Annabelle Creation (2017)
The set-up: The origin story of the evil doll Annabelle from The Conjuring series freakishly comes to life. After a couple’s seven-year-old daughter (Samara Lee) is accidentally killed in a car accident in 1943, they revive her spirit in a creepy looking doll her father (Anthony LaPaglia) has made. But when Annabelle’s anger becomes too much for them, they imprison her in her room and fall into a prolonged period of seclusion that is alleviated when they open up their house 12 years later to a group of orphans needing a home. But soon the sinister doll lures one of the girls to her sealed room, and once freed she begins wreaking havoc in the house — a situation made all the more creepy by the fact that she barely ever moves — and seeks to possess the polio-stricken girl (Talitha Bateman) who found her.
The breakdown: The first Annabelle prequel was a missed opportunity to effectively kickstart spin-offs from The Conjuring universe, but this second prequel rectifies that mistake as director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out) ups the ante on suspense and invigorates the story with the spooky vibes and manic energy that are hallmarks of James Wan’s films. Some would argue that it’s nothing new in terms of supernatural sagas, but Annabelle Creation is a well-done scare ride that knows how to get under your skin and provides a much more satisfying tale than its predecessor. Wait for the end credits to finish rolling; The Nun from The Conjuring 2 makes a cameo.
Personal Shopper (2016)
The set-up: Following the passing of her twin brother — a fellow medium who died from a heart malformation that she also has — Maureen (Kristen Stewart) takes a job as the personal shopper to a haughty, famous model. Visiting her former suburban Paris home in hopes of signs that her sibling might contact her from the afterlife, she instead encounters an angry spirit and then begins receiving creepy text messages that could be coming from the beyond. Scared and isolated, Maureen tries to sort out the mystery while being drawn into a potentially deadly confrontation.
The breakdown: Writer-director Olivier Assayas takes the slow and steady approach to his elusive ghost story, building the suspense gradually rather than going for obvious jump scares so common to modern horror. He also makes good use of Stewart, whose stoic approach to acting works with this character who mourns for her brother while bottling up her emotions. Even the creepy text exchanges click for the most part. Much of the film examines belief and state of mind as much as actual paranormal events, and by walking that line Assayas makes a strong personal statement about the process of grieving and moving on.
Night School (1981)
The set-up: A leather-clad biker killer is on the loose in Boston, and he’s decapitating the sexy female students of a sleazy professor (Drew Snyder) who frequently beds them. A frustrated detective (Leonard Mann) has his eye on the prof as his key suspect and wants to prove his guilt to end the bloodbath, especially as one of his smart, pretty young teaching assistants (Rachel Ward) could become the next target.
The breakdown: Given that this flick is as much as a detective film as a slasher stalker, one imagines that studio execs back in the day did not know how to market it. It’s a well-crafted film from director Kenneth Hughes (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), with screenwriter/producer Ruth Avergon infusing a feminist twist to the material. While it’s not a great movie, and you can sense the two good plot twists coming early, it’s still somewhat interesting. Given our current cultural shift towards openly condemning sexual misconduct and assault, Night School is quite relevant today, and that’s not something you can declare about most ’80s movies of its ilk.
Doc Hollywood (1991)
The set-up: An arrogant young big city doctor (Michael J. Fox), en route to a cushy plastic surgery gig in Beverly Hills, gets sidetracked in a small South Carolina town after a car accident leads to a short stay of community service. Despite being anxious to get out of town, he starts to fall for a local doctor (Julie Warner) and finds his stereotypes about these local yokels challenged in many ways, which leads to a serious life decision when his time served has ended.
The breakdown: What could have been a pedestrian romantic dramedy in lesser hands is elevated by the charming leads, a well-written screenplay, and the assured direction of Michael Caton-Jones (Scandal). Fox imbues his arrogant doctor persona with more likable qualities, and Warner’s independent and witty character is the perfect foil for him. In seeking to pigeonhole locals who are smarter than he thinks they are, the aspiring face-lifter sees how he is becoming a cliché himself. This is the kind of film I normally don’t watch, but Doc Hollywood charmed me.
Logan Lucky (2017)
The set-up: After being fired from his construction job at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, limp-legged Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) corrals a ragtag band of redneck misfits — which includes his brother (Adam Driver), sister (Riley Keough), an incarcerated explosives expert (Daniel Craig), and the latter’s two nitwit brothers — into robbing that venue during a major NASCAR race. Given the seemingly limited brain capacity of some of his cohorts. Jimmy’s plan seems to destined to fail. But this small town caper takes on some unusual twists and turns that lead to an unexpected climax.
The breakdown: Steven Soderbergh’s first feature film in four years is a clever caper comedy that eschews over-the-top Hollywood caricatures about robberies and rednecks, focusing instead on awkwardly likable characters whose back stories and personal conflicts raise the stakes for the audience. There’s a quirky sense of humor at work here that helps smooth over the obvious suspension of disbelief one has to indulge to follow along in even the most well executed heist flick. At its core, Logan Lucky is about familial love and obligations that override the actual endgame, and the surprising finale delivers a poignant message about family, commitment, and what some people really want from life. It’s a shame this film did not do better at the box office, but I suspect its audience will grow over time. Additional bonuses are the fun guest turns by Seth MacFarlane as a boorish race car driver, Hilary Swank as a shrewd FBI agent, and Dwight Yoakam as a beleaguered warden.
Hired Gun (2016)
It’s surprising that no one has made a documentary like this until now, but therein lies the conceit behind Fran Strine’s engrossing look into the top-notch talent behind the albums and tours of some of rock’s biggest names. The phrase “living the dream” takes on a different meaning for these musical sidekicks. Hired Gun examines the highs, lows, and creative and financial frustrations of different rockers who are brought in to record and/or tour but whom most fans know little about — Nita Strauss, Phil X, Kenny Aronoff, Jason Hook, and Rudy Sarzo are among them. There are many more stories and players than could be crammed into these 98 minutes — this focuses mostly on white male rockers — but there are some compelling behind-the-scenes tales captured on camera. The two most notable revolve around future Night Ranger guitarist Brad Gillis immediately replacing the late Ozzy guitarist Randy Rhoads on the road, as well as the unceremonious sacking of some of Billy Joel’s early bandmates who rode the wave to success with him.