Annabelle Movie Review by Brett Myers

John R Leonetti’s Annabelle , the expansion on the opening of the 2013 hit The Conjuring , has all the ingredients of a bad horror movie: Boring characters, acting as stiff as the titular doll, a few jump scares, and loud music. However, something clicks in the second half and the film’s faults are nearly trumped by quietly horrifying tension that rivals the best scenes of its predecessor. And then the tension breaks and you may find yourself cowering behind your own sweating palms.

In Santa Monica, CA in 1970, newlyweds Mia (Annabelle Wallis) and John Gordon (Ward Horton) are expecting their first child. The white-teeth and porcelain-skin couple comes home after a morning at church and John presents his wife with a large, red-haired doll she’s been searching for forever. Even before anything paranormal occurs, one can’t help but fear the doll already. How could you not with its wide eyes and bizarre, red mouth? Meanwhile, the news of the Manson murders just broke and their neighbors’ daughter has been missing for two years, suspected of joining the hippie movement.

Later that night, in one of the film’s creepiest sequences, two crazed cult members murder the neighbors, seen through the Gordons’ window without a sound, and invade the expecting couple’s unlocked home. As John fights off one attacker, the other escapes to the room where the doll sits and the police later find the intruder with her own throat slit, holding the blood soaked doll. And so begins the barrage of moving doors, mysteriously functioning appliances, and extended close-ups of the doll’s unmoving face. Oh, and did I mention the suicidal cult member was also the neighbors’ daughter named Annabelle?

Despite Leonetti’s calculated and eerie shots (he served as the cinematographer for The Conjuring ), the problems with the film come down to its slow, inconsequential pace and the lead actor and actress’ performances, though both of these problems go hand in hand. Wallis and Horton don’t build on their fear despite having their baby’s life threatened a countless number of times. Sure, they show a barely adequate amount of fear in the moment, but it never carries over. Each haunting seems to surprise this couple that has as much personality as a failed 1950’s sitcom.

Wallis’ bumbling Mia has been physically assaulted, dragged by an invisible force, and she’s even experienced a mishap with a sewing machine, but one needs life to experience fear and there’s hardly any life to Mia. Each of her sentences ends with ellipses and her baby’s coos are louder than her own talking. Casual conversations feel like profound announcements without the profound announcement as she stumbles for words and talks like she’s holding a secret.

Sharper editing or acting-based direction on Leonetti’s part would have most likely fixed this problem. Even acting veteran Alfre Woodard, playing a tenant with a taste for the supernatural in the apartment building the Gordons relocate to, offers little more than the actual doll. Her consistently wide eyes show a little something, but she struggles to get her words out like Mia, giving scenes a similar feeling of trying to run underwater.

However, once the couple moves into this apartment complex, Annabelle really ratchets up the fear. Similar to The Conjuring’s director James Wan almost to a fault, Leonetti utilizes long shots and silence to bring the audience into the ambiguity of fearful moments. In perhaps the movie’s tensest sequence, Mia escapes to an elevator that won’t function after the film’s surprise villain confronts her. With one long shot, the scene goes on and on as she hopes the elevator will begin to rise while also knowing the malevolent force could attack at any moment. While James Wan presented his horrifying style with much more visual flair, Leonetti still uses these techniques successfully, most likely because they’re new to the modern horror scene and haven’t been over utilized. For now, they work enough to bring Annabelle significantly above most recent horror movies with the same weaknesses.

With a film like The Conjuring constantly hanging over its head, it’s hard to expect Annabelle to perform to its precursor’s standards and it certainly doesn’t. What made The Conjuring so effective was its tactful handling of cliché images, reminding us why creaking houses used to scare us. Annabelle attempts the same thing without as much success. However, its quiet tension, eternally creepy mascot, and the barely illuminated malevolent force (literally) behind said mascot provide enough terror to leave you wondering what happened to the girls from the beginning of The Conjuring.  

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“If Paintings Could Text” Blog Makes Art Relatable Again by Brett Myers

Hard drinkers and art theorists alike, rejoice! The popular Tumblr blog, If Paintings Could Text, has combined both of your favorite activities to reveal extra layers within classical artwork. Overlaying vulgar and brazen iMessages on top of works such as Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or Grant Wood’s American Gothic, the blog serves to help twenty-somethings relate to the classics like never before.

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Since 2009, Texts From Last Night has reminded the Internet why it’s highly recommended to leave one’s phones aside when imbibing. Additionally, the blog’s relatable and endless entries of embarrassing sex stories, drunken mishaps, and general debauchery all help us feel like our own stories aren’t too shameful. The ingenuity to If Paintings Could Text comes from its combination of TFLN‘s empathetic language and situations with dated artwork and artists which modern observers can easily feel disconnected from.

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Rene Magritte’s The Lovers depicts two people, supposedly a man and a woman, wearing cloth bags over their heads and attempting to kiss. Without a thorough understanding of Magritte’s portfolio and life, one could find this surreal painting difficult to understand (if it’s even meant to be understood in the first place). However, If Paintings Could Text chose to superimpose two messages on the portrait, which involve two speakers learning of a lover’s affinity for bondage and one of the speaker’s approval of said kink.

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While it’s highly doubtful that Magritte created this piece with these specific intentions, the fun part of scrolling through this blog is that we can’t prove that the art and the text messages don’t share subtext. Perhaps one idea behind The Lovers involves non-traditional sexual relations and its effects on the subjects’ relationship. Perhaps the still woman in Edward Hooper’s Summertime really is making her way home from an uncomfortable sexual encounter as described in its assigned iMessages. Who knows? It’s not like walks of shame are exclusive to the digital era.

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For a generation who has been told its methods of indulging in life and finding love are corrupt and doomed, If Paintings Could Text serves as a hilarious lens through which Millennials can examine art. Those studying art history are told classical artists come from a different time and create their work with priorities and methods much different than our own. They’re supposedly so different that analyzing art becomes a confounding and arduous process. If Paintings Could Text reminds us that whether they are classical or modern, artists are all human and the feelings behind the creation of art are universal. Besides, who says getting drunk and writing love letters in Medieval times is any different than drunkenly calling an ex-partner?

Check out the entire blog’s archive here: If Paintings Could Text

New York City: The Premiere Place For Hellacious Halloween Horrors by Brett Myers

The time of year has come when the seasons click and the New York air has forgone the summer humidity for autumn’s crispness. And once the leaves change color and jackets come out of storage, the first thing New Yorkers look forward to is Halloween. In one of the most artistically diverse cities, there’s no shortage of ways to celebrate any holiday here. However, Halloween brings out a different set of desires. Everyone enjoys a little scare this time of year and the city provides more than enough. With unlimited access to technology, creative minds, and actors, New York (in)famously houses some of the best and most horrifying haunted houses in the country. Perhaps more than ever, horror junkies can have their desires met and then some as the city’s best attractions have upped the ante this year, ensuring the most fear for your funds.

Celebrating their 10th year in operation, Blood Manor in Tribeca describes itself as “New York City’s premiere haunted attraction.” This 5,000 square foot sensory attack involves every classic piece of horror imagery one can imagine: Zombies, clowns, meat lockers, rotting skeletons, etc. All organized in an onslaught of in-your-face scares, screams, and flashing lights. Arranged in groups of six for the 20-25 minute experience, adrenaline seekers witness a calculated combination of inventive lighting design, state-of-the-art animatronics, and thoroughly decorated actors covered in fake blood, prosthetics, and colored contacts. On top of all this modern technology, the Manor utilizes old fashioned images like smoke machines, pitch black darkness, and mysterious sounds to top off all of its abrasive horror to bring New Yorkers a classic yet highly effective Halloween experience.

To keep the city guessing, Blood Manor adds new themes, known as “chambers” according to their website, every year to torment fears of all kinds. This year, patrons can expect mummies, doll people, maggots, and cannibals on top of the Manor’s famous collection of horrors. Additionally, each Thursday during their entire run will be known as Touch Me Thursdays where the actors are free to touch the customers (to an extent), adding a new layer of fear and immersion. Along with student discount nights and shorter waiting times, there’s no reason to skip on experiencing one of the biggest frights the city has to offer. Just make sure not to do it alone!

Blackout Haunted House has caused quite a stir these past few years with their ingenious take on what haunted houses can do. Located in Chelsea, Blackout passes on the buckets of blood and overwhelming effects of traditional haunted attractions and, instead, employs minimal décor and realistic situations to scare horror lovers in search of something new. And, boy, do they get something new! Past versions forced their willing victims to go through the warehouse alone, already breaking ground and grabbing the public’s attention/fear. What happens inside can be described as less of a haunted house and more as an immersive and horrific piece of theater. One year infamously involved patrons being fake waterboarded with a bag over their head and forced to bark like a dog to be released. Additionally, rumors spread like wildfire of the actors making them chew on used tampons and saving an actor from being sexually assaulted.

Of course, all of these events have been heavily rehearsed and involved fake props, but their realism really struck a nerve with New Yorkers. In fact, the creators, Josh Randall and Kristjan Thor, have reported their horrified customers running out of the house and almost into the street to get away from their attackers. This year’s edition, Blackout: House, forgoes the solitary experience for a group of one, but they’ve maintained their surreal reputation to replicate the feeling of being held hostage. With several years of success under its sleeve and another location in Los Angeles, Blackout has proved itself a formidable attraction every Halloween and those looking for a truly surreal experience ought to look no further.

For 11 seasons, New Yorkers have been treated to the demented attraction that is the haunted house Nightmare. Coming off two critically acclaimed seasons (Killers and Killers2), the creators of the city’s longest running haunted attraction have tackled the challenge of topping their numerous, past successes. However, this year’s edition has caused quite a stir as it gives thrill seekers an experience that may or may not hit a little too close to home. This year’s season is known as Nightmare: New York and it makes use of all the horrific legends and mythology that haunt this mysterious city. Not only will the citizens of New York witness classic legends such as Cropsey and sewer alligators, but also newer folklore like giant rats caused by Hurricane Sandy’s damage to the subway system will come to life.

In just about 25-minutes tops, patrons will start from New York’s beginnings as cursed Native American property and continue into the many killers and curses that hang over this town, a majority of which most citizens haven’t heard of yet. And, for an extra layer of immersion, those brave enough can ask to be marked with a red “X,” telling the actors that they’re allowed to get even more up close and personal with those adorned with the marking. With an eye for detail and grotesque realism, creator Timothy Haskell has promised to turn the things that make this city great, such as being immersed in history one couldn’t image, into an absolute nightmare.

If you think you’re brave enough, grab a friend, keep your eyes peeled, and head downtown for some of the best frights the city has to offer. No matter what scares you, be it blood and guts or realistic fears, you’ll be sure to find it in the concrete jungle. The question is, though, are you ready to find what the concrete jungle has for you? Happy Halloween!

Screaming Females at Brooklyn’s Knitting Factory by Brett Myers

Several counterculture groups packed into New York’s famous Kitting Factory on Saturday October 4th. From punks in their broken denim jackets to gender-queer persons to hipsters drinking their Shiner Bock and nodding to the music, everyone awaited the entrance of one the underground’s last hopes for punk rock: Screaming Females. This night was the first date of the perpetually on the road band’s late 2014 tour and the diverse group wanted nothing more than to witness their lead singer, whose scream and fierce guitar towers over the audience the way they tower over her stature. However, before the three-person powerhouse was to perform, the audience reveled in two acts well known in their own rights.

Mal Blum took to the stage first with her electric, 1950s style Gibson guitar, backup bassist, and drummer. In a navy dress shirt and fitted pants, she cruised through her self-identified “pop-punk” music, never losing her proud yet uncomfortable grin. From just listening to her music, one would never imagine Blum to be anything but a hipster straight out of the world featured in the movie Juno. However, her progressive gender expression mixed with rockabilly flair, singing happy melodies about her depression, made her quite a treat to watch.

Describing her newer music, she called her songs “deceptive,’ never failing to let us forget this fact ahead of each song. Before hopping into “Sitting On The Train,” she joked that the song sounds like a train ride through Manhattan when it’s really about her fear of not loving someone. The audience laughed with her honesty and bounced to her surf rock style strumming and charmingly sincere lyrics. In between each song, she stopped to check in with the audience, out of insecurity or curiosity we won’t know. Halfway through, she asked the audience if they wanted her to perform louder and louder songs, to which they screamed for more. “Wow, I feel like we’re at a punk show,” she laughed and sang on in her nearly Californian singing accent.

She closed her 30-minute set with her bouncy ditty “Brooklyn,” commanding the audience to clap with her. “I know we’re in Brooklyn and you’re too cool to clap, but I live in Brooklyn and I know how tender hearted you are,” she pleaded. The jury is still out on the sincerity of Brooklyn residents, but Mal Blum could certainly be the most tender hearted citizen there is, no matter how much her singing voice sounds like she’s from the Wes Coast. And if there was anything the audience could take from her set, it would be how much Blum and her bassist differ in their opinions of Robert Frost.

After a fifteen-minute break, four guys from Nashville took the stage and, in the best way possible, they beat the instruments hard enough to knock the audience all the way back to Tennessee. Dedicated to ripping through their music, the band Pujol barely took a breath between each song, more than ready to scream-sing about fist fights and lost connections. These lo-fi southerners managed to incorporate every decade since the 1950s into their material: 60s style melodies, 70s style grit, 80s style guitar riffs, and 90s/ska punk style song structure and energy. If Reel Big Fish collaborated with The Germs with the overblown production of Sleigh Bells, you’d have Pujol.

This quartet could be seen as the result of a generation desperate to define their own rebellion and anger, but constantly forced to resemble those of the past. Pujol has all the ingredients of classic hardcore punk rock: Short songs, scream singing, musically expressed testosterone, and a confident yet disinterested look (the drummer adorned a skeleton costume and fake moustache and couldn’t have cared less). However, like many modern punk bands, they did not have a performing style one could label as punk. Despite the inescapable energy, the musicians never moved from their spot on the stage nor did they attempt to animate themselves while playing. Perhaps these are the signs of a band still discovering their stage presence or simply a band that doesn’t concern themselves with these things, but the juxtaposition between rowdy music and complacent performing proved to be somewhat uninspiring to an audience who clearly relished in the music and wanted to express it. However, none of this is to say that Pujol was a disappointment. Anyone looking for the overblown, classic punk rock sound of yesteryear will find themselves unable to remove a smile from their face. All Pujol needs is a more defined stage presence and they’ll surely send their audiences into a frenzy.

After an hour and a half of openers, the main event took the stage to a packed and raucous crowd. While drummer Jarrett Dougherty and bassist King Mike were dressed as casually as the openers, singer and lead guitarist Marissa Paternoster came out in her iconic long-sleeved black dress, black socks, and black shoes with her face hidden behind her thick and short black hair. And while Paternoster was easily the shortest person in the room, she made it clear from the first song, “Buried In The Nude,” that her height nor her gender hinders her mighty voice and vicious guitar playing.

The very first sound out of her mouth was a piercing scream, jolting even the most prepared of fans and sending the audience right into a mosh pit. Just after the first song, she proved herself worthy of her place on several “greatest guitarists” lists. She shreds through her songs with the fury of other great players like Joan Jett and Lita Ford, but recites her stream of consciousness lyrics like no other. With a wide open mouth as if she were about to devour the microphone, she roars through the band’s confrontational and declarative lyrics such as “I could be the boss of you/Any day” or “I need you to show me what your genius can do/So I can hide.” Similar to their stage presence, Screaming Females command attention but, unlike said lyrics, they show no hesitation or vulnerability. After five acclaimed albums, these new-age punks know their style and offer no apologies for it.

Barely speaking a word between songs, the players exuded a calm excitement for their music, made clear by their common song structure. The majority of their music begins with rousing introductory rhythms and solos, warning the listener/audience of what calculated madness is about to ensue, followed by a set of commanding yet catchy lyrics which make way for seemingly improvised guitar riffs and drum onslaughts. The Screaming Females really showed their chops during these ending jams with gusto that could shake the biggest of venues. Writhing on stage with her fair flailing every which way, Paternoster finds no greater joy than ripping her guitar strings to shreds and what a beautiful shredding it is.

This is a band that has gone from basements of New Brunswick, NJ to receiving recognition from MTV and NPR while also performing with bands like Garbage and Dinosaur Jr. They may not be selling out arenas any time soon, but that doesn’t make a ticket to their show any less sought after.

 

The Skeleton Twins Movie Review by Brett Myers

The pain of sudden family tragedy cuts deep and in Craig Johnson’s The Skeleton Twins the cuts go deep enough to bring two siblings back together after 10 years. Many films have portrayed brother-sister relationships as lovingly dysfunctional, mostly for the purpose of comedy. Skeleton Twins portrays Milo and Maggie, played by Bill Hader and Kristin Wiig respectively, as broken siblings only with happy childhood memories together. And that’s okay.

Openly gay Milo has been living in Los Angeles trying to make his way as an actor and Maggie never left upstate New York, working in a dentist’s office and married to the upbeat but boring Lance (Owen Wilson). On the same day, the twins escape death as they both attempt suicide with Milo ending up in the hospital and Maggie taking him into her home. Despite being apart for an entire decade, both of them still retain what connected them so well as children, while also both slowly and aggressively falling apart. Keeping crumbling emotions bottled up must run in the family as their father committed suicide when they were young and they ponder over this event’s effects throughout the movie.

The film follows them as they try to repair themselves and each other by reconnecting with images of their youth. This subject matter has served as the plot for many clichéd movies, but Nathan Larson’s script presents these clichés as realistic mechanisms for Milo and Maggie’s road to recovery. The most impressive example is their shared sense of humor. Several scenes have little purpose except to show how the two make each other laugh. Their thought-out deadpan characters combined with their natural chemistry and improvisation background, set their relationship apart from other brother-sister movies, during certain scenes where they don’t break into laughter despite sarcastic statements. One scene shows Milo getting angry with Maggie for potentially spoiling the end of Marley and Me which he had almost finished. He throws the book aside and she apologizes, but Milo turns back to her and says, “I know what happens…It’s the book where the dog dies. Everyone knows that.” While their comedic cynicism keeps the two of them connected like only family can, it also leads them farther down the path to destruction.

Like her character in Bridesmaids, Kristin Wiig’s character is the portrait of a perpetually sad woman unwilling to admit she’s falling apart for other people’s happiness. However it’s more damaging here than it is funny and she’s angry with herself more so than with others. She values the feelings of others more so than her feelings in a too matter-of-fact manner. She doesn’t ask how to please them, she just does. No matter how damaging it may be. And little by little, the consequences slip out. She sleeps with her scuba instructor in a moment of weakness, feeling undeniably unsatisfied with her husband who is head over heels in love with her. These snaps in judgment, in all their possible forms, ultimately lead to her destructive actions.

Those most familiar with Bill Hader from SNL will be surprised to see this realistic character from him. His portrayal of Milo captures the bitterness embedded in many members of the LGBT community due to judgment and oppression. His constant criticism of everything around him leaves him unable to live with his own thoughts as his attempt at suicide that begins the movie is implied to come after a breakup. Additionally, his emotions come to a boil each time he gets drunk, a time when anyone’s true thoughts come to the surface. Other than the comedic banter with his sister, the only time he shows excitement is when he sees his ex-lover Rich (Ty Burrell) who was his English teacher when Milo was 15 years old. The thought of reuniting with a past and problematic lover seems to be the only thing keeping him uplifted during his visit home.

This quiet gem of a movie may have initially served as a reel for Wiig and Hader’s talents toward heavy material, but it’s one that shouldn’t be forgotten when award season comes around. While a few of the heavier plot points come from left field for a possible tug at our hearts or a gasp, the actors handle them with grace and vulnerability, blending them in to the story as character development. Very little is resolved at the end of the film. In fact, they may be back where they started with the roles reversed. But in the least cliché way possible, all they need is each other. “Nothing’s gonna stop [them] now.”