Marisol Ramirez in The Curse of La Llorona

THE CURSE OF LA LLORONA

The curse of La Llorona, as explained in the fittingly titled The Curse of La Llorona, is a piece of Latin American folklore too juicy to be employed merely as a bridge to yet another feature starring that nasty porcelain doll Annabelle. Alas, director Michael Chaves' supernatural horror film is being marketed as the latest in the “Conjuring Universe” that entails two Conjurings (with a third heading our way next year), two Annabelles (with a third heading our way this June), and last fall's dreary The Nun (with a second, and inevitable third, TBA). Every cinematic series, it seems, has to be capitalized Universe now, but am I alone in wishing that this latest entry had functioned merely as a self-contained planet? It might not have been any better, but at least it wouldn't have come with the inherent disappointment that a Farmiga – be it Vera or Taissa – was nowhere to be found.

Blessedly, though, the thunderously present and gifted Linda Cardellini is, and she's ideal casting as the caring, sensible social worker at The Curse of La Llorona's center. The movie's narrative finds Cardellini's Anna, after failing to save two young boys from the apparently murderous hands of their mother, haunted and tailed by the specter of La Llorona – the fabled “crying woman” who drowned her own children and is denied access to the afterlife until she returns with children to replace them. Anna's grade-school kids (Roman Christou and Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) are consequently on the ghost's hit list, and one of the film's many small pleasures is that its expertly directed child actors are so appealing and naturalistic that you want them saved for reasons beyond their roles as unwitting victims; when these young 'uns are scared, they look deathly scared. With our heroic family composed of Cardellini, Christou, and Kinchen, there's built-in empathy of a type that many modern scare flicks (certainly the recent Pet Sematary) don't grasp, with the youths well-employed for a bunch of strong, creepy moments: the boy frantically struggling to keep a locked car's doors actually locked; the girl following her umbrella as it blows nearer and nearer to the backyard pool. (Here and elsewhere, Chaves' work has some of the suspenseful elegance of Andy Muschietti's in It.) Plus, there's an almost preposterously scary/funny scene toward the end in which we watch with hypnotic fascination as that little girl makes the stupidest of stupid decisions in her front doorway. Nobody could possibly be on the side of the monstrous La Llorona in this movie, but I gotta admit, at that moment, it was close.

Still, the scent of the Conjurings and their entire Universe lingers awkwardly over the proceedings. Annabelle herself, it should be said, makes an appearance (albeit in flashback), as does one of the priests (Tony Amendola) who formerly confronted her evil, the resulting exposition momentarily stopping the generally speedy pacing in its tracks. After more than an hour of grim seriousness, Chaves and screenwriters Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis appear to suddenly remember that films in this Universe occasionally have jokes, and a bunch of unfortunately cornball gags work their way into scenes involving the token exorcist Rafael (a charming, stalwart Raymond Cruz). And with so much time devoted to the mandated mayhem of CGI shocks and doors hinges in desperate need of WD-40, the filmmakers bungle their one truly subversive detour, in which it starts looking very possible – at least to Anna's co-workers – that Anna herself might be the brutalizing mama her kids are terrified of. That suggestion doesn't last, however, and neither do the infrequent fright effects of The Curse of La Llorona – a horror movie that you keep sensing wants to be more powerful and upsetting than it's ever allowed to be.

Topher Grace, Chrissy Metz, and Marcel Ruiz in Breakthrough

BREAKTHROUGH

For all of its aggressive pushiness and heavy-handedness and sermonizing, the intensely pro-faith drama Breakthrough did boast a subtle, clever bit of foreshadowing that made me smile. In this true(-ish) tale of how 14-year-old John Smith (Marcel Ruiz) – a native Guatemalan raised by evangelical Missourians – miraculously survived a potentially tragic accident, an early scene finds John dutifully, sullenly reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. John has already been introduced as a pretty typical teen smart-ass who eats pizza for breakfast and rolls his eyes at his mom's affections, and he's no prize at school, either, instigating a fight on the basketball court and back-talking his teacher. So I found it both funny and, eventually, poetically justified when John got distracted by a pretty classmate during the “one nation under God” line of the Pledge, and wound up not saying that part. Oh-h-h-h ... bad move, kid. You never leave God out! Guess who's about to be punished with 15 minutes under a frozen lake and a life-threatening coma!

I have no idea if director Roxann Dawson and screenwriter Grant Nieporte (adapting the 2017 memoir by John's mother Joyce Smith) meant for John's Pledge-of-Allegiance faux pas to be significant, or even acknowledged. But I can't help wishing the rest of the movie followed that moment's lead, because instead of understated wit, we're given endless platitudes and holider-than-thou moralizing, with Chrissy Metz's screen Joyce perhaps the first character in film history to effectively bully God into submitting to her will. (“Send your holy spirit to save my son!!!” she screeches to the heavens one nanosecond before the boy regains a pulse.) Over the past decade, there have been a number of first-rate pro-faith films released in advance of Easter weekend, among them Heaven Is for Real and that irresistible Jennifer Garner sob-fest Miracles from Heaven. By contrast, at least for this viewer, Breakthrough is Hell to sit through.

With the exceptions of Ruiz and the touching, abashed Josh Lucas as John's dad, the performances are wildly overscaled, with Metz delivering an entire season's worth of This Is Us tears and even traditionally close-to-the-vest players Topher Grace, Sam Trammell, and Dennis Haysbert serving up fat slabs of Easter ham. Despite Joyce coming off as a royal pain throughout, we're expected to applaud her every move and utterance no matter how questionable or closed-minded; neither Joyce nor the film itself has any patience for those who don't share her unwavering devotion to the power of prayer. (John's doctors – including Haysbert's “specialist in drowning” – are among the many routinely put in their place by haranguing Joyce.) And while almost no scenes here emerge as even borderline-believable, the obviously lip-synched candlelight vigil might mark a new low point for the genre, with the fraudulence and shamelessness doled out in equally overabundant measure. When Breakthrough's finale was near and the title card “28 Days Later” popped on-screen, I was all but praying for the actual 28 Days Later to start, with zombies putting an end to this maudlin, grossly manufactured uplift once and for all.

Elle Fanning in Teen Spirit

TEEN SPIRIT

Writer/director Max Minghella's Teen Spirit is the rags-to-potential-riches tale of a depressed Polish teen (Elle Fanning's Violet) living on the British Isle of Wight who hopes to make a name for herself on a nationally televised American Idol-type show, and the movie clearly had a low budget. Was it so low that nobody could afford to pay the electric bill? I can understand the moody tableaux in scenes of Violet's misery – which constitute about 80 of the movie's 90 minutes – and much of Minghella's debut feature does take place at night. But what's with the ridiculously oppressive shadows on the Teen Spirit competition itself, with its contestants performing in near-total darkness illuminated only by an occasionally flashing strobe? You can just picture those myriad TV viewers phoning in to cast their votes: “Yeah, I love that third one from the left … I don't know who it is … I can't make out her face … if it is a girl … .”

Movie characters, of course, don't need to be all sweetness and sunshine, and those that are are generally unbearable. Yet aside from her brief flashes of exhilaration when performing (especially during her rendition of Sigrid's “Don't Kill My Vibe”), Fanning's Violet is such a dour, oppressive mope throughout Teen Spirit that I, for one, kept wondering why we were expected to root for her (and whether the film's title was, in fact, meant to be ironic). Is Violet aiming for the title of Saddest Bastard in England? To be fair, Fanning acts her role impeccably and sings it sensationally. Yet Violet has been designed as such a black hole of malaise that she's no fun at all to be around, and she's surrounded by similarly dispiriting presences. Her former-opera-star manager (Zlatko Burie) is morose. Her abandoned mother (Agnieszka Grochowska) is morose. Her teen-star fling (Ruairi O'Connor, resembling Eddie Redmayne on a protein-shake diet) is morose. The only person around her who isn't a bummer is a managerial vampire played by the great Rebecca Hall, who pops in for a couple of scenes and momentarily shakes the movie out of its indie-downer stupor. No film whose soundtrack boasts Annie Lennox, Ellie Goulding, and Robyn can be entirely dismissed (even if No Doubt's “Just a Girl” makes another overtly on-the-nose appearance mere weeks after Captain Marvel), and Fanning is naturally empathetic in the three or four instances in which she's allowed to smile. But the annoyingly formulaic nature of the plotting – with Violet desperately needing a daddy and her elder manager desperately needing a daughter – and overall air of dejection quash any possibilities for real enjoyment. Teen Spirit should have been a sugar rush. It's more accurately a sugar crash.

Penguins

PENGUINS

Has there ever been a more critic-proof movie than Penguins, the Disneynature documentary that follows a lovable, clumsy Adelie penguin named Steve (because of course) as he spends a year trekking vast stretches of Antarctica in search of food, shelter, a mate, and a way to get the soundtrack's “I Can't Fight This Feeling” out of his head? I mean, sure: There's needless anthropomorphizing aplenty. Even at 76 minutes, directors Alastair Fothergill's and Jeff Wilson's film feels a bit repetitive. And more than a few of the jokes and music cues, or combinations thereof, are eyebrow-raising in rather uncomfortable ways. (I really could have done without the montage involving molting penguins whose head feathers were shaped like afros, given that the scene was underscored, with depressing inevitability, by groovy bass lines and wah-wah effects suggesting a '70s blaxploitation flick.) But that Steve is a real charmer. And so is Penguins, which I was fortunate enough to catch in the company of my favorite four-year-old who giggled constantly at the waddling bird's slapstick antics and delightedly, accurately exclaimed “It sounds like he's farting!” when Steve croaked out an ineffective mating call.

That was an especially awesome bit, but Fothergill's and Wilson's movie is full of them: Steve amassing a nest of rocks that are continually stolen by a stealthy rival; Antarctic neighbors fighting off the murderous advances of swooping skua birds; one of Steve's children attempting a climactic escape from the literal jaws of a hungry sea leopard. (The film's G-rating makes the baby penguin's survival almost a done deal … though I did wonder, with dread, why Steve and his mate Adeline were given names and their kids weren't … .) There's a surprising amount of legitimate tension in the film, though tension of the sort that made my moviegoing companion lean forward in her seat rather than shrink away. There are also quite a few laughs courtesy of Steve's slippery fumblings and the readings of narrator/alter-ego Ed Helms, who at one point, I kid you not, even gets to reprise the actor's signature “Root-a-doot-da-doo!” catchphrase from The Office. And with the astounding cinematographer Rolf Steinmann supplying exquisite images throughout – his camera frequently crawling alongside our two-foot-tall, 15-pound hero á la the quintuplets in Raising Arizona – Penguins stands as a nearly inarguable treat. Even if you've seen 2005's Oscar-winning March of the Penguins with your kids more times than you can count, this one's worth your time, too, partly for its service as a corrective: Did you know that, as this film makes clear, Emperor penguins are total jerks? How did Morgan Freeman not provide that little nugget of info?!

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