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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on Movies: The Purge: Election Year

THE PURGE: ELECTION YEAR (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: James DeMonaco, 2016

Bad movies sometimes tell us as much, or more, about the world and society around us as the good ones. The Purge: Election Year — a sordid, ultra-violent clichéd howitzer of an action picture which has a few good scenes and has attracted a huge audience, is the third bloody chunk of an crime-horror-political-satire trilogy (the first two were 2013’s The Purge and 2014’s The Purge: Anarchy) about a murderous future U.S.A. where once a year, all the laws are repealed for twelve hours, all the police and judges and hospitals are sent home or closed down, and the entire population of the United States is left at the mercy of the gangs and mobs and psychos and killers who rove the streets unchecked.

Sound like fun? For a lot of people, apparently, it is. The Purge movies, like many contemporary action thrillers, including the most popular, doesn’t make much damned sense — but I suppose you could argue that, if they did make more sense, audiences wouldn‘t like them as much. They might get bored. The very absurdity of this movie, the way it hops and blasts from one clichéd bloodbath to another, may be what makes it entertaining for some, or a lot, of the audience. For some people, a lot of people apparently, it works. But the movie kept slipping off my radar, even as writer-director James DeMonaco worked to liven things up with quirky characterization and foul-mouthed street humor, and by cranking up the suspense and trying to plug in more satire. I appreciated the effort, but I wasn’t able to join the laughter and occasional cheers the press audience supplied.

The Purge: Election Year begins with some flashbacks that set the scene and some of the characters for us — and that show both the Good Guys and The Bad Guys, and all the victims in between, getting ready for the Big Night. The rationale for the purge is that if the populace is allowed to run amok, and if they can look forward to these orgies of violence every year, they won’t behave badly and kill people and rob and steal and vandalize and beat the hell out of innocent bystanders the rest of the year. Really? Maybe more people would develop a taste for violence, just as more people exposed to films like The Purge, may develop a taste for more violent movies.

But, as before, DeMonaco doesn’t waste time trying to justify it. The Purge Nights have been dreamed up by the one-percenters and oligarchs and rich people — the ones with enough loot to afford guards and elaborate protections and defense — and they’re the forces behind the political establishment that runs the show, a far right wing organization called The New Founding fathers, or the NFFA. (The similarity in sound to the N. R. A. seems intentional.)

In the first Purge picture, the protagonist was Ethan Hawke, as a middle class father trying to protect his family, which was protected instead by the black loner who shows up, on the run from the nasty rich kids who harass Hawke’s household. In the second picture, which had a bigger budget, the main characters are out in the streets, which are strangely deserted but still dangerous. In this third film, there are more roaming protagonists, including a woman candidate for President in the next election, Senator Charlene “Charlie” Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), who’s running on an anti-Purge platform. Charlie plans to purge the Purge because, 18 years earlier on another Purge Night, she lost her entire family to a gang of rock ‘n roll killers who broke into their house and blasted T. Rex and George Clinton while massacring everybody but Charlie.

For some curious reason, Sen. Roan, who is supposed to be running for President of the U. S. but lacks the usual retinue and entourage and political aides and press and (for the most part) police protectors that you’d expect even an Independent presidential candidate on the Green or Legalize Marijuana ticket to have. Charlie, who in no way resembles Hilary Clinton (except for her glasses), ends up with one functioning guard — Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo), who also lost part of his family and was a character in The Purge: Anarchy. You also would have thought a Presidential candidate would have been better able to stay indoors, along with most of the population. around, and that there would be more explanation of why she ends up with one bodyguard out on the streets. But soon Leo and Charlie are running around town with a colorful little crew they bump into: a wisecracking deli owner named Joe Dixon (Mykelti Williamson) and his badmouth girl buddy Laney Tucker (Betty Gabriel) and others.

SPOILER ALERT

There are a lot of bloody scuffles and bad language, and we suspect that eventually Charlie and Leo and Company will end up clashing with The New Founding Fathers of America, a congregation of well-dressed elite who are gathering in a local cathedral to fill the pews with blather and propaganda (delivered by Kyle Secor as Rev. Edwidge Owens, who looks like a TV preacher and clothes horse), and to throw holy water on their guns. We’re not far wrong.)

END OF SPOILER

Back in the 1970s, when the paradigms for shows like this were being set down — by Roger Corman and other ballsy independent producers — this kind of picture would have been a low budget job, and it probably would have been better for it. If they were going to spend more money on The Purge: Election Year, they might at least have played around more with the idea of an entire nation plunged into chaos.

One of the strange things about the Purge series is that most of the criminal activity seems to be coming from street kids and delinquents, when you’d think some actual mobsters might take advantage of the absence of the police try to break into major banks or the mint. You’d also think there might be riots and maybe even a little terrorism. But each of the Purge movies has focused on a small group of people in a sometime half-deserted or not too populous area. Rev. Owens’ well-dressed congregation is about the biggest crowd we see. Partly that’s because DeMonaco wants to make villains of the well-fixed establishment and draw his heroes and heroines from the common people — which should be all right for me, but, in this case seems to be more a result of the scale of the production than of plausible extrapolation.

Writer-director DeMonaco has written fairly bloody, fairly effective thrillers like The Negotiator and the remake of John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (also with Hawke) and he’s definitely hit the jackpot with the Purge series. He’s also left an opening for a sequel at the end of this movie. One of his producers here, by the way, is the often-maligned action picture specialist Michael Bay — who’s made better movies himself.

But, as with the Liam Neeson C. I. A. thrillers, which don’t make much sense either, DeMonaco has thrown logic to the winds — or maybe just purged it. Even so, the acting is pretty good — but mostly unremarkable, except for Williams, who supplies almost all the humor and hijacks every scene. Purge: Election Year has somewhat scruffy-looking backgrounds and deliberately garish cinematography (by Frenchman Jacques Jouffret) and zingy editing by Todd E. Miller. But there’s nothing really special about it technically or visually. Most of the time. just the central idea seems to be propelling it along: What would the world be like if the guardians and police all took a holiday? And what would the action movies be like, I wonder, if all the producers took a holiday? They probably should.

 

2 Responses to “Wilmington on Movies: The Purge: Election Year”

  1. Movieman says:

    Imagine what a Hill, Carpenter or DePalma could have done w/ the “Purge” premise in the ’70s!

  2. Ray Pride says:

    They could have created an Assault On Precinct 13, had they been lucky!

Wilmington

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Ray Pride on: Wilmington on Movies: The Purge: Election Year

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This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.

“One of the fun things about seeing the new Quentin Tarantino film three months early in Cannes (did I mention this?) is that I know exactly why it’s going to make some people furious, and thus I have time to steel myself for the takes.

Back in July 2017, when it was revealed that Tarantino’s next project was connected to the Manson Family murders, it was condemned in some quarters as an insulting and exploitative stunt. We usually require at least a fig-leaf of compassion for the victims in true-crime adaptations, and even Tarantino partisans like myself – I don’t think he’s made a bad film yet – found ourselves wondering how he might square his more outré stylistic impulses with the depiction of a real mass murder in which five people and one unborn child lost their lives.

After all, it’s one thing to slice off with gusto a fictional policeman’s ear; it’s quite another to linger over the gory details of a massacre that took place within living memory, and which still carries a dread historical significance.

In her essay The White Album, Joan Didion wrote: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.”

Early in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters drive up the hill towards Leo’s bachelor pad, the camera cranes up gently to reveal a street sign: Cielo Drive. Tarantino understands how charged that name is; he can hear the Molotov cocktails clinking as he shoulders the crate.

As you may have read in the reviews from Cannes, much of the film is taken up with following DiCaprio and Pitt’s characters – a fading TV actor and his long-serving stunt double – as they amusingly go about their lives in Los Angeles, while Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a relatively minor presence. But the spectre of the murders is just over the horizon, and when the night of the 9th finally arrives, you feel the mood in the cinema shift.

No spoilers whatsoever about what transpires on screen. But in the audience, as it became clear how Tarantino was going to handle this extraordinarily loaded moment, the room soured and split, like a pan of cream left too long on the hob. I craned in, amazed, but felt the person beside me recoil in either dismay or disgust.

Two weeks on, I’m convinced that the scene is the boldest and most graphically violent of Tarantino’s career – I had to shield my eyes at one point, found myself involuntarily groaning “oh no” at another – and a dead cert for the most controversial. People will be outraged by it, and with good reason. But in a strange and brilliant way, it takes Didion’s death-of-the-Sixties observation and pushes it through a hellfire-hot catharsis.

Hollywood summoned up this horror, the film seems to be saying, and now it’s Hollywood’s turn to exorcise it. I can’t wait until the release in August, when we can finally talk about why.

~ Robbie Collin