Category Archives: 2010s

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!

Frozen (2010)

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

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019)

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

Avengers: Endgame (2019)

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

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

*. Avengers: Infinity War, which is only the first part of a two-part story arc to be completed with Endgame, is itself two-and-a-half hours long. This is impressive in a good and a bad way.
*. The good: it’s amazing how they manage to keep so many balls in the air for so long without having the whole thing fall apart. Credit the simplicity of the basic premise, or what used to be called “high concept.” Thanos (he’s the big, bald, bad guy) has to collect six “infinity stones,” and when he does he will have control of the universe. A first-time dungeonmaster would be laughed out of town for such a hackneyed scenario, but Marvel movies like to stick to the basics.
*. That simple story, though, is also a problem. There’s really nothing much going on here, aside from our gang of heroes doing their thing. Which is to say fighting each other and the usual legions of alien mooks. The infinity stones are a joke. They look cheap and I was never sure if they had specific individual powers. More than that, however, I had to wonder: has there ever been a duller supervillain than Thanos? There may be a sort of inverse law at work here where the more powerful the bad guy is the less interesting he becomes. I mean, if you’re as powerful as Thanos, why does he even bother fighting people? It’s not like he needs the exercise. And what does he get out of all this? A chance to sit on his front porch looking out at green fields for the rest of eternity?
*. His motivation is truly hard to follow. Basically Thanos falls into the category of bad guy, very popular around this time, who is determined to wipe out a bunch of people in order to deal with the problem of overpopulation (Zobrist in Inferno, Dr. Isaacs in Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, Valentine in Kingsman: The Secret Service). Except instead of doing this on one crowded planet (Earth) he’s going to exterminate half the life in the universe in some random lottery. Are there no uninhabited planets left in the universe? No more room for the universe to grow? No way to terraform currently lifeless planets? I mean, he is God. And when he says destroy half the life in the universe, does he just mean humanoids? Or all life? He seems to like green forests and birdsong. How does he define “life” anyway? These are not idle questions.
*. Being an actor cast in an Marvel Cinematic Universe movie must be like winning the lottery or going to heaven. I’m assuming they all make a lot of money, and for what? Seriously: what did Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson do in this movie aside from stand in front of the camera?
*. I’m not sure there’s much to say about this one. I thought it dragged in the second half, with too much speechifying and lots of operatic moments involving characters whose quips I can smile at but who I otherwise didn’t care about in the slightest. The ginormous cast of stars leaves many of them with little role to play. There were chunks of the plot I couldn’t follow, like what exactly Thor was doing to reignite the forge at Nidavellir. I wonder if even the writers knew.
*. I probably wasn’t as up on the MCU as I should have been to get all of this. I hadn’t seen Captain America: Civil War so I missed Steve Rogers falling out with Tony Stark. But I doubt it made that big a difference. The thing is, this stuff is now our Lord of the Rings, or even our Iliad and Odyssey. Future generations won’t think much of us, but then I suspect they won’t be going back to look at the evidence either. As I’ve said before, I can’t think of any reason to watch these movies twice. I give Marvel credit for putting out a dependable product, but for all their polish this is assembly-line stuff. Which is pure Hollywood, take it or leave it.
*. I mentioned Homer and Tolkien, who both created mythic worlds that in some way reflected or commented upon their particular cultural matrix, expressing the values that their audiences thought important. Does the MCU have any of the same weight? What does the immense popularity of all this (here I wave my hand at the screen) say about us? Aside from Thanos’s crude environmentalist mission (which, as I’ve said, doesn’t make sense), is there any social or political point being made about who we are or what we value? There’s some underlying message about sacrifice, but it remains so general as to be without meaning, at least to me. And yet I assume people do find a deeper meaning in here somewhere, some myth in all the spectacle. These are the most profitable movies ever made. They can’t just be popcorn. Can they?

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (2016)

*. I binge-watched all six of the Resident Evil movies, which may not have been a good idea. I say that for two reasons.
*. First of all, by the time I got to this, the so-called “final chapter” (where have I heard that before?) I felt like I was being bludgeoned into submission. Surely even for fans of this stuff there’s a limit to how much video game action they can take.
*. The second, and perhaps even bigger problem is that when watching all of the movies back-to-back the disruptions in plot continuity became even more glaring. When we last left the franchise, at the end of Resident Evil: Retribution, Alice and her compatriots were standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Wesker on the roof of the White House to take on the forces of evil unleashed by the Umbrella Corporation, which was now being run by the AI Red Queen. Exactly how Wesker had become a good guy wasn’t explained. It seems they just needed him to perform certain plot functions.
*. Well, as things kick off here Wesker is back being a bad guy; Dr. Isaacs, who we thought had been cubed to death back in Resident Evil: Extinction (yes, I had to go and look that up), is back and somehow in charge; and the Red Queen is helping Alice to shut Umbrella down. Meanwhile Ada Wong and Jill Valentine have unaccountably disappeared (apparently Sienna Guillory wasn’t even asked to return) but Claire Redfield is back.

*. In the face of all this narrative chaos I think you just have to throw your hands up and go along for the ride. Characters are indestructible until they aren’t. If Alice firebombs the armored vehicle that Isaacs is riding in we just have to accept that he steps out uninjured. And even if he did die, maybe it would only be a clone or a hologram that got killed (in fact, we later find out that this particular iteration is only “a poor imitation of a worthless copy”). We’re in a fictional environment here where anything is possible.
*. There is some attempt at making sense of what’s gone before. Apparently Umbrella, knowing civilization to be doomed, was trying to effect an “orchestrated apocalypse” that would eliminate the world’s population while allowing the rich and the powerful to ride out Armageddon in cold storage underground. Later, they were to be awakened and inherit the earth, rebooting it in their own image.
*. I didn’t say it was much of an explanation. In fact, it’s only the tissue of background provided behind most video games, just something to give the action sequences a bit of context. If you think a movie, or six movies, should be giving you something more then you’re being too demanding.

*. Suffice it to say that they do try to wrap things up, however messily. Even Alice’s identity is explained at the end, if anyone might still be interested. Personally, I thought that for a finale it ended up being more coherent than I was expecting it to be, so that’s one positive takeaway. With Alice’s sacrifice and achievement of a fuller humanity, however, it’s also more clichéd. And there’s even a coda that suggests this might not, in fact, be the final chapter. Surprise!
*. What’s up with the opening credits? First we get separate screens giving us the fancy logos for Sony’s Screen Gems, Impact Pictures, Davis Films, and Constantin Film. We then get a title screen that tells us that Screen Gems, Davis Films and Constantin Film present (on yet another screen) a Constantin Film, Davis Films and Impact Pictures production. I think we get it.
*. I’ve said that I found something enjoyable in the earlier films. That may, however, just show how old I’m getting. Resident Evil and Resident Evil: Apocalypse both struck me as retro ’80s SF, while Resident Evil: Extinction was more just a zombie flick. As the series went on though it became even more like a video game, which is a style of filmmaking I can’t stand. To take just one example, they use a ton of flash editing to conceal the fact that the action scenes are no good. A fight scene with a cut every second, or three or four cuts every second, isn’t really a fight scene in my book. But I guess it plays well with the twitch crowd.
*. That may sound overly dismissive of fans of this franchise, but I’m honestly confused as to the appeal of these movies. Alice is the only character. Everyone else is just a prop introduced to perform some plot function and then be disposed of. At least for a while. What was Ada Wong’s purpose, aside from marketing to an Asia audience? Meanwhile, there is no coherent story developed. So all that leaves is fight scenes and special effects. But the fight scenes are crap and the CGI ranges from garbage to average (at best). So who watches this stuff?
*. For what it’s worth, I liked this one a little more than Resident Evil: Retribution, but still found it to be a noisy mess. It did, however, make a ton of money and capped (for now) what has been billed as the highest-grossing horror franchise in film history. That would seem to guarantee that there will be more on the way. I’m checking out now though because I’ve had enough.

Resident Evil: Retribution (2012)

*. I’ve said that Resident Evil: Afterlife (the previous entry in this franchise) was one of the stupidest movies I’ve ever seen. Resident Evil: Retribution may be even stupider. I’m not sure. The thing is, I don’t know and I don’t know if it’s worth the effort to find out.
*. At the end of the last movie there was a fight scene strongly suggestive of The Matrix. I figured they were just ripping off that movie for style points, but as Retribution begins we’re clearly inside the Matrix. Much of the action is pure video game shoot-’em-up, set in an assortment of virtual reality environments. Various cast members from earlier movies reappear, in different roles. So what is reality? Who is a clone? Who is a hologram? Does it make a difference?

*. My sense of mystification began with the opening credits, which play against the battle promised at the end of Afterlife running backward. Yes, backward. Which I guess is different. Interesting? Hm. Stupid? On the DVD commentary writer-director Paul W. S. Anderson doesn’t mention having had anything in mind other than the desire to shoot the opening battle in slow motion. So that’s no help.
*. Sticking with mysteries, why is this movie called Retribution? Payback sure, but again I’m not sure it’s worth the trouble figuring out what this is referring to.
*. It’s a testament to the power of video games in our culture that this franchise kept going, and made the kind of money it did, for as long as it did. The previous instalment, Resident Evil: Afterlife, was crap warmed over. By this time even the built-in audience should have been tuning out. But the video game franchise was still humming and the box office for this film was huge.
*. A number of critics mentioned how this entry seems even more like a video game than the other films. I agree. It goes with the VR territory I think. You have to wonder where the game ends and the movie begins.
*. I’ve said before that this franchise has a pastiche aesthetic, just borrowing bits and pieces from other movies and sticking them together. Or maybe that’s Anderson’s default mode. He did the same thing in Event Horizon and Alien vs. Predator. Whatever the reason, he’s doing it again here. Did we really need that character of the little girl just to give us a scene so derivative of Aliens? Or is it that the Red Queen AI has a head stuffed with all these old movies and just wants to recreate them in various VR environments?

*. On the commentary track Anderson says that he wanted to make an “epic” post-apocalyptic movie. What this would mean is that it would be global, a point underlined by the theatrical release poster that boasted “Evil Goes Global.” I’m not sure how this works though. All of the action in the film except for the very beginning and end takes place in the same underwater base. We’re not really in NYC or Moscow or Berlin. But again: Does it make a difference?
*. Because we’re in video game/comic book land it follows that all the women are kitted out in sexy outfits. Even sexier than usual this time around. Milla Jovovich is in some kind of fetish/bondage gear. Jill Valentine sports a plunging neckline. Ada has a dress slit up to wherever and heels. Producer Jeremy Bolt: “The girls have to wear quite challenging costumes.” All of this is fair enough given the territory, but it seems to me Anderson spends a little too much time staring at Alice’s ass. I don’t mind looking, but I don’t want to leer.
*. I have to say this is the first of the Resident Evil movies that I didn’t enjoy at all. In each of the others there was at least something I liked. That died here. Even with this much action and a quick running time I thought Retribution overstayed its welcome by half an hour. The final battle on the ice was tedious and pointless. And why did it take Alice so long to figure out the way to beat Jill was just to grab the mechanical scarab off her chest? She already knew how those worked because she’d removed Claire’s.
*. Oh well. I’ve waded into this series so far that I might as well keep going. Things couldn’t get any worse, could they?

Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010)

*. There were many times during the previous Resident Evil films when I thought they didn’t make sense. In both minor and major ways. This is the first movie in the series though that I thought downright stupid, and stupid right from the start.
*. In the opening act an army of Alices (clones of Milla Jovovich’s character) take out the Tokyo HQ of the Umbrella Corporation. This is done in a spectacular, cartoonish way, where many of the Alices are treated as expendable. Then the “real” Alice gets the drop on the Umbrella CEO Wesker but is injected with a formula that takes away her super powers. Alice is always letting people get the drop on her. She’s really dim in this regard. Apparently she also didn’t keep any clones in reserve, which was poor planning to say the least. But Wesker’s formula seems to be only partially successful as it erases Alice’s psychokinetic abilities but still leaves her as a super-ninja warrior in the rest of the movie.
*. Seriously, I don’t think you could take any three-minute section of this movie and not find something in it to make you shake your head in disbelief. Alice crash lands her plane on the roof of a prison building and everyone just stands in the way and has to duck or dive at the last moment to avoid being run over. Then a guy catches her plane with a cable and holds it back from sliding over the edge of the building with the strength of his brawny arms alone! Please believe me when I say this stupidity is not a rare occurence. The whole movie is this dumb. It even looks dumb. How do they keep all those torches lit on the upper floors of the dining hall in the prison? How do they reach them?
*. At the end of the film, when they get to the Arcadia, Claire lets everyone know that the whole thing is a trap. Which they then walk straight into when a door slides open (sliding shut immediately behind them). But then, it’s not a trap. It’s just the next level they have to play in the game. It’s that kind of movie.
*. I think Paul W. S. Anderson had originally envisioned a Resident Evil trilogy, but by the second movie that plan had probably already fallen apart. In any event, at this point I had the distinct sense that he was just making stuff up as he went along. I felt like he might not have finished writing what he had scheduled for each day’s shooting until the night before. I know that sounds crazy, but the plot has that much of a slapdash feel to it.
*. For example, at the end of Resident Evil: Extinction we’re told that Alice’s blood is the cure for the virus, casting her in Charlton Heston’s role in The Omega Man. But at the beginning of this film Wesker “cures” her so that this is no longer in play. What one thought would be a major plot point is casually disposed of and we’re off doing something else. But then at the end we’re told that Alice’s blood still has some magical property that makes it of value. There’s no attempt at consistency.
*. I mentioned in my notes on the first three instalments that I quite liked Milla Jovovich in this role. That good feeling changed with this movie. I know I’m making too much out of it, but at the end of the opening scene, when Wesker takes away her super strength and she thanks him for making her human and (as he is about to kill her) putting her out of her misery, I couldn’t help thinking that this was Jovovich begging to be released from this franchise. In the rest of the movie her personality seems to change quite a bit from the first three films, and I don’t mean she’s become more human. I think Jovovich wanted to play the part as more of a wise-cracking action hero but it doesn’t work. For one thing she doesn’t crack wise (“My name is Alice” is her only tag line.) I think she just seems tired and cranky here.

*. The commentary has some great stuff on it. I already talked a bit about the opening act, where a bunch of Alice clones attack the Tokyo HQ. There’s almost no dialogue here, but just a lot of Alices jumping, running, shooting, and swinging swords. Here is what Anderson has to say: “She [Milla] really put a lot of thought into this. If you go back and watch the movie you pretty much see every single clone she plays she plays in a slightly different way, and she had worked out characters for each one of them. Different mannerisms, a different approach that each clone would have to danger, they would move in a slightly different way, and she had it all mapped out, she knew exactly which clone she was playing, because she was really trying to differentiate them as much as possible.”
*. Really? Really?! I mean, I know she was your wife at the time, but . . . really?! What differences can Anderson be talking about? All the clones do is run, jump, and shoot.
*. Robarts Library is the main library at the University of Toronto. It’s a slab of brutalist architecture that students dubbed Fort Book (though I think it was supposed to look like a swan). Anyway, I spent many hours there as an undergrad, and it’s the inspiration for the prison building here. Producer Robert Kulzer: “It’s really interesting how the architecture of Toronto has influenced the architectural style of the Resident Evil movies, and how closely connected at least in my imagination the Umbrella Corporation and Toronto architecture are.” I was living in the future . . . thirty years ago! Also Anderson: “Educational establishments in Toronto seem to love concrete and they have this rather scary institutional feel. I don’t know if it’s somewhere I would choose to go for my higher education.” I think he’s talking about the new campus, which is all pretty ugly. The older buildings on the east campus are nicer.
*. To my (partial) amazement, the CGI isn’t getting better. For some reason the zombies (even the dogs!) now have heads that split apart and blossom into starfish-shaped things when they get angry. They look sort of like the creatures from John Carpenter’s The Thing, nearly thirty years earlier. Only the practical effects in that movie looked better than the crappy CGI here. Actually, they look better in the video game as well (where the creatures are known as Majini).
*. Speaking of the video games, they also strike me as scarier than this film series. On the commentary tracks Anderson and others talk about doing things in order to make the movies scary (like the use of 3D here, which is supposedly scary because it’s “more immersive”) but I don’t recall a single creepy or suspenseful scene in the entire franchise. Or, for that matter, any jump scares. These really aren’t horror films. They’re just straight-up action flicks.
*. Despite having the flavour of a pure serial — that is, episodic with no clear resolution or end in sight — the other movies did at least provide some sense of closure. Here we get a cliffhanger as the indestructible minions of the Umbrella Corp. are coming in for the kill. Remarkably this was not in the original script and was only added because the producers insisted on a “signature” pull-back shot. Even more remarkably, how does this organization keep going, years after the end of the world? They can’t be making money because there’s no longer a functioning economy. So what is their purpose? Are they in competition with anyone? In Resident Evil: The Final Chapter we’ll find out about their Wannsee Conference plotting “orchestrated apocalypse,” but I don’t see much sign of orchestration in all of this.
*. I know I really shouldn’t be asking questions like these, but does anything about this movie make sense?

Hellboy (2019)

*. This is awkward. After Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy and Hellboy II: The Golden Army things had been left open for a final film to conclude a projected trilogy. That never happened, for various reasons. So instead, over a decade later, the franchise (such as it was) had to be rebooted entirely. Technically this film should be considered a prequel, since the events it describes take place before those of del Toro’s movies. But really it sets up an entirely new universe.
*. In the intervening decade Marvel had swallowed up the film business. So with this relaunch of Hellboy they were basically going for a piece of the same, very large market. When it was poorly received David Harbour (who plays Hellboy) complained that it was being unfairly judged as a Marvel movie. He would have had a point if they hadn’t been so obviously trying to make a Marvel movie. Right down to the mid-credit and post-credit sequences setting up the next round (wherein Hellboy would presumably face off against Koschei the Deathless).
*. Mike Mignola’s comic is, in fact, something a little different than the usual Marvel fare. And his art has a different style as well. Now it would have been possible for the art director and other people involved in this movie to have taken inspiration from that style and done something distinctive. Sort of like how the Sin City movies visualized what Frank Miller did. Comic book movies don’t have to all look the same. But, alas, what they stuck with here was CGI. Lots of CGI.
*. If you live by CGI you die by CGI. I thought the CGI in this movie to be very poor, especially for 2019. Which means the movie was always going to struggle. Though not necessarily be this bad.

*. Believe me, I don’t want to just dump on this movie. I’d heard all of the bad press and was expecting the worst, but through the first half-hour or so I was enjoying it well enough. Harbour is no Ron Perlman, but he’s not a disaster. I liked seeing Ian McShane, even though he seemed wrong for the part. The hunt for the giants started off well.
*. But then it was hard not to notice the crumby CGI they used for the giants. And then begin to wonder what the hunt episode had to do with the rest of the movie. Absolutely nothing, as things would turn out.
*. The rest of the movie then descends into the usual business about Hellboy coming to grips with his destiny, and his humanity, while being pursued by a wicked witch (Milla Jovovich). Chunks of the plot float around in flashback so we can caught up on all the different characters and their relations to each other. There’s a lot more (fake CGI) gore and bad language than in del Toro’s movies and of course none of del Toro’s honest enthusiasm for the material.
*. As a result, it’s hard to overstate just how dull the second half of the movie is. Giant CGI monsters rise from the pits of hell and start tearing London apart. Because that’s what giant CGI monsters do. There’s more blood than usual, but otherwise that’s it. There are attempts to liven things up with some Marvelesque banter but most of it falls flat. Even the quips are predictable.
*. Bottom line: I didn’t hate it as much as most critics did. But it’s no good. Fans of the comic, or the earlier movies, were disappointed, while I reckon anyone going in cold must have felt pretty confused by what was going on. Given that I doubt there will be a sequel, is it too soon to hit the reboot button again? Or should they just let Big Red lie? I vote for giving him another decade off.

First Reformed (2017)

*. Paul Schrader. Now there’s a name I hadn’t heard in a while. I had to go check an up-to-date filmography to find out what he’s been doing since Affliction (the last movie of his I’d seen).
*. Well, he has been keeping busy, albeit doing things I’m not that interested in. So I guess we just fell out of touch.
*. Schrader started out as a film critic and scholar, which makes his commentary on First Reformed well worth a listen. He talks a lot about the kind of movie he was trying to make, and explains a lot of the references and allusions First Reformed is thick with. He mentions his propensity to “crib and steal” from other movies, which goes a lot further afield than the obvious debts. He also points out things that are easy to miss on a first viewing. I would have never noticed the suicide Michael standing in the doorway of the rusted hulk in the final drone shot of an apocalyptic Earth, for example.
*. As far as the obvious debts go we have Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest and Bergman’s Winter Light. Other prominent borrowings include Tarkovsky (for the levitation scene) and Dreyer’s Ordet (for the ending). Schrader says he “bound it all together with the glue of Taxi Driver,” but this strikes me as a bit of a stretch. I don’t think First Reformed alludes to Taxi Driver so much as it shows an interest in the same sort of story and character arc.
*. In terms of the kind of movie it is, Schrader uses terms like contemplative and transcendental film. One of the characteristics of this kind of movie is its slow pace, but I wouldn’t call First Reformed “slow film” as that term is usually used. Schrader himself mentions how audiences today are so acclimated to a fast pace that a slower picture doesn’t have to be very slow. Just slowing things down a little bit makes a big difference.
*. The key concept Schrader grabs hold of is “withholding.” This is a movie infused with a spirit of restraint, one that purposefully gives you less: less camera movement (few tilts, pans, or tracking shots); less colour (Schrader originally wanted to shoot it in black and white but had to settle for a muted palette, displayed most directly in the monochromatic pancake house); minimalist set decoration (homes not just with few furnishings but no furnishings at all); the use of uncomfortably long shots without clear beginnings or ends (wielding boredom, as Schrader puts it, like a scalpel); and deliberately underscored (I don’t think there’s any music heard until over halfway through the movie, and then it mostly takes the form of a muted “soundscape”).
*. The point of all this is to force the usually passive film audience (conditioned to respond to forceful cues) into becoming more active and engaged. Let’s take a look at how this might work with regard to the ending (and here I’ll give you a spoiler alert because you really shouldn’t be reading any further if you haven’t seen the movie yet).
*. My first impression of the ending was to be startled at its abruptness. I also thought it seemed a flimsy cop-out. How could Toller be redeemed in such a highly improbable way? How do we go from his rather caddish rejection of his ex (choir leader Esther, played by a dowdy Victoria Hill) to his fully carnal embrace of a younger woman? This just didn’t seem right.
*. In fact, I don’t think it is right as an interpretation of the end. On the commentary Schrader says he wanted to leave the question of whether Mary (Amanda Seyfried) actually comes to save Toller at the last minute open, but I’m inclined to think she does not and that this is only an ecstatic vision Toller has before dying — in Schrader’s colourful phrase, puking his guts out on all fours after drinking the Drano.
*. Here are my reasons for thinking so.

*. (1) We’ve already been prepared for such a move by the “magical mystery tour” carpet ride, that depicts what is a subjective spiritual vision. Though not wholly subjective, since Schrader, following Tarkovsky, did want this to suggest the existence of another world. Obviously Toller doesn’t really go flying off anywhere in that scene, so it’s no stretch at the end to think that he’s just imagining Mary appearing to him as an angel before those brightly backlit windows. Lighting in film is never an accident.
*. (2) How does Mary know his first name? It’s not impossible that he’s told her at some point, but I don’t recall her ever using it before in the film. And it’s worth noting that even Esther and Fuller (the head of his church) don’t use it. He’s only referred to as Reverend Toller. When she calls him Ernst here (it’s all she says) it’s striking.
*. (3) In a movie that spends so much time quoting other movies it’s hard to miss the Vertigo kiss they come together for, though Schrader doesn’t mention this particular allusion on the commentary. And such a kiss nearly always signals a kind of unreality or fantasy. That’s the way it’s used in Vertigo and in Blade Runner 2049, for example. I think the circling camera puts us on our alert that all is not what it seems, and that this isn’t the real Mary.
*. (4) As Schrader does point out, and this is something I missed, how does Mary get into the manse? We’ve just seen that Fuller is locked out, but then she appears as if by magic.
*. (5) Finally there is the very improbability I mentioned earlier. Mary arrives just at the moment when he is about to drink the poison? And then the two embrace, despite the fact that up to this point there hasn’t been any real physical lust or passion evidenced between them?
*. Given all of these hints I wish Schrader had been a bit bolder. I don’t think this was a point in the movie where ambiguity helps. It ends up leaving us with the sense of a director who just wasn’t sure what he wanted to say. But I’m glad he at least left the door open for us to reject what we see as fantasy.

*. I said that there is no real physical relationship between Toller and Mary despite their lying on the floor together. As I see it though, this remains a chaste coupling. They leave their clothes on. We don’t see them kiss. And they end up being spiritually elevated, with what I take it is Toller’s vision of a journey through heaven to hell. That’s where his head is at.
*. I like this scene. It’s a daring gamble that I think pays off. My favourite moment, however, is where Mary’s hair falls like a veil or curtain over their faces. There’s something so perfectly and poetically chaste about this, concealing what we’ve been expecting to be a kiss while marking a total shift in where we’re going.
*. What’s remarkable is that this beautiful moment — the falling hair — was entirely serendipitous. The thing is, Amanda Seyfried actually was pregnant at the time so they wanted to use a body double for her in the magical mystery tour shots. This required obscuring her face. So they came up with the idea of having her hair fall down. Talk about a happy accident.
*. Coming from a guy like Schrader you have to think the use of the hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” must have been some kind of nod to The Night of the Hunter. But I’m not sure what the connection is. Toller giving over to the dark side while channeling Harry Powell? That doesn’t seem right. I don’t remember Schrader mentioning his use of the hymn during his commentary.
*. I didn’t care for the character of the industrialist Barq at all. He’s an overdrawn caricature, driving around in his chauffeured SUV and insisting that his church (that is, the one he’s paying for) reflect his own politics by being apolitical. He also takes an antagonistic attitude toward Toller that goes over the line and is uncalled for. I can only accept such a character in a movie as filling a necessary dramatic role. But he shouldn’t be in a movie this good.
*. Reverend Toller is a highly educated, literate man who keeps a journal that he writes out in longhand. Good for him! But . . . the only way he can write is in block capitals. Yes, it has come to this. I wonder if that was realism or just a concession to an audience not being able to read cursive any more. Either way, it’s kind of sad.
*. I’ve never been a big Ethan Hawke fan but I give him credit for being convincing here in a difficult role. As Schrader puts it, he’s a character who leans away from us. But he sells the notion of someone who has lost himself (he’s clearly chosen a suicidal path at the beginning of the film) and is looking to find some meaning in his life through an act of self-sacrifice. A cause presents itself and he is gone.

*. There are also a number of interesting points made along the way about the old church vs. the new, of being in the world and out of it. The big new church and its mission isn’t undercut as being the usual hypocritical, money-grubbing, spiritual entertainment but is instead shown as having its own principles and integrity. Extremism is looked at with concern, the product of the Internet mostly, but then we see Toller’s face lit by the screen of Michael’s laptop and know that he is just as susceptible to being drawn down the rabbit hole. I can’t judge the theology in play, but the notion that preservation is itself an act of creation struck me as an interesting prayer.
*. First Reformed is a very good movie that I really liked. It is almost a great movie that I loved. I think it successfully plays on the notion of withholding and restraint throughout, right up to Toller’s screaming into his cassock to muffle the sound. I would have played the end differently, but one shouldn’t criticize a movie for not being the movie one would have made if given the chance. It has to be judged on its own terms. I guess what I wanted the most was more of a glimpse into characters like Esther and Mary. Toller is so misguided and mistaken throughout the film that he begins to fade next to them. What, for example, is Mary thinking when he insists that she not attend the church ceremony? Does she know, on some level, what his plans are? I think she does. But how much else does she know?