Le Samouraï  (1967)

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*. I have two responses to films that I don’t like as much as I’m told I should. The first is to think they’ve been overrated. I use this one when I am in no doubt that I’m right and everyone else (or at least the critical consensus) is wrong. The second response is to throw my hands up and confess that I just don’t get it.
*. I just don’t get Le Samouraï. People whose opinion I respect think that it’s great, and it has quite a passionate following, but even though I’ve tried hard to like it . . .
*. It’s most often said to be a film of pure style. This means it gets a pass for telling a very simple, unconvincing, and unoriginal story, with little dialogue, about a character who remains a complete cipher. All of which I can forgive and issue a pass for. What I can’t abide is just how dull a movie it is.
*. The dullness seems to follow from the style, which is both static and a pose. It’s often praised for its suspense, but I don’t feel any of this. There are a number of quiet, set-piece scenes — the men planting the bug in Jef’s apartment, Jef finding it, the pursuit through the subway system — but I didn’t find these very interesting. They seem to me like scenes that other directors had already done before and done better. If I can say it without seeming flip, there’s a difference between suspense and just dragging a scene out. Melville drags a lot of scenes out in this movie, but doesn’t build much suspense.

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*. When it comes to the look of the film, its supposedly definitive and unmatched evocation of “cool,” I am, again, unimpressed. Aside from that washed-out apartment (Melville: “My dream is to make a color film in black and white”), I didn’t like any of the jarringly theatrical interiors (jarring because they are juxtaposed with realistic street scenes). The nightclub in particular looks tacky and cheap. That this was by design doesn’t help.
*. I don’t even find Jef particularly well dressed in his retro trench coat and fedora. Then again, I don’t find Alain Delon that handsome either. He’s just pretty and incongruous. That’s not cool. It’s more creepy and weird.
*. Another word that often gets applied to this movie is “beauty.” I see even less evidence for this than style or cool. What is beautiful about this film? Some of it looks nice, but that’s as far as I’d go.
*. Does the style mean anything? I can’t see where it does, except as a costume. The silence is also a red herring. To me it simply represents the fact that Jef has nothing to say, because he’s never really thinking of anything. Except his job. It’s not just that he’s solitary and withdrawn, but that his mind has withdrawn as well. And by that I mean it’s shrunk.
*. The most obvious comparison is to Point Blank, which came out the same year and which is also a dream of a gangster film with accentuated style points. But Point Blank sets the hook in you hard right from the start and doesn’t let you go, driving forward like Walker (Lee Marvin) marching down that long hallway, his heels banging out the drum taps of doom. Le Samouraï has none of that momentum, and (I think) even less style.
*. That’s nothing to be ashamed of — there are few films I like as much as Point Blank — but if I’m being totally honest I even prefer a gangster film like Fernando di Leo’s Caliber 9 (1972) to this. At least in that film the characters had some depth and were relatable. As I’ve already noted, I don’t find anything complicated about Jef.

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*. I’m not even sure the movie is coherent thematically. Despite the title and some ersatz epigraph from the Bushido Code (that Melville actually wrote himself), there’s little connection between Jef and a samurai. Roger Ebert: “The quotation and the whole pose of the Costello character are meant to suggest a man who operates according to a rigid code. But as Stanley Kauffmann points out in his review, ‘a samurai did not accept commissions to kill merely for money: honor and ethics were involved.’ Here the honor and ethics seem to be Jef Costello’s loyalty to himself; a samurai was prepared to die for his employer, and Costello is self-employed.”
*. Critics have had to work hard to make the connection, but the best explanation of the title they’ve come up with have to do with Jef being bound for death and the ritualistic nature of his killings. Which, when you think of it, is pretty weak.
*. The main theme is said to be solitude. Jef is the ultimate lone wolf. Only he isn’t. He has a girlfriend (played by Delon’s wife, Nathalie). Or is she his girlfriend? Melville apparently liked the fact that they looked like brother and sister, and we know that she has a boyfriend/lover/john that Jef doesn’t object to. So maybe she’s just a professional alibi. It’s hard to tell.
*. Some, perhaps most, of my inability to get this movie comes down to a matter of temperament. I’m not a fan of the French New Wave. The editing is interesting, but when it’s the most interesting thing about a movie I think there’s a problem. And aside from being interesting, I don’t think there’s much to say about Le Samouraï. It’s not a film I enjoy.

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The Witch (2015)

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*. Did there have to really be a witch? Or witches? Wouldn’t the story have made (more) sense without them?
*. I’m not arguing that writer-director Robert Eggers would have had a better movie if he’d left the actual existence of witches ambiguous, but I’m raising the question because it seems to me the story didn’t require him to come out on one side or the other.
*. For most of the film it’s possible to view the events as being religious delusions brought about by a particular cultural matrix, the stressful conditions the family is coping with (small group dynamics, cabin fever), and Thomasin and Caleb entering puberty. I’ve also seen it suggested (by Mark Kermode, among others) that the very bad things are all a group hallucination, perhaps brought on by eating rotten food, but I think that’s a stretch. In any event, when Eggers shows us the witch, alone, rendering the dead baby and then rising into the night air on her stick, he gives the game away. The witches are real.
*. Settling that question, for better or worse, The Witch goes on to be a very good thriller. It’s wonderfully photographed, lit, and scored, and has a literate script that presents us with real people doing their best, by their lights, to survive a difficult situation. That they live in a demon-haunted world isn’t their fault. This isn’t an idiot plot.

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*. It’s a fresh twist on an old story, but not a totally ground-breaking one. Basically what we have here is the cursed family motif — very popular in franchise horror films of this period like Paranormal Activity, Insidious, and Sinister — transferred to seventeenth-century New England.

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*. Such a simple act of translation implies that The Witch shares common ground with these more contemporary examples of the formula. A couple of these strike me as worth highlighting.
*. In the first place we have the assertion that the devil is real. God? Not so much. William’s family are pious, and rigidly devout in their worship of the Lord and observance of his commandments, but this is something that does them absolutely no good at all. Faith and prayer have no efficacy when it comes to fighting the powers of darkness, which are presented as being far more involved in the affairs of this world. This isn’t so remarkable in stories about modern suburban families, but in Puritan New England it comes as a bit of a shock. I’ve seen hair-splitting analyses of this film that try and square what happens with some brand of theology, but they strike me as unconvincing (Caleb lies about looking for apples and so dies with an apple coming out of his gorge). I guess God didn’t die recently.

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*. The other point to flag is the dark ending. As with several of the other cursed-family franchises I mentioned earlier, the family here is wiped out. I made the point in my review of Sinister 2 how this bleakness marks a real shift in the horror genre in the twenty-first century. For a writer like Stephen King, for example, one of the key focal points for his stories is the nuclear family under threat. The defense of the family has long been a genre staple — just think of all the home-invasion horror movies there have been. But in this new generation of films the family is annihilated, suggesting more of an anger at the family than an anxiety over its vulnerability.
*. As I mentioned with regard to Sinister, it’s hard not to see this as reflecting badly on us. And here, in The Witch, we are again. I mean, this is not a dysfunctional family. Obviously they’re under a lot of stress, but the parents aren’t cruel or abusive and the kids may fight but they also seem to care for each other. But as with all those other horror films we’re left with a bunch of dead bodies on the ground and evil triumphant. Thomasin even seems joyful at her assumption into the night. Clearly there are many among us who feel that the family (meaning the family unit, not this particular family) should just go to hell.

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*. The cast is great. I especially like the worn parents, Kate Dickie and Ralph Ineson. On the commentary track Eggers says Ineson has the greatest voice in Western Civilization and a face “like a Northern Renaissance carving.” Anya Taylor-Joy projects alert innocence. Also wonderful are the little boy and girl, who seem almost like dolls. Which is to say they’re both cute and eerie.

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*. The Billy goat Black Phillip is also good. Apparently he was hard to deal with, but that’s goats. I don’t like goats. I’ve always thought there was something evil about them.
*. I’ve also mucked out a lot of stalls in my time. A lot. The way Thomasin is doing it she’ll be at it all day.
*. Eggers: “Fowler’s not the right breed of dog, but what can you do?” I don’t know. Get the right breed of dog? Or a dog that looks a little more like the right breed of dog?
*. But this is nit-picking. Overall I found this to be a very effective, atmospheric film where the professionalism more than makes up for a low budget and short shooting schedule. It’s amazing what good things can happen when everyone just does their job and the whole point of the project isn’t to rip something (or someone) off.

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The Cage (1947)

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*. I like some experimental films very much. But not this one.
*. As with The Potted Psalm, basically it’s just a catalogue of the usual tricks. Peterson turns the camera at odd angles, or flips it upside-down, or spins it in circles. He reverse the film, or distorts the picture in funhouse-mirror surfaces. He goes out of focus, or crowds in for extreme close-ups. Shots are repeated again and again.
*. None of it adds up to much. There’s a flimsy bit of a story but none of the political or aesthetic messaging of surrealism, which had played all the same visual games twenty years earlier. As far as I can tell there’s no point being made at all.
*. Two items of interest stand out. A man removes his eyeball and we get some shots from its (the eye’s) point of view as it rolls around the floor and gets lost in the city (San Francisco). And out on the street the cast of the film seem to run forward while everything else around them is in reverse motion. This part must have been fun to film. More fun than to watch, I think.
*. The eyeball and the reverse running are the kinds of things that we might label as “concept art.” But while the idea or concept may be interesting, the execution is ineffective. It’s not well done, and after a while we’re left wondering why it’s being done at all.
*. Even though it comes in at only 28 minutes I found this hard to finish watching once. It feels like a student piece, but as a filmmaker Peterson never really graduated to the next level. Today I think his short films have mainly a historical interest.

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The Potted Psalm (1946)

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*. This is a short, experimental film that likely won’t change whatever opinions you might have about such things.
*. I was unimpressed. It’s basically American surrealism, which I don’t think was any different than European surrealism except for being decades later. None of the tricks or effects we see here are anything new. The imagery isn’t interesting, and even the arrangement and rhythm of the editing strikes me as unaccomplished.
*. Things get off to a good start with a really nice rising pan that reveals a cityscape that takes you by surprise. And some of the images that immediately follow have a kind of found poetry feel to them. But then . . .
*. According to the MOMA program notes included with the Kino DVD “The filmmakers [Sidney Peterson and James Broughton] wrote and discarded a dozen scripts during production, and what was finally cut from thousands of feet was a clever melange of visual jokes.”
*. A dozen scripts? Really? What we have are just a series of shots, and I’m not sure their arrangement even makes much difference. And what are the visual jokes? I just see a bunch of techniques that, in typical surrealist fashion, emphasize irrational elements and distortions of the human form. Bodies are made elastic in various ways, or appear without heads, or wearing masks.
*. Since none of it holds together as telling a coherent story (or stories) we are left to admire isolated passages. I can’t discern any political, emotional, or thematic coherence to it, and it seems to me you have to make an effort to erase your film of all such meaning or significance. I mean, some of the images here are suggestive, but that’s about it.
*. About the only item of interest is the subjective point of view. This may be what is being symbolized by the food imagery and the keys. Peterson’s camera eye is a window, or a mouth, or a doorway, forever being redirected (feet in particular draw its attention) and taking things in. The shots of the beer and cigarettes being consumed by the camera/viewer directly reference this. In The Cage he would take things a step further by making the camera a free-wheeling eyeball.
*. That’s the most I can make out of it, anyway. Perhaps it has something to say about death, since we begin and end in a graveyard and the image of a small animal’s desiccated body is returned to several times, but beyond that I couldn’t tell you anything. Even the title remains unclear, and is probably just an idle play on words. In 1946 none of this was really avant grade, and clearly it wasn’t leading anywhere.

Devil in Miss Jones (1973)

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*. I don’t think Devil in Miss Jones (the title has no definite article) is a great movie, but it may be the greatest porn movie ever made. It really transcends the genre, with imagination, professional workmanship, and a riveting lead performance. But how unlikely was this?
*. Incredibly unlikely. Indeed, that Devil in Miss Jones turned out so well is one of the most unlikely things in the entire history of film. I’ll try to explain what I mean.
*. In the first place, it followed hard on the heels of the mainstream success of Deep Throat, the movie that really inaugurated “porno chic” or the Golden Age of Porn. But Deep Throat was a total piece of shit, no doubt about it. And since movies, and porn movies in particular, usually don’t want to mess with success, what incentive was there to do any better? None at all.
*. Second: Not only did it come after Deep Throat, but it was written and directed by the same auteur who wrote and directed that film, Gerard Damiano. So in addition to the aforementioned inertia (not wanting to mess with a successful formula) we also have the same creative mind at work. So why would anyone expect anything different?
*. Third: Most porn movies rise or fall on the strength of their stars. Those are the girls who are put on the poster or the box cover. But the woman who was going to be the star of this film backed out at the last minute, leaving Damiano to cast the crew’s cook, Georgina Spelvin, as Justine Jones. At the time Jones was 36 years old, which is old enough by Hollywood standards, and ancient for porn (at least before the increased prevalence of cosmetic surgery and the advent of MILF porn). Spelvin had been on stage as a chorus girl, and appeared uncredited in a handful of exploitation flicks, but she was hardly an “accomplished actress” (as she is described by the narrator of the BBC series Pornography: The Secret History of Civilisation). She’d never had a lead role or done hardcore. She was not conventionally beautiful and at one point the Teacher (Harry Reems) even evaluates her and finds her body merely “practical,” without the roundness most men desire.
*. Given all this one could be forgiven for betting that Devil in Miss Jones was going to be not just another piece of shit, but an even worse piece of shit than Deep Throat. But that’s not what happened at all.
*. Instead of being more of the same, and less, Devil in Miss Jones moves light years beyond Deep Throat into all new porn territory.
*. It’s a dark film with passages of black humour but none of the slapstick of Deep Throat. I can imagine the raincoaters wondering what the hell was going on as they sat through over ten minutes of prologue before Justine gets her chance to be consumed by lust. The suicide is totally asexual and downbeat. But once the spark is lit, look out.

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*. If the sexless suicide prologue wasn’t enough to tell you that things had changed, the editing and camera work would give the game away. We’re in a different world here. Someone has put some thought into all this. Note how, immediately after her suicide, we don’t see Justine’s face until we’re into her interview with Mr. Abaca. Since we haven’t heard her voice in the opening scene, we can’t be sure who it is we’re seeing walk into this room. We don’t expect it to be the same woman we just saw kill herself, and if we do we might think that this is a flashback. But the dead don’t know they’re dead (or so we’ve been told), so her fate, like her face, is only gradually revealed.
*. Which brings us to Georgina Spelvin. She’s on fire here, a knockout with striking feline features and a non-stop dirty mouth (Damiano just told her to keep talking until the scenes cut, so all of the dirty talk was improvised). She looks terrific, and dives right in to a surprising amount of transgressive sex (anal is the showcase in this movie, and at one point Justine even gives herself an enema in the bathtub). I mean, as for what she’s doing with that snake . . . well, all I can say it that it’s not my thing, and that I hope they were both all right after.

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*. If the raincoaters were mystified by the slow beginning I’m sure they left in a daze after the ending. But can one imagine a more fitting end to a porn film than a vision of hell as a state of eternal sexual frustration and unsatisfied desire? I hope Justine is into edging. It’s an unforgettable screen moment, brilliant in its originality and ambiguity. That’s Damiano himself (credited as Albert Gork) as the Man in the Cell — though is he a man, and is that a cell?
*. Maybe he’s the devil himself, just there to watch, like the Jigsaw Killer. I’m still not sure what he’s going on about and I think what he says probably means different things to different people. In any event, I love it that Justine isn’t paying any attention to him. This is closer to my own image of hell: two obsessed people talking at each other with neither of them listening to what the other is saying.
*. A lot of people don’t consider this to be a porn movie, instead insisting on its art-house status. I don’t think this is right. You can’t take the sex out of it. Rather, the sex is the element that this vision of hell is immersed in. “The way is to the destructive element submit yourself,” Conrad has one of his characters say. Devil in Miss Jones shows a woman who is engulfed in that element, using her hands and her feet, and her mouth and other orifices, to keep herself afloat. A woman who dies falls into a dream, like a woman who falls into the sea . . .

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The Purge: Election Year (2016)

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*. In my notes on The Expendables 3 the only defence I could offer for watching such a movie was that I’d seen the first two and thought I had to see things through to the end. I blamed inertia. I liked the first two Purge movies (The Purge and The Purge: Anarchy) rather more than the Expendables franchise, but still didn’t feel particularly drawn to this outing. And yet, here I am. And here we are.
*. The DVD for this one has a blurb calling it “the best Purge film yet.” I’m not impressed by that. I think it’s the worst of the Purge movies, and that by some margin. I thought this movie was total garbage. It started off bad and just kept getting worse as it went along.
*. Where the earlier films were dystopic action films with heavy political subtexts, this one is a political film with a lot of perfunctory and (by now) familiar action sequences.
*. The politics are obvious and delivered without any subtlety. The theme is class war, which might be mistaken for race war. The racial angle, however, is handled in an even more clumsy manner than the politics. The heroic, self-sacrificing black store owner Joe Dixon is given a bunch of terrible lines. Surrounded by a gang of crips he remarks “There are a whole bunch of Negros coming this way, and we’re looking like a big ol’ bucket of fried chicken.” Ugh. Then, defending the senator and her bodyguard from the (black) underground: “I ain’t gonna let y’all shoot these white folks. These are our white people.” That’s just awful.
*. Just from this alone I’d call this a terrible script. But there’s even more wrong with it. The basic outline of the story is predictable in all its essential plot points: the senator’s betrayal, the uniting of the two plot strands when the senator falls in with the convenience store gang, the senator’s capture, the team getting in touch with the underground, the senator’s rescue. You probably had all this figured out in the first ten minutes.

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*. There are some swerves within this basic outline, however, that struck me as bizarre. For one thing, the story wastes a lot of time introducing characters that are later disposed of in a surprisingly casual manner. I’m thinking in particular of the Candy Girls, but also Rondo (the man cuffed in the triage van), and the Russian Purgers dressed up like American historical figures. That last case might be the most surprising of all, since the costumes are one of the few places where this series shows any originality, and Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty were very prominent in the advertising and promotion for the movie. But they’re only on screen for a few minutes.
*. All the usual improbabilities with the Purge movies are back, but I thought this one made even less sense. Why were the Candy Girls so set on breaking into a store that they knew was defended by at least a couple of guys who were armed to the teeth and would have the drop on them? Why is the Purge so popular with voters when it looks like the vast majority of people just want to survive the night? Does it stand to reason that foreigners would be allowed into the country for the Purge? And finally why are the New Fathers no longer just a white economic elite but now a bunch of slavering fundamentalist maniacs? How could such a bunch of whackos run any kind of country?
*. I guess one response to that would be Donald Trump. This movie came out during the 2016 U.S. presidential season and it was commonly seen as a commentary on what was happening: with the NFFA being a radical version of the Republican party and Senator Charlie Roan being Hillary Clinton. Marcos is a Mexican immigrant with a criminal past who nevertheless is a hero. When Trump announced that his campaign slogan for 2020 would be “Keep America Great,” it was noticed that this was the same as the ad line for this movie. I guess all of this works, though like everything else about the movie it’s a very crude message, crudely made.
*. The series keeps doing great box office so I expect we’ll see more of them. I don’t think writer-director James DeMonaco, who has helmed each of the first three movies, wants to do another, which might allow for some fresh ideas. From the final seconds of this one it seems as though The Purge: Civil War is next up. I don’t think things can get any worse . . .

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Beyond the Reach (2014)

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*. Did you really think Gordon Gekko had redeemed himself? I know he seemed to have turned the page in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, but this is Michael Douglas we’re talking about and capitalism may sell out to China, but it doesn’t change its spots.
*. John Madec in this film is another corporate titan betraying the American dream to China, which makes him a familiar twenty-first century stereotype. Obviously this was a major political anxiety of the time, and played no small part in the election of Donald Trump. What’s interesting is that the Chinese are not the villains in these stories, but rather American businessmen who sell out. For the Chinese it’s just business. For people like Madec it’s akin to treason.
*. Beyond the Reach is not a very interesting movie. In the first place, it’s nothing new. It’s an updating of a movie-of-the-week called Savages (1974), which was in turn based on a YA (!) novel titled Deathwatch (1972). Going back further, it’s The Most Dangerous Game in the desert.
*. The direction by Jean-Baptiste Léonetti is too solemn and plodding. For an action-suspense film it never really builds, and we just start to feel like we’re suffering along with Ben. That sunburn was painful just to look at, as bad sunburns often are.
*. I think the biggest problem though is the character of Madec. Michael Douglas is fine, but he seems unsure of what was expected of him. In many ways he’s a comic figure, what with his bespoke SUV, hunting rifle, and cappuccino by the campfire, but this has the effect of making him less threatening. Is he even a real hunter? Does he take some sadistic pleasure in hunting Ben? Is he a corporate psychopath? There’s nothing wrong with hamming such a role up (Leslie Banks did it marvellously in The Most Dangerous Game), but the character still has to have some basic consistency and integrity. Madec ping-pongs back and forth between being an evil genius and a goof.
*. Jeremy Irvine is bland and buff as Ben, and doesn’t really give Douglas anyone to play against. There is a girlfriend who doesn’t play any role in the story at all (meaning if you left her out of the film, what difference would it make?). Ronny Cox rounds out the cast in a strangely ambiguous role as sheriff. Not strange and ambiguous, but strangely ambiguous. It’s left unclear to what extent, if any, he was in cahoots with Madec. And why would the movie want to leave this up in the air?
*. The score by Dickon Hinchliffe sounds like 28 Days Later doesn’t it? That’s what I kept hearing.
*. What a hopeless ending. They begin and end with dreams that foreshadow the action, and this had me shaking my head. It also made me wonder if the entire coda was a dream, as it made no sense whatsoever. Madec’s escape was preposterous, and his personally hunting Ben down in Colorado even more so. Could they not think of any other way to wrap things up? Because when you slap an ending like this on to a movie it’s much worse than having no ending at all.
*. It’s interesting that both the director and the location manager mention in the making-of featurette that they wanted the desert to look totally alien, like Mars. But surely it’s meant to recall John Ford’s Monument Valley. It is a mythic, not an alien landscape.
*. Well, the locations are nice to look at, and the SUV and rifle are powerful product placement, but the script here is really a mess of parts that don’t fit together, which is actually quite remarkable given how simple and minimalist a story it is. There was potential here for something much better, but I don’t think anyone really knew what they were doing.

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Embedded (2012)

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*. I’ve written before about the way convention very quickly turns into parody. Embedded is a conventional shaky-cam or found-footage horror film, quite recognizably in the Blair Witch Project mold. Instead of a witch, the filmmakers are pursuing a forest creature in the woods of Montana (actually British Columbia, with Revelstoke standing in as the town).
*. The set-up involves a television news team (cameraman and reporter) interviewing various locals about all the disappearances and people gettin’ “ripped apart somethin’ awful.” Could it be a pack of wolves? A grizzly? Or somethin’ else?

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*. Is this parody? Jason Simpson plays a farmer who seems almost deranged, but then he overplays his part throughout. My favourite scene in the whole film, of a dog being tossed out of the bushes like it’s being shot from a cannon, is very funny.
*. And the sasquatch creature? Are we meant to take him seriously? A man in an ape suit might have been scarier. Apparently director Micheal (that’s how he spells it) Bafaro’s aim was for a combination gorilla-lion-man and he thought it ended up looking pretty cool. I’m not so sure I agree. Does it even have any teeth in its gaping mouth? Whatever you do, don’t pause the playback when he appears. You don’t want to get a good look at him.
*. I’m not sure how the creature manages to get the jump on everyone, even in broad daylight without a lot of trees around. It seems like it would be pretty easy to get a shot at. People keep talking about how fast it is, but it’s not supernaturally fast. And how does it manage to move around the woods so quickly without making any noise? That’s impossible.
*. A note on the DVD commentary: it’s well enough done — featuring writer-director Bafaro and Don Knodel, who plays James Parnell — but you can hardly hear it because the audio level is the same as the soundtrack. Somebody messed this up.
*. You knew the missing kid was going to show up at some point, didn’t you? That’s another convention.

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*. A lot of it isn’t very good. Certain passages are now inevitable, like the use of night vision. The script is overwritten and too dramatic (the sheriff’s campfire speech, for example). In movies like this, more improvisation is usually better. The acting is pretty bad. The monster is a joke. The camera keeps breaking down for no dramatic purpose I can see. It was shot in a park and looks it, meaning that you never feel like anyone is more than a five-minute walk from a main road. Indeed at one point near the end, when the few survivors are supposedly lost, they’re clearly walking down a road. Why didn’t they just keep on it?
*. And yet it’s a fun movie if you keep your expectations in check.
*. If there’s an interesting angle to it, it’s in the fact that the reporters have a background in war reporting (Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia) and that several of the hunters have been in the military. Of course the title had a specific meaning in 2012. So is the story here an allegory of American military misadventures? At the end there will be an attempt at an evacuation by helicopter, reminiscent of various Vietnam movies and newsreels. Things don’t go so well. It’s hard not to also think of Rituals and its demented vet on the rampage.
*. Does it all go back to cowboys (or colonists) and Indians? A jungle that swallows armies whole? The green zone in Baghdad was an urban safe space, not a wilderness. Being embedded meant being protected, not eaten alive. I don’t think Embedded is consciously making a satirical point about this; it’s just not that subtle a movie. But it still gives us something to think about.

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Predators (2010)

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*. After a painful interregnum which saw them pitted against the creatures of the Alien franchise, the Predators return, in this belated sequel, for a battle-royale, bad-ass death match that has them hunting easier prey.
*. Despite having leapt (somehow) to an exotic safari planet, there’s decent continuity with Predator and Predator 2 (though the events of Predator 2 are left unmentioned). But continuity is not always a good thing.
*. Item One: In my notes on the earlier films I mentioned the problem of pacing. Specifically, the way these movies start out strong and hit a great median climax before slowing down. This is a criticism Predators also invites, given how it (literally) hits the ground running. On the DVD commentary director Nimród Antal and co-producer Robert Rodriguez mention how they knew sustaining such a pace would be a problem, but seemed helpless to avoid it. Indeed there is no median climax this time out and things just come to a full stop with the appearance of Laurence Fishburne’s Noland. From there the whole final act of this film is a drag, culminating in the supremely silly fight between Adrien Brody’s Royce and the chief Predator. I mean, once Brody had the drop on the Predator why didn’t he just blow him away instead of running around hitting him in the helmet, which patently wasn’t doing a damn bit of good?
*. Item Two: While the Predators have fancy helmets, they don’t wear a lot of body armour. So why do they keep getting shot in the torso at point-blank range without being wounded? I mentioned this when discussing the scene in Predator 2 where Bill Paxton’s character empties two full clips into the Predator on the subway car without so much as winging him. In this movie we see the Russian soldier Nikolai fire away at a bare-chested Predator standing just a few feet right in front of him and yet he only manages to hit him once in the shoulder. What gives?
*. Item Three: Where are they getting all this ammo? As I mentioned in my notes on Predator, ammo is very heavy, and you go through a lot of it in a hurry, especially when you’re going full auto all the time. In the scene where the team is attacked by the hounds we see them blowing off a truckload of ammo but they never seem to run out until they have to do a “shell count” and reload at the end. And of course they all have more ammo on them to reload with. Folks, we’re talking about hundreds of pounds of clips here. It’s just not possible.
*. Item Four: I have a nagging question with all three movies about why the Predators are always around watching their prey with their nifty thermal vision except when they can’t be for some plot reason. For example, when the humans are setting a trap. Then they are unaccountably missing.

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*. As I say, these are problems that I have with all of the Predator movies, and it’s too bad they’ve never found a way to get around them. In this film, however, there are some additional issues.
*. Chief among these, in my eyes, is how they really drag out the reveal that Edwin (the doctor, played by Topher Grace) is actually a psycho killer. I mean, I think we all knew that from the get-go. No spoiler alert needed (and none given on this site anyway). So it’s just a downer that Edwin lasts as long as he does, in order to do his predictable turn at the end.
*. Sticking with this for just a bit, I didn’t get much out of the commentary, but I was surprised Antal and Rodriguez thought the audience might turn against Royce when he advises leaving Edwin behind after he steps in a trap. By this point in the film surely there is no audience sympathy left for Edwin since (1) we already know Royce is the hero; (2) we have already seen him leave Danny Trejo’s character behind (which was the right move); (3) we already know that the doctor is in fact a villain (something we’ve suspected for a long time, but which is made explicit in this scene when he holds up the picture of Nikolai’s kids and claims they’re his own); and (4) we’re sick of Edwin’s whining.

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*. Adrien Brody didn’t get a lot of love from fans of the franchise. I think this is because their heads were still stuck in the ’80s. He’s a good actor and he obviously knew enough of what was expected of the role to put some time in the gym.
*. Speaking of heads being stuck in the ’80s, I already mentioned how there is no reference to Predator 2 in the script. Was this the result of a personal bias on the part of a certain action star? Apparently Predators was meant to lure Arnold back to the franchise, and he wanted to return to the jungle. For some reason he thought the move to the city in Predator 2, which I thought was very smart, was the wrong way to go.
*. Once again with the cliché that it’s the African guy who first senses the presence of the Predator. As with the native soldier Billy in the first film. These ethnic caricatures . . . they just know things the rest of us don’t.
*. Why does no one seem to twig to the fact that the parachutes are some kind of weird alien technology?
*. Isabelle is a young member of the IDF and tells us that she’s “seen most” jungles and that this isn’t one of them. Are there jungles in Israel? Are the IDF active in Asia, Africa, and South America?
*. There’s something existential about the predicaments such movies present us with. I’m thinking of movies like Cell or Saw or 10 Cloverfield Lane, where the characters simply wake up in a weird, hellish environment that will test their ability and will to survive. They don’t understand their situation, but they have to accept and make the best of it, defining themselves and their values in the process. All of these movies seem like versions of No Exit to me. Or is that digging too deep?

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*. How does the chief Predator survive being blown up by a whole set of grenades at the end? As noted earlier, he isn’t wearing body armour. But he isn’t so much as stunned by the explosion, and it doesn’t even damage any of his weapon systems!
*. It’s kind of sad, isn’t it, that these aliens are so advanced they’ve even perfected inter-galactic travel but what they really like to do is run around in the woods killing things. I guess we do the same, but a thousand years from now? That would be a depressing lack of moral progress.
*. I’ve talked about it endlessly, but again we have the video game aesthetic. This is a movie that has no beginning and no end: we just get transported to a certain alien killing zone (Doom, anyone?) and have to stay alive while killing all the bad guys. Then, level complete, it looks like another level is going to start, with harder-to-kill bad guys arriving.
*. There are no characters either. In fact they’re barely types, with no back story. Indeed we don’t even find out the names of the two leads until the final minutes, when it’s presented as a bit of a joke. Who they are just isn’t very important to anything in the plot.
*. In short, I thought this was a wasted opportunity. For an action film, the action isn’t all that great. They could have taken things in some interesting new directions but didn’t, settling for more of the same. Antal and Rodriguez wanted a movie made by fans for fans. That meant playing it safe. In that respect it reminded me of Prometheus, another movie that only marked an expansion into a creatively empty universe.

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Eden Lake (2008)

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*. Well. This was really no fun at all.
*. Of course it wasn’t meant to be fun. But I’m not sure if it was meant to be this unpleasant.
*. The set-up reminded me of Funny Games. These are not dead-teenager movies, where obnoxious kids are sliced and diced by a psycho slasher, but movies about the bourgeoisie being threatened by those same obnoxious kids. Where’s Jason when you need him to put the fear of God into these little shits?
*. I wonder if this is part of a natural maturation of the genre. Those kids who were frightened by slasher films in the 1980s are grown up and have jobs and families. Now they’re frightened of the little monsters they used to be.
*. That’s one interpretation. There’s quite an angry political reading pursued in a book called Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class by Owen Jones. “Chav” is a derogatory British term for someone young and lower class (both economically and culturally). The subtitle of Jones’s book tells you what he sees as really being afoot in the representation of chavs in the media, and Eden Lake is his Exhibit One. As I recall, he makes a pretty convincing case.
*. Obviously this is a movie that’s mad as hell about something. Hence its unpleasantness, and the fact that it is bending over backward to be so unpleasant. The way poor Jenny here just keeps jumping from the frying pan and into the fire goes well beyond belief, taking us into the realm of nightmare and fantasy. In other words, it’s a movie straining to make a rhetorical point.
*. I’ll get back to what that point might be, but now I’d like to say something by way of explanation of just why I found this movie so sickening. I think the best way to proceed is by saying what I didn’t find disturbing.
*. In the first place, I didn’t mind that the villains were kids. We’ve been here before: as long ago as Village of the Damned, and throughout the 1970s with cult flicks like Devil Times Five and Who Can Kill a Child? We’ve also known, at least since Freud, that kids really are little monsters. Brett (Jack O’Connell) is one of the single most repellent characters I have ever seen in a movie, and somehow he manages to get upstaged by his dad in that regard. But that’s not something I hold against Eden Lake.
*. Second: I wasn’t upset by the mindless cruelty. Or at least not that much. While it isn’t particularly gory, this is yet another entry in the depressing list of torture cinema. I don’t like seeing torture (and I’m strongly opposed to it under any circumstances), but there’s no denying the way it has taken hold of the popular imagination, and having scenes involving torture doesn’t necessarily make a movie unwatchable.
*. Third: I didn’t object to the dark ending. As with torture, this has become a staple of twenty-first century horror. I’ve written about this before in relation to films like Paranormal Activity and Sinister, but you can see it everywhere in the horror movies of this period. Think of Rec and Rec 2 or The Witch. Eden Lake is no different, and even its ending that pulls the rug out from under you recalls such pure genre flicks as The Descent: Part 2 and House of 1000 Corpses. I don’t know why today’s horror films have adopted this nihilistic point of view. It’s sometimes said that such endings are more “realistic,” but this is rarely the case and is particularly far-fetched here. As already noted, it’s hard to believe Jenny would find herself delivered into the hands of the gang’s parents at the end of this film, and that they would turn out to be even worse than their kids, but I guess it’s what the age demanded.
*. Fourth: While I see the point Jones makes in Chavs, I didn’t mind the politics. OK, so this is a movie that fears and hates (or demonizes) the working class. As with the other items I’ve touched on in this list, that doesn’t disqualify it from being effective entertainment.
*. But having said all that, I have to now say that I honestly found this movie to be unwatchable. And if you follow this blog at all you know that I set the bar very, very low in this regard. I mean, it seems obvious that the pursuit of Jenny through the woods in her increasingly bedraggled state is meant to recall I Spit on Your Grave, which is usually considered to be one of the most deplorable movies ever made. But I found Eden Lake an even rougher and more dispiriting experience.
*. Why did it get under my skin? Two reasons, both relating to its realism. I know I said that the plot is unrealistic for its coincidences, and it’s close to being an idiot plot with all the rather bad decisions Jenny and Steve make, but in at least two respects it hit home, at least with me, as being authentic.
*. In the first place, there is the bullying. The movie pushes this to an extreme, but it gets it right. Brett is like Aguirre in the jungle, whipping his troops into line behind him. And like Aguirre, he exerts a kind of brutal charisma over them (I wrote more about this on my notes on Aguirre, the Wrath of God). The business with the loser kid Adam trying to suck up to Brett and then being necklaced is far-fetched, but it has a psychological accuracy. Of course, we’re not at all surprised that Brett’s father is physically abusive, because we know how this shit rolls downhill.
*. The second bit of realism that really bites is in the presentation of, yes, the working class. Kim Newman has something interesting to say about the differences between the yuppie couple and the chavs: “It’s not about economics, it’s about attitudes. A primary school teacher [Jenny] may have middle-class values, but Brett’s parents [he’s a contractor] have more money.” This might be mistaken. One suspects Jenny and Steve are from money, which has in turn shaped their attitudes. Brett’s family is not. There is a class difference, and while it’s true that the working class are being demonized here, their resentment rings true. We don’t like to dwell on it, but the fact is, a lot of the contractors and tradespeople who work on the homes of the upper class really do hate the people who own these homes.
*. The movie obviously loads the deck against the louts, but the quarry/lake is being gentrified (and gated) in a way that is of no benefit to them. That is to say, it’s being taken away from the townsfolk to make way for “yuppy cunts” (the graffiti on the back of the Eden Lake sign): the kind of people who will despise the locals. The main point being that the two classes cannot get along. Meanwhile, the parents of the little monsters are left to “take care of their own.” This is something they may be doing a miserable job of, but it’s all they have to take any pride in.
*. In short, while the movie is an exaggeration, I did feel, with more than a little painful regret, that I actually knew these people. I’ve known Bretts. Maybe not as violent, but psychopathic bullies none the less. I’ve known contractors who hate the people they work for, even to the point of openly talking about wanting to kill them or destroy their homes. So all of this rang uncomfortably true.
*. To give credit where it’s due, it’s also a well made movie. The performances are all quite good, with the kids even holding their own with the grown-ups. The tension is tightened professionally. The plot itself struck me as very stupid, but you can’t have everything.
*. It is, however, an almost unbearably nasty and depressing film, without a moment of humour or psychological relief. You really do have to wonder where we go from here. We’re getting to the point where today’s horror movies are about nothing so much as the hatred of life itself.

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