Monthly Archives: December 2021

Quick Picks 2021

Time for my fourth annual end-of-year awards for the best (and worst) of what I was watching. You know the drill: only movies released in the past year that I saw in the past year are eligible. And since I have to wait for most of the movies I see to come out on DVD, that means November and December usually have me sprinting to the finish trying to play catch-up. It also means that no movies with a theatrical release late in the year are likely to be in the mix.

I worked hard in the last few weeks and managed to catch 24 movies out of all that 2021 had to offer. That’s pretty good for me! Unfortunately, the moves I saw were . . . well, here’s this year’s stellar line-up.

Black Widow
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It
Cosmic Sin
Cruella
Don’t Breathe 2
False Positive
The Forever Purge
Godzilla vs. Kong
Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard
Ice Road
Judas and the Black Messiah
Jungle Cruise
The Little Things
The Marksman
The Mauritanian
Nobody
A Quiet Place Part II
Space Jam: A New Legacy
Spiral
The Suicide Squad
Those Who Wish Me Dead
The Unholy
Voyagers
Wrath of Man

As has become usual there are a lot of sequels and franchise entries. But does that mean they were all bad? Not quite.

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False Positive (2021)

*. Sometimes movies get forced into unfair comparisons, but other times the shoe, unfortunately, fits. That’s the case with False Positive, which is a modern retelling of Rosemary’s Baby. It’s not just that the comparisons are unavoidable, but that none of them are in this film’s favour. They did try to go in a different direction, but nothing worked.
*. Lucy (Ilana Glazer) and Adrian (Justin Theroux) are a young couple not having any success having a baby. They go to see a fertility specialist named Dr. Hindle (Pierce Brosnan) who used to be one of Adrian’s teachers. I guess Adrian is a doctor himself but he doesn’t seem to do anything, or even know much about anything. But then he’s a man. The film has a randomly feminist point of view, which includes Lucy being treated unfairly at the ad agency she works at.
*. Obviously all is not right. Dr. Hindle oozes patriarchal menace, complemented by his fetish-doll assistant Gretchen Mol. Adrian doesn’t seem on the level after we see him using violent pornography to get a sample. It’s those men again!
*. Then there are Lucy’s nightmares and fantasies. The result of her foggy mommy-brain? The drugs she’s taking? Or is there really something sinister going on? Could it be that Dr. Hindle’s clinic is actually a front for a coven of devil-worshiping New Yorkers?

*. Nothing that interesting, unfortunately. There’s actually less going on here than meets the eye. Even the more provocative of Lucy’s visions (like witnessing a homosexual tryst in a hotel room) turn out to be just air. This left me disappointed and confused. Just what was I watching? With the talent involved, including director John Lee, I think a lot of people were expecting a sort of dark comedy. But it’s not funny. And it’s not scary. And its politics are muddled. Are all male doctors heels? And just because a Magical Negro character (the “midwife with soul”) says “I am not your Magical Negress” doesn’t make it so.
*. It will likely be uncomfortable viewing for many. Obstetric horror gets a lot of mileage out of stirrups and speculums and jelly (though I’ve always liked the jelly being rubbed on my belly when getting an ultrasound). But the story is just too layered with confusing dead ends and suggestions that are more intriguing than what (I think) is really going on. Plus, when you realize that every time something really disturbing starts to happen it’s inevitably going to be “just a dream,” the film is effectively neutered.
*. There are more ideas and motifs in play (like the twins/mirrors) than they seem to have known what to do with. I was actually looking forward to Lucy as Medea and pulling a double Andy Warhol at the end, but that’s another door that opens onto an empty room and they finally opt for a bit of gooey weirdness to wing things up with. I give everyone credit for trying, but the results are a classic example of too much and not enough.

Jungle Cruise (2021)

*. The wheels started turning on a production of Jungle Cruise in 2004 following the success of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Why shouldn’t there be another hit movie, or franchise even, based on an amusement park ride? After all, as Leslie Halliwell had remarked years earlier, ever since Jaws movies had become little more than fairground rides anyway (I give the full Halliwell quote in my notes on Pirates).
*. By 2021, however, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise was well and truly dead (at least one hopes) and a Pirates clone might not have seemed such a good idea. Plus there was a pandemic. So perhaps it’s no surprise that this movie disappointed in terms both of critical reception and box office. Though given how expensive it was — $200 million was approaching the level of a Pirates of the Caribbean budget — it was probably doomed to be one of those movies that can’t make back its production costs.
*. But I don’t think the problem was just that the project was stale. Jungle Cruise is not a good movie. I’ll just mention a few of the ways.
*. Things get off to a bad start as we’re pitched back to the story of Lope de Aguirre’s doomed voyage down the Amazon searching for some fabled tree whose blossoms heal all wounds. Cineastes will know this is the same Aguirre that Werner Herzog took as the subject for his masterpiece Aguirre, the Wrath of God, where Aguirre was played by Klaus Kinski. Not a big thing, but as a bit of a film snob I took Disney’s use of the character as sacrilege.
*. From there we go to a meeting of the Royal Society where a paper is being given by a clueless young man (Jake Whitehall) who can’t even read his cue cards, talking about the search for the aforementioned blossoms. As things turn out, the young man’s name is MacGregor and he really is an idiot. Meanwhile, his sister Lily (Emily Blunt), a female Indiana Jones, is breaking into the Society’s archives to steal an arrowhead relic that’s necessary to her own search for the magic blossoms.
*. Lily can’t deliver her own paper because, you see, she’s just a woman. But as things turn out she is — surprise! — far more capable than any man. She can fight, sprint through any number of parkourish athletic tests, and is of course vastly more intelligent than all the stuffy old heads of the Royal Society combined. Plus she wears pants.
*. I was rolling my eyes at this, having come to expect it in the present dispensation of girl power and “anything men can do women can do better” down-with-the-patriarchy messaging. But I thought Jungle Cruise took this a bit further than necessary. In the first place, Lily’s brother is presented not just as a boob and a dandy but a sissy. He wears a pink jacket and puts face cream on before going to bed. I found this annoying, but then halfway through the movie we find out that he is, in fact, gay and I don’t know if this made things even worse.
*. So women are good and men are pretty much all awful, unless they’re gay, which is sweet, or they’re beefcake like the Amazon riverboat captain Frank (Dwayne Johnson), which is sexy. Germans, of course, are bad. Hollywood has started digging deeper into its anti-German biases now that Nazis have been getting a little old, so both here and in Wonder Woman we get First World War proto-Nazis, who are just as awful. Even when they’re just all-purpose nasty Jesse Plemons wearing a Sgt. Pepper’s uniform.
*. Aside from the fact that trafficking in such tired stereotypes is dull in itself, the political correctness of such a film frustrates any sense of suspense or surprise at twists in the plot. There’s a scene later in the movie when Lily, Frank, and MacGregor are captured by an Amazonian tribe and they seem about ready for dunking in a giant stewpot. But of course you know that in 2021 Indigenous people can’t be presented as such villains, or even villains at all. So you just wait until it’s revealed that the natives are really good guys, and their chief (a woman, naturally) volunteers to help the trio on their quest.
*. A second point going against Jungle Cruise is the stupid and excessively complicated back story. It’s so stupid, and complicated, that I’m not even going to bother getting into it here. Suffice it to say that Aguirre and his men are still around, having been transformed into Amazonian demons (think Davy Jones’ crew), and Frank is of their party too, which was a twist I didn’t care for one bit. It actually had the effect of making Frank less interesting. It seems he’s been chugging up this river for over 400 years. What a drag.
*. A final point I’ll mention is the CGI, which I thought terrible. As I’ve said before, CGI does some things very well. In particular: massed armies and cities being destroyed. On a smaller scale it has real problems. Frank has a pet jaguar that is pure CGI and it doesn’t look remotely real. It’s far too big for one thing, though getting picky about such matters as that when the plot involves a full-size German U-boat going all the way up the Amazon may not be worth the time. And director Jaume Collet-Serra had success with The Shallows, a movie that featured a CGI shark that was twice as big as any shark ever, so he may have felt comfortable with it.
*. But if CGI doesn’t do cats well, it really, really makes a hash out of snakes. As in Anaconda. As in Snakes on a Plane. And as in this movie, where Aguirre is literally a man made out of snakes. An interesting enough idea, but it just looks a total mess. Thrown in a bee-man (CGI also does a miserable job with insects) and you’ve got what is all-around one of the very worst big-budget CGI-fests I’ve seen.
*. Too long, with a whole bunch of stuff that’s unnecessary. I like Paul Giamatti but he seems superfluous here. As noted, the plot has way too much back story. Why couldn’t they just be looking for a chest of gold? Collet-Serra has had some hits and misses but he doesn’t seem a good fit for this material. The pacing is awkward, and made me think of how The Mummy did so much more with a very similar story twenty years ago. They could have learned something from that movie instead of just ripping it off.
*. Here’s how it ends: the evil German guy is killed by the gay brother, though accidentally. Aguirre’s gang are put back into petrified bondage. Frank dies but is brought back to life by Lily, who uses her last magic blossom. They kiss. Lily returns to England where she’s made a professor at the University of Cambridge, showing the old boys of the Royal Society what a woman can do (a gallery of women applaud while the grumpy old men harrumph). Lily and Frank tear off in an automobile, no doubt looking for new adventures. There has been some talk of a sequel, but this film’s disappointing performance may be enough to nip the franchise in the bud. Let it be so.

Tower of London (1962)

toweroflondon21

*. The origins of this movie are a bit muddy, and the featurette on its production included with the DVD doesn’t help clear things up much.
*. In the first place, it is not a remake of the 1939 Basil Rathbone film, though it deals with the same subject matter and borrows some of that earlier movie’s battle footage for the Bosworth montage. They’re two very different stories.
*. Is it Shakespeare? Or Shakespearean? Well, according to producer Gene Corman that was the idea. But the reasoning doesn’t sound right. According to Corman, he honestly thought Shakespeare meant box office after the success of Olivier’s Hamlet. But that movie came out in 1948, and his Richard III in 1955. So I don’t think that was what was behind it.
*. It is, however, Shakespearean to some extent. I don’t want to sound condescending (because this was a cheap film, and shot on one of Roger Corman’s express schedules), but it does play a bit like Shakespeare for Dummies. There’s no direct quoting from Richard III here, but the characters speak in a kind of ersatz Shakespeare, with Vincent Price as Richard delivering the following soliloquy on the battlements: “Is it what men do that darkens the sky? Or do the skies blacken the souls of men? And do I laugh to myself because I am ambitious and would be a king? Or do I laugh at myself? A misshapen thing that traffics with evil to gain a throne?”
*. According to the documentary on the making of the film, Gene Corman wanted “period language, authentic language” with the template for the script being Hamlet. Hm.
*. Apparently the original plan was to film Macbeth, and there’s still some residual Macbeth material in the way Richard’s Anne is played as Lady Macbeth. So in a way, it’s like a Shakespearean pastiche.
*. Price returns from the Rathbone film, where he played the Duke of Clarence nearly twenty-five years earlier. He was good as Clarence, but better suited for Richard. At least Richard as the hammy villain, the Vice from medieval morality plays who becomes an almost comic figure delighting in playing up his wickedness to the audience. This Richard is a little different in being hag-ridden by a small army of ghosts, but he’s still very much in that B-picture vein. Because this is a B-picture.
*. It’s something I’ve brought up before (see my notes on The Haunted Palace and The Last Man on Earth) but why is it that Price kept playing these roles where he’s a villain mooning over his dead wife? There’s no basis in the source material for it here, but remarkably it’s shoehorned in again, with Richard mourning Anne (who he has unintentionally murdered).
*. The original plan was to shoot it in colour, but the switch was made to black-and-white in order to save a buck or two. This hurt. In the first place, as Gene Corman knew, an essential element to his brother’s garish visual style was lost. It also left the film with the unfortunate bait-and-switch effect of having the studio logo come up in colour and then the rest of the film follow in black-and-white. This is something that can be counted on to piss audiences off, and it did. After decent opening box office things really dropped off because word got out that it wasn’t in colour.
*. The 1939 telling of the story was more a historical costume drama. The Corman sensibility is something different. He likes the costumes and the Gothic sets, but really he can’t wait to get back to one of Poe’s dungeons. The ghosts are pretty humdrum here, but that Room 101 box over the head with the rat in it is the movie’s raison d’être.

Voyagers (2021)

*. On a mission to continue the human race on a newly discovered Goldilocks planet, things go terribly awry onboard the spaceship Humanitas. The crew of multi-ethnic but English-only teens have had their drinking water spiked with drugs to make them more docile, and when they find out they stop taking their blue drinks. Once off their meds they instantly turn into horny and aggressive high-school students and, after getting rid of the one adult on the ship (a typically unhappy-looking Colin Farrell) it isn’t long before their hormones have them fucking and killing each other pretty much indiscriminately, all while maintaining a perfect mousse-to-gel ratio.
*. In other words, Lord of the Flies in Space. Which is a decent enough premise, though nothing new is done with it here and I found the whole thing obvious, slow-moving, and depressing. Not so obvious though that the clueless baby geniuses could figure out what was happening to them. I guess having the progeny of Nobel laureates in physics and M.I.T. bioengineers wasn’t much help. They’d have better spent their time reading English Lit and studying PoliSci.
*. A cast of pretty youngsters including Tye Sheridan, Fionn Whitehead, and Lily-Rose Depp, daughter of Johnny. Hey! I thought you needed to know science and stuff to get on this ship. Who let in the celeb spawn?
*. It’s always a bit off-putting to watch the offspring of famous actors breaking in. You can’t help looking at their faces and comparing them to their parents. I found myself doing this a lot watching Scott Eastwood recently in Wrath of Man. No doubt he’s Clint’s kid. As for Lily-Rose Depp, there’s an obvious resemblance there too. What I was most struck by though is how weird her eyes look. Of course they’re made up to look larger than natural, but even so they seem almost distorted. It’s like they put her face through some kind of filter.
*. As for the acting. it’s hard to say anything because the kids here are such test-tube oddities anyway. Depp has a stoned, sullen look that I’m guessing came with the part (nobody in this movie smiles). Or it may be her modeling background.
*. I found this movie to be a real grind to watch. It’s downbeat and predictable. The Great Teen Awakening is kind of erotic, and the wacky montages have a desperate, ridiculous charm, but that’s all the good I can say. The rest is just formula, down to the tried, tested, and true expedient of blowing the bad guy out an airlock at the end. When you can’t think of anything else to do, just go with the classics.
*. What I was looking forward to was a Philip K. Dick ending where it would all be revealed as a training run, with the spaceship never leaving Earth. No such luck. Instead, some pristine new planet is fated to be ruined by the third generation of our star seed. It looks nice from space but I’m sure it will take no time at all for this crew to make a hash of it.

Wrath of Man (2021)

*. I was initially misled by the DVD box cover. Yes, Jason Statham and Guy Ritchie had me thinking BritCrime, but there was also that tweed three-piece suit that Statham is wearing. So this is London, right?
*. Well, I’m not sure but I don’t think Statham ever wears that suit, or anything like it, in Wrath of Man. And we’re not in London but Los Angeles. But I think I should be excused for not picking up on that since the opening credits are pure Bond and the introductory scene plays out from a very restricted point of view. It’s an armored car heist shot from a fixed position within the armored car and while we can hear a lot of different voices we can’t be sure what’s going on.
*. This is actually important because we’re going to keep coming back to this scene, with a little more information dropped in every time through a process of what literary critics once referred to as delayed decoding.
*. So it’s a BritCrime picture set in L.A., though mainly shot in London. Except it’s also a 2004 French film named Cash Truck (Le Convoyeur) that Ritchie was remaking, only it’s not quite as dark as that movie. Wrath of Man is plenty dark, I think, but there are limits to what a more mainstream Hollywood pic was going to allow.

*. I really enjoyed Wrath of Man, mainly because Ritchie dialed things back. He could have been all stunts and Steven Soderbergh slickness, but except for one eye-rolling aerial-camera roll he plays that stuff down. Compare that opening heist to the similar scene in Heat, which is its most obvious precursor. Then listen and instead of an endless sampling of hip tunes and classic rock you’ll only hear a louring, repetitive theme that sounds like the turning wheels of fate.
*. Another aspect of the dialing down has to do with the violence. This is a violent movie but it’s surprising how many of the major characters get killed off screen. We don’t see bodies disintegrating in hails of bullets. And with that darkness I mentioned there are a lot of important bodies that pile up. There’s a relentless spiral of violent death in the final act wherein nearly the entire cast is disposed of in a manner that’s almost cursory.
*. Speaking of those hails of bullets, does body armour protect you that much from automatic rifle fire? I really don’t think so. You’d certainly be getting knocked clear off your feet. But it’s a movie gunfight so I guess we have to let all that stuff go.
*. At times the pace flags, the ending is a let down, and there are plot twists that I really didn’t think made sense, but overall this is very nicely turned out heist picture that doesn’t make many wrong moves. Ritchie and Statham are both in fine form, the bad guys credibly professional and distinctly realized, and the way the film grinds out its tale of revenge feels like a fresh take on an old story, whether it’s playing in Paris, London, or L.A.

Fatman (2020)

*. I began my notes on Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) by talking about the controversy it generated with its depiction of a psycho-slasher Santa Claus. I thought the outrage a bit overdone, but it underlined what has proven to be an abiding problem. Assuming you want to make an “adult” Christmas movie — and I can think of few good reasons why you would — you’re likely going to find it’s not an easy task.
*. If anything, the Christmas horror Better Watch Out (2016) was even worse than Silent Night, Deadly Night, in large part because of its inability to settle on a consistent tone. At least Silent Night, Deadly Night, much like Black Christmas (which wasn’t really a Christmas movie at all) knew what it was about. Better Watch Out was a disgusting travesty, or as I put it in my notes, “a complete piece of shit.”
*. Fatman is another complete piece of shit, mainly for its own slightly different mangling of tone. I’ve heard it described as a “dark comedy,” which I guess is something different (darker?) than a black comedy. The plot has to do with a grizzled Chris Cringle (Mel Gibson), fueled by booze and cookies, running his Santa operation out of a farm in Alaska. Times are tough though, and the federal government is going to pull Santa’s subsidies unless he gets his workshop producing fighter jets (real ones, not toys) for Uncle Sam. He reluctantly agrees. Meanwhile, a bratty rich kid who once got a lump of coal for Christmas hires a hitman (Walton Goggins), who has his own issues with the Fatman, to kill Santa.
*. Does this sound funny? Well, it isn’t. Does it even sound like a movie you’d want to watch? Apparently the writing-directing team of Ian and Eshom Nelms shopped the script around for over 10 years before getting someone to greenlight it. Normally I’d admire this persistence and belief in the value of one’s work, but in this case I think they might have taken it as a hint that the whole concept was garbage.
*. I guess the hook here was that they were playing the concept straight. So that while there are obviously absurd moments, Goggins and the bratty kid are genuinely cruel and repellent figures, and we see people being shot and beaten in realistic ways. I don’t think I have to point out that none of this is funny. Nor is it dramatic in any way. It’s just painful to watch.
*. A special lack of distinction award goes to the U.S. military, who aren’t just portrayed as exploitive and soulless bureaucrats of the military-industrial complex, but also totally incompetent as fighting men. A lone gunman simply blasts his way into their high-security compound and kills all of them, leaving Santa, his wife, and his elves to take the killer down.
*. Totally unsatisfying, even with Mel’s final appearance as Odin to put a little scare into the murderous shit who started all this. Probably the worst movie I saw all year and one I nearly pulled out of the DVD player after twenty minutes. Let this be a warning to you not to even feel tempted to check this one out. Leave it alone and look for happier holiday fare.

Quiz the one hundred-and-fifty-ninth: Timestamped (Part four)

No need to check your watch (or phone) for the time this week. We’ve got that covered. Now that you know when (and in some cases where) these movies are set, I’m sure you’ll have no trouble guessing their names.

See also: Quiz the twentieth: Timestamped (Part one), Quiz the forty-eighth: Timestamped (Part two), Quiz the one hundred-and-fifty-ninth: Timestamped (Part three).

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Bad Santa 2 (2016)

*. I thought the original Bad Santa would be hard to match for its transgressive tastelessness, especially this many years later, in a time of renewed political correctness, but with Bad Santa 2 at least they can say they tried. And, I think they succeeded more than the film is given credit for. A box office bomb that was panned by critics, I don’t think it’s any kind of holiday classic, but it stands up pretty well alongside its predecessor.
*. This time out Bad Santa Willie Soke (Billy Bob Thornton) is roped into doing another job by his former partner Marcus Skidmore (Tony Cox), who is fresh out of jail. It seems Marcus has been tipped off by Willie’s even more reprobate mother (Kathy Bates) about the possibility of robbing a Chicago (Montreal) charity. The gang is completed when Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly) follows Willie to Chicago because it’s Christmas and Willie is now the only family he has left.
*. That being the plot, the rest of the movie is given over to the usual foul-mouthed shenanigans. Example: Mama’s endearing name for her wayward son is “shit stick” because of his precocious indulgence in anal sex. She calls him shit stick a lot.
*. I didn’t feel guilty about laughing at some of it. Thornton’s jaded sneer still plays well, and Cox and Bates are unredeemable rogues. Christina Hendricks shows up to be the new hot girl who is unaccountably attracted to Santa Daddy. The end credits are fittingly off-colour, but got another laugh out of me.
*. I think the worst that can be said of Bad Santa 2 is that it’s perfunctory. There are twists but no surprises. And I’ll even grant it as having a bit more Christmas spirit than the original, though I don’t think it’s as good a movie. In any event, I feel optimistic in saying this should be the last we’ll see of this B. S.

Bad Santa (2003)

*. There is a Christmas story archetype wherein a nasty fellow — call him Ebenezer Scrooge, or the Grinch — is transformed and redeemed by the holiday spirit. That’s all that’s happening in Bad Santa, as safecracker Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) is a scrawny, foul-mouthed alcoholic and incontinent ass-man who pairs up with dwarf assistant Marcus (Tony Cox) to play Santa and one of his elves in shopping mall department stores over the Christmas season, and then later using their position as an in to break into the mall after hours.
*. That’s all there is to it. So give Billy Bob Thornton credit for pulling the part of Bad Santa — “an eating, drinking, shitting, fucking Santy Claus” — off. He’s sleazy, but he sells us on the notion of a man who has truly bottomed out, if not on why any store would hire such an obvious derelict. I think his main draw is that he works cheap, but even so I think most malls have standards. Then again, Lauren Graham’s Sue doesn’t have much in the way of standards either. Or else that’s just one hell of a Santa fetish that’s riding her.
*. Thornton is the funny guy here though, in a movie where the humour mostly consists of hearing Santa drop loads of f-bombs. Tony Cox is just a sidekick. Bernie Mac shows up as a crooked security chief but I didn’t find him funny at all. He’s just here to be dislikeable. And John Ritter, in his last role, is little more than a cameo. So f-bombs away! And crotch shots. There’s one scene where everyone just goes around punching each other in the nuts. And I have to admit, I was laughing out loud. Some days you just need to see a bit of that.

*. This was a time when we were between waves of PC culture, so a lot of the humour would probably be cut today, leaving not much else. There’s a boy who is apparently mentally challenged in some way. There’s an aggressive gay guy who tries to beat Thornton up outside a bar. The bad people are all Black or Asian. And yet none of this struck me as offensive because it’s not mean-spirited like a lot of other “dark” Christmas movies. And the fact is that Santa is such piece of crap he’s basically just white trash anyway.
*. Rest assured though that the Christmas spirit will triumph, and that there will be a positive message at the end about having to stand up for yourself, even if that means administering another crotch shot. In the last twenty years it’s a movie that’s even gone on to become a bit of a holiday classic, even spawning a belated and unsuccessful sequel in 2016.
*. Like most oddities, it couldn’t really be duplicated (though I wasn’t that disappointed with the sequel). Thornton was far from the first, and hardly the most obvious choice for Willie, but he works. Terry Zwigoff’s slightly alt-flavoured approach also paid off unexpectedly. And, as noted, it came out at a time when it could get away with a lot more than it could today. Which is probably the main reason it has held up as well as it has.