|Films I Neglected To Review: So What
|by Peter Sobczynski
Please enjoy short reviews of "Army of the Dead," "The Dry," "The Perfect Candidate," "Pink: All I Know So Far," "The Retreat" and "Seance."
Although I tend to find the films of Zach Snyder to be loud, stupid and irritating contraptions that leave you feeling afterwards as if you have spent the last several hours being hit with mallets, I will admit that I do sort of like his debut feature, his 2004 remake of "Dawn of the Dead," primarily because a.) the opening ten minutes was easily the most legitimately impressive stretch of filmmaking of his career to date and b.) because the rest, while kind of soulless in comparison to Romero's brilliant blend of gruesome horror and keenly felt social satire, was never quite as bad as many people feared it would be. Therefore, despite my hatred of such films as "Sucker Punch" and "Batman vs. Superman," I found myself feeling a certain degree of anticipation towards his latest effort, "Army of the Dead," in which he returns to the genre where he first made his bones (among other body parts). Sure enough, the prologue, which charts how a traffic accident involving an Army motorcade and a couple heading to Las Vegas for their honeymoon leads to the gambling mecca being overrun by zombies, is slickly made, reasonably amusing and easily the best part of the film.
Unfortunately, once the main story sets in--a few years after the outbreak, a group of mercenaries is recruited to sneak into Vegas, which has been walled off from the outside world in order to keep the zombies contained, break into a casino vault and steal millions of dollars just before a nuclear bomb is dropped in order to end the zombie issue for good--it proves to be a disappointing blend of elements lifted from everything from "Escape from New York" to "Peninsula" to "Ocean's 11" and with ham-handed stabs at Romero-style social commentary )including a nauseating Sean Spicer ameo) thrown in for good measure. One the initial joke of the premise wears off, we are stuck with a film where the human characters, for the most part demonstrate less personality than the zombie hordes (the only ones who make an impression are Dave Bautista as the haunted team leader and Tig Notaro as the acerbic helicopter pilot), there is, despite the twin threats of zombie masses and an imminent nuclear explosion, a strange lack of urgency and tension throughout and what could have easily been a lean and mean 90-minute B movie has been stretched out to 2 1/2 hours for no reason that I can readily understand. So yes, on the one hand, "Army of the Dead" is technically Snyder's best film since "Dawn of the Dead" but that says more about the general quality of his oeuvre because that sure does not mean that it is worth watching at all.
As "The Dry" begins, federal police officer Aaron Falk (Eric Bana) is compelled to return to his remote hometown in southwest Australia--which has been suffering from a drought for over a year--to attend the funeral of childhood friend Luke (Martin Dingle Wall), who apparently murdered his wife and son before killing himself, and is compelled by the manís grieving parents to investigate and prove that their son was innocent. This is a little trickier than it sounds because Aaron remains a pariah to most of the town as the result of the death of a local girl two decades earlier that most of the locals are convinced that he actually did. While looking into the case involving Luke, with the aid of the few townspeople who are willing to help him, the memories of what happened years earlier start coming back and he finds himself trying to come to terms with that mystery as well.
"The Dry" has a few things going for it, primarily its literal tinderbox setting and a typically strong performance from Bana, but is fatally underdone by the fact that the mystery at the heart of the story is not very effective. Aaron goes about his investigation and uncovers any number of shocking secrets and potential suspects until reaching a conclusion that somehow manages to come across as both strangely arbitrary (both the killer and the motive are pretty silly) and intensely predictable (of course the conclusion involves the threat of the entire town potentially going up in flames). The same thing goes for the case of the earlier murder, which is wrapped up in such a perfunctory manner that you get the sense that the filmmakers somehow forgot to resolve it at first and then slapped a conclusion together on the fly. The biggest problem with "The Dry" is its relentless mediocrity--it never comes together in a remotely engaging or interesting way and the end result is a story as arid and barren as the land where it is set.
"The Perfect Candidate" begins with Maryam (Mila Alzahrani), an observant Saudi doctor working in a clinic in a small town who finds herself facing two seemingly minor obstacles--a broken pipe that has flooded out the dirt road leading to her practice and a travel document that cannot be updated to allow her to leave the country without the approval of her out-of-town father. While trying to get through all the bureaucratic red tape to resolve her issues, she ends up becoming a candidate on the ballot for an upcoming local election, much to the consternation of many of the locals. Now that she is in it, Maryam is determined to win despite the odds and she, with the help of her supportive sisters, puts together a ramshackle campaign based around the need for a paved road for the clinic as her key platform while going up against rival candidates and the press, who just assume that her campaign is merely some kind of womenís rights thing without having any sense of what that could possibly entail. (During one interview, Maryam is grilled by an interviewer who assures everyone that women are primarily interested in gardens.) Directed by Haifa Al-Mansour, the film is a surprisingly light, charming and optimistic look at the importance of local government and civic duty that does not limit itself to simply being a polemic on the need for more women in politics. The best thing about it is the performance by Alzahrani, who does such a good job of capturing Maryam's quietly rebellious spirit and determination that even when the film starts to sag a little in the final scenes, she keeps it from bogging down into mawkishness through the sheer force of her personality. "The Perfect Candidate" is a low-key charmer that manages to accomplish something that might seem otherwise impossible these days--it makes you feel slightly--slightly--optimistic about the contemporary political process.
The thing that has made Pink stand out in the music scene since she first appeared more than two decades ago is the way in which she combines her uplifting power-pop anthems with a reckless devil-may-care attitude--from the fuck-you underpinnings found in many of her biggest songs to the dynamic and hair-raising aerial stunts that have become a signature part of her live act, there is a sense of potential chaos and danger to her work that can be incredibly refreshing. Alas, that attitude is in very short supply in "Pink: All I Know So Far," a mostly tedious documentary that clearly wants to be this generation's "Truth or Dare" but misses the mark by a mile. While that Madonna film dealt with everything from her artistic provocations (and their occasional real-world fallout) to the ersatz family unit that develops over the course of a long concert tour, Pink's film, directed by Michael Gracey (whose previous effort was the hugely entertaining "The Greatest Showman"), merely follows her and her family--husband Carey Hart, daughter Willow and toddler son Jameson--around on a European leg of her "Beautiful Trauma" tour from 2019 (with the massive crowds turning up to see her helping to make the film feel like an inadvertent nostalgia piece) culminating in two sold-out shows at London's Wembley Stadium. Along the way, she frets about trying to balance her personal and professional lives in a series of would-be confessional moments that always feel blandly contrived, especially in comparison to the genuine emotion that she puts into her music. Unlike the recent documentaries on Taylor Swift and Billie Eilish, both of which benefitted greatly from capturing their subjects at what would prove to be key moments in their developments as artists, there is not much to what is going on in Pink's life at the moment captured here that is particularly interesting, no matter how often the film shifts to black-and-white to better convey the evident seriousness of her bland platitudes. Which leads to another major problem with the film--the music, or rather the lack of it. While I recognize that this is not meant to be a typical concert film, the film only offers viewers brief glimpses of her performances throughout and it is only at the end when we finally get to see a couple of relatively uninterrupted performances and they supply a jolt of energy that is otherwise lacking throughout. Die[hard Pink fans will still presumably want to watch it but they, along with everyone else, would be better off giving this hard-sell hagiography a pass and sticking with the accompanying soundtrack album instead.
Although "The Retreat" describes itself in its promotional materials as being a "lesbian slasher," that is not precisely true, though that ultimately proves to be the least of the film's problems. It does center on a lesbian couple--Renee (Tommie-Amber Pirie) and Valerie (Sarah Allen)--and as the film opens, they are leaving the city to spend a weekend deep in the woods with some friends, a gay couple who run an isolated B&B. When they arrive, their friends are nowhere to be seen and when they go off to have a picnic while waiting for them, the two get the sense that they are being watched and soon they are being chased by a masked maniac. It turns out that they and their friends have fallen into the clutches of a group of homophobes who have some especially grotesque plans for their captives. As it turns out, Renee and Valerie are not going to go down without a fight and they soon begin going after their tormentors in an equally savage and violent manner.
Director Pat Mills presents the material in a lean, economical and swiftly-paced manner, the lead actresses are engaging and the film does not skimp on the gore. What it does lack, however, is any sense of originality or purpose regarding its existence. For the most part, the film follows the usual horror movie rules without fail or deviation and the sexuality of the main characters turns out to be more of a hook to lure in underserved members of the LGBTQ audience than anything else--these very same characters could have been depicted as heterosexual with only a couple of minor cosmetic changes to Alyson Richards's screenplay. While "The Retreat" is ultimately too short to truly wear out its welcome and has been executed in a technically competent manner, it ultimately proves to be just another rip through familiar genre trope that will be quickly forgotten by anyone who bothers to watch it.
That said, whatever cinematic sins that "The Retreat" commits, they pale in comparison to those on display in "Seance," a clumsy stumble through well-worn teen--oriented supernatural thriller tropes that not even a couple of impressively gruesome kills in the final sequence can quite goad to the level of being mildly interesting. Set in a all-girls academy that is so competitive that it appears that it consists of maybe ten students tops, it begins as a group of students attempt to raise the ghost of a student who supposedly killed herself years earlier and whose ghost allegedly now haunts the halls. The ersatz seance is a joke but the end result is that one of the girls ends up dead. Soon afterwards, a new student, Camille (Suki Waterhouse) arrives to take the dead girl's place and immediately runs afoul of queen bee Alice (Iranna Sarkis), the girl who arranged the initial seance prank, and her pals, landing them all in an extended detention. Alice decides to stage another seance to contact their dead friend and soon afterwards, the girls start dying in gruesome ways while the headmistress tries to keep a lid on everything. Along with Helina (Ella-Rae Smith), the class shy outsider, Camille starts digging into the mystery to figure out who or what is behind the killings, though there are enough things about her that do not add up to earn her a place on the list of potential suspects as well.
At this time, I should probably confess that a few years ago, I happened to share the stage with Simon Barrett, the writer of the horror sleepers "You're Next" and "The Guest," and Jessica Harper for a post-film discussion following a screening of the Dario Argento classic "Suspiria." In addition to penning the screenplay, Barrett makes his directorial debut here and there are enough similarities between the two to suggest that the Argento film was a key influence. Both films, for example, are set in isolated boarding schools where the female students are being murdered by potentially supernatural forces and both films have stories that do not make a lick of sense if you sit down to analyze them in even the most cursory manner. In the case of the Argento film, you didn't notice so much because the loopy story seemed to fit in with the hallucinatory visual style that he employed throughout. By comparison, Barrett's film just kind of plods along for a while until it just becomes a series of gory kill scenes strung together with filler until it finally reaches the conclusion and all is revealed with a series of increasingly ludicrous revelations and explanations that will leave viewers sagging in their seats out of sheer disbelief. An even bigger problem is that virtually none of the characters are particularly likable or interesting and since we donít care about them, their deaths have no particular impact. (It doesn't help that all of the girls--especially Waterhouse--appear to be several years past their teenage years.) In the end, the biggest sin of ď\"Seance" is that it is a fundamentally dumb work that deploys overly familiar cliches without bringing anything new or interesting to the table. You've seen far worse films than this one but I assure you that you can almost certainly find something better as well.
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originally posted: 05/20/21 16:28:06
last updated: 05/26/21 18:53:29