A review of “Pet Sematary” (2019)

“Pet Sematary” (2019) is an unnecessary remake, but still a decent one.  I personally prefer the flamboyant 1989 film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel; it was more garish and stylish, if a little campy.  (And its flashback sequences involving one character’s deceased sister are priceless horror fare.)  But this sleeker, more restrained update is nonetheless still made and sometimes pretty scary.  I’d rate it an 8 out of 10.

The writing and directing are generally good, even if certain jump scares were so heavy-handed that they were nearly laughable.  (The script wisely capitalizes on the universal, existential dread of mortality, as the first film did.)  There are few new bells and whistles here; the 2019 film instead tries to distinguish itself with a key variation in the plot of King’s eponymous 1983 book.  (I won’t describe it here, as I’m not certain whether it is a spoiler.  But this change isn’t “shocking,” as The New York Times’ headline proclaims; it’s simply a basic story alteration.)

The cast is roundly quite good.  A surprise standout for me was Amy Seimetz, who plays the mother of the story’s troubled Creed family with surprising power and nuance.  She’s a damned excellent actress.  And I was surprised to learn that I failed to recognize her as one of the doomed spacefarers  from 2017’s “Alien: Covenant” — another role that required her to portray apprehension and panic.

There were two possible nitpicks that occurred to me as I watched “Pet Sematary,” but these probably aren’t the fault of the filmmakers, as they likely stem from the literary source material.  (I read the book several times, but I was a young teenager when I did so.)  As an adult, I am only a fuzzy on two story elements:

  1. How is the character of Victor Pascow (played here by Obssa Ahmed) able to offer help to the troubled Creed family?  Can anyone in his circumstances do so?  Might others step forward as well?  Why should Pascow be uniquely motivated?  (I am again trying to keep this review spoiler free.)
  2. Why is the mother’s traumatic childhood a factor in the story’s present?  It’s … mostly tangential, right?  It is a compelling character element, and portrayed beautifully by Seimetz.  But I don’t fully understand how it seems to affect what transpires before us.

One final note — I’ve seen a few people on the Internet compare John Lithgow’s performance to that of Fred Gwynne in the 1989 film.  (They both play the character of Jud, the family’s elderly neighbor.)  Lithgow is predictably wonderful here — especially when Jud is showing kindness to the young daughter (played charmingly by Jete Laurence).  But Gwynne was better, because he was so perfectly cast.  It was a role that he was born to play.

 

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A short review of “The First Purge” (2018)

“The First Purge” (2018) isn’t the best horror-thriller I’ve ever seen, but it certainly isn’t the worst, either.  I thought that I would be all purged out by now, but this fourth entry in the film series is a solid prequel — I’d rate it an 8 out of 10.  (There is also a TV show set in “The Purge” universe, which USA has renewed for a second season, and I’m told that it’s pretty good.)  I suppose this is a durable franchise because its premise could be explored through countless different characters.

The movie has some weaknesses.  The pacing is off, and you could argue that the political theme of “The Purge” films, though compelling, is getting redundant by now.  (There are some specific jabs this time out at Donald Trump and his following; they’re heavy-handed, but they’re fun to spot.)

But “The First Purge” is still a suspenseful and disturbing dystopian horror film.  It’s got a terrific bad guy in Rotimi Paul’s “Skeletor” psychopath and some surprisingly damned good action sequences.  There is another difference here, too — this “Purge” is far less campy than the second and third films.  There are fewer plot twists, fewer over-the-top characters, and far fewer trippy visuals — it feels more like a straight horror film instead of a zany one.  Depending on your preferences, you might find it superior.

One more thing — given its obvious love for Staten Island, this film would make a great double-feature with “Bushwick” (2017), another thriller which seems like a love letter to its own setting in Brooklyn.  And they are both urban neighborhood thrillers with a similar storytelling style.

 

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A review of the “Black Mirror” episode, “Bandersnatch” (2019)

“Bandersnatch” is a difficult episode of Netflix’ “Black Mirror” to review — it isn’t really an “episode” or a “movie;” it’s more of an interactive online game that is reminiscent of the “Choose-Your-Own Adventure” young-adult books of the 1980’s.  (I believe they are actually name-checked in “Bandersnatch’s” main narrative, before it branches off into multiple stories.)  This main narrative follows a troubled young computer programmer (expertly played by Fionn Whitehead) as he begins to question his own reality while struggling with demons from his past.

From there, “Bandersnatch” unfolds according to the viewer’s choices.  (Netflix has configured the episode so that viewers control the protagonist simply by clicking options with their computer’s cursor.)  The meta-fictional twist here is that Whitehead’s protagonist is himself developing a groundbreaking multiple-choice style video game for his employer.  (The episode is set in 1984, when interactive games had not yet developed alongside arcade-style games.)  What follows is a seemingly indeterminate number of stories, with “Black Mirror’s” predictably disturbing surprises.

I’ve read that there are four “main endings” at which the show’s writer, Charlie Brooker, thinks most viewers will arrive.  There are supposedly a great number of other endings, as well — and the viewer can reverse the course of a narrative and follow a different path.  It’s all interesting stuff, even if it’s a little complicated.

So I’m not sure how to review it.  And I’m not sure I’m the best guy to offer such an opinion, as I am not the target audience for an experiment like this.  I’ve always been a “movie guy,” and not a “video game guy” — I’m the kind of milquetoast man that would rather be passively entertained by a story than involved, in real-time, in its creation.  I want a cohesive story with a clear denoument that was intended by the writer and director — not a mongrelized story that I helped come up with myself.  (Yes, I know that makes me sound like the precise opposite of cool and fun and creative, but I’m just being honest.)   I trust “Black Mirror” to knock my socks off with it’s storytelling — Brooker is a goddam genius, and this show is nothing less than the 21st Century’s “Twilight Zone.

I certainly liked “Bandersnatch.”  A key expository sequence in the first pathway I selected made me smile and laugh (due to the show’s intended black humor, of course).  I’d rate this viewing experience an 8 out of 10, for the fun I had with it.

But I do hope this is the only episode of its kind.  There are disadvantages that this experimental format probably cannot escape.  Pacing, plot structure and story cohesion all typically go right out the window after “rewinding” and story options are introduced.   I also had the compulsion, upon completing my first story arc, to return to the action and find an ending that was “correct” or possibly better.  And when my next narrative meandered, I wondered whether I was “doing it right.”  This lacked the cinematic quality that is characteristic of “Black Mirror” episodes, and ultimately felt like a video game.

I had another quibble too, and it’s admittedly a strange one.  Many elements of “Bandersnatch’s” 1980’s setting here are garish, bizarre or unpleasant.  (Some of the characters — particularly the father — were so off-putting that they made revisiting a story sequence almost irritating.)  I suppose that this was probably a deliberate choice by Brooker and by episode director David Slade — possibly to capture the vibe of the Philip K. Dick stories that are this episode’s obvious inspiration.  But I don’t think it was necessary to the plot.  Consider how different a story like this might be if it were filmed with the starkly beautiful visuals of the 2017 “Crocodile” episode directed by John Hillcoat.

Postscript — there was one metafictional twist that only I could enjoy.  And that’s a shame, because it was pretty neat.  When Will Poulter’s character here tells Whitehead’s that they’ve “met before,” that struck a chord with me personally — because Poulter, who has blond hair here, looks a lot like an old pal of mine from college.  That was weird.

 

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