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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The Conjuring 2 (The Enfield Poltergeist)


There's nothing worse than getting caught by a nun.

There’s nothing worse than getting caught by a nun.

(2016) Horror (New Line) Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Madison Wolfe, Frances O’Connor, Lauren Esposito, Benjamin Haigh, Patrick McAuley, Simon McBurney, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Simon Delaney, Franka Potente, Bob Adrian, Robin Atkin Downes (voice), Bonnie Aarons, Javier Botet, Steve Coulter, Abhi Sinha, Chris Royds, Sterling Jerins. Directed by James Wan

 

Horror franchises have a way of decreasing in quality the farther along you go. They also have a tendency to repeat themselves. This sequel to a movie based on the case files of Ed and Lorraine Warren, has all the makings of a good franchise. Will it fall prey to some of the sins of the sequels?

In a house in the small town of Amityville, New York, Lorraine Warren (Farmiga) and her husband Ed (Wilson) are conducting a séance to investigating the haunting of the Lutz residence. She sees a small boy while in a psychic trance and follows him into a basement. There she encounters a demonic nun and has a vision of Ed’s death.

She is understandably shaken and convinces Ed to take a break from taking on new investigations. In the meantime the Amityville Horror comes out and Ed and Lorraine become famous…or more accurately, infamous as they are accused of perpetrating a hoax. Ed is beginning to get a little bit frustrated that he can’t really defend himself (and his wife) against these charges since so much of what they’ve seen is anecdotal and go against established science.

Across the Atlantic, single mom Peggy Hodgson (O’Connor) is barely making ends meet with her four children who are being bullied in their local school in Enfield, a suburb of London. Her daughter Janet (Wolfe) soon begins hearing and seeing things, mostly revolving around a recliner left behind by the previous tenant, Bill Wilkins (Adrian). Soon, furniture is flying around on its own, witnessed by a pair of incredulous Bobbies, and parapsychologists and the clergy become involved.

The Roman Catholic Church has been contacted to see if an exorcism is in order. They want to send Ed Warren to make that determination. Lorraine is reluctant, particularly after having another vision of the evil nun in her own home, but Ed points out that this is a single mother with four children who have nowhere to turn to. Lorraine knows that her husband is right.

The goings on in the house are increasing in degree and malevolence and the family is essentially sleeping across the street at a neighbor’s home, but when an apparition known as the Crooked Man (Botet) makes an appearance over there, it becomes clear that Janet is the focal point of the hauntings, so Peggy and Janet return to their home to sleep, with the Warrens and their team also hunkering down in the haunted dwelling.

Soon Lorraine begins to realize that it isn’t just Bill Wilkins haunting this house; there’s something else behind it, something far more evil and far more ancient. She also begins to realize that the target of the haunting may not be the Hodgson family after all.

James Wan may be the pre-eminent genre director working today. He has initiated no less than three franchises now, and considering the two Conjuring films have set horror film opening weekend box office records, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was more genre work on the way for the director. Here again he sets a nice, creepy tone and uses set design to his advantage; there are always plenty of shadows for gruesome things to leap out of.

The trouble is, that he seems to be relying more and more on what are called jump scares, which are aided by loud noises and tend to be things that, ahem, leap out of the shadows. They are the cheapest of all horror movie scares and the hoariest of tropes; either way they’re well beneath Wan who in the first film came by his scares honestly.

Not so much here. I can applaud Wan for setting up a big bad that might well power through the rest of the franchise, but it seems that the producers want to create  as many spin-offs as they possibly can. There’s already one for Annabelle in the can and one on the way and the nun from this movie has reportedly received the green light for a feature of her own. I’m looking forward to finding out more about her because we don’t get a whole lot of information about the character here.

At the center of this movie is the relationship between Ed and Lorraine and the love that is there. Farmiga and Wilson are so adept at creating an affectionate environment between the two characters that it’s hard to believe they’re not married in real life. There’s a scene in which to lighten things up Ed grabs a guitar and does a credible Elvis impression (and yes, that’s actually Patrick Wilson singing) of the King’s classic “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You.” While ostensibly to calm down the Hodgson family, it is also a message to his wife – and she receives it loud and clear.

Not quite to the level of the first film which is in my opinion a new horror classic, this is nonetheless a satisfying sequel that won’t disappoint fans of the first film – or fans of the horror genre in general. While I wish Wan would have spent a little time on earning our fright rather than going the route of the cheap jump scares, there is enough here to make your skin crawl in a good way that I can give it an enthusiastic recommendation to all.

REASONS TO GO: The relationship between Ed and Lorraine is at the center of the film.
REASONS TO STAY: An excess of jump scares.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of terror and horror violence, disturbing images and some strong language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director James Wan turned down what he termed a “life-altering” amount of money to direct Fast 8 in order to return to his horror roots.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/5/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Poltergeist
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: A Violent Prosecutor

Magic in the Moonlight


Emma Stone is shocked to discover she's co-starring with an Oscar winner.

Emma Stone is shocked to discover she’s co-starring with an Oscar winner.

(2014) Romantic Comedy (Sony Classics) Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Simon McBurney, Hamish Linklater, Eileen Atkins, Marcia Gay Harden, Jacki Weaver, George Shamos, Erica Leerhsen, Catherine McCormack, Ute Lemper, Didier Muller, Peter Wollasch, Antonia Clarke, Natasha Andrews, Valerie Beaulieu, Lionel Abelanski. Directed by Woody Allen

The world is fairly evenly divided between the romantic and the pragmatic. Pragmatists believe that everything is explainable and that there is little to no mystery left in the world. Romantics believe that there is much more to life than what the senses perceive and that there are things in the world that can only be described as magic.

Stanley (Firth) certainly counts himself among the pragmatic although, perhaps oddly, he makes his living as a magician, masquerading as a Chinese illusionist named Wei Ling Soo. While he would say that he does so to maintain his privacy as well as the illusion of mystery, it seems somewhat hypocritical at the very least and cynical for certain. In 1928, however, this isn’t really an issue.

Stanley is the sort that can alienate the nicest of people in a matter of seconds. Pompous, arrogant and smug, he is completely certain that he is right in all things and the smartest person in the room. The trouble is, he usually is. He is engaged to Olivia (McCormack), a fellow intellectual pragmatic and a fine looking woman as well. They are very well-matched on the surface and Stanley feels a good deal of affection towards his bride-to-be. At the end of his world tour, he intends to vacation in the Galapagos with her.

 

However at the close of his Berlin show he is met by his old friend and fellow illusionist Howard Burkan (McBurney) who comes to him with a challenge. A woman by the name of Sophie Baker (Stone) purporting to be a psychic has attached herself to the Catledge family of Pittsburgh who happen to be friends of his. Their callow son Brice (Linklater) has become smitten with the girl, having already proposed marriage. Mother Grace (Weaver) is obsessed with making contact with her lately departed industrialist husband.

Stanley, a notable debunker of charlatans, leaps at the chance. Burkan drives him to their home in the South of France with a brief stop to lunch with Stanley’s dear Aunt Vanessa (Atkins) who practically raised him and instilled in him the practicality that makes up his personality, although she despairs at his prickliness that makes him something of a social hand grenade.

Nobody knows who Stanley is once they arrive at the Catledge villa; he introduces himself as an importer of Brazilian coffee beans. He meets Sophie and her suspicious mother (Harden) and proceeds to let slip his disbelief in the occult. However at a séance, he is unable to detect how she makes a candle levitate nor does she seem to be the source of the rapping noises that are overheard. The great debunker has to admit he’s perplexed.

 

He grows further so when she seems to know things she couldn’t possibly know – even Aunt Vanessa is taken with the charming young lass. The more he begins to doubt his own convictions, the more alive Stanley feels – and the more he begins to fall for the beautiful young girl. However, he can’t keep that nagging feeling out of his head that there is no such thing as magic. It’s a war in his soul for which it seems there can be no compromise.

Allen has been in a bit of a career renaissance in his 70s with nine films released including two of his most acclaimed and commercially successful – Blue Jasmine and Midnight in Paris. I will admit that I had fallen out of love with Allen not long after Broadway Danny Rose and The Purple Rose of Cairo – it seemed to me that most of his movies between then and now were passionless and seemed to be the work of someone who was working to stay busy. However Midnight in Paris did change my mind and I have again begun to look forward to his new movies – not that all of them have been great. Still I had high hopes for this one.

It is charming to be sure, a throwback to an early era – not just the era of the flapper when this is set, but also to the comedies of the ’70s which this is more akin to which were in turn inspired by comedies of the 30s and 40s. Call this a throwback of a throwback if you will.

 

Firth proves himself a phenomenal performer, once again showing that he may be the best male actor of this decade. His Stanley takes the guise of an inscrutable Oriental because Stanley himself is inscrutable; for all his bluster and bravado he is unable to express his emotions any better than those he despises can express their intellect. Stanley is clearly not a likable fellow yet Firth makes us like him in spite of his faults and by the time the movie ends, Stanley has made an organic and believable change. It’s not just good writing that accomplishes this – Firth makes it real.

Most of the rest of the cast does the kind of solid work you’d expect from a cast with this kind of pedigree – not to mention from a Woody Allen movie. Allen has always been able to get good performances from his actors.

I’ll have to admit that the second act seems a bit rushed and that the movie ends up a little bit more neatly tied up in a bow than I might have expected. I supposed when you’re 79 years old and you’re still churning out a movie every year (and sometimes more) without fail, you can be forgiven for taking a few short cuts.

 

Nonetheless this is solidly entertaining and charming. I have to admit that I do love movies set in this era and I love those kind of 70s-era all-star events that made the Agatha Christie movies so entertaining. While not a murder mystery per se, it has some elements you’d find in a movie by the mistress of the murder mystery. If Allen continues to make movies of this quality, I for one won’t be disappointed.

REASONS TO GO: Colin Firth is really, really good. Overall charming and recalls not only the Roaring ’20s but also the ’70s as well.

REASONS TO STAY: Ending is rushed a little bit. A few shortcuts are taken.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some innuendo and period smoking (which is apparently a big no-no for the MPAA these days).

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the ninth movie made while Woody Allen was in his 70s. Should he release a movie next year, it will be his tenth.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/27/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 48% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Great Gatsby

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Giver