Category Archives: 2010s

Requiem for the American Dream (2015)

*. With that opening full-frame shot of Noam Chomsky’s face against a black background, silent and blinking into the camera, do we even need the note that’s provided about how he’s “widely regarded as the most influential intellectual of our time”? If you recognize him you probably already know this. The face speaks for itself.
*. And the fact is that if you’ve read Chomsky, or seen any of his lectures, or documentaries like Manufacturing Consent, then you probably don’t need him to say anything. Requiem for the American Dream was filmed over four years and is credited as containing his “final long-form documentary interviews,” but doesn’t contain much that’s new. Basically he’s addressing the deepening inequality in American society and how it’s been constructed by way of the operation of ten basic principles. That one of these is the manufacture of consent gives you some idea of how familiar they are.
*. Well, as the literary critic Northrop Frye once said, of course he repeats himself. Why trust any intellectual who doesn’t? So don’t be expecting any revelations.
*. I don’t mind that. Nor do I mind the general feeling of gloom and pessimism. Indeed, I share it. It’s typical to superimpose the end of the world over our own impending demise, but when Chomsky talks about the air of hopelessness and the loss of our belief in the idea of progress I think he’s on to something real. As even the defenders of the plutocracy admit, the American Dream today consists mainly in hoping to win the lottery. That’s pretty much your only chance.
*. Unfortunately, I can’t call this a great documentary. The producers deserve some credit for giving a series of interviews filmed over such a period of time a consistency and coherence, but the visuals are nothing, mainly being out-of-focus shots of office buildings and TV monitors. A few graphs and charts are used, to no great effect. I like the collage work, but aside from that this wouldn’t even be a good office presentation. You could listen to this as a podcast and get as much out of it.
*. Still, I’m glad we have it. The matters being addressed are important, bearing on the future survival of some kind of civilized society. We can’t say we weren’t warned. Indeed we’ve been hearing warnings for quite a while now. It may be that funeral music is all we have left.

Guns Akimbo (2019)

*. It’s not like there’s nothing to say about Guns Akimbo, it’s just that I feel like I’ve said it already. See, for the most obvious comparison, my notes on Hardcore Henry, a movie it closely resembles. This is yet another video-game movie, in this case about a code monkey named Miles (Daniel Radcliffe) who gets shanghaied into being a participant in a live streaming fight club called Skizm by having guns nailed (yes, nailed) to his hands and told to kill another contestant, a psychokiller named Nix (Samara Weaving, looking and acting a lot like fellow Aussie Margot Robbie). This he must accomplish before she kills him. Let the games begin.
*. I’ve said plenty about video-game movies already, so to avoid repeating myself I’ll just quote from Dennis Harvey’s review of this movie in Variety: “Anyone with an attention span above ADD levels . . . is likely to find this undeniably slick, energetic contraption plays somewhere between grating and numbing. . . . In a sense, it’s unfair to review Guns Akimbo by the usual grownup standards. Just as Christian viewers often complain when secular critics review faith-based entertainment, maybe this film should only be weighed by those who actually want a de facto video game in movie form. For those to whom it will be 97 minutes they don’t spend gaming, and thus attractive both as a break and for being practically the same thing anyway, it may well seem a blast.”
*. So it’s another action flick with everything cranked up to 11: very loud, gross, stupid, and violent. Meaning the sort of video-game violence that doesn’t really register. CGI blood splatters that the final level bad guy likens to Jackson Pollock. There’s a lot of off-colour badinage. There’s a techno soundtrack that repurposes various hits. “Real Wild Child,” “You Spin Me Round,” “Ballroom Blitz,” “Super Freak,” and even a final ironic bow with “Never Surrender.”
*. On the bright side, it doesn’t take itself seriously. I mean, it’s not funny, but it doesn’t take itself seriously. I think that’s what’s meant by “action-comedy” these days. It’s also very obvious in terms of its plot points, working out just the way you’d predict. There was even one appalling moment where Radcliffe has to scan the film backward to introduce a flashback so he can explain something that I had not only figured out already but was actually waiting for. Writer-director Jason Lei Howden apparently doesn’t trust his audience for being able to follow a pretty simple script.
*. Then again, I’m not sure he even likes his audience. A lot of time is spent mocking or insulting the people watching Miles on Skism. In other words, mocking and insulting the very target audience for Guns Akimbo. Maybe there’s something meta going on here that I’m missing but this seems a bit too much like biting the hand that feeds.
*. Not much point saying anything more about this one. You’re watching a video game, which is about a guy who is trapped inside a video game. It’s full of lights and bells and whistles and it twitches all over the place. You know if that’s your thing. I can’t think of anything else to recommend it. Personally, I used to enjoy this sort of thing more, but as I get older and the movies get louder and twitchier I’m finding myself increasingly put off.

Rambo: Last Blood (2019)

*. Rambo: Last Blood got a lot of bad press. Some for being a bad movie, but just as much for being politically incorrect. To wit: its depiction of Mexicans was seen as being racially insensitive, even though (and this was part of the problem) in tune with the thoughts of the then president of the United States.
*. I didn’t care about this part of the movie at all. The depiction of Mexico as a country overrun with gang violence was becoming familiar ground anyway. Hadn’t we just been down these mean streets in Sicario? No, my problem with Last Blood is that it just felt so old.
*. Of course Stallone himself is old. Over 70 now, and I was thankful he at least kept his shirt on. Indeed, his character seems more than happy to sit on the front porch in his rocking chair while keeping his armoury oiled in the tunnels he’s dug beneath his farm. Just don’t call him retired. Nothing is over!
*. What I mean by old is the plot. Yes, this is a Rambo movie. The fifth. Would it have been too much to ask for just a breath of something new, some small hint of originality to register? On the evidence, I guess so.
*. Here are the mechanics. Rambo is semi-retired, let’s say, and living on a ranch in Arizona with a woman who is, I guess, a friend? A housekeeper? Not sure. Anyway, she has a granddaughter named Gabriela (I thought she might be Rambo’s niece) who gets into trouble over the border. Specifically she’s kidnapped by a gang and shot full of drugs and used as a prostitute. Rambo tries to rescue her without having much of a plan and gets the shit beaten out of him. Then he goes back with a plan (he uses a hammer to take out the bad guys) and succeeds in rescuing Gabriela. But she dies on the way back home. Bummer.
*. OK, now it’s personal. So he goes back, again, to Mexico and kills the brother of the gang leader. He actually cuts his head off and leaves a note for his sibling, luring him to Arizona. Of course Rambo has rigged his ranch full of booby traps and when the gang arrives he kills them all, finally cutting the heart out of the leader. Then he rides off into the sunset. No, really. That’s what he does.
*. I know it sounds really cliched and formulaic, but it actually plays even worse than it sounds. There are shots of Rambo sharpening his knife on a stone and all the other cool stuff the hero does when he’s getting ready. The bad guys are killed by all the traps in the most perfunctory ways you can imagine. Or maybe I’ll admit the magnesium shotgun shells looked cool. I don’t know what the point of them was, but they looked cool. But the rest is just routine CGI splatter. Even the finale manages to be both hyperbolic and anticlimactic at the same time.
*. They even give us the cliché of the tough hero doing a slow cool walk through the disco. How many times has that been done? Did Stallone actually start it with that scene in Nighthawks where he’s looking for Rutger Hauer? And he’s still doing the same thing forty years later. I guess if these sorts of things work you just keep doing them over and over again.
*. No point saying anything more. Not a movie that made me angry, but one that shows a complete absence of imagination. The Rocky franchise had managed to reinvent itself around this same time so I guess there were some grounds for hope. But they literally didn’t have a single fresh idea to bring to the table. Just let it go.

Beyond the Gates (2016)

*. The title suggested something Fulciesque to me, and as things got started it seemed that was clearly the way things were going. I think some of the score was even sampling Fulci’s music, or at least imitating it.
*. Apparently the title came from a quicky bio of Fulci by Chas Balun, so the borrowings were intentional. But more than that, this is a movie that is more like a general homage to the horror movies of the ’80s. Stuart Gordon is another presiding spirit, with the presence of Barbara Crampton (star of Re-Animator and From Beyond) being only the most obvious link to his body of work.
*. All of this is to the good, and ties in to the idea of a movie about a cursed VCR board game, which is found in the backroom of a retro video store (the location being an actual place in L.A.). This may sound like a stretch, but before Ringu you would have thought a movie about a cursed VHS tape was pretty stupid too. With the right combination of luck and talent any idea for a movie can work.
*. Of course such an idea invites a lot of knowing, ironic humour. From what I can tell, however, that isn’t the direction they wanted to go in. This isn’t a horror comedy. Instead it’s played straight. It’s not hipster horror, indulging in irony, and indeed when an unsuspecting hipster does appear at the very end we can smile at the thought of his being sent straight to hell.
*. Unfortunately, while I credit the direction they went in I don’t think Beyond the Gates is all that successful in getting there.

*. I think a big part of the problem is that the underlying idea wasn’t that well thought out. To start with a not-so-minor point: What are the rules of the game? What, for example, does rolling the dice accomplish? The pieces seem to be getting moved around on the board supernaturally anyway, and the cards are predetermined. Does strategy come into it at all? It just seems to me to be a scavenger hunt that Evelyn (the game’s host) has set up and is controlling from the Beyond.
*. This makes a difference, since there’s no clear connection between the game and what’s going on we can’t get that involved with what’s happening in it. We know the players have to find the keys, but like I say, that’s just a scavenger hunt that didn’t need the scaffolding of the game to introduce. So the game itself becomes kind of pointless.
*. The game also introduces some awkward moral questions. Apparently people that the players know, even total innocents, are to be used as sacrificial pawns during play. For the bar-fly character this seems like no big deal, but in the case of the stand-up cop it necessitates turning him into a homicidal maniac first. This struck me as rather forced.
*. What happened to the boys’ father anyway? Was he playing the game, or did he just get swept up with someone else’s game, like the cop and the bar-fly? This is another example of the vagueness of the game just confusing things and leaving us unsure about exactly what is going on.

*. You’d expect a movie like this, or at least I was expecting a movie like this, to be more of a gore-fest. Maybe it was the blurbs on the DVD box calling it “glorious, over-the-top, and blood-drenched,” as well as “a gutbucket load of gory fun.” In any event, it’s not a gory film. There are a few big kill scenes, with only one (also the quickest) standing out. That’s not a lot for a movie like this.
*. Without much gore, and playing off a very simple premise, we’re left with the characters. Some attempt is made to give the three leads a bit of depth (like dealing with alcoholism) but I didn’t think it worked. Instead, and not entirely unsurprisingly, the two most interesting figures are Evelyn, the game host, and Elric (Jesse Merlin) the spooky shop owner.
*. According to the DVD commentary director Jackson Stewart wanted Crampton to play Evelyn as a cross between Barbara Steele in Black Sunday and Sister Ruth in Black Narcissus. I have no idea what he was thinking. She struck me as a cross between Elvira and Debbie Harry in Videodrome. Either way I thought she was effective in the part, all the more so for being in black-and-white (for no reason I can understand).
*. Giving what’s “beyond the gates,” having this much build-up is a risky game. Because when you do finally take the audience beyond the gates they’re expecting something good. Here it’s just a parallel dimension of mist and purple light.
*. There are actually three commentaries included with the DVD, including one by a pair of horror fans who run a website. This underlined for me my sense that Beyond the Gates was mainly an exercise in fan filmmaking. There is certainly something to recommend this approach, but in the end I just felt this one didn’t come together that well. I can appreciate that they didn’t want to go for laughs, but at the same time they didn’t get any scares either. If there is a sequel, and it certainly seemed as though they were setting up for one, I hope they decide to more clearly go for one or the other.

Coherence (2013)

*. I’ve heard that it drives physicists crazy when they see what pop culture does with science. One of the worst examples is what’s been made of the uncertainty principle, which is often adopted as just meaning that all truth is relative and we can never really know anything.
*. We shouldn’t be too hard then on the group of boho friends who have gathered for a dinner party in Coherence, only to find that a passing comet has turned their reality into a plate of spaghetti. A book on physics with a note on coherence is consulted but explains nothing.
*. Let’s face it, even if there were some mathematical explanation for what is going on here, none of these people would be able to understand it. Nor would we. But that needn’t bother us because I don’t think anything in the premise is supposed to make us think it is capable of being understood. Why, for example, would a passing comet have this effect? No reason at all.
*. Nor is there a logical way for Em (Emily Baldoni), or any of the other people present, to disentangle the mess they’re in. If timelines are being randomly scrambled every time they go outside and into the darkness, then surely there’s no way to go home because home will always be something (somewhere, some time) different. The idea that there is an explanation or map to all of this is chimerical. Em’s solution is just making the best of what has become a hopelessly irresolvable situation.
*. Does all this mean that Coherence is trying to pass itself off as smarter than it really is? Probably, but there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s still entertaining, just not worth thinking about too much. You could go through it all and try to diagram what’s happening with reference to the various recurring props and blackouts, but I’ve read some attempts at this and none of them seem to lead anywhere. Is that her on the phone at the end? Or is it Robert Blake?
*. In other words, this is a puzzle without a solution, the classic exemplars of the form being L’Avventura and Picnic at Hanging Rock. Or maybe A Passage to India, though I’m not as fond of that movie. In E. M. Forster’s novel he made a distinction between a mystery, which involves a hidden purpose or meaning, and a muddle, which is more a chaotic mess. Using this language, I’m inclined to describe Coherence as a muddle, like that plate of spaghetti I mentioned.
*. If there is a point, it’s that we all carry within us different selves that may be completely contradictory but which, given the right (or wrong) circumstances will be expressed. Em isn’t a good person or a killer but both. We are all filled with such potential.
*. Yes, this is yet another recent movie where the beautiful young woman is revealed to be a violent, indeed homicidal psychopath. She’s a character who seems to be coming up a lot lately. The natural evolution of the Last Girl? Meaning a woman who, after learning to fight for herself, has developed a taste for blood? One for the culture files.
*. Overall this is a fun little movie that makes the most of its very limited scope. But given that it’s basically just a group of people talking in a single location I thought the talk needed to be a bit better. Writer-director James Ward Byrkit goes for a handheld freestyle approach that has the voices and faces constantly drifting in and out of focus. This might have been annoying, but even on re-watching it I found that nothing important was being said anyway. Was there a lot of improvisation? That might help convey the sense of confusion overtaking everyone, but it also adds to the feeling of drift. I’ll confess I started to lose interest in the situation about halfway through.
*. Perhaps another genre to think of here is that of the escape room or what I’ve called the Game of Death: a group of characters trapped in a situation they can’t understand and that may never be explained to them or us. The box and the discovery of clues seem like variations on the notes left by the Jigsaw killer. And as usual the group starts to crack up and the friends fall out as the pressure rises.
*. A diversion, and well presented in most respects. I don’t think it finally adds up to much beyond the various genre elements I’ve mentioned, but then that may be the point. Eight characters then, in search of . . . an author? Or the meaning of life?

The Transporter Refueled (2015)

*. The Transporter Refueled was panned pretty roundly by critics and audiences when it came out, for what I think were predictable reasons. The main complaint was that without Jason Statham as Frank Martin all that was left was a brainless action film with lots of car chases and fist fights.
*. I take a more charitable view, in large part because out of the original trilogy I only thought Transporter 2 was any good. For example, is this movie stupid? Hell, yes. As stupid as Transporter 3? No. In fact, if I were to rate them just on watchability I’d rank this entry only just behind the second film.
*. I get it. Ed Skrein is no Jason Statham. But he isn’t bad. He doesn’t have the same charm, which translates into star power, but I think he holds his own, even with his throaty delivery and inability to smile. He also keeps his shirt on. The action scenes were better handled than in the previous instalment, and while silly not quite as silly as I’d gotten used to.
*. I was confused as to why they would want to change stars but keep the same character. Why not make Skrein into Statham’s nephew? Instead, I believe this movie was intended to be a prequel, which I’m not sure makes sense given the cars and other technology that’s being used. I mean, if this is a prequel then we’re in the ’90s aren’t we? But according to the dates we’re given this is 2010. Or was this Frank supposed to be the son of Jason Statham’s Frank, a character now played by Ray Stevenson? I couldn’t be sure.
*. The plot is, indeed, very stupid. Basically Frank is hired (and/or forced) to help a bunch of prostitutes get revenge on the Russian pimp who is running them. This they do in fashionable style. It’s a movie full of clichéd fashion notes. The girls wear blonde wigs and dress in haute couture (not looking suspicious at all!) while robbing a bank. The bad guys live the gangster lifestyle. And you know what that means, don’t you, playboy? Yachts, private jets, hot tubs, alcohol, and strippers shaking their booty in your face all day and all night.
*. As I said, however, I thought the action at least as well handled as in the previous movie. There’s an overfondness for throwing in lots of aerial drone shots that I thought were unnecessary, but if you have a climax on a mountain top what else are you going to do? I didn’t buy any of the stunts, but I didn’t in the earlier movies either. I just found myself wondering how often Frank has to replace his tires. He burns a lot of rubber.
*. In sum, switching to a new star in a franchise that was purely a star vehicle is not an easy maneuver to pull off. I thought they did fine here, but then I wasn’t a big fan of the franchise in the first place. But I’ll go so far as to say that I’d watch another Transporter if it comes to that. And it very well might.

The Wailing (2016)

*. On the face of it The Wailing seems like a fairly standard bit of Asian horror, complete with a demonically possessed little girl and a bleak ending that leaves evil still afoot. But then you note the running time of just over two-and-a-half hours and the precision with which it’s been made and you start paying a little more attention.
*. Does that increased attention pay off? Partly. The Wailing is a beautifully photographed film (Kyung-pyo Hong would go on to shoot Parasite), making it always nice to look at, but I started to wonder after a while if it should look so good. Does that really add anything to the picture?
*. This is a minor point that I’d like to dilate on a bit. There’s a tendency to praise a lot of movies for looking good and for beautiful photography even when looking good is not the point or is even counterproductive. This is often a question to be asked and I don’t think it gets asked enough. I mean, would you expect a John Cassavetes picture to look good? What would be the point?

*. Then there is that running time. This is not a terribly economical film, stretching out through various sequences that I think are excessively built up. This is especially the case with the two big intercut scenes: the exorcism (cutting between the shaman and the Japanese man) and the ending (cutting between Jong-goo confronting the mystery woman and the deacon confronting the Japanese man). Did we need so much back-and-forth here? Doesn’t it make these scenes less effective? They feel like they go on too long and the tension is watered down.
*. Nor do I find it a particularly scary film. Director Na Hong-jin doesn’t go for jump scares and he doesn’t use all the time he takes to build up any set-piece suspenseful moments. Instead there are a lot of strange comic bits that I didn’t think worked that well, with, when you get right down to it, a fairly pedestrian ghost story playing out in the background.

*. So I didn’t love The Wailing. I know I liked it a lot less than reviewers, as it received universal critical praise. But it’s still a good movie. Even as long as it is it’s never dull. And it does do a good job of exploring what I think is its central theme: Where, in the modern world, does authority reside?
*. I don’t mean authority in the pejorative sense it usually has today, as when describing someone or some government as authoritarian. I mean who has power, and in particular the power to serve and to protect. This is a question that is addressed in two different contexts.
*. In the first place there is Jong-goo’s status as father and as a cop. These are roles that we feel should mean something, though both are undercut in the early going. He’s a bumbling, cowardly cop who breaks the law and not much of a father either (his daughter even catches him screwing around on her mom). Nevertheless, this is what he hangs his hat on at the end, that daddy is a policeman and can protect Hyo-jin. Except he can’t. He has no real authority.

*. The second context that the question of authority is addressed in has to do with spiritual matters. Does a shaman have more authority than a priest? Do either have any authority over a ghost or the devil? Without giving too much away (thought you may take this as a spoiler alert) the answer here is again negative. Traditional, established sources of authority are shown to be corrupt and ineffective. This isn’t all that new — I’ve noted before the complete collapse of religion and its ability to challenge the forces of evil in contemporary horror (see my remarks on Paranormal Activity, for example) — and here it only brings things around to what has become a now familiar down-beat conclusion.
*. This questioning of authority is what, in turn, sets up the film’s climax where Jong-goo and the deacon are suspended in doubt about the true nature and identity of the forces they are fighting. How can they know what is really going on? Who can they trust?

*. I’ve heard a lot of people refer to The Wailing as a horror “epic” but I can’t think of what this is referring to aside from its length and maybe some of the photography. Because it’s really a fairly simple story about a rather low-rent demon infesting a mid-size town just for the hell of it. There’s a good twist, but you know a twist is coming and I didn’t find it all that surprising.
*. My own feeling is that the high-end treatment of genre material didn’t do the film any favours. I think I would have enjoyed it more if they hadn’t put so much work into it. Just compare, for example, low-budget J-horror classics like Ringu and Ju-on: The Grudge. For a film like this I’d trade professionalism and high production values for a bit more of that energy and inspiration.

The Lighthouse (2019)

*. There’s a lot to admire about The Lighthouse, the follow-up to The Witch by writer-director Robert Eggers. I like it quite a bit, though maybe not up to the level of the press it got. It’s not a masterpiece, but it is well made and goes its own way.
*. In what follows I just want to discuss a few points that struck me as noteworthy, and avoid entering into debates over the film’s meaning, any Jungian interpretations, its critique of toxic masculinity (Eggers: “Nothing good can happen when two men are left alone in a giant phallus”), or political dead ends like whether or not the lighthouse keepers are gay.
*. The first point has to do with a surface resemblance I felt to The Caretaker. Maybe it was the use of black-and-white, but more likely it was the idea of a pair of weirdos living in isolation and gradually coming undone.
*. Like I say, it’s only a surface resemblance. But the atmosphere does have some of the same sweaty male pong (to use a Pinter word), or odour of anxiety and threat. It also has its absurd moments, like the “What?” “What?” bit. But what struck me the most was, and this is a negative takeaway, the ungainliness of Eggers’ language (the script was co-written with Robert’s brother Max).
*. Pinter, of course, was writing for the stage, which is kind of like a movie in one long take (or two or three long takes). This makes rhythm a lot more important. In a movie the visual rhythm of editing is more essential. This may help explain why I found the dialogue in The Lighthouse to be really rough when I compared it to Pinter. Willem Dafoe’s eruptions into a Shakespearean-King James fustian are fun, but the rest of the time I didn’t get a feeling I was listening to real people speaking normally or naturally. There was no flow. And this seemed like a significant drawback in a movie that you’d think would be built around its talk. It’s really not. It’s made out of its photography. The images say a lot more than the words.

*. Another point I found interesting is the sub-genre of, for lack of a better term, isolation horror and its growing popularity. Of course a sense of isolation has often gone along with various horror plots because it leaves our victims removed from any hope of rescue. Hence the isolation of the camp in Carpenter’s The Thing, or all those cabin-in-the-woods movies. But those are a bit different, since the cabin in The Evil Dead, or Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever, at least starts out as a fun getaway for a bunch of young people.
*. What I’m talking about is a situation where the isolation is an integral part of the horror, perhaps even giving rise to it. The archetype here may be the resort in The Shining. Sure there are ghosts, but we can’t help but feel that being so isolated is what’s driving Jack Torrance crazy. To paraphrase Eggers, nothing good can happen when a family is left alone in a giant, empty hotel.
*. The Witch was a similar sort of thing, with the family cast out from their village and having to go it alone in the bush. Nothing good will come of that. More recently there was The Lodge. Setting your new girlfriend up in a remote, if luxurious, lodge with your kids for some quality bonding time. Nothing good will come of that. Or the isolation of the girl in The Eyes of My Mother. How much contact does she have with the outside world? Doesn’t look like much. Nothing good will come of that.
*. Is there more of this now, or is it just an unrepresentative sample I’ve been viewing? And if there is more of it now, what does it tell us about a society where we are more connected — living in cities, in higher density neighbourhoods, and interacting online all the time — than ever? Does this make isolation more frightening? Or are these movies an expression of an anxiety that despite all our connectedness, or because of it, is making us only feel more alone?

*. The final point I want to make has to do with the ending. I don’t much like it. What it reminded me of was the ending of Annihilation. After a lot of build-up we arrive (at a lighthouse, in both movies) where I guess some sort of great secret is revealed. But what?
*. Eggers tells us that “I’m more about questions than answers in this movie,” but how far do we let him go with that? I like ambiguity and resistance to closure as much as the next guy, but it seems to me that at some point you have to show us what you’ve got. You can’t just say a door opens and there’s a bright light and then . . . Robert Pattinson sees God? One of Lovecraft’s Ancient Ones? Or does he just stick his hand on the lamp and get fried? I really feel that an ending like this suggests a failure of the imagination on some level. Your whole movie has been building up to this point and then you play coy? This is too cute by half, and not half as deep.
*. I wonder if seeing this movie in a theatre would have made the nearly square aspect ratio stand out more. Watching it on TV I hardly noticed because the image was usually so dark anyway I couldn’t always tell where the edges of the frame were. A claustrophobic effect? Hm. I’m not sure. The mise en scène didn’t feel crowded, which is the usual way of evoking a sense of the walls closing in.
*. Still, it’s a good picture. The photography in particular is terrific, not just for the starkness of the black-and-white but the texture that’s achieved in the dark buildings at night, or outside during the storms. Dafoe is great. Pattinson I thought a bit out of his depth, and he seemed to be having trouble holding on to his accent at the end. Not a movie I’m in a rush to watch again anytime soon, but a good stretch above most of what Hollywood has been coming out with lately.

Overlord (2018)

*. When I saw the trailer for Overlord my first thought was that it was going to be a remake of The Keep (1983). That might have been interesting. But we’re just going to have to wait.
*. Instead, Overlord is a mash-up of other titles and genres. I was most reminded of Frankenstein’s Army (2013), about a bunch of Russian soldiers in World War Two discovering a Nazi lab being used to create super-soldiers out of various spare parts. In this movie the Nazi doctors have apparently tapped into a well of the same gunk on tap in A Cure for Wellness, which can bring the dead back to life and make the living unkillable. Unlike zombies, you can even blow their brains out and it won’t stop them.
*. The story has a group of paratroopers being sent behind enemy lines into occupied France just before D-Day (hence the film’s title) to destroy a radio transmitter in a church. In the basement of said church the Nazis are engineering their “thousand-year soldiers” for the thousand-year Reich.
*. This might have worked, but the two storylines — the mission and the basement of horrors — don’t come together that well. Much of the script feels forced. Things happen just because they have to happen to have everything end up in the right place. Why, for example, do they waste so much time (when time is of the essence) beating up that captured German officer only to find out there were some 40 soldiers defending the church? What difference did that make to their plans? That is, if they had much of a plan. It didn’t seem like they did. And then having the officer escape was just something that had to happen so he could be involved in the final battle, since he’s the only villain that’s been built up.
*. The height of ridiculousness, however, comes when the little boy goes running straight out into the middle of a gun fight. Why? So that the cynical American soldier can be a hero. Did you not see that coming?
*. How important is historical accuracy in a movie like this? I think most people would say “not at all,” and I’d be inclined to agree with them. On the other hand, it is still worth noting that the American army wasn’t racially integrated until after World War Two. There were no interracial airborne units. You could shrug this off as being either Hollywood or revisionist history, but it’s the kind of thing that I think does contribute to the general dumbing down of young people, who might easily take such basic plot points as being factual. In 1917, a movie that would seem to be making a stronger claim to authenticity, similar questions were raised about the presence of Black and Sikh soldiers.
*. I did like a few little touches. Mathilde Ollivier is someone I wouldn’t mind seeing more of. And I like how the way Boyce (Jovan Odepo) cuts himself out of the parachute when he lands in the river is echoed in the creatures hanging from the amniotic sacs in the lab. Births and rebirths.
*. But overall I didn’t think Overlord was a lot of fun, and for a comic book adventure it should have been. It’s too dark and nasty, with none of the dry humour it needed. Wyatt Russell doesn’t yet have the kind of gruff charm his father had when facing similar beasties in The Thing. And while the medical/body horror gives us some unpleasant moments (as well as a surprising R rating), there’s nothing terribly original about any of it. I kept thinking of other movies here as well. The guy lifting himself off the meat hook comes from the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (or maybe something earlier). The hero and villain shooting themselves up with super serum at the end to do battle recalls Universal Soldier.
*. As I like to say, keep your expectations low and you won’t be disappointed. I don’t think this is as good as it could have been, but it’s a long way from being as bad as it might have been. I think if you’re going to make a movie this crazy though, you have to go further, in whatever direction you settle on. I didn’t get the feeling they did pick a direction, and they didn’t go far enough.

Narcopolis (2015)

*. Narcopolis isn’t what I was expecting, but then I’m not sure what it is.
*. I’ll unpack that. Based on the DVD box I was expecting an SF neo-noir movie about a future state where drugs have been made legal, leading to all kinds of social rot and urban chaos. I was thinking something along the lines of a cross between Dredd and one of the Purge movies.
*. But thought that is the premise, nothing much is done with it. There is, of course, an evil corporation (called the Ambro Corporation here) that is hooking everyone on designer drugs, but drugs and drug crime don’t seem to be much more of a problem than they are today. Nor does our hero, the “Dreck” (future slang for a cop) Frank Grieves, go flying into action fighting criminal gangs on the mean streets of London. This isn’t really an action film.
*. Instead, it’s a time-travel movie, sort of along the lines of 12 Monkeys. It seems the Ambro Corporation is developing a drug that when injected transports you through time. Yes, it’s highly improbable (there isn’t any discussion, for example, about how you pick your landing spot), but something similar seems to have been the method used in La Jetée so we’ll let it slide.
*. What I can’t let slide is the fact that I couldn’t figure out what the hell Ambro was up to aside from the usual mad CEO claptrap (“Time — the most precious commodity. Who controls time, controls everything”), or what Frank’s role in all of this was, or what the rebel hacker underground (if there’s an evil corporation there’s always a rebel hacker underground) was up to. I’ve tried to find some explanation of the plot online but even waiving aside all spoiler alerts I wasn’t able to come up with much.
*. In the end, I think writer-director Justin Trefgarne just didn’t think the whole thing through very well. Maybe some important material was cut (Trefgarne says as much during the commentary), but even so it seems sketchy. Characters are introduced who would seem to be central to the plot in some way, but then they just sort of disappear or get killed without doing anything. Ask yourself this: if the parts of Eva Gray or Yuri Sidorov hadn’t been in the script, would it have made any difference? Of course the scenes with them in it would have been lost, but otherwise they don’t serve any necessary function.
*. Of course, you don’t expect a time-travel movie to wrap everything up perfectly. There’s that whole problem with paradoxes. But the end of Narcopolis is more mystifying than most. To take just one example: if the rebels have the technology to send hit squads back and forth anywhere and anytime just by use of that watch device Eva has, then haven’t they won? Who can stop them doing whatever they want? If they control time, they control everything.
*. On the commentary track Trefgarne says he wanted to end on a note of ambiguity but I think it might be another example of not being sure of where he was going. I mean, none of these movies makes perfect sense, but this one is impenetrable.
*. How many movies of this ilk have we seen where the hero does a stern walk through a disco or dance club? That’s such an oddly enduring cliché.
*. I thought there was some potential here. Terfgarne does get a lot out of a limited budget. London in 2044, for example, is Doha, Qatar, not an effects shot. There’s a gritty atmosphere to the proceedings that’s a little different than the usual dystopic grime and which is well-suited to the guerilla-filmmaking style. And I really like that this is a time-travel movie where the hero is not in fact the time traveler but is rather the person encountering the time traveler and who doesn’t understand what’s going on. That’s a new wrinkle. Ask yourself how often time-travel movies play out like that.
*. But in the end it’s a movie that really wants the audience to care about a dramatic situation that isn’t very clear. This is the big problem with confusing movies: not that they’re hard to follow but that they frustrate our really caring about what’s going on.