Review – The Curse of La Llorona

FILM REVIEWTHE CURSE OF LA LLORONAWith Linda Cardellini, Raymond Cruz, Marisol Ramirez, Roman Christou, Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen. Written by Mikki Daughtry & Tobias Iaconis. Directed by Michael Chaves. Rated R for violence and terror. 93 minutes.

curse_of_la_llorona_ver2Was this really the right time for a horror movie about a Mexican demon who kills children attacking an American family? One dreads the thought of President Trump citing THE CURSE OF LA LLORONA as another reason to build his wall.

Politics aside, this horror entry is notable in light of what will be next week’s release of what will likely be one of the biggest films of the year, “Avengers: Endgame.” Much has been made of the success of the intertwined entries in the MCU – the Marvel Cinematic Universe – with the films playing off of each other so that fans feel the need to see each new release. With less fanfare there has been a similar collection of films coming off the 2013 movie “The Conjuring” which has, so far, led to one sequel and several spinoffs including “Annabelle” and “The Nun,” with more films on the way.

“The Curse of La Llorona” has a fleeting nod to “Annabelle,” in telling the story of how Anna (Linda Cardellini), a social worker, causes her family to be attacked by La Llorona, the spirit of a centuries old Mexican woman who murdered her children and then took her own life. Much of the scares are of the cheap, jump-out-at-you variety, with La Llorona (Marisol Ramirez) suddenly appearing to menace Anna’s children (Roman Christou, Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen).

It’s a spooky story to be sure, and the young actors playing the children are so effective one hopes that making the film didn’t leave them with nightmares and years of therapy ahead of them. Since this is part of a growing franchise, it’s not enough to ask whether it is a serviceable horror film – it is – without also asking where do the filmmakers go from here? Although the door is left open, at least by implication, for further tales of La Llorona, there’s a much more promising road ahead.

In the film’s third act Anna turns to Rafael Olvera (Raymond Cruz), a former priest who has left the church but has not lost his faith. Using unorthodox means, he has devoted himself to fighting demons and other manifestations of the world’s evils. His arrival in the story, after a brief appearance early on, kicks the film up to a new level. Cruz wryly underplays the role, generating some genuine laughs as opposed to the ones mocking the film’s contrivances. A veteran actor with credits reaching back to the 1980s, this should be a breakout role for him and one that should lead to a follow-up movie where his character will be front-and-center.

“The Curse of La Llorona” is a competently made horror film that probably wouldn’t have attracted much notice if it wasn’t billed as part of “The Conjuring” universe. If the franchise continues to grow, it may be well-remembered as the movie made Cruz and his character major players in the series.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2.5 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.


Review – Mary Magdalene

FILM REVIEWMARY MAGDALENE. With Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tahar Rahim, Tcheky Karyo. Written by Helen Edmunson and Phillipa Goslett. Directed by Garth Davis. Rated R for some bloody and disturbing images. 120 minutes.

mary_magdaleneThey say it was Pope Gregory back in the year 591 who first got it wrong, apparently mixing up some of the Marys in a couple of Gospels and decreeing that Jesus’ apostle Magdalene, so famously and frequently pictured at the foot of the cross, was in fact a fallen woman. Oops. Now granted, without his misinterpretation we never would have gotten Barbara Hershey in “The Last Temptation of Christ” or all those great Yvonne Elliman songs in “Jesus Christ Superstar,” but baselessly being called a whore for over 1,400 years and having a string of human rights-abusing laundry sweatshops named after you has still gotta sting a little bit. In characteristically speedy fashion, the Vatican finally got around to setting the record straight in 2016.

So that’s the impetus for MARY MAGDALENE, an exceptionally tedious new film intending to rehabilitate the reputation of its namesake with the help of movie star Rooney Mara in the title role and a Jesus of Nazareth played by her real-life boyfriend Joaquin Phoenix. The picture tries to put a feminist bent on the Greatest Story Ever Told, and when all is said and done the only sin Mary Magdalene could possibly be accused of now is being unbelievably boring.

Shot in 2016 only to be shelved when The Weinstein Company collapsed, the film was released in Europe last year and is finally headed to VOD here on Good Friday, presumably to stir up sales from any Christian audiences who won’t be put off by what strikes this critic as an undeserved R rating. (Okay, the crucifixion gets a bit bloody, but this is hardly a Mel Gibson fetish film.)

As reimagined by screenwriters Helen Edmunson and Phillipa Goslett, Mary of Magdala was the first feminist – but not a scary or strident feminist, just a safe, calmly self-assured one like you see in Disney cartoons these days — refusing to submit to the marriage her family arranged for her and bringing scandal upon them all by going out alone at night to pray. With her porcelain features and unblinking stare, Rooney Mara possesses an opaque quality that in the hands of the right filmmakers can conjure a captivating aura of mystery. Or she can just be dull.

Director Garth Davis goes for the latter here, eliciting a performance as drab as the movie’s barren landscapes, threadbare costumes and undressed sets. It’s a flat-lined, flat-looking picture. Nobody shows much of a personality until Jesus comes along, and that dude just seems like he’s out of his damn mind.

I must admit I’d assumed I was long past the age of seeing a movie Jesus played by someone older than me, but casting a beefy, middle-aged guy with grey in his beard is what folks might generously call “a choice.” Joaquin Phoenix is certainly one of the most exciting actors working today, but all that twitchy, restless abandon that makes him so riveting to watch in films like “The Master” or “You Were Never Really Here” ain’t exactly beatific. His bug-eyed Jesus basically runs around shouting at people like a crazy person on the subway.

“Mary Magdalene” is a curiously enervated movie, sleepwalking through the stations of the cross with the same let’s-get-this-over-with-already” energy that reminded me of going to Mass on one of those hot, hungover Sunday mornings when not even the priest can feign interest in being there. Mary’s new place in the proceedings hasn’t been thought through very thoroughly, so she’s left kinda just standing around on the sidelines for a lot of the big scenes.

Not even Chiwetel Ejiofor can do anything with the barely-written role of Peter. But the one performance in the film I did quite enjoy was from Tahir Rahim, the Algerian actor who made such an impression in Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet” and played FBI agent Ali Soufan in the excellent TV adaptation of “The Looming Tower.” He plays Judas Iscariot as an overly excitable young activist who misreads the room, betraying his rabbi as a political ploy that backfires badly. It’s the one interesting angle in a movie that’s otherwise inert.

Save for a weirdly hot baptism scene in which Phoenix and Mara inexplicably end up eye-fucking the entire time, there’s otherwise none of the yearning or sexual frissons that defined previous movie relationships between Jesus and Magdalene. Mara’s Mary is never in any danger of singing “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” but another of Elliman’s songs from “Superstar” came to mind more than once: “Could We Start Again, Please?”•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2 out of 5.Over the past twenty years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – Penguins

FILM REVIEWPENGUINSWith Ed Helms. Written by David Fowler. Directed by Alastair Fothergill, Jeff Wilson. Rated G. 76 minutes.

penguins_xlgFor the last decade, Disneynature – a unit of Walt Disney Studios – has been releasing family-friendly documentaries, often in April around Earth Day. These have included such movies as “African Cats” (2011), “Bears” (2014), and “Monkey Kingdom” (2015).

The current films have an ancestry the studio might prefer you ignore. Back in the 1950s, Disney produced a series of nature films under the banner of “True-Life Adventures,” which proved successful and won several Oscars. The dark secret was that many of these so-called “true” stories were, in fact, staged for the cameras, with the most notorious example being 1958’s “White Wilderness”, in which lemmings were brought to an area of Canada that was not their habitat, and pushed (and thrown!) to their deaths to depict a dramatic – and scientifically inaccurate – account of “mass suicide.”

The new films seem to be done far more respectfully, and without creating dangerous situations for the camera. The Jane Goodall Institute, for example, was involved in the 2012 production of “Chimpanzee.” Yet there’s still a good deal of anthropomorphizing going on, so audiences will be engaged by characters involved in a story, rather than wildlife going by instinct.

Case in point is this year’s entry, PENGUINS. Narrator Ed Helms introduces us to “Steve,” an Adélie penguin in Antartica. It’s spring and like the other males of his species, he’s building a nest out of stones and trying to attract a mate. He’s presented as an underdog – or “underpenguin” – who has to deal with other males “stealing” his stones among other things. Eventually, he mates with “Adeline,” with the soundtrack providing us with a love song as if this were Steve’s big date for the prom.

The film provides some facts of the penguin life cycle, mixed in with the pretense that “Steve” is also experiencing human emotions. This may make it easier to hold the interest of young viewers, but there’s also a bit of dishonesty or, at least, misdirection. The two adult penguins reproduce and have to feed their hatchlings until they can fend for themselves. This involves going out and catching fish and then regurgitating it for the young ones. Children will no doubt enjoy being grossed out by this.

Later there is a sequence in which a carnivorous leopard seal attempts to eat one of the offspring. This is presented as a bad thing since it threatens part of “Steve’s” family. Why is it okay for penguins to eat fish but not for seals to eat penguins? A serious documentary might make a point about the food chain. For the Disneynature films, it’s not about survival of the fittest, but the survival of the cutest.

“Penguins” gives us a look at birds in their native habitat, and makes it entertaining for the whole family. Give credit to the filmmakers who went out and got the footage. Nonetheless, the resulting film is no more than a picture book introduction to nature.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, will be released in January. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Hellboy

FILM REVIEWHELLBOYWith David Harbour, Milla Jovovich, Ian McShane, Sasha Lane, Daniel Dae Kim. Written by Andrew Cosby. Directed by Neil Marshall. Rated R for strong bloody violence and gore throughout, and language. 121 minutes.

hellboy_ver7Hollywood seems to think that making a movie about comic book superheroes is a license to print money. With the much-anticipated “Avengers: Endgame” still a couple of weeks away, we’ve already had hits this year with “Alita: Battle Angel” (based on a Japanese manga series), “Captain Marvel,” and “Shazam!” Now comes HELLBOY, based on Mike Mignola’s series for Dark Horse Comics, already adapted for two movies in 2004 and 2008 directed by Guillermo del Toro and starring Ron Perlman.

Hellboy, now played by David Harbour, is a distinctive character, a demon who works for the good guys. With his red complexion, sawed-off stubs that were once horns, and snarky humor, it’s easy to see his appeal for filmgoers who enjoy the genre. As a reboot (instead of a sequel to the earlier films), the task here was to reintroduce the character and tell an engaging story. They get it half-right.

We get the origin of Hellboy and how he came to be adopted by Professor Broom (Ian McShane), who runs the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, along with their often testy relationship. Unfortunately, it is buried under enough plots for several movies.

In a prologue, we see King Arthur and Merlin defeat Nimue (Milla Jovovich), a witch known as “The Blood Queen.” In the first of many gory scenes, Arthur hacks her to pieces and then has the body parts buried in scattered locations. In the present day, the pig-faced Gruagach (voiced by Stephen Graham), is gathering those parts to put her back together. So, the main plot is about foiling a witch from Arthurian times from renewing her attacks on humanity. Oddly, this is the same basic plot of the recent “The Kid Who Would Be King.”

Along the way, Hellboy has to join a British social club that hunts giants, has a spooky meeting with another witch named Baba Yaga, is joined by a young seer (Sasha Lane) and a British intelligence officer (Daniel Dae Kim), and gets to show the violence in the prologue was only the overture to a blood-soaked movie. The CGI effects allows us to experience not only limbs being cut off and bodies getting torn in half, but such literally gut-churning moments as a dead person’s head speaking from what appears to be the end of a large intestine.

While the storytelling sometimes borders on the incoherent, the movie is not unwatchable. In terms of special effects and action, there’s plenty of eye candy here. Yet the character moments that made the earlier films stand out are few and far between. As has become the custom in superhero movies, there are a couple of post-credit scenes which indicate that the filmmakers hope this “Hellboy” is the launch of a new franchise. If it continues, they will need to be a lot more focused.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2.5 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Triple Frontier

FILM REVIEWTRIPLE FRONTIER. Starring Ben Affleck, Oscar Isaac, Charlie Hunnam, Garrett Heldund, Pedro Pascal. Written by Mark Boal and J.C. Chandor. Directed by J.C. Chandor. Rated R for violence and language throughout. 125 minutes.

triple_frontierA heaping plate of meat-and-potatoes comfort food, Netflix’s TRIPLE FRONTIER is a throwback to the sort of solid, mid-budget action pictures that studios used to crank out during the spring and fall off-seasons back before everything had to be a godforsaken franchise. It’s one of those films that would turn a small profit in theaters before reaching full cultural saturation two years later via heavy basic cable rotation on weekend afternoons. Unpretentious, unassuming and a bit better than expected, it’s the kind of movie you talk about with your Dad.

Oscar Isaac stars as Santiago “Pope” Garcia, a burnt-out military contractor working for the government of a deliberately unnamed Latin American country. He’s spent the past three years trying to take down an elusive drug lord who’s now holed up in a jungle fortress, sitting on $75 million in cash. Santiago is so fed up with the corrupt and ineffectual local law enforcement, he hatches a plan to round up his old army buddies so they can ice the bastard themselves and make off with all his money.

The years have not been kind to our former soldiers, with Charlie Hunnam’s “Ironhead” Miller making motivational speeches to PTSD cases while his kid brother Ben (Garrett Hedlund) gets his head bashed in every night as an MMA fighter to make ends meet. Their pilot pal “Catfish” Morales (Pedro Pascal) just lost his license over a coke bust while their old captain “Redfly” Davis – a beefy, surprisingly believable Ben Affleck – chugs PBRs for breakfast and is the least persuasive condo salesman you’ve ever seen onscreen.

“You got shot four times defending your country and can’t afford to send your kids to college,” goes Santiago’s recruiting pitch. (His captain corrects him, it was actually five.) The screenplay, revised by director J.C. Chandor from an original script by “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty” writer Mark Boal, is upfront and blunt about our government’s shoddy treatment of veterans. So we can’t really blame all that much for wanting to finally cash in here, especially if it’s at the expense of some seriously bad cartel dudes.

The neat twist of “Triple Frontier” is that the heist goes even better than planned. Our boys wind up scoring $250 million instead of the expected seventy-five. Problem is that’s four times as much weight as they’d prepared to transport. So how do you move three tons of money over the Andes mountains? It’s a logistical nightmare that Chandor – who previously helmed the excellent Robert Redford vs. The Ocean adventure “All Is Lost” – exploits for some hair-raising set-pieces both predictable and less so.

It’s a film of modest pleasures, well-executed even while Chandor should probably have taken another pass to brush up the boys’ occasionally banal banter. (How strange that the professional fighter in the group is the only one without a cool nickname.) There are a couple of groaner needle-drop music cues — I’m sponsoring a Constitutional amendment prohibiting any further use of Creedence Clearwater Revival in military movies — but I quite enjoyed the deployment of Metallica, Pantera, and period-specific heavy metal that guys who enlisted twentysomething years ago would totally have been listening to when they signed up.

The biggest surprise here is Affleck, taking over a role that Tom Hanks was set to play back when Kathryn Bigelow was going to direct Boal’s original screenplay in 2010. His massive Batman physique has settled into something lumpier, lending the look of a guy who’s gone to seed. Affleck’s screen presence has always been too slick and callow to brood believably, but washing up on the rocks of middle age he’s developing a dissolute gravitas that quite suits him here. (His fifties could be full of some interesting character turns.) For all of this movie’s extensively well-researched military minutiae, my favorite detail is when he makes sure to slip his beer into a cozy while driving his daughter to school.

The thing with Netflix movies is they don’t really even have to be good enough to justify getting dressed and leaving the house. These things just magically pop up on your television screen already paid for, and ideally you hope they won’t be a total waste of two hours. By such modest measures, a pretty good movie like “Triple Frontier” is a smashing success.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 out of 5.Over the past twenty years Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.


Review – The Public

FILM REVIEWTHE PUBLICWith Emilio Estevez, Alec Baldwin, Jeffrey Wright, Christian Slater, Gabrielle Union. Written and directed by Emilio Estevez. Rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence, some disturbing images, brief suggestive content, thematic material and language. 116 minutes.

It’s nice that Emilio Estevez’s THE PUBLIC – he wrote, directed, and is part of the ensemble cast – is getting a theatrical release, no matter how limited. It is an earnest film about contemporary society that most viewers will end up discovering in the months and years to come on some streaming service, wondering how come they never heard of it. Those looking for a movie about things that matter rather than superheroes or zombies might want to take a look.

The place is the central public library in Cincinnati. Stuart Goodson (Estevez) works there and interacts not only with the library’s patrons, but the city’s homeless who use the facility as a makeshift shelter. During a severe cold snap, when the city’s actual shelters are overwhelmed, a group of homeless men led by Jackson (Michael Kenneth Williams), decide they’re not leaving. With Goodson’s help, they’re going to occupy the library.

Estevez’s script shows how this action impacts a variety of actors, from a tough-on-crime prosecutor running for mayor (Christian Slater), the police detective handling the impasse (Alec Baldwin) whose own son may be among the homeless,  and a local TV reporter (Gabrielle Union) who sees the story as her ticket to big time. Others who have personal relations with Goodson, including his boss (Jeffrey Wright), a co-worker (Jena Malone), and a sympathetic neighbor (Taylor Schilling), find themselves caught up in the drama as well.

Like his father, actor/activist Martin Sheen, Estevez is more interested in making a point than in making a blockbuster. He makes sure that several of the homeless men become real people to the viewer, and not just pawns in the story. While some are mentally ill or otherwise impaired, like Big George (Rhymefest) who believes he can shoot lasers out of his eyes, others are simply men who have fallen on hard times. For Estevez, calling for law and order is not a proper response to people in need.

He’s assembled an outstanding cast here, and they don’t let him down. Slater’s cynical pol and Baldwin’s cop who appreciates the complexities of the situation are obvious callouts but look at Williams as the homeless Jackson. You may not know the name but he’s instantly recognizable to fans of “The Wire” and “Boardwalk Empire.” Estevez is a generous director, making sure each of his principals get their moments to shine, with Union’s self-absorbed reporter providing both a repulsive character and a memorable performance.

Estevez makes good use of his primary location – the library – not a likely place for dramatic confrontations. Yet that limited scope, in both place and issue, mark “The Public” as a small film. That may be. Yet if you’re willing to be engaged, Estevez’s film offers both the substance and the performances that make this rewarding viewing.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3.5 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, will be released in January. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Pet Sematary

FILM REVIEWPET SEMATARYWith Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz, John Lithgow, Jeté Laurence, Hugo and Lucas Lavoie. Written by Jeff Buhler. Directed by Kevin Kölsch, Dennis Widmyer. Rated R for horror violence, bloody images, and some language. 101 minutes.

Stephen King’s PET SEMATARY was always a dark and disturbing story, and one that even the author admits creeps him out. It’s about families and death and how, even with the best of intentions, nothing turns out right. It’s so pessimistic that King wasn’t sure if he should publish it, as it’s an attitude he doesn’t share.

King wrote the screenplay for the 1989 film version, which stuck close to the book. This new take – credited to screenwriter Jeff Buhler (with a “screen story” credit by Matt Greenberg) – does as well, although there are several significant changes. One that local audiences will appreciate is that physician Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) and his family are now relocating to rural Maine from Boston rather than Chicago.

At first they seem like an ideal family with Rachel (Amy Seimetz) the loving wife and mother, and their children Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and her toddler brother Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie) their adorable children. When Ellie meets Jud Crandall (John Lithgow), an elderly neighbor, we might worry as to his intentions, but he’s a kindly and lonely local whom the Creeds welcome in.

However when Ellie’s cat Church is run over by one of the oil trucks that go barreling by the property, Jud proves to have a deep understanding of local lore. Rather than bury the cat at the unofficial “sematary” that they have seen early on, he take Louis deeper into the words to a remote place which has special powers. Church comes back to life but much different from the friendly cat we’ve seen earlier.

This leads the family down a horrific path when Ellie (rather than Gage, as in the earlier tellings) is killed and undergoes the same fate as Church. At that point the story becomes an even darker variation on King’s original tale, with an ending that is arguably more chilling. While the film touches on what might be considered serious themes, like what happens when we die and what children should be told about it, the focus is really on the horror. It’s not only the blood and gore, but seeing it take place within the dynamics of a family, particularly with young children.

Clarke and Seimetz are sympathetic as the parents who find themselves increasingly as odds, and Lithgow is always a class act, providing some dignity to the role of a lovable old coot. Young Laurence, who already has an impressive resume for someone her age, is especially effective as both the normal Ellie and the version who comes back.

That said, “Pet Sematary” is a disturbing movie, not in a distasteful way but by putting its horror in a family context. It has the expected scares that will make you jump, with long sequences without dialogue where you’re anticipating the next shock. By the film’s final image, though, you may have second thoughts about getting together with your own family.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2.5 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.