Archive for July, 2016

The new “Star Trek” rebooted film series, which began in 2009 with J.J. Abrams’s “Star Trek”, seem to have a common theme: What happens to a utopia when it is threatened from both outside and within? How can a just society be maintained when it has enemies who want to either undermine or destroy it? In a sense, this isn’t really a new question. The Federation in the original continuity faced threats from different species all the time. I suppose the difference here is that, in the original continuity, the Federation was in danger of being conquered, by Klingons or the Borg or the Romulans. This new series is not so much about being conquered by outsiders, it’s about threats the to the very structure and ideology of the Federation, which is an Atheist, Socialist utopia with no money, no scarcity, and each citizens needs are met. Some of my fellow Socialists argue with me that the Federation can be called Socialist because Starfleet exists and has ranks. My argument is that the ranks are truly based on merit and ability, and that Starfleet is not an imperialist military organization (a line in this new film specifically states that Starfleet is not a military organization), even though it by necessity serves defense purposes, but is rather a diplomatic and research organization that is a mix of the United Nations and NASA. Hell, the Prime Directive of Starfleet is pretty much a law against imperialism. In any case, the world of “Star Trek”, or at least the Federation, is an egalitarian utopia that doesn’t discount external enemies or interpersonal conflicts.

In the 2009 film, a Romulan from the original timeline brings a weapon back in time and causes a 9/11-type event to the Federation, the complete destruction of the planet Vulcan. This is a massive tragedy which did not happen in the original timeline, and sets up the challenges this new timeline faces that the previous one did not. The 2009 film was unfortunately not really interested much in the political and social commentary “Star Trek” is known for, and what makes it better than it’s simplistic, action-based cousin “Star Wars”, but it did justice to the original characters and had good moments of humor and a decent story despite having a weak villain and being overly concerned with action sequences and lens flares.

I actually preferred the much-derided second film, “Star Trek Into Darkness”, to the first film. That film was chock full of political commentary regarding how the Federation responds to fear of more terrorism in a way the first timeline didn’t have to deal with. In that film, cryogenically frozen people from Earth’s more violent past are thawed to create new and terrible doomsday weapons (drones and nuclear war are given symbolic representations in the film) to thwart potential enemies. Even worse, factions within the Federation become a form of hawkish, Dick Cheney-Hillary Clinton secret society within the Federation that wants to actually provoke a war with a power that didn’t have anything to do with the original attack (so the Klingons become Iraq in this metaphor), and this faction actually performs false flag terrorists attacks on their own infrastructure to try to convince the more traditionally dovish Federation to go along with the now-unusual militarism. Okay, that false flag shit is because one of the screenwriters of that film was a moronic 9/11-conspiracy theorist, but using tragedy as an excuse for hawkishness and undermining a society’s key values is still a very interesting parallel to our modern times to see in a “Star Trek” film and so, whatever its flaws, I liked that “Into Darkness” did what “Star Trek” is supposed to do.

I was worried about “Star Trek Beyond”. The director this time is Justin Lin, whose filmography consists of four shitty “Fast & Furious” films and a couple other pieces of crap. Well, I’m happy to report Lin does a pretty good job staging the different scenes of action, humor, drama, and character in this film. I suppose he really is good at juggling an ensemble and staging action, and his previous films were more their scripts’ fault than his. Luckily, the 9/11-truther didn’t work on this film, and instead writing duties went to Simon Pegg, who plays Scotty and has co-written good stuff like “Hot Fuzz” and “The World’s End”, and Doug Jung. The result is that “Beyond” ends up mainly being a solid action movie that doesn’t forget to focus on characters, has plenty of moments of humor, and finds time to throw a political message in too. Honestly, it’s a good “Star Trek” film that, unlike the “Ghostbusters” reboot, understands the franchise and treats it with the respect it deserves.

The crew of the Enterprise is three years into a five year mission. Kirk (Chris Pine), is about to have a birthday, and is wondering what he’s doing with his life when reflecting on how he’s finally be older than his late father ever got to be. Spock (Zachary Quinto) is saddened by the loss of Spock Prime (Leonard Nimoy) and is reevaluating what is best for him and his species, and has broken up with Uhura (Zoe Saldana, who isn’t given enough to do in this film). Scotty, since he’s played by one of the writers, gets a lot of screentime this turn, while other crew members like Chekov (the late Anton Yelchin) are relegated to shots showing they are womanizers, or, if you’re Sulu (John Cho), married to a man with an adopted child. Sulu’s new homosexuality is dealt with in the background, but for a series about social justice and acceptance, it’s about time we had an openly gay character in the universe. Oh, and McCoy (Karl Urban) is pretty much just comic relief, but man is he funny.

After a stop at a fancy new Starbase, they get a mission to navigate into a tricky nebula to rescue a stranded ship. When they do, they are beset upon by tiny ships that are able to penetrate the Enterprise’s shields, and they destroy the ship and kidnap whichever members of the crew haven’t escaped to the inhabitable planet in the middle of the nebula via escape pods. These tiny ships, and the army of aliens piloting them, are lead by Krall (Idris Elba), whom I will discuss later.

When Scotty crash lands on the planet, he is found by Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), a scavenger who has been trapped on the planet since childhood, and has rigged up holograms to make invisible the very old Federation ship that is derelict on the planet’s surface, and in which she lives. Later on, we’re left to wonder why Krall, who must absolutely know where this ship is, never bothered to look for her there, but whatever. Jaylah and Scotty work to get the ship up and running again while Kirk and Chekov look for the MacGuffin that Krall is after (an alien bioweapon), and the rest of the crew tries to escape the internment camp Krall keeps them in.

The film is funny and has good character moments while on the surface in the second act before the action-packed third act, and Jaylah is a very cool character to be introduced to. She is smart and likes “classical music” (“Fight the Power” by Public Enemy), and talks like an overly literal person with no idea of how to understand humor. I hope they find room for her in the inevitable fourth film.

The politics aren’t introduced until the third act, and for a while I thought we were going to have a film that was completely lacking in commentary and was merely a better spin on the 2009 film, where the humor and action worked, but it still didn’t feel like “Star Trek”. But no, “Beyond” still found time to be smarter than the average sci-fi blockbuster. *Spoilers Follow*

 It is revealed that Krall was actually a Starfleet officer from when Starfleet was first a thing, after the Earth military was disbanded following a peace with hostile alien races. Krall has been a solider who fought well in those wars, but with soliders no longer needed, he was given command of a starship, the one crashed on the planet that Jaylah calls home, and he couldn’t quite adjust to a world of peace. So a good solider who feels out of place without a war. He’s basically “Star Trek” Rambo, or at least partially a comment on PTSD or how hard it is for soldiers to become integrated back into civilian society. Of course, being trapped on the planet in the nebula and not being rescued by the Federation gave him a chip on his shoulder, and he now harbors a personal and ideological anger with the Federation and Starfleet. His belief is that a society without conflict is weak and cannot last, and it is only through struggle and conflict that we find out what we are made of. Yes, Krall is the kind of guy who would believe hitting a kid makes them better and stronger, that war makes boys into men, and that a peaceful world is unsustainable because war is strong and peace is weak. He’s your basic reactionary, ra-ra go-military Republican suburbanite who, in our modern day, would hate the Iran Nuclear deal, support every neo-Conservative foreign intervention, want to bomb all of the Middle east into oblivion, and have a “Support our Troops” bumper sticker on his car. The world of “Star Trek”, where people are stronger for using their brains instead of their guns, and the Ayn Randian concept of human beings as selfish and cruel creatures above all else no longer is taken seriously by anyone (except the Ferengi), has no place for a man like Krall. He wants to undo the peace and enlightenment of the Federation to, I dunno, Make Earth Great Again (sorry, I had to). Krall is the uber-reactionary, and the film indicts him and military fetishism. “Better to die saving lives, than to live taking them”, Kirk says. It’s rare for a big budget action movie to argue against conflict and for peace/ Most films may argue against war, but they also argue it is necessary. “Star Trek” argues war is not necessary, and it’s only backward-thinking assholes who think it is. The world of Trek will defend against enemies, they are not weak as hawks will portray doves in real life, but they don’t see any honor or usefulness in war either. “Star Trek” has always been refreshing in this manner. Thankfully, Krall is defeated and the utopia lives on.

With this film, I think “Star Trek” is doing a good job of balancing the smarter commentary and intelligence with the need to please the rubes with action scenes, bright colors, and loud noises. I maybe wish the commentary was more in quantity and explicitness, but I’m surprised this film was able to fit in such an anti-military (as a concept, though maybe also insofar as many soldiers probably carrying Krall’s philosophy about conflict being good in molding men) message without turning studio heads of causing the right-wing blogosphere to pop a hemorrhoid. The world may be a different place where we can’t have the explicit religion-and-capitalism-and-xenophobia-are-evil messages of “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, but at least we don’t need to turn “Star Trek” into just another bland sci-fi action franchise, as the 2009 film seemed to threaten it would be. I applaud “Beyond” trying to find a good mix of the highbrow with the lowbrow people-pleasing content. B+

 

 

“The Killing Joke” was originally a graphic novel published in 1988. In it, the Joker’s origin (or a t least a version of it) is given, as well as one of that villain’s most abhorrent crimes. The Joker wants to prove a point: that anyone can go insane from just one bad day. He shoots and paralyzes Commissioner Gordon’s (Ray Wise) daughter, Barbara Gordon (Tara Strong), then strips her naked and takes pictures. The purpose of this is torment the commissioner with this in the hopes of driving him mad. It features the Joker at his most sad and his most evil, as he tries to prove his world view to others almost as a way of justifying what went wrong in his life.

The paralyzing of Barbara became part of continuity, and Barbara, while no longer able to be Batgirl, became a sort of hacker/surveillance expert extraordinaire called oracle. While her treatment in “The Killing Joke” raised the stakes for the Joker’s plot and added extra darkness to it, it was also criticized. Barbara really does nothing in the story except get shot. Her role, and her tragedy, exist simply as one man’s demonstration (The Joker), one man’s horror (her father) and to push one mane to the edge (Batman). She suffers a sexually –tinged violent event, but is only defined by how that event effects the male characters. While I don’t think that story point was ever, in and of itself, wrong to depict (the Joker indeed would have done this), and the way the DC universe has dealt with the fallout of those actions in multilayered ways by depicting Oracle, I can understand some of the hostility towards the work, especially following the whole women-in-refrigerators controversy over how comics have treated female characters (though that stemmed from a Green Lantern a few years after “The Killing Joke” was published).

The new movie adaptation, “Batman: The Killing Joke” attempts to rectify the Barbara Gordon problem with the original book, but in the attempt they actually make things worse. The film is a scant 76 minutes long, and almost half of it is made up of completely new material not found in the original graphic novel which is not only tonally inconsistent with the second half of the film and with the comic, but actually winds up being more sexist than the original source material. We see Batgirl partnering with Batman (Kevin Conroy, the definitive Batman voice) to take down a sociopathic narcissistic crime boss with the ridiculous name of Paris Franz (Maury Sterling). Paris ends up with an odd crush of sorts on Batgirl, and seeing as how the film depicts her as a hot, busty redhead with glasses, it’s easy to understand why. Batgirl wants to take him down, but is also maybe a tad bit fascinated with his attraction to her, playing into the negative stereotype of good girls falling for assholes, or at least becoming interested in them. Batman brings up a good point that this means Paris is not scared of Batgirl, making her pursuit to bring him down counterproductive. But Batgirl doesn’t listen to the sensible advice and gets herself maybe in over her head.

In addition, Barbara has a crush on Batman. So, the cliché of a woman falling for an older, emotionally unavailable man. The film even gives her a stereotypical gay best friend, where she talks about Batman in code as her “yoga instructor”. It seems that Barbara’s motivation in being Batgirl is that it is fun, and that she has the hots for Batman. That seems pretty shallow. The whole Batgirl sequence wraps up with Batman trying to tell Batgirl to step back from the case, Batgirl being angry, Batgirl initiating sex (in costume, on a public rooftop, despite Batman acting cold to her and not at all reciprocating any possible romantic or sexual attraction), and later Batgirl cornering Paris and almost beating him to death, leading her to the realization that she has to take a step back because she was losing control. With the pining, the bad decisions, and the decision to show Batgirl in various stages of undress (a bra here, panties there), the sequence just reeks of so much sexism it almost feels on purpose. I assume this prologue-of-sorts exists for two reasons: to set up Batgirl as being more than just a bland victim, and to make Batman have personal stakes in his confrontation with the Joker. It comes across as meaningless and unnecessary, since none of this adds to the power of the main story, and merely takes away from it. Plus, the tone doesn’t match at all, so it never feels like an organic part of the movie, but rather a different movie Frankenstein-ed on to “The Killing Joke”. Personally, I don’t think Batman needed more motivation than the original comic gave him, though additional material on Batgirl would have been welcome. However, it needed to make her a non-clichéd, not-sexist caricature, and those scenes should have been cutaways within the narrative of the film as opposed to a frontloaded prologue.  I like some moments of this sequence of the film, and Tara Strong does a good job with what she’s given, but watching this film on video as opposed to in theaters will likely result in my chapter-skipping over the whole thing.

When the story proper begins, however, then we get some really, truly great stuff. With a few exceptions, the film is largely a scene-by-scene, line-by-line recreation of the graphic novel, albeit with lesser quality artwork that is more in line with previous DC animated titles than with the stills of the comic. The animation overall in this film ranges from excellent, to stiff, stilted, and cheap. Some of the camera moves feels so odd that they look like the artificially created camera moves from pan-and-scan VHS tapes when they had to add camera movements to make up for part of image being cut off for square TV screens, before widescreen TVs and watching films in letterbox format became the norm. Despite seeing the film on the big screen, the animation will always betray the direct-to-DVD roots of the project. Still, the fact that we get a super faithful adaptation of the comic is great. I just wish that, instead of the prologue, they had added more material in this part. Open up the scenes a bit more, let them breathe, create more drama, maybe add another setpiece or a B story here. However, I guess with the liberties being taken by adding on the Batgirl stuff to the beginning, they decided to play it relatively safe when it came to the actual comic’s story.

Let’s face it, the best thing about this film is Mark Hamill reprising the role of the Joker. To a generation of fans, including myself, he is the definitive Joker. Others can have the campiness of Nicholson or the overrated derivative Ledger, but Hamill is THE Joker, and the Joker of this film is by far the best portrayal of the Joker I have seen on film. It captures all the qualities of the Joker that I find so fascinating about the character but have never seen brought to life on film: that’s he’s not as crazy as he wants people to think he is, that he is evil but also in pain and obsessed with his adversary, and that he has a strong desire to make people see the world the same way he does. He is an absurdly fictional evil that is also real. He believes he is right, he is evil because he is scarred from his pain, and he wants validation. He’s also as evil and dangerous as they come, because he has nothing more to lose. Hamill finds the right voice for every line from the comic, and even finds a slightly different voice that sounds just right for the pre-Joker Joker, when he was just a failed comedian trying to support his family. The bad puns delivered in such brutal and awful circumstances have the right self-awareness that gives us enough insight into the Joker’s mind without making it explicit. When I hear people praise Ledger as the best Joker, this is the film I will point to and say, “No, you fools! THIS is the Joker”.

Conroy as batman, on the other hand, is terse and restrained. He gives off the air of having given up and being bored. This portrayal of Batman is not how I originally read him in the comic. In the comic I assumed Batman was attempting to be empathetic to the Joker. After all, both batman and the Joker were horribly emotionally scarred by losing their loved ones, and they simply succumbed to their madness in different and opposing ways. I thought he was desperate to try to reach the humanity in the Joker before they both killed each other. In the movie there is that, sure, but mostly it just comes across as Batman being absolutely dead inside after all he has done, and seen, and witnessed. He is almost completely gone, and is maybe looking to save himself by saving the Joker, but he also seems to have little faith that it is possible, and has shut down from the massive amounts of grief and anger he has felt. I’m not sure I prefer this latter choice to the former one I read into the character when reading the comic, but a Batman at the end of his patience and on the verge of no longer caring, a Batman truly dead inside after all of his trials, is an interesting choice and one I’m glad to have seen, since I doubt any live action Batman would have the balls to go to that level.

As a fan of the comic, it was joy to hear the definitive voices of these characters read the lines I knew oh-so-well. It was great to see sequences animated in something more than a motion comic setting. It was great to hear the Joker sing a song from the comic that I could only guess the melody off, since it sat there on the page as just text and all. Also, the dark and oppressively sad tone of the comic is pitch perfect in this section of the film.

Giving this film a grade is tough. I deeply enjoyed the latter half, despite the animation flaws. If the film had just been that portion with better animation and a slightly expanded story that gave batgirl more depth and character, this would easily be an A and the best Batman film of all time. However, that prologue is a huge fucking problem that almost capsizes the film’s accomplishments. How do I reconcile the fact that I loved almost 50 minutes of the film, and hated almost 30? I guess it’s to start with the A of the latter half and only deduct as much as the first half’s effect on my enjoyment of that second half took away as I was watching. In that case, I was able to enjoy the second half at about a B+ level. If I were judging the film as a whole, I would average out the A of the first half, the C- of the second half, and give it a b-. But I’m going with my gut here, and this is a B+ experience.

Note: Since the vast majority of the second half is a verbatim adaptation of the comic, the credit for the writing goes to Alan Moore. The problematic first half, then, belongs solely to screenwriter Brian Azzerello. Azzerello is a writer of comics, and should have really known how to do a better job.

“The Secret Life of Pets” is a perfectly cute, beautifully animated film that just never is quite as funny as you expect or hope. It would seem that the opportunities for humor by imagining what pets do when you leave the house would be infinite, but unfortunately the funniest moments are in the opening sequences that were already in the initial teaser trailer. The film also gets more absurd (bunny driving a bus) than it really needs to get.

The main character is Max (Louis CK), a dog that really loves his owner. One day that owner, Katie (Elle kemper) brings home another dog, the huge and hairy Duke (Eric Stonestreet) and the basic jealousy Max feels is similar to what a kid may feel when they get a new baby sibling brought home. Sadly, this is the closest thing to a message the film truly delivers (accept your new sibling). After Duke is both intentionally and unintentionally a jerk, Max decides he can frame Duke for bad behavior to get Katie to throw him out. This keeps Duke in line for a while, until Duke decides to maybe get Max lost. Through various happening, both Max and Duke end up away from home and trying to get back to Katie.

Of course, we get a colorful ensemble to go along with our main characters. There’s Gidget (Jenny Slate, though she sounds like Jennifer Tilly in this film), who lives across the street and has a crush on Max; Mel (Bobby Moynihan), the pug who is taken with barking at squirrels and peanut butter; Chloe (Lake Bell), a fat and disinterested cat; Sweet Pea (Tara Strong), a bird; and Tiberius (Albert Brooks), a hawk who lives on the roof and tries really hard not to eat most members of the cast. This is the team that goes out to search and find Max and Duke when they go missing.

In their journey, Max and Duke wind up with an odd revolutionary faction of animals that have been tossed aside or otherwise forgotten by their owners. They are lead by a white bunny named Snowball (Kevin Hart, in his least annoying film role so far), who is the Che Guevara of cute animals. Snowball and his group want to wage war on all humans for tossing them aside, and view domesticated pets as the equivalents of Uncle Toms. This storyline of the film is the most absurd (a live pig was used for tattoo apprentice practice?) but also holds the most untapped potential. This film had a good opportunity to point out some of the absurdity with how we put different animals into arbitrary boxes. While it’s true not all animals can be domesticated, it is odd how we see some animals as pet material (like dogs and cats), some as exotic, some as friendly but not necessarily pets (horses), some as largely food sources (cows), and some as things fun to murder (deer).  Aside from size and cuteness, there isn’t much rhyme or reason if you really thing about it. Sadly, the film doesn’t really care to make any sort of message about animals and their rights or autonomy, and simply has Snowball’s faction exist to add extra danger to the protagonists.

The film also fails at going for the big emotional moments. There’s a sequence in the film where we find out about Duke’s previous owner. There’s even a fun montage of their good times together which seems to be setting itself up for an “Up”-style downfall. Well, we do find out about that owner dying, and while Duke is briefly upset, the film immediately forgets about this trauma to have an action sequence involving dog catchers, and we never get to feel any of the emotion that, perhaps, we take for granted in animation films made by Pixar.

“The Secret Life of Pets” is ultimately a film that is very pretty to look at and will make you smile a lot, but the laughs are just not as often and as hearty enough as they should be given the simple but gangbusters concept of the movie. I also found myself getting a little bored toward the end, despite the film’s relatively short running time. The film was made by the same company that brought us “Despicable Me” and “Minions” (a Minions short even precedes the film) and it’s obvious that they’re not up to playing with the big boys of Pixar just yet. B-.

The new “Ghostbusters” reboot is a disrespectful, unfunny, poorly written abomination that hasn’t the slightest idea why the original two “Ghostbusters” films worked so well that they are loved to this day. Within the first 15 minutes of the film we are subjected to a bad unfunny fart joke, which is immediately turned into a queef joke. Later in the film, a character complains that she got slime “in every crack”. By the end of the film, all four Ghostbusters are shooting the film’s main villain in the groin, despite the fact that he’s taken the form of the Ghostbusters’s logo and has no genitalia. While that certainly makes for an interesting visual metaphor for what this film has done to the franchise, I can’t help but feel viscerally angry with the Adam Sandler-ization of “Ghostbusters”.

While it’s certainly true that the original “Ghostbusters” films had their share of lowbrow or even stupid humor (Gatekeeper and Keymaster, pretty much any scene with Rick Moranis’s character) that wasn’t their main source of humor. What the first film did so well is that it managed to blend top-of-the-line special effects for the time (matte paintings, stop motion animation, etc) with comedy and not have the comedy fall flat or be overshadowed by the effects, like it tended to be in any film that tried to blend early SNL or Second City-type humor with effects before (“1941” is a big example, and a small number of detractors might say the same about action sequences and “The Blues Brothers”).  It also used comedy in just the right manner. In the Ghostbusters films, most of the plot and characters are actually played seriously. It is the Ghostbusters themselves, and a few supporting characters, who are jokey.  That is why some sequences can still play as decent, PG-level scares despite the preponderance of comedy surrounding those sequences. When Dana (Sigourney Weaver) opens the fridge to see a hellbeast with glowing eyes, it plays seriously. When Janosz (Peter MacNicol) kidnaps Dana’s child from a high ledge in “Ghostbusters 2”, it’s also a scary sequence that works well. Venkman (Bill Murray) may pretty much be a sleazy Chandler from “Friends” that’s constantly quipping, and there are plenty of visual silliness like Slimer munching down hotdogs, but watching both films again, as I did last week, I was surprised by how much of both films is not played for laughs, which makes the humor all the funnier because it’s approaching the plot at a right angle, skewing things into hilarity even as you remain invested in a supernatural storyline.

The new “Ghostbusters” understands none of that. It’s all jokey, hammy, crude, and slapstick.  The tone is so fundamentally off from what Ghostbusters is supposed to be, that I found myself sitting in the theater with my anger mounting because the filmmakers just didn’t get it. All they saw were four comedians shooting special effects at other special effects, and thought that was what Ghostbusters was and what would make fans happy. I get it, mixing comedy and supernatural stuff can be hard. “Gremlins” did it well, but “Krampus” did not. Films like “Gremlins 2” and “Evil Dead 2” went full comedy and survived, but the new “Ghostbusters” fails because , quite frankly, the comedy is not in the least bit actually funnier. Hell, the really awful “Pixels” had more laughs than this film does. I watched this film in a theater with about 15 other people. I laughed once (there’s a funny moment where a real estate agent tells them the monthly rent on the firehouse, and the response made me chuckle) and the rest of the audience sat in polite silence for the film to be over. I get that humor can be relative, and what you may find unfunny, I may find hilarious, and vice versa. Mainly, I found the humor in this new “Ghostbusters” to be obvious and annoying. There’s also not a single quotable line in this whole damn movie, which is a shame since the original two films are rich which great quotes.

The plot begins with Erin Gilbert (Kristin Wiig). She’s a professor at Columbia University that is up for tenure. Gilbert is the first of many one-dimensional characters we will meet. She is the prim and proper, straight-laced and uptight woman. That is all we are given about her, and aside from being inexplicably horny for Chris Helmsworth’s moronic receptionist character later, and being allowed to be the film’s hero, she is given no further material to broaden out or make us care about her other than as a common clichéd comedic trope. Her tenure is threatened when an old book she wrote about the paranormal is re-released. The source is the co-author, Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) who seems to have been studying the paranormal fulltime since whenever she and Gilbert had a falling out. Yates is pretty much a bland combination of the only two types of characters McCarthy is allowed by Hollywood to play: angry force to be reckoned with (“Bridesmaids”, “The Heat”, “The Boss”, etc) and the insecure girl with talent (“Spy”). Quite frankly, I’m getting bored seeing her only play these two characters, and forcing them into one character is not the answer. Yates happens to have been working with a new partner, and she’s a doozy. This is Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) and this character is what happens when you take the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, have her take center stage instead of just being the love interest for a male protagonist, and up the craziness by about 100%. She’s not a character so much as she’s a collection of quirks and oddball eccentricities pretending to be a human being. She also seems to be the only Ghostbuster capable of making any of their gadgets, meaning she is the smartest and only real useful member of the team. Despite this, she also lip synchs songs while accidentally lighting stuff on fire with a blowtorch for no reason. To McKinnon’s credit, she goes all out and does her best to flesh out this fleshless collection of tics, wannabe one-liners, and mental ward traits, but the script fails her. I can imagine an alternate film where a similar character, sort of an amalgam of the original films’ Venkman and Egon (the late Harold Ramis), would steal the film. McKinnon does steal this film, but only because she’s the one thing in this movie that feels inspired, even if she ultimately fails.

After it becomes clear that ghosts are becoming an ever-present phenomenon, the three girls end up with Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones). Patty is subway worker who stumbles upon a ghost after following a creepy guy, Rowan (Neil Casey, who feels like the poor man’s Patton Oswalt all through the film) onto subway tracks. Patty is an odd mix of racial stereotype (sassy urban character who is street smart and calls out other characters for not being common sense) and character who supplies the most useful information to the other characters. It’s clear that the screenwriters wanted her to be a smart character on par with the other three main characters, who are physicists and engineers, but then why have her do Tyler Perry-esque antics like literally slap a ghost out of someone while yelling “THE POWER OF PATTY COMPELLS YOU!” It’s the like writers wanted to write a non-stereotypical black character, but they simply did not know how. As such, watching her character in the film is kind of an uneasy experience. Unlike the other three leads, I am not familiar with any of Jones’s work, so I don’t know how much of the character is her fault and how much is the writers’ fault, but considering how often Jones doesn’t go over the top in the film, I’m going to blame the screenplay. My only issue with Jones’s performance is in a scene involving a ghost dragon (I’ll get to that) perching on her shoulders. When Jones attempts to convey being scared, it comes across as the dragon possessing her. That issue is at least 50% her and 50% the dialogue in that scene.

It turns out that Rowan is a weird little man who has been bullied all his life, and wants to take revenge on the world by creating devices that allow ghosts to break through a different dimension into ours, and thus flood our world with malevolent ghosts and cause the apocalypse. The plan is interesting, but Rowan is such an uninteresting, one-dimensional villain that it undercuts the whole thing. Supposedly, an earlier idea for this villain was to have him be a Unabomber-type domestic terrorist, which would have been much better than making him some middle-aged Columbine-shooter-type guy. While the original “Ghostbusters” didn’t have a villain so much as it had a mystery (the villain ends up being an evil god that takes the form of an 80s music video dancer, and then a marshmallow man) and the second “Ghostbusters” had an evil despot back from the dead, the monsters (part one) or the dialogue and vessel from which the villain emerged (a painting) made them cool (part two).  Rowan is nothing more than a cliché of a basement dwelling internet loser. He’s not original or interesting or compelling. He’s as bland a villain as they come. Later in the film, after possessing Helmsworth’s Kevin, he out of nowhere decides to throw gendered insults at the Ghostbusters for no reason. Apparently they decided to make him a sexist instead of the just the general misanthrope the film made him for most of the film’s running time.

If I had to pick about the thing most annoying about this film, I’d have to say is that it suffers from “Phantom Menace” syndrome, and by that I mean it takes the time to show the origins of and explanations for things I don’t care the know the origins or explanations of. Except, instead of a prequel no one asked for, this is a reboot no one wanted.  How did they come up with the Ghostbusters logo? Oh, a random tagger spraypainted a ghost, and then put the “no” circle through it to piss off Patty. How did the Ghostbusters come up with their equipment? It’s tested, doesn’t work, and then Holtzmann fixes it. Why do they wear jumpsuits? To avoid slime. Aside from the fact that I could have inferred much of this in the original films without lame scenes of the equipment being tested and not working correctly, the original films understood that audience members don’t care where this stuff came from, we just want to see it in action.  In the original film we’re told through dialogue that the proton packs haven’t been tested. Then they go after Slimer in the hotel, we see the stuff in action, and hilarity ensues. Show don’t tell. The new “Ghostbusters” spends way too many scenes telling us things we don’t give a shit about (and that logo original is lame as hell).  Of course, later in the film Holtzmann has created a bunch of new gadgets with no notice and likely no time and we don’t need testing scenes or even an explanation about what lead to their creation. At least when they broke out the slime blowers in “Ghostbusters 2”, it was explained by the plot of the film. Why do these Ghostbusters need proton handguns and proton grenades and a…ghostchipper?

I’ve mentioned Helmsworth’s Kevin character twice now, but I haven’t gone into detail. He’s annoyance personified, but the film seems to think he’s funny. I’ve seen many reviews calling him the highlight of the film. Sorry, I cringed every time he was on screen. He forgets that he hates coffee, he has a dog named Mike Hat. Why the hell is any of this supposed to be funny? He seems to only be in the movie so that Rowan can possess him later. Oh right, one of the only other good things in this film is the concept of a villain killing himself to become a ghost and be a more formidable opponent. Good concept, wasted in this film.  We also have Bill Murray in a role that’s just larger than a cameo as Martin Heiss, a debunker of paranormal stuff. Okay, considering that the film everyone wanted was a “Ghostbusters 3” and not some horrible reboot, and that “Ghostbusters 3” was held up in part by Murray not wanting to commit to another sequel (as well as studio indifference on Sony’s part), but Murray was willing to be in this piece of shit makes me really angry. If you can be in this horrible reboot, and you can be the voice of Garfield in two kid’s movies, why couldn’t you have at least filmed one scene in a “Ghostbusters 3”?  Some of the other original cast members have cameos. There’s an inexplicable bust of Harold Ramis in a hallway in Columbia in the early part of the film. It makes no sense if Egon doesn’t exist in this reboot universe. Dan Akroyd is a taxi driver, Annie Potts is a hotel desk clerk, and Sigourney Weaver is Holtzmann’s mentor. Oh, and Ernie Hudson shows up as Patty’s uncle, meaning Hudson, with this and “God’s Not Dead 2”, has now managed to be in two of 2016’s worst films.

There’s also stuff that just doesn’t make sense within the rules this film sets out. Like in the original films, we’re told that ghosts need to be trapped and contained. But then, later in the film, we see ghosts being “killed” (I guess) with the new weapons. So do they or don’t they need to be trapped, or can they just be disintegrated?  Granted, the “Ghostbusters” video game, which is pretty much the 3rd film we’ll never get, allows you to kill some smaller ghosts but larger ghosts need to be trapped, but I chalk that up to video game playability and not something meant to become canon. And if it’s changing, then why isn’t that explained instead of, you know, how they got their friggin’ logo?  Also, in general ghosts are the spirits of dead humans. So why do we have a dragon ghost? The original films had some ghosts that weren’t exactly humanoid (Slimer) but it was always clear they were originally humans and were warped into their new form in some way (Slimer likes to eat, so was likely a very gluttonous human). So why a green dragon ghost? Unlike the original films, this reboot has no mention of demons or demi-gods to explain non-humanoid ghosts. Supposedly, that earlier concept with the Unabomber villain also opened the door to…wait for it…ALIEN GHOSTS. While this could lead to the Ghostbusters-Men in Black crossover no one wants to see, this seems to be stretching the Ghostbusters universe into realms no one wants. Oh, and then later we get ghost parade balloons…which aren’t so ghosty that they can’t be popped with a pocket knife. What? That’s some R.L. Stine-level bullshit right there. I don’t expect a movie about people fighting ghosts to be realistic, but I expect it to have its own set of rules and follow them.

The finale scene, which has been praised for letting girls kick ass, sucks. For one, it takes place in the midst of a bunch of ugly digital smoke, probably so that the special effects artists don’t have to spend time and money animating the backgrounds. Secondly, it shows us our main characters, who heretofore have been awkward and uncomfortable with their weaponry, suddenly skilled experts with equipment that now works exactly as it’s supposed to. How exactly did a bunch of awkward scientists and one subway worker become super skilled warriors in close-range weapons and hand-to-hand combat? The original Ghostbusters, despite being successful, never really got skilled beyond shooting beams and lassoing ghosts with some difficulty (ghostbusting always had more in common with lassoing or fishing than any type of combat). This film jumps from the Ghostbusters barely able to fight one ghost, to being skilled warriors with no explanation or warning, and the film expects the audience to go with it because strong women are cool, and it’s the film’s allegedly exciting finale. You couldn’t even give us a montage of them getting better before this? We just get one training session where one new device goes reasonably well.

Plus, the special effects in this film are garishly ugly. Admittedly, I tend to have an issue with most CGI these days, and would prefer we went back to a time when we used practical effects, like in the original films, with some minor CGI augmentation to smooth it out and make them look a bit better. Still, the ghosts and other effects in this new film are neon monstrosities lacking originality or captivating design. There are so many memorable ghosts or creatures from the original films: the hellbeasts, Stay Puft, a fur coat come to live, a decaying taxi driver, Slimer, the Scoleri Brothers, and more. This film gives us a giant, ugly Ghostbusters logo remiscent of Oogie Boogie from “Nightmare Before Christmas”, Slimer’s wife, some ghosts on stilts dressed like Uncle Sam, and an inexplicable dragon. Oh, and an evil woman from the 1800s of no visual interest. They glow obnoxiously and have whispy tendrils of nothingness and are forgettable as anything other than bad animation. I’ll at least give credit to the 3d. The film in 3d is presenting with black bars at the top and bottom, and 3d effects extend beyond the frame and into the bars. This isn’t the only 3d film to do that trick, but it’s a nice one.

There is so much to hate about this movie. There’s an unfunny running gag about a Chinese restaurant only delivering one wonton when a character orders wontons. Guess which character, because it’s the most obvious one to like Chinese food. There’s a scene of Adam Sandler-level stupidity and unfunny silliness when the head of the crappy college Yates works for fires them and keeps finding different, juvenile ways to slip them off. There’s the clichéd line of “that’s gonna leave a mark” after Patty slaps a ghost (because that’s how you get rid of them, it’s that easy) out of Yates. There’s a gag where Yates throws away Kevin’s sandwich off screen and someone off screen throws it back to him. What? There’s a scene where Rowan is able to possess a small crowd of people and makes them stand still and pose for no reason. Now, we know from the closing credits that this is because there’s a scene where he makes them dance that was cut out but…WHY WOULD ROWAN MAKE THEM DANCE AT ALL? Why does Rowan ask the Ghostbusters to have him choose a form? How is he able to even change form? Why is that a power he has? This is a callback to the original film, but it fails because there is no explanation for it here. This film is just a collection of jokes and gags that don’t work, fan service that fails, explanations that we either don’t need, don’t care for, or outright suck, and characters who are not developed beyond the one line you’d see on a casting call sheet. To top it all off, the films doesn’t even have the tone of a “Ghostbusters” film. It has the tone of an Adam Sandler film, or maybe even the tone of a “Ghostbusters” parody movie. Based on the freefall in quality from source material to this new film, this has got to be one of the worst remakes/reboots of all time.

The blame for this mess largely falls on the two screenwriters, one of whom is also the director. They are Katie Dippold and Paul Feig. Dippold’s only credits prior to this are some episodes of the TV show “Parks and Recreation”, which did not have a tone or sense of humor befitting “Ghostbusters”, and some work on a hidden camera TV show and some late seasons of MadTV (the unfunny ones). Feig, meanwhile, has done good work in the past. He created the great dramedy “Freaks and Geeks”, showing he used to know how to meld drama and comedy. He also wrote a funny memoir of his teen years called “Superstud”. Lately, he is known for writing and directing female-centric broad comedies like “Bridesmaids”, “The Heat”, and “Spy”, all films I have enjoyed to various degrees, but none of them hilarious. He’s also directed absolute swill like “I am David” (his only dramatic film) and “Unaccompanied Minors”. There was nothing in his filmography to suggest he had the skill to pull off “Ghostbusters”. Compare this to Ivan Reitman, director of the original two films, who cut his teeth working on horror films like Cronenberg’s “Shivers” and horror comedies like “Cannibal Girls” before doing full-on comedies like “Meatballs” and “Stripes”. Feig basically directs this “Ghostbusters” as if he’s doing a modern day sitcom pilot, with a tone to match. He was not the right choice to direct, much less to write, and we all are left to suffer because of that.

The new “Ghostbusters” is disrespectful for not understanding why the original films (and to a lesser extent the cartoon series) have had such a lasting impact on their fans so many years later. It tries to shoehorn a different type of humor into the mold of the original, but the humor itself just isn’t funny. It makes bad narrative choices, doesn’t deliver us with fully fledged out characters (while Winston from the original films suffers this same fate, largely due to Eddie Murphy dropping out of the original film, at least he wasn’t a stereotype or a clichéd trope) has ugly special effects, doesn’t conform to it’s own system of rules and logic, gives us a lame and forgettable villain, and decides to answer questions no one asked or cared about. I hated this movie with a passion. D.

P.S. : In the opening of the film, the title is “Ghostbusters”. At the end credits, the title is “Ghostbusters: Answer the Call”. Is this a mistake? Did the credits company mistakenly use the same size and type font for a tagline so that it looks like part of the title? Why would a tagline be included in the closing credits at all?

 

 

“Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates” is occasionally amusing, but mostly hollow. They had a good concept for a film (very loosely based on an actual event), but it’s never really fleshed out. Mike is played by Adam Devine, who pretty much plays the character as Devine plays every character he’s ever played. Dave is played by Zac Efron, who has nothing to do in this movie. Seriously, despite a handful of personality quirks (he draws anthropomorphized alcohol characters) he is an empty cipher of a straight man whose job is to be harmlessly dumb and offer a contrast to Devine’s Mike. The film has everyone hate Mike and like Dave, sending the implicit argument that attractive people are always better than non-attractive people. Weird. The fact that this film has these two characters in the title is astonishing, since the real stars are the female leads.

 

Mike and Dave are two brothers who ruin every family gathering with shenanigans. So their parents, mainly representing by father Stephen Root (wasted in this role), give them an ultimatum to bring dates to their sister’s (Sugar Lyn Beard) wedding to keep them in check. Being idiots, the brothers post an ad on Craigslist, which garners a lot of attention and gets them on TV.  This is then seen by Tatiana (Aubrey Plaza) and Alice (Anna Kendrick), and these two ladies are the actual stars of the film…so much so that you wish the movie was just about them and ignored Mike and Dave entirely. Alice is a nice and well-meaning girl who is not too bright and has become an alcoholic following being left at the alter in an, admittedly, hilariously harsh way. Tatiana is…well…a slightly less slutty version of the character Aubrey Plaza just played in this year’s “Dirty Grandpa”. She’s dry and acerbic and pretty damn funny. Plaza was the only good thing about “Dirty Grandpa”, and while she still hasn’t found another vehicle as good as her underrated “The To-Do List”, she’s quickly becoming the one bright spot in a number of mediocre films, which I think just means she needs a better agent because she’s too good to be in movies like this. Kendrick, meanwhile, gets to play slightly against type (she’s usually cast as a goody-goody in films like “50/50” and the “Pitch Perfect” series) but still maintains her general air of sweetness and charm that makes her impossible not to like.

 

The film has a few sequences that really work, along with many more sequences that do not. Ones that work involve a massage scene where Alice decides to throw the stressed out bride-to-be a solid by paying the masseur (Kumail Nanjiani) to give her a woman’s version of a happy ending. While I don’t think a man can bring a woman to screaming orgasms by rubbing his butt vigorously against her butt, the scene is undeniably funny.  We also get Alice Wetterlund from MTV’s “Girl Code” playing Cousin Terry, who is bisexual but visually coded as a lesbian, who competes with Mike over who can be sexually serviced by Tatiana first. Wetterlund takes what is kind of a nothing character and steals two of the three major scenes she is in. We also are treated to a scene where Alice ends up rolling pretty hard on MDMA, and hearing Kendrick say some of the lines she has to say while playing high on Ecstasy is pretty amusing. I just wish that with the talent of Plaza, Kendrick, and Wetterlund, not to mention Beard who also has some good moments during the Ecstasy scene, had a better script to work with. Hell, those four actresses together would have made a helluva “Ghostbusters” cast. Still, the film feels necessary to shoehorn in scenes with Adam Devine, who feels like Hollywood is trying to make him the next big comedy star against our wills despite how damn annoying he is on screen, and Zac Efron, who offers nothing to cinema beyond his pretty face and nice body. This script absolutely wastes the talents of four very gifted comediennes by giving us a story that should have comedic suspense and building tension (can the guys keep their baser natures under control? Can the girls keep up their nice girl façade for the whole vacation) but instead of having scenes build upon each other with escalating stakes, we get a haphazard collection of set pieces which sometimes work and more often do not. Hell, a finale set to “This is How We Do It” feels stale after the song has been used in comedies from “Ali G Indahouse” to Kendrick’s own “Pitch Perfect 2”, and it features the same damn humorously lewd dry humping gag featuring Plaza that “Dirty Grandpa” already had a few months ago this year.

 

“Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates” exists to show talented actresses trapped in a movie they are too good for, and to show two lead male actors who should not be lead male actors in roles that are bland and empty as Mike and Dave’s brains. I enjoyed seeing scantily clad Plaza and Kendrick on screen, and even more enjoyed the rare moments in the film where they were actually allowed to be as funny as we know they can, but there’s no other reason to see this rather bland and empty, mediocre comedy. But the film at least shows that putting them and Wetterlund and Beard together in a different movie could really hit paydirt in the future. C

*Warning: Massive Spoilers within*

Three films in, and “The Purge” franchise has accomplished an astounding feat: the films have gotten smarter and better as they have gone on. From the first film, where an interesting and outlandish concept was used as the backdrop for a basic home-invasion horror film, we now have “Election Year”, an angry satirical swipe at the modern American political arena that takes aim at economic inequality, racial justice, guns, and religion by making a grotesque parody of everything going on right now. A dystopian America where people can get away with murder one day a year isn’t that odd when we consider how many police officers have gotten away without so much as an indictment for killing unarmed, non-threatening civilians, is it? That’s one of the questions the film wants you to ask as you watch it. By heightening reality by about 10 degrees, we have to reflect on not how different the world of these films is, but rather how similar.

It’s the 25th anniversary of the Purge, the one night of the year where all crime is legal. Yes, this concept creates a great deal of logic holes, from whether civil crimes and torts are also granted immunity, to why murder is the thing most people jump to instead of financial crime, to how difficult it would be to determine time of death on a body is someone was killed just before or just after the purge was in effect.  You or I can both probably come up with explanations for all of the holes that fit within the framework of the universe created by these films (this is often a very fun conversation for fans) but the fact that the films don’t try to answer some of these questions in the films themselves is probably why some people can’t enjoy the films. Then again, it’d be hard to answer these questions without massively awkward info dumps.

Anyway, the 25th anniversary of the Purge coincides with an election year. It’s partly surprising that this version of America has elections, as the previous films have indicated that the country is basically run by a mysterious cadre of people known as the New Founding Fathers of America, or NFFA as this film now calls them. This new film elaborates that they are a political party that apparently dominates most political power within the country. So, much like many authoritarian states in our real world, they allow token minority parties to run and maybe win a seat or two hear or there, but one-party controls most of the action.  Why would a party with this much power even allow elections? Perhaps because they want their citizens to have the illusion of power, freedom, and democracy, and because they are so assured of their stranglehold on power that elections are really of no concern to them.  This is an attitude held by many people who choose not to vote in the United States. We have TWO parties which give us the illusion of choice, and aside from different ideological changes with happen on the margins, large change doesn’t appear very possible within the two-party American system when large donors and power brokers interests run the show. Sp yes, the film just gives us an extreme version of what many disenfranchised people feel about out society right now (especially this year, with Hillary vs. Trump, though this film was filmed and completed before the filmmakers could have known that).

The presidential contest this year appears to be close. Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell) is an Independent Senator who is running on an almost exclusively anti-Purge platform. Year ago, her family was held hostage on Purge night and she was the only survivor. The Purge has become very unpopular now that knowledge has been disseminated to the masses that is exists largely to line the pockets of the NRA (the Purge creates a world where everyone really DOES have to own a gun to be safe, unlike the real world where they only want everyone to THINK that’s the case…can you imagine how much money gun manufacturers would make in a Purge world?), insurance companies, and other interest groups. More poor people die in the Purge, and that means less government money spent on social services like welfare, housing, Social Security, healthcare, unemployment, and more. It solves every Conservative’s problems: they hate poor people, and hate government spending. If those poor people happen to be minorities, why that’s even better. The Purge is an extended metaphor for any and all Conservative-backed budget proposals since the Reagan era. In the real world the poor suffer, get sick, and die every day because of policies Conservatives want and Democrats are to spineless or corrupt to fight against. In “The Purge” movies, they just cut through the bullshit and let poor people get tortured and murdered.

Roan’s opponent is a minister, because why be subtle in a movie like this? He’s Edwidge Owens (Kyle Secor), a token candidate for the NFFA, who we see with other members, some higher ranking, in a scene where many old white men (and one or two older white women) swear profusely, rail against the poor, and plot to take out Roan. While I doubt the evil Capitalists that run American politics and the economy are this explicit, vulgar, and monolithically white in real life, this works as satire because this is pretty much the image we all conjure up when we imagine what they do in private. All that’s missing is them raising their glasses and toasting “to evil”.  Still, we do get to see new flags and iconography associated with the NFFA in the film, and they all call to mind Christian-based Fascist movements of the post WWII-era.  With Roan and Owens as opponents, this often feels like a female Bernie Sanders running against a less weird-looking Ted Cruz.

The plan the NFFA has to take out Roan is pretty simple. In the previous films, people with a “level 10” government position or higher are exempt from having crimes committed against them in the Purge. Of course, the rich and powerful don’t want the rules that apply to everyone else to apply to themselves. (There also rules against certain explosive weapons so that major infrastructure isn’t too damaged, but this new film leaves that out to, either for time or because they forgot). In this film, the NFFA, in the guise of reform to please the masses and appear more egalitarian, eliminate that exemption, which also conveniently means a pesky female Senator running for President can be killed.

Luckily, Roan has the Secret Service protection of Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo), who we met in the last film as grieving father who almost killed the drunk driver that killed his son, but instead saved a handful of people and had a change of hear about the Purge. He shares Roan’s hatred of the night, and will do anything to protect her. This is good because, well, the rest of the Secret Service is in bed with the NFFA, and before you know it, the Secret Service has outsourced assassination of Roan to a paramilitary militia of heavily tattooed White Supremacists.  These aren’t the fairly realistic racists from “Green Room”, but rather ones SO RACIST, they “White Power” patches on their camo, along with Confederate Flag patches, Swastikas, and Iron Crosses. They’ve gone full racism.  I suppose this is a comment on how rich Conservatives are willing to be uncomfortable allies with the seedier corners of the right-wing political spectrum when it suits their needs. Again, this movie was written and filmed BEFORE Trump became the nominee (though filmed three months AFTER he announced his candidacy).

While this main story is going on, we also get a parallel story which will eventually meet up with Roan and Leo.  A small business owner named Joe Dixon (Mykelti Williamson) has his Purge insurance (that’s a special, very profitable thing now) jacked up the day before the Purge. Because of this, he decides to stay at his store on Purge night to defend it from looters. He’s helped by his legal Mexican immigrant employee Marcos (Joseph Julian Sora). Why anyone still wants to become an American citizen when the Purge is a policy must speak to how terrible it is to live in certain parts of Mexico.  After all, if your country is a violent place, being afraid one day a year is better than being afraid every moment of every day. Marcos is a good man and he clearly exists in the film to make us feel empathy for immigrants (the film tells us Marcos was a citizen for two years but lived in the U.S. for seven, so he was likely illegal for some of that time).  Marcos is loyal, smart, and hardworking. Suck on that, Trump!  Anyway, just before the Purge, two girls dressed in schoolgirl outfits (because we missed the ridiculous schoolgirl outfit that Ethan Hawke’s daughter wore in the first film and the second film didn’t have ANY schoolgirl outfits at all!) try to steal a candy bar from the store. They are stopped by Dixon’s friend Laney (Betty Gabriel), who used to be a tough female gang member. One of the girls, Kimmy (Brittany Mirabile), vows to come back and mess up the store, though.

She makes good on her word, as she and her friends drive to the store in a car covered in X-Mas lights (this looks cool, but must have taken a long time…and how are they plugged in?) and attempt to break in using power saws. On a night where all crime is legal, why are they spending there time trying to fuck up this one convenience store? This is likely the filmmakers’ comment on riots like Ferguson. Instead of going after the assholes really oppressing you (like the NFFA in this world) or even targeting rich neighborhoods and suburbs, they see fit to destroy businesses in their own communities for stupid reasons. Clearly the filmmakers are trying to tell rioters that such behavior doesn’t help them with the macro or micro reasons they are kept down, and also contributes to racist thinking regarding their intelligence and civility.  This can be contrasted to the film’s other depiction of a violent and largely African-American resistance movement. Dante Bishop (Edwin Hodge) leads a group this part Black Lives Matter and part Black Panthers. The film tells us they take measures to assassinate NFFA members and sympathizers on previous Purge nights that weren’t protected by the previously enforced level 10 immunity. In addition to those terrorist actions, they also provide hospital services to those injured on Purge night, staffed with volunteer doctors and nurses (emergency services are suspended during the Purge), and some volunteers, like Laney, drive ambulances throughout the community on Purge night. The film shows us that the ambulances are largely left alone, as are people who go through the streets picking up dead bodies as a kind of trash collection service. “Keep Washington Clean” a man says with a bullhorn from the collection truck. This is a comment how poor, mainly minority communities are left to fend for themselves and have to stick together when the powers that be abandon them.  Washington D.C., a city with a large Black and poor community surrounding a center filled with the rich and powerful was the perfect setting for this film.  In any event, the film seems to be arguing that people upset with the status quo need to be a lot less like Kimmy (selfish, stupid, no grasp of the big picture, commits violence against their own) and a lot more like Dante Bishop’s group…to a point (I’ll get to that in a bit).

It goes without saying that Senator Roan and Leo end up on the streets during the Purge after escaping an assassination attempt. Oddly enough, the first group of crazies that happen upon them are tourists from Europe and South Africa who have flown to the U.S. to participate in the Purge as “murder tourists”. One of the main complaints I hear of the “Purge” films is why people don’t just leave the country for when the Purge takes place. My general hypothesis has been that either the United States relies on the inflamed sense of patriotism to shame those who don’t do their patriotic duty to participate (remember how those who questioned the government’s actions were ridiculed and shamed in the immediate aftermath of 9/11?) or that the Government closed their borders to travel in the immediate run up to the Purge. This film clearly proves the latter hypothesis wrong. I’m guessing people stay much like Dixon does to protect their property, or simply because not everyone has the means to just pick up and travel out of the country once a year to avoid being killed. Other countries may also not be too happy about an influx of tourists and/or immigrants once a year in March given the xenophobia that exists about outsiders in our real world right now. This murder tourist element is an odd one, as it at first seems to indicate a vindication of xenophobia, as outsiders travel to the United States to exploit their “freedom” to Purge. However, when you consider where the film tells is they are from (South Africa really stands out, being the country that was formally under racial apartheid, and the South African purger speaks Afrikaans while wearing a George Washington mask).  I think this is more of a comment on how the rest of the world views America as a particularly violent culture, even though the previous histories of other countries (like South Africa and European powers like France and England) have a lot more blood on their hands due to their longer histories of colonialism and imperialism. I think the film is saying that America may be uniquely violent right now to it’s own people, but these other countries have been exceptionally violent to OTHER countries in the past (and perhaps now).

Dixon and Marcos save Roan and Leo from the murder tourists, Kimmy and the Black-on-Black-Crime-Teenagers are taken out by Laney, and soon they all end up at Bishop’s underground hospital safe zone.  There, we find out that the Bishop group is planning to assassinate Minister Owens. See, the NFFA on Purge Night has a midnight Purge mass in a church. That’s right, we’re finally getting an attack on Christianity in a Purge movie. Bishop’s people want the freedom of the new Purge allowing the killing of government officials to take out all of the main D.C. NFFA players, including presidential candidate Owens. Roan attempts to talk him out of it, saying killing Owens will only make him a martyr and ensure the NFFA wins the election. Basically, it’s as if Bernie Sanders tried to tell Fred Hampton or Che Guevara to trust in the system. It’s a weird message for a film that takes such joy in violence against the evil to have this reform over revolution stance. Granted, the argument that Owens being killed would make him a martyr and rally the public behind the NFFA is probably correct. Much as killing certain terrorists rallies people to join terrorists groups (not as much as killing innocent civilians with drone bombings, though) it stands to reason that the public would see the violent murder of Owens by a group claiming they want to end a night of violent murder would instead prove the necessity of such a night to keep people safe from unreleased violent impulses. The fear of crime is such that in our real world commercials for security systems and doorbells with cameras in them are aimed at people in affluent suburbs who have little risk in suffering a break in. Plus, you know, there’d be the basic hypocrisy of Bishop’s group. This is sort of pointed out when the “war room” of sorts in Bishop’s HQ has a sign that says “Stop Class Warfare” or “End Class Warfare” (I forget which) even though they are actively engaging in a class war, albeit for the correct side.

Eventually, Roan is successful kidnapped by the neo-Nazis and taken to the church where the NFFA is having their service, which consists of Owens talking about how the Purge helps them be free of guilt from their sinful thoughts of anger and hate much like Jesus dyed on the cross for their sins. Basically, instead of flagellating themselves like the albino in “The Da Vinci Code” these Christians hurt others to feel better about how un-Christian (in the follow-all-the-good-Jesus-teaching-and-none-of-the-bad-ones way that we think of as “being Christian” when we condemn shitty Christians for being assholes) their thoughts and actions are. I think they’re wrongfully comparing themselves to Jesus when they should be comparing themselves to Pontius Pilot, but whatever. These people are just as stupid about religions as real life religious people are. After the little speech, it’s made clear that they going to kill a long series of drug addicts and hobos. As Christ would.  But, they’re also going to have a murder orgy where they all jointly kill Roan. I have to admit, seeing a bunch of rich white people sitting in a church chanting “Purge and Purify” while Fascist-looking flags with their logo adorns the church is pretty much how I view Christianity in general, and I smiled wide and proud to see such a blatantly “fuck the Religious Right” scene in a movie. It is so over the top and absurd that I wanted to kiss the movie on the forehead. When the film tells us the murder weapons were all washed in holy water prior to the mass, I had to stop myself from clapping in the theater.

Without going to much into the third act machinations, I’ll say that most of our main characters survive, and the election happens (in this universe, it takes place in May instead of November, for some reason).  Here’s the thing: this film indicates that a President could take executive action to stop the Purge. However, previous films either stated or implied that the Purge was enacted following a Constitutional Amendment. A President cannot undo a Constitutional Amendment. Only another Amendment, passed by 2/3rds majorities in both houses of Congress, and then ratified by 2/3rds of the states, can repeal an Amendment. Even if Roan becomes President, it seems like the NFFA would still control most of the seats in the U.S. government, unless down ticket races running on an end-the-Purge ballot also got swept into office nationwide. A minor quibble from a political geek.

I’ve largely focused on the film’s politics because, well, the film is all politics. The film shares many of my own politics and by touching on issues like economic inequality, race relations, the struggles of being poor in an inner-city, immigration, colonialism, working within the system vs. a revolution on the system, it proves itself to be angrier and smarter than most films released by a major studio in movie theaters in this, or any other year outside of the documentary genre. Horror films used to be very political, from “last House on the Left” commenting on Vietnam in the 70s, to “The People Under The Stars” commenting and “They Live” commenting on the Reagan 80s, all the way to the 2000s “Hostel” movies commenting on the Bush years and American nationalism and ethnocentricity in a post 9/11 world. That streak has seemingly disappeared as studio horror moves to PG-13 jump scare garbage, found footage, reboots, and supernatural haunting movies. While “The Purge: Election Year” isn’t scary (it’s too funny and idea-heavy for that), it shows that, much like it’s sister genre sci-fi, horror as a genre can disarm people by having them easily dismiss it as disposable entertainment, and thus is perfectly situated to deliver a message to people. “Election Year” isn’t some dystopian warning about what America would look like under a President Trump, it’s a warning that this is what America already is, regardless of who wins the next election. People being murdered with no consequences for the killers, the rich and powerful pulling the strings, poor minorities in urban environments being abandoned by the powers that be (Flint) and having to fend for themselves, the idiocy of rioting and attacking ones own community and more are all issues happening right now. The truth about our world is that we are living in the Purge, every single day. The argument of our time is whether we need to be Charlie Roans or Dante Bishops.

There’s a funny little moment when, upon the election of Roan, we hear a voiceover say supporters of the NFFA are rioting in the streets. It’s a nice little “fuck you, privileged white people, you’d do this to if something mattered to you enough.”  Aside from the politics, I hate the ridiculous glasses they make Elizabeth Mitchell wear. They’re the type of glasses they put on porn stars when they have to play scientists or something before the anal begins. Some of the acting is less than ideal. The horror fan in me wishes some of the kills were more inventive and less gun-heavy (these films are more action movie sometimes than horror).  Otherwise, my complaints with the film are few. “The Purge: Election Year” does everything I want a Purge movie to do, short of finding an entertaining way to close the various logic problems with its premise. It’s a funny, angry, violent political cartoon turned motion picture, with enough ideas in it to spawn 10 films, let alone one. It’s love of violence somewhat undercuts its general message (unless it wants to come clean and say it favors violent revolution, which no American film from a major studio would likely dare to do…even “Fight Club” and “Mr. Robot” don’t go that far) but the genre demands violence.  I’m not going to lie. This isn’t high art. There aren’t many impressive shots of directorial flourishes that make this highly visually stimulating.  Most of the characters are one or two dimensional at best. The bottom line is that I don’t care about that. The movie exists to send a satirical message, one that comes through loud and clear, and that I liked hearing and enjoyed this form of delivery. A-