Category Archives: 2010s

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)

*. In his New Republic review of The Killing of a Sacred Deer Christian Lorentzen begins by setting director Yorgos Lanthimos alongside a couple of his peers, Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke, judging that Lanthimos offers up “a decidedly sillier sadism.”
*. To these names I would add that of Fabrice Du Welz (Calvaire, Alleluia), another European director of the weird “new extreme” horror. All these filmmakers drench their dark, unsettling visions in an atmosphere of fantasy metacinema. In other words, it all comes with a nod and a wink that it’s all a joke anyway, even if it’s serious. Is that a paradox? Or a contradiction? Or even worth thinking about?
*. In terms of its overall tone The Killing of a Sacred Deer reminded me the most of Haneke’s Funny Games. A really detestable young man torments an upper-class family for no real reason. In this film Martin (Barry Keoghan) says he wants justice, even if it’s unfair. I don’t know what he means by that, but Steven seems far more sinnned against than sinning. As with the sadistic demons in Funny Games, Martin enjoys supernatural powers that allow him to control everything that happens. Even when he’s captured by Steven and tied up in the basement we never have any doubt that he’s still the one in charge.

*. The point being? I don’t know. This is a movie that from its title on down wants to suggest some deeper significance or meaning but I can’t see what it is. The only thing I can pull out of it is the old horror stand-by that our modern, comfortable bourgeois lives hang by a thread above a precipice of doom. See how quickly everything falls apart and goes to hell at the slightest disturbance of the natural order? Like when you invite a stranger into your home?
*. I want to turn to a couple of common critical responses to the film.
*. In the first place, and the bit I quoted from Lorentzen already is just one example, many reviewers referred to The Killing of a Sacred Deer as being funny or a black comedy. I think this is stretching things. It’s a weird movie in a David Lynch sort of way, but I don’t see where there’s much that’s funny going on. At the end there are a couple of gallows humour passages, like Steven trying to decide which of the kids to kill based on what their principal has to say about them, but aside from that it all seems pretty grim. Weird, but grim.
*. The second point has to do with the title, which apparently directs us toward the story of Agamemnon having to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to get a wind to sail the Greek ships to Troy. Again, I find this a major stretch. What any of this has to do with Euripides, or Greek legend in general, is beyond me. Critics fell over themselves to talk about the film’s heavy sense of fate or doom, and I suppose you can say this is related to Greek tragedy, but that’s kind of vague and general, and in any event I don’t really see this as a movie informed by much of a sense of fate either.
*. Speaking of Iphigenia, I’ve always been curious as to how this name is pronounced. Most Americans pronounce it Iff-ih-JEEN-ee-ah. And that’s how it’s pronounced here by the school principal. Most classicists, however, say Iff-ih-juh-NYE-ah.

*. Anthony Lane: “To be in any Lanthimos movie is to be semi-zombified. You don’t have to gnaw on other people, but they barely react as you deliver morsels of awkward or outrageous information.” It’s all in the lack of any intonation. Everyone delivers their lines, however strange, in a clipped manner without any emotion. I can’t even tell when someone is being sarcastic, or threatening. But what is the point of this? Just to increase the weird factor? To make it harder for us to read what is going on?
*. Apparently Lanthimos thinks dialogue is supposed to be like music, but it sounds more like some kind of symbolic structuralist simulacrum of speech to me. There’s no rhythm or music to it and it has the stilted quality of dubbing.
*. On the subject of music, the soundtrack here sounds like a Denis Villeneuve movie. Which is fitting, since in a lot of ways it looks and plays like a Denis Villeneuve movie as well. He may be the director Lanthimos resembles most, though I think they have different broader philosophies.

*. Another movies I’ll throw into the mix is Fatal Attraction. I guess Martin is on a mission to avenge his father, but as I’ve said, there seems to be a wild disconnect here. Instead of this, he seems more fueled by a sense of being personally slighted. Note how he reproaches Steven for not giving him enough time and warns him not to stand him up. Meanwhile, Steven is clearly cheating on his wife and family to meet with Martin and Martin’s mom (though he’s not interested in her at all).
*. Where are we? The exteriors were mainly shot in Cincinnati but I don’t think a location is ever mentioned. It’s probably supposed to be the U.S. but the leads aren’t American actors. The universality of myth? I’d like to think that’s the point, but then I’m so fuzzy on what the point is that I can’t say.
*. Well, it’s a curiosity. At the end, however, I thought it fell flat — and I say that as someone who quite liked The Lobster. Sometimes ambiguity and obscurity go too far, and in the end I thought this was too unlikeable a movie to want to spend more time trying to interpret it. The thing about myth is that it works on different levels of meaning, but I don’t think The Killing of a Sacred Deer does. It doesn’t add up for me on any level, which left me thinking it was just a pretentious experiment that failed.

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The Lobster (2015)

*. The Lobster falls under the big umbrella-label of art film. One characteristic of such films is that they are hard to stick into genre pigeonholes, which is certainly the case with The Lobster. Another characteristic is the gap between critical and broader public audience response, which was also the case when this film came out.
*. People who dislike movies such as The Lobster usually do so because they find them pretentious and/or mystifying. This is unfortunate in the case of The Lobster because I don’t think it’s that obscure. I don’t much care for the vague ending, but up until then it seems straightforward enough.
*. Not, however, according to director Yorgos Lanthimos. He didn’t think the movie had a particular message, preferring to leave things open for interpretation. About all he would say of the film is that it was about love. This it is, but note that David (Colin Farrell) and the Short Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz) are the only people we see who we can credibly see as being in love. To my eye, The Lobster is a movie that inveighs against love. Or at least against love as a series of social conventions. Which, as I was taught in university, were just an invention of medieval culture anyway. All this may seem like an odd thing to say, but I’ll try to explain.

*. At first we’re presented with love as an enforced duty. You partner up or you get sent to the love hotel, where you’re given 45 days to find your soulmate or else be turned into an animal of your choice. In the meantime, people staying at the hotel amuse themselves by going on forest hunts where they shoot “loners”: singletons who live a life of communal isolation, rather like the book people at the end of Fahrenheit 451.
*. This much seems like a fairly obvious satire of couples culture and the way society pressures people to conform to its norms. Dating is so mechanically arranged everyone even wears the same clothes while staying at the hotel. It’s telling that David doesn’t have the option of declaring himself bisexual on his intake form (we may read his hesitancy as either genuine uncertainty or surprise at his own indifference). This is because bisexuality would be too complicated. The human animals in this meat market are to sort themselves out two-by-two.

*. Unfortunately, the loners in the woods aren’t presented as in any way superior to the lovers in the city. Indeed, they’re just as cruel and authoritarian in their strictures against any flirtation. These aren’t swinging singles practising free love but chronic masturbators who like to dance with themselves, indeed almost by themselves, while listening to iPods. They are the featherless biped equivalents to the camels and flamingos wandering around the forest (presumably hotel guests who have been transformed).

*. The forest-city split may be significant. Do the loners represent man in a state of nature? In other words, is civilization and cohabitation unnatural, a way of life in need of state power to sustain it? None of the couples seem very happy with each other.
*. One thing that may bear on your answer to that has to do with the matter of procreation. The sex people talk about is all non-procreative and porny. We do see David and the Heartless Woman going at it, but can we imagine her getting knocked up? Meanwhile, children are automatically provided to the couples who do pair off, saving them a lot of extra work, not to mention intercourse. So how “natural” is any of this?
*. The real evil, or false god, is love itself. The only way to make oneself compatible with one’s partner is through violence and self-mutilation. If Limping Man wants to pair off with Nosebleed Woman he’s going to have to bash his head against a wall to make his own nose bleed. If David wants to match Short Sighted Woman’s blindness he’s going to have to carve his eyes out with a steak knife. Or perhaps just lie and say he did. But then, lovers’ lies are always being discovered. In any event, love is a destroyer. It may provide some legal or social benefits (men won’t choke to death while eating alone, women won’t be raped), but that’s all the good that will come of it.
*. Can we imagine David and his blind lady being happy? Perhaps listening to guitar music together on the couch. But aside from that moment they don’t seem like happy people, and being together won’t likely change that.

*. That The Lobster is a movie about love is of course ironic because everyone we meet is a robot, pretending to have feelings only with difficulty (and not very convincingly). They are as mechanical in their lusts as in their cruelties, and indeed they seem to enjoy the latter more. The disability of the Heartless Woman doesn’t stand out among the other guests at the hotel.

*. I can only assume Lanthimos instructed Farrell to deliver his lines in that unnatural, oddly punctuated way that mocks the normal rhythms of speech. To make him sound more robotic? I guess that fits with his character here, but he speaks the same way in The Killing of a Sacred Deer so I’m guessing it’s just something Lanthimos likes to do. Maybe he’s not that comfortable with English. I find it affected.
*. I’ve said I don’t care for the ending. It seems too intentionally mystifying, tacked on just to leave the audience with something to mull over. Personally I was reminded of the end of Five Easy Pieces, and kept expecting to see David outside the window pulling a runner. But maybe he’ll go through with his operation. What I find surprising is the number of reviewers who speak of this as a test of his love. This it may be, but then so much for love.
*. The title refers to David’s choice of being transformed into a lobster if things don’t go well for him at the hotel. He picks a lobster because lobsters have a lot of sex throughout a very long life. Which, oddly, doesn’t seem like a lot of fun, or very much like David. Then again, all the characters here, couples and loners, seem already partially transformed in the sense of missing something human.

*. Well, Lanthimos wanted to make a movie that would get people talking and he succeeded, at least in my case. And in fact The Lobster is a movie I really enjoyed and highly recommend, at times in spite of itself. There’s a real whiff of Godard about it, with the unnamed city, which is Dublin, standing in for the loveless Alphaville. But there’s more to chew on than you usually get with Godard, and the photography, which is terrific, looks more comforting and commercial in an ironic way.
*. The biggest irony, however, is that a movie about, or against, love is so drained of feeling, as though putting contemporary apathy to the test. I mentioned how the characters seem to have already been transformed into something less than human (not having names helps in this regard). But the whole landscape feels post-human, with individuals sliding back into that freely celibate state of nature. The countdown to transformation is always there in the background for the hotel residents, but it seems beside the point for us because we’re past all that now.

Alps (2011)

*. Alps can be thought of as a typical Yorgos Lanthimos movie, but it’s my least favourite entry in his oeuvre (as he is an art-house director I get to use that word). He’s very much doing his usual thing here, but I think with a lot less success.
*. What is the Lanthimos thing? Each of his films sets out to address some aspect of the human condition (common experiences or essential social relationships) that he then tears apart. Themes so treated include family (Dogtooth), love (The Lobster), justice (The Killing of a Sacred Deer), and power (The Favourite). By focusing on their conventional and ritualistic components these themes become abstract. There’s almost always a sterile sex scene included in one of his movies (as there is here) that gets presented as an exercise in failed hydraulics. His characters are de-humanized and mechanical. Family and love becoming equally formalized games to be played by what are usually a cruel set of rules. In fact, actually falling in love is breaking the rules.
*. Alps does much the same thing with loss. The idea here is that a small group of performers are hired to take on the identity of lost loved ones, acting as replacements during a period of mourning. It is, I think, a fascinating premise, and one that easily fits into the Lanthimos model. Grieving has become a job, a performance, which does not make it any the less real. I can understand what he’s getting at. Just as with the family in Dogtooth we recognize the reality that even the most personal aspects of our lives are in fact controlled by social norms. Grieving parents or spouses are, like children, supposed to behave in a certain way. Why not make it into a form of theatre, complete with lines to be memorized and costumes to be worn? Just make sure you play your part right or you’ll be punished.
*. So, yes, a great premise. This is an interesting and important way of understanding grief. But Alps doesn’t realize much of its potential.
*. In the first place, it’s just plain dull. What makes it so? To my surprise, especially given Lanthimos’s other work, it’s totally uninteresting visually. Maybe the funereal colour schemes were deliberate, but the darkness and drabness is without any spark of life.
*. The other thing that makes it dull is the lack of a story to engage with. In his other movies Lanthimos at least gives us narratives that we can follow. But what is going on in Alps? The nurse (Angeliki Papoulia) is the central character, but I wasn’t even sure if she was sane, or to what extent she was hallucinating events. Or if that even mattered. When you’re left this much up in the air it’s hard to stay interested in what’s going on.
*. Another problem I had was the sense Alps gives of Lanthimos just treading water, or recycling material. To be sure every director has his favourite motifs and ways of handling things, but here the trademark elements — blindness, crazy dancing, passionless sex — just seem trotted out for no reason.
*. In his other films Lanthimos has difficulty representing emotional states, preferring to indulge his propensity to have characters act and speak robotically. In this film, however, we seem to have come out the other side of the zombie apocalypse with nobody being any the wiser. Everyone we meet appears tranquilized.
*. The message is, as usual, glum. Most of Lanthimos’s movies seem to boil down to the message that one has to play one’s role in life and not mess up. If you do mess up you’ll get a whacking. Of course this means your life will be a lie, but welcome to the human race. No one gets a refund. Enjoy the show.

Southbound (2015)

*. I wasn’t expecting much. Southbound is another anthology horror from a bunch of the same people that brought us the underwhelming V/H/S, so my expectations were low. Very low. But Southbound is pretty good.
*. As with any anthology horror there are some weak links. And the framing narrative, which is actually part of the story and encircles the action like a stuffed-crust pizza shell, is problematic. But overall I really enjoyed what was on tap. Here’s a quick breakdown of the line-up.
*. “The Way Out”: a couple of guys are fleeing a bunch of floating lich-like entities that were apparently patterened after the Grim Reaper and which will reappear throughout the film, hovering in the background. I quite liked this episode, as the Reapers are interesting to look at and there’s a frantic sense of discombobulation to the action. The pair seem trapped in a twilight zone where the categories of time and space have become flexible and evil is always on the hoof.

*. “Siren”: a girl band gets picked up by a couple of devil worshippers. This all played out as pretty obvious to my eyes, though there’s a bit of humour mixed in. That humour, however, is also obvious, riffing on the perfect 1950s domestic Eden that is actually hell just under the surface. They even replay that old stand-by of the family meal that is disturbing in both its formal hospitality and suspicious main course.
*. “The Accident”: perhaps the best episode. A man named Lucas hits a girl with his car on the highway and has to perform surgery on her himself while being talked through the operation by a trio of demonic voices on his cellphone. Original, and creepy.

*. “Jailbreak”: a man named Danny tries to rescue his sister from hell but she doesn’t want to be saved. Simple but too enigmatic for its own good.
*. “The Way In”: home invasion horror as a bunch of masked men slaughter a family. Most of it plays a bit like The Strangers (which they apparently had in mind), and it’s not that interesting until it becomes weird, though I wouldn’t want to conflate being weird with being interesting. It turns out (spoiler alert) that two of the masked men are the two guys from the first episode, and their killing of the family is what unleashed the Reapers.
*. So, as I said, the frame wraps us in a circle. Except it doesn’t make sense. It’s not really a loop but a Möbius strip. This is a point that’s foreshadowed in a scene in the first episode where the two guys drive away from a gas station and then keep coming back to it. Things don’t make sense along this stretch of road.
*. They don’t make sense and they’re not going to be explained. This may be the aspect of Southbound that got the most attention. There’s a lack of information as to what is going on in the various (semi-linked) stories, with the creators wanting to find a balance between letting the audience know too much and leaving things open to their imagination. So we never find out what happened to Alex, for example, or to Kathryn.
*. I’m not against them going in this direction and I’ll admit the mystery does have a certain appeal. Perhaps it’s better to have no explanation than a really stupid explanation for what’s going on. What I don’t like about it is that it’s too easy. Instead of having to work things out it’s just a bunch of weird stuff happening and random Easter egg-style correspondences that suggest some greater coherence without having to actually create that coherence in the script.
*. Thematically what unifies most of the stories is payback for some unexpiated sense of guilt. Atonement. Redemption maybe. The two guys at the beginning are killers who were in turn avenging whatever was done to Kathryn. Sadie is guilty for what she did to Alex. Lucas, I guess, has to pay for killing Sadie. The fact that he gets away at the end, however, suggests that he may have just been an instrument of fate. The man rescuing his sister is mistaken in doing so because his sister has committed a crime and thus must do her time.
*. So we may not be in hell but, and this is how the creators describe it, purgatory. Except it really doesn’t seem like purgatory at all. I don’t think there’s any way you can square what’s happening with a theology, so that seems to be another angle that’s just being vaguely suggested. I mean Jem dies but is presumably innocent of whatever crimes her parents were involved in. Sadie’s bandmates seem in the same boat. Danny is punished just for messing with forces he doesn’t understand. I guess.
*. The genre of anthology horror is not a particularly distinguished one. Recently it has become home to a lot of cheap, experimental, loosely-assembled collections of quickies (think of the P.O.E. or ABCs of Death series). Southbound is quite a bit better than this. The frame business strikes me as a little too cute in its suggestiveness, extending to the mysterious DJ who provides a kind of moralistic commentary. They’ve set themselves up well for a sequel, but I actually hope they let it go and stick to their guns about not giving us any more in the way of explanation as to what’s going on. I think they’ve painted themselves into a bit of a corner in that regard and in any event it works well enough as a one off.

The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger (2010)

*. I might as well begin with the end credits, where the producer is described as a “fancy burger lover” while the director, Bill Plympton, is (only) a “burger lover.”
*. Why is this significant, or necessary to say? I think because it’s easy to see The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger as being, among other things, an argument for vegetarianism. Cartoon cattle frolicking in an idyllic rural environment are rounded up and taken to the slaughterhouse, where they are shocked onto a conveyor belt and duly fed into the familiar (indeed iconic) meatgrinder, coming out hamburger. It’s a voyage from heaven to hell, told in a conventional idiom, and one wouldn’t expect it to come from a pair of burger lovers.
*. But while that’s one reading of the film, the credits would seem to suggest that it’s really about something else. What that something else is appears to be a message about the effect of advertising on body image. The calf in the pasture sees a burger billboard and wants to attain the status of a pure object of desire: literally, a piece of meat. So she becomes a workout warrior and bulks up and is finally chosen to be America’s Next Meal. One should be careful what one wishes for. Our goals may be self-destructive.
*. That’s a simple enough idea, and I don’t think this is a complicated film. For a “Plymptoon” its style is a little surprising, being rendered in enamel-like primary colours with thick if trembling outlines around the figures. This is not what you expect a Bill Plympton cartoon to look like. It made me think of a children’s book, with the various characters and objects being like plastic shapes that you could reach out and play with on the page/screen. Why this particular look for this particular film? Perhaps to highlight the incongruity. Body image and the meat industry are actually serious, painful subjects. But here they are presented in a fanciful, playschool kind of way.
*. I think that does undercut the message though. At the end of the day this is a playful bit of fluff without anything very serious to say, something that is underlined by those end credits. Cartoons can be serious stuff. (See, for example, Call of Cuteness, which is an animated short dealing with similar themes.) But this film isn’t. That doesn’t make it bad, just not as interesting as it might have been.

Annihilation (2018)

*. I read, and reviewed, Jeff VanderMeer’s novel Annihilation (the first part of his Southern Reach Trilogy) when it came out. Even though I knew it had been optioned, I was still surprised when I heard they were actually going to make a movie out of it.
*. Knowing where Annihilation came from, however, is not a big help in coming to a better understanding of its various mysteries. I say that for a couple of reasons. In the first place, VanderMeer likes to work in a new genre that usually goes under the name of Weird fiction, which is a blend of fantasy and science fiction (mostly) that delights in being provokingly obscure. Even after finishing the trilogy I wasn’t entirely sure what it had been about.
*. The second reason knowing the book doesn’t prepare you for the movie is because writer-director Alex Garland was just doing his own thing anyway, only looking to recreate something of the dreamlike atmosphere of the novel without following its plot too closely. I actually didn’t remember the book that well, but watching the movie I was sure it was nothing like it.
*. In any event, I don’t think this is a big problem because the difficulty of Annihilation (the movie) has, I think, been greatly overstated. There are some basic points that are left ambiguous, but they are not the kind of challenging puzzles that, for example, Weird fiction likes to play with. They’re just more or less known unknowns.
*. One example is the nature of the alien force. Lomax, the man questioning Lena in the film’s frame, is convinced that whatever is in Area X has come here for a purpose. There is, however, no clear indication of any intelligence at work in the Shimmer. You can speculate about its purpose if you want, but it’s not even clear if they arrive by design or by accident. Is that a spaceship that lands in Florida or an asteroid?
*. Another example is the question of whether Kane and Lena are clones at the end. Well, if even they don’t know then how should we? Kyle Smith: “Making movies steeped in vagueness these days is proving to be an excellent way to earn critical praise, but being artfully ambiguous strikes me as a way to cover for not being able to finish the job.”
*. From the evidence the film provides it looks as though Kane is a replicant and Lena is merely infected in some way, but it’s not even clear if this is a distinction with a difference.

*. So there’s ambiguity there, sure. But I don’t see this as a film of big ideas, or as particularly thought provoking. It’s just open ended without being intellectually challenging. In fact, I’m not even sure the alien is all that interesting. It’s like the Earth has developed a tumor that’s messing around with the stuff of life, creating mutants and mimics. But from that premise, what follows?
*. I’m not sure what Garland was trying to get out of his actors. Jennifer Jason Leigh is usually a favourite of mine but she plays the part of Dr. Ventress as though she’s overdosing on tranquilizers. I’m guessing that’s the way Garland wanted her to play it, but I can’t understand why. Oscar Isaac as Kane strikes me as being terrible, even when he’s not a pod person. As for Natalie Portman, she seems to have been told to just act puzzled. She furrows her brow a lot and appears to be vaguely upset at what’s going on, but it’s not like she’s angry or on a mission of vengeance, which is what I thought was the point.
*. The script is not good. Watching it a second time I was surprised at how bad much of the dialogue is, and how many scenes are included that don’t serve any function at all. There’s also a problem with members of the team acting like the idiots in an idiot-plot horror movie. The worst of these is the paramedic Anya, who hysterically doesn’t want to watch the video of the gut python again because she just knows it’s fake. The plan for having a guard stand out by themselves at the military base was another headscratcher. There didn’t seem to be any point to that but to allow someone to get killed. Another awkward device is having the team find video recordings explaining what happened to the previous expedition. Just because that was what was required.
*. The aspect of Annihilation that got the most praise was its look. I wasn’t as impressed. It has a crayon colourfulness that’s pretty without being threatening. Meanwhile, the CGI strikes me as very bad. That alligator is awful, as are the pair of deer Lena surprises in the woods. I was expecting to be blown away and I wasn’t.

*. It’s a movie that tended to get strong responses. Meaning people loved it or hated it. I don’t see where it rises to that level, or why it should have been so divisive. It has some good parts, with the talking bear being the standout scene, but overall it struck me as only mildly interesting and overlong. Maybe Denis Villeneuve could have made something out of it, but Garland has always seemed to me to be someone who is trying too hard to seem smarter than he is. Really, if he’d stuck more closely to VanderMeer’s novel he would have probably had a better movie. But he couldn’t be bothered.
*. That may seem harsh on Garland, but watching this film I was reminded of a lot of what I said about Ex Machina. About, for example, how “His [Garland’s] work often takes an interest in science and philosophy, but never digs very deep.” Or the comparison to Tarkovsky (even more glaring, and to his detriment, in this film). Or how the direction is “formal and dull though I suspect this was mainly by design.”
*. To borrow from the film’s mythology, Garland is like the mimics in the Shimmer. He has a notion as to what a great SF movie is supposed to look like, but while he tries in various ways to copy the style and mannerisms of Tarkovsky and Kubrick and Ridley Scott he misses everything that made them special. Annihilation is a decent imitation or clone of a good SF movie, but I just wasn’t buying in.

Insterstellar (2014)

*. Interstellar is a movie I admire for a couple of reasons, though in both cases that admiration is qualified, or even contradicted somewhat by the ending.
*. In the first place, it’s a science-fiction epic that has its share of thrilling action sequences but in terms of the larger narrative it’s not afraid to take its time. It’s hard to think of many contemporary popular films that have the same pace. And, significantly, it doesn’t feel slow, even during scenes of exposition. It doesn’t feel fast or rushed either, it’s just comfortable moving at its own speed.
*. This is a good thing given the running time of nearly three hours. But now I enter the qualification: the last 30 minutes do drag. The movie has nowhere new to take us and nothing new to show us and it just works out a plot “twist” that I think most people will have twigged to in the first act. We really don’t need to spend this long closing the circle with the narrative equivalent of a group hug.

*. The second thing I appreciated was how hard it works at being, if not accurate (because I don’t know how accurate we could expect some of it to be), then at least plausible. All the science contributes to making this one of the most believable space operas and time-travel movies I’ve ever seen. I’m not sure all the paradoxes are fully resolved, but everything sort of made sense to me at the end. Though I’m still not sure how Cooper got out of that black hole.
*. Again, however, I enter a qualification because of the ending. Apparently Brand’s theory that love is a physical force in the universe holds true. It’s not that I’m cold-hearted or against the squishy stuff. In fact, I’m a romantic at heart. It’s just that this idea of a mystic connection between Cooper and his daughter in a parallel dimension is at odds with so much of the rest of the film that it seems out of place. I also found the implicit fantasy of eternal youth a little juvenile.
*. Another thing I really appreciated here were the design elements. They were going where a lot of SF movies have gone before, but even so I thought the space station was interesting, the cryo beds nice, and the non-anthropomorphic robots brilliant. Also the texture of the two failed Eden planets was beautifully rendered: the one being a shallow wave pool and the other a frozen lava field with looming ice clouds.

*. These planets must have looked particularly impressive on an IMAX screen, where Interstellar showed on its initial release. This is one of the few films I’ve seen in recent years that I actually missed not seeing at a theatre. I really felt I wasn’t getting the full effect of those mountainous waves on my TV.
*. A lot of work went into the script and on the whole I think it’s very bad. It’s a good story, but as I’ve said the final act drags. More than that, however, is the clichéd and overly dramatic dialogue that even on a first viewing you can practically speak along with the actors. I also don’t know how or why Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night” got dragged into this. Perhaps it was just a poem everyone had heard of, but thematically it doesn’t seem particularly apt or relevant. It just seems like more heavy dialogue to insert at heavy moments. Even Macaulay’s “Horatius” made more sense in Oblivion.
*. Maybe it’s unfair to think a mainstream, big-budget Hollywood space epic should have been a little less conventional. I do think they took some chances here, especially with the pacing, that pay off. The library in the fifth dimension was near to my heart, plus Matt Damon plays a bad guy, which was interesting. That said, for all its length I did think Interstellar needed a bit more meat on its bones. It’s different enough to be a good movie, but not daring enough to be a great one.

The Mummy (2017)

*. The Mummy was roundly panned when it came out, and not unfairly. I didn’t hate it until the end, when it really went down the garbage chute in a hurry. But I think I’ll just limit myself here to a couple of general observations.
*. The first point has to do with the film’s tone, or what kind of a movie it is. In his review, and he was not alone in saying this, Mark Kermode thought it primarily a Tom Cruise vehicle. Not a horror movie but basically just an action film along the lines of Mission: Impossible.
*. I think this is fair enough, and it fits with what we know of the film’s production. It was written, produced, and directed by Alex Kurtzman, who has a filmography stuffed with this kind of big-budget crap (though only one previous directing credit). Normally I’d want to make him responsible, but his work seems so entirely generic it’s almost like there’s no personality or individual sensibility/sense of style in play.
*. Instead, it was reported that Cruise had total control over the film’s script, production and post-production. It was even claimed that he was doing a lot of directing on set. So in that sense it certainly can be said to be a Tom Cruise movie all the way.

*. What I think it is more than that, however, is a Marvel movie. We’re immediately notified that this is going to be the first part of Universal’s Dark Universe, with “universe” here being the now accepted term of art for a network of interlinked franchises. Nowadays every studio wants to be in the universe business, with the chief models being the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) and the Star Wars empire. The Dark Universe project has since had to be reimagined, but something along these lines was clearly what they were going for at the time.
*. Essentially the mummy here, Ahmanet played by Sofia Boutella, is a supervillain, more like Imhotep in The Mummy (1999) and The Mummy Returns (2001) than Boris Karloff’s or Christopher Lee’s wandering bandage-men. Cruise, meanwhile, is a wisecracking hero whose origin story this may be taken as being. I found his jokiness off-putting, but once you realize he’s basically trying to do a Marvel Everyman like Paul Rudd in Ant-Man or Ryan Reynolds in Deadpool it makes sense.
*. As usual in the MCU there are lots of hints at upcoming crossovers, most notably the appearance of Russell Crowe as Dr. Henry Jekyll. Also as per usual the supervillain unleashes an apocalyptic tsunami of CGI, flattening a major city. She also has an army of minions in the form of a bunch of zombies. The fate of the entire world is at stake. You know the drill.

*. The second point I want to address is the annoying complexity of the plot. I’ve talked before about mummy movies that go off the deep end in this regard. Instead of a simple story of the defilement of a tomb leading to a curse in the form of a mummy wreaking his revenge there’s usually a zany back story about how the mummy had a lover in ancient times whose reincarnation/spiritual descendant they miraculously identify almost immediately upon their awakening. This then gives the mummy a more complicated mission involving some kind of joint resurrection. It’s really very complicated. There’s even a point near the end of this movie where Cruise’s character says “I don’t know what [not who] I am.” This had me nodding my head in sympathy.
*. I think the source for this mythological quicksand might be Bram Stoker’s novel The Jewel of Seven Stars with its crazily constructed plot. That’s certainly what drove to the cheapo production Bram Stoker’s Legend of the Mummy into total incoherence. And they go down the same rabbit hole in The Mummy Returns, where all the flashbacks and expository dialogue only make your head hurt.
*. In this movie there are further turns of the screw. Cruise’s Nick Morton, because he awakens Ahmanet, or because she chose him, is somehow linked to her through some kind of quantum spiritual entanglement. It reminded me of what happened to poor Steve Railsback in Lifeforce, and given how much borrowing there is going on in this movie I doubt that was accidental (the way Ahmanet drains her victims through mouth-to-mouth is another nod to that underappreciated gem from the 1980s).
*. A history nerd’s observation: Why are the crusader crypts uncovered at the beginning dated to the Second Crusade? The crusaders on that venture didn’t go through Egypt or Mesopotamia.
*. Borrowings. Homages. Whatever you want to call it, why bother with redoing the resurrected buddy from An American Werewolf in London? How was bringing Vail back necessary?

*. The thing about all these plots involving super-powerful entities looking to take over the world is that they make you wonder Why? If Ahmanet and Set or whoever were to achieve their goal, what would be the point? When the stakes are that high in a zero sum game then it all seems self-defeating.
*. I wouldn’t want to deny that Tom Cruise is in great shape, but I think he was 55 when they made this movie and I’m not sure men over 50 should be taking their shirts off in public. Something about his waxed and overly muscled upper body seems unnatural on a middle-aged man. Also, added to the way the plot hinges on an actress twenty years younger crushing on him it makes The Mummy seem even more like a vanity project.

*. Hollywood accounting. Nobody understands it. Estimates were that The Mummy cost somewhere under $200 million and it had box office of over $400 million worldwide but it was still considered to be a bomb. I think this was because it did a lot of business in China, where Universal’s cut is less. In any event, despite selling a lot of tickets it set the Dark Universe back in a big way.
*. That’s all I’ll say here. It cost a lot of money but didn’t blow me away with any of its effects. Maybe they spent a lot of the budget on Cruise. There were no scary, suspenseful, or interesting action scenes. A lot was made of the plane crash but it didn’t strike me as special. The fights were ho-hum. And finally the ending was terrible, with the possessed Nick being transformed into a Christ figure by his love for the pure and true Jenny, who had previously told him how she saw a good man inside him. Please. Apparently it was Cruise’s decision to make his part bigger while downplaying Boutella’s. This was going the wrong way, but who was there to tell him that?

Suburbicon (2017)

*. This movie has to rate way up there on the “what were they thinking?” index.
*. It has a lot, really almost everything, going for it. The cast is solid, with Matt Damon and Julianne Moore backed up by a collection of wonderful character. Noah Jupe turns in a great child performance in a lead part with almost no lines. The production and design are nearly flawless (I’d only mark them down for a really lousy hospital set in the early going). The photography is beautiful. George Clooney does a professional turn directing.
*. But then there’s the script. Or really two scripts. It doesn’t just feel like two stories unhappily stitched together, it is two scripts unhappily stitched together. One was a typical Coen Brothers black-comedy crime thriller which had been sitting around for twenty years, the other a historical drama about a black family that faced racism in the Levittown community they moved into in the 1950s.
*. What do these two stories have to do with each other? Nothing. Even thematically or tonally: nothing. Critics were mystified. Not only were the stories unrelated, they were scarcely connected in terms of the plot. They didn’t even belong in the same movie. So: what were they thinking?
*. I can’t answer that question. But in terms of pacing and structure it throws the entire film out of whack.
*. Sticking with the main (white family) plot, what we get is the usual Coen Brothers tale of mistakes leading to misunderstandings leading to bloody ironies. Matt Damon plays William Macy playing Gardner Lodge, who is involved in a sordid (and wildly improbable) scheme to get rid of his wife and run away with her sister. Of course things go wrong, since the scheme is so complicated it has no chance of success. The usual violent chaos results.
*. Even by itself I can’t say this would have been terribly interesting, especially given the slow first act. Also, the idea that the suburban America of the Leave It to Beaver era was actually a facade (see what horrors lurk in the basement!), with Suburbicon itself being a Potemkin village, is such a cliché that it should have been retired twenty or thirty years ago.
*. No point in saying anything more. I was bored and mystified. Perhaps with so much attention to detail and the actual craft of filmmaking nobody noticed or was able to take a step back and realize that the project as a whole was so incoherent. That’s the best I can do in coming up with an explanation.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017)

*. This is almost a guilty pleasure. Which means I like it a lot more than I know I should. I can’t say I like it enough to make it a true guilty pleasure though.
*. The story picks up right where Kingsman: The Secret Service left off. And by that I mean that it’s non-stop video game action stuffed into a whacko plot that is vulgar, juvenile, violent, and stupid but also endearingly surreal. Poppy’s ’50s Americana-style jungle hideout is just one of the crazy locations that I really enjoyed. But it’s when we see inside the sports stadium and its giant warehousing of cages that I really started to like the movie. It’s all so wildly over-the-top you have to give in.
*. The cast is filled with surprising supporting characters, and I think most of them work pretty well. Elton John is fine, but I think he was given a bit too much to do seeing as he isn’t an actor. Halle Barry, on the other hand, is underused. Unless they were just saving her for the next film in the series.
*. Julianne Moore’s Poppy seems to have divided people. I thought she was an original creation that fit the psychadelic-psychotic tone of the proceedings well. Director Matthew Vaughn wanted a “Martha Stewart on crack . . . a kooky, sweet, Stepford Wives-style villain,” and he got it.
*. My heart initially sank a little when I saw the running time of 2 hours and 21 minutes. And the original cut was apparently an hour and 20 minutes longer!
*. I think they could have cut even more, as there are some bits that don’t work, like the use of the “Take Me Home, Country Roads” song. But this is a movie that’s all about taking everything too far and being too much. Its virtues and its vices are excess. And when it’s over . . . pfft.