Category Archives: 2020s

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.

The Social Dilemma (2020)

*. A blog is a form of social media, so I guess I’m as guilty as anyone in the triumph of our new digital overlords since I’ve been doing this for over twenty years. Still, I take some comfort and pride in not being on Facebook, and not having LinkedIn or Instagram accounts. I’ve also railed enough, in print and online, on the ill effects of the digital revolution. So a documentary like The Social Dilemma was both preaching to a convert as well as covering a lot of ground I was already familiar with. Still, I’m glad it’s here, as I don’t think we can have enough warnings about what’s going on.
*. What’s going on is something more than just data mining, or the selling of users’ identity to advertisers as the real “product” of social media. I think we all know about that. Instead, as tech guru Jaron Lanier puts it in what I thought the film’s most insightful comment, the endgame is the transformation of the individual through the manipulation of their fears and anxieties, wants and needs. Big Tech (or Big Data) don’t just want to know more about us, they want to remake us into better (that is better conditioned, more submissive and reliable) consumers.
*. This transformation is achieved through social media tapping into our need for connection, the product of millions of years of evolution, and providing dopamine hits that addict us to their ceaseless tide of highs (likes and shares and up-votes). One can instantly relate to the dramatic vignette here of the teenage girl breaking into the lockbox that her mother has put her cell phone into. I’ve seen fathers have to wrestle their daughters to the floor to pry phones from their grasp. The addiction is real.
*. I should say something more about these dramatized scenes as they’re the main way The Social Dilemma differentiates itself from the usual sort of talking-head documentary. I’ve heard some people complain about the way the experiences of one family with cell phones is used to illustrate the ideas expressed by the various experts being interviewed, but I didn’t mind the change of gears. I thought they were well integrated with the rest of the movie, and helped to break things up a bit.
*. My only complaint was that having Vincent Kartheiser play the different aspects of the AI puppetmaster was misleading. There really isn’t a human face behind the AI of the tech giants, only the operation of various algorithms that are now mostly beyond human understanding and perhaps even human control. Not that making money is some absolute end that the directors of big tech didn’t always have in mind. It’s not like the money mill is some experiment that got out of hand, which is how it’s sometimes presented.
*. As the talking heads (mostly former executives from the big tech companies) point out, it’s not that the technology is evil but that it has its own agenda (making money) that is independent of, and indeed indifferent to, human welfare. A Fitbit watch isn’t designed to improve health, but to monitor us. Whether we get healthier by using it, or drop dead, doesn’t really matter to Google. In much the same way, if lies and disinformation move faster on the Internet, and thus drive more traffic and make more money, then that’s what the platforms are going to provide more of. They’re not interested in spreading lies per se, they just don’t care about the truth.
*. Put another way, the main interviewee here is Tristan Harris, ex-Google ethicist and co-founder of a group called the Center for Humane Society. But is it even possible to imagine a humane Internet now? That seems almost like an oxymoron.
*. I’m freestyling here, but that’s what a movie like this is meant to encourage. It helps that I’m in broad agreement with the points being made. My own take is that the Internet hasn’t created any of the problems itemized here — depression, anxiety, addiction, political polarization — but only made them worse by amplifying and exacerbating them.
*. I also don’t see the process being reversed. As is often the case in such documentaries the producers try to end things on an optimistic note, but here it seems particularly forced. Everyone is aware that in a fight between a divided and often oblivious citizenry on one side and ever more powerful AIs collecting ever larger troves of data, all backed by the world’s largest and most profitable corporations on the other, humanity has a huge handicap.
*. In many ways I think the situation is even bleaker than represented here. With the focus mainly on social media, things like online gaming, gambling, and pornography aren’t even mentioned, for example. And too much emphasis is put on Facebook, which is just one player, albeit a big one. Also, the domestic drama suggests, I think misleadingly, that the impact is greatest with young people. While that’s the demographic I feel sorriest for — their brains are being fried, and they’re never going to get them back — my own experience is that the parental (and even grandparental) generations are in this mess just as deep. It’s just that we can still remember a better time.
*. A dilemma? I guess there are trade-offs. Harris mentions Uber as being one of the blessings of the new world order. And someone else mentions the old line about how grandparents are getting to chat with their grandchildren on Facetime now. The price of all this, however, may be incalculable.

The Grudge (2020)

*. Much better than I thought it was going to be. Of course I was expecting it to be terrible given how badly it was panned by reviewers, but even so.
*. But first off: what exactly is it? The original intention was to make a sequel to the American Grudge franchise but The Grudge 3 had done poorly and then the project got stuck in development for a decade, so by the time they got the wheels rolling again the idea was to do a “sidequel.” This is an ugly, terrible word that apparently just means spin-off.
*. So the first few minutes here present us with a passing of the baton from Kayako to the woman who will become her American avatar, Fiona Landers (Tara Westwood). The actual curse and haunted house in this movie will be related to the original, but effectively they’re starting out a new franchise. Albeit one that operates in pretty much the exact same way as the old. A gloomy little boy is replaced by Wednesday Addams.
*. This all seems kind of awkward to me, but I’m not sure how else they could have played things and still have this be a Grudge film. They had to get out of Japan somehow and this is the kludge they came up with.
*. It’s now a J-horror movie with American characteristics. Because the main protagonist is a cop we see more guns, even if they don’t have any use. There’s also more of a sense of can-do as far as fighting the ghosts goes. Depending on which ending you watch the hero may even be successful in defeating the curse. At least she gets to burn the house down.
*. Though if you really want to burn a house down, would you just take a jerry can of gasoline and start splashing it around the front hall and up the stairs? Is that the best way to do it? Wouldn’t you try to start it in a particular place where there was a lot of fuel (that is, something in the house that’s likely to burn)?
*. Nicolas Pesce must have seemed like an obvious choice to direct, a horror up-and-comer after The Eyes of My Mother and Piercing, movies that had been clearly influenced by J-horror. On the other hand, Pesce’s self-defined wheelhouse is cultish, alternative fare so he might not have been the right person to tab for a franchise instalment.

*. In any event, what surprises me here is that the scary parts (aside from the few jump scares, which I liked) are the weakest. Maybe it’s the CGI flies. CGI doesn’t do flies well (see my notes on The Haunting of Sharon Tate). Or maybe it’s the way the odd splashes of violence seem sort of anti-climactic. Poor Lin Shaye, after hunting all those ghosts in the Insidious franchise, just whacking her head on a handrail in a stairwell on the way down. Brutal sure, but scary? Or cutting her fingers off? Well, does she suffer from dementia or not?
*. What saves the movie for me are the two leads. I’d seen Andrea Riseborough in a few other things, but she’d never registered much outside of Oblivion. She should have stood out in Mandy, but didn’t (at least for me). But here she’s great as a haunted single-mom, basically carrying the whole movie on her shoulders. Demián Bichir is like some kind of gruff alien only doing Earth patrols. He should be ridiculous but somehow he fits with the sodium-lit surroundings. With his character’s obvious distaste for a routine of showering and shaving, and Muldoon’s dirty blonde mousey-do, tats, and general appearance of emaciation, you get the sense they were trying out for a season of True Detective: Ghost Protocol.
*. Riseborough and Bichir make the film watchable, and there are moments that aren’t half bad. I definitely thought it better than it was made out to be by critics. But in the end it’s still too creaky with bits and pieces that don’t fit together, a problem that goes back to the question of exactly what sort of a movie it wanted to be. Remake? Reboot? Sequel? No, “sidequel.” So a little bit of everything. Even a bit at the end (of the American release version) that is a straight steal from Dark Water. Why? I guess they wanted more J-horror in there somehow.
*. It felt to me like they just weren’t sure what they were doing. A feeling reinforced by the fact that the movie was actually released with different endings. What they wound up with is neither fish nor fowl, but a domestic-international hybrid that thrashes around for a while before fizzling out. I’m hoping this is the end.

Brahms: The Boy II (2020)

*. I actually liked The Boy, at least more than I had expected I would, but I didn’t think they’d be making another. Though, as I said in my notes, the ending left at least the theoretical possibility of a sequel. I just didn’t think there was any real demand for it, as the box office return hadn’t been great.
*. Well, I guess someone crunched the numbers and so here we are. Or maybe they looked at the money train Annabelle had turned into and figured they wanted some of that cheddar. That seems more likely given how Brahms (the doll) is given a whole new back story or mythology here that suggests he’s ready to be franchised. In the original, as you’ll recall, the doll was nothing special and the evil force was just a crazy guy with a burned face who lived in the walls of the mansion. In this movie, however, it turns out that the doll really is an evil spirit. Or something.
*. I’ve talked a lot in these notes about the role expectations play in our response to any movie. Since I’m also a contrarian by nature a lot of hype usually leads to a let-down for me, but I just as frequently find something good even in a movie that bombed or was panned. In the case of Brahms, however, I have to say that it’s just as lousy as advertised.
*. The same writer-director team (Stacey Menear and William Brent Bell, respectively) reunited for this one, and they at least had a decent, if unremarkable, initial premise. A boy and his mother, both traumatized by a home break-in, move with their father to a place out in the country. Specifically the guest house on the massive estate that was the haunted mansion in The Boy. There the son, Jude (Christopher Convery, whose hairdo was making me feel ill), digs up the Brahms doll, which then proceeds to possess him.
*. That might have worked, but it goes nowhere here, despite a game performance by Katie Holmes as the mother, Liza. The problem is, there are just no new ideas in all this. The big twist I already mentioned, that Brahms really is demonic, is itself only a swerve that’s taken to make him more marketable.
*. But here’s the problem: if you’d seen The Boy (and if you hadn’t I don’t know why you’d be watching this) then you’d be assuming the “real” Brahms was still the one behind everything and that little things like Brahms turning his head were all Liza’s imagination. So there’s none of that “is he, or isn’t he?” vibe going on. Then, when we do get to the end, it comes totally out of left field and it seems like everyone (the producers included) has gone insane. Reading some of the reviews I wasn’t surprised to find myself with plenty of company in thinking some kind of horror-parody was intended. But no such luck.
*. No suspense. A flat, clichéd manner. A handful of cheap jump scares. It all adds up to a boring cash grab of a sequel that I don’t think anyone really wanted. Given how badly it flopped one hopes this will be the end.