The Belko Experiment (2017)

When we were praising the sci-fi fantasy superhero flick Guardians of the Galaxy for our Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. series last year, one of the things that most impressed me on the rewatch was just how much the Disney-owned Marvel Studios was able to reign in writer-director James Gunn’s nastier tendencies. There’s certainly a sense of tragedy & trauma hanging in the air above Guardians that’s missing from a lot of Marvel’s more whiz-bang blockbuster productions, but it’s far from the gleefully horrific cruelty of other James Gunn creations like Slither & Super. With the follow-up to that surprise 2014 hit approaching this summer, however, it’s actually kind of endearing to see Gunn return to the cruelty of his smaller, meaner works in his latest-produced screenplay. Released by the kings of cheap, but effective horror in the 2010s, Blumhouse Productions (who’ve recently had big enough hits in both Split & Get Out that they could probably just coast for the rest of the year), the Gunn-penned exploitation piece The Belko Experiment finds the once-restrained prankster shaking off the Disney cobwebs and returning to the gleeful brutality that defined his career before he was a widely-recognized name.

The poster for The Belko Experiment plainly promises a “Office Space meets Battle Royale” genre mashup and that five-word descriptor might as well serve as the film’s IMDb plot synopsis. A Columbian office building staffed with mostly foreign, English-speaking workers is shut down by mysterious, off-screen forces who prevent escape for the employees trapped within by barricading all doors & windows. The imprisoned population is instructed over an intercom to murder thirty of their own coworkers within a certain timeframe or sixty will be killed as punishment. Non-compliance means that participants’ heads will be exploded by a remotely detonated bomb. Of course, grabs for power arise within the group as former bosses attempt to pull rank among their now-equal employees and “fire” them with the aid of the security guard’s firearms. Our hero (10 Cloverfield Lane‘s John Gallagher Jr.) attempts to put an end to this disgusting, brutally violent mode of corporate ladder-climbing early & often with rationalized pleas for peace, but the killings continue anyway. As the experiment goes on it becomes apparent that no character, no matter how harmless or affable, is safe from being murdered in cold blood and that this is the kind of nihilistic exploitation exercise that deliberately avoids any possible chance of a “happy” ending.

This high-concept premise makes The Belko Experiment out to be something like a bloodier, corporate-set version of the recent sci-fi cheapie Circle. It initially traffics in the same social science philosophy in rationalizing who “deserves” to survive and what makes one life more “worthwhile” than another (youth, parenting, wealth, etc.), but honestly that’s far from its #1 concern. Mostly, Gunn just tries to have fun with his eighty or so archetype characters that populate the Columbian office building setting by strategically ending their lives for maximum comedic shock value. It’s clearly a video game-style premise, with explicit rules & objectives set by an off-screen gamemaster, but the film does manage to squeeze a few good corporate satire jabs out of the format. I was especially tickled by the way the basic concept of productivity quotas & metrics that drive capitalist enterprise were translated directly into lives lost in the film’s ridiculous dog-eat-dog fight for survival. There are some Trump-like platitudes about how to survive in the business world like, “We have to be bold here. This is not a time for timidity,” and some music choices like an elevator-friendly, Spanish-language version of “I Will Survive” that also got a good chuckle out of me. The Belko Experiment excels when it jokingly focuses on its fictional company’s eerie slogan, “Business without boundaries,” and in other jabs at corporate office culture, but not so much when it asks big questions like whether it’s best to futilely attempt to save everyone or strive for the seemingly more attainable goal of just saving yourself.

My one major problem with The Belko Experiment seems antithetical to what I thought made Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy film so enjoyable: it’s just not cruel enough. This is a bloody film with a ludicrously high body count and, yet, it seems to be shy of practical effects gore. If you compare the violence in this film to the recent superhero bloodbath Logan, the kills have a weightless frivolity to them that I think undercuts the film’s nihilism. The only time The Belko Experiment attempts to get truly grotesque in its gleeful ultraviolence is when one character’s skull is caved in with repeated blows from an axe. The cuts in that scene are rapid, though, only briefly flashing the consequences of the axe’s blows before shying away to focus elsewhere. If the film’s nihilism is supposed to mean just as much as its satire of office environment power structures, it makes no sense to shy away from the physical consequences of the violence in this way. The movie proudly displays plenty of blood. It was just lacking in viscera.

Maybe that one sticking point for me was a result of The Belko Experiment‘s allowance of gun violence to enter the scenario. Its office supplies murder weapons (including tape dispensers, letter openers, meat cleavers, Molotov cocktails, etc.) made much more interesting, grotesque kills. The film could’ve easily pushed the novelty & brutality of its high-concept scenario much further by sticking to that set-specific limitation. Still, The Belko Experiment was a decent exploitation exercise in all its own bloody-but-not-gory glory. If nothing else, it’s great to see James Gunn’s sick sense of humor return to the screen unfiltered and, given the current hard right shift of our political climate, a violent corporate culture parody might be the exact kind of mildly satirical schlock we need right now.

-Brandon Ledet

The Lure (2017)

Synths! Sequins! Sex! Gore! What more could you ask for? The Lure is a mermaid-themed horror musical that’s equal parts MTV & Hans Christian Andersen in its modernized fairy tale folklore. Far from the Disnified retelling of The Little Mermaid that arrived in the late 1980s, this blood-soaked disco fantasy is much more convincing in its attempts to draw a dividing line between mermaid animality & the (mostly) more civilized nature of humanity while still recounting an abstract version of the same story. As a genre film with a striking hook in its basic premise, it’s the kind of work that invites glib descriptors & points of comparison like An Aquatic Ginger Snaps Musical or La La Land of the Damned, but there’s much more going on in its basic appeal than that sense of genre mash-up novelty. This debut feature from Polish director Agnieszka Smoczyńska somehow tackles themes as varied as love, greed, feminism, alcoholism, body dysmorphia, betrayal, revenge, camaraderie, and (forgive my phrasing here) fluid sexuality all while feeling like a nonstop party or an especially lively, glitterful nightmare. It’s astounding.

Two young mermaid sisters, Golden & Silver, join us legged folk on land after curiously spying on some drunken revelers from just under the surface of the water at a cityside beach. Fascinated with the mermaids’ siren song duet & apparent ability to temporarily sprout legs (but no human genitalia, much to everyone’s dismay), the beach-side drunks adopt the sisters into their band: an adult-themed nightclub act that sounds something like synthpop act Berlin gone disco. Soon they’re the most popular act at any disco burlesque in all of Warsaw, first providing the backing track for other topless performers and then quickly becoming topless performers themselves. The club makes no effort to hide the fact that these are fantastical creatures, making their gigantic, muscular mermaid tails a central part of the act. The problems that break up this sexed-up reverie arise when Silver & Golden aren’t performing. One falls in love with a human, both grow frustrated with their over-controlling band mates, and neither are sure what to make of Triton, who leads a similar life on land fronting a wildly popular punk band at a nearby club. All of these conflicts come to a head the way they also did in Poland’s last significant international horror release, Demon: through a drunken wedding celebration that ends much, much later into the night than it should.

It’s possible that some of the cultural significance of themes lurking just under the surface of The Lure might be going over my head as an American outsider (a concern I also had with Demon, to be honest). Inscrutable dialogue like, “Do you live in some old monkey’s ear?” occasionally threw me off-balance in that way, but that open-for-interpretation oddness lends itself well to the universality of pop music lyrics’ subjectivity. Lines like, “Bitter tastes can be delicious,” “We’re all gloomy as hell,” and “Put your hand deep inside me and drag me to shore,” cut through the language barrier of the pop lyrics translations to feel significant despite their enigmatic nature. This dynamic also plays well into how the sisters relate to the outside world in ways we don’t fully understand as an audience of land-walkers. Sometimes their dolphin-noise communication between one another is subtitled for our benefit, but often we’re left completely in the dark. This not only maintains the suspense of whether Golden or Silver are about to strike out in another act of animalistic, flesh-eating violence (or equally animalistic acts of sexual perversion), but also supports the film’s necessary distinction of their unknowable inhumanity. As Triton puts it, “We are not human. We are just on vacation here.” Any tragedy that befalls the mermaids or the humans who desire to interact with them is a direct result of losing track of that basic truth, which is an easy enough narrative through-line to hold onto, even if some of the details in the phrasing present a communicative struggle.

Of course, the lure of The Lure isn’t entirely dependent on the film’s dialogue or thematic weight. From a filmmaking standpoint, my favorite aspect of the movie is just its value as a stunning collection of sights & sounds. Every scene in the film looks either like a music video dream sequence or a flashlight-illuminated crime scene. The costuming & old school musical sound stage imagery is impeccable. Its The Knife-esque synths & vocal distortions had me tapping my foot for the entire length of the runtime. I could ramble on forever praising The Lure for the way it handles themes like the infantilization & casual dismissal of women after their commodification loses potency or its admirably blasé attitudes toward bisexuality or feminist revenge narratives. That kind of highfalutin critical praise would be somewhat dishonest to what I most fell in love with in the film, however. Smoczyńska’s major accomplishment is in how she captures the grand scale spectacle of a Baz Luhrmann musical within the context of a slick, modern horror film that’s both comically light on its feet and chillingly brutal in its gore-heavy cruelty. It’s an incredible love-at-first-sight debut that already has me willing to give the director a lifetime pass just one entry into her career.

-Brandon Ledet

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

I think the burning question about this recent string of live action Disney remakes is: why do this at all? Is this really necessary? Why instead of coming up with new stories are they remaking “the classics”? After this rendition of Beauty and the Beast, I have fewer answers than before, and I didn’t have many then.

The main draw to this version is the all-star cast: Emma Watson, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson. All the performances were fine, some even great; it’s just a shame many of them were hiding behind less than good CGI for what was basically the whole movie. That being said, Emma Watson played the role of Belle with an honest earnestness even when the rest of the cast was computerized. She’s actually made for this role, since the Disney version of Belle is as close to Princess Hermione as you’re ever going to get.

One of the ways this remake tried to freshen things up was by giving more explanation and backstory for the characters. Sadly, most of that felt like a forced afterthought. For instance, we get to hear about the Beast’s mean, old dad, but we never catch the Beast’s (the Prince of the fairy tale’s) name, nor any details of how exactly his dad was bad. Belle’s new, fleshed out history was in a few ways worse, in that it made the whole timeline of things nonsense. She quotes Romeo and Juliet, but has escaped Paris because of the plague. If you know anything about the history of the Black Plague & Shakespeare, or have access to Google, then you probably know that those two things are about 200 years apart. Sure, it’s nice to find out why exactly she’s stuck in this awful town and why she has a dead Disney mom, but I feel like it’s a little bit unnecessary. Which I guess brings us to the other character change-up, the elephant in the room: the gay stuff.

Oh, Le Fou, you poor thing. As the controversy around this movie mounted around the idea of him being gay, I already thought it was too good to be true. In my heart, I knew that there was no way Disney was going to make a fully formed human being of a gay character. At least I had no hopes to crush. He is a lovesick fool who occasionally gives catty advice to equally swooning gals. He’s the same old sniveling sidekick as he is in the original, just this time with more innuendo and a catty attitude. Having it cranked up a couple notches isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but given Disney’s track record on gay characters (Oh hey that one character in Frozen for 5 seconds and Ursula) it’s a bit tasteless. Though Le Fou is coded as a stereotypical sassy gay friend, I’m not going to lie, the dynamic between Gaston and him was what kept me sane throughout. In any other setting, their give and take would have made for a humorous cabaret type act: Gaston the slimy hypermasculine villain, Le Fou his emotional support. The musical duet between the two of them is one of the highlights of the movie.

In fact, Beauty and the Beast shines brightest when it comes to the musical numbers executed by real people. In the opening sequence the choreography is fun and mesmerizing. Belle’s iconic opening number is full of wonderfully synchronized moves. It’s fun, until it gets to the castle. It’s fun until you have to witness a bunch of 3D animated flatware execute a Busby-Berkeley style number in a movie that’s supposed to be a live action remake. It just feels like such great irony.

The real saving factor here, though, is that no matter how bombastic the tunes, over dramatic the themes, or mediocre the animation, this movie has a light hearted laugh at itself every now and then. It’s a pleasant reminder than in the midst of everything else this is still just a family film. Still, it’s hard not to watch it and think of the beloved animated classic longingly, especially as it just keeps dragging on and getting bogged down with new superfluous details, unmemorable added songs, and an aesthetic that could have sorely benefited from practical effects.

-Alli Hobbs

Bogdanovich’s Targets (1968) as the Inverse of What’s Up, Doc? (1972)

There’s a fun section in Jason Zinoman’s narrative history of the creation of modern horror Shock Value that discusses the creation of Peter Bogdanovich’s first film, Targets. After working for years as the film programmer for MoMA and doing some AD/second unit work, Bogdanovich met notorious producer/director Roger Corman at a premiere, and Corman offered the younger man the opportunity to direct a movie, with a few caveats. First, the film had to star Boris Karloff. Second, Bogdanovich had to include a fair amount of footage from another film project, The Terror, which also starred Karloff; further, Bogdanovich would only have Karloff for two more days of shooting, which he owed Corman for contractual reasons. Finally, Bogdanovich would only have ten more days to film the rest of the movie. When he scoffed, Corman  supposedly said “I’ve shot whole pictures in two days!” If you’ve ever seen a Corman movie, you know that’s probably not hyperbole, and is in fact equal parts boast and threat.

Bogdanovich then drafted a script that Karloff enjoyed so much that he committed a full five days to the film that would, ultimately, be his swan song. Karloff stars as Byron Orloff, a kind of elder statesman of the silver screen and a thinly veiled version of himself. Orloff is a former horror icon who suddenly decides to retire after a screening of his latest flick, much to the chagrin of young director Sammy Michaels (Bogdanovich), who has finally written something that he feels is actually worthy of Orloff’s stature and ability. Orloff’s classy and witty assistant Jenny (Nancy Hsueh, think Janine from Ghostbusters but warmer and more stylish) is also unenthusiastic about this decision, given her genuine affection for both her boss and for Sammy. Worse still, Orloff completely dismisses the idea that he attend a premiere of the new film, despite already committing to the event. Meanwhile, Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly) is across the street buying a rifle, which he adds to a veritable armory that he’s building in the trunk of his sporty convertible.

Bobby returns to the home that he and his wife share with his parents, and he tells them about seeing Orloff, but his joy about this is short lived. We see that baby-faced Bobby is a veteran, and he tries but ultimately fails to find the words to tell his wife that there’s something wrong inside of him that he can’t voice. As the Thompsons chuckle at Laugh-In and they bathe in the light and radiation of the television set, a drunken Orloff likewise watches his own TV, which is playing one of his (really Karloff’s) earliest films, The Criminal Code. He also entertains an equally inebriated Sammy when the latter appears at his doorstep; the two watch the film together and praise Howard Hawks. Sammy has come to convince the actor to read his script; Orloff, however, calls himself an anachronism. His horror is of the past, he says, and the reinterpretation of his work as “high camp” wounds him. He picks up a newspaper and shows Sammy the headline, about a shooting of six people by a “youth” with a rifle: this is the real terror, Orloff says. The two eventually pass out, and when Jenny arrives the next morning, a hungover Orloff, apparently moved by Sammy’s pleas, relents to attend the premiere. Across town, Bobby’s killing spree begins, as he and Orloff both set an inevitable course toward the same drive-in theater.

For a first film, and especially one made with such bizarre constraints, Targets is astonishingly well-made. There are directors who, in their entire career, never manage to paint the screen with light and color the way that Bogdanovich does here. The Thompson home is one of severe shadows juxtaposed with lavender walls and immaculate countertops, with a camera that weaves through the house like a cobra, catching every cold detail of Bobby’s seemingly perfect life and observing the Thompsons through a doorway, watching them while they in turn watch TV. Full of one-shots, swinging doors, and first person perspective: the view of Bobby’s ostensibly warm and fulfilled life is ironically cold and clinical, and the eye that follows him is documentarian and removed. Orloff’s home, by contrast, is empty and silent, the elderly actor kept company by the sound of his earlier work, but the camera treats him like a friend and not a subject. It’s stunning. The role of light even takes on an important part of the narrative at the end of the film, as the attendees of Orloff’s drive-in appearance attract the sniper’s attention when they activate their interior lights or headlamps.

The subtleties of the script are so faintly traced that you can see the critic’s eye in Bogdanovich’s work. This is most notable with the Thompsons, as the only possible clue that gives us any insight into Bobby’s motivations is his unusually deferential and devotional attitude toward his father, whom he addresses as “sir” and looks up to in a childlike reverence (Mr. Thompson also bosses his wife around brusquely). The subtext never becomes textual enough to provide you any real insight, and it wouldn’t matter if it did; Bobby is cold-blooded, a killer, and there’s no excusing him. The parallelism between Bobby and Orloff is masterfully handled, with each bound up in the expectations of others and a monster in their own unique way, one with a bright future and one whose days are fewer ahead than behind, but the two exchange fates when they meet beneath the flickering of the projector.

When we discussed What’s Up, Doc?, we talked about the way that the film felt timeless in its incorporation of references to films, cartoons, songs, and narrative devices of the past. Despite its age, that later Bogdanovich film feels fresh, and it’s undeniably a good thing. Targets is the inverse, a film that reflected forward rather than backward, a strangely prophetic and disturbingly prescient look at the future of gun violence. There’s almost no reference to gun culture, but the film drew inspiration from the University of Texas tower shooting that had happened a mere two years previously, and we’ve seen that narrative play out again and again and again in recent years, including the particularly relevant shooting at the Aurora movie theater. Further, Bobby looks like the perpetrators of this domestic terrorism: he’s boyishly handsome, blond and charming; he comes from an ostensibly Christian home (based upon the family’s pre-meal prayer) and has a close relationship with his doting parents. His crimes are completely unmotivated, which was a sticking point for contemporary critics who failed to realize that this didn’t detract from the terror but in fact contributed to it. It, too, is timeless, but for all the wrong reasons.

Even without that context, however, Targets is effective in the way that its antagonist’s dispassionate spree killing is horrifying and unnerving. My roommate was fascinated by the film’s humanity and the way that the victims of the shooter are defined by their reactions to this event that’s unfolding around them, comparing the movie to a Coen Brothers film, which is a strong point of contact. It’s a strong effort for a first-time director and is terrifically fascinating in its subject matter and composition; once can only hope it will become less relevant in years to come, but I doubt it.

For more on March’s Movie of the Month, the throwback screwball comedy What’s Up, Doc?, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at how it found inspiration in Bringing Up Baby (1938).

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Being (1983)

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After falling in love with Jackie Kong’s weirdo live action cartoon horror comedy Blood Diner, I was intrigued to see what other hidden gems the director managed to deliver in her modest four film career. Besides a couple mid-80s comedies (one featuring Andrew Dice Clay, yikes), Kong had only directed one other horror film, a creature feature titled The Being. Part The Thing, part Toxic Avenger, and released in-between the two, The Being is unfortunately not nearly as idiosyncratic as Blood Diner in terms of tone or context. It finds Kong younger and more restrained in both her bravery & her budget, aiming for a more generic drive-in horror aesthetic than what would later be delivered in her midnight movie circuit cult classic. It’s still impressively entertaining for a dirt cheap slice of drive-in schlock, though, and you can easily detect that Blood Diner sense of humor informing every scene of monster-driven mayhem.

Twilight Zone-spoofing narration reports the strange disappearances of young children in the small town of Puttsville, Idaho in an opening scene that plays more like a trailer than an actual movie. These mysterious disappearances seem to be tied to the town’s crisis of radiation-contaminated water from local, uncaring Big Business jerks. The company guilty for this Flint-reminiscent offense makes no effort to hide the fact that they’re dumping toxic chemicals into the water supply; they just have their evil PR stooge (Martin Landeau, the film’s only recognizable face) claim in public forums that the pollution is harmless. Of course, the pollution is far from harmless, unwittingly giving birth to a horrific monster (the titular “being”) who swoops in for frequent kills, the source of the film’s central disappearances. The company is aware of this mutated beast, but deflects attention by claiming the citizens of Puttsville really need to worry about the moral contamination of the sins of pornography peddlers & massage parlors. The product they’re protecting by covering up these supernatural murders? Potatoes.

Jackie Kong employs a much subtler hand in her blood-soaked satire here than she does with Blood Diner, but both films reveal her to be a great talent at surprising audiences from within the familiar. She keeps the titular mutated beast from The Being in the dark for the majority of its runtime the way most cheap horror films would, mostly just showing its gooey, demonic arms reaching for victims in its flights of murderous rampage. There’s plenty to be entertained by in the details even while the film’s withholding, though: a trucker decapitated while driving, a drive-in audience attacked through blood-oozing cars & screen, a bizarre Wizard of Oz-inspired black & white dream sequence. And when the being’s full body is revealed, Kong makes her limited effects budget count for all that it can, constructing a uniquely uncanny creature that resembles a gooey, organic version of the monster from Hardware.

The Being is less confident in its spooky-goofy tone than Blood Diner, but by the time the film ends on a comedic “Where are they now?” gag before the credits roll, it’s clear that Kong had not delivered just another by-the-books creature feature. Her sense of humor and her punk rock pranksterism are readily apparent in this earlier, less-formed work and it’s a shame she never had the chance to make a dozen more monster-driven horror movies after she had pushed her horror comedy formula even further. Two Jackie Kong horror titles aren’t nearly enough. Event though it’s been a few decades since her last film, I’m hoping to see her return to the director’s chair and crank out some more pictures ASAP.

-Brandon Ledet

Logan (2017)

I don’t like Wolverine.

This has been a topic of much contention with my fellow comic book nerds for a long time, but there are a host of reasons why he doesn’t appeal to me as a character. First, it’s never made much sense to me that Professor X has a spot on his peace-oriented team for a man whose powers and enhancements make him a perfect assassin or soldier. I’ve also never seen myself reflected in Wolverine the way that I see aspects of myself in Kitty Pryde, Emma Frost (under Joss Whedon’s pen), and (especially) Beast; nor do I see something I could aspire to be in Wolverine the way that I did and do in Storm’s serenity or Nightcrawler’s happiness in spite of a lifetime of abuse. I certainly understand the allure of a character without a past and the desire for redemption (although the importance of this desire was intermittent), but Wolverine never worked for me as a character.

I think that this is mostly because, despite his meager origins, the character of Wolverine evolved into a straight white male power fantasy, especially among the more self-pitying members of the nerd subculture of the eighties and nineties. Macho Wolverine gets the girl, takes no shit, and leaves his enemies shredded to ribbons: he’s the ultimate enviable hero of the platonic nineties nerd before Hollywood came along and turned comic books and superheroes into the hottest trends on Earth. Following this popularity explosion, the character was inescapable, which is probably my foremost issue with him. Don’t like Angel, or Jean Grey, or Psylocke? No problem: there are plenty of Marvel comics without them, including long periods of time in many X-books. Don’t like Wolverine? You’re out of luck, bub: try to find an X-Men comic from 1985 to 2014 where he’s not a presence (give or take an Excalibur here or there), and if you turn to another Marvel book for a Wolverine-free reading experience, you better not want to check out Avengers, or New Avengers, or even Power Pack. It’s essentially the same reason that, despite my long and storied love of Star Trek, I don’t like Data (a crucifiable offense in many circles): both he and Wolverine are such pets of vocal fans and some creators that they become the entire focus of what is supposedly an ensemble, to the detriment and derision of other characters*. You can even see this in the way that he was not only the de facto star of the X-Men films in which he appeared, but also got his own film franchise.

That franchise reaches what claims to be its final film in the recently released Logan, a gritty neo-western masquerading as a superhero film. The plot finds the titular Logan (Hugh Jackman) caring for an aging and increasingly senile Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) with the help of Caliban (Stephen Merchant) in the Mexican desert in 2029. The combination of a cataclysmic event and genetic suppression has rendered them among the last mutants on Earth, until Logan is drawn back into the world of heroism by Gabriella (Orange is the New Black‘s Elizabeth Rodriguez), a woman who begs him to help save a child named Laura (Dafne Keen) from Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), a cybernetically enhanced mercenary. Their redemptive road trip also features appearances from Eriq La Salle and Elise Neal as world-weary farmers who provide shelter for the group.

My apathy and weariness about Wolverine aside, this is a good movie. Sure, it makes no logical sense within the confines of the different timelines that the other films in this franchise have provided without a conspiracy theory board of newspaper clippings, post-it notes, and red string, but 20th Century Fox doesn’t care anymore, so why should you? The one problem I’ve never had with the film version of Wolverine is Hugh Jackman’s consistently strong performance regardless of the variable quality of the material available, and this is his best work as the character to date. This is despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that, for once, we’re not reflecting back on his mysterious past as we have in literally every movie in which he appeared in this franchise and are instead seeing a man at the end of his career and, perhaps, his life. Logan deals with the more mundane aspects of growing old, like obsolescence in a changing world, the dementia of an elderly father (figure), and the betrayal of his own aging body and the disease thereof, despite his much-touted healing factor. This is not a character who is obsessed with learning about (or altering) his past, but one for whom the past is prologue to a slow, painful existence in an all-too-real dystopian future.

This is not the Sentinel-ruled technicolor hell of Days of Future Past, nor is it the candy-coated “corrected” timeline in which Jean, Scott, and Hank are alive: this is a dusty, economically depressed future in which life is cheap, crossing the border into Mexico is an ordeal, and Canada provides asylum to those on the run from an authoritarian government that hates them because they are different, all while said government not only condones but supports the imprisonment of and experimentation on children of color and treats Mexico like its dumping ground. This film has been in development for a while and takes a great deal of inspiration from graphic novel Old Man Logan, but it is particularly fascinating that the first X-film released following the election paints such a realistic picture of a dark future in comparison to the optimistic ending of Days of Future Past, which was released solidly in the middle of Obama’s second term, when the tide of freedom and progress seemed to flow ever-forward.

Logan never becomes explicitly political, however, instead allowing this interpretation to emerge from its subtext. This is, first and foremost, a story about a retired, past-his- prime gunbladeslinger who has long since lost what little place he had in the world before being brought back in for one last stand. You’ve seen this movie before, but dressing it up in these clothes puts a spin on the material that is fresher than I expected, in the same way that Winter Soldier was reinvigorating as both a government conspiracy thriller and a superhero flick. I’d love to see more movies like this, to be honest: James T. Kirk and Company as the Magnificent Seven/Seven Samurai, Black Widow having to Die Hard her way out of a building, or, hell, even Steve Rogers trying to save the old community center from being torn down to make way for those awful condominium/shopping center hybrid abominations.

Where the film doesn’t work for me is in its insistence on defining Logan’s little group as a family. The discovery of the genetic connection between Logan and Laura and the latter’s decision to help her does not necessarily an intimate connection make, and Xavier’s “This is what life looks like” moment rings falsely sentimental for the character, given all that we’ve seen him do and accomplish over the course of these films. For such a bloody and violent flick (which, make no mistake, Logan is), a fair amount of the emotional resonance that the film seeks to create works, but the occasional references to Laura and Xavier as Logan’s family work better when they’re subtle (like when he passes them off as his father and daughter) than they do when characters explicitly state that they are family. That aside, however, this serves as a fitting swan song for Hugh Jackman’s contribution to the franchise, especially if you’re  willing to forgive stilted dialogue and the occasionally unearned moments of pathos.

*Here’s the part where I admit that I love the Wolverine and the X-Men animated series, despite my general apathy towards the character; although Wolverine is the title character, WatX was much more of an ensemble piece that gave every character plenty of development and attention. He’s also cast in an unusual role as the reluctant leader with the atypically angsty Cyclops serving as the team’s loner. The show also has one of the darkest storylines ever constructed for what is ostensibly a show for children; it’s definitely worth checking out.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

The big risk in me venturing out to see the latest King Kong reboot was that my love for loud & dumb movies about giant monsters might be crushed by my ever-growing boredom with war narratives. Kong: Skull Island made no secret of its Vietnam War cinema aesthetic in its advertising, promising to be something like an Apocalypse Now With Kaiju Primates genre mashup. The actual film is something more like Platoon With Kaiju Primates, but the effect is still the same. Skull Island‘s main hook is that it uses the traditional King Kong narrative as a thin metaphor for U.S. involvement in Vietnam (and other unwinnable, imperialistic conflicts of world-policing), declaring things like “Sometimes the enemy doesn’t exist until you’re looking for them.” It’s the same exact themes that are hammered to death across nearly all Vietnam War movies with the exact same Love The Smell of Napalm imagery (ever seen an explosion reflected in aviator sunglasses before?) and more or less the same needle drops (don’t worry if they don’t immediately play CCR; it’ll eventually happen twice). As an audience, I’m missing an essential Dad Gene that enables people to care about a very specific end of Macho Genre Cinema (including war films, submarine pictures, Westerns, and, oddly enough, the James Bond franchise). If there’s anyone out there with that Dad Gene who still enjoys the occasional Vietnam War film, they’d likely have a lot more fun with Kong: Skull Island than I did. For me, it was like someone mixed jelly into my peanut butter jar because they didn’t bother cleaning their spoon.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment about Kong: Skull Island is that it amounts to less than the sum of its parts. The cast alone is a testament to a staggering waste of potential: Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Tom Hiddleston, recent Oscar-winner Brie Larson, all wasted. The movie is stacked with onscreen talent, but just about the only memorable performances delivered are from a fully committed Shea Whigham & John C. Reilly, who both pull off a tragic/comic balance in their respective roles as shell-shocked war veterans. Reilly is (rightly) getting a lot of attention in this film as a shipwrecked soldier who’s been stranded on Skull Island since WWII and is deliriously relieved to see people who share his language & culture for the first time in decades. The biggest laugh I got out of the film, though, was in watching Whigham chow down on a can of beans and casually describe his first battle with a skyscraper-sized ape as “an unconventional encounter.” The sense of wasted potential extends far beyond the immense talent of its dispassionate cast, however. Even its central hook of attempting a Vietnam Movie With A Giant Ape seems like it was handled in the blandest, least interesting way possible. Instead of writing a revisionist history where Kong is transported to Vietnam and intermingles with the soldiers on the ground, the soldiers are transported to his home, the titular Skull Island. This sets up an echo of the exact same narrative we’ve seen in nearly every version of a Kong picture. Peter Jackson’s (infinitely more passionate) version of King Kong was released just a little over a decade ago. All this one does to update it is toss in some helicopters & flamethrowers and increase the size of the titular ape.

I’m not sure a full plot description is necessary here, so I’ll try to make it quick. The day after the U.S. declares its withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973, a military troop is ordered to secretly escort a geological mission to survey the once mythical Skull Island. [Scene missing: soldiers complaining that they’re being deployed instead of going home.] There’s a lengthy assembling-the-team sequence where everyone’s various motives & vulnerabilities are revealed for future significance, but no one character gets enough screentime to make any of it count for anything. Do we really need to know Brie Larson’s background as a hippie anti-war photographer to watch her blankly stare at monsters & the Northern Lights for the next 90min? Doubtful. The “geological” expedition, of course, is a betrayal, a cover-up for finding proof of a two-fold conspiracy theory: that the Earth is hollow and that giant monsters live inside it. Once discovered, King Kong is initially seen as a threat, as he attacks the military crew that bombs his home in an attempt to prove those (correct) theories. Eventually, however, it’s revealed that the gigantic ape is the protector of the island and, by extension, the world at large. He fights off & keeps at bay the other monsters that threaten to crawl out of the hollow Earth to terrorize mankind: giant spiders, squids, something John C. Reilly’s freaked out war vet calls “skull crawlers,” etc. This dynamic of Kong as a protector doesn’t really do much for the film’s central Vietnam War metaphor. It mostly just hangs in the air as a naked setup for a M.U.T.O. (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism, no C.H.U.D. that) cinematic universe, which is eventually supposed to link up with the most recent American Godzilla property (as opposed to the far superior Japanese one) for a pre-planned crossover film. And there you have yet another passionless blockbuster that’s a mere placeholder for a future film franchise payoff.

If I haven’t talked enough about Kong himself so far, it’s because the movie doesn’t give me much to work with. There isn’t too much new or different about the infamous beast in his most recent form. The quality of the CGI hasn’t advanced all that significantly since Jackson last tackled the property in ’05, which is kind of a big deal in the King Kong genre, going all the way back to its stop-motion animation roots in the 1930s. The ape’s gotten a lot bigger in scale (likely in preparation for his upcoming kaiju battles) and modern 3D made for an occasional moment of action cinema eye candy, but I couldn’t work up much awe or horror for the misunderstood monster, which is a problem. His inner anguish is always secondary to the soldiers’, never being afforded much of an onscreen emotional narrative outside John C. Reilly plainly informing us that he’s the last of his kind. Sacrificing the ape’s inner life for some killer kaiju battles might’ve made that thin emotional groundwork forgivable, but the giant monster violence of Kong: Skull Island is also a little lacking. In old school kaiju movies (and in more faithful throwbacks like Pacific Rim) the monsters would fight for minutes at a time, establishing pro wrestling-style narratives through the physical language of their battle sequences. Here, the fights only last for seconds at a time as we follow the human characters who navigate their paths of their destruction. Again, my disinterest with that end of the dynamic might have a lot to do with my general boredom with war movie plotting, so mileage may vary on that point. It just feels strange to me that a movie that boasts Kong’s name in the title would be so disinterested in the ape himself.

None of this is to say that Kong: Skull Island is a total disaster and an entirely joyless affair. There are some moments of monster movie mayhem that work well enough as eye candy and both John C. Reilly & Shea Whigham do their best to boost the spirit of the proceedings with some much-needed levity & camp. (I think my ideal, streamlined version of the film just be those two characters alone in a Swiss Army Man-style romance adventure on the same kaiju-infested island.) Overall, though, the movie feels like a well-funded version of a SyFy Channel mockbuster that can afford to hire legitimate actors instead of Ian Ziering or Steve Guttenberg or whoever’s up for it that particular weekend. Unlike the recent genre film rehash Death Race 2050, which applies that SyFy style of direct-to-VOD CG cheapie energy to something uniquely bizarre, Kong: Skull Island lacks any distinguishing sense of passion. I guess you could point to a smash-cut of Kong eating a human to a human eating a sandwich or the basic novelty of a giant ape fighting a giant squid as holding some kind of camp value, but that’s a bit of a stretch, given how much the movie focuses on its stale Vietnam War themes. The silliest Skull Island film gets in its basic DNA (outside Reilly & Whigham’s respective quirks) is in its shameless shots of muscular Kong ass, but even that line of putting-it-all-out-there ape anatomy could’ve been more over the top, #GiveKongADong2017. Maybe audiences more in tune with the basic thrills of war movies as a genre will feel differently, but I struggled to find anything in the film worth holding onto. Its stray stabs at silliness didn’t push hard enough to save it from self-serious tedium and its Vietnam War metaphor wasn’t strong enough to support that tonal gravity. Everything else in-between was passable as a passive form of entertainment, but nothing worth getting excited over, much less building a franchise on.

-Brandon Ledet

Train to Busan (Busanhaeng, 2016)

It’s an oft-cited criticism among professional reviewers, the laity, and everyone in between (like me and probably you) that there are too few original ideas being produced in film, with various thinkpieces arguing the relative merits of remakes (like the upcoming Beauty and the Beast), reboots (like the upcoming The Mummy), reimaginings (like the upcoming IT), and sequels (of which there will be at least a dozen this year, but let’s just put a pin in Transformers: The Last Knight as the one that’s least likely to have any objective value). In the fight between the pedantic “You know that Wizard of Oz and The Maltese Falcon were remakes, don’t you?” camp versus the equally annoying “Everything’s a remake these days!” camp, there’s not a lot of room for middle ground. Although we’re no longer in the heyday of remakes that we were  ten years ago (for instance, Hollywood’s top performers in 2005 had a high percentage of remakes, 17%, which fell to 5% by 2014), the rise of narratively homogeneous “cinematic universes,” the tendency on the part of studios to fund financially safe sequels, and the widespread proliferation of lay criticism on YouTube and beyond means that you’re no less likely to hear kvetching about unoriginality today than you were in the summer of 2006; in fact, you probably hear it more often.

With regards to horror, the tendency to “follow the leader” whenever the wheel happens to be reinvented, either intentionally or accidentally, is non-negligible. The relative profundity of originality that catapulted The Blair Witch Project to success means that we’re approaching nearly two decades of found-footage horror, with six Paranormal Activity films in eight years and the most recent season of American Horror Story using the format as its central gimmick. The nineties saw a huge uptick in teen-oriented slasher films following the release of Scream, although the extent to which they retained that film’s sly metacommentary varied from project to project. Before that, the international success of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead spawned a slew of imitators, including an entire separate string of foreign sequels starting with  Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2.

Of course, Romero’s zombies became the default conception of the reanimated undead from that point forward, with the occasional outlier generating considerable interest in the horror fan community, despite the frequent obstinance of zombie “purists.” Danny Boyle’s astonishing 28 Days Later rocked the boat in 2001 with its so-called rage-zombies (although whether or not the infectees of the film are “true” zombies is still a matter of debate among the persnickety), and Edgar Wright’s delightful 2004 romp Shaun of the Dead adhered to the more traditional Romero zombie apocalypse scenario filtered through a distinctly comedic (and British) lens. It’s noteworthy that both of these zombie films of the aughts were made by Brits, following the distinct and entrenched American orientation of Romero’s satirism. At the same time that Shaun and 28 Days were making zombies interesting again, Americans were putting out regrettable and forgettable nonsense like the made-for- TV Return of the Living Dead sequels, Tobe Hooper’s Mortuary, and Romero’s own Land of the Dead, which is better than its contemporaries but suffers from both a lack of subtlety in its social criticism and its lack of freshness (there’s a reason that it’s not recalled or discussed with the reverence that is reserved for Night of the Living Dead or Dawn of the Dead).

It should come as no surprise, then, that following another decade of retreads of the zombie genre, with adaptations like World War Z (aka the zombie movie that your dad can watch), more Resident Evil movies than you can shake a stick at, and other flash-in- the-pan flicks, the next great thing in zombies also comes from outside America’s borders: Busanhaeng (aka Train to Busan), a South Korean production, is frenetic, gorgeous, and ironically full of life.

Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) is a workaholic fund manager who is inattentive to his young daughter Soo-an (Kim Su-an), to such an extent that his belated birthday gift to her is the same gaming system he bought the year before. Soo-an asks only that she be taken to her mother’s home in Busan as her birthday gift, and her father obliges. Unfortunately, before their train leaves the station, an infected young woman jumps aboard, and soon it’s zombies, zombies, zombies! Also along for the ride are: Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok), a working class ruffian with a heart of gold; his pregnant wife Seong-kyeong (Jung Yu-mi); young baseball player Yong-guk (Choi Woo-shik) and his team, including cheerleader Jin-hee (Ahn So-hee); and Yon-suk (Kim Eui-sung), a stereotypical (but no less true-to-life) rich CEO who is concerned with saving his own skin at the expense of all others.

There’s some social commentary in that Yon-suk’s pragmatic and unrelenting self-interest is reflective of Seok-woo’s potential to be just as monstrous in his banal  inhumanity as the older businessman. This is especially evident when Yon-suk is able to make contact with a friend on the outside who tells him to take a different path away from the platform when the train stops briefly at Daejeon and he tells no others, not even Sang-hwa and Seong-kyeong. He becomes a better man throughout, however, and ultimately makes the right choices for both himself and what survivors remain as they begin the final leg of their journey.

Train to Busan doesn’t reinvent the wheel; in fact, there’s an awful lot of 28 Days Later in its DNA, what with the Rage-like zombies, the urban environments, the involvement of military forces (although there’s no unsettling discussion about repopulating the earth by force here as there is in Days), and the ending. Still, placing the action on a train puts a new spin on things, as when one group of survivors is trying to reach another group in a distant compartment, with the horde between them. The interplay of light and darkness, the addition of color, and a child character who’s actually quite likable (serving as her father’s conscience) are all touches that this genre was missing. It’s such an obviously great idea that I’m honestly surprised it was never done before (despite searching my memory and the internet, I can find no evidence of previous zombies-on-a-train films). It’s worth checking out at the earliest opportunity.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Dirty Grandpa (2016)

It’s so rare for Robert De Niro to put in a watchable performance nowadays that it’s tempting to overpraise his smaller roles in movies where he’s not even the main attraction, just because he put forth a notable effort. Bit parts in films like Stardust & Silver Linings Playbook keep the He’s Still Got It dream alive while most top bill De Niro performances urge us to abandon all hope, to accept that whatever talent or drive the actor held onto as a young man is long dead. Dirty Grandpa might be a game-changer in that respect (and in that one aspect only). Dirty Grandpa is a broad, crass comedy about overgrown man-children that makes no real attempt to distinguish itself from every other broad, crass comedy about overgrown man-children that have filled out theater marquees since the rise of the Judd Apatow era. Robert De Niro’s performance within that framework as the titular grimy geezer is worthy of distinguishing praise, however. Once you get past the fact that his role is a series of grotesque sexual come-ons, irreverent gross-outs, expletive-filled karaoke performances, and feverish torrents of masturbation, it becomes apparent that it might be the actor’s bravest, most fully committed work in decades. It’s almost Freddy Got Fingered levels of audience-trolling absurdity that he decided to apply that latent sense of passionate craft to such an aggressively inane, grotesque line of humor.

Zac Efron is a buttoned up lawyer on the verge of marrying an uptight woman he very obviously has no feelings for. Robert De Niro is his ex-military grandfather and a recent widower. At first he comes off as a kind of racist, homophobic asshole, but really no better or worse than any other old white man his age. As the film develops, he reveals that his outward crassness is a deliberate ploy to shake his too-refined grandson out of making the romantic mistake of a lifetime in marrying a woman he doesn’t love. It’s a typical bro comedy plot, playing almost like a The Hangover spin-off (especially in its demonization of a shrewish fiancée whose only enjoyment in life is in ruining boys-will-be-boys type fun). Dirty Grandpa manages to make the effort worthwhile, though. Centering its conflicts around the grandpa’s immediate quest to fuck a young college student (that’s right; this grandpa fucks) the day after his wife’s funeral, the movie seems entirely self-aware about the frivolity of the story it’s telling. Its climactic heart to heart has nothing to do with teaching the grandson a life lesson, but instead includes the line, “The greatest gift a guy can give his grandpa is unprotected sex with a college girl before he dies.” The road trip mishaps on the journey to organize that gift at a Daytona Beach Spring Break celebration also cut down on the movie’s ultra-macho posturing, especially once the brocation is interrupted by the likes of a crazed drug dealer (Jason Mantzoukas), a sarcastic gay man (UnReal‘s Jeffery Bowyer-Chapman), and a no-fucks-given anarchic monster (Aubrey Plaza).

I was initially very weary of the bro humor Dirty Grandpa gleefully rolled around in like a pig in shit. Verbal references to “retards,” “buttfuckers,” and prison rape cool the comedy a great deal in the initial goings, but it’s easy to warm up to the film once you realize De Niro’s elderly gremlin is supposed to be an unlikable monster. I wound up admiring how gross Dirty Grandpa‘s gross-out humor dared to be and by the time the ancient bastard was rapping along to Ice Cube’s “Today Was a Good Day” at a karaoke club I was fully on board with the cheap thrills this movie and this actor were willing to debase themselves to provide. Maybe De Niro is on some level too much of a talent to be employed for a gag where his adult grandson walks in on him fully nude & furiously masturbating (or “doing a #3,” in the movie’s parlance), but that kind of decision-making is more up to the actor & his agent than it is to me as an audience. I’m just happy to see the old man dive head first into non-vanilla, memorable material. Watching him take on a monstrous role as a wrinkled hellraiser with an unrelenting boner in a comedy whose title I consistently confuse with the throwaway Johnny Knoxville trifle Bad Grandpa might not have been my first choice in where I’d want to see his late-career trajectory go, but I’d be a liar if I said it wasn’t a pleasure to behold. A dirty, shameful pleasure.

-Brandon Ledet

Bringing Up Petey: Hawks’s Immeasurable Influence on Bogdanovich

When I first read that our Movie of the Month, What’s Up, Doc?, was directly influenced by the classic Howard Hawks comedy Bringing Up Baby, the connection instinctively made a lot of sense. Bogdanovich’s nostalgic eye is a large part of his filmmaking aesthetic, so it’s only natural that his big budget screwball comedy starring Barbara Streisand as a chaotic hellraiser would look back to lavish big studio comedies of the 30s & 40s for direct inspiration. Bringing Up Baby just seemed like a recognizable title to cite that typified the era. What I didn’t realize until I revisited Bringing Up Baby after watching What’s Up, Doc? was just how deep its influences run. In fact, the first two thirds of the Howard Hawks classic makes What’s Up, Doc? look like a beat-for-beat remake. Bogdanovich didn’t look back to Bringing Up Baby for just its sense of comedic tone. It also mined the work for its basic narrative plot.

Instead of watching the chaotically whimsical Barbara Streisand wreck the life of hunky nerd Ryan O’Neal, Bringing Up Baby follows the chaotically whimsical Katherine Hepburn as she wrecks the life of hunky nerd Cary Grant. A nagging fiancée more interested in financial success than genuine romance pressures Grant’s pushover scientist into chasing grant money from a big shot financial donor to fund his research. The potential marriage & awarding of the grant are disrupted when the reclusive nerd is steamrolled by the chaotic presence of a total stranger, played by a breathlessly energetic Hepburn. This is more or less the exact same plot as What’s Up, Doc? except that instead of collecting rocks, Grant’s scientist studies dinosaur bones and instead of invading his hotel room, Hepburn steals his car. After the first two acts, the films part ways in their respective plots. Bringing Up Baby gets distracted by the comings and goings of its titular leopard, while What’s Up, Doc? gets wrapped up in a Bullit-spoofing car chase and both films have varying interest paid to the shrewish fiancée threatening to cool off the central romance. (She more or less disappears from Bringing Up Baby, while Madeline Kahn’s performance as Eunice is afforded a more humanizing dose of screentime.) However, by the time their central mix-ups are sorted out by perplexed authorities in their overly chatty stabs at denouement (in a police station and before a judge’s bench, respectively) the two films’ mildly varied plots sync back up for a final bow.

Initially a financial flop, Bringing Up Baby was derided by The New York Times for being cliché-ridden, derivative drivel. Hawks was dropped from his RKO contract & Hepburn was labeled “box office poison.” The esteem for the film has obviously risen since then and extends far beyond Bogdanovich reflecting its mirror image in What’s Up, Doc?. What I find funny about that initial backlash, though, is that Hawks’s work was already being shot down as too traditionalist and derivative at the time of its release, yet the film has endured as a consistently cited landmark of comedic cinema. I think that kind of cultural longevity is entirely dependent on the manic energy of Hepburn’s breathlessly frantic performance, which is all wreckless chaos and no pause for concern. Streisand does her best to match that energy in What’s Up, Doc? (with a little bit of Bugs Bunny thrown in for good measure) and she’s charming in the role, but even she can’t approach what Hepburn achieves in what seems to be an effortless act of constant destruction. By looking back to that performance and the chaotic film that barely contained it, Bogdanovich was not only recreating a work he fell in love with as a youngster, but also participating in a tradition Hawks was also consciously keeping alive his own work.

Before he got his start in filmmaking under the guiding hand of legendary producer Roger Corman, Peter Bogdanovich was already a film critic & historian. As such, he has been loudly vocal about his appreciation of Bringing Up Baby since the release of his Barbara Streisand comedy and has made that film’s deep-running influence on the work as well known as he can. In an interview between the directors collected in the book Who the Devil Made It?, Hawks even joked, “You made a mistake in telling ’em where you stole it from. I didn’t tell ’em where I stole it from.” What’s Up, Doc?‘s blatant appropriation of Bringing Up Baby‘s basic structure extends far beyond minor details like ripped coattails & tormented academics in lavish hotel settings, though. Bogdanovich gets to the real heart of the Hawks film in his admittedly derivative work. In his commentary track for the Bringing Up Baby DVD, he explains, “That’s what the movie is: Cary’s downward spiral into normality. In Hawks’s view, she’s the one who’s more normal, in the sense that he’s living a completely closed life and she’s at least engaged.” Most actual remakes that announce themselves as faithful cover versions of an already established work don’t bother to get that kind of spiritual essence of the film they’re recreating down. Bogdanovich nailed the exact tone & romantic dynamic of Bringing Up Baby in What’s Up, Doc? and does such a subtle job of borrowing from & updating the formula that you have to watch them back to back to catch exactly how deep Hawks’s influence runs.

For more on March’s Movie of the Month, the throwback screwball comedy What’s Up, Doc?, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet