At the Movies with Hanover Matz
Rating: 1.5 out of 5 stars
For me, what usually makes terrible horror movies well, terrible, is when the actions of the characters have no basis in sound logic or rational decision making. When they inch closer and closer to the impenetrably dark crawl space, or refuse to abandon the clearly haunted or possessed premises, or slowly stumble away from the killer instead of running pell-mell to safety, all for the sake of setting up a jump scare or gruesome demise to move the plot forward. It is lazy, boring screenwriting, and unfortunately that is what primarily drives the newest version of Pet Sematary. A remake of a 1989 film based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, and directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, Pet Sematary is a dull, mindless snooze-fest with no meaty thematic material and a lack of any serious scares.
The movie follows Louis Creed (Jason Clarke), a doctor who has recently moved his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) and two kids, Ellie (Jete Laurence) and Gage (portrayed by twins Hugo and Lucas Lavoie), to the small town of Ludlow, Maine. They have either the world’s worst or best real estate agent (depending on how you view things) because their new home sits not only adjacent to a busy highway frequented by roaring semi-trucks (great for the kids, right?), but backs up on acres of sinister swamp lands. Friendly neighbor Jud Crandall (John Lithgow) informs the new family of the cemetery back in the woods where locals have been burying their deceased beloved animals for decades (which for some reason involves wacky parades with animal masks, and the Creeds don’t find this suspicious at all). It isn’t long before the family cat, Church, is found pancaked on the side of the highway (courtesy of the aforementioned semi-trucks), and Jud decides to help Louis out by taking him and the dead kitty to an ancient burial ground far beyond the Pet Sematary for…reasons. Lo and behold, Church returns, but a bit more distempered than before.
All of this transpires alongside some other random plot threads that vaguely justify character motivations for a boring first half of the film. When things start to pick up is when real tragedy strikes the Creed family. Normally I avoid spoiling key plot points in a review, so if you truly are dead set on viewing this train-wreck of a film (and haven’t seen the original or read the book), then go no further. However, to fully explain why Pet Sematary fails as a horror film, I must ruin the major plot twist in the remake. I don’t deserve all the blame, though, because the second trailer for the movie ALSO SHOWED THE TWIST. Seriously. Way to go Paramount Pictures marketing team.
In the original Pet Sematary, Gage (the younger child) is the one killed in a tragic accident and brought back to life. In this version, the directors pull a bait-and-switch and it is Ellie who meets her untimely demise on the road. Louis, emotionally devastated, buries Ellie in the cursed ground against the advisement of Jud, and she returns with a pallid complexion and malevolent intentions.
Now, after this point I actually enjoyed about 15-20 minutes of the film that played out like a demented version of Weekend at Bernie’s. Ellie (being older than Gage in the original film) is aware of the transformation she has undergone, and she engages in some spooky conversations about life, death, and the beyond with Louis while he copes with trying to acclimate his zombie daughter back to the land of the living. There was a lot of potential to explore themes of the afterlife, mortality, and how loss affects the family unit, but all of this is quickly scrapped in favor of a final act that plays out like any old slasher flick. Ellie quickly decides she needs to brutally dispatch of the souls around her, again, because…reasons (or the plot demands it), and all hell breaks loose. Except none of it is really that scary or gory, and the ending (which I won’t ruin) doesn’t really leave the audience with anything to critically think about.
I couldn’t help but compare Pet Sematary to last year’s stellar horror film Hereditary. Not just because Hereditary was so much better, but because it grappled with similar themes of grief and tragedy disturbing a family and avoided the conventional happy conclusion. Pet Sematary tries to do some of this but fails because the characters are one-dimensional and lack proper motivation, the scares are cheap, predictable, and lackluster, and the plot is focused on delivering the next grisly set-up rather than pausing to critically delve into the human pathos. This is partially due to the film dropping some of the exposition in King’s novel that explains why the characters make the decisions that they do (Jud, for example, feels indebted to Louis in the book for saving his wife’s life), but plot changes aside, the real problem is that the writers, directors, and producers dug up the corpse of a not-so-amazing aged movie, slapped some modern trappings on it, and made it dance for the audience without ever bothering to inject real life into the screenplay. With regards to whether or not they should have remade Pet Sematary at all, I quote Jud Crandall: sometimes, dead is better.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Part of the journey is the end. And for the 11-year, 22 movie spanning behemoth of a franchise that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), that end (for now) has arrived in Avengers: Endgame. Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, who previously helmed the critically and commercially successful MCU films Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War, and Avengers: Infinity War, Endgame promises to deliver a satisfying blockbuster conclusion to the Avengers saga. And boy, does it deliver.
Full disclosure of conflicts of interest, I am a massive fan of both the Marvel characters and the MCU films, which probably biases my objective view of Endgame. But in many ways, Endgame is a movie that defies the film review process and arbitrary rating systems. While one can still tease apart things like cinematography, acting, and plot narrative, the reality is this series has transcended conventional cinematic metrics and is focused on creating an emotional climax that services the expectations of the loyal fans who have dutifully sat through every origin story, every alien invasion, and every superhero landing. In short, either you’re on board with the Marvel universe by now or you aren’t.
Endgame picks up immediately where Infinity War left off. The intergalactic despot Thanos, voiced (and played via motion capture) by Josh Brolin with as much towering menacing as he brought to the previous film, has collected all the Infinity Stones and snapped half the universe’s population into dust. What remains of the Avengers and their allies, broken and defeated, must cope with recovering in their new reality and devise a way to solve the crisis Thanos has left in his wake. That solution appears in the form of Scott Lang, AKA Ant-Man, played by Paul Rudd, whose knowledge of the mysterious Quantum Realm and its time warping capabilities offers the Avengers a chance to reclaim the Stones and reverse the Mad Titan’s rampage. That’s all of the plot I will reveal, but suffice to say what transpires over the ~3 hour running time of Endgame is a phenomenal crowning achievement for the Russo brothers, Kevin Feige (the producer behind the MCU), and the entire cast that has embodied these characters on the big screen for over a decade.
If Infinity War was an event driven film, with massive battle set pieces dominating over extended dialogue scenes, then Endgame is a character driven film, focused primarily on the original Avengers and the story arcs that have brought them to this point. That is not to say it is devoid of action, Endgame has that in spades, but the film centers on the heroes, prominently Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), and how they must grapple with their inner turmoil and unresolved conflicts in order to bring peace not only to themselves, but the trillions of souls they failed to defend. Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner deliver peak performances as Black Widow and Hawkeye, surpassing many of the ways in which they were underutilized in previous Avengers outings. Chris Hemsworth and Mark Ruffalo also get their time to shine as Thor and Bruce Banner/Hulk respectively, although some fans may be taken aback by how the Russo brothers chose to portray them. I, for one, prefer when we see beloved characters evolve and change rather than remain stagnant, and Endgame spends a significant portion of time reflecting on how those changes have come about in the course of the MCU.
What makes Endgame so special is how it harkens back to plot threads and defining moments of all the previous Marvel films. It’s a soaring, carefully crafted love letter to the devoted fans who will recognize all the subtle and not-so-subtle call backs and references, but it never feels cheap or pandering. Endgame isn’t just a walk down memory lane; it is a poetic reflection on what has come before, while still moving into new and fresh territory to steam forward to a resounding conclusion. This separates Endgame drastically from the rest of the MCU as well. While previous films sometimes felt like stepping stones to the next big headliner, the story of Endgame has a ring of finality to it, both rewarding and bittersweet. In many ways, Endgame is the most comic-book inspired Marvel film to date, with mind boggling, off the wall scenes and jaw dropping sequences that look like they should be splashed across a two-page panel. It’s a far different tone from the near-future, almost realistic military tech plot of the original Iron Man (2008), but it still embodies all the wit, escapism, and charm that Iron Man used to launch the series.
The Marvel movies have tackled dozens of complex themes belied by their colorful and sometimes campy exterior over the course of their run: the double-edged swords of scientific advancement and the military industrial complex (The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man films), the dangers of a surveillance state (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), reconciling national heritage with an imperialistic past (Thor films), weighing the pros and cons of interventionism and the responsibility of those wielding power (Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War). However, at their heart and soul, their staying power has always been their devotion to characters and the very real traumas and struggles they face. Many writers more eloquent than me paid tribute to Stan Lee, one of the titans behind the characters of Marvel comics, after his death last year, and reflected on the lasting popularity of his stories after so many decades. These heroes, though their powers elevate them to the level of mythological gods (some literally), still face everyday problems and personal failings. They experience love, loss, triumphs and tribulations, and are flawed but relatable beings who still chose to stand for what is right. Endgame reminds us that we all must cope with failure to become better versions of ourselves, all while paying tribute to the larger-than-life characters of Captain America, Iron Man, and all the Avengers who have inspired generations.
I still remember going to see Iron Man in theaters with my friends when it premiered. Over the course of this movie franchise, I have graduated high school, gone to college, and now am working on a graduate degree. I’ve gained and lost friends, changed jobs, moved across the world, and just as these movies have grown and altered over the years, the audience has grown with them. So, if you’ve loved the MCU, whether your favorite hero is Iron Man or Scarlet Witch or Black Panther, I guarantee you’ll love the send off in Endgame. You’ll laugh, you’ll cheer, you’ll probably even cry a bit. And while this may not be the final film to enter the Marvel catalogue, it is a closing chapter on an era in cinema not likely to be repeated anytime soon.
Likewise, as the academic year draws to a close, I hope you’ve enjoyed these reviews (even if you didn’t always agree with them) as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. Movies connect us to the greater human experience, the timeless art of storytelling, and for me few film series have exemplified that goal more than the MCU. So, go out and watch more great movies this summer, and to borrow Stan Lee’s classic sign off, Excelsior!