Like ‘Ouija: Origin of Evil’, ‘Annabelle: Creation’ is a Vast Improvement Over its Previous Installment

Annabelle: Creation
Rating: R
Runtime: 1 hour 49 minutes
Director: David F. Sandberg
Starring: Talitha Bateman, Lulu Wilson, Anthony LaPaglia, and Miranda Otto


Have major movie studios finally figured out the decades-long riddle of making good horror movies? With last year’s Ouija prequel-sequel and now this year’s Annabelle prequel-sequel, it certainly seems that they have.

Annabelle: Creation is a prequel to 2014’s Conjuring spinoff, Annabelle set 12 years before the events of the latter film. After a doll maker and his wife those their daughter in a car accident years prior, they open their pastoral home as a shelter for a group of orphaned girls and their supervising nun. When the orphans arrive at the rural home, they are amazed by its size and luxuriousness, however, the young, crippled orphan, Janice is attracted to a mysterious room in the house, belonging to the late doll maker’s daughter, whom sternly tells her not to go in there. On the first night, Janice sneaks into the forbidden bedroom and unwittingly unlocks a hidden room imprisoning the familiar Annabelle doll. And just like that, the demonic doll is again free to rein terror the girls in usual Conjuring fashion.

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Linda (Lulu Wilson) attempts to dispose of the haunted Annabelle doll

Coming off the 2014 Annabelle, Creation has no right being as good as it is and that’s largely due to indie-horror director David F. Sandberg, who previously directed 2016’s Lights Out, based off of his brilliant short film of the same name. Sandberg brings a real nuance to what could have easily been the lazy cash-grab the first Annabelle film was. He expertly stages each horror set piece without over-reliance on jump scares and instead utilizes ambient dread and suspense to build effective scares. Being apart of the Conjuring cinematic universe, Creation maintains its unique horror style and adopts a similar narrative structure, however, it builds upon what the previous films have done by upping the ante of the scares. The Annabelle demon and the energy of the film itself, is noticeably more aggressive than it was in previous films: it actively tries to hurt the stranded characters rather than just opening and closing doors. However, when we get to the end of film’s final act, the momentum of the film kind of tapers out before reaching a satisfying crescendo, but that’s easily forgiven due to the all that the film did well earlier on.

Those who saw Ouija: Origin of Evil will notice that both that film and Creation share child actress Lulu Wilson as lead characters. In this film, Wilson does a great job of selling the close bond between her character Linda and Janice (Talitha Bateman) throughout the film. It’s the relationship between Linda and Janice that gives the film dramatic weight and makes you feel even more afraid for them when the spooky stuff begins happening. I have to say as of late, studio horror films like Ouija 2, Annabelle: Creation, Light’s Out, and the Conjuring films have consistently incorporated compelling drama and fleshed-out characters in such a way that one could even see those non-horror elements holding up their own stories. And I think I can attribute that to the studios’ decision to allow independent horror filmmakers to helm these films and bring their creativity and genre-awareness to them.

Say what you will about the cinematic universe craze, but this Conjuring-universe is not only a refreshing addition to the horror genre but also signals a major victory for passionate, independent filmmakers breaking into the mainstream and guiding the future of major studio filmmaking.

7.5/10
Horror Scale: 9.0/10

Cool Fight Scenes and 80’s Music Can’t Offset Insipid and Convoluted Cold War Spy Thriller

Atomic Blonde
Rating: R
Runtime: 1 hour 55 minutes
Director: David Leitch
Starring: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, and Sofia Boutella


Ever since the first ads for Atomic Blonde, I’ve seen nothing but reactionary contempt for the film’s apparent portrayal of a women pummeling men, supposedly perpetuating a shadowy anti-man conspiracy to eradicate males from the planet Earth. In light of its perceived feminist “agenda,” it’s quite ironic that the film itself is in many ways anti-feminist in the truest sense of the idea. Although I can’t entirely blame the masses for their condemnation considering the hack job mass media has performed on true feminism over the years, but that’s a topic for another post. Atomic Blonde is simply a classic Cold War spy intrigue that just happens to have a female protagonist. While the fact that the film’s protagonist is female is inherently meaningful, it’s difficult to make a case for the film being overtly concerned with feminist politics, or really any politics for that matter. The film instead commits itself to a straightforward, run-of-the-mill, James Bond spy story with some sweet fight scenes and Queen sprinkled on top.

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James McAvoy plays James Percival, an undercover MI6 operative

Atomic Blonde takes place in 1989, immediately before the collapse of the Berlin Wall. After a KGB agent kills an undercover MI6 spy and steals the “List,” a piece of microfilm stored in a wristwatch naming every active field agent in the Soviet Union, top-level operative Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is tasked with a mission in Berlin to recover the List and assassinate a Soviet double agent named Satchel. To assist with her mission, Lorraine teams up with fellow agent David Percival (James McAvoy) and together they attempt to track down the List. Contrary to what the trailers revealed, the film actually takes on a flashback narrative, so the majority of the film is told within the dramatic frame of an interrogation of Lorraine after the completion of her mission. As straightforward as the plot sounds I actually had to look at the Wikipedia plot description in order to know what was actually going on, and that is my main grievance with Atomic Blonde, aside from also being so unimaginative.

Most noticeably, this film has too many moments of visual frivolity. That is, when something significant happens on screen, we don’t know that it’s significant until a character vocalizes that something important did in fact happen, which makes for a emotionally confusing viewing experience. This is especially relevant to the final twist/reveal at the end of the film, where the surprise comes seemingly out of nowhere because the film does nothing prior to buttress it. It surely doesn’t help that the majority of the narrative is framed within an interrogation where it isn’t clear what the dramatic stakes are, since after all we know she doesn’t die in her mission. Director David Leitch was so hell-bent on setting up a twist at the end of the film that he forgot to fill us in, neither through characterization nor direction.

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A bruised and battered Lorraine (Charlize Theron) reflects in the mirror

In terms of the acting, the prime standout performance in Blonde comes from prolific actor James McAvoy as David Percival, the duplicitous associate of Charlize Theron’s Lorraine. Like virtually every movie he’s ever starred in, McAvoy fully commits to the role and gives it his all. Whenever the film is drudging on for a while, McAvoy re-entrance instantly improves the scenes he’s in. McAvoy plays his character with charisma, confidence, and unpredictability, easily making him into the most interesting character in the film. In that respect, Percival is a foil to Lorraine, both dramatically and literally. Charlize Theron plays the ass-kicking heroine Lorraine Broughton as stoic, calm, and deadly, much like a female James Bond. While she does in fact kick ass as Lorraine – even learning and executing the fight choreography without a stunt double – her character isn’t very interesting to watch outside of her action scenes. Theron’s character here feels frustratingly distant as opposed to her character Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), where she not only kicked major ass, but also had multiple layers of complexity that let her steal the movie. By the end of the Blonde however, Theron gets to reveal a more authentic character, but at that point the damage is already done. Nonetheless, Theron manages to materialize an at least memorable action heroine through her fight/stunt work alone. Her one-take stairwell fight scene is sure to make the best-movie-fight-scenes history books for years to come.

Atomic Blonde director David Leitch struck gold in his previous co-directorial effort for John Wick (2014), an instant classic, action B-movie with an impressively focused narrative and the some of the best action choreography in the business. In many ways Atomic Blonde and John Wick are quite similar: professional killer protagonists, authentic fight choreography, creative genre distortions. However, Blonde differs from Wick with its overdone premise and self-seriousness, and suffers for it. It’s clear that Leitch was chasing after the magic that made John Wick so satisfying; however, while the fight scenes are just as explosive as they are in John Wick and the off-kilter soundtrack is fun to hear, Leitch fails to deliver a trite narrative in a compelling enough fashion to maintain interest in a convoluted plot to backup the attractive theatrics.

6/10

Despite Gorgeous Visual Effects and Optimistic Global Politics, ‘Valerian’ Comes off as Derivative Sci-Fi Schlock

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 2 hours 17 minutes
Director: Luc Besson
Starring: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, and Rihanna


French director Luc Besson has never been one to shy away from bizarre or surreal material. One of his most iconic films, The Fifth Element (1997), is a strange sci-fi odyssey with over-the-top performances (most notably from actors Chris Tucker and Gary Oldman), bizarre lore, and a well-executed artistic vision. In many ways, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is quite similar to The Fifth Element with the exception of one: being good.

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Alpha is home to millions of creatures from various planets

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (or just Valerian for short) is about a pair of space soldiers Valerian, played by Dane DeHaan, and Laureline, played by Cara Delevingne, who are tasked with identifying a mysterious threat to Alpha, a gargantuan city composed of species from a thousand unique planets. Along the way, Valerian and Laureline encounter a slew of strange and zany characters that they must befriend, evade, or kill in order to complete their mission. If that rundown of the plot sounds pretty generic, it’s because it is. Valerian is based off an old French comic book called Valerian and Laureline that was initially published in 1967. Since its first publication, Valerian and Laureline has influenced some of pop-culture’s most popular franchises (e.g. Star Wars, Independence Day) and molded the science-fiction genre into what it is today. In other words, Valerian is in essence a cliché, a cinematic archetype. And that’s where virtually all of the film’s faults lie.

The film opens with an intriguing montage of humanity’s completion of an international space station called Alpha. Over time, more nations dock into the space station and are greeted with a handshake from the space station captain. Eventually, advanced alien races begin to dock at the station and before we know it the once average human space station becomes a mass of spaceships so big that it develops its own gravity, forcing the station to break off from Earth’s orbit and into deep space. The opening as I described along with a subsequent sequence on a beach planet with Na’vi-esque aliens, are easily the best parts of the movie. It would have been much better if the film had furthered the tone and direction that the prologue and opening scene started, but instead it insists on jumping headfirst into a stale, run-of-the-mill sci-fi plot with Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne at the helm. Almost immediately, it’s clear that DeHaan and Delevingne don’t exactly fit in the film as Valerian and Laureline, respectively. It’s implied that the character of Valerian is some kind of intergalactic badass like Starlord or Han Solo and that’s fine, however anyone that follows actor Dane DeHaan’s past performance will know that he does not nor has he ever conveyed that sense of “badass” on film. Rather than accommodate the actor’s inherent personality by adapting the Valerian character for the actor, Dane DeHaan is forced to do the best he can. While DeHaan is simply miscast in the film, Cara Delevingne actually isn’t that bad. The primary issue is on-screen chemistry between DeHaan and Delevingne. Their chemistry is very much presumed and undeveloped, so nearly all of their dramatic interactions fall flat and by the end of the film, not much changes that dynamic. However, I suspect that much of that lack of dramatic potency stems from the weak script.

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Members of a low-tech humanoid species converse with Valerian and Laureline

Firstly, the dialogue between the two main characters is unoriginal through and through, echoing snarky quips and exchanges spouted by every action hero for the past 40 years. In fact, I found the dialogue in Valerian very reminiscent to the dialogue in Independence Day: Resurgence, a horrible sequel whose predecessor was aptly inspired by the old Valerian comic series. Both films presume that their dialogue is clever and witty when in reality it’s insipid, cliché, and uninspired. Secondly, the plot is not just sloppily executed, but it also feels awkwardly dated. Each location change is displayed like a new level in a videogame fit with characters that begin and end within the sequence. In fact, the film flows very much like a videogame plot minus the enjoyment of being able to play it.

It really is a shame that Valerian turned out the way it did, because there is a lot that’s good about it that is nullified by the poor casting and writing. The special effects on display are the most imaginative and fully realized since Avatar (2009). It’s clear that this was a passion project for director Luc Besson and for what it’s worth, the film never feels like a shameless cash grab. While the dialogue is often times bad, the screenplay does not shy away from the liberal humanist themes that were a staple of the original comic. The world the film inhabits is quite literally defined by diversity and it’s encouraging to see that some blockbusters are willing to risk financial profit for something they legitimately believe in, which ended up being the case since Valerian has yet to break even more than three weeks after release.

Valerian shows promise with impressive special effects and interesting lore, but a weak script and already established sci-fi culture keep it from materializing into a good film.

5.5/10

Christopher Nolan Gets His Mojo Back with a Hypnotic, Deeply Immersive World War II Chronicle

Dunkirk
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 1 hour 46 minutes
Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles, Mary Rylance, and Tom Hardy


In 1940, over the course of 10 days from May 26th to June 4, British and Allied forces were pushed to the beaches of Dunkirk, France by German forces during World War II. In its efforts, Britain evacuated nearly 400,000 British and allied forces, narrowly avoiding a conditional surrender to Germany and a game-changing victory for the Nazis. Dunkirk is a harrowing retelling of that event, and a creative reimagining of what a modern war film can be.

Dunkirk is auteur director Christopher Nolan’s tenth feature film and his first contribution to the war film genre. Having built a career and a devotedly passionate, almost pious fandom, Chris Nolan made a movie worthy of his accolades; something I feel he hasn’t done since Inception in 2010. His latest film depicts the Battle of Dunkirk from three fairly distinct perspectives: land, air, and sea. The land segments follow a group of infantrymen played by Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonnard, and Harry Styles, with the air and sea segments following a pilot played by Tom Hardy and a civilian boat vessel captain played by Mark Rylance, respectively. Each of these three perspectives serves to convey the fear, desperation, courage, and determination of a pivotal moment that would ultimately determine the fate of the free world.

Unlike the war films of years past, Dunkirk differentiates itself in its dramatic structure. Recent war films like Hacksaw Ridge (2016) and The Hurt Locker (2008) all revolve around the narrative of a singular character. In Hacksaw Ridge, that singular character was Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield). In The Hurt Locker, that character was staff sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner). In Dunkirk, the event itself is front and center. Sure, there are characters played by prominent actors that we spend the duration with, but we never just “watch” them – that is we don’t ever hear any background exposition on who they are and where they come from. We don’t watch these characters experience this world; we experience this world with the characters.

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Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) oversees the Dunkirk evacuation

One the things I’ve always loved about Christopher Nolan’s films is their use of sound. Once again, composer Hans Zimmer perfectly complements the film with a unique and memorable score. He borrows the ticking clock sound that was used in the film’s first teaser trailer and maintains it through the duration of the film, however never to the point of distraction. In fact, the ticking clock cue cements the urgency and the gravity of the desperate situation. Zimmer’s score lingers in the background and often times blends with the action on-screen. Additionally, the film’s effective use of loudness in its sound design makes this retelling feel as perilous as the real thing. The gunshots are loud. The air whistling from the dive-bombing German planes is deafening. Although this exact experience may be reserved for people seeing the film in IMAX like I did.

In the fairly recent past, Christopher Nolan’s films and I have had a love/hate relationship. On one hand, I truly appreciate the meticulousness of his direction style and the genuine gravitas of his artistic vision as displayed in The Dark Knight (2008) and Inception. But, on the other hand, I can’t deny that the blind, and often time toxic devotion of his fandom has tainted my enjoyment of his later films, specifically The Dark Knight Rises (2012) and Interstellar (2014) – 2 films that I felt, while good, failed to live up to the quality of his prior films. I can confidently say that with Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan has delivered not only his best film in 7 years, but perhaps his best film ever (excluding Memento (2000)).

10/10

An Impeccable and Unexpected Trilogy Closes with an Enthralling ‘Final’ Installment

War for the Planet of the Apes
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 2 hours 20 minutes
Director: Matt Reeves
Starring: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, and Karin Konoval


I remember being in tenth grade in 2010/2011, a hardcore cinephile up on all movies and movie news, and hearing about a new Planet of the Apes film starring the Gollum motion-capture actor Andy Serkis and James Franco in a serious role. Like most movie-folk at the time, I rolled my eyes at what appeared to be another desperate studio attempt at cashing-out on another nostalgic, expired franchise with a modern reimagining or revitalization with a decent-enough director (Rupert Wyatt). We saw the trailer for Rise of the Planet of the Apes and greeted it with cautious optimism and genuine curiosity. We saw the film when it finally came to theaters and were pleasantly surprised by how well it worked, incredible special effects aside. The sequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes came three years later, this time with Cloverfield and Let Me In director Matt Reeves at the reigns, and effectively propelled this new Apes franchise into a higher echelon of quality blockbusters with an aesthetic moodiness reminiscent of recent Christopher Nolan and James Bond films. War for the Planet of the Apes carries over the flawless execution and brooding of the previous installment, closing out an excellent trilogy rivaling the consistency of the Dark Knight and Toy Story series.

War for the Planet of the Apes is set not too long after Dawn of the Planet of the Apes; Caesar (Andy Serkis) has since thwarted former ape-comrade Koba’s (Toby Kebbell) uprising against the human colony lead by Gary Oldman and retreated back to the forest with his ape-people to prepare for the inevitable war with the remaining humans. Caesar’s apes and the last of the human military have been at war for some time now. We open with a human battalion searching for Caesar and his hidden ape-encampment, with the help of a handful of defected apes. In the ensuing skirmish, many die and Caesar’s forces take both human and ape prisoners. Caesar releases them on the condition that they inform the Colonel (Woody Harrelson) that he calls his forces off the apes, he’ll leave the humans be as well. As expected, the decision to release the prisoners backfires on Caesar and the Colonel carries out a covert assault on Caesar’s camp, enraging Caesar and spearheading the rest of the film.

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A line of apes prepare to fire on an enemy battalion

It has to be said that the “war” title of the film is somewhat misleading. While there is in fact a war going on between ape and man, the content of the film is much more contained and personal to the protagonist Caesar. In that respect, the titular “war” is in fact a war within Caesar himself. Caesar is still haunted by his having to kill former ally Koba in the previous film, defying his primary law that “ape never kill ape” and in his journey of revenge against Woody Harrelson’s Colonel struggles to reconcile his responsibilities as the leader of his people and vengeance towards those who have wronged him. The development of the Caesar character over the course of the three Apes films has been impeccable, especially considering the shortage of well-thought out, multi-dimensional protagonists in major blockbusters today, and that has a lot to do with Andy Serkis’s masterful performance as the ape.

I’ve always found the Planet of the Apes movies extremely scary – the thought of humanity being displaced by another species at the cost of all social development is nightmarish. War manifests all these social fears and more. Harrelson’s Colonel is very much a manifestation of modern-day chauvinism. He’s blind in his devotion to preserving mankind to the point that’s he’s willing to kill fellow humans and ignore Caesar’s peace proposal. His soldiers worship him as a deity and exhibit cult-like behavior. To the colonel, there is no cost too great as long as it is a means to an end. The second and third acts of the film contain a lot of slavery and holocaust-like imagery, elucidating the greater allegory of this film and the Apes franchise as a whole: a warning that humanity’s unchecked arrogance will inevitably lead to its own destruction. It was human arrogance that produced the chemical agent that made apes intelligent. It was human arrogance that gave James Franco’s character the confidence to harbor Caesar in his own home and consequently introduced a world-ending virus into the world. It was human arrogance that instigated conflict between man and ape and drove Koba to hostility. And it was human arrogance that compelled the Colonel to go after Caesar.

I don’t know if there will be any more Apes films anytime soon (though I have no doubt we’ll see another one at some point down the line), but if (when) there is, whoever is at the helm has a high bar to reach.

9.5/10