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Pop Cinema: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

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Still from “Get Out”

Each year I review over 100 films with most of them being the kind that show up in art houses: leftist documentaries, foreign-language films, American indies and the like. In November, I start catching up with the films that major Hollywood studios are pushing for NYFCO awards such as “Moonlight”, “Brooklyn”, “Spotlight” and other high-minded products that are geared to college-educated, NY Times reading, PBS subscribers. It is what you might call the Merchant-Ivory trade.

But what I really love and rarely write about are the horror and action films that dominate the multiplexes, mainly because they are so crappy. For example, I can’t get enough of “Alien” type films where a plucky band of space travelers must fend off some deadly creature that is killing them off one by one. One such film titled “Life” opened this week and could only muster a 66 percent fresh ratings on Rotten Tomatoes. Generally, anything under 98 percent is usually enough to make me walk out on looking like the subject of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”, so there was no point in spending $12 on a geezer ticket for a movie that the generally reliable Slant Magazine characterized: “If you ever find yourself in outer space and the only person talking any sense is Ryan Reynolds, locate the nearest escape hatch.”

Through pure serendipity, I saw five films recently that except for one might be of interest to CounterPunch readers. The four that made the cut are apolitical except for the one at the top of the list, but can at least function as escapist fare for that segment of the population that is burdened by angst over the President from Hell. If you’ve spent all week long passing out leaflets in the bitter cold (do activists do that nowadays?), you might as well treat yourself to a film in which the monsters are purely celluloid.

Reviewed in order of preference:

Get Out

To get straight to the point, this is a great film written and directed by Jordan Peele, the African-American partner of fellow African-American Keegan-Michael Key in a long-running comedy show on cable TV. Although there are touches of macabre humor in “Get Out”, it is a horror film that uniquely posits elderly, white suburbanites as the nearest thing to Dr. Frankenstein.

A young Black photographer Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) and his white girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) are going to spend the weekend at her house in a setup like “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”. The parents supposedly do not know he is Black but she assures them that they will love him. After all, her brain surgeon dad only wishes that Obama would be able to run for a third term so he can vote for him again. Her mom is a psychiatrist who specializes in hypnotizing her patients to get them to stop smoking or lose weight.

From the moment he gets to their McMansion, he is creeped out both by the parents and their distinctly odd Black live-in gardener and maid who sound like they have been…hypnotized. When the weekend includes a visit from a few dozen older white folks from the same Brooks Brothers/George Bush type golf-playing milieu, Chris gets even more weirded out by the one African-American in their ranks—a Barack Obama look-alike who has the same glazed-eye expression as the gardener and maid.

Anything else I tell you would rob you of the enjoyment of surely one of the three films that will make it to my “best of 2017” list, so let’s leave it at that.

Train to Busan

This is now being featured on Netflix streaming and is unfortunately the sort of film that they are abandoning in favor of lame TV series geared to budget-minded families who understandably don’t want to spend money on cable TV when an Internet connection can provide the same sort of soporific fare a year or so later.

“Train to Busan” is a South Korean zombie film directed by Yeon Sang-ho that follows the standard formula of “28 Days”, “Walking Dead” and all others spawned by George Romero’s groundbreaking films. It takes place entirely on a train as a financial adviser accompanies his young and neglected daughter to his ex-wife’s house in Busan. Just as he is given the chance to bond with her, everything is ruined by the spread of a zombie virus from car to car.

As is the case with “Walking Dead”, some of the human beings are scarier than the zombies—in this instance a corporate bigwig who is willing to sacrifice everybody on board to save his own skin. Was this the director’s dig at the Chaebol ruling class whose puppet—the President of South Korea–was just driven from office? I am sure it is.

What distinguishes “Train to Busan” from the run-of-the-mill zombie films is the skillful character development of father, daughter and their cohorts who bond together against both the zombies and the Chaebol scumbag. If you’ve seen films in this genre, you’ll recognize that the most interesting scenes involve human beings rather than confrontations with zombies. Indeed, “Walking Dead”, which is not the masterpiece of television considered by some but still worth following, is mostly about the conflicts between human beings forced to make tactical alliances with each other against more powerful predatory characters resembling the evil Chaebol boss. Considering the state of the world today in the Middle East and elsewhere, perhaps the zombie genre is much more realistic than we might have guessed.

Logan

This is likely the last installment in the X-Men series and features Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, the mutant with Freddy Kruger type knife blades jutting out from his hand that he uses to dispatch bad guys. Now 48 years old, Jackman does not have the chiseled features he had seventeen years ago when he first appeared in the original X-Men film.

Writer/Director James Mangold wisely made the choice of depicting Logan—the wolverine—as a middle-aged man with the frailties of middle-age, including what appears initially as arthritis. However, Logan’s unsteady gait has more to do with the traces of a bullet that entered his body years ago from the gun of a scientist determined to kill all mutants except those he was breeding in his own laboratory for military use.

From that lab, a young girl has escaped who has the same powers as Logan that she inherited from a sample of his genes and now deploys against the scientist and his henchmen who are determined to destroy her and others who have fled because of their unwillingness to be used as killing machines.

She and Logan eventually hook up with the godfather, teacher and protector of mutants, a scientist named Charles Xavier who is a mutant himself and played as always by Patrick Stewart. Once again Mangold made the wise choice of conceiving of the Xavier character in the same light as the actor who plays him. Now 76, Stewart is not suffering the same dementia type symptoms as his character but is surely aware enough of his own advanced age frailties to breathe life into his character. Much of the film consists of Logan and Frazier bickering with each other just as we might see with the adult child and caretaker of an elderly parent entering their second childhood who refuses to take his or her meds. In Frazier’s case, when he does not take them, buildings crumble all around him because of the powerful seismic waves his uncontrolled brain generates.

Since many films tend to reprise films that came before them, I was struck by the obvious ties between Logan and the character Humphrey Bogart played in “Key Largo”, a world-weary WWII veteran who has no interest in taking chances for some high-flung ideal. When the nurse who has been watching after the young girl begs Logan to escort her to safety away from the small army bent on killing her, he replies that his days as Wolverine are over. But like Humphrey Bogart finally taking on Edward G. Robinson, Logan cannot walk away from his duties as a superhero, even if a weakened and tarnished one.

This is the best X-Men film and likely the last. Highly recommended.

Split

I was expecting more from M. Night Shyamalan since his 2015 “The Visit” was such a delight—a film about a young brother and sister who visit grandpa and grandma in the countryside who turn out to be as malevolent as the husband and wife in “Get Out”.

As the title implies, this is about a man named Kevin (James McAvoy) suffering from multiple personality disorder (23 of them, no less) who has abducted and kept captive three young women after the fashion of “The Silence of the Lambs”. As “Dennis”, he has decided to keep them prisoner as future offerings to “The Beast”, another of Kevin’s personae.

He also appears to the captives as “Hedwig”, a nine-year old boy and “Patricia”, a mature woman. While two of the captive girls seek to use brute force to make their escape, the other named Casey seeks to exploit the naiveté of Hedwig to make a getaway.

Like “The Three Faces of Eve”, a 1957 film that starred Joanne Woodward, this is a virtual actor’s workshop for James McAvoy who like any actor looks forward to using his talents to the best effect. The most impressive display takes place when he escorts Casey to his bedroom where he dances to “Frogbass”, a song by post-punk band Snails.

In some ways, I would have preferred to watch McAvoy dance for two hours rather then follow Shyamalan’s silly but entertaining story.

If “Logan” channeled “Key Largo”, “Split” channeled “Red Dragon”, a 2002 film based on a Thomas Harris novel (the author of “The Silence of the Lambs”. Like the evil character in that film whose power is tied to a William Blake engraving, the “Beast” enjoys superhuman abilities flowing somehow from the beasts in a nearby Philadelphia Zoo. Don’t ask me why. My advice is to wait for this film to show up on iTunes or Amazon. Or go see it on a Saturday night if you have nothing better to do. I can assure you that is beats “CHIPS” or “Power Rangers”.

John Wick Chapter 2

Stay away from this one.

This is a sequel to “John Wick”, a revenge film about the eponymous professional killer who kills a bunch of Russian mafia gangsters whose boss’s ne’er-do-well son has stolen Wick’s Mustang and killed his puppy dog—a gift from his cancer-stricken wife just before her death–in a home invasion.

As one of the few genre films I reviewed in 2014, I deemed it rotten:

When a powerful gangster learns that his thuggish son has killed Wick’s dog (the lout did not know that he had preyed on a legendary executioner nicknamed “the Boogyman” who used to work for his father before retiring), he sends a hit squad of a dozen men out to Wick’s ultramodern and luxurious house as a preemptive measure. In a kind of scene that gets repeated 4 or 5 times for the rest of the film until it gets to the point when you feel like yelling “enough already”, Wick kills them all and is not even scratched in the process. If you want to see Keanu Reeves shooting people in the head for an hour-and-a-half, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

I should probably go see a doctor to check for early onset of Alzheimer’s because I seemed to have forgotten that the first film sucked. The sequel is more of the same but with even less human interest. If you cared about Wick, it was because you felt for someone driven to extreme measures after his puppy is killed. In the sequel, you become numb within the first 15 minutes of car chases, ridiculous shoot outs, and Keanu Reeves’s affectless performance. Unbelievably, “John Wick Chapter 2” got 90 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes with fellow NYFCO reviewer Stephanie Zacharek telling Time Magazine readers:

John Wick: Chapter 2 has style to burn, and oh! what violence—terrible, bone-crunching, glorious violence, beautifully orchestrated by director Chad Stahelski. Like the first picture, it’s heavily influenced by the kinetic, balletic violence of early John Woo movies, but there’s at least a shot-glass dose of the James Bond tradition, too.

Yes, it is influenced by John Woo but John Woo’s films were much more about human interaction rather than bullets flying. Like Zombie movies, the Hong Kong gangster genre is best when it depicts the antagonists talking rather than exchanging karate chops or bullets. All you need to do is watch “John Wick” side-by-side with a Korean revenge film like “I Saw the Devil”  and you will discover how the East is eclipsing the West not only in alternative energy but in action films.

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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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