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

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Obvious Child


Life can be cold even for the very cute.

Life can be cold even for the very cute.

(2014) Comedy (A24) Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffmann, David Cross, Richard Kind, Polly Draper, Gabe Liedman, Paul Briganti, Cindy Cheung, Stephen Singer, Cyrus McQueen, Emily Tremaine, Ramses Alexandre, Julie Zimmer, Ernest Mingione, Stacey Sargeant, Amy Novando, Crystal Lonneberg, Suzanne Lenz. Directed by Gillian Robespierre

One of the results of unprotected sex can be a pregnancy that is unplanned for and unwanted. Women have several options open to them, although not everyone wants it that way.

Donna Stern (Slate) is a budding standup comic who works in a used bookstore by day. She is a classic New York underachiever, one who has vague goals but is in no particular hurry to get to them. She’s been seeing Ryan (Briganti) for years now and is somewhat ambivalent towards marriage or at least, it’s not a subject that comes up.

Her standup routine is full of the juices of life. Lots of farting, the state of women’s panties at the end of the day, skid marks and the fluids of sex. It isn’t for the squeamish which might explain why she’s still in a somewhat rough and tumble Brooklyn bar providing free entertainment for Williamsburg hipsters who are too cheap to pay for it. When she talks about the sex life with her boyfriend as being somewhat routine and predictable while he watches her set, that’s the last straw. That and, oh, him having been sleeping with her friend Lacey (Tremaine) for several months. He dumps her in the unisex graffiti-covered bathroom that looks like something that veteran CDC doctors would run screaming into the night from which I suppose is as appropriate a place to get dumped as any – considering her act, getting dumped in a bathroom has no irony whatsoever.

She also finds out that the bookstore she has been working for has lost its lease and is going to close its doors forever in about six weeks. No job, no money, no boyfriend – things couldn’t be worse for Donna. She takes solace in her support system – her close friends Nellie (Hoffmann) and fellow comedian Joey (Liedman), as well as her Dad (Kind) who works as a Henson-like puppeteer for a successful TV show. Her cold fish Mom (Draper), divorced from her Dad and a very successful business school instructor, tries to motivate her daughter to find new work without much success.

Donna’s next standup gig is an utter train wreck as she ascends the stage completely off-her-ass drunk and proceeds to go into a drunken rant about her break-up that is as unfunny as it is awkward. The only plus of the evening is that she meets nice-guy Max (Lacy) at the bar, continues to get drunker and ends up at his apartment for a night of mindless, meaningless sex. She leaves the next morning without leaving a note.

Not long afterwards she discovers that mindless, meaningless sex can get you pregnant too, even though she was pretty sure they’d used protection in the form of a condom. She’s not really 100% sure on that point – not that it matters because a condom really isn’t 100% protection against pregnancy either. The thing is, she is preggers and the one thing she’s sure about is that she’s not ready to be a mom. She’s not ready to be pregnant either considering her uncertain future, her lack of funds and job and without a partner to help her out. An abortion seems to be the best choice for her given the circumstances.

Once this decision is made, she’s unsure that she wants to tell her mother about it, sure that her mom will see this as yet another failure in life by her disappointment of a daughter. Also, she keeps running into Max unexpectedly and he clearly likes her. A lot and she thinks she might like him too, even though he’s as gentile as a Christmas tree in Rockefeller plaza and she’s the menorah at the top that burns the whole damn tree down.

Some will see this as a movie about abortion but as film critic Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle points out, the better movie would be about the woman having that abortion and Robespierre wisely realizes that. The decision for Donna is a simple one from a practical standpoint but emotionally she’s unsure of what to do, how to feel and she asks Nellie, who’s had one, whether she thinks about it (she does but she doesn’t think she made the wrong choice).

Slate, who was on Saturday Night Live for a season and famously dropped an F bomb in her first episode, does a star turn here in the role of Donna. Donna uses her sense of humor as something of a shield against her own vulnerability and has no filter whatsoever. That endears her to those willing to put the effort in to get to know her. She is far from perfect although she is cute as a button. To my mind, Slate has far more upside than a lot of actresses who have come from standpoint and should easily join the ranks of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph as graduates of SNL to stardom, although I think the big screen would be far more appropriate than television as a medium for her talents.

She gets some good support from Liedman (her sketch partner in real life) and Hoffmann and Lacy, who was a regular on The Office makes a fine straight man. I like that Robespierre chose not to give us the glamorized indie version of New York where people work in creative jobs, live in amazing lofts they couldn’t possibly afford and eat out and hang out at hipster clubs every night while showing up to work fresh as a daisy the next day. The places Donna and her friends can afford to hang out in are mostly pretty dingy and Donna’s apartment is tiny and far from glitzy. This is the life someone in her situation would be leading for real.

Inevitably there is going to be some politicization of the film’s subject matter but be assured there’s none in the film whatsoever. The conservative religious right tend to portray abortions as something done by sluts without any sort of care or consequence but that’s not what happens here. Donna while vulnerable and impaired has unprotected sex which might be characterized as a foolish mistake but she is not someone who seems inclined to sleep around – in fact, she has a scene with veteran comic David Cross in which she turns him down for sex.

What really makes this film worth seeing are a pair of scene near the movie’s end. The first is when Donna is having her abortion and has been given a sedative to relax her. As the procedure begins, we see a tear rolling down from her eye. Even more powerful is the scene that follows when Donna and the other women who have just undergone the procedure sitting in the recovery room and exchanging glances. No dialogue is said but the looks on their faces say it all – this was not a decision entered into lightly and the consequences are absolutely on all of their minds.

In an era when a woman’s right to choose is under concerted attack from Tea Party politicians and where choices to have abortions are becoming much more scarce in Red States, a movie like this becomes much more necessary and meaningful. While I’m not sure this will change any Right to Lifers minds on the subject, it serves as a vivid reminder that for all the hysteria and noise generated by that group, women in general are not ignorant of the consequences of their ability to make that choice – and that it is a hard choice even if the practical side is easy. From that standpoint, this is an essential film and while I found the nature of Donna’s comedy unappealing, I loved the character in a big way because of her flaws and imperfections. Donna is the kind of woman you probably know already. If you don’t, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for you to find this movie either at your local art house or soon when it comes to home video and get to know her.

REASONS TO GO: A realistic look at the effects of unwanted pregnancies on real women and the choices they must face. Slate shows that she is ready to be the next great film comedienne.

REASONS TO STAY: Unnecessarily scatological. Too many awkward moments.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of rough language and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie’s title comes from the first track on the 1990 Paul Simon album The Rhythm of the Saints.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/9/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Punchline

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Transformers: Age of Extinction

The Answer Man


The Answer Man

Jeff Daniels finds Lauren Graham's resemblence to Shirley MacLaine more noticeable than ever in this scene.

(2009) Romantic Comedy (Magnolia) Jeff Daniels, Lauren Graham, Lou Taylor Pucci, Olivia Thirlby, Kat Dennings, Nora Dunn, Tony Hale, Anne Corley, Max Antisell, Thomas Roy, Peter Patrikios. Directed by John Hindman

We all want insight into the way the world works. We muddle through as best we can, but the truth is life doesn’t come with an owner’s manual. We have to make it work with the tools we have, often with imperfect information.

Arlen Faber (Daniels) seems to have the answers. He wrote a bestselling book entitled “Me and God” which in the words of one person, “redefined spirituality for an entire generation.” However, in the words of another person, “He may have written ‘Me and God’ but he did not read it.” Faber has locked himself away in a charming row house in Philadelphia, shying away from the limelight and the millions of people who want more answers from him. He’s a little bit of J.D. Sallinger in that regard, only without the charm.

When he throws his back out, he’s forced to crawl – literally – to the nearest chiropractor which happens to be Elizabeth (Graham) who’s never heard of him. However her receptionist Anne (Thirlby) certainly has and after Elizabeth renders him (temporarily) pain-free, he swears by his new savior. Mainly he just swears.

He also wants to get rid of a library-full of self-help books he’s accumulated over the years and so he decides to unload them at the local used-book store owned by Kris (Pucci) who himself has just returned from rehab to find a dying father and a bookstore that is nearly as dead. Frustrated and in need of answers, Kris agrees to take the unwanted books in exchange for answers which Arlen reluctantly agrees to. In the meantime, a romance begins to blossom between Arlen and Elizabeth, who is highl protective of her son Alex (Antisell), another one of those precocious indie movie children. Arlen, Elizabeth and Kris are all individually wounded in one way or another; could it be that together they can help each other heal, or at least learn to cope better with their wounds?

That’s really about it in terms of plot. Being that this is an indie movie the film is a bit highbrow in a lot of ways, substituting spiritual/philosophical discussion for the usual banter you find in typical rom-com fare. That’s kind of refreshing for starters. The relationship between Elizabeth and Arlen is actually pretty realistic and there’s some actual chemistry there. That’s also kind of refreshing these days.

I like the idea of the movie using the romantic comedy as a forum for exploring bigger questions about existence, our place in the universe and our own self-image but there are times I get the feeling that the writers were grappling with too many of these big ticket issues and wound up doing justice to none of them. Sometimes less is more, particularly when you’re tackling the big picture.

Daniels is certainly an underrated actor. He always seems to turn in a solid performance; it has been quite awhile since he was in a movie that I didn’t think he was compelling in. That streak continues here. He makes the curmudgeonly, socially awkward and extremely lonely Arlen actually a relatable figure which is an achievement in itself. Certainly on paper Arlen is not terribly likable.

There are similarities between this and the James Brooks comedy As Good As It Gets (which has been the touchstone most critics have been using), but they are definitely very different movies. At the end of the day this is a flawed but ultimately interesting movie that while being ostensibly a romantic comedy certainly doesn’t fit in the typical rom-com cliche film that Hollywood churns out these days. While ultimately this is about the redemption of Arlen Faber, it’s also about our own need to find ourselves in a world where many are willing to give us their own answers, but few of them really pan out.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice chemistry between Daniels and Graham. I like the overall themes to the movie. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The film overreaches at times, trying to make a bit more out of its spirituality themes than perhaps it should.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of harsh language, I have to admit.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is John Hindman’s directing debut.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $26,676 on an unreported production budget; the film was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Boys Are Back