Movie Review: Ignore the R Rating, ‘Annabelle Comes Home’ is a Sweet Family-Friendly Tale of Kids on Their Own Learning How to Fight Off the Monsters

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CREDIT: Warner Bros./YouTube

Starring: Mckenna Grace, Madison Iseman, Katie Sarife, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Michael Cimino

Director: Gary Dauberman

Running Time: 106 Minutes

Rating: R for PG-13 Level Blood and Terror

Release Date: June 26, 2019

One of the best (if not THE best) qualities of horror movies is that slambang moment of ultimate catharsis. It can come in the form of releasing the death grip on your armrest, or finally breathing a sigh of relief, but it just as often can be a huge burst of laughter. Partly that’s because screaming and laughing are similar reactions, sometimes it’s because the movie is unintentionally hilarious, and other times it’s because the plot takes a break for some comedy. In the case of Annabelle Comes Home, it’s definitely the latter, as a dorky teenage pizza delivery dude assures a not-quite-as-dorky lovestruck teenage fellow that the only effective way to “woo” girls is “rock ‘n’ roll.” These two clearly do not have much romantic experience, and they have no idea about the hell-creatures in their midst, thus raising the stakes of their guilelessness but never making them objects of ridicule.

That whole vibe of kids figuring it out on their own and everything working out okay infuses the entirety of Annabelle Comes Home, the third in the creepy doll series and eighth in the larger Conjuring universe. Top dog demon hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) play their biggest role yet in any non-flagship entry in this franchise, but they still mostly step aside, serving basically as a bookend and framing device. They head out of town, leaving their pre-teen daughter Judy (Mckenna Grace) in the care of teenage babysitter Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) with Mary Ellen’s friend Daniela (Katie Sarife) tagging along for the girl time.

With most of its main characters under the age of twenty, this is accordingly the most kid-friendly entry in the series, though it is rated R, like all other Conjuring films and their spin-offs. But that has often been undeserved, and it is especially outrageous here, as there is no profanity, all the romance is remarkably chaste, and all the gore is too stylized to be disturbingly explicit. In fact, the horror franchise that Annabelle most resembles besides its own is the kid-targeted Goosebumps (Iseman was one of the leads of last year’s Goosebumps 2, incidentally enough). Both feature kids accidentally unleashing a bunch of monsters and then managing to subdue them as they discover the guile they had within themselves the whole time. Annabelle is trippier and more twisted than Goosebumps, sure, but like Goosebumps, you’re never truly worried that the kids are going to be ripped apart limb by limb.

In between fighting off the spooks, the girls while away the night the way kids do when they’re on their own: playing board games, baking a cake, listening to the music of the day (in this case, Badfinger’s “Day After Day”). One underappreciated element of how the Conjuring Universe has improved the state of horror is its infusion of sweetness into the genre, especially when the Warrens are around. Defeating the evil ghosts is only worthwhile when you have loving family and friends to share the moment with and to remind you that there are nice ghosts, too.

Annabelle Comes Home is Recommended If You Like: Goosebumps, Earnest Teen Romances, The silent spaces between the scares

Grade: 3 out of 5 Werewolf Demons

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Entertainment To-Do List: Week of 6/21/19

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CREDIT: Pixar/YouTube

Every week, I list all the upcoming (or recently released) movies, TV shows, albums, podcasts, etc. that I believe are worth checking out.

Movies
Anna (Theatrically Nationwide) – Sasha Luss’ big break.
Child’s Play (Theatrically Nationwide) – Decent as far as remakes go.
Toy Story 4 (Theatrically Nationwide)
Wild Rose (Limited Theatrically)

TV
Legion Season 3 Premiere (June 24 on FX) – The final chapter begins.

Movie Review: The ‘Child’s Play’ Remake is Sharp with the Satire but Oversatured in Gore

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CREDIT: Eric Milner/Orion Pictures

Starring: Gabriel Bateman, Mark Hamill, Aubrey Plaza, Bryan Tyree Henry, Tim Matheson, Marlon Kazadi, Beatrice Kitsos, Ty Consiglio, David Lewis, Carlease Burke

Director: Lars Klevberg

Running Time: 90 Minutes

Rating: R for Prime Bloody Cuts of Human Meat

Release Date: June 21, 2019

The original 1988 Child’s Play was a sneaky little B-horror pic that snuck in some pointed satire about the crass commercialism of marketing aimed at children by asking the question: if the soul of a serial killer were transferred to a toy doll, would all the adults be too distracted to notice? The remake takes its aim at the paranoia surrounding artificial intelligence. This is oft-explored territory, so the horrors of the next-gen Chucky doll (voiced with easy panache by Mark Hamill) are not particularly unique. But the satire is built around a salient, timely concern: what if all of our smart Internet-connected devices suddenly became weaponized against us? The new Chucky is part of the “Buddi” line assembled by Kaslin Industries, an Amazon-esque tech monolith that promises consumers a domestic utopia with its thorough suite of products, with Tim Matheson as the wise, old, just-creepy-enough face of the company.

While the ideas of nu-Child’s Play are impressively on target, its plot machinations are a bit too silly and Grand Guignol for their own good. Original flavor CP worked on a visceral level because while Chucky was nearly impossible to kill, he wasn’t impossible to subdue. But upgraded Chucky is far more omnipotent, as he can basically become telepathic and telekinetic with the right Bluetooth signal. Thus, it is never in doubt that he is going to kill someone, which leads to the hyper-violent stakes being raised in ways that call to mind Saw and Final Destination much more than I expected. Occasionally, there’s a really devastating sick visual joke to lighten up the gore, but most audiences can expect their bloodlust to be satisfied many times over. Ultimately, Chucky is defeated less because of any weakness and more just because the movie is about to end.

Also in the “been there, done that” category is Chucky’s motivation: the old “if I can’t be your friend, then nobody can.” Frankly, I think that Chucky has more on his mind than just what some random kid thinks of him. But that is what his programming demands once he meets young Andy (Gabriel Bateman) and automatically “imprints” on him. It suggests a worst-case scenario of how it would go if the most smartphone-obsessed among us had their feelings reciprocated. Smart A.I. can be dumb, but while this Child’s Play is satisfyingly diverting, it doesn’t convince me that our devices are that psychotic.

Child’s Play is Recommended If You Like: Smart device paranoia

Grade: 3 out of 5 Stabby Stabbies

Movie Review: ‘Wild Rose’ Demonstrates the Power of Country Music and Forgiveness

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CREDIT: NEON

Starring: Jessie Buckley, Julie Walters, Sophie Okonedo

Director: Tom Harper

Running Time: 101 Minutes

Rating: R for Some Snogging and Some Cussing

Release Date: June 21, 2019 (Limited)

Great news, country music lovers: Scotland has a country music scene that is just waiting for you to traverse across the pond and discover! Well, it’s not so much a “scene” as much it is one bar and one aspiring professional. Also, I’m describing the Scotland of the fictional film Wild Rose as opposed to the actual Scotland. I cannot speak with any authority about the presence (or lack thereof) of country music in any part of the non-cinematic Great Britain. But I can say that if you are a country music lover, you will appreciate Wild Rose‘s cameos from the likes of Kacey Musgraves and Ashley McBryde as well as Jessie Buckley’s dangerously committed lead performance, in which the Irish-born actress throws herself respectfully full-bore into the intricacies of an American art form.

Buckley stars as Rose-Lynn Harlan, who is bursting fresh out of prison when we first meet her. That’s an origin story that would fit right in with her chosen genre, and she’s got the chops to beat the odds, but alas, she’s also got two young kids and not a whole lot of income to take care of them. Then there’s her mother (Julie Walters), who is good for reminding Rose of her responsibilities but usually in a way that makes her feel pretty crummy. So she takes a job as a housekeeper, and BIG BREAK ALERT, wouldn’t you know it, the woman she works for (Sophie Okonedo) believes in her dreams and might be able to give her a legitimate boost.

It looks like a (kind of well deserved) happy ending is in the cards, but alas, Rose is still grappling with the mistakes of her past, and she is paralyzed whenever she confronts her own self-image. Wild Rose is anchored by a message of forgiveness, and nobody needs to hear that message more than Rose does. There are few actors who are as skilled as Buckley at carrying psychological detritus, which is why it is so satisfying whenever anyone in Rose’s orbit offers her a second chance and when she finally accepts those offers. If you have to live through the struggle to truly be a country music star, then here comes Wild Rose-Lynn.

Wild Rose is Recommended If You Like: Coal Miner’s Daughter, The Commitments, Sing Street

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Stage Frights

Entertainment To-Do List: Week of 6/14/19

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CREDIT: Cara Howe/Comedy Central

Every week, I list all the upcoming (or recently released) movies, TV shows, albums, podcasts, etc. that I believe are worth checking out.

Movies
The Dead Don’t Die (Moderate Theatrically)

TV
-2019 MTV Movie & TV Awards (June 17 on MTV)
Whose Line is it Anyway? Season 15 Premiere (June 17 on The CW) – The improv games will never end!
Alternatino with Arturo Castro Series Premiere (June 18 on Comedy Central)
The Detour Season 4 Premiere (June 18 on TBS)
Drunk History Season 6 Midseason Premiere (June 18 on Comedy Central)
-AFI Life Achievement Award: Denzel Washington (June 20 on TNT)
Holey Moley Series Premiere (June 20 on ABC) – So many Fun & Games.
Family Food Fight Series Premiere (June 20 on ABC)

Movie Review: The Newest ‘Shaft’ is Not the Baddest Mother. Shut Your Eyes.

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CREDIT: Warner Bros./YouTube

Starring: Jessie T. Usher, Samuel L. Jackson, Richard Roundtree, Alexandra Shipp, Regina Hall, Avan Jogia, Titus Welliver, Method Man, Matt Lauria, Robbie Jones, Luna Lauren Vélez

Director: Tim Story

Running Time: 111 Minutes

Rating: R for Shameless Ladies Man Behavior and a Fair Amount of Gunfire

Release Date: June 14, 2019

Private investigator John Shaft has been the epitome of cinematic cool ever since his debut nearly fifty years ago. In the 2000 reboot, Samuel L. Jackson was an obvious choice to continue Richard Roundtree’s legacy as John II, the original Shaft’s nephew. But in the latest iteration, Jessie T. Usher is about as far from badass as he can possibly be as John II’s estranged son JJ. That is meant as both objective fact and damning criticism. He’s supposed to be out of step with the men in his family. He’s working for The Man as an FBI data analyst, and while he’s got some sweet chemistry with a longtime friend (Alexandra Shipp), he’s hardly a sex machine to all the chicks. The idea is that when JJ teams up with his dad to solve a case of wide-ranging corruption, he’ll finally be able to live up to the Shaft legacy, but the concept of cool on display here is too outrageous and unchill to actually be cool.

If you’re expecting a blaxploitation throwback, you’ll need to recalibrate right quickly. This is much more of a culture clash buddy comedy, solidly in the vein of director Tim Story’s work in the Ride Along series. The central conflict is between Sam Jackson Shaft pushing a toxic form of big dog masculinity and Jessie Usher Shaft being a reasonable human being. It’s nice that JJ pushes back against his dad’s bullheaded ideas of how to be a man, but it doesn’t help that every Jackson delivery of emotional immaturity and gay panic is meant to be a laugh line. Overall, this Shaft is confused and vastly out of touch, as exemplified by a stunning moment of gun fetishization in which JJ shows off his firearms skills to the tune of a classic Phil Spector Wall of Sound needle drop and then immediately afterward reiterates his distaste of guns. Adding to the confusion is John Sr. and John II acting like they’re now father and son instead of uncle and nephew. Perhaps that’s an effort to distance the original from a potentially legacy-killing sequel, which is an understandable decision.

Shaft is Recommended If You Like: Stomping all over the classics

Grade: 1.5 out of 5 Trench Coats

Movie Review: ‘Men in Black International’ is Kind of a Lateral Move as Far as Spinoffs Go

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CREDIT: Giles Keyte/Sony Pictures

Starring: Tessa Thompson, Chris Hemsworth, Liam Neeson, Rebecca Ferguson, Rafe Spall, Kumail Nanjiani, Laurent Bourgeois, Larry Bourgeois, Emma Thompson

Director: F. Gray Gray

Running Time: 115 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Gooey Alien Residue

Release Date: June 14, 2019

It’s often a joy to watch professionals perform their jobs competently, so there’s a bit of a thrill to watching Molly (Tessa Thompson) turn into Agent M in the opening act of Men in Black International. After she has an extraterrestrial encounter as a child, she dedicates her life to the goal of joining the secretive alien-monitoring organization, and she is undoubtedly a promising recruit, perhaps one of their best ever. But when it comes to making a film, what we demand isn’t competency so much as artistry. Director F. Gary Gray and his cast and crew have delivered a competent product, and I imagine they had a lot of fun making it. But it is not an out-of-this-world experience, nothing that rocks your sense of reality to its core.

The presence of “International” in the title and the lack of Agents J and K in the lineup seems to promise that we’ll be getting something a little different from what we’ve seen before. And it’s true, this chapter offers plenty that wasn’t on display in MIB‘s 1-3. But we have seen it in other movies in general. There’s the sort of globetrotting typical of Indiana Jones and James Bond, plus a paranoid infiltration angle that calls to mind Invasion of the Body Snatchers, as well as a spy-within-our-ranks routine we know and love from John le Carré thrillers. Even the alien creature design, which at first glance features plenty of original imagination, may have had some inadvertent inspiration, as one blue fellow looks like the X-Men’s Beast, but with quills instead of fur. (Perhaps it’s a case of convergent evolution?) If the only movies you’ve ever seen are Men in Black, Men in Black 2, and Men in Black 3, then perhaps Men in Black International will expand your consciousness, but for the rest of us, we will continue the search elsewhere for whatever originality remains in the universe.

Men in Black International is Recommended If You Like: Reassembling spare parents

Grade: 2 out of 5 Neuralyzers

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