Category Archives: 2010s

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.

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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.

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.

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.

Rings (2017)

*. There’s a point in Rings when our heroes, the studly Holt and sultry Julia, have to go out to do some field research into the supernatural phenomenon that is Samara. Before they leave, the rather dubious Professor Gabriel Brown gives them a shaggy book containing all he has learned so far on the subject. This struck me as archaic. Holt and Julia are millennials and I don’t suppose they read. When would they even have time, especially now that the clock is ticking on Julia’s date with the demon from the well? Couldn’t he have just given them a PowerPoint presentation covering the highlights?
*. As it is, I don’t think they ever consult the book. Instead Julia just keeps watching the video clip on her cellphone, hoping to pick up some more clues. And she’s guided by visions. All that work by Professor Brown for nothing.
*. I’m joking, a bit, about millennials not reading. Actually, I think millennials read as much as other age cohorts these days (which still isn’t much). But there’s a larger point here having to do with Rings. This is a scary teen movie, not a movie like the first two in the series, which were both about a mother trying to protect her family. I think perhaps the thinking was that since there’d been a twelve-year gap between the last film and this one they were pitching to a whole new generation. One less familiar with the Ring mythology.
*. Of course young people weren’t going to buy a movie about a haunted videotape in 2017. As the prologue makes clear, VCRs are now antiques. And I think Rings does a decent job updating the story to our current digital dispensation.
*. Unfortunately, I think the producers took this freedom and used it to turn what might have been a sequel or re-set of the franchise into a remake of the first film (or technically the remake of the first film, which was Ringu). There’s a pre-credit sequence on an airplane that’s actually very funny and that I thought signaled a change in direction but it isn’t followed up on. Instead it quickly settles down into The Ring 2.0. Everything is the same as the first movie right down to the basic structure of the story, which has Julia piecing together clues to try and find where Samara is buried so she can lay her weary spirit to rest (and maybe stop all the re-runs). The only reason I think they thought they could get away with this is because they would assume that the audience for the earlier movies had grown up and weren’t going to be seeing this one.
*. I’ve mentioned the character of Professor Brown (Johnny Galecki) a couple of times already and I want to spend some more time with him as I think he’s a lot more interesting than Holt and Julia.
*. In the first place, what’s his story? How did he get hooked on chasing after Samara? Was it with the tape he found in the VCR at the beginning? Or had he been pursuing her before that? And what’s his background? His title is Associate Professor of Biology but he seems more interested in the intersection of technology with urban myths.
*. Second: How did he manage to score such a massive grant to turn the 7th floor of that building into his own personal fiefdom when all his research seems to be into a bunch of magical mumbo-jumbo that he can’t even prove? I mean, did he say in his application for funding that he was looking to use the money to investigate a haunted videotape?
*. Third: Was there any formal inquiry into the highly questionable ethics of his research? I mean, basically he’s using students as guinea pigs and presumably more than a few of them are turning up dead and horribly disfigured in the same bizarre way. Where’s the administrative oversight?
*. Again I’m joking, a bit, but I really think Rings would have been a better movie if it had spent more time exploring this angle. The set-up was right for something along the lines of what I’ve called the Ghostbuster genre, where a team of people using computers and wearing labcoats use science to take on the supernatural. Think The Stone Tape (a movie with more than a little connection to the Ring mythology), The Entity, Poltergeist, Prince of Darkness, etc. That might have been interesting here, as Samara is a very tech-friendly ghost.
*. Alas, that’s not how things work out. Instead, as noted, we follow the script of the first film. Critics and audiences voiced displeasure, but I liked it a lot better than The Ring Two and it did make money so the franchise may still be alive. However, I think some serious damage has been done, at least in two respects.
*. (1) Samara’s back story, which really doesn’t fit very well with the previous films, diminishes her quite a bit. Her father is just a lecherous priest? They’re dime a dozen. Who cares? And the ending is far too abrupt. They had a chance to give us something real Hellraiser, with Samara as Pinhead back to exact some justice from the beyond, but they flubbed it. The basic idea wasn’t bad, but it had to be put forward with more gusto.
*. (2) Samara going viral is the logical next step in her evolution. She’s about to become a very busy girl! But there’s no putting that genie back in the bottle. Where do you go from there? I would say a prequel, but the lousy back story has already wrecked that.
*. The series could keep going but at this point it’s hard to understand why they’d bother — aside, I guess, from the obvious reason. Personally, I hope they give Samara a rest. Unless she promises to break the Internet and use everybody’s cellphone to stick wet fingers in their ears. That wouldn’t be a bad thing.

The Conjuring 2 (2016)

*. “The next true story from the case files of Ed and Lorraine Warren.” Or at least based on true events. Whatever that means. I guess if they come from someone’s “case file” that means they have to be true, right? And the DVD even comes with a separate documentary on the Enfield poltergeist scare. Must be legit.
*. All you really have to know is that given this was yet another box office smash, these same “case files” will be raided for material again, with more sequels and spin-offs on the way. Is that a good thing?
*. I have reservations, despite enjoying this kind of movie as much as the next person. I know this is genre filmmaking, and there’s only so much you can do with these haunted house stories, but it’s clear that they’re out of ideas here. There are a lot of squeaky doors that open and slam shut on their own, there are swinging lightbulbs, there are dogs that are sensitive to what’s going on, there are levitations, there are terrified children pulling their blankets over their heads. Even the jump scares seemed predictable to me.
*. If you’d seen The Conjuring you’d feel on very familiar ground, right down to the possessed toys that summon the demons and the girls’ sleeping arrangements. Even the film’s basic structure is identical, with a prologue featuring the Warrens in action (here they’re at the Amityville house), followed by our introduction to the threatened family (with a show-off shot zooming into their house), then the arrival of the Warrens at the haunted home at the mid-way point to cast the demons out.
*. None of this stopped audiences from flocking to it. It’s pure formula, but decently turned out. But what I have a hunch really helps this particular franchise out is that it goes against the contemporary trend in horror films of this sort to portray religion as totally ineffective. Here waving a cross and reciting some Latin actually seems to do something. We also don’t see the good guys all lying around dead at the end. Instead, family values and the power of love are affirmed. Audiences like that. Even horror audiences.
*. I’ve mentioned before how I like to look at what people have on their bookshelves in their movie homes. Here we can see what looks like a complete set of Will and Ariel Durant’s Story of Civilization in the Warren home. Good for them. I have them sitting on the shelf next to me now.
*. Poor old Bill Wilkins, ‘e ‘ad a brain ’emorrhage ‘e did, while watchin’ the telly. Now ‘e’s just a lonely bloke who wants to stay in ‘is ‘ouse. What’s so scary about that? I feel sorry for him. At least until he starts stealing the television remote. That’s just mean.
*. I joke, but I’m always curious as to what these damn ghosts or demons want anyway. In this movie Bill is being used by darker forces, but why those forces are targeting Enfield is beyond me.
*. Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are back as Ed and Lorraine Warren, as funny and likeable an odd couple as they were in the first film. Again one imagines them trying hard to keep a straight face. I actually laughed out loud a couple of times.
*. There’s nothing either new or interesting about this entry in the case files, and it comes in a bit heavy at two hours and fifteen minutes, but if you like things going bump in the night and scary faces popping out of the darkness to say boo! then you’ll at least be getting what you paid for.

Ghostbusters (2016)

*. This movie became a surprising cultural flashpoint. How sad. I say that because there was nothing surprising or provocative about its premise, which was simply to update a classic comedy from the 1980s and give it an all-female cast. When I first heard that this was in the works I thought it was a terrific idea, and still do. Why then was it so controversial?
*. I guess it had something to do with what was going on in America at the time. For whatever reason a reaction against a perceived “political correctness” was cresting. And so the idea of making the new team of ghostbusters women triggered Internet mobs who went on the attack even before the film was released. It was all stupid and ugly.
*. Unfortunately, the movie itself really isn’t that good. It’s certainly far from terrible, but it’s a letdown given the property they had to work with and the talent assembled. What went wrong? Was it the PC mentality?
*. Hardly. The real culprit, as so often, is the script. There’s just not a lot of good material here. (As an aside, you should watch the deleted jokes reel on the DVD as that stuff is all just as good as what they left in the movie. Plus you’ll get to see Sigourney Weaver’s cameo.)
*. Let me give you two examples of how the script comes up short.
*. (1) The logo. There was no need to explain the team’s development of the familiar “no ghost” logo. In the original film it’s just a given. But for some reason they thought they had to provide some background for it here. The answer? Have the ghostbusters ask a subway graffiti artist to describe the ghost he saw and have him spraypaint it on the wall, and then put a slash through it. How awkward can you get? This is a long scene. There is nothing funny about it at all. And it is totally unnecessary.
*. (2) The cameos. All of the original ghostbusters show up here, minus the late Harold Ramis. Everyone in the audience must have been primed to see them. But they are all wasted. Bill Murray plays a very unfunny debunker of the paranormal. Dan Aykroyd has a brief appearance as a churlish cabbie which again isn’t funny and where we don’t even believe in him as a cabbie. Ernie Hudson is the only one who comes out well, but his role (as Patty’s uncle) is just a drop in at the end.
*. The rest of the movie isn’t much better, and for the same reasons. There are some decent ideas, but they’re flubbed. Chris Hemsworth as a beefy secretary? Sure. But what’s funny about the part? He’s just another himbo. Kate McKinnon basically steals the show as the punk Holtzmann. Everybody else seems at a loss. And why, if they were going for a more progressive political message in the casting, is Leslie Jones the only non-professional (that is, without a Ph.D.) ghostbuster? Did the tough woman from (under) the streets have to be the only person of colour?
*. So, not a lot of funny stuff and not much of a plot either. It basically feels, plot-wise, like a mixed-up rehash of Ghostbusters and the unlamented Ghostbusters II. After all this time couldn’t they have come up with something, if not better, at least new?
*. I mentioned in my notes on Ghostbusters how the end of it had the feel of a Marvel Universe film before we knew of such things. Well, this Ghostbusters is even more of a chip off the Marvel block. And here’s the thing: when the portal to the other dimension opens and all the historical ghosties come pouring into the streets, forcing the women to fight them off with Holtzmann’s arsenal of homemade spirit-fighting devices, this is the best part of the film. And it shouldn’t be. It really, really shouldn’t be.
*. So it’s a disappointment. Not a total bust, but given the high expectations that came with it, a real let-down. This was reflected in its box office, which on the one hand was very good but because it was such a big production it was still considered a bomb. You live by the franchise, you die by the franchise. Those are the rules.

Annabelle (2014)

*. I don’t think much of Annabelle, but it is representative of the current generation of franchise filmmaking. It’s a spin-off from The Conjuring movies, so together they form what, in today’s parlance, is known as a single mythic “universe.” Sequels, prequels, and spin-offs all inhabit a more-or-less coherent imaginative space. The biggest of these, thus far, is the (capitalized) Marvel Cinematic Universe, but these Conjuring and Annabelle movies made a lot of money too.
*. Indeed, the box office success of The Conjuring and Annabelle was so great it may have even surprised the producers. For whatever reason, these old-fashioned ghost stories became immensely popular during this period, with a bunch of similar franchises like the Paranormal Activity, Insidious, and Sinister films. As I remarked in some of my notes on those movies, their return on investment was staggering, something that was also the case with Annabelle (reported to have had a budget of $6.5 million and box office of over $250 million). With that much money coming in, you could be sure more was on the way. And it was.
*. I guess audiences just wanted the basics. Threatened families. Doors that creak shut and rocking chairs that rock on their own (Annabelle the doll also has a thing for sewing late at night and making popcorn). A handful of jump scares.
*. Annabelle is no different from any of these others. There are no surprises. A very white-bread couple, John and Mia (Annabelle Wallis and Ward Horton), are expecting a baby. Mia collects dolls so John buys her a creepy looking one that is later possessed in extremis by the spirit of a girl named Annabelle who is a member of a murderous Manson-style cult that worships the devil. This all sounds a lot like Child’s Play. The rest of the film deals with Annabelle’s efforts to capture a fresh soul for her demon lord.
*. Despite being formulaic it’s really very difficult to screw this material up. You can make a mess of it, but it’s hard. And so along with all the quotations from a tradition of other horror films (most notably Rosemary’s Baby), the style is one that has become increasingly familiar. Slow pans that reveal something sinister going on quietly in the background, interrupted by sudden flashes of scariness. The atmosphere is rich in suspense, anticipating scares that usually don’t appear but which are always threatening to jump out from behind every doorway. There’s some business with Mia stuck in an elevator that makes use of this well, and several other scenes involving doorways that are also very good.
*. Of course, the most obvious bit of anticipatory suspense comes with the long shots of Annabelle’s face as you’re waiting to see her eyes blink or for her to turn her head. Which actually never happens but which you’re sure is about to.
*. Apparently the doll cost John a lot of money, but when Mia first tells him to get rid of it he just throws it in the trash bin. I realize this was before online auction sites, but surely he could have taken out an ad in the local newspaper or tried selling it back to whoever he bought it from or to another antique store. That seemed weird.
*. Poor, poor Alfre Woodard. Not only does she get suck in the stereotype role of the African-American who knows something about all this supernatural voodoo stuff (she runs an occult bookstore), but then she has to nobly sacrifice herself to save the affluent young white couple’s baby. This has become such a cliché that it even has its own Wikipedia entry under “Magical Negro.” In 2014 that’s awful.
*. Well, I began by saying I didn’t think much of this one. John and Mia aren’t a very interesting pair and I didn’t care very much what was happening to them. If nothing else, the absence of the Warrens (ghostbusting heroes of The Conjuring films) made me appreciate how much they meant to those movies. Annabelle misses them. A lot.

The Conjuring (2013)

*. Another horror franchise launched by James Wan, who seems to have a touch for this sort of thing. A Midas touch, that is. Shot for $20 million The Conjuring pulled in over $300 million in revenue. Hence the franchise and the spin-offs.
*. Not that he’s been all that original. I thought Saw was fresh, though some people thought it looked a bit too much like Cube. Insidious, however, struck me as nothing more than an update of Poltergeist, and The Conjuring is just a return to Amityville.
*. Indeed, it’s hard to overstate how perfect an Amityville Horror clone this is. The young couple, with kids, who buy a huge fixer-upper that strains their finances and which turns out to be cursed. The secret cellar. The investigation by spirit-hunters. The exorcism. Hell, it’s even set in 1971, which was just four years before the Lutzes moved in to 112 Ocean Avenue. And the Warrens were also called in to investigate the Amityville haunting as well: it even provides the prologue to The Conjuring 2.
*. Speaking of that secret cellar . . . whatever happened to home inspections? Did the Perron’s buy this place sight unseen? I mean, Roger Perron is surprised to find the place even has a cellar, but that’s where the furnace is! How did he miss that? Hell, there are even windows in the basement. So how could it have been so secret? And why is it always so dark?
*. Even if it weren’t just revisiting The Amityville Horror it would still play out as an incredibly generic haunted house story. There are things that go bump and creak in the night. There are threatened children. There are scary visions. There’s a magic mirror that you see things in that are sneaking around behind you. There are secret rooms and passageways. There are demonic dollies (Annabelle would actually get her own movie later). There are rocking chairs rocking with nobody in them. There are swinging light bulbs. There are monsters hiding under the bed and in the dresser.

*. The other convention being mined is what I’ve described elsewhere as the Ghostbuster sub-genre. This is where a team of experts, equipped with a van full of scientific-looking equipment (motion detectors, infrared cameras, UV lights) does battle with paranormal phenomena. The Stone Tape, a BBC production, might have been the first of these, but other notable examples include Poltergeist, The Entity, and Prince of Darkness (the latter film presumably being the source of the demonic possession spreading by mouth-to-mouth gouts of vomit here).
*. And yet for all the familiarity of the material, it works pretty well. Or, to qualify that a bit, it works for the first half of the film, up until when the Warrens arrive and things get kind of stupid. You can’t go wrong with the classics and Wan knows how to play this stuff. By that I mean that he knows how to build an entire film out of nothing but jump scares. You may think this is the lowest form horror can take, but if comedy is all about whatever makes you laugh then what’s wrong with a scary movie that just wants to make you jump?
*. Reviewing the film in Salon, Andrew O’Hehir inveighed against its “deeply reactionary cultural politics, and the profound misogyny that lurks just beneath its surface.” O’Hehir’s main gripe is that the premise of the film affirms that witchcraft was a real thing back in the days of Salem: “Those terrified colonial women, brainwashed, persecuted and murdered by the religious authorities of their day – see, they actually were witches, who slaughtered children and pledged their love to Satan and everything! That’s not poetic license. It’s reprehensible and inexcusable bullshit, less egregious but somewhat akin to making a movie that claims, in passing, that slavery was OK or that the Holocaust didn’t happen.”
*. Whew! That’s strong stuff. But . . . I’m not buying it. Horror, like comedy, pushes us into discomfort zones. It just doesn’t mix with canons of political correctness. I mean, we can’t have scary movies about witches because that’s misogynistic? What should we think about The Witch? You can see how silly this gets.

*. It’s a good cast, and they play the material so that it stays just this side of being campy. Some of the lines Patrick Wilson has to deliver are very funny, but he keeps a straight face and does his best to sell them. And Vera Farmiga is just as good playing the neurotic medium. I imagined her breaking into laughter every time someone called “Cut!”
*. “Based on the true story.” Or, as it says at the end of the credits: “This film is based on actual events.” Was that last put in for legal reasons? I wonder what events they might have been. Whatever is being referred to, it’s a claim that’s often trotted out in horror movies. Tobe Hooper suggested the same at the start of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre apparently because he’d been impressed at how The Legend of Boggy Creek billed itself as a “true story.” I think such claims should be retired. They’re not fooling anyone.
*. I ended my notes on Insidious by saying that, while it was far from a great movie, it was a better remake of Poltergeist than the re-make of Poltergeist. I’ll sum up here by saying that The Conjuring is a better remake of The Amityville Horror than the remake of The Amityville Horror. Not great praise, but it’s something.