Film Review

Film Review - The Curse of La Llorona


The “Conjuring” Universe has been going strong since 2013, with the original James Wan picture spawning a slew of sequels and spin-offs, with each production warmly received by audiences craving big scares from the supernatural unknown. The quality of a few of these titles is up for debate, but as proven with last fall’s “The Nun,” viewers aren’t exactly expecting much more out these endeavors than the basics in jump scare gymnastics. Understanding that, “The Curse of La Llorona” doesn’t really bother with a plot or a backstory, charging full steam ahead as a fright machine, working in as many shocks, jolts, and booms as possible while offering a tenuous connection to the world of “The Conjuring.” It doesn’t do much, and perhaps that’s all it needs to do, but “The Curse of Llorona” gets tiresome in a hurry, trying to skate by on the bare minimum of dramatic effort. Read the rest at

Film Review - Under the Silver Lake


In 2015, writer/director David Robert Mitchell made an impression with “It Follows.” A tale of horror and paranoia, the picture managed to slip out of release obscurity and make some money, acquiring a fervent fanbase along the way. For his follow-up, Mitchell wisely stays away from replicating his lone hit film, trying something different with “Under the Silver Lake,” which is something of a valentine and a warning concerning the secret avenues of Los Angeles. But how different is too different? It’s a question that often comes up during the viewing experience, with Mitchell trying too hard to be strange and cryptic with his latest endeavor (which was shot nearly three years ago). “Under the Silver Lake” welcomes interpretation and decoding, but it’s less invested in interesting storytelling, with Mitchell taking 140 minutes of screen time to fumble along with tedious humor, mysteries, and west coast quirk. Read the rest at

Film Review - Red Joan


“Red Joan” knows exactly how to play to its target audience. This is not a procedural spy thriller or a dissection of World War II political gamesmanship. There’s nothing particularly edgy about the production. Instead, screenwriter Lindsay Shapero takes a more soap opera-ish approach to the subject, turning this tale of secrets and lies into acts of heartbreaking exposure to all-consuming love. For some, such mushiness is going to be a turn-off, with director Trevor Nunn (who hasn’t helmed a big screen feature since 1986’s “Lady Jane”) creating a softer push of melodramatics to buffer a tale of treasonous behavior and patriotic confusion. For others, “Red Joan” will be cat nip, especially for older art-house crowds who enjoy their global conflict reduced to areas of romantic indecision, blended with some mild espionage action. Read the rest at

Film Review - Little Woods


There have been a lot of movie about American poverty and addiction in the heartland and there will be many more to come. Filmmakers are naturally drawn to the distress of an open world populated with people unable to keep their heads above water, and “Little Woods” is no different, with writer/director Nia DaCosta examining the atmosphere of a North Dakota boomtown and the residents who can no longer afford to live there, trying to scrape by as drugs offer numbness, and basic needs, such as healthcare, strip them of money and dignity. DaCosta doesn’t dwell on the hardscrabble life, providing attention to character with a slight thriller edge, keeping “Little Woods” gritty without the verte feel. It’s an accomplished picture, even when manipulations begin to take command of the screenplay in the third act, with DaCosta trying to keep her effort emotionally authentic but also tense enough to hook in an audience. Read the rest at

Film Review - Crypto


Screenwriters Carlyle Eubank and David Frigerio apparently loved Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street” and wanted to update the 1987 picture for today’s audiences. “Crypto” doesn’t have the sinister feel of Stone’s endeavor, but it basically follows the same arc of moral and financial corruption, offering viewers a new playground of cryptocurrency and encrypted dealings featuring global criminal syndicates. The writing provides a deep dive into terminology and restless participants trying to make a fortune with digital loot, and “Crypto” isn’t half-bad when focus turns to online detective work. Even some mild family dramatics are understood, but the material faces an uphill battle when transitioning from a cyber-thriller to a violent one, forcing director John Stalberg Jr. into helming stress positions that shut down the movie entirely. Read the rest at

Film Review - Peterloo


Writer/director Mike Leigh is not one to get all riled up for his screen endeavors. He’s quick to anger, certainly, but his features mostly take a humanistic look at behavioral failures and interpersonal connections, while his last film, 2014’s “Mr. Turner,” was a bio-pic about a painter. Primarily drawn to domestic dramas, Leigh aims for a grander scope with “Peterloo,” which depicts an 1819 event where the ruling class, in an effort to stop a peaceful demonstration, ordered violence to silence the needy, resulting the wounding of hundreds and the deaths of many. “Peterloo” isn’t a precise picture, with Leigh once again indulging himself with an unnecessary run time (155 minutes), but there’s fury here, at least in spurts, with the normally placid helmer bulging a few veins as he mounts a historical drama featuring a multitude of characters and a political backstory that’s never completely committed to being educational. Read the rest at

Film Review - Stuck


Musicals are back in style thanks to the likes of “La La Land” and the inexplicable success of 2017’s “The Greatest Showman.” Audiences are in the mood for grand displays of singing and dancing, whisking them away to areas of fantasy and emotion that can only be reached through the majesty of Hollywood magic, boosted with some old-fashioned star power. “Stuck” doesn’t have much pixie dust, offering viewers a small-scale tale of personal connection among strangers trapped in a subway car. There’s not much room for movement or epic showcases of style, but writer/director Michael Berry (adapting a musical play by Riley Thomas) is determined to make something meaningful with the little material he has, aiming for heartfelt exchanges over splashy entertainment, laboring to make “Stuck” matter where it counts the most. Read the rest at

Film Review - Missing Link


Stop-motion animation studio Laika has focused intently on the creation of artful endeavors for a family audience. They’ve rarely compromised, which has limited their box office appeal, but it’s resulted in a string of gorgeously crafted, adventurous tales of fantasy and beyond, reaching a sort of creative pinnacle with 2016’s “Kubo and the Two Strings.” Their latest effort is “Missing Link,” which plays like a reaction to the tepid financial response to “Kubo,” with Laika slipping into Aardman Animations territory, dialing up comedic appeal and cartoon design to reach an audience that’s been hesitant to spend their matinee dollars on semi-challenging work. “Missing Link” is a charmer and features the company’s exquisite attention to frame detail, but it can’t shake the traditional coldness of Laika’s output, often caught straining to be whimsical in a largely laugh-free endeavor. Read the rest at 

Film Review - Hellboy


We’ve done this before. Twice, actually. In 2004, there was “Hellboy,” with director Guillermo del Toro trying to bring the comic book world of Mike Mignola to the big screen, casting Ron Perlman as the big red hero, struggling to bring idiosyncratic material through the Hollywood studio system. Box office wasn’t bananas, but it was enough to inspire 2008’s “Hellboy II: The Golden Army,” which provided a marked improvement for del Toro’s vision, finding balance between his fantasy itches and the demands of a PG-13 summer sequel. Again, box office wasn’t great, and finally, it wasn’t enough. Instead of betting on del Toro/Perlman for another round of monster fighting, producers are now restarting the franchise, issuing “Hellboy,” which gives David Harbour a chance to portray the titular character, with helmer duties going to Neil Marshall (“The Descent,” “Centurion”), who’s been tasked with taking the series into R-rated extremes of violence to properly match Hellboy to his ink and paint origins. Read the rest at 

Film Review - Her Smell


Writer/director Alex Ross Perry specializes in off-beat character examinations, and he’s done depressive downfall with actress Elisabeth Moss before, in 2015’s “Queen of Earth.” Their collaboration was powerful then and remains vibrantly poisonous in “Her Smell,” with Perry taking his fixation with mental illness to the alternative rock realm, dialing back the clock to the mid-1990s to examine the complete and utter erosion of a music star. Perry doesn’t pull punches here, creating a deep sea dive into madness, with Moss going for broke in a turn that runs exclusively on pain and shame. “Her Smell” demands an audience with enough strength to remain in the vortex of a nervous breakdown for 135 minutes, and those with the proper preparation are rewarded with a raw, often thrilling display of behavioral excess. Read the rest at

Film Review - Little


In 1988, there was “Big,” and it was delightful. A fine offering of gentle comedy concerning the magical transformation of a boy into a man’s body, “Big” was sweet, hilarious, and featured one of Tom Hanks’s finest performances in director Penny Marshall’s best film. In 2019, there’s “Little,” which isn’t classified as a remake of “Big,” but let’s not dismiss the lawyers just yet. Here, the magical transformation turns a mean thirtysomething woman into her 14-year-old self. It’s meant to be a comedy with a healthy dose of heart, but it’s also uncomfortably scattershot and ill-defined when it comes to an actual sense of humor. The actors seem to be having a good time, which is perhaps enough to entertain, but actual creative effort is lacking in “Little,” which simply doesn’t have much to share with its audience. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Man Who Killed Don Quixote


Co-writer/director Terry Gilliam has been dreaming of making “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” for 30 years, craving the chance to bring Miguel de Cervantes’s novel to the big screen. Famously, in 2000, Gilliam almost managed to make such a miracle happen, with stars Jean Rochefort and Johnny Depp joining forces to give the helmer’s unusual vision dramatic life. However, a disaster ensued, with schedules, location problems, and actor unreliability shutting down the shoot, crushing Gilliam’s plans to make one of his weirdest movies to date (the experience was chronicled in the 2002 documentary, “Lost in La Mancha”). The project was left for dead, branded cursed, but such toxicity didn’t bother Gilliam, who remained obsessed with the material, emerging in 2019 with a completed interpretation of “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” finally freeing himself from the burden of having to prove himself. Read the rest at

Film Review - Ladies in Black


Charm is a big asset to “Ladies in Black,” which is an adaptation of a 1993 novel by Madeleine St. John. Co-writer/director Bruce Beresford is smart to keep the feature as appealing as it can be, using brightness of spirit to combat some peculiar turns of plot and sketchy romantic ideals. It’s a tale of personal growth set inside a Sydney department store during the 1959 holiday season, and while initial scenes give off a distinct “Mr. Selfridge” vibe of daily commerce and employee troublemaking, Beresford doesn’t head in an overly melodramatic direction, finding a comfortable balance of predictability and oddity. “Ladies in Black” doesn’t aim to overwhelm, and it achieves most of the small goals it sets for itself, doing period Australia with interest in character desires and future plans. Read the rest at 

Film Review - The Best of Enemies


“The Best of Enemies” has the best intentions in the world to communicate something basic about the human experience. It’s here to heal, showcasing an unlikely thawing of hostilities between a Ku Klux Klan leader and a black activist in North Carolina during the summer of 1971. The connection is inspiring, but the movie is not. Writer/director Robin Bissell takes the true story of C.P. Ellis and Ann Atwater’s meeting and pours on the syrup, making a distinct effort to avoid as much real-world grit and emotion as possible to create something huggable, which is the wrong path to take for a tale concerning institutionalized racism and community violence. “The Best of Enemies” endeavors to stay warm and approachable, but it ends up insulting, with Bissell doing his best to keep the story as cartoonish as possible. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Public


Emilio Estevez doesn’t make many movies these days, but when he does, he’s looking for material that examines the human experience, braiding social and personal issues into fascinating character studies, with his last two efforts, 2010’s “The Way” and 2006’s “Bobby,” achieving a sense of illumination through acts of contemplation and understanding. He’s never been too preachy with his work, and once again touches on community concerns with “The Public,” which addresses the role of the library as a place of research and education, while such safe spaces are being increasingly used as shelter facilities for the homeless and the mentally ill. As with “Bobby,” “The Public” is an ensemble piece, and a frequently terrific one, placing attention on a growing issue in urban areas, and it works as a drama highlighting the concerns of many while situated in a single, and unusual, location. Read the rest at

Film Review - Pet Sematary


30 years ago, there was “Pet Sematary,” the first attempt to bring Stephen King’s popular 1983 novel to the screen. The picture was a success, offering audiences a wacko take on death and resurrection, with director Mary Lambert leaning into the perversity of it all, striving to find the nightmare of loss at the core of King’s work. It’s amazing that it’s taken this long for Hollywood to try their luck with the material again (let’s pretend a 1992 sequel never happened), with “Pet Sematary” a second adaptation that tries to distinguish itself by changing certain elements of the plot, hoping to refresh known events for hardcore fans. While the ’89 effort had its issues, the ’19 take is uncomfortably flat and unadventurous when it comes to the madness of Ludlow, Maine, with directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer (“Starry Eyes”) playing it safe with “Pet Sematary,” going more for slasher atmosphere than utter psychological ruin. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Chaperone


Julian Fellowes was able to conquer television with six years of “Downton Abbey,” guiding the hit show through creative ups and downs, maintaining a loyal audience who remained with the series for its colorful characterizations, wish-fulfillment aspects of posh life, and period setting, with the 1920s the primary years of inspection. It seems Fellowes doesn’t exactly want to leave such success behind, with “The Chaperone” returning the writer to the Jazz Age, only this time bringing focus to America, highlighting the development of future film star Louise Brooks as she enjoys her first taste of popularity during a key trip to New York City. Fellowes even brings in “Downton Abbey” vet Elizabeth McGovern to star in the picture, which inspires one of the best performances from the actress, who really digs in deep here while the rest of “The Chaperone” isn’t all that committed to emotional depth. Read the rest at

Film Review - Unicorn Store


After winning an Academy Award for her performance in 2015’s “Room,” Brie Larson was suddenly faced with a career that could go anywhere. And it did, in a way, with the actress participating in heavy dramas (“The Glass Castle”), violent weirdness (“Free Fire”), and blockbusters (“Kong: Skull Island”). However, right before she embarked on her Marvel Cinematic Universe mission with the stunning success of March’s “Captain Marvel,” Larson decided to mount her own directorial debut, taking command of “Unicorn Store,” a quirky, searching fantasy from writer Samantha McIntyre. Larson showcases a cinematic vision with the endeavor, which delivers color and attention to personality on a limited budget, and while “Unicorn Store” doesn’t make it all the way to the finish line, it’s a promising offering of contorted whimsy from Larson, who clearly shows skill behind the camera and interest in creating strange little worlds. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Haunting of Sharon Tate


Two months ago, writer/director Daniel Farrands revisited the true crime tale of Ronald DeFeo Jr., hoping to squeeze a little more misery out of “The Amityville Horror” franchise with “The Amityville Murders.” It was a dud, but a strange one, turning to the supernatural as a way to explain mental illness and moral dissolve, with Farrands attempting to make a ghost story in a way, with hopes to approach well-worn material from a different, fictional perspective. Feeling good about his creative choices, Farrands does the same thing for the Tate Murders, reimagining a mass murder as some type of elongated descent into nightmares and premonitions, depicting Sharon Tate as somewhat aware of her horrible fate. Distasteful doesn’t even begin to describe “The Haunting of Sharon Tate,” with Farrands going the B-movie route with a delicate situation of death, toying with the details of the case to manufacture yet another crime tale situated deep in the cartoony unknown. Read the rest at

Film Review - The Brink


The 2019 political climate being what it is, who really needs a documentary on the life and times of Stephen Bannon? The hasty answer is no one, but director Alison Klayman (“Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry”) appears to understand the difficult position she’s in with this subject and this year, putting in a concentrated effort to dial down the filth and the fury when it comes to the man who claims he was the singular reason why Donald Trump won the 2016 Unites States presidential election. “The Brink” isn’t an easy sell to either side of the political spectrum, but it’s an engrossing documentary about a controversial figure who knows he’s a controversial figure. Klayman slips behind the subject’s defense mechanisms and spotlights his casual personality, which helps to understand his professional behavior, and that alone is a reason to remain with the picture as it tracks Bannon’s last two years of campaigning activity. Read the rest at