Jason Clarke

Pet Sematary

01/04/19

Since the success of It, Stephen King seems to be enjoying a bit of a cinematic renaissance – and, as most of his books have already been made into films, studios are gleefully remaking the ones that weren’t so successful first time around.

Pet Sematary initially saw the light of a cinema screen in 1989, under the direction of Mary Lambert, and boasted a screenplay by Mr King himself. I know I saw it when it came out but I remember very little about it – other than the fact that I was rather underwhelmed by what I saw. This new version, directed by Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer, certainly offers a more confident approach to the source material, even if there are some inherent problems lurking  in the mix. Essentially a spin on WW Jacob’s famous short story, The Monkey’s Paw, Pet Sematary still harbours some of the tropes that might have passed muster when the project was first conceived, but which look a little dodgy in the current climate.

Here, Louis (Jason Clarke) is the overworked doctor who decides to move his wife, Rachel (Amy Seimetz), and his two children, Ellie (Jete Laurence) and Gage (Hugo Lavoie), from the big city to the peace and quiet of the countryside. Major mistake. The family’s new home comes complete with a massive stretch of land, most of which is heavily forested and much of which is the former ancestral burial grounds of the Mic Mac Indians. The land also encompasses the badly spelled graveyard, where the local kids go to bury their dead critturs (though I feel impelled to ask, where are these local kids? We see them only once, wearing creepy looking masks and then never again).

Young Ellie soon makes friends with elderly next-door neighbour, Jud (John Lithgow, twinkling effortlessly), and even introduces him to her beloved pet cat, Church. But the highway beside the house is a regular route for articulated lorries driven by reckless idiots and, when Church winds up splattered across the tarmac, Jud convinces Louis to hide the truth from Ellie and to bury the feline’s remains up on the old Mic Mac land, assuring him that, if he does so, something incredible will happen.

Sure enough, the next day, Church comes wandering home but, as the family soon discovers, something about his nature has changed for the worse…

For the most part, the film holds up well, creating an atmosphere of steadily mounting terror, even if some of the developments do test my credulity. (The family owns a vast stretch of land, so naturally they decide to host Ellie’s birthday party right beside that dangerous highway instead of somewhere safer – like, that would happen, right?) But there are some genuinely nerve wracking scenes here and also some explicitly visceral ones that push the 15 certificate to its very limits.

What really don’t work are the sections that flash back to Rachel’s childhood, when she had a morbid terror of her sister, Zelda – because she had a twisted spine. Sorry, but physical deformity is not fair game for horror and somebody should have thought carefully about those scenes before merrily throwing them into the screenplay – especially when said sister behaves like something out of The Exorcist.

Still, that error aside, this is genuinely compelling in places and offers one of the bleakest endings I can remember seeing since… well, another Stephen King-inspired movie, The Mist. Go to this if you feel like being terrorised but, be warned, some of those body horror scenes have been woefully misjudged.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

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The Aftermath

11/03/19

There have been plenty of movies that concentrate on torrid wartime romances but, as you might guess from its title, The Aftermath is based in that uncertain period just after the end of World War II, when the victorious allied forces were trying to manage their defeated enemy and get them back into some semblance of order – after all but destroying them.

Based amidst the devastated ruins of Hamburg, Colonel Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke) is one of the luckless officers charged with heading up those efforts and, to ensure that his wife, Rachel (Keira Knightly), can live comfortably alongside him, he commandeers the palatial home of German architect, Stephen Lubert (Alexander Skarsgard), and his teenage daughter, Freda (Flora Thiemann).

Stephen claims he has never been a Nazi sympathiser and he is grieving the loss of his wife, who was killed during the allied bombing of Hamburg. Obliged to live up in the attic, Stephen and Freda can only watch in silent dismay as the British couple attempt to make themselves at home in the main part of their house.

But Rachel is mourning a loss of her own – and it’s quickly apparent that she and her husband are not exactly your average happily married couple. There’s a yawning chasm between them, one that they seem totally unable to cross – and it doesn’t help that Stephen is an attractive young man, who soon begins to cast alluring looks in Rachel’s direction – ones that she cannot help responding to.

The Aftermath is, ultimately,  a somewhat slight melodrama. It’s beautifully acted by the three leads – particularly Knightly, who once again effortlessly disproves the legions of critics who claim her career is based entirely on her looks  – and its evocations of post war Hamburg are convincingly mounted. But the film is lacking in any real depth beyond the tortured love triangle at the core of the story. We are never shown enough of the lives of the other characters who occasionally inhabit the screen. There’s a brief subplot that sees Freda becoming involved with young Hitler supporter, Albert (Jannik Schümann), but that feels underdeveloped – while Martin Compston has a fairly thankless role as Burnham, one of Lewis’s colleagues, a man who clearly thinks that all Germans should be treated as harshly as possible. He’s simply not given enough to do.

There are three credible outcomes for the situation and it’s probably true to say that the scriptwriters have opted for the least daring of them. Ultimately, The Aftermath is perfectly watchable film with a couple of genuinely tear-jerking moments, but I cannot help feeling that, properly handled, it could be so much more than that.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Mudbound

25/11/17

It’s getting to that time of year when rumblings are made about potential Oscar material and it must be said that some of those rumblings have already been directed towards Mudbound. This slow burning historical drama, co-written and directed by Dee Rees and based upon a novel by Hillary Jordan, certainly features the kind of material that often attracts those all-important votes. The fact that it’s a Netflix Original will doubtless cloud the waters somewhat, but the film has received a limited theatrical release (presumably to ensure that it can be considered eligible for such awards), despite the fact that it’s ready to stream right now for anyone willing to stump up their monthly subscription.

The Second World War is in full swing and, with so many able-bodied men away from home, Laura (Carey Mulligan), already in her mid-thirties, finds herself in danger of being left an ‘old maid’. So she’s pleased when she meets up with Henry McCallan (Jason Clarke), a small town businessman with big ambitions, who throws an agreeable look in her direction and hits paydirt. He promptly introduces Laura to his younger, more handsome brother, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), and it’s evident from the outset that the two of them are instantly attracted to each other, but Laura and Henry marry nonetheless and shortly afterwards start a family. One day, Henry casually announces that he’s purchased a farm in Mississippi (as you do) and that the McCallums will soon be relocating there. Oh yes, one other thing. They will also be taking along Harry’s widower father, Pappy (Jonathan Banks of Breaking Bad fame). Pappy proves to have all the inherent charm of a grizzly bear with a bad case of hemorrhoids, but Laura decides that she’ll just have to try and make the best of things. Suffering is something she clearly has an aptitude for.

Once in Mississippi, the McCallums discover that Henry has been duped. The palatial home they expected to occupy actually belongs to somebody else and they must make the best of a dilapidated shotgun shack on the farm. They will also be the employers of a black family that works the land – Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan), his wife Florence (Mary J. Blige) and their many children. From this point, a life of utter misery ensues for pretty much everyone in the story and matters become more complicated when Jamie decides to join the air force and the Jackson’s oldest boy, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), enlists in a tank battalion. Both men endure terrible experiences in the war, but ironically, for Ronsel at least, he is finally free of the Jim Crow laws that still hold sway in rural Mississippi. For the first time in his life, he is treated as an equal.

When the war finishes and the two men return to their respective families, it’s hard for Ronsel to accept that he must once again resume his former position in life – he can no longer even use the front door of his local general store. Traumatised by their shared experiences, Ronsel and Jamie strike up an unlikely friendship – but of course, in this bigoted world, white men and black men are not permitted to be friends – and when word of Ronsel’s adventures in Europe are accidentally made public, there is a terrible price to pay…

If Mudbound occasionally feels a little ponderous, there’s no denying the power of the narrative and the importance of the film’s inherent message. Its penultimate act is as gripping as it is devastating. There are also some nice performances here (Blige seems to be getting most of the Oscar-buzz but Banks’ portrait of a racist, misogynistic scumbag is also chillingly memorable). With its glacially slow pace and unusual attention to areas that don’t usually receive the opportunity of screen time, perhaps the film is actually more suited to being viewed on the small screen, where it’s something you can take a short break from and come back to.

Oscars? Well, if I’m honest, there are already several films I would deem more deserving of next year’s awards, but this isn’t at all bad and it certainly goes a long way to dispel the notion that Netflix are only interested in financing mindless entertainment. Mudbound is a long way from that. Interested parties can check it out at the click of a button – or the eagle-eyed might even spot one of those rare cinematic showings.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney