Author Archives: Alex Good

Scream (2022)

*. The original Scream (1996) was a bit of a game-changer in the horror genre, with its air self-awareness and drift into dark comedy. But like all such films, once the game changed that original success became hard to duplicate. Think of Quentin Tarantino post-Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. With the successful formula easily (and nearly immediately) being parodied, all that Scream could do was fall into the same franchise rut it was busy mocking, repeating the original premise to diminishing returns.
*. This latest version of Scream is stuck with much the same problem. Where the formula gets some help is in the way the world itself has changed. “Elevated horror” is now a thing, as is the phenomenon of toxic fan culture. And phones are used to send scary text messages as much as to talk into.
*. By the way, here’s a quick aside on that last point: though they’re used a lot, text messages can be hard to read on a small screen. And since that is the way a lot of movies are being watched these days, even on phones, the problem can get quite pronounced. How do you read a text message in a movie you’re already watching on a tablet or phone?
*. In any event, I thought this Scream was at least an honest attempt to channel the spirit of the original, and should satisfy the likes of the Stab fangirl who explains the nature of a “requel” to the assembled cast in a homage to the laying out of the “rules” in the first film. It’s a reasonably bright script that plays the same tricks with regard to the identity of the killer(s) as were done throughout the tetralogy. I didn’t think the ending was a big surprise or twist, but there’s only so much that can be done in this regard.
*. Unfortunately, the back story has now become as involved as the different strands of the MCU and I found it not worth sorting out. All of the next-generation family connections — the hero here is Sam Carpenter (Melissa Barrera), the illegitimate daughter of Billy Loomis, who shows up as a sort of guardian spirit — were just confusing. At least to me. But then I’m probably not a true fan. I didn’t even need to see Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, and David Arquette again. They’re awkwardly introduced and seem out of place.
*. The bigger let-down though is that co-directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, who did V/H/S, Southbound, and Ready or Not, really feel off their game. This isn’t a scary movie at all. In fact, it’s dull. Even the jump scares, or the idea of jump scares, are just running gags. Example one being the business with fridge doors. The kills, meanwhile, are of the perfunctory kind that litter the screen in the later Halloween entries. They’re really not good. And some clichés were in need some kind of acknowledgement. Like why is that hospital so deserted? I know that’s part of the formula, but as such I thought it was a joke that was missing a punchline.
*. In the end, I guess I felt they did all they could with a new entry to a franchise: maintaining continuity and keeping faith with the rest of the series. And it’s not even a requel but a direct sequel, as critics/fan boys were quick to point out. But as every franchise eventually learns, there’s only so much you can do with the same characters and set-up before you run out of gas and you’re just left going through the motions. Twenty or thirty years down the road, you can’t go home again.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2017)

*. Not just hip but hipster Shakespeare. I really feel like I shouldn’t have liked this, but while it was certainly uneven I enjoyed it.
*. Athens is now Hollywood and Hermia is a movie star, Theseus a big-shot producer, Helena a screenwriter, Lysander a photographer, Demetrius an agent, the mechanicals a bunch of film students, Puck a pothead surfer dude and Oberon . . . well, I’m not sure what Oberon is exactly. Some kind of vaguely benevolent drug lord?
*. It’s all very gimmicky and clever, to the point where the gimmicks can become a distraction. You have the feeling Shakespeare is being put in a blender. Some of the lines appear as text messages. The Pyramus and Thisbe play is done as a Star Wars homage, with the lion appearing as Chewbacca. Lines from other plays are used as gag lines. When Bottom is looking for the rehearsal studio he accidentally enters the wrong door. “2B?” he asks. “Not 2B,” is the reply. In Theseus’s screening room a dog is sitting in his chair and he has to tell it “Out, damned Spot.” Groan.
*. These are all, however, relatively minor things. Window dressing. More significant is having Bottom being given not the usual donkey head but instead a pair of buttocks. He literally has an ass face. Now this is startling, and I think for a lot of people will be somewhat off-putting. Personally, I thought it went with the spirit of the rest of the film, which is the best I can say for it and so I’ll leave it at that.

*. Another change made by director Casey Wilder Mott is to add a flashback where we see Demetrius finding the arrow fired by Cupid, which is what initially turns him away from Helena to Hermia. Which helps to sweeten his character up a bit. Also endearing is making Peter Quince a woman (Charity Wakefield) who has a bit of a thing for Bottom (Fran Kranz). Again, this is sweet.
*. Some people found this all too much, but I thought it was fun. The only problem I have with doing Shakespeare like this, especially with the very abrupt, rapid editing, is that it mangles any sense of sustained rhythm or progressive thought in the language. I think the idea is to make it sound more realistic, but I always feel such efforts make the play seem even more unnatural. This isn’t “dialogue” as a contemporary screenplay understands it, and treating it that way does violence to it. As it is, Saul Williams as Oberon seems the only one capable of speaking his lines with any conviction.
*. You could compare it to other contemporary American riffs on Shakespeare. Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet is the usual name to be brought up, though I thought Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing seemed a better fit for the millennial vibe. But I think the film I was most reminded of was Troma’s Tromeo and Juliet (1996) for its spirit of anarchic farce and mayhem.
*. It is not great Shakespeare, but overall I thought it had enough wit to keep its head above water. Williams, Lily Rabe, and Rachael Leigh Cook are all pretty good. The presentation is too frantic for me, but then I never really got with the twenty-first century.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994)

*. Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is usually considered the most faithful film adaptation of the famous novel. I have to use the awkward double possessive though because this production is Branagh’s baby all the way. As screenwriter Frank Darabont put it: “That movie was his vision entirely. If you love that movie you can throw all your roses at Ken Branagh’s feet. If you hated it, throw your spears there too, because that was his movie.”
*. A popular paradox has it that it takes real talent to make a very bad movie. This is true if we’re talking about a special kind of very bad movie. The vast majority of forgettable (and now forgotten) Grade-Z productions of yesteryear were the product of a general lack of vision, effort, technical competence, and/or funds. But a movie like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein had all of these in abundance. It’s one of those special bad movies.

*. It was primarily criticized for its manic grandiloquence and operatic qualities. Roger Ebert: “Branagh has always been a director cheerfully willing to shoot for the moon, to pump up his scenes with melodrama and hyperbole, and usually I enjoy that. . . . Here, however, faced with material that begins as lurid melodrama, he goes over the top.” Or Darabont again: “It has no patience for subtlety. It has no patience for the quiet moments. It has no patience period. It’s big and loud and blunt and rephrased by the director at every possible turn. Cumulatively, the effect was a totally different movie. I don’t know why Branagh needed to make this big, loud film . . . the material was subtle. Shelley’s book was way out there in a lot of ways, but it’s also very subtle. I don’t know why it had to be this operatic attempt at filmmaking.”
*.  An irony: the classic 1931 Frankenstein was based less on Shelley’s novel than on a stage treatment that had been popular. In going back to the source, Branagh, with far greater resources than Universal, chose to make a film that was even more theatrical. It may be closer to the novel, but it’s actually less novelistic.
*. The critical assessments made by Ebert and Darabont are fair, but it’s worth remembering that Bram Stoker’s Dracula had come out just a couple of years earlier and Coppola had been praised precisely for the operatic, over-the-top theatricality of his production. So I don’t think it’s fair to say Branagh was necessarily heading in the wrong direction.
*. And to be fair I’d even say that some of his efforts pay off. Frankenstein’s attic lab looks like it was a lot of fun to design, as much in debt to Dr. Seuss as Kenneth Strickfaden. And Elizabeth’s long human torch scene is one of the best there’s been, right up there with such classic burns as the ones seen in The Thing from Another World, Westworld, and Bubba Ho-Tep (to name just a few of my favourites).

*. But then there’s all the silliness, that need to pump up every scene, if not through set design (dig that staircase!) then through a constantly twirling camera or with overhead shots that beg for a character to tilt his head back and scream at the heavens (an appeal that does not go denied).

*. I remember seeing this when it first came out and how it finally lost me with the Monster standing before the burning cottage vowing “Revenge!” (though I should add that this scene does stay pretty close to the book). This is immediately followed by an aerial shot of his trudging through an alpine landscape. It all just seemed too, too much. Not too bold, but too clichéd, both visually and dramatically.
*. Robert De Niro as the Monster (or The Creature) was a bold bit of casting. He’s given plenty to work with too, as what makes this a more faithful adaptation of Shelley than most Frankenstein movies is the fact that the Monster is so articulate and sympathetic a figure. In at least one scene the clear referent is the Elephant Man. Of course the fact that he’s taught himself to read is the silliest part of the novel as well, but I think it’s to Branagh’s and De Niro’s credit that they get us to go along with it.

*. I wasn’t sure though why the Monster had so much visible stitching. Sure he’s had a brain transplant, but why would that entail carving up his face? His head was otherwise a single unit. As is Elizabeth’s head when it is stuck on Justine’s body, and her face is all stitched up as well. Chalk it up to a design element that doesn’t stand close examination.
*. Tom Hulce seems to have arrived here just off the bus from Amadeus. Helena Bonham Carter has the period look, but doesn’t project the sexuality the role needs. John Cleese is surprisingly effective as Waldman. I think maybe because he realized he didn’t have to overplay the part in such a production.

*. Branagh himself is hard to take seriously. He embodies the shift the film makes from Romance (the cultural movement) to romance (of the men with no shirts and bodice-ripping kind). It’s the sort of hammy, artificial performance that goes with the giant, all-too-obvious studio sets. So in that sense it comes with the territory.
*. I started off calling this a very bad movie, but of a special type. In fact, it strikes me more as a very silly movie. As such, I think I actually enjoyed it a little more this time than I did twenty-five years ago. But it’s still a joke. Maybe in another twenty-five years I’ll be able to take it seriously and change my mind completely. A revolution like that takes a while.

I, Frankenstein (2014)

*. Frankenstein’s monster re-imagined as a Marvel superhero, or as another part of the Underworld universe, with the vampire and lycans replaced by the gargoyle order and the 666 (or so we’re told) legions of demons. That it was produced by Lakeshore Entertainment, the same company that did (or does) the Underworld movies, should come as no surprise. Nor that a crossover was originally planned. Hell, Bill Nighy even reprises the same role he played in Underworld, except instead of Viktor he’s called Neberius.
*. Another link to Underworld has to do with the weirdly depopulated nature of the city we’re in. Where are all the people? Well, as explained on the commentary track the production couldn’t actually afford them because they would make the effects too difficult. So again we have hordes of monsters running through empty evening streets, while the gargoyles inhabit a ginormous cathedral in the centre of town that appears to be totally abandoned.
*. The point of all this being that any movie can now be turned into the same movie, which is to say a CGI, comic-book inspired action film.
*. Mary Shelley’s novel is quickly recapped at the beginning and then we’re off to the races, being introduced to characters with names like Gideon, Zuriel, Keziah, and Ophir. The monster himself is re-christened Adam. It’s all very faux-biblical, and the cast deliver their portentous lines in suitably British accents (despite most of them being Australian). Aaron Eckhart is the exceptional American, who just sounds like a bear trying to talk.
*. Director (and co-writer) Stuart Beattie: “It’s really kind of funny dialogue if you look at it on a page, and it takes an actor of Miranda [Otto]’s calibre to actually sell it as real. . . . That’s one of the great things about actors, that the right ones will sell anything you want them to.” Well, all I can say is that the right ones try. Perhaps they shouldn’t have tried so hard. As critics agreed there isn’t so much as a hint of wit or humour in any of the proceedings. The actors might have had some fun and helped out in this regard.
*. Not-so-great moments of DVD commentary. Beattie again: “That line ‘It’s alive, it’s alive!’ you have to have in any Frankenstein movie, in reference to the classic Hammer films.” I hope that was a slip of the tongue.
*. The commentary is actually worth a listen, as Beattie gives a lot of good insight into the making of the film and what his thought processes were. But you have to shake your head at times. What he was most proud of about I, Frankenstein is that it was a “character-driven” action film. What he means by this, he explains, is that things happen because of the needs of the characters and not the plot.
*. This amazed me. Everything that happens here happens because it’s a requirement of the (ridiculous) plot. The demons have to either get Adam or get Frankenstein’s How-To manual on bringing the dead back to life. The gargoyles have to stop them. Character seems to have nothing to do with it. Even at the end I wasn’t sure what Adam’s hang-up was about the book. And his much-adverted to loneliness is just thrown out there without ever being represented in any way.
*. Indeed, one of the notable things I found about the movie was just how disposable the characters were. They seem to keep dying ahead of time, and we barely notice when they’re gone. At least Keziah and Ophir are going to a better place.
*. It’s an effects movie but the effects are nothing special. The demons dissolve into fireballs as they are “descended.” They also seem to come apart pretty easily. And as for their appearance, they really just look like guys wearing rubber Hallowe’en masks. I was not impressed.
*. Yes, once again the fate of the entire world hangs in the balance. And once again our hero has to adopt the mantle of Christ in some oversized sacrificial gesture. Superhero movies really need a reboot. Or at least a little bit of fresh thinking.
*. There’s no point trying to figure it out. It doesn’t make a lick of sense. Why has Neberius been collecting dead bodies for hundreds of years and going through all the trouble of storing them in that fantastic facility? Why? Why not just revive dead bodies as he needs them? Why do it all at once? There’s no point asking.
*. The one point that did bother me was the blending of magic and science. I kept wondering why in such a demon-haunted world ruled by supernatural forces the demons needed “one of the world’s most respected electrophysiologists” to figure out how to raise the dead. Especially when the big secret seems only to be to increase the power flow.
*. Meanwhile, why is this turf war being fought by such low-level flunkies? Where are the archangels we hear about? Are Michael and Gabriel too busy to lend a hand? Beattie says that they apparently “sent” Adam to help, but that seems a leap of faith to me. And where are Beelzebub and Lucifer? Couldn’t they even be bothered to make a cameo? Or were they being saved for a sequel? If so . . . ha!

Cape Fear (1962)

*. If you want to buy a copy of John D. MacDonald’s The Executioners today I don’t think you can, at least under that title. Since the release of this film it’s always been reprinted as Cape Fear, despite the fact that Cape Fear (the place) is never even mentioned in the book. Gregory Peck named the movie Cape Fear on a whim, because he found The Executioners “a turn-off.” He then figured that movies named after places (his example: Casablanca) usually did well. So he looked in an atlas for a catchy title and picked out Cape Fear. Cape Fear, the movie, didn’t do well, and put an end to Peck’s production company.
*. MacDonald deserves a great deal of the credit for Cape Fear though. A prolific author of popular semi-pulp fiction, in The Executioners he introduced what would become an archetypal plot: the civilized, law-abiding, suburban family that has to descend to some primitive state in order to defend itself from a mortal threat. Think of how many movies you’ve seen since that have taken the premise of “what would you do to protect your family?” and run with it. Wes Craven, to take just one example, found such a primal message irresistible, and made it the foundation for such early films as The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes. Since then, it’s been a horror staple running from home invasion to rape-revenge and beyond.
*. That progeny is worth taking note of, as Cape Fear strikes me as being not so much a crime drama or noir as a horror flick. Max Cady isn’t a noir bad guy but a psycho killer. Look at the way he slithers into the river like an alligator. And the way the suspense builds throughout is pure slasher cinema.
*. Did that all start here? I’m not sure, but MacDonald must have been one of the first to popularize such a story since the book was published in 1957 and it takes as its launchpad an idyll of 1950s American suburbia that Cady, a ghost from the war, has no place in.

*. To please the censors Cady is no longer an ex-soldier. I would have thought that the least of the things that would have bothered them. But apparently they were quite exercised by the film, and made a number of cuts. I’m surprised how much was left in. The way Cady rubs that egg onto Peggy (Polly Bergen) is almost pornographic. And of course, the scene where he stares at the 15-year-old Nancy (Lori Martin, who actually was 15) in her short shorts. “Getting to be almost as juicy as your wife,” he remarks to Sam. How did a line like that stay in? Censors complained that “there was a continuous threat of sexual assault on a child.” Well, yeah.
*. One reason may have been that so much is only implied, and Cady isn’t actually doing anything wrong. Which is, curiously, the same defence Cady uses to stay out of trouble with the law. And so the movie, like Cady himself, proceeds indirectly, with lots of sexual innuendo. Look at how Nancy runs away from that looming crotch in the school. Or that nasty-looking pole with a screw sticking out of it that Cady is wielding at the end.

*. On reading the book Peck immediately recognized that Cady was the stronger part if not the lead. Whoever played Cady would steal the picture from white bread, predictable Sam Bowden. Fun fact: To Kill a Mockingbird came out the same year as this film. And is Sam so different from Atticus Finch?
*. There are some changes to the book that work. The bowling alley scene is new. The houseboat at the end is invented, presumably to tie in with the title that Peck picked out of an atlas. In the book the climax takes place at the Bowden home, with Peggy being used as bait. Nancy is being kept safe somewhere else. Cady’s lust for the jailbait daughter is something played up far more in the movie, and developed even further in Scorsese’s remake.
*. Two other scenes that are added to the movie and not found in the book are worth mentioning. In the book Cady roughs up a prostitute who won’t testify against him, but this character is made into something more complex on screen. Diane says to him at one point: “Max Cady. What I like about you is that you’re rock bottom. It’s a great comfort for a girl to know she could not possibly sink any lower.” This is an odd speech, and comes out of nowhere.

*. The other big change is the addition of the sleazy defence lawyer who represents Cady. There is no corresponding character in the book. His introduction also marks what may be a first. We recognize his type in a number of later movies: the liberal lawyer who enables criminals by manipulating the system and insisting on things like due process and rights. Dirty Harry was always butting heads with these guys. He’s stuck around, even though he disappears entirely from this movie without really serving any necessary purpose. Sam is a good lawyer, and in the end upholds the sanctity of the law. But we know that this degenerate suit is still waiting out there and is someone we have to be on our guard against.
*. Bernard Herrmann’s score comes on strong — too strong, in my opinion, over the opening credits when nothing is happening — and it’s a pity the rest of the production doesn’t live up to it. Scorsese knew what he was doing when he played it up even more and matched it with visual grandiosity. In this movie the biggest drag is J. Lee Thompson’s flat direction. I won’t call it uninspired, because it was quite determinedly inspired by Hitchcock, but it never snaps to life.
*. David Thomson preferred this film to the remake “because it is trash honestly done, whereas the Scorsese version is a tangled mess of violent urges and improving attitudes.” Here I’ll just address the point about trash honestly done. I think this is a nod to MacDonald’s unabashed populism and mythmaking. Peck, unlike Nolte in the remake, really is all that is good about America, while Mitchum is, as Thomson calls him, the Beast: primitive, bestial, elemental. He’s not a complicated man. As Diane says of him: “You’re just an animal: crude, lustful, barbaric.” For whatever reason, it’s a role that Mitchum seems to have enjoyed. He doesn’t often look like he’s enjoying himself on screen, but he is here.
*. Calling it trash is also a nod to the genre. This isn’t just a horror film, but a trashy horror film. A sleazy horror, but also a groundbreaking, seminal film that has left a large footprint. By itself you can see why Scorsese wanted to remake it.
*. It’s a movie that doesn’t entirely live up to that mythic or archetypal conception I’ve been talking about. This isn’t just because it was constrained by censors but because I don’t think Thompson really understood the size of what he was working on. That’s understandable, but Cape Fear is a big little movie, and one that hasn’t stopped growing over the years.

The Winter’s Tale (1910)

*. The Winter’s Tale is usually classified as one of Shakespeare’s late romances or problem plays, a couple of labels that indicate how troublesome it is. I’m not sure how popular it’s been on stage, but the fact that this early version, produced by the short-lived Thanhauser Company, is one of only a couple of films of it that have been made in over a hundred years is another red flag. We’re entering dangerous waters.
*. I’ve never been fond of the play myself. I find it hard to follow, with the only parts that stick in my mind being a brief discussion of the works of art and nature, a moony speech made by Florizel to Perdita, and the two dramatic highlights: Antigonus exiting “pursued by a bear” and the “statue” of Hermione coming to life at the end.
*. Well, obviously we don’t get to hear the discussion of nature’s bastards or Florizel’s speech since this is a silent film. And we don’t get a bear, or even a guy dressed in a bear suit, to chase Antigonus off stage. And finally, we don’t get the big scene of the statue coming to life because apparently that part of the film has been lost.
*. That’s three pretty big strikes against this Winter’s Tale and I’m afraid they pretty much drain if of interest. What we’re left with is mainly just the usual posing in costume.
*. Given how complex a play it is I imagine a twelve (or fifteen, or whatever) minute version must have been baffling. In her helpful commentary, Judith Buchanan addresses this point directly and provides some background: “intelligibility . . . was partly dependent on some foreknowledge of the plot among its audiences, a sort of foreknowledge that actually probably could be depended upon in large swathes of the early twentieth-century American audience” (Thanhouser was an American company).
*. I think it’s fair to assume that those “large swathes” of a sophisticated moviegoing audience have entirely disappeared. I’m certain I don’t know anyone without an English degree who has read The Winter’s Tale. And even if the audience had read it at some point, I still think they’d need some help. So, according to Buchanan, contemporary showings had live narration provided by lecturers, a practice that was “particularly desirable for Shakespeare films”
*. Buchanan is most taken by the clown or fool character who appears in the foreground of some of the court shots. Which is worth noticing because I don’t think there is a clown in the play (just a wandering rogue figure). More curious is Buchanan’s comment that “Thanhouser understandably balked at the bear.” I actually found this not so easy to understand. Sure, however they decided to represent the bear it was going to look silly — this was 1910! — but it’s also one of the play’s signature moments. If I’d been in the audience I would have felt cheated not seeing it. Monsters and trick effects were (and remain) a big part of the moviegoing experience. This is a Winter’s Tale without the magic, which is a diminished thing.

Bullet Train (2022)

*. David Thomson is a big fan of John Wayne’s walk, saying “He moved the way singers sing, with huge confidence and daring.” It was a signature as much as his voice, and as he walks away at the end of The Searchers that’s how it’s supposed to register.
*. In our own time singer sing and dancers dance to a different beat, but you can still recognize a great walk. Brad Pitt has one. I remember first noticing this in the Ocean’s movies. When he saunters into frame here to the tune of a Japanese cover of “Stayin’ Alive” we understand the point being made, especially if we’re familiar with the English lyrics and think of John Travolta strutting down the street at the start of Saturday Night Fever. Well you can tell by the way I use my walk I’m a woman’s man, no time to talk . . .
*. I’m sure Pitt, and director David Leitch, understand all this. Pitt’s walk is an integral part of any of his performances. I don’t know if it has daring, but it has huge confidence and style. And this is a movie that trades in style. Note how impressed Channing Tatum is when he sees the stylish killer Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) stalk down the aisle of the train. What strikes him the most? Tangerine’s walk.

*. Bullet Train is also very much a movie of its moment. Leitch had previously helmed Deadpool 2, which had lots of the same sort of wisecracking superhero nonsense. And there’s more to the connection between the two movies than just the appearance of Ryan Reynolds in a cameo here playing Brad Pitt’s younger replacement. This is the kind of role Reynolds has taken over, in such films as The Hitman’s Bodyguard and Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard and Pitt is just a more rumpled version of the same character, with grey in his beard, a Gilligan hat, and some issues he’s trying to work through with therapy.
*. Actors like Pitt and Reynolds are so charming and cool that it’s a kind of superpower. You can’t take anything they do seriously and every action scene is a kind of comic set-piece. There’s a cultural evolution noticeable in all this in how we imagine cool. Pitt and Reynolds aren’t badasses. As violent as these movies are, they don’t even project any toughness. Their whole attitude toward shooting people and beating them up is ironic. It’s all a joke, signed off with a smile and a quip. They’re Bruce Willis’s John McClane, but better looking and more graceful.

*. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, and Bullet Train is a lot of fun. Watching it, I was reminded of Leslie Halliwell’s observation, some fifty years ago, of how movies had become amusement park train rides. Halliwell was disapproving (naturally), but a rollercoaster is exactly what this is. What’s more, seeing as this is 2022 it doesn’t mind letting you know. The hitman Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry) is a fan of the children’s television show Thomas the Tank Engine, which he defends by comparing it to contemporary movies: “Hey, you watch something nowadays, what is it, huh? Nothing. Its twists, violence, drama, no message. What’s the point? Huh?” You see? Everyone’s in on the joke.

*. All the usual elements are arranged well. The fast talking. The scrambled, Easter egg narrative that uses the flashiest of flashbacks to show how everything is connected. The retro-with-a-postmodern-twist soundtrack. That’s Engelbert Humperdinck, by the way, singing a revamped version of “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.” The week I saw this movie an acquaintance had been to see Humperdinck in Toronto. I was stunned when I heard she was going, since I had seen Humperdinck in Toronto in the mid ’70s. Anyway, he’s 86 years old and still played a two-hour set. Wow.
*. Bullet Train is silly, goofy, expensive fun (Pitt was reportedly paid $20 million, nearly a quarter of the total budget). It’s twists, drama, violence . . . and despite all the blood and explosions it’s utterly harmless, especially since you know the good guys are all (or mostly all) going to be OK and the bad guys are going to be smashed or blown to pieces.
*. There’s a scene here where Tangerine faces down a train station full of gangsters by saying they look like they’re trying out for an ’80s dance-off. It’s a funny line, but the thing is this whole movie is a 2020’s dance-off. One expects a sequel given its success, and maybe Reynolds and Pitt will get to bust some moves together. Or just go for a walk.

Last Night in Soho (2021)

*. Sometimes you just feel like throwing your hands up.
*. I’ve said before that I think Edgar Wright is an overrated director. Not bad, just overrated. I still think his best movie is Shaun of the Dead. With Last Night in Soho, which he came up with the story for, he is on form. Meaning it’s a great-looking movie, slickly (and expensively) put forward with some astounding technical virtuosity, but without a brain in its head or, for that matter, a whole lot of style.
*. Here’s the plot, which is where I throw my hands up. Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie) is a young woman from somewhere in ye olde rural England who goes to London to study fashion design. She is haunted by visions of her dead mother, who apparently had mental health issues. This makes us think Ellie may be schizophrenic, especially when she doesn’t fit in with the fast crowd of mean girls at school and starts having these very real-feeling fantasies where she’s a glamorous girl called Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy) clubbing in ’60s Soho. But Sandy is being hunted by a killer, or maybe she is a killer, and the same goes for Ellie. Or maybe she’s just going crazy.
*. There’s no spoiler for saying that Ellie isn’t crazy (though she does imagine things), because the fact that she isn’t crazy just makes the rest of the story even crazier. It literally makes no sense at all so I won’t bother trying to sort it out. But it’s too bad because I had the sense that Wright was going for something with a giallo vibe and the thing about most gialli is that even the most far-fetched of them still have an inherent logic, however twisted. Last Night in Soho doesn’t.

*. The plot also takes a backseat to Wright’s other obsessions. Like the idea of a character whose life has a soundtrack that gradually seems to take over that life. That was Baby Driver, but it’s even more pronounced here. Ellie, like Wright, has a fixation on the 1960s that, like Wright, she picked up from her mom. Wright was born in 1974 so it’s not like he has any other personal connection to the period. But he has a theory that “you’re always obsessed with the decade you just missed.” I wonder if that explains Cruella, a movie that came out the same year, also set in the fashion world of London in the ’60s. Or maybe it’s just coincidence.
*. McKenzie and Taylor-Joy both play well. Matt Smith (a wildly popular actor in the U.K., or so I’m told) plays a sinister weirdo only half as well as Terence Stamp (the “Silver Haired Gentleman), who by this point has the role down pat. Diana Rigg, in her last film appearance, at least goes out on an operatic note.
*. It’s not a movie I enjoyed for a moment, though I was impressed by the care taken to recreate London and all the fancy shots playing with Ellie/Sandie appearing in mirrors. But it’s a failed giallo and a third-rate ghost story, with characters I don’t think are worth sorting out. Are we supposed to see Sandie as a victim of the patriarchy turned angel of vengeance? I would try and draw something out of this if I cared either way, but I don’t.
*. Ellie’s grandmother is a seamstress and she pronounces it seem-stress. I always thought the British said sem-stress, at least in the ’60s. I can remember being corrected for saying seem-stress in Canada in the ’80s.
*. There’s a contradiction I sense between the lurid slasher plot and the lavish production values. A movie this trashy shouldn’t be dressed up for a gala. Apparently Wright was influenced by psycho-art house thrillers like Repulsion and Don’t Look Now, but they were intellectual buffets compared to this confection. Such movies are inaccessible in spirit to filmmakers now, even with a supernatural, schizo time machine and all the money in the world.