Category Archives: 2020s

She Dies Tomorrow (2020)

*. Art house meets viral horror. Or the other way around. An intriguing idea, I think, but, perhaps necessarily, excessively abstract. Which means (1) I wasn’t really sure what was going on, and (2) I didn’t feel any sense of dread or horror.
*. The story has it that Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) is depressed. Or drunk. Or infected with a curse that passes freely from one person to another when they express the conviction that they will die tomorrow. Once you tell someone that you think you’re going to die tomorrow then they start believing it. Though it’s not clear that anyone does actually die. At least demons don’t come crawling out of television sets to kill them anyway. Instead, awareness of their own imminent demise just gets people down.
*. As I understand it, writer-director Amy Seimetz, one of today’s leading indie filmmakers, wanted the movie to be an allegory for social anxiety, much like venereal horror allegorized STDs. As I said, this is an intriguing idea. But it wasn’t that convincing. Everyone seemed more depressed than anxious, and though the two are related they aren’t the same. But I think if you look at it as a sort of Final Destination for people experiencing mid-life angst then that might help.
*. Seimetz: “This is a horror movie where you never get to see the monster. One of my favorite horror movies is Friday the 13th Part 2. You only see Jason once with a bag over his head, but it’s terrifying!” Leaving aside this strange affection for Friday the 13th Part 2, what she’s saying here is fine as far as it goes. There have been horror movies where the monster is never seen. But in that case you really have to make the audience feel the monster’s presence, and here I felt less dread than confusion.
*. There’s a point here relating to what I said about anxiety and depression. You can make a pseudo-horror movie (even a horror parody) out of anxiety. It’s very hard to make any kind of a movie out of depression. There’s a thread of a plot here, but on the whole the film is inert. It doesn’t want to go anywhere or do anything. It doesn’t even want to get out of its pyjamas.
*. I don’t blame the cast. Sheil is solid and Jane Adams, who plays Amy’s friend and spends most of the movie wandering about in her bedclothes, is also excellent. At least given that both of them are stuck in a kind of narcotized state. But Seimetz’s direction is all over the place. She uses strobe lighting in one sequence but I don’t know why. In another scene she has Amy arrive at a rental house with her boyfriend and sticks the camera on the floor. And I looked at the screen and said “Why is the camera on the floor?” And then the next shot is through a narrow doorway. Which is meant to recall the opening scene, but had me again wondering why she’d put the camera there. Here are the two shots. I don’t see the point.

*. It seems to me that if you’re looking at a movie and you’re noticing the way a shot is set up and you’re noticing because you think it’s really bad and you don’t understand the reason for it, then there’s a problem.
*. So not a thrilling movie, or one to spend that much time thinking about. Which is too bad given that there obviously was some thought and talent behind it. But then it’s hard to shake the feeling that entertainment wasn’t the goal.

Ghosts of War (2020)

*. Another gift of low expectations! I had heard nothing at all about Ghosts of War going into it, but figured it was probably pretty bad. It is, however, a suitably entertaining dog’s breakfast of a movie, with a bit of something in it for fans of psychological thrillers, horror, and SF. Critics dumped on it and it didn’t find much of an audience, but I found it to be a better than average time-killer.
*. The set-up: during the Second World War a squad of American soldiers in France find themselves custodians of a French chateau formerly occupied by Nazi bigwigs. Historically, this made no sense to me. Were they operating behind enemy lines? Why were they on their own? Well, press pause on all of that. Before things are over you’ll be wondering about a lot more than historical accuracy.
*. It turns out the chateau is haunted by the family of the owners, who had been killed by the Nazis. This led to more questions, some of which are articulated by the squad leader: “What the hell does haunted even mean? Does that mean specific people have ghosts that are somehow anchored to the places they died, or is it places where evil has occurred that makes a portal to demonic forces? Or is evil simply a man-made concept in the first place?”  Hmmm.
*. In any event, this part of the movie plays the way I thought it would: as a mash-up of The Conjuring with Call of Duty. But there’s nothing wrong with that. Sure it’s your standard haunted-house story, with lots of things going bump in the night and some very generic-looking ghosts. You know, the type that like to pop up out of nowhere screaming or saying Boo! with their mouths dripping ichor. But I thought director Eric Bress played it well. And then some Germans show up to crash the party. All well and good. But hold on to your hats because the final act enters strange territory. Which is also spoiler alert territory, if you don’t want to go any further.

*. Well, as things turn out the squad are actually American soldiers who, in some near-future war in Afghanistan, are blown up after failing to protect a family from ISIS fighters. That family then put a curse on the soldiers. The squad are then medevacked to a spiffy hospital where their dismembered bodies are kept on life support while they are entertained by a virtual reality program that has them playing soldiers in World War II France. Only there’s a ghost, or a family of ghosts, in the machine. The curse has infected the virtual-reality program, which leads to the squad being stuck replaying the haunted house scenario we’ve just been watching.
*. So there’s a lot going on here. You can pick up clues as things go along, like the references to Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” And if you know Bress’s previous work (2004’s The Butterfly Effect, or 2009’s The Final Destination) you might be even more on guard. But it’s still quite a twist they throw at the end. Does it make sense? Well, of course not. But given that premise, how could it?
*. I was also a little confused about how we were supposed to view the soldiers. Our first impression is that they are a gang of brutal jerks, except maybe the leader and the guy with glasses (the latter, naturally, being the one who both knows German and how to play the piano). But then at the end they become more sympathetic figures, since in killing Germans they’ve only been playing a video game anyway, and the Afghan curse seems a bit unfair.
*. Today’s horror films have at least given me a greater familiarity with the landscape of Eastern Europe. As I was watching this one I scribbled down the location as being either Hungary or Romania. In fact it was Bulgaria. Hey, I was close.
*. Possibly, just possibly, Bress is trying to say something about PTSD, or the moral equivalence between Nazis and ISIS, but if so that’s a message that’s soon lost. I mean, he may have been trying to say something about theoretical physics too, but I doubt it.
*. The final scene is ambiguous. Either the squad are going to be stuck in an endless loop or somehow the leader is going to get them off the hook somehow. It’s open-ended, which is something a lot of people don’t like but I don’t know how they could have wrapped things up any better.
*. So hardly a classic, but still something silly to have fun with. It’s a movie I’d rate a lot higher than blockbuster crap like The Nun, which is what it sort of reminded me of. The Nun was filmed in Romania.

The Rental (2020)

*. I’ve written before about the moral calculus that occurs when dealing with the characters in dead-teenager movies. Basically the people we meet are just jerks who we don’t mind seeing killed off, but you don’t want this to be taken so far that you’re cheering for the villain, or have no one you want to see survive.
*. The Rental isn’t quite a dead-teenager movie because the characters are all a bit older, but it has many of the same basic plot ingredients and it suffers from a failure of the moral calculus because it doesn’t take long after meeting our four main characters that we hate all of them. Or I hated all of them. Perhaps people younger than I am might find something relatable or endearing about them. But I wanted them to, if not die, at least shut up. And I felt this way five minutes into the movie. I know because I wrote the time down.
*. Meet the meat. Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Sheila Vand (Mina) are business partners launching a new app or some such thing and need to take a bit of time off. They rent a luxurious coastal home for a weekend to share with their significant others: Charlie’s wife Michelle (Alison Brie) and Josh (Jeremy Allen White), Michelle’s boyfriend and Charlie’s brother. So Charlie and Josh are bros, but because they really are brothers they’re actually bro-bros. This is a joke the movie makes in the early going.
*. A barely concealed message, in this and other films, is that the only people who matter in the new economy are jerks launching a tech start-up. Everyone else is either a “loving and supportive” trophy girlfriend or loser boyfriend. Of course, since Charlie and Mila are alpha jerks they screw around. Meanwhile, as young people in love who have seen a few too many movies about young people in love they all talk funny.
*. Example: “I’m constantly terrified she’s gonna leave me. . . . She’s just so fucking smart and talented. And, you know, I just want to be better for her, and I want to be able to challenge and inspire her, but I feel like she doesn’t even need that from me, she’s already fulfilled in that way.” A cri de cœur from Josh that is answered by Michelle: “Trust me, I hear everything you’re saying, and I think what she needs from you is not for you to occupy the same space as her work partner.” This is ironic foreshadowing, but is it really how young people talk these days? You can see why I just wanted them to shut up. Which was long before this bit of dialogue on the beach occurs, or even before the first bro-bro bomb gets dropped.
*. Another annoying thing about these kids (as I’m old enough to call them) is their sense of, yes, entitlement. Do they kill the innocent Taylor? Well, yeah, but he’s “a racist piece of shit” so he had it coming to him. Then they have to cover up for Josh because who wants him to go to jail “for the rest of his life.” As if! Manslaughter at worst. He’d be out in five years. But for these people five years is a life sentence.
*. Dave Franco’s debut effort as director. He’s married to Alison Brie. I don’t think he’s very invested in the horror genre, but, as it so often has, horror provided a cheap and relatively lucrative entry point. Wes Craven didn’t set out to be a horror director either. The only problem here is that I didn’t get the sense that Franco’s heart was really in it. He seems more interested in the awful couples stuff, and the movie only really turns into a horror flick abruptly in its final act.
*. I did like that final act, though it seems to have turned off a lot of people. It is abrupt, brutal, and grim. There are also some decent twists. I smiled at how Josh was expecting a control room beneath the house, because weren’t we all? That’s a great bait-and-switch. If only the kids had watched some more splatter films instead of talky rom-coms they’d have known enough not to split up so they can all get hunted down separately. Don’t they know the rules? Well, maybe Scream (1996) came out before they were born.
*. Unfortunately, all of the psycho-killer stuff does seem tacked on. It’s not just the splitting up that fits the bill of the dead-teenager idiot plot. Why is Josh running around trying to find Charlie after he learns that Charlie has been screwing Mina behind Josh’s back? Doesn’t he have some slightly more pressing issues to deal with, like a crazed stalker? And he knows that Charlie left already to go and find Michelle, so why is he looking for him in the house?
*. There was one fun moment, for me, when Mina goes rummaging through some shelves of puzzles to find the surveillance equipment and pulls out a box of the puzzle “Lost in a Jigsaw.” As fate would have it, I’d been working on that puzzle the very morning of the day I watched this movie! It’s a great puzzle, but difficult. I’ll admit I cheated a bit on it at the end.
*. Franco wanted an open ending to allow for the possibility of a sequel. I don’t see where a sequel would be anything but more of the same Airbnb horror, though more of the same is not necessarily a strike against a horror franchise. But, released in the plague year, I don’t know if it did well enough on home platforms to justify a new gang of housemates. Plus there wouldn’t be any mystery in a follow-up, as we’d know the Man was out there with his hammer and mask. Which is not saying I wouldn’t watch another one of these, only that I wouldn’t have my hopes up too high.

Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (2020)

*. In my write-up on Suicide Squad I made note of the fantabulous debut of Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn. As did pretty much everyone else. Studio heads knew they had a hot property (something the DC Universe was in dire need of), and Robbie herself wanted to do the project so much that she would even serve as producer. And so . . . here’s more Harley Quinn.
*. But did I want this much more Harley Quinn? I thought her Fran Drescher-Nanny voice got irritating even before the pre-credit story about her breaking up with Pudding (the Joker) was finished. I get that the whole message here, in so far as Birds of Prey has a message, is about female empowerment, but I’m not sure Harley Quinn is much more than a sidekick. At least given this script.
*. As Mick LaSalle put it in his scathing review: “The character makes no sense — but no, even that makes things sound better than they are. There’s no character there at all. There’s a look. There’s an attitude, and there’s an assemblage of mannerisms, but these are all veneers surrounding a vacuum. Screenwriter Christina Hodson found no character to write, and so Robbie had absolutely nothing to act — but she keeps trying.”
*. Is this fair? You might say this is a comic book movie, and all you came in for was the action, the one-liners, the stunts, and the effects. And I’ll grant that Robbie and director Cathy Yan do their best. The fights are well choreographed and the whole thing has a bright and glittery quality that looks like . . . well, like most other movies of this kind. But the script . . .
*. The obvious comparison is to Marvel’s Deadpool, another comic book movie that upped the violence and potty-mouth trash-talking. But the Deadpool movies were funny. The only laugh I got out of Birds of Prey was Montoya’s t-shirt. I can’t remember the last time I saw a young cast this talented — Robbie, Rosie Perez as Montoya, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Huntress, Ewan McGregor and Chris Messina as the heavies — so totally wasted. They could have got their stunt doubles to do all the work and stayed home.
*. So there’s fight scene after fight scene after fight scene. As I’ve said, they’re well done, if repetitive after a while. But at least they try to keep that part of things fresh. There’s lots of music. So much that the whole things starts to seem like the a playlist. There’s a CGI hyena that looks pretty good. There are comic text overlays that made me wonder if they were intended to be funny or more to explain things that really dull viewers may have missed. But a plot?
*. Well, there’s a diamond MacGuffin that ends up being even less than that. There are some dull bad guys (McGregor and Messina) who are just nasty without being scary or threatening (one rape scene in particular is just gratuitously unpleasant). In the end girl power triumphs over the patriarchy. The Birds of Prey are assembled, giving hope for another DC franchise. But I think this is where I’ll be checking out.

Bad Boys for Life (2020)

*. I suppose the first thing I should say here is that I haven’t seen Bad Boys (1995) or Bad Boys II (2003) (both directed by Michael Bay, who appears here in a cameo). I don’t think I ever will see them. So this most recent entry in the franchise gets no nostalgia points from me.
*. Or maybe it does, given that it’s such a generic buddy-cop action-flick, harkening back to the glory days of Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson (and this is announced as a Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer film, though Simpson has been dead for a while). I remember those days well. And can we say that they have passed? Bad Boys for Life raked in over $400 million in box office while receiving generally favourable reviews, making it one of the biggest hits of the plague year.
*. Is that down mainly to the power of nostalgia? The American writer Kurt Andersen has written a lot about how important nostalgia is to the culture and politics of the twenty-first century, and I have to say I haven’t always gotten on board with his theories. But you have to acknowledge he has a point, at least based on the evidence of the sorts of movies we’ve been getting.
*. And so we have this belated follow-up, which, coming after17 years, was still far less than the 29 years that elapsed between Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey and Face the Music. Meanwhile, warhorses like Rambo and the Predator have kept getting trotted out. Is this nostalgia though, or just a case of Hollywood trying to milk the brand recognition? Or does it make a difference? It doesn’t if the brand is nostalgia. This makes me wonder if nostalgia is all we have left. I mean, it’s basically all I have left, but I would have thought younger people had other interests in life than watching another Bad Boys movie.
*. The thing is, I’m not sure there’s anything here that I felt the 2010s was either missing or in need of. This kind of high-octane action-comedy has always been with us. And while there are jokes about Marcus (Martin Lawrence) needing glasses and Mike (Will Smith) colouring his goatee, there’s nothing here to make us think that either man is a dinosaur. Sure they’re more old school than the kids in AMMO, and they don’t like to follow the rules (they never have!), but they know what a drone is, and how to crack a cell phone.
*. The movie itself? There are gun fights. And fist fights. And chase scenes involving cars, motorcycles, and helicopters. Cars, motorcycles, and helicopters all get blown up. There is some basic banter between our two leads. Will Smith’s wardrobe changes rival those of Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra. There is a plot that has a drug queen looking to get revenge on Mike for something he did in his past. I’m not sure if this was meant to be a twist. I found it a big stretch and ultimately not interesting at all.
*. Nostalgia is about the only thing it has going for it. The action stuff is well handled, but there’s nothing new or interesting about any of it. Mike rolling on a dolly while shooting two pistols at the same time? That may not seem like much, but everything else struck me as very formulaic. Like that old abandoned hotel they shoot up at the end. Where will they meet? Of course, at some place that will provide an epic backdrop for a giant fire fight! And how come it’s sunny out when they go into the hotel, but it’s the middle of the night and raining just a few minutes later when the shit hits the fan?
*. “One last time,” the bad boys promise each other. A promise unlikely to be kept, given how well the film performed. The title may be taken as fair warning that we’re going to be in this for a long haul. But would just a few fresh ideas damage the nostalgic feeling? Or are we doomed to remixes for life?

Bill & Ted Face the Music (2020)

*. Shouldn’t I be the ideal audience for this movie? I’m roughly the same age as Bill and Ted, and I remember going to see Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure when it came out back in 1989 and enjoying it (though I guess I didn’t love it enough to bother with Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, at least as far as I can remember).
*. Or maybe the idea was to make a movie to appeal to families. Bill and Ted are older now and have teenage daughters and I guess one can imagine them watching this movie together. That may explain the presence of Kid Cudi, someone who is apparently playing himself. I had never heard of him before, but the kids seemed to know who he was.
*. Unfortunately, this wasn’t for me. I thought things got off to a good start with a funny bit involving Bill and Ted providing the live “music” for a wedding, but that was the last laugh I was to enjoy.
*. As with too many not-funny new comedies I’ve been watching, I spent a lot of time staring at the screen trying to figure out what was even supposed to be funny. Was the robot Dennis Caleb McCoy funny? I get the part about his being a robot with human emotional problems, but while that was hilarious in the case of Marvin from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy it fell flat here. I kept wondering where or what the joke was.
*. There’s not much of a story. In order to write the song that’s going to save the universe by bringing everyone together (yes, it’s that flimsy), the daughters (who take after their dads quite literally) have to round up a band of all-stars from Earth’s past. So that they can basically just jam together on the freeway.
*. Apparently the producers wanted not just a family-friendly film but one that would be resolutely PC (some of the jokes from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure hadn’t aged well you see). So the girls are the real heroes, and the band only has the one white guy (Mozart). Alas, the drummer turns out to be a Black woman named Grom who is preverbal and scurries about like a chimp in-between banging on her bongos. I suppose we should feel grateful they didn’t stick a bone through her nose.
*. Has wholesomeness and nostalgia become such a draw? A survey of critics says yes, as this film was very well received. So perhaps I haven’t aged as gracefully. I can say Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves reinhabit their very limited roles without seeming too bored by what’s going on. But though I’m sure I was meant to feel good at the end I came away so let down it made me reconsider what I thought of the first movie. Had it actually been as bad as this? Now I’m afraid to go back in time and find out.

Emma (2020)

*. After lying neglected, cinematically, for the longest time, Jane Austen’s Emma enjoyed a spurt of popularity in the mid-’90s with a modern-dress teen rom-com retelling of the old story (Clueless), a more traditional version starring Gwyneth Paltrow, and an ITV movie with Kate Beckinsale the same year.
*. It’s interesting that after the free-wheeling Clueless both the 1996 adaptations took a faithful approach to the material. What makes this of interest, at least to me, is that Austen in general is a very conservative writer, and it’s hard to soft-shoe those values if you want to do her straight. Even Clueless doesn’t try to hide the fact that the high school has a strict social hierarchy and that Cher is a snob, which is a less appealing characteristic today than it was during the Regency period.
*. I like how this Emma, directed by Autumn de Wilde and written by Eleanor Catton, doesn’t try too hard to get us to like our heroine. She’s spoiled, and a snob. She was all that back in Austen’s day as well. But she’s also good-natured and wants (at times) to do the right thing.
*. She’s also played this time out by Anya Taylor-Joy, who had become by this time one of Hollywood’s fastest-rising stars. I think she’s very good here, projecting a young mind lively and at ease, and if she plays the part a bit broad — watch her pupils swim around in the carriage scene with Mr. Elton — that’s very much in keeping with the rest of the production. The brightness and colour give it a comic-book or fairy-tale look, and many of the characters border on caricature.
*. Is that a bad thing? I think it’s not totally alien to Austen. Bill Nighy is absurd as Mr. Woodhouse, but Mr. Woodhouse is absurd. Mia Goth maybe goes a bit too far, playing Harriet Smith as just a little too obtuse. Miranda Hart is also broad (and too tall) for the unfortunate Miss Bates. Not that I’m prejudiced about height, but Austen does describe Miss Bates as being short. And I’d thrown in, while I’m on the subject, how disconcerting it is that Mr. Knightley’s younger brother towers over him.

*. Still, I think all of these actors work out pretty well. Johnny Flynn, however, though doing his best, is terribly miscast as Mr. Knightley. I’ve already mentioned the matter of height, but he also appears too young, and far too scruffy. To be sure, he does mock Frank Churchill for going all the way to London to (supposedly) get his hair cut, but I didn’t think he needed to appear quite so shaggy himself.
*. In the book, Mr. Knightley, as everyone insists, really is “the thing.” Here he seems more like one of Emma’s pals from school. There doesn’t seem to be any reason why they both don’t jump on each other right from the start. And can we imagine Austen’s Knightley chasing after Emma’s carriage on foot, or stripping down, in a frenzy, in one of his well-appointed rooms, collapsing in a loveswept heap to the floor? Yes, he’s in love with Emma. We know. But not like this. And about his (and Emma’s) bare bums being put on display I will say nothing.
*. I believes this was de Wilde’s first feature, and Catton’s first screenplay, and they both come through. This is a gorgeous looking movie, and the script plays fair to its source. The second half flags because of what they do to Knightley, and also I think because of the more modern feel to the proceedings. Emma’s faux pas on Box Hill doesn’t have the same impact as in the 1996 ITV film because we feel like we’re more in our world here than in theirs. I know Austen is our contemporary, perhaps never more so, but that scene doesn’t seem as out of line given how catty we’ve seen Mr. Knightley behave already. Did I mention that he’s no longer quite “the thing”? It just doesn’t work when this Mr. Knightley gets on his high horse.
*. I like the earthy touches like the nosebleed and the baby’s wet fart as ways of humanizing the action without being totally ironic. The bare bums were maybe going a step too far. But that, as I’ve been suggesting, is the edge this movie dances on. Most of the time it works, and I think this may be my favourite Emma yet. I’m really curious though if, in another twenty years, it will keep its glow, or if it will come to be seen as only of its time.

Bloodshot (2020)

*. Is there anything I haven’t said, several times already, about comic-book, video-game movies? I don’t think so, and since Bloodshot is another instance of the same I won’t have much to add here.
*. So: take one comic-book or video-game franchise. In this case it’s a comic book that debuted in the ’90s about a hitman who is infused with nanites that give him superhuman strength. Cast one action star. Vin Diesel, check. Throw in plenty of rapid-cut action sequences with lots of CGI work where the hero gets to show off his super powers. Finally: get a sequel in the works. Done and done.
*. There’s not much to add because Bloodshot doesn’t add anything, and I mean not one single thing, to the formula. Plus Vin Diesel, while not much of an actor, doesn’t even get a chance to project any charm (which is something he is at least capable of). His best moment here comes in a visit to his ex-girlfriend, and that only lasts for a few seconds. Meanwhile Guy Pearce is only passable as a villain who checks the boxes for being a rich techie CEO. Just kill him already.
*. The plot is actually a bit complicated, involving our hero (just what is his name anyway? let me check . . . Ray Garrison) being implanted with false memories along with the cocktail of nanites. A complicated plot, but in no way interesting. After the first couple of fight scenes I stopped paying attention to what was going on. But to be fair, those fight scenes, and some of the big stunts (especially a couple of the car crashes), aren’t bad. And they’re probably all you came for anyway.
*. I had to wonder why, given the fact that Ray can punch right through heavy bags, human bodies, and cement pillars, mere bulletproof glass should be some insurmountable problem. I mean, bulletproof glass doesn’t stop everything. I mentioned this point already in my notes on Savages. But maybe this is special glass made out of titanium nanites. Or, you know, something.
*. Ray (or Bloodshot) also has a remarkably casual attitude toward taking bullets in his new, superhuman state. This struck me as a bit odd given that being shot does drain his power supply somewhat so he shouldn’t just be charging straight into hails of bullets like he does. But then I suppose there’s no real point asking such questions of a movie like this.
*. Formula and cliché from start to finish. I had to laugh when the one character says “You don’t need a history to have a future.” That’s pure comic-book dialogue. Then I saw that somebody thought this was so clever that they put it on the theatrical release poster (changing “history” to “past”). Well, why not. If you like those kinds of lines then chances are you’re in the target audience. You’ll also want to stick around right to the very end, where our heroes leave us with the line “Who we were doesn’t have to define who we’re gonna be. We can choose. We all can.” Where would we be without the wisdom of comic books?

Fantasy Island (2020)

*. If you’ve been reading these notes long enough you know I have a thing for bunching movies together. Not because I want to clap everything into a genre shell, but because movies are made out of other movies and I want to get the comparisons right since that plays a big part in how they’re to be judged.
*. So in the first place this is another movie looking to cash in on a name TV show from back in the day when people watched network television. So it joins titles like The A-Team (2010), CHIPS (2017), and Baywatch (2017). I don’t remember watching Fantasy Island very much when I was younger, but I did get the sense here that they were really diverging from the spirit of the original.
*. Which brings us to a second basket, signaled by the full title of the movie: Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island. This lets us know that it’s coming to us courtesy of the highly profitable horror factory, giving you some idea of the direction it’s going to take. These fantasies will be nightmares.
*. Alas, the Blumhouse name may be in the title but there’s none of the Blumhouse magic. That should come as no surprise, since the creative team — director Jeff Wadlow, co-screenwriters Wadlow, Chris Roach, and Jillian Jacobs, and star Lucy Hale — all came here directly from Truth or Dare, one of Blumhouse’s worst productions. I can’t say I’m looking forward to their next effort.
*. But while both these labels (TV-show movie, Blumhouse production) apply, I thought Fantasy Island had more in common with another genre of film I’ve talked about previously. This is the simulacrum movie, one where reality turns into a plastic environment where nothing is in fact real. These movies kicked off in a big way with The Matrix, The Truman Show, and Dark City, but with advances in CGI and the coming dominance of video games as a form of popular entertainment they have really taken over.
*. I’m thinking of such virtual-reality movies as Ready Player One and Serenity, though the aesthetic is also a big part of the action genre in movies like the John Wick franchise and even horror, as we saw in It Chapter One and Two (the latter film being very much in play here, with Mr. Roarke in the role of Pennywise).
*. But the simulacrum is more than an aesthetic. Virtual reality, by erasing reality, drains these films of meaning. Even death has no sting because you may have an extra life to use in the game, or you can just imagine yourself alive again. Nothing ever ends; the game is simply reset.
*. That’s operative in Fantasy Island as well, where the mythology of the island — a fountain in a cave that makes dreams and desires real, or “real” — is stretched at the end to finesse death itself. I mean, if JD comes back to life, can’t it only be as one of those tar-filled doppelgangers? In any event, everything and nothing is real. So who cares?
*. To try and cut this analysis short, I didn’t care for Fantasy Island on philosophical and aesthetic grounds. I also thought it was a lousy movie. Not quite as lousy as the critical consensus had it, but still pretty awful.
*. The idea had some promise, and I liked the way they tried to tie the different fantasies together. I also thought the way things kept moving around meant there were few dull spots. But at the same time there was nothing that caught my attention either. I kept anticipating something interesting was about to happen and being disappointed. But at least the anticipation part of it was fun.
*. I should add too that I was watching the unrated version on DVD. I wonder if there’s anyone who watches the theatrical version on a DVD if they’re given a choice between theatrical and unrated. I’m not sure why they would.
*. I like Michael Peña, which is why it’s so hard to see him being used like this. Mr. Roarke should be a great part, but what they do to the character here makes him a hopeless character. With all that’s going on in this movie did they really need to give Roarke a back story too? One this uninteresting?
*. As usual with a Blumhouse movie the budget was tiny so it made money. It’s a shame that given this material they couldn’t have come up with a more intelligent script though. How awful is it that when the gang enter the cave they simply all decide to wander off on their own? Couldn’t they have come up with something a little better than that? Or something that made a more sense in terms of how the hydraulics of the fantasies actually worked?
*. But then, none of these virtual reality movies have to make sense because sense is a criterion that only belongs to the world of naturalism, of cause and effect, life and death. This is twenty-first century cinema. This is fantasy island.

The Invisible Man (2020)

*. H. G. Wells’ The Invisible Man has proven to be one of the most plastic figures in pop culture. He (or sometimes she) has been capable of being played as villain (even monster), victim, and figure of fun. More recently he’s become more of a comic-book character, with invisibility being a super power. In short, he’s culturally adaptable.
*. This final point leads in to the story of this movie’s development. It was originally planned as being part of Universal’s Dark Universe series, with Johnny Depp playing the Invisible Man. That idea got scrapped along with the rest of the Dark Universe when The Mummy didn’t pan out. Instead Jason Blum got interested and the film became more like another product in the house style of American horror. Or Blumhouse style, more accurately.
*. That style is something I’ve talked about before, and its put on full display here by Leigh Whannell, whose directorial debut had been Insidious: Chapter 3. Since the invisible man this time out is, for most intents and purposes, a ghost, the movie plays the same way as many of the ghost stories of this period (Paranormal Activity, Insidious, The Conjuring/Annabelle, etc.). Lots of slow pans, long shots held on nothing, and a use of the frame to suggest some presence either off to one side or lurking behind the protagonist.
*. Whannell was well aware of this, mentioning on the DVD commentary how there are “a lot of shots in this movie of nothing,” or negative space. He also talks of “weaponizing an audience’s knowledge of movies against them,” which is to say playing with expectations that the genre naturally raises.
*. In all this we have a movie that feels a lot like a standard Blumhouse ghost story. It even has the low budget of most of their productions, coming in at a remarkable $7 million (and returning over $130 million in box office — even with a pandemic shutting cinemas down, practically guaranteeing a sequel). But there’s also a drift toward Universal’s original idea of something more like a comic book. Even the invisibility here is the result of a slimy tech billionaire (is there any other kind?) inventing a suit that looks like a superhero costume, in a lab that looks like Christopher Nolan’s version of the bat cave.
*. This part of the movie I found less interesting, though I guess on some level all genre filmmaking blends together. After all, Whannell’s Saw collaborator James Wan directed Aquaman. Whannell didn’t want to make a superhero movie here though and I think he plays the material better to his strengths.
*. I really enjoyed Whannell’s commentary. It’s one of the better recent ones I’ve listened to. Directors aren’t always that good talking about their own work (or just talking in general). Whannell is great though, up there with John Waters, Herschell Gordon Lewis, and Eli Roth.

*. I didn’t mind that the science was never explained very well, though Whannell does go into more depth on the commentary. I guess I sort of got the general principle involved in how the suit operated. What bothered me more was how that ginormous fancy house was just sitting empty for so long after Adrian’s death. I assume Adrian’s brother was in charge of the upkeep and feeding the dog, but that still seemed really strange to me.
*. I also spent a lot of time wondering about how Adrian was staying so close to Cecilia in the hospital. He even stays locked up in her room with her? Would it be that hard for her to find him then? And how would he not be showing up on the hospital’s security cameras? It’s a “Secure Treatment Center” so that means they have cops with guns but no cameras?
*. In his defence, Whannell says there are no plot holes because everything made sense in his head, and if it doesn’t make sense to critics, “too fucking bad!” But he says that in a nice way.
*. There are various angles that play to current anxieties. There’s the theme of surveillance, from the cameras in Adrian’s pad (but not in the hospital) to the way he’s always watching or stalking Cecilia. There’s the gaslighting of the girl, which gives the movie the feel of Gone Girl with the genders reversed. And of course there’s the woman who fights back against her abusive partner. This is an invisible man movie that’s really not about invisibility or the man.
*. Given the nature of today’s gender politics this latter line is hard to play and win. Here’s Adrian Martin with one negative take: “The Invisible Man, like a bunch of current movies, opportunistically presents itself as a bold statement for the era of Me Too (blablabla) – a feminist revenge tale (dig that final, assertive, Handmaid’s Tale into-camera gaze), rising up against all obstacles, all systemic disbelief in the heroine’s experience! But, in doing so, it also – almost inevitably – wimps out on other levels. A horror film about an unseeable patriarchal monster that has no sexual violence (at all) in it: unbelievable! Weak as a story on its own, internal terms; and especially weak as a cultural gesture – too politically correct by half (for once, the silly ex-fad term seems to be the exactly right one).”
*. Fair? For me, this Invisible Man is a popcorn movie and I don’t think it was really trying to cash in on any political points. Gone Girl was a popcorn movie too, but perhaps a bit more cynical about these matters.
*. Judged on the popcorn scale I think it’s a success. It moves very well, which helps with the predictable story. The two-hour running time doesn’t drag. Elisabeth Moss is solid as the bedraggled heroine, even though it’s a one-note performance. No part of it is all that interesting, we’re talking genre filmmaking 101 here, but the combination of different elements work well together and Whannell shows that he knows what he’s doing.