Category Archives: 2010s

Tomb Raider (2018)

*. I really wanted to like this one. Honest!
*. It seemed to have its heart in the right place. Update the Tomb Raider video game/movie franchise for a new generation of empowered young women. No more cheesecake. Lara Croft isn’t a porn fantasy any more but a lean, mean, fighting machine. She’s skipped university so that she can train in useful skills like MMA, rock climbing, and parkour.
*. But is this feminism, or just a shift in men’s tastes, preferring women with harder bodies and less curves? Because Alicia Vikander, despite having traded in the short-shorts for cargo pants and not being as pneumatically drawn as the character’s previous incarnations, is still hot. She’s even the sexy fox in an urban fox hunt, with a gang of young men chasing her tail. Sheesh.
*. Now I don’t want to belabor this point, but . . . a superbabe like Lara washes ashore on an island populated soley by men, some of whom have been stuck there for seven years without any women, and the only thing they can think to do with her is to get her to lug gear through the jungle. Of all the film’s improbabilities that may be the biggest.
*. Well, let’s turn away from ogling Lara and get on to the rest of the film.
*. As I say, I wanted to like it. Vikander projects both strength and vulnerability. She’s a good tomb raider in a lousy Tomb Raider movie. And Daniel Wu makes a great, if underused, sidekick. But the bottom line here is that they went back to the well on this one and came up with absolutely nothing.
*. I actually don’t watch all that many of these movies but I still felt like Tomb Raider was too much of what I’d already seen many, many times before. The treasure map that leads us to Skull Island. The tomb filled with booby-traps. The puzzles to be solved. And lots of jumping around. Lots and lots of jumping around. This is what Lara did in the video game and you can imagine gamers leaving the theatre here with thumbs sore from pressing imaginary controllers.
*. Director Roar Uthaug, whose previous film was The Wave, doesn’t bring anything new to the table. It’s just the usual CGI spectacle, only a little less spectacular. Which, I rush to add, in no way makes any of it more realistic or believable. While the supernatural is eschewed this time out, it’s still a video game world.
*. It all seems so pointless now. Pointless and joyless. We don’t even get to enjoy the villain. Walton Goggins as Vogel isn’t a scenery-chewing psycho but just a bitter loser sent out by the corporation to do a shit job. He might even experience death as a relief. Can we imagine him going home to a loving wife and kids after his exile on Yamatai?
*. And of course the post-credit coda lets you know there’s going to be a sequel. There’s still a lot of work for Lara to do. Selling tickets.


Truth or Dare (2018)

*. You know, I thought this started well. Not great, but OK.
*. It’s a dead-teenager movie (or dead-college student movie) of a kind that has become popular. Death stalks a gang of young people in the form of a game of musical chairs. The game has rules, which are gradually explained. People have to die in a certain order. Think of the Final Destination movies or It Follows. (These movies are also like supernatural versions of what I’ve described as the Game of Death genre that took off with Saw.)
*. I don’t think Truth or Dare is as good as those movies, it just doesn’t feel nearly as fresh and interesting for starters, but up until the halfway point I was playing along with it.
*. But then things take a nose dive. Most of the challenges that had been faced were kind of interesting (especially the gay kid having to come out to his cop dad), but then Olivia (Lucy Hale) has to sleep with Lucas (Tyler Posey).
*. I get that this is the demon who is running the show here (his name is Calax) just being a shit-disturber. But all this fighting/jealousy/whatever between Olivia and her bestie Markie just struck me as silly and on another, lesser level of importance altogether than the far more pressing problem they’re facing with the game.
*. Since I didn’t give a damn about Olivia and Markie and Lucas this is where I tuned out. My sense is that Jeff Wadlow (the co-writer and director) basically had a concept for the movie and didn’t have the rest of it fleshed out very well when he had to get it into development. The opening scene, for example, was something he came up with “on the spot.” Apparently producer Jason Blum just pitched him the title (because the studio though it highly marketable) and let him make up a story that would go with it.
*. From there the story spins out in a bunch of unconvincing and poorly-fleshed-out directions before ending on a somewhat surprisingly bleak and cynical note. I guess the game goes viral but I’m not sure how that would work in practical terms.
*. The reason the script’s running out of gas is so important is because the movie has nothing else going for it. Director Jeff Wadlow doesn’t do suspense, and even muffs a couple of predictable jump scares (introduced at Blumhouse’s request). The cast, who are (and look) mostly too old for their parts are hard to relate to. Or is it just that I’m getting too old?
*. And finally the PG-13 rating meant there was no gore on screen and little real violence (even in the director’s cut, which is what I saw). This is not necessarily a problem (It Follows stayed clear of gore as well, as did the previous year’s Blumhouse production Happy Death Day), but it means the concept and the other things I’ve mentioned (directing, cast) have to come through.
*. The concept (or title, really) had potential. As Carter explains, “it’s a chance to expose your friends’ deepest secrets and make them do things they don’t want to do.” Add in the mortal stakes and something interesting might have been done with this, instead of all this Sweet Valley High crap.
*. Does Carter really think he’s going to save himself by locking himself in his apartment (and ordering delivery?) so that the demon can’t get to him? That doesn’t seem to be how the game works. I mean, Calax can burn text messages onto someone’s arm!
*. The effect they use for showing that the demon has temporarily possessed someone looks kind of silly, and it left me wondering if maybe it would have been better if they hadn’t shown any transformation at all. Since nobody else can see it but the audience this would also make more sense. I think it would have helped create a sense of paranoia: could you really be sure that you were talking to your friend and not some Mexican devil?
*. On the other hand, especially if they were thinking of a franchise (which I’m sure they were), they really needed some kind of signature element. Since we never see the demon, the goofy smile had to be it. Aside from that, what is there that’s unique or distinct about any of this?
*. Yes, Mexico. They make a really big thing about the gang driving back and forth across the border here (something that is not nearly as easy to do as is shown). Why? Should it mean something that the demon is of Mexican origin? Is he an illegal alien?
*. The full title is apparently Blumhouse’s Truth or Dare, which may be the first time I’ve seen a production company putting itself out front with billing like that. But I guess it makes sense. Truth or Dare isn’t a good movie, but it fits pretty well with the Blumhouse brand of low-budget horror films that aim for franchise status. Sometimes it works out (Paranormal Activity being the chief example), sometimes it doesn’t.
*. Critics were overwhelmingly negative but it made nearly $100 million on a $4 million budget (Blumhouse pictures have proven to be, thus far, critic-proof) so I suppose we may see a sequel. Personally I thought it needed to be a lot smarter in order to work, or have at least one or two scares or good kills going for it. I wouldn’t say I was bored by Truth or Dare, but I was never interested in it either.

Rampage (2018)

*. If you’ve read many of these notes you’ll probably be expecting me to hate Rampage. I don’t like CGI movies and I don’t like movies that make me feel as though I’m watching someone play a video game. So I really should hate Rampage. It’s all CGI and, to my surprise (since I spent more than a few hours in arcades in the 1980s and I didn’t recognize it) it’s based on a Bally Midway video game.
*. But I didn’t mind it. The CGI isn’t very good, and doesn’t try to do anything special, but one thing CGI does well is destroy cities. Whether it’s being done by superheroes or giant robots or monsters, tearing down skyscrapers is one of CGI’s specialties. And Rampage has lots of that.
*. As far as the rest of the movie goes, it’s predictable and stupid but perhaps mainly thanks to Dwayne Johnson it has a D-picture charm to it. You know where it’s going every step of the way, and I mean that literally. There were scenes where I was even reciting the dialogue along with the actors. It’s that obvious.
*. Maybe it just reminded me not of 1980s video games so much as an even earlier part of my life: the Toho monster movies made in the 1960s that were shown on weekend afternoon television “creature features.” Basically this is just King Kong vs. Godzilla all over again. Which means it’s also very much a children’s movie. When George makes the hand gesture for intercourse at the end it’s one of the few missteps. Not that I’m a prude about such things, but I just thought it wasn’t right for the target audience, which I had pegged as being around 8 to 10 years old.
*. There’s a reason why Dwayne Johnson became one of the highest-paid actors of his generation. He looks CGI himself, or like some kind of rubber action figure, is completely indestructible even with buildings falling on top of him, and still manages to hold his own in terms of star power with the monsters. When he and George have to take on Ralph the wolf and the mutant alligator at the end we can actually feel as though this is a fair tag-team match.
*. So I didn’t hate Rampage. It’s trash but it knows what kind of trash it is, and despite being so formulaic I didn’t find it boring. More than anything, though, what it did was take me back to being 8 years old again. Despite being so much a movie of its time, all its charm for me was nostalgia.

Game Night (2018)

*. Fun. Clever. Not that clever — we’ve been here before — but clever enough to get by.
*. There are two basic gag lines to hang the laughs from. The first is the situation where the heroes are in danger but don’t know they’re in danger because they think everything is just a game. I can think of several classic comic scenes using this premise, including very funny uses of it in ¡Three Amigos! and Tropic Thunder. You can probably think of many more. It’s a good gag.
*. The other line is where the heroes are so busy bickering among themselves about petty things that they, again, don’t realize how much trouble they’re in. The two are related, and together they help illustrate how ignorance, even when it’s not bliss, can be funny when observed in others.
*. I wouldn’t call Game Night hilarious, but there are a few good bits and it moves pretty well. I also didn’t think the plot held together all that well past the halfway mark, which was a bit of a shame given the potential for coming up with something really sharp. Instead you just have to shrug your shoulders at all the loose ends.
*. Most of all, however, it’s the cast that keeps everything moving along. Yes, some of the characters have only the one note, but there are a lot of them, with three interesting couples to watch. And the lead couple, Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams, aren’t the usual endearing comedy duo. They are yuppie dinks, and proud of it. I wasn’t sure why they even wanted a kid until the really rather nasty business at the end where it’s clear that they think having a baby is just another competition for them to win. That’s funny too, because it’s real.
*. The directors, John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, had written the screenplay for Horrible Bosses and the story for Horrible Bosses 2. Apparently they rewrote a lot of the script here, but it had always been written with Jason Bateman (star of Horrible Bosses) in mind for the lead. He really has become a go-to guy for this kind of straight-man role. It’s all the more surprising then when Rachel McAdams upstages him.
*. The supporting cast is shortchanged a bit. Michael C. Hall or Jeffrey Wright (who is uncredited as the fake FBI agent) don’t get to do much of anything.
*. The critical response was depressing. Basically a lot of reviewers liked it because they thought it was something different. What they meant by something different, however, is not something original but rather something different from a Judd Apatow comedy. This surprised me because (1) while he’s certainly had some hits (mixed in with the bombs) I hadn’t thought Judd Apatow was the new default descriptor for mainstream comedy, and (2) I didn’t think this was all that different from my own sense of what a Judd Apatow comedy looks like. Personally, I thought it was pretty much par for the course compared to most of the other comedies coming out around the same time. A little better than average but not that different.

Black Panther (2018)

*. Near the beginning of Black Panther there’s a scene where T’Challa’s jet crosses a barrier into the fantasy realm of Wakanda and the new king says “This never gets old.”
*. The line struck me as merely hopeful. For me, at least, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has gotten very old. In the past I’ve referred to these movies as MarvelCrap, but they’re not all bad. Overall they tend to be very well (and very expensively) produced. They are slick entertainment. But they do get old.
*. Is Black Panther very different? It was certainly marketed as something different, and the marketing worked with audiences and with critics. Even by Marvel’s impossibly high standards for box office the film was a huge success. But creatively?
*. I liked the story better than most MCU entries. The villain of the piece, Killmonger, was authentic and relatable with a compelling back story. His plan for world domination was dull, and his conflict with T’Challa seemed like a replay of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but at least he wasn’t trying to open a gateway to another universe. I was getting sick of that.
*. The cast is excellent, highlighted by the young leads Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, and Letitia Wright. With a good script and a good cast they couldn’t go far wrong, and they didn’t.
*. There were a few negatives. For one thing, it comes in at a heavy two hours and fifteen minutes that isn’t made any lighter by the predictability and odd lack of humour. Most of the MCU movies include a few laugh lines and wisecracks, but Black Panther is mostly played straight. I counted only a couple of lighter moments.
*. The CGI also seemed generic and underwhelming. Nothing we haven’t seen a hundred times before. I suspect this may be the real problem Marvel is going to face moving forward. Where does CGI go from here? I don’t see where it has many more tricks up its sleeve. Meanwhile, the stampede of armored rhinos was just ridiculous. Where did they even come from?
*. I wonder if they got that tree full of black panthers from Paul Schrader’s Cat People. Now that would be funny!
*. Given how it was made into such a cultural moment I feel like I should say something more about this one but I just don’t feel up to it. This seemed to me to be a better than average Marvel movie, but that wasn’t enough to make up for how tired I am of the genre now and how stuck it has become in convention. Put another way, I thought it was pretty good but I almost didn’t finish watching it. This has gotten old.

Deadpool 2 (2018)

*. More of the same, sure. Even some of the gags are repeated (as going, for example, from a tiny hand to tiny legs). But I liked Deadpool well enough so I didn’t think there was any harm in just hitting replay.
*. So: more Marvel superhero nonsense with bad language, lots of violence, and endless knowing asides. Again, the charm of Ryan Reynolds does most of the heavy lifting, but the supporting cast is good too. T. J. Miller as Weasel and Zazie Beetz as Domino stand out, and at this point if Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) got her own movie I’d probably watch that too.
*. The Negasonic etc. officially comes out in this film, which is fine, but it left me even more puzzled by Wade Wilson’s sexuality. He likes it when his wife takes him with a strap-on, which is fair play and almost mainstream by porn standards. But then he’s coming on to Colossus nearly every chance he gets, and he seems to have more than a bromance in mind with Cable as well. Are we meant to see him as bisexual, or is he just teasing? It doesn’t matter to me either way, but I wonder what the point is in introducing all this.
*. Then there’s Josh Brolin, cast as essentially the same character he played in Sicario: Day of the Soldado, which came out around the same time. He’s the effective counterweight to Reynolds, and the pair play well off each other. Sure it’s the old odd-couple formula, but this is a movie that works best when its riffing on formula.

*. Some of it is very funny. The assembly of the new X-Force is good, and their subsequent slaughter had me laughing out loud. Director David Leitch (John Wick, Atomic Blonde) comes from a background in stunts, and he makes the stunts funny. I love Domino falling into the giant inflatable panda bear, and Deadpool driving the truck while looking between his legs.
*. With all it had going for it by playing it safe, I thought it surprising how bad the ending was. The long death scene was dull and depressing. The visits to heaven were mawkish and out of place. And finally the time-travel device is, indeed, “lazy writing,” just another wave of the hand at the silliness of it all.
*. A number of critics thought the jokes started to wear thin after a while and that the film outstayed its welcome. My own sense is that it goes wrong by not sticking even more closely to the formula. It’s surprising to me that no one could see how bad a misstep the ending was.
*. I can’t think of much more to say. I enjoyed it. More than Black Panther, which was the more critically acclaimed “straight” Marvel release the same year. I mentioned in my notes on Deadpool that this is about the only form I can take the Marvel Cinematic Universe in any more. I also said I think it’s probably a dead end, albeit with some room still left to run. On the evidence of Deadpool 2 we haven’t come to that end yet, but it sure feels like we’re getting there.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018)

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

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

Hereditary (2018)

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

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

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

*. The second thing I would complain about is the way Aster directs his actors. Toni Collette is good here, but it strikes me as a one-note performance. Gabriel Byrne is so somnolent he doesn’t even react when bursting into flame. Milly Shapiro may be the weirdest kid I’ve seen in a horror movie since Danny Lloyd, but again seems spaced out most of the time. However, she is no match in this department for Alex Wolff’s Peter, who just keeps staring blankly into the camera as though still under the influence of whatever he’s got in that bong. How many shots are there of his thousand-yard stare? Even at the end, during his coronation, he has the same empty expression on his face. I wonder if that’s what his mom is referring to when she screams about “that fucking face on your face.” Personally, I think that line was misread, but maybe not.
*. I did get a laugh out of how the modern-day cultists highlight the important parts of books on black magic in yellow highlighter pens. That was hilarious.
*. The pacing is something else I would be critical of. The middle act here really drags, allowing us to get way out ahead of the plot. And while it’s typical of this style of filmmaking to milk long takes I think Aster goes to the well much too often in this 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, many 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.