Doctor Sleep (Mike Flanagan, 2019). This long-gestated sequel to The Shining is an odd mash-up of Stephen King’s typical narrative tricks and a lavish tribute to Stanley Kubrick’s relentlessly examined 1980 film. Taking place a little more than thirty years after a caretaker’s cabin fever turning murderous during the off-season at the snowbound Overlook Hotel, Doctor Sleep finds adult Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor) living a derelict life, self-medicating away his traumatic memories and intrusive mental powers. He gets clean just in time to start telepathically communing with a young girl (Kyliegh Curran) whose powers exceed his own, and are indeed so great they attract the attention of a cult-like gang that metaphysically feasts on others to extend their long lives. Inevitably, the conflict between good and evil leads right back to the confines of that spooky old hotel, still bearing the axe-marks of old. Like other exhumations of bygone cult favorites, the eager tribute references of Doctor Sleep grow wearying with great speed, no matter how nimbly director Mike Flanagan deploys some of them. The main problem with the film, though, is the performance of McGregor, who blandly rolls through scenes with no apparent connection to the intense, worrisome events around. Rebecca Ferguson fares far better as Rose the Hat, the leader of cruel power-cravers. Charismatic, and properly devilish, she livens up the proceedings every time she’s on screen.
On the Basis of Sex (Mimi Leder, 2018). A perfunctory yet solid film biography of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones), On the Basis of Sex is mostly concerned with the casework seeking equal legal protections for women that were undertaken by the future Supreme Court Justice. There are few passing acknowledgments of her life outside of the determined effort to push the law in the right direction in the realm of gender equity, none of them all that engaging. There’s no question the bout with cancer endured by her husband, Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer), was an important part of Ginsburg’s life journey, but the filmmakers can’t find their way to a compelling reason for that to be included. It’s there anyway. While it helps establish the famed RBG work ethic, that same characteristic is dramatized in different, stronger ways elsewhere in the movie. Things don’t start clicking until it’s all about the legal work, in part because that’s when everyone — Jones and director Mimi Leder, primarily — are clearly most invested. On the Basis of Sex is somehow solid and lacking at the same time.
The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009). Director Michael Haneke takes his usual bleak assessment of humankind and applies to a story set in a rural community in the nineteen-tens, a place and time with no shortage of bleakness. Strange misfortunes start happening to area residents, leading to an intense sense of fright and portent. Combined with the usual vicious abuse exacted by parents and other authority figures against the most vulnerable, and a stew of misery starts simmering. Haneke’s willingness to go straight at the toughest parts of his narrative gives the film a tensile strength, further enhanced by the stark, stunning, black-and-white cinematography of Christian Berger. The film’s theme of religion used an excuse to perpetrate cruel oppression unfortunately remains wildly pertinent, one full century after the film’s time frame. The White Ribbon is a powerful entry in Haneke’s impressive — if admittedly grueling — filmography.