Annabelle: Creation (2017)

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to attend the world premiere screening of Annabelle: Creation, the prequel to the spinoff of the The Conjuring universe, which also references the upcoming The Nun. Make sense?

The premiere was held at the Theatre at the Ace Hotel (where I also got to see a 40th anniversary screening of Carrie), a gorgeous old movie palace with an elaborate lobby (complete with bar), vintage restrooms, and seats from an era when Americans were a little less wide. I love any opportunity to see a film outside of the everyday multiplex, and this venue was a treat unto itself!

The movie itself was pretty good, and certainly a step above the first and, frankly, forgettable Annabelle. Many years ago, a dollmaker Samuel Mullins and his wife Esther lost their daughter Annabelle in a horrible accident. Flash-forward a few years, and Sister Charlotte accompanies a group of orphan girls to move into the Mullins’ farmhouse. It doesn’t take long for doors to slam on their own or for the titular Annabelle (a doll so cartoonishly scary, she would never ever pass for children’s toy) to pop up in unexpected places. Things escalate quickly, as one of the girls becomes possessed, and it is discovered the Mullins are hiding a terrible secret.

Story seems to be the least concerning element in most modern horror films, as Annabelle: Creation delivers non-stop jump moments ranging from genuinely chilling to laughably preposterous. What makes this one stand out is director David F. Sandberg, who clearly brings his Lights Out sensibilities with more creative and interesting scare elements. The lighting is used very powerfully to heighten and sensationalize the mood, and even works in antitraditional ways. In one scene, a girl is violently pulled through the front yard in broad daylight. The guest next to me yelled, “Aw shit! It’s in daylight now?”

The audience, I fully concede, was one of the best parts of this screening. I guarantee I would not have had as much fun with this movie watching it at home, alone. Everyone screamed and laughed at just the right moments, and shouted at the screen after girl after girl cluelessly wandered into the haunted bedroom.

As silly as the script was, I was very impressed by the girls’ acting, particularly the two leads Janice (Talitha Bateman, balancing good Janice and possessed-by-demons Janice) and Linda (Lulu Wilson, who was terrorized just months ago in Ouija: Origin of Evil). These two young talents were put through numerous physically demanding scenes, spewing intense emotions, and all the while portraying dimensional, believable (given the circumstances) characters.

Q&A with director and cast

Annabelle: Creation is not the challenging moral tale of It Comes by Night, and does not pack the unsettling scares of The Witch. But as more “traditional” horror for a mainstream audience goes, it’s a quality effort heightened by strong acting.

The Circle (2017)

While very, very far from perfect, The Circle is a provocative, timely thriller addressing connection and community in the age of social media.

Emma Watson is perfectly cast as Mae Holland, a young woman who joins the customer support team at The Circle, a Silicon Valley tech giant encompassing social media, software, digital products, and more. The company is led by Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), a black turtleneck-sporting charismatic figure who inspires his company, and the world, to empower themselves through his technology.

At its best, The Circle tackles these issues in a thoughtful and complicated way. The Circle develops mini cameras, in a proud call for transparency worldwide: exposing crimes of war, world hunger, as well as everyday sharing and providing insight into one’s personal life. The potential, and threat, of such technology is a fascinating topic on its own, and the film gives these a good shake.

The casting of Emma Watson is even more surprising, and impressive, in this regard. In real life, she is outspokenly political, as a proud feminist and UN Goodwill Ambassador, so it’s especially fun to see her take on such a twisted stance of over-sharing and the shedding of privacy and liberty.

About halfway through, the story does plunge into silly territory, with a disappointing performance by Ellar Coltrane (of Boyhood fame) and not nearly enough John Boyega. As things escalate, the situation is left pretty dire, and even the ending is murky and unclear.

My friend and I left the movie with drastically different ideas about what happened, and what Mae was up to all along. But as silly as things get, any film that provokes discussion and thought, about as toxic a topic as privacy in the digital age, must be working correctly on some wavelength. This is by no means one of the year’s best, but is a timely and (sometimes) intelligent commentary on our online community.

Canoa: A Shameful Memory (1976)

An angry mob, gripping torches and machetes, floods the streets to confront the outsiders. Fingers are dismembered before our very eyes. Innocent men are lynched. This is nor a horror movie, but a historical drama recounting the horrifying events that took place almost fifty years ago.

Canoa: A Shameful Memory is an absolute juggernaut. It is a 360 snapshot of a particular time and place, muddled by socio-economic, religious, political, and regional tensions of the late 1960s. We observe the events of an awful tragedy like a fly on the wall: a reporter gets a call that a group of university workers has been attacked, and several killed. After glimpses of the aftermath, we are pulled away from the immediate matter at hand, and meet the faces of Mexico, 1968.

A poor farmer who must give away 10% of his crop to corrupt officials. A priest whose influence over his parish extends past religion into politics and beyond. A wealthy bureaucrat, who is grateful for the public goods and thinks the poor should quit complaining. And an omnipresent narrator, arguably the most reliable, who insists we can trust him and provides commentary on all the action.

After this first act, during which director Felipe Cazals provides an admirably rich portrait of the time and place, we dive into the main narrative: a group of young university employees from the city Puebla decide to go mountain climbing at La Malinche. Knowing the tragic fate awaiting them, each decision and delay brings an extra layer of dread for us, the viewers, as we approach what we already know will be a horrifying end.

Canoa is an incredibly troubling film, of a mistaken conflict between a small town and (perceived) radicals from the city, hauntingly ringing true in today’s hostile and occasionally violent political climate. Cazals never turns away, forcing us to witness and grapple with an unstable and untrustworthy society.

This razor-sharp work is punctuated by a fascinating shot at the end: our narrator atop a staircase, facing another camera, walking down stairs, scurrying up and doing the take again, then speaking to us once he’s down. The pseudo-documentary feel breaks its own wall, from cameras capturing life and people in real-time, to rehearsed and scripted action. Is he such a reliable narrator? Can he be trusted as the voice of Canoa, or a more rational citizen, or even Cazals himself? The overlapping and contradicting nature of history is a subtly recurring theme throughout the story, and the double take within a “documentary” adds a sinister layer to an already-disturbing tale.

Canoa: A Shameful Memory is certainly not for everyone, but those who can stomach the intense violence will be taken on a culturally insightful, intellectually challenging, and wholly unforgettable journey.

Personal Shopper (2016)

Somewhere in the grey area between perverse intimacy and crippling isolation lies Maureen (Kristen Stewart in a rich, vulnerable performance), the titular Personal Shopper in Olivier Assayas’s latest masterwork. Maureen’s twin brother Lewis died suddenly, and they agreed that, upon death, the deceased would give the surviving twin some sort of sign. Both are mediums, attuned to the spirit world, but Maureen has trouble interpreting what is a message from beyond at all, least of all from her brother’s ghost and not some other presence.

Personal Shopper is genuinely chilling at times, but it feels less like a horror film and more of an exploration of grief and mourning. Upon her brother’s death in Paris, Maureen moved herself there, and by the time we arrive, it’s been three months and she still hasn’t heard anything. She can’t bear to abandon hope though, so she takes on a job she despises, as a personal shopper for the high-profile Kyra, as she bides time waiting for Lewis to appear.

This American in Paris leads an isolated and challenging life, as a foreigner in a new place, running errands by herself, with the occasional Skype from her friend Gary. When mysterious text messages start popping up on her iPhone, she at first is hesitant and cold in her responses, then gives herself in. She gripes about her boss, reveals her insecurities, and is persuaded to try on Kyra’s bizarro harness lingerie, leading to an intimate solo moment in Kyra’s bed. Maureen even agrees to meet whomever, or whatever, is at the other side of these iMessages.

On the one hand we watch and are appalled, maybe confused, by the actions taken by Maureen. She is steadily pushed out of her comfort zone and lets herself be taken advantage of. But for someone in her situation, desperate for any sign or contact with her departed brother, we sympathize with her – who wouldn’t do anything they could for one more moment with a loved one?

I admit I left the theater in tears, remarkably moved by this haunting, lonely tale of loss. Its fascinating narrative and painfully authentic themes will ring true to anyone who has mourned and desperately waited to see the light.

The Lure (2015)

It opens with two men and a woman, drinking and having fun on a dark, murky beach. Two young mermaids, a strawberry blonde and brunette, appear at the surface. They serenade the men, casting a seductive spell, and are invited to come ashore. The woman lets out a piercing scream. The screen fades to a sublime sea-green as the disco beat of “I Feel Love” throbs in the background. My friend leaned over and whispered to me, “You love this movie already.”

And I did. Agnieszka Smoczynska’s The Lure has everything I could possibly want in a film: mermaids, singing, murder, tragic romance. It is a singular vision and wholly unique experience; you have never seen a movie like this.

The duo, two sisters named Golden and Silver, become part of a Polish family and join a nightclub band, transforming from two-legged bipeds into mermaids, onstage, to an enthralled audience. The songs are hypnotically staged, with pulsating electric lights pacing the stage as the mermaids gently sway in an oversized champagne glass, or rocking out and driving an audience into a frenzy.

The Lure is more than the no-holds-barred pleasure party depicted in its trailer, however. Golden and Silver come to face struggle and even heartbreak as they adjust to life on the land. The neon vibrancy of the club is a powerful contrast to the bleakness of their quiet ballads. Golden immediately finds love, but learns that winning the man in her life comes with sacrifice. Silver is left lonely, and fears her longtime bond with her sister is in jeopardy by Golden’s newfound romance.

Here is where the true gravitas of The Lure comes to the surface. Without feeling open-ended and vague, there are several nuggets to contextualize Silver and Golden’s story, and broaden the universe we find ourselves in. While a somewhat minor character, a former merman Triton, who has cut off his tail and lost his horns, is the only such creature we encounter, and as a horned being, is leagues away from the King Triton-esque image we have of these creatures.

The uncertain background of the mermaids is also alluded to when the duo first gets to the club. The owner asks how they learned such good Polish, and they respond that they learned it at the ports in Bulgaria. We have no other hints of where they are from, how old they are, though they mention that they eventually want to swim to America. The idea of these vagrant, potentially ancient, beings coming ashore and wreaking havoc makes The Lure all the more chilling and deliciously sinister.

While not for everyone, packing a fair share of gore, disco, and nudity, The Lure is a delightful treat if you can open your heart to an otherworldly dark fairy tale. I would gladly once again give in to its seductive siren song.

Why the Oscars Matter

It’s pretty easy to dismiss awards shows, like the upcoming Academy Awards, as pointless. Every awards season, you’ll hear the same mumblings about how the winners don’t really matter, it’s just Hollywood patting itself on the back, and other short-sighted dismissals of the ceremony.

To some degree, they are correct; the Academy Awards, and other awards shows, were originally formed by professionals within the industry to promote their artistic works. The concept of naming particular creative minds and talents in entertainment as the “Best” of that year was devised, essentially, as an elaborate marketing tool.

However, I find that awards ceremonies mean more with the passage of time than in that respective year. They’re a time capsule into pop culture of a specific moment in history, and are a great way to start venturing into film from a bygone era.

I am very fortunate to have had parents who shared classic films, like the works of Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock, with us growing up. Sure, it kind of set my sisters and me apart culturally from our peer group (how many kids can quote Sunset Boulevard?), but it set a great foundation for our love of movies and for building a genuine interest in older films. From the movies our parents shared with us, my sisters and I went off in our own directions: the older sister going through a Grace Kelly phase, another delving into late 1980s / early 1990s camp, and me going for Oscar winners from yesteryear.

The building blocks my parents set, starting with Academy Award winners, were a perfect gateway into lesser-known and, in some cases, better movies that I would never have stumbled upon otherwise. I rented Roman Polanski’s The Pianist by Roman Polanski, who I had never heard of as a pre-teen, soon after he won the Oscar for Best Director. From there I wanted to see more works by him, which led me to his terrific older films, like Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown. I ended up liking those even more than The Pianist, so I’m grateful for the Academy Awards for first putting this director on my radar and indirectly bringing me to other films I would love.

Awards shows are more than just time capsules, of course, and can get us to enjoy entertainment we wouldn’t have even considered before seeing it listed on a nominees ballot. In the past few years, I have made a point to see all the Best Picture nominees by Oscars night. (TIP: It makes watching the awards WAY more fun when you know what’s at stake!) This introduced me to what have become two of my favorite contemporary films, Up in the Air and Silver Linings Playbook, neither of which I would have seen had they not been up for Oscars.

Sure, on some level they may be self-congratulatory, but awards shows have introduced me to what are now some of my favorite artistic works. They are a great tool for acculturating yourself and exploring new cultural horizons. Future generations may look to today’s nominees, like La La Land, Moonlight, and Arrival, as entry points to develop their own love of film. Everyone needs to start somewhere, and the Oscars are a terrific gateway.

Purple Rain: A Traditional Musical with an Anti-Traditional Score

West Side Story. Singin’ in the Rain. My Fair Lady. Ask any film fan for a classic example of the Hollywood musical, and these are the ideas that first come to mind. And they’d be absolutely correct; each of these classics, and more, helped define and refine the genre. The electrifying 1984 film Purple Rain thrust the movie musical into the 1980s with a spectacular dossier of rock, pop, and funk songs, all framed within the traditional Broadway musical structure.

hqdefaultThe opening number “Let’s Go Crazy” functions as a perfect musical introduction: establishing the time, the place, and the main players all embedded in one song. Our hero Prince (playing The Kid) performs onstage with his band The Revolution, as his flashy rival Morris Day and future love interest Apollonia each arrive at the First Avenue nightclub. Small but character-defining vignettes catch us up to speed as to who they are in the Minneapolis universe, and instantly set the foundation for the drama to unfold.

The “I Want” song, a staple of Broadway musicals, appears in the same setting, sung by Prince only, but can apply to all members of the neon love triangle. He wails “The Beautiful Ones,” an unstoppable power ballad demanding, “Do you want him, or do you want me? ‘Cause I want you.”Prince sings this directly to Apollonia, and it certainly applies the other way around, as well as from Morris Day to Apollonia. Even beyond the romance itself, the potential jealousy and obsession puts Prince’s career at stake. Prince and Morris have a deep-seeded feud, and the sudden appearance of Apollonia into town might just be enough to push them over the edge. They are enemies both in their careers and in their love lives, raising the stakes to dangerously personal levels.

For the grand finale, this purple package is all wrapped up by a one-two-three punch  of the songs “Purple Rain,” “I Would Die 4 U,” and “Baby I’m a Star.” After scenes of high drama and disturbing violence, “Purple Rain” is the thoughtful, mature ballad to redeem Prince and all his mistakes. This deeply personal song pierces through the club crowd and they beg for more, so he returns to the stage for the rollicking pop songs “I Would Die 4 U” and “Baby I’m a Star.” From the audience’s reaction, it is clear that the Revolution’s future at the club is guaranteed, and Prince even shares a charming smile with Apollonia, watching from the crowd; we know they’ll work out in the end. In one extended sequence, we go from mournful and introspective to celebratory, charming, and triumphant.

What Purple Rain is arguably missing is an Eleven O’Clock Number: a big, energy-driving Act Two song to propel us through the end of the show. The film takes an extended break from music, as romantic tensions rise between Prince and Apollonia, Prince grapples with his parents’ violent relationship, and he struggles to make amends with The Revolution. The energy deflates from the film, and Prince is forced to get his life back together.

This decision is an important one, as the third act is all about Prince rebuilding himself after he’s sunk so low. He cleans up his life, focuses on his music, and opens his mind to allow in others’ ideas. The reawakening comes not from some song pulsing through him, but an internal journey and choice that only he can make. The music literally stops until he has redeemed himself.

tumblr_m6khz1luin1qcvaxho1_500By working in a classical musical structure, Purple Rain introduced an incredibly niche culture to a wide audience. The smoky nightclubs and pop-funk stylings of the Minneapolis Sound were just at the brink of explosion across the airwaves, and it admittedly is a unique world. The enormous hair, outrageous styles, and dripping sexuality may have seemed otherworldly to moviegoing audiences of the 1980s. It becomes easier to digest and packs more of an emotional punch when framing this world bizarre into a familiar, traditional narrative structure. Our hero, villain, love interest, and outlining the foreign landscape within a standard musical theater context, allowing a mainstream audience who’d never step foot in the First Avenue nightclub to enjoy and partake in the wonders and beauty of Purple Rain. “It’s time we all reach out for the new, that means you too.”



This blog post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon 2017 hosted by Aurora’s Gin Joint, Outspoken & Freckled, and Paula’s Cinema Club. Check out the full lineup here!

Criterion Book Club: “Making a Film” by Federico Fellini

Much like the films he directs, Federico Fellini’s book Making a Film is a fluid, stream-of-consciousness work that ebbs and flows across time, places, and subjects. And like his films, it casts an undeniable spell and is completely enchanting.

I name it as a general “book,” as it is part memoir, film theory, and sociological study all at once. What initially drew me to it, besides Fellini’s name, was the potential of new insight into his films, and Making a Film certainly delivers as expected: he shares the juvenile experiences that inspired Roma and Amarcord, outlines the the larger-than-life iconography of 8 1/2, and provides perspective on nearly all his films. (I would have liked more on La dolce vita, one of my favorites!)

Beyond its insights on filmmaking, however, Fellini’s text most impressed me with its thoughtful perspective society. His recurring theme of clowns throughout his film is certainly discussed here, and he offers a thought-provoking world view from this lens. He argues everyone is one kind of clown: the White Clown, authoritative, cruel, foreboding; and the auguste, primitive, playful, childlike, and naive. The two exist as foils, and can be defined negatively when paired against each other. He goes so far as to list off who he considers to be which kind of clown.

In my very favorite passage, he reflects on how the struggle of making a film runs parallel to everyday life and struggling to get by. Even when entering a situation with set expectations, it’s important to stay flexible and adapt to what life has to offer. In Fellini’s words:

Making a film isn’t about obstinately attempting to adapt reality to preconceived notions; making a film also means knowing how to recognize, accept, and utilize the progressive changes that preexisting ideas are subjected to by the continuous, parallel coming into being of what happens.

Making a Film is an enriching read, both for devotees of Fellini’s filmography, casual students or film, or even someone who knows nothing of his works. It is a meditation on the creative process and finding inspiration and motivation in the most unlikely places. Like his films, he humanizes and romanticizes the everyday, transforming the mundane into something miraculous and beautiful.

Fifty Shades Darker (2017)

I’m not putting that in my butt!

 

Fifty Shades of Grey was such spectacular so-bad-it’s-good trash that I was concerned its successor would not live up to the promise of the original. Fortunately, I was proved wrong: Fifty Shades Darker is a frequently hilarious, totally implausible, and utterly delightful trip back into Christian Grey’s sex den.

When we last saw Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey, Miss Steele had broken things off with Christian, no longer able to abide by his preposterous dominant-submissive contract. She finds herself lonely and longing for him, and when he reaches out to her, she proposes a change in contractual terms, and he agrees.

From here on out it’s another wacky fantasy. Christian takes Anastasia out to masquerade balls, yacht voyages, and even sends her $24,000. He also continues to push her boundaries sexually, including one memorable scene where he sticks metal balls inside…her.

The onscreen action is all so silly, and the dialogue treating the absurd material with such weight and seriousness makes the adventure all the more laughable. My audience roared with laughter throughout, particularly at Dakota Johnson’s pretty awful acting – always wafting between pleasure, curiosity, and cringing her neck when she’s mad, without a whit of subtlety. Poor Jamie Dornan does the best he can do in a movie where uses a medieval contraption to keep a woman’s legs apart.

This is not a film to be taken seriously, but if you enter it with an open mind (and maybe a drink or two), it’s a fun and occasionally sexy romp.