Wednesday, 12 June 2019

IN THEATRES: Men in Black - International

Probationary agent M (Tessa Thompson) is given her first assignment and sent to the London branch, where she falls in with the dashing-but-oafish Agent H.

Together they have to protect a piece of powerful alien techno-and you've already stopped reading.

There are bad aliens. Thor and Valkyrie kill them. The end. No Will Smith/Tommy Lee Jones cameos.


I've been trying to come up with something to introduce this review. So here is the music video for 'Men in Black'.


Best to keep it playing - it will be more fun than this review.

Anyway.......................

What a hollow movie.

What a bland, uninteresting, cookie-cutter release date-in-cinematic-form movie.

This franchise had one good story and while the initial sequels were successful they never captured the strange magic of the first movie: the chalk and cheese dynamic of smith and jones; the deadpan style of Barry Sonnenfeld; the great Vincent D’Nofrio as the villain. With this iteration, we get a sliver of a maybe-interesting idea for a main character, and that’s about it for unique ideas.

Admittedly, the first movie is a pretty slim proposition - the plot barely exists (and was basically re-written in post-production) - yet the ingredients already listed make up for it. This movie sadly proves that Men in Black should have stayed at just one movie.

From the jump something is off - we get another extended title sequence but this one does not end on a joke or really add to the story. And then we get two flashbacks, which do no help: we open on a scene set in 2016, and then transition to another scene in 1998, and then back to the present. It is bizarre, and while the scenes provide important info for our heroes, the scenes feel disconnected from each other, and do not really pay off in satisfying ways.

What makes it worse is that there are moments where it feels like this movie could be way more fun than it is. Once the movie shifts into the present, it feels like the filmmakers are setting up a really cool premise - what if a kid grew up wanting to be a MIB (or a WIB), and actively tried to break in? This is the way we are introduced to Tessa Thompson's Agent M aka Molly, a young woman who witnessed the Men in Black and an alien in action when she was a child, and became obsessed with joining the secretive organisation. 


These early scenes are kind of fun - we get a montage of Molly crashing out of interviews for various government agencies because she keeps asking about the guys in black suits, and then a sequence showing her figuring out how to sneak into MIB HQ. Once she breaks into the building the movie's problems become very obvious.

The big issue is that the movie feels in a hurry, and does not allow anything to grow organically. Thompson's discovery and infiltration of MIB headquarters is so fast, and so easy, and followed so quickly by her becoming an agent, the movie loses what little motivation her character has. She wanted to become an MIB agent - and she does. Sure, she is on probation, but at no point through the rest of the movie does it feel like she is growing and learning how to become an agent. No big obstacles and no real stakes make this movie weightless.

While Thompson is a winning presence, she cannot compensate for how underwritten this character is. Throughout the movie I found it difficult to follow her motivations and to really get a sense of her personality. What does she want? What does she need? We never really find out.

The same goes for her co-star: Chris Hemsworth is an agent who has lost his spark, and has grown careless. Sadly the movie chickens out on making him a real loser - he is still too cool and smart. He never screws up in a big way. Even this shoddy characterisation is for nought because the big obvious twist completely negates his (slim) need for redemption.

In a franchise built on the rapport between two main characters, it is ironic that this movie completely fails in this respect. Neither character starts in a solid place, they don’t really learn anything, and they win at the end because of the actions of a minor character. If they committed to the idea of these characters - a gifted amateur who nobody believed in; a veteran who has lost his motivation - it could have worked. The idea of a character coasting because he already did something heroic, and having to humble himself, could be interesting.

Heck, it would have been funnier if it turned out Thompson is a natural at the job and Hemsworth is unmasked as a useless bro who has been getting by on charm and good luck.


Thompson and Hemsworth do their best, but the script does not give their characters or relationship enough definition to really click. What makes it worse is the ham-fisted way the movie tries to wedge in some romantic tension right at the end of the movie. It is already cliche as hell that subtext is never present in their relationship prior.

On top of its bland-erised characters, the movie is not really about anything thematically. Initially it feels like the movie will be taking a swing at current fights over immigration: Rafe Ifans, Agent C, speaks about aliens in very deragotory terms. It sets you up to expect that he will turn out to be some kind of Trumpian threat - the idea of a xenophobic MIB is interesting, but this turns out to be a character trait that just serves to make H look better when C points out signs of trouble. This aspect of the character is pretty much forgotten once the true villain is unmasked, and C turns out to be on the side of angels.

Once again, the movie takes a punt on turning its established formula on its head.

Past MIB movies are famous for their incidental pleasures (Frank the pug; the various denizens of New York), but this movie features few of the same fun details - Kumail Nanjiani plays a tiny alien soldier who becomes M's bodyguard; there's an alien masquerading as a beard.

F. Gary Gray's direction makes a fatal error of all franchise starters (or re-starters): he does not take the time to build and reveal the world - the movie is moving too fast, and introduces locations through wide shots which the characters then walk into. We are never aligned with Molly’s POV as she discovers this hidden world. There is never any sense of tension, or any really great punchlines to any of the jokes (the 'best' of which are in the trailers).

Despite the number of locations (or because of them) the movie never establishes a unique identity. One of the key things from the original is how specific it is to New York. Here, the movie flirts with James Bond-style location-hopping but never makes that interesting. Rebecca Ferguson shows up as a wealthy arms dealer with an island fortress, but the most noteworthy aspect of her character is that she has a third arm. That’s it.

And the lack of practical effects is really felt. None of the creatures or environments feel lived-in or tangible. Even exterior scenes feel canned and limited in scope. Men in Black 3 is a mess but I feel like this movie is going to age worse - its greatest weakness is not that it is bad, it is just incredibly generic in almost every respect.

The one minor highlight is the score (duties shared by Danny Elfman and Chris Bacon), which recalls Elfman's themes from the previous movies.

I would like to give the movie some kudos (half a kudo?) for resisting the urge to include a pop-in from Will Smith or  Tommy Lee Jones. Whether it was scheduling, money or a creative choice is irrelevant, but it is a testament to how little this movie sparked that I was kinda-hoping the movie would pull a Marvel and feature them in a mid-credit stinger.

If you are looking for an easy rental in a couple months, Men in Black: International will suit your needs. But it is not worth going out to the theatre.

Here's hoping Hemsworth and Thompson get to re-team on something else. They have good chemistry in Thor: Ragnarok and the same is true here. They need a Thin Man or something.


If you are looking for a good Tessa Thompson movie, wait till Little Woods comes out next week.

Related

Little Woods

If you are new to this blog, I also co-host a podcast on the British girl group the Sugababes, cleverly entitled SugaBros

You can check out the latest episode here. Subscribe on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts!

Sunday, 9 June 2019

Lisa and the Devil (Mario Bava, 1973)

While on holiday in a Spanish town, Lisa (Elke Sommer) separates from her friends and gets lost.

Unable to find her party, Lisa ends up hitching a ride with an unhappy couple Sophie (Sylva Koscina) and Francis (Eduardo Fajardo). When the car breaks down, Lisa and her companions wind up as guests at a nearby estate where they become uncomfortable guests of the owner (Alida Valli) and her son (Alessio Orano), who develops an unhealthy fixation on Lisa.

While Lisa and the other characters struggle to figure out what is going on, butler Leandro (Telly Savalas) sucks on a lollipop and sits back to enjoy the show...


Directed by the master of Italian horror, Mario Bava, Lisa and the Devil has been on my radar for over a decade. My local arthouse has been running a series of classic films as part of a season on 'identity horror', and Lisa was one of them.

Infamously re-cut and partially reshot by producer Alfredo Leone to cash in on the success of The Exorcist, Lisa... is one of the Italian master’s final works.

After his previous film, Baron Blood, became a big hit, Bava was given complete creative control and it shows - the movie’s atmosphere is strong, the photography is beautiful and the effects are effective rather than realistic. Bava started out in special effects and as a cinematographer - he became famous for his gifts for delivering strong material on the smell of an oily rag.

Aside from his debut Black Sunday, which is regarded as one of the finest hour movies ever made (it is one of my personal favourites), Bava is known as the originator of the 'Giallo', a subgenre of mystery thrillers renowned for their emphasis on hyper-violent murders. From Blood and Black Lace (1964) - regarded as one of the earliest gailli - Bava's subsequent additions to the genre push it in different directions - Hatchet for the Honeymoon plays the action out from the murderer's perspective; Twitch of the Death Nerve pushes the genre to its most nihilistic extreme, with multiple murderers fighting over an inheritance until no one is left alive.

A surreal descent into hell, Lisa and the Devil is only tangentially related to the genre, but in its focus on a small group of characters in an isolated location, it feels like a perverse inversion of the template - the story that Lisa stumbles into feels so familiar, and is treated so cursorily that it almost comes across as parody.

Even the components - a wealthy family on an isolated estate, riven by deceit and perverse urges - feel past their use-by date.

Once the players are stuck on the estate, any lingering semblance of cause and effect, time and place, fall apart.



One of the primary attractions of Mario Bava's work is his unsettling aesthetic - the movie features super bright technicolor, mise-en-scene crowded with creepy dummies, and judicious use of the old fish-eye lense.

In certain respects, it feels similar to The Shining - the isolated setting; the 'daytime nightmare' aspect of the photography (Bava's use of super bright technicolor is incredibly unsettling); the ultimate revelation that Lisa - like Jack Torrance - is and has always been a part of the family’s story

There are some dead spots, and most of the acting is wooden, but the big selling point - aside from Bava's aesthetic - is Telly Savalas as the satanic Leandro.



From the outset, Bava establishes Leandro's control over the movie, with a close-up of Savalas smiling straight at the camera.

Bava does not hide Leandro's true identity - Sommer literally walks around the corner from a massive fresco of the Devil, and immediately runs into the eerily similar Savalas, who is buying a life-size dummy of a man.

In the 'story', Leandro is the butler to this creepy family, both servant, overseer and an audience for the character's antics. For a majority of the runtime, his Satan is basically a background presence, observing and commenting on the other characters as they bumble around the estate.

He talks shit behind their backs, seems to delight in their panic and frustration, and he also seems a little bored by the exercise. Savalas plays the role with a droll charm, pushing his role's servility just ever-so-slightly over the top.

While Sommer is buffeted by events, it feels like the family are running through the same melodramatic storyline over and over again. Savalas’s Devil can barely be bothered to play his role. You get the impression he's played versions of this scenario out countless times already, constantly tinkering with the movements and identities of the characters to see how the scenario  plays out.

At times it feels like Leandro is pushing the story toward the ending because he wants to skip the boring parts - like exposition or character development. The most interesting murder is a spur-of-the-moment act - Sophie runs her husband over after he mocks the fact that her lover - their driver - has been killed.

Every time the movie feels like it is building toward the melodrama its story implies, Bava undercuts it, or focuses on Leandro doing something totally banal - like talking to a dummy, or attempting to bum a cigarette off a guest (and then, in the film's funniest moment, returning it as soon as his 'boss', the Countess, looms up behind him).


Savalas is so magnetic, he gives Lisa and the Devil a weird sense of gravity - the story may make no sense, the English dub may reduce the other characters to cardboard cliches, but Savalas is so good and in tune with Bava's direction that the film does not collapse.

Through Savalas, the film gains an offbeat, pitch-black vein of comedy that adds to the movie's off-kilter atmosphere.

It is not in danger being my favourite, but Lisa and the Devil is definitely worth checking out, and Savalas makes for one of the more fascinating versions of the Prince of Darkness I have seen.



If you are new to this blog, I also co-host a podcast on James Bond called The James Bond Cocktail Hour. Every episode, we do a review of one of the books and one of the movies, picked at random. 

In the latest episode we discuss the portrayal of women in the Bond franchise. Subscribe on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts!

Friday, 31 May 2019

IN THEATRES: Godzilla - King of the Monsters

When a group of eco-terrorists begin releasing monsters around the world, a team of scientists led by Coach Eric Taylor struggle to figure out how to stop them.

Their only hope lies with the mountain-sized juggernaut Godzilla.

Of course the Japanese poster is cooler
This movie should be taken as a straight monster mash.

It has no real pretensions toward being something more. The original 2014 movie spent its runtime on the human characters in an attempt ala Jaws to create a relatable vantage point to the rise of a creature like Godzilla, with the big lizard only glimpsed in snippets until the end.

Gareth Edwards’ movie is a valiant but flawed attempt to restore some of Godzilla’s menace and sheer scale. The downfall of that movie is that the human spine was not as string as it needed to be. Michael Doherty makes no attempts to hold off on the monsters - they come early and they come often.

This movie feels like a reaction to its predecessor in this respect, although Doherty’s handling of the monsters is shaky. With any genre movie it is important to establish rules. A key one is to establish a sense of stakes: for example, when a creature the size of a mountain lands beside you, or when a vehicle explodes close by, what effect does that have on the human body?

There is so much destruction, but rarely does it feel like the human characters are reacting enough to what is going on. I could go on about the importance of geography and the weightlessness of too much CGI, but you'll get the idea. 

The key failing with this movie is the same as its predecessor - the human story is never fleshed out enough to engage. Kyle Chandler and Vera Farmiga play a divorced couple who lost a child during Godzilla's last rampage. In the time since, he has become a recluse, and she has become a full-on super-villain intent on resurrecting Godzilla's fellow monsters to reclaim the Earth from the excesses of human beings.


There is a nugget of an idea here - the monsters' destruction is actually providing an opportunity for nature to reclaim areas destroyed by urbanisation - but we spend so little time with Chandler and Farmiga at the outset that the tragedy that pulled them apart never really connects to Farmiga's fanatical desire to un-terraform the earth.

She just comes across as a dangerous idealist who is completely disinterested in the millions of lives she is allowing to die. There might be a bit of commentary here: the area that we see the most of is a poor village in Mexico - are the filmmakers satirising rich white people's ideas for saving the environment and how these plans ignore minorities, the poor and anyone else without their money and privilege?

Probably not. For some reason the movie insists on making Farming a sympathetic character. Even though she sacrifices herself for the greater good at the end, it is not enough of a re-balance to address the genocidal levels of human misery she has left in her wake.

On a certain level I could appreciate a monster movie that attempted to create morally blurred protagonists (I guess this is meant to echo Chandler's mixed feelings toward the title creature, who was responsible for the death of his son), but Godzilla II - Smash Harder spends so little time on these relationships that the Chandler-Farmiga subplot comes off as flippant and cliche. Having Chandler as a logical everyMAN and Farmiga as a scientist complicated by her silly emotions (women!) smacks of old-school sexism.

The rest of the acting is fine, but they are all stuck playing familiar monster movie cliches - stern military person (Aisha Hinds); jokey scientist (Bradley Whitford); serious scientist (Zhang Ziyi); sage who sacrifices himself (you can guess who). They are just your usual band of bystanders and hype man for the fights.

I was not a fan of the last Godzilla, but one of the things I really dug was the slow-burn reveal of the big blue galoot - Gareth Edwards always framed the creature from a human point of view which added a sense of human scale and wonder to the movie.

There's nothing like that here. While it will satisfy some people just to see all their favourite monsters on the big screen, I felt almost nothing watching their big battles. Doherty is overwhelmed by the scale of destruction, that the stakes fly out the window (into Rodan's mouth).

There's not even much of a dramatic escalation to the battles - you never feel like Godzilla is learning or trying new things. He just gets juiced from a nuke and does exactly what he usually does until Ghidorah dies. Big whoop.

There are occasional things which are fun - the three heads of Ghidorah appear to have different personalities, and bicker over their prey like wolves at a carcass; there's a beaut of a shot of Ghidorah perched atop a volcano that is awesome.

But these things just throw into light how generic the rest of this movie is.

If you want monsters smashing things, this movie might satisfy you. But not enough to justify going to a theatre to see it.

If you are new to this blog, I also co-host a podcast on James Bond called The James Bond Cocktail Hour. Every episode, we do a review of one of the books and one of the movies, picked at random. 

In the latest episode we discuss the portrayal of women in the Bond franchise. Subscribe on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts!

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

IN THEATRES: Aladdin

You ever see the 1992 Aladdin? You got it.


If you were looking for an example of the vacuousness underpinning Disney's live-action remakes of its animated properties, Aladdin fits that bill.

A stilted live action remake of the classic Disney animation, Aladdin is never overtly terrible, yet it is remarkably dead movie. 

Almost every major element from the original get replayed here, but there is no sense of revision or joy - it feels like a group effort to tick boxes off a list.

The opening scenes cover almost exactly the same plot beats as the original yet feel strangely compressed and lacking context. There is a presentational quality to the staging and photography that undermines any attempt at building drama and tension.

Director Guy Ritchie is known for going all out with editing and visual tricks in his previous work, but he is on auto-pilot throughout. Even the action sequences and musical numbers lack verve - the 'Prince Ali' number feels grounded and stagey - filmed in a variety of long and medium shots, Ritchie conveys no sense of rhythm or movement. Even the set in which it takes place seems small and unimpressive (Strangely the most engaging number is the final reprise of ‘Never Had A Friend Like Me’, filmed in a wide shot with dancing extras and the cast choreographed in full frame. It is more alive and spontaneous than any of the other musical numbers).

Putting a white English guy in charge of remaking an orientalist fantasy is already on the wrong track (especially when the same studio is willing to back a movie like Black Panther, which feels like a mirror to this kind of western fantasy), and Ritchie compounds by failing to do the things that he can do well - action and comedy. There is a universe where getting the guy who did Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels to make a story about a street thief conning his way into a palace should be up his alley is a perfect marriage but this is a shotgun wedding where bride and groom are on sedatives. 

Underpinning all of this is a profound lack of meaning. This movie never feels like it is about anything, and even as pure escapism, it just feels limp.

The movie can not justify itself except as a corporate attempt to make more money off an old property. Elements such as Abu, the magic carpet and even the Genie lose character and personality - they were never meant to work in live action and highlight the difference between the expressionistic qualities of animation and the limits of so-called photo-realistic CGI.

It does not help that the movie’s overall aesthetic feels so sterile. Everything looks just a little off - it feels like it needs to be more stylised and over the top.

What makes it all worse is that every now and then, the movie offers (a few) sparks of life.



The recasting of Princess Jasmine shows promise - she is presented as an ambitious woman uninterested in marriage, but as with all the changes, it feels like extra shading to what already exists, rather than a fundamental alteration to the text. Naomi Scott delivers one of the best performance in the movie, but she is still limited by the movie's adherence to the '92 version.

Marwan Kenzari is also pretty good as Jafar - he underplays the menace, and has a decent motivation. And that's about it. Bizarrely, they neuter his bickering with Iago, which does not help.

As new character Dalia, Nasim Pedrad has some funny moments - and that is about it. Ultimately she exists purely to give the Genie a motivation (although, once again more could have been made of this relationship).

Every change in the adaptation just feels like doodling in the margins.

This even effects the movie's biggest star - Will Smith is fine as the big blue guy. He is charismatic, and he has some funny moments, but he can only juice up the movie so much.

Ultimately this movie is a zombie - it is familiar as something once living and has some interesting fungal growths, but it is still fundamentally soulless. 

If you are new to this blog, I also co-host a podcast on James Bond called The James Bond Cocktail Hour. Every episode, we do a review of one of the books and one of the movies, picked at random. 

In the latest episode we discuss the portrayal of women in the Bond franchise. Subscribe on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts!

Tuesday, 28 May 2019

IN THEATRES: John Wick 3 - Parabellum

After being excommunicated for breaking the rules in Chapter 2, John Wick goes on the run from the High Table, the organisation responsible for running and enforcing the rules in his world. Determined to break free, he goes on a quest to get them off his back forever.

Will he succeed? Does a bear crap in the woods?


John Wick is one of the best unapologetic action flicks of the last few years. Pared to the bone, with style to spare, it is made with such economy and intelligence that it managed to resuscitate Keanu Reeves' career AND shoot/punch/stab its way into a marketplace crowded with bigger-budgeted superhero movies and action pictures featuring more fantastical elements (like Transformers). The success of its sequels is hopefully a sign that the action movies of 30 years ago (at least their descendants) still have a place on the big screen.

If I had one criticism of Chapter 2, it was how repetitive it was - Wick goes from set piece to set piece, killing anybody foolish enough to stand in his way. The lack of stakes was only made worse by the fact that he was wearing a bullet-proof suit.

In a universe already built on the supernatural skills of its protagonist, there was a whiff of formula to the previous film that had me questioning whether a third instalment would be worthwhile. Partially this is down to taste - I always lean toward the John McClane-style underdogs over the Seagal-style super cops - but it also is dramatically limiting.

Opening shortly after the end of Chapter 2Parabellum starts in a way that feels like an escalation and a recalibration from its predecessor. While it continues Chapter II's large-scale battles and hyper-real set designs, the filmmakers shift focus from Wick's preferred killing method - one of the joys of the first act is watching Wick's attempts to get firearms foiled at every turn.

Instead, we watch him use everything from a big book to knives to a horse's hindquarters to pummel his opponents. It has the effect of making his character both more vulnerable and shows off his ability to overcome obstacles. It's like taking the gadgets away from James Bond - watching an action forced to improvise and use their wits is far more rewarding than watching 200 interchangeable headshots.

It is a testament to how strong this stretch of the movie is that a mid-movie shootout in Casablanca falls a little flat.


An underrated performer, Keanu Reeves remains the centre of the film. He adds grace and pathos to a character that frankly would not work without him. He is also a great straight man to the cartoonish levels of peril he goes through - the knife-throwing melee in the weapons museum is genuinely hilarious, as are his reactions to Zero's (Mark Dacascos) earnest fan worship.

Halle Berry is on good form as Wick's ex-flame Sofia, although she is in less of the movie than I expected, and part of what I would consider the least consequential set piece in the movie. She basically sets fire to her entire life to help Wick and then... drives away. 

I am guessing she will be back in the next movie. Hope so - Berry's understated performance works really well opposite Reeves, and I am really intrigued to see them paired up again.


In a casting coup, Mark Dacascos plays the key antagonist here - a seemingly cold-blooded assassin on Wick's level tasked with bringing him to ground. A great physical performer, Dacascos feels the perfect opponent for Reeves, and the writers (mainstay Derek Kolstad has been joined by Shay Hatten, Chris Collins and Marc Abrams) give his character a potentially great meta-textual trait - he is a fan of John Wick, and more than defeating him Zero wants to be acknowledged as his equal.

This is a great character game, but with so much going on it gets lost in the shuffle. Zero ends up being merely one of several opponents, and his final battle with Wick - while well-choreographed and shot (it also features the most interesting set of the film) - lacks a sense of stakes.


 While these movies are great, Zero's character did raise one issue I have with the franchise as a whole - it does not seem like Wick has had a truly great antagonist - someone who is as supernaturally skilled as he is, but without even the sliver of empathy that Wick has.

In the end, this is more a matter of preference than a deficit in this movie. The story moves well, most of the set pieces are packed with inventive bits of business and the whole enterprise is boosted a great sense of deadpan humour. Plus it features a ranting Jason Mantzoukas emerging from a pile of garbage.

Check it out.

If you are new to this blog, I also co-host a podcast on James Bond called The James Bond Cocktail Hour. Every episode, we do a review of one of the books and one of the movies, picked at random. 

In the latest episode we discuss the portrayal of women in the Bond franchise. Subscribe on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts!

Sunday, 26 May 2019

The Oath (Ike Barinholtz, 2018)

When the government demands an oath of loyalty to the president, the country is divided over its legality, and what will happen if you don't/sign it.

That is the conundrum facing couple Chris (Barinholtz) and Kai (Tiffany Haddish) as they host Chris's family for Thanksgiving, which also happens to be the deadline for signing the oath. 

The tension of the political climate is exacerbated by the tensions between Chris and his family, particularly between Chris and his brother Pat (Jon Barinholtz).

Will they get through the holiday without getting arrested? More immediately, will the family survive?


For its first half The Oath is fantastic - interweaving the tension of family with the tensions of different political ideologies (clearly with Trump's America in mind).

The simmering conflict between Chris and his family (his dad's inability to use the TV; his brother and his girlfriend's parroting of conspiracy theories). The movie is also savvy enough to highlight how insufferable Chris is - he is unable to decouple himself from his phone to focus on what is going on with his family

The performances of the movie are Tiffany Haddish and Bill Magnusson. As Barinholtz’ extremely levelheaded wife Kai, Haddish is a complete contrast to her more well known roles, she is constantly on lockdown, watching (and countering) her husbands self-righteousness.

As the fascistic agent Mason, Magnusson is terrifying. Evoking the adamant, closed world of right wing mentality (impervious to facts or critical thought), Mason is the most overt evocation of the conflation of patriotism and authoritarianism in the movie - and ultimately a sign of the movie's weakness in its final act. 

Barinholtz builds a terrific world for his story to take place - the characters and their conflicts feel lived in and more complex than mere political differences, and the ideological divide is not reduced to a false 'both sides' equivalence. One of the best things about the movie is how well it does at evoking the current moment - people continuing to ignore the rise of fascism and the co-current breakdown of institutions, in favour of an outmoded left-right dichotomy that no longer applies.

How can you have a polite discussion of the state of the country, when one side is jailing people for refusing to sign an oath of loyalty (or trying to ban abortion/ban migrants/ban transgender people from any and all government services)? 

The Oath's willingness to engage with America 2018 is admirable, and provides for some dark, bitter laughs. The movie is its best weaving these two building tensions as the family gathers for Thanksgiving. But a joke is only as good as its punchline, and while it has a great set up, The Oath does not have the strength of its convictions.

About midway through the movie, it becomes clear that the filmmakers have created a scenario bigger than their characters' ability to resolve it. Once the movie turns into a hostage drama, with the family effectively kidnapping two government agents, the movie feels less surefooted.

As the stakes rise, there is a widening gap between what the movie is trying to do in reaching a resolution with the scope of political breakdown it is trying to satirise. There is a point where the situation gets so dire, the humour takes a back seat. And just as the movie feels like it is about to get unsafe and really complicated, the external crisis is resolved. 

In how it relates to the action of the movie, it feels like a cop-out: a deus ex machina just when we need a reprieve. 

In the moment, I liked it - if only for how it did not feel like a victory. Our hero has no control over what will happen to him, and that remains the case at the conclusion. In this respect it reminded me of the Hungarian movie The Ear (1970), in which a couple are terrorised by the mysterious actions of unseen government actors. No spoilers, but in that movie the ending is terrifyingly inexplicable - a manifestation of the helplessness of individuals against all all-powerful State.   

With The Oath, I found it hard to buy how the external resolution related to the resolution of the main story, particularly between the family and the government agents they take hostage. Billy Magnusson's character - previously an aggressive macho man thirsty for blood - does a turn which feels totally at odds with his character in the rest of the movie. 

The ending feels contrived and easy, which feels totally at odds with the the enormity of the issues it establishes at the beginning. Though unintended, it feels like the movie's most unsettling joke - in a movie, this situation can be resolved. Out here, you are on your own.

Ultimately The Oath bites off more than it can chew. It is still worth checking out, but it’s hard to figure out whether the unease I felt at its end was intended or a result of knowing a situation like this in the real world is unlikely to end this way.

If you are new to this blog, I also co-host a podcast on James Bond called The James Bond Cocktail Hour. Every episode, we do a review of one of the books and one of the movies, picked at random. 

In the latest episode we discuss the portrayal of women in the Bond franchise. Subscribe on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts!