Author Archives: Alex Good

Blair Witch (2016)

*. Maybe there really was a Blair Witch. The franchise, if we can call it that, does seem to have been cursed. The Blair Witch Project was a phenomenal success, but the creators Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez didn’t go onto anything. The star Heather Donahue is out of movies. The sequel Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 bombed. Another sequel, this film, was stuck in development hell for years and had a disappointing reception when released.
*. Is there a lesson here? It seems to me that the idea itself was a one-off, but I guess there was a lot of “mythology” to develop around the figure of the witch, whoever or whatever she was. And other franchises had a lot of success with less (Paranormal Activity, for example). So maybe something else went wrong. Or, in the case of the original film, went right, like catching lightning in a bottle.
*. The team of director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett weren’t novices. They’d done You’re Next and worked on V/H/S and V/H/S/2 (with Barrett contributing some of the more interesting episodes to the latter anthologies). And they’d certainly had time to come up with something good. But still this Blair Witch is a letdown.
*. Most director’s or cast and crew commentaries are recorded before the film is released in theatres. There are probably good reasons for this, though it means we miss something. That “something” being any reaction to initial critical and audience response. On the DVD commentary for Blair Witch Wingard and Barrett make light of the critical drubbing and tepid box office the film initially received, though it’s worth noting that the reviews weren’t all bad and the movie did make money. So the commentary gives them a chance to answer some of their critics.
*. Perhaps the biggest complaint against the film was that it was just a rehash of the original, to which it is a direct sequel. There was a reason for this though, as they felt the need to get the franchise “back on the rails” after Book of Shadows. Still, it’s a charge that sticks. There are small variations played on the formula, but mostly it’s the same plot as The Blair Witch Project. A group of young people with cameras enter the Blair Woods, trying to find out what happened to the original trio. They hear scary sounds at night. There are twig ornaments arranged around their tent. They wind up in the same spooky house where the final camera is knocked from the last girl’s hand. And so, curtain.
*. The small variations aren’t enough. The kids have a drone and GPS, neither of which work very well. Aside from that, all the running around in the woods at night with flashlights (and it’s always night, due to some strange warping of time) got tiresome. Especially so for me, because, while I like hiking, I hate camping. The small group dynamics, meanwhile, seem forced. It’s not that, or not just that, there’s no Heather Donahue here to carry things. The thing is, the cast here isn’t allowed to do any acting. They just pant and scream and run and jump and look scared.
*. Even the appearance of what I thought was the Witch comes as no surprise. Is that Javier Botet? No, but it might as well be. I mentioned in my notes on The Other Side of the Door (also 2016) how he’d established a very popular look (he played a similar figure in The Conjuring 2 the same year). That look is here again with the emaciated hag we only catch glimpses of.
*. I say I thought this was the Witch but according to Barrett it’s actually meant to be one of her victims and was never meant to represent the Witch herself. Whatever. How is that a distinction that’s supposed to mean anything to the audience? Or, for that matter, the people in the cabin?
*. I guess they did about as well as expected given the limitations they put on themselves. It’s a lot more chaotic and fiercely edited than the first movie but that may just be the result of audience attention deflation. The Blair Witch Project gave people headaches, but by this time it probably seemed pedestrian. As a result, I felt left behind, and it was only on a second viewing that I could really tell what was going on. I’m getting old.
*. To be honest, by 2016 found footage as a genre was pretty much played out. It may have hit its market (not creative) peak with the big-budget Cloverfield, which had been eight years before this movie. What else new was there to do with the form? On the evidence of Blair Witch, not much. And so a walk in the woods turns into a frantic run, screaming, with flashlights, down memory lane.

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

*. I had a bad first experience with this movie. I’d heard all the buzz — it was hard to escape at the time — and gone to see it with about five or six other people. Afterwards we stood together in the parking lot of the multiplex staring at our shoes. To say we were underwhelmed would probably be an understatement. Finally one of us (it wasn’t me) confessed he had a headache.
*. I think I felt even worse than that. I felt like I’d been had. The Blair Witch Project is often described both as the first found-footage horror film (it wasn’t, though it was pretty much solely responsible for establishing the genre) and as the first film to fully exploit an Internet marketing campaign. I can forgive the first, but not the second claim to fame.
*. The Blair Witch Project went on to become one of the most profitable movies ever made. The shooting budget was around $50,000 but post production was ten times that (it took eight days to film and eight months to edit). Box office was $250 million. Imitators looking to cash in were legion. But for the most part they didn’t because so much of that initial success was the result of the marketing, which struck me as largely a trick played on the public.
*. In short, the whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth. In the twenty-plus years since, however, I’ve mellowed a bit. Leaving aside the marketing and cultural impact, I think Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez (writers, directors, editors) made a decent little movie out of nothing. It has some genuinely scary moments, which are achieved without gore, effects of any kind, or even a witch.
*. As with the best of such indie ventures it triumphs in making a virtue out of its limitations. It’s not a movie that tries to do too much, but stays grounded in its basic premise, resulting in a film that is, in Kim Newman’s expert judgment, “naturally messy, but surprisingly consistent and to the point.” Throw in some serendipitous grace notes in the filming and you have what I think every low-budget filmmaker privately prays for: a happy accident of art.
*. Another big boost comes from Heather Donahue. On the DVD commentary track one of the voices (I believe it’s Sanchez) says “the single best decision we made in the whole thing was casting Heather.” Originally I think there were to be three male characters lost in the woods but Donahue was so impressive in her audition they decided to put her in. I don’t believe this changed the script (insofar as there was a script). It sounds sort of like the casting of Duane Jones in Night of the Living Dead or Sigourney Weaver in Alien in parts that weren’t specifically written for a black man or a woman. I think it’s wonderful when that kind of blind casting happens, and as such cases show you can get great results.
*. Still, after twenty years I do think it’s a film that’s getting smaller in hindsight. Of course there have been many more shaky-cam horror movies, some of them not only more expensively produced and more sophisticated but better than this. But there are other reasons for its diminishment as well.
*. In my notes on Man Bites Dog I wondered how much it mattered that the creators never went on to do much of anything else. In that case I don’t think it did, as one of them committed suicide and in any event the film was a creative one-off as well as a bit of a succès de scandale with legs. Here, however, the subsequent disappearance of the filmmakers does raise some doubts.
*. In brief, the project had a limited afterlife. There were a pair of sequels, the most immediate, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, doing so poorly with critics and audiences that plans for a third movie were quickly scrapped. Then they tried again with Blair Witch in 2016, which only performed marginally better.
*. But then the found-footage genre was soon played out as well. And how many great movies did it give us? I’d rate Rec as probably the pick of the crop. And even that franchise gave up on the gimmick before the series finished.
*. Playing “Where are they now?”, I think it’s fair to say Myrick and Sanchez haven’t done much else that’s noteworthy. Sanchez directed one of the segments in V/H/S/2 (not the best) and has worked in TV. Heather Donahue apparently retired, at least for a while, claiming that she had trouble finding work because of backlash for having done Blair Witch. This doesn’t sound right but I don’t know the details. Joshua Leonard seems to have kept working the most. He played the heavy in Unsane, where he was pretty good. But I didn’t recognize him, and that’s the only other thing I’ve seen him in.
*. More than a movie, I look back on The Blair Witch Project today as a kind of cultural moment. Like a lot of things that the Internet made popular it went viral and then sort of vanished because there really wasn’t much there in the first place. I remember it well, which is to its credit. But I don’t think I’ll be watching it again. It’s not a movie I see anything more in today than I did at the multiplex.

Den of Thieves (2018)

*. Well, this wasn’t very pleasant.
*. Lots of movies have unlikeable characters. For a long time the only stock of bodies in slasher flicks and dead teenager movies came from the usual bunch of morons and jerks you couldn’t wait to see die in some horrible way. A comedy may be filled with satirical caricatures, and a drama may be populated by mostly bad people. But Den of Thieves misjudges our sympathy for such types, asking us to get behind a bunch of jerks I wouldn’t want to spend two minutes alone with. And this movie is a whopping 140 minutes long!
*. It’s a heist movie. A gang of master thieves is looking to rob the Federal Reserve Bank in Los Angeles, which everyone takes to be impossible. On the other side, a team of hard-driving police officers is out to stop them.
*. Much is made of the fact that there’s no way to tell the cops from the robbers. The leader of the police (Gerard Butler) warns one captive, before torturing him, that the police are a gang as well, only they have badges. Both sides have obviously spent a lot of time in the gym and getting covered in tattoos so that with their shirts off it’s hard to tell them apart.
*. They’re all ex-jocks, ex-military, ex-cons, and in the years since they’ve just gained a bit of man fat around the middle. Butler apparently had to gain twenty pounds for the role. That’s a guy thing. He looks like he hasn’t taken a shower in . . . well, it looks like he doesn’t take showers. Even after working out. Which is probably why his woman has left him. He has a cry in his pick-up after seeing his daughter in the playground, through a chain-link fence. Oh, the mess he has made of his life. The pain he has caused these innocents. But duty calls. He must return to being an alpha asshole.
*. This is so overdone it’s hard to miss, and few critics did. Andrea Thompson called it out for containing “some of the most egregious examples of toxic masculinity I’ve ever seen in a modern movie,” and much as I roll my eyes at invocations of “toxic masculinity” I have to grant her point. I mean, the cops here even have a weight bench set up in their office. Women are absent except as strippers and Butler’s aforementioned wife, who bails on him. The men crack jokes about gay sex but also like to give manly hugs to their bros, or bruhs, or brahs, or whatever they call each other when they’re pumping each other up.
*. A little of this would go a long way and there’s a lot of it. I’ve said it’s unpleasant and several scenes are downright hard to watch. Probably the worst is when Butler (his character’s name is Big Nick) shows up at a dinner party his ex is attending and tries to humiliate her or the guests. I’m not sure what the point of that was. It was really uncomfortable.
*. As for the rest of the movie there’s not much to say. It was universally compared to Heat, a movie I’ve always found to be overrated. Still, it’s better than this. The heist itself is wildly improbable, and made even more so because we can’t believe for a second that this gang of meatheads could come up with such a plan, or pull it off. Nor can we believe Big Nick capable of figuring out what is going on. There’s some bizarre back-and-forth between him and an FBI agent where he all but shouts his incompetence from the rooftops, but still I think we’re supposed to assume that he’s actually good at his job.
*. The final shootout was reasonably well done, but it had been done before, better, in Sicario. The twist ending struck some reviewers as too much. I thought it, by this time, de rigueur in such a film. Most proximately I was reminded of the end of Logan Lucky. In any event, I can’t think of any reason for a follow-up, but there were immediate reports of a sequel. At least it couldn’t be any worse. Could it? The presence of all those MMA fighters in the London bar at the end may make us wonder.

Serenity (2019)

*. Those of you who have been reading these notes for a while know how I like to talk about how a video-game aesthetic took over mainstream filmmaking in the twenty-first century. I’m not just talking about the ubiquitous use of CGI, but all that comes with it, like the denial of reality, a sense of moral weightlessness, and a general superficiality that presents character as only pixel deep.
*. A glimpse of things to come was what I dubbed the Year of the Simulacrum: 1998. This was the year of The Matrix, Dark City, and The Truman Show. In each of these movies reality was revealed to be an artificial construct controlled by sinister forces. We hadn’t quite arrived in the new dispensation yet, but these were billboards announcing what was up ahead.
*. Which brings me to Serenity, a movie that takes the video-game movie to its logical next step by positing that reality isn’t just like a video game, but is in fact such a construct. In this way it’s like the simulacrum trilogy, only without any of the philosophical and moral questioning those movies indulged. In fact, it takes that questioning and turns it into pure mush.
*. Life, you see, is just a game made up by a kid in his bedroom. What’s more, this game isn’t just reality, it’s something even more than that. It is the afterlife, with Plymouth (the game’s version of Truman’s Seahaven Island) being a digital Garden of Eden. And I don’t mean it’s a cloud where consciousness can be uploaded, the so-called rapture of the nerds, but it’s really heaven.
*. Blame writer-director Steven Knight. The direction is totally slack and the script trash. The boy invents the game in part because his step-father is a jerk. How big a jerk? He’s the kind of guy who goes on a fishing trip and immediately starts talking about where he can find some children to fuck up the ass and how he abuses his son and plans on killing him. So I guess that means he’s a bad guy.
*. The cast is decent. But what can poor Anne Hathaway do with such a one-dimensional part? Or Jason Clarke, usually so enjoyable, do in his? Diane Lane just shows up, for no reason at all. Matthew McConaughey at least gets to take his clothes off and walk around in a wet t-shirt.
*. The twist, if you can call it that, is so stupid I don’t know how to properly address it. Of course it makes no sense at all, but in addition it’s gooey with sentimentality and had the effect of making me care even less about any of the characters since absolutely nothing is at stake. Reality is plastic, there are no rules, and death is no more real, or unreal, than anything else. “I don’t know. I don’t know what happened. I don’t know anything, you know. Nobody knows anything. You know, all that I know is that there’s a you and a me somewhere.” That’s not heavy, it’s thin.
*. Enough already. I can’t remember the last time I hated a movie so much. I mean I hate it for the fact that it even exists as much as for what it represents. We were warned in 1998. And twenty years later we get this?

The Delta Force (1986)

*. “Liberal Hollywood” isn’t a total canard, as it’s probably true that the film business tilts somewhat to the left. That said, there has always been a link between Hollywood and the Republican party as well, from Ronald Reagan to Arnold Schwarzenegger. As the latter name suggests, action heroes may be a natural fit with right-wing politics. Think also of names like Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis.
*. But among all the action stars of the 1980s it would be hard to get any further to the right than Chuck Norris, whose political views have tracked with the most extreme directions taken by the Republican party even into the age of Trump. But even in the ’80s many of his movies had a more obvious political message than those of his peers. In Missing in Action, for example, he got to go back and do Vietnam right, one-upping Stallone, and in The Delta Force we see Operation Eagle Claw getting a do-over, complete with a scene where our hero goes back to rescue a fallen comrade. America wasn’t leaving anyone behind this time!
*. As the Delta warriors bug out from the desert there’s a significant passage of dialogue where Norris’s character (McCoy) complains about how “they” screwed up the operation by going against his advice. He adds: “I spent five years in Vietnam watching them doing the planning, and us to die.” In other words, it’s all the government’s fault. Again. And if there’s any theme that unites today’s right more than its hatred of government I don’t know what it is. Bruce Willis: “I’m a Republican only as far as I want a smaller government, I want less government intrusion. . . . I hate the government, OK? I’m apolitical. Write that down. I’m not a Republican.”
*. I bring all this up as a way of introducing The Delta Force as an overtly political movie. In fact, I would call it propaganda. I don’t mean that pejoratively; I’ll allow that there may be good propaganda, and that a propaganda movie need not be a bad movie. I only use the label as a way of understanding what it’s about. It’s a cheesy action flick to be sure, but one that plays a lot of jingo tunes.
*. That message is one of American-Israeli solidarity. “Israel is America’s best friend in the Middle East” is an actual line of dialogue in the film. We shouldn’t be surprised by this, as co-writer and director Menahem Golan is an Israeli and the movie itself was shot in entirely in Israel. That’s where The Delta Force is, literally, coming from.
*. The story was a timely one in 1986, as the film was based on the hijacking of a TWA flight only the year before. Despite the timestamps used to give it all a sense of documentary realism, however, the script goes in for melodrama. The singling out of Jewish passengers on the plane was something that happened, but it’s introduced here in an incredible way. Could the hijackers have been that shocked that an American flight from the Eastern Mediterranean to New York had — gasp! — some Jews on board? Then there is the bit with the Holocaust survivor whose wife tells us that it is “all happening again.” And a little girl who pleads “Please don’t take my daddy! Daddy take me with you!” And a noble Catholic priest who volunteers to go with the Jews because Jesus was a Jew, etc. This is all laying it on pretty thick.
*. By coincidence I was listening to the DVD commentary track for All Through the Night while I was writing up these notes. Here’s what director Vincent Sherman had to say about propaganda: “You can do propaganda if it’s done well, if it’s done right. If it’s done in the context of the story and not just stuck in, but seems part of the story, and part of the character, then there’s no resentment to it. But if it’s obvious propaganda then you have trouble. Audiences turn away from it.” The Delta Force is obvious.
*. I’m not sure, but it may be that Golan thought he was making an important movie here instead of just another piece of crap. It has this important political message. It’s over two hours long. It has an all-star cast, with Martin Balsam, Robert Vaughn, Shelley Winters, and George Kennedy all putting in appearances. And Robert Foster, who I didn’t even recognize, playing the terrorist. He gives one of those really good performances in a bad movie that make you respect an actor’s professionalism and craft.
*. As for Lee Marvin, this was his last movie and I thought at times he didn’t appear in great shape. He also has wildly shaggy old-man eyebrows. Do you think they might have asked somebody to trim them? Luckily he doesn’t have to do too much but say things like “Take ’em down” and “One minute to go-time.” But at least he was game. “There aren’t too many firm film offers these days that guarantee money up front,” he later said.
*. As for Norris, in the words of Golan: “We look at Chuck as having the potential of a Clint Eastwood . . . His acting talent is getting better. He’s in the right style, and he’s very popular.”
*. Well, he was very popular at the time. But the bit about his acting talent getting better was only wishful thinking. Norris is no actor, and he’s at his best when he’s asked to do very little. I really didn’t find him convincing in this role at all, and what’s more disappointing is the fact that he doesn’t get to perform much in the way of martial arts. Which is, after all, the only thing he does well.
*. Alan Silvestri’s score is quite good, and would later get used as the fanfare for car-racing events on television. It is, however, overused. After an hour of it I think I’d already had enough, but then they seem to have just put the main theme on repeat for the whole back end of the movie.
*. Whatever his good intentions, I don’t think Golan could resist making just another stupid shoot-’em-up. There’s a car chase through some narrow streets that throws in about as many clichés as you can imagine. Norris hangs out of the passenger side of the van that’s being chased by the terrorists and shoots at them. Then he shoots out of the back window of the van after it gets blown away. The racing vehicles shear the open door of a car off. A vehicle smashes into a pile of watermelons. The cars go driving down a stairway. Vehicles crash and then inexplicably explode into massive fireballs. Did anything get left out?
*. So there’s the car chase. And lots of icky Arabs. And good guys walking through hails of bullets unscathed (except for one token fallen warrior), taking down bad guys while shooting from the hip. The icing on the cake, however, is Norris’s motorbike, which fires missiles forward and backward. This really pushes the movie over the line into silliness, undercutting any seriousness we might have been wanting to take its political message with.
*. Of course the good guys win, celebrating by cracking open some Bud and singing “America the Beautiful.” As I said, it’s a movie that wears its heart (if that’s the word) on its sleeve. Unfortunately its politics are an awkward fit with its trashiness, and instead of being a serious political thriller it quickly turns into another really dull Cannon action movie. Chuck Norris was in a number of flicks that were better than this, which should tell you everything you need to know about how bad it is.

The Happy House (2013)

*. I had my hopes raised slightly for this one. It begins with a distant opening shot of a man with a butterfly net and some odd scoring in the background. Then we are introduced to an engaging young couple (Khan Baykal and Aya Cash) who are leaving the city to spend some quiet time at a semi-rural bread-and-breakfast. En route we learn that their cellphones have lost reception, naturally. Sure it’s a clichéd set-up, but there’s nothing wrong with that.
*. The bread-and-breakfast, designated the Happy House, turns out to be a strange place, with something of the atmosphere of Cold Comfort Farm and an M. Night Shyamalam film. The hostess (Marceline Hugot) presents the couple with a list of rules whose violation will be met with some unspecified punishment. She makes delicious blueberry muffins with a secret ingredient. All of this is fun.
*. Unfortunately, The Happy House never really delivers, as a comedy, a horror, or a horror-comedy. Only halfway through the mystery of the bed-and-breakfast is quietly disposed of and an escaped serial killer is tossed into the mix, forcing the movie to settle down into a situation that is handled without any suspense or humour. For a movie like this to succeed, especially in the present day and age, it needed far faster and wittier dialogue or more signature notes in the direction. As it is, writer-director D. W. Young seems to have been infected by the geniality of his setting. A cozy thriller might have worked, but it’s not clear that’s the direction he really wanted to go in.
*. Still, given its generally amiable atmosphere and likeable stars The Happy House is an enjoyably quiet film in a genre not known for its silences or sense of restraint. Given that it sets out to be a satire of sorts on horror clichés (itself nothing new), there were, however, real limits as to how different it could be.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012)

*. This is cynical, trash filmmaking, but you can’t blame it for being that.
*. Seth Grahame-Smith may have been as surprised as anyone at the success of his mash-up novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which was immediately turned into a movie with the same viral title. The next step must have seemed obvious: do the exact same thing again. So he duly took the formula of historical drama-meets-comic book monster movie and just changed the names.
*. Actually, as Grahame-Smith tells the story on the DVD commentary, he was going to bookstores in 2009, the bicentenary of Lincoln’s birth, and noticing piles of books on Lincoln beside piles of Twilight novels. He drew the conclusion that “the two hottest things in literature in 2009 were Lincoln and vampires.” He might have added superheroes, and since he saw in Lincoln a real-life superhero the fit was perfect. Again, the next step was obvious.
*. Why do I call it cynical? Not just because it’s a cash grab, but because I don’t get the sense these books (and movies) come out of any investment in the genres being mined. I didn’t think Grahame-Smith cared about zombies much at all in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and he seems, what I wouldn’t have thought possible, to have even less interest in vampires here.
*. In fact, it’s kind of hard to even think of them as vampires. They don’t sleep in coffins. Garlic, crosses, and wooden stakes are never used against them. Instead their only weakness is for silver, which I thought only applied to werewolves. Apparently some good nineteenth-century sun cream and stylish sunglasses take care of the daylight thing. Otherwise they’re just basically zombies with fangs.
*. Even the plot is a rehash of the previous book/film, with the nation at war against an army of the undead. Which works for zombies, who don’t know better, but doesn’t make any sense at all for vampires.
*. In short, there are no surprises. But I don’t think the audience for such a film would be expecting any. They would be looking for a lot of CGI, a bit of splatter, some comic book action, and a bit of period romance thrown in for good measure. All of which the film delivers. But it only just clears this low bar.
*. Despite its “ridiculous conceit” (Grahame-Smith) it’s also totally devoid of humour. I found this odd, but apparently it was always intentional. Producer Tim Burton wanted to play it absolutely straight, and felt this should be “the guiding principle throughout everything.” Grahame-Smith agreed, saying “the only way to do this [was] to do it earnestly, [and] fight back against the craziness of the title.”
*. Why? Roger Ebert concurred, praising the film’s “admirable seriousness,” and saying that this may have been the only way it could have possibly worked. Apparently the calculation was that the funny title and absurd premise was all the comedy the film needed, and seriousness would give it balance. I don’t understand this. If the movie is too stupid to be taken seriously, why take it seriously? Why not have some jokes, or a bit of fun? It’s not like realism could have ever been a goal, what with all the digital effects and things like the stampede fight.
*. I was surprised to learn from the commentary that the book had no main villain (the Adam character in the movie) and no fiery climax. Which may explain why they feel like such formulaic elements. The rest of the characters are uninteresting and ahistorical, inhabiting not a recognizable past but an alternate, digitized universe. Even the makeup to age the face of Mary Lincoln (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) was digital. I guess it’s all slick enough technically but I didn’t find any of it interesting or new. It sure didn’t take long, but after only a couple of flicks the mash-up genre was already feeling played out.

Dr. Renault’s Secret (1942)

*. Dr. Renault’s Secret is an archetypal B-movie, not just for being inexpensively made so as to play at the bottom of a double bill but for the way it presents such a stew of familiar genre elements. Watching it one is struck by how many other movies, or types of movies, it seems to be referencing.
*. Many of these genres were already well intermixed, all circling around the idea of man’s animal nature. Dr. Renault (George Zucco) has done some experimenting and turned an ape into a man (J. Carrol Naish). So it’s one of a sub-genre of ape movies that were popular at the time, as well as such stand-bys as the werewolf and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde stories. You can also see something of The Island of Lost Souls in Dr. Renault (who is basically Dr. Moreau without the island) making his own Caliban and then keeping him in line with a whip.
*. The movie Dr. Renault’s Secret was paired with, The Undying Monster (another B-movie), fished in the same waters, with an old family curse being linked to lycanthropy. And in fact the source material here had a history as well. It’s based on a novel by Gaston Leroux named Balaoo that had been filmed in 1913 as Balaoo the Demon Baboon and in 1927 as The Wizard.
*. The familiarity goes even deeper. When Dr. Forbes shows up at the tavern in the opening scene and asks if he can get transportation to the Renault place I expected everyone to go silent or maybe spit up their ale. Renault whipping Noel and locking him up reminded me both of Island of Lost Souls and Frankenstein. What little mystery there is to the proceedings comes about partly because we expect a reclusive scientist like Dr. Renault to have a weird, lurching attendant, only named Igor. That Igor in this case is the experiment counts as a twist.
*. It’s not much of a twist that we sympathize with Noel, or that he’s the Beast who has fallen in love with the Beauty (Renault’s daughter). Nor is the idea that the ex-con Rogell (Mike Mazurski) is more of a monster than Noel that surprising. All of which contributes to making this a classic B-movie. Meaning it’s a reasonably deft rearrangement of genre elements, well-produced and photographed but not adding up to much. It’s quick though, and like the best B-pictures it makes something decent out of a whole lot of what’s ordinary.

Hostiles (2017)

*. Hostiles lost me in the first five minutes. It begins with a band of Indians attacking an isolated homestead. This did not strike me as a wise move. There are only six of them and they charge their horses across a large open field in broad daylight, firing pistols and arrows. The homesteader has at least one repeating rifle in his bunker-like log cabin. This gives him a big advantage. If he just stands by a window he could probably pick off the attacking Comanche with ease. Maybe his wife (Rosamund Pike) could get a gun and help. Frontier women were tough, and as we find out later she knows how to shoot.
*. That’s not what happens. Instead Mr. Homesteader runs out of the house and charges the Indians. He is immediately cut down, as are his children (his wife, Rosamund Pike, survives). What, I was left to wonder, was I watching?
*. Nothing good. And it’s nothing good that goes on for another two-plus hours. Hostiles is an intense, dramatic Western. I’ll now break down what this means.
*. (1) It moves very slowly. The characters move slowly. Then they stop, get down on their haunches, and the camera looks at them. During the “making of” featurette included with the DVD Pike mentions how writer-director Scott Cooper “cast actors with so much depth that you can just look into these faces for days and communicate silently. And it’s so exciting.” Well, at least it feels like days we spend looking into Christian Bale’s mournful eyes. And to be fair, he does have a great movie face. But I wouldn’t call looking at it here exciting.
*. (2) The script is stiff, full of stony utterances that have to be delivered in such a way as to give them their full weight. Christian Bale, as per usual, reads his with whispered intensity. People say things like “As you well know, death rides on every hand.” “Sometimes I envy the finality of death. The certainty. And I have to drive those thoughts away when I’m weak.” “Don’t look back, my friend. Go in a good way. A part of me dies with you.”
*. (3) It’s not just the way they say their lines. The rest of the performances are just as sclerotic. Nobody smiles. Nobody is relaxed. Pike invites Bale to sleep with her in her tent but he looks like he’d be more comfortable in the cold and rain outside.
*. (4) There’s a morose score, that in places sounds to me like “Silent Night.” As you know, I watch movies with the subtitles on. The subtitles refer to this as “somber music.”
*. (5) The action takes place against an epically beautiful natural landscape. As I said in my notes on The Revenant, “great photography should be about more than making things that are already beautiful look beautiful.” Nice scenery is often confused with brilliant photography. It actually owes more to the location scouts than the cinematographer. You can’t make national parks with snowy mountains in the distance look bad. Though apparently you can get clouds to disappear pretty quickly. Observe two shots in the same location that are only separated by a couple of minutes, at most, of real time.

*. (6) There is an important Political Message. Here’s the plot: Indian-killer Bale has to escort a dying Indian chief to his home lands. He is reluctant to the point of insubordination and facing a court martial, but apparently he is the only one capable of carrying out this mission. He picks up Indian-attack survivor Pike along the way. Somehow — are you ready for this? — they have to overcome their hate and prejudice and learn to work together and trust one another if they are to survive. The white men will apologize for stealing the Natives’ land. The Indian family will then be conveniently killed off except for a little boy who wins the racial lottery at the end, being adopted by Pike, dressed up in a three-piece suit, and handed a copy of Caesar’s Gallic War.
*. I won’t go on in this vein. I didn’t like Hostiles much at all. It is very slow, clichéd, and improbable. The final battle, for example, is even more ridiculous than the one at the beginning, with a racist landowner and his hirelings just showing up and immediately getting into a gunfight with some federal troopers for little apparent reason beyond a nineteenth-century warning to “get off my lawn.” Things escalate, as the saying goes, rather quickly.
*. David Sims: “Hostiles is a classic revisionist western, stripping away the traditional notions of good guys and bad guys on the American frontier and instead digging into the poisonous effect of decades of colonial warfare against the continent’s indigenous peoples. But though the film seeks to avoid many of the genre’s clichés, it nonetheless ends up slipping into some well-worn and dull dynamics of noble Indians teaching important lessons to their American occupiers.”
*. I wonder at what point we have to stop using the term “revisionist Western.” I mean, if this is “a classic revisionist western” then it’s not really revisionist any more, is it? I suppose “revisionist” in this context just means something other than a “classic” Hollywood Western. Like something made by John Ford (who Cooper quotes from occasionally). But surely the genre has been demythologized so completely by now (beginning with the Spaghetti Westerns) it can’t be revised much more. This vision of the West has become the authorized version. There’s nothing revisionist about it.
*. I don’t understand the good reviews this movie received. At best it’s a stiff, talky oater with nothing new to say and which goes on far too long. At worst it slips into unintentional humour. The scene where the good guys take out the camp of fur trappers who kidnapped their womenfolk is hilarious, what with the yelling and other noises coming out of the shaking tents. But I guess there are still critics out there who take this sort of thing seriously. Either that or there aren’t many real critics left. One or th’other.

The Concorde . . . Airport ’79 (1979)

*. I said in my notes on Airport ’77 that it was probably the best of the Airport movies, but not the “best” if you mean the most fun. You have to grade these films on a reverse or ironic curve. Vincent Canby put this very well with regard to this last chapter in the Airport saga: “The Concorde . . . Airport ’79 is — how should I put it? — not the best of the series, but to say that it’s the worst is to convey the wrong impression. In this case, worst is best.”
*. All of the Airport movies were described as being silly, but The Concorde takes silliness to all new levels, without quite having the sense that it was all meant as a joke. When audiences responded with laughter it was actually marketed in some places as an action-comedy (“Fasten your seatbelts, the thrills are terrific . . .and so are the laughs!”), but aside from the odd funny bit I don’t think most of this was intended. It’s just a hilariously bad movie.
*. Most of the key elements are still in place. There’s a sick kid and a cute kid. There’s a plane full of stars, though they were really down to the B-list of celebs by this point. Alain Delon still looks boyish, but also somehow older than he actually was at the time of filming. Sylvia Kristel is the sexy stewardess/captain’s love interest and Jimmie Walker provides the musical interludes with his saxophone. Charo is all dressed up with nowhere to go. Robert Wagner plays, you guessed it, the heel. Sybil Danning. Eddie Albert. You get the picture. About all you really need to know is that George Kennedy’s Patroni has, by dint of hanging around for all four movies, finally advanced into the lead role. This is his franchise now!
*. No that is not Kent Brockman reading the television news! It’s Harry Shearer. Sounding like Kent Brockman.
*. It’s a minor thing –Shearer’s voice work isn’t even credited — but that news broadcast is worth highlighting as a prime example of the clichéd silliness of The Concorde. We’re familiar with the idea of a news broadcast presenting us essential information in a condensed form, sort of like the spinning headlines in the 1940s. So we’re used to characters just turning on the TV and immediately catching us up to date on everything we need to know to better understand what’s going on in the movie we’re watching. That’s the cliché.
*. Here it’s taken to an extreme. The first news story tells us that the Concorde has arrived in the U.S. This is followed by a story about a new “highly secret” anti-aircraft attack drone being tested by Harrison Industries. Hm. Could these two stories be related? But wait! “In a related story” we learn that Dr. Kevin Harrison has been named Man of the Year by some science foundation. I wonder how he’s connected to all of this! And then wrapping things up there’s a quick profile on a gymnast who is a member of the Russian Olympic Team, who just happen to be traveling on the Concorde! Indeed, the journalist who narrates the story is the secret lover of the gymnast being profiled, and they’ll be flying on the plane together. Wow. There’s a whole menu of plot elements introduced in just a few minutes.

*. The Concorde is thick with this kind of badness. Take the casual bromance between Kennedy’s Patroni and Delon. These are manly men. When they ask Kristel to bring them their coffee black she sighs “Oh, you pilots are such men!” To which Patroni cleverly replies “They don’t call it the cockpit for nothing, honey!” Groan. The sexual innuendo, if that is what we can call it, has not aged well.
*. There’s worse, as Kennedy’s wife has died so Delon sets him up with a prostitute in their Paris layover so he can get his mojo back. Meanwhile, Delon can finally bring himself to express his love for Kristel. Oh, you pilots are such men!
*. It’s typical of the dialogue in bad movies to be not just groanworthy, but to skate upon the absurd or mystifying. My favourite moment in the film is when Kennedy tells Delon that he’s going to “go back and check the passengers” after the jet suffers a massive decompression incident and is in the process of falling apart in mid air. I don’t know why the hell Patroni would feel a need to leave the cockpit at such a moment to do such a pointless task, but Delon simply mutters “Yeah.” It’s a moment of pure weirdness that I can’t really explain.
*. Or try making sense of the journalist giving play-by-play into her tape recorder as the jet is about to crash into the ocean: “We’re diving straight down! There’s so much fear! Oh dear Lord, please help us! Oh God no, it’s the last thing we knew! Oh God no, please no! We’re going into the ocean! Oh no!” There’s so much fear? It’s the last thing we knew? What is she going on about?
*. So it’s ridiculous. Not just the plot, and the dialogue, and the effects, and the business with Kennedy firing a flare pistol out the window of the jet to distract a missile, but every single thing about it. It may even rank as the worst Airport ever. Which means it’s also the best.
*. On Sneak Previews an exasperated Gene Siskel was driven to say “I don’t think as critics we go to these Airport movies any more to criticize them so much as to endure them.” But that’s not how I felt watching this again (and I have to confess here that I saw The Concorde in a theatre during its initial release). In fact, I thought it was a lot of fun. These movies are all different shades of awful — one of the most remarkable things about seeing them altogether is seeing how wide a cultural arc was travelled in the decade of the ’70s — but none of them are dull or unwatchable, even (or especially) today. For a four-film franchise that’s actually quite a mark of distinction. After this, however, there was clearly nowhere else for them to go but for belly laughs.