Monday, October 24, 2016

[Review] Ouija: Origin of Evil

2014's Ouija film left such little of an impression that I could hardly recall if I'd seen it or not. Turns out, I did see it. And the only thing that clearly came to mind was Ouija BORED. So that's why it's such a surprise that this year's sequel Ouija: Origin of Evil is so damned good. Don't get me wrong, this isn't a flawless masterpiece, and it isn't really anything new for the horror genre. But as Halloween swiftly approaches, consider this as a worthwhile entry into your October movie playlist.

Right away we meet Alice (Elizabeth Reaser), a psychic medium for hire who scams her customers by pulling crafty theatrics (or as she calls it, "showmanship") with some behind-the-scenes help from her two precocious daughters Lina (Annalise Basso) and Doris (Lulu Wilson). One day, Alice buys a Ouija board from the store, and you guessed it--she taps into the other side. For real this time.

The cool thing about this film is that takes an old-school, welcomely retro approach with its throwback title sequence and '60s cloaked sets (also, if you look closely--you can catch a few "cue marks" in the upper right corner of the frame). The strange and scary occurrences incrementally build with tried-and-true horror methods--including alternations between eerie music and deafening silence, slow zoom-ins and zoom-outs backed by creeping piano keys, shadows lurking in corners, beady-eyed and possessed kids spouting off uncomfortable monologues about strangulation... There's also some tense views through the Ouija's looking glass, where the conniving demons dwell. 

In fact, the first half of this film is remarkably restrained and nicely calculated for a mainstream horror flick. Of course, I'm not saying that antes aren't upped or that some crazy ass stuff doesn't eventually happen. But the story mostly refrains from overly campy shark-jumps, groan-worthy special effects, and rotten dialogue. It all escalates into a dreadful and thrilling climax that concludes with an audaciously bleak ending. The magnetic performances from the cast aid the mood, too. 

Guided by director Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Hush), Ouija: Origin of Evil is an unnerving push-and-pull between skeptics and believers. And if you're wondering if you need to see the film's predecessor beforehand, the answer is NO. You're best bet is to slide straight toward this one. But remember the game's three rules:

1. Never play alone.
2. Never play in a graveyard.
3. Always say goodbye. 

( 7.5/10 )

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Thursday, October 20, 2016

[Review] The Idol

"We'll be big, and we'll change the world."

Hany Abu-Assad directs The Idol, a moving Palestinian drama that saddens as much as it delights. It's full of very familiar elements: Coming-of-age, the power of music, rags to riches... And though we've seen stories like these told many times before (even perfected in this year's excellent Sing Street), it doesn't mean they aren't still worthwhile experiences.

Set in conflict-ridden Gaza, the young Mohammed (Qais Atallah) and Nour (Hiba Atallah, a glowing standout) are brother and sister, playing in a 4-piece band that... let's just say they need a little tuning up. The crew attempts to scrounge up enough money to buy new instruments and equipment, all while maintaining lofty dreams of one day performing at the Cairo Opera House.

This film is beautifully shot. Early on, each frame is alive with exuberance and hustle, bringing out the vibrant and fruitful colors even amidst the despair and desolation of the backdrop. The story is all about relentless determination, no matter the circumstances. There's also a nice sense of innocent 'Kids say the darndest things' humor to it. And all the young actors are absolutely great here.

The midway point contains a poignant shocker, and there's a major shift in the narrative, making the film a disjointed tale of two halves. Unfortunately, it also loses some of its spunk. However, the turn rings as a necessary extension and conclusion to this story. With its spanning of different time periods, the film feels like a minor rendition of the Oscar-winning sensation Slumdog Millionaire.

The Idol emphasizes the fact that many children will grow up in completely different environments and face tougher obstacles than some can even imagine--but a wide-eyed smile is universal.

( 7.5/10 )

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Tuesday, October 18, 2016

[Review] Chevalier

Better do some pushups and fluff your stuff. Writer-director Athina Rachel Tsangari examines masculinity and ego in Chevalier, a deadpan Greek film about six men on a boat.

The plot revolves around a group of fellas in their 40s-60s embarking on fishing trip on a fancy yacht. For no real reason other than to determine who's "The best in general", they decide to engage in a series of contests-- mental and physical--whether it's skipping rocks or measuring morning dongs. Whoever accumulates the most points wins. The prize? Bragging rights, of course. And a titular Chevalier ring to wear for a year, which is essentially an extension of the bragging rights.

Impeccably framed within the mostly compact settings, Chevalier takes an adroit dive into themes of male dynamics, competition, machismo, insecurities, and self-esteem in an amusing clash of middle-aged bro-downs with a slight undertone of homoeroticism (I took note of that shot with the eggplants), as these hairy dudes intently jockey for top status. But instead of casting a biting lure, director Tsangari's gaze opts for a drollishly comedic and low-key observational route, which works, because the film manages to catch a tone of absurdism and realism at the same time.

Sometimes it moves a bit too slow, and the narrative is one-note, but Chevalier still remains an intriguing outing, and it's got a terrific use of Petula Clark's rendition of "Let It Be Me".

( 7/10 )

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Monday, October 10, 2016

[Review] The Birth of a Nation

1915's The Birth of a Nation has been exalted as a groundbreaking cinematic achievement for its technical prowess and epic scope. However, the film is marred by its racist overtones and glorification of the Ku Klux Klan. In a fittingly reactionary move, writer/director/star Nate Parker (who has been dealing with some troubling controversies of his own) ignites a new The Birth of a Nation, taking on the same exact title. And like a well-sharpened hatchet to the gut, this film--which is inspired by the true events of Nat Turner's slave revolt--is as harrowing and moving as you'd expect.

Virginia in the early 1800s. We meet Nat Turner (Parker), a well-read slave who's called upon to deliver sermons at other plantations, while his owner (played by Armie Hammer) collects coin.
Along the way Nat witnesses so much injustice and inhumane cruelty, that he eventually snaps and decides to secretly lead a formation of fellow slaves to strike back against the oppressors.

As a brutal run-through, The Birth of a Nation gazes upon all the atrocities of slavery with intense and unflinching detail. But the film is also a brave and vengeful story of uprising against hateful, evil forces. Given the script's religious layer, the plot is imagined as a David vs. Goliath tale of sorts. A testament of brotherhood that boils with anguish and rage. (A few of the film's turning points generated spirited cheers from the audience during my screening.) There's also a lot of focus on Nat and his marriage with Cherry (Aja Naomi King), along with their newborn daughter, as the film functions as a tragic story of love and family amidst terrible circumstances.

The cast are impressive all around. Nate Parker gives a tremendous performance as the central protagonist. His acting chops are on display most during the watery-eyed, passionate, and soulful preaching scenes, as he recites significantly combative texts from the bible--the verses that the slave owners don't want people to know about. The narrative does stumble at times, and it lacks in character depth, as Nat Turner is the only person who comes off as multidimensional. Obviously I'm less concerned about the despicable slave owners being developed, because eff them.

So this film probably won't garner as much praise as the recent comparison piece 12 Years A Slave, but it's still packed with stunning images, powerful scenes, and themes that still resonate today--making The Birth of a Nation another searing, incendiary, and vital viewing.

* 8.5/10 *

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Thursday, October 6, 2016

[Review] Train to Busan

This South Korean zombie flick's "Dun dun dun dun..." moment arrives toward the beginning when a deer gets leveled by a moving vehicle, then the roadkill rises to its feet and stares directly into the camera with glazed white eyes, letting us know we're in for a wild ride. Hop on the Train to Busan.

Meet Seok-woo (Yoo Gong) and his daughter Soo-an (Soo-an Kim) as they prepare to board a fast rail from Seoul to Busan (Dun dun dun dun...). Much to their surprise, the train becomes overrun with zombies (Don't you hate when that happens?), and all the passengers must fight for their lives.

Things get gruesome and gory fast, especially as the zombies multiply and strike rabidly and rapidly (the train isn't the only thing that moves fast) with their possessed body contortions, vicious growling, and hideously infected faces. The chaotic frenzy is escalated with the film's sped-up frames and operatic soundtrack. So, this isn't exactly some serious or subversive alternative to the lingering zombie craze. In fact, it's not afraid to get campy. Zombies leap-tackle folks like it's a football game, they plow head-first into plexiglass, and at one point they're literally falling out of the sky.

In a similar way to the film's cousin Snowpiercer--there is a rumbling of class conflict between the different sections of the train, and the narrative ushers in some themes of ethics and virtue amidst a bite-neck setting. But watching all this zombie-slaying can still get repetitive and exhausting over the course of two hours, so that's why audiences who aren't content with the usual genre tactics will be glad to find out that there's a surprisingly emotional payoff in the end. And while Train to Busan's big setpieces of combat and chases and stampeding hordes are impressive, it's really the film's one-on-one altercations that create the most thrills.

( 7.5/10 )

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