REVIEW: “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” (2021)

Two of my very favorite horror movies of the last decade were James Wan’s “The Conjuring” (2013) and “The Conjuring 2” (2016). Based on the supposed real-life case files of paranormal investigators and Vatican certified demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren, the Conjuring films were breaths of fresh air in a genre that had become pretty bland and stale. Both films were big box office successes which Warner Brothers used to launch several spin-off movies. None of them came close to the quality of Wan’s centerpieces, but they made money and ensured franchise fans of future movies.

The third film sees Wan producing and conceiving the story but stepping away from the director’s chair. It also sees the series dropping the number in its title and going with a case-referencing subtitle. Even more, unlike its predecessors, this isn’t a haunted house movie. Instead it’s based on the 1981 trial of Arne Cheyenne Johnson which became known as the “Devil Made Me Do It” case (hence the film’s funny sounding yet appropriate title). This one very much plays like a supernatural mystery; one that isn’t confined to a single location. Its differences from the previous two movies are obvious, but that’s part of what makes it such a nice addition to the series.

Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Though helmed by a new director (Michael Chaves), “The Devil Made Me Do It” does see the return of its most essential ingredients. The reliable Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson reprise their roles as Loraine and Ed, possessing that same stellar chemistry that has made the Warrens the heart of the “Conjuring” films. Their loving, devoted relationship has always played a crucial part to these stories, but never more than in the third film. In fact you could call this a thoughtful love story, albeit one wrapped from top to bottom in eerie supernatural terror.

The film opens with a chilling prologue that would feel right at home in first films. The Warrens have been summoned to Brookfield, Connecticut where they’re documenting the exorcism of 8-year-old David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard). In an obvious but satisfying toast to “The Exorcist”, the priest (Steve Coulter) arrives at the family home, standing in the soft glow of a street lamp with his bag by his side. Inside a malevolent demon fully takes hold of young David and a spiritual battle ensues. During the encounter Ed is attacked by the sinister spirit and suffers a heart attack. Then, unbeknownst by everyone other than the now unconscious Ed, the demon jumps from David to Arne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor), the amiable boyfriend of David’s older sister Debbie (Sarah Catherine Hook).

By the time Ed wakes up in the hospital it’s too late to stop the demon from resurfacing in Arne. One gruesome murder later and Arne is in court pleading guilty by reason of demonic possession. Loraine and a recovering Ed get back on the case, setting out to prove Arne was possessed by uncovering the evil at the heart of it all. Screenwriter David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick pulls the Warrens out of the confines of a single-setting and sends them on a paranormal whodunnit that sees them tracking down a hermit ex-priest with knowledge of the occult, helping police with a cold case in a nearby town, and revisiting the home where the demon first possessed young David. And of course there is plenty of demonic pushback along the way.

Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

By venturing outside of the haunted house box the third movie loses some of the nail-biting tension that kept fans perpetually on the edges of their seats. The first two films did a masterful job immersing their audiences in the suffocating terror of their settings – confining them within the walls of a creepy house with a devilish entity. There are tastes of that throughout part three, but this one leans more into a sustained level of dread. It’s not always cranked up to 10 nor does it need to be. But there is an ominous cloud that hangs over practically every scene. There are parts of the story that I wish were given more attention (such as the courtroom stuff), but the filmmakers know people aren’t coming to a “Conjuring” movie to see witness testimonies and cross-examinations.

“The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” finds itself in an tough spot. It makes an effort to actually do something different within the series rather than follow the blueprint of the two earlier movies. It seeks to show that the “Conjuring” films don’t have to be the same thing over and over again. Some people will appreciate that ambition while others wishing for ‘more of the same’ could get lost in comparing it to its predecessors. That would be a shame because this is a solid entry that may lack some of the chills but yet maintains the spirit of the two earlier installments. And it does so by avoiding the copy-and-paste approach where the names have changed but not much else has. “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” is now showing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.


REVIEW: “Cruella” (2021)

Since seeing its first trailer three months ago, Disney’s new film “Cruella” has had me in a shared state of fascination and bewilderment. On one hand I couldn’t wait to see Emma Stone dive headfirst into a demented character like Cruella de Vil. On the other hand how would Disney treat the backstory of one of the company’s most devious and notorious villains? Would they soften the edges of her story and go a more sympathetic route?

To no surprise Disney teases but ultimately steers clear of classic Cruella’s more diabolical character traits. Instead, any real evil is channeled through an entirely new character played by Emma Thompson. This Cruella is painted as a tragic figure whose pain turns her into a peculiar anti-hero of sorts. I’m not sure how this will sit with the devoted Cruella purists (if those people even exist), but I absolutely loved this deliciously unruly romp and the movie exceeded what expectations I had in every way imaginable.

Image Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

“Cruella” comes from director Craig Gillespie and is a surprising step up from the many Disney live-action remakes. Okay, so this isn’t a ‘remake’ per se, but it does add a stylish new spin to an iconic character. Clocking in at two hours and fourteen minutes I was a little nervous. But at no time was I checking my watch or feeling the length. That’s because Gillespie, co-writers Dana Fox and Tony McNamara, and one of the best acting ensembles of the year pour every bit of themselves into this wickedly (and unexpectedly) fun origin story.

Emma Stone absolutely crackles in the titular role, adding heaps of seasoning to both sides of her character. Through Stone’s narration and a really well done prologue we meet Estella, played in flashbacks by a delightful Tipper Seifert-Cleveland. She’s a spirited young girl and aspiring fashion designer who has stood out from the crowd from the day she popped out of the womb. As Stone wryly explains “From the very beginning I’ve always made a statement,” and not just by her natural half-black, half-white mane. It’s her mischievous and assertive personality that makes her a handful for her mother (Emily Beecham) and gets her into the most trouble.

I won’t spoil the entire prologue but a young and alone Estella ends up in London after her mother’s tragic death. There she falls in with two pickpocketing orphans Jasper and Horace who live in the attic of an old abandoned church. Jump ahead several years and the three of them have made a decent living bopping around 1970s London swiping wallets and pulling small heists. Estella (now played by Stone) uses her fashion design genius to make their disguises while Jasper (the always great Joel Frey) and Horace (the scene-stealing Paul Walter Hauser) do a lot of the legwork.

Image Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

Things slowly begin to change after Jasper gets Estella an entry-level position at a renowned fashion house ran by the devilishly chic and grossly narcissistic Baroness von Hellman (Thompson). It offers Estella a chance to get her foot in the door and finally realize her dream. But she quickly learns what all the other employees know but are too afraid to say – working for the relentlessly cruel Baroness isn’t easy.

Soon the Baroness’ nastiness and vainglory (mixed with a big reveal or two) gives birth to Estella’s flamboyant alter ego Cruella, a rather twisted amalgam of her pain and personality. It leads to a bitter rivalry between a haute and haughty industry legend and a ferocious new fashion provocateur. And as the mysterious Cruella captures more and more headlines, Estella starts to slowly fade into the background, becoming more of a disguise than a true identity.

From its earliest moments “Cruella” zips along with tenacious energy and a rich visual style. The stellar production design, the exquisite fashion, and DP Nicolas Karakatsanis’ lively camera ensure that there is always something to catch your eye. Oscar nominations for Hair and Makeup and Costume Design are all but assured. And I’m guessing a big chunk of the budget must have went towards the soundtrack. It seems every other scene features another great song. Blondie, ELO, Deep Purple, Queen, and so many more. I was bouncing my head through the entire movie. Sometimes that can feel like a crutch, but here it fits with the film’s carefree anarchic attitude.

Image Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

And then you get back to the performances. Stone really sinks her teeth into the role, brilliantly capturing Cruella’s razor-sharp cunning and devilish charm. There’s even a subtle glint of vulnerability in the rare quiet scenes, namely her visits to the fountain in Region’s Park where she has heartfelt conversations with her late mother. And then you have Emma Thompson matching Stone step-for-step. Who knew vanity could be so hilarious? Thompson is given so many good lines that she delivers with the perfect mix of venom and spot-on comic timing. Her black-hearted Baroness is as funny as she is detestable. Both Stone and Thompson are helped by ace supporting performances across the board. Frey, Hauser, Beecham, Mark Strong, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Ed Birch – just some of the film’s many essential pieces.

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but “Cruella” could end up being the biggest surprise of 2021. It’s brash, rowdy, and wickedly entertaining from start to finish. It fills its running time with great faces, a fabulous 1970’s London aesthetic, and killer music drops at every turn. It’s not an overstatement to say both Stone and Thompson deserve Oscar nominations for giving us two of the most warped yet entertaining characters we are likely to get all year. A part of me wishes they hadn’t played it so safe and let Cruella off her leash to truly become a villain. But in fairness Disney isn’t much for venturing into darker places these days, and the fact they went this far was a real treat. “Cruella” releases in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access this Friday, May 28th.


REVIEW: “Concrete Cowboy” (2021)


Idris Elba is an actor I’ve always admired. Whether he’s speaking with power and passion as Nelson Mandela or declaring himself Black Superman in “Hobbs & Shaw”. He has always possessed both leading man charisma and supporting role restraint. He uses a little of both in the new Netflix drama “Concrete Cowboy”, directed by Ricky Staub from a screenplay by Staub and Dan Walser. The film is based on the 2011 young adult novel “Ghetto Cowboy” by Greg Neri. Elba plays the estranged father of a troubled teen and brings just the right amount of gravitas and sincerity.

“Concrete Cowboy” tells a story set within the free-spirited horseriding subculture of Philadelphia’s inner-city. These modern-day urban cowboys from predominantly African-American communities (such as the Fletcher Street Riding Club) mentor youth and offer them an alternative to the dangerous street life. Staub’s film shines eye-opening light on this compelling pocket of humanity and the performances fill his film with character and heart. Yet this is a very by-the-numbers coming-of-age story and within 10 minutes you’ll have a good idea of where it’s going and how it will end.


Image Courtesy of Netflix

Elba is a key player but the film’s lead is Caleb McLaughlin (“Stranger Things”). He plays 15-year-old Cole, a wayward teen living in Detroit with his working single mother Amahle (Liz Priestley). After Cole is expelled from school following yet another fight, a helpless and heartbroken Amahle picks him up from school and drives him straight to Philadelphia. There she drops him off with two garbage bags full of clothes at his father’s place downtown and then drives away in tears. Staub wastes no time introducing us to this low-income yet richly cultured neighborhood where the rest of the movie is set. In fact, one of the real strengths is the film’s ability to capture a strong sense of place and community.

Cole and his father Harp (Elba) don’t exactly hit it off. Harp is a no-nonsense guy with strict take-it-or-leave-it house rules. Cole pushes back and ends up reconnecting with a shady childhood friend named Smush (a very good Jharrel Jerome). But Cole is also introduced to his father’s passion – horses and the small group of neighborhood riders who make up their club. And this forms the dichotomy Cole will wrestle with for most of the movie – two vastly different lifestyles with significantly different outlooks pulling him in opposite directions.


Image Courtesy of Netflix

The movie is at its best when it’s sitting us down with the riders and letting us listen to their playful banter and personal stories. Or when it allows us to tag along and watch Cole’s challenging initiation into Harp’s group. We get to meet some interesting characters in these scenes, none better than Lorraine Toussaint’s Nessie, a wise and tough-loving mother figure with her finger on the neighborhood’s pulse. Her stables are a safe haven from the allure of street-life and the balm that help heal the film’s central father/son relationship. Staub also casts some real-life Fletcher Street riders who add a noticeable layer of authenticity to the stable scenes.

The film’s predictability turns out to be its biggest weakness. Not a single plot point, story beat, or character angle will surprise you. Instead it’s the vibrant community setting that feels fresh and unexplored. There’s something to watching Idris Elba and his fellow urban cowboys stoically riding their horses, not across an open rolling plain, but through cramped inner-city streets. And you never doubt it for a second. This is just one of many segments of Black America with stories waiting to be told. And as surreal as it sometimes looks and sounds, this horseback riding culture has for decades fought for its very existence. Staub captures that unique essence even though the particulars of the story he’s telling are nothing new. “Concrete Cowboy” is now streaming on Netflix.



REVIEW: “The Courier” (2021)


Dominic Cooke’s Cold War drama “The Courier” tells the incredible true story of businessman turned British spy Greville Wynne. An electrical engineer by trade, the unassuming Wynne became a key MI6 asset who played a vital part in securing intelligence from the Soviet Union including secret documents which helped bring an end to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Similar to 2015’s “Bridge of Spies”, this is a story of a non-combatant willing to put his life on the line for the greater good. And like that Steven Spielberg picture, “The Courier” works thanks to its immersive storytelling, strong supporting work, and a terrific lead performance.

Written by Tom O’Connor, “The Courier” sets itself in the early 1960’s where nuclear tensions between Russia and the United States were at a boil. It was a time when many people feared the world was on the brink of destruction. In the movie we hear radio broadcasts relaying instructions on what to do in case of a nuclear attack. We see newspaper headlines telling of new fallout shelters being built by the U.S. government. These are just some of the period touches that help immerse us in the uneasiness and uncertainty of the setting.


Image Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Benedict Cumberbatch delivers a knockout lead performance playing Greville, a simple salesman who is recruited by a British MI6 agent (Angus Wright) and an operative with the CIA (Rachel Brosnahan). They want the reluctant Greville to establish business dealings in the Soviet Union while connecting with Col. Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), a senior Soviet intelligence officer with top-secret information he desperately wants to get to the West. Much of the film highlights the unexpected bond that forms between Greville and Oleg – a genuine friendship built on the shaky foundation of trust and mutual respect.

Greville’s ‘mission‘ seems simple enough at first – set up sales meetings, wine and dine potential business partners, and make the occasional stop at the Russian ballet. But when the agents and Oleg want Greville to be their go-between and smuggle secret Soviet documents and weapons plans out of country, the danger level of his work skyrockets. Meanwhile at home his wife Sheila (a wonderful Jessie Buckley) grows suspicious of her husband’s frequent trips to the USSR. It doesn’t help that he’s had an “indiscretion” in the past. Now she notices him suddenly into exercise and scurrying off on business trips with little explanation. So naturally it’s easier to believe her husband is having an affair than working as a secret agent for the Crown.


Image Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Cumberbatch has the perfect makeup for these types of roles. He effortlessly captures the timid self-effacing everyman type while also seamlessly blending into whatever period setting he’s playing in. Here he brings all of that but with some extra intensity that especially shows up in the final 30 minutes. But in many ways Penkovsky is the heart of the movie. Ninidze’s performance reveals a man of deep conviction who loves his family, mourns for his country, and understands both are in jeopardy. Therefore he feels obligated to act in order to save what is dearest to him. Buckley never gives a bad performance and here she provides us a deceptively potent emotional attachment to the story. I also really enjoyed Brosnahan. I wish she had more to do but she’s great with what she is given.

If I have any gripes it’s that in some ways “The Courier” feels like a standard issue spy thriller and it comes with the tropes to prove it. The film employs several stock techniques from the spy genre both narratively and visually. And while the cinematography from Sean Bobbitt is superb in terms of compositions, camera movements and framing, the drab desaturated colors are a bit overdone. Those things aside, “The Courier” is helped by its compelling ‘based on true events‘ element and by its deep respect for its characters who effectively pull us into this remarkable story of valor, sacrifice, and friendship. “The Courier” is now showing in theaters.



REVIEW: “Coming 2 America” (2021)


It’s hard to believe it has been 33 years since Eddie Murphy’s hysterical culture clash comedy “Coming to America” was released, becoming one of the biggest box office hits of 1988. It’s even harder to believe that after 33 years we actually have a sequel that brings back Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall along with the colorful and eclectic band of side characters who were essential to the original film’s success.

“Coming 2 America” (as it’s cleverly titled) taps into some of the same charm and comic energy that earned its predecessor such a loyal following. But this time around things feel much more studio packaged. Also, it’s not nearly as daring or anarchic especially in the movie’s second half where director Craig Brewer and the trio of screenwriters are content to play it safe. The laughs more-or-less dry up and the film slides into cruise control, staying that way for the remainder of its running time.


Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The story begins in bright sunny Zamunda on the morning of Prince Akeem (Murphy) and Princess Lisa’s (Shari Headley) 30th wedding anniversary. Much is still the same in the African monarchy with the Akeem and his family still living the palace life in all of its absurd royal excess. What has changed are the couple’s three daughters and the spark they bring to the palace. Their oldest is Princess Meeka (Kiki Layne), a lover of Zamunda who has worked and trained her entire life to be a worthy heir to her father’s throne. The problem is Zamunda is still ruled under an archaic stale patriarchy that states the throne can only be occupied by a male. Akeem had sworn to overturn such a dated tradition but instead of ushering in a new Zamunda he has become more like his ailing father King Jaffe (James Earl Jones).

Akeem’s lack of a male heir doesn’t escape the notice of General Izzi (a wonderfully campy Wesley Snipes), military leader of Nextdooria (that’s Next-Door-ia). He demands that Meeka marry his air-headed son in order for there to be peace between their two nations. Everything about Snipes is heightened and preposterous (in a really funny way) from his wacky speech tone to his hilariously pompous entrances. General Izzi is as close as we get to an antagonist, but it’s mainly a chance for Snipes to ham it up which I kinda loved.

Through circumstances I won’t spoil Akeem learns that he has an illegitimate son named Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler) in Queens, New York. Fans of the first movie had to be scratching their heads after this plotline was revealed in the trailer. After all, the reason Akeem went to America in the first movie was to find a wife who would love him for who he was. He had no interest in “sowing his royal oats“. This story maneuvers around that in a ludicrous but weirdly fitting way. So Akeem and his best friend/royal troublemaker Semmi (Arsenio Hall) head back to America to find his son and bring him back to Zamunda. Akeem does so not to connect with his true first-born and be a father to him. But so that he will finally have a not-so-rightful male heir to his throne.

“Coming 2 America” is at its best during its first 30 minutes or so where it feels very much in tune with the first movie. Whether it’s John Amos returning as Lisa’s father Cleo who has opened up a McDowell’s burger joint in Zamunda while still denying he stole his inspiration from McDonald’s. Or back in Queens where Akeem and Semmi revisit the savagely politically-incorrect Clarence and his barbershop buddies. And of course the movie features Murphy and Hall back in makeup and costumes reprising their numerous supporting roles including the aforementioned Clarence, the ever-awful soul singer Randy Watson, the womanizing Reverend Brown, and a new character Baba, a Zamundan witch doctor. This is where the movie shines.


Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The second half softens up considerably, tossing aside most things risqué or suggestive enabling the film to secure that PG-13 rating. It becomes this appealing but at times bland family comedy-lite with Lavelle and his Queens momma (Leslie Jones) clashing with the royal lifestyle while Akeem slowly wakes up to the silliness of a male-dominated society. As for Hall, he’s mostly left on the sidelines, popping up for a line of dialogue or a quick gag then *poof* he’s gone again. Aside from that there’s nothing glaringly bad about the back half. It just feels plain and ordinary. With the exception of its setting and a few fun nostalgic nods, there’s nothing about the last 45 minutes that will stick with you past the closing credits.

Looking back, it was the irreverence and satirical bite that made the ’88 film so funny and memorable. That movie wasn’t afraid to be silly or edgy and it never took itself seriously. It was infinitely quotable and there is a good reason why some of its scenes have over 3 million views on YouTube. The sequel opens with the same infectious cheeky vibe before settling in as a tame and rather conventional comedy. It ends up being an entertaining enough nostalgia trip that revisits some great comic characters from the past. Even if they aren’t as roundly funny as before, simply seeing them 30 years later is a joy in itself. “Coming 2 America” premieres tomorrow (March 5th) on Amazon Prime.



REVIEW: “Chaos Walking” (2021)


Signature pieces in Disney’s two biggest properties team up in the new sci-fi adventure “Chaos Walking” from director Doug Liman. Tom Holland (the MCU’s Spider-Man) and Daisy Ridley (a now prominent Jedi in the Star Wars universe) star in this adaptation of the first book in the Chaos Walking trilogy from author Patrick Ness. The film has been in the works for some time with principal photography wrapping up way back in 2017. Poor screen tests led to a number of reshoots which had to be delayed due to the other franchise commitments of its two stars.

With its rocky production behind it, “Chaos Walking” is finally set for its proper release. In addition to Holland and Ridley, the film packs a solid supporting cast including Mads Mikkelsen, Cynthia Erivo, David Oyelowo, Demián Bichir, and Nick Jonas. Ness writes the screenplay along with Christopher Ford. What we get is a movie built on a compelling and imaginative premise that realizes much of its potential. At the same time it leaves way too many loose ends, making it feel like a frustrating first installment rather than its own well-rounded movie.


Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

Holland plays Todd Hewitt, a boy who is part of an all-male colony on a distant planet called New World. As a mysterious side-effect of living on the planet, each male is afflicted with something they call “the Noise”. It puts every thought in their head on display, allowing others to hear (and in some cases see) what they are thinking. It’s a torturous condition that lays everything bare and only a few have learned how to suppress and control it. Liman visualizes the Noise as a milky haze that swirls around a person’s head like smoke whenever they have a thought. It then dissipates as quickly as it comes. It’s a crafty and effective visual.

Things are shaken up when Todd discovers a space capsule that has crash-landed on the planet. Among the wreckage is Viola (Ridley), the lone survivor and the first girl Todd has ever seen. Immediately his mind kicks into overdrive and his Noise gives away his curiosity and attraction. But it’s quickly noticed that Viola has no Noise. Amazed, Todd takes her to David Prentiss, the colony’s fur coat-clad Mayor who informs her that only men are afflicted with the Noise. He goes on to tell her about a war against a native species that overtook their colony and slaughtered all the women. Viola reveals that she is part of a scouting mission sent from a bigger ship in the planet’s orbit. If the Mayor can help her contact her ship they can send down a rescue team.

But after overhearing the Mayor’s nefarious intentions, Viola flees. In the meantime Todd learns some unsettling truths about the colony’s past that have been hidden from the people by those in power. After his adopted father Ben (Bichir) reveals the long held secret of a second colony, Todd tracks down Viola and the two head off to find the settlement hoping the people there can help her contact her ship. Like any good antagonist, the Mayor and his band of loyalists including his son Davy (Jonas) pursue them setting up the movie’s central conflict.

Along the way we’re fed morsels of much-needed backstory yet so many details are missing. The extent of the Mayor’s deception, his greater ambitions aside from being a standard-issue megalomaniac, anything about the native inhabitants known as the Spackle, a better understanding of the Noise. So much is passed over and unaddressed. Characters suffer as much as the story. Take Oyelowo’s Aaron who everyone refers to as Preacher. He’s a mysteriously wicked presence; a violent and tormented man ravaged by his Noise. He’s also woefully underwritten and left to skulk around with little for us latch onto. Erivo and the people of the second colony don’t fare much better. You get the sense they have an entire story worth telling, but like so many other things they are skimmed over and more-or-less forgotten.


Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

On the positive side, the film and the two lead characters are aided by some good chemistry between Holland and Ridley. Todd’s tell-all mind adds a fun twist to their relationship which the movie frequently plays around with. Hearing his thoughts constantly sell him out can be terrifying around enemies but also pretty funny when he’s with Viola and leads to him constantly chirping at himself “hide your Noise, hide your Noise“. And as you would expect, Mikkelsen makes for a menacing baddie even though so much about his character is glossed over leaving him feeling less of a threat than he could have been. But Mikkelsen is always reliable, even when the material isn’t.

“Chaos Walking” ends up being a weird experience. It’s a movie I enjoyed on a surface level, but the slightest look deeper leaves you with far more questions than answers. Even the ending fails to give any satisfying conclusion, wrapping up like a television episode that expects you to tune in next week. Maybe there are franchise aspirations and that’s why so much is left unexplained. But this feels different – like a movie that has all the pieces (a good cast, nice visuals, interesting premise) but is missing the narrative glue that holds them all together. Frankly, I’d be really surprised if a second installment ever sees the light of day. “Chaos Walking” opens in theaters this Friday.