Monday, January 27, 2020

Reviews from gulag: And 2019's still stinking up the place, part 2

In this installment: Knives Out, Ready Or Not, and Black Christmas.

I mean, yeah: 2019 was definitely the year of Me Not Getting It.  But "not getting it" seems like an awfully weird sentiment to voice about Rian Johnson's Knives Out, which is mercilessly obvious in the "it" it intends you to get, while simultaneously committing (hell, if you listen to critics, you'd think Johnson had signed a pledge or something) to being the proverbial fun time at the movies.  It's not even not a fun time.  It's more like 130 minutes is a long span to spend having its particular brand of a fun time, much of which is dedicated to the overfreighting of a theme (singular) that still winds up slightly-incoherently expressed, and to a structure that spends the first half hour unproductively faking you out regarding the movie you're here to enjoy.  I mean, at bottom, it's basically an episode of Monk, right?  One of the ones where you know the broad shape of the crime but are left in the dark as to the rest?  What's so hard about that?  Heck, that would be great, I love Monk, except Knives Out is more than three times as long, still with roughly the same amount of content, and the Poirotish super-detective it showcases (I like Poirot too) is almost entirely uninteresting, just in and of himself.  It must be said: that this may start a franchise, and may have been intended to start a franchise—a franchise revolving around Benoit "CSI KFC" Blanc (Daniel Craig, and yes, these are the jokes, folks)—remains the most insoluble puzzle of the tale.

So, as you likely know, given that Knives Out was indeed something of a box office hit, what we have is the story of a murder (though a murder mystery it is arguably not, despite all the trappings and some of the structure of one).  Our victim is a certain Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a crime novelist himself—an author of murder mysteries, no less—whom we find one morning with his throat slashed open in the upstairs office of his utterly tacky crime novelist's mansion.  This could be a suicide, albeit a particularly grisly one, though it's at least a little suspicious that Harlan died within hours of having had several relationship-ending conversations with various members of his vulture-like family (Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, Chris Evans et al—there are so, so many of them, some acquitting themselves better than others).  The police (mostly Lakeith Stanfield, sadly mostly redundant) are engaged to investigate this strange death, as is, by an anonymous benefactor, the great detective Benoit Blanc (again, Craig), the latter of whom surveys this crowded field of suspects and imagines that a great many of them had both motive and opportunity.  However, he tends to linger upon one suspect in particular, Marta Carbrera (Ana de Armas), not a family member, but Harlan's home health worker, hailing from a nebulous Latin America, precisely which Mexican country her family emigrated from depending on which racist Thrombey is talking at any given moment.  That this is not actually one of the jokes in the movie merely suggests that it was finished before that particular FOX News chyron gaffe hit our Internet.

Of course, this is the actual point of Knives Out—a Johnsonian harangue about a rich racist white family who despise each other and can, superficially, be sorted across the whole American political spectrum, but all of whom close ranks and klan up in response to a surprising item in Harlan's will that turns Marta into the likeliest suspect of all.  (And which also egregiously misrepresents the slayer rule as codified in Massachussetts, as well as undue duress in any jurisdiction, given that Harlan's will, as it's read, appears every word the result of a man whose nurse was playing keepaway with his morphine.  Despite the Thrombeys' lawyer's assertions to the contrary, I suspect a court would be very open to that interpretation, though it's also unclear what business Harlan Thrombey's lawyer has giving adverse parties legal advice in the first place.)  Anyway, the film is about what it's about to an outright damaging degree, starting with the cartoon characters that Johnson is barely even interested in keeping straight; that the activist Smith student (Katherine Langford) turns out to be as craven as the rest of the family is an interesting touch, but I don't find it especially likely that the Republican indulging in a tirade about immigrants (Don Johnson) would be the same Republican describing the alt-right dipshit of the family (Jaden Martell) as a "full-on Nazi," though I might have awarded at least one special compensatory point for balls-out spite if Martell's character had explicitly held forth on the flaws he had perceived in The Last Jedi.

The worst of it is that all this effortful symbolism flattens Marta—and Armas's performance—alongside most everyone else, turning her into a sainted victim caricature burdened with a scowl-inducingly dumb character tic involving a physical reaction to dishonesty.  Armas herself is capable of anchoring the film, even as the costume designers work terrible violence on her—Johnson's direction in this regard almost certainly involved the words "potato sack"—but she's very much at her best while Plummer is still alive enough in flashbacks to help build a character with her, even if that character is "Daphne in Frasier, but more servile."  There's an argument to be made that Blade Runner 2049 really was the best possible preparation for her starring role here.  In that film she played an angelic AI that isn't even explicitly confirmed to be conscious.

There is something meaty at the heart of this nonetheless, about who's earned the American inheritance through hard work and sound morals, though there's minimal interest in its designated recipient except as an empty vessel waiting to receive it.  Meanwhile, this particular "American inheritance" is hard to find too resonant, represented as it is here by the estate of a novelist who has explicitly resisted exploiting his work for movies and merchandise.  (This latter fact attempts to serve two masters, and hence it mostly just serves Johnson's desire to grope blindly toward some kind of genre metacommentary, in the same way that the movie's largely-unnecessary super-detective does.  Arguably, it does offer the film its aesthetic, though all the slightly-distorting fisheye lenses, bric-a-brac production design, and perspective-addling editing on display here maybe don't quite rise to the level of "an aesthetic."  The most interesting thing by far is the way Blanc is kept an out-of-focus smudge in the backdrop for so long, but even this has the misfortune of being in the least useful part of the movie's story.)  Still, the only real sin of it all is that, other than that logey first act—doubtless intended to set up a disorienting twist, but coming off more like a movie still desperately figuring out what it wants to be in the midst of us watching it—the political cartooning is the biggest reason Knives Out is simply too long and too overstuffed, and we probably didn't need as much of it as we get (precious little of it is actually funny) simply in order to get to Knives Out's powerful climactic shot.

Fortunately, it's only too long in comparison to the ideal, leaner-and-meaner version of itself.  The version we have, on the other hand, arrives soon enough upon a reasonably enjoyable Hitchcockian thriller, and if it suffers from a serious case of confusion regarding to whom it plans to actually award its protagonist status—Marta or the affable southern-fried detective half a step behind her—even this, on occasion, can be profitable.  In fact, their game of wits is definitely the best thing Knives Out has going for it, and it's a shame that it ends, though the film manages to keep ahold of your attention even as it returns to overwrought murder mystery territory in the close.  It's one of those movies that's entertaining enough that I can easily see why so many other people like it while being incapable of imagining how they love it.

Score: 6/10

Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett's Ready or Not feels entirely of a piece with Knives Out, and for a lot of reasons—they both share a satirical target and pretty much the exact same way of going about hitting it; they both seek to get a lot of mileage out of their production design; they both serve as vehicles for an actress that, give them each another couple of years, we might be willing to call a movie star—but for my part the biggest reason is, once again, I didn't like it nearly as much as everyone else apparently did.  And with Ready or Not, I'm perplexed as to what, particularly, is likeable about it.  It is not terrible, to be sure; but it is so chronically dysfunctional that it starts to wither up just when any movie in its position ought to be getting good, and while it arguably accomplishes a lot of the things Knives Out set itself up to do, and (on paper) accomplishes them with a bit more brio and a lot more narrative efficiency, it's somehow even more repetitive about doing it, despite having thirty fewer minutes to do it all in.  Stranger still, it's less thrilling about it, despite the stakes for its heroine being the imminent prospect of her horrible, violent death.

That heroine is Grace (Samantha Weaving), a lower-class nobody and orphan who, after what we understand to be some amount of hectoring, has finally managed to get her wealthy, rather Kushner-ish dreamboat of a boyfriend, Alex Le Domas (Mark O'Brien), to marry her.  This entails a wedding at his family's creepy-fancy mansion, where she is received with a mixture of sneering, condescension, reserve, and, sometimes, genuine affection from his various relatives (dad Henry Czerny, mom Andie MacDowell, brother Adam Brody, and so on and so forth).  As part of the onboarding process into the Le Domas entertainments-based "dominion"—and, according to Le Domas lore that Grace listens to with polite skepticism, to satisfy the bargain made with an ambiguously supernatural figure named Mr. Le Bail by their family's humble progenitor—Grace is required to play a game.  Selected from a well-shuffled deck of cards, it could be any game—blackjack, backgammon, Super Smash Bros.—but the catch, as we know from a prologue set thirty years earlier, is that it could be hide-and-seek.  And the thing about hide-and-seek is that when you hide, and they find you, they kill you.  Guess what card Grace picks.  It ain't backgammon.

Hypothetically, this is a freakin' blast: it ought to be nothing less than Die Hard In a Marriage, capable of all kinds of fun with allegory, from how to deal with joining a new family to the satanic complexion of the one percent.  In practice, it is exclusively the latter.  (Having seen the trailers a zillion times, I wondered how the film's four screenwriters might square the circle of Alex having invited her into this awful situation.  The short answer is they don't.)  As with Knives Out, it pursues its themes to the point of self-harm, but while Knives Out just layers them atop a mostly mechanically-sound mystery-thriller scenario, Ready or Not jams its themes right into its action-thriller gears, tilting toward a comedy of errors to such a pronounced degree that while its notion of the American upper class as so ensconced in pampered privilege they've become decadent and goofy comes through with absolute crystal clarity, it leaves a movie dependent on the antagonism of total fucking morons.

Having delivered our heroine into a survival thriller set on easy mode, the screenplay compensates by ratcheting down Grace's capabilities in turn, something the film makes 100% visually explicit in that smug, self-negating moment where the bride in her torn and bloodied wedding dress, with a bandolier of ammunition lashed across her chest and a shotgun in her arms, regards herself in a mirror, and responds to becoming the image of an iconic badass warrior with only bemusement and irony.  In isolation, in a trailer, it looks cool as hell.  In the film, it comes at the close of the first act, and exists only to be undercut; Grace manages to task her pursuers, sure, but it's a rare moment in Ready or Not that takes her seriously or gives her set-pieces or even gives her challenges that she rises to meet on her own terms.  She actually winds up getting saved a lot by allies within the family, or else getting saved with a combination of her own efforts and her enemies' stupidity.  She scarcely ever achieves even a little victory of her own, and when she does it's against the family's disposable help.  Even then it's practically on accident.  ("But what about the nail?" you'll say.  The nail, yes, is pretty rad.  Now throw that evil child in the death pit.)  There's a reason movies like this are structured the way they are: otherwise they're just watching people flail helplessly around.

Flailing around, in fact, is the name of the game, and, in real time, you start to perceive the way Ready or Not's written itself into a corner.  It's pointed itself at an ending that's either going to be dramatically unsatisfying or allegorically inconsistent, and to its credit it chooses the latter, but to get there it becomes way too obvious that it shall need to keep every single one of its villains alive, which naturally tends to further water down whatever action-thriller bona fides the film's managed to attain as it's gone along.  It even spells trouble for the comedy, since however far it leans toward comedy it has no choice but to keep the proceedings reasonably straight-faced—frankly, it really only has the one joke anyway, wherein rich untrained idiots attempt to use archaic weapons with "unpredictably" (that is, predictably) bad results—and this means its farce is about as funny as its thriller mechanics are compelling.  That is, only briefly.  And, as it creaks along, filling out its time till it finally reaches its predestined endpoint, it does so inside an aesthetic that was very carefully thought-through and very technically well-realized and which started to wear on my eyes real damn hard by the end: it begins with a sort of antispetic lacquered sheen to the cinematography during the wedding scenes, but it decomposes rapidly into nasty stains as we enter our nighttime festitives, every interior of the mansion getting pushed so far into a visual representation of corruption and rot that the film starts bleeding orange and green.  It's actually really neat, for a few minutes.  Though in this respect, I suppose it is nice when form matches function.  Oh well: that ending sure as hell goes for it, at the very least.

Score: 5/10

And now here's Sophia Takal's Black Christmas, which I kind of wish I'd watched before Knives Out or Ready or Not, since it sets a new and subterranean bar for Jordan Peele's accidental contribution to our cinema, the thriller built around a sociological lecture, a genre I think that he's been the only person so far to get right.  Because as didactic as those other two films can be about the messages they bear, Black Christmas really is something else entirely.  The real horror is that this is still maybe the best thing about it.

I had some mild hopes for the thing, to be clear: it takes on one of the slasher form's most venerable brand names—it is a remake of Bob Clark's 1974 icebreaker, and follows in the footsteps of Glen Morgan's setting-and-name-only 2006 remake, styled Black X-Mas—and one of the things I really do love about the Black Christmas "franchise" is the way it has manifested its legend as a generational horror event, first inaugurating the slasher subgenre and inspiring the first consciously-designed dead teenager film, Halloween, then in its next installment positioning itself as the most abrasively gonzo slasher remake of the whole abrasively gonzo slasher remake wave.  Now, it refashions itself as a hyper-woke fable to give comfort in this time of troubles.  Honestly, that should've worked out great.  Maybe none of these movies are, themselves, too terribly great: Black Christmas '74 is not really any all-time classic, even if I greatly enjoy its offering of a well-observed and humane study of a believable college community riven by violence and misogyny; and while I still contend that if you approach it with the correct mindset Black X-mas is one of the better slashers ever made, for the simple reason that it is—quite objectively—one of the most slashers ever made, it is widely despised for the absurdity of its gloriously gaudy excess, to the point that I am quite literally the only person I know who even likes it.

So you can see what I mean when I say that Black Christmas '19 did not have to do all that much to do justice to its lineage, except be nothing more nor less than a robust slasher film set in and around a sorority at Christmastime.  The hell of it is that it can't.  It abandons the observation and humanity of the '74 film.  It explicitly never even had the excess of the '06 film in mind, and I half-wonder if Takal and co-writer April Wolfe ever saw it, but then, that's mostly in the same way that I half-wonder if they've ever seen any slasher film.  (I more than half-wonder if they've ever liked one.)  And, in addition to its other sins, it's not even all that Christmassy outside of its opening stalking scene, and that's, like, the gimme with this franchise.

It does manage the sorority: Black Christmas '19 takes on the tale of the MKE sisters of Hawthorne College, especially Riley Stone (Imogen Poots, making 2019 her year of message movies about toxic masculinity, even if only one of them was good).  Riley has had a hard time of it, having suffered a rape by one of the brothers of the AKO house her freshman year and having spent the long interim trying to be as invisible as possible on campus.  This stasis ends, however, when she's roped into a plan to publicly shame the AKO house by fellow Mu girl Kris (Aleyse Shannon), the activist of the house and the only other one with a smidgen of personality, whom I have sometimes seen referred to as a parodic figure, though the film offers no evidence that this was in any way intentional.  Presented as a fun/fun? holiday revue (okay, there are two Christmassy things about this movie) for the boys, the sorority's Mean Girlsesque performance of a bawdy Christmas carol rapidly evolves into a broadside of accusations about AKO in general and Riley's rapist in particular; Kris even had it recorded, and, inevitably, it goes viral, more-or-less running roughshod over Riley's trauma for Kris's cause (there is an important conversation about how/whether/when victims ought to be pushed to come forward for the sake of other potential victims, and the last place on God's green Earth that ought to host this conversation is this version of Black Christmas, but the damnable thing is it doesn't even realize it's brought it up).  The upshot of all this drama is that this brings Riley and her sorority to the attention of the cloaked cult of sex murderers that we already met in the prologue, though it's never remotely clear that it made them targets, or just made them priority targets.

It is, in any event, about the last time Black Christmas '19 is really interesting, in that in these moments it operates in a world of strange cultural tension, between young adult feminists interested in reclaiming their agency and soaked in the rhetoric of our age but still entwined with a Greek system that devalues them.  (One of things that becomes a problem with the movie could have been a strength: for better or worse—I think it's mostly better—loudly espousing their belief systems really is how young people talk in 2019, though it does not necessarily mean that, were you to translate this to film, that they must therefore become the one-note characters of a PSA crossed with the no-note characters of a bad sitcom.)  It turns out this was an accident, anyway, probably borne of the film not really knowing how things work, starting with "college" (the only classroom scene in the whole picture seems to be litigating first day arguments about the cultural canon at the end of December and nary an exam is mentioned), moving onto "sororities" (Takal is a graduate of Barnard and was a matriculant at Vassar, and she has largely transplanted the left-leaning cultures of those small liberal arts colleges into the unforgiving soil of a lesser Ivy), and continuing ever forward with "Diva cups" (I have it on good authority that the joke/joke? trotted out regarding a borrowed menstrual cup shoved up a vagina with one's pants still on in one savage motion verges on a genuine magic trick, plus she basically asked to borrow forty bucks, and by "borrow" she likely meant "have").  The sloppiness and general failure to establish a watertight seal attends to the storytelling throughout—I'm half-certain the tension I observed was simply the result of not letting the audience in on what was happening, and there's a lot of wild swings of motivation and temperament that can be vaguely explained, but only vaguely—and it culminates in a crazed leap of logic involving the supernatural that it's hard to imagine came from anywhere but a place of slashers-sure-are-stupid contempt during the screenwriting process.

But, on that count, I can't responsibly argue that many good slashers aren't stupid, and aren't full of lousy characters and storytelling, so what flatlines Black Christmas?  Partly it's just that it's messier than even a slasher can get away with, and without the compensations of accidental humor or gutsy aesthetics.  Mostly it's that it is not, in any functional sense, actually a slasher film.  It's a piece of social horror belched out of Blumhouse with barely any budget and even less pre-production, almost explicitly in response to Jason Blum's ill-advised and stupid comment that female directors don't like horror and plausibly shaped to prove his dumb point, landing on Friday the 13th halfway through last December with a baffling PG-13 rating and one of the most palpable absences of excitement for any major release in 2019.  (I was left alone with my spouse—a Smith alumna who, not even counter-intuitively, dislikes this movie even more than I do—after the only other people walked out ten minutes in.  It hadn't even gotten to the bad parts yet.)  Of course, it's almost impossible to live up to the slasher form in any meaningful way under the strictures of a PG-13 rating, and there's scarcely any point to the exercise even in the presence of some really impressive craft, and craft is a thing that is intermittently, if ever, actually offered here.  At best, Takal and cinematographer Mark Schwartzbard serve up some solid compositions of the source of the supernatural evil underlining their slasher shenanigans bearing down on poor Riley; whereas, at best, Takal and editor Jeff Betancourt glue shots together in ways that don't represent some of the most dysfunctional editing of a wide-release movie in 2019.  I truly adore a reaction shot of the back of Imogen Poots' fucking head, though nothing here is more inept than its hacked-apart kill scenes, most of which are filmed and cut like they were a chore.  Maybe I'm not giving Takal sufficient credit; the menstrual cup bit is a pretty good synecdoche for the whole affair.  No free bleeding here.

At last, Black Christmas does arrive at something potentially invigorating (even genuinely horrific) in its final movement, a slasher film body count scaled up to an act of apocalyptic domestic terrorism, flirting with the specter of a gynocide wreaked across a whole college campus.  It turns out it was just the neighbors or something, targeted for whatever, and this moment was engineered solely to present some trailer-ready shots of women banding together against a brutal fraternity in a battle royale that might as well have been scored to "Ballroom Blitz," for all the gravity Takal manages to convey with a climax revolving around strangers in pyjamas brawling with other strangers in robes.  The most infamous thing about this movie, shold anything about it be infamous at all—and I think we progressives were truly lucky that it failed to make any impression whatsoever, even a negative one—Takal claimed in interviews that the PG-13 was her creative decision, calculated to introduce young girls to a world of horror.  Besides the basic condescension inherent to that position, and the misunderstanding it represents about the genre she chose to work in, I cannot imagine anything more damaging and dangerous for women filmmakers in horror than the idea that women's horror must, for the good of women, be rendered lame.

Score: 3/10


  1. I hope I can be forgiven for having Knives Out and Ready or Not on my top 10 list, but in my defense everything else sucked worse.

    1. For the record, I don't enjoy being a disagreeable crank, I just am.