Intruder, The (2019)
★★ / ★★★★
It is said that home invasion movies are only as good as the central villain and in “The Intruder,” written by David Loughery and Deon Taylor, Charlie proves to be strong, smart, fast, and genuinely creepy. He is played with wonderful energy by Dennis Quaid, capable communicating plenty with, for example, how he blinks or how he raises his left eyebrow when he hears an opinion he disagrees with completely. It is a great frustration then that the material fails to match Quaid’s wacko intensity on a consistent basis. While the work offers entertaining moments that range from quiet to disturbingly loud, the execution comes across as yet another forgettable thriller in which all the violence is saved for the final fifteen minutes and it offers no falling action.
The opening chapters are generic but mildly curious because of the charismatic couple, Annie and Scott, portrayed by Meagan Good and Michael Ealy, respectively. They look good together and the script is quick to establish what the couple sees in one another. Credit to the writers for making a fresh decision to give the characters—and the audience—an extended tour of the home to be purchased before giving way to the expected creepy happenings. By taking its time, not only does it build suspense—would a particular room, tapestry, or cabinet prove to be important later?—we begin to have an appreciation of Annie and Scott starting a life in the beautiful Napa County.
Particularly enjoyable about the film is that although Annie and Scott have purchased Charlie’s home, it never feels like it is truly theirs. Quaid’s star power is one factor. Another is Taylor’s direction. Take notice, for example, when the husband decides to inform his wife that Charlie may not be the man who he presents himself to be. This exchange takes place outdoors and in daylight. And yet… the house sits on the background. We notice the windows. We look a little closer, checking every single glass frame to ensure that Charlie is not there, listening. The man appears to be everywhere. His presence is so strong that there is a metaphorical shadow even in daytime.
I wished that the picture worked on this level consistently. I grew tired of poor decisions eventually, particularly by the Annie character. As a performer, Good exudes both kindness and intelligence so not for one second did I believe that, for instance, Annie would keep inviting Creepy Charlie into her home after one too many unwelcome visits. There is one scene in particular that should have made a statement. Scott asks Annie whether she had been aware of the way Charlie looks at her. She denies it completely. I felt this is a disservice to the character. If anything, Annie should be the smartest person in the room. It is most frustrating that the writers chose to make her too soft. During the final act, her sudden change as a fierce fighter does not make a lick of sense.
Those looking for superficial entertainment are likely to be satisfied by “The Intruder.” The handful of chases are thrilling, the performers sell the limited roles they are given (with the exception of Quaid who goes above and beyond), and there are a few memorable shots (the aforementioned windows scene, Charlie’s amusing but heart-pounding implosion when he learns that the tapestry/gift he left for the couple had been replaced by a painting). It is shockingly low on body count, however. I demand more from home invasion movies. With so many of them out there, there are a hundred one examples how not to make one. The work is low on ambition.
If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Make no mistake: “If Beale Street Could Talk” is a love story. But not simply under a romantic definition. Although the plot revolves around Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) hoping to be reunited following the latter being falsely accused of rape and sent to jail, its true center is the love shared among family. It is amazing and so refreshing that less than fifteen minutes into the picture, director Barry Jenkins, who also penned James Baldwin’s novel of the same name onto screen, is able to establish the Rivers family bond with convincing puissance. And throughout the film the father (Colman Domingo), the mother (Regina King), the elder sister (Teyonah Parris), and Tish herself show what they are willing to do and sacrifice in order to bring home the newest member of their family. You see, prior to the wrongful arrest, Tish and Fonny are expected to be married.
An elegant drama down to its marrow, from the way it looks to how expected trappings are introduced only to be circumvented last minute, the film is an exercise of creating an experience that can be felt long after the movie is over. Particularly intriguing is that every supporting character, no matter how small, is memorable. An excellent example is Daniel, played in such a haunting way by Brian Tyree Henry, a parolee of three months. He spent two years in prison for a crime he did not commit… but was forced to confess because somehow the corrupt system—one rigged against people of color, particularly African-Americans—trapped him into choosing one bad charge over another worse charge.
This character’s smile and laughter is so big that he brightens up a room without even knowing it. He is like that warm uncle during family gatherings who knows exactly what to say and when. But the moment he recalls his experiences in prison, this man’s trauma is so powerful, his words seep directly into our skin and make their way into the darkest corners of our imagination. He avoids specifics of what happened to him during his imprisonment. And yet it couldn’t be any more clear. It is an extraordinary performance in a film brimming with it. Even Dave Franco as a landlord with less than twenty lines is given time to shine.
I was enraptured with the fact that the drama is never one-dimensional. On the one hand, it is the aforementioned love story. Another angle is the black experience in a country that hates black people, a country that considers them to be worse than animals back in the early 1970s. As a person of color, the work is so vivid and specific that there are details that surprised me. An example is Tish’s experience as a perfume girl in a department store that hires mostly white employees. Via narration, she reveals that she is very much aware that she is, essentially, the token black girl. She tells us, almost directly whispering into our ears, the many type of customers that approach her: white old women, young black men, old white men… Each one is different—whether they choose to touch her, let alone approach her, or even look at her for more than a few seconds. I felt her humiliation, anger, sadness, and even acceptance because that was just the way things were.
The writer-director is not afraid to get up close and personal during the most unexpected moments. This is why the movie works on three fronts: as a family drama, a social drama, and a powerful statement—a current statement—about race, about class, and about a rigged system designed to punish black people and keep them less powerful than their keepers. In the examples I cited above, these are scenes and characters that are not necessary to tell this particular story. We have seen this story before, many times over. However, what makes it special is because of these “unnecessary” elements. They are the flavors of a specific experience and this is why, beyond a shadow of a doubt, “If Beale Street Could Talk” should and will stand the test of time.
Maps to the Stars (2014)
★★ / ★★★★
Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) makes a trip from Jupiter, Florida to Los Angeles, California because it has been seven years since she had seen her family—the very people she tried to set on fire. Her goal is to make amends but she is unsure whether enough time has passed for them to be able to forgive. In the meantime, she gets a job as a personal assistant to Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), an actress with many connections and even more personal demons, including a history of drug abuse.
“Maps to the Stars,” based on the screenplay by Bruce Wagner, is not the sharpest biting satirical film about Hollywood culture but it does command highly watchable performances across the board. There are plenty of familiar faces, from Robert Pattison as a limousine driver to Carrie Fisher playing a version of herself, and just about each one, no matter how brief they appear on screen, intrigues. Looking at the material from a big picture point of view, however, it leaves a lot to be desired. The bad, erratic, and self-destructive behaviors are present but there is no soul. At one point one cannot help but wonder, “What’s the point?”
Not surprisingly, Moore is the standout performer. Although Havana is not the lead character, Moore plays Havana as larger-than-life but tragic. In one scene she is despicable, but the succeeding scene makes us wonder that maybe there is more to her than pills, guilt, and a past she is unable to run away from. The best scenes involve Havana wanting to get a part so badly—a role that her late mother played many years ago—that she comes across as on the brink of breaking down. So people around her tiptoe. She, too, is in self-denial; she thinks she’s a bright star but in actuality, maybe she needs to focus on getting into the right frame of mind to be able to handle holding down a job.
I did not expect to feel sympathy toward a child actor who is a complete jerk to everyone he encounters—even to young fans who just want a simple autograph. Thirteen-year-old Benjie (Evan Bird) already has a history of drug abuse and he is trying to keep clean—not because he wants to necessarily but in order to keep a role that his mother (Olivia Williams) thinks he should hold onto. I wondered at times about the kind of future Benjie might have given he continues traveling in the same self-destructive track.
Looking at their rather palatial home, one must wonder why the mother insists that he remain in show business. Is it for his future or is it a way for her to compensate on what she feels she is lacking, a missed opportunity when she was young? Of course, in a movie like this, which follows expected beats in terms of story arc, the answer is somewhat obvious.
Directed by David Cronenberg, “Maps to the Stars” shows the ugly side of being in the Hollywood machine: the vanity, the histrionics, the exploitation, the loneliness of living in spacious home but there is no joy or laughter in it. There is a sadness here that the picture seems almost afraid to touch, afraid of delivering more dimension to cynicism. I get the point that it aims to make but cynicism must be paired with something else—preferably contrasting elements—or else the film ends up being a one-note critique.
Memory of a Killer, The (2003)
★★★ / ★★★★
With each passing scene it becomes all the more apparent that “The Alzheimer Case” is based on a novel because it is more interested in following an investigation than it is at displaying highly choreographed action pieces. The elements are certainly there to deliver the latter: honest cops who wish to know and expose the truth so those directly responsible would end up behind bars, a killer who is quickly losing grip of reality, corrupt wealthy men who would do anything to avoid prison time, and supposed lawmen who are bought and paid for. These pave the way for numerous twists and turns to create an entertaining action picture through push and pull from various motivations and yet screenwriters Carl Joos and Erik Van Looy abstain.
The work is fresh because there is constant believability to it. When guns are pointed at them either from afar or point-blank, for instance, Detectives Vincke (Koen De Bouw) and Verstuyft (Werner De Smedt) exhibit fear that is almost palpable. Because their response is relatable, we care about whether they would make it out of an especially tricky situation. In intelligent thrillers, when partners are established to share a close bond, it is predictable that one of them is likely to end up fighting for his life in a hospital bed. The material seems to be aware of our expectations, not just in who gets hurt or who gets to go on but also in the dynamics of the partnership. And so the writers find smart ways to subvert them. De Bouwe and De Smedt share solid chemistry; we are shown that their characters are strong together and apart.
The duo is in pursuit of a killer who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. The irony is that the killer is not the central antagonist. The villains are those involved in covering up child prostitution. Ledda is played with soulfulness by Jan Decleir who exudes charisma and experience in just about every frame. The camera fixates on his face, he looks directly at it at times and dares us to keep staring. Right from his first victim within the scope of this story, we believe that that he is a professional, highly efficient, and resourceful. He follows his own moral code. It is most frustrating, however, that the moments when Ledda experiences sudden disorienting episodes, his confused memories are presented in a way that comes across as television-like: numerous rapid cuts mixed with some slow motion on top of a greenish-blue filter. It looks ugly and cheap—a shame because the rest of the picture is elevated.
I found it neat that the picture intends to keep the viewers in the fog when it comes to how various figures are connected. We know about the central crime. Corpses begin pile up. Facts are gathered and analyzed. But the connective tissues aren’t there initially. In a way, the film unfolds in a manner by which we, too, become a part of the investigation team. The difference between the detectives and ourselves is that we get a glimpse of what the perpetrators are up to. Still, despite the accruing tension, the work is not without a sense of humor. For example, the criminals, even though they are wealthy and well-connected, are often shown as pathetic and desperate when cornered, that they behave like rats when their hiding spots have been discovered.
Sharp and occasionally suspenseful, “The Memory of a Killer” knows how to entertain without insulting the viewer’s intelligence. Human drama is at the forefront and chases just so happen to occur from time to time. It dares to engage in a way that many Hollywood pictures are unwilling: sometimes not pulling the trigger reveals the more interesting possibilities.
Devil’s Doorway, The (2018)
★ / ★★★★
Here is yet another found footage picture in which the filmmakers feel the need to shake the camera so relentlessly during the climax, it is near impossible to tell what’s going on. Couple this with a resolution that makes no sense whatsoever, the viewer is certain to enter a world of great frustration. Had the screenwriters—Martin Brennan, Aislinn Clarke, and Michael B. Jackson—been more astute, or have the slightest awareness, that their material actually has the potential to unspool at least a mildly intriguing story, despite the numerous clichés, they would have made the choice to do away with the found footage gimmick and tell the tale in a straightforward, matter-of-fact manner.
Instead, what results is a forgettable horror film that lacks human drama, especially when it is set in a time and place (1960 Ireland) in which there was a lot of conflict and anger. Father Thomas (Lalor Roddy) and Father John (Ciaran Flynn) are sent to investigate a claim in a Magdalene asylum—to determine whether a statue of the Virgin Mary that weeps blood is in fact a miracle.
The former is convinced it is but convincing trickery, but the latter is willing—too willing—to embrace the phenomenon as supernatural. The clash between the two ideals is ripe for the picking, but the material appears to be more interested in providing cheap jolts rather than exploring the difference between the veteran and the tyro soldier of the Lord. It is likely that under a more standard narrative, the differences between the two men may have had a chance to be put under a more dramatic magnifying glass.
As for the scares it attempts to deliver, only one or two are inspired. Less intriguing are the ostentatious displays of the supernatural—body parts suddenly aflame, a pregnant woman (Lauren Coe)—suspected of being possessed by a demon or Satan himself—suddenly levitating from the bed, and eyeballs rolling in the back of one’s head. The special and visual effects look and feel cheap. They probably are. It is an excellent example of wanting to appease the modern viewer even though these flashy displays do nothing but hinder the film.
Its strength lies in the more subtle but exponentially horrifying moments. For instance, observe the scene in which the camera is simply placed right next to the pregnant woman’s face as a nun digs into her to acquire the infant. Because the camera is fixated on the subject’s face, the tearing of the flesh, the scraping of metallic utensils, and seeing the blood-soaked sheets in the background leave plenty to the imagination. Even though this woman is seemingly possessed by evil, in this scene, we relate to her anyway. Because during this moment, she is a woman first and a victim of demonic possession second. This is the level in which the movie should be functioning at all times.
One of its theses is good or evil coming from places or people one may not suspect. (Another is the Catholic Church’s hypocrisy.) Had the writers been more focused on what type of story they wish to tell—and how—they would have strived to make every moment count. Instead, for a movie with a running time of about seventy-five minutes, nearly half of it is senseless filler. One could go to the restroom for ten minutes and not miss a critical plot development. In place of realism, “The Devil’s Doorway,” directed by Aislinn Clarke, offers a lot of noisy decoration.
Avengers: Endgame (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★
It requires a daring decision to surprise me when it comes to modern superhero films and, quite miraculously, “Avengers: Endgame” manages to do so about fifteen minutes in. It has been a while since a Marvel film left me wondering, “So then… what’s next?” and it is a most refreshing feeling, a promise, a question mark followed by an exclamation point, that there is plenty more to unbox considering its hefty running time of three hours. The well-paced and consistently entertaining direction by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo gives the impression that just about anything can or will happen given that the material at hand is meant to be a closing chapter to one of the most ambitious projects Hollywood has given moviegoers.
The expectation is enormous and the picture delivers for the most part. The action sequences are busy but always given context in addition to being well-choreographed and so those giving at least a modicum of attention would not be lost; the special and visual effects are first-rate—certainly ostentatious at times but not once do they come across as empty decorations; there are enough moments of silence and ponderation given the fact that the characters remain in mourning over their fallen comrades and loved ones after Thanos (Josh Brolin) succeeds in eliminating half of the universe’s population; and the direct and indirect nudges to Marvel films that came before are throughly entertaining—handled with creativity, humor, and a solid sense of foreboding.
And yet the picture is not without notable shortcomings. The screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely takes on a monumental task of putting together more than a decade’s worth of stories and creating an unforgettable, possibly instant-classic, culmination. While I admired that the goal is nothing short of magnificent, the work scrambles at times at trying to be everything at once.
Most noticeable is the humor, how it comes across as shoehorned—at times cringe-y—when events begin to feel a little grave. In previous films, the well-written and well-delivered comic lines succeed in alleviating tension. Occasionally, it works here. But not nearly all the time. I think the reason is because the heavy atmosphere of foreboding consistently points to the demise of characters we’ve learned to love. Laughter fizzles rather than helping to elevate excitement. In the middle of it, I wondered if it would have been a more daring decision to minimize the humor that Marvel films thrive on. It absolutely would have been more challenging.
Considering the running time, it is curiosity that there isn’t more in-depth character development. Instead, we receive one too many scenes or shots of our heroes looking solemn or trading conciliatory handshakes. Sometimes there are close-ups of tears flowing down one’s cheeks. I found the melodrama to be unnecessary; a more elegant choice might been to trust the audience to grab onto the story and understand the gravity of the plot without such dramatic signposts.
The remaining tension between Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), for instance, may have been worth exploring. Instead, the two leaders are given only about three to five minutes to sort out their personal issues. People forget that Evans and Downey Jr. are dramatic actors; they work best not when the charm is on but when it isn’t, when the material demands that they let go of their masculine chain mail and reveal their character foibles.
While the chosen strategy is understandable from a point of view of an action-centric story, an argument can be made that an amplified drama leads to stronger moments of catharsis. Here, catharsis often comes in the form of surprise deaths and teary reunions. I was not particularly moved by any of them—with one exception that comes late into the picture.
Boxtrolls, The (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★
Right after the kidnapping of the Trubshaw baby, the leader of Cheesebridge, Lord Portley-Rind (voiced by Jared Harris), makes a deal with a social-climbing exterminator, Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), to rid the town of the so-called boxtrolls, pests who come out of hiding from underground to steal trash, valuables, and other knickknacks. As a reward, Snatcher would receive a white hat—a symbol of privilege, prestige, and position—as well as the most delectable types of cheese, strictly reserved for the upperclass. The hunt for the boxtrolls is seemingly coming to a close a decade after the baby was taken from his father.
“The Boxtrolls,” based on “Here Be Monsters!” by Alan Snow, is an entertaining animated picture that is willing to take risks. Be warned, however, that it is not for all children because the characters are not what one might consider to be typically pretty or cute or beautiful. This is exactly the reason why I enjoyed it: We are asked to look beyond the grotesque faces—whether the character is a human or a troll—and consider the story for what it is or what it aspires to be. There are claims that the material makes more than a handful of references to Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. There is evidence behind these claims, but it does not mean that it cannot be enjoyed purely as a movie about a boy named Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright) who grew up around trolls.
The villain is surprisingly effective. Although what Snatcher does is evil, there are a few instances where the screenplay allows us to feel his pain and so we come to understand what drives his actions. One of the most memorable scenes involves the character eating cheese in front of his henchmen (Nick Frost, Richard Ayaoade, Tracy Morgan) despite the fact that he is extremely allergic to it. His desperation to belong in a world that does not want him is communicated via grotesque humor of body parts swelling up. I loved that the scene takes its time to unfold, almost on a Hitchcock-ian level of patience.
A bit of development between Eggs and Winnie (Elle Fanning), Lord Portley-Rind’s daughter, might have improved the picture. We appreciate that they share a partnership because they aim toward a common goal eventually, but we never get the sense that they become friends over the course of the story. I did, however, enjoy that Winnie is so fascinated by the idea of blood and guts given that she grew up around horror stories involving boxtrolls and what they supposedly do to children. It is a welcome change from young female animated characters who wear pretty clothes and yearning for a boy or man to regale her.
Snatcher’s henchman, too, do have distinct, memorable personalities. Usually, henchmen are only supposed to do what they are told. Here, they have a few self-aware lines about the duality of good and evil, whether their actions can still be considered to be heroic. Although their work starts off with the premise of saving the townsfolk, especially infants and children, from being taken by the creatures in the sewers, over time they realize that maybe the trolls they are hunting are not so bad, that maybe these creatures are simply misunderstood.
Directed by Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi, “The Boxtrolls” is unusual and proud of it. I admired that the writers, Irena Brignull and Adam Pava, and filmmakers choose not to compromise their vision in order to create a more mainstream, typically sweet and pretty animated film. I hope the stop-motion animation studio Laika keeps making movies like this—an alternative choice from Disney and Pixar efforts both in look and feel of their wonderful works.
American Made (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
Executed with great style and energy by director Doug Liman, “American Made” becomes all the more baffling with each passing second as it tells the story of an airline pilot named Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) who is recruited by a CIA case officer (Domhnall Gleeson) to take pictures of enemy camps over South America. A quirky premise, one loosely based on a true story, quickly evolves into an entertaining dramatic thriller with both real stakes and enough nuanced comedic touches designed to release our astonishment only to build up again as increasingly tricky situations present themselves. It is for the curious viewer for the material demands the viewer to pay attention and have fun, too.
Cruise fits the role like a glove, banking in on his dependable charm to make the portrayal appear effortless or easy. But imagine a different performer in the role and realize that waking in Seal’s shoes is to traverse a minefield of traps; one wrong note is certain to disrupt the suspense of disbelief that the ace screenplay by Gary Spinelli establishes right from the get-go. While some may cite the fact that Cruise has played similar roles in the past, I argue that it is necessary to have such experiences because the role requires specificity, without leaning on well-worn clichés, in order to come across as believable.
I enjoyed that there is minimal character development. In a way, the story being told does not require it since it is meant to show a risky lifestyle or occupation, one that is not solely motivated by money or luxury but rather excitement and danger. Notice Seal’s reactions when he is about to get caught by authorities. The fear is there—but it is marginal. The realization that it is over and the growing disappointment inch toward the forefront. It is these moments that we get to see Seal not as a smuggler, or a husband, or a father but as a person with an addiction for thrill. Cruise delivers an intelligent performance.
The weakness of the picture, as colorful as it is, both in tone and how it looks, is its lack of willingness to dig more deeply in its supporting characters. For instance, Sarah Wright plays Seal’s wife who knows something is up, Jesse Plemons plays the observant sheriff in a small town in Arkansas, and Caleb Landry Jones plays Seal’s brother-in-law. As the picture goes on, it becomes apparent that any of these three could have done more with their potentially interesting characters. During dramatic moments, Wright appears to have the emotional range to go head-to-head against Cruise. Plemons can give half a suspicious look and it communicates paragraphs. And Jones is such a wildcard that a slight change in body language can turn into a threat. While the material is indeed Seal’s story, it could have been more intriguing had there been more detail regarding the people who surround him.
I found it fresh that at times the film dares to invoke the look and feeling of a music video—certain to alienate viewers who expect a more mainstream way to digest a biographical crime film. Instead, the filmmakers choose to embody the thrilling but dangerous lifestyle of the subject rather than forcing an elegant or restrained tone that is so common within the sub-genre. This gamble pays off because while the content is not especially memorable, its sense of style, its levity, has a good chance of lingering on the mind.
Family, The (2013)
★ / ★★★★
The Manzoni family are now the Blake family as they fall under the witness protection program. Fred (Robert De Niro) has snitched against a fellow Mafia and so he and his family are no longer safe in the U.S. They are assigned to live in a small town in Normandy where not much happens. It should have been easy to assimilate but the ways of the Mafia are ingrained deep in the bones of the Blakes. Though precautions are made, their identities are discovered eventually and a Mafia boss (Stan Carp) sends his henchmen to clean up.
The film works as an action-thriller but it flounders as a comedy. Given that it is supposed to be a hybrid of both, it never reaches a healthy balance so the experience is a great frustration. Coming into the picture, I had no idea that Luc Besson directed—and co-wrote—the material. And yet at the same time I was not surprised. The last twenty-five minutes is the best part of the picture—and majority of it involves building up the tension until the inevitable violence. It shows the efficiency of the Mafia when it comes to achieving a goal, why they are notorious.
It must have occurred to Besson and Michael Caleo that their screenplay is lacking a special spark. It is not at all funny. While the characters are supposed to be bored with their new small-town life, the movie is not supposed to be boring. There is a way of showing the dullness of the every day without necessarily being dull. Each member of the family gets his or her own subplot but all of them have little heft. Their quiet desperation is not communicated in an effective manner.
Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) frequents a church to deal with her guilt. Belle (Dianna Agron) falls in love with her substitute math teacher. Warren (John D’Leo) deals with the politics in his school. Fred wants to write but he is not allowed to write what he knows—Robert (Tommy Lee Jones), a supervisor of the program, makes sure of that. A lot is going on but not one is particularly engaging or compelling. I never once believed that the characters are a real family. Things happen but I found myself not caring.
In fact, I found one of the subplots to be quite cheap. A minor having sexual relations with an adult and we are supposed to buy that at least some aspect of it is romantic? While the subject can be interesting in a different film with much more intelligent or insightful screenplay, it comes off desperate here. It feels like the writers had run out of ideas and so they came up with this schoolgirl crush thing that does not make any sense whatsoever.
Based on a novel by Tonino Benacquista, “The Family” is almost devoid of inspiration. A month from now, perhaps the only moment I will remember from the picture is DeNiro watching Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” because the joke, while obvious, is on point. I certainly wished I was sitting through that movie instead.
Curse of La Llorona, The (2019)
★ / ★★★★
For a supernatural entity specific to Mexican folklore, it is astounding that “The Curse of La Llorona,” written by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis, is decidedly content in delivering vanilla jump scares that can be found in other equally generic and exhausting modern horror pictures. It is an excellent example of how difficult it is to pen a genuinely scary or creepy story; take away the sudden deafening noises, shrill screaming, and over utilized CGI, all there is left is desert-dry boredom in which characters run around without much purpose. It is insulting and a waste of time.
We are asked to relate with a family whose patriarch, a cop, had recently died in the line of duty. Clearly still mourning the loss of her partner, Anna (Linda Cardellini) holds the fort by ensuring that her children, Chris (Roman Christou) and Samantha (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen), continue a life normalcy. This deep sadness in the family ought to have been the very element that connects us to the material emotionally, but it proves uninterested in establishing a convincing human drama first. It is interested only in providing jump scares—which would not have been a problem had there been a higher level of craft or effort put behind each one. Instead, it is formulaic. Each beat offers no surprise. When the camera pans around the corner, it is easy to guess whether the scene is setting up a false alarm or yet another assault to the eardrums.
The appearance of The Weeping Woman is neither memorable nor scary. She has black hair, dressed in a white gown, and is well-known for drowning her two children after she learns that her husband left her for a younger woman. Her face, so computerized that it is laughable more than menacing, is shown on glass and mirrors, at times drenched in shadows. Nearly each time she is shown, I caught myself flinching at how awful her face looks, quality-wise. Would it have been too much of a bother to create a scary appearance using only cosmetics? The irony is that although the ghost is supposed to be dead, putting some life or tactile quality about the face would have made this figure more terrifying. I found her look to be as lazy and uninspired as the screenplay.
Its numerous attempts at injecting humor most often lead to a deafening thud. There is a character introduced more than halfway through the film, a former priest (Raymond Cruz), who agrees to help free Anna and her children from La Llorona’s terror. The would-be jokes are so out of left field that they take away tension rather than amplifying them. Laughter should turn into gasps of horror, or vice-versa, but in this case, it is simply cringe-inducing. Once again, the writing is at fault. It does not bother to establish that Rafael has a playful personality. So when he cracks jokes involving eggs, for instance, it is simply awkward. At times we feel as though such scenarios do not belong in the film.
“The Curse of La Llorona” is directed by Michael Chaves, but I wondered if he did so while half-asleep. Filmmakers in control of their first feature usually exude a level of enthusiasm so effervescent, so over-the-top, their fervor floods the picture, for better or worse. Here, I felt as though he was not passionate or did not care at all about the project. There is not one unique shot, not even one genuinely terrifying scene that is worthy of being labeled horror.
Mary Queen of Scots (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★
It is true that a film can be savagely historically inaccurate but still remain entertaining. A good example is “Mary Queen of Scots,” based on the book “Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart” by John Guy and written for the screen by Beau Willimon, proud—as it should be—of its endless parade of beautiful imagery despite monarchs becoming increasingly miserable throughout its duration. Those seeking for a history lesson, or reminder, should opt to sit through a documentary instead because the picture wishes to present political intrigue first and facts second. And there is nothing wrong with that.
The work is propelled by strong performances: Saoirse Ronan as the titular character who returns to Scotland following her husbands death whose goal, she claims, is to bring peace to her home country. At the same time she hopes to reclaim the throne from her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I, ruler of England and Ireland. The latter is played by Margot Robbie and it is quite fascinating that although she is on screen far less than her counterpart, she nails every scene with verve and bravado—as expected from consummate performer. On the other hand, Ronan’s face is nearly in every scene but her overall sense of being is so luminous that I could not get enough of it. She is so regal not just in the way she stands, or walks, or talks but also in the way she breathes and pauses, how she looks at another depending on the gravity of a scene.
The premise hints at a war between Mary and Elizabeth, but I enjoyed that the material is willing to go in surprising directions. Although it leans toward Mary’s camp—appropriate given that the story is about her beauty, youth, bravery, and fierce intelligence—Elizabeth is not painted as a monster. Instead, it makes a point that she, like Mary, is a tragic figure. She is called a queen but in many ways she is a prisoner of her kingdom, her people, and her own expectations. We see Mary and also Elizabeth but the latter is perceived through the scope of a broken mirror. It is amazing that the subjects appear on screen only once but a good amount of drama is excavated nonetheless.
I found it curious that not once did I feel sorry the two women—which I think may be one of the points that director Josie Rourke wishes to come across. Melodrama is kept at a minimum; when sad occurrences unfold, the score, for the most part, is not there to manipulate our emotions. There is an air of detachment, a matter-of-fact telling of what happened. I do think, however, that we are supposed to appreciate the cousins’ desperation, whether it be to prove themselves worthy of the power they are handed (or claimed) despite and because of their gender.
Notice the more uncomfortable moments when men of lower rank address their queen as if she were a common whore. These are moments when we are jolted into paying attention. At times the women’s restraint is admirable; we become convinced that they have had considerable experience in leading their nations prior to the timeline of this particular story.
“Mary Queen of Scots” requires patience and an open mind. Its pacing is deliberately slow but effective—until the final fifteen to twenty minutes when it rushes to finish line for no compelling reason other than to meet the two-hour mark. I would have preferred a work closer to two-and-a-half or perhaps even three hours as long as it is able to maintain its rhythm and momentum. When unhurried, I was most invested in its world of political chess.