Friday, February 13, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: FORCE MAJEURE (2014); THE DARK VALLEY (2015); and ANNABELLE (2014)

(Sweden/France/Norway/Germany/Denmark - 2014)

Remember that SEINFELD episode where George was attending a kid's birthday party and a small fire broke out in the kitchen? Remember how he yelled "FIRE!" and ran out screaming, pushing old ladies and little kids out of the way to get himself to safety? Change the fire to an avalanche and change the tone to a dour mix of uncomfortable Michael Haneke and serious Woody Allen in one of his Ingmar Bergman moods and stretch it out to two endless hours and you've got a good idea what FORCE MAJEURE is like. Critically-adored the world over (the film currently holds a 93% at Rotten Tomatoes), hyped as a guaranteed Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee (it didn't make the cut), and frequently described as a "comedy," for some reason (and the US trailer below sure makes it look like one), FORCE MAJEURE opens with a seemingly happy Swedish family--dad Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), mom Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and kids Vera and Harry (real-life siblings Clara and Vincent Wettergren)--on vacation in the French Alps. All goes well until one of the ski resort's periodic "controlled avalanches"--a metaphor that will repeatedly slap the viewer upside the head--gets a little bigger than intended. A brief panic ensues among diners at a restaurant, and as Ebba grabs the kids and takes shelter under the table, Tomas impulsively grabs his phone and gloves and runs off. When he returns maybe 30 seconds later after calm is restored, the mood of the family and their vacation is never the same. Tomas won't admit what he did, and Ebba is soon taking any opportunity to humiliate him in front of others, even roping in his divorced, 40-ish friend Mats (Kristofer Hivju, best known as Tormund Giantsbane on GAME OF THRONES) and his 20-year-old girlfriend Fanni (Fanni Metelius). Of course, old marital grudges come into play as we learn more about Tomas and Ebba and why she's so high-strung and offended by one vacationer's comfort with having an open marriage and why Tomas' split-second cowardice might be a last straw for her. All the while, the constant invocation of "controlled avalanches" as a symbol of the give-and-take and the ups-and-downs of marriage is heavy-handed, obvious, and tiresome. The film wants to be raw and honest, but ends up with approximately the same entertainment value as observing the worst fight your parents ever had, with the two main characters becoming so overbearing and Kuhnke's performance so overwrought, that it's easy to stop caring and tune all of it out. Ultimately, writer/director Ruben Ostlund gets the strongest performances from the Wettergren siblings, who come off as total naturals and manage to create wholly believable characters with only a little dialogue, a lot of perceptive, knowing glances, and telling body language. They're the only great things about the stupefyingly overrated FORCE MAJEURE. (R, 120 mins)

(Austria/Germany - 2014; US release 2015)

Downbeat, brutal, and vividly atmospheric, the Austrian-German co-production THE DARK VALLEY is an unusual western in that it takes place in Europe and is presented almost entirely in German with English subtitles. Even the film's British star, Sam Riley (CONTROL, ON THE ROAD, MALEFICENT) quite convincingly delivers his performance in the film's native language. Riley is Greider, an American stranger who arrives in an isolated town in the Alps. He claims to be a photographer and decides to stay for the winter, renting a room at the home of widowed Gaderin (Carmen Bratl) and her headstrong daughter Luzi (Paula Beer). It doesn't take long for Greider to learn the hard way that the town is under the strict control of the Brenner clan: the aged, sickly Old Brenner (Hans-Michael Rehberg) and his six loathsome, power-crazed sons (imagine GAME OF THRONES with six Joffreys and you'll get an idea of how despicable the Brenner boys are). As winter comes, two of the Brenner sons are found dead in ways that look like accidents until Old Brenner concludes that the American stranger--it never occurs to this family of psychos to ask how he's fluent in German--is somehow involved. Meanwhile, Luzi is engaged to be married to Lukas (Thomas Schubert) but the mood of the young couple is oddly lacking in celebration as their big day approaches. To say anything more would involve spoilers about the true depths of the depravity to which the Brenners have plummeted for too long. Needless to say, Greider is on a mission of personal vengeance, for reasons that will be explained only after he's forced to stage a daring rescue of Luzi when she's abducted by the Brenners. After that, he'll face the remaining brothers only to find out that the town has it share of Stockholm Syndromed citizens who defend welcome the ruthless rule--and all the perverse "laws" that accompany it--of Old Brenner.

Only when director/co-writer Andreas Prochaska, working from the 2010 novel Das finstere Tal by Thomas Willmann, resorts to some jumpy cutting and shaky-cam in Greider's showdown with the Brenner brothers--accompanied by a completely incongruous German alt-rock tune--does the film start a chain reaction of stumbling from which it never really recovers, resulting in a Big Reveal that you'll see coming a mile away. Until then, Prochaska's direction is deliberate, disciplined, and controlled, focusing on gritty little details that most westerns ignore, like dealing with the inclement weather and the constant cold. Breath is visible indoors at all times, and Greider is forced to shave cold, as a thin layer of ice forms over his water bowl overnight. The cold, barren and perpetually gray-skied look of the film recalls westerns as diverse as Clint Eastwood's PALE RIDER (1985) and Sergio Corbucci's THE GREAT SILENCE (1968), with Prochaska filming in some stunning locations in the mountainous Trentino-Alto Adige area of northern Italy, at the Austrian border. There's also nods to Andre De Toth's cult western DAY OF THE OUTLAW (1959), not just in its snow-blanketed setting but in the ugly and disturbing Luzi-Lukas wedding ceremony and reception, crashed by the Brenners, who take turns forcing Luzi to dance with them in front of the stone-faced attendees in way that owes a tremendous debt to a similar scene in the De Toth film. Riley is excellent as the revenge-obsessed Greider, and completely natural and comfortable acting in German (a cursory glance at the English-dubbed track reveals that it's not only terrible but that Riley doesn't dub himself--the film is meant to be seen in German, as Luzi point-blank asks him early "How do you know how to speak German?"). The filmmakers wisely choose to not make him some superhuman killing machine. Instead, he's flawed, often falling victim his own impulsiveness and even oversleeping the morning of his showdown with the Brenners, which almost allows them to get the edge on him. Given a straight-to-DVD release in the US, THE DARK VALLEY is so good for so much of its running time (it was Austria's Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film, but didn't make the final cut of nominees) that its third-act slip-ups are especially disappointing. Still, late stumbles and all, it's well worth seeing as a solid western and also one that takes full advantage of its unique setting. (Unrated, 115 mins, also streaming on Netflix Instant)

(US - 2014)

A prequel spinoff of THE CONJURING, ANNABELLE goes into the origin story of the creepy doll kept in a glass case in the home of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga in the 2013 hit. Wilson's voice makes an uncredited guest appearance in a prologue that would seem to be the first half of wraparound sequence that the film proceeds to completely forget about and never return to, but that's just the kind of slipshod carelessness that defines ANNABELLE. There's so little story here that writer Gary Dauberman (BLOOD MONKEY) and director John F. Leonetti (THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT 2) often appear to have forgotten which James Wan film they're prequelling, as a lot of it seems to owe more to INSIDIOUS than THE CONJURING (Wan remains onboard ANNABELLE as a producer). Set in 1969, as evidenced by a reference to Charles Manson being in the news, ANNABELLE opens with young marrieds and expectant parents Mia (Annabelle Wallis) and John (daytime soap vet Ward Horton, waiting patiently for the lead in THE JAMES MARSDEN STORY) being attacked in their home by the neighbors' crazed daughter Annabelle (Tree O'Toole), who ran off to join a hippie cult. Annabelle commits suicide while clutching the creepy new addition John bought for Mia's doll collection, and of course, the doll is now a vessel for whatever evil spirit took hold of Annabelle. Ghostly occurrences and apparitions keep happening, and neither parish priest Father Perez (Tony Amendola as F. Murray Abraham) nor neighbor/book shop proprietor/exposition dispenser Evelyn (past Oscar-nominee Alfre Woodard in the most egregious wasting of an overqualified African-American actress in a stupid horror movie since Cicely Tyson turned up in the amazingly-titled THE HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT 2: GHOSTS OF GEORGIA), are able to offer much assistance other than Father Lopez ominously intoning "Demons sometimes use objects as conduits" and Evelyn, who's an expert in all things pertaining to the spirit world because of course she is, informing them that the spirit inside the doll demands a sacrifice. That sacrifice is initially believed to be Mia's newborn daughter until Mia decides that she must sacrifice herself to save her child.  And SPOILER ALERT--all of that is for naught because Evelyn, who lost her own daughter, apparently has nothing to live for except sacrificing herself for this wholesome, church-going, conservative white couple who long for an America where you should be able to leave your doors unlocked at night.

Setting aside the appalling way it has the de facto "Magical Negro" become the sacrificial lamb, ANNABELLE is just a terrible and inexcusably lazy film. Sure, Leonetti, a cinematographer going back to the '80s (he also shot DEAD SILENCE, DEATH SENTENCE, INSIDIOUS, and THE CONJURING for Wan), pulls off a few decent bits where he lets the camera snake around or in the way he offers some nicely-executed widescreen shot compositions, but they never lead anywhere. He's a solid technician with no idea how to deliver a scare. Scenes with a record player playing itself or the stove turning itself on and eventually engulfing the kitchen in flames (Mia, sewing in the next room, somehow fails to notice choking smoke throughout the house) are old-fashioned to a fault. In Leonetti's fumbling hands, these aren't classic-style chills as much as they're hoary cliches, and it doesn't get any better when the filmmakers start straight-up ripping off scenes wholesale from other, better movies. Remember in THE EXORCIST III when George C. Scott called his wife to warn her not to let a possessed killer nurse in the house, but only got a busy signal while evil forces at play caused the wife to hear him saying "There's a nurse delivering a package" on her end of the line? That's replayed here when John calls Mia to warn her not to let a possessed Father Perez in, but all Mia hears is static. They even rip off that classic "kid running down the hallway" jolt in Mario Bava's 1977 film SHOCK (aka BEYOND THE DOOR II), but it's restaged in bumbling fashion with shitty CGI assistance, almost as if they looked at that scene in SHOCK, which involved nothing but good timing and perfect camera placement that's so effective that it's hard to believe how simple it really is, and said "Wow, that's great...so, what do we have to do to render it completely amateurish and flat and make sure it lands with a dead thud?" A complete embarrassment, ANNABELLE somehow grossed $84 million in theaters despite being exactly the kind of quickie, D-grade, straight-to-DVD follow-up along the lines of the TREMORS, DARKMAN, FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, or the later HELLRAISER sequels, just to name a few examples of things you'd see during the video store heyday. While it's nice that they made an ostensibly old-school horror movie that's very light on trendy blood and gore, you kinda have to hold up your end of the bargain and remember to bring the atmosphere and the scares, preferably ones you didn't swipe from those who came before you and who put forth a lot more effort and innovation than you did. ANNABELLE is the worst kind of bad movie: one that actively makes you angry with its utter contempt for its audience. (R, 99 mins)


  1. Annabelle joined Ouija in my home theater as part of a "Why in hell did I do this to myself?" double feature. It appears that "making it look good" is the only skill many filmakers have these days. EVERYTHING looks good. But both of these films are borderline incompetent in every other area (and Ouija actually crosses that line several times.) Loving the horror genre is a terrible burden.

  2. I was surprised they did a whole movie about the Annabelle doll because it was the least effective part of THE CONJURING for me. The doll itself isn't particularly scary and it wasn't featured in any well-constructed horror scenarios, in fact figuring into the worst part of CONJURING (the departure from the story at hand and putting the lead characters' daughter into jeopardy for really no reason). Ha I love that somehow a contemporary horror movie team managed to screw up a simply done and super effective shock moment in a Bava film by overthinking it...but then that would imply that there was anyone using their noodle to begin with.