Category Archives: 2020s

The Unholy (2021)

*. It’s such a generic title I felt sure there must be a dozen movies with the same name. But a quick search only turned up a couple of others (both horror films). Still, the title can be taken as a warning. There’s not going to be anything new going on here.
*. As an aside, it’s based on the James Herbert novel Shrine. I think they should have stuck with that.
*. A woman is hanged as a witch (or more properly a demon) in nineteenth-century Massachusetts, after first receiving the Black Sunday treatment (a mask nailed to her face) and having her soul trapped in an doll bound with itty-bitty chains. The doll business struck me as being a very inadequate way to deal with a demon, and sure enough 175 years later a journalist (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) visiting the spot — a town named Banfield that a librarian later tells us was originally Banefield — breaks the doll open, releasing the spirit.
*. The witch/demon is named Mary, which allows it to present itself as being the spirit of the Virgin Mary because nobody asks for her last name! Anyway, she appears to a deaf and mute descendant named Alice (Cricket Brown) who can suddenly hear and speak and even sing hymns. It’s a miracle! And through Alice the demon can also heal others, as long as they put their faith in “Mary.” Get the dirty trick there?
*. The DVD box promises us that “As people flock to witness her [Alice’s] miracles, horrific events unfold.” My guess is that most people will be coming to a movie like this for those “horrific events.” They will likely feel cheated, as they aimed for a PG-13 rating which means no gore. Indeed, there isn’t even much of a body count.

*. You should know what to expect, and it’s what writer-director-producer Evan Spiliotopoulos delivers. There are overhead car shots. Whisperings on the soundtrack. Bad phone connections. Flickering neon lights. A statue of the Virgin that cries tears of blood. And a CGI demon that likes to jump out at people and say “Boo!” Cary Elwes tries out a Boston Irish accent and it’s quite funny. As long, I suppose, as you’re not from Boston. I hope he doesn’t do that again. Morgan fares better as a burnt-out journo (we’re told that God chose a sinner to better fulfill his mysterious purpose) but I kept wondering why he didn’t just grab his baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire and kick some demon ass. Is it because he’s wearing glasses? I mean Morgan, not the demon. Negan wouldn’t have taken any of this shit.
*. I think a revival tent is the last place I’d want to be in if a fire broke out. And yet this one doesn’t burn. Those are some strange flames. They’re CGI, sure, but CGI flames don’t burn tents?
*. The oak tree was described as an “ancient oak” in 1845, and yet it’s still there, even though it’s clearly dead. Why?
*. Dismissed by critics, The Unholy actually had decent box office (or whatever “box office” meant during lockdown). Which makes me wonder how badly you have to mess up a movie like this to not make money. I’d like to recommend it to anyone interested in some PG-rated religious horror, but to be honest it’s just not very interesting, and it certainly isn’t scary.
*. I’m also not sure how a Catholic is supposed to take any of this. Is it mocking the faith, or just using religion as a kitschy backdrop for the usual raising-the-devil shenanigans before plumping for the value of doubt and making the atheist the hero? As I’ve had occasion to point out many times before, the curious thing about today’s supernatural/religious horror is that forces of evil are seen as real while God is either helpless or MIA. As I said in my notes on Paranormal Activity, “it seems the devil is still with us but God left the building a while ago.”
*. I mean, the priests here are disposed of pretty quickly. I mentioned the low body count. It’s three. All three are priests. It’s hard not to think there was some sort of message in that.
*. Anyway, I pondered all this for a moment or two and then gave up. Not a terrible movie, but not one worth bothering with either.

The Little Things (2021)

*. “The past becomes the future, becomes the past, becomes the future, becomes the past . . .” That’s not quite Shakespeare but rather the drunken ramblings of Joe “Deke” Deacon (Denzel Washington), a cop with a past, and whose past is his future. You might even call him a burnt-out case. In the storied tradition of buddy-cop movies he’s paired in The Little Things with a buttoned-up case, the fresh-faced detective Jim Baxter (Rami Malek). Together they are looking for a serial killer in 1990 L.A. who may or may not be Jared Leto. Heaven knows Mr. Leto looks and acts suspicious enough. But is he quite as creepy as Malek? That’s a tough call.
*. I begin with Deke’s line about the past becoming the future because it gets at the main feeling I had watching The Little Things. Of course, just in the one-line plot summary I’ve given you can tell it’s a genre picture that is following all the usual conventions. Deke and Jimmy are the odd couple. Their investigation is frustrated by police protocol and rules. Deke likes to break those rules, though not such conventions as making a wall of photos to stare at while he tries to put all the pieces together. There’s even a scene late in the movie where Leto says to Malek “You know, you and I are a lot alike. In another lifetime, we could be friends.” My jaw dropped when I heard this and I said (aloud!) “He did not just say that!” But he did.

*. You could say it’s darker and more ambiguous than the usual detective thriller. I think every review of it made some comparison to Se7en, but I think the closer Fincher connection is to Zodiac, especially with the open ending. Still, we’re on familiar ground here. Writer-director John Lee Hancock wanted to upset the usual paint-by-numbers serial killer plot, and that may have been true, at least to some extent, when he wrote it. This much is to his credit. But things had moved on.
*. The script had been written by Hancock way back in 1993. Now think about that. Nearly thirty years ago. And this is the point I wanted to make about the past becoming the future. In my notes on Fatale I mentioned how its mixing of neo-noir with Fatal Attraction was evidence of the nostalgic rut that our culture has fallen into, as described in the writings of critics like Kurt Andersen and Ross Douthat.
*. The basic idea here is that the twenty-first century has produced nothing new in terms of its popular art (music and film), and that it now just keeps itself going by remaking and remixing stuff from the 1980s and ’90s. I always want to dig my heels in against arguments like this because they sound too much like just the sort of thing that people my age (who were young in the 1980s and ’90s) would say. But there are days when I think there’s really something to it. Like when I listen to student dance parties playing songs that were hits thirty or forty years ago, or when I see a movie like this being released in 2021.

*. It was originally (that is, back in 1993) going to be directed by Steven Spielberg, or Danny DeVito, or Clint Eastwood, or Warren Beatty. In the end, Hancock took it on himself, and he does a respectable job. He can handle suspense, and Thomas Newman’s score helps. The script, however, is nonsense. The character of Baxter didn’t work for me at all, especially at the end where he is easily manipulated by Leto’s slimey Albert Sparma. As Clint Eastwood might have reminded him, had he been helming this, there are two types of people in the world: those with bullets in their gun and those who dig.
*. Another script point, while I’m at it. Why on earth doesn’t Baxter just meet with Sparma at the bar? That way he can keep his eye on him, and even talk to him all night if he has to. Sparma seems like a lonely guy and would probably like to spend an evening talking to a real detective.  But instead they go with a plan that’s guaranteed to only keep him out of the house for a few minutes.
*. I can’t say I’m a big fan of Hancock’s writing anyway. I believe he wrote this right after A Perfect World, which was a film I hated. The Little Things isn’t quite as portentous and drawn out, but you can tell he was being tugged in that direction. What’s with the cross on the hill? Who is the Christ figure? Leto looks the closest. And I don’t think the banter all that great either. “Your dick is as hard as Chinese arithmetic”? Is Chinese arithmetic hard?

*. I guess the period atmosphere worked, though as I mentioned in my notes on Fatale it’s striking how movies like this make us feel as though the ’90s weren’t that long ago. But were the freeways in southern California really so deserted you could drive down them in reverse and never encounter another car? I don’t remember that.
*. All told, it’s still a reasonably effective thriller, though I thought Malek mostly wasted and Washington was performing just a couple of notches above mailing it in. Not a great movie, but if we really are living in a culture of nostalgia then it may be the best we can expect. In resurrecting a thirty-year-old script they were at least going back to the source.

Fatale (2020)

*. The title isn’t ironic. This is neo-noir territory, with Michael Ealy as an L.A. playa (he’s a celebrity sports agent) and Hilary Swank as the tough cop who goes from being a one-night stand to a fatal attraction.
*. That link to Fatal Attraction isn’t accidental, as the proceedings here really have a throwback vibe to that period of thriller. The 1980s and ’90s don’t seem so long ago anymore. Is this the cult of nostalgia that so many cultural critics speak of? I suppose the freight elevator to Swank’s ginormous loft is another nod to Adrian Lyne’s movie. Just bleach everything in the L.A. sun and throw in lots of luxury-lifestyle porn and some hip-hop on the soundtrack and we’re totally up to date.
*. Speaking of the ’90s noir and the light of that L.A. sun, the film was shot by Dante Spinotti, who also did Heat (1995) and L.A. Confidential (1997). These things all sort of tie together.
*. I don’t have much to say here. The plot strikes me as beyond improbable, an even bigger stretch than the criss-cross of Strangers on a Train. How did Detective Quinlan think this was going to work? I don’t know.
*. Damaris Lewis looks sensational in evening wear or a bikini. Swank pulls off playing tough as well as seductive. Michael Ealy as the sap seems to be suffering some kind of physical pain just sitting at his desk or driving his fancy car. I don’t know if he thought that was the part or if he only has the one expression. It was disconcerting.
*. An erotic thriller that never manages to thrill or be erotic, despite lots of potential for both. You expect some twists, which come as and when expected so they don’t register much as twists.
*. The main problem though is that when things get raw we still feel like we’re watching reality TV. A similar sort of trick was played in Gone Girl, but that movie was sending up Nick and Amy for being comfortably affluent, shallow, and basically amoral young people. I don’t think satire is on tap here, even though there were moments that I thought might have been very funny had they been played that way. Instead we get glossy nostalgia and a punchline that’s just a swing and a miss.

A Quiet Place Part II (2021)

*. I began my notes on A Quiet Place by saying I enjoyed it, but that I didn’t think it was very original or well written. It also didn’t call for a sequel, which is something the director-star John Krasinski was comfortable with. But it did good box office so a sequel was soon in the works.
*. Krasinski didn’t want to be involved. Neither did his wife and co-star Emily Blunt. But money talks. So he came back and even wrote the screenplay for this one too.
*. I think it’s obvious from the screenplay that he had absolutely no new ideas. So we basically have the same idea as the first movie, only Krasinksi’s character (who died at the end of A Quiet Place) has been replaced by a buddy named Emmett (Cillian Murphy). Otherwise, Mama Abbott (Blunt) shepherds her three kids through the usual post-apocalyptic wasteland, trying to avoid the monsters. They get into various jams and then get out of them.
*. Starring Emily Blunt and John Krasinski. At least that’s what it says on the poster. Doesn’t mention any other names. This despite the fact that Krasinski’s character, who died at the end of the first movie, only has an appearance shoehorned in by way of a pre-title sequence taking us back to the aliens arriving, and Emily Blunt is very much placed in a secondary role. Krasinski clearly stated that Millicent Simmonds (who plays the deaf daughter Regan) was the lead, but let’s face it, she wasn’t putting any bums in seats. Hence, starring the two Hollywood stars.

*. Simmonds is great, but she’s all this movie has going for it. This really is just a retread of the first movie — which was itself planned to be part of the Cloverfield universe — right down to using the same strategies to kill the monsters. Krasinski also seems stuck on the idea that cutting back and forth between two (or even three) parallel suspense sequences makes them that much scarier. It really doesn’t. It just drags things out.
*. There are also more niggling questions, some of them the same ones that bothered me in the first film. How did such admittedly ferocious but basically primitive creatures that are so vulnerable to annoying noises and small arms fire wipe humanity out so quickly? Why do the islanders broadcast using code? And why do all the main characters act like such idiots? How have they survived this long being so stupid?
*. Even if there hadn’t been a first movie this would still play flat. The presence of Cillian Murphy (28 Days Later) and ruthless gangs with haircuts and beards from The Road only underlines how many times we’ve been down this particular road before. Our culture seems in love with the end of the world as we know it, the breakdown of civilization and a return to a savage state. I’m sure that tells us something about where we’re at as a society. A not very nice place.
*. In any event, it premiered on the eve of the pandemic but then waited over a year for its theatrical release (which is why I’m dating it as a 2021 movie). When it did come out it did great box office, all things considered, and since there’s no ending to speak of here (as there was no real plot), I imagine there could be more of these to come. Two is more than enough for me though. I’m checking out.

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021)

*. I don’t see how I need to say much here that I haven’t already said in my notes on the previous MonsterVerse entries Kong: Skull Island and Godzilla: King of the Monsters. But here we go.
*. The two monster stars had clashed sixty years earlier in King Kong vs. Godzilla, and the inversion of names in this movie may reflect the continuing drawing power of the lizard, and perhaps the lessening cachet of the ape. But it might also indicate that in the battle for alpha supremacy (how sick I am of hearing this metaphor!), Godzilla kicks Kong’s ass not once but twice. Admittedly the first time Kong is dopey with drugs and has to fight part of the time underwater, but in the second clash it’s a pretty even fight and Kong still loses conclusively.
*. I won’t say much about the plot here, as it’s an irrelevance. The script is laughably bad — I really did laugh out loud on a couple of occasions — but is it any worse than the Toho Godzilla movies? Not a bit. In fact, it might be a bit better, depending on how you’re feeling. A Hollow Earth inside our own that may be an actual place or maybe just some alternate or parallel CGI dimension? Sure, why not. It’s just the Lost World. Or the New World from Monster Hunter. Same place, different town sign.
*. No, what this movie is about is giant monsters fighting, and it delivers. Also to its credit is the fact that it comes in at a surprisingly tight two hours. I was honestly expecting a three-hour, Avengers: Endgame load of overkill. But no. This is actually the shortest instalment in the MonsterVerse thus far.

*. I think it’s worth quoting director Adam Wingard on this matter: “A lot of the fans online were all asking me is this going to be a three-hour film? When it was announced that it was a little under two hours they immediately thought when is the director’s cut coming out? I like movies under two hours. I think if you do a movie over two hours, you better have a damn good reason for it to be that long. At the end of the day, if you’re going to make this movie into three hours, you’re not going to get an extra hour of monsters fighting. You’re going to get an extra hour of people talking about monsters.”
*. Thank goodness we didn’t get that! Even as it is there’s a surprising amount of unnecessary filler here. Characters are introduced with no particular function. Alexander Skarsgård shows up as a Hollow Earth scientist with a back story involving a brother who died failing to “breach the veil.” Why did we need to hear from this guy? Apex seems to have figured everything out already. Then the head of Apex has a daughter who turns out to be every bit as expendable as she seems, and Mechagodzilla (yes, he’s here too) has a pilot who doesn’t have much to say or do. And I wonder how much they paid Lance Reddick to show up as the head of Monarch and pronounce one line (“This is the day we feared . . .”).
*. Any script editor could have pruned all four of these characters and not lost a thing. And I’m even inclined to think they could have done without the cute little deaf girl Jia who is the Kong whisperer. She’s just here to look cute and/or concerned in cutaways. Do we need to have her telling Kong what to do? He’s not stupid.

*. I suppose Jia is just there to be someone kids can identify with. The same with the trio of conspiracy chasers who just sort of follow along without contributing anything to what’s going on. I suppose you could argue Josh unplugs Mechagodzilla at the end, but here I’d say that’s less than nothing because I would have liked it better if Godzilla and Kong had teamed up to take out Mechagodzilla on their own without any help.
*. Do you ever watch those Internet videos of cats and dogs watching cats and dogs on TV? Watching Godzilla vs. Kong I couldn’t help wondering what a gorilla would think of this movie. Would they be cheering for Kong? Or just annoyed at all the sound and fury? Well, I can only say that my own response fell somewhere between these two poles, and we’re not that far removed from our ape cousins.
*. A couple of quick notes on geography. (1) I had thought Skull Island a more remote location. In the opening credit montage we see it clearly marked on a map as just off the coast of Hawaii. (2) Could Apex have found a more in-the-way spot to locate their HQ than Hong Kong? Some place with a little lower population density maybe?
*. But like I say, it’s all about the fights. Godzilla and Kong duke it out on the ocean and then destroy Hong Kong. That’s it. That’s the movie. It’s a CGI epic, filled with the stuff that CGI does well: monsters and mass destruction. This part seemed top-notch to me. The rest of it is silly filler, but at least it isn’t overly dramatic or dull. I don’t think we needed the whole Hollow Earth mythology, and the business about Kong’s magic axe was way too much (especially since he’s not “King” Kong anymore), but you do get what you came for, as well as the promise of more.

Monster Hunter (2020)

*. With a title like that, you can be pretty sure what to expect. And if you were a fan of the video game (which I’d never heard of) you’d have an even clearer idea. As writer-director Paul W. S. Anderson, someone familiar with such transitions, puts it: “the movie is very much the video game put on screen.”
*. And finally, if you saw Anderson’s name, and that of his wife Milla Jovovich, your expectations would be set in stone. Now personally I think it’s kind of sweet that this couple have continued for so long now to churn out these massively expensive, brain-dead entertainments, beginning with Resident Evil (2002). Their partnership is testimony to the importance of finding a comfortable, mutual modus operandi and sticking to it. But you have to wonder if they ever think of this as a bit of a rut.
*. The plot is very video game. A bunch of Army Rangers led by Captain Artemis (Jovovich) and consisting of grunts with names like Marshall, Dash, Steeler, and Axe, are transported by way of magic portal to the MonsterVerse. Or, to give it its proper name here, the New World. A place full of monsters and not much else. In the New World Artemis meets up with a fellow named the Hunter (Tony Jaa) and together they fight monsters until Artemis can find a way to get back to this world. That’s it. That’s the whole plot. And since the Hunter doesn’t speak English they don’t even have to bother with much in the way of dialogue.
*. Given the lack of originality there’s not much to say here. Even the appearance of the monsters is taken from the game, and I can’t say they’re anything special. The dragon thing at the end is just another Rodan or Smaug, and as for the sand worms I prefer the originals from Dune or Tremors.

*. It didn’t take long before I started thinking how much better it would have been if they’d just played it from the start as a satire of such movies. After getting their collected asses kicked by the giant sand monster one of the soldiers breaks down in a Bill “Game over, man!” Paxton moment, saying “Oh my god, we’re going to die here.” Artemis immediately asks her how many magazines of ammo she has left. The soldier replies “What does that matter?” which is a very good question since they’ve just fired about 5,000 rounds at the monster to absolutely no effect. But Artemis isn’t having any of that shit. “It matters because we’re soldiers. And this is what we do: we fight. . . . You know, I don’t care what the hell that thing is. We do what we do best. We fight and we survive. No matter what the odds! You got it?”
*. That’s funny stuff. You have to imagine it as like the speech Robert Downey Jr. gives in Tropic Thunder. Or the one Samuel L. Jackson delivers in Deep Blue Sea just before getting chomped. Because immediately after this Artemis is snatched by another monster and nearly killed. Hilarious! She is rescued though, and the Rangers try to revive her by administering CPR. “Lack of pulse,” the one Ranger says. “Unacceptable!” the other roars back, “Try again!” At this point I was laughing hysterically. Why couldn’t it all have been this silly?
*. As it is, there are a few funny bit tossed out that gently play with expectations, not to mention Ron Perlman decked out like the lead singer from an ’80s hair-metal band. But there’s nothing like the comic treatment that I think it needed. Then again, Anderson wanted to make a movie for fans of the game, of which he was one, and they might have taken a satirical approach amiss.
*. No, what he figured the audience wanted was a video game. So he gave them just that. In return they stayed away, as the (admittedly pandemic) box office was disappointing. Leaving the end of this film, which is basically just “To be continued . . .”, still hanging. Will we see another? To be sure, but perhaps under a different franchise’s banner.

Possessor (2020)

*. To get the obvious out of the way, this is the second feature for director Brandon Cronenberg (coming eight years after his debut Antiviral), and comparisons to his father’s oeuvre are inevitable. I think Brandon was actually having fun with this. I mean, the main character’s name is Tasya Vos, which must have come out of one of his dad’s old notebooks. Throw in some artistic production elements (lab equipment, office furniture) that make for a really bizarre mix of design and technology, a mysterious quasi-medical institute up to no good, and a splash of body horror, and presto! you’re back in the early ’80s watching this on VHS.
*. Actually, the feel of the movie is deliberately retro, which may be another nod to Cronenberg’s classic horror period. I think the cars go back to the ’70s or even earlier, and even the high-tech, like the full-wall TV screens feel like an homage to the future that we saw in Fahrenheit 451.

*. The plot is simple on the surface and muddled in the details. Tasya (Andrea Riseborough) is a field agent for a neo-Murder Inc. organization. What happens is that likely candidates are kidnapped and a jack put in their skull that an agent then uses to enter their consciousness and control them. They (the agent) then kill the target the organization has been paid to assassinate and destroy the meat puppet just as they’re extracted from the host body. So the target is dead and the host commits suicide, meaning there are no loose ends to tidy up. Presumably even the skull jack is destroyed when the agent forces the host to stick a gun in its mouth and blow its brains out the back of its head.
*. As a premise I don’t think that’s anything special, though it’s not bad. Of course things get complicated as Tasya starts to come undone when she goes bodyhopping, culminating in a messy adventure when she jacks into Colin (Christopher Abbott), someone selected as the perfect candidate to kill Sean Bean, a jerky tech billionaire (I know, I know: there are no other kinds) with really poor home security (though this is Toronto, so he probably figured he was safe). Poor Colin. I guess he’s a bit of a heel, but we still end up feeling sorry for him.
*. The movie is built around a number of interlocking conflicts. There’s a conflict between Tasya and her controller, a cool lady named Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who is beginning to suspect Tasya’s loyalty to the corporation and suitability for purpose. Then there is the conflict between Tasya and Colin as they fight for control of his body. And finally there is the conflict within Tasya as she looks to either hold on to or jettison what’s left of her humanity.

*. The cast helps. I’ve always liked Jennifer Jason Leigh and miss not seeing her in more. Andrea Riseborough is often wasted, but she’s well cast here as she really does strung-out well and the juxtaposition of her slight frame and icy-killer personality is great. Christopher Abbott is also well cast, as he always looks vulnerable. Mia Wasikowska had no trouble handling him in Piercing, and he was supposed to be a killer in that movie.
*. While Abbott is fine, his character, Colin, is less so. He’s a cokehead toy-boy with zero back story, for starters. But after a while I started to think Cronenberg was intentionally making him out to be a bit of a comic figure to enlist our sympathy. Surely that’s the point of the vaping. Does anybody cool vape? And what on earth does his job consist of anyway? They don’t have software that can register the drapes in people’s homes? It seems absurd. And why does he have to wear those welder’s goggles?
*. Even the mask Tasya wears while jacked, while evoking something of the facehugger in Alien, has something silly about it. It’s like the face-mask that Colin pulls off Tasya in his dream/vision in being sinister and creepy but ridiculous at the same time. I think Cronenberg is aware of his balance and it’s one of the things I like about Possessor. It’s playful without being ironic or disarming.

*. I mentioned though that the story is muddled in the details. Why does Tasya insist on getting messy by stabbing or hacking or clubbing her victims to death instead of just shooting them? is she that much of a sadist or psychopath? Or is she just having a breakdown? Does Colin take the chip out? How does he even know about its presence? And why would Tasya still be in control of him then?
*. All of these questions climax in the film’s final conundrum, which is who is in control when Colin/Tasya pulls the trigger. I like that the movie is ambiguous here though, as the question of whether Tasya has agency or is conflicted or is just a pawn in Girder’s game is better left open. At first I was disappointed there wasn’t more of a twist, but I think the mystery we’re left with is rich enough.
*. Stylish, though I didn’t care much for the effects. There’s gore that plays with being over-the-top, in keeping with the rest of the movie’s sense of balancing horror and humour. I sort of wish this had been more inventive than just wading through floors covered in blood, and its artiness is maybe a bit much (the pattern of the blood in the final crime scene matching the wings of the butterfly), but it’s better to have too much of this than none at all.
*. A good movie that I had high hopes for and that didn’t disappoint. That’s something I don’t get to say very often. It does give the impression of a movie that Cronenberg might have thought about too much though, making it seem a bit overdetermined. It has that clinical, detached, even manipulative feel to it. But then, that’s the point it wants to make

Spiral (2021)

*. Subtitled From the Book of Saw. Please.
*. Well, if Saw isn’t a book at least it’s a franchise. According to Guinness the most successful horror franchise ever, which I’m guessing is based on box office. Spiral is officially the ninth instalment, and unlikely to be the last. Remember Saw: The Final Chapter? That was ten years ago. Then there’d been Jigsaw. And now we have this.
*. Is “this” even a Saw movie though? Some of the voices canvassed on the special features included with the DVD say no. Executive producer Oren Koules says “it’s a different movie but it’s under the same umbrella” while his fellow producer Mark Burg is more adamant: “Spiral is not a Saw movie.”
*. What they mean, I think, is that it’s set in the same universe, meaning the events of the previous movie have taken place, but it’s not a sequel or prequel or reboot. There’s no John Kramer, or for that matter Dr. Lawrence Gordon or Mark Hoffman or even Logan Nelson. There’s no Billy the Puppet, his place now taken by a doll called (by the filmmakers) Mr. Snuggles. There are no fancy transitions, and the colour scheme has been adjusted somewhat away from the usual blues and greens (though they’re still here) to something more sunburned.
*. That said, it is a Saw movie. It’s the same basic idea of a killer kidnapping people and sticking them in elaborate traps that they can only escape with their lives from by some act of self mutilation. There’s the “Hello Zepp” theme. There’s a pop montage at the end that throws a solution at us, though this time it isn’t nearly as convoluted a puzzle to solve as in the other movies, with their fragmented time schemes.
*. It’s always a tricky matter with a movie like this though because you have to give the audience what they expect and want, and something new and different at the same time. By this point I just don’t think there was any new direction for them to go with using the original template so they tried to add some new blood in other ways.
*. Perhaps the biggest change is the introduction of Chris Rock, whose interest in doing a Saw movie is what led to Spiral being made (director Darren Lynn Bousman was told “Chris Rock wants to do a Saw movie! Figure it out”). Apparently Rock envisioned something that was a cross between Se7en and 48 Hrs. I’m not sure that’s what he got. It’s only a discount Se7en at best and has none of the buddy-humour of 48 Hrs. In fact there are just a few snappy lines from Rock, and given that this is not a comedy they feel quite out of place.

*. Samuel L. “Do you wanna play games, motherfucker?” Jackson. Does he have the same agent as Bruce Willis now? Because I can’t understand why else his career has taken the recent direction it has. In any event, he’s here again playing the same stereotyped tough guy who drops f-bombs every other word and otherwise doesn’t seem to be that engaged in what’s going on.

*. The two main boxes to check for a Saw film are the quality of the kills/traps and the trickiness of the plot. Spiral fails at both. The kills are the usual chains and blades, with a couple of them qualifying as not so much disgusting (a given) as depressing. One victim has to save herself from having boiling wax waterboarded on her face (presumably suffocating her) by severing her spinal cord at the base of her neck. That just turned me right off. Mark Kermode considered this trap to be “obtuse,” which is a nice way of putting it. Then the final kill involves a slow exsanguination that I could have also lived without seeing. As the bodies piled up I just found myself wondering with each new abduction “Ah hell, what’s it going to be now?”
*. The twist isn’t interesting either. I thought it if not obvious than at least likely who the killer was right from the start. But according to Bousman (back after helming Saw II, III, and IV) the identity of the killer wasn’t the mystery so much as why he was doing it. I rolled my eyes at this. As if I could possibly care why he was doing any of this. And the fact that he’s a flat bore as a villain doesn’t help.
*. Maybe the question of why the killer was doing this was supposed to be making some kind of political point. That’s how Shirley Li, writing in The Atlantic, tried to read it. But I don’t make this out. The idea that the police are being punished for their transgressions struck me as just a convenient hook to hang things on. I don’t think there’s any message here.
*. In my notes on Jigsaw I mentioned in passing that I prefer the Final Destination movies to this franchise. Why did they stop making Final Destinations? On the whole they maintained a pretty high level of creativity, cleverness, and fun. It’s been a long time since I recognized any of those qualities in a Saw film.
*. Frankly, without the presence of Rock and Jackson, who are not great, I would have rated this one of the weakest and worst of the series. But even when those two are not at their best they still make Spiral watchable, at least barely. I think box office was good enough, given the pandemic having shut theatres down. And, for what it’s worth, audience ratings were much, much higher than the response from critics. Which means things may continue to spiral along, or circle the drain. Choose your own metaphor.

The Turning (2020)

*. I suppose it might have been good. But then, probably not. The novella The Turn of the Screw by Henry James is a timeless piece of work. And the first film adaptation, The Innocents (1961) is a classic that is still one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen. You’d think they might have let things go at that.
*. But 2020 would see not one, not two, but three new adaptations: this movie, a New Zealand production that builds off the idea of an actress appearing in a stage version of the story, and the Netflix miniseries The Haunting of Bly Manor. Suddenly the old tale was back in vogue.
*. The year is 1994. Why 1994? I’m not sure. It seems somehow related to the passing of Kurt Cobain. But the date raises another point: why set this movie in modern times at all when you’re planning on keeping all the Victorian (or Edwardian) trappings of the giant manor house and the horses and the antique dolls? Let’s face it, when Kate arrives at the big house here she’s basically entering a time warp anyway.
*. We start off with an overhead car shot, which gives you some idea of the clichés to come. There’s a lot of creeping around the old house with a flashlight. There’s a scary scene where Kate the new . . . governess? tutor? . . . is in a bathtub. A sewing machine starts up by itself. Kate looks for something scary under her bed. Scary things are seen in a mirror that aren’t really there. There are scary dolls and mannequins. Kate jumps straight up in bed after having a nightmare . . . several times. There are jump scares, accompanied by loud noises on the soundtrack, that are so predictable I was saying out loud “Come on and give me the jump scare, I’m tired of waiting.”
*. On the matter of that last point, it came in a scene that sort of echoes the brilliant moment in The Innocents where the governess sees the ghostly form of Miss Jessell across a pond. You get something like this, and I thought it might be built up but then we get the jump scare that I was calling for and Kate gets dragged into the pond and it’s all very dumb and not scary at all.
*. Mackenzie Davis plays Kate. I spent most of the time thinking how much she looked liked Kristen Stewart, and how that meant that there’s now a template for such women these days. Miles and Flora, the two kids, are Finn Wolfhard and Brooklyn Prince. Yes, really. They had to cast those two based on their names alone, right? Anyway, Prince is fine but mop-top Wolfhard fails to project any of the sense of corrupted innocence the part calls for.
*. The film was shot at Killruddery House, which is in Ireland. It is ginormous, but apparently the elderly Miss Jessel lives there alone with little Flora. Honestly. We don’t see any groundskeepers or handymen or anybody else at all. This makes no sense!
*. The DVD includes a featurette on the making of the movie. Mackenzie tells us that the director’s “ideas for how to take some of the Victorian themes from the novella were really interesting, especially along the lines of toxic masculinity.” Wait, what? Well, I guess Peter Quint was a bounder, and he may have passed some of this along to Miles, though I tend to see the abuse that occurred differently. But there’s more! Here’s director Floria Sigismondi: “My take on the book is a very female one, and I wanted to explore the ideas of the #MeToo generation.” Huh? This is a #MeToo movie? What ideas is she talking about?
*. Oh and here’s producer Scott Bernstein plugging into the same set of buzzwords: “Based in a world of female empowerment and women standing up for themselves, a really powerful female character at the center of this is really timely.” By this point I was well and truly baffled. I don’t see James’s story, or this movie, as being much about toxic masculinity or #MeToo, and as for powerful female characters and empowerment there’s the slight problem that Kate is a total basket case.
*. Then again, maybe they had a different idea about how we’re supposed to read Kate. It’s hard to tell because the ending is rather ambiguous. I think we have to see Kate as having lost her marbles though, as that’s an angle that’s really played up by introducing us to her mother and having her looking progressively crazier. Then there’s an alternate ending included with the DVD which is quite a bit different but almost as obscure and a lot worse. As with all these movies that are made with multiple endings, my sense is that they really didn’t know what they were trying to do. That’s harsh, but the end of a movie should fit perfectly with everything that’s gone before. If you’re not sure how the movie should end then that’s a strong indication that you never knew what it was about in the first place.
*. Not much point beating up on a movie that nobody seemed to like. My sense is that people were pulling in different directions on this one and they ended up with a bunch of pieces that didn’t go together. Plus, even accepting that this is the ’90s, everyone needed a better haircut and some nicer clothes.

Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)

*. Sure I’d been warned. Wonder Woman 1984 received some dreadful reviews but I figured (1) it had Gal Gadot coming back and she was great in the first movie and (2) it was set in 1984 so I figured if nothing else it would have a cool soundtrack and some funny jokes about big hair and how stupid we all were back then. I thought it was going to be silly and have a lot of cheesy CGI, but aside from that: bring on the camp!
*. Well, even going in forewarned I was still let down. Crushed even. I said in my notes on the first movie that Gal Gadot might not be a great actress but she is a great Wonder Woman. And she still is. But she’s asked to do more this time out and comes up woefully short in her big scenes involving any emoting. The ’80s music? I heard Frankie Goes to Hollywood playing in the background at the party but that was it. The ’80s style? There’s one scene involving Diana Prince dressing up Steve Trevor in the height of MTV fashion. That’s pretty much it, unless you count the opening action scene in the mall, because malls are so 1984.
*. Really, calling this Wonder Woman 1984 almost constitutes false advertising. And the cheesy CGI? It looks terrible. Is this all that $200 million buys you these days? Where’d the money go?
*. Things get off to a very bad start with a flashback to young Diana competing in some ultra-gymnastic sporting event. I hated this for at least three reasons. (1) This is the second movie in the franchise now. We’re supposed to be done with back story and origins stuff. Get on with it. (2) Are we supposed to believe that even as a little girl Diana can keep up, running and jumping and shooting arrows from horseback, with adult women? I know she’s a budding superhero, but that makes no sense! (3) It’s all just a prologue and it goes on forever just to wind up with some hokey moral line about how cheaters never prosper and nothing good can come from lies. Things hadn’t even gotten started and I was already wondering what else could go wrong.
*. A lot. Everything. I have to say, Wonder Woman 1984 impressed me. Really impressed me. It’s hard to believe they managed to stuff so many bad ideas into one movie, even one that runs an unforgiveable 151 minutes (that bloated running time itself counting as another bad idea).
*. I honestly don’t know where to begin. I guess with the story. It’s driven by the introduction of something called the Dreamstone, which is the laziest and stupidest plot device you can imagine. It makes wishes come true, you see. And this doesn’t make any sense because what if two wishes come into conflict? Or a wish contradicts the laws of physics in some way? No matter. Nothing that the script and a Hans Zimmer score that really puts in some overtime can’t do an end around.
*. A stone that grants wishes is also what allows Diana to bring Steve back, after he died at the end of the last movie. Except he’s not really brought back. His soul, or whatever, hops into somebody else’s body. That in itself is incredibly stupid, and seems kind of unfair to the meat puppet, but more than that it’s just dumb from a plot point of view. Steve has little function and he’s really only here so that Chris Pine could show up and maybe sell a few more tickets. I wish they’d left him out.
*. About the only thing Steve does do in the plot is he flies Diana around in a jet. Which he knows how to fly because he used to be a pilot in the First World War. I’m telling you there’s no bottom to how stupid this movie is.

*. The Dreamstone also activates the rest of the plot because it creates Wonder Woman’s two antagonists: a mousy chick named Barbara (Kristen Wiig) who wishes to become like Diana but ends up looking like a discount cast member from Cats, and a business bozo named Max Lord (Pedro Pascal) who . . . you know, wants to take over the whole world. I guess.
*. Wiig is a comedian by trade but the part of Barbara isn’t funny at all. In fact she’s pretty sad. Pascal is capable, which is good because the movie is really all about his character. Which is another mistake.
*. Nearly everything about the movie is very bad. There’s a subplot involving tensions in the Middle East and those are always painful when Hollywood takes them on. Steve and Diana fly their jet through some fireworks and you’re obviously just meant to look at how pretty it is. Wonder Woman loses her powers for love and then gets them back, because that’s what happened in Superman II. Actually she gets her powers back plus some new ones, like the ability to fly. Where did that come from? And she gets some shiny new armour that actually doesn’t help her much at all in the end.
*. There’s a theme about people wanting too much and how you need to be careful what you wish for. This might have been interesting if it wasn’t played through a megaphone until it finally collapses in a wave of distorted noise about the beauty of truth. But in all these movies the fate of the world, or even the universe, has to be at stake so of course it’s dialed up to eleven.
*. A final point worth mentioning has to do with the critical response. I mentioned at the outset that Wonder Woman 1984 received only “some” dreadful reviews. The response was mixed though, ranging from raves to pans. In general, however, its ratings entered into a now familiar decline after the initial hype broke. Or, as Sonny Bunch wrote in the Washington Post, “Wonder Woman 1984‘s critical reception has whipped from early praise to precipitous decline as fast as Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) can snap her lasso of truth.”
*. This decline has become so predictable it makes one suspicious of critical “first responders”: that first wave of reviews that seem so in synch with every new release’s promotional budget. Indeed, this is now so much the case that I’m inclined to write off any hot take on a new release as likely to be a product of the phenomenon Mark Kermode described as being “first, but wrong.” Critics should give themselves at least a week of reflection before writing/publishing their reviews. Even that much time to collect their thoughts would probably help keep things a little more real.
*. I think part of the problem may have been fear at criticizing a film with such sterling feminist credentials. But some critics, particularly in the manosphere, went the low road and took it on for its gender politics. Personally, I actually found this part to be relatively well handled. Yes, Diana is a model for little girls everywhere and embodies the best sort of female empowerment. Barbara, on the other hand, is a toxic feminist who just wants to be another alpha (or apex) predator running with the big dogs. I don’t see that as a “women are good, men are bad” message. As I’ve said, it might even have worked if it had been more focused.
*. But instead the whole thing is bloated and stupid and uninteresting. A movie like this, first and foremost, should be fun. Its biggest failure is that it is no fun at all. Not even to talk about. It’s a bad comic-book movie on a level with such bombs as Batman Forever. But that movie wasn’t the end of Batman and I’m sure there’s more Wonder Woman to come. On the plus side, I’m pretty sure things can only get better. I don’t think you can make a movie this bad twice.