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

Movie Review: ‘Godzilla: King of the Monsters’ Delivers What it Promises, But It’s a Huge Mess

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CREDIT: Warner Bros./YouTube

Starring: Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobby Brown, Bradley Whitford, Sally Hawkins, Charles Dance, Ken Watanabe, Thomas Middleditch, Aisha Hinds, O’Shea Jackson Jr., David Straitharn, Ziyi Zhang

Director: Michael Dougherty

Running Time: 132 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Monster-on-Monster Smashing and Even Some Human-on-Human Violence

Release Date: May 31, 2019

As promised, there are plenty of massive beasts in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, but there are also a lot of human beings, and they’ve got plenty on their to-do list. They debate which monsters are friends and which are foe, and they retrieve some objects that may or may not be MacGuffins, and honestly I could not make heads or tails of what they’re trying to do. This is a murderer’s row of heavy hitters wading through incomprehensibility. That’s not necessarily a dealbreaker, though, because when you come to see a Godzilla movie, you’re there for the monsters.

But here’s the thing: the fight scenes are just as incoherent! They’re distressingly dark, and edited way too quickly to make sense of what is going on. Every once in a while, there’s a really satisfying chomp or smackdown, but for the most part the splendor of the kaiju is obscured by too much visual clutter. King of the Monsters put me most in mind of the third Transformers flick, Dark of the Moon, a good chunk of which was an interminable clash of metal on metal. King of the Monsters is marred by sound design that is just as off-putting. In theory, I can understand why people would enjoy Godzilla getting into a battle royale with Mothra, Rodan, and the like a lot more than I can understand the appeal of robots clanging against each other. But this numbing onslaught is far from the best that this genre can offer.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters is Recommended If You Like: Non-stop giant monster battles

Grade: 2 out of 5 Roars

Mini-Movie Review: Aliens Take Over a Very Gray Chicago in the Intermittently Promising ‘Captive State’

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CREDIT: Parrish Lewis/Focus Features

Starring: Ashton Sanders, John Goodman, James Ransone, Jonathan Majors, Machine Gun Kelly, Vera Farmiga, Alan Ruck, Kevin Dunn, David J. Height, Madeline Brewer, Ben Daniels, D.B. Sweeney, Kevin J. O’Connor, KiKi Layne, Marc Grapey

Director: Rupert Wyatt

Running Time: 110 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Occasional Explosions and Minorly Disturbing Sci-Fi Flourishes

Release Date: March 15, 2019

Captive State reminds me of 2010’s Skyline, a pretty awful movie that was at least fascinating for how it attempted to craft a genuinely compelling alien invasion with a fairly small budget. Captive State is a little more competent, but it has that same vibe of a director who is burning with a unique vision that he simply must deliver to the world no matter what the handicaps. That director is Rupert Wyatt, and his vision is a version of Chicago enslaved by aliens who want humans to pretend that this is actually an arrangement of unity. There’s clearly some commentary about conformism at play here, which in past instances in this genre has been about the likes of communism and consumerism. But in this case, it is not clear what the target is. (Maybe blind patriotism?) And that really sums up Captive State as a whole. You can feel that there is a plentiful mix of ideas, and even an admirably ambitious combination of genres (chase-filled actioner, paranoid thriller, even a bit of a heist flick), and the surprisingly robust cast is here to give it what they’ve got. But alas, the overall effort never quite coalesces into something with a fully fleshed-out overarching purpose.

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Implant Trackers

This Is a Movie Review: The Front Runner

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CREDIT: Frank Masi/Sony Pictures

The Front Runner raises a lot of valid points about the propriety, or lack thereof, of prying into politicians’ personal lives, but it is liable to leave you more confused than ever, even if you have strong opinions about all the issues it raises. As the narrative goes, the coverage of Gary Hart’s supposed indiscretions during the 1988 Democratic primary completely derailed his campaign and led to the overall coarsening of the political media landscape that we have today. That may be an accurate narrative, but is it a bad thing that we know more about the personal lives of those who govern us? The fact that it all remained secret for so long is one reason why powerful people have gotten away with terrible behavior.

But as for how it affected Gary Hart specifically, did he deserve what happened to him? The way the movie presents it, it seems like he had been unfaithful in his marriage, but not necessarily in this case. And the Miami Herald, which originally reported on the story, did not appear to do their duest diligence to verify their implications. At least I can unequivocally say it is a good thing that Donna Rice, Hart’s alleged mistress, gets to have her side of the story presented. But otherwise, The Front Runner is a bit of a mess. Although, it could be a portrait of a mess.

I give The Front Runner 2.5 (Million) Accusations out of 5 (Possible) Indiscretions.

This Is a Movie Review: The Fundamentally Implausible ‘The Commuter’ Speeds Towards the Upper Tier of Entertainingly Ridiculous Action Thrillers

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CREDIT: Jay Maidment/Lionsgate

This post was originally published on News Cult in January 2018.

Starring: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Jonathan Banks, Elizabeth McGovern, Sam Neill, Florence Pugh, Clara Lago, Ella-Rae Smith, Andy Nyman, Rolland Møller, Colin McFarlane, Adam Nagaitis

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra

Running Time: 105 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for All the Ways That Liam Neeson Can Improvise on a Train to Dispatch His Opponents

Release Date: January 12, 2018

Much of Liam Neeson’s post-Taken filmography has been readily reduced to “Taken on a [blank]” or “Taken, but this time they steal his [blank].” This is especially true in his collaborations with director Jaume Collet-Serra. 2011’s Unknown checked in as “Taken, but this time they steal his identity,” while 2014’s Non-Stop was essentially “Taken on a plane.” Their latest teamup, The Commuter, may at first glance be their “Taken on a train,” but a more accurate pitch would be: “take the government and law enforcement corruption elements of something like Chinatown, compress them into the hijacked train scene of The French Connection, and stretch out to feature length.”

Insurance salesman and former cop Michael McCauley (Neeson) has just been laid off, only a few years before retirement, when a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga) offers him a proposition during his ride home along the Hudson on the Metro-North train: would he be willing to do one little thing that would affect someone he doesn’t know and receive a significant reward in return? This is presented as a hypothetical, but it soon becomes very real when he discovers a hidden bag filled with tens of thousands of dollars in cash. This is an effectively simple premise insofar as it immediately kicks the narrative into high gear, but it is simultaneously confounding with how many details it leaves under wraps.

Ultimately, that is to the audience’s benefit, as we are strung along with just enough info to want to sniff out what is going on. All Michael has to go on is the stop that this person is getting off and the fact that he or she does not normally ride this train. Collet-Serra specializes in populating his cast with a full crew of conceivably suspicious characters. Could it be that this mystery person is the tattooed girl with a bag full of fake IDs? That certainly raises alarms. But for all we and Michael know, the nurse stuck in an emotional texting session is just as much of a suspect.

The Commuter sort of fits in the vein of the “decent man fights back against a rigged system” genre, but really, that is only the narrative that has been forced upon Michael. Yes, he has been unfairly fired. True, he did lose all his savings thanks to the recent market crash (and he makes sure to flip off the vain Goldman Sachs broker on the train). But the reward dangled in front of him appeals to his selfish motives and does not actually give him an opportunity to stick up for the little guy. Besides, he is driven more by the threats against his wife and son and his own law enforcement instincts for uncovering the truth. It is implied that this criminal enterprise is so insidious and far-reaching that they could set up any patsies they want and frame them for any motivation

As the vast conspiracy begins to be revealed, we are left to confront the question of plausibility. But in a thriller like this, verisimilitude matters less than following the own theoretical rules of this extreme situation. That is to say, The Commuter needs to be at least as relentlessly entertaining as it is ridiculous. And on that score, given the director, star, and location, it is unsurprisingly adroit. The film’s logical internal consistency, though, may be worth investigating a little more deeply, as the passengers at the mercy of Michael’s mission may come to trust him –  a man who has been getting into fights and throwing people out windows – more quickly than is conceivable. A late-stage Spartacus homage is quite amusing, though indicative of that questionable trust. But in a profoundly puzzling situation with life-or-death stakes like this one, it only makes sense to go along for the ride.

The Commuter is Recommended If You Like: Non-Stop, Face/Off, The French Connection

Grade: 4 out of 5 Train Defenestrations