Captain America: Civil War

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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  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

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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.

Don’t Breathe

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It’s hard to watch Don’t Breathe and not immediately draw comparisons to The People Under the Stairs. By the time a drooling rottweiler pursues burglar Rocky (Jane Levy) into the claustrophobic spaces between the walls of its owner’s home, it’s clear Wes Craven’s film was a major signpost for Fede Alvarez’s. Both are home invasion thrillers centered on the invaders’ economic desperation (and it’s three in both films); the invaded are psychopaths, their homes fortified deathtraps guarding a horrible secret in the basement, trapping anyone who comes looking. There’s a girl locked away, idol and fetish-object for the home owner.

The imagery is certainly there, but Alvarez approaches it more obliquely. People is a fairy tale, a black child taking on Reaganomics–in the form of two white, incestuous, cannibalistic slumlords–and winning. Craven’s own They Live. Don’t Breathe is nowhere near as neat. Rocky, like People‘s protagonist Fool, wants a quick windfall to get her and her loved ones out of impoverished living, but she’s so laser-focused on the goal she appears cutthroat and manipulative (also, for her, “loved ones” primarily means her younger sister, with their mother a drunken, abusive oaf who needs to be escaped from). She runs with her juggalo boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto) and bland, wannabe-paramour Alex (Dylan Minnette), burgling suburban Detroit homes serviced by Alex’s dad’s security company. When they catch word of a blind old hermit (Stephen Lang) sitting on over six figures, in an otherwise abandoned neighborhood, the opportunity is too good. What they don’t count on is the Blind Man being an Iraq war vet, driven mad by the death of his daughter. His depravity is unveiled in stages. During the break-in–where Alvarez guides us through the house with smooth tracking shots, foreshadowing the geography of the ensuing chaos down hallways, into rooms and even the spaces between walls–the Blind Man is shown sleeping while listening to a video of his daughter, aligning sympathy. His murder and terrorizing is first seen as an understandable response to the sudden intrusion of his sanctum.

Then the girl is discovered. And that she is the one who accidentally killed the Blind Man’s daughter. From there, context gradually shifts until he is shown as truly monstrous (Alvarez played a similar game in his Evil Dead remake, shifting audience allegiances to leave us guessing who to root for).

Lang’s frame complements this portrayal: rippling, puffy musculature, he prowls as he feels his way through the house, checking for markers. The Blind Man responded to his battlefield handicap with a strict regiment and discipline, mechanizing his existence. He handles the death of a loved one similarly, taking those deemed responsible by force and attempting to (artificially) replace the loss. Old Testament-style, post-9/11 bloodlust sexualized, allowed to operate unimpeded by a socially and economically declining America eager to sweep horrifying reality under the rug. Pitting this against Rocky’s desire for escape makes the evil at the heart of the story abstract yet all too real. It can’t be killed, because it’s everywhere. Don’t Breathe isn’t a fairy tale, but a nasty, hopeless exploitation flick.

Pop Heap

Assorted thoughts on a couple pop songs the radio has recently, incessantly played:

Between this and “Stitches”–a song I’m convinced is a blatant death threat to an ex (courtesy the lines “Needle and thread/Gotta get you out of my head/Needle and thread/Gonna wind up dead”–Shawn Mendes seems determined to encapsulate every shitty, entitled attitude associated with Nice Guy-ism. Slathered in a voice which registers as whiny and pleading, the song is a plea for a woman to dump her boyfriend for Mendes. Presumably this is on the basis Mendes is a “gentleman” and the boyfriend is “just not right for [her],” rather than on, say, any specific reason or even a deep, unrequited feeling. I mean, come on, Shawn, you’re asking someone to ditch some dude to shack up with you and the best you can muster is “Tell me why are we wasting time”? The lyrics are entirely placeholder, the kind of fluff you could pluck from any thousand songs which purport to be about love, but are, in fact, about possession of a woman. When Mendes screeches the titular lyrics, he isn’t making a case for any sort of relationship, based on mutual trust and respect and passion, but for having something he can maintain as his. I imagine his face scrunched and contorted as he sings, evoking more disgust than swoon in his object of attention as she walks off one last time, finally tired of his manipulative bullshit.

If one could use any musical act to sum up Clinton-era neoliberalism, Meghan Trainor certainly has the career to justify it. “All About That Bass” is a catchy, radio-friendly/PSA-ready little number, a nice message of body inclusiveness sung by someone who only registers as “big” by the entirely skewed perspective of the entertainment industry (this is also quaint next to, say, Sheer Mag’s Tina Halladay). Steadily, she’s moved from the kumbaya spirit with each new single towards mythologizing herself as a newly-accepted representative of the elite. “Me Too” could almost be seen as the final form of this transformation, a 3-minute monument to Meghan Trainor wearing gold and getting into VIP sections with an entourage and free drinks. The lyrics, and Trainor’s cadence, almost begs comparison to the excess of hip-hop, but it feels false for two reasons: 1) More than three-fourths of the lines don’t rhyme (one verse attempts “piece” with “VIP”, “drinks” with “me”, and “Tom Cruise” with “achoo” before finally getting one right…”to” with “do”); 2) If nothing else, hip-hop’s focus on bling was in direct defiance to white, ruling class elitism, showing off their success to a culture which attempted to suppress them. There’s a reason videos of wild house parties loaded (seemingly) with riffraff, on the grounds of stately mansions, became a staple of the genre. In contrast, “Me Too” is all gatekeeping: a wealthy white woman talking about how awesome she is while getting let into the roped off section of a club. She isn’t crashing the party, she was let in. Self-aggrandizement shouldn’t be this boring.

 

Suicide Squad

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It’s easy to pin down what works in Suicide Squad and what doesn’t. David Ayer’s DC entry wants to be all about psychopaths and freaks, barely contained by a system all too happy to use and abuse them. Dirty Dozen filtered through Ayer’s Sabotage. It’s there on the screen. Wrangled by black ops heavy Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), a group of super-villains–fronted heavily by master assassin Deadshot (Will Smith) and the Joker’s psychologically abused queen Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie)–are tasked with stopping an arcane something-or-other from bringing about the end of the world. Kept in line with explosives planted in their necks, each member of Task Force X nonetheless schemes and maneuvers for the way out. They mutter to one another as they walk torn up, abandoned city blocks, under SEAL escort and besieged by an army of zombies with pulsing, obsidian sacs for heads. Lurking around the edges is Joker himself (Jared Leto), looking to spring his love/plaything from the joint.

With these elements in play, the film repeatedly brushes up against, but never fully embraces, genuine danger. Bogged down in the front half with multiple introductions for each character and concept, scored to a rapid procession of classic rock (Warner Bros. clearly desiring some of that Guardians of the Galaxy audience), Suicide Squad starts sluggish, only to breeze over its central threat. The squad, for the most part, is rendered too sympathetic for audiences, without ever being shown as too monstrous. Their arc toys with dissolution and betrayal, while angling for a redemption arc (particularly Jay Hernandez’s El Diablo, who spends the film atoning for the accidental immolation of his family, before throwing himself at an equally fiery adversary). Deadshot and Quinn toy the most, orchestrating an escape plot as they protect el blando handler Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), but both are ultimately selfless (the former is a wannabe-good dad, the latter wishes for a quiet domestic life with her puddin’). Even the Joker, running up with his furry/cosplay-themed henchmen guns a-blazing (clearly intended to upset the film’s dynamic), never amounts to more than a nuisance, his showy hand gestures, Nouveau Riche excess, and mannered speech suggesting a Wall Street banker went to Hot Topic. By contrast, Davis’ performance as Waller is all calculation, ready to execute anyone who no longer meets her needs. She breezes in, keeping the nutjobs in line by being more dangerous.

Despite the unsatisfying handling of its conceit, Suicide Squad does, like the previous DCU films, have a sharper, better handle on comic book storytelling than Marvel’s Avengers mega-franchise. Where that series arrived at connected universe hysterics through regurgitation of the same blockbuster template, the DC films have (in desperation to catch up) barreled ahead, explaining only when absolutely necessary. Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice depict surrealism and violent, often cosmic horror intruding on the everyday, its superheroes almost unfathomable. Suicide Squad is more literal, even with candy-colored flashbacks and a late turn into wish fulfillment, but Ayer explodes Snyder’s template with high-tech master assassins, super-powered gangsters, crocodile men, sorcery, and grieving samurai women with soul-devouring blades, jumbled together like it’s nothing. It might have more in common with New 52’s continuity nonsense than John Ostrander and Kim Yale’s hyper-intense underworld, but the world it presents is appealing.