Monthly Archives: August 2019

Quiz the ninetieth: Flashing the badge (Part two)

Flashing the badge is just a formality for most of these guys. I mean, you know who they are. Or do you?

See also: Quiz the thirteenth: Flashing the badge (Part one).

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Insidious: The Last Key (2018)

*. No, the title is not promising (however insincerely) that this will be the last Insidious film. The Last Key is not The Final Chapter or The Final Nightmare. It just refers to the fact that the demon KeyFace (so called despite the fact that it’s his fingers that are keys) keeps souls locked up in some kind of extra-dimensional prison house. I’m not exactly sure what the “last” key refers to, but it doesn’t mean this franchise will be ending any time soon.
*. When discussing the previous Insidious movies I think I’ve been generous if unenthusiastic. I thought they were pretty basic ghost stories, decently staged. I did say in my notes on Chapter 3 however that I thought the concept played out. Which it was. But they’re back doing all the same stuff again here.
*. Doing the same stuff, and telling the same damn story. How many times do we have to go into the Further (a really uninteresting spirit realm) to rescue some lost soul? I’m starting to think Leigh Whannell doesn’t have a whole lot of arrows for his bow. Even the family psychodramas are becoming repetitive, with the same business about being reunited with the mother coming at the end of this movie as it had in the previous one.
*. But while I still liked the earlier movies well enough I have to say I didn’t care for this one at all. It is, naturally, more of the same. But right from the start, with the back story involving Elise’s history of being an abused child, I wasn’t enjoying it. Then the main story becomes too amorphous, leaking out in several different directions but never going anywhere.
*. As with the villain in Chapter 3, I had no idea what the demon here was up to. His mouth is a bit like the breathing mask used by The Man Who Can’t Breathe, but otherwise I just thought he looked like the skinny fellow (playing a woman) at the end of Rec. I was not surprised to find that he was played by the same actor, Javier Botet. He’s become a go-to guy for horror roles today, also showing up in The Conjuring 2 and It, for example. I guess there’s something in his look that triggers people. I loved him in Rec, but to be honest he’s now become so easily identifiable that he takes away from the creepiness of the films he’s in.
*. But leaving his appearance aside, what’s his game? Just being the warden at a prison for souls? Feasting on their fear? Revenge? Was he human in a previous life? In one of the featurettes included with the DVD executive producer Bailey Conway Anglewicz tells us that he was a very old prisoner who was wronged so he now haunts the property. In the same featurette Whannell says he represents the trauma Elise suffered as a girl. I can’t remember there being any explanation in the movie, but I’ll admit I may not have been paying attention. In any event, I found I didn’t care.
*. It’s fun thinking back to what Leigh Whannell said about the first Insidious movie, and how he didn’t want to do any jump scares. What he meant was fake jump scares (like a cat jumping out of the closet instead of a ghost). Over the course of the series, however, this is a comment that has become even more divorced from reality. Yes, the jump scares usually are provided by actual ghosts, but the Insidious movies are all about the jump scares. And I mean all about the jump scares. That’s basically their whole reason for being.
*. So Tucker and Specs are back, and it looks like Elise’s replacement is on deck in the form of her niece Imogen. That part of the movie is harmless. What really damns The Last Key for me is how I found myself just shaking my head at how stupid the ending was, and then laughing at it. They really do need to break out of this formula going forward. Or not, given that this was actually the highest grossing film of the franchise thus far. I guess they might as well keep doing what they’re doing, but I think I’ve had enough.

Insidious: Chapter 3 (2015)

*. Hm. This movie is a prequel to the two previous Insidious movies, and yet it’s Chapter 3. Does that make sense? Shouldn’t it be Insidious: Prologue?
*. Whatever you want to call it, this third instalment in the franchise delivers, yes, more of the same. We’ve moved on from the unhappy Lambert family but we still have the maternal psychic Elise (Lin Shaye), who was killed at the end of Chapter 2 in a manner that is foreshadowed in this film. And we have the two bumbling spook hunters Tucker and Specs (the latter played by Leigh Whannell, who also wrote and directed). So the gang’s all here.
*. I’d like to say I enjoyed this more, but really it’s just a retread of the other films. The final act plays out in an identical manner, with Elise entering the Further to rescue some innocent victim from a demon. How many times can they keep going back to the same well? Given all the repetition I didn’t come away feeling much of anything.
*. Part of the problem might be with the fact that this is a prequel, and hence we aren’t that worried about anything bad happening to Elise or her assistants. The sense that there’s nothing much at risk also allows the film to take a more comic tone, which is usually a sign that a horror franchise has passed its expiry date.
*. This is too bad. Most of the movie was decent enough. There’s an over-reliance on jump scares, but I was finally warming to the trio of paranormal investigators. I’m not sure they’d be the first people I’d call if I needed help getting rid of ghosts or demons, but they seem nice.
*. There did, however, seem to be something incomplete about the whole thing. Characters are introduced (Quinn’s gal pal and the boy next door who is in love with her) but then dropped without any explanation. There’s no back story for the demon (The Man Who Can’t Breathe) explaining who he is or what his motives are. One supposes we’ll be filled in at some later date (that is, in a sequel), but leaving such a matter up in the air felt lazy.
*. The critical response was lukewarm. Box office, however, was spectacular again (though I believe this was the poorest performing instalment in the franchise). What more can you say? Creatively Chapter 3 gave me the feeling that the concept was thoroughly played out, but of course that has never stopped a Hollywood money train from rolling.

Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013)

*. I was lukewarm to Insidious, a movie that I’d so completely forgotten by the time I got around to watching Chapter 2 I had to go back to my notes to refresh my memory as to what it had been about.
*. The machinery of this film is more of the same, as you’d expect with the return of writer Leigh Whannell (who also plays the paranormal investigator Specs) and director James Wan. The scary stuff plays out predictably. A tin can telephone is introduced in the early going that you can be sure is going to come into play later. It is. Meanwhile, a piano plays by itself. Children’s toys turn on by themselves. Rocking horses rock by themselves. People wander through spooky old mansions, the only illumination coming from their flashlights. A chandelier nearly falls on someone. Ghostly figures are seen.
*. We are also exploring the same psychic geography as the first film, a realm of the dead known as the Further. I was disappointed, however, to see that the Lipstick-Face Demon had gone missing, to be replaced by a Bride in Black who seems to have wandered off the set of American Horror Story. This new demon is a clichéd figure, only slightly redeemed by a back story that might have been torn from a Grade Z giallo.
*. If I was lukewarm to Insidious I’d rate my response to Chapter 2 as being a little cooler. It’s really not very scary. They throw in some nonsense about the ghosts playing Boggle with another medium, and the final act, while adequately wrapping things up, goes on far too long. But I doubt anyone really cared.
*. Because the box office. The box office! The film grossed over $160 million worldwide against a budget of $5 million. For a movie that really has nothing much to recommend it at all. I find this hard to understand. I know that a bad movie, even a terrible movie, can become a hit if it somehow manages to hit the zeitgeist. As William Goldman put it, when it comes to predicting winners in this business nobody knows anything. But I don’t understand how a movie that is neither good nor bad, and which is in no way original or different from any one of a dozen other films released around the same time, can have this kind of success.
*. Whatever the explanation, only one conclusion could be drawn: Forward the franchise!

Happy Death Day 2U (2019)

*. I liked Happy Death Day. It didn’t make me want a sequel though. I thought it was driven by an idea that didn’t need any further development. Why was Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) having to relive the day of her death over and over again? I don’t remember that being a question I ever bothered asking myself.
*. Well, if you were looking for an explanation you’ll get something along those lines here. Apparently it has to do with a demographically diverse trio of nerdy lab rats performing a physics experiment that opens different channels in the multiverse. No, it does not make sense. None at all. There’s no point even trying to figure it out. But it’s what we’re given.
*. One thing this means is that Happy Death Day 2U is more a science fiction film than a thriller. And, as it turns out, more a romantic comedy than a thriller as well. Or, as Mark Kermode put it, instead of Groundhog Day meets Scream it’s Revenge of the Nerds meets Back to the Future (or actually Back to the Future Part II, but who’s counting?).
*. Which is all to the good, I think. Writer-director Christopher Landon wasn’t interested in just doing the same thing all over again (though that would be kind of fitting, given the premise). Instead he really opened the idea up and took it in a new direction.
*. It even started out winning me over, and I was entirely on board with it through the first act (though they missed an easy trick by not developing the scene where Ryan is stuck in a crowd of college kids wearing the killer’s baby mask). Then, I’m sorry to say, the wheels fell off. The entire middle part of the movie gets bogged down in schmaltz as Tree has to decide whether to stay in a new timeline where her mother is still alive or go back to the one where her mother is dead so that she can be with her boyfriend. Her mother helps her out with lines like this: “Well, we all have to make hard choices, Tree. That’s life. And sometimes the past is pulling us in one direction and the future is calling us somewhere new.”
*. All of a sudden a fun game of Time-Travel Twister turns into a rollercoaster of eye rolls. Sentiment has no place in a movie like this. The final act does take us through a couple of extra twists that aren’t bad, but getting there is a chore and the resolution, which has to do with Tree and her trio of nerds finding the right algorithm, is just thrown at us at the end. Of course every time-travel movie involves us in the same paradoxes, but nothing interesting is done with that material here. The time machine is just a prop or McGuffin.

*. I wish I could say I liked this more. And to be fair it’s not a bad movie. But it ends up being all over the place, and a mid-credit scene at the end doesn’t bode well for where they may be going with a third instalment. One feels the need for more direction when entering the multiverse.
*. I don’t want to end on a down note so I’ll conclude with a shout out to the cheerleader dressed as the Bayfield Baby at the basketball game. He (or she) is only on screen for a couple of seconds, but still manages to make a great impression by leading the crowd with what I take is their signature move of drinking from a giant milk bottle as though they’re chugging a beer (or maybe performing a blowjob). That was an inspired performance that I don’t remember seeing anywhere in the first film and it got my biggest laugh. Go Baby!

The Dante Quartet (1987)

*. Film presents the illusion of continuity through the rapid projection of consecutive images. In this experimental work by Stan Brakhage there is no continuity, at least of this type, as it is composed of stretches of film that have been hand painted and otherwise altered in a way that can’t really be called animation because of that missing sense of flow. But then, the images aren’t static either. As you might imagine, it’s a weird experience.
*. Is there a linear progression to the imagery? I won’t say narrative, but what I mean is that if you rearranged the images in whatever random way you wanted would it make a difference? I can’t imagine anyone outside of the most devout students of such a film as being able to notice the difference. The different sections have some common characteristics, but there’s no sense of a direction to any of it.
*. That might seem kind of obvious, but the allusions in the titles and Brakhage’s own thoughts on the subject of Dante suggest that he thought there was some kind of narrative, or at least argument, here at work, however condensed or metaphorical. From hell (Brakhage’s own break-up) through purgatory and onto a sort of heaven. I confess it’s a movement I have trouble seeing, and I don’t think anyone not so alerted to it would be able to identify any such connections, beyond perhaps the “Hell Spit Fluxion” section being darker and more circumscribed (because presented on a smaller film stock).
*. At best what we’re getting here are colours that may be taken as corresponding to emotional states. Chaos reigns throughout. It’s a silent film, but I find a soundtrack helps. Though isn’t introducing music cheating a bit? Without continuity or representation, isn’t a visual rhythm all this movie has?
*. Perhaps the meaning is all subliminal, in the ghosts of images that some see lurking beneath the shapes of paint. It’s not entirely random, or shouldn’t be, seeing as Brakhage apparently spent six years producing these six minutes. But while it’s very pretty, and evocative of lots of things, it stops short of the goals I think it set for itself. I really enjoy it, but like any work of art without direction it doesn’t seem to go anywhere.

L’Inferno (1911)

*. I suspect it’s true that most people who set out to read Dante’s Commedia only read Inferno. While scholars and Dante aficionados will insist that the Purgatorio and Paradiso are equally as interesting and rewarding, for popular tastes nothing quite beats a tour of sinners being tortured in hell. So it’s understandable that this film, which might have been the first part of a trilogy, had no sequels, despite being a big box office success.
*. The fact that Inferno has rarely received this kind of epic treatment — this film took three years to make and was the first feature film to be shown in its entirety in one screening, which allowed theatres to boost ticket prices — suggests the difficulties involved. But in 1911 these weren’t insurmountable. A long movie could be nothing more than a series of vignettes with only a loose narrative structure, since all the audience really came to see was hell’s greatest hits.

*. The visuals didn’t have to be wildly original. In fact they leaned heavily on the popular nineteenth-century illustrations of Gustave Doré, which is what the audience would have been expecting. Given its reception I think people who went to see L’Inferno in 1911 probably felt they got their money’s worth. Viewing it today, can we say the same?
*. The general structure works. Dante’s hell is a theatrical sort of place, with Virgil taking the pilgrim from stage to stage or level to level, presenting him with various tableaux of the damned. So it doesn’t matter that it looks stagey, as all the underworld’s a stage anyway. And the framing of many of these scenes, with the use of arcs and vanishing lines and other theatrical tricks is surprisingly effective. This looks like Doré come to life, those writhing naked bodies as much a part of the landscape as the rocks and pools.

*. Somewhat surprisingly, the big spectacle moments and monsters are the weakest links. The three beasts who confront Dante in the first canto are a silly-looking leopard and lion and a positively playful she-wolf (a friendly and unthreatening dog). Perhaps the rule that you should always avoid working with animals hadn’t been learned yet. The pack of hounds in the forest of suicides also seem as though they’re just looking for a good time (or some treats). But given the primitive stage of creature effects they didn’t have a lot of options.
*. Otherwise, Minos is just a fat guy with a tail, Cerberus a puppet, and Geryon is only briefly seen as a model being lowered on a string. The giants Plutus and Antaeus come off the best, with the giant effects being reasonably well handled by split screens and false perspectives. I appreciate their trying to represent the most CGI moment in Dante’s poem, the transformation of the thieves into snakes and lizards (and vice versa), but that part is not very impressive.

*. Where L’Inferno really scores is with the human-scale renderings of pain and suffering. Somewhat oddly, the longest episode we have is the tale of the suicide Pietro della Vigna (a story I couldn’t even remember from the poem). His blinding is one of the highlights, a moment whose violence still has the power to disturb. Also effective are the mutilated bodies amond the sowers of discord, like Muhammad with his chest torn open and Bertrand de Born carrying his own head like a lantern. And only the film’s eschewing of close-ups (not remarkable at the time) makes Ugolino’s gnawing of Archbishop Ruggieri’s skull while stuck in a skating rink up to his chest less shocking.

*. One of the reason Dante’s poem has survived so long is because of its low and high-brow appeal. It’s a complex work of massive learning and a freak show written in the vernacular. As a blockbuster the effect here is definitely more of the latter, though credit must be given for what is a remarkably faithful adaptation of the poem.
*. As with a lot of movies from this period the question of what has held up is coloured by how much you enjoy the silent-film aesthetic. I find these movies charming, even to the point where corruptions in the film only add to the effect, like the pops and hisses that were a part of old vinyl recordings. In fact, there are scenes here where some of the artifacts on screen do seem an aid to the effects, making the storms seem worse and hell more hellish generally.
*. Obviously the state of the art at the time it was made limited what they could do, and what you should expect. Really there’s not much acting here aside from the usual oversize silent-film gestures. Sweeping arm motions and the like. That does, however, fit with the rest of the presentation, where Virgil seems always to be saying “Lo!” and “Behold!” to the pilgrim (and to us).
*. But perhaps what surprises and impresses the most is how it was borrowed from so often by later movies for its depictions of hell while Dante’s poem was never again attempted on this scale. Either the vision or the ambition may have been exhausted, as much as they were made obsolete.

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

*. The Night of the Hunter is a movie that a lot has been written about, and a lot that has been written is very good. There’s no need to go over all of it again here. For example, I think everyone knows the story of how it was Charles Laughton’s only turn as a director, with the response being so disappointing he never directed again.
*. There was plenty of blame to go around for its not being understood at the time. Just look at the theatrical release posters and you can see the studio didn’t have the faintest idea what the movie was about or how to promote it. I wonder, however, if there was any chance of it ever being a hit.
*. The thing is, it’s a great movie but it’s not addressed to a mass movie audience (of the kind that existed then or exists now). The look is self-consciously stagey and lyrical, anti-naturalistic and artificial in its effects. This is something I think everyone can appreciate, but is it the sort of experience many people are looking for in a movie? I suspect not.

*. “It was the public that was wrong,” David Thomson concludes, “and no condition is more alarming.” That’s a judgment worth dwelling on, but I won’t. I’ll just say that it may not be a question of being right or wrong but only be a matter of taste.
*. It should have always appealed to critics though, as it’s a veritable anthology of different styles, bringing in a silent film aesthetic, noir, expressionism, and other forms of theatricality. Just look at the way those blossoms are arranged around the children as they are introduced. That’s not a yard, it’s a stage.
*. And it’s not just the film’s visual language but how well that language is being spoken. It’s a movie filled with fantastic visual elements but most of them are nearly static, thus making it a mine of memorable stills. I think this goes with how Laughton was inspired by silent film and its overly dramatic gestures and isolation of dramatic moments. The way Mitchum’s Preacher holds the knife up in the weird chapel of a bedroom, and keeps holding it as though turning into a statue. For audiences in 1955, and even more so audiences today, I think that comes across as weird.

*. Then there is the matter of tone. Is it a horror movie with “peculiar overtones of humor” (Pauline Kael), or a comic fairy tale with jarring notes of horror? It probably doesn’t make a difference as they’re all in the mix. I don’t think it upsets any kind of thematic unity because fairy tales are scary and funny and fanciful all at the same time. Still, you can understand the confusion people felt. There have been other screen villains who have performed comic bits, but the Harry Powell is slapstick most of the way through. Even at his most menacing there’s something phony about him, like he’s only playing a bad guy.

*. It’s a movie of favourite moments, most of them characterized by their staging and the dramatic photography of Stanley Cortez. Willa as Ophelia underwater. The Preacher silhouetted on horseback. The duet between the Preacher sitting outside and Lilian Gish inside with her shotgun. But I think my favourite is the look Shelley Winters gives Mitchum when she comes in to the house after hearing him threatening Pearl. What she does with her eyes there is remarkable.
*. That’s a model of Winters in the underwater shot, by the way. But damn does it look convincing. I always thought it was really her holding her breath.
*. Willa is also the most interesting psychological study in the film. She actually makes a good match with Icey Spoon (Evelyn Varden) in the way they are both taken in by Powell. Only where Willa surrenders herself to her fate, becoming whatever he wants her to be, Icey represents the furious backlash, standing at the front of the mob screaming for Mitchum’s blood at the end. Such people are always swinging from one extreme to the other. Poor Ruby, looking for love in all the wrong places, is the one true believer left carrying a torch (and not a pitchfork).

*. I mentioned the photography by Stanley Cortez and I will again. Of course light and shadow are two of the key ingredients to the art of photography, but you have to wonder if they’ve ever been as well employed as they are here. The shadows and blacks have an almost tactile silkiness to them, while light has a corresponding glow and texture. And it’s not just for show. The light and shadow have a real purpose.
*. In fact I think it’s a great movie in almost every department. Something in the editing seems hit-and-miss to me though, as the timing is badly off in several scenes, mainly in terms of what appear to be awkwardly delayed reactions. I also think the river journey with the foregrounded animals is presented in too crude a manner. I find this part of the film alienating.
*. Still, it’s managed to last. You’d think that melodrama wouldn’t, being so fixed in contemporary sentiment, but there’s something about such stories that abides and endures.