Nine Lives – 2016

The American Dream is a powerful drug. One moment, you can be on the verge of owning the tallest tower in the Northern Hemisphere; the next, your consciousness has been placed in the body of a homeless cat. More aptly: one moment, you’re at an all-time career high; the next, you’re in a movie about a tycoon who becomes a cat. There isn’t any one person in particular I’m directing these examples toward, because Nine Lives features a mind-blowing number of talented craftspeople who somehow, through either coercion or threat, were placed in this movie together. It’s kind of like Suicide Squad! Except it’s way better than Suicide Squad.

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Mondays, amirite?

The movie opens with viral videos of cats as our protagonist, Tom Brand, explains to the audience via voiceover that cats aren’t people. That’s the opening. Boom! Page one is done, baby! Now that the confusion of whether cats may or may not be people is over, we can get this train moving. We’re introduced to Tom Brand (Kevin Spacey), a wealthy Donald Trump simulacrum who is in the final stages of opening his company’s magnum opus: FireBrand Tower, the Tokyo Skytree of NYC. Tom’s company, FireBrand (the purpose of which is never explained –  maybe meta, probably just lazy writing), is nervous that another tower being constructed in Chicago is going to be 60 feet taller. The assistant who watches his every move is cleverly revealed to be his son, but that cleverness dissipates when you think about how much of a lil’ puss his son is. He’s nervous to jump out a plane, and his dad gifts him a parachute with a note basically calling him a coward. His own dad doesn’t remember his age! God forbid, though, his monument to phallocentrism be undermined by a slightly wider, uncircumcised tower.

So since this is a movie about a selfish businessman, it’s required by movie law that he has a wife and child(ren) who miss him and wish he was around more. We’re introduced to his wife (Jennifer Garner) walking in on their daughter watching him give a press conference on TV. When she realizes, horrified, that the girl has watched the video 83 times (and has literally memorized his speech’s intonations and pauses) she puts her foot down and decides he needs to step up. Now, if the fact that he doesn’t know his own son’s age wasn’t bad enough, and the fact that his daughter misses him so much that she’s turning into his own personal Mark David Chapman wasn’t even worse, it’s revealed that he’s forgotten his daughter’s birthday. What a piece of work this guy is!

So to make it up to her daughter so she won’t stab him in his sleep, he agrees to buy her a cat. However, some work problems get in the way (he finds out about that 60 feet), and he finds himself running late – speeding through the streets of Manhattan in a Ferrari like he’s fuckin’ Vin Diesel. I’m talking drifting corners, zero shoulder checks, high-octane speeding. Along the way, his phone drops in his car; this causes the GPS app to fuck up so badly that it sends him to a different pet shop. Is this possible? In Nine Lives it is, buster! The pet shop he’s sent to is owned by an eccentric old man who looks and talks exactly like Christopher Walken.

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IMDb lists the actor as “Lil’ Bub.”

Tom buys the first cat he sees, Mister Fuzzypants, and is warned by Christopher Walken not to be any later than he is already. Tom, being a normal human, more or less tells him to mind his fucking business, and leaves. Obviously, Tom has to go to the tower to talk to one of his executives about this goddamn tower height crisis, and meets the man on top of the tower in the middle of a lightning storm. That’s the kind of smart thinking that got Tom to the top! Unfortunately, it also sends him to the bottom. See, right after Tom tells the exec he’s firing him, Tom is more or less knocked over the edge of his own tower along with the cat – yes, he brought the cat with him – and the exec refuses to save him because of that whole firing business. Seems a little cartoonish, but whatever. When Tom drops several stories, he wakes up in a coma in the body of the cat. Turns out, Tom has only a few days left to get back into his comatose body, and the only way to do that is to learn to be a better father to his family. While being a cat.

Nine Lives is either the most criminal movie of this year or the most pleasantly innocent. I honestly cannot tell what the intentions were behind this movie. Is it a tax scheme? Going beyond tax avoidance, it’s no secret that wealthy investors have thrown their weight behind movies as a means of what basically amounts to money laundering. With few ways to prevent this from happening, moviegoers find offerings occasionally that make zero sense. That being said, I’m not really sure that’s what’s going on here. It’s released by EuropaCorp, a French company; Wikipedia even calls it an “English-language French comedy film,” which is about as apt a description as it gets for this movie. Nine Lives is all over the place!

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Whoops! *Eight Lives

Take, for example, Tom himself – a very confusing character. He’s shown as a generally heartless miser, but he displays some traits of likability: he takes the cat to the top of the tower in the first place because the cat looked sad when he was leaving it in the car. What a softie! The plot in general has a lot of confusing elements, too: the villainous (and, curiously, slightly ethnic) business partner who refused to save Tom spends most of the movie hovering over his body, asking nurses when they can take him off of life support. Tom’s ex-wife hangs out at Tom’s house frequently, bringing two small dogs and her daughter with her, but she and Tom supposedly can’t stand each other? Also, her daughter gives Tom’s daughter shit constantly: there’s a scene where Tom’s daughter is crying, and the other girl takes her picture and Snapchats it, calling her a “loser.” What a little bitch!

There’s also an entire plot involving Tom (as a cat) following his wife as she’s meeting a secret man he heard about, which turned out to be her realtor. Her realtor? His hunch came from hearing his ex-wife tell her, “If Tom dies, you always have Josh.” Why would she say that about anyone but a secret lover? The resolution is even more confusing: she wasn’t cheating at all, she was just planning on leaving Tom! Uh, okay? Is that not still really bad? “The only reason I changed my mind was this damn coma!” If that seriousness makes the affair too dour for you, don’t worry: there’s a 2-minute scene where Tom is literally running along the walls of the house as his wife and ex-wife chase him, and a separate scene where he steals his wife’s keys, and she chases him. It’s so oddly slapstick & out of place in a movie like this. It legitimately makes it feel like a ’90s movie like Jingle All the Way, with which this movie shares a lot of the same plot points & themes. The weird obsession with cats, like opening the movie to a montage of cat videos, makes me wonder if this movie wasn’t in development in 2009. It all feels very dated.

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Speaking of “dated,” there’s no better word I can think of to describe the visual effects of this movie. The CGI looks like shit. Absolute, unfiltered doody. Shots where CGI isn’t even needed, like a shot of a cat running down a hallway, are used frequently – combine that with how noticeably bad it is, and it makes for a movie that visually doesn’t hold up today, let alone 5 years from now. There’s a weird slapstick scene when Tom is getting used to his cat body where he tries to break into the liquor cabinet in his study. Scenes like this are so cartoonish that it becomes a continuity issue within the movie that’s just one part of a generally poor script: if Tom can sometimes become a Looney Toons character, why not have those attributes at all times? Why is he still occasionally limited by being a normal cat? Why is he able to get drunk and not suffer the effects that alcohol would have on a cat (death)? Is the cat’s consciousness in Tom’s comatose body, or was the cat just a personality husk before Tom was put in it? Why doesn’t the movie actually work with this, making a fun joke about how some cats are so impersonal because they haven’t had the brain of a 1 percenter put in them yet? Why, if he’s rearranged the fridge magnets to say “I’m Tom,” does no one in the house notice? Why does it take until the end of the second act for his daughter to realize it’s him? And why is the reason she found out because he does a dance they used to do a lot, in cat form? Who is this movie for?

The movie has a completely nuts ending. I mean nuts. First off, it’s revealed that the reason Tom called his company “FireBrand” is because his daughter drew a picture of him on fire when she was little. What the fuck? That isn’t something to be proud of! Anyway, Tom’s comatose body is about to die and his son discovers that the evil business partner has brokered a deal to go public, letting his dad’s company die. What’s the best way for a young man to handle that? Jump to his death from the tower, duh! Tom realizes this and decides to stop him instead of getting back in his body, essentially sacrificing himself. When he dives off the building with a rope to save him, he realizes his son is wearing the parachute he bought him. Boom! The plan makes so much more sense now! He’s…base jumping off the building…to prove…a point? I guess? The point is, he doesn’t save the cat, so it hits the ground and Kevin Spacey wakes back up in his body. People were there! News teams saw and filmed a cat committing suicide as a man base jumped on top of another man! It’s insane. The villain gets his comeuppance by being put into the body of another cat, and Kevin Spacey and his daughter are given the original Mister Fuzzypants. Uh, what? What? The same Mister Fuzzypants that was pancaked onto cement?

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“I watched you die!”

I didn’t hate Nine Lives. I laughed at some parts, and the movie is overall a very upbeat, fun movie that no one will remember in a few years. In a way, it reminds me of Larry Crowne: it’s hard to dislike something that really wants to entertain you – it feels very genuine. But this is also a movie that, in its quest to be entertaining, ultimately trips over itself: it doesn’t follow its own logic; the stakes are ultimately very low; it tries to be sappy at the wrong times, which creates a tonal inconsistency. We’re shown at the end of the movie that Tom’s son figured out how to beat the other tower, letting Tom get what he always wanted. Speculate how you want about the reasons behind this odd movie’s existence, but one thing seems clear: all of the people involved are big fans of money.

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Suicide Squad – 2016

WARNING: SPOILERS!

It’s been a rough year for the people at DC Films. This year’s major release, Batman v Superman, arrived with a thud; it was critically savaged for its lack of soul, dark tone, and complete mess of a script. The next piece of the DC Movie Universe, this month’s Suicide Squad, has a lot riding on its shoulders: many – myself included – hoped that this would be a step forward for these movies, as the tone from the trailers had a more lighthearted & goofball tone. The plot is unique: an imprisoned group of Batman’s Rogues Gallery are assigned by the government to help with a mission, under the impression that they will be rewarded freedom. This is a great plot for a comic book movie! Maybe, just maybe, this can right the ship that’s gone wildly off-course, thanks to (among other things) Jesse Eisenberg giving the worst performance of the year so far. So does Suicide Squad redeem the wrongdoings of Batman v Superman? The answer may shock you…oh wait, no it won’t. This movie is a catastrophe.

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LOL RANDOM XD XD

Let’s get something clear off the bat: whatever the studio did here, it was all fueled by cocaine. There is no other explanation. This movie is fucking insane. Everything about it: the performances, the writing, the direction, the editing – dear god, the editing. I caught myself sighing once every 20 minutes during this movie. BvS was reviled in part for its humorlessness; it’s no surprise that this movie went under extensive reshoots to “make it funnier.”  The studio can deny this up & down, but the emphasis on humor in the upcoming Justice League movie only makes it more obvious.

Explain why/on what planet this opening was a good idea: the movie cold opens with Deadshot (Will Smith) in his prison cell. He gets punished for mouthing off to a guard, which involves being strapped to a table and beaten with sticks. Uh…okay? I guess this is how movies start?

Then we cut to Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) in her cell, doing some Cirque du Soleil shit in sheets tied to the top bars. She also mouths off to a guard, and gets punished, which involves being shocked by electrified cell bars. Okay, so whatever, this is how the movie’s gonna start, I guess. We’ll be introduced to each member in their habitat, and then get rolling. At best, it’s good pacing; at worst, it’s the start of a disjointed mess. So we meet the next member: Amanda Waller (Viola Davis).

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Wait, what? Okay, so she’s the government official in charge of the prisoners? What is going on? She explains (in a helpful voiceover) that Superman’s death gave her the ability to exercise power necessary to control these prisoners. She goes into a restaurant, and we get the opening title. What? Seriously, what the fuck is going on? The opening title?? So we’re introduced to 3 random characters in a disjointed sequence that comprises a 5-minute cold open, and that’s smart storytelling why? I understand that these 3 (at least Smith and Robbie) are the main draws of the movie, but how about a little goddamn finesse? We pick up after the logo literally minutes later in the restaurant, as Amanda Waller explains her plan. It’s just so damn clunky.

Waller explains that she’s secured these criminals as a top-secret task force to assist the government in case another Superman-esque being falls from the sky. She introduces the team: starting with Smith and Robbie’s characters again. Jesus Christ. So Deadshot has perfect aim, Harley Quinn is…good at fighting? Ruthless? I don’t know. There’s also a dude named “Captain Boomerang” (Jai Courtney) who is obviously Australian, and uses a boomerang; Diablo (Jay Hernandez), a guy with flame powers who refuses to fight when in the field; Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), who somehow is the most offensive caricature of a black man I’ve seen in a while, despite being a fucking man-crocodile; and Slipknot, who writes shitty songs and gets airtime on 102.9 The Buzz. They’re led in the field by Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), and his right-hand partner Katana (Karen Fukuhara). Flag happens to be dating an archaeologist (Cara Delevigne) who’s possessed by a centuries-old witch. But once that witch gets loose, the team has to join together to save the city.

A huge issue this movie has is its inability to show restraint at the right times. In the first 10 minutes of the movie, we get a Batman cameo. I wasn’t expecting some shit like that to happen so fast! Slow down, baby! Then, minutes later, we see the Joker; he’s presented in a very bland way, with no fanfare. He’s the Joker! Why is our first glimpse of him a shot of him sitting at a table? Then, a pointless character (played by Common) is killed by Joker, and Harley is captured by Batman, in another cameo. At this point, 20 minutes into the movie, the appeal of seeing Batman interact with these guys has gone out the window. The Batmobile, Batman, Joker, even the Flash all show up in moments that should be more effective, but instead fall flat.

The movie then slows way the hell down to show everyone else’s backstory, the Joker doing stuff, and the witch Enchantress working to bring her long-dead brother back to life. Once you’re about to fall asleep, wham! The team is on their first mission. In a plot twist lifted wholesale from Escape from New York, Waller has implanted explosives in each prisoner’s neck, with Flag holding the detonator. If any of them get out of line, they get blowed up real nice! Slipknot, who has said one single line and never got a backstory, tries to escape and gets his head blown off. “Suicide Squad,” indeed!

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Good night, sweet prince.

The rest of the team Squad up for Suicide, and do battle (to an extensive soundtrack of easily-licensed songs from Forrest Gump that are as incredibly on-the-nose as they were in that movie) in what seems like the same Financial District location for 45 minutes. Betrayals, murders, sacrifices, all that shit happens; but in the end, does any of it matter? We aren’t even in Gotham or Metropolis here, this is “Midway City,” a city with a name that’s a not-too-subtle reference to a certain Clown Prince of Crime. Who even cares?

Speaking of, let’s talk about Leto’s Joker. This character has been under a lot of scrutiny, since it’s the first big-screen Joker we’ve seen since Heath Ledger’s masterful take. Unfortunately, what Leto does here is a shitty Ledger impression: he boils Joker down to a silly voice, one that is marred by the excessive dental prosthetics he’s wearing, and nothing else. Any other “acting” he does is just looking in a direction or staring at someone without blinking. Acting! He undersells himself, and that’s partly Leto’s fault, but also the fault of the writers. What exactly does Joker do? Why is he a force to be reckoned with, other than killing Common in a strip club? Why does he hang out in clubs in the first place? He’s the Joker!

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“Let’s give him a tattoo that says ‘damaged.’ That way, they’ll know he’s damaged!”

Robbie’s Harley Quinn is probably the most faithful performance you could expect, as the obnoxious Pink Lady accent and “Mistah J” shit she’s known for comes across clean here. She plays the character as actually crazy, until the third act randomly gives her an emotional arc involving her torrid love affair with Joker. This doesn’t help connect the audience to her at all; instead it paints her as having a weakness, something you’d think the ruthless Waller would have used against her.

Davis’ work as Amanda Waller works very well, as she’s great at playing a stone-cold badass. She has no sympathy for criminals, though she herself kills like 6 SWAT guys in this movie, so her loyalty seems pretty self-involved? Why go through all of this work to protect a city when you’re killing your own allies? She’s ruthless to the point of being comically evil – something they failed to do with Joker. She hires Batman to take out Deadshot in the movie’s opening, telling him to use his daughter as leverage. What’s worse is Batman actually does it: he literally puts the man’s daughter between himself and a loaded weapon. I get that you’re a darker take on Batman, but goddamn!

Every other performance in the movie is pretty simplistic stuff: Kinnaman as Rick Flag is probably the worst performance in the movie, making it look like a high school student gave him acting tips. My favorite performance – Ike Barinholtz as a prison guard – is one of the funniest bits of the movie, but only lasts through the end of the 1st act. It’s a shame this movie had such hacky writing to pair with such an adept director. I – oh, the director wrote the script, too? The guy that wrote Training Day?

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You kiddin’ me?

I understand now how much this movie was crippled by its writing. The rush to get through all of the expository shit, followed by an overly-rushed 2nd act that leads to a very basic 3rd act culminating in (yawn) saving the city from being destroyed, makes it seem like this was a property that no one knew how to translate effectively to the big screen. In the 2nd act break, the movie takes 7 minutes out to show us these goons sitting in a bar, listening to Diablo – who, up to this point, had done nothing – sorrowfully explain the loss of his family. “Own that shit!” Harley screams at him. Were we supposed to feel any connection to this guy? Why wait until now to give him a moment? Oh, right, he’s the one who sacrifices himself for the team. It’s all very paint-by-numbers. Hernandez does a fine job as Diablo, but he wasn’t given anything to really work with. Hell, the most interesting character in the movie – Katana, who stores the souls of her enemies in her blade – gets almost zero moments in the film. The one decent one she gets is undercut by a stupid Harley Quinn joke.

The final fight scene, taking place in a magic-infested train station, is where the movie throws its hands up, saying “These people have places to be, let’s take this home.” Enchantress’ brother, a giant CG Aztec warrior that kind of looks like Jamie Foxx, wreaks havoc on the team as Enchantress finishes her spell, or whatever she’s doing. They have limited time, okay? So the odds are stacked against them when suddenly, without notice, Diablo turns into a 10-foot-tall fire monster and beats the shit out of Jamie Foxx. Are you fucking kidding me? Was there a setup to that I missed? How does everyone on the team think this is normal? If that’s not sloppy enough, Harley Quinn gets the final blow in a classic “I’m going to pretend to join you so I can get close to you, then kill you” maneuver. If that’s not bad enough, Amanda Waller – who was kidnapped and mind-fucked – is A-OK here! Not even a scratch! In another move lifted straight from Escape from New York, she thanks the team and tells them they’re all going back to prison, with some concessions. “I wants BET!” says the talking crocodile. Seriously, he talks like a slave, and says that line verbatim. It’s disgustingly offensive.

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“Did someone say ‘institutionalized racism?'”

So the team’s back in the hole, albeit with perks (Harley gets an espresso machine, Deadshot gets to see his daughter, Croc gets to watch BET). But before you can say, “This movie is about to end too neatly,” BOOM! Joker breaks in and tells Harley they’re getting out of there. Uh, what? Seriously, that’s the last shot of the movie? It’s painfully awkward, as if the only script available was the very original pitch made. “Close on Joker breaking her out, we can figure out how to really tie it together later.”

Of course, there’s a totally unnecessary mid-credits scene involving MORE BATMAN but at this point, I don’t care. I was legitimately excited for this movie; I love the director, the trailers all seemed great & the story was something that hadn’t been done before with this scale. But the movie ultimately is a disjointed, nauseating experience; something that gets your attention for a brief moment, only to pull the rug from underneath you via clichéd story beats or nonsensical actions. The ragtag team of characters is given no justice when it comes to character development, and the presentation of Joker is almost as laughable as watching someone do a Ledger Joker impression on Youtube.

I didn’t think this was possible, but this movie is worse than Batman v Superman, and another giant step backward for the people at DC Films. There’s still hope riding on the Wonder Woman movie, but I’m sure I’ll look back on this in a year and laugh at that statement. Instead of watching Suicide Squad, just sit in an office chair, shoot some tequila & spin around, and then watch Escape from New York. I promise, it will be miles better than the real thing.

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Touch of Evil – 1958

Passion. Murder. Police brutality. Xenophobia. The four elements of the Florida state flag also make up the intricate and morbid plot of Orson Welles’ opus, Touch of Evil. The film’s history is as complex and myriad as the film itself, with as loose an ownership as that of the Denver Broncos (I don’t know anything about football). The ways in which the film tackles complex social issues still in contention today, as well as its service as one of the last great original film noirs, makes Touch of Evil a classic that’s almost on par with Welle’s other masterstroke, Citizen Kane.

Touch of Evil is a noir, first and foremost. The way in which the camera acts as a voyeur, peeping in on conversations and following characters around, perfectly complements the sense of intimacy and claustrophobia that the genre is known for. The story, while convoluted at its worst, uses clever editing and pacing to keep all of the pieces in order. Charlton Heston plays Miguel Vargas, a Mexican drug enforcement officer, who finds himself entangled in the untimely murder of a wealthy man and his young girlfriend. Vargas and his wife, Susie, are already the subject of intense scrutiny on both sides of the border due to their interracial relationship. Despite the second glances, Vargas maintains his role as a peacekeeper and officer of the law; he refuses to betray his moral compass. Standing in direct opposition – while on the same side of the law as Vargas – is Captain Quinlan, an aging WC Fields stand-in with a peculiar grudge against Mexicans. Quinlan is the type of dick who’s suspicious of everyone and everything, except for his own foolhardy pride. The two men clash heavily while working on the case; rising tension from a local drug kingpin doesn’t help matters at all, and soon enough both men find themselves in a battle of wits to discover who truly is the Touch of Evil (is that how titles work?).

While never hard to follow, the plot at times can result in a frenzy of information and action – not at all helped by poor sound design. This is, of course, not the fault of the film: the movie has had a Blade Runner-esque experience going through the wrong hands of countless studio suits, who either found it too confusing or needlessly provocative. These archaic attitudes only hindered the film from doing what it does best, and ultimately caused Welles’ distancing himself from the Hollywood system. It’s a sentiment as old as time, and one that still seems to spring up from many frustrated directors who work their asses off only to find themselves the victims of the dreaded focus group test. After Welles’ version was tampered with by studio heads, he wrote an impassioned plea to the brass to make certain cuts and changes so as to make the film more palatable and closer to his ultimate vision. Executives being executives, they heeded nearly none of his advice, and Welles was forced to resign himself to doing commercials for frozen peas. The version of Touch of Evil I saw was a recut version from the late ‘90s that, utilizing a workprint found in the cavernous, spider-filled tombs of the Universal vault, closely adheres to Welles’ ideal version.

Welles himself will always be known for being a Renaissance man in the realm of entertainment. A playwright, screenwriter, director, actor, astronomer and biker babe, Welles sought to overrule the stuffy studio codes that had done in so many artists before him. What we got as his first real work – Citizen Kane – is a masterpiece that still holds up as if it were released yesterday. Welles’ sophomore work was another fantastic film, The Magnificent Ambersons; the film was heavily edited by RKO Pictures, beginning a long souring of the grapes that were Welles’ Hollywood career that eventually went into the delicious Paul Masson wines he spent his later years hawking.

The years between Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil are telling, as it seems Welles had eaten and drank himself into a state of complete disassociation with the world around him. His first appearance in the film is almost ghastly; the large frame and heaving breath were a far cry from the energetic, spry young Welles who had turned Hollywood on its ear some seventeen years earlier. It’s wholly appropriate that Welles presents himself the way he does here: his character, Quinlan, is essentially a metaphor for Welles himself and his career in Hollywood. Quinlan has let decades of disillusionment get the better of him and his work, and it’s ultimately propelled him to turn his back on the very system he once stood for. This is most certainly of Welles’ doing; he tends to place himself deeply in his work and characters, blurring the lines between his own life and those of his alter egos in an effort to garner the greatest possible performance. What we’re given in this movie is a mixed bag: Welles has moments of pure genius as a corrupt detective, but more often than not his delivery is overwhelmed by his need to gasp for air between every word. Listening to him perform a monologue can be exhausting; his delivery seems tired and muddled, as if he just didn’t care on certain days. It works well – with his exhausted stature combined with the same deft makeup work seen in Citizen Kane, he truly looks like a man who’s been beaten into submission by a crooked system.

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And the First Order.

The same can’t be said for the makeup job on Charlton “Actual Cold, Dead Fingers” Heston. In a move that is typical old-Hollywood yet still shocking to see, Heston is given an Omar Sharif mustache and a heavy coating of brown spray-tan, making him look less authentically Mexican and more like Heston simply went on vacation for a week before filming. It’s laughable at times, especially when Heston is sharing screen time with any other actor who is actually Mexican, of which there are plenty. Heston does his work well, speaking fluent Spanish to the locals as a means of gathering information, but there’s still a rotten taste left in the mouth when watching these interactions, as if Welles put on a wig and tried to out-woman Marlene Dietrich (he sadly doesn’t). What’s even more frustrating is that the film extolls the virtues of tolerance and inclusivity, all while featuring its lead actor in brownface. These themes of justice in the face of racial tension aren’t helped by the casting, though the performances themselves are fantastic all-around.

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He looks like a baked chicken.

While his acting isn’t at its peak here, Welles is at his most adept behind the camera. The techniques used in Touch of Evil are done with a sense of effortlessness that it almost comes off as perfunctory; almost every shot is perfect, and almost every scene utilizes directorial work that didn’t really come into the fore of Hollywood until the Renaissance of the 1970s. Character blocking, lighting, use of music (and lack thereof), and exquisite camera work all come together to make this the best-looking film noir I’ve ever seen. I’m a sucker for long takes, and the first 4 minutes of the film is illuminated by a tracking shot that sets the tone technically and atmospherically for the rest of the film. Characters walk through a lobby, enter an elevator, have a discussion, and leave the elevator, all in one take; it’s the way in which everything is engaged so casually that makes the filmmaking remarkable here.

The finale of the film culminates with the tragic realization that good can become corrupted, and corruptness can be rooted in good. Quinlan finds himself against a figurative and literal wall by the end of the movie; it’s here that the overall theme of the message becomes less about who committed the crime, and more about those committed to protect society from those crimes. At what point does the punishment cease to fit the crime, and become merely punishment? At what point does cruelty begin to beget cruelty? At what point did Orson Welles decide to stop making perfect, avant-garde movies and exclusively appear on The Dick Cavett Show? The story of his career, like that of Touch of Evil, was one of tragedy, disenchantment and self-flagellation to atone for sins that weren’t necessarily those of the father. Auteurs typically only have one direction to go, and Welles still somehow moved sideways.

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Ghostbusters – 2016

In 2016, we’ve had a rash of heated political disassociation and social upheavals that have made our country as divisive as it was in the years leading to the Civil War. The mass slaughter of innocent blacks, the constant debate regarding our barely-regulated firearms trade, and the possible positioning of a total madman to a seat of power that would guarantee the end of any respect we have left – all of these are a mere sample of the endless issues coming to light in a year many will one day describe to their grandchildren as “9/11, but an entire year long.” Another hot-button issue has drawn particular vitriol and scorn from venomous anonymous trolls and sociopaths who want nothing more than to see the arrest of the police officer – wait, one second, wrong card – oh, they don’t want a remake of Ghostbusters. Right. A well-picked battle indeed!

The new Ghostbusters has been known about for quite a while now, and its pre-release days have seen levels of negativity typically reserved for Applebees and black Heads of State.  The new film – to be directed by Paul Feig – would feature an all-new Ghostbusters team, comprised entirely of women. Was this a bad/dumb idea? No, I was completely on-board when I heard the news. It was no secret that the franchise was going to be remade; why not do it with an unexpected but refreshing twist, one that empowers young girls and gives a team of very funny women a tentpole summer blockbuster? I’m also a fan of Feig’s Spy, although I wasn’t too hot on Bridesmaids. The entire runtime of Bridesmaids seemed dedicated to focusing on not putting any reins on the actors involved, and letting them have a free-for-all. More on that later, though.

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Feig’s best work: his role in Heavyweights.

So which would it be? The long, unfunny “loose improv” scenes that tied together Bridesmaids? Or the tighter, action-oriented comedy of Spy? The answer is neither: this movie makes both of those films look like GoodfellasGhostbusters is a shockingly unfunny, poorly-paced film that has some of the worst writing I’ve seen in a recent studio release.

Now, before we get started, I think it’s important to point out that the vitriol for this new Ghostbusters isn’t entirely related to its all-woman cast. There’s an understandable argument that the original shouldn’t be remade at all because it’s a classic. While I sympathize with this argument, it’s still flawed in my eyes because we no longer live in a time where remakes are easier to replace as the “definitive” version of that movie; with much thanks to social media, the original versions of these remakes/reboots are getting much more gratitude as the inspirations for these revivals. Ghostbusters doesn’t take the Jurassic World route of introducing these characters in an already-established universe; it completely erases the original film and re-introduces us to its general plot of ghostbusting. This is a massive mistake; it unnecessarily assumes we need to see the origins of Proton Packs or the logo (all of which are terribly done), and reduces the cast of the original to hammy, stupid, pointless cameos. Even the late Harold Ramis shows up in the form of a bust (pun intended) in a character’s office; the movie wants you to know that it’s a tribute because the shot lingers about 2 seconds too long on it. At least it beats the shitty fan tributes to Ramis:

The film opens in a great way: it’s a cold-open in an old mansion, where a ghost tour is being led (Zach Woods from Silicon Valley has a very funny bit here). The tour ends, and as the guide is leaving for the night, he’s attacked by a ghoul. Simple, punchy setup. I like it! So we’re introduced to Erin (Kristin Wiig), who is a tenured university professor, and who has written a book with Abby (Melissa McCarthy) about the paranormal. The former fact is something she’s been trying to keep secret, for fear that it would affect the latter; this is a conflict that makes no sense to me at all: the Dean tells her he thinks it would jeopardize the legitimacy of the institution or whatever, but would that really be a threat? Abby works with Jillian (Kate McKinnon) at a different, shittier university, where they tinker with paranormal doodads and googahs. Erin asks Abby to take the book off of Amazon, and Abby agrees under the condition that they check out the possibly haunted mansion from earlier. On the other side of town, Patty (Leslie Jones) encounters a ghost while she’s working as an MTA attendant. Pretty soon, all 4 of them link up & start to take on a bunch of ghosts, and I start to forget where the plot goes from here because it’s so terribly written it feels like it’s 5 hours long.

The four leads in the movie are funny women. If anything, the weak link in the squad is Kristin Wiig, who has this fucking awkward-girl schtick that wears very thin, very fast. McCarthy is pretty good here, but is honestly wasted by a completely square character that only exists to be the lead’s friend. I really liked McKinnon, who’s been drawing a lot of divisiveness over her performance; some people don’t like the weird faces and general aura she exudes in the movie, but I feel like she played the “weirdo that everyone calls by their last name” character to a tee. Chris Hemsworth is the all-star of the movie (in a sadly ironic twist) playing a total dumbass not unlike Jason Statham’s outlandish character from Spy. The real tragedy here is Leslie Jones, who is a favorite of mine from SNL, being used as a very 2-dimensional simulacrum of a sassy black woman. True, her character is a history buff, but that’s such a dumb fucking character detail it’s almost laughable in itself. She’s a history buff??? She works at the MTA and has a fucking gold necklace with her name on it, and she’s a history buff? All of her lines regarding history are shoehorned in for the plot to move along, and any other line she has is just screaming and panicking. She has one moment at a concert scene that’s hilarious, but she’s sadly completely wasted in this movie.

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It’s honestly like watching a Nickelodeon show. The writing, the performances, the direction – it’s all so basic and juvenile. And I don’t mean juvenile in that the humor is crude (although it has fart jokes and other dumb gross shit), I mean it’s as if everyone involved with the movie was 13 years old. There’s a moment – this fucking moment – in this movie; I don’t know why it upsets me this much, but it does: the team is facing down their first ghost, and during the tension it’s revealed that McKinnon is snacking on Pringles. Pringles. Which is already a stupid sight gag, only made worse by McKinnon’s response to their demands that she stop: “You try stopping from snacking on these delicious salty parabolas.” I want to punch that line in its mouth. Seriously, the last line in the movie is Ernie Hudson saying “I can’t stack ’em like flapjacks!” Boom! Closing credits! “Leave ’em laughing,” they say!

The plot is so poorly constructed, it hurts to watch. And it adheres so closely to basic story structure that it’s ultimately hurt even worse. We’re introduced to the members, see the team form, meet a bad guy, see the 4th member added, have them test equipment & go on a first major mission, go on what is supposedly the last mission, fail, disband temporarily, re-team when the final threat looms over the city (bonus points if its New York!), make a sacrifice, chum it up in the end. “I can’t stack ’em like flapjacks!” It’s a giant “Basic Blockbuster” template, one that applies to 95% of Hollywood movies. The villain, whose plan is to rule the world – by unleashing ghosts? And becoming a ghost? I don’t know – has maybe 20 lines in the movie. 5 of them are in voiceover form, where he explains to the team that he can take the form of anything they want – a nod to the original that I’m sure the writers thought was clever but is just tacky. He fucking goads them into having him become the logo of the movie, through (roughly) this exchange:

Bad Guy: You want me to become something bad?

Patty: How about something nice?

Bad Guy: Okay. [turns into logo] How’s this?

Patty: You know what, that’s cool.

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I wonder how long Feig and Katie Dippold had to write this movie. It seems like they ran with the first draft; there was no fine-tuning of any of these ideas. And of course the classic Feig humor comes though, with overly-long scenes that get hung up on one joke being ran into the ground because they just have to use every take of these improv masters. How about write a fucking script? How hard is it to have a plot that doesn’t involve New York being put in danger? How hard is it to have efficiently-paced, tonally consistent scenes that don’t drag on forever?  It only proves to me that Feig, while having a knack for recognizing comedic talent, just isn’t a good director. A very key role of the director is (obviously) to be able to control the actors, something that Feig seems to do poorly, if at all; he seemingly lets them go off on tangents and say whatever they want and always, always thinks it’s too funny to leave on the cutting-room floor. This isn’t the case for Ghostbusters alone (though it’s the most egregious example):  Bridesmaids goes on for way too long, and would be a much punchier, tighter movie if the scenes were paced a little more evenly. Ghostbusters falls from the fatigue of carrying its own weight, a massive backpack of dumb references, queef gags and dad jokes that ultimately collapses upon Dan Aykroyd saying “I ain’t afraid of no ghosts” without a hint of irony.

By the way, the theme song to this movie is fucking atrocious. Absolutely unbearable. Words can’t desribe the insanity of a Fall Out Boy/Missy Elliott team-up on a track that sounds like a Will Smith movie song & the year 2006 laid a big Cronenberg fetus on an operating table. It’s awful. I hope to god there isn’t a horrible mashup of “Own Our Own” in the sequel. It’s not just used over the closing credits, either: there’s a scene where the heroes gear up and this is used as the music, only pausing for a lame gag about 2 characters saying the same line at the same time.

OOF. This scene encapsulates so much of what’s wrong with the movie that I’ve talked about: awkward Kristin Wiig, bad music, weird fanservice, an underused Leslie Jones & shitty direction. Seriously, why does she just stand there at the end of that scene? Could she not have reacted at all to the bit aside form glancing at them? Showing a reaction in a scene and distracting the viewer from the focus can be mutually exclusive; McKinnon and Jones just stand there like video game characters posing.

On the note of “weird fanservice,” this movie has that in spades. It’s not even really that obnoxious, like Jurassic World, but it’s just so strange it’s hard to wrap your head around. Take Slimer, for example, who shows up and almost immediately tries to fucking kill the Ghostbusters. Like, not even how he “slimed” Bill Murray in the original – Slimer gets into a car and tries to run them all over. He’s a psychopath! I thought he was cool with Ghostbusters! Didn’t he help them out in that cartoon*?

Aside from Slimer (the title of my favorite Beckett play), the movie features references that come off as jabs at the franchise and its fans: the villain is a wimpy guy who speaks in odd neackbeard-isms; they literally fight the logo of the franchise in the middle of 1980s NYC; they shoot it in its dick with their proton packs; the cameo with the most popular cast member results in his death, etc. I’m not saying the shit this movie and its stars have had to endure from hate-filled assholes is in any way justified, but the way in which it shows zero decorum in its allusions makes it hard to have justified rooting for at all.

At this point, I’m tired of talking about it. It just seems so dumb that we fought about this tooth-and-nail from both sides, and the result is a disappointing piece of shit that sucks. This is a movie that people won’t be talking about in 2 years except when brought up when discussing its inevitable sequels. This is a movie that isn’t worth fighting over – it’s a giant commercial made by a massive megacorporation that used the very subject of its derision – being a feminist remake of a popular ’80s franchise – and packaged it and sold it like a fucking Big Mac, which seems pretty un-feminist to me. All things said, this is a stupid, heartless, unfunny, long movie, and I wouldn’t even recommend it for a rental.

*Not-So-Fun Fact: Ernie Hudson was the only original cast member to audition for the cartoon series, but lost his own role to Arsenio Hall – thus making Ernie Hudson the Charlie Brown of Hollywood.

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Gone With the Wind – 1939

The Hollywood epic is probably one of the few genres to see a minimal amount of change over the decades that it’s ruled Tinseltown (and, by extension, the Academy Awards). From the affectatious costume design to the sweeping vistas of what I can only describe as “a backlot in Burbank,” the historical epic has been a staple of the moviegoer’s diet since the days of the silent film era. But just as a period piece can become timeless inherently by focusing on the past, some of these films have become reflective of their time as well; The Birth of a Nation, for example, shows the savage attitudes pervading Civil War-era society was also reflective of its audience, through the controversial and turbulent conditions surrounding its release. Likewise, we got a view into the window of an ancient culture’s view on race – as well as our own – with Martin Lawrence’s harrowing Black Knight.

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Indeed, where would we be without the period piece? In this humble writer’s opinion, I have to turn to a favorite quote of mine by famed humorist Will Rogers: “I don’t know.” It’s pretty obvious that the epic as a genre has had its highs and lows in history; its waning popularity, while molasses-like, is ironically due to history itself. In the days predating the second World War, audiences were less hungry for the escapism and fantasy that movies offer today. The story du jour was typically based either in reality or, at the most extravagant, a well-known fairy tale. In an age of playing it safe, the film industry wore three protective cups. Audiences enjoyed lavish spectacle, most efficiently and effectively conveyed through stories that told of romance, loss, adventure, death, and redemption. The epic had something for everyone, at least until the War and its aftermath had audiences looking for greater levels of escapism. It’s refreshing to remember the halcyon days of yore when Hollywood had original ideas, and didn’t simply repackage every show, game, cereal commercial and book into a cinematic extravaganza. Take Gone With the Wind, a – oh, shit. It’s adapted from a book. Tupac was right!

Gone With the Wind is one of those films from the Golden Age of Hollywood that epitomizes what made it the Golden Age. The lavish sets, the gaudy costumes, the Mid-Atlantic accents – it all coalesces into a movie that, while kitschy at times, is easy to recognize as the forebear of Hollywood to come. Vivian Leigh plays Scarlett O’Hara, a young debutante living in the pre-Civil War days of Georgia. As she spends her days futzing about and flirting with every Southern dandy who calls on her (and boy, are they dandy), she becomes suffocated by the ever-looming threat of war and the ever-present need to find a husband. It’s only by chance that she meets a man who represents both: Rhett Butler has all of the confidence and charm of a politician and the rape tendencies of an affluent Ivy League athlete. While the city slowly burns around them, Rhett and Scarlett find love, then lose it, then find it, then lose it again, then maybe find it, then maybe lose it? It’s hard to keep up at times, considering neither of them seem to like each other that much in the first place.

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Scarlett is a tempestuous woman, one who needs an equally stoic man as Rhett to complement her. Her character arc is the most fulfilling of any character in this movie, and that includes the dozen or so characters that die by falling off of a horse. She’s at once jealous, yet supportive; venomous, yet coquettish; silent, but deadly. She’s an enigma – the type of Southern Belle who can go from a comfortable lifestyle on a plantation to shooting Yankee soldiers point-blank in the face without so much as blinking. Her character is one that is curious from the point-of-view of the production itself; rarely is a great character hampered by its director, but Scarlett O’Hara is essentially smothered by the style and substance of director Victor Fleming.

The character of Scarlett is, from the outset, a total bitch. She stabs her friends in the back, flirts with suitors in front of other suitors, and generally has very little regard for anyone’s well-being but her own. While all of this may seem to be a turn-off to anyone but Rhett Butler, it’s the arc that she experiences throughout the films ungodly 4-hour running time that encapsulates her true character: she learns to handle crises in wartime; she goes to great lengths to protect those she loves; she learns to take responsibility – for both her plantation and her eventual child. All of these attributes make for a very prototypical feminist archetype to appear in Scarlett; in an epic film revolving around one of the deadliest wars in history, surprisingly few characters die onscreen, and Scarlett is one of the few characters to do the killing. She learns, through hardship and sacrifice, how to be a better woman. It’s unfortunate that all of her character work be undone through the lens of a director that just didn’t get it.

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Just like his cousin, R.K. Maroon.

It’s well-documented that Fleming didn’t care for the character of Scarlett and viewed her as “an out and out bitch.” In Fleming’s eyes, like the eyes of a ‘nice guy’ who just doesn’t get why girls only want to date bodybuilders, Scarlett was incapable of change – refusing to see that she wasn’t the problem. It’s ironic that the director of the film had the very vision that a character like Scarlett was attempting to upend; Fleming’s vision painted Rhett as the smoother, more masculine type of gentleman. Rhett was a proto-James Bond of sorts: calm, cool, badass, yet still unafraid to show some semblance of emotion to those he loves. While all of this is well and good in an actual James Bond film, Rhett is far from a gentleman: he spends a chunk of the first act hanging around a brothel, he drinks too much, and he rapes his own wife in their home. If that isn’t enough, he’s essentially responsible for the miscarriage of the product of said rape. Throughout the course of the film, Rhett does less to help Scarlett and those close to her than Scarlett does in 20 minutes of screen time.

Surrounding Scarlett to help her are her friends and family, including Melanie, who is played by Olivia DeHavilland in my favorite performance of the movie. DeHavilland shows a dedication to her character, as well as a true respect for the craft of acting, that transcends the stage-play hamming that Clark Gable or many other costars were capable of. This isn’t to say Gable or anyone else turned in a bad performance; when the director of your film is on record as telling his actors to “ham it up,” it’s hard to argue that those actors could have done more. Is Fleming a bad director? Of course not. There is some amazing camera work present here, heralding what would become a signature style of auteurs like Spielberg and Scorcese, and many moments in the film could only have been directed by a technically adept filmmaker. It’s too bad that, alongside women, Fleming also shows plenty of disdain for the actors of color in this production: one scene featuring a conversation between 3 slaves appears to end as Hattie McDaniel is about to say a line. This can be attributed to a sloppy edit for runtime purposes or otherwise, but in a film that drags as much as this one can at times, it’s hard to see why Fleming made some of the choices he did.

Like any film from the pre-Civil Rights era, the black actors in Gone With the Wind get the shortest end possible of what I imagine to be the longest stick in film history. Amazingly talented actors like Ms. McDaniel, Butterfly McQueen and Oscar Polk are all reduced to caricatures of slaves; McDaniel comes closest to achieving some level of profundity with her character, but all of that is easily undone when any other character refers to her as “Mammy.” The motherly black woman, the strong plow-hand, the shrill house servant – all of these characters add up to equal less than any of their white counterparts. An entire 3 minutes is set aside in the film’s first act to show an older slave struggle to catch a chicken. There is no useful information present here, other than that being the last chicken; why, then, was it necessary to stop the movie’s progress for some physical humor featuring an old, battered slave? While inexcusable, it’s important to remember the movie as a product of its time: McDaniel was the first black woman to win an Oscar for her work here, and wasn’t allowed to attend the ceremony.

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Not-So-Fun Fact: Her Oscar went missing in the ’60s and has yet to be found.

The awful treatment of its artists is what makes Gone With the Wind an incredibly culturally relevant film: we have to be able to see where we’ve come from to see where we’re going, cliché as that sentiment is. The dehumanization of blacks is played for comedy and plot progression. The lead female character is raped by a male lead (who, by the end of the film, gets to escape the codependent clutches of that woman’s claws, essentially leaving her crying for his return). Vivian Leigh, the lead actress, was paid $25,000 for 125 days of work, while Clark Gable received $120,000 for 71 days. Hell, we got John Wayne as Genghis Khan! A white guy playing a different race? Women making disparagingly less money for equal or more work than their male counterparts? Thank god we don’t live in those days anymore, right?

 

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Jaws – 1975

Once again, the American summertime has appeared, hovering above us like a plague of hot, wet blankets. What better way to cool off than to sit in a theater where the air conditioning is room temperature, making it not too warm but just warm enough that you’re literally sweating watching the trailer for Pete’s Dragon, as if you’re a Pete’s Dragon enthusiast who has a lot riding on the quality of the remake? As the old saying goes, “Beat the heat by becoming heat itself!”

This summer brings yet another deluge of grim, city-destroying blockbusters in a summer many box-office analysts have cutely nicknamed “The worst box office summer in recent history.” What happened? What has changed so wildly that our predilection for tentpole franchises – as American as apple pie and its sequel, Apple Pie 2: Just Desserts – has faded? Is it the quality of these movies? Surely that can’t be it; we’re at a time where telling a story has never been more engaging, thanks to the advent of new technologies and inspired young talent. So what could it be? The populist rise of Netflix, offering you the comfort of Frasier episodes in your own home instead of a multiplex?

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“Red wine with fish?!”

No, it’s pretty much the quality.

A big argument that Hollywood bigwigs, mucklucks and hoosegows like to throw out is that making money in their industry these says is so goddamn hard thanks to those Cousin Olivers over at Netflix, who keep adding such good content at such agreeable prices. This idea, like a Hollywood executive, is a common misconception; it assumes that audiences would flock to theaters to see most of their original content, which (not counting original television) is meh at worst and meh at best. There’s a reason Adam Sandler inked an exclusive deal with them, and it’s not because there weren’t enough seats in theaters.

The only solution, they reckon, is to take that formula and apply it to their system: “Maybe,” they reason, stroking a cat who asked to be in a movie, “if we charged audiences an insane fee, they’ll want to watch our movies at home!” Missing the point in a confoundingly ritualistic way, they grasp that last straw of “it’s what they want” instead of “it’s what we need.” What audiences want is to be able to see a summer blockbuster that isn’t another grim spin on an inherently flamboyant franchise or a gross-out comedy that’s basically nine long improv scenes loosely tied together. Audiences want quality; they want original ideas and they want fresh talent to make it. Let’s look at the original summer blockbuster, Jaws.

Jaws was the first movie to make summer movies an event. Going out to theaters and seeing a great movie, sometimes more than once, made the trek to the cineplex more than just a way to pass the time – it became the time. In an age where summertime was traditionally reserved for going to vacation spots, a young director named Steven “Little Stevie” Spielberg gave America what it never knew it wanted: a reason to never swim at the beach again.

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Odd that the shark was the paper’s majority shareholder…

Jaws is quintessential Spielberg: not just because it was an early work of his (Sugarland Express and Amblin’ both had more reserved styles), but more so because every element came together flawlessly. For a 2-hour movie with a plot that could be easily summarized in 2 minutes, the pace is nonpareil. It flies by in a tizzy, yet holds onto you tightly for the entire ride. As a matter of fact, “ride” is probably the best way to describe the film: its location, events, characters and general atmosphere provide a level of escapism usually reserved for theme park rides. Look at how breezy this plot is:

Roy Scheider plays Martin Brody, a hapless police chief who lives with his family in the quiet seaside town of amity. When a giant shark begins killing people dangerously close to shore, Brody enlists the help of oceanographer Matt Hooper and aging seafarer Quint to help destroy the beast before the entire city becomes a figurative – and literal – ghost town.

Seems simple, right? Now, when you try to do that for many of this decade’s blockbusters, you get a jumbled mess of characters and motivations, festooning an overlong movie that uses visual effects as a means to distract you from its shitty storytelling, effectively eliminating the need for subtlety. Jaws takes the mantra of “less is more” and applies it full-stop to nearly every element of its production. Scheider plays Brody with a quiet contemplativeness that lets you know he’s a man of action who’s ruled by emotion. Scenes of him being eviscerated by the mother of a victim leaves you with the sense that despite his calm demeanor, he is capable of fault and missteps. One of my favorite shots in any movie is when Brody sees the shark bob to the surface while chumming; the simple, silent look of shock on his face paints the picture of a man who recognizes his spot on the food chain.

Robert Shaw’s performance as Quint is simply masterful. Quint and Brody present an eery juxtaposition through their similarities. while Brody tends to stay quiet in an almost pushover manner, Quint is quiet in a completely different way; his confidence and near-amusement at the town’s plight shows a man who – unlike Brody – has everything to lose, which makes him even more frightening. He’s at once someone you would want to avoid, yet he’s the first person you’d call on if your town had a shark problem.

Spielberg’s work on Jaws rightfully placed him by Hitchcock in the annals of suspenseful filmmaking. The masterful use of silence is something that, like the birds, keeps you on the edge of your seat. Unlike The Birds, though, this film takes a musical motif – one that’s about as simple as movie themes get – and uses it exclusively to create a feeling of claustrophobia and impending doom. The shark isn’t one with whom to be fucked, and that’s apparent after only 3 minutes of the film has gone by.

The absence of the shark wasn’t by design (although it was ironically due to the literal design of the shark, which was as mechanically sound as one of those elevator vending machines), though this refusal to show the shark save for a few minutes of overall screen time helps the movie immensely. I’m pretty positive that Jaws wouldn’t have had the same impact if the shark was more visible, as was Spielberg’s intent. The restricted use of the shark animatronic utilized a horror technique seldom used anymore outside of the horror genre itself: imagination. What you thought the shark looked like, or where you thought the shark could be at any given moment, made the shark that much more terrifying. One of the most ingenious things about the movie was taking a very real yet very improbable event – a shark attack at a public beach – and tapping into our most primal, base instincts as humans; doing this essentially reinforces the notion that we are all none of us above the food chain, despite how much more advanced we think of ourselves than dogs or ants or sharks named “Bruce.”

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Or people named “Bruce.”

Just as Jaws swept onto the shores of the American consciousness and ushered in a new era of Hollywood, it also found itself as the progenitor of the modern blockbuster pickle we find ourselves in today. For every one Jaws, there were three Jaws sequels – each worse than the last – as well as countless Jaws knockoffs: Grizzly, Alligator, Old Housecat, and Jim Belushi all haunt our memories today more than ever. With that in mind, it’s important to remember the argument that it’s not the times that have changed; the times are perfectly fine. The problem is what hasn’t changed, and that’s the entropic attitudes and practices of an industry that just doesn’t get it. Maybe it’s time we got another Jaws. I’d be willing to settle for another Grizzly at this point.

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The Conjuring 2 – 2016

I’ve never really been a fan of the horror genre. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen enough horror movies to be able to discern what’s good and what’s bad, and I can recognize a classic, well-made film when I see it. But the yearly deluge of horror movies (a highly-produced genre due to their general cheapness) becomes a real slog for me. For every great horror film like The VVitch or It Follows released, we get about 30 Annabelle-type movies, or whatever entry in the Mirrors franchise we’re on now. It’s ironically the cheapness of the productions themselves that tends to cheapen the genre as a whole, and more often than not I’d rather save the horror movie-watching for October. Every so often, though, there comes along a special movie. As was the case with The VVitch and It Follows, The Conjuring told a very spooky tale of a middle-class American family who found themselves at the center of a haunting, and the two paranormal specialists who took it upon themselves to help sanctify the home and purify it from evil. The direction, acting, chemistry, writing, and general atmosphere of the movie was something very unique and exciting, as I viewed it as more of a masterful film with horror elements than a masterful horror film. Are they the same thing? Yes. Am I a little pedantic for differentiating the two? Probably. Is there a sequel? Obviously. It’s impossible to have a successful horror film serve as a stand-alone feature, and The Conjuring was one hell of a success: it’s notable for being one of the first R-rated horror films to earn its rating not for violence or language, but what the MPAA aptly described as “terror.”

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The core tenets of the MPAA.

And so, several years later, we find ourselves in the midst of a reunion between the stars and director of the first film, trying to make a sequel that lives up to the high expectations of the first. Unfortunately, though, it seems that more was bitten off than could be chewed, and what we have is a movie that sadly comes closer to its by-the-numbers imitators than the genuine article.

The Conjuring 2 has a promising start as our ghost-hunting protagonists, Ed and Lorraine Warren, are trying to rid the Amityville Horror House of its ghostly inhabitants. Lorraine is trying to communicate and understand the spirit, but is shocked to have a vision of her own husband’s death. It’s brief and gripping; the setup is great, and it follows a similar cold-open structure that the first film had, but things start to really dissolve after the sequence. The real meat of the movie is an ironically un-meaty family living in a lower-class suburb of England. They’ve had a demonic disturbance in their home, one that appears to be a very crotchety old man who wants to watch television in peace, and the Warrens are flown in by the church to England, like some kind of religious Avengers mission. What follows is a harrowing journey not only for the family in the middle of it all, but the Warrens as well. Lorraine is in a new phase of self-doubt and fear as a mysterious entity seems to be haunting her exclusively, and it certainly doesn’t help that it looks like a nun with fangs and Marylin Manson face makeup.

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“What, is there something on my face? I just had an interview!

The issues the film suffers from are made worse by high expectations. The first film told a story in a very interesting way, using slow-burns as a means to build tension and fear in the audience. This movie tries to emulate that sense of terror, but only comes across as a shallow imitation of the first. The plot structure is simple: cold open, introduction to family, something creepy happens on the first night, daytime, something REALLY scary happens on the second night/day, the Warrens are flown in, we meet the team (including the skeptic), there’s some mingling with the family and ghost over the course of a day/night, and then we find ourselves embroiled in a final confrontation. It’s not that this type of story structure is bad, necessarily; it just makes the entire thing less scary. Let me clarify: not once, not a single time, was I scared during The Conjuring 2. This isn’t me bragging, this is me lamenting. I scare with some ease, and am disturbed with greater ease, and the movie didn’t do anything for me. That’s not to say there isn’t anything scary in the movie – that’s entirely subjective. If you went to Catholic school at any point in your life, you will more than likely be fucking terrified at some of the imagery in the movie. The issue for me is that it’s so easy to tell when the scares are coming, because the movie is terrible at telegraphing them. Uses of music, camera angles, blocking of characters, ambient sound, it all comes together to form what should be a symphony of fright (“Symphony of Fright,” by the way, is the name of my Halloween jazz fusion album). Instead, it capitalizes on the fact that you’re scared of sudden noises and creeped out by the already-grim atmosphere of England in a way that makes it seem like the movie isn’t trying that hard. This is what i meant earlier with the “good movie with horror elements/good horror movie” line: I can recognize that The Conjuring 2 is a very competent, well-made movie, but what it primarily sets out to do – scare you – is done in a very robotic fashion.

The direction is great, don’t get me Wan (sorry). James Wan takes what most movies (movies in general, not just horror) do easily, like introducing a family getting ready for bed, and makes it a really visually complex and fascinating long take through the family’s home. The set design is top-notch: there’s a great sense of unease in every environment, and as such it succeeds in making you feel like there isn’t really anywhere where the characters are safe. What exactly they’re safe from, though, is the movie’s biggest problem.

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The original cast of Oliver! has some unfinished business.

This movie’s ghost situation is all over the place. Aside from the ghost of Hank Hill’s dad, we’re haunted by a ghastly specter of a nun, and a third demon that really has no place in the movie aside from maybe getting a spin-off at some point. The kids spend their pre-bedtime rituals playing with a zoetrope that tells the story of “The Crooked Man,” who looks similar to the Slender Man, wearing a bowler hat over his elongated, lanky frame. The first two ghosts I mentioned have a connection to each other that, while tenuous at best, is still technically a connection; the Crooked Man just shows up and fucks with the inhabitants of the home, with no explanation as to why he’s there, or what he wants. Is he a vision set forth to scare the kids by the demon nun? Maybe. The movie never sets it up and never pays it off. He shows up in 2 scenes: the first of which he’s summoned by morphing from a dog (which is more funny than scary), and the second is during the final confrontation. Once everything is said and done, he’s gone from the movie, and no one mentions it again – save for Ed Warren placing the zoetrope among his collection of other haunted items. When else did this happen? With Annabelle in the first movie. It may sound cynical, but it seems to be a very obvious set up for a Crooked Man spin-off which, I’m sure, will do well. The actual character itself is interesting to watch; I was sure it was all CG work, but research shows that Wan actually hired an actor who can move in a very uncanny manner. It’s this level of dedication to practicality that makes me want to like this movie, but it’s hard to ignore such obvious pandering to the teenagers that will no doubt see Crooked Man next February.

The performances from the leads, Vera Farminga and Patrick Wilson, are great. There’s an incredibly awkward song number where Wilson sings “I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You” to the haunted family; this is a scene that lasts about 2 minutes too long and is basically reprised at the end of the film. That being said, though, Wilson’s Elvis is spot-on – I’m talking 3,000 Miles to Graceland levels of spot-on, folks. The haunted family in the middle of everything is also great, though the dialogue feels stilted in how “British” the writers wanted the characters to sound. One little boy (with a stutter that seems borderline exploitative to audience emotions) begs his mom for biscuits, and the mom (in a later scene) says something along the lines of “Sod off, the lot of you!” It’s not ever-present, but at moments, it just feels like an American screenwriter (one of the four) wrote what he thought a British person would say in certain situations. It doesn’t ruin anything, but it’s distracting.

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“Bring me mah fish’n’chips, ya boffin’ toffer!”

All in all, The Conjuring 2 is a well-crafted movie that suffers too much from trying to emulate its more naturally-crafted older brother. Oddly enough, it’s the first movie that kind of damns this one: the epilogue at the end of that one revealed that Ed and Lorraine lived long, healthy lives; this movie has a strong plot element regarding Lorraine’s premonition of Ed’s death. Between this and any danger the two come close to in the sequel, none of it feels especially high-stakes considering we knew the outcome going in. The Conjuring 2 is worth seeing, but it may just be the last decent entry in what will probably become a long-running franchise where the facade is already showing cracks, and that’s a shame.

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