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Movie Review: Annabelle (2014)

2014's Annabelle, a prequel to the excellent chiller The Conjuring (2013), was a much better film than I expected going in. I hadn't necessarily avoided taking a look at it, but I also didn't seek it out after I had read so many poor critical reviews of the film. Just as an aside, I do think that film-review aggregation has had a net negative effect on my film viewing habits. I'm at a place now where I don't really do any advance critical research on a film if it's one that I really want to see. This is just another effect of the Internet. When we used to get a review or two in The Oregonian (by the wonderful Shawn Levy, still my favorite film critic) entertainment section, I enjoyed gleaning a few thoughts on a film prior to heading to the theaters. But seeing triple digits of reviews all grouped together and then viewing that damn meta-critical score is ultimately counter-productive to my viewing habits. 

I give this film a B+ mark, and I liked it for a variety of reasons. The casting was strong. Annabelle Wallis and Ward Horton have great chemistry together, and their turns as young parents in 1964 California were believable and compelling. Wallis shows a lot of strength and vulnerability in her performance, and I liked that Horton put so much faith in her reports of what was happening in both of their homes. His trust is believable here. I'd like to think, skeptic that I am, that I could implicitly trust Jeanne if she were being haunted by a demon from Hell! 

Speaking of that, the occult aspects of the storyline deftly fit the doll's origin story. There was (and still is, truth be told) some weird stuff going on with cults back in that era, and the film's first act is both terrifying and convincing exposition for this particular story. 

The set design was awesome. Suburban California, complete with unlocked front doors, wide, inviting porches, and all of those Cadillac cruisers, was nicely rendered. The special effects were strong, and there are a few of genuinely scary sequences in the film. Mia's troubles in the sub-basement are hard to watch without squirming, and that scene in which the child runs at the door is absolutely chilling. 

The film, like The Conjuring before it, has a real sense of its place in the pantheon of this type of horror story. It's got so much of Rosemary's Baby in it that I can't think the name "Mia" is anything other than allusion. Wallis's believable descent into paranoia mirrors Farrow's in that film, and in both stories it's a heart-breaking thing to watch. 

I liked this movie a lot. It's a simple story of demonic possession that does a great job of filling in some gaps in what has become the best horror franchise going. Definitely worth the time to look at, and a truly scary movie in a sea of marginal films...


Unbelievable Draft Success!

Extremely pleased with the draft that Dave Caldwell and his staff put together this past weekend. The Jaguars upgraded the defense in a major way, adding quality talent in particular at linebacker (Myles Jack) and in the secondary. That guy above, Jalen Ramsey, is a serious athlete. He tested off the charts in the vertical, the 40-yard dash, and with his lifting. He's an explosive player with a lot of versatility.

With the Jags adding Jackson, Gipson, and Amukamura in free agency, that side of the ball should be much improved. Add back in a healthy Marks and this team can make quantum leaps forward. Heck, if they improve on third down alone they'll win three more games. 

I'm excited about the future. Time to get those season tickets...


The Same Deep Waters as You, by Brian Hodge

I've been reading Lovecraft's Monsters (expertly edited by Ellen Datlow) and really enjoying the diversity of the stories and the strength of the writing. It's a diverse collection, with a lot of unique voices. Most of the stories stray from the verbose prose style that plagues so much Lovecraftian fiction (particularly the entries by Laird Barron and Kim Newman), and I found Brian Hodge's "The Same Deep Waters as You" particularly unsettling.

“What you see there is what you get,” he said. “Have you ever heard of a town in Massachusetts called Innsmouth?”
Kerry shook her head. “I don’t think so.”
“No reason you should’ve. It’s a little pisshole seaport whose best days were already behind it by the time of the Civil War. In the winter of 1927–28, there was a series of raids there, jointly conducted by the FBI and U.S. Army, with naval support. Officially—remember, this was during Prohibition—it was to shut down bootlegging operations bringing whiskey down the coast from Canada. The truth…” He took back the iPad from her nerveless fingers. “Nothing explains the truth better than seeing it with your own eyes.”
“You can’t talk to them. That’s what this is about, isn’t it?” she said. “You can’t communicate with them, and you think I can.”
Escovedo smiled, and until now, she didn’t think he had it in him. “It must be true about you, then. You’re psychic after all.”
It's a very creepy tale, unfolding at first very quickly and then stretching out over weeks and months. Kerry is a fully formed protagonist given an impossible task, and its her human ties--her fear of the water and love for her daughter--that makes it so easy to relate to her. 

I wasn't expecting the ending of this one, and it was delightful to be surprised like that. It took me a day to process it, as I had to decide whether I liked the story or not. 

I do. 

It's a horrible, terrible, unsettling final act, so it succeeds as top-shelf horror. Kudos to Brian Hodge on this one...


The Philosophy of Horror, Or Paradoxes of the Heart

Noel Carroll's The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart is a remarkable work of critical philosophy. His discussion of art-horror as the emotional impetus for why we engage with dark storytelling seems to logically synthesize much of the work of thinkers such as Nietzsche, Kafka, and Kierkegaard.

He uses primarily classical source materials in outlining his theories of a dark aesthetic. I think the prose is really suitable to this type of study, as he acknowledges the limitations of his survey while still covering a lot of critical territory in advancing his claims. 

If you are working on research in the area of critical horror studies, I'd say begin with this text and then begin branching out into the more specific areas that interest you. I'm writing at present about the sociology of textual production, but I don't think I'd be in such a comfortable place if it weren't for grounding myself first in this book.


Monday Potpourri...

Please excuse all of those cobwebs around this humble Web journal! I've been busy with a variety of endeavors, not the least of which has been preparing for the arrival of a baby in just a few short weeks! Without further adieu, a few thoughts:

  • My family and I really love where we live, but the house is too small. We live six miles from the beach. We live a mile from a great golf courses, and less than three miles from a productive fishing hole and kayak slip. We are close to hiking, biking, parks, a fine nexus for shopping, and some great restaurants. That said, we are really looking forward to moving to a larger house. Jeanne and I purchased this place in 2006. We expected to occupy the home for three years, but then the economy tanked and homes in our zip code lost more than half of their value. The neighborhood is coming back, slowly but surely, yet that really doesn't do much for us. The home is very close to my daughter's excellent school, and I'm thankful that I get to walk her there every morning. But we could use a few more rooms and a larger yard. I think, this time next year, we will be actively looking for a much larger place. We got very creative with moving things around, downsizing our lives, and preparing for our son. We look forward to a great year together, but it will be good to find a bigger spot where our growing family can stretch its legs a bit...
  • I've been writing about the sociology of textual production and publishing biography of horror in the twentieth century. These are fascinating topics, and the circularity between the one-man publishing shops that churned out penny dreadfuls and dime novels and the current digital publishing gold rush is uncanny. Dozens of digital-only magazines and publishers have proliferated in horror alone, and many of them are producing top-quality content. It's been an illuminating period of research for me, and I'm interested to see where we will be going in the near future...
  • The summer and fall terms are shaping up to be highly productive for me at FSCJ. I'm teaching a nice variety of courses, including media criticism, rhetoric and research, American literature, and English composition. The summer will mostly entail a traditional schedule, but I'm switching to nights in the fall so I can stay home with the baby during the day. It's a similar fall schedule to the one I worked when we had our daughter, and I'm thrilled to enjoy that time together during the day!
  • I've been running the trails of Northeast Florida this spring, as our temperatures have been really conducive to being outside. It's unsettling to see the warnings on the Zika Virus in the NPS parks, but the cooler temperatures have largely kept the insects in check. Thankfully, we will have the baby soon and I think our exposure to the virus will be minimal. It's a real and continuous source of anxiety for pregnant women in Florida (and, of course, throughout South and Central America), but I read yesterday that doctors in Brazil are making progress in their approach to dealing with its effects...
  • I looked at Beyond the Reach (C+) and Regression (B-) in the last week on Amazon Prime. They are decent films, though neither brings a ton to the table. I think Emma Watson gives a creepy understated performance in the latter. I'm pretty excited to see the second installment of The Conjuring, and I am about to begin watching The 100. The Walking Dead has been a real disappointment this year. I don't think the current model of feudal warfare has been nearly as compelling as were the depictions of day-to-day nomadic survival.
Enjoy the spring, wherever you are, and drop back by soon. I hope to post here a bit more frequently in the coming weeks as we approach our son's arrival...


Amusing Ourselves to Death

Neil Postman's prescient examination of the role of mainstream broadcast media on public discourse was in full display last evening in the GOP debate.

What a shameful display.

I've already lodged my vote in the Florida Democratic Primary, but I am, of course, keeping tabs on the GOP as well. Sanders and Clinton have positive attributes and negative attributes.

Marco Rubio, a conservative centrist that has done some good things for the state of Florida, has positive attributes and negative attributes.

Ted Cruz and Donald Trump? I don't see anything to recommend either of these guys, and their public displays of intellect, critical thinking, and substantive content leave so much to be desired that I actually am a bit fearful of what might happen if one of them won the nomination.

Postman's argument rests on the notion that convergence in radio, print, and television transformed actionable information into edutainment. He notes that the contemporary media is context free, truncated, titillating, and shallow. He mentions the waning of the private self in contemporary society and he cautions against the dangers of losing historical perspective.

It's an excellent text and, even though I'm generally an optimist, last night's debate perfectly illustrates how far we've fallen in terms of public discourse. The name calling and mud slinging was discouraging. It was like watching adolescents fight in the back seat of Mom and Dad's station wagon, and the sad thing is that Rubio had to get down into the dirt with these guys. 

Ultimately, Americans--and particularly supporters of the far-right contemporary GOP--lust for this type of thing. When Trump tweets that Cruz is a loser, which he does a few times a week, he is pandering to a base that gobbles up the negativity like candy. When he states that he'd like to punch a protester with a different opinion--the very definition of American democracy, mind you--in the face, dim-witted ogres at his rallies cheer for him. 

Seriously. This isn't the kind of thing we should be cheering, people.

Trump epitomizes the very thing that Postman warned us to be very wary of. A bombastic dullard, Trump has declared bankruptcy multiple times. His projects routinely fail. he hasn't an iota of a clue on the legislative process, and he's never done anything truly meaningful for America. 

He is not a viable leader of the United States of America.

Rubio said that Trump would be selling watches in Manhattan if he hadn't received a $200 million dollar inheritance. I'm sad he had to stoop down into the gutters for a handful of mud, but I'm glad he finally did it because Trump deserves to take a bit of the abuse he so commonly dishes out. 


Workshop on Narrative Theory

I will be presenting a workshop (Building the Killer Hook: How to Get—and Keep—Your Audience’s Attention) this Saturday at the Ponte Vedra Public Library. The workshop begins at 10:30 a.m. and will run for about an hour. 

Drop by if you're in the area and you want to chat about writing!