Monthly Archives: December 2019

Quick Picks 2019

Welcome to my second annual awards show. In case you missed what happened in 2018, here are the rules. First I make a list of all the 2019 releases that I saw in 2019. This is a long, long way from being a representative sample of anything, with the titles being drawn mainly from the DVD Quick Picks shelf at my local library. As you will immediately notice, this sampling includes few if any of the usual suspects that get awards from presitgious critical bodies. They just happen to be movies I felt like watching on a given day, for whatever reason. From this list I then pick my own best and worst film of the year, best actor, best actress, and best screenplay.

Here is the list (I can’t really call them nominees):

Alita: Battle Angel
Annabelle Comes Home
Avengers: Endgame
Captive State
Child’s Play
Cold Pursuit
The Curse of La Llorona
The Dead Don’t Die
Escape Room
Happy Death Day 2U
The Haunting of Sharon Tate
It Chapter Two
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Pet Sematary

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Captive State (2019)

*. The aliens, who at least in their most common form are giant bipeds covered in spiky quills, have taken over. And it seems as though we have welcomed our new porcupine overlords. They keep the lights on and in return we apparently do some physical labour for them.
*. At least I think that’s the arrangement. To be honest, I wasn’t sure why they were keeping us around. They need us to dig up our natural resources for them? They don’t have machines to do that? Because we have machines to do that. In any event, I guess things are working out, at least for some people. Employment is high, crime is low, the trains and buses are running on time. They’ve taken away our Wi-Fi but that might be a net plus. There is also an increasing gap between rich and poor, but again I’m not sure why. Since the aliens are the government and the army, why do they need a human class system?
*. Obviously the aliens are just stripping Earth of mineral assets, and even though we’re not told what they’re endgame is it’s hard to feel optimistic about our eventual fate. The majority of people, however, are happy to go along with things. Meanwhile, a handful of rebels plot an uprising.
*. This may sound kind of vague, but Captive State seems to want to make a political point and I can’t figure out what it is. The set-up is very similar to a TV series that was just winding up at the same time called Colony. In the case of that show the alien government was meant to represent the Nazi occupation of France, and on the commentary track here writer-director Rupert Wyatt mentions this as well. But what’s the connection? Who are our Nazis? Who are our collaborators? The Deep State?
*. Then there’s this: If the aliens are Nazis why aren’t they more evil? Are people being worked to death in slave pits? Are humans being raised for food? What happens to prisoners sent “off planet”? We don’t know any of this. It’s possible — unlikely, but possible — that the “roaches” are wholly benevolent. So how can we get on board with heroes who are suicide-bombing terrorists? Whose motto (repeated in the movie) is “light a match, ignite a war”? If you want audiences to relate to these freedom fighters some idea has to be given as to what’s at stake, of why we should be on their side.
*. Put another way, an ostensibly political movie like this needs to be angrier. But I never got a sense of anger from Captive State. Perhaps because we don’t get to meet any true believers either. There’s the crowd of sheeple at Soldier Field singing a bastardized version of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” but we don’t know these people. Are they all suffering from Stockholm Syndrome? Do they just prefer order to chaos? Or here’s another question: Are elections still being held? The only real political authority belongs to the alien Legislators. The human leadership makes the claim that they stand for democracy vs. anarchy, but how is this a democracy?
*. Even when the Legislators call in Predator-like Hunters to take out the terrorist cell it’s only in response to a flagrant attack, and we don’t see any massive reprisals. Instead it’s the Stasi human police force who are the villains: brutal thugs wearing ski-masks and wielding batons on the ground and operating a vast surveillance state behind the scenes. Shouldn’t these be the guys Phoenix is targeting?
*. I can’t praise much about the film except its look. The burnt-out Chicago has a 1984ish rawness to it that works well with its low-budget vision of a low-tech future. Without digital communication people have apparently gone back to reading books and newspapers! (You see what I mean about a net plus?) The use of carrier pigeons is admittedly a bit extreme, but what really tipped me off the most about how changed a world this is (aside from the wall of bookshelves in Vera Farminga’s apartment) were all of the wristwatches. Remember them? I still wear one.
*. The confusion as to what is at stake, however, makes the movie feel slack. A. A. Dowd: “it’s not unreasonable to expect something like excitement out of a story about freedom fighters plotting to take back the planet. Captive State does not clear that fairly low bar.” In other words, it’s dull.
*. Dull and depressing. Again, we don’t know what Rafe’s fate will be when we see him along with a long line of others being sent off-planet but I figure it must be terrible. Perhaps worse than death. And while some scattered shots of an Earth Spring uprising playing over the end credits may be meant to give us some hope that a match has been lit, how can we believe humanity has a chance against a powerful force that is now so firmly entrenched? Nothing we’ve seen in the course of the movie gives us any grounds for feeling hopeful. I’m not making an appeal for a happy ending here, but again just wondering what the point of all this was.

Ma (2019)

*. Oh, darn. This could have been good. The cast is more than capable, and not just Octavia Spencer (who actually plays a bit off, in my opinion). Diana Silvers as the heroine and Juliette Lewis as her mom are both excellent. The story is classic ’80s horror, the killer taking revenge for a slight that goes back to high school, but the set-up also reminded me a lot of Don’t Breathe, which was a recent movie I rather liked.
*. But the film doesn’t go there. Or anywhere. Spencer never gets to gear up to full crazy, which is what I was most looking forward to. I’m bewildered by the number of reviewers who praised her performance for being camp or over-the-top. She seems subdued to me.
*. The violence at the end is more stupid than shocking. There’s nothing like that turkey baster in Don’t Breathe, and certainly nothing like the sinister nurse figures who deal out the pain in Misery and Audition. Drawing a comparison to those two movies may seem unfair, but if you’re going to invoke the classics, and I think Ma does, then you have to be able to take it.
*. The background story for Spencer’s Sue Ann is perfunctory, and was indeed slapped onto a script that originally provided no explanation for why she was so disturbed. But I don’t think we needed any back story. To go back to the movies I just mentioned, the motivations of Annie and Asami are both left deliberately vague. Are we supposed to feel sympathy for Sue Ann? And what are we to make of her love for Ben? I don’t think any of this helps. This is a movie where it’s very clear right from the start where it’s going and then it takes too long to get there. Director Tate Taylor doesn’t have any feel for horror so there’s no suspense, or jump scares, and all that part of the movie falls flat. Say what you will about the formulaic filmmaking of James Wan and his ilk, but at least it delivers the creeps.
*. Sue Ann was not originally written as a black character either, and so the movie makes almost no reference to race (except for a weird bit at the end that just made me shake my head). In fact, and unlike a lot of contemporary horror, there’s really no social commentary here at all. There was certainly a place for it — teens drinking too much, adults as enablers, the pitfalls of social media — but nothing is made of any of this. Writing in the New Yorker, Doreen St. Félix thought the film “signals allegorical importance,” but I don’t see where it even makes a gesture toward such meaning.
*. I don’t understand critics. I’ve mentioned how I don’t see anything in Spencer’s performance that connects to how a lot of reviewers described it. I don’t see what St. Félix is talking about. Rex Reed has some reputation for saying bitchy things about movies he seems not to have watched (see my notes on V/H/S/2), but his review of Ma is ridiculous: “In a violent, stupid and nauseating creature feature called Ma, she [Spencer] plays a cruel, bloodthirsty monster who tortures and kills off half of a suburban town for fun.” Kills off half a town? I believe the body count is two.
*. Well, I enjoyed watching Spencer and Silver and Lewis. But it all has an empty feel to it and there’s no payoff at the end (and lest you get your hopes up, the alternate ending included with the DVD is even worse). The whole thing seems underwritten, leaving a host of interesting angles unexplored. Just the parallel between then and now should have been a lot more fun — with the old songs getting contemporary makeovers being a perfect entry point. But again nothing much is done with this, and the cast, along with the rest of the film, is left high and dry.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)

*. In 2019 Hollywood marked the 50th anniversary of the Manson slayings with two movies partially based on those events: The Haunting of Sharon Tate and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The first was widely panned, and considered by some to be the worst movie of the year. The second received critical accolades and made most major-media, year-end top-10 lists.
*. That Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was so well received is due largely to it being a Quentin Tarantino film. Tarantino has had a remarkable career. After bursting on the scene with Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown he became arguably the most influential filmmaker of his generation. But why should the release of a new Tarantino movie be the cause of any attention at all in 2019? His last two pictures, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight, were overblown and hugely disappointing. He has often spoken of retiring, claiming that directors don’t get better as they get older. Clearly he wasn’t. So how much of a pass is he still allowed, based on work he did more than twenty years ago?
*. I wasn’t impressed by Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but not for the reasons most often given in its few negative reviews. These were mainly of the school of “woke” criticism, and took the writer-director to task for his racism and misogyny. Writing in the New Yorker Richard Brody even slammed the film as “ridiculously white,” whatever that means. Critics wondered what Bruce Lee was doing in here, a question I have no answer for (he is present in what is either a flashback or a daydream, take your pick). And what was with the slurs against Mexicans? Presumably they’re to make up for the fact that there are no blacks in sight. And why didn’t Margot Robbie have more lines? And why do we have to see Charlie’s girls getting busted up so spectacularly at the end?
*. These things didn’t bother me at all. The ’60s were not a politically correct time and Sharon Tate (Robbie) is not an important character in the story. In fact, I think she’s just offered up as a red herring. Instead of these woke touchstones, what I disliked was the bloated running time (161 minutes), much of which seemed wasted watching people drive around or watch TV. Only half an hour into it I started playing the deadly game of thinking which scenes I would have cut from the final print. I soon had a long list. In addition, the characters are all stoners and/or meatheads, so while they may be sympathetic at times they have nothing interesting to say. What is a Tarantino movie with no interesting talk?

*. A deeper comparison with The Haunting of Sharon Tate is worth pursuing. Both movies conclude in the same way, with the historical murders being foiled and the Manson gang being killed instead. In the case of The Haunting of Sharon Tate the point seems to be that Sharon (Hilary Duff) has tapped into some kind of cultural subconscious that allows her, at least in one parallel or alternate reality, to flip the script into that of a cheap home-invasion horror movie, with the innocent victims emerging triumphant in art if not in life.
*. In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood the script is flipped in much the same way, by a pair of Hollywood has-beens — fading star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his loyal stunt double/personal assistant Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) — tapping into a less anachronistic zeitgeist. Movies, in both movies, are what come to the rescue. They are more powerful, if not more real, than reality. It’s a point nicely captured by Tex Watson holding a real gun on Cliff Booth, who holds his fingers up in the shape of an imaginary pistol. You can guess who wins that draw.
*. The idea seems to be that, at least in Hollywood, the myth is more important than any notion of truth. Reality is changed by the lens we view it through. Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel . . . and a horror movie to those who grew up watching horror movies, and a Western to actors who play cowboys. The title is an obvious nod to Sergio Leone’s famous trilogy but it also lets us know that this is a fairy tale, not a docudrama. Rick keeps a fully fueled flamethrower in his shed? Well, why not.
*. Tarantino was taken to task for presenting a reactionary defence of a mythic Hollywood, but has there ever been any other kind? The hippies are the product of the entertainment industry but they insist on taking its lessons literally. As gang member Sadie puts it, “if you grew up watching TV, you grew up watching murder.” Thus they are justified in wanting to “kill the people who taught us to kill.” Tarantino, who also grew up watching TV and watching murder, drew a different lesson, wanting to make movies with the people who taught him to make movies.
*. There’s the germ of an interesting idea here, just as there was in The Haunting of Sharon Tate. In this film it’s more developed, but I still find it frustrating and shallow. One reason being that Tarantino seems less interested in other movies now than he is in doing homages to himself, right down to his fetish for feet.
*. In his best movies Tarantino placed real characters in the midst of a media-rich environment, but here the characters (I want to put that word in quotation marks) are so much the creation of that environment that we can’t imagine them outside of it. There’s a long section that shows Rick playing the bad guy in a crumby Western. It’s telling that we never see the cameras or crew. We don’t need to. We know they’re there, just as we know they’re always there. The Spahn Ranch is an old movie set. Cliff lives next door to a drive-in theatre. But even driving down the highway we feel the cameras are on. This is something both Cliff and Rich understand. It’s in their bones. The hippies are absolutely baffled by it, like straight men and women caught in an absurdist play.
*. This is a very well made movie. The streetscapes are flawlessly recreated in ways I couldn’t even imagine but which I suspect cost a lot of money. But the whole thing moves very awkwardly, and is hamstrung by its cast of comic dimwits. Indeed, if there is a point it seems to be that the dimmer you are the happier you will be, at least in Hollywood. Old George Spahn (Bruce Dern) has figured that much out, preferring to be thought blind while he has teenagers “fuck his brains out” in between sleeping and watching TV. Drugs, sex, violence, and movies. That’s all there is. Just don’t take any of it literally or seriously, because none of it is real.

The Haunting of Sharon Tate (2019)

*. For some reason, and I don’t think it’s as obvious as it might seem, the Manson family murders have long held a special fascination for filmmakers. Maybe, because of the industry connections, it’s seen as a story that’s somehow “about” the dark side of Hollywood. Whatever the reason, there have been plenty of films on the subject, ranging from the 1976 made-for-TV docudrama Helter Skelter to Wolves at the Door, Manson’s Lost Girls, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The last mentioned being a movie having a lot in common with The Haunting of Sharon Tate, especially with regard to the mystical connection they draw between life and (bad) movies.
*. The idea here is that Sharon Tate has dreams of being murdered in the manner that she actually was murdered, along with several of her friends, in 1969. Forewarned is forearmed, and in this telling of the story she manages to escape her fate and turn the tables on the murderous hippie crew, killing them in turn.
*. I think there may have been a point writer-director Daniel Farrands was trying to make here, I’m just not sure what it was. Something about dreams as either premonitions or windows into an alternate reality? Or maybe it’s not dreams so much as movies that provide such a window or escape.
*. An epigraph from Poe asks “Is all that we see or seem / but a dream within a dream?” As with almost every epigraph to a movie that I’ve ever seen, this is an almost totally meaningless flourish. I take it as nothing more than a wave of the hand at the question of what is real.
*. A more fruitful entry point is in the bit of poolside dialogue between Tate (Hilary Duff) and friend Jay Sebring (Jonathan Bennett). Tate begins by asking: “Do you think it’s possible to alter the course of our fate, or is our story just our book, written before we were even born?” That is not a particularly deep reflection, but credit to Duff for delivering it with a straight face. This is more than Bennett is able to manage in his response: “I like to think that anything’s possible. And I think that there’s infinite choices, infinite realities. We’re probably living out different versions of our own story, for, who knows?, probably forever. At least until we get it right. I guess in moviespeak it means we can rewrite our own scripts. But I think no matter which road we choose, we always arrive at the same place.”
*. There are a couple of observations I’d make about this. In the first place, it’s a bit of dialogue that is repeated at the end of the movie so I guess Farrands thought it was important, and possibly even profound. You may judge that for yourself. To my mind, the idea that we can choose between infinite possibilities and write our own script but still end up in the same place seems contradictory.
*. Second, I mentioned how Duff at least keeps a straight face while Bennett does not. I think they both deliver atrocious performances, but in their defence they are playing characters who are not supposed to be that bright. Tate was also a bad actor, so what would a good performance by someone playing a bad actor look like? This? Margot Robbie did more with a lot less, and Leonardo DiCaprio was better playing an even more pathetic thespian.
*. That problem of how to fairly judge such matters is one I wrestled with a lot watching this movie. On the one hand, it’s a very bad home-invasion horror flick. Clichés abound, both visual and narrative. Scary stuff happens and then Sharon wakes up screaming. There are lots of shlocky jump scares and even more shlocky jump cuts. There’s some CGI work that is laughably bad (just look at the swarm of flies around the dead dog, or the blood flying from the victims). So it is a bad movie. But then I wondered if the point was that we were supposed to see Tate as someone (a real historical person? a celebrity brand like Hilary Duff?) trapped in a bad movie. There were even a couple of moments when I thought they were going to break the fourth wall and really open things up, but that didn’t happen.
*. Instead, we’re left with an ending that I found to be a cop out. Tate and her friends really are dead, but they are also shown smiling and walking away from the crime scene. Are they ghosts? They can’t be inhabitants of a parallel reality because then the overlap wouldn’t make sense. Or is this only a Hollywood ending, of the kind you might expect in the bad movie they were just part of? Is that supposed to be Tate walking off into a celebrity afterlife, or Duff?
*. I don’t think there are answers to any of these questions because I don’t think the film was that well thought out. But I didn’t hate it as much as most reviewers did. Exploiting a real-life tragedy for cheap thrills didn’t offend me, though I was uncomfortable with watching a very pregnant woman being terrorized for 90 minutes. But what was the point of all this? Perhaps I’m missing some deeper irony, but I think it’s more likely that it was just a bad idea from the start.

Manson’s Lost Girls (2016)

*. The word “charisma” comes from a Greek word meaning “gift” — and in particular a gift of grace, or gift freely given — which is an etymology that hints at its mysterious origin. Where does charisma come from? How does it work? Why do some people have it and others don’t? God only knows.
*. The mystery of charisma is what makes us wonder at so many political and religious leaders. Apparently Hitler had it, though watching film of him today he seems ridiculous. I guess you had to be there. Charles (Charlie) Manson must have had some, since he managed to gather together a small cult (or “family”) whose members eventually would kill for him. This despite being a smaller-than-average (5’4″), uneducated, no-talent jailbird/bum with delusions of grandeur.
*. I think that to some degree, and probably a pretty large degree, people seduce themselves. A significant number of German people were waiting for someone like Hitler to come around. Manson was able to prey on not-very-bright young women with low self esteem and daddy issues. Part of being charismatic is knowing your audience and adapting your performance and message to it. Both Hitler and Manson made a conscious study of this.
*. Charisma can be a difficult property to capture on film, especially when the charismatic in question is a creepy character. Did you think Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd in The Master was the kind of guy who could start his own religion? Did you feel drawn to him or falling under his spell? If not, how well could you relate to the events depicted in that movie?
*. There have been some portrayals of cult leaders that have captured their dark charisma. Powers Boothe as Jim Jones in the TV-movie Guyana Tragedy (1980) is one. And Steve Railsback did a credible Charlie Manson in the TV-movie Helter Skelter (1974).
*. Manson’s Lost Girls was also released as a TV-movie, premiering on the Lifetime channel. The similarities end there though, as Jeff Ward doesn’t really convince me as the demonic Pied Piper of the Spahn Ranch. He’s believable as a psychopath, but we don’t get the charm. He seems like a child, always ready to fly off the handle whenever he doesn’t get his way. That may be (and I think probably is) a fair understanding of the kind of guy Manson was, but, particularly in a film like this, we needed to see or be made to feel more of his hypnotic power.
*. The reason I say this is because, as the title indicates, the main focus here is on his harem of hippie chicks. Unfortunately, we never come to understand them. How did they end up here? What did they see in Charlie?
*. Manson himself is, I think, whitewashed. For starters, even by the standards of his day he held outrageously racist and sexist views, believing in a battle to the death between whites and blacks and treating all women as sex slaves and domestic drudges. These essential elements of his world view aren’t even touched on here. If anything, the Manson we get is more like the idealized figure his girls imagined than the real thing.
*. Perhaps more attention needed to be given to just one of the girls, like the narrator Linda Kasabian (Mackenzie Mauzy). As it is, the others are really too vacant to ever get a grip on. Eden Brolin is very good as the enforcer Susan Atkins, but she doesn’t have another level to her.
*. I can’t say this movie engaged me much, and it did little to evoke a sense of the time and place beyond the music and the fact that the men have hair on their chests. Remember that?
*. Most of all, however, it didn’t do enough to address the nature of the charismatic relationship. There’s a coda with Linda being questioned by Vincent Bugliosi (the Manson prosecutor who wrote Helter Skelter) where he tries to understand Manson’s hold on the girls and she just says that he made them feel special. This comes as a throwaway, and one that wouldn’t have been necessary if the rest of the movie had explored the matter more thoroughly.

Krampus (2015)

*. I’ll admit I’d never heard of Krampus before this movie came out. I just figured he was something writer-director Michael Dougherty made up. But no. He’s real. Or “real.” Live and learn.
*. If you listen to the DVD commentary (with Dougherty, and co-writers/producers Todd Casey and Zach Shields) one word you’ll hear them using over and over is “tone.” This was a major issue right from the start, and it bedeviled them through post-production and into the film’s marketing. Just what sort of tone were they going for?
*. I’m not trying to pigeonhole Krampus, or accuse it of not being able to make up its mind about being a horror movie or something else. Tone is a little different. It’s good to play around with genres and the expectations that come with them. Mixing tone rarely goes well so you want to find the right tone and stick with it. If you don’t, it’s like mixing different architectural styles in the same building. It may work, but it’s more likely to be a mess.
*. And so here’s Krampus, which is a mix of a lot of different things. First and foremost it’s a horror movie. But a particular kind of horror movie, one (in Dougherty’s words) “done in hte style and spirit of ’80s horror movies.” And, to further qualify this, a particular kind of ’80s horror movie: PG-13 horror like Poltergeist and Gremlins (the two films Dougherty references the most). This isn’t an homage to slasher flicks.
*. Certainly the Joe Dante vibe is unmistakeable. And I say that not because Krampus’s crew act like a bunch of Gremlins that have been unleashed but because the snowy streets of these ‘burbs are even more obviously sets than the back lot used in Gremlins.
*. Speaking of which, nearly the entire movie was shot in a studio. In New Zealand. This confused me, because I don’t know why you’d go to New Zealand to shoot in a studio unless it was very cheap, which I wouldn’t have thought it was. But apparently a big draw was getting to work with Peter Jackson’s crew and some of the effects teams they have there. Jackson’s been quite a boon to the local economy.

*. The other type of movie Krampus invokes is the holiday-from-hell. Think of something like Christmas Vacation, another blast from the ’80s. The doorbell rings and here come the in-laws, headed by the always enjoyable and louder-than-life David Koechner as the gun-toting blowhard, accompanied this time by some heavyweight kids and a drunken aunt. You know the script, as you’ve probably seen the movie several times. The hostess labours over crème brûlée in the kitchen, but all these savages want is their mac-and-cheese and hot dogs.
*. Finally, Krampus is a specific type of holiday movie in being about Christmas. The nods here are to films like A Christmas Carol and the Rankin/Bass stop-motion animation specials. These holiday tales usually ended up with some feel-good moral lesson, like a family coming together and learning the true meaning of the spirit of Christmas.
*. So those are the ingredients. Do they all come together? Not really. Dougherty thought it a “family horror film,” which he says is “a rarity these days.” I’d be inclined to call it an oxymoron. In any event, the first part here is all the holiday-from-hell stuff, which is followed by the Gremlins stuff without much overlap. They’re kept pretty distinct.
*. More than that, however, I didn’t think the separate parts worked that well on their own. We begin with a Christmas-shopping free-for-all that is both clichéd and disconnected from everything that comes next. That might have been taken as setting the tone. The holiday stuff that follows was good but not great, while Krampus, when he shows up, was pretty disappointing. The horror film isn’t scary, and not terribly interesting either. Given that I quite liked Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat this was even more of a let-down.
*. I get that Krampus is meant to be a kind of trickster spirit, but very little personality comes out. And his appearance leaves a lot to be desired. I realize he’s wearing a mask, making him look like the ghost mask in the Scream movies, but it’s not a great mask and I didn’t really understand why he was wearing one anyway.

*. The ending confused people. I think it was meant to be ambiguous. My own sense was that it signified that the family were now locked in hell for eternity. I mean, we do see them all go falling into the pit, and they certainly don’t seem very happy when they realize the Krampus visitation was real. But you could, in the alternative, see it as Krampus just keeping an eye on them by way of a sort of crystal ball in his workshop. That works, but it seems like a stretch to me. And they did also shoot an alternate, more optimistic ending (included with the DVD) but rejected it.
*. Of course, such a dark ending was the final twist in tone. Audiences do like their happy endings, especially when they’re what’s expected. I honestly thought the real Santa Claus was going to come crashing the party at the end and righteously smite Krampus and his minions. I’m glad that didn’t happen.
*. This probably makes it seem like I didn’t like Krampus. Actually, I thought it was OK. But just OK, and I was expecting something more. I think this is the movie Dougherty really wanted to make, but that might have been the problem. Poltergeist and Gremlins, for all their name recognition, weren’t great movies. Nor was Christmas Vacation. It may be that Krampus goes on to have a similar afterlife, complete with sequels. One thing’s for sure, in the family-horror genre they won’t have much competition.

Annabelle Comes Home (2019)

*. Yet another entry (the seventh I believe) in the Conjuring Universe. Or the third Annabelle movie (in only 5 years). Which leads to the question of just how many times you can go to the same well.
*. That’s a question I’ve asked before. In fact, here’s how I ended my notes on Annabelle: Creation: “I’m beginning to wonder how much longer they can keep going back to the same haunted well.” I’m repeating myself about how much these films are repeating themselves.
*. For what it’s worth, the set-up here the has husband-and-wife paranormal investigation team of Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) leaving their daughter at home with a babysitter while they go off to some psychic convention. The babysitter’s friend comes by and lets the evil doll Annabelle out of her glass case (holy glass, made out of church windows). The usual scares ensue.
*. And when I say “the usual scares” I really mean it. By this time you must know the drill. Creepy figures glide by behind characters. Doors slowly creak open or slam shut. Phones and doorbells ring but there’s nobody there. A radio turns on. A rocking chair starts rocking with no one in it. A piano plays by itself. The power goes out and the girls have to use flashlights. Then the batteries in the flashlight die and they have to use a lamp. Then the lamp goes out and it’s dark. The house fills with a spooky mist. A girl gets dragged backward across the floor. Ghosts jump out at us and go “Boo!”
*. In the first act we are introduced to a bunch of elements that we can be sure are going to come up again later. There’s a bracelet charm, a party game, a collection of spirit bells. Instead of an evil nun there’s a psycho bride. Or maybe it’s La Llorona. I guess since that movie had just come out a few months earlier she could still be a presence. Whatever the case, it’s the same demonic shit, different costume. Plus there’s a samurai warrior, a bunch of corpses with coins on their eyes, and a werewolf.
*. Yes, I said werewolf. Or hellhound. I thought it a stretch but I can imagine the producers feeling that they had to add something a little different to the mix. I felt sorry for him (the werewolf) though. In the end he only gets to raid the chickenhouse. I doubt he’ll be getting his own spin-off franchise.
*. Of course at the center of all this is Annabelle herself, who is really starting to bore me. She doesn’t speak, or (at least that we can see) move on her own. In the pantheon of evil dolls, she’s no Chucky. In fact she’s not much of anything. How have there been three Annabelle movies already?
*. As an aside, the meaning of the title escapes me. In what sense is Annabelle coming home? Is the case in the basement her home? Where else does she go?
*. The formula has continued to be profitable, and it’s one that has even spread out beyond the Conjuring Universe. Writer-director Gary Dauberman, who had credits for writing the other Annabelle movies as well as The Nun, also helped out on the screenplay for both chapters of It. Busy guy, unless he has software now for jobs like this. I noticed the resemblance here to It Chapter Two in the group splitting up and facing different demons, the jump scares deriving, literally, from ghosts jumping out at the screen, and even the borrowing of the asthma inhaler as a plot device. It’s almost like watching a crossover. Annabelle and Pennywise should hook up sometime.
*. As David Fear wrote in his Rolling Stone review: “Annabelle Comes Home is not out to reinvent the wheel, or to even rotate the franchise tires.” That’s well put, but I don’t know where Fear is coming from when he goes on to call it “an oddly back-to-basics take on the ghost-story gauntlet run.” Oddly? All of the movies in the Conjuring Universe have taken the identical “back-to-basics” approach. In terms of the horror grammar of these movies they’re indistinguishable.
*. Does it work? As well as the other movies. I didn’t like it as much as Annabelle: Creation, but I thought it was better than The Nun. Mckenna Grace is really good as Judy Warren. Tight-sweatered teens Madison Iseman and Katie Sarife look convincingly scared. It’s a decent enough ride through the same funhouse. That said, a movie like this is built around jump scares. In fact, jump scares are its whole reason for being. But here they’re so clearly telegraphed the only pleasant thrills come when you’re led to think something is going to happen and then nothing does.
*. I doubt this will be the end of the franchise, or Universe, but that final point drives home the level of creative exhaustion that is setting in. When nothing is better than something on screen, you know there’s not much left in the tank.

The Curse of La Llorona (2019)

*. So back in the 1870s there was this Mexican Medea who drowned her kids when she caught her husband fooling around. Now, in 1970s Los Angeles, her evil spirit has become a Latina Woman in Black, going after other people’s children.
*. Throw in the fact that this movie is part of the Conjuring Universe (one of two Conjuring movies that came out in 2019!) and I’m not sure there’s much more to say. La Llorona herself looks a lot like The Nun. Father Perez from Annabelle shows up, and indeed the doll is even shown in a flashback. The film itself is the usual grab-bag of jump scares and things going bump in the night. Flashlights running out of batteries at just the wrong moment. Doors slamming shut and people being dragged across floors. I’m not going to go over all this again. See my notes on any of the other movies in the franchise.
*. Most of these Conjuring movies are, if predictable, at least effectively creepy. Not this one. Or perhaps I’d been down this road too many times over the last few years. After the first half hour I found myself singing “My Llarona” to the tune of the Knack’s “My Sharona” just to amuse myself. And I’m sure I wasn’t the only one driven to such measures.
*. Basically single mom (Linda Cardelinni) has to protect her two young children from the weeping woman in white. Well, she works for family services so at least she’s a professional. She can also brandish a baseball bat when things get hairy, and yell at the demon to get out of her house. When that doesn’t work she calls in Raymond Cruz as an exorcist. He’s not sanctioned by the Church but he’s still capable of turning an entire swimming pool into holy water. Father Perez describes him as “unorthodox,” and you know what that means. It means he gets results!
*. No point spending any more time on this one, especially since they really seemed like they were having to drag it out to make the 90 minute running time. There is literally nothing new or interesting to see here.

It Chapter Two (2019)

*. I watched this movie more out of a sense of duty than a desire to see what happened. Since I’d read the book and seen the 1990 TV miniseries with Tim Curry I already knew the story. And the fact is I didn’t care much for It Chapter One. But in for a penny . . .
*. It Chapter One was most notable for the appearance of Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise the Dancing Clown, which quickly became the stuff of countless memes and Halloween costumes. He looked great. But having seen him already I wanted more, and at 169 minutes Chapter Two was going to be more. But more of what?
*. Unfortunately, not a lot more of anything good. Almost all the negative comments I had to make about Chapter One go for this film as well, just as many of the scenes are virtually repeated. A bathroom filling with blood turns into a washroom stall filling with blood. Billy kills the monster disguised as his little brother again.
*. Pennywise still looks and talks the same, and, what’s more upsetting, he goes about trying to scare us the same way. That is, by jumping out of the shadows or suddenly lunging at the camera with his big mouth stretching open so he can show off all his teeth. Director Andy Muschetti keeps going back to the same jump-scare effect with Pennywise (and he does it with the grown-up bully Bowers too) again and again and again. It’s not scary at all and is even tiring after a while.

*. But things get even worse. Instead of trying to do anything really scary the decision seems to have been made to just give audiences more monsters. CGI monsters. CGI monsters that look very silly. Remarkably, they look even sillier than in Chapter One. I am not a hard person to creep out, but the Mrs. Kersh monster made me laugh out loud, with the John Bunyan statue and the Leper (Javier Botet in a ridiculous mask) being very nearly as bad. The fortune-cookie creatures were a joke too. Indeed, the CGI throughout is so bad I have trouble understanding how it passed muster. Did nobody involved realize how terrible the effects were showing on screen?
*. But hold on, because it’s even worse than that. The Loser gang, despite being reasonably well played by a capable cast, aren’t that interesting or even sympathetic. Maybe it’s just me, but I found I didn’t like them more than I liked them as kids. So for most of the movie you’re just waiting for Pennywise to show up and do his thing. In other words, to get on with it.
*. Aside from the CGI it’s a good-looking movie. But it’s too long (the 1990 version told the whole story in almost the same amount of time), and too predictable. As Leah Pickett writes, “After a while, watching old story lines and scares reoccur produces diminishing returns.” It wants to be more of a character-driven story but I just couldn’t care about the Losers at all. The structure is a clumsy mess and the pace drags. I agree with Mark Kermode’s observation that it feels like a TV miniseries, which was very much how most franchise filmmaking was starting to feel at this time (as with the Star Wars and Marvel universes). The ending descends into a warm bath of schmaltz. Be true to yourself. Stand by your friends. I said I wanted more, but what I meant by that is that I wanted something better. I think even the most charitable view would be that Chapter Two is only less of the same.