Saturday, October 22, 2016

"Ouija: Origin of Evil" Review

Following the slumber-party shit-show that was 2014's Ouija, Jason Blum and Michael Bay thought it still might be a good idea to make another movie based on the Parker Brothers board game. Up until this summer, the prospect of another Ouija movie sounded about as fun as a root canal. Then we heard that Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Hush) was attached to direct, and then we got a decent trailer which promised a refreshing direction for this budding franchise. Suddenly, the prospect of another Ouija movie, at least for this reviewer, didn't seem so scary after all.

After finally seeing the finished product of Flanagan's franchise takeover, I can confidently say that my expectations were met, if not exceeded. Ouija: Origin of Evil is a solid little chiller in keeping with 2016's eerily high batting average for horror films. Dare I say the film represents the single largest leap in quality between a first film and its sequel possibly ever.

In the late 1960s, the Zander ladies (Elizabeth Reaser, Annalise Basso, Lulu Wilson) run a scam out of their suburban home. They invite people to communicate with the deceased only to fake stunts that are mistaken for present spirits. After catching her daughter Lina (Basso) using one with friends, Alice (Reaser) decides to add a Ouija board as a new prop for their latest scam. Young Doris (Wilson) finds herself drawn to the board and develops a strong connection with spirits which may originate from inside the house. Shit goes sideways as Alice, Lina, and Father Tom (Henry Thomas) attempt to understand that connection and eventually sever it.

Ouija: Origin of Evil endears itself to us almost immediately with the old-style Universal Pictures logo and a title card with the Blumhouse copyright and year of release in Roman numerals at the bottom. Throughout the movie, you might also spot some large "blips" referred to as "cigarette burns" in the upper right of the frame. Anyone who has seen Fight Club knows that, back in the day, these "cigarette burns" used to signal the projectionist to change reels. Now that everything's digital and movies are projected from a giant computer, we don't see these anymore. Flanagan deliberately included them as a cosmetic feature to give the audience the impression that they're watching a film that was made in the 1960s or 70s. The whole production itself was filmed with Arri Alexa cameras using a 2K digital intermediate, but there are sections of the film which look like they could've been shot on 35mm celluloid. Surely there are ways to make digital footage appear more filmic, but here the image never appears terribly smeary or oversaturated as if its constantly blanketed by an Instagram filter. The cinematographic team should be extremely proud of their work.

 As for acting performances, the core four cast members are all solid, especially Basso and Wilson. Basso makes for an engaging, believable heroine while the younger Wilson sells scares like a seasoned pro. Wilson is involved in some of the most indelible horror images of the year. Shivers literally went up my spine on more than one occasion.

Lastly, horror fans will want to know that this is a Hollywood effort which refuses to lean on cheap shock tactics. The few legitimate jump scares feel earned, and Flanagan lends just enough time for his creepy imagery to sink in when it's needed. Most everything is on-screen, even in the negative space. You will be rewarded more than once for lending your attention to every corner of the frame.

On principle, I don't think Ouija: Origin of Evil could ever rank alongside the all-time horror classics. The lack of a lingering message or subtext perhaps keeps the film from achieving true greatness. Even so, it's still a competently-crafted ghost story that's plenty more treat than trick and well worth your box office dollar this Halloween.


Thursday, October 13, 2016

"The Accountant" Review

Ben Affleck returns to the screen in The Accountant, the latest of director Gavin O'Connor's compelling examinations of brotherhood.

Affleck plays Christain Wolff, a CPA who moonlights by cooking and uncooking the books for some of the world's most high-profile criminals. Christian is called in to an Illinois firm specializing in applied robotics after a whistleblower (Anna Kendrick) finds millions of dollars missing from some annual statements. As fate would have it, the robotics people are up to something shady, and they'll do just about anything to keep it secret. Christian eludes and fights back against both the federal agents and hired guns who are hot on his tail.

Oh, yeah, and one more thing: Christian has a high-functioning form of autism.

My gut reaction to The Accountant is "two thumbs up." The film is as exciting a caper as we've seen this year with some terrific action sequences and a script peppered with a refreshing dose of humor. Granted there are occasional lapses in storytelling logic; some of the subplots get a bit tangled, but overall I had a great time with this movie. Affleck's "accountant" feels like the return of the "everyman" hero. If you ask me, the current blockbuster landscape has needed a corny "everyman" flick badly.

Perhaps more engaging than the set pieces, however, the story explores some of the coping mechanisms and developmental strategies of people with developmental disorders such as autism and Asperger's syndrome. It's great to have an entertaining flick with mainstream appeal that calls attention to some of these issues. I've heard some criticisms from people who are concerned that the film may be too ableist. In truth, the film examines how Christian's character grows in response to, or in spite of, ableism. Christian's father is a hardened military man who forces his boys into specialized combat training out of fear that young Christian may be picked on for being "different." Perhaps that's an inherently "ableist" attitude, but it's part of the father's character. Also, I say "boys" because Christian has a younger brother, Braxton, and whatever the two of them do, they do together. One is never portrayed as superior to the other. The father wants his sons both to learn how to cope with the harsh stimuli of the world around them. Christian is never coddled or made to be "less than" anyone else, and we see how this pans out from early development through his mature coping years.

No doubt there are capable actors out there who have made successful careers for themselves despite living with a developmental disorder. One day hopefully we'll have someone like that in a role like this. However, even with Affleck in the part, I say that some representation is better than none at all.

And, besides, when have we ever been able to say that the coolest Hollywood "superhero" of the year is an autistic accountant?


Tuesday, October 4, 2016

"The Birth of A Nation" (2016) Review

DISCLAIMER: The Birth of a Nation is NOT a remake of D.W. Griffith's 1915 film of the same name which chronicles the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the American South. This new film seeks to reclaim that title and create a dialogue about racial issues both in popular culture and in our society at large.

Nate Parker writes, directs, produces and stars in this film about the Nat Turner rebellion which came to a head in 1831 in Southampton County, Virginia.

Nat (Parker), a literate slave and preacher, tours around the county with his cash-strapped owner Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) using God's word to quell anxious slaves at other plantations for pay. While on the tour, Nat witnesses atrocities committed against other slaves in the county. Upon returning home, tensions on the Turner plantation start running high and beget heinous acts committed against Nat's family and friends. All of this boils over when Nat believes he has been called by God to lead his fellow slaves in a violent rebellion against their white masters.

This story represents a remarkable piece of history which deserves to be told as accurately and as viscerally as possible. Luckily, Parker's hands aren't covered with kid gloves. His debut feature is an assured one despite a lack of distinctive style. Then again, this story doesn't really need it. This straightforward, no-nonsense approach allows for a greater focus on story and character building and also lends the film a consistent pace. All of this makes for one of this year's most engrossing films. The two-hour run time will have elapsed before you've even taken the time to check your watch.

The Birth of a Nation may draw comparisons to 12 Years a Slave, which won the Oscar for Best Picture a couple years ago. Personally, I found The Birth of a Nation to be a more satisfying picture than 12 Years a Slave. I'm not sure why. The acting is solid, especially by Parker and a scenery-chewing Hammer, but none of the players are on the level of Chiwetel Ejiofor or Lupita Nyong'o. Both films are equally uncompromising in their depiction of slavery. Both are extremely powerful and emotionally resonant for our current cultural climate. I think, perhaps, The Birth of a Nation is a stronger example of narrative economy. Nary a scene feels self-indulgent or out of place. Every moment builds the characters and/or plot. Additionally, Birth's resolution falls in a very bleak place which should encourage discussion about the history behind the film as well as its place in the zeitgeist.

Having seen the film three times, it does not get any easier to take in. The story is so riveting and so focused in its execution that the film's emotional impact never wanes, even with repeat viewings. The Birth of a Nation is quite simply one of the finest and most important films of 2016. It should be required viewing for all moviegoers.


"Queen of Katwe" Review

Disney's Queen of Katwe tells the true-life story of Phiona Mutesi, a young Ugandan woman who, from 2010 to 2014, became one of the world's most exciting chess players.

With their family life crumbling, Phiona and her younger brother Brian take up chess at the hands of coach Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), head of the local sports ministry program. Coach Katende cultivates Phiona's talent, much to the chagrin of the girl's mother Harriet (Lupita Nyong'o). Phiona easily beats the other children in her program and quickly becomes the anchor of the team. Though not without a few setbacks, Phiona makes several successful tournament runs against school-educated opponents. She later becomes a national hero when she's invited to play at the Chess Olympiad, one of the biggest tournaments in the world.

The story and script hardly differentiate much from your standard, feel-good, Disney sports movie fare. What really makes this film worthwhile are the performances, especially from Nyong'o and Oyelowo who are at the top of their respective games right now. Nobody will win any Oscars for this one, but this cast should be proud of the dramatically satisfying work they hand in here. Oyelowo displays passion and heart in every smirk and in every fist pump as he watches Phiona compete. I wish I could've played anything under this guy. Nyong'o is simply a tour-de-force. They say "hell hath no fury like a woman scorned." This woman plays Harriet with a fiery disposition, one molded by her harsh surroundings. In turn, Harriet is a mother who raises her kids through "tough love," and the movie is all the better for it.

Queen of Katwe comes recommended as a largely-satisfying drama despite some familiar sports-movie tropes.