Movie Review: ‘The Curse of La Llorona’ Puts Mexican Folklore to Some Scary Good Use

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CREDIT: Warner Bros.

Starring: Linda Cardellini, Raymond Cruz, Patricia Velásquez, Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen, Roman Christou, Marisol Ramirez, Sean Patrick Thomas, Tony Amendola

Director: Michael Chaves

Running Time: 93 Minutes

Rating: R for Intense Horror Makeup, Drowning, Skin Burns, and Some Gunshots

Release Date: April 19, 2019

It’s generally promising when a horror movie grounds itself in some well-crafted folklore, and The Curse of La Llorona offers a bit of an emotional doozy. Originating in Mexico, the tale of La Llorona (“The Weeping Woman” in English) is of a mother who drowned her two sons after becoming enslaved by a blind rage from discovering her husband with another woman. She now lurks the spirit world in a white gown, taking other children as her own and often drowning them as well. A notice posted by the studio outside the theater assured me that La Llorona is indeed somewhere out in the real world. You don’t have to believe in ghosts to accept that as effective showmanship. This is a monster with a formidable motivation, enough to make you go, “Well, what are we going to do if she targets us?”

The standoff comes to Linda Cardellini as a widowed mother working as a social worker in 1973 Los Angeles. She first encounters La Llorona through her work with children living in unsafe homes. If you want to, you can dig into the subtext about the entanglement of domestic abuse and folklore. But this film is more about the surface thrills of discovering just how the boogeyman will pop up when someone closes a bathroom cabinet or opens up an umbrella. If you’re looking for camera tricks that say “Boo!”, La Llorona will scratch that itch. It also excels in some surprisingly goofy tension-breaking, especially when Raymond Cruz (Tuco of Breaking Bad) shows up as an ex-priest mystic man to exorcise some evil spirits by rubbing eggs all over the house. Weirdly enough, that moment makes sense in context. Bottom line: La Llorona efficiently pulls off its weirder-than-expected approach with a confident use of the standard horror toolkit.

The Curse of La Llorona is Recommended If You Like: Mama, Annabelle, The power of the crucifix

Grade: 3 out of 5 White Gowns

This Is a Movie Review: In ‘Green Book,’ Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali Forge Friendship Amidst Ignorance and Segregation

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CREDIT: Patti Perret/Universal Studios

This review was originally published on News Cult in November 2018.

Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini

Director: Peter Farrelly

Running Time: 130 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Racist Encounters, But Not So Intense That They Require an R Rating

Release Date: November 16, 2018 (Limited)/Expands Nationwide November 21, 2018

Is there any real living person with an appetite like that of Frank Vallelonga, aka “Tony Lip”? This is a character who has taken to heart the advice to always do everything 100%, which when it comes to food, means to devour whatever he’s eating like it’s his last meal. Tony Lip was a real person who worked at the Copacabana in his early days and went on to be an actor in the likes of Goodfellas, Donnie Brasco, and The Sopranos. When we meet a fictionalized version of Tony in the 1960s in Peter Farrelly’s Green Book, he’s eating 26 hot dogs in one sitting to win a $50 bet and getting ready to be the personal driver to a black jazz musician who is going on a tour that will take him through the Deep South. I don’t know if the real Tony ate everything in sight the way that Viggo Mortensen-as-Tony does, but if this characteristic were not based at least somewhat in reality, it would be plainly outrageous. But for as over-the-top as Mortensen plays Tony, I can recognize something familiar in his joie de vivre, as I, for one, am pretty shameless. But even for me, folding an entire pizza pie in half to eat the whole thing at once is a bridge too far. (Although now that I think about it, I might do that if someone dared me.)

Much more universally relatable, despite being a much more idiosyncratic character, is Tony’s passenger, Doctor Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali). He is stuck between so many worlds, uncertain of where he really fits in, but he does his best to project a true version of himself. In other words, he is like all of us. A classically trained pianist who would much rather be playing Bach and Beethoven, he accepts that he must rely on jazz to find himself an audience. But he is hardly a part of the mainstream, as he is barely aware of the work of contemporary black pop musicians like Little Richard, Sam Cooke, and Aretha Franklin. Having been born in Jamaica and spent a good portion of his childhood training in Russia, he can barely relate to his fellow black Americans. And as much as he shares cultural tastes with his high society white audiences, they do not exactly consider him a peer, considering that institutionalized segregation means that he cannot eat alongside them even when he is their guest of honor. On top of all that, he is estranged from his family, leaving him precious little in the way of emotional stability.

The story of Green Book is how these two men find something fulfilling in each other over the course of miles on the road. But as heartwarming as it is, theirs is only one small tale in the face of the massive hatred that they lived through and that continues to exist today. Farrelly and his actors do not ignore this context (this context being “life on Earth”). That means that Tony and Don must contend with institutionalized racism and racist thoughtlessness and general thoughtlessness on their way to genuine friendship. Will telling their story make a difference in this misbegotten world? Who’s to say, but what is more certain is that it resonates in the moment, and honest companionship and open-heartedness is valuable wherever you can find it.

Green Book is Recommended If You Like: The friendships of Men in Black, Shrek, Lethal Weapon, etc.

Grade: 4 out of 5 KFC Buckets

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Daddy’s Home 2’ is Amiably, Almost Transcendently Sweet, Except When Its Nasty Side Mucks Things Up

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CREDIT: Paramount Pictures

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

Starring: Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, John Lithgow, Mel Gibson, Linda Cardellini, Alessandra Ambrosio, John Cena

Director: Sean Anders

Running Time: 100 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Alarmingly Near-Lethal Accidents and the Budding Birds and Bees

Release Date: November 10, 2017

There is a principle in improv comedy that stresses avoiding introducing conflict too quickly, as arguments can be anathema to the performative harmony required by yes-and’ing. That same advice is not as often applied to a scripted narrative, as conflict is frequently the engine that drives the plot. But for a family-centric hangout comedy like Daddy’s Home 2, which derives its most humorous moments out of character-based foibles, it might actually be best to keep conflict to a minimum. For its first 30 minutes or so, this sequel easily bests its original by allowing its blended families to be mostly harmonious. But it cannot quite quit its nasty, mean-spirited streak. Still, there are enough moments that genuinely convey the magic of the holidays and the power of choosing love over frustration for this to mostly be a success.

When we first check back in on Brad (Will Ferrell) and Dusty (Mark Wahlberg), they’re the perfect picture of co-dadding. Whenever they are told that theirs is a strange arrangement between father and stepfather, they do not care, because they genuinely get along with each other now, despite their significant differences. But all is not 100% well, as the kids are not fans of swinging back and forth between two houses, especially on Christmas. The solution: one big holiday getaway with all the kids and all the parents, with Brad’s dad Don (John Lithgow) and Dusty’s dad Kurt (Mel Gibson) joining to add a few new wrinkles.

The juxtaposition between these two patriarchs is where DH2 derives most of its laughs. Don and Brad are unabashedly close, always greeting each other with a kiss on the lips. Dusty, meanwhile, resents Kurt for rarely showing up to be an adequate father and grandfather. These stark differences could lead to a bunch of cheap gags, but instead the interplay between this quartet remains mostly palatable, thanks to the sweet treatment of Don and Brad’s closeness, Kurt not being as much of a Neanderthal as the previews implied, and the film clearly presenting his absenteeism and macho bullshit as bad things. Plus, Brad and especially Don avoid being bullied by remaining confident in their identities and playfully acknowledging Dusty and Kurt’s different personal styles.

Thus why it is too bad that DH2 cannot trust itself to maintain this bonhomie. Every little disagreement and accident gets blown way out of proportion. Sure, even people who get along get on each other’s nerves every once in a while, but generally they do not turn into completely unrecognizable assholes, as they do in this film. There are plenty of funny moments of folks just goofing off, so there is no comedic need for all the shouting and chaos.

This over-the-top-tendency does not even touch on the moments of (unintentional?) pure horror, when mishaps with heavy machinery and weaponry result in main characters just a few inches away from death. A snow blower gets stuck in Christmas lights and flies around the house! An errant chainsaw nearly impales Brad! Don gets lost and is almost left facedown in the snow overnight! A shotgun accidentally fires, and the bullet grazes Kurt’s arm! Somehow all this madness leads to a genuinely heartwarming conclusion that almost makes all these extremes almost forgivable.

One particularly insightful scene represents what Daddy’s Home 2 is at its best and for a few minutes, places it among the upper tier of 2017’s cinematic offerings. It is telling that this film understands certain improv principles, as an outing at an improv show demonstrates the danger and revelations that can happen at a live comedy performance. Don has been taking improv classes, so Brad has volunteered him as an audience participant. A prompt for the scene hits a little close to home, exposing the secrets cracking away at his endlessly chipper façade. The wrenching agony on Lithgow’s face presents an actor at the top of his game, always giving his all no matter how silly or sentimental the material.

Daddy’s Home 2 is Recommended If You Like: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, The Other Guys, Anything with John Lithgow

Grade: 3 out of 5 Loaded Guns (Literal and Metaphorical)