“Birdman” (Film Review)

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By Shane M. Dallmann

Birdman

The first film I went to see in 2015 was one of the best films of 2014–one that’s been around for quite a while but one which I just couldn’t manage to get to earlier. Last year we were utterly inundated with superhero films both terrific and terrible. Now, I’m never going to lose my affection for the comic-book genre (no matter how hard an AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 tries to get me to do so); but ANY movie year like 2014 really NEEDS to wrap up with something like BIRDMAN–both to put things in perspective AND to utterly defy mere description–including mine. Now, THIS is a MOVIE!

I imagine you’re quite familiar with the premise by now. A perfectly cast Michael Keaton stars as “Riggan Thomas,” who enjoyed the height of his cinematic popularity in the early 90s playing the superhero “Birdman.” Now sixty-ish, Riggan is gambling what’s left of his personal fortune in an attempt to open his dream project (an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” in which Riggan will star in addition to scripting AND directing) on Broadway. Our protagonist’s previous celebrity antics have already cost him his wife (Amy Ryan) and his relationship with his daughter Sam (Emma Stone), but they’re both in close proximity to the project all the same. A desperate attempt to replace a thoroughly unsuitable co-lead with a guaranteed draw brings “Mike” (Edward Norton) into the picture, but Mike’s prima donna antics soon threaten to shove Riggan out of the spotlight altogether (I couldn’t help but think that Val Kilmer would have been equally amazing and even more ironic/iconic in the role, but I can’t suggest for a second that Norton is anything but excellent here). And the nation’s most influential theatre critic has already promised to destroy Riggan AND his play just because she doesn’t think that a spoiled Hollywood has-been has ANY business trying to take Broadway…

…oh, and all the while, Riggan’s previous cinematic identity continues to “egg” him on as a voice in his head (soon to become something even more substantial), urging him to give up “Art” and return to “Commerce.” And Riggan might also be telekinetic.

If you haven’t already seen BIRDMAN, you might have thought you had a handle on the material up until that last bit. Trust me. You didn’t. Sure, you’ve got the comfortable themes and the seemingly effortless casting (also including leading lady Naomi Watts, Riggan’s current “love” interest Andrea Riseborough and Zach Galifianakis as Riggan’s lawyer/best friend/voice of “reality”). But all that means is that anybody (including those currently existing on a diet of nothing BUT Hollywood effects blockbusters) can walk into this and understand the story without fear of being put off by what they might perceive as “art film” pretensions. Oh, but they’ll get so much more if they do. There’s the technique of director Alejandro González Iñárritu which, combined with all of today’s technical advances, conveys the illusion that the entire film was shot in one take (even though common sense tells us that this wasn’t even remotely possible). There’s plenty of laugh-out-loud comedy and straightforward, accessible drama to take in even as the rules bend around us. Is the constantly busy musical soundtrack an addition to the film or does it have an on-screen (or on-stage) source? Are the fantastic elements purely in Riggan’s imagination or do they affect others? There must be an answer–this isn’t a ‘first-person’ film like Cronenberg’s VIDEODROME, after all–BIRDMAN spends plenty of time with characters Riggan couldn’t be observing at the time…

Yeah. I dropped the “C” word for a reason, and I feel like dropping a few more names, but the more I go on, the more I fear I’ll just be telling you what to look for rather than letting you take BIRDMAN in as a fresh experience. But I’m going to try to tantalize you all the same.

Final shot of VIDEODROME. Final shot of TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME (which I viewed the previous evening in an event of sheer coincidence). Final shot of MAGNOLIA.

BIRDMAN could have signed off in so many different ways. But it found the PERFECT conclusion. What a capper for the year.

“Maps to the Stars” (Film Review)

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By Shane M. Dallmann

Maps to the Stars

MAPS TO THE STARS is the first David Cronenberg film I missed on the big screen since I saw VIDEODROME in 1983. Hell, I’m one of the twelve who actually saw COSMOPOLIS in a hardtop, okay? So let me tell you what happened. I had ONE day off last week and I wanted to see the new Cronenberg movie with my wife. But I thought we had time for a quick burger-and-beer ahead of time. We didn’t. By the time we were served, we were already ten minutes late for the movie. But we got to meet Prince the Pibble near out outdoor table, and he loved us. And we got to take a walk to the candy store. And the movie was gone the very next day (just like COSMOPOLIS). But it was playing simultaneously on demand. I ended up watching it by myself. And it’s just as well… my wife would probably have HATED it.

Cronenberg ended his run of genuinely fantastic body-horror stories with THE FLY, but his work continued to enthrall me even as he moved away from the genre. I was intrigued by his insistence on filming “unfilmable” novels such as NAKED LUNCH and CRASH, and when he served up A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE and EASTERN PROMISES in succession, I was finally convinced that eventually one of “our guys” was going to win Best Director. But… A DANGEROUS METHOD was one of the few that left me with no particular urge to want to see it again. On the other hand, COSMOPOLIS fit in quite nicely (even if nobody else saw it), and I can see MAPS TO THE STARS (Cronenberg’s very first film shot at least partially in the U.S.) taking place simultaneously with both old-school and new-age Cronenberg–in fact, it has a piece of pretty much every movie he’s made to date. But did I LIKE it? I’m still not sure.

About all I can do here is introduce you to the characters and the essential situations. Top-billed Julianne Moore is Havana, a fading Hollywood star who’s desperate to take the lead role in a proposed remake of a renowned art film–starring her own mother. She’s got plenty of unresolved issues with her mother (who died in a fire) and her mother’s ghost is showing up at the most inopportune moments for Havana’s sanity. Havana is receiving therapy (including BDSM, so there’s your DANGEROUS METHOD link) from wildly successful author/motivational speaker John Cusack. Cusack and Olivia Williams are the parents of the insufferable, drug-addled, rehab-struggling teen star Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird). Benjie is seeing ghosts, too–only these are children’s ghosts, some of whom he recognizes and some of whom he couldn’t possibly have known. Oh, and Benjie has a sister, but nobody’s supposed to know about Agatha (Mia Wasikowska). But the burn-scarred Agatha has freed herself from her own therapy and has now arrived in Hollywood… and since she knows Carrie Fisher (played by herself), she gets a job as Havana’s personal assistant. Oh, and her boyfriend is a chauffeur played by Robert Pattinson (who HAD a chauffeur in COSMOPOLIS).

Agatha’s going to introduce herself into certain lives and RE-introduce herself to her family. And awful, awful, awful things are going to happen.

Who on earth managed to get this film listed as a “comedy” in our local listings? MAPS TO THE STARS is a lot of things, but “comedy” certainly isn’t one of them. And it’s certainly not a poorly-made or poorly-acted film… far from it. The cast is exemplary: Moore continues to shine as a truly fearless actress–and Wasikowska? My goodness… I suggested that I found STOKER a tad over-directed, but she was fantastic in that, and under Cronenberg’s eye she is simply phenomenal. And this is the very first time I’ve praised a Cronenberg film on the merits of its lead female performances (I’ll spare you memories of Kiera Knightley in METHOD), so I can’t forget to mention that, although the guys are just as impressive (particularly Bird–you’ll detest his character even as you take your hat off to the actor himself).

The material is frank and confrontational throughout–including plenty of scatological conversation and a sex scene featuring an extended shot that I never, ever thought I’d see the likes of in anything with less than an NC-17 rating (I’m still baffled as to how this qualified for an R). The desperate sex (including a scene in a limo) invokes CRASH, there’s the gunplay of NAKED LUNCH… well, the list goes on, but the bottom line is that this is Cronenberg’s most painful family-trauma film since THE BROOD.

My (potential) problem with MAPS TO THE STARS isn’t the lack of concrete explanations for everything that happens on screen (I could scarcely be a Cronenberg fan if I had that problem). To a degree, it certainly has something to do with where Bruce Wagner’s screenplay will and won’t go in order to disturb the viewer. I’m singling out a scene filled with slowly-building and palpable dread that drops the ball the second the dog shows up. “Oh, well, now I KNOW what’s going to happen next.” It does. And it DOES set up an even more horrific bit of action later… but we’re let off the hook after the fact with “He’ll be okay.” Enough said.

But what I’m still asking myself is exactly why this particular story needed to be told. There’s got to be more to it than “People suffer whether or not they deserve to,” right?

Look, the jury’s still out. Cronenberg movies are rarely “one and done.” If you see MAPS TO THE STARS, you’ll witness provocative filmmaking and fine acting. But will you be glad that you did? Let me know.

“Chappie” (Film Review)

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By Shane M. Dallmann

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As I’ve suggested earlier, here’s an item that seemed to be a different film with every permutation of the trailer.

When I first became aware of CHAPPIE (I’m not going to go to the trouble of perpetually spelling the title out as CHAPPiE, as it appears on screen, sorry), I saw little more than a cute robot discovering what it means to be alive. And, having the entire decade of the 1980s amongst my formative years, I didn’t flash back to WALL-E. No, indeed–I went back to “No disassemble!” and figured we had a new Number Johnny Five on our hands. But from Neill Blomkamp? (Notice how they still say “From the director of DISTRICT 9″ instead of “From the director of ELYSIUM?” Sorry–I never saw that one, either.)

Then we went from “This film is not yet rated” to an “R” and I paid closer attention to a trailer that made this look like another take on ROBOCOP.

And only LATER did I find out that such bankable names as Hugh Jackman and Sigourney Weaver were even IN this movie!

Just what the hell was this CHAPPIE all about, anyway? I knew that I had to find out (especially as I’m playing a robot myself in THE EGO MACHINE, opening Friday, March 20th at Paper Wing Fremont, which is exactly where I expect to see you).

Well, when it comes to the story AND much of the look of the film, the answer is “…all of the above. And not.”

To my eyes, CHAPPIE is very much an updated 1980s film. And it really does consist of SHORT CIRCUIT crossed with ROBOCOP (strange as that may seem). And I don’t believe it’s a coincidence for a split second–the similarities are simply too many to ignore.

The robot that eventually becomes “Chappie” started life as a police droid (Johnny Five was a military weapon as conceived). His creator, Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) has also developed an amazing artificial intelligence program, but his company (headed by Weaver) has no interest in such things and forbids him to test the program… even on a damaged police droid. (Johnny Five’s best human friend–well, eventually–was ALSO of presumably Indian descent as played by Fisher Stevens, who took over from Steve Guttenberg as the human lead in SHORT CIRCUIT 2).

Now, as for ROBOCOP? Well, the film takes place in a future Johannesburg in which crime is so out of control that robotic policemen have been deployed to deal with such matters. Oh, and Hugh Jackman is quite upset that the (oh, just say it) “robocop” project was accepted over HIS behemoth enforcer droid named “Moose.” And yes, Moose looks like ED-209. And there’s a vicious criminal gang causing trouble for EVERYBODY.

Through a series of complications I’m not going to waste time spelling out (just trust me that CHAPPIE starts with a bang and moves relentlessly), Wilson is shanghaied by a trio of desperate crooks (“Ninja” and Yo-Landi Visser play characters named for themselves, while Jose Pablo Cantillo–yes, the guy who headed up the villainy in the CRANK movies–plays their “Yankee” compadre) who force him into reviving his damaged droid with the A.I. program so that they might use him for criminal activities and thus buy off an even WORSE bad guy (Brandon Auret as “Hippo,” with an accent thick enough to require English subtitles).

Two complications (three if you count the fact that Wilson is somehow allowed to walk away alive after this). First: “Chappie” (name assigned by the affectionate Yo-Landi), though capable of rapid learning and development, begins life in infancy and has to be trained as a child. Second: the aforementioned damage makes the replacement of Chappie’s battery a physical impossibility, and he only has five days to “live.”

And there’s the rub. One simply can’t describe CHAPPIE without making it sound like the rehash that it sincerely aspires to be. The only way to appreciate it is to actually see it and take in the amazing performance of Sharlto Copley in the title role as he’s aided and abetted by the very latest and greatest advances in special-effects technology. You’ve seen Andy Serkis bring primate characters to life without ever showing his human face… well, now watch Copley bring humanity to a mechanical apparition as Chappie learns about life, death, happiness, fear, crime, consciousness and even (and most impressively) forgiveness.

Ultimately, that’s what makes CHAPPIE such a difficult sell. It’s got the charm and pathos of such family-friendly films as SHORT CIRCUIT (and even E.T.) but it takes place in a vicious, hyper-violent ROBOCOP world (and yes, we’re talking the 80’s ROBOCOP, not a rendition that could safely be cut down to a PG-13). It’s a captivating and exciting film that deserves your attention, but you really ought not to bring the entire family.

It’s not “perfect” in my eyes (one too many epilogues ended things on a note that was a bit too AVATAR for my liking), but seasoned fans of emotional science-fiction are hereby steered.

“The Interview” Has Been Cancelled This Holiday Season

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In this episode, Dirk and I discuss Sony Pictures as well as the top theater chains decision to not show “The Interview” this holiday season…

“Dracula Untold” (Film Review)

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By Shane M. Dallmann

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I don’t know… I saw the trailer for I, FRANKENSTEIN and immediately decided “No way.” On the other hand, I saw the trailer for DRACULA UNTOLD and thought “Well, maybe…” You never know (or at least “I” never know) how the mood might strike; and even though I figured this for more of a CGI-fest than a horror movie, the opportunity to take the family presented itself, and…

I’ll leave the debunking of the “Vlad as Dracula” historical argument to the scholars… it’s scarcely worth debating in this context as this is a minor fictional film that takes the connection for granted like just about every other take on the material.

So… Luke Evans (get used to having him around–he’s going to be the new CROW next) is the legendary Prince Vlad the Impaler, who grew up knowing nothing but brutal soldiering under his Turkish taskmasters but prevailed as one of their greatest warriors, feared by nations, etc. etc. Well, Vlad is enjoying the tenth year of peace in Transylvania following his brutal campaign… but then the Turks come knocking again and they want more than their annual tribute–this time they want a thousand more young soldiers, plus Vlad’s son (Art Parkinson–you’ve seen him on GAME OF THRONES but I have yet to catch up with that series).

As you’ve gathered from the ads, this inconvenience (provided by slimy Sultan Dominic Cooper) coincides with Vlad’s discovery of an ancient vampire hiding somewhere in Brokeback… er… Broken TOOTH Mountain. And said ancient vampire is willing to fix Vlad up–for a price. (This vampire is played by Charles Dance, but they might as well have cast Tobin Bell for all of his “Let the game begin” delectation.) If Vlad can kick the Sultan’s ass and go without blood for three days, he gets to return to his mortal form…

Okay, I’ll just stop. We already KNOW Vlad is destined to become Dracula, so bang goes any of that suspense. What follows is a typical mix of things that work and things that don’t work. Good stuff includes Vlad wiping out a thousand soldiers acting alone; a sequence where his horrified subjects, upon learning of his nature, attempt to burn him out of his shelter–ironically snuffing out the sunlight with the smoke in the process; and the use to which the Sultan puts those many years worth of silver coins bearing Vlad’s likeness.

Bad stuff? The PG-13 rating which severely compromises our understanding of how truly monstrous Vlad was as a soldier… sure, they TALK about it and you do see the silhouettes of many a staked body, but you’re supposed to like and sympathize with him as he adores his family. You never get to see Vlad actually DO the horrible, evil things his enemies know lurk beneath his surface, and that’s a huge point against this entire enterprise. The newly anointed vampire waking up in the middle of a RIVER and crossing the running water without incident. The overemphasis on 3-D effects (I’ll take that for granted–I saw this in 2-D and was rewarded with a dark, grimy image all the same; and so many action scenes that could have been terrific were ruined by a pointless change in perspective) and especially the super-corny turning point that resembles nothing less than the big moment in THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 (which ALSO happened to feature actress Sarah Gadon, but NOT as Gwen Stacy). All together now: “NOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!”

DRACULA UNTOLD isn’t completely awful, but it still ranks as a disappointment especially when one considers all that COULD have been done with this timeless material. Enough said.

“Tusk” (Film Review)

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By Shane M. Dallmann

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The year’s biggest surprise almost completely eluded me… I had no chance to see TUSK on opening weekend and by the time I finally DID catch it it was only to see it vanish from local theatres. If you’re in my neck of the woods, you still have a chance to catch it in San Jose. Others may be luckier.

Why “biggest surprise?” Because not once has it ever occurred to me that Kevin Smith had it in him to make the most powerful horror film of 2014… or any year. And that’s not a knock on Smith in the slightest. I knew he was an offbeat comedy filmmaker and a comic book geek, but I quite simply never got the impression that he had any interest in making a horror film of his own. And while TUSK certainly has more than its share of eccentric characters, this is by no means a “Jay and Silent Bob” excursion…

So. Podcasters Wallace (Justin Long) and Teddy (Haley Joel Osment) are enjoying huge success with their “Not-See Party” program, dedicated to the humiliation of everyone who’s ever embarrassed themselves (or worse) for the Internet to see. Wallace decides he’s going to boost ratings even higher with a trip to Canada and an actual interview with a young man (inspired by the “Star Wars Kid”) who accidentally mutilated himself on camera. Long story short, Wallace finds himself with an interview space to fill and almost no time in which to fill it, so he acts on impulse (Long really should have learned his lesson from JEEPERS CREEPERS) and isolates himself in the middle of nowhere for the opportunity to be regaled by one Howard Howe (Michael Parks); an eccentric, wheelchair bound recluse with a mansion full of curious artifiacts AND a truly fascinating supply of amazing stories to tell. Said stories range from his shipboard friendship with Ernest Hemingway to his fateful relationship with a noble walrus to whom he refers as “Mr. Tusk.” (Don’t laugh. You’ll be sorry if you do.) Wallace can’t believe his luck–he’s got the best interview subject EVER. But Howard, of course, CAN believe his luck. He’s got Wallace exactly where he wants him because he laid his trap perfectly.

How to go on? It would be grossly unfair of me to detail any more of this, but I absolutely must talk about some spoilable aspects of the film. So… I’m going to save those comments for an isolated section AFTER the review. You really ought to take TUSK at full strength and without preparation. No, the film is not “perfect,” but even its apparent flaws are provocative. Was the easily-accessible cell phone a gigantic mistake or did Howard WANT something to happen with it? Why are we spending SO much time on all sorts of colorful supporting characters (not just Teddy and Wallace’s tormented girlfriend Ally, played by Genesis Rodriguez)? And where can you possibly go AFTER Smith delivers the most shocking “reveal” moment in recent horror history (I’m not kidding one little bit about this)?

Well, Smith finds a way and keeps you in great company even when you’re screaming for him to “get on with it.” In the best example, Teddy and Ally enlist the services of an extremely eccentric (but NOT stupid) French detective by the name of Guy Lapointe (the actor is named for the character himself, but if you think you recognize him under another name, well, yes). And Guy relates a flashback regarding the time he believes he encountered the elusive villain face to face… the scene goes on “forever,” but you can’t take your eyes off of Michael Parks in particular–if you’ve only seen him as the lawman in numerous Tarantino/Rodriguez films, you will be completely unprepared for his amazing performance in TUSK.

And no matter how weird, quirky (yes, a certain Fleetwood Mac hit is invoked at just the right moment), or (okay) SLOW the film may seem at times, nothing will completely erase the impact of what Smith has already hit you with; nor will you be let off the emotional hook by the time the credits roll. Far from it.

Do whatever it takes to see TUSK. THEN read my spoilers.

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Okay, here’s what I REALLY want to say. Yes, the setup echoes MISERY, but it goes back much further. There’s SSSSSSS, there’s the classic NIGHT GALLERY short “Marmalade Wine,” and above all? Well, this is THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE as written by Ernest Hemingway. But it’s better than THC. Now, don’t get me wrong. THC took one of the most potent gross-out concepts ever imagined and played it to the hilt, sealing the deal with the amazing Dieter Laser as an unforgettably batso bad guy. It “works,” all right. But TUSK has a better story and a much better array of characters all around. Can you imagine Laser passing himself off as someone you would absolutely WANT to spend quality time with? Didn’t think so. Parks is every bit the expert in his role and then some. I’ve already mentioned the oddities of the supporting cast (equally well chosen)… but if the Wallace character is in any way a reflection on Kevin Smith the podcaster himself? I don’t think I’ve seen a more effective display of devastating self-loathing set to film. You’ll be thinking about this for a VERY long time after you see it.

“Horns” (Film Review)

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By Shane M. Dallmann

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Ig Parrish (Daniel Radcliffe) is enjoying an idyllic life and wonderful dreams of the future with his childhood crush and now long-time love Merrin (Juno Temple) as our story begins… but then Ig wakes up to the reality that he’s loathed by the population of the entire town which believes that he’s gotten away with Merrin’s brutal murder on a technicality.

No, this isn’t GONE GIRL, tempting as the coincidence may seem–this is actually a film made in 2013 but held back from release (and banished to the arthouses) till Halloween 2014. And the similarities end there.

Ig swears to himself and to anyone who will listen that he’s completely innocent and that he wishes he could inflict the punishment of the damned on the real killer (even as he curses God for allowing the devoutly religious Merrin to die in the first place). But the town sees him as the Devil… and if it’s a Devil they want, it’s a Devil they get. Not only does Ig grow to resemble the classic depiction of Lucifer himself (starting with, but not limited to, the title appendages sprouting from his skull), but his very presence strips all restraint and inhibition from (almost) everybody he encounters along the way, laying bare the latent sins, repressed feelings and urges of friends and family alike. But since every devil started as an angel? This phenomenon might be just what Ig needs to expose the truth behind the crime…

There’s certainly enough supernatural/horrific content and grisly violence to grant HORNS a prominent seat in this year’s “horror” crop, but as with all the best of them, there’s so much more to it. For instance, while the film can scarcely be called a “comedy” with such a ghastly story at its heart, it provokes plenty of wonderfully appalling laughter all the same as people act just as they truly WANT to act (best of all, perhaps, is a scene in which Ig puts paid to the train of TV reporters tracking his every move). There is also plenty of wrenching pathos and nostalgia to be had; not only in the story of the doomed romance but in the childhood flashbacks that provide plenty of insight into how Ig and his friends became the adults they are today–these flashbacks are arguably the best of their kind since STAND BY ME itself.

The acting is beyond reproach across the board–those remaining doubters who venture to HORNS will in all likelihood finally welcome the versatile Radcliffe as an actor with range well beyond a single young-adult fantasy phenomenon. Temple is heartbreaking in her limited role, and (I’m trying to avoid saying too much about any character here, so forgive me for being brief) the film also offers terrific supporting turns from such veterans as Heather Graham (a conniving waitress), James Remar and Kathleen Quinlan (Ig’s parents) and Robert Morse as the bereaved father.

Most remarkable of all is that this sincerely emotional, humorous AND exciting tale (adapted from a novel by Joe Hill) comes to us courtesy of director Alexandre Aja. Aja has demonstrated a knack for blunt-force trauma and raucous tastelessness time and again (HIGH TENSION, the HILLS HAVE EYES remake and PIRANHA 3D), but his was one of the last names I ever expected to see associated with such a provocative and heartfelt story; let alone the man responsible for evoking such winning performances. The man has matured most impressively as a total filmmaker, and the fact that the closing movement of the film COULD have been tightened to even greater effect doesn’t stand as even a slight roadblock to an enthusiastic recommendation from yours truly.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that pure-formula horror movies ranging from the decent ANNABELLE to the godawful OUIJA are cleaning up. But it’s a bloody shame that the public at large won’t lift a finger for such potent works as the coincidentally-titled TUSK and HORNS. If they’d bother to check them OUT, they’d probably LIKE them!

Don’t miss out.

“Annabelle” (Film Review)

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By Shane M. Dallmann

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While “Annabelle” the doll had nothing to do with the real-life events that inspired THE CONJURING, it WAS in the safekeeping of the real-life investigators (the Warrens) after they wrapped up an unrelated case, and could you really expect James Wan to leave a creepy doll alone? Of course Annabelle had to make her presence known, and she certainly didn’t hurt either the reputation or the amazing box-office take of the latter. Speaking of which, while an actual “sequel” was impractical in the case of THE CONJURING, a follow-up of some sort was pretty much mandated. And while Wan passed up the director’s chair for the not-really-a prequel ANNABELLE (which involves none of the same characters), he entrusted the follow-up to his proven protege John R. Leonetti (no, I never saw MORTAL KOMBAT: ANNIHILATION or THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT 2), but Leonetti served efficiently on many a Wan production (as well as helming plenty of contemporary television, including the SLEEPY HOLLOW series) and had more than sufficient chops to handle this project.

Okay, it’s 1970. Charles Manson is all over the news and suburbanites are starting to lock their doors. Just beginning his medical residency is John Gordon (hmm… “Dr. Gordon?” I think I SAW this name somewhere else in Wan’s filmography), who makes up for an insensitive remark he makes to his pregnant wife Mia (the coincidentally-named Annabelle Wallis) by giving her her “baby” present early. Just what the delicate young lady needs–a creepy, grinning DOLL! Okay, okay. She’s a doll fanatic, this one completes a beloved collection, it really IS just what she wanted, and it’s not SUPPOSED to be quite so creepy from the get-go as it hasn’t even been possessed yet. The awkward thing is that the true-life doll isn’t nearly as evil-looking as the movie doll, regardless of its reputation. So even though the doll isn’t MEANT to be scary (yet), everyone watching ANNABELLE is repressing chortles at this ghastly gift.

Then the movie abruptly shuts everybody up with a startling, brutal and genuinely frightening extended sequence that the doll did absolutely nothing to instigate. The tone is truly set for the rest of the film as we learn just what evil eventually DID get transferred to the doll, and the increasingly dangerous manifestations of said evil inspire plenty of sympathy and fear for both Mia and her baby (both before and after she arrives). Meanwhile, a change of scenery (yes, to one of those amazing only-in-the-movies luxury apartments that no first-year resident could possibly afford) does nothing to prevent the doll from tagging along (for the record, “Annabelle” is the spirit that possesses the doll–the doll itself has no name that I can recall, but just like “Frankenstein,” she’s stuck with that name like it or not).

A full-length feature film consisting of nothing but a doll scaring people? Well, if you’ve got Brad Dourif voicing it, that’s one thing, but most such projects tax the patience (DOLLY DEAREST springs unbidden to mind). So most wisely, ANNABELLE does NOT rely unduly on the actual toy and finds other ways to create suspense and horror, and we’re given the support of some fine supporting performers even if they’re in rather over-familiar roles (Tony Amendola is the priest who effortlessly believes in demons and immediately tries to help the family; and Alfre Woodard is the kindly old woman who runs the antique bookstore and takes an immediate fondness to baby Lia). Quietly disturbing moments (ominous crayon drawings supplied by the young children of the Gordon’s fellow tenants–or are they?) alternate with noisy shocks, most of which work. Oh, and Leonetti takes one HUGE page from the Wan playbook in the form of a blatant Mario Bava moment… of course, as was the case with BEYOND THE DOOR II, this chair-jumper WOULD have worked better had the powers that be not already blown it in all of the trailers…

ANNABELLE may not be quite up there with THE CONJURING, and I’m not about to play the “true story” game with it, either (for the record, I dreamed up a far more frightening final movement than the movie actually delivered). It’s strictly formula but it’s more than competently executed–a most appropriate Halloween release, all in all.

“Ouija” (Film Review)

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By Shane M. Dallmann

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Don’t get me wrong–I’m quite glad there are wunderkinds out there who’ve perfected the formula for drawing huge profits with low-budget would-be-franchise horror films. That means we get more horror movies on the big screen, and that’s still my “scene” as such. And I’ll keep turning out to see them because I might score with something like SINISTER or OCULUS, I might get something provocative like THE PURGE, or I might even get a good-despite-every-reason-it-ought-not-to-be surprise like PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: TMO.

Then again, I might get DEVIL’S DUE. Or I might get OUIJA. Which is not a remake of WITCHBOARD, for the record.

See, as little girls, Laine and Debbie played with a Ouija board while angrily ordering Laine’s snoopy little sister Sarah out of the room.

There are rules for these things. You must never play alone, you must always say goodbye, and you must never feed the board after midnight.

Debbie played with the board by herself (and darn it, she probably forgot to say goodbye, too!) so she’s toast. Laine (Olivia Cooke from THE QUIET ONES, which, while less than perfect, was far more imaginative than this) figures the board has something to do with this, so she drags her friends and sister (Ana Coto is supposed to be the “little” sister, but the actresses scarcely seem a year apart) over to Debbie’s to play with the Ouija. And the circle gradually dwindles.

And there’s a Hispanic housekeeper who warns Laine “never, never, mustn’t touch.” And there’s a history behind the house. And there are newspaper archives to look up. And there’s a mental institution to visit so Laine can talk to an old lady who was around for the original sinister events in the 50s.

Oh, for the love of heaven, MUST I go on? It’s not that it’s formula. Other films take formula and make it their own, rocking the house in the process. This one just CRANKS the volume for a huge BANG or something every five minutes or so, while sometimes the false-scare characters react in time with the sound effect and sometimes completely fail to do so. Debbie’s oven burner turns on by itself in the early going with a BANG like a gunshot. There’s a BANG before some guy even sees something in a mirror. BANG. The cart moved. BANG. Someone peeked around a corner. BANG. Someone got grabbed by the ankles and dragged away screaming. TWICE. BANG-BANG.

Anything original like “Hey, police, we solved a missing-persons case from the 1950s and found a mummy in the attic… wanna get involved?” No. Nothing like that. Just more BANG. BANG. BANG.

And when you’ve got a trailer for INSIDIOUS III preceding this and the trailer has already used the BANG twice (sorry… BANG BANG), exactly how long do you expect this device to remain effective? (Oh, speaking of trailers, the one for OUIJA contained material not found in the actual film, if you’re interested.)

I already explained why I went to see OUIJA. Is there any reason for YOU to see it?

Not a bit of it.

BANG.

“Nightcrawler” (Film Review)

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By Shane M. Dallmann

Nightcrawler-poster

Yes, you CAN call a movie NIGHTCRAWLER without it being either a horror film or an X-MEN spinoff.

Jake Gyllenhaal is Louis Bloom, introduced as an unemployed thief who’s always looking to improve his situation and stands ready with a litany of self-promoting come-on pitches he learned through obsessive Internet study. Of course, since Lou has no genuine interest in human interaction, his loquacious auto-pilot performances have no effect on his target audience (the fact that he’s a thief also tends to work against him). People are only interested in listening to Lou when he actually HAS something that they want… and once he gains that advantage, he holds on to it relentlessly and remorselessly. As you probably already know from the trailers, fate leads Lou to the potentially lucrative world of crime-scene video commerce…

NIGHTCRAWLER makes no pretense of offering us a character forced to question his morals as his newly profitable enterprise inspires deeper and deeper levels of line-crossing and (soon enough) out-and-out lawbreaking. Lou was NEVER a good guy–he’s an unapologetic misanthrope whose contemptuous smirk almost never leaves his face (he loses composure exactly once and only because someone else beat him to the jackpot). The late Roger Ebert may well have opined that since the movie gives us such an unlikable protagonist, we couldn’t possibly care what happens to him. But that doesn’t mean you won’t want to see what happens next in every situation. Gyllenhaal is quite simply riveting throughout, and we watch with appalled fascination as he deals variously with the TV news director (Rene Russo) who potentially holds the keys to Lou’s dream kingdom; the homeless “production assistant” (Rick Garcia) he snags off the streets; and Bill Paxton as a far more experienced “nightcrawler” who has all the technical advantages that Lou himself lacks. (The TV exec who keeps shouting “This is wrong! This is wrong!” into the wind is ignored without consequence by pretty much everybody else, if you’re looking for that one spoken nod to human morality–the movie itself screams that message with or without him.)

As a result, the climactic suspense sequence (as Lou arranges his biggest “coup” yet–you’ll notice that I’ve gone out of my way to tell you as little about the actual plot as possible) is every bit as excruciating as it would be if you actually feared for Lou’s life.

For once, the frantic critical blurbs are quite accurate–NIGHTCRAWLER does, indeed, rank as one of the year’s standout films. It was a pity to see it take a back seat to the second week of OUIJA when it opened, but what do you expect on Halloween weekend? And now INTERSTELLAR’s going to push EVERYTHING out of its path.

Do yourself a favor and see this one before it crawls away…

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