Category Archives: 2020s

Breach (2020)

*. I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again here now: Thank goodness for low expectations! I thought Breach was pretty much going to be a total piece of crap and . . . it is. So points for not being disappointing!
*. Another disposable entry in the strange, almost after-career of Bruce Willis. Does he need the money this bad? In his Between Two Ferns interview Zach Galifianakis even asks him at one point if he knows that some actors turn parts down.
*. Whatever the motivation, Bruce keeps working at a huge number of crap projects. Breach was one of only three movies he appeared in in 2020. I say “only” because he’d appeared in five in 2019 (well, one was as a cameo voice in The Lego Movie 2) and six in 2021. The man likes to work.
*. None of this seems to affect his status as an icon though. He’s obviously just mailing his performances in, but that’s what people know and expect. Indeed it’s what they like about Bruce. They want to see him laid back and cracking some droll jokes about whatever’s going on. He’s cinematic comfort food. As he is again here.
*. So, Breach. What they did here was they took all the basic ingredients from various horror movies set on spaceships, stuck them in a blender, and voila! A space-horror smoothie without a single original thought behind it. Does that mean it’s bad? Not necessarily. Because let’s face it, if you’re here for Bruce then you’re probably not here for something different or challenging. You’re here for that comfort food.
*. You know the drill, or at least you should by now. There’s a spaceship full of the usual assortment of mixed nuts and bolts. Some soldiers. Some doctors. Some mechanics. And a pair of janitors. Except neither of the janitors is really a janitor.
*. A deadly alien gets on board and starts infecting the crew, basically turning their insides into black goo while transforming them into zombies. The heroes run away, and fight, and then run away, and then have to kill the mother alien (for lack of a better name), and get to an escape pod while there’s a countdown going on in the background telling them when the ship is going to explode. T-minus one minute, kids! Time to hustle!
*. That’s right, it’s crap. And it isn’t helped by the fact that it’s done on a budget, requiring the use of the same old corridor sets and sliding doors that we’ve seen a thousand times, as well as some below-grade CGI. The story is just the same template that’s been used countless times, sprinkled with lines as familiar as those smoky corridors. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” Bruce says as the disintegrated body of the alien begins to recompose itself. Then when it does take its final shape he calls it an “ugly motherfucker.” That’s gold! Or how about the scene where he pulls out his converted flamethrower and says to the zombies “Who wants barbecue?” Damn, that’s screenwriting!

*. So it’s lots of Alien. And The Thing. And Life. And even Leprechaun 4: In Space. The acting, outside of Bruce (who isn’t really “acting”) is abysmal. Cody Kearsley, who badly needs a haircut, just isn’t working as the romantic lead, and nobody else is doing any better. Continuity errors, which I normally don’t care about, are quite jarring in the editing. The plot doesn’t really make any sense, with the instigating event coming about because another one of those jaded environmental types who see humanity as a disease has decided to pull the plug on the species. Enough of this character already!
*. At some point I have to think that they just stopped trying. The movie doesn’t even make any internal sense. Why is there such a big deal made about waking the Admiral up from cryosleep (which is as easily achieved as tapping on the glass of his cryo-pod), when he and his space marines are of no use at all when it comes to fighting the zombies? Did Kearsley not tell them that guns were no use against them? Because that’s a bit of information that might have helped.
*. Actually it’s not just guns that are useless. Flamethrowers, lasers, and even grenades don’t do much against these particular zombies. (Nor does setting off explosives inside the spaceship do anything to damage said spaceship.) Our janitor heroes, however, have an ace up their sleeve with some industrial-strength cleaning solution that is as strong as Xenomorph blood. This actually made me smile, as it took me back some thirty-plus years to my own stint (I’m not proud) occasionally cleaning washrooms at a public park. When faced with one intractable stain I had an experienced crew hand give me a bottle with no label other than a skull-and-crossbones on it, saying “This will take care of anything.” And it did! I still don’t know what it was, but it was obviously a useful chemical to have around.
*. How any of this works is beyond me. Somehow they rig their guns into giant supersoakers so they can spray the zombies with chemicals, which sadly isn’t as much fun as it sounds since we don’t get to see any zombies melting. I can’t help thinking Willis’s salary was more than the rest of the film’s budget. So forget about any cool effects.
*. As with the editing gaps so with skips in the plot. Why does the chemical work so well against the zombies but doesn’t do anything against the mother alien? Until, that is, it does? And how the hell are the zombies punching dents into a steel door that looks at least six-inches thick with their bare hands? Come on, people.
*. Well, it’s stupid. And the final scene is just the stupid icing on the stupid cake. But it’s what I was expecting, which means that if you’re in the mood for this kind of fare (read: brainless, low-budget crap about alien zombies on a spaceship) then it will deliver just what you’re looking for.

Host (2020)

*. In my notes on Searching I raised an eyebrow at the new genre of “computer-screen film.” I shouldn’t have been surprised about this development though, as so much of our time is spent staring into screens these days, and a lot of the look of such movies is a pretty natural development from the found-footage genre.
*. Enter COVID-19 in 2020, and a prolonged lockdown, and a Zoom-movie was pretty much inevitable as the next step. So much so that the creators here (director Rob Savage and co-writers Jed Shepherd and Gemma Hurley) wanted to move quickly before anyone else struck (as they eventually would). Luckily, such a concept doesn’t take a whole lot of production (the actors came up with their own stunts), and with only an hour to fill they were able to get it all wrapped up in only twelve weeks.
*. The idea here is that a group of young people hold a séance online and a real demon is accidentally summoned. This leads to the usual scary hijinks. And when I say “the usual” I really mean it. There is nothing here that hasn’t been seen many times before. There’s a trip to investigate some bumping noises in the attic (this was the original germ of the film, a staged bit of foolery that Savage did on a group chat that became a viral joke). There are people being dragged screaming backwards. There are footprints appearing in flour thrown on the floor. There’s the demon revealed by the use of a camera flash in a dark hallway. (And if you’re wondering why Haley doesn’t use a flashlight or her phone’s flashlight function instead of the flashbulbs in her camera . . . well, I’m not the one to ask.)
*. Basically Host draws on the whole found-footage tradition, from The Blair Witch Project to Paranormal Activity. The fact that it’s a Zoom meeting is the only curve, and even that isn’t all that new as there’d been horror films before that made use of video chats going awry.

*. That said, I liked Host. It doesn’t do anything new, but what it does do it does well. The cast in particular really stand out. Haley Bishop and Jemma Moore (as Haley and Jemma respectively) are excellent at showing a sense of growing concern. I particularly like the way Jemma pulls her hoodie up as though she’s in bed pulling a sheet over her head. That’s a nice bit of business. And everyone sells their part only using their faces. Not a lot of space for body acting in a Zoom movie!
*. I don’t know how much of the script was improvised. But when the gang tell the girl going into the attic that “we’re right here,” meaning right here online watching her, it struck me as unintentionally comic. That’s not a big help! And every found-footage or shaky-cam movie has the same problem that arrives with the point in the movie where you have to ask “why are they still filming this?” but here it gets taken to a bit of an extreme as the girls carry their laptops around with them everywhere.
*. You know the jump scares are coming, but they still work. And in fact everything here works pretty well. I only wish there’d been a bit more wit and invention. The end credits are perhaps the cleverest I’ve ever seen, and made me wish they’d come up with some more interesting stuff in the rest of the film. But I can’t knock Host for doing what it sets out to do quite effectively. It doesn’t break any ground, or have anything at all to say about the experience of lockdown, but it’s a nice little scary movie to watch on your tablet in the dark.

Tenet (2020)

*. There’s a scene in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me where Basil (Michael York) tells Austin not to bother worrying about the mechanics of time travel. “I suggest you don’t worry about those things and just enjoy yourself,” he says, before turning to the camera and saying to the audience “That goes for you all, too.”
*. Advice worth heeding when watching any time-travel movie. Despite that warning though, and despite writer-director Christopher Nolan’s admission that he wasn’t making any case for scientific accuracy in this film, and despite the scientist who just shows up to give us the basics before telling the Protagonist “Don’t try to understand it,” plenty of people have approached Tenet as a problem to be solved, a puzzle to be decoded.
*. Making sense of Tenet is impossible, but I don’t want to suggest that the people who put so much effort into mapping it out are idiots. Trying to figure things out is one of the big attractions of movies like this. Personally, I felt lost from the start. I didn’t understand how objects could be inverted within a universe where the laws of physics were all going the other way. I didn’t understand why anyone who’d been inverted would experience some things going backward but not others. I mean, the whole universe would be going in reverse, the whole film playing back. Depending, that is, on one’s frame of reference, if there is a frame of reference. I didn’t understand the logistics of the “temporal pincer” at all. And while I accept that the Algorithm was a Macguffin, I couldn’t see why it had to take such an industrial form. Aside from turning it into the kind of thing you could carry around, which it needs to be in order to make the plot work.
*. That said, I was on board for Tenet, at least for the first little bit. We start off with Nolan in full James Bond mode. A terrorist attack on the Kiev Opera House. An attempted break-in to a high-security storage facility in Oslo, achieved by piloting a jet into its back wall. A fight in half-backward motion. I was grooving to the concept, even if I didn’t understand a lick of it, and was suitably slack-jawed at all the money dripping off the production.
*. But Tenet is a movie that gets smaller as it goes along. We hit the first slowdown with the introduction of the Bond villain, a Russian oligarch named Sator played by Kenneth Branagh. Sator is, I’m afraid, an almost unimaginably dull character, made even more dour by Branagh’s ridiculous performance. I don’t know if his Russian accent was made worse by his determination not to move his lips when he’s talking. I have to think Nolan told him to play the part restrained, but the bottom line is that he’s a total bore. He sails around the world in a giant yacht. He does stupid rich-person things like race catamarans. He says stupid rich-person things to his wife like “If I can’t have you, no one can!” This movie needed a good villain and they really struck out here.
*. Even his nefarious plot has become a cliché. Sator is only the latest in a long, long line of bad guys looking to destroy the world in order to save it from environmental catastrophe (though the motivation here actually comes from people in the future and Sator is only their tool). I guess Nolan had to come up with some threat to life as we know it and this is what first came to hand. Apparently saving the planet has become firmly established in Hollywood’s mind as equivalent to mad schemes to exterminate the human race. Think Zobrist in Inferno, Valentine in Kingsman: The Secret Service, Dr. Isaacs in Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, and Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War. I can’t say I like the politics here.

*. Then there’s the action. I mean, this is a Bond movie in all but name. But despite the resources behind it I found the action and stunts inferior to the latest entries in the Bond, Fast & Furious, Mission: Impossible, and John Wick franchises. Basically Tenet only has one new thing to show us, the forward-backward business, and once we get used to that after the first fight then it’s shot its bolt. That’s the only card they have to play. I didn’t find cars flipping back onto the road or explosions playing in reverse to be all that interesting, or even interesting at all.
*. Characters? The name of the Protagonist tells you all you need to know there. He’s a blank. I like John David Washington here, but he doesn’t have any particular identity. There’s a Bond girl played by Elizabeth Debicki who he has even less chemistry with than Bond has with his pick-ups, so the plot seems totally unmotivated. The Protagonist is trying to save the world and he lets himself get sidetracked saving the life of a woman he barely knows. Robert Pattinson is a bright spot, but as he remains a mysterious figure until the end we can’t invest that much in him. Sator, as I’ve said, is a total bore. Michael Caine shows up to . . . well, he shows up.
*. Actually, Caine’s unnecessary appearance underlines a problem I had with the movie, and with Nolan more generally. If I were a producer or head of a studio this is a guy I would run away from. Yes, he makes movies that are very successful, but he’s got a real problem with spending money. The problem being that he likes to spend it. He likes to spend a lot of it, and for no other purpose but to spend a lot of money. I mentioned the racing catamarans. Why is there a scene with racing catamarans? I don’t know. The whole scene had no purpose at all. But it’s the kind of thing you get in a Bond movie so they threw it in.
*. Put another way, this movie had a budget of $200 million and I think it would have been better with a budget of $20 million. There’s a whole lot of expensive stuff going on here that it doesn’t need, where what it’s really lacking is more intensity and a clearer sense of what’s going on. As I’ve said, there are people who like to explain, or try to explain, the ending. But the fact is that when you’re watching the ending I don’t think it’s possible to have any clear idea of what is happening. This makes it very hard to care, beyond being basically cognizant of the fact that there’s a bomb and a countdown and they have to grab the Macguffin before time’s up. It would have been a lot more compelling if we’d known what the hell any of it meant, or if any of it mattered. Because given the way the time-travel stuff is presented I wasn’t sure any of it did matter, either at the end or the beginning.
*. Christopher Nolan is considered to be one of the most talented directors working today. I think Memento may be his best movie so far. This helps underline what I mean by more not always being more. I mean, Inception was bloated and overrated, but it had its impressive moments and at times became sort of interesting. But did Nolan really need to spend this much money, not to mention five, or in some reports 20 years working on the screenplay here? For some bog-standard Bond shenanigans implanted with a bit of time-flipping nonsense? What was he spending all that time thinking about? Or was he just scouting locations and imagining yachts, and wind farms, and catamarans?

Promising Young Woman (2020)

*. A highly touted picture that received near universal critical adulation and lots of award nominations, Promising Young Woman is one of the bigger disappointments I’ve had in the last little while.
*. Essentially it’s a rape-revenge fantasy for the #MeToo generation, only different from other examples of its kind, going back over fifty years now, by the currency of its references and being bootstrapped into a rom-com. There’s also a bit of a twist at the end, but not much of one and the fact that it’s a twist only underscores how stale the rest of it is.
*. Carey Mulligan plays Cassie, who dropped out of med school and started working in a coffee shop after her classmate and best friend Nina was gang raped by a bunch of fellow med students. It’s implied, I think, that Nina committed suicide at some point after this traumatic event, so now Cassie is taking her revenge on men by pretending to get drunk at local clubs and then letting guys pick her up and take her home, where she may kill them or let them go depending on how nice they are. If her murder journal is any indication she seems to be one of the most prolific serial killers in history, but presumably she’s discreet as the police don’t appear to be after her. Or maybe she isn’t killing anyone. The movie is surprisingly silent about what’s actually going on. Perhaps she’s just leaving her dates high and dry.
*. So, continuing with a bit of exposition, some years later Ryan (Bo Burnham), a former classmate of Cassie’s, walks into her coffee shop and falls in love. This gives Cassie the idea of getting a more specific revenge on the actual guys who raped Nina. One wonders why she hadn’t thought of that before. Or thought of the fact that her sweetie pie Ryan might not be so innocent himself. I didn’t give a spoiler alert for that twist because it’s so obvious from the get-go it doesn’t count as a twist. At least not for me.
*. There are a lot of things holding Promising Young Woman back. In the first place they seem to have been trying to get a PG rating because there’s nothing shocking or violent about it at all. I was surprised when I checked and saw that it was actually rated R. For what? According to the advisory warning: “Strong violence including sexual assault, language throughout, some sexual material and drug use.” Strong violence? There’s one murder at the end, but it’s no more than what you get at the end of any production of Othello. The drug use is one comic scene of a guy snorting coke. Language? On the commentary track writer-director Emerald Fennell says the line “That’s a kick in the cunt” was one of the things that led to an R rating. Really?
*. Now I can certainly respect Fennell’s desire not to go the exploitation route here and show . . . well, show anything even mildly upsetting. But doesn’t packaging all of this in a PG box undercut the story just a bit? What does Cassie really do to her dates? She’s actually quite forgiving when it comes to the people she holds responsible for Nina’s death. And come to think of it, what exactly happened to Nina? I guess we’re left to just imagine the worst, but to leave out the evidence for what was a case that we know was lost at court also undercuts the message a bit by leaving the actual crime ambiguous. If we saw the video, would we see what Cassie sees? Does she seem stable enough to be trusted?
*. That may seem like I’m taking a stand against our promising young woman, but I’m not sure why Fennell leaves this ambiguous, or even if she thought it ambiguous. Take the scene where Cassie smashes in the lights and windshield of the pick-up truck. This is because she had fallen asleep at the wheel and her car was blocking the road. The truck’s driver pulls up alongside her and he yells at her, which causes her to wake up and smash his truck with a tire iron (to the soaring strains of Wagner’s Liebestod). On the commentary Fennell seems to think this was justified. Haven’t we all wanted to do that to someone who yells at us, she asks. But surely Cassie is in the wrong here. If the truck driver had been a cop she probably would have received a fine. So are we really meant to be on her side?
*. Another way of looking at this is that in the mixture of tones that went into this movie, the rom-com elements won out. This was bad news for me, as I’m more a fan of violent psychological thrillers than I am of rom-coms. When Fennell said that Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind” is her favourite song of all time on the commentary track I took a double take. Not that it’s a bad bit of ear candy, but because I didn’t even know Paris Hilton knew how to sing. That’s how far out of the target demographic I am. Though the soft ending can’t be blamed on Fennell, as it was insisted on by the studio because leaving us off with Cassie’s cremation was thought to be too bleak.
*. Fennell won an Oscar for her screenplay. I don’t like it at all. There are no memorable lines. The plot is filled with weird improbabilities that seem to take it into the realm of fantasy (or rom-com fantasy). Just to instigate a basic turn in the action Madison (Alison Brie) has to show up and give Cassie a video of Nina’s rape. Why does she (still) have this? Why does she give it to Cassie? Why does she give it to her now? Just because that’s what the plot demands.
*. If the script feels like fantasy, and it does, that’s something that’s further assisted by the set design. I made notes on this as I was watching, which is a bad thing because usually if you’re noticing set design then it’s not for a good reason. Here I was thinking that the coffee shop didn’t look at all like a coffee shop and the pharmacy not like a pharmacy and the homes and apartments not like any space that people actually lived in. All the more strange that Fennell goes out of her way to compliment the set dressing in her commentary, and how she insisted on giving it a more “cluttered” and realistic look. Cluttered? The kitchen set in Cassie’s parents’ house, which she specifically sites as being cluttered, looks pristine. The other homes and apartments look like they’ve just been professionally cleaned and staged for an open house. I didn’t see any clutter at all.
*. Another big weakness with the script is the way all of Cassie’s enemies are presented as stereotypes. They’re just there to spout off some misogynist, rape-apologist lines before crumbling before Cassie’s steely determination and empowered female gaze. As I said in my notes on Black Christmas: “This is a #MeToo film that’s all about the oppressiveness of the patriarchy and rape culture and cancel culture and toxic masculinity (symbolized by the black goo that turns clean-cut kids into alpha male monsters). I don’t think this was a bad idea, but it just gets laid on so thick that you start to feel that it’s the movie’s whole reason for being.” Well, ditto here. Which leads me to another question: Is this a better movie than Black Christmas? Even a better #MeToo movie? I don’t think so. And I didn’t think all that much of Black Christmas.
*. I mention Black Christmas, but there are a lot of other movies I was thinking of too. Let’s face it, if we’re embedded in a rape-revenge plot how can you not think of Zoë Lund putting her war paint on as Thana in Ms. 45 when you see Cassie doing her lipstick in the car’s sideview mirror? And is she Frigga from Thriller or Harley Quinn from Birds of Prey as she heads off for the final showdown at the bachelor party? Finally, I think it goes without saying that in her fetish nurse uniform she’s playing Asami from Audition at the end.
*. Not surprisingly, given the nature of most DVD commentaries, Fennell doesn’t mention any of these movies as sources or inspiration. Instead she points to a couple of borrowings from Night of the Hunter, to which I can’t see any connection here at all, and Fatal Attraction, which I would have thought cast Cassie in an even worse light.
*. Yes, Carey Mulligan is good. She plays against cuteness to do what she can to save the whole project. But there’s nothing new here and even by 2020 the #MeToo stuff was all starting to sound like clichés; clichés that are then watered down further by the intermixing with a rom-com plot, a deliberate vagueness in the presentation, and a fantasy setting. That Fennell and Mulligan are Brits may have played a bit into this latter point. This just doesn’t feel like America (Ohio, to be exact). Even Hollywood America.
*. The DVD box cover comes with this pull quote: “A game changing masterpiece” (no hyphen). I struggled to read the print underneath to make out who wrote this little gem. Apparently it comes from some website called We Live Entertainment. For what it’s worth, at least one review I found at this site, by Staci Wilson, was lukewarm: “I would have liked it even more if Promising Young Woman had either been a lot darker or much funnier. As it was, I felt vaguely unsatisfied as the credits rolled.” For some reason, this review still resulted in the movie getting a score of 8 out of 10. This is one of the curious ways the hype machine works. I mean, what do you have to do to get a 6 out of 10? Or a 4?
*. Just to be as critical of Promising Young Woman as I’ve been probably invites a charge of some kind of thoughtcrime, but at the end of the day I can’t see where this is a good movie. As Matt Lynch, in one of the rare dissenting voices, put it in his review, it’s a movie “built on a shaky foundation of cheap douchebro stereotypes, retread girl-power revenge tropes, and cheeky formal gimmicks.” Then, with studio intervention, it flubs the ending and only sends us off with just desserts and another ironic reuse of “Angel of the Morning.” Now that’s sad.

The Hunt (2020)

*. The idea that art can genuinely outrage people anymore is pretty much dead. Outrage itself has been co-opted and turned into marketing, a way of drawing eyeballs online or getting out the vote. This is a kind of bastard outrage or manufactured controversy, and I suppose it’s not surprising that it gained traction with The Hunt, which I found to be a rather innocuous bit of satire that was turned into a political football for reasons that I don’t think had a lot to do with its message. But Trump tweeted about it and that led to outrage and its release date got pushed back and then, by the time it came out (billing itself as “the most talked about movie of the year”), the world was going into lockdown and people had other things to worry about.
*. The basic concept is an old one, going back to The Most Dangerous Game and leading up to such modern instances as Battle Royale and The Hunger Games. A bunch of wealthy elites kidnap a dozen “deplorables” and drop them into a natural setting, where they proceed to hunt them as animals. Those labels (“elites” and “deplorables”) indicate the nature of the political satire. It’s red states against blue in a game of last man (or woman) standing. But do we really know what side everyone is on?

*. Though more than just shading red, our hero Crystal (codename Snowball) is ultimately revealed as not being solidly one side or the other, which reinforces the idea of not relying on first impressions while making her an ideal surrogate for the audience. But what does the invocation of Animal Farm mean? Is it all just a set-up for the punchline that Crystal has actually read it? I don’t see the connection. It’s suggested on the “making of” featurette that the end was supposed to show that Crystal was like one of the new class of pigs, dressing up and enjoying champagne and caviar on her private jet. But she’s clearly not an inheritor, like Beth at the end of Hostel: Part II (the Hostel movies being an obvious source here, especially with the Eastern European setting). And yet despite the lack of any connection, at least that I can see, Orwell keeps coming up throughout the film. Even the point of the pig in the box had me scratching my head.
*. Much of the satire was more obvious. And indeed one of the critiques leveled at The Hunt was that it was overly broad. To which I would like to respond “Compared to what?” I thought it worked well, mocking the different blue and red styles of speech to the point where they really do seem to be talking different languages. And I like how the confrontation at the end is presented as a showdown between two different truths, with the idea that the truth of the Manor had been constructed out of a false belief in it. “You wanted it to be true, so you decided it was.” That’s not a new thought, but it’s an important one in context, stretching from Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer to the followers of QAnon.

*. All of which is to say that I really enjoyed The Hunt. Betty Gilpin, who I’d seen in The Grudge but who hadn’t registered with me there, is terrific as Crystal. The script hits a nice balance between action and comedy, and the action proceeds by way of various misdirections at a sprightly pace. I thought the whole introductory act, where characters who we grab on to like flotsam keep going under the blood-red tide, was great. And even though I knew where things were heading there were a lot of change-ups along the way that kept me guessing.
*. To use the word “progressive” with regard to a movie like this seems out of place, but bear with me. Action movies have tried more and more to present women as “just as tough as men,” to the point where every actress now has to have a repertoire of MMA moves they can unleash at a moment’s notice. This is seen in most circles as being progress, and in one sense it is. On the other hand, watching two women beat each other into bloody pulps, however much it fits with the story, seems off to me. I’m sure there’s a place for catfights, but I kept thinking “Have you come a long way just to get to this, baby?”
*. The fight is a good one though, mixing action well with humour. They also threw in some nice touches like the skin on Crystal’s forearm getting pinched in the break of the shotgun. That’s the kind of wit The Hunt has a lot of, and it’s why I liked it. I don’t think it’s a classic, and its politics are no more controversial than the monologue on any late-night talk show from the same time, but it’s a solid entertainment that does a good job addressing the current American dilemma.

Relic (2020)

*. Comparisons between Relic and The Babadook were made immediately, and for obvious reasons. But not so much because they were both written and directed by Australian women in their feature debuts, expanding on previous short films — Monster in the case of The Babadook, Creswick in the case of Relic (which gives some idea, by the way, of how long it takes a good idea to gestate, and how much time in development it takes for a feature to come about.)
*. Instead, I’d say the most obvious comparison is thematic. In both films the monsters are real, in so far as they are projections of emotional states. In The Babadook the monster is a single mother afraid of the impact she’s having on her kid. In Relic it’s now the adult child who is anxious over her failures, this time to properly care for her mother, who is slipping into dementia while living in a ginormous house out in the middle of nowhere that can only be arrived at by overhead car shot. Why is she living here alone? Because this is a horror movie. Or at least is dressed that way.
*. The allegory here isn’t subtle. Edna, the mother, is turning into something alien. In visual terms a monster. At the end she will be peeled of her mortal coil and enter a second childhood, now a newborn, no longer a mom but a shrunken mummy. And the granddaughter will realize that this is the same duty she will be pressed into, perhaps sooner than she expects, with her mother.
*. As I said in my notes on The Visit, old people are scary.  They’ve been a source of discomfort since time immemorial You never know what they’re going to say or do, and their bodies are often frightening and/or disgusting. Horror movies have long played this up, and they go to the well again here with Edna’s incontinence and bruising. But Natalie Erika James doesn’t leave it at that. The real horror isn’t what’s happening to Edna but what it’s doing to Kay.
*. This is one of those movies where there was a huge gap between critical and audience scores. Why? In part because critics are more impressed by message movies as it gives them something to write about. The paying crowd don’t like messages much at all, even ones, like this, that are nearly universal in their impact. And the fact is that while James does the scary stuff reasonably well, much of the horror seems divorced from the real point of the movie. I mean, what was up with Sam scrambling around in the walls of the house, seemingly trapped in another dimension? And why, when Kay sees something strange underneath Edna’s bed, does she get up and leave without investigating further?
*. Perhaps it’s just me, but I thought James missed an easy trick in not playing up the horror of the nursing home that Kay visits. Wouldn’t that be a scarier place than the haunted house? It must be a home full of angry ghosts.
*. I don’t like the now interminable stretch of production company icons that precede the titles in today’s movies any more than you, but the Gozie AGBO one really is impressive. Hats off to those guys.
*. I’m also not a big fan of critical clichés, and the DVD box comes with this one on the cover: Relic “turns the haunted house story on its head.” Reviewers are always saying this. And they don’t even give the reviewer’s name this time, just the website. Which turned out to be weird since the review of Relic on RogerEbert.com by Sheila O’Malley, which is actually quite perceptive, doesn’t say this. At least I didn’t see it. I guess it turns up somewhere else on the site. Or maybe it was just floating in the ether.
*. But leaving the author of the review aside, does Relic turn the haunted house genre on its head? Assuming that means it reverses expectations or conventions in some way I don’t think it does. It’s a good twist on the old story, but no more transgressive than The Haunting.
*. Solid performances, though Robyn Nevin as Edna didn’t carry enough of a sense of threat. Shot much too dark throughout, which made the scenes that play on darkness less effective since they don’t contrast with anything else in the picture. Not to mention the fact that it’s hard to see anything.
*. OK, maybe it’s one that’s more for the critics, or just the adults in the room. This isn’t The Conjuring. But it works, and even manages to end on a note of real pathos. It’s not a slow burn so much as a no burn, but that’s by design. The point isn’t horror but healing.

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.