Category Archives: 2010s

XX (2017)

*. XX is an anthology horror film, and judged alongside its peers I’d rate it above average. That’s a slightly backhanded compliment, as most such movies aren’t very good. But I thought each of the four separate stories here worth watching, with at least one of them being a lot of fun. The tendency in the 2010s has been for horror anthologies to speed things up with a lot of very short films (think of the V/H/S, P.O.E., or ABCs of Death series). The stories here, however, all come in feeling just the right length.
*. The other thing about XX is that each of the four stories was written and directed by a woman and women play all the leading roles. That’s where the title comes from, with the double-X chromosones.
*. This seems like a good idea, as it lets a group of young women filmmakers showcase their work in the horror genre. But is there anything more to it? Do the results suggest any particular female (or feminist) vision?
*. Well, maybe. In an interview included with the DVD Karyn Kusama (who directed the last episode) mentions being drawn toward “the domestic dynamics of horror.” And it’s true that three of the four stories put the family in the foreground, with key scenes set around dining-room or kitchen tables. In each of these films a mother is the main character, and she has to deal with what are typical anxieties of motherhood, albeit imagined in scarier ways.
*. First up is “The Box,” which is the one film that isn’t an original story but is based on the Jack Ketchum story of the same name. I thought this was nicely done, with director Jovanka Vuckovic creating an effectively creepy atmosphere. There’s no big payoff, but that’s the story, which takes the form of a puzzle without a solution. Basically the kids have developed an eating disorder that their mom is unable to address, as she is shut out from their inner lives. Most parents know the feeling. Even without their falling sick we might expect her to crack up from the repetition of “nothing,” which becomes the film’s refrain of Nevermore.
*. Second is “The Birthday Party” (directed by Annie Clark). I liked this the best. It’s another take on the “how can I hide this body?” premise much loved as a source of black humour. Again we have a mother overwhelmed: this time having to manage a child’s birthday party on the same day as her husband’s suicide. The sinister nanny with a spooky hairdo is no help, but a singing Pandagram seems to offer a solution. I thought the sound and music were a little over the top here, but I guess they were meant to be.

*. Third is “Don’t Fall.” Director Roxanne Benjamin (she produced the V/H/S films) wanted a traditional “creature feature” campfire tale and got it, complete with cheesy dialogue referencing some cursed petroglyphs that are “clearly pre-Native American.” It’s well done, but the basic idea and how it plays out, including the look of the monster itself, isn’t that interesting. I thought it needed a twist.
*. Fourth is “Her Only Living Son” (directed by Karyn Kusama). Rosemary’s baby has grown up (and apparently John Cassavetes has made it big in Hollywood). I just thought this was OK. The parental anxiety is the teenager acting up at school and home. The devil, we learn, is no match for a smother mother.
*. There’s also some stop-motion puppet work by Sofia Carrillo that plays in-between the separate stories. I’d call it a frame, but it’s not since there’s no connection between it and the other parts of the movie. There’s also no narrative. It looks great, but I honestly couldn’t figure out what the point of any of it was.
*. XX had a limited release, and seems to have done a lot better with critics than it did with audiences. That seems weird to me. As I began these notes by saying, it’s a better movie than most of its peers. What are people comparing it to?
*. Another weird thing I noticed when going through the reviews was that there is so much disagreement among critics about which of the stories is the best. This leads me to believe that I may have missed something in the ones I didn’t care as much for. For the record, I liked “The Box” and “The Birthday Party,” but thought the second two fell a bit short.
*. I don’t think there’s much of a political point being made, or empowering message to be absorbed. But for genre fans I don’t think it needs one. They may in fact like it better that way.

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Junkyard (2012)

*. It’s a pretty simple little film really, but then (1) a short film can’t be too complex, at least in terms of plot, and (2) sometimes the best stories really are quite simple.
*. That said, can we say there’s all that much going on here? At one time do conventions and universals become clichés? The idea that we are granted some profound insight into the meaning or shape of our lives in our final moments, for example. Really?
*. Here it at least has a trigger, the reappearance of Anthony, but I doubt it’s that realistic. Shouldn’t we be thinking of other things in our last few firings of consciousness? Or, perhaps even more realistically (and absurdly), be thinking of some trivial thing that never meant much of anything? Must we all imagine Rosebud?
*. We might say the same for the story. Most of us tend to fall away from the friends of our youth. On balance, I think that’s a good thing. People should be encouraged to move on. If he’d recognized Anthony earlier Paul might have said “There but for the grace of God . . .” As it is, what does he feel? Karma paying him back?
*. That’s a question worth asking because it’s about the only moral I draw from the film (aside from the obvious bit about not doing drugs). You shouldn’t rat on your friends. Not because it’s the wrong thing to do but because it’s pointless. The authorities don’t really care (what did Anthony do anyway?) and you’re not going to get anything out of it but a nagging feeling of guilt. In fact, such a betrayal might come back to bite you in the ass years from now.
*. As with any tragedy, fate has its role to play. Paul was only kidding himself if he thought he was escaping the junkyard/projects. We carry such environments with us.
*. I don’t think there’s much more to say than that. Aside from Anthony’s getting hooked on drugs and having a less involved mother there’s no real explanation for how the two friends came to such divergent ends. But then, little changes at an early enough age probably do have magnified effects as we get older.
*. The art and direction by Hisko Hulsing is a nice tonal balance of realism, lending everything a golden glow of nostalgia. You can never go home again though. Indeed, you might not even get the chance.

13 Hours (2016)

*. There’s a moment in 13 Hours when one of the band of bearded brothers defending the not-so-secret compound says that he feels like he’s in a horror movie. I nodded my head. You can trace various strands of cultural influence feeding into this movie, from the defence of the Alamo to the films of Howard Hawks and John Carpenter to Black Hawk Down to the Call of Duty video games, but the one I felt to be the strongest was the zombie siege film. One of the areas outside the compound is even called “zombieland,” and the shadowy figures seem to be rising out of the grave like an army of the undead.
*. Politics of this sort had arisen in the zombie genre before. In the remake of Dawn of the Dead a newsreel at the beginning seems to suggest a parallel between Muslims at prayer and the coming zombie apocalypse. And in World War Z we have Jerusalm besieged by zombie hordes that we don’t have to use too much imagination to identify. So this was already part of the zombie mythology, and seeing it in this movie just completes the circle.
*. So even on that level 13 Hours is a political film. But of course it was much more than that when it came out. “Benghazi” was shorthand for government bungling, leading to various investigations and reports that dogged the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. I don’t know if it was meant as a dog-whistle, but it would be naive to think it didn’t play that way to some audiences. Four years earlier the release of Zero Dark Thirty had been pushed back because it was felt to contain an implied criticism of President Obama, who was then running for re-election, something everyone involved with this film must have been aware of.
*. Director Michael Bay said he didn’t think it was political at all but was merely an objective record of what really happened. This can, however, only be an aspiration for any dramatic filmmaker, no matter what the subject. When dealing with this material it was impossible. What “really happened” is probably unrecoverable. The events seem to have been chaotic, there were elements of secrecy involved, and when it comes to military history you can always expect a lot of embellishment in the retelling (the proverbial “war stories”). Real life doesn’t usually sort out into heroes and villains this neatly, and the CIA station chief has apparently complained about the accuracy of his portrayal here, as one could well imagine he would no matter the facts of the case.
*. Then there is Mark Kermode’s take: “when Michael Bay says it’s not political what he means is that it’s not really about anything at all, it’s just about the action sequences.” For Kermode, and many other reviewers, Bay is only interested in the mechanics of blowing things up and making movies that are “loud and noisy and incoherent.”
*. There’s some truth to this. 13 Hours is an action film and most of the attempts made at characterization consist of the clichéd calls home to the loving family (now being done via Skype or Facetime). And when I say clichéd, I really mean it. If not for the geniality of the hirsute and buff John Krasinski, who is surprisingly good in the part, I think I would have groaned through all of these uplinks.
*. Still, I’d say there’s a little more to this than Bay’s usual fare. As soon as I type those words, however, I am forced to concede that Bay’s usual fare consists of robots fighting each other. So . . . I don’t know.
*. I don’t even know how realistic the action sequences are. I’m sure Bay was going for verisimilitude in painstakingly rebuilding the compound and getting all sorts of expert advice on the tactics. But then there were some silly shots thrown in. Apparently a bus never actually blew up, and I had a hard time believing the guy taking himself out with an RPG. I also wasn’t too sure about the team’s tactical movements. Would they really stay bunched together that much when they went into action? And why weren’t they getting into a prone position more often? They spend a lot of time standing up throughout the firefights. I don’t remember much from my own basic training but this struck me as not all that realistic.
*. Beyond all this, I found the film jingostic in an imperialistic way, down to the inclusion of a Gunga Din character and the reiterated point about how every American life is sacred. The military men are sweaty and muscled and capable while the bureaucrats and civilians are incompetent or cowardly wimps. This is all standard fare, but I didn’t find any of it offensive so much as boring.
*. Judged just as an action film though I think it works pretty well. Despite taking so much time to give us the layout I was still confused as to what was going on at various times but even that might have been intentional.
*. Somewhat surprisingly, it did not do well at the box office. Because of the politics? Did people want something a little more complicated, less propagandistic? I doubt it. American Sniper had been a big hit and it was almost as jingoistic. I think the politics did alienate a lot of people though, and what with the election going on it was probably seen as being a bit too much.

American Sniper (2014)

*. A lot of what I’m going to say about American Sniper is going to repeat stuff I said about Black Hawk Down. We’re in Iraq here and not Somalia but I doubt it made a lot of difference to audiences. We still have American soldiers in generic urban war zones surrounded by hordes of murderous “savages.” And in the critical response there was much discussion of how political it all was.
*. As with Black Hawk Down there was lip service paid to the notion that American Sniper might have an anti-war message. Director Clint Eastwood thought the statement of war’s effects on those who fight it made it anti-war, but I don’t buy that. Kyle is still presented as a larger-than-life hero (his nickname is the “the Legend”), brought low not by his own PTSD but by a shaky-looking vet he is only trying to help. In the final scene Kyle seems to have adjusted to home life quite well, has got his mojo back and is having sex again, and is happily living his own version of the American Dream.
*. As for the politics, that again is pushed to the background but is still present. Note, for example, the direct link between Kyle watching the 9/11 attacks on TV and his enlisting and going on his revenge tours in Iraq. That Iraq was not behind the 9/11 attacks is never mentioned.
*. Basically Iraq becomes, again, a battle between paleface and redskin. We know what side we’re on from the moment Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) walks toward the camera wearing a white cowboy hat and the voiceover tells us that he now has a purpose in life (that purpose being his role as one of Plato’s specially trained guard dogs of the republic). On the other side of the world a sinister gunslinger shrouded in black named Mustafa (played by Lee Van Cleef . . . no, Sammy Sheik) lies in wait. It’s time for a showdown at the O.K. Corral.

*. Another link to Black Hawk Down is the siege paradigm. Despite thinking that it would be hard to work this into the plot, the climactic battle is in fact a siege, with the Americans on top of a group of buildings surrounded by the natives, waiting for the cavalry to arrive. It’s pretty much the same set-up as 13 Hours except in daylight. You even get all the satellite shots of the action, making it seem even more like a video game (the first-person shooter POV and the overhead tactical shot being the standard dual perspectives for a lot of violent video games).
*. What I couldn’t understand about the final battle is why, since there was only one way up to the roof, the defenders didn’t target the doorway at the top of the staircase. All of the bad guys have to come out of there, so why not just shoot them as they came out?
*. A larger question has to do with why Americans cast themselves in this role so quickly after 9/11: not as the leader of the free world, with military bases all over the globe, but as a tiny, vulnerable nation surrounded by enemies, fighting back against savages and sandstorm (both being represented as forces of nature that the outpost of civilization stands against here). Is it some kind of Israel complex? The U.S. is not Israel and I always find it weird when it presents itself in those terms.
*. Bradley Cooper strikes me as being very good playing the baffled brute. I wonder how sympathetically we’re supposed to view him though. Are we meant to discern some hidden depths beyond his love of country and reactionary brutality?
*. Much of the plot seems a dramatic heightening. Mustafa was made into a more central figure than he apparently was in real life because Kyle needed a foil. The Butcher was an invented character. The opening kill, with the woman and child facing down the tank, seemed highly improbable to me. They were just going to run right down the middle of the street at the tank with the grenade?
*. It was wildly successful at the box office, becoming the highest-grossing film of the year and the highest-grossing war film of all time, unadjusted for inflation. I’m not sure why. Sure it’s a jingoistic bit of popular entertainment, but it struck me as only professionally made. It’s never very interesting and I didn’t think any of the combat scenes were that well done. But people wanted real-life heroes I guess.
*. At the end of my notes on Black Hawk Down I remarked on how it presented a world where everyone was either a shooter or a target, and that these roles were largely interchangeable. When I wrote that I had a buzzing in the back of my head that I’d said something very similar before. When I did a little digging I found it in my notes on . . . Dirty Harry. There I said that the number of (camera) shots looking down the barrel of a gun (in both directions) leads to a certain kind of reductive politics and restricted world view, and how the shooter firing down from on high (as Chris Kyle does) becomes the scourge of God.
*. Well, whether Kyle is Blondie in a spaghetti Western or Harry Callahan taking out punks on the mean streets of Fallujah, Eastwood has clearly made this material his own. The thing is, he’s done it better in the past. Putting the politics aside, I just didn’t find this to be a very good movie. It’s watchable, but ultimately too bland for its own good. How it excited and upset so many people is a bit of a mystery to me.

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

*. Zero Dark Thirty is a well-made movie that left me with a bad feeling for at least three different reasons.
*. First, and least problematically, it’s too long. I don’t mean by this that it was ever dull or dragged, but rather that there was a whole bunch of stuff I felt they could have, and should have, left out. Most of it being material in the first half of the film. Meanwhile, the raid on the compound at the end felt almost entirely dislocated from the rest of the picture.
*. This is a significant structural flaw. The character of Maya (Jessica Chastain) is simply dropped from the final act. And while the raid sequence is effective it’s presented in a way that’s become quite generic: with the satellite images being fed to the operations room and the team on the ground fully linked up and equipped with night vision goggles. About the only thing I flagged as interesting was the morose score. It underlines the way the action is presented in a manner that’s more mechanical than heroic.
*. The second reason for my feeling bad has to do with Zero Dark Thirty‘s status as the dramatization of a true story. Right from the start a documentary note is struck with the introduction of actual 9/11 recordings of panicked victims. This signals fierce and unflinching authenticity, a promise that is maintained right up through the raid upon a meticulously reconstruction of Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad. Kathryn Bigelow wanted the compound to be “100% accurate” so that she could precisely re-enact all the movements of the SEAL team, and it certainly has that feel.
*. But it is not a true story. Not at all. The opening title screen only announces that “the following motion picture is based on first hand accounts of actual events.” There’s a lot of wiggle room in that, and it’s room that gets exploited. To start with the most obvious example, the central character of the CIA agent Maya is entirely fictional. At best she’s a composite of several actual figures, but her story here is made up.
*. Does that matter? Some critics complained that Maya had no personal identity or back story fleshed out over the course of the film, but that may be missing the point. She’s not really a character. She’s only there to serve the function of tying the story together.
*. Now I have nothing against taking liberties with the facts. This happens with every movie based on true events. Some selection and heightening has to occur for reasons of narrative economy and dramatic effect. This isn’t a documentary, despite being shot in a documentary style.

*. That said, some liberties are bigger than others. Chief among these is the handling of torture. In Zero Dark Thirty Osama bin Laden is tracked down by locating his chief courier, who is in turn located by way of torturing lower-level flunkies.
*. This is not, by all (and I mean all) reports, how it happened. Aside from any moral questions, the biggest knock against torture (or use of “enhanced interrogation techniques”) is that it doesn’t work. It really doesn’t, and it didn’t in this case either. I have nothing against Bigelow making torture such an essential part of the story here, but she creates a false narrative around its use in two ways: she doesn’t mention any of the controversy its use occasioned at the time, even within the ranks of the intelligence community, and she shows it as having been effective when it wasn’t. This is too big a lie, on too important a subject, for me to give a pass to.
*. My final reason for feeling bad about Zero Dark Thirty has to do with its feminism. Just typing that makes me anxiously look about, but I’ll try to explain what I mean.
*. Kathryn Bigelow may be Hollywood’s best known woman director, and her desire to tell the story of the bin Laden manhunt from a woman’s perspective is at the very least an interesting one. And, despite the fact that “Maya” (I assumed this was a code name) isn’t a real or fully realized character, I think we are meant to see her in a feminist light. She’s trying to prove herself in a man’s world. She’s up against the old boy’s network and at every step she has to prove that she’s as tough and smart as they are. There’s a scene where a colleague tells her to calm down when she’s arguing her case and I think everyone can relate to her “I am calm!” need to reassert herself and establish that she’s not going in to hysterics.
*. The other place where I thought the different perspective really worked was in the business where Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) gets blown up by a terrorist. I felt emotionally drawn in to this part of the film more than by anything else because it had such a relatable everyday analogy. Jessica has met someone on the Internet and has arranged a date, even baking a cake for him. She’s so looking forward to it! And then everything goes so spectacularly to shit. I thought that whole chapter of the film was the best part.
*. The character of Maya, however, just depressed me. That I didn’t find her likeable wasn’t the problem. I didn’t find any of the leads likeable (Jason Clarke is downright annoying). But I didn’t find her credible either. I suppose she’s meant to represent the aggressive “alpha female,” but is this really how anyone thinks the world works? That if you’re a big enough asshole and act obnoxious to everyone you will eventually succeed? The way Maya yells at superiors makes no sense. She writes threatening numbers on her boss’s office window without being told to stop. She mouths off to the SEAL team, telling them that they’re going to kill bin Laden for her. And no one questions this when she says it!
*. I get that she’s being presented as bin Laden’s Ahab, but is it empowering for a woman to be portrayed as such a total asshole? An obnoxious, self-centered, bullying jerk? Are her tears at the end meant to humanize her somehow? Show us how much she has suffered too? Is she a hero?
*. Well, maybe there are people who find Maya heroic and see her as a feminist role model. And I’m sure there are people who believe in torture too. But personally I think the first point is misleading at best and the second is a lie. Is that a problem? Can Zero Dark Thirty still be appreciated as art, or just entertainment? It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, after all.
*. As I began by saying, I think it’s a well-made movie. I don’t think it’s anything special though. Its look is generic and its structure clunky. It also does a little dance over the matter of its politics. “The film doesn’t have an agenda,” Bigelow announced. I think that’s nonsense. This is not an objective account but a shaping and revisioning of actual events, and not just to make them more exciting or easier to follow. This didn’t make me angry but disappointed. For all its rawness and intensity, this is a movie that doesn’t take any chances and has little new to say. What makes this so sad is that the line it sticks to is so wrong.

The Man with the Iron Fists 2 (2015)

*. I really didn’t like The Man with the Iron Fists, but I held out a small sliver of hope for this sequel. Why? Because a lot of the time sequels to superhero action movies are more fun because they don’t get all bogged down in having to develop an origin story. Also, this film wasn’t going to be directed by star RZA (or The RZA, which he pronounces “The Rizza”). I figured that could only be a good thing.
*. I was wrong.
*. The story here is pretty basic. Thaddeus the blacksmith (he of the iron fists) is “on a path to Buddha.” This means he is renouncing violence in an attempt to “replenish [his] soul.” On his way to Nirvana (or the Wu Chi Temple, home of the fabulous Golden Nectar) he is swept downriver to a town ruled by a brutal overlord named Master Ho who runs the town’s silver mine with the backing of the Beetle clan. The miners, who are not slaves but serfs (or “bastard maggots of whoring mongrel dogs” in the words of Master Ho), are chafing at their bondage. Led by spirited family man Li Kung they begin to fight back, and Thaddeus is drawn to their cause.
*. I just finished typing that summary and I’m already wondering why I bothered. I don’t know why I’m bothering with any of this. Or, for that matter, why I even bothered to watch this in the first place.
*. Most of these martial arts movies are just excuses for the fight scenes, but despite not being hamstrung by the first film’s cast of less-mobile all-stars (Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu, Dave Bautista) the fights here are dull and unconvincing bursts of rapid editing meant to conceal the fact that there’s little choreography.
*. There’s also none of the comic-book spirit of the original, which had a bunch of heroes gifted with special powers or weapons. Here there’s just Thaddeus and his iron mittens, and some awkward metal booties at the end.
*. RZA has to be one of the most unlikely action heroes in all of film history. He doesn’t have a commanding on-screen presence and, for a martial artist, doesn’t move well. And then there is his voice, which (and I’m being charitable) may be characterized as marble-mouthed. His “r”s come out as “w”s and the “th” sound as an “f.” Without trying to be snarky, I think he has the worst English of anyone in the cast. At least it’s the hardest to understand.
*. Luckily, the movie isn’t entirely about him. In fact, he disappears for a long period at the beginning as the power dynamics in the village are set up. I say this is fortunate because the main characters here, Dustin Nguyen as Li Kung and Carl Ng as Master Ho, are both pretty good. Ng in particular gets a lot of campy, over-the-top villainous lines. It was a shame to see him dispatched so quickly at the end.

*. Yes, Master Ho was so named because he has a harem of hos. Get it?
*. I wonder why they bothered playing Morricone’s “Ecstasy of Gold” over the final battle in the village. Sure it’s a great piece of music, but how does it fit here?
*. How could journeyman director Roel Reiné have thought that having a kung-fu fight underwater was a good idea? He says on the commentary that he’d never seen it done before. Did he ask himself why he hadn’t seen it done before?
*. The locations and sets in Thailand are picturesque. Thailand is a place that always looks great on film. I’ve never been, but I’m told it isn’t as nice a place to visit. I don’t like heat and I hear it’s very hot.
*. Apparently the filming took place around Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, which is where that soccer team was trapped in a cave in 2018. I don’t know why I made that connection. Maybe because of all the time spent in caves here.
*. I just don’t get the sense that anyone cared a whole lot about this one. It was a direct-to-video release, which is usually not a good sign. More telling is the fact that on the DVD commentary track with RZA and Reiné, RZA simply walks out at around the hour mark, saying that he has to go work on some music. Left on his own, Reiné talks about things like how he had to shoot the movie in 20 days but then didn’t stick around to work on it in post-production because he had to go shoot another movie in Denmark. This all suggests a certain level of disengagement, if not indifference, to the finished product.
*. Well, my time may be worth a lot less but I too have other things to do. I actually didn’t hate this movie. It has a couple of cheesy-fun moments. But even if that’s your thing I don’t think they’re enough.

The Man with the Iron Fists (2012)

*. I was actually looking forward to this one. Big mistake.
*. What a disappointment. Especially given how I’m a big fan of the Shaw Brothers chopsocky epics of the 1970s, which this film is an almost slavish homage to. Where did they go wrong?
*. I think most of the blame has to be layed at the feet of writer-director-star RZA. Yes, RZA is his professional name. To give you some idea of how old and out of touch I am, I had never heard of him before. Apparently he was the leader of a hip-hop band called The Wu-Tang Clan, which I had heard of but whose music I’m unfamiliar with.
*. Whatever his musical accomplishments, RZA is no filmmaker. Even with what I’m assuming was a lot of help this is an unforgiveably dull martial arts film. Right from the pre-credit fisticuffs I knew I was in trouble, as the fight scenes just don’t work at all. RZA needed to up his game. And he is also no actor, joining a long list of pop stars who have tried to make the leap to the big screen and failed. He can’t even poke fun at himself. Which means what we have here is a sort-of amateur vanity project that isn’t amateur enough for its own good.
*. The story is actually OK. Despite the script being years in development, what they ended up with was a pretty decent tribute to Shaw Brothers kung-foolishness. There’s a caravan of the Emperor’s gold that’s being eyeballed by around a dozen masters of various martial arts styles, each identified by their distinct choice of weapon (poison darts, a mechanical knife, a coat of knives, a body that turns to brass). In other words, it’s a superhero movie, drawing on traditions going back before the advent of MarvelCrap. It could have been fun.
*. Despite the story being more than adequate, the script itself just isn’t clever enough. Russell Crowe seems to want to ham things up, but he has no good lines (and obviously can’t fight). RZA’s blacksmith looks like he’s falling asleep, and he doesn’t have any good moves either. The fact that neither of the two leads can fight, a rather large drawback, has to then be concealed with camerawork and other stunts like split screens and tons of edits. The only person who really seems to be enjoying himself is Byron Mann as Silver Lion, but he’s all on his own.
*. I think they tried to make it too much of a throwback. There’s actually very little here that doesn’t look like it belongs in the 1970s. Despite being filmed in China it’s a studio-bound production. About the only nod to being made in the twenty-first century is the gore, but it’s dull gore. Mostly just CGI arterial sprays.
*. I really shouldn’t have been surprised I disliked it so much. It is, in some ways, a sort of spiritual sequel to Tarantino’s own homage to the same genre: Kill Bill. In fact, it was while RZA was doing the soundtrack for Kill Bill that development on The Man with the Iron Fists got started, and the original cut was supposedly four hours long, so RZA wanted to release it in two parts, just like Kill Bill. Since I hated Kill Bill, this should have put me on my guard.
*. I suppose if you’re not familiar with the tradition it comes out of then it would be possible to like this more. But then, if you’re not a fan I don’t know why you’d bother with it in the first place. Meanwhile, even though I appreciate the spirit in which it was made, I came away from it feeling let down.

Crazy Murder (2014)

*. What was I thinking?
*. I think I was I thinking that it would be something like an homage to Abel Ferrara’s gritty cult thriller The Driller Killer.
*. No such luck.
*. Instead, we follow a nameless homeless person (Kevin Kenny) as he aimlessly wanders about NYC. He mutters, shouts obscenities, and rambles incoherently. He eats garbage. He continually shits himself and rubs the feces over his face and in his hair. He eats his shit. He pukes his shit up and lies down in it. He knocks someone unconscious and shits on their face. And he kills a bunch of random people he meets (including a mother and her baby).
*. It’s billed as a horror-comedy, or something like that, but for the life of me I don’t know what’s funny, or was even meant to be funny, about it. And while it’s filled with horrors, it’s not really a horror film. There may have been some sort of political point, but I don’t want to think too hard about what it might have been. Perhaps the idea that since we don’t see the homeless when we pass by them on the street every day it’s that much easier for them to kill dozens of people and get away with it.
*. So . . . why? What’s the point? There’s nothing wrong with a filmmaker wanting to shock, but the shocked are entitled to ask to what end. Is Crazy Murder just a dirty joke?
*. Co-director Caleb Pennypacker has a credit list that mostly involves working as a digital effects artist on various blockbusters from the Marvel and Star Wars franchises. I’m guessing he just wanted to get his hands dirty with something raw and edgy. There’s even a nod to the Marvel universe in the passage where the Killer transforms himself into a Wolverine-style blade-wielding supervillain.
*. In the face of so much bad taste there’s not much for me to say. Basically this is an orgy of coprophilia and -phagia for people who thought 2 Girls 1 Cup didn’t go on long enough. It’s probably one of the hardest movies to watch that I’ve seen in years, and I don’t mean that in any kind of a good way.

Mother! (2017)

*. In 2017 there was a critical and box office success scored by an adaptation of a previously-filmed Ira Levin novel. This was Get Out, a revisioning of The Stepford Wives. Basically, Get Out just switched the feminist angle for a racial argument, but in doing so director Jordan Peele produced one of the best movies of the year.
*. 2017 also saw critical division and a box office flop in an adaptation of a previously-filmed Ira Levin novel. This was Mother!, a revisioning of Rosemary’s Baby. Yes, Mother! was borrowing from a lot more than just Rosemary’s Baby but I think that was the most obvious source and parallel.
*. I guess all I’m saying is that Levin deserves a lot of credit for creating such a pair of durable modern myths. I find his writing only functional, but there’s no denying his ability to get at contemporary social anxieties. His main point seems to be that there’s only ever a thin layer of civilization papering over humanity’s inherent evil: our natural state consisting primarily of cruelty and selfishness. Neighbours may seem perfectly respectable, but of course they’re really monsters. And, in the end, so are we.
*. From this springboard much critical speculation over the meaning of Mother! has been launched. I think this was intended, as it is with any fantasy, but writer-director Darren Aronofsky didn’t want to encourage freestyle interpretation too much. As he put it, “I think it’s OK to be confused. The movie has a dream-logic and that dream-logic makes sense. But if you try to unscrew it, it kind of falls apart. So it’s a psychological freak-out. You shouldn’t over-explain it.”
*. I think this is disingenuous. Mother! is an allegory, a story that’s meant to suggest another story (or various other stories). This makes it something different from what I think audiences were expecting.
*. I’m not saying it’s successful allegory, by the way. Just allegory. There is no “realistic” reading of it that works. There’s a reason none of the characters have names. They’re not characters, but meant to represent abstractions. I mean, a superstar poet? Come on.
*. As I see it, there are at least three main interpretive models available.
*. (1) A feminist take on the myth of the genius artist sustained by his long-suffering doormat of a helpmeet/muse. Behind (well behind) every great man, etc. His poetry will make him a god, while her domestic labour will be taken for granted, ignored, or even despised.
*. (2) A satire on the cult of celebrity, with the vulgar public all wanting to claim a piece of the star, whom they raise up only to destroy with their worshipful fandom.
*. (3) An environmental allegory, with Jennifer Lawrence as Mother Earth and Javier Bardem as the one who despoils her and then re-invents her (over and over) in his imagination.
*. Uniting all three of these is the religious idea. The artist, the celebrity, and the Earth are all objects of devotion. And Mother! duly raids the Bible for a lot of its language and imagery, some of which seems to have been tossed in for no reason at all.
*. While not religious myself, I have to register that I think this may be the most anti-Christian film I’ve ever seen. The savagery of its travesty of various rites and doctrines even outdoes Buñuel. These aren’t the coven of devil-worshipers in Rosemary’s Baby but basically a bunch of good Catholics. Which actually makes them worse! At least the NYC cultists didn’t wreck the damn place.
*. But to what end, all of this? I should say here that I didn’t dislike Mother! I actually liked it better than The Black Swan, which I thought was an even sillier movie. But I didn’t feel as upset or ambivalent about it as many did. I didn’t think the end was too chaotic or violent or hysterical or disturbing. I just thought it went on too long. And as far as the message is concerned (you may pick from the menu above or supply your own), it seemed shrug-worthy to me. Other films have explored these themes with more passion, originality, humanity, and coherence. Ultimately, it’s not that Mother! is about too much, but that it’s about too little.
*. I began by linking this movie to Get Out, and I think the comparison is instructive. Get Out is also an allegorical fantasy, but one whose story is fun just in its own right. By being more abstract, Mother! covers more mythic ground but is far less involving and in the end feels stuck in dream land. What point is it making, aside from the obvious? And how powerfully can it make any point, however simpleminded, when the action and characters are so removed from our own world? Those overhead shots of the house in its clearing made me think of the end of Tarkovsky’s Solaris, another parable that, despite being set on a distant planet, seemed more rooted than Mother!
*. I’m curious as to what will happen to Mother! I could see it becoming a kind of cult film (or whatever passes for a cult film in the twenty-first century). I could also see it being totally forgotten. On balance, I think it’s well worth watching, and I’m glad there are filmmakers so determined to create a cinema of personal expression. I’m just not sure Darren Aronofsky has that much to say.

Feed the Light (2014)

*. I usually begin these notes by saying something about sources, and that seems to me to be an interesting, if not very enlightening, place to start here.
*. The DVD box cover tells us Feed the Light won the prize for best feature film at the H. P. Lovecraft film festival and is “based on a story by H. P. Lovecraft.” It doesn’t say which story.
*. If you watch the short interview with director and co-writer Henrik Möller that’s included with the DVD then you learn that the source or inspiration was “The Colour Out of Space.” This is nice to know, because if there is any relation between “The Colour Out of Space” and Feed the Light I’m not sure what it is. Without being given a heads-up, I don’t think even the biggest Lovecraft nerd could make the connection.
*. “The Colour Out of Space” is about a meteorite that crashes in a farmer’s field, releasing a vampiric mist of an unearthly hue. After laying waste a patch of countryside and driving mad the farmer and his family the alien force (mostly) goes back into space.
*. It’s a story that’s actually been filmed several times, as Die, Monster, Die! (1965), the segment “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” from Creepshow (1982), The Curse (1987), Colour from the Dark (2008), and Die Farbe (2010). The last named is a German adaptation considered by at least one Lovecraft expert to be the best Lovecraft film adaptation ever made. It is shot mainly in black and white, except for the alien force itself, which is in colour. That may have been the biggest inspiration for Feed the Light, which is also in black and white except for splashes of blood and the unearthing of the light at the end.
*. For whatever reason, Lovecraft has proven to be a difficult author to take from page to screen, though not from lack of trying. I’ve mentioned this before (see, for example, my notes on Necronomicon). Most of the best-known adaptations have been very loose indeed. So in that respect at least Feed the Light is in good company.

*. The bottom line is that the film never explains what is going on anyway. Apparently, after initially being planned as a short, the script was developed as a much bigger project that would have provided the foundation for a miniseries. Möller then did some radical pruning and left us almost entirely in the dark. He says in his DVD interview that the idea was to have the alien light being used as a power source, like a battery, to operate the underground warehouse, but that it then begins being worshipped as a god. There is no evidence for this in the film, and indeed I don’t see where it even makes any sense out of what we do have.
*. Of course, none of this has anything to do with Lovecraft. In Lovecraft, to take just one example, people get sick from what seems to be a kind of radiation poisoning. Here they age at a faster rate because time operates differently underground.
*. I call it a warehouse because that’s the word used in the film itself as well as what Möller calls it. I wonder if there’s some problem with translation. This is obviously not a warehouse.
*. Another thing I said is that the use of black-and-white and colour was probably inspired by Die Farbe. It also made me think of The Human Centipede II, another movie, like this, that was shot in colour and then converted to black-and-white, with blood and other elements showing up in colour.
*. Things start out on a familiar note. A jumpy sequence throws us into the action in a way that may be meant to disorient us. Then we get some horror clichés: the hand-on-the-shoulder jump scare, the flickering fluorescent lights. It’s a shaky start.

*. After this things settle down a bit though, and it becomes easier to enter into the spirit of things. The narrative spine (and that’s really all it is) takes the form of an allegorical journey into the underworld, or multidimensional labyrinth, in order to save a soul (Sara’s daughter). Simple stuff, but it gives Möller something to riff on. Even when we get the dog-man’s leaky rectum scene we can still feel like we’re holding on to something.
*. Speaking of holding on to things, Sara seems to drop her string an awful lot. I don’t see how she manages to get back out.
*. Saying there’s a narrative spine (or thread) is about all you can say about the story though. There’s not much here. What is actually going on in the “warehouse” is left obscure, even to the point of not knowing who the good guys really are. About halfway through I started wondering if they could have made this as a silent movie. What would we miss?
*. Obviously there was no budget whatsoever, but there are still a few interesting moments and Lina Sundén is really very good as Sara. Finally, as I was watching it I was reminded of The Void, another vaguely Lovecraftian horror film that came out a couple of years later. Basically these are experimental horror films that see what they can do just by playing around with a minimal plot and weird effects. As such there are a lot of sketchy parts, but overall I think both films are better than you might expect.