THE ROUND-UP: All Sorts of Horrors

The Round-Up is a collection of capsule reviews for new releases that filled up my notebook but never got a full dive. For Halloween quartet of horror…

Halloween Kills (David Gordon Green)

No doubt matters of self-seriousness explain why this one got bad reviews while the last one was praised. For much of its runtime, Halloween Kills actually does a solid job expanding the thematic and dramatic scope of its back-to-basics predecessor while sticking by the primal and primativistic idea of “the Shape”. Yet it’s a harsher, far more uninviting vision, right down to the amped-up gore—if you’re ever afraid to see what happens next, it won’t be because David Gordon Green shares John Carpenter’s skill for a playfully choreographed scare, but because he’ll pile on the grisliness. And by the end credits, its initially promising, ultimately dour gambit steers into limbo. The most valuable symbolism of the 1978 original was simple: an avatar of childhood fear chasing you to the cusp of adulthood. The 2018 reboot was about trauma, though it didn’t go much deeper into that idea than one might at a pitch meeting. But Halloween Kills is something else. It ups the political ante by taking contemporary public hysteria as its subject, nodding to both Romero (the real monster is us) and a bit of Lynch (metaphysical Evil haunts small-town America) before its pessimism hits the same wall as innumerable Halloween sequels before it: there’s only so much weight or length a campfire story can sustain without numbing you or turning silly. But I’ll say this: given what they’ve set up, I’m curious how they’re going to make a movie called Halloween Ends. We’ll find out next year.

✬✬✬✩✩

*****

Titane (Julia Ducournau)

Cronenberg comparisons were already old by the time the first Palme d’Or-winning horror film hit theaters, but they remain necessary. Ducournau doesn’t (yet) have Cronenberg’s dexterity with psychologically complete characters or fully developed themes. A lot of Titane‘s transgressions, particularly early on, come off as over-eagerly existing for their own sake. But the film does take Cronenberg’s enduring subject—the link between having a body and having a psyche—and rewire it into a notably youthful study of a woman mortified by both. The young anti-heroine has a body, yes, which she uses for dancing, killing, and fetish-fucking. She has little use for parents, romantic attachments, or other people in general. And while we’re not meant to be on board with all her antisocial instincts and mania (that sweet girlfriend of hers didn’t have it coming), we can’t begrudge her the rest (that leering man definitely did). Thus what emerges is about sex, love, motherhood, and a hard-as-steel woman (a transgressor herself) softening, becoming vulnerable and exposed. And the way this softening is shown as both semi-involuntary and frequently horrific—not to mention caked in gender fluidity and emotional deception—gives it a compelling and passionate ambivalence that stays in your mind even after your stomach has settled. So the best comparison may not be the cutting analytical eye of Cronenberg; if you expect that, you’ll be disappointed. But the brash joys of queerness, Queerness, and throwing every ingredient into the pot? Not far from early Almodóvar.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

Old (M. Night Shyamalan)

Shyamalan’s handling of actors and dialogue is as willfully awkward as ever, and he doesn’t pull off the balance the material demands: Old requires pivoting between goofiness and horror, pathos and thrills, psychological realism and nightmare logic, purely abstract emotional allegory and tidy sci-fi explanations. It’s protracted, and neither that wise nor that funny in the places it thinks it is. But it further shows that designations of “good” or “bad” (with most of the public predisposed to leap towards the latter) are inadequate in discussing what Shyamalan movies have to offer. Indeed, the places where this old-school trip to the Twilight Zone falls short only highlight that there’s not much else at the multiplex attempting anything like it. Old has more invention and purpose in its concept, style, and themes than most new releases. And several moments where the three converge exactly as they should.

✬✬✬✩✩

*****

Lamb (Valdimar Jóhannsson)

Plenty possible though it is to make a movie where “nothing is happening” but a lot is going on, Lamb is the sort of contemporary arthouse fare that uses minimalism as a crutch, with long, quiet, ostensibly atmospheric but ultimately formless passages of dead air taking the place of fleshing out the characters, building the emotional core, or doing much with the camera. The result is a fruitful metaphor (parenthood as a gift from nature—but on nature’s conditions) where every potential note of pain, hope, horror, and humor feels like it’s been shot with novocaine. When the trailer for Lamb preemptively pitches it as a “cult horror” movie, it’s a marketing play by definition, and not necessarily a deceitful one. But I’m not convinced that the dynamic at work is the elevation to a more artful, sophisticated version of the genre. On the contrary, it’s more the opposite: tastemakers borrowing some of that genre’s tawdry hook to get butts in the seats.

✬✬✩✩✩

*****

THE ROUND-UP: Late Summer, Early Autumn

The Round-Up is a collection of capsule reviews for new releases that filled up my notebook but never got a full dive. Noteworthy recaps of 2021 moviegoing begin now…

A Quiet Place Part II (John Krasinski)

Part I was an intriguing high concept with a wispy but likable execution, uninterested in psychology or metaphor. Part II aims for what Part II’s are supposed to do: not just lengthen but expand. Its opening setpiece is the kind of imitation Spielberg a blockbuster-deprived nation needed and deserved, and like Part I its biggest coup of showmanship is getting out before it overstays its welcome. But plot points can be picked over like batting practice, and aside from having the kids save the adults this time, it still doesn’t have much on its mind. Which, if it wants to expand more seriously than ever, is a problem.

✬✬✬✩✩

*****

The Mitchells vs. the Machines (Mike Rianda & Jeff Rowe)

Honestly, Pixar may be falling behind Sony: just as Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse one-upped Incredibles 2 (Pixar’s own self-reflexive take on its superhero IP), The Mitchells vs. The Machines offers the most sustained delight of any mainstream family film so far this year. A lot of the jokes, most of the adventure, and all of the morals are the sort of thing that writes itself—the young heroine is on her way to film school, and I suspect her screenwriting professor would be happy with how reliably this hits its beats. (No matter when it has to stretch quite a bit to do so). But it’s also so fleshed out by clever touches and so enlivened by hybrid 2D-3D animation—a lot of which is worth pausing your Netflix for—that I can absolutely buy the fun on its intended terms: as the expression of ex-film students who either knew or were the main character at that age. And who, in their less stressed-out moments, are still tickled that they get to do this for a living.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

About Endlessness (Roy Andersson)

Roy Andersson’s static frames give me more how-did-they-do-that? awe than most big-budget FX extravaganzas. His latest, which could just as easily be outtakes from his earlier films (like 2000’s Songs From the Second Floor or 2007’s You, the Living) inspires two thoughts. First, that like any artist who sticks to such a distinct, idiosyncratic method—Ozu or Malick, say—each film can look like mere repetition if you don’t pay heed to the little differences. And second, for a vision so all-encompassing, his insights into cosmic and historical themes can really be rather basic. That is, his vignettes of comic angst are best when they avoid declaring too much too directly. Which is why the apparent pointlessness of his structural decisions here—more shambolic than ever, more offhand, more abrupt, somehow even more funereal—registers by the end as a point in and of itself. He earns the line “Everything is fantastic.” And at 78 minutes, like life it’s over before you know it.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

Days (Tsai Ming-Liang)

Spare, even for Tsai Ming-Liang. In fact, the autumnal mood and dearth of dramatic incidents can remind you that, even though Taiwan’s master of being alone together was always a kind of minimalist, there was a robust and youthful energy in his 1990s and 2000s work. This is really more a coda than a film, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone not already in his corner. For Tsai the Romantic, see What Time Is It There? or Vive L’Amour. For Tsai the Transgressor, see The Wayward Cloud or The River. (Both modes are represented here). But if the face of his muse/leading man Lee Kang-sheng will always signify for you, you may be moved at how the familiar themes become a passing of the torch.

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*****

Cry Macho (Clint Eastwood)

Theoretically, there’s a point at which Clint Eastwood will be too old to make movies about how old he is, and while we’re palpably closer than ever, we’re not there yet. Here, he ambles through a mediocre script with a poorly written, poorly acted protege. Indeed, Eastwood’s recent cinema is so intent at getting inside the mind and heart of a Movie Hero that virtually no one else around them behaves like a plausible human being. But no one drawn to Late Clint is interested plausibility, or in thrills. They want a tranquil contemplation of what “heroic masculinity” really entails. And if they surrender to everything tin-eared about this laidback mood piece, they’ll get it. Modestly, disarmingly, and with a few wrinkles that can niggle your brain.

✬✬✬✩✩

*****

Cruella (Craig Gillespie)

Gillespie’s I, Tonya had a skillful music video pizzazz but was hypocritical mush when it came to any meaningful analysis of what might be called “real people.” So perhaps his calling is revisionist blockbusters: novel high-concept pitches for a sociological age where the same demographic likes both Disney lore and punk/New Wave needle drops. But 130 minutes gives you plenty of time to get tired of its bag of tricks—and to see just how much is clumsy, shallow, nonsensical, or brazenly mercenary by the end.

✬✬✩✩✩

*****