Movie reviews: 'The Curse of La Llorona,' 'Teen Spirit' and more
‘THE CURSE OF LA LLORONA’
R 1:33 2 out of 4 stars
A supernatural thriller aimed at Latino audiences, “The Curse of La Llorona" also is standalone entry in “The Conjuring” horror universe.
Set in 1970s Los Angeles — with Tony Amendola in a cameo as his priest character from “Annabelle" — it follows Anna Garcia (Linda Cardellini), a widowed social worker raising two children, Chris (Roman Christou) and Samantha (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen).
When one of her cases, a single mom named Patricia (Patricia Velasquez), stops returning calls, Anna goes to investigate. She finds the terrified Patricia holed up in her apartment, with her two boys locked in a closet. The hysterical woman claims she locked them up for protection and begs Anna not to take them out.
When Patricia’s sons turn up drowned within hours, their troubled mother is the prime suspect. But Anna and her children begin to hear a woman’s ghostly sobs and see a malevolent presence in their house. Anna realizes her family, like Patricia’s, has become targeted by “La Llorona,” aka “The Weeping Woman,” the evil ghost of a 17th-century Mexican mother who drowned her children to get back at her unfaithful husband and has been cursed to wander the world looking for other youngsters to take their place.
Screenwriters Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis lean too heavily on characters doing stupid things to keep the narrative moving, and Michael Chaves, in his feature film directorial debut, relies on too many jump-scares.
The story picks up considerably when Anna enlists the help of Rafael Olvera (Raymond Cruz), a former priest who is now a “curandero,” or faith healer, who brings a welcome dry wit as well as a bagful of magic tricks to a tense showdown with the wicked spirit. But it’s a shame "The Curse of La Llorona" doesn’t get more scares out of a promising setup.
— Brandy McDonnell, The Oklahoman
PG-13 1:32 3 out of 4 stars
Among "A Star Is Born," "Vox Lux" and the new movie "Her Smell," there's been a fair amount of cinematic poking around into the theme of pop-music stardom and its discontents. The first two films chart the rise of female rock singers; the third follows an ugly fall.
And now, there's a fourth film joining this trifecta of tales about how wrong things can go with the work of stoking the starmaker machinery behind the popular song, as Joni Mitchell once put it.
It's called "Teen Spirit," and it's arguably the best movie of the bunch.
Starring Elle Fanning, the new film is a serious departure from the other two by looking at the very beginnings of a young woman's dreams of musicmaking, and not her descent into recording-industry dissipation (which, let's face it, is a giant cliche).
The assured directorial debut of Max Minghella — an actor who also happens to be the son of the late Oscar-winning director Anthony Minghella ("The English Patient") — "Teen Spirit" tells the story of Violet Valenski (Fanning), a shy English teen living with her Polish mother (Agnieszka Grochowska) on the Isle of Wight, where she escapes from the drudgery of farm and restaurant work by singing her heart out at a seedy karaoke bar. When Violet hears about "Teen Spirit," a TV singing competition along the lines of "American Idol" and its ilk, she decides to try out.
And yes, that fairy-tale starting point is exactly as much of a cliche as everything else that so often happens to people like Violet in movies like this. (I'm looking at you, Lady Gaga.) But there's something disarmingly irresistible about Fanning, who capably sings all her own vocals (covers of hits by the likes of Robyn, Ellie Goulding and Sigrid) and whose character can't seem to believe her own good fortune — let alone that she has a great set of pipes. It's never really clear whether Violet even wants the pot of gold she's pursuing at the end of the rainbow.
Minghella, who also wrote the screenplay, has the good sense to end his movie just at the point where many others would only have been getting started: at the inflection point of stardom, not after the star has burned out. He proves himself to be a canny storyteller, with a flair for spinning a yarn that is at once slick and more than slightly eccentric, simply because the story withholds as much as it reveals.
It's not the slickness that sells "Teen Spirit" anyway, but its strangeness.
Much of that strangeness derives from Violet's relationship with her accidental mentor/manager, a dissolute former opera singer named Vlad who she meets at the karaoke bar. Where many a movie might have opted to have Violet find romance along with fame and fortune, "Teen Spirit" scrupulously avoids that trope, focusing instead on the unexpectedly tender dynamic between these two outsiders: one a deeply sad, almost alien-looking waif on the cusp of her adventure as an artist, and the other (played by the grizzled, bearlike Croatian actor Zlatko Buric) a cockeyed optimist nearing the end of his journey. If Vlad's advice to Violet is cringingly banal — "Sing from your heart," he tells her — there's something palpably real about the connection that inspires it.
Don't expect more of "Teen Spirit" than the movie can deliver: It's an unapologetically slight story about a girl with ambitions that many would call shallow. But even as it obeys the rules of the Cinderella story in many ways, it defies them in some others. At its heart, "Teen Spirit" is a story about a fairy godfather pushing 70 and a pop princess who's ambivalent about the very meaning and existence of a happily ever after.
— Michael O'Sullivan, The Washington Post
PG 1:56 2 out of 4 stars
Of the many ways for a child to almost die, being submerged in frigid water is one of the more survivable. The body conserves heat for the vital organs, and the cold slows oxygen depletion in the brain.
No one mentions this phenomenon in "Breakthrough," a movie meant for viewers with a hankering for miracles. Based on an actual incident in 2015, the Christian drama presents divine intervention and a mother's love as what saved the life of a boy who accidentally breaks thin ice and spends 15 minutes underwater.
The kid is John (Marcel Ruiz), a normal 14-year-old in suburban Missouri. Although he's doing well at his evangelical school, at home he spars with his mother, Joyce (Chrissy Metz of "This Is Us"). Yet when he's rushed to the hospital without a pulse, only Mom possesses the indomitable belief to pray him back to life.
That's the essence of the story told in "Breakthrough: The Miraculous Story of a Mother's Faith and Her Child's Resurrection," the 2017 book written by Joyce Smith with Ginger Kolbaba. "Breakthrough" follows the book's scenario while adding some feel-good embroidery. The result won't sway nonbelievers, but is mostly watchable and occasionally even moving.
Before the ice cracks beneath John, the movie introduces its three major characters and sketches their flaws. Joyce is old-fashioned and judgmental, which leads to conflict with John and their new pastor, Jason (Topher Grace). John is withdrawing from his parents, as teenagers do, but the adopted boy's angry distance also reflects his lingering sense that he was betrayed by his birth parents. Jason, arrogant and trendy, offends Joyce by leading church services punctuated by pop-rock hymns and references to "The Bachelor."
Once the action shifts to the hospital, Joyce and Jason become grudging allies while John's father (Josh Lucas) recoils from the sight of his suffering son. Entering the story are the acclaimed Dr. Garrett (Dennis Haysbert), who warns sagely and wrongly that John will never be the same, and Tommy (Mike Colter), the firefighter who pulled the boy from the water. An atheist who becomes convinced that God instructed him how to rescue John, Tommy is the backup breakthrough.
The movie is stilted and self-conscious in its opening scenes, which include a cheesy aside in which John, a basketball player, mentions Golden State Warrior Steph Curry - who just happens to be one of the film's producers. Things get better after John's plunge, in large part because Metz passionately embodies Joyce's mix of selfishness and selflessness.
Director Roxann Dawson makes the dramatic scenes plausible and not overly didactic. But she and screenwriter Grant Nieporte (whose "Seven Pounds" script was actually cornier than this one) allow themselves some scenes that might work better in a high school musical. At a crucial juncture, an impromptu choir masses outside the hospital to sing a gospel hymn.
The film offers many such moments of affirmation, but also an epilogue in which a woman demands to know why John was spared and her husband wasn't. "Breakthrough" glibly peddles miracles but is honest enough to admit that not everybody gets one.
— Mark Jenkins, Special To The Washington Post
'THE CHAPERONE' (At Oklahoma City Museum of Art)
Not rated 1:43 2 out of 4 stars
Based on Laura Moriarty's best-selling 2012 novel, "The Chaperone" fictionalizes an episode in the life of silent movie star Louise Brooks. Yet the intermittently effective drama that unfolds is as much about the contrast between the 1920s and 2019 as it is about the relationship between Brooks and her minder.
Norma (Elizabeth McGovern) is an unhappily married woman who volunteers to accompany 15-year-old Louise (Haley Lu Richardson), whom she meets at a recital, from sleepy Wichita to New York City, where the teen has been enrolled in a prestigious dance school. The rebellious Louise naturally butts heads with her elder as she sets eyes on her future. Norma, who was adopted from a New York home for "friendless girls," faces her past as she searches for her birthparents. She, too, questions her future, unsure what to do about her unfaithful husband (Campbell Scott).
Richardson has turned in terrific performances in such recent films as "Columbus" and "Support the Girls," which reflected two very different career options for young women today: the creative life of an architect in the former, and the service industry in the latter. Here she has the burden of playing a real-life figure whom some audiences may be familiar with. Although her physical resemblance doesn't go much farther than Brooks's iconic hairstyle, she does well in a role that could have resonated with her other recent performances but feels underwritten.
As the title indicates, "The Chaperone" is really about Norma and, thus, is more of a showcase for McGovern, a veteran actress well suited to play mentor. In such early roles as "Ordinary People," McGovern was the very ingenue that Richardson is now. Their pairing makes this a look at two generations of actresses. That relationship, more than the movie's ham-handed historical fiction, is what makes the movie watchable.
Unfortunately, the strong central performances don't breathe enough life into the well-meaning but heavy-handed script by "Downton Abbey" creator Julian Fellowes, who worked with both McGovern and "Chaperone" director Michael Engler on the hit television series. Like many period pieces, the 1920s-set drama shoehorns modern sensibilities into a historical era, which leads to awkwardly knowing dialogue. When Norma tells her son that she's concerned about the propriety of two women traveling alone to the big city, for instance, he encourages her that "This is 1922 — haven't you heard? Things have changed. Women vote now."
"The Chaperone" is essentially a coming-of-age movie, but not for the teenage Brooks. The film examines how the title character faces the coming of the modern age, overwhelmed by new mores that both delight and horrify her old-fashioned values. Yet despite the stirring performance at its heart, the movie is ultimately too restricted by its own dramatic conventions, and it only seldom comes to life.
— Pat Padua, Special To The Washington Post
G 1:16 Not reviewed