Changing the book: ‘Doctor Sleep,’ ‘Motherless Brooklyn’

By Tom Von Malder | Feb 09, 2020
Photo by: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Ewan McGregor, as Dan Torrance, has another case of those "redrum" blues in "Doctor Sleep."

Owls Head — Doctor Sleep (Warner Bros., 2 Blu-rays or a standard DVD, R, 180/152 min.). Writer-director Michael Flanagan (Netflix’s “The Haunting of Hill House”) has very effectively turned Stephen King’s sequel to “The Shining” into a sequel of Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film of “The Shining,” which King famously so hated that he wrote a miniseries version in 1997 in sort of protest. In order to accomplish this, Flanagan had to change the ending of “Doctor Sleep,” bringing the three main protagonists back to the haunted Overlook Hotel, which King already had destroyed in his writings.

The Blu-ray includes two versions of the film. This review is of the 28-minute-longer director’s cut, which was created simultaneously with the theatrical release with Warner Bros.’ backing. Essentially, the longer film adds more of the younger versions of the protagonists, and that version is presented in six chapters, the first four of which are about a half-hour-long each.

There are two main storylines that eventually converge. The first is that of Danny Torrance, the child of the first book and film. We see young Danny, post-Overlook, living in Florida with his mother. He learns to control his “shining” by mentally locking away the psychic monsters from the Overlook that have followed him. Danny’s story then jumps forward 31 years as the adult Danny (Ewan McGregor of the “Star Wars” films) finds himself living and working in Frazier, N.H. Dan has been using alcohol to help diminish his shining, but his new life in a new town, with a new friend in boss Billy Freeman (Cliff Curtis of the upcoming four “Avatar” films), has made him more content and he abandons alcohol.

The second storyline deals with Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson of the “Mission Impossible” film franchise), who leads The True Knot, a band of what could be called very long-lived psychic vampires, who feed on what they call “steam” – basically the ability to shine – which they extract by killing children. This leads to one very disturbing scene in particular. Among Rose’s “family” are Crow Daddy (Zahn McClarnon), Barry the Chunk (Robert Longstreet), Grampa Flick (Carel Struycken) and a few others. We see Rose’s forced recruitment of Snakebite Andi (Emily Alyn Lind), which I guess is intended to show how The True Knot operates, but the whole character could have been excised, after all the film is three hours long. Yet, long as the film is, it never feels tedious.

The two storylines start to come together when Abra Stone (Kyleigh Curran) starts to reach out to Dan via “shining” and then telepathy. This is now eight years later. Abra tells Dan about a young baseball player she senses The True Knot has kidnapped and killed, and she informs Dan that she wants to stop Rose and wants his help. When Dan realizes Abra, who lives in a nearby town, is in danger, he reluctantly swings into action.

The film has some decent special effects. When the finale takes place at the Overlook, many of the sets Kubrick used are recreated, and a basically unrecognizable Henry Thomas (“E.T. The Extraterrestrial”) plays Lloyd the Bartender/Jack Torrance, Dan’s father, as people who die at the Overlook become part of its haunted staff.

Extras include a sit-down with King and Flanagan, talking about the two films and books, and how King was a practicing drunk when he wrote “The Shining,” but was many years sober when he wrote “Doctor Sleep” (4:56); a making-of featurette with King, Flanagan and the principal actors (13:37); and a look at recreating the Overlook sets from Kubrick’s film (14:59). Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 2.5 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

Motherless Brooklyn (Warner Bros., Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 144 min.). Producer and star Edward Norton also directed and wrote the screenplay for this adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel. Norton loved the character of Lionel Essrog, a man suffering from both Tourette’s syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Norton kept the character, whom he plays in the film, but changed the plot and set the film in 1950s New York, a time when the city was being modernized, rather than in contemporary times as in the book. Thus, with its behind-the-scenes political machinations, the noir film in many aspects recalls Roman Polanski’s 1974 film, “Chinatown.” (Coincidentally, Jack Nicholson starred in both “The Shining” and “Chinatown.”)

Essrog, who narrates quite a bit, is part of a four-man crew working for his mentor, private investigator Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). When Minna is killed -- Willis does not even last 16 minutes – Essrog sets out to find the killers, the reason and what Minn’a last word, “Formosa,” means. Also part of Minna’s staff are Tony Vermonte (Bobby Cannavale), Gilbert Coney (Ethan Suplee) and Danny Fanti (Dallas Roberts). Essrog, who is very smart and has an eidetic memory, especially for things he has heard, follows a trail that leads him to the King Rooster jazz club in Harlem.

Here, let me say that the film’s jazz-inspired music is excellent, with Wynton Marsalis and his band filling in for the club band and Marsalis playing all the trumpet solos, although the Miles Davis-like character of Trumpet Man is played by Michael Kenneth Williams. The rest of the sensitive score is by Daniel Pemberton, who also scored “Yesterday” and the new “Birds of Prey.”

Alec Baldwin plays city official Moses Randolph, who has built 255 parks in the city, at least four bridges and is in charge of an urban development project that will displace many of the city’s poor, particularly African-Americans. His plan is opposed by Gabby Horowitz (Cherry Jones), who is aided by Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw of “Belle”), whose father owns the King Rooster club. Another key figure is architect Paul (Willem Dafoe of “The Florida Project,” “Platoon”), who is trying to get his plans for a new city-wide electrical grid approved.

Well-acted and with a mystery-filled plot, the film also brings an older New York City to life. Extras include audio commentary by Norton; a making-of featurette that details how Norton went after the rights to the book even before its publication and worked on the script since 2001 (9:38); and five deleted scenes, including a lengthy car conversation about Paul between Essrog and Horowitz (5:19). Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 2.75 stars

The Good Liar (Warner Bros., Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 109 min.). Two veteran actors – Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen, who only worked together in a play once before – square off in this cat-and-mouse game. Once again, director Bill Condon (“Beauty and the Beast,” “Gods and Monsters,” “Dreamgirls”) and screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher simplified the original novel by Nicholas Searle to make it mostly take place in two time periods rather than four. I had expected more of a comedy, but the film actually turns very dark.

This is the type of film with which one has to be careful about spoilers. Mirren, who has played English queens several times, is recently-widowed Betty, who decides to try online dating, even though she calls it “a system for mismatches of the disillusioned and the hopeless.” She connects with Roy Courtnay (McKellen of “Gods and Monsters,” the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy) and they hit it off over dinner in a restaurant. It is 2009 London. Their relationship quickly blossoms into friendship, rather than romance, and Betty offers to let Ray stay in her home when his knee acts up. However, her grandson Stephen (Russell Tovey of TV’s “Being Human,” “Quantico” and “Years and Years”) is suspicious of Roy’s intentions and repeatedly warns his grandmother.

Of course, the viewer is more cognizant of what is going on, as we see Roy and his partner (Jim Carter as Vincent) involved in a shady financial deal. Even that, though, turns out not to be what one first believes, and the whole film unfolds in similar fashion

Extras include a making-of featurette (13 min.), which plays up the location shooting; and 12 deleted scenes (12:41), including a light look at a succession of bad dates each had prior to meeting. A couple of the deleted scenes give away too much too early. Grade: film 3 stars; extras 2.25 stars

High Strung Free Dance (GVN Releasing, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG, 110 min.). I do not know why, but dance-oriented movies such as this really uplift my spirits. Set in New York City, this is a sequel of sorts to 2016’s “High Strung,” also a dance film with a strong musical element (violin) and also directed and co-written by Michael Damian. Only one of the characters repeat, but both films center on struggling young dancers.

In this instance, the dancer looking for her first job on Broadway is Barlow Bennett (Juliet Doherty of “Driven to Dance”), whose mother Oksana (Jane Seymour of “High Strung,” TV’s “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman”) is a famed former dancer, now instructor. Barlow tries out for the new “Free Dance” musical, being directed by choreographer Zander Raines (Thomas Doherty – no relation to Juliet – of TV’s “Legacies” and two od Disney’s “Descendants” movies). Meanwhile, young pianist Charlie Knight (the adorable Harry Jarvis, who also plays excellent piano throughout the film and will be Lysander in the upcoming “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”), who works as a bicycling sandwich delivery boy, is trying to find a piano job in a club. He even tried out, and failed, for “Free Dance.”

As happens in these films, the three are just about thrown together when, after Zander is impressed by Barlow’s audition, he takes her out and their car literally runs into Charlie on his bike. Charlie eventually gets the piano job on “Free Dance” and develops feelings for Barlow, who starts dating Zander.

The music is really, really good here, including the prepared piano pieces (pieces which play with the keyboard’s strings). There is a hot retro-swing club production number, a Bollywood performance at a party (by Jorgen Makena, who plays Kayla Jordan, the on-and-off-again “name” lead dancer for the show); a hip-hop number, some classical and contemporary piano numbers, a dub-step liquid duo dance, and even a movie musical type song done by a group of female roommates.

The plot may be old-fashioned, but the dancing and music is outstanding. Near the end, there is a wonderful production number from the show’s Broadway premiere. The choreography is by Emmy Award-winner Tyce Diorio (“So You Think You Can Dance”) and the cast includes 80 dancers. Extras include a behind-the-scenes look with director Damian and co-writer Janeen Damian (7:59); an interview with score composer Nathan Lanier (also “High Strung”) (1:59); and the music videos of “Masterpiece” by Thomas Doherty (4:13) and “Liar” by Hooked Like Helen (3:41). Grade: film 3.25 stars; extras 2 stars

Last Christmas (Universal, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 102 min.). Again, two winning leads triumph over plot in this film, inspired by the George Michael song used for the title. Thinking back after a closing performance of the song, I realize its lyrics could actually be considered a spoiler, so do not listen to the song again until after the film is over. The filmmakers liked that Michael song so well that they decided to use a dozen or so of his songs in the film, including three from his Wham! days and the previously-unreleased “This Is How (We Want You to Get High),” recorded 2013-2015.

Those leads are Emilia Clarke of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” as Kate, an aspiring West End singer who works as an elf in a year-round holiday shop (Yuletide Wonderful) in London, and Henry Golding (“Crazy Rich Asians,” “A Simple Favor”) as Tom, the kind-hearted man she meets one day. They become friends and he challenges her cynical world view. Kate has been known for her streak of bad luck and poor decision-making, especially with men she meets in bars. She refuses to live at home because of disagreements with her mother (Emma Thompson of “Love Actually,” TV’s “Years and Years” doing a Croatian accent) and especially her sister Marta (Lydia Leonard). Boris Isakovic plays her Dad, a mini-cab driver. The owner of the Yuletide Wonderful shop is “Santa,” played by Michelle Yeoh (“Crazy Rich Asians,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragons”).

The film is directed by Paul Feig (“Bridesmaids,” “A Simple Favor”) and written by Emma Thompson, who worked with Greg Wise (“Sense and Sensibility”) on the story and with playwright Bryony Kimmings on the screenplay. It features a central twist that recasts what went before. Thompson previously wrote the screenplay for “Bridget Jones’ Baby,” among other films.

Extras including an alternate ending (50 secs.); a blooper reel (14:30); 11 deleted scenes, four extended scenes and two alternate scenes (total 22:45; including a reference to the twin girls in “The Shining”); an alternate opening (1:11); nine brief behind-the-scenes looks (about 28 min.); and a look at 12 days of production (10:21; includes Thompson being very funny). Director Feig does some introductions on the extra features. There also are two audio commentaries: one by Feig alone; and one by Feig and Thompson, who also served as a producer. Grade: film and extras 3 stars

Sony Music has issued the soundtrack of “Last Christmas” on CD. It features 12 George Michael solo songs and three Wham! Songs with then-partner Andrew Ridgeley.

Playing with Fire (Paramount, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG, 95 min.). John Cena tries comedy and even brief singing in this family-friendly film that has some heart, but also some pretty bad comedy. It also has a lot of “My Little Pony,” which I am not at all familiar with.

Cena plays Superintendent Jake Carson, who is in charge of the Redding, California smokejumpers. Following in his father and grandfather’s career path, he is a true hero, as shown by his rescue of three children trapped inside a burning cabin – after he hits the ceiling several times because Rodrigo Torres (John Leguizamo), the backup pilot, is flying the helicopter. Due to a storm, the children have to stay at the smokejumpers’ depot, which they completely mess up and destroy an all-terrain vehicle. That is important because Commander Bill Richards (Dennis Haysbert) is visiting in a couple of days to see if Carson should be his successor.

The other two smokejumpers are played by Keegan-Michael Key as Mark Rodgers and Tyler Mane as silent, axe-wielding big man Axe. The children are played by Brianna Hildebrand as teenager Brynn, Christian Convery as young Will and Finley Rose Slater as youngest Zoey. Also in the picture is Judy Greer as Dr. Amy Hicks, who studies endangered toads and has had 2.5 dates with Carson. At times, the mix of danger and comedy seems bizarre. There really are few laughs; Leguizamo’s character, in particular, seems very forced when trying to be funny.

There are outtakes during the closing credits and 13 deleted scenes (14:43), some of which are repeated in the blooper reel (2:33). Cena does an amusing take on “Three Little Pigs” (1:27), and the director’s e-mails to cast and crew are read by Key and Cena (5:05). There also is a behind-the-scenes look (4:32) and a short piece on real smokejumpers, of whom there are only 320 active in the United States (2:34). Grade: film and extras 2 stars

The Siren (Dark Sky Films, DVD, NR, 79 min.). The film succeeds with its languid pacing and dream-like cinematography – Percy Blackshear manned the camera, as well as writing, editing and directing the film – but the story is not that compelling. Tom (Evan Dumouchel), despite being afraid of water due to an accident that made him mute, decides to vacation for two weeks on the shore of a lake. He has only one near neighbor and that is Al (MacLeod Andrews), whose husband drowned in the lake. Al believes someone killed his husband, as there have been many deaths in the lake. Al comes to believe that Nina (Margaret Ying Drake), a frequent swimmer in the lake whom Tom befriends and becomes romantically attached to, is the killer.

Of course, the film’s title gives away who Nina is. All that remains is how events play out and, despite the film’s short length, events play out slowly. Apparently, the film also went by the name “The Rusalka,” which would at least send people to the dictionary rather than giving away almost the entire plot. By the way, a Rusalka, in Eastern European folklore, is cursed to never be able to leave water (at least for a long time) and is given a thirst to drown people. Most of Nina’s transformation is simply black contact lens and altering her voice electronically.

At times, the film confused me, but apparently what was being shown was not time shifts, but what Nina desired to happen between her and Tom.

Extras include two audio commentaries: one by Blackshear and actress Drake; and the other by actors Dumouchel and Andrews. There also is a Blackshear interview at the Glasgow Frightfest in which he talks about the characters’ co-dependency (5:55). The film was shot in 17 days at a few lakes in Vermont. Grade: film 2.75 stars; extras 2.5 stars

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