Archive for the ‘sequel’ category

Halloween Ends

October 16, 2022

Screen Shot 2022-10-16 at 1.51.28 PM

We certainly can’t say that Halloween Ends, the last of the new trilogy supposedly putting paid to the struggle between superslasher Michael Myers and survivor Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), does the same old same old. It diverges so wildly from what most fans might expect of a Halloween film that I’d like to give it points on that basis alone. This leg of the franchise has taken the story deadly seriously, layering on subtext after subtext, which is fine if the text itself engages and entertains. But Halloween Ends, like its 2021 predecessor Halloween Kills, comes across more annoying and depressing than scary. 

A nerdy kid named Cunningham with an overbearing, forbidding mother runs across an avatar of evil and loses his moral bearings. John Carpenter made that movie in 1983, from a book by Stephen King, Christine. Well, it also describes the key conflict here. David Gordon Green, who has directed all three of these Halloween movies, and wrote this one with three other guys, has possibly placed this as an Easter egg for the fans. Okay, neato. But the kid here, Corey Cunningham (Rohan Campbell), barely makes sense as a human being. Notoriety has followed him from an incident in which he accidentally killed a kid he was babysitting, and after he’s bullied and meets Michael in the sewers, Michael seems to recognize himself in the kid, and vice versa. 

Meanwhile, Corey also falls for Laurie’s granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak), but if we’re supposed to root for him to reach out towards love and sanity and break from the “dark path” he’s trudging down, we don’t. We don’t like him and we don’t care. Green and his co-writers have made Halloween movies more fit for analysis than for seasonal scares. Everything in the movie only makes sense symbolically; taken literally, the plotting is stupid, depending, once again, on people doing the absolute dumbest things they can do. If Halloween Kills was “really” about the deranging power of fear, this one says that evil never dies, it just changes faces under the mask.

The kills are as brutal as ever, accompanied by stylized sounds of squelching, spattering, and slicing. The dirty secret of the slasher subgenre is that its structure allows us to enjoy the murder and mutilation; they’re the crescendos in a musical piece. To his credit, Green wants to do something different, uglifying the deaths. But without the fun or suspense or even the morbid curiosity that makes us want to look at the blood and brains on the floor, where’s the entertainment? I wound up not being sure what Green and his cohorts wanted to accomplish with this trilogy. Here, there’s more boring stuff about how violent tragedy can deform a whole community; we learn that some folks in Haddonfield, Illinois, the sleepy death town where all of this unfolds, blame Laurie for the new Michael murders. This is an example of how the script wants to Say Something Important — in this case, about victim-blaming, I guess? — but completely fumbles it as a plausible thing that happens in the story.

Rohan Campbell has been coached to play the faux-Michael as a sullen, misunderstood kid who kept reminding me unhelpfully of the irritating Caleb Landry Jones. There’s not much of a shift between Corey when he’s “normal” and Corey when he’s gone off the deep end. As for Jamie Lee Curtis, who has been riding a media blitz surrounding her last dance with Michael Myers, she gets a Big Moment near the end but otherwise can’t do a lot with Laurie as (inconsistently) written. I can read Curtis’ loyalty to this diminishing-returns trilogy — she’s said she owes her career to Laurie Strode and is grateful to the franchise’s fans for the life she’s had — far more easily than I can read anyone’s motivations in the film. I will always be fond of Curtis, but the Laurie in these films is beyond my understanding. Green’s 2018 Halloween famously proceeded from the 1978 original and disregarded any of the sequels. By and large, I would like to disregard Green’s sequels, too. His first effort was solid, and he should have stopped there and resisted the temptation to Say Something Important.

Hellraiser (2022)

October 9, 2022

Screen Shot 2022-10-09 at 3.36.00 PM

Try as I might, I’ve never quite snuggled up to the Hellraiser franchise, a gory series of movies, comics and other media derived from Clive Barker’s 1986 story “The Hellbound Heart.” Why this particular tale, among dozens of others in Barker’s portfolio, wound up being his gravestone work is a mystery to me, though perhaps it shouldn’t be. It is, as noted, bloody and nasty, with a side order of cautionary horror about being careful what you wish for. If what you wish for is experience and sensation beyond anything imaginable, the punctured and harrowed angels/demons known as the Cenobites will oblige you — bloodily and nastily. Maybe it’s just a reflection of what scared the openly gay Barker himself during the peak of AIDS — a vision of blood-bound wrath drawn to hedonism.

Barker, who wrote and directed the first Hellraiser film in 1987, returns here as producer but leaves the footwork to other hands: director David Bruckner and writers Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski. What they come up with is sort of the same old story. The wealthy Roland Voight (Goran Višnjić) acquires the mystical puzzle box that summons the Cenobites and, so they claim, eternal pleasure. Gory things happen, and six years later the box finds its way into the hands of recovering addicts Riley (Odessa A’zion) and her boyfriend Trevor (Drew Starkey). The box is supposed to draw Riley’s blood, but instead it drinks from her brother Matt (Brandon Flynn); he disappears, and Riley determines to find him.

Anyone who’s seen the original Hellraiser probably remembers, with a sick laugh, the movie’s famous line “Jesus wept,”1 which in its context is just what the narrative needs at that moment. The new Hellraiser contains no jokes nearly as good, or indeed many jokes at all. I’m not saying every horror movie should be The Munsters (or even The Re-Animator). But moments of dark levity like “Jesus wept” are what keep the 1987 film warmly thought of after 35 years, and what is there in the new film to compel any affection, either from newcomers or old fans? Not a lot. And even though the acting is fine — Odessa A’zion, daughter of Pamela Adlon, makes Riley touchingly vulnerable, and Jamie Clayton as the Cenobites’ leader “Pinhead” has an icy, mordant way with her lines — unless you’re heavily into watching blood flow and flesh ripped and taffy-pulled, there’s not much entertainment value here.

Better minds than mine have likely analyzed where the Hellraiser concept fits into gay literature. Those who watched lovers and friends fade in the hospital during AIDS’ heyday in the mid-‘80s, watched them become human pincushions and their flesh mottle and melt off the bones, will see more in the torments devised by the Cenobites than others will. And here, in the interest of inclusion, we have a gay male couple, and a trans woman playing Pinhead. Thus the franchise seems queerer than ever, but a Pride float is not the quietest and therefore most deadly vehicle on which to convey the original subtext. “The Hellbound Heart” was a gay male horror artist telling a scary story to other gay men, saying “Look, I get it, but the pursuit of too much pleasure leads to death.” People in other demographics took other things away, of course. It was a big crossover success.

Will this one follow suit? Even if it hadn’t been sent direct to streaming and condemned to an eternal fate of being subsumed into Hulu’s back catalog, Hellraiser ’22 would be too dreary and sober-sided to go over with the mass audience. It’s blandly unpleasant, and even the flesh-ripping scenes pack neither the sting of authentic pain nor the surreal excesses of Barker’s original story. It just sits there, not daring to be remarkably bad or, heaven knows, remarkably good. Like other recent horror “reboots,” its tone is tepid, never showing any personality, and taking the material deadly seriously because the filmmakers think that’s what the fans want. Jesus wept.

1 Yes, I know the line was ad-libbed.

Scream (2022)

April 10, 2022

Screen Shot 2022-04-10 at 1.02.36 PM

The best reason to watch Scream, the fifth in the meta-horror franchise, is to see the gravitas that has gathered in the acting styles of Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, and David Arquette. All of them were in their twenties or early thirties when the first Scream hit big in 1996, and they have endured through each sequel since, though there hadn’t been one in eleven years before the new one. The addition of wrinkles and wisdom has done interesting things to the characters. Campbell, as perennial survivor Sidney Prescott, has a certain hard-won grace in the face of horror. Cox’s intrepid reporter Gale Weathers has become much less of a satire of tabloid journalism and more of a real, abashed person (her book about the original Scream case has led to movies and assorted mayhem). And Arquette imbues the once-goofy Deputy Dewey with a survivor’s sardonic bitterness.

Actually, the best reason may also be the only reason. This Scream starts the slasher ball rolling in Woodsboro once again, with the cloaked, Munch-faced killer Ghostface turning up and doing damage. There are, as usual, a cast of suspects, including Sam Carpenter (Melissa Barrera), daughter of the original film’s co-killer Billy Loomis. (A de-aged Skeet Ulrich appears as Billy in Sam’s febrile daydreams.) Back in Scream 3, which is where the series pretty well began its descent, the plotting reminded me of nothing so much as Murder, She Wrote by way of the CW. Which is valid, I guess, because a lot of the early slasher flicks (including the very first Friday the 13th) might as well have been dusty murder mysteries retooled for the ‘80s slasher craze. Still, the plottier and whodunit-er these things get, the further away they break from true fear. 

And that’s part of the problem with the new Scream. My theory is that if your brain is engaged in who could be the killer, it becomes an exercise, and whenever a character is killed you just say “Well, they can’t be the killer.” However, the right director can bring a humanity to the proceedings that makes us care, and that’s what the late Wes Craven did in the first two films, anyway. Craven was able to stage horrific violence and sadism, but in person he was unanimously said to be a kindly professor type, and so we felt the pain and fear in Craven’s violence because he felt it too. If you don’t care about the human beings getting slaughtered, it’s just special effects to be viewed neutrally. Some of the brutality in Craven’s best Scream entries was exceptionally gory and nasty, but it hit all the harder because, say, Drew Barrymore was allowed to establish an instant rapport with the audience (and her character’s fate was legitimately shocking at the time). We cared. Here, the gore is even nastier — I continue to be surprised, not necessarily in a bad way, by how much splatter the MPAA lets movies get away with nowadays — but we don’t care. At this point, it’s just “Cut back to more Neve Campbell, or hurry up and get to the killer reveal.”

In 1996, I was already more than a little old for the impact Scream had on teenagers at the time. I took it as a terrific homage; teenagers took it on a different, more direct level. The metafictional aspect of it was like a big welcome sign to the millennial audience, but the grisly kick of the horror sealed the deal. The first two Screams (they really should have stopped there, but they couldn’t, and they won’t — a sixth Scream is already pencilled in for next year) occupy a very specific part of late-‘90s American pop-cultural real estate, when Gen-X was starting to get the keys to Hollywood in a second wave after the class of ’94. Original scripter Kevin Williamson is an early Gen-Xer, and Gen-X irony is all over Scream and Scream 2. The tone of the new Scream is like a faded photocopy of that irony. This time the concepts of “legacy sequels” and “elevated horror” are roasted, in the era of the Halloween reboot and the rise of the indie studio A24. But I think it’s safe to say that when a series reaches its fifth go-round, it can no longer afford to be snarky about tropes that make money. Its cultural critiques are no longer well-taken, and this corporate concern stopped being a goof on endless slasher clichés and started simply putting them to work quite a long time ago.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022)

February 20, 2022

Texas-Chainsaw-Massacre-Netflix-2022-Leatherface

Have the people who made Netflix’s new Texas Chainsaw Massacre ever used a chainsaw? The tool wielded by Leatherface (Mark Burnham) cuts through flesh, bone, wood, and metal with magically equal ease, like a hot knife carving an ice-cream cake. Not bad for a weapon that’s been literally sitting plastered up inside a wall for years. If, however, you’ve used an actual chainsaw to cut actual objects, you’ll know this thing is more akin to a lightsaber or Excalibur — a pretty funny concept, if only the movie weren’t so dour and unpleasant. Yes, I know a Texas Chainsaw Massacre film has every right to be unpleasant, but I mean its mood as much as its content. Tobe Hooper’s original was hell on earth to shoot, yet it has an artful, almost playful vibe. The new one feels bitter and miserable, with a side order of red-state resentment of entrepreneurial urban zoomers that I can’t tell if the movie sympathizes with or is just exploiting.

This movie, like David Gordon Green’s Halloween, is a direct sequel to the original film and disregards any other sequels/prequels/remakes. It’s been fifty years since the donnybrook at the ol’ Texas house, occupied by Leatherface and his family of cannibals. The family is never spoken of here; we’re told Leatherface went to live at an orphanage (implying he was a very large teenager in the original film, which still puts him at least in his sixties here) and has stayed there for years, cared for by a very forgiving woman (Alice Krige). But the aforementioned zoomers roll into town, having bought up property to auction it off. The kids say they own Krige’s house. She disagrees. The cops come, she has a heart attack, and Leatherface — who presumably has been peaceful all these years — crushes that olive branch in one beefy fist. 

The gory kills — the MPAA must really have grown lax about movie violence over the last decade or so — may be the only thing keeping us connected to the film. Texas Chainsaw Massacre is an angry film — angry at well-to-do zoomers, angry at the bank, angry at killers who are still out there somewhere. Taking another page from Green’s Halloween, the film brings back the original’s Final Girl: Sally Hardesty (Olwen Fouéré, in for the great Marilyn Burns, who passed in 2014), who escaped Leatherface and went on to be a Texas ranger obsessed with hunting him down. What’s weird is that we’ve been half-rooting for Leatherface, because the rich kids are mostly annoying and we feel bad he lost his caretaker, and then Sally comes in and talks about him like a mad dog who must be put down. Olwen Fouéré sells Sally’s righteous fury, pulling us over some of the dumber stuff Sally does, like insisting Leatherface acknowledge who she is when she should just be shotgunning him into the next phase of existence.

That’s a bothersome little detail. Sally must figure or hope that if she has to die, she might as well die while killing Leatherface, and if he doesn’t know her, he’ll at least know she was the one who killed him. But this is a horror movie, so she isn’t guaranteed that kind of send-off or closure. This Texas Chainsaw Massacre offers no one any slack except maybe a redneck handyman (Moe Dunford) who acts like a red-hat stereotype until he develops some shadings of sympathy. The kids, except one (Elsie Fisher, from Eighth Grade) who survived a school shooting, are obnoxious in ways that will sting unexpectedly. These little pricks call the cops to kick a disabled old lady out of her home — tell me again why we shouldn’t revel in their chainsaw vivisection?

Other than a brief bit appearance (played by Burns) in 1995’s awful Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, we haven’t seen Sally Hardesty in almost fifty years. A movie with more curiosity about what she’s been up to might have been nice. It could have centered Sally more, played up the death-match angle. Instead, we get a bunch of little snots for Leatherface to turn into fine red mist, while Sally stomps around on the film’s margins, finally thrown away like blood-soaked trash, like almost everyone else here. And this sequel dares to evoke the original film’s masterful final shots without having a thousandth of their impact. It doesn’t convey freedom and hysteria, it conveys helplessness and grief. The whole movie is like that — depressing, despairing. 

Ghostbusters: Afterlife

February 6, 2022

ghostbusters

SPOILER ALERT:

It’s useless to deny it: near the end of Ghostbusters: Afterlife, when the spectre of Harold Ramis stepped in to help save the day, it got a little dusty in the room. Soft and warm where the original 1984 Ghostbusters was sharp and cool, this legacy sequel is all about continuing the work of our elders and honoring their memory — doubly so, since it’s directed by Jason Reitman, son of the original’s director Ivan. So it’s made with palpable love and nostalgia. I fell for it while not being all that interested in the story: it’s Gozer again, setting ghosts on the loose, this time in a rusty town in Oklahoma. 

Taking the Ghostbusters franchise out of an urban environment (even the unpopular 2016 Ghostbusters, which I liked, unfolded in New York City) isn’t as jarring as I would have thought. The new setting of Summerville gives us nifty places for ghosts to hang out: a spooky mine (whence came the metal that built the haunted building in the ’84 film), a dilapidated farmhouse once owned by the recently departed Egon Spengler. Egon’s ignored daughter Callie (MVP Carrie Coon) heads to the house with her two kids Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and Phoebe (Mckenna Grace), who takes after her grandfather in her fixation on science. Throw in Paul Rudd as a geologist/summer-school teacher, who develops a snarky but genuine interest in Callie, and you have a recipe for a gentle, good-hearted comedy with more emphasis on family ties than on loud laughs.

As everyone knows by now, the surviving three original busters — Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson — turn up at the climax to finish their business with Gozer. Aykroyd’s Ray Stanton appears before then, fielding a late-night call from Phoebe. At first, Ray is hostile about Egon, but when he learns Egon has passed, he softens and saddens. I’m probably the only one who remembers the moment in Blues Brothers 2000 when Elwood Blues gets out of jail after 18 years and finds out, at a respectful distance from the camera, that Jake has died and nobody told him. I reflected on that here, when Aykroyd yet again must convey mourning for a fallen comrade. He doesn’t owe us this kind of thing, but it gives Afterlife some texture and emotional shading.

Unlike 1989’s Ghostbusters II, which re-introduced our heroes struggling to entertain at kiddie parties, this sequel puts the old-timers pretty much where we want them to be after all these years. (Oddly, Murray’s iconic character Peter Venkman has not only left ghostbusting but science itself, though Venkman always seemed like the type who shrugged and nodded at a quasi-scientific career because the work seemed easy.) Meanwhile, the young new cast, including a motormouth self-named Podcast, sometimes edges the movie closer to another ‘80s movie that followed Ghostbusters a summer later, The Goonies (though, thankfully, it’s not nearly as loud and obnoxious). Whenever possible, Reitman apes the slick aesthetic of his father’s film — Rob Simonsen’s music bites big chunks from  Elmer Bernstein’s original score (with the help of Bernstein’s son Peter: more family ties!); Eric Steelberg’s cinematography tries for László Kovács’ dynamic lighting, big on horizontal lens flares bisecting the frame.

Carrie Coon is wonderful throughout as a frazzled but sarcastic mother on her uppers, and when Zuul takes over her body she seems ready to take off into orbit as the possessed Sigourney Weaver did in the first film. But Reitman, perhaps trying to bring the movie in at not too much longer than two hours, turns her into a terror dog too soon. I’d like her to return for more Ghostbusters, if there is any (if there should be any). Ditto Mckenna Grace, who carries on the recent tradition of female ghostbusters. (Finn Wolfhard doesn’t register much except as the driver of the old Ectomobile.) But this film puts an effective period on the saga, for me at least. Unless the writers can come up with something other than riffs on the original, I’m afraid the bittersweet nostalgia of Ghostbusters: Afterlife is the sort of thing that can only work once.

The Matrix Resurrections

December 25, 2021

matrix4

There’s a whole bunch of plot jibber-jabber in The Matrix Resurrections, as there was in the previous three films in the series, but at least this one is a bit more emotionally readable. Lana Wachowski, one-half of the Wachowskis who engineered the Matrix franchise, has said that her impetus for going back to the Matrix well was the deaths of her parents. She wanted them back, and she put that yearning into a story in which everyone moves heaven and earth to get Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), the heroes of the earlier movies, back together and in charge of the resistance against those who would misuse the Matrix.

I have very little understanding or recall of what happens scene for scene in The Matrix Resurrections, but the elation of having these two back cuts through the murk like a foghorn. Even if, like me, you were never sold on the brilliance of The Matrix, some part of you may respond to the characters’, and Wachowski’s, gratitude that Neo and Trinity are still up for a fight, though this movie takes a while to re-acquaint Neo and then Trinity with reality outside the Matrix. In the matrix, Neo, or Thomas Anderson, is a rich and betrophied videogame designer, whose game The Matrix was a big hit. Thomas happens across Trinity in a coffee shop, except she’s now Tiffany, married with kids.

There’s a fair amount of meta snark here. Thomas faces doing a belated sequel to his original Matrix game trilogy, because if he doesn’t, Warner Brothers will find someone who will. There’s some talk about how originality is dead and entertainment rehashes the same stories endlessly. Wachowski is on thin ice here, but the strong thread of feeling — which we’re told here affects people more than facts — carries us through. Wachowski talks about the dangers of submitting to a comforting fiction (the Matrix, with its taste of steak) while submitting to a comforting fiction; this isn’t hypocrisy, it’s an honest assessment of what we often want and need from art. If the first Matrix films were really about the trans experience (although the sequels kind of got bogged down in set pieces), this one is about making a self out of one’s own, or others’, creations.

The pertinent question here might be, How is it as a Matrix film? I doubt it’s possible to go back to the relative simplicity of the first movie and disregard the convolutions larded on by its sequels (the way, say, David Gordon Green’s Halloween sequel did), and Wachowski acknowledges that on some level. A lot of clutter has to be thrown in the path of Neo and his new band of acolytes before Trinity figures things out and re-assumes her role; it’s significant that it’s a choice she must make for herself, a subtext unlikely to win the movie fans among conservatives. (As much as she must have wanted to, Wachowski doesn’t have time here to include scuzzy incels appropriating her red-pill-blue-pill metaphor. There is, however, chit-chat about binary ways of thought and living, and how those are truer to a machine’s view of humanity than to the reality of it.)

Back in 1999, The Matrix felt like a brutal-cool riff on the old themes of individuality vs. oppression (we didn’t yet know the story had deeper meanings for Lana and Lilly Wachowski; Lilly chose to sit out this film). I wasn’t terribly wowed at the time, but in hindsight it emerges as one of an accidental run of movies in that year grappling with reality and our role in it. It makes more sense in its 1999 context as a sharp, sickly-green pre-millennium vision than as the start of an increasingly bloated franchise. The Matrix Resurrections ultimately can’t go home again, and Wachowski knows it; there’s a streak of melancholy running through the film, but intertwined with a streak of hope that the elders of cool, Neo and Trinity in their black-on-black get-ups, still have something to teach us, and that there are younger warriors willing to go to the brink to rescue their wisdom. And if you’re looking for a review that tells you how the new Morpheus is, or how bad-ass the fights are, you took the wrong pill.

Halloween Kills

October 17, 2021

Screen Shot 2021-10-17 at 3.12.13 PM

It’s difficult to judge Halloween Kills, since it’s the middle film in what’s going to be a trilogy (the capper, Halloween Ends, starts filming in January for release next October). What’s more, this trilogy, under the stewardship of director David Gordon Green and his writing-producing partner Danny McBride, looks as if it’s going to be all about fear and its destructive or self-destructive variations. Green and McBride (joined on the script here by Scott Teems) are devoted to this idea, often to the point of straining credulity. People in the movie act stupidly all the time, but not because they’re stupid — they’re afraid. The problem is, they’re still doing dumb-ass stuff and we’re still going “Oh, come on.” It doesn’t matter why characters do stupid things; they’re going to read to us as stupid people, and we’re going to wonder why we’re spending time with them, unless it’s a farce, which, despite some ridiculous moments, Halloween Kills is not.

David Gordon Green is going to take his moment in the Halloween franchise’s history to instruct us (literally, the theme is spelled out near the end) on fear and its sociopolitically deranging aspects. As such, Halloween Kills will be more interesting for horror academics to nosh on than for humble horror fans who just want a good scare. (Which, as original director John Carpenter assured us forty-three Halloweens ago, we’re all entitled to.) The academics will find great meaning, for instance, in two couples here — an interracial couple and a gay couple — who are butchered by series superslasher Michael Myers. Do they die for their “sins”? I’m going to guess not. Michael, you see, represents fear, and fear in the form of violent bigotry kills such couples. If Green didn’t actually intend that, I’ll be annoyed. But also relieved.

There was a psychiatrist in Green’s previous Halloween movie whose baffling actions worked better as subtext than as text. As subtext, we could see why Green wanted to go there. As text, it made no sense. And Halloween Kills is loaded with stuff like that. I guarantee you someone with a hearty appetite for symbology will read all sorts of jolly things into the movie, which prove it’s really about [insert grand concept here]. But if you’re just hanging out and being told this story, there’s way too much stuff that makes you go “Wait a minute.” 

A big chunk of the film has to do with an enraged mob, led by original 1978 near-victim Tommy Doyle (Anthony Michael Hall, credible as a muscleheaded twerp), which eventually drives an innocent person to their death. For a reel or so, suddenly we’re in bargain-bin Ibsen or Arthur Miller. Now, I can nod coolly and claim to find all kinds of subtextual merit in this sub-subplot — Michael/fear turns people into killers — but my honest response while watching was “This is fucking stupid.” Is there going to be a whole third movie of things like this? Halloween Kills picks up the minute Halloween 2018 left off, so franchise heroine Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is sidelined due to injuries incurred last time. Having read the script, Laurie knows exactly what Michael is and why he (fear) must be Faced and Defeated. She talks about this frequently, when she’s supposed to be concentrating on not bleeding out from the stitches she’s ripped. 

Almost as frequent are the gory deaths; every so often, Green snaps awake and brings someone into Michael’s path so that he can end them brutally. Corpses are always being happened upon, causing fear and grief. The mob rises, carried by the simplistic slogan/chant “Evil dies tonight!” Laurie convalesces with Deputy Hawkins (Will Patton), who gets a couple of flashbacks detailing his mishaps with Michael on that night in 1978 and the cop who offers to cover it up — suddenly we’re in small-town Sidney Lumet. Green stops the narrative dead so the cop can lay out what their official story is going to be. Again, this is yet another illustration of PTSD persisting for decades — the deputy is still miserable about his brush with Fear forty years later — but it feels dangerously like a sidetrack.

Halloween Kills is so obsessed with fear that it defines the actions and fate of everyone onscreen; how ironic that the movie packs so few scares. Green’s Halloween films may be the only movies ever made that concern an unstoppable killer butchering people but aren’t really horror movies. His first attempt worked because his concept was fresher then, but now it isn’t, and he has his work cut out for him on the next one. Halloween Kills isn’t hackwork by any means; the craft is high, the violence blunt and punishing, some of the performances believably rattled. (MVP for me: Robert Longstreet as the grown former bully Lonnie, who has a beer-scented, stubbly authenticity about him; he seems to have stepped out of a late-‘70s Stephen King book.) I can even respect what Green is trying to do with these films in theory. But in practice … oof. Green meditates on fear; John Carpenter inspired it.

A Quiet Place Part II

August 1, 2021

quietplace2

John Krasinski, we might imagine, sat in his office chortling at all the headaches he put the characters through while writing A Quiet Place Part II. On the set, directing all the chaos, he may have chuckled even more. Krasinski had more fun, I hope, than we do watching the film — it’s grim and stressful and relentless, but comes off even more hollow than the first film (which Krasinski also directed and co-wrote). What is the deeper point of the story? Is there even more story to tell? Once again, we have the gnarly, chittering alien creatures, whose tracking of prey is based on sound. Again, too, we have Evelyn (Emily Blunt), her daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds), her son Marcus (Noah Jupe), and her baby son. They hide and retreat from the critters, and Regan, who is deaf, figures out someone is sending a signal to any survivors.

Those Krasinski set pieces, including the genuinely frightening first reel that shows us glimpses of the ghastly first day of the creatures’ invasion, have a charge of sadistic cleverness. Krasinski likes to set several crises off at once, so he can cross-cut and bludgeon us into a motor response. A Quiet Place Part II is full of wince-provoking moments with people trying like hell not to make noise, but that only goes so far — maybe only as far as the first movie. We’re briefed on a major new weakness of the creatures, which apparently only a relative few people know about, or we’d be seeing a lot more folks availing themselves of that Achilles heel. As it is, human nature ruined the efficacy of any strategy based on that weakness, and a new character, Emmett (Cillian Murphy), has presumably seen hell out there — the few survivors have devolved into people “not worth saving,” he growls. 

Emmett will see the light, though, as sure as there’s Mom and apple pie. Regan, once again well-played by the deaf actress Millicent Simmonds, was a realistically flawed kid in the first film, but has blossomed into a genius who’s pure of heart in the sequel. She’s supposed to represent hope in the face of annihilation, an unfair burden for any character. Late in the film, we meet some of those people Emmett talked about, and they are indeed a scurvy, grotesque bunch — for a few minutes we seem to have wandered into a Rob Zombie movie about the Firefly family, except these psychos don’t swear (or talk). So, according to Krasinski, some survivors are smart and good, and some are little better than sociopathic animals. Since A Quiet Place Part II was in the can by summer 2019, well before the current slow-motion apocalypse, I can’t claim it’s saying anything about some of the dumber, louder conflicts of today. Krasinski does, in hindsight, seem overly optimistic that, presented with a solution to a lethal problem, most Americans would embrace that solution instead of many of them being absolute selfish oblivious dumbasses.

Anyway, a political read of either of these films does no good for the films or for us. They’re meant as mechanical nail-biters working off a cunning premise, though the more pared-down a story is, the harder our brains work to fill the silence with interpretation. Krasinski’s attempt at world-expanding here raises more questions than it answers; as the four refugees in the mall in George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead found out, you do have to worry a little about the monsters you’re sharing your oasis with, but you have to worry a lot about the itinerant human dregs who stumble on your bunker and want what you have. Maybe that’ll be the premise of Part III, and Krasinski can throw in a bit about someone developing a vaccine against the creatures and half the population refusing to take it.

Godzilla Vs. Kong

June 13, 2021

gvk

The cartoonist Sergio Aragonés once pointed out something in an interview that has stuck with me for some thirty years. He said that when Superman in the comic books was rendered less realistically and more cartoonishly, he could pick up a tall building by its corner and we could believe it. In later years, Aragonés said, when Superman and his surroundings were depicted with more physical realism and you could see all his veins and muscles, all the bricks in the building, we could no longer believe in such a feat — we would assume the building would just crumble apart. Aragonés’ insight applies as well to movies, which can depict the unreal with surface realism — you can see all the details — but lose something in the realm of fantasy and imagination.

Who ever wanted to see a realistic King Kong or Godzilla? Kong as realized by Willis O’Brien in the 1933 film has a rough-hewn magic that inspires glee and fear, sometimes both at once. The Godzilla, or Gojira, of some of the goofier Toho films was clearly a man in a suit, and accordingly had a human vibe. He was the kind of monster we felt close to, sorry for. All of that is lost in Godzilla Vs. Kong, in which the title opponents are of course created in computers. And boy, you can see all the details. Nothing is left to the imagination — at least as it applies to the damage the titans do to each other. Humans, on the other hand, die as afterthoughts, as gnats in what they thought was their narrative, but which instead belongs to the bestial and gigantic. And when the titans clash in the middle of Hong Kong, buildings are atomized, blown apart into coffee-cake crumbs, scattered like drops of mist. 

We’re told the city has already been evacuated, but that hardly matters. What we’re seeing is vast destruction, and the assurance that there’s no human toll is the sheerest hypocrisy. The fact is that we didn’t care fifty or sixty years ago if there were people in the buildings Godzilla wrecked, and we don’t care now. The problem is that even the buildings are rendered here with the utmost realism. So this sort of narrative handwaving is less convincing now than when the buildings were obvious cardboard. These are made to look like real creatures in real space destroying real objects. The cartoonish quality of a vintage Toho monster mash is gone. The fun, for me, is gone.

Does the story really matter? Demian Bechir plays an arrogant tech moneybags who believes the Titans — Kong, Godzilla, and the critters Godzilla fought in 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters — threaten humanity’s status as the planet’s alpha, its apex predator. So he has built Mechagodzilla to kill them. Godzilla and Kong don’t get along at first, but ultimately they join forces against Mechagodzilla, and truly when you distill this thing down to a brutal synopsis it sounds like something you’d see on a 22-minute episode of the ‘70s Hanna-Barbera Godzilla cartoon. And it would have been more entertaining there. Instead, Godzilla is charmlessly ugly, and Kong is always unhappy and riled up, and Mechagodzilla is this clangorous mess of steel, and there’s no exhilaration in it except for one moment when Kong and Godzilla roar at each other.

Godzilla Vs. Kong made money against all odds, so there will be more movies in this “MonsterVerse” franchise (which also includes 2014’s Godzilla and 2017’s Kong: Skull Island, the latter of which I missed). This might be the time for me to tap out of this series, though. The look of most of them is grim, gray, drizzly. (Kong’s milieu, though, is naturally sunnier and more colorful — the bits I’ve seen of Kong: Skull Island seem to bear that out.) Everything is drab now — the Bond films, superhero films, and giant-monster films. They’re depressing to look at and to spend any length of time in. So I’ll stick with the old monsters. Even the black-and-white monster films have a sharper visual pop than the dishwater dregs of Godzilla Vs. Kong. 

Coming 2 America

March 5, 2021

coming2america5.0

Coming 2 America may as well be titled Coming 2 Zamunda, since the movie spends most of its time in that fictional African country. Zamunda, of course, is home to Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy), the hero of the hit comedy Coming to America. Rewatching that John Landis film for the first time since 1988, I was struck by how logy and static it was, even for an ‘80s comedy. It’s hard to argue that Coming 2 America is a “better” movie, but I liked it more; it’s warmer, its direction (by Craig Brewer, who made Murphy’s Dolemite Is My Name) more dynamic, its aesthetic much more fluid and colorful (costume designer Ruth E. Carter can take a bow for that). And it’s actually about something: choosing between the elders we love and the future where the elders may no longer have a place.

Akeem soon becomes king, and is preoccupied with his throne and who will fill it when he’s gone. There’s some truth, of course, in Eddie Murphy playing a prince turned king — it mirrors his real-life arc. Coming to America gave Murphy his first taste of doing accents and multiple characters in the same film, and he reprises them all here, as does Arsenio Hall, playing Akeem’s right-hand man Semmi as well as several other roles. But now that Murphy is a king, to whom does he pass his crown? The amiably antic Jermaine Fowler as Akeem’s illegitimate American son Lavelle. The story is structured so that Lavelle can take over, but Murphy is too powerful a presence for that to happen, and Fowler just isn’t up to it.

Instead, Murphy lets apparent new BFF Wesley Snipes steal a few scenes as General Izzi, who wants Lavelle to marry his meek, boring daughter. Izzi insinuates himself into scenes with a low stroll, echoed by his gun-toting minions behind him; the effect is funky and weird, and Snipes, in these Murphy films, is having more fun than I’ve seen from him in years. In general, Coming 2 America just seems gladder to see all its stars of color than the original film did. Leslie Jones grabs as much of the frame as she can as Lavelle’s THOT mama, accompanied by Tracy Morgan as her brother, grumbling his usual huffy nonsense. Craig Brewer is a white director who clearly feels comfortable in the Black milieu (his other films include Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan). He approaches the sequel as a loving fan of the original; John Landis did little to show any warmth towards his original at all. Landis needed a hit, and Murphy threw it to him like a life preserver. If people think fondly of the 1988 film, it’s due to Murphy and Hall and John Amos and James Earl Jones and all those other wonderful performers filling out a nearly all-Black cast in a major-studio summer comedy. It’s not because Coming to America was particularly good.

Coming 2 America has some of the same problems, plus some new ones. As I said, most of it unfolds not in Queens (though we do check in back there and hang out at the barbershop again) but in Zamunda. If the first film was about questioning authority, the second is about being authority. Age has agreed with Murphy, who has filled out a bit and added some stillness and gravitas to his portfolio (he turns 60 next month, if you’re ready for that). He carries himself like a king, and he gives Akeem a kind of newfound rigidity born of realizing the world isn’t as simple as we’d like it to be. Certain traditions are there because they work; others must change with the times or be discarded. Lavelle in Zamunda is a callback in reverse to the fish-out-of-water comedy of Akeem in Queens, but the rhyming storyline never takes hold, and Akeem himself is largely passive, always trying to convince others to do things or not.

There’s really only so much a get-the-band-back-together nostalgia piece like Coming 2 America can do. Like Bill & Ted Face the Music, it works by being comfort food, and the original Coming to America wasn’t very edgy to begin with, so Coming 2 America isn’t a betrayal of anything other than those who’ll miss the nudity in the R-rated first film. (It was really pretty gratuitous, and as unfeeling a use of women’s bodies as anything in Hustler.) I don’t anticipate ever watching either film again, but Coming 2 America passed the time pleasantly. I don’t understand its disappointed reception, as though Landis’ inert film were an inviolable masterpiece marred by a mere sequel. Coming 2 America shows what this material can be in the hands of a director who’s not just taking it as a gig, who believes in it and loves the cast.