep is possibly a lot easier to like, simply because it is so much more conventional.

I hasten to add that there’s nothing wrong with being conventional when it results in a film as satisfying as this one: the story hits all the right beats, the story is well-told and resonant, and the characters are well-drawn and given space to breathe and come to life. As well they might, given the film is over two and a half hours long – but we will come back to the issue of the film’s duration. Quite how effective it is as a pure horror movie is another question – as noted, it mostly resembles a thriller or a dark fantasy more than anything else, but there are moments where it does get very nasty, and does so very quickly. I imagine there is enough here to keep fans of the genre satisfied.

The acting is certainly of the standard you would hope to find in a reputable movie: McGregor is on fine form, and there is a remarkably self-assured performance from Kyliegh Curran. The only one who really puts a foot slightly out of place is Ferguson, whose performance is just a touch too affected to really convince – then again, she is given a character with a trademark hat, an Irish accent and a lot of hippy-dippy stylings, so it’s hardly the easiest of gigs.

Does it really need to be quite as long as it is, though? Well, frankly, I’m not sure. It certainly gives you the sense of reading a King novel, where a lot of time and space is often devoted to establishing characters and settings before the action proper kicks off, but even so the film sometimes feels like it’s dragging its feet a bit. You know that traditional scene where someone comes to the hero for help, but he initially refuses, before changing his mind and engaging with the story? The one which marks the start of the narrative proper? Well, that one is in this film, it just happens over an hour into it. It’s not like the film actually feels padded or boring, but it does feel like it could have been shortened without losing too much of its impact.

One impressive thing about it is that once the opening is out of the way, it works very hard to stand on its own two feet without constant call-backs to The Shining. This means that when the film does finally head in this direction for its final act, it feels almost as if it has earned the right to do so: it is an undeniably thrilling moment when the nature of the climax becomes apparent. The recreations, when they come, are every bit as good as the ones in Ready Player One. It looks for a long time like the film is going to dance around the whole issue of Dan’s father, but the utterly thankless task of trying to reproduce Jack Nicholson’s bravura performance is eventually given to (if my research is correct) an uncredited Henry Thomas, who does the very best he can in the circumstances.

I have to say that, along with the length, it’s the climax of the film which would cause me to knock off a star, if I awarded such things – it feels appropriate and isn’t ridiculous, and no doubt Stephen King will be delighted by the fact it is partly drawn from the original Shining novel. But something about it just doesn’t quite ring true, and you do get the sense the film is wallowing just a bit too much in the chance to revisit Kubrick’s take on the story. But this is still a fairly minor quibble. Doctor Sleep is still a cut above the majority of Stephen King adaptations, and a very satisfying piece of entertainment. Provided you can handle the nastier moments, this is well worth seeing.

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Still hanging around in cinemas is the Coens’ Hail, Caesar!, a movie which gets most of its fun from affectionately spoofing types of movie they just don’t make any more: musicals, westerns, terribly mannered dramas, and Biblical epics, such as the film-within-the-film that supplies its title. The thing is, though, that they do still in fact make films of some of these types, although they frequently struggle to get attention in a crowded marketplace. As a case in point, there’s Kevin Reynolds’ Risen, which came out in the States a few weeks ago and is theoretically out in the UK too, though really struggling to get decent distribution.


The film’s modest budget and creative team of people you’ve either never heard of or whose careers seem to have gone off the boil might lead you to expect something pretty grisly, but as it turns out the charnel stink is mostly limited to events on screen. Joseph Fiennes plays Clavius, a Roman tribune enduring a far-from-plum posting to Palestine in 33AD – the only place in the Empire where the inhabitants rise up in violent rebellion against the occupying Romans and then sue them for brutality after they get put down. Clavius is jaded but retains his ambitiousness even so, and has managed to make himself pretty much indispensible to local top man Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth).

Pilate orders Clavius to oversee the execution of local mystic who offended the Jewish religious authorities, which he does, without much enthusiasm. He is further tasked with keeping the corpse of said Nazarene spiritual leader under guard, to head off rumours that the man has come back from the dead, as he apparently prophesied would happen.

Well, something goes wrong with the guard detail and the body of the Nazarene mysteriously vanishes, which means that Clavius has a new mission: find whoever is responsible, recover the body, and prevent the dead man’s acolytes from causing any trouble to the Jewish leaders or to Rome…

There’s no sense in beating about the bush here: Risen is another of those new-wave Biblical epics, albeit rather more modest in scope than Noah or Exodus, and its New Testament focus means it’s very hard to shake the suspicion it is gunning for the same keen audience that made The Passion of the Christ such a massive hit in 2004 – indeed, some reports suggest this started off as a semi-sequel to that film.

A lot of people, I suspect, will run a mile rather than watch a film about the Easter story, and it’s true to say that Risen has nothing like the spectacle or scale that made old-style films in this vein like The Robe or Ben-Hur so watchable. Nevertheless, I found this film to have many points of distinct interest, even though I would struggle to call it anything close to essential viewing.

I suppose it says something about the secularisation of western civilisation that a genre which was absolutely mainstream fifty years ago is now perceived is being rather niche: there isn’t anything like the same assumption that everyone is pious and Christian any more. I suspect the shadow of Life of Brian may also have had an effect in terms of making this kind of film a difficult proposition for film-makers and audiences. To its credit, Risen plays the whole story very straight – and to begin with at least – doesn’t go overboard with regard to any message it may be trying to pass along. Indeed, it almost seems to shy away from being too on-the-nose about this – the main man is referred to as ‘Yeshua’ in an attempt to steer clear of the usual associations. Hmmm.

The first half or two thirds of the film are actually a rather engaging political thriller, told from the point of view of someone largely disinterested in Jewish mysticism and (obviously) unaware of the significance of the case he’s working. I think it says something about the post-Roman nature of our own society that we find it so easy to identify with Roman characters in this kind of setting – we instinctively assume we have so much in common with them. I think this fundamentally misunderstands the different ethical system of the Roman Empire, but it’s a very helpful storytelling conceit if nothing else, and Fiennes gives a very good performance as the world-weary tribune. The film’s historical accuracy is a little variable but mostly rather impressive, albeit with one fairly important exception which we’ll come to soon.

However, once Clavius gets done with scene-of-crime work at empty tombs (in the film’s cheesiest moment, what-will-be the Shroud of Turin turns up), interrogating reformed prostitutes and running down disciples, there’s a fairly severe wobble as the film undergoes a profound change of gear. Though Clavius is still on the screen most of the time, he’s pushed into a very secondary role as a witness to the doings of the disciples. His main contribution is to help them evade Roman forces as they travel from Jerusalem to Galilee for another meeting with Yeshua (played, in case you’re wondering, by Cliff Curtis, who is thus probably the first Maori Christ in the movies – Curtis also appears in the Walking Dead spin-off, which is either very appropriate or utterly not, depending on your religious persuasion).

This works very well at injecting a bit of tension and action into the third act – Clavius has to contend with his ruthless aide, Lucius (Tom Felton) – but it does put one of the film’s issues centre stage, namely that it presents early Christianity as being a¬†matter of great significance¬†to the Romans, when it really wasn’t. To be fair, the film suggests there has been a bit of political maneuvering on the part of the Jewish authorities to secure Roman involvement, and – as mentioned – the presence of a Roman character as a point of identification for a general audience is essential.

Even so, it doesn’t help a final act which is primarily just a retelling of part of the book of Acts, with Clavius just hanging around in the background. One wonders why he didn’t get into the Bible himself, given the significance of his role here – he’s virtually the last person Yeshua has a conversation with before his ascension. (I couldn’t help being reminded of the Pythons’ original idea for their own movie on this topic, which dealt with St Brian, an apostle who was always in just the wrong place at the wrong time and thus got left out of all the Gospels.)

To be honest, I felt just a little bit cheated: I’d started watching a film with a bit of grit and thoughtfulness about it, concerned with some fairly novel new angles on this story, and for it to suddenly just turn into a very safe, by-the-numbers piece of Biblical reconstruction was rather a let-down.

Still, the whole thing is well-mounted and well-played, although I wonder just who the ideal audience for it is – if retellings of the Gospels are your thing, you may not like the start, but if you’re not into a sort of cinematic tract, you’ll most likely hate the ending. In the end, this is basically just a conversion narrative – and if conversion narratives are not your thing, none of the other good things about Risen are likely to make it appeal to you much. I thought it was an interesting curiosity which unfortunately didn’t live up to the promise of its opening section.


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