All posts by One Guys Opinion

Dr. Frank Swietek is Associate Professor of History at the University of Dallas, where he is regarded as a particularly tough grader. He has been the film critic of the University News since 1988, and has discussed movies on air at KRLD-AM (Dallas) and KOMO-AM (Seattle). He is also the Founding President of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics' Association, a group of print and broadcast journalists covering film in the Metroplex area, and was a charter member of the Society of Texas Film Critics. Dr. Swietek is a member of the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS). He was instrumental in the creation of the Lone Star Awards, which, through the efforts of the Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Film Commission, give recognition annually to the best feature films and television programs produced in Texas.

THE CURSE OF LA LLORONA

Producer: James Wan, Gary Dauberman and Emile Gladstone
Director: Michael Chaves
Writer: Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis
Stars: Linda Cardinelli, Raymond Cruz, Patricia Velasquez, Roman Christou, Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen, Marisol Ramirez, Sean Patrick Thomas, Tony Amendola, Irene Keng, Oliver Alexander and Aiden Lewandowski
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures/New Line Cinema

D+

The so-called “Conjuring Universe” hits a new low (which, given its overall quality heretofore, is saying a lot) with Michael Chaves’ silly, borderline incoherent and largely fright-free take on the Mexican legend about a Medea-like bogeywoman doomed to stalk the earth waylaying children in search of the two sons she drowned in a rage over her husband’s infidelity. With only the most tenuous connection to the larger “Conjuring” world—an appearance by Tony Amendola as Father Perez from the first “Annabelle” movie—“The Curse of La Llorona” pretty must pretty much stand on its own—or more properly, fall.

After a brief prologue set in 1673 showing La Llorona (Marisol Ramirez) killing her two sweet boys, the script jumps ahead to 1973, apparently for no other reason than to allow for Father Perez’s involvement (“Annabelle” was set in the late sixties). Recently widowed Los Angeles social worker Anna Tate-Garcia (Linda Cardinelli) is tasked with visiting a client, Patricia Alvarez (Patricia Velásquez), whose young sons Carlos (Oliver Alexander) and Tomas (Aiden Lewandowski) have been playing truant. She finds them locked away in a closet and Patricia frenziedly arguing that releasing them will put them in grave danger.

Of course Anna and the other authorities, including her late husband’s erstwhile partner Cooper (Sean Patrick Thomas), disagree, and take the boys into protective custody. Unfortunately, they are soon possessed by the hideously spectral La Llorona and drowned in the river. When Anna is called to the scene to investigate, her two children Samantha (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) and Chris (Roman Christou), whom she’s brought along in the back seat (no sitter apparently being available), are accosted by The Weeping Woman, whom the vengeful Patricia has asked to target them.

Thus begins the “exorcist” portion of the story, as Anna, on the recommendation of Father Perez, persuades Rafael Olvera (Raymond Cruz), an ex-priest turned local shaman, to come to her home to protect her children from the fearsome spirit. What follows is what seems an endless series of jump scares as La Llorona indulges in assaults on the spunky kids, each accompanied by the obligatory burst of sound effects and a musical punch from composer Joseph Bishara.

There are apparently no real rules about what La Llorona can or cannot do—she shows up wherever and whenever she feels like it, though she can be warded off when it’s convenient for plot purposes (at one point by the simple expedient of rolling up a car window) and toward the close the house is supposedly rendered off limits by sprinkling seeds from a special tree across the threshold. That last prohibition sets the stage for probably the most egregiously stupid decision taken by one of the characters in the course of the movie, though there are so many—the kids, for instance, repeatedly fail to respond while Anna is creeping through the hallways calling their names—that by the time this sequence rolls around, dragged out in a vain attempt to generate some suspense, you’re more likely to be smirking or yawning to take much notice.

There are a few elements in “Curse” that deserve a smidgen of praise. Cruz manages a couple of spaced-out moments and bizarre line readings that earn a chuckle or two, and Christou shows promise as a kid forced to step up when things go very wrong. But Cardinelli and the rest of the cast can be praised only for gamely keeping straight faces as the absurdity mounts. The effects are okay by today’s standards, and Michael Burgess’s cinematography uses light and shade to create a spooky atmosphere, even if the constant employment of thunder and lightning for shocks and mood grows tiresome (and ridiculous, when the storm suddenly abates to allow for an outside scene). But Melanie Jones’s production design and Sandra Skora’s set decoration are drab, affording little sense of period beyond the placement of rotary phones near the center of many of the images, and Peter Gvozdas’ editing goes bonkers attempting to stir up some energy (even the rush-to-the-school-bus sequence at the start is pointlessly complicated).

Whether the curse associated with La Llorona falls more heavily on the filmmakers or the audience is an open question, but this movie about her is a pretty much a mess that certainly does not bode well for the continuing expansion of this cinematic universe.

BREAKTHROUGH

Producer: DeVon Franklin
Director: Roxann Dawson
Writer: Grant Nieporte
Stars: Chrissy Metz, Josh Lucas, Topher Grace, Marcel Ruiz, Dennis Haysbert, Sam Trammell, Rebecc Staab, Mike Colter, Ali Skovbye, Victor Zinck, Jr. and Lisa Disrupt
Studio: 20th Century Fox

C-

There are so many emotional breakthroughs in “Breakthrough” that you could exhaust yourself just counting them, but the one that sets the story, based on a real 2015 incident, in motion is of a purely physical nature: John Smith (Marcel Ruiz), the adoptive teen son of Joyce and Brian (Chrissy Metz and Josh Lucas), a deeply religious Missouri couple, falls through the ice of a frozen lake and spends a quarter-hour in the water before being pulled out. He’s pronounced dead in the hospital after attempts to revive him fail, but when Joyce prays over him, the boy comes back to life, though whether doctors in St. Louis, where he’s transferred, will be able to save him seems doubtful.

Since this is clearly a “faith-based” film. the outcome is, shall we say, predestined; its producer previously made the 2016 movie “Miracles from Heaven,” and this one offers a similar divine explanation for John’s recovery, although it adds a small measure of complexity at the close by raising the question of why God saves some but not others, though it doesn’t consider whether that suggests a capricious deity.

Those kinds of questions, though, are secondary to the various breakthroughs the script offers on the way to the finale. For example, the support shown during the family’s ordeal by the new, “hip” pastor of the Water of Life Church the Smiths attend—his name is Jason Noble and he’s played by “That 70s Show” alumnus Topher Grace (the names of both character and actor are uncannily on target)—leads Joyce finally to abandon her hostility to his manner and methods, and the two become friends. It’s just one respect in which she moves away from a prideful faith to a humble one. The ordeal also leads to a breakthrough between mother and son, who had been going through a rough patch (the tight-lipped turmoil felt by an adopted adolescent, you know), and between Joyce and Brian, who feels that his wife is sometimes too rigid in her attitudes.

Then there’s the effect of the event on Tommy Shine (Sam Trammell), the fireman who pulls John from the water. He says quite directly that he doesn’t believe in God, and yet how else can he explain the voice he heard saying “Go back,” just as he was about to abandon the attempt to find the kid beneath the murky water? Similar is the reaction of renowned Dr. Garrett (Dennis Haysbert), who can’t explain his patient’s swift recovery as anything but miraculous? Other characters experience awakenings and major shifts of attitude as the narrative progresses as well.

One breakthrough that “Breakthrough” does not achieve, however, is the one that would move it beyond preaching-to-the-choir status.

In some respects it’s a distinct improvement over most “faith-based” movies. Some of the actors, for one thing, bring subtlety to their turns. True, Metz comes on very strong—perhaps she was unable to escape the tendency to overdo the drama that comes with starring in a TV program like “This Is Us”—but Grace, Lucas and Haysbert offer more nuanced turns. The supporting cast is variable, some barely avoiding the thin ice of amateurishness, and Roxann Dawson’s direction is too often labored, but Zoran Popovic’s widescreen cinematography is overall pretty handsome.

Sincere but heavy-handed, “Breakthrough” can serve as a sort of cinematic Easter sermon for believers, but its combination of heavy religious messaging and Hallmark Hall of Fame style will probably turn off audiences of a more secular bent.