Monday, February 12, 2024

Reviews from gulag: The red [door/car/nosed reindeer]

As we continue our clean-up of 2023 with a series of reviews for movies that may or may not have deserved their own entries, we arrive upon Insidious: The Red Door, annoyingly both the fourth and the second sequel to James Wan's 2011 horror superhit, Insidious, picking up the Lambert Saga ten years after Wan finished it in Insidious: Chapter 2 for no obvious reason besides giving perennial supporting-actor champion Patrick Wilson his first crack at directing; Ferrari, Michael Mann's biopic of Enzo Ferrari that, hypothetically, appeals to Mann's historic strengths as a filmmaker or should at least offer some good racing scenes; and Silent Night, John Woo's pun-titled, Christmas-themed experimental action film.  As the title up top indicates, there is indeed something meaningfully red in all three of these movies, but the actual secret theme of these graybles is that they all involve a director I respect a great deal, even if it's for reasons besides directing, nevertheless proving a disappointment.

INSIDIOUS: THE RED DOOR

I've suggested in the past that the Insidious franchise, prior to Insidious: The Red Door, is not good, and, having recently reacquainted myself with them (or become acquainted with some of them in the first place), I'm happy to recant that, albeit with faint praise; it's a horror franchise with the agreeable distinction of improving steadily throughout all of its first three entries, going from a low 7/10 for the first Insidious all the way to a medium-high 7/10 for 2015's Insidious: Chapter 3.  This was unlikely to continue apace and it did stumble, rather hard, with its fourth entry, 2018's Insidious: The Last Key, which at least had a few strong novelties to offset the feeling that the franchise had clearly exhausted most of its best moves already.  (The first three all had the benefit of being directed by one or the other of its creators, James Wan or Leigh Whannell, which makes more of a difference than you might be ready to guess, given how formulaic the scares and stories are.  Meanwhile, The Last Key was at least written by Whannell, which didn't save it, but it felt of a piece with its three predecessors.)  Other than The Last Key not being good, however, the worst thing about those first four films is that Chapter 3 took the unusual step of being a prequel focused upon Lin Shaye's paranormal investigator and spirit medium, Elise Rainier.  Obviously, insofar as Elise was almost objectively the single best element of the franchise, its focus on her was not the bad part; that's the "prequel" part, where Whannell blinked and took his franchise back in time to give Elise a new story, despite having already ended Chapter 2 with an inordinately strong sequel hook, for while that film concluded the "central" story of the Lambert family on a satisfying and happy note, it also promised Further adventures (ha, ha) with Elise and her sidekicks, irrespective of the fact that Elise had been dead for an entire movie by this point.  I mean, it's a franchise entirely about ghosts and the metaphysical dark mirror of the real world where ghosts hang out after they die; this was not some insuperable challenge.  The worst thing about the worst thing, meanwhile, is simply that, flying in the face of all logic, Whannell's prequel was still named "chapter 3."  This had to be awfully irritating when development began on Insidious: The Red Door, which finally does offer a chronologically-third Insidious movie, as well as another (and presumably the final) chapter in the story of Josh Lambert (Patrick Wilson) and Dalton Lambert (Ty Simpkins), father and son astral projectors whose unique talents had tended to get them into trouble.

Unfortunatelyfrustratingly, considering that Lin Shaye puts in a cameo, and probably could've been convinced to fully reprise her role in a franchise that had become hers absolutely by the beginning of the third filmthis can't-call-it-Chapter 3 has essentially not a damn thing to do with Elise's ghost, and everything to do with making the Lamberts the heroes of a story that, arguably, was never about them.  And yet I don't think that, by some necessary law of universe, this needed to be unfortunate, though one of those first two Insidiouses' weaknesses is that the Lamberts are the most boring fucking family to ever manage to have two good haunted house movies built around them.  I'm honestly not really sure why this would be the franchise Patrick Wilson wanted to learn how to be a film director on.  (The assumption would be that The Conjuringverse, where he is interesting, was simply too financially important to Warner Bros. to let him fool around with it, whereas the Insidiouses were basically just sitting there.)  In any case, the Lambert problem got solved in Insidious: Chapter 2 mostly by virtue of having Wilson spend almost literally the entire film playing an entirely different character (an evil ghost) possessing Josh's body; and I suppose you could argue that this actually offered an opportunity to Wilson, along with Whannell (allegedy helping write this story, but say what you will about Whannell, he's a pillar of 21st century horror cinema, and I don't think he wrote much here) and Scott Teems (who co-wrote the story, and wrote the script, and has to date indicated no similarly pillar-like attributes), who would not need to be held back from fashioning a new, interesting "Josh."

They get about as far as "in the aftermath of Insidious: Chapter 2, Josh has become inordinately distant from his family, to the point of no longer truly being part of the lives of his three children, principally Dalton's, but presumably also those of Dalton's two younger siblings who were basically just set decoration in earlier Insidiouses and somehow still remain so here."  (While it's jumping ahead, the two times that Foster Lambert (Andrew Astor) does pop up to have a brief, caustic phone conversation with his older brother, I wished like hell his character were a lead insteadsupplementing the other leads, sure, but, ideally, just outright replacing one or any of them.)  Anyway, Josh is almost out of the picture, having sometime in the past ten years been divorced by Renai (Rose Byne, who's clearly doing Wilson a favor by being here at allthe very first shot involves a showy loop-de-loop camera move at a funeral that holds on the casket, briefly, before revealing the faces of the mourners; I strongly assumed the casket was Renai's and I'm not entirely sure this wouldn't have been a better idea).  Josh's mom's just died; Dalton's on his way to college for art; prodded by Renai, Josh at least manages to drive his son to school, where they fail to get along whatsoever, and then the movie basically just splits into two separate halves entirely.

This kind of happens in two ways: on one level, there's the Josh plot, where he seeks medical advice for the fog he's been living in for the last decade, and there's the Dalton plot, which involves Dalton thrust into friendship with Chris Winslow (Sinclair Daniel) when they accidentally assign her (liability issues ahoy!) to be his dorm roommate; on another level, there's the horror movie that's obliged to occur from time to time, involving the breakdown of the post-hypnotic suggestion that cut Josh and Dalton off from their clairvoyant powers at the end of Insidious: Chapter 2, which in turn has re-invited all the ghosts and demons back, but there's also the story of a reconnection between an emotionally-unavailable father and his son, overcoming their mutual traumas together, while the latter takes his first steps into adulthood.

And, like, not even a little bit of this works, together or separately, outside of maybe a dollop of horror here or there, where Wilson demonstrates basically one trick that isn't purely an amateur cover band recreation of Wan/Whannell jump scares, wherein ghosts spend a lot of time popping into and out existence in the negative space of shallow focus 'Scope-ratio shots, spooking us out while we wait for the scary to happen.  It's an okay trick.  (Actually, there's one other thing that "works," where some show-offy, junkily-cute throwback-to-the-00s editing and sound design gets used in a scene where Josh dives into some microfilm, which I would smile benevolently upon if the movie hadn't lost me many minutes earlier, or if it made any sense that he'd be allowed into some basement archive to look up private medical records.)  Wilson, the actor, is fine and professional (and frankly leaning too readily upon his established skillset) on behalf of the kind of borderline non-entity that he has often played, though usually with a better script that realized the Wilson character was a non-entity, and did something with that.  Josh is arguably more of a non-entity now than he was the first time, thanks to his brain cloud.  As a director, his approach is more blandly-functional than I think you could readily imagine.  A flailingly incompetent director might've made a better movie, and it's very plausible that he'd have gotten something more out of his collaborators.  Wilson's inexperience shows only in the really important things, after all: he evidently had not the first idea how to communicate with cinematographer Autumn Eakin, who is doing a downright miserable job at making an Insidious movie, and I would openly question if she'd seen one; the overriding problem is that she's not creating nearly a strong enough distinction between the actual world and the realm of the Further thanks to, with almost no exaggeration, every single scene at college being barely-lit by string lights and dim-ass desk lamps, which is a profound misunderstanding of how this franchise works its atmosphere, though there's likewise the specific problem of the lighting in the Further, which for the first time is trying to use the full spectrum of light rather than distinctions between aquamarine and teal, rendering the signature imagery of the series into hatefully boring scenes of Wilson holding a white lantern up to his pink fucking face.  There is not one thing here that argues Wilson is passionate for a franchise he helped start; the only thing here that suggests he has a personality at all is an end-credits theme song, "Stay" by Ghost, upon which our director offers a vocal track, and at least indicates something about his taste in music.  (For the record, I do like the song.)

He's not that good at presenting story beats; I was actively confused at least once by how outrageously bad his memory is supposed to have gotten.  (Josh starts out "disaffected" and somewhere in the middle this morphs into something bordering on "dementia"; Dalton is... mostly fine?)  But he is ultimately hamstrung by that screenplay, which, for starters, feels like it was written by someone who literally never left his dorm room in college, so instead of life at college in 202X, he's basing it on movies about college, old movies about college, and possibly old movies he had described to him secondhand on Twitter, rather than movies he actually watched.  I would not go so far as to say he never met another human, though with Chris, it wouldn't astonish me; and through Daniels's inhumanly-chipper, purely-instrumental performance, the irresistible force of this screenplay's dull annoyance meets the immoveable object of Ty Simpkins's sullen inertness, which is more along the lines of "reluctantly allowing himself to be photographed" than "any recognizable kind of acting."  Yet it's hard to say that either role offers any greater possibilities than the sleepy ruts that Wilson allows them to wallow in; the structural problem is glaringly obviousit's a movie about a father reconnecting with his son where they share, I think without hyperbole, three scenesand while I don't like just rewriting movies from scratch, it's hard not to do so in real time, wondering aloud, for instance, whether Dalton needs to be moved out to a college for this story, let alone does that story benefit from it.  Though I think what bugs me here is that they've rejiggered this franchise to be about trauma, something that informed Chapter 3 and was mishandled in The Last Key, but neither in this oh-so-2020s vein; it has taken the ending of Chapter 2 and reimagined it as some kind of toxic family milestone, and it cheats to get there, because I've watched Chapter 2 recently and even as an eight year old child, Dalton already understood the franchise mythology that turned his dad bad.  It doesn't even fit this story on a concrete, literal level, then; worse than that, somehow the triumph of the Lamberts destroyed their lives.  It did so on behalf of this movie, that trades in funto some degree, even the mechanical pleasures of jump scares!for something that its makers are embarrassingly desperate for you to take seriously.  They "elevated" this horror and all they have to show for it is phony crap.

Score: 3/10

FERRARI

First off, it sucks fucking eggs that Ferrari and Maserati both use essentiallyif not exactlythe same red, so "good racing scenes" are practically obviated from the get-go (though they're still okay, just harder to follow than you'd prefer).  The nicer part is that, inasmuch as it's the story of husband and wife Italians at odds over their famous name starring Adam Driver, it's at least better at being House of Gucci than House of Gucci was, with significantly more justification to tell its story and with far less abomination in its dialect work.  Though I will repeat, every time it's relevant, that we used to be able to make Anglophone movies set in foreign countries without dialect work, which very rarely does anything but distract the performers and the audience.  I don't know when the change came but it has been a bane, a bane, on cinema ever since.

Anyway, it's an okay story, and well-acted enough through the dialect work, with the obvious MVP here being Penelope Cruz as Enzo's wife, Laura, transfigured long before we ever meet her (she opens the movie attempting to kill Enzo one morning with a gun) as a spirit of alternately hot-and-cold vengeance, thanks to Enzo having spent much of their marriage cheating on her, though she is not, to begin with, aware of the entire secret family Enzo has begun with his mistress (Shailene Woodley).  On Cruz's behalf, I'm going to make a wild claim, based on nothing, because I obviously can't really tell a Castilian accent from Italiannor Castilian from Andalusian, as the case may bebut I don't believe she's doing dialect work, and maybe that's why she's the MVP (more realistically, even if it doesn't have anything to do with my pet peeves, it's just that she's been favored with the most interesting sit-and-emote silent shots of the film).  Anyway, however it happened, she gets the most out of her part; Driver, nonetheless, is pretty good at being seen through the cracks of his stoic Enzo.  There are some Ferrari drivers, too, who do not really matter nor have what you'd really call "characters," though they are available to do the climactic race, whereupon my question, "why is this movie rated R? it could not have been the buttocks in that chaste sex scene, could it?", got a somewhat better answer.

As for how that story is told... this is a Michael Mann movie, I guess, in that it's about a dude whose identity is bound up in his competence in his profession, etc., but if it's not the most biographical picture thing he's ever done (though I've never seen Ali), it might well be the most biographical picture of 2023, and about as biographical picture as it gets with the thankful exception of its narrative being focused on a thin slice of Enzo Ferrari's life rather than the whole, 70-ish year blob.  There's some bits and pieces (the cross-cutting and sound design around how these characters watch an opera, for instance) that indicate some imagination about how to dramatize this part of Enzo's life, but not really anything I found special.  The treatment of auto racing is okay, but it really only feels like there's a vision animating it during the brief part that's at night, when the headlights become the kind of abstracted visual Mann sometimes gets up to.  It is, therefore, arguably adequate at its genre.  (Maybe I'll watch Grand Prix again, because man, what a good movie about racing, and Ferraris, that was.)  Ferrari ends, and more like halts, with what I think was supposed to be a note of "ambiguity" about a matter that can be resolved through Wikipedia, but it doesn't do anything dramatically useful, particularly when this movie's been pretty hidebound otherwise.

It is also conspicuously badly shot, and not like Blackhat was (sometimes) conspicuously badly shot, as an experiment in how digital cameras work.  This is badly shot merely in the most aggravatingly basic 2023 manner.  Mann and DP Erik Messerschmidt are just doing some awful, awful things together in more-or-less every single conversation scene, between the former's blocking of his actors in an attempt to stage-in-depth and the latter's insistence on an extremely shallow depth of field that obliges him to rack focus with the most feverish yanking, resembling a guy whose girlfriend is starting to completely lose her patience.  (There is a shot where Driver and Woodley are sitting side by side in a 90 degree medium shot, wherein Messerschmidt still somehow needs to rack focus.)  Well, this approach works out pretty well on the rare occasion it works out, but it has a hit rate of maybe 5% in the conversational interiors, more-or-less solely when Mann's doing some pseudo-70s thing with Driver's face (or the back of Driver's head) shoved fully into the camera and dominating about a third of the 'Scope frame, which at least gets across an idea beyond "so Character X is talking now."  I also have grave concerns about the color grading (most of this is also Basic 2023 badthough it's at least never underlit!but there's a major argument between Enzo and Laura where Driver appears to be on his way to becoming the non-corporeal energy being from Altered States).  Anyway, it sometimes but not usually obscures how conspicuously badly edited it is, with just dozens of shots that clearly don't end when they "should," notably a push-in on Enzo's bastard boy eavesdropping, that cuts about 30% into the camera movement and still about a dozen feet away from him; this isn't even all, there's a 30 degree rule violation during a well-delivered speech about cars and masculinity that's genuinely painful.  It's Mann, so all of this can be defended on some "presumably on purpose" level"is Enzo not self-absorbed? shallow focus! oh shit, how could I have known that Oppenheimer would do this well?"but whatever, this is a very conventional biopic where the distinguishing factor is that it's been rendered consistently annoying in its manufacture.

Score: 5/10

SILENT NIGHT

Let's give John Woo's return to American filmmaking this much credit: it is genuinely effective at being an old-school reactionary action-thriller, which I mean at least as much as an objective genre categorization as a value judgment, and it gets there in no small part by way of its formal conceit, which tells the story of how Brian Godlock (Joel Kinnamon) and his kid were gunned down in a drive-by shooting on one Christmas in Texas, and only he lived but with his vocal folds permanently destroyedahathis being a story that it seeks to tell that story as a silent film.  Or, more accurately, synch-score absence-of-dialogue, which is kind of the same thing as "being a silent film"; I don't think it's literally the only human sounds with an onscreen source, but at least 98% of is purely grunts and shouts attending Brian's death-wishing next-Christmas vendetta against the cartel that murdered his son.  The absence of dialogue gives it a certain something extra: it helps the surprisingly-emotional first act, devoted to Brian's physical recovery, his psychological fracturing, and the emotional dissolution of his relationship with his wife (Catalina Sandino Moreno); at the same time, it posits an elemental, apocalyptic world that looks a lot like ours, but feels nastier, quite literally more brutish.  So we can give it this, too: of the innumerable film titles that reposition the Yuletide phrase "silent night" for irony, this is probably the one that best earns it.

Yet it arguably already starts running dry on actual novelty, or even just any personality beyond that conceit, by the time it's out of its prologue, and it probably does suck in some nebulous way that the first scene, which throws us in medias res into Brian's attempt to run down his son's killer (Harold Torres, practically rendered a movie monster beneath face tattoos) in a blood-splattered Rudolph-themed ugly Christmas sweater, is also this film's best scene.  It's often a perfectly sound action movie thereafter, but at a certain pointto its credit this point is pretty deep into its third act, but it hits like a ton of bricks when it comes, and I think it can be pinned down with some exactness to a pretty bog-standard ascend-the-stairs sequencethe answer to its experimental question, "can the world's most basic action movie be made without dialogue?", goes from "yes" to "yes, obviously," in a way that begins to make you wonder, even while the movie's still playing, if the question was all that smart or interesting in the first place.  There are some gestures to Woo's traditional aesthetic concerns, but this is blunter than his typical style, and not altogether in a good way; not to sound like a nerd, but it lacks the fantasy and poetry you've come to expect, and kind of just replaces it with middling John Wick. The vestigial existence of the detective-turned-ally (Scott Mescudi), meanwhile, appears to be prompted purely on the basis that John Woo movies are supposed to have masculine dyads, and it is awful damn pointless.  By some margin, it's the best of this bunch, but a damned far cry from The Killer or Broken Arrow.  And that's before I get mean and say, "probably not as good as Windtalkers or Paycheck."

Score: 6/10

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