Category Archives: 2010s

Domino (2019)

*. The DVD box alerts you that this one comes to us “from the director of Mission: Impossible.” I saw that and thought it must be something new by Christopher McQuarrie, and I was wondering how he found the time to direct this while doing all those Tom Cruise movies. But in fact they really did mean Mission: Impossible, the first movie in that series, and the director was Brian De Palma. I guess “the director of Sisters, Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, Scarface, or The Untouchables” doesn’t mean as much today. Though the official trailer did give him credit for Mission Impossible [sic] and Scarface.
*. Sticking with the DVD, a menu screen comes up with exactly one item on it. Play. No set-up. No previews. No special features or bonuses. Just Play. Call me superficial, but that gave me a bad feeling. That and the fact that the reviews were terrible.
*. It deserved better. While this is a long way away from De Palma’s glory days he still makes what he can out of it. Not a good movie, but no worse than average.
*. It’s a lousy script and the cast, with the exception of Eriq Ebouaney, fail to make anything out of it. There were a lot of production problems due to financing issues. There were also reports about cuts being made in post production, but De Palma later stated that these rumors were not true and that the final cut was his.

*. The signature De Palma elements are all here. The split screens. The slow zooms. The jump cuts. The voyeurism (everything is being filmed in the twenty-first century, which shows that we’re catching up to him). The riffs on Hitchcock. Sure they feel less inspired and are presented with less energy than thirty (or I guess forty) years ago, but there are a couple of sequences that are still quite good. The opening business in the apartment building when the hero’s partner is killed is the best of these, and I think stands up well alongside De Palma’s other work. The finale, with Pino Donnagio’s score borrowing heavily from Ravel’s “Boléro” (fairly enough), is far less effective, cutting between a number of curiously static compositions. Most unfortunate of all, however, is the terrorist attack on the film festival, which plays out so much like a video game being used for training purposes that I was sure that was what was going on. But I was wrong.
*. So I don’t blame the old guard. Some critics complained that De Palma was on autopilot here but I think he (and Donaggio) were trying. That the film fails to gain any traction is mainly due to the stupid story and wooden cast. It’s impossible to care a bit about what’s going on, despite the heightened emotional states being invoked as a way of ratcheting up the suspense (a woman looking to avenge the murder of her lover; a man trying to save his family).
*. Why does it end with the terrorist video playing on a YouTube-style platform, accompanied by the terrorist leader’s speech about martyrdom? Is this meant as some kind of critique of violence on the Internet? Also, as I mentioned earlier, the attack on the film festival is the weakest part of the entire movie, so why would they want to show it to us twice?
*. Domino isn’t a good movie, and the fact that De Palma directed it may have played against it in some circles. People may have been expecting more. I think this would have been unrealistic since De Palma hasn’t had a hit since Mission: Impossible (1996) and Domino probably wasn’t a project he felt very invested in. I don’t think he gets his choice of a lot of good material these days. Put another way, this Domino is likely a better movie than it would have been without him. But that’s the best I can say for it.

The Dead Don’t Die (2019)

*. I’ve said before that peak zombie was probably reached sometime around 2007. Also around the same time came the inevitable progression (or regression) into zombie comedy or zomcom, a subgenre featuring such hits and misses as Shaun of the Dead (still the best of the bunch), Fido, Zombieland, and Juan of the Dead.
*. My sense is that by 2019 we’d passed peak zomcom, though 2019 saw the release of both this movie and Zombieland: Double Tap. Too late to the party? I think so. But The Dead Don’t Die is something worse than just a zomcom that isn’t funny, or just another lousy zombie movie.
*. The feeling I get is that this was one of those movies, Beat the Devil may be the archetype, put together by a bunch of famous/talented people (“The greatest zombie cast ever disassembled!”) just as a lark. As such, it may have been a lot of fun to make but is a lot less fun for the audience. Still, all those big names did mean it got to open Cannes.
*. Where is the comedy in this zombie comedy? In the way not-very-funny material is dragged out as running gags (the theme song, the bit at the diner where everyone serially suspects the involvement of wild animals)? I thought the dick jokes in Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse were funnier than this.
*. Whatever the reason for the lack of humour, the message is old and dull. The zombies have been revived by polar fracking. Maybe. But so what? The zombies are also mindless consumers, drawn to do the same things they did when alive. Well, that’s an idea that only goes as far back as Dawn of the Dead and the mallwalking corpses. Which was over forty years ago. Only the brand names have changed, and the fact that the zombies here can articluate their desire fox Xanax and Oxy.
*. Other funny stuff? Well RZA, head of the Wu-Tang Clan (not to mention The Man With the Iron Fists) drives a UPS truck. Except now it’s WU-PS. Get it? Ho-ho.
*. There are subplots that go nowhere and serve no purpose at all. The biggest of these is Tilda Swinton playing an alien samurai mortician. I guess “alien samurai mortician” seemed funny to someone. But she isn’t. And why is she even here? It’s never explained and she has no function in the story at all.
*. Tom Waits appears as Hermit Bob, a figure who I guess is meant to function as a kind of chorus to the events going on in Centerville. But do we need a chorus? Isn’t it pretty clear to everyone what’s going on?
*. This leads me to another point. The thing is, I think there’s the germ of an interesting movie in here. I like how so many people seem already primed for the zombie apocalypse even before it’s made clear that this is what’s happening. Young people especially. They’ve seen the movies and TV shows. They can pick up the references to Romero. This reverses the usual zombie plot point where it takes a while for the characters to come to grips with what is going on. Which made me wonder: what if they made a zombie movie, one that all the characters understood to be a zombie movie, and the zombies never actually appeared? Now that might have been fun to watch.
*. Alas, despite the stupid metafictionality of the premise here (Bill Murray and Adam Driver even discuss having read the script), nothing like that is done. Instead everyone just goes through the motions until the end arrives and we get to see that, yes, things are going to turn out badly.
*. The only hope for this corpse of a movie is that, given enough time, it will find a fan base that “gets it.” All that stuff that isn’t funny? It’s comic genius! Jim Jarmusch and the gang were years ahead of us all.
*. Well, I can wait.

Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse (2015)

*. If I’m right, or even close to being right, in locating peak zombie in the year 2007, then we might consider films like this as typical of a decadent phase. That’s what I said in my notes on Zombieland, and this movie came out some six years after that, so . . .
*. Well, this is a terrible movie. The zombie stuff seems almost totally irrelevant, as it’s really just a stupid gross-out teen comedy. Still, it caught me at the right time. Sometimes a movie does that. The Brothers Grimsby, for example, had me laughing so hard I was rolling on the floor crying. I didn’t laugh at any of the jokes in Scout’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, but I still enjoyed most of it just because of the mood I was in. And yes, that is something I feel a little ashamed of.
*. When I say the zombie angle is irrelevant I mean that all the laughs and all the gross parts are really just typical teen humour and not related to the fact that this is a zombie movie. I mean, a zombie man has his dick pulled off, a busty zombie has her top come off so a pervy scout can feel her tits, and another zombie goes down on a girl at a party. Is that zombie humour, or just a bunch of stupid dicks-and-tits jokes? You can see why I’m ashamed to say I enjoyed it.
*. As per usual, the first act of the film introduces us to all the characters who we’re going to see again after they’ve changed. The crazy cat lady. The burly bouncer. It’s all very formulaic. Then, because they’re scouts, you know they’re going to somehow make use of their training to craft some DIY zombie-fighting tools even though there’s no reason why they should. Why not just break into a gun store instead of a hardware place? This is California! Or why didn’t they take that soldier guy’s gun? I guess that would be too easy or make too much sense. Instead, because they’re scouts, they have to be shown making their own zombie-killing weedwhacker and nail-firing crossbow.
*. Also as per usual in the zomcom subgenre there are a lot of nods to other horror films. One mile marker heading out of town shows the distance to Haddonfield, the home of Michael Myers. The cunnilingus gag may be derived from Re-Animator. And the finale reminded me of the end of Return of the Living Dead: Rave to the Grave, though I wouldn’t want to say for sure that the producers even knew of that movie.
*. Crude without rising to the level of offensive. Puerile to the same degree. Neither funny nor scary. But if you just want to turn your brain off and watch something really, really stupid for 90 minutes it may do the trick.

Let the Corpses Tan (2017)

*. I watched this movie on a whim, mainly because I loved the title (which is a literal translation of the novel it’s based on, Laissez bronzer les Cadavres by Jean-Patrick Manchette). About two minutes in I was feeling a lot of Sergio Leone, but even more than that I was thinking to myself how much it felt like a movie I’d seen a couple of years ago called Amer.
*. As it turns out — and I did not know this at the time — it was directed by the same husband-and-wife team that directed Amer, Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani. Instead of gialli, however, it’s sending up the neo-noir gangster as defined by Quentin Tarantino. And I have to stop here and say that I do hate dropping Tarantino’s name into the mix so often, but let’s face it: his knowing, self-referential, retro, playful, film-for-film’s sake aesthetic is still with us.
*. I’d rate this movie slightly higher than Amer. The problem with Amer, or the main problem I had with it, is that it didn’t add up and was hard to follow. Here, because there’s a source they were working from, it’s at least easier to understand what’s going on. Even in the final act, which takes place in darkness, we can still figure out what’s happening.
*. It helps that the story is so simple. A gang of thieves steals a truckload of gold bars and hides out in an abandoned (and ruined) stone villa overlooking the Mediterranean. Also staying at the villa are some decadent artist types. A pair of cops come calling and the thieves fall out. As they always do. The bullets start to fly and nearly everyone ends up dead. It’s a story that goes back at least as far as Chaucer.
*. But I don’t think anyone who sees this movie — and virtually nobody who has commented on it — gives a damn about the story. Amer had almost no dialogue at all, and frankly they could have done the same here and it wouldn’t have made any difference. Guns and gold, that’s all you need to know.
*. Instead of telling a story, the only thing Cattet and Forzani are interested in is flash. This is a movie not just dominated by but entirely composed of gimmicks and stunts: extreme closeups, discontinuous editing, and what seem like a thousand other visual tricks meant to startle and surprise. Meanwhile, the soundtrack provides the perfect loud accompaniment, with cannon-blasts of gunshots, a Morricone-ish score that doesn’t back down a whit from the master, and lots of creaking leather.
*. There is also a lot of corrupted sexuality, as personified in the character of Luce, played by a fifty-year-old Elina Löwensohn who still looks hot as hell in a bikini. She is into bondage and (giving) golden showers. I think the latter point is meant to rhyme with the ecstasy-of-gold plot. I wonder if it’s in the novel.
*. The usual line is to chalk all of this up to the directors’ sense of style. I would not go so far. Style is meant to express something, it carries emotional (and sometimes intellectual) weight. It does work. What we get here is gimmickry. The endless stunts and flourishes don’t serve any purpose beyond themselves. They are meant to impress, but only to impress. Or to divert our attention from whatever isn’t going on.
*. Many of the reviews of the film talk about its style but then confess that this gets to be too much and in the end becomes fatiguing. I thought it got fatiguing very quickly. This is because I found it impossible to care a whit about any of the characters, or how the plot was going to resolve itself. I think this was because Cattet and Forzani may have cared even less.
*. In a way, I guess a film like this could be thought of as a contemporary exercise in pure cinema. The point then would be precisely that we shouldn’t care about the story or the characters, but only in the way these elements are rendered. The film is a kind of a crucible, with that brilliant Mediterranean sun melting everything down to . . . what exactly? Not all that glitters is gold.

The Nun (2018)

*. The Nun marks the fifth entry in the Conjuring Universe franchise (following The Conjuring, Annabelle, The Conjuring 2, and Annabelle: Creation). Yes, it’s a universe. That’s what they call franchises now when they make enough money. And while the Conjuring Universe hasn’t drawn in the bucks of the Marvel and Star Wars series, their return on investment has been even more impressive.
*. Some of these movies have been OK. With The Nun, however, I think we’ve passed peak Conjuring. As with Annabelle it takes a spooky if silent design element and runs with it (a doll and a painting of a nun respectively). In this film the character of the Nun is traced back to a convent in Romania that sits on top of a portal to hell built by a duke in the Dark Ages (whenever that was). After a random bombing in the Second World War (the film is set in 1952) the portal reopens and shit happens.
*. It’s all pretty standard stuff, going back as far as Matthew Lewis’s The Monk. That familiarity, however, brings with it a lot of laziness. At the end of this film I wasn’t even sure who the Nun was. I suppose she’s an embodiment of Valak (a.k.a. Valak the Defiler, the Profane, the Marquis of Snakes), which is to say presumably a nun who was possessed at some earlier point. Perhaps we’ll need a prequel to this prequel to explain that a bit better. But in any event, almost nothing about Valak is clear, at least to me. Including what his/her game is. A lot of this obscurity may be due to the fact that, like Annabelle, the Nun doesn’t speak. I think she has one throwaway line at the end, but that’s it.
*. But the sense we have of traveling well-trodden ground goes deeper than this, and ties in to that notion of peak Conjuring I mentioned. These movies all share the same horror playbook, especially with the jump scares and slow pans that reveal figures lurking behind the protagonists. There are scenes where characters reach out to pull a veil back from a face. Several scenes. All done very slowly. There are shots down long corridors. There are dark rooms where we can only make out indistinct shapes before the lights are extinguished entirely. In fact, this film is so dark it becomes an eye strain after a while. I could barely see anything.
*. I also had trouble hearing a lot of the dialogue, which is too bad because what I did hear was pretty funny. When Irene (the good nun, played by Taissa Farmiga) explains that they have to seal up the portal with the blood of Christ her hunky but not too bright sidekick Frenchie says “Christ? Jesus Christ?” That’s a classic. Then, when the relic with said blood is found and the awestruck Frenchie says “Holy shit,” the priest responds “The holiest.”
*. Apparently the director (Corin Hardy) had a Catholic priest bless the set before shooting started. When the film was released it was reviewed by real nuns who discussed the film from a theological perspective. This is what the Church has been reduced to in the twenty-first century.
*. It was panned by critics and audiences but made a ton of money and a sequel was announced as inevitable. I can’t say anything nice about it aside from the fact that it looks good, based on the parts of it I could see. Say what you will of this gang, but they do know how to stretch a buck. You don’t waste money on big stars, or a name director, or even a script. You just go with what you know, and expect people to be willing to pay for more of the same. It’s worked so far.

Pet Sematary (2019)

*. Stick around long enough and every trend comes back in fashion. Stephen King’s hey-day was in the 1980s when it seemed like every other horror movie coming out was based on one of his novels or stories. It was also the period when he was doing his best work. But that was thirty years ago and so Hollywood decided to put the old wine in some new bottles for a younger generation that hadn’t grown up with his stuff. Hence the two-part It, The Dark Tower, and this new version of Pet Sematary.
*. I wasn’t a huge fan of the 1989 Pet Sematary, directed by Mary Lambert and written by King himself, but watching it again a few years ago I thought it held up pretty well. Plus there was a lot of it that I still remembered, which is something I can’t say for most of the movies I saw in the ’80s.
*. I don’t think this version will last with as long. That’s not to say it’s a poor remake. In some ways it’s quite effective. But for me at least it seems like a film that sets itself up nicely to land some heavy emotional punches but then misses on most.
*. Critics were divided, I think mainly for a couple of reasons. In the first place, it’s an even more unpleasant movie than the first, which was disturbing enough. Basically they double-down here on the sister with the spinal deformity and then throw in an older daughter who is then used to introduce a queezy incest angle.
*. Second, the book is changed drastically, giving us a completely different ending that is, again, even bleaker than the original. Though it has the saving grace of also being ridiculous. They wanted Ellie to be a nine-year-old to make her physical exertions more credible, but more credible in this case still doesn’t mean credible. And what exactly are the Munsters going to do once they’ve reconstituted as a family? Start a local zombie apocalypse?
*. The other thing that bothered me about the ending was finding out that it was picked by test audiences. Apparently they shot several endings, including one that followed the book, and they went with the one that tested the best. According to producer Lorenzo Di Bonaventura. “A lot of times with endings, you kind of just let the audience tell you what they’re feeling. We got to screen both of them to people and it just seemed like audiences really responded to that one.” With all due respect, this is no way to make a movie. I realize it’s how things are sometimes done, but I think a movie should have enough integrity in its story that the ending should be the natural conclusion, not just a selection picked from a drop-down menu of choices.
*. I don’t mind most of the changes they made, but as I’ve said, they don’t pay off the way they should. The scene where Ellie kills her mom is the worst example. That should have been a dramatic highlight but it plays as just depressing. Meanwhile, the way Louis ironically destroys his family by trying to save it is given a nice emphasis, but it results in that silly ending that is just too much.
*. The cast is solid, with Jason Clarke as Louis, Amy Seimetz as Rachel, and Jeté Laurence as Ellie standing out. The big let down is John Lithgow, who I thought well cast but who just suffers for being no Fred Gwynne. As with any remake there’s no avoiding comparisons to the original, and Gwynne did that part so well that Lithgow ends up seeming like a poor imitation.
*. Another thing that’s changed is that now we have CGI. This, alas, only leads to a really dumb (and not at all realistic looking) roadkill scene and a vision of the forest beyond the barrier that makes it look like Skull Island. Such is the siren song of CGI: always luring filmmakers on to go big only to trip them up so that they fall on their face.
*. There’s an attempt made to flesh out the nature of the evil forces a bit more. To no good end. I liked the original better, where the dead come back just kind of ornery in a nasty animal sort of way. Here they have some kind of demonic intelligence and there are hints of their being in hell. They also seem to have special powers to affect the minds of others and super strength. I could have lived without this.
*. Overall I’d rate it as a middling effort. Some of it works. If I had to make a comparative judgment I’d rate the original better. Despite taking some chances along the way, this movie isn’t nearly as memorable. Put another way, I’m pretty sure I’ll be watching Pet Sematary again sometime, but it won’t be this version.

Alita: Battle Angel (2019)

*. Really not my thing, but here goes.
*. I’m not a big fan of manga or anime and Alita follows the Ghost in the Shell franchise in tracking a progression from manga (comic books) to anime (animated film) to live-action movie. If you can call movies with so much CGI “live action.” Rosa Salazar is Alita, but I’m not sure if she provides anything more than a voice. One side effect of this is that, as with many cartoon characters, her animated face has a disconcerting way of instantly jumping between emotional states. One moment she’s angry or concerned and the next she’s happy and playful. Along with the bodies that are so quickly dis- and reassembled one gets the feeling that nothing in this world matters very much.
*. Despite not being a fan of anime, I liked Ghost in the Shell well enough, and its “live-action” (again with the quotation marks) adaptation. Alita, however, strikes me as being quite inferior and I didn’t like it much at all.
*. It’s a nice movie to look at, as you would expect given the resources that were thrown at it, but the script is hum-drum in the extreme. Once again we have a future society split between an elite of sky-dwellers and the masses toiling in slums below. The other defining feature of this world is that most of the people we meet are cyborgs to some extent. Enter Alita, or at least her head, a cyborg discovered by Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz) on the scrap heap. Alita is obviously something special, but like Jason Bourne she can’t remember who or what she is.
*. Since the source material, a series of comic books by Yukito Kishiro, were published in the early 1990s not everything is derivative of more recent films. Though the sky city has been with us a long time, and Motorball is clearly just Rollerball with robots. None of this, I should say, makes Alita a bad movie, just uninteresting.

*. What I didn’t like was the weird YA vibe the movie gave off and the really pedestrian script. Despite the brutal violence (which includes multiple dismemberings and at least two decapitations) the plot is pure teen romance, with Alita falling head over heels for the first boy she meets. The scene where she offers Hugo her heart was cringeworthy, unless you’re twelve years old. I was honestly having flashbacks to Skaterdater. Meanwhile, the dialogue is all just comic book stuff mixed in with clumsy exposition (Matthew Rozsa: “clunky, shoehorned exposition that exists for no other purpose than to blatantly spell out the history and various rules of the Alita universe”). You start to wonder if it would be better with the sound turned off.
*. Well, it’s a comic book/superhero/video game movie. You know what they look like. If anything, it seems a little lighter and less original than most of its peers. I’d rate it below such similar fare (even down to the kick-ass female protagonists) as Valerian and Ghost in the Shell. What bothered me the most though was the awful “To be continued . . .” ending. There isn’t even the sense that a full story arc has been completed here, aside from getting rid of poor Hugo. Instead we’re left with Alita back in the Motorball arena, defiantly gesturing toward Zalem.
*. I don’t even know why Alita has gone back to playing Motorball. She knows that’s not the way to get to Zalem, so why bother? It seems like she’s put her plans for revenge on hold, figuring that in the meantime she might as well have some fun or stay in shape by being a running dog for the Motorball league. I don’t get it. She strikes a rebellious pose at the end (as an animated character she’s good at striking poses), but how is she fighting The Man by playing his game?

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

*. If you just look up “Ghost in the Shell” on Wikipedia you’ll see it described as a “Japanese media franchise.” It began as a manga (comic book) that debuted in 1989 and was turned into an anime film in 1995. It has since expanded into other feature films, a couple of TV series, and more comic books. Not to mention this “live action” film.
*. It’s important to know this history because if you don’t and you just come to Ghost in the Shell cold I think the first thing you’ll be struck by is that it’s an old story, just another cyberpunk thriller riffing on virtual reality and questions of what it means to be posthuman. Well, it is an old story. Kitted out with lots of expensive effects, but the themes it deals with, the story itself, and the whole look of the film, was nothing new in 2017. In fact, it was getting very tired.
*. You’ll have noticed I put “live action” in quotation marks. With the amount of CGI work and other effects in SF movies these days, I think they should be considered hybrids at best. It’s like the “live action” Jungle Book and Lion King Those aren’t real animals, it’s just Disney switching to a different style of animation.
*. So Ghost in the Shell has the look of Blade Runner, especially in its evocation of the city of the future. And when I say Blade Runner I mean not the original Blade Runner but the tinselly Blade Runner 2049. It has bits of Robocop. Some of The Matrix. But there’s nothing at all here that struck me as new or particularly impressive. Mira has a human mind in a manufactured body and says she is the first of her kind. Not if you’ve read any science fiction from the last century.
*. Critics were underwhelmed and even antagonistic.
*. What mostly got their backs up was the “whitewashing” of the character of Mira/Motoko: having an originally Asian character played by a white actress. This didn’t bother me nearly as much as the fact that they made Mira into such a babe. This is typical of manga/anime/comic books in general, and was certainly on full display in the original film, but as with everything else here it feels old. As soon as Mira takes off her cape in that opening reveal and shows her form in her camouflage bodysuit you go “Va-va-voom!” And then you wonder why they would give a cyborg warrior such an hourglass figure. I mean, why have boobs at all? Shouldn’t they have just given her more chest armour?
*. Actually, Scarlett Johansson was a natural choice for the part. She’s become the go-to actress for portraying the posthuman. Think Under the Skin, Lucy, and Her. Anthony Lane: “Such is the zone that Johansson patrols.” Or, as Mira puts it at the end, she’s the first of her kind but she won’t be the last. That seem excessively optimistic to me, but it does put a new spin on the concept of the It girl.
*. The other thing that reviewers didn’t like, especially those familiar with the source material, was the watering down of the philosophical questioning. They may have a point. We certainly don’t get much of that here. Mira is just on a quest to discover who she is, only to find out that it’s not her memories but what she does that defines her. Ho-hum.
*. I’m afraid these notes may be making me sound kind of jaded. But there really isn’t anything here we haven’t seen or heard before. The evil corporation. The heroic hackers. The superhuman hero. The slow-motion martial arts and gun fights. The technology that is all so seamless and works like magic. Thirty years ago I might have found this interesting.
*. The ending is particularly lame. We’re supposed to believe Kuze is some kind of incredibly powerful enhanced networked mind and then he gets taken out by something as crude as a remote-controlled spider tank? Shouldn’t he have seen that coming? (Note that in the 1995 film he planned to die and merge his consciousness with Motoko Kusanagi, but that is rejected here.) And why can’t he just upload his consciousness to the cloud instead of dying in that wrecked robotic chassis? Come to think of it, why is everyone still hooked up to wires and skull jacks? Doesn’t this future have wireless?
*. There you have it. Bright and shiny but dull and instantly forgettable. Obviously they were hoping for some kind of franchise but the box office was disappointing. It might have worked a little better if they’d spent more time introducing us to the rest of the Section 9 team, but I’m not sure they had any more personality than Mira. They really shouldn’t have bothered at all.

Inferno (2016)

*. The end. At least of the first Robert Langdon trilogy. I suspect he’ll be back however.
*. I find the success of these films almost entirely inexplicable. Yes, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code was a huge bestseller and the movie was able to ride that wave, especially given its A-list talent and huge budget. But it was a terrible movie that wasn’t even much fun as a train wreck.
*. It was followed up by Angels & Demons, which was just more of the same, albeit a little crazier and more up-tempo. Which brings us to Inferno, a movie nearly as stupid as the others and even less enjoyable. Box office was disappointing and, at least for a time, the franchise was put to bed. Long may it slumber in peace!
*. What is the appeal of these films? Are they just fantasy travelogues, with Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, accompanied by a beautiful young woman, running around famoust tourist locations and looking at Renaissance artwork — which he has near godlike access to, and which he gets to inspect privately while crowds mill about outside? That would be appealing — have you seen the lines to get in to the Uffizi? — but alas there is, as always, the stupidity factor to be accounted for.
*. Mark Kermode, who had a lot of fun ranting on these films, thought Angels & Demons the stupidest movie he had ever seen, and referred to the plot of this one as “intergalactically stupid . . . mind-pulverizingly dumb, despite the huge amounts of high art references in it, it is a film of lowest-common denominator stupidity.” Is that then the point? That people who do know a bit about Renaissance art, or Dante, or the Bible, can laugh at this hokum? Are these stupid movies for smart people, or movies that are meant to make stupid people feel smart because of all their cack-handed highbrow references?
*. I don’t know. Langdon, for example, strikes me as being impossibly thick. Despite being an expert auhority in all this stuff it seems that he knows neither Latin nor Italian. Which makes him more of an Everyman, if that is a good thing. Even I, however, knew that we were going to the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul before we got to the tomb of Enrico Dandolo, not because I’ve read a lot of Byzantine history but because I’d seen From Russia With Love.
*. Leaving these matters aside, there’s . . . not much else to say. Basically this movie is a total rehash of the plots of the previous two. As already noted, Langdon and his female companion run around looking at art and solving really simple puzzles.
*. Of course in any franchise the individual films resemble one another. But in the case of these movies they are so similar, and so long and so slow-moving in the bargain, that you actually start to get exasperated. This is particularly the case with the big “twist” in Inferno, which is so blindingly obvious right from the start that even if you didn’t know how Ian McKellen and Ewan McGregor both turned in the previous films you’d still know Felicity Jones was playing for the other team here. You don’t even get a spoiler alert for that one.
*. Even the villainous billionaire with a plot to cull the human herd — a figure who has become rather popular in recent films, from Valentine in Kingsman: The Secret Service to Dr. Isaacs in Resident Evil: The Final Chapter and Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War — is bungled. I mean, he’s dead at the beginning of the film, which means he has to keep being reintroduced through repetitive flashbacks where he seems to be delivering the same TED talk to different audiences. Meanwhile, there’s a whole subplot involving some organization that basically runs a version of The Game that I couldn’t figure out at all. The plot isn’t just stupid, it makes no sense.
*. Despite all of this Inferno could have been entertaining. But Ron Howard can’t direct material like this and make it interesting. Actually, I think Howard is a very limited director who has a lot of trouble making anything seem interesting. Looking over his filmography I’m a little in awe of how someone could have such a long, successful career making movies that are at their very best good-natured and bland. Is it so profitable, so important, just to be competent and inoffensive?
*. Maybe it is, but if you’re making a suspense/action thriller I don’t see where his talents even rise to the level of competence. These movies are all dull, dumb, and forgettable. I really feel bad that I wasted my time watching them, and that’s something I don’t even say about most of the third-rate exploitation cinema or horror flicks I watch.
*. So, like I say, I expect more of these movies. They may be better, however, with Howard and Hanks moving on. I’d like to say they couldn’t be worse but I feel like that would be tempting fate. Let’s face it, there’s always another, lower circle of hell in Hollywood.

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!