Annabelle Creation (2017)

David Sandberg

Annabelle Creation is the latest film in what is now being retconned into The Conjuring universe (rather than franchise). Annabelle Creation is a prequel to Annabelle, which itself was a prequel to The Conjuring. As a tacked-on universe prequel I thought it would be safe to expect that Annabelle Creation would follow Rogue One and Kong: Skull Island and be serviceable and good while completing a task.

With little interest in rushing to Universe connectivity the movie revels in the early twentieth century American gothic. There is nothing to fear at the start of the movie but the very landscape itself provides a sense of foreboding. Director David F. Sandberg sets the scene for a conjuring against the back drop of a prairie land full of rusted farm machinery and technology such as lights and cars which are primitive and unreliable. Anthony LaPaglia constructs handmade dolls in an isolated and large farmhouse which he shares with his wife, played by Miranda Otto, and daughter. The family exists in this gothic bucolic bliss until the daughter dies in a road accident.

Oddly the trailer outlines the entire plot of the movie and arguably spoils its most compelling element which is the very slow reveal of not just the extent of the evil hidden within the house but the how it came to be there in the wake of daughter’s death. The movie proper starts when, twelve years later, a nun and her six orphan girl charges are invited to live in the house with the still grieving couple.

As soon as the nun and orphans arrive there is a feeling of a growing restrained threat and violence. As the children voice or attempt to ignore their fears the movie becomes about the idea of faith and the power of evil in the world and its ability to consume and destroy the innocent without caring about what should or deserves to happen. The setup of isolated farmhouse is naturally terrifying, the use of the doll and ghost child eminently chilling and the main pre-pubescent girl protagonists are especially vulnerable.

The film could have gone further and been as socially analogous as Get Out if it had chosen to twist the knife deeper and allude to the evil which existed, and exists, within the church. The demon and/or its existence could have been portrayed as analogous to predatorial priests preying upon the weak. Perhaps realising how close they are to this territory the filmmakers go to pains to ensure viewers that the demon is a demon is a demon and as such too much of the monster is shown in the third act of the film and rather than a terrifying wraith of the imagination some of the terror is dulled as the conjuring of inherit evil is rendered into form on too many occasions.

There are also either a lot of conceits or no limit to the demon’s power which is simultaneously frustrating and serves to heighten the threat and feeling of helpless ness with which the audience is shown the film. In service to universe building there is an Easter egg for the next Conjuring Universe movie, The Nun, and the epilogue of the film feels a little to complete as, like with Rogue One, it is forced to fit too well and, again, leave nothing to the imagination as it runs on seamlessly into Annabelle.

These small faults aside Annabelle Creation is still a film which is better than the sum of its parts. The script, acting and direction are well done and it maintains an enthralling pace and doing a lot with a relatively low kill count.

Don’t watch the trailer before seeing it. Destroy all porcelain dolls afterwards.

 

 

Trumbo (2015)

Jay Roach

Such an amazingly mundane film and amazing because while assumedly isn’t hard to make a boring film it is surely difficult to make one so boring out of such interesting source material. The two-hour running time to this movie drags as an eternity as the film struggles with the formation of the red scare and McCarthyism in America in the wake of WW2 and the beginnings of the cold war.

I think most people are aware of the film because Bryan Cranston was nominated for best actor in the 2016 academy awards for his portrayal of the titular Dalton Trumbo. Knowing parts of the story of Trumbo and the Hollywood 10 from the You Must Remember This podcast and having also read about Trumbo in Steve Martins auto-biography Born Standing Up I’ve been eager to watch this film ever since I missed it in cinemas. Amidst the many amazing brushes with historical figures in Steve Martins book his interaction with Trumbo during the time Martin was dating his daughter stood out the most. Martin wrote that it was the first time he had been around such intellectual radicals and described Trumbo as an intense and passionate man despite the troubles he’d gone through with the Hollywood black lists and his time in prison.

On the screen, the film does many things well. It seamlessly interweaves original archival footage and recreates similar footage where necessary. The film is always well acted and the cast, one and all, do a great job of portraying some of the most influential players in Hollywood history.

But there is never a sense what it is to live in America at the time. Kong: Skull Island managed a better job in it’s opening credits with short introductory montage of news clippings and footage. Trumbo never seems confident enough to dive too far into history or examine closely why the cold war lasted for so long or why communism was pursued so vehemently domestically.

A particularly weak moment slowly passes by when the gossip columnist, Hedda Hopper threatens to publish the real, Jewish names, of the studio heads and the aura of anti-Semitism which operates in tandem with McCarthyism is left to the audience to be interpreted as a general fear of foreignness. This lack of general political and national scope to the film is problem enough but the film is even less effective with its central subject. There is no indication of how Trumbo came to be where he is. The film introduces him in his thirties as the highest paid screenwriter to date. There is no explanation for his communism or stubbornness or exploration of his past as a war correspondent or even how he grew as a writer. He is birthed fully formed into the film and as such there is never any reason to like him.

Even as Trumbo is blacklisted and jailed there are no real stakes. On Trumbo’s release from prison he and his family move to a palatial house in the city whereas in real life, they moved to Mexico. It is these kind of disconnects which not only, biographically, make it difficult for the film to explain key moments (such as the inspiration for his second Oscar winning film The Brave One) it also is just one of many instances where an opportunity for crisis or real stakes for Trumbo and his family are side-stepped for convenience. Keeping the film in Hollywood allows the filmmakers to concentrate the cause and menace of McCarthyism into the single villain of the gossip columnist Hedda Hopper as played by Helen Mirren.

The only real crisis the film bothers to present is that as a workaholic Trumbo might be at risk of losing his family and even this small stake is discarded as his drug and alcohol fuelled work is shown to not be the mission of a stubborn obsessive but the ultimate foil to his nemesis Hedda Hopper. The film portrays this outcome between these two individuals as the main cause of the end of the blacklists, the red scare, McCarthyism and the whole dark chapter of American history. Meanwhile the epilogue cards explain that the blacklist was still in partial operation for a further twenty years and negate even the flimsy premise of crisis and battle the filmmakers invented.

The film is a boring failure made by a director of bad comedy films (notably the Austin Powers sequels) and a tv writer. Though the acting within the film is good I’m not even sure that Cranston deserved to be nominated for work in a film weighed down by such an ironically bad script.

I know now why I’ve never really met anyone who’s seen this film. Very few did. Though I would say to anyone that was interested that they would better spend their time listening to Karina Longworth’s much more interesting, entertaining and accurate stories of Dalton Trumbo and the Hollywood Ten on the You Must Remember This podcast.

trumbo three

 

 

 

 

(The) 25th Hour

David Benioff

25th Hour, originally published as The 25th Hour, is a rare example of a novel which was adapted into a much better film. Other examples I can think of, off-hand at least, include Stephen King’s Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption which as a novella was great but as a film, The Shawshank Redemption, was enriched and perfected by extended narrative space. I would also argue Mario Puzo’s The Godfather is a better film as there are fewer digressions about genital surgery and lounge singers.

Both book and film versions of 25th Hour have the same plot, the same narrative beats and, for the most part, almost identical dialogue. The protagonist, Montgomery Brogan, has been convicted of drug trafficking. The story explores his last 24 hours of freedom before he is sent to Otisville penitentiary for seven years. Flashbacks through both his perspective and as focalised through those close to him unveil key events which led to the present. There are elements of a thriller as Montgomery wonders who informed upon him and weighs up his options in the face of his incarceration. Will he will run, commit suicide, or resign himself to the oblivion of prison?

As with Shawshank, the film version of 25th Hour has an unfair advantage over the novel. The setting in New York city forms a large part of the novel but plays an even bigger part in the film. Directed by Spike Lee the film was the first to be shot in New York after the 2001 world trade center attacks. In the aftermath of the attacks and as rubble is still being cleared there is an added element of anger, fear and confusion imbued within the story and the setting. The novel, written and set before the S11 attacks, is about Montgomery as an individual and his own feelings towards others and the city as he travels through it on the last day of his free life. In the film, there is a sense that the whole city is angry, scared and confused and this both reflects and belittles Montgomery’s own feelings.

The greatest accomplishment of the story is the moral ambiguity of Montgomery’s characterisation. Benioff writes Monty as a likeable character and the moral push and pull of reconciling the sources of his riches and reason for his pending incarceration is left to his friends. In this way, the judgment and empathy provided towards Month shifts with the different focalisation and character arcs of his friends and loved ones. The character driven plot provides a natural countdown and Benioff dips in and out of the story time with expert use of segues to provide Monty’s back story.

I really struggle to criticise this book. Though it’s not perfect or great. Um… how about, the structure of a short linear story time interrupted by flashbacks is arguably generic and played-out. That’s some form of criticism but, even that, is a stretch. I am incredible biased because of how much I love the film. That too is the point. This is a prime example of a book that must be read before the film. With Spike Lee as director and David Benioff as screenwriter nearly every page and line of dialogue is perfectly recreated in the film. Perhaps I’m wrong and it is a great book or an amazing book but with such a perfect storm of cast, crew, score, cinematography and use of the city as character this, like Shawshank before it, is an example of a book which becomes redundant once you have seen the film.

the-25th-hour

Dark Shadows (2012)

Tim Burton

A movie which falls flat even as it hints at what it could have been.

Eva Green is as always great even as she chews the hell out of the scenery and loves every second of it. As both actor and character Green dominates Johnny Depp who seems restrained and unsure of his choices. The basic story, based upon a 70’s TV show I’ve never seen, is ok and the fish out of water concept of a vampire waking up in the 1970’s is flimsy but fun even as the movie seems to seek to avoid period settings and the political spirit of the times.

This film could have been a lot of things. Even some simple editing changes may have been enough to fix it. I know characters are based upon tv source material but Chloe Grace Moretz’s character, as much as I love her and as fine as she is in this with what little she has, could have been edited out with little alteration to the story. The same could be said for Johnny Lee Miller who, too, is fine but seems to be given unnecessary screen time because… well… he’s Johnny Lee Miller.

A cameo from an old Alice Cooper breaks the suspension of disbelief while also acting as the only highlight in a film that in its third act becomes confusing and boring. This movie plays out as if perhaps in an earlier cut there was a longer running time which explained or justified some of the sub-plots. It is this kind of half commitment which is its biggest failing.

That said Eva Green is great even if it is a worry that she seems likely to become trapped in these schlocky genre films. She highlights too that this by now familiar Burton ensemble of Depp, Bonham-Carter, and Elfmen needs new life. After so many awful films over the last two decades I’ve no interest in seeing any film with Johnny Depp directed by Tim Burton. Green’s role in this film though hints at the possibility that Burton could regain a sort of relevance if he was to work with new people. He needs people that are actually thrilled and excited to be in his world. Who are fans rather than freinds, peers or ex-spouses.

eva

Tell it fast?

I’m currently writing a review of (Tom Cruise’s) The Mummy and a look at the state of Universals fledgling dark universe.

It’s been widely reported that The Mummy is a bad movie and it is on most fronts though it has the potential for a good (if not great) movie within it. One of the bigger problems I have with The Mummy is that the story is completely linear and the story time, as far as I could tell, is perhaps only 12-16 hours.

Linear story lines with short story times seem to be relatively common over the last year. Rogue One was a very straight ahead story and other than a flash back in it’s opening scene the events took place over the course of less than 12 hours. Wonder Woman uses a present day framing device to tell the story of the movie within flash back and also shows Diana’s upbringing through flashback but is otherwise also a very linear story with maybe 48 hours of total story time.

There doesn’t seem to be any obvious connection between these films. The Mummy and Rogue One share the commonality of not being great films that probably should have been. Wonder Woman fares better though it’s third act suffers because of the usual poor CGI boss battle common to all DC films to date.

My theory is that all of these movies have sought to model themselves after Mad Max: Fury Road and it’s linear story with a scantmadmax 12 hours of story time. Mad Max worked because the action was so tactile, sensational and innovative. It was also a chase movie and didn’t ask for the audience to need  know or care to much about the titular or support characters.

By contrast the films above insist and rely upon empathy with the main characters, are trying to tell stories and to fit into bigger universes (Star Wars, DC, and Dark Universe respectively) and don’t provide enough or big enough action for such straightforward stories.

It’s a shame that these films were probably created under such heavy influence from Mad Max: Fury Road. I wonder what they could have been otherwise? I also wonder how many other films will try and fail with the same formula?

Perhaps the upcoming Dunkirk by Christopher Nolan will create a new trend. There is no running time released yet but the trailer hints at multiple character arcs and story lines and it seems safe to assume the movie will come close to the three hour mark. I don’t expect it will lead to superhero movies running to three hours but perhaps, hopefully, it will mean a return to less linear and longer style of story within big budget films and an end to trying to emulate a movie as unique as Mad Max.

 

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

Jordan Vogt-Roberts

You’ve got a giant ape movie? I’ll take it. I’m there. The ticket is sold. I don’t even question why. More than anything I’m surprised when people aren’t as quite set to go see it by default. When they ask me why I’m so interested? Interested? How on earth do you not want to just go along and see what they’ve done with Kong this time. It’s not going to be awful. Probably.

Sure, it’s probably going to be cheesy. They’re pop-corn movies! Almost a perfect trope of the cinema going experience. The continual evolution of the story of a giant ape and how he is portrayed and what technical tools, budget and feats are utilised in this portrayal. In the same way that Jaws changed cinema and Jurassic Park after it Kong is a sort of watermark which bobs along in the wake of these films.

The original King Kong is a sort of model T ford of movies. It’s mainstream and it’s problematic but it’s also something that was revolutionary in its way and integral to the course of film history. Peter Jackson’s version may not be nearly as important but it was a well-constructed vehicle for Kong which paid probably too much adulation to its forebear’s story and concentrated too much on added extras and style without examining the essential problems of the Kong story. It was just another Ford. Another family sedan. Far advanced from its model T predecessor but essential the same beast with more power.

In this latest version directed by the relatively unknown Jordan Vogt-Roberts, Universal Studios is attempting to build a monster universe franchise in the same way that Marvel/Disney has done with its properties and DC/Warner Brothers is failing to do with theirs. To be cynical it seems as if they’re doing a relatively poor job at it and following the DC/Warner Brothers model rather than that of Marvel/Disney’s. The 2014 Brian Cranston Godzilla, we’re now told, was supposed to be the start of this epic ‘MonsterVerse’ while the box office flop Dracula Untold, also released in 2014 though no one noticed, was the start of another monster universe (I don’t really know if they’re under the same name of slightly differentiated) which is going to be rebooted with Alex Kurtzman’s The Mummy this year (2017). This sort of blind floundering and large missteps in a universe doesn’t seem too positive. Then again as much as Marvel may like to make out as if they had all of their moves planned it still seems as if they were lucky with Iron Man (and Robert Downey Jnr) and have continued to play off of that luck and goodwill ever since.

As such this film is designed as an origin story for Kong to bring him into the modern monster universe. Kong is not fully grown though he is massive! In this film, he does not leave Skull Island and he has his own sort of agency and mission. His relationship with the natives of the island makes a little more sense than in other depictions. He is also, even as a teenager, seemingly much bigger than ever before on the big screen.

The film really doesn’t need too much else for me to be happy, which is lucky, as what else is shoehorned into the film is superfluous at best. The film as a period piece faintly plays off of the turmoil in America as the country struggles with withdrawal from the Vietnam war and domestic political upheaval. Yet at the same time the film isn’t interested in exploring any sort of racial tension between the soldiers or scientists and as such most of the characters are pretty two dimensional with very little real chemistry or character development. Brie Larson is fine as the inevitable love interest to Tom Hiddleston who himself manages to pull off (just) being some sort of shadowy military type. His casting also begs the question as to whether Hollywood, in casting Adrian Brody and Tom Hiddleston, look for thin men with angular features in Kong films. Perhaps in some way intending to cast male leads who look as unlike the ape as possible? Two examples aren’t the best sample test but it will be interesting to see what happens in the Kong versus Godzilla movie and who gets the call up. Anyhoo. Meanwhile Samuel L. Jackson chews the hell out of the scenery and makes the best of a character whose sole purpose is irrationally propelling plot. The real highlight of the film, other than Kong, is John C. Reilly, who seems to be the only one on set who understands and enjoys what he is doing with his character and lights up the movie for the time he is in it.

Ultimately, I liked this as a standalone film. Even if it was a little weak on plot and afraid to lean into the true troubles of its period. As an origin film, I think it is moderately successful as it shows why Kong is willing to be humanity’s hero against the other monsters. Sadly, though I’d be very surprised if Universal manages to do much better with their next film. It’ll probably, again, merely be ok. There is foreshadowing in this with Kong’s attraction to Brie Larson that they may once again take Kong to New York by using the bait of a girl and shoe horn that played-out story into the fight against Godzilla or one of the other monsters.

Universal hasn’t reinvented the vehicle. This isn’t a hybrid, electric or flying car version of Kong. It doesn’t portray the ape more effectively or much better. It’s just another Ford with a shiny new paint job and some retro throwback sixties features. The building blocks were there for this to have been something better and for a real sort of drama play out underneath the Kong story. Instead it’s more of the great ape and spectacle while puny humans scurry to and fro beneath him.

Cassavetes on Cassavetes (2001)

Ray Carney

What’s my take on Cassavetes?

Well I first heard properly of the man not as director or from realising who he was in Dirty Dozen or Rosemary’s Baby but from the Le Tigre song (lyrics below).

I picked up this book almost as a joke. 500 densely packed pages would surely help inform me properly as to what my take on Cassavetes would, could or should be. This was around the same time I started my ill-fated non-fiction, guilty-pleasure and punishing literature simultaneous reading plan. The basic idea of this plan was that I would read 10 pages of each book each night and so slowly work through varied readings. It was a fine enough plan that was perhaps the only reason I was able to finish Infinite Jest. Cassavetes on Cassavetes was the non-fiction, James Joyce’s Ulysses the punishing literature and Phil Klay’s Redeployment the guilty pleasure. But there’s nothing guilty about redeployment. It’s brilliant! And made me want to read more contemporary brilliance which I did in reading Holly Child’s No Limits before I was snowed under by work and school. In the meantime, Ulysses languished (it still does) under a pile of comics and Cassavetes on Cassavetes was picked up and read reluctantly over the course of eight months of being both busy and quiet but also joyful and bored in the reading.

This is a textbook rather than a biography and as such all credit should go to Ray Carney for the sheer depth of research. Carney is a fan which, like in the Updike, acts as a double-edged blade. He revels in every detail of Cassavetes’ life but sometimes this goes too deep and for too long, though, again, this is a textbook.

The simultaneous strength and weakness of the book is the choice Carney has made in its construction. Rather than a straight biography with quotations Carney has stitched together what feels like (and could be) every interview Cassavetes ever gave. His own input is used more to provide a chronological and subjective flow to these excerpts of interview. As such, and as the title implies, this is a book which details the life and work of Cassavetes in his own words. From a scholarly perspective, it is very effective. Cassavetes was very articulate and philosophical in his interviews. His voice is clear and consistent throughout. The problem is that Carney is often repeating or pre-empting what Cassavetes says and so at times the text feels repetitive.

Carney’s other choice in construction was to divide the book into sections based around each of Cassavetes’ directorial features. There is a section for his early life at the start and his later life at the end. In between each chapter doesn’t so much cover his life as the film or films he was working on. This is an effective move considering the book is a textbook designed for arts students. It would be valuable to study the intricacies of a film in a sectionalised manner like this. In terms of reading the book as biography it isn’t too bad as so much of Cassavetes’ time, energy and passion was poured into each film and often, always, also included much of his friendship group and family.

I would love to have read a more conventional biography of the life of Cassavetes but having now read Carney’s book I can’t imagine what any other author could possibly hope to contribute that I haven’t already learnt. The duel voices of Carney and Cassavetes himself effectively portray the passion and belief Cassavetes had in his art. There are the stories of self-sabotage, sabotage and extreme manipulation. Carney avoids, in part, too deeply examining the ramifications of Cassavetes characteristic anger and passion early in the book even as the actor and budding director buts heads with studio heads as a director and, as an actor, various directors, including Polanski on Rosemary’s Baby. By the end of the book much of this passion and anger has worked hand in hand with lifelong alcoholism and a perhaps unhealthy compulsion to his art.

There is too a marked lack of perspective from Cassavetes wife Gena Rowland or his family. In this way, Carney almost seems to be enabling Cassavetes and his acolytes into still placing his art above all else in his life even when it is to his, or this books, detriment. But, like Carney’s other choice, maybe this is the most accurate representation of the man.

Truth be told I’m no more sure of what Cassavetes was now than I was before reading this. Confusing, interesting, self-destructive, inherently creative and artistic, joyous, spiteful generous and yet also mean, counter-productive and almost oddly possessive of his various creations.

What’s my take? Messiah? Yes, apparently for a lot of people. Misogynist? Maybe, maybe not. Genius, yup. Alcoholic, definitely.

 

 

Le Tigre – What’s Yr. Take on Cassavetes

 

We talked about it… in letters. And we talked about it on the phone

But how you really… feel… about it… I don’t really know

 

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

Misogynist!

Genius!

Misogynist!

Genius!

Misogynist!

Genius!

Misogynist!

Genius!

 

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

Alcoholic

Messiah!

Alcoholic

Messiah!

Alcoholic

Messiah!

Alcoholic

Messiah!

 

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

Genius, misogynist, alcoholic – Hey, where’s Gena?

Genius!

Misogynist!

Messiah!

Alcoholic!

 

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on?

What’s yr take on?

What’s yr take on?

What’s yr take on?

What’s yr take on?

What’s yr take on?

What’s yr take on…

CASSAVETES?!?

 

[Dogs barking]