Ouija: Origin of Evil


Never turn your back on your kid for even a minute...

Never turn your back on your kid for even a minute…

(2016) Horror (Universal) Annalise Basso, Elizabeth Reaser, Lulu Wilson, Henry Thomas, Parker Mack, Doug Jones, Chelsea Gonzalez, Lincoln Melcher, Nicholas Keenan, Michael Weaver, Ele Keats, Eve Gordon, Chad Heffelfinger, Nina Mansker, John Prosky, Kate Siegel, Sam Anderson, Gary Patrick Anderson, Alexis G. Zall, Halle Charlton, Sierra Davey, Lin Shaye. Directed by Mike Flanagan

sixdays2016-4

Some of us are fascinated by the occult. Science tells us that there’s nothing there, nothing that can be measured or quantified but anyone with even a lick of sense can tell you that science doesn’t know everything; often things that are currently unexplainable may seem like the mysterious or the magical. The fact of the matter is that we don’t understand more than what we do.

In the Los Angeles of 1967 lives a widow, Alice Zander (Reaser). Her husband Roger (Weaver) had passed away recently and their daughters – teenage Lina (Basso) and preteen Doris (Wilson) are grieving in their own way. Doris, in particular, is having a difficult time handling the death of her father, praying to him at night rather than to God. There are those at her school who think she’s a little weird. More than a little, in fact.

Alice makes ends meet by conducting fake seances in which her daughters help with special effects. Alice rationalizes all this by saying that they are helping people find closure which I suppose they are. Lulu is too young and naive to question anything but Lina finds herself believing in nothing.

In point of fact, Lina feels constrained in her house and wants to do the things that teenage girls do in 1967. So like any good red-blooded American teen, she sneaks out of the house and goes to a party with a bunch of her friends, including would-be boyfriend Mikey (Mack). There she discovers the magic and the mystery of a Ouija board. Unfortunately, her friends are discovered by an adult and Lina is handed over to an angry Alice. However, Alice is intrigued by the Ouija board and brings one home to help with the act.

Immediately Doris takes an unhealthy interest in the board – or vice versa. Desperate to communicate with her daddy, she has no idea that there are rules governing the use of the board or how dangerous it is to break them. She certainly doesn’t realize that she’s opened a door that may bring something into this world that wants nothing more than to terrorize – and to kill.

This is a prequel to the wildly successful but critically panned Ouija from 2014. There is an appearance by Lin Shaye in a post-credits sequence that links the two films (not for nothing, but she plays an older version of one of the characters in this movie) but there is little to connect the two films. We do see one of the apparitions from the first film alive and well (relatively speaking) in this film.

The acting here is okay but not memorable. There aren’t a lot of recognizable names here, although most of the cast has experience mostly on the small screen. Thomas, the waif from E.T. is surprisingly strong as a sympathetic priest/principal at the Catholic school that the two daughters attend. Reaser, best known for her work on the Twilight series, shows some promise as the single mom which is a very different role than Esme Cullen.

Flanagan, who had three films scheduled to come out this year (one, Before I Wake, has been shelved indefinitely by troubled distributor Relativity and is unlikely to come out before next year) is becoming a very solid director of horror films for the studios. While he might not have the indie cred of a Ti West or a Jennifer Kent or an Adam Wingard, he has proven that he can direct strong horror films while remaining within studio constraints. There’s nothing here that’s so over-the-top that it can’t tolerate a PG-13 rating (which the studios shoot for, with rare exception, for their horror movies) but it manages to come by some pretty effective scares without resorting to an overuse of jump scares which are prevalent in studio horror movies today.

And to be honest, the studio restrictions are what really drag the movie down in my opinion. In trying to make a movie that fits within studio horror film parameters, in many ways it feels like Flanagan has been constrained from making a horror movie that would really blow our socks off. There is plenty here to work with, but there is nothing here that really gave me a truly “wow” moment. It’s like eating vanilla ice cream when what you really crave is salted caramel.

There’s nothing wrong with vanilla, mind you, but I would have liked there to be more layered flavor profiles here. The movie is exactly what you’d expect it would be. Horror movies are at their most effective when they push the boundaries. Those that respect boundaries will always be little more than a trip on Disney’s Haunted Mansion ride; spooky but not scary.

REASONS TO GO: There are some pretty horrific moments here and some really good scares.
REASONS TO STAY: The film really doesn’t break any new ground.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some pretty horrific and terrifying images, some violence as well as thematic elements that some might find disturbing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The house that Lina sneaks out to party with her friends in is the same house set used in the David Duchovny TV show Aquarius.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lights Out
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Day 5 of Six Days of Horror!

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Hope Springs


 

Hope Springs

Meryl Streep may be the greatest actress of her generation but at least Tommy Lee Jones has a Yale education.

(2012) Romantic Comedy (Columbia/MGM) Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Steve Carell, Elisabeth Shue, Jean Smart, Brett Rice, Ben Rappaport, Marin Ireland, Patch Darragh, Charles Techman, Daniel J. Flaherty, Damian Young, Mimi Rogers, Ann Harada, Jack Haley. Directed by David Frankel

 

Marriages are rarely simple relationships. The longer you are in one, the more depth it creates, the more layers are produced. This is usually a good thing but sometimes habit can become routine which can become stifling. It isn’t long before a good marriage on the surface can turn into quite something else on the inside.

Kay (Streep) and Arnold (Jones) have been married for 31 years. They live a comfortable existence in Omaha; he works for an insurance company, she works part time in a boutique. They have a grown daughter Molly (Ireland) who is married to Mark (Darragh). They also have a grown son Brad (Rappaport) who is single. When they gather for their parents anniversary, they are unsurprised to learn that their anniversary gift to each other is a new cable package.

The thrill is most definitely gone and while Kay longs for intimacy, Arnold seems far more interested in golf magazines. He’s terse, rigid and really doesn’t listen to his wife at all. Kay is miserable and she has reached her breaking point.

Then she discovers Dr. Feld (Carell), who specializes in couples counseling. She signs up the two of them using her own money for an intensive couples therapy session for a week in Great Hope Springs, Maine. At first, Arnold is aghast at the idea. When Kay (for once) stands up and lets him know she’s going with or without him, he finally relents and shows up on the plane at the last minute.

Once at counseling, Arnold proves to be not much better. He growls and grouses, finding no value in what is being offered, sure that this is some kind of scam meant to take a perfectly healthy relationship (which he believes his relationship with Kay to be) and somehow turn it on itself, creating problems where there were none in order to prolong the agony (and the payments).

Kay grows frustrated an walks away from the EconoLodge they are staying in  (in separate beds – they haven’t slept in the same room let alone the same bed for years) and finds a sympathetic bartender (Shue). Eventually she is convinced to return back to therapy.

Arnold does try a little bit harder but there seems to be an insurmountable gulf between them. Dr. Feld gives them intimacy exercises but after some early success they seem to end in abject failure. Dr. Feld counsels Arnold that some couples come to him to save their relationship; others come to end it. Which one will Arnold and Kay opt for?

Points to Frankel and writer Vanessa Taylor for taking a long, adult look at what goes on inside a real marriage. Usually when Hollywood does so there’s some sort of infidelity involved. That’s not the case here. This is a relationship with real problems (not that cheating isn’t a real problem – it’s just the kind of sexy problem that Hollywood tends to beat with a stick until it’s hamburger, mainly because studio chiefs think forbidden fruit tends to sell a lot of tickets which it does). There are warts here, and to the credit of both Frankel and Taylor along with Streep and Jones there are no attempts to hide the warts with make-up.

Streep is, as I’ve said elsewhere, maybe the best actress of her generation. This is a bit of a courageous role for her; she has to play a shy, girlish and somewhat hen-pecked wife who is coming to terms with a force of sexuality she’s never had to really face. There are several scenes in which she displays sexual arousal to a rather strong degree and it’s quite…stimulating. But this isn’t really her movie.

The movie belongs in every way to Tommy Lee Jones. This is a bit outside his comfort zone thus far in his career; he tends to play testy, irritable people and he does so here; but Arnold is a testy, irritable person with problems he hasn’t yet confronted about himself and during the course of the movie, he does just that. Jones has never seemed comfortable with a lot of self-analysis in his films but he gives an adept performance that carries the film which Streep mostly is content for him to do.

Carell has emerged as one of the biggest comedic actors today but he is curiously subdued, almost a straight man. This isn’t one of his more memorable roles, but he is well-suited for the part and underplays it nicely.

The problems of sex in a long marriage are not really discussed in polite society; we just assume that married couples approaching their sixties don’t have much sex and are perfectly content to do so. In fact, we assume that anyone who doesn’t look like they’re in their 30s at most don’t have sex because…well, ewwww.

That’s not terribly realistic. The sex drive may diminish but it doesn’t go away completely for all of us and there are some couples in their 80s who have surprisingly healthy sex lives. People don’t have to look like Brad and Angelina to have sex although Hollywood tends to reinforce the idea that people who are obese, less attractive or socially awkward are less sexually desirable.

That’s hogwash. There’s somebody for everybody but you have to be willing to take a chance. This movie is really about a couple who haven’t been doing that for awhile; they’ve wrapped themselves up in routines and familiarity so tightly that they’ve forgotten what attracted them to one another in the first place – and that part is still there. So there that it can’t be hidden but it can be overlooked.

REASONS TO GO: Quite funny in places. Great chemistry between Jones and Streep. Carell is also quite droll.

REASONS TO STAY: Mostly predictable.

FAMILY VALUES: The situations are adult and generally fairly sexual; there is also a scene of masturbation.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There was another romantic comedy named Hope Springs set in New England (in this case Vermont) from 2003 and starring Colin Firth, Heather Graham and Minnie Driver. Other than the title, the two films are unrelated.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/13/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100. The reviews are solidly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: It’s Complicated

NEW ENGLAND GETAWAY LOVERS: While the charms of a New England village getaway are extolled here, some of the scenes were filmed in New York as well as Connecticut.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Campaign

Accepted


Accepted
Lewis Black explains to Justin Long…well, he’s forgotten what he’s trying to explain.

(2006) Comedy (Universal) Justin Long, Jonah Hill, Blake Lively, Lewis Black, Adam Herschmann, Columbus Short, Maria Thayer, Mark Derwin, Ann Cusack, Hanna Marks, Robin Lord Taylor, Anthony Heald. Directed by Neil Burger.

Our country is entering a phase in which young people are being put in a Catch-22 situation. On the one hand, employers are increasingly valuing college degrees when time comes to hire. On the other hand, we’re doing less and less to prepare our young students for college. What is starting to happen is that young people with ambitions for an institution of higher learning are being put under increasing stress to perform from an early age, which goes against the natural teenaged tendency to goof off.

Bartleby Gaines (Long) does just that throughout most of his high school career. A slacker by nature and a con artist by preference, he spends his time talking his way out of situations and creating new ones by running some scam or another. Like many kids his age, his parents are putting intense pressure for him to get into a college. The problem is, Bartleby spent more time creating fake IDs than he did using his actual one in the school library. As a result, his college applications are being met with rejection after rejection. 

After his last hope, Harmon College, turns to ash, Bartleby gets inspiration; as a stopgap measure he can create a fake college – the South Harmon Institute of Technology (check out those initials for a clue to the kind of humor you’ll be getting) – complete with letterhead acceptance letter and a professional-looking website. His friends Hands (Short), who lost a football scholarship after an injury, Rory (Thayer) who pinned all her hopes on getting to Yale to the point where she applied nowhere else and Glen (Herschmann) got a zero on his SATs because he forgot to sign his test, all either assist or ask to be “admitted” to the non-existant institute of higher learning.

His best friend Sherman Schrader (Hill) did get into Harmon, largely because the three generations of Schraders preceding him attended there. Bartleby’s dream girl, Monica (Lively) is also attending Harmon, having already hooked up with a frat boy Nazi. 

This being a comedy, obstacles begin to crop up to threaten the wild scheme. Bartleby’s parents (Derwin and Cusack) want to drop him off at school, so the conspirators convert an abandoned mental hospital into the semblance of an academic institution. Dad wants to meet with the dean, so Bartleby recruits Schrader’s Uncle Ben (Black). 

Unfortunately, they’ve done their job a little too well. Other students who’d learned the sting of rejection somehow found the South Harmon website and had applied, complete with submitting $10,000 checks for the first semester. Unwilling to crush their dreams the way his had been crushed, Bartleby decides to make an unusual institution of higher learning – one in which the students determine their own curriculum, learn on their own and teach each other the skills they already bring to the table. Against all odds, the students nobody wanted begin to learn. They also begin to party big time, since that’s also what college is all about. 

The presence of a competitor doesn’t sit too well with the supercilious Dean Van Horne (Heald) of Harmon, which covets the land South Harmon sits on for expansion. Of course, the established school resorts to underhanded tactics to get what they want. When it all unravels as surely it must, Bartleby finds that he will have to be smarter than he’s ever been in order to save the cause he has now adopted, and incidentally to get the girl. 

Da Queen and I differed wildly in our opinions on this one. She found it to be so formulaic that it became boring. While I certainly agree this follows established Hollywood comedic procedures as established in such movies as Revenge of the Nerds, Back to School and Old School, it works well enough to feel safe and comfortable for me. I didn’t necessarily go into this looking for groundbreaking comedy, nor should you. 

She also saw it thematically as an attack on higher education, while I looked at it as a suggestion for alternatives to current university structure which admittedly can be rigid and hidebound. Her most grievous complaint, however, was that she just didn’t find it all that funny because it was so predictable. I understand her dilemma; most of the best parts of the movie could be found in the trailer, and while our son (who saw it earlier with friends) found it very quotable, it just isn’t all that mature in the humor department.

Still, I found it to be fairly harmless. Justin Long, an actor I wasn’t fond of in his signature role in Ed does a pretty good job here. Jonah Hill, as Schrader, is even better; nearly every line he delivers is perfectly timed. He has since become a star in his own right. 

This isn’t the best comedy you’ll find out there. However, it isn’t all that bad either. If you are looking for light comedy, you could do worse than this. I can recommend it, but not without reservations; there are plenty of great comedies out there that are worth your attention before this one is.

WHY RENT THIS: Sweet and charming. Long does some of his best work here whereas Hill shows some of his potential in his role.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Could use  a few more laughs and the premise is awfully formulaic.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a little bit of sex, a lot more bad words and still more drug use and alcohol abuse.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Most of the computers used in the movie were Apples. Star Justin Long had just become a spokesman for Apple prior to filming.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There is a “mockumentary” about the making of the movie shot by actor Adam Herschmann, as well as a couple of music videos and an easter egg leading to an extended version of the hazing scene with Jonah Hill.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $38.5M on a $23M production budget; the film lost money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: No One Knows About Persian Cats

Devil


Devil

Joe Cobden admires the CGI buildings he can't see.

(Universal) Chris Messina, Logan Marshall-Green, Jenny O’Hara, Bojana Novakovic, Bokeem Woodbine, Geoffrey Arend, Matt Craven, Jacob Vargas, Joshua Peace, Caroline Dhavernas, Joe Cobden, Zoie Palmer, Vincent Laresca.  Directed by John Erick Dowdle

There are those that believe human beings are not basically evil; our evil comes from the choices we make. If that is the case, then the devil resides in our decisions.

It seems like an ordinary day, as five people board an elevator in a Philadelphia high-rise; Sarah (Novakovic), an attractive young woman; Ben (Woodbine), a new temp working as a security guard on just his second day on the job; Vince (Arend), a slimy mattress salesman; Mrs. Tonjanovich (O’Hara), a matronly elderly woman and Tony (Marshall-Green), a former Marine just back from Afghanistan.

They’re on the express elevator but partway up the elevator comes to a bumpy and startling halt. Nothing terribly unusual about that, but what is strange about it is that every circuit appears to point to the elevator being perfectly fine. It should be traveling up and down the shaft instead of being stuck there, halfway between here and there. Two security guards, Lustig (Craven) and Ramirez (Vargas) are monitoring the situation via closed circuit cameras, but another strange thing – the audio is only working one way. The trapped people in the elevator can hear the security guards just fine, but the guards cannot hear them.

At first it seems just a minor inconvenience, but a time drags on and the building engineer (Cobden) can’t get the elevator to budge with no explanation as to why the elevator is stuck in the first place, the lights flicker out. When they come back on, Sarah is bleeding from a fairly impressive wound in the middle of her back that look uncomfortably like something bit her. Realizing that the wound was no accident, the guards call the police.

Conveniently enough, the police are already there; Detective Bowden (Messina) and his partner Detective Markowitz (Peace) were there investigating a suicide from the very same building. They try to reassure the increasingly panicked passengers (what doesn’t help matters is that Ben is claustrophobic, and Vince is something of an asshole), but the lights flicker out once again. When they come back on, one of the passengers is dead. It becomes apparent to everyone that something sinister is going on and as the body count piles up both inside the elevator and out, Ramirez realizes that one of the passengers is not who they seem to be and that what was happening in the elevator may be far worse than anyone realizes.

Director Dowdle (and his brother Drew, who co-produces his film) is an up and coming star in the horror genre, with Quarantine and the criminally under-appreciated The Poughkeepsie Tapes to his credit. This one is the most high-profile release yet, and he shows some real talent.

Most of the murders take place in complete darkness, allowing the imaginations of the audience to work for them. Dowdle relies on mood and tension to create the horror; while the supernatural element is certainly in the forefront, there aren’t as many special effects needed and in fact, there are really very few shots that make use of special effects (in something of an irony, there are more SFX shots establishing the cityscape than there are of the horrific).

Messina makes for a decent enough hero, a tormented man who is grieving an intolerable loss and whose back story is woven inexlorably into the fabric of the film. The cast is largely unknown and solid in their roles, with an occasional lapse into overacting from time to time.

Part of the film’s problem is the over-reliance on the voice-over narration to advance the plot. Ramirez, the film’s narrator, bases the events on a story his grandmother told him. As the movie progresses, the narration tends to mostly emphasize how each event being seen onscreen relates to a specific element to the story Ramirez’ grandmother told him. After awhile, it seems a lazy way to tell the story; in fact, the Ramirez character mostly exists to narrate and occasionally react with superstitious fear. For my two cents worth, I think the movie would have worked better without it.

That said, I must applaud Dowdle’s use of sound and darkness to deliver the scares. It’s very effective, especially in a large theater with a grand sound system that surrounds the viewer. I jumped several times during the movie and Da Queen, who is not fond of horror films, not only had a death grip on my hand during much of the movie but about pulled my arm out of the socket putting it between her and the screen, as if something were going to leap out and she would be protected by whatever it was devouring my arm first.

This is a solid horror movie with some pretty slick scares. I suspect that the connection with M. Night Shyamalan might hurt the movie, which is a crying shame. While I agree that Shyamalan of late has delivered some fairly mediocre films, there has been a backlash against him amongst internet fanboys who find it fashionable to flame the Pennsylvania-based director unmercifully. Unfortunately, very few of those who dictate opinion on the net actually take the time to base their opinions on the actual movie; it’s far more important for them to appear hip and funny.

That’s the crap part of net film review; the tendency for critics to go for the one-line zinger over genuine examination of the film’s strengths and weaknesses. This is far from being a classic of the horror genre, but it isn’t a complete waste of time either. Those who like a good scare flick will be well-served to check this out.

REASONS TO GO: The movie makes great use of darkness and sound to play head games with the audience. Some genuinely powerful scares and a nifty concept make this worth your while.

REASONS TO STAY: The movie relies far too much on voice-over narration to tell you what’s going on and the Ramirez character seemed unnecessary.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some very disturbing images, as well as some frightening images and sounds. Keep the kids at home for this one although the movie is suitable for older teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie in a projected series of films that director M. Night Shyamalan will produce and conceptualize, but not direct. During the opening credit, the Night Chronicles logo morphs into the number one.

HOME OR THEATER: Quite frankly, the movie needs the big sound system to make some of the scares work properly, even though the movie is mostly set in an elevator.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist