Rings

So… Rings is a thing; that exists… in 2017. Uhmm, yeah… Hmm…

For starters, it’s been no big secret that Paramount Studios has been trying to get a third American Ring film made for over decade, despite the poor reception of 2005’s The Ring Two – yeah, I forgot that existed too. When the film finally got back on track, soon went into production, and was eventually ready to be released (nevermind the fact that it was about a decade late to the party), Rings kept getting its release date pushed back further and further, and these announcements would always come at times it seemed to get closer to the date whenever it was supposed to premiere. That all brings us here to early 2017, where at least half a dozen near-masterpieces to utter brilliant pieces of filmmaking are fighting for the same theater space per awards season rules, and now a major studio is expecting you to pass on the likes of La La Land or Manchester by the Sea and instead pay money for a half-assed, belated addition to a horror franchise that died off over ten years ago. Genius marketing strategy there, folks.

I won’t get into basic plot details here much, since most people who have any interest in seeing this film at all probably already know the central gimmick of this whole franchise. So I’ll just list of all the things that were genuinely good about Rings (don’t worry, this won’t take long).

– The cast for the most part is fine. Nobody stands out as especially good or bad, they all just kind of fulfill their extremely cliched roles and get the job done. Vincent D’onofrio makes a third act appearance and he’s pretty entertaining, but doesn’t have enough screentime to make a lasting impression on the rest of the film.

– They actually reused older themes and music from Hans Zimmer’s score to the 2002 film. While musical score continuity is essentially dead in regards to most current film franchises, it was nice and unexpected to hear some of the previously established music from the past films being re-purposed for this one.

– It has a fairly distinctive all-green visual color palette that compliments the attempted sense of dread and foreboding, but it wears thin pretty fast and starts looking uglier as the film goes on.

– There’s at least an attempt at some sort of commentary regarding the rapidly growing technological advancements and in such a short amount of time since the first two films, but of course it’s dropped entirely, in favor of just rehashing beats from the older flicks.

So alright, there’s a lot to unpack here, but let’s just start from the beginning: that opening scene… holy mother of Jesus. What an utterly abysmal, unintentionally hilarious way to open your major studio horror release. On its own, the scene serves little more purpose than to be a cold open that reintroduces the audience to the central premise of the franchise, and it ultimately has no impact on the rest of the film after. But with that in mind, why even have it to begin with? Especially when it’s so poorly executed and over-the-top in a manner that even the worst installments before this never really managed to be. Fortunately nothing that comes after is remotely as stupid and awful, but it certainly doesn’t bode well for what’s to follow.

Like any hopeful modern franchise revival (or reboot disguised as a belated sequel), Rings does a lot of repeating from past films of the series, particularly the 2002 The Ring. A lot of repeating, actually. In fact, you could say *too much* repeating from the other ones. In retrospect, it’s kind of incredible how almost every major story beat or attempted setpiece is just a repackaged version that came before in the series, except done much stupider and to less success. Not unlike last year’s Blair Witch, but whereas that film at least left you with an adrenaline-fulled, ‘no fucks given’ climactic setpiece, here, nothing to that effect really stands out or makes itself known apart from what was already done, and far better at that. In short, Scary Movie 3 did a great job of tearing this film to shreds, and it did so 14 years before this even came out.

After getting out of this, I was left with one burning question stuck in my brain: why was this film even made in the first place? Or rather, why did they wait so long to release it, especially now? I’ve mentioned plenty of times in reviews past that the horror genre in the US has enjoyed itself a healthy creative resurgence during the 2010s, thanks almost entirely to the independent filmmaking scene. So when a major studio tries to rush this product out to compete with more original and interesting works, its flaws are all the more obvious and glaring. But maybe the irony here is that they waiting so long to make another Ring film, that it wound up finally coming out in a time when it wasn’t even needed to satiate the horror-craving masses.

The standards for this sort of thing have been raised (if ever so slightly) in the past few years, and this just reeks of dated, early to mid 2000’s lack of effort, where you’re yelling at the characters onscreen as they continue to make the worst possible decisions you could possibly make in these scenarios, all for the sole purpose of advancing the story in the most contrived manner possible. We’re finally starting to move past all that, and Rings doesn’t need to show up and remind us all of the crap we had to settle for when the mainstream attempts at horror were at their lowest point.

OK, while I’ve been panning this a lot in my review, Rings really isn’t a terrible film or anything. It’s just a thoroughly generic, below average piece of teen horror schlock that feels like it’s been hidden inside of a vault since 2006 and was just released now, a mere two weeks after a legitimately good horror-thriller came out. If you want to see this concept done eons better, seek out the original 1998 Ringu, or even its 2002 American remake The Ring, both of which legitimately hold up as well-made, chilling genre pieces.

Or if you’re in the mood for a theatrical experience and crave some horror goodness, just go see Split again; it does everything right that this did wrong, namely having an intriguing central premise that’s executed well, contains likable/sympathetic characters, and has an emotionally satisfying conclusion. Rings unfortunately has none of those, but it does have more blasé, watered-down PG-13 horror tropes and jump scares galore, which can’t possibly be as tired and played out as it sounds… or can it?

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Split

After scaling back considerably and returning to his more understated, old-school roots with the low budget outing The Visit – a film that, while divisive, most would agree was a step in the right direction – many people were curious as to what M. Night Shyamalan would be up to next, having regained a marginal amount of goodwill with the film-going public. And as much as this particular reviewer enjoyed The Visit, that film now almost feels like a dress rehearsal for Shyamalan’s latest effort in Split, which is quite frankly an excellent piece of work and by far the director’s best film in over a decade, thus marking the true return to form everyone was hoping for.

For obvious reasons, I’ll try to keep any and all plot details to a minimum, but just to cover the basics: Split opens with three young women (Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, & Jessica Sula) being kidnapped right in the middle of a parking lot and being held hostage in an undisclosed location by a man they eventually come to realize suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder, meaning that their captor actually harbors 23 individual personalities within his one body, each one with their own different agendas and interpersonal conflicts both within themselves and with the girls being held captive – this person being simply known as “Kevin” to most people, is played by James McAvoy.

However, time is of the essence in this particular situation, since the girls’ purpose for being there, while ambiguous at first, is soon revealed to have something to do with a dangerous, unknown 24th personality that usually lays dormant, but will reveal itself soon enough. Also in a pivotal role is Betty Buckley (aka the nutty lemonade-sipping old woman from The Happening) as Kevin’s psychiatrist, but once again, the less said about how she factors into the broader narrative of the film, the better. Just take all the tidbits and details I’ve offered you and roll with it.

If from the aforementioned plot description, it sounds like James McAvoy as Kevin has the meatiest role in the film, then you’d be absolutely correct. I’d hate to resort to using a cliche here, but his work in Split is truly a “tour de force” performance, and the role of a lifetime and a half. Not only does he nail the truly unsettling essence of a character like this, but he (along with the carefully crafted screenplay by Shyamalan) is also able to dig down and bring out the true desperation and sadness of a man suffering from such an intense condition, the combination of which ultimately makes Kevin a sympathetic figure.

This culminates in a climactic scene where all 23 personalities seem to be fighting for total control at the same time, and this scene witnessed in a vacuum without any prior context would be enough to convince even the most doubting individuals of James McAvoy’s acting talents. For someone with an acting career that’s only lasted for a little over a decade, it’d be hard to imagine McAvoy matching his work here in terms of sheer energy and versatility anytime soon – and I do mean that in the best possible way. If you had to give only one single reason to send someone to see this film, his performance would be at the top of the list for sure.

Also holding her own in the film is Anya Taylor-Joy (fresh off her breakout year in 2016) as Casey, the more withdrawn and level-headed of the three captives, and the character who emerges as the film’s true protagonist by the end. Sure, James McAvoy’s Kevin is the one with the more clearly identifiable personality disorder, but anyone with at least a formal training in the field of psychology would be able to recognize that Casey is the bearer of some deeply rooted psychological issues of her own, thus making her – in some sort of sick, ironic twist of fate –  the perfect match for Kevin in this battle of wills and the only one of the three captives truly capable of empathizing with him on at least a basic level.

Both Casey and Kevin share in common the fact that they have similarly traumatic pasts and unfortunate experiences with abuse in many forms, all of which have shaped them into their current selves; it’s just that one of them learned from their experience to become a stronger, more resilient individual and the other suppressed it so hard for so long that it’s turning them into a *literal* monster. Split really gets a lot of dramatic mileage out of playing up the contrast between the two leads without ever being too forced or obvious about it, and it’s one of the films most impressive qualities.

Among a number of other factors, one of the main things that has separated M. Night Shyamalan from his peers in the past (and if his most recent two films are any indication, still does) within the pulp horror-thriller genres is his manifest sensitivity and empathy within the worlds he’s created, especially towards the characters that populate them. Despite all the external genre-heavy pomp and circumstance, there are still real people caught up in a real situation at the center of Split.

In a move that’s been fairly consistent with a lot of his past work, Shyamalan occasionally has his protagonists portrayed as ambitious, intelligent people who are unfortunately held back by a crippling physical or emotional deterioration which forces them to persevere even harder than the average person would need to; a trait which is equally applicable to both Kevin and Casey in Split. Think of the wheelchair-bound Samuel L Jackson in Unbreakable, or Bryce Dallas Howard’s blind heroine from The Village. But unlike those films where it’s merely a bit component of larger story, that’s the entire main focal point of the themes and subtext of Split. Seemingly ordinary individuals who are living as prisoners in their own skin, working their hardest to overcome their afflictions and join the rest of the world in normalcy. Also, special mention to the makeup effects work on both James McAvoy and Anya Taylor-Joy during the final confrontation, the designs of which really help to visualize the internal conflicts and tensions that’ve been building up over the course of the entire film. That might seem like a vague element to point out, but it’ll make sense once you’ve seen it in context.

There’s no way around it, folks: Split is M Night Shyamalan going back to his vintage roots and a welcome callback to his stronger, more personal works. It does what all the great horror films of the past do – gives us a slick, comfortable outlet to expose and digest our fears by bringing them out into the open and expanding upon them in any number of entertaining ways. But the real twist is how it manages to be all of that and so much more in the end. Hidden inside all the pulpy genre tropes lays a hopeful, profound message about overcoming past traumas and letting it shape you into a stronger, more complete individual. Come for the James McAvoy ham-fest and witnessing another stellar performance from rising star Anya-Taylor Joy, stay for the utterly gobsmacking emotional reveals in the final act and a fun little mid-credits tease. Etc, etc, etc.

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Silence

On this site before, I’ve bemoaned the state of Christian-centered filmmaking in current American culture going from being niche and practically nonexistent (apart from some run-of-the-mill cable fluff) to becoming an entire subgenre of lowest common denominator, mean spirited, and self-congratulatory pandering to the Bible Belt’s victim complex, peddled almost entirely by the likes of Pure Flix and their ilk – shoddily made, beyond sappy, and downright insulting to anyone that doesn’t fit their very narrow view of what a “Christian” is and should be.

Fortunately, on the complete opposite side of that equation resides Silence, Martin Scorsese’s decades-in-production epic historical drama that neither panders nor sugarcoats its subject matter, at least not in the way so many causal religious audiences are accustomed to. It’s a work of intelligent, empathetic spiritual exploration, and one that single-handedly washes away the memory of all the God’s Not Dead sequels/ripoffs and Saving Christmas-es that’ve plagued our theaters for so long. The reactionary, far-right wing crowd might find this film too slowly paced and open-minded for their tastes, dare it take precious time away from their complaining about the holiday cup designs at Starbucks. But for anyone truly interested in quality cinema that does more than merely reaffirm their own beliefs, they should seek Silence out right away.

The plot concerns two young Jesuit priests from Portugal – played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver – who are sent to Japan to seek out their mentor (portrayed brilliantly by Liam Neeson), who has reportedly denounced the Christian faith in public and is even supposedly aiding the Japanese in purging the country of any and all Christian missionaries. Upon arrival, they are first greeted by a small but devoted group of Japanese Christians who, while practicing their faith privately, are more than willing to aid them on their journey. But soon enough the Jesuits cross paths with the ones who mean to do them harm, and are then entangled in an odyssey which poses more than a few tough questions to both them and the audience: is martyrdom a genuinely helpful method for advancing one’s cause or is it merely rooted in a person’s egotistical search for self-aggrandizement? Is the titular “silence” referring to the silence of God or the silence of Andrew Garfield as he refuses to renounce his faith whilst prolonging the suffering of himself and those around him? How is it possible that Deadpool is (at this particular moment) closer to a Best Picture nomination than Martin Scorsese’s decades-in-production passion project?

On the acting front, you honestly could not have asked for a more perfectly assembled cast. Andrew Garfield takes on the lead role here, and with last year’s Hacksaw Ridge he already proved himself to be a fairly capable dramatic lead, and here he proves himself once again. I already mentioned that Liam Neeson plays his role brilliantly and makes one hell of an impression with limited screentime, and Adam Driver rounds out the major English-language players, holding his own more than well enough. But it’s the Japanese cast members who really surprise here – there’s simply too many to mention, but two I’d like to spotlight are Yosuke Kubozuka as the Jesuits’ drunken guide through Japan, who has his own tragic history dealing with persecution for being a Christian. And lastly there’s Issei Ogata as the lead inquisitor and primary antagonist of the story, though he’s never once drawn as an evil or one-dimensional figure. Simply a man with a job to do, and Ogata injects the role with an unusually flamboyant and overly polite type of persona, which ultimately adds to the menacing nature of his cruel actions. In a way, it recalls memories of Christoph Waltz’s breakout performance in Inglourious Basterds.

Being a film directed by Martin Scorsese, it practically goes without saying that the film is a technical marvel, but alas it bears repeating here. Deliberately paced but never too slow (save for maybe a few too many repetitive torture sequences during the midsection), Silence is also a visual feast, featuring lots of large, open space within the frame, perhaps to convey the looming omnipresence of God in the world of the characters, or perhaps lack thereof. The rather somber, melancholic tone might seem unusual for those who only know Scorsese for his more pulpy, gangster type of fare. But this film is almost a spiritual successor to his unsung masterpiece The Last Temptation of Christ, and the aforementioned grim tone is essential to capturing the drastic nature of the subject matter. Keep in mind, this film takes place in a period of time and in a country where Christian persecution was a real and tangible threat, and not just a far-right fantasy brought on by transgender bathrooms and people choosing to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”.

Despite the fact that this film isn’t doing as well as many would’ve hoped for, both at the box office and in terms of garnering awards attention, Silence still demands to be seen regardless. It works equally well as both a great film on its own right and the perfect antidote for all the intellectually dishonest tripe that’s been masquerading as “Christian” cinema for what has felt like an eternity.  In that respect, I could see this being an intriguing double feature with The Witch, another recent film that examines the suffering brought upon by blind, unwavering religious devotion in the face of extreme hardship. That, or you could go watch God’s Not Dead, where the slow, painful death of a cartoonishly villainous atheist character via car accident is cheered on as “a cause of celebration” while an uplifting pop song swells in the background. This is Trump’s America now, after all.

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Fences

Adapted from August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play of the same name, Fences is something that has guided stars Denzel Washington and Viola Davis to some of the most noteworthy accolades of both their careers, and in film form is expected to continue this streak come Oscar time. It also arrives at the tail end of what some pundits have called the single greatest year for African American cinema, and looking back on this year as a whole, it’s pretty hard to disagree there.

Putting aside the curious rise and fall of Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, arguably the most acclaimed film of the entire year remains Moonlight, and in this reviewer’s opinion, for good reason, too (though of course the complete extent of African American film in 2016 isn’t limited to this handful of examples, I’m just trying to paint a general portrait of the current filmic landscape here). And yet, putting aside all of the cultural significance and how well it was (or wasn’t) adapted from a stage show, Fences as a standalone viewing experience no doubt has some powerful and engaging sections and a fair amount of commendable traits to boot, but also falls short in a number of key areas.

The substance of the plot and story in Fences appears to be a direct 100% stage-to-screen adaptation, which centers on a lower class African American family living in 1950s Pittsburgh, PA. The patriarch of said family is Denzel Washington’s Troy Maxson (a role which Washington had played a whopping 114 times on stage), a former baseball prodigy turned garbage man who lives with his beleaguered yet devoted wife Rose (Viola Davis) and resentful son Cory (Jovan Adepo), whose own rise to a prominent football career mirrors Troy’s own past, of which Troy is determined to have his son follow in the same disappointing footsteps, even if unknowingly so.

These three, as well as a handful of peripheral characters in Troy’s life, make up the cast of Fences, and each one is performed to absolute perfection, even if Washington’s own scenery-chewing borders on caricature at times, albeit ever so briefly. In particular, Viola Davis has been garnering a ton of awards buzz for her role herein, and I personally can’t disagree. We can debate the category position of leading or supporting all day long, but the point is that she takes this role and essentially walks away with the entire film all her own, upstaging just about everyone else in this admittedly limited ensemble. In a film packed with strong performances throughout, the fact that she manages to stand out here is all the more impressive.

Speaking to its strengths and weaknesses as a standalone film and disregarding its existence as an adaptation, Fences doesn’t really have much about it that makes it feel particularly… “cinematic” I think would be the right word here. Whereas many brilliant films from the past have been based on plays, the ones we remember liking the best almost always have a little something special within them that sets them apart as singular film experiences and less so as merely a filmed version of a stage play, something which Fences unfortunately doesn’t overcome very well.

Even the made for television/HBO miniseries Angels in America had interesting stylistic flourishes and an urgent sense of pace to it, whereas this film merely depicts the events of the show without ever adding much to it. As a director, Denzel Washington certainly gives the material room to breathe and does a fine enough job getting across the pathos and weight of the text, but never manages to add anything else beyond that. Which isn’t to say he necessarily should, since the film functions well enough on its own. But compared to how we’ve seen similar adaptations play out beforehand to much greater success, one can’t help feeling like there was an appreciable amount of wasted potential here.

Having never personally seen Fences performed live onstage, I can’t speak to the experience of seeing this material in such a format – an experience that I have little doubt is positively riveting – but in film form, seeing it all play out can, frankly, be a bit exhausting at times. Like most non-musical stage shows, this is a very talk-heavy story, and for some reason, the pacing of the dialogue sequences (at least for the first hour or so of the film) is fairly uneven and jumbled.

Heck, the first thirty minutes of the film basically function as one extended monologue by Denzel Washington as he wanders between all the important locales of the film and is briefly interrupted by any one of the supporting players. In hindsight, most of the first act of this film plays out like that – endless amounts of soliloquizing without much movement (whether literal or narrative) and it’s all noticeably shoddy in a few places. Luckily, the strengths of the performances and the source material itself are able to overcome the unusual plotting, but it’s something that holds the film back from being as complete and singular of an adaptation as it perhaps could or should have been.

At the end of the day, Fences is a flawed but ultimately rewarding viewing experience. If you’re a big fan of the original stage play or just want to see this cast of acting giants performing their hearts out for two plus hours, then you’ll get your money’s worth here. Just don’t expect said acting to be attached to a phenomenally well-crafted or polished narrative and you’ll be just fine. This is an actor’s piece above all else, and in that respect it gets the job done if you know what to look for.

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Arrival

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Over the past couple of years, there’s thankfully been no deficit of smart, adult-oriented science fiction fare to properly balance out all the middling popcorn schlock that seems to crowd the film industry more and more each year. And don’t get me wrong, easily digestible summer entertainment certainly has its place for sure, but when even Star Trek (a franchise once known for being ahead of its time in regards to social commentary and making heady sci-fi concepts more accessible to regular viewers) is beginning to resemble every other large-scaled blockbuster franchise – though to be fair, Star Trek: Beyond was a very pleasant surprise – something must be afoul in the air.

All of this and more is what makes Arrival such a breath of fresh air in the face of so much sameness within modern genre filmmaking. It joins the ranks of Her and Ex Machina in terms of an intelligent, mid-level science fiction outing for a modern audience; a rare smart film that actually puts its money where its mouth is. Considering its central “alien invasion” premise, it in many ways proves to be a more worthwhile successor to Independence Day than the actual Independence Day sequel that was released this year. I mean, I assume so, since I still haven’t seen ID4: Resurgence yet.

As mentioned earlier, the plot of Arrival concerns alien ships suddenly landing on several spots all over the planet and the subsequent efforts of us trying to make contact with them, though I’d liken the tone of this film closer to the original The Day the Earth Stood Still than Independence Day. But while that might seem like a vague summation of the film’s subject matter, ultimately I feel it necessary just to leave it at that. Because, and I fully acknowledge that this is a cliche before I get to it, this is the sort of film that absolutely benefits from knowing the least amount possible before going into it. Both the surface-level plot mechanics and the emotional core of the film are pretty reliant on leaving the viewer as surprised as possible, though I wouldn’t necessarily say the overall quality or one’e enjoyment of the film is entirely dependent on those factors. It just helps to make the experience as engaging and memorable of one as possible, and if this film is any indication, director Denis Villenueve’s upcoming Blade Runner sequel is in seriously good hands.

Performance-wise, this is Amy Adams’ show from start to finish. While there’s certainly strong support from reliably engaging character actors like Jeremy Renner, Forrest Whitaker, and Michael Stuhlbarg, it’s Adams who has the meatiest role and therefore the most to work with, both on the page and onscreen. While all the trailers and ads for the film are trying to sell her role in this film as Lois Lane 2.0, she skilfully avoids the typical ‘strong independent woman’ Hollywood stereotype and adds legitimate depth and gravitas to her performance, as she’s done with so many other roles in the past. Besides, I don’t see how a film featuring an intelligent, qualified woman constantly being belittled or talked down to by significantly less knowledgeable male colleagues could possibly be relevant AT ALL…

For the better part of 2016, we as film-goers have been consistently deprived of some truly original and refreshing genre outings, with a few notable exceptions along the way. With the arrival of Arrival (aww yeah… *puts on sunglasses*), the drought of intelligent mainstream science fiction has finally been resolved, at least for now. It’s just the kick in the ass needed to restore confidence in the cinematic machine, and comes on the heels of a week where we needed it most. It offers a vision of the future where our global problems are solved through logic and reason, as well as compassion and empathy, all through working together as one singular species and not just a set of nations divided amongst ourselves. A future, now that Donald Trump is our next president, that seems just a bit further out of reach than it did beforehand…

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Ouija: Origin of Evil

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Let’s be real here for a second, folks: the first Ouija wasn’t good and very few people enjoyed it. Yet miraculously, it still went on to become a big hit at the box office; and in an era when challenging and original horror fare such as It Follows and The Witch are getting reasonably wide releases, the fact that something as maligned as the original Ouija is what audiences flocked to the most is pretty bizarre. It’s like if people had the chance to nominate Bernie Sanders as a major Presidential candidate, but instead went for Hillary Clint – oh wait, that actually happened too.

But having said that, and completely divorced from any association with the first one (since this is set up as a prequel, one fortunately doesn’t need to have seen the original to follow the timeline here), Ouija: Origin of Evil is surprisingly a pretty enjoyable Halloween season chiller. Among its many virtues, you could say its biggest accomplishment is actually making the premise of a possessed Ouija board seem chilling for at least a short amount of time. Because honestly, in a world where a Donald Trump is the president, a film about a haunted board game made of plastic with the alphabet painted on just doesn’t seem that scary anymore.

Despite the first film amounting to a total bag of dicks, Ouija: Origin of Evil still had some potential to wind up being pretty worthwhile. Mostly because of the talent involved, and extra-mostly because of director Mike Flanagan, who helmed this year’s underrated home invasion thriller Hush, and most notably the pretty damn good Oculus from a few years back. Safe to say, this project was in good hands.

Set in the 1960’s, i.e. decades before the events of the first one, we follow a family of three (a mother and two daughters) where the mother operates a phony fortune telling business where she rationalizes her scam to her daughters by saying it gives people closure and there’s nothing wrong with telling clients what they want to hear. But once a brand new prop comes into play – the titular Ouija board – things eventually start to get a bit hairy, especially when the youngest daughter begins to display an unusual knack for making contact with the other side, which may or may not have troubling consequences for the entire family. In that respect, this film is tonally more of a classic supernatural thriller, rather than a generic teen slasher with a board game as the killer, like the first one was.

As for the cast, we have a trio of talented and capable female performances at the center of this film. Firstly is Oculus alumnus Annalise Basso, who has graduated to a leading role in this whilst only having a minor role in her previous collaboration with the director. Also starring is Elizabeth Reaser as the matriarch of their household, raising her two daughters all by herself and remaining the most grounded of the three performances. Rounding out the major players is Lulu Wilson as the youngest daughter and central possession victim du jour, who largely steals the entire show once the main plot gets underway.

Due to the strengths of this main trio of performers, the much slower and deliberately paced first two-thirds of the film really come across strong, since a lot of the setup is dependent almost entirely on these three characters and their connections with one another. They have a believable and well-defined family dynamic at work here, and it all helps in making the audience legitimately care when things start going south further down the line. Heck, for the first thirty or so minutes, Ouija: Origin of Evil doesn’t even necessarily feel like a pure horror film so much as a fairly ordinary domestic period drama with slight supernatural elements tossed in for good measure – and I mean that in the best possible way.

Third act problems, though. They exist and unfortunately they plague this film to a detriment. After a full hour of slower tension-building sequences and character development, a few well-earned frights and jolts are warranted to be sure. But the transition from what you’ve been conditioned to expect from the first two thirds to suddenly your run-of-the-mill PG-13 Blumhouse joint could’ve been a little smoother. Add to that a parade of toothless, Coke Zero excuses for scares and we’re back in territory that resembles that of the first Ouija, and needless to say, it’s certainly a detractor.

Now don’t get me wrong, Origin of Evil isn’t quite as stubborn as the original in its refusal to be inventive or scary, but it comes close at times; the biggest offender being a completely bloodless instance of someone’s mouth being sewn shut, as well as a painfully forced last second GOTCHA jolt that doesn’t jibe at all with the otherwise surprisingly grim conclusion of the film. Even more insulting is that it comes right after an otherwise perfect opportunity to end the film on an unexpectedly somber, melancholic note and for once leave a contemporary mainstream horror-viewing audience with a feeling other than boredom from a scare we all saw coming from a mile away. Even still, props to Mike Flanagan for at least going with the more unexpected, sour route for this ending – and it’s not a scare that registers as a major hindrance on the film regardless. But a little restraint shown in this area would’ve been much appreciated.

Imagine if there was a sequel to The Last Airbender scheduled for release next summer, and despite initial skepticism from just about everyone in the known universe, the film came out and quality-wise was on the same level as one of the better entries in the Harry Potter franchise – that’s essentially the case here.

Destined to forever live in the shadow of it’s subpar predecessor, Ouija: Origin of Evil holds its own perfectly well as a slick, well-made genre flick and is mercifully detached from any association with the first film, apart from mere superficial elements. Nothing especially new or revolutionary herein, but Mike Flanagan once again gets to exercise his particular set of skills within this very specific subgenre of horror film. It’s a superlative that I never thought would need to be dredged up, but this is probably the best board-game centered film since Jumanji; maybe even Clue. Whether or not that completely random declaration has any substance or anything is entirely up to you.

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Blair Witch

blair-witch-2016

Love it or hate it, there’s absolutely no denying the impact the original The Blair Witch Project had, both on pop culture and the horror genre as a whole. And while it’s true that the found footage genre being as popular (and profitable) as it is today is more due to the success of the Paranormal Activity franchise, it was the first Blair Witch that laid the framework and set the foundation for that series to come along and be as successful as it was. But what was for a very short period seen as potential franchise material was quickly derailed by an under-cooked and rushed attempt at a cash-grab sequel which resulted in the utter garbage fire known as Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, which shalt not be mentioned for the remainder of this review, as well as the entire rest of human history, if we’re lucky.

Almost two decades after the whole Blair Witch phenomenon came and went in just over a year’s time, and enter writer-director team Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett, the duo behind the solid but way over-hyped You’re Next and pretty good throwback thriller The Guest. For a while, it seemed that their next project was going to be a little outdoors thriller called The Woods, which garnered a fair amount of hype initially from more devoted horror fanatics. But the project completely exploded when at this summer’s San Diego Comic Con, it was revealed that what the team had been working on all this time was a belated sequel to the turn-of-the-century horror sensation, simply titled Blair Witch.

I’ll try to keep story details as vague as possible, to appease those wanting to go in with as little preconceptions as possible, but must also cover the basics as to get to the strengths and weaknesses of the film itself. Plot-wise, we’re back in familiar territory, as we see a group of tech-savvy young adults venturing into the woods in the hopes of creating a documentary out of their findings, while certain members of the group may or may not have a more personal attachment to their little camping expedition. Cue our main characters getting lost in the woods, followed by a series of increasingly spooky encounters with the titular supernatural force, and we’ve got another soft-reboot disguised as a belated sequel on our hands – think Star Wars: The Force Awakens for the modern horror genre, minus any of the original cast members or characters making an appearance.

And much like the recent Star Wars revival, a lot of what Blair Witch manages to accomplish rests on its re-tooling and repetition of the original formula and plot beats from the first film. Add on top of that a lot of interesting additions to the central lore and mythology of the Blair Witch (a personal favorite of mine being how the witch can manipulate the perception of time with its respective victims – trust me, it’s a lot more interesting in context than how I’m making it sound here) and expanding on certain set-pieces from the first one – namely an extended climactic showdown in the cabin which marked the end of the journey for the protagonists in the first film – and you’ve got yourself a more than serviceable companion piece to the admittedly fresher and iconic original.

While I previously praised the film for going with the recent reboot-disguised-as-sequel formula, it also comes at a detriment. Of course a certain amount of repetition from the first film is to be expected, heck it’s even essential in order to established the mood and reacquaint the audience with the world the film inhabits, but after it a while it no longer becomes necessary, and some diversions from the expected formula are called for.

This becomes particularly bothersome during the finale, which appears to be heading towards a rather unexpected and welcome divergence from the original, but ultimately falls back into just replaying the original, while also taking it a few steps further. That, and the film’s reductive abuse of fake-outs and jump scares grows tiresome very fast. Say what you will about the original Blair Witch, but at least it never resorted to obvious tropes where characters just appear in the frame accompanied by a startling noise from whoever is holding the camera. Nothing here is sinful enough to compromise the whole experience, but it warrants mentioning that these faults do hold it back a touch from rising to the same heights at the first film.

While only the second best horror film to come out this year with the world “witch” in the title, Blair Witch does almost more right than it does wrong. It repeats a bit too much from the first film and doesn’t explore as many potentially interesting and newer angles as it could’ve, but it still remains extremely effective where it counts.

Fans of the original shouldn’t be too wary of seeking this much belated sequel out, and while it probably won’t convert any nay-sayers of the found footage style, it’s largely accessible to a more contemporary audience and will provide more than enough memorable frights to those who find themselves into that sort of thing. For this horror junkie, it managed to get under my skin (tee hee) more than enough times to recommend it for at least one viewing. Just don’t expect it to reinvent the wheel in the same way the first one did, and you should be fine.

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