The Unknown (1927)

*. Lon Chaney. Tod Browning.
*. I believe they collaborated on some ten pictures. They seemed a good fit. David Thomson on Chaney: “surely one of the greatest imaginative artists of silent cinema, undoubtedly most stimulated by Tod Browning.” But why? Some shared vision of what it was they were seeking to express? I don’t feel like I really know either man well enough to say.
*. The Unknown doesn’t usually rank among their best individual work. Chaney is remembered today mainly as the man of a thousand faces, and for roles like Quasimodo and the Phantom. Browning is known as the guy who directed Dracula and Freaks. But none of these are films they worked on together.
*. Though it’s not one of their best known films, The Unknown is still well worth checking out. With regard to Browning’s oeuvre, I don’t rate Dracula as highly as many do, and Freaks is both a stunt and a stump of a picture. The Unknown is a more accomplished film, and since I think Browning was more used to working without sound anyway it’s better placed within his comfort zone.

*. Browning’s fascination with the circus is also front and center, and the way it draws us in with its promise of horrors. Should we really be enjoying such terrible things? I like how at the end a cutaway shows the audience split between feelings of horror and mirth at Malabar’s predicament because they don’t know what’s really going on. Then when the crew come rushing out what do they do? They don’t try to rescue Malabar or stop the horses but instead draw the curtain!

*. As for Chaney, it’s just a treat to see his real face in action. He really plays it like a musical instrument, taking it through whole ranges of emotion, sometimes without a cut. On the DVD commentary Michael Blake points out some of the highlights, but the whole film is evidence of Chaney being one of the greatest actors of the silent era. He’s also a scary looking guy even without any props or make-up. Not for being ugly or disfigured in any way but rather just for exuding a sense of threat, cunning, and power.

*. Though never without vulnerability. This leads to the biggest question The Unknown poses. How do we feel about Alonzo? On the one hand he’s a serial killer, which isn’t good. But he’s also a lover, and goes to extraordinary lengths to win his love, only to be cruelly betrayed. And the “normal” lovers are so dull, who really cares about their story? Wrap the lens in gauze and forget about them.

*. Both Chaney and Browning were also drawn to these stories of transgressive sexual pairings, with love turning to hate and vice versa. The note is struck in the opening scene with Alonzo holding the rifle between his legs and undressing Nanon by shooting at her. Kind of hard to miss the meaning there. Or Nanon’s final appearance as dominatrix tormentor, cracking her whip over the bound Malabar.

*. As with most such tales of grotesque passions it all seems screwed a bit too tight. Nanon’s fear of men, for example, is sexual hysteria writ large. And that operating theatre! It’s a little much, isn’t it? It’s very size is an expressionist distortion. Browning was concerned about how the story could easily slip into comedy, and indeed the line is a thin one.

*. I’m not sure what the title refers to. It had some role, however, in keeping the film lost for years. It was only found in 1968 at the Cinematheque Francaise. The reason it took so long to find is because there were hundred of film cans labeled “unknown” (l’inconnu).
*. Dialogue cards in silent films were usually used sparingly, only giving us information that’s absolutely necessary. But I wonder what Alonzo and Nanon are yelling at each other at the end. She doesn’t look as though she’s telling him to do anything in particular (like perhaps starting the treadmill again). She just looks angry. Does she realize that he always loved her now? And what is he yelling back? That now he has his revenge? But he still loves her, as the finale makes clear. So what choice words are they sharing? Their true feelings have been so close to the surface for so long, what words could express them when they’re finally released?

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Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018)

*. I’m not sure why they bothered with this one. What I mean is, Sicario, while it did well, wasn’t such a big hit that it demanded a sequel. There was no part of the story that was incomplete. I didn’t think Benicio del Toro’s Alejandro was such a compelling character that I needed to see any more of him.
*. And yet, here we are. One of the featurettes included with the DVD is even titled “From Film to Franchise” so you know the direction things are heading. Certainly the ending here makes it clear that there’s at least another Sicario movie coming. But let’s leave that for another day.
*. The team that really made Sicario what it was — director Denis Villeneuve, photographer Roger Deakins, composer Jóhann Jóhannsson — were unavailable this time out. Also missing was Emily Blunt’s character, who gave the film a kind of moral anchor.
*. Their replacements are not inept, though perhaps a little too beholden to what was done in the previous flim. Stefano Sollima directs, and he’s fine doing Villeneuve. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski is capable, but without Deakins’s patience. Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score sounds a lot like Jóhannsson’s (to whose memory Day of the Soldado is dedicated). Isabela Moner is good as the kidnapped girl who is witness to horrors. In fact, you could argue that what’s most wrong with the movie is what was directly carried over. Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin were more like secondary characters in Sicario, without any real depth, and they don’t pick up a lot more here. Also: Taylor Sheridan is back doing the screenplay and it is junk.
*. With regard to Sheridan’s script, can I ask what the hell is going on in this movie? ISIS terrorists are being smuggled into the U.S. over the Mexican border. That’s a stretch — though it was borrowed by the Trump administration and made into a talking point — but it gets even worse. You see, the response of the U.S. government is to send a totally unconstrained black ops team into Mexico to start a war between a couple of cartels by kidnapping the daughter of one of the cartel bosses. This will achieve what?

*. One would have thought such a timely film would have had a clearer political message. As it stands, however, that message is muddled. Still, while some critics found the whole thing pointless there is, I think, a general gist to what’s going on. In order to protect America tough guys like Brolin have to operate outside the law, or the guidance of all those wimpy bureaucrats in Washington. Note how the captured pirate sneers at Brolin for how Americans have to follow the rules, just before Brolin blows up his house and then threatens to assassinate every member of his family. Brolin is a guy who’s not afraid to get dirty. But in secret, of course. Because you can’t handle the truth.
*. Then, when the shit (predictably) hits the fan, the bureaucrats and politicians cut his operation off at the knees. They are wimps, and what’s worse they don’t have a code.
*. Going along with this attitude is the fascination with high-tech gadgets and weaponry. This is what really separates the forces of an advanced civilization from the savages and barbarians. We have better (read: more lethal) toys.
*. These marvellous toys, in turn, make war seem both cool and fun, since the American soldiers are presented as basically indestructible. I ended my notes on Sicario by saying it was in danger of turning into a superhero franchise, This is, in effect, where they did end up, with the special ops team operating like the Avengers: dropping from the sky and using their super powers to wipe out armies of mooks. I mean, the name of Brolin’s character is Matt Graver, which is a moniker you’d expect to find attached to a Marvel warrior. Though we might want to call him Cable anyway.
*. I wasn’t overwhelmed by Sicario and Day of the Soldado seems a lesser film in every way. To return to the question of what the plan was, I don’t think there was one aside from making the transition “from film to franchise.” According to the various producers interviewed on the DVD the one thing they kept returning to was that this movie needed to be “bigger” than its precursor. Executive producer Erica Lee: “Soldado is Sicario on steroids.” I think they should have aimed for something more than just enlargement.
*. Most of this film just seems like a rehash, without any human interest and no action sequences that really stand out. It’s nicely turned out, but doesn’t have any of the atmosphere that made Sicario worthwhile. The script is boo-yah and dumb. Ultimately, like most follow-ups in an expanding series, there’s a sense we’re just marking time. I’m hoping they can do better with the next instalment, and then see fit to let things go.

Hereditary (2018)

*. I’ve talked a lot about how our response to a movie is primed by our expectations. In particular, the hype behind a movie can really effect our experience of it. In some cases too much hype may lead us to expect too much. In others it may put our backs up.
*. Hereditary had a lot of buzz, but it was deeply divided. Critics seemed to love it. Audiences were less impressed. I was really geared up for it and came away thinking that it was just OK.
*. I give it credit for a couple of things. In the first place, writer-director Ari Aster can make a scary movie. A lot of the current crop of horror directors, however, are just as good and Aster is stylistically no different. Hereditary plays a lot like one of the Conjuring movies or any of its ilk. There are long, delayed reaction shots with suspenseful pans. There are shots where something scary appears unnoticed looming behind one of the characters. There are some effective jump scares. All of this works well, but it’s drawing from what has become a familiar bag of tricks.
*. The other thing I give Hereditary credit for is being something a little different. There are a lot of ghost movies coming out these days, but we’re not stuck in a rut like the early ’80s when all we had were slasher films. Or the 2000s when zombies ruled the roost. Today we have movies like It Follows, The Babadook, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, It Comes by Night, and The Witch (many of these released by A24, which also brought out Hereditary). To be sure these are still genre flicks, but they aren’t totally formulaic.

*. Hereditary isn’t something entirely new. It plays a lot like Rosemary’s Baby, for example. The first time I saw Joan I even said to myself “this must be the Ruth Gordon character.” This was not being particularly perspicacious. Mark Kermode said she “appears to have wandered straight off the set of Rosemary’s Baby.” It’s that obvious.
*. The other movie Hereditary reminded me of was The Babadook. Again there’s a stressed mom having a nervous breakdown and appearing to be the very threat to the family that she’s most afraid of. That the ending goes in a different direction isn’t that big a thing.
*. I couldn’t disagree more with Anthony Lane on this point. Here’s what he had to say: “[Hereditary] has the nerve to suggest that the social unit is, by definition, self-menacing, and that the home is no longer a sanctuary but a crumbling fortress, under siege from within. . . . There is no family curse in this remarkable movie. The family is the curse.”
*. True, but there is nothing daring or new in this. The family has long been threatened both from without and within. The family as a danger zone, for example, is the essence of a lot of Stephen King’s work, and is the entire premise of The Shining. And in more recent horror films, like for example the Paranormal Activity cycle, the cursed family is front and center. Indeed, the plot of Paranormal Activity 3 is very similar to what’s going on here.

*. All of which is to say that Hereditary is a decent little movie in the contemporary manner. It has some genuinely creepy scenes and builds suspense well. It also does something interesting in changing riders a couple of times in terms of the narrative focus. At first we think the movie is going to be mainly concerned with Charlie. Then it’s Annie’s movie. But then we find out that it’s really been all about Peter. That, I think, actually is something new and even daring.
*. Now on to some of what I didn’t like.
*. In the first place, I had a hard time figuring out what the hell was going on, even at the end. There are actually a bunch of videos available online that explain confusing movies. They are very popular on YouTube. And I think there are at least half a dozen that try to explain Hereditary. I watched a few of them and I guess they help a bit. But my questions were perhaps more fundamental.
*. I understand, at least in general terms, what the cult or coven is up to. What I didn’t understand were things like how much the demon Paimon actually controls events throughout the movie. Then I was wondering why Paimon and his followers were involved in such a complicated plot. Surely there were simpler ways to achieve the end they had in mind. I’ll give Aster a bit of latitude here because King Paimon is supposedly a God of Mischief, but even so it seemed way more complicated a plot than it needed to be.
*. Or, to take something more specific: what is the point of Charlie’s sketchbook? What do the scribblings represent? What is their purpose? Why does burning the sketchbook lead to such incendiary results? And if Paimon can burn anyone he wants anytime he wants anyway, why doesn’t he?
*. I suspect Aster just thought the sketchbook was a neat visual. Just like I suspect he thought Annie’s dioramas looked cool. I kept hoping the dioramas were actually going to have some role to serve in the plot but they don’t. I also don’t buy any of the explanations I’ve heard for their being thematically relevant in some way. Instead, I think they’re just meant to be weird.

*. The second thing I would complain about is the way Aster directs his actors. Toni Collette is good here, but it strikes me as a one-note performance. Gabriel Byrne is so somnolent he doesn’t even react when bursting into flame. Milly Shapiro may be the weirdest kid I’ve seen in a horror movie since Danny Lloyd, but again seems spaced out most of the time. However, she is no match in this department for Alex Wolff’s Peter, who just keeps staring blankly into the camera as though still under the influence of whatever he’s got in that bong. How many shots are there of his thousand-yard stare? Even at the end, during his coronation, he has the same empty expression on his face. I wonder if that’s what his mom is referring to when she screams about “that fucking face on your face.” Personally, I think that line was misread, but maybe not.
*. I did get a laugh out of how the modern-day cultists highlight the important parts of books on black magic in yellow highlighter pens. That was hilarious.
*. The pacing is something else I would be critical of. The middle act here really drags, allowing us to get way out ahead of the plot. And while it’s typical of this style of filmmaking to milk long takes I think Aster goes to the well much too often om the regard (especially when parking the camera in front of Wolff).
*. So in sum I’d rate Hereditary as one of a crop of good recent horror films, typical of an A24 release in most ways. I think of A24 as being a slightly more cerebral Blumhouse at this point. As with all of these movies the photography is great and the score and soundtrack effective. I am concerned, however, at how, stylistically, a lot of these movies are starting to look and sound the same. Aster got a lot of praise for Hereditary but it seemed to me as though it could have been made by any number of new directors. They appear to all be working from the same playbook. There’s a lot to be said about how fresh the stories are in the new indie horror, but the packaging is starting to get old. It may be time to change the game again.

A Ghost Story (2017)

*. Let’s start, it’s as good a place as any, with the divide between a film’s critical and public reception. In general, the reviews of A Ghost Story were strong. Though it didn’t have a wide release, making box office hard to quantify, the general public seemed a lot less impressed. Critics found it a profound meditation on love and loss. Audiences were bored out of their minds. Is there any settling this?
*. I can see where people might find it annoying. It is slow moving, and on the commentary track they even mention the “slow film” (or “slow cinema”) movement, which mainly refers to long takes with little or no camera movement. I can see a slight family resemblance, but overall I don’t think A Ghost Story is nearly slow enough to be slow film. It’s also interesting that they point out on the commentary how Casey Affleck couldn’t move quickly in the ghost costume because the sheet was so big he could only do a kind of bunny hop.

*. Another possible source of annoyance is the silence, or lack of dialogue. This is deliberate, to the point where I think writer-director David Lowery was making a joke of it. He seems to be saying that dialogue doesn’t have much function, not just in this film but in life. We never hear anything, or at least very much of what M and C (the young couple) say to each other. We don’t even learn their names. Then when the new family move in they’re speaking in Spanish, without subtitles (the only subtitles we get are for the ghosts, and we can’t hear them). The only big chunk of script comes in the monologue delivered by the bore at the party (Will Oldham, credited as “Prognosticator”), and I think most people mentally shut him off after a couple of minutes. Finally, it is never revealed what M has written in the note she sticks in the doorjamb.
*. In all of this the point, I think, is that what’s being said is not important. But Lowery was aware of the fact that part of the effect was also to make the film more “vaporous.”
*. The business with the secret note is part of a final annoyance I’ll mention, which is the film’s cuteness. This begins with the appearance of the morose ghost itself, which is very “meta” as the hipsters have it. Then there is the extended pie-eating scene. Is all of this being too clever, knowing, ironic? I can understand it putting some people’s back up.
*. None of the things I’ve been mentioning are necessarily strikes against A Ghost Story, but I offer them up as examples of the kinds of things that might have turned audiences off. Now let’s be more positive.
*. There are a lot of things to like. I’ve enjoyed Rooney Mara in everything I’ve seen her in. She has presence and can act. The score by Daniel Hart has some beautiful moments and it really grew on me over repeated viewings. The photography generates wonderful atmosphere. The air seems thick with something, even if it’s only light. And finally a tiny budget is made to go a long way, giving a small story giant edges without becoming ridiculous. I’m not sure I liked the past and future sequences that much, but they weren’t overly awkward and seemed to fit well with the rest of the picture.

*. I’ll even defend the pie-eating scene. It doesn’t actually go on that long, and M’s overindulgence in comfort food does represent her emotional state. It’s also interesting how absorbed we become in watching her, to the point where we don’t even notice the ghost standing in the background (according to the commentary this seems to have been a common effect). But, on the other hand, how much does such a scene communicate? How much can it?
*. Where A Ghost Story disappoints me is in the love story. There’s just not enough flesh on these bones. As a story of love and mourning is it any more profound than Ghost (1990)? I’ll accept that in some cases less can be more, and that in any close relationship much is unsaid and communicated either obliquely or in silence. But it seems to me that Lowery is asking us to do a lot of work reading much into the feelings M and C have for one another.
*. The score helps, a lot, but everything about this movie leaves us on the outside looking in. Then there’s the fact that the second half or so of the movie drops M pretty much completely, only circling back around to her in a time loop at the end. It’s hard not to feel as though Lowery’s attention has wandered.
*. I was impressed by the young talent showcased in this film. It’s really put across very well in all departments. I’m just a bit let down that there wasn’t more to it in the end. It has the feel of a film-school project to it, with lots to show but not much to say.

Léon: The Professional (1994)

*. Introducing Natalie Portman. A star is born.
*. I think she was 12, the same age as her character. But already she has no trouble stealing the show.
*. Or maybe “stealing” isn’t the right word. She was the only character Luc Besson was interested in. The film was imagined as a sequel to Nikita, with Jean Reno basically reprising his role as Victor the cleaner. (Besson even described Léon as Victor’s “American cousin,” though Léon is, I believe, supposed to be Italian.) It doesn’t take long, however, before Léon gets pushed aside and Mathilda takes over.
*. So Besson, who has always preferred strong female leads, looks past a character who was being played by Reno anyway as “a little mentally slow.”

*. The only other claim on our attention is Gary Oldman’s Stanfield, in a performance considered by some to be a classic and by others as ridiculously over-the-top. Whatever one thinks of it, it seems to have been mostly improvised. The Beethoven speech, for example, and his bellowing to bring in “Everyone!” (a line that has since gone on to become a meme). So as with Léon, Besson was standing back. But when it came to Portman . . .
*. A lot of your response to this movie is going to boil down to how creepy you think the relationship between Léon and Mathilda is. This is not something that is merely hinted at. In the original script Mathilda and Léon do become lovers, and her age is specified as 13 or 14. And though there were cuts made to the American release version, there’s still no pussyfooting around what’s clearly going on. Mathilda says she feels physical love for Léon and tells the concierge that she’s Léon’s lover. She dresses up in lingerie and dances for him (to Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” even). She is jealous of the attention he gives to his plant, and tells him sullenly at one point that he “should be watering me if you want me to grow.”
*. Roger Ebert thought the movie seemed “to exploit the youth of the girl without really dealing with it.” I see where this is coming from, but I’m not sure what more Besson could have done. As I say, it’s all out in the open. This isn’t really innuendo. In one of the scenes that was cut Mathilda even wears the dress Léon buys for her and tells him she wants to lose her virginity to him. That’s a scene that was in the movie Besson made, and as I understand it he wasn’t the one who took it out.
*. Making matters more complicated is the fact that Besson himself was having an affair with a younger girl around the same time he was making Léon. So this wasn’t a subject he was approaching in a totally abstract way, but as, in part, a fantasy.
*. In theory, I don’t see anything wrong with the idea of a movie presenting this kind of a love affair. And it even makes a kind of sense given what we’re shown of Mathilda’s abusive home. However, I’m not sure it really fits in a movie of this kind. Is their relationship what this movie is about? This is where I think Ebert has a point. I’m also not sure I buy a bright spark like Mathilda falling for a sad sack like Léon.
*. The action sequences here are still well done, but the best one is right at the start. None of the shoot-ups in the rest of the movie is as interesting (and the invasion of the justice building is preposterous). Again, one senses Besson’s attention is drifting back to Mathilda and he’s just content to let Reno go on autopilot and leave Oldman to do his crazy pill-popping shtick. The results are definitely a mixed bag. I’m still not sure I’ve made my mind up about it. I don’t think it’s as good a movie as Nikita, but it’s also something that strays into being more than a generic action film. For better or worse, it was a labour of love.

Coda (2013)

*. You have to admire short films that take on big themes. And when they’re animated, well, that’s definitely something.
*. Alan Holly’s Coda, which comes in under ten minutes, is a movie that takes on a couple of the biggest questions of all: What happens when we die? And what is the meaning of life?
*. A young man leaves a bar, staggers into the street, and is hit by a car. He dies and Death, in the form of a towering woman cloaked in black, pursues his wandering spirit. She says it’s really time to go. He wants to hold out for more. His protestations get him nowhere.

*. Visually, Coda is full of interest. For a night film it’s surprisingly bright and pastel coloured. It also has a softness and flow to the imagery despite a linear, cut-out style of animation. The Man’s spirit almost looks like a clothes-peg doll, and Death might be the obelisk from 2001.
*. But despite being so ambitious and nicely visualized, at the end of the day Coda is disappointing in its philosophical vision. We’ve been here before. The moment of death leads to the reliving of the Man’s life. Death herself is a conventional figure, looking much like the pale-faced Bengt Ekerot in The Seventh Seal. At least she doesn’t have a sickle. And finally we have the desperate pleading for more life, which is as old as the medieval mystery play Everyman.
*. So what’s the point, really? When our time is up we’re not getting any more. It’s over. Live your life to the fullest so that you’ll have no regrets. And don’t get drunk and go walking into traffic. Lessons learned.

The Big Chill (1983)

*. I had thought this film mostly forgotten by now. Where it was still remembered, I didn’t think many people took it seriously. But then, even when it came out I remember thinking of it as a bit of a joke. Was I wrong?
*. Well, it did get a Criterion release, if that means anything. And they include an essay by Lena Dunham where she seems to find some deeper meaning in it. Apparently “These are your parents.” Or at least her parents. Her essay seems mostly to be about herself, so perhaps there’s some inherited self-absorption going on. But in any event she takes the movie straight.
*. I think that’s more and more of a mistake. In hindsight The Big Chill strikes me as being high camp, and as the years go by it’s getting campier all the time.
*. What I mean is that this is not a bad movie in the sense of being dull or incompetent. In many regards it’s quite well done and entertaining: a polished production with an excellent cast. But it is also a joke.
*. This is going a bit further than contemporary reviewers did. They found it slick but empty. Pauline Kael (who, on balance, liked it): “The picture offers the pleasures of the synthetic. It’s overcontrolled, it’s shallow, it’s a series of contrivances. And whenever Kasdan tries for depth the result is phony.”
*. Or, Roger Ebert, saying something rather similar: “The Big Chill is a splendid technical exercise. It has all the right moves. It knows all the right words. Its characters have all the right clothes, expressions, fears, lusts and ambitions. But there’s no payoff and it doesn’t lead anywhere. I thought at first that was a weakness of the movie. There also is the possibility that it’s the movie’s message.”
*. Of course that is part of the message, with the final line being Michael’s declaration that the group is never going to leave the comfort of their well-appointed womb. So, literally, it is a movie that doesn’t lead anywhere. It has no politics at all and the psychologizing is canned (the impotent Vietnam vet, the repressed housewife, etc.) In short, I think Ebert and Kael are right that this is a glossy film without any depth. Though it does try for depth. And that’s where it gets funny.

*. You could compare it to other movies concerned with defining a generation. Slacker, maybe. Or you could compare it to John Sayles’s The Return of the Secaucus 7, which writer-director Lawrence Kasdan says he had not seen. But when I was watching it this most recent time the movie I couldn’t get out of my head was Valley of the Dolls.
*. Both films are camp soap operas. They earnestly look to deal with Very Serious Matters but they are kitschy and absurd. In both films we have no sense of watching adults dealing with real problems. Instead, this is what a precocious pre-teen imagines being an adult is like. The angst. The ennui. The pills. The sex.
*. Laughs? I mean, unintended ones. There are more of these than there were scripted gags. How can you watch the scene with Sam and Karen on the boardwalk and not be grinning ear-to-ear? Give it another few years and I think we’ll all be laughing right through it. Or when John Hurt’s Nick says, in the perfect pissy voice, that “it’s only outside here, in the world, that it gets tough!” That’s a closer.

*. And it’s not just funny. It’s creepy too. It’s like all of Karl Marx’s and D. H. Lawrence’s worst fantasies about the beastliness of the bourgeoisie have been realized in a single weekend of frantic bed-hopping, with wounded men being pursued by mature professional women in heat. The climax of all this is the seeding of poor childless Meg, which we know was successful because we see her watching the virile Kevin Kline going out for his morning jog while she reclines on her pillows with a well-serviced smile of satisfaction. Oh my.
*. Of course it’s the essence of camp that it take itself seriously and the fact that Kasdan and co-writer Barbara Benedek really felt this loss of ’60s innocence and the warm atmosphere of college, with the subsequent big chill of entering into a colder “real” world, is what pushes the film into the realm of a camp classic.
*. Apparently all the actresses thought the breeding arrangement was ridiculous, insane, and unimaginable, but Kasdan found it “benign” and couldn’t understand why people thought it exceptional. Another example of his innocence leading to unintended hilarity.

*. In our own time we’ve come to hate this generation, and not without some reason. They are seen as the sell-outs who just coasted through life, enjoying the sunny days of America’s postwar golden-age economy while whining about their own loss of ideals. The fact that the friends here have achieved such a fantastic level of success only makes their complaining more ridiculous. A bunch of Michigan classmates have become the owner of a chain of shoe stores, a big-shot lawyer, the star of a hit television series, a writer for a national magazine (back when that was a good job), a syndicated radio host, a doctor . . . and we’re supposed to feel these people’s pain as they try to adjust to the cold cruel world of adult reality? Or because their lives didn’t turn out the way they wanted? That they didn’t, as the song has it, get what they want?

*. It’s very theatrical. Very talky, in a way where the lines are all clipped and meant to be significant (Ebert: “The dialogue sounds like a series of bittersweet captions from New Yorker cartoons”). The characters are quickly identifiable as types, which is to say unrealistic caricatures. Jeff Goldblum’s Mike is the worst, being so obnoxious and awkward it’s hard to understand how the other, more successful yuppies stand him.
*. So it’s all very silly and superficial and campy, which makes it fun in a so-awful-it’s-kind-of-good sort of way. If it stands for anything today I see it as representing the final turning away from the spirit of the independent American filmmaking of the 1970s. I thought it interesting that Criterion included an interview with Kasdan where he talks about his preference for working within the studio system. He makes several good points about the quality of the talent on both sides of the camera that he had to work with. One is able to do more with greater resources.
*. That said, so much has been lost. There’s no comparing the depth of a film like Five Easy Pieces to the silliness here. Even in its sincerity there is something so almost painfully immature about this movie and it’s resolution not to grow up. An indictment of its generation, or a touching elegy? I’m sure the aim was for the latter, but you don’t always get what you want.

Annabelle: Creation (2017)

*. Hm. A prequel to the prequel (a prequel to Annabelle, which was itself a prequel to The Conjuring, if you’re keeping score). I’d make fun of this but I’m sure enough people have already.
*. Actually, the billing has it that it’s “the next chapter in The Conjuring universe.” Sheesh. It’s a universe now?
*. Given how disappointed I was in Annabelle (and my expectations weren’t high), I’m a little surprised I even bothered with this one. But here we are.
*. I’m glad I gave it a try. I thought this was a very effective, very scary movie. Not at all original, to be sure. Not original in any way, shape, or form. But that’s the nature of all these contemporary haunted house flicks. They’re just going back to the classics. Director David F. Sanger said he was going for the look and feel of classics like The Haunting and The Shining and that sounds about right.
*. Sanger came to the project from Lights Out, which was an expansion on one of his excellent horror vignettes (also called Lights Out). He does a great job with these short suspenseful sequences, but again there’s nothing particularly new about what he’s doing. Something dangerous glimpsed behind a character. The peering into the darkness that was such a big part of Lights Out. A face turned away from us that promises all kinds of horrors when it turns around. Girls being knocked to the floor and then being dragged screaming back by their heels. Hell, he even throws in a ghost in a sheet. That’s something he also used in one of his shorts, and I remember it coming up in Paranormal Activity 3 as well. The horror tradition is being well mined by this generation of filmmakers, and they’re doing it without any sense of irony.

*. It’s remarkable how a film so generic, and one that telegraphs its jump scares so much, still works. As I’ve said before, you can’t really go wrong with this material. In the first half of Annabelle: Creation we have introduced all the elements that we know are going to be used later. There is the business of the notes being used in the game of hide-and-seek. Oh yes, that’s going to come back. Then there’s an elevator stairway seat. Check. There’s a scarecrow. A well. A dumbwaiter. You know we’re going to see all of this again.
*. Another big thing this film has going for it is the acting. Talitha Bateman as Janice and Lulu Wilson as Linda are both really good. Annabelle: Creation would have been in a lot of trouble without their coming through.
*. I wonder what the first film to do the mouth-to-mouth vomiting routine was. It seems to have become fairly common now. The same year as Annabelle: Creation it was also done in It Comes by Night. I remember it being used in Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness (1987), which may have been where it got its start. Also in 1987, however, the SF thriller The Hidden had an alien that body-hopped in a similar fashion.

*. I’m not sure that as a movie it makes a whole lot of sense. Along with all the generic elements come a number of generic complaints I have about this kind of story. First and foremost is the matter of the demon’s motivation. I don’t mean the general motivation — I assume that it is just out to steal souls — but the particular motivation that drives it to run around doing scary things like opening and closing doors, skulking in the shadows, turning on appliances, or unscrewing light bulbs. Obviously because it’s a horror movie “doing scary things” is pretty much the job description for any evil entity. But as I watch all these trivial shenanigans I keep asking myself why they’re bothering.
*. Nicely photographed, as most of these films are. A workmanlike if overstated score, again like most of these films. Yes, you could call it more of the same. Better than the first Annabelle though, and a professionally turned out fright flick all around. As with the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, however, I’m beginning to wonder how much longer they can keep going back to the same haunted well.