Annabelle: Creation


The power of Christ compels you!

(2017) Horror (New Line) Anthony LaPaglia, Samara Lee, Miranda Otto, Brad Greenquist, Lulu Wilson, Tabitha Bateman, Stephanie Sigman, Mark Bramhall, Grace Fulton, Philippa Coulthard, Taylor Buck, Lou Lou Safran, Joseph Bishara, Alicia Vela-Bailey, Lotta Losten, Fred Tatasciore (voice), Brian Howe, Adam Bartley, Kerry O’Malley. Directed by David F. Sandberg

Creepy haunted dolls have been a staple of the horror genre for a very long time. Sometimes they are the avatars for demonic spirits; other times they are physically possessed. They are sometimes played for laughs but there are few things scarier than a demonic doll coming at you while brandishing a knife with intent to do homicide.

I imagine nobody would know that better than Sam Mullins (LaPaglia) since he is a dollmaker. He is also a grieving father; his daughter Bee (Lee) was killed in a tragic auto accident some seven years earlier (this is set in the late 1940s/early 1950s by the way). Since then, he has retreated back to the California farmhouse that is also his workshop along with his disfigured and disabled wife Esther (Otto).

When he hears of an orphanage in need of some housing space, he invites them to stay in his spacious home. For the six girls who are brought to the Mullins farm, it’s like heaven on Earth. Their caretaker, Sister Charlotte (Sigman) is grateful that they have a place to stay, particularly for the two youngest, polio-stricken Janice (Bateman) whose leg is in a brace and her cheerful, optimistic bestie Linda (Wilson) who has sworn to stay together with Janice no matter what.

There is one room that is locked in the whole house, one of two that the girls are forbidden to enter; one is the bedroom where Esther rests; the locked door is Bee’s former bedroom. However, when Janice discovers the door to Bee’s room open and ventures in, she finds there a doll that seemingly can move on its own and the spirit of Bee begging for help. What does Bee need? “Your soul,” she snarls and Janice is on the road to Linda Blair-land. Soon after the orphans and the grieving couple are going to be doing a lot of running, screaming and in some cases, bleeding.

This is a prequel to the first Annabelle film which in turn was a prequel to The Conjuring. Sandberg was apparently reluctant to tackle this initially after achieving a rep with the successful Lights Out  He decided to do it because the film is almost a stand-alone entry; very little of the rest of the Conjured universe is even referenced here. With Creation netting $300 million (and counting) at the box office on a production budget of $35 million, you can bet he’ll have the juice to pick and choose his next few projects at his leisure.

The movie is a slow burner; it starts off slowly, builds gradually than erupts in the third act in a chaotic whirlwind of gore and terror – very old school when it comes to that and you’ll find no objection coming from this critic on that count. I also like the air of melancholy that Sandberg sets up and is particularly enacted by LaPaglia who is a much underrated actor. Sigman gets to look worried an awful lot and Otto gets almost no screen time whatsoever but makes good use of the time she does get.

The rest of the cast playing the orphans are all very attractive and well-scrubbed although they are mostly given one-note characters to play; the mean one, the flunky, the perky one and so on. Bateman does a credible job playing the frightened Janice, a young girl who’s gotten a raw deal from life although that deal gets even worse when Annabelle shows up; the before and after portrayals show some real talent for Bateman. I’m not familiar with Hart of Dixie, the TV show she was a regular on but judging on her performance here I think she certainly has a future.

Although critics were solidly behind this one, I found it to be the weakest entry in the franchise so far and mainly because it really doesn’t have much of a personality. While there are a few legitimately good scares here, the vast majority of them are pretty predictable. The plot utilizes a lot of elements that are typical for horror films including the panic-driven dumb moves by the protagonists. There felt like a shortage of imagination in writing this film which is what really bothered me about it. The CGI was a little subpar as well.

Still, this is a solid horror movie that will entertain; it just doesn’t hold up as well next to the other entrants in the franchise. Given its box office success and with at least two more spin-offs in the works from the second Conjuring movie, I can say with confidence that we haven’t seen the last of Annabelle quite yet.

REASONS TO GO: LaPaglia gives a melancholy performance. There are a few really nasty scares here.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s definitely the weakest entry in the franchise thus far. It feels a bit short on imagination with too many horror movie clichés in the mix.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some horrific images, lots of violence and situations of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie in The Conjuring franchise in which Ed and Lorraine Warren are not mentioned in any way.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Child’s Play
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness continues!

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Rings


All is not well with Samara.

(2017) Horror (Paramount) Matilda Lutz, Alex Roe, Jonny Galecki, Vincent D’Onofrio, Aimee Teegarden, Bonnie Morgan, Chuck Willis, Patrick Walker Zach Roerig, Laura Slade Wiggins, Lizzie Brocheré, Karen Ceesay, Dave Blamy, Michael E. Sanders, Randall Taylor, Drew Gray, Kayli Carter, Jill Jane Clements, Ricky Muse, Jeremy Harrison, Jay Pearson, Rose Bianco. Directed by F. Javier Gutiérrez

 

Urban legends have a tendency to take a life of their own. They also make for some pretty nifty horror movies, whether they are actual urban legends or made-up ones. One of the best of the latter was the Japanese horror film Ringu by Hideo Nakata which helped make the Japanese horror film industry a global powerhouse back in 1998. Four years later, Gore Verbinski of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise made an American version that didn’t disgrace itself and in 2005, Nakata himself directed the American sequel.

Now in 2017 the powers-that-be at the studio felt the time was right for a third installment of the series but forewent most of the attributes that made the two films so successful and tapped Spanish director Gutiérrez to take his shot. I don’t think that the film’s problems rest primarily on the director’s shoulders necessarily.

The new installment is a sequel. In it, the videotape that brought death to whomever watched it seven days to the tick after watching it is still making the rounds. Holt (Roe) has left his high school sweetheart Julia (Lutz) behind to attend college in the Pacific Northwest. At first, all is hearts and roses as the two lovebirds Skype their sexy across the miles. Then, Holt stops answering his phone. Julia becomes worried so like any good girlfriend she treks to the school to find out what her boyfriend is up to.

It turns out that he has become part of a study of that very videotape as presided over by whacked-out Professor Gabriel (Galecki from The Big Bang Theory) who keeps his students alive by having them do the only thing that gets the video watchers off the hook – show the video to another potential victim. It turns out her man has seen the video and is 24 hours away from an up close and personal visit from Samara (Morgan), the angry spirit who crawls up out of the video screen to murder those foolish enough to give in to temptation.

When Holt’s relief watcher doesn’t show up, Julia herself takes the bullet and watches the tape – which has now been, conveniently enough, transferred to a digital file for easy streaming. It’s the 2010s after all. S’anyway, Julia wants to get to the bottom of this whole rigmarole and ends up chasing clues about the real Samara to a small village on a remote island in the Puget Sound. There she finds a blind priest (D’Onofrio) who may know more about the legend of Samara than he’s letting on.

I think most fans of the series would have welcomed an updating of the original, made in the age of VCRs and modems, into a more digital format. There are certainly a lot of ways good writers could have taken this – Hell, even the concept of a collegiate study of the phenomenon might have worked if the writers had shown some originality.

But they didn’t – not even a little bit. The dialogue is preposterous and the characters are largely too bland and personality-challenged to care about. Lutz and Roe seem to be trying but I have to say that I found their performances simply didn’t create any chemistry or energy onscreen. The producers, going for a PG-13 rating, didn’t even leave Gutiérrez graphic gore or sex to fall back on.

D’Onofrio is a smart actor, who sometimes shows up in bad movies but he never does anything less than his best. Here, his role has little depth to it but what it does have D’Onofrio gives it by the dint of his performance. None of the other actors in the film really hold up next to him although Galecki comes close.

This is a bit of a yawner as horror films go and that’s not what you want to hear when trying to make a scare flick. It has enough going for it that I can give it a very mild – VERY MILD – recommendation but this is a mediocre attempt at resurrecting a franchise that deserves better treatment. I’m quite sure both Nakata and Verbinski would be rolling in their graves if they had one.

REASONS TO GO: D’Onofrio gives it the old college try.
REASONS TO STAY: A poorly written script and not enough imaginative scares doom this franchise revival.
FAMILY VALUES: As you might imagine, there’s plenty of horrific sequences, spooky images, profanity, a bit of sexuality and a brief scene of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first film in the franchise without lead actress Naomi Watts and special make-up effects master Rick Baker.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 6% positive reviews. Metacritic: 25/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ringu
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: John Wick Chapter 2

Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday


When hitchhiking, always levitate to get an immediate ride.

When hitchhiking, always levitate to get an immediate ride.

(2016) Comedy (Netflix) Paul Reubens, Joe Manganiello, Alia Shawkat, Stephanie Beatriz, Jessica Pohly, Doug Cox, Richard Riehle, Katherine VanderLinden, Josh Meyers, Corey Craig, Paul Rust, Monica Horan, Brian Palermo, Linda Porter, Tara Buck, John H. Mayer, Dave Power, Bobby Ray Shafer, Frank Collison, Brad William Henke, Leo Fitzpatrick, Christopher Heyerdahl, Sonya Eddy. Directed by John Lee


Sometimes when confronted by something that was an important part of our growing up, we are surprised that it meant anything to us at all. Other times, we are reminded why it was so important in our memory in the first place – it’s like rediscovering who we once were all over again.

So it is for those who grew up with Pee-Wee’s Playhouse during its CBS run from 1986-1990. It garnered 15 Emmys in those five years and changed the nature of children’s television. It also ended with the star disgraced after a public indecency incident which effectively derailed his career. Reubens, who played a man-boy character in a skinny grey suit with red bow-tie, pale skin and red lips, a 1950s haircut and an irrepressible attitude, made some cameo appearances but only recently has returned as a character actor, appearing most recently in the Gotham TV series.

Reubens is 63 now and his image is digitally enhanced to retain the youthful appearance of Pee-Wee Herman (Reubens). Still, he is placed in the idyllic small town of Fairville where he is the beloved fry-cook at the local diner, a man who’s never left the town limits and doesn’t aspire to. That is, until Joe Manganiello (Manganiello) roars into town on his motorcycle.

At first, all Manganiello wants is a chocolate shake – and Pee Wee makes a tasty one. But the men bond over a shared love of Root Beer Barrels candy and Manganiello impulsively invites his new best buddy to his birthday party in New York City in a week. He also advises Pee Wee to take a road trip rather than an airplane – the better to learn more about himself.

And so Pee-Wee hits the road and in some ways, the road hits back from a trio of brash bank robbing women straight out of a Russ Myers movie to an Amish community who are not ready for Pee-Wee to the most drawn-out Farmer’s Daughter joke in history, Pee-Wee discovers an America which is in many ways the way we imagine it would be, only through a skewed lens, but the more that happens to Pee-Wee the farther it seems he gets from his goal. Will he make it to New York for Joe’s party?

Those who loved Pee-Wee’s Playhouse are going to greet this movie with affection and nostalgia. Does it live up to the expectations of that show? Well, let’s be honest – Reubens set a very high bar with the show and movie, and I will have to say I’m not sure that Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday clears that bar, but it comes close enough that most devoted fans should be satisfied.

It also stands to reason that those who found Pee-Wee’s Playhouse less of a place they wanted to play in will probably not find this any more palatable. The same goofy vibe pervades and the same scattered sense of humor dominates. While most of the characters from the original show (other than Pee-Wee himself) are not involved, most fans will find the tone right in their wheelhouse.

Like much of the Playhouse material, the humor is a bit scattershot and some of the stuff works here better than other stuff. There is a sense that the filmmakers are trying a little too hard to recapture the magic and at times things feel a little forced. I have heard the complaint that Pee-Wee is essentially something of a one-note character but I don’t think that’s true, although he doesn’t have as much depth as some of the Muppets who always seem to have a lot of that for characters made of felt and wood.

I suspect those who have planned to see this likely already have and are either planning future viewings or have had their fill. However, those of you who are on the fence about this should be warned (or re-assured) that this is essentially more of the same of what you’re used to – not a bad thing of itself, but the material here while it doesn’t live up to the standards of the original doesn’t disappoint overly much either.

REASONS TO GO: Quirky and imaginative. Very charming in places.
REASONS TO STAY: An acquired taste. One gets a sense that the filmmakers are trying too hard.
FAMILY VALUES: Some rude humor here.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lyonne and Greenfield both appear in the sitcom New Girl.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/28/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Mermaid