The Nun (2018)


When staying in a haunted abbey it is advisable to frequently check and see what’s behind you.

(2018) Horror (New Line) Demián Bichir, Taissa Farmiga, Jonas Bloquet, Bonnie Aarons, Ingrid Bisu, Charlotte Hope, Sandra Teles, August Maturo, Jack Falk, Lynnette Gaza, Ani Sava, Michael Smiley, Gabrielle Downey, David Horovitch, Tudor Munteanu, Lili Bordán, Scarlett Hicks, Izzie Coffey, Jared Morgan, Laur Dragan, Eugeniu Cozma, Manuela Clucur, Beatrice Peter, Ana Udrolu. Directed by Corin Hardy

This is the fifth film in the Conjuring universe to date. In it we explore the origins of the demonic nun first seen in The Conjuring 2. Is her story worth exploring further?

At a remote Romanian abbey a young nun is found hanging from the front facade by local villager and supplier Frenchie (Bloquet). Word gets back to the Vatican where Father Burke (Bichir) is assigned to investigate with novitiate Sister Irene (Farmiga) sent to accompany him. Father Burke has a bit of a past; during an exorcism that he performed a child (Maturo/Falk) died and he has been haunted by the memory ever since.

When they get to the village near the Abbey where Frenchie lives, they discover that the villagers have a healthy fear of the Abbey which is rumored to contain a terrible evil. Frenchie takes the to the abbey where the Mother Superior (Gaza) informs them that the nuns are in the midst of their vow of silence for the night and they can’t be interviewed until the following day. The two clerics will have to stay the night.

Of course during the night both of them are beset by nightmarish visions and Frenchie has issues of his own getting back home. The next day Sister Irene talks to some cooperative nuns but discovers that they have been tasked to hold back the evil entity dwelling below the abbey with the power of constant prayer and Father Burke has a close encounter with Daniel and being buried alive. There is most definitely an evil presence at the Abbey – and it will be up to Father Burke, Sister Irene and Frenchie to vanquish it before it escapes to cause all sorts of havoc in the rest of the world.

Hardy uses his Romanian locations to their full potential. Rarely have I seen a horror movie that exudes such palpable menace. You’re on edge from the moment that we arrive in Romania which is what you want from a horror movie. Unfortunately, you want a bit more as well and the promise of the genuinely creepy castle where this was filmed isn’t taken advantage of.

Hardy relies far too much on jump scares which, to be fair, is a trademark of the franchise overall but the effectiveness of those scares is diluted the more that they are used. While the make-up for the demonic nun is genuinely impressive, for the most part she just leaps out of the shadows with an accompanying WHOOM! on the soundtrack. In that sense what could have been a great character is reduced to a Halloween novelty device that you find in neighborhood homes that like to decorate for the holiday.

Thankfully, Farmiga, Bloquet and particularly Bichir didn’t get the memo that the movie wasn’t up to par with the other films. They all turn in solid performances with Bichir once again proving that he is perhaps the most underutilized actor in Hollywood. It makes me wonder if he wasn’t Hispanic he would be getting more high-profile roles. As it is he makes the most out of the roles he does get and he is nearly as memorable as the background here.

This ends up being a bit of a disappointment. Demonic nuns are always an extremely scary creature and there has yet to be a movie that I’ve seen that really makes full use of them, although I’m sure there are some out there that must. The franchise has been to this point pretty impressive in terms of the quality of the individual films but it has been slipping as of late. There are at least three new movies in the Conjuring universe in the pipeline and hopefully they will turn the quality factor around but if they continue to be as mediocre as this perhaps it just might be time to give the franchise a rest.

REASONS TO GO: The Romanian locations are truly creepy. Bichir is outstanding while Bloquet and Farmiga both give strong performances.
REASONS TO STAY: There are way too many jump scares. The horror intensity is lacking from the other films in the franchise.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of terror and disturbing images, violence and some gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Taissa Farmiga who plays Sister Irene is the younger sister of Vera, who plays Lorraine Warren in the original The Conjuring. It is not known whether the two characters are related.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/31/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 26% positive reviews. Metacritic: 46/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Church
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Weed the People

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Brooklyn


The romance of Ireland meets the romance of Long Island.

The romance of Ireland meets the romance of Long Island.

(2015) Romance (Fox Searchlight) Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Maeve McGrath, Fiona Glascott, Eileen O’Higgins, Peter Campion, Emily Bett Rickards, Eve Macklin, Nora-Jane Noone, Mary O’Driscoll, Samantha Munro, Jessica Paré, Jane Brennan, Eva Birthistle, Brid Brennan, Hugh Gormley, Jenn Murray. Directed by John Crowley

There comes a time in the lives of some people – a lot of people, actually – in which the realization that they have no future sets in. At that moment, they may choose to accept that fate or they may choose to pack up and leave and try to make something of themselves elsewhere.

Eilis Lacey (Ronan) had that decision made for her, by her fiercely protective big sister Rose (Glascott) who wrote Father Flood (Broadbent) in New York to help find Eilis lodging and a job in the Big Apple and so he does, in Brooklyn which in 1951 (when this is set) was full of a rainbow of different cultures, including the Irish. Leaving Rose to care for their widowed mother (J. Brennan) and leaving the employ of a miserable harpy (B. Brennan), she sets sail for the Land of Opportunity.

Once in Brooklyn, she is given lodging at a boarding house run by the no-nonsense Mrs. Kehoe (Walters) who tries to keep Patty (Rickards), Diana (Macklin) and Sheila (Noone) in rein which given their Irish high spirits is no easy task. Desperately homesick, Eilis tries to fit in at the boarding house and tries to fit in at the high-end department store where she works under the watchful eye of Miss Fortini (Paré).

At a dance put on by the local Church, she meets Tony Fiorello (Cohen) who has a thing for Irish girls. His soft-spoken geniality and gentle self-deprecating humor appeals to her and slowly she starts out liking her new beau to falling in love with him. However, a family emergency calls her home to Ireland where she ends up facing a new wrinkle there in the form of a new suitor who is equally kind-hearted and quite the catch, young Jim Farrell (Gleeson) who by the standards of Enniscorthy in County Wexford is well-off. Now the young woman’s heart is torn between two continents and two very different lives. Which will she choose?

Da Queen is fond of describing acting performances that she admires as “quiet,” a trait I find curiously endearing. It means something much different to her than to thee and me and yet in this case, I think she might have something. Ronan is absolutely outstanding here, almost certain to get a nomination for Best Actress at the forthcoming Oscars. Much of her acting takes place in her eyes and on her expressive face; her lilting Irish accent is easily understood, and her longings and yearnings are written in her expressions. Any critic who dismisses the role as bland and unmemorable clearly hasn’t been watching this actress closely, and they are well-advised to – methinks she will be one of the industry’s outstanding actresses for decades to come.

The film is beautifully photographed, from the lush greenery of the Emerald Isle to the windswept barrens of the Long Isle (Long Island NYC) to the brownstone comforts of Brooklyn. Much of the movie takes place in the latter location, a Brooklyn where the Dodgers are still Dem Bums, the streets are alive with color and vitality, Coney Island is still the working class escape and the world is full of possibilities. Sure, this is an idealized Brooklyn because it is largely the Brooklyn of memory and memory makes fonder the places we’ve lived in. The Los Angeles of the 1960s was far from perfect but in my own memory, it is an idyllic place and probably nothing like what it really was and certainly nothing like what it is now. That is the nature of places; they change, often faster and more profoundly than we do ourselves.

While the love triangle between Jim, Tony and Eilis is a bit of a stretch (finding two really nice guys who are actually gentlemen is damn near impossible as any woman will tell you), the relationships that Eilis works out with the two of them feel authentic. Eilis is at times too good to be true – a little naive but with an absolute heart of gold (in fact, the movie has no real antagonist other than the harridan Miss Kelly at the grocery where Eilis works at the movie’s start) and a sweet nature that is straight out of a 50s romance movie.

The world has changed a lot since the time Brooklyn was set in and much of the innocence of that time is long gone. It is not uncommon for those who remember that era to long for its simplicity. Don’t discount the value of nostalgia in marketing a movie – as fellow critic Roger Moore correctly pointed out, the movie seems to be consciously aimed at those who like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and My Big Fat Greek Wedding. And there’s nothing wrong with going after that demographic either; certainly the audience we saw at our screening skewed older. However, nostalgia isn’t all this film has going for it; Ronan’s star turn is likely to get that Oscar nod and could well attract more film buffs here than nostalgia-seeking retirees. This is a contender for my year’s best ten list; go give this one a watch and it might end up on yours too.

REASONS TO GO: Ronan is magnificent. Beautifully shot. Well-written. A lovely slice of life.
REASONS TO STAY: Maybe a little too idealized.
FAMILY VALUES: Some brief profanity and a scene of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Ronan was born in The Bronx, she was raised in Ireland by her Irish parents; this is the first time in a movie that she’s used her native Irish accent.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/16/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Avalon
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: The Ridiculous 6

Spotlight


Michael Keaton knows he's on a roll.

Michael Keaton knows he’s on a roll.

(2015) True Life Drama (Open RoadMark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian D’Arcy James, Stanley Tucci, Elena Wohl, Gene Amaroso, Billy Crudup, Jamie Sheridan, Paul Guilfoyle, Len Cariou, Doug Murray, Sharon McFarlane, Neal Huff, Duane Murray, Brian Chamberlin, Laurie Heineman. Directed by Tom McCarthy

Reporters are sometimes referred to as ink-stained wretches, harkening back to the 19th century when that was literally true. They’ve traded quill and parchment for computers and the Internet, but what remains true today as it was then – few in the general public really have a sense of what goes in to writing and reporting the news.

Spotlight covers the Boston Globe investigative reporting team – also called Spotlight – and their game-changing  2001 investigation of the Roman Catholic Church and the sex abuse scandals that was being covered up by the Church. It’s an important enough story that writers McCarthy and Josh Singer felt that it needed to take precedence over the reporters who reported the story – something that journalism films rarely do. Even All the President’s Men, perhaps the most respected journalism film of all time, elevated reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward to heroic proportions.

With a new managing editor now in place, Marty Baron (Schreiber) who comes to the globe by way of the Miami Herald and other papers, Baron suggests that a long-gestating story – about Fr. John Geoghan who had been convicted of multiple counts of child abuse – and the Church’s role in covering up the scandal – get coverage by the Spotlight team.

This was no small matter. Boston was and is a very Catholic town. The Church is very much entwined in a whole lot of secular matters, including politics, business and of course, the news. Baron gets an invitation early on by affable Cardinal Law (Cariou) to meet with him so that Baron is made to understand his place in how things work in Boston. Quite frankly, it’s a chilling moment.

Spotlight editor Walter “Robbie” Robinson (Keaton) and his team of senior reporter Mike Rezendes (Ruffalo), reporter Sacha Pfeiffer (McAdams) and reporter Matt Carroll (James) are turned loose on the story. The bulldog-like Rezendes goes after court documents that lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Tucci), who is representing several survivors against the Church, informs him have been sealed. The softer Pfeiffer interviews survivors, often seeing them dissolve into tears of shame. Robinson works the golf courses and receives troubling and veiled threats to back off.

Eventually the team begins to realize that the cover-up involves more than one priest in Boston…and eventually more than one city around the world. As the scope of what they’ve discovered begins to unfold, the team realizes that they may be in over their heads. They also realize they can’t ignore their own connections to the Church – but can they ignore the suffering of the many victims, who begin to number in the thousands?

The story is, of course, one that we’re all familiar with as the scandal involving the Church became international news a decade ago. Fortunately for us, McCarthy chose not to make the reporters the central aspect of the story. This movie isn’t about them, although they get the most screen time and they are in many ways our own avatars. No, this is about the victims and the story, which required some often tedious work to bring to print. Many journalists who have seen this have said this is the most accurate depiction of journalism in the history of film. Despite the nature of the work which involves a lot of time on the phones and on the web, McCarthy manages to keep the movie from being boring.

Part of the reason for that is because he has a cast to die for. Keaton, so marvelous in Birdman, is on a definite roll. Not only is he turning in Oscar-worthy performances but he’s doing it in Best Picture contenders, as this will surely be. As for Ruffalo, this is his finest performance yet, playing the pugnacious Rezendes like a heavyweight champion daring his sources to take their best shots. He is passionate about his job and as the scandal deepens to global levels, his frustration with the Church he grew up with and his realization that he could never go back to it now is more than memorable; it’s unforgettable.

=As this took place primarily in the fall and winter – with a notable pause to cover the attacks on the World Trade Center, for which several flights originated at Logan Airport – the screen always has a kind of cold and distant quality, ranging from autumnal rain to winter snow. There are rarely sunny days in a movie, befitting the subject. I’m sure the real reporters felt that sunny days might never come again.

This is most definitely one of the best movies of the year and a serious Oscar contender in a number of different categories. While some might recoil from the subject matter, it is handled delicately and respectfully. While some might think that this is a boring procedural, let me reassure them that it’s simply not the case. Simply put, this isn’t the easiest subject matter to tackle – but it’s done so well that you leave the theater knowing you’ve just seen something special. And it is.

REASONS TO GO: Riveting performances and story. Excellent writing. Powerful and emotional. Accurate rendition of how news is reported.
REASONS TO STAY: Drags a tiny bit in places.
FAMILY VALUES: Some fairly foul language, adult themes and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Investigative reporter Ben Bradlee Jr. is the son of Benjamin Bradlee, the editor of the Washington Post who oversaw the Watergate reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein depicted in the film All the President’s Men and who was portrayed by Jason Robards in that film. Keaton used Robards’ performance as a template for his own, mixed in with his own observations of the real Walter Robinson.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/30/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 93/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Absence of Malice
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: The Good Dinosaur

The Exorcist


The Exorcist

Linda Blair goes full demon.

(1973) Horror (Warner Brothers) Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Jason Miller, Linda Blair, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn, Jack MacGowran, Rev. William O’Malley S.J., Barton Heyman, Pete Masterson, Rudolf Schûndler, Gina Petrushka, Robert Symonds, Arthur Storch, Rev. Thomas Bermingham S.J., Vasiliki Maliaros, Titos Vandis, John Mahon, Mercedes McCambridge (voice). Directed by William Friedkin

6 Days of Darkness 2015

The devil is more concept than reality for most of us. We see the devil as a representation of our darker nature, the part that is less Godly, less good. We don’t see the devil as a physical, real being. At least, we didn’t before The Exorcist came along.

Based on a best-selling novel by acclaimed author William Peter Blatty, The Exorcist shattered box office records and caused a furor; some condemned it as a glorification of Satan, others as horror pornography. Others praised it for pushing boundaries. In any case, it re-defined horror movies from the stylized costume epics of Hammer and their ilk and brought realism into the genre. The shock waves it created reverberate today.

Regan Mac Neil (Blair) is the loving, sweet daughter of famous actress Chris Mac Neil (Burstyn) who is in Washington DC to film her latest movie. After playing with a Ouija board, strange things begin to occur around Regan; odd noises, suddenly using foul language (something she had never done before) and showing abnormal strength. When the bed she’s in shakes without apparent cause, Chris starts consulting doctors to see what’s wrong with her daughter. Nobody can find anything medically amiss.

Then Regan kills Burke Demmings (MacGowran), the director on Chris’ new film and a close friend. That prompts a police detective Lt. William Kinderman (Cobb) to investigate. Kinderman, a movie buff, is a little star struck but doesn’t let that prevent him from investigating thoroughly. What he finds is disturbing.

Father Lawrence Merrin (von Sydow) is a Catholic priest who was an exorcist earlier in his career. During that time he defeated a demon named Pazuzu. The experience so unsettled him that he hasn’t performed an exorcism in years. Now summoned by the Church to help the Mac Neil family which is running out of options, he is teamed with Father Damien Karras (Miller), a psychologist who has lost his faith in God since the death of his mother.

The two will face a foe unlike any they’ve ever seen, the tired old priest and the young disillusioned one but they are all that stand between Regan and a life of possession and horror. Can they stand up to something so powerful with only their faith as a weapon – and even that is eroded?

The Exorcist as I mentioned was not just a watershed moment in horror films but in cinematic history. The frenzy around it would predate future blockbusters like Jaws and Star Wars, which would lead Hollywood to the blockbuster mentality it has today, for better or for worse.

For its time, the scares were incredible. The actors reactions were often prompted by extreme measures; he fired off a gun beside Miller’s head in order to provoke a startled reaction, something Miller didn’t take too kindly to which led to an acrimonious dispute. He also put the women in harnesses and threw them around in order to show the power of the demonic entity; Burstyn sustained permanent spinal damage during one of these takes.

By modern standards, the practical effects are somewhat primitive but still effective. It’s refreshing to see images not made with computers but are still terrifying and realistic nonetheless. One of the things that made The Exorcist so frightening at the time was how realistic it was in terms of how it portrayed life in 1973. It could have happened anywhere. It could have happened in your neighborhood.

Von Sydow, who was only 44 when this was filmed, had already been a major star in Europe and was well-known in the States but this was a career maker for him. In the 70s and 80s he became a very popular actor, often as a villain. He continues to be very active today at 84. Burstyn, who was a respected actress whose performance in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore garnered her an Oscar nomination, never really did a part like Chris Mac Neil again but she is astonishing in it. Miller, a respected playwright, had a distinguished acting career following his work in the film

And as for Linda Blair, The Exorcist made her a household name. She will never be completely divorced from Regan; even now, a middle aged woman, she is associated with that little girl. Regan has haunted her career pretty much all her life, which is both a good thing and not. Her name was enough to get her some roles she probably would like to see forgotten; but it has also maybe made people not take her as seriously as she deserved to be as an actress.

For many, this is the ultimate horror movie, the one by which all others are measured. There are also those who would argue for other films, but a very compelling argument can be made that The Exorcist is the most important horror movie of all time, not merely of its generation and those of us who are old enough to remember when it was released (I was 13 at the time) will be affected by the frenzy that accompanied it. For any horror fan, this is a must-see.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the greatest horror movies ever. Standout performances from virtually the entire cast. Intelligent and realistic.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some may find it too intense; others too bland.
FAMILY VALUES: Extremely foul language, scenes of terror and horror, some disturbing images and violence. There are also some graphic sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Not only is The Exorcist the highest-grossing Warner Brothers film of all time (adjusted for inflation) but also the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time (again, adjusting for inflation).
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition contains both the original 1973 version and a 2000 Director’s Cut by Friedkin. There’s also a featurette on some of the locations from the movie; what they looked like back in 1973 and what they look like now as well as a featurette on knock off versions that were made after The Exorcist became so successful. There’s also a feature-length documentary on the making of the film. The 40th anniversary Blu-Ray edition includes all those as well as a featurette on author William Peter Blatty, a featurette on the original incident that inspired the novel and an interview with the man who brought it to Blatty’s attention as an undergraduate at Georgetown and a hardcover book including excerpts from Friedkin’s memoir.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $441.3M on a $12M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu , M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Omen
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: A Brilliant Young Mind

Annabelle


A couple of living dolls.

A couple of living dolls.

(2014) Horror (New Line) Annabelle Wallis, Ward Horton, Alfre Woodard, Tony Amendola, Kerry O’Malley, Brian Howe, Eric Ladin, Ivar Brogger, Geoff Wehner, Gabriel Bateman, Shiloh Nelson, Sasha Sheldon, Camden Singer, Robin Pearson Rose, Keira Daniels, Tree O’Toole, Christopher Shaw, Joseph Bishara, Paige Diaz, Michelle Romano, Morganna May. Directed by John Leonetti

Those who saw The Conjuring will remember Annabelle, the devil doll that figured prominently in the opening scenes of the movie. It spent most of the rest of the film locked up in a glass case. Ever wonder how the doll came to be possessed?

Here’s the movie that tells you. John (Horton) and Mia Gordon (Wallis) are expecting a child in Los Angeles of the 1970s. The Manson cult has just struck, murdering actress Sharon Tate, her friends who happened to be in her home at the time and the LoBianco family in a separate incident. John is getting ready to start an internship in a Pasadena hospital. They’re good friends with the older couple next door, Pete (Howe) and Sharon Higgins (O’Malley) who they ride with to church to hear the sermons of Father Perez (Amendola). The Higgins’ are pleased as punch at John and Mia’s new arrival although in a bittersweet way; their own daughter Annabelle (Daniels) ran away from home a couple of years earlier to join some sort of hippie cult. And John found a gift for Mia – a beautiful porcelain doll that completes the collection that Mia has been working on for years.

One night though, everything changes. The Higgins are brutally murdered by their estranged daughter and a fellow cult member. The two murderers also make their way into the home of John and Mia and attempt to do the same to them, only the police arrive to shoot the man dead. Annabelle slits her own throat while holding the new doll. You can guess where that’s going to lead.

Soon, strange things start happening, disturbing things. Besides that, Mia is traumatized at the violence and the loss of her friends. Injuries suffered during the struggle put her on doctor-mandated bed rest but she doesn’t want to stay there given the terrible memories. They move to a new apartment near where John will be working, leaving the doll behind that the murderess was holding in her final moments – or so they thought. The doll turns up in the last box they unpack. Spooky, no? However, Mia – a little happier now that they are far away from the terrible events from that night accepts the return of the doll.

She even meets a new friend in Evelyn (Woodard), the congenial owner of a nearby bookstore. However, the unexplainable things have followed them only they’re getting more malevolent by the minute. Mia is sure that whatever is responsible – and we all know who that is although it takes the Gordons a little while to catch on – is after the soul of her baby who has now been born. Can they protect the baby from this seemingly unstoppable demonic force?

Annabelle isn’t nearly as good as The Conjuring so let’s get that out of the way right off the bat. It doesn’t have the really killer scares of that movie nor the pacing. There are far too many lulls in the action for my personal taste. However, it isn’t as bad as some are making it out to be.

They do capture 1970s Los Angeles perfectly. I grew up in the San Fernando Valley in that period and everything here rings true, from listening to KHJ on the AM radio for the timeless pop music to the K-Tel collections of snippets of hit songs. The filmmakers also make several allusions to the classic Rosemary’s Baby from the names of the couple (John Cassavetes, Mia Farrow and Ruth Gordon were all actors in that classic film) to the iconic baby carriage which figures in a couple of particularly harrowing scenes in Annabelle.

Wallis is a beautiful British actress but she left me kind of cold as Mia; she seemed to lack energy and although she screamed convincingly and had a couple of scenes of terror for the most part she seemed almost like she was on Lithium. It was definitely a performance influenced by Mad Men. Horton’s character is a little too easy to fall into line with the whole supernatural thing especially given his medical training. One would expect a little more skepticism out of him.

The scares are not as plentiful here nor are they as superbly staged, but there are certainly a few good ones – a sequence in the apartment’s basement with a demonic entity is the best in the movie and you’ll never want to take an elevator anywhere for a few weeks after seeing this. At least I didn’t.

What it all adds up to is a fairly entertaining although ultimately lightweight horror film. Nothing here is groundbreaking or even particularly memorable and one gets the sense that it was put together fairly quickly – which it was. You would think studio execs would have learned by now that rushing a movie isn’t good for its bottom line.

REASONS TO GO: Really nails Los Angeles in the 70s. Some fairly spooky scenes.
REASONS TO STAY: Wallis is a bit wooden. Doesn’t measure up to The Conjuring.
FAMILY VALUES:  Some disturbing violence and scenes of terror with a couple of demonic images thrown in for good measure.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Annabelle is a Raggedy Anne doll who sits in a glass case in the Occult Museum built by Ed and Lorraine Warren which is where she resides to this day.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/15/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 31% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Magic
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: The Pursuit of Happyness

Philomena


Judi Dench tries to break Steve Coogan's delusion gently that he would have made a great James Bond.

Judi Dench tries to break Steve Coogan’s delusion gently that he would have made a great James Bond.

(2013) True Life Drama (Weinstein) Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Mare WInningham, Barbara Jefford, Ruth McCabe, Sean Mahon, Peter Hermann, Anna Maxwell Martin, Michelle Fairley, Wummi Mosaku, Amy McAllister, Charlie Murphy, Cathy Belton, Kate Fleetwood, Charissa Shearer, Nika McGuigan. Directed by Stephen Frears

A mother’s love cannot be broken. Not even separation can diminish it – tear a mother and a child away from each other and she’ll move heaven and earth to find her baby. While any woman can have a baby, not every woman is cut out to be a mother. Some however are not given the choice.

Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) is at a crossroads, trying to re-assess and reinvent his life. Sacked as the communications director for the Labour Government’s Minister of Transport, Local Governments and Regions, he is unsure whether he is going to write a book about Russian history or take up running.

At a party he meets a waitress named Jane (Martin) who overhears a conversation between Martin and editor Sally Mitchell (Fairley) about human interest stories. She figures she has a whopper but Martin politely declines. He doesn’t do human interest stories. However, as he comes to realize that he really has no other prospects and Mitchell is willing to publish, he decides to take it on.

Jane’s mother, Philomena Lee (Dench) as a young woman (Clark) had a baby out of wedlock. In 1950s Ireland, this was a major no-no. Her shamed family sent her to a convent where she had the baby (which was born in the breech position) without painkillers of any kind as penance for her sin. But did her penance end there? No. At three years old her son Anthony along with Mary, the daughter of her friend Kathleen (Murphy) are taken away and given up for adoption by the church to a wealthy American family. Anthony and Mary are driven away, Philomena screaming and sobbing behind them.

Over the course of the rest of her life she kept quiet about the incident. A devout Catholic, she was sure that this was nothing less than she deserved for breaking the laws of God. It wasn’t until nearly 50 years had passed that she confessed to her daughter Jane, who didn’t know before that moment that she had a brother.

Martin and Philomena go to the convent where she had given up her Anthony years before and found it a different place entirely. Sister Claire (Belton) is understanding but can offer no help – apparently the records of adoptions had been destroyed in a fire years before. It appears that Philomena’s quest has ended before it has begun, but while having a beer in the local pub Martin discovers that the records may have been burned intentionally and that most of the babies that had been given up for adoption by the convent had gone to America.

As it turns out, Martin had been a BBC correspondent once upon a time in the United States. With his contacts, there’s a good chance they might be able to find records on that side of the Atlantic. Philomena accompanies Martin across the pond and finds the whole experience delightful; business class, a posh hotel, breakfast buffets – all are new and wonderful to her. However, what they discover in America will turn things on their ear and change the very nature of Philomena’s quest.

Frears is one of the best directors working out there and he’s delivered another gem. Dench is a treasure in the title role. Philomena isn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier but what she lacks in book smarts she makes up for in wisdom and compassion. When Philomena describes the plot of a romance novel to Martin while in an airport, it is absolutely delightful, punctuated by “I didn’t see that one coming!” She also praises at least a dozen hotel workers as “one in a million.” Dench gives Philomena a certain amount of gravitas but not so much that the character becomes caricature. Instead, Philomena is chatty and a bit batty but at every moment we’re aware she’s on serious business and that her heart is just aching. Dench has a good shot at an Oscar nomination although Sandra Bullock may have a lock on the statue this February.

Coogan, best known for his comic turns, has been trying to take on some serious roles of late and this one is tailor made for his talents. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he’s also the co-writer and producer of the film but certainly he also makes Martin a study in contradictions – he has a sense of humor that he uses sometimes inappropriately and his people skills are a bit raw, particularly in that Martin can be condescending in places. However, he is also doggedly determined to see this thing through and is fiercely protective of Philomena by the movie’s end. He and Dench make a formidable pair.

In fact, it is their differences that make this movie so compelling. Martin is an atheist, Philomena a devout believer. Martin is angry, Philomena forgiving. There is a scene near the end of the film when Martin confronts Sister Hildegarde (Jefford), a nun who was in the convent at the time Anthony was given away. Martin’s anger boils over; Sister Hildegarde is unrepentant and essentially says that Philomena and the other girls like her deserved what they got for the premarital sexuality. It is Philomena who turns out to be the most Christ-like, forgiving Sister Hildegarde and the convent for their misdeeds. When Martin turns to her in amazement and says it’s easy to forgive, Philomena snaps that it isn’t easy at all. It’s bloody hard. But she does it because it is what Christ would want her to do. In her mind, she is remaining true to her faith – even if the church itself has not. It’s a powerful moment.

This is one that might get by even film buffs. With all the big Holiday blockbusters and Oscar contenders coming out, this might slip below your radar. Don’t let it. This is an amazing film that hits all the right notes. Even though occasionally it does twist the knife a little bit, it still manages to cover a difficult and painful subject compassionately, perhaps more so than I, a Catholic, would have in the same situation.

REASONS TO GO: Marvelous performances by Coogan and especially Dench. Gripping story.

REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally manipulative.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some fairly strong language at times, mature thematic material and some sexual situations and dialogue.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Home movies are used as a flashback device throughout the film. While some of these were created specifically for the movie, some are actual home movies of the real Philomena Lee’s son.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/3/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Magdalene Sisters

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: In Darkness

Don Jon


Can't take my eyes off of you.

Can’t take my eyes off of you.

(2013) Romantic Comedy (Relativity) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza, Glenne Headly, Brie Larson, Rob Brown, Jeremy Luke, Paul Ben-Victor, Italia Ricci, Lindsey Broad, Amanda Perez, Sarah Dumont, Sloane Avery, Loanne Bishop, Arin Babaian, Antoinette Kalaj, Arayna Eison, Becky O’Donohue. Directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt

The nature of romance and sexuality largely remains a mystery for most of us. Men don’t understand the draw of the romantic fantasy to women and women have trouble understanding why men are so obsessed with pornography. Now, while it is true that there are some women who have a porn addiction and some men who are romantics at heart, largely the stereotypes hold.

Jon Martello Jr. (Gordon-Levitt) has a pretty good life. He’s a Jersey boy who knows what he likes and pretty much has things lined up; his apartment, his boys Bobby (Brown) and Danny (Luke), his family – Mom (Headly), Dad (Danza) and his sister Monica (Larson) who is too busy texting and rolling her eyes to get a word in – and his church, his car (a sweet Chevy from the golden age of metal) and girls. His buddies call him “The Don” because he scores a hot looking chick every time he goes out clubbing. Every time, an 8 or above.

But that isn’t enough for Jon. You see, sex is all well and good but what really satisfies him is masturbating to porn. He even has his own method – starting off slow, with still pictures and working his way up to video clips until he finds the right one he can lose himself in. When he gets off to porn, everything else goes away, not to mention that the actresses in the clips will do things for their partners that no real woman will do for Jon.

Then one night in the clubs he meets Barbara Sugarman (Johansson), a blonde Jersey queen who takes most of her cues from Snooki (except for the horrid orange spray tan look). She’s so hot that Jon’s got to have her except she doesn’t put out so easily. So, as Bobby tells him, he needs to get out his long game. Wine and dine her, romance her. Do the kind of things that boyfriends do for their girlfriends.

The problem is that Jon doesn’t just want to get into her pants; he thinks she might just be The One. To show her his commitment, he agrees to take night classes so that he can move up the service industry ladder. Unfortunately, Barbara catches Jon at his obsession one night and makes him agree to not watch porn which she finds disgusting.

At first Jon does his best but he needs the release so he starts doing his porn on the side, even on his smart phone during lectures in class which attracts the notice of Esther (Moore), an older lady that Jon sees crying in the parking lot one night. Soon she seems to be making a move on him which Jon isn’t really interested in – he’s got Barbara after all and she’s at last giving it up for him – but there are cracks in the foundation of paradise and soon Jon will either have to give up his porn or Barbara.

The crux of the movie has to do with expectations and need. Sure there’s a lot of nudity, brief glimpses of porn stars humping and a whole lot of sexuality but that’s not really the point of the film, although quite frankly there are those who won’t be able to get past all that, either in a positive or negative way. All some will see is the sex and they will react to it according to their own morality either as a prurient interest or with prudish disgust. It’s simply an occupational hazard for a film like this.

That said if you look beyond the boobs and the moans you’ll actually find a thoughtful movie that looks at the nature of men and women and the differences between them, as typified by Jon. I think there are a lot of women out there who genuinely cannot understand the fascination that porn has for men and this movie might go a long way towards explaining it. Porn is a fantasy the same way a romantic movie is a fantasy for Barbara. The happy ending for her is a prince of a man who will sacrifice everything for her, be completely devoted to her and adore her 24/7. Jon’s happy ending is, well, a happy ending.

Actually that’s not quite fair. As Jon explains it, he fantasizes about the sexual acts that most women won’t even consider granting him (i.e. oral sex, doggie style) because for the most part they want the missionary position. To him, a woman who is willing to do those things for him is the equivalent of Barbara’s prince. In both cases, the egos of each of them are being catered to by their partner. In some ways both of them are children of our time – completely self-absorbed without a thought of what they are giving to their partner, only receiving from them.

Gordon-Levitt, who also wrote and directed this, looks like he watched a lot of Jersey Shore to get his character down – The Situation, anyone? – and shows as much promise behind the camera as he does confidence in front of it. He wrote the part of Barbara with Johansson specifically in mind and she loses herself into it, becoming a Jersey Shore princess in all her gum-snapping bleached blonde glory. Barbara and Jon are both full to overflowing with that Jersey attitude – Jon screaming in road rage while he drives to church, Barbara telling Jon that he won’t do housework when they’re living together because that kind of thing is beneath her and thus, as an extension of her, beneath him as well.

In many ways Moore steals the picture. She is the conscience of the film and her character Esther is the one that introduces the sense of giving into the film. Certainly she’s one messed-up broad and we only get a glimmer into her personal tragedy. She’s not glammed up for this role; there’s wear and tear on her face but more importantly in her eyes. She ends up teaching Jon – and by extension the audience – the difference between having sex and making love.

It’s nice to see Danza and Headly, both industry veterans, on the big screen again and personally I wouldn’t mind seeing the two of them more often. The rest of the supporting cast is pretty solid with Larson making the most of her single scene of dialogue.

I wouldn’t have minded about ten more minutes of exposition fleshing out some of the main characters a bit and when you leave a film wishing it had been longer you know the filmmakers are doing something right. While those who are offended by depictions and discussion of sex are urged to give this one a wide berth, the rest of you get an enthusiastic recommendation. This is a movie that honestly and with some humor examines sex and love and how easy it is to forget that the sum of those two things is far greater than the total of their parts.

REASONS TO GO: Funny, charming and thought-provoking. Gordon-Levitt, Johansson, Moore, Danza and Headly all have strong performances.

REASONS TO STAY: The porn and sexuality might be off-putting to those sensitive to such things.

FAMILY VALUES:  Lots and lots of sexual content including graphic nudity and simulated sex (as well as simulated porn), plenty of foul language and a bit of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gordon-Levitt and Danza previously worked together in Angels in the Outfield when Gordon-Levitt was just 12 years old.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/14/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Moonstruck

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Enough Said