Category Archives: 2000s

Flightplan (2005)

*. Bunny Lake Is Missing . . . on an airplane. Which is one way, and a rather bold one at that, of doubling down on what was a highly improbable premise in the first place. Remarkably, Flightplan is not as crazy as Otto Preminger’s laughable 1965 film, which took Evelyn Piper’s story and made a joke of it. Far-fetched, yes. But it’s not bonkers.
*. This leads me to comment, again, on one of the more mystifying habits of filmmakers on their DVD commentaries. What I’m referring to is the way they sidestep attribution of what are clear influences and precursors. I’ve mentioned this before in my notes on Don’t Breathe and Villains (both updates of Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs), and Quarantine (an English-language remake of Rec). Well, you can see where I’m going with this. Director Robert Schwentke doesn’t mention Bunny Lake Is Missing once during his commentary.
*. He does mention Hitchcock’s name, in passing, but more by way of denying any significant influence. He also doesn’t cite any of Hitch’s movies by name, like The Lady Vanishes (from which they took not only a lot of the plot but the window-writing clue) or Lifeboat (for its single set, albeit supersized here). I don’t know why you wouldn’t acknowledge such obvious influences. Though to be fair, most contemporary reviews avoided them as well.
*. But I guess none of that matters. Flightplan, like any movie, has to make its own way, and it stands or falls on its merits. Critics didn’t care for it, mainly because of the absurdity of the plot, which really is a doozy. But most reviewers singled out Jodie Foster for praise, which I think is well deserved. It’s a complex part, difficult to bring off, and she delivers. Jodie Foster with her game face on is one of the peak experiences in film, and she’s got it on here. This is especially important given that her supporting players are weirdly subdued. Peter Sarsgaard in particular seems ready to fall asleep half the time.
*. The critics were too hard on Flightplan. As a suspense thriller I think it does well enough. It’s not always gripping, the plot really is silly, the reveal of the villains is underplayed, and the Goose Bay coda should have just been skipped. (Schwentke hadn’t thought it necessary but test screenings changed his mind; I think he should have stuck with his gut.) Still, I found this to be an enjoyable sort of B-picture, with everything around Foster adequately turned out. I think the main thing it lacks is a lighter touch. I don’t mean less serious, but more aware of the story’s roots in the trash of the last days of pulp.

Gosford Park (2001)

*. The theatrical release poster for Gosford Park (or at least the best known one, and the one that’s reproduced on the DVD box cover) is basically just a list of names. Because this is a Robert Altman film with an ensemble cast and the names, including Altman’s, are what’s important.
*. I mean the names of the stars. Even right after rewatching this film I couldn’t have told you the name of a single character in the film aside from Mary (Kelly Macdonald). As you watch Gosford Park you just fall into the habit of identifying the character as the star. “Oh, there’s Alan Bates, Helen Mirren, Clive Owen, Richard Grant,” etc. This is how Altman identifies them throughout the DVD commentary. I don’t think he ever mentions a character’s name. He’ll just say “Maggie Smith’s character,” if he has to.
*. Does this identification-by-star distract us from the characters they’re playing? Or does it provide some assistance in such a crowded house? There may also be a connection in this to the way the below-stairs cast are identified not by their names but by the last names of their lords and ladies. Their names, at least, don’t mean very much anyway (until we get to the final reveal). Even the police inspector is left nameless throughout several attempts at introduction because nobody really cares what he’s called. He’s just the hired help that had to be brought in to clean up a mess. Later they won’t even bother to get his name right, but it doesn’t matter.
*. Is there too much going on, especially given Altman’s penchant for not making clear what’s important in terms of the plot? Perhaps there is, in the sense that much of what’s going on is irrelevant. Big chunks of the set-up escaped me entirely. How many people on a first viewing even get that there are three sisters? I know I didn’t. And even on re-watches I’m still lost as to what how Isobel was being blackmailed. Only the commentary by writer Julian Fellowes (which is more informative than the one with Altman, if you have to choose) helped sort some of it out for me.

*. Altman wanted to make a movie that people would want to see twice. But a movie they’d have to see twice? Or three times? Because a great deal of it continues to elude me.
*. The first time I saw Gosford Park I didn’t know what to think of it. I still don’t. The inspiration for it was Altman’s desire to do an Agatha Christie-style whodunit, which later morphed into an examination of class issues, to the point where the mystery became incidental. In fact, there is little mystery involved, in the sense of red herrings and clues to be followed. At the end we simply find out what happened, and nobody muchcares. The police investigation, led by the bumbling Stephen Fry, doesn’t solve the crime, in part because, as with the rest of Gosford Park society, Fry’s assistant is the only one capable of getting anything done.
*. So again we have what I think is Altman’s great theme: what is important? Not who killed Michael Gambon (Sir William Something-or-other), but rather how these people relate to one another, how such a world works. Note how the movie ends with the repetition of the line about what use testifying to some seemingly important truth could possibly serve. Why, none whatsoever. What happened at Gosford Park is going to stay in Gosford Park. But if those walls could talk . . .
*. Well, if they could talk they’d have stories to tell,. But would they talk? And if they talked, would anyone notice? I like how Fellowes puts it when describing the restrained speech patterns of this world: “nothing should be talked of as though it is tremendously important.” Again, a perfect fit for Altman’s indirect style, his tonal camouflage. Then there are scenes that are silent. What does Mrs. Wilson say to Parks after he’s told to take the dog out of the kitchen? Anything important? I mean, there is a hint earlier that he knows who she is.
*. That “not saying anything as though it’s important” has its apotheosis in Mirren’s line at the end: “I’m the perfect servant. I have no life.” You have to listen hard to get the emotion behind that. And yet Fellowes calls it “the key line of the film” and Mirren actually didn’t want to say it, thinking it was unnecessary. I think her instincts were right, but that might have been hard for a writer to understand.

*. The British aristocracy between the wars. But is there any sense here of that “dancing on the volcano” feeling Renoir would be inspired by in Rules of Game? I don’t get any of that, though some have claimed it’s here.
*. I wonder what the attraction is for this period. I like a country-house mysteries as much as the next person, but the whole Upstairs, Downstairs thing never appealed to me. It’s obviously a draw, however. Fellowes would go on to create the popular Downton Abbey series, which was originally imagined as a spin-off of this property. Do we miss a world of such rigid class distinctions and social rules? That sense of there being an absolute, unchanging order? Or do we find it not that far distant from our own time and place, and getting closer to us every day? Does it feel especially relevant at the beginning of the twenty-first century?
*. The examination of the class angle is well done, but I also wondered at the point of it. Listening to Fellowes, I thought it was just something like we get in The Remains of the Day, about how a class system this rigid shapes more than just behaviour. One’s job becomes one’s life, a routine that you never stop to question. One simply does one’s duty, not caring if it’s right or wrong or what effect it might have on you.
*. But none of this seems that fresh or new. David Ansen: “Gosford is fine, well-groomed entertainment, but the road it takes has already been well paved.” A comedy about English snobbishness and class exploitation? Well, sure. But it is put across very well. Altman is a perfect fit for the comedy of manners and understatement. One of the pleasures of repeated viewings is picking up many lines that you can easily miss the first time. The stars are all present and accounted for, but also nearly invisible. I almost missed Derek Jacobi entirely (his biggest scenes were actually cut).
*. For all the attention to detail I have to take some marks off for authenticity (as hesitant as I am at doing so given Fellowes’ understanding of this world). Elsie’s explosion at dinner, which gets her fired, seemed incredible to me. There’s no way that would have happened, especially with so little provocation. Also, the Ryan Phillippe character seemed a real stretch and I think the movie would have been better without him. But maybe I just don’t like Ryan Phillippe. Would Jude Law (originally cast for the part) have been better? Maybe. Denton, however, is a creepy jerk. I do like how he’s shown to be a predator and not another honest Yankee in a corrupt court. This isn’t a movie with a lot of heroes, upstairs or down.

*. I return to my saying I’m not sure what to think of Gosford Park. It’s a movie to be appreciated and enjoyed, but not really loved or excited by. The cast is sterling, with Macdonald managing to more than hold her own playing against any of the vets. Over two hours long, but surprisingly light on its feet, without having any moments that drag. A movie filled with funny bits that won’t make you laugh out loud but will raise plenty of smiles. I love Countess Trentham telling Weissman that none of the people at the party will ever see the movie he’s planning to make (which is Charlie Chan in London). Or the call for the head butler Jennings upon discovering the body. Good old Jennings. He’ll fix this up!
*. A triumph then, and a great movie, of a sort. Not a personal favourite, though it is growing on me, and I realize it’s a movie that’s not trying to get you to like it. Just as we don’t like the people in it, even though, for some reason, their very dysfunctionality and wickedness is not just comic but comforting. I guess ultimately it’s the appeal of the cozy, which is no less appealing when someone gets hurt.

Jumper (2008)

*. A movie very much launched with a franchise in mind, but things didn’t pan out. Why not? Most if not all of the ingredients were there. Let’s look at where things went off the rails.
*. A formulaic YA novel from 1992 provided a perfectly workable concept. It was adapted very freely here to make it even more formulaic. That formula being the standard superhero stuff of the boy who is given special powers and the girlfriend who has to try to understand just how special he is. Throw in the rival gangs of Montagues and Capulets, or werewolves and vampires, or Paladins and Jumpers. You’re good to go.
*. A likeable star in Hayden Christensen. Though I wouldn’t rate him as more than likeable. I guess he’s not known for much, if anything, outside of being Anakin Skywalker. But then do we remember Mark Hamill for anything aside from playing Luke? Call it the curse of the Skywalkers.
*. As for Christensen: he’s good looking, but while not a hopeless actor he doesn’t project much of anything on screen. Anthony Lane, in his best put-down mode, refers to him as having been “a kind of handsome void where Anakin was supposed to be” before lowering the boom: “One day, I feel sure, the rich mantle of charisma will descend upon him, but Jumper is not that occasion.” Still, in a movie like this Christensen’s handsome void might have been more than enough.
*. Throw in Rachel Bilson as the hero’s girlfriend. There’s at least a bit of chemistry there, as they’d go on to be a couple for a while off-screen. Jamie Bell is the fast-talking Brit who knows the ropes. Apparently his accent is considered “Geordie.” Live and learn. Samuel L. Jackson is here, and for once not tearing down the house with an over-the-top performance loaded with MF-bombs to match his shocking white helmet of hair. But then he may have sensed that he didn’t have to do much to take over the movie completely. And there’s even an already sullen Kristen Stewart popping her head in at the end just to say hello before jumping out of this franchise to start her own, on her way to becoming the highest-paid actress in the world over the next couple of years. We’ll have a good time explaining that, years from now.

*. Speaking of Christensen and Bilson, it was during their scene together at the Colosseum that I was struck by the big gap in their heights. Not surprised by the gap — that’s not uncommon — but surprised that I noticed it. There are many ways to conceal this, most often used when casting a short leading man. Christensen is 6′ and Bilson 5’2″ and I really picked up on it when they were together in Rome. Then you notice things like the heels on her boots (the ones she has such trouble pulling off in bed). Those look like they are 4-inch heels! Have fun walking around Rome in those!
*. Director Doug Liman was a hot property coming off of The Bourne Identity and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and I give him more credit than most for some decent action sequences. I like that the jumping stuff isn’t always swaddled in effects but looks like pretty basic editing tricks a lot of the time. This allows the fight and chase scenes to whip along quite nicely.
*. Critics panned it but there was decent box office. Which leads back to the question I started with: why didn’t this series have legs? They certainly seemed to be setting us up at the end for a bunch of sequels, as Griffin (Bell) and Roland (Jackson) are both left hanging, literally (the one from a power line the other from a cliff). But aside from a short-lived spin-off series that played on YouTube this was to be it.
*. The bad reviews, or at least their vehemence, didn’t make a lot of sense to me. An incoherent and inexplicable plot? It seemed to make rough sense to me, at least as much as any of these superhero movies do. Sure there isn’t any larger sense of purpose to the goings-on — what is it Jumpers really want to do with their special powers aside from have a good time? why do the Paladins want to kill them off? — but none of this bothered me. Of course none of it makes a lick of sense, but if you’re already tossing out all the most basic laws of physics then who cares about the details?
*. Perhaps the script was to blame. David (Christensen) doesn’t seem very relatable or likeable. The movie begins with his voiceover telling us how he used to be “normal.” I took this as a put-down, and he immediately tells us that this is how it was, indeed, intended, by adding “a chump just like you.” So all of us non-Jumpers are just losers? What a terrible way to alienate an audience right from the get-go. And the producers were well aware of this as they talk about the voiceover “insulting the audience” on the commentary track. Apparently they saw it as making David more realistic and relatable. They thought that audiences would root for the hero more if he would act like a regular guy (or dude, or bro) by “flexing” and being a player. I don’t get it, but then I’m sure I wasn’t in the target demographic.
*. The script was also shoved into the back seat by the decision to have the movie “move at the pace a teleporter lives his life” (this comes from one of the voices on the commentary). That is to say, with all the boring parts (exposition, plot mechanics) taken out. Then add the fact that they were laying the groundwork for a franchise so they wouldn’t want to explain everything all at once (if they’d even figured out where they were going yet, which I suspect they hadn’t). The result is a story that feels like they were making half of it up as they went along.
*. The thing is, despite all the talk on the commentary track about how they were avoiding “normal cliché formula” and “turning the genre on its head,” this is a really conventional picture with a pair of pretty young people making out and doing lots of action stunts in exotic locations, served up with no more interest in character than a typical Marvel production. It also feels very much like what it is: the first part of a likely trilogy that was never made. In sum: I can’t say I feel let down by it, or by the fact that there weren’t any more.

Luther (2003)

*. The fact that this movie was partially funded by Thrivent Financial for Lutherans (which changed its name in 2014 to the nondenominational Thrivent Financial) gave me pause. I had thoughts of Inchon (1981), which was bankrolled by the Unification Church. Religion and history make a bad mix, and though there have been biopics of Luther before this, they tended to be more political than theological in tone. Here it seemed we were going to get propaganda of the Word.
*. It’s actually not as bad as all that, though it’s still a pretty flat costume drama. As you’d expect, Luther himself is a Protestant saint. The film takes us from the thunderstorm (where Luther vowed to become a monk) to the Diet of Augsburg. These were Luther’s heroic years, and that’s fair play. Most biographies of Luther skim over the later years pretty quickly, as he wasn’t as likeable a figure.
*. Joseph Fiennes even looks the part. There’s a popular tendency to think of Luther as being rounder, but during these years he was reported to be so gaunt and almost frail that people thought he was in danger of collapsing. And Fiennes’s face even bears some resemblance to the earliest Cranach portrait. As a performance though it’s pretty limited. Luther is the angry, righteous young man who turns all sappy when love comes to call at the end. I never felt his anfechtungen, or wrestling with demons.
*. As with any such movie you can pick holes in it as history. Apparently pews weren’t in widespread use in churches at the time. We don’t know if Luther ever personally met Frederick the Wise (played here by Peter Ustinov, in his last big-screen appearance). I can cut them slack over things like that. I didn’t buy the attempt to portray Luther as a modern liberal though. Did he really insist on giving a suicide a Christian burial? I know many, if not most of his views were thoroughly medieval. He believed in witches, for example.
*. Well, they were making a movie. It’s not a sermon or a history lecture. But judged as entertainment I can’t rate it that highly. They shot on location and got a big cast done up in period costume but there doesn’t seem like much at stake. I suspect part of that may be our century’s fault. What spiritual demons do we wrestle with?

The Hills Have Eyes 2 (2007)

*. The pattern holds. I wasn’t a big fan of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977), and his follow-up The Hills Have Eyes Part II (1985) was truly awful. Alexandre Aja’s 2006 The Hills Have Eyes was a movie I much preferred to the original. This sequel to that movie (the hill folk are again mutant fallout from atomic bomb testing) isn’t as good as Aja’s movie, but it’s not bad, and much better than Craven’s own Part II.
*. Craven again produced here, and co-wrote the screenplay along with his son Jonathan. It’s a good story, not content with just rehashing the same idiot plot of young people who take a wrong turn and end up in slasher country. Instead, the army has been sent in to clear out Area 16, but before they can finish the job the mutants come out of their mine shafts and start killing people off.
*. Caught in the middle of this mutant uprising is a squad of National Guard soldiers on a training mission. They’re well armed and at least partially trained so you’d expect them to be able to hold their own. Alas, they are only partially trained, and that part not very well. Despite being introduced to us by way of an absolutely insane live-fire training exercise (seriously, that’s not even close to being realistic), they still seem pretty shaky on the basics. Not only do they leave their rifles lying around for anyone to pick up, they also lean them up against walls and tables. This is something you never do with an army rifle. You always lay it down flat. Even I learned that much basic training.
*. Well, we might say, despite their being green, they do as well as the space commandos in Aliens and Leprechaun 4: In Space, with the former being a movie very much on point with this one. Only Craven didn’t want tough-ass real soldiers but kids with guns instead.
*. I point to the connection not just for the soldiers-vs.-monsters idea, but for the way these particular mutants have a thing for nasty breeding practices. The movie begins with a really harsh birth scene where the chained mother is immediately killed by the chief mutant for some unspecified reason. Later, one of the two female National Guards will be raped in an equally horrific manner. So you could think of the mutants as like the Xenomorphs.
*. A note on rape. The original Hills Have Eyes had a scene where rape is threatened, and some see it as fitting in with the whole rape-revenge exploitation genre. The rape is taken further in Aja’s film, especially in the unrated version where it goes on for quite a bit. In this movie they ramp up the violence more, as the victim is beaten badly at the same time. Yes, the villain is killed — several times over — at the end, including having his crotch smashed in with a sledge hammer not once, not twice, but three times by the woman he raped, but it’s still a road I wish they hadn’t gone down. There’s just no need for it here.
*. The two female leads are, by the way, named Missy and Amber. Ah, man. Really? Plus it was standard around this time to have our heroines in horror movies running around in tight (and often wet) tank tops. Which happens again here, even though there’s no reason for Amber to have taken her combat shirt off.
*. I liked finding the guy in the basement of the outhouse, but that was another point I had trouble with. How did her get in there? “Who would do this to someone?” Napoleon asks. Good question. Also why?
*. What’s with Colonel Redding? He seems to know an awful lot about the mutants and their lifeways, yet is out stalking them with no back-up. There’s a hint with the Area 16 label that the government is up to some kind of dirty work out in the desert that they’re keeping secret, which may also explain why, given all the people the mutants have been killing, the area isn’t notorious for being the Bermuda Triangle of New Mexico.
*. Why is it that Papa Hades (he’s the biggest and baddest mutant, played by the same actor who played Papa Jupe in the previous film) can only bark out words like “Die!”, “Cunt!” and “Bitch!” and nothing else? Is this a result of years spent watching Divorce Court, which according to Aja’s movie is the only program they like to watch?
*. Apparently the mine shafts were designed by the same people who did the caves in The Descent. I was reminded of that (much better) movie a lot here. Unfortunately, I didn’t like the shift from the bright sunlight of Aja’s movie to so much darkness. In the earlier film the mines were just a place to go through to get to the town on the other side. Here they’re where we spend most of our time. Which isn’t as much fun.
*. Critics dumped on it, but I don’t know what they could have been expecting. It’s not great, but it’s head and shoulders above most of the other horror trash that was coming out around this time. They built on Aja’s work and managed to take things in a slightly new direction. Most of it is pretty conventional, but entertaining all the same. It also seems to have done pretty good box office. But there has, as of yet, been no sequel. I’m not sure why. Franchises have sputtered on with far less fuel in the tank.

The Hills Have Eyes (2006)

*. I’ve talked before about how the first decade of the twenty-first century launched a whole whack of short-lived horror franchise resets. There was a new Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a new Friday the 13th, a new Prom Night, a new Omen, a new Amityville Horror, a new Nightmare on Elm Street, a new Halloween, a new Last House on the Left, and even a new I Spit On Your Grave. I think in every case these movies failed to step over the low bar that had been set. And I say a low bar because let’s face it, most of the originals were dreadful.
*. The one exception to this general rule of inferior remakes is Alexandre Aja’s The Hills Have Eyes. In part this is because I’ve always been underwhelmed by Wes Craven’s 1977 original, but I think it’s also in large part due to the fact that Aja takes the material, does his own thing with it, and does it very well.
*. To be sure, Aja’s “thing” isn’t for everyone. The back end of this film is a full-throttle splatterfest, the gore doled out by a variety of weapons (shotgun, spiked tire trap, baseball bat, pick-axe). But given that this is what the audience would, justifiably, be expecting I didn’t have any problem with it and overall I thought it was handled very well. I also really liked the new wrinkle of making the feral family into mutants generated by atomic bomb testing in the New Mexico desert. Throw in some inspired art direction and you’ve got a bloody good time.
*. The mutation back story does have the effect though of undercutting the original juxtaposition of the two families. Are the mutants a family, or just townspeople too lazy to get out of the way of the bomb? Is Papa Jupiter, now a minor figure who can only growl and is left “quite far in the background” in Craven’s eyes, still the patriarch? And what relation is the gas station owner to any of them? In the original he was Jupiter’s father but here he becomes a somewhat superfluous character, for all the information he gives, and his initial act of treachery is mystifying. (According to Craven’s commentary it was because Lynn had seen his stolen jewels so he thought she was going to turn him in. But this wasn’t clear to me even on several viewings.)
*. In short, the political thrust of Craven’s film, insofar as it had a political thrust, is scrambled. In this movie Aja seems more interested in taking it to various American myths, like the frontier and the bright-and-shiny façade of life in the 1950s. Note the emphasis on the American flag flying from the SUV, which is later planted in a corpse’s skull, only to be dug out and used as a weapon in a re-enactment of Iwo Jima. And of course there’s the freak “Cyst” (Greg Nicotero) giving a raspy rendition of the national anthem. There’s still the family prayer before they split up after the crash, but American nationalism has become the new religion to be mocked. To which we might just say that the filmmakers are French and let it go at that.

*. More bothersome, sticking with the French spin, is that I don’t think Aja’s ear for English dialogue was all that good. He keeps a few of the lines from the original (though sadly loses the best), but they get run through by the actors without the proper emphasis. Which seems odd because I think most of the cast were American. But the director makes a difference in such matters.
*. Is it another bit of French business to have Doug casting an eye on the nubile body of his sunbathing sister-in-law? There really seems to be something going on there, and I thought it was a great touch for being both unsettling and sexy.
*. I kept wondering where I’d seen Big Bob before. It took a while, but the penny finally dropped. That’s Buffalo Bill himself, Ted Levine. Raw and then cooked.
*. Is it a movie that demands you silence your inner critic? Probably, but here’s some carping to go along with the praise.

*. Once again we have mutants who are clearly suffering from terrible deformities and radiation sickness but are also superhumanly strong and have Wolverine-like healing powers. Multiple gunshot wounds and stabbings don’t even slow them down. “That’s a mortal wound, right?” producer Peter Locke asks on the commentary as Pluto gets the broken bat stuffed into his abdomen. Alas, no. I thought they were at least being plausible with Lizard walking with a limp after being stabbed in the leg, but then (just as in the original), he’s out bouncing over the hills like a mountain goat chasing Ruby. And when he finally gets blown away with the shotgun, three times!, and is left lying there I was saying to myself “I don’t think even this movie can go so far as to have him get up again”. Alas . . .
*. Boy do I hate this cliché of the unkillable villain. I mean, I know it comes with the territory, but Papa Jupe gets vaporized in that trailer explosion and he’s still alive?
*. There have to be a couple of nominees for the award for biggest idiot in an idiot-plot horror movie in here. Like Bobby, with his pants drooping halfway down his legs, firing his gun blindly over his shoulder when running away from Jupiter. Though the sheer stupidity of the family was also very much an issue in Craven’s film, where the dog was the smartest character.
*. Speaking of the dog, Beast, he really has a hard time of it here. First he gets locked in a car in the burning desert, then he saves Doug only to have Doug run away, leaving him to fight Pluto on his own (something that even pissed Craven off). You have to wonder, as I often do, why dogs think humans are even worth it.
*. Man that fire extinguisher has a lot of agent in it. Sort of like one of those guns that never run out of ammunition. Of course there’s no way in hell a little kitchen unit like that would put a dent in the monster blaze that Big Bob is roasting on. But this is a movie.

*. They scouted sites all over the world but settled for shooting in Morocco. Because it looked just like New Mexico. They also scouted sites in New Mexico, but according to Locke on the commentary track the locations in New Mexico were too remote and hard to get to. Which seems odd when you’re comparing it to a town on the edge of the Sahara. Originally Craven had wanted to shoot at the same location as the original (in California) but condos had been built around it.
*. I’ve mentioned the neat art direction — sort of retro, ’50s Western gothic, right down to that awesome Airstream trailer — but the photography by Maxime Alexandre (who would go on to do two more horror remakes, shooting The Crazies and Maniac) is also worth mentioning. This is a surprisingly bright movie, which is something Locke mentions in passing, drawing the comparison to what movies looked like in the ’70s. “It’s the juxtaposition of something really gorgeous with something insane happening inside of it. If you look at the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre or the original Hills Have Eyes, it looks rough and mean and you know it looks like the landscape of it. This thing sort of made everything glossy and beautiful, and then something terrible happened within the glossy and beautiful landscape.” True, and I don’t think this approach works very often, especially when dealing with such grungy material. But here it does, reflecting the bright desert sun and post-WW2 atomic-age optimism that gave birth to these monsters.
*. In sum, Aja got it right. Which must have pleased Craven, who was producer (the fact that it made money probably helped too). Of course you’d expect a lot of it to be better than Craven’s original. Though this wasn’t a big production, the crash scene alone (three days of shooting for a few seconds of film!) probably cost more, adjusted for inflation, than the entire first movie did. And of course the mutant and gore effects, with CGI, make-up, and prostheses are miles ahead of what they’d been thirty years earlier. I was surprised that Ruby’s weird face was done by CGI, but it’s quite effective. Throw in some new wrinkles (I loved the mannequin town), decent performances (Aaron Stanford is very good as Doug, whose character was apparently patterned after Dustin Hoffman’s in Straw Dogs), lots of blood, and it’s altogether much better than the original. Craven should have been proud.

The Last Winter (2006)

*. Set in Alaska but filmed in Iceland. I wonder why. Is it that cheap to film in Iceland? Cheaper than staying at home? I suspect there were tax breaks involved. I mean, North Dakota could have stood in for the generic winter landscape here. It’s not like they were using Iceland’s spectacular natural features for a backdrop, as in Prometheus, Oblivion, and Interstellar.
*. It must have been a hard movie to bring to market, not fitting in any genre basket. It seems to have been promoted as a horror film, with the DVD box announcing “the scariest film of the year.” This it is not. As creator (producer, co-writer, director, editor) Larry Fessenden admits on the commentary track, the death of Maxwell is “the only scare in the movie.” “I guess it’s in the horror genre,” he later adds. “Call it what you will this is what interests me”
*. As much as the setting invites the comparison, this isn’t a film that riffs on Carpenter’s The Thing as much as Black Mountain Side, a later movie very similar to The Last Winter, would. So what is it then that interests Fessenden?
*. The most obvious analog is Peter Weir’s The Last Wave (1977). The title alone is all the hint you need, though Fessenden doesn’t mention Weir’s film once on the commentary. The connection is there in the ecological message, the role of native mythology, and the ambiguously (and curiously anticlimactic) apocalypse suggested in the final shot. Will the world end in fire (melting permafrost and ice caps), or ice?
*. But is this eco-horror? Global warming seems to have been Fessenden’s theme, but I don’t think it’s clearly developed. The ecowarrior Hoffman, for example, is the one who goes nuts, and as Fessenden makes clear what he sees as happening (the revenge of chtonic forces) is a totally subjective vision. So can we say that this is nature fighting back? It’s not like the caribou creatures are mutant bears or a plague of frogs brought about by dumping toxic waste.
*. I liked The Last Winter, but in ways like this I just found it to be not all that well thought out. Take the question of how objective the threat to the station is. Don’t both Maxwell and Hoffman see the same strange ghosts? Could it be sour gas that causes the plane to crash?

*. But then maybe these aren’t important questions. Maybe, like Weir’s movie, it’s meant to be a puzzle without a solution, only an attempt at suggesting a mood of dread or anxiety in the face of forces we can’t understand. If so, I can get behind it. Though I still don’t think it’s fully realized. I mean, paranoia is far more palpable in The Thing, a movie that is also a lot less subtle.
*. Another big theme Fessenden flags is that of nostalgia and homecoming. This is another example, at least for me, of the movie straying off target. Because the base, being so remote, clearly isn’t home to any of the people there, even the natives. And Hoffman’s final moment of vision, reminiscent of the end of Tarkovsky’s Solaris for me, is something we haven’t been prepared for. Has Hoffman seemed like that much of a homebody?
*. It is different. How effective it is, and especially what you think of the ending, will depend on what you decide it was trying to do. That’s the sort of mystery that endears a movie to critics and leaves audiences out in the cold. I don’t think it had much of a release as it seems to have grossed next to nothing. Personally, I thought it needed to be a bit creepier to work. Ron Perlman’s earring really damaged the mood for me. I prefer the atmosphere of Black Mountain Side. But for a movie that presents a personal vision, an exercise in what Fessenden calls his “brand of melancholy horror,” it’s hard to shake.

The Lookout (2007)

*. The defining characteristic of the condition of the arts in the twenty-first century (thus far) mirrors what’s also been going on in the broader economy: the establishment of a winner-takes-all lottery where a few bestsellers, hit albums, or blockbuster movies get all the attention/audience/money and the rest essentially disappear.
*. I guess for a while when it was in development The Lookout seemed as though it might have been in the running for being one of these winners. There was a script by Scott Frank, who had an established record of writing major hits. There was talk of Spielberg being interested, and then of David Fincher coming on board. One can imagine the budgets being discussed.
*. But those deals fell through and that movie didn’t get made. Instead, Frank himself took the reins as director and the shoot traveled up to Winnipeg to stand in for Kansas, with a budget of around $15 million. What they ended up with is a fine little modern noir heist movie, but one that disappeared at the box office. As with the mid-list, the mid-tier (and the middle class in general) are getting squeezed.
*. This is disappointing, as there are some good performances here, especially by the two leads Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Matthew Goode. Where the movie falls down, ironically, is with Frank’s script. It just isn’t all that interesting. I think Amy Simmons, writing in Time Out, summed it up well as “forgettable fun”: “a straightforward genre piece in which double-crosses and surprise twists lead to the inevitable.”
*. As per the standard noir plot our hero Chris Pratt (not the actor) is a bit of a wimp and a loser after being in a car accident that has left him mentally impaired in a very slight way. The only job he can do is pushing a mop after-hours at a bank. This makes him an easy mark for Goode’s Gary Spargo, who wants to rob said bank. Things get messy, the thieves fall out, but (more than a little improbably) everything works out in the end for the good guys.
*. Franks wanted to make a movie more about character than story, considering this to be “European.” He may have been getting this idea from a distinction Roger Ebert made between American and European movies, with the former driven by story and the latter being about characters. Alas, while the story here is pretty thin and free of twists, I didn’t find the characters all that interesting either. Chris is bland. Gary is a bad dude, only made human or distinct by his asthma inhaler. Jeff Daniels is just a dude dude, and blind. Isla Fisher is “Luvlee” Lemons, who is about as deep a character as her name implies. Even the blind dude can see through her.
*. Also worthy of mention is Greg Dunham playing Geddy Lee playing the venomous gang member “Bone.” Movies like this need these silent, sinister figures to give them an extra spark. Bone is so bad he even wears shades in a dark basement. Maybe he’s blind too. You never know.
*. Still, this is a decent, clean movie, nicely photographed in a way that brings out the stark, barren atmosphere of Kansas/Manitoba in winter, places where people don’t go outdoors very much. I don’t think it stands out as anything special finally, but it’s better, and by that I mean both more substantial and more creatively executed, than many blockbusters. But has the non-blockbuster audience left the building? I don’t know where little movies like this fit anymore.

Get Smart (2008)

*. Get Smart isn’t so much a movie as a product. There’s a brand name, going back to a beloved television show from the 1960s. There’s a big budget (an $80 million comedy!) and an impressive collection of talent in front of the camera. Plot-wise there’s a little something for everyone. Necessarily, in the judgment of Brian D. Johnson, because as a summer blockbuster it was “obliged” to be not just comedy but action and romance. With all these boxes being ticked how could it go wrong? Or right?
*. Well, they really did blow it. There are maybe a couple of laughs here but the overall sense is that of waste. In my notes on It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) I questioned the whole idea of putting “bigness” together with comedy. Watching Get Smart I was thinking the same thing. You can’t just throw stars at a big property and expect it’s going to work. To what purpose were all these players assembled? Bill Murray appears in a cameo as a lonely agent stuck in a tree. It isn’t funny. James Caan is the president, and he isn’t funny. Alan Arkin is an actor I miss, and I think he can be funny but he sure isn’t here. Terence Stamp was made to play the heavy but is given nothing to work with. Dwayne Johnson . . . you get the point.
*. There’s nothing interesting in the action part of the plot either. A terrorist organization (KAOS) is going to blow up Los Angeles with a nuclear bomb unless they get so many billion dollars. Our hero, Maxwell Smart (Steve Carrell), recently promoted to field agent, is sent along with Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway) to stop them. So it’s a buddy flick with a mismatched pair of good guys. There’s a case of mistaken identity. A capture and an escape. A break-in to steal some important secrets. A bad guy with a giant sidekick. A race to stop the bomb from going off.
*. At least in the romance department there’s a bright spot. Anne Hathaway has the rare ability to project as both sexy and funny and she’s the only reason to watch this movie, totally upstaging Carrell at every turn.
*. Where did things go wrong? The usual suspects. The script doesn’t seem to me to have anything worthwhile in it. Take the fat stuff. I guess seeing Carrell paired with a large woman in the ballroom dance-off scene is basic odd-couple comedy, but I couldn’t figure out what was supposed to be funny about Max having been obese once. Just seeing Carrell in a fat suit?
*. Then there’s the direction. David Ansen in Newsweek referred to Peter Segal as “a comedy specialist lacking any apparent sense of humour.” That’s an assessment I’d agree with, and I was really surprised when I checked out Segal’s filmography. His big-screen directing debut came with Naked Gun 33⅓: The Final Insult (1994) and he then went on to Tommy Boy (1995), My Fellow Americans (1996), The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps (2000), Anger Management (2003), 50 First Dates (2004), The Longest Yard (2005), this movie, Grudge Match (2013) and My Spy (2020). How can someone work for 25 years in this genre directing so many not-funny movies? He’s like the Rob Zombie of comedy.
*. Well, I mentioned the big budget and the fact is Get Smart made it all back and then some. So perhaps that answers my question. I guess three Austin Powers movies hadn’t killed audience appetites for retro-flavoured spy spoofs yet. There were (of course) plans for a sequel but Carrell didn’t like the initial script, which I think means it must have been really bad. Then Carrell wrote his own script but it never went anywhere. I think that’s fair, as this movie was more than enough.

Alexander (2004)

*. I have to start off by saying what version of Alexander I’ll be talking about here. There was an original theatrical cut that ran 175 minutes. The first DVD version was the “Director’s Cut,” which, in what may have been a first, was actually shorter than the theatrical cut, coming in at 167 minutes (18 minutes were cut and 9 added). There was then a “Final Cut” (Alexander Revisited) that ran a whopping 214 minutes but which was not, alas, final. An “Ultimate Cut” was released in 2013 which was 206 minutes.
*. The movie I watched was the Director’s Cut. I’m told the longer versions are better. I’ll never know. I thought it was too long at 167 minutes. Indeed, I think it would have been too long at any length, as it’s a bad movie.
*. But despite all that, it is a bit of fun, sort of like Showgirls done up as a historical costume epic. Every step of the way one can understand Oliver Stone’s creative decisions, and also how badly they backfire so as to only make a bigger mess.
*. Take the accents. Macedonian was a dialect of Greek that was all but incomprehensible to Greeks in Alexander’s day, so in order to reflect this Stone says (on the DVD commentary) that he wanted Irish actors doing the Macedonian parts because of the noticeable lilt. He also thought that playing the ancients with plummy British accents was a cliché. But a lilt is not what Macedonian would have sounded like, and Val Kilmer, Anthony Hopkins, Brian Blessed, and Christopher Plummer don’t have Irish accents anyway. Meanwhile, what sort of an accent is Angelina Jolie’s Olympias trying to affect? Epirote? Transylvanian?
*. Then there’s the treatment of Alexander’s homosexuality. It’s hard to fault Stone for introducing this, as that’s certainly there in the record and he ended up taking some flack for it. But then he plays coy with the whole idea. The thing is, Alexander seems not to have been much interested in sex at all, but preferred the companionship of men. But here his male friends/lovers are presented as looking like drag queens while Roxana (Rosario Dawson) is a babe. It’s hard to figure this out.
*. Finally there’s the matter of historical accuracy. I suppose some amount of condensation had to take place, with several of Alexander’s battles being collapsed into just the couple shown on screen. But this does play havoc with the record. Not to mention having the Battle of the Hydaspes taking place in a jungle.
*. The jungle may be a nod to Stone’s Vietnam, as Alexander is presented here as being on a mission, however misguided, of benevolent imperialism: “to free the people of the world.” Just as his overthrow of the Persian Empire may have some connection to the Gulf Wars. But again this makes a mush of history. To be sure, every age has imagined an Alexander in its own image. The one settled on here, of Alexander as sensitive warrior in the cause of multiculturalism is, I think, ridiculous, but it’s part of this same tradition.
*. Despite the running time much is left out. And much of what’s left out is rather important. I’m disappointed at not seeing any of the siege of Tyre, but that’s at least understandable from the point of view of production costs. But why no visit to the Siwa Oasis? Or burning of Persepolis? These are absolutely crucial parts of Alexander’s story that would go a long way into providing some psychological insight. Where is this Alexander’s pothos?
*. Perhaps pothos (or longing) was something Colin Farrell just couldn’t project. He is, I think obviously, miscast. But he isn’t helped by hair and make-up that have him looking like a refugee from an ’80s metal band. Or a script that doesn’t give him many opportunities to man up. This meek and sensitive Alexander just doesn’t wash. Alexander was a genuine hard case, and with all apologies to Farrell, he’s too damn pretty.
*. Oliver Stone is an odd cat, and seems to be getting odder all the time. I appreciate his passion for projects like this, but by this point in his career I think he was creatively shot. Still, it’s a movie that took someone with his kind of mad vision to make, and then continue for so many years to re-make. I think what he ended up with was a disaster, albeit with some wonderful moments, highlighted by some good battle sequences and Jolie’s unmissable, height-of-camp performance (“In my womb I carried my avenger!”). It was a box office bomb, but for some reason sold like hot cakes on DVD (a fact that may have played into its endless revising and reissuing). I think it’s very much a work of its time, which already seems hard to remember since so much has changed. And I doubt I’ll ever want to go back to it again.