Review: ‘Coco’ Continues Pixar’s Legacy in Another Emotional, Entertaining Adventure

Pixar goes to another part of the world to tell a story about legacy in its newest computer-animated story.

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Pixar goes to another part of the world to tell a story about legacy in its newest computer-animated story.

RATING: ★★★ 1/2 (out of four stars)

Between the recent news of their talks with 21st Century Fox about acquiring most of their assets and IPs and their inconsistent output earlier this year with the disappointing Spider-Man: Homecoming and their artificial, emotionally vapid live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast, it’s been easy to feel cynical going into a film produced by the Walt Disney Corporation. However, of all the properties owned by the Mouse Ears, the one that has been the most consistent over the years has been Pixar, the company that revolutionized animation and cinema as we know it through their contributions to computer animation. They burst onto the scene twenty-two years ago with the first Toy Story and have put out great work year after year thanks to gorgeous animation, a sense of humor that clicks with audiences of all ages, and an emotional theme at its center that gives adults something to chew on. Their newest film, Coco, does all that and more by dedicating itself to the authenticity of the foreign culture where their latest story takes place.

Coco takes place on Dia de Muertos (the Day of the Dead in Mexican culture) in a fictional village in Mexico, where child Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) dreams of becoming a musician, idolizing a legendary Hispanic singer-songwriter and movie star named Ernesto De La Cruz (Benjamin Bratt) despite his family’s disapproval because his great-great-grandfather abandoned his wife and child to become a famous musician. Rather than see the spirits of his deceased ancestors on their holiday tradition, Miguel searches for a guitar to use for a talent show and breaks into the tomb of De La Cruz to use his, upon discovering he is an ancestor of his family. One strum of the guitar not only transports Miguel from the real world to the Land of the Dead, a world in the afterlife that the spirits of the deceased call home, but also transforms him into a ghost. From there, Miguel sets out to return home before sunrise or risk becoming a ghost forever, but not before finding De La Cruz in hopes of getting his blessing to become a musician. Meanwhile, Miguel is on the run from the spirits of his ancestors who want him to renounce music, and on the way, meets Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), a suspicious but eccentric spirit who implores him to put up his picture in the Land of the Living so his last living relative won’t forget him.

The story does feel a little familiar to Toy Story 2 at times in the sense that it covers the theme of being remembered, but in Coco, the theme is told from a fresh perspective that’s rooted in authenticity to the Mexican culture. The film bursts with dedication to an accurate portrayal of said civilization in almost every aspect of how its production, starting with a vibrant visual style that’s bursting with color, especially when animal spirit guides come into play coated in a collage of colors and patterns. It’s also worth noting that the ghosts in Coco are portrayed as skeletons, but they’re not designed in a terrifying manner, although to watch the skin on Miguel’s body slowly disappear from scene to scene is effective with its subtlety. Coco also stays true to the Mexican culture through its music. The songs and score convey an infectious energy and are reminiscent of the mariachi, son jarocho and bolero ranchero genres while hitting the right emotional beats as the characters express the respective feelings of joy, longing and despair through music; in particular, the song, “Remember Me” comes back the most with a different emotion behind it each time.

It’s so prominent because the message of the song ties into the main themes at the emotional center of Coco, those being the power of memory, legacy and the importance of family. In a move of clever world building, the society of the Land of the Dead is set up to where the spirit’s class status and existence is contingent by how often they’re remembered by relatives and friends in the Land of the Living. While Hector lives in a shanty hut with other spirits whose families have forgotten them, Ernesto De La Cruz resides in the Land of the Dead inside a lavish mansion swarming with his adoring fans. Through this backdrop, Miguel’s adventure is a wonder to watch as the emotional beats strike the right chords (pun intended) and he grows to remember why he wants to pursue music in the first place, as well as learn the main lessons at the heart of Coco, which involve the importance of how you are remembered, how fragile it can become, and why family is so important in Mexican culture because ultimately, your family is your legacy. They’re taught with every place Miguel visits in the Land of the Dead, and with every dramatic turn the story takes without ever feeling sugarcoated or preachy.

It’s always tough to rank Pixar films every time a new one comes out, but Coco is certainly worth placing in the upper tier of their filmography thanks to the passion for the Mexican culture that’s on display, as well as the traditional beats of any Pixar production: it has gorgeous visuals, catchy music, a sense of humor that appeals to both kids and adults, and an emotional center that tugs on the heartstrings while staying organic to the themes of the film. But despite the familiarity of its story, audiences of all ages can come away entertained, having learned something new about a foreign culture, and pondering how they would want to be remembered. It’s that kind of staying power that will benefit Coco in the long run this holiday season.  

Review: ‘Daddy’s Home 2’ Is An Uninspired Comedy Sequel from Ferrell and Company

The Mayrons and Whittakers return in a holiday comedy aimed for the whole family but only satisfies fans of Ferrell’s brand of humor.

The Mayrons and Whittakers return in a holiday comedy aimed for the whole family but only satisfies fans of Ferrell’s brand of humor.

RATING: ★1/2 (out of four stars)

Comedy is the most difficult genre in film to judge because every person has a different sense of humor, and with that, comes a taste for a particular comedy subgenre. I can tell you right now my favorite comedies of all time include the works of Monty Python, Airplane!, and The Blues Brothers for their elements of parody, deadpan delivery and absurdism. Throughout his career, Will Ferrell has dabbled in a variety of comedies that I have enjoyed, from the Kaufman-lite (and often overlooked) Stranger Than Fiction to the absurdist parodies that were Talladega Nights, Anchorman and Zoolander. However, his routine of playing egotistical man-children started to get tired for me after Semi-Pro, took too much of a turn for the annoying in Step Brothers, and became outright abysmal with the Anchorman sequel. Daddy’s Home 2 is a sequel to the most recent box office smash of Ferrell’s career, and despite smart additions to the main cast and a holiday setting, it suffers from the same problems as the worst movies in Ferrell’s filmography.

It’s a shame, too, because while it wasn’t great, the first Daddy’s Home came out in 2015 as a step in the right direction for Ferrell, who played Brad Whittaker, a domesticated stepfather of two engaged in a competition of one-upsmanship when the birth father of his children, alpha-male Dusty Mayron (Mark Wahlberg) comes into his life and tries to win back his children. Despite hit-and-miss elements of slapstick and generic direction, the film thrived thanks to great chemistry between Ferrell and Wahlberg in a story that was grounded in reality for a change.

Daddy’s Home 2 begins with Dusty and Brad acting as ‘co-dads’ to their three stepchildren, and with their wives, announce a plan to celebrate Christmas with both of their families. All goes well until literally seconds later, when Dusty’s father Kurt (Mel Gibson) announces over the phone he’ll be visiting for the holidays. This makes Dusty anxious for his man’s-man of a father’s approval, while Brad happily welcomes his over-affectionate father (John Lithgow) to their Christmas celebration with open arms and a big kiss on the lips that’s been all over the movie’s advertising (and happens again in two later scenes). From there, Brad, his father and his wife Sara (Linda Cardellini), Kurt, Dusty and his wife Karen (Alessandria Ambrosio), their three stepchildren Dylan (Owen Vaccaro), Megan (Scarlett Estevez) and Adrianna (Didi Costine) all pile into two minivans and celebrate the week of Christmas in a large cabin in the woods.

What could possibly go wrong? For this movie, almost everything; the biggest issue being that there are too many characters and too many subplots to boot: Sara is often seen trying to figure out what Karen is writing about her in her little black book, Dylan wants to learn how to get the girl from the cabin next door on his way to becoming a man, and Brad’s father appears to be hiding a secret underneath all his affection. But this sequel doesn’t spend a whole lot of time on arcs for any of these characters to help them grow and change, because for some reason, it’s more important to watch Brad and Dusty exchange surface-level banter with their fathers, see young Megan learn how to hunt with disastrous results for one family member, or even watch Brad mow over all the Christmas lights and whip himself into the house, with no regard to whether the previous fifteen jokes registered or not.

That being said, it’s the subtle jokes that hit the most: in a scene where an infant tubes down a hill by accident and Brad is knocking over people and losing his pants trying to rescue it, there’s a brief glimpse of a child tubing down the same hill with his attention on an iPad. Also, while everyone appears to be going through the motions and every single character is stripped down to just one characteristic (Brad in particular regresses to the same over-emotional character Ferrell always plays), the newcomers in the cast do what they can to inject some life into it. Mel Gibson’s biting, snarky dialogue lands when it hits, and he makes the same pained expressions we’ve all made while Brad and his father sing Christmas carols in the back of their van. Meanwhile, the timing of Lithgow’s punch lines is especially hilarious, particularly in an early scene where he recalls a time he and Brad had ‘the talk’ about girls. But those moments are few and far in between because Daddy’s Home 2 wants to move so quickly to the next set piece where Will Ferrell gets hurt by something made of bad CGI because that one time he cartoonishly drove a motorcycle through the house in the first Daddy’s Home sure was a riot, wasn’t it?

As stated at the beginning of this review, comedy is subjective, and it couldn’t have been more evident than at the screening I attended, where the film was met with thunderous applause once the end credits rolled. For that reason, I can safely say that Daddy’s Home 2 should appeal to anyone that’s still a fan of Will Ferrell’s brand of comedy. For everyone else, however, you’re better off skipping this one and watching far superior holiday comedies like Christmas Vacation or even Elf, which was Ferrell’s first contemporary Christmas classic. He aimed for another one this year with this sequel, but Daddy’s Home 2 is just a mess of a comedy devoid of plot or anything that feels inspired.

New Trailer: Will Daniel Day-Lewis Go Out on a High Note with ‘Phantom Thread’?

Phantom Thread marks Paul Thomas Anderson’s return with what looks like a conventional period piece with unconventional characters, and a story that could take unexpected turns.

Phantom Thread marks Paul Thomas Anderson’s return with what looks like a conventional period piece with unconventional characters, and a story that could take unexpected turns.

After months of speculation, impatience and even the lack of a title, Focus Features finally released the trailer for Phantom Thread, the new film from writer-director auteur, Paul Thomas Anderson, and it came to mixed reactions. Some circles of the internet reacted with excitement over another collaboration between Anderson and three-time Academy Award winner, Daniel Day-Lewis, who worked together previously on There Will Be Blood. However, others remained skeptical after viewing the trailer, and for good reason: not only did Anderson’s previous film, Inherent Vice, receive divisive reactions from both critics and audiences during awards season in 2014, but the trailer for Phantom Thread leaves a lot to be desired. . .but from a certain aspect, that could lead to a beneficial payoff once the film hits theaters.

When Phantom Thread was first announced in the middle of 2015, all we knew about it was that it starred Daniel Day-Lewis and took place in the world of fashion in the 1950s. But the trailer gives us a bigger glimpse into the film’s story: it begins with his character, Reynolds Woodcock, narrating about how he always sews a personal secret into every coat, dress, and garment he makes over a montage of him carrying out his daily routine as a high-fashion designer in the United Kingdom as elegant yet provocative music plays. The intrigue only grows as a waitress named Alma (played by Vicky Krieps) catches his eye at a restaurant he visits; so much so, that he asks her to have dinner with him, which she agrees to after some hesitation. From there, the trailer shows Alma becoming a muse for Reynolds’ work as well as his mistress, and implies a turn for the dramatic through images of Reynolds looking voyeuristically through the peephole of a door, a car speeding down a long road, and arguments Alma and Reynolds have as their relationship erodes, to name a few. All of this happens while the strings of Jonny Greenwood’s score grow more and more unsettling with every pluck.

On the surface of its trailer, Phantom Thread does look like another typical period drama. The costume and set design are lavish and on another level of authenticity, the story centers around a romance, and its main selling point is a performance from arguably the greatest living actor of our time, and is in this case, apparently his last (although it is worth mentioning he said that after the release of Gangs of New York in 2002, but that’s another topic for another day). It also implies all the conventions of any film from Paul Thomas Anderson: a story with emotional stakes driven by complex but flawed characters, immaculate attention to detail of the film’s time period, and a camera that never stops moving unless on a close-up. It’s worth noting that Anderson himself is his own director of photography this time around; such a task is daunting on paper, but it’s exciting to see a director perform dual roles on his own film set, because it’s evidence of his passion for the material.

But the primary reason why I have more optimism about Phantom Thread as a movie is because Anderson has been known to take his films on surprising turns that throw the expectations of audiences onto their head; the ending of Boogie Nights changed the way people listen to Rick Springfield, the climax of Magnolia was something nobody saw coming, and I still remember how I reacted to the revelation toward the end of There Will Be Blood. Meanwhile, so much of The Master was from the perspective of its PTSD-stricken lead character, it can be argued that at certain points it became hard to tell what scenes were real and what weren’t. Plus, the trailer for Phantom Thread sells a lot of mystery about Day-Lewis’s character: why isn’t he married, why does he feel cursed, and what is it that drives him into almost-paranoid obsession? There’s a plethora of directions that this story could take, and even after the good but underwhelming Inherent Vice, I have faith that Paul Thomas Anderson will come back with something that’ll leave everyone speechless.

All this being said, after pretty much ten months of not even a production still, the possibility still remains that Phantom Thread could end up getting rushed into its release on Christmas Day this year just so Focus Features has a perennial contender for this year’s awards season, and that is my biggest worry. It’s not uncommon, either: Paramount put Martin Scorsese’s passion project Silence through this exact scenario last year with little to no marketing or advertising, and it resulted in great reviews, but poor box office and only one Oscar nomination. I would hope that Focus Features wouldn’t do that to one of the most established auteurs in filmmaking right now as an independent film distributor, but all I can suggest to how they handle Phantom Thread is Alma’s final quote from the trailer: “Whatever you do, do it carefully.”

Streaming Gems: ‘The Lost City of Z’ (Amazon Prime)

Streaming Gems is an ongoing feature where we discuss movies recently released on streaming services (Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu) that are worth your time.

Streaming Gems is an ongoing feature where we discuss movies recently released on streaming services (Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu) that are worth your time.

RATING: ★★★★ (out of four stars)

There’s no clear frontrunner for the Best Picture Oscar with awards season on the horizon, but there’s a plethora of contenders for the prestigious award for the moment: Darkest Hour is a period biopic that chronicles Winston Churchill’s time as the prime minister of Great Britain during World War II, A24’s The Florida Project follows the lives of children who live and play in an extended-stay hotel in the slums of Florida while their parents struggle to pay rent for the week, and Fox Searchlight is offering up another science fiction fairy tale from Guillermo Del Toro with The Shape of Water. . .and that’s before mentioning the upcoming Call Me By Your Name, Lady Bird and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

However, one film that should be a contender, but came out too early in the year for awards consideration is The Lost City of Z, Amazon Studios’ period epic based on real-life events and the book of the same name by David Grann. Hailed by critics but overlooked by audiences, The Lost City of Z had a 30 million dollar budget but only grossed a combined 17 million dollars domestically and worldwide at the box office after its release in April this year. It’s unfortunate because the film harkens back to a time where classical Hollywood epics reigned supreme, makes itself unique amongst them through its tone and naturalism, and is yet another gem from the often-overlooked auteur, James Gray.

After gaining the necessary connections to the film industry while attending the University of Southern California, James Gray wrote and directed his first two feature films, Little Odessa and The Yards, which came out in 1994 and 2000 to critical success with attractive casts, only to be overshadowed in the box office by the breakout hits of the independent film scene in their respective years. After finally gaining box office success with We Own The Night in 2007, James Gray developed his directing style as a storyteller in 2008 with the contemporary romance, Two Lovers, before branching out into epics in 2013 with The Immigrant, a period drama starring Marion Cotillard as a female immigrant from Poland who gets deceived into a life of sleazy vaudeville by a magician played by Joaquin Phoenix. Few audiences were able to see The Immigrant due to a very limited release, but it proved itself as one of the most overlooked films of the decade so far thanks to the authenticity of its time period and strong performances from its ensemble.

Gray’s craft as a storyteller carries over to his newest film, The Lost City of Z. Staying in the period piece genre at a time where they are seldom made, Z begins in Ireland circa 1905, where Percy Fawcett (played by Charlie Hunnam, in a career-best performance), a young British officer and explorer, is assigned by the Royal Geographical Society to travel to Amazonia to settle a dispute between the then-primitive nations of Bolivia and Brazil. For his two-year mission, Fawcett is joined by a small crew, which includes Corporal Henry Costin (a nearly unrecognizable Robert Pattinson), and an Amazonian guide who talks obsessively about a golden city in the jungle. It isn’t until Fawcett comes across pottery on the ground and tribal engravings in the stones and trees that he starts to believe in the lost city himself, and makes it his life’s goal to destroy the narrow-minded beliefs of his peers while bringing glory to his family name and reputation by discovering the city, which he calls Z (to be read as Zed, the British spoken form of the letter Z).

The Lost City of Z may be two and a half hours long, but it earns its run time as it spans twenty years of Fawcett’s life, chronicling his multiple treks through Amazonia, the toll his obsession with finding the city takes on himself and his relationship with his son Jack (played by Tom Holland), and even his time in the trenches of World War I. What makes it such a marvel to watch from beginning to end is the direction from James Gray, who relies primarily on visuals to tell the story of Fawcett’s journey, from old-school filmmaking techniques such as slow cross dissolves and foreshadowing to effective match cuts; one cut from a beer trail to a train barreling down a railroad track only emphasizes the scale of the assignment. Gray also commits his film to naturalism through the tremendous performances from his ensemble; especially Hunnam, whose emotional range is on full display while appearing so genuine that nothing feels melodramatic or over-the-top. This extends to the film’s dramatic beats, such as when Percy’s wife, Nina (Sienna Miller, also at her career-best here) wishes to accompany her husband on his second expedition to Amazonia because she believes she is able-bodied and capable of handling the rigors of the voyage. The resulting debate between the couple is so realistic with its drama that it stays gripping and powerful while addressing the social issues of today without feeling preachy.

What makes The Lost City of Z stand on its own as an epic, however, is its ethereal tone. Gray shot Z on 35mm film, which creates a look reminiscent of epics from the past as dynamic shadows evoke the same dread Fawcett and his team face while in the jungle, while accenuating the golden skies and green grass of England’s landscapes while he’s home. This also extends to the immaculate sound design: insects, birds and reptiles dominate the rivers and jungles of Amazonia while the majestic score from Christopher Spelman emphasizes the wonder and spectacle of the wilderness, creating an immersive atmosphere the further the party travels through it. The film even goes inside Fawcett’s mind in an early scene where his party is ambushed by a tribe of natives while traveling down a river. In true old Hollywood fashion, he pictures surreal images of his home, church and the baptism of his son to keep his fear of death at bay.

When I first saw The Lost City of Z for the first time during its theatrical run, I went into it expecting a psychological thriller with its lead character going mad with obsession, if only because I didn’t watch any trailers. However, I left hypnotized by the incredible cinematography and sound design, blown away by the strong performances, and so awestruck by the ending that I wanted to see it again the second it was over. It wasn’t until it came to streaming that I finally could, and from that viewing, I came away loving it even more. The Lost City of Z is a long film but worth planning your day around if you have Amazon Prime, where it’s currently streaming. It’s the kind of epic movie that doesn’t get made anymore, and one of the best films of the year.

New Trailer: ‘New Mutants’ Looks Like Another Breath of Fresh Air for the Superhero Genre

Fox continues to blend genres with their next entry in their cinematic universe of superheroes.

Fox continues to blend genres with their next entry in their cinematic universe of superheroes. 

Despite X-Men: Apocalypse being one bump in the road, Twentieth Century Fox has come a long way with their Marvel properties since the disastrous Fantastic Four reboot of 2015. Deadpool was a success with both critics and audiences, and Logan remains one of the best movies of 2017 so far through its use of tropes from the western genre. Last week, they released the trailer for their first tentpole release of next year, The New Mutants, and the Internet was abuzz with surprise and excitement over what the newest spinoff in the X-Men franchise has to offer in terms of not only characters, but also aesthetics. Because what better way to elevate a mostly-unknown property to new heights by putting them into a horror film?

The horror movie set pieces are what stand out the most in the first trailer. From the start, the camera slowly pans down a dark, empty hallway before dissolving to a shot of headstones in a cemetery, then revealing a cast member hooked up to a lie detector test while a doctor asks her a series of questions. From there, the trailer shows the titular group of teenagers exploring a seemingly haunted hospital all while the imagery grows more and more terrifying, complete with a character unconscious as it rains ash, nightmarish experiments, unknown beings reaching for them within the walls, and flames exploding from a washing machine as a silhouetted hand presses on the glass from the inside.

What’s also notable is that the trailer prominently features a cast that’s rounded out with actors familiar to both the horror and fantasy genres. Anya Taylor-Joy, who plays Illyana Rasputin aka Magik here, has become one of the best scream queens of today thanks to her work in The Witch and Split, and Charlie Heaton got his big break in the sci-fi/horror Netflix hit Stranger Things, and here, takes a turn as Sam Guthrie aka Cannonball. Meanwhile, Maisie Williams finally joins her Game of Thrones co-star, Sophie Turner, in Fox’s X-Men Cinematic Universe with her role in this as the shape shifter, Wolfsbane.

Another reason to be excited for The New Mutants is the presence of a fan of the source material at the directing helm in Josh Boone, who caught the attention of Fox with his debut feature, the romantic comedy Stuck In Love, then the major studio signed him on to direct the adaptation of the young adult novel, The Fault In Our Stars, which was a box office and critical success. From his filmography, Boone is a filmmaker that knows how to tell a great coming-of-age story centered around young adults, and while this will be his first entry in the horror and superhero genre, the seeds are there in The New Mutants for a story that’s really about coping with life as an outcast, or the anxiety of growing into the person one’s meant to be.

The New Mutants made their Marvel Comics debut in Marvel Graphic Novel #4 in 1982, and had three series of comic books that would launch in 1983, 2003 and 2009, and they continue to live in comic book obscurity as a lesser-known group of heroes in the X-Men universe today. But come April 13 next year, if the movie delivers on the horror film with superheroes that the trailer promises, Fox could do to The New Mutants what Marvel did to Guardians of the Galaxy with their big-screen debut, and that possibility in particular has me excited for the film, and for everyone involved.

Review: ‘Happy Death Day’ is a Fun, Self-Aware Slasher Arriving Just in Time for Halloween

Blumhouse throws their hat into the ring this Halloween season with this clever horror comedy. 

Blumhouse throws their hat into the ring this Halloween season with this clever horror comedy. 

RATING: ★★★ (out of four stars)

The 1990s were a decade full of trends and fads respective to its place in time; and the film industry at that period had trends of its own, from low-budget independent films from what would be the greatest auteurs of today to the birth and rise of computer generated animation and effects. The slasher subgenre would be another trend that was prevalent throughout multiplexes; Wes Craven’s New Nightmare set a new bar for the subgenre while I Know What You Did Last Summer and the Scream franchise would become smash hits at the box office in their respective years. Flash forward to this weekend, where Happy Death Day makes its way to theaters as something that at least feels inspired by the slasher films of the 90s and even Groundhog Day, a comedy staple of the time period. It certainly isn’t on the same level of the former or as innovative as the latter, but it mashes the concepts of the two together to create a self-aware piece of dumb entertainment just in time for Halloween.

And leave it to no one other than Blumhouse Productions to inject clever fun into the horror genre. Founded in 2000 by Emmy-award winning Jason Blum, Blumhouse is a production company with a smart business model: specialize in the horror genre, which has a niche audience already built in, and produce films with low budgets while giving directors full creative control over their product. The payoff has been successful for both the company and the directors under their watch. James Wan was able to perfect his craft through the first two Insidious films, Scott Derrickson continued his background in scares with the underrated supernatural film Sinister, M. Night Shyamalan resurrected his career working with them while directing The Visit and Split, and earlier this year, Jordan Peele brought social commentary back into the genre through his film Get Out, which is on its way to becoming a potential Oscar contender. That being said, Blumhouse has had its fair share duds over the years, from Eli Roth’s outdated and juvenile gorefest The Green Inferno, to the majority of Paranormal Activity sequels. Christopher B. Landon directed the fourth of those sequels (The Marked Ones) before helming Happy Death Day, but the direction in his newest film is focused and in check thanks to a script with a clever concept and sense of self-awareness.

Happy Death Day begins with the film’s protagonist, Teresa (nicknamed ‘Tree’ by her fellow sorority girls and played by Jessica Rothe), waking up on the morning of her birthday in the dorm room of well-meaning one-night stand Carter (Israel Broussard), hungover from a night of heavy drinking. From there she does the walk of shame back to her sorority house, ignores phone calls from her father, visits her professor who she’s having an affair with, and has a meeting with her catty sorority sisters before making her way to her surprise birthday party only to be murdered on the way by a serial killer in a black hoodie and a baby mask of her university’s mascot, the Bayville Baby (It could have been worse….the Fisher Bunnies is a team that exists). Tree is killed, only to wake up the next morning as she did at the beginning of the film forced to relive her birthday and subsequent murder again and again until she solves who the murderer is. With the help of Carter, she investigates her list of suspects all while her deaths grow more and more varied, explosive and even hilarious, particularly in an early death scene where a bong is the killer’s main weapon.

From its marketing campaign, Happy Death Day looked like a film that could have been terrible if it took itself too seriously. But thankfully, it has a self-aware sense of humor that pokes fun at the cliques and stereotypes of college students, and even puts funny spins tired narrative tropes and clichés; how Tree realizes there’s something special about Carter is hilarious solely for his graphic line that sets it up, and there’s even a set piece where she’s texting her sorority leader while one person is dancing in a rave in the background until the killer shows up that’s enjoyable. The investigation montage that follows is also fun to watch play out as Tree goes to incredible lengths to spy on her suspects while searching for her killer. But what stands out the most in this film is the performance of Jessica Rothe as Tree; she exudes her range as an upcoming scream queen through how she handles all the comedic scenes, moments of terror and even a pivotal scene toward the end where her internal dramatic arc comes to a head. It also helps when she’s given a story based around a character who progresses herself from a self-centered sorority girl into a better, more caring person, despite the arc feeling similar to other movies.

Along with its familiarity, Happy Death Day feels like a movie that would have benefited from an R rating. As it stands rated PG-13, the kills are fun and clever but the film doesn’t fully embrace the absurdity and ridiculousness of its concept as it should. It’s also worth mentioning that the traditionally scary beats of the subgenre lack any feeling of terror, but that’s only for the reason that the movie is less of a horror film and more of a comedy. For those reasons, Happy Death Day isn’t the best film in the horror genre to come out this year. However, it still has a great performance from its lead actress, as well as a clever concept with tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, and that separates itself from the slate of upcoming horror films for the remainder of Halloween season. So if you’ve already seen the It remake and are in the mood for a fun, dumb slasher film that’s entertaining for its runtime, Happy Death Day is worth gathering a group of friends to check it out with this weekend.

Review: ‘Annabelle: Creation’ is a Scary Good Prequel in the Conjuring Universe

Annabelle: Creation proves the Conjuring universe can last beyond the Lorraines in this prequel centered around the origins of the Annabelle doll.

Annabelle: Creation proves the Conjuring Universe can last beyond the Lorraines in this prequel centered around the origins of the Annabelle doll.

RATING: ★★★ (out of four stars)

My personal favorite mainstream horror film of last year was Ouija: Origin of Evil, the prequel to the critically panned film adaptation of the titular board game from Hasbro that came out in 2012. I went into it with low expectations and was pleasantly surprised over how well the characters were written, how their relationships were developed, and how it acknowledged the ridiculousness of its premise by giving it the aesthetic of a B-horror film from the late 1960s. Annabelle: Creation continues this trend of prequels surpassing their predecessors by doing everything a horror movie should set out to accomplish, and adding David F. Sandberg to an already long list of directors to watch in the horror genre for years to come.

Sandberg came onto the scene when Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema bought the rights to his 2013 short film, Lights Out, and offered him to adapt it into a feature film, which came out last summer to good reviews from critics and grossed $150 million dollars worldwide on a $5 million dollar budget. The film itself, while only 80 minutes long, built an engrossing arc for its lead heroine, crafted smart characters, and built effective tension that lead to clever scares and exciting sequences of terror which made the film entertaining for its run time. The success of Lights Out put Sandberg in the director’s chair for Annabelle: Creation, where his aesthetic is a perfect for the newest entry in the ever-growing Conjuring universe.

Creation follows a young nun (Stephanie Sigman) and her group of young girls from an orphanage forced to shut down as they are taken in by Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia), an antique doll maker who spends most of his days tending to his handicapped wife Esther (Miranda Otto), while looking to turn his house into an orphanage of his own twelve years after losing his young daughter in a tragic accident. The girls explore their new home with wonder in a well-executed tracking shot that follows them from room to room, until they reach the door to a room that Samuel declares off-limits. However, curiosity gets the best of orphan Janice (Talitha Bateman), who finds her way into the forbidden room and discovers the demonically possessed doll from the first Conjuring movie, which terrorizes her and the occupants of the house with the demonic presence inside it from there.

The scares in Creation have a natural progression from the traditional jump scare to atmospheric horror all the way to its monster-filled third act. The terror on display is conveyed through a visual look and aesthetic more reminiscent of the first two Conjuring movies; complete with slow push-ins, long takes, occasional tracking shots that create more and more tension as they go along, and an effective use of shadows that engulf half of the frame or the background, isolating the characters against an unknown terror waiting for them in the darkness. Sandberg also uses his location very well to create scares, taking his characters into a barn guarded by a creepy scarecrow, a closet coated in scripture and even a dumbwaiter in its terror-filled climax.

But what stands out the most in Creation is how well the characters are written. While the characters in the first Annabelle film were flat and boring; here, the main characters are Janice and her best friend Linda (Lulu Wilson), who are the outcasts of the orphan girls. Between the scares, Janice and Linda converse amongst themselves about their hopes to live in the same family together, recall moments they’ve experienced in the past, and assure they’ll never leave each other’s side even as the demonic presence haunts them. The tropes of their characters also feel natural and authentic, as do those of the girls who playfully tease them. What humor there is in the film also works, especially when Linda’s first instinct when seeing signs of the evil spirit is to protect herself with a wind-up toy gun.

The film does end with an underwhelming epilogue that connects this film to the original Annabelle, and there are instances where the scares blur together and feel repetitive, but those are few and far in between. Overall, Annabelle: Creation may not be on par with the first two Conjuring movies, but it is a very entertaining, scary horror film that’s one of the biggest surprises of the year so far. If you’re into horror movies of any kind, this is certainly worth your time and attention.