Thursday, May 9, 2019

Dirty Rotten Gold Diggers: Hathaway and Wilson find laughs where they can get them in tepid "Hustle"

The Hustle (2019)
93 min.
Release Date: May 10, 2019 (Wide)

A female-led redux of the 1988 Michael Caine-Steve Martin farce “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” itself already a remake of 1964’s “Bedtime Story” with Marlon Brando and David Niven, “The Hustle” is at least a tad more inspired than its bland, forgettable title. It should be noted that the original working title, “Nasty Women,” was a better (and more relevant) one and more in line with this remake’s gender swap and throughline of men fearing and underestimating smart, clever women. Such a title change would seem like a merely cosmetic criticism, but it’s really emblematic of a sharper comedy having its teeth pulled. Director Chris Addison and screenwriter Jac Schaeffer, reworking the script by Dale Launer who reworked the original script by Stanley Shapiro & Paul Henning, do flirt with a more subversive feminist bent, only to slavishly follow “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” scene for scene with a few contemporary additions (social media and Venmo) and a minor third-act switcheroo that it’s too bad the script didn’t color outside the lines more. For the mild, hit-and-miss amusement that is offered in "The Hustle," it is a testament to Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson who hustle hard to find laughs where they can get them.

The more things change, the more they stay the same, even in a 2019 remake of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” with women: a British-accented Anne Hathaway gets the posh Michael Caine role and Rebel Wilson is in the corresponding bull-in-a-china-shop Steve Martin role. Wilson’s Penny Rust is a low-level Australian grifter who catfishes gullible, pathetic men in New York City for their money, but once she’s nearly caught, Penny books it to the French Riviera, beginning her first scam by using a stock photo of a busty, blonde woman to spin a story about her sister being kidnapped and in need of ransom money. Hathaway’s Josephine Chesterfield is a more sophisticated operator who has made the south of France her turf to con men. Though she has two employees (Ingrid Oliver, Nicholas Woodeson) working for her, Josephine works alone, until Penny gets in her way. When Josephine thinks she’s put Penny back on a plane and reclaimed her territory, Penny ends up staying, as she’s ready to step up her game. The two con artists team up for a while, as Josephine lands the mark, strategizing that all men love to be heroes to a vulnerable woman, and Penny helps drive them away but not before making sure the men leave behind a high-cost engagement ring. Ready to call it quits on each other, Josephine and Penny both set their sights on unassuming tech millionaire Thomas Westerburg (Alex Sharp) and compete for his affections. Whoever can out-swindle him out of $500,000 wins, and the loser has to get out of town. May the best con win.

Besides opening with the kind of delightful animated title sequence that seems to have been lost since the ‘80s, “The Hustle” starts off on shaky ground but improves a bit past its half-hour mark. Even if the situations adhere so closely to what came before and pale in comparison, it comes down to the stars being game and bouncing off one another. Anne Hathaway works her beguiling coolness as Josephine, and she is most amusing when putting on different identities and accents, whether it’s a simple, giggly, lottery-winning American or a German doctor with severely unorthodox therapy methods. Coming off her standout part in 2018’s gender-flipped spin-off “Ocean’s Eight” as a vapid but smarter-than-she-lets-on socialite, Hathaway clearly relishes the part of a powerful schemer and reminds how terrific she can be when performing comedy. Rebel Wilson feels a bit unchallenged here as Penny, coasting on her brassiest-person-in-the-room persona, but she is still more than capable of wringing laughs out of her physical antics, deadpan delivery, and improvisational skills, particularly when Penny pretends to suffer from hysterical blindness to earn Thomas’ trust and sympathy. As the earnest, impossibly wide-eyed Thomas, relative newcomer Alex Sharp (2017’s “To the Bone”) is charming, but there’s also an edge to him that makes the inevitable double-crossing not come out of nowhere.

Always on the cusp of earning bigger laughs but settling for sporadically amusing, “The Hustle” is a breezy, undemanding diversion for both anyone who has and hasn’t seen Frank Oz’s 1988 film, but it shouldn’t have been this tepid. The scenes involving Josephine’s “Lord of the Rings” scam, where Penny must play Josephine’s homely, locked-away, mentally ill sister named Hortense who sees herself as a fairy princess in order to secure diamond rings from a series of men, are more flat and strained than funny and certainly inferior to when Steve Martin performed the same ruse playing an overgrown toddler. There’s also little sense in why a montage is set up to have Penny practice her knife-throwing and scaling a hurdle, only for those skills to never come in handy. The freshest joke is a random throwaway sight gag of the back-and-forth of an airplane lavatory’s “vacant” and “occupied” sign, as well as Penny wearing a black leather dress that helps her camouflage herself next to a bunch of trash bags. It seems inspiration was low on the priority list after casting the two ingratiating stars as comedic foils because the switching of genders doesn't much change the fact that this material was done better the first and second time. Come to think of it, “The Hustle” was smarter and more wickedly funny when it was called “Heartbreakers,” an underappreciated 2001 mother-daughter con comedy with Sigourney Weaver and Jennifer Love Hewitt.

Grade: C +

Friday, May 3, 2019

The Couple Trap: “The Intruder” a dopey, shout-at-the-screen thriller that’s kind of fun

The Intruder (2019)
102 min. 
Release Date: May 3, 2019 (Wide)

An ex-homeowner from hell wreaks havoc on a married couple who has just moved into his precious house in “The Intruder,” the latest entry in the boilerplate subgenre of “…from Hell” domestic thrillers. On one hand, it is a been-there-seen-that pastiche of 1990’s “Pacific Heights,” 1992’s “Unlawful Entry,” 2003’s “Cold Creek Manor” (which also starred Dennis Quaid as one-half of the terrorized couple), 2008’s “Lakeview Terrace,” and 2015’s “The Perfect Guy” (which also starred Michael Ealy as the Rebound from Hell), and then on the other, it is an entertainingly sleazy and dopey hoot. Director Deon Taylor (2018’s “Traffik”) and screenwriter David Loughery (2009’s “Obsessed” and the aforementioned “Lakeview Terrace”), both remaining in their comfort zone, approach this Lifetime-ready material on the most rudimentary level even in a post-"Get Out" world, but they do seem to recognize what kind of movie they set out to make. If one is willing to shut their brain off like its too-good-to-be-true married couple, “The Intruder” might be worthwhile for a Friday night with a preferably rowdy, liquored-up audience.

San Francisco advertising director Scott Russell (Michael Ealy) decides to finally give his wife, Annie (Meagan Good), what she wants: leave their chic penthouse and the hustle and bustle to settle down and eventually start a family. They find their $3.5 million dream home in the Napa Valley, and the estate called Foxglove (as in the poisonous plant) has been in the family for generations according to Charlie Peck (Dennis Quaid), the former homeowner who introduces himself just moments after shooting a deer in front of the Russell couple. Charlie seems a little off, but he’s lost his wife to cancer two years ago and is set to move to Florida with his daughter. When the house turns out to be out of Scott and Annie’s price range, Charlie goes down in price, throws in the furniture and decor, and wants them to have it. Scott and Annie make the move, and once they settle in and make it their own, Charlie turns up one day to mow the lawn. Annie feels sorry for the widower, so she invites him for Thanksgiving dinner. As time goes by, Charlie keeps coming by the house unannounced, which makes Scott uncomfortable, and noticing changes to his house. Even though Charlie is supposed to be in Florida by now, Annie likes having a man around the house, or least she thinks she does until it takes her a while to discover that Charlie has more than a screw loose and isn’t ready to let go of his house.

As stock as its title, “The Intruder” is a commonplace but slick and watchable thriller designed to invite audiences to have a lively conversation with the screen. From the very beginning, we already know Charlie is a complete psychopath—a daydream of Charlie’s rage makes sure of that at Thanksgiving dinner—and will do whatever it takes to make Annie the new Mrs. Peck and move back into his house. Scott is the first to realize something isn’t right about Charlie, and his hotheaded best friend Mike (Joseph Sikora), who might as well have “Dead Meat” tattooed on his forehead, suspects Charlie burned the leather interior of his precious sports car with his own cigarette butt. Then there’s Annie, who is compassionate to a fault and more willing to give Charlie the benefit of the doubt than Scott by letting the seemingly harmless nutcase help her put up Christmas lights and inviting him inside for a bottle of wine when Scott is working late. Or, maybe she’s just oblivious and quite slow to catch on. Annie is so trusting, in fact, that she doesn’t even ask the right questions when Charlie shows up at her door with a pizza, somehow knowing that Scott is in the hospital for being clipped by a truck (who could that have been?).

Michael Ealy and Meagan Good are likable, attractive, and charismatic as Annie and Scott, and the camera loves them in close-ups. They seem to be so blissfully in love, christening their kitchen, although there is a hint of Scott having an affair in the past and his inability to not flirt with other women. Scott also has an anti-gun stance based on his brother being gunned down, which could have led to a more provocative blue state vs. red state conversation between him and "Bambi killer" Charlie but is presented solely as a throwaway detail. As for Annie, she tells Charlie that she freelances, writing empowerment pieces for a women’s magazine, but Annie is never once seen behind a laptop, only drinking a lot of red wine. Though Meagan Good looks like the kind of person with as much smarts as she does beauty, the viewer must accept that Annie has to play naïve because she has never seen a thriller before, and there would be no movie otherwise. Ealy and Good are earnest because they have to be when Dennis Quaid, on the other hand, is committed to dialing it up and being crazier than a shithouse rat, using his joker grin to creepy effect and somehow channeling two of Jack Nicholson's two most iconic roles in one movie. Quaid gets few chances to ever play a bad guy, but here as Charlie Peck, he is a menacing, over-the-top B-movie psycho who just won’t go away, and it is admittedly a blast to watch him go for it, particularly in an icky scene that requires him to lick another character.

Director Deon Taylor has fun placing Charlie where Scott and Annie won't notice him, like having him leer in the shadows while the couple has a passionate moment in front of the fireplace or revealing Charlie standing in the hallway with a flash of lightning. Once it all comes to a violent head in the climactic showdown in Foxglove and rises in tension, the film does deserve points for delivering upon the expectations of the type of movie Taylor is making. There is a twist, if it can even be called that, that's absurd but on par with a lurid thriller that isn’t Hitchcock or even Verhoeven. Make no mistake, “The Intruder” is not a good movie—its plot is a foregone conclusion with contrivances and plot holes that are glaring even in the moment—but it is bat-shit crazy in a crowd-pleasing way without trying to be more. As is, this is decent trash.

Grade: C +

Friday, April 26, 2019

Ranger Danger: "Body at Brighton Rock" a minimalist thriller with a relatable heroine that could have mined more tension

Body at Brighton Rock (2019)
87 min.
Release Date: April 26, 2019 (Limited & VOD)

Sometimes, all you need for a minimalist horror thriller to work is a woman and a dead body. Writer-director Roxanne Benjamin uses that simplicity to her advantage in “Body at Brighton Rock,” the up-and-coming filmmaker’s directorial feature debut after contributing segments to horror anthologies, like 2016’s “Southbound” and 2017’s “XX.” More than just bumps in the night, the film is a lo-fi survivalist thriller about self-preservation and the underestimation of a young woman. Never overcomplicating the narrative with subplots or too many extraneous characters, Benjamin seems interested in throwing an underqualified but relatable character into a perilous situation and seeing what could come of it. How effective “Body at Brighton Rock” is certainly depends on how much one is willing to invest in a character who isn’t always competent but gutsy enough to prove everyone wrong.

“It’s just a walk in the woods. How hard can it be?” inexperienced park guide Wendy (Karina Fontes) says when she trades trail assignments, sick of her co-workers not thinking she’s hardy enough for this job. On Wendy goes, posting safety signs on the terrain around Brighton Rock (played by California’s San Jacinto Mountains) and then resting atop a cliff to send selfies to her friend until she realizes she is lost. Her map is gone and her phone battery dies as soon as she needs it most. Then she finds a man’s dead body at the bottom of the cliff. Wendy panics and calls it in on her radio. She does what she’s told, securing the perimeter of what could be a crime scene and wait for the first responders to arrive in the morning. Once night falls, it’s just Wendy and the body, or is someone else out there with them?

Beginning with a postcard-ready credit sequence that segues into Wendy running late to her morning park orientation and Oingo Boingo’s “Dead Man’s Party” bouncing along on the soundtrack, “Body at Brighton Rock” gets off to a fun, light-hearted start. For a while there, the film sets up an involving plight for its protagonist who is out of her depth but might find it in herself to save her skin. Newcomer Karina Fontes depicts Wendy as sincere and identifiable, an everywoman and an “indoor kid” whose preparedness and practiced protocol are tested, proving she might not be well-suited to this job, but then again, finding a dead body wasn’t part of the job description. While some viewers will certainly find her actions frustrating and make Wendy sometimes hard to rally behind, it is more refreshingly human and authentic that Wendy is able to remain resilient even when everyone thinks she is doomed to fail.

“Body at Brighton Rock” does have a deviousness in the direction it takes, and there is an a-ha O. Henry-style conclusion that the film hinges on and mostly earns. And yet, it doesn’t seem willing to fully maximize the nerve-shredding tension of its premise set in the lonesome wilderness, though Wendy’s finding of an abandoned tent when she still has daylight manages to be creepy. It’s a modestly resourceful production, well-shot by cinematographer Hannah Getz, and The Gifted’s giallo-inspired score is also enhanced by some well-used ‘80s jams, including Exposé’s “Point of No Return.” Even if her first feature feels a bit slight when it’s over, Roxanne Benjamin is still a talent worth keeping an eye on to see what she will do next.

Grade: C +

Thursday, April 25, 2019

All Work and No Family: Taylor Schilling is on fire in hilariously mean but affectionately sweet "Family"

Family (2019)
83 min.
Release Date: April 19, 2019 (Limited)

“Family” would seem more clichéd than it really is, given its instantly recognizable premise about a self-absorbed workaholic turning over a new leaf after being forced to care for a child, but it’s all in the execution of the writing and the performances. This being her feature debut, writer-director Laura Steinel strikes the right tone, never coming off self-consciously outrageous or emotionally manipulative. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Taylor Schilling is an underestimated comic dynamo here after scoring reactionary laughs in 2015 parents-gone-wild indie “The Overnight,” and this film gives her a lead role that should hopefully steer her toward more comedic parts. Realizing that a character can be mean and misanthropic without having contempt for them and the audience, “Family” is often hilariously acerbic but also quite sweet and meaning it.

A senior-level VP at a hedge fund in New Jersey, Kate Stone (Taylor Schilling) has exhaustedly put her career before everything else, including her family. She’s socially tone-deaf and not emotionally demonstrative, and everyone at work avoids her. When her brother Joe (Eric Edelstein) calls her over, he needs a favor: watch her 11-year-old niece, Maddie (Bryn Vale), while he and wife Cheryl (Allison Tolman) move his dying mother-in-law out of her house and into hospice. Kate very reluctantly agrees, even if her stay gets pushed to a week. When Kate more or less meets her niece for the first time to pick her up from ballet practice, she realizes Maddie is a special kid. Maddie resists gender norms: she likes karate, running around in a cape, and playing with homemade swords out of sticks. She also becomes fascinated with becoming a Juggalo after meeting fellow snack-lover in Dennis (Fabrizio Zacharee Guido), who prefers to be called “Baby Joker,” at the Kwik Mart gas station. Though Kate is a much looser parental figure (read: neglectful) by letting Maddie have chicken parmesan at a pizzeria every night, encouraging her niece to fight back at school, and dropping her off at the wrong school, she begins to learn that her and Maddie have more in common than she thought.

Beginning at the end with a face-painted Kate running through crowds at an Insane Clown Posse festival called The Gathering of the Juggalos and then circling back a week earlier, “Family” brings a fresh perspective to this type of formula. For one, Laura Steinfel is affectionate rather than condescending or mocking toward these gung-ho, face-painted Juggalos, and for two, the Juggalo angle ends up being a more meaningful metaphor for Kate and Maddie both being misfits in their own lives. Proving herself to be an unassuming performer with deadpan comic timing, Taylor Schilling (2019’s “The Prodigy”) is on fire as Kate, playing into her most abrasive qualities without any apologies. As Kate explains to Maddie, “I’m usually in this place where I hate myself, but I still think I’m better than anyone else.” That sounds like she would be a cruel monster, but Kate’s casual cruelty is more of a defense mechanism. She’s just socially awkward, saying exactly what she’s thinking even if she’d be better off keeping it to herself, and has never made an effort to know any of her co-workers or family members. Fortunately, Kate feels like a character who has a life before and after the film, living beyond the story in the script, and Schilling capably finds warmth and sympathetic layers in a character who has created her own alienation.

Relative newcomer Bryn Vale is an authentic, disarming natural as Maddie, a young girl who might not fit in with the kids at school but pursues her passions and lets her freak flag fly. Vale’s scenes with Schilling are obviously the highlight, but the supporting cast is equally fun to watch and never cornered into one-note roles, including the recently ubiquitous Brian Tyree Henry (2018’s “If Beale Street Could Talk”) as karate instructor Sensei Pete; the dependable Kate McKinnon as next-door neighbor Jill, a perky, rule-enforcing stay-at-home mom; Jessie Ennis (2018’s “Life of the Party”) as new financial analyst Erin; Matt Walsh as colleague Dan; and the delightful Allison Tolman as Kate’s sister-in-law Cheryl, who only agrees to have Kate watch Maddie because she’s their last resort.

For a comedy that manages to make one care about its caustic protagonist, “Family” might take a structurally familiar path to get there but never strains for redemption when a natural progression will do. By the end, Kate does come around but does not entirely change her personality or salty opinions; she just has to try a little harder to be nice and not totally scrap basic human decency, and maybe that side of her has just been lying dormant for a while. Laura Steinel gets convincing chemistry out of her actors and knows how to pay off a running gag (like an office coffee maker slowly running its course throughout the film), and she is clearly influenced by Wes Anderson in some of her rapid pans and zooms that punch up the humor. As generic as the title might be—it’s better than “Bad Aunt”—“Family” is quite apropos in how Kate and Maddie are both outsiders who deep down want to belong and connect, whether or not they can do that within their biological families. 

Grade: B

Christmas Captivity: "I Trapped the Devil" a chilling exercise in dread that promises more than it delivers

I Trapped the Devil (2019)
82 min.
Release Date: April 26, 2019 (Limited & VOD)

Writer-director-editor Josh Lobo makes his feature debut with “I Trapped the Devil,” a slow-burn chamber piece with the concept of a “Twilight Zone” episode and the staging of a play on film. The film sets an oppressive sense of dread and foreboding with the glow of twinkly Christmas lights a devilish counterpoint, waiting to discover if there’s actually anything sinister behind a cellar door. Drenched in mood and creepy on a conceptual level, the film might promise more than it delivers, but “I Trapped the Devil” sustains most of its unsettling juice.

Matt (AJ Bowen) and his wife Karen (Susan Burke) drop in unannounced around Christmastime to visit Matt’s estranged brother Steve (Scott Poythress), who’s been a hermit since his divorce. Instead of being greeted with holiday cheer and warmth, Matt enters the house to find boxes blocking the door and newspapers covering the windows, and Karen finds a couple of bullets outside the house in the snow. Not expecting company, Steve doesn’t want them there, and the tension is so thick it could be cut with a knife. After the phone keeps ringing and Karen finds a loaded gun under the bed, Steve finally comes clean with them: there is a man locked behind a door with a big wooden cross in the red-tinted cellar. Steve claims the man (frighteningly voiced by Chris Sullivan) to not just be any man, but to be the devil. Before it’s too late, Matt and Karen will both have to decide if they can trust Steve or free the captive.

Confined to one house with three characters (save for two cops in the bookending scenes, as well as a hallucinatory figure and the man behind the door), “I Trapped the Devil” builds tension when Matt and Karen first hear the voice of the man behind the cellar door. As they decide what to do about the situation they’ve been forced into and have differing opinions about whether or not Steve is mentally sound, the narrative treads water a bit. That’s where the performances come in to sell the characters’ predicament. Scott Poythress is persuasive and controlled as Steve, a grieving artist who could just be a paranoid conspiracy theorist driven to madness or someone who has actually caught evil incarnate. AJ Bowen believably fleshes out the strained yet unspoken history between siblings, and Susan Burke says a lot with her face as the concerned Karen, who’s not just a passive third wheel to these brothers.

“I Trapped the Devil” is a great title, eerie in what it suggests, and to the extent of what in the film works, it proves that what’s left unseen can sometimes be even more horrifying. The film revolves around the core idea of faith and “is-he-or-isn’t-he?” question of whether or not Steve is an insane, dangerous man. Josh Lobo and cinematographer Bryce Holden prove their mettle on a budget when it comes to setting a tone and creating atmospheric imagery—the sight of an old man between the snowy noise on a TV is goosebump-inducing—and Ben Lovett’s ominous, propulsive score is enough to fray one's nerves. The final payoff is chilling, and yet it feels minimally realized, given how the film has deliberately taken its time. If “I Trapped the Devil” sometimes feels like an extended short film, it’s a promising stepping stone for Lobo, who has a great horror film in him.

Grade: B -

Monday, April 22, 2019

South Central Massacre: "Thriller" an uninspired, amateurish slasher dud

Thriller (2019)
87 min.
Release Date: April 14, 2019 (Netflix)

There haven’t been many slasher films with an entire cast comprised with people of color that it’s a shame the South Central-set “Thriller” is just not a very good one. Uninspired and amateurish, director Dallas Jackson’s feature debut denies fans of the slasher sub-genre any kind of pleasurable thrill when there’s so little style or finesse to raise one’s pulse. The plot itself might as well be an update of 1980’s “Prom Night” (even if there was already a loose remake of that Jamie Lee Curtis-starring slasher), beginning with a childhood prank gone wrong and then just replacing the killing spree at prom with a homecoming dance. It also doesn’t help when the majority of the teenage characters being paid for their bullying sins are such twits, not likable enough to be worth our sympathies but almost making one root for the killer. 

In South Central, Los Angeles, a group of thirteen-year-old friends prank the put-upon, stuttering Chauncey Page by baiting him into an abandoned house and giving him a scare. After Chauncey reacts and pushes a girl to her death, the other kids vow to say that it was all Chauncey’s fault, sending him away to juvenile detention. Four years later, with the circle of friends in their senior year at Compton High School, the hooded, sneering Chauncey (Jason Woods) returns and the news of his presence shakes up everyone, particularly guilt-ridden good girl Lisa Walker (Jessica Allain), who was the one forced to lure Chauncey to the house. Rounding out her complicit friends are Lisa’s football star boyfriend Ty (Mitchell Edwards); his jealous ex-girlfriend Gina (Paige Hurd); squabbling Latino couple Tiffany (Chelsea Rendon) and Eddie (Michael Ocampo); aspiring DJ Derrick (Luke Tennie); rap artist-chasing sexpot Kim (Pepi Sonuga); gangster Andre (Tequan Richmond); and Ronny (Maestro Harrell), who throws a house party. So, of course, Chauncey’s homecoming falls on the same weekend as the high school’s homecoming, and the rotten kids start getting taken out.

Co-written by director Dallas Jackson and Ken Rance, “Thriller” gets so bogged down in its surplus of characters and their uninvolving mini-dramas that it sometimes forgets to be a horror film. There’s even one cheap, go-nowhere red herring involving the dead girl’s sister Kim, who speaks in her sister’s voice in the mirror and might have a personality disorder. With thirty minutes left, the film actually gets to the stalking and slashing, but even that leaves one wanting; one female character is smart enough to kick off her heels before running from the killer, but then she goes and trips, injuring her leg and practically giving herself to the killer on a platter. There is a decent chase sequence with Lisa from the school restroom and through the halls, just like in “Prom Night," that includes a recognizable hissing sound effect ripped right from 1981’s “Halloween II." If “Thriller” does anything interesting at least on the surface, it’s setting a slasher film in South Central, an urban milieu where violence is unfortunately normalized, but even watching it through a contemporary, woke lens, this Blumhouse dud doesn’t reinvigorate the genre in any way. 

Grade: D +

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Hide Your Kids: A few effective moments almost compensate for script frustrations and screechy jump scares in "La Llorona"

The Curse of La Llorona (2019)
93 min.
Release Date: April 19, 2019 (Wide)

Latin American legend has it that a woman, in a fit of jealous rage after being jilted by her husband, drowned her two children in the river and then took her own life. The spirit of La Llorona, also known as The Weeping Woman, still lives on, searching for her children and preying on the lives of mortal children who hear her crying. Based on the haunting folktale that has cautioned children to behave, “The Curse of La Llorona” could have been something special, but instead it's hamstrung by screechy jump-scare theatrics and too many "don't do that!" character choices. Loosely fitting into Warner Bros. Pictures and New Line Cinema’s once-promising “The Conjuring Universe,” the film ends up being closer in quality to “The Nun” than “The Conjuring,” and that’s hardly a boastful place to be. When debuting director Michael Chaves has the viewer in his hand through some of the individual moments and plays with expectations, his effective direction is almost enough to overcome the frustrations of the screenplay that’s not nearly as ambitious as its concept. Alas, “The Curse of La Llorona” still falls short of reaching its potential and feels too familiar to hold our attention hostage. 

In 1973, Los Angeles, widowed mother and Child Protective Services social worker Anna Tate-Garcia (Linda Cardellini) has had to lighten her case load at work to take care of her own two children, Chris (Roman Christou) and Samantha (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen), since the death of her police officer husband. When a case comes in regarding mother Patricia Alvarez (Patricia Velasquez), Anna makes a welfare check on Patricia’s sons, who have been absent in school, only to discover that Tomas (Aiden Lewandowski) and Carlos (Oliver Alexander) have been locked in a closet. Patricia is taken away and yet blames Anna for freeing them. Not long after Anna gets Tomas and Carlos to safety, the two boys are drowned in a reservoir. As a mother herself, Anna will have to do all her can to protect her children from the wrath of the legendary specter La Llorona (Marisol Ramirez), who plans to harm them as she did her own 300 years ago.

As “The Curse of La Llorona” begins with a chilling prologue set in 1673, Mexico to introduce the legend, it seems to be on its way to become a macabre fairy tale of sorts in the classic vein. Aesthetically, the film applies the house style of its James Wan-produced franchise with a fluidly kinetic tracking shot that follows Samantha in from the outside and quickly introduces the geography of the Tate-Garcia house, cued up to Curtis Mayfield’s 1972 track “Super Fly.” Once Anna puts it together that La Llorona poses a threat and is not just an old folktale, the film deflates fast into a scare-to-minute ratio of startling noise-makers and overexposure of its titular child-drowning boogeywoman. When she isn’t eerily weeping off-camera, La Llorona herself is merely another demonic face in a white dress waiting to pop out and shriek. The screenplay by Mikki Daughtry & Tobias Iaconis (2019’s “Five Feet Apart”) flirts with the idea of child abuse, but doesn't go far enough with it, like a CPS co-worker sent to question Anna’s own children who have matching burns on their forearms and suspecting foul play. The bigger weakness is that the film goes too far in the other direction of the “Mom, there’s a monster under my bed”-type narrative, where the parents naturally never believe their children. Here, when the children have separate encounters with La Llorona and are marked with a burn, Chris and Samantha respond differently by keeping what they've experienced to themselves, and Anna follows suit when La Llorona gets to her as well. 

Linda Cardellini solidly makes the most of the harried Anna, most likely finding more emotional depth than what was found on the written page, and it’s just a pleasure to see the actress leading a studio film. Roman Christou and Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen, as children Chris and Samantha, are convincing enough when they’re being terrified, but they aren’t given much else to do besides be potential victims. One is willing to go along with a couple of the characters' early lapses in judgment before they know their lives are truly at stake, but by the time members of the Tate-Garcia family start making face-palming, hardly sensible decisions after seeing La Llorona (Samantha is the most egregious offender when it comes to foolishly retrieving her precious doll out of her safety zone), it becomes clear that their actions putting them in harm's way are just script contrivances. Raymond Cruz at least injects a dose of humor and smarts without even cracking a smile as Rafael Olvera, an experienced former-priest-turned-curandero who agrees to help the Tate-Garcia family with his mystical methods.

Already selected to helm 2020’s “The Conjuring 3,” director Michael Chaves does give one faith in what he will bring to his next project. Because of how Chaves stages certain set-pieces with conceptually nightmarish inspiration without always resorting to desperate jump scares, it isn’t a total loss. There’s a mischievously harrowing sequence where Chris attempts to keep himself and his sister safe in their mother’s car at night; a nifty now-you-see-her, now-you-don't trick involving an umbrella; and a bath time sequence with a creepy setup where La Llorona’s corpsy hands end up on Samantha’s soapy head. The rest of the scares are admittedly predictable that one has enough time to plug their ears, waiting for the loud musical stinger or open-mouthed screaming of La Llorona. Also, connections to this being a cog in the “The Conjuring Universe”—Father Perez (Tony Amendola) recalls helping a couple with a certain demonic doll—are tenuous at best. On occasion, “The Curse of La Llorona” entertains as a fun communal experience, but it so often likes its jolts loud and repetitive, as if even the tiniest bit of subtlety and more creeping dread wouldn’t garner enough of a reaction from the audience. It’s a real bummer when the big-screen treatment of a mythical figure from another culture can't unnerve or send anyone running out the theater screaming.

Grade: C

Friday, April 5, 2019

Big Strapping Hero: "Shazam!" a zippy, exuberant, heart-filled delight

Shazam! (2019)
132 min.
Release Date: April 5, 2019 (Wide)

Mirthfully divergent from the dark and brooding stuff that superhero features tend to be, “Shazam!” is pure joy. Based on C.C. Beck and Bill Parker's character, who was published first by Fawcett Comics before being sold to DC Comics and (this is where the rights issues get confusing) originally went by moniker "Captain Marvel," the film playfully mines the gee-whiz giddiness of a 14-year-old boy transforming into his adult-sized alter ego, a costumed superhero, whenever saying the magic word ("Shazam!," an acronym for the first letters of gods Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercy). Now, Shazam (or Thundercrack, Red Cyclone, or Captain Sparklefingers) receives his first feature film, and it is a lot of F-U-N! Written by Henry Gayden (2014's "Earth to Echo") and directed by David F. Sandberg (2017’s “Annabelle: Creation”), "Shazam!" effortlessly finds a sweetly silly buoyancy, but also genuine stakes and danger, that's still more in step with a fantastical body-swap comedy than a cinematic universe table-setter.

14-year-old orphan Billy Batson (Asher Angel) has fled foster homes in six counties and keeps searching for his birth mother after he was lost in a carnival crowd as a child. After another run-in with the cops in Philadelphia, he gets taken in to a family group home by a new set of foster parents, Rosa (Marta Milans) and Victor Vasquez (Cooper Andrews), and four other foster kids, who are all wonderful, but Billy still keeps his eye on the exit. One of the kids, physically disabled wiseacre Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), particularly takes a liking to Billy, as does precocious little Darla (Faithe Herman), who’s always wanted another big brother. Once Billy’s noble act standing up for Freddy to a couple of school bullies, the teen escapes to the subway and gets transported to the Rock of Eternity, a magical temple in another dimension, by ancient wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), who has been looking for a worthy soul pure of heart and strong in spirit. Though he thinks the bearded old man is kidding, Billy takes command of Shazam’s powers and gets turned into the body of a strapping, spandex-suited thirtysomething man (Zachary Levi). Meanwhile, physicist Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), who was summoned by wizard Shazam as a child but not chosen as the champion and thus tempted by a powerful orb, has nefarious plans to unleash the Seven Deadly Sins. Billy is still just getting used to his powers, which include lightning hands, super strength, the ability to fly, hyper-speed and bullet immunity, but he will have to learn his full potential if he wants to rid the world of evil and keep those closest to him safe.

Frisky and sweet-natured, “Shazam!” owes a debt to 1988’s “Big” and knows it (a brief wink to the Tom Hanks classic is perfectly timed). From saving a young woman who’s being mugged to stopping a stick-up at a convenience store and a montage set to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now,” the film is at its absolute best when Billy discovers his powers with Freddy by his side, and the tentative superhero monikers Freddy spitballs for his buddy are even funnier than the last. With discovery of great power bringing great responsibility, to paraphrase Uncle Ben, the film follows Billy in his journey to learn that being a superhero isn’t just about photo opportunities and giving autographs, and the lesson feels affectingly earned without striking as stale or saccharine. As director David F. Sandberg has previously showcased in his credits steeped in the horror genre, he confidently handles the film’s creepier, grimmer elements, too, such as an intense confrontation where Sivana sics his gargoyle-like Sins on his brother, father, and company associates in a conference room. And, while it sounds like a pretty facile observation, Sandberg infuses so much vibrant color into each frame, heightening his grounded reality with a comic-book kick.

Asher Angel (TV’s “Andi Mack”) has a rebellious edge and likability as “Holy Moly”-spouting troublemaker Billy, but watching what Zachary Levi (2017's "Thor: Ragnarok") does to replicate Angel’s performance is the entire show. Convincingly playing a 14-year-old in an adult man’s body in terms of attitude and body language, Levi brings such a boyish exuberance and effortless charisma as Billy's grown-up, super-powered counterpart. Jack Dylan Grazer (2017’s “It”) is a standout, yet again, delivering wonderful laugh lines and solidifying a charming friendship with Billy as the Superman-obsessed Freddy, and the adorable, endearing Faithe Herman (TV’s “This Is Us”) steals her scenes as the talkative Darla. No stranger to playing the heavy in a film, Mark Strong makes Dr. Thaddeus Sivana a memorable supervillain who’s not only threatening but lost his goodness to evil as a child when he was sick of being told he was never good enough; the attention-grabbing opener lays the groundwork as underestimated young Thad (Ethan Pugiotto) had his entire life changed one night while on the road with his father and older brother around Christmastime, summoned by Shazam but deemed unworthy.

For a 132-minute film, “Shazam!” is zippy in pace and never feels north of 90 minutes, and yet very few moments feel rushed. The appealing characters are what matter here, and yet there is plenty of spectacle and numerous crowd-pleasing moments, including a lively, inventive climax set at a winter carnival that delights in multiple character moments and a bit that takes the piss out of superhero tropes where Sivana delivers his villainous plan to Billy. There’s also a welcome reminiscence of “The Goonies,” as Billy gets a little help from his foster siblings, who all get to shine and make up a lovable familial unit. Consistently fun to watch and not without a heart, “Shazam!” is the kind of superior, eager-to-please superhero entertainment that puts a good amount of pep in the viewer’s step. Like Billy, it is pure of heart and strong in spirit.

Grade: B +