Category Archives: 2010s

The Human Centipede III (Final Sequence)

*. I gave Tom Six credit for going in a new direction in The Human Centipede II, so by rights I should extend the same note of appreciation for what he did with this film. This isn’t more of the same. What it is, is no good at all. But it isn’t more of the same.
*. The idea had potential. The warden of an American prison that is going to hell decides to follow his assistant’s suggestion of keeping the inmates in line by making them into a giant 500-segment “human prison centipede.” That’s an interesting application of the formula.
*. It’s also ridiculous. But then the first movie was the most realistic, while the second definitely moved more in the direction of dark fantasy. Here we just take another step beyond that and end up in the land of slapstick satire.
*. Except it’s not funny. I’ve often said that a horror movie that isn’t scary isn’t the worst thing a moviegoer can be subjected to. A comedy that isn’t funny is an even more painful experience. Well, this movie asks, who says you have to choose? Why not have a horror movie that isn’t scary also be a comedy that isn’t funny?
*. Six literally takes everything from the first two movies that was even moderately well done and wrecks it. Dieter Laser and Laurence Harvey were very good as the leads in The Human Centipede and The Human Centipede II respectively, but they’re both awful here. Laser in particular turns in one of the worst screen performances in film history. He just shouts out all his lines without seeming to have any sense of what he’s saying. Which, if he was lucky, he didn’t. “My leadership balls are atom bombs, 100 megatons each!” is the highest level of wit that’s achieved.
*. The presence of Bree Olson, one of the most accomplished porn actresses of her generation (and “the ultimate American female,” in the words of Tom Six), is easy to make fun of in a “straight” role like this, but in fact she’s the only one in the cast who doesn’t embarrass herself. I think she might have felt more at home working with such wretched material.
*. Eric Roberts at least manages to look amused at the proceedings. He’s really cornered the market on slimy suits lately, hasn’t he?
*. I complimented Six’s eye in the first two films, which I thought made up for the terrible scripts. Which makes it all the more remarkable how this is such an ugly, uninteresting movie to look at. Really, Human Centipede III is so bad, in every way, that I was wondering if Six was even trying.
*. It’s all very knowing, if that’s your thing. Not only does Tom Six appear as himself, but Akihiro Kitamaru (the head of the first human centipede) plays one of the prisoners here, and quotes from Roger Ebert’s review of that film when the prisoners are forced to watch it during their film night. How very meta. I ended my notes on the Full Sequence by saying that this shit was rolling downhill. The warden one-ups this by suggesting that the perfect centipede would be joined in a circle, the shit being endlessly recycled. Which wouldn’t be a bad thing if it meant Six wasn’t going to make any more of these.
*. The proceedings are not so much scary or funny or even gross (though there are a couple of scenes to cringe at) as they are just tasteless. The warden bellows an endless stream of racist rants and eats from a jar of dried clitorises while saying “Thank God for Africa! Thank God for female circumcision!” I guess to be fair he also castrates an inmate and then eats the severed testicles. That’s gender equity for you. At least there’s less room for sexism, given there’s only one female cast member, but then we do see her getting beaten and then raped while she’s in a coma. So . . .
*. I guess if you’re trying really, really hard you can find something to recommend in this. Maybe it works on some minimal level as a political satire. It’s the George H. W. Bush Prison and they practice waterboarding. That seems to be a crack at something, especially as Laser is explicitly identified here as a Nazi. When the Governor decides at the end that Boss’s system is “exactly what America needs” a crude and not every original point is made about the carceral state. And I will acknowledge that Six had 100-megaton balls playing the national anthem over the end credits. He’s certainly not afraid of offending anyone.
*. I don’t want to spend any more time on this, as I think it’s a truly terrible movie. But at the end of my notes on the first Human Centipede I wondered if it might enjoy a rise in critical estimation as its shock value wore off. I wonder too if, twenty years from now, people are going to come to embrace this one. Maybe it will be seen as the grand culmination of the trilogy and one of the most important films of its time. Anything’s possible. Personally I think it’s just too dull and lacking in humour to ever catch on. But in any event, the only thing I can say is that right here, right now, it’s downright awful.

The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence) (2011)

*. Believe it or not, I was prepared to like this one.
*. Why? I thought The Human Centipede (First Sequence), while heartless, cruel, and grotesque, was a reasonably well made movie with a somewhat original concept behind it. And from the trailers I saw for this one I thought it looked like it was going in an interesting new direction.
*. Well, it did head in an interesting new direction. I give Tom Six full credit for not just following up with more of the same but instead trying to do something very different. I just don’t think it worked.
*. Not all of what is different was the result of creative decisions made by Six. Most significantly, the film wasn’t shot in black-and-white. It was shot in colour and then changed to black-and-white, according to some sources as a way of placating censors. I’m not sure this worked (it had all kind of problems getting rated anyway), and I’m not sure why it would have worked. Are censors that easily fooled?
*. For what it’s worth, I’ve also heard Six say that he wanted to use black-and-white so as to “take off the edges of the gore” and make the movie scarier. I’m not sure what the correct story is.
*. I mentioned in my notes on the first film that I didn’t think Six wrote good dialogue. Maybe he just isn’t comfortable with the language. His English strikes me as passable but not perfectly fluent. In any event he decided to do most of this movie without any dialogue at all and this should have been a plus. Six does have a great eye and sense of space, and in Laurence R. Harvey, who plays Martin Lomax, he had the perfect round mound of putty for his camera to mold into a grotesque, screen-filling presence embodying the nadir of dysfunction and inadequacy. Does Martin really need to say anything? Probably not.

*. In addition to the lack of dialogue, the use of black-and-white, and the unique villain (or anti-hero) of the piece, there are also some other interesting avenues the film could have gone down. The perils of obsessive fandom, for example, or the meta-film angle that brings Ashlynn Yennie back, playing herself. Something could have been done with this. So all-in-all, you can see why I had my hopes up, just a bit.
*. I was let down. Six just doesn’t seem to me to be a filmmaker who is interested in ideas, or telling a story, or people in general. He’s also not interested, at least in this film, in building suspense or trying to scare people. Instead, he’s content to disgust us. This he achieves, but only while boring us at the same time.
*. The first movie, for all its bad reputation, was actually pretty clean, achieving more by way of suggestion. Dr. Heiter, for example, describes the operation in some detail, but we don’t see much of it being performed aside from some surgical lines being drawn and a couple of teeth being pulled. This “full sequence,” however, doubles down on the gross stuff. Apparently Six thought he’d let his fans down by not showing enough blood and shit the first time out so he wanted to make up for it.
*. Speaking of blood and shit, Six has said that showing the explosions of shit in colour, as splashes of brown, was an homage to Schindler’s List. I wonder if anyone’s told Spielberg. Now there’s a reaction video I’d like to see.

*. I didn’t realize (real) centipedes were such nasty creatures. But perhaps they’re being falsely represented here.
*. Again we have the conflation of sex and violence, or torture porn. Martin is shown masturbating while watching the first film, and later rapes the end segment of his centipede (after wrapping his cock in barb wire, in the uncut version). We understand that Martin was sexually abused by his father, and by his psychiatrist, but I’m still not sure what sort of point Six wants to make with this.
*. It’s odd that this movie presents the first film as a fantasy that Martin tries to recreate in reality. I say odd because the effect is exactly the opposite. The Full Sequence is far less realistic: “100% medically inaccurate” and set in a kind of Eraserhead universe. It’s hard to believe for a minute that Martin would be managing to pull all of this off, and perhaps in the end he wasn’t. It may all be his revenge fantasy.
*. Perhaps it’s for this reason I didn’t find it nearly as disturbing as the first movie, despite being far more graphic. I didn’t buy any of it. The Human Centipede had its moments, but was just depressing in the end. The sequel doesn’t even rise to that level.

*. I did like how Martin, who is obviously useless at doing anything, has to fall back on duct tape and a staple gun to make his centipede. These two items are the all-purpose handyman’s tools for people who aren’t handy and don’t know what they’re doing when it comes to fixing things (I speak from experience).
*. In at least one regard, however, Martin’s use of tools led to another failure of my suspension of disbelief. If you just keep braining people with a crowbar you’re going to kill them, not knock them out. Here they just get a bit of duct tape on their foreheads for a band-aid and they’re good to go.
*. Harvey is great as Lomax, but there’s only so much you can do with such a character and there’s nothing else to the film but him. Things get repetitive early as Martin just keeps beating his victims senseless in the parking garage and then takes them back to his warehouse-cum-abattoir. The final third of the movie is then just mindless cruelty and gore, without a hint of suspense, shock, or horror.
*. I mentioned in my notes on the first film that I didn’t think Six did its reputation any favours with the sequels. In at least one sense, however, I guess he did. Watching this movie had the effect of making me like the first movie more. In much the same way, The Human Centipede III (Final Sequence) makes this one look good. It’s like shit rolling downhill . . .

Gravity (2013)

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*. It’s often been said that movies are as much a business as they are an art. This is something no critic should lose sight of. I would, however, make it a triumvirate. Movies are an art, a business, and a technology, in roughly equal measure.
*. It follows that successful filmmakers are either great artists, shrewd businessmen, excellent engineers, or some combination of all of the above.
*. You’ll have guessed where I’m going with this. Gravity was one of the more critically-acclaimed movies of 2013 and went on to win seven Academy Awards. These were mainly for its technical achievements, which were inventive and ground-breaking. Trophies were handed out for Best Director (Alfonso Cuarón), Best Cinematography (Emmanuel Lubezki), Best Visual Effects, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, and Best Original Score (Steven Price). In other words, it looks and sounds great.
*. Alfonso Cuarón is the kind of director I think of as an engineer. Other Oscar-winning engineers include James Cameron and Peter Jackson. Those with longer memories may think back to Victor Fleming. These are the guys you want helming your mega-budget blockbusters because they know how to get all their ducks in a row.
*. I’m not putting these directors down or pigeon-holing them, but just saying that this is the kind of thing they do really well. More to the point here, this is the kind of movie Gravity is. It spent a lot of money on effects, and it spent that money well. As noted, it looks and sounds great. But . . .

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*. But that’s it. They spent $100 million on a ten-cent script. Of course this has been a successful formula for Hollywood for years. And Gravity took in over $700 million in box office, so who cared if it was about two of the dullest characters you could imagine floating around in space as one thing after another goes terribly wrong? You weren’t really meant to care about Dr. Stone (Sandra Bullock) or Dr. Smooth (George Clooney).
*. Personally, I think it would have made for a more compelling movie if they hadn’t given the two leads any back story and just made them pure professionals. But in any event, they’re not what the movie’s about. You’re here to gaze in wonder at the magnificent view of the sun rising over the Sinai, and gape at things flying at you in 3-D.
*. I like how it attracted so much intelligent commentary. Critics (amateur and professional) had a field day arguing over how realistic it was. Apparently the whole business of the orbiting space debris is way off. The only part that bothered me was when Clooney let go to save Bullock, since I didn’t see how he would have been dragging her down anyway, but this point has been argued back and forth by people who know a lot more about it than I do.
*. Sure, it’s entertaining in a rollercoaster-ride sort of way. But the best film of the year? I can’t think of any reason I’d watch it again. In the future, I think computers might be able to make movies like this. And I’m afraid they may make them just as well.

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The Boy (2016)

*. While I wasn’t expecting much out of this film I ended up liking it quite a bit. It’s so nice to say that. Today’s movies don’t all get me down.
*. The premise is very familiar in many ways. The young woman being left all alone in the ginormous, spooky old house. The creepy doll. The jump scares that turn out to be dreams and end with our heroine waking up in a sweat. The phone lines going dead, the power going out. The killer who is very hard to kill. The ending that leaves at least the theoretical possibility of a sequel. We’ve been here before many, many times.
*. But there are differences too. I thought the underlying story, with its genuinely surprising plot twist, was actually quite interesting and made . . . well, just enough sense. I won’t say it made a lot of sense, or was wholly credible, but I didn’t give up on it entirely. I’ve certainly seen much worse. I also liked that there were parallels drawn between the Heelshires and Greta and their psychological dependence on the Boy. It’s all pretty freaky, but I thought it worked.
*. I also liked the restraint. This isn’t a gory or particularly violent movie. Indeed, until the final act almost nothing happens at all.

*. Victoria’s Craigdarroch Castle is quite a pile, and I guess they needed a really massive old house for the plot to have any credibility, but the place seems so extravagant it almost takes away from the creepiness.
*. It’s borderline comedy how Greta keeps that towel on all the time she’s investigating the attic. She must have wrapped it pretty tight!
*. No, this isn’t one of the best horror movies I’ve seen in the last few years. There are a few too many clichés indulged in, and the ending seems not to have concerned anyone. But it was better than I thought it was going to be and was decent enough in its own right.

Hardcore Henry (2015)

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*. I’ve written before, quite a lot actually, about how the dominant action film aesthetic of the twenty-first century has been that of the video game. This informs everything from character (negligible) to plot (episodic levels featuring challenges of rising difficulty), and most of all to visual texture, encompassing such things as perspective, editing, composition, and mise-en-scene. What you are watching, if you are watching a Hollywood blockbuster today, is a cartoon or comic-book fantasy animated with CGI. In other words, a video game.
*. My notes on recent action films have, in particular, pointed out how often fight scenes now just resolve into first-person shooter (FPS) games. See, for example, what I’ve said about John Wick, or the remake of RoboCop (both 2014). Hardcore Henry takes this a step further, being nothing but an extended FPS. See for yourself (while imagining a rock soundtrack, classic or contemporary, playing in the background):

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*. I don’t want this intro to make it sound as though I hated Hardcore Henry. It’s important to register though that it’s a movie more indebted to various video games and video game franchises (Doom, Call of Duty, etc., etc.) than other films. Yes, there’s a nod to the early POV noir Lady in the Lake, and the opening, with Henry being awakened, recalls the resurrection of RoboCop in the original film, but these are incidental. The source material here is all FPS. In the final battle we even have Henry “powering up” twice (with a replaced battery and a double jolt of adrenaline) before using a bunch of floating bodies as platforms to jump from, much like Mario himself. It’s that kind of movie.
*. The reason I think it’s important to note this is because this is a movie that, even among its critics, gets a lot of credit for being highly original. I don’t think it is, since it contains nothing the target audience wouldn’t already be very familiar with. The POV business is a gimmick, and not an original conceit by any stretch of the imagination. Even if you’re not a gamer, the look is much the same as any of the more frantically paced shaky cam films of the period, like Rec and Cloverfield.
*. Another thing Hardcore Henry gets a lot of credit for is the quality of the stunts. I wonder how people can even tell. There’s a lot of parkour-style running and jumping around that made me wince for the damage being done to someone’s knees, but the more spectacular stuff was so choppily edited I couldn’t tell what was going on most of the time. What’s the point of having great stunt work if you can’t see it?
*. But like I say, I don’t want to just hate on this movie. It’s not my thing, but there’s no denying its energy. I didn’t think the story made any sense, or at least wasn’t explained adequately, but I enjoyed some of the absurdist humour provided by the character of Jimmy (Sharlto Copley) and thought the crotch-sniffing, psychokinetic villain Akan was interesting enough. It’s just that the whole thing left me feeling a special kind of empty, like I’d just watched a 90-minute trailer or some guy playing a game online. For a movie that puts so much stock in putting you into the driver’s seat, it’s an alienating experience. You end up feeling less like a participant than a spectator for a bit of fun that somebody else is having.

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Train to Busan (2016)

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*. By 2016 we were well past the point of peak zombie, and audiences were looking for something new. Train to Busan seemed to be the ticket, but in the end I don’t think it changed the rules or grew the game.
*. What was there about it that at least seemed different? Well, in the first place these weren’t really zombies. They are more like the afflicted in 28 Days Later, victims of some strange virus and capable of moving at high speed. But zombies (or quasi-zombies) that can run weren’t all that new, and indeed had already gone firmly mainstream in World War Z. What’s more, these zombies (or “zombies”) aren’t especially interesting. They don’t eat people but just bite them and then snarl and growl a lot. Production values are high, but there are no interesting gore effects, which you kind of expect in this genre.

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*. Something else that seemed new was the setting. This is a Korean production, and I guess Korea is exotic enough, at least for people who have never been there. But the zombie outbreak in World War Z actually begins in Korea, and the movie Snowpiercer had been a somewhat similar Korean action flick set on a train. I’d also note that we’d seen zombies on a train as long ago as Horror Express.
*. Perhaps the most interesting twist, which is related to the setting, is the absence of guns. There are some soldiers and police at the beginning and end who are armed to the teeth, but I don’t think we actually see them use any of that firepower. And certainly none of the other characters are packing. Unlike an American zombie movie, the action isn’t punctuated with a bunch of head shots. But this is something that is also characteristic of British zombie films, from The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue to Shaun of the Dead. England being another country with more restrictive gun laws than the U.S.
*. So it’s not all that fresh a zombie flick. When it gets going it manages to hit on most of the staple elements. There are, for example, the hands reaching through doors or windows as the zombies try to break into different cars. This is a motif that’s repeated several times. There’s also a cast that’s drawn from zombie-movie central casting. The young couple. The pregnant woman. The man and his daughter. The coward who keeps getting everyone in trouble. Men are heroic and offer themselves as altruistic sacrifices. Women and children are there to be protected.

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*. I didn’t think the action or suspense scenes were all that well done. Several scenes that could have been more effective are flubbed by the director. I thought the business of the passengers riding the down escalator into the crowd of zombies at the bottom had incredible potential, none of it realized.
*. Another thing missing was any allegorical reading. Reviews suggested that it was a movie inspired by current events in South Korea, but I didn’t see much of that. Indeed, I didn’t see any particular social or political angle to the proceedings at all (unlike, for example, Snowpiercer). I mean, one gets the point that fund managers aren’t good people (they put work ahead of family, and fund dangerous research), but in this movie he’s still the hero.
*. On two separate occasions we hear characters being called a “douche.” At least that’s what the English subtitles say. I wonder how literal a translation “douche” is. I think that’s a rather idiomatic North American expression, isn’t it?

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*. The main thing that separates this one from the rest of the zombie genre is its melodramatic quality. Unfortunately, this doesn’t make it a better movie. The second half is very slow and very predictable. A lot of time is spent building up the characters, but they remain types. I didn’t find any of them interesting, and you can guess their ends right from the beginning.
*. There was immediate talk of an English-language remake, and as of this writing one appears to be in the works. I think this might be a good thing, and I’d even offer some free advice. First off, cut half an hour from the run time. There’s no justifying a story this simple taking two hours to tell. Second: give us some interesting zombies and show them eating people or at least doing something shockingly indecent. This is still a zombie movie, isn’t it? Third: if you’re going to build up one villain so much, at least show us how he gets his comeuppance. Don’t just toss him off the train. And finally try to give the audience, which has had its fill of such fare, something new, something beyond just “zombies on a train.” It’s time to give this genre a re-boot, not a remake. A remake will only lead to another dead end.

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The Witch (2015)

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*. Did there have to really be a witch? Or witches? Wouldn’t the story have made (more) sense without them?
*. I’m not arguing that writer-director Robert Eggers would have had a better movie if he’d left the actual existence of witches ambiguous, but I’m raising the question because it seems to me the story didn’t require him to come out on one side or the other.
*. For most of the film it’s possible to view the events as being religious delusions brought about by a particular cultural matrix, the stressful conditions the family is coping with (small group dynamics, cabin fever), and Thomasin and Caleb entering puberty. I’ve also seen it suggested (by Mark Kermode, among others) that the very bad things are all a group hallucination, perhaps brought on by eating rotten food, but I think that’s a stretch. In any event, when Eggers shows us the witch, alone, rendering the dead baby and then rising into the night air on her stick, he gives the game away. The witches are real.
*. Settling that question, for better or worse, The Witch goes on to be a very good thriller. It’s wonderfully photographed, lit, and scored, and has a literate script that presents us with real people doing their best, by their lights, to survive a difficult situation. That they live in a demon-haunted world isn’t their fault. This isn’t an idiot plot.

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*. It’s a fresh twist on an old story, but not a totally ground-breaking one. Basically what we have here is the cursed family motif — very popular in franchise horror films of this period like Paranormal Activity, Insidious, and Sinister — transferred to seventeenth-century New England.

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*. Such a simple act of translation implies that The Witch shares common ground with these more contemporary examples of the formula. A couple of these strike me as worth highlighting.
*. In the first place we have the assertion that the devil is real. God? Not so much. William’s family are pious, and rigidly devout in their worship of the Lord and observance of his commandments, but this is something that does them absolutely no good at all. Faith and prayer have no efficacy when it comes to fighting the powers of darkness, which are presented as being far more involved in the affairs of this world. This isn’t so remarkable in stories about modern suburban families, but in Puritan New England it comes as a bit of a shock. I’ve seen hair-splitting analyses of this film that try and square what happens with some brand of theology, but they strike me as unconvincing (Caleb lies about looking for apples and so dies with an apple coming out of his gorge). I guess God didn’t die recently.

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*. The other point to flag is the dark ending. As with several of the other cursed-family franchises I mentioned earlier, the family here is wiped out. I made the point in my review of Sinister 2 how this bleakness marks a real shift in the horror genre in the twenty-first century. For a writer like Stephen King, for example, one of the key focal points for his stories is the nuclear family under threat. The defense of the family has long been a genre staple — just think of all the home-invasion horror movies there have been. But in this new generation of films the family is annihilated, suggesting more of an anger at the family than an anxiety over its vulnerability.
*. As I mentioned with regard to Sinister, it’s hard not to see this as reflecting badly on us. And here, in The Witch, we are again. I mean, this is not a dysfunctional family. Obviously they’re under a lot of stress, but the parents aren’t cruel or abusive and the kids may fight but they also seem to care for each other. But as with all those other horror films we’re left with a bunch of dead bodies on the ground and evil triumphant. Thomasin even seems joyful at her assumption into the night. Clearly there are many among us who feel that the family (meaning the family unit, not this particular family) should just go to hell.

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*. The cast is great. I especially like the worn parents, Kate Dickie and Ralph Ineson. On the commentary track Eggers says Ineson has the greatest voice in Western Civilization and a face “like a Northern Renaissance carving.” Anya Taylor-Joy projects alert innocence. Also wonderful are the little boy and girl, who seem almost like dolls. Which is to say they’re both cute and eerie.

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*. The Billy goat Black Phillip is also good. Apparently he was hard to deal with, but that’s goats. I don’t like goats. I’ve always thought there was something evil about them.
*. I’ve also mucked out a lot of stalls in my time. A lot. The way Thomasin is doing it she’ll be at it all day.
*. Eggers: “Fowler’s not the right breed of dog, but what can you do?” I don’t know. Get the right breed of dog? Or a dog that looks a little more like the right breed of dog?
*. But this is nit-picking. Overall I found this to be a very effective, atmospheric film where the professionalism more than makes up for a low budget and short shooting schedule. It’s amazing what good things can happen when everyone just does their job and the whole point of the project isn’t to rip something (or someone) off.

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The Purge: Election Year (2016)

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*. In my notes on The Expendables 3 the only defence I could offer for watching such a movie was that I’d seen the first two and thought I had to see things through to the end. I blamed inertia. I liked the first two Purge movies (The Purge and The Purge: Anarchy) rather more than the Expendables franchise, but still didn’t feel particularly drawn to this outing. And yet, here I am. And here we are.
*. The DVD for this one has a blurb calling it “the best Purge film yet.” I’m not impressed by that. I think it’s the worst of the Purge movies, and that by some margin. I thought this movie was total garbage. It started off bad and just kept getting worse as it went along.
*. Where the earlier films were dystopic action films with heavy political subtexts, this one is a political film with a lot of perfunctory and (by now) familiar action sequences.
*. The politics are obvious and delivered without any subtlety. The theme is class war, which might be mistaken for race war. The racial angle, however, is handled in an even more clumsy manner than the politics. The heroic, self-sacrificing black store owner Joe Dixon is given a bunch of terrible lines. Surrounded by a gang of crips he remarks “There are a whole bunch of Negros coming this way, and we’re looking like a big ol’ bucket of fried chicken.” Ugh. Then, defending the senator and her bodyguard from the (black) underground: “I ain’t gonna let y’all shoot these white folks. These are our white people.” That’s just awful.
*. Just from this alone I’d call this a terrible script. But there’s even more wrong with it. The basic outline of the story is predictable in all its essential plot points: the senator’s betrayal, the uniting of the two plot strands when the senator falls in with the convenience store gang, the senator’s capture, the team getting in touch with the underground, the senator’s rescue. You probably had all this figured out in the first ten minutes.

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*. There are some swerves within this basic outline, however, that struck me as bizarre. For one thing, the story wastes a lot of time introducing characters that are later disposed of in a surprisingly casual manner. I’m thinking in particular of the Candy Girls, but also Rondo (the man cuffed in the triage van), and the Russian Purgers dressed up like American historical figures. That last case might be the most surprising of all, since the costumes are one of the few places where this series shows any originality, and Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty were very prominent in the advertising and promotion for the movie. But they’re only on screen for a few minutes.
*. All the usual improbabilities with the Purge movies are back, but I thought this one made even less sense. Why were the Candy Girls so set on breaking into a store that they knew was defended by at least a couple of guys who were armed to the teeth and would have the drop on them? Why is the Purge so popular with voters when it looks like the vast majority of people just want to survive the night? Does it stand to reason that foreigners would be allowed into the country for the Purge? And finally why are the New Fathers no longer just a white economic elite but now a bunch of slavering fundamentalist maniacs? How could such a bunch of whackos run any kind of country?
*. I guess one response to that would be Donald Trump. This movie came out during the 2016 U.S. presidential season and it was commonly seen as a commentary on what was happening: with the NFFA being a radical version of the Republican party and Senator Charlie Roan being Hillary Clinton. Marcos is a Mexican immigrant with a criminal past who nevertheless is a hero. When Trump announced that his campaign slogan for 2020 would be “Keep America Great,” it was noticed that this was the same as the ad line for this movie. I guess all of this works, though like everything else about the movie it’s a very crude message, crudely made.
*. The series keeps doing great box office so I expect we’ll see more of them. I don’t think writer-director James DeMonaco, who has helmed each of the first three movies, wants to do another, which might allow for some fresh ideas. From the final seconds of this one it seems as though The Purge: Civil War is next up. I don’t think things can get any worse . . .

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Beyond the Reach (2014)

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*. Did you really think Gordon Gekko had redeemed himself? I know he seemed to have turned the page in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, but this is Michael Douglas we’re talking about and capitalism may sell out to China, but it doesn’t change its spots.
*. John Madec in this film is another corporate titan betraying the American dream to China, which makes him a familiar twenty-first century stereotype. Obviously this was a major political anxiety of the time, and played no small part in the election of Donald Trump. What’s interesting is that the Chinese are not the villains in these stories, but rather American businessmen who sell out. For the Chinese it’s just business. For people like Madec it’s akin to treason.
*. Beyond the Reach is not a very interesting movie. In the first place, it’s nothing new. It’s an updating of a movie-of-the-week called Savages (1974), which was in turn based on a YA (!) novel titled Deathwatch (1972). Going back further, it’s The Most Dangerous Game in the desert.
*. The direction by Jean-Baptiste Léonetti is too solemn and plodding. For an action-suspense film it never really builds, and we just start to feel like we’re suffering along with Ben. That sunburn was painful just to look at, as bad sunburns often are.
*. I think the biggest problem though is the character of Madec. Michael Douglas is fine, but he seems unsure of what was expected of him. In many ways he’s a comic figure, what with his bespoke SUV, hunting rifle, and cappuccino by the campfire, but this has the effect of making him less threatening. Is he even a real hunter? Does he take some sadistic pleasure in hunting Ben? Is he a corporate psychopath? There’s nothing wrong with hamming such a role up (Leslie Banks did it marvellously in The Most Dangerous Game), but the character still has to have some basic consistency and integrity. Madec ping-pongs back and forth between being an evil genius and a goof.
*. Jeremy Irvine is bland and buff as Ben, and doesn’t really give Douglas anyone to play against. There is a girlfriend who doesn’t play any role in the story at all (meaning if you left her out of the film, what difference would it make?). Ronny Cox rounds out the cast in a strangely ambiguous role as sheriff. Not strange and ambiguous, but strangely ambiguous. It’s left unclear to what extent, if any, he was in cahoots with Madec. And why would the movie want to leave this up in the air?
*. The score by Dickon Hinchliffe sounds like 28 Days Later doesn’t it? That’s what I kept hearing.
*. What a hopeless ending. They begin and end with dreams that foreshadow the action, and this had me shaking my head. It also made me wonder if the entire coda was a dream, as it made no sense whatsoever. Madec’s escape was preposterous, and his personally hunting Ben down in Colorado even more so. Could they not think of any other way to wrap things up? Because when you slap an ending like this on to a movie it’s much worse than having no ending at all.
*. It’s interesting that both the director and the location manager mention in the making-of featurette that they wanted the desert to look totally alien, like Mars. But surely it’s meant to recall John Ford’s Monument Valley. It is a mythic, not an alien landscape.
*. Well, the locations are nice to look at, and the SUV and rifle are powerful product placement, but the script here is really a mess of parts that don’t fit together, which is actually quite remarkable given how simple and minimalist a story it is. There was potential here for something much better, but I don’t think anyone really knew what they were doing.

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Embedded (2012)

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*. I’ve written before about the way convention very quickly turns into parody. Embedded is a conventional shaky-cam or found-footage horror film, quite recognizably in the Blair Witch Project mold. Instead of a witch, the filmmakers are pursuing a forest creature in the woods of Montana (actually British Columbia, with Revelstoke standing in as the town).
*. The set-up involves a television news team (cameraman and reporter) interviewing various locals about all the disappearances and people gettin’ “ripped apart somethin’ awful.” Could it be a pack of wolves? A grizzly? Or somethin’ else?

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*. Is this parody? Jason Simpson plays a farmer who seems almost deranged, but then he overplays his part throughout. My favourite scene in the whole film, of a dog being tossed out of the bushes like it’s being shot from a cannon, is very funny.
*. And the sasquatch creature? Are we meant to take him seriously? A man in an ape suit might have been scarier. Apparently director Micheal (that’s how he spells it) Bafaro’s aim was for a combination gorilla-lion-man and he thought it ended up looking pretty cool. I’m not so sure I agree. Does it even have any teeth in its gaping mouth? Whatever you do, don’t pause the playback when he appears. You don’t want to get a good look at him.
*. I’m not sure how the creature manages to get the jump on everyone, even in broad daylight without a lot of trees around. It seems like it would be pretty easy to get a shot at. People keep talking about how fast it is, but it’s not supernaturally fast. And how does it manage to move around the woods so quickly without making any noise? That’s impossible.
*. A note on the DVD commentary: it’s well enough done — featuring writer-director Bafaro and Don Knodel, who plays James Parnell — but you can hardly hear it because the audio level is the same as the soundtrack. Somebody messed this up.
*. You knew the missing kid was going to show up at some point, didn’t you? That’s another convention.

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*. A lot of it isn’t very good. Certain passages are now inevitable, like the use of night vision. The script is overwritten and too dramatic (the sheriff’s campfire speech, for example). In movies like this, more improvisation is usually better. The acting is pretty bad. The monster is a joke. The camera keeps breaking down for no dramatic purpose I can see. It was shot in a park and looks it, meaning that you never feel like anyone is more than a five-minute walk from a main road. Indeed at one point near the end, when the few survivors are supposedly lost, they’re clearly walking down a road. Why didn’t they just keep on it?
*. And yet it’s a fun movie if you keep your expectations in check.
*. If there’s an interesting angle to it, it’s in the fact that the reporters have a background in war reporting (Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia) and that several of the hunters have been in the military. Of course the title had a specific meaning in 2012. So is the story here an allegory of American military misadventures? At the end there will be an attempt at an evacuation by helicopter, reminiscent of various Vietnam movies and newsreels. Things don’t go so well. It’s hard not to also think of Rituals and its demented vet on the rampage.
*. Does it all go back to cowboys (or colonists) and Indians? A jungle that swallows armies whole? The green zone in Baghdad was an urban safe space, not a wilderness. Being embedded meant being protected, not eaten alive. I don’t think Embedded is consciously making a satirical point about this; it’s just not that subtle a movie. But it still gives us something to think about.

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