Ouija (2014)


The spirits present Olivia Cooke with the bill.

The spirits present Olivia Cooke with the bill.

(2014) Supernatural Horror (Universal) Olivia Cooke, Ana Coto, Daren Kagasoff, Bianca Santos, Douglas Smith, Shelley Hennig, Sierra Heuermann, Sunny May Allison, Lin Shaye, Claudia Katz, Vivis Colombetti, Robyn Lively, Matthew Settle, Afra Tully, Claire Beale, Izzie Galanti, Morgan Peter Brown, Bill Watterson, Kathleen Coyne. Directed by Stiles White

It is inevitable in all our lives that someone we love will pass away before we do. It can be difficult to cope with it; we feel the absence of our loved ones keenly and often wish we could speak with them one last time. It is this desire that led to the creation of the Ouija board which is characterized as a board game – but has the reputation for being something much different than that.

Laine Morris (Cooke) is dealing with that right now. Her closest friend Debbie (Hennig) died suddenly and Laine was devastated by the beautiful young girl’s unexpected death. The two had been inseparable since childhood and had both grown to be seniors in high school. The whole world lay before them as it often does for beautiful young girls.

Laine isn’t the only one grieving. Debbie’s boyfriend Pete (Smith), Laine’s boyfriend Trevor (Kagasoff) and their friend Isabelle (Santos) are all hurting. With her dad away on business and Debbie’s mom travelling abroad to deal with her grief, Laine wants to hold a séance with a Ouija board in Debbie’s home where she died. Laine’s sister Sarah (Coto), a bit of a problem child, is brought along.

At first it seems to be a game to some but it becomes obvious that they’ve contacted someone who identifies themselves as “D” which Laine believes as Debbie. However, as the days past, the young people begin to die by suicide as Debbie did and Laine begins to suspect that the contact they made was with someone – or some thing – malevolent. Can they save themselves from the angry spirits and break the contact before all fall victim to it?

Although the Ouija board has been used in movies before, this is the first time that Hasbro – the current owners of the Ouija Board rights – has authorized as the subject of a movie as they did with G.I. Joe and the Transformers. Like nearly all of the movies made with toys as their subject – The LEGO Movie is a notable exception – the movie lacks a human center which is to be expected when the center of the film is made of plastic.

Cooke, a British actress best known to American audiences for her work in the Bates Motel series, is capable but colorless here. In fact, much the same can be said of the largely young and unknown cast, although veteran Lin Shaye shows up in the last third of the film as an institutionalized old woman who knows more about the entity than you might think.

The movie is blessed with terrific cinematography from director of photography David Emmerichs and the mood is kept unsettling throughout. However, the movie suffers from a script that seems cut together from other, better films and the trope is largely a group of teenagers making bad horror film choices. That’s rapidly becoming a pet cinematic peeve of mine; why would teenagers that are portrayed as being sensible and smart then do things no rational person would do except in the throes of panic which the teens aren’t? If you’re going to portray them of sensible, make them act sensibly. It’s lazy writing.

Most of the scares are of the practical nature; there are some CGI moments of eyes turning white which indicates possession by the malevolent entity and other ghostly effects but one must give the director kudos for keeping it real, as it were.

I had high hopes for the film; the Ouija board is a natural for a horror movie and there is a terrific film to be had with the board at the center of it. This isn’t it, however.

REASONS TO GO: Nicely creepy. Beautifully shot.
REASONS TO STAY: Borrows too much from other films. Could have utilized the board better. More “teens making dumb decisions” again.
FAMILY VALUES: Horrific images, supernatural violence and thematic concerns.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is a Hollywood remake of a Filipino horror film. There’s also an Egyptian version with a similar plot, although it is not “officially” a remake.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/9/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 8% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Annabelle
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Birdman

Battleship


Battleship

The actors are overshadowed by the special effects.

(2012) Science Fiction (Universal) Taylor Kitsch, Brooklyn Decker, Alexander Skarsgard, Rihanna, Liam Neeson, Asano Tadanobu, Hamish Linklater, Peter MacNicol, John Tui, Jesse Plemmons, Gregory D. Gadson, Jerry Ferrara, Joe Chrest, Rami Malek. Directed by Peter Berg

 

Most of us as kids probably had occasion to play the Battleship board game. It’s the one with a screen in the middle to prevent you from seeing where your opponent placed his fleet; you place your aircraft carrier, a couple of destroyers, a few PT boats and a battleship and choose co-ordinates to launch “missiles” to sink your opponent’s fleet. Those much older than I might remember when that game was played with pencils and graph paper.

Alex Hopper (Kitsch) – whose last name brings to mind an unfortunately timed DirecTV commercial – is a Hawaiian beach bum celebrating a birthday on a beachside bar with few prospects for the future. His brother Stone (Skarsgard), an officer in the U.S. Navy, is tolerant but nags Alex that he needs to find a path and suggests the Navy as a possibility. When Alex spots a comely lass who wants a chicken burrito, he decides to play the gallant and run across the street to a convenience store. He just misses closing time despite his desperate but drunken pleas to the owner. So, in a fit of grandiose stupidity, he decides to break inside, steal a burrito (leaving behind some cash – he’s not a thief after all) and fall through the ceiling tiles not just once…but twice. Oddly enough, this behavior impresses the babe who turns out to be Samantha Shane (Decker), who also happens to be the daughter of Admiral Shane (Neeson) who’s Stone’s boss. After this mis-adventure, Stone insists that Alex join the Navy who no doubt would be absolutely thrilled to have a newly minted felon in their ranks.

Flash-forward a few years. Not only is the chicken burrito vandal in the Navy but he’s an officer which surely is the most science fiction you’ll find in this movie. Roughly about the same time Alex did the chicken burrito stunt, a group of scientists including the ubernerdy Cal Zapata (Linklater) have sent a radio telescope transmission to the mysterious Goldilocks planet which is the most earthlike yet discovered. In the intervening time, Alex hasn’t changed much and while he and Samantha are an item, his naval career is rapidly being flushed down the toilet and after a stunt where he arrived to a ceremony declaring a naval war games maneuver open (one in which warships from Japan and other countries will be participating) Admiral Shane has informed Alex not to make any long-range Naval career plans once the war games are over.

Of course, in that intervening time the aliens haven’t changed much from other movie aliens and they’ve sent five ships as an advance guard to take over the Earth (although what anybody would want with our planet is beyond me). Their ships land in the ocean and just as the warships arrive nearby the aliens rise up out of the ocean and start raising holy pluperfect hell, wiping out most of the fleet including the ship Stone is in command of, and inconveniently, all of the officers on Alex’s ships that are above Alex, leaving him in command of his ship which he promptly orders to turn around and find the nearest convenience store that might have a chicken burrito. When informed there aren’t any nearby, in a fit of pique he sends his ship on a collision course with the alien mothership. Fortunately, cooler heads prevail and Alex grumpily agrees to go rescue drowning sailors in the water after the Japanese warship gets trashed, including Captain Nagata (Asano) who has a beef with Alex over a soccer game and a fistfight afterwards.

Because the aliens have enacted a forcefield around the Hawaiian islands, the remainder of the fleet can’t get to them leaving Hawaii and the rest of the fleet virtually defenseless. However, there are still a few things left to save humanity; Alex’ tactical genius, a legless war veteran (Gadson) that physical therapist Samantha conveniently has on a hike near the mountaintop headquarters for the signal senders that ubernerd Cal Zapata is part of and an old veteran taken out of mothballs for one last stab at glory.

There are more holes in this than Casey Anthony’s testimony. Of course, one shouldn’t expect logic from a movie based on a board game but then again, why shouldn’t we? I get the distinct impression that the suits at Hasbro brought director Peter Berg into a screening room, showed him all three of the Transformers films and said “Like that, only more.”

He does deliver on the action sequences and special effects – there are plenty of exploding warships and overly complex alien weapons enough to keep the eye candy nice and sweet. In fact, the best sequence in the film is oddly the one most like the game, in which the navy uses seismic buoys that measure water displacement to locate alien vessels. Of course, nobody mentions why an alien race with the technology to put up a barrier hundreds of miles long that is impervious to weapons can’t put one up around their own ships. Guess they didn’t watch Independence Day. Also unfortunately, Berg neglected to cast any actors with enough screen presence to pull it off. Well, they cast Neeson but they could only afford him for three scenes once the special effects budget got approved.

Kitsch, after this year’s John Carter debacle is now at a career crossroads after having been the lead in two of this year’s biggest bombs. As in that film, Kitsch doesn’t display enough screen presence to really pull off what the producers intended. He’s certainly good-looking enough – and his stint in ”Friday Night Lights” have proven that the man can act – but to be a hero for a franchise movie like this one you really need to own the screen and that Kitsch fails to do.

Oddly, the people who acquit themselves best here are the non-actors. Gadson, a genuine Iraqi war veteran, knows a thing or two about heroism and that shows. He has more screen presence than most of the leads and while Hollywood doesn’t show itself to have a whole lot of roles open for a man with two prosthetic legs, certainly those that are Gadson could fill ably.

Rihanna also surprised me. The pop chanteuse shows a few acting chops here, her trademark blonde locks shorn and died black. She channels Michelle Rodriguez a bit here as a kick-ass Latina military woman and shows that she might well have a future in acting if she chooses to pursue it.

At the end of the day, this is entertaining enough to recommend somewhat although there are plenty of movies that are entertaining and with more substance behind them out there at the moment and more coming into the theaters every week. I can’t say you’ll leave the theater feeling like your money was wasted but on the other hand you won’t feel like you got the most for your buck either.

REASONS TO GO: Great special effects. Wonderful sequence that echoes the board game.

REASONS TO STAY: Storyline a bit of a jumble. Acting is mostly atrocious.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of science fiction violence, explosions, gruesome aliens and a lot of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: As a tribute to the board game, the alien artillery is shaped much like the pegs used in the original game.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/3/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100. The reviews are nearly all rotten.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Battle: Los Angeles

U.S.S. MISSOURI LOVERS: The decommissioned “Mighty Mo” is used as a set during the final reel and some filming actually took place there.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Brothers