Category Archives: 2010s

The Clovehitch Killer (2018)

*. By now I think we’re all familiar with the phenomenon of the “murderer next door” (to borrow the title from a very good book on the subject by researcher David Buss). We hear about it every time there is another serial killer or mass murderer revealed to be living in the suburbs somewhere who turns out to be a normal-seeming guy (maybe a bit lonely or depressed) that “nobody dreamed” could have ever done the things he did.
*. Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer, was one such case. There’s a book on him that’s even subtitled “The Serial Killer Next Door.” Rader was a married man with children, a scout leader and a member of his church council who also killed people. That disjunction between a seemingly normal and a dark secret life has been irresistible to authors and filmmakers. Stephen King wrote a novella based on Rader’s story called A Good Marriage that was later made into a movie. The Clovehitch Killer is another take on the same material.
*. Just as an aside, I don’t recall hearing A Good Marriage mentioned on the DVD commentary. This despite the fact that the discovery of the killer’s cache of mementoes is so similar to the identical scene in that earlier film that it feels as though it were taken directly from it.
*. Of course the broader theme, about the murderous horrors that lie beneath the surface of everyday suburban life, has long been a staple, usually taking as its target the Leave It to Beaver America of the 1950s. Think of movies like Parents (where the parents are cannibals), or The Stepfather, or countless others. So in 2018 The Clovehitch Killer was entering onto very familiar ground. So much so that even though it’s presumably set in the present day (tracking the movement of a cell phone using GPS is a plot point), the Kentucky town it’s set in has the feel of some kind of Christian Happy Valley that time has forgot. Aside from the cell phones and laptops it just feels like the ’80s.
*. Director Duncan Skiles refers to the genre as “normcore”: “My goal was to set everything in a very normal, relatable environment with minimal ‘traditional’ horror cues. So, everything’s happening in the daytime and there’s not a lot of music. I wanted simple angles that felt safe. Because I remember the feeling that I got when I was doing this research, about how horrible things can be injected into normalcy, and that was frightening. I kind of wanted to capture that feeling.”
*. I think he does capture the feeling well, and it marks an attempt to go in a slightly different direction with the material. The focus is more on the family, and this plays a major part in the story because Don’s grooming of his family is what keeps them in check and his secret safe. This is the real critique of Bible belt values, more than its moral hypocrisy. Children raised to refer to their parents as “Sir” and “Ma’am” are at all kinds of risk. The film’s final line gives some indication of just how much damage has been done.
*. I say it’s an attempt though because I don’t think it’s fully realized. The thing is, it’s perfectly obvious as soon as Tyler finds his dad’s secret stash under the shed what’s going on. And things get worse when he enters the crawlspace. There is no way anyone, even a dutiful son who really wants to believe, could buy the story that this was all Uncle Rudy’s stuff. That doesn’t make sense. It’s an impossible part and Charlie Plummer can’t be blamed too much if he doesn’t sell it.
*. This would then allow for some interesting angles to be taken on the story. Is Tyler just playing his dad? Or, if he really does believe him, how much does he suspect Kassi as being just some mixed-up chick? There are moments that allow for suspicion. Did Kassi really discover the clovehitch knot behind that house? Or did she tie it herself?
*. Unfortunately, none of this is developed. Instead we go along with a plot that, despite having one really nice swerve where we change points of view, falls into a routine pattern, no less routine for being highly improbable. The character of Kassi is the worst element here. She just seems to be there to perform various plot functions. No longer required at the end, she disappears.
*. Still, I enjoyed The Clovehitch Killer a lot more than I thought I would. I went in with low expectations and they were more than met. The events have a quiet fascination and the suspense is nicely managed. Dylan McDermott, unrecognizable in glasses and goatee, is very good. There are some missed opportunities here, but I think it comes out as much better than average, judged against its peers.

A Good Marriage (2014)

*. What a frustrating movie.
*. Frustrating because the potential was there. It’s full title is Stephen King’s A Good Marriage, which tells us it’s based on the novella of the same name by King and which he adapted and wrote the screenplay for himself (something he doesn’t do very often).
*. Normally that wouldn’t excite me much, but it’s a script that up-ends expectations. It’s not just another take on the serial-killer-next-door or I-married-an-axe-murderer trope. Inspired by the story of the “BTK Killer” Dennis Rader, we don’t see any of the husband’s violence at all. We don’t believe him when he says he’s going to go straight, but we don’t see him killing anyone either.
*. Instead it’s a story that addresses the question of compromise. We often think about this when we hear about the arrest of some terrible criminal on the news who turned out to be a married man leading a seemingly normal life. How could his wife not have known? Well, what if she did?
*. So it’s not the movie you’d expect. There are no slow suspenseful build-ups or sudden frightening scenes. The wife (Joan Allen) discovers what her husband (Anthony LaPaglia) is up to pretty early on, but he can matter-of-factly inform her that this isn’t going be like some movie. She should go along with things as they are and keep up appearances, if only for the sake of their adult children, who are just setting out on lives of their own (one is getting married and the other’s business is starting to take off).
*. You could imagine a really good movie being made out of this material. This is why A Good Marriage is frustrating.
*. Things just fail to ignite. The premise has a lot of dramatic potential but it all seems so pat and tame. The decision to play it as an understated and quiet drama, with a pair of older leads, was bold. But there’s no spark. I wasn’t interested in what was going on at all. Everyone has to share the blame. King’s script doesn’t develop things beyond the initial premise. Peter Askin’s direction is inert. LaPaglia is miscast.
*. It’s a shame because I had the sense that they were daring to do something a bit different. They were not, however, successful in their attempt. Just a few years later there’d be a more conventional and literal adaptation of the BTK story, The Clovehitch Killer, that also focused more on strained family relationships than on murder. While not perfect, it’s a much better movie than this.

Predestination (2014)

*. Sometimes you just need to leave well enough alone. Robert Heinlein’s “All You Zombies” is a classic story, considered by many to be one of the finest imaginings of time-travel ever. Throw in a couple of great performances from Ethan Hawke and Sarah Snook (the latter being a revelation to me) and this movie should have been set.
*. To some extent they were set, as Predestination is a very good movie if not a classic. But the add-ons don’t add anything. In fact, I think they’re more a distraction. The character of the Fizzle Bomber is wholly made up and, not surprisingly, it’s the one element that doesn’t fit. It just seems to have been thrown in to pad out the story and give the plot a motive force along the lines of 12 Monkeys.

*. This is too bad, as the premise is wonderfully realized and just needed a bit more moodiness from directors Michael and Peter Spierig to give it more depth. I was on board with the infinitely looping paradox idea and the two leads are, as I’ve said, perfect. Ethan Hawke’s persona of the confused intellectual finally seems at home and Snook is entirely believable as Leonardo DiCaprio not in drag. But it’s all presented in a way that’s perhaps too subtle for its own good. The meet creepy, for example, between the Unmarried Woman and Jane is underplayed to the point of my nearly missing it.
*. I understand wanting to do it this way. The nature of the story is meant to suggest if not a narrative trap then at least a certain amount of inevitability. Hence the title. But it’s hard to tell when the main character becomes aware of this cycle. How does s/he feel about all this? Angry? Resigned to living a kind of Groundhog Day existence? Can we even say that s/he grows or develops? I think that’s actually a fascinating question, but I don’t see where the Spierigs tried to follow up on it. They seem more interested in things like the retro décor of the space academy.
*. In short, it’s a movie I both really liked and felt frustrated by. What I wanted to see was a deeper exploration of the main idea. Things got a little too Hollywood though. Not enough for great box office, but enough to put a wrinkle in the timeline I couldn’t get straight.

Color Out of Space (2019)

*. It’s an old story. H. P. Lovecraft’s 1927 story “The Colour Out of Space” is a classic that’s been filmed many times over the years. I’ve made notes on most of them: Die, Monster, Die! (1965), The Curse (1987), Colour from the Dark (2008), Die Farbe (2010), and Feed the Light (2014). And these, I should add, are only the more direct page-to-screen translations. Any story where a farmer finds a glowing meteorite out in his field that turns out to be something pretty awful derives from the same source. So add The Blob, and the Stephen King episode from Creepshow to the list.
*. Given that it’s an old story, told many times before, did we need this new version? Did we need Lovecraft, in director Richard Stanley’s words, to be dragged into the twenty-first century? Well, I think I needed it. Specifically, I needed to see some all-out practical gore and monster effects done in the manner of Carpenter’s The Thing just to remind me of what they looked like. I needed mutant alpacas. I also needed Nicolas Cage totally losing his shit, because let’s face it, there are few things as enjoyable in movies today as watching Nicolas Cage have a meltdown. It’s the whole reason to watch a movie like Mandy. I guess I also needed to see Tommy Chong again, just to know he’s still with us. And finally, if I can find one, I think I need a Miskatonic University t-shirt. Even though I never got accepted.
*. I didn’t know I needed all these things, and I’m thankful to Color Out of Space for them (though I don’t know if I’ll ever get that t-shirt). This movie was sort of like a horror enema I had to take after so many lousy new fright flicks.
*. Did I also miss Richard Stanley? To be honest, I’m not sure why such a cult has grown up around this guy. Was Hardware that auspicious a debut? Was Dust Devil that good? Was he treated that unfairly in getting canned from The Island of Dr. Moreau? I’m not denying he has talent, but I have to think that a lot of his legendary status is due to the fact that he hasn’t done much. Before this he hadn’t made a feature in over twenty years. That’s quite a while to be out of work.
*. Is this the best film version of Lovecraft’s story? I’d rate Die Farbe higher, but this is still a respectable effort. The visual texture, with all its lurid magenta light and transformed flora and fauna recalls Annihilation, as does the link between the alien force and cancer. Coincidence? I note in passing that in his review of Color Out of Space Robbie Collin says that Lovecraft’s story was “already semi-adapted by Alex Garland in Annihilation.” I don’t know if he was aware of the book by Jeff VanderMeer.
*. This film and The Grudge (2020). Two horror movies released within months of each other, both featuring a scene with a woman at a cutting board in the kitchen slicing her fingers off. Another coincidence?
*. I wasn’t as blown away by the effects as some reviewers. The light show didn’t seem all that special and I thought that after nearly forty years they should have been able to do monster effects at least as good as in The Thing. But I guess that movie really did set a standard that’s never since been equaled.
*. What I did like was the appearance of the house at night. Its lights make it look like a spaceship, which must have been intentional. I think it makes for a fitting incongruity. A bit of backwoods alien-ness before the alien(s) even arrive.
*. The script could have been tighter. Why bother with all the stuff about Lavinia being a witch? Tell me you didn’t roll your eyes when Benny decides he just has to go down the well to look for the dog, or when Ward and the cop have to go looking for Ezra in his cabin. These are moves straight out of the most idiotic of idiot plots.
*. On the plus side, however, I thought the destruction of the family was very well handled, particularly with the surprisingly bleak fate of the mother and her youngest son. A suitably sickly atmosphere is evoked in eldritch Portugal (where the film was shot). The last act drags a bit (they should have kept Cage’s character around), but overall it seemed well paced.
*. A critical success but a total bomb at the box office. Apparently Stanley had plans for doing a Lovecraft trilogy but I’m not sure he’ll be getting the chance. Which, in turn, will likely only make his reputation grow.
*. Still, I liked it. Cage’s performance actually outshines all of the effects, and if he’s basically doing a sort of parody of himself now that’s fine with me. Samuel L. Jackson has been doing the same thing for years and it works for him too. So maybe not the Lovecraft we deserve, but the one we need. I hope we get more.

ABCs of Death 2.5 (2016)

*. OK, the idea here is that instead of taking us through the alphabet from A to Z the producers sent out a cattle call for people to send in short (3-minute) films riffing on the letter M. They got over 500 entries and these are the top 26. So it’s not really ABCs of Death 3, but in most ways it is since the alphabet was only the loosest of structures, frivolously adhered to, in the first place.
*. On the other hand, the .5 gives you some indication that this is a collection of shorts that weren’t quite ready for prime time. These are the B-sides, the ones that didn’t make the final cut. At least that’s the way it was widely received, and I think on the evidence fairly.
*. Here’s the line-up.
*. Magnetic Tape: an ’80s flashback, with a video store clerk turning into a VHS Toxic Avenger who pulls a bunch of Mortal Kombat moves on some bad guys who want to take over his store. Loopy gore, and it gets things off to a decent start.
*. Maieusiophobia: bet that’s a word you didn’t know. It means fear of childbirth. Claymation body horror, but doesn’t have much to say, even with the twist ending.
*. Mailbox: just a gag, with the significance of the title only being revealed in the final shot. I know some people don’t like the way this ABCs leads off with the title of the piece, instead of using it at the end as a kind of punchline (as is done in The ABCs of Death and ABCs of Death 2). I see where this is coming from, but the story here plays the other way. You spend most of it wondering what the hell it has to do with a mailbox until the reveal at the end.
*. Make Believe: a couple of little girls discover a dying man in the forest and their fairy dust does nothing to improve his condition.
*. Malnutrition: ironic zombie vignette. At least it looks professionally done.
*. Manure: decent little sketch with a downtrodden farm boy building a shit golem. Actually one of the better entries.
*. Marauder: Mad Max on tricycles. But not as much fun as that may sound.
*. Mariachi: a death metal band lives up to its name when a Mexican trio crashes their show. Robert Rodriguez made a lot more out of just as little. This one’s not even interesting.
*. Marriage: some counselling employing Dr. Ragland’s psychoplasmics therapy comes to a messy end. Might have been interesting but it’s just too short to amount to much.
*. Martyr: I thought this one might actually have had a point to it, but I’m not sure what it was. There’s an obvious connection to various folk-horror motifs in the man being serially sacrificed so that the villagers may “live forever,” but we’re left hanging.
*. Matador: crude and predictable.
*. Meat: another take on the horror trope of “are you eating it, or is it eating you?” An interesting look, with bonus points for throwing in Beethoven’s Seventh (a piece of music that gets around). As with a lot of these vignettes though it seems incomplete.
*. Mermaid: just seemed like a dumb joke. Or fish story. And one that’s not well delivered.
*. Merry Christmas: Krampus is feeling depressed. Terrible.
*. Mess: a man who shits through his navel finally finds a lover who appreciates him for his special qualities, so he kills himself. Hm. Not well done.
*. Messiah: a human sacrifice goes awry. Another worthless one. About this time I was feeling ready to give up.
*. Mind Meld: a guy being controlled by another guy in the next room is forced to mutilate and kill himself. Just an excuse to show a collection of gore effects, which are nothing special.
*. Miracle: at last a good one. I guess the Miracle Box contains both dreams and nightmares. Creepy and effective.
*. Mobile: another simple gag playing on the disjunction between childhood innocence and evil (the theme of several episodes). Hardly worth bothering with.
*. Mom: another good-looking zombie short. Not all that engaging though, as it’s pretty clear where things are going.
*. Moonstruck: animation by way of paper cut-outs. Crude, but it looks interesting and works surprisingly well. One of the better entries.
*. Mormon Missionaries: a gag. The gag shorts are among the weakest here. Three minutes seems too long to wait for a lame punchline.
*. Mother: some decent CGI of a giant spider. But . . . is that all there is?
*. Muff: yet another gag, but this time I thought it worked. Well done and grimly obscene in a way that’s more typical of the shorts in the other ABCs movies.
*. Munging: according to the Urban Dictionary, which is one’s only recourse in such situations, “munging” refers to going down on a corpse while one’s (living) partner pushes on the corpse’s abdomen, expelling embalming fluid (among other things) into the necrophiliac’s mouth and face. The film here is a very literal depiction of this. Gross-out humour. Or if not humour, just gross.
*. Mutant: might as well end with another take on the apocalypse, this one brought about by bat-like alien creatures that burst out of people’s faces. Silly and chaotic.
*. In sum, it’s not as good as the first two, at least as far as I remember them, and that wasn’t a high bar to clear. A few decent entries (my favourites would be Manure, Miracle, and Moonstruck) with the rest displaying very little in the way of thought, or art. At best a diversion.

Trollhunter (2010)

*. The Internet has played havoc with orthography, most notably with its habit for jamming words into compounds. A result, originally, of web addresses being “all one word.” This has led to knock-on effects in other media. So, for example, is the title of this movie Trollhunter, TrollHunter, Troll Hunter, or The Troll Hunter? I believe it was released in English-language markets under all four.
*. That’s an aside. As for the movie itself, it’s a basic shaky-cam horror/mockumentary that has a trio of Norwegian students following Hans (the Troll Hunter) around as he does his thing. Along the way Hans lets us in on lots of troll mythology, or natural science since trolls are real.
*. On the continuum from horror to comedy the needle here is pointing to the funny side. It’s hard to take the trolls that seriously, what with their giant noses and general sense of being shaggy toys that have wandered off the set of Sesame Street. There’s nothing really scary about them either. Even when trapped in a troll cave the greatest risk the crew run is being farted to death. Apparently trolls really stink even at the best of times.
*. In the one scene where someone is killed it hardly even registers. What was the cameraman’s name? In any event, he’s soon replaced, like one of the drummers for Spinal Tap. If anything I felt a bit sorry for the trolls by the end. Do you want to be on the side of a guy who hunts an endangered species for a living, as part of a super-secretive government agency (the TSS, or Troll Security Service)?
*. I’m not just being facetious here. As I say, this is mostly meant as a mockumentary and the bottom line is that it just isn’t funny enough. Maybe something was being lost in translation, but I didn’t think any of the jokes were working. The trolls farting in the cave? Not really. And why did Hans rig his vehicle out as a Deathmobile when the armour and spikes never have any role to play?
*. So without any scares and very few laughs I spent most of my time just gazing at the beautiful scenery. Which is also what I did while watching The Wave. As I said in my notes on that film, I really should visit Norway some day.
*. Still, I guess it’s a decent little movie. There was talk of a Hollywood remake but I don’t think there was enough here for them to bother. Writer-director André Øvredal would go on to do The Autopsy of Jane Doe, which was also pretty good but not a breakout. It feels like there’s something there though.

You Were Never Really Here (2017)

*. I’d read the Jonathan Ames novella You Were Never Really Here and so was looking forward to this one, especially given its critical reception. However, perhaps it’s because I had read the source material that I came away disappointed.
*. I liked the book, and director Lynne Ramsay starts off being faithful to its spare story of a depressed special operative. Ex-marine, ex-FBI, “Joe” is a violence machine whose specialty is retrieving girls who have been kidnapped and forced into prostitution. While I’m sure this sometimes happens, that there would be enough such work for Joe to support himself doing these kinds of jobs I took to be a bit of fantasy. I didn’t get the sense that Ames meant us to take it all too seriously, what with the stale business about the senator’s daughter and the infiltration of the big house at the end playing like a modern-day Chandler scenario.
*. What Ramsay does is make the story even sillier or more fantasy-like while at the same time taking it more seriously. Though I have to qualify that final judgment a bit. When Joe holds hands with the dying gangster and sings along with him on the floor (something not in the book) I’m sure it’s a joke. But the rest of it?
*. To take the most obvious difference, and one that relates to this question of how to read the movie, let’s look at the end. At the end of the book Votto is revealed to have sold his own daughter (named Lisa) out to the sadistic mob boss Novelli. Joe kills Votto, and is off to hunt down Novelli and Lisa at the end.
*. The movie throws this all to the wind in order to give us an absurd happy ending. Nina (the Lisa character) is now empowered, and kills her abductor herself by slitting his throat. Her father, meanwhile, is less culpable and kills himself. Joe arrives at the big house (the governor’s mansion now), but he no longer has anything to do so he just tears his shirt off and cries a bit before leaving with Nina.

*. You’ll recognize the resemblance to Taxi Driver, with the damaged anti-hero rescuing a waif from the clutches of prostitution. As announced in a pull quote stuck on the DVD box cover, this is “the Taxi Driver for a new century.” I wonder what century that would be. In Taxi Driver there’s no suggestion even for a minute that Travis and Iris are going to ride off together into the sunset. Does the dialogue and music at the end of this film indicate an ironic reading? Sure. But the fact remains that Joe rescues the girl (child model Ekaterina Samsonov) and they’re a couple now, an ending that forty years earlier would have been laughed at as ridiculous. Maybe you can get away with a thinly-disguised pedo-fantasy plot like this in France (think Léon: The Professional, and the standing ovation that this movie got at Cannes), or in a generic movie like The Equalizer (where I made the same observation with regard to the Taxi Driver resemblance), but not here.
*. And yet despite this sentimental transformation of an old story, You Were Never Really Here was praised for its gritty realism and toughness. I’m lost as to where this is coming from. I’ve nothing against Ramsay’s sense of style, but the choppy editing and discordant music (courtesy of the overrated Johnny Greenwood) don’t contribute to a vision of New York City that’s any grittier than that of Scorsese or Cassavetes. Indeed, it’s much less so. And the action sequences are presented as self-conscious set pieces, like the assault on the brothel done through security camera footage (which isn’t as clever as I think it wants us to think it is). You just feel scenes like this are meant to be admired without feeling their physicality.

*. Meanwhile, the border between reality and fantasy is always threatening to dissolve, as when Joe dumps his mother’s body in the lake. It’s very lyrically rendered, and when he goes underwater with her it isn’t at all realistic. Nor is it meant to be. We’ve gone over into fantasyland (where can that single column of light be coming from?). In the book, by the way, he chucks her body off the Palisades into the Hudson (“It was the most beautiful funeral he could think to give her.”).
*. That difference between book and movie — the latter being a sanitized version of the former — is an old one. Mad Magazine parodied it back in the 1970s (a source I’ve had occasion to mention before). More recently, however, the gap has been closing. That it is made wider in this movie is something I have a hard time explaining.
*. Perhaps Ramsay was just a little too much in love with her movie precedents for this story. She saw Taxi Driver in it, so she made it more like Taxi Driver. She introduces a bunch of stuff between Joe and his mother that invokes Psycho (“Mother! Look at what you did to the bathroom!”) but for no good reason that I can see. Such joking seems out of character for Joe.
*. Years ago the critic Leslie Halliwell complained of the arrogance of Stanley Kubrick in leaving any explanation of where the title of A Clockwork Orange came from out of his adaptation of the novel. Ramsay is guilty on the same count here. In the book the words “You were never really here” are spoken by an inner voice, or it might be Death, and addressed to Joe, mocking the emptiness of his existence. He could kill himself but so what? He’s hardly alive as it is anyway.
*. Admittedly, it would have been hard to work an explanation of this into the script. But not impossible. Perhaps it might have been something his mother would say to Joe, or that he would imagine her saying to him. As it is, Joaquin Phoenix is good here (though looking terrible as a fat guy), but his personal demons are so generic (childhood abuse, workplace trauma) that it’s hard to feel all that connected to him. Add in the generic nature of the plot and you have a story that basically only exists as an exercise in style. This it has, but not enough to make me think it was anything special.

The Lone Ranger (2013)

*. What a mess. Perhaps not as bad as it was made out to be at the time, but still a terrible mess.
*. When I say it’s not as bad as it was made out to be I’m referring to all the bad press it got. It was way over budget, didn’t perform well at the box office, and even caught flack for the casting of Johnny Depp as a Native American. For the most part it was panned by critics. But despite all this, it’s not a disaster or a terribly bad movie. Just a mess.
*. Let’s start with the good stuff: the big action sequences, usually involving trains, are actually pretty good and probably played very well in theatres (where I didn’t see it). This is a really big movie, with an expansive vision of the West that looks awesome.
*. Another thing I liked is Depp’s performance as Tonto. Maybe not politically correct, but enjoyable enough.
*. But moving on to what I mean by a mess.
*. In the first place the tone is all over the place. At times it’s a broad, slapstick farce, with the somewhat thick Lone Ranger (Armie Hammer) blessed with indestructibility and being bailed out time and again not just by Tonto but by his magical horse Silver as well. Then at other times things take a turn for the dark, with the evil Butch Cavendish even cutting out his victims’ hearts and eating them. I just didn’t know what they were going for here.
*. Related to this problem with tone is whether they were looking to mythologize or demythologize a particular vision of the West. At different times they seem to be going for both, but the two are irresolvably in conflict.
*. Another big drawback was the lack of a romantic interest. Normally I wouldn’t care about this either way, but the thing here is that they sort of introduce it, with John Reid being in love with his brother’s widow, but then they can’t really do anything with it. Compare, as I think you must, Pirates of the Caribbean and the relationship between Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley. Since this movie was clearly designed to be a similar sort of production (the same studio, director, star, and writer) I thought they were crazy just to insinuate something here and not do more.
*. Finally, it’s too much. The run time is 2 hours and 30 minutes, which is a haul. It’s wrapped up in an irritating frame which has an aged Tonto telling the story to a super-cute kid at a fair years later. Why bother with this? And as impressed as I was by the big action scenes I thought they all tended to go on a bit too long. They look spectacular, but like the rest of the plot they play out in predictable ways. Reid having to struggle with his law-and-order scruples, for example, just gets tedious after a while.
*. As with a lot of movies that flop in a spectacular way there has been a swing of the pendulum back. And, as also often happens in these cases, it has swung back too far. The Lone Ranger, as I’ve said, isn’t a bad movie. But for all the time and effort lavished on it, it seems very unsure of what it was all about. I found it loud but not very engaging.

Blair Witch (2016)

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

Den of Thieves (2018)

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