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Scares Aplenty at the Movies

George Wolf George Wolf Scares Aplenty at the MoviesThe Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It - Photo via IMDb
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Spooky stuff this week! Remember when we used to pretend Satanists were scary? There’s a movie this week that does, as well as one about sea creature fables and another super creepy horror about terrible decisions. Plus, a frighteningly relevant indie about teenage rage, and Mel Gibson’s sixth son makes a movie. It isn’t very good. Nor is Deadly Illusions, but come on, who thinks that title fits on a good movie? Catch some of it in theaters, some of it at home. Here are all the pertinent details.

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It

In theaters and on HBO Max

by Hope Madden

It’s been a long wait for a lot of movies. The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It has been baiting horror fans with its provocative trailer for well over a year. It is finally here.

We open on an exorcism going awry. The torment of wee David Glatzel, (Julian Hilliard of WandaVision, relentlessly cute in oversized glasses) brings the Warrens (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson) to Brookfield, Connecticut. But it isn’t they or the generally useless Father Gordon (Steve Coulter) who rid the boy of his affliction.

No, David’s not free until his sister’s boyfriend Arne (Ruairi O’Connor) tempts the demon to take him instead. And here’s the thing. Children in peril are heartbreaking but grown men can do a lot more damage.

Arne’s story is pulled from the Warrens’ files. Ed and Lorrain Warren were real people. (They did not look like Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, although Farmiga’s costume work is spot on.) They were ghost hunters who profited from and fed the flames of the Satanic panic of the 1980s. That’s not really anything to be proud of, but it has led to several solid haunted house movies including any number of Amityville Horror films, as well as James Wan’s excellent 2013 film The Conjuring and its adequate 2016 sequel.

Based loosely on the real-life trial of Arne Cheyenne Johnson, whose murder defense claimed demonic possession, director Michael Chaves’s film takes a different approach to its scares than the previous efforts. Rather than trying to expel a demon from a home or a person, Ed and Lorraine go sleuthing to find the sinister Satanist responsible for cursing poor Arne.

Farmiga and Wilson remain the heartbeat of the franchise, their skill and rapport offering something akin to believability that grounds the utter ridiculousness of each story. We believe that Lorraine and Ed believe, which makes it easier to suspend our own disbelief.

Even though it’s hard to believe a gifted clairvoyant could fall for some of the human treacheries afoot in this film. There are some fine performances, creepy images and a few inspired frights, but they don’t make up for the film’s weaknesses. The investigation gives the narrative a sprawling, disjointed structure and the Satanism angle makes the whole film feel silly.

Chaves joined this universe with perhaps its weakest effort, 2019’s The Curse of La Llorona. He’s hit about the same middling mark with this one.

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It takes on the legal system but unfortunately abides by the law of diminishing returns.

Grade: C+

Undine

On VOD

by George Wolf

Christian Petzold is a filmmaker with an almost casual mastery of storytelling. Those stories may seem simple at first, but he fills them with deeply felt narrative shifts, taut editing and pristine shot selections that make every frame feel imperative, and propels them with characters full of mysterious obsessions.

And for anyone unfamiliar with Petzold (Barbara, Phoenix, Transit), Undine (oon-DEEN-uh) is a wonderful entry into the writer/director’s hypnotic style.

Undine (Paula Beer, simply terrific) works in Berlin, delivering tours and lectures on the city’s urban development post WWII. But when her boyfriend Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) leaves her, Undine pledges unity with an ancient myth.

She must take the life of this man who has betrayed her and then return to the water as a nymph.

Undine’s water obsession only gains more fuel with her next relationship. Christoph (Franz Rogowski, also stellar) is an industrial diver, and while he and Undine develop a deep, almost supernatural connection, she never truly lets go of Johannes, who has also moved on with another love.

As Christoph’s dives become more dangerous and Undine’s lectures begin to link the personal and historical, Petzold shapes the romance into a head-swimming mix of mythology, thrills and humor.

Like much of Petzold’s work, Undine is anchored by exquisite framing and lush cinematography (the underwater scenes are especially impressive) and driven by characters drawn with easy fascination. The film’s magic and mystery meet the romance and realism with undaunted confidence, delivering a tale that satisfies via the conventional and the celestial.

Grade: A-

Gully

At Polaris 18

by George Wolf

Well, that escalated quickly.

Ron Burgundy may have played that line for laughs, but when the boys in Gully give in to their rage, things couldn’t be more serious.

Or devastating.

Jesse (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), Calvin (Jacob Lattimore) and Nicky (Charlie Plummer) are three teens in a rough L.A. neighborhood who don’t have much use for anything besides violent video games and partying, or anyone besides each other.

They skip school, do drugs, and only seem enthusiastic when they’re trashing a store or living vicariously through video violence.

In fact, through the film’s first act you’re tempted to label this as a hackneyed attempt by director Nabil Elderkin (a music video vet helming his first feature) and writer Marcus J. Guillory (a TV vet with his first screenplay credit) to blame video games for society’s ills.

But hang on and strap in; that’s far from what these filmmakers have in mind.

To say the three friends have had traumatic upbringings is being far too polite. Each has weathered a uniquely hellish situation, leaving them all on the precipice of manhood with little hope for the future.

As Nicky fights with both his mother (Amber Heard) and his pregnant girlfriend (Zoe Renee), Jesse dreams of life without his abusive father (John Corbett) and Calvin struggles with his mental health and the meds pushed on him by his mother (Robin Givens), the boys make a shattering discovery and the fuse is lit.

They begin a 48-hour rampage of wanton violence and calculated revenge, and it will not end well.

Elderkin makes sure the violence is in your face and packed with stylish grit, often blurring the line between reality and video game action. It’s an ambitious play that’s worthy even when it seems over the top, much like the contrasting tones brought by Greg (Jonathan Majors), an ex-con returning home determined to stay clean, and Mr. Christmas (Terence Howard), a homeless neighborhood philosopher.

This film is messy, angry, brutal and defiant, a primal scream that doesn’t much care if you think it’s nihilistic. Elderkin and Guillory have blazing guns of their own, and while they don’t hit every bullseye, there’s enough here to make you eager for their second act.

The world of Gully isn’t a pleasant place to be, and that’s no accident. But a confident vision and three terrific young actors leading a solid ensemble will make sure you’ll be thinking about what goes down here, even if you look away.

Grade: B+

Caveat

On Shudder

by Hope Madden

The room is dark, decrepit. A wild-eyed woman with a bloody nose holds a toy out in front of her like a demon slayer holds a crucifix. The toy – what is it, a rabbit? A jackalope? – beats a creepy little drum. Faster. Slower. Hotter. Colder.

This is how writer/director Damian McCarthy opens Caveat and I am in.

The woman is Olga (Leila Sykes), and we’ll get back to her in a bit, but first, we’re part of a conversation between the hush-voiced Barrett (Ben Caplan) and the foggy Isaac (Jonathan French). What can we tell from the conversation? They seem to know each other, Isaac’s had some kind of an accident, Barrett needs a favor.

The favor involves Olga, that house, and a long stretch of tightly fastened, heavyweight chain.

Dude, how good is McCarthy at this?

An expertly woven tapestry of ambiguity, lies and misunderstanding sink the story into a fog of mystery that never lets up. Isaac’s memory can’t be trusted, but he seems like a good guy. He looks like a good guy. Surely, he is a good guy! He’s just not making good decisions right now.

French shoulders the tale, and you hate to compare anything to Guy Pearce in Memento because who can stand up to that? No one, but still, Mc Carthy and French draw on that same type of damaged innocence and unreliable narration to stretch out the mystery.

Meanwhile, the filmmaker unveils a real knack for nightmarish visuals, images that effortlessly conjure primal fears and subconscious revulsion.

Caveat is not without flaws. Once or twice (when possibly channeling Mario Bava) McCarthy dips into camp unintentionally. OK, twice. These moments feel out of place in the unnerving atmosphere he’s created, which makes them stand out all the more. But it’s hardly enough to sink the film.

McCarthy does a lot with very little, as there are very few locations and a total of three cast members—all stellar. You won’t miss the budget. McCarthy casts a spook house spell, rattling chains and all, and tells a pithy little survival story while he’s at it.  

Grade: B+

Edge of the World  

On VOD

by Christie Robb

Director Michael Haussman’s biopic shows his background in music videos. Edge of the World is a sexy, dreamy kaleidoscope of tropical imagery, but as a narrative, it’s quite hard to follow.

Which is too bad, as the ripped-from-your-history-textbook story is pretty interesting in a white dude trying to “civilize” an existing culture sort of way.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Vikings, the Tudors) smolders as he plays Sir James Brooke, an Indian-born British subject who has failed to live up to proper Victorian expectations. He hopes to make a name for himself by making a great discovery on the island of Borneo as part of the Royal Geographical Society. Instead, he manages to get himself made rajah of a jungle kingdom.

This involves a bit of political maneuvering among different tribes from Borneo and folks from Singapore and, I think based on costume and hairstyle choices, China. But Haussman doesn’t linger long enough to give us much of a sense of the complexities of the alliances, the individuals involved, or what the stakes are.

Because of this, as much as the film seems to want to sell the audience on having witnessed some sort of character arc from Sir James, this isn’t actually achieved. We have no insight as to the motivations of characters except for the occasional voiceover from Sir James.

The movie feels like a slog through the same marshy landscapes the characters so often maneuver through on the screen, with the occasional burst of beauty to take in along the way.

Grade: C

Under the Stadium Lights

On VOD

by George Wolf

Which is more likely to embrace the cliches inherent in sports: interviews or movies?

The sheer number of daily opportunities pushes the scale toward the Q&A, but while we’re waiting on the next superstar baller to “take it one game at a time,” Under the Stadium Lights scores one for the big screen.

Based on the book “Brother’s Keeper” (also the movie’s original title) by Al Pickett and Chad Mitchel, the film takes us inside the 2009 high school football season with the Abilene Eagles. The bitter taste of their playoff defeat the year before fueled the players and coaches as they made another run for the Texas state playoffs.

Mitchel (played by Milo Gibson, sixth son of Mel) was not only an Abilene police officer that year; he was also the Eagles team Chaplin. Through his “safe space” program, the players were encouraged to share the tough times they were going through off the field, and to lean on their football brothers for the strength to persevere.

That’s a commendable story. But director Todd Randall and screenwriters John Collins and Hamid Torabpour tell it with no regard for human shades of grey, which is a problem.

No doubt these mostly black and brown players did have troubling patches in their young lives, but the film paints the young men as one-dimensional vessels strengthened by the good word of this white man. These are high school seniors, and there’s nary a word or thought about girls, sex or anything other than remaining vigilant in their virtue.

Don’t expect even a whisper about any systemic causes for the problems at home, either. While no one would argue the value in making good life choices, this is a bootstrap fantasy, where what isn’t talked about amounts to tacit approval of blaming the needy for just not working hard enough.

Often hamstrung by preachy and obvious dialog, the cast does very little to elevate it. Save for the welcome presence of veterans Laurence Fishburne, Noel Gugliemi and Glen Morshower in small roles, performances alternate between hyperbolic over-emoting and emotionless cardboard.

Early on, though, the football scenes are a surprise bright spot. It’s actually charming that Randall forgoes cheesy reenactments for the real game films, but when he reverses that decision in the third act, the resulting clash gives the new footage an even more sterile and pretend quality.

A big congrats to the 2009 Abilene Eagles on what must have been a great season. But with Texas high school football on its mind, “lights” in its new title and no roster spot for nuance, the movie version will have you longing for Friday Night.

Grade: C-

Deadly Illusions

On VOD

by Rachel Willis

Something I’ve learned from movies is that if you’re going to hire a nanny, expect some professional lines to be crossed.

Such is the dynamic between Mary (Kristin Davis) and Grace (Greer Grammar) in writer/director Anna Elizabeth James’s erotic thriller, Deadly Illusions.

Mary is a novelist with a series of successful murder mysteries under her belt, but she hasn’t written a new one in a while. Her publisher is desperate to bring her back to pen a new addition. Mary’s reluctant, until her husband’s serious financial blunder makes the decision for her.

But who will take care of her kids while she writes? Enter sweet, innocent nanny, Grace.

The film’s set-up is slow to get going. It’s light on the eroticism and doesn’t feel like much of a thriller. The first act plods along, dropping the pieces into place as if aware we already know where this is going to go. It’s not a very compelling watch.

Things heat up in the second act, though not by much. We’re still waiting for the water to boil. The initial relationship between Mary and Grace quickly crosses into inappropriate territory. Mary takes Grace bra shopping and enters the dressing room with her. It’s predatory, though it seems the movie wants us to feel Grace is the aggressor in the scene.

As we simmer through, Mary’s creativity begins to interfere with her reality. As she loses herself in her new novel, she fantasizes about inappropriate activities with Grace. Or do those things really happen?

Things get weirder, and several clunky red herrings are dropped into the mix. This movie wants to keep us guessing, but it’s never enticing enough to make much of an impact.

Along for the ride is Dermot Mulroney as Mary’s husband, Tom. Mulroney is a capable actor, but doesn’t have much to do here – though his contribution to the film is more than that of the children whom Grace is hired to care for. You might forget Grace is a nanny and not Mary’s personal assistant.

Davis and Grammar have some fun with their roles, and their dynamic is curious if not entirely convincing. Grammar doesn’t have the chemistry with Davis that we need to be caught up in their relationship.

There are moments of enjoyment as the situations get stranger and the mystery more absurd, but overall, Deadly Illusions inspires more tedium than thrills.

Grade: C-

Follow George and Hope on Twitter @maddwolf and listen to their weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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