The Darkness

mv5bnju0njqzoteyml5bml5banbnxkftztgwmdeynjawode-_v1__sx1303_sy605_

Greg McLean’s The Darkness would be an exercise in comical ineptitude if it weren’t so pointless. Much of the movie tries emphasizing suburban angst and the dissolution of a white, bourgeois family (led by an emaciated Kevin Bacon and bored-looking Radha Mitchell), taking place before–or perhaps a result of–some demonic intrusion into their everyday lives. The dreary familiarity of this premise is briefly enlivened in the early going when, on a smiley camping trip to the Grand Canyon, the autistic son is told about Native spirits who could bring about the end of the world if allowed to cross over from the spirit realm. The ensuing brush with the supernatural, and how it’s brought home, plays serene and largely off-screen, promising a low-key apocalypse in the vein of Prince of Darkness.

No such luck. Instead, we’re treated to a series of stuttering dramatic arcs: a daughter’s bulimia; Mitchell sinking into helpless drinking as she stares at family photos; the son’s disorder manifesting in dangerous outbursts (though really the work of the spirits); Bacon’s barely-working architect eyeing a new assistant his boss dangles before him. None of these build, inching the family towards implosion, only occur in succession. Impact and danger rarely last beyond a scene. The implication is these problems arise solely from the parents’ own distracted absence (an overused scare tactic, the son walking off while one or both parents are preoccupied, could become a drinking game), but consequences are rare. Once the threat is clearly established, thanks partly to all-too-convenient web page and a video specifying the whats and whys (even how to stop it), it becomes a matter of family togetherness and roping in a medium or two, last minute. May as well have been a film about performing household chores.

8 Ways Hillary Clinton is Similar to The Predator

 

  1. Predator: Kills people from afar with advanced technology.
    Hillary: Kills people from afar with advanced technology.
  2. Predator: Has a creepy laugh.
    Hillary: Has a creepy laugh.
  3. Predator: Mimics human speech it doesn’t quite understand to draw prey in for the kill.
    Hillary: Mimics human speech she doesn’t quite understand to draw voters to her campaign.
  4. Predator: Terrorized Latin America for decades.
    Hillary: Terrorized Latin America for decades.
  5. Predator: Has issues with (to quote Robert Rodriguez) a “Black Super Predator.”
    Hillary: Has issues with (to quote herself) black “super predators.”
  6. Predator: Sports dreadlocks and other stereotypical characteristics of indigenous tribal hunters.
    Hillary: Sports a pantsuit and other stereotypical characteristics of a white feminist.
  7. Predator:  Didn’t expect a mud-covered Arnold Schwarzenegger to cause as much trouble as he did.
    Hillary: Didn’t expect Bernie Sanders to cause as much trouble as he did.
  8. Predator: Deflects simple questions by repeating the question, then setting off a nuke.
    Hillary: Deflects simple questions by babbling about why she should be allowed access to codes that could set off a nuke.

Coincidence?

 

Cop Car

mv5bmtk2mta0nzk0nv5bml5banbnxkftztgwnty3mtc0nje-_v1__sx1303_sy605_

A skimpy, unrewarding experience, Cop Car suggests childhood mischief colliding with adult terror. In a sun-blasted, yet perpetually overcast rural America, two kids wander across a cruiser parked in the middle of nowhere. With nothing better to do for miles around, they steal it, leaving the drug-dealing sheriff (Kevin Bacon) dumbfounded and scrambling to get his car back. Jon Watts loads his second film with wide location shots and dark humor, mainly built around the boys’ cluelessness–attempting something like an 80s Touchstone Pictures joint as directed by thriller-mode Coen brothers. They learn driving as they go, accelerating down a highway, swerving across lanes. Later, they root around in the sheriff’s backseat, and try out the loaded weapons (including an M16), though they never figure out what a safety is. For most of the runtime, their own curiosity is more dangerous than either Bacon’s cop or a rival drug dealer found locked in the trunk.

Cop Car spends so much time in this milieu, the supposedly real threat seems tacked-on, diminished. Bacon plays the sheriff as a slick conman, worming his way out of a situation. The carjacking seems more a workplace nuisance than blood-boiling (his performance, though great, is less threatening than the credit sequence, red and blues barely restrained by text). He loads up with an uzi, but never seems intent on harming the boys. His final act turn towards a Joy Ride-esque maniac, careening down the road and growling menacingly over the CB as he rams the cruiser, is unconvincing. The fact this moment comes and goes as a minor setback in the film’s denouement underscores how Watts, for all his portentous shots of cloud cover, doesn’t know how menace works.

Will it End? – Movies 2016: March

tmnt-7

“Damn.”

 

  1. Exposure (1991) – Dir. Walter Salles
  2. Black Hawk Down (2001) – Dir. Ridley Scott
  3. The Deadlands (2014) – Dir. Toa Fraser
  4. Catch Me If You Can (2002) – Dir. Steven Spielberg
  5. The Fury (1978) – Dir. Brian DePalma
  6. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) – Dir. Steve Barron
  7. Robocop (1987) – Dir. Paul Verhoeven
  8. Ghostbusters (1984) – Dir. Ivan Reitman
  9. 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) – Dan Trachtenberg
  10. Spectre (2015) – Dir. Sam Mendes
  11. Wolf Warrior (2015) – Dir. Wu Jing
  12. Curve (2015) – Dir. Iain Softley
  13. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) – Dir. Robert Wiene
  14. Motorcycle Gang  (1994) – Dir. John Milius
  15. The Dark Knight (2008) – Dir. Christopher Nolan
  16. Adrenalin: Fear the Rush  (1996) – Dir. Albert Pyun
  17. The Hatching (2014) – Dir. Michael Anderson
  18. The Defender (1994) – Dir. Corey Yuen
  19. The Double (2013) – Dir. Richard Ayoade
  20. Full Metal Jacket (1987) – Dir. Stanley Kubrick
  21. Indigenous (2014) – Dir. Alastair Orr
  22. Steal (2002) – Dir. Gerard Pires
  23. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) – Dir. Zack Snyder
  24. Men of War (1994) – Dir. Perry Lang
  25. Howl (2015) – Dir. Paul Hyett
  26. Clueless (1995) – Dir. Amy Heckerling
  27. Re-Kill (2015) – Dir. Valeri Milev
  28. Charade (1963) – Dir. Stanley Donen

YTD: 71

SCOURGE OF THE COMMONWEALTH

fallout4_dlc_automatron01_730

Last few weeks have been taken up by Fallout 4‘s “Automatron” expansion. A nearly seamless implant into the 50s-gone-wrong hijinks of nuked Boston, it provides more of everything both good and bad about the main game. The quest line proposes the Mechanist (a side character plucked from Fallout 3, here used as an everyman cover identity) descending on the Commonwealth with an army of robots to save its people, liberating raiders and traders alike from this mortal coil with laser-y mayhem. A few screws obviously loose, it’s up to the game’s resident Vault Dweller to take matters into his/her hands (with a new robo-buddy in tow). While you’re at it, the Mechanist radios speeches about how you’re really the menace and must be stopped. Conflict brews, two would-be saviors prepared to slug it out in the baroque ruins of the old world.

At least, that’s the idea. This being a Bethesda plot, it naturally fizzles out. The Mechanist’s insanity is downplayed with some tossed off exposition about misinterpreted commands. The feud isn’t allowed to follow through, like a superhero team-up comic without even an external threat to unite against (a new, themed raider gang is only a complication, not the main event).

What’s left is new toys to play with: a couple new weapons and tech, formidable enemies (many of which you can one-shot kill with a laser musket if properly prepared), and the ability to construct and modify your own robots. Some top-notch tinkering let down by a wimpy backbone.

Batman v. Superman

mv5bntziyzjjy2mtyzk4zi00nmixlwfiyjutztgym2vkogjhndmyxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynjuwnzk3ndc-_v1__sx1303_sy605_

Amid ceaseless noise and repetitive, bullet points plotting, adolescent fantasist Zack Snyder may have found his most perfect film. This isn’t to say it is good: Batman v. Superman is, functionally, every bit the walking advertisement for future flicks as Marvel’s Avengers assembly line is every time out. However, because of Time-Warner’s desperation to muscle in on some of that “cinematic universe” money, Snyder is able to construct it around his own vulgar obsessions. He uses the ad framework to make an Attitude-era Wrestlemania highlight reel, hyping up his marble-carved titans for a slobberknocker, from which emerges a thesis on emotionally damaged boys.

In one corner, a xenophobic, billionaire sociopath (Ben Affleck) with a Raymond Burr scowl; in the other, a self-appointed savior (Henry Cavill) condescendingly shrugging off the concerns of the little people he deigns fit to rescue. Both circle and posture, daydream about their own failings, while talking heads and politicians scratch their chins and discuss the film’s own Catholic symbolism. Violence occurs, first in bursts, then gradually lengthening to building-leveling dustups crackling with lightning. Think a Rocky IV/Dragonball Z crossover fan-fiction, punched up by Frank Miller.

Both superheroes read as fundamentally dysfunctional. Cavill’s Superman, despite a boost in confidence following his catastrophic introduction to mankind in Man of Steel, has retreated further inward. An intervention to save his lover is taken as act of Western intervention, resulting in off-screen slaughter; he doesn’t see it, so it doesn’t bother him (in that vein, he acts on a tenement fire in Mexico when spotting it on cable news). It takes either a threat against the women in his life or the introduction of an equally-matched space demon to even animate his violence, he’s so indifferent. Affleck’s Batman, meanwhile–whose reminisces with his butler confidante suggest a sense memory of Keaton, Conroy, and Bale’s takes–is a middle-aged man haunted by obsolescence. The twin realizations of his war on crime having no real outcome and that there is an alien god capable of scorching the Earth have driven him further towards sadism, branding rapists and terrorizing even the people he rescues. His biggest concern becomes his own legacy, tying it to the future of the species.

Batman and Superman here don’t need any outside influence to hate each other, though the script from David Goyer and Chris Terrio provides one in the form of spineless plutocrat Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg). This Luthor is revealed as a cyber-stalker, who manipulates geopolitics, women, basically anyone or anything for the purpose of making himself feel more powerful than two puffed up alpha males. He’s Snyder’s Hail Mary, a convenient, awkward way to transition from his own fetishized violence to something friendlier to Warner’s business plan. Yet, Eisenberg’s Luthor complements the self-defeating nature of Batman’s obsessive drive and Superman’s arch-stoicism with disgusting passive-aggression. The heroes only have to recognize their failings and moderate themselves, but Luthor represents an aspect of contemporary masculinity instantly recognized as irredeemable.

Existing outside this paradigm is cameo appearance Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot). Slipping confidently around the periphery, distracting Batman for a couple moments, she’s a spaghetti western loner in designer dresses. Her only interest in the boys’ pissing contest is a MacGuffin she needs only briefly to fulfill a separate agenda. It takes some conscience-triggering raised stakes for her to don the Amazonian getup and charge into battle with something resembling glee. Her subplot is only a signal boost to future Justice League flicks, but it’s enough to throw off the film’s balance. No wonder Snyder places her dead center when it comes time for the team-up. She’s the film’s own paradox, as auteurist digression and commercial prospect, made flesh.

Batman v. Superman might be overstuffed, self-important and stupid, but like Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four reboot, it’s atonal, contradictory, and personal in a blockbuster landscape too slick for anything resembling an idea.

10 Cloverfield Lane

mv5bmtuxndi5njm3mf5bml5banbnxkftztgwmjuyntmyode-_v1__sx1303_sy605_

With 10 Cloverfield Lane, J.J. Abrams seems to be jockeying for a series about monster flicks as Campbellian forge. Its predecessor, simply Cloverfield, tracked a feckless yuppie through Beast From 20,000 Fathoms-style carnage to rescue a woman he was prepared to move half a world away from rather than admit feelings for. Lane is both more and less explicitly introspective, being a claustrophobic thriller for most its runtime, before veering into George Pal territory. Aspiring fashion designer Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) leaves behind a fiance after some unseen altercation, only to crash her car on a country highway. Awakening in a bunker with two men–deranged survivalist Howard (John Goodman) and self-made burnout Emmet (John Gallagher, Jr.)–she is told the outside world is uninhabitable and to not leave, even as it’s clear her host keeps a few secrets about the nature of their shelter.

Michelle engages her roommates cautiously, mindful of her disastrous relationships with men. In confidence, she relates to Emmet how an abusive father conditioned her to run from danger (a context which suggests her largely-unmentioned boyfriend may have struck her, prompting that flight response?). Howard, then, is an embodiment of those fears: anti-social, paternalist, and violent in his mood swings, Goodman portrays him as a frightening mass of contradictory impulses towards Michelle (even his physical presence becomes swollen as events progress). Deluded, he regards her as a surrogate for an estranged daughter (in one amusing/creepy sequence, he fails a guessing game by calling Michelle “child” and “princess,” when the answer is “Little Woman”). Because she’s trapped with him, and Emmet being an uncertain ally, Michelle can’t run from danger, so she copes, then prepares to face it.

It would be tempting to say Lane is the inverse of Cloverfield. That earlier movie is constructed as a series of theme park sequences with a somewhat elaborate backstory. Interpersonal relationships are vapid, hashed out before the half-hour mark–it all becomes a matter of the leading man reaching his damsel. With, essentially, one location, there isn’t a similar momentum to Lane, so screenwriters Josh Campbell, Matt Steucken, and Damien Chazelle favor character development, while spectacle is offloaded in an extended third act, where Michelle’s honed skills are shown off.

But, Lane is not so different from Cloverfield. Both make inter- and intrapersonal conflicts stated and apparent, with only the barest of room for subtext. Largely driven by writer’s room dynamics (Dan Trachtenberg, like Matt Reeves before him, is nothing more than a journeyman, competent but uninspiring), both are also products of the whims of executive producer J.J. Abrams, who absorbed Campbell and Steucken’s spec script The Cellar into his brand of vaguely alluded conspiracies, discussions of fate, and monsters lurking on the edge of personal drama (his ode to Spielberg, Super 8, may as well have been a bridge between the two films). Neither obsesses much over any sort of political or social metaphor which could be read into them (9/11, terrorism, post-Cold War politics, etc.), only with individual navel-gazing. Lane is simply, then, the more focused of these monomyth monsters.

Will It End? – Movies 2016: February

maxresdefault

  1. Easy Money (1987) – Dir. Stephen Shin
  2. Big Trouble in Little China (1986) – Dir. John Carpenter
  3. Sicario (2015) – Dir. Denis Villeneuve
  4. Five Venoms (1978) – Dir. Chang Cheh
  5. Turbo Kid (2015) – Dir. Francois Simard, Anouk Whissell, & Yoann-Karl Whissell
  6. The Revenant (2015) – Dir. Alejandro Inarritu
  7. Roadracers (1994) – Dir. Robert Rodriguez
  8. The Hills Have Eyes (1977) – Dir. Wes Craven
  9. Pawn Sacrifice (2015) – Dir. Edward Zwick
  10. The Last Witch Hunter (2015) – Dir. Breck Eisner
  11. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989) – Dir. Peter Greenaway
  12. The Pirates (2014) – Dir. Seok-hoon Lee
  13. The Girl in the Book (2015) – Dir. Marya Cohn
  14. The Witch (2016) – Dir. Robert Eggers
  15. Hannie Caulder (197) – Dir. Burt Kennedy
  16. The Golden Child (1986) – Dir. Michael Ritchie
  17. White God (2015) – Dir. Kornel Mundruczo
  18. S.W.A.T. (2003) – Dir. Clark Johnson
  19. Deathgasm (2015) – Dir. Jason Lei Howden
  20. We Are Still Here (2015) – Dir. Ted Geoghean
  21. The Cabbage Fairy (short) (1896) – Dir. Alice Guy
  22. Bone Tomahawk (2015) – Dir. S. Craig Zahler

YTD: 43

The Witch

mv5bmja3ody2mdc3of5bml5banbnxkftztgwndmxnzgynde-_v1__sx1303_sy574_

Soaked in the colors of an oil painting and lit by gloom and lanterns, The Witch is a relentlessly oppressive mood piece. A Calvinist family has exiled itself from a settlement, only to be set upon by a witch from the forest. Crops fail, the baby goes missing, and something is awful suspicious about the black goat which moves around the homestead. Robert Eggers frames everything to make the actors seem either small or absolutely powerless; one motif consists of a worm’s eye view, from the back, as one of the family wanders towards the treeline, branches snaking into view as if to devour the interloper.

At times (Eggers’ script is too pulpy and straightforward for a coherent throughline, lacking the audacity of Rob Zombie’s Lords of Salem), this emphasis on the natural world could read as a cautionary tale on imperialism. The family, led by stubborn fundamentalist William (Ralph Ineson), insists it can and will conquer the wilderness. Faith and prayer are their only weapons, as William’s efforts to hunt and farm appear desperate, a combination of the supernatural menace and his own inability. The way they turn on each other–particularly sullen teenager Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), who is angered when she listens in on her parents plot to marry her off to another family; her defiance gets her accused of witchcraft–suggests an internal rot brought out by scarcity of resources and external threat. (William tells his oldest son “only God knows our true natures”) The family’s primary response is to double down on faith, deferring to a higher authority for aid. Their destruction is assured.

Firewatch

firewatch

Campo Santo’s breezy hiking sim, Firewatch, is built on denying players any sense of catharsis. They step into the sneakers and shorts of Henry, a nigh-middle aged schlub who takes a job as park lookout to escape watching his wife’s mental health decline. There’s  obvious appeal: beautiful scenery, a disconnect from all the problems back home, a sultry-voiced boss, Delilah, whose radio chatter is especially friendly. However, there’s also the crippling isolation, unaided by an escalating series of events, involving a third party listening in on Henry and Delilah’s conversations to some unknown end.

Functionally, Firewatch is somewhere between mid-budget snoop ’em ups (Gone Home, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture) and the dynamic dramatization of Kentucky Route Zero. You spend your days maneuvering Henry through the wilderness, picking up tools and rooting around for clues, but the highlights are talking with Delilah. Timed dialogue prompts (including no response) allow for their relationship to ebb and flow, bantering or arguing as the player sees fit. Discussion turns to relationship woes and shared love of booze, with a recurring insinuation the job attracts people looking for an escape from some sort of emotional damage (reinforced by a series of letters between two, unseen rangers). Other people, whether troublemaking teens or the elusive figure dogging Henry, exist as phantoms on the periphery, Delilah is his only contact.

Through this, writer Sean Vanaman is able to twist their relationship. The serene, sun-blasted vistas (rendered by Jane Ng, from paintings by Olly Moss) are crushingly lonely; every sudden noise puncturing the calm inspires a panicked, first-person glance. Once Henry discovers someone’s listening in, and is attacked, all manner of diabolical thoughts flood in. Radioing Delilah becomes positive feedback for Henry’s paranoia, often in the form of speculation about the figure who eludes them, and what the implications are. His fears spread to her, the way a fire the pair are meant to keep an eye on begins to grow, as they get lost in a fantasy, largely of their own making. Down a proverbial rabbit hole they plunge, seeking answers, only to find they were asking the wrong questions. Instead of some vast conspiracy, or even an enemy to throttle, they’re left desperate and wanting for closure. What Campo Santo posit is the way escapism only makes reality–both the one run from and the one before you–seem more obscure, staring too closely at flickers while the forest burns.