Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Child’s Play: “Annabelle” Offers Decent Scares But is No “The Conjuring”

I can’t really complain when a horror movie is “decent.” Most of the time they’re just not even worth seeing, that I don’t mind when one is a little clichéd but at least has its moments. “Annabelle” is once such film. It’s a sort of prequel/spinoff hybrid (pre-off?) of last year’s overwhelming successful “The Conjuring” which remains of the best horror films of recent memory. In it we learned a little about the case of Annabelle, a possessed doll that wreaked havoc for a pair of nursing students. Here we learn about how the doll came to be possessed in the first place. It’s basically a made up story, and even the film knows it. The movie feels more inclined to remind you that it’s related to “The Conjuring” instead of reminding you that’ it’s “based on true events.” And rightfully so. But is it any good?

First off the film has a delightful “Rosemary’s Baby” vibe which I enjoyed. We’re introduced to a young, happy married couple Mia (Annabelle Wallis, yeah that’s her name seriously) and John (Ward Horton, sort of bland but likable). Mia is pregnant and everything seems right in the world. That is until satanic cultists murder the older couple next door (an extremely intense and well executed sequence) and attack Mia and John as well leaving Mia on permanent bed rest for the rest of her pregnancy. And you know that creepy antique doll that John just gave to Mia? One of the satanic murderers possessed it before killing herself.  Of course Mia and John don’t quite know it yet. Mia suspects something’s up as she notices strange occurrences in the house, one of which causes the couple to move to an apartment building after one intense incident. This sets into motion the clichéd idea that Mia is witnessing strange activity and her husband doesn’t believe her.

There is something strange going on and it has everything to do with the creepy doll that just doesn’t seem to go away, even when John tries to throw it out. Most of the visions and incidents that Mia experiences are similar to what we’ve seen in the “Insidious” films. And that makes sense since first time feature director John R. Leonetti was James Wan’s director of photography on those films (and many others). Where “Insidious” creeped us out with that scary red-faced demon, we’re given an equally creepy demon that stays hidden enough to cause a good case of the willies. He gives the film and equally creepy and familiar feel which sort of works. He emphasizes suspense over gore.  And his attempts to make normally unscary objects, like sewing machines, creepy sort of works. The film sort of hits all the standard horror movie beats and all the scares  are firmly in the right place but I sort of was transfixed by this likable couple and their plight, even if the story’s progression feels sort of herky jerky.

Most audiences won’t forgive this nubile couple for actually wanting such a creepy doll in their house, whether possessed or not, but sometimes you have to just go with it. The real life Annabelle was just a Raggedy Ann doll but I imagine Raggedy Ann sales would plummet if portrayed in such a way. “Annabelle” is a competently made movie. It’s nothing particularly special, but there’s nothing overtly terrible about it. It’s scary enough and sometimes that’s good enough. It suffers in comparison to the “The Conjuring” mostly in that Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are sorely missed but odds are if you enjoyed that film you’re bound to enjoy this. Just leave the creepy dolls at home.  GRADE: B 

Trailer for Annabelle on TrailerAddict.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Ben, Her: David Fincher’s Masterful “Gone Girl” is a Stylish, Absorbing Mystery

Is it even possible to remotely review “Gone Girl” without talking about its many interesting plot details? I’d say not really. So the only things that can really be said about the film are how truly great it is and that’s it’s definitely worth your time and hard-earned money. What little details can be said about the story without giving much away is what people who haven’t seen the film probably already know. That it’s about a man whose wife goes missing. Is she dead? Has she been kidnapped? And was the husband involved? Nothing more can be said nor should be said for anyone who hasn’t seen the film, except for this: by the film’s midpoint it’s a completely different ball game and you never quite know where the film will end up. It’s also completely intoxicating from start to finish due to Fincher’s dependable direction, tremendous performances, and such an intriguing story that any plot hole or other far-fetched element can be completely and rightfully dismissed.

Ben Affleck stars here, in another one of his more recent, outstanding performances, as Nick Dunne. His beautiful wife is Amy (a revelatory Rosamund Pike) and like him she’s a writer. The problem is the modern world is a horrible place for writers as they’ve both recently become out of work. Also recently, Amy has gone missing. Nick comes home to what appears to be a bit of a struggle in the living room but there’s no sign of his wife. There also doesn’t seem to be much concern in Nick’s face which sort of makes us wonder if A) he had anything to do with it, or B) he even cares that she’s missing. A detective (Kim Dickens, also great) is brought in to investigate and eventually Amy is officially considered a missing person.

What comes next is a complete media circus. This is where Gillian Flynn, who wrote the script based on her best-selling novel, really shines as the film is essentially, and appropriately, a complete dig at the news media. Every news outlet loves a story about a beautiful wife who goes missing and following the every move of the supposedly innocent husband who barely even seems to seem at all concerned in front of the cameras. This is an engaging, and surprisingly humorous look at the sensationalism purported by the media when an event like this occurs. And that’s exactly what it becomes when something horrible like this happens: it becomes an event, complete with logos, titles, and its own theme music.

But “Gone Girl” isn’t your average thriller, it’s smarter than that and certain things will be revealed throughout the course of the film which really changes everything you thought you knew where the story was headed. There’s more to Amy and Nick’s marriage then you know at first. And Fincher stages everything simply wondrously. He’s a guy we know gets a kick out of exploring the dark recesses of the human mind. He’s not afraid to take his audience to dank, depressing places. But what really elevates the film is its surprising sense of humor. And that mostly comes from Nick’s touching relationship with his twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon) and with a popular defense lawyer played by Tyler Perry, sans drag, of all people. Even Neil Patrick Harris, completely cast against type as someone from Amy’s past is outstanding as well. It’s an odd ensemble, but it all somehow works.

“Gone Girl” is a stunning cinematic achievement. All aspects of the production, with the help of Fincher regulars, are top notch. Everything from the evocative music (Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross), the sterile cinematography (Jeff Cronenweth), expert cutting (Kirk Baxter), and aforementioned performances are all outstanding. The script is a surprisingly witty critique on the media and marriage and offers an amusingly dark and twisty plot. It may not always be completely air tight, but I’ll be damned if your jaw isn’t agape when it’s all over.  GRADE: A 

Feature Trailer for Gone Girl on TrailerAddict.