Action Adventure Superheroes

The Old Guard (2020)

The Old Guard (2020)
Director: Gina Prince-Blythewood
Writer: Greg Rucka
Cast: Charlize Theron, KiKi Layne, Matthias Schoenaerts
Genre: Action, Adventure
Country: United States

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Immortal humans have been a tried and true narrative device for centuries, dating as far back as the Wandering Jew in the 1200s. It has given us many icons, using immortality to tell a story of extraordinary beings and their equally remarkable lives, often highlighting fundamental truths about humanity and the values of life and death. When The Old Guard‘s very beginning gives away the immortality hook that’s “revealed” ten minutes later anyway, in one of the shittiest recent forms of in media res, it was evident that it would not join any notable echelons, nor would it be a very good movie on its own.

The Old Guard follows a group of immortal mercenaries, led by Andromache (Charlize Theron), colloquially known as “Andy”, as they traverse around and try to do good in the world. When they’re discovered by CIA agent James Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), pharmaceutical tycoon Steven Merrick (Harry Melling) tries to get a hold of them to determine the cause of their immortality and commercialize it. But also the group senses a new immortal – Nile (KiKi Layne), a U.S. marine in Afghanistan – and they take her under their wing, despite her resistance.

Alright, so we have a I-see-the-beats-from-miles-away story, but that’s not super important, right? The Old Guard‘s all about the cool immortals, after all. Too bad the characters are all dead flat for the first hour, with Charlize Theron doing a shockingly bad job at playing the “I’m tired and grumpy and wear sunglasses and call people ‘kid’ because I have BACKSTORY that I’m not going to tell you right away because I’m TIRED and GRUMPY of everyone’s shit” character, emoting in such a non-subtle manner that I’m not sure if she’s actively bored or just angry with the role (I later found out she produced the movie, so make of that what you will). Andy and her main sidekick, Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), drink a bit, but it doesn’t affect them, as this is a movie that believes arbitrary actions equal personalities and signify deeper inner lives. It doesn’t help that the dialogue is immediately awful, borderline video-gamey (I heard variations of “go get some rest” around three times in 20-some minutes) and giving us nothing to sink into.

This bleeds into the overarching issue that The Old Guard believes immortality is a story unto itself, and that the concept is more interesting than it is, even though this is far from a mysterious take on it. It’s like if we got a Star Wars movie purely about the workings of the Force – nobody would care about such a thing, it’s not very intriguing, but that’s because Star Wars can, and does, use the Force as a platform to tell richer stories. The Old Guard doesn’t take advantage of this principle, being more content to focus just on immortality and the predictable long-term inner turmoil it causes. Then it has the audacity to give us the Evil Big Pharma Villain storyline – and the villain is fucking terrible, an irritating non-character running through the most basic motions – and the Hesitant Rookie storyline and call it a day.

Insult to injury, the ending clearly sets up a sequel with the one plot thread that would’ve been great here, focusing on Andy’s ancient sidekick Quynh (Van Veronica Ngo), who was sentenced to an eternity underwater in an iron maiden, recurrently resuscitating and drowning for centuries. It’s a nightmare and the flashback sequence is easily the most affecting scene in The Old Guard, laden with terror from both Ngo and Theron. The flashback sequences, no matter how fleeting, bring great life to the movie, transporting us to times and places more vibrant and inherently exciting than the comparatively sterile modern settings we’re taken to otherwise. And we are taken to many places in The Old Guard, but they all feel like window dressing – big panning shots to give you a sense of scale for the movie, a sense of adventure, but the lack of emotion and purpose (it takes forever to realize that the only conflict happening here is Evil Big Pharma) makes it incredibly difficult to get enthralled by any of it.

Much of this comes down to the characterization, or lack thereof. Aside from Andy, Nile has great promise during her first scenes, but descends into boilerplate (again, Hesitant Rookie who obviously has a change of heart) and Layne isn’t very convincing. Ejiofor is wasted in a neutered, boring role where he just exists. Schoenaerts humanizes Booker quite well, presenting a man tormented and rash by the loss of uncountable loved ones over the centuries, while Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) are lovers who bonded after being initial enemies in the Crusades. Credit is very due to The Old Guard for giving us a to-the-point, genuinely loving gay couple, summarized extremely well by Joe in a speech about love and its eternal possibilities, easily the best character moment in the film. The Old Guard doesn’t focus so much on these characters, meaning moments like that are few and far between.

Then you have the action, the solace I sought most, and The Old Guard can’t even do that very well. Not only is it sparse, but it’s dry, lacking energy and any sort of momentum to propel the scenes, save for the very final fight. The first fight, taking place in a desert compound, is particularly bad – choppy editing that disorients us in the compound’s space, cuts too quickly between the immortals for us to get a good impression of their capabilities. That problem doesn’t persist much, thankfully, but The Old Guard fails to let us bask in its action, and what’s good – like Andy solo-fighting military personnel by an old house – is over way too soon to have considerable impact. These are quick action sequences, giving us a few flips here, a few blade slices there, yet there’s no real verve to it, and it’s so brisk that there’s nothing to really stare at and admire, which is a shame when we’re blessed with R-rated action like John Wick that treats its fights like bloody little ballets. Hell, The Old Guard severely lags compared to Theron’s own action vehicles, lacking the grit and adrenaline of Mad Max: Fury Road and the intoxicating style of Atomic Blonde. It’s not the editing horror story known as Æon Flux, but your bar should not be “well, at least it wasn’t fucking Æon Flux.”

So where does this leave us? Most of the characters are boring and surprisingly unintelligent despite some having literal centuries-worth of knowledge, the action isn’t exciting, lacking any discernible style or flair (my notes include one shot that pans up at Merrick’s headquarters in the third act, and it’s such a hideous shot on many levels), and the story is as wholly pedestrian as they come. The soundtrack is horrific, plugging in pop music that doesn’t jive at all with action that begs for a hefty operatic score. I realize The Old Guard is based on the comic book of the same name (I’ve never read it, to be fair), but a movie’s shortcomings can’t be absolved by sole virtue of being an adaptation.

All that said, there are good ideas scattered about, often in the form of the immortals’ actions throughout history, and I’d much rather see that movie than one that can’t even do the kindness of being entertaining popcorn fare.

Horror Science Fiction Summer of Horror

The Invisible Man (2020)

The Invisible Man (2020)
Director: Leigh Whannell
Writer: Leigh Whannell
Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Aldis Hodge
Genre: Horror, Science Fiction
Country: United States

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Universal’s been attempting to restart their famous horror icons for a hot minute now, including an embarrassing effort to start a “Dark Universe” that had fancy cast photoshoots and everything, beginning with Tom Cruise’s ill-fated The Mummy. As with many forms of hubris, this did not pan out, and Universal let Blumhouse take a crack at their monsters with The Invisible Man. If their Invisible Man is the standard going forward, I am very much into whatever they have in the pipeline.

The Invisible Man of 2020 is not faithful to the H.G. Wells novel of the same name, nor to the 1933 movie. It takes the bones of the novel and creates something mostly different – what we get is a story of a sociopathic scientist engaging in domestic abuse rather than a crazed scientist terrorizing a town – and it’s effective in its own right, really. The opening alone is one of the most impressive in a while, with Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) quietly plotting to get away from her husband, Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), in the middle of the night. There’s sparse music and sparser dialogue, we know nothing about these people, but we immediately clue into what’s happening and it is immediately tense.

The first half, I’d say, of The Invisible Man is masterful in building and sustaining tension, using many things a movie has in its toolbelt to full advantage, from Moss’ extremely expressive face to panning the camera towards negative space, priming us for jolts that usually don’t happen. It toys with expectations, acutely aware that we’re anticipating a man who is probably invisible, gradually showing its hand until dealing it in a most perfect way, kicking the movie from a relative slow-burn (it’s rather small-scale at first, mostly taking place at her friend James’ (Aldis Hodge) house) into a sprint.

That sprint isn’t as delicious as the simmering anxiety in the first half, and it’s tonally jarring at first – shifting from horror to more sci-fi thriller – but it does so in a way that doesn’t feel like a betrayal to the story, even if I’d argue trading its efficiency at horror is a bit of a letdown. But to be fair, I can recognize that there are only so many times you can do the “oOoOo is he there?” setup and throw around Elisabeth Moss before it’s rote. Cecilia is a textbook example of the core screenwriting tenet of taking nice people and doing absolutely horrible things to them, and it’s more impressive that she’s not a paper-thin character in turn. We get a legitimate sense of her aspirations and her past life before becoming entangled with Adrian and his schemes, we know any quirks or outbursts come from a place of deep trauma, so when she fights back it’s very satisfying, letting us overlook a couple actions that feel slightly out of place for her because goddamnit you want her to succeed. And the stakes here are elemental – an unseen evil seeks to ruin everything Cecilia has that can improve her life. By trying to escape that evil, it gets worse. The Invisible Man doesn’t elaborate on that much further, aside from serving as a commentary (albeit a relatively basic one) on abusive relationships and the lasting dysfunction resulting from them, but that’s the smart play as it keeps everything humming along nicely.

And despite being a 2-hour movie, The Invisible Man really does breeze. It knows when not to overstay its welcome, when you’re about to get bored of a sequence (the climactic fight scene is on the bleeding edge of going on for too long before ending at the most ideal time), plus I have to admire a movie that gets to the point without flourish and doesn’t feel like something’s missing. The only exception to that might be the last 10-15 minutes – they’re all over the place and eager to hurry to the end, even though the beats themselves make sense. For a movie that makes quite sure we know Cecilia is hurting and lets us feel the various impacts of that, it’s odd to feel like everything’s on fast-forward in the last moments that ought to be the most meaningful (I’m a fan of those individual moments themselves, however).

That’s not a significant critique when the rest of the movie is so proficient. The Invisible Man is well-versed in the fundamental ingredients that make horror effective and entertaining, and when it unshackles its horror trappings it still manages to be compelling viewing. It’s not big, it’s not aspiring to shift any paradigms, but it’s incredibly confident in the cat-and-mouse story it wants to deliver and just as gripping where it counts.

Action Horror Summer of Horror

The Hunt (2020)

The Hunt (2020)
Director: Craig Zobel
Writers: Nick Cuse, Damon Lindelof
Cast: Betty Gilpin, Hilary Swank, Ike Barinholtz
Genre: Action, Horror
Country: United States

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

The Hunt wants you to believe it’s a clever movie. It’s not.

That sums it, feel free to exit now.

But really, probably the most frustrating thing about The Hunt is it wanting to eat its B-movie cake and have its message-movie cake too – derailing what really ought to be just a fun bloody rollick. Of course, The Hunt‘s premise feeds directly into the mediocre satire and messaging it delivers, so I guess I’m saying The Hunt is fundamentally flawed.

The Hunt follows a group of Republican folk kidnapped and thrown into a random forest, where they quickly discover they’re being murdered ad nauseam. One of these people, Crystal (Betty Gilpin), manages to survive the initial slaughter and heads to kill the group of liberal elites responsible.

A loaded premise, to be sure – and to be fair, movies better than The Hunt could do a lot more with it. Each character here is more or less a caricature of their political orientation, which makes sense as this is meant to be satirical, but holy fuck these are agonizing. They are very much Baby’s First Political Joke on left- and right-wing people, not so much pointing out how annoying the extremes on either spectrum tend to be than being annoying at how extremely low-brow it is. This has the unfortunate side effect of zapping any ounce of fun straight out of the film when we’re graced with such characters. When you have an SJW stereotype spouting off (and it is THE most basic incarnation you can conjure off the top of your head), bringing up hot-button issues without resolution or insight, it’s like writers Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof are actively trying to yank you from the movie for no satisfying purpose at all, making what’s supposed to be a Battle Royale-type B-movie an occasional chore instead.

Thank god, then, for Gilpin, who’s The Hunt’s secret weapon without even truly appreciating it, I think. Her body language tells Crystal’s story in lieu of a script that offers little, delivering a performance with an assured, slightly eccentric, almost Tarantino-esque vibe, including a “tortoise and hare” monologue that she chews the shit out of. Every scene with Gilpin is eminently watchable and The Hunt would be galling without her energy.

We get a few other familiar faces, like Emma Roberts and Ike Barinholtz, and all of them die very quickly and very brutally. To the extent of The Hunt being a gore movie, it plays that card effectively – you have people getting cut in half, getting their faces blasted off, getting heels stabbed through the eyes. It’s quite disgusting and the effects are excellent. Jane Rizzo’s editing is nicely consistent, keeping us well oriented in space, and the sound design is appropriately loud, with crunches and bangs getting the oomph you’d expect from this type of picture. The primal thrill of these moments tends to be dulled by those rascally caricatures, so they’re never too thrilling or ever very satisfying. Crystal’s fight with Athena (Hilary Swank), the ringleader of these murderous elites (“Athena” is also the goddess of war, in another example of The Hunt’s inertia towards subtlety), is a key exception to all this. It’s an amazing scene, one of the few moments in The Hunt with verve and electric ferocity – easily the best part of the movie, where everything it seems to want to be clicks, even if for a brief moment relative to the 90-minute runtime.

Then you have the twist towards the end, attempting to tie The Hunt’s commentary together, suggesting how extreme partisanship can impact everyday people. It’s a decent enough sentiment, yes, and it’s not wrong, but it’s also something a level-headed person is probably aware of already, so there’s that. Having to gruel through an hour and some of painfully written characters to get to the overall point still means grueling through an hour and some of painfully written characters, plus it’s not like this twist retroactively makes them any better.

So what we’re left with, aside from Gilpin and Swank (who’s very game and unhinged), are the technicalities. The naturalistic lighting from cinematographer Darran Tiernan hits the right amount of dreariness, with the large quantities of blood splatter offering the only true flashes of colour. Director Craig Zobel does a functional job until the final fight scene, which is full of style, and if the rest of the movie matched that scene it would be outstanding all around. That isn’t the case, and instead we’re asked to put up with a script that thinks throwing out rock-stupid obvious stereotypes amounts to cleverness, and that’s a tall order indeed.

Comedies Dramas

The King of Staten Island (2020)

The King of Staten Island (2020)
Director: Judd Apatow
Writers: Judd Apatow, Pete Davidson, Dave Sirus
Cast: Pete Davidson, Marisa Tomei, Bill Burr
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Country: United States

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Judd Apatow has given us a taste of his dramedy stylings before with 2009’s Funny People, a movie I have not seen in a very long time, but I do remember distinctly that it was a very long movie. His latest, The King of Staten Island, is a technically competent dramedy, embodying the reality of slackers who want to be happy with what they have but are tormented by personal demons in need of exorcising, but do you know what else it is? 40 fucking minutes too long, that’s what.

The King of Staten Island follows Scott Carlin (Pete Davidson), an aspiring tattoo artist who’s also stuck in a rut of smoking weed with his group of friends, stuck in a casual-but-maybe-not relationship with a girl named Kelsey (Bel Powley), and seen as hitting a brick wall by his family, with his sister Claire (Maude Apatow) trying to contain his neuroses and his mom Margie (Marisa Tomei) pretending everything is well and good.

The movie wastes no time establishing Scott is troubled, with the very first scene having him close his eyes while driving and vibing to music, nearly crashing and causing untold damage. Notably, this scene offers the maximal self-destructiveness we ever see in Scott, as Staten Island does not wish to treat the character with the gravitas an opening scene about suicidal ideation might suggest. Staten Island‘s first five minutes are an exposition dump, laying all of Scott’s cards on the table (in a succinct monologue, we learn that Scott is an awkward slacker, has various medicated mental health issues, and is manic and irresponsible) – a perfectly fine gesture if the movie were at all interested in hitting the ground running. Imagine my surprise, then, when I pause and find out 27 minutes have passed and nothing has happened, except for Claire going off to college – which has little emotional sway so it feels like nothing.

Staten Island gets a mild boost when Scott attempts to tattoo a 10-year-old named Harold, and Harold’s father, Roy (Bill Burr), obviously disapproves of this and raises hell, subsequently bonding with Margie. Roy’s a firefighter, much like Scott’s late father, so the thought of his mom shagging another firefighter won’t do. Staten Island is also kind enough to expeditiously show Roy and Margie’s relationship blossoming through a montage, a moment of restraint and respect for narrative tightness in a movie impartial to either (extra frustrating is that it decides to cut down on Burr and Tomei, who have nice chemistry and outperform mostly everyone else, and opts instead to hang out with Scott’s scattershot group of friends who are either deeply unlikable, mean little to the story, or both). Judd Apatow’s filmography has always erred on the longer side, but there’s an aimlessness that’s been rearing its ugly head of late, and in that respect The King of Staten Island is an epitome. There are clusters of scenes that don’t work, ranging from simple disjointed cuts like Roy watching Scott with focused thought in one shot then gleefully blasting him with a fire hose in the next, feeling like a random assortment of scenes from a film set that were stitched together by indulgence than adherence to story, all the way to an oddly dark robbery scene that could’ve been cut without much dissonance.

And this isn’t an aimlessness that’s poetic, or in line with the aimlessness experienced by Scott – who really isn’t that interesting a character (I watched the trailer for Big Time Adolescence, Davidson’s last prominent movie role, and Scott just seems like a slightly more serious version of Davidson’s character in that, even down to the tattooing), outshone by supporting characters like Margie, Roy, Roy’s ex-wife Gina (Pamela Adlon), and especially Kelsey. In fact, I’d argue a recalibration of Staten Island that focuses on Kelsey would do a lot of good, since she’s the only character who actually wants to effect change on Staten Island (the location has next to no influence on Scott and he could’ve been anywhere, so the title isn’t super fitting) and is genuinely endearing. She demonstrates a certain kind of independence as a character versus Scott, who’s really at the mercy of wherever the story needs him, functioning better as a supporting figure than a relatively blank protagonist going through the movie’s motions. Since The King of Staten Island has the momentum of a model train, such a shift might’ve cleared up many ills.

The movie’s occasionally funny, with little moments like a restaurant fight club or Margie’s friend’s hyena laugh (a fleeting 2-second moment, but I love it all the same). It’s never funny, though, and this wouldn’t be a big problem – this is a dramedy after all – but Staten Island isn’t particularly dramatic either, so what gives? Topics like trauma and grief are chewed up with shallow acknowledgement, and when it does hint at things like the social consequences of depression and its role in the vicious circle of declining self-worth, it never goes in. It’s a safe movie about a character in an unsafe headspace, with moments of potential profundity brushed over in favour of contrivances (the catalyst that reunites Scott, Margie, and Roy after their falling out goes for laughs but feels extremely easy), which is annoying when the movie has a more than sufficient runtime to flesh things out.

The last hour largely takes place at the fire station Roy works at, where we spend time with his colleagues – who had previously made the briefest of appearances at a football game and I was surprised the movie rounded back to them like we’re supposed to care. If this were a shorter movie, the gap between appearances wouldn’t be so jarring, but here we are. Scott learns some things about the value of work and that this Roy fellow isn’t so bad, and maybe opening up to people is healthy. This isn’t a neat, satisfying little bow – Claire is the person most concerned for Scott in the beginning, yet she completely vanishes from the movie in the last half after expressing even more concern for Scott after the robbery scene. Hell, Scott’s aspiration for a tattoo restaurant – an idea each character scoffs at, perhaps rightfully so, but at some point anything interesting is welcome – doesn’t make any headway (or his career as a tattoo artist, even though we’re led to believe this is an integral passion).

The question The King of Staten Island poses is whether a slacker bogged by unresolved grief can take meaningful steps forward, and the answer we get is, “well, maybe.” Scott doesn’t feel fundamentally different than when we first meet him, maybe slightly less of a man-child, slightly more aware of responsibility. There’s something to be said for that, but The King of Staten Island doesn’t want to unpack, reprimand, and have actual consequence (those that do occur have painfully obvious resolutions), so making us sit through 136 minutes to say precious little is just rude.


2040 (2019)

2040 (2019)
Director: Damon Gameau
Writer: Damon Gameau
Cast: Damon Gameau, Eva Lazzaro, Zoë Gameau
Genre: Documentary
Country: Australia

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

In a world where every climate documentary claws to be the next An Inconvenient Truth, 2040 is a refreshing change of pace, albeit one that lacks the urgency and passion of Al Gore presenting perhaps the most important PowerPoint you’ll ever see. Rather than speaking of the ills that will inevitably torment human society, 2040‘s interest is entirely on the solutions that can relieve them. This has, I’d say, two primary consequences: one, it’s a very nice documentary with a lot of love for people and what we can achieve; two, you’ll have made up your mind about the movie prior to watching, and it doesn’t do a whole lot to convince those on the “I disagree” end.

2040 follows Damon Gameau (That Sugar Film) as he travels around the world, exploring a number of solutions to the climate crisis and interviewing the experts involved. Each of these concepts effect change in nearly every facet of human life, and the movie does a fairly good job at explaining why these concepts, such as shared solar-powered microgrids or marine permaculture, are beneficial. Gameau’s daughter, Violet (who’s a toddler here, but the ‘older’ Violet is played by Eva Lazzaro), acts as our eye into the changes these solutions might bring by 2040.

Those “older Violet in 2040” sequences are really lovely, laden with nicely done and plausible effects work, suggesting a cleaner, happier, generally more vibrant future. It’s a large juxtaposition from the doom and gloom this genre specializes in (though such doom and gloom can be understandable) and they’re striking scenes, inspiring not only in how they paint a brighter future, but also in how possible that future is. 2040 doesn’t venture into the realm of outlandish, borderline sci-fi proposals, opting instead for solutions that already exist and are demonstrably effective.

I also have to give a hand to 2040 for not presenting its ideas in a condescending way like it easily could have. Gameau is a game narrator, opting for humour and energy over dour gravitas. While I can’t say he’s particularly insightful on his own, he’s a good figure to navigate and introduce the ideas at play here. It’s an exceptionally friendly film, always happy to see people, pick their brains a bit, and see the hope in any given situation.

The obvious downside, then, is there’s little sense of adversity. 2040 is excited to present these terrific ideas and it wants us to be equally excited, if not more, though it doesn’t really dare examine why we’re not doing these things or what’s holding us back, aside from some cursory slaps on the wrist to your average everyday carbon emitter and to fossil fuel companies for pushing misinformation. It’s mildly unsatisfying to have solutions that have no cons in the film’s eyes and are obviously excellent, yet the discussion as to why they’re not commonplace is more or less shrugged over. I imagine the slim 92-minute runtime plays a heavy hand in that, as you could spend many hours exploring each solution and the road to actively employing them. In that sense, 2040 lends itself far better to a limited TV series at the least, as what we get is quite good, yet there’s no room to truly deep-dive into ideas, or debate the problems they might face and how to address them, or the psychology behind why many people are adverse to these changes.

Despite all that, there’s value to what’s on offer here, a particular beauty to the hope that the best of humanity will prevail and sustain future generations with what we already have. 2040 is designed to start conversations and is an excellent stepping stone for environmentally-minded kids. Still, I’d be remiss to not knock it for avoiding the tough conversations that accompany societal change, especially for an issue as existential as the climate crisis. It’s on the opposite end of the climate documentary spectrum – extremely idealistic versus extremely dour – but in doing so it’s falling into the same trap as those extremely dour pictures by brushing past the other side of the story.

And I get that the movie’s intention isn’t necessarily to have these difficult and touchy conversations, it’s supposed to focus on the upside of things, but if I were a dolt and had no clue about climate change I wouldn’t have a great sense of the issue’s gravity by watching this. 2040 assumes we’re in its corner already, offering good reinforcement for what we already know and feel, but it’s not nearly as good at opening a dialogue with skeptics or those who feel there are insurmountable barriers at play – the end credits mention a movement you can join, an admirable gesture, though it comes out of nowhere. It’s sort of a shame, as these solutions are exciting and practical, but they’re not given the time of day they deserve (you can distill all the information 2040 offers in a quick paragraph), so it’s not an impactful picture as I think it could’ve been.

However, I’d have to be a very cynical prick indeed to not be enamoured by 2040’s vision of the future and the people striving to make it happen. Plus it’s a tall order to expect one documentary to be a panacea. What 2040 lacks in nuance it mostly makes up for with constant hope, and given hope is probably a better arbiter of change than despair, it’s worth listening to what it has to say, and I hope it inspires future climate documentaries that more deftly balance optimism with the realities of the times. For now, we have a fine introduction, and I can’t be mad at that.

Dark Comedies Period Pieces TV

The Great (2020)

The Great (2020)
Creator: Tony McNamara
Cast: Elle Fanning, Nicholas Hoult, Phoebe Fox
Country: United States

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Historical biopics are fickle creatures, balancing (or hopefully anyway) authenticity with actual entertainment value. Usually they’re ardently manufactured for maximum award efficiency; ergo, they focus on the former. And what makes The Great absolutely lovely is that it hones almost exclusively on the latter, selectively picking bits of history for the sake of its own satire. Some things are true, some things are kind of true, some things are entirely wrong. In each case, these things are essential for the story The Great wishes to tell, which isn’t exactly the story of Catherine the Great, but more so a story about idealism in the face of absolute power that uses her rise as a framework.

All of this is to be expected from Tony McNamara, who wrote 2018’s The Favourite, a wild picture that you either really adore or really don’t. If you’ve seen The Favourite, your temperature on that should correspond remarkably well to yours on The Great, though I’d argue that The Great has a key advantage over The Favourite: whereas that picture was forced to condense its story into a relentlessly mad 2-hour ball, The Great is a 10-episode miniseries, immediately giving it breathing room to marinate on its twists and turns (of which there are many). But the rhythm and essence between the two productions remain largely similar.

Taking place in the 18th century, Catherine (Elle Fanning), a Prussian royal, absconds to Russia to marry Emperor Peter III (Nicholas Hoult). Catherine is an enlightened woman, wishing to spread the evolving liberal ideologies in Europe, particularly France, to Russia. Peter is a reckless idiot with disdain for everything that doesn’t have to do with his creature comforts – vodka, hunting, eating out women, you get the idea. An obvious schism develops, until Catherine’s servant Marial (Phoebe Fox), a former Lady of the court, eggs Catherine on to begin a coup and take power. Over the series, we watch Catherine navigate the Court, the uniquely Russian politics within, and her own existential struggles as she tries to expand her influence and make said coup a reality.

That’s a hugely brisk summary, but the stakes and conflicts are easy to spot, and all are deceptively simple. Most characters in The Great lead well-established lives, many sharing dynamics we become privy to when Catherine’s rising presence threatens to disrupt them. A show that revolves solely around Catherine would be a bit of a chore, however, and The Great is aware of this, with each character having their own conflicts and desires independent of Catherine’s, like Grigor (Gwilym Lee) becoming increasingly tired of Peter fucking his wife Georgina (Charity Wakefield). Most, if not all, are tied to a bubbling sense of dissatisfaction with the state of Russian rule, which indirectly benefits Catherine in the end. Elegance itself.

The writing is the show’s strongest card and the dialogue especially is a triumph, managing to weave modern vernacular into the aristocratic idiosyncrasies of the time, which is quite a difficult feat to pull off well, more so to pull off as well as The Great does it. The show’s towing a fine line between “enough ‘fucks’ to be funny” and “too many ‘fucks’ to be believable,” but it updates the linguistic stylings of the 18th century into something much more palatable for contemporary comedy, rarely crossing that line. And the show’s very much a comedy, hilarious albeit extremely dark at moments (I’m trying to skirt spoilers, but the show does not hold back and is really an experience unto itself), and while the performances imbue a lot of life into the humour, the writing is so assured and proficient that you’d have to be trying real hard to botch it.

Fanning and Hoult are particular standouts, with their banter consistently placing as the funniest moments in the series – their emotionally winding relationship is an excellent juxtaposition to the chemistry between them – and both embody their characters with delightful confidence. Fanning does a terrific job of going from an Amelia Bedelia who wants to spread liberalism in a decidedly non-liberal state to a woman who spreads her beliefs with conviction and a stronger internal locus of control, realizing that idealism might not be the practical or necessary solution, depending on the circumstance. There’s still a distinct humanity to Catherine and you love to root for her – the show gets you anxious as to whether she’ll succeed, even though you know she obviously will because it’s not that detached from history, but it’s impressive nonetheless.

Hoult plays a figure unlike the real Peter III, who was Prussian, completely hated Russia, had no desire to have sex with Catherine and was generally a frail idiot (though this Peter does have a propensity to tire of ruling and is pretty dumb, he’s more entitled than frail and frequently exercises strength plus blind confidence to get what he wants, and he also has a lot of sex with Catherine). Still, he’s compellingly good in the role, making the constant five variations of jokes he’s given funny each time. There’s a humanity to Peter as well, but it’s diluted by his lack of emotional intelligence to embrace it and overshadowed by his desire to be loved, even though for all intents and purposes he’s an extraordinarily shitty leader. And while the Peter in The Great isn’t true to life, it’s a necessary decision to present a foil to Catherine in a way that’s narratively and comedically satisfying.

The various other characters that litter Peter’s court are colourful in their own ways, and there isn’t a single questionable performance. It’s easy to like pretty well every one of them, even those who take a while to grow on you – some take a couple episodes, some take a couple biting quips. Many are immediately outstanding, like the very off-kilter Aunt Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow), my personal favourite, and the calculating Archbishop (Adam Godley), referred to as “Archie” by the court (one of many examples of The Great‘s irreverence towards religion and… everything, really). Orlov (Sacha Dhawan), the meek scholar of the court and one of Catherine’s main allies, is arguably the weakest of the bunch and least interesting, but that’s no fault of Dhawan’s and it’s the character’s lot in the story’s life. Though to be fair, The Great‘s story feels propelled by the characters themselves rather than forced plotlines. Each action is organic, stemming from the person’s desires and feelings, and there’s nary a moment where you can feel the writer in the background. It makes the emotional moments feel genuine and even wrenching, the comedy more soulful. The Great is not a fan of convenience and doesn’t care to humour expectations, making for truly engaging viewing.

The Great is also quite nice to look at, vibrant where appropriate and making exquisite use of yellow and green, dull and foreboding where necessary (like the muted palette as Catherine and Elizabeth visit a battlefield, giving the soldiers colourful macarons from an equally colourful box, contrasting the cushiness of the court against the torment of war). The first episode, directed by Matt Shakman (a Fargo and Game of Thrones alum), offers striking, stately compositions, but those are unfortunately lost over time, maybe due to Shakman not helming any other episodes. The show excels in most technical aspects, though the editing is a bit jarring at times – there are a number of awkward, soap opera-esque scene transitions, and it can unnecessarily disrupt the flow of an episode.

But really, the characters are the hook of the show. One episode about a smallpox outbreak doesn’t do a whole lot to advance the narrative, really only reinforcing what we already know (Peter is an asshole, Catherine wants to help, Marial’s life sucks), but spending an hour with these people is such a joy that these qualms are trivial. They make The Great live up to its name, above and beyond the satire, the lovely costuming, the production values. I’m not sure if we’re getting a continuation, but I would be very thrilled to jump back into this bizarre little world, so here’s hoping.

Horror Summer of Horror

Halloween II (1981)

Halloween II (1981)
Director: Rick Rosenthal
Writers: John Carpenter, Debra Hill
Cast: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasance, Charles Cyphers
Genre: Horror
Country: United States

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Far be it from me to claim Halloween II is a good movie, but I ask you to detach yourself from the perfection of its predecessor and look at Halloween II on its own merits.

It’s still not good, surely not, but the trick to watching Halloween II isn’t to view it as a sequel to Halloween (bear with me). Rather, watch it as an ’80s slasher, as a contemporary to the Friday the 13th series, as a contemporary to all the other Halloween sequels. Relative to those movies, you can admire (again, relatively) what Halloween II offers. Because, frankly, trying to compare any of these movies to the original Halloween is a losing battle – Halloween is on such a distinct plane that at some point you’re better off leaving those lesser films to scrap with the others. This is not sound logic, but I have a bit of nostalgia for Halloween II and defending it is one of the more meaningless hills I will die on.

And to be fair, I’m asking you to distance Halloween II from the first despite it beginning directly where the first left off, so that’s helpful. But if you’re paying attention, you’ll notice that they actually reshot the final moments from Halloween for the sequel. Like, remade it shot-for-shot, as if no remaining prints of Halloween were available for them to use. It’s immediately shittier, but in some abstract way lets you engage with Halloween II on its level. Afterward, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is carted off to Haddonfield General Hospital while Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) spouts some extra neurotic dialogue this round, reduced from a man speaking in eloquent horror prose to some guy in a trenchcoat screaming “SIX TIMES! I SHOT HIM SIX TIMES!” to anyone in passing, or this delicious exchange:

Guy: “Is this some kind of joke? I’ve been trick or treated to death tonight.”


Guy (in my imagination): “Okay.”

To say nothing of Michael Myers (Dick Warlock, who opted for a more robotic take to Myers versus Nick Castle’s methodical and purposeful approach, which isn’t really great but it suffices), who spends the first 10 minutes of the movie touring a Haddonfield neighbourhood, scaring and killing and all that. Loomis and Sheriff Brackett (Charles Cyphers) are searching for Michael and doing a spectacularly poor job of it, given Loomis runs right past a decently lit path that he’s on, with Brackett bowing out of the movie fairly early after the police find the body of his daughter, Annie (Nancy Loomis). That’s perhaps the only moment where Halloween II attempts to recognize the tragedy of its predecessor’s events and the consequent toll on the once-idyllic town, which you’d think would easily ring most true for Laurie, but alas. Where Brackett is shaken, taking out his anger on Loomis (the closest figure to Michael), Laurie is kind of, y’know, there, lounging around in a hospital. You could claim she’s in shock and that explains her nonchalance to everything around her, and that would be very nice of you since it’s obvious Jamie Lee Curtis gave not one fuck here, and more power to her really. After the police cart off Annie’s body and Brackett disappears with her, Halloween II unshackles itself from Halloween and plows full-steam into a hugely entertaining blitzing mess.

The gist of Halloween II is that Michael’s still out to hunt Laurie and finds out she’s being treated at Haddonfield General, a fact he comes across by a guy hitching a radio on his shoulder. What makes this especially divine is how Michael walks past said guy, is very in public, and nobody bats an eye – even though the police manage to spot Ben Tramer (Jack Verbois) in an off-off-Broadway Michael mask, go to chase him thinking he’s Michael, and a police cruiser speeds from nowhere, pins him into another car and just explodes. Divine.

You see, where Halloween is an exercise in restraint, Halloween II is in many ways an exercise in excess. There are many random characters, to the point where the movie forgets about some of them and they show up dead, because killing them on-screen would bloat the runtime I guess. Michael’s killings are more varied: he’s stabbing, slitting, choking, scalding, needling, hammering, lifting, draining, on and on. There’s an abundance of blood and gore relative to Halloween, and depending on whether you take to folklore you can thank John Carpenter for that (rumour is director Rick Rosenthal, who later directed the truly ungodly Halloween: Resurrection, didn’t intend to make Halloween II a bloody affair, and Carpenter, smelling the cash from the rising slasher genre, took the reins and reshot death scenes accordingly).

As far as slashers go, and as far as one watches a Halloween movie (the original is an anomaly among the 11 films in this franchise), these kills are pretty effective, corny in that ’80s way (e.g., scalding a promiscuous nurse in a hot tub after strangling her vaguely creepy coworker she hooked up with, or lifting another nurse with one hand via a scalpel in the back) and only helped by the disco swerve the score took, which I personally love – the organ swell in the theme feels like the Halloween season, evoking imagery of ghouls and witches and have you. It’s synthy as hell and delightful all the same. Even the visual elements lifted directly from Halloween, like Michael’s mask fading from the blackness before he sticks a syringe in a nurse’s skull, still work fine, thanks to the return of Halloween‘s DP Dean Cundey. Halloween II isn’t the surreal treat its predecessor was and doesn’t really have a distinctive visual acumen aside from “Halloween but duller,” yet it’s still Dean Cundey and he still knows how to shoot these movies: the nighttime is perfectly nighttimey, the hospital is oppressively sterile, and the shadows still press against the frame, promising evil within. Special credit to one shot of Michael enveloped in red light as he chases Laurie, the closest Halloween II comes to iconic horror imagery.

Regarding the hospital, it’s perfectly emblematic of how ridiculous Halloween II is. It seems impossibly large for the, like, less than a dozen people working there. Laurie, as far as we know, is the only overnight patient aside from some newborns in the maternity ward. It’s totally stupid and the movie does not care, yet it works: the hospital feels desolate and unsettling (on a superficial level; Halloween II is not frightening, but it does manage to be quite creepy from time to time), emphasizing Laurie’s isolation in her fight against the elemental Evil as it stalks the hospital corridors. If I’m stretching, I can call Halloween II surreal in how over-the-top everything seems when compared to Halloween, including the oddly empty hospital – but it’s more likely they couldn’t be bothered to fill a cast of staff.

Of course, that elemental Good vs. Evil story is annihilated by a drunk John Carpenter when Laurie is revealed to be none other than Michael’s sister, a hilariously useless twist that still served as the foundation of the Michael Myers saga going forward, because horror is both adaptable and submissive. It’s counterproductive against Halloween and even disrupts Halloween II‘s internal coherence (if Michael kills to get to Laurie, why did he kill that random young woman at the beginning of the movie?), but mainly it’s a giant middle finger to what made Halloween so perfect, and I imagine it’s the product of an apathetic John Carpenter and Debra Hill thumbing away at a screenplay like, “You want this movie, you little shits? We’ll give it to you.” They go further with Loomis discovering “Samhain” written in blood in an elementary school, connecting Michael to the occult in a low-brow attempt to explain his invulnerability. All of this is difficult to reconcile with, but it’s almost impressive how entertaining Halloween II is in spite of itself. Plus it’s harder to be mad about this when you can cherry-pick no less than three different timelines in the non-remake Halloween series, so if it bothers you that much you can just watch 2018’s Halloween and act as though Halloween II never happened.

I haven’t really touched on the characters aside from Laurie and Loomis, and that’s because… there’s not much to say? These are all stock slasher characters, though I’ve always found Mrs. Alves (Gloria Gifford) to be legitimately kind, one who seems to look out for Laurie’s best interests and is comforting accordingly. There’s one scene between two nurses that’s a decent bit of character work, reminiscent of that from Halloween (the grapevine suggests Carpenter directed this scene), hinting at inner lives and relationships for them as they go about their day, discussing work, who’s driving who and where, but my inability to remember their names should indicate it’s not that good, and it’s not like the movie’s keen to expand on any of it. Jimmy (Lance Guest) functions primarily to make Laurie emote, so that’s noble. Marion Chambers (Nancy Stephens), Loomis’ colleague, returns from Halloween, acting as an anchor for Loomis while smoking and looking sassy. Everyone else is either there then not there, sometimes dying later, or they die rather immediately. And that about covers it.

Yet, despite all its misgivings, I find myself craving Halloween II when Halloween time draws near. It’s reckless in the most endearing sense, a movie that clearly has no reason to exist but does it with a particular zest anyway. And for what it’s worth, Halloween II rolls its punches against the wave of slashers to follow, putting up inventive kills and a technical competency often overlooked in the genre. To the end of Halloween II being a sequel to Halloween, it really does fail more than it succeeds, but Halloween II shares plenty with the slasher as its commonly known, and to that end it’s one of the most successful realizations of those genes. I will always have a soft spot for its synth-infused atmosphere, coupled with perhaps the best embodiment of Michael Myers as a slasher-genre villain than the mythic Evil in Halloween. A step down, sure, but when step downs are this ideal for a cool October evening it’s difficult to feel too vexed.

Dark Comedies Horror Summer of Horror

Come to Daddy (2019)

Come to Daddy (2019)
Director: Ant Timpson
Writer: Toby Harvard
Cast: Elijah Wood, Stephen McHattie, Garfield Wilson
Genre: Horror, Comedy
Country: Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, United States

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Before anything else, I would like to bless Elijah Wood for his hand in giving us this recent trend of off-kilter horrors; namely, Mandy and Color Out of Space of late. Each are extremely odd, extremely bemusing pictures, very much for a specific audience, but goddamn do they do that niche well. Come to Daddy is no different. Whether that’s something that entices or puts you off is one of the more subjective questions here, and I can’t really blame you for either decision.

Come to Daddy shares a bit with the two movies above, though it’s far more in Mandy‘s camp: both movies tell a story about somebody unwittingly forced into conflict to rectify some sort of loss, both feature strange and darkly witty villains, and both have various sequences that satisfyingly use the colour red. Come to Daddy doesn’t match the intensity of Mandy‘s immediate otherworldly pull and is milder in almost every conceivable way, but the family resemblance is clear.

In this instance, we have Norval (Elijah Wood, boasting one of the most egregious haircuts put to film over the past year), an obvious loser whose desperation to be someone pushes him to look like a gentle Joe Exotic, trekking off the beaten path to reunite with his father, Gordon (Stephen McHattie), after receiving a letter asking him to visit. And since this is a horror picture, you can assume this won’t be a joyful rendezvous. Gordon is a creepy asshole and the movie wastes no time establishing this as we endure uncomfortable gazes and incredibly awkward conversations between him and Norval, which, dare I say, gets a little tedious as the movie waits to play its hand.

Thankfully, Come to Daddy is clever enough to anticipate where we think this is all going and bluntly shuts it down. It’s a trick used twice to excellent effect, shifting gears for the entire movie, and all the little fake-outs throughout (like a fantastically prolonged sequence with Norval gloating about being a big deal in music, only falling apart thanks to Elton John, revealing both he and Gordon are insufferable in their own ways) force you to just sit down and absorb how things pan out. The progression from terse words to Elijah Wood wildly stabbing a guy in the dick is very quick indeed, so dwelling on and trying to work things out doesn’t do favours for anyone.

This isn’t to say that Come to Daddy is a revelation in story structure, but it’s fun, knows its twists, and executes them well with little regard to the peripherals – a fancy way of saying the characters need to function more so on their personalities. How fortunate, then, that the people who inhabit Come to Daddy all vary on a spectrum of bizarre, with the only one approaching a remote semblance of ‘normal’ being local coroner Gladys (Madeleine Sami), who still opens with a joke about a fresh corpse. Even though the movie doesn’t care to do much with many of these characters, everyone involved makes an honest effort to stand out, succeeding where it matters.

Wood does well to embody the shift from hapless wannabe to an angrier, still mostly hapless person who’s had everything but has made nothing, and has yet to resolve the emotions that followed his father abandoning him and his mother, who remains offscreen, when he was 5 despite it being 30 years since. This loss isn’t nearly as tangible or raw as that of Nicolas Cage’s wife in Mandy, but it still fuels Norval’s every action, driving him to alcohol dependency, later driving him to kill so he can a) survive, and b) keep the option for a relationship with his father steady, emphasized in the end when they’re bloodied on the beach outside his father’s home (which itself is lovely. We’re never given a good orient for its layout, so it’s a confusing and lonely place), eventually holding hands, giving both Norval and his father a quiet sense of peace.

The other notable performance belongs to Michael Smiley, playing the villain Jethro, who’s very much like a murderous, Irish Weird Al. While I wouldn’t exactly call Come to Daddy hilarious – even though many seem to attribute it as a comedy first, which might be misleading since it’s really more of a comedy of circumstances (a scene where Norval is trying not to wake up a motel room full of swingers comes to mind) than a comedy of “ha ha” jokes – Smiley receives the bulk of the lines that come close to that and he’s wonderful with them. There’s a terrific shot of him hobbling along a road in the movie’s little town, mostly dark save for a blinking red light, with Norval following behind, neither bearing a sense of urgency nor much energy at all (leading to the funniest scene in the movie). At that moment both men are one and the same, merely tired shadows playing a tired game. There isn’t much in the way of striking imagery in Come to Daddy aside from that, with its visual style most aptly summed up with “dark”, but the occasional flashes of colour, like a cellar bathed in exquisite red, are delightful. These flashes are more prevalent as the intensity begins to boil, and I’m inclined to believe that Come to Daddy would improve much if it trimmed the time to get to Twist A, then the time in between Twist A and Twist B, since everything after that last interim is fantastic. Everything in-between is generally more content to beat around the bush, a direction that works well in retrospect after the movie’s revealed its cards, but in the moment starts to become a drag that one doesn’t anticipate from a 95-minute picture.

Come to Daddy isn’t ever scary, though it does play around with Gordon’s creepiness for the first 20 minutes, maybe. This isn’t a critique, it doesn’t go out of its way to scare you. But for those who aren’t aware of what they’re getting into (and this is a low-key enough movie where I don’t imagine that’s a huge problem) there’s a decent-to-good chance they’ll be underwhelmed, or unsatisfied. It’s a very particular kind of movie, one that sees horror as a reason to tell fun and eccentric stories, and it’s a welcome change from the usual haunts and jaunts we get these days. I’m well within Come to Daddy‘s target audience, though, so your mileage may vary. It’s maybe a milder option among its niche (save for a couple moments of spectacular brutality), but Come to Daddy functions perfectly well as a routinely involving strange adventure, and is one of the better choices if you’re on the lookout for such a thing.

Horror Summer of Horror

Halloween (1978)

Halloween (1978)
Director: John Carpenter
Writers: John Carpenter, Debra Hill
Cast: Donald Pleasance, Jamie Lee Curtis, Nancy Loomis
Genre: Horror
Country: United States

Rating: 5 out of 5.

John Carpenter’s Halloween is arguably the most bulletproof horror movie ever made, holding up when grouped with its ten sequels by sheer cognitive dissonance. Halloween is a thing of its own, the sequels are the obvious others. You know this, though.

The legacy Halloween created has surpassed the movie – which in itself is a simple, unassuming thing – for both good and bad reasons, depending on how snobby you are over slashers (which is fair, many are horrible and I am equally horrible for loving them). Many attribute Halloween as the birth of that particular genre and, I mean, way to blow off The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Black Christmas, both of which came out in 1974, but it’s disingenuous to say Halloween didn’t play the heaviest part by proving the genre was viable. And yet, compare Halloween to the wave of slashers that swept the 1980s. Hell, compare it to every other Halloween movie. All of them wished to replicate the success of Halloween, the most profitable independent movie ever made for a time, but none of them could understand how simplicity can beget perfection quite like Halloween.

And it really is simple, when you boil it down. Michael Myers (Will Sandin), a 6-year-old boy from an idyllic suburb town called Haddonfield in Illinois, remorselessly kills his teenage sister, Judith, on Halloween night after she has 30-second sex (the only thing you can really clock the movie for, and even then it’s so out there that why would you bother) with her boyfriend, and is locked away at Smith’s Grove sanitarium under the care of Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance), who eventually gives up rehabilitation as he realizes there is no hope for Michael. Years later, 23-year-old Michael (and played by Nick Castle, embodying the quiet, slow killer archetype quite unlike anybody ever since, portraying simultaneous nothingness and distinct purpose), escapes Smith’s Grove before Halloween and returns to Haddonfield, where he happens to spot teenager Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) placing the keys for his old house, up for sale by Laurie’s father, under the door. Michael decides to hunt her and kill her and those in the way. Laurie goes about her life, unaware that she’s been targeted for death as Loomis desperately tries to find Michael.

This has been beaten over and over, but it’s truly the most powerful concept: Evil finds an arbitrary target, Evil seeks to destroy said target no matter what, no matter the reason. Questions of motive are irrelevant, it’s just something that is. The terror of this is only exacerbated when you read real-life stories of similar happenings and realize it’s not that far-fetched.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Halloween is the surrealism that runs throughout the film. It’s primarily visual: the colours are pushed to the extreme, mostly due to shooting the movie in a California summer and needing to force the perspective of midwestern autumn, with daytime serving a strong orange and the nighttime a strong blue, as if everything’s reflecting a giant aquarium or the blue of a television screen, and it’s all similar enough to reality where it’s not unbelievable, but strong enough where it registers in a small part of your mind as odd but extremely pleasing regardless. It’s this atmosphere that absolves Halloween of guilts like having palm trees clear as day in Illinois, and instead allows them to add to the surrealist, not quite here state the film operates within. Even the acting, which is very 1970s acting, adds to the quiet little absurdities. Laurie’s friend Lynda (P.J. Soles) isn’t a real person in our world, but rather an amazing caricature of slutty teenagers, yet I can accept her without hesitation as a person in Halloween‘s world. It’s the type of world where the softness of film stock really helps – it’s a world that feels idyllic, a world where you can leave your door unlocked, a world where “bad” things are foreign, so it’s all the more jarring when Michael arrives and begins his hunt, the embodiment of Evil contaminating each frame. Suddenly those warm oranges seem menacing and foreboding, those blues outright threatening. No shot embodies that more than Michael’s mask slowly fading into view behind Laurie, one of the most iconic shots in horror history, if not cinematic history.

None of this would hold nearly as much weight if the characters were the lifeless sacks to follow in the genre over the next decade, but Halloween assembles a small roster of characters who you root for, each having particular souls and drives. These drives are basic things: for Laurie’s friends Lynda and Annie (Nancy Loomis), it’s about convincing Lindsey (Kyle Richards, a Real Housewife of Beverly Hills if that’s of interest to you) to stay with Laurie, who’s babysitting Tommy (Brian Andrews), so they can shag their boyfriends at Lindsey’s parents’ place. For Laurie, she’s unsure whether to ask a guy she likes to the prom. These are simple, quite like the film itself, but these are characters who lead lives independent of the movie, teenagers going about their days. They don’t obviously exist to die, even though you know some of them will. And the key to this success is how enjoyable Halloween makes these characters – Lynda is a delightful ditz, Annie is the biting sassy one, and Laurie is the one paving a way through life with quiet innocence, but these characters are written and portrayed so well, each riffing off and elevating each other, each having little details or mannerisms that imbue them with life. It wouldn’t take much effort at all to convert Halloween into a high school comedy, which is precisely why the horror – the creeping intrusion of Evil – works so effectively.

This characterization extends beyond the teenagers, as you really can’t go on without mentioning the lovable frump that is Loomis (the name being a Psycho homage), a strange man navigating a strange situation, spouting terrifically neurotic dialogue to Sheriff Brackett (Charles Cyphers), who’s also Annie’s father. We’re made to feel that Loomis is the only one with a chance to stop Michael, but Loomis’ words bear a hint of resignation that Michael can’t be stopped, and you can sense how this drives Loomis’ desperation to find him, to disprove what he already knows probably can’t be disproved. Contrast that desperation in the face of unstoppable evil with Laurie, whose most pressing issue of the evening is Annie asking her crush to the prom on her behalf. Curtis’ performance is sublime, skirting Laurie away from tropes of “nerdy Final Girl” into a fully-realized human being. Sure, she navigates the uncertainties of teenagehood, but she also flits between kindness, decisiveness, and confidence, capable of taking charge when warranted but still means the best for everyone. She’s somebody who could be your friend, so watching her life crack and fall apart in real time, for no reason, is wrenching. As she sobs at the end, Loomis looking down at the empty patch of grass where a bullet-riddled Michael fell to seconds before (confirming his worst, deeply-held suspicions), we know that Evil has won.

Despite all this, I wouldn’t say Halloween is something that keeps you up at night. Whether that’s due to cultural shifts over the last four decades or genre saturation is your call. Likewise, it’s not a stretch that many of those inundated with modern horror would watch Halloween for the first time and consider it merely plain – perhaps symptomatic of the misnomer that Halloween is The One that set the standard for its genre. But Halloween hues closer to Argento-ian Italian horror than its past and future American contemporaries, what with its relatively stately imagery that emphasizes fear through composition over body count. Halloween is a more bloodless affair than a first-timer would likely anticipate and that pays dividends: the violence is infrequent enough where those flashes of it are striking and feel more brutal than they actually are (in the context of the slasher genre). The legendary score by John Carpenter, blessing us with that eternally recognizable theme, does more legwork for the film’s creep factor than wanton death ever could. If you look at Halloween with the expectation of a “slasher” you won’t get much mileage out of it, but it’s rude to do such a disservice to a film that had no intention of meeting those expectations to begin with, and is more content to serve as a fundamental cat-and-mouse story about Evil targeting the unassuming Good.

Yeah, you could argue that Halloween popularized the “sex = death” trope and I won’t stop you, but I’ve never bought the theory that Halloween is trying to pose a social critique on promiscuity, or trying to suggest some vulnerability inherent to the virginal innocent. In fact, I wouldn’t say Halloween tries to make any broader point about our society and its functioning, for that is anathema to the elegant ballet it weaves. Because Halloween isn’t about sex, teenage debauchery, or the Final Girl. It’s about the evil lurking in the background of our lives and our powerlessness when it sees you or I or your friend or your neighbour, because Evil doesn’t care about what you do or who you are, it only cares that you’re there.

Of course, Halloween II would spit on your face about all this, but I digress.

Horror Summer of Horror

It Comes at Night (2017)

It Comes at Night (2017)
Director: Trey Edward Schults
Writer: Trey Edward Schults
Cast: Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo
Genre: Horror
Country: United States

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

The 2010s, if nothing else, blessed us with a shot in the horror genre’s arm, re-calibrating it from the torture porn and remakes of the 2000s to more esoteric, unsettling fare like The Babadook and It Follows. And for all intents and purposes, It Comes at Night looked like a fine addition to this roster, mostly thanks to the poster above, perhaps the most effective I’ve seen in a long time.

As you probably know by now, It Comes at Night is not that movie. But, like, it kind of is. Therein lies the problem.

Before we delve too deep into things, the basics: Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) are isolated in the woods from a lethal plague-like contagion that, presumably, has ravaged society around them. And even then, their isolation isn’t enough – we meet Sarah’s father amid his sickness, his body burned before the disease progresses. That evening, a stranger named Will (Christopher Abott) tries to break in, later convincing Paul that he’s only looking for resources to support his own family, located in an abandoned house some miles away. The two patriarchs agree to a trade – Will’s family brings food, Paul offers them accommodations in their home. Of course, the presence of a new family in the face of an invisible threat brings about tension from both parties.

The formula of strangers stuck in a house amidst an external enemy is nothing new, but when done right it’s delicious. The issue that I imagine many ran into is that the “it” of the title is… the disease? Paranoia? Some guy jacking off in the middle of the woods? It’s not entirely clear, and It Comes at Night is content to leave you at that. This is a smug movie, one of those arthouse movies with an inflated sense of importance that sneer at those seeking answers, even though the simple elegance of the “uneasy strangers” dynamic clues us immediately where the movie’s going. It’s the cinematic equivalent of that hormonal, nobody-gets-me teenager who lashes out because they think their edge makes them cryptic and unique, while everyone’s just kind of perplexed, like, “Ron, you live in a nice cul-de-sac and have literally no problems. What is your damage?” This is doubly grating when the movie dangles threads like Travis’ recurrent nightmares and the trusty family dog barking at something unknown in the woods, hinting at something more significant in the fold that never pans out. It’s triply grating when those threads are terrific and do nothing else but remind you how excellent It Comes at Night would be if it went full-tilt horror.

Writer-director Trey Edward Shults has gone on record saying he paid no mind to the “logic” regarding the mysterious virus, aka the driving force behind the entire movie, and that should tell you everything you need to know going in. This wouldn’t be as glaring an issue if the characters were worth your time, but, listen, I’ve dissed Contagion for being too focused on its virus over its characters, and upon watching It Comes at Night I’d like to apologize, for that is the correct choice. The acting in It Comes at Night is pitch-perfect, but fuck me these characters are not pleasant people to watch for an hour and a half, each speaking in similar ways, each static. You could argue that Travis and Paul succumb to paranoia as the movie progresses, but it’s not like the needle’s being pushed to a new extreme when they’ve been palpably on edge from the word go. And when the two families do start butting heads, the movie finally gets interesting (the first 10 minutes are tremendously good and the rest is just kind of there, aside from select moments), the characters settle into their archetypes a bit better, the intensity ratchets up, and then the movie ends about 15 minutes later. So, you know, that’s something.

The saving grace of It Comes at Night is easily the cinematography, where DP Drew Daniels and Shults use the inherent uncertainty of night to lovely effect, pushing suffocating pitch-blackness into negative space. This is especially effective in Travis’ nightmares, where it’s like his sole sanctuary, his home – in itself a nice piece of production design, an ambiguously laid-out block of black amidst the greenery of the woods, looking like a sort of cesspool for the paranoia that night entails – is being actively crushed by the dark, inching ever closer. It’s terrific visual storytelling and picks up the slack where the writing fails. Above all else, it’s one of the few things that are certain in the movie, along with the sound design, which coalesces with the visuals to craft some legitimately unsettling and startling sequences. That aside, It Comes at Night wants to have it all in the art-horror world: it wants to dip its toes in bump-in-the-night scares, it wants to offer a study on how the creeping pursuit of death twists the soul, it wants to give us characters that act as lenses into the end of the world, but it never follows any of that through in a way that’s striking, or satisfying, or even particularly thoughtful.

I get the point of It Comes at Night is to emphasize how paranoia leads to the triumph of death, and perhaps more so that death is simply an inevitability and oftentimes we never understand why, but it’s a real shame to present us with nihilism and nothing to ground it, nothing to contrast or even compound it, whether it be engaging people or an engaging adversary. When your movie amounts to little else than life sucks then sure, there’s something to be said for that, but It Comes at Night is more than happy to take credit for bringing the conclusions of those discussions to fruition when in actuality it’s not doing much at all.