[Early Review] [31 Days of Horror 3] Day 18 – Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016)

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Director: Mike Flanagan

Cast: Elizabeth Reaser, Lulu Wilson, Annalise Basso, Henry Thomas, Kate Siegel, Doug Jones, Alexis G. Zall

Screenplay: Mike Flanagan, Jeff Howard

99 mins. Rated PG-13 for disturbing images, terror and thematic elements.

 

Good evening folks, tonight I was privileged to have been invited to an advance screening for the upcoming release Ouija: Origin of Evil. Now, as many of you know, I wasn’t big on the original Ouija, but I went in with an open mind ready to embrace the fear. Now, did this sequel bring me in? Let’s take a look.

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This prequel follows the Zander family: mother Alice (Elizabeth Reaser, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2, Hello My Name is Doris), eldest daughter Paulina (Annalise Basso, TV’s Cold, Captain Fantastic), and youngest Doris (Lulu Wilson, TV’s The Millers, Deliver Us From Evil). The Zanders run a faux seance scam out of their home. In an effort to increase the spectacle, Alice purchases a Ouija board from a local shop, and Doris immediately makes a connection to it. But her constant use of the board leads to frightening changes in her personality as seen through the eyes of Paulina and Father Tom (Henry Thomas, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Dear John), the Principal of the local Catholic school. Then, people start dying, and all eyes are on Doris, but she couldn’t possibly be causing it, right?

Let’s talk about how this installment adds to the larger mythos of the Ouija franchise. In all fairness, I’m actually surprised by how well it ties to the original but also how it forges a new path. It does really feel like the filmmakers, specifically Director Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Hush), seemed to have taken the feedback for the first film and attempted to right the ship.

That being said, this movie has so many convoluted plot points and story pieces that, by the end of the film, it completely devolves, which is sad, but also not surprising considering I felt the same way about Flanagan’s 2013 film Oculus. The plot thread moves along fine enough for the first hour, but when the pieces start falling together, the film falls to pieces.

And then there’s the issue of the Ouija board. As the first film kind of devolved into a pretty lame ghost story, this prequel eventually becomes a mess of possessions and slashers and doesn’t do any of it particularly well. I wanted to like it, and there are elements that shine, but the Ouija board could’ve been removed from both films without changing the story one bit.

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Flanagan’s visuals occasionally shine through, and the film’s pace isn’t bad, but this outing feels like it took too much from other horror films that have been here before and done it better. I saw pieces of Insidious, The Conjuring, and The Exorcist here, and none of it done in a particularly memorable way. I’m glad that Ouija: Origin of Evil is a major step in the right direction, but the ending feels like it was forced to fit a certain way to match the first film, and in doing so, the story is badly damaged and crashes to the ground. On a budget of $6 million, I have no doubt that there will be a Ouija 3, so let’s hope they continue to make progress with this series.

 

2/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

For my review of Stiles White’s Ouija, click here.

For my review of Mike Flanagan’s Oculus, click here.

[Early Review] American Pastoral (2016)

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Director: Ewan McGregor

Cast: Ewan McGregor, Jennifer Connelly, Dakota Fanning, Rupert Evans, Valorie Curry

Screenplay: John Romano

126 mins. Rated R for some strong sexual material, language and brief violent images.

 

I was blessed to have seen American Pastoral last night with a friend. Not a film that I had heard much news from, I was aware of the novel written by Philip Roth. I hadn’t read it, but I’d heard good things. So with American Pastoral the film, I was more intrigued by Ewan McGregor’s directing debut. Nowadays, many actors are finding themselves as successful or more behind the camera, and I was interested by McGregor’s choice to start here.

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Seymour “Swede” Levov (McGregor) had always been remembered as the star athlete from high school, the man who married high school sweetheart and beauty queen Dawn (Jennifer Connelly, A Beautiful Mind, Noah), a man who seemingly had the perfect life. But as Swede’s brother Jerry (Rupert Evans, Hellboy, The Boy) recalls, things changed pretty quickly for Levov not long after starting a family. As his daughter Merry (Dakota Fanning, War of the Worlds, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2) matured, she began to think more radically and hang out with a more dangerous crowd, a decision that would tear the Swede’s world apart.

American Pastoral almost holds it all together. Almost. It starts with a great performance from McGregor, and as the film progresses, you can see hints of genius, but they are muddled down with inexperience. The entire first act of the film is strangely unhinged. It starts with a poorly hewn together framing device featuring David Strathairn asking about the Swede at a high school reunion. The framing device isn’t unnecessary, but it isn’t done well. It features Strathairn as a writer relaying through voiceover and it feels so Lifetime Channel-y. That leads into the first act where it feels like people are reading from cue cards. It isn’t until the plot’s true inciting incident where the film comes together, and from there, it does get better, but everything before comes off a little too perfect.

The performances get better as the film progresses, but I have to point out the solid supporting work from Peter Riegert and Uzo Aduba as Swede’s father and his top employee, respectively. Valorie Curry (TV’s The Following, Blair Witch) is also enchantingly disturbed as a woman with connections to Merry’s radical group.

The cinematography and editing make the film a little too plain, not something exciting and powerful, which is how the story should feel. This is difficult subject material, and there are many times when the film is full of pain, but the film doesn’t convey it well to the audience. The issue of the makeup effects too looks bad, particularly around Rupert Evans in the present-day scenes.

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Sadly, American Pastoral shows signs of greatness, but there just isn’t enough of it, as the film dances around in monotony and sinks in uninspired bliss. Ewan McGregor and Dakota Fanning shine in their performances, but it isn’t enough to push this film over the finish line.

 

2.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

[Happy 10th Birthday!] War of the Worlds (2005)

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Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwin, Miranda Otto, Tim Robbins

Screenplay: Josh Friedman, David Koepp

116 mins. Rated PG-13 for frightening sequences of sci-fi violence and disturbing images.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Sound Mixing
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Sound Editing
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Visual Effects

 

Steven Spielberg (Saving Private Ryan, Lincoln) has always been an alien fanboy at heart. Periodically throughout his career, he continues to return to the genre of the extraterrestrial. He even owned a copy of Orson Welles’ original radio play for War of the Worlds. After many attempts to get a story off the ground, Spielberg was eventually able to do so in 2005.

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Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise, Top Gun, Edge of Tomorrow) isn’t all that great of a father. He loves his kids, but he just doesn’t really know them. His daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning, Coraline, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2) and son Robbie (Justin Chatwin, TV’s Shameless, The Invisible) don’t enjoy staying with him. But when the Earth is attacked by forces from beneath and beyond the planet’s surface, Ray is forced to grow up and become the father he is supposed to be as the family evades invading extraterrestrials who want the world for themselves.

This is a very different film for Steven Spielberg. For starters, the plot runs in a very different way. Rather than unfolding as the film progresses and evolving based on the character choices, War of the Worlds is much more of an action onslaught like previous fare Mad Max: Fury Road. The plot is revealed rather quickly and then takes a step back to the high action spectacle that unfolds for our hero. It was new terrain for the filmmaker.

Tom Cruise does his best to play to his character’s weaknesses here. He isn’t entirely a likable guy but when greatness is thrust upon him, Ray needs to step up and protect those around him from harm. Dakota Fanning plays Rachel to the truest understanding that a nervous child would have during these events. Unfortunately, she is rather annoying in this film. I get that you’re scared, but she is always screaming! Then there’s Justin Chatwin, who has more of his father in him than he realizes as he is conflicted in what he thinks makes a man. Miranda Otto (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, I, Frankenstein) gives serviceable work as the ex-Mrs. Ferrier and Tim Robbins (The Shawshank Redemption, Welcome to Me) gives one of the best albeit small performances I’ve seen from the actor.

War of the Worlds benefits from having Spielberg’s terrific flair for capturing events on film. The sequences are well put together, so much so that you miss some of the inconsistencies in the flow of the film. The sound mixing and editing, for which the film was nominated for an Oscar, are also booming. The invader ships, or Tripods as they are referred, make this unsettling sound as they destroy humanity. That, mixed with the top notch visual effects, give this film a unique flavor and an intensity that continue throughout its runtime.

I wasn’t all that impressed with John William’s score here as it comes off as more sounds mixed into the film than a bona fide music track.

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I can completely get why some didn’t enjoy War of the Worlds. Many called out the underwhelming ending, which is actually taken from the source material and considered one of the best endings ever. I enjoyed, but perhaps the reason is that I knew this was the ending going in. I think without the great irony of the film is that by knowing the ending, it makes it better but not necessarily as thrilling, but by not knowing the ending, it feels like a cop out but is entertaining throughout. My suggestion to best enjoy the film is to read the book first (seriously, this is me suggesting that you read, and that will anger some of you). The film doesn’t necessarily follow the novel’s story at all, but it retains the key themes that should enrich your viewing experience.

 

3.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

For my review of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, click here.

 

Taken (2008)

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Director: Pierre Morel

Cast: Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Leland Orser, Jon Gries, David Warshofsky, Holly Valance, Katie Cassidy, Xander Berkeley, Olivier Rabourdin, Gerard Watkins, Famke Janssen

Screenplay: Luc Besson, Robert Mark Kamen

93 mins. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, disturbing thematic material, sexual content, some drug references and language.

 

There was a time, not too long ago, when Liam Neeson (Schindler’s List, A Walk Among the Tombstones) was not thought of as an action star. Think about that. Think about it.

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Bryan Mills (Neeson) is a retired CIA agent who spends his time in solitude while trying to build a relationship with daughter Kim (Maggie Grace, Lockout, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2). When Kim wants to go to Paris with her friend Amanda (Katie Cassidy, TV’s Arrow, Monte Carlo), Bryan’s ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen, TV’s Hemlock Grove, X-Men) is fine with it, but Bryan has his reservations. When his fears become true and Kim and Amanda are kidnapped in Paris, Bryan’s old CIA skills rise up and take over as he heads to France to find his daughter and get her back…and get revenge on those who took them.

Taken was a bit of a surprise for me. While I liked Liam Neeson from his work in Batman Begins and Schindler’s List, I never thought much on the one-man army concept working for him. I was wrong, and am happy for it. This is a nonstop thrill ride of immense proportions. Neeson kills it as Mills, and director Pierre Morel (From Paris with Love, District B13) keeps the film rollicking along. It isn’t perfect, but it is one of the better films to be dumped during the dry season for action films.

There isn’t anything truly special about the cinematography or the editing, the music is pretty nice but nothing amazing, and the direction isn’t going to win any major awards, but the film is still a fun time carried by a veteran performer and his ability to win fans over.

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Taken is pretty great, but not entirely well-made. See it for Neeson. See it. For Neeson. Yeah.

 

3.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

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Director: James Gunn

Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio del Toro

Screenplay: James Gunn, Nicole Perlman

121 mins. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language.

 

The Marvel Cinematic Universe just keeps on getting bigger. Each film just seems to open up the world a bit more, and with Guardians of the Galaxy, director James Gunn just blew the lid off the whole thing. This movie is huge, epic in scale, absolutely opening doors to further adventures both for these heroes and a whole lot more.

Guardians of the Galaxy is the story of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt, Her, Jurassic World) aka Star Lord, an Earthling kidnapped from his home many years previously by aliens. Peter steals a mysterious orb from Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2). Ronan wants it back, badly. Peter joins up with several other degenerate thugs to protect it. Among them is daughter of Thanos, Gamora (Zoe Saldana, Avatar, Out of the Furnace), Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista, Riddick, The Man With the Iron Fists), a walking and talking tree named Groot (Vin Diesel, Fast & Furious 6, Babylon A.D.), and a talking genetic raccoon named Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook, American Sniper). Together, they form the loosely fitting title of the “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

First of all, I just want to point out that Chris Pratt takes a commanding lead of this colorful cast of characters. He controls the film and doesn’t falter under any pressure carrying us along. I’ve been saying for a while that Pratt is going somewhere. This film proves it.

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Zoe Saldana is such a beauty; I will never understand why every damn movie has her suiting up in CG of makeup, but the performance here doesn’t suffer, mostly because Saldana requested to wear light makeup so as not to mess with her ability to act. Gamora is a tough character to knock down. Through her relationship with father Thanos (last seen in 2012’s The Avengers in a cameo appearance) and sister Nebula (Karen Gillan, Oculus), she probably has the most connections to tie us into the MCU.

I was actually fairly shocked by Dave Bautista as Drax. I see a former wrestler-turned-actor in a lineup and assume the worst, but that is because more often than not, I am right, but Bautista doesn’t hold us down. He serves the tough guy purpose nicely, and he has a heart in there; the glimpses are just enough to connect to the audience.

Vin Diesel’s Groot is the breakout performance of this film. With three words and seemingly endless permutations, Groot is the source for a lot of the heart and soul of the picture, and his relationship with Rocket is a beautiful thing.

The Collector (Benicio del Toro, Snatch, Inherent Vice) was introduced to us in the post-credits sequence for last year’s Thor: The Dark World, and he serves the purpose of really expanding the Marvel universe. Apart from having the subtle nuances to complete with the other major players, The Collector delivers a lot of big game info in his small role, like the Infinity Stones, certainly something to learn about for future features all over the verse (wait, was that the cube?), as well as giving us some nice cameos of perhaps some future Marvel players (not all, but dammit, enjoy the post-credits scene for what it is).

Now, I did have criticisms for the film. For example, Lee Pace’s Ronan the Accuser is a somewhat generic villain, very much alike to previous Marvel fare. We as the audience wanted more of Thanos that we didn’t really get. At least the film served a purpose of reminding us that he isn’t really an endgame. Not to mention the fact that the ending builds to a less-than-stellar face-off that could have been used earlier for better effect.

The nicest thing we could be given for this film is that we didn’t have a lot of it ruined by the trailer. More films should take a page from Guardians of the Galaxy and understand that a trailer can be made up of non-feature material.

Before I end this off, I want to point out how impressed I was by Gunn’s choice of soundtrack and how much it actually, surprisingly works. Give it a listen and let it pump you up.

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Guardians of the Galaxy was a Marvel Studios test, and it works. Producer Kevin Feige wanted to see it fans would turn out for some of the more cosmic, out-there characters that Marvel has to offer. And we did. And we loved it. I think you will too.

 

4/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

What did you think of Guardians of the Galaxy? Did this ship take you places or crash land on a strange and disappointing planet? Tell me!

 

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