There is no easy entry point for those fascinated by the world Yorgos Lanthimos creates in “Dogtooth,” but the impenetrable nature of the material burns through our curiosity like a hot knife cutting through margarine. Here is where the very heart of the director’s well-known panache for elaborate absurdism drew its first beat, in a story of a family so far removed from the civilized world that they could very well be existing on a sound stage. Sometimes that even seems like a legitimate possibility, particularly as we attempt to pigeonhole the plot details through our knowledge of film convention; there are scenes modulated as if they are hinting at something grandiose, like a great reveal just waiting to be uncovered. Our mistake, and therefore his asset, is assuming this all leads to some sort of payoff. This is a movie that demands us to simply observe, contemplate and react without riding any of the traditional waves. There are no reveals, no sudden twists of fate beckoning us on towards a detail highlighting the literal context. And to show any patience with whatever endurance test drives these characters, we are asked to accept them not as fully realized people roused by curiosity, but as experiments comfortable with their cultural isolation.
Vampires rarely require the companionship of fearless dupes to function as predators, but it certainly changes up the monotony of an exhausting routine. Luckily for one featured in “Twilight,” he makes the company of a teenage girl who audaciously regards him as an equal. Maybe that’s part of what cripples the movie surrounding them: it misconstrues the dynamic that is otherwise fundamental. These are not unions established by conflicted beasts and ambivalent humans, but by souls who find that their alienation is one helluva common interest to flirt over. Sometimes, they even share in the same sense of hormonal desire – hers new and emerging, his apparently immune to hundreds of years of undeath. They circle around the point until there is no way to avoid the inevitable: their awkward exchanges and forceful outbursts are a mechanism standing in for eventual foreplay. That might have worked in a film that had any sense of what characters were about beyond their need to touch the forbidden, but like most great psychological lessons in the hands of novices, this is a story far more interested in dancing to rhythms than understanding melody.
When a novice filmmaker exceeds the restrictions of a formula, he proves he may have a talent. When he unsuccessfully attempts the challenge a second time, one wonders if that talent may have just been dumb luck. That becomes the point of consideration throughout the course of “Hell House LLC 2: The Abaddon Hotel,” a sequel that has more questionable distinctions than just a convoluted title. The contrast is made more obvious by how young Stephen Cognetti contradicts the simplicity of his first endeavor, a film that, you may recall, used no CGI and generated monumental scares from camera angles, editing tricks and convincing performances. By most estimations it was a terrific little movie that harbored all the necessities of quality horror. But now he and a new cast of unknowns has been overtaken by the need to stuff a follow-up with laborious explanations, one-note acting, countless subplots involving paranormal experts and one-off viral sensations, confusing shifts between timelines and a final reveal that destroys whatever mystique is left in the premise. If our first trip through the notorious Hell House was wrought with thrilling dangers, here is a reminder that going back is rarely worth the price of admission.
The story goes, as it must, through the grinder of utterly dependable formula: a terrible and inexplicable event occurs to people, and years later the footage of the victims winds up in the hands of mystified onlookers. This is the initial pitch made by “Hell House, LLC,” yet another entry into the “found footage” division of horror films, where the accounts of would-be victims are well-documented by the cameras they hold. This time, the prey has abandoned notions of searching for vengeful witches or spiritual hauntings and have come to, basically, document something less ominous – that is, putting together a local Halloween attraction in Abaddon, New York. Unbeknownst to them, alas, the abandoned hotel that comes to be the site of their frightful venture is more than just dark rooms filled with strange noises and creaking floorboards. It seems to permeate some sort of threatening energy. Sometimes, the viewing lens will even spy this possibility – shadows in corners, symbols etched on the basement walls, figures moving through doorways, and Halloween props that move entirely on their own. Did they bring some sore of malevolence in there with them, or was it always there, lying dormant? Some wisely suggest leaving behind the project, but one stubborn proprietor refuses, leading to a chaotic and frightening opening night in which 15 people pay with their lives, including most of the original managers.
In Hollywood’s second year as a force of dissent in the climate of Trumpism, no greater achievement resonated with the public more than “Black Panther.” Against all forecasts and most common trends it was a movie that broke the barriers of its genre, becoming the first film featuring a significant cast of black actors to cross the billion-dollar threshold. In a time when there is more demand for the representation of minorities in studio output, this was comforting: it meant that the mainstream element was, at long last, reflecting the diversity of modern American society, and doing so while sneering gleefully at traditionalists still pining for more of the same. Those were the sorts who nursed their cynicism into indignity, particularly as their more favored choices – violent action vehicles and remakes – often stalled at a box office overrun with the audacity of inclusion.
Somewhere in the elegance and luxury of 18th century England, Yorgos Lanthimos has uncovered a grotesque social underbelly. It exists not in the villages of the poverty-stricken or the back alleys of seedy tradesmen, but in the very corridors that surround Queen Anne, who has taken ill and depends on the council of devoted servants that are intoxicated by their own prestige. In many cases, they also seem destined to break all notions of social code, and there is a scene early on that exemplifies this: Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), the queen’s closest consort, exchanges barbs with Harley (Nicholas Hoult) about the trajectory of war with France. He is opposed to it, but her venomous gaze seems to revel in his protest. Is she doing it because she believes in approving excessively high land taxes, or is she getting off on her own grip of the power hammer? What makes that scene, and so many others, so utterly biting is how the characters treat the concept of speech. It is a weapon against influence, not a bridge to understanding it. And for two hours we pause and watch as public formalities spill over into private sessions filled with scheming and cruelty, as if destinies are written from the blood and tears of the betrayed. At some point a background figure among them proves to be the most menacing of all: someone who will come to play at the table like a pupil silently undermining its teacher, even if it may be at the cost of more than just mere loyalties.
Did the characters of “Home Alone” survive the ordeal of the original film, or could they have slipped into an alternate timeline before cameras showed up for the sequel? This is one of many questions worth mulling over as the events of “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York” play out in all their absurd glory, right down to a shameless and patronizing third act, which even contains a scene where young Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) tries to lecture a homeless woman on living in fear of a broken heart. Where does he get the nerve? Perhaps he was empowered by enduring through the climax of the first film, where he outsmarted two burglars with comic savagery. Maybe surviving alone, stranded from his family, gave him pause to recognize his own fierce independence. Maybe being on the streets of Manhattan have hardened his edge. Or most likely he has just become the victim of writing that has lost its grip on any form of tangible reality. This is not a hard possibility to assume, after all, particularly when you consider everything that leads to that point. Here is a film where the adults lack common logic, parents are deluded to think they have a shred of credibility, and situations are contrived for the purpose of a cartoonish agenda that moves from one ridiculous moment to the next without any substantial point. Whatever merits we attach to the first film in this series, they are all but abandoned somewhere in the mess of a follow-up.
For some well-versed in the unremorseful extremism of Lars von Trier’s films, “The House That Jack Built” will play like business as usual. Others still may observe it as an exercise in arrogance and perversion, well exceeding the necessities of its premise. Both perspectives skirt the more devious intention lurking beneath. Sure, this is a film that walks, talks and personifies the idea of what a serial killer must be – right down to the rigid and perceptive way he uses his victims as set pieces in an elaborate show of self-proclaimed artistry – but beneath those disturbing exteriors is a critical essay about how a filmmaker with cynical worldviews sees himself in a reality that tries desperately to stifle his chaotic creations. To him, Jack is a self-projection, and his victims the willing cattle of a slaughter they seem subconsciously willing to submit to. Most important directors at some point in their career will create these sorts of on-screen avatars to symbolize their ideology, usually for the sake of revealing themselves to an audience caught up in misconceptions. Von Trier’s distinction comes from less generous conceits: he relishes this chance to play on your aesthetic limits and doesn’t care how you will respond.
A cheery outlaw kicks back in the saddle of a wandering horse while singing a whimsical melody. A foreboding figure enters a bank, attempts to rob it, and is thrust into a series of repeating encounters with a hangman’s noose. A crippled orator with exemplary memory skills is peddled across the frontier by an impresario with dark ulterior motives. An old man, seeking fortune, sets up camp in a beautiful valley to discover its great secrets, even though it may be at the cost of his safety. Siblings join the Oregon trail with monetary agendas, only to be thwarted by disease and unlikely circumstances. And a carriage carrying five strangers wanders through the desolate hills before diverting them, quite literally, into the middle of an existential crisis. Somehow, someway, all these narrative threads matter enough to the Coen brothers to make up the six stories of “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” an anthology that claims to be about the varying sorts of personalities populating the Old West. But I suspect the agenda runs deeper for them than that. And as I sat and observed their yarns, dumbfounded by some and enthralled by others, I looked beyond the zealous wonder of their film to sense a transcendent undertow, as if they were summarizing the entirety of their careers in episodes that each play like the different ideals they carry in an aesthetic arsenal.
The premise of “A Star is Born” began life as an ode to the conflicting values of celebrity, where newfound stardom depended on incidental discoveries while veterans were being eroded by destructive behaviors. Then came the prospect of remakes, beginning in 1954 with Judy Garland and James Mason, where those notions began wearing the mask of more elaborate Hollywood polish; through the embellishment the core thesis was diverted into the sort of song and dance you see in cheerful studio musicals. By the time it arrived at the doorsteps of Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand for their 1976 adaptation, there was little point in pretending there was a deep meaning left in the material – now they were vanity projects masquerading as star vehicles, where the changing reputations of its characters played second fiddle to a foreground knee-deep in showmanship. All the same, the show was rousing enough to drive ticket sales, and the third “Star” film was the number two box office success of its year (bested only by the original “Rocky”). Some good came of the Streisand version, admittedly, because her dedication to performance held captive the awe of onlookers. And there is a good deal of that sort of merit in this fourth version of the story, too, starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga as songwriters who meet, collaborate and fall in love before retreading to that all-too-familiar formula. But it is formula all the same, and one I have little patience for. And like its predecessors there’s only so far any aspiring filmmaker can take this rather basic setup.
Some realities are a given without being vocalized. To explain what otherwise ought to be common is to unravel the momentum of a good observer. Think of Dr. Seuss’ immortal yarn about the Grinch, for instance. Was it ever in doubt to the average reader – even a novice one – that the villainous ways of the furry green disruptor were not sourced from an internal trauma? Or that his envy, his thorough dislike of the holiday, could not be understood unless it involved some form of relentless exposition? Our youthful minds simply accepted his agenda for what it was: a gloomy impulse to cloak a fear lurking beneath a gruff exterior. Any doubts were clarified, quite literally, with a climax that broke away his cynicism. That’s because Seuss knew the power of the young mind well enough to not insult it with the burden of excess. But now his beloved creation comes to the hands of filmmakers who have lost sight of the nuance, the shrewd irony, of one of the great holiday lessons. “The Grinch,” a new CGI cartoon that adds a fair amount of insights, is the concoction of overpaid simpletons who have opted for a more literal subtext and undermined the very spirit of the source in the process.
There is not a single moment contained in “Hunter Killer” that would negate our skepticism of an obvious political thriller formula. Assembled across 122 minutes of dialogue and action are the faces of actors frozen in conventional suspicion, overly insistent dialogue, shallow retorts, narrow escapes, elaborate shootouts, 11th-hour rescues, and villainous forces exercising their egos in military board rooms while large screens in the backdrop seem to flash frenetic warnings. That most of the plot takes place aboard a submarine sneaking through enemy waters is hardly a stretch of imagination, either, and even when there is a moment where something distinctive might transpire – in this case, during an exchange where Russian survivors must choose to cooperate with Americans, their sworn enemies – the plot retreads safely back to the confines of a safe resolution. When you combine the elements, what you get is, in essence, a retread of the underlying idea of “The Hunt for Red October.” And yet I sat there, in full consideration of these prospects, and realized I was having a far better time than I ought to have.
For a solid third of its running time, “Venom” keeps pace with a premise that has almost ingenious ramifications. The hook comes when Eddie Brock, a San Francisco journalist regarded for his activist approach against corrupt corporate entities, is thrust into a situation that exposes him to an alien parasite, and they bond – both anatomically and intellectually – while outrunning hitmen hired by a local capitalist. Immediately the mind is filled with all the obligatory curiosities: how does the alien “symbiote,” a shapeless heap of goo, manage to communicate with its host in its native language? Why is it more ideal for it to use him rather than any number of other potential hosts to achieve its agenda? Does he have any weaknesses, or is he basically an object of chaos without limitation? Any basic knowledge of science will instantly supply plausible enough answers to negate the skepticism, and we watch admiringly as two personalities banter with one another like peers engaged in a war of sarcasm. But then their union is thrust into a series of action sequences that are shot like senseless riots; while this “Venom” is rushing through the busy streets trying to outrun a wave of gunmen, the photography whooshes frantically without stability, blurring the details until we can barely register what has transpired. What use is there, ultimately, in spending time with a fascinating anomaly like this if the mere notion of his physical ability is undermined by an image that knows nothing of pace?
Ron Stallworth never perceived himself as having a “white voice,” but something about its candid inflection transcended the stereotype of black men speaking in the “jive” style of the early 70s. Spike Lee emphasizes this with unassuming assurance in the early scenes of “BlacKkKlansman,” showing us a man who is anchored by no particular sense of manner or distinction; he is simply an everyman seeking a place in the world, without much regard to whether he might be crippled or undermined by his ethnic background. Others are consciously aware of his presence, primarily, by the conditioning of their upbringing, but that’s of little surprise; he may be one of the only African Americans in a backwards Colorado town to ever walk into a police headquarters seeking a career in law enforcement. Some will come to regard him favorably after his capabilities are made known, while others will use their ignorance to blind them to his accomplishments. And though the film will tell the story of a man whose skill allowed him to successfully infiltrate the top ranks of the Ku Klux Klan, this is primarily about how injustice rebounds like an unpredictable pendulum, especially when it is controlled by men living in arrogance of their own privilege.
The young hero of “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” is one of the more unfortunate examples of the literary trap we now know as young adult pathos. He adopts a trend that can be described as such: if you’re a prepubescent eccentric who engages better with daydreams then actual people, it’s inevitable for the story to make you the victim of immense grief before dropping you into a life-threatening adventure. And in the tradition of the displaced orphans of “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” poor Lewis Barnavelt arrives at the opening of the tale not eager or excited by what he is about to experience, but crippled by the horrific knowledge that his parents recently died and left him in the custody of a virtual stranger. How can he possible be roused to enthusiasm, then, by the strange and ambitious whimsy going about all around him? Are the likes of an eccentric uncle played by Jack Black and a female accomplice played by Cate Blanchet enough to undermine his sorrow? Or is the pain under the surface the sort that negates all the wonder and joy that ought to come with the discovery? A straight document of these events might contrast the of the scenario with the psychological disconnect of the characters, but what fun would that be when a world of magic possibilities is just waiting to be unleashed?