Saturday, 12 May 2018

Annabelle: Creation

Year of Release:  2017
Director:  David F. Sandberg
Screenplay:  Gary Dauberman
Starring:  Stephanie Sigman, Talitha Bateman, Lulu Wilson, Anthony LaPaglia, Miranda Otto
Running Time:  110 minutes
Genre:  Horror

In 1955, toymaker Samuel Mullins (LaPaglia) and his wife Esther (Otto), who never leaves her bedroom, grieve for their daughter Annabelle (Samara Lee) who died in an accident twelve years previously at the age of seven.  Despite their pain, they open their house to Sister Charlotte (Sigman) and six girls left homeless after the closure of their orphanage.  The first night, one of the girls Janice (Bateman), who suffers from polio, enters Annabelle's old bedroom and discovers a strange porcelain doll, which seems to be the focal point for powerful and deadly supernatural forces.

This details the story of the possessed doll, Annabelle, which was introduced in the movie The Conjuring (2013) and featured in it's own movie, Annabelle (2014).  Considering that this is a prequel to a spin-off, Annabelle: Creation is much better than might be expected.  It's very atmospheric with engaging characters and strong performances.  The scares are effective, sticking close to the old-school ghost train ride of the first The Conjuring film, and  the film allows itself time to build up before the horror elements kick in.  The films does suffer from the problem that a lot of prequels have with conclusions, in that it has to pave the way for other films instead of being it's own thing.  It's definitely worth checking out for anyone looking for a good creepy ghost story.

Linda (Lulu Wilson) and Annabelle in Annabelle: Creation       

Friday, 11 May 2018

Psycho II

Year of Release:  1983
Director:  Richard Franklin
Screenplay:  Tom Holland
Starring:  Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, Meg Tilly, Robert Loggia, Dennis Franz
Running Time:  113 minutes
Genre:  Crime, mystery, horror

After 22 years in an institution Norman Bates (Perkins) is deemed sane and safe to return to the community.  One person who vocally disagrees is Lila Loomis (Miles), whose sister was one of those murdered by Norman.  Despite Lila's protests, Norman is released and returns to his old house overlooking the old Bates Motel.  He starts work as a chef's assistant at a small local diner, where he soon befriends young waitress Mary (Tilly).  However Norman soon starts receiving strange phone calls and threatening notes, apparently from his dead Mother, and then the murders start up again.  Is Norman back to his old ways?  Or is there someone else trying to tip him into insanity?

This film is obviously nowhere near as good as the Alfred Hitchcock original, but it is a good film in it's own right.  It is suspenseful and plays more as a psychological drama than a full on horror film.  Perkins again provides a great, tormented performance as Norman.  The film is stylishly shot, with a predilection for odd camera angles, however it looks very stagey (even some of the exterior scenes look as if they were filmed on a sound stage).  The script by Tom Holland (and no, not the current Spider-Man) has a few too many last minute rescues and a few too many twists, but it keeps the suspense and is always creepy.  It also benefits from a strong vein of dark comedy. 

What wold Mother say?  Meg Tillis and Anthony Perkins in Psycho II     

Friday, 9 March 2018

The Doors

Year of Release:  1991
Director:  Oliver Stone
Screenplay:  J. Randal Johnson and Oliver Stone
Starring:  Val Kilmer, Meg Ryan, Kevin Dillon, Kyle MacLachlan, Frank Whaley, Michael Madsen, Billy Idol, Kathleen Quinlan
Running Time:  140 minutes
Genre:  Drama, music, biography

Venice Beach, California, 1965:  Film school dropout Jim Morrison (Kilmer) is fascinated by the emerging hippie culture surrounding him and, with his friend, keyboardist Ray Manzarek (MacLachlan), forms the rock band The Doors along with drummer John Densmore (Dillon) and guitarist Robby Krieger (Whaley).  With Morrison's poetic lyrics along with his enigmatic and darkly seductive on-stage persona the band become one of the biggest in America by the end of the 60s.  As the band are riding high (in more ways than one), Morrison is involved in a tumultuous relationship with girlfriend, Pamela Courson (Ryan), while his personal demons threaten to destroy everything.

This film is almost the quintessential rock biopic:  The band are formed, become successful, and are then in danger of being destroyed from within.  To be fair, this film is mis-titled.  It's not really about the band The Doors, the focus is almost entirely on Jim Morrison and the other band members barely get a look in.  Although you don't really learn much about Morrison either, there is no context for anything that happens or explanation for his behaviour.  The movie is more interested in depicting crazy rock star excess, as Morrison loses himself in drink, drugs and sex.  According to many people who knew Morrison, the film is pretty inaccurate in it's depiction of him, and is probably at it's best in recreating the sights and sounds of the sixties, from the sunshine psychedelia of the West Coast to the strange, seductive underworld of Andy Warhol's New York parties, however accurate that may be.  The Morrison depicted in the film is such a horrible, toxic character that it is really hard to understand how anyone would want to spend more than two minutes in his company.    Meg Ryan and Kathleen Quinlan are severely underserved in a film where none of the female characters are given any real personality or agency. The film delves a lot into Morrison's fascination with shamanism and mysticism, which can be seen as either deep or deeply pretentious (the film's depiction of a mystical Native American spirit guide was parodied in the film Wayne's World 2 (1993)).  Oliver Stone opens up his box of cinematic tricks which makes the film look very slick and stylish, and means that it is certainly never dull.  Val Kilmer is good in the central role, helped by his striking physical resemblance to Morrison, and the music is, of course, fantastic.       

Kyle MacLachlan, Val Kilmer, Frank Whaley and Kevin Dillon break on through as The Doors

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Game Night

Year of Release:  2018
Directors:  John Frances Daley and Jonathan Goldstein
Screenplay:  Mark Perez
Starring:  Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury, Jesse Plemons, Michael C. Hall, Kyle Chandler
Running Time:  100 minutes
Genre:  Comedy thriller

Married couple Max (Bateman) and Annie (McAdams) share a deep love of all things competitive and host a weekly game night with their friends.  One night however, Max's vastly more wealthy, charismatic, better looking brother Brooks (Chandler) shows up, much to Max's displeasure, and immediately takes over the game night, infuriating both Max and Annie.  The following week they all have game night at Brooks' huge house.  The game Brooks has arranged is an interactive, mystery game, involving a faked kidnapping.  Shortly thereafter, two masked men break in and snatch Brooks.  As Max, Annie and their friends compete to win the game, they soon realise that this game is all too real.

This is a hugely entertaining comedy-thriller, with plenty of laughs throughout as well as a mystery that piles on twists and turns.  Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams, both very talented comic actors, have great chemistry together and they are supported by a strong supporting cast (including Sharon Horgan, of Pulling (2006) and Catastrophe (2015- ) fame) who all get a chance to shine.  The action is well-staged and stylish, for example many of the establishing shots of the locations are made to look like a game board with pieces.  There are several late reveals that seriously strain credibility, which to be fair, there are jokes about in the film itself.  This is not a film that is going to change the world.  It is the kind of movie that is ideal for when you just want something light, that is going to give you a couple of hours of solid entertainment.  Stay until the end of the credits for an additional scene.

Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams in Game Night

Saturday, 24 February 2018

Melinda and Melinda

Year of Release:  2004
Director:  Woody Allen
Screenplay:  Woody Allen
Starring:  Radha Mitchell, Chloe Sevigny, Jonny Lee Miller, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Will Ferrell, Amanda Peet, Wallace Shawn
Running Time: 95 minutes
Genre:  Comedy drama

In a Manhattan diner, four friends discuss whether life is essentially comic or tragic.  To illustrate their points two playwrights take a simple premise (an emotionally fragile woman, Melinda (Mitchell), disrupts a dinner party) and tell their own versions of what happens to her. One version plays as a tragedy, and the other as a light romantic comedy.

It is an interesting premise, the problem is that the tone is very jarring throughout, most of the film is taken up with recounting Melinda's story interweaving the two versions moving from bleak drama to frothy comedy.  Some of the film is pretty repetitive, we see the same events play out in two different versions.  Radha Mitchell plays Melinda in both stories, with Chloe Sevigny, Jonny Lee Miller and Chiwetel Ejiofor starring in the tragic story, and Will Ferrell and Amanda Peet starring in the comedy version (which also features Steve Carell in a small role as Ferrell's friend).  The performances are good for the most part, with Mitchell in particular giving a stunning performance in the central role, although Will Ferrell's performance seems to consist mainly of him doing a Woody Allen impression.  The film feels very much like a filmed play at times, it has a fairly small cast of characters and is almost entirely dialogue driven, however the tragic storyline has muted colours and a slightly dull, slightly overcast look to it, while the comic sequences are bright, vibrant and sunlit.
While this is far from Woody Allen's best films, it still has it's moments.

Will Ferrell and Radha Mitchell in Melinda and Melinda.            

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask)

Year of Release:  1972
Director:  Woody Allen
Screenplay:  Woody Allen, based on the book Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) by Dr. David Ruebens
Starring:  Woody Allen, Louise Lasser, John Carradine, Tony Randall, Burt Reynolds, Gene Wilder, Lynn Redgrave
Running Time:  84 minutes
Genre:  Comedy

This film is a selection of seven sketches inspired by questions relating to sex and sexual behaviour:  In medieval England a court jester (Allen) attempts to seduce the Queen (Redgrave); A respectable doctor (Wilder) falls in love with a sheep; An Italian man (Allen again) discovers that his wife (Lasser) can only reach orgasm in public places; A middle-aged married man (Lou Jacobi) takes to wearing women's clothing; A cheery 1950s game show attempts to teach America about sexual fetishes; A mad scientist (Carradine) unleashes a giant, monstrous breast on the world; A nervous sperm (Allen) prepares to leap into the great unknown.

The original book, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, was a serious sex manual, which became a huge bestseller and was one of the most popular and influential non-fiction books of it's time.  Allen, here, takes chapter headings from the book, and spins them off into the comedy sketches.  The kind of sketch comedy format, while it has often been popular on TV (maybe not in the past few years, but it certainly used to be), never really works in movies, partly because because sketches tend to be hit or miss,  and also because they tend to be very lightweight, they are really either too short to get into, or they are too long to sustain the joke.  By and large this is funny, with each segment having at least one good laugh in it.  It belongs to the early part of Allen's career, when he really was trying to make straightforward comedies, without the dramatic or philosophical concerns that would later come to dominate. The film pokes fun at Shakespeare, Italian cinema, and science-fiction and horror movies.  The best segment is the last one; which takes place in the hi-tech control centre of a man's brain while he's on a date, with Allen as a nervous, white-uniformed sperm.  That last segment is inventive and very funny.
It's certainly worth watching, but I would point out that this is a product of the early 1970s and has not dated well in terms of it's attitudes and some of it's humor, so proceed with caution.

Woody Allen is going to tell you Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex*  (*But Were Afraid to Ask)

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Hannah and Her Sisters

Year of Release:  1986
Director:  Woody Allen
Screenplay:  Woody Allen
Starring:  Mia Farrow, Michael Caine, Barbara Hershey, Dianne Wiest, Woody Allen, Max von Sydow, Carrie Fisher
Running Time:  103 minutes
Genre: Comedy drama

This film concerns the lives of three sisters over the course of two years.  Hannah (Farrow), is kind, loving, strong and stable, her husband Elliot (Caine), while he loves Hannah, is infatuated with her sister Lee (Hershey), who is living with mercurial artist Frederick (Sydow).  Meanwhile, the third sister, Holly (Wiest), a former cocaine addict, struggles to achieve her dream of becoming an actor while managing a catering company with her friend and rival, April (Fisher).  Also Hannah's ex-husband Mickey (Allen), a hypochondriac television producer experiences an existential crisis when he becomes convinced he has a brain tumor.

This is possibly one of Woody Allen's finest films, managing the very tricky art of successfully balancing both comedy and drama.  It manages to be tender and sentimental without being saccharine, profound without being pretentious, warm without being cloying and, where necessary, being biting without being cruel.  Allen manages to get good performances out of his large cast, and seems to have genuine affection for all of his characters.  If you are familiar with Woody Allen movies, than you'll know the kind of humor on display here, mostly wry, neurotic, intellectual wisecracks.  Of course, these days Woody Allen is problematic to say the least, and also this is a film almost entirely about very wealthy white people, in Allen's New York, people of colour are barely glimpsed.  Although this is a very affecting film about sisterhood, love, ambition and just trying to find a meaning to life.

Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey and Dianne Wiest are Hannah and Her Sisters