Movie reviews: 'Annabelle: Creation' plays on less-is-more horror
Published Friday, August 11, 2017 5:56AM EDT
ANNABELLE: CREATION: 3 STARS
She doesn’t have much emotional range—her motions are largely confined to opening and closing her eyes—but the films she appeared in have grossed over $1 billion at the box office. She’s Annabelle, devil dolly, and she’s back to prove that you can’t keep a good doll down.
“Annabelle: Creation” is a second prequel to “The Conjuring”—following 2014’s “Annabelle”—to tell the story of the creepy, possessed doll before she was safely locked away in ghost hunter Ed and Lorraine Warren’s cabinet of curiosities. The first prequel, set in the 1960s, saw the creepy antique doll cause havoc in the lives of a pregnant woman and her husband.
This time around it’s an origin of evil story digging into why and how the child’s toy became so disturbed and disturbing. The preamble takes us back to the 1940s when kind-hearted dollmaker Mr. Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) and his wife (Miranda Otto) witness their daughter Annabelle killed in a terrible—and rather dramatically filmed—accident.
Cut to twelve years later. The once kindly couple are now shells of their former selves, still wracked with grief over the loss of his daughter. Their rambling Californian house, once alive with activity is now a cobwebbed mausoleum. When a nearby orphanage shuts down the couple welcome six residents and their nun custodian Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman) into their home. They both get something from the deal. Mr. and Mrs. Mullins hope the orphans will inject some soul into their lifeless home.
On the upside the young tenants have a place to live, a TV and a radio. “It's as big as a castle,” they gush. “I guess that makes us princesses!” On the downside their high-spirited ways bring out the doll's evil spirits.
“Annabelle: Creation” is a less-is-more horror movie. The scares are bare boned, small moments—a shadowy figure here, a slamming door there—that add up to an atmosphere of dread. Add in Linda (Lulu Wilson), a little demon battling girl with creepy, concerned eyes and a handful of good lines like, “Forgive me father for I am about to sin,” make an impression but everything else feels too tastefully restrained.
In movie math demons plus little kids equals “The Exorcist” but “Annabelle: Creation” isn’t so much scary as it is weird. Those looking for overt terror à la William Friedkin’s masterpiece will be disappointed.
Director David F. Sandberg—whose horror bona fides were well established after “Lights Out”—is unafraid to take his time in creating the dread. Except for a few frights near the end, unfortunately, audiences may leave the theatre feeling the same way, unafraid.
THE GLASS CASTLE: 2 ½ STARS
Jeannette Walls’s childhood was the stuff of movies. Raised by free-spirited parents, she and her siblings were nomads, shunted around the country chasing the dream of an uncompromised life. “Daddy says where we are,” young Jeannette (Chandler Head) says, “is where home is.”
When we first see Jeannette (played as an adult by Brie Larson) it’s 1989. She is a successful gossip columnist for New York Magazine, engaged to David (Max Greenfield) an up-and-coming investment banker. Her cab ride home from a fancy dinner is interrupted by two homeless people who disrupt traffic as they garbage pick from a dumpster. Upset, she ignores them as the cab drives through the intersection.
Turns out the two are her parents, Rex (Woody Harrelson) and Rose Mary (Naomi Watts ). The two are happily squatting in an abandoned building, continuing a lifelong tradition of living off the grid. He schools them by experience. “You learn from living,” he says. “Everything else is a damn lie.”
Rex is short tempered, an often drunk dreamer always looking for a place to start over. Rose Mary is an artist who redefines free-spirited. Together they raised their kids in an uncompromising manner. On the road constantly they hopscotch around the country at Rex’s whim, kept going by his promise of building them a gleaming new home, their very own Glass Castle. “All this running around is temporary,” he says. “We just need the perfect location for our castle.”
Throughout good times and bad Jeannette has a special relationship with Rex but his drinking spins out of control she realizes the kids have to go their own way.
Shades of last year's ode to antiestablishment living “Captain Fantastic” hang heavy over “The Glass Castle.” Both chronicle overbearing fathers and their pliable children but the new film feels different because it never entirely embraces the alternative lifestyle it portrays. Walls—whose memoir forms the basis of the movie—is ultimately sympathetic in her portrayal of the man who infuriated her as much as he raised her. It is a father and daughter story about overcoming a non-traditional upbringing while also realising he made her the person she is today.
It’s Jeannette’s life but it is Harrelson who steals the show. Is he the most versatile actor working today? He's a journeyman who jumps from franchises to character dramas, from comedies to tragedies. As Rex he’s a volatile presence, loving one second, throwing a chair threw a window the next. Harrelson never plays him as a villain. Rather he explores the depths of the complex character, finding the kernels of humanity that allow us to look past his bluster.
By the time the end credits roll “The Glass Castle” feels stretched, as though director Destin Daniel Cretton doesn’t want the story to end. It’s a little too flashback-y in its last half hour, showing us things we already know, and a big epiphany moment—complete with swelling orchestra—feels forced. There are some heartfelt and emotional moments early on but as the story unfolds Creton allows it to melt into a puddle of unnecessary sentimentality.
WIND RIVER: 3 STARS
Last year Taylor Sheridan helped breathe new life into the western genre with the script to “Hell or High Water.” It was a hot and sweaty West Texas crime drama that earned four Oscar nominations. His latest film is another neo-western but feels much different. “Wind River” is a wintry murder mystery set on a First Nations Reserve.
Jeremy Renner plays Cory Lambert, a Wyoming Fish and Wildlife agent called to the reserve where his ex-wife (Julia Jones) lives to track a mountain lion that has attacked local livestock. While hunting his prey he discovers the dead body of local teen Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Asbille). She’s miles away from the nearest house, barefoot and frozen solid. Lambert figures she died running away from something or someone until her lungs froze and burst in the 20 below weather. When FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) arrives solo she asks Lambert to aid in the hunt for Natalie’s killers. “You're looking for clues,” Lambert says, “but missing all the signs.” The pair soon discovers that mountain lions aren't the most dangerous predators in the area.
Sheridan’s scripts (he also directed “Wind River”) explore social issues. “Sicario” dove into the soft underbelly of the American war on drugs while “Hell or High Water” was a financial-crisis drama set against a backdrop of outlaws, buddies and banks. “Wind River” shines a light on law enforcement’s apathy in investigating the disappearance of indigenous women.
Set against the snow and silence of Wyoming mountain country “Wind River” is a much quieter movie than “Sicario” or “Hell or High Water,” and a little more conventional as well. Apart from a gun battle late in the film, there is little in the way of complex drama or action. Instead this is more about location, the harsh climate and the characters.
Sheridan populates the film with compelling characters. Renner is at his craggy best as a man as tough as the land he makes his living on. Olsen is a scrappy presence as a young, inexperienced agent trying to maintain control of the situation.
As Natalie’s grieving father Gil Birmingham (who appeared in “Hell or High Water” as Jeff Bridges’ partner) hands in a steely but soulful performance while Graham Greene brings a world-weary humour to the role of the local sheriff. “This is the land of no back up,” he says to Banner, “it's the land of your own back up.”
“Wind River” may be set in a winter wonderland—bring a blanket, the iciness is infectious—but despite the abundance of snow Sheridan and his actors insert enough humanity to keep the story’s warm heart beating.
LANDLINE: 3 ½ STARS
These days the word landline conjures up a specific retro feel. It harkens back to a time before everyone played Candy Crush on their mobile devices and when pay phones dotted the landscape. That’s the world where the new Jenny Slate dramedy “Landline” takes place.
It’s New York City, 1995. Dana Jacobs (Slate) is a layout artist at Paper Magazine when she isn’t at Blockbuster with her fiancée Ben (Jay Duplass) agonizing over what movie to rent. Younger sister Ali (Abby Quinn) is as free-spirited as her sibling is buttoned down.
“You’re like a piece of toilet paper stuck to my shoe,” Dana says to Ali. “You are the embodiment of constipation,” Ali snaps back.
Despite their differences the sisters bond when Ali discovers erotic poetry her father Alan (John Turturro) wrote for a woman who is not his wife Pat (Edie Falco). Their disgust for his actions brings them together, despite the fact that Dana has thrown off the shackles of engagement and embarked on a secret journey of self-discovery with Nate (Finn Wittrock). “I am flailing,” she says. “Trying to figure out if the life I have picked for myself is the one that I want.” “We are a family of cheaters!” Ali exclaims.
“Landline” uses infidelity as a backdrop for a study of partnership and family. Everyone’s relationship is teetering on the edge and yet this is a hopeful movie, a film that suggests monogamy is viable when given room to breathe.
“Obvious Child” director Gillian Robespierre brings a strong ensemble together, elevating the material with strong performances. Duplass is suitably milquetoast as Ben, the dull but lovable fiancée. Turturro and Falco breathe life into characters that in lesser hands might have been caricatures or worse, simply a plot device to support the sisters’ story.
The stars here, however, are Slate and Quinn. They look like sisters but their chemistry extends beyond the skin deep. Slate’s giggles and affectionate asides—“You’re a weird little bird.”—feel authentic, as though these two have a long shared history that predates anything we see on the screen. They bring humanity and sympathy to the film despite their foibles.
“Landline” is an engaging portrait of broken relationships in an analogue time. It’s a gently heart tugging story about the consequences of breaking relationship rules. There are jokes and there are tears but mainly “Landline” has a wistful tone that gets under your skin.