Category Archives: 2020s

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022)

*. A laboured title but a clever enough idea. Not an original idea — the movie star who gets stuck in a situation where he has to “be” one of his most famous characters in order to survive — but clever enough to make something out of. And by this point in his career Nicolas Cage is perfect for the part, as his roles have pretty much become him playing Nicolas Cage now. So it’s all self-referential and meta and hip. Good for some laughs anyway.
*. Unfortunately, it never graduates from a concept to a real script. Cage plays “Nick” Cage, an actor whose personal and professional life are both on the skids. What’s next up is being a celebrity birthday-party guest at some rich guy’s private Majorcan estate. Javi Gutierrez (Pedro Pascal), however, may be a crime lord as well as someone with an obsessive man-crush on his favourite movie star. So Cage is soon working with a CIA agent (Tiffany Haddish) to rescue the kidnapped daughter of a politician from the estate/compound, all while trying to stay in character with Javi.

*. It’s a movie that’s mostly played in a minor key but never takes off or really engages. It’s easy to smile along with — and the best part, with Cage and Pascal tripping on LSD while driving has become a joyful meme — but there are no belly laughs. It’s filled with references to Cage’s oeuvre that I mostly pulled a blank on, either because I hadn’t seen them or (more often) because I’d forgotten them completely. A nice pastiche of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was originally worked into the third act but was cut. It’s worth checking out as one of the extras included with the DVD, but I can see why it was left out as it’s too jarring a gear shift from the rest of the action.
*. To be honest, I’m not sure who this movie was for aside from die-hard Cage fans, which is a limited niche. And even for them I don’t think it has a lot to offer. I’d rather watch him going over the top in Mandy or Color Out of Space. Pascal is a rising star with a friendly face, and Cage does his usual Cage thing, but at the end of the day it can’t hold a candle to Three Amigos in the comedy department (only the most obvious reference point) and the action is just a yawn.

Beast (2022)

*. I thought Beast was a lousy movie, but I could imagine it having a different impact on me if I’d seen it when I saw a lot of other movies like it on TV when I was a kid. Movies where a giant killer animal goes on the rampage. I’m talking B-flicks, or C-flicks, like Grizzly (1976), Orca (1977), and Alligator (1980). In Beast, the titular beastie is a male lion whose pride has been wiped out by poachers. Now he’s taking his vengeance on humankind. Including an American doctor (Idris Elba) and his two young daughters who happen to be visiting an old friend (Sharlto Copley) in Africa and find themselves very much in the wrong place at the wrong time.
*. If you’ve heard anything about Beast then you know it’s the movie where Idris Elba punches a lion. This he does. And the rest of his MMA training comes in handy too in a final showdown with the King of the Beasts that he miraculously survives. Which is very stupid, but far from the stupidest thing going on here.
*. Things get off to a dumb start with the opening shots of the poachers approaching a pride of lions with their guns drawn, in a packed formation where they’re all standing behind one another. This is not the way a squad of armed men arrange themselves, unless you want the back of your head blown off by the guy behind you. Then, later in the same scene, one of the poachers will get caught in the trap he just set. At which point you realize you’re going to be groaning and shaking your head a lot in the next 90 minutes.
*. In addition to being stupid, the plot is the usual string of clichés. Elba’s doctor carries a sense of guilt in relation to his estranged wife’s death, which his kids also resent him for, so the trials they face will, you guessed it, bring them closer together as a family. There are mountains that cut off any phone or radio communication, so our heroes are on their own except for walky-talkies. One of which goes off just when Elba is trying to be very, very quiet! Everyone acts like a teenager in a slasher film’s idiot plot, wandering off on their own so that they can find themselves in danger and have to narrowly escape the lion . . . again and again and again. It’s not even clear why Elba’s character feels he has to go mano-a-leo at the end. Why not just stay in the church? Because the lion will never leave them alone, is what he tells the kids. OK.
*. The structure of the plot is also utterly predictable. The lion is surely killed in a fiery explosion, but just as surely we know it will come back. And it does. We’re introduced to a “good” pride of lions in the first act that will have a role to play later. Though not much of one, as the ending feels rushed and oddly anticlimactic. It’s like they ran out of money for any more effects and just decided to call it a wrap. Indeed, I’m not even sure what happens, aside from the fact that Elba and his kids survive to tell the tale.
*. There’s not much to say about this one. The CGI lion actually looks pretty good, which is a blessing because without that they would have had nothing. CGI insects, however, remain a real problem. Elba does his manful best to try and sell the worthless script, and his manful best is very good, but it’s only enough to keep his head above water.
*. Like I say, seen on TV ca. 1978-1980, a twelve-year-old version of myself might have been impressed by this. But those days are long gone and movies like this a rightfully endangered species. Unless you’re talking about a bear zonked out on cocaine. That’s how far we’ve come.

The Munsters (2022)

*. In my notes on Halloween II I quoted from film critic Kim Newman who said “Rob Zombie plainly loves horror films . . . but proves frustratingly unable to apply his talents to making them. . . . His Halloween is less a remake than fan fiction.”
*. I thought Newman’s observation was spot on, as Zombie’s fandom is plainly evident in films such as his Halloween movies and House of 1000 Corpses, even though these aren’t good movies (to put it charitably). As The Munsters reveals, he’s also a fan of ’60s sitcoms, but he can’t do comedy either.
*. It would be easy to dump on The Munsters because it isn’t very good, received poor reviews, and the pandemic killed any chance it had at box office. Or I could damn it with the faintest praise by saying it may be Rob Zombie’s best movie to date. But I think I’ll just say that it’s not all bad.
*. While Zombie was a fan of The Munsters, he says he didn’t want to just make a two-hour version of the TV show. What I took this as meaning is that he wanted to go with a more developed story that would take longer to fill out. But that’s not what this is. Instead, The Munsters splits up pretty neatly into an even more segmented version of the traditional three-act structure: the making of Herman Munster, Herman meets Lily, and the Munsters go to L.A.
*. None of these parts have much to do with each other, and characters who are introduced in one subplot don’t appear in the others. The mad scientist who gives Herman life takes up a large part of the first section but then disappears. The gypsy Zoya who tricks Herman into giving up the family mansion in Transylvania vanishes completely as soon as her function in the plot is served. The baby dragon Spot that’s rescued from the sewers of Paris becomes a bed-warmer for Lily, but all we see of him again is his tail sticking out from under the sheets. Lily’s werewolf brother Lester also just pops up whenever he’s needed to move things along.

*. So the script is shaky to say the least. There’s no real sense of what’s supposed to be important. As for the comedy, the feeling I had was that Zombie was going more for groans than laughs. Like the signs that say “If this tomb’s rocking don’t come knocking” or “Tomb Sweet Tomb.” Or the way just saying the word “Uranus” is supposed to be funny. I can’t say any of this was a misfire though as Zombie gives Herman the brain of a hack stand-up comedian and it fits with what I remember of the show, which is that it wasn’t terribly funny either.
*. It’s hard to say much about the performances as most of the actors are covered in prosthetics and Zombie, who was aiming for “real-life cartoons come to life” was always urging them to “go bigger, go bigger.” Which is to say, play as broadly as possible. So Sheri Moon Zombie throws her hands around like she just ate something hot. Jeff Daniel Phillips doesn’t sound a bit like Fred Gwynne, but he does work his mouth about in a familiar way and manages the mannerisms pretty well. Daniel Roebuck is the Count (not Grandpa yet) and his make-up is very good.
*. The look of the film is striking and is the best thing about it. I don’t see where it has anything to do with the original series though, instead looking more like a neon version of The Hilarious House of Frightenstein. Or I could say it looks like Zombie’s other movies, which is a look that I don’t think goes with horror at all, but which suits a modern take on The Munsters.
*. Whatever else you want to say about Zombie’s films, he does bring the energy and he’s not afraid to “go bigger” anyway he can. Normally it doesn’t work, but it’s fine here and at least keeps you watching. There’s also some nice use of a couple of Budapest locations and the night sky has some inspired flourishes tossed in, like an oversize moon and some shooting stars.
*. Zombie also has a good commentary on the DVD. Not every director handles that well so I’ll give credit where due. I was impressed by some of the things I learned. Like the fact that they actually built all the houses of Mockingbird Heights, including the Munster mansion, and even paved the streets and sidewalks. That seemed terribly wasteful to me, but apparently there were no streets in Hungary that looked like suburban America. This always makes me wonder just how cheap it must be to make movies in Eastern Europe if you have to build sets to this extent they did just to make it look like Everytown, U.S.A. The answer seems to be plenty cheap.
*. The whole thing staggers along, groaning all the way, until it ends so suddenly that I was actually surprised when the retro credits started to run. Well, at least it didn’t drag. And at an hour and fifty minutes that’s another thing you have to give Zombie some credit for.
*. I watched The Munsters a bit when I was a kid, but I was never a big fan. I was one of those people who was always mixing it up with its broadcast rival, The Addams Family. So I can’t say I was upset at anything being done to my childhood memories. As it is, The Munsters plays like a respectful if off-beat origin story for what was a meh show from an era long before anyone in the target audience for this film was born. Put another way, I don’t think they had a lot to work with in the first place but at least Zombie made a movie that looks neat and isn’t (deadly) dull.

Vengeance (2022)

*. Vengeance was the directorial debut of B. J. Novak, who also wrote and stars in the film. Novak is probably best known for his turn in the American version of The Office, and while it might be lazy to draw a connecting line from that show to this I think the shoe in this case fits.
*. So the basic idea here is the sane person surrounded by madness and idiots. Novak is the straight man in this case, a New York City player and podcaster named Ben Manalowitz. He’s looking for a catchy project to break into the podcast big leagues and one lands on his plate when a girl named Abilene who he’d hooked up with is found dead down in Texas. Abilene’s brother calls Ben up and insists he come to the funeral. At first reluctant, Ben soon sees this as a possible break when the brother explains how he thinks Abilene was killed by a drug cartel.
*. An aside: podcaster is the new freelancer now. And it’s potentially even more lucrative. Though I’ve never been a big fan of podcasts myself. Aren’t they just blogs for people who don’t read?
*. The set-up is an old story: the bit-city type who ends up out in the boonies trying to relate to some heartland hicks who he begins by mocking and then comes to like and respect. Because Ben himself isn’t just a fish out of water but someone who has to learn a lot himself. Like what the Alamo was and how important it is to have real relations with people.
*. If that were all that there was to Vengeance it would be thin gruel indeed. It’s not hard to stay a half-hour or more ahead of the plot and the jokes really aren’t that funny. But Vengeance is still an interesting movie for one performance and one new wrinkle it gives to the old story.

*. The performance is by Ashton Kutcher as a sinister record producer who had a connection to Abilene. I really haven’t followed Kutcher’s career at all, and was surprised at how well he plays here. He’s not an evil or malignant force so much as a phony who’s dangerous precisely for being so weak. We don’t get the sense that there’s any substance behind him. He is all hat and no cowboy, which in turn fits perfectly with the wrinkle I mentioned.
*. That wrinkle has to do with the way the dichotomy between country and city, real people and fake, is transposed into the digital realm. In a moment that recalls the ending of James Joyce’s “The Dead” (honest!) there’s a leitmotif about how we are all turning into ghosts in the age of social media. None of us, New Yorkers or Texans, have any substance anymore. We’ve gone from being people to characters, and type characters at that. Even the stories we tell and the songs we sing are ethereal, ephemeral, existing only (for a time) in the cloud. Fame is viral, a fever that runs hot and then breaks, leaving us diminished or dead.
*. This is a point that I wish had been pushed a little further and made a little darker, as it’s the real message of the movie. Unfortunately there’s a tug toward predictable comic situations and at times the plot seemed rushed and forced together. I didn’t buy Ben turning against the family in the restaurant parking lot at all, and then it got worse when he actually returns to sleep at their house. This seemed highly improbable, like it was just meant to end the second act and prepare us for the climactic showdown without slowing things down. Which, of course, it was.
*. Vengeance is a low-budget movie without huge ambitions. The form it takes is hokey and most of the humour feels played, but there’s a timely idea behind it that’s developed in a creative and intelligent way. If you’re not expecting even that much, and I wasn’t, you’ll be in for a pleasant surprise.

The King’s Man (2021)

*. Horrible. Just horrible.
*. The first two Kingsman movies — Kingsman: The Secret Service and Kingsman: The Golden Circle — weren’t groundbreaking classics, but they were somewhat distinctive in their blend of wildly over-the-top, retro spy shenanigans mixing lowbrow humour with hugely indulgent (in terms of both budget and violence) action sequences. Whatever you thought of them, it did seem as though they’d set up a franchise. You knew what you were getting with a Kingsman movie.
*. That is, until this bloated piece of junk finally crawled into cinemas, over two years after its original release date. There had been something like eight postponements, mostly due no doubt to the COVID-19 pandemic, but I also suspect that the studio might have known they had a turkey on their hands. Eventually, however, the bomb did go off, leaving the franchise now in ruins.
*. I can’t understand what happened. Matthew Vaughn returned to direct, and shared the writing duties as he had in the first two films. So you’d think there’d be some continuity. But everything about this movie is different. Different, and worse.

*. Technically this is a prequel, taking us back to the years of the First World War, a conflict that was hatched by a bitter Scot going by the name of the Shepherd (Matthew Goode) with a raging hard-on for independence. He lives on a mesa somewhere with a bunch of goats and a stable of agents who have infiltrated the corridors of power all over the world. These agents include such historical luminaries as Rasputin (who also had a prominent role to play in Hellboy, evidence of his oddly durable place in the annals of villainy), Mata Hari, Gavrilo Princip, and even Vladimir Lenin.
*. Opposed to this secret society of international shit-disturbers is the pacifist Orlando, Duke of Oxford (Ralph Fiennes). Orlando is, in turn, assisted by his box-checking sidekicks Polly (Gemma Arterton) as the sassy lady who can talk back and kick ass, and his Black butler Shola (Djimon Hounsou), who doesn’t talk back and who will take a bullet for his titled lord, should the need arise (and it does).
*. Orlando has a wife and son but the wife is killed in the opening sequence while Orlando is visiting one of Kitchener’s concentration camps in the Boer War, which was kind of depressing. And then his son, who we were starting to like, is killed in the trenches in the Great War, which is even more depressing. And so, duty calls and the Kingsman outfit is born.
*. I don’t know where to begin explaining how much I hated this movie, or even if I should bother. But for starters, it’s at least an hour too long. Instead of just being pure insanity, like the first two movies, the script is full of leaden lines delivered portentously and the plot is a mash of actual historical events retold as part of the Shepherd’s conspiracy. So we get the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, Rasputin “healing” the son of the tsar, and the Zimmerman telegram all explained in ways that don’t make any sense, even if you accept tossing history to the wind.
*. To take just one example: even after the Zimmerman telegram is decrypted America still won’t enter the war on the side of the allies because President Woodrow Wilson is being blackmailed with a video that had been made of Mata Hari giving him a lap dance in the Oval Office. I mean, this is just stupid.

*. Where are the laughs? This movie has no sense of humour at all. The only scene where I even thought they were trying to be funny was the awkward and creepy bit that has Rasputin massaging Orlando’s leg before turning into a whirling dervish. At least I think that was trying to be funny. And it sure wasn’t.
*. Instead of laughs we get a painful rehash of how awful the First World War was, with a ponderous reading of Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum est.” Which isn’t even on point because that poem is about a gas attack, which is something we don’t see here. Otherwise, even the trenches of the Western front are presented in the usual prettified style, and the heroism of Orlando’s son is underlined in bold in headline type, all of which sort of undercuts Owen quite a bit.
*. To dilate on this point just a bit: Orlando’s arc, and it’s the same arc the film travels, takes him from being a conscientious pacifist to someone who glories in war. As he vanquishes the Shepherd at the end (throwing him from a cliff after the Shepherd mocks him for being a namby-pamby peacenik) he declares that now he can become the man his son would have been. That is, a military hero. Then the dirty filmstrip is destroyed and America joins up to fight and there are cheers and exclamations of how “We’re going to war!” Yay!
*. But even this naked jingoism isn’t the most alarming political message the film carries. Apparently the Shepherd isn’t just anti-British empire but anti-the toffs who threw him off of his family farm. And he’s the villain. He chums around with the likes of Lenin and Hitler because Scottish independence is on the same level as the Russian Revolution and the Nazi takeover in Germany. Not surprisingly, all his operatives are lower-class losers raging against the system. The point being that there is a natural class order (not to mention a gender and race hierarchy) just as there is a natural international (imperial) order, and to go against any of this means you’re not just wrongheaded but pure evil. Hard to believe a movie like this existing in the twenty-first century, but here we are.

*. Look, if a movie wants to be pro-war (and pro-empire, and pro-Victorian class structures) that’s fine. But then why all the stuff about war being so horrible? And why introduce Polly and Shola just to have them be such stereotypes?
*. Orlando’s son is killed at the front (for the crime of impersonating a Scot), which sends his dad into a tailspin. But Polly is there to stir him out of his funk with the usual clichés and by tendering her resignation. Orlando then rises to his feet, as the music rises, and says he won’t accept her resignation but he will accept a very strong cup of tea. The music soars! Polly smiles! Because you know what a strong cuppa means in Britain. It means he wants to fill Polly up with a new heir! And also save the empire. Maybe both.
*. What a dull, stupid, cliché-ridden, politically obnoxious mess. I can’t imagine wasting $100 million on such crap. Something is very wrong with the movie business.
*. One can only hope this is the end of the line for the franchise, at least if they don’t have anything better on tap. And since a mid-credit sequence introduces us to a young Adolf Hitler, who is going to work together with Lenin to . . . just trash everything for no good reason at all . . . it seems they did have a sequel in mind. From the looks of it, that might turn out to be the worst movie never made. Let’s hope.

Gasoline Alley (2022)

*. In the wake of his aphasia diagnosis and subsequent announcement of his retirement, I think everyone wanted to cut Bruce Willis some slack for what had been a remarkable string of bad performances in worthless films.
*. I’m not as charitable. He still took these roles, and worked at a frantic pace churning out garbage. In 2022 alone I believe he appeared in an even dozen (!) direct-to-video releases, for which he was well paid. I like Willis, as he was an iconic star when I was a young moviegoer, but I don’t feel that sorry for him. Cognitive impairment is a terrible thing to suffer through, but he should have hung it up before it came to this.
*. Which brings us to Gasoline Alley, though I suspect that much of what I’m about to say could be said of the rest of Willis’s 2022 production. Gasoline Alley is a cheap (and worse, cheap-looking) piece of crap, apparently shot in eleven days. I think they might have had a couple of weekends off in there.
*. Devon Sawa plays Jimmy Jayne, a tough ex-con who drives a hot rod and a motorbike and runs a tattoo parlour. It’s a “rock-and-roll life.” A girl he meets at a bar ends up being murdered alongside a bunch of other girls and Jimmy becomes the prime suspect. Two detectives, Freeman (Willis) and Vargas (Luke Wilson) start to lean on him, so Jimmy sets out to solve the case on his own.
*. I guess they were going for some kind of neo-noir vibe, but nothing works. Though I have to throw some praise in Sawa’s direction. He’s really doing his best here and he’s not bad. Given that nobody else even seems to be trying, that’s worthy of respect.
*. Wilson is just picking up a cheque and Willis is noticeably not well. He’s actually only on screen for a few minutes, and his dialogue mainly consists of saying “Yeah” when someone else says something to him. He really looks much worse here than he did in Breach and Cosmic Sin, movies that glow in comparison to this.
*. He dies at the end (I’m not giving you any spoiler alerts), with one of his last lines being “It wasn’t supposed to end like this.” Then Sawa soaks him in gasoline and tosses a flaming $20 in his direction. It’s hard not to read something into that. Sorry Bruce.

Infinite Storm (2022)

*. Stories of humans battling nature or the elements usually have a deeper, even allegorical meaning or are used to illustrate some moral truth. Since nature itself — a perfect storm, a tidal wave, a giant asteroid, drought, etc. — is indifferent to us, our struggle with it turns into a battle against something in ourselves, or of humanity vs. the forces of uncivilization. Moby-Dick was just a whale, but Ahab had to read something in to him. Santiago was proving something to himself in landing the marlin and fighting off the sharks.
*. Infinite Storm is based on the true story of a search-and-rescue mountaineer named Pam Bales (Naomi Watts) who rescued a man dying on New Hampshire’s Mount Washington. He’d gone up there, not dressed for the weather, as a way of attempting suicide. After bringing him down to safety, the man (Pam calls him “John”) just drives away.
*. My understanding is that in real life John wrote a letter to Pam thanking her for saving him and explaining how he’d wanted to kill himself but she’d changed his mind about that. In the movie that wasn’t going to work so they have Pam and John meet up at a diner to have a heart-to-heart, as she shares her own tragic tale of loss.
*. Watts is very good here, and she’s basically on screen the whole time, but the movie itself lacks bite. The survivalist stuff plays out in a realistic way — and I particularly liked the sound effects of the ice pellets — but it’s also very predictable. This compounds a problem with all such movies because it makes the protagonist’s ordeal seem even harder to endure. You see them trying to cross a mountain stream and you’re just waiting for one of them to fall in. Which happens. And Pam’s back story plays out in a similarly conventional way, with flashbacks giving her the strength to carry on when things seem darkest.
*. Directed by Małgorzata Szumowska and co-directed by Michał Englert, who are both Polish. Shot mostly in Slovenia, which was probably cheaper and looks prettier and a little more dangerous than “Live Free or Die” New Hampshire. Mount Washington is 1,917 metres high but these are the Kamnik–Savinja Alps, the highest peaks of which are all much higher (the highest, Grintovec, is 2,558 metres).
*. It’s a nice sentiment about finding meaning in your life, and some measure of redemption, through your connections with others. But at the end it just came off a bit like a Hallmark production, without the romance and with a meet-gritty rather than a meet-cute on the mountain. Authentic and well-meant, but finally nothing special.

Thor: Love and Thunder (2022)

*. I sometimes wonder how people of sincere faith view the products of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (of which Thor: Love and Thunder is the 29th entry). In many ways, these movies take their lead from Hollywood horror franchises dealing with demons and devil-worshippers. As I’ve said before, such movies accept the notion that there are forces of evil walking the earth but on the flipside show priests and angels and even God as either missing in action or totally outgunned.
*. In the MCU something only a bit different is happening. Again we’re supposed to believe in supernatural forces everywhere around us, but anything like we find in traditional monotheistic religions has been erased. Instead, the MCU is wholly pagan. We may have the pantheons of Greek and Norse gods, Lovecraftian Ancient Ones, and alien overlords (or, as with the Eternals, some combination of all of the above), but there’s no Yahweh or God the Father. There may be spears and magic helmets, but no crucifixes; a Necronomicon but no Bible.
*. I bring this point up here because the plot of Thor: Love and Thunder really places deicide in the foreground. We begin with a sad sack named Gorr (Christian Bale) finding out the hard way that his local deity is a callous and not at all impressive hippy. Gorr is then possessed by a typical MCU artefact known as the Necrosword and becomes the God Butcher. So look out, Thor!
*. The thing is, Gorr has a strong case that he gets to make when he captures our heroes and goes into the obligatory supervillain monologue. What use are the gods? Don’t they just use us for their sport, the Valkyrie as toy soldiers? Is prayer going to save Jane Foster/Lady Thor (Natalie Portman) from cancer? Hardly. And just look at the Star Wars-bar gang of oddballs that make up the conclave of immortals in Omnipotence City, headed by the ridiculous figure of Zeus (a hammy and plump Russell Crowe). If Gorr took all of them out, what difference would it make?
*. Isn’t there, as with the horror films I mentioned, a message being slipped in here, and that not too subtly, about religion and faith in general? One thinks of the famous scene in The Avengers when Loki gets smashed by the Hulk, who dismisses his claims to divinity by saying “puny god!” Isn’t that the point being made in all these films? That the whole idea of divinity is to be scorned, and that in its absence might makes right?
*. I don’t think this is a totally obscure theological point, but is illustrative of a broader cultural shift of some significance. But pushing all that aside, let’s look at the rest of the movie and see what we’ve got.
*. In my opinion, not much. Taika Waititi is back helming the project after the (commercial) success of Thor: Ragnarok. This time he’s swapped out Led Zeppelin for Guns N’ Roses, but otherwise it’s all the same CGI and posing. The shot where the hero and villain leap in slow motion at each other to smash together in the centre of the screen, for example, has become such a cliché they might as well start making fun of it. I think it’s repeated two or three times in this movie alone.
*. But then, there may be a limit to how much fun you can poke at what have become superhero clichés before the whole thing ends up being beyond parody. As Zeus complains at the end of this film (technically in one of those mid-credit sequences), “When did we become the joke?” (a line that also ties into the traducing of divinity I started off talking about). Seeing as his son Hercules is Brett Goldstein that may be a sticking point we’re not going to be getting past anytime soon.
*. Gorr has a compelling story, and Bale gives it his all under heavy make-up. Chris Hemsworth is beyond buff, to a point where the size of his arms was really bothering me. Apparently he maxed out at over 230 pounds for the role this time, which looks too heavy. Tessa Thompson remains one of the few bright lights. The rocky Korg (voiced by Waititi) is a bore, and outing him as gay just felt pointless. Portman felt out of place, and her Jane never could come up with any good lines despite all her best efforts. Plus having her wasting away from cancer throughout the film was a real drag.
*. The big problem I had with Love and Thunder though was the ending. It’s terrible. I honestly wasn’t sure what was going on. Gorr has his Necrosword broken, then it starts coming together again, then it’s broken again, then he passes toward the light (to Eternity?) along with Thor and Jane and he meets his daughter and his daughter (Love, played by Hemsworth’s daughter India Rose Hemsworth) comes back to life but Jane doesn’t and so Thor adopts the daughter while Jane goes to Valhalla, which looks like a rather nice resort village in Norway.
*. More adventures are promised. Presumably Thor and Love (Love and Thunder, get it?) will be taking on Hercules. With music by Black Sabbath perhaps. And more gods that can’t be killed but only trashed. Which is a pretty good way of characterizing what’s going on with the MCU now too. Some gods! Some movies!

Scream (2022)

*. The original Scream (1996) was a bit of a game-changer in the horror genre, with its air self-awareness and drift into dark comedy. But like all such films, once the game changed that original success became hard to duplicate. Think of Quentin Tarantino post-Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. With the successful formula easily (and nearly immediately) being parodied, all that Scream could do was fall into the same franchise rut it was busy mocking, repeating the original premise to diminishing returns.
*. This latest version of Scream is stuck with much the same problem. Where the formula gets some help is in the way the world itself has changed. “Elevated horror” is now a thing, as is the phenomenon of toxic fan culture. And phones are used to send scary text messages as much as to talk into.
*. By the way, here’s a quick aside on that last point: though they’re used a lot, text messages can be hard to read on a small screen. And since that is the way a lot of movies are being watched these days, even on phones, the problem can get quite pronounced. How do you read a text message in a movie you’re already watching on a tablet or phone?
*. In any event, I thought this Scream was at least an honest attempt to channel the spirit of the original, and should satisfy the likes of the Stab fangirl who explains the nature of a “requel” to the assembled cast in a homage to the laying out of the “rules” in the first film. It’s a reasonably bright script that plays the same tricks with regard to the identity of the killer(s) as were done throughout the tetralogy. I didn’t think the ending was a big surprise or twist, but there’s only so much that can be done in this regard.
*. Unfortunately, the back story has now become as involved as the different strands of the MCU and I found it not worth sorting out. All of the next-generation family connections — the hero here is Sam Carpenter (Melissa Barrera), the illegitimate daughter of Billy Loomis, who shows up as a sort of guardian spirit — were just confusing. At least to me. But then I’m probably not a true fan. I didn’t even need to see Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, and David Arquette again. They’re awkwardly introduced and seem out of place.
*. The bigger let-down though is that co-directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, who did V/H/S, Southbound, and Ready or Not, really feel off their game. This isn’t a scary movie at all. In fact, it’s dull. Even the jump scares, or the idea of jump scares, are just running gags. Example one being the business with fridge doors. The kills, meanwhile, are of the perfunctory kind that litter the screen in the later Halloween entries. They’re really not good. And some clichés were in need some kind of acknowledgement. Like why is that hospital so deserted? I know that’s part of the formula, but as such I thought it was a joke that was missing a punchline.
*. In the end, I guess I felt they did all they could with a new entry to a franchise: maintaining continuity and keeping faith with the rest of the series. And it’s not even a requel but a direct sequel, as critics/fan boys were quick to point out. But as every franchise eventually learns, there’s only so much you can do with the same characters and set-up before you run out of gas and you’re just left going through the motions. Twenty or thirty years down the road, you can’t go home again.

Bullet Train (2022)

*. David Thomson is a big fan of John Wayne’s walk, saying “He moved the way singers sing, with huge confidence and daring.” It was a signature as much as his voice, and as he walks away at the end of The Searchers that’s how it’s supposed to register.
*. In our own time singer sing and dancers dance to a different beat, but you can still recognize a great walk. Brad Pitt has one. I remember first noticing this in the Ocean’s movies. When he saunters into frame here to the tune of a Japanese cover of “Stayin’ Alive” we understand the point being made, especially if we’re familiar with the English lyrics and think of John Travolta strutting down the street at the start of Saturday Night Fever. Well you can tell by the way I use my walk I’m a woman’s man, no time to talk . . .
*. I’m sure Pitt, and director David Leitch, understand all this. Pitt’s walk is an integral part of any of his performances. I don’t know if it has daring, but it has huge confidence and style. And this is a movie that trades in style. Note how impressed Channing Tatum is when he sees the stylish killer Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) stalk down the aisle of the train. What strikes him the most? Tangerine’s walk.

*. Bullet Train is also very much a movie of its moment. Leitch had previously helmed Deadpool 2, which had lots of the same sort of wisecracking superhero nonsense. And there’s more to the connection between the two movies than just the appearance of Ryan Reynolds in a cameo here playing Brad Pitt’s younger replacement. This is the kind of role Reynolds has taken over, in such films as The Hitman’s Bodyguard and Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard and Pitt is just a more rumpled version of the same character, with grey in his beard, a Gilligan hat, and some issues he’s trying to work through with therapy.
*. Actors like Pitt and Reynolds are so charming and cool that it’s a kind of superpower. You can’t take anything they do seriously and every action scene is a kind of comic set-piece. There’s a cultural evolution noticeable in all this in how we imagine cool. Pitt and Reynolds aren’t badasses. As violent as these movies are, they don’t even project any toughness. Their whole attitude toward shooting people and beating them up is ironic. It’s all a joke, signed off with a smile and a quip. They’re Bruce Willis’s John McClane, but better looking and more graceful.

*. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, and Bullet Train is a lot of fun. Watching it, I was reminded of Leslie Halliwell’s observation, some fifty years ago, of how movies had become amusement park train rides. Halliwell was disapproving (naturally), but a rollercoaster is exactly what this is. What’s more, seeing as this is 2022 it doesn’t mind letting you know. The hitman Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry) is a fan of the children’s television show Thomas the Tank Engine, which he defends by comparing it to contemporary movies: “Hey, you watch something nowadays, what is it, huh? Nothing. Its twists, violence, drama, no message. What’s the point? Huh?” You see? Everyone’s in on the joke.

*. All the usual elements are arranged well. The fast talking. The scrambled, Easter egg narrative that uses the flashiest of flashbacks to show how everything is connected. The retro-with-a-postmodern-twist soundtrack. That’s Engelbert Humperdinck, by the way, singing a revamped version of “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.” The week I saw this movie an acquaintance had been to see Humperdinck in Toronto. I was stunned when I heard she was going, since I had seen Humperdinck in Toronto in the mid ’70s. Anyway, he’s 86 years old and still played a two-hour set. Wow.
*. Bullet Train is silly, goofy, expensive fun (Pitt was reportedly paid $20 million, nearly a quarter of the total budget). It’s twists, drama, violence . . . and despite all the blood and explosions it’s utterly harmless, especially since you know the good guys are all (or mostly all) going to be OK and the bad guys are going to be smashed or blown to pieces.
*. There’s a scene here where Tangerine faces down a train station full of gangsters by saying they look like they’re trying out for an ’80s dance-off. It’s a funny line, but the thing is this whole movie is a 2020’s dance-off. One expects a sequel given its success, and maybe Reynolds and Pitt will get to bust some moves together. Or just go for a walk.