97% (2013)

*. We’ve all seen the zombies among us, heads bent over their iPhones, buds nestled in their ears, oblivious to the world around them. Plugged in to social media they seem to live profoundly anti-social lives, not just unconnected but worlds apart from the person sitting next to them on the subway.
*. And yet we still believe, or at least some of us still believe, in the Internet as being a great bonding agent, a technology that brings us all together in virtual networks of friends or “friends.” Why, with the right app it can even pick a mate for us! Algorithms do this kind of thing better, you know.
*. It’s easy to make fun of all this, but for whatever reason a lot of us do seem to have bought into it. In 97% we have a short film that follows the quest of one “Lovely Bertje82” (his digital handle) as he is informed while on the subway that a 97% love match is within 25 meters of his present location. The hunt is on!
*. Since this is a short, less than ten minutes long, I don’t think I need to give a spoiler alert. (But in case you need one, consider yourself warned.) The upshot is that Bert is so enthralled by playing the game on his cellphone that he fails to connect with the woman sitting right in front of him. This is actually presented in a beautifully artful way, as the “Reflection Girl” (as she is billed in the credits) and Bert are shown looking at each other indirectly, as reflections in a subway window that acts as yet another screen for their romance to blossom on.
*. But alas, Reflection Girl is not The One. At least not The One picked out for Bert by the matchfinder app. So he loses her and goes off to chase yet another dream, another virtual prize.
*. This gives the film a bite in the end as we realize that Bert really is quite shallow, hunting after a girlfriend like a kid chasing cartoon monsters on Pokémon Go.
*. Well, they do say that the chase is the fun part of falling in love. The thrill of the hunt and all that. But how depressing is such programmed behaviour? Where is Bert’s agency? He’s little more than a puppet attached to satellite strings. Clearly on the subway of life we are all just passengers and tech is in the driver’s seat. So much for romantic traffic. Now I feel sentimental for The Spoons.

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The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015)

*. I think I should begin by saying that I watched this movie on a streaming service, not on DVD. Which means I haven’t heard the director’s commentary, so some of these notes may be more speculative than usual.
*. I’ll begin with the matter of the title. It was originally shown at festivals, and released in the U.K., as February. That’s not very catchy, so it was quickly changed to The Blackcoat’s Daughter. This has a chillier ring to it, but I’m still not sure what it refers to. Another curious thing is that the version I saw gave the title as The Devil’s Daughter. So I guess the “Blackcoat” is the devil. But I also associate it with priests as well (the infamous “black robes”).
*. The bottom line here is that a title like The Blackcoat’s Daughter sounds good, but it’s also kind of vague. Which sort of sums up the movie as well.
*. Now don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against vague. And I liked The Blackcoat’s Daughter. But it is one of those movies where the action is rather murky. I’ll say what I think is going on now, so consider this a spoiler warning.
*. As I see it, Kat (Kiernan Shipka) is just a disturbed girl who is (a) suffering a bit of shock from the loss of her parents (which she has been alerted to in a dream) and (b) stricken with cabin fever due to being left in a religious boarding school over the winter holidays. She begins to see visions of a shadowy devil figure and receives staticky telephone calls telling her to kill. She goes on a rampage, carving up a couple of administrative nuns and another girl named Rose. Years later, she escapes from an asylum and, adopting the identity of Joan, gets a ride back to the school from Rose’s parents. A fatal bit of circumstance. She kills the parents, but in the end feels abandoned by her dark master.
*. A couple of things complicate matters. First, the story is presented on parallel tracks, moving back and forth from the events of Kat’s original outbreak and her return journey some time later. This in itself isn’t hard to figure out, but what makes things complicated is the fact that Kat is played by two different actresses (Shipka and Emma Roberts) who don’t look that much alike. So when “Joan” is revealed to be Kat you really have to do some mental adjustments to make it fit. I’ll confess that when I first saw the movie I assumed that Joan was being possessed by the same devil that had taken over Kat earlier as she got closer to the school’s grounds.
*. The other complication has to do with the nature of Kat’s hallucinations. I assumed these were imaginary, since that’s how they are represented. Nobody else sees or hears anything but Kat. I thought of the story here as being akin to the Slender Man stabbing. As far as the visions themselves go, they certainly could have come up with a scarier devil than the guy with bunny ears, but aside from that I felt this part of the story was better handled than the business of the two Kats.
*. Where The Blackcoat’s Daughter really succeeds is in creating atmosphere. This is a genuinely creepy movie, a little slow for some but I found it very suspenseful. The sound design got a lot of praise, but things like way the noise of a door opening made me jump (three times!) have to first be set up with the general handling of the film’s look and feel, its slow pans and unexpected cuts.
*. So my hat goes off to Osgood (“Oz”) Perkins for how creepy it all is, and for his brother Elvis’s score, whose forbidding gutturals fit well with the bleak depopulated landscape. The table is well set.
*. Alas, such an exquisite slow burn fizzles when it comes to actual scares. This movie is all about the anticipation of horror. When the knives come out the resulting violence and gore isn’t even startling. It just registers as a disappointment. In contrast, I love the shot where the camera turns about in the front room of the house the dead women are in, finally showing us the police coming in the back but only revealing a blood stain on the doorjamb. That’s it. Because there’s no point showing us anything more right then.
*. I wonder what the first horror movie was to make use of these body-artist contortions and movements. Perhaps the famous “spider walk” sequence that was cut from the theatrical release of The Exorcist. They’ve gone on to become very popular, especially in J-horror. I like the surprise shot here of Kat doing a back arch in bed, but at the same time I guess I’ve seen enough of these extreme yoga moves that it wasn’t as surprising as it should have been.
*. The cast (Shipka, Roberts, Lucy Boynton) is really good, but they don’t have to do much aside from observing or bearing witness in an enigmatic silence that allows for suspicious ambiguity to sneak in to their every glance and gesture. Shipka’s first scene with the priest sets the tone nicely. She’s even creepier than he is, and he’s the one in partial silhouette.
*. I’m glad the film is mostly silent, as I have to register (once again) my dismay at what’s being done to dialogue in today’s movies. Without closed-captioning I think I would have missed at least a third of the lines. Do filmmakers not even care if an audience can hear what the characters are saying? Do they think it’s not important? Or do they think it’s more realistic to have the dialogue muttered or whispered inaudibly?
*. For some reason this kind of horror film became popular around this time. A lot of people found The Blackcoat’s Daughter very similar to The Witch, and it is, but I found Black Mountain Side to be another close analog (the cabin fever, the delusions, the strange score, the even stranger-looking “devil”). These movies all tend to have a slow pace and are much quieter than the usual American horror fare. Could it be a coincidence that they were all filmed in Canada? Or that they were early work (if not the feature debuts) of their directors?
*. I don’t think The Blackcoat’s Daughter is entirely successful, but I do think it’s a very good first film. Perkins makes us imagine a bogeyman without revealing it, conjuring a sense of threat out of empty space. Not even darkness seems so dangerous as eyes looking past us to something invisible, or just over our shoulder. I’ve heard a lot of people call this film boring, but that wasn’t my response. If anything, I would have slowed it down even more, and shown even less.

Seoul Station (2016)

*. Seoul Station is billed as a prequel to Train to Busan, the Korean “zombies on a train” film. I’m not entirely sure which came first, though Train to Busan was released a few weeks earlier. In any event, I don’t see much of a connection aside from the fact that they were both directed by Sang-ho Yeon, they’re both set in Korea, and they both have zombies. Nowadays we say that such films inhabit the same cinematic “universe.”
*. The big difference is that this film is animated and Train to Busan was a live action feature.
*. I didn’t think Train to Busan was anything very new, and in terms of the action in this film I think it’s even less original.
*. The story plays out as just another outbreak scenario. There is the now familiar political subtext. We are immediately presented with a society that is falling apart. Seoul Station is a sort of unofficial homeless shelter, and it’s among the homeless that the zombie virus takes hold. Later, the police will think that they’re caught up in an outbreak of rabid derelicts. Meanwhile, families are dissolving. The younger generation can’t afford to live in even the most squalid apartments. A landlady complains that the young have no respect for their elders. Crazy people wander the subway system. When the shit hits the fan the state has to come in and go full martial law, and it’s not clear if that’s a bad thing.
*. I say the political subtext is familiar because the zombie genre is by now almost automatically associated with social satire and political commentary. Indeed, one can make the argument that this has been the form it has taken since the beginning.
*. The big disappointment here, however, is the one thing that is new: the animation. I was hoping for at least one of two things from this. Either (1) animation showing me something that live action can’t, or (2) a distinctive new look or visual style.
*. The first is, admittedly, very hard to do these days because effects films use so much CGI that they are already, to a significant extent, animated. I’m not sure there’s much left that animation can do that “live action” (I have to put the words in quotes) can’t. Mass armies of zombies taking over an urban downtown? Brains splattering in all different directions? This can all be done with digital effects, and done better.
*. This leaves the matter of a fresh look. Seoul Station doesn’t have one. The animation is as generic as it gets. Sure it looks OK most of the time, though the characters walk and run in a rather stiff way. But there’s no personal style to it, or individual artistic vision being expressed. It’s the film equivalent of Marvel or DC comics.
*. In sum: a garden-variety zombie apocalypse with hardly any gore and dull animation. The story actually has a nice twist near the end, but then settles for tying things up on a predictable note. Zombie fans may want to check it out just to see what a feature-length cartoon zombie movie looks like, but aside from that it’s not worth bothering with.

Heaven Can Wait (1978)

*. I began my notes on Here Comes Mr. Jordan by talking about how it was a movie that fit its time. What was it about 1978 that made people so eager to embrace a remake? In itself this is a modest little film, but it got a raft of Oscar nominations and did big box office. I remember when it came out and I can attest that people loved it.
*. Vincent Canby, writing in the New York Times, began his review with the same sense of confusion: “There is something eerily disconnected about Heaven Can Wait. It may be because in a time of comparative peace, immortality — at least in its life-after- death form — doesn’t hold the fascination for us that it does when there’s war going on, as there was in 1941 when Here Comes Mr. Jordan was released and became such a hit. Or perhaps we are somewhat more sophisticated today (though I doubt it) and comedies about heavenly messengers and what is, in effect, a very casual kind of transubstantiation seem essentially silly.”
*. Comparisons to the 1941 version are inevitable and don’t come out in this film’s favour. Beatty and Mason are basically trying to get by on charm, and heaven knows they both have plenty. Mason’s Mr. Jordan, however, is a much reduced part, to the point where he almost seems irrelevant.
*. The love interest is an interesting case study in that most difficult of qualities to capture and define: on-screen chemistry. In the original, Robert Montgomery and Evelyn Keyes apparently didn’t care for each other much but they really clicked. Here Beatty and Julie Christie had been a couple, and had starred together previously in McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Shampoo, but I don’t sense any spark between them.
*. Here Comes Mr. Jordan had a lot going on, and almost all of it worked. In this movie there’s a lot going on but much of it just seems like a distraction. As noted, Mr. Jordan goes from being a co-start to almost disappearing. The Escort (co-director Buck Henry) is undistinguished. The police investigation gets short shrift, spending most of its allotted time dragging us through some really unfunny business about Farnsworth’s dislike of hats. Hey, if you had Warren Beatty’s hair you wouldn’t want to wear a hat either!
*. What’s up with Farnsworth’s uniform fetish? Was it supposed to be funny?
*. I did like Charles Grodin and Dyan Cannon as the scheming couple. They were interesting and fun to watch. “Pick up The Fountainhead, pretend you’re reading.” That’s a good line.
*. But really, if you want to see the difference between the two movies just compare the final scene in the tunnel between Joe and Betty Logan. In the original the lights go out and they’re exposed as reverse silhouettes, outlined in light. It’s a beautiful shot, perfectly framed, and it has a glimmer of that old-school moonshine about it. You can feel magic in the air. In the remake the lights go out and . . . you can’t see anything! Then they come back on. How magical is that? How romantic? I don’t mean to sound like some crotchety lover of Hollywood’s golden age — because I’m not — but how could Beatty have messed up something so simple?

Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941)

*. Our visions of heaven and an afterlife fill a need. In the aftermath of the First World War seances and spirit-rapping became a popular way of communicating with the next world. In the next global conflagration there was a similar need to believe in an afterlife, however cloudy and generic. The play, Heaven Can Wait, had come out in 1938, but had never been produced. It had suggested the coming conflict though, and the movies latched on to the idea of an afterlife in a big way a few years later when so many young people were dying.
*. During wartime there was a need for this movie’s comforting message of a strictly non-demoninational, indeed non-religious, afterlife promising that “in the final reckoning everything will be accounted for” and “eventually all things work out, there’s design in everything.” Who wouldn’t want a piece of that? (Oddly enough, the Breen Office objected to any suggestion of predestination in the script, which led to some tweaking.)
*. That’s not the world we live in any more, but the sentimental whimsy of Here Comes Mr. Jordan has never gone out of style. There have been various remakes and spin-offs, including most famously the 1978 Warren Beatty vehicle Heaven Can Wait (which, as noted above, was the original title of the play, and not to be confused with the 1943 film Heaven Can Wait, which was something completely different).
*. Then again, it’s hard to date a film so non-specific in its setting. There’s no mention of a war going on, and the wings the angels wear look more like airline logos than military decorations. Meanwhile, heaven itself is, as already noted, a not very religious place. Everyone’s welcome! Nobody’s going to judge you.

*. Even the presentation is generic. Farran Smith Nehme in the Criterion essay calls Alexander Hall’s direction “unobtrusive to the point of invisibility.” There’s just nothing here to upset, or offend, or get in the way of a good time.
*. Perhaps the most surprising thing is that it’s a story where actions seem to have no consequences. Yes, Joe Pendleton (Robert Montgomery) actually survives that opening plane crash! Did he bail out? Does Joe not know anything about business? That doesn’t matter, making money is all about having a good heart. Honest! And if Farnsworth Enterprises goes bust, who really cares? Meanwhile, Farnsworth’s wife and secretary are scheming adulterous murderers, but they almost get away with it (and I’ll bet at least one of them will beat the rap). And finally when Joe/Murdoch is shot in the ring during his championship fight no one notices! Apparently he is shot right in the chest too! But I guess there are no lingering health effects for Murdoch.
*. So even leaving aside the whacky body-hopping premise this would still be a very silly movie. And yet it’s so resolutely optimistic and inoffensive, and put forth so smoothly (thanks mainly to the deep cast of character actors), that it defies you not to be charmed. Who would want to resist? The secret of such a film is that it’s selling what we want to buy. The war was just another thing that didn’t really matter, and it’s Christmas in heaven.

Ravenous (1999)

*. The West (and the Western) was de-mythologized a long time ago. I don’t think Ravenous takes this project any further, and I’m not sure that was its purpose. I think it’s more about de-mythologizing the horror genre.
*. How else can you describe the motives behind a movie about a Wendigo-inspired cannibal in which the hero is a wimpy coward with a death wish? Guy Pearce as Captain John Boyd is not the kind of guy who is going to man up, which is wonderful. This is what a real antihero should be: not a bad man, but a vulnerable one.
*. Moving beyond this, however, I still find Ravenous to be a hard movie to pin down. And I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that way. Things got off to a rocky start when the original director was let go after a couple of weeks due to creative differences. The next fellow up didn’t work out either so Antonia Bird was brought in (she’d been recommended by Robert Carlyle). I think Bird does a decent job, but I have to wonder how personally invested she felt in the project, being brought in at the last minute. Apparently she had her problems with the shoot and with what happened to the film in post production as well, though on her DVD commentary she seems pretty sanguine about the whole experience.
*. There are two aspects of the film in particular that sow confusion. The first has to do with the story, which has a bifurcated structure. That is, there’s a strong medial split in the plot as Colqhoun (not an easy name to type) turns into Colonel Ives. There’s nothing wrong with such a structure, and sometimes it works, but here it just left me a bit puzzled by how Colqhoun was getting away with it and what the first part of the movie really had to do with the second. There isn’t a real clear narrative thread tying it all together.
*. The second puzzling aspect of the film has to do with tone. There’s nothing wrong with horror-comedy, at least in theory. In order for it to be effective, however, I think the horror has to work on its own. I’ve always thought that the best horror-comedies exploit nervous laughter. Unfortunately, Ravenous just isn’t scary, and there are points in the film where the comic elements seem jarringly intrusive. I’m thinking especially of the score, which sometimes has playful hillbilly music running alongside what should be tense action sequences. I guess something similar was done in Bonnie and Clyde (that’s what I was thinking of anyway), but I don’t think it works as well here because it just makes the violence seem like a joke.
*. The weather also messed me up. I kept wondering why sometimes it was a winter wonderland and the next scene everything was green. Apparently this was a problem they were aware of during production. The exteriors were shot in Slovakia and it was supposed to be snowy but it just so happened that this was a winter without snow in that part of Slovakia.
*. The characters all sound very contemporary, which probably wasn’t an accident. I don’t think there’s any historical axe to grind. Instead, the various angles being suggested, on matters such as genre, vegetarianism, and even drug use (Bird says on the commentary that Colqhoun is the ultimate pusher and Boyd the ultimate junky) are all modern.
*. I guess the studio wasn’t sure what to do with it either. In addition to the creative differences that led to the switches in director there was the genre confusion and also the absence of any female lead or love interest. When it was all shot they then recut it in ways that didn’t please everyone. Meanwhile, they couldn’t even spell Nietzsche’s name right for the epigraph.
*. Not surprisingly, it bombed. Badly. I missed it when it came out entirely. Indeed, before now I had never even heard of it.
*. Given all of this I think it’s pretty impressive they ended up with a movie this good. I think it has some nice atmosphere and there’s no denying its many unique qualities. If it doesn’t quite come together, well, we can always blame the weather.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

*. This isn’t how it’s supposed to work. The first entry in a franchise or series often comes in overweight because it has to give us all the back story before things can really get moving. The initial sequel is more fun just because it doesn’t have to take itself so seriously and can drop the origin myth. Think of Superman and Superman II, or Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan.
*. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 puts this in reverse. It’s actually longer than the first movie and includes more back story dealing with the totally uninteresting origins of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt). Making things even worse, it’s also more conventional than the first film, which I would have thought was impossible. Despite all the pinball special effects and Christmas lights on screen (Mark Kermode likened the look of the film to “the animated cover of a Yes album”) I was bored out of my mind with an hour left to go.
*. Does every Marvel movie featuring a team of superheroes (X-Men, Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy) have to include a group portrait shot? This has become such a cliché.
*. What a dull story. It turns out that Kurt Russell is a small-g god named Ego who seems the same sort of tin-pot entity as the crew of the Enterprise face off against at the end of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. Ego is also Peter’s father, Peter being a son of whom he is most proud. We later learn that Ego’s other offspring have ended up on the scrap heap, or boneyard, of history. So Peter becomes one with eternity but then decides he prefers being human and likes his adopted family better than his real dad.
*. You have to be pretty dim not to see where every frame of this is going. The hokey message is all about self-sacrifice and the importance of (new) familial bonds. Groot is still tiny, but that just makes him cute. There are no funny lines but just the usual attempts at milking humour from the incongruous ’80s references. The lumbering Drax (Dave Bautista) actually manages to steal the show, even from Pratt. Sylvester Stallone shows up for a cameo that serves no purpose at all. I couldn’t figure out why they even bothered with his character. Howard the Duck is again glimpsed in the background. A sequel is announced (damn). There are four or five inter-credit sequences that play at the end, to help you get through the full naming of the army of technicians who put this noisy piece of crap together.
*. This may sound like I’m being harsh, but the thing is I don’t hate all the Marvel movies and I thought Guardians of the Galaxy was OK. Vol. 2 received generally good reviews, but if it isn’t a terrible movie then what is?

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

*. I know I refer to these movies as MarvelCrap, but I’ll give credit for Marvel Studios for knowing their shtick and sticking to it. The improbably hunky, self-deprecating stars. The ironic dialogue. The gouts of CGI and explosions, and explosions and CGI.
*. If this is your thing, then sure: Guardians of the Galaxy delivers. Which means it’s more of the same. Following the mythology of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this one has our heroes once again trying to stop a Big Bad Guy from getting his hands on one of the Infinity Stones. These Infinity Stones are sources of great power. I’d tell you more but that’s all there is to tell. If a Big Bad Guy gets his hands on an Infinity Stone he can control or destroy the galaxy, or the universe, or whatever. The stakes are high.
*. I’d like to say I liked this one more, but despite being well handled it’s so formulaic it made my brain hurt. The team of misfits is introduced and assembled. At first they fight amongst themselves but under pressure they come together. A planet is threatened. They save the day. A sequel is promised.
*. Is it fun? I guess. I just have a hard time enjoying a film so predictable. You literally know how every chapter in the story is going to play out. There wasn’t a single surprise, and there weren’t as many laughs as promised either. On the charm scale I’d put it well behind Ant-Man and Deadpool (which were to be next up). It’s not without its moments, but at what point, you have to wonder, is Marvel going to hit a wall? They can’t keep making the same film forever. Can they?