Category Archives: 2010s

We Are What We Are (2013)

*. We Are What We Are is a remake, or American version (maybe not quite the same thing) of Somos lo que hay (2010), a film by Jorge Grau. You’ll see that in the credits, but it’s scarcely mentioned during the DVD commentary done by the cast and crew. I don’t know why filmmakers are so shy about this. The most notorious case I know of was the commentary for Quarantine, which didn’t even mention Rec once. Are there legal reasons for this?
*. As a result I can’t say much about what they were thinking with regard to the process of adaptation. Grau’s film had more in the way of social commentary, whereas this one seems more typical of American horror. Once again the family are social and cultural isolates, surely only a generation or so away from Leatherface and his kin. This is backwoods, backward America: degenerate, religious, and cannibalistic. Pray your car doesn’t break down in one of these places, where even cell phone coverage is touch and go.
*. I made a note while watching about how the flashbacks to hard times on the frontier, the back story of the Parker family being some sort of Donner Party nightmare, were a mistake. Apparently the studio thought so too and wanted them cut but director Jim Mickle stuck to his guns. Unfortunately. The studio isn’t always wrong. Most deleted scenes I see on DVD strike me as having been justified.
*. I say the flashbacks are a mistake because they’re too much and not enough. Too much in that they clutter up the narrative, not enough in that they only confuse things. A taste for human flesh is an inherited characteristic? Is it addictive? And is the family inbred as well? That would be my reading, but it doesn’t explain much. Even the way they’re presented, intercut as montage and filmed in the same way, makes it hard to understand what is happening.

*. Once again the dysfunctional (to put it mildly) family is the source of all horrors. Oh those big, sit-down family dinners! Will we ever exorcise them from our collective unconscious? Or will they remain our nightmare tableaux till the crack of doom? They certainly haven’t left American horror films for going on fifty years now.
*. One understands that something is trying to be said about the ill effects of patriarchy and how family violence is passed down generationally, but for such a movie to work I think we have to care more about the family and here none of the characters is sympathetic. This isn’t a fault of the cast, but is more in the way they’re drawn.
*. I can’t buy the ending at all. Can we believe that these kids are going to just disappear? I don’t imagine they have much in the way of survival skills, or any ability to function in the modern world at all. Since the police will presumably be looking for them I can’t see them getting far.
*. The idea came out of a better movie, and would in turn be made into a better movie a few years later (the French-Belgian production Raw). That’s not to say this version is terrible. It’s actually well put forward in most departments. But while critics gave it a pass audience ratings were much lower. This is odd for a genre film.
*. Odd, but I can understand. In the end I found it just kind of morbid (well, obviously) and depressing. That it isn’t terribly original either, and even takes a step backward in this respect, doesn’t help. Oh well. They are what they are and it is what it is.

Hotel Artemis (2018)

*. Hotel Artemis is one of those movies I picked off the DVD shelf at the library, surprised by the talent involved in a film I’d never heard of.
*. Well, it went under a lot of people’s radar. Box office was very poor, with the kind of quick drop-off that you get in movies that don’t find any audience. Was this a fair fate?
*. Unfortunately, yes. I say it’s unfortunate because this is a movie that has a lot going for it. I like the premise, which has us embedded in a secret hospital (or “dark room”) for criminals in a near-future Los Angeles. And the cast is excellent, from the leads to the supporting parts. But there are problems.
*. Jodie Foster. One of the most talented actors of her generation. And this is her first film role since Elysium, five years earlier. She came out of semi-retirement for this? What’s going on? Is she not getting any good scripts? I mean, she’s fine in both movies but I can’t see what she saw in either part.
*. Foster got a lot of praise from critics both because she handles the part well and (perhaps even more) because people liked seeing her again. But I like Sterling K. Brown better. I hope he gets a role soon where he can really break out. This isn’t it. Zachary Quinto is also weirdly wasted as the wannabe tough-guy son of the city’s crime lord. Given that he’s such a wimp, it’s hard to feel all that concerned about him as a villain. And Jeff Goldblum is an even bigger waste playing the crime lord. Again, he doesn’t even seem evil, much less threatening.
*. So a good cast, tossed into roles they can’t do much with. Sofia Boutella and Dave Bautista do their usual thing, which is pretty much the same thing except he is beefy and she is leggy. At least they seem comfortable. Charlie Day is the crazy comic relief. Again, comfortable.
*. What went wrong? Something just wasn’t coming through. Listening to the DVD commentary with writer-director Drew Pearce and producer Adam Siegel I was surprised to hear about things Pearce was trying to do that I hadn’t noticed at all. I’ll give a couple of examples.
*. In this future Los Angeles water is a scarce resource, which has led to a city-wide riot breaking out that we get news updates on throughout the film. In my preliminary notes I scribbled out a number of questions I had about this. What relevance did the water shortages or the riots have to do with the rest of the plot? Was any of it necessary?
*. I still don’t see why any of this was included, but in the commentary Pearce explains how he was thinking of the plot of Chinatown, and how this movie was reversing that film’s storyline about bringing water to L.A. by here taking water away from L.A. Which is fine, I guess, but in Chinatown bringing water to L.A. was an important part of the plot. Taking water away from L.A. doesn’t have anything to do with the plot here.
*. Pearce also refers to a “water theme throughout the whole movie.” This surprised me, because I hadn’t noticed anything of the sort. But apparently he was referring things like the presence of water as part of the murals in the different hospital rooms and the fact that Nurse’s son had drowned (or had been made to look like he’d drowned).
*. Even after having this explained I still didn’t really see it. But I also wasn’t sure what the point was. I’m sure Pearce had something in mind, but it wasn’t being communicated.
*. The other surprising moment on the commentary came when Pearce explained that the movie’s biggest inspiration was Casablanca. Again, this is something that I hadn’t thought of at all at the time, and that, even after the connection was explained, I still had trouble seeing.
*. The movie I was most reminded of was Bad Times at the El Royale, which actually came out the same year. The hospital is like the hotel in being a weird, isolated location that a bunch of violent crazies check into, culminating in the usual game of last man (or woman) standing.
*. The script here is scattered. Kenneth Choi shows up as a gangster in the early scenes and then just gets taken out with the garbage and disappears. Nurse has a fear of going outside that I didn’t understand the reason for. Zachary Quinto’s character welds the doors of the hospital shut and I still don’t know why. I know I must have missed something there.
*. It’s hard if not impossible to feel invested in any of the emotional cues. There are some stolen diamonds. Brown’s character loves his brother but is better off without him, so we don’t feel anything when he dies (a power failure knocks out his life support system, though the 3-D printer still works). Boutella’s character has been hired to kill Goldblum, but since we don’t know by whom or for what it’s hard to care about that either. Worst of all, Nurse’s loss of her son just doesn’t have any impact. Foster tries her best to sell it, but it was so long ago and we don’t know who her son was so it doesn’t register.
*. In Greek mythology Artemis was the goddess of the hunt, and also the moon and chastity. So why is this the Hotel Artemis? Shouldn’t it be the Hotel Apollo (brother of Artemis and god of healing) or the Hotel Asclepius? I’m assuming the use of such a name as Artemis had some meaning but I don’t know what it is and I don’t recall it coming up on the commentary.
*. The ending is even more disappointing than all of this suggests. If you were wondering “who’s going to live, who’s going to die” you won’t be surprised. I guess Boutella and Bautista can come back for a sequel. As can Nurse. And Waikiki. Here’s his final line: “Honestly I don’t know where I’m going next. First time in my life I can do whatever I want. Never planned for that.” Brown should have told Pearce that a line like that just wasn’t going to work, that nobody could sell it.
*. I kind of hope they do come back, though I don’t think there will be a sequel. There was some potential here. Maybe it would work the second time around. But it didn’t do anything for me on this visit.

Applesauce (2015)

*. Applesauce is a good little movie, but you get a sense of something being a bit off right from the opening. The radio talk-show host Stevie Bricks (Dylan Baker) is asking callers to confess on-air the worst thing they have ever done, and his delivery is too slow. He doesn’t sound like a radio personality. That’s not a big thing but it does get us off on the wrong foot.
*. The rest of the movie felt a bit the same. It’s smart and deft, but needed to be lighter on its feet. A darkly comic tale of two bickering couples in New York, it plays like a slightly ghoulish, slightly raunchy Seinfeld episode, only longer and not as clever.
*. That probably sounds a bit harsh. Like I say, Applesauce is a good little movie. So let’s talk about a few things I picked up from the commentary by writer-director-star Onur Tukel.
*. Tukel repeatedly says that he is not a professional actor, which I guess he isn’t by the strict definition of these things. Few actors are. But he’s pretty good and holds his own with the rest of the cast. The miscue was in making his character, Ron, into such an obnoxious figure. It’s hard to see how he manages to have any friends at all much less keep his job as a teacher. Is his insulting manner supposed to be charming? I must have missed something here. The opening dinner scene made me cringe.
*. Tukel also talks about how Applesauce is not mumblecore. This is a label applied to a fairly obscure subgenre that apparently everyone wants to now disown. Anyway, the reason this doesn’t qualify as mumblecore is that the script wasn’t improvised. I keep needing reminders about these things.
*. Finally there is the matter of the title. I’ll confess I pulled a total blank on its meaning. On the commentary Tukel explains that it has various meanings. It refers to being set in New York, the “Big Apple.” It ties in to the idea of a sauce being a mixture of different genres. And finally it just sounds jazzy.
*. I’m not sure why Tukel bothered with the radio stuff. Stevie Bricks doesn’t function that well as a chorus and he’s only attached to the main plot with some difficulty. His game of getting people to confess to the worst thing they’ve ever done gets the ball rolling, but after that he has no essential role to play. In a movie like this you expect things to be a bit tighter.
*. Still, there’s a neat story here that nicely evokes the physical and intellectual milieu. The locations and lighting, the language and wardrobe, all combine to give an authentic sense of a comfortable but not affluent urban class. There’s a tidy moral about empathy that is made messy enough not to seem preachy. There’s nothing hysterically funny about any of it, but plenty of moments to make you smile. It’s low budget, but the talent on both sides of the camera makes up for any shortcomings in that regard. Would Tukel be better served, however, by not playing both sides? Is it only Ron’s lack of self-awareness that holds the film back? I think his author might have benefited from the same distance.

Midsommar (2019)

*. OK, let’s start with how long it is. The Wicker Man, which I think everyone, including writer-director Aris Aster, would agree was the direct inspiration for Midsommar, was 88 minutes long and had a lot more story to it than this movie, which comes in at 148 minutes. And yes, that means I’ll be talking about the original theatrical release of Midsommar in these notes. The director’s cut, which also got a theatrical release, runs to 171 minutes. No thanks!
*. Is the length a problem? Well there are some issues with it. For one thing, I think everyone going into this movie knows exactly where it’s going. I was surprised when it came out to find so many reviews warning readers with spoiler alerts. What is there to spoil? Is there a twist to the story at any point?
*. A slow pace doesn’t necessarily make a bad fit with a movie so obvious. One could see it as a way of adding to the sense of inevitability. If I’m being honest I didn’t find Midsommar dull, though I did find myself thinking at one point that it would have been better suited as a cable miniseries spread out over several weeks. But while not dull, I did think that at two-and-a-half hours there needed to be more meat on these bones. In addition, if you’re going to make a “slow burn” horror movie there does have to be a bit more bite in the tail than we get here. This movie is a slow burn to an even slower and more drawn-out climax.
*. Aster had thought of making a slasher horror film set among a cult but changed his mind, for personal reasons, and decided to make a break-up movie. I think he should have stuck with his original plan. Unfortunately, he was left with a cast of slasher-film characters without much to do but wander around a spacious location. This is a point I want to stress, for reasons I’ll get into.

*. Because of its sedate pace and lack of jump scares a lot of reviewers tried to make the argument that Midsommar is not in fact a horror movie. Instead it was seen either as a comedy (by the irony crowd), an “adult fairy tale” or break-up film (Aster), or “an intense psychodrama” (Mark Kermode) that’s really all about Dani’s loss of her family and her need to be accepted into a new one by going native. Talk about one-upping the anthropologists.
*. I don’t buy this. Midsommar is a horror movie, firmly rooted in various genre tropes and conventions. There’s The Wicker Man and Two Thousand Maniacs!, as well as the more recent spate of tourist terror (Hostel, Turistas, The Ruins). Not to mention nods along the way to a whole library of horror films, from the opening overhead car shots (yes, I’m still wondering about those) to Simon’s corpse getting the full Hannibal Lecter treatment in the chicken house. That it has a psychological dimension is fine, but that’s something it shares with a lot of horror movies. You could just as easily, and perhaps more fairly, call Psycho an intense psychodrama.
*. The other problem with this argument is that if Midsommar is a break-up movie it’s not a very deep or very interesting one. Aside from Dani, the characters have no more depth than the usual gang of soon-to-be-dead teenagers. And even Dani isn’t fleshed out that much. Meanwhile, if I wanted to watch a break-up movie why would I want all this other stuff layered on top of it? A lot of which is, in the end, less provocative or challenging than when the story was told fifty years ago.
*. Break-ups can, however, be inspirational for filmmakers. There was one behind David Cronenberg’s best movie too. Strong emotions often lead to exceptional artistic statements.

*. I wasn’t a big fan of Hereditary, which I thought overrated when it came out. This movie was a quick turnaround and it shows in recycling a lot of the themes and imagery from that earlier film, from the cult practices, to the nudity, to the appearance of the effigies discovered at the end. There’s also a similar sense of characters just being carried along, literally at times. Drugs play a big role, though I don’t think there’s any kind of anti-drug message being made.
*. There were a few things I liked. Florence Pugh is very good, and almost singlehandedly makes this a movie to recommend. I also liked the absence of gory kills. It’s creepier not always knowing what happens to the various victims. Wondering, for example, whether or not they’re in the meat pies. I think this works very well.
*. Still, it goes on far too long and doesn’t add up to anything new or special in the end. It’s not scary, which doesn’t mean that it’s not a horror movie but only that it’s not a scary horror movie. That may be deliberate to some degree. Aster’s standout visuals, for example, seem to work against the evocation of horror. But this doesn’t mean he’s transcending the genre.
*. Ironically, despite its slow pace it seems to have been a quick production. I already mentioned Aster’s quick turnaround from Hereditary and the feeling I was left with here was that this was an idea that needed some more time to ripen and develop.
*. As it is, it’s a horror movie that awkwardly tries to piggyback with a gender-conversation flick (where male and female audiences might be expected to see different movies, as with Gone Girl or Holiday). That such a combination failed to find much traction at the box office, despite the critical response (which upped the hype from Hereditary), suggests it ended up falling well short of wherever it was going.

Hitchcock (2012)

*. Casting! While sharing the same initials, Anthony Hopkins doesn’t look anything at all like Alfred Hitchcock. But of course he didn’t look anything at all like Richard Nixon either. In Nixon, however, I thought he at least partially succeeded in giving us the man. Here, however, I never lost the sense that he was just an actor doing a Hitchcock impersonation.
*. Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh. Possibly even a bigger stretch. But she’s not that important a character in this film so I guess it doesn’t matter as much.
*. Helen Mirren as Alma Reville. Again not even close in appearance, though I suspect few people watching would have any idea what Alma Reville looked like anyway.
*. James D’Arcy as Anthony Perkins. A near ringer, but he plays Perkins as Norman Bates, which struck me as wrong. Norman Bates was a great performance, not who Perkins secretly was. But as with Leigh, it’s a small part.
*. Roger Ebert: “Hitchcock tells the story not so much as the making of the film, but as the behind-the-scenes relationship of Alma and Hitch. This is a disappointment, since I imagine most movie fans will expect more info about the film’s production history.”
*. I don’t know about most fans, but it was disappointing for me The film is based on Stephen Rebello’s book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, and Rebello also worked on the script. Given this scholarly background I thought it took a lot of liberties even concerning basic matters of production. The business about re-mortgaging their house, for example, is made up, as is Hitch’s crashing the shower scene to take a stab at all of his tormentors.
*. Poor George Tomasini. He edited Psycho but according to the story here that job was solely performed by Hitch and Alma as a kind of couples therapy.
*. Instead of being about the making of Psycho the movie focuses more on the marriage of Hitch and Alma. A potentially interesting subject — it was apparently sexless aside from what gave rise to Patricia, and there was a possibility Alma had an affair — but it’s dealt with in only the most conventional way.
*. What I mean by conventional is the plot. Hitch seems to be at the top of the world as North by Northwest premieres but then the question of his getting old is crudely introduced. Has he lost his mojo? Experiencing boredom and doubt, he wants to prove himself by doing something crazy, finally risking everything, or at least his mansion (complete with pool), to make Psycho. Meanwhile, Alma is involved, kind of, with the never-to-be-trusted Danny Huston (playing screenwriter Whitfield Cook). There’s tension in the marriage. They have it out, but emerge stronger for the ordeal. Then the movie looks ready to bomb (another Vertigo even!) but they save it. Indeed they triumph, spectacularly and together.
*. It really is shocking how trite the ending is. Here’s the dialogue they exchange as the flashbulbs pop on the red carpet. She: You know darling, this could be the biggest success of your career. He: Our career. You know Alma, I will never be able to find a Hitchcock blonde as beautiful as you. She: I’ve waited 30 years to hear you say that. He: And that, my dear, is why they call me the Master of Suspense.
*. Alma Reville was a screenwriter. I can only imagine what she would think of a scene like that. I don’t think it would have made the final cut.
*. Director Sacha Gervasi doesn’t seem to have been inspired by the material, though the film does try to thrown in some interesting wrinkles. Ed Gein, for example, keeps popping up, representing Hitchcock’s own inner demons. But I was still left wondering just what those demons were. Then there are the knowing jokes, such as Hitch playing the audience like an orchestra. But where is the insight? Where the wit, except for quoting some of Hitch’s better known bon mots? Where is the placement of Psycho in any kind of context, or argument made for its importance? “I feel like I’m just treading water,” Hitch complains at the beginning of the film. By the end of Hitchcock I could relate.

Unsane (2018)

*. Unsane is a movie with a gimmick, which is something different than a gimmick movie. The difference being that a gimmick movie is one where the gimmick defines the film in some way. Most “found footage” horror movies could be labeled this way, at least before found footage became its own genre.
*. The gimmick in Unsane, however, is hidden. That’s the point. It was shot entirely on an iPhone, but not an iPhone being used by a character in the movie, as in a shaky-cam feature. Instead, the director Steven Soderbergh wanted to show that a whole film could be made using such a common device and nobody would be able to notice.
*. Well, I think he succeeded. I don’t think anyone who didn’t know this was “the iPhone movie” would notice, even with the distortions of a wide-angle lens. Or that the whole thing was shot in a Cormanesque ten days. Give credit to Soderbergh. He really is a slick director, and he can make anything look professional grade. That’s not entirely a compliment, but just an observation.
*. Unfortunately, aside from this (invisible) achievement, there isn’t much else to recommend Unsane. The cast, headed by Claire Foy, is capable (I won’t say more), but the story is both very simple and very stupid. I was anticipating something far more clever given the premise and the tiny budget, the latter making this an indie feature in all but name.
*. The story has a young woman named Sawyer (Foy) checking into a psychiatric hospital. It’s not clear what is wrong with Sawyer, or through what subterfuge she ends up stuck in the hospital against her will. We just have to go along with it. Then it turns out that a man who had been stalking her is an orderly at the hospital and still has designs on her.
*. Given the classically unreliable protagonist and the genre we’re in (psychological thriller) you’d expect a lot of twists. There are none. For the first half of the movie it’s at least up in the air as to whether Sawyer is just imagining her persecutor, but once that got settled I was waiting for something less predictable, out of left field. I spent the rest of the movie waiting.
*. What we get instead is the old story of the obsessive lover kidnapping the object of his desire, followed by her outwitting him and escaping. There’s nothing new to this at all, to the point where I can’t imagine what anyone saw in the project aside from the possibility of doing it on the cheap, which is something they might have done just as easily with a much better script.
*. And that’s it. I guess there’s some sort of message here about the American health system and the way insurance companies milk patients, but that’s by the way. The bottom line is that nothing interesting happens and, for all Soderbergh’s accomplishment in making such a film look so polished and professional, it still ends up seeming like a waste of time except to prove his point that it could be done.

Side Effects (2013)

*. I think there should be a special category critics have for good little movies. Sometimes a good little movie takes off and becomes a blockbuster, but at heart it’s still just a good little movie. I think The Sixth Sense is a perfect example. Other good little movies are personal projects taken on by big stars or directors, usually shot on a low budget outside the major studios.
*. I’d call Side Effects an example of this latter kind of good little movie, though the fact that it actually cost $30 million to make pushes the envelope. It’s also hard to understand such a budget. What did they spend all that money on? It looks like Hitchcock meets mumblecore.
*. Maybe the cast got paid. There are some big names, though Rooney Mara dominates. Catherine Zeta-Jones is the ice queen. Channing Tatum’s part could have been played by almost anyone, as might that of Jude Law. I have to say Jude Law has never grown on me. I’m not sure I’ve liked him in anything all that much, and he’s only adequate here.
*. But Mara is great as the sleepy-eyed heroine, or femme fatale, or whatever you imagine her to be. I think both the Mara sisters are great actors and I’ve liked them in everything I’ve seen them in. Which, unfortunately, means liking them in some very average movies. But they’re both great at evoking feelings of sympathy you can’t trust.
*. I really like what Wesley Morris says about Mara in his review of Side Effects, so I’ll quote it here: “Rooney Mara might be too inscrutable to be a star. Her face masks everything — intent, affection, human warmth, respiration. But she’s not a zombie, either. She’s inscrutable for the camera. To watch her in David Fincher’s version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects . . . is to be psychologically seduced. It’s not that you wonder what’s going on with her. It’s that you wonder what else is going on. She’s a director’s actor that way, a performer a filmmaker can trust to do fascinating things — not simply to hold a close-up but to complicate it.”
*. But as I say, the rest of the cast, and Law in particular, can’t really play with her. Maybe there’s something about a British accent that’s so reassuring we have a hard time being convinced that the speaker is coming undone. Nor does the script or Soderbergh’s direction help much. Basically this is a movie that builds slowly up to one twist that, while decent, isn’t that surprising or credible. Meanwhile, Soderbergh doesn’t give the proceedings any of the style notes that they need. At times this feels like a thriller that is trying hard not to thrill us, or build up any suspense at all. The dreary lighting throughout doesn’t help. Everything is played in a muted key.
*. Still, it’s a good little movie. David Thomson thought it “an ugly mess, a rotten film” but I wonder how much of that was the result of overly high expectations. Despite the talent assembled, it’s not trying to be a great movie. Instead it’s a tidy B-picture. It was also supposed to be Soderbergh’s last film, but retirement didn’t take. Something about the story here seems to have inspired him, as he was back five years later with Unsane, another movie about being sane in an insane place. And vice versa.

Warcraft (2016)

*. OK, I know I’m not the guy to appreciate a movie like Warcraft. I’ve never played the video game so really, what’s the point?
*. I’m also not a big fan of today’s fantasy movies in general. Screens dripping with CGI, the banal storylines involving kingdoms in a state of endless war with each other, the stiff dialogue portentously delivered . . . it all looks, feels, and sounds the same. To be sure, genre filmmaking will always be made up of generic elements, but fans of Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones and World of Warcraft (LoTR, GoT, WoW) must know this material so well they could write it themselves.
*. Though I haven’t played the game, I do know the territory a little bit, so I won’t take the route Will Leitch did in his review: “Warcraft is a language you don’t speak, a code you can’t crack, a party you weren’t invited to. . . . I am absolutely baffled as to what this film is going on about.”
*. I did think I understood the basic point of it well enough. Basically it’s the old “portal opening to another dimension threatening all life as we know it” plot (a favourite of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which, let’s face it, every studio was looking to replicate around this time). Orcs are invading through a magic gateway and it’s up to an alliance of humans (with some dwarves and elves just hanging around in the background) to stop them.
*. Speaking of those elves, it’s curious that the good guys (humans) are armed with “boomsticks” (which seem to be highly impractical short-barrelled gunpowder weapons) but we never see anyone, not even an elf, with a bow and arrow. Are they not used in the game?
*. There were a couple of items of very minor interest. First there is the racial angle. The good orcs are from a more pinkish clan, making them look more human than their green comrades. The other orc heroine is a female half-breed. So despite the effort to present the orcs as sympathetic, it’s done through a racial lens. And then there’s that portal through which the orcs come streaming from their own dying planet. Are they illegal immigrants, coming to Azeroth to build better lives for themselvs and their families? It’s hard not to make the connection.
*. The other sidenote has to do with the evil soul-sucking magic called the Fel. The Fel is addictive, and we see the orc wizard (pardon my forgetting his name) draining it from victims like he’s shooting up. It’s also destructive of the environment, leaving behind a barren wasteland incapable of supporting life. This made me think of the glowing green liquid as a kind of oil proxy. Strange to say, but what the orcs really need is to go green.
*. I won’t try to make anything more out of this. Warcraft is a shallow and meaningless experience. Travis Fimmel seems to really want to have more fun with his role but the movie doesn’t let him. Shame. I did like the CGI faces of the orcs, which are well realized and fill the screen in a wonderful way. But aside from that, this is predictable franchise filmmaking that failed to launch its franchise. No great loss. There will plenty more where it came from.

Shaft (2019)

*. Hm. A movie named Shaft that’s a sequel, of sorts, to a movie named Shaft (2000). Which was a sequel, of sorts, to a movie named Shaft (1971). Somebody could have made this easier.
*. This edition of Shaft was panned by reviewers and did lousy box office. The critical response at least was something the producers should have seen coming. This is not a politically correct film.
*. Shaft, played by 70-year-old Samuel L. Jackson (only six years younger than Richard Roundtree, who plays his father), is old school. The movie plays like an Austin Powers flick, except that instead of being a holdover from the swinging ’60s Shaft is a holdover from Harlem in the ’80s. Which was a time, apparently, when men were men and women were pussy.
*. A lot of your response to this Shaft will depend on how seriously you think it wants you to take it. Personally, I thought the whole thing was meant as a joke, and while I didn’t laugh very much I wasn’t offended either. It’s just that the humour here gets repetitive, forever playing its one joke about what it meant to be a man then vs. what it means to be a man now.
*. The problem I had with Shaft wasn’t with the jokes (or joke) but with the weakness of the plot. There’s a multi-ethnic gang of drug smugglers who kidnap John Jr.’s girlfriend, so the three generations of the Shaft family team up to get her back. There are some gun fights, and a lot of buddy-picture banter between John Jr. (Jessie T. Usher) and his dad. They get the girlfriend back. The family comes together. And if it had done better there’d probably be a sequel out by now.
*. This just isn’t an interesting movie, or one that requires any attention to be paid to it at all. Apparently Shaft has issues with the drug kingpin from back in the day, but it’s hard to feel very involved in any of this. Or feel much of anything toward any of the villains. I can’t remember the last time I watched a crime flick that seemed less interested in the nuts and bolts of the story it was telling. Basically the whole thing consists of waiting for Jackson to say some more bad-ass shit. Now you never have to wait long for such shit to arrive, and there’s probably no other actor alive as good at saying bad-ass shit as Samuel L. Jackson, but it’s hard to base an entire movie on this.

Holiday (2018)

*. Holiday is a fascinating but not every enjoyable little movie. I don’t say that because of the fairly graphic rape scene near the middle. That is handled in a non-sensationalistic even dispassionate way, indebted to the rape in Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible (2002), and I didn’t find it offensive or even bothering. That distance, however, is part of the problem.
*. Director Isabella Eklöf makes a fetish of distance in Holiday. There are few close-ups, to actor’s faces or objects. In part this is dictated by her preference for long takes and a stationary camera position, but it also reflects an emotional distance. Think also of the number of times we stay behind characters, not seeing their faces at all, or only in profile. Then there’s also the absence of a score, at least that I can remember.

*. What is gained by such detachment? A sense of objectivity? And if so, why would you want that in a movie dealing with such matters? To show how little the sex and violence really means to people like Sascha (Victoria Carmen Sonne) and Michael?
*. I’ve actually heard the rape scene described as a “consensual rape,” which is an oxymoron but one which gets some purchase. Her Stockholm Syndrome, if that’s what it is, mirrors that of Musse’s, who gets the crap beaten out of him but then returns to lick the hand that feeds. Sascha’s story is rape-revenge with a venomous twist.
*. Even before her turn at the end, if it is a turn, how much sympathy do we have for Sascha? Surely this is someone who knows she’s running with a very bad crowd but is going along with it for the expensive vacations, the clothes, and the bling. I’d keep my distance from such a woman too. Pay close attention to the conversation among the men at the police station, which is also one of the few moments when Sascha isn’t on screen. Are they just being sexist, or do they represent a realistic and fair point of view?
*. There’s a scene in Holiday where Sascha sort of dances with herself in front of a mirror that I think is making some kind of a point about narcissism. It reminded me of a similar scene in The Neon Demon (2016), which was a more direct attack on the narcissism, and violence, of beauty. I think Holiday is a much better movie, but it made me wonder if we’re going to keep seeing more of this kind of thing in the throes of what’s been dubbed a narcissism epidemic.

*. I’m not one to complain about a character’s likeability, but that lack of sympathy I’ve mentioned with regard to Sascha really mixes the message here. As was then current for 2018, many reviewers invoked the idea of masculinity and/or femininity that had gone “toxic” when talking about Holiday. Toxicity just meaning that the gender roles we play have become damaging to ourselves and others, I think. But is that really the problem here?
*. Eklöf seems really conflicted. At times she paints Sascha as a victim, maybe even a good kid looking to go straight but too weak and (more likely) too stupid to get out from under the thumb of the brutal men she’s surrounded by. Seen this way the question becomes whether she actually cares about Thomas at any point or if she’s just playing with him in a horribly irresponsible way. On the pro side there is her trip to the police station, but that may just be shock. Then, looking at her as a darker figure, there is the way she flirts with Thomas’s buddy later, and that enigmatic final smile.
*. This ambiguity does not make Sascha more interesting, at least for me. She isn’t someone like Carmela Soprano or Skyler White, who have to keep their families together while dealing with moral conflicts. Sascha just surrenders to the dark side entirely for the sake of some baubles and a good time. She’s less a scheming villain at the end than a brat. Did Thomas mean that little to her? Or did that swimsuit and those earrings mean that much? This is the real question that I think we have to ask.
*. It’s certainly not a movie that I would describe as having any sort of conventional feminist message. That would be to say that either (1) Sascha was made to behave in the way she does, or (2) her behaviour shows that women can be just as wicked and bad as men so your sympathy is only condescending. Neither of these statements strike me as true. Sascha isn’t a victim or a winner but a narcissistic psychopath who probably will, as Thomas predicts, be dead or in jail in another five years. Can we say she’s come a long way?