Movie Review ~ Annabelle: Creation

The Facts:

Synopsis: Several years after the tragic death of their little girl, a dollmaker and his wife welcome a nun and several girls from a shuttered orphanage into their home, soon becoming the target of the dollmaker’s possessed creation, Annabelle.

Stars: Stephanie Sigman, Talitha Bateman, Lulu Wilson, Philippa Anne Coulthard, Samara Lee, Tayler Buck, Anthony LaPaglia, Miranda Otto

Director: David F. Sandberg

Rated: R

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: In 2013, James Wan’s The Conjuring gleefully scared the bejeebus out of me and a bunch of other movie-goers that had been disappointed with horror movies for years. Smartly made, terrifically acted, and with significant replay value, it signaled a turning of the tides from the torture porn popularity of the Saw films into something with a bit more meat on its bones. Basically, it classed up the joint. Building off that film’s popularity and while waiting for Wan to deliver The Conjuring 2 in 2016, Annabelle was a quickie spin-off developed and released in 2014. Focusing on the freaky doll that was featured in the prologue to The Conjuring, it was clearly a cash-grab . Though it was competently made, it lacked the will to scare and wound up being a disappointment in my book.

With The Conjuring expanding into its own cinematic universe ala DC Comics and Marvel, a prequel to the spin-off sequel is here and it’s doozy. Annabelle: Creation is, as implied, an origin story and rights every wrong committed by its predecessor. The scares are there in droves, the acting is better than it has any real right to be, and director David F. Sanberg (Lights Out) brings some serious style to the proceedings with inventive cinematography and taut pacing. Best of all, it manages to connect to all the films that came before it and hints at what terrors await us in the future.

The prologue of Annabelle: Creation introduces us to the Mullins, a happy family living on the outskirts of a country town. Producing handcrafted dolls in his workshop, Mr. Mullins is putting the finishing touches on his newest wooden wonder when tragedy strikes and his daughter is killed in a car accident. Twelve years later, after they are forced out of their orphanage, a nun (Stephanie Sigman, Spectre) and six orphans in her charge come to live with the Mullins. This act of charity has deadly consequences for all when the girls start to experience strange occurrences all centered on a doll discovered locked away in a room lined with pages from the Bible.

An isolated house. A dumbwaiter with a mind of its own. A creaky stair-lift. A character that wears a porcelain mask to hide disfigurement. A battered scarecrow. There are so many warning bells going off in Annabelle: Creation that the audience and the characters are keen to and honestly that’s part of the fun. While there’s a mystery central to the story, it’s not complex enough to poke a bunch of holes in nor slight enough to write off as baloney.   Sandberg and screenwriter Gary Dauberman (IT) have taken extra time to flesh out most of the characters without sacrificing pace or the attention of the audience.

Unexpectedly, where the film shines the most are the performances with the children often surpassing the adults. Talitha Bateman (The 5th Wave) and Lulu Wilson are convincingly strong leads with Bateman offering the right amount of pluck as a child crippled by polio while wide-eyed Wilson colors her growing fear with a nice dose of moxie. I struggled with the flat line readings of Sigman’s nun at times but she grew on me before the movie was over. Anthony LaPaglia (The Client) and Miranda Otto (What Lies Beneath) as the grieving parents harboring a dark secret do a lot with what little expository dialogue they have and their presence here gives some good grounding to what could have been a cheap-o scare-fest.

Fans of this series will get a few surprises from previous films and make sure to stick around until the end of the credits for a little teaser of the next chapter in this burgeoning library of horror.

The Silver Bullet ~ mother!

Synopsis: A couple’s relationship is tested when uninvited guests arrive at their home, disrupting their tranquil existence.

Release Date: September 15, 2017

Thoughts: Oh let’s just face facts, they had me at Michelle Pfeiffer. It’s always a special joy to see Pfeiffer (Grease 2) onscreen at any time and we’re fortunate that she’s popping up in so many places in 2017.  Before she boards Murder on the Orient Express in November, she’s going to be seen in Darren Aronofsky’s strange little thriller mother! (no capital letters for this guy!) this September.  This looks like it’s either going to be a nasty little nightmare that Aronofsky is so good at or a total mess which would be pretty unfortunate considering the stellar cast assembled.  I wince a bit at 27 year old Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle) married to 48 year old Javier Bardem (Skyfall) but let’s hope Aronofsky offers an explanation within the first reel.  Ed Harris (The Abyss) also stars but it’s Pfeiffer looking snazzy and sinister that seals this deal for me.

The Silver Bullet ~ Call Me by Your Name

Synopsis: Summer of 1983, Northern Italy. An American-Italian is enamored by an American student who comes to study and live with his family. Together they share an unforgettable summer full of music, food, and romance that will forever change them.

Release Date: November 24, 2017

Thoughts: With a screenplay from James Ivory (The Remains of the Day, Howard’s End, A Room with a View) and directed by Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love), Call Me by Your Name is a title that could be one to keep your eye on as we transition from the summer slate to the Oscar hopeful season.  Based on the 2007 novel by André Aciman and taking place over one gauzy summer in Italy, there are some strong themes of love and self-discovery clearly present in this first trailer.  It’s always interesting to see how a tender story like this will play out for audiences in the wide-release arena, but then again movies like Call My by Your Name aren’t exactly made for mass consumption.  Starring Armie Hammer (The Lone Ranger), Michael Stuhlbarg (Doctor Strange), and Timothée Chalamet (Love the Coopers), call me very intrigued with this one.

The Silver Bullet ~ Suburbicon

Synopsis: This is a tale of very flawed people making very bad choices. This is Suburbicon.

Release Date:  October 27, 2017

Thoughts: Oh goodness, what to say about this weird little trailer?  Though it boasts an appealing array of stars in front of and behind the camera, I’m just not sold on moving to Suburbicon at first glance.  As is the case with most previews lately, too much is given away in the trailer, apparently leaving very little to entice audiences to want to know more.  Director George Clooney (Tomorrowland) and writers Joel and Ethan Coen (Hail, Caesar!) are going to have to bank on more than just fans of Matt Damon (Promised Land), Julianne Moore (Still Alice), and Oscar Isaac (A Most Violent Year) to get the word out about this tough sell.  To me, it looks too much like it will feature the worst of the Cohen’s back of tricks and Clooney’s strange directorial missteps.  While I’m always intrigued about films set in this era, it already feels like it’s going to be a chore to sit through this one.

Movie Review ~ Atomic Blonde


The Facts
:

Synopsis: An undercover MI6 agent is sent to Berlin during the Cold War to investigate the murder of a fellow agent and recover a missing list of double agents.

Stars: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Til Schweiger, Eddie Marsan, Sofia Boutella, Toby Jones, Attila Árpa, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson

Director: David Leitch

Rated: R

Running Length: 115 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  Pity the fool that crosses MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton and pity any audience member that second guesses the Oscar winner that plays her.  Producer and star Charlize Theron (Prometheus) has fashioned a whopper of a role for herself and assembled a crack team of players to go along for the arse-kicking adrenaline-fueled ride.  Even if Atomic Blonde doesn’t necessarily turn the Cold War spy thriller on its head, it sure gives it a helluva decent set of stylish somersaults.

Based on The Coldest City, a 2012 graphic novel written by Anthony Johnston and illustrated by Sam Hart, Atomic Blonde is set in November 1989 during the days leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall.  This is no history lesson, though, as is pointed out at the beginning of the pretzel-like plot in the center of the action film.  A MI6 agent stationed in Germany has been tasked with retrieving a watch with a list of double agents that could out several spies.  When he’s killed in action, his old flame/colleague (Theron) is been sent behind enemy lines to finish the job and find a double agent plaguing the agency.

Lorraine is barely out of the airport before she’s battling KGB agents aiming to take her out, sparring with a MI6 superior (James McAvoy, Split) who may be harboring rogue notions, and rendezvous-ing with a French beauty (Sofia Boutella, The Mummy) with secrets of her own.  All is not what is seems, however, as the twists start to come fast and furious during the final half of the picture.  Told in flashback by a battered and bruised Lorraine to two high-ranking officials (Toby Jones, Muppets Most Wanted and John Goodman, Patriots Day), Kurt Johnstad’s screenplay sometimes zigs when it should zag but overall it packs the requisite punch.

Speaking of punches…whoa.  Theron’s action sequences are of the intensely old-school rock ‘em and sock ‘em variety and they are downright thrilling.  Early toussels in a car winding through a tunnel, an apartment complex, and a stylishly cinematic brawl staged in a, well, a cinema are mere appetizing morsels for the extended battle royale grand feast.  Following Lorraine as she attempts to keep a key witness alive, director David Leitch (John Wick) makes the rumble in the East Berlin jungle  look like it was shot in one long take by cleverly disguising his cuts.  It’s not a showcase only for the filmmaker, though, as Theron smashingly bashes her way through a bunch of hapless goons down staircases and through abandoned rooms to a pulsing soundtrack of mid to late ‘80s classics.  Taking her licking, she keeps on ticking and gets believably shell-shocked, bloodied, and winded along the way.  Theron trained intensely for this role and it shows with every punch landed and every powerful kick to the chest she delivers, so much so that it’s hard to see when her stunt double steps in.

Were Theron not a producer of Atomic Blonde, I may have questioned some of the more risqué elements to the film as a product of some male ADHD fantasy featuring women in low cut blouses, high cut lingerie, or nothing at all.  However, it doesn’t feel wholly exploitative but likely in line with the source material and period setting…but on the other hand a little Theron on Boutella action has an sizable erotic charge in even its most chaste moments.

While we’re on the subject, poor Boutella is in her second summer film of 2017 that fails to capitalize on her engaging appeal.  After her mummy character played second banana to Tom Cruise in June she ends July without getting much to do but bed Theron and provide some necessary expository dialogue.  I kept waiting for her to pop in to help Theron out but, alas, the only one that seems to show up is McAvoy and his over-the-top shenanigans.

In films such as these where it’s essential for key plot points to be manipulated throughout so the twists, when revealed, have a greater “gotcha” vibe there never seems to be a satisfying resolution.  Thankfully, though Atomic Blonde has two endings too many the one it does close up shop on is a solid rounding off of any rough edges that remained.  A prequel graphic novel was released in 2016 so should this one detonate positively with audiences, it’s possible we’ll see Theron back in action in no time.  I’d welcome the return sooner rather than later.

Down From the Shelf ~ Jumpin’ Jack Flash

The Facts:

Synopsis: A bank employee gets a coded message from an unknown source and becomes embroiled in an espionage ring.

Stars: Whoopi Goldberg, Stephen Collins, John Wood, Carol Kane, Annie Potts, Roscoe Lee Browne. Phil Hartman, Jon Lovitz, Michael McKean, Tracey Ullman

Director: Penny Marshall

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Here’s an example of a movie I always remember being better than it is. Over the years I’ve returned often to this strange mix of comedy and intrigue with fond memories of fun only to wind up 106 minutes later wondering why I thought it was so great.  Don’t get me wrong, as a showcase for rising star Whoopi Goldberg, Jumpin’ Jack Flash is aces but considering the actress was coming off her Oscar-nominated breakthrough performance in The Color Purple and was several years away from winning her Oscar for Ghost one can’t help but see this as a minor blip on her way to the A-list.

You aren’t wrong in thinking the role of a lonely bank employee that gets roped into a real-life spy adventure is a strange fit for Goldberg.  Just like Sister Act was conceived as a vehicle for Bette Midler, Jumpin’ Jack Flash was intended for Shelley Long who opted for The Money Pit and Outrageous Fortune instead.  Aside from a few instances that were surely the result of Goldberg’s improvisation, the dialogue and overall plot seems generally unchanged from when it was Long’s…and that’s problematic.  With no discernible personality, Goldberg’s character (and the actress herself) struggles at the confines of a screenplay that often works against her more than it does her any real favors.

After original director Howard Zeiff was fired after a few weeks of filming, actress and first-time director Penny Marshall was brought in and that also doesn’t exactly help things.  While Marshall would go on to have several notable efforts like Big, A League of Their Own, and Awakenings, the rookie mistakes are evident.  Though it has comedy in fits and starts, the tone of the movie is all over the place.  One moment it’s an office comedy, then it’s an international thriller before getting Keystone Kop-y after Goldberg finds herself locked in a telephone booth tethered to the back of a tow truck.

With all these items in the minus column of my critical spreadsheet, why do I keep returning to this one?  Clearly, it’s Goldberg and it’s thanks to her the movie remains a rainy day option.  Managing to sell most of the malarkey dialogue she’s tasked with, Goldberg’s NYC vibe creeps in at opportune times.  I still get a kick out of her conning her way into a royal gala at the British embassy dressed as Diana Ross and lip-synching to one of the singer’s tunes.  While the telephone booth scene is quite screwball, listening to Goldberg riff on her situation provides some nice chuckles.  Let’s also give a hand for a fine supporting cast of familiar faces and a great big roll of the eyes at the ancient computer technology that at one time was cutting edge.

A hit at the box office, even if Jumpin’ Jack Flash is an interesting step in Goldberg’s ladder to stardom and hasn’t aged well at all it’s still better than Burglar, Fatal Beauty, and the string of other head-scratchers she appeared in the years after The Color Purple was released.

The Silver Bullet ~ Justice League

Synopsis: Fueled by his restored faith in humanity and inspired by Superman’s selfless act, Bruce Wayne enlists the help of his newfound ally, Diana Prince, to face an even greater enemy.

Release Date: November 17, 2017

Thoughts: With Wonder Woman becoming the top-earning movie at the summer box office, the producers behind the DC Comics franchise are riding a wave of positivity right now.  Let’s hope they can keep that goodwill going strong as the November release of Justice League draws near.  I didn’t mind Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice nearly as much as my colleagues did but the unrelenting darkness of this franchise has kept it from truly taking off. Wonder Woman was a nice reminder of what these films could be while director Zac Snyder deals with a family tragedy, Avengers mastermind Joss Whedon was brought in to oversee postproduction so I’m hoping Whedon can bring a little Marvel spark to the DC Universe.  This extended look at Justice League gives a few more clues for audiences to decipher and one cliffhanger that already has the internet abuzz.

The Silver Bullet ~ Leatherface

Synopsis: in Texas, years before the events of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, in the early days of the infamous Sawyer family, the youngest child is sentenced to a mental hospital after a suspicious incident leaves the sheriff’s daughter dead.

Release Date:  October 20, 2017

Thoughts: At this point, I don’t know where the hell we are in the vast landscape of the sequels, prequels, sequels to prequels, and reboots of sequels and their prequels as they relate to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  Last time Leatherface was seen on screen was back in 2013 with Texas Chainsaw 3D and while that was an enjoyable watch it didn’t seem to make a dent in the box office.  It’s rumored that Leatherface will swing by a few theaters before going to DirectTV On Demand but with interesting character actors like Lili Taylor (The Conjuring) and Stephen Dorff (The Iceman) taking roles in this I have to say I’m a bit intrigued.  Couple that with direction from Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo who delivered the stomach churning but impressive Inside and my intrigue turns into full blown curiosity.    

The Silver Bullet ~ Jigsaw

Synopsis: Bodies are turning up around the city, each having met a uniquely gruesome demise. As the investigation proceeds, evidence points to one man: John Kramer. But how can this be? The man known as Jigsaw has been dead for over a decade.

Release Date: October 27, 2017

Thoughts: We’ve been lied to!  After seven films, the Saw series was said to be over and done with back in 2010.  Well, it’s not the first time we’ve been told that a franchise was ending only to have greedy studio execs drum up another sequel…but why do I get the nagging feeling that Jigsaw might represent a neat little surprise for all the naysayers?  It’s probably my willingness to give any horror sequel a shot in the hopes it won’t be another cheaply made retread of previous entries.  I’m hopeful already seeing that Jigsaw is being directed by The Spierig Brothers who haven’t helmed any blockbusters but have made some vastly underrated pics.  If you don’t believe me, do yourself a solid and seek out Predestination.   

Movie Review ~ Girls Trip


The Facts
:

Synopsis: When four lifelong friends travel to New Orleans for the annual Essence Festival, sisterhoods are rekindled, wild sides are rediscovered, and there’s enough dancing, drinking, brawling, and romancing to make the Big Easy blush.

Stars: Regina Hall, Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah, Tiffany Haddish, Larenz Tate

Director: Malcolm D. Lee

Rated: R

Running Length: 122 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: The latest in a long line of Women Can Be Raunchy Too comedies (like Bad Moms and Rough Night), Girls Trip is better than you or I thought it would be.  Maybe it was wrong to doubt it in the first place, though, because it stars four actresses who could each easily headline their own film and is the kind of free-for-all extravaganza of ribald humor rarely seen anywhere in film lately.  Better still, it winds up touting a message of acceptance of oneself from within instead of opting for an easier and more expected takeaway.

The members of the Flossy Possy are four friends that grew up together, went to college together, lived together, but then forged their own paths in varied directions.  Sasha (Queen Latifah, Joyful Noise) is a gossip blogger nearly bankrupt, divorced mom Lisa (Jada Pinkett Smith, Magic Mix XXL) hasn’t had a fun night out in years, man-loving Dina (Tiffany Haddish) just got fired from another job, while Ryan (Regina Hall, Vacation) is reaching the pinnacle of her career as an Oprah-esque self-help guru that seems to have it all.

When Ryan is asked to be the keynote speaker at the Essence Festival in New Orleans, she decides to make it a (ta-da!) Girls Trip and invites her three best friends that she hasn’t seen in years.  Over the next several days the women party, play, fight, dance, take absinthe, and a whole host of other NSFW activities that can only be appreciated when experienced with friends.

The four women elevate the material to something better than it ever was intended to be.  I’d bet dollars to doughnuts that Latifah was originally approached to play Hall’s part and vice-versa.  Both actresses have done those types of characters before and it’s nice to see them take on something different, especially Latifah who’s taken some pretty bland roles lately.  Pinkett Smith seems at home in the mother hen role but let’s loose when she’s good and ready.

Truly, though, the star of the show is Haddish as a wise-cracking, foul-mouthed broad that owns her sexuality and honesty like a badge of honor.  Impossible to embarrass, Dina will say anything and do anything to get a reaction out of her friends and Haddish goes to the same lengths to set herself apart from her costars who all have more experience on the big screen.  What Haddish does with a banana and a grapefruit at one point should earn her some sort of special medal for bravery.

Sure, the movie feels cheaply made with an abundance of “group” shots that look like they were filmed at different times and badly photoshopped at that.  Then there’s the supporting cast that seemed to be comprised of actors that would work for scale just to keep their health insurance going.  I’m not saying that Kate Walsh (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) is in it just for the money but she does subject herself to some pretty embarrassing “I’m so WHITE!” dialogue and one whopper of a sight gag when she drunkenly grabs the wrong cocktail glass.

This is one that would be best to see with a large audience and if they are anything like the people I screened this with, it will only add to the ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ feeling.  There’s a bit of graphic nudity early on in the film that elicited screams of laughter from the audience, screams that remained going strong for a solid minute.  Then there was the projectile urination scene…but I’ll let you see for yourself what that’s all about.  While it frustratingly bottoms out several times, it sticks its ending with a fresh message of be your best self that feels genuine in its delivery.

The script from Kenya Barris and Tracy Oliver and direction from Malcolm D. Lee are, to be honest, nothing special.  Most of the jokes are telegraphed in advance and even some of the tackier vulgarity feels also-ran.  The movie heads in exactly the direction you think it will and rarely strays off course.  Allowing his movie to go on too long by a good 15 minutes, Lee seems beholden to give each actress the exact same amount of screen time, whether we like it or not.  This creates a Girls Trip that overstays its welcome at times but ends with a bang.