Monthly Archives: December 2018

Quick Picks 2018

Most of the new movies I make notes on for this site I watch on DVDs that I grab from the Quick Picks shelf at the library, so I tend to be a few months behind the latest theatrical releases. I don’t really try to keep up on what’s playing in theatres, and at the end of the year I’ve usually seen only a handful of movies that are eligible for consideration by the people who hand out prestigious awards.

Of course, not many of the movies I see are the kind that are in the running for awards. Still, I thought it would be a fun exercise to try to do my own year’s best (and worst) list based on a ridiculously narrow sample. How narrow? In 2018 I only watched a baker’s dozen of movies released that year. Here is the list.

Black Panther
Deadpool 2
Death Wish
Game Night
Hereditary
A Quiet Place
Rampage
Red Sparrow
Sicario: Day of the Soldado
The Strangers: Prey at Night
Terminal
Tomb Raider
Truth or Dare

Yes, I know. I’ll even confess to feeling a bit embarrassed. It’s not a line-up rich in cinematic achievement, or even one that suggests any aspirations in that direction. But that will make my end-of-year awards all the more challenging. And I love a challenge. So here we go.

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Red Sparrow (2018)

*. “The Cold War did not end. It shattered into a thousand dangerous pieces.” So Charlotte Rampling’s Rosa Klebb (or simply Matron, as she’s styled here) tells the entering class of new students at Russia’s top secret spy school. I appreciated the heads-up, because without it I might have thought this film was set some forty years earlier.
*. Apparently I was not alone. When the novel was first optioned the producers planned to push the story back to the 1970s. They changed their minds, but then others noticed that the plot was very similar to a 1985 TV movie called Secret Weapons. The point being not that the novel was plagiarized but that it is wholly generic. It’s a Cold War spy thriller, and in Hollywood at least the Cold War really hasn’t ended.
*. The novel was written by Jason Matthews, who got some credit for having been a former CIA operative (whatever that entails). I ask: so what? The story here is preposterous (though played straight) and doesn’t contain anything interesting or new on the level of tradecraft. It’s actually a bit depressing that these are the kind of paperback fantasies (drawn from Fleming, LeCarre, or Ludlum) bored CIA employees are still having. Oh, those sexy but deadly Russian agents who were formerly prima ballerinas! They never get old.
*. Despite (or perhaps because) of the clichéd story, Matthews was paid a lot of money for the rights to his book. Plus there was the fact that it was only the first volume in a trilogy, meaning it had franchise potential. As if we needed any more such films.
*. There is much not to like. The plot is less complex than silly. Even Dominika’s name is unrealistic, and had to be changed to Veronica when the film was released in Russia because apparently no one would believe a name like Dominika.
*. Two hours and 20 minutes. Egad. There was no need for it to go on so long. They should have wrapped all this up in an hour and a  half.
*. The whole training school section was a waste, as there was no psychological movement to be tracked, as in Nikita, and the only lessons Dominika learns have to do with general principles of male sexuality that I think every girl has figured out by the time she’s finished high school. I mean the West may have grown weak — “drunk on shopping and social media,” as Matron says — but at least we don’t have to send our kids to special state schools that use porn videos to show us what turns guys on.

*. There’s some skin. Jennifer Lawrence has a nice ass, and is not afraid to wear a totally impractical swimsuit to do laps in at a public pool (that top would have set her boobs free as soon as she hit the water). Unfortunately she’s saddled with one of those awful Russian accents that are impossible to take seriously.
*. There’s some violence, much of it with a seasoning of sex. I’ve even seen it stuck it with the label of torture porn, and given the way things play out I think there’s some fairness to the charge. Director Francis Lawrence wanted a “hard R” rating from the start, but to what end? There is nothing either erotic or suspenseful in what’s going on.
*. Why does Dominika hate her uncle so much anyway? He doesn’t arrange her ballet accident. Once her leg is broken she doesn’t have many options and he gives her one. She calls her spy training “whore school,” but isn’t that just being bitchy? If her uncle had wanted to make her his kept woman, given his position and her suddenly precarious position he surely could have. But he doesn’t. There are suggestions of his attraction to her throughout, but we don’t actually see him proposition her or make any moves. The way he watches her being stripped and tortured doesn’t seem quite right, but she doesn’t know he’s watching and by that time her plans for revenge are already well advanced. So why does she blame him for all her troubles? This must be important as her revenge is what drives the whole plot. I feel like I missed something.
*. The DVD commentary by Francis Lawrence didn’t clear things up. He mentions wanting to make the relationship between Dominika and her uncle seem creepy, but given how important it is I think it needs to be a lot more than that.
*. Reviewers who were trying to think of nice things to say praised Jennifer Lawrence and the film’s sense of style. I think Lawrence is wooden and the style, if that’s what it is, overrated. I don’t think it’s a stylish film at all. I think it’s a movie that like to show off luxurious sets and European locations. Lawrence’s direction is totally flat.
*. So it’s dumb. Dull. Vulgar in the sense of just jolting the audience with sex and violence in order to keep them awake. A total disappointment for anyone hoping to see a spy story brought in to the twenty-first century. Instead it just rehashes a bunch of clichés so as to insist that nothing has in fact changed. There’s no need to be ironic or put such material in a period film (or to do both, as in The Man from U.N.C.L.E.). The Cold War didn’t end, so let’s go back to the future.

Death Wish (2018)

*. It took a while, but finally got done. I think there had been talk of a remake of Death Wish ever since the initial franchise died with Death Wish V: The Face of Death in 1994. Various names had been attached to the project at various stages of development. Until, finally . . .
*. As thing worked out, the remake was a victim of bad timing, being released less than a month after the Parkland school shooting and the usual uptick in interest in gun violence that follows such events. I think this may explain some of the critical drubbing it took, because it’s not that bad a movie judged on its own.
*. The thing is, it was always such a simple story to begin with, and was then imitated so many times, there was scarcely any way for director Eli Roth to make it new. I think he tried, and enjoyed some limited success. But at the end of the day he just didn’t have enough to work with. Fans were expecting the classic story so he had to deliver on that, but he couldn’t juice it enough to make it interesting.
*. When I say Roth didn’t have that much to work with what I mostly mean is that the screenplay was by Joe Carnahan, the genius behind Smokin’ Aces and The A-Team (both of which were very bad scripts). Kersey’s father-in-law tells him, after shooting at a poacher on his Texas ranch (a poacher?) that “If a man really wants to protect what’s his. He has to do it for himself.” Seeing his daughter in hospital Kersey says “Look what these animals did to my baby!” After tying one of the malefactors up beneath a hoisted automobile Kersey waits until he says “You’re not going to kill me!” Which lets Kersey say “No, Jack is.” He yanks on a chain, pulling out the jack and lets the car crush him. Really. I do wonder how some people continue to find work.
*. But wait! Apparently there were some nine writers working on the screenplay and almost none of Carnahan’s original dialogue remained in the script they actually shot. So I’ll give him a pass (how he got the sole screenwriting credit is another question). Plus The Grey was actually pretty good.
*. Like I say though, Roth does try. I was dreading the rape-murder scene that kicks things off and was pleasantly surprised that he elects to do that part off camera. Elsewhere he kills one of the gang members by having a bowling ball accidentally fall on his head. He nicely develops the idea of the Grim Reaper turning into an Internet sensation: from being a YouTube star to becoming a meme and a hashtag (Kersey himself is also a product of the Internet, having learned many of the tricks of his trade from online videos). He presents Kersey’s basement as a fetid man cave. And, best of all, he makes terrific use of split screen when we see Kersey’s personality splitting as he finally breaks bad, contrasting the life-saving doctor with the life-taking Grim Reaper (all to the tune of AC/DC’s “Back in Black”). I don’t usually care much for split screen, but here’s it’s perfectly apt and very well done.

*. The problem, as I’ve said, is that we’ve been here too many times before. Bruce Willis is fine, but he does seem bored with the proceedings. I tried hard to think of some reason why Vincent D’Onofrio’s character had to be introduced and couldn’t come up with much. Aside from the bowling ball there isn’t even much to the kills aside from a gallery of splatter effects on the walls and one nice broken neck. There’s also a torture sequence included (“signature Eli Roth” according to producer Roger Birnbaum) that doesn’t impress much and which seems slightly out of character even for the bad doctor.

*. A final reflection I’d make is on how much tamer a film this seems than the original. This isn’t just a comment on the fact that the murder and rape of the wife and daughter isn’t shown (which I’ve already mentioned feeling grateful about). In fact there seems not to have been any rape involved, and the whole incident was just a burglary gone wrong (the family weren’t supposed to be home). More than this, there’s also the fact that the irony in the original, where Kersey doesn’t actually kill any of the guys who killed his wife, is rejected for the more cathartic (and conventional) revenge story here. Also cleaned up is the daughter’s injury. In the original she survives but only as a vegetable. Here she’s off to university at the end, looking none the worse for what she’s been through.
*. Why these specific changes, making this film, despite the passage of so much time, less dangerous and more predictable? Primarily, I think, the bottom line. A mass audience today demands all those cathartic kills and that happy ending. As Roth notes in his commentary, it’s a superhero story, with Willis’s hoodie (this is my observation now) not having any political message but rather linking him to his character in Unbreakable, where he plays another media star-vigilante hero. That they still managed to stir up controversy must have upset everyone, as that was surely no part of the plan.

Terminal (2018)

*. Let us now praise Margot Robbie. I thought she was very good in Suicide Squad, which was not a good movie. I think she’s very good here too, in a movie that’s even worse. That’s something she deserves some credit for. I don’t think it’s easy to be good in bad movies.
*. Did I say worse than Suicide Squad? Well, Terminal is a talky film and none of the talk is good. It’s a movie that promises plot twists but none of the twists is interesting or unexpected. It plays a lot like a neon Tarantino, but by 2018 wasn’t that coming to the party awfully late?
*. Robbie, however, is fascinating. She’s dolled up in various fetish outfits (waitress, stripper, vamp, nurse) and her lips are so brightly painted it’s hard to pay attention to anything else. Even so, and given she’s playing a cartoonish psycho, you can tell she’s actually doing a really good job with what she’s been given to work with. She’s high-impact glossy and everybody else seems to be playing in black and white.
*. We’ve been here before. And not just in terms of the plot. It was shot in Budapest, I assume because it was cheap because otherwise it might as well have been filmed in any abandoned industrial site. The city itself is never named, being a generic, ahistorical, noir wasteland. Proyas’s Dark City seems the obvious model, as it’s never day. There also don’t seem to be any people except at the White Rabbit strip bar.
*. The ending should have been more fun. It’s a crazy enough premise, but then it’s played out as just some lazy exposition followed by a nasty coup de grâce. Not even two Margot Robbies can save it.
*. I don’t have anything else to say. It’s become obligatory to praise the photography and art direction of such self-consciously artificial-looking films, but I found the garish colour and giant vacant sets to be pointless, even as they seemed in some mysterious way what the movie was really about.

Tomb Raider (2018)

*. I really wanted to like this one. Honest!
*. It seemed to have its heart in the right place. Update the Tomb Raider video game/movie franchise for a new generation of empowered young women. No more cheesecake. Lara Croft isn’t a porn fantasy any more but a lean, mean, fighting machine. She’s skipped university so that she can train in useful skills like MMA, rock climbing, and parkour.
*. But is this feminism, or just a shift in men’s tastes, preferring women with harder bodies and less curves? Because Alicia Vikander, despite having traded in the short-shorts for cargo pants and not being as pneumatically drawn as the character’s previous incarnations, is still hot. She’s even the sexy fox in an urban fox hunt, with a gang of young men chasing her tail. Sheesh.
*. Now I don’t want to belabor this point, but . . . a superbabe like Lara washes ashore on an island populated soley by men, some of whom have been stuck there for seven years without any women, and the only thing they can think to do with her is to get her to lug gear through the jungle. Of all the film’s improbabilities that may be the biggest.
*. Well, let’s turn away from ogling Lara and get on to the rest of the film.
*. As I say, I wanted to like it. Vikander projects both strength and vulnerability. She’s a good tomb raider in a lousy Tomb Raider movie. And Daniel Wu makes a great, if underused, sidekick. But the bottom line here is that they went back to the well on this one and came up with absolutely nothing.
*. I actually don’t watch all that many of these movies but I still felt like Tomb Raider was too much of what I’d already seen many, many times before. The treasure map that leads us to Skull Island. The tomb filled with booby-traps. The puzzles to be solved. And lots of jumping around. Lots and lots of jumping around. This is what Lara did in the video game and you can imagine gamers leaving the theatre here with thumbs sore from pressing imaginary controllers.
*. Director Roar Uthaug, whose previous film was The Wave, doesn’t bring anything new to the table. It’s just the usual CGI spectacle, only a little less spectacular. Which, I rush to add, in no way makes any of it more realistic or believable. While the supernatural is eschewed this time out, it’s still a video game world.
*. It all seems so pointless now. Pointless and joyless. We don’t even get to enjoy the villain. Walton Goggins as Vogel isn’t a scenery-chewing psycho but just a bitter loser sent out by the corporation to do a shit job. He might even experience death as a relief. Can we imagine him going home to a loving wife and kids after his exile on Yamatai?
*. And of course the post-credit coda lets you know there’s going to be a sequel. There’s still a lot of work for Lara to do. Selling tickets.

Truth or Dare (2018)

*. You know, I thought this started well. Not great, but OK.
*. It’s a dead-teenager movie (or dead-college student movie) of a kind that has become popular. Death stalks a gang of young people in the form of a game of musical chairs. The game has rules, which are gradually explained. People have to die in a certain order. Think of the Final Destination movies or It Follows. (These movies are also like supernatural versions of what I’ve described as the Game of Death genre that took off with Saw.)
*. I don’t think Truth or Dare is as good as those movies, it just doesn’t feel nearly as fresh and interesting for starters, but up until the halfway point I was playing along with it.
*. But then things take a nose dive. Most of the challenges that had been faced were kind of interesting (especially the gay kid having to come out to his cop dad), but then Olivia (Lucy Hale) has to sleep with Lucas (Tyler Posey).
*. I get that this is the demon who is running the show here (his name is Calax) just being a shit-disturber. But all this fighting/jealousy/whatever between Olivia and her bestie Markie just struck me as silly and on another, lesser level of importance altogether than the far more pressing problem they’re facing with the game.
*. Since I didn’t give a damn about Olivia and Markie and Lucas this is where I tuned out. My sense is that Jeff Wadlow (the co-writer and director) basically had a concept for the movie and didn’t have the rest of it fleshed out very well when he had to get it into development. The opening scene, for example, was something he came up with “on the spot.” Apparently producer Jason Blum just pitched him the title (because the studio though it highly marketable) and let him make up a story that would go with it.
*. From there the story spins out in a bunch of unconvincing and poorly-fleshed-out directions before ending on a somewhat surprisingly bleak and cynical note. I guess the game goes viral but I’m not sure how that would work in practical terms.
*. The reason the script’s running out of gas is so important is because the movie has nothing else going for it. Director Jeff Wadlow doesn’t do suspense, and even muffs a couple of predictable jump scares (introduced at Blumhouse’s request). The cast, who are (and look) mostly too old for their parts are hard to relate to. Or is it just that I’m getting too old?
*. And finally the PG-13 rating meant there was no gore on screen and little real violence (even in the director’s cut, which is what I saw). This is not necessarily a problem (It Follows stayed clear of gore as well, as did the previous year’s Blumhouse production Happy Death Day), but it means the concept and the other things I’ve mentioned (directing, cast) have to come through.
*. The concept (or title, really) had potential. As Carter explains, “it’s a chance to expose your friends’ deepest secrets and make them do things they don’t want to do.” Add in the mortal stakes and something interesting might have been done with this, instead of all this Sweet Valley High crap.
*. Does Carter really think he’s going to save himself by locking himself in his apartment (and ordering delivery?) so that the demon can’t get to him? That doesn’t seem to be how the game works. I mean, Calax can burn text messages onto someone’s arm!
*. The effect they use for showing that the demon has temporarily possessed someone looks kind of silly, and it left me wondering if maybe it would have been better if they hadn’t shown any transformation at all. Since nobody else can see it but the audience this would also make more sense. I think it would have helped create a sense of paranoia: could you really be sure that you were talking to your friend and not some Mexican devil?
*. On the other hand, especially if they were thinking of a franchise (which I’m sure they were), they really needed some kind of signature element. Since we never see the demon, the goofy smile had to be it. Aside from that, what is there that’s unique or distinct about any of this?
*. Yes, Mexico. They make a really big thing about the gang driving back and forth across the border here (something that is not nearly as easy to do as is shown). Why? Should it mean something that the demon is of Mexican origin? Is he an illegal alien?
*. The full title is apparently Blumhouse’s Truth or Dare, which may be the first time I’ve seen a production company putting itself out front with billing like that. But I guess it makes sense. Truth or Dare isn’t a good movie, but it fits pretty well with the Blumhouse brand of low-budget horror films that aim for franchise status. Sometimes it works out (Paranormal Activity being the chief example), sometimes it doesn’t.
*. Critics were overwhelmingly negative but it made nearly $100 million on a $4 million budget (Blumhouse pictures have proven to be, thus far, critic-proof) so I suppose we may see a sequel. Personally I thought it needed to be a lot smarter in order to work, or have at least one or two scares or good kills going for it. I wouldn’t say I was bored by Truth or Dare, but I was never interested in it either.

Rampage (2018)

*. If you’ve read many of these notes you’ll probably be expecting me to hate Rampage. I don’t like CGI movies and I don’t like movies that make me feel as though I’m watching someone play a video game. So I really should hate Rampage. It’s all CGI and, to my surprise (since I spent more than a few hours in arcades in the 1980s and I didn’t recognize it) it’s based on a Bally Midway video game.
*. But I didn’t mind it. The CGI isn’t very good, and doesn’t try to do anything special, but one thing CGI does well is destroy cities. Whether it’s being done by superheroes or giant robots or monsters, tearing down skyscrapers is one of CGI’s specialties. And Rampage has lots of that.
*. As far as the rest of the movie goes, it’s predictable and stupid but perhaps mainly thanks to Dwayne Johnson it has a D-picture charm to it. You know where it’s going every step of the way, and I mean that literally. There were scenes where I was even reciting the dialogue along with the actors. It’s that obvious.
*. Maybe it just reminded me not of 1980s video games so much as an even earlier part of my life: the Toho monster movies made in the 1960s that were shown on weekend afternoon television “creature features.” Basically this is just King Kong vs. Godzilla all over again. Which means it’s also very much a children’s movie. When George makes the hand gesture for intercourse at the end it’s one of the few missteps. Not that I’m a prude about such things, but I just thought it wasn’t right for the target audience, which I had pegged as being around 8 to 10 years old.
*. There’s a reason why Dwayne Johnson became one of the highest-paid actors of his generation. He looks CGI himself, or like some kind of rubber action figure, is completely indestructible even with buildings falling on top of him, and still manages to hold his own in terms of star power with the monsters. When he and George have to take on Ralph the wolf and the mutant alligator at the end we can actually feel as though this is a fair tag-team match.
*. So I didn’t hate Rampage. It’s trash but it knows what kind of trash it is, and despite being so formulaic I didn’t find it boring. More than anything, though, what it did was take me back to being 8 years old again. Despite being so much a movie of its time, all its charm for me was nostalgia.

Game Night (2018)

*. Fun. Clever. Not that clever — we’ve been here before — but clever enough to get by.
*. There are two basic gag lines to hang the laughs from. The first is the situation where the heroes are in danger but don’t know they’re in danger because they think everything is just a game. I can think of several classic comic scenes using this premise, including very funny uses of it in ¡Three Amigos! and Tropic Thunder. You can probably think of many more. It’s a good gag.
*. The other line is where the heroes are so busy bickering among themselves about petty things that they, again, don’t realize how much trouble they’re in. The two are related, and together they help illustrate how ignorance, even when it’s not bliss, can be funny when observed in others.
*. I wouldn’t call Game Night hilarious, but there are a few good bits and it moves pretty well. I also didn’t think the plot held together all that well past the halfway mark, which was a bit of a shame given the potential for coming up with something really sharp. Instead you just have to shrug your shoulders at all the loose ends.
*. Most of all, however, it’s the cast that keeps everything moving along. Yes, some of the characters have only the one note, but there are a lot of them, with three interesting couples to watch. And the lead couple, Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams, aren’t the usual endearing comedy duo. They are yuppie dinks, and proud of it. I wasn’t sure why they even wanted a kid until the really rather nasty business at the end where it’s clear that they think having a baby is just another competition for them to win. That’s funny too, because it’s real.
*. The directors, John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, had written the screenplay for Horrible Bosses and the story for Horrible Bosses 2. Apparently they rewrote a lot of the script here, but it had always been written with Jason Bateman (star of Horrible Bosses) in mind for the lead. He really has become a go-to guy for this kind of straight-man role. It’s all the more surprising then when Rachel McAdams upstages him.
*. The supporting cast is shortchanged a bit. Michael C. Hall or Jeffrey Wright (who is uncredited as the fake FBI agent) don’t get to do much of anything.
*. The critical response was depressing. Basically a lot of reviewers liked it because they thought it was something different. What they meant by something different, however, is not something original but rather something different from a Judd Apatow comedy. This surprised me because (1) while he’s certainly had some hits (mixed in with the bombs) I hadn’t thought Judd Apatow was the new default descriptor for mainstream comedy, and (2) I didn’t think this was all that different from my own sense of what a Judd Apatow comedy looks like. Personally, I thought it was pretty much par for the course compared to most of the other comedies coming out around the same time. A little better than average but not that different.

Black Panther (2018)

*. Near the beginning of Black Panther there’s a scene where T’Challa’s jet crosses a barrier into the fantasy realm of Wakanda and the new king says “This never gets old.”
*. The line struck me as merely hopeful. For me, at least, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has gotten very old. In the past I’ve referred to these movies as MarvelCrap, but they’re not all bad. Overall they tend to be very well (and very expensively) produced. They are slick entertainment. But they do get old.
*. Is Black Panther very different? It was certainly marketed as something different, and the marketing worked with audiences and with critics. Even by Marvel’s impossibly high standards for box office the film was a huge success. But creatively?
*. I liked the story better than most MCU entries. The villain of the piece, Killmonger, was authentic and relatable with a compelling back story. His plan for world domination was dull, and his conflict with T’Challa seemed like a replay of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but at least he wasn’t trying to open a gateway to another universe. I was getting sick of that.
*. The cast is excellent, highlighted by the young leads Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, and Letitia Wright. With a good script and a good cast they couldn’t go far wrong, and they didn’t.
*. There were a few negatives. For one thing, it comes in at a heavy two hours and fifteen minutes that isn’t made any lighter by the predictability and odd lack of humour. Most of the MCU movies include a few laugh lines and wisecracks, but Black Panther is mostly played straight. I counted only a couple of lighter moments.
*. The CGI also seemed generic and underwhelming. Nothing we haven’t seen a hundred times before. I suspect this may be the real problem Marvel is going to face moving forward. Where does CGI go from here? I don’t see where it has many more tricks up its sleeve. Meanwhile, the stampede of armored rhinos was just ridiculous. Where did they even come from?
*. I wonder if they got that tree full of black panthers from Paul Schrader’s Cat People. Now that would be funny!
*. Given how it was made into such a cultural moment I feel like I should say something more about this one but I just don’t feel up to it. This seemed to me to be a better than average Marvel movie, but that wasn’t enough to make up for how tired I am of the genre now and how stuck it has become in convention. Put another way, I thought it was pretty good but I almost didn’t finish watching it. This has gotten old.