‘Pet Sematary’ remade, ‘After’ has college romance

By Tom Von Malder | Jul 13, 2019
Photo by: Paramount Home Entertainment John Lithgow and Jeté Laurence star in the new version of Stephen King's "Pet Sematary."

Owls Head — Pet Sematary (Paramount, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 100 min.). Stephen King’s original 1983 source novel was one of his creepiest and most affecting. This is the second time the book has been adapted for a feature film; King himself played a priest in the 1989 film version, which had a great title song by The Ramones.

This time, directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer (the writing team also directed three episodes of TV’s “Scream”) take things more seriously, going more into the psychology of the married couple – especially of the wife, who experienced previous horror involving her sister – who move to rural Ludlow, Maine and whose new house comes with 50 acres of woods, including an often-used pet cemetery. (I’m sure teachers have cringed over the years at the spelling of the word “cemetery” in the title, but the misspelling is meant to be how a child would paint the sign.)

The members of the Creed family are Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke of “Chappaquiddick,” “Terminator Genisys”), who had given up the life of an emergency room doctor in Boston for the simpler life of a college’s staff doctor to be able to spend more time with his children, his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz of “Alien Covenant,” TV’s “The Killing”), and their two children, 8-year-old Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and 2-year-old Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie). There also is Ellie’s beloved cat, Church. Their nearest and apparently only neighbor is widower Judson “Jud” Crandall (John Lithgow of TV’s “The Crown,” “3rd Rock from the Sun”). While the two homes seem isolated, big-rig trucks race down the road in front of them, using the road as a shortcut, according to Jud. The sudden sound of trucks racing past create three startle moments in a film that has too few actual scares.

Part of the problem is both the source novel and the first film are so well known. To be true to the material, the directors and the writers – Matt Greenberg for screen story and Jeff Buhler for screenplay – could not stray too far. There are tweaks here, with the best one being when the incident you expect happens, but to someone else. (Thankfully, I had not seen the trailer, which spoils the surprise.)

Church has a deadly encounter with a truck – thankfully off-screen – and Jud, knowing how much the cat means to Ellie, shows Louis a part of the pet graveyard beyond the deadfall barrier. The next day, Church returns, looking the worse for wear and ill-tempered too. A further tragedy has Louis again resorting to the resurrection graveyard, with even less success.

The writers also have changed the ending, possibly after screenings as the extras include an alternate ending (9:16) that makes Louis more responsible for what happens. It is more creepy than shocking, though. The film feels perfunctory at times, and only Rachel’s backstory involves any true horror.

Other extras include four deleted and three extended scenes (18:13 total); scenes of three characters facing their nightmares (4:57; Louis, Rachel and Ellie); Lithgow reciting the tale of Timmy Bateman, a young man killed in war but resurrected (3:04); and a four-part making-of feature (61:22), which covers the cast and crew recalling reading the book, the changes made, filming around Montreal, casting and training and working with the cat. Grade: film and extras 2.5 stars

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

After (Universal, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 106 min.). Tessa Young (Josephine Langford) opens the film with narration about how certain moments in life seem to define a person, and then it is just “after.” It is not the most compelling start and soon is followed by many a cliché as naïve, inexperienced Tessa is about to start her first year of college, where soon she is constantly running into, being initially annoyed at, then falling in love with, being heart-broken by or reuniting with Hardin Scott (Hero Fiennes Tiffin of “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”).

Hardin has a bad-boy attitude and image, helped by a collection of random tattoos and his British accent. Despite maintaining that love doesn't exist in a literature class argument with Tessa, Hardin has a bookshelf full of romance novels in his room and seemingly just hasn’t found the right girl to fall in love with. Although he initially says he doesn’t date, that is exactly what he and Tessa predictably end up doing. And while you or I could have easily written the narrative, what makes the film work is the photogenic quality of the two young actors, who do bring some life to their characters.

Hardin’s father turns out to be Ken Scott, the school’s chancellor, played by veteran actor Peter Gallagher (TV’s “Covert Affairs,” “The O.C.”). Other familiar faces are Jennifer Beals (“Flashdance”) as Ken Scott’s new bride, Karen, and also the mother to Tessa’s new friend, Landon (Shane Paul McGhie); and Selma Blair (the “Hellboy” films) as Tessa’s mother, Carol. Dylan Arnold plays Noah, Tessa’s “safe” high school boyfriend, while Khadijha Red Thunder plays Tessa’s “wild” roommate, Steph. The best two scenes are when Hardin takes Tessa to his favorite spot, an isolated lake, and when they visit an aquarium.

The film is based on a bestselling book by Anna Todd, the first in a series of five books, which started as fan fiction with the character of Hardin based on then-One Direction singer Harry Styles (hence all the make-up tattoos). The only extras are four deleted scenes (5:41). Grade: film 2.75 stars; extras ½ star

Little (Universal, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 108 min.). Other than strong performances by Marsai Martin and Issa Rae, there is not too much to recommend in this reverse “Big.” In fact, Regina Hall’s boss character, Jordan Sanders, 38, is so abrasive and unlikable at the beginning that it is a turnoff. Luckily, she is soon gone, replaced by Martin (TV’s “Black-ish”) as Jordan’s 13-year-old self, and does not resurface until very late in the film.

It was Martin, who gets an executive producer credit along with King, who came up with the movie’s core idea after she saw Tom Hanks in “Big.” In the film, though, it seems kind of random that a young girl working for a donut truck is able to cast the spell that pulls off the change-aroo.

The adult Jordan, hardened by the bullying and humiliation she suffered as a middle-schooler, runs a successful software company. With her motto that “nobody bullies the boss,” she runs around screaming and being incredibly mean to her employees, particularly April Williams (Rae of TV’s “Insecure”), her suffering assistant of three years. One example of how extreme her displeasure is that she calls up to berate April for not having her slippers set 53 centimeters from her bed.

Once the body switch is made, April has to pretend to be Jordan’s aunt for child protection services Agent Bea (Rachel Dratch) and Jordan is forced to go back to the same middle school of her earlier terrors. The only saving grace is her new attractive teacher (Justin Hartley of TV’s “This Is Us,” “Smallville” as Mr. Marshall). Young Jordan does a little flirting, but this funny plotline is not really followed through. There also is a bit of flirtation with adult Jordan’s sexy boytoy Trevor (Luke James of TV’s “Star”), only that comes across a bit icky. Meanwhile, April has to take over for adult Jordan at work, where the company is under pressure as it is about to lose its biggest client (Mikey Day of TV’s “Saturday Night Live” as Connor) unless it can come up with a new smartphone app within a couple of days. April agrees to act for Jordan, if she gets a raise and has access to Jordan’s clothes and car.

Most of the film’s highlights involve Martin and Rae. There is their dust-up fight in the school parking lot and an unexpected karaoke duet in a restaurant. The film probably spends too much time on Jordan making friends with the middle school’s misfits and helping them prepare for the school talent show.

Bonus features include audio commentary by director and co-writer Tina Gordon; a gag reel (5:15); a piece on the three leads (4:10); a tour by Martin to introduce various crew members (8:37); a closer look at the school parking lot battle (2:44); and Rae’s assistant survival guide (2:17). Grade: film 2.25 stars; extras 2.5 stars

Mojin: The Worm Valley (China, Well Go USA, Blu-ray or standard DVD, NR, 11 min.). This is a sequel to “Mojin: The Lost Legend” – and possibly to “Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe” – based on the bestselling novel series by Zhang Muye (under the pen name Tianxia Bachang) that consists of eight books about graverobbers. Having seen “Mojin: The Lost legend,” I’m not sure the two films are linked in any way other than the title and some characters’ names, as even the actors playing those characters are different. “Mojin: The Lost Legend” was a huge blockbuster in China.

The film’s opening narration talks of a Princess Jingjue who, a thousand years ago, gave her opponents a brand on their shoulder, which became a curse passed on through the generations and causes death by age 40 for those with the brand. Eventually it is revealed that the Mojin Six of the film have the brand. Led by Hu Bayi (Heng Cai) and the Professor (Taishen Cheng), they seek both the Dragon Bone Celestial Tome, which they now have, and the Mu Chen Orb, which when combined will supposedly lift the curse.

The location of the Orb, as translated from the second half of the Tome is: “Under the vault of Heaven. South to the iridescent clouds. A peak where dragons hide. A mountain where snakes coil. A crystal path to a hidden place. The tomb with a water cave.” They know the first two lines mean Yunnan, where Bayi has been before, but there are three more lines yet to be translated. Making up the rest of the Six are Gold Tooth, Fattie (really not that fat), Shirley (Xuan Gu) and Zhou Linglong (Yusi Chen).

With all that follows, the film reminded me a lot of “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” (1958) and “Jason and the Argonauts” (1963), both with stop-motion animation by the great Ray Harryhausen. In succession, the Mujin Six encounter and have to overcome a landslide filled with worms, man-eating viper fish, attacking flying creatures, a journey over a waterfall, giant lizards, an army of giant scorpions, a giant Deathless Crab and a giant snake. In between these highly animated action sequences, there are a couple of very nice, idyllic moments: a magical bit with flameflies flying over a field in search of their king; and a relaxing swim while taking refuge on a floating island that experiences all four seasons in a single day.

The underneath purpose of the journey may not make much sense (some probably due to subtitle translation) and most of the characters are rather bland, but the film is an action fantasy visual feast. The ending sets up the narrative to continue in an already-announced sequel, “Mojin: The Dragon Ridge.” There are no bonus features. Grade: film 3 stars

Okko’s Inn (Japan, Shout Factory/GKIDS, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG, 95 min.). This film “aimed at girls” by director Kitaro Kosaka was nominated for the 2019 Japan Academy Prize for Animation of the Year. It is a deceptively simple tale, with a fantasy twist, based on the novel by Hiroko Reijo. There also has been a television series adaptation.

In the film, Okko (voiced by Seiran Kobayashi) loses both her parents in a car accident. She then goes to live in the countryside with her grandmother Mineko, who runs a small, traditional inn, the Hanunoyu Inn, near the Hananoyu Spring, which is said to have healing waters. When Okko arrives, she is greeted by Uribo, a young ghost, who we later learn knew Mineko when she was a child. With Uribo’s urging, Okko announces her intention to help out at the inn, earning her the title of Junior Innkeeper. As Okko helps out at the inn, she learns how to handle guests’ needs and encounters other spirits, including Miyo, a girl ghost, and Suzaki, a baby bell demon.

At her new school, Okko encounters the tyranny of Matsuki, whom everyone calls “Frilly Pink” behind her back due to her clothes. Matsuki’s family owns a much larger, rival inn in the town. During the film, Okko helps a young boy who had been ill regain his joy after having lost his mother, and a family of three of whom the father just emerged from a lengthy coma. She also prepares for an upcoming festival in which she must dance with Matsuki, as they both will inherit the town’s inns.

Bonus features include an interview with director Kosaka, formerly a key animator on numerous classic films from Studio Ghibli (4:16); an interview with actress Kobayahi (3:39); and a Q&A with director Kosaka, executive producer Masahiro Saito and production producer Toyoda Satoki of the Wakaokami Project at the film’s Japanese premiere (20:52). All are in Japanese with subtitles. The film itself can be watched in the original Japanese or dubbed in English. Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 2.5 stars

Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001, Criterion Collection Blu-ray, R, 91 min.). The Off-Broadway “post-punk neo-glam rock musical,” as the director terms it, and subsequent Broadway sensation, was brought to the screen in 2001 by star John Cameron Mitchell, who directed and wrote the screenplay, based on the musical with his text and Stephen Trask’s music and lyrics. In the film, Mitchell plays Hedwig and Trask plays Skszp, the guitarist in Hedwig’s band.

The original musical had its beginnings in 1994 at the Squeeze Box drag club and then in 1997 at the James St. Theatre, clips from which are included in the excellent bonus material. The story centers on Hedwig, raised as a boy in East Berlin during the Cold War. His absent father was an American soldier and his mother was a local; he was born the year the Berlin Wall went up. Fascinated by Western music, Hedwig has a chance to escape Communism when Sgt. Luther Robinson (Maurice Dean Wint) falls for him and wants to take him back to America. (Hedwig was known as Hansel back then.) Robinson says he will only marry Hansel in Berlin, so Hansel undergoes gender reassignment surgery for the service. However, the operation is botched and he is left with only “an angry inch.”

While living in a trailer park in America, Hedwig works on her songwriting and falls in love with Tommy (Michael Pitt of “The Dreamers,” TV’s “Boardwalk Empire,” “Dawson’s Creek”), on whom she bestows the last name of Gnosis (the Greek word for knowledge). Somehow, Hedwig has been cast aside and Tommy has become a huge star, using the songs that Hedwig wrote. In the present, Hedwig is doing a parallel tour with her punk band, appearing at the same restaurant chain in each city that Tommy is playing a huge arena in, while Hedwig’s manager (Andrea Martin of the “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” films, TV’s “SCTV” as Phyllis Stein) is suing Tommy for songwriting credits and cash.

Many of the funniest scenes have Hedwig and her band, The Angry Inch, playing for disinterested or outraged restaurant patrons (including a memorable carwash joke). One time, there is a riot during the song “Angry Inch.” Much of the story is told in flashbacks that alternate with the present, including a standout scene when backing singer Yitzhak (Miriam Shor playing a female passing for male who longs to be a glamorous female star) hands her the perfect wig (giving new meaning to “head wig”) and as the band launches into the song “Wig in a Box,” the whole side of the trailer falls down and becomes a stage. One should also notice that as The Angry Inch’s tour progresses, their hotel rooms keep getting smaller.

In addition to often outrageous visuals, the film has songs I really like, including “Tear Me Down” (the opener in which Hedwig declares she is the new Berlin Wall), “Origin of Love” (based on Plato’s “Symposium” it has some really cool animation by Emily Hubley that depicts the three different sexes and how a god tore them apart) and the ballad “Wicked Little Town.”

The film is presented in a new 4K digital restoration, supervised by Mitchell and cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco, who both take part in the audio commentary. A new feature is a reunion at the James St. Hotel with Mitchell, Trask, DeMarco, Hubley, Shor, hairstylist/makeup’s Mike Potter And visual consultant Miguel Villalobos, who talk about the pre-Broadway days (56:13). There also is an excellent conversation between songwriter Trask and music critic David Fricke about the songs (29:13). In the latter, Trask says the original idea was to have a show about Tommy, reflecting Mitchell’s own life, as his father was Major Gen. John Mitchell, at one time stationed in Berlin. Trask points out the influence of Chuck Berry’s story songs, The Beatles’ arrangements on “Wig in a Box” and even Marc Bolan of T-Rex fame.

Also outstanding is the 2003 documentary by Laura Nix, “Whether You Like It or Not” (85:28), which gives Trask and Mitchell’s history prior to making the show and the show’s early years, with live clips from both the Squeeze Box and James St. ballroom. Still, there is more: archives of Mitchell’s memorabilia, Arianne Phillips’ costumes and make-up artist Potter (18:49); an “Anatomy of a Scene” from the Sundance Channel in 2001 on the “Origin of Love” sequence (19:20); five deleted scenes with optional commentary by Mitchell and DeMarco (12:12; 3 deal with Stein’s implanted tooth phone, another has Yitzhak propose to Hedwig). The final deleted scene is two outtakes of young Ben Mayer-Goodman jumping joyfully on a bed to American rock as he plays 6-year-old Hansel. The bit is super cute here and in the film. There also is a 54-page color booklet with an essay by critic Stephanie Zacharek, portraits of Hedwig by photographer Mick Rock, illustrations by animator Hubley and excerpts from two texts that inspired the film: Plato’s “Symposium” and “The Gospel of Thomas.” Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 5 stars

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Comments (1)
Posted by: Chris Brown | Jul 14, 2019 08:00

I think you'll find the "Boss" in "Little" is played by Regina Hall, not Regina King.

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