REVIEW: “The Curse of La Llorona”

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I’m not sure how it happened, but somehow I had not realized that “The Curse of La Llorona” was considered a part of the Conjuring universe? Clearly someone wasn’t paying attention. And it’s funny because I’m generally a fan of the tethered horror franchise specifically the two proper “Conjuring” films. The side movies have been inconsistent but still entertaining.

“The Curse of La Llorona” was the sixth installment in the ever-expanding Warner Bros. horror-verse (there has been a seventh film since). It also marks the feature film directorial debut for Michael Chaves who is also directing next year’s “The Conjuring 3”. The film is based on the actual Mexican folktale of The Weeping Woman. According to the legend a mother drowned her two children and then herself in a jealous rage after her husband left her for a younger woman. As a result she is cursed and her spirit roams the earth looking for children to replace hers.

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Following a brief introduction to the legend, the movie sits down in 1973 Los Angeles. The often underrated Linda Cardellini plays Anna, a widowed mother of two and a child services case worker. She’s asked to do a welfare check after the children of a client (Patricia Velasquez) are reported missing. Once there, Anna finds the two kids locked in a closet and their distraught mother who claims she is protecting them from La Llorona.

I won’t spoil how it happens but La Llorona switches her sights to Anna’s children (played by Roman Christou and Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen). The rest of the film features Anna getting a grasp of the terror they’re facing and protecting her kids from the violent apparition decked out in billowing white lace and with a ghoulish ashy face that could have been copied and pasted straight from “The Nun”.

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“La Llorona” is frustrating mainly because it starts out pretty strong. It puts its pieces in place through a nifty setup with real horror potential. But then it does what the weaker of the Conjuring spin-offs do – leans way too heavily on obvious horror movie conventions. You know, jump scares, squeaky doors, wide-eyed people slow-walking through a dark house at night (just turn the lights on people).

There is a brief but neat appearance by a someone who links this film to another from the franchise. But we also get a character who feels off from the first moment we meet him. Raymond Cruz plays this excommunicated priest turned shaman who Anna seeks out for help. The character has the personality of a plank of wood and his dry, monotone dialogue doesn’t help. He adds to the overall generic feel of the film’s second half. And again, what a shame. “La Llorona” gets off on the right foot and Cardellini does what she can. But it’s yet another Conjuring installment built on a promising idea but with execution that feels all too familiar.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Countdown” (2019)

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It took a while, but it looks like we’re finally getting the killer smartphone app horror movie we’ve been waiting for. Okay, so maybe I’m being a little facetious, but with a movie like “Countdown” it’s kind of hard not to be. It’s one of those films that easily belongs on the more absurd side of the horror genre.

The idea is that a smartphone app called Countdown claims to be able to predict the date and time of your death right down to the second. Of course it instantly becomes popular with droves of unwitting teens, twenty-somethings and other soon-to-be killer fodder. The prologue starts it up with a group of partying kids downloading Countdown as part of their drinking game. Needless to say the app proves to be deadly accurate (see what I did there).

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The movie then pivots to a nursing intern named Quinn (Elizabeth Lail). She and her co-workers jokingly download the app which gives her only three days left to live. She’s quick to dismiss it at first but several things change her mind namely terrifying visions that seem to be foreshadowing her impending demise. Well, they’re terrifying to her. For us they are simply a collection of tried-and-not-so-true jump scares.

Quinn tries the obvious, deleting the app, but with no success. And somehow buying a new phone through a new service provider doesn’t work (I still haven’t figured out the silly rules behind that one). As she slowly unravels she meets Matt (Jordan Calloway) who is trying to escape the same fate and she learns her sister (Talitha Bateman) is in the same boat.

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“Countdown” is written and directed by Boston native Justin Dec whose previous credits include several film shorts and a web series. Here he tries to compensate for the rather lightweight horror by cramming in a half-baked workplace sexual harassment storyline and some old family baggage neither of which is all that compelling. Even with those things the characters are paper-thin andgeneric. The worst is a priest (P. J. Byrne) Quinn seeks out for help. He may be the worst character you see in a film this year.

Remember the 2017 film “Happy Death Day”? It was a horror movie built on a wacky premise but with plenty of self-awareness and black comedy to make it a lot of fun. “Countdown” could have worked if it had done something similar. Instead it takes an even more preposterous premise and gives it the super-serious treatment from the start all the way through its cheap sequel tease at the end. But if nothing else at least it instills one piece of life-changing wisdom to smartphone owners everywhere – ALWAYS read the user agreement!

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

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Denzel Day #3 – “Courage Under Fire” (1996)

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Over a span of two months each Wednesday will be Denzel Day at Keith & the Movies. This silly little bit of ceremony offers me a chance to celebrate the movies of a truly great modern day actor – Denzel Washington.

When it hit theaters in July of 1996 “Courage Under Fire” was Hollywood’s first big movie about the Persian Gulf War. But it was far from what could be perceived as a run-of-the-mill war picture. Combat served as a narrative backdrop for what is more accurately a military mystery. It’s one man’s search for the truth and how his personal state of mind depends on being able to tell it to someone…anyone.

In 1996 Denzel Washington was already in top form, here playing Lieutenant Colonel Nathaniel Serling. The film opens with him leading a tank platoon into combat just outside of Baghdad. In the chaos of war Serling gives the order to fire on a tank his spotter (Sean Astin) identifies as an enemy but which turns out to be a friendly. US soldiers are killed, the Army covers it up, and Serling is given a desk job at the Pentagon.

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Serling works under General Hershberg (Michael Moriarty) who knows the truth but is intent on keeping it under wraps. He gives Serling a new assignment – to run an inquiry on the recommendation to award the Medal of Honor to a female helicopter pilot killed in the line of duty. Captain Karen Walden (Meg Ryan) would be the first woman to receive the honor and the White House is giddy over the optics of a big televised Rose Garden ceremony.

But as Serling begins carrying out what should be a routine inquiry, he immediately notices discrepancies in the testimonies from the soldiers who survived the incident where Walden lost her life. Unable to bear the burden of another cover-up, Serling sets out to find the truth amid intense pressure from Hershberg and the White House to wrap up his investigation quickly and quietly.

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Director Edward Zwick and screenwriter Patrick Sheane Duncan do a remarkable job with some pretty tricky material. As Serling interviews the soldiers flashbacks capture their perspectives of the events leading to Walden’s death. The filmmakers deftly handle these transitions both narratively and visually. Duncan’s script is full of strategically revealed detail and information while Zwick gives it visual form through the lens of the great cinematographer Roger Deakins.

There is also a smart and humanizing personal side to the story. Throughout the film we see Serling still haunted by his experience on the battlefield and the truth he knows that needs to be told. He has nightmares, his drinking is out of control, and the stress has driven a wedge between him and his wife (a really good Regina Taylor) and children. His investigation is a way to occupy his mind and keep him from coping.

Washington is truly the linchpin of the film displaying his signature charisma and a subtle intensity that seeps out into every scene. Yet he’s always under control even as his character is emotionally crumbling. Meg Ryan is also quite good. Her tough girl military jargon isn’t always convincing but the variations within her performance certainly are. She’s asked to act out the same scenario several times but each from a different person’s point of view.

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Matt Damon and Lou Diamond Phillips are both fantastic as soldiers with very different recollections of Walden and what happened to her. Scott Glenn is a good fit playing a former Ranger but now Washington Post reporter who knows Serling and the Army are covering up what took place on the battlefield near Baghdad.

“Courage Under Fire” is a military drama that delves into an assortment of interesting themes from the deep personal costs of war to women in combat. Its central mystery is compelling even though it takes some time before we finally get to the truth. And even though the emotion is pretty thick in the final 15 minutes it still feels earned.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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Denzel Day #2 : “Crimson Tide” (1995)

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Over a span of three months each Wednesday will be Denzel Day at Keith & the Movies. This silly little bit of ceremony offers me a chance to celebrate the movies of a truly great modern day actor – Denzel Washington.

Submarine thrillers are a special brand of war movie. Because of their isolated locations and confined spaces, the bulk of their focus is on the interpersonal drama between characters. Perhaps that’s one reason there aren’t very many of them. And of those out there, the ones that do get the character-driven drama right are the ones that stand out from the others. “Crimson Tide” gets it right.

Tony Scott directed this tense undersea thriller that is surprisingly intimate despite having all of the big budget trimmings. Both Michael Schiffer’s snappy script and the strong supporting cast (particularly Viggo Mortensen, George Dzundza, and James Gandofini) are dressing for the charisma and fierce screen presence of the movie’s two leads – Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman.

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Drawing inspiration from the Cuban Missile Crisis, “Crimson Tide” takes place as political turmoil embroils post-Soviet Russia giving rise to civil war and ultra-nationalist bomb-thrower Vladimir Radchenko. This radical rebel leader declares war against the Russian government while threatening a nuclear attack against the United States for their involvement in war-ravaged Chechnya. Needless to say tensions are high.

The United States submarine USS Alabama is sent to the region armed with nuclear missiles to either be a deterrent to a Radchenko attack or to wage a pre-emptive strike which would certainly lead to all-out nuclear war. Hackman plays the vessel’s Commanding Officer Captain Frank Ramsey. He’s a hard-nosed leader who has been commanding ships for over twenty years. Washington plays Ramsey’s new Executive Officer, Lieutenant Commander Ron Hunter. He comes highly regarded from the Naval Academy and even has a year at Harvard, but no military experience.

These two big personalities begin to clash, at first over small things such as philosophies and by-the-book protocols. But when tensions in the region escalate and the ship is ordered to DEFCON 3, their dramatically different approaches in the face of potential nuclear war could determine the fate of billions. Their main beef is over two emergency action messages from Washington. The first orders the vessel to launch missiles at a Russian nuclear site. The second message is cut off before it can be fully transmitted.

With communications down Hunter pushes to be prudent and cautious until the second message can be retrieved. Ramsey is more headstrong and impulsive, choosing to follow the orders of the first message while disregarding the second. Assertions of aggression, insubordination, and mutiny splits the crew and raises the story’s dramatic tension. It sets up the film’s biggest conflict as emotionally charged, high stakes back-and-forths between CO and XO stand in for the normal big action set pieces.

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Once we enter the submarine we never leave until the very last scene. During our time underwater we run into several familiar tropes: water bursting into a lower decks, crew members running down tight corridors, a fire in the galley. Those things are nothing new. But it’s Washington and Hackman as the film’s centerpieces who drive the story. Their performances are (as you would expect) top-notch and the screenplay gives them several big moments.

Neither Scott nor Schiffer seem worried about the deeper details of the crisis or the geopolitics at its center. That’s a good thing as it keeps the narrative tighter and more focused. It also enables the film to be exactly what it wants to be. “Crimson Tide” doesn’t aim to be some deeply psychological or politically charged story. It’s very straightforward mainstream entertainment with two dynamic box office leads and solid supporting work. That’s more than enough for me.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “Crawl” (2019)

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Let’s be honest, it’s hard to enter the new movie “Crawl” without some level of snark and skepticism. I mean we are talking about people being terrorized by man-eating alligators during a Category 5 hurricane. On concept alone it would be easy to dismiss as a throwaway B-movie maybe worth renting after you’ve seen everything else in your local Redbox.

But oh how I love it when a movie surprises me. “Crawl” has no ambitions of being anything other than what it is. It just does what it does incredibly well. It’s a tightly-wound, no-nonsense thriller; a throwback creature-feature that utilizes every second of its lean 88-minute runtime.

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The first hint that this could actually be pretty good was seeing Sam Raimi’s name attached. He produces alongside the film’s writer/director Alexandre Aja. Their story is light but their characters are given a surprising amount of depth considering how much time they spend in peril. Family dynamics are laid out and we get enough personal stakes to make us genuinely care about them.

Kaya Scodelario drives the movie with an intensely committed lead performance. She plays Haley, a swimmer for the University of Florida who gets a call from her concerned sister who hasn’t been able to reach their father (played by Barry Pepper). He isn’t answering his phone and with a massive hurricane bearing down his window to evacuate is shrinking.

Haley agrees to check on her dad before she leaves town. She discovers him injured in a crawlspace underneath their old family lake house. It doesn’t take long for her to find out what caused his injury – a massive alligator under the house lurking in the shadows. Trapped there with her father, a growing number of gators, and rising flood waters from the hurricane sets the table for a tension-soaked (and sometimes bloody) survival-horror thrill ride.

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One of the first things to impress me was Aja’s camera particularly when shooting in tight spaces. For a movie like this it’s imperative that the audience feel they are in those spaces with the characters. The danger needs to feel palpable. Aja’s camera pulls us in with great effect whether he’s shooting in claustrophobic spaces below the house or giving us tense underwater shots. Combine that with fantastic work from production designer Alan Gilmore who offers up some visually impressive and thoroughly convincing storm effects.

“Crawl” works well because it embraces its simplicity and sticks to its premise. There’s no needless filler or pointless melodrama. Instead we get exciting thrills, economic storytelling, and just enough character development to make us care. And with such good visual technique and devoted central performances, you can’t help but be immersed regardless of how silly the whole thing sounds.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “Child’s Play” (2019)

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Am I wrong or are we witnessing the resurgence of the slasher sub-genre into mainstream horror? I first noticed it with the tame but surprisingly fun “Happy Death Day”. But it really stood out is when Hollywood starting bringing back old franchises. Last year “Halloween” was a big hit and a few rumors are swirling about a possible “Scream” sequel. But if there was one series I never expected to see back on a big screen it was “Child’s Play”. Yet here we are.

I remember when the original “Child’s Play” released in 1988. It was a unique and playful entry into a horror genre that frankly was growing a little stale. It was easy to laugh along with the movie but not with the host of terrible sequels that followed. Yet 2017’s unwatchably bad “Cult of Chucky” showed it still had life as a straight-to-streaming series. But now it’s actually back in theaters, remade and rebooted for a new audience. At least I think it’s for a new audience. I certainly wasn’t longing for a new installment.

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This is the second feature film for Norwegian director Lars Klevberg. He teams with first-time screenwriter Tyler Burton Smith to completely reinvent and modernize the Chucky origin story. Buddi dolls now do a lot more than just talk. These versions are high-tech Alexa-like companions who can connect to numerous other devices created and sold by the multinational Kaslan Corporation (the ‘tech is scary’ and ‘beware of big business’ messaging is pretty obvious).

Also gone is the goofy serial killer possession angle. Instead a disgruntled worker at a Vietnamese sweatshop removes a Buddi doll’s safety protocols in retaliation for being fired. The doll ships overseas and ends up in the hands of a retail clerk and single mother named Karen (Audrey Plaza). She gives the doll as an early birthday present to her son Andy (Gabriel Bateman) who is having trouble adapting to their new neighborhood. He names it…well, you know.

Despite something clearly being off with Chucky (deviously voiced by a wonderful Mark Hamill), Andy grows attached to his new Buddi. Things start out great, but as Chucky processes and is influenced by Andy’s complex home life, lets just say the doll slowly becomes a menacing knife-wielding threat. And I do emphasize ‘slowly’ because it takes a while before any semblance of a horror thriller arrives.

In addition to its unexpectedly slow buildup, the film also suffers from an unfortunate identity crisis. I expected a “Child’s Play” reboot in 2019 would by necessity be a full-blown horror comedy. We get a few sparks of humor but far too often it takes itself way too seriously. And the uneven story treatment carries over to some of the characters.

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Take Plaza’s Karen. She starts off as a signature Audrey Plaza character full of snark and dry, sarcastic wit. But that’s quickly tossed aside and Karen becomes little more than a necessary plot device. And it’s amazing how little agency she has. Take how oblivious she is to her jerk of a boyfriend’s treatment of Andy. A character with some level of conflict would have been interesting. The film isn’t much into that.

“Child’s Play” tries to make several statements on our culture, technology, and (somewhat hypocritically) the influences of violent entertainment. While some of it lands pretty well, it’s hard to take any of it too seriously. So in a nutshell it isn’t serious enough. It isn’t funny enough. It isn’t self-aware enough. Worst of all, it isn’t the slightest bit scary. There is some occasional fun and a little bit of amusing nostalgia, but certainly not enough to carry the movie through to its end.

VERDICT – 2 STARS