Monthly Archives: October 2016

Ghoulish Game

Dark portal to spirit world opens Ouija: Origin of Evil

Watch out! Elizabeth Reaser and Lulu Wilson star in 'Ouija: The Origin of Evil.'

Watch out! Elizabeth Reaser and Lulu Wilson star in ‘Ouija: The Origin of Evil.’

Ouija: Origin of Evil
Starring Elizabeth Reaser, Annalise Basso, Lulu Wilson & Henry Thomas
Directed by Mike Flanagan
PG-13
In theatres Oct. 21, 2016

When I was a kid, my older teenage cousin had a Ouija board. She mostly used it, at least it seemed to me—moving the plastic, teardrop-shaped “planchette,” the thing with three little legs and a see-through hole—over the letters to answer questions about her boyfriend, Slick.

There was nothing very otherworldly about it, and nothing very ominous; when Ouija didn’t give her the answers, she turned to another oracle, the Magic 8 Ball. I think there may have been some Tarot cards and incense in there somewhere, too. Anyway, she and Slick didn’t last very long.

In this movie, set in 1967, we first see the Ouija board game nested, innocently enough, within a stack of other popular games of the era, including Candyland, Sorry! and Monopoly. But in a movie subtitled “Origin of Evil,” how long do you think it takes before that ol’ black magic begins to stir?

Ouija: Origin of Evil is actually a prequel to Ouija, the 2014 movie about a group of teens who noodle around with a Ouija board and unlock the portal to a dark, dangerous spirit world. In the new Ouija, a widowed mom working as a fake spiritualist (Elizabeth Reaser) adds a new stunt—the Ouija board—to pep up her fake séance business. In doing so, she makes the same mistake, rolling out the welcome mat for a host of malevolent spirits to take over her home.

Film Title: Ouija: Origin of EvilAnd they’re particularly interested in her youngest daughter, Doris (Lulu Wilson), who begins speaking in strange voices, seeing things invisible to everyone else and writing in a foreign language. And all that’s before things start getting really weird, creepy and calamitous.

Mom thinks Doris is good for business, but her oldest daughter (Annalise Basso) is freaked. The headmaster priest at the girls’ Catholic school (Henry Thomas, all grown up from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial) is concerned. When he pulls up in front of the house to check things out, the background music mimics the iconic theme from The Exorcist.

Co-writer and director Mike Flanagan does a very nice job with the late ’60s vibe—the movie genuinely feels like something happening in the era of moon missions, late-night TV test patterns, macramé sweaters and big American-made cars. It also feels like something of the era, from the golden retro glow of its colors to the clever reel-change cues “burnt” into the corners of scenes, an homage to a time when its kind of fright-night scares were something you’d see at drive-ins and double-features—a pre-digital era when projectionists would need visual cues to stay on their toes.

Film Title: Ouija: Origin of EvilRed-eyed, hissing demons—check. Adorable tyke who undergoes terrifying body transformations and crawls on the walls and walks on the ceiling—yep. Slingshots and stitching needles, comin’ right at your nightmares—got ’em. If you’re looking for some straight-up, mainline Halloween haunted-house “gotchas,” this date-night ride has a slow start, but builds to a wild, crazy, screaming finish.

The performers are all good, especially the youngsters. Watch out for Lulu Wilson, who played Mikayla on TV’s The Millers; she reminds me of a young Reese Witherspoon. And Annalise Basso—terrific earlier this year as one of the kids in Captain Fantastic—shoulders more and more of the movie as it goes on, shifting her teen-sister role into a stronger, more significant lead as the plot progresses.

Can playing with a Ouija board open up the door to hell? It certainly does in the movies—and my cousin’s ex-boyfriend Slick might have thought so. And maybe that that’s why I’ve always been more of a Monopoly, Operation and Mousetrap guy myself.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Birth Rights

Bracing, provocative ‘Birth of a Nation’ resonates with righteous unrest

The Birth of a Nation
Starring Nate Parker, Armie Hammer & Penelope Ann Miller
Directed by Nate Parker
R
In theaters Oct. 7, 2016

In 1831, 31-year-old Nat Turner led a slave uprising in Virginia that resulted in the deaths of more than 50 white men, women and children, and the retaliation of white mobs and militias that killed some 200 blacks—including many who were not involved in the rebellion.

A “literate” black who could read and write, Turner grew up on Bible stories and later held worship services for his fellow slaves. He eventually came to believe that God had finally seen enough of the injustices of slavery, and was calling him to lead a slave army on a march of vengeful, wrong-righting insurrection.

When a solar eclipse darkened the sky over the cotton fields one day, Turner knew he’d seen his sign—he’d gotten his “go” signal. The timing, as they say, was right.

The timing was right for director and star Nate Parker, too, when he opened his movie about Nat Turner earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival. The Birth of a Nation was a smash, a stunner, a shocker. Landing smack in the middle of the #OscarSoWhite controversy—about the lack of diversity among the 2016 Academy Awards nominees—it was a bracing, provocative blast of black-powered, top-to-bottom talent, and a topic, that couldn’t be ignored.

And it wasn’t. Fox Searchlight forked over $17.5 million for the distribution rights, a Sundance record, to get the film into theaters by the end of the year.

The film also recently opened the 10th annual International Black Film Festival in Nashville, Tenn., just ahead of its wide theatrical release.

 Armie Hammer as Samuel Turner Nate Parker as Nat Turner and Jayson Warner Smith as Earl Fowler

Armie Hammer as Samuel Turner, Nate Parker as Nat Turner and Jayson Warner Smith as Earl Fowler

The Birth of a Nation is a powerful piece of filmmaking, and a mighty impressive work, especially as Parker’s debut as a director. It takes a little-known event from America’s shameful past and elevates it to rousing, epic proportions. Both in front of and behind the camera, Parker shows the humanity as well as the horrors of slavery in the antebellum South, and the evils of an entire economic system built upon the systematic exploitation of a population for profit, regardless of the “kindness” or cruelty of any individual master, landowner, merchant or anyone else who benefitted.

Armie Hammer plays Turner’s second-generation master, Samuel Turner, whose benevolence is eclipsed by his desire to keep his estate financially secure and reputable—at whatever the cost. Penelope Ann Miller is Samuel’s mother, who teaches young Nat to read, which has enormous repercussions. Jackie Earle Haley is a sadistic slave hunter. Gabrielle Union portrays Esther, a slave wife forced to spend an evening as “entertainment” for one of Samuel Turner’s drunken guests.

Aja Naomi King plays Nat Turner's wife, Cherry.

Aja Naomi King plays Nat Turner’s wife, Cherry.

Yes, it’s sometimes hard to watch—to see Turner tied to a post and horsewhipped to a pulp, to watch a little white girl lead a little black girl around with a rope “leash” around her neck, to witness a slave get his teeth get bashed out with a hammer. And a couple of—pivotal—rape scenes are particularly discomforting, given how the movie has reactivated the spotlight on Parker and his screenwriting collaborator Jean Celeste and the charges that were brought against them in 1999 as college students that they raped a fellow student; Parker was acquitted, the charges were dropped on Celeste after he appealed, and the woman who accused them committed suicide.

Different audiences will see this movie through different prisms, quite obviously. Some people won’t want to see it at all, for various reasons. Given the inflamed, highly polarized state of affairs across the nation, the Black Lives Matter movement and protests about police treatment of blacks, racial profiling, our national anthem and criminal injustice, the film resonates with a righteous unrest that rings far beyond events that happened 175 years ago.

“They’re killin’ people everywhere for no reason all than bein’ black,” says Turner’s wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King).

In so many ways, the timing for Parker’s film about Nat Turner feels so right, and so right now.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

All Aboard

‘The Girl on the Train’ is dark, juicy fem-centric thriller

Film Title: The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the Train
Starring Emily Blunt, Haley Bennett & Rebecca Ferguson
Directed by Tate Taylor
R

“My husband used to tell me I have an overactive imagination,” says Rachel (Emily Blunt), watching the scenes of New York’s Hudson Valley go by as she stares out the window of the train she takes on her daily commute into the city.

Those scenes, that train and that “girl”—Rachel—drive the drama in the highly anticipated big-screen adaptation of British author Paula Hawkins’ 2015 thriller, which has sold some 11 million copies worldwide.

After her divorce, Rachel spiraled even deeper into her alcohol-soaked resentment—and it tortures her every day when the train passes her old house, now occupied by her former husband, Tom (Justin Theroux), his new wife and former mistress, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), and their new baby daughter.

Haley Bennett

Haley Bennett

But it’s another house, and another set of occupants, that really intrigues Rachel. A beautiful young blonde woman (Haley Bennett) and her adoring husband (Luke Evans) seem to be so obviously, passionately, completely in love. Sipping on vodka as the train zips by, morning and night, Rachel fantasizes about them, and especially about her. “She’s what I lost,” she muses. “She’s everything I want to be.”

The young woman’s name is Megan, and she works as Anna and Tom’s nanny—and loathes it.

As Rachel’s bitterness about Tom and Anna grows, her voyeuristic beguilement with Megan intensifies when she sees her in the embrace of another man, triggering Rachel’s memories of her own husband’s unfaithfulness. One evening Rachel goes on a drunken tirade about Anna the “whore,” takes the train to her neighborhood, but then blacks out—and wakes up the next morning covered in mud and blood.

And Megan has disappeared—or worse. When Allison Janney steps in as a homicide detective, it becomes a murder case. (Did the screen suddenly pick up a stream of CSI: Westchester County or something?) Did Rachel do it? She honestly doesn’t remember. And as blurry as her memory is, she wants to find out the truth, as twisted as it might turn out to be.

Rebecca Ferguson

Rebecca Ferguson

Tate Taylor—who also directed The Help (2011), another drama with a powerful female ensemble—builds the mystery by toggling between Rachel, Megan and Anna and each of their stories, going backward and forward in time to pick up pieces of the fractured, fragmented puzzle.

The performances are all super-solid, especially from the three women playing the triad of females in various states of personal misery and psychological abuse; as the movie takes us deeper into their stories, we see how they all connect, interweave and eventually collide. It’s about secrets, lies, loneliness, love, infidelity, rage, motherhood, things that aren’t always as they seem, and layers and layers of buried hurt and loss that finally come frothing to the surface, spilling into the light. The shocking conclusion splashes out dark, red and juicy—a catharsis that taps a wellspring of pent-up emotions.

Emily Blunt is an extremely versatile actress who’s done musicals (Into the Woods), comedy (The Devil Wears Prada), sci-fi (Edge of Tomorrow, Looper), family flicks (The Muppets), fairy-tale fantasy (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) and action (Sicaro). Now she’s landed a role that will get her even more serious mainstream attention. For her, especially, this Train is just the ticket.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Welcome, Oddballs!

Tim Burton makes misfits feel at ease at ‘Miss Peregrine’s’

Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children
Starring Asa Butterfield, Eva Green, Ella Purnell & Samuel L. Jackson
Directed by Tim Burton
PG-13

The teenage years can be rough, making kids feel like outsiders, outcasts, oddballs. Wouldn’t it be awesome if there were a place young misfits could feel welcome, safe, protected, understood—and important?

And no, I’m not talking about the chess club.

In Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children, director Tim Burton creates just such a place—or, more specifically, brings it spectacularly to life from Ransom Riggs’ 2011 young adult novel, a sprawling tall tale of mystery, monsters, a young boy on a tick-tocking, time-looping quest to discover his past, and some very, very peculiar kids.

“Did you ever feel like nothing you do matters?” asks teenage Jake (Asa Butterfield) in the opening scene as a crab scuttles across a footprint on a Florida beach seconds before a wave washes it away. Soon enough Jake himself will be swept across the water on a journey to a magical place that previously existed only in his imagination, fueled by colorful bedtime stories of his beloved grandfather (Terence Stamp), where he’ll find out just how needed he can be.

Visiting a remote, mist-shrouded island off the coast of Wales with his father (Chris O’Dowd), Jake discovers a decrepit old mansion bombed to rubble by German air raids in World War II. But stumbling into a “time loop” leads him back to 1943, just before the raids—when Miss Peregrine, her home and all the “peculiar children” were in full swing.

MISS PEREGRINE'S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDRENThere’s lovely, lighter-than-air Emma (Ella Purnell), who must use steampunk-ish lead boots and rope tethers to keep her from floating away. Hot-handed Olive (Lauren McCrostie) can set things ablaze with a simple touch. Millard (Cameron King), an invisible boy, likes to run around naked—not that you’d notice. Tiny Bronwyn (Pixie Davies) has the strength of a brute. Whenever Hugh (Milo Parker) opens his mouth, bees that live in his stomach come swarming out. Sweet-looking Claire (Raffiella Chapman) has a nasty surprise underneath the blonde curls of her hair. Enoch (Finlay MacMillan) has a creepy power to animate inanimate objects—including the dead.

The faces of two “twin cousins” are always covered, in spooky white hoods with holes for their eyes and mouths—for a reason not revealed until close to the end of the movie.

MISS PEREGRINE'S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN

Eva Green plays Miss Peregrine.

And as the exotic, pipe-smoking Miss Peregrine, Eva Green (Bond girl Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale) superbly channels her character’s enchanted mission with steely British resolve and flinty maternal focus. She can also morph into a bird, a fleet, regal peregrine falcon. How cool is that?!

Samuel L. Jackson is the evil Mr. Barron—no actor mixes campy humor and genuine menace with such unsettling ease or malevolent charm. There’s Allison Janney and Judi Dench. There’s danger, derring-do, adventure, excitement, laughter, young love and a couple of gross-out creature-feature moments that might be too much for little eyes.

But mostly, there’s director Tim Burton’s thematic signature, everywhere. Burton has always had a thing for outsiders and outliers, misfits like Pee-Wee Herman, Sweeny Todd, Beetlejuice and Willy Wonka, and for classic Hollywood quirk. The topiaries in Miss Peregrine’s courtyard—an elephant, a dinosaur, a centaur—look like they could have been the whimsical snip-snip artistry of Edward Scissorhands. And one major scene is a huge nod—an homage, certainly—to the cheesy highlight of a specific 1960s movie (with stop-motion effects by the late special-effects guru Ray Harryhausen) that Burton has admitted is one of his all-time favorites.

Burton even slips into the action for a super-quick, gob-smacked cameo. Blink and you’ll miss him!

So outsiders, outcasts and oddballs everywhere, of all ages, let your freak flag fly—courtesy of Miss Peregrine, and Tim Burton!

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

 

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