Category Archives: 2010s

Holy Hell (2016)

*. It’s the same question outsiders always ask about a cult, or indeed any story of a con man: How did people fall for this? Or, as one of the interviewees in Holy Hell tearfully puts it, “What is the scientific, rational explanation for this madness?” Yes, they were young men and women looking for a personal Jesus and there are always plenty of them around. But when you see people taken in by the likes of Marshall Applewhite of the Heaven’s Gate cult you feel like Carl Sandburg when he responded to the preacher Billy Sunday in his poem “To a Contemporary Bunkshooter.” “I like to watch a good four-flusher work . . . I like a man that’s got nerve and can pull off a great original performance, but you — you’re only a bug-house peddler of second-hand gospel.”
*. Applewhite is an extreme example, but Michel/Andreas/The Teacher/Reyji (born Jaime Gomez), leader of the Buddhafield movement wasn’t far off that same mark. A failed actor and dancer turned guru of a vaguely New Age cult (as if “New Age” theology wasn’t vague enough already), Michel seemed to live in bikini Speedo swimsuits and sunglasses. A narcissist who took his self-obsession beyond parody, Michel was obsessed with his own image. There’s a scene here where he gazes at a peacock fanning its tail that captures this perfectly. Meanwhile, as the years of Californian and then Texan sun took their inevitable toll, cosmetics and surgery would attempt to make up for the damage done, turning him into something grotesque. And yet still no one twigged to his scam. Personally, I would have been alarmed at his not liking dogs. That’s always a bad sign.
*. Ultimately he would be (partially) undone by reports of his sexual predations among a group known as “body workers.” The beautiful young men he had entranced weren’t just literally fucked, but had to pay for the privilege. One of them being Will Allen, who put together this documentary out of the hours of footage he shot while a member of the Buddhafield group for over a period of twenty-plus years.
*. The structure of the story follows a predictable arc, which further underlines how obvious a scam it all was. We know without any hints even being dropped what the “body workers” were really being used for. The brief clips from Michel’s gay porn appearances barely register as a shock. Indeed, the only surprise is how laid-back Allen seems to be about all that happened. When he finally meets up with Michel on the beach some time after leaving the group it’s not a confrontation at all. Indeed, even after the final credits roll it’s hard to read just how Allen now feels about Michel. Of course he (Michel) objected to the film, but overall I think he escapes from it far better than I would have expected.
*. What do we learn? By coincidence the same week I saw this I was watching The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler where the following is said: “Charisma does not exist on its own in anyone. It exists only in an interaction between an individual and an audience. An individual like Hitler who’s telling an audience what they wanted to hear.” This is drawing from the work of Max Weber, and a similar point is made in Holy Hell by one of the former cultists: “You can’t have a leader without followers.” The difference between the two Leaders (Hitler and Michel) is that Michel was more self-absorbed. Buddhafield was a cult of the self, worshipping beauty and the body. Allen’s film speaks in a language that didn’t have a clear analogy in Germany in the 1920s and ’30s, that of narcissists and codependents.
*. The cult members here were not stupid. Nor were they exceptional in wanting something more out of life than material rewards. Instead, something good in them, the desire to help others and perform service, was taken advantage of by someone who saw this as a weakness he could exploit. There are few moments in Holy Hell that are really scary, but one comes at the very end when Allen tracks Michel (now Reyji) to Hawaii where he is shown being followed about by people who might be zombies. It’s not remarkable how people fall into this pattern of self-destructive behaviour, but the results are still so tragic and depressing. For a while some of Michel’s followers found, or said they found happiness. That’s not how anyone looks at the end. They look like they’re already walking circles in hell.

The iMom (2014)

*. Not an entirely new idea. If you read much science fiction you’ll know that the adoption of AI robots into our lives as part of the increasingly complicated “Internet of things” became something of a staple in the 2010s. So here we have a company that delivers live-in robot nannies to couples who have no interest in being parents. What could go wrong?
*. You can be sure things do go wrong, and this is tagged as a horror short though its horror all comes with the twist at the end. Up to that final reveal it’s more like a techno-satire, with the infomercial testimonials playing like the funny ads from the future in movies like Robocop. But there’s a darker undertow in the news programming that’s filled with nothing but war, monster storms, and terrorist attacks. With the world out there such a scary place, who wouldn’t want their home to be a little oasis of peace and calm? Or do the networks who own the news stations also make iMoms? Come to think of it, just what is news and what is advertising?
*. Another note of darkness comes by way of the Biblical-mythic notes that are struck. We will know false prophets by their fruit. Wolves wear sheep’s clothing. Which is referring to . . . iMom? She represents the sinister way technology creeps into our lives, seemingly making our lives better but then exacting a terrible (or Biblical) price. Indeed, is iMom one of the of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, a domestic catastrophe on par with the war and plague that suffuses the news feeds?
*. It’s hard to read her that way, since what happens is the result of a random accident, what seems to be a power surge caused by the storm. This complicates any interpretation. Einstein’s line about how technology has “exceeded our humanity” is provided as an epigraph, but iMom doesn’t represent AI taking over. She hasn’t exceeded humanity so much as moved in to provide a humanity that the parents now lack, and she doesn’t take over so much as break down. Even she knows that she’s neither wolf nor sheep but just a device programmed to perform certain tasks, her “fruits,” without thought or feeling. She isn’t good or bad. The problem is that she’s been left in charge of too much, humans having abdicated responsibility for everything that’s most important. Even the son’s sexual coming of age, we sense, is going to be taken care of by the fetching figure of iMom. Meanwhile, you think those security cameras are going to help keep tabs on things? The killer is inside the house!
*. Not an anti-tech parable then, but an anti-human one. The glossy look of the film plays well against the sketchier television clips, suggesting again that blurring of the line between advertising and content (iMom is even better than the real thing!). I was led to wonder if there was any limit to the kid’s “screen time” when the house itself was so pervaded by screeniness. Come to think of it, why wasn’t realMom working from home? Why would she even want to go outside? It’s scary out there.

The Disaster Artist (2017)

*. The first thing I have to say is that I haven’t seen The Room. Meaning I’ve never sat down and watched the whole thing all the way through. I think I have, however, seen enough of The Room not to need or want to see any more.
*. The Disaster Artist is a movie based on a book of the same name written by Greg Sestero about the making of The Room. Which means it should be unique in its subject matter and point of view. As it turns out, however, it’s a very similar film to Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. Is it a not uncommon story?
*. Once again we have the crazy wannabe artist (Tommy Wiseau, played by James Franco) who dares to follow his dream of becoming an auteur. Hollywood loves these guys (Franco was on track to win an Oscar before being derailed by sexual misconduct allegations), and I think they strike a chord with the broader public as well. How could you not root for such deluded goofs, how could you not want them to succeed? That said . . .
*. As with Ed Wood I found myself wanting to go along with it but after a while I realized there wasn’t enough to care about. It’s not only that these guys (Wood and Wiseau) didn’t have any particular talent, but aside from their personal quirks and oddities they’re just not that interesting on any deeper level. Their films have a limited naive charm to them, but at the end of the day they’re garbage, only entertaining for their display of incompetence.
*. This leads in to the mystery of Tommy Wiseau himself. He’s done a great job building this up, but at the end of the day do I really care where he comes from or how he got all his money? Or whether there is something more to his attraction to Greg than friendship? Again and again in interviews and on the commentary track included with the DVD he has nothing to say when he is pressed. It’s become a kind of shtick.
*. For a film based on such recent true events and a book written by one of the principal actors in those events, I was surprised when listening to the commentary at the liberties taken. Most striking was the cameo by Bryan Cranston, who offers Greg an audition for a part in Malcolm in the Middle. Apparently this never happened, and the big choice Greg had to make was between shaving his beard or being in a photo shoot. That’s quite a dramatic change.
*. In short, I liked The Disaster Artist up to a point. James Franco, like Johnny Depp portraying Ed Wood, has fun doing a real-life caricature. The appearance of Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen is fitting since that’s the kind of comedy the film is aiming for. It’s basically a mockumentary with a clueless madman at the center that everyone responds to by way of stunned reaction shots.
*. The thing is, you get the joke pretty quickly and the rest of the movie’s message is trite. Follow your dreams. Don’t listen to your critics. Stand by your friends. And then maybe everything will work out in the end anyway.
*. It’s such a powerful message that it even took Ed Wood’s sad life story and turned it into something to be celebrated. Insulated from that kind of failure by his wealth, Tommy Wiseau was never in danger of coming to such a tragic end. The historical moment also saved him, as it didn’t Wood. Wood was an authentic outsider where Wiseau was more pleasingly ironic. A post-credit meeting between Wiseau and Franco still in character as Tommy is the perfect joke to end with. Somehow we’re all in on it. Whatever it is.

Vivarium (2019)

*. Vivarium is part of the New Weird in terms of genre, meaning it’s a mix of dark fantasy and SF. Whenever I get into a NW book or movie I suspect some kind of allegory is intended. I think that’s the case here as well, but it falls short.
*. Here’s the story (read no further if you want to avoid spoilers). A young, unmarried, childless couple — Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) — go to a new townhouse development named Yonder, a place which makes the usual “cookie-cutter” appellation seem quaint. After a brief tour their creepy guide leaves them, and they find out they’re trapped. No matter how far they walk or drive, or in what direction, they always end up back at Unit 9. They are the only people around. No cell phone coverage, naturally. Boxes are dropped off with food and other supplies. Then a baby arrives. They are told to raise it. It grows up quickly, and gives signs of being some kind of alien life form despite looking human. Then Tom and Gemma die and their now adult (adopted) son goes to work in the same real estate office that they visited at the beginning.
*. Allegories have two levels of interpretation. On the literal level, as far as it is explained, Yonder is an extra-dimensional space constructed by aliens, or some other species native to Earth but unknown to us, whose purpose is to force humans to raise Yonder young.
*. Just on the literal level my basic problem is the same one I have with most such alien movies, or movies involving supernatural creatures like devils or demons. If these other beings are so smart/technologically advanced/powerful, then why are they wasting their time preying on humans? Don’t they have better things to do? The Yonders put all this effort into building their nests just to end up dressing like Mormon missionaries and selling real estate? I guess cuckoos have no imaginative life of their own, but these particular creatures are technologically sophisticated and even write books. They have a culture. So I don’t get it. Their existence seems far more complicated and even less fulfilling than Tom digging a hole in the yard.

*. That’s the macro problem I have, on the literal level. I’d also wonder why Gemma and Tom weren’t put on their notice right away by an estate that looks even more like a Guy Billout picture than the town in The Truman Show. Much more. Those clouds! Also, where are the garages? It’s obviously a commuter development but there’s no place for anyone to park their cars except on the street. There aren’t even any driveways! Did this not strike them as odd right away?

*. Then there is the message, or allegorical meaning of what’s going on. This is pretty grim. The suburbs are hell. Work is pointless drudgery. And once you have a kid your life is forfeit, as you no longer have any purpose except to serve the little monster. Are we all so alienated today, from where we live, what we do, and each other? Well, this movie seems to be saying, Yes we are. And the virtual world next door is even worse.
*. Not very uplifting, or profound. And indeed I thought it all got a lot less interesting as it went along. Obviously we’ve been here before, in what I’ve dubbed the Simulacrum movies (The Truman Show, The Matrix, Dark City). I suppose the only thing different here is that we have become even more complicit in our own destruction. The cuckoo Yonders (it’s an analogy the opening credits introduces, crudely), are taking advantage of our nurturing nature, the sort of thing that helps us endure the stations of the cross of parenting. The moral of the story being that . . . we shouldn’t give in to these feelings? That it’s all just a conformist scam? I don’t know.
*. I mentioned in my notes on the Black Christmas remake (if that’s what it was) that Imogen Poots was growing on me. She grows some more here, as she carries the movie, distracting us from a super-creepy and annoying boy (he likes to scream) and an only slightly less annoying Jesse Eisenberg. I’ve also noted before how Eisenberg is not growing on me, and while he’s not bad here I still don’t care for him. And playing a landscaper?
*. Neat to look at, and given the premise it doesn’t matter that Yonder seems like a movie set or virtual environment. The artificiality of the design is something you’re supposed to appreciate. The characters, however, don’t seem any more three dimensional than the sets, and the point of it all struck me as glum and uninsightful.

The Jigsaw (2014)

*. Just a campfire ghost story, and I have a feeling it’s one I’ve heard before somewhere. Even the set-up is so old it creaks. If you’re looking for another turn of the screw in 8 minutes that’s expecting a bit much. You know anything bought in that antique shop is going to be cursed. And the old man (Pedro Monteiro) is even given a warning!
*. Just by the way, for various reasons not worth getting into I’ve been doing a lot of jigsaw puzzles myself recently. A number of these come by way of flea markets or yard sales (they are quite expensive if you buy them new). And the percentage chance that a puzzle bought in that store, in that box, still had all the pieces is approaching zero. But of course it’s a magic puzzle so that doesn’t matter. I also think it’s strange that the puzzle doesn’t have a picture on the front of the box, or anywhere else, showing what it’s supposed to be of. That makes it a lot harder, though not impossible, to solve. I have a neighbour who thinks that looking at the picture is somehow cheating, but she’s a bit weird.
*. Of course the real puzzle, given all this, is why the old man wants to buy that puzzle anyway. There are some clues. He seems to live alone but there’s a photo of a younger man and a woman. He and his wife? Then he puts on a record and it plays “We’ll Meet Again.” Does this amount to some kind of death wish? How does one interpret the chiming of the clock? His time is up? And washing his face? A sort of ritual ablution before crossing over? I mean, clearly he doesn’t seem that interested in saving himself from the doom peering over his shoulder.
*. But while I can understand wanting to die so — perhaps to be reunited with his wife but maybe just to put an end to such a dull and lonely existence — why choose such a nasty way to go? Embracing one’s fate is one thing, but this particular fate?
*. I ask these questions because they’re all the puzzle the film has. I liked it and though it was nicely turned out by the Al-Safar brothers (Basil and Rashad), but I wouldn’t call it scary, suspenseful, suggestive, or surprising. I’d say it’s made for the campfire but I think we have to update that reference to the Internet. Short films are for browsing, and I’m not sure how much that changes our response to them. The world of doing jigsaw puzzles while a record plays in the background belongs to another age entirely. Can we still relate? With so many windows open, how concerned are we by the bogeyman appearing in one?

Ad Astra (2019)

*. Apocalypse Now in space. Which is fair enough because Apocalypse Now was Heart of Darkness in Vietnam.
*. But what a falling off there’s been. From the European exploitation of the Congo to America’s misadventures in Southeast Asia to . . . what exactly? Old Man McBride is hardly an imperialist. Kurtz has become a grumpy old man suffering from dementia. Or is he more like Hal, having killed off his crew so as to preserve his inhuman mission?
*. More to the point: do I care? No. Brad Pitt has never done well at emoting, so he’s actually well cast here as the preternaturally stoic Roy McBride. But he’s hard to relate to. When he finally gets to reunite with his dad (Tommy Lee Jones) for some deep-space bonding it’s clear they have nothing to say to each other. So they don’t. But in losing that connection — here the music soars — Roy discovers what really matters. Which is, you know, being nice to his girl back home.
*. Yes, the takeaway here really is that sappy. Ad Astra is one of a series of epic SF films with stunning visuals and (supposedly) adult themes that came out around this time. Gravity (2013). Interstellar (2014). The Martian (2015). Maybe even throw in the 2018 restoration of 2001. The action sequences here, beginning with a fall from a space antenna, are breathtaking. You want to see all of these movies on a big screen.
*. But the script! It fails on every level. The story doesn’t hold together for a second. What is the big secret that Donald Sutherland’s character is keeping from McBride? He knows what the mission is. What is this war that’s going on? What is Donald Sutherland’s character even doing in this movie? He’s too old to be helping much and seems to have no role to play anyway. How do scavengers survive on the Moon? How is the Lima Project’s antimatter power source causing the Surge? How did McBride manage to sneak on board the rocket (with seconds to spare!). This is all silly stuff.
*. And the dialogue! Milius at his most grandiose never sounded this stiff and portentous. It doesn’t even have the wit of Milius. By the time McBride grabs the panel to use as a shield to go bodysurfing back to his ship at the end I was thinking, longingly, of Dark Star.
*. No such levity is felt anywhere in this leaden production. But why not? There are pirates! Monkeys! But Kubrick had more of a sense of humour than we get here. And Keir Dullea a lighter presence than Brad Pitt.
*. There’s no point beating up on this. Parts of it look fantastic. But it goes nowhere interesting, and without much sense of urgency. As noted, the message is banal to a point where the shallowness of the ending is less surprising than the appearance of the monkeys. Monkeys in space! How I wish the movie had been all about their madcap adventures instead.

Villains (2019)

*. I’ll begin with a couple of things that I’ve talked about before but that I’m no closer to understanding.
*. First: I started off my notes on Don’t Breathe by saying how much of its basic plotline was borrowed from Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs. Which I didn’t see anything wrong with, since on the whole Don’t Breathe wasn’t a bad little thriller in its own right. What surprised me was that on the commentary track no mention was made of Craven’s movie as either inspiration or source. Indeed there was no mention of The People Under the Stairs at all. I likened this to listening to the commentary on the Quarantine DVD where nobody mentioned Rec, the movie it was a direct remake of.
*. Well, Villains is a movie very much in the same line of descent: the home invasion gone terribly wrong when it turns out the home is owned by psychopaths who like to keep prisoners chained up in their basement. But nowhere on the DVD commentary do co-writers and directors Dan Berk and Robert Olsen mention either The People Under the Stairs or Don’t Breathe. I’m not saying they were just ripping those movies off, but it seems uncharitable not to refer to them in some way.
*. Second thing I don’t understand: the Black List. This is an annual survey of the “most-liked” motion picture screenplays not yet produced. So I guess getting on this list increases the chance of your script being produced, though commentators have also said that a lot of the scripts on the list are in fact still making the usual rounds, and some of those listed were clearly properties that somebody was going to make (like the ones based on bestselling novels).
*. What surprises me is when the script itself is not very good. I mentioned this in my notes on The Hitman’s Bodyguard, where the generic, blacklisted script was apparently transformed quite a bit. I could say the same for other Black List titles like Dirty Grandpa, Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, The Equalizer, Hotel Artemis, or The Lodge. There are, of course, plenty of hits and misses, but clearly making the List is no guarantee of quality. As we see again here. Villains isn’t a bad movie, but it’s not original at all and the script struck me as totally perfunctory. The heroes end up at the bad guys’ house because that’s where their car runs out of gas? They weren’t really trying there, were they?

*. The cast hit their marks, which were hard to miss. Bill Skarsgård and Maika Monroe are passable as the couple of inept burglars on the lam. I kept thinking I’d seen Monroe before, but I had to do an Internet search before I could place her as the girl being followed in It Follows. Jeffrey Donovan and Kyra Sedgwick, however, steal the show as the creepy couple. He’s all smarmy in an ascot and she has dead, shark eyes that are the scariest thing in the movie. Which, in turn, leads me into a final observation.
*. Is Villains supposed to be scary? Is it a horror movie? A black comedy? Berk and Olsen talk a bit about tone on the DVD commentary but I had trouble figuring out just what they saw that tone as being. The opening scene involves the burglary of a convenience store and it seems mainly to be played for laughs, with the bumbling crooks wearing silly masks and not knowing how to operate the cash register.
*. From there we get a romantic interlude as their car runs out of gas, and then we’re into the crazy house with the little girl chained in the basement. This is good because it introduces Donovan and Sedgwick, but not so good in that these two are presented as obscure targets of some kind of dated satire. Are they just wealthy boomers with pretensions to gentility? It seems to me they’re characters we might have seen in the same movie made in the ’80s. Even the religious hypocrisy plays stale. We get it. Rich people are phony. Behind the façade of genteel manners lies unspeakable cruelty and evil. That’s not an original observation to be making in 2019.
*. Things play out very predictably, which is another problem I had with the script. I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer but I found myself two steps ahead of every plot point here. As soon as Mickey mentioned Jules’ tongue piercing I pegged it for Chekhov’s gun. We were going to be hearing about that again. The attempts at escape and the rescue fail play out pretty much as expected. Sweetiepie will be given her moment. It was all so obvious I was only left to wonder why, when Mickey tells Jules to duck, he doesn’t do so himself.
*. Then a rather anticlimactic, downbeat climax that leaves Gloria (Sedgwick) hanging while sending Jules and Sweetiepie to Florida to sell seashells by the seashore. It’s very sentimental, again, but then just to spin things around we get a jacked-up, animated credit run that sends us flying off in another direction.
*. I came away confused. Berk and Olsen mention not wanting to make a movie that was “too dark,” but rather “a fun thrill ride.” If that was the intention I don’t see how they succeeded, as one thing this movie surely is not is fun. It just feels like a bunch of old pieces stuck together into something not really new. Well enough done, especially given the budget, but hard to get thrilled by.

Hybrids (2017)

*. I think I’ve complained about CGI enough to allow myself to enjoy a beautifully animated environmental fable like Hybrids. And after all, isn’t its subject a perfect fit for such treatment, being the melding of industrial technology with nature? As Shakespeare had it in The Winter’s Tale, art is man’s nature anyway, so why not embrace Darwin’s bastards in the sea and on screen? We can find uses even for waste that are nevertheless creative and original.
*. Blue Planet meets WALL-E? That’s certainly one way of looking at it. Our evolutionary inheritors will be aquatic garbage-pail kids. Not, however, anthropomorphized cartoons. This isn’t Finding Nemo. These underwater creatures don’t sing and dance or even fall in love. They don’t speak or show much in the way of emotion. They just eat. Big fish eat little fish. And so it goes.

*. You can almost hear the voice of David Attenborough providing narration. If you know the BBC nature docs (like Blue Planet and Planet Earth) then you know how they’re really infinite, colourful variations on a basic theme. Life is acquiring and processing energy (eating) and reproduction (mating). There’s nothing else. In this case it’s all the first category as we’re just focused on the food chain. I suppose that turtle might be crawling onto the beach at the end to lay some eggs, but otherwise I had to wonder if there was any reproduction going on in this brave new world or if it was all just recycling now.
*. I’ve said I think the animation is beautiful and in keeping with the film’s theme. Garbage might not have looked this good since Tarkovsky dollied along a ditch in Stalker. And the creatures are wonderfully whimsical. I love the bottle-cap crabs and the turtle with a translucent pot lid for a shell. But they’re not merely cute. One possible source is the armoured fishy-looking things in some of Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings of hell (in the St. Anthony Triptych, for example, or the hell section of The Garden of Earthly Delights). The world without us (humans) isn’t a paradise but a junkyard, full of the crap we left behind. Though I’m guessing we’re still around too, in one form or another.
*. Then again, maybe we haven’t adapted. Maybe we’ve been entirely superseded. At least you can be sure we’re not making movies like Stalker anymore. The future will be animated.

Sabotage (2014)

*. Can we feel sorry for Arnold Schwarzenegger? His post-gubernatorial film career hasn’t been much to write about. After cameos in The Expendables and The Expendables 2 he headlined The Last Stand, Escape Plan, and Sabotage. Were these movies that anyone wanted to see?
*. The thing is, none of the big ’80s action stars could act. They were just a screen presence, and in the twenty-first century their appearances became a male version of the Grande Dame Guignol of hagsploitation. We are relieved when Stallone and Schwarzenegger keep their shirts on now, though I was impressed at the weights we see Arnie lifting in the gym scene here.
*. Kyle Smith got in a good crack about Arnold having “reached the shaky-cam-and-hoodies stage of his career” in Sabotage, but what registers is the disjunction between the hoodie and the face, which now looks like a piece of beef jerky peering out from a cave. It is, if I can say it without seeming cruel, a bit grotesque.
*. Nobody seemed to like Sabotage very much. There were a lot of complaints about how brutal the violence was, but it didn’t strike me as being more extreme than usual for this genre, at this time. Meaning there are lots of splatters of CGI blood.
*. But maybe people were troubled by the bleakness of the plot, which has Arnie playing John “Breacher” Wharton, “a drug-war god” who heads a team of DEA toughs. They seem to be a tactical squad, but are also described as undercover agents. I thought these were two different things, but what do I know? I also thought they talked way too much when clearing a house, but again I’m not an expert on these matters. I assume director David Ayer, whose métier this is, knows better.
*. The plot has the team stealing $10 million in cash during a raid on a drug lord’s McMansion, but then having this prize stolen in turn out from under their nose. Later, the team begins to get killed off one by one. Is this the revenge of the cartel? Or an enemy within?
*. That might have made for a decent mystery plot but it goes nowhere here. I take it that somewhere in the publicity material the story was likened to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None because the connection is made in a lot of the reviews. Don’t be fooled by this. There is no connection whatsoever.
*. Instead of Christie I was sort of hoping a serial killer was stalking the team, making this into an action-horror crossover. Or maybe the Predator was back. He took out a cartel at the beginning of Predator 2. Alas, no such luck. What’s really going on is a lot less interesting.

*. Don’t be thinking the title is going to give you any clues. The original titles were Ten and Breacher. But the first was taken and the second would have probably confused everyone. So instead they went with Sabotage. There is no sabotage in the movie. They were hoping to be able to use the song of the same name by the Beastie Boys in the marketing, but in the event permission was denied.
*. Apparently the studio also cut the movie quite heavily. Rumour has it the original cut was close to three hours. I don’t think the longer version was likely to be any better.
*. There were also changes made to the ending. Various endings were shot, most of them darker (but not sounding any better) than what we got. Instead we get a dull coda that offers partial closure on a subplot involving Breacher’s mission of revenge on the cartel that, you know, killed his wife and child. Apparently this has been eating away at him like, you know, “a cancer in his soul.”
*. Once again Mexico is a hell of corruption, lawlessness, crime, and violence. Stallone would venture into these same dirty streets just a few years later in Rambo: Last Blood. Another ill-considered retirement project. Guess it’s time to build that wall, America. If you really think it will do any good.
*. The team itself are introduced as a bunch of the usual yo-bros who drink a lot, go to strip clubs, get tattoos, but have each other’s back in a firefight. Or at least some of them do. I couldn’t stand any of them. Are we supposed to root for these goons? They’re even less likeable than the meatheads in Den of Thieves. A movie that at least established that roles like this can be safely handed over to Gerard Butler now.
*. So no, I don’t feel sorry for Arnold. If you want to extend sympathy to anyone for this grotty mess, extend it to Mireille Enos and Olivia Williams, with the former in particular really giving her all in a lost cause. There’s no way she could save this movie on her own, but damn she has her game face on.

Sorry to Bother You (2018)

*. Unfortunately Sorry to Bother You was released a year after Get Out, a movie that it was inevitably compared to. There are obvious similarities, starting with the young Black man who is lured into the web of a wealthy white elite that have found a strange new way to exploit America’s underclass. Their sinister, science-fiction plot is even explained the same way, with the hero forced to watch a promotional-type video for a process he is about to undergo.
*. I say the comparison was unfortunate for several reasons. First of all, I don’t think Sorry to Bother You was a rip-off of Get Out. Writer-director Boots Riley had written the script, and indeed published it, years earlier. The similarities were coincidental.
*. The other unfortunate thing about the comparison is that while Sorry to Bother You is a good movie, Get Out is a great one. I’d locate the difference in two areas. In the first place, what I really liked about Get Out was how, given its premise, it all made sense. That is not the case with this movie. WorryFree’s point in turning workers into human-horse hybrids called equisapiens is hard to follow. With increasing automation, we don’t need stronger, stupid workers. And the equisapiens we meet are not more docile and obedient. They are violent revolutionaries.
*. The second distinction I’d make between this movie and Get Out is that Jordan Peele perfectly blended social commentary with a terrific thriller plot. Get Out is a political movie, a powerful one, but it manages to get its message across without being obvious. In Sorry to Bother You the political angle is more direct, basically hitting us over the head with its call for activism. At the same time, it isn’t as funny or as scary. I take it the revelation of the equisapiens was meant to remind us of the sheep or goat-man that Mick uncovers in O Lucky Man!, but in that movie the reveal was more shocking and horrifying. The equisapiens didn’t affect me the same way. Maybe it was the giant cocks. They were distracting.

*. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with movies being political, or anything wrong with the political line Riley is advancing. It’s just that any such movie has to find a balance and while Sorry to Bother You isn’t a screed, it suffers in comparison to Get Out in this regard. At the same time, it also seems less focused. Riley described it as “an absurdist dark comedy with aspects of magical realism and science fiction inspired by the world of telemarketing.” This is a lot for any film to have to carry and also be a cry to rise up and fight the power.
*. I still enjoyed Sorry to Bother You, despite its being preachy and a bit crudely constructed. It’s entertaining and makes its point. But Riley doesn’t have a good sense of comic timing, and LaKeith Stanfield doesn’t transform himself enough from the hunched-over figure desperate to get a job at a telemarketing agency to the power caller of the upper floors. We should feel like there’s more of an arc here, and I’m not sure Stanfield is up to the job.
*. I wonder if the actors might have been able to do their own versions of a “white voice” without having to go the route of dubbing. That would have been interesting. As it is, the lip synching for the dubbing struck me as very bad, throwing a monkey wrench into another comic bit.
*. Critics raved. I think too much. I said in my notes on Us, Jordan Peele’s follow-up to Get Out, that critics, surprised by the success of Get Out, had to overcompensate in their response to Us. Nobody, I said then, wanted to miss the same boat twice. I think the same thing happened here. But this really isn’t as good a movie as Get Out and I don’t think there’s any reason to go overboard in praising it. It’s good enough at making its point. I’ll leave it at that.