Blog Archives

Men (2022)

Longtime Hollywood go-to genre screenwriter Alex Garland has only directed two other movies, 2015’s Ex Machina and 2018’s Annihilation, both using the realm of science fiction to explore feminine trauma and the sea change of societies on a precipice. I loved Ex Machina and admired but didn’t fully enjoy Annihilation. His newest movie, a small-scale indie horror titled Men, lands somewhere in the middle. It’s in keeping with his other movies, following a woman named Harper (Jessie Buckley) dealing with trauma, and it’s atmospheric while still maintaining a clear point of view that could likely rub people the wrong way. It’s an uncomfortable nightmare of a horror movie and one that isn’t as deep as it appears to be.

Men accomplishes what I had been hoping with 2021’s Chaos Walking, namely portraying everyday life as a woman as a living horror movie. It’s a highly metaphorical and atmospheric movie but, at its core, it’s all about the danger, discomfort, and indignities that women endure on a near daily basis dealing with men. I don’t think the movie has as much to say on the topic or is as ambiguous as others are presenting (more on this later), but its central theme is so bracingly direct and deeply unsubtle but sometimes a sledgehammer is better than a scalpel. This is an intense movie from the start and a frequent reminder of the hazards of being female in a patriarchy. Each of the men that Harper encounters represents a different facet of toxic masculinity. The seemingly kindly priest, who places his hand on Harper’s thigh to “calm her,” is projecting guilt and blame onto her for the actions of men and views her femininity as a corrupting and tempting influence, very akin to Eve. The little boy, who likes wearing creepy masks, is a brat who refuses to accept no for an answer and turns on a dime into verbal attacks, much like the men of the Internet ready to flip at a moment’s notice. The police officer is dismissive of Harper’s account of being harassed and threatened, representing a legal arm that often downplays and diminishes women as victims. There’s even Geoffrey, who seems almost like the best man in town by default, is aloof, doesn’t understand boundaries, and is trying to present himself as a “nice guy” looking for his delayed dues. The only person in town that seems sympathetic to Harper is the one female police officer who takes her statement. Each man is played by Rory Kinnear (Our Flag Means Death) for thematic reasons. I’ve read people complain, “Why wouldn’t Harper realize this obvious similarity in the town’s men?” The answer is simple: it’s because the men do not literally all look the same. It’s meant to reflect Harper’s perspective, much like 2015’s Anomalisa where the protagonist viewed every person as looking and sounding like Tom Noonan until one unique voice cuts through the malaise and monotony. This movie is wall-to-wall with uncomfortable, seething misogyny in many forms, and given the times we live in, I wouldn’t blame any woman saying, “No thanks.” I’m glad I watched this one alone and without my now-fiance, as she would have brought this up forever as a “You made me watch…” tease.

The flashbacks with Harper’s unstable ex-husband James (Paapa Essiedu) are the most personally illuminating and make up a significant portion of the narrative, as Harper is forced into her painful memories from her present encounters. Her husband showcases clear signs of being mentally ill and is also verbally and physically abusive to her. He greets her news about seeking a divorce by declaring that if she doesn’t take him back, he will kill himself. This emotional blackmail feels par for the course in this relationship and another sign why Harper would want out for her own well-being. The movie opens with Harper watching James fall to his death, and this trauma is what she’s processing through every male interaction. James is indicative of a kind of man that imposes demands on their partner without holding themselves to the same standards, but it goes beyond hypocrisy; it’s about a damaged person who holds another hostage with further threats of their damage. It’s a person who puts the entire onus of their existence onto another, removing their own personal responsibility, and thus blaming the convenient external party when something inevitably goes wrong. This central relationship is revisited in different ways throughout the movie, and you could even argue that Men is a metaphorical journey of Harper trying to shed herself from the weight of this disturbed dead man.

However, the real draw of Men is its allegorical nature and that is bound to rub plenty of viewers differently. The best comparison I can make is 2017’s mother!, a deeply polarizing movie from Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream) that completely existed as a none-too-subtle Biblical allegory as the primary plot. Usually, screenwriters will work with metaphor and allegory as subtext, adding extra depth and meaning to their storytelling. We don’t expect it to serve as the primary narrative. With Men, like mother!, it is indeed the primary narrative. I can reduce the plot down to this description: woman explores English countryside and is harassed by men of various forms. To be fair, Jaws could be reduced to “guys try to kill big shark,” so this is a little reductive. The emphasis is on exploring the experiences that Harper is enduring, her exploration of nature and seclusion that, at each turn, gets sabotaged by a man. If you’re not open to a narrative that is a little looser and more atmospheric, you’ll find the movie to be plodding and overwrought. When Act Three kicks in, the movie goes full-on into bonkers horror and isn’t even flirting with a direct correlation with reality any longer. I can safely say that some of the bizarre imagery is truly some of the strangest and grossest things I’ve ever seen in any movie. The chief symbol (toxic men begetting toxic men) is central to the icky body horror cavalcade.

However, the movie’s allegory doesn’t lend itself to much in the way of interpretation. That’s not exactly a creative hindrance; stories can simply be what they are intended to be. Men is fairly obvious what it’s about even from the starting point of its one-word title. It’s a movie heavy in allegory but the allegory itself is also pretty unambiguous and straightforward. There may be interpretation for this symbol or that but Garland’s horror movie is pretty much thematically obvious. It all supports his theme about the horror of being a woman in modern society, magnified across a metaphorical horror movie canvas. I’m sure there will be others who go into great detail to dissect this movie but all of it seems to come to the same basic conclusion, and that’s fine.

Men is the kind of movie that almost wears out its welcome at 100 minutes. The technical merits are strong, the photography and imagery are lush and transporting, and Buckley (The Lost Daughter) is a great actress to hinge a story of mounting distress and terror. If you’re the kind of person that seeks out new cinematic avenues of nightmare fuel, then the final act and its chief monster with its distinct disfigurement will sate your morbid appetite. It’s an effective and evocative movie but it’s also the same thesis statement hammered again and again. While the movie has some perplexing moments, there isn’t much to unpack as far as meaning, and ultimately that can limit some of the play of a movie built on the engine of metaphor. It feels like a scream against the overwhelming and entrenched social forces of misogyny, and I cannot say whether it’s worth 100 minutes of squirm-inducing discomfort of art imitating all-too-real life.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Terror Trips (2022)/ Isolated (2022)

Two new Ohio-made indie films have just become available for rental or purchase both on DVD and digital streaming, and I’m here with reviews of both. Terror Trips is written and directed by Jeff Seeman (Elly) and even won the award for Best Ohio Film at the prestigious genre fest, the 2021 Nightmares Film Festival. Then there’s Isolated, directed by Tyler Lee Allen and written by Michael Ferree (Poor Baby), a single-location contained thriller mystery. Both movies have their merits and both movies have their faults when it comes to developing a satisfying story.

I genuinely like the initial premise of Terror Trips. Six friends from Cincinnati start a business where they host tours and overnight stays at various famous horror locations for horror fans. They talk about Camp Crystal Lake, the Burkittsville, Maryland woods, and Monroeville, Pennsylvania mall as some possible destinations. Granted, plenty of horror movies take place in fictional locales (Haddonfield, Illinois) but this seems like a fun business idea. Go to the site, mingle with other horror diehards, and then watch the movie at the famous location. We get a taste of this with a somewhat meta montage, and then the movie transitions to its own fictional movie, a 1970s Polish flick (Black Volga) about a child abductor terrorizing a small town. The gang is disturbed by the realistic quality of the grindhouse film but also eager to travel to Poland (still only scenic Ohio) to scout it as a possible travel destination for their clientele. While there, they become victims of a KGB organ harvesting plot, which was not the direction I was anticipating with the first act. However, there was still possibility here. There are three places that can be emphasized with this direction: 1) characterization, 2) suspense, and 3) commentary. Let’s go route by route and see how Terror Trips performs.

It should be of little surprise that the characters in Terror Trips are inherently disposable. Horror is a genre that can get away with stock characterizations more than most, especially if there’s an added subversion or commentary to those stock roles. We have about six main characters, which is a good number to lead to plenty of death sequences. We know going into most horror movies that the character count is higher because it provides more people to then bump off. However, the group of six friends are so unremarkable from one another that you could rename them, consolidate them, or even remove them, and you would have little bearing on the plot. They’re six versions of the same character. They’re all horror nerds and that’s about it. I’ll credit the filmmakers for making them all very visually distinctive to tell apart, but the same kind of effort wasn’t given to what they were saying or how they were acting. For horror nerds, they don’t seem to recognize too many of the tropes to avoid. I wish at least one of the characters resembled the hyper-literate teens from the Scream franchise and could diagnose threats and options with encyclopedic vigor. What is the point of making them experts if they don’t use this expertise? I did like one character note; there’s a couple who engage in arguments, and before they walk away, or walk into what seems like certain danger, they say, “I love you” as a call and response. It’s funny that even under extreme circumstances, or moments of aggravation, they will utter their “love you”’s. I got to thinking about a deeper rationale for this, like characters who know they’re about to enter a definite horror no-no, and they don’t know if they’ll ever have the chance to say one final “I love you,” so they make a point to do so before any risky action. Perhaps I’ve imbued more depth in my analysis than these characters justify. I wish these characters were more interesting to remotely care whether they lived or died (more on that later).

So, if the characters aren’t going to entertain us or make us emotionally invested, then one other viable option is to essentially view them as sacrificial offerings and come up with some well and truly deranged manners of demise. This is another area where Terror Trips lacks development. Even abandoning the horror movie iconography and running with the organ trafficking goons, there is still plenty that could have been done. I wasn’t expecting the movie to so definitively go the Hostel route, but I was more surprised to get more scenes of Russian characters conversing about the dull details of their evil schemes than from the survival scenarios. If you want to be Hostel, with our characters placed on a slab to be carved up, then you better differentiate the killing. There’s one character who is running down the middle of an empty road (these people don’t really value stealth) and this character is pounced upon. They have their Achille’s tendons purposely sliced (Hostel nod?) and are dragged away still alive. Now, if you included this development, you’d want to also include a sequence where this character tries to escape, hampered by their injury cutting down on mobility, which would nicely build further suspense. Alas, none of that happens. This character might as well have been tackled and that’s it. A heavy torture angle is pretty budget conscious for a production, allowing devious creativity and twisted suspense, while possibly leaving much to the viewer’s imagination. I know we’ve moved away from the torture porn era of the mid 2000s, but if that’s your chosen playing field, you might as well make use of what it has to offer as far as discomfort. I’m shocked that there isn’t even one drawn out sequence of torture in Terror Trips at all. Maybe that’s a sign of restraint but I see it as more of failure to capitalize on its suspense possibility. There are no memorable dispatches or shocking deaths or well-developed suspense sequences. If you’re going to stick the audience with boring, interchangeable characters, at least make their troubles and terror entertaining.

So, that brings us to the third and final area for creative nourishment, the hardest one of them all, and Terror Trips doesn’t seem that interested in any form of social commentary. There was potential on a few storytelling fronts. The movie could have satirized the ugly American attitudes and general ignorance of its main characters as they travel to rural Poland. You could turn their general ignorance into dark comedy and it would also provide welcomed characterization. You could also have opened up the world of these locals more, showing the great economic hardships and pressures they are under to do what they have to do to survive. At least 2005’s otherwise forgettable Turistas (remember? It had Josh Duhamel and Olivia Wilde) had an organ harvesting plot where they made some stab at social commentary. In that film, they were taking the rich gringo organs and providing them to the poor and needy in Brazil, those who would never rise to the top of a transplant list in their lifetime. With Terror Trips, it falls into the xenophobic tropes that drew similar critiques from Hostel but without attempted commentary to smooth the portrayals over for added meaning. Once the movie reveals that every person in this town is in on the conspiracy, it makes every non-American seem duplicitous and untrustworthy. Again, if that’s the direction you want to go, then own it and really embrace it, but Terror Trips feels so indifferent to its villains. They could just as easily be any group doing any nefarious scheme. The scheme is just KGB goons doing bad things because they’re bad. There’s an exciting possibility here about “underground horror” blending fact and fiction, exploiting real people’s pain, turning sites of trauma into tourist destinations, whether it’s critiquing an audience or capitalism. Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot intellectually going on with Terror Trips.

I wanted to highlight the ending, and in doing so will deal with spoilers, so you have been warned, dear reader. We spend the last 15 minutes or so following Ginny (Hannah Fierman) as she successfully calls for the police. Too bad that they too are in on it, and she apparently goes to sleep in the back of their car and allows the officer to carry her, like a child, into the creepy car from the horror movie-within-a-movie. There she’s also with one of her friends, the one who had their Achille’s tendons sliced. They commiserate and try to escape from the backseat (there’s a wall dividing the front and back seat like a cab). Then Ginny’s friend implores her to basically mercy kill them, and Ginny must go through her arguments of survival before realizing after everything they’ve been through that this might be a choice not presented later. Through tears, she slices her friend’s wrist, holds their hand, and watches as the life ebbs away – AND THEN THE MOVIE ENDS! “What?!” I spat at my screen. You have the Final Girl, or at least the supposed Final Girl, and you end things like this? It’s like the filmmakers ran out of time to make a climax. This is where the underwritten characters become an anchor. The movie cannot pull off this drama, especially as shaped as the film’s climax, because we haven’t invested in these people and their personal relationship. The work wasn’t set up for this as a big emotional payoff.

From a technical standpoint, Terror Trips is ably filmed. The visual compositions and acting are competent to good. I liked Abigail Esmena (They/Them/Us) as George and Fierman (V/H/S). They were both able to make positive impressions over the blandness of their characters. The Russian actors were authentic. Kate Kiddo (great name) was also memorable as the Polish intermediary for the tourists. The editing is a little overly jumpy for the first thirty minutes, like it needs to cut to a new shot for every sentence spoken, but it eventually settles down. The gore effects are few but serviceable and bloody. My biggest compliment is the sound design. For a movie spending a far majority outside, the sound quality here is shockingly good. I’m so used to sound being one of the most flagrant issues in low-budget indies, but here it’s an asset.

With Isolated (formerly titled O9en Up), we have a contained thriller, which means much will hinge upon the chain of discovery for survival or enlightenment. There’s no shortage of people-stuck-in-mysterious-room movies. It makes sense from a production standpoint. It’s cheap. I remember one movie I saw on Netflix where it was like 50 people standing at game show podiums and they had to vote one person to die every so many minutes or else one person would randomly die. There’s two dozen Twilight Zone episodes about characters trying to make sense of a mysterious place they’re stuck in. It’s also featured in just about any Saw movie. It’s an immediate mystery that can work wonders. The trick is to either string the cause-effect plot elements so that we are learning and building off that knowledge along with the protagonist or connect the clues as to what or why their encasement means for them. I enjoy survival thrillers. I included Buried on my Top Ten for 2010 and that movie is one hundred percent Ryan Reynolds inside one cramped coffin. The problem with Isolated is that the mystery doesn’t feel that intriguing after about 30 minutes. The room itself looks like it should have more mystery to it, with a countdown and a giant nine painted on the wall. There’s a skylight with a latch just out of reach. Our main character, Nell (KateLynn Newberry), is even given her phone, which plays a song on the regular that seems too specific to be of little insight. But what does the movie actually do with its time and mystery?

At 99 minutes, you might find yourself getting a little antsy for the next reveal or clue to maintain an interest. I’m surprised the movie keeps its protagonist as such a blank. Nell seems resourceful, determined, and nursing some kind of personal pain or regret, but why is she here? Because we’re not given anything direct, your mind may likely anticipate that a major twist is in store by the end, and lo it happens (I don’t think the end explains the many hoops). I think the location just isn’t that intriguing enough to sustain the central mystery, and because we’re given few insights into this character we’re sharing a cell with for a whole movie, it made me feel restless. After Act One, Nell is given a cellmate, so to speak, on the other side of her wall, Travis (Lanny Joon), and the movie becomes a two-hander, though the perfunctory dialogue exchanges sound like the screenplay is filling time. It reminded me of 12 Monkeys when Bruce Willis’ character, a convict from the future sent back in time and doubting his sanity, hears a raspy voice on the other side of his wall who seems to know his dilemma. It becomes a playful and antagonistic exchange, and Willis doesn’t know if there is someone on the other side of the wall or if it’s all in his deteriorating mind. With Isolated, if Travis is meant to be our lifeline, it’s not enough. Now in a confounding location we have a confounding character, and rather than add layers to the mystery and our understanding, it just feels like vague on top of vague in service of stretching out a running time to feature length. I don’t think the twist earns the time spent, nor are the implications handled in a manner that feels satisfying or worthy. The ending reminded me of Old where for the final ten minutes M. Night Shyamalan basically says, “Okay, I’m just going to tell you everything explicitly now. Hope it’s been worth it. It hasn’t? Oh. Oh, okay then. Well, anyway…”

As a low-budget thriller, Isolated has some nice technical merits to praise. The cinematography by Greg Kraus (The Curse of Lilith Ratchet) is very good with more than a few shots that made me nod in appreciation, like an attached camera angle to Nell running in a panic. The editing, also by Kraus, is solid and nicely integrated with the visuals. I liked the quick cut montages of awful flashbacks forcing their way inside Nell’s mind. There are some neat visual tricks here for a low-budget film. The brooding musical score by TJ Wilkins (Knifecorp) does a lot of heavy lifting for the story.

For both films, there is a difficulty in following through with the story direction each chooses. With Terror Trips, it’s a horror movie that abandons its premise early to become a bland organ harvesting thriller with characters that are too indistinct and personality-free to care and with suspense sequences that are brief or underdeveloped. With Isolated, I went a little stir crazy from waiting for enough vital components to keep my attention and intrigue. The main character is simply not that interesting of a character to share 90 minutes with. Each movie feels padded out and undernourished where it counts with its storytelling, failing to capitalize on the promise of its plot elements. Horror and mystery fans might find enough to satiate their genre needs. Both of the movies have technical merits and agreeable acting, but it’s the story and, even more specifically, the development of its characters and suspense or mystery scenarios, where they do eventually stumble.

Grades:

Terror Trips: C-

Isolated: C

Firestarter (2022)

I have never seen the 1984 original movie starring Drew Barrymore but I have to assume it’s got to be better than the 2022 Blumhouse remake. Stephen King adaptations have a very wide range in quality, and from other reports Firestarter is one of King’s most straightforward novels. The most interesting aspect of this movie is that the score is provided by legendary horror director John Carpenter, as well as Cody Carpenter and Daniel A. Davies, and Carpenter was going to be the director of the 1984 Firestarter before the studio replaced him after the poor box-office performance of 1982’s The Thing, widely regarded now as a classic of its genre. Otherwise this is a pretty generic chase movie where people with superpowers are trying to stay hidden from evil government agencies looking to capture them and use them as weapons. I was reminded of that X-Men TV series The Gifted that lasted one season in 2017 for much of the movie. The dialogue is quite bad, including one climactic line that had me howling: “Liar, liar, pants on fire,” and she doesn’t even set the person’s pants on fire. The parenting miscues for Zac Efron’s psychic dad character are manifest, and it’s still strange to see the High School Musical star enter the dad part of his career. Efron’s character and his onscreen wife bicker about how best to protect and support their powerful little daughter who could go nuclear and has, in anger, set her mom on fire. Apparently, ignoring a problem isn’t the best solution. Regardless, the father-daughter moments are weakly written and you won’t care about any characters. There’s also a really extended and disturbing sequence of an animal in misery after being burned by out little firestarter, so that’s great at creating empathy. Even at just 90 minutes, this movie is a boring slog. By the end, I didn’t care who was being set on fire because the big thing that went up in smoke was my patience and my time.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)

The first Doctor Strange is one of my favorite movies in the ever-expanding and incredibly popular Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). It was a visually audacious and imaginative sci-fi action movie that just had one standout set piece after another. The original director, Scott Derickson, departed over creative differences with the MCU brass, and having now seen Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, I might have the same stark differences of opinion.
Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is still nursing his regret over his former flame, Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), who is now getting married to another man. During their wedding reception, Strange helps a young woman being chased by a giant one-eyed monster. America Chavez (Xochitil Gomez) is from another universe and has the power to open portals to other dimensions. Unfortunately, she doesn’t know how to control these powers and they only seem to activate when she’s reached a level of fear. Strange protects America Chavez from a malevolent force that wants to gain her unique power and open the multiverse for conquest.

It’s been almost ten years since Sam Raimi directed a movie and Multiverse of Madness is at its best when it feels most like a Raimi picture. The man’s beginnings in low-budget horror comedy are still evident, and it’s that campy combination that entertained me the most in Multiverse of Madness. There are some creepy, goofy moments that definitely reminded me of Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness. If you’re not a fan of these heightened levels of horror that incorporate slapstick and camp, then you might roll your eyes and find these moments to be too goofy for the MCU. As much attention as this movie has gotten for being darker, which is a tad overblown, it’s also one of the goofier Marvel movies. The MCU has a relatively breezy, wiseacre sense of humor that can occasionally undercut some of its more serious or sentimental moments of drama, but with Multiverse of Madness, Raimi is inviting the audience to laugh and cringe in equal measure. A horror sequence where reflections are a vulnerable point has both laughs and creeps. It’s a different kind of tone for a Marvel movie, which propelled my entertainment level when it occurred. Raimi getting to play once again in the superhero sandbox and still retain his signature style and impulses, which is exactly what I would want from this man as a blockbuster filmmaker. I loved the match cuts of Wanda experiencing two different universes in one smooth camera move. I cackled when Doctor Strange took his final form for the finale, and how ridiculous it looked, and that screenwriter Michael Waldron (creator of Loki) set it up with Chekov’s corpse.
For a movie with “multiverse” in its title, we don’t really get much of an exploration of the alternate universes. The concept of a multiverse is mostly kept at a thematic level and as a delivery system for wishes. The villain views the prospect of a multiverse as their means of fulfilling a vision of their life that is unrealized in their present reality. Strange thinks of an alternate version of himself where he got the girl. Beyond these reflections, that’s really about it. We jump to about two alternate realms and the only real exploration we have is that, hey, in this version of the universe people walk on red lights. It’s a bit trifling considering that there are endless imaginative possibilities, some of which are showcased during some stylish visual transition sequences crashing through different realms. It feels far too small for a concept with boundless possibility. Strange was already in another multiverse movie six months earlier with 2021’s Spider-Man: No Way Home. That movie also explored the idea of second chances, redemption, and sacrifice but far better. For a better multiverse movie that really lets loose on the wild possibilities of alternate realities, as well as grounding the feats of imagination in relatable human drama enriched by its theme, see the amazing Everything Everywhere All At Once.

I’m not just disappointed because the movie doesn’t take full advantage of its plot possibility, it’s because what it settles for is so much more predictable and disposable as fan service. This current phase of the MCU is setting up a dilemma of multiverse proportions, so things are getting very expansive and their slate of Disney Plus TV series are becoming more incorporated into the direction they’re heading. The danger starts to become whether the entire process is becoming more and more specialized, insular, and directed for the most hardcore of hardcore fans, and whether or not such a heavy undertaking, across platforms and franchises, can be done well. Marvel has earned some faith from me with how they’ve handled their interconnected franchises and film universe, but my main complaint with 2010’s Iron Man 2 and 2015’s Age of Ultron was that they were spread too thin trying to set up other movies and offshoot franchises, so this still remains a danger. As the MCU gets more and more successful, and integrates more characters, this is always a risk, the balancing of the spinning plates, making the movies their own but fitting into a larger whole. With Multiverse of Madness, it feels like the mighty gears of the Marvel machine are a little too forceful and crushing for this endeavor. This doesn’t feel like an essential next chapter in Doctor Strange’s ongoing cinematic journey. The first film was already about him regretting what his life could have been, an expert surgeon, and learning to accept his new role as a sorcerer and ultimately sacrificing his ego and old sense of self. We’re running through the same motions this time but instead of lamenting he could have been a great surgeon he’s lamenting he could have gotten the girl. It’s again coming to terms with his personal regrets.
The other notable aspect of the multiverse is the inclusion of fun but diverting cameos that don’t so much as serve this story as provide winks and nods of what is down the line. I won’t spoil who shows up in the middle portion of the movie but there are a few alternate version characters and a few characters that have yet to be fully integrated in the MCU, meaning these early appearances also serve as confirmation of the intention to bring these characters, stories, and worlds into the ever-expanding reach of their storytelling. This sequence is best as throwaway fun and has some neat visual moments including a disturbing death played for effective gallows humor. Ultimately though, it’s meaningless because it’s one other universe of characters who only serve as reflections of the past and coming attractions for the future. Even the mid-credits sequence is just more of this (and it’s becoming a trend). It’s disposable fan service and no more meaningful than serving as a tacit promise of what’s to come.
But the biggest problem I have with Multiverse of Madness is also its biggest storyline, which concerns a certain character making a big villainous turn and becoming the primary antagonist. I was getting a lot of Game of Thrones season 8 vibes from this plotting insofar as the end result is not out of the question but it sure feels like we skipped a lot of necessary stops along the way. I won’t be able to go into greater detail without delving into spoilers, so dear reader now is the time to skip to the last paragraph if you wish to remain pure. I like the concept of a friend becoming a foe because we already have an investment in that relationship and therefore there’s more at stake with the fights and possible consequences. That’s the kind of drama that lends itself to heartache and tragedy. When it feels forced, that’s a tragedy of characterization.

I have to imagine that fans of Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) a.k.a. The Scarlet Witch are going to be let down from this movie’s calamitous turn of events. I wasn’t the biggest fan of the character prior to the WandaVision TV series, which I also found to be pastiche that wore thin before finally settling on what the show’s core would examine, the messy process of one woman dealing with her powerful grief. I liked that they didn’t excuse Wanda’s misdeeds, namely holding an entire town of people hostage to her reality-bending whims. However, by the end, the show had her come to terms with letting go of Vision and her fake life with him she had manifested. To then have her next film appearance revolve around her universe-destroying mission to get her fake kids back doesn’t just feel like backtracking, it feels like we’ve erased the character journey and growth from her TV series. If you hadn’t watched the series, then this villainous turn would feel especially jarring. The whole “You’re a monster’/”No, I’m a mother” hysterical villain lady is tiresome. This is why I was making the Game of Thrones season 8 comparisons. It’s cool to see Wanda fully unleashed and how formidable she can be, but it’s at the expense of wiping out her character’s growth for a single-minded crazy momma. It’s reductive. If she can assume the life of her multiverse self, why not just do that? Also, what’s the great urgency? Wanda wants to kill America Chavez and absorb her power so she can jump through multiverses. Why can’t she just wait a matter of months to allow America to learn how best to control her powers? The movie never explains why the villain can’t just work with her magic MacGuffin rather than kill her. And then it all comes to Wanda realizing, “Oh no, what have I become?” and allowing herself to die as penance for the hundreds if not thousands she has killed over the multiverses. It’s all just a rather dispiriting development and questionable end for a character that I feel deserved better.
Walking away from Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, I feel like there’s a better movie buried under everything (everywhere all at once). This movie was originally supposed to come out before Spider-Man: No Way Home, and America Chavez was the original reason for Spider-Man’s multiverse dilemma, but it was delayed because of COVID. Raimi has gone on record that they figured out the plot of the movie while filming and conceived of the ending halfway through the film shoot. That’s not a great place to be for creativity, but then again, neither is being the twenty-eighth film in an ongoing interconnected chain of franchises. I won’t harp on that too much because plenty other MCU movies have excelled under such conditions and requirements, but every now and then one of Marvel’s movies just feels like a sacrificial offering to the greater altar of the MCU’s need to keep progressing with its multiple projects. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness isn’t a good Doctor Strange sequel, it isn’t a good multiverse movie, and it could have even used a little more madness, as those were my favorite moments, excluding the sharp villainous turn. I’d consider this film in the bottom tier of the MCU, among the likes of Iron Man 2 and Age of Ultron, other similar altar offerings.

Nate’s Grade: C+

X (2022)/ Choose or Die (2022)

Horror is likely the most forgiving genre out there for being derivative. Just about every modern horror movie wears its many influences, even the recent trend of elevated horror movies that are trying to say Big Things with equal amounts of arty style and bloodshed. There’s only so many monsters that can chase so many teenagers. Ti West (House of the Devil) is a director I haven’t fully enjoyed, though I would say X is his most accomplished film to date for me. It’s clearly going for a Texas Chainsaw Massacre vibe and docu-drama aesthetic. It’s set in 1979 and we follow a ragtag film crew trying to make “a good dirty movie.” They’ve rented a guest house in the middle of nowhere Texas as their film site because who knows. The octogenarian couple who owns the farm property doesn’t seem to approve of these young folk, and the old lady ends up becoming the slasher killer that mows down the randy young adults. Turns out the old lady has her own urges that the old husband is no longer physically able to satisfy, so she seeks out solace one way or another with the newcomers, whether that be through her sexual satisfaction or through violence. To West’s credit, he has given more attention to his characters. These people are not going to be confused with three-dimensional figures but there’s enough character shading that made me more interested in spending time with them and a little more rueful that most of them will probably die horribly soon enough (Chekhov’s alligator). The slow burn is not wasted time or dawdling, and there are some very well-executed squirm-worthy moments of discomfort. I don’t think X quite works on that elevated horror level of late; it’s mostly a slasher movie with a dollop more complexity and style. The real reason to appreciate X is from the dual performances from actress Mia Goth (Suspiria), the first as a stripper-turned-ingenue that sees pornography as a path of possible self-actualization, but she’s also secretly the killer old lady under piles and piles of makeup. Her wild performances, including scenes where she is facing off against herself, makes the movie far more interesting. Goth goes for broke. I don’t think the X is as fun as it thinks it is, nor is it as thoughtful as it thinks it is, and I don’t know if I care about a prequel that was shot back-to-back that illuminates the killer old lady’s younger life. Is this character really that interesting to warrant her own movie? As a horror movie, it’s disturbing and bloody and surprising in equal measure even as it doesn’t do much with re-configuring the many conventions of its genre.

Netflix’s Choose or Die is one of those spooky horror movies that wants the audience to play its deadly games alongside the unfortunate characters, much like Saw and Would You Rather?, and I typically enjoy these kinds of movies and thinking what options or strategies I would undergo if I was in their place. The structure is pretty straight forward, with a young woman (Iola Evans) and her programmer friend (Asa Butterfield) coming across a cursed old school text-based computer video game that forces its users to make awful choices. The game turns itself on every 24 hours, so there’s a natural delivery of set pieces, each increasing in its personal stakes. There’s the amateur investigation of the history of this 80s video game and uncovering the possible owner who might be benefiting from all this cruelty and sadism. This is a movie built around its set pieces and they start strong. When the protagonist sees the game in action, with a poor diner worker force-feeding herself broken pieces of glass, it’s truly horrifying and the sound design makes it so much worse. The movie isn’t s gory as it could have been and implies a lot more than it shows. The problem with Choose or Die is that there are too many leaps in logic and characters doing silly things just for the sake of the plot. There needs to be an established system of rules or else everything will feel arbitrary, and eventually that is what dooms Choose or Die. Even while we get more of an explanation behind the makers of the game and their occult connections it never feels like we’re better positioned to beat the game. I will say the final act, the Boss Battle, is where the movie cranks things up and gets really intense and darkly humorous. There’s a showdown that involves a key concept of self-harm that plays out in moderately clever, bizarre, and surprising ways, and this splashy, silly finish made me wish the rest of the movie could have lived in this tonal space. I found the overall sound design to be very annoying as it cranked up the volume on lots of glitchy electronic noises that just made me want to turn it off. There are some good ideas here, like the criticisms of being too nostalgic to the past, and of misogynist men believing nobody else is deserving of being the hero of their story, but this is a movie that lives or dies on its killer set pieces, and those just fall flat after its unsettling first level. Watching someone vomit VHS tape is not scary. Watching people move their bodies like they have no control over them will inherently look goofy. Choose or Die wouldn’t be the worst choice of a movie to kill 85 minutes but it’s certainly not much more than the sum of its parts, and even those are overly derivative and been done better by its predecessors.

Nate’s Grades:

X: C+
Choose or Die: C

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022)

What are we doing here? This new Netflix Texas Chainsaw Massacre is part reboot and part distant sequel to the 1974 original, even bringing back sole survivor Sally Hardesty to get her very grizzled Jamie Lee Curtis-in-Halloween 2018 vengeance. There are a lot of bad sequels and remakes in this franchise’s history, blinked out of existence here with this ret-con, so keep your expectations pretty low. This is a 75-minute movie with a wisp of a plot, so much so that it doesn’t even wait until the twenty-minute mark for the conveyor belt of carnage to begin. I suppose that can be a virtue for genre audiences. This is a decidedly gory and crunchy horror movie, gleefully splashing in entrails and jump scares rather than taking the time to develop something more. If we’re upholding the original’s timeline, then this Leatherface is in his mid-seventies. We need fun slasher movies too (I enjoyed the fifth Scream), but this one just feels spiteful and creatively hollow. I don’t really even understand the premise, that a group of political activists are literally buying or auctioning a ghost town to turn it into a gentrified, liberal mecca in the Texas desert. Young liberals are removing racist Texans from their homes and Fyre Fest-chasing Zoomers are invading? What? Then there’s our Final Girl who herself is the survivor of a school shooting and working through her trauma, and flashbacks, to regain her control by literally learning to arm herself. Oh no. Elise Fisher (Eighth Grade), you deserve so much better. It’s fast-paced. It’s exceedingly bloody. It’s over quickly. I guess there are ways this new Texas Chainsaw Massacre could have been worse but there’s even more ways it could have been better.

Nate’s Grade: C

Entropy (2022)

I was unaware of the horror movie Entropy until the production sought me out to review their movie. It was filmed in Ohio for a minimal budget over the course of six days and nights during the 2020 COVID-19 outbreak. I think it’s admirable that, as things were shutting down and lives were thrown out of balance, that this small group of filmmakers banded together and made something creative with that unexpected down time. The final ten minutes of credits includes behind the scenes video of the special effects process and it looks like everyone was enjoying themselves with this project to keep their minds off the pandemic. As a finished film, however, Entropy leaves a lot to be desired even as a low-budget, lowered expectations chiller thriller.

Abby (Miranda Nieman) hates her girlfriend Miranda’s (Hayley Sunshine, and what a fabulous name) friends. She used to be part of a self-improvement group that some have labeled a cult. Miranda pressures Abby to come to dinner and meet these people and understand they’re not so bad. Also at this friendly dinner is Scott (Scott Hale), their former leader, who has come back from his time overseas with stories of horror. Is he to be believed? Is he dangerous? And how far out of the pull of this group is Miranda and should Abby begin planning her escape?

While the movie is labeled as that feature-film-qualifying metric of 80 minutes, in reality it’s 70 minutes, and even within that minimal running time there is plenty of padding and dead air. I have found this fault with many of the Ohio indies I’ve seen, and it’s essentially a case of not having enough material to fulfill the demands of a feature length running time. Director/co-writer Kameron Hale and his fellow co-writer, producer, and brother Scott Hale, have made several horror short films, and it’s easy to see how Entropy likely started as a short script that the brothers thought could expand into a larger story. There just isn’t enough material here as presented although it had the potential for further exploration. The idea of finding out your lover is formerly in a cult has some nice juicy character reverberations, which would make anyone second-guess things. The premise of a cult leader returning from his mystical and mysterious sojourn is also rife with potential for a horror movie. From a strict psychological thriller level, over the course of one very disconcerting dinner, he could be re-consolidating power, and Abby could slowly understand the dawning threat that her girlfriend is succumbing to, like an addict plunging once more into the self-destructive behaviors of their past. From a body horror standpoint, you can use the returned guru as the bringer of otherworldly terror. Something supernatural could have hitched a ride and taken over him, and now it wants more flesh. There are ideas that, with careful plotting and characterization, could sustain a feature film. Entropy doesn’t quite do that, so that’s why we get situations like three minutes of sustained driving or three minutes walking through the woods that’s meant to be moody but is really just padding.

The movie’s small budget becomes a handicap at parts but what really harms the movie is the sloppy, clunky manner in how the story establishes its needed points. Characters will often speak in a “Hey, you remember when…?”-style of artificial conversation for the benefit of informing the audience of things they would naturally likely already know. Every movie needs exposition to better orient an audience, but the trick of the writer is to mask it as much as possible. It’s stuff like, “Don’t you guys hate Scott? Wasn’t he in a cult?” and, “I thought you were wrapped up in the medical scene like the rest of them. Cody said he’s seen you at the hospital a lot.” With each of those lines, you can tell where the screenplay wants to go for info, but it’s so clunky and lacking the opportunity to shed light about the character doing the speaking. Writing for characters is not something that automatically improves with a higher budget, so one way a low-budget indie can make its mark is through its writing of people, making them intriguing, memorable, and drawing us in. With a cult of people in pain, there should be potential there. Unfortunately, the characters are kept as walking-talking expository devices. I didn’t even realize Abby had cancer and I think the movie was expecting me to know upfront (the cancer diagnosis is in the plot description supplied by the production). Early on she’s in her bathroom crying, and she refers to “whatever’s growing inside me,” and I thought she was pregnant, which brings its own follow-up questions for a lesbian relationship. It is not until 26 minutes into the movie when the word “cancer” is actually spoken via text: “I have ovarian cancer. I need to go home.” She then texts, “My vagina is literally killing me” twice, and I chuckled (also, a possible misuse of “literally”). Other lines of dialogue I found to be tin-eared yet memorable include, “I’ll go to the party but I won’t go to a pity party,” and, in reference to Abby’s ovarian cancer, “If anyone’s gonna understand what’s going on inside you, it’s gonna be them, and me, if you’d let me,” and, “I was drugging the drinks but not like you think. The drinks were already drugged, and I was drugging them to counteract the drugs,” and my favorite toward the very end, “I don’t know where the fuck this basement came from but I guess it’s part of the house now.”

You can see the better version of this movie, one that strips away much of the exposition-heavy and dawdling first half hour. Rather than being told upfront that Abby is sick, or at least being told with a lack of clarity, let’s let this be a much later revelation. The same with Miranda’s relationship to being in a cult. It would have been more interesting and creepier for Miranda to have withheld this vital background and for Abby to realize over the course of one long awkward dinner. Likewise, the dinner setting could have been a great showcase for Scott to demonstrate his manipulative Svengali tendencies. The dinner could be a reunion of friends Miranda hadn’t seen since college rather than her best friends; best friends, I might add, that have not been told anything about the girl she has been dating for over three months. The fear of thinking you really know someone but they’ve been hiding key parts of themselves, and who they may actually be under the surface, is a universal plight. That way the truth comes out piece by piece and we are placed in Abby’s shoes, the outsider to this gathering and trying to understand. It’s a dynamic that would have played to a low-budget production and put emphasis on the character writing and performances as the night descends into Rosemary’s Baby “who are these people?” territory.

When Entropy does go all-in on its Lovecraftian body horror in the final twenty minutes, it’s certainly a leap ahead in entertainment. The lighting favors lots of indigo and purple, which reminded me of 2020’s Color Out of Space, a surefire artistic influence here. The body horror is gross and slimy and the practical effects, while limited, are designed to be more impressionable and shape-defining, triggering our innate sense that something is very wrong. It’s during this wild stretch that the movie tries to do too much with its remaining time (while still padding things out, of course) and by then it’s too late. The lack of clarity in the writing with the characters at the beginning resurfaces and now we have a lack of clarity about what is happening. While Lovecraftian horror often features imperceptible qualities of terror, the story feels more purposely vague out of convenience than a grand design of the unknowable.

At only 70 minutes of movie length, I can’t say that Entropy is an easy watch. My patience was grinding down with all the tedium and padding. Fans of micro-budget horror movies and especially with a taste for the lurid and wild machinations of body horror could be entertained, though it’s a long wait to get to the gory goods. That protracted setup should establish the characters, their dilemma, and most importantly, our interest in what is happening so that when everything goes crazy that we care about what happens next. The characterization, plotting, and dialogue are disappointing and stilted. The acting is pretty limited all around, and that may be another reason why the script didn’t become a tense chamber piece. I found Hale as the cult leader to be the best actor of the bunch. I credit the filmmakers with striving to make something, working together during such fraught times, and succeeding in getting a level of distribution through the prolific Gravitas Ventures. However, next time, and I hope for the Hale brothers there is a next time, that they work just as hard on creating the core elements that will make people care about what dastardly thing happens next to the people in their story, and maybe get an outside set of eyes to read their script for clarity.

Nate’s Grade: D+

Scream 5 (2022)

The fun of the Scream franchise has been its meta-textual commentary, wry jabs at horror, and the guessing game of who the killer culprit(s) could be, and Scream 5 or Scr5am (what it SHOULD be called) is a good-fun B-movie that knows precisely what it wants to be and plays to the strengths of the franchise. We haven’t had a Scream sequel since 2011, and the landscape of horror has changed as well as the landscape of multi-media entertainment. There are new satirical horizons to be targeted. This is the first Scream after the death of legendary horror director Wes Craven, but it’s in good hands with the directors and writer of 2019’s bloody excellent Ready or Not. The fun, knowingly goofy elements are retained, and the filmmakers clearly have love for what they’re sending up. There’s a sequence of languishing shots of a character opening fridge doors and pantry doors and I felt everyone in my theater tense for the eventual reveal of the killer on the other side. Moments like these are the good kind of tension-release giggle that Scream can get away with. The plot is sufficient to gather the “legacy characters” back to the site of the original murders for a new stab at rewriting the movie franchise. There’s even some plot elements that are surprisingly resonant and deeper for a satirical slasher franchise, like tear-filled discussions over loss, abandonment, mental illness, and personal responsibility. There’s a sister-to-sister reconciliation that plays like a straight drama, and it plays well. There’s nothing terribly gruesome or memorable about the kills, and some of the meta-commentary can feel like talking in circles, especially as characters knowingly enact scenes from the original. It’s a copy of a copy, meant to mock Hollywood’s reboots, but it’s still a copy of a copy. Sometimes the knowing winks are obvious, like a shower sequence recreating Hitchcock’s angles, and sometimes the potential homage feels lost in translation. Still, Scream 5 is a fun, ironic, bloody hoot of a movie, and for fans of the franchise a more welcomed return to the creative heights of the original movie.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Humans (2021)

I was left cold and confused by The Humans. It’s an adaptation of a Tony-award-winning play, by the playwright himself, and I don’t know what all the fuss is about. It’s a sparse movie set during a tense Thanksgiving dinner while a dysfunctional family moves one of their own into her New York City apartment. The conversation style is very natural and the characters behave like recognizable people; however, that doesn’t make them particularly interesting. This was the same issue I had with last year’s Shit House movie, a movie that confused realistic conversations with interesting conversations. Just eavesdropping on people and getting the occasional spark of conflict is not enough. I was relatively bored throughout and then when the movie tries to lurch into paranoia horror I had no idea what was happening. It feels like a dull drama that had no real ending and then someone said, “What if we spent the last ten minutes of this chamber piece conversation walking down dark corridors and inspecting noise?” The acting talent here is tremendous, including Amy Schumer in a rare dramatic role, and it just feels like a waste of their time. I don’t know what proved so appealing to critics here.

Nate’s Grade: C

Titane (2021)

What’s the point of a weird, gonzo movie when it stops being weird? That’s my takeaway from French director Julia Docournau’s (Raw) Palme D’Or winning oddity, a movie that has been nicknamed, “That film where the lady gets impregnated by a car.” That does inexplicably happen, and I was waiting for more bizarre interludes, but then Titane becomes a completely different movie. The first half hour involves the car copulation and then becomes a slasher movie, as it’s revealed our heroine has been killing locals for months. We watch her kill her friend, on a whim, and then her roommate walks downstairs, a witness needing killing, and then another and another, and this for me was the darkly comic high-point of the film. From there she goes on the run, poses as a man’s missing adult son, and the movie becomes entirely about hiding her real identity, whether this grieving father fully suspects or even cares, and learning the ropes of fire department protocol. To say the second half of the movie is a creative letdown is an understatement. Titane feels like Docournau was combining different stray story elements from half-finished scripts and trying to, through sheer force of will, cram them together. The car fetish is never quite explained, which is fine, but once she’s impregnated, the movie becomes more of a standard drama about hiding her burgeoning pregnant belly to keep her cover. It seems quite strange for me to say that a movie about a woman impregnated by a car isn’t strange enough, and yet there it is. Titane will appeal to fans of David Cronenberg’s body horror and the French noveau horror scene, but I found its exploitation excess to be short-lived, and the creativity on display felt more stuck in neutral than as advertised.

Nate’s Grade: C

%d bloggers like this: