‘Don’t Worry Darling’ – Well, Actually, You Probably Should

Going into “Don’t Worry Darling,” I wondered if the hype for this film had inadvertently hurt it. This is the second directorial feature from Olivia Wilde whose first film, “Booksmart,” was one of my favorites of 2019, and people like myself became ever so excited to see what film she would tackle next. It also features quite the cast with Florence Pugh, Harry Styles, Chris Pine and Nick Kroll among others, and the trailers have shown it to have a very striking look. In recent months, the behind-the-scenes stories have taken an annoying precedence over everything else such as Wilde’s relationship with Styles which started during production, or the on-set conflicts between her and Pugh which led to what was allegedly quite the screaming match. It also had the added pressure of being promoted as a serious Oscar contender and raising everyone’s that high can ultimately lead to an inescapable disappointment even if the end result is not bad.

Well, “Don’t Worry Darling” has now arrived at movie theaters everywhere, and this allowed me to watch the film outside of all its gossip and with a full audience in attendance, For the record, I think Wilde is still quite the director as she gives the proceedings a beautiful visual look thanks in part to cinematographer Matthew Libatique, the music score by John Powell is unlike others he has given us in the past and is quite effective, and there are many strong performances to be found here throughout. But when all is said and done, Wilde and her fellow filmmakers have given us a film with a story which is old, old, old. Despite everyone’s best efforts, the plot here represents a path which has been walked and trodden down far too many times.

As the film opens, we are taken back to the 1950’s where a several married couples are enjoying an evening of endless fun and drunken games in their hometown of Victory, California. Among them is Alice (Florence Pugh) and Jack Chambers (Harry Styles) who love one another to such an infinite degree as a certain scene at the dinner table will show you. As Jack gets into his car to drive to work, we see the other husbands doing the same and at the exact same time. It should go without saying how this is the first sign of things being too good to be true. While the husbands work their butts off at work, their wives stay at home either taking care of the kids or preparing the best dinner anyone could ever hope to eat, assuming it was not accidentally burnt to a crisp. Everything seems to be going in unison, and it’s only a matter of time when someone upsets the balance of things.

For Alice, it doesn’t take all that long before she realizes something is amiss. One day she cooks eggs and bacon for her husband and discovers some of the eggs are hollow. She notices a plane crashing into the mountains while others claim complete ignorance. Like all the other husbands, Jack never tells her exactly what he does for a living. And yes, there is that one neighbor who acts like Kevin McCarthy in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” or Crazy Ralph in “Friday the 13th” as she tells anyone who is listening, “We’re being lied to! Don’t you see?” Of course, not enough people bother to listen to such cryptic warnings until it is too late.

By this description, it should be plainly obvious as to where “Don’t Worry Darling” is going, and is painful for me to write that Wilde is unable to bring anything new or fresh to the material. A friend of mine has compared it to M. Nigh Shyamalan’s “The Village,” and I don’t blame him. For me, it is a combination of “The Village” and Cameron Crowe’s “Vanilla Sky” as the revelations characters make here are never the least bit surprising, and the line between what’s real and what is not is stunningly lackluster. I even kept waiting for one or more characters to throw up their arms and scream out loud, “TECH SUPPORT!” No such luck though.

Heck, “Don’t Worry Darling” even reminded me of season eight episode of “The Simpsons” entitled “You Only Move Twice” in which Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie leave Springfield and move to the all-too perfect town of Cypress Rock. Homer gets to work for a surprisingly sympathetic boss named Hank Scorpio who is later revealed to be a supervillain bent on creating a doomsday device. Of course, this is all lost on Homer who barely registers the chaos Hank is wreaking on the world. Then again, who wants to quickly admit the perfect world they live in is not all that perfect?

Things become even more obvious as we get to know the Hank Scorpio of this movie, Frank, played by the always terrific Chris Pine. Frank is the founder of this utopia everyone lives in called the Victory Project, and he demands everyone’s loyalty in the most passive-aggressive way. But while he encourages the wives not to question their husbands’ work and to keep their distance from the project’s headquarters, he’s also gleefully daring them, Alice in particular, to get to the truth about the project just to see if they possibly convince anyone else of it.

Even as the movie staggers through the bleeding obvious, there was one thing which kept me engrossed from start to finish: the performance of Florence Pugh. She is dynamite here as Alice and so emotionally raw that it was impossible to take my eyes off of her. Even if the chemistry between her and Harry Styles, who is good but not great here, is a bit lacking, she makes up for it and helps elevate this material to a level it doesn’t deserve to be at. I also loved the scene between her and Pine at the dinner table in which they essentially play a mental chess match with one another as Alice tries to make everyone see through the web of lies they are caught up in.

It really sucks to say “Don’t Worry Darling” will forever be upstaged by its behind-the-scenes stories as they now prove to be far more interesting than what unfolds here on the silver screen. Again, Wilde is not a bad director, and I know she will rebound from this. While the hype machine may have gone into overload on this cinematic endeavor, it still does not change the fact that this is a case of “been there, done that.”

* * out of * * * *

‘Stepfather III’ – A Truly Pathetic Horror Sequel

It is only with a surprising amount of free time that I found myself watching “Stepfather III.” Its reputation is so bad that it did not even merit a theatrical release. Yes, it was made for television, but it looks too cheap even for Cinemax. Even Terry O’Quinn, who was so terrifying as Jerry Blake in the previous “Stepfather” movies, bailed on this one. Still, curiosity overtook me as I sat down to see how Jerry’s quest for the perfect family could continue even after being stabbed more times than any mortal being can possibly endure. Plus, it was free to watch on IMDB.

When “Stepfather III” begins, Jerry (played here by Robert Wightman) has already escaped the psychiatric institution in Puget Sound, Washington. This is the same place he was imprisoned in and escaped at the start of “Stepfather II,” and it makes me wonder why anyone would bother sending him back there after he stabbed a psychiatrist who thought he was making progress with him. Why not just send him to prison? Well, in horror movies like this, everyone gets a second chance, and then a third, and then a fourth. Just like Sideshow Bob from “The Simpsons,” there are idiots out there willing to give him a free pass.

Whatever the case, the filmmakers decided to skip over the escape part and cut straight to the chase. Jerry meets up with a back-alley plastic surgeon (played every so shamelessly by Mario Roccuzzo) who proceeds to alter his face while smoking an endless number of cigarettes. Yes, this is how sterile he keeps his workplace. This leads to one of the few interesting moments as director Guy Magar ended up filming an actual plastic surgery procedure which is more unnerving than what any makeup effects professional could have come up with. And again, this sequel has a ridiculously small budget, so filming the real thing must have saved Magar a few pennies.

With his new face, Jerry does what some would do to keep from going bankrupt due to high medical costs; he kills the doctor. Hey, medical insurance in America doesn’t cover everything. Besides, some companies would say being psychotic is a pre-existing condition.

Yes, yes, I know, this is a back-alley doctor who doesn’t deal in paperwork, but let me have some fun here.

Anyway, Jerry makes his way to Deer View, California where he lives under the alias of Keith Grant and works at a plant nursery. This makes sense as he has previously shown just how good he is with gardening tools and other sharp instruments. It’s also no surprise to see how good he is with a shovel.

While at a church dance where he dresses up as the Easter bunny, Keith ends up meeting Christine Davis (Priscilla Barnes), a divorced school principal with a son who is psychosomatically paralyzed. Surprise, surprise, the two quickly fall in love and get married because, you know, why wait in a movie like this? As you can imagine, there is a jealous ex-boyfriend who is quite possessive of Christine, and Christine’s son is busy doing detective work because kids are smarter than we think and are always cutting through their parents’ bullshit.

If there is an interesting angle in this dreaded “Stepfather” sequel, it’s that the story has a bit of a twist. Keith ends up meeting the widow Jennifer Ashley (Season Hubley) who has just moved into town with her son, and he begins courting her. So instead of one potential bride to start a family with, there is another for him to consider. From there, this sequel could have turned into a far more suspenseful motion picture as you wonder which lady will live and die. It’s like a demonic season of “The Bachelor” where a contestant gets a knife in the heart instead of a rose, or perhaps this more resembles one of the many twisted reality shows which aired on Fox back in the 1990’s.

Whatever the case, “Stepfather III” is a horrible waste of time for everyone involved and people like me who made the mistake of watching it. Moreover, this movie drags its way to a pitiful conclusion which utilizes a wood chipper in a way nowhere as memorable as what the Coen brothers did with one in “Fargo.” At least, the filmmakers here gave Jerry/Keith a more permanent conclusion. While he may have survived a dozen knife wounds, I imagine he has as much luck of being put back together as Humpty Dumpty ever did.

Speaking of dragging, this sequel has a running time of almost two hours. Whereas the original “Stepfather” ran a mere 89 minutes and “Stepfather II” is only 93 minutes long, someone decided they could get away with adding another 20 to 30 minutes of footage. On top of “Stepfather III” being boring and terribly made, it feels like it lasts forever. Towards the end, I couldn’t care less about who lived or died. I just wanted this awfulness to be over and done with.

In regards to Robert Wightman, I don’t know whether to pity him or feel sorry for him. Stepping into a role which O’Quinn handled ever so brilliantly was never going to be an easy feat, and Dylan Walsh didn’t have it any better when he starred in the inevitable “Stepfather” remake. O’Quinn brought both a real pathos and a humanity to Jerry Blake, and this made the character all the more frightening. While Wightman does get Jerry’s old-fashioned mannerisms down well, and lord knows this man is far too old-fashioned and polite on the outside, he is unable to make the character the least bit terrifying. In fact, he comes off looking quite harmless even after impaling a man with a rusty shovel.

What else? The music score sounds like it was done on one of those Casio pianos from the 1980’s (understandably, this movie could not afford any orchestra), the acting is terrible, the story is mostly predictable as we have been down this road before, the cinematography particularly at the beginning is bizarre, and the bloody effects look even worse than what Bob and Harvey Weinstein forced Jeff Burr to add to “Stepfather II,” and those efforts looked ridiculously fake.

While I’m at it, what are Priscilla Barnes and Season Hubley doing in this trash? Barnes played a Bond woman in “Licence to Kill,” Rob Zombie made great use of her in “The Devil’s Rejects,” and she was on “Three’s Company” for crying out loud! As for Hubley, she had an unforgettable scene opposite her then-husband Kurt Russell in “Escape From New York,” and she held her own opposite George C. Scott in Paul Schrader’s “Hardcore.” Surely their agents could have gotten them something better than this dreck.

Look, I did not expect much of anything from “Stepfather III” as any movie in this series lacking Terry O’Quinn is just asking for a severe round of bitch slapping. But still, I have seen many horror movies with worse acting and writing, and they proved to be far more entertaining and scarier than this one. Was anyone involved in this sequel’s making the least bit interested in making something the least bit thrilling, or were they more interested in making a quick buck? All we get here is a pathetic excuse of a motion picture which still has not gotten a DVD or Blu-ray release in America. I bet even Shout Factory doesn’t want to touch this one.

Okay, I have wasted enough time on this one.

½* out of * * * *

‘Filmworker’ Serves as a Love Letter to Stanley Kubrick’s Right-Hand Man

Filmworker poster

It has been almost 20 years since Stanley Kubrick passed away, but his presence is still deeply felt among cinephiles. Some may say this is because “2001: A Space Odyssey” is being re-released in honor of its 50th anniversary, but it goes much further than that. Kubrick had a singular vision, and stories of his directorial methods, such as getting an actor to do dozens upon dozens of takes of a single scene, remain legendary as only a handful of filmmakers could have gotten away with this. And as the documentary “Room 237” showed, people continue to share their interpretations of “The Shining” and of the meanings they believe certain images in it have. Indeed, Kubrick’s films had a large degree of ambiguity in them, and watching them just once is never enough.

But just when you thought you had heard every story about Kubrick, along comes Tony Zierra’s documentary “Filmworker” which looks at the life and times of Kubrick’s right-hand man, Leon Vitali. As an actor, he worked a lot in British television, but after appearing in Kubrick’s film “Barry Lyndon,” he dedicated his life to helping the famed director any which way he could. What results is a movie about working with such a meticulous human being, and of the overall effects it had on Vitali to where it is shocking to see he is still above ground.

“Filmworker” starts with a look at Vitali’s early life as an actor, and it shows how o often he worked in British television and movies to where he was never ever lacking for a job, a position I and my actor friends get to enjoy at some point in this lifetime. Then he got the role of Lord Bullingdon in “Barry Lyndon,” and this introduced the actor to the Kubrick life he was quick to embrace. In a scene where Ryan O’Neal ends up punching Vitali in the back, O’Neal says Kubrick told him, “You’re not hitting him hard enough.” From there, they did the scene 30 more times, and it served as Vitali’s introduction to Kubrick’s obsessive nature in getting things just right down to the smallest of details.

It is very easy to see why Vitali became such a die-hard Kubrick fan after he watched “2001” and “A Clockwork Orange.” Both films reflected a singular vision no other director could have conjured, and Vitali remarked how “2001” dared to have no dialogue in its first 20 minutes, something which seems unthinkable in this day and age. Following their collaboration on “Barry Lyndon,” Kubrick sent him a copy of Stephen King’s “The Shining” to see if it would be worth turning into a movie. Once Vitali told Kubrick it was, the director brought him on so he could search for the perfect child actor to play Danny Torrance. From there, he abandoned his acting career and dedicated his life to Kubrick all the way through his last movie, “Eyes Wide Shut.”

Vitali ended up doing just about every kind of job for Kubrick including casting director, acting coach, location scout, sound engineer and color corrector to name a few. Upon Kubrick’s passing, he became the only person to restore his films. To say he dedicated his life to Kubrick’s work would be the understatement of the millennium. We watch as he works tirelessly to get all the details right, and we see the toll it takes on him and his body. He speaks of how he worked two 36-hour shifts on one project and of how he slept on the floor to catch a two-hour nap while fully dressed so that, when he woke up, he could get right back to work.

Watching “Filmworker,” I wasn’t always sure if I should thank Vitali for all the work he has done or pity him. Some describe him as Igor to Kubrick’s Dr. Frankenstein. I prefer to see him as Waylon Smithers to Kubrick’s Mr. Burns. This man gave up a thriving acting career to work for the director of “Dr. Strangeglove,” and their relationship certainly had a bit of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to it. Vitali shows us the note Kubrick wrote to him in thanks for his work on “Barry Lyndon,” and he remarks at how his first handshake with the filmmaker proved to be “very warm.” But once they began working on “Full Metal Jacket,” Vitali admitted he came to see another side of Kubrick, one which few others got to see up close.

Many like to talk about the Stanley Kubrick they met and of how he was so different compared to all the rumors which were circulating throughout Hollywood about him, but Vitali makes it abundantly clear how he knew Kubrick in a way no one else could. At one point, he even describes Kubrick as the film industry’s equivalent to Gordon Ramsey, the chef from “Hell’s Kitchen” and a man who is always in serious need of anger management classes. People keep asking Vitali how he handled Kubrick, but he responds to this by saying he never handled him but instead handled himself so that he could exist in Kubrick’s world.

Actors like Matthew Modine, Danny Lloyd and the late R. Lee Ermey are interviewed at length here, and they have great stories to share about both Kubrick and Vitali. Lloyd and Ermey credit Vitali for helping them with their performances in a way no one else could, and Modine remarks at how selfless Vitali is when it comes to his work for Kubrick. Modine is just one of several individuals who freely admit they are too selfish to dedicate their lives to Kubrick the way Vitali did. O’Neal goes out of his way to say he “fled” the set of “Barry Lyndon” once his work there was done as he was terrified of being subjected to reshoots.

Indeed, the level of dedication Vitali gives Kubrick is both commendable and scary. You also have to feel for him as he suffers under the heavy hand of Warner Brothers while working to give Kubrick’s films the attention they deserved. I remember when the first DVD’s of his work came out and how bad they were, and Vitali spent his precious time getting the color just right. Hearing how Kubrick got incensed if the green was off reminded me of Robin Williams in “One Hour Photo” when his character of Sy went off at a repairman for not taking a difference of three points in color all that seriously. If you are passionate enough about something, you will see it through to the very last detail.

As you can imagine, there is a good deal of trivia about Kubrick on display here. Among the most interesting bits come from Ermey who played Gunnery Sargent Hartman in “Full Metal Jacket” as he discusses how he went about getting actors for the movie, and it is eerie to see him describe what the movie did for his career and of how he has led a great life as it was only a few weeks ago he died due to complications from pneumonia. We also get to hear from Tim Colceri who was originally cast as Hartman before being replaced by Ermey. He ended up playing the doorgunner who shoots away at any and every Vietnamese individual regardless of whether or not they are the “enemy.” Watching Colceri’s face as he reflects on the role he could have had is heartbreaking as his disappointment looks to last a lifetime.

In a lot of ways, “Filmworker” serves as a love letter to Vitali as his work on Kubrick’s films is extraordinary, and we should be thankful for what he has done as this documentary shows how no one else could have preserved the iconic director’s work the way he has. But beyond that, it also acts as a love letter to those who work tirelessly behind the scenes on film sets as they often do not get the respect they deserve. To many, they simply appear as names on a movie’s end credits, and some of those credits move at lightning speed when those movies are shown on the Sundance Channel. But after watching this documentary, we have every reason to thank Vitali for his devotion to Kubrick as, without him, no one could have been able to give “Eyes Wide Shut” the release it deserved. But more importantly, it provides Vitali with the happy ending he has long since earned.

While watching “Filmworker,” I was reminded of what Homer Simpson told his family while they watched the end credits for “The Simpsons Movie:”

“A lot of people worked hard on this film, and all they ask is for you to memorize their names!”

This is, of course, completely unrealistic, but when it comes to “Filmworker,” I want to believe such a thing could be possible.

* * * * out of * * * *