[Early Review] Annabelle: Creation (2017)

Director: David F. Sandberg

Cast: Stephanie Sigman, Miranda Otto, Lulu Wilson, Talitha Bateman, Anthony LaPaglia

Screenplay: Gary Dauberman

109 mins. Rated R for horror violence and terror.

 

Hey everyone, I had the chance to catch an early screening for Annabelle: Creation, the prequel to a prequel to The Conjuring. If that sounds confusing, that’s because it is. Real quick, let’s track this franchise…

There are further planned films in The Conjuring Universe, including a third Conjuring film as well as further spin-offs for The Nun and The Crooked Man, but I’m digressing…

Annabelle: Creation is the story of a nun, Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman, Spectre, Once Upon a Time in Venice), and a few orphaned girls who are taken in by the Mullins, Esther (Miranda Otto, TV’s 24: Legacy, War of the Worlds) and Samuel (Anthony LaPaglia, TV’s Without a Trace, The Assignment). Janice (Talitha Bateman, Nine Lives, The 5th Wave) immediately begins witnessing strange and unexplained events, seemingly surrounding a doll made by Mr. Mullins. Soon, Linda (Lulu Wilson, Ouija: Origin of Evil, Deliver Us from Evil), Janice’s best friend, starts to see it too, and she fears for Janice’s safety. It becomes clear that Mr. and Mrs. Mullins have a terrible secret hidden in their past that is about to break free and put the orphans in unimaginable danger.

First off, I have to say that I was very nervous about another Annabelle film. While I thought the first Annabelle film was okay, I understood that it existed within the larger framework of The Conjuring which was a truly excellent film and the difference in quality was just too wide. Then, I noticed that the prequel had the same screenwriter as the first film, Gary Dauberman (Swamp Devil, Within), and I assumed that we wouldn’t see anything too different from the original. Finally, I noticed that the film was pulled from its original release and placed in August. The studio reasoning for this was to avoid competition with Alien: Covenant, which made sense but also could’ve been a really good spin on the story.

But there was also good news bits. First, James Wan, director of The Conjuring and producer for Annabelle, explained that they had heard the reviews for Annabelle and were going to use the feedback to craft a stronger film. Then, David F. Sandberg (Lights Out) came aboard the project as a director. This is what kicked my excitement into full gear.

The finished project is a definite step up for the Annabelle series. Sandberg fills his film with frights and mood that stacks as the film progresses into an amazingly tense nail-biting finale. The performers were also very strong. We are seeing an amazing year for young female performers from films such as The Beguiled, and Bateman and Wilson are no exception. Their work, particularly in the scenes they share, is exemplary. Annabelle: Creation also holds strong with seasoned performers like Otto and LaPaglia that help to elevate the girls’ acting.

The film is not entirely without flaws, however, and Annabelle: Creation does suffer due to its somewhat simplistic storytelling. There isn’t a lot of shock to the film’s narrative and it doesn’t feel like it’s trying to engage its audience. Thankfully, Sandberg knows how to get the best that he can from his characters, but there are moments when Annabelle: Creation falls back on its tropes. There is just enough in the film that works that it didn’t ruin my enjoyment when the plot sauntered into cliché.

I also felt like the ending didn’t stand on its own but relied rather heavily on the audience’s awareness of the franchise. I don’t really want to get into it but the film doesn’t feel like it has an ending.

Overall, Annabelle: Creation is not likely to disappoint fans of the horror genre. There are genuinely creepy moments especially in the finale that work really well. For Sandberg, this isn’t a better outing than Lights Out but it proves that the director is capable of stepping into someone else’s sandbox and playing nice with it. Annabelle: Creation both excites me for Sandberg’s next project (Shazam for DC) as well as the further widening of The Conjuring Universe. I would advise horror fans to give the one a try.

 

3.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

Have you seen Annabelle: Creation? What did you think of it? And what spin-off from The Conjuring are you most excited for? The Nun? The Crooked Man? A possible Annabelle 3? Let me know! Drop a comment below!

 

For my review of James Wan’s The Conjuring, click here.

For my review of James Wan’s The Conjuring 2, click here.

 

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[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.

 

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