Purge: Election Year, The (2016)
★★ / ★★★★
“The Purge: Election Year,” written and directed by James DeMonaco, has the potential to become a thoughtful horror-thriller, given our current political and societal climate, but instead it relies on the same old tricks, within the genre and its predecessors, to generate superficial suspense and thrills. As a result, the picture, for the most part, suffers from the law of diminishing returns: its bite is less potent, its attempts to shock more predictable in terms of execution and final result. It is clearly an inferior installment.
The plot revolves around a returning character, Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo), now a bodyguard for Senator Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), a politician determined to end the annual Purge once and for all because she believes the event is merely a ploy for the rich to control the population of the poor, especially poor minorities. Since they have less means to protect themselves, they are killed at an alarmingly disproportionate rate. She has used this platform to propel herself to become the next president of the United States. Her rivals then aim to use the Purge to eliminate the competition.
Out of the gates already showing off great level of energy, it is a great frustration that much of it is depleted less than halfway through. It can be argued that standout scenes take place in a deli where owner Joe Dixon (Mykelti Williamson) and his friends (Betty Gabriel, Joseph Julian Soria) trade humorous banters and comment on the politics shown on television. Although they are all on the same side, they actually sit on different points of the political spectrum. If the writer-director had chosen to strive a little higher or dig a little deeper, their differences ought to have been more amplified. It certainly would have made Joe, Marcos, and Laney more interesting; we would have cared about them more.
Shootouts from afar receive more time to unfold than violence that feels personal. Such is a misstep that takes away the effectiveness of the premise. While necessary because the plot involves multiple attempts of political assassinations, thrills should not rely mostly on these impersonal long distance kills. What makes the original film so haunting is that by the end we discover that even one’s neighbors wish to hurt, maim, or kill another because of their jealousy, envy, or belief that one doesn’t deserve one’s successes and accomplishments.
Here, although there are politics that relate to real-life issues such as the 1% working the system or finding loopholes in order to take advantage of the 99% and a politician’s popularity being rooted in hatred of the Other, the script fails to put the outrage into meaningful, shaded context that it inevitably rattles us but makes us think at the same time. Instead, it chooses to focus on people shooting at each other as if it were a generic action flick.
The closest it gets to the sheer insanity of the previous films involves schoolgirls (Brittany Mirabile—whom I would love to see more in other projects—and Juani Feliz) wishing to kill Joe and destroy his deli during Purge Night simply because they were caught shoplifting the day before. This dragged out conflict stems out of stealing candy but not being allowed to get away with it. (Even though the owner chose that the cops did not get involved.) What makes it a solid subplot in this particular horror-thriller is because it is able to match the madness and energy of the premise. If only the rest were written as thoughtfully and creatively.
Purge: Anarchy, The (2014)
★★ / ★★★★
The problem with “The Purge: Anarchy,” in which its predecessor is not immune from, is that it gets too bogged down by the action that a wonderful concept is left rotting in the shadows. One cannot help but wonder what would result if a seasoned writer-director with a penchant for the cerebral rather than the visceral took the helm and scoped out the complexities and conundrums of an American futuristic society in which the government authorizes any criminal act—including rape and murder—for one night without lawful repercussions. I realize that movie studios are not interested in that kind of picture, but it would have been right for the material.
And so here we have the sequel to James DeMonaco’s “The Purge,” slightly better than the one that came before but not by much. Though the title promises a subversion during March 21st’s The Annual Purge, the anti-Purge group is given very little time on screen. They appear in the latter half eventually but by then it is too late. They are treated as a device rather than the central element that comes to define the picture.
Instead, time is dedicated to three groups who decide to work together to keep alive while running about downtown: Eva (Carmen Ejogo) and Cali (Zoë Soul) are forced out of their homes by armed men; Shane (Zach Gilford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez) find themselves stranded when their car broke down minutes before The Commencement; and an unnamed man (Frank Grillo) hopes to exact revenge. Though all of the performers have the charm to command the camera, the script fails to go beyond standard lines.
Most of the characters are given an annoying habit of talking when they are supposed to be silent, hoping not to attract attention from potential snipers on rooftops. If this were a horror movie, it would be without a doubt that they would all end up dead. When they do speak in so-called safe areas, they say nothing special or thought-provoking. One gets the impression there is dialogue only to buy time for the next action sequence in which they are once again the targets and one of them will most likely end up injured.
The climax of the picture takes place inside a compound where the rich are encouraged to bid and, if they win, participate in hunting and murdering individuals—often the poor—who were taken off the chaotic streets overnight. The scene that depicts the hunting is so poorly executed that one must squint in order to get an idea of what is going on exactly. The room is already very dark. Couple that with the camera being focused so closely on faces and bodies that when two people or more get into a scuffle, there is only confusion depicted on screen. To make matters worse, the camera moves so quickly that the director might as well have employed quick, incomprehensible cuts. The climax offers very little artistry so it is not only most disappointing, it is also not at all entertaining.
“This is my right granted to me by the government,” including other variations of it, is a line repeatedly uttered throughout the picture. It would have been a good starting point to explore the implications of the holiday of interest. For one, there is an implication of entitlement—despite having the right to do something regardless of the action actually being right or wrong.
Entitlement is a very relevant thing in modern American society and there are multiple ways to explore it—as a praise or a critique, or both. Alas, it is a shame that the film gives the impression that it must consistently appeal to the lowest common denominator. That is, it must show images of people shooting people, torture, mayhem. As far as mainstream works go, these images need not be explained within a limited standard running time.
Grey, The (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Ottway (Liam Neeson) was considering to commit suicide the night before he and a group of oil rig workers were scheduled to take a flight to visit home, but he decided against it after hearing a wolf howl from a distance. When their plane crashed in Alaska, miles from the nearest town or city, Ottway and seven survivors (Frank Grillo, Dallas Roberts, Dermot Mulroney, Joe Anderson, Nonso Anozie, James Badge Dale, and Ben Bray) were systematically hunted and killed by ravenous wolves. As the men dwindled in number, Ottway’s insistence to live became clearer. Conversely, the possibility of Ottway finding refuge turned dimmer. Written by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers and Joe Carnahan, “The Grey” was a cut above us being reduced to passively watching men trying to survive against the cruelty of nature. It forced us to consider difficult questions by immersing us in images that ranged from the grizzly wolf attacks to the chilly landscapes of barren hope. Even though it was difficult to remember the men’s names, the majority of them serving as fodder for the canines, more was revealed about them in the second half of the picture. So when a character, for instance, decided that others should leave him behind because his will to live reached the bottom of the barrel, we felt bad for the character yet we understood where he was coming from. There was no melodrama. The aforementioned scene was especially well-executed. There was no music that served to signal that we should feel a certain way. There was only silence and peace, an acquisition of mental freedom through the act of surrendering. I found beauty in its attitude about death, how it shouldn’t be feared as long as it’s our choice. Notice the contrast between a sweet surrender and a wolf suddenly jumping from behind while the men kept warm around a fire. The title went beyond the color of the wolves that growled from a distance. The adventure was ultimately convincing because the film was essentially about the grey area of life and death. By watching the men march for a seemingly interminable distance, the picture dared us to question how far we think we would be willing to go if we were forced to be in their place. The men were supposed to be “tough” because they were hardened by their time and experiences in prison. Despite their histories and intrepid comportments, we could relate to them because the screenplay gave them a chance to open up and reveal reasons why they wanted to survive. Like them, the majority of us value our families most: we fight for them, to be with them, even if it meant making the ultimate sacrifice. That’s what separates us from other animals like the wolves in the film. They may be able to remember a person who harmed them in some way but they are incapable of loyalty or being connected to their conscience. “The Grey,” directed by Joe Carnahan, also benefited from Neeson’s versatile performance. He was able to keep an interesting balance between being animalistic and humanistic, a requisite for a movie driven by implications about our place in nature. But it wasn’t without a sense of humor. I wondered at some point if barbecued wolf meat was a delicacy somewhere out there.