ghoul

ghoulGhoul, the new three-episode miniseries from Netflix, generates its chills with a blend of tried-and-true tropes borrowed from multiple well-known films and a dash of modern dystopia. While the derivative nature of the scares is a downside, Ghoul political dimension provides a different layer of darkness. Overall the film is a predictable but effectively-done horror movie, with an engaging cast and plenty of well-placed gore.

“False sense of patriotism that seems to be spreading through the country.”

Ghoul unfolds in a near-future India that has fallen into fascism, with secret prisons, brutal re-education, enforced political orthodoxy, and questions of how religion impacts patriotism.

The story centers on Nida, a young Muslim woman training to be a government interrogator. Her father refuses to toe the political line. She turns him in, choosing patriotism over faith and family. Soon after, she finds herself assigned to a secret interrogation center where the arrival of a dangerous new prisoner sends the whole command structure spiralling into chaos and death.

Nida is played with great sincerity by Radhika Apte. S. M. Zaheer is her stubborn, seditious father. Manav Kaul is sympathetic as the drunk and troubled Colonel Sunil Dacunha, the man in charge of the prison. Ratnabali Bhattacharjee’s Lieutenant Laxmi Das is convincingly twisted as Dacunha’s duplicitous second in command. And Mahesh Balraj brings a creepy stoicism to the monstrous terrorist Ali Saeed.

“The ghoul shows as the reflection of our guilt.”

ghoulAnyone who watches horror movies will recognize plenty of familiar tropes. But an old story told well is still worth watching. And I think Ghoul tells its old story well.

The film is atmospheric, with a haunted house vibe that uses the desperation of The Blair Witch Project, the industrial oppression of Alien, and the paranoia of The Thing among its many inspirations.

Visually, the decrepit prison setting where Ghoul happens is also very familiar. Built as a bunker against nuclear attack, the site is of course not in any official records. But the film adds a few extra details that ramp up the totalitarian mood. Black-painted windows disguise night and day. Exterior shots of brutalist architecture reinforce the heavy-handed repression at work in this society. The incessant rainfall outside the massive buildings produces its own claustrophobia.  Everything is bleak, dull, and colorless, except for the stunning splashes of red when the monster is revealed.

And the reveal comes quickly. Unlike the graveyard-dwelling, corpse-eating demon of pre-Islamic folklore, the ghoul in Ghoul is a demon of vengeance summoned in retribution. It takes the form of the last person whose flesh it ate, but here it teases out confessions of guilt before it attacks.

“Finish the task, reveal their guilt, eat their flesh”

ghoulGhoul is written and directed by Patrick Graham with inconsistent levels of subtlety. The dialogue is at times very formal and stagey, with power struggles and plot turns telegraphed far in advance. The plotting is slow, grim, and pointed. Terrorism and political orthodoxy are major themes, as is suspicion of any display of faith. If there was any doubt about the point Graham was aiming at, the pile of pulled gold teeth and a crematorium should remove it. The three episodes could have easily been trimmed to two hours. The padding betrays its origins as an intended feature film.

It is still creepy as hell. The slowness, the obvious references, even the predictability of events do not diminish the skill of the cast and the strength and style of the storytelling. Ghoul may not break any new ground, but it is a solid reminder of why stories like it continues to be retold.

evolution

evolutionThe odd and resonant Evolution is a beautiful and seductive slice of art-house horror. Written and directed by Lucile Hadžihalilović, the French-language film circles around its central mysteries without addressing them directly. Its elusive nature is one of its greatest strengths. Evolution left me wondering what the rest of the story could be, but it was satisfying all the same.

***

Evolution is told through the point of view of Nicolas, one of several young boys being raised on a barren, rocky island. The island is populated solely by the boys and their respective mothers, and the nurses and single doctor of the island’s clinic. The boys all resemble each other, as do the mothers, as do the nurses. Their lives are a monotony of the mothers taking the boys to the sea, washing them, dressing them, feeding them, medicating them. At intervals the boys are brought to the clinic. While the boys are allowed to play they are not permitted to swim.

But Nicolas does swim, one day, and sees what he believes is a boy’s body tangled among the rocks far beneath the surface. His mother brushes Nicolas’s story away as imagination after she investigates. But her denial only raises Nicolas’s suspicions, and he begins to doubt what he has been told. His experiences at the clinic deepen his misgivings about what is happening to him and the other boys. A sympathetic nurse reveals some of the secrets of the island’s inhabitants, allowing Nicolas to recognize that his mother has been lying to him all along.

***
evolution
Nicolas, Mother, and Stella

The cast is tiny, with the focus almost entirely on only three actors. Their restrained performances carry the film easily. Max Brebant is fascinating as the main character, Nicolas–a strange, impassive child who conveys emotion with blinks and sharp intakes of breath. Julie-Marie Parmentier plays the character known only as Mother with the kind of cool, dutiful, detached affection reserved for other people’s pets. And Roxane Duran portrays the kind nurse, Stella, who actually does love Nicolas–although we can only speculate why.

***

Evolution is also an incredibly subtle film, and watching it is like watching a dream unfold. The dry landscape of the island is grey and stark, while the world beneath the sea is rich with color and life. The film moves slowly, and with a finely-controlled sense of what will be left unknown. There are lingering scenes of the ocean, closeups of the characters’ pale faces, repeated, ritualized scenes of the children’s daily routines and of the women taking lanterns to visit the sea at night. The susurrus of the sea, the crunch of feet on sand and gravel, and the murmur of soft voices make up the soundtrack, with only the barest synthetic tones added to certain scenes.

evolution
The clinic

But the film is also ripe with nightmare images. There are shelves full of malformed fetuses preserved in jars. The dim and decayed hospital where the boys waste away drips with water and sagging paint. Food is grey and muddy, and looks as if it is filled with worms.  Even blood takes on a greenish tone when it is spilled.

And the distortion of reproductive roles creates powerful discomfort. There is the bizarre birth ritual enacted by the mothers, the rapt faces of the nurses as they watch and rewatch a film of a caesarian section being performed, the experiments on the boys that echo the way male seahorses carry their young. The intimate interactions between the boys and the women around them are not exactly sexual but are still deeply uncomfortable to watch.

***

Evolution haunts me as a blend of folklore, fairy tale, and exquisite body horror. At first glance it seems a superficial story, but Nicolas’s naivete underscores how much more to this film lies below the surface. This is not a case of an underdeveloped plot stretched to movie length. Evolution is instead a rich, convoluted tale which we can only glimpse through the eyes of someone who is unaware of the bigger picture. It is artful, and disturbing, and quietly horrifying. I highly recommend it.

Ant Man and The Wasp

Ant Man and The WaspAnt Man and The Wasp is very much like its predecessor–a lightweight, likeable Marvel Universe flick that is still essentially a throw-away. It has the same cast as the first movie, the same tricks, and a little bit of story arc for an audience to invest in. Ant Man and The Wasp does introduce some potentially interesting new characters, but it is ultimately an exercise in getting from the first Ant Man to whichever Marvel blockbuster Scott Lang is meant to show up in next.

Some Minor Spoilers Ahead

The usual suspects are all back.  Paul Rudd is still charming as Ant Man, but he isn’t allowed to be as warm and funny as he was in the first movie. More emphasis is placed on his dad skills this time around. Evangeline Lilly continues to be intense and hyper-competent as Hope, while Michael Douglas continues to be snarky and arrogant as Hank Pym.

Michelle Pfeiffer joins the cast as Janet van Dyne, in a role so predictable I wonder why she did it. We also get Laurence Fishburne as Bill Foster, an old frenemy of Hank Pym from their SHIELD days, and Hannah John-Kamen as Ghost/Ava. I truly hope she gets her own movie someday. The perfunctory overview of her origins and her relationship with Foster raised a whole lot of questions I would like to see answered.

Despite the star power of the main characters, the secondaries are the real interesting ones. Michael Peña’s Luis owns every scene he is in. Randall Park is great as the awkward FBI agent Jimmy Woo, while Walton Goggins is cheerfully sleazy as black marketeer Sonny Burch. Unfortunately, T.I., David Dastmalchian, and Bobby Cannavale were given far less to do than in the first Antman–and the film suffers for it.

Stay On Target!

Overall, it’s a strange mix of too little and too much.

The plot comes across to me as flat and perfunctory, with the characters moving through the script without truly believing any of it. The action is solidly done but meaningless, since only some of the characters rise enough above caricature to make it worth caring about their outcomes. Which is a shame, because the cast is certainly capable.

Piling on that weak foundation are too many problems for any one of them to really matter. We are presented with a dangerous new antagonist in Ghost, a quest to bring the original Wasp out of the quantum realm where she has been trapped for the last thirty years, a persistent probation officer, and a wanna-be crime lord looking to steal Hank Pym’s discoveries. In between all that, our hero is doing his best to be a good dad to his daughter, despite being an ex-con superhero currently riding out house arrest.

The incredible shrinking quantum lab is pretty neat, as is giant Ant Man wading into the harbor to retrieve it. Scott Lang’s suit issues are an effective running gag, and the giant ant hanging out in Scott’s apartment is good silly fun. But the fun stuff isn’t enough to lift Ant Man and The Wasp above its issues.

What Bugs Me

I wanted to like Ant Man and The Wasp. I like the actors, I like the characters, I like the gimmicks. But the whole film ended up being less than the sum of its parts. Once again, Marvel puts Ant Man into a cotton-candy movie that is fun while it lasts but no longer–and, this time, less entertaining than it should have been.

they remain

 

they remain
Is this really happening?

They Remain is an unusual horror movie in that it is not actually horrific. Instead it is creepy, and quiet, and very, very weird. Considering it’s source material is Laird Barron’s short story “–30–”, I’d be disappointed if it weren’t.  This is a slow, meandering movie that seems to exist outside of time. Rather than a story of otherworldly monsters and rites, They Remain gives us barely any story at all. What we witness instead is the slow decay of two people left alone for too long.

The Plot Thickens

Two scientists have been assigned to search for…something…in an area deep in woodlands where a murderous cult was once active. Rebecca Henderson as Jessica is a cool and methodical biologist, while William Jackson Harper as Keith is a more wary and guarded field researcher . They have been sent into the wilds by their unnamed company on a three month-long mission. What they are hoping to find is never made clear, although it is tied to the cult’s decades-old activities.

The cult’s murders were investigated decades earlier, but Jessica hints that much of what they did is still unknown. Their limited outside contact taunts them with rumors of other terrible things that have happened in these woods more recently. They find evidence that terrible things may have been going on here for centuries. Nothing is definite. All their tests and data cannot confirm anything. They run experiments, but their findings lead nowhere.

they remain
Bad choices

As the days drag on the scientists’ sense of isolation becomes suggestive and overpowering. Keith and Jessica begin to feed each other’s suspicions and fears. They see things, hear, things, dream things that cannot be rationally explained. They come to believe what they see, hear, and dream–but are their perceptions flashbacks or hallucinations?

Finally, after watching the characters degrade under the weight of uncertainty, They Remain explodes in violence and a terrible sense of having made the wrong choices. It is a disturbing note to end on–there are no explanations, let alone answers. We, and the characters, are as lost as when we started.

How? What? Why?
they remain
The nature of things

They Remain is beautiful to look at. Much of the running time is filled with close shots of the sky and trees and mossy, fallen trunks, and of Keith staring into the distance as he sits alone in the forest. The events take place from September to November, so we get to watch the leaves turn.

The connected white geodomes Keith and Jessica live and work in  stand in sterile contrast to the otherwise natural setting. But bits of the natural world also turn up out of place, from wasps and swarming ants to flowers suddenly blooming. The sense of vague but growing unease is deepened with dreamy, slightly discordant background music and clipped, brittle, sometimes overly formal dialogue. The effect is one of distance. Everything is presented at a remove. We are not allowed to connect with the characters or their experiences. If they reach any conclusions, we are not privy to them.

What Remains

They Remain is undeniably offbeat, and off putting. The bleak mood it produces reminds me very much of Event Horizon, but without the grandeur or horror elements. Slowly growing madness and obscure cosmic influences are not easy to portray on film,  but I think writer/director Philip Gelatt’s decision to keep the plot, cast, and effects to a minimum for the most part succeeds. In the end I enjoyed it, and am still thinking about it, but I can’t say I liked it. They Remain is not a great movie, but a good enough one–the kind you watch simply to be weirded out.

cargo

 

cargo
Into the unknown

Cargo begins with so much potential. A zombie plague. A family struggling to survive. The wilds of rural Australia. A top-notch cast to bring it to life. It packs a real emotional punch inside a small story. And then…it loses momentum and falls back on several common stereotypes and sentiment to fill in the gaps. Cargo is a good movie, but it should have been better.

Some small spoilers ahead

Set in an Australia ravaged by a zombie-creating virus, Andy, Kay, and their infant daughter Rosie, are struggling to find a safe haven from the end of the world. When Kay is attacked and infected they must change their plans to get her help. But she turns, attacks, and infects Andy before they find any, and he is left alone to save Rosie before he also turns into the undead.

cargo
Family is where you find it

Martin Freeman is his sincere, exceptional self as Andy, a man out of his element and trying to keep his family alive. Suzie Porter is a great match as his wife Kay, strong and determined and brave in the face of inevitable disaster. And newcomer Simone Landers is completely convincing as Thoomi, the young Aboriginal girl trying desperately to save her own father before she joins up with Andy and Rosie.

The small cast is filled out by Bruce R. Carter and Natasha Wanganeen as Thoomi’s parents, and David Gulpilil as the tribal elder Daku–the Clever Man. Kris McQuade, Anthony Hayes and Caren Pistorius are other struggling survivors.

Cargo is all about family

Cargo is not actually scary–the effect it produces is more unsettling and sad, with some very striking monster reveals. But as an addition to the already-loaded zombie genre it works, and works pretty well.

Some of the strongest scenes in the movie are the early ones between Andy and his wife, as they struggle to make increasingly urgent life and death decisions, first as healthy humans and then as infected pre-zombies. The later development of a family bond between Andy and Thoomi is also surprisingly touching and believable, if at times throwing a heartbreaking amount of emotional weight onto the child.

cargo
Other monsters

Cargo also chooses to touch on major social issues like racism, funding cuts to resources in aboriginal areas, and environmental concerns about fracking. Given the characters involved, it makes sense to be aware of the issues even if they are not dealt with in depth. There is, after all, a zombie apocalypse going on.

However, the other side of acknowledging the issues is turning them into cliched plot devices. The racist, survivalist gas-line worker and the Aborigines shown as noble savages are reduced to stereotypes, and cheapen an otherwise compelling plot.

And another thing…

Unfortunately, with such a small cast and limited focus, Cargo’s 105 minutes prove too long to spend on telling the story. In between genuine character development and forward plot motion, the pacing lags. There are too many long shots of Andy trudging through the outback with his daughter strapped to his back and slow-motion scenes of Aboriginal warriors destroying the undead. While the scenery is beautiful, less of would have been enough.

But there are also some wonderful details.

The government-issue medical kits are a great, grim touch, with their basic fact sheet, wristband timer, mouthguard, cuffs, and spring-loaded spike for ending it all. The variations on the old zombie theme are bizarre and intriguing, with the copious, sticky pus and the need to hibernate in the dark. And the carrot and stick trick is brilliant, if a bit overwrought at the end.

Carrying on

The real strength of Cargo is the intimate drama of it, and the 2013 short Cargo was based on was as tightly put together as anyone could wish. Stretching it to feature length required some padding and diluted the raw power of a man’s determination to save his child. In the end Cargo is a movie that, while beautifully made and touchingly acted, ends up being less than it should be because it thought it needed to be more.

Solo: A Star Wars Story
Solo: A Star Wars Story
Solo: A Star Wars Story

Solo: A Star Wars Story is polished and sleek, a fine demonstration of the well-oiled machine that is Disney. The cast is talented, the effects bright and shiny, the story exciting enough if a little too long. But I think Solo would have been so much better if it weren’t about Han Solo at all.

No new hope, here (just a few spoilers)

Solo is amusing, but it doesn’t offer any substance. It’s just lightweight summer fare–superficial and forgettable. This is no sin for a summer movie, but as an addition to the Star Wars franchise it should offer something more. Solo: A Star Wars Story has nothing to emotionally invest in–and that is the fatal flaw. The core saga gives us characters we can care about–passionately. This second outing into A Star Wars Story-land can put on the trappings but lacks the foundations.

It’s too determined to show us all the references from the original trilogy. While it’s fun to see Han meet Chewie and Lando, the familiar scenes can’t carry the whole movie.

The dialogue is often simplistic and obvious. And yet despite all the exposition, there is no insight into how Han Solo developed into the reluctant hero we know and love. We have only the overemphasized statement that he is a good guy. This shortcut reduces him to a cartoon cowboy and not much else.

This is not the scruffy nerf-herder we’re looking for

Solo largely suffers from the same problems that bothered me in Rogue One–good actors with far too little to work with.  While entertaining in the moment, this is not a movie I will go back to. There is no emotional growth here–Solo’s Han is, was, and always has been. Why should we care about his backstory?

Solo: A Star Wars Story
A new Han

Alden Ehrenreich is the younger Han, and he is genuinely likeable in the role. But he seems to be doing nothing more than a broad imitation of Harrison Ford’s smirk and swagger–and I know Ehrenreich is capable of better. And while young Solo should resemble the older character, it’s really hard to watch Solo: A Star Wars Story and not wish they had just CGI’d in Harrison Ford.

Emilia Clarke is also likeable as Qi’ra, but she fails to convey any heat with Solo or any cold calculation with Dryden Voss. She’s sweet, and we are told she is dangerous. Her threat just doesn’t come through.

Lando Calrissian is a wasted character, for all Donald Glover’s suave moves. But Glover gets points for showing more emotional connection to Lando’s droid, L3, than Han does to Q’ira.

Woody Harrelson’s good-natured performance as Beckett can’t save his character from being a straight-up plot device. It’s particularly galling when Beckett’s death is milked mercilessly to show that Han really is a good person, even when he shoots first.

Paul Bettany as Dryden Voss is probably the most believable actor in the film. Bettany brings a certain convincingly dangerous psychopathy to his crime lord, and is lucky enough to simply be killed in combat. And Thandie Newton’s Val is a brief, pleasant surprise who is also allowed to die with her dignity intact.

So, what’s left?

Solo: A Star Wars Story is ultimately, for me, an empty suit of a film that puts well-known characters through predictable paces with no payoff for either them or a nostalgic audience. Which is a shame.

A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi created many, many lifelong fans. Sixteen years later, the next trilogy introduced another generation of fans to the Star Wars universe. And now we have Episodes VII and VIII, with IX on the horizon, and maybe we should let the current generation become enamored of their trilogy in peace.

So perhaps that’s the deeper meaning of Solo hidden in the gravity well: it’s time to finally let Luke, Leia, Han, and Obi Wan rest, and let the saga continue without constantly looking backward for slick, flashy, and forgettable content fill up space. 

Deadpool 2
What a feelin’
***A Few Spoilers Ahead***

Deadpool 2 is everything the first one was, and more. The violence is even more ridiculously over the top, the profanity so ramped up that even Colossus drops an f-bomb, and the emotional core of the story remains as believable as ever. I laughed. I cried. I laughed and cried at the same time. And I didn’t even have a spike through my head.

The Plot Thickens

Of course Ryan Reynolds is back as our loveable hero, as is Morena Baccarin as his one true love, Vanessa. Brianna Hildebrand returns as Negasonic Teenage Warhead, Stefan Kapacic as Colossus, Leslie Uggams as Blind Al, Karan Soni as Dopinder, and T.J. Miller as Weasel. Joining the party are Josh Brolin (fresh off killing half the universe) as the responsible, world-weary Cable, Zazie Beetz as the super-confident Domino (who’s mutant power is handled with great, casual good cheer), and Julian Dennison as the damaged and dangerous Russell. And in a stroke of inspired hiring, David Leitch (of John Wick and Atomic Blonde) is onboard to direct the mayhem.

Deadpool 2 begins not long after the first film ends, with Wade getting in touch with his maternal side. But that is only the set up. After a horrible personal tragedy sets things in motion, Deadpool embarks on a heartwarming journey to protect Russell, a dangerous fourteen-year-old mutant. But it’s complicated, because Cable shows up to prevent his own horrible personal tragedy by killing the kid before things go too far.

And because that’s not complicated enough, protecting Russell soon involves Deadpool and Weasel assembling a crack team of mutants, dubbed X-Force, so Deadpool can develop as a human being and show his warm, nurturing side. And also kill large numbers of bad guys and blow up lots of cars, trucks, and buildings. Bill Skarsgård shows up as Zeitgeist, Terry Crews as Bedlam, Lewis Tan as Shatterstar, Brad Pitt as Vanisher, and Rob Delaney as Peter. They briefly round out the X-Force before the team becomes more…streamlined.

Some of the Fun Bits
  • There are already three decapitations before the opening titles roll.
  • Shatterstar has green blood. Lots of it.
  • Dopinder aspires to be Kirsten Dunst to Deadpool’s Tom Cruise in the worst Interview With the Vampire analogy possible.
  • Now we all know what a “prison wallet” is, whether we wanted to or not.
  • As Wade promised Blind Al in the first Deadpool, the cure for blindness is indeed next to the stash of cocaine.
  • I think the “when does this happen” question gets answered pretty clearly in the X-Mansion.
  • Deadpool 2 references too many other Marvel superheroes to keep track of, takes more than a few swipes at DC, turns Yentl’s ballad “Papa” into a recurring theme, and in a scene so disturbingly funny I will refer to it only as “the legs”, resurrects Basic Instinct in the most disgusting way imaginable.
So Go See It!

Deadpool 2Deadpool 2 repeats a couple of tricks from the first film with enough of a twist to keep them from being simply trite. It is familiar without being a retread, and while it doesn’t really break any new ground (after the first, how could it without scratching at NC-17?), it manages to be just as remarkable. And in true Marvel fashion, it proclaims loudly that zealotry is bad, family is where you find it, death is temporary, and time travel fixes everything.

Let’s face it: Deadpool 2 is the hero we deserve.

 

Hammer Films
Hammer Films

Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography by Tom Johnson and Deborah Del Vecchio delivers what it promises. First published in 1996, this compendium details every film put out by Hammer studios–165 full length films over forty three years, as well as shorts and television shows. While there are a slew of related titles out there, Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography stands out. The writing is workmanlike and occasionally repetitive as the authors strive to provide a thorough description of each film. But this is a labor of love, honest and earnest and more fun for it.

The House that Hammer Films Built

Following a foreword by the late, great Peter Cushing, and a brief overview of the studio’s history, the authors delve into the real story of Hammer Films. Hammer began turning out movies in 1935, and, except for a pause for World War II, did not stop until the studio folded in 1978. Over the decades they made comedies, dramas, war dramas, and thrillers. But in the fifties and sixties Hammer decided to focus its energies on monsters, space creatures, and supernatural threats to the point where, to this day, Hammer is synonymous with horror.

Hammer is probably best known for reviving the Universal monsters–Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, and the Wolfman–and turning Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing into international stars. These films cemented the studio’s reputation for solid, well-made horror–which, unfortunately, Hammer took too far. Hammer also churned out an interminable number of questionable sequels to their blockbuster monster movies, losing quality and audience interest.

Along with its horror mainstays, Hammer produced a number of iconic entries in the science fiction field. The Quartermass Xperiment, X–The Unknown, and Five Million Years to Earth all stand as classics of fifties alien-invasion movies. Hammer also branched out with a few monsters of their own invention, like The Gorgon, and  Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde. They dabbled in the occult with chillers like The Devil Rides Out, and To the Devil…a Daughter. And they went for jungle adventure and stop motion dinosaurs with She, and One Million Years BC (which is legendary for Raquel Welch’s fur bikini, not the special effects).

The Devil is in the Details

The authors present the films in chronological order, and include any posters, stills, or promotional shots they could get. Each entry contains the release date, length, filming location, producer, director, screenplay author, editor, photography director, and U.K. certificate rating, cast list, any other titles the film may have been released under, and a complete synopsis of the plot. Additional details and anecdotes are sprinkled in, such as the career arc of an actor, quirks with sets or props, or what the country’s mood was when a film was released. The authors also note how well a film was received, and where it fit in Hammer’s general business plan. Although the entries are formulaic, taken as a whole they provide a fascinating glimpse into both the personal and business workings of Hammer studios.

The good, the bad, the groundbreaking, and the ill-conceived are all here, researched with a fan’s affection. There are far slicker, more polished books on Hammer out there, but Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography has so much affection for its subject it should be a staple of any collection. I understand the fondness; Hammer films are what I think of when I hear “old-school horror”, and I’m not alone in that.

So keep your Freddy, Chucky, and Jason. I’ll take The Horror of Dracula any time.

Avengers: Infinity War
Avengers: Infinity War
Infinity War

Let’s face it: Avengers: Infinity War does not need a review. It’s been out for over a week, the fans (and the box office numbers) have spoken, and anyone who has yet to see this juggernaut should already have a pretty good idea of what to expect. So instead I present a few observations for your reading pleasure.

Spoilers ahead.

Disclaimer: I have no investment in canon. I’m not much of comic reader and I have only seen about half of the Marvel Comics Universe movies out there. My concern about Avengers:Infinity War is only that it be internally consistent and consistent with the rest of the MCU.

Oh, and entertaining in a huge, summer-movie way.

And, of course, it is. Mostly.

The Nice Touches

As grand mash-ups go, Avengers:Infinity War keeps things moving. I appreciate how it begins in medias res by assuming the audience already knows who the players are and how they all connect, skipping a too-long recap of everyone’s backstory (I’m looking at you, Justice League). At two and a half hours, pausing for exposition would derail the momentum entirely. The action rarely stops, but the mayhem is interspersed with enough flashes of character development to keep it from being just a CGI slugfest.

Speaking of action, my favorite part of the brutal opening battle is Loki’s scathing curse, “You will never be a god”.

Speaking of character development, I appreciate the completely believable fondness Tony Stark has for Peter Parker, built over time, which makes Spidey’s dissolution doubly awful.

I also appreciate that Thanos is written as a character in his own right, rather than being just a huge computer-generated monster. Josh Brolin does a terrific job of showing the layers to Thanos’s monomania.

The Missed Opportunities

I think the Guardians of the Galaxy are poorly used in Avengers: Infinity War. Not wasted–they are too integral to the plot–but at key points they are reduced from fully developed characters into plot devices.

For instance, I think Gamora’s caving in is out of character. I understand her pain at seeing Nebula being tortured, but her weak attempt to run away when Thanos is about to sacrifice her seems–off. I didn’t buy the big reveal that Thanos loves her as strong enough to override her decision to die to keep the stone out of his grasp.

In a similar fashion, I didn’t buy Nebula simply standing by as Quill wrecks the attempt to take Thanos’s gauntlet away. Yes, she had a very hard day, but the Nebula we have seen up to this point is so laser-focused on taking down Thanos she should have smacked Quill into submission before he could screw things up.

And let’s face it, it’s obvious that the heroes killed in Avengers: Infinity War will be back, since we know the sequel schedule. So while there is some shock value to seeing the good guys die and Thanos getting to watch his sunset, the ending leaves far less of an impact than it promised.

The Random Thoughts

Please, please, please let Pepper Potts be dead. Gwyneth Paltrow is so annoying.

I just have to assume that Doctor Strange decided to turn over the time stone to get to the one of the 14 million possible futures where everything turns out all right.

Why was the Hulk even here? Mark Ruffalo had to have had nothing better to do.

Thor and Rocket are a remarkably good pairing. I would totally watch a spin-off about them.

In the second installment of Avengers: Infinity War, Nebula deserves the kill shot. She has more than earned it.

This plotline may be the last best hope to bring Marvel Zombies to the big screen. Who’s with me?

Agree? Disagree? Think I missed the point entirely? Let me know in the comments.

Under the Shadow, an Iranian horror film released quietly in the U.S. in 2016, is low-key, creepy, and tantalizingly  unresolved. Set in 1980’s Tehran during the Iran-Iraq war, writer-director Babak Anvari’s story of an evil djinn’s grip on a family works largely through the power of suggestion, with a few jump scares thrown in for effective variety.

Under the Shasow
Things fall apart

In Under the Shadow, the tension of life during war-time plays out in the domestic sphere. The film’s primary focus is the rocky relationship between Shideh, portrayed by Narges Rashidi, and her young daughter Dorsa, played by Avin Manshadi. The djinn, if it exists, uses the sharp edges of their personalities to drive them ever further apart.

Neither Shideh nor Dorsa is particularly likeable, but they are thoroughly believable. Shideh is an educated, Westernized woman whose world is slowly sliding back into the dark ages. Already struggling with her mother’s recent death, her inability to return to medical school, and her conflicts with her daughter, she is faced with her husband being sent to the war zone even as the war is approaching their doorstep.

Shideh tries to ignore the seriousness of her deteriorating situation. She clings to the modern privileges of her Jane Fonda workouts and a VCR. She clings to the idea that her home is still safe. She is dismissive of her husband’s concerns, and is frequently annoyed with her daughter. And Dorsa is frequently an annoying child, stubborn, suspicious, and obviously more fond of her father than her mother. With him gone, there is no-one to ease the strain between the mother and daughter.

The idea of evil spirits worms its way into Shideh’s thinking when her daughter’s mute playmate gives the girl a charm to protect her from djinn, evil spirits who travel on the wind and steal away what you love. The thought is reinforced by their landlady’s gossip, prejudices, and superstitions, although Shideh scoffs at such primitive beliefs.

The bomb

But then the strangeness begins, with an unexploded bomb crashing through the roof of their small apartment building and triggering the death of the elderly man living on the top floor. Dorsa becomes convinced that her missing doll–a gift from her father– is in the ruined apartment. She develops a lingering fever that defies treatment. As the other families abandon the building to escape the ever-more-frequent bombings, Shideh uses the excuse of her daughter’s illness to remain behind, alone. She and her daughter rapidly descend into the grip of what may be a genuine haunting or a terrible folie à deux.

Much of Under the Shadow’s power is derived from the absence of anything solid to fear. Anvari is frugal with his depictions of the djinn. The spirit is all flapping fabric and half-seen figures, a gaping mouth and a panicked child’s voice. The growing threat to Shideh and Dorsa seems to come from within, as their interactions become increasingly ugly under the pressure of Dorsa’s inexplicable illness and Shideh’s maternal failings. At one point the tension drives Dorsa to physically attack her mother in a scene I found far more wrenching than the scenes of supernatural malice.

Under the Shadow
Dorsa’s doll

In the end, Under the Shadow is an intimate ghost story that reflects the oppression of beliefs, politics, and culture as much as the oppression of the supernatural. Anvari leaves many of the questions he introduces open-ended. He allows the film to keep its loose ends even as he offers a familiar-looking conclusion that in lesser hands would scream of a sequel–because in life, as in art, inescapable uncertainty can be the scariest part.