Category Archives: 2020s

Old (2021)

*. I wonder if M. Night Shyamalan likes making these kinds of gimmick films, or if it’s just something he fell into and now is stuck with. I actually think he likes making them. Otherwise he would have probably moved on.
*. The main idea here, of a beach where the visitors begin to age at a supernatural pace (two years an hour), came from a French graphic novel, but Shyamalan added his own twist. I think it’s a good premise, and the twist at least has its own sort of logic. Indeed, it’s not really a surprise at all. But the basic problem with all such twists is that they breed an impatience in the audience. You just want to find out what’s going on, and you don’t care so much about what’s happening at the moment, which all feels contrived anyway.
*. A film like this also not only dares you but begs you to question how well its bizarre premise holds together. I’m afraid it doesn’t. I was bothered by a lot of what was going on. Why do the kids seems to grow old so much faster than the adults, and how do they develop such intelligence and emotional maturity to go along with their physical growth? How do the people end up back out on the beach after suffering some kind of pressure sickness when they try to leave? Why do the dead bodies decompose so quickly? None of this made sense to me, along with much else I won’t get into.
*. Is it watchable? Yes. Shyamalan seems to have really been taken with panning the camera in this film, and he works the beach well as a location. We go through all the fairly predictable, and one not-so-predictable, crises and failed escapes. But the characters are nothing but the usual stereotypes (the accountant who won’t let up talking about the odds, the trophy wife who turns into a monster) and the story just sort of limps along. I wrote in my notes that it felt like a Twilight Zone episode put on the rack, and found out later that Shyamalan himself called it a “two-hour Twilight Zone episode.” So that’s exactly where you are.
*. Any thought of deeper connections is just wishful thinking. Shyamalan says he wanted to invoke the spirit of movies that developed a sense of natural supernaturalism like Walkabout and Picnic at Hanging Rock, but there’s none of that. Nor is there any of the moral or political edge of The Exterminating Angel, which is another comparison that’s been made.
*. Instead, what with the (very) young lovers getting at it the movie that strangely crept to mind was The Blue Lagoon (1980). This made me wonder how many people today even remember The Blue Lagoon, which was quite the succès de scandale at the time. It seems to be one of those movies that has pretty much dropped off everyone’s radar today. It’s interesting how that happens.
*. Will Old fare any better, or will it disappear into the sands of time like the bodies on its beach? I suspect it will be remembered as a minor novelty, which is all that I think it tries to be. A bit disappointing given the potential it had to go in different and more interesting directions, but from this particular genre of beach movie there really is no exit.

Dune (2021)

*. In my notes on David Lynch’s Dune I remarked that there were certain problems that had to be overcome before Frank Herbert’s novel could be successfully adapted for the big screen. Or, put another way, movies had to evolve (not progress, but evolve) in a certain way for it to happen. In particular, I think there were two main challenges.
*. In the first place, the effects had to be much better. This was the easiest challenge to be overcome, and indeed was pretty much inevitable. With CGI a whole new cinematic experience became standard for most SF/action/superhero movies. I loved the art design in Lynch’s movie, but will confess that the effects, especially the blue screen, were dismal. Though I did think the sandworms looked pretty good.
*. The second challenge was tougher. How to translate such an epic novel (and indeed an original trilogy of novels that was later spun into a franchise) into something digestible? Lynch’s first draft ran around 4 hours, but the studio insisted on cuts, which ended up making it feel rushed at the end.
*. In the 2020s this was no longer a problem. The question or run time was essentially answered by franchise film making and the creation of various filmic universes (Marvel, DC, Star Wars, etc.). Audiences had been trained to watch films this way, to the point where this movie could “end” with what I thought was a really lame “This is only the beginning . . .” line. I can still remember how angry audiences were at The Empire Strikes Back when they tried this, but they got away with it. By 2021 serial filmmaking was de rigueure, with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows being made into two feature films, Stephen King’s It coming in two chapters, and The Hobbit dragged through three (!) instalments. What’s more, even the individual movies in these “universe” franchises would happily run 2 1/2 or three hours, blowing past the usual 90 minute shuffle.
*. In short: Denis Villeneuve had a free hand to work at whatever pace he wanted to bring Frank Herbert to screen. Not to mention all the money in the world as well. He indulged. And overindulged.
*. Part of the problem with adapting any work with a built-in fan base, from superhero comics to splatter-film remakes, is that fans expect a lot of deference to be paid to the originals. Over time, a sort of sclerosis has set in. One can understand Batman having to be pulled back from the camp excesses of Adam West and George Clooney, but as the years have gone by he’s only become gloomier, darker, and more made of stone.
*. In the case of the Dune novels one imagines the fan base being even less inclined to cut any slack. As intellectual property, Dune is holy ground, SF&F scripture, but Lynch’s film was a joke almost on the order of Flash Gordon (1980). What was needed was someone who was going to take the whole Dune mythology seriously. On this score, Villeneuve delivered and fans approved. My response, however, was less enthusiastic.
*. I have to first register a caveat made by Villeneuve himself, who claimed nobody was seeing this movie the way it was meant to be seen. Not only were cinemas closed for the pandemic, but this was a movie that was shot in IMAX format. I watched the DVD (not BluRay) at home on a not-very-large TV. So not ideal for the kind of experience that Villeneuve was aiming for. That said . . .
*. It’s a movie designed to look big rather than interesting. Personally, I thought the art of Lynch’s version superior. Everything here was supersized, but dull. Take all those phalanxes of soldiers, a staple since Star Wars (which took them from Triumph of the Will). These are boring, but they’re an essential element in the visual grammar here. Note how they’re repeated in the spice silos, for example.

*. And just why is everything so big? What’s the point of that ginormous door in the palace? Or all the rooms that are the size of airplane hangars? OK, sure, it probably looks good on an IMAX screen, but it just felt silly, and the look became repetitive.

*. Hans Zimmer’s score sounded ponderous to me. I can’t recall any of it. I don’t even know if it was music or just background sound. The point only seemed to bludgeon. But then, given what Zimmer was looking at I don’t know what else he was feeling. I imagine him being told to “make it big.”
*. Given how much more time they had, the script doesn’t have to work so hard at exposition. But the dialogue is just as heavy as Zimmer’s score. Except for the odd moment when Paul and his mom put on their stillsuits and he asks her “Are you good?” That line gave rise to my only smile. Well, that and the bagpipes. And maybe looking at Timothée Chalamet’s curls hanging down over his eyes and wondering how he could see anything.
*. With the script and the production being what they are, the cast mainly just have to look their parts. Stern. Strong. Resilient. Josh Brolin. Jason Momoa. Dave Bautista. These guys are just muscle, and none of them has the presence of Sting. Oscar Isaac actually made me miss Jürgen Prochnow, who I think he was trying to imitate. Rebecca Ferguson was a lone bright spot. As for Timothée Chalamet’s Paul Atreides, what word best encapsulates his performance? Moody? Trenchcoat emo? Stoned?

*. I guess Chalamet looks the part of a moody princeling. He’d just played Prince Hal, after all. But would some sign of emotion have been too much to ask? What is wrong with this young man? As an actor his eyes are simply dead. Dead! No matter what the situation you look at his face and he seems totally zonked. One wonders how he’s going to handle the sequel(s), when Paul really does spend most of his time high on spice. How is he going to look even more spaced out than he already does here?
*. You have to roll with the idea that in the distant future we’ll have all this neat tech but still be living in stone palaces, fighting with swords, and ruled over by various royal houses. What actually bothered me most though was that they’re still using the Fahrenheit scale for temperature. Now that really is imperial.
*. Given how big sandworms are, why would they even bother chasing after and eating humans? That would be like me eating the legs of an ant. And how exactly does a sandworm digest a spice harvester, and excrete the metal parts?
*. In the Lynch film Harkonnen is pronounced Har-KOH-nen. Here it’s HAR-kuh-nen. I wonder if Herbert had a preference.

*. The racial angle was probably always going to be awkward, but what they had to work with is still poorly handled. Let’s face it, the forces of empire are British colonialists sucking oil out of the desert and Paul as the messiah is the Great White Hope of the universe since the natives can’t do it for themselves. Those natives, the Fremen, are an assortment of off-whites. Dr. Yueh is Chinese, naturally, and even speaks Mandarin. His character is given short shrift, to the point where his motivation in betraying the House of Atreides all but disappears.
*. Villeneuve didn’t have to embrace the wild lunacy of Lynch, with the cows being carved up and the cat being milked, but I really wish there’d been more weirdness here. Even the stuffed bull head struck me as boring symbolism. Though I did like Duke Leto being nude for his death scene. I can’t remember if that was in the book, but it’s a fanciful touch that I thought worked. Meanwhile, I honestly thought the personal shields in Lynch’s movie looked cooler. The nostril plugs, however, are improved to the point where they aren’t quite as disconcerting.
*. So fans, at least most of them, got what they wanted. I thought it was well produced, reverent, and dull. I think I’ve seen most of Denis Villeneuve’s movies now. His best, and the only one I thought was great, was Enemy. Sicario was pretty good. But Arrival was overrated and Blade Runner 2049 poor. I really hope he isn’t becoming typecast for these kinds of productions, as I don’t think it’s where his heart is. Lynch went his own way after his bad experience with Dune and it would be nice if Villeneuve followed that lead in creating work he found more creatively inspired by. It sometimes seems to me that films like this can by done by just about any competent engineer these days. And before long we might even have software that can do the job.

Free Guy (2021)

*. I’ve written before about 1998 as the Year of the Simulacrum, that being when The Matrix, Dark City, and The Truman Show all came out. The idea of a constructed reality, either digital or a giant sort of film/television set, is obviously one that intrigues Hollywood, as it’s never gone away. Westworld might have been the first instance, and more recent examples include Serenity, Vivarium, and Fantasy Island.
*. Aside from their depiction of different kinds of virtual reality, there’s something all of these movies have in common. They’re all dark. The 1998 movies are depressing imaginations of reality being manipulated by sinister forces, with we humans running about like rats in a maze, while both Vivarium and Fantasy Island (despite the latter film’s whimsical original) are horror movies. Serenity is the only one of the bunch that tries to be somewhat more upbeat, though its bittersweet ending is mush.
*. Free Guy takes the “life is all a video game” premise and runs with it, while getting rid of philosophical reflections and moral questionings entirely. Its theme song is Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy.” Its visual texture is bright and shiny. Its flavour is bubblegum ice cream.
*. As such, it’s a project tailor-made for Ryan Reynolds, who was literally everywhere at this time (in 2021 he starred in three major releases: Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard, Free Guy, and Red Notice). Reynolds is an actor of immense charm incapable of projecting any sense of depth or danger. He belongs in the world of Free City, and it makes perfect sense that he play the nonplayer character (or NPC) Blue Shirt Guy. When he masters the secrets of the Matrix he’s still just a goofball pulling Deadpool moves while sweeping the ladies off their feet.
*. Criticizing Free Guy is, therefore, a bit like criticizing bubblegum ice cream. It’s fun, but just as phoney and juvenile a construction as Free City (the digital environment its mostly set in). There’s a villainous tech CEO (all together now: is there any other kind?) named Antwan but he’s only comic relief. There’s a gesture toward the political with the NPCs gaining class consciousness and going on strike, but it doesn’t mean anything. There’s a plot point that can only be resolved by a magical kiss.
*. I take it the sunglasses as a plot device are taken from They Live (another darker movie about a simulacrum). They’re employed inconsistently here though. Like the red and blue pills in The Matrix they’re just metaphors, or artifacts in the code. But if so, shouldn’t they be even more consistent in how they’re used? And if Guy is achieving awareness of his own in his evolution into the Singularity, why would he need them? He should be writing his own code at the end, like Neo.
*. So Reynolds is typecast and does a walk-through. Jodie Comer looks all wistful, Joe Keery is nerdy, and ethnic types fill in the supporting roles (Taika Waititi as Antwan, Lil Rel Howery as Buddy the security guy, Utkarsh Ambudkar as a digital serf at the game company). At the end audiences all over the world get to cheer on Guy as he makes his heroic run for freedom, which all looks and sounds like the end of The Truman Show only without the feeling or the sense that there’s something we need to think about a little more deeply here. Virtual reality has been dumbed-down, neutered, and turned into comfort food. The revolution has been streamed.
*. For what it settles for, which isn’t much but a sweet little rom-com, I think it works. Though it’s not nearly as funny as it thinks it is, or as involving. It’s also not a sweet little anything, being a bloated confection that cost over $100 million to make and that took in over $300 million in a plague year. Enough to guarantee talk of a sequel. The game’s not over yet.

Underwater (2020)

*. Underwater is a throwback, returning us to the glory days of 1980s deep-sea thrillers. Or, because we can be more precise, 1989, the year of The Abyss, DeepStar Six, Leviathan, and The Evil Below.
*. I thought it a good idea for them to strike this nostalgic note, but only because that was long ago and I remember seeing all those movies when they came out so I enjoyed the trip down memory lane. If nostalgia is all you have going for you, then you might as well play it up.
*. And do they ever play it up. This is a movie that borrows from all those movies, and more. In particular, since many of those earlier films were Alien rip-offs, Underwater is yet another instalment in that movie’s legacy. I thought I got all the obvious connections (where have you seen that crew huddled around the light table before?), but I didn’t pick up on minutiae like the way the sound of the computer booting up in the control room was taken directly from Alien. But that gives you some idea of just how much was being borrowed.

*. Another nod to Alien is the way Norah (Kristen Stewart), who is a mechanic on the deep-water drilling rig that awakens monsters, spends a lot of the movie in a sexy bikini. That’s obviously a nod to Ripley, and one that has also become a cliché. In Deep Blue Sea, which had been twenty years earlier, Renny Harlin said that including a scene of the heroine in her sexy underwear was something he just had to do.
*. Now as a fan of the films of the auteur Andy Sidaris I can assure you that I have no trouble looking at women in action films dressed in bikinis, but even given that the quite deliberately eroticized Stewart isn’t hard to look at wearing next to nothing, I still found myself wishing she’d put more clothes on. Sometimes you can go too far, even in a $60-million B-picture.
*. Speaking of Ms. Stewart’s wardrobe, she notably appears wearing glasses in the opening scene, before having them knocked off right away. Shouldn’t that leave her squinting for the rest of the picture? Apparently director William Eubank was aware of this inconsistency but couldn’t think of a way for her to keep wearing her glasses later in the movie. So why have her wearing glasses in the first place then? It’s odd enough she has all that trademark raccoon eye-shadow on.
*. So no surprises. Unless you’re writing for the review website Bloody Disgusting. According to Megan Navarro Underwater is “a bone-chilling epic that surprises at every turn.” Now I don’t want to single Navarro out because I think Bloody Disgusting aims to have as many pull-quotes per review as they can and this was just the only one in her review that found its way onto the DVD box. But what surprises is she referring to?
*. Apparently one surprise she had in mind is who gets killed. “Who lives or dies in what order isn’t as easy to surmise as you’d think,” she writes. This, about a movie where the only Black guy is the first person who gets killed? To quote from Deep Blue Sea: “Ooh, I’m done! Brothers never make it out of situations like this! Not ever!”

*. I was surprised to find out that Kristen Stewart was the biggest female star in Hollywood at this time. I guess because of the success of the Twilight movies. She has the “it” factor that all stars have, in that you can’t help watching her. Is she a great actor? At least she doesn’t embarrass herself here, which is something, especially given her lack of wardrobe.
*. But then Vincent Cassel also acquits himself well as the grizzled rig captain, and I actually didn’t mind T. J. Miller’s comic relief either. I can’t knock the cast. Or Eubank’s direction, which I thought entirely on point. It’s just that the whole concept has nothing behind it. As you’d expect it’s all just the usual clichés. There’s even a nod to eco-horror when the scientist tries to rationalize what’s going on: “We did this. We drilled the bottom of the ocean. We took too much. And now she’s taking back. We’re not supposed to be down here.” Huh? You’re a marine biologist on a drilling rig! Isn’t it a bit late to come to Gaia?
*. The creatures are a bit of a bore. The baby is, naturally, taken from Alien, while the Great Big Monster at the End is Cthulhu in all his mountainous tentacled glory. It’s time to rethink movie monsters, as this evolutionary line from Giger through Cloverfield feels played out. But do tentacles ever go out of style?
*. A final bit of formula worth pointing out is the way sequels are set up. Apparently the evil Tian Corporation knew they were digging up some ancient evil, something hinted at in a scene that’s left deliberately ambiguous. Box office, however, wasn’t exceptional, and given the expense of making movies like this I don’t think it likely that it will be turning into another Cloververse or MonsterVerse. Not to worry though, as those franchises will continue to have your back.

It’s Not All Rock & Roll (2020)

*. At the beginning of the twenty-first century there was a sudden take-off in interest in televised talent shows, headlined by the Got Talent franchise created by Simon Cowell. I only ever watched one episode, and Cowell was one of the judges. I could understand the attraction the show had: you might see a star being born or enjoy wannabes having their dreams crushed. Anyway, in the episode I watched a dismissed contestant complained that he or she had talent and Cowell upbraided them, basically saying “So what?” The parking lot outside the audition studio was full of people with talent. The judges weren’t looking for talent, he said, they were looking for stars.
*. Commenting on the Got Talent phenomenon years ago, George Will opined that “American is lumpy with talent.” Stars are rarer. Watching It’s Not All Rock & Roll made me think of this. Dave Doughman is a musician who grew up outside of Dayton, Ohio but now finds himself residing in Hamburg, Germany, where he makes a living stacking shipping containers. Is he talented? On the evidence supplied in the film, I’d say he is. But when I was working the floor in an industrial concern doing work not dissimilar to Doughman’s twenty years ago there were at least three fellows on the same shift as me who had cut their own indie CDs. They were talented too.
*. Is Doughman a star? Or does he have star potential? That’s harder to answer. He has charisma (it would be hard to make a film like this work without it) and his resemblance to Borat gets him work as a model. So he’s a guy with feet in both worlds: a rocker and male model, and a divorced dad stuck in a blue-collar job, the sort of person for whom, as the recording industry cliché has it, “it just isn’t going to happen.”
*. At the very least we have to respect and even admire his persistence. He’s one of those people who were born to perform, going back to putting on backyard daredevil shows as a kid. As for his musical career, in his own words “the film is about how I’m not famous but that I’ve been still doing it for twenty years.” But he also says he doesn’t want to be rich and famous but only wants to be a working musician (that is, someone who goes on the road) and a good father.
*. Honourable goals, though they sound like coping. Still, it’s that coping that I think gives us something of real value.
*. As has been extensively chronicled — I recommend the books Culture Crash by Scott Timberg and The Death of the Artist by William Deresiewicz — the digital revolution has been a disaster for artists across the board. Even well-established visual artists, writers, filmmakers, and musicians have seen their ability to make a living wiped out. Then came the 2020 pandemic lockdown and what was a disaster turned into a catastrophe.
*. I find this background to be important, and it’s something I would have liked to have heard more about. But I don’t know if Doughman even owns a computer or if he has any online presence, and the film was made before COVID shut down all the bars we see him playing at. So while he’s a recognizable type in some ways, how representative is he of the working musician of the 2020s? And what are his survival strategies?
*. One way to cope is by living in a dream. This is something I think every artist has to indulge just to survive. Doughman talks about how he imagines a stadium of fans every time he takes the stage, likening himself at one point to a Method actor: “For me it’s always sold-out Madison Square Garden.” The reality is less glamorous, but what artist wants to settle for reality?
*. As with any documentary profile of this type we’re left to wonder at what isn’t said, or what voices aren’t heard. We see Doughman interacting with his son, but the kid’s mom isn’t in the picture. He always refers to his “band” — known as Swearing at Motorists — but it seems to only consist of himself and a series of drummers he’s gone through over the years. He admits at one point that he can be hard to work with, so I guess these drummers weren’t of the exploding Spın̈al Tap variety but either bailed or couldn’t keep up with Doughman’s continental drift. There’s also an unpleasant confrontation shown where Doughman gets in somebody’s face at one of his gigs, all of which made me think that despite all of his charm Doughman is not an easy person to get along with.
*. The plight of the “working artist” in the twenty-first century is a subject of immense importance, and It’s Not All Rock & Roll gives a valuable street-level perspective on it. Doughman’s eccentricity though might limit what it has to say about the larger problems facing the arts economy. This is a life it’s hard for me to even imagine. Some old advice, however, still has value for struggling artists everywhere: Learn a trade and don’t quit your day-job.

Escape Room: Tournament of Champions (2021)

*. Escape Room: Tournament of Champions is a sequel that follows directly after the events of Escape Room, re-introducing us to the two survivors from the Game of Death in that film: Zoey (Taylor Russell) and Ben (Logan Miller). I was relieved when they started off here with some flashbacks because even though it had only been a couple of years I’d forgotten the first movie completely.
*. Not that there’s much need to bring you up to speed. A bunch of strangers find themselves having to survive a series of wicked challenges or die. The difference here is that they are all survivors of previous “games.” This, however, doesn’t mean they have a clue what’s going on. But they are good at solving puzzles.
*. So basically we’re in Saw territory here, only without the gore. Also, if you found the death traps in the Saw franchise to be absurdly over-the-top and contrived, and couldn’t figure out how Jigsaw managed to build some of them in the first place, well they can’t hold a candle to what the Minos Corporation has come up with here. Minos has an unlimited budget, and their sets are so elaborate that it seems at times like the unhappy and unwilling contestants are trying to escape not from a room but from Alex Proyas’s Dark City.

*. It’s all kind of silly and PG, but I have to admit that it held my attention for 88 minutes. That’s for the theatrical release version. There’s also an “extended cut” that is six minutes longer but which has a different ending. I’m not talking about an alternative ending, but one that goes in a completely new direction, introducing new characters and a new plotline. In other words, they didn’t know what they were doing.
*. Personally, I prefer the theatrical version because I thought the back story provided in the extended cut was a bit lame. Both endings are stupid, but I like the slightly more open-ended one. And when I say open-ended I mean yes, there’s going to be (at least) another one of these.
*. Russell and Miller make an engaging couple. Director Adam Robitel is able to pace the trap sequences well enough to raise one’s pulse. I’m inclined to think that this genre has run its course though. We’ve been stuck in these rooms so many times now there’s nothing new to show us, and the mysterious genius puzzlemaster is past being a cliché. In short, it’s not a sequel we needed, but unless the box office finally dies we’re going to be stuck with more.

Greenland (2020)

*. Greenland is a bit of a headscratcher for me. Most of it follows the usual drill. A first act presents us with the players: burly, bearded dad John Gerrity (Gerard Butler), estranged but not divorced wife Alison (Morena Baccarin), and their too-cute-for-words tyke. A procession of chyrons and news reports tell us that a new comet named Clarke is about to pass close by the Earth. Then it’s going to hit the Earth. Then it’s going to hit the Earth in a very big way.
*. So the comet strikes and it’s Mars attacks. Or the zombie apocalypse. Or the Purge. Or an earthquake or a volcano or an asteroid Armageddon. The nuclear family unit is under attack, again. But who says Hollywood doesn’t believe in family values? Under pressure, they reunite.
*. As an aside, I wonder how often Hollywood thinks this really happens. In my experience, couples that break-up don’t usually get back together. They don’t want to. But so many American action movies and thrillers are based on this idea of protecting endangered families that it gets worked into nearly all of them. John even has to listen to a lecture from his father-in-law about how he’s gotta do right by his family, and he duly swears that from now on the only thing that matters to him is saving them. Then when he later apologizes to Alison about how it was all his fault she has to say no, it was her fault too, and I honestly felt like I might be sick.
*. Anyway, the comet breaks into pieces, with chunks of it landing all over the place. The big chunks take out cities, the little chunks take out cars. Then there’s a planetary-extinction size chunk that’s going to do what its name suggests. John and Alison and Nathan have to get all the way from Georgia to a bunker in Greenland in a couple of days if they’re going to survive. First step: get to Canada! Why? Don’t know. There aren’t any bunkers in the U.S. I guess.
*. What makes me scratch my head about Greenland is what the review aggregators describe as the “generally favourable” critical response. As an example, according to Chris Hewitt in Empire this is “Butler’s best star vehicle in years, what could have been a bombastic bunch of boulders is, instead, a refreshingly clear-eyed and compelling affair. One of the best disaster movies in years.” And Mark Kermode absolutely raved about it, saying he went to see it three times and was “genuinely knocked out by it,” thrilling to its “absolutely nail-biting tension.”
*. Really, Mark? What happened to Kermode? Maybe time has mellowed my views on it somewhat, but I’m pretty sure I’d rather watch Geostorm than Greenland again. This movie is pure sludge. Why did so many reviews make such a big deal about its “character-driven” plot? It’s just the usual family-survival story, with a family that is in no way more believable or relatable than any other. And indeed I’d single out the whiny and quite stupid Nathan, who is diabetic and so in need of all sorts of special care, as being particularly annoying. It seems to me as though Hollywood is trying very hard to get me to hate kids lately. Either that or I’m getting grumpier.
*. What thrills? What pacing? There’s the simplest of three-act structures — (1) the intro, (2) John and Alison are separated, (3) John and Alison get back together and escape to Greenland — helped along by non-stop improbabilities and clichéd encounters. And the effects are worthless, nothing we haven’t see hundreds of times before. CGI rocks falling from the sky and things blowing up on the ground.
*. The only flicker of interest I had was in the notion of there being a group of people — John is one — who are among the “selected,” which is a secular version of the saved in this retelling of Left Behind. But God only knows how they were chosen to be bunkerworthy, or by whom. John is an engineer but seems to have had no idea that he was on the List, or even that there was a List. Meanwhile, I love how the army grunts dutifully do their best to save this lucky 1%, when we’re told that literally 99% of the army are not to be saved. Nevertheless they help the elect on their way, sacrificing themselves so that the elite may have a chance to survive. What more can they do? Well, “I wish I could do more,” one nurse tells Alison. The world may be coming to the end but we can count on the underclass to be patient and helpful.
*. So on top of it being a lousy movie I despised its politics as well. It was directed by the delightfully named Ric Roman Waugh, who wrote and directed Angel Has Fallen. Presumably this was meant to be the launch of another Gerry Butler franchise, as the ending might as well say “To be continued . . .” But I want nothing to do with a sequel. Two hours of this crap was more than enough.

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.