A Ghost Story Review

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At least once a year a film comes along and begs audiences to feel something. In 2012 there was The Perks of Being A Wallflower, from writer/director Stephen Chbosky, which begged the viewer to feel happy and sad simultaneously with friendship and tragedy. In 2015 audience were left to feel the struggles of loss and what it means to grow up in the elegantly crafted The Little Prince. This year, the movie that is baring its heart and soul is David Lowery’s A Ghost Story. Lowery is able to take an otherwise silly childhood image, and by use of precisely lengthened shots, mold it into an emotion filled story which leaves the viewer questioning what it means to exist. 

Literally and figuratively this movie goes through cycles. From a focus standpoint it starts off looking at M (Rooney Mara) and C (Casey Affleck) as a couple. Audiences get to see the dynamic of their relationship through otherwise meaningless conversations demonstrating their comfortability and intimacy. Focus shifts to M, and the viewer gets to see her pain through the editing and long shots (more on that shortly). Through those shots the audience sees her grieving and gets to grieve with her. The editing helps establish the passage of time by showing M walk out the front door and is instantly back in the house heading out the front door. This cycle happens several times successively and demonstrates that M is dealing with the situation and moving on. After M, the film focuses on C who is now a sheet ghost (not a spoiler—it is what the movie is about). Viewers are shown his perspective and what it means to occupy space, and the attachments people have to spaces. This is achieved through C staying in the house for decades as the space transforms, as does he—becoming angrier, dirtier, and complacent. Without spoiling anything there will not be an explanation about how the films cycles through the focus at this point, but it does, and it is gorgeously crafted. 

Back to the shots mentioned earlier. To start, this picture is shot in a unique ratio: 1.33:1 with rounded corners. Immediately this ratio gives the film a home-movie look and feel, which also adds to the feeling of intimacy throughout. A point that cannot be emphasized enough is that this film is top notch visual story telling. Lowery begins the film with long drawn-out scenes. For example, there is a scene in which M is eating a pie that lasts for several minutes. This establishes that the viewer is experiencing this moment and this sadness with M. It is unsettling, it is uncomfortable, and it is heartbreaking. Lowery continues to utilize long takes through the beginning of the film. As the movie progresses and time begins to speed up so does the length of the shots. Toward the end of the film there are cuts and flashbacks in rapid succession in comparison to the start of the movie to demonstrate the apex is coming.

Different length shots combined with the acting and the music create an atmosphere of eeriness and emptiness. Mara’s performance is realistic and grounded. She seems ready to move on from their house, because to her it is just a space. Affleck, who spends three quarters of the time under a sheet, is able to make his ghost emote. He uses long stares into corners and out windows to show his emptiness. He uses head turns and sweeping moments to show curiosity. He uses classic ghost motifs such as floating objects, flickering lights, and passing though walls to show anger and frustration. The sheet might seem silly at first, but as the movie progress it aids in creating a hollowness which is prevalent as the film continues. Music also assists in providing a tone to the picture. Daniel Hart’s composition is flooded with violin and captures the visual feel of the movie. Specifically the piece “The Secret In the Wall” is tear inducing even when listening to it on its own. Within the movie C is a musician and working on a song throughout. That song, “I Get Overwhelmed,” performed by Hart’s band Dark Rooms, fits to the visuals and the dynamic between C and M flawlessly, and is the perfect cap to this creative powerhouse.

As far as problems go there are not many. There is one lengthy exposition scene at a party which people might find too on the nose. But it also gives viewers context to what is going on in the rest of the film, so this could go either way. Another part people might find troublesome is the time frame. Again without spoiling anything, there is a time shift which is confusing and weird, although Lowry is able to reel it in and make sense of it in the climax. 

Outside of those couple parts this movie is a masterpiece. Lowery and Affleck are able to bring life to a blank, faceless figure. They take something so innate to childhood and growing up and transform it into an art piece worth experiencing recurrently. And that is what this movie is: an art piece. It is more than a collection of scenes. It is more than solid performances. It is more than elegantly composed music. It is a culmination of all those thing combined to deliver a movie that reminds people (present company included) why they love movies, and why people like Lowery love to make them.

Further Viewing: Other A24 films. 

Cult of Chucky Review

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Franchises, such as Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare On Elm Street, have dominated the never-ending sequel game, ditching cast and crew along the way. All three (except for possibly the new Halloween coming in 2018) have ended their original story lines in favor of being remade and attempting to start their franchises over. One franchise that is still continuing with original cast and creator is the Child’s Play franchise. Yes, they have changed and morphed along the years, but in 2013’s Curse of Chucky Don Mancini brought audiences back to the roots of the series with an eerie house terrorized by a killer doll, and none of the silliness present in its two predecessors. This time around Mancini presents a direct follow up to Curse with Cult of Chucky. Cult, while lacking typical scares, is a fun, bloody romp around an asylum that takes the franchise in a new direction.

Child’s Play and Child’s Play 2 are slasher movies. They follow along with typical slasher tropes (person getting stalked, people around them dying, etc.), and at least attempt to be scary. Cult, while following along with some slasher tropes, never delivers a solid scare. Chucky is creepy and maniacal, but when it comes to terrorizing adults he loses his intimidation. Most of the movie the doll is being held by an adult as if he were a baby, so when he starts walking about it is almost cute. Perhaps the slasher sub-genre is dead, so Mancini wanted to go a different direction. That direction is where any scare in this movie exists, but not in the way audiences might expect. Without spoiling what happens, it seems like Mancini went for more of a psychological scare. What if this happens? And the answer to that question is a scary thought concurrently cool for fans of the Chucky legacy.

For fans of the franchise Cult of Chucky is a blast. Using an asylum as the central setting and starting with Nica’s (played again by Fiona Dourif) psychotic breakdown are smart choices. These two elements create a sense of paranoia for the viewer. This leads to questioning everything and asking, is this real? throughout the movie. There is a sense of confusion present with people inside the asylum, outside the asylum, and with the audience, which makes this installment a fun ride until all is revealed. Another way Cult is fun is, without a doubt, the kills. Again, without spoiling anything, these kills are gruesome. One is reminiscent of Fulci’s Zombie. Are some over-the-top? Yes, but this is a Chucky movie, so it is expected, and that makes it more entertaining. Also entertaining is seeing Nica and Chucky interact (played by real-life daughter and father, respectively). One scene in particular Nica does something…Chucky-esque that will have fans nodding with approval. The last entertaining aspect worth mentioning is the cast. Obviously both Dourifs are back, but there are two other actors who come back to play their original characters, which is appreciated.

On a technical aspect Cult is decent, but nothing outstanding. Michael Marshall does the cinematography, as he did in Curse, so the look of this film is essentially the same—crisp, while providing a drab tone. The only difference being Cult has more daytime and typical bright white asylum scenes. The directing and the writing are fine. Again, this is a direct continuation of Curse, so the style and feel are similar. Chucky, for the most part, looks smooth. The biggest problem with him is there are one or two scenes where his arms are disproportionate. For some reason, in those scenes, Chucky’s arms appear longer than they should be. As far as the acting goes, the performances were enjoyable. Brand Dourif’s Chucky is always menacing with a hint of comedy. Fiona Dourif juxtaposes well with her father, more intense than she was in Curse and carries this movie well. The other characters play crazy believable enough to give the asylum an authentic feel.

At the end of the day Cult of Chucky is an entertaining watch. Often with sequels in this genre, the audience does not get to see the aftermath of the predecessor. Typical audiences are presented with a new batch of people to see getting mutilated. Mancini was smart to give a direct follow-up that allows viewers to see the repercussions and their effects on the prevailing final girl. Another intelligent move from Mancini was to ditch jump scares in favor of psychological creepiness. For those jumping into the franchise, it will be a fun ride through the loony bin. For fans of the Child’s Play franchise, this will be a worthy installment and will definitely scratch the Chucky itch until the sequel (which needs to happen after the ending this provides) is unleashed on the world.

Further Viewing: Puppetmaster - for more killer dolls

mother! Review

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With sequels, universe building, and remakes, there is not an abundance of original content in the movie world. Once in a while something original will come along and garner audiences’ attention. From 2015’s Ex Machina, to 2016’s Swiss Army Man, to this years mother! originals are able to be mainstream films, which get audiences talking. Writer and directer Darren Aronofsky’s mother! succeeds in doing exactly that. From its allegorical story, to its gorgeous visuals, to its well-acted cast, mother! is a grotesque mystery which will generate polarizing conversations.

As stated before mother! is an allegory, but figuring that out and piecing it together is half the fun of seeing this film. That being said, no more will be discussed on what that allegory is to avoid spoiling any part of the movie. The symbolism is woven throughout the film elegantly. Oftentimes it hits references right on the nose. Other times Aronofsky tweaks elements to make them his own and to fit with the tone of the movie. The symbolism aids in giving this film more meaning, but there are moments that do not quite work with what Aronofsky is trying to say. At times, if you are looking for it, the references are obvious, but if you are not looking for anything this movie still has more to offer.

Technically this movie shines. The sound design is brilliant. Every creak of the floor, or each time a door opens or closes, it is audible. When Jeniffer Lawrence walks around barefoot you can hear the subtlety of her feet dragging against the salvaged wooden floors. This aids in the audience getting a feel for the house—what it sounds like and what it looks like. Editing is also outstanding. Andrew Weisblum, the films editor, is able to make the house seem whole and massive, but simultaneously claustrophobic. When the chaos ensues in the third act, the different scenes are sewn together seamlessly. Begging the question, “How is all this happening in this house?” yet it never feels like it is anywhere else. The cinematography is gorgeous. Most of the film has an airy yellow tint to it (possibly a reference in itself), which becomes darker and distorted until each scene is flooded with blue. Blue is then subsided by a sharper, more direct yellow that bursts into an uproarious exclamation, deserving orange in the film’s final act. 

Outside of the technical aspects, this film also has solid performances from its cast. Bardem is enigmatic and plays his part straight. Every so often he shows fits of rage and excitement—making the audience feel his emotions and concurrently frustrated with his actions. Much of the other cast members are secondary, aside from the supporting characters played by Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer. Both roles, Man and Woman, respectively, are well acted. Harris stays calm throughout, frequently bumbling, providing a believable performance of a man welcoming hospitality and stuck in admiration. Pfeiffer, rarely without a drink in her hand, plays her part of curious and viperous woman well with beady eyes and an accusatory tone. The other performance worth noting is by Jennifer Lawrence. Lawrence stays fairly docile throughout, using a raspy voice that cracks when the emotional strain is too much. She attempts to make her presence known, but is constantly shadowed by Bardem’s strong Him. Only in the end does Lawrence get to use her full range of emotion. 

Lawrence, although playing her part well, seems underused. Perhaps it is how her character is written, but she never gets a chance to shine. Aside from Lawrence’s underutilization there are other areas the movie falters. Mainly with the allegory mentioned before. As mentioned, sometimes it does not fit. There are parts that are intense only for the sake of being intense or grotesque. After watching, the biggest question is if this films holds up as a coherent story without the allegory and symbolism. Some will say yes, and some will disagree.

At the time of release the buzz around this film has been polarizing. People are either loving it and praising it as a masterpiece, or hating it and saying it is the worst film of the year. mother! is somewhere in between. mother! is beautiful to look at and intense to watch with good performances and tight editing. However, the beating a dead horse, obliquely obvious message woven throughout sometimes bogs down the plot and uses gore because it can. Is this movie garbage? No. Is it a masterpiece? Not necessarily, but it is definitely better than it is horrible. And it should be applauded for originality. Paramount has been completely supportive, and that is admirable. More acclaim, buzz, and backing will hopefully begat more original content. In the meantime, go see mother! and see for yourself what all the hype is about.

Further Viewing: Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream - for a couple more Aronofsky flicks.

 

IT (2017) Review

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Inherently people dislike remakes. Perhaps because they do not provide the same feeling as the original, or they diminish it, or they seem unnecessary (talking to you, 1998 Psycho). Or maybe the remakes are simply bad films. Whatever the case may be, remakes should not always be taken lightly. Sometimes, rarely, there are gems. Look at John Carpenter’s The Thing—not only a great movie, but a fantastic remake, which still holds up today. The Thing is creative, necessarily modernized, and almost reinvents the original 1951 film. The same can be said about IT. With the time frame moved up approximately 30 years and a more focused story, IT, albeit not without flaws, is a remake worth watching.

From the beginning with the eerie piano playing, the well acted moment between brothers, the cool bird’s-eye-view in the rain, and the first encounter with Pennywise, it is clear IT is going to benefit from being updated. Going from a mini-series (It 1990) to a feature film is the first smart thing IT does. This movie improves from that change alone. The ability to be gory intensifies nearly every scene. There is blood everywhere, but it is well placed and aids the gruesome nature of the story. Another benefit of the modernization is the the shift in the time frame.

Feeding off the current 80s nostalgia trend, IT channels the children ensemble cast, as in Stand By Me and The Goonies (there’s even a Chunk and a Mouth).  IT embodies the 80s with subtle nods to era-appropriate movies, the arcade, and the Losers Club riding around town on bikes. Jumping to the 80s gives people who were fans of the original as kids a relatable time frame by tapping into their youth and retreading their old adolescent fears. Those fears are the focus of Pennywise.

Each time Pennywise introduces itself to a new character, it presents itself as something different. Another smart choice. From the fear of disease, to the fear of becoming a woman, Pennywise encompasses each child’s nightmare. Once they are horrified, it reveals itself to be more menacing and feeds off the despair it creates. This elevates the clown from a circus staple to the personification of fear, which aids the film in focusing on the children.

Ditching the adults-having-flashbacks framing device of the original amplifies the pacing in comparison. The change in pace keeps the focus on the kids. Audiences are never taken out of their world, which works because these kids are great. The opening with Bill and Georgie bonding boosts the emotional connection to them, which makes Georgie’s inevitable demise hit even harder. They are not the only ones to bring their A-game. Each kid pulls their own weight throughout, providing different elements to the story. Finn Wolfhard’s character is obnoxious, but in the best way. His performance stands out because it is well-acted, and he rarely shuts his mouth. All the kids feel real and relatable, making their eventual congregation feel organic. Outside the children, the only other performance worth mentioning (because all the adults are worthless) is Pennywise.

Now, it is well established that people adore Tim Curry’s performance as Pennywise. Bill Skarsgard had a lot to live up to, and he does. The way he moves (sometimes robotic, sometimes fluid), the way he talks (sometimes fun, sometimes raspy), the way he interacts with the children (sometimes inviting, mostly terrifying), are all sadistic and anxiety-inducing. Where Curry is both comical and creepy, Skarsgard’s Pennywise is played straight and only borders on silliness a few times. Those silly moments are part of this movie's few flaws.

Intrinsically clowns are goofy. So it is understandable parts of Pennywise come off as such. Most moments when there is silliness it works, such as the creepy laugh. But there are other times, such as a dance sequence, which seem like they are supposed to be scary, but come off more comical than anything else. This sometimes underplays the effectiveness of Pennywise. These bits, partnered with other comedic elements, are where this film struggles most.

Do not misunderstand—this movie is hilarious. Nearly every joke lands. The only complaint here is there are moments the jokes are misplaced. Scenes will build tension and become creepy, then an unnecessary joke will be made and the tension is diffused. This is problematic because then the scare happens, and it does not hit as hard as it could. The scares get undercut by the humor. This only happens a few times, and for most, it will not be an unwelcome breath from the spooks.

As stated earlier, the adults in this movie are basically nonexistent. It works. The problem with this is there are things that happen without repercussions. For example, there are at least three people who are murdered, not directly by Pennywise, but by other humans. Those people get killed, and that is it. No mention of it after. Maybe that will be addressed if there is a part two, but for now it seems odd. 

Overall IT provides constant, thoughtful, well-placed scares. All the scares play on the well-acted young character’s fears, putting Pennywise next to Freddy Kruger’s fear-eating, terror-inducing threat to children. Through its use of dutch angles and intelligent, well-focused story line, IT creates an atmosphere both off-putting and inviting. By taking the bones of the original and creating a different, updated story, IT is a remake that will please fans of the original and those jumping in.

Further Viewing: It (1990) - to compare to the remake. And for one of Curry's best performances.

Annabelle: Creation Review

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X-men First ClassTemple of DoomAnnabelle: Creation have at least one thing in common--they are among the few rare prequels which surpass their predecessors. In rarer form, Creation is a prequel of a prequel and has no business to be half way decent, yet it is. Here is the fourth installment into The Conjuring universe. For the first time this is a film which simultaneously feels like a branch of that universe and stands up on its own. David F. Sandberg’s direction, Maxime Alexandre’s cinematography, and the work of the sound department give Annabelle: Creation a breath of death the series needed. 

Sandberg hones the skills he presented in his short films. As a fan of Sandberg's shorts (especially Lights Out) it is clear he pulled from his experience with those and applied them to Creation. Elements from Lights Out (short), partnered with Coffercome up throughout this film. Tension is present throughout the movie by use of long takes (when the girls arrive at their new home), scary nighttime scenes that last longer than most movie scenes of the same type (the scene with the chair moving up the steps), and by not providing a jump when expected (the look between the bunkbeds). Sandberg utilizes the tension and expectations to elevate his short films through his directing accompanied with the cinematography.

Maxime Alexandre, the Director of Photography, uses the time period and setting to create an eerie landscape.  Where Annabelle failed to look and feel like the era it was representing, Creation delivers. Dustiness from the rural landscape outside rolls into the house, giving the bluish tones a graininess that draws the viewer. That blueness, specifically at night, contrasts well with the yellow tint present with the daytime and the farmland. These contrasting tones aid the scares by playing with the audience's expectations. It is impressive when a movie can provide scares during daylight scenes, which Creation does thanks to Alexandre's style. In these aspects, this film emulates The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2, making it feel like a part of the universe without piggybacking. Alexandre's classic vertigo-inducing dolly zooms and sharpness fleshes out the setting and aids the sound department to create an overall intensity.

Crisp, for lack of a better word, is the best way to describe the sound of this movie. Every tight creak of the hardwood floors is audible and clear. Parts of the film have no sound. Silence is utilized to again play with expectations and cause anxiety. Creaks and the silence work together well to help provide tension by drawing out the scenes and allowing the audience to hold their breath along with the characters.

Annabelle: Creation isn't without flaws. Where most haunted house movies ease into the scares and let the viewer question the character's sanity, this movie lacks the subtlety. The demon presents itself quickly and sets its intentions on the table straight away. For some, that may work because it jumps right in. But for others it may be too quick. Another lacking point for the film is the characters. There are too many of them. Yes, it's an orphanage, and yes, they need several girls to make that realistic, but there are at least two characters who have almost no screen time and are useless outside of filling up spaces on a bus. There are other aspects that don't work well, but the last one worth mentioning is toward the end of the movie. For the first time the demon pops up in two places at once. Simultaneously it is in the barn, which is a cool, creepy scene, and in the house in dumbwaiter, which feels predictable boring. This is frustrating because it only happens on this one occasion and is never an established thing the demon can do. It feels cheap and unnecessary.

Outside of the few flaws mentioned, Annabelle: Creation is an enjoyable movie. It provides scares throughout by building up tension and playing with expectations. Sound design, cinematography, and direction are the key components that make this film work well. With a subtle nod to Valak, a more focused story than its sequel, and an elegant tie in to its sequel as well, Annabelle: Creation is a fun, scary flick and a must see for fans of The Conjuring universe.

Further Viewing: Annabellesee how it compares. 
                            Ouija: Origin of Evil - another horror prequel better than its predecessor.

Annabelle Review

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Building cinematic universes, although becoming tiresome, is not going anywhere any time soon. From the Marvel universe, to DC, to Universal’s Dark Universe, studios are attempting to cash-in on brand recognition. The now four-movie deep Conjuring Universe is no different, and with the release of Annabelle: Creation in theaters (and getting decent reviews) it was time to visit the original, and see how they compare. Annabelle, the second movie of the universe, fails to deliver the scares or the craft of its elegant predecessor, The Conjuring.

    Part of the problem with Annabelle is it has cool scenes, which are then bogged down by everything prior and following them. This is a problem because two scenes in particular are well crafted, and the rest isn’t; it forces the audience to see the drastic difference and wonder what this film could have been.  After the brief initial opening of getting introduced to the characters, the viewer is thrown into a brutal, double home invasion murder sequence. It is this scene, partnered with one other, that are the best parts of the movie. There is a dark, dreary contrast to the lighthearted introduction. The cult murderers are stealthy, even in their white garments, and menacing. And as the blood drips onto Annabelle’s face we think this prequel might have a chance. It does not.

    Focus is the biggest flaw for Annabelle. The style is not focused at all. Supposedly a period piece taking place in the late 1960s, there is hardly anything to indicate that. Yes, the cars are from the era, but they are hardly noticeable. The clothing and the set pieces seem like the designers went to Urban Outfitters and grabbed whatever was in. Also, the movie has no visual style either. It was bright and dull and a bit boring to look at. The cinematography was flat, and poses the question: Why didn't the director, John R. Leonetti, who was the Director of Photography on The Conjuring,  shoot this film himself?

    Another way the movie lacks focus is with the villain. There are three villains in the film. First is Annabelle herself. The movie is titled Annabelle, but the doll is hardly in the movie. Sometimes less is more, and can be effective, but in this case she is used so minimally she never becomes scary, and is often forgotten. The second villain is the woman from the cult. She shows up at the beginning, bleeds into the doll, pops up here and there to walk by a door way, but that is it. Nothing else is known about her, aside from that she killed her parents—leaving her scares mild at best. And third there is the demon. Played by composer Joseph Bishara, the black demon of Annabelle gets lost in the shadows. He is mostly there to manipulate the doll, and possibly to give a small connection to The Conjuring (although the character design looks like it could have been the brother of the Lipstick-Face Demon from Insidious). Possibly the best use of the demon character, and the best scene in the movie, is in the basement.

    The only other scene worth mentioning is the elevator scene. Mia, played by Annabelle Wallis, attempts to leave her apartment complex basement by way of elevator. Unfortunately for her, every time the doors open she is back at the basement with the demon lurking in the dark. This scene, which is directed by James Wan, has a cold blue feel not present in the rest of the movie. There is tension built through repetition and the promise of something hiding in the shadows. With every sliding of the elevator doors, the viewer is allowed to be in the moment with Mia, waiting and worrying about what might be on the other side. 

    Admittedly Annabelle has some moments of fright, at least two, but not even the (seemingly longer) 99 minute run-time could save it from being visually boring and unfocused. A weak start to The Conjuring spin-offs. Hopefully, if The Nun and The Crooked Man are made, they have more life to them than Annabelle and her fellow dolls.

Further Viewing: The Conjuring - James Wan with one of his finest, good scares, and see where Annabelle started.