Archive for September, 2016

Snowden (dir. Oliver Stone)

Posted: September 30, 2016 in Uncategorized

“Snowden” is a well-made film that covers Edward Snowden’s adult life and his eventual decision to leak information about the NSA’s surveillance programs to the World. The film is sympathetic to Snowden and argues that he did the right thing. If you already know the details of Snowden, the leaks, the NSA and intelligence community’s surveillance programs, the FISA courts, and all of the other issues related to this, the film will not give you any new information. However, if you only have a shallow understanding of what went down, this film does a very good job of explaining insanely technical stuff to the layman in a dumbed-down but not condescending manner. This is a fictional biopic, so there are liberties taken, exaggerations made, characters made up of composite or entirely out of whole cloth, and all of the other caveats that one should be aware of when watching a film like this, and certainly a film by Oliver Stone, a good director with whom I am usually in political agreement with but whom I also know has a penchant for conspiracy theories and playing hard and loose with facts for dramatic effect. If you go into the film knowing all of that, and being okay with that, you will find an enjoyable film.

Edward Snowden is played by Joseph Gordon Levitt, who gives a very good performance in the way he attempts to mimic the look, voice, and mannerisms of Snowden. His voice is perhaps too deep, and there’s only so much glasses and some hair dye can do to make one person look like another, but the overall effect of his performance is to have him blend into the character and make it his own in a believable manner. The film’s version of Snowden is of a by-the-numbers young Conservative who tried to sign up for the military after 9/11, failed due to a medical issue, and went into intelligence to continue an attempt to serve his country. This is all factually true, but the film does paint Snowden as more of an orthodox Republican than he is. In truth, Snowden is an Ayn Rand-loving, Anarcho-Capitalist Libertarian. I think the purpose of the film molding Snowden from who he is in a real life to a more traditional Conservative who then has a change of heart about patriotism is to make him more likeable to the audience of this film, who given Stone’s politics and fanbase, are more likely to look like me (a Marxist that despises Libertarianism) than like Snowden. The character arc taking someone from patriotic conservative to government-questioning civil rights advocate is both more sympathetic to a person like me and makes for better drama than an anti-government Libertarian turning against the government he already viewed skeptically. Also, watching an Ayn Rand fanboy for two and half hours would be as insufferable as reading “Atlas Shrugged”. The result may make more Leftists personally like Snowden than they would actually like the real person, but it works narratively.

The Snowden of the film really doesn’t exist to be Snowden anyway. He’s a stand-in for the audience. Like Snowden in the film, most Americans were so scared after 9/11 that they blindly fell into patriotic nationalism and accepted whatever the government (particularly the Bush administration) said would keep us safe, which included the Patriot Act. Later, as we learned more and more what was going on, the flagrant violations of the Constitution and basic civil rights, and chronological distance from 9/11 increased, we grew less at ease with what was happening. The film’s Snowden joins the military in ra-ra-go-America fashion, then joins the CIA with the same. Then he sees what the government can do, like read people’s private Facebook messages and tap into webcams without permission. He sees what field agents do, like frame people for crimes they didn’t commit in order to use that as leverage to get information. He finds out that the secret court that is supposed to be the check between the intelligence communities being able to do anything it wants is really just a big rubber stamp.

Snowden has a liberal girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), who perhaps pushes Snowden away from some, but not all, of his Conservative leanings and acts a moral compass at times. In all honesty, the film doesn’t do all that much with her character besides use her to create extra tension on the Snowden character and give him personal stakes to add to the ideological ones the film spends more time on. It’s kind of a wasted opportunity, but it allows Woodley to play a more adult role than she usually gets, and it helps humanize Snowden more. Through the course of the film, Snowden’s moral dilemmas and his ego at being very good at what he does form an internal conflict leading him to jump from gig to gig, some of them very comfortable and high paying. What the film doesn’t really make clear is why Snowden chose the time he did to leak if he had had knowledge of what the government was doing for years, and moral compunctions with it all that time. The film puts in a narrative device that he finally found out the government was spying on Lindsay, but I’m not sure if that is real or just the convenient narrative device it feels like.

It’s almost impossible to review this film without disclosing my opinion on the matter, so let me get that out of the way: the United States was wrong to have the programs it did. I think Snowden was justified in leaking them, so it was perhaps a bit of a cop out to hand the information to journalists and have THEM vet it for information that shouldn’t be leaked versus actually taking that responsibility himself. I think Snowden’s leaking was as much to do with a moral imperative as it was with delusions of grandeur and a martyr complex common with Ayn Rand fanboys who all liken themselves to being the real life John Galt. Ultimately, if his actions were justified and important his motives don’t really matter, but something has irked me about the guy on a personal level, and I think I’m just sensing the Libertarian in him. Also, it should be said that we all suspected the government was doing what Snowden proved they were doing, so these revelations didn’t come out of nowhere. He simply provided evidence to what we already knew. That evidence has lead to concrete and good changes in how we gather intelligence, but I think it’s easy to overstate the importance of what he did as well.

All of that being said, “Snowden” is a very good film by making Snowden into a character more likeable and identifiable to this film’s audience and using him as a vehicle for the audience to go through the feelings it had about all of these topics to, the filmmakers hope, arrive at the same conclusions and moral decisions that its fictional Snowden does. The film does a good job explaining complex issues simply, and it moves at a nice pace, like a very talk-heavy spy movie with intrigue around every corner. For a movie about serious issues, it never feels weighed down with pretentiousness and is very fun to watch.

The film does have a frame story surrounding the Hong Kong hotel Snowden holed up in while working out the leaks with the reporters (we get Zachary Quinto as Glenn Greenwald, Tom Wilkinson as Ewen MacAskill, and Melissa Leo as Laura Poitras, who in real life made the Oscar-winning documentary “Citizenfour” made up largely of footage shot during the time period portrayed in the film) which works fairly well, though the film later rushes through all of the drama involving Snowden flying from Hong Kong to Russia, being stuck in the airport, and then being given asylum in Russia. I think Stone probably found that to be less interesting than the actual issues, but cinematically it might have been fun to portray that (I also wonder how a Wikileaks lawyer had gotten involved during one leg of the trip).

The film accomplishes what it is trying to do. It entertains, it explains simply, it gets you to like and empathize with the protagonist (Stone is particularly good at this, whether it’s Nixon in “Nixon”, Bush in “W.”, or serial killers in “Natural Born Killers”), and it establishes its point of view for the audience to accept (it hopes) or reject. It’s certainly not up there with great Stone films like “Platoon”, but it is a return to form for a director who has not done his best work in many years. The acting is top notch for the material, the pacing is spot on, and this remains and interesting and eminently watchable film throughout. This is probably the best fiction film about Snowden we could have reasonable expected to see.  B+

 

Blair Witch (dir. Adam Wingard)

Posted: September 30, 2016 in Uncategorized

“Blair Witch”, much like last year’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”, feels more like a remake or a reboot than the sequel it actually is. While it does follow and reference events from the original film (the other sequel, “Book of Shadows”, did not take place in the same universe as the first film and thus wasn’t a direct sequel), it follows the original film’s structure almost beat-for-beat to the point that you wish this new film had done more. What we get are more characters and a tiny bit of an expansion on the Blair Witch mythos, plus some more on-screen violence, but otherwise this is barely different than the original film. One wonders why director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett, who made the excellent “A Horrible Way To Die” and the good “You’re Next” decided to play this film so safe.

It’s approximately 20 years after the events of the original film. Heather (played by Heather Donahue in the original film) is still missing and presumed dead. Her younger brother, James (James Allen McCune) still wonders what happened to her. Presumably, he’s seen the original “Blair Witch Project”, since in-universe that film was made from footage Heather and her friends shot when they got lost and was recovered in the woods after their disappearance. Anyway, he sees a different video, possibly of Heather in the house seen at the end of that film, uploaded to Youtube. Thinking it might be a lead, he contacted the person who uploaded it so that they may show him where he found the footage in the woods, in the hopes that it will be a lead to finally find Heather. Naturally, James has a friend, Lisa (Callie Hernandez), who is a film student and decides to make a documentary about this, thus continuing the found-footage aspect of the films that “Book of Shadows” mostly abandoned. At this point, horror fans have been inundated with bad found footage horror films (“The Gallows” comes to mind as a particularly horrible one recently) and perhaps we could have used a different format for this film. While the new “Blair Witch” adds a few new gadgets to the mix (a drone, ear piece cameras), we are still left with one of the base flaws of this genre: there are moments in the film where it makes no goddamned sense that the characters are continuing to film their goings-on. One scene, towards the end, features a character crawling through a tight, underground tunnel. The character doesn’t need the light from the camera, since they have a flashlight, so it makes exactly zero fucking sense for them to continue filming, but they do.

In addition to James and Lisa, we also get Peter (Brandon Scott) and Ashley (Corbin Reid), who are friends of theirs, and agree to go on the expedition to search for Heather and film this project. When they arrive at the home of the guy who found the new footage, they are greeted with a Confederate flag hanging on the wall (Peter and Ashley are black), though this makes no sense since neither of the people they meet at this point seems racist, and they are in Maryland which seems to eliminate any chance that they have a misguided heritage reason for keeping it up. Weird. Anyway, these two inexplicable neo-Confederates are Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), lower-class locals who grew up in the vicinity of the woods that the Blair Witch is said to curse. They agree to show James and company the spot they found the footage at, but only if they get to go along. They reluctantly agree, and the six people head off into the woods.

What follows are interpersonal tension, disappearances, fake and real dangers, the implication that the Blair Witch can manipulate time, and a lot of ambiguity. People who were disappointed that the original “Blair Witch Project” was less a horror film and more of a character study about how desperate people unfurl and get panicked will likely be disappointed by this film as well. Conversely, those who liked the original film will probably like this one and appreciate that a few more horror-y elements were added to this film which the original film lacked. We actually see on-screen deaths and glimpses of…something supernatural which may or may not actually be the Blair Witch herself. While the film does give us an abbreviated backstory on the Witch’s mythology, the film glosses over it to the point that some stuff may be unclear still.

While “Blair Witch” is enjoyable enough, I was hoping for more. I wanted a larger expansion of the Blair Witch mythology, some more answers to story questions, more horror elements that weren’t just jump scares and did-you-see-that brief glimpses of supernatural horrors, and maybe more inventiveness with the stale found-footage genre. While the film we got is decent, it is a letdown considering the very talented screenwriter and director behind this. Much like “Force Awakens”, I am left to wonder what the purpose of making a whole new film is when you have the freedom to try anything, and all you do is basically do a remake and call it a sequel. Where’s the imagination? C+

“Hell or High Water” at times feels like a film from the 1970s. It has a simple story, but that story is told with a focus on interesting and well-drawn characters and with the smallest amount of formula necessary. It is dark in tone while being bright and hot in visuals. The acting is about as superb as can be. The violence is abundant, but not gratuitous. This is a film too smart and well-made for the modern era of American moviemaking. If it weren’t for the constant visual references to the 2008 financial crisis (a plot involving mortgages and predatory loans, constant billboards advertising payday loans and foreclosure notices), one would be forgiven for not knowing this was a modern film.

When the film opens we meet two brothers, Toby (Chris Pine, in his best performance yet) and Tanner (Ben Foster). Toby is a common man, but smarter than he seems. Out of work after a long-time job working on natural gas pipelines, and his mother recently passing away, he is left with the burden of debt on his mother’s farm. That debt is the result of a predatory reverse mortgage the mother took out when she was old and sick, subprime horribleness. But, there’s a silver lining. There is oil underneath the farm. If Toby can pay off the debt and own the farm outright, he can become rich by leasing out the rights to mine on the land. That’s where Tanner comes in. Tanner has recently been released from prison after a lengthy stint for bank robbery. Together the two hatch a plan to rob branches of the bank that preyed on their mother, taking small amounts (nothing bigger than $100 in bills, and only drawer cash not bothering with the safe). They want to pay the bank back with their own money, and it’s kind of hard not to root for them in doing so. Once they get enough money, the plan is to drive over to Oklahoma (the film takes place in, and constantly exudes, Texas) and launder the money at the casino to pass off the money as a lucky run at gambling. Overall, it’s a pretty decent plan.

There are issues, of course. Tanner is a violent criminal through and through, and is known for being unnecessarily violent (hitting an old woman who opens a bank branch) and unpredictable (robbing the branch of a different, unrelated bank, unexpectedly, while his brother is still across the street eating breakfast). Toby has a goal and a mission, but Tanner seems to be in on the plan mostly for fun, with a little bit of love for his brother on the side.

Naturally, the law would get involved, and in true Texas fashion the brothers end up with two Texas Rangers on their trail. The invaluable Jeff Bridges plays Marcus Hamilton, a forced-to-retire Ranger who grabs these bank robberies as his last case. Marcus’s partner is Alberto (Gil Birmingham), a half-Mexican, half-Native American that Marcus has a genuine affection for, but that affection often comes out as racially tinged ribbings. Alberto fires some stingers back at Marcus, and it is clear, without every becoming too sappy or on the nose, that these two people really like and care about each other.  In small moments, of which the film has in abundance, it also becomes clear how lonely Marcus is, and how worried about Marcus his partner is. One scene, set up as a humorous aside as the two hang out in Albert’s hotel room as they wait for a stakeout of a bank branch the next day, becomes a laidback examination of the loneliness and concern they feel, but hide behind the normal interactions male friends have in a hyper-masculinized setting like the Texas Rangers.

Marcus is whip smart, and pretty much profiles the robbers correctly for their basic motive and how they will behave going forward. Alberto initially writes the robbers off as “tweekers”, but soon is proven wrong when more and more of Marcus’s hunches bear fruit. Meanwhile, we also get smaller character moments for the brothers. We learn through an interaction at the casino just how lonely the divorced Toby is (he wants to free up the farm land and license the drilling rights largely so that his kids won’t know the poverty he has known). We also, in a scene with his eldest child, find out the debts of his loathing and self-hatred. This is a film that tells us a lot about who its characters are without making it seem like we’re being spoonfed exposition about them, because the scenes in which the information comes out feel natural and authentic, and information is mainly gleaned between the lines or through facial expressions and acting queues than explicit lines of dialogue. Tanner is a rather shallow character, but we even get enough moments to know what drives him. The characters in this film feel about as human as fictional characters can, and this is all a testament to the acting prowess on display, and to the absolutely wonderful script by Taylor Sheridan, who also wrote the very smart “Sicario”, which made my list as one of the best films of last year.

Perhaps what is most interesting about the film is how it tries to plug subtle liberal messages in a film tailor made for conservative audiences. We get rough and tumble mens-men in Texas tied to this bank robbery plot, but we also have subtle indictments of gun culture.  Everyone in Texas seemingly has a gun and is itching for vigilante justice, but Rangers like Marcus discourage that, and wannabe concealed-carry heroes don’t meet happy endings in this film. When a mob of heavily armed Texans pursue the brothers, they are easily repelled by a much bigger weapon, which is perhaps a mixed message, but also subtly points out the absurdity of the armed revolution premise of the 2nd Amendment; how will being armed help you overthrow a tyrannical government when that same government will always have more powerful weapons in a larger abundance?  The gun issue aside, the film is a constant peppering of indictments over the American economy and its predatory nature. Unemployment, foreclosures, poverty, and people trapped in jobs they hate cram every inch of every frame of this film. The film somehow manages to be obvious and subtle at the same time with a message that isn’t exactly anti-Capitalist, but is certainly against the way the American economy is currently being run, and is really concerned with making sure its audience understands how shitty the American landscape is. The film even gives us a little speech from Alberto about how the land of his peoples was stolen from them by white settlers, and now the descendants of those settlers are having THEIR land stolen by the banks and the rich people and conglomerates. It’s a low key speech, but also pretty savage.

Despite the sometimes heady elements, this movie spends a lot of its first two acts being very fun and funny. Like a Coen Brothers film, it mixes the drama and humor, but unlike many of their films, this one never hits the wrong tone (“No Country For Old Men” was often too silly for my liking, but this film always finds the right balance). There’s even time for the film to slow down and give us good scenes that may not advance the plot, but are wicked good fun. The scene where Marcus and Alberto sit down at a restaurant and are served by the world’s oldest and angriest don’t-give-a-fuck waitress is a hoot and a highlight, but aside from maybe adding some more window dressing as to the economic squalor of the film, it adds nothing of significance to the plot.

The end of the film, when it comes, tries to eschew formula as much as possible, and it largely succeeds. While the ending doesn’t feel completely atypical of what you’d expect or overly artsy, it’s not the traditional ending for a film of this nature either. “Hell or High Water” always finds the right balance between being original without being too artsy so as to alienate an audience not akin to watching indie films. This is a smart, artfully made, well written and acted film that has enough elements to entertain a mainstream audience without compromising its artistry. It walks that tightrope about as well as any film in recent memory.

This is an excellent film, and one of the best of the year. It’s a sad fact about the current state of Hollywood filmmaking that movies like this rarely get made anymore, much less released in theaters, much less in anything close to a wide release. A film this well-made and smart but also entertaining is really fucking rare these days. A-

Morgan (dir. Luke Scott)

Posted: September 6, 2016 in Uncategorized

Two of the better sci-fi films to come out in the recent past, and by sci-fi I mean films that actually deal with issues related to fictitious scientific advances and not movies where aliens make things go boom, were “Splice” and “Ex Machina”. “Splice” was about scientists creating a genetic hybrid of animal and human DNA, whereas “Ex Machina” was about a man who created A.I. and wanted another man to conduct a Turing test on his creation. Both films teetered on the precipice horror in their 3rd act after spending time dealing with the moral and ethical considerations of scientific advancement in creating heretofore unknown life forms. Both films were also quite good.

“Morgan” feels like the shitty direct-to-video ripoff of those films, except that it gets a theatrical release because it was directed by the son of famous director Ridley Scott. To be fair, Luke Scott does an admirable job directing the film, which contains a few good sequences and interesting shots, but the lame and shallow script makes the film feel like little more than the younger Scott’s resume builder. The film introduces concepts that might have lead to an intelligent film, but then decides that would take too much trouble and decides the second half of the film should be an empty killing spree. Oh, and this film has one of the most obvious twist endings in recent film history. More obvious than even “The Visit”.

The film begins with Lee Weathers (Kate Mara, who really needs a new agent). Lee works for Risk Management of an unnamed corporation. That corporation is funding a secret experiment in the woods of…somewhere (seemingly the Pacific northwest), where some scientists, including geneticists, nutritionists, and behaviorists, are working to create a genetically engineered human with some nanotechnology inside of them. Why? I’ll get to that later. Anyway, the creation in question, Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy) attacked and ripped the eye out of one of the employees, and it’s Lee’s job to decide if Morgan is salvageable or if she should be terminated. Most of the scientists don’t have much in the way of personality, but stand-outs include Rose Leslie as the behaviorist who is close to Morgan, and Boyd Holbrook as Skip, the facility’s nutritionist and cook who seems to take Lee’s side when no one else does.

It sort of goes without saying that Morgan eventually gets out of her laboratory cell and starts killing people. The ads give this away, even if you couldn’t figure out that it was going to happen. If you want to know why, well *SPOILERS* the company is interested in genetically engineering weapons. I’m not sure why it’s considered profitable and efficient to make human kill clones (ask the Empire from “Star Wars”) when bombs and drones seem to do just fine, but I guess the intelligence and infiltration aspects of a humanized weapon are what they are after. Anyway, the scientists in the film were trying to add a broader range of emotion to Morgan to show the company that they can make new “people” that are more than weapons (this seems to negate the fact that the company doesn’t seem to CARE about this as they are a profit making business and not a scientific research organization). It turns out that the weapon part is stronger than the sentience.

The film doesn’t really want to deal with what is or is not human, or sentience. It doesn’t care about taking corporations or the military industrial complex to task. It really seems to only care about making a bland horror film that puts on the airs of pretension without even trying to pretend it cares about saying anything. It is “Ex Machina” for people too stupid to enjoy “Ex Machina”.

The best scene in the film also makes no logical sense. Paul Giamatti visits the facility to do a psychological assessment of Morgan. He tries to establish trust and a rapport, and then pushes Morgan  to test her emotional reaction to anger. The idea of testing her response to negative stimuli is fine, but the film makes Giamatti’s character push her too hard, too fast, in a way that makes his character far more stupid and unbelievable than he should be. Despite the poor writing, the scene works because the tension builds rather well and because Giamatti acts the hell out of the scene. When your film’s best scene is also severely hampered by bad writing, it is not a good sign.

“Morgan” is a film that, if I saw it premiere on the SyFy channel, I would say it was a decent TV movie. Because it is released in theaters and stars recognizable and talented actors, I cannot so readily look past its flaws, especially when it seems to be emulating two different, and infinitely better films that are not even 10 years old. Hell, “Ex Machina” just came out LAST YEAR. The film is lazy, poorly written, and maybe more than a bit cynical if its only reason for existing is to provide a visual resume for a well-known director’s son, and if his directing gig was the result of daddy calling in favors.  C.

 

Don’t Breathe (dir.Fede Alvarez)

Posted: September 6, 2016 in Uncategorized

“Don’t Breathe” is a film version of a thrill ride, or perhaps a series of different rides at an amusement park. It essentially exists as a series of sequences of varying degrees of tension and suspense that mimic one would feel during the build up and release of tension on a rollercoaster, freefall, or any other number of rides you may enjoy going on. The film’s story is weak at times, but that only slightly hampers the enjoyment of what is otherwise a highly enjoyable film.

The film involves three people who break into a blind man’s house in order to steal a large amount of money that blind man was awarded in a law suit. The Blind Man (Stephan Lang), used to be in the military until a grenade explosion stole his eye sight and made him overly sensitive to loud noises. His daughter was killed by a rich girl who was drunk driving. When the film begins, he is living in a practically abandoned section of Detroit in a house that would be considered run down, except when surrounded with the decaying homes of Detroit it is the best house for miles by comparison. The film wastes no time getting us into that house and beginning the action of the film, which in other films would seem way too fast (there’s maybe only 10 minutes of set up) but in this film feels like it’s for the best because the set up is kind of shitty.

Our three protagonists are Money (Daniel Zovatto), a white gangsta-type guy who looks like a Die Antwoord reject; Rocky (Jane Levy), a girl who grew up abused by her mother in a trailer park and is looking to get her and her younger sister away from the life, and Alex (Dylan Minnette), who has a predictable crush on Rocky, even though Rocky and Money are inexplicably an item. Alex is the intellectual leader of the three, as he knows all of the laws pertaining to breaking and entering. His father runs a security company, and he steals the keys and security alarm codes from his father’s clients so that he and the other two protagonists can steal items to fence. You’d think a rash of break-ins that all have the same security company in common would raise police suspicions, or at the very least cause bad Yelp reviews for the company, but the film ignores this obvious flaw in their operation. In any case, the generally make sure all of their break-ins only steal items of a low enough monetary value as to not be a felony, but the desire for a big score and a chance to get out of Detroit is too large, and a blind man sitting on $300,000 seems too good to pass up.

So we have a decent basic concept with a really bad set up. Money is wholly unlikable, it makes no sense for Rocky to like him, and a smart, intelligent kid pining for the girl who inexplicably likes the bad boy has been done way too much at this point. Also, Rocky has many tattoos, but is given a weird scene where we find out she got a tiny ladybug tattoo and she says that after this score it will be the last time she ever marks her body. Why is she suddenly anti-tattoo? The film is also implicitly anti-tattoo by tying the desire to tattoo one’s body with childhood abuse, as the ladybug calls back to a time Rocky was a kid and left in a trunk for days with only a ladybug that could get inside to keep her company. Weird moralizing.

But then we get in the house, and the film works wonders for a while. We’re given the layout of the house in a virtuoso, unbroken steadicam shot that goes under beds, upstairs, through walls and floorboards, and is really impressive. The house isn’t in great shape, but it’s not the house in “Saw 2” either. At first, the Blind Man is asleep, but then he wakes up, one of our protagonists is killed by him, and he figures out there are two others in the house, and proceeds to batten down the hatches and lock up any means of escape. It’s not just a question of escaping, it’s also very important to Rocky that they leave WITH the stolen money. The difficulty becomes escaping the house with the money and their life intact. While the Blind Man doesn’t have any bullshit “heightened senses” from being blind, he still has intact military training, and is a surprising force to be reckoned with since he knows his house without visual aid, and the intruders barely know any of the house at all.

For most of the film, the Blind Man is a character you are pretty much on the side of…then we get a third act twist that is rather unexpected. The twist works and is very effective at switching your audience loyalty, but I couldn’t help but dislike the anti-Atheist message the twist brings up that comes out of nowhere in a film that, until that point, seems to have no comment to make about religion. Hell, despite being located in Detroit, the film makes little effort to have any political message either, and Detroit seems to function mainly as window dressing that serves as a convenient locale for this film’s story to take place in (no neighbors around). The anti-Atheist message isn’t as front and center as the one in “Prisoners”, but it’s fairly unmistakable (a later appearance in the film of a ladybug could be construed as being God). It’s a shame, because it’s also around this time that the film makes comments about how unfair justice and the legal system are (“rich girls don’t go to prison” or something along those lines is the line of dialogue). Sadly, the film seems to equate disbelief in a god with the lack of any morality and the ability to act without remorse or empathy, and that is wholly bullshit. It’s weird that minutes later the film almost seems to also shoehorn in a pro-choice message (Rocky, after facing a possible sexual violation, is given the choice to escape with money or call the cops and lose the money).

While the film fails on a messaging standpoint, it still really works as an effective and tense thriller. Hell, we even get a “Cujo” homage as Rocky attempts to escape the Blind Man’s ferocious dog while trapped in a locked car. Story issues aside, this film is a really exciting and intense film with a nice visual style and flair, and that third act twist is effective even it comes with some anti-Atheist bullshit.

The director and co-writer here is Fede Alvarez, who did a decent job with the “Evil Dead” remake three years back, even if “Ash vs. Evil Dead” was more along the lines of what we wanted from the “Evil Dead” franchise. This film shows he’s a good director who can really film suspense and violence and infuse a sequence with tension, but that perhaps, much like directors Guillermo del Toro and Rob Zombie, should probably stay away from writing the films that they direct. The concept of “Don’t Breathe” is sound, but the story and character particulars are shoddy, and that anti-Atheist message really bugged the hell out of me, as did the lack of any social message when setting your film in Detroit and dealing with lower class characters, especially when they did include that tossed off line about the rich being above the law.

If you just want to see a good suspense film and the issues I brought up don’t matter to you, you can do far worse than “Don’t Breathe”, which despite its flaws is a very good film. It plays sort of as a very loose reworking of “The People Under The Stairs” at times, with shades of “Cujo” or even “The Collector” in there. Despite its sloppiness on the written level, I have to give the film props on being a genuinely good R-rated horror film in an age where studios shy away from releasing these movies in theaters, as opposed to VOD. It’s a fun film. Shut your brain off and enjoy. B

31 (dir. Rob Zombie)

Posted: September 2, 2016 in Uncategorized

It is very clear that Rob Zombie did not want to make “31”. In the Q&A that followed the Fathom Events screening of the film, he basically recounts that the film got made because he was trying to make a different film (a based-on-a-true-story drama about a hockey team), it fell through, and he thought he could come off with a simple and dumb idea off the top of his head in 30 seconds and it would be able to get financed much easier. He wasn’t quite right about the financing (it took two crowdfunding drives to raise the budget of “31”), but it’s easy to see by watching the film that Zombie didn’t have much heart in it.  It largely seems like Zombie was upset that “The Lords of Salem”, a film of his that was much different from his prior films, was a critical and commercial flop that many of his fans found disappointing. So, he decided to make a film that simply gave people what they all expect from a Rob Zombie movie, and not one iota more. We’ve got the 1970s, southern white trash, evil clowns, Nazi paraphernalia, unnecessarily vulgar sexual language, using the word “fuck” to sound tough, Sheri Moon Zombie, blaxsploitation  characters, and pretty much everything else you’re familiar with from “House of 1000 Corpses”, “The Devil’s Rejects”, or one of his “Halloween” remakes.  If you picture what a Rob Zombie movie is in your head, this movie goes the full Rob Zombie. It feels like Zombie is not making the film he wants to make, but rather the film he thinks his fans want from him, which makes sense given the fan-funded nature of the film. Still, “31” is not cynical or lazy. Zombie is a talented visual stylist, as showcased by his previous music video directing experience and his art work. “31” may narratively be something a mess, but it is often visually stunning given it’s no-budget factory set.

When the film begins, with a black-and-white scene in which the film’s most interesting and fun to watch villain, Doom-Head (Richard Brake, who steals the whole film) delivers a monologue to a soon-to-be-victim, it might as well be Zombie talking to the audience. Doom-Head says something along the lines of, despite looking like a clown, that he’s not here to entertain the victim…but, the least he can do is tell him a story. This feels like Zombie’s way of saying he’s upset that Hollywood won’t finance his movies and his fans didn’t appreciate it when he tried to do something out of the box (“Salem”), but that if his fans are willing to show up to a film of his (and pay to have it made) he feels he owes them a film (he thinks) they want to see. It’s a damn good scene, with better dialogue than Zombie is known for (dialogue is not really Zombie’s strong suit, as evidenced by any line that is spoken by a character other than Doom-Head in this film), and its sly metafictional purpose in the film reeks of Tarantino and is kind of appreciated.

The film proper begins after Doom-head dispatches with his victim. We’re introduced to a group of people who work for a carnival (their van seems too small to be travelling with the carnival’s equipment, so presumably that is shipped to their location separately). There’s Charly (Sheri Moon Zombie), the blonde sexpot who hustles people into the carnival, Roscoe (Jeff Daniel Phillips), the young brains of the operation, Venus (Meg Foster) the owner, Panda (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) who is Jamaican with the obligatory accent, and Levon (Kevin Jackson). There’s some other members too, but they don’t survive long. Anyway, as they travel through a rural area on Halloween night, they find some giant, scarecrow-looking voodoo dolls blocking the road. As Roscoe gets out to move them, they are beset upon on clowns dressed in striped prison outfits and are kidnapped. Then, they are chained up, numbered one through five, and we meet three people dressed in Victorian outfits, powdered wigs and all. The main Victorian fop is apparently named Father Murder (his name isn’t given in the film proper, just the credits) and he is played by the legendary Malcolm McDowell. Father Murder tells the five captives that they are going to play a game called 31, which seems to have that name because it takes place over 12 hours on Halloween night, which is of course the 31st of October. Basically, if the five can survive 12 hours inside this factory maze, they’ll be allowed to go free. But, they will be hunted by an assortment of murderers with “–Head” as suffixes to their name (Doom-Head, Sick-head, etc.) and the Victorians will place odds on each of the five surviving and place bets on them. The film misses a great opportunity to have a social message about the rich fucking with the poor here, but I don’t think Zombie gives much of a shit about social commentary.

The film”31” most resembles is “The Running Man”, as it involves our protagonists trying to out run and kill off a series of colorful pursuers for the viewing enjoyment of others. In the Q&A, Zombie claims it wasn’t a conscious influence, and that he was more influenced by “The Most Dangerous Game”, but “The Running Man” seems to have more in common. More contemporary comparisons could be made to “The Hunger Games”, with the emphasis placed on ever changing odds, but that comparison is, at best, superficial. Both “The Running Man” and “The Hunger Games” were social commentaries as well, though, so when Zombie claims that his films have “no socially redeeming value” it is less because of the subject matter and the genre than because he’s not interested in saying all that much.

The film has the violence you expect it to have (the film was rated NC-17 two or three times before being cut to an R rating), but unfortunately the violence is often filmed in a quick and very shaky-cam manner so you don’t really get to register it and “enjoy” it before the film cuts away. Whether this was intentional or was an after effect of trying to cut this down to an R I don’t know, but it doesn’t make much sense to make an exploitation horror film with a lot of violence if you’re going to make that violence so fast and barely visible that you hardly tell what is happening and to whom. There are axe murders, knife murders, chainsaw murders and more, but by the time your eyes can figure out what is going on, the kill scene is over.

What there is to love about this film are some of its visuals. Despite the almost nothing budget, this film finds a good way of making the sets interesting. Light fog, interesting lighting, and nice wall graffiti and scattered art direction make it seem like Zombie took notes on how to make a nothing space look great when he was working on the haunted house mazes for Universal Studios’s Halloween Horror Nights. One very impressive scene in the film involves a strobe light, and it is filmed in a different way than the rest of the film (seemingly with a super-sharp digital camera, whereas the rest of the film is shot in digital but processed to look like film stock). In most films with a strobe light scene, the film simulates the effects of a strobe light by simply cutting from the image to black rapidly, but it never feels like when you’re actually in a location where a strobe light is present. In this film, the scene in question features the first time I can recall in a film where the strobe light effect actually looks like when an actual strobe light is going off, with the odd perception of movement. This scene is not recommended for the epileptic. I don’t know how he pulled it off, but Zombie is the only director I have seen to successfully translate the strobe effect to a movie scene.

In addition, the scenes with Father Murder and his cohorts (played by Judy Gleeson and Jane Carr) are lit with candles with subtle lens flares and opulent, warm lighting. It feels like an homage to Kubricks “Barry Lyndon”, which makes sense since “Lords of Salem” was trying to be a mix of Kubrick and Argento. Hell, when “31” gives us fully naked women in Mardi Gras masks serving the Victorians, it seems like Zombie is throwing in an “Eyes Wide Shut” homage to boot.  Even if Zombie was being a little lazy with the screenwriting duties, he actually put effort into the direction, production design, and cinematography of this film. He’s showing off the tricks he can do in hopes of getting financing for his next film without the need to crowdfund. The finale scene of the film, which takes place with no dialogue and is scored very well to Steven Tyler’s solo version of “Dream On”, shows how well Zombie can cut a scene to a music, even if that scene doesn’t make much sense narratively and sidesteps plot concerns.

The music in the film feels Carpenter-esque at times, and more 80s than you’d expect for a film that sets itself (somewhat unnecessarily) in the late 70s, but I won’t complain. John 5 and crew, who scored the film, did a very nice job.

There are more than a few plot holes in the film and unexplained questions you will walk of the film asking. Far too many to raise in this review (and many would involve in depth spoilers). For a plot this relatively simple and straightforward, Zombie didn’t do his due diligence in making sure this world and its rules makes sense or is in any way clarified. This is a film that gives us a Hispanic little person dressed as Hitler, though, so perhaps no explanation can suffice.

“31” is not a successful film, but it is a film that is often really nice to look at, nice to listen to, and features a great, hypnotic performance by Brake as a pretentious but intimidating killer. Doom-Head is the one memorable creation of this film. I wish the scenes of violence weren’t done in shaky-cam and you could actually SEE the gore you came to see. I wish you cared more about the characters. I wish the backstory of the Victorians were more developed, and that some social commentary could have been attached to what they are doing. I’d like to know how and why they have an army of clowns on retainer for this little annual game they have. Really, just the operating details of 31 the game would have been nice.

“31” is a step up from “The Lords of Salem”, which was visually stunning but a complete mess on a story level, but after the height of “The Devil’s Rejects” Zombie’s film character has been stalled. “31” was the film he thought his fans wanted. “Salem” was the film Zombie wanted and his fans did not. Here’s hoping Zombie can make a film that will please both the fans AND himself next. C+