Author Archives: Alex Good

Oblivion (2013)

*. Voiceover. Exposition. Most filmmakers hate it. But it’s often a necessary evil in an SF movie where some work has to be put into introducing a new world. Often necessary, but not always. They played with using it in Blade Runner, but most people agree it’s better without.
*. Oblivion begins with a long voiceover, courtesy of Jack Harper (Tom Cruise). What a terrible cold open. It put me off the film right away. And the bigger problem with it is that I didn’t see where it was necessary. There doesn’t seem to be much information given us that we require in order to understand what’s going on. And as we later find out, it’s mostly bullshit anyway (as if anyone in the audience actually thought humanity was going to pick up sticks and move to one of Saturn’s moons to live).
*. We don’t need details because details are unimportant. Oblivion is a big-picture picture, an IMAX experience. The basic structure of the story would be easy to follow even with the sound on mute. Dystopic future Earth. Aliens in charge. Heroic human resistance. Blow up the Death Star. We all go home. You don’t need a script. And I certainly don’t think you need a movie that goes on for over two hours.
*. All you really need are a bunch of jaw-dropping effects and breathtaking scenery, which isn’t hard to do if you have enough money. Did you know they shot the scene of Jack on a precipice watering a plant in Iceland, and that the crew had to use helicopters to get themselves and their equipment to the location? Question: Why? I guess money was no object.
*. This also made me wonder how long Iceland has been a go-to location for these barren SF landscapes. It certainly came into its own around this time, providing the backdrop for Prometheus, which came out the year before Oblivion, and a chunk of Interstellar as well (the stuff on the ice planet). But here it doesn’t seem as essential.
*. The physical landscape is only slightly less familiar than the ruins of civilization. Of course Jack and Vika are stationed above the wreckage New York City, which has been mostly buried under dirt (the ice caps have melted, but the Tet is sucking the oceans dry). This means we get to visit all the usual SF tourist destinations. A ruined Yankee Stadium. A ruined New York Public Library. A ruined Empire State Building. A ruined Brooklyn Bridge. We even quickly fly past the torch from a ruined Statue of Liberty. “God damn you! God damn you all to hell!”

*. I don’t find the design elements all that interesting. Jack and Vika live in a boring Modernist palace in the sky. The Tet can let them live in luxury but can’t get them spare parts for the drones? Meanwhile, the Tet and its hydro stations are just floating inverted pyramids. The Bubble Ships are nothing special, and the drones just more bubbles. They also give the chase through the canyon even more of the effect of a giant pinball game. This may have been what they were going for but it doesn’t make it any better.
*. Why is the rebel hideout such a cavernous industrial site? To give the drones lots of open space to fly around in? I mean, the people don’t even have panic holes to escape to.
*. I don’t want to bash Tom Cruise. Who else could have played Jack in this movie? Of course that may be part of the problem with him. This is a Tom Cruise movie perhaps in the way that Mark Kermode found The Mummy to be, fatally, a Tom Cruise movie. The star defines the genre.
*. I do, however, want to quote some critical reactions to his performance, as he tends to bring out the best in critics and some of it may be relevant to another point I was thinking of. So here are a couple of samples with some of my own commentary.
*. David Edelstein: “After all of these years, he [Cruise] still indicates rather than feels, signaling thought by wrinkling his brow and squinting real hard and looking like a caveman encountering fire for the first time. He looks less like mankind’s savior than like a harbinger of devolution — the last stage before we’re back at lungfish.”
*. That’s funny because it’s kind of true. I also thought it struck a chord because of its vision of a world that will be taken over by millions of Tom Cruise clones, which is sort of like how we’re all going to turn into Johnny Depp at the end of Transcendence. The narcissism of celebrity is strong here.

*. Now here’s Wesley Morris: “Cruise is his reliable self. His determination to give us our money’s worth might represent the most intense and intensely ridiculous professional commitment in the history of the movies. It’s hard not to love a man who loves us as much as Cruise does. He just has no chemistry with anyone else.”
*. This is true. That Cruise really cares about these projects, that he believes in them, is clear listening to his DVD commentary with writer-director Joseph Kosinski. What is also true, however, is that he doesn’t play well with others.
*. Of course babes love Tom. Here he has Olga Kurylenko (a model) and Andrea Riseborough (a breathtaking nude silhouette) in conflict over his charms. But you never get the sense that he cares much about them. He’s too busy trying to figure himself out. And this made me consider the matter further. When has Cruise ever had chemistry with one of his female leads? I can’t say I really saw much of a spark with Kelly McGillis in Top Gun. With Rebecca De Mornay in Risky Business? We’re going back a while. And in all these examples it’s always the woman who has to do the most work. He seems weirdly asexual to me. The narcissism of celebrity is strong here as well.
*. The generic vapidity of the script is suggested by the fact that the studio considered using the film’s alternative title, which was Horizons. They went with Oblivion. I don’t see where either title means anything. I guess once your memory has been wiped you enter a kind of oblivion. But even that’s tenuous.

*. As I’ve said, I don’t think you even have to listen to any of the dialogue to understand what’s going on. Nobody says anything important. Nor does the premise make a lick of sense.
*. Example: Why does the Tet need all these human clones anyway? It can’t fix its own drones? It seems like they’re going through an awful lot of work for nothing. And even if they do need Jack, why bother with Vika? Is she just there to keep Jack company? Because otherwise an AI could do her job, better.
*. On the commentary track Kosinski cites the scene where Jack repairs the drone with some bubblegum (really) as demonstrating that the Tet needs the human ability to improvise, since drones can’t fix themselves. This is just too ridiculous for words.
*. Another problem with the script is its dependence on coincidence. How does Beech know that Jack will pick up the exact book he leaves for him? I didn’t even think he had left it for him until they said so on the commentary. I mean, the library is full of books. And how would he know Jack would turn to “Horatius,” and precisely stanza XXVII (of LXX)? And isn’t it lucky that Jack is reminded of the fact that Julia is his wife when they both just happen to be standing on the observation deck of the Empire State Building, where he proposed to her?
*. I guess the use of Macaulay’s poem is fitting. At least more fitting than dragging poor Dylan Thomas into Interstellar. But did we really need Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World” to make an appearance? It seems reduced to kitsch here. As a footnote: At the end of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel 2001 a print of “Christina’s World” is hanging in the cheap hotel room Bowman is removed to after passing through the Star Gate. But it does not appear in Kubrick’s movie. Stanley knew better.
*. I’ve gone on longer about this movie than it deserves. It looks pretty, in a very conventional way. The story, however, flubs every chance at excitement or drama. I would have loved to have seen more of Melissa Leo’s Sally playing with Jack. Even as an avatar she makes a great villain. But canceling her out is Morgan Freeman playing pretty much the same role he always does. Doesn’t knowing he’s in this movie sort of ruin any surprise about what’s really going on?
*. Richard Corliss: “Six minutes or 60 years after seeing the movie, viewers are unlikely to remember it.” My time is up!

More American Graffiti (1979)

*. In my notes on American Graffiti I mentioned how it might be thought of as the real inflection point in American cinema in the 1970s, turning away from independent, anti-establishment films toward more commercial properties. American Graffiti certainly was commercial, being a surprising box office hit. It was also about as American as mom and apple pie and hot rods.
*. Given that success, the lag time for a follow up (six years) may be thought surprising. There are two reasons for it. In the first place, franchise filmmaking hadn’t taken hold yet, where a sequel is often being planned even before a film is released. Second: a couple of other, even more lucrative blockbusters had changed the game. What with Jaws and Star Wars setting the bar there was little demand for more American Graffiti.
*. This could have been seen as liberating, and I think to some extent it was. The producers here were free to go in a new direction and they did. More American Graffiti, to its credit, is something different. Not a good movie, but different.
*. Two things stand out. In the first place it’s more of a broad comedy than the first film. American Graffiti was going for gentle nostalgia. More American Graffiti goes for laughs. The second change-up is the intriguing way the story is presented. There are basically four stories interwoven, taking place at different times and shot in different styles (a smaller frame for one, split screens for another). Sure it’s a gimmick, but were you expecting a gimmick? I wasn’t.
*. As with any gimmick movie, the gimmick raises a question: But for the gimmick, would the movie be interesting or worth watching? Sometimes I don’t think this question is fair. I don’t, for example, think it’s fair to ask whether Memento would be worth watching if it was played forward instead of backward. It’s a movie that was designed to play in reverse. In other films, however, the question of the added value of the gimmick can fairly be raised. And it was here.
*. David Ansen in Newsweek put it this way: “This [the film’s composite structure] is all very film-school fancy, but what does it mean? Alas, precious little. ‘More’ in this case is decidedly less. Once you get used to the cross-cutting — which is rather like switching channels between four different TV shows — the realization dawns that none of the segments is particularly interesting.”
*. In other words, the film-school stunts are just there to make up for the fact that nothing much is going on. But this makes one pause. Could anything less be going on than in American Graffiti? And isn’t there in fact a lot going on here? Steve and Cindy (now married with children) break up and then have to get back together again after various adventures, Debbie becomes a roadie for a hippie band, John Milner has to win a big race (again), and Toad is trying to think up some scheme for getting out of Vietnam.
*. Well, we might say, there are different ways of being interesting. There is a lot going on here, but I agree with Ansen that it does little to hold one’s attention, even with the scattered narrative. It’s just that I wasn’t much interested in American Graffiti either.
*. More American Graffiti also seems kind of pointless. There is an anti-establishment message playing throughout. Steve has to learn to let Cindy go her own way, and ends up fighting against the Man. Milner resists being co-opted by corporate interests. Toad bucks authority in ‘Nam. Bob Falfa, the villain of American Graffiti, has a cameo as a jackbooted thug (motorcycle cop). Again one has the sense of a sequel coming too late. In 1979 such a message could almost play as nostalgically as the cruising lifestyle of the first film.
*. It’s a movie that let a lot of people down, mainly because it was not, in fact, “more” American Graffiti. But I respect the direction taken. They took chances. They came up with something different. And what they came up with wasn’t all bad. Personally, I’d just as soon watch this movie again as American Graffiti. But I’m not a fan of either. In both cases I think maybe you had to be there.

American Graffiti (1973)

*. It’s a commonplace to see Star Wars and Jaws as marking the end of an era, meaning the end of the New Hollywood chronicled by Peter Biskind in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. But maybe the end came earlier. American Graffiti was a huge box office success and it categorically rejects the darkness and seriousness of the creative golden age of American film in the early ’70s. In fact, I think you could even argue that it rejects the darkness and seriousness of Rebel Without a Cause (1955).
*. Friend and mentor Francis Ford Coppola, brought in to be a “name” producer, had advised George Lucas, who had been disappointed in the reception given THX 1138, to do something “warm and fuzzy.” That is to say, commercial. Lucas did not think this would be difficult.
*. This may make American Graffiti out to be a cynical production, but the shoe fits. This is, at least in some ways, how everyone saw the project at the time: as a turn against the New Hollywood and its late-Vietnam pessimism. So, pushing the setting back to 1962 (before the watershed moment of the Kennedy assassination) was a return to a state of innocence. The kids never get into any trouble (from the law, scary gangs, gun-wielding store owners, or even fiery car crashes) that they can’t walk away from. The only clouds in that otherwise brilliantly blue sky at the end would take the form of the gang’s yearbook notices.
*. It’s a movie that looks in two directions. It’s an ode to nostalgia, which is what audiences have always appreciated in it. But it also looks ahead in lots of obvious ways. The talent would all go on to gaudier things, and shortly. And other new directions were being marked out as well.
*. This was a groundbreaking film. Its use of a playlist soundtrack to create a sort of musical montage, and the presentation of a milieu rather than a story, was in advance of Altman’s Nashville. It’s just that Altman had characters and here we only have stereotypes: the muscled rocker who is king of the strip, the cool kid (Richard Howard as the Big Man on Campus), the nerd, the dreamer, the good girl and the slutty girl with a heart of a gold. We’re not too far advanced from the pages of Archie comics here, or the soon-to-debut Happy Days.
*. Apparently the budget for the music was $80,000, which strikes me as very low. It would be inconceivable for a low-budget film to get together a soundtrack like this today. And even though I’m not a big fan, I think it sounds great.
*. But you’ll have probably guessed by now that I don’t like the movie much. Perhaps it’s just because the milieu in question is so alien to my own childhood. I didn’t grow up near anyplace like Modesto, and I’ve never cared about cars. I never engaged in the kind of mating rituals that so fascinated Lucas. So the nostalgia factor doesn’t work for me.
*. More than that, the movie looks muddy and seems almost randomly assembled. On a few occasions I had the feeling that important connecting scenes had been lost when Lucas cut it down from its original 3 hours. Worse, I find the reaching for some more profound or mythic significance a bit lame. Suzanne Somers in a white T-Bird is the unattainable blonde idealized by the romantic hero who is about to begin his journey, while “the the “solemn endnotes about the destiny of the four young men are superficial and pompous, and filled with the wish to keep pain at arm’s length” (David Thomson, who considered this to be the best film Lucas ever made).
*. The endnotes and the blonde in the T-Bird also have another meaning. Lucas has often been taken to task for not really understanding women or relationships. He’s not misogynist (or at least I don’t know of that charge being made) but he just isn’t interested in women very much. So the blonde will remain unattainable and another page of endnotes telling us whatever happened to the female leads was cut because Lucas thought it just made the movie too long.
*. Though I think American Graffiti overrated it’s easy to understand what its many fans see in it. It’s a movie that was designed to charm and not to offend. There’s lots of terrific music and likeable young actors who embody the freedom of youth, a time when one’s actions hold no consequences and there’s nothing much to do but drive up and down the strip all night long.
*. A good time, and a favourite of many, but a great movie? Its mythic evocation of a time and place has by now replaced the reality, or has become more important than the reality, but despite all the talent involved on both sides of the camera I have a hard time pointing to anything about the film that impresses me, or that strikes me as particularly well done. Lucas, like a lot of super-popular entertainers, had the same need as the public apparently did for this kind of story, and so was able to make popular culture over in his own mental image of what it should be. We’re still living with the consequences of that.

Frozen (2010)

*. You already know from the movie poster, if not the trailer, where this is going. Three young people stranded on a ski lift. So get them up there already! Do we really want to get know Dan and Parker and Joe any better? I think after the first minute or so the answer has to be no.
*. Alas, for all its originality — and it really is an interesting, if far-fetched, premise — Frozen has to follow the rules. So there’s a first act where we find out that we really don’t like these people very much. Maybe we don’t want to see them horribly murdered, as we would if this were a slasher movie, but we don’t want to spend any more time with them than is necessary.
*. There’s a point to make here. Frozen does a respectable job dealing out its few suspenseful sequences, but the rest of the movie, the filler, is dreadful. There’s nothing natural, engaging, or interesting about it, and it all sounds horribly scripted, like when they bring in the heavy foreshadowing by talking about the most horrible ways to die. Then the talky scenes are awkwardly shoe-horned into the story just to provide breaks in the action, giving the proceedings a terrible lurching quality.
*. One also supposes the talk was meant to pad out the running time. This is not a movie that has a lot going on, and it struggles hard to get to 90 minutes.
*. In fact, I’m inclined to call the whole script garbage. Writer-director Adam Green says he came up with the concept in 20 seconds and I don’t think it could have taken him much more than that to write out the rest of it. Yes, you can have some fun playing the game of “what would I do if this happened to me?” but doing so only reinforces one’s impression that these kids aren’t very smart. Meanwhile nothing about the plot is even remotely realistic — from the way nobody seems to suffer from hypothermia or shock to the behaviour of the wolves.
*. I could spend a lot of time criticizing all the little stupidities, like why Joe doesn’t try to get on top of the cable and crawl along it, or why they don’t try to make a rope from their clothes (they even have scarves they could use!). One thing that stuck out the most was Parker falling asleep with her bare hand on the iron safety bar all night. Instead of sticking it into her pants next to her body! Instead of doing any more of this, however, I will offer up a sort of public service announcement. When one is falling from a great height, one should always try to roll upon impact. Do not, and I mean never, attempt to “stick” a landing on your feet. Knowing this saved me serious injury as a young man. It may help you as well some day!
*. Does any of this matter? What if you just checked your brain at the door? Well, for the reasons I’ve mentioned I don’t think the script is any good. Nor did I care much for the performances. And if you’re looking for violence or gore you’re going to come up empty there as well. It remains an interesting sort of idea for a movie, but one that little effort seems to have been put into, leading to predictably meager results.

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019)

*. More John Wick. Which means . . . more. Even the title seems a bit too much. I mean, did they need the Chapter 3? Parabellum would already set it apart from the first two episodes.
*. I have some sympathy for what they were trying to do with this one. They had a successful franchise that consisted of a laconic hero who goes around killing people while avoiding people who are trying to kill him. That’s about it. There’s a weird comic-book mythology propping things up, but it’s all very silly and superficial. You’re just here for the fights.
*. And what fights! They really are impressive. I can’t imagine the weeks if not months they must have spent training and choreographing for them. Far, far more time, I’m sure, than was spent by Keanu Reeves getting into his character or having to learn his handful of lines.
*. But the fights are about all there is to get excited by. There are plenty of action scenes that they do their best to make new and interesting. John fights a giant in a library and beats him to death with a book. There are fights with horses and on horseback. Fights on motorbikes. Fights with dogs. Fights underwater. Fights against a busload of armoured goons that have to be shot about ten times each to kill them, because only shooting goons three times was getting dull.
*. The script, however, really is awful. Both in terms of the dialogue and structure. There is little of the humour that was on tap in the previous episode — which isn’t to say it takes itself seriously, ever. In particular Asia Kate Dillon’s character is left hanging without any good lines at all, when she could have been a riot. Meanwhile the plot is just the usual excuse to hang the fight scenes on. John Wick travels to the Sahara to meet up with the chief of the High Table, pledge fealty, cut off his finger, and then . . . decide when he gets back to NYC that he’d rather just keep fighting everyone. He lives in a kind of superhero version of the zombie apocalypse: not the war of all against all but the war of all against one. Which, as his sometime mentor puts it, makes the odds about even.
*. Also problematic in terms of the structure of the story is the amount of time spent with ill-defined and seemingly unimportant characters. Anjelica Huston and Halle Berry stand out in this regard. I suppose the door is open for them to return in later chapters of this saga, but just based on what we get here I really didn’t know who either of their characters were, or what function they served. Their parts are too big to be cameos, but at the same time they’re totally superfluous. Jerome Flynn’s Berrada is another such character, and one I don’t think we’ll be seeing any more of. But why even bother introducing him then? He doesn’t provide John with any genuinely helpful information, since the Elder will decide whether or not he wants to meet anyway. Berrada only talks a bit about the coins and markers he makes and recites some poetry before turning into just another bad guy with a gang of mooks.
*. We brings us back to the fights. More fights. More bad guys with even more tattoos. More guns. “Art is pain. Life is suffering.” This is Anjelica Huston’s character (I can’t even remember her name now). It’s both an aesthetic and a philosophy. In case you didn’t make the connection between the violent dance of the martial arts and ballet, it’s made explicit for you here. Which means John can probably do some cool dance moves as well.
*. Despite all the effort they made, I have to admit I came away from this one a bit disappointed. I didn’t like the first John Wick at all, but I thought John Wick: Chapter 2 a lot of fun. Chapter 3, however, struck me as only more of the same, and too much of it. Even the final battle looks almost identical in terms of its setting to the fight at the end of Chapter 2. They really like smashing people through glass in these movies. It goes with John being buffeted around like a human pinball as he gets shot, stabbed, tossed from buildings, and bounced off the hood of cars.
*. But while I appreciate the need to go in a slightly different direction, to expand the franchise by adding to the mythology and back story, I found all of this stuff to be pretty thin. Put another way, I’m not sure I want more John Wick. Which made me all the more disappointed when we end things here with yet another cliffhanger. I am going to get more John Wick whether I want him or not. Also more Ian McShane and Laurence Fishburne (I can’t remember the names of their characters either). And more sexy switchboard girls. And more ninjas recruited from the local sushi bar. And more tattoos. And more bullet casings scattered on the ground. And more people being tossed through windows and glass displays. I like all of this stuff, but at the same time I feel like enough is enough.

Kalifornia (1993)

*. This is a movie I could barely finish watching. Not because of the violence (it isn’t that violent), but for a couple of other reasons.
*. In the first place, it’s predictable. It signals right away where it’s going and then it goes there. I don’t think there’s a single scene in this movie that doesn’t play out just the way you’d expect. And it’s so programmatic. The set-up introduces us to the well-groomed yuppies and the trailer-trash. Evil, in the form of killer Early Grayce (Brad Pitt) easily seduces pretty boy Brian (David Duchovny). Carrie (Michelle Forbes) feels sorry for the mentally challenged Adele (Juliette Lewis).
*. There might have been something interesting to say about the total incompatibility of these characters because of their different social classes, which would complement their journey through a rusty American wasteland, but that’s not how it plays. It’s simpler than that. Brian has to leave his ivory tower and confront the reality that thus far he has only written about. This will make him not only a better writer (surely the book deal he gets out of this road trip will be in the six figures), but a sadder and a wiser man. Carrie takes erotic photos that only suggest rawness. Her experiences with Early will show her how phony all that was. Do you get it? It’s all pretty hard to miss.
*. Most reviewers were impressed by the performances. Not me. Duchovny, appearing here just before his X-Files stardom, does what would become his usual dry and laid-back routine. He really only has the one register as an actor. Juliette Lewis is fine as Adele, but her character isn’t exactly complex. She’d add slightly more depth playing a similar part the next year in Natural Born Killers. Pitt’s Early is a caricature down to the tics like the oinking noise he makes. For my money the only cast member who really stands out is Michelle Forbes, who was either pushed to the background of the theatrical posters or entirely erased from them. She went on to mainly work in television. Things like that happen in Hollywood.
*. The other reason I found Kalifornia hard to watch has to do with that element of caricature I mentioned. This may have been residue from an earlier version of the script that imagined the story as a black comedy, but whatever the explanation for it the thing is that you get sick of caricatures after a while. And boy did I ever get sick of Early and Adele. I just couldn’t understand how Brian and Carrie were able to stand being in a car with them for five minutes, much less five days. For all the “seductiveness of evil” that Early represents this was too much for me to buy into.
*. Maybe it’s for these reasons that I couldn’t get into Kalifornia more. It’s a good-looking movie though, and competently put together. Dominic Sena’s feature debut, and you might have expected he’d go on to better things. That’s not how it worked out. He hasn’t been prolific. Swordfish wasn’t bad, though it didn’t rate with critics. Whiteout and Season of the Witch were disasters. How odd that in a movie featuring two stars on the verge of breaking out the best work would be by a director and actor who went on to have otherwise quiet careers. Hollywood!

Nightwing (1979)

*. You’ll often see Nightwing described as one of a sub-genre of horror films about nature biting back. What got the ball really rolling for these “when animals attack” movies was the success of Jaws, which came out in 1975. Martin Ransohoff, producer of Nightwing, said he wanted it to be “Jaws with wings.” That’s not quite what he got.
*. I’d like to say it’s at least an interesting idea, poorly executed, but in fact it’s a really stupid idea. The basic premise, that there’s this giant colony of vampire bats living in a cave out in the deserts of New Mexico, is so far-fetched that even scientist Phillip Payne (David Warner) has trouble selling anyone on it. The way the bats attack also seems sketchy. As I understand it, vampire bats usually just sidle up to sleeping animals and drink some of their blood surreptitiously.
*. Making matters even whackier is the way that the bats, who are also infected with bubonic plague, have apparently been summoned by a Native medicine man to protect his tribe’s sacred places. So in order to defeat the bats our hero Youngman Duran (Nick Mancuso) has to consume the root of a psychotropic plant and receive visions from his ancestors. So yes, it is a stupid idea.
*. Actually, Nightwing can be further pigeonholed as a particular type of angry animal movie, mixing ecological concerns (an oil company is trying to develop the sacred lands) with Indigenous mysticism. Other films we might lump it together with include Prophecy and Wolfen. They are all very silly.
*. Still, it might have worked. It might have been good, stupid fun. Or at least given us a memorable moment like the exploding sleeping bag in Prophecy, or an interesting hook like the wolfvision stuff in Wolfen. Unfortunately, Nightwing is mostly just dull.

*. A lot of the blame lies on the odd choice of director. As Channel 4 remarked, putting Arthur Hiller in charge “is the most interesting thing about the project. A filmmaker who has made a speciality of showing reverence for platitudes has no jurisdiction over a piece of schlock nonsense about bat-killers in the Arizona desert.”
*. This was Hiller’s only horror movie and he clearly had no feel for the material. Oddly enough, this is something else Nightwing shares with the other movies I mentioned, as Prophecy was directed by John Frankenheimer and Wolfen by Michael Wadleigh. Frankenheimer I can sort of see, but even he was slumming it. The others were real stretches.
*. The bat attacks (and there is really only the one attack scene, along with some shots of the bats flying around at the end) have dated badly. Today we’d do such work with CGI, and it would look better. But even in 1979 I think the effects here would have been considered primitive. To make the obvious comparison, they’re nowhere near what Hitchcock did in The Birds.
*. The movie’s lone bright spot is David Warner as the Ahab/Quint figure, “one of the five acknowledged experts in the world” in tracking and exterminating vampire bats. You don’t even have to pay him to go after the colony. It’s just what he does. I was expecting him to give some speech at the end where he’d say how vampire bats killed his family and he’s been on a quest for vengeance ever since, but it’s actually simpler than that. “I kill them because they’re the quintessence of evil,” he says. “For me nothing else exists! The destruction of vampire bats is what I live for. ”
*. Given how loony the plot starts to get, the cheesy special effects, and Warner’s turn as a baticidal zealot, Nightwing should be a lot more enjoyable. Instead it’s been largely forgotten, and for good reason. It still has some moments of charm, like Mancuso turning up his truck’s car radio when Crystal Gayle’s “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” comes on, but in the end it’s mainly just a silly and uninteresting mess.

Avengers: Endgame (2019)

*. The end of the line. Or the culmination of a 22-movie serial called The Infinity Saga. For the record, I’ve only seen maybe half of the preceding instalments. Everyone has their limits.
*. As you would expect from a franchise that has always and only been about going big, Endgame became the highest-grossing film of all time while offering up a full three hours of star-studded, effects-laden action. Or mostly action. The first half is pretty slow, to be honest.
*. But does Endgame mark the end of the line for the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Obviously not. Disney/Marvel only announced it as the end (give or take Spider-Man: Far From Home) of Phase Three. Another slate of offerings was immediately touted. So the attitude taken toward Endgame by most reviewers was to praise the MCU, not to bury it.
*. Of course a lot of people would like to bury it. I’ll even confess to my own bias in that regard. I feel like we passed peak Marvel quite a few years ago. And while I wouldn’t call Endgame boring (which is actually quite an achievement), I would call it heavy, and not in a good way.
*. After Thanos’s purge of half the universe, which took place at the end of Avengers: Infinity War, the world has not turned into the happy domain of sunshine and rainbows that he was aiming for. Actually, we’re not told how things are working out, aside from the glimpses we get of mountains of garbage lying in the street. I guess those jobs were hard to fill even with a huge manpower shortage. Everyone seems to just be sitting around feeling and looking glum. Even Captain America is in group therapy. Bummer.
*. Nor is there a lot of wit in the script to keep things going. Brainy Hulk, Young Michael Douglas, and Fat Thor (the last mentioned done up to look like the Dude in The Big Lebowski) get a smile, but there are no good one-liners, even with Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man playing such a prominent role. Instead there’s a liturgy of lines like “Let’s go get this son of a bitch,” “We have to take a stand,” and “This is the fight of our lives and we’re gonna win.”
*. These cues are just inserted to get the audience to cheer. Indeed most of the film plays this way, right down to the end credits with the big-names all signing off with their autographs. So much for irony. I’d like to say Jeremy Renner’s haircut was intended as a joke, but I don’t think it was. We get a couple of group “slow walk” shots that are played straight, and movies have been making fun of those for years. This is a movie that seems to be turning to stone before our eyes. Even the way the cast have a tendency to start to stutter whenever they deliver the more dramatically intense lines plays into this.
*. As with the small things, so with the big. The story here is so much of a retread it made my head hurt. First off they have to undo everything that happened in the previous movie by way of another time-travel plot. But at least this comes with a bit of knowingness, as we’re told that all previous time-travel movies (catalogued by our culturally hip heroes) were bullshit. Though all the hopping about in different timestreams we see happening here doesn’t make any more sense than it ever has.
*. The rest of the story is just your basic treasure hunt, with the team splitting up to collect the different magic Candy Crush stones that will give them the power to reset the universe yet again. As per formula, it all ends with a massive battle royale which feels like a replay of the end of Infinity War. Or the end of Age of Ultron, for that matter. All these big battles look the same to me.
*. Also the same is the moral lesson. Being a real hero is all about (1) self-sacrifice, and (2) being the best “you” that you can be. Well, these are comic books.
*. I don’t think Endgame is a great movie. In fact, I don’t even think it’s particularly good at what it does. Put another way, I can think of a half-dozen other Marvel movies I enjoyed more. If I had to pick a word to describe it I’d go for one provided by Thanos. It’s inevitable. It was inevitable it was going to be this kind of movie, inevitable that it was going to be received in this way, and inevitable that it was going to make a ton of money. This is exactly the movie I think everyone in the audience expected, or at least should have expected. It was inevitable.
*. But have we passed peak Marvel? Or is that just wishful thinking? It’s hard to see where they go from here. I don’t think they can go any bigger, and if all audiences want from Marvel is more of the same, with only slight variations (the “adult” Deadpool, the meta Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse), how are they going to keep it fresh? And at what point are audiences going to decide they’ve had enough?