Tag Archives: **½

Battle of the Sexes **½|****

Emma Stone and Steve Carell in Battle of the Sexes

The entertaining but cursory new sports biopic Battle of the Sexes from Little Miss Sunshine directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris covers the events that led to the what could be considered the most infamous US tennis match of all time: the 1973 exhibition between Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). Functioning more as a personal tale of sexual awakening and ultimately as a message movie about equality, it unfortunately drops the ball when it comes to providing a compelling sports-driven narrative between its two main characters. One may be surprised just how little screen time Carell and Stone share prior to their climactic showdown and the decision to separate these two appealing actors is ultimately to the film’s detriment.

We are introduced to King as she learns of a vast disparity between the men’s and women’s cash prizes in professional tennis tournaments and after trying to plead her case of equal pay to USLTA chairman Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), she instead forms her own all-female rival league. While getting makeovers at the salon with her new teammates, King has an instant connection with her hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough), with whom she pursues a romantic relationship unbeknownst to King’s husband Larry (Austin Stowell). Meanwhile, Riggs learns of King’s newly formed coalition and due to his flare for the theatrical, he challenges her to an inter-gender match with a $100,000 cash prize and bragging rights at stake.

Though the title implies a fair split of time between its central players, it’s clear that this is King’s story from the very beginning and it’s a sensible choice given that her struggle with inequality in professional sports mirrors the same issues of misogyny that women face to this day. Hot off her Oscar win for last year’s hit La La Land, Stone is a tremendously likeable screen presence and an excellent choice to play King as both a fiercely competitive spirit and a largely private person who seems cautious to let her true self through. It’s no surprise, then, that her scenes with Riseborough are among the film’s most memorable, especially the moment when they first meet and within the first few exchanges, its clear that King and Marilyn have a deep connection that throws them both off their game in the best way.

If King’s personal and professional contributions to the story count as the most successful elements of the film, the examination of Riggs as a character and the explanation of his role leading up to the titular face-off is markedly short-sighted by comparison. We find out about Riggs’ steadfast addiction to gambling and he is portrayed by Carell as a flamboyant showman whose proclivity for the outrageous is matched only by his unfettered desire for media attention but that’s about as deep as his character study runs. He proves his excellence as a provocateur by dubbing the match as a “women’s libber” against a self-professed “chauvinist male pig” but the movie never pierces through the public facade to discern Riggs’ true perspective on the hot-button issues.

Even if you don’t know the outcome of the match that was allegedly seen by 90 million people worldwide when it was televised in 1973, there’s not much tension during the film’s final scenes as the winner is eventually revealed. Whether the filmmakers assume a good portion of the audience already knows the outcome of the true event or assume those who don’t know will likely have a sensible prediction based on the narrative arc leading up to it, they don’t seem as interested in the final result as the gender-related controversies that sprung up from the famous duel. That’s likely why Battle of the Sexes feels sub-par as a sports movie but as an exploration of gender politics both past and present, it hits its mark.

Dunkirk **½|****

Mark Rylance and Cillian Murphy in Dunkirk

Dunkirk, the new World War II film from director Christopher Nolan, tells the harrowing story of the 1940 Dunkirk evacuation from three different narrative perspectives with its primary focus on the beach area where thousands of troops including British  Army soldiers Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Alex (Harry Styles) are desperately awaiting rescue. We also follow the efforts of those who volunteered to travel across the English Channel to pick up as many men as possible, including a mariner named Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney). These stories are intercut with scenes in the air featuring Royal Air Force pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) as he shoots down German planes while also trying to conserve enough fuel to make the trip back home.

This triptych structure unfolds at different rates of time (one week on land, one day at sea, one hour in the air) and is told in a non-linear fashion but unlike the tricky structures of previous efforts like Memento and Inception, Nolan doesn’t quite pull off the narrative acrobatics this time around. The stories do occasionally intersect in compelling ways — for instance, we see two instances of a downed pilot waving to his fellow airman with drastically differing contexts — but there aren’t enough of these payoffs to make the storytelling device work as well as it should. The timing of events also suggests that we should spend very little time in the air and much more on land but it felt to me that there was just as much footage of Hardy in the sky as there was following the action on the beach.

The most glaring difference in storytelling from the rest of Nolan’s oeuvre lies not in how it deals with sequencing of events but rather how little background and exposition we’re given as to what’s happening moment to moment, as the director instead decides to throw us right into the action with little context. Any detail that Nolan does give, as in the breathtaking opening scene where soldiers are walking aimlessly down an empty street as propaganda papers that demonstrate their helpless situation fly through the air, often gives us situational awareness but little personal insight to the characters. Nolan’s critics have often accused him of having characters over-explaining plot points within his own films and instead of finding a more happy medium, he goes completely the other direction and gives the audience very little to go on, which is a bold artistic choice but not one that paid off completely for me.

The biggest disappointment of Dunkirk is just how little dialogue Nolan, who has writing credits on all of his films excluding Insomnia, uses to not only set the scene but also to give us the character foundation necessary to be personally invested in what’s occurring on-screen. We’re barely able to learn all of the characters’ names before we’re asked to follow them into battle and we’re not given much more clarity into who these people are by the actions that they take; everyone fights for their survival and that’s about it. Again, I understand that this was a deliberate choice made for this film and I might not mind it if Nolan was a subpar screenwriter but he’s proven with his previous films that he has a great ear for clever and engaging dialogue and the decision to cut this aspect of his work out is a detriment to the final product.

Despite my misgivings, I was lucky enough to experience the film in the 70 mm IMAX format and there is no denying that Nolan and his cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema have crafted plenty of indelible and unforgettable images within this film to make it as visually immersive as possible. The sonic package, also impressive but not mixed quite as effectively as it could have been, is filled out by the blending of a meticulous sound design along with Hans Zimmer’s pulsating and characteristically bombastic musical score. Dunkirk is as technically accomplished as anything Nolan has done up to this point but by denying himself the ability to utilize his most refined skills as a storyteller, he simply leaves too much unsaid.

Wonder Woman **½|****

Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman

After a tease of an appearance in the generally awful Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, DC has now given Wonder Woman a proper introduction into their Extended Universe with a standalone film that properly honors the principles behind the character even when it’s frustratingly conventional in its execution. While Wonder Woman is obviously groundbreaking as a female-led entry into a movie genre dominated by male protagonists, it feels slavishly devoted to the plot devices and story beats that we’ve seen in better superhero films over the years. Patty Jenkins hasn’t directed a feature since 2003’s Monster and like that masterpiece, she again builds the architecture of the film around a magnetic lead performance from an actress who’s fiercely committed to the material.

The actress in this instance is Gal Gadot, returning in the title role as we learn more about her backstory as Diana on the magical island Themyscira, where she grew up training to become a powerful Amazonian warrior even though her mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) warns her of the corrupting nature of war. After World War I pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes on the coast of their sacred island, Diana saves his life and vows to venture into the mortal realm with him in order to stop the god of war Ares, who she believes to be behind the worldwide conflict. Meanwhile, the nefarious German general Ludendorff (Danny Huston) assists chemical expert Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya) in developing a more potent form of mustard gas that’s able to penetrate through the gas masks of Allied soldiers.

What’s most important in a movie that deals with such an iconic figure is that it does justice to the original conception of the character and thankfully, Wonder Woman certainly does not fall short in that category. Her essence is perfectly captured in an excellent Gadot performance filled with a sense of endearing innocence and naïveté but also with an unwavering loyalty to the guiding principles that she feels will make the world a better place for everyone. The original juxtaposition of a character who regards humans with an unbridled sense of empathy and wonder against the backdrop of the ugly trench warfare of WWI that showcases mankind at its most brutal was a brilliant way to conceptualize and in some ways re-contextualize Wonder Woman for the big screen.

While the core concept and conflict remains strong throughout its lengthy runtime, Wonder Woman has basic issues in pacing and plotting that are evident even from the opening scene, which introduces a modern-day framing device that never pays off and then transitions into a sluggish first act that manages to hit just about every trope associated with superhero origin stories. When the action picks up, the fight scenes are generally well managed but the computer generated effects don’t mesh as well as they should and Jenkins makes liberal use of the speed ramping film technique that producer Zack Snyder has done to death in his superhero entries. His influence is also felt throughout the film’s final showdown too, which is a slightly more palatable rehash of the interminable macho beat down present in 2009’s Man of Steel.

Marvel comparisons seem inevitable when discussing superhero movies these days and with its fish-out-of-water story set amongst a World War backdrop, it’s hard not to see echoes of Thor and especially of Captain America: The First Avenger in this DC entry. Plot elements aside, the more vital impact that Marvel has had on this series revolves more around this film’s overall feel and tone, which eschews DC’s predilection for self-serious and dour storytelling in favor of a lighter and more humane touch. Wonder Woman undoubtedly represents a step in the right direction for DC’s universe (though I’m sure I’m in a very limited minority of those who approved of Suicide Squad) and though it has its flaws as a standalone film, at least it strengthens the foundation of a crucial Justice League member.

Personal Shopper **½|****

Kristen Stewart in Personal Shopper

Clouds of Sils Maria director Olivier Assayas teams up once again with Kristen Stewart for this intermittently tense but frustratingly illusive psychological thriller that mingles in both the very tangible world of high fashion and the equally intangible spirit realm. Personal Shopper is quite the blend of genres — part ghost story, part soul-searching drama, part murder mystery — and Assayas almost manages to pull the concoction off. Unfortunately, the ethereal side of the storytelling offers more tantalizing questions than satisfying answers and doesn’t provide the kind of closure that both the main character and the audience seek.

Stewart plays Maureen Cartwright, a lonely young woman who lives in Paris and travels around Europe buying clothes for wealthy supermodels who don’t have the time or inclination to shop for themselves. We find out that Maureen is also grieving the recent death of her twin brother Lewis and, based on a pact they formed before his passing, is using her abilities as a medium to make a connection with him from beyond the grave. While on a business trip, she receives a string of ominous text messages from an unknown number that suggest a sort of otherworldly omnipotence which indicate they could either be from Lewis or a more malevolent force.

Assayas is able to manufacture tension just from the sheer peculiarity of the narrative alone and from the unconventional shifts in tone that may throw some for a loop but may actually be the film’s biggest asset. The sequence in which Maureen initially spars with her mysterious texter during a train ride to London is gripping and insidiously patient as it unfolds in what feels like real time, with the infuriating bouncy ellipses and all. The creepy haunted house scenes like the one that opens the film have an eerie unpredictability to them and actually tend to be spookier than the jump scares of full-blown horror movies.

If the thriller-based sequences make for the most effective portions of the film, then it’s the drawn-out musings on the afterlife and the relationship between the living and the dead that ultimately bring it down. When the mystery plot wraps up, we’re treated to one conversation after another that essentially hits the same beats about the nature of spirit world and doesn’t add to a greater understanding of the characters. It’s as if Assayas had an hour and twenty minutes of a decent movie together and he decided to go on auto-pilot for the final twenty minutes and hoped that the audience either wouldn’t notice or wouldn’t care.

Even in the film’s most dubious of choices, Kristen Stewart does her best to pull it all together with another excellent performance of passion and power that further proves that she’s the real deal. Her portrayal of grief and loneliness is one that isolates her from almost all social interactions and yet she still finds ways to make her character more accessible and vulnerable than she has in previous roles. She elevates the flimsy material to such a level that it’s almost worth watching just for her but there’s too many curious missteps in Personal Shopper to give it a full-fledged endorsement.

The Discovery **½|****

Rooney Mara and Jason Segel in The Discovery

Writer/director Charlie McDowell follows up his heady, sci-fi romance drama The One I Love with another film that seems to fit neatly into that very same category. The difference with The Discovery lies in its tantalizing, elevator pitch of a premise: what would happen in a world where the existence of an afterlife was proven scientifically and considered as absolute as gravity? The answer to that question and the multitude of implications that it generates makes for a solid foundation of intrigue as this story’s jumping-off point but McDowell seems to get too lost inside the plot’s machinations to give us any satisfying conclusions to its queries.

The man responsible for the titular revelation is Dr. Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford), who opens the film by giving a television interview about the enormous impact that his scientific finding has had on a global scale. When asked if he feels even partially guilty for the large uptick in suicides that seem to have been spurred on by the new found guarantee of life after death, he argues that keeping such a discovery from the human race would be more criminal than divulging it. His principled stand on the subject finds a formidable counterpoint by way of a cameraman’s suicide caught live on the air, making Harbor’s stance seem even more calloused than it had before.

Also opposed to Harbor’s approach is his estranged son Will (Jason Segal), who journeys to his father’s estate two years after the discovery to dissuade him from further investigating his afterlife findings. On the ferry trip there, he meets the quirky but disturbed Isla (Rooney Mara) who is secretly planning to commit suicide once she reaches her destination on the island. After Will witnesses her attempt and intervenes, the two join Dr. Harbor and his other son Toby (Jesse Plemons) on their compound as they try to decode the mysteries behind Harbor’s research and prevent any further damage to society.

McDowell has drawn comparisons to Charlie Kaufman before but here, the similarities to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are a bit too close for comfort, especially in the way that both films introduce their central couples. A key difference is that The Discovery‘s examination of Will and Isla’s relationship is much more cursory by comparison, though it is rare to find a film with a more complete portrait of a romantic relationship than that Michel Gondry masterpiece. Still, it’s disappointing that the screenplay doesn’t spend as much time fleshing out a believeable chemistry between these two as it does positing philosophical quandaries to mentally digest.

Even if the blend of science fiction and melodrama doesn’t quite work in this instance, McDowell and his team do an excellent job of building a bleak world run amok with hopelessness and a quiet devestation that permeates every frame. Without a spiritual anchor and a meaningful way to guide the ship, every character in the story is essentially lost at sea and constantly searching for something new to grasp. If The Discovery had followed through with the promise of its premise, I have no doubt that it could have been a lasting achievement in existential sci-fi but with all of the other distracting elements in play, it’s a frustrating but admirable effort.

Kong: Skull Island **½|****

Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson in Kong: Skull Island

Everybody’s favorite oversized gorilla is back for his eighth feature in Kong: Skull Island, a monster movie that’s lacking worthwhile characters and a plausible plotline but still delivers the goods with some excellent effects-driven sequences. Like just about everything else these days, one of this primary film’s goals is to set up a franchise –in this case, the Warner Bros/Legendary “MonsterVerse” that began with the glum 2014 remake Godzilla— but Skull Island does have enough unique touches to distinguish itself from other brain-dead reboots. Though its 1970s setting is meant to inspire comparisons to the Vietnam War and the subsequent war movies that were based on it, this is actually more of a throwback to the creature features of the 1950s that threw loads of terrifying creations onto the screen just to see what would stick.

After a prologue set during World War II, we move forward to 1973 as government official Bill Randa (John Goodman) recruits a crew to substantiate his suspicions that an uncharted island may be home to ancient beings of massive proportions. Along for the ride is British tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), in addition to US colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and his helicopter squadron. After dropping a heavy arsenal of explosives to “test for seismic activity”, the explorers are introduced to the gigantic ape Kong as he annihilates their air attack and leaves the surviving parties stranded on various parts of the island.

Besides setting the movie during such an evocative time period in American history, another key decision that director Jordan Vogt-Roberts makes when retelling this story is how early in its runtime he chooses to reveal his central monster. Where other directors have kept creatures like Jaws and Godzilla under the surface or obscured in some way, Vogt-Roberts knows the audience is there to see Kong do his thing and its no surprise that his first scene is the film’s highlight. In fact, the first 20-30 minutes are so clumsy in their attempt to flesh out the characters and their motivations that I almost wish we could have arrived at Skull Island even sooner.

For better or worse, the movie’s most sympathetic and enjoyable character isn’t a part of the initial band of visitors but is an eccentric resident of the island played by John C. Reilly who pops up about halfway through the story. Not only does he possess much needed wisdom about the mysterious land and the way of its creatures, he also has a wacky affability and the kind of goofy charm that Reilly has perfected throughout his career. During his initial encounter with Conrad and Weaver, he clues them in to the worst monsters on the island that he has dubbed “Skullcrawlers” because, well, the name “sounded neat” to him.

To its credit, Skull Island moves briskly from one creepy monster to the next but contrivances that keep our protagonists stranded on the titular island begin to pile up in ways likely to irk even those who say they don’t care about plot in monster movies. A certain character’s descent into madness (yes, this movie owes quite a bit to Apocalypse Now) begins to hijack the narrative about two-thirds of the way through and makes the concept of computer-generated behemoths brawling seem credible when compared to the overwhelmingly stupid decisions made by the humans. As a showcase for some jaw-dropping special effects, Kong is undeniably effective but it could have been much more memorable with some tighter screenwriting and attention to character.

Silence **½|****

Andrew Garfield and Yōsuke Kubozuka in Silence

The new religious epic Silence, based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Shūsaku Endō, has reportedly been a passion project of Martin Scorsese’s since the early 1990s and after viewing the film, it’s easy to see why he’s been so eager to adapt it after all these years. The thematic territory is right in Scorsese’s wheelhouse: the concepts of doubt, guilt, suffering and sin have been explored in countless iterations throughout his prolific career. His work here has many positive elements, especially from a technical perspective, but the story is just too thin and comes off as repetitive and monotonous over a runtime that feels punishingly long by design.

The year is 1633 and we’re introduced to two Portuguese Jesuits named Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) as they journey to Japan to rescue their mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) after they receive distressing letters detailing his capture. Upon their arrival, they find a land ruled harshly by the shogunate who terrorize villages to weed out suspected Christians and force them to denounce their religion under punishment of death. As the priests fight for survival in the treacherous countryside, they also struggle to avoid a personal crisis of faith and to maintain their own personal beliefs when being surrounded by near-constant apostasy.

Perhaps atoning for the unhinged debauchery that pervaded 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese has crafted a movie that is reverent and staid with the patience that only a masterful filmmaker like he can exhibit. Furthermore, he has assembled a production team that is absolutely first-rate in every regard; each technical aspect from the lighting to the sound design to the editing is carried out with breathtaking precision. I particularly want to praise Rodrigo Prieto’s jaw-dropping work on the gorgeous cinematography, which is the best I’ve seen in all of 2016 and reason enough to see Silence on the big screen.

Where the film began to lose me was during the second act, after the tension of the missionaries’ presence subsides and Scorsese falls into a curious cycle of sidelining his main characters while they quietly observe the torture and execution of secret Christians. One of these instances, in which three prisoners contend with a slowly persistent rising tide, is captivating and full of pitch-perfect dread but after about four or five variations of this scene play out, the routine seems needlessly cruel. Things pick up again in the third act, even if the storytelling gets heavy-handed at times, but it’s the punishing middle section that makes Silence a more sluggish affair than it should have been.

More misjudgments occur with the central casting too, as I was never fully convinced that talented actors like Driver and especially Garfield were a good fit in their lead roles. Neither give a bad performance but it felt like there was something out of place or just fundamentally incompatible with their acting sensibilities and this particular material (it also doesn’t help that Garfield frequently looks like he walked out of a shampoo commercial with his carefully managed man bun). Silence isn’t the masterpiece that it could have been but it has enough thought-provoking questions and individually powerful sequences to warrant a viewing from the more philosophically restless among us.

Nocturnal Animals **½|****

Amy Adams in Nocturnal Animals
Amy Adams in Nocturnal Animals

Fashion designer turned film director Tom Ford follows his moving debut A Single Man with this ambitious and multi-layered thriller that contains some thought-provoking story elements but can’t find a way to tie them together in a meaningful way. Nocturnal Animals, which Ford adapted from Austin Wright’s novel Tony and Susan, uses its story-within-a-story structure to tell a dark tale of betrayal and revenge that has a sumptuous sense of visual flair, even when the plot doesn’t always add up. It’s comprised of three separate narrative threads, each of which are well-acted and beautifully photographed but only two of which kept me engaged the entire time.

The one that didn’t could be described as the “main” storyline, which involves an art gallery owner named Susan (Amy Adams) who receives a manuscript for Nocturnal Animals, a novel penned by her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) that he has dedicated to her. Troubled by her failing marriage with the unfaithful Hutton (Armie Hammer), Susan becomes obsessed with the story and stays up throughout the night tearing through page after page of the manuscript. She becomes desperate to find meaning within its tragic and violent contents, which spurs both flashbacks to her early days of happy marriage with Edward and a dramatized version of the novel.

It tells the story of family man Tony (also played by Gyllenhaal) and his wife and daughter as they travel across a largely vacant highway in West Texas during the middle of the night. Following a run-in on the road with a band of troublemakers led by their devious driver (a triumphantly creepy Aaron Taylor-Johnson), the group kidnaps Tony’s wife and daughter and leaves him abandoned in the desert. After Tony makes he way back into town, he partners with a no-nonsense detective (Michael Shannon, doing some excellent scene-chewing) to find the criminals and bring about justice at any cost.

This segment of the film is the most straight-forward and engrossing from a narrative perspective but it can sometimes feel at odds with the more conventional “present day” and flashback storylines. Part of this likely has to do with the seedy West Texas setting in contrast to the highbrow art scene of Los Angeles but the tone of the “fictional” passage is also much darker and more disturbing than the rest of the film. The lurid details of the story at the center of the film may be too much for some audiences but I found this core story to be more involving than off-putting.

What I expect more people to find off-putting are the bizarre and inexplicable opening credits, which depict numerous severely overweight women dancing in slow motion with sparklers, all while completely naked. I don’t necessarily have a problem with a provocative opening sequence in a film but if it doesn’t properly set the tone for the rest of the story and if the context given for it later on is unsatisfying, it just doesn’t do much good for the movie as a whole. Tom Ford clearly has some artistic instincts that can lead to some truly groundbreaking storytelling but Nocturnal Animals could have worked much better if he had reined in his vision a bit more.

Ouija: Origin of Evil **½|****

Elizabeth Reaser, Lulu Wilson and Henry Thomas in Ouija: Origin of Evil
Elizabeth Reaser, Lulu Wilson and Henry Thomas in Ouija: Origin of Evil

This prequel to 2014’s critically reviled but financially prosperous Ouija shares the titular board game as the focal point of its premise but is markedly different in a few key areas that make it more promising from the outset. Instead of being set in present day, the action of Ouija: Origin of Evil takes place in the hazy, autumnal glow of 1967, a time that in retrospect feels much less cynical and inherently more superstitious than today. Rather than being subjected to a group of mindless teenagers who make one stupid decision after another, the story here centers around a mother and her two daughters who are capable and intelligent in ways that make them easy to root for and care about.

The mother Alice, played by Elizabeth Reaser, raises the daughters by herself after her husband’s life is cut short by a drunk driver and she’s able to make ends meet by hosting bogus séances in her home with the help of her oldest Lina (Annalise Basso) and her youngest Doris (Lulu Wilson). Eager to introduce a new prop into their routine, Alice picks up a Ouija board at the local store but disobeys the instruction to never conduct a reading while unaccompanied by others. Unbeknownst to her, the spirits that she’s conjured begin to work through Doris and possess her in a manner that will be familiar to anyone who has seen any supernatural horror movie of the past 50 years.

With his previous efforts Oculus and this year’s Netflix release Hush, director Mike Flanagan is a solid match for this kind of material and while he gets off to a great start with convincing characters and an enticing setting, the genre clichés inevitably begin to pile up and stifle the bits of originality that exist elsewhere. It’s as if Universal knew that since this was the only horror movie to be released around Halloween this year, it had to cover as much ground as it possibly could to appeal to the widest audience. Flanagan picks from the best bits of genre titans like House on Haunted Hill, The Exorcist, and Poltergeist with varying degrees of success.

These odes to the past are also accentuated by flairs of nostalgic showmanship that permeate the film, whether it’s the throwback title card complete with the “MMXVI” copyright at the opening or the faux-changeover cues that blip intermittently in the corners. In fact, the lighting and the set design inside the house is so striking in its authenticity that these somewhat gimmicky touches may not have even been necessary in the first place. The inclusion of computer-generated effects into the mix also dampens some of the charm of the simple practical effects like the Ouija planchette springing to life on its own.

The performances are uniformly believable and most importantly, the actors don’t succumb to the campy elements that crop up later in the narrative. Best of the performers is the youngest actress Lulu Wilson, who brings the perfect level of creepiness to her possessed character and gives the film its most chilling moment with her monologue describing the sensation of being strangled to an increasingly distressed house guest. Ouija: Origin of Evil is perfectly serviceable for those looking for a grab bag of well-staged jolts but might be disappointing to hardcore horror fans seeking a future classic for their Halloween rotation.

Green Room **½|****

Anton Yelchin and Alia Shawkat in Green Room
Anton Yelchin and Alia Shawkat in Green Room

Green Room chronicles fictional hardcore punk band The Ain’t Rights as they tour the Pacific Northwest from one grungy club to another, siphoning gas and scrounging cheap food along the way. Out of desperation for cash, they reluctantly take a gig at a neo-Nazi bar but when their bassist Pat (Anton Yelchin) is accidentally witness to a brutal murder, a group of panicked bouncers forces him and his bandmates (Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole, Callum Turner) into the green room along with the recently deceased body. A tense game of cat-and-mouse ensues when the band members lock themselves in the room and the bar’s owner Darcy (Patrick Stewart) attempts to negotiate with them on the other side of the locked door.

This is the third feature from writer/director Jeremy Saulnier and as a follow-up to his unexpected and brilliant revenge tale Blue Ruin, this feels a bit more unfocused and capricious by comparison. We’re surrounded by seemingly smart characters who may have interesting bits of dialogue or inspired moments during the setup but when the plot kicks into gear, they turn into the kind of dumb decision-makers that have plagued lesser horror movies in the past. The stand-off in the titular location obviously has the highest potential for sustained tension but once things progress from there, Saulnier becomes much more interested than blood over brains.

These characters aren’t defined by their own words as much as they are by their actions and the visceral moments of chaos that erupt perhaps speak louder than any bits of expository dialogue ever could. The violence of Green Room is amply gory and often sadistic but also messy and sometimes awkward in a way that tends to make it both believable and unpredictable at the same time. There’s almost a casual and unassuming nature to the brutality and some of the killings are downright uncinematic in the way that they dismiss traditional horror death beats of setup and payoff, which should delight fans looking for something different in the genre.

The casting choice of Patrick Stewart as the leader of the skinheads is unquestionably an inspired one and while his performance is certainly convincing, the script doesn’t give him the kind of authoritative dialogue that could have established him as an intelligent, menacing threat. When the character is first introduced, I was hoping his presence would inspire a wordier kind of standoff negotiation between himself and the band that would allow him to assert his intellect into the situation. Instead, he barks orders at his goons and speaks in the kind of shorthand that almost seems deliberate in its ability to shake off an attentive audience.

In addition to Stewart, the rest of the cast does a fine job of keeping their characters grounded in a situation that is constantly spiraling out of their control. The film’s guiding performance by the late young talent Anton Yelchin is sobering in retrospect and a dispiriting reminder of how many of his future films we’ll sadly never get to see. With its punk rock ethos and aberrant violence, Green Room has all the marks of a B-movie classic but it too often gets in its own way with artistic touches that mix up the message.