Thursday, October 20, 2016

Ouija: Origin of Evil Review (2016)

Writer/director Mike Flanegan (“Oculus,” “Hush”) should receive major props for taking on a project that began with a Hasbro toy (the Ouija Board!) instead of an idea and molding it into something that’s more than worthwhile and not a shallow, uninspired money grab/ glorified product placement.

“Ouija: Origin of Evil” (a prequel to a movie I saw but have no memory of. I think a crazy lady was in a mental hospital at one point for some reason) certainly isn’t groundbreaking. It contains the usual horror clichés and devices: séances, psychic readings, a creepy little girl who talks to imaginary ghosts and then is possessed by one, a secret torture chamber inside a haunted house, intense emotional trauma brought on by a violent accident affecting the protagonist etc. Yet Flanegan manages to make it work through a combination of humor and horror.

The film begins at a suburban home circa 1965. The owner, Alice (Elizabeth Reaser) is in the middle of a psychic reading with an older man and his daughter. To cut to the chase, the meeting gets heated and ends on a note of intensity when a ghost pops out from behind the curtain, almost giving the poor man a heart attack. However, after the father and daughter leave it turns out to be all a con job orchestrated by Alice and her two daughters Paulina (Annalise Basso) and Doris (Lulu Wilson). This scene does a god job of setting up the rest of the film not only by introducing the reoccurring theme of deception but also by establishing a tongue in cheek-ness. “Ouija” isn’t as self-referential or snarky as “Scream” but Flanegan and the cast still have fun-- not taking things too seriously. Following the faux séance the three bicker about how it could have gone better (“you’re not supposed to almost give him a heart attack!”).

Flanegan takes his time in setting up the narrative. Alice lost her husband in a sudden car accident and she sees these phony séances, as a means of helping other people get closure with their own loved ones. However, that ain’t paying the bills so she goes out and buys an Ouija Board of her own to spice up her act and accidently summons mysterious spirits.

It works! It really works! Put that on the box!

The spirits can only communicate through Doris because she’s a little girl and only little girls can talk to ghosts in horror movies.  So Alice exploits her human ghost communication device, continuing on with the home séance business except she not longer has to rely on homemade special effects. There really are ghosts. Flanegan keeps the silliness going; in one funny and unexpected moment a ghost talks directly through Doris.

But it’s not all fun and games and before long it’s clear that a legitimate force of evil is lurking in the shadows, putting the family in danger. There’s nothing lousy or uninspired about the scares Flanegan concocts. Like all great horror films “Ouija” relies on subtly, letting the horrific images speak for themselves (without jump cuts or loud base) and consistently occurring patterns of wind up terror: slow build up, followed by sudden bursts of terror, and then back to normal again, awaiting the next burst. There are a number of truly disturbing moments of terror that will burrow into your psyche and stay there. Instead of going for the easy jump scares, Flanegan slowly creates an atmosphere of creepiness and unease.

At the same time, the picture doesn’t shed its silliness and maybe the most impressive thing about “Ouija” is that it manages to be knowingly silly and legitimately terrifying. In one scene you’ll be giggling madly at something and then in another you’ll witness something horrific that will leave you anxiously biting your nails. In this way, the humor works to throw you off the scent so the film can then ambush you with frights. While the broad strokes of the narrative remain fairly familiar throughout, this peculiar balancing of humor and horror kept me fully engrossed from start to finish.

The acting is solid across the board but the scene-stealer is Wilson. The child actor is not only natural but also nuanced—making Doris into intelligent, curious and energetic little girl, along with being creepy. She can be utterly unpredictable, sweet one minute and sinister the next. One of my favorite scenes involves her delivering a devilish monologue about asphyxiation. Creepy little girl who can talk to ghosts might be the stalest cliché in this film but Wilson gives it some much-needed life.

“Ouija” isn’t as strong as some of the other horror films from 2016 like “The Witch,” “The Wailing,” or “Under The Shadow.” It’s not as fresh, ambitious or scary and things get a little convoluted towards the end. But it’s a hell of a lot of fun, delivering moments of welcomed silliness and intelligent scares.


Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Certain Women Review (2016)

Not quite an anthology and not quite a “vignette” film, writer/director Kelly Reichardt’s patient, thoughtful “Certain Women” provides a glimpse into the mundane lives of three hardworking, ordinary women as they demand respect from those around them, try to make their mark on the world and seek out meaningful connections. For the most part, the picture is divided into three segments, each one focusing on a different woman, sort of like a short film.

The brilliance of “Certain Women” lies in Reichardt’s quiet and restrained approach-- an approach that puts all of the focus on character instead of plot and doesn’t talk down to the audience. The film is as understated as they come; Reichardt doesn’t spoon feed or over explain. A lot of the film’s substance is kept bellow the surface, implied through a facial gesture or a seemingly straightforward line of dialogue. While not confusing or intricate in terms of plot (in fact there’s not much in the way of plot), “Certain Women” still requires your undivided attention, as it’s a film about subtle gestures and observation.

Reichardt directs with unhurried grace and the three lead actresses (Laura Dern, Michelle Williams and Lily Gladstone) give impressively understated performances, performances that rely almost exclusively on subtle facial gestures and body language rather than lengthy monologues or dialogue heavy interactions.

The first segment focuses on Laura Wells (Dern), a small town lawyer. One of Laura’s clients, Fuller (Jared Harris, pathetic and heartbreaking. This might be his most tender, soulful performance) has been trying to sue his former employer for workers comp but is unable, making him mentally unstable and increasingly needy. This chapter is characterized by quiet frustration and guilt. You sense that Laura is dissatisfied with the way her career has been going thus far and feels like she isn’t being taken seriously. Fuller insists on meeting with another lawyer (a male lawyer) to tell him what she has been telling him for months.

There are times when Laura herself looks like she’s going to snap, at having to deal with such a needy, frustrating person. During a car ride, Laura has a look of utter irritation and anguish as she silently listens to Fuller complain about his life. Though, she also feels a sense of pity and regret—regret over the fact that she can’t do more to help her client. Again, most of this is implied rather than out rightly stated in the dialogue or action.

The second segment revolves around Gina Lewis (Williams), who’s currently in the process of building a house on a patch of land she purchased, along with her husband Ryan (James Le Gros) and angsty teen daughter Guthrie (Sara Rodier). This is probably the least compelling section in the entire film. Although Gina’s determination to get the house built and the underlying tension between her and her family is intriguing, the segment ultimately feels incomplete. The other two stories, as understated as they are, still have a sense of dramatic momentum and build to a satisfying conclusion. However, this story feels somewhat flat and anticlimactic.

And then there’s the final story, which is not only the best but also one that would make a great solo short film. It’s a tender, moving meditation on alienation and the distances we travel (literally and figuratively) to find and maintain meaningful connections with other people. An awkward, lonely horse ranch hand named Jamie (Gladstone) goes to a night school class taught by young overworked lawyer Beth Travis (Kristin Stewart). The two eat dinner afterwards at a nearby diner and Jamie develops an attachment towards Beth (whether Jamie’s attachment is plutonic or romantic is left up to you to decide) and keeps coming back to the class. The post class meals become the highlight of her day— giving her something to look forward to other than work.

As someone who’s also shy and often seeks isolation, this story resonated the most. Though I enjoy my alone time, I also greatly look forward to the meetings and interactions with my few companions. Even introverts need connections with other humans once in a while. Hell, we even treasure some of them. Throughout the day, I think Jamie is happy and content to take care of horses in isolation, but when she gets to see Beth, she’s ecstatic. During one night, the look of utter joy on her face as she silently gives Beth a ride on her horse to the diner is beautiful. Of all three stories, this one hit home and held me the entire way through, building to a bittersweet conclusion.

 “Certain Women” won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Some will find it to be too slow or take issue with the film’s lack of plot. It’s not an easy film to watch, as it requires a lot of work on the part of the audience to find all the details and nuances. But for those who are patient enough, Reichardt’s picture proves to be a fascinating, varied portrait of women in smalltown America.


Friday, October 14, 2016

McCabe & Mrs. Miller: An Appreciation

Ever since the Criterion Collection announced they would be restoring and releasing Robert Altman’s radical revisionist western “McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) I’ve been in a state of euphoria. Now that it’s been released, and I’m sitting here in my family room with the Blu Ray in my hands, I’m still shaking.

I feel as giddy as a fanboy. The way hardcore “Star Wars” fans must have felt when it was announced that a new trilogy would be dominating the multiplex, or how they’re going to feel when/if the original, unaltered trilogy is finally released on video. Waiting for my copy to arrive via Amazon I felt like one of those “Star Wars” nerds that camped outside the theater for the next installment. If such a thing as “McCabe & Mrs. Millercon" were to exist I would be first in the door, wearing my bear coat and bowler hat, drinking my glass of scotch with a raw egg.

Am I being hyperbolic? Yes. Am I slightly embarrassing myself? Yes. Am I making inside references to the film that you probably don’t know? Yes. Do I care? Hell no.

I first encountered the film in high school (yes, you read that right) on the recommendation of an 
older family friend. On the first viewing I liked it fine and moved on with my life. It didn’t immediately blow me away. However something about it must have stuck with me because sometime later I came upon a cheap DVD copy of it at a bookstore and figured I’d give it another spin.

It played a lot better the second time through and with each subsequent viewing I became more and more captivated by it. By its beautiful, rugged scenery. The soothing, lyrical folk songs by Leonard Cohen. The off beat humor as well as the sense of melancholy and impending doom hanging over everything like a thick, dark rain cloud. Warren Beatty’s delightfully scraggly, mumbling, foolish antihero. Julie Christie’s headstrong, whip smart and impolite Cockney Madam. Their effortless onscreen charisma.

“McCabe & Mrs. Miller” is one of the most unique, immersive Westerns I’ve ever seen and my favorite western. That’s right, favorite western.

There’s a lot I could talk about. So to keep this piece from being an overlong and rambling bulleted list about why this movie rocks, I’m going to focus on the aspect I love the most. The aspect that immediately draws me in; leaves me spellbound and brings me back again and again. That would be the film’s overwhelming sense of time and place. “McCabe & Mrs. Miller is set in the Pacific Northwest (you could call it a “Pacific Northwestern”) during the 1900’s. On a basic level, the film is about the literal construction/development of a frontier town called Presbyterian Church. The protagonists, John McCabe (Beatty) and Constance Miller (Christie) are entrepreneurs (among other things) and we watch as they transform Presbyterian Church from a few tents and dingy shacks out in the middle of an untamed wilderness, into bustling town. While all Westerns, on some level, deal with the creation and preservation of civilization on the frontier, “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” may be the only one to tackle the theme in such a blunt manner.

This focus on the building of a town mirrors the film’s actual production. Shooting the film in Vancouver (back before it was cool to make Canada your stand in for the Pacific Northwest) Altman and his crew constructed a frontier town from scratch. The Presbyterian Church set was being built during the production, meaning the film had to be shot sequentially. Altman put the crew in period clothing so that they could continue to work; they can be seen in some of the early shots building the town brothel and saloon. Furthermore, Altman, the cast and the crew lived in the structures when they weren't filming. That’s right, no fancy hotel rooms or trailers to retreat to after a long day of filming.

While not an ensemble film the way Altman’s “Nashville” and “Mash” are, “McCabe” never the less emphasizes the collective. Presbyterian Church and its rag tag assortment of townsfolk is itself a primary character along with McCabe and Miller. In fact it even has its own dramatic climax of sorts, involving the communal effort to put out a church fire.

Altman creates a frontier world that’s deeply authentic and intimate. It’s as though Altman stumbled upon a real life frontier town* and simply followed the characters around, and Leonard Cohen stopped by with his guitar to provide the soundtrack.  To achieve this, Altman uses image and sound in fresh and innovative ways. Starting with image, Altman and co. takes full advantage of this gloomy region. Leon Eriksen’s production design relies on an earthy, muted color palette; various shades of brown and grey dominate the exterior scenes. The viewer is constantly bombarded by heavy rain, roaring wind and snow, the ground muddy and damp. While the interiors are usually cramped and dimly lit--giving you a claustrophobic sensation. In terms of image, “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” presents a vision of the frontier that’s dirtier and less attractive (especially when compared to the neatness and Technicolor polish of most studio Westerns) but one that more closely resembles the real frontier. You feel filthy and cold just looking at it.

Going along with this gritty, realistic look is the ingenious sound design. Altman is perhaps best known for pioneering the use of overlapping dialogue. That is, we hear snippets of multiple conversations happening at once. It’s closer to our own experience. When we’re at a party or in a crowded room we hear an amalgamation of various conversations. Critic Roger Ebert sums up this approach and its effect wonderfully: All of the characters know each other, and the camera will not stare at first one and then another, like an earnest dog, but is at home in their company. Nor do the people line up and talk one after another, like characters in a play. They talk when and as they will, and we understand it's not important to hear every word; sometimes all that matters is the tone of a room.” Altman takes various fragments of dialogue, whether they’re important lines or trivial small talk, and mixes them into a rich, fascinating symphony of small town life.

This fragmented approach to dialogue also informs the picture’s editing and overall construction. It’s deliberately paced and meandering; less a traditional three act plot and more a freewheeling collection of scenes depicting frontier life. The supporting townsfolk aren’t fleshed out the way McCabe or Miller are but through conversational snippets and scenes (that happen around the film’s central narrative) we get brief glimpses into their lives: for example, a bartender at the local saloon contemplates whether he should trim his beard or not, an older man named Bert gets a mail order bride and a young dopey cowboy rides into town to spend a weekend at the town brothel.

Fragments like these work to create atmosphere. Altman would rather linger on these miniature episodes and interactions than drive a plot forward. In the context of the Western genre, community has often played a substantial role— depictions of tight knit pockets of civilization in the midst of awe-inspiring landscapes and wildernesses. This loose, fragmented style is perfectly suited to the genre. In “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” the presence of the community and tight nit relationships between individuals is strongly felt.  The performances (from pretty much everyone down to the one or two bit players) are natural and laidback, adding another layer of authenticity. The conversational scenes have a raw, at times improvisational, quality to them.

Ultimately, Altman’s frontier is rich and multi faceted—a densely populated, pulsing world that exceeds the bounds of the primary story or the film itself. It’s cheesy to say but I’m saying it anyway, you feel like you’re there, as one of the townsfolk watching everything unfold; the energetic conversations and mingling’s around the poker table or in the brothel, or the various business negotiations McCabe finds himself in.