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Non-Review Review: Countdown

Countdown is a spectacular mess of a film, but also a surprisingly fun one.

Superficially, Countdown belongs to the modern school of low-budget high-concept horrors. It is build around an admittedly rather goofy premise, devotes considerable time to exploring and articulating its own internal logic, and is just flippant enough that it never entirely collapses under its weight. In terms of basic structures, Countdown is of a piece with films like Happy Death Day or Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. It is preoccupied with the protagonists’ desire to figure out the rules of the macabre trap in which they have found themselves.

A killer app.

However, Countdown is so committed to that template that something interesting happens. Countdown never quite settles on a particular mode or genre, instead relying on the propulsive momentum of that central quest to hold the film together. So Countdown transitions wildly between various styles of horror films. It features a monster who looks like it just missed out on lead roles in The Curse of La Llorona or The Nun, leans into the fear of technology and identity that defined Cam or Unfriended, and even takes a late turn into the sort of gender-war tinged serial killer mayhem of a Halloween sequel.

None of these elements cohere. At all. However, there’s an infectious sense of fun to Countdown. It rarely feels like Countdown is motivated by anything more than the urge to get to the next scene or the next scare, which results in a very haphazard and uneven film, but also a delightfully surreal cocktail. Countdown might be pretty far from a good horror movie, but it’s an endearingly engaging one.

Nursing some legitimate fears.

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Non-Review Review: Terminator – Dark Fate

Terminator: Dark Fate is perhaps the second-best of the four attempts to make a third Terminator movie.

To be fair, the previous three efforts have all been exercises in figuring out how close or how far to hew to Terminator 2: Judgment Day. There has been a sense of watching various chefs trying awkwardly to replicate a signature dish. Does a Terminator sequel need Sarah Connor? Does Sarah Connor have to be played by Linda Hamilton? Is Arnold Schwarzenegger essential, and to what degree? James Cameron isn’t going to direct because he has his own projects, but what level of involvement is “just right”? Is it enough for him to do some press, to be a producer, or does he need a story credit?

Fight and flight.

The results have been as interesting as they have been frustrating. Few film franchises has branched quite as dramatically as the Terminator franchise, perhaps reflecting the series’ own preoccupation with time travel. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Terminator: Salvation and Terminator: Genisys have all tried to figure out a way to make a sequel to Judgment Day, and have only really managed to agree that each of the others adopted the wrong approach. Dark Fate at least seems like the right Terminator sequel for its own time and place, tapping into a wave of nineties anxiety and franchise dominance.

Dark Fate is only moderately successful as a film in its own right, and as a follow on to one of the most beloved blockbusters of all-time. It says much more about the larger Terminator franchise than about Dark Fate that it counts as one of the best sequels to Judgment Day.

Hes back.

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Non-Review Review: Zombieland – Double Tap

“Time to nut up or shut up,” reflects veteran zombie hunter Tallahassee as a horde of the undead make their way across the front lawn of the Elvis-themed motel where he has taken up residence. His doppelganger, Albuquerque, responds derisively, “Isn’t that phrase a little 2009?”

It is more than “a little” 2009. Then again, Zombieland: Double Tap is more than a little 2009. The film is the latest in a line of long-delayed sequels, including Deadwood: The Movie, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, Toy Story 4 and Rambo: Last Blood. It feels as if the studios are rushing through their development slate as the end of the decade approaches, frantically trying to check off any potential sequels and spin-offs that might have been gestating. This is all a little strange, given that Zombieland was itself a modest critical and commercial hit, and hardly a film crying out for a sequel that has been a decade in the making.

“Tonight were going to party like it’s 2009.”

Double Tap feels rooted in 2009, for better and for worse. It is great to see this cast reassembled, as if the intervening decade had never happened. Part of the appeal of Zombieland was the combination of an apocalyptic horror with a low-key hangout comedy, and that is dependent on cast chemistry. The years have not altered that. However, there’s also an awkwardness to the film, a sense in which it hasn’t managed to keep pace with times. A few of its jokes feel curiously dated, but it also seems strangely disengaged from any shifting cultural trends over the past decade.

The result is a movie that is as solid and charming as the original film, but which occasionally feels like it is running in place. Double Tap is easy and entertaining, but never quite gets the blood flowing.

Columbus’ Day.

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Non-Review Review: Maleficent – Mistress of Evil

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil might be the worst wide release of 2019, which is no small accomplishment in a year that produced Welcome to Marwen, Life Itself and Hellboy.

To be fair, the film’s starting point is decidedly eccentric. There is an argument to be made that the original Maleficent helped to kick start Disney’s live action remake renaissance, alongside the greater success of Alice in Wonderland. While the film didn’t quite do Aladdin or The Lion King numbers, it earned a hefty three-quarters-of-a-billion dollars at the global box office. It isn’t a surprise that it got a sequel. It is a surprise that the sequel took half-a-decade to materialise, to the point that Disney’s live action cinematic slate has already moved well beyond this villain-centric reimagining.

She’s really glowing lately.

Even allowing for the five year gap, Mistress of Evil is a staggeringly tone-deaf piece of work. The original Maleficent was a very clumsy piece of allegory, but an ambitious one. Obviously drawing from the same basic revisionist approach as Wicked or Oz: The Great and Powerful, the film attempted to offer an empathic and compassionate approach to one of the great villains of the Disney canon. The film depicted Maleficent as the victim of assault and shaming, a target of a patriarchal smear campaign.

Unfortunately, despite nods at subverting conventional gender narratives, Maleficent doubled down on them. Instead of allowing its title character her own strength and independence, Maleficent insisted on redeeming the character through the narrative of motherhood. This was decidedly uncomfortable, the obvious insinuation being that the only way for a woman to recover from such a brutal assault was through embracing conventional gender roles. Still, as misguided and clunky as the execution was, it was interesting to see a family-focused blockbuster story grappling with these sorts of big ideas.

“I’m Batman.”

Mistress of Evil somehow finds a way to double-down on the misguided clunkiness while also stripping out anything resembling an interesting or engaging social commentary. Almost everything about the movie is horrendously and grotesquely misjudged. Mistress of Evil is a frankly inexplicable hybrid of groan-worthy fifties domestic sitcom and pained allegory about the folly of resistance even when being herded into gas chambers. That isn’t even a “read” of the film, it’s “what is literally depicted on screen.”

The result is one of the most ill-judged blockbusters of the past twenty years.


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New Escapist Column! “Deadwood: The Movie”, “El Camino” and Closure In The New Age of Television…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine yesterday. This one looks at the recent releases of Deadwood: The Movie and El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie as an illustration of how much the television landscape has changed in recent years.

These belated capstones to beloved series – Deadwood and Breaking Bad – are interesting because they afford the creative talent the opportunity to wrap up their story free from the production constraints of television, the urgent desperate churn of the conveyor belt that demands workable solutions in insanely short periods of time. These epilogues arrive years after the fact, and are the product of careful consideration and reflection. They allow their creators to tie a little bow around their work. After all, sometimes it is nice to have distance.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

151. Fight Club – Summer of ’99 (#10)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guests Charlene Lydon and Alex Towers, The 250 is a (mostly) weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released every Saturday at 6pm GMT.

This time, continuing our Summer of ’99 season, David Fincher’s Fight Club.

1999 was a great year for movies, with a host of massively successful (and cult) hits that would define cinema for a next generation: Being John Malkovich, Magnolia, American Beauty, The Green MileThe Insider, The Matrix. The Summer of ’99 season offers a trip through the year in film on the IMDb‘s 250.

A successful young insurance claims adjuster finds himself comfortable existence literally blown to pieces after two chance encounters: first with his unlikely kindred spirit Marla Singer and then with charismatic anarchist Tyler Durden. However, what initially seems liberating quickly escalates into something that is much less comfortable.

At time of recording, it was ranked 10th on the Internet Movie Database‘s list of the best movies of all-time.

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New Escapist Column! “Joker” as a Perverted Superhero Origin Story…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine yesterday. Naturally, it tackled the big release of the moment, Todd Phillips’ Joker.

Joker has been the source of a lot of controversy and attention. However, one of the most interesting debates around it has been the discussion over whether it counts as a superhero story at all – director Todd Phillips and actor Marc Maron have been quick to distance the film from the genre. However, despite these claims, Joker actually works very well as a perversion of the archetypal superhero origin story. In doing so, it suggests something interesting about the state of the genre at the current cultural moment.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.