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In Max Minghella’s flashy debut Teen Spirit, Elle Fanning plays a modern-day immigrant dreaming of a greater existence. Blessed with a ripping set of pipes but stuck in the dead-end-ville that is the Isle of Wight, Fanning’s Violet is a Polack living in the far reaches of the UK who embarks down a well-trod rags-to-riches road, one that makes a point of name-checking iconic humble-beginnings-princess Cinderella. There is little novel that defines Violet’s underdog arc but Fanning’s magnetic turn and a sensitive approach to character development make this poppy toe-tapper an irresistible power ballad, if one you’ve definitely heard play on repeat since the advent of film.

As if trapped in a music video, first-time filmmaker Mingella (The Handmaid’s Tale) smothers the film with a highly stylized technicolor sleekness that starkly contracts the monochromatic, hay-blasted roots of the feature’s protagonist, the daughter of a single mom, living on a farm they struggle to afford, friend to horses and dive bar urchins alike. When she’s singing, Violet’s real world melts away into the backdrop of pop star bling bling, her troubled home life and real-world sensibilities fading when she enters a teen talent competition that promises a big audience and a bigger record deal. 

[READ MORE: Our review of the Elle Fanning-starring ‘How to Talk to Girls at Parties‘]

Fanning carries the film on her competent shoulders, bearing the brunt of the movie’s straight-and-narrow appeal. Whether she’s belting out a teeny-bopper pop song to a huge audience or singing alone in her bedroom, she’s magnetic in the role, a surefire star-making turn were the movie welcomed by a large audience.


As a director, Minghella comes across as a touch try hard – his style overbearing and scattershot at times, which can be exacerbated by Autumn Durald’s in-your-face neon-blasted cinematography. As a writer, his larger narrative fingerprints leave a somewhat ho-hum impression – with the whole underprivileged girl entering a talent competition playing out pretty much exactly as we’d expect – but his attention to character work and some of the more minute, fish-out-of-water elements of the character relationships read as honest and, most importantly, connect when they need to most. 

The heart and the soul of Teen Spirit is the strange but symbiotic relationship established between Violet and washed-up former Opera singer Vlad (Zlatko Buric), one of those aforementioned dive bar urchins, who becomes an unlikely guardian and eventual DIY manager for the prospective star. As Violet navigates the trials of teen-pop stardom, Vlad takes her under his wing, trying to shield her from mistakes he knows too well, but unable to wrangle her from experiencing them on her own behalf.

[READ MORE: Our review of the Elle Fanning-starring ‘Neon Demon‘]

Everything kind of drives towards the predictable conclusion you expect just from watching the trailers and there’s not a lot in Teen Spirit that catches you off guard, except for maybe that overwhelming sense of how well it actually works. This is not the sardonic anti-musical of Patti Cake$ nor is it the blubbery great melodrama of A Star is Born or even the retro throwback-Golden-era charm of La La Land but Teen Spirit embraces the here and now and tells a familiar story through the MTV angle with a clear love for the principal characters driving through its simple “poor girl does American Idol” narrative. 

The music, as performed by Elle Fanning – who has a startlingly rich and captivating voice – is kind of helplessly catchy, pulling from a catalogue of hitmakers like Ellie Goulding and Teen & Sara (with additional music from Arian Grande, Grimes, Katy Perry, No Doubt, and Major Lazer). Teen Spirit is kind of like being trapped at a music festival for 14-year olds that eventually gets even the cranky classical music lovers tapping their feet. It just kind of succeeds against odds. Exactly like Violet. 

CONCLUSION: ‘Teen Spirit’ is far from a radical reinvention of a musical underdog saga but director Max Minghella uses Elle Fanning’s unwavering cinematic powers to captivate and charm despite its foray down predictable avenues
B-

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The Curse of La Llorona is why people say they don’t like horror movies. In an age of Us, Hereditary, The Babadook, The Witch, Get Out, Raw, It Follows and so so many more outstanding horror movies, it’s why some still think they don’t like the genre. Why they falsely assume it’s inferior cinema. Sure, this particular movie isn’t retroactively responsible for the distaste of scary movie avoidant moviegoers en masse but this brand of slick, soulless sludge is. With nothing more than an anorexic concept held loosely together with poorly-telegraphed jump scares, children constantly screaming and countless scenes of creeping through creaking casas in the dark, The Curse of La Llorona is the laziest pedigree of studio horror fare, coasting on brand familiarity and age-old genre tropes to pass the minutes by with nothing in the way of inspiration to lift it up or differentiate it from the pack.

The lack of promise peeks through in the film’s cold open, which reveals a mother and her two kids playing hide and seek in a sunny south-of-the-border patch of field. One of the sons hunts around for his family, calling out their names in Spanish, only to discover his mama drowning his hermano in the creek. He dashes off and the screen cuts to black. This very scene is representative of why La Llorona doesn’t work writ large: it’s drawn out without purpose, lacks palpable tension, and failing to inject any tonal specificity into the scene or deeper humanity into the characters. There’s no greater sense of why any audience should care about any of this nonsense and thereby the characters immediately becomes reduced to standees beseeched by a half-baked baddie.

[READ MORE: Our approving review of ‘The Conjuring 2’]

First-time director Michael Chaves never communicates any semblance of command over either tone or character throughout the feature and instead relies on familiar horror pratfalls: repetitive scenes of tiptoeing through shadowy houses, a cursed lady suddenly appearing in a mirror (or over your shoulder) (or out of the bathtub), stupid characters making forehead-smacking choices, huge logical and continuity gaps. If La Llorona were a bingo card of bad horror movie tropes, audience members are privy to a quick win. 

The sixth movie to take place in the hit-making Conjuring Universe, La Llorona is also by far the worst entry to the series thus far. Which is certainly saying something after the horrors of Annabelle and The Nun. The film, as written by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis (the duo behind teenage rom-com Five Feet Apart), is incredibly straight-forward. After drowning her children, La Llorona, the weeping woman, becomes Mexican folktale, told to snatch up children as her own. She comes to haunt the family of widowed CPS caseworker Anna (Linda Cardellini) and her children Chris (Roman Christou) and Samantha (Jaynee-Lynee Kinchen) because of a vengeful client and troubled mother (Patricia Velasquez) who lost two sons of her own. 

[READ MORE: Our take on the half-decent ‘Annabelle: Creation’]

If nothing else, I expected The Curse of La Llorona to really indulge in its Latin-Americanness, to tease out that greater sense of community and use the fulcrum of folklore and cultural customs to provide a different vantage point for a horror movie to unfold. And while the film brandishes notable visibility for representation in terms of talent in front of and behind the camera, LatinX culture is reduced to some sentences in Spanish and a cast of predominantly Latin actors. It’s easy to spot the folly when you realize the fact that both writers are white. 

There’s no subtextual content to speak of, no subtle commentary on Mexican-American geopolitical relations, no attempt to tie the weeping woman back into fundamental Mexican folklore. There’s not really even an attempt to justify the titular villain’s motivations. A quick throwaway line in the first act gives her the most cursory of motives but when your baddie is nothing more than a mindless boogeyman in a white dress, it fails to conjure much legitimate fear. And look, I’m not against a horror movie that proudly is what it is, that boldly stands as nothing more than the sum of its scary parts, but when its part are so flimsy, you have a product that simply is meaningless: a menagerie of nothingness. And when that nothingness doesn’t even manage to be scary, it’s hard to figure out what the point of all of this is meant to be. 

Linda Cardellini does the best she can with what’s been given on the page but that doesn’t amount to much more than her looking scared or yelling something to the effect of “DON’T TAKE MY CHILDREN!” Cardellini is a fine actress, which cannot be said of all the performers trapped in this turgid trash, but she has just about nothing to work with. The children are simply bad though little is asked of them outside getting tossed around like rag dolls and shrieking. Raymond Cruz of Breaking Bad gives a late-stage jolt of energy as a winky shaman working outside the church but even his deadpan humor doesn’t really fit into the mood of the movie, one of many elements that are hard to pin down because the writers and director never seem to decide upon any discernible style to call their own. 

[READ MORE: Our review of the last Conjuring universe spin-off ‘The Nun‘]

Rather, The Curse of La Llorona is happy to borrow ideas from better movies, ape jump scares from more effective ones, and replicate the slick style established by James Wan over the course of this interconnected Conjuring horror-verse. As a potpourri of feeble jump scares, sour writing, bad effects, lazy creature design, and undercooked ideas, The Curse of La Llorona has almost nothing to call its own except its total lack of creativity and a proclivity to half-heartedly copy superior genre entries. Now if it only doesn’t copy its predecessor’s box office success, Wan might finally learn that he needs to actually put some thought into these mindless Conjuring spin-offs or finally lay them to rest.

CONCLUSION: ‘The Curse of La Llorona’ promises to inject a Latin-X flavor into the Conjuring universe but barely even manages that. Nothing more than a dreadful fit of overdone cliches, it’s the kind of lowest-wrung horror movie that gives the genre a bad name while providing absolutely zero scares.
D-

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Cue the John Williams’ drumroll please, as it’s finally here: some long-awaited details and a stunning first look at the upcoming Star Wars: Episode IX, now officially titled Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Directed by J.J. Abrams and starring Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Domhnall Gleeson, Kelly Marie Tran, Lupita Nyong’o, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels and even Carrie Fischer (!!!) and Mark Hammill is the 11th overall Star Wars film and the third of the third trilogy, which is said to be the last dealing with the Skywalker legacy. 

[READ MORE: Our enthusiastic review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens]

With an end of year release date, it’s about time that fans get a glimpse at what Abrams has been cooking up, especially after the divisive reaction to Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, which had fans split on the decision to “let the past die” by unceremoniously killing off Luke Skywalker, draining the mystery of Rey’s lineage, and otherwise eschewing expectations. The reins were handed over to Abrams by the House of Mouse in the hopes of bringing the story to a satisfying close that pleases fans and critics of the middle chapter alike while putting a nice bow on the nine-story saga of Anakin Skywalker and his troubled lineage.

The trailer for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker attempts to bridge that gap by teasing the end of the line for Rey, Fin, Poe, and Kylo Ren. Bringing with it Abrams’ signature trademark for mystery in marketing, The Rise of Skywalker sets the tone without offering tons of story details but rest assured, after Disney CEO Bob Iger claiming just this morning that the Star Wars franchise will be taking a “hiatus” after Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, it will bring the whole story full circle. And with that comes an exciting and rather unexpected appearance by the series’ formative villain: Ian McDiarmid’s Emperor Palpatine.

[READ MORE: Our mixed review of Star Wars: The Last Jedi]

The trailer debuted at this year’s annual Star Wars Celebration, which assembled the cast, crew, suits behind the scenes and, for some reason, Stephen Cobert, to a huge crowd and immediate uproar. So check it out and sound off on your thoughts: Do you think this will be an improvement over The Last Jedi? Will Kylo Ren’s story end in infamy? Will Rey, Poe, or Fin meet their demise? Why is the Emperor laughing?

[READ MORE: Our positive review of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story]

STAR WARS: EPISODE IX - THE RISE OF SKYWALKER Teaser Trailer [HD] Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher - YouTube

Joining the cast for this latest in the Star Wars universe is Keri Russell, Richard E. Grant, and Dominic Monaghan. The film is set to release in all the theaters in the world on December 20, 2019. With fan anticipation at an all-time high, the question shifts to the question of what will be the biggest moneymaker of 2019: Disney’s Avengers: Endgame or Disney’s Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker? 

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Little Woods is the kind of movie that makes you wonder about the backstory of writer-director Nia DaCosta (who is signed on to direct the Jordan Peele produced Candyman remake), who enriches the film with down-home specificity that it feels like much more than just a facsimile of authenticity. Her’s is the kind of movie that feels written from personal experience, that pulls from the specifics of a life harshly lived, that doesn’t wallow in its poverty porn setting, and though dour and depressing, never compromises its optimistic, full-spirited edge and push towards the light. It’s a neo-western in construction – the story of a good person doing a bad thing for good reasons, and DaCosta teases out the drive for self-preservation by any means by focusing on character first and foremost.

In the fracking wasteland of Little Woods, North Dakota, Ollie (Tessa Thompson, Creed) and Deb (Lily James, Cinderella) look for ways out from under the boot – suffering the daily oppression of pennilessness; threatened with impending homelessness, under the watchful eye of the American penal system. There’s scumbag dudes floating in and out of their lives but their stories are not affected by romance, nor driven by society patriarchy. DaCosta’s bleak character-driven drama follows the two sisters as they try to navigate home foreclosure, job opportunity, and an unwanted pregnancy, coloring outside the law to achieve some semblance of being afloat. DaCosta’s film could just as easily have had Debra Granki’s name signed to it in that it exists in the same basic family tree as movies like Winter’s Bone and Leave No Trace – all character studies that take a magnifying glass to the often unseen, unromanticized victims of American capitalism. As painted by DaCosta, North Dakota is a place of forlorn destitution. A black hole of opportunity scraped together with parking lot residences, aluminum siding, and cheap plywood. A fracking nightmare. The production design from Yvonne Boudreaux amplifies the total lack of opportunity baked into Ollie and Deb’s story as Brian McOmber’s musical selections draw out an almost mythic folksy quality to their tale of struggle. A hollowness to McOmber’s musical timbre reflects back that sense of dejection and solitude and underscores conflicting passages of hope and hopelessness. It’s your uplifting tale about a woman illegally smuggling OxyContin across the American-Canadian border to raise money for her adoptive sister’s abortion story, the music gently reminds, and one that’ll have you needing a cold shower by its end. 

Draped in plaid, violently drunk, begging for a last chance, or genuinely hopefully for the future, the supporting cast (James Badge Dale, Lance Reddick, and Luke Kirby) further color the lives of Ollie and Deb, adding complication and texture to their bootstraps attempt at pulling themselves out of a desperate situation by any means necessary. Some encourage, others threatened. Still more plead. Yes, there are good and bad guys to this story but everyone is struggling and at least trying to put on a good front to face the world. 


There’s dramatic irony in the juxtaposition of racist Trumpian bluster about that proposed wall separating America and Mexico whereas our characters attempt to flee the U.S. to the promised land of Canada, a place where health care is a human right, a land they’ve come to see as their only chance for renewal. Scuzzy in setting but never lacking hope, Little Woods compounds lack of privilege through the lens of gender and race and like so many Americans struggling to keep afloat in the age of the billionaire, the crude disparity between the haves and have-nots becomes the ultimate enemy. 

The movie largely rides on Thompson’s performances, who personifies the fight for freedom for bondage in many ways. She’s the victim of her circumstance but not one who succumbs to victimization and though she takes risks with her future to secure her present, Thompson’s Ollie is a kind soul, willing to sacrifice for her family and Thompson brings complexity, grit, and humanity to the role in spades. She’s not a Clint Eastwood type – she’s something more. And that’s pretty badass in itself.

CONCLUSION: Nia DaCosta’s dramatic debut is a strongly-performed study of the power of poverty that allows Tessa Thompson further opportunity to shine. Though its depressingly realist take on American anti-exceptionalism is thoughtful and emotionally honest, it fails to offer quite enough dramatic crescendoes to make it truly fracking memorable.
B

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Throughout the 1960s and 70s, United States prisoners became the victim of scientific research the country over. A new golden age of scientific progress demanded countless scores of human lab rats to test medications, creams, deodorants, etc. on and who better to experiment with than a captive population with rock bottom demands for their participation. The new film from French filmmaker Claire Denis is a response to the age of the Stanford Prison Experiment as High Life blasts a vessel loaded with death row criminals into the stratosphere to see what happens. But even that minimalist description can’t set the stage for what is in store with this hairy meditation on humanity and scientific progress. 

Just yesterday, scientists for the first time in recorded history obtained a photograph of a black hole. Five-thousand-someodd years of written human civilization and just yesterday was the first time we managed to glimpse the phenomenon. What perfect timing for High Life, which deals as much with the mystery of black holes as it does with sybian saddles (Google at your own risk) and packs of feral space dogs. 

The film co-written by Denis and frequent collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau and new talent Geoff Cox (Evolution) cycles through a series of spacey tableaus, all centered to some degree around Robert Pattinson’s Monte. We’re shown glimpses spanning Monte’s past, present, and future life, including grainy flashback sequences that shed light on his being aboard this craft o’ criminals, but mostly we’re stuck with him, suspended in monotony, imprisoned in ennui aboard a ship identified only with a large number ‘7’ sprawled across its bow. 

[READ MORE: Our enthusiastic review of ‘The Rover‘ starring Robert Pattinson]

Indebted to movies like Solaris and the bonkers floating baby part of 2001: Space Odyssey, High Life is a spaced out and surreal vision quest. It’s the kind of scholarly sci-fi that borders on pretense, one that is aggressively anti-mainstream – a frankly impossible sell for the general moviegoing population – that’s nonetheless bursting with suggestive passages, tantalizing imagery, and taboo psychosexual tension. You feel this movie more than anything and the experience of watching it can be blissfully enchanting when it’s not overtly labyrinthine. 

Throughout High Life, one is given the impression that gains come as much from the act of puzzling through it as much as from taking the film as a purely visceral audio-visual experience. Denis’ creation boasts stunning sound and picture and some singularly haunting imagery that help capture its esoteric and otherworldly spirit. A stretching line of astronauts floating weightlessly; a baby’s mouth smushed with strawberry; a deep-red pleasure room – High Life is suggestive both visually and intellectually but there’s always something withheld, a plot point fast-forwarded through, a relationship left intentionally obscured, deaths left as mystery. High Life is a thousand piece puzzle with a few dozen pieces missing.  Lots of blanks are left to fill, a reflection of the underlying sense of paranoia that’s central to Denis’ meditation on crime and punishment. And the sprawl of characters, performed with uneasy aplomb by a cast that includes Juliette Binoche and Mia Goth, is left needing more flesh and less reactive impulse. Taken as a generality, the production design, a mesmerizing lo-fi mash of blinking panels, DIY cribs, and bubbling vats of blackwater, has as much character as any of the human pieces and adds to the overall mystery of Denis’ somber chamber piece.

[READ MORE: Our review of the wacky feminist western ‘Damsel‘ starring Robert Pattinson]

Taken as a visual poem, High Life is a movie about reform. About manifest destiny and spirituality transforming a man and Pattinson does most of the heavy lifting in the pole position. If one thing is for certain, it’s that Pattinson continues to make bold choices selecting roles, his troubled take as a once-violent criminal trying to turn a leaf through chastity and child-rearing is complex and new; at times chilling, at others masterfully serene. The kid is a bonafide star and a hell of an actor and it’s a treat seeing him perform in such challenging, intellectually compelling pictures with such dedication and dexterity of craft.    

Attempting to justify the physics of their spacecraft, Monte suggests that in a state of constant acceleration, Earth-like gravity is maintained. Denis attempts to harness a similar sentiment in her storytelling – constantly driving forward, at times without consideration for what falls by the wayside and this can be to High Life’s detriment. Thin characterization, messy plotting, and seemingly incomplete arcs frustrate but I’d still rather see a movie like this that demands rumination and deeper reflection, even if it all doesn’t add up so easily. 

[READ MORE: Our 2017 Silver Screen Riot Awards where Robert Pattinson claimed ‘Best Actor’ for his role in ‘Good Time‘]

The calculus of piecing this all together definitely demands more than your average matinee, Denis’ film taking on an inkblot quality that’ll leave different viewers with different impressions of what it all means; a Rorschach that reflects parts of yourself back depending on your angle of viewing. Open for interpretation to a fault perhaps, we’re left with an impression of finality and choice but there’s no small amount of guesswork involved. By the time the lights came up, High Life’s mission truncates, which in and of itself can make the film a not entirely fulfilling venture on a single viewing. But the bizarro journey manages enough high marks to warrant the trip time and it’s the kind of movie that I could easily see revisiting and trying to dig further into its themes, despite its at times frustrating attempt to purposefully leave viewers adrift. 

CONCLUSION: Claire Denis mans a spiritual reawakening aboard a vessel of violent criminals in this poetic, beautiful, and at times rather long-winded, portrait of science vs. man. Challenging in form and function, this humanist sci-fi places character and plot secondary to tone and obscured questions about meaning and destiny.
B

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Stop-motion has been around since nearly the invention of cinema itself, the first usage of the animation technique employed in the 1897 film The Humpty Dumpty Circus. The art of physically manipulating objects, photographing them through a series of tiny incremental changes as a means to express movement, has become incredibly sophisticated in the last century and one Portland-based animation studio can take credit for consistently pushing the medium to new extremes: Laika. 

The creative masterminds behind such films as Coraline and Kubo and the Two Strings, Laika has enjoyed more critical success than box office punching power, each of their films performing modestly but not breaking out into smash hit variety that such dedication to craft ought to bear. All of their productions have received Academy Award nominations for Best Animated Feature (with Kubo also earning a warranted nod for Best Visual Effects) but none have claimed the top prize and thereby have failed to “breakout” in a traditional sense.

[READ MORE: Our review of Laika Animation’s excellent ‘Kubo and the Two Strings‘]

The independent animation studio has become a modern-day equivalent of the little engine that could, posting just enough gains to keep the lights on while churning out animated films that stand defiant to the one-and-done demands of Netflix-era “content”. Laika’s films are worth revisiting for their visual temptations alone, with their best work smugglings in deeper themes that demand further examination and rumination. There is a love of craft baked into every blade of glass in a Laika movie because every detail is hand-crafted, every literal blade of glass shaped by some dedicated artist. If filmmaking is a lost art, it is not lost to Laika and they seem out to prove that fact with every film they make.

Missing Link, Laika’s fifth major release, is a continuation of this dedication to craft, the seamless marriage of stop-motion foregrounds and computer-animated backgrounds make for an eye-popping visual feast tailor-made for audiences to hungrily dig into. With each release, the animation studio tackles some new previously untackleable hurdle, breaking new ground and charging forward into bold new territory and Missing Link is no exception, the level of quality and detail simply immaculate with each and every handmade element of this assemblage. 

But quality animation should be no surprise from Laika at this day and age. Instead, Laika makes major pivots in terms of protagonist and plot as Missing Link marks the first of Laika’s efforts that doesn’t focus on a child centerpiece. Instead, Hugh Jackman’s Sir Lionel Frost is our hero, an aristocrat and playboy adventurer keen on induction into a league of fanciful, and pompous, gentlemen who fill the smoky halls of the Optimates Club. As an outsider looking in, Frost is dedicated to proving his worth by discovering new species, be it the Loch Ness Monster or a Sasquatch (voiced by the shaggy Zach Galifianakis) who, luck would have it, just sent him a letter in the mail. 

[READ MORE: Our review of the 2014 Laika output ‘The Boxtrolls’]

The Victorian-era adventure is buddy comedy by way of road movie, an odd-pair tangle of lost folk trying to find their path forward but looking in the wrong places. The nuts and bolts of Missing Link are perhaps more inspired than the somewhat straight-forward tale of a Sasquatch (under the pseudonym Mr. Link) banding with a prestige-seeking explorer to find company among the Yeti and the fame and fortune that comes with such a discovery. As the turn of phrase states, it’s the journey that carries more weight than the destination and the constant clever turns of Missing Link, which unfold in spectacularly complex but never-too-busy set pieces, such as an Inception-inspired seafaring foot chase, make said journey one to gawk at and be swept away by, as if by tidal wave themselves. 

From the luscious forests of Olympic-foothills of Washington to the tops of snowy peaks in Shangri-La, Missing Link boasts a delectable vintage of spellbinding setting, ever the more charming in handcrafted detail. From a technical aspect, this movie just kicks. Director Chris Butler (ParaNorman) brings a vividness to each shot that would overwhelm a shakier story but, in this case, proves a fitting complement of form and function in harmony. The voice cast, which also includes the ever-reliable Zoe Saldana and Timothy Olyphant as a weaselly bounty hunter, crams a big amount of personality and lifeblood into these pint-sized figurines; the score from Carter Burwell (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs) gives an old-timey serial adventure quality a fresh coat of paint; even the tiny costume design from Deborah Cook is both period-appropriate and giddily silly, just another lush detail worthy of note. 

What makes Missing Link such a surefire win for families is its ability to charm the wee ones with scatological asides while also offering adults in the audience a blast of rather, well, adult material. There is a fair share of gun violence and some frankly bleak instances of death, which may make the hesitant mother even moreso hesitant about bringing the younger of tots to check this one out, but with the staggeringly captivating animation, oft-winning physical gags, near-constant barrage of awkward humor, and big ole heart on the sleeve, it’s hard to miss with Missing Link.   

CONCLUSION: Though not resting with the top-tier Laika efforts, ‘Missing Link’ is breathtaking proof about the evils of consolidating style: in the age of selfsame CGI-animation, something this devilishly detailed bears fruit of singularly unique beauty. Kids and adults alike will swoon.
B+

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For the forty years that Steven King’s novels have been translated to film, my home state of Maine has been his primary setting. Maine, as interpreted by King, is a land of many terrors: telekinetic prom queens, sewer-dwelling clowns, rabid Saint Bernards. Perhaps it’s the fact that ninety percent of the state is covered by forested land, amplifying that innate human fear of the unknown and unknowable wilderness, that makes Maine such a suitable setting for King’s horrors to unfold. There’s something inherently spooky about the woods that even as a kid, growing up on property that ran aground dense second-growth forest, I was able to tap into. I remember dragging my younger brother or helpless elementary-school friends deep into those woods, conjuring up faux-folklore about past peoples, haunting spirits and killer cryptids. 

There was an old plot of land, roughly a half-mile back from the house in Falmouth where I first started collecting memories, that remains lodged in my mind. Covered by a thick canopy of tree cover, the remains of what must have been an 18th-century settlement – just rough foundation, cut away by the entropy of nature – lay totally untouched; collecting moss, withering away with time. I felt drawn to the place – its feral mysteries and odd placement – and would terrorize anyone willing to venture out there with me with some cooked-up plot intended to spook them into believing in something more than the known and knowable. The Maine woods are scary folks. Especially when you set out to make them so. 

Directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer do exactly that with their adaptation of King’s Pet Sematary. The film even begins with an overhead shot craning over an impenetrable forest below before arriving on a blood-stained scene; a crimson handprint, a locked car, a burning house. The woods watching. The dangers of the forest is suggested early and often, foreshadowed as a place of great power even before the art department blast everything with fog-machines (playing up the 80s B-movie vibes) and through the starry eyes of Kolsh and Widmyer, the wooded setting takes on a malevolent, moody character and seeks to root out and destroy its newest residents.

[READ MORE: Our review of Jordan Peele’s breakout hit ’Us’]

Them’s Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke), wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and wee little Gage (Hugo Lavoie) and the family of four has relocated to a 50-acre plot in Ludlow, Maine, a deeply rural setting with a census-confirmed population of 377. The screenplay from Jeff Buhler (The Prodigy) evokes familial trauma before we ever get to the buried bodies and evil resurrection stuff, giving Rachel a back story (literally) about a twisted sister and using that as a fulcrum for the Creed family mom and pops to express their faith – or lack thereof – in something beyond life. 

Awkward family conversations revolve around how to broach the ever-difficult subject of death with their doting daughter, exacerbated when the beloved family cat Church is run down by a blaring semi. Longtime Ludlow resident and neighborhood Jud (John Lithgow) twists Louis’ ear about native folklore and the spooky power of the land they just bought but only after he’s taken the good doctor under cover of night to an incredibly eerie slice of nightmarescape to bury Church. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the source material knows that that isn’t the last we see of the once-friendly kitty and that things only get darker from there.

It’s a shame that the trailer for Pet Sematary reveals what should be a left-field twist – and for the sake of those that haven’t been exposed to it, I won’t do so further here – because Buhler does a great job of flipping the plot beats as written by King to keep the material fresh without sacrificing deeper themes of the all-encompassing power of grief. Rather than try to spring load the same old trick up their sleeve, Kölsch and Widmyer steer their creation in a different direction, relying on dreamlike surrealism and haunting flashbacks to dig deeper into the film’s thematic position and burrowing further into the character’s deteriorating headspace. 

[READ MORE: Our breakdown of the 100 Best Horror Movies of the Decade]

As a remake, Pet Sematary succeeds by virtue of retooling what’s already been served; slicing it up and playing around in the guts. It’s a remix on the classic bonfire tale with enough unexpected detours to keep things involving and interesting. When the road forks and the map says to veer left, Kölsch and Widmyer hang right and pummel into whatever may lay in those tracks. They tempt and play with the audience, a cat batting at a stringed toy. Explosions of gruesome imagery are as startling and effective as the occasional jump scare. Kölsch and Widmyer are horror fanatics that have sharpened their craft and, by extension, have become funnier yarn-weavers in doing so. The pair batter us with foreshadowing so obvious that it becomes a sort of in-joke every time an 18-wheeler goes screaming past. 

The performances are generally noteworthy all around. Clarke is well-suited to a man of science tempted by dark magic, his cloudy-eyed grasp on reality ever slipping as he becomes more of a hollow shell with every sacrifice he makes. Lithgow is perfectly suited to the tempted but spooked old man gig and Seimetz is effective as a mother shielding her children from a traumatized childhood to call their own. But it’s young Jeté Laurence who really steals the show, her Ellie the perfect foil that brings the dark soul of Pet Sematary to life in all its twist glory. Also, be sure to mark your ballots for Church the Graveyard Cat when voting for best villain of 2019; that disheveled feline is a spooker through and through. 

[READ MORE: Our review of the hugely successful 2017 version of ‘It’]

While Pet Sematary isn’t the most artful or deep Steven King adaptation to date but – very much in line with 2017’s hugely successful It – it’s a reimagining with actual imagination, that takes the source material and puts an interesting spin on it, modernizing the material with whizbang effects and an eerie, and at times entirely scary, tone. In the firefighter world, forested area take on an ominious quality. They’re not called woods. They’re called fuel. It would only be right then to refer to the Maine woods as what they truly are: nightmare fuel. Welcome home. 

CONCLUSION: Eerie but playful, ‘Pet Sematary’ knows what it is and plays to its strengths by embracing the B-movie qualities of the hellraiser but by then elevating it with majorly effective production value and over-the-top but hugely entertaining performances, it becomes a horror film not to be missed.
B+

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The post ‘PET SEMATARY’ A Gory B-Movie Scarefest That Flips The Script appeared first on Silver Screen Riot.

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Leaving behind the days of darkened cowls, killer Batmen, and gritty monochromatic realism, Shazam! continues DC’s newfound grove as the weirdo cousin of the superhero universe. Leaning full brunt into the bonkers aspect of a world where certain citizens are bulletproof, immortal, and/or can chat with sharks, this latest origin story from the DCEU steps out of the shadows of the Zack Snyder-era of Batman v. Superman, fully embracing the goofy prospect of heroes living among us and building it up one ridiculous costume at a time. This time out, it’s a kid donning said costume and this latest chapter in the ever-evolving DC world absolutely revels in the goof. 

Shazam! very much rises from the primordial goop of Aquaman, the first of DC’s films to chuck out the old style guide and outpace chief competition Marvel in the ridiculous department, brightening the color palette and heavily piling on the one-liners. As indicated by its ocean-deep worldwide cume, many clearly connected with the story of Arthur Curry as told by James Wan even if I found it to be largely stupid and without many redeeming qualities (even for a movie that had Willem Dafoe riding a hammerhead). As it stands, DC is tucked in a chrysalis, reinventing itself and, unlike the protagonist of Shazam, seemingly maturing backwards. 

[READ MORE: Our not-so-hot review of ‘Justice League’]

The days of the grave and gravely-voiced heroes are clearly behind us and no one in the DC stable better represents that than Billy Batson (Asher Angel), the street-smart foster kid who’s granted the power to turn into an adult super version of himself by shouting “Shazam!” With that utterance and a zap of lightning, Billy gains super strength, bullet immunity, the power to control electricity, and, in time, the ability to fly. Shazam, or as sidekick Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) likes to call him “Captain Sparkle Fingers”, is the antithesis of self-serious pomp, the film channeling movies like Big to play up the goofiness of a regular kid that can turn himself into a muscle-bound man in a red suit after being bewitched by a wizard (Djimon Hounson).

Director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out) and screenwriter Henry Gayden (Earth to Echo) largely achieve the Herculean task of moving a lower-tier DC character with a ridiculous backstory and bogus powers into the limelight and does so by beaming the material with a super-charged amount of heart. Really grinding in the whole “we’re fun now” aspect, Shazam! is loaded with smarm and bright performances. This is a movie that takes place outside the shadows of a lair but does find itself foraying into some surprisingly dark corners every now and again with some frightening imagery that’ll assure audiences that Sandberg hasn’t completely forgone his horror roots.  Some of Shazam!‘s many goofy gags land perfectly while others prove overreaching and lame but, by and large, the effect is more spellbinding than Aquaman and it’s easy to find yourself enrapt within this universe and its obvious sense of playfulness. The humor can hedge on the side of being a touch immature but that’s to be expected with the 13 Going on 30 conceit of a teenager suddenly embodying a grown man.

[WATCH MORE: Check out the trailer for the hotly anticipated ‘Joker‘]

Shazam! invests heavily in exploring the ramifications of a kid gaining superpowers; rushing to the convenient store to buy beer, posing for selfies, and patronizing the 18+ topless bars; but it’s the relationships and emphasis on family that remains the heartbeat of Sandberg’s creation. The emotional through-line of family being much more than whose blood is coursing their veins is explored in the opposing journey of Billy and his to-be-nemesis, both of whom struggle with their identity in the shadow of disappointing upbringings. 

Even though a laudable amount of time is invested in fleshing out the backstory of supervillain Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), the character mostly remains a one-dimensional chode, just as manically hungry for revenge and power as all the other disposable villains out there and the film suffers for it. After a somewhat unbalanced but mostly entertaining second act, Shazam! lurches into an overlong battle set piece that makes audiences feel the length more than you probably would want to. But just about every time I felt like that the story was unraveling or I was falling out of interest, Sandberg punches the film with a new twist or a commendable gag that got me right back in the thick of things. 

[READ MORE Our take on the divisive (but bad) ‘Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice’]

Telling the story from the perspective of a foster child allows Shazam! a different vantage point for this super-story to unfold and though we’ve seen ole regular Joe Shmoe turn into Mr. Laser-Eye Beefcake plenty of times before this does feel different, which is a critical factor in a cinematic landscape bursting at the gills with super-sameness. Shazam! wears its heart on its sleeve and goes deep dive in terms of being over-the-top silly, vaulting over even the most breezy of Marvel efforts and completely flipping the script on what the DCEU initially tried to establish in the run-up to Justice League. Major credit is due to Zachary Levi, who makes the adult version of Billy a full-blown goober. At times, the incredibly silly adult version of the character isn’t quite in sync with his brooding teenage counterpoint but Levi is such a joy to watch embody this character that any time he’s onscreen, you’re lulled into smiling complacency, which, when all is said and done, is the endgame goal for all these superheroes things anyhow.

CONCLUSION: ‘Shazam!’ reins DC back into a world where being a superhero is fun, and more importantly, fun to watch, and though the movie has its share of flaws, its clever premise and a hugely enjoyable performance from Zachary Levi make this one of the few good offerings from the DCEU.
B-

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The post DC Ditches Doom, Gloom, Goes Overboard With Silliness with ‘SHAZAM!’  appeared first on Silver Screen Riot.

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In their 45th year, the Seattle International Film Festival continues their trend of picking up the scraps from SXSW declaring their opening night film to be Sword of Trust from Seattle native Lynn Shelton. The film received mostly positive marks at its Austin, TX debut where critics commented on its performances and timely political bent, though many rewarded the film with their approval rather than outright admiration. The full press release from the Seattle International Film Festival follows.

[READ MORE: Our grade-A film review of Jordan Peele’s most excellent ‘Us‘]

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SEATTLE, WA — April 3, 2019 — SIFF is thrilled to announce the Opening Night film of its 45th annual Seattle International Film Festival as IFC Films’ Sword of Trust, the latest work by Seattle filmmaker Lynn Shelton, on Thursday, May 16, 2019. Both Shelton and Marc Maron, star of the film, are scheduled to attend. SIFF’s Opening Night red carpet and screening take place at Marion Oliver McCaw Hall at Seattle Center, followed by a celebratory party at Fisher Pavilion.

As the longest and highest attended film festival in North America, SIFF runs May 16 through June 9, featuring hundreds of films at venues across the greater Seattle area.

“Lynn is a beloved friend of SIFF, having been part of the festival for over a decade, and we are overjoyed to celebrate her hilarious new feature film as we kick off the 45th year of the festival,” said SIFF Artistic Director Beth Barrett. “In our contemporary landscape where truth is a point of political debate, Sword of Trust invites audiences to find the humor in the phenomenon of historical revisionism.”

Sword of Trust is written and directed by Shelton (Outside In, Laggies) and features Marc Maron (Late Show with David Letterman, WTF with Marc Maron, GLOW), Jon Bass (Baywatch, Molly’s Game), Michaela Watkins (Brigsby Bear, Enough Said), Jillian Bell (Workaholics, 22 Jump Street), and Toby Huss (King of the Hill, Halt and Catch Fire). The film made its world premiere at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival to audience acclaim and IFC Films will open the film in July.

In Shelton’s latest film, two women (Bell and Watkins) attempt to unload an inherited Civil War sword onto a curmudgeonly pawnshop owner (Maron) and reluctantly enter a world of conspiracy theory and Southern disillusionment.

“Seattle is my hometown and any time a film of mine screens in the festival, it has a special significance for me,” said Shelton. “But OPENING the festival? I can’t even begin to express how much this means, what a supreme honor and thrill it is.”

Tickets for the Opening Night Gala are available online at SIFF.net and in person at SIFF Cinema locations (Film Center, Uptown, Egyptian). Opening Night access ranges from the festive, see-it-all Film + Party Ticket to the exclusive VIP Red Carpet Experience featuring complimentary valet service, exclusive pre-film reception, reserved seating at the film screening, and VIP access to the famous after-party.

The complete Festival lineup will be announced on May 1, 2019. Individual ticket sales for SIFF members begin Wednesday, May 1, with general public ticket sales on Thursday, May 2. Purchases can be made online or in person.

Additional support for Opening Night comes from Agave Cocina & Tequilas, AV Factory, Butler Valet, Diageo Americas, Inc., Essential Baking Company, Full Tilt Ice Cream, Hollywood Lights, Lagunitas Brewing Company, Music Man, Northern Lights, Pel’Meni Dumpling Tzar, Princi, Rosichelli Design, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, Sweet Iron Waffles, The Capital Grille, Tito’s Handmade Vodka, and Triumph Expo & Events.

SIFF would like to thank Ingeniux, Brotherton Cadillac Buick GMC in Renton, Encore, Hyatt Regency Seattle, the Official Hotel of the Festival, Amazon Prime Video, The Boeing Company, and Wongdoody for their support of the 2019 Seattle International Film Festival. SIFF also thanks Wells Fargo Bank for their support of the evening’s Red Carpet Experience.
 

ABOUT SIFF
Founded in 1976, SIFF creates experiences that bring people together to discover extraordinary films from around the world with the Seattle International Film Festival, SIFF Cinema, and SIFF Education. Recognized as one of the top film festivals in North America, the Seattle International Film Festival is the longest, most highly attended film festival in the United States, reaching more than 140,000 annually. The 25-day festival is renowned for its wide-ranging and eclectic programming, presenting over 400 features, short films, and documentaries from over 80 countries each year. SIFF Cinema exhibits premiere theatrical engagements, arthouse, international titles, and classic repertory film showings 365 days a year on five screens at the SIFF Cinema Uptown, SIFF Cinema Egyptian, and SIFF Film Center, reaching more than 175,000 attendees annually. SIFF Education offers educational programs for all audiences serving more than 8,000 students and youth in the community with free programs each year.

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In the wake of whatever the hell Jared Leto was doing as the Joker in the frankly awful Suicide Squad, there came rumblings of a handful of new iterations of the iconic Batman villain. When rumors swirled that Martin Scorsese was interested in producing a clown prince origin story, curiosities peaked. When the always reliable Joaquin Phoenix was tapped to fill the shoes, anticipation only rose. The long-awaited first look at Todd Phillips’ Joker has finally surfaced online and it promises a dark and thoughtful look at the origins of madness in maybe the world’s most iconic villain.

Joaquin plays Arthur Fleck, a failed comedian who turns to crime after humiliation and years of being a social outcast. Joined by a cast that includes Zazie Beetz, Robert De Niro, Frances Conroy, and Marc Maron, Joker looks to really scale down the superheroics to tell a grounded tale of a real-life madness. The footage offered here is nothing short of extremely promising, reassuring those worried that the DCEU’s scattershot tone might end up making this a misfire. If anything, this only drives up anticipation for its October 4, 2019 release.

[READ MORE: Our review of the largely enjoyable DCEU movie ‘Shazam!’]

Check out the trailer for Joker below:

JOKER - Teaser Trailer - In Theaters October 4 - YouTube

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The post Joaquin Phoenix Puts a Smile on That Face in ‘JOKER’ Trailer appeared first on Silver Screen Riot.

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