Wednesday, November 09, 2016

The Right Guys for the Jobs: Ouija: Origin of Evil & Doctor Strange

Eventually, I'll get around to writing up my Fantasia review of Mike Flanagan's Before I Wake from Fantasia (or not - at some point, I'm just going to have to establish a cut-off and punt what I haven't gotten around to), and it's interesting that he talked about it being part of a thematic trilogy with Absentia and Oculus in terms of dealing with loss, but I don't think he mentioned this one at all, even though it his a lot of the same targets. I don't necessarily find that odd; even if he approached it the same way, and even if making movies means that you must, inevitably, relinquish ownership of the thing that you made and poured yourself into, this was a work-for-hire job from the start, with an endpoint determined by the studio, even if they were apparently pretty good about letting him do his thing on his way there. Plus, co-star Kate Bosworth was shooting something in MTL and that focused things even more on the movie at hand.

Still, it was fun to see a guy I found to have a really interesting take on horror material since seeing his first feature get bigger things and also wind up working like crazy, with what looks like four movies on various platforms between this year and next. He's earned it.

So has Scott Derrickson, who caught my eye with The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which similarly isn't perfect, but at least shows a guy putting something besides jump scares into his horror movies, which isn't necessarily rare, but is appreciated. Seeing him get Doctor Strange was pretty exciting, especially given his professed fandom, and he made a pretty darn good movie. It's not his first shot at the big studio flick, since he directed Fox's remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, but since I haven't seen that it was my first exposure to him having a few dozen million dollars of special effects budget, and it was kind of great that he used it to make the alternate dimensions he'd always kept hidden memorable.

Being able to pair these two movies in a part is a serendipitous result of being so far behind - I meant to have Ouija reviewed by Halloween, and didn't - but it feels kind of goods to have them paired on the blog today, as a reminder that sometimes, the guys with the right qualifications and Outlook are in fact chosen for a job, and I'm glad that Universal/Blumhouse and Disney/Marvel had people who felt this was important.

Ouija: Origin of Evil

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 October 2016 in Somerville Theatre #4 (first-run, DCP)

Studios developing movies out of Hasbro's toy and game properties have come in for a fair amount of mockery, with "Ouija" basically dismissed enough that folks barely noticed it selling more than enough tickets to be counted as a success. Not the kind of success that has people clamoring for more, but where the studio figures they might as well do another. The surprising thing about this process is that someone got the idea of giving this movie based on a toy that lets one play at communicating with the dead to Mike Flanagan, who has done some pretty good work making horror stories along those lines, and turns in something that's actually pretty good.

Initially, that talking to the dead is being done by Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser), a recently-widowed fortune teller who does a decent cold reading but has her daughters Paulina (Annalise Basso) and Doris (Lulu Wilson) help out by hiding just or of sight and enhancing her seances with, shall we say, practical effects. As one might expect, Paulina is not terribly impressed when someone pulls out a Ouija board at a party, though she mentions it to her mother as something worth integrating into the performance. Unfortunately, the first time they use it, something starts getting weird with Doris, enough that Paulina is soon talking to her Catholic school's principal Father Hogan (Henry Thomas) about the strange things happening in her home.

Flanagan has spent much of his career building scary stories around loss and the yearning for loved ones no longer there - it's a central theme of Absentia, Oculus, and Before I Wake - and the loss of Alice's husband Roger hangs over the Zanders as they justify what they do as wanting to help others who are in pain. It turns out that Father Hogan is a widower himself, and the sparks between him and Alice are those of people who aren't really certain how to be alone in this way. It's material and atmosphere that he's grown skilled at cultivating, but it doesn't feel overly familiar: Flanagan and co-writer Jeff Howard make the early bits with the family of con artists fun, and then twist it in opposite ways simultaneously, to the point where later scenes can act as both confirmation and debunking of sorts at once.

That's the big picture; the filmmakers are also good at making the quick scares thrill. Where a lot of scary movies will make the viewer jump and then show how it was really nothing until it's time to really get down to business, this one will show how something can be faked and then follow that up with something that can't be explained rationally, giving the audience a good scream but not resetting, so they're a little more on edge for the next one. Creepy moments that seem to come out of nowhere always link into something else, and what could be throwaway hooks create a very real sense of a stranger, darker world existing underneath the imperfect but optimistic and brightly colored mid-1960s of the film.

The cast and their characters do an excellent job of selling this, too. Autumn Reaser is a sneaky delight as Alice, introduced as a sharp, pattering huckster who is soon revealed as a fiercely dedicated mother, with Flanagan giving Reaser room to show the audience how Alice's contradictory traits add up to a personality rather than having her explain herself. There's a fair amount of that to Annalise Basso's Lina too - she captures the confidence of a headstrong adolescent both when it's naive and when it makes her quicker-witted than the adults she's dealing with, and lose that when it's important to show that she's nervous and scared as well. Certain genre fans will likely see her as a teenaged Karen Gillan before being reminded that she actually played that part in Oculus. Lulu Wilson initially seems to have a bit of difficulty shifting between the sweet little girl and the one possessed by something evil, but once the movie has her all-in, she's able to carry a lot of the movie's scary moments. The guys aren't given as much to do, but Henry Thomas and Parker Mack are each a little better than they need to be.

For most of the film, they get pay out a story that gives no obvious sign of being connected to events that week occur fifty years later, at least for those of us who haven't seen the 2014 Ouija movie (those who have will probably recognize the house and some character names early on). It does take a couple jarring turns near the end as the filmmakers make those connections, but those moments are probably worth it for how the Flanagan and company are able to borrow the look, sounds, and relative simplicity of the period without much irony beyond a few affectation like fake reel changes.

I can't say that I got invested enough in the mythology of the series to check out the movie whose gaps this one fills in; it's surprisingly good on its own, but I'm much more interested to see the next thing Flanagan has on his plate than the next movie based on a this particular board game. That's a heck of a lot more than expected, and one might as well take a good ghost story where they come.

(Formerly at EFC)

Doctor Strange

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 6 November 2016 at Jordan's Furniture Reading (first-run, 3D laser-projected Imax)

Doctor Strange is not exactly one of Marvel's more obscure characters, but he is one that, for one reason or another, would often go a long time without having a book of his own. He's a way to draw trippy visuals that few other superheroes offer but sometimes a hard guy to connect with readers for an extended period. It's an impressive feat, then, that the guys charged with making a movie capture most of the good stuff without twisting things too terribly hard to make it work.

In this case, they start with the villain, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), busting into a strange library and stealing the pages from an ancient tome, escaping through a strange portal to New York City, followed by a martial artist with supernatural abilities. Elsewhere in the city, top neurosurgeon Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) completes two cranial operations in rapid succession, one at the behest of ex-girlfriend Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). They may be his last, though, as a horrific auto accident damages his hands beyond repair - at least, until he's pointed at a strange monastery in Kathmandu, where he discovers a strange new world of magic, taught by a sorceress known as The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and her lieutenants Modo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong), though it's only a matter of time before Kaecilius figures out how to perform the ritual whose instructions he stole.

Mavel has received a certain amount of criticism in recent years for their movies having something of a house style - quippy and upbeat, though sometimes with an uneven balance between telling the story at hand and creating ties that will pay off down the road. Strange doesn't necessarily lend himself to that - when he gets laughs, it's often because the writers and artists exaggerate how he seems aloof and otherworldly next to Marvel's more grounded heroes - and even for those not familiar with that characterization, it's hard not to see how hard the filmmakers are trying to recapture the success of Iron Man, with the sarcastic hero who needs humbling and gains his powers as a side effect of combating a serious injury. It's almost desperate at moments, as Strange outright tells other characters that people find him funny.

If it's not a traditional version of the character, though, it's a frequently-enjoyable one, in large part because Benedict Cumberbatch embraces the snootiness behind that characterization. Early on, when he tells jokes, the audience can hear how he thinks the other person is lucky to hear it, and he doesn't soften the arrogance and self-pity before he needs to. Even as he embraces his heroic side, there's a sense that the words don't come naturally. The attitude also makes some CGI-enhanced physical comedy even funnier.

It doesn't hurt to be playing against a heck of a good cast, though it's a pity that Rachel McAdams is stuck giving life to a role that is something like sixty percent bearing the brunt of Strange's crappy attitude and thirty percent forgiving him, the sort of barely-necessary character that needs someone that good to work but can't help underscore how she's underused. Mads Mikkelsen is not quite in the same boat, if only because being the bad guy gives him a lot more opportunities to turn let something drip off a phrase or try to whither somebody - he makes Kaecilius a lot more fun to watch than the average Marvel villain even if he doesn't quite have the hook or outsize personality that makes one want to see him and Strange clash again. The allies, on the other hand, are a blast: Benedict Wong gives his namesake character great deadpan reactions while still coming off as formidable, while Chiwetel Ejiofor gives Mordo great personal charisma despite being more harsh than Strange just as often as he's more friendly. And while a lot of words have been written about the politics and optics of casting Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One - a character that has been a Tibetan man since the first Doctor Strange story - she owns the part of this Master of the Mystic Arts, making The Ancient One feel like she's detached from any specific time but having both a lack of ego and an iron will. She's terrific no matter who she's paired with, be it Cumberbatch, Mikkelsen, or Eiofor, bringing a spark to moments that could easily be ridiculous.

A huge part of the appeal of Doctor Strange has always been the psychedelic images of inventions in other dimensions and mind-bending spells in this one, and director Scott Derrickson doesn't exactly keep it in reserve - the opening sequence quickly becomes an action sequence that is like a chase through a particularly strange trip as buildings morph and gravity redirects, an effect that has been a big part of the advertising for the film and a strong argument in favor of catching it on the premium 3D screens (although, fair warning, other parts of the film are dark enough that it's worth knowing which places aren't stingy with the lumens). The great surprise on first watch is that Marvel and Disney actually held some things back, and there's even more far-out images, more directly influenced by artist Steve Ditko, on tap, and enough budget that Derrickson an company seldom have to just settle for guys in robes posing at each other to throw CGI objects around for an action scene. There's some of that, but the film seldom resorts to feeling entirely conventional, and there's a lot of sheer delight to be had as the filmmakers not only make twisted backgrounds and incredible power feel like something other than randomness - in the middle of all the effects, this feels well-choreographed - and but they create more than a few moments where, after nearly a decade of superhero movies coming out at a very quick pace, the audience might just feel like it's seeing something new.

Doctor Strange isn't entirely new things, of course - I strongly suspect that it won't just be movie critics force-fed this material when they'd rather see something less loud who will grumble that Marvel is starting to repeat itself. But there's also little denying that not only does what they're doing appeal on a basic level, but that they're having exceptional success in pairing characters and concepts with the right people (Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill have a great track record of making the supernatural something people can get hold of). And while there may be a little origin fatigue, the now-tradition two credit stingers - one for next year, one for the sequel - remind the audience that this movie doing some basic work lays the groundwork for sequels and crossovers that can be grander-scale and more strange. And, with this being as entertaining as it is, "more Strange" sounds pretty appealing.

(Formerly at EFC)

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