Mini Reviews (September, October 2014)
Calvary, Coherence, Men, Women & Children, John Wick, Annabelle, The Skeleton Twins, Ouija, The Buddy Holly Story
Calvary (September 1/14)
John Michael McDonagh's followup to The Guard, Calvary follows Brendan Gleeson's Father James, a small-town priest, as he spends his days visiting the many parishioners in his community. It's a rather one-note premise that's employed to often disastrously dull effect by McDonagh, as the filmmaker is simply unable to overcome the inherently repetitive (and rather stagy) nature of the movie's setup. It's a shame, really, given that Calvary kicks off with an absolutely enthralling pre-credits sequence, as Father James takes the confession of a man who claims he was molested by a priest as a small boy - with the crime pushing said man towards murdering Father James, an innocent priest, in retaliation. The instant hook of this opening gives way to a meandering, uneventful narrative revolving around the protagonist's encounters with various locals, with the movie ultimately felled by the slow realization that most, if not all, of the movie's periphery figures are totally and utterly devoid of compelling attributes. (Who cares, for example, about the problems of a wealthy banker? Or a cuckolded butcher?) The tedious atmosphere is made all-the-more disappointing by plethora of talented performers in the supporting cast, with folks like Chris O'Dowd, Aidan Gillen, and M. Emmet Walsh left floundering in one-dimensional, one-note characters. It's finally the complete lack of momentum - ie the whole thing just feels so haphazard and random - that confirms Calvary's place as a misbegotten endeavor, which, in turn, ensures that the events contained within the movie's climax are unable to pack the emotional punch that McDonagh has obviously intended.
Coherence (October 16/14)
Written and directed by James Ward Byrkit, Coherence follows a group of friends as they come together for a dinner party and are subsequently drawn into a seriously off-the-wall situation. It's interesting to note that Coherence, in its early stages, comes off as a fairly typical low-key indie drama, as Byrkit emphasizes the characters' meandering, talk-heavy exploits at that aforementioned dinner party - with the movie initially sustaining the viewer's interest due to its naturalistic performances and authentic dialogue (ie it's not a surprise to learn that much of the film was improvised). Coherence doesn't wholeheartedly take off until Byrkit begins slowly-but-surely working oddball elements into the narrative, with the mystery behind the increasingly strange occurrences paving the way for a midsection that grows more and more compelling as it progresses (ie one can't help but attempt to figure out what's going on before the characters). It's just as clear, however, that the overly convoluted and weirdly melodramatic midsection proves a test to the viewer's patience, and yet, by that same token, there's little doubt that Coherence builds to a final stretch that's nothing short of electrifying - which ultimately does confirm the film's place as an erratic yet watchable sci-fi mind-twister.
Men, Women & Children (October 17/14)
Based on Chad Kultgen's eponymous novel, Men, Women & Children details the exploits of several characters as they're forced to confront their relationships with technology and each other. Director Jason Reitman hews very closely to Kultgen's (far superior) 2011 book, with the filmmaker, at the outset, effectively capturing the source material's specific tone and atmosphere (ie it's often quite reminiscent of Tom Perrotta's body of work, Little Children especially). It's just as clear, however, that Reitman's inability to satisfactorily develop and flesh out the narrative's multitude of characters becomes more and more problematic as time progresses, and the viewer is, to an increasingly dismaying degree, simply unable to work up any real interest in or sympathy for the protagonists' respective exploits and dilemmas. The arms-length atmosphere is compounded by Reitman's decision to employ as subdued a vibe as one could envision, with the performances, as a result, unable to provide the spark or electricity that might've raised the proceedings out of its palpable doldrums. (Adam Sandler, cast as a sexually frustrated husband, delivers one of the most lifeless and charisma-free performances of his career here.) And although Reitman offers up a handful of emotional moments in the film's final stretch, Men, Women & Children's pervasive ineffectiveness drains such moments of their power and impact - which ultimately does confirm the movie's place as a rare misfire from an otherwise reliable filmmaker.
John Wick (October 22/14)
John Wick casts Keanu Reeves as the title character, a feared ex-assassin who's forced to resume his old ways after a callous gangster (Alfie Allen's Iosef) steals his car and kills his dog. Filmmakers David Leitch and Chad Stahelski have infused the early part of John Wick with an appealingly low-key vibe, as the movie is, at the outset, concerned primarily with Reeves' character's subdued efforts at moving on with his life in the aftermath of a tragic loss. It's an unexpectedly engaging stretch that's heightened by both Reeves' typically appealing work and the ongoing mystery behind John Wick's past, with the movie, perhaps inevitably, switching gears dramatically once the protagonist's quiet life is shattered by the aforementioned gangster. (This is accomplished in part with an annoying, needless act of violence against an animal.) And while the movie's initial spate of action sequences are admittedly quite exciting, John Wick suffers from a midsection that grows more and more repetitive as time progresses - as Leitch and Stahelski flood the proceedings with a series of dimly-lit, Terminator-like bursts of violence that are distressingly similar in their execution. (A pattern emerges: Wick confronts a multitude of armed goons, shoots most of them in the face, and subsequently progresses to the next location.) The mindless atmosphere, which is often akin to a first-person shooter, is compounded by Reeves' increasingly robotic demeanor (ie once he embarks on his campaign of revenge, Wick becomes an unstoppable, emotionless killing machine) - which, in turn, makes it awfully difficult to work up a rooting interest in the character's efforts. By the time the seemingly endless climax rolls around, John Wick has confirmed its place as a generic actioner that earns its R rating, certainly, but rarely manages to wholeheartedly elicit the viewer's complete interest.
Annabelle (October 30/14)
A prequel to 2013's The Conjuring, Annabelle follows newly-married couple Mia (Annabelle Wallis) and John (Ward Horton) as they find themselves forced to battle a malevolent demon housed within the titular doll. It's clear immediately that Annabelle's biggest hurdle to overcome is its almost aggressively bland protagonists, as both Wallis and Horton, though competent performers, are simply unable to inject their respective characters with any depth or color - which naturally prevents the viewer from working up a rooting interest in Mia and John's continuing survival. Their blandness stands in sharp contract to the film's visuals, as director John R. Leonetti generally does an effective job of injecting the proceedings with a stylish, foreboding atmosphere (ie it becomes increasingly clear that Leonetti, along with cinematographer James Kniest, has been influenced by Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby). Likewise, Annabelle boasts a handful of unexpectedly gripping sequences that are, for the most part, far better than one might've anticipated - with the best and most obvious example of this a fantastic interlude in which Mia finds herself unable to escape a dark storage room. And yet the film never quite manages to coalesce into a cohesive whole, with the often excessively deliberate pace, in the second half, compounded by a tedious emphasis on the mystery behind Annabelle's existence. The lack of visceral thrills - ie this is a killer doll movie without a killer doll - ultimately confirms Annabelle's place as a slightly above average yet run-of-the-mill ghost story, although it's just as clear that the film basically works as a setup to James Wan's slightly superior The Conjuring.
The Skeleton Twins (October 30/14)
The Skeleton Twins casts Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig as estranged siblings Milo and Maggie, with the film detailing the pair's reluctant reunion following Milo's botched suicide attempt. There's little doubt that The Skeleton Twins, despite its various deficiencies, benefits substantially from the stellar work by both Hader and Wiig, as the erstwhile SNL performers step into the shoes of their respective characters with an ease that's often astonishing. It doesn't hurt, either, that the two actors share a sense of chemistry together, with the brother/sister relationship between Milo and Maggie boasting an authentic feel that's impossible to resist. Filmmaker Craig Johnson, along with coscreenwriter Mark Heyman, employs a rather episodic structure that does, however, essentially result in an absence of momentum, with the movie's erratic atmosphere ensuring that certain sequences and stretches fare better than others. The meandering midsection is especially problematic, to be sure, and it becomes, to an increasingly noticeable degree, more and more difficult to overlook the lack of cohesion within the movie's narrative. Johnson admittedly manages to keep things interesting by peppering the proceedings with a handful of above-average interludes, including an absolutely captivating moment in which Milo and Maggie lipsync Starship's "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now." But the uneven vibe prevents The Skeleton Twins' climactic emotional revelations from possessing the impact or resonance that Johnson has surely intended, which finally does confirm the movie's place as a well-acted yet only sporadically engaging little comedy/drama.
Ouija (October 30/14)
A fairly generic teen horror flick, Ouija follows several friends as they're pursued (and killed) by a malevolent demon after communicating with it via the title object. Director Stiles White admittedly does a nice job of initially luring the viewer into the familiar proceedings, as Ouija kicks off with an unexpectedly effective pre-credits sequence detailing one girl's demise at the hands of said malevolent demon. The movie, past that point, generally unfolds as one might've anticipated based on the premise, and yet it's worth noting that the film's first half never quite becomes the tedious ordeal it could have - with White's stylish visuals certainly playing an integral role in perpetuating Ouija's watchable atmosphere. But the uniformly bland performances and increasingly by-the-numbers storyline slowly-but-surely drain one's interest and enthusiasm, with, in terms of the latter, scripters Juliet Snowden and White's decision to emphasize the surviving characters' Ring-like investigation into their oppressors horrific past paving the way for a decidedly underwhelming second half (ie this sort of thing has been done to death over the last few years). By the time the typically overblown finale rolls around, Ouija has established itself as a garden-variety PG-13 horror film that's almost a cut above most of its similarly-themed brethren. (Almost, but not quite.)
The Buddy Holly Story (October 31/14)
An engaging biopic, The Buddy Holly Story details the life and times of the title character (Gary Busey) - with the film exploring Holly's burgeoning musical career and eventual marriage to Maria Richwine's Maria. Filmmaker Steve Rash does a superb job of immediately capturing the viewer's interest and attention, as The Buddy Holly Story kicks off with an engrossing sequence revolving around an early performance by Buddy Holly and his bandmates (Don Stroud's Jesse and Charles Martin Smith's Ray Bob) - with the movie subsequently segueing into a fairly standard yet completely watchable portrait of the protagonist's meteoric rise to fame. It's clear that Busey's consistently captivating performance plays a significant role in the film's success, as the actor, who does all his own singing, steps into the shoes of his iconic character to a degree that's never less than fascinating. And although the movie proceeds at a pace that's occasionally just a little too slow for its own good, The Buddy Holly Story benefits from the sporadic inclusion of unexpectedly electrifying sequences - with the best and most apt example of this Holly's triumphant performance at the famed Apollo Theater. It's clear, however, that the film does lose some momentum in its final stretch, as Rash's efforts at prolonging the inevitable results in a handful of padded-out and palpably needless sequences. (The last performance, for example, is entertaining yet undeniably overlong.) Still, The Buddy Holly Story is, for the most part, a better-than-average behind-the-scenes drama that boasts a sterling turn from Busey and a whole lot of memorable music.