CineScene

The Scariest Movies Are Those That Reflect Current Events

By BILL GEIGER | Jul 18, 2018

That roller coaster ride to Labor Day is going to pick up speed, and there’s nothing we can do about it. So fasten your seatbelts, for the ride will be fast and bumpy, owing to the uncertainty everyone is feeling about the way things are going this summer.

The three films I’ll be discussing this week all hinge on policies that the Government, with a capital G, have put into place to make life miserable for a few unlucky people or, even worse, for whole segments of society.

It isn’t often that three films, one even a “superhero” movie, have themes that radiate into our world news or our world views, so I almost have to mention their politics in my discussions of them. Moreover, all three, “Ant-Man and The Wasp,” “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” and “The First Purge,” carry themes of reuniting children and their parents, or brothers with their sisters, all ideas that resonate with many people these days.

“Ant-Man and the Wasp” is the 65th installment, or so it seems, of an MCU (that’s the Marvel Cinematic Universe for the uninitiated) film this year. No doubt Marvel movies are enjoying unprecedented success these days. The paradigm has shifted in their favor.

Actually, though, the franchise seems a bit bloated. Some of the features they produce are funny and insightful, like “Black Panther,” but others are MCU and more MCU, films just made for the sake of making them. “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is like that a bit. There is some backstory – when Paul Rudd’s character Scott Lang (Ant-Man) returned from lending his hand in “Captain America: Civil War,” the Feds were waiting for him. They slapped an ankle monitor on him and a restraining order of sorts, promising they would send him to prison for 30 years if he participated in any more superhero-type shenanigans.

The Feds are represented mostly by FBI man Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), an upright, uptight, slightly strait-laced agent known mostly for boring everyone in earshot once he starts expounding about the state of things. But all is not well in FBI-land. There is a crooked agent (not Woo) who reports things to gangster Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), so the Feds are compromised.

Scott is needed by his old mentor of sorts, Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), and his one-time lover Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lily), also Pym’s daughter, because – more backstory – 30 years ago Hank’s wife and Hope’s mother, Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer), the first Wasp, was needed to go sub-atomic in order to stop an already-fired rocket from continuing its course and killing many people. Janet knew once she entered the quantum realm, she wouldn’t be able to go back. For the sake of the mission, she went quantum anyway.

Scott has been getting flashbacks, memories and dreams about his quick foray into the quantum realm in the first “Ant-Man” movie, indications that maybe he’s connected somehow into the quantum realm, so Hank and Hope hope he can help.

Hank and Hope have been buying quantum gizmos on the black market to help build their quantum chamber and quantum vehicle for that magical ride into tinyland, and their seller, one Sonny Burch, begins to get suspicious, and tracks them to get the quantum car. Meanwhile Pym’s former co-worker Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne) is parenting Ava (Hannah John-Kamen), a girl who was radiated by her father’s malfunctioning exploding quantum chamber years before, her family killed. She can phase into and out of reality, hence her more literal name, Ghost.

Foster has been following Pym from afar since their acrimonious breakup, and Ava knows Pym is coming up with a quantum chamber of his own, and thinks a dose of the radiation might cure her of her phasing. So, while all this is going on, Hank and Hope are putting all their marbles on a journey into the quantum realm, looking for Janet once there. They think she might still be alive, and they think they can bring her back.

The film wants to reunite Hope with her mom and Hank with his wife. It’s all about family. Thrown in for the ride are Scott, his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) another family side plot, and Luis, his partner (Michael Peña).

So we have crooked government types and a story about reuniting a family – sounds suspiciously like something coming from the evening news. I know this film was in the works way before the order to separate families coming across the border, but the old saying “art imitates life” has some life in it yet.

*   *   *

In this year of Josh Brolin – “Avengers: Infinity Wars,” “DeadPool 2,” and now “Sicario: Day of the Soldado,” all released within the span of a few months – we have the actor reprise his role of Matt Graver in this grim story of a secret black ops plan that goes menacingly awry, right over the border in sunny Mexico. In the first “Sicario” movie, Emily Blunt played an FBI agent with a healthy dose of conscience, watching with increasing horror the free-for-all there among the cartels, the FBI and the DEA.

Unfortunately, this sequel does not include Blunt, just the horror, and the only thing that makes it watchable is the importation of refugees across the Rio Grande into Texas, a drama being played out every day along our southern border. This is real-life stuff, and again, the film’s writer, Taylor Sheridan, could not have foretold the dim idea of separating parents from children when he penned this flick. But it happened, and it does again in “Sicario”, in microcosm.

In order to pit the one extremely powerful drug cartel, run by a man named Reyes, against the next powerful, the Matamoros cartel, the U.S. sends Graver and his mercurial henchman, Alejandro (the excellent Benicio Del Toro), into Mexico to kidnap Reyes’ daughter Isabel (Isabela Moner), making it look as if it was done by the Matamoros cartel. Isabel is a fighter (we first see her punching out a fellow schoolgirl in the schoolyard), and she begins to understand that everything is not as it seems. So Isabel is forcibly separated from her parents by a U.S. government-sanctioned mission. I couldn’t make this stuff up.

Matt Graver is not FBI, as much as I can tell, so he must be CIA, but whatever he is, he has a lot of power and also a lot of firepower. He has a small mercenary group around him that can diffuse nearly any situation. But he doesn’t see how his plan could go wrong – he doesn’t read the signs very well – so when all hell breaks loose, things go south in a hurry.

Isabel runs off and Alejandro goes looking for her, isolating himself from the comfy confines of the soldiers for hire and Graver himself – a perfect name since the action from here on out gets graver and graver.

A sicario, by the way, is a hitman, or a hired killer, which the cartels employ in great number. A soldado, also in the film’s title, is a hired soldier, a mercenary, because the root of the word soldado means a coin. So how much is a life worth, or a block of cocaine, or a stack of bills? It depends, and the action of “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” points out that a life along the border is certainly not worth the cost of the drugs, but when families struggle to get to the U.S., that need to get to freedom is a noble one. Separating children from their parents is as ignoble as it gets.

I should mention that the reason the Government (there’s that capital G again) wanted that internecine war among the cartels is the belief that the cartels are smuggling terrorists across the border. The film opens with Border Patrol and ICE agents hunting down a group of recent arrivals; one of the men isolates himself and then blows himself up, taking some of the police with him. A little later terrorists enter a Kansas City department store and set off bomb-laden vests, killing a lot of people. So there’s the motivation for the kidnapping, but not necessarily the proper reason for it.

Sheridan’s film, directed by Stefano Sollima with a flair for action and battle sequences, might not be as taut as the first “Sicario,” but as our sympathies veer toward Alejandro and Isabel in this film, we see a protector watching out for a young girl, and we see a young girl trying to get back to her family.

There are a lot of wolves along the way.

*   *   *

In “The First Purge,” the Government has taken a strong turn to the right, and a new political party, NFFA (the New Founding Fathers of America), has been voted in. This party, led by a coalition of white males, decides to take a page from their right-leaning psycho-social playbook and initiate a night of lawlessness, a 12-hour stretch where no laws prevail and which has been given the interesting title of a “purge.”

Ultimately the plan is to take a municipality, fairly small in nature, that could be cordoned off and isolated; its inhabitants could then be given license to romp around shooting, killing, maiming, raping, doing literally whatever they wanted from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., no arrests, no guilty parties.

The NFFA chooses Staten Island, primarily because it has the correct socio-economic mix of people (in other words, there are very few white people) for this experiment. The very precise academic Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei) is known as the architect of the purge, since it was devised from her study of the effects of random violence done by repressed people which the NFFA has found and appropriated for its agenda. Using violence had, she found out, made them feel empowered, so it was good for their psyche.

Dr. Updale and NFFA Chief of Staff Arlo Sabian (Patch Darragh) are the Government’s witness to the calamity from the vantage point of the command center. Both Sabian and Updale watch the events unfold, but as the lawlessness doesn’t proceed with the dispatch they hoped for and Sabian has to file reports to the president periodically through the night, something has to be done to jump-start the mayhem.

So he decides to take the matter into his own hands, and imports mercenaries and government contractors to hasten the killings along. What would it matter, he theorizes, if the inhabitants of Staten Island were going to kill each other anyway? It would just reduce the population of groups that don’t need to be there.

Now, through the smarmy existence of Arlo Sabian, we see the real reason behind the Purge – to lighten the population of unwanted races. Sabian might have thought his mercs would take care of business, but he didn’t account for one main thing – a drug kingpin named Dmitri. Big mistake on his part.

Dmitri (Y’lan Noel) controls the flow of drugs into his little corner of Staten Island, though judging from his arsenal and the wads of money he flashes about, it looks as if he may control the flow of narcotics into the whole of the island. He’s ruthless, and he may even be worse for the inhabitants of Staten Island than the government of right wing ideologues. But Dmitri grew up in the ’hood, these people are his people, and he feels responsibility toward them. This might not make up for the fact that he’s keeping them dependent on drugs, but when outsiders come into his territory with murderous intent, Dmitri’s got the people’s back.

The film begins with the struggles of a family living in a high-rise slum, yearning to live in a better place. That sister and brother, Nya and Isaiah (Lex Scott Davis and Joivan Wade, respectively) are important archetypes in the neighborhood’s cast of characters, because Nya aspires for a better life doing things the right way, while Isaiah yearns to deal drugs like Dmitri. In fact, he wants to be part of Dmitri’s operation. Nya, if she found out, would be both devastated and enraged.

When Isaiah decides to participate in the purge, he signs a contract with the NFFA, is given special image-recording contact lenses to wear, and is determined to look for and find a sociopath named Skeletor (Rotimi Paul), who disrespected him earlier and whom Isaiah wants to purge from this earth. But things don’t go quite as Isaiah wants, and as he finds the ’hood overrun by a masked militia, he is sorry he ever decided to purge.

Nya is safely ensconced in a local church where a full congregation hopes to spend the 12 hours of the purge praying and listening to the reverend give a sermon on neighborhood unity. The film gives a short snippet of the reverend’s sermon. After listening to it, I think I’d take my chances with the purge.

Anyway, Isaiah calls Nya from a hiding place, and she comes out to find him. Meanwhile, Dmitri and his men are suspecting that these “purgers” are not residents but rather outsiders. When Dmitri spots some randomly shooting at a corner, he dispatches them all with the efficiency of a soldier. Indeed, there is some talk among Dmitri and his henchmen that the men he just killed are government contractors, i.e. mercenaries. It turns out the big “D” might have been a soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan, and his narcotics lieutenants might have served with him.

This all leads to the climax of the film, as the mercs go out hunting for innocents while the big “D” and his men go out hunting for the mercs. Other things become known, such as the fact that Nya and Dmitri once worked together before Nya saw the “light,” and might even have been lovers. So the drug lord and the family reunited team up, and you can figure out the rest. It was a bad night to be a Government contractor.

Still the smarmy Arlo Sabian reckons the first purge a success, but the people emerge stronger, waving the “old” American flag as a sign of unity.

As films go, it’s passable. I thought I could figure parts of it out before seeing how the director, Gerard McMurray, shot the scene and played it out, but I was surprised in a few places. Still, it has the feel of a lesser film. And it’s a Blumhouse production, so you know there’ll be violence and bloodletting throughout.

The right-wing Government, the privileged white male ideology, the racism, family unity – these ideas seem plucked from current events. I don’t know which is scarier, the reality or the fiction.

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