Don’t be afraid to let your body die: Infinity Pool.

*** Full spoilers for Infinity Pool, sorry!***

There’s a lot to write about Infinity Pool, the latest brain boiler from Brandon Cronenberg, inching ever closer to his father’s penchant for fringe societies and their intoxicating influence. It’s been 40 years since we were introduced to the concept of the new flesh in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, and now we have the next evolution. Brandon’s first two features broached the subject, but it’s in his third attempt that he truly realises his potential as the foremost explorer in a new wave of body horror cinema.

I think a lot of critics have a difficult time discussing Cronenberg Jnr without also bringing up Cronenberg Snr, and not without good reason, but they’re missing the bigger picture. Of course he’s still following in his father’s footsteps here (Crash comes immediately to mind) but this time it’s his willingness to turn the camera back on himself which makes all the difference in staking his own claim of authorship. Infinity Pool is first and foremost a reckoning with nepotism and the fairly recent phenomenon of audiences becoming more attuned to how Hollywood works. Turns out, pretty similarly to the rest of the world.

Infinity Pool is the story of James (Alexander Skarsgard), a languishing author who hasn’t had a hit in years and seeks inspiration by visiting foreign resorts with his put-upon wife, Em (Cleopatra Coleman). In an early scene, while having dinner with neighbours Gabi (Mia Goth) and Alban (Jalil Lespert), James reveals himself to be a parasite of sorts, clinging to his father-in-law’s publishing empire as a means of survival while he waits for lightning to strike. It’s difficult to miss the self-reflexive nature of this setup. Needless to say, inspiration does eventually arise once their mysterious new friends introduce them to a life of sex, drugs and violence lying just outside the resort compound.

We arrive at the movie’s Big Idea, or at least the juiciest, once James and co. are arrested for vehicular manslaughter and are told that the laws of this fictional country dictate that he can either be executed… or watch a version of himself be executed for his crime. Understandably befuddled, he chooses the latter. Without any explanation outside of a psychedelic cloning(?) sequence, we get to see exactly that. A doppelganger replete with all of James’s memories is lined up execution-style while the tourists watch from the stands. The death of the author, right before our eyes. Don’t be afraid to let your body die, as we were once told. James is very afraid, and with good reason. He loses something of himself that day, watching ‘himself’ brutally murdered at the hands of eldest son of the man he killed. It’s a deeply traumatising and existentially terrifying sight for Em, but for James… it’s something else. There is an excitement that he has never felt before, and it horrifies him.

Soon enough, we discover that with enough money and/or influence, the local authorities can be persuaded to let Gabi and the other rich tourists use this magic cloning machine for their own sick kicks. Exploiting a poor country for their resources is nothing new in the dark satire sandbox both Cronenbergs relish playing in, but what does it mean to murder a version of yourself? Are these people, at one point referring to themselves as ‘zombies’, disturbed criminals or just another busload of affluent white tourists living in extreme hedonism? There are no rules, and in a society of no rules, there are no consequences. They are trophy hunters, collecting the ashes for souvenirs as fond holiday memories. Murder without a trace, except for the fracturing of their own humanity.

It’s all well and good, but what does it mean? I was entertained for a large majority of the film’s breezy 2 hour runtime and there’s never a lack of food for though. The ideas are fascinating, and reminiscent of the 1966 sci-fi classic Seconds, in which a man who fakes his own death lives a second life of sorts with an entirely new appearance. The sect element is present in both films, but it’s Infinity Pool which pushes the idea to its most visceral conclusion. James beating himself to a pulp in the film’s final moments removes the disconnect of the violence committed against his doppelganger thus far. He is destroyed at his own hands. He has lost something, and gained what he was looking for: inspiration. Young Cronenberg might very well have done similar on the path to escaping his father’s shadow. I can’t wait to see where he takes us next.

Nobody does it better: Reeves, Wick, and putting joy back in action.

It’s hard to make an action film. It’s harder to make a good action film. It feels all the more special when we’ve been given 4 action films in a row, all from the same team, that have delivered a consistent roller-coaster ride telling the tale of retired hitman John Wick. A role seemingly designed entirely to take advantage of Keanu Reeves as a cultural figure, the appeal of the Wick films lie in a very special blurring of the lines between the real world and the world crafted for us by the filmmakers.

Keanu Reeves as an actor cut his teeth in 80s and 90s blockbusters such as Point Break, Speed, and The Matrix. Without The Matrix, there simply isn’t a John Wick. Chad Stahelski, co-creator and director of all 4 Wick entries, was Reeves’s stuntman for the 1999 techno-thriller which changed the game for both action and science fiction films, and cemented Keanu’s reputation as one of American genre cinema’s biggest box-office draws. Fast-forward over a decade later, and Stahelski gives Reeves what now might be his most culturally important role to date in the form of avenging angel (devil?) John Wick. The gamble might not have paid off, if it weren’t for the charisma and presence Reeves brings to the role of a mournful, soulful human Terminator.

The strong, silent action man is not a new trope, not by a long shot. The physicality of Reeves is what brings in audiences, and the John Wick films are fully aware of his strengths and his weaknesses based on his prior work. One could even say that if we view the character of Wick as a Reeves analogue, he’s given us his best work during a successful run of jobs. Time has passed, and now he’s comfortable with his legend status. Much like Tom Cruise, minus the death wish, Reeves does not seem to be at his happiest when he’s resting. The joy that lights up his face during interviews and press events while he talks about the gruelling training he undergoes each time he’s called back to don the black tuxedo is a sight to behold. This is the material he lives for. It’s the material we love to see from him, and he knows it.

The pleasures of the John Wick films are self-evident. Everyone loves a ‘one last job’ hitman tale because they’re one of the most frequently recounted tropes of action cinema. We love them even more when the role is filled by an actor as likable as one of the last great performers in this arena, certainly for Western cinema. John Wick films are something of a celebration of the action genre, often going overseas to find international talent such as Donnie Yen and Yayan Ruhian as both a nod and a tribute to their body of work. It’s a lovely gesture which really does benefit the franchise both in and out of universe.

So what exactly does John Wick do which sets him apart from his peers? Well, for a start, he doesn’t have any. There isn’t another Keanu Reeves. A mostly silent protagonist in a modern action film is pretty much unheard of in 2023, and if you’ve found one, they’ve been inspired by him. Aside from the inciting incident of puppy murder, which itself sparked viral interest in the franchise, there is just one clear narrative thread for this character: kill everyone who stands in your way. Over the years we’ve been introduced to friends and enemies from John’s fabled past, but none of them have ever dissuaded him from his mission. He knows he’s in this until the end, tracked by every money-hungry assassin hunting him across the world in an effort to claim the bounty placed on his head a few sequels back. He knows the game, we know the game, and the filmmakers know you know the game. That’s how they’re allowed creativity of the likes we’re rarely gifted.

This world filled with some of the most inventive and ludicrous situations is a thrill that never stops thrilling. The rules of the Continental hotels, the idea of an underworld existing directly below the surface of an otherwise normal society, the intricacies of how their business is conducted… all of these elements would be abandoned by a lesser filmmaker once their series grew legs. Not only are they doubled down on here, but explored as fully as possible. The juxtaposition is the joke, and everyone is in on it. Critics have already noted the similarities of Reeves’s physicality to silent-era stars such as Chaplin and Keaton, transported to a different genre and a different environment. The appeal remains the same, more than 80 years later. Audience tastes haven’t changed, they’ve just forgotten the inherent joy of watching a man tumble down several flights of stairs, dust himself off, and then do it all again.

Like bees to honey: the slick, sick thrills of Swarm.

Prime Video is easily the bottom rung on the streaming ladder when it comes to the quality of their offerings, probably due to the fact that everyone has Amazon Prime for the delivery benefits, leaving their streaming to feel more supplemental than essential. Their flagship series The Boys left me cold, but nevertheless went on to become their biggest hit to date and quite possibly keeps the platform afloat on its own. Keeping this in mind, I was trepidatious to begin Swarm, their latest offering. I knew my fears were unfounded after those initial 30 minutes pulled the rug from under me several times.

Swarm is the story of Dre (Dominique Fishback), a troubled young black woman who worships at the altar of singing superstar Ni’jah (Nirine S. Brown) – the show’s very blatant Beyoncé surrogate – to the point of her obsession turning murderous. We’re firmly in American Psycho territory, but given an Instagram-friendly aesthetic makeover and a compulsion to draw from some of the biggest pop culture moments in recent years for inspiration. I definitely get shades of Zola, A24’s underrated tweet-turned-movie caper. I think the limited scope of these events, and counting on audiences to be in the know, is Swarm’s only real weakness. Terminally online residents, check in here. Personally, I’m finding the show to be a real winner in an age of endless content where not everything is worth the time we end up investing.

The sharp satire of ‘stan’ culture is often frighteningly well-observed, owed greatly to Fishback’s fearless performance. There’s an untapped wealth of alarming situations taking place on social media every day which showrunners Glover and Nabers clearly have familiarity with. We see parallels to Beyoncé’s elevator bust-up, and even a dreamy sequence which references the bizarre ‘biting’ incident of 2018. The tidbits are all here and they expect you to know them, if you’ve watched this far. I do wish there was more identity given to Ni’jah to explain the fanaticism Dre displays, although I’m all too aware that this is often the case in the real world.

The meta is the point here, and not just in relation to the aforementioned Beyoncé. Paris Jackson and Billie Eilish are among the cameos. Paris, daughter of Michael, is used in a very amusing way which bleeds into the real world conversations surrounding her identity. I can’t yet speak for Eilish but I am keenly aware of the role she plays here. It’s an interesting bit of meta commentary which doesn’t feel too obvious or well-trodden. Malia Obama even has a writing credit on one episode. There’s a lot being cooked in this kitchen, and a large portion of it goes down very smoothly indeed.

At the time of writing, I’ve still got a few more episodes to go, but thanks to the breezy runtimes and slick pacing, it’s the first series in a while which doesn’t feel like a chore. More of a compulsion, and while I write I can actually feel it gnawing in the back of my mind. Now… who’s your favourite artist?

The Sigma Patrick Bateman vs. the Beta Movie Blog

So last night I forgot I won a bid on American Psycho‘s luscious looking (and sounding) 4K UHD disc as it showed up on my doorstep with typical eBay speed. It had been a while since I last checked in with Mary Harron’s much superior adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s novel ‘American Psycho’ – so naturally I popped it in my player and settled into what I’ve never before considered a comfy, albeit horrific, 100 minutes of black comedy gold. It’s easy to understand how the film become a cultural touchstone, attracting a cult following over time for its deliciously sardonic lead performance and wonderfully eclectic soundtrack. The thing is, though, how did the ‘cult’ in cult following become so literal – and what has the internet done to Patrick Bateman?

“There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman” Bale intones during his morning skincare ritual, and it’s the most suitable understanding of what we’re about to discuss. Patrick is, supposedly, a serial killer in 80s New York. He maintains a veneer of normalcy in his music interests and conformity with his peers. Hiding in plain sight, Patrick thrives on the anonymity afforded to him by being just another copy of a copy of a Wall Street elite. Names and places are regularly confused by characters. It simply doesn’t matter to them. What matters is making sure they’re at the top of their respective piles. They want the best business cards, the most difficult reservation to secure at the top restaurants, the most beautiful women to be seen with. Nothing else matters. So why does this lifestyle, or at least this identity Bateman has created for himself, resonate so deeply with a certain subset of internet users? Why are there heavily photoshopped images of a chiseled Bateman adorning the profiles of the worst people you could interact with on Twitter or TikTok?

I won’t drive both you and me crazy by plotting out exactly how we got to this point of discourse on social media. If you’ve read this far you probably understand what I mean when I say the words ‘alpha’ ‘beta’ or ‘sigma’ in reference to online identities. We’re now in a phase of internet where we can create our own idols from already established cultural icons. This has always been the case, but we now have unique tools to show off this identity. Patrick Bateman is an alpha, or sigma depending on popular definition. He has the physique of a Greek god and the looks of a Calvin Klein model. It’s not a coincidence that the letter brand receives several hundred mentions in the novel. For all intents and purposes, Patrick is winning at his life. He has it all, except his sanity. But the internet won’t let something like that get in the way of idolatry.

I think this is where we begin to unearth some appeal to certain groups. He gets a kick out of masking this psychotic persona in public, frequently throwing in strange anecdotes during conversation because they always go unnoticed by the vapid socialites that make up his circle. There’s always been an irony to the character. It’s there in Ellis’s source novel and it’s built upon masterfully in Harron’s film version. Bateman is an idea. He cannot realistically exist in our world, and he only just about exists in his own. As mentioned, there is an ambiguity to the murders he commits whereby evidence appears and disappears between scenes. We’re unsure whether what we’re watching is real or fantasy. The film’s conclusion appears to reckon with this, as we watch Patrick crack under the reality of his situation. The internet does not care about the most important thing that makes Bateman work as a character – his unreliability.

This wouldn’t be the first time a turn-of-the-century work of fiction has been willfully misinterpreted by its audience. Famously, Fight Club is a tale of working class underdogs revolting against a world that they perceive has no further need for them. It’s also a really cool movie where burly guys knock seven shades of shit out of each other and feel good about getting back in touch with their primal instincts. Guess which part is regularly forgotten? The author isn’t just dead, they usually aren’t considered in the first place once a work reaches a large enough audience. ‘Sigma Bateman’ memes, like the one attached, are just symptoms of a much larger problem with media literacy. Irony has its place in this discussion, but it would be disingenuous to assume that all of this film’s fans understand exactly what both Ellis and Harron have tried to convey with their dissections of a uniquely American capitalistic greed and how it bleeds into our psyche. It’s just a lot easier to laugh at Christian Bale dismembering people while Huey Lewis intones about the pleasures of conformity.

Forgetting the past, the key to franchise survival?

I think it’s important to begin this feature with a disclaimer that I have not seen a Rocky movie beyond the original film. I’ve done some research on what takes place in each of those sequels and how they serve the future Creed narrative, but this opinion piece will largely be about moving on from legacy and building foundations for future franchise survival.

So! Scream 6 and Creed 3. Current box office champions. On the surface, these two movies couldn’t be any different. Scream 6, stylised as Scream VI, is a slasher sequel following a group of young adults navigating their trauma amidst a new spate of killings in a fresh New York setting. Creed 3 is a boxing melodrama concerning the trials and tribulations of Adonis Creed, son of Apollo, as he grapples with family life and the legacy he’s leaving behind as he faces retirement. Both movies are bringing their respective franchises to a new generation of viewers via the legacyquel/requel method examined in last year’s Scream installment.

As you can probably imagine, there’s a tightrope to walk when it comes to branching out a beloved property. Both Scream and Creed have long and storied histories chronicled through films and other media spanning multiple decades. There’s a built-in fan base ready to embrace, or reject, any additional materials linked to their universes. The jumping-off point for 2015’s Creed was a passing of the baton from Stallone’s Rocky character to Jordan’s Donnie, the son of his late friend who fans saw killed in the ring several sequels ago. Scream’s resurgence has been more of a delayed start, after 2011’s Scream 4 failed to scare up enough cash to warrant a full return to annual sequels. Flash forward to 2022 and a change in creative talent and we got a self-coined “requel” which moved the series in a new direction while still retaining links to the past.

I would largely argue that this has benefited both franchises. It’s worth remembering that 2006’s Rocky Balboa was an early example of the legacy sequel, albeit one which didn’t lay groundwork for franchise survival in the way that the Creed films now have. The climate has changed, the vibe has shifted. In 2023 every property is an extended universe. It’s reductive to say it’s solely the blame of superheroes, but they certainly have cemented the idea that no movie is an island. Not anymore. We’re now firmly planted in requel territory. The same worlds we visited 30 or even 40 years ago still exist, and we’re giving them new stories – with a big asterisk.

Professional criticism of the requel format usually falls to one big issue: not letting the past go quietly. Scream will always want to recall past entries, which largely works in its favour as a franchise primarily concerned with the tropes of the modern slasher film. Creed has a harder job of balancing Stallone’s presence in the first 2 films before jettisoning him entirely for the latest film. I found this to be an incredibly smart move on Creed 3’s part, as Rocky’s story was poignantly wrapped up at the climax of Creed 2. We don’t always need to see our heroes go out with a bang. As a lifelong fan of the Scream franchise, I could imagine just how difficult of a task it must have been to take on the mantle of Wes Craven’s iconic passion project. The fifth Scream movie was stylistically and structurally identical to Craven’s original 1996 classic, so they called it “Scream”. Again. This is even lampshaded by a character, pointing out 2018’s Halloween as an example of how and why this happens.

Unlike the recent spate of Halloween movies, Scream sticks the landing. There’s enough new material here to relaunch one of horror’s biggest earners, while pleasing longtime fans with callbacks within callbacks, a strong suit of the series since the very beginning. Creed similarly mirrors the past. Jordan has directing duties this time around, much like Stallone developed over the course of his run. The timeless boxing drama themes of family, history, fame and its costs are all touched upon once again, applied to modern day’s cultural and social climate. Creed 3 allows Adonis to breathe. Scream 6 allowed its cast from the previous entry space to breathe. Both franchises have benefited immensely from settling into a comfortable groove. Both are now set for a future of spin-offs, sequels, prequels. Whatever the future of Creed and Scream, the box office takings assure us that there’s no stopping the new blood.

How I learned to stop worrying and love the tom(ato)

Rotten Tomatoes has been the subject of many a thinkpiece in recent years due to its rising prominence among the online commentariat. On the surface, the review aggregate site is an innocuous enough way of collecting reviews from across the internet for ease of reading. Looking closer reveals that assigning a number and a graphic, either a shiny red tomato or the less pleasant green splat, is starting to be taken much more seriously than I’d assume the site’s originators ever thought would happen.

So why is this? If we look at RT as a simple gathering of film reviews, both from professional critics and audiences, it’s easy to see where the appeal lies. We love numbers. We love being able to file and sort our media into easily digestible categories of value. Is the latest blockbuster going to be worth our time, or something to catch in around a month when it’s unceremoniously dumped on streaming services? These are what we want to know when we use a site like RT or the even less palatable Metacritic (with their numeric fetish).

By offering users a quick and easy way of finding out the consensus of recent releases, users could find an appeal in being told point blank whether they should spend their time and money on a trip to the movies. The thing is, what happens when we start waiting for these percentages to let us know which way the wind is blowing? Are we not removing a key feature of an interest in film: the curiosity? Personally, I don’t ever want to lose that. And yet, I’d be lying if I said it hadn’t already affected my way of thinking.

As mentioned, Rotten Tomatoes is everywhere. It’s on Twitter, where we’re foaming at the mouth to find out just how badly the latest Marvel product has fallen from grace. We’re celebrating the shiny red success of critically acclaimed genre pictures. We’re laughing at the stark disparity between audience and critic ratings. There are myriad enjoyments to be found in the binary formula of a red movie or a green movie.

Like all good things, this cannot last. Not only is it narrowing our desire to explore, it’s building a tendency to disregard anything below the 60% grade. For the unfamiliar, a film requires 61% of critics or more to achieve a fresh rating with the accompanying fruit. 59% and below gets you a splat, and the likelihood of the internet will look down on your film with pity or ridicule. You could be a future cult classic, but in the here and now of internet discourse, you’re a flop. There are hundreds of examples of movies debuting to the dreaded green smudge only to go on and develop a loyal following. Or they can fade into obscurity. It’s hard to tell in the moment.

But how does all of this help our understanding of the popular film climate? To be blunt, it really doesn’t. If anything it has hindered us. It’s stifled our creativity, our curiosity, and our willingness to engage with media once we’ve been informed by our most trusted sources. I’ve wrestled with my thoughts on RT for a while now, but I haven’t sat down and typed them all out until this moment. It certainly puts things into perspective when you can still remember a few years where this wasn’t an industry norm. The “fresh” logo is emblazoned on some of our physical media now, almost like a seal of quality. All it really means is that a majority of critics placed something more than halfway on their ratings scale. That’s a lot of energy being spent on something that someone we don’t know hardly enjoyed, and something that we potentially could find more value in.

Food for thought.

Did you see… The Last of Us?

Did you see The Last of Us? HBO’s incredibly expensive gamble on more video game adaptations has seemed to pay off dividends when you take into consideration both the critical acclaim and the viewing figures. It’s been like the days of the water cooler, albeit still taking place over on Twitter. Last night’s finale was, depending on who you ask, either the biggest disappointment of the whole endeavour… or it was just fine? Nothing special in the landscape of endless content.

The Last of Us has been serviceable from start to end. It told the story and it told it as tightly as TV will allow. Sometimes it has toed the line between cloyingly faithful and generic apocalypse fare made acceptable in the wake of that other massive zombie show. I think I fall somewhere between in regards to how successful it’s been. People talk about videogame to live-action curses since by and large these attempts are typically lost in translation and can’t seem to find a middle ground. I think we’ve found the middle ground.

There’s nothing particularly unique in The Last of Us that we haven’t seen in some combination across post apocalypse media. We know what zombies are. We add some real world science to assure ourselves this can Really Happen. The stage is set for one of about 4 stories you can tell in this sandbox. So, we’ve gone for the bonding road trip. Here’s where we find a problem. Travelling vast swaths of the American wasteland in a videogame means we’re doing videogame things like urban traversal and clearing entire rooms of disposable enemies.

So there’s the rub. We are watching things best left to videogames, such as dropping ladders and inventory management, being performed by people in the real world. There could be some story inserted in these moments, and there often isn’t. It’s strange in a way that these adaptations haven’t quite been before.

All this being said, I did get some enjoyment out of seeing what this story looks like when taking on a new presentation. There are areas where this was clearly never meant to happen, but for the most part there’s something enjoyable or interesting to be found in each episode. The unwieldy length and then brevity of some instalments makes the whole thing feel a bit disjointed at times, but it’s not something that I think will bother me on revisits. We got a three dimensional gay love story out of it. I’m interested to see how the continue the story.