Category Archives: 2020s

Amulet (2020)

*. There’s a lot going on in Amulet outside of its fairly simple story, and I might as well deal with this stuff right away.
*. In the first place, it’s a feminist horror film. In an interview with writer-director Romola Garai that’s included with the DVD she’s asked to comment on “a great moment for women directors of horror films,” with the references being to Relic (Natalie-Erika James), Saint Maud (Rose Glass) and the remake of Candyman (Nia DaCosta). Slightly earlier, The Babadook was apparently some influence. In an essay on the new female horror in Time magazine Stephanie Zacharek also mentions She Dies Tomorrow. So it’s fair to call it a trend.
*. In response, Garai has this to say “I think that horror is the perfect female medium. Because I think that being a woman is just like being in a horror film, you know, just everything about being a woman is being scared all the time and weird things happening to your body and feeling out of place.”
*. That’s a valid perspective, and it’s a case that has been made before. Amulet even doubles down by being both a supernatural horror film and a rape-revenge thriller. Some sort of other-worldly and semi-divine female principle is meting out harsh justice on men who have committed the ultimate transgression. Given this is a horror movie and the vengeful spirit is described as a demon we may think of it as an evil force, but it seems something earthier or more chthonic than that. So really the female point of view that Garai identifies with horror is being reversed, or as the producer put it, stood on its head.

*. The story has it that Tomaz (Alec Secareanu), an intellectual border guard (he spends his copious downtime reading philosophy) in some Eastern European country has immigrated to London. Flashbacks tells us that while stationed at his very remote border post he raped a woman he’d befriended. In London a nun (a chilling Imelda Staunton) sets him up in a job as a handyman in a creepy old house inhabited by a young woman named Magda (Carla Juri), who is taking care of her ill mother, who she keeps locked up in the attic.
*. Well obviously something is very wrong here. You want to yell at Tomaz not to eat that stew. Doesn’t everyone know that stew is the archetypical horror cuisine? I mean, what goes into it? Nobody knows.
*. But more than that, there’s the further feminist-horror archetype of the madwoman in the attic. This is actually where I thought Amulet showed the most potential, in a way that made it a very similar film to Relic. Magda is the dutiful caregiver for an elderly parent, a kind of master-slave relationship, forced to watch as her mother descends into dementia, literally transforming into something else. This is an everyday horror story that will resonate with a lot of people. That and pulling dead bats out of the toilet.

*. Like I say, this is the part of the movie that I thought had the most impact. The rape-revenge story seemed awkwardly bolted on to it. It turns out Magda’s mom is actually . . . well, I’m not sure what. Some damned thing that gives birth to the bats. It’s the product of a previous act of male violence perpetrated by Magda’s father. In any event, the conclusion here is very weird indeed, having Tomaz entering into the birth canal of the Great Pink Sea Snail and then becoming impregnated as payback for his having eaten of the forbidden fruit. Or something like that. I found it all a bit muddled.

*. There are things to like about Amulet. I appreciated the feeling of creeping dread (also known as slow burn), as opposed to the usual haunted-house jump scares. That restraint carries through to the performances, with emotions largely held in check. This isn’t a screamfest.
*. There’s also a nice otherworldly atmosphere. To be honest, I was surprised that the film was taking place in London. I thought Tomaz had just left his border post for a job in Bucharest or some such place. That’s what it looked like. This seemed fitting too, as so many horror movies are now being shot in Eastern Europe. But no, this is a British production.
*. Unfortunately, I came away thinking this was a movie that just had too much on its plate and not a clear enough idea about what it wanted to say. Or maybe it does and it’s just not very clear about saying it. I honestly had trouble figuring out what was going on. What was the point of the bat babies? Wasn’t the fact that Magda had to continue taking care of the hosts a sort of punishment of her? How did Tomaz get selected for this extreme punishment anyway? Did he find the amulet or did it find him? Why does Magda bother getting in touch with Miriam at the end?
*. It’s ironic, but despite being a slow burn with an eruption of weirdness and gore at the end, the climax is still a let-down. The ending is actually the least interesting part of the movie. I haven’t anything against the feminist message, but it’s really not as new or dangerous as it’s made out to be. In fact, I think it plays here against what might have been more difficult readings. Like “What are we going to do about mom?”

Force of Nature (2020)

*. A hurricane is bearing down on Puerto Rico. This made me question how many movies I’ve seen set in Puerto Rico. I can’t think of many (or really any) off the top of my head.
*. I really should have hated Force of Nature. Almost everyone else did. And for what are obvious reasons.
*. The plot has a cop with a tortured past (we first see him contemplating suicide) pairing up with a new kid. Haven’t seen that before. Anyway, their job is to go around telling residents to flee for safety from the hurricane. Upon arriving at one apartment building, however, they find themselves meeting up with a crusty old ex-cop (Mel Gibson) being nursed by his daughter (Kate Bosworth). He’s not leaving. Meanwhile, also in the building is an old German guy with a lot of stolen artwork, another guy with a big cat locked up in a spare bedroom, and a bunch of bad guys who are looking to steal the artwork. The stage is set.
*. It’s all as contrived as it is clichéd. Every now and then the action just stops and we have characters explain their back stories. As soon as we find out about the cat in the spare room (is it a tiger? I wasn’t sure), and the fact that it’s been trained to attack people wearing police uniforms, we know that’s going to become important.
*. Nor does any of it make a lot of sense. Why don’t they tie something around the tiger guy’s leg to stop it from bleeding? Why does someone have to literally hold on to his leg? How is that guy keeping a tiger in his spare room anyway? How can he afford to feed it that much grocery-store beef? And isn’t that whole set-up cruelty to animals?
*. At one point Bosworth and the tiger guy are trying to get away from the bad guys and they go into the basement, which has been filling with water throughout the hurricane. By the time they get to it the water is nearly up the ceiling. “If there’s water coming in, there’s a way out,” Bosworth says. Um. No. Not really. In fact, not at all. It just means there’s water coming into the basement from outside. But there is a way out! Of course.
*. I’ve joked before about the late career choices of Bruce Willis. Apparently he was originally cast as the ex-cop here. So now you know what happens to the roles Bruce Willis doesn’t take. They go to Mel Gibson.
*. Which is too bad for Bruce, actually. The thing is, despite being so hokey that it feels at times to be meant as a joke, with Emile Hirsch’s performance bordering on comic, I kind of enjoyed Force of Nature. I certainly thought it was a better movie than Cosmic Sin, which is the kind of thing Willis was doing instead. And whatever else you want to say about Mel Gibson, he’s like Tom Cruise in that he gives every part his all. He’s like the anti-Bruce in that regard.
*. The ending underlines the sense of it not being meant to be taken seriously. The lights go out, the panther leaps, and then . . . break to the next day. On the plus side, at least we didn’t get one of those terrible CGI tigers or jaguars. On the other hand . . . what the heck?
*. Bosworth is surprisingly good, meaning she keeps her dignity intact. The fact that her husband Michael Polish was directing might have helped. Gibson is watchable, and at least gives the impression of someone who is trying, which is more than Willis would have bothered with. The budget was obviously tight so there’s not a lot of production value. But keep your expectations low and it goes down easily enough.

Kajillionaire (2020)

*. Kajillionaire should have been good. The cast is excellent. It was nice to see Debra Winger again, Richard Jenkins is always fun, and though I’m not as familiar with her I was impressed by Evan Rachel Wood in the cable series Westworld. I didn’t know Gina Rodriguez at all, but she more than holds her own, playing the only normal person in the ensemble.
*. That ensemble consists of the Dyne family — dad (Jenkins), mom (Winger) and “Old Dolio” (Wood) — plus Rodriguez as a girl they pick up, improbably, on a cross-country flight. The Dynes are scammers, a term I use to denote a sort of down-market version of con artist, hustler, or grifter. Despite being committed to a life of crime they live hand-to-mouth in a building that is constantly being invaded by a blob-like spread of some kind of toxic-seeming waste.
*. This led me to once again reflect on why there are people who work so hard to make money illegally when they’d have an easier go of it just taking a part-time job for minimum wage. I’ve known people like that. I guess they like living by their own rules, or are hoping (as the Dynes are) at somehow striking it rich by pulling in some legendary score. In which case they’re stupid, which again would seem to describe the Dynes pretty well.
*. Alas, I said this movie should have been good. But it is not. Wood in particular is wasted, and I wish I had a stronger word for her misuse. Most of the movie I spent wondering just why she was playing Old Dolio the way she was. Presumably this was at writer-director Miranda July’s instruction, but I didn’t get it. Sure Old Dolio is an emotional cripple given how she’s been raised, but here she’s like some kind of autistic feral child, complete with a ridiculous Cousin It mane of hair that I think would make it hard for her to blend in anywhere.
*. Years ago I remember seeing a broadcast of Siskel and Ebert where they talked about how they’d made an agreement not to use the word “quirky” in a review. I think because it constitutes a sort of critical surrender. Why do I like this movie? I don’t know. It’s quirky. Well, quirky is a word that critics loved to throw at Kajillionaire. Maybe they were trying to seem hip with the alt-lesbian love story. In any event, audiences seemed to like it a lot less than the pros, and this time I think the hoi polloi got it right.

*. The quirkiness is also where I think Kajillionaire goes wrong. It tries too hard. Kate Lloyd, writing in Time Out, targeted this, and I think what she says in this respect is spot on. In her review she calls it “a painfully slow family drama where idiosyncrasy trumps emotion and themes of isolation and family dysfunction get lost in the zaniness.” Rodriguez provides “the only injection of realness and vibrancy in a film that’s hampered by its own obsession with being weird.” In sum, “Kajillionaire takes a heartbreaking story – a child of abuse trying to escape her sociopathic parents – and bloats it so full of Little Miss Sunshine kook that any emotional sharpness is left soft and doughy.”
*. So is Old Dolio an original creation? Yes, but only in the sense that original means quirky. Or weird. But not real or relatable. I get the sense that Kajillionaire wants to say something about the hot (or cold) mess that is the contemporary American family, but whatever message it has in this regard was lost on me. In one respect you can think of the Dynes as an old-fashioned nuclear family. They’ve certainly stayed together better than most. But there’s no sense of what holds them together. None of them seem to like each other, or to be getting anything out of being together. So Old Dolio has to reject her wretched parents to find true love with Melanie, in a climax of girl-meets-girl sweetness in the checkout line. And it really is sweet. Only I wasn’t buying that part either.
*. The potential for some fierce satire was there. The family is under stress today in lots of ways, and at the time of its release America’s “first family” was itself a model of sleaze and grift that the Dynes could easily have been cast as a reflection of. But I don’t see where satire was ever in play here. What was July sending up? Entrepreneurialism? The pursuit of money at all costs?
*. I guess I ended up just being confused by Kajillionaire. There’s a birth motif that’s developed throughout, of pushing out of the dark and into the light. Which I think related to Old Dolio’s being born again at the end. But it’s so obvious that she has to break free I didn’t see this as any kind of revelation. I didn’t understand the characters or their world, and more generally I didn’t see what the point of it was. That we all need a hug sometimes? That’s true, but like one of the Dyne cons it doesn’t seem worth the effort.

False Positive (2021)

*. Sometimes movies get forced into unfair comparisons, but other times the shoe, unfortunately, fits. That’s the case with False Positive, which is a modern retelling of Rosemary’s Baby. It’s not just that the comparisons are unavoidable, but that none of them are in this film’s favour. They did try to go in a different direction, but nothing worked.
*. Lucy (Ilana Glazer) and Adrian (Justin Theroux) are a young couple not having any success having a baby. They go to see a fertility specialist named Dr. Hindle (Pierce Brosnan) who used to be one of Adrian’s teachers. I guess Adrian is a doctor himself but he doesn’t seem to do anything, or even know much about anything. But then he’s a man. The film has a randomly feminist point of view, which includes Lucy being treated unfairly at the ad agency she works at.
*. Obviously all is not right. Dr. Hindle oozes patriarchal menace, complemented by his fetish-doll assistant Gretchen Mol. Adrian doesn’t seem on the level after we see him using violent pornography to get a sample. It’s those men again!
*. Then there are Lucy’s nightmares and fantasies. The result of her foggy mommy-brain? The drugs she’s taking? Or is there really something sinister going on? Could it be that Dr. Hindle’s clinic is actually a front for a coven of devil-worshiping New Yorkers?

*. Nothing that interesting, unfortunately. There’s actually less going on here than meets the eye. Even the more provocative of Lucy’s visions (like witnessing a homosexual tryst in a hotel room) turn out to be just air. This left me disappointed and confused. Just what was I watching? With the talent involved, including director John Lee, I think a lot of people were expecting a sort of dark comedy. But it’s not funny. And it’s not scary. And its politics are muddled. Are all male doctors heels? And just because a Magical Negro character (the “midwife with soul”) says “I am not your Magical Negress” doesn’t make it so.
*. It will likely be uncomfortable viewing for many. Obstetric horror gets a lot of mileage out of stirrups and speculums and jelly (though I’ve always liked the jelly being rubbed on my belly when getting an ultrasound). But the story is just too layered with confusing dead ends and suggestions that are more intriguing than what (I think) is really going on. Plus, when you realize that every time something really disturbing starts to happen it’s inevitably going to be “just a dream,” the film is effectively neutered.
*. There are more ideas and motifs in play (like the twins/mirrors) than they seem to have known what to do with. I was actually looking forward to Lucy as Medea and pulling a double Andy Warhol at the end, but that’s another door that opens onto an empty room and they finally opt for a bit of gooey weirdness to wing things up with. I give everyone credit for trying, but the results are a classic example of too much and not enough.

Jungle Cruise (2021)

*. The wheels started turning on a production of Jungle Cruise in 2004 following the success of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Why shouldn’t there be another hit movie, or franchise even, based on an amusement park ride? After all, as Leslie Halliwell had remarked years earlier, ever since Jaws movies had become little more than fairground rides anyway (I give the full Halliwell quote in my notes on Pirates).
*. By 2021, however, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise was well and truly dead (at least one hopes) and a Pirates clone might not have seemed such a good idea. Plus there was a pandemic. So perhaps it’s no surprise that this movie disappointed in terms both of critical reception and box office. Though given how expensive it was — $200 million was approaching the level of a Pirates of the Caribbean budget — it was probably doomed to be one of those movies that can’t make back its production costs.
*. But I don’t think the problem was just that the project was stale. Jungle Cruise is not a good movie. I’ll just mention a few of the ways.
*. Things get off to a bad start as we’re pitched back to the story of Lope de Aguirre’s doomed voyage down the Amazon searching for some fabled tree whose blossoms heal all wounds. Cineastes will know this is the same Aguirre that Werner Herzog took as the subject for his masterpiece Aguirre, the Wrath of God, where Aguirre was played by Klaus Kinski. Not a big thing, but as a bit of a film snob I took Disney’s use of the character as sacrilege.
*. From there we go to a meeting of the Royal Society where a paper is being given by a clueless young man (Jake Whitehall) who can’t even read his cue cards, talking about the search for the aforementioned blossoms. As things turn out, the young man’s name is MacGregor and he really is an idiot. Meanwhile, his sister Lily (Emily Blunt), a female Indiana Jones, is breaking into the Society’s archives to steal an arrowhead relic that’s necessary to her own search for the magic blossoms.
*. Lily can’t deliver her own paper because, you see, she’s just a woman. But as things turn out she is — surprise! — far more capable than any man. She can fight, sprint through any number of parkourish athletic tests, and is of course vastly more intelligent than all the stuffy old heads of the Royal Society combined. Plus she wears pants.
*. I was rolling my eyes at this, having come to expect it in the present dispensation of girl power and “anything men can do women can do better” down-with-the-patriarchy messaging. But I thought Jungle Cruise took this a bit further than necessary. In the first place, Lily’s brother is presented not just as a boob and a dandy but a sissy. He wears a pink jacket and puts face cream on before going to bed. I found this annoying, but then halfway through the movie we find out that he is, in fact, gay and I don’t know if this made things even worse.
*. So women are good and men are pretty much all awful, unless they’re gay, which is sweet, or they’re beefcake like the Amazon riverboat captain Frank (Dwayne Johnson), which is sexy. Germans, of course, are bad. Hollywood has started digging deeper into its anti-German biases now that Nazis have been getting a little old, so both here and in Wonder Woman we get First World War proto-Nazis, who are just as awful. Even when they’re just all-purpose nasty Jesse Plemons wearing a Sgt. Pepper’s uniform.
*. Aside from the fact that trafficking in such tired stereotypes is dull in itself, the political correctness of such a film frustrates any sense of suspense or surprise at twists in the plot. There’s a scene later in the movie when Lily, Frank, and MacGregor are captured by an Amazonian tribe and they seem about ready for dunking in a giant stewpot. But of course you know that in 2021 Indigenous people can’t be presented as such villains, or even villains at all. So you just wait until it’s revealed that the natives are really good guys, and their chief (a woman, naturally) volunteers to help the trio on their quest.
*. A second point going against Jungle Cruise is the stupid and excessively complicated back story. It’s so stupid, and complicated, that I’m not even going to bother getting into it here. Suffice it to say that Aguirre and his men are still around, having been transformed into Amazonian demons (think Davy Jones’ crew), and Frank is of their party too, which was a twist I didn’t care for one bit. It actually had the effect of making Frank less interesting. It seems he’s been chugging up this river for over 400 years. What a drag.
*. A final point I’ll mention is the CGI, which I thought terrible. As I’ve said before, CGI does some things very well. In particular: massed armies and cities being destroyed. On a smaller scale it has real problems. Frank has a pet jaguar that is pure CGI and it doesn’t look remotely real. It’s far too big for one thing, though getting picky about such matters as that when the plot involves a full-size German U-boat going all the way up the Amazon may not be worth the time. And director Jaume Collet-Serra had success with The Shallows, a movie that featured a CGI shark that was twice as big as any shark ever, so he may have felt comfortable with it.
*. But if CGI doesn’t do cats well, it really, really makes a hash out of snakes. As in Anaconda. As in Snakes on a Plane. And as in this movie, where Aguirre is literally a man made out of snakes. An interesting enough idea, but it just looks a total mess. Thrown in a bee-man (CGI also does a miserable job with insects) and you’ve got what is all-around one of the very worst big-budget CGI-fests I’ve seen.
*. Too long, with a whole bunch of stuff that’s unnecessary. I like Paul Giamatti but he seems superfluous here. As noted, the plot has way too much back story. Why couldn’t they just be looking for a chest of gold? Collet-Serra has had some hits and misses but he doesn’t seem a good fit for this material. The pacing is awkward, and made me think of how The Mummy did so much more with a very similar story twenty years ago. They could have learned something from that movie instead of just ripping it off.
*. Here’s how it ends: the evil German guy is killed by the gay brother, though accidentally. Aguirre’s gang are put back into petrified bondage. Frank dies but is brought back to life by Lily, who uses her last magic blossom. They kiss. Lily returns to England where she’s made a professor at the University of Cambridge, showing the old boys of the Royal Society what a woman can do (a gallery of women applaud while the grumpy old men harrumph). Lily and Frank tear off in an automobile, no doubt looking for new adventures. There has been some talk of a sequel, but this film’s disappointing performance may be enough to nip the franchise in the bud. Let it be so.

Voyagers (2021)

*. On a mission to continue the human race on a newly discovered Goldilocks planet, things go terribly awry onboard the spaceship Humanitas. The crew of multi-ethnic but English-only teens have had their drinking water spiked with drugs to make them more docile, and when they find out they stop taking their blue drinks. Once off their meds they instantly turn into horny and aggressive high-school students and, after getting rid of the one adult on the ship (a typically unhappy-looking Colin Farrell) it isn’t long before their hormones have them fucking and killing each other pretty much indiscriminately, all while maintaining a perfect mousse-to-gel ratio.
*. In other words, Lord of the Flies in Space. Which is a decent enough premise, though nothing new is done with it here and I found the whole thing obvious, slow-moving, and depressing. Not so obvious though that the clueless baby geniuses could figure out what was happening to them. I guess having the progeny of Nobel laureates in physics and M.I.T. bioengineers wasn’t much help. They’d have better spent their time reading English Lit and studying PoliSci.
*. A cast of pretty youngsters including Tye Sheridan, Fionn Whitehead, and Lily-Rose Depp, daughter of Johnny. Hey! I thought you needed to know science and stuff to get on this ship. Who let in the celeb spawn?
*. It’s always a bit off-putting to watch the offspring of famous actors breaking in. You can’t help looking at their faces and comparing them to their parents. I found myself doing this a lot watching Scott Eastwood recently in Wrath of Man. No doubt he’s Clint’s kid. As for Lily-Rose Depp, there’s an obvious resemblance there too. What I was most struck by though is how weird her eyes look. Of course they’re made up to look larger than natural, but even so they seem almost distorted. It’s like they put her face through some kind of filter.
*. As for the acting. it’s hard to say anything because the kids here are such test-tube oddities anyway. Depp has a stoned, sullen look that I’m guessing came with the part (nobody in this movie smiles). Or it may be her modeling background.
*. I found this movie to be a real grind to watch. It’s downbeat and predictable. The Great Teen Awakening is kind of erotic, and the wacky montages have a desperate, ridiculous charm, but that’s all the good I can say. The rest is just formula, down to the tried, tested, and true expedient of blowing the bad guy out an airlock at the end. When you can’t think of anything else to do, just go with the classics.
*. What I was looking forward to was a Philip K. Dick ending where it would all be revealed as a training run, with the spaceship never leaving Earth. No such luck. Instead, some pristine new planet is fated to be ruined by the third generation of our star seed. It looks nice from space but I’m sure it will take no time at all for this crew to make a hash of it.

Wrath of Man (2021)

*. I was initially misled by the DVD box cover. Yes, Jason Statham and Guy Ritchie had me thinking BritCrime, but there was also that tweed three-piece suit that Statham is wearing. So this is London, right?
*. Well, I’m not sure but I don’t think Statham ever wears that suit, or anything like it, in Wrath of Man. And we’re not in London but Los Angeles. But I think I should be excused for not picking up on that since the opening credits are pure Bond and the introductory scene plays out from a very restricted point of view. It’s an armored car heist shot from a fixed position within the armored car and while we can hear a lot of different voices we can’t be sure what’s going on.
*. This is actually important because we’re going to keep coming back to this scene, with a little more information dropped in every time through a process of what literary critics once referred to as delayed decoding.
*. So it’s a BritCrime picture set in L.A., though mainly shot in London. Except it’s also a 2004 French film named Cash Truck (Le Convoyeur) that Ritchie was remaking, only it’s not quite as dark as that movie. Wrath of Man is plenty dark, I think, but there are limits to what a more mainstream Hollywood pic was going to allow.

*. I really enjoyed Wrath of Man, mainly because Ritchie dialed things back. He could have been all stunts and Steven Soderbergh slickness, but except for one eye-rolling aerial-camera roll he plays that stuff down. Compare that opening heist to the similar scene in Heat, which is its most obvious precursor. Then listen and instead of an endless sampling of hip tunes and classic rock you’ll only hear a louring, repetitive theme that sounds like the turning wheels of fate.
*. Another aspect of the dialing down has to do with the violence. This is a violent movie but it’s surprising how many of the major characters get killed off screen. We don’t see bodies disintegrating in hails of bullets. And with that darkness I mentioned there are a lot of important bodies that pile up. There’s a relentless spiral of violent death in the final act wherein nearly the entire cast is disposed of in a manner that’s almost cursory.
*. Speaking of those hails of bullets, does body armour protect you that much from automatic rifle fire? I really don’t think so. You’d certainly be getting knocked clear off your feet. But it’s a movie gunfight so I guess we have to let all that stuff go.
*. At times the pace flags, the ending is a let down, and there are plot twists that I really didn’t think made sense, but overall this is very nicely turned out heist picture that doesn’t make many wrong moves. Ritchie and Statham are both in fine form, the bad guys credibly professional and distinctly realized, and the way the film grinds out its tale of revenge feels like a fresh take on an old story, whether it’s playing in Paris, London, or L.A.

Fatman (2020)

*. I began my notes on Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) by talking about the controversy it generated with its depiction of a psycho-slasher Santa Claus. I thought the outrage a bit overdone, but it underlined what has proven to be an abiding problem. Assuming you want to make an “adult” Christmas movie — and I can think of few good reasons why you would — you’re likely going to find it’s not an easy task.
*. If anything, the Christmas horror Better Watch Out (2016) was even worse than Silent Night, Deadly Night, in large part because of its inability to settle on a consistent tone. At least Silent Night, Deadly Night, much like Black Christmas (which wasn’t really a Christmas movie at all) knew what it was about. Better Watch Out was a disgusting travesty, or as I put it in my notes, “a complete piece of shit.”
*. Fatman is another complete piece of shit, mainly for its own slightly different mangling of tone. I’ve heard it described as a “dark comedy,” which I guess is something different (darker?) than a black comedy. The plot has to do with a grizzled Chris Cringle (Mel Gibson), fueled by booze and cookies, running his Santa operation out of a farm in Alaska. Times are tough though, and the federal government is going to pull Santa’s subsidies unless he gets his workshop producing fighter jets (real ones, not toys) for Uncle Sam. He reluctantly agrees. Meanwhile, a bratty rich kid who once got a lump of coal for Christmas hires a hitman (Walton Goggins), who has his own issues with the Fatman, to kill Santa.
*. Does this sound funny? Well, it isn’t. Does it even sound like a movie you’d want to watch? Apparently the writing-directing team of Ian and Eshom Nelms shopped the script around for over 10 years before getting someone to greenlight it. Normally I’d admire this persistence and belief in the value of one’s work, but in this case I think they might have taken it as a hint that the whole concept was garbage.
*. I guess the hook here was that they were playing the concept straight. So that while there are obviously absurd moments, Goggins and the bratty kid are genuinely cruel and repellent figures, and we see people being shot and beaten in realistic ways. I don’t think I have to point out that none of this is funny. Nor is it dramatic in any way. It’s just painful to watch.
*. A special lack of distinction award goes to the U.S. military, who aren’t just portrayed as exploitive and soulless bureaucrats of the military-industrial complex, but also totally incompetent as fighting men. A lone gunman simply blasts his way into their high-security compound and kills all of them, leaving Santa, his wife, and his elves to take the killer down.
*. Totally unsatisfying, even with Mel’s final appearance as Odin to put a little scare into the murderous shit who started all this. Probably the worst movie I saw all year and one I nearly pulled out of the DVD player after twenty minutes. Let this be a warning to you not to even feel tempted to check this one out. Leave it alone and look for happier holiday fare.

The Suicide Squad (2021)

*. Perhaps the biggest story in the movie business in the twenty-first century has been the stunning dominance of superhero movies at the box office. It’s no exaggeration to say that when it comes to blockbusters these kinds of films have been the only game in town for a while now, so much so that they’ve generated significant backlash, and counter-backlash as well.
*. The Suicide Squad is part of the DC Extended Universe (I’m not sure what the “Extended” part refers to), which for most of this time has been the also-ran to the more profitable Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s billed as a “standalone sequel” to Suicide Squad, a much-maligned superhero movie that I actually thought was better than reported (though it was a long way from being good). But Suicide Squad, despite all the bad press, did great box office so . . . here we are.
*. One change from the first movie is that writer-director David Ayer has been replaced by writer-director James Gunn. Gunn is a veteran of this superhero shtick — a nice niche to occupy in the current dispensation — having done the ho-hum Guardians of the Galaxy and the godawful Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. This is more of the same — there’s even a giant shark on the squad who takes the place of Groot — but this time with the edginess of an R rating. What that rating means is lots of gore and f-bombs. In other words, DC’s Deadpool. Even the opening, where a team of second bananas get wiped out on the beach, seems a direct borrowing from the disastrous debut of the X Force in Deadpool 2.
*. I’d forgotten that Gunn’s feature directing debut was Slither. Looking over his filmography I can’t say I see a lot of progress, except in terms of the budgets he’s been given to play with.

*. I thought Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn was one of the only bright spots in the earlier film, and it was a cinch that she’d be back. Unfortunately, after Birds of Prey I’m finding Harley is really wearing on me. There’s only so much of that voice I can take and it wasn’t long before I was hoping she’d just shut up.
*. The back-up is just capable. Instead of Will Smith as Deadshot we have Idris Elba as Bloodsport. I don’t know what the material difference was between these guys, though I guess they’re both different from Bloodshot. Actually there’s a joke here in the early going where Bloodsport complains that Peacemaker (John Cena) is basically the same sort of generic superhero. Seems no one can tell the difference.
*. Filling out this version of the Squad are the aforementioned talking shark (voiced, totally unnecessarily, by Sylvester Stallone), a young woman who can summon and control rats, and a guy who sheds Tiddlywinks. Together they’re off to some South American island to shut down a project involving a giant alien starfish.
*. By this point you know the drill. Huge production values, non-stop action sequences, a hip soundtrack, none of it taking itself very seriously. The jokiness, however, makes some of it problematic. Viola Davis’s character comes across as moronically mean, while the anti-American message just feels tossed in to no real purpose other than to help establish the Squad’s progressive bona fides.
*. I guess it’s a better movie than Suicide Squad, and I did like the giant starfish, but it wasn’t nearly as funny or as edgy as it wanted to be and it mainly struck me as just more flashing lights and loud noises. I may be feeling jaded, but if so that’s a feeling that might have been shared by audiences, who didn’t take to it. Is the decades-long reign of the superhero movie finally played out? There’s hope yet.

Don’t Breathe 2 (2021)

*. I liked Don’t Breathe (2016), and knew that a sequel was immediately in the works, but I wasn’t feeling that good about another one. It didn’t seem like they had a lot to work with in the creepy reverse-home invasion story of a blind old super-soldier who lives in a derelict building in the wastelands of Detroit, where he imprisons young women in the hope of impregnating them and having a kid.
*. Eight years later, however, it seems that the Blind Man, a.k.a. Norman Nordstrom (Stephen Lang), has turned over a new leaf, having adopted a daughter he’s named Phoenix (Madelyn Grace) and raised her in various urban-jungle survival skills. But then trouble comes calling, again . . .
*. I have to admit, what I was dreading the most about Don’t Breathe 2 was that it would be a retread of the first movie, and to give them full credit that’s not the direction they went. Instead the decision was made to redeem Norman and present him as the hero. Add to this a plot that comes with a ridiculous but undeniably dark twist and you have a script that producer Sam Raimi, not an unbiased source, thought “the greatest idea for a sequel I’ve ever heard.” I didn’t think quite that highly of it, but it wasn’t what I was expecting, which I liked.

*. Alas, the easiest way to redeem Norman, aside from showing his affection for dogs, is by making him seem good in comparison to the bad guys in the movie. Which means those bad guys are really, really bad. Some of them are stock baddies of the “yo, bro” school, who wear their hoodies up even at night and hold their pistols flat (that is, canted at a 90 degree angle).
*. I don’t know why people hold their guns that way. There was an episode of The Sopranos where Christopher sees a rent-a-hood doing it and he corrects him with disgust. I guess we can blame the media. According to Wikipedia: “Shooting a gun in this way has no practical benefit under most circumstances and makes proper aiming very difficult, but the style has become somewhat popular in hip hop culture and among street criminals (who do not often use the gun sight) due to its portrayal in American film and television since the early 1990s.”
*. In any event, these are the grunts. The main bad guy is something worse, which ties into the plot twist I mentioned and which I’ll only describe here as really fucked up. Though it’s not surprising, given the information we’re presented with. You’ll see it coming. The only surprise I felt was that they took it as far as they did.
*. Here’s something I said in my notes on Those Who Wish Me Dead, which I was relating to the similar storyline in The Marksman: “Is there some underlying message or anxiety being tapped into in these movies about a crisis in American parenthood? Orphaned children having to depend on these strange, solitary, cowboy figures to survive?” The question stands.
*. The film is formulaic to be sure, but it has enough that’s interesting about it to make it worthwhile. I like the way Lang plays the part. Norman seems a truly tortured soul. The kills and action sequences are reasonably fresh, if far-fetched. One bad guy has his mouth and nose glued shut, meaning a hole has to be stabbed into his cheek for him to breathe. Another scene has Norman playing dead in a cellar filled with an inch of water so that when the bad guys come after him he can pick up their locations by the ripples they set off. I thought that was clever.
*. First-time director Rodo Sayagues, who co-wrote both films, acquits himself well, even throwing in one acrobatic continuous take (or a shot made to seem like a continuous take). It’s not a scary movie, but it’s suitably dark and intense and just different enough to pass muster. It is, of course, unnecessary, but was better than I expected and gets points for trying to mix things up and shocking the audience in a new way.