Reviews

Theatrical and DVD reviews.

Review: Annabelle

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AnnabelleA number of films have been inspired by the cases of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, most notably The Amityville Horror. The most financially successful was 2013's The Conjuring, in which the couple played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga assist the Perron family (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) with the demonic presence troubling their home. That film, which made over $318 million worldwide, is bookended with the tale of another of their cases. In it, the Warrens help a young nurse dealing with the sinister presence inhabiting a doll given to her by her mother. The film closes with a scene set in the basement room where the Warrens keep demonically possessed curiosities, the doll "Annabelle" in her glass case reigning as the most evil and feared. It serves as a perfect introduction for this week's prequel, Annabelle.

I did not expect the studio heads in their mad rush to capitalize on The Conjuring's success to shit all over it, but of course, this is New Line, the company that brought us the Val Kilmer career-killing abortion The Island of Dr Moreau. They cut a $20 million budget to $5 million and replaced venerable Conjuring director James Wan with John R. Leonetti, whose hottest previous credits were Mortal Kombat: Annihilation and The Butterfly Effect 2. They hired an uncredited script polisher from the 2010 remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street who clumsily crafted an origin story set on the other side of the country, a script full of anachronisms, with no connection to the original film other than a vague mention of the Warrens as "some couple the church works with back east." And they replaced Farmiga and Wilson with younger lookalikes.

Fantastic Fest Review: The Tale of Princess Kaguya

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Princess KaguyaMy favorite Fantastic Fest 2014 selection easily won the audience award for best film. Studio Ghibli's latest, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, is also my pick for the best feature from the Japanese animation studio. Directed by Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata, it is at the surface a straightforward retelling of the 10th-century folktale The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, perhaps the oldest Japanese story. That simple description, however belies a work of enormous artistic depth evoking powerful emotions.

A bamboo cutter working in the forest finds a glowing stalk of bamboo with a blossom that opens to reveal a tiny princess. He takes her home to raise her with his wife, and she grows with amazing swiftness from an infant into a girl of exceptional beauty and limitless talents. Believing her sent by the gods along with the gold he finds in the bamboo, the old man's vision of Kaguya's future involves a life at court and marriage to a wealthy high-ranking official. She would be happier, however, back home in the hut she first knew, playing in the forest and fields.

Kaguya is enchanted with the simple beauty of nature, finding as much joy in plants and frogs as in the beautiful colors of her fine silks, but there is a mournful sadness in her song. When she plays the koto, the emotion conveyed is overpowering. The success of this film is in no small part due to composer Joe Hisaishi's work. Hisaishi's numerous credits include all of Ghibli's biggest films: The Wind Rises, Ponyo, Howl's Moving Castle, Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Kiki's Delivery Service, My Neighbor Totoro, Castle in the Sky and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.

The very few complaints about The Tale of Princess Kayuga regard its length and pace. At 137 minutes, it exceeds the length of Princess Mononoke by three minutes, but little could be trimmed from this emotionally dense film. Takahata packs a lifetime's worth of experience raising a child into that running time, celebrating and reaffirming the meaning of human experience and lamenting how swiftly it passes. Along with Kaguya's parents, we experience the joy of new life, hope for a bright future, disappointment as she makes her own, contrary choices ... and finally acceptance.

Review: The Boxtrolls

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The BoxtrollsI am always eager to see the latest Laika release. Output is slow from the animation studio due to the time-consuming and meticulous nature of its handmade stop-motion films, but bottling magic is no easy task. There is an ineffable tone in the studio's films -- perhaps because of its complete attention to details, perhaps because of some way natural lighting works compared to digital renderings -- that instills a sense of realism.

With The Boxtrolls, Laika takes on steampunk, creating a Victorian-looking village populated by hundreds of unique, charming (and some not so very) characters. Based on the children's book by Alan Snow, Here Be Monsters, directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi bring to life Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright, aka Bran Stark from Game of Thrones) and Winnie (Elle Fanning) as they fight to save their misunderstood friends from the evil designs of wily exterminator Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley).

I found the script somewhat less engaging than Laika's previous two movies, Coraline and ParaNorman, as it felt more appropriate for a younger audience. However, the film was never boring and often uproariously funny. The town of Cheesebridge is full of puns, especially in the character names like Lord Portley-Rind or Snatcher. ("My favorite was The Briehemoth.") There is also an oddball musical number, "The Boxtrolls Song," written by Eric Idle. Kingsley's villainous Mr. Snatcher steals the show (along with the trolls), as he performs with an accent that had me thinking he was Michael Caine.

Lone Star Cinema: A Mighty Heart

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Archie Panjabi and Angelina Jolie in A Mighty Heart

While working as a journalist in Karachi, American Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and beheaded in early 2002. It seemed timely to watch the 2007 film A Mighty Heart, based on his wife Miriane's memoir of the experience, as similar attacks by ISIS have been in the news in recent weeks.

The main reason I'd been hesitant to see A Mighty Heart is the casting of Angelina Jolie. Nothing against her as an actress, but having a white actress play a mixed-race woman continues a long history of "whitewashing" in film. Jolie does a fine job here, mimicing well Mariane Pearl's French accent and cadence. She plays Mariane as contained and determined during the search, then fierce and raw when she receives the tragic news of her husband's death. Logically I know that if Jolie hadn't been involved, the movie might not have ever received wide release. Yet I couldn't help wondering what qualities an actress of color might have brought to the role.

Jolie anchors the film, which includes a cast so large that it's nigh impossible to keep track of all their names. Reporters Mariane and Daniel Pearl look forward to leaving Pakistan as they prepare for their first child. The night Daniel (Dan Futterman, actor in Judging Amy, but also screenwriter of Capote and Foxcatcher) disappears while working on a story, Mariane hurriedly begins calling his contacts and the authorities. A team of sorts is formed to search for her husband, including acclaimed Indian actor Irrfan Khan (The Lunchbox, Life of Pi) as a Pakastani officer, and two familiar faces from The Good Wife -- Archie Panjabi and Denis O'Hare -- as an Indian-American writer and a Wall Street Journal editor, respectively.

Review: A Walk Among the Tombstones

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A Walk Among the TombstonesLiam Neeson taking on kidnappers, that's nothing new, right? This weekend's release, A Walk Among the Tombstones, is true to form. Neeson plays Matt Scudder, a detective who retired from the NYPD after being involved in a violent gunfight while under the influence. A plea for assistance from a fellow AA member involves him in a rather grisly kidnapping plot and also offers him a chance at redemption.

Writer/director Scott Frank (The Wolverine, Minority Report, Get Shorty), is responsible for some of Hollywood's biggest hits. This may not be one of them, as it attempts to re-create the formula of Neeson's Taken series. It is, however, a solid thriller that still manages a few surprises.

First is the introduction of a juvenile yet very capable sidekick. Brian "Astro" Bradley (Earth to Echo) plays TJ, a streetwise kid with a love of detective stories and knack for getting himself in trouble while turning up clues essential to Scudder's investigations. TJ never loses his cool whether confronting street thugs or the 6'4" frame of Neeson, and the young man has the beginnings of a great film career with his first three features (A remake of the 1999 Space Jam has already completed shooting.)

Speaking of shooting, another surprise in A Walk Among the Tombstones was the strong anti-gun message in such a dark and violent film. There are subtle references throughout as well as an emphatic lecture from Scudder to TJ on the subject. It seems out of place in a movie like this, though it serves the plot by providing some audience insight into Scudder's backstory.

Review: The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby

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The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby posterWhat happens when a director makes two movies from different viewpoints using the same plotline, then compiles them into one project? Director Ned Benson made two versions of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby -- one from the viewpoint of Conor (Him) and one from Eleanor's point of view (Her). If, as I did, you expect the compilation of the two films (Them) to include these differing takes, sorry to say that is not the case.

Instead of the experimental feeling the trailer hints at, the film The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them shares similarities with other grief-filled indie relationship dramas (Rabbit Hole and Rachel Getting Married specifically come to mind). What sets it slightly apart is the rhythm of this couple's tragic story and the intensity of the actors' performances.

Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) plays the Eleanor Rigby of the title, holing up in her parents' house after a failed suicide attempt. Dark eyeliner coats her eyes as she dons variations of the same outfit - a light shirt over a dark bra - with such costuming screaming her sadness (especially in comparison to the fresh face and sundresses we see her wear in flashbacks).

Other elements that overtly hint at Eleanor's unhappiness include the ambient, meditative score by Son Lux, punctuated by the cheesy pop songs she loves and the classical music her mother (French actress Isabelle Huppert) listens to. Her sister Katy (Jess Weixler, The Good Wife, Teeth) and Eleanor stay in their childhood rooms, decorated by comics such as "Little Nemo in Slumberland." On her way to the subway, Eleanor walks past statements scrawled on building walls; I probably tried too hard to understand the hidden message of the set design (and I don't think there is one, really).

Eleanor won't talk to her husband Conor (James McAvoy, The Last King of Scotland), so he resorts to following her around. "Can I keep stalking you?" he asks, when an incident finally gets her attention. Ick. Conor is mystified at Eleanor's harsher reaction to the tragic event that hit the couple. He's working to keep his bar afloat, helped and hindered by his chef and friend Stuart (Bill Hader, Saturday Night Live).

aGLIFF 2014 Dispatch: 'Appropriate Behavior' for Closing Night

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Appropriate Behavior

The Sunday evening screening of the aGLIFF closing-night narrative film, Appropriate Behavior, was a great way to wrap up my time at the festival.

It’s no surprise that the movie was a hit at this year's Sundance Film Festival; it's a terrific debut feature from writer/director/star Desiree Akhavan. I'm generally not a fan of romantic comedies, but Appropriate Behavior is so thoroughly snarky -- and often so defiantly anti-romantic -- that it's a rom-com even a cynic could tolerate.

Akhavan stars as Shirin, a young Brooklynite who's something of a poster child for the angst of young adulthood. She's still smarting from a hard breakup with her ex-girlfriend, Maxine (Rebecca Henderson). She struggles to be part of her perfect Persian family and is afraid to tell her parents she's bisexual. And her filmmaking career exists only in theory; the closest she comes to making movies is teaching her art -- more like attempting to teach it -- to a class of hyperactive 6-year-olds.

aGLIFF 2014 Dispatch: 'Queens & Cowboys' and 'Regarding Susan Sontag'

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Queens & Cowboys

aGLIFF's lineup is heavy on documentaries, and on Saturday I saw two outstanding ones: Queens & Cowboys: A Straight Year on the Gay Rodeo and Regarding Susan Sontag.

Queens & Cowboys is an enlightening look at 2011 season of the International Gay Rodeo Association (IGRA), following a group of cowboys and cowgirls as they compete to qualify for the association's World Finals.

The most enlightening aspect of the film may be the way it portrays the gay rodeo circuit as, well, rodeo; the circuit emphasizes the sport more than the cultural politics. The men in drag and rainbow paraphernalia give the festivities their own personality, but they're a sideshow to the real business at hand: bull and bronc riding, calf roping and the usual assortment of bone-jarring competitions. Aside from allowing women to compete in all events, a gay rodeo is essentially the same as any other rodeo.

aGLIFF 2014 Dispatch: 'Invisible' and 'Eternity: The Movie'

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Eternity the Movie

My 2014 aGLIFF adventure continued Thursday night with two films that could not be more different: Invisible and Eternity: The Movie.

A dark and dour documentary about male sex workers in Providence, Rhode Island, Invisible is a reminder of why so many moviegoers avoid documentaries.  Not for its quality; it's competently made and tells a compelling story. But that story is one most people don't want to hear, a grim tale of tragic and mostly hopeless lives. Invisible is a window on a world many of us pretend doesn't exist.

Filmmaker Dio Traverso's documentary centers on Richard Holcomb, an activist and former sex worker whose mission is to improve male sex workers' lives and help them avoid contracting HIV/AIDS. Holcomb roams the gritty streets of Providence, handing out condoms and helping his clients find medical care, counseling, and whatever else they need to survive. He also lobbies the local and state governments to support long-term solutions to the sex workers' problems. (Not surprisingly, the government officials promise a lot but do very little to help.)

Review: Land Ho!

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Land Ho!

Filmmakers Aaron Katz and Martha Stephens, who have teamed up for Land Ho!, have individually premiered all of their previous features at SXSW Film Festival. They're each known for films where characters are deep in exploration -- about themselves but also perhaps, a mystery (Cold Weather, Passenger Pigeons) or even a landscape (Brooklyn in Quiet City, Kentucky in Pilgrim Song). In Land Ho! (which premiered at Sundance this year), the same type of exploration takes place -- this time in Iceland -- with two primary characters who are gentlemen in their retirement years. It's a change for Katz, whose characters are usually in their late teens/early twenties.

No matter what the age of the characters, however, Stephens and Katz sustain the audience's interest in the type of story that sounds terribly slow and dull when explained in print, but is very rewarding as it unfolds onscreen. Two retired brothers-in-law, Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson) and Colin (Paul Eenhoorn), couldn't be more different. Mitch is a brash New Orleans doctor who loves talking to people -- and he has no filters -- smoking pot and unabashedly admiring women. Colin is a quiet, thoughtful Australian, frequently embarrassed or annoyed by Mitch. The two embark on a trip to Iceland together, beginning in Reykjavik and heading to less populated locales.

The focus of Land Ho! is the relationship between the Mitch and Colin, and how they affect one another, and where that leads over the course of the movie. The chief entertainment value is Mitch's dialogue, which is often outrageous and eye-opening (I had never heard steak compared to the female anatomy before). Of course, the film's best moments occur when he's not that way, but the conversation is never dull.

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