Category Archives: 2010s

Point Break (2015)

*. Shouldn’t this movie have been a lot more fun?
*. The suits at the FBI express some bafflement at the motives of Team Extreme, but Utah thinks he has them pegged as hipsters seeking Nirvana. Hey, with a gang leader named Bodhi and a groupie chick named Samsara, what else? Bodhi, however, says they’re not seeking personal spiritual enlightenment so much as attempting to raise global consciousness about the fate of the planet while looking to honour Mother Earth at the same time. Or something like that.
*. But that’s all just a bunch of New Age blather. What the gang are really driven toward is death. A beautiful death, and a nice send-off too, with a promise to reunite in the afterlife. And, especially seeing as how young they all are, isn’t that a depressing philosophy? They appear, at least to me, to have sort of given up on life. This struck me as a very different note than was struck in the 1991 original, where Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) wants to affirm the value of life and the human spirit.
*. What would have happened if they’d completed the Ozaki 8 anyway? Would they have retired? Gone back to the top of the list? And since the Ozaki 8 seem to be subjectively determined and contingent on various factors, what kind of an achievement is it? It’s not like climbing the highest peaks on all seven continents or anything.
*. My goodness this script is bad. I mean, you knew going in that it would just be a line to hang the epic stunt sequences on, but it’s much worse than that. I was especially confused as to why the gang was “giving back” to the poor while being financed by such an obvious douche-bag (and probably criminal) 1-percenter like Al Fariq. How did they square that?
*. As we get the usual montage of Johnny piecing together where the gang is going to strike next I was wondering what he was going to come up with and how he was going to get there. Well, you see, the first six items on the list “all traveled in one direction: down,” so the next ordeal should involve fighting against gravity. That means going up. That can only mean . . . free solo rock climbing. And that means . . . Angel Falls, Venezuela. Damn, the kid’s good!
*. Then there is the dialogue. “We can only be responsible for own path, brother.” “Ideas can be powerful.” “That’s the difference between us. All you see is lines. We see the truth.” And etc. A little of this might have gone a long way, but there is a lot of it so it seems to stretch to the ends of the earth.
*. The only moment I really enjoyed was their cutting open the bales of cash mid-air and seeing the greenbacks explode all over creation. Something symbolic there. Almost meta, brother.
*. I’ll admit, I was laughing out loud at (not with) a lot of it. Starting with the opening scene and Jeff falling to his death, which I don’t think was supposed to be funny. Ditto for those colourful flying-squirrel suits. None of it made any sense, or really worked as any kind of update on the original. Instead of surfer dudes we now have tattooed Extreme Sports Poly-Athletes and eco-warriors undermining capitalism via heavily-sponsored stunts set in the world’s most gorgeous locations. Despite the ad campaign touting how real these stunts were, it all has the feel of something as phoney as that giant wave at the end, which comes as the ironic revenge of Mother Earth upon her staunchest defender, reuniting him at last with the Many and the One. It’s a beautiful line, man. The dude abides.

Green Room (2015)

*. Green Room is a very familiar movie in some ways. A punk band finds itself playing a gig in hell, and soon find themselves trapped in what looks and feels like a particularly nasty episode of Breaking Bad.
*. Taking a step further back, the siege, with good guys barricaded inside while monsters outside are trying to break in, is one of the most basic horror plots. It makes the essential list of archetypes, even if we’re boiling down said list to only the top three or four.
*. From this basic concept, however, things soon wander off track. And I think “wander” is the right word. This is an action thriller that defies expectations by disappointing them in a casual way. So while the film is something different, I can’t say it’s all that effective in its difference.
*. I think the biggest example of this has to do with the monsters: a gang of neo-Nazis led by a guy named Darcy.
*. The gang are criminals and clearly bad dudes with murderous intent, but they are also strangely unthreatening. The scariest of them, a guy named Werm, disappears from the film shortly after being introduced, and I’m still not sure if he was a bad guy or just dim. This leaves Big Justin (who is easily overcome by the band), Gabe (who is actually a nice guy), Daniel (who turns out to be on the band’s side), a dog trainer who really only cares about the welfare of his dogs (who are in turn faithfully loyal to him), and a pair of supposedly elite “red shoelace” punks who turn out to be incompetent and cowardly.
*. Then there’s Darcy, played by Patrick Stewart. Stewart manages to lend the part some gravitas, but it doesn’t call for much and he doesn’t try to play it up at all. Darcy seems tired, weary. Early on he complains that his voice is giving out. When he remarks at the end that it’s been a hellish night for everyone, himself included, we can believe him. He’s not a sadistic person but just a small businessman who wants to clean up a mess that somebody else made. Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier says of him that his presence is more threatening than who he actually is, and calls this Stewart’s “quietest performance ever given on stage or screen.” Pat is disappointed when they finally meet face to face, commenting that he was so scary at night, when he was just a voice.

*. All of this strikes me as very realistic, especially compared to the usual fare of superhuman bad guys who have to be killed several times over. When people get killed in this movie, they stay dead. Also realistic is the simplicity of the story. Don’t be expecting the usual series of plot twists and revelations. There’s no conspiracy, as Daniel says at one point, it’s all just a clusterfuck.
*. I’d like to applaud all this, but it has the effect of draining the film of most of its energy. The heavies here need to be heavier. They have to be more dangerous.
*. As for our heroes, they are a strange bunch as well. And I think “strange” is also the right word. I’m not saying this to be negative, but Anton Yelchin and Imogen Poots both look and sound a bit strange. Then on top of this they play strange characters. What is Pat’s problem? Why can’t he think of a favourite band? I guess some performers are introverts, but he seems to take things too far. Amber, meanwhile, is a weirdly low-key badass, almost sleepwalking through the violence. When she kills Big Justin it’s like she’s undoing a zipper on his gut. Again one feels an entropic undertow in the film, a failure to really engage.
*. Or does Reece kill Justin? It isn’t clear to me. Amber just slices his belly open, which would be messy and painful as hell, but not a fatal wound, at least immediately. I suppose Reece might have broken his neck. It isn’t clear.
*. One point of against-convention realism I appreciated was all the business with the cellphones. I was dreading the now obligatory scene where someone would try to make a call only to find out that there was no reception in this backwoods hideout. They didn’t go that route, and the business of making calls becomes a real plot point.
*. I’ll confess I sent up a little prayer at the start that I wouldn’t have to listen to much punk music. That stuff’s OK live in a club, I guess, but everywhere else it just sounds like what it is, which is noise.
*. Speaking of punk, is there still a punk scene? I don’t recall it being big even back when it was big, but are bands like the Ain’t Rights really out there?

*. The script strikes me as not very well thought out. There’s a “big paintball speech” (quoting Jeremy Saulnier) that takes up a lot of time, twice, and it should have been dropped, as it doesn’t have a useful point to make. Why does Darcy tell Justin to give the band his gun? That struck me as a pointless, counterproductive gesture. All it does is drag out the negotiations. But later, when it seems like the gang wouldn’t have much trouble storming the green room (this is once they’d got the gun back), they just sit on their hands. And why is it that the only entrance to the secret lab and money vault for the gang is in a guest lounge? Does that make sense?
*. There are also inconsistencies. I like the realism of the shotgun being of no use in the initial breakout because Sam doesn’t know how to use it and she fires it without hitting anything. On the commentary Saulnier points out that this is more along the lines of what you would expect. But then we get the big paintball speech about going berserker (“full jackass”) and this does work for Amber and Pat. So realism just goes out the window. On the commentary he insists that the paintball speech is based on a true story and could really happen, but this contradicts what he’d just said about people who don’t know a thing about guns not being able to stand up against professionals.
*. Actually, I don’t think the film contradicts itself here. I just think the paintball speech and Saulnier’s commentary is misleading, since Pat and Amber’s plan is in fact quite well thought out. They don’t go crazy.
*. One nice line in the script comes when Darcy asks Gabe if Reece is still breathing. Gabe replies “A little bit, yeah.” The reason I like that is because it’s not exactly what you expect him to say (“barely” would be the formulaic answer), and it doesn’t really make sense, but it fits because Gabe is upset and maybe a bit confused. So give some credit for the script on that one (if the line wasn’t improvised).
*. They call it a green room because many of the early ones were painted green or had green décor. I don’t think many of them today are actually green or even have much green in them. This one doesn’t seem very green, which is disappointing because it would have made an interesting parallel with the green world outside, the dripping emerald forests of the Northwest. They could have really gone to town with that palette, but didn’t. Instead everything just looks dark.
*. The great outdoors also makes an interesting parallel with the club because the forest is just as claustrophobic as the green room, if not more so. Even the overhead shot of the road makes it look like it’s being overgrown with moss, the most basic line demarking civilization being lost. You don’t have the sense that Pat and Amber are escaping anything at the end but just going deeper into the heart of darkness.
*. I was a little surprised at how favourable a reception this one received. It’s not a bad movie, and it does take a different tack than many films of its ilk, but in the end nothing stands out about it and it’s too understated for its own good. The way Darcy just turns and walks away from Pat and Amber at the end underlines this. It’s so weird and anticlimactic a finish. Saulnier calls it “a defiant march,” and I guess on some level it is, but it looks as though he’s leaving the picture because he really has someplace else he has to be and he’s tired of all this now. And how does that make us feel?

Ant-Man (2015)

*. If you’re looking hard to find some significance here it may be in the comic evolution of Marvel films. Sure they always had a sense of humour, what with wise-cracking superheroes and an awareness of their own absurdity, but with Ant-Man you get something that’s a big step toward a superhero comedy. A proto-Deadpool, if you will. And even if you don’t care for such levity, it’s more welcome than those awful Dark Knight movies of Christopher Nolan. But then, could you imagine Christian Bale cracking wise?
*. It’s a good thing the tone here is so light, as it has to carry a very slight, very improbable, and very predictable plot.
*. I was wondering, before things got started, just how they were going to get started. I mean, we know the basic outline cold by now. Ordinary guy (even billionaire Tony Stark is very much an ordinary guy) gains super powers through some kind of accident. He has the usual problems adjusting his personal life to fit the new circumstances he finds himself in. There’s usually an older mentor figure who is involved at some point, and an evil corporation or alien force (sometimes allied) with designs on global domination. So as you take your seat you just want them to get on with it.
*. Well, at least things move quickly, even if there are no surprises. This is a movie that doesn’t want to surprise us. Is there anyone who didn’t think the safecracking business was a test right from the start? Or that Darren Cross was going to double-cross our heroes? You had to know that even without knowing his last name.
*. They even make a joke of this at times, especially with the running gag involving sucker punches. The person being punched is always taken by surprise, but I don’t think the audience ever is. And the movie knows this. It doesn’t have any tricks up its sleeve.
*. And yet it still works pretty well. The good guys are all likeable. Paul Rudd has that “scruffy yet buff dude” look that has become dominant for male leads (I mistook him for Ben Affleck in Gone Girl). Michael Douglas is decent. Evangeline Lilly comes close to stealing the show, in a part that is very poorly written. The three “wombats” are conventionally funny.
*. Where things fall down is with the villains. They aren’t interesting at all, and their motivations are only a throwaway. Basically they’re just Lex Luthor and Hydra ex machina (who the hell are those guys anyway?). Eventually it all comes to seem very much like the first Iron Man movie. Which, again, is something the movie is aware of. Michael Douglas makes the point early that his particle is far more significant an invention than Iron Man’s fancy suit. Because he knows you’ve already made the connection.
*. This knowingness could be annoying, and I guess it is a bit, but it’s all kept very low key. We go through all the obvious dramatic stageposts, like Hank Pym telling his daughter Hope about what happened to her mother, or Lang and Paxton bonding at the end, but then they’re undercut with a grin and a wink at how this is all just a “moment.”

*. Maybe it’s this winking knowingness that helps paper over what I found to be a rather disturbing scene when Cross miniaturizes a corporate enemy into a dab of goo and then wipes him up off the floor and flushes him down the toilet. I found that rather uncomfortable, but given the movie’s attitude of “it’s just a movie” it doesn’t carry any weight. Still, I wish they’d left it out.
*. Little people have always been a popular subject for effects films. Yet despite all the advances that have been made from the days of The Devil-Doll, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Tom Thumb, Gulliver’s Travels, and Fantastic Voyage, I didn’t find the effects here very compelling. I never had the sense of a tiny person in an oversized world. Maybe it was how fast everything was cut. Maybe it was the way Ant-Man was able to keep zipping back and forth from big to small. Maybe it was the fact that small Ant-Man has increased atomic density (or whatever) and so is just as strong as when he’s full-size, so he is in no real danger from angry kittens or vacuum cleaners. Or maybe it was the way CGI makes everything look fake. Whatever it was, I just didn’t feel involved in the microworld. Though the Thomas the Tank Engine stuff was cute.
*. One thing that did strike me as interesting was the idea of the fully wired hero. I guess Iron Man is somewhat the same thing, but Ant-Man, with his hacker friend, helmet that puts him in constant communication with everyone, ant-mounted cameras seeing everything, and special insect telepathy powers (that make no sense at all and which the movie doesn’t even try to explain), is networked. It almost seems like someone should be controlling him with a joystick while everyone else watches him live online.
*. It could have, and probably should have, been a lot worse. It’s incoherent and slapdash. There’s a whole scene of Ant-Man breaking into the Avengers mansion to steal . . . something, which is just an excuse to tie the character in to the rest of the Marvel universe. I guess. The jokes are lame. As noted, the plot is predictable, and also improbable in the extreme. I mean, ant-sized people who hold on to ICBMs while in flight? I can’t even begin to explain all the things wrong with that. Finally, the action scenes struck me as unexceptional. I couldn’t get into any of them.
*. Nevertheless, it has a kind of goofy charm that has become the Marvel house style. This helps smooth things over. Like all the Marvel movies I can think of (or remember) it’s certainly not worth watching twice, but it’s painless the first time around.

The Mist (2007)

*. It seems to me that any discussion of this movie has to begin, and perhaps even end, with the matter of dates.
*. The original Stephen King story, or novella, it’s based on was first published in 1980. It then appeared in slightly edited form in his collection Skeleton Crew, which came out in 1985.
*. This is important because of a few other dates: George Romero’s The Crazies (1973) and Dawn of the Dead (1978), and Romero and King’s collaboration Creepshow (1982). Romero and King are good friends and I think it’s hard to mistake the influence the earlier Romero pictures had on The Mist. In particular the small group of survivors of an apocalyptic event who are besieged by monsters provides the bedrock. The politics aren’t much different either.
*. But this isn’t 1980, or 1985. It’s 2007. Or it might be. There’s a sort of time-warp feel to a lot of the proceedings and it seems a low-tech version of the twenty-first century in a lot of ways. Frank Darabont also originally wanted the movie to be released in black and white because he saw the story as being “a bit of a throwback,” which must have thrilled the studio even less than his downbeat ending.
*. Still on the matter of dates, Darabont also says that the colour version feels “very much like a mid-seventies kind of movie to me.” So we’re still going way back here, to Romero and early King.
*. Another date to keep in mind: 1980. The year of Alien, and creatures bursting out of the bodies of impregnated men. You can’t see the MP stuck in the spider’s cocoon and not think of a similar scene deleted from the theatrical release of Alien (but put back in Aliens). In Creepshow‘s final story we also see cockroaches erupting from the corpse of Upson Pratt. So this was something very much in the air, but again the air of 1980, not 2007. I hasten to add, however, that nothing like it occurs in the novella.
*. In general I like these siege movies, but they do become a bit conventional. What makes this worse here is how schematic it all is. We even get a whole scene where the breakdown of democracy is laid out. When people are frightened, we are told, they will revert to tribal politics and a crude theocracy. Amanda’s “faith in humanity” and belief that “people are basically good, decent” will melt before the fanaticism of Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden).
*. Oh, how King hates these religious fanatics. In a deleted extended scene where Mrs. Carmody is praying in the washroom stall this is really driven home. In the theatrical release we just see her face in close-up, but in the extended scene much is made of the way she’s on her knees praying to a toilet. Get it? If not, her hateful rejoinder to Amanda and subsequent behaviour makes the point loud and clear.

*. There’s stuff to like here, especially from the cast, including a number of Darabont’s regular stable (warming up for The Walking Dead). But there was more that I didn’t like, including some pretty important stuff.
*. For starters, it’s just too long. Darabont really wanted to get it to come in under two hours, which, by his reckoning, he just did (if you don’t count the closing credits). But despite his best efforts it just doesn’t move fast enough, or with enough of a sense of urgency. I also had the feeling that action and suspense sequences are not really Darabont’s thing. They certainly don’t build effectively here.
*. Another thing dragging it down is the CGI work. This really isn’t very good. Our first monster sighting comes with the tentacles reaching into the loading dock, and they’re also the worst. As you know, I’m no big fan of CGI, but I’ll admit it can be very effective when done right. But if it’s off just a bit and you think you’re just looking at a cartoon, you’re in trouble. This movie is in trouble.

*. Then there is the behaviour of the different characters. I had a hard time buying it. Some of the people we meet seem like they are only plot devices if not quite caricatures. There’s mad Mrs. Carmody. There’s the legalistic/rationalistic Judge. There’s the threatened kid and the suddenly vulnerable parent. There are the local yokels who are weak and ignorant bullies. There’s the woman who only wants to go home to her children.
*. About the only counter-intuitive characterization comes with the soldiers. Why are they such wimps? One would expect them to become quasi-authority figures in such a crisis, as they have uniforms and seem to have more information about what’s going on than anyone else. But they are totally useless.
*. Wouldn’t the logical thing to assume about the mist be that it was some kind of poisonous or hallucinatory gas? And yet even before the monsters appear this doesn’t seem to be something anyone even considers. They’re not afraid of the mist per se at all but of what might be in it. This struck me as weird.

*. A good example of the piling up of little, nagging doubts about what was happening comes when David’s group makes it escape from the market to his vehicle. Three things about this scene bugged me.
*. (1) How the hell does the group get separated? They all go out together and they only have a short distance to go to get to David’s vehicle, so how do some of them manage to get lost?
*. (2) Once the one group has made it to the vehicle, why does David lay on the horn and start yelling and screaming to attract the others? Wouldn’t this be a sure way to just get more of the bugs to attack him?
*. (3) When he finally pulls out, why does he put on all of his headlights (and he has stadium lighting rigged out on that Toyota Land Cruiser) to drive through the fog? Seeing as it’s daylight (they planned to leave at dawn) why would they bother? Headlights don’t help much in a heavy fog or mist. In fact they make it worse. And like making all that noise, wouldn’t the lights just attract the bugs? We already know that’s what attracted them to the windows of the market.
*. These are all relatively minor points, but the way they pile up just within one scene is disturbing. By the time the group drove away I was left shaking my head.

*. Then there is the matter of the ending. Unlike in the novella, David and his gang don’t just drive off into the mist. For some reason Darabont thought such an open ending was a non-starter, though it seemed to work for Hitchcock in The Birds. So he came up with something a little more final.
*. After mentioning Hitch in this context, I’ll drop in this passage from the end of King’s novella, where the narrator reflects on the inconclusiveness of his story: “It is, I suppose, what my father always called ‘an Alfred Hitchcock ending,’ by which he meant a conclusion in ambiguity that allowed the reader or viewer to make up his own mind about how things ended. My father had nothing but contempt for such stories, saying they were ‘cheap shots.'” No wonder King was so impressed with what Darabont did.
*. I won’t give the ending away, but I will say that I don’t like it. I don’t even care much for the music (a piece by Dead Can Dance), not because I don’t like the music but because it doesn’t seem to fit the atmosphere. Darabont thought it a fitting “requiem for the human race,” but it just sounds off to me. It also has the unfortunate effect of making the proceedings feel even more solemn and portentous than they already are.
*. More to the point, I couldn’t really buy the group’s final decision. They weren’t really in extremis at that point. Hell, they’d already been through worse. So it didn’t seem like something they had to do, at least right away. Of course it’s later revealed to have been a mistake, but the problem is that it seemed like a mistake to me at the time.
*. In sum, it strikes me as a good little ’80s horror flick that is uncomfortable in the twenty-first century. It’s a Lovecraft set-up (I assume that’s Cthulhu himself plodding off through the mist at the end), married to all of King’s usual thematic touchstones (family and community threatened with breakdown), molded on to a Romero plot. The thing is, by 2007 we’d already seen all of this and seen it done better. Meanwhile, the flaws (especially the crude characterization and ugly CGI) loom even larger than they would have thirty years ago.
*. The moral of the story, that (in Darabont’s words) “the monsters inside the market are worse than the monsters outside the market,” is a simple one. Presumably it’s the same thing that attracted Darabont to The Walking Dead, where the same could be said of the survivors and the zombies. I guess there’s nothing wrong with being reminded of this — we have met the enemy and he is us — but The Mist is in no rush to make the point and let us go.

Howl (2015)

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*. In my notes on Train to Busan I mentioned how that film showed glimmers of being something more than just another zombie movie. Mainly because it was about zombies on a train. Unfortunately, that didn’t make it different enough.
*. Howl seems like it might be a new twist on the werewolf genre because it’s about werewolves on a train. But it falls short too. They’re both good movies, but they give the sense of having left something on the table, an unrealized potential.
*. To extend the comparison between the two movies, they’re both (a) set mainly on trains, and (b) deal with a group of besieged passengers who have to work together in order to survive, but who eventually fall out and start fighting among themselves.
*. I’d also add that where they both try to be a bit different is in the changes they make to their iconic monsters. The zombies in Train to Busan aren’t really zombies (purists will argue) and the creatures in this movie aren’t conventional werewolves. But they’re close enough, so those are the labels I’m using. And the fact that the monsters are different, without being all that different, gives some idea of the limitations faced by such genre fare.

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*. Howl is an easy movie to like because it has a low-key sense of humour and because the hero, Joe (Ed Speleers), is such an agreeable fellow. He’s young, good-looking, and going nowhere in what seems to be a terrible job. And that same sense of averageness characterizes the entire cast. These aren’t beautiful people with interesting lives. In fact, they seem like a bunch of losers. Who else would be riding this midnight train?
*. The decision to set the movie on a train isn’t easy to understand. The fact that the train isn’t moving kind of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it? Once it’s stopped it might as well be just another cabin in the woods.
*. I don’t think it’s really possible, by the way, for a passenger train, even on such a run as this, to stop dead on the tracks all night without someone bothering to check in. As Adrian says at one point, the nearest town is only a couple of miles away.
*. The werewolves, it has to be said, are really disappointing. They’re just people walking around in silly-looking rubber suits. I did like their crooked legs and eyes that glow in the dark, but not enough is made of this. There are also no big transformation scenes, which are sort of a werewolf-movie staple. The director, Paul Hyett, is perhaps best known for his special make-up effects on films like The Descent and Dog Soldiers (another werewolf movie), so this was a bit of a letdown.

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*. I wonder if they thought of making it in black and white, just for fun. I mean, there is no colour in this movie at all. Even the blood looks black. But then photography in black-and-white is a different skill altogether from shooting in colour and maybe there aren’t a lot of people who still know how to do it.
*. The sound seemed particularly bad to me, as I had a lot of trouble making out what people were saying. But that might just be me getting older. In any event, I think I must have missed something. Why are they still so afraid of other werewolves being outside the train after they kill the first one? Had they seen more than one?
*. It’s kind of pointless calling out characters in a horror movie for doing something incredibly stupid that puts them at risk, but even so I have to register my amazement at the bookworm Matthew deciding to take a long walk in the woods when he hears someone calling for help, especially as he is supposed to be assisting Billy (the mechanic) in fixing the train. I mean, come on. That makes no sense at all, and just tells you five minutes in advance that Matthew is about to be killed.
*. Poor Billy is written off a bit casually, isn’t he? He’s almost the co-hero of the piece, often seen taking a stand alongside Joe. I was sort of surprised Joe didn’t try to help him.
*. I don’t think this is a major contribution to the genre, and it doesn’t break any new ground, but it’s a decent enough flick to pass the time. It was released direct-to-video, which I think is right. Though I’m not sure how much longer that distinction will mean anything.

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Late Phases (2014)

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*. Low expectations can be a wonderful thing. I came to this movie anticipating nothing. It didn’t have a wide release, wasn’t a sleeper hit at the box office, and received mostly middling reviews (on balance, somewhat negative). I think you’d have to be a real horror aficionado to have even heard of it. So, with all of that, I was pleasantly surprised.
*. In fact, I really liked Late Phases. Mostly for two reasons: (1) the lead performance by Nick Damici as the irascible blind Vietnam vet, and (2) the intelligent script.
*. We know we’re in trouble right away as we enter the gated retirement community of Crescent Bay. In the first place, it’s not a place you go to live but, as Ambrose puts it, you go to die. That’s foreshadowing. We may wonder if the gate is there to keep people out so much as to keep them in. Then the welcoming committee shows up at Ambrose’s house and all we can think of is a troop of Stepford wives. This is obviously all a façade.
*. I’ve seen Late Phases compared to Bubba Ho-Tep (which has the residents of a nursing home fighting a mummy), but it doesn’t adopt that movie’s comic tone. Instead it grounds its fantastic tale in realism. Children who feel guilty about abandoning their parents, and who suspect their parents’ fears may be the result of dementia. A church congregation full of nothing but (judgmental) seniors. Ambrose’s bonding with his service dog. We recognize and sympathize with all of this.
*. With regard to the religious angle, I guess we have to chalk this movie up as being yet another example of the complete inability of faith to provide any kind of defence or support in the fight against supernatural forms of evil. I’ve mentioned this before in my notes on movies like Paranormal Activity and The Witch, and it’s made very clear here as the werewolf explains that all that “Sunday school garbage” of confession and the rosary, necklace and prayers, is no use at all in fighting lycanthropy. When he complains that “All I want to do is live and worship and kill in solitude and die in peace,” he might be staking out a new confession.
*. You certainly can’t call it an idiot plot. Ambrose knows exactly what’s going on as soon as he hears that his neighbour was killed on the night of a full moon. That sinks it. Werewolves. No doubt in his mind. Time to start ordering some silver bullets.
*. The werewolf is pretty sharp too. The plan to go around recruiting reinforcements seemed like a good one to me. He was certainly thinking ahead.
*. The werewolf costumes probably received the most negative reaction from critics, and here I have to agree. They look terrible. They sort of reminded me of the evil bunny in Donnie Darko, and that is not a movie I like being reminded of.
*. The big transformation scene, however, isn’t bad. It’s not all CGI and has the villain sort of pulling apart his human skin to release his inner wolf, which I thought fairly original and thematically apt.
*. The direction by Adrián García Bogliano strikes me as kind of flat, but I don’t how much of that might be attributed to wanting a low-key approach fitting the twilight world of Crescent Bay, or to the fact that this was Bogliano’s first English-language feature. I certainly thought it could have been creepier, especially given the blind hero.
*. Still, I thought it was an original concept, with some good acting on display and an interesting werewolf. The last reel isn’t great, and it ends on a schmaltzy note, but in the bottomless heap of noisy dreck out there I thought this was a small but enjoyable moment of creativity and quiet.

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Wer (2013)

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*. This is a film that might have been something special. A legal thriller with an international flavour crossed with a werewolf story, all told via the now familiar “faux-documentary” melange of different video styles, from shaky cam to CCTV security video to news coverage.
*. Maybe it’s the mash-up of styles that doesn’t work. I’m not sure if you can make a good movie that jumps around so much between the different formats. You need time to adjust.
*. This confusion as to what direction the movie is going in follows through to the presentation of the werewolf. For the most part he’s just a big hairy guy with super strength. We see his shape starting to shift under his skin in what seems to be a prelude to a transformation scene, but then there is no transformation. He just stays a big hairy guy. He can apparently drop to all fours and run at 70 miles per hour, but this doesn’t involve any change in form either. It’s like the producers weren’t entirely sure they wanted him to be a werewolf, or even what they wanted him to be.
*. I thought they might be trying to make some sort of social or political point about him at first. Talan Gwynek is a Romanian immigrant (which is where the film was actually shot) and apparently his family are on the outs with the locals because they’re sitting on land that’s slated to be a depository for nuclear waste. The American lawyer who comes to his defence is some kind of human rights specialist. So things are set up to come at us with a Message. But in the second half of the movie all of this is dropped.
*. The confusion might have also infected the cast. None of the performances here strike me as being very good and I think it might be because the actors seem lost much of the time. I wonder if they were being asked to improvise a lot. A number of the scenes have the look of rough takes where they’re rehearsing.
*. Brian Scott O’Connor plays Talan but he doesn’t have to do much since the character remains a cipher. Even in human form he’s just a looming presence, his face concealed behind a curtain of dirty locks. We don’t have any sympathy for him and he’s without any psychological interest.
*. Werewolf movies are hard because, as with zombies, the audience knows the drill. I think that a big problem here is that there are no twists or new spins given to the material (the medicalization of lycanthropy has always been part of the genre), so that we’re all out ahead of everyone else. Much of the first half is quite slow moving, and the second half settles into a lot of conventional situations. There are even a bunch of corny jump scares (though I did like the dropping arm in the morgue).
*. The ending, by which I mean the climax and not the epilogue, is very bad. Very, very bad. The improbabilities keep mounting as the movie chugs along until we hit a veritable crescendo of unbelievability. Really, you’re going to have to try hard not to laugh.
*. I hate to say any movie that I don’t find morally objectionable is all bad, so I’ll just repeat that I did like the jump scare in the morgue and I also liked the homage to Un Chien Andalou (as dramatically pointless as it was). Aside from those two moments, I thought this was pretty much a failure in every regard. Some hopeful critics online seem to have seen in it a promising sign of life in the werewolf genre. I think they were kidding themselves, and not paying enough attention to what else has been going on. This is definitely one to be missed.

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The Wolfman (2010)

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*. The twenty-first century saw a lot of horror franchise re-sets. Most of these were returns to slasher franchises that had originated in the late 1970s or 1980s, but they didn’t leave the classics alone either.
*. The Wolfman may be thought of as a belated entry into the sweepstakes, following up on Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), I guess this should be Curt Siodmak’s The Wolf Man, as there was no other firm literary precedent. But they changed the title, and, once it gets rolling, a lot of other things too.
*. We still have the Talbots, and Larry Talbot returning home after the death of his brother. Again, father and son seem a mismatched pair. I wonder who thought Anthony Hopkins and Benicio Del Toro would go well together. At least they try to explain things this time out with a Spanish mom. In any event, Old Man Talbot still has a telescope in his parlour, though he’s not an astronomer. We still have Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt), who still runs an antique shop, as Larry’s love interest. We still have the gypsy Maleva (Geraldine Chapman), who isn’t much help to anyone in the film, or the audience either. We still have that silver wolf’s head walking stick, though it doesn’t have much purpose either, except to give Max von Sydow a gratuitous cameo (in the Director’s Cut version only).

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*. And, sadly, we still have that lousy werewolf poem. “Even a man who is pure in heart . . .” Ugh. I mean, that’s not even good bad poetry.
*. They also stuck with a classic werewolf look. I would describe this as the “no snout” werewolf, typical of the creature’s appearance in the early days. In the 1980s werewolf movies The Howling and An American Werewolf in London werewolves got nastier looking just by giving them protruding snouts. They looked like real wolves, and had scarier teeth.
*. I prefer those long-snout werewolves, but the wolves here won an Academy Award for Best Achievement in Makeup. I’m not sure why. Rick Baker deliberately chose to make the design for the werewolf as close to Jack Pierce’s original conception as possible. Mission accomplished, but so? I thought Baker did more impressive work thirty years earlier. As he puts it, “when I did An American Werewolf in London, we went from this naked man to a four-legged hound from Hell, and we had a lot of room to go from the transformation and do a lot of really extreme things. Here we have Benicio del Toro, who’s practically the Wolf Man already, to Benicio del Toro with more hair and bigger teeth.”
*. Alas, poor Singh. He seemed like an interesting character. Couldn’t they have found something for him to do? As it is, he has no part to play in the story at all, and doesn’t even get to go down fighting but just appears as a corpse almost as an afterthought.

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*. Of the big three classic remakes, only Bram Stoker’s Dracula was any good. Where they all seem to go wrong is in their inflation of what were B-movies into big-budget epics. I mentioned in my notes on The Wolf Man how some of the success of the first round of Universal horrors could be attributed to their short running times. Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolf Man all clocked in at around 70 minutes. This movie, in the Director’s Cut version, goes a full two hours. And all that extra time is not well spent.
*. A lot of it is taken up with a twisted family back story that tells us more than we really need or want to know. Del Toro always look like bad news and I think he could have been left on his own. As Baker remarked, he might not have even needed makeup.
*. The transformations are mostly CGI, and I don’t think it’s great CGI. The action sequences emphasize being fast and shocking, with no attempt made at suspense. As a result, there’s nothing really scary about this movie at all.
*. The art direction and production design are nice, but nothing new. And yet the story seems mainly designed to show them off. As far as character is concerned, the script is as shaggy as the lycanthropes, and even the love interest fizzles (as, I should say, it also did in the original).
*. Critics and audiences seem to have disliked it equally. It’s harshest critic, however, may have been Universal Pictures head Ron Meyers: “‘One of the worst movies we ever made. The moment I saw it I thought, ‘What have we all done here?’ That movie was crappy. We all went wrong. That’s one we should have smelled out a long time ago. The script never got right . . . The director was wrong. Benicio [del Toro] stunk. It all stunk.” Why should I say anything more?

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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 . . .