Descendants 2 (2017)

The VKs (Villain Kids) are back, wearing more leather than ever in this sequel to the explosive Disney Channel Original Movie Descendants. When we left them, the pack led by Mal (Dove Cameron) was accepted into the preppy Auradon fold with the children of fairy tale heroes and heroines, with the cliffhanger tease that “The story’s not over yet.”

Not over yet indeed, as the film opens with an epic opening number “Ways to Be Wicked,” in which the villain kids have spread their malice and thievery throughout the land, infecting the good with their evil. This (disappointingly) turns out to be a daydream of Mal’s, but sets the tone that something bad may still lie within these kids, and certainly within Mal. Overwhelmed by the pressure to conform and be good, she flees Auradon for her homeland the Isle of the Lost, where the exiled villains and their offspring live.

Mal’s boyfriend Ben and the remaining VKs head to the Isle of the Lost to bring her back, where the real meat and fun of the film kicks off. The first Descendants was a treat to watch evil kids in the world of good, so when it ended with the impression that all was well, I was worried the sequel would lack the original’s bite. I was so wrong; watching the VKs re-enter and re-embrace their homeland brings us one of the more delightful sequences of the whole saga: the groovy “Chillin’ Like a Villain,” where the VKs teach Ben how to act like one of them. Sofia Carson as Evie is particularly charismatic, with noticeably more poise and confidence in this go-around.

Meanwhile, Ursula’s daughter Uma (China Anne McClain, an enjoyable addition to the cast) is gaining power, accompanied by a pirate crew with the likes of Gaston and Captain Hook’s sons. There’s a hysterical rap battle face-off between Uma and Mal, building the rivalry up to a climactic cotillion-gone-wrong as Uma becomes a gargantuan octopus and threatens to sink a ship of teenagers.

I would be disappointed if Descendants 2 were anything but bonkers, and it miraculously meets the expectations set by the original. In fact, the sequel feels more sophisticated through its richer set design, more ambitious choreography, and even better music than its predecessor. It’s not going to join the Criterion Collection anytime soon, but Descendants 2 is a fun, musical treat that the whole family can enjoy.

The Big Sick (2017)

Silver Linings Playbook and Brooklyn are two contemporary films that completely engross you in their stories: boasting complex characters, layered thematic tones, with heartfelt and authentic snapshots of family. The Big Sick, a critical darling from this year’s Sundance film festival, would certainly fit in their company.

Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) is a stand-up comedian from Pakistan, who often finds himself at odds with his family. He lies about studying for the LSAT, hides his real personal life, and suffers through dinner after dinner with Pakistani women his parents set him up with.

Secretly, he’s been seeing Emily (Zoe Kazan), an American grad student. Through her he is able to share his true self, inviting her to his (lousy) one-man show, and shows her B-horror flicks to test their compatibility.

While the setup isn’t totally novel for a romantic comedy, what works so great about The Big Sick is the authentic chemistry of their relationship. It feels like we’re watching these two people fall in love before our eyes, and it makes the rest of the film all the more heartbreaking.

Shortly after they go through a rough breakup, Emily falls seriously ill, and is put into a medically-induced coma to stabilize her condition. Her parents come into town, not pleased to see Kumail in her hospital room, and he finds himself torn between his obligations to career, his ex-girlfriend, and now his ex-girlfriend’s parents.

The heart of the movie lies in this unexpected but touching relationship between Kumail and Emily’s parents. He is unsure what his rightful place is as they endure this terrible ordeal, and they strike a balance of shared responsibility with helping each other cope through this tragedy. They come so far during Emily’s coma, that it’s easy to forget that for Emily, the last thing she remembers with Kumail is their breakup.

The Big Sick tackles very serious subject matter with the weight that it should. Emily doesn’t fall back for Kumail overnight, and the conflicts Kumail face with his family don’t go away that easily, if they even do at all. Its authenticity lies in this underlying tension, that things don’t wrap up quite so easily. This portrait of ordinary people enduring a horrible crisis is all the stronger for how believably, and warm-heartedly, it depicts the test and strength of love.

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.

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.