Movie Review: Ouija (2014)

October 30, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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You probably don’t need me to tell you that Ouija, this year’s Halloween supernatural horror release, is really really stupid. But I’m going to tell you anyway. Ouija is really really stupid. And I don’t mean the idea that a board can communicate with the dead — I actually believe some of that stuff is real. Oujia is idiotic because of the poor execution of the idea, the unsubtle and shameless horror cliches, the trite dialogue, and the utterly incomprehensible human reactions that defy all common sense and rationality.

Try to come up with the most cookie-cutter plot you can possibly think of for a horror movie involving a Ouija board, and chances are you have just come up with the screenplay for Ouija. A girl (Shelley Hennig) dies under mysterious circumstances. Her best friend (Olivia Cooke), best friend’s sister (Ana Coto), boyfriend (Douglas Smith) and others (Daren Kagasoff and Bianca A Santos) try to contact her with a Ouija board — the same one she used before she died — and they end up releasing some demonic spirit. The spirit haunts them and kills them off, one by one, while the survivors try and figure out the mystery behind it all. People with knowledge of how Ouija boards work are contacted, and they must figure out a way to save themselves before it’s all too late. Feel familiar?

To be fair, Ouija is not completely devoid of scares. It’s a film that knows what it is and who its audiences are, and it makes no attempt to be subtle. You’re likely to jump at least a couple of times, but only because that’s all the film is trying to do. The attempts at scaring viewers are typical and almost always the same — silence, silence silence, BOO! It’s always a loud noise, and occasionally it’s accompanied by something coming at the screen, being pulled away from the screen, or some ghastly sight. They don’t even try to mix it up a little with the occasional feint. There’s the obligatory scene in the bathroom, you know, the one with the mirror on the medicine cabinet, and of course, a convenient need to go into both an attic AND a basement.

I admit the tactics got to me at first, making me flinch a handful of times, but as the film progressed the scares just became more and more predictable. It’s one thing to know that a BOO moment is coming, but it’s another to be able to anticipate exactly when it will come, and even how it will come. Towards the end I even predicted how the plot would turn out, including the so-called “twist,” the “climax” and the “epilogue” scene. I hate spoilers, but can I just say I almost lost it when the protagonist’s suggestively Latino grandmother is conveniently revealed, right towards the end, as an expert on Ouija boards.

I wish I could say Oujia‘s problems end there, but it gets worse. First-time feature director Stiles White has some craftiness in his direction, so I’d say most of the blame goes to the atrocious script. I expected the dialogue to be sub-par, but here it’s quite perplexing. Apart from the cringeworthy exposition tagged to every second line, characters would say things that made no sense at all. When you pop out of nowhere and scare someone, you don’t then say to their face, “It’s me!” They know it’s you. You’re standing right in front of them.

More criminal than the dialogue is the actions of the characters, which are designed so that the next “scare” can be slotted in. It’s as though the whole film began as a collection of scare scenarios, and the rest of the plot was written around them. Doors to buildings are left open for inexplicable reasons just so they can slam shut to scare us. Doors are purposely left open so they can swing by themselves. A guy would ride a bike very fast, as though he’s in a hurry to get somewhere, only to get off it so he can walk extremely slowly through a dark — and extremely flat — underpass. He’ll even leave his bike so he can walk into the darkness to check out strange noises. Two sisters would leave together their house to go to play with a Ouija board, but only one of them would be seen returning home without any explanation whatsoever. Characters would be totally freaked out by something extremely small and potentially innocuous, but suddenly become brave enough to keep going in the face of something 10 times scarier and obviously demonic. They would even voluntarily separate in extremely frightening situations so characters can be alone. Sloppy, poorly thought-through stuff like this just frustrates me to no end.

I’m probably being harder on Ouija than I should be because I find the spirit boards fascinating and wanted it to be more than your run-of-the-mill supernatural horror flick. Unfortunately, it was even more unimaginative than I thought it would be. That’s not to say those looking for a cheap thrill or two won’t get their money’s worth, but for me this was a huge disappointment.

1.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Expendables 3 (2014)

October 29, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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I remember when I thought the idea of The Expendables, which grouped together a huge handful of old action stars, would be a good premise — if the film was made 10-15 years ago. That was back in 2010, when they made the first film. Now, with the stars another 4 years older, slower and more mutated by HGH, we have been bestowed a third installment in the franchise, and the results are more ghastly than the cracks on Mel Gibson’s face.

The first Expendables was not very good, but at least it was fresh. The second film was more of the same, except less fresh, and now the third film is simply stale. The Expendables do a dangerous job, a villain appears, hurts or kills one of their own, and revenge is ultimately accomplished following a lot of gunfire, explosions, poor attempts at “character development,” and Sly Stallone running around in platform boots yelling incoherently. It’s a proven formula for box office success.

In fact, you’re not likely to remember what the film is even about the next day, and memories of all three films will probably blend into one giant I-don’t-give-a-shit. For the loyal fans, it doesn’t really matter.

My memory of the film is already starting to fade. I am fairly certain that Mel Gibson is the villain because this is the only role in Hollywood he can get these days. I know Harrison Ford is in it because I remember thinking that he is doing a horrible job of convincing people that he has not turned completely senile. Wesley Snipes is the new addition to the oldies, but he doesn’t offer much apart from a “they went there” joke about his well-publicized problems. Arnie is back, but Bruce Willis is out (complete with a cheesy joke to go along with it). Jet Li makes his usual contract-obligated cameo, and Antonio Banderas is in it for some reason. As you can see, The Expendables franchise has more or less become a charity for old actors who want to keep gettin’ ‘em checks. But hey, why blame them for exploiting the market? As long as there is demand there will be supply, no matter how many wrinkles there are. I fully expect Nicholas Cage to be in the next one.

To be fair, Stallone does try to infuse new blood into the series by hiring a bunch of potential box office draws, such as MMA badass Ronda Rousey, Twilight alumnus Kellan Lutz and former welterweight boxing champion Victor Ortiz. They each get to show off a little bit, but with so many people sharing the same pie it’s not really worth your time if you just want to see the film because of one or two people.

Now that the novelty of star power has worn off for good, The Expendables franchise must turn to action and cheesy humor to make up for it. The action, to be honest, felt like more of the same. I suppose the guns, knives and explosions are arguably bigger, but for me it was a case of different shit, same smell. I do, however, give kudos for the tongue-in-cheek cheesy humour. One of the franchise’s greatest strengths is understanding what a big joke everything is and its stars’ ability to make fun of themselves, and The Expendables 3 is no different.

I understand the appeal of the Expendables concept and why people (including myself) have flocked to it time and time again. The undeniable reality, however, is that the films have never lived up to the concept, and I doubt they ever can. I can see how there are those who still enjoy it, but I’ve become numb and indifferent after three mediocre efforts. I think my wife summed up my sentiments best with her one-word review when I asked her what she thought of it: “Whatever.”

2 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Annabelle (2014)

October 23, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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In an era of crappy, derivative horror films, last year’s The Conjuring was a rare gem in the rough. Most people knew what they were in for — they just didn’t realize how effective it would be thanks to director James Wan’s big bag of tricks.

And so I was excited when I heard that they were going to make a prequel called Annabelle, named after the creepy doll seen briefly in The Conjuring. Haunted toys have been subjected to multiple film interpretations, and I was cautiously optimistic that the same crew from the conjuring would be able to deliver again.I was wrong.

Annabelle was nowhere  near as scary as the conjuring, nor was it anywhere close to being as well made. Instead of the definitive scary doll movie I had been hoping for, Annabelle ended up being yet another disappointment.

The film begins with a brief scene from the conjuring for taking us back to the 1970s, where we meet our lovely protagonists, pregnant young couple Mia (Annabelle Wallis) and John Form (Ward Horton). For some inexplicable reason, John decides to get Mia the Annabelle doll to go along with her creepy doll collection (I mean seriously, have you seen the bloody thing?), and soon after that, a deranged woman from a Satanic cult decides to pass her soul into the doll shortly before her death. If you think that sounds familiar, it’s because the exact same scenario happens in Child’s Play, the original Chucky classic.

From there, the progression is fairly predictable — we start off with little things which then escalate, prompting the couple to seek outside counsel, eventually leading to a climatic finish. If you’ve seen it once you’ve seen them all.

None of the predictability would have mattered if Annabelle was genuinely frightening. I admit, expectations were probably unreasonably high after I saw the trailer, which scared the crap out of me. Sadly, the trailer pretty much spoiled all the truly scary parts of the film, and what was left over turned out to be a bore. Despite a running time of just 98 minutes, Annabelle felt surprisingly slow. Unlike The Conjuring, which gave us a fine blend of atmosphere and “boo!” moments, Annabelle was dominated by cheap scares and obvious tactics.

It would be a lie to say the film wasn’t scary at all, but I guess that’s what happens when you follow up one of James Wan’s best efforts with a career cinematographer like John R Leonetti. To be fair, Annabelle does have some stylish scenes and is by far Leonetti’s best film, though this is not difficult feat considering his other directorial credits are Mortal Kombat: Annihilation and The Buttlerfly Effect 2.

One of the other major problems with Annabelle is the acting. It would be nasty to suggest that the doll was the least wooden performer in the cast, but going from established Conjuring veterans like Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston to the likes to Wallis and Horton is a jarring experience.

Having said all that, Annabelle probably isn’t as bad as I’ve made it out to be. It’s disappointing because of heightened expectations, though compared to the vast majority of other trash out there, the film is actually better than most. It’s a shame there couldn’t have been more creativity with the script and better acting, but if you haven’t seen the trailer there might be just enough scares to justify giving the film a try.

PS: For those wondering, Annabelle is even less of a true story than The Conjuring. Check out the real doll. If you’ve done any reading about Ed and Lorraine Warren, the ghostbuster couple from The Conjuring, you’ll know it’s likely a whole bunch of BS. Check out this article for more details.

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Movie Review: Before I Go to Sleep (2014)

October 23, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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I had wanted desperately to read SJ Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep, the bestselling novel about a 40-year-old woman who has that same condition as Drew Barrymore from 50 First Dates — ie, she has no short term memory and wakes up every morning with no recollection of the previous day or what happened to her since her early 20s. But alas, I was stuck on other books, so I decided to take the easy way out and watch the adaptation starring Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth and Mark Strong.

While the film blatantly steals from Adam Sandler’s idea (if you can’t tell that’s a joke then I can’t help you), Before I Go to Sleep is no comedy — it’s a mystery thriller with plenty of suspense that will have every viewer trying to guess the outcome. Personally, I thought it was a perfectly solid mystery film that doesn’t manage to fully differentiate itself from similar Hollywood efforts in recent years. I enjoyed the ride while it lasted, and while I wouldn’t call it forgettable (pun unintended), the film clearly will not be as revered as its source material.

Nicole Kidman plays our protagonist, Christine Lucas, who suffers from the — let’s just call it the Drew Barrymore condition — because of an “accident” she was in about 10 years ago, or so her husband Ben (Colin Firth) tells her. Every morning, after waking up and being reminded of who she is by Ben, she receives a call from a neurologist, Dr Nasch (Mark Strong), who tells her that they’ve been secretly working together to help her remember her past.

Naturally, nothing is what it seems, and Christine slowly begins to peel away the mystery, one layer at a time like an onion. Who can she trust? Who is telling her the truth? And why did she really become this way? These are all questions that will get answered eventually, though not before writer and director Rowan Joffe (who was a writer on 28 Weeks Later and The American) throws a bunch of curve balls at us. But anyone who watched this film probably knew that there’d be twists and turns galore, and an obligatory surprise at the very end.

Knowing what’s coming, however, didn’t dampen my enjoyment of the film. Before I Go to Sleep is done and dusted in an extremely manageable (and unlikely for this day and age) 92 minutes. The short running time keeps the film tight and fast paced, and Joffe cleverly finds ways to avoid repetition despite Christine waking up in the same manner every day. Always be kept on the back foot from all the plot twists and red herrings also prevents you from thinking too much about all the potential plot holes and inconsistencies.

I know it is unpatriotic of me to say this, but I have never been the biggest fan of Nicole Kidman. I just don’t think, Oscar notwithstanding, she’s that good of an actress. Having said that, I admit she there is not much for me to complain about here. She gets the job done, I’ll leave it at that. Colin Firth and Mark Strong are also excellent and make full use of their charisma in different ways, such that both come off as trustworthy suspects.

My biggest problem with the film, and films like this in general, is that knowing a “shocking” twist is coming means you likely won’t be shocked when it finally comes. I couldn’t shake that feeling of anticipation throughout most of the film, and I doubt I’m alone when I say I more or less guessed the ending.

While it doesn’t come close to blowing me away like I was by a classic like The Usual Suspects, I think Before I Go to Sleep generally accomplishes what it set out to do. It might not be the most creative or satisfying mystery thriller you’ll come across this year, but in my opinion it’s certainly one of the better ones.

3.5 stars out of 5

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