Category Archives: 2010s

The Meg (2018)

*. 1989 was the big year for underwater thrillers, with the release of DeepStar Six, The Abyss, and Leviathan. In hindsight that year really stands out because there aren’t many such movies. This is mainly because they are much more expensive to make than horror movies set in a cabin in the woods. In the wake of its huge success it was easy to forget that even Jaws had gone disastrously over budget.
*. CGI, however, made it safe to go back in the water. Even if you didn’t have any money, you could conjure up a cheap ocean monster and go for the cheese. This was the approach taken in a number of low-budget Syfy horror films with titles like Sharknado and Dinoshark vs. Crocosaurus. I actually don’t know if those are real titles. But they’re probably close.
*. The Meg basically takes the Dinoshark idea of having a prehistoric giant shark brought back to life. A megalodon, to be exact, hence the title of the movie. This ancient monster then proceeds to cause all kinds of destruction. The main difference between The Meg and Dinoshark is that Dinoshark coast around $2 million to make and The Meg $150 million.
*. So The Meg is bigger in every way than a Syfy cheeseburger. But it needed to be even cheesier. Or have more violence (instead of going for a PG-13 rating). Or more something.
*. It is certainly stupid. Nearly every five minutes I was shaking my head at some utter impossibility in the plot. But this wasn’t a fun kind of stupid. Also, there are no great action sequences. I’m inclined to say that the trailer is just as entertaining as the movie, and a lot shorter.
*. The story is unnecessarily complicated with stuff nobody cares about. Why spend so much time introducing the character of Jonas’s ex-wife Lori when she has no function? Instead there’s some romance hinted at between Jason Staham and Li Bingbing that goes nowhere. The film was a Chinese-American co-production and their awkwardness together made me feel like there may have been too many cooks in the kitchen.
*. I’m not even sure the giant shark looks that much better than his cable cousins. He seemed kind of fat to me. Which is weird because I don’t know what a predator that size would be eating in the abyss.
*. There’s no point dwelling on points like this though. Bottom line: this is a big stupid summer movie that should have been a lot more fun than it is. And yet, talk of a sequel immediately began. Or a crossover perhaps? The Meg vs. Crocoshark? How bad could that be?

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The Equalizer 2 (2018)

*. It was worth a shot. I didn’t really care for The Equalizer, but then I didn’t like John Wick and I thought John Wick: Chapter 2 was a lot of fun. And since Robert McCall is John Wick in almost all but name, why not?
*. Well, it didn’t work out. The Equalizer 2 isn’t just garbage, it’s one of the dullest action movies I’ve seen in years.
*. Here’s the set-up: Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) is the semi-retired black-ops specialist who is now a Lyft driver in Boston but who also goes around helping people in need. Sort of like a one-man A-Team. He helps a woman whose thuggish husband has kidnapped her daughter. He helps a girl who has been drugged and raped by a bunch of spoiled bros at a party. He helps an old Jewish man (camp survivor, naturally) who wants to reunite with his long-lost sister. He helps a troubled black teen who is in danger of being sucked into the gangster life. McCall is the embodiment of perfect justice: someone you can count on to be there to make things right.
*. That’s not much of a movie, however. We need more. And so his former boss Susan, who still works for the Agency, drops in to tell McCall that she’s the only friend he’s got. We sit back and say, “Marked for death.”
*. Susan is murdered and McCall now has to avenge her murder. That’s the plot. Here are a couple of things, just off the top, that are wrong with it. (1) McCall finds out about Susan’s death 45 minutes into the movie. That’s when things get started! Please. (2) We never really find out why Susan gets killed or who is behind it. There are a bunch of killers in the Agency who have gone over to the dark side and it may be that Susan was going to blow their cover in some way, but it’s never explained exactly what it is they’re up to or who they work for. They’re just introduced into the plot to kill Susan so that Robert can then kill them.
*. You would think given how slow the movie develops that there’d be a little more in the way of plot going on, but it really is that simple. Take the scene where McCall confronts his old friend Dave, who works for the Agency but who is now the leader of the bad guys (a “twist” we see coming as soon as this character is introduced). We’ve heard all of this before, about these specialists who have been trained to kill but then disposed of when America no longer had any enemies (I’m not sure when exactly that was). Dave, and people like him, go from being an asset to an afterthought. Like I say, we’ve heard all of this many, many times before, but never at such length. The scene between McCall and Dave plays out for what feels like forever, and it doesn’t provide any essential information. We never find out anything about Dave and his operation. He’s just an asset who has gone rogue and who is now doing rogue things.
*. What follows are action sequences which are nothing special. Definitely sub-John Wick. The final battle also doesn’t make much sense. The team of specialists go into a deserted town where they proceed to show no grasp of basic tactics whatsoever. Dave, as the leader, climbs up a tower where he is of no use at all seeing anything as there is a hurricane blowing and this is, you know, a town, and most of the time people are in or behind buildings. As his team gets picked off one by one they keep screaming “Eyes! I need eyes!” But what assistance can Dave provide them? He doesn’t have x-ray vision.
*. By the way, you know you’re in trouble when you have to add a hurricane to the mix to make the final shootout come to life. Because otherwise this would just be a very slow and uninteresting version of the end of High Plains Drifter. This way it’s a slow and uninteresting version of High Plains Drifter with wind and rain and crashing waves.
*. Guess what? McCall kills all the bad guys and the black kid goes off to art school and the old Jewish guy is reunited with his sister. This crap drags on for two full hours. I can’t be sure if they were even trying to make a good movie, or if they just wanted to make a movie they could stick the franchise label on. Either way, let’s hope it ends here.

The Equalizer (2014)

*. I’ve talked before about how a successful movie is usually a genre effort that gives the audience exactly what it expects, with just a bit of a twist.
*. Without the twist, what you get is The Equalizer.
*. The premise was taken from a TV show that ran in the 1980s starring Edward Woodward as a one-man A-Team. It’s a show that I must have seen (I watched a lot of TV at the time) but which I have absolutely no memory of. More proximately, however, the model was clearly Taken: a star vehicle meant to rebrand a middle-aged actor as an action hero. It’s a sub-category of a genre that has its own label now: geri-action. In Liam Neeson’s case it worked, at least for a while. With Denzel Washington (originally it was going to be Russell Crowe) the jury is still out, though he was very good in The Book of Eli and The Equalizer did well enough for a sequel to be duly ordered up.
*. In Taken Neeson played a retired CIA black-ops agent who had a particular set of skills that came in handy when his wife and child were threatened. In The Equalizer Denzel Washington plays a retired CIA black-ops agent with a particular set of skills . . . you get the picture. His wife and child are missing in action but he stands as a surrogate father figure over most of his working-class Boston neighbourhood, defending the poor and the weak from various bad guys. In this case that mainly means the Russian mob. They’re so bad they’re not even American. Where are the boyos from The Boondock Saints when you need them?
*. Though the Saints aren’t in much need here. Robert McCall (if that is his real name) is up to not only taking on the Russian mob, but indeed all of Russia itself. He’s a superhero who doesn’t feel the need to use a gun, preferring (and it is a deliberate choice) to dispatch bad guys with lethal ninja skills performed at Matrix-style speed, or with whatever goods and appliances he can grab off the shelf of the local Home Mart hardware store he works at. He’s also mastered the essential art of every Hollywood action hero of being able to walk cool in slow motion. David Edelstein: “when was the last time you saw a lone hero stride toward the climactic killing ground in slow motion? Yesterday? An hour ago?”
*. Don’t be thinking this is just another brainless, soulless action film though. It has a message. You can become anything you want to be in this world if you just believe in yourself, work hard, and stay in school. Reading books is recommended too. It’s all about self-improvement.
*. Chloë Grace Moretz plays the young prostitute rescued from the clutches of the mob. What a clichéd role. I’ve heard that real prostitutes actually resent people thinking of them in this way. Blame Hollywood. I mean, wasn’t Taxi Driver sticking this whole convention on its head forty years ago?
*. At least Marton Csokas as the Chief Bad Guy looks like he had some fun getting dressed up and covered in tats for the role. It’s a worthless part, again nothing more than a walking cliché, but you get the sense he’s feeling it.
*. Isn’t carbon monoxide poisoning a gentle form of torture? Especially if the torturee thinks he’s going to be killed anyway. Being gassed might seem a pleasant exit option. But then the whole scene here where this is played out is pretty silly.
*. As noted, the setting is Boston. We know this because one of the homes has a Boston Red Sox flag in it and there are lots of aerial shots of various landmarks, especially that fancy new bridge (officially, the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge, which opened in 2003). But aside from that, this doesn’t feel at all like it is set anywhere in particular. I think they were just trying to give a bit of local flavour to the generic material.
*. How the hell did they let such a plain story drag on for 2 hours and 12 minutes? There is literally nothing here. Reuniting Washington with Antoine Fuqua, the director of Training Day, audiences had every reason to expect something more. They sure didn’t get it. And yet they seemed content. So I guess they got what they paid for.

The Ceiling (2017)

*. There’s nothing wrong with using the word Kafkaesque to describe a world of urban, bureaucratic nightmare, but for me Kafka’s spirit has always signified something broader than this. The Ceiling, a short film out of Finland, seems to me to be one example.
*. A man’s wife has just left him. He now lives alone in a cottage, doing what his friend refers to as an “ungodly amount of reading.” Which may simply mean that he’s still reading books in 2017. As he gets up from his chair one day he notices that the ceiling has lowered quite a bit, causing him to bump his head.
*. It’s an absurd situation for which there is no explanation and which brings into question all our assumptions about how the world works. Is Olavi (the man) somehow responsible? Is he going crazy? He shows signs of paranoia. Or is it only paranoid to think so? If so, it may be catching, as his friend Tuomas, who comes to visit, seems at the end to have been infected with . . . something.
*. Like one of Kafka’s parables there is no simple allegorical reading of what such a story is about. Sure, without his wife Olavi’s life is about to get a lot smaller and less comfortable. We get it. But then the ceiling rises again, and Tuomas seems to be having problems.
*. Then there’s Tuomas’s little girl Pipsa. She’s so cute it hurts but I wonder if she’s also meant to have something demonic about her. She has the knowing smile of an imp.
*. As in “The Metamorphosis” the meaning seems to me to lie in the coda, as Tuomas has to call his wife to remind him where he lives. Yes, we are once again experiencing the sheer horror of men without women. On their own they are helpless worms, their nudity after a sauna only underlining their frightened vulnerability. Even Pipsa has more composure and confidence. Who is worse off, Olavi with his elevator of a ceiling (not a glass ceiling, but a real one)? Or Tuomas with his lost helplessness? At least at one point Olavi thinks he may be able to adjust to his new circumstances, make a go of it. We can’t feel so sure about Tuomas’s state of dependency.

Glass (2019)

*. First off, I’ll give M. Night Shyamalan full credit for marching to the beat of his own drum. Glass is a personal and intelligent reflection on comic book culture that doesn’t go for easy points. It’s knowing, but not arch or ironic. Many people described it as Shyamalan’s love letter to superhero comics and I think that’s fair enough.
*. It’s also timely, being released at the moment of peak Marvel: just after Avengers: Infinity War and just before Avengers: Endgame. Dr. Staple (Sarah Paulson, who seems miscast to me) specializes in people who believe they are superheroes, a form of delusion of grandeur that is approaching an epidemic. Instead of the Three Christs of Ypsilanti we have a trio of comic book heroes and villains introduced in the previous two instalments of the trilogy: Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson) and the Overseer (Bruce Willis) from Unbreakable and the Beast (James McAvoy) from Split.
*. So as I say, it’s timely. And the story has an interesting hook (insert spoiler alert here), with Dr. Staple being the villainous mastermind trying to demystify our world. Which is, in fact, a comic book world. The three heroes are basically figures from our collective unconscious, archetypes who are made real through our faith or belief in them.
*. Such a plot involves an interesting twist, where the forces of law and order seeking to protect us are the bad guys, while the villains turn out to be representative of a Romantic dark side or unrestrained id. How odd is it that Elijah Price is a mass murderer and Kevin Crumb a serial killer but both are redeemed at the end and presented as heroes? Sure they’re both “broken” characters because of their background, but so are many if not most bad people. Is the point that without their villainy there could be no good guys like David Dunn? Or is it that their crimes aren’t real in some sense? I thought this was rather fuzzy.
*. You could imagine a good movie being made out of such a premise. I’m not sure Glass is that movie though. For starters, and on the most basic level, it’s dull. Aside from the initial battle between the Overseer and the Beast I don’t think anything at all happens in the first hour.
*. I’ve nothing against talky pictures, but the talk here only advances the plot very slowly and the point being made isn’t in need of such development. Nor did I feel that I was getting to know any of the main characters better, or that they were being given any more depth than they had in the previous films. If anything, Mr. Glass and David Dunn seem less interesting than they were in Unbreakable. (I have to enter the caveat here that something like an hour of Glass was cut from the final print. From the deleted scenes included with the DVD, however, I doubt my opinion would change even if I’d seen a three-hour version.)
*. One of the big questions coming into Glass was whether Willis would at least pretend to be awake for his role, and I think the answer is “sort of.” This is an actor who seems to have found his comfort zone. Or else he’s lost interest. Maybe both.
*. If the leads are dealt with in a cursory manner this is even more the case with their attendant supporting figures, who have little function to play aside from doing some basic research into comic books, which allows the finale here to take on a bit of a Scream quality (“This is the part of the story when this happens,” etc.)
*. I’m assuming the organization wanted the trio to escape, because just having a single orderly on duty for such a large facility was kind of hard to figure otherwise.
*. Audiences were said to be confused by the ending. I think it more likely they were disappointed. It’s not complicatd, but it is anticlimactic. Hell, the Overseer is drowned in a puddle. It’s hard to beat that for a depressing finale. But I guess that was the point, undercutting the superheroic mythos and making it real at the same time. The story clearly couldn’t end there, however, so there’s an even more disappointing coda suggesting some kind of viral superhero awakening. I couldn’t buy into this at all, and indeed had trouble understanding exactly what Shyamalan was suggesting. That we are all superheroes if we only believe in ourselves enough? A nice thought, but it seems hardly worth taking us a trilogy of films to get to.
*. It’s well made, if by that you mean it’s polished and looks nice. But while Shyamalan conceived of Glass as being at least in part a thriller, suspense seems not to have been the intention. Instead there’s just the feeling of things proceeding slowly toward a downbeat resolution. Yes, it’s a refreshing mix of genre filmmaking with the cinema of personal expression. It’s just that Shyamalan doesn’t have much that’s new to say. His thoughts on genre remain generic. What he was after was a “tonal fresh break” with the comic book genre but what does that end up meaning except that Glass moves slower than a Marvel movie and relies less on special effects?
*. Despite being too long for the modest bit of ground it covers I liked Glass most of the time. It’s just that I didn’t like it as much as Unbreakable and perhaps not even as much as Split. After three of these movies I can’t say I feel like I came out ahead.

The Dinner (2017)

*. In my notes on the Italian version of Herman Koch’s novel The Dinner I mused about how Italian it was in its understanding and presentation of the family dynamics. I wasn’t sure about this, but I thought there was something going on there. In this American Dinner I think national identity is also in play.
*. I say this despite the fact that two of the four leads (Steve Coogan and Rebecca Hall) are British, and it was originally supposed to be directed by Cate Blanchett, who hails from Australia. In the event, Blanchett backed out, and screenwriter Oren Moverman took over.
*. What makes it specifically American? Its insistence on dragging in so much American history, for one thing. Paul is a history teacher with a fixation on the battle of Gettsyburg. No, I don’t know what that has to do with anything but the movie spends a lot of time on it.
*. I also think Paul’s mental health issues are characteristic of America’s therapy culture, and help to make this a more American version of Koch’s story. If only all these mixed-up people could get on the right meds and stay on them . . .
*. There was nothing I liked about this movie. It is boring and unfocused. The dinner itself has no significance or role to play. I didn’t buy Richard Gere and Steve Coogan being brothers for a minute. I didn’t understand how such a tight little story got lost in so many flashbacks and digressions. Dramatically there is no sense of rising action or of a tightening noose. I agree with this appraisal by Kristen Yoonsoon Kim in Village Voice: “The dinner itself is constantly disrupted by long-winded flashbacks — often in cheesy soft focus — that seem intended to put together the pieces of the puzzle. Instead, they drift too far from the drama, undercutting it. The beauty of a single-location thriller is how the tension escalates in containment, but Moverman fails to seize that built-in advantage. Instead of dropping hints about what kind of monsters his characters might be, and then working toward a dramatic revelation, he works anticlimactically.”
*. I didn’t like any of the characters, and had to wonder at times who I wanted to see less of. Steve Coogan’s Paul won out, and unfortunately his is the central role. And finally I didn’t like the abrupt ending, aside from the fact that it brought the curtain down on such a dull experience.
*. The point of the novel — which has to do with the limits of parental responsibility — is largely dropped, with the adults more worried about themselves and Moverman more interested in chasing after some other theme. Such as how our most passionately held convictions may be ones we don’t believe in. That may have been an interesting point to make in another movie but as with all the mental health stuff it just leads us astray in this one. In fact, it leads nowhere.

The Dinner (2014)

*. The Dinner is the second of three (so far) film versions of Herman Koch’s 2009 novel of the same name (in Dutch, Het diner). Each has had its own national flavour. There was a Dutch version in 2013, this Italian film, and an American production in 2017.
*. What sets this Dinner (I nostri ragazzi) apart is the greater liberties it takes with its source. The parents, for example, have different professions: a pediatric surgeon and a criminal defence lawyer instead of a teacher and a politician. Also, their kids are now a boy and a girl instead of two boys, which makes a difference. But perhaps most significant for the way the story plays out, there is no dinner. Or at least, we never see anyone eating dinner. The couples go to a restaurant twice but a main course never arrives.
*. I say this is significant because the conceit behind the book (and, mostly, the other film versions) is that the whole story takes place over a single dinner. It has the effect of compressing the drama into real time, and works well on the page. On screen? Well, while “stagey” I think such an approach gives the cast, the director, and the script a chance to shine. The other movies try to at least stick to the spirit of the book, but this Dinner opts to spread things out, to the point where the dinners become irrelevant. Nothing important happens at either, at least until the very end.

*. I began by not liking what was going on. The two brothers’ professional lives intersect with a killing in the opening scene that leaves the killer being defended by Massimo (Alessandro Gassman) and one of his victims being treated by Paolo (Luigi Lo Cascio). This seemed to me at first to be a distraction, but as things progressed I saw it as relating directly to the way each brother would respond to their own moral dilemma. Paolo will ultimately come down on the side of trying to save his son, while Massimo will want to see justice done.
*. One change I did not agree with was making one of the kids a girl. The relationship between Benedetta and Michele left me baffled. What was a hot chick like her doing hanging around with such a loser cousin anyway? There seemed to be something creepy being hinted at, but I just couldn’t figure it out.
*. I was impressed that they didn’t try to make Michele (Jacopo Olmo Antinori) sympathetic at all. To the point of not even trying to cover up his acne scars. Let’s face it, this is a guy we don’t like at all. And one thing that does work with his pairing with his beautiful cousin is that it underlines how morally ugly they both are.
*. The adult leads all struck me as very good. A special nod goes out to Giovanna Mezzogiorno, who plays Clara, the mother of Michele. The way she falls in the kitchen was a fantastic touch. I don’t think she slips, I think she just can’t stand up after realizing what Michele has done.

*. I wonder if there can be any greater dramatic moment than when a parent realizes that their child is, in fact, a complete piece of shit. That’s something an actor can really sink their teeth into. And I like how we get to see Clara withdrawing from reality to her own bubble as things start to go downhill. This is the best part of the film and I wish there were more of it.
*. The ending is too abrupt, as the ending of the American version would be as well (in a different way). But then this is a difficult piece to end, as there’s no chance for any closure.
*. An alternative title in the U.S. was Our Boys. This brought to mind Bernard Lefkowitz’s Our Guys, the true story of how a town closed ranks around the jocks who raped a handicapped girl in a New Jersey town. So though it’s a Dutch novel I think the story resonates with an American audience. It made me wonder though how much of this version is inflected with an Italian sense of family. And the answer is, I don’t know.
*. As I say, I started off not liking The Dinner but it gradually won me over and by the end I was quite enjoying it. I didn’t like the way it winds up, but until that point there was a lot about it I thought very well done, especially in terms of the acting. And it’s certainly a much better film than the American version that would come out a couple of years later. It does, however, still leave me thinking that something is missing. There’s a reticence about it, a reluctance to put its finger on the scales of moral judgment. Understandable, but I kept looking for something a bit more pink and raw.

Baby Driver (2017)

*. This is thin. Very thin. Think your basic heist movie and all of its usual elements: the gang, the caper, the hero who just needs to pull off one last score before he’s out of the game and can retire to a quiet life with his woman . . . and then the way things fall apart in a bloody round of violence demonstrating there is little, if any, honour among thieves. Indeed, the fairy tale ending may be the most “original” thing about Baby Driver.
*. Let’s face it, we’ve been here many times before, even with drivers. As with The Driver. Or Drive. Those movies were thin too. Baby Driver may be even thinner.
*. The reason it’s so thin is because writer-director Edgar Wright wanted to do as much of the film as possible to music, which means giving the story all the depth of a pop song about bank robbers. Maybe “Take the Money and Run” by the Steve Miller Band, with Baby and Deborah as Billy Joe and Bobbie Sue.
*. I was quite surprised by the reviews of Baby Driver when it came out. They were very good, but as I read what they had to say about the film I found myself puzzled by what it was people were so impressed by. After seeing the movie for myself my confusion grew. Baby Driver is not a bad movie, but I don’t see any way in which it’s more than a brainless bit of summer fluff.
*. Two things in particular seem to have really impressed critics.
*. First there were all the car chases and stunts. As you would hope in a movie about a getaway driver, featuring several extended car chases, these are good. But they are not great. Only one stunt in particular caught my eye. The clouds of burning rubber were the only signature element. There was nothing in the way the rest of this material was filmed that struck me as being a gamechanger or setting a new standard for such things (think The French Connection or what George Miller did with the Mad Max movies). Put another way, around the same time as I saw Baby Driver I saw The Hitman’s Bodyguard, which also had some good chase scenes that were done just as well.
*. The second thing that got a lot of praise was the music. Again, for a movie built around its soundtrack you’d hope the music would be good, and it is. But, also again, there was nothing in the music itself or the way it was used that blew me away or struck me as particularly original. It’s the usual eclectic retro-mix we’ve been listening to for thirty years now in films like this.
*. On the commentary track Wright talks about how his idea for the movie was to use all the music diegetically. This is a technical term meaning that the music you hear is “in” the movie itself: people in the movie are listening to it or dancing to it or playing it or whatever. There are two things to say about this.
*. (1) it’s nothing new, as there have been plenty of movies that haven’t had scores but only used music as it comes up in the movie. Admittedly, Baby Driver does this more than most, but even here the film doesn’t solely use music diegetically. There is a score (by Steven Price).
*. (2) Is it really a diegetic use of music? I mean, sure the music is part of the film but only in the sense that we’re put in the somewhat non-diegetic position of wearing Baby’s earbuds and hearing what he’s hearing. That just strikes me as a way of shoehorning in some cool tunes that could just have easily played as part of a soundtrack. Meanwhile, I get that Baby performs better to music, lots of people do. Even surgeons operate to a playlist. But the music here still feels more like the director’s playlist than an integral part of this world.

*. Wright says he’d had the idea for the movie for 20 years, and took 10 years to write it. How is this possible? I can imagine this would be a difficult movie to make in the sense of the nuts and bolts of its choreography and construction, but it isn’t a complicated film at all, and certainly doesn’t seem to have required much writing.
*. I must be missing something here too. Apparently Wright actually did research, interviewing half a dozen ex-cons and getaway drivers to make the film more realistic. But why? There’s nothing at all here he couldn’t have just taken from other gangster films and the overall tone of the movie seems to be not only un- but anti-realistic. This is a day-glo fantasy of the criminal life and I didn’t believe in a bit of it. That’s not a knock against Baby Driver but just a comment on the kind of movie it is.
*. Why does Baby have to leave a tape recording with Joe at the retirement home he leaves him at? Joe can’t write?
*. What the hell is the relation between Joe and Baby anyway? Did I miss something? Is Joe his foster father? A single, disabled, deaf man? How did that work?
*. These may seem like niggling questions, but given how little script there is to this movie (in terms of both plot and dialogue) it’s surprising how little of it holds up. Characters just climb out of the grave to take us through to the next scene, for example. Or, to stick with the script, notice how awkwardly the gang’s trip to the diner is introduced. Obviously they had to have a scene like this to set up what happens later and so it gets jammed in.
*. When Buddy is hunting for Baby in the parking garage and he calls out “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” Do you think Wright’s assumption was that this means “Where are you, Romeo?” Or that this is what Buddy thinks the line means? Juliet is not asking where Romeo is, but why (wherefore) he has to be named Romeo (that is, a Montague).

*. Ansel Elgort and Lily James are both very pretty and (I guess) likeable, but it’s hard to imagine two duller protagonists than Baby and Debora. They’re young and they just want to get in a car and drive with no particular place to go, listening to the radio. How am I supposed to relate to, or even care, about people like this? Sure, I’m a lot older than they are, but I don’t think I would have identified with them any more if I were 18.
*. So long, Kevin Spacey. He’s disappeared pretty completely as of the time of my writing these notes, with Baby Driver being one of his last roles (his erasure from All the Money in the World being Hollywood’s version of the damnatio memoriae). I guess he really was a jerk, or even something worse, but I did enjoy him as an actor. Doc is a pointless part though.
*. Jamie Foxx basically seemed to be reprising his role as “Motherfuckah” Jones in Horrible Bosses, except (sort of) playing it straight. I hope that isn’t misreading things, but I had trouble taking Bats seriously. Isn’t Baby Driver supposed to be a comedy? That’s the kind of movie Wright does, and as I’ve said, I don’t think we’re meant to take this one as being realistic, however much time Wright spent doing research. I mean, we’re not meant to take it seriously. At the same time, it’s not terribly funny either. Apparently, the scene I thought was the funniest, involving the mix-up with the Michael Myers masks, was a jerry-rigged solution to not being able to use the killer’s mask from Halloween.
*. Is Baby another example of the autistic-spectrum superhero so popular at this time? That was my initial impression, but I don’t think he’s mean to be viewed this way. Then when Doc’s nephew showed up, plugged in to his tablet and cheefully amoral about the business, I realized that the point is that we’re all autistic now anyway, living online, tuned in to our iPods and hiding behind our shades.
*. Whatever else you want to say about the filmmakers of this generation, they sure know their movie history. I’m always impressed when I hear how much of their own fandom works its way into their films. On his solo DVD commentary Wright mentions how Baby’s prison number was actually the release date of The Driver, and how he took the jumpsuits from The Getaway. He also says that he considers Baby Driver to be a “spiritual sequel” to both films. So it’s not like he thought he was doing something totally new here. Instead this is mainly an update and homage.
*. I feel as though I’ve written way too much now on a movie I didn’t care much about in the first place. I guess I’ve been trying to explain my confusion at its critical reception. This seemed to me to be way over the top. It’s a fun little movie, but incredibly light and clichéd, without a hint of transgressiveness, irony, or even individual style. I kept looking for some explanation of what made people think there was anything special to it and all I came up with was car chases and music.
*. Richard Brody’s New Yorker review was one of the few that I thought was on target. He called it “an imitation of generation’s worth of imitations (most conspicuously, those of Quentin Tarantino’s neo-heist-ism), each of which exists solely as a vehicle for the personal obsessions and originality of style with which a director infuses it.” Unfortunately, he didn’t think Wright had much of an artistic vision to express, and so came up with “a Disneyfied version of an action film.”
*. Where I would disagree with Brody is in his conclusion that Baby Driver “has still satisfied critics who are in love with the idea of Hollywood providing something that’s not based on a superhero franchise, providing something that, with its retro soundtrack and retro cleanness, reminds them of a Hollywood that no longer exists.” Actually, I think Baby Driver is a sort of superhero movie and is less a throwback to some vanished Hollywood than a film representative of where we are now. Reviewers weren’t trying to register some symbolic resistance to any of this. They were just showing how much they’ve given up.

The Snowman (2017)

*. Yes, it’s a very bad movie, But director Tomas Alfredson, who has done good work in a similar vein, had some excuses.
*. Take the patchwork plot, which doesn’t have holes so much as giant gaps and lots of dots left unconnected. I’m not sure what the point was of the subplot involving the businessman Arve Støp (J. K. Simmons doing a pretty good Max von Sydow). And what was with all the stuff set in Bergen nine years earlier?
*. Well, here’s the excuse for that: because of the shooting schedule big chunks of the original story couldn’t be filmed. Yes, this is something that somebody should have thought of or taken into consideration when the film was in production, but . . . there you have it. Meanwhile, the film is a full two hours long, so how much more time did they think they needed to have it all make sense? I don’t think an extra fifteen minutes would have been enough. Maybe they should have done it as a cable series.
*. The second item that needs some explanation is the terrible way Val Kilmer’s lines are dubbed. Why? Well, apparently Kilmer was recovering from cancer and he couldn’t deliver the lines properly. So there you have another excusing factor. But again, this is something they might have found a work-around for when they were going into production.
*. Once you take away the excuses though, this is still a bad movie.
*. In the first place, it’s just the same Stieg Larsson stuff we all know by heart. I’m not saying Jo Nesbø (the author of the Harry Hole novels) was ripping Larsson off, because I think both writers were working independently in the same direction, but in 2017 the story here feels really formulaic. And it doesn’t help that it ends on such a ridiculous and predictable note.
*. The killer actually has a decent back story and motivation, though there’s no explanation of his weapon of choice, a handheld wire cutter that he uses to sever various body parts. This stuck out for me because I’d seen the same device used by a black-gloved killer in Dario Argento’s underrated thriller Trauma (1995), where its use did have a point, and the killer had an even more interesting back story.
*. That same sense I had of missing the point came up with regard to other things in the movie as well. Alfredson likes to shoot characters through windows, but I couldn’t see where this served a thematic or indeed any other purpose. And while Norway has some beautiful scenery, allowing a number of scenes here to be shot in dramatic locations, the effect is to make the movie look like a commercial for snow tires. The environment has none of the overbearing natural presence as in Insomnia, for example.
*. I have no idea what Michael Fassbender was going for in his performance. Brooding intensity? Why the raspy voice? I get it, he’s a tortured soul. But lighten up, man. It’s like he’s channeling Christian Bale.
*. Yes, his name is Harry Hole. Was that meant as a joke? Perhaps not. Apparently “Hole” is a place name in Norway. It means a round and isolated hill and is pronounced as two syllables.
*. At least Fassbender looks great, considering all Harry does is drink and smoke. And I mean he smokes a lot. I can’t remember the last time I saw a new movie with a character lighting up this much. I thought studios were getting out of that.
*. It just won’t do. There’s too much talent here for this to have been such a complete misfire. Even the identity of the killer is easy to guess long before the end, which comes via some hokey staging of potted psychology and a way-too-tidy disposal of the killer that you can (literally, in a long shot) see coming a mile away.
*. Still, despite being such a lousy film, both messy and formulaic at the same time (which is no mean feat), it does manage to exert a basic level of fascination. Maybe I’m just especially fond of the genre, but these types of movies do keep me watching even when they’re not very well done. I can’t help being a fan, even when I’m being let down.

The Darkness (2014)

*. The Darkness is yet another microbudget Blumhouse ghost story. (Technically it was put out by Blumhouse Tilt, which is their “multiplatform arm,” meaning they use different distribution strategies for these pictuers than a wide theatrical release.) It’s total garbage, and was panned by critics and audiences alike, but still made money. That’s the Blumhouse business model. They can’t really lose. If they get a hit they run off a bunch of sequels. If they strike out, so what?
*. The good thing about such a production is that it lets filmmakers, at least in theory, do their own thing and take chances. In practice, however, it has led to some incredibly formulaic and derivative fare. The Darkness is a movie we’ve seen many times before. Only this time it’s worse.
*. So the Taylors are this upper-middle-class family. Dad Kevin Bacon is an architect, mom Radha Mitchell stays at home. They take a camping trip to the Grand Canyon where their somewhat autistic son picks up a bunch of native ritual stones that contain ancient demons. He brings them home and soon there are strange noises being heard in the attic (the movie never explains why) and other things going bump in the night. Meanwhile, the family is falling apart in other ways because dad is fooling around at work and the daughter is bulimic. Could all this ghosty stuff be karma? Is it somehow their fault?
*. What do the demons want? A YouTube video (really!) tries to explain. Apparently these ancient demons like to steal kids. They are also said to take on the form of a raven, a coyote, a wolf, a snake, and a buffalo. I really, really wanted to see that buffalo. At the end there’s a loud pounding on the front door and I was thinking “Finally! Here’s the big fellow!” But the door was never opened and the buffalo (or bison, to give it the correct name) is never seen.
*. This supernatural intrusion into their beautiful home (the demons first announce themselves as a foul smell, and then leave inky handprints on the walls and sheets) has the effect of bringing the family together, and love conquers all. As the YouTube video tells us: “Ancient writings reveal that this curse can only be lifted by returning the stones to their original resting place, and only by one among them who had no fear.” When I heard that I said “Hm. I don’t have to actually watch the rest of the movie now, do I?” But I did. And that’s how it works out. Unless you go with the “shocking alternate ending” included with the DVD, which is somewhat less inspiring. And I do recommend the alternate ending. It’s hilarious.
*. Well, as I’ve said, it’s total garbage. Basically a rehash of Poltergeist, with no scares, no suspense, and no one to root for. But I’ll flag two things in particular that stuck out for me as particularly stupid.
*. First, there is the autistic son. At least I think he’s supposed to be autistic. Or somewhere on the spectrum. In fact, he doesn’t act like any autistic person I’ve ever seen. Plus, he apparently has this sixth sense that allows him to see what isn’t there, and he doesn’t feel fear. Which is where that YouTube tutorial comes in handy. Because, you know, only someone who doesn’t feel fear can send the demons back. Remember?
*. I’ve written before about how recent movies have gone overboard in presenting autistic people as having super powers. See, for example, my notes on The Accountant. That’s bad enough. But The Darkness goes further in endorsing the quack notion that people with autism can become sensitive conduits for the spirit realm. This is not just stupid but dangerous. Hollywood needs to let autism go. It also doesn’t help that only a couple of minutes after being introduced to Mikey you’re going to be praying for the demons to kill him or just drag him to hell. He’s that annoying.
*. The second point I want to flag is the pair of women that the family bring in to exorcise their house. Since the demons have some connection to the Anasazi people we would expect them to be Native women, but instead they seem to be Hispanic. They don’t speak any Native language, like Navajo, but Spanish. Why would the demons know Spanish? The cliff-dwelling Anasazi were gone centuries before the Spanish arrived. They might as well be chanting their curses in Armenian.
*. In part what’s going on here is just the insistence that these antique spirits are part of a far earlier dispensation than any European God. God, as is usually the case in such movies, is missing. That point is made when the Taylors check into a hotel and can’t find a Bible. Or, as the younger exorcism specialist puts it when dad asks her if her mother will be needing her fancy cross: “She’s sensing older things at work here. And the God you might be familiar with cannot help you now.” Bummer. First the Gideons get taken away and now this shit.
*. More than that, however, this ancient-spirit business is just another example of the tired idea that ethnic people have some primitive link to supernatural forces that white-bread Americans don’t understand. Which is another idea Hollywood should retire.
*. I feel bad enough that I wasted my time watching The Darkness, I’m not going to waste any more time writing about it. Movie, be gone!