Movie Review: “Annabelle”

Starring
Annabelle Wallis, Ward Horton, Tony Amendola, Alfre Woodard
Director
John R. Leonetti

If “Annabelle” had any sense of when to let up on the throttle, it could have been one of the truly great horror movies of the past few decades. Instead, it chooses to mentally exhaust the audience by turning every single thing on screen into a weapon of one form or another, and it ramps up the already unnecessary tension with sound design that turns a sewing machine into a thunderstorm. It makes sense, in a way: they’re trying to make the audience as paranoid as the protagonist, but the one thing that “The Conjuring,” the film in which evil doll Annabelle made her feature debut, did so well was balance the light with the dark. “Annabelle” is nothing but darkness, and a lot of that darkness is been-there-done-that darkness. Indeed, the story line is largely borrowed from “Rosemary’s Baby,” with nods to “The Omen,” “Witchboard,” and even “Poltergeist.” Those are good to great sources, but Annabelle deserved a story of her own, not one stitched together from the carcasses of others.

Set in California one year before the opening scene of “The Conjuring,” Mia (Annabelle Wallis. Yes, the lead actress in this movie is named Annabelle, God love her) and her husband/doctor-in-training John (Ward Horton) are expecting their first child. Soon after we meet John and Mia, their next door neighbors the Higgins are murdered by their daughter Annabelle, now a member of a satanic cult. Annabelle and her accomplice friend try to kill John and Mia as well, but are not successful. Annabelle kills herself in their nursery, holding one of Mia’s porcelain dolls. Annabelle’s blood spills into the eye socket of the doll. The doll, naturally, is now a conduit to evil.

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Blu Tuesday: Transformers, Chef and Third Person

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“Transformers: Age of Extinction”

WHAT: Following the Battle of Chicago, a CIA black ops team led by the ruthless Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer) has begun hunting down the surviving Autobots and Deceptions in order to destroy them. When wannabe inventor Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) discovers Optimus Prime hiding as a beat-up semi-truck, the Autobot leader must protect the Yeager family from Attinger and a mercenary Transformer called Lockdown.

WHY: The most important thing you need to know about “Transformers: Age of Extinction” is that it clocks in at a ridiculously bloated 164 minutes. That’s not a typo, and worse yet, the first half is all just setup to the overly complex plot. Why Michael Bay thought that audiences wanted another “Transformers” film, let alone one that’s nearly three hours long, is anyone’s guess, because “Age of Extinction” is every bit as terrible as the last two installments. The bad dialogue and shameless product placement are to be expected, and the dynamic between the three lead human characters is pretty annoying, but Bay can’t even get the action right in this one, settling for unintelligible set pieces that evade logic almost as much as the story. At this point in the franchise, you’d think that Bay would have a better understanding of what works versus what doesn’t, but he makes many of the same mistakes, including a few new ones. Even the visual effects look less polished than past installments, and if you’re going to surround your action with dull human drama, the least Bay could have done is make it look good.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes a ton of bonus material for “Transformers” fans to dive into, beginning with the two-hour documentary “Evolution Within Extinction. There’s also a featurette where director Michael Bay discusses some key shots from the film, a behind-the-scenes look at production and a trip to Hasbro headquarters.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“Chef”

WHAT: After quitting his comfy restaurant job due to creative differences with the owner, Chef Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) does the unthinkable by starting up a food truck to revive his passion for the craft. While driving the truck cross-country from Miami to Los Angeles, Carl attempt to mend his relationship with his estranged son (Emjay Anthony), who accompanies him on the trip.

WHY: After the critical and commercial failure of “Cowboys & Aliens,” it’s nice to see Jon Favreau getting back to his roots with a small character-driven piece like “Chef.” Of course, that hasn’t stopped him from filling the movie with lots of great actors, including Scarlett Johansson, Robert Downey Jr. and Dustin Hoffman in cameo roles. The crux of the film, however, falls on Favreau and Emjay Anthony, who work really well together as the father-son duo, while John Leguizamo rounds out the food truck team (as Carl’s dutiful line cook) with his best part in a long time. The feel-good nature of the story means that it’s a fairly predictable journey for Carl, but Favreau takes a timely approach to the material with the whole food truck angle and the incorporation of social media. Though far from the big-budget extravaganza of the first two “Iron Man” films, what the indie comedy lacks in spectacle it makes up for with a great cast, a warm and funny script, and some mouth-watering food porn. Seriously, don’t watch this movie on an empty stomach. You’ve been warned.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary with writer/director Jon Favreau and co-producer Roy Choi, as well as some deleted scenes and outtakes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Third Person”

WHAT: Three connecting stories that take place in three different cities. In Paris, an esteemed author (Liam Neeson) begins an affair with a fellow writer (Olivia Wilde); in New York, a mother (Mila Kunis) struggles to regain visitation rights of her child; and in Italy, a businessman (Adrian Brody) helps an immigrant woman (Moran Atias) rescue her daughter from a human trafficker.

WHY: It’s incredible how much can change over the course of just a few years, and no one knows that better than Paul Haggis, who went from being one of the most sought-after writer/directors in Hollywood to a filmmaker who hasn’t done anything noteworthy in almost a decade. In fact, it appears that Haggis is still living off the 10-year-old fumes of “Crash,” because his latest multi-story drama also hinges on a narrative device, although to lesser effect. Discussing the silly gimmick in any detail would risk major spoilers, but let’s just say that watching different variations of the same bad story is even worse than sitting through it once. “Third Person” is without a doubt one of the most joyless moviegoing experiences of the year – a convoluted mess filled with insufferable characters and dull stories where nothing really happens. Don’t let the star-studded cast fool you, either, because while Liam Neeson delivers solid work as usual, the rest of the actors are either really poor or look bored out of their minds. Maybe they were promised the chance to be a part of the next “Crash,” but sadly, “Third Person” doesn’t even come close to replicating the excellence of the Oscar winner.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by writer/director Paul Haggis (along with several of his cast and crew), there’s a short making-of featurette and a 32-minute Q&A with Haggis moderated by film critic Pete Hammond.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

Coming Soon: A Moviegoer’s Guide to October

october

October has never really been known for its quality, but in recent years, studios have been a lot more open about releasing potential awards contenders alongside the usual array of horror flicks. In fact, 2013 saw two of the year’s most-nominated movies – “Gravity” and “12 Years a Slave” – released during this time, and that trend appears to continue this year as well, with no fewer than six potential Oscar hopefuls debuting throughout the month. The October lineup is certainly tasty, which is only good news for moviegoers, because that means you can see some of these prospective gems that much sooner.

“Gone Girl”

Who: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris and Tyler Perry
What: When his wife’s disappearance becomes the focus of an intense media circus, a man sees the spotlight turned on him when he’s suspected of foul play.
When: October 3rd
Why: With the exception of “Aliens 3,” David Fincher’s body of work is almost flawless, and there’s little reason to believe that “Gone Girl” will change that. Though this marks his fifth film in a row to be adapted from preexisting source material, Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel is tailor-made for the edgy director. The decision to hire Flynn to also write the screenplay was certainly a bold move, but Fincher has a history of making offbeat choices that work surprisingly well, and that extends to the cast of “Gone Girl” as well. Ben Affleck probably wouldn’t be most people’s top pick for the lead role, and the supporting cast is even stranger, but if anyone deserves your blind trust, it’s Fincher.

“Annabelle”

Who: Ward Horton, Annabelle Wallis, Alfre Woodard and Eric Ladin
What: A couple begin to experience terrifying supernatural occurrences involving a vintage doll shortly after their home is invaded by satanic cultists.
When: October 3rd
Why: It’s not often that a horror movie finds so much success both critically and commercially, but “The Conjuring” is without a doubt one of the best horror films of the past 20 years. And while fans wait for the inevitable sequel, they can dive deeper into the film’s mythology with this spinoff featuring the creepy Annabelle doll. Though it’s hard to imagine an immobile doll carrying an entire movie on her own, the trailer suggests that Annabelle isn’t responsible for a bulk of the scares, but rather the spirit that’s attached itself to her. The whole thing feels more like a cheap cash-in than a necessary addition to the “Conjuring” franchise, but with James Wan’s longtime DP behind the camera, we’re hoping for the best.

“The Judge”

Who: Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga and Billy Bob Thorton
What: Big city lawyer Hank Palmer returns to his childhood home where his father, the town’s judge, is suspected of murder.
When: October 10th
Why: Now that Robert Downey Jr. is a huge movie star (thanks again, Marvel), the actor can pretty much do whatever he wants, including producing smaller, character-driven dramas like “The Judge” under his new company with wife Susan Downey. But while the film boasts an interesting premise and a superb cast of actors, the decision to hire David Dobkin, who’s best known for directing comedies like “Wedding Crashers” and “Fred Claus,” is extremely odd, particularly because he has zero experience handling serious material like this. Warner Bros. is obviously angling for awards consideration with its Oscar-bait plot, but reactions were very mixed after its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival, with many praising the actors but damning Dobkin and the clichéd script.

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Movie Review: “The Equalizer”

Starring
Denzel Washington, Marton Csokas, Chloe Grace Moretz, David Harbour
Director
Antoine Fuqua

Denzel Washington has never shied away from making movies that many would consider beneath his talents, balancing Oscar-caliber films like “American Gangster” with less serious fare like “2 Guns.” But while it’s not the first time that the veteran actor has indulged in a little butt-kicking fun, “The Equalizer” is certainly his most entertaining – a “Taken”-like action thriller that reunites Washington with “Training Day” director Antoine Fuqua. In fact, the movie has a certain air of arrogance to it, as if to say, “Anything Liam Neeson can do, Denzel can do better,” and “The Equalizer” makes a pretty good argument for that, heralding a potential franchise for the actor which has curiously evaded him up until now.

Washington stars as Robert McCall, a former CIA black ops agent who faked his own death in order to live a quiet life in Boston, where he spends his days working at a hardware store and his nights drinking tea and reading at a local diner. It’s there that he meets a young prostitute named Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz), striking up a friendship with the girl during their frequent visits to the joint. When Teri doesn’t show up one night and McCall discovers that she was viciously beaten by her Russian pimp, he decides to pay the gangster a visit and teach him and his goons a lesson. McCall doesn’t realize that they had connections to the Russian mafia, however, and once word of the attack reaches Moscow, they send a specialist (Marton Csokas) to track down the men responsible, initially believing that it was rival mobsters starting a turf war. But after it’s revealed that the seemingly ordinary McCall acted alone, the Russians plan to make an example out of him, unaware of who they’re dealing with.

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Movie Review: “The Boxtrolls”

Starring
Isaac Hempstead Wright, Elle Fanning, Ben Kingsley, Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade, Jared Harris
Directors
Graham Annable & Anthony Stacchi

Pixar may get all the love, but over the last five years, Laika Studios has really come into its own as a company that you can usually expect great things from. Not only has the Portland-based animation house breathed new life into the underappreciated art of stop-motion with movies like “Coraline” and “ParaNorman,” but they’ve done so with an offbeat style unlike any of their competitors. That Burton-esque spirit is alive and well in “The Boxtrolls,” but sadly, that’s about it. The studio’s latest film is an uncharacteristic misfire lacking the charm, wit and heart of its previous efforts, and although it has moments of brilliance, they’re buried beneath an uninspired script that left me feeling cold and indifferent.

The titular Boxtrolls are a race of builders who live in an underground lair eating bugs and tinkering with the junk they forage during their nighttime excursions above ground. Though they’re an otherwise friendly group, the Boxtrolls have been forced into hiding after a villainous schemer named Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) used the disappearance of a local baby as a way to convince the townspeople that the Boxtrolls are dangerous monsters who eat children. Desperate to climb the social ladder and join the ranks of the town’s elite White Hats, Snatcher strikes a deal with their leader, Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris), to exterminate all of the Boxtrolls in exchange for his very own white hat and access to their exclusive cheese-tasting club.

But what the townspeople don’t realize is that the missing child is actually alive and well, raised by the Boxtrolls as one of their own after his father gave him away. Now a fully-grown boy, Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright) – named after the cardboard box he wears on his body – has begun to fear for their survival after watching his friends get captured by Snatcher’s red hat-wearing henchman. With the help of Lord Portley-Rind’s meddlesome daughter, Winnie (Elle Fanning), Eggs ventures into the city to rescue the Boxtrolls and expose Snatcher for the slimy charlatan that he is.

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