Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) – Flashback.

THE FACTS:

  • U.S. Release – 15th of June 2001.
  • Studio – Paramount Pictures.
  • Budget – $115,000,000
  • Global Box-Office – $274,703,340

THE SETUP:

A big-budget action adventure based on the popular new video game on the hottest console in the market with an instantly iconic heroine that tapped its way into the mainstream through crossover marketing synergy (I’m looking at you, Lucozade) and immense sex appeal for a burgeoning male teen demographic. Hire an actress whose most noted credits at the time was a young up-and-comer playing second billing to Nicholas Cage in Gone in Sixty Seconds and a tabloid-incurring lifestyle with Billy Bob Thorton, pump up her cup-size to a D (because DD looked too unrealistic on camera according to the filmmakers), and you got yourself a movie no matter how good or bad it may be.

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THE EXECUTION:

From the perspective of nearly twenty years later, 1997 to 2003 has to be one of the strangest periods in Hollywood blockbuster history. It’s almost impossible to imagine any of these films being made now in the age of cross-media platforms, intensified piracy, and quality control. It’s most likely that everyone has forgotten Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (save for one facet which we will return to), so it might shock some that the plot is absolutely, unapologetically bonkers.

It works, suiting to the game’s original absurdity (anyone remember the dinosaur?), but the live-action element makes the more faithful segments all the more jarring. For the first time in 5,000 years, an alignment of the planets is due for course in one week, and the Illuminati (yes, really) are determined to find a mysterious ancient artifact before its completion. Simultaneously, Lara Croft discovers a concealed clock ticking in her father’s mansion that contains a key to opening the sought artifact. Exposing what she possesses to a wealthy tycoon and Illuminati servant, Manfred Powell, Lara’s home is attacked and she sets off to try find the artifact before the sinister organization does.

The artifact itself is a key to time travel itself and what The Illuminati intend to do with time travel is never made clear. Nor is it necessary really, as it’s just a maguffin to witness Lara travel to various parts of the world. Comprising of primarily four set pieces (Training room; Mansion hall; Aztec Temple; Ice level), it’s commendable to see Simon West and the stunt choreographers implement aspects of the gameplay into the film as well. The double back step, the straight vertical jump, the backwards leap and tumble – there’s a commitment to the video game aesthetic hardly seen in other adaptations that are embarrassed of their derivations. In style, aesthetic, and detail, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider stands out as possibly one of the best video game films of all time by its sheer tongue-and-cheek  dedication to the source.

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However, that’s not why people remember Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Even its critical detractors at the time (with an inexorable turned nose to the idea of a video game movie) were quick to concede that Angelina Jolie elevates the film into something beyond niche/ironic appreciation. It’s hard to think of another actress who could be an equally perfect match with character. Jolie possesses a unique charismatic and sexual mystique that seems so natural and self-assured in her performance that the nearest contemporary comparison would be Catherine Zeta-Jones, who both owe a significant tribute to unforgettable Jane Russell. Jolie is playfully cocky and audacious, taking a persona that was catered to male gaze and turning it into character who transcends the material given to her. Jolie may have won an oscar, she may have been part of the most powerful Hollywood couple of the ’00s, and she may have broken the mold by proving her versatility, but Lara Croft and Angelina Jolie are synonymous with one another for an entire generation of people. 

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If you like cheesy action/adventure films, there’s no harm in returning to it. Problems are rampant with some horribly dated soundtrack choices and the editing reflects a post-Matrix/Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon era of filmmaking, but Jolie and, pre-James Bond, Daniel Craig help make the film stand out as a charming relic in its own right. Whether or not 2018’s Tomb Raider will be good remains unseen. A definite backlash will be had from the fan base, as the reboot had as well, but one thing is for certain. They can never replace Angelina Jolie.

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Miss Sloane (2016) – Review.

Miss Sloane has all the signs of a film that Hollywood studios had bet on competing as an Oscar contender last year but knew at the last minute it wouldn’t stand a chance due to poor public or critical attention. Despite how much I enjoyed this, it’s hard not to blame them. Political thrillers are a tough sell, especially in the turbulent conditions America now finds itself in (both this film and Jackie clearly envisioned a different political leader and situation to greet its release in 2017), so naturally responses would be equally polarizing. What’s particularly amusing personally is the execration received by critics for its opinion on gun control which exemplifies the reactionary defensiveness that the film openly mocks dismissively as irrational. What’s really at work here is a film concerned with the hollowness of the democratic political process in America, and to that degree, Miss Sloane is a success but with a lot of stupid elements thrown around which clutters up the final product.

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However, those mistakes are almost impossible to notice when Jessica Chastain appears on screen. Ever since 2011, and her appearance in Al Pacino’s production of Salomé and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, Chastain has been on a storm. Being a consistently powerful and compelling performer whose ability to be so talented in whatever role she’s required to do, Chastain has become an actress comparable only to the likes of Daniel Day Lewis in terms of power and presence. Miss Sloane is Chastain’s movie, from beginning to end, and even after months past and the film fades into obscurity, her performance is what people will remember most of all.

The titular Elizabeth Sloane is an incredibly successful and influential lobbyist for an incredibly powerful organization in Washington D.C., who feels a necessity to concentrate on her work every hour of the day. A formidable figure in political circles, Sloane is hired by a wealthy rifle association who wish to ensure that a bill inhibiting the accessibility to firearms in America is swept out of the senate as quickly as it comes in. Sloane refuses and is soon requested by the opposition, led by Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong), to help push the bill into passing the senate which she accepts as a professional challenge. As her campaign becomes increasingly influential with several senators, things quickly become personal as her private life and the lives of those around her are pushed into the spotlight, making the consequences of her actions more questionable as to whether the ends really do justify the means.

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If there was any reason why the film wasn’t as good as it tries to be, it’s three words – remote controlled cockroaches. The script, written by first-time screenwriter Jonathan Perera, is filled with these moments of absurdity that makes the original intent appear to be a political comedy that somehow became deadly serious in an effort to be smart cinema. Its intellectualism is skin-deep, resorting to dense exposition and terminology in order to appear sophisticated without the necessity of being so.

That doesn’t get in the way of Jessica Chastain’s performance which really has to be seen to be believed. It’s hard to think of another intense, powerhouse performance in recent memory that is explosive in almost every scene. Elizabeth Sloane is a role an actor dreams of obtaining – a Machiavellian amoral Darwinist who is always steps ahead of her opponent with foresight. It’s almost absurd how calculated Sloane is, suggesting she knows the outcome before Schmidt even approaches her for help. But Chastain makes it believable. If there was any reason to check out Miss Sloane, it’s her. It’s highly doubtful anyone else could do a better performance this year.

Love Off the Cuff (2017) – Review.

As China continues to increase its influence in mainstream cinema, buying out cinema chains and producing films with English dubs for Western consumers, it’s hard to imagine that they wouldn’t consider easing this cultural transition with an adroit finesse and forward planning….

Love Off the Cuff is the third entry in the Love in a Puff series and the first internationally released film of the trilogy. Any access to previous installments is impossible without piracy or a quick wikipedia check, but the film’s Western advertisements seem adamant to conceal itself as a standalone movie. Marketed here primarily with posters of a dull and quiet colour palette featuring its loving protagonists in a moment of sweet companionship, the suggestion here is of a light-hearted romantic comedy with some indie qualities thrown in to give it a measure of sincerity or authenticity.

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So imagine how jarring it is to witness a giant, hairy monster called the Gat Gat Gong holding the severed head of an old woman to frighten the children he intends to eat. Opening with the story of a young girl who defeats a monster by throwing a melon at its face, Love Off the Cuff certainly swerves in unexpected direction. Finally we meet the lovers of seven years, Cherie and Jimmy, subsequently arrested for being caught in a compromising act of implicit fellatio.

Since nothing else is established in these introductory moments, the raunchy rom-com is clearly exclusive to newcomers to the series. Filled with primarily double-entendres that can be troubling at times for its casual attitude to rape, the comedy lacks much of the galvanizing effect of its tonally antipodal opener. Its protagonists are older and, as such, more introspective towards their own maturity – a concern which carries the story for the rest of its two hour length.

 

At thirty-five, and significantly older than her boyfriend, Cherie feels dubious at the subdued and playful demeanor of Jimmy in his daily life. Realizing how long they’ve been together and that the two are not getting any younger, marriage and family become an increasing possibility but her age makes her insecure that Jimmy will lose his attraction for her.

These are certainly heavy topics for what amounts to a bunch of sex jokes and some menstruation-seeking aliens (no, really). Director and writer, Ho-Cheung Pang, who established himself with soft-focus independent films, juggles the dramatic themes without much success as the necessity to insert the redundant joke of men and women finding each other incomprehensible rears its head time-and-time again with diminishing returns.

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It’s a shame because it feels like something with honest sentiment keeps attempting to reach out and communicate itself to the audience. Instead, with the clashing styles and setups, the whole experience comes off like a bizarre fever dream with the third act spiraling into a mess of absurd schemes and plot details.

What’s worse is that, without prior knowledge to either character, both Cherie and Jimmy are presented in extremely unflattering ways, with the worst going to the former. Partially due to the calm performance by Shawn Yue, Cherie’s demands for Jimmy to grow up after any act of frivolity or to stop communicating privately with other women entirely come off as extremely selfish and unhealthily manipulative.

At the heart of this irreverent comedy is an extremely traditional and antiquated form of love, where Cherie wants Jimmy to be a man who can not only provide for her, but to take control of their situations as well. It’s quite troubling when Jimmy romantically concludes that what makes a man “a man” is to have a wife who he can care for, initially comparing his relationship to Cherie with that of their dog.

Still… I would like a spin-off of Gat Gat Gong in a similar style to The Happiness of the Katakuris. Now, that has box-office potential.

 

 

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) – Review.

Beyond whether or not Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is good or not (it is), it’s interesting to take a step back and look at what Disney have transformed the property into. With the success of last year’s titles such as Deadpool and Suicide Squad, Disney have allowed to loosen its restraints on James Gunn to tap into his roots as a writer for cult studio Troma and offer their take on the more un-PC and edgy superhero movies being released.  It’s almost incredulous to know that Disney allowed Gunn to write dialogue where Quill boasts that he’s a better pilot if he had a woman sucking his cock during flight. Of course, there’s always Iron Man, but even his bacchanalian and libidinous past demanded the hero to redeem himself and his addictions. Here, The Guardians of the Galaxy are unapologetic in their sanguinary, salacious, and scurrilous ways.

It’s certainly refreshing to see from Disney and Marvel’s MCU, and greatly overshadows many of the film’s unnecessary throwbacks to the first film (Is Howard the Duck really worthy of revisiting?) but it’s hard to imagine anything in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 that might disappoint fans of the original. It’s as charming, funny, and exciting as its predecessor, while on a bigger scale that often comes expected of these sequels.

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Taking its mark from other “Phase Two”  sequels, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 looks to flesh out and emphasize the dramatic complexities of its characters which definitely works, as Marvel’s characters have been the greatest asset to the cinematic universe as a whole. It might surprise many coming into the film that the majority of running time dedicates itself to the discovery of Quill’s father, Ego, and the relationship between the two and Quill’s departed mother. However, Rocket, Yondu, Nebula, Gamora, and, especially, Drax get their opportunities to add dimension for characters who will clearly suffer greatly in the upcoming Infinity Wars.

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Unfortunately, like its predecessor, what flaws there were are still present with little to no changes. In the midst of all this attention to character, it’s not until the middle/end of the second act when Guardians realizes it doesn’t have a villain or setup for a climactic battle and cobbles together some twists and surprises that are thematically interesting but underwhelming from a narrative setup. Overall, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 tries to stir things up but suffers from a demanding adherence to the expanded universe and the intertextual continuity. Anyone expecting to see plot points that will have consequences in later Marvel Studios entries will be sorely disappointed, save for the in-canon confirmation to a long held fan theory that pops up in a delightful cameo.

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However, it’s still a fun film for those looking for something a little bit different from other Marvel films. It seems almost inaccurate to refer to it as a superhero movie at all, since it very much mimics the sci-fi space opera genre in much the same way the first film did. Additionally, amidst all the post-credit sequences is included one setup that genuinely creates a level of intrigue that has not been felt since Samuel L. Jackson first appeared at the end of Iron Man 2. Whether we can expect another project from Marvel that nobody expected will only be known in due course, but for the moment, I’m definitely interested to see where they might take it.

Paragraph Pictures – 27.04.17

THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE (2017)

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Beautiful animals, beautiful sunlight, beautiful gardens, The Zookeeper’s Wife begins like a promising, feel-good film about zoophiliacs and then… “Warsaw. Poland. 1939.” You know what kind of film this is going to be. Predictable and working with familiar tropes of films based on Jewish persecution, Jessica Chastain uses the opportunity to break from her usual roles by playing a introverted, gentle, and nurturing wife and mother. While her performance, alongside the rest of the cast, help to elevate the quality of the well-told story, a cliche-ridden script drags the film down into just another film about how awful the nazis were with some tricky unexpected additions in the second act involving a young girl which the film is too light to fully explore or do justice to in any tasteful way.

 

THE HAPPIEST DAY IN THE LIFE OF OLLI MÄKI (2016)

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Winner of the award for Une Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival, this Finnish boxing film about a young man who has a chance at the belt is a charming, muted, and sentimental film that surprisingly subverts the hypermasculine narratives that often plague these sports movies – a fact emphasized by the primary dilemma being whether or not Olli will effectively lose weight in time for the match. Essentially Raging Bull on antidepressants, the exploration of the relationship between Olli and his girlfriend Raija under the constraints of daily training and publicity managed by former boxing champion, Elis, is an emotionally satisfying treat to watch. There’s something both sweet and unusually charming about a boxer training by running through a forest with a kite.

 

THEIR FINEST (2017)

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A perfectly serviceable and enjoyable British film that relies a bit too much on a meta-celebration of the craft of screenwriting, but equally celebrates what is, for many, a watershed moment in the history of women entering the workforce. Definitely enjoyable, especially Gemma Arterton, who has continually proven to be a charismatic actress in recent years, and Bill Nighy, who gets the opportunity to show how promising a dramatic role might be for the actor.

Unforgettable (2017) – Review.

I love cheese. I love schlock with my cheese and sometimes, no matter how bad the film, I love that schlocky cheese to be particularly silly. The Room seems like the obvious exampleBirdemic if you’re a hipster, Plan 9 From Outer Space if you’re oldschool. I don’t care, give me them all, with some extra Body of Evidence, The Canyons, and a little Co-Dependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same on the side and I’ll be very happy in my pile of unintentional hilarious filth.

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Released by Warner Bros., Unforgettable tries to market itself along the lines of Gone Girl, and, more aptly, The Girl on the Train but with the added conceit of not basing itself on any bestselling novel. It tells the story of a successful lead editor for a storytelling company, Julia Banks (Rosario Dawson), who runs off to Las Angeles to settle down with her fiance and live happily ever after. Having experienced a traumatic relationship before, her new boy toy (Geoff Stults) seems to be the perfect guy to marry, but his ex-wife Tessa (Katherine Heigl) becomes determined to prevent Julia from enjoying her dream come true. Instead, motivated purely on jealous rage, Tessa begins a plot involving the seduction of Julia’s ex-lover to ruin Julia’s life forever and regret ever having intervened in Tessa’s life to begin with.

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Originally intended to star Kerry Washington (Scandal) and to be directed by Amma Asante (BelleA United Kingdom), Unforgettable is a textbook example of immense studio interference. It’s clear from nearly every interaction between Heigl and Dawson that the tension stems from a racist hostility towards Dawson, telling a suburban thriller similar to Jordan Peele’s recent Get Out, but all references to race have been scrubbed clean from the screenplay. All that remains is a single interaction between daughter Lily (Isabella Kai Rice) and her grandmother (Cheryl Ladd) that her new mommy has “brown hair” which seems to horrify the elder inconceivably.

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This major retraction makes every moment in the film become unintentionally camp with how gravitas it takes itself. Heigl and Dawson exchange bitchy, snide remarks to one another as the clueless Stults watches on like nothing can go wrong. Dawson acts her heart out, showcasing why it’s a crime that she continually is underappreciated as an actress, while Heigl channels the T-X from Terminator 3: Rise of the Machine in her perfect sociopathic ways. Katherine Heigl is a treat to watch, oscillating serious commitment to performance with hammy acting that serves to make her character slightly unpredictable at times.

Is Unforgettable a good movie? No, the pacing is terribly slow, boring at others, feigning to be the next romantic thriller. Likewise, it’s ethnic erasing to rid the script of any social commentary makes it morally egregious to watch, especially considering the amount of potential the original plot has. But, sometimes an absurdly ominous horse riding scene can put a smile on your face. The sexual jealousy, the red wine, the hair pulling, nail scratching fight scenes – it’s all a delight if you’re in the mood for trash. It’s also pleasantly refreshing to see the traditionally handsome lead male actor play a clueless, beautiful, helpless victim in need of rescue sometimes.

Unforgettable isn’t necessarily a good movie, but it’s good trash. And sometimes, a bit of trash is always worth checking out. Now I have the unmitigated desire to watch Showgirls. Excuse me.

The Belko Experiment (2016) – Review.

It’s that wonderful time of year again. Before Marvel Studios kick off the Blockbuster season with whatever superhero they have for us, the majority of studios tend to shovel out a series of films they simply don’t quite know what to do with. The pre-Summer selection often revolves around interesting screenplay premises and original ideas that at one point or another failed in its execution but still needs to generate a box office rather than be shelved off entirely. It’s probably the most interesting period of cinema for those who enjoy deconstructing viable filmmaking or want to see the strangest concepts Hollywood think audiences want to see (A Dog’s Purpose, starring Josh Gad as four dead dogs – coming May 5th, 2017). However, no matter how original or strange these films are, they almost always leave you feeling disappointed that it could have been better.

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The Belko Experiment certainly entices from its setup. 80 employees at a company working off-site in Columbia are trapped in the building and informed that 3 of them have to be killed or else the casualties will be doubled. You can probably guess that it’s doubled. From there, the numbers increase as tensions mount and people begin looking out for themselves or turn into unstoppable psychopaths. Written by James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy), the film is primarily a blend of Battle Royale and Office Space, with some Saw added in just for good measure.

If that sounds interesting, then you’ll probably enjoy yourself with what Greg McLean (Wolf Creek) has made of the screenplay. The mystery and bloodshed exquisitely mounts with a taut and gradual pacing, turning into a fun, satisfying chaos to watch unfold. Filled with an eclectic cast of character actors, including Tony Goldwyn (Tarzan), John C. McGinley (Scrubs), Michael Rooker (Guardians of the Galaxy), and John Gallagher Jr. (10 Cloverfield Lane), the film plays off their personas well to find their characters’ survival compelling for the audience.

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However, a significant problem with The Belko Experiment is with the screenplay itself. Gunn has made public his incredulity that the project has been made (a cathartic exercise he worked on during his divorce proceedings… make of that what you will), and it’s easy to see why. Simply taking Darwinian thought of natural selection and amplifying its meaning in a corporate environment, the biting satire and commentary of workplace interactions and practices is extremely hollow and generic in its arguments. An extensive segment in which the managerial board have to choose the staff who are expendable and can be fired metaphorically with a literal gun lacks both tension and meaningful insight.

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This is ignoring the general mean-spirited irony that laces itself undeservedly through the story. While it’s perfectly acceptable to kill characters off largely unceremoniously to add surprise, twice are women killed off as bitter jokes on the part of the filmmakers to undermine expectations on who will play important roles and general cruelty for being seductive (there’s that divorce proceeding popping up its head again). By excellently capturing a relentless barbarity and gruesome tone, the comedy becomes itself quite mean spirited and aggressive, making a majority of the proceedings slightly unpleasant to sit through.

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All of this culminates in a film that places all of its justification into its ending which inevitably lacks solid reasoning for why people murder each other, resorting to cheapening the events with a sequel-bait that will never happen. The Belko Experiment is a fun film which nevertheless remains mean-spirited and sorely lacking in ideas. For those finding themselves sanguine for a hard-18’s bloodbath, then it’s surely worth checking out even once.

Fate of the Furious (2017) – Review.

With or without the entire cast and a new director at the helm, this was going to be a disaster. Sequels are often considered the bane of the movie industry but the eighth entry to any franchise just sounds instinctively like an absurdity. Audience and critical tolerance for films such as Friday the 13thPolice Academy, and even X-Men dissipates when movie number eight pops into existence. Star Wars certainly has a lot on its hands with The Last Jedi, having to prove that the trust to their develop of the franchise was justifiably earned.

As for Fate of the Furious, the appeal is simultaneously elusive yet comprehensible. Since Fast Five, the series has relied heavily on absurdity and exaggeration, disregarding the basic premise for more outlandish setups. It’s worked, turning a long forgotten and outdated racing film into a more palatable and broad action flick.

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All that’s come to be expected from Fast and the Furious is here – the cars, the women, the destruction, and the family values, but it feels more desultory than ever before. A few telltale signs of apathy are immediately visible as the film begins in Havana. Vin Diesel seems to have made certain tropes contractually obligated, as he shows off his multilingual dexterity, surrounded by people who love him, and being a hero to the children in hilarious ways if it wasn’t so sincere. Egregious shots of women’s asses are spliced between scenes of Diesel challenging a jerky local, just to distract us from the poor quality of the script.

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Charlize Theron seems particularly aware of the underwhelming quality as her performance can be best described as nonexistent. She delivers her lines with such lack of commitment, that she seems more concerned with waiting for the word “cut” than anything which happens in the narrative.   Not that she can be blamed. Once more there’s a technological maguffin, a villain with a personal vendetta against the protagonist, adventures around the world in expensive cars, and playful disparagement and camaraderie from the cast. It’s been seen before and F. Gary Grey offers nothing new to make the old dynamic slightly more interesting to enjoy.

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There simply is nothing left for the franchise to give at this point, but it surely won’t stop another sequel from appearing in two years time. Eventually Toletto’s gang will have to travel to space. And race to the moon.

XX (2017) – Review.

Horror has undergone a renaissance of sorts in recent years. While the pining for the days of excess and gore from fans who were quick to denounce the genre as dead might have been uncalled for, the output since the 1990s certainly never helped. Horror suddenly became synonymous with January and the dregs of films which Hollywood tried to clear out amidst reward season.

There’s still no reason to be pessimistic though for alongside the bad has also been a plethora of good titles that have garnered almost instantaneous cult status. The Babadook, The Love WitchPrevengeRaw, the new brand of horror focuses almost entirely on women’s horror and anxiety in contemporary society. It’s a welcome and exciting change, subverting the often hyperactive male gaze rampant in the horror cinema of yesteryear. Likewise, the talent behind these films, including Jennifer Kent, Alice Lowe, Anna Biller, and Julia Ducournau, are inserting more creativity and flair for the genre than anything James Wan, M. Night Shyamalan, or Eli Roth have churned out in their entire careers.

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This female drive in horror is the starting point for XX (2017), an anthology horror film directed by Roxanne Benjamin (Southbound), Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body; Æon Flux), Annie “St. Vincent” Clark (in her directorial debut), and Jovanka Vuckovic (The Captured Bird). Interwoven through exquisitely gothic stop-motion animation (reminiscent of the Quay Brothers) which are directed by Sofia Carrillo, nearly each short film is thematically concerned with women and, possibly by coincidence, the sense of entrapment in a life of domesticity. While it certainly possesses a gorgeous visual, it suffers from the drawbacks which often plague anthology horror films, being both hit and miss,  tying every element together with unnecessary cliches from the worst of horror cinema in recent years.

“The Box” (Vuckovic) sets the standard for the rest of XX, following the story of a mother whose son encounters a strange man on a train. The man carries a bright, shiny red box that intrigues the boy who asks to look inside. Whatever it is, it makes the boy lose his appetite entirely, until day after day passes by and he precariously starves himself to death. Not knowing what’s wrong, the mother, Susan, becomes increasingly alarmed when the rest of her family soon follow. It’s serviceable, but the restraint from the run-time results in plot points to feel rushed and contrived. A gruesome dream sequence becomes the overall highlight, elevated by an incredible special effects team that show off their magic throughout the entire film.

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Annie Clark’s “The Birthday Party” stands out as the best portion of the film. From its opening shot of a beautiful turquoise that’s soon revealed to be a close-up of an ass, the consecutive ironic undercutting of its own narrative makes it a humorous treat to watch. Once again, a mother finds herself horrified on the day of her child’s birthday party when her husband is found dead in his office. Trying to keep the party on schedule and without fault, she quickly and desperately tries to hide the cadaver as both her daughter and their gothic assistant, Carla, are roaming around the house getting ready for the party. To say any further would spoil half the fun, with its only really detraction being its inclusion in XX, being more of a black comedy than a horror film. Melanie Lynskey is exceptional, portraying a character who balances composure and exhaustion across an increasingly blurred line. Lynskey showcases in such a short time why she’s one of the most egregiously underappreciated comedy actors in cinema today.

“Don’t Fall” is both the qualitatively and thematically weak point of the entire collection. In company with the string of  homages to the iconic horrors of the ’80s, it tells the story of four campers in the canyon who stumble across some inscriptions on a rock made with blood. During the night, a camper finds herself alone and taken possession by a demon and her friends are killed off one-by-one. Not only is it the shortest film but it is also the most lacking. While the prosthetic makeup continues to stand out, nothing connects itself to the other films. Four teens go to the woods and are killed. There isn’t much else to say.

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The most interesting, and certainly the second-best film of XX, is “Her Only Living Son,” directed by Karyn Kusama. A sequel all-but-in-name to Rosemary’s Baby, it continues the story eighteen years later where Cora has gone into hiding with her son ever since the devastating birth. Andy, her son, will soon turn eighteen, and his violent tendencies in school continue to worry the mother about his supposedly destined faith. The film pays passing regard to Polanski’s original and focuses more extensively on the sense of helplessness in maternity from the surrounding community making Cora’s agency feel undermined in every aspect. If idea for a sequel is rich and Kusama shows that she could do a lot with the material, but the running time of the short undermines the overall experience. It feels more like treatment for a feature length film than an actual film itself, resulting in an ending that is unintentionally obfuscating and underwhelming.

If the intent is to offer a platform to showcase the talented women working in the horror genre today, then XX certainly fails to capture why the commendation is deserved. However, Annie Clark’s short is worth admission by itself alone, so if anything can be discerned from the anthology, it’s that Annie Clark needs to make more films without a doubt.

Fred Ott’s Sneeze (1894) – Review.

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There it is. 45 frames. 7 seconds in length. The first film ever made in the United States.

…Sort of. While some may argue that the first ever film in history should be credited to Louis Le Prince for Roundhay Garden Scene (1888), the first copyrighted film happens to be from Thomas Edison for this short of Fred Ott having a sneeze. Ott, an employee for Edison, was renowned for his gags and his distinctive sneeze, which was apparently enough impetus to allow the first recorded image be of him joking around.

It’s certainly not fascinating by itself. Not much is achievable in seven seconds. If someone were to apotheosize film as high art, they’d posit that the film contains the foundations of American cinematic storytelling in a single shot – the setup (the man puts snuff to his nose); the dilemma (the man is overwhelmed by the physical need to sneeze); the resolve (the man feels relieved). However, this really is a coincidence beyond anything else.

Fred Ott’s Sneeze was the groundwork for the development of what we’d come to know as the camera. Never intended for public viewing, the sneeze that started it all began as a commission for Harper’s Weekly to demonstrate the abilities of their new Kinetoscope. Even being credited as the first copyrighted film is spurious itself. In 1894,the Library of Congress held no regulations for copyrighting films  so the 45 frames sent to Harper’s Weekly were copyrighted individually as a series of photographs.

There is some curiosity to be had about what this springboard can tell us about filmmaking itself. Cinema has always been a spectacle. The selling point of Fred Ott’s Sneeze relies entirely on the novelty of moving image (something now capable of being condensed into a .gif) and so, to us, there is nothing significant without its historical context. The most joy to be had from the film now is the derisive comments section on YouTube. Spectacle draws in the public, but its effect and appeal is ephemeral at best.

More importantly, film began as an amusement. The charm of Fred Ott’s Sneeze is its frivolity. One of the followups was The Kiss (1896), one of the earliest publicly shown recordings, and a similarity emerges almost instantly:

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No, not just Fred Ott himself. The subjects play up to the camera, amused at the act of recording, self-conscious that what they do will be permanently recorded. They become silly and that silliness makes them so amusing to watch. What occurs in those seven seconds of Fred Ott sneezing his way to fame is no different from the numerous Cinnamon, Ice Bucket, or Bean Boozled Challenges which occupy the internet on a daily basis. If anything, it’s a comedy; certainly an in-joke for the staff at Edison Manufacturing Company (including its sequels, Fred Ott Holding a Bird (1894) and the aforementioned The Kiss).

If anything can be learned from Fred Ott’s Sneeze, it’s that filmmaking never began as art, or storytelling, high/low brow entertainment, nor even with a bang. It started with a sneeze.