Category Archives: 2010s

Serenity (2019)

*. Those of you who have been reading these notes for a while know how I like to talk about how a video-game aesthetic took over mainstream filmmaking in the twenty-first century. I’m not just talking about the ubiquitous use of CGI, but all that comes with it, like the denial of reality, a sense of moral weightlessness, and a general superficiality that presents character as only pixel deep.
*. A glimpse of things to come was what I dubbed the Year of the Simulacrum: 1998. This was the year of The Matrix, Dark City, and The Truman Show. In each of these movies reality was revealed to be an artificial construct controlled by sinister forces. We hadn’t quite arrived in the new dispensation yet, but these were billboards announcing what was up ahead.
*. Which brings me to Serenity, a movie that takes the video-game movie to its logical next step by positing that reality isn’t just like a video game, but is in fact such a construct. In this way it’s like the simulacrum trilogy, only without any of the philosophical and moral questioning those movies indulged. In fact, it takes that questioning and turns it into pure mush.
*. Life, you see, is just a game made up by a kid in his bedroom. What’s more, this game isn’t just reality, it’s something even more than that. It is the afterlife, with Plymouth (the game’s version of Truman’s Seahaven Island) being a digital Garden of Eden. And I don’t mean it’s a cloud where consciousness can be uploaded, the so-called rapture of the nerds, but it’s really heaven.
*. Blame writer-director Steven Knight. The direction is totally slack and the script trash. The boy invents the game in part because his step-father is a jerk. How big a jerk? He’s the kind of guy who goes on a fishing trip and immediately starts talking about where he can find some children to fuck up the ass and how he abuses his son and plans on killing him. So I guess that means he’s a bad guy.
*. The cast is decent. But what can poor Anne Hathaway do with such a one-dimensional part? Or Jason Clarke, usually so enjoyable, do in his? Diane Lane just shows up, for no reason at all. Matthew McConaughey at least gets to take his clothes off and walk around in a wet t-shirt.
*. The twist, if you can call it that, is so stupid I don’t know how to properly address it. Of course it makes no sense at all, but in addition it’s gooey with sentimentality and had the effect of making me care even less about any of the characters since absolutely nothing is at stake. Reality is plastic, there are no rules, and death is no more real, or unreal, than anything else. “I don’t know. I don’t know what happened. I don’t know anything, you know. Nobody knows anything. You know, all that I know is that there’s a you and a me somewhere.” That’s not heavy, it’s thin.
*. Enough already. I can’t remember the last time I hated a movie so much. I mean I hate it for the fact that it even exists as much as for what it represents. We were warned in 1998. And twenty years later we get this?

The Happy House (2013)

*. I had my hopes raised slightly for this one. It begins with a distant opening shot of a man with a butterfly net and some odd scoring in the background. Then we are introduced to an engaging young couple (Khan Baykal and Aya Cash) who are leaving the city to spend some quiet time at a semi-rural bread-and-breakfast. En route we learn that their cellphones have lost reception, naturally. Sure it’s a clichéd set-up, but there’s nothing wrong with that.
*. The bread-and-breakfast, designated the Happy House, turns out to be a strange place, with something of the atmosphere of Cold Comfort Farm and an M. Night Shyamalam film. The hostess (Marceline Hugot) presents the couple with a list of rules whose violation will be met with some unspecified punishment. She makes delicious blueberry muffins with a secret ingredient. All of this is fun.
*. Unfortunately, The Happy House never really delivers, as a comedy, a horror, or a horror-comedy. Only halfway through the mystery of the bed-and-breakfast is quietly disposed of and an escaped serial killer is tossed into the mix, forcing the movie to settle down into a situation that is handled without any suspense or humour. For a movie like this to succeed, especially in the present day and age, it needed far faster and wittier dialogue or more signature notes in the direction. As it is, writer-director D. W. Young seems to have been infected by the geniality of his setting. A cozy thriller might have worked, but it’s not clear that’s the direction he really wanted to go in.
*. Still, given its generally amiable atmosphere and likeable stars The Happy House is an enjoyably quiet film in a genre not known for its silences or sense of restraint. Given that it sets out to be a satire of sorts on horror clichés (itself nothing new), there were, however, real limits as to how different it could be.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012)

*. This is cynical, trash filmmaking, but you can’t blame it for being that.
*. Seth Grahame-Smith may have been as surprised as anyone at the success of his mash-up novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which was immediately turned into a movie with the same viral title. The next step must have seemed obvious: do the exact same thing again. So he duly took the formula of historical drama-meets-comic book monster movie and just changed the names.
*. Actually, as Grahame-Smith tells the story on the DVD commentary, he was going to bookstores in 2009, the bicentenary of Lincoln’s birth, and noticing piles of books on Lincoln beside piles of Twilight novels. He drew the conclusion that “the two hottest things in literature in 2009 were Lincoln and vampires.” He might have added superheroes, and since he saw in Lincoln a real-life superhero the fit was perfect. Again, the next step was obvious.
*. Why do I call it cynical? Not just because it’s a cash grab, but because I don’t get the sense these books (and movies) come out of any investment in the genres being mined. I didn’t think Grahame-Smith cared about zombies much at all in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and he seems, what I wouldn’t have thought possible, to have even less interest in vampires here.
*. In fact, it’s kind of hard to even think of them as vampires. They don’t sleep in coffins. Garlic, crosses, and wooden stakes are never used against them. Instead their only weakness is for silver, which I thought only applied to werewolves. Apparently some good nineteenth-century sun cream and stylish sunglasses take care of the daylight thing. Otherwise they’re just basically zombies with fangs.
*. Even the plot is a rehash of the previous book/film, with the nation at war against an army of the undead. Which works for zombies, who don’t know better, but doesn’t make any sense at all for vampires.
*. In short, there are no surprises. But I don’t think the audience for such a film would be expecting any. They would be looking for a lot of CGI, a bit of splatter, some comic book action, and a bit of period romance thrown in for good measure. All of which the film delivers. But it only just clears this low bar.
*. Despite its “ridiculous conceit” (Grahame-Smith) it’s also totally devoid of humour. I found this odd, but apparently it was always intentional. Producer Tim Burton wanted to play it absolutely straight, and felt this should be “the guiding principle throughout everything.” Grahame-Smith agreed, saying “the only way to do this [was] to do it earnestly, [and] fight back against the craziness of the title.”
*. Why? Roger Ebert concurred, praising the film’s “admirable seriousness,” and saying that this may have been the only way it could have possibly worked. Apparently the calculation was that the funny title and absurd premise was all the comedy the film needed, and seriousness would give it balance. I don’t understand this. If the movie is too stupid to be taken seriously, why take it seriously? Why not have some jokes, or a bit of fun? It’s not like realism could have ever been a goal, what with all the digital effects and things like the stampede fight.
*. I was surprised to learn from the commentary that the book had no main villain (the Adam character in the movie) and no fiery climax. Which may explain why they feel like such formulaic elements. The rest of the characters are uninteresting and ahistorical, inhabiting not a recognizable past but an alternate, digitized universe. Even the makeup to age the face of Mary Lincoln (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) was digital. I guess it’s all slick enough technically but I didn’t find any of it interesting or new. It sure didn’t take long, but after only a couple of flicks the mash-up genre was already feeling played out.

Hostiles (2017)

*. Hostiles lost me in the first five minutes. It begins with a band of Indians attacking an isolated homestead. This did not strike me as a wise move. There are only six of them and they charge their horses across a large open field in broad daylight, firing pistols and arrows. The homesteader has at least one repeating rifle in his bunker-like log cabin. This gives him a big advantage. If he just stands by a window he could probably pick off the attacking Comanche with ease. Maybe his wife (Rosamund Pike) could get a gun and help. Frontier women were tough, and as we find out later she knows how to shoot.
*. That’s not what happens. Instead Mr. Homesteader runs out of the house and charges the Indians. He is immediately cut down, as are his children (his wife, Rosamund Pike, survives). What, I was left to wonder, was I watching?
*. Nothing good. And it’s nothing good that goes on for another two-plus hours. Hostiles is an intense, dramatic Western. I’ll now break down what this means.
*. (1) It moves very slowly. The characters move slowly. Then they stop, get down on their haunches, and the camera looks at them. During the “making of” featurette included with the DVD Pike mentions how writer-director Scott Cooper “cast actors with so much depth that you can just look into these faces for days and communicate silently. And it’s so exciting.” Well, at least it feels like days we spend looking into Christian Bale’s mournful eyes. And to be fair, he does have a great movie face. But I wouldn’t call looking at it here exciting.
*. (2) The script is stiff, full of stony utterances that have to be delivered in such a way as to give them their full weight. Christian Bale, as per usual, reads his with whispered intensity. People say things like “As you well know, death rides on every hand.” “Sometimes I envy the finality of death. The certainty. And I have to drive those thoughts away when I’m weak.” “Don’t look back, my friend. Go in a good way. A part of me dies with you.”
*. (3) It’s not just the way they say their lines. The rest of the performances are just as sclerotic. Nobody smiles. Nobody is relaxed. Pike invites Bale to sleep with her in her tent but he looks like he’d be more comfortable in the cold and rain outside.
*. (4) There’s a morose score, that in places sounds to me like “Silent Night.” As you know, I watch movies with the subtitles on. The subtitles refer to this as “somber music.”
*. (5) The action takes place against an epically beautiful natural landscape. As I said in my notes on The Revenant, “great photography should be about more than making things that are already beautiful look beautiful.” Nice scenery is often confused with brilliant photography. It actually owes more to the location scouts than the cinematographer. You can’t make national parks with snowy mountains in the distance look bad. Though apparently you can get clouds to disappear pretty quickly. Observe two shots in the same location that are only separated by a couple of minutes, at most, of real time.

*. (6) There is an important Political Message. Here’s the plot: Indian-killer Bale has to escort a dying Indian chief to his home lands. He is reluctant to the point of insubordination and facing a court martial, but apparently he is the only one capable of carrying out this mission. He picks up Indian-attack survivor Pike along the way. Somehow — are you ready for this? — they have to overcome their hate and prejudice and learn to work together and trust one another if they are to survive. The white men will apologize for stealing the Natives’ land. The Indian family will then be conveniently killed off except for a little boy who wins the racial lottery at the end, being adopted by Pike, dressed up in a three-piece suit, and handed a copy of Caesar’s Gallic War.
*. I won’t go on in this vein. I didn’t like Hostiles much at all. It is very slow, clichéd, and improbable. The final battle, for example, is even more ridiculous than the one at the beginning, with a racist landowner and his hirelings just showing up and immediately getting into a gunfight with some federal troopers for little apparent reason beyond a nineteenth-century warning to “get off my lawn.” Things escalate, as the saying goes, rather quickly.
*. David Sims: “Hostiles is a classic revisionist western, stripping away the traditional notions of good guys and bad guys on the American frontier and instead digging into the poisonous effect of decades of colonial warfare against the continent’s indigenous peoples. But though the film seeks to avoid many of the genre’s clichés, it nonetheless ends up slipping into some well-worn and dull dynamics of noble Indians teaching important lessons to their American occupiers.”
*. I wonder at what point we have to stop using the term “revisionist Western.” I mean, if this is “a classic revisionist western” then it’s not really revisionist any more, is it? I suppose “revisionist” in this context just means something other than a “classic” Hollywood Western. Like something made by John Ford (who Cooper quotes from occasionally). But surely the genre has been demythologized so completely by now (beginning with the Spaghetti Westerns) it can’t be revised much more. This vision of the West has become the authorized version. There’s nothing revisionist about it.
*. I don’t understand the good reviews this movie received. At best it’s a stiff, talky oater with nothing new to say and which goes on far too long. At worst it slips into unintentional humour. The scene where the good guys take out the camp of fur trappers who kidnapped their womenfolk is hilarious, what with the yelling and other noises coming out of the shaking tents. But I guess there are still critics out there who take this sort of thing seriously. Either that or there aren’t many real critics left. One or th’other.

The Domestics (2018)

*. Orion Pictures. There’s a logo that made me do a double take. I thought this was a new movie.
*. Orion was basically shut down in the late ’90s (it was bought by MGM in 1997) but, and this I didn’t know, it was relaunched in 2018. Or at least Orion Classics was relaunched as a distribution platform for movies like this.
*. I hadn’t heard of Orion being back, and I hadn’t heard of The Domestics either. As a result I wasn’t expecting much, which led to my enjoying it probably more than I should have.
*. Despite the title, which suggests some sort of suburban housecleaning service, what we have here is a post-apocalyptic take on The Warriors. A young husband and wife (Kate Bosworth and Tyler Hoechlin) are on a road trip through Wisconsin after a chemical attack, apparently directed by the U.S. government, has killed off a lot of the population. Violent gangs now drive around killing people. A radio DJ provides a chorus to the action.
*. That’s the premise, stated almost as briefly as it is in the movie. We never figure out why the government decided to instigate the end of the world as we know it, or why Bosworth’s character thinks a drive to Milwaukee is a good idea given the present state of uncivilization, but here we are and there they go.

*. None of that is important anyway. The only thing that’s going on here is that the couple go from place to place, trying to escape from different novelty gangs. There are the Sheets, the Nailers, the Gamblers, the Plowboys, and a bunch of solo bad guys who aren’t branded but more or less do their own thing. There’s a campy sadistic gay fellow, for example. And of course the perfectly normal-seeming family who turn out to be cannibals. No spoiler alert for that one. You should have seen it coming if you’ve seen any of these movies or read any books in the same genre. Cannibals are not only standard fare but at this point almost obligatory. We don’t raise an eyebrow at them in The Road or The Book of Eli. Indeed, when the father and daughter in the high-rise in 28 Days Later turned out not to be cannibals I was shocked.
*. So it’s all pretty standard stuff, only made interesting by the originality of the various gimmicks the gangs identify with. The Plowboys, for example, drive snow plows. The Gamblers make wagers on the deaths of their victims and also wear giant animal heads.
*. All of this would be pretty ho-hum, but it’s a good-looking movie and the action scenes are decent. This helps overcome a pair of boring leads and a predictable bunch of survival scenarios. Maybe it was the Orion logo at the beginning, but I couldn’t help getting a retro feel from the proceedings. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s not a sign of progress either.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2019)

*. I’m really glad they made this movie, as I was never going to read the book it was based on. Thomas Piketty’s surprise 2013 bestseller ran over 700 pages in its 2014 English translation and I was fine with just reading reviews that summarized the argument.
*. The main point, as I understand it, is that under normal operating conditions (i.e., without any crisis like a Great Depression or a World War) capitalism creates social and economic inequality on a scale that is unhealthy for a functioning democracy. Power and wealth become concentrated in a class of oligarchs and we fall into a state of social immobility.
*. Despite the best efforts to undercut Piketty’s findings, I think his analysis has been shown to stand up. In any event, it’s a point of view I’m in broad agreement with, leaving me to nod along with the talking heads who provide the play-by-play for the film version.
*. That said, I can’t say I learned very much here. The most interesting part was the discussion of a social psychology experiment that had people playing a rigged Monopoly board game. What’s more, we really only get to the twenty-first century in the last part of the film, the rest being taken up with a general economic history of the modern world that I didn’t think was always on point. The presentation follows what has become a uniform documentary style that mixes contemporary footage with archival material, music, and the aforementioned talking heads. Think of movies on similar subjects like Jennifer Abbott and Mark Achbar’s The Corporation and Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job. Contrary voices aren’t heard from and there is little if any attempt to present the data behind Piketty’s conclusions visually.
*. So a decent documentary on a very important subject, but not groundbreaking in terms of its technique and without the kind of bite I think you’d expect it to have. But if the facts are on your side you can indulge a bit of anger.

Zombieland: Double Tap (2019)

*. Yeah, I’m not sure why I bothered with this one. I didn’t like Zombieland. So the pull quote on the DVD box — “Just as great as the first Zombieland” — wasn’t that big a draw. But I guess I figured that after ten years they’d had time to come up with something new. They certainly had the budget and the talent to make it work.
*. Or maybe I was just curious.
*. I wasn’t impressed. They didn’t even have a new script. After bonding as a family at the end of the last movie the quartet of Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), Wichita (Emma Stone), and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) quickly fall apart again. Which means they have to go on the road, again, and learn to come together as a family. Again. Instead of going to Pacific Playland they go to a commune called Babylon. Same thing. Same desperate final battle, where it seems all is lost until . . . you get the picture.
*. So it’s more of the same. Which isn’t the worst thing in the world. A bit disappointing, as you’d think they’d have found more for the supporting players, including a very game Zoey Deutch, Luke Wilson, and Rosario Dawson, to do. But I guess they figured they had to follow the rules. Or the commandments. Or the formula.
*. I was puzzled as to why they bothered with the T-800 zombies. They don’t serve any plot function. Nothing hinges on the fact that the survivors are facing a new breed of super zombie. And they pretty much behave the same way. They certainly aren’t any smarter (or even as smart as the “Hawking” model). On the commentary track director Ruben Fleischer calls them a “bigger, badder, harder-to-kill zombie,” but they aren’t bigger, they’re no more or less bad, and the only reason they’re harder to kill is because when fighting them our heroes inexplicably stop going for head shots. Why is anyone surprised when the zombie Tallahassee shoots keeps coming at him? He hasn’t shot it in the head yet. Of course it’s still going.
*. In my notes on Mandy I mentioned how strange it was that for a 2016 movie, albeit set in 1983, hippies were still being presented as such bad people. I guess here they’ve moved up to becoming the butt of jokes, but still it’s a perplexing American obsession. What’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding?
*. In any event, here we have hippies, again, submitted to our mockery. The only one who gets a name is, of course, Berkeley. I guess in a red-in-tooth-and-claw world like our own, one revealed in all its essentials by way of the zombie apocalypse, we should despise this gang of tree-huggers and social justice warriors. Such an attitude is of a piece with the related depiction of anyone concerned with the fate of the Earth as an eco-terrorist (as in Inferno, et al.).
*. Note also, by the way, how young all of the Babylonians are. I guess this is another kick at Millennials. And throw in the generation after them as well. Even our comedies have become reactionary, in a political sense. When Tallahassee whoops “Thank God for rednecks!” he means it. And as for beating swords into ploughshares, or melting guns down into peace symbols, you can fuck that noise.
*. As a zomromcom I can barely give it a passing grade. The zom part doesn’t add anything new to the mix, even with the Zombie Kills of the Year. The rom is just a replay of the first movie. The com is only banter. Twenty minutes after I finished watching it, when I started writing up these notes, I couldn’t remember a single funny line. An easy enough way to pass the time, but a decade after Zombieland it actually seems more like a step backward than running in place.

The Strange Ones (2011)

*. There’s a difference between being strange and being a stranger. The Man and the Boy (David Call and Tobias Campbell) in this short film have no names. We don’t know who the Man and the Boy are or what the relationship between them is. We discover them on the road, on foot, and don’t know where they’re coming from or going to. The film’s first line is a question, “Where are we?”, that isn’t answered.
*. On foot because their car has broken down? Because they ran out of gas? Is it even their car? They stop at a motel and the Boy jumps into the pool. The Man tells the motel attendant (Merritt Wever) that they’re brothers going to see their dying mother. The Boy tells her that he’s been kidnapped and that the Man is dangerous. Afterward, she watches the two of them fight, and then display affection toward each other.
*. It’s a short essay in ambiguity, which is not the same thing as obscurity. The feature film that the writing-directing team of Christopher Radcliff and Lauren Wolkstein would go on to spin out of this in 2017 would be obscure. But here we’re left in the position of spectators, like the motel attendant, looking through windows, doorways, and chain fences, not hearing what the two are saying to each other and left only with gestures and expressions that could mean different things.
*. Interpretations abound. I see it often taken as a film about a gay relationship, though I’m not sure where this is coming from. Where are the signs of anything sexual in nature between the Man and the Boy? My own initial take was that they were just a pair of petty thieves or grifters, looking to either rob the motel or take advantage of the attendant in some way. But that’s only based on their appearance and the fact that at least one of them is lying about what they’re doing on the road.
*. Being strange or a stranger always assumes some benchmark either of normality or in-group status. I think we’re meant to identify with the attendant here, on the outside looking in at these weird arrivals. Though the fact that the film begins with the two of them and not with her is a point against such a reading. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that she’s the strange one though.
*. Some people hate movies like this, which present mysteries without solutions. I think they walk a fine line between cutesy coyness and obfuscation. In this film we aren’t given enough information to arrive at any clear sense of what’s going on, but perhaps because it’s a short I didn’t feel as though anything was being held back. It represents a fragment without any dots to connect. I wouldn’t look to the later movie as an explanation any more than I would to Joan Lindsay’s novel to explain Picnic at Hanging Rock. What you see, through a dirty glass doorframe and a couple of layers of fencing, is what you get.

Mandy (2018)

*. Well, this certainly is some fucked-up shit. Maybe a bit too much so. I applaud its free-wheeling spirit but would it have helped to dial things back a bit?
*. I’m not sure. Parts of it try too hard. The crazy visuals and fantasy elements overwhelm, and are maybe meant to overwhelm, what seems to be a pretty pedestrian rape-revenge story. A gang of “Jesus freaks” (I wonder why they felt the need to rope Jesus into this) attack a couple in their remote cabin, killing Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) and leaving Red (Nicolas Cage) to take his revenge.
*. We’ve certainly been down this road many times before. But then things get trippy. The cult are apparently in touch with demonic forces that take the form of a trio of giant lizard-men on ATVs. They look a bit like the Cenobites from Hellraiser but they’re nowhere near as interesting because they don’t seem capable of saying much aside from growling about blood and burning and death. Still, I wasn’t expecting them to put in an appearance and they helped spice things up a bit.
*. In fact, they may be less modeled on the Cenobites than on some heavy metal rockers from the ’80s. Which would make sense since the film is set in the year 1983 A.D. (they really add the Anno Domini). And to be sure many viewers have identified the metal trappings of the story. Red looks like a typical headbanger of the period, and his specially forged axe might as well be a guitar slung across his back. It’s also true that metal in the ’80s had a thing for this kind of fantasy mythologizing that would make it a good fit with the story.
*. Why then is there not more metal music? Something like the soundtrack for Heavy Metal (1981 A.D.)? Instead we get King Crimson, a ’70s prog rock outfit that I don’t consider to be a metal band at all, and another song written for the film that’s basically psychedelia. Sure the Children of the New Dawn are a latter-day Manson cult, but should they still be writing Manson-era music in 1983? Mandy wears a Black Sabbath t-shirt, so let’s hear some Sabbath!
*. As an aside, I have to wonder why Manson’s gang became so fascinating to filmmakers around this time. Manson’s Lost Girls and Wolves at the Door (both 2016), Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and The Haunting of Sharon Tate (both 2019). What gives? The backlash against hippies is usually traced back to the 1980s, which is when I thought it ran its course. So why is it being dredged up again now? There weren’t any hippies in the ’80s. At least that you’d notice.

*. Returning to the story, as Red pursues his vengeance things become increasingly strange. I won’t try to explain it because I’m still not sure what was really going on. Maybe aliens were involved. Maybe Red was dreaming the whole thing. I don’t know. But Cage makes a great avenger, wired on demon drugs and masked in blood as he duels bad guys with chainsaws and lights cigarettes off of burning decapitated heads. Yeah, he’s bad.
*. And I could get on board with all of this. But I have two really big caveats I have to register.
*. In the first place, I thought the story really dragged in several places. I mentioned being disappointed that the demon bikers don’t talk more, but given the speeches the loquacious bad guys like Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache) and the Chemist (a nice turn by Richard Brake) make, that’s probably a good thing. Once these guys start talking it becomes clear right away that they have nothing at all to say but they keep talking anyway for what seems like a really long time.
*. All-in-all I have to say this is a lousy script. After a while I started thinking they might have been better off doing without it and just playing some music and letting the action speak for itself. Because nothing that anyone says really means anything. “They wronged you,” the Chemist opines, unhelpfully. “Why’d they have to go do that?”
*. The other criticism I would level at Mandy may be more the result of my getting old. A lot of this movie made me think of the t-shirts worn at metal concerts in the ’80s that told everybody “If it’s too loud, you’re too fuckin’ old!” But not only did I have trouble hearing a lot of the (worthless) dialogue (I usually watch a movie with subtitles anyway), I also couldn’t see much of what was going on. Not only are scenes filmed in very dark coloured filters, for no good reason at all, but the images are blurry as well. You’ll have to strain your eyes just to make out a lot of the gore.
*. Don’t get me wrong. I liked a lot of the creative visuals that director Panos Cosmatos indulges here. But the movie looks so muddy a lot of them didn’t really register. And if you’re being weird all the time then weirdness itself loses its bite after a while.
*. So it’s halfway to being a great cult movie, of the kind you don’t see a lot of anymore. Plus it’s got Nicolas Cage losing his shit because somebody ripped his shirt. However, it’s also at least twenty minutes too long, has a throwaway script, is hard to see or hear, and barely got me interested in its atavistic plot (you kill my woman, I crush your head). I’m glad we have it, and have no hesitation recommending it to others, but I doubt I’ll be seeing it again for a while.

Piercing (2018)

*. Close. There’s certainly stuff to like here. But in the end it’s a movie that comes up short.
*. If The Eyes of My Mother, Nicolas Pesce’s first film, was a brutal amalgamation of American gothic and J-horror, Piercing takes the latter back to its source (a novel by Audition author Ryu Murakami that features another female predator turning the gender tables) and crossbreeds it with a dash of vintage Cronenberg or Lynch.
*. I say vintage because, judging from the soundtrack, the style of the opening credits, and even that very smart yellow phone (a famous model of Yugoslavian design from back in the day), we seem to be stuck in a fantasy version of the 1970s. That may, in turn, be some advance on The Eyes of My Mother, which took place in an inexact but possibly even more remote place and time. It’s hard to say which film seems less real.
*. I’ve talked before about those wonderful warnings that come with a film’s rating. Here we get “Aberrant violent and sexual content.” I like that use of “aberrant.”
*. I guess Mia Wasikowska has turned into weird cinema’s it girl. At least everything I’ve seen her in has been pretty weird. I like her, but at this point I’m wondering how well she plays straight (not meaning that in a sexual way).
*. Where does Piercing fall short? The ambiguity in the psychosexual see-saw between Reed (Christopher Abbot) and Jackie (Wasikowska) ends up being frustrating. At some point I think the film had to be clearer about how much she’s “on to him.” Then there are the dreams/visions. These seem like too much of an excuse for Pesce to throw more weird stuff at us. I don’t think they round Reed out as a character at all.
*. What I really enjoyed were the suggestions that it’s not Reed who’s the crazy one, but his world that’s gone nuts. Apparently everyone (his wife, the hotel manager) is “on to him.” Making him into even more of a sap. In a world of female predators I guess men are bound to be prey.
*. A good little movie, both aberrant and restrained, but for one that hangs its hat on being idiosyncratic and weird I thought it needed to be more provocative or shocking in some way. Not more violent, but stranger. Or that Pesce needed to find his own voice. There’s too much here that feels derived from other directors. I get that it’s hard to stand out in today’s movie marketplace, where even the twenty-first century version of Something Wild is starting to seem like the road more travelled by. But maybe the answer is to try something a little more traditional.