‘The Grudge’ Just Won’t End, and That’s Fitfully Fascinating

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CREDIT: Allen Fraser/Sony/Screen Gems

Starring: Andrea Riseborough, Demián Bichir, John Cho, Betty Gilpin, Lin Shaye, Jacki Weaver, Frankie Faison, William Sadler

Director: Nicolas Pesce

Running Time: 94 Minutes

Rating: R for Dismemberment, Fire, Drowning, Stabbing, and Gunshot Wounds

Release Date: January 3, 2020

In the spirit of experimentation, I have decided that my first movie review of 2020 will be in the form of an acrostic. The letters I will be using will be those in the title (not including the “the”), that title being The Grudge, the remake of a remake (or perhaps the latest remake of the first version) about the ghostly curse that lingers in a house where an anger-filled murder has occurred. This time, it takes the form of a multi-murder mystery in which those investigating the deaths at 44 Reyburn Drive run the risk of becoming infected by the grudge themselves.

Great cast! I mean, just look at that list. That’s at least half a dozen folks that could carry a horror movie (or any movie) on their own, and here they are together. Do they elevate the material that’s on the page? Yes, and it could use some elevating.

Repeating the formula is the name of the game here, but not the Grudge formula (or not just the Grudge formula). If you’re hankering for a return to J-horror remake glory, chances are you’ve got The Ring on your mind, and so does, it would seem, The Grudge 2020, as Detective Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough) is most concerned about protecting her son from the effects of the curse that she is experiencing.

Upside-down is how you’ll be looking during one particularly grisly moment involving Lin Shaye. It’s also how you’ll be feeling when things turn metaphysical and conversations discuss how supernatural curses go hand-in-hand with time distortion.

Digits (i.e., fingers) get hacked off. In general, writer/director Nicolas Pesce is not shy about bodies becoming pummeled, ripped apart, and decayed. It’s this movie’s most effectively visceral technique.

Generosity, and a fair bit at that, is probably required to give this umpteenth entry in a long-running, occasionally ponderous franchise a chance. An effective atmosphere is met, and frankly, that is a must that must be met in this sort of challenge.

Ending… it looked like it was going to be conclusive, which wouldn’t have been a good fit for the endless hopelessness inherent in this premise. But then there’s a fakeout, and instead of a punch in the gut, you leave with more of a whoosh.

The Grudge is Recommended If You Like: Diving into the infinite reboot loop while allowing some room for hope

Grade: 2.75 out of 5 Hands Popping Out of Hair

This Is a Movie Review: ‘The Nun’ is Creepy, But Not Fully Committed to the Cause

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CREDIT: Warner Bros. Pictures

This review was originally posted on News Cult in September 2018.

Starring: Taissa Farmiga, Demián Bichir, Jonas Bloquet, Bonnie Aarons

Director: Corin Hardy

Running Time: 96 Minutes

Rating: R for Disturbing Images (but like the main Conjuring movies, it should really be PG-13)

Release Date: September 7, 2018

My favorite part of The Nun is a scene lifted wholesale from The Conjuring, not so much because The Nun is disappointing, but rather because The Conjuring is so great, and I am happy to revisit it. Alas, though, it is indeed the case that The Nun does not offer much that is on the same level as the films it has spun off from.

Every entry in The Conjuring universe thus far, including The Nun, has demonstrated superior craftsmanship, with the original Conjuring perhaps the best example in the entire horror genre this century. The two Annabelle spin-offs have fallen a little short of the two Conjuring proper entries, as the latter have been buoyed by a religious foundation that lends some decently weighty thematic resonance. The paranormal investigations of the Warrens might not be mainstream Catholicism, but they do present an interesting struggle between God and evil. The Nun would seem to be well-equipped to grapple with these same metaphysical ideas, but the fact that it takes place in a monastery feels practically beside the point.

Nevertheless, two religious figures – shown the way by their villager guide Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet) – are indeed the people sent to investigate some paranormal goings-on. In this case, it’s courtesy of the demon Valak (Bonnie Aarons), who walks the Earth by blending in with his surroundings, which for our purposes means that he stalks around the monastery in a nun’s habit. Father Burke (Demián Bichir) seems like an upstanding-enough priest, but way more in over his head than he realizes. Then there is young and enthusiastic novitiate Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) – much is made of the fact that she has not taken her vows yet, which one might imagine might make her more susceptible to Valak’s or alternately to make her more pure and thus harder to corrupt. But in practice it just gives hope to the clearly smitten Frenchie that she might change her mind and not become a bride of Christ. And that is emblematic of the entirety of The Nun. It’s got the right ingredients for a horror classic – foreboding setting, creepy atmosphere, combustible character motivations – but its mind seems to be elsewhere.

The Nun is Recommended If You Like: Discovering connections between movies in the same franchise, whether or not they make sense

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Habits

This Is a Movie Review: Sequel-Prequel ‘Alien: Covenant’ Follows the ‘Prometheus’ Template and Adds a Few Bizarre Details of Its Own

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This review was originally published on News Cult in May 2017.

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Amy Seimetz

Director: Ridley Scott

Running Time: 123 Minutes

Rating: R for the Usual Chest-Bursting Shenanigans

Release Date: May 19, 2017

When horror movies are successful enough to merit sequels, the follow-ups can either repeat the same scares or expand the mythology. They usually do both, with the latter generally growing in prominence as the series drags on, with the diminishing returns on the former become clearer and clearer. (They can also try to summon entirely new scares, but that is one of the most difficult tasks in all of moviemaking.) Ridley Scott’s Alien is pure horror, despite its sci-fi setting. When other directors took over for the first batch of sequels, their genres may have tended more towards action, but the mythology certainly blew out as well, what with cloning Ripley and hurtling hundreds of year into the future.

Now that Scott has taken back the reins, he has apparently decided that if crazy ideas are going to be the name of the day, he might as well underpin the franchise with his own peculiar philosophizing. Because otherwise, this would just be a rehash of intrepid spacefarers treading too far on the edge and getting ripped apart by lethally invasive extraterrestrials. That approach is not necessarily terrible, and Alien: Covenant does not avoid it entirely. Chest-bursting can no longer be as iconic as it was the first time, but it still packs a sickening kick, and there are other body parts to slice off and wear away with acid blood. And there are also some larger-scale action sequences, demonstrating Scott’s still vibrant eye for scale and knack for properly calibrating tension.

But Covenant truly excels when it gets weird. It bridges the gap, both temporally and thematically, between the original Alien and 2012 prequel Prometheus. The latter film started to answer the question of what made the original attack on the Nostromo possible, a question that nobody really ever asked. Covenant continues to answer the question, and while it is still unnecessary, the backstory on display is fascinating enough to justify itself.

The actors playing the human crew of the Covenant fulfill their duties, but it is android Michael Fassbender who is pulling the strings. Prometheus and Covenant are explicitly about creation myths and the limits of human ambition, and these fundamental themes of existence are represented and mercilessly toyed with by humanoid beings created by humans. Certain revelations come out squarely tsk-tsking against hubris, while other moments are more impenetrable with their messages. But that is no criticism. Traversing across the universe should be stunning, humbling, and mysterious, perhaps even to the point of incomprehensibility. What is the purpose, for example, of Fassbender teaching himself to play the flute? I cannot genuinely say that I know, except that it makes Alien: Covenant unforgettable.

Alien: Covenant is Recommended If You Like: Prometheus But Wish It Had Been Better, Even If You Thought It Was Good

Grade: 4 out of 5 Fingers

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Lowriders’ Could Stand to Inject Some More Clarity Into Its Engine

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This review was originally posted on News Cult in May 2017.

Starring: Gabriel Chavarria, Demián Bichir, Theo Rossi, Melissa Benoist, Tony Revolori, Eva Longoria

Director: Ricardo de Montreuil

Running Time: 99 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Petty and Felonious Lawbreaking

Release Date: May 12, 2017

A motion picture is a fine method for introducing the masses to a subculture’s rituals and personalities. Thus the intriguing nature of the specimen that is Lowriders. Cars with amped-up hydraulic systems that allow for the vehicle to bounce up and down have served as set dressing in plenty of films, but they have never really been the main attraction. There is admirable moxie to titling something after an entire pastime, thus implying that it is encapsulating the whole culture. Unfortunately, Lowriders does not do the legwork to illuminate newcomers, nor it does not care to let them in.

Danny (Gabriel Chavarria) is a young graffiti artist caught between two worlds that should be one: the traditional lowrider-obsessed space of his father Miquel (Demián Bichir) and the renegade lowrider-obsessed realm of his ex-con brother Francisco (Theo Rossi), nicknamed “Ghost” for the years he gave up to the law. This is a stock family conflict and thus not particularly unique. Chavarria, Bichir, and Rossi commit passionately, but the conflicts – while believable – are not compelling. Specific details must be added to issues like drinking problems and familial abandonment to make them pop.

Lowriders’ means of letting viewers into its world is primarily accomplished by the perspective of Danny’s new girlfriend Lorelai (Melissa Benoist, the current go-to all-American girl). She is a photographer, eagerly snapping up all that Danny introduces her to. Alas, the film never really explains what she has learned. When a winner is declared at the lowrider competition, it is a key moment that sets up the stakes for the rest of the film. Trouble is, it is not clear what the rules of the contest even are, and thus it is hard to be invested in the rightness or wrongness of any victory. That lack of clarity is a plague throughout: subplots are resolved way too cleanly, there is a weakly attempted swipe at the art world, and at least one character’s motivations are impossible to track. Without attending to the story engine properly, the end result just sputters out.

Lowriders is Recommended If You Like: Shortcuts

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Public Urinations