Will It End? – Movies 2016: September


  1. Killzone 2 (2015) – dir. Cheang Pou-soi
  2. The Blair Witch Project (1999) – dir. Eduardo Sánchez & Daniel Myrick
  3. Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows (2000) – dir. Joe Berlinger
  4. The Crow (1994) – dir. Alex Proyas
  5. Lake Placid vs. Anaconda (2015) – dir. A.B. Stone
  6. Captain America: Civil War (2016) – dir. Anthony & Joe Russo
  7. Pet Sematary Two (1992) -dir. Mary Lambert
  8. Ms. 45 (1981) – dir. Abel Ferrara
  9. The Conduit (2016) – dir. Sixto Melendez
  10. Carol (2015) – dir. Todd Haynes
  11. Scanners (1981) -dir. David Cronenberg
  12. The Lady in the Car With Glasses and a Gun (2015) – dir. Joann Sfar
  13. Above the Law (1988) – dir. Andrew Davis
  14. Hard Target 2 (2016) – dir. Roel Reiné
  15. Cyborg (1989) – dir. Albert Pyun
  16. Blair Witch (2016) – dir. Adam Wingard
  17. Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989) – dir. Rob Hedden
  18. Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) – dir. Tommy Lee Wallace
  19. By the Sea (2015) – dir. Angelina Jolie Pitt
  20. Slither (2006) – dir. James Gunn
  21. The Guardian (1990) – dir. William Friedkin
  22. The Magnificent Seven (2016) – dir. Antoine Fuqua
  23. Stir of Echoes (1999) – dir. David Koepp
  24. Hail, Caesar! (2016) – dir. Joel & Ethan Coen
  25. Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012) – dir. John Hyams

YTD: 208

Hail, Caesar!


The Coen Brothers’ most disorganized movie comes at you with a series of vignettes about the intersection of labor and capital. Josh Brolin’s Eddie Mannix moves in and out of various dramas as he negotiates, cajoles, and eventually strong-arms a variety of dysfunctional personalities. The studio fixer is portrayed as a put-upon handyman, forever having to miss dinner with the family to do what’s necessary for the job–Brolin always stiff and mannered, his chiseled face only registering varying shades of glum. He invariably regards each of the stars he has to handle–pregnant, unwed, combative starlet DeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson); out of place singing cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich); gay, Communist turncoat Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum); and abducted movie star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney, who never changes from his Roman epic costume)–as chattel for his unseen, East Coast boss. Fit for stardom and little else, their desires and crises are merely PR obstacles to be intercepted before Tilda Swinton’s twin gossip columnists can print them. Their own lives micromanaged and spied upon. Any challenge to this system, whether it’s DeAnna’s flighty reluctance to a third marriage or Baird’s upfront rant against the status quo fronted by Mannix, is met with force (verbal if not physical) until compliance is assured. If there’s any reluctance on the fixer’s part in this, he keeps it coded and private, even in repentance (“I struck an actor in anger”). In this milieu, solutions are precarious, doomed to folly. One has to disappear, submit, or bury themselves under layers of metaphor.

The Magnificent Seven


Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven is a little too good at the art of the buildup. While this is welcome, at a time when tentpoles seem to be shunting anything resembling storytelling, it retreads the basic template from its namesake (and, in turn, Seven Samurai), without allowing any breathing room for the ideas it peppers in. The film’s biggest is the outcast status of the seven mercenaries hired to protect a village: not simply gunslingers or ronin, the motley crew are led by a black man (Denzel Washington) and includes a Mexican bandit (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), an exiled Comanche (Martin Sensmeier), and an Asian immigrant (Byung-hun Lee), all an inversion of Western tropes before them (John Sturges’ Magnificent Seven, for instance, has Mexican bandits as the antagonists). That they are partnered up with white men (Chris Pratt, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Ethan Hawke, the latter playing an ex-Confederate), or that it’s white, rural farmers they protect, comes up in passing. That it’s a woman (Haley Bennett) who hires them, to avenge her murdered husband, is the punchline to an offhand joke or an excuse for unexplored sexual tension (a few winks aside, the film is remarkably chaste). Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk’s script ignores any tension which might digress from the gather/plan/siege structure they rework to arrive at a happy ideal of frontier lower classes fighting back against a robber baron and his army of private goons.

Fuqua, a reliable (if unadventurous) director, never rises above the script’s strengths: conversations are chummy audience-pleasers, and stars framed with an eye for their profiles (Washington, especially, sporting that Yul Brynner black hat and occasionally slipping into the biblical vengeance mode he perfected in films like Man on Fire and The Equalizer, gets a few, mythic shots in silhouette). Showdowns even hum with intensity. Every player is shown moving into place: the James Horner music swelling, glances cast, hands hovering near pistols. Anticipation of explosive violence. It’s superb, but the payoff deflates. Lacking any of The Equalizer‘s slasher-film lunacy to power the action, Fuqua unfortunately jumbles gunfights after a few cuts. People and gunfire begin to have no geographic relation to one another. They simply spawn into existence, crashing through doors or windows to be gunned down, turkey shoot-style. The build, so efficiently done, blown apart because nothing progresses from there. It all simply happens.

Captain America: Civil War


A slack, graceless hodgepodge of nerd-signalling, Cap 3 wants you to believe it’s about some grand rift. When Captain America Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and a crew of true believers go rogue to track down a baddie, there’s even a moment where a line is drawn in the sand (or, rather, blasted into the concrete) by robot Avenger the Vision (Paul Bettany). It’s surface-level imagery, given as quick a pass in the edits as any of the typically weightless action (whether the close quarters brawling, meant to evoke the Bourne films, or the CG-assisted arena combat), summing up exactly how little Marvel cares–about story, about action, certainly about politics.

For starters, the conflict between Rogers and Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.)/Iron Man is simultaneously overly-complicated and not even remotely thought out. On the one hand, marketing suggests it’s an adaptation of Mark Millar and Steve McNiven’s Civil War crossover, where legislation designed to curb superheroes became a point of contention among the registered trademark set (a gun rights allegory unconvincingly sold as a commentary for the War on Terror). In actuality, this has little to do with the real conflict of the film, over the question of Rogers’ best friend, turned brainwashed assassin, Bucky (Sebastian Stan)–retreading Captain America: The Winter Soldier‘s tale of one man torn between his past and present. Bucky wishes to be good, but is triggered by certain words into becoming a compliant killing machine. Captain America thinks he can be saved, Iron Man thinks he should be locked up.

Right there is a fine enough idea for a film. Stapling on Millar/McNiven’s already faulty work, but with less convincing trappings, diminishes the foundation of the film. (the inciting incident is literally “superheroes didn’t save all the people,” rather than “superheroes caused massive casualties,” a cowardly move intended to signal Cap’s righteousness, compared to the suddenly fussy Iron Man) You can tell it’s inessential by the way, after so much buildup, the “Civil War” portion of the movie is discarded after one distended, green-screen battle. Coupled with a joke-heavy script, where the only funny lines are uttered by cameo appearances Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland), the result is a glorified TV movie version of Batman v. Superman.

Blair Witch


Knowing full well it’s gotten even harder to get lost in America since Blair Witch Project, Adam Wingard and his writing partner Simon Barrett approach Blair Witch 3 with more technology and a sprinting pace. Blair Witch‘s new victims–led by James (the little brother of Blair Witch Project‘s Heather) and his film student would-be girlfriend Lisa, looking for answers to a two-decade old mystery–are even more confident, thanks to GPS and a prep plan which includes total coverage. Handhelds, earpiece cameras, mounted webcams, even a drone, split between the six explorers as they head into the woods.

All their technology is matched by a supernatural presence which has grown stronger, more primal, more quick to let her prey know just how fucked they are. In between reciting lore, a pair of locals tagging along describe how their hometown has gone silent about the Witch in recent years, leaving her alone to master her domain. Besides the return of that confounding snow globe effect–where the group will wander for hours in a single direction, just to return to where they started–the Witch now seems capable of knocking down trees, blasting mysterious lights in the night, and corrupting DV footage. Time itself seems to bend: characters will depart, then return hours later with a beard and covered in a week’s worth of grime. Even in the objective light of multiple cameras, reality breaks down. Guttural booms, unheard whispers, and fleeting visions shaped by tormented, individual perception–Wingard and Barrett roping in a few stray ideas from abortive sequel Book of Shadows to power a funhouse pass at the original’s structure. The implication is clear the Witch, more than some thing which haunts the woods, is a force tied to the land, ready to spread its malevolence outward.

Blair Witch 2


With the massive success, financially and culturally, of The Blair Witch Project, rights-holders Artisan Entertainment sought immediately to capitalize on Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick’s slow burn art-horror. Though tapping actual documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger (Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills), the studio counter-intuitively decided to make a proper film. Perhaps they sensed the found footage approach could work only the once, and wished to avoid repetition? In any case, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 starts as a meta-commentary on its predecessor: in the wake of Blair Witch Project‘s release, a cottage industry springs up in the Maryland town its folk-myth centered on, providing guided tours for thrill-seekers who come to annoy the locals and gawp at the last known whereabouts of Heather, Mike, and Josh (a clever intersection with the real world). Local bad boy Jeff (and you know he’s bad, because his hair is spiky) starts his own tour guide company, taking two academics, a goth, and a Wiccan into the hills and woods in the hopes of encountering something spooky.

This setup quickly gives way, however, to a messy, but ultimately rote, horror flick. Berlinger’s original plan was for the events to unfold ambiguously, leaving the question of his characters’ sanity intact. Artisan edited and reshot the film to include more violence and a contemporary rock soundtrack. While it’s hard to say how much of Berlinger’s vision is in the film, Blair Witch 2‘s idea of psychological horror–glossy, MTV-edited montages of things which may or may not have occurred while the glamored actors give puzzled looks–is indistinguishable from any of its genre contemporaries. The Blair Witch herself seems to have changed her methodology: no longer content to skulk about in the darkness leaving omens of doom for her prey, she’s now apt to random bouts of possession, willing her victims into murder and blood orgies, aborting babies, then shredding or manipulating the evidence. Or it’s all the group’s collective hysteria. Maybe. The dime-store head games grate, rather than terrify, because the manipulation is blatant and the cast are a bunch of ciphers, killing time in a shack until the credits roll for no reason other than they’re in a horror movie.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided


More an episode than a full-blown sequel, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided plays roughly the same as Human Revolution. There’s more open-ended approaches to problems, and a welcome return of non-lethal options for bosses (or, rather, the game’s sole boss: a mechanized Russian strongman whose nonsensical motivation belies the fact he’s a pawn in a larger conspiracy), but the same sneaking/shooting/hacking/exploring mechanics are in place, jazzed up with eighth-gen polish. This time around, monotone skull-cracker Adam Jensen is in Prague hunting down terrorists, two years after Human Revolution‘s events led to the “augmented”–people who had, like Jensen, been given mechanical attributes that enhance their physical capabilities–being herded into ghettos and camps (an ill-advised racism metaphor in the tradition of X-Men comics). Mankind Divided‘s new wrinkle is Jensen’s double-agent status: while he’s taken on a new assignment as heavy for an Interpol task force, Jensen also works with a hacker collective, spying on his co-workers to expose series big bads the Illuminati. Everyone’s motives are suspect, and Jensen has to suss out ally from enemy. He does this while navigating the increasing strife in the Czech capital, where riot police demand identification and crackdowns are enforced with drones and ED-209 knockoffs.

This future-shocked Eastern Europe locale is well-realized, packed with bystanders and gangsters, cops and activist journos, occupying grubby spaces saturated with sterilized mass media. Eidos Montreal lay out the city with an eye for encouraging memorization, rewarding exploration and discovery of alternate pathways with XP, much like killing or incapacitating enemies (Bethesda should take note for their next Elder Scrolls or Fallout). As the game progresses, the police get more repressive, building towards full-on martial law, testing your knowledge of the various routes (or you could just plow through them, with the right augments and weapons). Mankind Divided gets so good at building around this increasingly hostile space, and Jensen’s movement through it, it becomes a shame when you’re whisked off to different locales–including a finale set entirely in a London skyscraper (this coincides with leaving about a dozen or so subplots dangling, including a quest line about new, secret augments installed in Jensen that is left with a sequel hook). Eidos Montreal would rather sell the idea of a globe-trotting adventure than track the consequences of shadow war hysterics on a single, stratified system.

Blair Witch Project


Over a decade and a half later, The Blair Witch Project has a power beyond the “real or hoax” hype. Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick’s film is, structurally, utterly basic: three kids, lost in the woods, hunted by something inhuman. It’s never seen (on camera), but it is heard in the night, snapping branches and shuffling stones around; forming cairns and little stick figures; abducting one of the crew and leaving a piece of him behind. The film’s technical innovation–handheld cameras and faux-documentary style which would gestate into the “found footage” genre–would get chewed up by the Hollywood machine that could replicate the superficial details, rather than understand the peculiarities which made it successful.

Blair Witch 1, notably, lacks any formulaic trappings of the horror genre. Obviously, there’s no music cues, but there are no jump scares or fakeouts, either. Once teen filmmakers Heather, Josh, and Mike realize their situation has taken a sinister turn, there is no real levity, only sad attempts to raise spirits in between the bickering and the creeping dread. There’s also a notable shift in format. Early on, it’s established the trio are using two cameras for different purposes: 16mm b&w for their “documentary” about the Blair Witch, and color footage for more “human” filler material–interviews with the townsfolk, general fucking about on the road or in the woods–with accompanying shifts in dialogue (Heather Donahue, as herself, is more staid when 16mm is rolling). As events progress, color overtakes black & white, ‘reality’ stripping out anything resembling cinematic. This is in spite of Heather’s efforts to maintain control as the group begins to turn on itself. In some ways, Sánchez and Myrick have gone a step further than Cannibal Holocaust (another found footage ancestor), banking entirely on raw, naturalist performance and improv, without the use of an assuring framing device.

Like Cannibal Holocaust, there’s a strain of western self-critique running through the film. As Faculty of Horror duo Andrea Subissati and Alexandra West  noted, there’s a certain arrogance to the line “It’s very hard to get lost in America these days.” The trio’s notion they can go into the woods with some food, a map and compass, and nothing can go wrong highlighted a tendency in western thought that we are immune from harm. The accidental prescience of this (the film was released more than two full years before 9/11, the amateur video of which would be a third element drawn on by the found footage genre) is heightened in the buildup to the trek. Heather’s opening monologue refers to a series of child deaths associated with the Blair Witch legends. This is expanded upon as happening in the early 1940s (before Pearl Harbor officially drew America across oceans into the conflicts of World War II), and the description of the horrific murders, carried out by a hermit who claimed to be under the Witch’s thrall, is recalled in the film’s closing moments. The link, then and now, is clear: a presumption of invulnerability–whether from rural superstition or blowback from foreign policy–always precipitates tragedy. That this correlation between reality and folklore is communicated, not with ham-fisted metaphor but in the grainy verisimilitude of normal people facing the abnormal, is what makes Blair Witch Project great.

Will It End? – Movies 2016: August


  1. Doomsday County (2015) -dir. Joe Badiali, Art Brainard, Shawn Haran, & Steven Shea
  2. Cobra (1986) – dir. George P. Cosmatos
  3. Friday the 13th V: A New Beginning (1985) – dir. Danny Steinmann
  4. Stalker (1979) – dir. Andrei Tarkovsky
  5. Suicide Squad (2016) – dir. David Ayer
  6. Memories of Murder (2003) – dir. Bong Joon-ho
  7. Tricked (2012) – dir. Paul Verhoeven
  8. God Told Me To (1976) – dir. Larry Cohen
  9. Sun Don’t Shine (2012) – dir. Amy Seimetz
  10. Ghost Ship (2002) – dir. Steve Beck
  11. Piranha II: The Spawning (1981) – dir. James Cameron
  12. High-Rise (2016) – dir. Ben Wheatley
  13. Revenge of the Creature (1955) – dir. Jack Arnold
  14. Embrace of the Vampire (1995) – dir. Anne Goursaud
  15. Midnight Special (2016) – dir. Jeff Nichols
  16. Body Snatchers (1993) – dir. Abel Ferrara
  17. War Dogs (2016) – dir. Todd Phillips
  18. Feast (2006) – dir. John Gulager
  19. Commando (1985) – dir. Mark L. Lester
  20. Attack the Block (2011) – dir. Joe Cornish
  21. Hardcore Henry (2016) – dir. Ilya Naishuller
  22. Tremors (1990) – dir. Ron Underwood
  23. Don’t Breathe (2016) – dir. Fede Alvarez
  24. The Capture of Bigfoot (1979) – dir. Bill Rebane
  25. The Fly (1986) – dir. David Cronenberg

YTD: 183

No Man’s Sky


The paradox at the heart of Hello Games’ No Man’s Sky isn’t its transcendent space opera, but rather its ambition is simultaneously too vast yet entirely too narrow in focus. Proposing a vast universe of procedurally-generated planets–each with a neon-saturated ecology to discover–the game attempts all things for all people: exploration, space combat, chill out and observe the wildlife, survival simulation, or mine and trade resources with alien species, all are given room to wiggle in. It’s an ambitiously kitchen sink approach, which, along with the sci-fi aesthetic and electronica soundtrack, suggests Hello Games want No Man’s Sky to be this console cycle’s Deus Ex–a technical and thematic leap forward to inform entire genres of gameplay.

Where Deus Ex, or even the similarly lofty Shenmue, succeeded was giving equal weight to its different modes. Stealth and shooting, or even RPG-style machinations are equally valid approaches in Deus Ex, while Shenmue breezes through what would be abrupt transitions between quiet, slice of life sim/exploration and martial arts brawling, both treated as part of the landscape of its sleepy Japanese village. No Man’s Sky is too pushy with the survival aspects to enjoy the sightseeing it was sold on, with death-preventing meters needing recharge at absurdly quick rates. This insistence is similarly dogged by the clipped, sluggish movement (of the player’s traveler and their ship), which makes the combat a chore–all the more so in space, where attackers signal jam your warp drive, forcing you into dogfights where you can’t evade around them.

Unsurprisingly, the two aspects of the game which deserve praise are the ones marketed heavily. The quiet joy of setting down on a planet and observing a herd going about its business, and the implementation of physics to spaceship travel. Traversing the enormity of a single planet, let alone planet to planet in this universe, is factored in hours, with various methods to reduce that time down to minutes or (rarely) seconds. Even if variability leaves much to be desired, there is something incredibly satisfying in taking off to the upper atmosphere and using a planet’s rotation to get to its opposite side, then landing back down. All Hello had to do was build outward from this mechanic to create something wonderful.