Category Archives: 2010s

Devil (2010)

*. I really shouldn’t be impressed by something as simple (and kind of stupid) as the upside-down shots of Philly in the opening credit sequence, but for some reason they really got me in the mood. For what, I wasn’t sure. But I felt primed.
*. What then follows is a very slick and effective production of a very stupid idea.
*. The basic premise is the locked-room thriller, with a group of people trapped in a confined space and being eliminated one-by-one. It’s very close to the Game of Death sub-genre (we even have a security camera watching the proceedings), but there’s no sense that this is a contest.
*. Given the premise I thought it was very well handled. The one cheat I didn’t appreciate was the simple expedient of turning the lights off every time someone gets killed, and then turning them back on to reveal the body. That’s the same trick they use in the Game of Death film Breathing Room, where they at least had the excuse of having no budget to work with. Here it had me swearing out loud at the screen.
*. But then there’s the stupid twist, which is the supernatural angle. In most of these films the locked-room has either (a) been engineered by a sadistic psychopath (Saw, Kill Theory, Would You Rather) or (b) been set in some vague SF-style future where the elimination game is a way of packaging punishment or entertainment (Cube, Breathing Room, House of 9, Circle). Here, however, it’s all the work of the devil.
*. This won’t come as any surprise, given the film’s title. But it’s still pretty stupid. The most basic question, which has plagued devil movies at least since The Exorcist, is why such a powerful entity as the devil (or a devil) would bother him- or herself with such a petty scheme.
*. As with many of these movies the trapped people all turn out to be guilty of something. This is the No Exit theme. But a blackmailer? A former gangster (who at least seems to be trying to turn his life around)? Some jerk who once operated a Ponzi scheme? Why would the devil be interested in this bunch of losers stuck in a lift?
*. Wouldn’t there be an easier way for the devil to go about harvesting souls? Perhaps something a little more private? Apparently the devil likes an audience. This is news to me, since in all of human history we haven’t been able to find any proof of his existence, at least of the kind captured on security cameras here. But such lore comes to us from a reliable source because, yes, once again we have the cliché of the ethnic character — in this case the security guard Ramirez — who is still connected (via the stories his mother told him) with some kind of folk spiritual wisdom that the advanced, white, professional types have all lost touch with.
*. All of this leads up to a really hokey ending, carrying a message of (Christian) forgiveness and a line about how “if the devil is real, then God must be real too.” Does that make you feel better?
*. Devil was conceived as the first instalment in what was billed as The Night Chronicles trilogy, a trio of films to be produced by M. Night Shyamalan that were each to have supernatural storylines. Which is fine. I have nothing against the supernatural. I just don’t like to see it presented in such a trite way.
*. Things end on an odd note. All the main characters are given first and last names in the film, but none of them are identified by name in the credits. Instead, “Ben Larson” is just Guard, “Sarah Caraway” is Young Woman, “Jane Kowski” is Old Woman, “Vince McCormick” is Salesman, etc. I wonder if the thinking was that nobody in the audience would identify any of these people as characters but only as types. If so, that may say as much about how little they believed in the story they were telling as it does about their estimation of their audience. In either case I found it fitting, as I cared less and less about the characters as things went on and was fine with seeing them dismissed not to hell but into anonymity.

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Nine Dead (2010)

*. The one thing you have to say about these Game of Death films is that they really need a tight script. Basically you just have a group of characters trapped together in a confined space (a single set) for the whole movie, talking. So the talk, perhaps interrupted by the odd burst of violence, has to be good.
*. I’m happy to say that the script for Nine Dead, by Patrick Wehe Mahoney, is pretty good. I don’t think there’s much else to like about the movie, but the story set its hook and kept me interested right up to the end. That’s more than I can say for most of the Saw franchise.
*. The set-up has it that nine people are kidnapped (tasered this time), and chained up in a warehouse somewhere. A masked man informs them that he’ll be killing one of them every ten minutes until they can tell him why all this is happening. So basically they have to work together and find out what they have in common. A clock on the wall counts down the time.
*. That’s a fine idea, and pretty bold too because such a story is nothing but build-up. Will all the loose ends manage to be tied together at the end? Once everything is explained, will it all make sense?
*. Well, it’s not perfect, but in my opinion it did as well in this regard as could be expected. I didn’t think the end was a cheat, and it did at least make sense.
*. Of course I had some objections. These mainly concerned the very real hierarchy of guilt that was basically ignored by the killer. Some of the victims were clearly more culpable than others, like Coogan (the pedophile rapist) and Kelley (the D.A.). Others, like Leon and Sully, seemed to have only the faintest, most tangential relationship to the events in the back story. They had every right to feel pissed off at being lumped in with the others. I like how, when the killer secretly tells Christian why he is being killed, Christian is baffled at how he could possibly have known. Coogan, on the other hand, accepts his fate with a shrug. For him it seems fair enough.
*. I was surprised that the directors of another Game of Death film, Circle (2015), said that they had been inspired by 12 Angry Men. I didn’t see the connection there, but it’s far more obvious in a movie like this, where the sequestered group have to reconstruct a crime and deliver a verdict, only in this case on themselves.
*. So that’s all to the good. This is a decent psychological thriller with a script that puts less emphasis on violence and more on problem solving. As I’ve said, however, there isn’t much else to get excited about. I didn’t think it was presented in a very interesting way, and the acting was only passable at best. Critics were predictably unkind, but I think some of this was just laziness. If you like this kind of movie I’d recommend giving it a try.

Life (2017)

*. I like the British film critic Mark Kermode. He sort of stepped into Roger Ebert’s old role of the regular guy who likes regular movies but who is actually very smart and well informed as well. So when he calls Life “the very definition of a popcorn movie,” I’m inclined to agree with him.
*. To quote a bit more: “In the case of Life you know exactly what you’re getting and that is what you get.” Again, I would not disagree. Indeed, this was the critical consensus. Life is pure formula, with nothing original about it.
*. Where I would depart from Kermode’s take is in his likening the film to Alien. Not because Life isn’t a rip-off of Alien. It most certainly is. But because he brings in Alien as an example of how in horror there are only so many stories to tell and that Alien was just one of these tricked out by being set in outer space.
*. Well, yes. But I think that’s being much too generous to Life. Transplanting the gothic horror of Alien to space was something new. Also new were all the creative elements of design in that film. We hadn’t seen anything like the Xenomorph on film before. Or spaceships whose interiors looked like medieval dungeons.
*. In Life there is nothing new aside, I suppose (and now I’m the one being generous here), from bolting the look of Gravity onto Alien. There’s even a long opening shot that gives us a tour of the International Space Station which is borrowed directly from the opening shot of Gravity.
*. After that, things settle down. An alien life form is discovered. It turns out to be hostile, hungry, and precociously intelligent. No matter what the crew do to keep it quarantined it keeps finding a way out (or in). Communications go down, requiring one of the crew to walk outside to fix something. They use a flamethrower to try and kill it. All that sort of thing.
*. In fact, most of Life is so derivative that it even starts to play with our expectations. When we see Hugh Derry acting queasy and the team grab for the defibrillator . . . tell me you weren’t expecting his chest to collapse and the alien come bursting out as soon as they shocked him. We’ve all seen The Thing. We know how this scene plays. It’s actually disappointing when we find out that Calvin’s only got him by the leg.
*. So what is different? Director Daniel Espinosa saw Ryan Reynolds as the movie’s Janet Leigh but the comparison doesn’t work that well because in Psycho Leigh is the audience’s sole focus while here Reynolds is just part of an ensemble. Also worth flagging as at least a bit of a twist is the bleak, sardonic ending, which probably contributed to the disappointing box office.
*. But basically this is a cheesy B-movie tricked out with lots of money behind it and some name stars you wouldn’t expect to see in such parts. Unfortunately the stars are trapped in generic roles they can’t fight there way out of. And by the way, isn’t it a little much that the black guy (Ariyon Bakare) is not only guilty of letting the alien loose in the first place but for its second escape as well?
*. I’m not big on the science having to make sense in these movies. In part because I don’t care that much and in part because I’m not a scientist so what do I know. But are we supposed to believe that Reynolds somehow just reaches out the Canadarm and catches that giant probe as it goes speeding by? Wouldn’t that have torn the arm right off? And nothing about the flamethrower scene made sense to me at all. I’m sure you don’t use those things inside space stations, even in emergencies.
*. Yes, it all zips along pretty well. It’s a good little B-movie . . . with a $60 million budget. My main problem with it is that the alien, Calvin, just wasn’t interesting enough to look at. I like that they keep him small, which actually makes him scarier, but other than that he’s just a squid rendered in what I thought was some rather poor CGI. A creature like that belongs in a cheaper movie, which in this case might have made it a better movie too.

Split (2016)

*. For a while M. Night Shyamalan virtually trademarked the twist ending, starting with The Sixth Sense (where it worked) and continuing through more recent films like The Village and The Visit (where it didn’t). Split doesn’t have a twist ending, which should have been a relief. Instead, I felt let down. Why?
*. The thing is, this is pretty simple stuff. The Collector rejuvenated by stories in the news about women who had been abducted and kept locked up in basements for years. And so we got The Room and 10 Cloverfield Lane and this picture, all coming out around the same time.
*. As a horror plot these stories have standard elements. There’s an attempt (or two) at escape, which fails. There is an attempt at a rescue, which fails. Then at last the heroine breaks free, blinking at the sunlight and breathing the open air.
*. That’s how Split plays out, with the only twist being revealed at the beginning. The abductor (James McAvoy) is a young man suffering from dissociative identity disorder (what used to be called split personality). Apparently he has 23 different identities bouncing around in his shaved noggin, with a 24th, alluded to darkly as “the Beast,” about to be born.
*. Well, that’s not that big a twist. And making matters worse is the fact that Shyamalan doesn’t really do anything with it. What I mean is, the fact that “Kevin” (to identify him by his real name) has all these different identities doesn’t serve any function in the plot. His different personalities are only costume changes.
*. The personalities are also just the usual range of stock types. There’s a working-class guy. A somewhat fey fashion designer. A very proper woman. A 9-year old child. McAvoy got a lot of credit for his performance, but actors love these kinds of roles because they can really show off. However, given the nature of the different identities I didn’t think it was a part that called for much. The only tricky part was when Kevin goes to his psychiatrist and plays Dennis pretending to be Barry. That was terrific, and shows what might have been done had the script given McAvoy something more to work with.

*. Anya Taylor-Joy (who was very busy around this time, starring in Morgan and The Witch the same year) has a more complicated part, but she’s not called upon to do much either. Instead, she’s left seeming vaguely autistic, gazing wide-eyed and somewhat blankly at whatever is going on.
*. Who on earth is the older woman that Dr. Fletcher watches the game show with? Just a neighbour? I found it interesting that in introducing the deleted scenes that are included with the DVD Shyamalan talks about how he had to cut an entire character who was a neighbour of Dr. Fletcher’s that she was flirting with because it wasn’t absolutely essential to the plot. But what purpose does this TV-watching scene have? It doesn’t give us any necessary information.
*. Most disappointing of all, however, is the ending. In which nothing is concluded. Is Casey really going back to live with her uncle? That uncle? Or does she even have an uncle? Maybe she’s the crazy one, and that’s the twist we still have coming somewhere down the road. Then what’s going on with Kevin? And what’s Bruce Willis (in his role as David Dunn from Unbreakable) doing here?
*. To find out the answers to all of those questions you’ll have to wait for the sequel to what we only now learn is going to be the final part in a trilogy. You can see what I mean by a let down. I would have preferred one of those ridiculous gimmick twists to such an anti-climax. But then, the middle film (or novel) in a trilogy is often only marking time.
*. I guess it’s decently made and put forward, but there are no big suspense sequences despite there being plenty of opportunities and it all left me feeling like it wasn’t adding up to much of anything. Mark Kermode: “It’s not brilliant, but it’s not bad.” So there. Shrug.

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)

*. I know I shouldn’t be surprised — I should probably stop being surprised by anything relating to the movie business — but I was still brought up short by an interview with Matthew Vaughn about the origins of the movie Kingsman. According to Vaughn “It started in a pub with Mark [Millar, author of the Kingsman comic books], and we were drunk . . . We sort of were complaining about how spy movies had become really quite serious. We said, ‘Let’s do a fun [one].'”
*. The reason this surprised me is that spy movies have been sent up and parodied ever since there were spy movies. The first James Bond movie, Dr. No, was released in 1962. Casino Royale, a madcap Bond parody and Kingsman‘s closest analog, came out in 1967. Ever since then the genre has been getting mocked and ridiculed pretty much non-stop. Even the parodies are franchises, from Austin Powers to Spy Kids.
*. Which I guess is a long way of saying that Kingsman: The Secret Service is nothing new. It’s a Bond parody down to its shoelaces (though I have to note in passing that according to co-screenwriter Jane Goldman the last thing they wanted to do was make a parody, which is another thing I just can’t figure out). There have been some adjustments made to the times, so that the plot is even more cartoonish and the action even more like a video game, but that’s about it. That’s all that makes this “a postmodern love letter to spy films” (Vaughn).
*. What were you expecting? This is the kind of movie Vaughn (who previously directed Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class) does. Comic books and video games. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, if it’s your thing. Though I have to once again register my dismay at how shootouts are now all being filmed as though they’re play action from a first-person shooter video game, complete with visual overlays. I’ve complained of this before (see my notes on John Wick and Hardcore Henry, both released around the same time as Kingsman). I’m tired of it. It’s time for someone to come up with something new.

*. About the only new wrinkle is the gentle ribbing of the British class system, which is a theme Vaughn has a fondness for (see, for example, Layer Cake). But that’s not much for novelty.
*. Otherwise . . . Samuel L. Jackson is the megalomaniac villain with an alpine lair and an army of mooks. He doesn’t have a cat but he does have a lisp and an exotic bodyguard. Q is now Merlin. Michael Caine shows up just because you couldn’t imagine him not showing up. And those are Harry Palmer’s glasses, after all.
*. I wasn’t sure where the Kingsmen were getting their money from. Is it all old money? That’s been running out lately, and they have lots of rent to pay. Maybe they’ve invested in Richmond Valentine’s company, seeing as his tech fortune is the way of the future. So should we feel sad then for the Savile Row dinosaurs and the death of the code of the gentlemen?
*. Some people were offended by the politics. The bad guy was an environmental activist just trying to deal with the problem of global climate change! Jason Ward had this to say in The Guardian: “It is an unpleasant, carelessly violent cartoon, in thrall to the establishment and utterly contemptuous of women and the working class.”
*. I think this goes too far. The politics of Kingsman seem muddled to me, and I’m not sure it’s saying much about anything, even the class system.

*. About the only real political moment in the film that I registered was Colin Firth’s assault upon the church congregation. This is a scene that put off a lot of reviewers (myself included) but I think that it just might have been meant as a satire of political correctness run amok. Most of the movie up until then had treated violence as cartoonishly non-lethal (the gang of chavs at the pub recover from their beating at the hands of Firth in remarkably short order, the girl who drowns doesn’t really drown, etc.). But the rabidly racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic churchgoers can be freely slaughtered without compunction. They are not among the secular saved.
*. Neither are the toffs though, as the rapture of the aristocrats involves all of their heads exploding in inexplicable psychedelic puffs of smoke. So, politically, it all seems like a wash to me. Presumably Valentine will be left to mate with his bladerunner to repopulate the world. All of the chaos appears to have been borrowed from Casino Royale, but I don’t know if that’s going back too far for this generation of filmmakers. When Vaughn and Millar talk about Casino Royale in the making-of featurette “Panel to Screen” they’re referring to the 2006 Daniel Craig vehicle.
*. I’ll end on a final note of surprise. Why were so many people offended by this film? As already noted, I didn’t see it as having any kind of political message. It’s just another round of brainless comic book crap. I didn’t even mind the product placement for McDonald’s. For some reason Mark Kermode judged the “bum note” at the end “completely unforgiveable,” but for the life of me I can’t see what got his dander up. It just seemed to me to be the traditional Bond ending updated for the Internet porn generation. So what? I mean, I didn’t think it was very funny (I didn’t think anything in the movie was very funny), but I sure didn’t find it offensive.
*. So I wasn’t offended. I wasn’t surprised. I wasn’t impressed. But I was sort of entertained. That was enough to guarantee a sequel anyway.

Lights Out (2016)

*. I appreciate the fact that Lights Out comes in at 80 minutes. Let’s face it, there isn’t a lot of story here. Anything they added would just be filler. Do we really want to know anything more about these characters and their dysfunctional family? Of course not. As soon as we see the trick with the light switch and Diana’s appearance/disappearance act we know pretty much everything we need to know and we’re ready to start getting scared.
*. Actually, if you’d seen the 2013 short of the same name directed by David F. Sandberg and starring his wife Lotta Losten (she’s the woman playing with the light switch in the prologue here), you’d know everything you need to know. What gets added here isn’t very interesting, or credible. I suppose they did the best they could to come up with a back story for Diana given the fast turnaround, but still.
*. I mean, what is Diana anyway? Some projection of Sophie’s subconscious, like the Babadook? A ghost? A demon? If a demon, I don’t understand the way she is both material and immaterial. If she can appear and disappear and go through doors and walls and zip around to different places and control the entire city’s power grid, why does light still bother her?
*. I was also unimpressed by Diana’s appearance. I think someone has to start exercising their imagination a bit more. Basically Diana is just another Sadako/Samara clone from the Ringu/The Ring movies. She seems like something that just crawled out of a well, and even has the same twitchy sort of movements. This has become a very generic look and I wasn’t impressed. What’s even more surprising is that the gremlin from the 2013 short, with its ping-pong ball eyes and pointy teeth, created with no budget whatsoever, was scarier.
*. Hm. So Diana had a photosensitive skin condition (Xeroderma pigmentosum) that caused her skin to fry like Dracula’s in the sunlight. In order to cure her, the good doctors decide to tie her to a chair and shine a bunch of powerful lights on her. She spontaneously combusts. Damn. Who could have seen that coming? And this was in the 1980s. I guess medicine has come a long way since the dark ages.
*. Maria Bello and Teresa Palmer are both good. Palmer in particular takes a hum-drum role and gives it a bit of an edge. She’s tough but troubled, not just a sexy last girl. I also like the way she wields her UV tube like a Jedi lightsaber. That was a clever prop to find in a basement (though apparently UV light has an even stronger effect on people suffering from Diana’s condition, so the science doesn’t work out that well).
*. But despite best efforts this is still a movie with a single concept, which is pretty much exhausted in the first ten minutes. Nevertheless, the return on investment was staggering and a sequel became inevitable. Indeed, an alternate ending promised as much. That ending was cut — wisely, I think, as it was clichéd and the effects for Diana’s second combustion looked terrible — but there can be no doubt the bitch will be back. I hope they find something new for her to do though, because after only 80 minutes she’s already getting old.

Lights Out (2013)

*. If I could extend Keats just a bit, monsters we see are scary, but those we can’t see are scarier.
*. The reasons for this probably go back to some evolutionary adaptation. If we can only sense a threat but not see it our threat level goes up. As we lean forward, deep into the darkness peering (that’s Poe, and James Wan), we imagine the worst. This could be something really bad.
*. The upshot of which is that we’re afraid of the dark. Or more specically we’re afraid of what might be in it.
*. In a film this short (3 minutes) there isn’t time to develop this idea much further. Basically what we have here is a single visual conceit: a creature that only appears as a shadow or silhouette in the darkness. What does it want? What is it up to? Probably no good, but it behaves in a curious way.
*. The less we see, the scarier the demon seems. The same goes for the less we know of it. When director David F. Sandberg expanded the concept here into a feature, the 2016 Lights Out, he gave the creature, named Diana, a whole back story and various personal issues. None of which made her a bit more threatening.
*. The demon in this film isn’t even that afraid of the light. It has no trouble defeating the protagonist’s duct-tape solution, and at the end makes a full appearance in regular electric light, something Diana could not do.
*. I was reminded of the Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” a classic story that reappeared in 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie (with John Lithgow in the William Shatner role). As with the gremlin on the wing, the creature keeps slipping closer in jumps as the lights come on or as the woman looks away or covers up. Then you get one big jump scare at the end.
*. Given the format that’s all we need. Along with a bunch of other shorts Sandberg did with the same actress (his wife, Lotta Losten) — Attic Panic, Coffer, Cam Closer, Closet Space — what we get is basically a build up to a couple of jump scares. It’s horror for the YouTube generation, and I think it works very well. It is, however, all based on one clever (but very simple) bit of camera work, the lights-on/lights-off disappearing act. Would that be enough to sustain a feature? A franchise? There would be only one way to find out.

Emergency Calls (2013)

*. A cry of distress is something we seem to be hardwired to respond to. It’s probably the same wiring that makes the sound of a baby crying so annoying, which is to say hard to ignore. A plea for help is something that triggers our full attention.
*. If you’ve ever listened to real 911 calls on news programs you know how intensely dramatic they can be. So the concept of a short film dramatizing emergency calls and radio traffic — in this case relating to a birth, a sinking ship, a school shooting, a traffic accident, and a case of domestic violence — has some merit. I also like the idea of presenting the calls not realistically but in an experimental style. The imagery is almost abstract in its playing with shape and colour, and we only see a couple of faces. The overall visual texture is akin to the background images you used to see on screensavers. Back when people still had screensavers. I’m told young people today don’t even know what a screensaver is.
*. As an experiment, however, I don’t think it really works. Some of the visuals are great. I love the sinking ship looking a bit like a Modernist painting, followed by a lonely pink flare. And the spread of frost over the traffic accident is a persuasive image, projecting the treachery of icy roads and the coldness of death onto our machines.
*. There are false steps though. I don’t think it makes sense for us to see the responders, especially as their faces remain robotic, without emotion. And the callers voices are almost as flat, with little hint of panic or confusion. The audio might be a table reading. Black spaces hiccup onto the screen in an irritating but not very significant manner. And finally it isn’t clear how the various emergencies can or should be drawn together. What unites these desperate visions?
*. The writer-director team of Hannes Vartiainen and Pekka Veikkolainen don’t draw the episodes together in any way beyond the poetically visual, preferring to have the human predicament drift into an alien space. As the emergencies become aestheticized, however, they lose their immediacy. Perhaps the point is that we are all in the position of the responders: overwhelmed by the noise of demands on our sympathy we back off and “see” only patterns, a kaleidoscope of images that cohere just long enough to be re-routed, before slipping into an indifferent void.

Get Out (2017)

*. Get Out was the big buzz movie of 2017, and follows the big buzz thriller of 2014, Gone Girl, in being a fantasy on a leading water-cooler issue (race instead of gender battle lines this time out). I liked Get Out more, a lot more, than Gone Girl because it’s put across with more talent, energy and conviction in just about every department. And I do think Get Out is a great movie. But if you take away the race angle, I don’t think it’s anything new.
*. By the way, the twist or basic premise behind the evil plot in Get Out is really very good. You know this affluent, twenty-first century version of the American gothic family is creepy as hell and up to something, and what it turns out to be is both plausible (judged on its own terms) and thematically apt. The way it works also makes a second viewing even more enjoyable than the first, which is something I don’t say about a lot of movies. So I’ll provide a spoiler alert here. Don’t read these notes if you haven’t seen Get Out yet.

*. Let’s start with race. Writer-director Jordan Peele wanted to expose the post-racial lie of the Obama era, by which (I think) he means the hypocrisy of white “liberal” America. Fair enough, though I don’t know how representative the members of this particular country club are of that demographic. I think the movie also pulls a bit of a dodge with its response to Chris’s agonized question “Why black people?”
*. Get Out supplies a number of answers. Once you’ve tried black you’ll never go back. Black is the new black. Every black man is a super athlete. With all they have going for them, why wouldn’t some aging white moneybags pick a black chassis for his next life?
*. But how convincing are any of these explanations? It’s worth noting that when asked the question directly the blind art dealer who has purchased Chris says he doesn’t care about race at all but only wants Chris’s eyes. This is nonsense, since everyone has eyes. But then, the dealer is colour blind, literally.
*. I still have trouble with the idea of a bunch of rich old white folk wanting to be black. The script tries hard to explain some of it. Grandpa always wanted to be a physical specimen and held a special grudge against Jesse Owens. Grandma only wants to keep a clean house and help out in the kitchen. They’re both just role-playing as domestic servants. He likes chopping wood and nobody tells her what to do. OK. But still. Why black people?

*. There are other answers the movie doesn’t adopt. Because missing black people won’t be as missed as missing white people. Because they’re seen as being less than fully human and so appropriate test subjects for the Coagula treatment. Because black men are easily seduced by white women. Get Out doesn’t go down any of these roads, at least very far.
*. But even though there are still some awkward questions about this part of the movie, I don’t think they’re that troubling. Enough is done for us to buy into the film’s dominant metaphor of a futuristic form of slavery, which works right down to the slave auction using bingo cards. (I did wonder why they were using bingo cards though.)
*. Race aside, it’s a pretty standard horror film in a lot of ways. I was even expecting to see an overhead shot of the car driving out to the parents’ house but I guess they couldn’t afford it. That said, the familiar horror tropes are all nicely adapted to the movie’s theme. Right from the opening scene, where instead of a girl out walking alone we have a young black man, and when we first see the headlights of a car behind him we’re actually afraid that it might be the cops.
*. Get Out is full of fun stuff like that. It’s no accident, for example, that Chris escapes slavery by picking cotton. But the cotton ear plugs aren’t just symbolic, they make perfect sense. Peele wanted to make a movie where the hero wasn’t an idiot and I think he succeeded. Every step of the way we can understand why Chris is acting the way he does. And, given the film’s premise, everything that happens is entirely logical. It’s a really well crafted script and a pleasure to watch unfold even on repeated viewings.

*. Some pruning helped. In particular there was originally a lot of back story about the organization, which apparently Peele envisioned as having a history going back to the Templars (they were even dubbed the Red Alchemist Society). That is, apparently, where Jeremy’s helmet comes from. I’m very happy Peele cut all this, as I don’t see what sense it would have made. Didn’t Roman Armitage (Grandpa) invent the process? They certainly couldn’t have been doing it, or anything like it, back in the Middle Ages.
*. Less is more in other ways as well. The violence is abrupt and usually presented with very quick edits that left me wondering if they’d even had to use squibs. Usually we just cut to the after effects of violence. Well, they did use squibs at the end, but even there the gore is just flashed on the screen.

*. The less-is-more approach pays off very nicely at the end as well with the house burning down. Usually this is done in spectacular fashion, but I’m guessing they didn’t have the money for that so instead we get something more effective: a house slowly filling with smoke. It’s a little thing, probably dictated by budget concerns, but it seemed fresh and it worked well.
*. This was Peele’s first feature and he came to it out of a comedy background. It’s been noted before how closely related comedy and horror are in terms of their dependence on timing, whether it be for setting up a joke or a scare. But the material here is also very well suited for someone with a comic background.

*. I don’t want to say Get Out is a horror comedy. It isn’t, though the scenes with Rod the indefatigable and resourceful TSA agent do provide comic relief. Instead, it’s a “horror movie [with] . . . a satirical premise” (Peele), and that premise has to stay just sinister and threatening enough without becoming absurd. The temptation to play some of it broad must have been great, but was resisted.
*. This was the same temptation faced by the producers of The Stepford Wives, the movie that Peele was most aware of as an inspiration. There were all kinds of problems when making the 1975 version of Ira Levin’s novel, with no one quite sure of what tone was being taken, leading to uneven results. When it was remade in 2004 a comic approach was fully embraced.
*. In Get Out the satirical premise could have been played for laughs. A group of young black actors playing the Stepford Brothers is a great premise for a skit. And yet the results are more unnerving than funny. The goofy, pressurized blankness on the faces of Walter (Marcus Henderson), Georgina (Betty Gabriel) and the transformed Dre (Lakeith Stanfield) is fascinating to watch. I don’t think Peele is a particularly stylish director, but he knows enough to let great faces do their work. He gives them all the screen they need, especially his lead Daniel Kaaluya, and they work it wonderfully.

*. It’s a seamless film that never skips a beat and is filled with moments that are hard to forget. The silent bingo auction. The house of guests falling quiet as Chris goes upstairs. Georgina flying into a rage at how Chris has ruined her house. Jeremy as Napoleon Dynamite’s brother all grown up, his dreams of becoming a cage fighter now awaiting a vicarious realization. Rose eating her Froot Loops and drinking a glass of milk in bed, using a black straw, before transforming herself into the Great White Hunter: the stuffed lion chasing down Chris’s runaway buck.

*. I think Get Out is one of the small handful of movies that get made in any given year that will really last, and will still be talked about fifty years from now, assuming we’re still talking about movies fifty years from now (which I very much doubt). What’s more, I don’t think this will have anything to do with its message on race in America. It will be because it’s a really effective suspense thriller with a tight script and some great performances. I’m just left wondering why Hollywood should find this to be so hard.

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

*. It didn’t take long after Blade Runner 2049‘s release for a narrative to start to build around it. The reviews were glowing, with lots of five-star ratings and critical gushings over the rich visuals and complex plot. Box office, however, was disappointing. Immediately the point was raised that Blade Runner, now considered a classic, had done poorly with audiences on its original release as well. Perhaps attention spans had become so attenuated on a steady diet of superhero movies we could no longer appreciate the stateliness of Blade Runner 2049. Perhaps it was too philosophical for the masses.
*. Or perhaps critics and reviewers are now only part of a giant publicity/hype machine and had it wrong.
*. Yes, in both cases. But on balance, I found Blade Runner 2049 a bit of a let down.
*. I’ll start with what I liked. I think in Denis Villeneuve they found the right man for the job. His urban and desert landscapes have always had a kind of desolate, futuristic barrenness about them, and his characters are drawn with the sort of blank lack of affect we can easily associate with the not-fully human. In short, the look and the feel of this movie is just right, and the spiritual-industrial score is a perfect fit as well.

*. The cast works well too. In particular Ryan Gosling is great as the new Deckard and Sylvia Hoeks is his equal as his femme counterpart Luv. It’s so obvious these two are made for each other that it’s sad to see them fight. They should be making super-babies.
*. There’s also one terrific scene, where Joseph K (to give him his full Kafkaesque moniker) engages in a creepy threesome with Joi and the prostitute Mariette. I take it this was meant as an homage to Vertigo and the famous kiss between James Stewart and Kim Novak (who is also playing two characters in one). It’s a magic movie moment, recreated perfectly.
*. Now, on to the rather longer list of what I didn’t like.
*. The movie looks great, but the visuals are too strong, overwhelming the script in many places. At times it almost seems like we’ve gone past Ridley Scott to Terry Gilliam. The Tyrell headquarters in particular makes no sense at all. I guess in an overpopulated future L.A. the spectacular waste of space involved in Wallace’s techno-aquarium is just conspicuous affluence, but it gets to the point where it’s the only thing that even registers. A big scene between Wallace and Deckard should be left to the actors, but instead they’re left on the 17th hole at Sawgrass while inexplicable shadows fall over their faces so it’s hard to really focus on what it is they’re saying.

*. They’re not saying much. Right after Deckard tells Wallace (Jared Leto) that he “knows what’s real,” Wallace figures he’ll get him to spill his guts by tempting him with a duplicate Rachael. Now why would he think Deckard would fall for something so contrived? It’s preposterous. Then to just execute the false Rachael makes no sense except to underline, I suppose, how nasty a piece of work he is. For someone whose main problem is finding a way to produce more replicants Wallace seems to dispose of them in a rather cavalier fashion.
*. I don’t understand Wallace’s plan. He just needs to produce more free labour? That’s it? And if he only wants to breed more replicants, shouldn’t the resistance be working with him?
*. It’s actually a big problem with the script that Wallace isn’t fleshed out more. As far as I can tell he’s just here to play the Tyrell character from the first movie, but he has a far less significant role. Poor Jared Leto is given almost nothing to work with. They could have cut his character out of the film entirely and it wouldn’t have made any difference. We don’t even know what happens to him in the end.
*. But then, I might also ask why they bothered bringing Harrison Ford as Deckard back. He really doesn’t have any function in the plot. There’s a scene at the end where K and Luv are fighting it out in the flooding air car. In one shot you can see him looking on and you imagine Harrison Ford wondering why he even has to be there.
*. Well, the reason he has to be there is because of the really very stupid plot. It’s based on a crazy premise, which is that (spoiler alert!) the original run of replicants can reproduce, and that Rachael actually had Deckard’s baby!
*. Now, really. How is that possible? You mean the Tyrell Corporation didn’t know they gave their “female” replicants fully-functioning wombs? And even assuming this always was part of the plan, or that Rachael was a special prototype, why should their offspring be some kind of human-replicant hybrid, or cyborg-with-a-soul? The whole Golden Child subplot is nonsense, though it taps into the fashionable Singularity thesis of SF movies like Transcendence and Lucy.
*. So Luv just walks right into the LAPD building, takes what she wants out of the morgue, kills an attendant, and walks back out, and that’s it? No security cam footage or anything to tie her to the crime? Come on.

*. Villeneuve’s pacing is a known factor, and I don’t have a problem with it. What I do have a problem with is that despite such a long running time there is much here left undeveloped while much is included that should have been cut. It’s hard not to feel like we’re being set up for a sequel where we’ll find out more about Ana, the replicant underground, and what happened to Wallace (and, for that matter, K).
*. The ultimate point being made is both muddled and depressing. Muddled because we’re still not sure who is human, or if it makes a difference. (The one great line in the script comes when K asks Deckard if Deckard’s dog is real and he responds “I don’t know. Ask him.”)
*. It’s depressing because in so far as the film asks the question “what it means to be human,” the answer seems to be “a lot less than you might think.” Let’s face it, the replicants and AIs in this movie are a lot easier to identify with than the humans. Which, by the way, calls into question their goal to be “more human than human.” Why would they want that?
*. Is there something here that reflects our own sense of unease with our debased and relatively inferior humanity? How well would one of our jaded netizens do in one of these Nabokovian Turing tests? I doubt they’d score as high as K. Meanwhile, K has no interest in dating a real woman and prefers the company of his more sympatico AI Joi. Which is the same sort of rejection our species was served by Scarlett Johansson in Her.
*. There’s been some criticism of the presentation of women in Blade Runner 2049, and to be fair I thought something more might have been done to balance things out. I honestly thought that when Robin Wright’s Lieutenant Joshi showed up at K’s apartment and started helping herself to the booze that she was going to end up ordering him to get in the sack with her. Hey, he is Ryan Gosling. But somehow she is able to resist the temptation.
*. I guess the most depressing part though is that, in this vision of the future, I’m with K. Humanity is just using tech as porn or prostitution anyway, so let’s get rid of all the johns. In R. U. R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), the original SF robot story, Karel Čapek’s robots stumble at the same hurdle of how to procreate, while humanity, even before their downfall, has largely given up on breeding any new stock. So if K and Luv (or Joi, or Mariette) want to get it on, I wouldn’t want to stand in their way. They might make beautiful movies together. Or a high-def, twenty-story tall sex tape.