Category Archives: 2010s

El Abogado (2016)

*. The title just means The Lawyer, and it’s comforting to know that the legal profession is held in the same high estimation in Spain as it is in the English-speaking world.
*. Cynicism? Yes, definitely. But times have been tough in Spain since the economic crisis adverted to here. It was one of the countries most deeply affected, and the impact has been pariticularly hard on young people. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Hence what the contestants who are vying for a good corporate job have to go through in The Method. Or the young man in this short film, who has decided to turn to kidnapping.
*. The basic conceit is one familiar to American gangster films, where crime is seen as only being another form of business. And if you’re going to do something, why not make sure you do it right? A lawyer can help with this.
*. It’s really a one-joke film, as a lot of shorts are, which gets an extra boost from the current economic climate. Also interesting is the unmistakeable hint that the lawyer is not only without a moral compass but has a whiff of the demonic. This is an association that also has a long history.
*. At the end, do we think the lawyer was being coy in the earlier part of the film, only pretending to be shocked at his client’s modest proposal? Surely his next client will need similar assistance. And if there’s no ink in the pen, the contract can be signed in blood.


Happy Death Day (2017)

*. Happy Death Day has been described, by pretty much everyone who has seen it, as Groundhog Day meets Scream. It’s not a comparison I think the producers of the film were shy of, as Groundhog Day even gets a plug in the final scene and the links were also made in the promotional material.
*. Now: once you’ve set that out as the premise, is there anything to add?
*. Well, I enjoyed it. It’s clever and kept me interested, though not so clever that I was ever that impressed by it. I had the killer pegged from the start and knew how the red herring business was going to play out. And I don’t say that as a brag. In fact, I’m usually pretty slow on the uptake when it comes to movies like this so I figure that if I knew what was going on then most people would. The killer revealed in the misjudged alternate (and original) ending would have been a more interesting false lead.
*. It’s not a movie that fires on all cylinders. The ending drags a bit. The romantic comedy elements were just OK. The transformation of the mean girl into a sweetie-pie was unnecessary (and unbelievable). I wish they’d left the father out entirely. Tree’s plans for dealing with her predicament all strike me as being pretty dumb, while avoiding the obvious steps she might have taken.
*. I don’t think it’s a scary movie but was impressed (in a good way) that there was no gore. Because it didn’t need it. Nice.
*. So it’s a generally unexceptional but fun flick. If you want to take a darker or more cynical view it’s representative of a late stage of genre filmmaking that has, at least since Scream (and some would say since the original Nightmare on Elm Street) been mainly interested in sending up its own clichés and conventions. But I wasn’t in that cynical a mood when I saw it so I had a good time.

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

*. Groundhog Day meets Starship Troopers. I guess. That’s what the producers called it anyway, and it’s how I’m going to break it down.
*. I’ll start with Groundhog Day, or the narrative of eternal return. The concept is beyond rational explanation, so the script doesn’t even make a pretence of explaining. Aliens (called Mimics) have invaded. The main alien (dubbed “the Omega”) has the ability to control time through some biological mechanism. When a soldier kills an “Alpha” alien he (or she) receives some kind of blood transfusion or plasmic bonding and is granted the same Mimic power to keep going through temporal loops. This is what happens to our reluctant hero Major William Cage (Tom Cruise). The only way for Cage to then get off the roundabout is to kill the Omega.
*. The idea of someone re-living the same period in their life over and over is not, if you spend any time thinking about it, not a fun one to entertain. It strikes me as being a bit too much like hell. It’s depressing too, as our hero has to keep killing himself in order to reset, forcing him to adopt a death wish as a narrative device. All Bill Murray had to do was go to bed.
*. Then, if you stop to think some more about how many lives Cage goes through in this film, you get a kind of vertigo. He must spend several lifetimes reliving just these few days. How does he stand the sheer boredom? When does he sleep?
*. I don’t think the target audience had the same problems I had. By target audience I mean young people (the source is a Japanese YA novel) who have grown up on video games. Both the author of the source novel (Hiroshi Sakurazaka) and the producer-director of Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman) explicitly made the connection between the protagonist’s life being reset every time he is killed as coming from video game play. I’ve talked many times before about how much today’s action films borrow from the look of video games, but this structural borrowing marks another level of absorption.
*. Another aspect of this kind of story that has to be finessed is the boredom that goes along with any repetition. Here the target demographic works against the film, as an audience raised on video games bores easily. The (only?) solution is to ramp up the pace and just whip the story along, leaving out all the dull parts. This is certainly something Edge of Tomorrow tries to do, and for the most part it’s successful. It may be brainless and incoherent, but the action rarely lets up enough for you to catch your breath.
*. So much for Groundhog Day, now on to Starship Troopers.
*. By Starship Troopers I mainly mean the retro-futuristic look of the war between soldiers and bugs. Frankly, I still think the FX in Starship Troopers look better, and that movie came out nearly twenty years earlier.
*. As with Starship Troopers the story is set in a strangely atemporal universe. Though it’s the near future, the great war for civilization is just a re-hash of WW2, with the Mimics as Nazis conquering Europe and the allied attack being a failed D-Day. Meawhile, we’re no longer using drones or missiles or even tanks, which leaves us stuck with grunts in exo-suits hitting the beach.
*. The Mimics, in turn, just look like CGI scribbles or frantic balls of yarn. I wasn’t impressed, but they move so fast you can’t get a good look at them anyway. Or at least they were moving too fast for me to get a good look at. But I’m old.
*. It’s fast, noisy, and very expensive. At the end of the day though, wouldn’t you rather play a movie like this than watch it?

Feed the Gods (2014)

*. Just don’t expect much. I mean, this is credited as “Braden Croft’s Feed the Gods,” and if you’re wondering who Braden Croft (the writer-director) is, you’re not alone. On the DVD box cover his name is misspelled as “Branden Croft.” That’s not a good sign.
*. This is basically a very cheap Canadian horror production, shot in British Columbia without much in the way of effects and no gore to speak of. Ostensibly a monster movie, the Bigfoot creature isn’t even seen until the very end, and then only for a few seconds in some closeups.
*. Various paths it might have gone down are hinted at, but then not pursued. Three young people (two brothers, Kris and Will, and Kris’s girlfriend) head off to a remote town to find their parents. Will is an aspiring documentary filmmaker and has a camcorder device that gives us some shaky-cam shots, but this isn’t a found-footage film and indeed nothing is done with the POV angle at all. Then there’s the town with the guilty secret, but this isn’t developed either and we never meet any of the townspeople aside from the three guys who may be in charge. We also never learn how the lottery system is supposed to work.
*. Perhaps the biggest road not taken, however, is that of horror-comedy. I’m still undecided about this. Was it meant to be a comedy? The muscular Will (Shawn Roberts), who often gets to pose his “steroid jacked” body in a wifebeater, is cast mainly in the role of comic relief, speaking in a faux-German/Werner Herzog accent and generally being a giant scaredy cat. He even gets to kill a total of four (four!) people, totally by accident! That had to be a joke, right?
*. I don’t know. If it was meant to be a comedy I can only say that there’s nothing funny about it. But it doesn’t really work as a horror movie either. There’s no suspense, and only a plethora of jump scares, all of which involve someone coming up behind someone else and giving them the old hand-on-the-shoulder routine.
*. The idea is kind of interesting, sort of like an episode of The X-Files stretched out to (barely) feature length. But nothing is really explained. How did the business with the Passover paint work? What has happened to Will at the end?
*. I usually don’t jump on continuity errors, and in a movie like this it’s not really fair, but if you’re going to have a big scene with one of the main characters getting his face shaved with a straight razor you can’t have him in closeup a few minutes later with a couple of days’ worth of stubble on his chin.
*. This isn’t a bad movie, but it doesn’t have a lot to work with and despite its short running time it has a slow build that doesn’t lead to much of a climax. I end up watching a lot of low-budget Canadian horror films, and some of them have managed to impress. Afflicted and Black Mountain Side, for example, which came out around the same time as this. But Feed the Gods doesn’t quite hit the mark.

The Accountant (2016)

*. From murky beginnings, the autism spectrum diagnosis really took off in the twenty-first century. Indeed, it became so common/popular that it eventually shed any sense of being a disorder and instead became a marker of special genius. Individuals “on the spectrum” were not just different, but better; not “neurotypical” but homo superior. Shakespeare, it was said, must have been on the spectrum. Einstein too. Soon celebrities were lining up to claim their place. Could it be long before the autistic became superheroes?
*. Not long at all. In The Accountant this change in the way we look at autism is absorbed into the maw of the cultural maelstrom that we might call, for lack of a better word, superheroism. Our hero Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck) may seem like a (very) mild-mannered and sexy accountant but in reality he’s a highly-trained killing machine (crack shot, master of the martial arts) with advanced math skills and a penchant for fine art. Was James Bond on the spectrum too? He is now.
*. I’ll leave aside the question of the film’s presentation of autism. It’s certainly hard to call it out for presenting any negative stereotypes, though I have to wonder if the message of autism as being a special gift isn’t going a bit far in the other direction.
*. I’ll also leave aside any further discussion of The Accountant as a superhero movie. Suffice to say it checks all the boxes: giving us the essential origin story and introducing us to the supporting characters we will surely meet again in the sequels.
*. This leaves us with the movie itself. I thought it was surprisingly bad.

*. The cast isn’t bad. Affleck doesn’t have to work very hard to sell the murderer-savant, though in several scenes I thought he was starting to look disturbingly like Steven Seagal. J. K. Simmons knows the drill and performs. Anna Kendrick, Cynthia Addai-Robinson, and Jon Bernthal also know the drill, but seem not to be too happy about the limitations of their characters. Kendrick in particular has the look of someone who can’t believe how little she is being called upon to do.
*. The script lets everyone down. I didn’t know what Braxton’s job description was. I didn’t understand (and really didn’t care) what kind of a bad guy John Lithgow was supposed to be. A psychopathic philanthropist?
*. Despite being vague on details like these, it was perfectly clear how everything was going to ultimately work out, and the ending of the movie just runs out of steam and treads water for the final act. I was left wondering why it was taking so long to tell such a simple story.
*. In sum, I can’t think of anything really nice to say about this one. It’s just another superhero franchise start-up. The only wrinkle is that John Wick has been bitten by a radioactive spider and is now really smart as well as deadly. The action sequences are nothing special, and the final shootout is a total yawn, with the mooks just getting blown away like metal ducks at a carnival. It seems to want to give us some kind of positive message about kids with learning disabilities or behavioural problems, but if the takeaway is that we should seek to empower such children by sending them to bootcamp and ninja school then I don’t think that’s going to prove very helpful.
*. On the other hand, surveys have found that accounting is one of the happiest professions, with accountants reporting enviable levels of job satisfaction while enjoying excellent pay and high social status. Young people who are good at numbers should be encouraged to take it up.

Murder 101 (2014)

*. I’m not sure what they were thinking. On the most basic level it’s a slasher flick, complete with a slaughter of co-eds at a sleepover. But there are no good kills and indeed there’s no gore at all aside from the bodies discovered with the killer’s signature version of the Glasgow smile.
*. It’s also a kind of psychological thriller along the giallo model, but the story bumps along so clumsily that there’s no keeping track of the red herrings and the final explanation of who the killer is, and his motivations, is so baffling that I’ll confess I completely failed to understand it.
*. Perhaps a second viewing would clear things up a bit, but that’s not something I want to do. The pacing is slow, the dialogue stiff and the whole thing rather dull. A sense of humour might have helped, but I don’t think it’s meant to be a comedy. Or, for that matter, as a kind of meta-horror film along the lines of Scream or Behind the Mask. Sure most of the characters are laughable, but I don’t think they’re meant to be laughable. When the kids start to question whether the cute new criminology professor is really a professor, it’s absurd. But then you realize that he doesn’t act like any professor you’ve ever seen, so maybe he isn’t. And as for the FBI agent . . . does he even exist? This is just one of the questions I was left with at the end.
*. I try to come up with something nice to say about every movie I watch, but it’s hard for this one. I suppose what sticks in my mind the most is how confusing it all is. The killer (or at least one of them) quotes chunks of Hamlet apropos of absolutely nothing. Characters pop up out of nowhere and then disappear. The twist (or at least one of the twists) at the end introduces a superfluous hint of incest. Instead of wrapping things up, the final scene just adds another layer of mystification without explaining anything. The experience is a bit surreal. But not in a pleasant way.

Assassin’s Creed (2016)

*. OK, first of all I just want you to know that I get it. I’m aware of the fact that comic books and video games are now our dominant cultural templates, and that today’s blockbuster movies have to speak their language. I also realize that such movies aren’t meant to be thought-provoking or intellectually challenging. They are all about CGI effects and lots of action. If they don’t make sense then that’s your problem because who told you to think about any of this?
*. I get all of this. But still. Do you think the brain trust behind Assassin’s Creed might have come up with a better idea for this movie than a quest to find the apple from the Garden of Eden? Apparently possession of this apple (which, it turns out, has been hidden in the tomb of Christopher Columbus for the last 500 years!) will rid the world of free will, sending us all back to a state of docile prelapsarian innocence. There will be an end not only to war, but all human suffering. And want. And climate change. Don’t ask how. Don’t ask any questions at all. Don’t even think.
*. This is a premise that I would be embarassed to have written. It’s a premise that Dan Brown would have been embarassed to have written. It’s really hard to overstate just how stupid it is. I think if you got a group of 8-year-olds of average intelligence to brainstorm an idea for a blockbuster movie even they wouldn’t be able to come up with an idea this dumb.
*. If only they could have dialed it down. What would have been wrong with the Templars looking to recover the Maltese falcon? Why does the fate of the entire world always have to be at stake in these movies?
*. The people looking for the apple are the Templars, who are apparently still quite a going concern in the twenty-first century. If they get their hands on it there will be world peace but at the admittedly steep price of submission to a one-world (Templar) order, overseen by Charlotte Rampling. Scary. Opposing the Templars are the assassins. They have a creed, which consists of articles like “nothing is true, everything is permitted, and assassins work in the darkness to serve the light.”
*. I’m not even going to bother making any more jokes about this. Basically, pitting Templars vs. assassins is just the vampires vs. werewolves set-up from the Underworld franchise. The plot is a dumbed-down version of The Da Vinci Code. The action is the usual comic book/video game fare. Our hero jacks into a virtual-reality device with the Jungian name of the Animus, allowing him to access genetic memories of his assassin ancestors and relive past battles. In effect, he’s playing a video game. We’re watching someone play a video game in a movie based on a video game. He’s also kitted out with blades on his wrists that turn him into a medieval Wolverine. This is all stuff we’ve seen before.
*. Director Justin Kurzel and leads Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard were just coming off working together on Macbeth. Does that seem like a big jump? It isn’t. Their Macbeth was terrible too.
*. Fassbender poses a lot without a shirt on, thrusting his chest out. I guess he’s been spending some time in the gym. Jeremy Irons does his usual villain thing. Cotillard’s character (she’s Irons’ daughter) seems entirely superfluous. People run around on rooftops and jump from heights. There are a bunch of fights that don’t look very interesting.
*. I’ll confess I’m not a gamer and I haven’t played any of the Assassin’s Creed video games. I don’t see how that makes any difference though. Indeed, not being a fan or otherwise invested in the franchise I may have been predisposed to cut the movie a little more slack.
*. For what it’s worth — and the near universal consensus is that it’s worth very little — Assassin’s Creed is considered to be one of the better video game adaptations to film. This may be true. What I wonder is why even bother moving in such a direction. To cash in on a successful franchise’s brand awareness, sure, but do the producers plan to actually make use of the differences between the two media to make something new, or are they just cashing in by making a derivative and inferior product? Thus far it seems they’ve been going for the latter, and I have no problem extending that observation to Assassin’s Creed.
*. I can forgive brainless comic book action. What I can’t condone is how dull a movie this is. They should have cut at least half an hour from the running time. Since there is absolutely no uncertainty about where any of this is going, and not even an attempt at creating characters we care about, they should have kept things moving a lot faster. As it is, scenes play out predictably and at tedious length, and the silly Animus machine becomes a repetitive device. Then, to cap things off, the ending is surprisingly anti-climactic. Of course they had to leave things open for the sequels, but I was still left open-mouthed at the final scene. Was that it? Not that I wanted any more, but was that all there was? This movie is a sugar crash without any rush.

Paradise (2014)

*. Any filmmaker’s style represents a particular way of looking at the world and expressing its meaning. The “look” of a film is always doing some work, no matter how generic it may seem. This is probably even more so in the case of animation, where reality is more obviously transformed and exaggerated in fanciful ways.
*. I think that’s clearly the case with Laura Vandewynckel’s Paradise, whose very distinctive visuals carry a message.
*. The main visual motif is that of transparency. We begin at an airport that is a kind of skeleton, all white frames that nevertheless contain space and are impermeable. Departures can’t just walk through empty walls but have to follow a certain path. That same transparency is also how human figures are rendered, as though their flesh has been stripped away and all that’s left is one of those “visible men” figures, with scribbles of a yarn-like circulatory system. It seems like they should be falling apart, but as with the airport building there’s an implied but invisible structure holding them together.

*. When the man gets on the plane we’re introduced to the second visual motif, as we cross a green moat protecting the White World from a sunny resort destination. Again there is the idea of an invisible barrier, one that the plane cruises above, upsetting the desperate refugees drowning below.
*. As it turns out, the man is enjoying a kind of sex tourism, where he’ll get to leave behind some of the extra baggage he picks up. What happens in the tropics, stays in the tropics. Alas, the White World won’t be able to maintain its gated-community status, and when the Man returns there are hints that the chickens are coming home to roost.
*. The political message is pretty clear. The native porters as sprinters at the block when the plane descends is a nice observation. White people get to enjoy the good things in life, flying above the suffering of the burning lands and their refugees without any sense of responsibility. Just as the plane passes over the refugees, the Man steps over the derelict in the doorway (whose appearance was fittingly foreshadowed in an earlier shot of a puddle).
*. Using the visual motif of transparency, Vandewynckel exposes the hypocrisy and vulnerability of the White World’s fantasy of splendid isolation. We see through it, and through them. How much longer can such frail structures hold together?

The Wave (2015)

*. Damn. Fjords. Now that’s what I call some beautiful scenery. I have a picture of a fjord set as my background as I’m writing this. I really need to visit Norway sometime before I die.
*. Now, take away the scenery and what we have here is a pretty standard disaster flick, which was by design. Director Roar Uthaug was inspired by Hollywood disaster movies like Twister and Armageddon and basically wanted to do the same thing in his native land. Is there anything wrong with wanting to be the Norwegian Michael Bay? Career-wise, probably not. On the strength of this film Uthaug would be tabbed to direct the Tomb Raider franchise reboot.
*. There’s a very obvious three-part structure. We begin with an intro that explains how disaster is looms above a Norwegian town in the form of a cliff that’s poised to fall into the fjord, which, when it does, will generate a tsunami. Everybody knows this is going to happen, they just don’t know when. In the meantime, they don’t want to scare off the tourists. Geiranger is like Amity North.
*. We are also introduced to the likeable family: mom (who manages a hotel), dad (he’s the paranoid geologist), teenage son (take off your headphones!), and little girl (clutching a stuffed animal). These will be our protagonists.
*. Then the much-anticipated disaster strikes. It’s CGI, but given how the place looks so much like a Lord of the Rings location I found this didn’t bug me as much as it usually does. Plus it’s not bad CGI. Which is to say it’s credible, as far as these things go.
*. Then a rather disappointing and improbable third act where the family have to reunite and save each other from the (strangely) burning wreckage of the town.
*. I’ve said the third act is disappointing. The Wave has the unfortunate look of a film that ran out of money and then had to wrap up shooting on a single set. This set, in turn, is only another version of the people trapped in a room slowly filling with water, pressing them up against the ceiling before they have to make the swim-for-life. Really. How many times have we seen this? This seems to me like one of those clichés that really should be retired unless somebody is going to try and reinvent it. Uthaug doesn’t do anything interesting with it here. Indeed, it even ends with a rehash of the famously bad scene in The Abyss where, after CPR fails to do the trick, you revive someone just by yelling at them to snap out of it.
*. Public service announcement: Don’t do CPR like you see people doing it in the movies. You’ll be wasting your time. You might as well just yell at them to snap out of it. There’s a reason it’s hard to show people doing proper CPR. It’s because you can’t do real CPR on a healthy person. You often break ribs and you can damage a heart that’s already beating. You really have to push down hard on the chest. Movie CPR is very misleading.
*. I wonder if there was any thought given to throwing in a bit of a twist at the end. Probably not. The family that stays together will survive big waves together. Group hug!
*. Well, it looks great. And there was one action sequence, when the wave hits the line of stopped cars, that had a somewhat fresh feel to it. But aside from that, it’s a pretty conventional disaster-movie-of-the-week. With fjords!

97% (2013)

*. We’ve all seen the zombies among us, heads bent over their iPhones, buds nestled in their ears, oblivious to the world around them. Plugged in to social media they seem to live profoundly anti-social lives, not just unconnected but worlds apart from the person sitting next to them on the subway.
*. And yet we still believe, or at least some of us still believe, in the Internet as being a great bonding agent, a technology that brings us all together in virtual networks of friends or “friends.” Why, with the right app it can even pick a mate for us! Algorithms do this kind of thing better, you know.
*. It’s easy to make fun of all this, but for whatever reason a lot of us do seem to have bought into it. In 97% we have a short film that follows the quest of one “Lovely Bertje82” (his digital handle) as he is informed while on the subway that a 97% love match is within 25 meters of his present location. The hunt is on!
*. Since this is a short, less than ten minutes long, I don’t think I need to give a spoiler alert. (But in case you need one, consider yourself warned.) The upshot is that Bert is so enthralled by playing the game on his cellphone that he fails to connect with the woman sitting right in front of him. This is actually presented in a beautifully artful way, as the “Reflection Girl” (as she is billed in the credits) and Bert are shown looking at each other indirectly, as reflections in a subway window that acts as yet another screen for their romance to blossom on.
*. But alas, Reflection Girl is not The One. At least not The One picked out for Bert by the matchfinder app. So he loses her and goes off to chase yet another dream, another virtual prize.
*. This gives the film a bite in the end as we realize that Bert really is quite shallow, hunting after a girlfriend like a kid chasing cartoon monsters on Pokémon Go.
*. Well, they do say that the chase is the fun part of falling in love. The thrill of the hunt and all that. But how depressing is such programmed behaviour? Where is Bert’s agency? He’s little more than a puppet attached to satellite strings. Clearly on the subway of life we are all just passengers and tech is in the driver’s seat. So much for romantic traffic. Now I feel sentimental for The Spoons.