Horror movie notes: ‘Unearth’, ‘Sinister’, and ‘Fallen’

I’ve caught a few more horror movies of late: one relatively new, two a bit older. Here are my very quick reviews, given in reverse chronological order of the dates of the films:

Unearth (2020)

Billed as “a fracking horror story”, Unearth is a horror film that purports to combine postmodern anxieties (economic malaise, climate change) with a horror plot reminiscent of Alien or The Thing.

The basic setup is this: a struggling farmer in western Pennsylvania allows an energy firm to excavate for natural gas on his land. Bad things are awakened from underground. Hijinks ensue.

There was a lot that could have been done with this idea. Most of the movie, though, was wasted on repetitive emotional drama, and several sexual subplots that seemed tacked-on and pointless.

Unearth did feature a strong performance from 80s horror film star Adrienne Barbeau. But the writers of Creepshow (1982), The Fog (1980), and the aforementioned The Thing (1982) gave Barbeau much better movies to work with.

Sinister (2012)

Ethan Hawke stars as a true crime writer who moves into a house where a family of four was recently murdered, in the hope that the home’s atmosphere will inspire a bestselling book.

The writer soon finds that the house contains more than just memories and dark ambiance, though. The events of the family’s murder are still very much present, as is a force behind a string of similar murders that have occurred since the 1960s.

Sinister has multiple plot holes. And—as is too often the case in horror movies—the characters do things that people of otherwise ordinary intelligence and judgement simply wouldn’t do. I would also have done the ending differently, had it been my movie.

That said, Sinister has some genuinely scary moments. This film has a vibe that is downright creepy, and you’ll be thinking about it for a while after the action stops. I did, anyway.

Fallen (1998)

This is one of Denzel Washington’s best films. (And Denzel Washington has made a lot of good movies.)

In Fallen, Washington plays detective John Hobbes, a Philadelphia Police Detective who is stalking a demonic entity known as Azazel.

Fallen is more of a supernatural thriller film than a horror movie. There is a recognizable narrative structure to the film (something definitely missing from Unearth), and the main character has agency and initiative (a factor missing from Sinister).

Fallen is probably not a movie that is going to keep you awake at night. But it will keep you guessing, and you’ll remember it. I saw Fallen for the first time about twenty years ago, and I very much enjoyed my second viewing.

As a bonus, there are strong secondary role performances from Elias Koteas and the late James Gandolfini (1961-2013), both of whom later went on to larger roles. (Both Koteas and Gandolfini also appeared in The Sopranos, with Gandolfini in the starring role.)

***Shop for horror movies on Amazon***

Original story idea vs. execution: which is more important?

The other day, one of you emailed me to get my take on an age-old debate in writing, filmmaking, and storytelling circles:

Which matters more…the big, highly original idea, or the execution of the story, regardless of its originality?

Many writers fret constantly about people “stealing their ideas”. They put off writing because they “don’t have any original ideas”. They worry about forgetting ideas.

So which is more important? There is evidence for both.

Star Wars took off in 1977 partly because it was such an original idea. Here we had the rough equivalents of cowboys and samurai warriors in space. There had never been anything like that before.

In 2013, I first read about The Americans in the television and movie review section of a magazine. The highly original premise of The Americans— deep undercover Russian spies in Reagan-era America—instantly intrigued me.

The Americans intrigued a lot of people. The Americans ran from 2013 to 2018. During that time, the Cold War period drama received high marks from reviewers and viewers alike. The series has a 96% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The Google composite review score is 4.8 out of 5. That’s pretty close to unanimity, at a time when people widely disagree about almost everything.

Nevertheless, it is easy to imagine The Americans having become nothing more than a Tom Clancy-esque knock-off for cable television. Why didn’t that happen?

The Americans is, indeed, based on a highly innovative “big idea”, what movie and fiction folks like to call “high concept”. But it is in the execution that The Americans really shines: the depth and arc of the characters, the nuts and bolts of each episode.

Plenty of stories succeed in the world of books and film without being very “high concept” at all. Consider the success of Downton Abbey. There is no high concept in Downton Abbey. It is little more than a soap opera set in Edwardian England, in fact.

When I watched the first episode of Downton Abbey, I didn’t know what I was going to think of it. But I was blown away. Not because of the “big idea” (there was none), but because of the execution: characters and individual episodes. The success of Downton Abbey is all in the execution.

An example in the book world would be Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. Jonathan Franzen is inconsistent as a writer. (He takes an average of about 6 years to write each book.) He is eccentric as an individual. But he scored a home run with The Corrections in 2001.

I remember getting my hands on this book over the Christmas holiday of 2001. I sat down and read it cover-to-cover, over a period of about 48 hours.

There is no high concept in The Corrections, either. A highly autobiographical novel, The Corrections is a fictionalized adaptation of people and events from the author’s life. But the world that Franzen creates in this book, while mundane, pulls you in. It pulled me in, and it pulled in millions of other readers, too.

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On the opposite side of this coin are the high concept stories that fall flat because of poor execution.

We have all been bored by stories with incredibly high stakes: literally the end of humanity, in some cases. They bore us because of flaws in characterization, pacing, or depth.

This shows up in a lot of 2- and 3-three star Amazon reviews, that begin with phrases like, “I really wanted to like this book, but…”. Others outright say, “Great idea, but poor execution.”

For me, The Expanse fell into this category. This was true of both the book(s) and the Syfy series.

The premise of The Expanse did intrigue me: neither a near-future alien encounter tale, nor a space opera set in deep space, The Expanse is set a few centuries from the present, within our solar system.

But when I actually dug into the first book, it left me cold. The characters were flat, and there were too many of them. The narrative was unfocused. I had the same reaction a few years later, when I tried the Syfy series. I just couldn’t get into it.

Some of you will disagree with me, of course, but I’m not the only one who found the execution of The Expanse lacking. And I am not someone who dislikes science fiction. I loved the original version of Battlestar Galactica in the 1970s, as well as the “reimagined version” in the 2000s (though with some reservations).

Battlestar Galactica, whether in the hands of Glen A. Larson in the 1970s, or SyFy in the 00s, featured good execution.

But was Battlestar Galactica high concept? Highly original?

20th Century Fox certainly didn’t think so. In 1978, 20th Century Fox sued Universal Studios for allegedly ripping off Star Wars. The lawsuit claimed that Battlestar Galactica had filched more than thirty distinct ideas from Star Wars.

Whether you accept this notion or not, there is no doubt that the original BSG rode the coattails of Star Wars, which was then a monolithic phenomenon of popular culture.

And the rebooted BSG wasn’t original at all. It was based on the 1978 series, which owed much to Star Wars.

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I’m therefore going to come down on the side of execution over big, original idea.

There are so many stories that we’ve all seen time and time again:

The rough-edged police detective who chafes against “the brass”, but will go to any length to catch a criminal…

  • The star-crossed lovers…
  • The ex-green beret whose daughter has been kidnapped…
  • The sympathetic vampire
  • Aliens/zombies/other monsters disrupt human society…
  • and so on…

Nevertheless, both novelists and filmmakers continue to find fresh new angles on these old ideas…new ways to execute them.

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For example: I recently enjoyed the final season of Bosch on Amazon Prime Video.

Bosch is based on Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels. The Harry Bosch novels are about a big-city homicide detective, Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch.

I don’t think that Michael Connelly would mind me saying: that’s a very old idea. Nothing original at all in the “concept”! But the Harry Bosch novels represent some of the best genre fiction out there.

Why? Because Michael Connelly’s execution of the character of Harry Bosch, of the murder cases, is so darn good.

Originality, in other words, might be overrated. To be sure, there is a place for it. (It is also a bad idea to jump on literary bandwagons; but that’s a separate topic for another day).

It is probably better to focus on the superlative execution of a “good” story idea—even if it’s been done before—versus waiting around for one superlative idea to come the writer’s way.

‘Neverknock’: quick review

On Halloween 1986, three young people lose their lives in a series of supernatural events at an abandoned house. The house becomes an urban legend. In the present day (circa 2017), a group of teenagers accidentally awaken the house’s dormant powers. The forces inside the house take the young people down, one-by-one. 

That’s the setup for the Syfy original film, Neverknock.

When viewing (or reviewing) any “Syfy original” movie, one is wise to set the bar low. That’s what I did when I sat down to watch Neverknock

The urban legend is an inexhaustible source of horror film and fiction. I can’t fault the premise of Neverknock, but there are some issues with the execution.

The opening incident involves some over-the-top phenomena, making it difficult for the viewer to suspend his sense of disbelief. It only gets worse from there. There is a monster that appears repeatedly throughout the film that looks like a leftover from a 1980s horror film.

The cheesy special effects are a big part of the problem with this movie. Watch A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) today, and the special effects will look amateurish by today’s standards. But A Nightmare on Elm Street was made almost 40 years ago. Viewer expectations have changed since then. (That’s even true of older viewers like me, who can remember A Nightmare on Elm Street when it first debuted at the cinema.

The bottom line is this: If a filmmaker doesn’t have the budget for modern special effects, the best option is to not attempt them.

And this is quite possible. Sometimes the best horror is found in what is left unseen, to the imagination. But Neverknock shoves it in all your face, and what it shoves at you simply isn’t credible. As I watched the movie, I could not help noticing the figurative zipper in the figurative monster suit.

The acting was decent, given that this was a movie about mostly vapid teenagers who are killed off in rapid succession in gruesome ways. I especially appreciated the performance of Dominique Provost-Chalkley (of Wynonna Earp fame). Hers was the only character with any real depth.

Some movies linger with you for days, for reasons both good and bad. This is a movie that you’ll forget within a few hours of watching it. 

‘The Empty Man’: quick review

In 1995, four twentysomethings are hiking through remote Bhutan. Once of them is infected with a tulpa, a spiritual being that is created through deep, mystical concentration, according to Tibetan lore.

The other three young adults are killed.

Decades later, in 2018, young people in a Missouri River town begin acting strangely. Then some truly horrific things happen.

That’s about as much as I dare tell you without getting into spoilers.

This movie had a very interesting premise, certainly an original one. There were a few genuinely creepy moments. The mystery within the film, moreover, was so tightly concealed that it kept me guessing till the end. 

There was a noticeable problem with the pacing, however. The screenwriter and producer tried to pack too much story into a 2 hour, 20 minute-movie (which was already long, by today’s feature film standards).

The result was an uneven progression of the plot. There were portions in the middle that seemed to drag. Meanwhile, the ending was kind of rushed.

This is an example of a movie that would have been better as a miniseries. There were multiple storylines, and a complex premise to begin with. A lot to tie up in a little more than two hours, and the the makers of The Empty Man didn’t quite succeed. 

The first ‘Star Wars’ generation

I remember sitting in a cinema one day in the early summer of 1977. I was just shy of nine years old, so I was there with my dad.

My dad wanted to see this new movie called Star Wars.

I didn’t really know what to expect, but my dad (then barely in his thirties) was excited about it. So I went along, too. My mom had no interest the movie. (My mom liked very few movies that didn’t involve horses.)

I remember watching the opening scenes. The big spaceships on the big screen. Oh, man, I was immediately hooked.

I know: this essay has already veered into cliché. By this point, everyone has seen those scenes in the original Star Wars movie. The CGI effects in 21st-century movies like Avatar, moreover, have since surpassed our collective ability to be visually amazed.

But keep in mind: in 1977, the average feature film was a Burt Reynolds movie that relied on conventional car chases. (In fact, one such movie—Smokey and the Bandit—was released within a few weeks of Star Wars.)

Most of the available science fiction in 1977 was campy and already a decade old. There was Star Trek, of course. But Star Trek was made in the 1960s, and it showed in the production values.

There was also Lost in Space, which had its original prime-time run between 1965 and 1968. (Oh, and the first season of Lost in Space was in black and white.)

I won’t tell you about Star Wars and how it was different because well…you already know. But you might not know what it was like to be part of the first Star Wars generation.

To truly get that, you have to have been there.

America in the 1970s was an unsettled place. The country was on a hangover from Vietnam, the counterculture, the 1960s, Watergate.

Many of the Baby Boomers, then at the peak of their childbearing years, were trying to reconcile parenthood with all the Me Generation stuff.

I should note that my parents were the exception in this regard. I had wonderful parents and—on the whole—an idyllic childhood. But my childhood was the exception. This was an era of small families, divorce, and adults working in parenthood as an afterthought. The 1970s was not a child-focused decade, on the whole.

This showed up in the marketplace. Corporate America didn’t put out much entertainment for children, because the demand wasn’t there, like it was from the mid-1980s onward. For most children, circa 1976, Saturday morning cartoons (mostly reruns from the 1960s) were the highlight of the week.

But then there was Star Wars. If you were a kid in that era, Star Wars was not just a movie, but a way of life…or a way of play, anyway.

Star Wars trading card, 1977

Publishers cranked out Star Wars trading cards and comics. Toy manufacturers rushed light sabers and action figures to market. There was always something new to buy…or to beg your parents to buy.

Burger Chef, a now defunct fast food chain, issued a set of Star Wars posters in 1977. Each one was given away with the purchase of a double hamburger meal, or something like that. I talked my parents into acquiring all of them.

My bedroom became a shrine to Star Wars. My room contained not just the posters, but all the paraphernalia I could acquire.

Burger Chef Star Wars poster 1977

I’ve watched the more recent Star Wars movies. I know that the last few have been controversial among longtime fans. I’m not interested in wading into that debate. For me, the first three movies—Star Wars (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983) are the only three “canonical” ones, anyway.

These three films traced the end of my childhood, effectively. I was nine when the first one came out. When Return of the Jedi hit the local cinema, I had completed a year of high school.

But this is about more than mere nostalgia. In recent years, the culture wars have invaded science fiction, superhero comics, and whatnot. There was little appetite for that in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Why? That era was already full of gloomy, abstruse movies that were overloaded with “message” and “issues”. And in the 1970s, the issue du jour was the Vietnam War, which was still very much in recent memory.

And so we got turgid, barely watchable films like The Deer Hunter (1978), Taxi Driver (1976), and Apocalypse Now (1979). In 1978, I remember hearing a news story about a Vietnam vet shooting himself at a screening of The Deer Hunter. That movie is incredibly gloomy and depressing to watch, as are the other two. (And the Jodie Foster scenes in Taxi Driver, in which she plays a child prostitute, are downright bizarre by today’s standards.)

Star Wars offered a break from all that. Star Wars was a movie about a war in space that didn’t ask you to think about Vietnam. Nor did it ask you to think about the nuclear arms race—another big “issue” of that time.

The original Star Wars trilogy had a relatively diverse cast. It wasn’t all white males in the spotlight. Who can imagine Star Wars without Carrie Fisher, after all? And the third movie of the original trilogy made a major star of Billy Dee Williams.

And yet, Star Wars didn’t ask audiences to engage in endless navel-gazing about race and gender. (These matters now greatly preoccupy the fandom of science fiction publishing, but that’s another “issue” for another time.)

The original three Star Wars movies were simply fun. They weren’t controversial. They didn’t try to change your worldview or your politics. Practically everyone liked them. (Even my mother relented and saw the second and third Star Wars movies, despite their lack of horses.)

And if you were a kid in the late 1970s, Star Wars was larger than life.

I’ll close with a blunt assertion: I think it’s high time for the film and comics industries to retire the franchise. To put this in perspective: I was not quite nine when the first movie came out. I’ll soon be fifty-three, and they’re still riding the Star Wars wagon, trying to squeeze a few more million out of the original story concept.

But who cares what I think? Maybe I’ll see the next Star Wars movie, and maybe I won’t. It’s not like I’m boycotting them. But like I said: for me, the first three are the only ones that really count.

Horror movie notes: ‘Don’t Breathe’:

Just a quick horror movie entry. The other day I finally got around to watching Don’t Breathe (2016).

This is a combination of a heist film, and a “monster in the house” horror movie.

Don’t Breathe is a very accessible, fast-paced film. Not one that is going to change your entire worldview or anything, but quite entertaining.

And according to the Internet, a sequel, Don’t Breathe 2, will hit the cinemas in August.

Curiously, the villain of the first film, Norman Nordstrom (played by Stephen Lang), seems to be cast as a kind of antihero vigilante in the next movie. (Note: This is based on what I’ve seen in the available previews.)

It is unclear, then, if Don’t Breathe 2 will really be a Don’t Breathe 2, or a twenty-first-century version of Death Wish. (For younger readers: I’m referring to the vigilante films that Charles Bronson starred in during the 1970s and early 1980s.)

When I read the Amazon and IMDB reviews for Don’t Breathe, I noticed something: many viewers tended to sympathize with the villain of the film.

This is not entirely unexpected. The premise of the heist portion of the movie is three young criminals robbing an older blind man who has suffered multiple tragedies. One of the criminals (the one who dies first) is extremely unlikable. The other two are morally ambiguous at best.

The villain, Norman Nordstrom, certainly has his character flaws. But the bottom line is: He would never have crossed paths with the three young burglars had they not broken into his home, with the intention of robbing him.

Two recent horror films: one good, one not so good

I recently watched two horror movies of relatively recent vintage: The Unholy (2021) and Hereditary (2018).

What follows are two (very) brief reviews.

The Unholy

The Unholy is a film about a hearing-impaired teenage girl who appears to be channeling the Virgin Mary. What she is actually channeling, however, is not Mary, but a malevolent spiritual force.

This film, starring Jeffrey Dean Morgan (“Negan” on The Walking Dead) and newcomer Crickett Brown, was excellent.

Anyone familiar with Catholic-Protestant differences regarding saints and religious imagery will appreciate the “what if?” scenario here. This film explores a key question of the Reformation from a fully modern, supernatural perspective. (The film even quotes Martin Luther.)

I was raised Roman Catholic, and—with all due respect to the Protestants in the room—that’s the way I roll. No thank you, I am not interested in attending your non-denominational church. (But thanks, again, for the invitation.)

Nevertheless, I am also not above taking a critical approach to some aspects of my Roman Catholic faith. Roman Catholicism does, indeed, include a cult of saints, and a cult of the Virgin Mary. Protestants who point out the pagan similarities here are not completely in left field.

The Unholy is well-paced and entertaining. That said, this is not a movie for someone looking for a simple monster flick with jump scares. If you don’t like ideas in your horror, skip this one.

I would give The Unholy high marks for the acting, story, script, and concept. The special effects, however, were right out of the 1980s. The early 1980s.

The fake fire, in particular, looks like fire from a B-movie, circa 1983. Given everything else that the filmmakers did right, they shouldn’t have cut corners on the special effects. And they definitely did cut corners.

Hereditary

Grandma is dead, but grandma was a satanist. That’s the setup behind Hereditary.

The movie starts on the day of the grandmother’s funeral. The surviving family of four (the parents and two kids) slowly fall prey to a curse that involves (spoiler alert) a satanist plot.

Hereditary is a disturbing movie. I am by no means a sensitive viewer. But even I required a good 24 hours to fully purge this movie from my mind.

Hereditary contains plenty of otherworldly events and phenomena. But it also contains graphic and realistic depictions of extreme family turmoil, corpse mutilation, and (in one scene) the accidental beheading of a child.

(Yes, really. Graphic violence against children is a line that movies usually don’t cross; but this one did.)

Many horror movies take us to dark places. That is a part of the horror movie experience, and a part of the ride. The real problem with Hereditary is not its darkness, but its complete lack of redemption, or even a glimmer of hope. I won’t tell you what the ending is, but suffice it to say that this movie ends on a very down note.

Several of the characters in the movie are sympathetic. None of them, however, could be properly described as heroic, or even proactive. They all sort of drift along, waiting for the next bad thing to happen. And as noted above, plenty of bad things do happen.

Hereditary is a technically competent film. The movie was shot in Utah, and the movie makes good use of the inherent otherworldliness of the Utah landscape. Hereditary is well-paced, despite its length of more than two hours. You won’t be tempted to look at your phone while you’re watching it.

Nevertheless, I’m not sure that you will emerge from Hereditary with any new insights, or even any provocative questions. And while there are some creepy moments, Hereditary isn’t an especially terrifying movie. This is no thrill ride. Mostly, it is simply disturbing.

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Anyway, those are two of the horror films that I’ve watched recently. In summary, I highly recommend The Unholy (with a minor qualification regarding the amateurish special effects). As for Hereditary, well…proceed with caution.

View THE UNHOLY on Amazon.

View HEREDITARY on Amazon

‘The Appearance’: not quite a horror film, not quite something else

A well-intentioned church official in Middle Ages Europe must uncover the truth about an accusation of witchcraft. But what if the accused “witch” really is a “witch”? And what if her past ordeals make her story a sympathetic one?

That’s the general setup for The Appearance (2018). Mateho the Inquisitor (Jake Stormoen), and his assistant (Kristian Nairn, of “Game of Thrones” fame) are called to a remote monastery to investigate a series of gruesome murders, and to interrogate the teenage ‘witch’ (Baylee Self) who has been accused of the crimes.

At first, The Appearance seems to be a dark murder mystery. But then things go wrong, and the film becomes a horror flick patterned loosely on The Exorcist, but much weaker sauce.

The claustrophobic setting of the monastery offered a lot of potential, but the script never really exploits it. There are moments of genuine suspense, but these occur between long, slow stretches.

There is one scene in which a monk’s eyes are literally ripped out. Whenever a movie contains gratuitous sex or gore, that’s usually a sign that the moviemakers weren’t sure what they were doing, or wanted to do. While the gore here is certainly gross, the over-the-top nature of it jolts the viewer out of the film. It comes across as somewhat cheesy.

(Small spoiler alert.) The Appearance closes with a “surprise” that you’ve seen versions of in the past. So it really isn’t that much of a surprise. I won’t tell you exactly what it is.

It appears, however, that the creators of this movie felt obligated to inject a social message: the mistreatment of women in the Middle Ages, and the Catholic Church’s contradictory views on femininity and sexuality. These are neither invalid nor unworthwhile themes. But they’ve been covered more adeptly in other recent works, such as James Carroll’s 2019 novel, The Cloister. The way the ending comes about, the “message” of The Appearance seems tacked on and almost random.

Bottom line: this is an okay movie, but it lacks an overall coherency. After watching it, I was unclear of what the filmmakers envisioned. A horror movie? A mystery? The Handmaid’s Tale meets The Exorcist? I wasn’t sure.

Finally, The Appearance, at nearly two hours, is a little overlong. The script doesn’t justify that much time. This should have been an 80- to 90-minute film.

**View The Appearance on Amazon**

‘Complicit’: a cerebral spy drama

A British MI5 agent must foil a terrorist plot before it’s too late.

Pitted against him is a dedicated British-Egyptian Islamist group. But he must also overcome unhelpful  superiors, institutional cynicism, and endless red tape.

That’s the setup for the Channel 4 television film, Complicit, starring David Oyelowo.

This is one of the best spy/espionage movies I’ve seen in a while. A warning, though: this is not a James Bond movie with endless car chases, gun battles, and explosions. The suspense here is more situational and cerebral, as a lone intelligence agent struggles against the odds to avert a catastrophe.

Complicit is full of memorable characters (on both sides of the law), sharp dialogue, and an evolving mystery. The ending (small spoiler alert) is ambiguous, like a typical John le Carré story.

If I had to put this one in a nutshell, in fact, I would say that Complicit is a better version of a John le Carré story.

Diane Franklin and 1980s film culture

Diane Franklin appeared in a slew of memorable 1980s films. These included her breakout role as Karen in the surprisingly meaningful teen sex comedy, The Last American Virgin, in 1982.

That same year, she delivered a haunting performance as the doomed eldest daughter of the quasi-fictional Montelli family in Amityville II: the Possession. This film was loosely based on the infamous Amityville, New York murders of 1974.

Oh, also: Better Off Dead (1985), TerrorVision (1986), and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989).

In this interview with Ray’s Happy Hour-ish podcast/YouTube channel, Ms. Franklin discusses some of her iconic roles, storytelling in the movies, and 1980s pop culture. She also talks about her recent and upcoming film projects. Enjoy.

‘Killing Them Softly’: darkness without redemption

A crime film starring Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, and Ray Liotta. This is going to be good, I thought.

I love crime films and fiction, after all: The Godfather trilogy, The Sopranos, the novels of Michael Connelly.

But I didn’t like this “neo-noir” movie. Not at all, in fact.

I don’t mind a bit of “noir”. But noir, in its quest to be endlessly and relentlessly dark, can sometimes lapse into self-parody.

That’s what Killing Them Softly is. Despite the all-star lineup, this movie is hampered by banal dialogue, bad artistic sensibilities, and an aimless storyline.

Let’s start with the dialogue. I don’t mind a few F-bombs. The Sopranos was full of them. But there were entire strings of dialogue in Killing Them Softly in which “fuck” was the most frequent word. That gets boring after awhile—and it usually means lazy scriptwriting.

Likewise, I’m not politically correct. (Read some of my other blog posts.) I’m not a “sensitive guy” or a “male feminist”. I attended high school and played boys’ sports in the politically incorrect 1980s. I’ve heard my share of locker room talk.

I don’t, however, need a film scene in which two male characters ramble on forever about women’s genitalia. There was more than one scene like that in Killing Them Softly.

The setting is dreary. I mean dreary. This is a movie shot in a world where the sun never shines. (I’m sure that was intentional, part of the self-consciously overdone “noir” effect.)

But there’s little plot to fit inside the grim scenery. The plot just goes from one violent and/or depressing scene to the next. There are no discernible stakes. It’s all nonstop, chaotic bloodshed and depravity that don’t really go anywhere. What’s the point?

There is not a single likable character. This means that there is no one to root for.

A movie about horrible people, and only horrible people. Who cares if they all die? I certainly didn’t. (That might make the movie end sooner, I thought.)

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Dark themes and storylines (horror, crime, war, etc.) only work if there is an element of redemption. There has to be good struggling against the evil. There has to be a glimmer of hope. There has to be at least one character that the audience can become invested in.

Yesterday I wrote a review of the rather violent horror film, Wrong Turn. Wrong Turn, on one level, is every bit as violent as Killing Them Softly. But it’s also very different.

Wrong Turn has at least two protagonists—a college student and her father—whom the viewer is inclined to care about. Wrong Turn has moments of extreme depravity, but also moments of nobility and heroism. By the end of Wrong Turn, you’re rooting for the college student and her dad. You want them to survive their ordeal.

There is no nobility or heroism in Killing Them Softly. It’s just a slog through the mud of human existence. (Please don’t watch this movie if you’re already feeling down about the state of the world.)

There is one bright spot, and this may be the only bright spot. According to Wikipedia, the original director’s cut of Killing Them Softly was more than 150 minutes (2.5 hours) in length. We can be grateful that they trimmed the final version to only 97 minutes. But it was still 97 minutes too long.

‘Wrong Turn’: fun horror movie

A group of progressive-minded college students from the city visit a small town in Virginia, with the aim of hiking the Appalachian Trail. 

What could possibly go wrong?

The town folk aren’t too friendly, to begin with. There are Confederate flags all over the place. The people seem clannish. And one of the college students seems determined to pick a fight with the locals.

But all of the locals insistently warn the college kids, over and over again, to stick to the tourist route when hiking the trail. 

And don’t go up the mountain!

As is always the case in horror movies, though, the protagonists don’t follow sensible advice. Hijinks ensure.

This is a reboot of an earlier film by the same name, which I also saw many years ago. The new reboot, starring Charlotte Vega and Matthew Modine, is better, and more complex.

***

Reboot or not, the basic idea itself is not original, anyway. If you’ve read Deliverance (or seen the movie), you’ll recognize the setup. A 1981 film called Southern Comfort used a version of the same premise. (Only in that film, the victims of the backwoods brutality were National Guardsmen.)

The conflict between the city and the country is as old as civilization, and certainly as old as America. It is especially acute now, in the midst of the culture wars.

What this movie was not—to its credit—was a simplistic put-down of Southerners or country people. There is a lot more going on than that. Before the end of the movie, we also discover that at least one of the “liberal” college students lacks any sense of integrity when the chips are down.

There are some major plot holes toward the end of the film. But they’re forgivable in the context of an overall plot that is already farfetched.

This is definitely not a boring movie, even if it’s a less than perfect one. 

Warning for sensitive/younger viewers: There is no explicit sex, but there is plenty of violence that is often painful to watch. How could there not be, in a movie like this?

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‘Kalifornia’: a forgotten gem from the 1990s

The year was 1993. Bill Clinton was president. Almost no one had heard of the Internet yet. (I certainly hadn’t.) Most cars still had cassette decks. And life was much, much simpler than it is today.

But there were plenty of sinister goings-on in the movies. Released in September of 1993, Kalifornia is a road thriller movie starring Brad Pitt, Juliette Lewis, David Duchovny, and Michelle Forbes. It’s one worth watching, even though it got lost amid the sea of good movies to come out around that time. (The 1990s was a good decade for film, on balance.)

Here’s the set-up: A graduate student (Duchovny) and his girlfriend (Forbes) plan to drive from Louisville, Kentucky to Los Angeles. Along the way, they will photograph famous murder sites. (There’s a book deal in the works.)

The problem? They are short on funds. So they place a ride share ad in their campus newspaper. No Craigs List in 1993, alas.

Who should answer the ad but Early Grayce (Pitt), a sociopathic, homicidal parolee, and his developmentally impaired girlfriend, Adele Corners (Lewis). The odd couple begin their cross-country ride, and bad things predictably happen.

Say what you will about Brad Pitt, but the guy is a good actor. He is thoroughly convincing as a sinister redneck outlaw. We haven’t seen much of Juliette Lewis in a while, but she’s good in this movie, too. The following year, Lewis would play a similar role in Natural Born Killers, as the cold-blooded love interest of mass murderer Mickey Knox (Woody Harrelson).

(Speaking of Natural Born Killers: I watched that movie shortly after it came out in 1994, and I found it to be one of the most overrated films of the 1990s.)

Kalifornia, by contrast, is a now mostly forgotten gem. If you’re in the mood for something dark and suspenseful from the Clinton years, skip Natural Born Killers, and give Kalifornia a try.

‘Parasite’ (2019) kept me glued to the screen

I watched the Bong Jun-ho movie Parasite last week.

I purchased this movie on blind faith—-or rather, the recommendation of a trusted store clerk at Best Buy. Sometimes I do that. Throw the dice. 

At first I thought that Parasite was going to be some kind of monster movie. Then, about twenty minutes in, I thought, “Oh, a light comedy.”

And then Parasite turns into something else entirely.

One thing I’ve noticed with the novels of Haruki Murakami: Asian stories often go in directions that are unexpected for Western audiences. Parasite is like that. This is unlike any movie you’ve ever seen.

Parasite is categorized as a black  comedy thriller, and I suppose that’s as good a description as any. This movie is alternately sad, suspenseful, and hilarious. You don’t want to like many of the characters….but you just can’t help empathizing with them.

There are a few plot holes and jump-the-shark moments in Parasite, but they’re mostly forgivable. Parasite grabs hold of you, and pulls you into an alternate reality for more than two hours.

You’ll come out a little off-kilter. This is a movie that lingers with you for a few days. 

4.8 of 5 stars

‘1917’: quick review

I finally got around to  watching 1917 last night. This is going to be a very quick review, with one minor spoiler.

1917 is the story of two World War I British soldiers who set off across no-man’s land and German-occupied territory to deliver an important message to a British officer. Not far into the film, one of them is killed. (That’s the spoiler; and I’ll explain in a moment why it was necessary.)

As is usual with journey-based stories, things happen along the way. Obstacles are met and overcome. That’s what keeps you watching.

I would give 1917 a mixed review.  The film is, on one hand, visually stunning.  The journey through no-man’s land is appropriately bleak and gruesome. I’ve read many nonfiction accounts of World War I trench warfare. 1917 seems to achieve some historical accuracy, and it certainly achieves realism. 

The problem, however, is that a story of one soldier walking across the French countryside doesn’t quite have the narrative drive needed to support a movie of almost 2 hours (119 minutes).  The adventures that the main character, Lance Corporal William “Will” Schofield (George MacKay) experiences aren’t connected to any central storyline. As a result, they seem episodic and often disjointed. 

1917 definitely comes up short when compared to similar “journey through the battlefield” films like Fury and Saving Private Ryan. Fury is the story of an entire  World War II tank crew, their interactions, and their final act of self-sacrificing heroism. Saving Private Ryan is a complex movie with multiple storylines and richly developed characters.

The Will of 1917 completes his mission…sort of. But he doesn’t really do anything heroic, and he doesn’t change. Also, for most of the movie, he has no one to interact with. This movie therefore often devolves into seemingly random scenes of Will walking alone for long stretches, dodging this or that, observing this or that. 

It might be unfair to compare a WWI movie like 1917 to modern-day World War II classics like Saving Private Ryan or Fury. The Second World War, after all, is widely regarded as a heroic struggle. Most Americans think of Eisenhower and George Marshall as noble men. The World War II generation—now sadly passing from the scene—is our “Greatest Generation”. 

World War I, by contrast, was a vast waste of lives and resources that should never have been waged by either side. World War I wasn’t a moral crusade against the Nazis. It was a bloodbath with unclear aims and causes, waged against the Kaiser’s Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire over the assassination of an archduke. 

That could be part of the reason why 1917 falls short of Fury and Saving Private Ryan. When there are no real villains, there are often no real heroes, either.

Also, American audiences in particular are less connected to World War I as a film topic. Whereas many of us grew up hearing firsthand accounts of World War II from our parents and grandparents, World War I is a distant conflict that relatively few Americans participated in. (I have met many, many World War II veterans in my lifetime. I have never met a single veteran of the First World War. And many of them would have been alive during my younger years.) A movie about World War I therefore must bring  a lot to the table in order to draw us in. 

1917, in summary, is not a bad movie. But nor is it one that you can’t afford to miss.